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Monotone

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It looks like a storm is approaching. Morning has barely begun and the sun refuses to peak through the dark clouds that loom over the whole city. Even from inside his house, Lan Wangji can hear the winds howling. He will need to remind Sizhui to bring an umbrella before he goes to school today.

Heavy rain is not an unusual sight for both Lans. They have only recently moved to Gusu three weeks ago, and the gloomy weather isn't any less different than the rain they're accustomed to back in London. Having been born and brought up there, Sizhui even said he will miss the rain once they leave. Perhaps it is luck the weather decided to follow him here.

“Good morning, Dad.”

Wangji turns away from the window, not surprised to see the fifteen year old boy already dressed and ready for school half an hour before his bus will even arrive. His uniform is, as usual, neat and without a single crease. For a second, Wangji catches a glimpse of the young boy dressed in their Gusu Lan Sect robes before he pushes aside that ancient memory. Sizhui never changes, regardless of what year Wangji finds him in.

“Good morning,” he says, joining the teen at their dining table.

Breakfast is the same as it always is. Sizhui eats the food prepared for him while Wangji drinks his coffee in silence. He never eats breakfast anymore; a bad habit he's gotten over the years.

“Oh yeah.” Sizhui sets down his chopsticks and looks up at him. “I promised one of my teachers I'd help him with a display after school. I'll be home late then; is that okay?”

Wangji nods. “Would you like me to drive you back home?”

“It's okay. I can get the bus.”

“Be sure to bring an umbrella.”

Sizhui nods with a smile, returning to his breakfast. Silence falls between them again; a comfortable silence both welcome everyday. When Sizhui finishes eating, he gets up and washes the dishes without Wangji even needing to tell him.

It brings a small smile on his face. Even without long hair and the disciple's robes, Sizhui is the same. Wangji can only hope he will be happy in this future as well, as he had been in his past lives.

This is not the first time he managed to find the young boy. In past lifetimes, Wangji often came across the child abandoned in the streets or unwanted by his parents. Ten years ago, Wangji saw him in the heart of London city, wrapped up in a thin blanket as he slept in that dark alleyway. Sizhui was five, terrified of strangers and the dark, left by parents too selfish to bring a child into this world.

Without realising it, Wangji found himself looking out for Sizhui in case he needed a home that would take care of him.

Sometimes, he could not find him. Wangji hoped that meant Sizhui had been reincarnated into a life with a loving family. Part of him also wondered if maybe, just maybe, Wei Ying managed to find him before he did.

It was not only Sizhui's incarnations he came across. Over the centuries, Wangji found Wei Ying's adoptive brother, still as easily angered as he originally was. At first, it gave Wangji some hope that Wei Ying was back too—but he never was. He never returned, not after ten years, or fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand. Not even after Wangji travelled the world, searching other countries for Wei Ying's presence—anything. 

“I'm going.” Sizhui's voice pulls him away from his thoughts. Wangji glances up to see him making his way towards the door. “See you later, Dad.”

Wangji nods. “Have a good day.”

Once Sizhui is gone, all Wangji can do is sigh. He washes the mug of coffee that's now empty and looks around the kitchen. Every day is the same.

He remembers a lifetime so long ago it feels like a dream, back when cultivators still roamed the lands. He remembers the ultimate goal of achieving immortality, for if your cultivation was strong enough, if you were worthy enough, then you would be gifted with eternal life.

Both him and his brother were given this honour. The Twin Jades of Lan, achieving what every cultivator wanted. The Twin Jades of Lan, cursed with a life neither wanted.

His eyes flicker to the clock. It is only eight thirty in the morning. He wonders if his brother is awake. Back in London, it is still midnight, but they have long abandoned their routine of sleeping at nine PM and waking at five AM.

He has nothing else to do for now, and it's been too long since he last spoke with his brother. Wangji picks up the phone and dials his number.

Xichen answers after the first ring. “Wangji, is there something the matter?”

He does not sound tired, which would have been fine had it not been for the fact it is after midnight in London. Wangji knows his brother has trouble sleeping, often insisting they will survive without it anyway. Funny how immortality can make someone care less about life, rather than cherish it.

“Nothing is wrong,” Wangji says.

“I'm glad. Are you and Sizhui well?”

There is a smile in Xichen's voice, although it becomes harder and harder over the years to know if his smiles are genuine or not. Wangji knows he still feels guilt over the death of his sworn brothers, that he will never stop blaming himself for their demise no matter how many centuries pass. Sometimes, it feels like his brother's seclusion never ended.

“We are well,” Wangji says. “He has just left for school. You are still awake?”

From the other line, there is the sound of a book closing. Blankets shuffling. Xichen takes a deep breath he probably hopes Wangji will not hear.

“Can't sleep,” his brother says after a while. “It is not too late, anyway.”

But Wangji knows his brother will stay awake even after it is four AM, perhaps even after the sun rises. He may not have even slept for the past few days, not without Wangji back there in London to insist he gets some rest.

They are both hopeless. Wangji will forget to eat while Xichen cares little for sleep. The Twin Jades of Lan, both shells of who they used to be.

“How is Gusu?” Xichen asks.

“The same, as usual.” More or less, anyway. There is no Wei Ying. It is all empty to Wangji. “Uncle sends his regards.”

That gets Xichen to laugh, at least. Their uncle has been reincarnated, but what is amusing about it is that he's somehow ended up being Lan Jingyi's grandfather. The thought of their rigorously strict uncle being related to that child is too ironic it almost seems cruel. Surely, the original Lan Qiren is rolling in his grave at this.

“Jingyi and Sizhui are in the same school now, are they not?” Xichen says.

Wangji nods even though his brother cannot see him. “Yes. Sizhui is happy he has found a friend here so soon.”

“How sweet.” Xichen yawns, too late to muffle it. "Is there anyone else there in Gusu?”

What he means to ask is if Wei Ying is here. Wangji wants to tell him he's only been back for a few weeks; it is still too early to tell.

However, he is tired and he knows reality is not so kind. It has been over two thousand years and Wei Ying has never returned, not once. Never.

“No,” he says, ignoring the pain in his chest.

Xichen sighs. “I am sorry.”

“Hmm. It's fine.” Wangji struggles to move the conversation along. He looks back at the clock and sees that time is slow, as usual. Not even five minutes has passed. “When will you be coming here?”

“I am not sure... Perhaps in a week?” Xichen yawns again. He is clearly very tired, but refuses to get some rest. Wangji's hand is itching to end the call although he knows that will not stop his brother from staying up.

“I see.” Wangji looks at the clock again. “It is getting late there. You should sleep, Brother.”

“I will in a bit.”

“Hmm.”

There is a pause. Wangji thinks he should end the call to give his brother some rest, but he misses him. They do not talk as much as they used to, not even when Wangji was in London. Xichen will often disappear for days, simply telling him he needs some space to clear his thoughts—but that's just another way of saying he wants to seclude himself.

“Do you not have any lessons for today?” Xichen says after a while.

“Not today. Uncle made Jingyi start lessons earlier this week.”

Another laugh. “And how is that going?”

Wangji's face shows nothing. The painful memory of trying to patiently teach Jingyi how to play the piano is still ripe in his mind. Without the Cloud Recesses' rules to discipline the child, Jingyi is a force to be reckoned with.

“Slow,” Wangji says. It is the kindest description he can give.

Given his current job as a private music tutor, Wangji's prices are higher than what most people will care to pay for. Thankfully, it means only those serious about music will attend his lessons—but he did not prepare himself for the challenge that is Lan Jingyi. The teenager is easily distracted, his fingers too clumsy to be playing anything close to music. It is a miracle he used to be a Gusu Lan disciple at this rate.

“Give him some time,” Xichen says, amused. “His greatest trait is his enthusiasm after all.”

The problem is that Jingyi's enthusiasm lay more in playing that electronic box he always brought along whenever he visited Sizhui. Wangji cares little for modern technology, hence he can't remember the name of the box, but even Sizhui will be distracted by it as well. He has to admit he is not in favour of whatever that box is.

“He is more interested in...” Wangji pauses to try and remember what it's supposed to be called. “Playing Stations? He plays it with Sizhui.”

“Playstation?” Xichen chuckles. “Has he got a Playstation 4?”

Wangji frowns. “No, he only brings one.”

For some reason, Xichen coughs but it sounds more like he's trying to hide a laugh. Wangji's frown deepens even more.

“I see, I see...” Xichen mumbles. His voice trails off into another yawn.

“You should sleep, Brother,” Wangji says again. “I will go now.”

There is another yawn. Wangji is beginning to wonder just how long Xichen has been awake.

“Thank you for calling, Wangji,” Xichen says. “I have enjoyed talking to you. Please, call whenever.”

“I will. Goodnight, Brother.”

“Goodnight.”

They hang up and Wangji is left alone once again. It is only quarter to nine. He has no lessons for today, meaning there's nothing to distract him from the slow process of time. For a second, he contemplates leaving the house and finding something to do, but immediately discards that idea. When you have lived for almost a thousand years, there is nothing left to do. All the days merge together, the memories are mistaken for dreams, and life itself turns black and white.

He used to wonder why he is still here. Immortality granted upon cultivators is only a state of the body. They can heal faster and will never die from illness or diseases, but that will not stop them from being able to die if they are murdered—or if enough physical harm is placed on their bodies, enough so that not even their high level of cultivation will heal them in time.

He remembers, back when despair clung onto every thought he had, that the idea of ending it all seemed like the only thing he could resort to. Just a swift blade to his heart and this endless void would cease. Perhaps, if the heavens are kind enough, they will reunite him with Wei Ying in the afterlife.

For many years, he entertained that thought. He knew Xichen had similar ideas although neither of them voiced it out loud. Sometimes, he still hates himself for being unable to comfort his brother as much as Xichen is able to comfort him. Xichen hides everything behind a smile, a mask that tells the world he is fine, he is well, but Wangji can see the lie. He sees the dark bags under Xichen's eyes and knows he is hounded by nightmares of his sworn brothers. 

And yet, they continue to live through life as ghosts. 

The truth is that Wangji is a stubborn fool. Even after these endless years, he cannot give up on Wei Ying. He has little hope left but that does not stop him from longing to see his face once again.

As the years passed, Wangji's memory fades. The pain, however, remains.

“Wei Wuxian is dead.”

Every night, the same words plague his mind. He can remember the shock he felt, the way the world crumbled under his own feet as he ran to find answers of his own. He can remember ignoring the wounds still on his back, focusing instead on finding him. He can remember the ruin that was the Burial Mounds, reeking of death and loss now with Wei Ying no longer there to bring life into the place.

He can remember the sickening panic; a feeling he had never felt to that degree before. He can remember everything he felt; from sorrow to anguish, anger to desperation. He remembers every feeling because he has never stopped feeling them, not after fifty or a hundred years, two hundred, five hundred—one thousand, two thousand. The years are nothing. They're only numbers that hold no meaning to him by now.

The thing he hates the most, however, is that Wei Ying's face is a distant memory. Not even his dreams can conjure a clear image of him now.

Sometimes, when Sizhui smiles, Wangji has to wonder if that is the same smile Wei Ying used to give. Perhaps not.

He sighs and glances back up at the clock. Nine o'clock. Time really is too slow.

With nothing else to do, Wangji grabs a book from one of their shelves. He settles down in the living room and reads the words he's read a thousand times. He will need to buy new books at this rate; he has lost count of the amount of times he's read this one.

Not that it matters. Most stories are the same. Nothing ever changes, both in fiction and in reality.

 

- x -

 

As he expected, a storm eventually rages over the city. It tears his attention away from the book he's reading. Wangji closes it, wondering why Sizhui is not home yet when it is already quite late in the afternoon.

Then again, didn't he say he would be staying in school for a bit? Wangji sighs and averts his eyes back to the book, scanning over the page to see where he had left off. He listens to the harsh pattering of the rain against the windows, a sound he's grown to find calming.

And then, his phone rings.

Wangji sits up, rooting through his pockets. Sizhui's name is flashing on the screen.

“Dad!” Sizhui says from the other line as soon as he picks up. “Sorry about this, but I forgot my wallet in my room... I don't have money for the bus.”

Wangji resists the urge to sigh. “I will drive you home then.”

“Thank you, Dad. Sorry again.”

“It is fine. I will be there shortly.”

At least it will pass the time. He's lost interest in the book, anyway. Leaving the house for a few minutes ought to be a good distraction.

Because of the storm, it takes him longer to drive to Sizhui's school. There are too many people rushing home, eager to get out of the rain. He sees a few running around the city, hiding under any form of shelter because they did not bother to bring an umbrella with them. Wangji taps against the driving wheel, eyes fixed on the traffic lights that refuse to change colour. Life will be easier if he could freely use his sword here. He will never understand why swords were abandoned, replaced instead with vehicles that only congested the roads.

When he finally arrives, Sizhui is nowhere to be seen. He tries to call him but there is barely any signal because of the weather.

Tired, Wangji grabs an umbrella and leaves the car. He has actually never set foot in Sizhui's school, but walking through it now, he cannot help compare it to the Cloud Recesses. Both places had nothing in common with each other; Sizhui's current school felt too cluttered, too colourful for Wangji's tastes. It didn't have the grace and peaceful atmosphere the Cloud Recesses was known for—although that is to be expected. After all, the Cloud Recesses was secluded atop the clouds. Right now, they are in the heart of the city, surrounded with skyscrapers, not mountains and mist.

It takes him a while to find Sizhui's class. Thankfully, the receptionist directed him upstairs, telling him they spotted the teenager making his way there earlier. He receives a strange look from the woman as she explains the directions. Most likely, she is shocked at how long his hair is. He knows the custom of keeping your hair long is no longer practised by most men in this age, but Wangji and Xichen never bothered to adapt to modern fashion and styles. They abandoned their robes and switched to other formal wear, such as suits or shirts and ties, although the long hair remained. The forehead ribbons, however, went as well. 

On most days, Wangji will tie his hair back into a low bun if he does not need to leave the house. Today, his hair is in a ponytail that sweeps over one shoulder. 

He pays no mind to the gawking woman and leaves to find Sizhui.

Considering there is only one room with the lights still on in the corridor he's been directed to, Wangji guesses this is where Sizhui is. He glances at his watch, surprised to find he has been walking around this school for almost half an hour, trying to find the right class. How troublesome.

He knocks on the door before slowly opening it. The first thing he sees is Sizhui sitting by his desk, watching the window with a bored expression. Even with the lights on, the class looks dark and bleak, apart from one corner where there are colourful paintings hung on the wall. Wangji's eyes flicker to the front of the room.

His eyes widen.

There is a lone person hunched over the teacher's desk. He is writing something on a notebook before he notices the door has opened. He looks up.

Time stops.

Wangji cannot breathe. He stands there; the seconds are frozen but everything else is spinning. All of the faded memories are alive, rushing back into colour and pumping his heart with a feeling he thought he would never feel again. The storm outside is forgotten and he's brought back to memories where they were in the Cloud Recesses, sunlight making his smile brighter than it already was. All these centuries of longing for a face he can barely remember, a voice he can never hear; it is right in front of him and all Wangji can do is stand there and stare, and stare. 

It is there, in that classroom, that time stops—only to rush again. Wangji stays where he is, gripping the door handle, and watches as he frowns, tilting his head slightly. He looks the same as he did before when he was still the infamous Yiling Patriarch—yet everything is different. There is no vengeance in his eyes, and no Chenqing by his side. His hair is shorter, no longer trailing down to his waist and instead cropped around his jaw. There are still unruly locks that curl around his face and his bangs are falling about his grey eyes. When he looks up, he tucks a strand behind his ear, only for it to escape again once he moves.

Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Wei Ying.

He rises. He's not as tall as he used to be, but he's still clothed in black. Instead of the robes, he wears a loose woollen cardigan with sleeves that are too long. He pulls one of the sleeves up, wringing it around his hands before turning to Sizhui.

“Sizhui, is this your dad?”

The joy of hearing him again is short lived. Wangji flinches at the lack of recognition both on his face and in his voice.

It is to be expected. This has happened with every incarnation he has come across. That doesn't make it any less difficult to ignore the fact Wei Ying does not know him at all.

We're already familiar with each other, aren't we?”

They were. They were, a lifetime ago.

Sizhui stands from his seat, beaming. “Yes. Thank you for waiting with me, Teacher Wei.”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Oh no, I should be thanking you for staying behind and helping me with the art display. You didn't have to.”

He grins. Wangji is unable to do anything but stay by the door. Part of him wonders if this is a cruel hallucination. He still hasn't taken a single step. If he moves, he is afraid Wei Ying will disappear and he will hate himself even more for allowing such a moment of madness.

“Dad...?” Sizhui's awkwardly looks between him and his teacher.

Now, Wei Ying is frowning too. He raises an eyebrow and scratches the back of his head.

“Sorry for keeping your son, Mr. Lan,” he says. “Sizhui is a good boy.”

The young teenager gives a bashful laugh and fiddles with the strap of his bag. Wangji has to stop himself from telling him fiddling is not allowed. So many years have passed and he still has the Cloud Recesses' rules memorised.

Wangji clears his throat and finally finds his voice. His hand loosens around the door handle.

“It... It is fine.”

Wei Ying's frown disappears, replaced by a quick smile. He turns away before Wangji can react, gathering his things scattered around his desk.

“Great weather outside,” Wei Ying mutters when he glances outside the window. The rain has gotten heavier and there's a deep rumbling of thunder in the distance.

“Are you staying here for long, Teacher Wei?” Sizhui asks.

“Nah. I'll get the bus home now.”

Sizhui's eyebrows furrow together. “Waiting for the bus in this weather?”

Wei Ying gives a laugh that looks like a grimace instead. He brings a finger to his lips and winks. “Don't tell anyone but I just failed my driving test for the third time in a row. I'm starting to give up.”

Wangji's pulse quickens. He's speaking before he realises it. “Come with us.”

That carefree smile on Wei Ying's face is gone in seconds. He's back to raising his eyebrows, folding his arms. “Excuse me?”

Words fail to form in his head. Wangji looks away and narrows his eyes at a wall, despising how, even after all this time, he can't say the right words in front of Wei Ying.

“I will... get you home,” he says eventually.

In the back of his mind, he recalls asking Wei Ying to come back to Gusu with him, time and time again. They're already in Gusu now but the distance between them is larger, more impossible. Wangji doesn't know where to start.

Wei Ying lets out a laugh that doesn't quite sound like the ones he used to give. “You don't have to offer, but thank you—”

“No, Teacher Wei! Please come with us!” Sizhui stands up straighter. The smile on his face is enough to get rid of the storm outside. “Waiting for the bus in this rain isn't good! Besides, didn't you tell us earlier that you were broke?”

Wei Ying actually flinches. “Yes, I did, but you don't need to remind me!”

In the end, he looks between Sizhui and Wangji, as if weighing his options. He casts one more glance at the storm outside and shrugs to himself.

“Okay, okay, if you both insist,” he says.

Wangji finds it hard to pay attention to the storm, or anything else in general. All he can see is Wei Ying in the corner of his eyes, alive, here. As Wei Ying follows them to his car, he's hounded by thoughts of stealing him away, making sure he will never leave his side, that he will be safe in this lifetime.

He clenches his fists. No. No. He will never resort to that.

Wei Ying is alive, and for now, that is enough for him.

 

- x -

 

“Well, this is where I live.”

Wangji stops the car, his eyes narrowing at the dreary apartments in front of them. They are in the outskirts of the city, usually the areas rumoured to be crawling with gangs and accidents that perhaps weren't accidents to begin with. The dark clouds do not make this place look any better, but Wangji is sure not even sunshine will improve the state of the building.

It reminds him of the Burial Mounds. He wishes Wei Ying will stop living in such places.

“Thanks for the ride, Mr. Lan,” Wei Ying says, already getting his things. Wangji has to grip the driving wheel tighter to stop himself from grabbing him.

“You are welcome,” he says, a bit stiffly.

“And thanks again for the help today, Sizhui.”

Wei Ying cranes around the car to wave at the teenager on the back seat. His hair brushes Wangji's shoulder and he catches the faint scent of lotus flowers and mint. He stiffens and takes a deep, deep breath.

“See you on Monday, Teacher Wei!” Sizhui says.

Wangji watches as Wei Ying smiles one last time before leaving the car. Once he's gone, he can breathe properly again and the hold he has around the wheel loosens. His eyes are still on Wei Ying as he walks around the puddles and disappears into the building.

His heart will not stop pounding against his ribs and Wangji doesn't know how to calm it down. He cannot name the feeling he has, or the feelings, and he can't decide what to do now that the one person he has always longed for is back.

Wei Ying is back, after all this time. Wei Ying is back.

“Dad, are you okay?”

Sizhui's voice is barely audible.

Wangji manages to nod. “Yes.”

He does not know how he does it, but he manages to start driving again. It hurts to put distance between him and Wei Ying. He can't ignore that panic that he will disappear again come the next morning. He wants nothing more than to run into that apartment and keep Wei Ying by his side. He wants him to laugh at him again, tease him like he used to an eternity ago. 

The desire is there and it is nothing like Wangji has ever felt before. All these centuries of feeling so empty, and now he cannot think at the intensity of his wishes. 

But he cannot. Wei Ying does not know who he is. To him, he is nothing but a stranger. They are not lovers, they are not friends. They are not even acquaintances. To him, he is the father of one of Wei Ying's students, another face he will see in this life. He may know who Wei Ying used to be, but he knows nothing about his life now. 

He hates that. He hates how greedy he feels, how much this longing is already driving him insane.

All Wangji can do is return home. He needs to gather his thoughts. He needs to think, somehow. 

It is only now he notices the rain has stopped. Sunlight finally begins to peak through the grey clouds, casting a light that's been unseen here in the city for the past few days. He drives past strangers who are peeking out from their umbrellas, hands outstretched to check if the rain truly is gone.

Lan Wangji spares a moment to breathe.

The storm, it seems, has finally ended.

 

 

Chapter Text

His brother was right in saying that Jingyi's enthusiasm is his greatest trait. However, when the teenager declares he's managed to learn something on the piano, Wangji is not sure what to expect. He has not brought his Playing Station for today's lesson, which is an improvement, but the way he grins up at Wangji while saying he's got something that will 'blow his socks off' is not very reassuring.

“Go,” Wangji says, sitting back and folding his arms.

Jingyi's eyes practically sparkle. He sits up straighter and begins to play.

After two seconds, Wangji is already staring off into space and trying to remember if the original Lan Jingyi was this hopeless when it came to music. His eyes narrow at the way Jingyi only uses two fingers, starting from the middle of the piano and then making his way to the other keys from both sides.

“I gave you Beethoven to learn,” Wangji sighs. “Not this.”

“That was too hard!” Jingyi says. “But I searched on YouTube and found some beginner songs! Chopsticks is a good start!”

Wangji does not know what in the world he is talking about, much less where he is actually searching to find these songs. He repeats his brother's advice; enthusiasm is Jingyi's greatest trait. This, in a way, can count as enthusiasm if he is clutching at straws.

“Hmm.” He reaches for his music sheets and tries to find something easier to start with. “We will go through the basics again.”

Jingyi sits up straighter again, watching as Wangji's fingers run over the piano's keys. A smile remains on his face and he's not as distracted as he had been for his past lessons. There is progress—small progress, but progress nonetheless.

Sizhui joins them after Jingyi's one hour lesson is finished, carrying a tray of hot drinks. Coffee for Wangji, tea for Sizhui, and hot chocolate with marshmallows for Jingyi.

Wangji takes this moment to relax. The two teenagers lounge on the couch, each hugging a cushion to their chest as they wait for their drinks to cool down. Jingyi is picking at the marshmallows, happily chewing on them.

“Jingyi, you said you were coming here yesterday afternoon,” Sizhui says, taking a marshmallow for himself. “Where were you?”

“Had detention with Teacher Wei again...” Jingyi mutters. Wangji's eyes flicker to him. “It's not so bad though. He's cool.”

“You didn't do the homework again?”

Jingyi gives a nervous laugh, shrugging. “He just made me do it after school instead.”

“You're lucky he's nice.”

Wangji looks away, staring into his coffee instead. It has been almost a week since he saw Wei Ying. He's gone through every scenario in his head as to how he can talk to the teacher again but it is only now he realises it was Wei Ying who only ever approached him. Now with this newly reincarnated Wei Ying, the chances of him approaching Wangji first is close to none.

He drinks more of his coffee until the phone rings. No one calls Wangji, much less call the house phone. Already knowing who it is, Wangji leaves the living room to pick it up. As expected, it is Xichen.

“How are you, Wangji?”

There is the sound of other people in the background from the other side. It is hard to tell what they're saying but he knows Xichen is in public, to say the least.

“I am well,” Wangji says.

“Have you spoken with Wei Wuxian?”

His brother needs to stop reading his emotions, even from the other side of the world. He frowns, turning away from the sight of Jingyi and Sizhui.

“No.”

“Do you intend to?"

“It is... difficult.”

Wangji even took Sizhui to school one day, hoping to see Wei Ying before he had to leave. Unfortunately, he was nowhere in sight and Sizhui began to look at him strangely for refusing to let him go inside the school until Wei Ying appeared.

“Hmm... I am not quite experienced in modern methods of courting,” Xichen mutters. “He has always been eager to talk to you back then, though.”

Back then. That was back then. Wangji wants to tell his brother, but he knows Xichen is only trying to encourage and help him. He will get nowhere if he continues to do nothing about this.

Even so, if Xichen is clueless when it comes to modern courting, then there is no hope at all for Wangji.

He has never given much thought to courting, not when the only person he wanted was nowhere in reach for all these years. The desire and need almost drove him insane for the first few centuries but not once did the thought of satisfying himself with someone else cross Wangji's mind. If Wei Ying isn't involved then there is nothing.

As for Xichen... Wangji does not know. His brother disappears too often for him to grasp what he is doing. He once thought that Xichen's relationship with his sworn brothers had been more than what they showed on the surface, but he was not one to pry. The topic of Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao was too much a wound that Wangji never dared to bring up.

“I will think on it,” he says in the end, even if thinking about it is the only thing he has managed to do for the past week.

“When will you arrive here?” Wangji asks.

“I will arrive there around midday tomorrow. May I join you for dinner then?”

“Will you not be tired?”

“I should survive well enough for dinner with you and Sizhui.”

“Very well. Are you at the airport now?” Wangji can still hear the sound of people in the background.

“Oh, I will not be taking the plane,” Xichen slowly says. “I will be flying there myself.”

Wangji frowns.

“You know how much I detest public transport.”

He gets a flashback of Xichen expressing his rare opinion on a flight he took to London once. Apparently, Xichen spent the whole twelve hours sat next to a screaming baby that even his benevolent patience was stretched thin. Suffice to say his brother had been hesitant to venture into public transport since that incident, regardless of how many times Wangji reminds him he can pay for first class instead.

It must have been a very loud child, Wangji thinks. His brother has always been the epitome of patience.

“Be careful not to be seen,” Wangji says, although he knows it is not needed. Xichen is more than capable of this.

“Of course. I will call you when I am back,” Xichen reassures. “Is Sizhui there?”

Wangji looks up and sees the teenager laughing at something Jingyi has said. “Yes. Do you wish to speak with him?”

“Yes, please. I have not spoken to him in too long.”

He says his farewells and gives the phone to Sizhui, allowing a small smile to tug up his lips at how enthusiastic the teenager sounds talking to his uncle. With Sizhui's attention diverted, Jingyi sits back on the couch and looks around the room with obvious boredom. Wangji tries to ignore it when the child's eyes finally rest on him.

“Hey, Uncle,” he says. “Do you not have a girlfriend yet?”

Wangji resists the urge to scowl. “No.”

“You should get a Tinder account if you wanna look for dates,” Jingyi says, completely oblivious to Wangji's cold aura.

“Timber?”

No,” Jingyi sighs as if he is talking to a child. “Tinder. It's a dating app.”

Wangji keeps his mouth shut. He does not even know what an app is supposed to be.

“Here, if you give me your phone, I'll make an account for you.” Jingyi shuffles closer to him on the couch.

Wangji does not know what possesses him to reach for his own phone. Jingyi's stubbornness is futile to fight.

“What. Is that.” Jingyi's eyes widen. “Is that... Is that a Nokia?”

He says the word as if it is cursed relic, continuing to stare at Wangji's phone in shock.

“Uncle, how are you so rich and yet you own a phone that's probably older than me?” Jingyi cries. He clings onto Sizhui's arm and shakes him until the other sends him a suffering look. “Sizhui, how can you let your dad own a brick?”

“Sorry, Uncle Xichen—hang on, Jingyi!” Sizhui turns away from the phone and looks between them. “Oh. Dad barely uses his phone anyway.”

“Yeah, but how is he supposed to get Tinder!”

Sizhui shrugs helplessly. “I don't think... I don't think he'd be the type to go on Tinder...”

“Don't tell me Uncle Xichen has a brick too...”

Sizhui turns back to the phone, his eyebrows raising. “No, he says he has a Samsung S9.”

Jingyi's lip curls. “Samsung... That's even worse.”

“Okay, Uncle Wangji!” Jingyi pushes away Wangji's phone. There is determination on his face. “Please buy a better phone! Honestly, no one uses these things anymore. I'm surprised it still works.”

Wangji puts his phone back in his pocket, shaking his head. He only uses it to call Sizhui when it is needed, which is rare. Sizhui is a mature and capable teenager who does not need a parent to be checking up on him every five minutes. Xichen, on the other hand, will mainly call the house phone because he knows there is more chance that will be picked up instead.

“Unnecessary,” he says.

“But what about Tinder!” Jingyi insists. “It'll help you with your love life, I swear.”

Wangji's eyes narrow. He cares little for dating girls, or however Jingyi phrased it, but part of him wonders if this Timber will help him approach Wei Ying. How will it even work?

He glances back at Jingyi. Listening to this teenager will only be the beginning of tragedy. Wangji shakes his head once again and refuses to acknowledge any more of this nonsense.

 

- x -

 

The next day, he somehow ends up buying a new phone anyway. With no lessons to distract him, Wangji ventured into the city and entered the nearest shop he could find that had these phones on display. The shopping assistant looked a bit confused when he asked for a phone that had Timber in it but nevertheless directed him to one of their newer models.

With Wangji's limited knowledge in modern technology, the assistant had to help him with various things. A few hours must have passed until she declared he could use his phone starting from the moment he left the shop, having already installed every application he needed and moved all of his old contacts from his old phone to his new one. She seemed quite thankful he only had a total of four people in his contact list.

He thanked her, leaving the shop with the new phone and even more questions. The name on the box that came with it said iPhone, but that name meant nothing to Wangji.

He was more confused as to where the buttons were. The lady in the shop was commanding the phone to do all sorts of things without pressing anything. For a second, Wangji wondered if this was another form of cultivation.

Sighing, he decides he will have to ask Sizhui instead. He has already burdened that assistant enough.

It is still only morning. He has already finished shopping for dinner later tonight, remembering the dishes his brother liked to eat. The city is busy, even at this time, but it's to be expected during the weekend. How strange that Gusu used to be a place of tranquil and seclusion, and now it has morphed into a bustling city.

Memories of each clan slowly declining are still fresh on Wangji's mind. First, the attack at Qinghe Nie Sect that left its last surviving leader dead; the scandal that followed once it was revealed who was responsible; his brother's heart breaking when he took it upon himself to settle this age-old betrayal.

Then, the tragedy that befell both sect leaders of Yunmeng Jiang and Lanling Jin. To this day, details of the event are still unclear, with fact and rumours mixing to create a story that Wangji knows may not even be accurate. Yunmeng Jiang and Lanling Jin tried their best to persevere with new leaders, clinging onto their own ideals and refusing to give up hundreds of years of history. Unfortunately, with uncertainty of the future came conflict, and it was not long until those two clans fell to their own demise.

In the end, only Gusu Lan Sect remained from the larger clans, but even then, the years passed and people moved on. They sought other ways of living, abandoning spiritual goals for materialistic ones. Cultivation was soon forgotten, only remembered in stories and myths. What was once a lifelong goal for people became nothing but a fairy tale.

Wangji has watched the seasons come and go. He has seen the world transform before his very eyes, how humanity has fallen and risen, only to fall again and again. He has seen wars tear apart countries and threaten to bring upon the apocalypse, and he has even hoped for them. Dying along with the rest of the world seemed like a fitting way to go. Then, he would not feel guilty for giving up on Wei Ying.

Now, he looks around the city again. For someone who has seen everything, there is nothing here that captivates him—

And then his eyes catch on a distant figure, struggling to keep hold of the grocery bags he is carrying in both hands.

Before he knows it, Wangji's legs are already moving.

“Mr. Lan!” Wei Ying jumps. He grumbles under his breath and places the plastic bags on the ground. “Hello again.”

Today, his hair is loose, with one side tucked behind his ear. Wangji sees it is secured with a clip and his heart cannot help but flip over at this. He is wearing a red turtle-neck jumper that hugs his figure—a big difference to the loose robes Wangji has always seen him in. His black jeans are also tight, ripped at the knees. Why Wei Ying is still wearing torn clothing is a mystery to him. Wangji has half a mind to take his coat off and throw it on him just to cover him up.

He looks away, for the sake of his own sanity.

Wangji nods at the plastic bags. “Are you struggling?”

“No.” With that, Wei Ying gathers them into his hands again. A small noise escapes him when he picks them back up. “Well, yes, but you don't have to look at me like that.”

“Give them to me.”

“Eh, do you go around asking people for their stuff? Mr. Lan, that's rude. These are mine.”

Wangji takes a deep breath through his nose. “No—I meant, I will carry them.”

“That desperate to be a gentleman?” He points at the plastic bags Wangji is carrying himself. “You're already carrying something.”

“I can manage.”

“But I need to go home. Are you going to carry them for me all the way there?”

“I can bring you home.”

“Wow. Again?”

Wangji nods.

“Are you a taxi driver or something?”

“No,” Wangji says. "Enough questions.”

This time, Wei Ying laughs, shaking his head to himself. He looks at Wangji up and down. “Alright, fine. Don't complain if they're too heavy for you.”

Of course, they are not. Wangji picks all five bags with ease, carrying them in his right hand and watching as Wei Ying's smile is replaced by an unhappy pout.

“Okay, now you're just showing off, Mr. Lan,” he says. The little scowl he throws Wangji is filled with no malice. If anything, it only makes Wangji's heart beat faster.

They walk side by side. It is ridiculous that memories Wangji thought were long dead are reawakening this very moment. Back then, they had once walked around Yiling town like this, when Sizhui was still Wen Yuan and Wei Ying was the infamous Patriarch. He finds he likes looking at their reflection on the windows they pass. Seeing Wei Ying by his side again makes his steps feel lighter.

“Hey, let me treat you to a drink,” Wei Ying says, suddenly stopping.

He motions towards a café on the corner of the street called The Hidden Forest. It seems acceptable enough but the welcome sign has 'We've bean expecting you' written in English.

“I made my friend put up that sign,” Wei Ying explains when Wangji spends the next few seconds staring at the cursed sign. “I laugh at it every time.”

Wangji keeps his thoughts to himself. Laughing is the last thing he wants to do.

“Come on, don't look at me like you're dead inside!” Wei Ying nudges his side with his elbow and runs off to open the door before Wangji can even react.

The smell of coffee and cakes fill his nose as soon as he steps in. He takes a deep breath of it, glancing around. Despite its horrid welcome sign, the inside has a peaceful and homely atmosphere. If Wangji were to compare the interior with something, then he would pick a cottage. The walls are designed so they look wooden, and the windows are round with fake ivy and plants entwining around them. There are small lights dangling from the ceiling, giving the illusion this place is surrounded by fireflies.

“S-Sir!”

By the counter is a face Wangji has not seen in a while. Wen Ning.

He is as skittish as ever, fiddling with the cloth in front of him. It is odd to see him alive and not in the form of a zombie the Yiling Patriarch is commanding. His hair is short now, although the strand that curls down his forehead is still there. He gives Wei Ying a nervous smile as he approaches the counter.

“Would you like your usual order...?” Wen Ning asks.

Wei Ying nods. “Yeah, and for you to stop calling me 'sir'. We're friends.”

“But I'm at work!”

“You still call me that when I'm at your house!”

Wangji's eyes narrow. Why would Wei Ying be in another man's house? His hands grip the plastic bags tighter and suddenly Wen Ning's smile does not look so friendly anymore.

“O-Okay, Wei... Wei Ying. And um...” Wen Ning's voice trails off as he stares at Wangji, flinching. Wangji looks away, not realising he has started to scowl.

“What... What about your, um, friend?” Wen Ning asks. Every word he says sounds like he is in pain.

Wei Ying, as expected, is unaware of anything. “Mr. Lan, what would you like?”

For him to leave, Wangji thinks.

“Black coffee,” he says instead.

Wei Ying's nose scrunches up. “Disgusting. There you go, Wen Ning, he wants that. I'll pay for both.”

Wen Ning all but runs off to make their orders. Wei Ying pays for their drinks and sends a blinding smile towards his friend, making Wangji's guts churn around. He has not missed this feeling of jealousy at all.

“Thank you,” Wangji says when they are sat down.

Wei Ying sits down opposite him, blowing on his cup of coffee before taking a tiny sip. Wangji notices there are tiny red flakes floating on it. He dares to think they might be chilli flakes but surely Wei Ying does not like his coffee to be spicy as well...

“It's the least I can do,” Wei Ying says, taking another sip. He keeps tucking his hair behind his ear, even when one side is already clipped back.

With Wei Ying literally in front of him, Wangji can barely focus on the bitter taste of his own drink. He cannot help but sneak glances at him every second, admiring the gentle slope of his nose, the way his eyelashes are cast down when he drinks his coffee, anything. Everything. With his hair being shoulder-length rather than down to his waist, Wangji is forever staring at it, as if trying to imprint the changes in his brain. It is not a bad change.

Then again, Wei Ying could have a completely difference face and Wangji would not even blink.

“So,” Wei Ying says. He places his coffee on the table. “Sizhui told me he used to live in London. Were you two born there?”

Wangji shakes his head. “Sizhui was. I was born in Gusu.”

“So you met your wife in London?”

“No,” Wangji frowns. “I don't have a wife.”

“Oh?” For some reason, Wei Ying looks shocked. He sits back and stares at Wangji long enough for him to wonder what in the world he is thinking.

“I... adopted Sizhui,” he says, after a while of painful silence.

Wei Ying slowly nods. “Sorry for prying.”

It is Wangji's turn to stare. He has a question too, but he is not sure he wants to know the answer.

“Do you... have a wife?”

Wei Ying looks away. He grabs his coffee and takes another sip, his actions too slow for Wangji's liking. “No. I've been with a few people but it was never anything serious.”

Although he feels relief that Wei Ying is not yet married, he still catches onto the fact he has had previous relationships. Suddenly, Wangji's coffee is much more bitter than it already is.

He does not want to think of Wei Ying being with someone else, and yet he also does not want to deny him of happiness. It is a frustrating battle between his own selfish desires and his love for this oblivious man in front of him. Wangji takes another gulp and tries to focus on the taste instead of his thoughts.

“Were you born here?” he asks, eager to change the subject.

Wei Ying shakes his head. “I was born in Yunmeng, but moved to Gusu for university and stayed here ever since.”

Wangji notices the way he speaks faster. His eyes are fixed on the table and he doesn't elaborate.

Is he still with the Jiang family? Wangji wants to know. This burning curiosity is maddening.

“It's not bad here though. I like teaching.”

It seems they are both keen to change the topic with these questions.

“Sizhui said you were his favourite teacher,” Wangji says.

“Aaw, how sweet. Are you only saying this so I'll bump your son's grades up?”

No.”

Wei Ying lets out a laugh that lasts too short. He tries to tuck his hair behind his ear again, grasping on nothing because it is already clipped back.

“Not like he needs it anyway,” he says. “He's one of my best students. Looking at you, I can see why he's so well behaved.”

“Looking at me?”

Wei Ying nods. He waves a hand in Wangji's direction as if the answer is clear.

“You seem like you're really uptight and strict. I bet you are. If you were a teacher and I was a student, you'd have hated me.”

He laughs again. This time, it sounds a bit more genuine. Wangji allows himself to smile when Wei Ying isn't looking.

“Why is that?”

Resting his chin on his palm, Wei Ying doesn't say anything for a while. He then shrugs, brightness in his grey eyes.

“A lot of my teachers hated me back then. They said I talked too much and didn't take the work seriously.”

That sounds very likely. Even with the new hair and clothes, Wei Ying is still the same. Wangji lets out a soft 'hmm' and finishes his coffee, uncaring that it has already gone cold. With Wei Ying smiling in front of him, his chest feels warm enough.

 

- x -

 

Lan Xichen is not sure if he wants to return to Gusu. Too many bad memories lay in that place—although it is not as if the memories ever leave him no matter what country he decides to run away to next. He can hide himself away in a secluded forest, a place where no one will think exists, and the nightmares will still haunt him every night.

Gusu is the worst place for him, or anywhere in this country for that matter. Xichen liked how busy and cluttered London was for a while; it helped to distract him from his thoughts and the endless guilt. The first few years he spent in London were a nice change but a change can only last so long. Soon, the crowds became suffocating and their noise only reminded him of his own screams during the night.

If he ever tried to find a quiet place to calm himself down, the silence would steer his mind towards them. If he was amidst a crowd, it would not be long until the faces morphed into them.

And so, Xichen has decided long ago there really is no place for him in this world.

Regardless, he's already close to his destination and he promised Wangji he would join him and Sizhui for dinner tonight. Shrouded in the clouds, he can feel the familiar embrace of a home he once felt safe in. Xichen made sure to keep himself hidden as he got nearer and nearer the land, letting the breeze calm his mind.

He is home. As much as this place has stopped feeling like it, he is still home.

As soon as his feet touch the ground, he can't help but shiver. Being back in here feels as if his sworn brothers' spirits are closer. It is difficult to tell if that is comforting or not.

He has landed in a forest. There is no one around, not so deep in a place like this. He breathes in the air he has not breathed in for too long and takes a look around. The sky is clear and blindingly blue, no speck of clouds to be seen.

Xichen looks down at his sword and catches a glimpse of himself on the blade. He has not aged a day since he became immortal... and that was how many years ago? Over two thousand? After the first century, he has stopped counting. Both he and Wangji are forever frozen to look like they are in their mid-thirties but the fact they have lived for over two thousand years is just... tiring to think about. The heavens are truly cruel.

He sighs. Now is not the time to be brooding. Xichen opens his Qiankun bag for his sword to go in.

A branch snaps behind him.

Xichen whirls around and sees wide, blue eyes. They stare at him in shock and the breeze stops for a second as the two stand frozen in front of each other. This face is familiar, although it is a face he has never interacted with much outside of formality and business. It is a face he only knows had gotten shrouded with hatred and anger through the years, after having lost everything and everyone. Xichen can relate to that, in a way.

Sandu Shengshou. Jiang Wanyin. Jiang Cheng.

He has seen glimpses of this man over the centuries, his other incarnations passing by like forgotten shadows. This is the closest Xichen has ever been. He is scowling, his eyes alive with the only emotion Xichen has only ever seen on him. His hair is no longer in a bun; it is much shorter, only reaching his chin. It is parted and his bangs are unruly as they are swept over the right side of his face.

He remembers the rumours surrounding the original Jiang Cheng's demise. He spent so many years engulfed in his hatred for Wei Wuxian, for a man who never came back to satisfy that bloodthirst. His endless vengeance was his own downfall. Many said he died in a night hunting accident, some speculated it was Qi Deviation. Others said he took his own life, just because everything was too much. Or too empty.

“Put. The. Weapon. Down.”

His voice snaps Xichen out of it.

He is suddenly very much aware of what is happening right now.

His sword is still in his hand. He is in the middle of nowhere. And Jiang Cheng is wearing a uniform that can only belong to the police. Within seconds, Xichen is staring into the barrel of a gun and he is not sure what to really do. Jiang Cheng is yelling something but Xichen is transporting into another plane of existence, one where he isn't stupid enough to be brandishing a sword in public.

“I said put the weapon down!”

Not knowing what else he can do, Xichen slowly lowers Shuoyue on the ground. The thought of using cultivation to make his escape crosses his mind. Xichen decides against it. He does not want to attack Jiang Cheng, even if he is still pointing that gun at his face.

“I'm arresting you for illegal possession of dangerous weapons!”

Arrested. Xichen is literally at a loss for words. Never in his long, long, long existence has he ever had something like this happen to him. The shock of how ridiculous this situation is renders him speechless and he does nothing as Jiang Cheng handcuffs and pushes him out of the forest.

Jiang Cheng grabs his sword before they leave, handling it as if it is a bomb about to explode. He is a little amused at the comparison of the younger man being a police, hunting down all of the criminals similarly to how he hunted down demonic cultivators.

The irony would be funny if Xichen isn't currently being driven to the police station.

Everything is a blur from there. He lets Jiang Cheng drag him inside, trying not to pay attention to all the other officers oggling the sword. Xichen will have to find a way to get Shuoyue back... No doubt they will confiscate it.

They enter a room which Xichen guesses is where the Chief must be. He is as calm as ever, and then his heart drops at the sight of who the Chief is.

It feels as if he has been kicked in the ribs. Xichen's fists clench under his handcuffs and his eyes sting. He does not know whether to cry or to laugh, to suffer or to celebrate.

Nie Mingjue had always glared at everyone as if they wronged him. Xichen considered himself lucky that his sworn brother often smiled at him, granting him the rare sight of the unknown tenderness behind his brawn. Now, he looks at him as he looks at everyone else. The older man folds his arms, thick eyebrows furrowing at Xichen as he diverts his gaze between him and the sword Jiang Cheng held.

He no longer had his ponytail. Instead, Nie Mingjue's hair is cut short at the nape, his eyebrows as angry as ever. Xichen's heart is aching. He swallows the lump in his throat and gazes down at his shoes instead.

“Another arrest?” Nie Mingjue grumbles. “I told you; you don't need to arrest someone if they're speeding.”

Jiang Cheng vehemently shakes his head. “No, I found him in the forest with this weapon.”

Nie Mingjue's eyebrows raise. He regards Shuoyue and glances back at Xichen. At least he does not have to stare at him suffering from Qi Deviation, Xichen decides. Too many nights he has seen his sworn brother dying in front of his eyes. This other version of Nie Mingjue in front of him is more than welcome.

“Explain yourself!” Nie Mingjue orders. His voice is throwing Xichen back thousands of years.

It is a miracle he finds his voice at all. “I was practising my sword wielding skills. The forest helps me to be... one with myself.”

“You're lying!” Jiang Cheng snaps.

Xichen turns to the younger man and keeps his gaze steady. His face looks no different than when he was a sect leader. The only difference is that instead of Zidian, he now has a gun. Thankfully, he is no longer pointing it at his face.

“I can assure you, Officer, that I meant no harm,” he calmly says. “The sword is an ancient family heirloom of mine. Forgive me, I do not normally live here in this country and forgot there were laws against using such a weapon in public.”

Jiang Cheng's eyes narrow. “How can you forget that you can't be swinging around swords in public!”

“In my defence, I was in a secluded forest and did not think anyone would be walking in to risk their safety...”

Not just anyone too, but Jiang Cheng's incarnation who happened to be a police officer... Xichen's luck is truly horrendous.

“That doesn't excuse anything!”

“It is not an excuse. I am merely telling the truth—”

“You say you were sword training but you're wearing a suit!” Jiang Cheng motions at his attire, waving his hand wildly. “How are we to know you weren't trying to smuggle weapons instead!”

Xichen has to sigh. He wonders if every demonic cultivator has been interrogated like this by the insistent former sect leader.

“I can tell you nothing but the truth. I would never willingly hurt anyone or smuggle weapons, as you put it.”

Jiang Cheng makes a noise that tells Xichen he believes none of the words that came out of his mouth. Giving up, Xichen turns to Nie Mingjue instead and waits with baited breath. Nie Mingjue had always had a strong sense of justice, perhaps too much. To him, everything was black and white with nothing in between. Their youngest sworn brother struggled endlessly to win his good graces back, and failed until the end.

But Mingjue-xiong was right all along, Xichen's thoughts claw in his head. You believed all of A-Yao's lies and too many died because of your ignorance.

Xichen grits his teeth. He keeps his eyes on Nie Mingjue and tries his best to ignore his thoughts, no matter how painfully correct they are.

“You're both giving me a headache,” Nie Mingjue grumbles. He has that scowl he always keeps on his face but it falters for a second when he returns Xichen's gaze.

Xichen does not move. Part of him wishes there is recognition there but he knows he does not deserve to reconcile with his sworn brothers. He looks away, steadying his shaking fists.

“He doesn't look like he's lying,” Nie Mingjue says. “Just confiscate the damn sword and give him a fine!”

Xichen fails to hide the surprise on his face. He was certain Nie Mingjue would damn him, treating him with the same conviction he placed on anyone who was not 'good' in his eyes.

Jin Guangyao's voice rings in his ears.

Da-ge always listens to you. He will glare at anyone and everyone but he'll always smile at you. He used to smile at me like that too; why does he hate me now?

This police station is beginning to suffocate him. He really should not have returned to Gusu.

“Yes, Chief Nie,” Jiang Cheng says.

Xichen is all too happy to follow him out of the room, releasing a deep breath he did not realise he had been holding. He trails after Jiang Cheng as he leads them back to the front of the police station.

“You're lucky Chief Nie went easy on you,” Jiang Cheng says, obviously unhappy.

The fortunate thing is that Jiang Cheng is not a sect leader in this lifetime. He is only a lower ranking officer, it seems, and therefore has to follow his Chief's orders. He does not look pleased at all as he gives Xichen his fine.

“Just pay it now and go,” he snaps, tapping his feet on the floor. “We'll be keeping hold of this.”

Jiang Cheng weighs Shuoyue in his hands. It's odd seeing his sword in someone else's possession. Xichen does not like it at all.

“Now?” Xichen asks.

“Yes. Now.”

Ah.

Wangji looks around the busy police station. Jiang Cheng is still in front of him, watching his every move. Paying the fine might be a bit difficult, when his wallet is in his suitcase... which is currently in his Qiankun bag; a magical bag that is only the size of a pouch small enough to be in his pocket. Pulling a suitcase out of a pouch in public is not a good idea at all. Even he knows that.

“What?” Jiang Cheng's voice rises. “What is it?”

“Ah. I don't have money with me at the moment.”

Jiang Cheng may as well have burst a vein. “Do you want to go to jail!”

Xichen closes his eyes and takes a deep, deep, deep breath. With the amount of deep breaths he has taken here, he may as well be meditating. It is barely twelve thirty in the afternoon and he already wishes today will end. Jiang Cheng's own impatience is beginning to affect him.

“Have you got a phone?” he asks, keeping his voice steady. He raises his handcuffed hands. “My brother can pay the fine. I will need you to take these off though.”

 

- x -

 

Wangji's phone rings and he is faced with the impossible task of trying to unlock it. He fumbles with the device and searches for the buttons. The old phone Jingyi described as a brick was easier to handle than this flimsy piece of metal.

Two minutes must have passed and the phone is still ringing.

“You okay?” Wei Ying asks, tilting his head. “Forgot your password?”

“No,” Wangji says. “The buttons.”

“What do you mean buttons?”

“Where are they?”

Wei Ying's frown deepens. After watching him struggle for another minute, the teacher reaches over the desk and takes the phone from his hands. Wangji flinches when their hands brush, snatching his away before he can stop himself.

“It's not even locked,” Wei Ying says. He swipes his finger on the screen and then pokes it. “Oh, it's an unknown number. Wanna answer it?”

“Fine.”

Wei Ying presses the screen again and hands the phone back to him. He watches with large eyes, sipping on his coffee.

“Wangji?” It is Xichen. His voice sounds a bit strained.

“Brother, what is it?”

“I may need your help.”

Wangji sits up. It is rare his brother will ask him for help. “What is wrong?”

“I seem to have been arrested...” Xichen says. “Could you come to the police station and pay my fine? I'm afraid I am unable to do it at the moment, and they may imprison me if I fail to do it now.”

This is unexpected. There are many questions running through his head.

“I see...” Wangji slowly says. “I will be there shortly.”

He ends the call, still confused. He knows Xichen would have flown to Gusu today, but surely if he had been caught then he would have received far more than a fine.

“What's up?” Wei Ying asks.

Wangji places his phone back into his pocket. “I will need to go somewhere before we leave for your apartment.”

“Sure, where?” The teacher takes another gulp of his coffee.

“The police station. I must get my brother out of jail.”

Wei Ying chokes, slamming the mug down. He covers his mouth and coughs so loud that everyone in the café stares at them.

“Right,” he says, still coughing slightly. He pounds on his chest a few times before he calms down. “I'm... I'm not even going to ask. Fair enough. Let's... get your brother out of jail then.”

They leave the warmth of the café and make no haste for Wangji's car. Amazingly, Wei Ying does not ask any questions as they drive for the police station. He lays his head against the window and stares at the streets dashing past. His presence would be more appreciated if Wangji is not currently worried for Xichen.

The police station is not very far, thankfully. Wei Ying follows him as he enters the building, his body tense. Wangji half expects an ambush of officers who may have found out he and his brother are immortal.

What he does not expect is to hear Wei Ying groan behind him.

He sees his brother, but there is also someone else there. They turn around and Wangji notices Wei Ying has edged closer to his side.

“You!” The person beside Xichen hisses.

A familiar voice. As Wangji nears them, he realises it is also a familiar face, with shorter hair and an officer's uniform. The hatred in his eyes is exactly the same as it always has been.

“Jiang Cheng...” Wei Ying mumbles. He shuffles closer to Wangji again, his gaze flickering everywhere but at the man currently scowling in his direction.

Meanwhile, Xichen gives Wangji a suffering smile. “Hello, Wangji. Thank you for coming...”

Wangji nods. “Brother.”

Then, a larger man walks past them. He stops. His head snaps from one person to the other, and the frown on his face gets deeper, and deeper.

Oh. Wangji blinks. This face is familiar too. Nie Mingjue, if he is not mistaken. It has been a while since he has seen an incarnation of him.

“What the hell is this?” Nie Mingjue demands. “A family gathering at my station? Get the fuck out of here!”

He is still as quick tempered as before then. They watch as the large man stomps off. His angered steps are followed by the sound of a door slamming shut. Every officer nearby physically winces.

Wangji pays for the fine with little care. The large number means little to him. Living for over two thousand years is helpful in that you can accumulate a tremendous sum of money over that time. He cannot help but notice that Xichen's sword is in Jiang Cheng's hand. Did his brother really get caught?

Nevertheless, Jiang Cheng's attention is on something else. Or someone else.

“I told you not to show your face around here ever again,” he says. Wangji does not have to look behind him to know who he is talking to.

“I'm leaving, I'm leaving,” Wei Ying sighs. He spins around and walks off without another word.

Wangji has to stop himself from following him. This is none of his business but the sight of Wei Ying leaving is making him tense.

“May we leave then?” Xichen asks, reading the mood, as usual.

Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to say noHowever, with the fine paid and Xichen's sword still in his possession, the officer gives a stiff nod.

Even his brother's gait is faster than normal as they exit the station. Wangji is glad to see Wei Ying waiting by his car, tapping his feet on the pavement. He practically dives into the passenger seat when Wangji unlocks the doors, apparently eager to get home. Or away from this police station, Wangji is not sure.

The journey to Wei Ying's apartment is thick with silence. Xichen is in the back seat, staring between both of them.

“Are you Wangji's friend?” he eventually asks. Wangji can't help but flinch at the use of 'friend'. Of course, Xichen already knows the answer to this.

“Oh, I'm Sizhui's teacher,” Wei Ying says. He sits up to stare at Xichen through the front mirror. “Wei Ying.”

Xichen's voice has a smile in it. “It is nice to meet you, although I wish it was under better circumstances. I am Lan Xichen.”

Wei Ying lets out a laugh. “No, you've made an impression.”

His smile goes away and he stares out into the window again. Wangji takes his eyes off the road for a brief second to see if he is okay.

“Sorry about Jiang Cheng though,” Wei Ying says. “He can be difficult when he's pissed off, which is a lot nowadays.”

Xichen shakes his head. “There is no need for you to apologise.”

They say nothing more after that. The drive to Wei Ying's apartment is too short and Wangji hates how he has to say goodbye to him now. It is approaching midday; Wangji wonders what Wei Ying will do for the rest of the weekend. He has still not finished asking every question he wants to know about him in this lifetime. One day is not enough at all.

“Thanks again for the lift, Mr. Lan,” Wei Ying says when Wangji has handed his plastic bags to him again. “It was nice seeing you.”

“You are welcome,” Wangji says. He nods at the bags Wei Ying is still struggling to carry. “Would you like me to carry them to your—”

“No, I can manage. You've done enough.”

All Wangji can do is watch as Wei Ying disappears back into his apartment, dragging the bags with him. From this distance, he can allow himself to smile as the teacher struggles to open the door. After almost a full minute, he succeeds in entering the building and he is gone.

When he returns inside the car, Xichen lets out a big sigh. “I am glad to see you looking happy after all this time, Wangji. I truly am sorry I interrupted your time with him.”

Wangji quickly shakes his head. Even if his time with Wei Ying was cut short, he can never blame his brother.

“No need to apologise,” he says. “But are you... okay?”

Nie Mingjue was in that police station. Xichen has been nothing but polite smiles ever since he has been in this car with Wei Ying. Wangji knows that is not all there is. Now, as he looks at the front mirror, all he sees is Xichen laying his head against the window, eyes closed.

“I will be fine,” he says. “I am tired though.”

“Hmm.”

“Let's go home, Wangji. Today has been too long.”

Wangji nods. He starts the car again, making his way back home. His brother said that today was too long, but he cannot agree with that. Not today. Everyday, for the past two thousand years or so, has felt long—but not this one. With Wei Ying, time flew by too fast. It feels like an illusion, looking back at it now.

He cannot say he is happy, because he has forgotten what happiness is supposed to be, but perhaps he can say he is content. For now. For today. Tomorrow will be a new day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Wangji does not know what to do now that his future no longer looks empty. Wei Ying is here and he has thrown the monotonous schedule of Wangji's endless life into chaos.

He does not mind it, he thinks. For once in his life, Wangji looks forward to tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter Text

Although they are family and Wangji insists he does not have to pay, Lan Qiren still offers an extremely large amount of money for Jingyi's music lessons. Wangji is Jingyi's last hope in growing up to be a respectable young man worthy of the Lan name, or so his uncle insists. While the rest of the world seems to have disregarded the history of cultivators, the Lan family cling onto their roots.

Lan Qiren does, anyway. Over the years, Wangji and Xichen have told the incarnations of Lan Qiren their true identities, and every incarnation took it well. Too well, in fact. They were all too happy to preserve as much of the family pride, even if it meant little to the Twin Jades now.

All that aside, Wangji wonders if his uncle will be happy with the fact that Jingyi has spent today's music lesson creating a Timber account for him instead of sitting down by the piano and playing something. Anything.

All of them are sat on the couch, watching as Jingyi wrote Wangji's profile with inhuman speed. The teenager makes him sound more exciting than he really is. According to Jingyi, Wangji enjoys strolling around the city, drinking coffee with his friends, and he is very, very rich.

Wangji cares little for exploring the city and he does not even have any friends to begin with. He is rich though.

“Is is necessary to say he's rich?” Sizhui says.

Jingyi shrugs. “Eh, everyone loves a sugar daddy.”

“A sugar daddy?” Wangji asks. He is, technically, a father but he is not a big fan of sweet food. Xichen had the sweet tooth, not him.

Xichen chuckles above them. He is standing over the couch, watching Wangji's phone screen with some concern in his eyes.

“Perhaps erase the sentence about his wealth, Jingyi,” he suggests.

Jingyi groans but nevertheless does what he's told. “Okay, okay. Now we just need to edit your preferences. Uncle, what age range of women do you wanna see? And how far are you willing to travel to them?”

Instead of answering him, Wangji snatches the phone from his hands and stares at these options himself.

How old is Wei Ying now? He looks slightly older than when he was the Yiling Patriarch but Wangji doubts he has reached mid thirties yet. To be safe, he moves the age range around late twenties and early thirties. Frowning, he also switches the preferences to men rather than women.

“Wait,” Jingyi said. “Men?”

His eyes are wide as he looks between all of them.

“Oh. Oh.” Jingyi nudges Sizhui, who has begun to look down at his hands. “Did you know?”

“As long as Dad's happy then it doesn't matter—”

“Yeah, but did you know?

Sizhui shakes him off. He looks back up at Wangji and gives a little smile.

“No, I didn't,” Sizhui says. “But like I said, Dad, I'm fine with it!”

Wangji returns the smile. He already expected Sizhui will not react badly but his chest is still filled with relief.

“Oh, someone's picture has appeared.” Xichen leans over and points at the stranger suddenly on Wangji's screen.

“So, you swipe left if you don't like them or swipe right if you like them,” Jingyi explains.

Wangji does not even look at the man's name. He moves his finger to the left and watches as the picture disappears.

“Aaw, why did you swipe left?” Jingyi asks.

“Not interested.”

In fact, he spends the next ten minutes swiping every picture to the left, not sparing a second to read any of their profiles, let alone their names. Why is he wasting his time on this thing? He has not seen Wei Ying so far and he is beginning to doubt he ever will. All of the profiles flashing in front of his eyes look the same. Wangji's mood sours even more.

“Oh!” Xichen's voice causes him to stop.

It is not Wei Ying but it is a familiar face.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wangji says.

Even the picture he has of himself is scowling. It looks like someone has taken a picture of him and he is very unhappy about it. Nevertheless, if he is using this as his profile picture then he must approve of it to a degree. Beside his name is his age, Wangji assumes. He is thirty-three, apparently. Does that mean Wei Ying is the same age?

Jingyi leans over and moves his finger up on the screen. Jiang Cheng's picture vanishes, replaced by a wall of text.

“Swipe up if you wanna look at their bio,” Jingyi says. Wangji is beginning to wonder just why and how does he know so much about this dating contraption.

All of them fall silent as they read through what Jiang Cheng has written.

Requirements for me: You must be naturally beautiful, graceful and obedient, hard-working and thrifty. You must come from a respected family and your personality is not too strong. Don't talk a lot, or have a voice that's too loud. You must be good with saving money. Lastly, you must treat my nephew nicely.

“Is this a bio or a job application...?” Jingyi mumbles, his lip curling.

Xichen lets out what sounds like painful laughter. When Wangji looks at him, he is shaking his head to himself.

“Who is he?” Sizhui asks, confusion on his face as he looks between the two brothers.

“Sizhui, he was the one who arrested me...”

At this, Sizhui chuckles into his hand. News of Xichen's arrest had been a conversation starter in the dinner table for the past few days. They were careful to not let Lan Qiren find out, however. There is no telling how he will react if he finds out Xichen, out of all people, was arrested.

“There's more,” Jingyi says, scrolling down Jiang Cheng's profile. “P.S. I'm straight. I just don't know how to change these Tinder settings.”

Sizhui laughs even more, trying his best to hide it with a series of fake coughs.

Jingyi, on the other hand, throws his head back and practically cackles. “Haha, what an idiot!”

“Jingyi, that's rude,” Xichen gently, but sternly, says. Despite this, there is a smile on his face. “Anyway, let's move along. I take it Wangji does not want to match with Officer Jiang.”

To no one's surprise, Wangji swipes left.

More minutes are spent swiping left on all these strangers. In the corner of his eyes, he can see Jingyi getting impatient, groaning with every man he rejects. Wangji spares no one his attention. There are too many men posing in front of their mirrors wearing almost no clothes at all; Wangji makes sure to send a glare before he promptly gets rid of them.

He is just about to swipe left again when Jingyi grabs his phone.

“It's Chief Nie!” he gasps. “He's on Tinder too?”

Xichen leans over, turning Wangji's phone to face him. They open his profile, only finding one short paragraph.

This is Nie Mingjue's brother making a profile for him. Please date him so he'll finally stop forcing me to get married instead. He has a six pack and can be nice if he wants to.

A sigh comes out from Xichen. He stands back again, returning Wangji's phone to him.

Jingyi nudges Sizhui. “Hey, isn't Chief Nie's younger brother famous now?”

“He is?”

“Yeah, he's an actor in this new drama, Crimson Heart! He's with that other actor—what's his name...”

Sizhui shakes his head with a smile. “I don't watch those things...”

“You should!” Jingyi yanks on Sizhui's arm, almost making him fall over on the couch. “I'm gonna make you watch Crimson Heart with me next lesson! You need to cry!”

Wangji frowns. “No distractions during lessons.”

He says this as if they are not being distracted right now. Lan Qiren will collapse if he ever walked in on this.

“Nie Huaisang is an actor?” Xichen asks.

Jingyi nods eagerly, clearly ignoring Wangji in favour of listening to Xichen instead. “You watch Crimson Heart too, Uncle Xichen? Who's your favourite prince?”

Xichen laughs lightly, shaking his head. “No, I don't. I just know his name.”

“Aaw... but yeah, he's an actor—and he's really good!” Jingyi's face is animated as he talks. Wangji has never seen the teenager look so excited. “There's another actor who's always in the same shows as him but I can't remember what his name is. They're both nominated for Best New Actor in this year's TV Drama Awards!”

Slowly, Xichen nods, only sparing a quiet noise of approval.

“Anyway, Uncle Wangji you should swipe right. Maybe you'll get to meet Nie Huaisang!”

Wangji swipes left. “Not interested.”

“You're not interested in anyone!

That is true. Wangji's patience is worn thin. He has half a mind to stop this charade and carry on with Jingyi's music lesson instead. He doesn't even know what possessed him to do this. Jingyi has a talent in distracting himself and others, it seems.

Maybe instead of teaching the teenager how to play the piano, Wangji also needs to teach him the Cloud Recesses' four thousand and nineteen rules. It's likely an impossible task but he owes it to his uncle.

He does not lose his rhythm in rejecting all of these unknown faces that appear before him. He swipes with unmatched speed and still manages to stop when something, someone catches his eye.

“Teacher Wei!” Jingyi and Sizhui say in unison. They almost bump heads leaning in to stare at Wangji's phone.

Wei Ying is on his screen with a smile on his face. It is not quite the smile that used to infuriate Wangji's confused emotions back when they were in the Cloud Recesses. There is an edge in Wei Ying's eyes that looks teasing but it feels unfamiliar, unknown. Wangji shifts in his seat and almost forgets to look at his profile. Jingyi is the one who clicks on it for him.

Not looking for anything serious but let's hang out ^__^

That is it. Wangji's eyes narrow at what that short sentence can mean. It is frustrating how much he yearns to know more about Wei Ying but no matter what, no matter how long he has waited, no matter who he turns into, Wangji is still struggling to understand him.

“Wangji.”

Xichen's voice is gentle. Concerned. He lays a hand on Wangji's shoulder and says nothing more.

“What is your teacher like, Jingyi?” Xichen asks, turning to the teenager.

Jingyi taps his chin, staring at the ceiling in thought. “He's nice! Everyone likes him—probably because he's not as mean as the other teachers.”

“And he lets you get away with anything,” Sizhui adds.

“Hey, he still gives me detention!”

“Because you never do your homework...”

“We can't all be a teacher's pet like you.”

Wangji ignores the rest of their bickering. His gaze is fixed on Wei Ying's smile as he slowly swipes to the right.

Oooh.” Jingyi actually shakes his arm. “You swiped right! You swiped right at Teacher Wei!”

Even Sizhui's eyes are wide. He covers his mouth but Wangji can see the smile behind it. Above them, Xichen laughs.

“I have detention with him tomorrow! I can put in a good word for you!” Jingyi says, grinning at Wangji with such intensity he has to pull his arm away and create some much needed distance between them.

“No,” Wangji says. “Unnecessary.”

Jingyi does not say anything. He does not need to. The grin he still has on his face is enough for Wangji to regret ever listening to him in the first place.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying hoped today would never come. Monday mornings are never good but he already knows today's Monday morning is going to be a bad one. No doubt about that.

When he was told there was going to be new student in his class, Wei Ying saw no issues. He had no problem with any of his current students, and if there was a problem then he knows he can handle it. One more kid to add to that pile was hardly an issue at all.

Now, as class starts and said student is currently glaring at him from the doorway, Wei Ying is convinced destiny must hate him along with everyone else that currently does.

The headmaster already told him before today who the new student will be. Wei Ying, being the desperate idiot he was, hoped it was just someone with the same name. Surely there are other Jin Lings out here in Gusu?

Well, of course not.

A job is a job. Wei Ying sighs and plasters a smile on his face, ignoring the fact that Jin Ling's scowl turns deadlier. If he got rid of that expression, he would look like his mother. They have the same eyes, after all. Same facial structure too.

It dawns on him he has not seen Jin Ling in a while. He's seen glimpses of him when he was unlucky enough to come across Jiang Cheng, but that was lifetimes ago. Years. Back when Jin Ling was still a kid who clung onto Jiang Cheng's hand and Wei Ying came home hating himself even more.

He isn't really a kid anymore. He's taller than Wei Ying expects, and it's not because somewhere deep down, Wei Ying hasn't stopped thinking of him as some lost child. Maybe, maybe not. He still has memories of Jiejie cradling her baby in her arms with nothing but love on her face.

Has it really been that long?

Wei Ying's smile falters for a second. A job is a job, he repeats to himself, pushing his thoughts away.

“Are you not going to come in?” he asks, raising his voice.

Jin Ling doesn't move. He folds his arms and looks into the class with an upturned chin. Already, the other students are whispering among themselves.

Typical. Wei Ying resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“You can't just stay there all day,” Wei Ying insists. “Come in and introduce yourself.”

By some miracle, Jin Ling finally moves. He steps into the room with his eyes glued to his shoes. At the very least, he's glaring at them instead of the whole class.

Painful seconds pass by before Wei Ying concludes Jin Ling will not introduce himself. He once again forces a wide smile on his face as he turns to the rest of the students.

“Class, this is Jin Ling,” Wei Ying says. “He'll be joining us from now on. Please treat him nicely.”

There are a few nods and noises of reassurance. Jin Ling still hasn't looked up.

Wei Ying scans the classroom. He spots an empty seat next to Lan Sizhui, who seems to be one of the few people politely smiling at the new student, even if Jin Ling is adamant in focusing on his shoes instead.

“Jin Ling, you can sit next to Lan Sizhui,” Wei Ying says, motioning towards the empty chair.

Sizhui sits up straighter. Jin Ling trudges his way along to his new seat and Wei Ying watches for a second as Sizhui spares a few moments to introduce himself.

He'll be fine, Wei Ying thinks. Sizhui is one of the friendlier students out here.

Nevertheless, as the day drawls on and Wei Ying moves from class to class, he's once again reminded of how fast gossip finds its way around these students. By midday, he's already found out Jin Ling left his private school because he was being bullied. Of course, with news of Jin Ling coming from a rich and well known family, the rumours only got worse. Wei Ying had to tell his class to shut up before he was tempted to chuck his pen at the kid calling Jin Ling a stuck up mistress.

High school truly is an ordeal. Wei Ying wonders why Jin Zixuan decided to bring Jin Ling here.

As luck (or misfortune depending on how Wei Ying looks at the situation) would have it, Jin Ling's class is his last class to teach. With him only being their homeroom teacher, Wei Ying will often only see his students during the morning and lunch times. Today is not one of those days.

It takes no expert to see Jin Ling is clearly uncomfortable being here. Wei Ying tries to focus on his lesson, but it's difficult to ignore the way Jin Ling shrinks into his books and makes no effort to talk to anyone at all, not even Lan Sizhui.

Wei Ying tells himself it's because he's a teacher. He's concerned for the well-being of all his students. It's not because Jin Ling is supposed to be his nephew too, even if he is no longer part of their family. Even if he thinks this is all his fault Jin Ling is in this position to begin with.

He's not supposed to be meddling with any of their family affairs anymore. Jiang Cheng will kill him—hell, the guilt will kill him if he opens up old wounds that aren't even closed yet.

And yet, Wei Ying doesn't hesitate to walk after Jin Ling once class is over. The students head home. Jin Ling nearly drops all of his things rushing out of the room.

“Jin Ling,” Wei Ying calls after him.

Jin Ling throws a glare over his shoulder and walks faster. “Don't talk to me! I'm going!”

Jin Ling!”

“No! Stay away! I don't want you anywhere near me!”

He sure could walk fast, all the while making sure he stomped as loud as possible too. Wei Ying almost lets him go—but he's pretty sure Jin Zixuan is busy as usual and Jiang Cheng's shift hasn't finished yet.

“Jin Ling, for goodness sake, do you even have anyone to take you home?”

Jin Ling stops. He whirls around. His face is red and the sheer hatred in his eyes nearly makes Wei Ying flinch.

“Why do you care?!” he yells again before running off.

That's right, why does he even care? Why is Wei Ying even trying?

He doesn't know the answer. Instead, he runs after the teenager and freezes right on the spot when he sees Jiang Cheng waiting outside.

Jin Ling clings to his uncle, hiding behind his arm. He peeks out to send another scowl—not that it matters because Jiang Cheng's appearance is enough to tell Wei Ying he is unwelcome here. With Jiang Cheng beside him, it's not difficult to tell where Jin Ling has gotten his charming manners.

It's been over ten years since that incident and Jiang Cheng still looks at him as if he is dirt. Wei Ying doesn't expect any less; he deserves this and more, but it doesn't stop it from hurting.

His pride will say it's not hurt. Enough time has passed for it to stop hurting. Empty, maybe. Guilt, definitely.

Wei Ying swallows the lump in his throat, taking a step back. Jiang Cheng's eyes follow his every move, narrowing.

“Come on, Jin Ling,” he says, laying a hand on his nephew's back. “Let's get you out of here.”

Away from him, Jiang Cheng means to say. Wei Ying says nothing as they disappear into Jiang Cheng's car. Once they're gone, it's as if they were never there to being with. If only forgetting about the whole experience is easier.

Wei Ying mentally hits himself for even chasing after Jin Ling to begin with. What the fuck did he think he was going to do? Comfort him? Apologise? What a joke.

Sighing, he returns inside. The school is pretty much empty now with all the students practically diving out to leave as soon as they can. Wei Ying is no longer in the mood to remain here as well; he'll gather his things and go back to his dump of an apartment.

Well, that's the plan. When he goes back inside the classroom, Lan Jingyi is sitting in his usual seat, twiddling his thumbs.

“Teacher Wei, I have detention again, remember?” he says.

Wei Ying scratches the back of his head. He's lost count of the amount of detentions he's given this kid.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh yeah.”

He takes one look at the clock and mentally groans. Jingyi has forty-five minutes left of detention. Looks like returning to his welcoming home will have to wait until later.

His head is still reeling from the encounter with Jiang Cheng. He's distracted as he sits down and doesn't register the piece of paper left on his desk. Once his brain catches up, Wei Ying tilts his head and picks it up.

It's a number; a phone number at that. Confused and slightly freaked out, Wei Ying looks around the classroom as if the answer will magically pop up in front of him.

And it does. Jingyi is sitting there with the biggest shit-eating grin Wei Ying has ever seen in his life.

“Lan Jingyi... What is this?” Wei Ying slowly asks.

“It's Sizhui's dad's number!”

For fuck sake.

Wei Ying gets a flashback to the awkward meeting he had with Sizhui's... interesting dad. Awkward may be a negative word to describe it, but how else can you describe meeting someone in town, only to end up having to bail their brother out of jail? Not only that, Mr. Lan in general is a strange man. Nice and attractive, yes, but strange. Wei Ying doesn't know how else to describe him. You don't really meet anyone here with waist-length hair, expensive clothes, and an inability to work his own phone.

And so uptight! He shouldn't have expected any less from a parent who still gave their child a courtesy name in this day and age. Lan Jingyi has one too—in fact, his grandfather is so insistent they use his courtesy name instead that he didn't even bother revealing his birth name. Are all the Lans like this?

Why is he even wondering?

“Can you explain why this is on my desk?” Wei Ying waves the piece of paper around.

He doesn't even want to look at it—surely there's some rules against students giving out random people's number to their teachers? Surely?

Jingyi shrugs but that grin on his face doesn't budge. Wei Ying has half a mind to scrunch the paper and fling it as his head.

“Just thought you might like it,” Jingyi says.

Wei Ying rubs the temples of his forehead. “Is this because we went for coffee together the other day?”

Suddenly, the kid is alive. He jumps up in his seat and smacks the table with his palm.

You did?”

Oh god. Wei Ying looks towards the clock again. Nope. Time is too slow. He doesn't have the patience for this today.

“I—You know what, you can go home,” he says. He stands up and shoves everything back into his bag.

“Eh?”

Wei Ying waves his arms. “Detention cancelled. Just make sure you get your essay done by tomorrow morning.”

He's out of the classroom before Jingyi can say anything else. He doesn't know why he's on edge—or he does but he won't admit it.

Jin Ling's appearance has made him remember things he'd rather not remember. Or think about things he does remember and can never forget, but chooses to avoid because he's nothing but a coward. That's it. That's it, isn't it? It's not just the fact that Jin Ling has gotten older and nothing has changed. Nothing has improved.

The frigid air is actually welcoming as soon as he steps out of the school. He takes a deep breath.

In the corner of his eyes, he sees Sizhui waiting by the school fence. His father is right next to him.

Wei Ying ignores their eyes on him. Are they waiting for Jingyi?

It doesn't matter. He heads for the opposite direction and leaves. He ignores the bus stop he usually waits in. He ignores his rumbling stomach and the fact he hasn't even eaten lunch yet, let alone dinner. He ignores his earlier wish of wanting to go home.

The wind is cold as he makes his way towards the cemetery. He shoves his hands into his pockets, his thoughts too jumbled to really make sense of why he is going here in the first place. He's already seen Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng today; why is he making everything worse? Does he want to suffer more?

Suffer. Wei Ying has to scoff at that. So dramatic. He makes no sense when he's like this.

His legs are moving automatically. He used to go here all the time, back when he thought he had the right to visit them. As the years passed, he has avoided it instead. It's been too long since he last set foot in this place.

Wei Ying's heart drops when he sees he is not the only one here. His fists tremble. Out of everyone, it's him. Out of all the times, he chooses now.

Jin Zixuan looks up, his eyes widening when he finally sees him. He's dressed entirely in black, fitting the atmosphere of the place. Wei Ying nearly turns around and leaves. His pride just won't let him.

“You,” Jin Zixuan says. There's no hostility in his voice. He sounds tired.

Somehow, Wei Ying finds his voice. “Sorry, I'll leave—”

“No, you can stay if you want.” Jin Zixuan takes a step forward. “A-Li said she wanted to visit them, so I'm going for her.”

Just one mention of her and Wei Ying's defences nearly crumble. He looks away and blinks as much as he can. The cold breeze is making his eyes sting. That's all.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “How long will you be staying in Gusu?”

“Just two days. I need to do some work back home then I'll fly back to America this weekend.”

Two days. That's not nearly enough time to catch up with Jin Ling, especially with him having changed schools.

But that's not Jin Zixuan's fault. It's not his fault he has to travel back and forth across the world, caring for a wife confined to her bed. Wei Ying heard the hospital they transferred Yanli to is one of the most advanced hospitals there is—so why hasn't there been any improvements?

“How... is she?” he asks, still unable to look at the older man.

“She's making progress.”

Progress. He says it like Wei Ying is supposed to know what that means. He wants to know every detail but he hasn't got the guts to beg for it. It's his fault this has happened in the first place.

“Did you see A-Ling today?”

Wei Ying is thankful for the change in subject. He finally forces himself to look at Jin Zixuan, nodding.

“Yes, he wasn't happy to see me. Didn't you know I worked at that school?”

“I did.”

Wei Ying frowns. “Then... why?”

It's Jin Zixuan's turn to glance away. He kneels down to tidy the flowers by the grave, caressing them so slow that Wei Ying wonders if he has heard his question.

Then, he rises, patting down his trousers.

“He was bullied in his last one. I figured you would take care of him if anything happened in this new school.”

Jin Zixuan is not like the stuck up child he used to be back in high school. When he fell in love with Yanli, his whole attitude changed—and for the better. Maybe it's just Wei Ying's bitterness that convinces him there is some blame hidden under his words.

Take care of Jin Ling, because Jin Zixuan can't do it himself. He can't be there for his own son; he's too busy caring for a wife they don't know will ever recover. He's too busy juggling the remnants of his family along with his business to be there for a young teenager who just wants his mother. He's too busy trying to piece together a life Wei Ying has ripped apart.

No, Jin Zixuan doesn't need to say it. Wei Ying already knows.

He can only nod. He doesn't trust himself to say anything.

“I take it Jiang Cheng saw you today as well.”

Jiang Cheng's face flickers back in his mind. Twice, he had run into him during this past week. Too much.

“You didn't tell him what school Jin Ling was going to beforehand?”

Jin Zixuan's eyebrows twitch. “Did I need to? I'm A-Ling's father. I decide what school he goes to.”

There it is. There's the Jin Zixuan that Wei Ying clearly remembers; the stuck up and stubborn air, except it's not a teenager showing off about his riches but a father trying to cling onto a son he barely sees.

Wei Ying grits his teeth. “I should go.”

Jin Zixuan quickly shakes his head. “No, stay. I'll go now. I've paid my respects but you haven't yet.”

He is walking away before Wei Ying can stop him. Before he leaves, he lays a hand on his shoulder as he passes. Wei Ying can still feel the weight even when he is gone.

It's too empty in this cemetery. Wei Ying turns to the two graves he came to see, not knowing what he can say to them now that he is left alone. Why did he come here? What does he hope to achieve?

He kneels in front of them, admiring the lotus flowers Jin Zixuan has left. Wei Ying has nothing to offer. He can't even find the words to say.

Silent, he looks over their names. Jiang Fengmian. Yu Ziyuan.

He wants to say he is sorry, but he can't make the words leave his mouth. Even now, he selfishly wonders if this was his fault as well. How could he have known? He never intended this to happen.

In the end, Wei Ying doesn't say anything. He stares and stares at the lotus flowers and hates himself even more for being unable to think of something. Anything.

He leaves.

It's funny. He used to come here because it comforted him to be near his family. Maybe Jiang Cheng is right. Jiang Fengmian is no longer his father, and Yu Ziyuan never wanted him as a son to begin with. He shouldn't have come here in the first place.

 

- x -

 

As soon as Wei Ying returns home, he grabs a bottle of wine from his cupboards. He's about to pour himself a whole glass when he decides this isn't enough. Instead, he roots through the dark cupboard and pulls out some vodka. He doesn't bother with the glass and drinks straight out the bottle instead, grimacing at the taste that explodes in his mouth.

He hasn't missed the taste of vodka at all, but at least it takes his mind off things.

Wei Ying lets himself fall back on his couch, closing his eyes. He shoves his hands into his coat pockets, trying to find his keys before he forgets about them as usual.

He finds his phone first. After quickly checking his messages, he sees that only Wen Qing has texted him today.

Wei Ying quickly types up a reply.

 

Her reply is scarily instant. He spares a smile as he reads through it.

He puts aside his phone and roots through his other pocket.

Huh? Paper?

Pulling it out, Wei Ying groans as soon as he remembers the number Jingyi has kindly given him. It's all crumpled from being in Wei Ying's pocket all afternoon but he can see the number clear as day.

Part of him is tempted. Very tempted. If this had been five years ago, he would have jumped at any chance to distract himself with someone. Anything to take his mind off things, anything to make him feel something other than this guilt.

His eyes read through the number. Mr. Lan seems like a nice enough man. Not only is he handsome but he also looks like he's got an impressive bank account. Of course, Wei Ying doesn't give a shit about anyone's wealth—he's not like that. If they're rich, they're rich. If they're handsome, they're handsome. If they're there, they're there. He's long decided not to get attached to people. Details don't really matter.

That was then, and this is now. Wei Ying is tired. He's played around with too many men and women to know that nothing will ever change. No matter how many dates he goes on, no matter how many people he sleeps with, it doesn't change the fact it means nothing. He's always felt he doesn't deserve anyone's love or affection, so why should it matter to him? Love exists for people like Jiejie; people who are good and deserve better.

Wei Ying swings back the bottle again, shutting up his sentimental thoughts with the overwhelming taste of vodka. He takes one last look at Mr. Lan's number before he crumples it up into his fist and throws it away to the corner of his room.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wangji is not tormented with nightmares like his brother is. If he dreamt, then it would be memories that faded as soon as he woke. Too many times, he dreamt of a face that was unclear, a figure he tried to reach out for but slipped away between his fingers. Too many times, he called out for Wei Ying and he never responded. Never even looked in his direction.

Now that Wei Ying is back, the face is clear—but that is all. He still does not look at Wangji. He does not smile; he does not acknowledge him or listen when Wangji calls for his name. His face is blank and he is as distant as ever. Wangji will never reach him.

It takes him back to a day he wishes he can forget. The bloodbath of the Nightless City used to torture him every night after Wei Ying died. He blamed himself that he could not reach the Yiling Patriarch in time, or even stop his beloved sister from dying. As endless years passed, the details blurred but the feeling did not. The ache in his heart is still there, as strong as it was the day he stood before Wei Ying with his fingers trembling on his guqin. Wei Ying had laughed with unmistakable manic in his crimson eyes. He looked at Wangji as if he hated him. Perhaps he did hate him. Wangji gave him plenty of reason to.

I knew since the start that we’d have to fight a real fight like this one sooner or later. You’ve always found me disagreeable no matter what.

When Wangji tried to save him, Wei Ying only thought he came to harm. Even as Wangji pushed and shoved everyone out of the way to stop him from losing control, it was too late. Wangji did not try hard enough. He saw the pain in Wei Ying's eyes and struggled to decide what to do. Too late.

It is the same, even now. In his dreams, he sees Wei Ying in the distance, staring at something Wangji cannot see. Again, he will not even acknowledge Wangji is there. No matter how much Wangji tries to reach him, he is too far.

He wants to reach him. He wants to be there for him this time, but Wangji does not even know where to begin. He does not know what hurts Wei Ying, let alone how he can help him. He is useless, as always, and he fears he will lose him for the second time.

Wangji is not tormented with nightmares like his brother is, but he is tormented by his thoughts. They are emotions he will never say out loud, words he will keep inside until his heart rams against its cage and continues to ache as it has been for the past two thousand years. When Wangji sleeps, he does not get nightmares. He gets reality; that he was useless, that he continues to be useless. The nights are long and he wakes with a sickening dread that he will never change and he will fail Wei Ying all over again.

Morning comes. The sun's drunken rays spill through his curtains and Wangji's body is automatic in getting dressed. He moves without thinking, refusing to acknowledge the dreams that circled his mind all evening. He hears Sizhui's alarm blaring in the room next to his, followed by the sound of the teenager getting up.

Today is a new day. As with every morning, Wangji pushes the past to the back of his mind and focuses on the day ahead. He wonders if he will see Wei Ying, if they will talk like old times. Along with the yearning to see him, Wangji, as usual, hopes for a miracle that today will bring about a change. Maybe today will be the day he takes a step closer to Wei Ying.

Today is a new day, and Lan Wangji remains a foolish man in love.

 

- x -

 

The week is almost over and there are no improvements whatsoever with Jin Ling. If anything, things have gotten worse. Jin Ling makes it very obvious he'd rather jump off a cliff than treat Wei Ying with any semblance of respect. The most he'll voluntary interact with him is when he grunts for attendance. Other times, he will either tell the teacher to piss off or he'll just stomp away like the mature brat he clearly is.

That's not even what Wei Ying is concerned about. Jin Ling can hiss at him all he wants. Wei Ying doesn't give a shit. It's the other students he's concerned about. The more Jin Ling shows his attitude, the worse the rumours get. Wei Ying is starting to get a headache with all this talk that Jin Ling is a stuck up rich kid with no manners, that he was kicked out his old school because he was no good and only caused trouble—and that didn't even compare to the other rumours about his parents not wanting anything to do with him.

High school continues to be the bane of Wei Ying's existence, but he refuses to stand here and do nothing about Jin Ling's experience with it.

After lunch, he finds Lan Sizhui as he's about to leave.

“Sizhui, a word before you go?” Wei Ying calls.

The teenager looks up. He zips his bag close and walks over to Wei Ying's desk with that polite smile always plastered on his face. Why can't every kid be like Sizhui? Being a teacher will be ten times easier.

“Yes, Teacher Wei?”

Wei Ying spares a glance around the class. Thankfully, Jin Ling has already stomped off for his next class.

“Have you been speaking with Jin Ling?”

The look on Sizhui's face already gives him an answer. Sizhui scratches the back of his neck, his smile now looking more strained.

“Ah... Jingyi and I've been trying. I don't think he wants to talk though.”

Wei Ying sighs. No surprise there at all but it's still so frustrating. If his Jiejie was still around then she would—

No, shut up. Wei Ying shoves aside that stupid thought before he starts diving into the reasons as to why she's not around.

“I wonder if it's too much to ask that you continue to try and make him comfortable here?” Wei Ying asks. “I know he can be a pain but I think it'll be nice if he had friends like you and Jingyi.”

Without missing a beat, Sizhui nods. “Of course not, Teacher Wei. I'll keep on trying.”

Wei Ying smiles and resists the urge to ruffle Sizhui's hair. Teachers shouldn't really have favourites but Wei Ying will secretly admit Sizhui is his favourite student, even if he only started school about a month ago.

“Thank you, Sizhui. I appreciate it.”

He lets Sizhui leave, praying to whatever god is up there that Jin Ling will stop being so difficult. It's obvious Wei Ying himself can't do anything, so maybe Sizhui and the power of miracles might actually get something to work.

For the rest of Friday afternoon, he worries a little bit less. At the very least, he's managed to survive a whole week of being Jin Ling's teacher. Hopefully next week will be better.

Just as school finishes and students flood out the building, Wei Ying hears shouts echoing from another room. At first, he thinks it's just a few students getting a bit too excited about the upcoming weekend, but then he hears a crash. He's rushing out of his seat in seconds.

It doesn't take him long to realise this isn't excitement for the finished week. Jin Ling is currently in a headlock with some student from another class, shouting a string of swear words that Wei Ying knows he learnt from Jiang Cheng. What is even more surprising is that Sizhui appears out of nowhere and shoves that student off, followed by Jingyi who punches them in the face with an over-enthusiastic yell.

They continue fighting, not at all noticing that Wei Ying is by the doorway.

“The little mistress can't even fight properly!” One of the students jeer. “What are you going to do? Cry to your mom?”

The students laugh. Jin Ling's fists clench. The next thing Wei Ying knows, Jin Ling is grabbing a chair and literally chucking it at that person's face.

Impressive, yes, but Wei Ying can't exactly let this go on.

“Hey, hey, hey!” He manages to haul the student out of the way in time. “What the hell's going on here?”

He lets go of the student and yanks Jin Ling by the collar, stopping him before he can throw another chair. Jin Ling screams and wriggles, almost like an angry cat. Doesn't help he hisses at Wei Ying too.

“Let go of me!”

Wei Ying shakes him. “Not if you're going to keep on causing trouble!”

Luckily, with him there, the rest of the students now stop, guilt on their faces. There isn't a lot of them to begin with; Jin Ling, Sizhui, Jingyi, and three other students whose names Wei Ying can't be bothered to remember.

Still, Wei Ying can't hide his surprise. “Sizhui, I expect this sort of behaviour from Jingyi, but not you.”

“Hey!” Jingyi pouts, folding his arms with a small huff.

“Quiet, you,” Wei Ying says, then turns to the other teens. “Don't think you lot are off the hook too. What's the point in picking on the new kid?”

“He started it—!”

Jin Ling struggles against Wei Ying again. “I didn't!”

“I don't care who started it! You're all giving me a headache! Detention after school for all of you!”

“What?” Jin Ling is trying his best to wriggle out of Wei Ying's hold. It's almost amusing. “It's after school now!”

“Yeah, which means you get detention now!”

“You can't do that!”

Wei Ying flicks him on the head. “Yeah, I can—and I'm doing it. All of you go to my class!”

“I'm not going! You can't make me!”

Sighing, Wei Ying grips the back of Jin Ling's collar tighter and literally drags him a step forward. “Fine, I'll drag you there myself then.”

It's safe to say Jin Ling is not happy with this, and neither is Wei Ying because, god, Jin Ling can scream down his ear. His eardrums may as well be bleeding by the time he manages to throw Jin Ling inside his class. By some miracle, Jin Ling stays in his seat, looking very much like a toddler having a tantrum with his arms folded and an exaggerated scowl fixed on his face.

Little brat, Wei Ying thinks. Even Jin Zixuan wasn't like this back then, most likely because Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng punched him before he could carry on acting like the arrogant ass he used to be. And it was justified because Jin Zixuan had the audacity to make their Jiejie cry. Completely justified.

Detention is slow. Wei Ying busies himself by using the school phone to call the students' parents, more to warn them their kids haven't been kidnapped on the way home rather than to get them into trouble. However, it does amuse him to hear Jingyi's grandfather ranting about him for a few minutes before grumbling to himself and hanging up. Jingyi gets detention almost every day; you'd think his grandfather would expect this by now.

He also calls Jin Zixuan, even though he remembers he will be back in Lanling by now, most likely preparing for his flight to America tomorrow.

Jin Zixuan sighs when Wei Ying tells him.

“It hasn't even been a week,” he says. “Thanks for telling me. I'll get Jiang Cheng to pick him up.”

Wei Ying is glad Jin Zixuan can't see him wincing over the phone.

Great. That means having to see Jiang Cheng later on.

He leaves Sizhui's dad for last. They haven't spoken since they had that coffee together although Wei Ying will sometimes see him picking up Sizhui after school. Part of him is tempted to say hi—but why should he? There's no way he's using that number Jingyi gave him so it's pointless getting friendly with Mr. Lan.

It takes a while for Mr. Lan to pick up the phone. Wei Ying wonders if he is having trouble trying to answer it like last time.

“Hello, Mr. Lan? It's Sizhui's teacher.” he says after it's finally answered.

For a second, there is silence. Wei Ying hopes it's not the wrong number.

“Yes?” Oh. It is him.

“I'm just calling to tell you your son has detention with me at the moment. He was caught fighting other students.”

“Hmm. I see.”

Is that it? Is that it? Wei Ying waits for him to say anything else but he doesn't.

“Yes...” Wei Ying awkwardly clears his throat. “If you're picking him up, please do it in an hour.”

“I will be there then.”

Wei Ying spends the rest of the hour marking homework he should have finished last night. At some point, he hears snoring coming from Jingyi's direction and sees Sizhui elbowing him in the corner of his eyes. Jingyi wakes up with a start, nearly falling off his chair.

“Idiot,” Jin Ling mumbles.

Jingyi crumples a piece of paper and lobs it at the back of Jin Ling's head. “Shut up!”

Wei Ying doesn't bother to tell them off. He is calm, focusing only on this pile of homework he needs to mark. The hour is almost over and then he can finally have some peace—

A ball of paper hits him right in the eye.

“All of you, shut up before I make you stay another hour!”

The teenagers freeze, sitting up straight in their seats. There is a chorus of Sorry, Teacher Wei before silence falls in the room once again.

Wei Ying lets out a deep breath and returns to his marking. Thankfully, the rest of the hour goes by much quicker and there's no more paper, or chairs, being thrown around.

One by one, the students are picked up by their parents. Wei Ying has to make sure to keep a straight face on when Jingyi's grandfather literally drags his grandson out of the classroom by his ear, lecturing him on how to be a proper gentleman. Jingyi's screams of horror are still heard even after he has left the room. Poor boy.

The last ones left are Jin Ling and Sizhui. Wei Ying can't sit still in his seat, nor can he focus on his marking now that he knows Jiang Cheng will be here any minute. He wishes he'll hurry up and get this over with.

His wish is granted soon enough. Jiang Cheng enters the class, still wearing his police uniform. As expected, Jin Ling scurries to his side and clings to his arm. Both of them look at Wei Ying as if he has just imprisoned Jin Ling in a tower for ten years.

“I should have known,” Jiang Cheng says.

Wei Ying won't let this get a reaction out of him. He flicks through the school books on his desk and keeps his voice even.

“Detention is detention. He was fighting other students.”

“They fought me first!” Jin Ling cries.

“As if you're in any position to punish him.”

Wei Ying stops flickering through the books. He doesn't look up but he knows exactly what Jiang Cheng means. His hand grips the page tighter and he slowly turns it. The words mean nothing to him. He knows Jiang Cheng is watching his every move, waiting for him to react.

“That's got nothing to do with this, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says. It takes everything to keep his voice steady. “This is school.”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “You shouldn't even be his teacher in the first place.”

Wei Ying is weak. His pride, however, is even weaker. He looks up, matching Jiang Cheng's glare with his own.

“I can't help that, can I? Jin Zixuan was the one who moved him here,” he says. “You can complain as much as you want but I'm just doing my job.”

The corner of Jiang Cheng's lips tug upwards into a mocking smile. It's the sort of thing that would have riled Wei Ying up years ago.

“Just doing your job? Aren't you suddenly being all responsible?”

Wei Ying looks away. Jiang Cheng is clearly looking for a fight, but he refuses to give him that satisfaction. Not here. Not now. Not anymore.

“There's nothing left to say. You can take Jin Ling now.”

No one leaves. Wei Ying keeps his eyes on the scrawl on this student's book, reading words that don't sink into him. From the corner of his eyes, he sees that Jiang Cheng doesn't move a single muscle. Of course he won't. He will never let Wei Ying have the last word. Both of them always had a bad habit of clinging onto their pride.

Wei Ying turns over another page. He's glad Jiang Cheng can't see his hands are shaking from where he's standing.

When Jiang Cheng speaks, it's quiet. Still loud enough for Wei Ying to hear.

“You fucking coward.”

Wei Ying's eyebrows twitch. He stares at the page before him and realises too late he has gripped the book too tightly. The page is all crumpled now.

He swallows the lump in his throat and looks up. Sizhui is in the corner of the classroom glancing between him and Jiang Cheng. Again, Wei Ying's pride flares and he wishes there isn't anyone to see this between him and the man he once called his brother.

“Jiang Cheng, what do you want me to say?” Wei Ying asks, pushing aside the school books in front of him. He stands up, holding onto the desk. “I just did what any teacher would do and gave him detention! This isn't about the past!”

“Not about the past? Of course you would easily discard something like that! Always running away and doing as you please!”

Jin Ling tugs on Jiang Cheng's arm. “Uncle, let's go—”

“Shut up, Jin Ling! Get out the classroom!”

There's a flash of hurt on Jin Ling's face before he runs out, slamming the door behind him.

Wei Ying takes one look at Sizhui before he leaves the class as well, calling after Jin Ling.

Now that they're alone, Wei Ying walks around the table, closing some distance between him and Jiang Cheng. They're not too close that they're face to face, but it's enough for the teacher to feel like he's suffocating.

He won't let Jiang Cheng see that though. He stares at him straight in the eyes.

“This isn't the place to be arguing about this,” he says. “I thought we established a long time ago that you don't want to hear anything I say.”

“I don't want you anywhere near Jin Ling.”

Of course. Wei Ying nearly laughs. Jiang Cheng doesn't beat around the bush at all. He shakes his head to himself and wishes he can shake some sense into Jiang Cheng instead.

“I can't help that! Go talk to Jin Zixuan if you want to move him again!”

Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything. He makes a displeased noise and folds his arms, his lip curling. He might be the one that can look after Jin Ling the most but that won't change the fact Jin Zixuan is still his father. They both know that.

How long has it been since he and Jiang Cheng fell out? Fifteen years? More? Their relationship was already strained before Jiejie's wedding, before that happened. Falling out sounds so flimsy in comparison to what they're like now. Jiang Cheng's hatred is evident and strong in the way he looks at Wei Ying. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to think, if possible, Jiang Cheng would trade Wei Ying's life to get his own parents back. Maybe. Maybe not. The possibility is there, and it hurts. They haven't just fallen out. In another life, Jiang Cheng wouldn't hesitate to kill him.

That is to say, if Wei Ying did have another life, would he have fucked that up too?

He is the first to break eye contact. He sighs. He is suddenly very tired.

“But you should think about what's good for him,” he says, voice low. “Is it fair he's moving around from different schools and not given the chance to even make friends?”

Jiang Cheng takes a step forward. For a short second, Wei Ying thought he would hit him.

“You don't have any right to be talking about what's good for him!”

He should have expected that response, really. How silly of him to still be feeling hurt after all these years.

Wei Ying clenches his fists. “He's my nephew too.”

Jiang Cheng moves faster than he can blink. In one second, he closes the distance between them, grabbing Wei Ying by his collar. His face is contorted with rage and his hands are shaking. Wei Ying shivers. He wants to think it's because of the winter air. He doesn't care if Jiang Cheng hits him. He's hit him before, and Wei Ying has hit him back. They've had ugly fights that ended with both of them bruised and bloody, shouting curses at each other. This doesn't matter. It shouldn't matter.

Wei Ying places a hand on Jiang Cheng's chest, but doesn't have the heart to push him away.

“You don't get to say that,” Jiang Cheng hisses. “You have nothing to do with this family.”

In the end, Jiang Cheng doesn't need to hit him. Wei Ying flinches as if he's been struck. He shoves Jiang Cheng off.

“Talking to you is pointless. Just go.

Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything more. He sneers one last time and leaves the room, allowing Wei Ying to finally breathe.

This time, he has the last word in their argument, and yet there is no victory with this. Not when his eyes are stinging from what Jiang Cheng said and he remembers he's not as empty as he thought he was.

Wei Ying prefers feeling nothing. He wishes he feels nothing.

He grits his teeth and shakes his head. He spends the next few minutes glaring down at a desk, eyes tracing the lines of the wood. He counts each line and each ripple, trying in vain to ignore these emotions he's so used to ignoring. He hates seeing Jiang Cheng. He hates arguing with Jiang Cheng. Most of all, he wishes he can hate Jiang Cheng, but the only person he can hate is himself.

The door creaks.

Wei Ying's head snaps up and he sees the figure of a tall man wearing white. Mr. Lan opens the door wider but seems to hesitate in entering the room. He has definitely heard the conversation with Jiang Cheng then.

Today, his hair is tied into a low bun, a few strands escaping at the front to frame his face. He wears a blue shirt underneath his long, white coat and everything about him just seems so clean. He walks into the classroom and it annoys Wei Ying that someone can look so pristine while he's here feeling like shit.

But he shouldn't lash out on Mr. Lan. He inhales a deep breath and hopes his face doesn't betray anything.

“Oh, Mr. Lan.” Wei Ying forces a smile on his lips. “Sorry, have you come to pick up Sizhui?”

Mr. Lan nods.

“Okay. Well...” Wei Ying struggles to find something to say. His head is still stuck on Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, and he hates the possibility that a stranger like Mr. Lan could have heard everything.

He takes a step back and distracts himself by gathering the books on his desk. For some reason, he is certain he can feel Mr. Lan's gaze fixed on him.

“Sizhui is outside, I think. You can take him now—”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying freezes. His name sounds strange coming from Mr. Lan. He slowly glances over his shoulder, frowning. He doesn't think he's ever introduced himself to him. He did it to his brother when Mr. Lan was driving them back, but not to him directly.

“Are we that familiar with each other?” Wei Ying asks.

Mr. Lan's eyes widen slightly before he quickly looks away.

“I'm sorry, Mr. Lan. You shouldn't have heard that.” He goes back to stacking the books one by one. “I think you know by now what happened so I'll spare you some time by not repeating myself. But please just tell Sizhui not to do it again. I don't even know why he got involved in the first place. He's the last person I would expect to be involved in a fight...”

He's rambling. He quickly shuts up and hopes Mr. Lan will get the message.

There's no sound of the door closing, or footsteps, or anything to tell him that Mr. Lan is leaving. Wei Ying grinds his teeth together.

“Thanks for your time, Mr. Lan,” he says, raising his voice slightly. “That's all for today.”

Still, there's nothing. Wei Ying turns around. Mr. Lan has not moved at all and he continues to stare at Wei Ying with an expression he can't even begin to read.

“Mr. Lan?” Wei Ying calls again. “There's nothing else for you here.”

Mr. Lan's eyes narrow. “No.”

No?”

“You are upset.”

What?

Wei Ying laughs but there's an uncomfortable weight he can't shake off his chest. “I'm not.”

Mr. Lan doesn't say anything. Wei Ying sees him clenching his fists.

Why the hell won't he move? What does he want?

“And besides,” Wei Ying continues, “forgive my rudeness, but it shouldn't matter to you. It's none of your business.”

There is nothing but silence. Even outside this classroom, Wei Ying can no longer hear sounds of distant staff members who stayed after school as well. It is as if he and Mr. Lan are the only ones left.

“What is it?” Wei Ying insists, impatience now seeping through his voice.

“Wei... Wei Ying.

It's incredible how something so simple as someone calling his name can make Wei Ying feel so conflicted. He doesn't like it. He barely knows this guy at all and yet he utters his name with an emotion too strong for Wei Ying to understand. He takes another step backwards and clenches his fist, digging fingernails into his palm.

“We've never properly introduced ourselves to each other, you know? Aren't you being a bit too forward calling my name like that? I don't even know what to call you.”

Mr. Lan is quick to respond this time. “Lan Zhan.”

“Lan Zhan?”

“Yes.”

Lan Zhan. Wei Ying runs it along his tongue. Lan Zhan.

“Hmm.” He nods and shoves away the urge to repeat his name in his head. “Well, you can leave now, Lan Zhan. I'm sorry if I took time away from your schedule but there's no need for you to stay.”

And still, he doesn't move. Wei Ying's patience is running thin.

“Where will you go now?” Mr. Lan—Lan Zhan—asks.

Wei Ying's frown deepens. “Huh? Home, I suppose? Why are you asking?”

“Let me take you home.”

He quickly shakes his head. “No, thank you. I've still... got some work to do here.”

The sound of the clock ticking away at the wall is loud, too loud. Wei Ying counts the seconds and wonders, if ever, Lan Zhan will leave. Does he want to discuss something? Is there something wrong? Patience has never been one of Wei Ying's traits. He is good at handling most people and hiding everything with a smile, but he has never took that for patience. A necessity, maybe. Fooling other people is easier than fooling yourself.

He has no energy to fool Lan Zhan now. Wei Ying sighs, rubbing his aching head.

“Come on, Lan Zhan, go. Just because we had coffee together the other day doesn't mean you need to make sure I'm okay now.”

Lan Zhan frowns.

“Is that it? You think because we hung out once that you need to concern yourself with me?” Wei Ying can't help but laugh again. It feels empty. He doesn't know what is funny. “Don't worry, you don't. Please go about your own life.”

Mr. Lan shakes his head. “That is not it.”

“Then what is it? Why are you still here?”

He doesn't mean to raise his voice. His words reverberate through the empty classroom and he knows Lan Zhan won't mistake the anger behind it. Wei Ying winces and spins around, sitting himself back down in front of his desk. He starts scribbling on a student's book, checking each correct sum. As he does this, Lan Zhan's golden eyes are fixed on him, following every stroke his pen draws. He can probably see his hand is gripping his pen too tightly.

“Go, Mr. Lan,” Wei Ying says again, quieter. Tired. “Please, go.”

Just like with Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying gets the final word. Lan Zhan stiffly nods and finally, finally leaves. He closes the door. Wei Ying is alone again.

He doesn't allow himself to sigh in relief. Wei Ying files through each book, marking every one until his hand hurts and the numbness in his chest returns. When he is finished, he stares at the opposite wall, simply listening to his uneven breaths. He doesn't know how much time has passed, nor does he care. Outside, the soft pattering of rain begins again, joining the silence.

He still doesn't move, not even when the rain gets heavier. His stomach rumbles and his head is aching, but at least it helps get his mind off things.

Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan. There's some familiarity there, almost as if Wei Ying met someone with the same name before—but he knows he hasn't.

He was out of line. He shouldn't have yelled at him. Normally, Wei Ying has more control over this, but there was just something about the way Lan Zhan looked at him. He didn't know what it was back then and he still doesn't now. Sympathy? Pity? Wei Ying doesn't want any of that, especially from a stranger.

The sound of his phone vibrating is the only thing that pulls him away from his thoughts. Sighing, he takes it out of his pocket. Wen Qing, as usual.

Wei Ying groans. He forgot he invited his best friend over for a movie night. He already cancelled on her last time; if he does it again then she might actually kill him.

At least it'll stop him from sulking with a bottle of vodka tonight.

 

- x -

 

“Hey, you're not even paying attention to the movie at all.”

Wei Ying blinks. He glances back at the TV, just in time to see the main character get their arm mauled apart by a zombie. It was his idea to watch a zombie film, and usually he'd be screaming his lungs off by now while Wen Qing laughed at how pathetic he was. Tonight, he has barely even blinked, let alone looked at the screen.

“Sorry,” Wei Ying sighs. “I got stuff on my mind.”

Wen Qing shoves a handful of popcorn into her mouth and rolls over on the couch to look at him. She raises an eyebrow, waiting for Wei Ying to tell her what the hell is the matter.

Wei Ying isn't in the mood to talk about it. He steals some popcorn from her bowl and dodges as she tries to smack his hand away. As always, Wen Qing doesn't pester him when he doesn't elaborate on his problems. They've known each other long enough to know that will get them nowhere.

“And I'm here to get stuff off your mind,” she says, pushing herself off the couch. Wei Ying grabs her bowl of popcorn after she's left, eating the rest.

The movie is forgotten and the sound of zombies eating people alive is just background music. Wen Qing walks over to his shelves, muttering something about finding a better movie—not that Wei Ying will pay attention to that as well. At this rate, all he wants to do is take a nap.

He takes Wen Qing's place on the couch and rolls himself into the thick blanket. There's popcorn crumbs everywhere; clearly his best friend is making herself at home as usual. Grumbling, he shakes the blanket about to get rid of the crumbs, but it's practically useless because he can still feel them when he goes back to sushi-rolling himself into the couch.

Meanwhile, Wen Qing is searching around for something better to do by the looks of it. Wei Ying ignores her, closing his eyes.

“What is this?

He cracks open one eye to see Wen Qing waving a piece of paper about.

Wei Ying frowns, sitting up and squinting at it. What's so important about a piece of paper? It looks all crumpled from here as well...

Oh, wait.

He groans, slumping back and wrapping the blanket tighter around himself.

“Ugh, I forgot all about that.”

Oh? Whose number is it?”

“Just some guy I met recently. It's nothing.”

Wen Qing smooths the paper in her hands, holding it out in front of her. “You seeing people again?”

Wei Ying scoffs. “No, I'm not. Hence why it's all crumpled up.”

“How'd you get his number anyway?”

Jingyi's demented grin flashes in his head. Wei Ying shivers.

“Some kid from school gave it to me.”

“Okay, now I'm even more confused. Is this a student's parent?

Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “I told you it doesn't matter. We had coffee together and he gave me a lift home, that's it.”

“Already sounds better than most people you've seen in the past.”

Haha, hilarious.”

Rolling her eyes, Wen Qing sits crossed legged on the floor, still staring at the piece of paper. She finally pauses the movie when another character lets out a blood curdling screen that makes Wei Ying's headache worse.

“Is he nice?”

Wei Ying frowns and rubs his eyes, letting out another yawn. “Hm? He's okay, I guess. Very posh and smart looking.”

“Definitely better already. I say you call him.”

That wakes him up. He shoots a glare at his best friend. “No.”

She sighs. “What is it with you going for dicks but rejecting actually nice people?”

“Hey, Wen Ning is a friend and you know it wouldn't have worked out between us.”

Wen Qing never let him live down the fact he rejected her brother. Well, does it count as rejecting when they both mutually decided things aren't going to work out between them? How do you even get with someone if they're still calling you Sir? Wen Ning is one of the few friends who still stuck with him even after everything that happened. Wei Ying didn't want to ruin that by playing around with him as he did with all his other flings.

“Haha, I know,” Wen Qing smirks. “Besides, you're too much of a mess for my brother.”

She has a good point, but she doesn't have to say it.

Wen Qing waves the piece of paper again. “But I'm saying, what's wrong with this guy?”

“Nothing. I just can't be bothered with any of that right now.”

Maybe if he met Lan Zhan several years ago, he wouldn't be wasting any time at all to jump on him. But now? Now, Wei Ying is tired and it takes too much effort to bother getting close to anyone.

“The other day, you made me watch The Notebook with you and you cried throughout the whole thing.”

“Because The Notebook is sad. What's your point?”

Wen Qing shakes her head, sitting up. “No, people only cry over The Notebook if they're either saps, or if they want a relationship too. In fact, most people who cry over romantic movies are only crying because it's what they secretly yearn for. You were crying buckets for the whole two hours.”

The expression on her face makes it look like she's explaining a detailed procedure on how to transplant someone's brain, not the reasons why someone will cry over The Notebook.

“It's sad!” Wei Ying says again. “They died in the end!”

“And you've been drinking more! Don't think I haven't noticed!”

“Because life is shit!”

Wen Qing chucks a pillow at his face, putting a little bit too much force into it. Wei Ying groans and hides under his blanket, wishing to Buddha that he cancelled this movie night. Or at least he should have invited Wen Ning instead... Then again, if Wen Qing found out he invited her brother and not her, she would have actually beaten Wei Ying up. Forget the fact she's supposed to be a doctor. Taking care of people's lives apparently does not count if your name is Wei Ying.

She throws a second pillow at him. “It's going to continue being shit if you don't do anything about it!”

Wei Ying ignores her, closing his eyes tight under the blanket.

“Is he tall? Attractive?”

Keep on ignoring her.

A third pillow is lobbed in his direction.

Why does it matter?” Wei Ying snaps, popping his head out of the blanket.

Wen Qing is grabbing another pillow, no doubt ready to throw that one too. Curse his habit of collecting as many cushions and pillows for his living room. And curse Wen Qing's good aim.

“Well, is he?”

Wei Ying groans for the umpteenth time today. He sits up, throwing his hands in the air. Lan Zhan's face flashes in his mind.

“Yeah, he's tall and pretty, okay?” he says. “Kinda looks like he stepped out of Ancient China—but like I said, I'm not going for it.”

All Wen Qing does is nod. She looks at the piece of paper one more time but doesn't say anything. Wei Ying is almost in shock. Has she finally dropped it?

Then, she lunges across the table and snatches his phone, running off into the kitchen. Wei Ying's heart drops. He scrambles out of the couch, tripping over the blanket and listening to Wen Qing's evil laugh sounding through his apartment.

“Oi, what are you doing? Wen Qing! WEN QING!

 

- x -

 

It has been a while since Wangji felt the weight of his guqin on his back. He deftly follows his brother, scanning his eyes around the police station in case any of the officers are hidden among the shadows. There is no one. Most of them are either on patrol around the city or napping in the staff room now that Nie Mingjue has gone home. Wangji frowns at their incompetence. At least it has made things significantly easy to sneak into the station.

This sort of thing is reckless, but it is the only option in getting Xichen's sword back. It was not any trouble getting into the police station. Through the centuries, both brothers honed their cultivation until they were gifted with other abilities normal cultivators did not have. Spiritual energy cracked at their fingertips and they could easily transfer that onto other things, such as the elements around them. It is an ability both rarely used, especially in a world that now denied the existence of cultivation.

Tonight, however, is a different story. Infiltrating the building did not require too much effort. When they were inside, Wangji strummed his fingers across his guqin, sending forth ripples that froze each camera in the area. They were not broken; only disrupted so that they would not catch footage for the time being.

Getting Xichen's sword will not take too long. Wangji continues following his brother.

“I can sense it nearby. There seems to be only one person guarding over it,” Xichen whispers. “Still, let's be careful.”

Wangji nods. One person will be not be difficult to subdue. It is not long until they spot him dozing off in front of Xichen's sword. He is sitting on a chair, head drooping and then jolting upright once he almost topples over in his sleep. It seems they will not even have to restrain him. If he carries on sleeping then Xichen will be able to grab Shuoyue with ease—

Sound blares from Wangji's pocket. Xichen jerks back, staring at him in horror.

Wangji,” he hisses.

Wangji does not need to be told twice. He roots through his clothes and shakes the flashing phone. It is still playing music. Wangji has no idea how to stop it.

“W-What?” The officer behind them jumps, spinning around. “Hey—!”

Darting forward, Wangji jabs at the pressure points in his spine without hesitation. Within seconds, the man is tilting back, letting out a garbled sound before he crashes onto the ground. There is a loud thump when he hits his head against the edge of a desk along the way.

He lays limp at their feet, eyes closed. Not moving.

Wangji leans down to feel for his pulse. He is still alive, fortunately. His goal was to paralyse the man for the time being, not make him unconscious.

Xichen sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose while taking deep breaths. The look he shoots Wangji is not pleased, but he says nothing more as they lift the unconscious man up.

“That was too close, Wangji,” Xichen says once the man is back on his chair. “Please put your phone on silent.”

Wangji's eyebrows furrow. He presses his finger against various symbols and icons on the screen. Placing a silencing spell on his phone will be easier than trying to figure out where are the options to put it on silent, as Xichen worded it.

“How?” he eventually asks.

His brother lets out what can only be a suffering sigh. He takes the phone from Wangji's hands and does it for him.

“You have a few texts,” Xichen then says. “From... Well. Have a look for yourself.”

Puzzled, Wangji leans in to look at the screen.

To say he is confused is a bit of an understatement. Wangji spends ages staring at the screen, trying to decipher what on earth is happening. He thinks this is Wei Ying trying to contact him, but why are his sentences like this? Is this some sort of modern language one can only decipher through technology?

“Is he okay?” Xichen asks after a while.

“I do not know,” Wangji admits. “Is this another language?”

Xichen shakes his head. “I believe he is only pressing random buttons on the keyboard. As to why, I cannot be sure.”

They stare at the messages for another minute before Xichen gives a sigh. “Well, you can't call him now.”

Wangji nods. He takes his phone from Xichen and quickly types a reply, surprised when Wei Ying responds in less than a few seconds.

Xichen is frowning over his shoulder. “Perhaps he is drunk? Tell him you will call him later.”

Wangji slides his phone back into his pocket, pushing aside his burning curiosity to focus on the matter at hand. As much as he wants to talk to Wei Ying, doing so in this place will only cause them more problems.

“My apologies,” Wangji tells his brother. Xichen lets out another sigh, but this time there is amusement in his eyes.

Wasting no more time, Xichen retrieves the sword from the case it is kept in. The lock on it is easily broken, and Xichen lets out a small smile when Shuoyue is back with him. He weighs it in his hands, as if familiarising himself with its presence once again.

“Come,” he says after. “Let us leave.”

Before they leave, they make sure the officer is still unconscious. With luck, perhaps the knock to his head will make him forget the brief glance he had of their faces.

The night air is refreshing when they finally exit the police station. Xichen hides his sword back into his qiankun bag and Wangji does the same with his guqin. Looking at them, no one will ever guess the crime both men just committed.

“They will find out the sword is missing eventually,” Xichen says as soon as they are back in Wangji's car.

Wangji starts the engine. “With no evidence, they cannot do anything to you.”

“Let us hope so.” Xichen stretches, yawning slightly. “Are you going to call him? He requested, did he not?”

Wangji has not forgotten. He remembers how Wei Ying told him to go earlier today, the unmistakable irritation in his grey eyes when Wangji refused at first. As always, Wei Ying baffles him with his unpredictable actions. Two thousand years on and he still cannot keep up with the pace of this man's moods and thoughts.

Regardless, he cannot stay away even if he wants to. Wangji takes out his phone and calls the number that messaged him earlier.

The response is instant.

“LET GO OF ME—OH, hello!!”

Wangji frowns. “You are not Wei Ying.”

It is a woman's voice. It sounds a bit familiar, but Wangji cannot match it with a face at the moment.

“No, he's here,” she says.

There is some rustling and hushed voices on the line. Wangji's frown deepens when he hears faint cries of pain and shouting. What in the world is going on?

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”

Wangji straightens upon hearing Wei Ying's voice.

“I'm sorry about this, my friend is being a pain—ow! Don't hit me! Ow!

The voices are so loud that even Xichen is staring at his phone in bewilderment. He meets Wangji's eyes and shrugs.

“Wei Ying,” Wangji calls.

“Yes, yes, it's me. Ta-da.” He lets out a nervous laugh. “But I didn't mean to call you, honestly. I'll go now—”

Again, more cries of pain. Over Wei Ying's yells, he can also vaguely hear the woman in the background.

“Talk to him, you piece of shit!” she says.

Wangji is not sure whether to be worried or not.

“Okay, okay—ah. Lan Zhan, hello again.” Wei Ying is still laughing but even Wangji can tell it's forced. “I thought you were busy breaking into the police station right now.”

Xichen sighs at the way he words it.

“We are done,” Wangji says.

“Oh. Okay. I take it you're not in jail...?”

“No.”

“That's good—I mean, it's not good you're breaking into places to begin with. I don't encourage that behaviour, Lan Zhan. I wouldn’t have taken you for a criminal at all. Is your brother that bad of an influence?”

Xichen raises an eyebrow at the phone, clearly offended.

“My brother is not like that.”

“Haha, I'm joking, I'm joking.” There is more sound of rustling, and then something covering the line. Faintly, Wangji hears Wei Ying speaking although the noise is muffled. “I'm talking to him already, okay?!”

When he speaks again, it is clearer. His voice fills the entire space of the car.

“Listen, um. I'm sorry about earlier. I was pretty rude and you were only trying to be nice.”

“It is fine.”

“Right.” Wei Ying lets out a sigh. “Thanks. Haha, that was easier than I thought.”

Wangji cannot help but ask. “Who are you with?”

“The girl earlier? She's my friend. She, uh, was the one who called you at first. Sorry about that again.”

“Hmm.”

Silence. Wangji wishes he can see Wei Ying's face rather than just talking to him through the phone.

“I... I should go. I don't want to bother you.”

He shakes his head. “You are not.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying's voice rises a bit. “That's good. Well, you have my number now so... If ever you need to talk to me about anything school related, just send me a text. Or call, if you'd prefer that.

“I see.”

“Goodbye... then.”

Wangji does not want him to go. Like the fool he is, he has nothing to say, as usual.

“Goodbye,” he says, reluctantly. “Have... a nice evening.”

“You too. See you around, Lan Zhan.”

Just like that, he is gone. Wangji returns his phone to his pocket with a deep sigh. He is not ungrateful; he is glad he has managed to talk with Wei Ying again, and this time is it not because Wei Ying is upset. It still does not stop the frustration that he feels so far away from Wei Ying. The exuberant man has always been an enigma to Wangji, but more so now when he cannot even begin to think what sort of things he has been through in this life.

He wants to know everything, but he doesn't know how to get it, or ask. He does not even know if he has the right for such things.

“What is the matter?” Xichen asks, voice soft.

Wangji considers not saying anything. His brother will know either way. He has always been too good at reading him.

“It is more difficult to talk to him, even now,” he says.

Xichen lays a hand on his shoulder. “It is to be expected, Wangji. They do not know us, as we remember them.”

Wangji presses his lips together. “Is it right...”

He stops, struggling to find the correct words. 

“What do you mean?”

“Is it right for me to...”

Again, his voice trails off. He narrows his eyes at the road ahead of them.

“Is it right for you to yearn for Wei Wuxian, when he feels like a new person?”

Of course, Xichen knows. Wangji grits his teeth upon hearing his doubts clearly voiced.

“He is still the same,” he says. “But I do not know anything about him.”

Wei Ying is Wei Ying no matter who he is. Wei Ying has never belonged to Wangji, not now and not ever. All those lifetimes ago, even when Wei Ying was in his reach, Wangji never got close enough to even touch his heart. Wei Ying thought nothing of him, similar to how he thinks nothing of him now. Everything is the same.

Does he even have the right to yearn for a second chance? Wangji did not care if Wei Ying hated him back then; all he wanted was for him to be safe from the dangers he put himself in.

It is difficult to feel that way now, when he does not even know what dangers surround Wei Ying in this lifetime. He wants to protect and love him as he has always done—but how?

Xichen squeezes his shoulder. When Wangji looks up, his brother is smiling at him.

“I think... I think we have lived for far too long, Wangji,” he says. “It is time for you to do what makes you happy. Do not let this chance slip away.”

Happy. He says that word as if Wangji is supposed to know what that means. What is happiness? Does he remember what it feels like, to smile genuinely, to feel a lightness in his heart as opposed to the weight that refuses to leave?

It is too much to think about. Wangji shakes his head to himself and starts the car once again. They say nothing more.

Above them, the moon is as bright as it was the night he met Wei Ying. The white aura, he remembers, was almost as distracting as Wei Ying's smile. From then on, Wangji has been unable to make sense of his emotions, forever distracted by this infuriating man who continues to puzzle him even today.

 

- x -

 

Wen Qing has ran out of pillows to whack him with. Instead, she is now shaking Wei Ying so hard he can hear his own brain giving up on him.

“School related? School related?

He struggles away from her. Everything is spinning. Fuck, he needs a drink.

“What else are we supposed to talk about?!”

Wen Qing throws her hands in the air. “I don't know, anything apart from school related things!”

Tired, Wei Ying collapses back on the couch and faceplants one of his pillows. He is tempted to scream into it but he will do that once Wen Qing leaves. If she ever leaves, that is.

He turns his head to glare at her. “I don't know why you're so eager to get me laid. I'm fine by myself.”

“And besides,” he continues, “I barely know anything about the guy! He just finished breaking into the police station! Who the fuck does that? What if he's crazy?”

“So are you!”

Wei Ying pouts. “Thanks! But seriously, why are you so pushy about this?”

Wen Qing has never cared too much about his relationships. She cared if Wei Ying came back at night, half dead because of alcohol or because of bad sex, bad dates. Too many times, Wei Ying used to stumble to her house, retching out his insides until he passed out and Wen Qing would nurse him to health. Whenever he woke, she'd hit him and he'd promise he won't drink as much next time, or he won't go on those dodgy dates that he knows will end badly, or he'll actually stop playing around with people and focus on his own life for once. Rinse and repeat, again and again.

Sighing, she sits on the end of the couch and looks down at him.

“I don't like seeing you so lonely, Wei Ying.”

“I'm not—”

Wen Qing lightly smacks him on the leg, but there's a seriousness in her eyes.

“Stop lying to yourself. You can't keep doing this forever.”

“And what's better? Distracting myself with a bunch of strangers? Getting wasted every night until you have to come drag my ass back home?”

Her eyes narrow. “No. Not that. You are not doing that again.”

He doesn't say anything. He doesn't want to go back there. The distraction was deceivingly nice, but the crashing weight that followed once you realise this is all you're worth almost drove him insane. He thought he could lose himself in alcohol and attention. He thought he didn't care about what happened to him.

“Just... stop trying to keep everything to yourself so much,” Wen Qing says. “You deserve to be loved too, you asshole.”

Wei Ying wants to laugh at that. Wen Qing has been watching too much of The Notebook.

“Love? Already love?” He sits up, shaking his head at her. “Please, I just went for a coffee with this guy. I don't even know him.”

“Then get to know him!”

What is the point? Wei Ying is too tired to argue with her now but what is the point? Even if he were to talk with Mr. Lan, where would this go? He doesn't want commitment. He can't imagine commitment. Something like that; it wasn't made for people like him. He doesn't deserve that.

“You're making such a big deal out of this, it's not like I'm going to marry the damn guy,” Wei Ying says.

Ugh. Like he said, he's not going to get close to this guy. They can talk as much as they want but this will go nowhere.

“Whatever, look I'm adding him to my contacts now, okay?” Wei Ying shows Wen Qing his phone, quickly typing up all of Lan Zhan's details. To get Wen Qing off his back, he even gives Lan Zhan a special nickname, just for him.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Future Husband? Seriously? You're going to eat your words so much, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying lightly pushes on her shoulder. “It's a joke, okay? Come on, crack a smile. I'm doing what you're telling me to do. Happy now?”

She shoves him off, harder. He flops back down onto the couch with a whine.

“We'll see about that,” she says.

 

- x -

 

It is nearing midnight and Wei Ying cannot sleep despite this day tiring him out. Even after Wen Qing finally left, all he did was lay down in bed staring at the ceiling. Bored, he scrolls through his phone to pass the time until he does fall asleep. Eventually.

There's nothing interesting both on Instagram or Twitter, not even YouTube. Wei Ying yawns, twisting and turning on the bed. No matter how many times he readjusts his position, he still can't settle down.

At least it's the weekend tomorrow. If he can't sleep tonight then he'll just hibernate all weekend like the productive adult he is.

Giving up, Wei Ying grabs his phone again, finding, to no one's surprise, that there still isn't anything interesting online either. He contemplates texting Wen Qing but decides against it. She's traumatised him enough for today.

Wen Ning will be asleep by now as well. He has morning shifts during the weekend...

Damn, life is hard when you only have two friends.

Wei Ying stops at the new contact he almost forgot all about. His finger hovers over his number, wondering if he should delete it now that Wen Qing isn't here.

Or...

He's too tired to think right now. And too bored. Wei Ying has no reasons to justify why he's suddenly typing out a text to Mr. Lan, but fuck it. It's not like they're on bad terms—and they are now calling each other by name, even if Wei Ying would still rather call him Mr. Lan.

Texting him now isn't really going to do anything though, right?

The reply is quick. Maybe Lan Zhan is having trouble sleeping too.

Wei Ying is smiling before he knows it. He presses his cheeks and frowns. Fuck, he must be more tired than he thought. Lan Zhan's texts have the emotional capacity of a spoon and yet he's here smiling like an idiot. 

Alright, maybe Wei Ying is having a bit of fun playing around with this guy—but only because Mr. Lan is so stiff and uptight! Even through his texts! He sits up in his bed and quickly calls the music tutor, grinning when he picks up straight away.

“Lan Zhan, good evening,” he says.

“Good evening.”

There. So monotone! Lan Zhan is lucky there's a soothing huskiness to his deep voice, especially when Wei Ying presses his phone against his ear.

“As if you're playing the piano at this time,” he says. “It's almost midnight.”

“I am planning for Jingyi's lessons this weekend.”

“Jingyi can play the piano?”

The piano is the last thing Wei Ying will associate with the over-excited teenager. A kazoo, maybe. Or the drums. The drums definitely fit.

“No, but I am teaching him.”

Wei Ying smirks. “Good luck with that.”

He wriggles in his bed, burying himself back under the duvet.

“Go on then,” Wei Ying says. “Play me a song.”

“What song?”

“Any song, I don't mind.”

There's silence for a while. He can hear Lan Zhan moving, the sound of a chair scraping against the floor. Then, the high-pitched keys of a piano.

It starts of slow, gentle, almost delicate. Wei Ying closes his eyes with a sigh and listens as the notes ascend, quicker. They dance around him and it's like his heart follows each rise and each melody. There is a sadness in the song that he is sure of, yet the rising notes are hopeful. He stops breathing in fear of disrupting the music, simply laying there and letting Lan Zhan play an untold story.

He struggles to find his voice once Lan Zhan stops.

“What song is that? Did you make it up?”

“Yes.”

“What's it called?”

“I have not given it a name.”

“It's nice, I like it. Is there a story behind it?”

A pause. Lan Zhan's voice is quieter. “I... made it for someone.”

“Oh?” Wei Ying did not expect that. “How romantic.”

No wonder the song sounds so sad, almost yearning. He wishes he didn't ask because now it feels like he has intruded on something personal, something he shouldn't be part of.

“I feel like you shouldn't be playing this song for me then if it's for someone else,” Wei Ying says, forcing out a laugh. “Save that for the person you love, Lan Zhan!”

There is another pause. Wei Ying hears him sighing from the other line.

“No, it's okay.”

“If you say so...”

Lan Zhan starts playing the same song again, this time humming along to the notes. His deep voice is nice in tune with the high pitched tones. It's not long until Wei Ying's eyelids get heavier and a long yawn escapes him.

“Ah, at this rate, you're going to make me sleep,” he says, covering his mouth.

The music stops.

“No, carry on. It's like a lullaby. I like your voice. Unless... you want to talk more?”

Lan Zhan takes a deep breath. “I... I would like to talk to you.”

Wei Ying opens his eyes wide. Maybe it's just his lack of sleep. He's over-analysing Lan Zhan's responses.

“You sound like you're having difficulty admitting that, haha.”

He lets out another yawn, eyes watering. When he looks at the time, he sees it's now ten past twelve. He's been talking to Lan Zhan for almost half an hour?

“You sound tired,” Lan Zhan says.

“I guess I am. It's been a loooong day.”

“Sleep.”

“I will... I will...” Wei Ying rubs his eyes. “Are you going to sing me to sleep?”

“If that is what you desire.”

Once again, he plays the same song and hums in tune with it. Wei Ying would never think a voice like Lan Zhan's would be good for a lullaby, but all of his defences crumble the more he sings. He doesn't resist when his eyelids close and his body slowly relaxes. In his head, he sees an image of the graceful man sitting in front of his piano, eyes closed as he runs his fingers over the keys. Even the sight of him makes Wei Ying sigh, lulling him deeper into sleep.

“Goodnight, Lan Zhan,” he mumbles.

He hears Lan Zhan's calming voice amidst the music, wishing him sweet dreams.

 

- x -

 

In his dreams, he is in a cave, watching the fire flickering amber and gold on the dark stone walls. He is tired, and hungry, and in pain. It is difficult to breathe or to stay awake, but there is someone here who urges him to keep his eyes open. Wei Ying can only smile.

“How about you sing a song?” he asks.

His companion doesn't smile back. He never does. His face is nothing but a mirage that Wei Ying cannot focus on. He can only see golden eyes burning through the flames.

And then, the cave is filled with the soft echo of his voice. It calms all of the troubles in Wei Ying's heart and makes him forget about the fever coursing in him. He sighs, laying his head against the wall. He ripples in and out of the dream, like the fire that sways in rhythm to this stranger's voice.

The song carries him along the night, through dreams that remain as dreams, through blurs of white robes and golden eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is not in a good mood. Mornings aren't in his list of favourite things in the world, but there are a number of things that have already pissed him off today. He hasn't even been awake for an hour yet.

  1. He barely got any sleep. He's been having these weird dreams recently where he's walking around a dark forest, clearly worried about something or someone, but he doesn't know what's going on. He'll run around for fuck knows how long and then wake up feeling shittier than he felt in the dream. Not a good start to the day at all.
  2. He doesn't even get to wake up on time. Jin Ling was clearly messing around with his phone yesterday and managed to turn the alarm off! Now Jiang Cheng is late for work!
  3. He's ran out of coffee. The only thing keeping him awake right now is the unchanging fact he hates his life.
  4. The bug just sent him a text, and instead of ignoring it like he usually does, Jiang Cheng decides to make himself even later for work to see what the fuck that midget wants.

As he expected, he really shouldn't have bothered to check the texts. All it does is piss him off even more and waste his time.

Son of a bitch. Jiang Cheng resists the urge to type up a whole rant of why he feels the need to waste his time now of all times. Is this jerk for real?

He rolls his eyes. While his brother-in-law is annoying (even more so now that he's apparently famous), the stupid scandals he gets into aren't enough to throw him into jail. Unfortunately.

Wait. Fuck, is that the time? Jiang Cheng lets out a string of curses as he looks at his phone. Chief Nie is going to rip him apart if he's late. He rushes out of his apartment and sprints across the corridor. With his luck, there'll be traffic outside as well and he'll end up being an hour late.

Jiang Cheng manages to dive into the closing elevator just in time. The person inside gasps, moving out of the way before he barrels straight into them. He's about to apologise for almost knocking them out when he looks up and sees a familiar face.

You,” he spits out, eyes narrowing at the criminal staring wide eyed at him.

It's that sword wielding guy!

“Ah,” he says. “Officer.”

He isn't wearing a suit today. More importantly, there doesn't seem to be any other weapon he's carrying. Instead, he is wearing a dark blue jumper with jeans, a black winter coat, and a thick white scarf. Looks normal enough—but then again, you can hide all sorts of weapons under a layered outfit like that. This guy isn't fooling Jiang Cheng.

His hair is long, tied back into a low ponytail, and reminds Jiang Cheng of what his father's hair used to look like before he passed away. He's quite tall too. It pisses Jiang Cheng off that he's a few inches taller than him, but he's not the type to get intimidated by something so trivial like that. He continues to scowl at the man, unwavering even when he offers a polite smile.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng demands, punching the buttons on the panel.

To make things worse, this elevator is moving slower than a snail. It doesn't help his room is on one of the top floors.

“I am using the elevator,” the criminal says.

Jiang Cheng's eye twitches. That infuriating smile is still on the man's face.

“I live here,” he later adds, sighing.

“In these apartments?”

He couldn't be so unlucky to be living in the same place as this guy, right? Right?

“Yes. I... take it you do too?”

Fucking hell. Jiang Cheng doesn't bother replying. His groan should be enough of an answer.

He impatiently looks at what floor they're on now. Seriously, why is this thing so slow today?

“If I see you causing trouble here as well...” he warns.

“I assure you I don't normally get in trouble with the law, Officer.”

Jiang Cheng folds his arms. “Hmph.”

He spares another look at the time on his phone. If he manages to get to work in five minutes then he'd consider it a literal miracle, especially seeing as his usual journey will take him fifteen minutes at least.

Today cannot get any worse.

Of course, because the world hates him, this is when the floor literally shudders and the lights flicker. Jiang Cheng thinks oh fuck for one second before the whole elevator staggers and he's crashing onto the floor.

“What the fuck—”

The lights are back on. Jiang Cheng takes a few moments to blink things back onto focus. He sees the stranger standing over him. With the light literally glowing from behind his head and his hand reaching out, Jiang Cheng can't help but think he looks a bit like a saint. And then he sees what the time is on the criminal's watch.

“Shit,” Jiang Cheng swears for the hundredth time this morning. He ignores the criminal's outstretched hand and pulls himself up, looking around. The elevator isn't moving. It's stopped. Why the fuck has it stopped?

“I think the elevator is broken,” the man says, pressing a few buttons. Nothing lights up on the panel.

Great. Fucking great. Perfect. Something else to add onto the list of why today is shaping up to be a shitty day. He has a whole minute to get to work and he is now stuck in a motherfucking elevator with a guy he arrested last week.

“For fuck sake, I'm going to be late for work,” Jiang Cheng says. He jabs the emergency button repeatedly until his finger starts to hurt. In the end, nothing happens and the officer lets out a groan before proceeding to kick the useless thing.

“I doubt kicking it will help, Officer.”

No, it really doesn't, but Jiang Cheng kicks it one more time just because he can.

It's safe to say he's definitely late for work. The best he can do is call the police station and explain now why he's late. And beg for his life.

Or he would do that if there is signal in this stupid elevator.

It takes all of his self control not to throw his phone against the wall. He tries three times to call the station but his phone keeps saying there's no signal. Literally everything is working against him today.

In the corner of his eyes, he sees the man walking towards the panel, his back turned to Jiang Cheng. It's hard to see what he's doing from here, and it only occurs to the officer now this is deliberate.

“Oi, what are you doing?” Jiang Cheng demands, taking a step closer.

The man shifts his back, purposely blocking his view. “Nothing.”

Nothing, my ass.

“Don't mess around with it!”

This asshole actually looks over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow.

“Officer, you were kicking it moments ago.”

The nerve! Jiang Cheng glares at the man's back as he returns to whatever the fuck he's doing to that panel. He doesn't have to stand here and take this shit—actually, he may have to stand here because there's nothing else to do in this broken elevator for now, but that still doesn't mean he has to take this shit!

Narrowing his eyes, Jiang Cheng grabs the guy's shoulder and yanks him around.

“Oh, look,” the man says. He shakes Jiang Cheng's hand off and motions towards the panel.

It's lighting up again.

Smiling, the man presses the button for the ground floor. His lips tug upwards even more when the elevator descends as if nothing even happened.

“What did you do?” Jiang Cheng asks. This guy's smile... There's nothing good about it. He looks polite and well-mannered on the outside but Jiang Cheng knows people like him have the most to hide.

He narrows his eyes at the panel, which now looks like it's good as new. What the hell did this guy do? He didn't even need to open it up or look at the wiring. In fact, Jiang Cheng didn't hear him pressing anything either.

The man blinks. “Nothing. I think they fixed it.”

“Don't lie to me—”

There's a ping. Jiang Cheng looks up to see they finally reached the ground floor. The doors open, and for a second, the flooding light that seeps through almost blinds him. Outside, nothing has changed. No one probably even noticed this elevator broke down. So much for five star accommodation.

“Officer, didn't you say you were going to be late?”

He turns back to the man. The expression he has on his face cements the fact that Jiang Cheng does not like this guy. At all. It's not even because he was prancing around the forest with a fucking sword of all things, or that his smile is the single most annoying thing Jiang Cheng has ever seen, it's because... it's because of something! Maybe he's just having a horrible morning and seeing this guy being calm while he's constantly losing his shit is not the best experience. Either way, Jiang Cheng does not hide the scowl on his face when the man walks past him.

“Have a pleasant day, Officer,” he says, waving a hand.

Just like that, he leaves, not before Jiang Cheng catches the faint scent of lavender coming from him. It reminds him a bit of the incense sticks his mother used to light up in their house, back when his parents still smiled at each other, and Yanli sang in the kitchen while he and Wei Ying waited for her to finish cooking. The incense sticks would get drowned out as the lotus root and pork rib soup was cooked, but Jiang Cheng always remembered the lavender the most. His father used to buy those incense sticks for his mother. She stopped lighting them once their marriage went downhill.

The elevator doors begin to close again. Jiang Cheng jerks back into the present. Great. Now he's fifteen minutes late for work.

He pushes the criminal to the back of his mind, hoping to the heavens above that he won't have to bump into him again. He also sends a quick prayer that Nie Mingjue won't kill him on sight for being this late.

As soon as he arrives at the station, he already knows Chief Nie is in a bad mood before even seeing the man. That much is obvious if you look at all the officers working twice as hard, clearly not wanting to push their luck. Any hope that he'll somehow survive today unscathed is dashed and Jiang Cheng prepares to face his doom.

“Are you looking for Chief Nie?” Another officer stops him just as he is about to knock on Nie Mingjue's office.

He frowns, recognising it is Song Lan. He's one of the younger officers around here, having just graduated from university. Still, he's competent for someone who's young and new. A bit quiet, but quiet never harmed anybody. Jiang Cheng prefers quiet compared to some of the useless men around here.

“Yeah, is he in his office?”

Song Lan nods. “I would be... mindful though. Someone stole the sword.”

Jiang Cheng jerks his head back. “What?”

“Someone broke into the station last night and took the sword you recently confiscated.”

“What the fuck? Who was on duty last night?”

Song Lan shrugs. “I don't know, but Chief Nie fired them this morning... along with everyone on duty last night.”

It's a good thing Jiang Cheng stopped doing night shifts. He takes a deep breath, knocking on Nie Mingjue's door before entering.

Nie Mingjue doesn't start yelling when he looks up, so that's a good sign. He's hunched over his desk, filing through piles and piles of paper work and messily drawn maps. They're the same papers they look over for the gang attacks that have been happening around Gusu lately.

“You're late,” Chief Nie says.

“Sorry, got stuck in a broken elevator.”

It's the sort of shitty excuse slackers will try to get away with, yet Nie Mingjue doesn't even yell at Jiang Cheng, let alone scrutinise him. He's busy reading a new report. The text is too small for Jiang Cheng to read from this distance but if it's more important than an officer arriving almost forty minutes late to their shift then... Well, shit.

“The sword got stolen?” he asks.

“Yes. And none of our cameras caught anything.”

Jiang Cheng frowns, looking up at one of the cameras in the corner of the room. “How is that possible?”

“I don't know, but it's not like they broke our cameras. They just made all them stop working at the same time.”

“They hacked the system then?”

The older man shrugs, letting out a tired sigh. “I don't fucking know.”

Jiang Cheng remembers that gentle smile taunting him just half an hour ago. No one else would want to steal the sword, let alone actually know there's a sword currently being hidden in the police station. Besides, he should have know that guy looked far too suspicious this morning. He managed to fix the elevator without even doing anything—could he have messed around with the cameras too?

“Hmm, I saw the owner of the sword earlier this morning. He lives near me.”

Nie Mingjue barely reacts. “That sword looked expensive. I wouldn't be surprised if he's not the only person who would want it.”

The younger man doesn't bother to hide his confusion. Chief Nie is bit quick to defend this unknown stranger, he thinks. This is Nie Mingjue after all. He doesn't rest until he slams justice into whoever broke the law.

“Still, I'll question him the next time I see him.”

Nie Mingjue grunts, dismissing the topic. His lip curls as he finishes looking at the new report, shoving it out of the way with a bit too much aggression. Jiang Cheng hears him muttering a few curses under his breath.

“What's wrong?” he finally asks. The temptation to grab that report and read it for himself is strong.

“There's more gang attacks.”

The reports strewn all over the table makes that obvious, but it still doesn't stop the unsettling turn in his stomach. It was only this year these attacks started taking place; at first beginning with assaults in alleyways, so random and clumsy they mistook them for drunken fights and squabbles. However, as the months passed, the attacks grew in number, dotted all over Gusu with no apparent pattern or motive.

The only thing they noticed was that, sometimes, the attacks were self inflicted, or done by a friend or family member who was with them at the time. When interrogated, the victims would all say they were made to do it, that they had no other choice. That was the only thing they'd remember. No other clues as to who could have made them do such an act, or what threats were given for them to submit.

Over a year has passed and they still have no information on any of the gang members, or the hideout. And especially no information on their elusive leader.

To say it is irritating is an understatement. From what they can gather, this man must be rich enough to hide all of his tracks. That, or he isn't human. No matter how much they dig up, there are no traces left that can give them a clear enough lead on where to go next. They can only wait for each attack and hope something comes up next time.

“Any more leads?” Jiang Cheng asks, already knowing the answer.

Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “These fuckers are pissing me off.”

“Where was the new attack?”

“By the Burial Complex.”

Jiang Cheng's eyes widen. The Burial Complex is a name given to a set of apartments on the outskirts of Gusu. Calling it an apartment is a stretch; it looks more like cemetery—and even the dead don't deserve to live in such a shitty place. It's actually called the Garnet Complex, although the Burial Complex is more fitting according to the general public.

It also happens to be the apartments Wei Ying lives in.

He clenches his fists, saying nothing.

“I'll send out extra patrols there for now in case something happens again.”

Jiang Cheng still doesn't say anything, but he hates the sigh of relief he almost gives out. He glares at the reports on the desk. It's the other people in those apartments he's worried about. He couldn't give a damn about Wei Ying.

Nie Mingjue finally looks up, as if just realising he's been there all along. “Get to work. You better make up for the time you're late.”

Jiang Cheng is thankful for the order. He stiffly nods and leaves the room, hoping his shift will actually lighten his mood. Today started off as a travesty; he can only pray the rest of the day is decent.

 

- x -

 

Jingyi is a bit too excited to be going out today. Wangji clearly stated they are only doing it to borrow some books from his brother's library, but Jingyi's brain has translated this to a 'school field trip' as he insists of calling it. He is practically bouncing around the city, dragging Sizhui to stare at the window displays with him.

Wangji almost reprimands them. He stops when he sees the large smiles on their faces, keeping his reminder of the Cloud Recesses' four thousand and nineteen rules to himself. It is truly strange how times have changed. Their sect valued wisdom and maturity beyond your years, but Wangji is starting to think that perhaps letting these children live out their childhood is not such a heinous thing either.

Regardless, he draws the line when Jingyi asks if they can enter a shop that has posters of computerised men carrying unrealistically large swords. There are also other posters of women, also carrying large weapons. The difference is that they are barely clothed at all. Wangji narrows his eyes at the flimsy material that is supposed to protect them in battle. Completely unrealistic.

“But it's just a game,” Jingyi tells him. “And big swords are cool! The bigger the better!”

Wangji shakes his head. That is not true. While the Qinghe Nie Sect used to boast carrying their large sabers, that did not necessarily mean they were better. If anything, they were only more dangerous.

Even so, not even their sabers were this size. Wangji is not at all impressed with this computerised man's nine foot long katana.

“It is unnecessary,” Wangji says. “Silly.”

Jingyi almost looks disgusted with him. “I can't believe you're dissing Sephiroth.”

“How does he even lift it up?” Sizhui asks, eyes wide.

“It's a game,” Jingyi groans again. “You don't need to think about stuff like that!”

Wangji will never understand these so called games. Perhaps with some cultivation, it will be possible to lift that sword—but why would you even wish to own one of that size? It will just get in the way. An average length sword will be just as capable, if not better.

It is not only the long sword that is bothering Wangji, but also this man's strange appearance. He has only one wing. Clearly he is not a cultivator if he requires wings to fly, but why would he only have one? It is physically impossible to fly with only one wing.

Perhaps he is a cultivator and the strange one winged design is indeed just that; a design. If that is the case, then Wangji is even more unimpressed. These gaudy accessories will only get in the way if you were to have a real battle.

Shaking his head once more, he turns away from the ridiculous posters.

“A waste of time,” he says. “Let us go.”

He can hear Jingyi groaning that he wants to play on some Playing Stations, but he pays him no mind. The rest of their journey to Xichen's library is devoid of detours or distractions, much to Wangji's relief.

When they arrive there, it is still closed despite Xichen's library usually opening at nine in the morning. It is now five past ten.

Wangji does not sense his brother in the building. Could he still be at home, perhaps asleep?

They wait for a few minutes. Wangji does not mind the winter air that hits them, his immortal body unperturbed by the elements, but the same cannot be said for both teenagers with him. Sizhui's cheeks have gotten red and he buries half of his face under his scarf in a futile attempt to warm himself up.

Silently, Wangji unravels his own scarf and winds it around Sizhui's neck as well, saying nothing when he looks up in surprise.

“Dad, aren't you cold?”

“I am fine.”

“I'm not,” Jingyi whines, breathing into his palms. “Aaw, shit, it's freezing!”

Wangji narrows his eyes. “Language.”

“Aaw, heck, it's freezing!”

He can only sigh. Wangji takes off his gloves and gives them to Jingyi, unsurprised they do not fit him at all. The gloves almost slip off him but Jingyi clasps his hands together, grinning up at Wangji.

“I thought Uncle opened his library by now?” Sizhui asks. His voice is muffled by the two scarves currently swallowing him.

Jingyi shivers, wrapping his jacket tighter around himself. “Can he hurry up? I'm freezing my balls off.”

Wangji closes his eyes, choosing instead to ignore that horrifying sentence rather than tell Jingyi off. He considers calling Xichen but he does not want to disturb him if he is indeed still asleep. It is rare his brother ever sleeps properly during the evening.

He does not have to ponder for long. He senses Xichen before he hears his rushed footsteps. When he turns around, his brother offers him a sheepish smile and roots out his keys from his coat pocket.

“Sorry, were you waiting long?”

Wangji shakes his head. “Not too long. You are late?”

“The lift in my apartment broke.”

Xichen opens the door, letting the two shivering teenagers enter first. The smell of books is strong when Wangji steps inside. He takes a deep breath of it, allowing himself to think back to days of staying in the Library Pavilion, cradling books to his chest and listening to the sacred silence of home.

This library is nowhere near as large as their Pavilion, but it brings Wangji the same comfort. It is a homely place, and he recognises a few of the tapestries Xichen has placed around the room. There are paintings on the walls as well. Wangji suspects Xichen painted them, although there are also some that he does not recognise to be his brother's style. Xichen travelled from place to place; the different assortment of trinkets and ornaments lying around the library is a clear indication of that.

He strokes the books on the shelves. None of their ancient books and scrolls will be here, at least not the original copies. After the Cloud Recesses was burned down before the Sunshot Campaign, Xichen gathered as many of their precious books as he could and fled. But even those cannot survive time, not after two thousand long years.

Nevertheless, his brother has made new copies of them. Of course, he would not keep them in a public library, thus they are safely hidden in Xichen's home.

Even if he were to keep them in this library, it is not as if it will mean anything to today's society. Many will think of the musical scores as another language, and the ancient texts to be some sort of fairy tale story rather than actual fact. Regardless, they keep them hidden for the sake of keeping what little traditions they have left. It is only him and Xichen left who can still do this. Sentimentalities aside, they do not wish to disrespect their roots, even if it does mean nothing to everyone now.

“Wow, Uncle, the place looks great. Did you collect all these books?” Sizhui asks. Wangji sees the child-like wonder in his eyes as he looks through one of the older books, stroking its aged pages.

Xichen smiles at him, taking off his coat. “Yes, I found most of them along my travels. Please, feel free to read them.”

He takes his place by the counter, neatly laying his things on the table before looking up at Wangji. “Wangji, do you need anything? Or are you just visiting?”

Wangji nods at Jingyi, who is currently about to prod a large statue on the nose. He grabs the teenager's arm and stops him in time.

“Music books for Jingyi.”

Xichen motions towards the left corner of the room. “Take as much as you need.”

While Jingyi is slowly, but steadily, beginning to get the grasp of playing the piano, Lan Qiren also requested that he learnt about the history and fundamentals of music. He is, of course, asking for the impossible. It has taken Wangji almost an entire month to teach Jingyi how to sit properly. It will take him another thousand years to teach him music theory.

But he will entertain his uncle and see if he can create some sort of miracle. Wangji pulls out various books, dropping them into Jingyi's arms until he can no longer see his face. Jingyi wobbles on the spot, trying in vain to balance all of the books he is carrying.

“Uncle, isn't this enough?” he whines.

Wangji looks down at him. One more book will not hurt...

His phone vibrates. He ignores Jingyi's whining and takes it out, eyebrows rising when he sees it is Wei Ying. 

 

Good morning? Has he only just woken up now? Wangji recalls that Wei Ying had the bad habit of rising at nine in the morning. It is now half ten; even he was not this bad back then.

  

“Uncle, my arms are literally about to fall off.”

Wangji returns his phone back into his pocket, sparing a glance at Jingyi. He has completely forgotten about him.

“Let us go,” Wangji says, taking the books into his arms. They weigh nothing to him. Wangji thinks Jingyi should start doing Gusu Lan's infamous handstand exercises again.

“Oi, Sizhui, time to go!” Jingyi calls.

Sizhui, who has been too busy reading by himself all along, jumps. He closes the book in his hands and returns it to the shelf, making his way back to the counter.

Xichen looks up at him as he is placing Wangji's books in a bag. “Oh, yes. Sizhui, before you go. I have been meaning to ask you if you would like to work part time here?”

The teenager points to himself. “Me?”

“Yes, just over the weekend. I will pay you, of course.”

Sizhui turns to Wangji, a silent question in his eyes. Xichen has already discussed this with him earlier this week and he sees no harm in it. Sizhui has always enjoyed reading; no doubt he will not even view this as a job. Wangji nods, eyes softening when Sizhui's face lights up with a large beam.

“Uncle, I'd love to! I promise I'll work hard!”

Xichen laughs. “I know you will.”

“I can start now?”

Eager as always.

“Oh no, enjoy your Saturday,” Xichen says. He hands the bag of books to Wangji. “You can start tomorrow, if you would like?”

“Okay!”

With that, they say farewell to Xichen.

There is more people outside now, all wrapped in thick coats and scarves as they struggle to make their way through the strong winter breeze. Already, Jingyi is beginning to shiver again. Perhaps he would not be as cold if he actually wore a thicker coat.

“I'm hungry...” he mumbles. “Uncle, let's go somewhere warm and eat lunch before we head back. Please?”

Sizhui nods with him.

The only place Wangji can remember is the café Wei Ying took him to. Coincidentally, it is also nearby Xichen's library. It is significantly busier now that it is nearing lunch time, but they manage to find a vacant table by the window.

Like last time, Wen Ning is by the counter. Wei Ying told Wangji he needed to do his groceries, therefore he did not expect him to be here, but it does not stop the slight disappointment he feels when that is indeed the case.

Wen Ning looks up from where he is standing. He does not manage to hide the recognition in his eyes and quickly looks away when he realises Wangji is staring back at him. There is a woman who is sitting in front of the counter, and she looks over her shoulder to glance at Wangji as well. She is familiar, but Wangji cannot say her face is one has seen a lot of times. Her long, brown hair is tied up into a high ponytail, and the expression she has on her face is one that will probably seem unapproachable to most.

“Is that him?” He hears her asking Wen Ning, who is still avoiding Wangji's gaze. Wen Ning gives a quick nod.

Wangji is unable to ignore the feeling they are talking about him. As to why, he cannot guess. Shaking his head to himself, he stops listening to their conversation and returns his focus on the two teenagers in front of him. It is only now he sees that Jingyi has written a whole list.

“Here's my order, Uncle,” he says.

His handwriting is barely legible, and even then, most of these words mean nothing to Wangji. He sighs loudly and turns to Sizhui. Fortunately, his order is reasonable, unlike Jingyi's.

He can still feel the woman's eyes on him as he walks towards the counter. Wen Ning, on the other hand, literally jumps when he is in front of him. His eyes are wide, waiting for Wangji to speak. He keeps wiping the dish in his hand with a tea towel, although it is already clean enough one can see their reflection on it.

“One large black coffee, and one medium caramel latte,” he says.

Then, he takes out Jingyi's list and begins to read it out in a flat tone.

“And a large caramel frappuccino with two teaspoons of vanilla powder, semi-skimmed milk, one teaspoon of chocolate powder, a light sprinkle of cinnamon powder, two pumps of chocolate syrup, five pumps of caramel syrup, two pumps of vanilla syrup, two pumps of strawberry syrup, dark chocolate swirls, extra whipped cream, extra butterscotch, and marshmallows on top.”

Wen Ning has stopped wiping the dishes. He stares at Wangji with an open mouth. Next to him, the woman is also silent, eyes wide as the plate Wen Ning is holding.

“Um,” Wen Ning mumbles. “One... One large black coffee... One medium caramel latte... And... C-Could you... Um. Could you... give that piece of paper to me... instead, Sir?”

Wangji gives him Jingyi's list with a sigh. Wen Ning squints at it, very much looking like he is in pain simply reading its contents.

“Is there... anything else?” he asks hesitantly.

Nodding, Wangji points at the cakes Sizhui and Jingyi requested.

“AND I WANT A BISCUIT WITH MY DRINK TOO, PLEASE!” Jingyi yells across the café, causing several other customers to spasm at the sheer volume of his voice.

Wen Ning slowly nods, still staring at Jingyi's list as if it is in another language. “I'll bring your order when it is done, Sir...”

Wangji pays for everything. A hand taps the counter and stops him before he returns to his table. He looks up, catching a closer glimpse of the woman.

“Mr. Lan, was it? Wei Ying told me about you.”

This close, he recognises her voice as well now. It sounds exactly like the voice he heard over the phone yesterday.

“You were the woman with him over the phone?”

She nods, smiling. “Yes. I'm Wen Qing. I'm a doctor here.”

Wen Qing. Now, Wangji remembers her. She is that woman who stayed with Wei Ying in the Burial Mounds. Wangji's meetings with her were scarce and few, but he knew more of her through rumours. She was one of the top medics of their generation, famed for saving many lives and allowing miracles to happen. It makes sense she is a doctor in this lifetime.

“I am Lan Wangji, a music tutor.”

Her smile widens. There is a glint in her dark green eyes that Wangji does not expect. “Sorry about yesterday. Wei Ying was so eager to talk to you.”

“He was?”

He cannot imagine that, especially now. He manages to keep his composure, but his heart blooms at the slightest mention of Wei Ying displaying any form of interest.

“Oh yes. He can be shy so forgive him if it gets difficult to talk to him.”

Wangji nods once. “He has been texting me.”

Wen Qing's eyebrows raise. “Really? Since when?”

“Last night.”

Oh?” She leans back on her chair, taking a sip of her tea. “Is he still texting you now?”

Wangji nods again.

Just then, Wen Ning returns with a large tray. He slides it over to Wangji with a timid smile. “Here is your order, Sir.”

“Let me help you with that,” Wen Qing says, taking the tray instead. She rises, looking around the café. “Your table is over there, right?”

She is already walking towards it before Wangji can nod. He is slightly confused as to why she is helping, and even more so when she sits down by their table too. Cautiously, Wangji takes his seat, keeping his eyes on her and waiting for an explanation.

He does not get one.

“Who's this?” Jingyi asks, reaching for his drink. Wangji does not think a frappuccino should be a colour of murky green, but Jingyi does not show any signs of distress when he takes one large sip of it.

“I'm your teacher's best friend,” Wen Qing says.

Sizhui tilts his head. “Teacher Wei?”

Wen Qing nods. “Seeing as Mr. Lan and Wei Ying have been getting friendly, I thought I should introduce myself.”

That seems to catch Jingyi's attention. He sits up. The grin inching up his face unnerves Wangji. “Getting friendly? Oh. Did he actually use the number?”

For some reason, Wen Qing looks shocked. “Wait, were you the kid who gave him the number?”

Jingyi lets out a loud cackle and smacks his palm on the table, making all of their drinks shudder. Around them, the other customers are scowling. “I can't believe he actually used it!”

Wen Qing is laughing now too.

Meanwhile, Sizhui's jaw drops. He stares between Wangji and Jingyi. “You gave my dad's number to our teacher?!”

Wangji was confused at first, but that pieces everything for him. He slowly turns to the loud teenager, his eyes colder than any blizzard. Outside the café, the breeze strengthens. There is a sudden gust of air that makes all of the trees groan and the customers of the café to gasp, wondering what on earth is wrong with the weather today.

Lan Jingyi,” he says, clenching his fists.

Jingyi lets out a tiny squeak. He shrinks into himself and actually tries to hide behind his drink. “H-Hey! Don't look at me like that! I-It worked, didn't it?”

He slurps up his frappuccino very loudly, looking at everywhere but Wangji's glare.

“I was just trying to help!” he continues. “You swiped right at him on Tinder so I thought you'd appreciate it!”

Wen Qing lets out another laugh. “Be thankful for the kid. Wei Ying doesn't go on Tinder anymore, so he would have never spoken with you through that.”

He is still not pleased that Jingyi would meddle with something like this, but she is right that he would have never been able to speak with Wei Ying had it not been for that... Wangji narrows his eyes at Jingyi one last time and then takes a large sip of his coffee.

“Has he spoken with you today?” Wen Qing asks. “Tell him I said hi.”

Wangji checks his phone again. The last text Wei Ying sent him was when he said he would talk to him later.

He sends a quick message to tell Wei Ying his friend is here.

“Actually,” Wen Qing says. “Give me that.”

She grabs Wangji's phone from his hands, catching him off guard. He does not know what to do as she uses it, therefore opts to watch what she is writing instead. Sizhui, who is sitting by her other side, also cranes his head to see the screen. Jingyi is far too busy eating his cheesecake.

 

Wangji's eyebrows furrow. What does she mean by that?

Wen Qing gives his phone back to him with a smirk. She ignores Wangji's questioning gaze and returns to drinking the rest of her tea. All Wangji can do is stare at the texts she sent. Was that okay? Should he have given his phone to her?

He is still pondering when he hears the café door slamming open. Again, the customers in the café jump, now muttering complains under their breath. But that is the last thing Wangji is focusing on now. 

His eyes widen at who has arrived. Wei Ying.

The teacher actually runs to their table, grabbing onto Jingyi's chair and panting when he reaches them. He points a finger at Wen Qing, scowling, but is still struggling to catch his breath.

“Wei Ying! Fancy seeing you here!” Wen Qing's tone is too happy to be considered genuine.

“Lan... Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying takes another deep breath. “Don't listen to a word she says!”

Wen Qing feigns a gasp. “I've said nothing! Mr. Lan and I were just chatting, weren't we?”

Wangji looks between the two of them. He is still surprised Wei Ying has appeared out of nowhere, and he will have to admit he is entirely lost as to what this conversation is about. All he can see is that Wei Ying has not stopped glaring at his friend, although Wen Qing meets it with smug carelessness.

“She has said nothing,” Wangji says. It is true, anyway.

It takes a while for Wei Ying to stop panting. After a long while, he sits down on the vacant seat next to Wangji, his eyes still fixed on Wen Qing.

None of them move. The first person to break the silence is Jingyi, who takes another loud slurp of his drink.

Wangji takes this moment to turn to Wei Ying, noting the beanie hat that is lopsided on his head. His cheeks are red, most likely from the cold weather, and he is unwinding a black scarf around his neck. When he takes his hat off, his hair stands in all sorts of directions.

“Wei Ying, what are you doing here?” Wen Qing asks.

The teacher sends her another scowl, combing his fingers through his hair. “I should be asking you that question.”

Her smile does not falter. “Aren't you even going to order something?”

"No."

There is more silence. Jingyi has now finished all of his drink and has resorted to filling his mouth with all the cakes he asked for. Sizhui, however, is quietly staring at all of the adults, looking quite lost.

“Well,” Wei Ying says. There is a smile on his face but it does not reach his eyes. “This is nice.”

The way he says it makes Wangji think he means the opposite.

Anyway. Wen Qing, aren't you busy this weekend?” Wei Ying asks his friend.

“No, I'm on holiday. Aren't you busy this weekend?”

No. I'm just doing my groceries.”

It is as if they are having a conversation meant only for them. Wangji does not necessarily mind; he continues to gaze at Wei Ying, admiring every expression that flickers on his face. His cheeks are no longer flushed and his hair is neater, but there is still that strand that refuses to follow his parting. Every time Wei Ying moves, Wangji catches the smell of lotus flowers. 

Wen Qing shakes her head. “You and your shitty cooking.”

“It's only shitty because you don't like spicy food.”

She waves a dismissive hand and turns to Wangji instead. “Mr. Lan, can you cook?”

Wangji nods.

“Hey, how good is he at cooking?” Wen Qing asks Sizhui.

“Very good. Dad always cooks the best and healthiest meals," Sizhui tells her. 

He says that, but Wangji knows if Sizhui had to choose between his or Xichen's cooking, the teenager will choose his brother's. Xichen and Sizhui shared the same love for desserts. Sizhui is always elated whenever Xichen makes time to bake for him.

Wen Qing slowly nods, tapping her chin. “Healthy is always good. Mr. Lan, you should cook for Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying somehow manages to choke on nothing. “What?”

“I do not mind,” Wangji says.

“Teacher Wei, you should come round for dinner some time! Dad cooks the best food!” Sizhui adds, nodding eagerly.

“Eh?” Wei Ying is vigorously shaking his head. “I-I'm busy—”

“You said you weren't busy this weekend, right?” Jingyi reminds him, spewing cake crumbs everywhere. “So come round tomorrow!”

With the two teenagers and Wen Qing all grinning eagerly at Wei Ying, Wangji guesses this is why he has started to flush. He looks away, his bottom lip slightly pouting. 

“W-What... Yeah, but...” Wei Ying sneaks a glance at Wangji, quickly looking away once their eyes meet. “But Mr. Lan, you don't want me over, right? I'll just be disturbing you. There's no need.”

He shakes his head. “It is no trouble.”

Wei Ying still won't meet his gaze. “I can't just go round to your house...”

“Why not?” Wen Qing asks, shrugging. “It's just dinner. Why are you making such a big deal about it?”

Wei Ying sends another glare at her. At this point, Wangji is questioning how they are friends if all Wei Ying has done since he has arrived here is scowl at the woman.

“Well, if Lan Zhan doesn't mind then... Then I'm not going to say no to free food...”

Wangji can feel his heart warming. He takes a drink out of his coffee, nodding slightly.

“Tomorrow then.”

He is not sure if he is imagining it, but Wei Ying's cheeks flush slightly when he nods back.

 

- x -

 

Wangji offers to drive Wei Ying back to his apartment once they part ways. After more encouragement from Wen Qing, Wei Ying agrees while grumbling under his breath that he really needs to learn how to drive. 

“Lan Zhan, you don't have to cook for me tomorrow if you don't want to...” Wei Ying says, laying his head against the window. “Wen Qing can be very... assertive. In fact, you can just cancel now. I am perfectly fine feeding myself.”

“I want to,” Wangji says.

“Oh.”

He is eager to see more of Wei Ying, but his hesitance also worries him. Gripping the wheel tighter, Wangji spares one glance at him when the traffic lights flash red.

“You do not have to come if you do not want—”

“No. It's not that I don't want to...” Wei Ying's words are a sudden relief. “I just... I just wanted to make sure I won't be a burden. I mean, we hardly know each other and you already give me a lot of lifts... And now you're cooking me dinner... You must think I can't do anything by myself.”

Wangji's eyebrows furrow together. Is that what he is worrying about?

He recalls Wei Ying's worrying obsession with repaying those he cared for. Wei Ying did not hesitate to destroy himself, just for the futile goal of sacrificing all he had for the Jiang family. Even then, it had all been for nothing. They turned their backs on him once they could no longer understand his emotions. Jiang Cheng, who was once a brother to Wei Ying, led him to his own death. Wei Ying died believing he was alone, that he was hated, and that he had done nothing but hurt the people he loved.

“You have never been a burden,” Wangji says. He wishes he told that to Wei Ying much, much earlier. That he never gave up trying to convince Wei Ying.

“Huh?” Wei Ying sits up, frowning at him. “Lan Zhan, the traffic lights.”

They have turned green. Wangji continues driving, all the while feeling Wei Ying's skeptical eyes on him.

“You... You are not a burden,” he repeats.

“If you say so.” Wei Ying laughs softly. “Are you sure though? Like I said, I don't mind going round to yours if it's just dinner, but I don't want you to feel like you have to—”

Wei Ying. It is fine.”

He hears him breathing in. Wei Ying claps his hands together and sways left to right on his seat. Wangji does not know what he is doing, but he enjoys watching him from the corner of his eyes.

“So. Dinner tomorrow then? For definite?”

“Yes.”

The thought of Wei Ying visiting his house is an impossible concept. Wangji feels like this is all a dream.

“Just a question... You don't have a pet dog, do you?”

Wangji does not expect that question. They have no dogs in the house, but he has been keeping a few rabbits as he has always done for all these years. Sizhui even has a pet hamster.

“No. Why?”

Wei Ying coughs. “Nothing... I, uh, I'm allergic to dogs”

He is clearly lying. Wangji has not forgotten his phobia of dogs. It seems he may have kept it even in this incarnation.

“Hey, what's with that look? Are you actually smiling?

Wangji relaxes his face, turning to the teacher with his usual expressionless gaze. Wei Ying scoffs, rolling his eyes.

“Do not worry. There are no dogs in my house.”

“Who said I was worried?”

Wangji says nothing more, but he can feel his lips tugging into another rare smile. He allows it to happen, content with spending the rest of this car journey in silence. When they arrive at their destination, the elation Wangji is feeling dies down as Wei Ying turns to leave. He has to remind himself he will see him again tomorrow, and hopefully the day after that, and many more days from now on.

“I'll... I'll see you tomorrow then,” Wei Ying says, one foot already out of the door. “Actually, wait. Text me your address so I know where to go.”

Wangji shakes his head. “I will pick you up.”

“Wow, Lan Zhan. Free food and a lift? You're spoiling me. Around five PM then? Is that okay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Right. See you tomorrow then.”

Wei Ying flashes him one last smile before stepping out of the car. Wangji watches him until he disappears, and even then he stays where he is, parked there outside this dilapidated building.

After some time, Jingyi pulls himself up from where he is sat in the back seat.

“So,” he says. “Are you two like... dating now?”

“Sshh!” Sizhui pulls him back.

Wangji ignores both of them. He drives back to his house, his spirits lighter knowing that, tomorrow, Wei Ying will be there as well.

 

- x -

 

Xichen is glad the elevator is in working order once again. No problems arise when he uses it on his way back from work, which he is very thankful for. He is in need of a long, relaxing bath after today. His job as a librarian is not very busy, but it is still tiring when his body continues to deny him sleep. 

Eager for any form of rest, Xichen unlocks his front door. 

“You there! Criminal!

Somehow, he manages to stop the sigh that almost escapes him. Lo and behold, Jiang Cheng is there when he turns around. Xichen has to wonder if going home from work is now a crime. As luck would permit it, Jiang Cheng apparently lives nearby. While he does not mind the short tempered young man, Xichen is not looking forward to constantly being treated like a criminal if this carries on.

Jiang Cheng appearing out of nowhere to scream at him was not expected this afternoon. What is also more unexpected is that he has brought someone along. Xichen recognises it to be Young Master Jin Ling, even though his hair is shorter and he no longer has the vermilion mark that the Jins painted on their forehead. He is staring at both of them with an unhappy pout.

Xichen really has no clue as to why Jiang Cheng felt the need to bring Jin Ling along with him here.

He also has no idea why Jiang Cheng is yelling at him again. He faces the younger officer and does his best to give him a polite smile.

“Officer, I have a name,” he says.

“And you also have the sword!”

Xichen blinks. “Excuse me?”

“The sword! It's been taken! I know you took it!”

Ah. So the police station has found out Shuoyue is missing. Xichen expected as much, but he did not quite expect to find Jiang Cheng chasing after him with his nephew in tow.

Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest Xichen has done it. He has made sure they will not be seen on their cameras. Wangji's little blunder did mean that one officer saw them, but Xichen is sure that the knock to his head would have made him forget the details. Furthermore, they were still concealed by the shadows when it happened. The officer could not have seen them clearly even if he did remember.

“I do not know what you are talking about,” he says. “Are you saying my sword has been taken?”

Jiang Cheng's dark eyes narrow. “You're lying!”

Sighing, Xichen unlocks his door and opens if for the officer to look inside. Shuoyue is still hidden inside his qiankun bag. Jiang Cheng will not find it even if he were to turn his entire apartment upside down.

“Officer, feel free to search my apartment if you think I have taken it,” he says.

Xichen did not literally mean it. He was hoping Jiang Cheng would forget about it once he saw how resolute he was, but he should have known the officer is not someone to give up that easily.

Jiang Cheng does not hesitate in entering his apartment, all the while dragging Jin Ling along.

Xichen's bath will have to wait then. He shakes his head to himself and follows the officer. Really, it is his own fault for suggesting this, but he did not think Jiang Cheng would take that as permission to enter his apartment. Xichen watches in silence as Jiang Cheng roots through every room, not once letting go of the whining Jin Ling right behind him.

They reach Xichen's study. As expected, Jiang Cheng scrutinises the display of various bows and arrows on the wall. Xichen has never used them properly, only keeping them as a memento of when he participated in the archery competitions the sects used to have.

“More weapons!” Jiang Cheng says, pointing at each offending bow.

“They are just for display, Officer,” Xichen tells him. “Are you going to confiscate them too?”

On the other hand, Jin Ling is gazing up at them with large eyes. His scowl is gone for the moment, replaced with curiosity.

“They're cool...” he mumbles.

“Jin Ling, shut up.”

Just like that, the teenager's face contorts back into a scowl, mirroring his uncle's. Xichen can only let out another sigh.

Luckily, Jiang Cheng does not rip out the bows on display. Xichen is in shock when he leaves the room, only with a quiet huff as he forgets about the bows. Their next destination is the living room and the kitchen. Xichen leaves Jiang Cheng to do his job.

As much as he enjoys watching the officer quite literally messing up his entire apartment, Xichen is tired and in need of a warm cup of tea. He makes his way to the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to stop boiling as he listens to the sound of Jiang Cheng searching under his couch. His mad search has resulted in him letting go of Jin Ling, who is now stomping over to the kitchen as well.

The teenager's eyes stop on a tray of cookies Xichen made last night instead of sleeping. He then looks at Xichen.

Smiling, Xichen nods. “Take as much as you want.”

Jin Ling grins, grabbing a handful of the cookies. He's in the middle of shoving one of them into his mouth when Jiang Cheng is screaming across the room once more.

“Oi, Jin Ling! What the fuck are you doing accepting food from him!”

Jin Ling throws a glare over his shoulder, still munching. “I'm hungry! I thought you were supposed to give me dinner!”

“Don't eat the fucking cookies!”

“There's nothing wrong with these cookies! I'm hungry!”

As if to prove a point, Jin Ling grabs even more cookies. He has almost eaten most of them in the space of three minutes. Before he can shove one more into his mouth, Jiang Cheng drags him off the chair and smacks him on the back.

Xichen pours hot water into his cup, stirring his tea while watching the uncle and nephew bickering with each other. He looks at the time. How long do they plan on staying here exactly? He wants a rest.

“Officer, will that be it?” Xichen asks, raising his voice so he can be heard over their squabble. “You're welcome to some cookies as well—”

No. We're going! But don't think this is over!”

Xichen follows them as Jiang Cheng pushes Jin Ling out of the apartment. Before he leaves, Jiang Cheng spins around to narrow his eyes at him one last time. He is thankful Jiang Cheng has not confiscated anything and he is not being arrested today, but the officer has kindly left his apartment in a mess. Behind Xichen, it looks like a tornado has ripped through his home.

“Goodbye, Officer,” Xichen says, forcing another smile that he knows only irritates the man even more.

Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything else. He leaves, disappearing so fast that if it weren't for the mess that is now Xichen's apartment, he would have thought he hallucinated the whole thing to begin with.

Tired, he returns inside his apartment. He will tidy all this later... That can be a task to do after midnight when sleep decides to evade him again. For now, Xichen sidesteps through all the scattered cushions and finds a spot on the couch Jiang Cheng did not disrupt. He sits down, sipping his cup of tea while flickering through all the different channels on TV.

It is silent times like this that Xichen wishes he took Wangji's offer in living with him and Sizhui instead. He loves spending time with his brother and his nephew, but he does not want to disturb them. Last night, Xichen resorted to baking for four hours because he could not fall asleep. Surely, Wangji will not appreciate that.

He yawns. There is nothing good on TV either. Maybe he should start on tidying all this up instead...

We're back with our special guest for tonight, Jin Guangyao!”

Xichen splutters out his tea. He fumbles with the remote to change back onto the previous channel, dropping it when he sees a smile he thought he would never see again. His heart is thundering behind his ribs and the taste of the tea has gone stale. Jin Guangyao is on his TV screen, smiling at the camera. It's the same smile that always used to comfort Xichen, the same smile that fooled him for many years.

He cannot hear what they are saying. Xichen only realises now he is having trouble breathing, that he is shaking and his eyes are stinging. He places the cup of tea on the table and clenches his fists, trying to differentiate between this Jin Guangyao and the one who betrayed him.

Jin Guangyao laughs at something the interviewer has said. Xichen is brought back to the time his life was engulfed in flames and Meng Yao calmed him with a gentle smile. This Jin Guangyao's hair is not quite as long, but his features are as soft as Xichen remembers them. There is no black felt hat symbolising his status, and no vermilion mark at his forehead. If Xichen ignores the ache in his heart, he can tell himself this is another person.

“I just wanted to say congratulations on your nomination for this year's TV Drama Awards,” the interviewer says. “For your case especially, it must be quite surreal.”

Jin Guangyao nods. There is a certain grace he has kept, but the way his eyes light up at what the interviewer is saying reminds Xichen of when he was still Meng Yao.

“Yes, of course. Not so long ago, I was still dreaming about becoming an actor and now I'm suddenly being nominated for an awards show? It still baffles me.”

“Well, you must be very happy.”

“I am, I am. It's like a dream come true.”

The camera pans onto him smiling again. He has worn many masks and charmed many victims with that same smile. Yet, there is something about this one that makes Xichen think it is real. Jin Guangyao is an actor in this lifetime, and he is happy. He says his dreams have come true. The public seems to love him and he does not look like he is suffering. Maybe this is the life Jin Guangyao has always wanted. Maybe he has not been corrupted by society in this lifetime, and his happiness has preserved more of Meng Yao than the manipulative mastermind that Xichen failed to realise.

Watching him now, Xichen feels the pain he has been suppressing threaten to burst forth again. He has never hated Jin Guangyao, not even after he found out all of his misdeeds. He cannot bring himself to hate him now, not when he has never seen him look so happy.

His sworn brothers are alive right now. Both of them do not know who he is, and both of them are perfectly content without him in their lives. If anything, they are faring better without him.

Xichen turns the TV off. He sits in silence for a while, unable to decipher if he wants to laugh, or cry, or scream. He wants to ask himself what he is supposed to do now, as if that is not a futile question to begin with. He does not know why he is still here, pretending to live a normal life and fooling no one but himself that he is okay with an empty existence such as this. What is he supposed to do now? What is there left to do, when there is nothing and no one for him?

He has stopped shaking and his eyes have stared at the table for so long that it now looks foreign. When he looks up, he sees the view of the city outside his window.

The sun is setting, but it is hidden beneath the thick clouds. Xichen cannot see anything beyond this mist; not the city, and certainly not what lies for him in the future.

 

 

Chapter Text

It is five in the morning, when Xichen can no longer focus on tidying his apartment, that he falls asleep. Surrounded by the pillows and books Jiang Cheng has graciously thrown aside, the immortal is barely recognisable. His hair has escaped its ponytail and he has somewhat fallen asleep in an awkward position, curled up against the corner of the couch with a book digging into his back. If one were to look at him from the outside, they will see a man in the middle of a life crisis, sleeping after an emotional breakdown and destroying half of his apartment.

In his dreams, however, he is wearing his Gusu Lan robes again. He is the only one in white. Everyone else is bleeding.

Xichen takes a step back. He has seen this before, both in reality and in the countless dreams that torment him. Nie Mingjue is on the ground, lifeless, and his younger brother is cradling him in his arms. Huaisang is always crying but he has never cried like this before. No matter how many times Xichen is thrown back into this memory, he cannot stop himself from flinching at the desperation in the young man's voice.

He shakes his brother and begs him to wake up. He shakes him until there are faceless disciples that pry him away. They take Nie Mingjue's body and Huaisang stumbles after them.

Xichen will take a step forward. A hand darts to grab his wrist, stops him from taking another one. He looks down and sees A-Yao, staring at the two brothers disappearing into the distance. The hand around Xichen's wrist is shaking.

Back then, he thought it was shock, that A-Yao was as scared of losing their First Brother like he was. Maybe, it is still shock. His plan to kill their brother has worked, but he is not scared. He has succeeded.

The scene ripples into years that rush by in seconds. A-Yao marries Qin Sun, and Xichen's smile for them feels strained. His brother has moved on with his life. It is time he does the same.

But moving on is a difficult thing. Wei Wuxian dies; the news is delivered with celebrations, with the cheers of people in the streets declaring the demonic cultivator is finally rotting in hell.

Wangji retreats further and further into himself. Xichen wants to help him—how?

Time passes by. Nothing happens. Everyone lives through each day simply because they must. A-Yao tries his best to maintain peace between all the sects as Chief Cultivator, and Huaisang has grown quiet and withdrawn. He no longer cries to them.

“A-Sang has been acting strangely. Have you noticed, Brother?” A-Yao asks once.

Xichen can only nod. He makes it a goal to speak to the young man and see if there is anything he can do.

The next day, the Unclean Realm explodes into a shower of debris and dust. Sect Leader Nie Huaisang cannot be found among the rubble. His soul is lost, scattered, along with his body. Inquiry does not reach him, no matter how many times Xichen tries to amend for his careless timing. He should have visited A-Sang sooner. He should have done something.

There are too many questions and even more casualties. Qinghe Nie Sect is almost non-existent and no one is left to lead their people into security. The destruction of their base not only killed their leader but a majority of their cultivators. It is unthinkable how anyone could have planned this. Inhuman.

Everything is falling. Xichen does not know which piece to pick up first.

It is difficult to tell if this dream is now travelling in seconds or years or an infinity. Xichen is trying his best understand A-Sang's death. He needs answers, both for A-Sang and Mingjue-xiong. He must let them rest.

Through the blurs and the voices he cannot make out, Xichen ends up in his room. He stands in the darkness, the voices in his head no longer audible. He is alone and this room is too small. Suffocating. He cannot rest. He has not slept for days, he thinks.

Xichen grabs a book, desperate for any form of distraction. Something falls out of it. A torn page.

He picks it up. Everything shatters with each character he reads. The silence is gone, replaced by these words he cannot, cannot fit into his questions. He asks why, why, why and all he has is this letter that rips apart everything he has ever believed in.

Why, why, why.

I will be dead by the time you find this.

Why.

Jin Guangyao killed my brother. I have always known. I have been trying for years to reveal him and avenge Brother but nothing is working. I have tried so hard, too hard. He is growing suspicious of my actions and I fear my time is running out.

Lan Xichen, do not trust him. He has killed your sworn brother, he has killed his father, his wife, and his son. He will kill me soon.

Open your eyes and see him for the man that he is.

Xichen drops the letter.

He awakes. The sun is the first thing he sees, peaking out through the clouds that covered it yesterday. His body is stiff and his back is aching, though Xichen stays where he is.

Somehow, he has managed to sleep. After that dream, he wishes he hadn't.

He casts a quick glance at the clock. Eight AM. Three hours of sleep is more than what he normally gets and he has grown accustomed to the tired weight in his body, anyway.

The dreams, however... Can he say he has grown used to them, when it is all he thinks about as he is getting ready for work?

He recalls that Nie Huaisang is also alive in this lifetime. Is he happy?

Xichen tries his best to forget about it when he has finished dressing. Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang, Jin Guangyao... Whatever happened in the past should stay in the past. They are not weighed down by their past lives. He should stay away. He should stop thinking about them.

Easier said than done, but at least the trip to his library is quick. There are no Jiang Chengs glaring at him this morning and the elevator thankfully does not break while he is inside. Even if it does, it will be easier to fix it without the officer scrutinising his every move.

The weather is also better than yesterday. It is still cold, though the temperature does not affect his body either way. Xichen spares a moment to glance up at the sky, wondering if this sunshine will last until the afternoon. He hopes spring will arrive soon. The winter has always felt lonelier for him.

Most of the people he walks past look tired, unhappy to be in the cold rather than in the confines of their bed. While he is tired, he is grateful for any form of distraction to make these repetitive days pass by. Opening up this library is more an act of desperation rather than a job.

Xichen rounds the last corner. He can see his library at the end of this street, but stops when he hears noises coming from an alleyway. Frowning, he turns to it.

They sound like... children?

He walks towards the sounds, craning his head around the brick wall.

There are four of them. One is being pushed around while the other three are jeering and calling him names. It is only when the lone kid falls to the floor that Xichen catches a glimpse of his face.

Jin Ling.

Xichen steps out, coughing. Almost immediately, all of their heads snap up to look at him. The other kids are already starting to back away from Jin Ling. So young and ignorant; scared of getting into trouble despite creating it in the first place.

“I wonder how Officer Jiang will react if he finds out his nephew has been attacked,” Xichen says out loud. He does not miss the way Jin Ling's eyes widen at him, sheer horror at the idea of his uncle finding out.

As expected, the other kids are running away before he manages to finish that sentence. Xichen sighs, shaking his head. He feels quite sorry for them. Children like that have not grown up with the right form of guidance to direct them towards good or bad.

“Are you okay?” he asks Jin Ling, offering a hand. “Don't move so much, you are hurt.”

The young teenager's bottom lip trembles as he swats Xichen's hand away. Despite his warnings, Jin Ling pushes himself off the ground, clutching his head. It is bleeding—and quite a lot at that. He must have hit his head on the ground when he fell.

“I don't need your help!” he says, wiping his head in a hopeless attempt to stop the bleeding.

Of course, with all head wounds, they do not really stop bleeding, especially not with Jin Ling's flimsy hands.

“You are bleeding everywhere.”

Still, Jin Ling shakes his head. “You're that criminal with the cookies!”

Criminal with the cookies. Amazing. At least the addition of cookies somewhat makes this funny rather than the way Jiang Cheng calls him. Although, Xichen must admit there is not much improvement.

Jin Ling glares at him again, though it is hard to see when half his head is now covered in blood. He juts his chin and spins around, making for a dramatic exit.

And then starts to sway. The child groans, clutching his head.

“Careful,” Xichen says. He walks over and steadies him on his feet. This time, Jin Ling is too busy swaying to push him off.

“I said I don't need your help! It's not that bad! I beat those bastards up more than this!”

“Now, now.” Xichen raises his voice. “If your uncle were to find out you're injured and you were fighting, will he be happy?”

That gets him to be quiet. Jin Ling scowls at his shuffling feet.

“Come,” Xichen says. “I own a library nearby, I will treat your injury.”

Jin Ling says nothing, but the way he trails after Xichen makes it very obvious this is the last thing he wants to do. Xichen has to keep looking over his shoulder to check the teenager is still behind. He is, and he is glaring twice as hard. The blood makes it worse.

When they get to the library, Sizhui is already there. His smile is wiped off his face when he sees Jin Ling.

“Jin Ling! What happened to you?” Sizhui asks, rushing to him.

“He was fighting a few kids,” Xichen explains.

“The ones from school? Are they still at it?”

Jin Ling shakes him off. It is difficult to tell under the blood but Xichen sees a faint flush on his cheeks. “It's not a big deal! They were asking for it!”

Xichen unlocks the door, opening it for both teenagers. “Let us get you treated first. You're bleeding all over your clothes.”

He also wants to get Jin Ling inside because everyone walking past must be wondering why on earth this child looks as if a zombie has just attacked him.

Luckily, the wound itself is not that deep, mainly a large graze on his head. That still does not stop Jin Ling from making a big fuss, claiming Xichen is making it hurt more. Of course it will hurt if he needs to disinfect it. The alcohol is a stinging pain that lasts only for a few seconds. After they are done, Jin Ling is pouting but it is clear he is in no more pain. He grumbles a quick thank you, making it sound like a curse rather than gratitude. Even so, it is better than nothing.

Sizhui pats his head, fixing the bandages and brushing his hair back into place.

“Y-You don't need to fuss over me!” Jin Ling snaps. “Don't you have work to do!”

Xichen looks at them with amusement in his eyes. “There are no customers yet. You two relax and have fun.”

The bright smile Sizhui gives Jin Ling is no doubt the reason why his face turns red. Xichen cannot help but stare at them fondly. How nice it must be to be young and carefree. He has never had that luxury, and looking at them now, he must say he envies it. Xichen does not regret being born in his time; he is thankful he existed when cultivation was still a norm and not a myth as it is now. However, it does not stop him from wondering if he will be happier if he is given the chance to be reborn.

Starting anew and being able to choose what path he wishes to walk for himself, as opposed to all the expectations laid out before him from the day he was born. Humanity today has everything so easy. How can something look so empty and freeing at the same time?

“Jin Ling, what are your plans for today?” Xichen hears Sizhui asking.

“Nothing... Nothing much. Both my uncles have work so...”

Xichen hates that he looks up. Both his uncles? The other must be Jin Guangyao...

“You can stay here with Sizhui, if you like,” he says out loud.

He can see Jin Ling's narrowing eyes from the other side of the room. “What makes you think I want to stay with him?”

Nevertheless, Jin Ling does indeed stay for the whole day. In fact, he even helps around the library without Xichen needing to tell him. It's quite funny to watch; Jin Ling is clearly only following what Sizhui is doing for the sake of his own pride. He does not want to stand there and do nothing, therefore he helps with sorting books and tidying the library. All the while, he does this with the same haughty expression fixed on his face, though Xichen spots a few hidden smiles here and there.

With the two teenagers tending to the library, Xichen barely has to do anything but watch them from his seat. The customers leave with smiles on their faces, commenting on how well mannered they are. Sizhui is not a surprise, though Xichen will admit he did not expect this from Jin Ling.

Back then, his meetings with the Young Master Jin were few and scarce, even less than the rare times he interacted with Jiang Cheng. Jin Ling took over the position of Lanling Jin's Sect Leader after Jin Guangyao's demise, albeit it was an unsteady reign. There was unresolved tension between all the sects and it did not help Jiang Cheng was slowly, and steadily, becoming a victim to his own obsession in finding Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling, like many young cultivators, was forced to grow up too soon. It is a shame he also died too soon.

He was only twenty three when they found his lifeless body in the forest. A night hunt gone wrong, they said, but you can never trust rumours. Not when his uncle was with him, also dead, and the only ones who knew the answers to this sudden accident were the two of them.

Xichen rises from his seat. The past is the past, he repeats to himself. The past is the past.

“At this rate, I may need to start paying you too, Jin Ling,” he says.

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “I don't need your money... My family is rich.”

How rude of Xichen to even think of repaying him. Utterly unthinkable. He shouldn't have opened his mouth.

“You are offering work for free?”

“I-I only stayed today because I had nothing else to do! Don't think I'm coming back!”

Sizhui cranes his head, leaning closer to the lordly teenager. He gives him that angelic smile he gives everyone, although Jin Ling flinches as if he has never seen such a thing before.

“You can always come back, Jin Ling. I'll be here every weekend,” Sizhui says.

Xichen wonders if Sizhui can see Jin Ling's blush. If so, he does not say anything, not even when Jin Ling dramatically turns around to avoid his gaze.

“Why are you telling that to me?” Jin Ling mutters.

Something tells Xichen this will not be the last time he will see Jin Ling in this library. Although he can be boisterous and rude, Jin Ling's presence is not unwelcome. Xichen rather likes it. It is also nice to see Sizhui enjoying himself, and anyone with common sense can easily tell Jin Ling is too.

“Will you be staying with Officer Jiang tonight?” Xichen asks. “I can bring you back to the apartments as I'm on my way back.”

Jin Ling checks the time on his phone. “Hpmh. Okay.”

“How about you, Sizhui? Would you like me to drive you back home?”

Sizhui gives a short, almost awkward laugh. “Dad is having dinner with Teacher Wei... I don't want to interrupt them.”

Jin Ling lets out a noise that sounds a bit like a squawk. “Your dad is having dinner with who now?”

“Teacher Wei.”

Why?”

“I... think they like each other.”

“What the fuck?

“It is a big surprise.”

“Your dad has shit taste.”

Xichen coughs, interrupting both of them. Wangji's tastes aside, it is now four PM and they ought to go home.

Traffic makes the journey longer, turning a five minute drive into half an hour. When he glances at the front mirror, he sees that Jin Ling has fallen asleep with his head on Sizhui's shoulder. His nephew shrugs helplessly at him and Xichen thinks, not for the first time today, that it must be nice to be so young and carefree.

Jin Ling is still half asleep as they arrive at the apartments. He groggily thanks Xichen, which is just another sign that he is not fully awake. Before he goes, he makes sure to adjust his beanie hat in an obvious attempt of trying to cover the bandages underneath. No doubt he is going to try and hide the earlier incident from his uncle.

Perhaps Xichen should remind him his clothes have blood on them...

Never mind. Jin Ling walks off before he has the chance to.

He and Sizhui retreat to his own apartment, both deciding they would like a nice, warm drink after a long day's work. It is a plausible idea, but as soon as Xichen opens the door, he remembers the state of his apartment. Coming back to it now, it actually looks far worse than he remembers. Did he really sleep surrounded by all this?

“Uncle, what happened?” Sizhui gasps.

Xichen scratches his head, closing the door behind them. “I was... arranging a few things yesterday.”

Demolishing would have been a better verb.

Sizhui is as eager to help as ever, already getting started with picking books up from the floor.

“Not now, Sizhui,” Xichen says. “Let's have tea first. You have worked enough today.”

Hesitantly, Sizhui puts the books down and joins him in the kitchen. He is glad for the company; he does not want to dwell on his dreams or the revelation that Jin Guangyao is alive here if he is left alone. Sizhui is good for conversation too. The young boy tells him all about school and how much he is enjoying staying here in Gusu, which Xichen is glad for.

Sizhui vaguely knows he and Wangji are immortal. Vaguely in a sense that they told him when he asked why Wangji did not change like other parents did, why he always looked the same no matter how much taller Sizhui got. It is not really something a young child will grasp in their mind; why their father does not age and why they have to move countries every time someone notices.

Yet, Sizhui has never pried for more answers. He accepts everything with a smile, and it worries Xichen because he is all too familiar with hiding everything behind a pleasant mask.

They finish their tea when there is a knock at the door. Frowning, Xichen gets up. Who could that be? He is not expecting any visitors.

He opens it. Before him stands Jiang Cheng, who is not in his uniform for once. Instead, he is wearing a purple long-sleeved shirt and black slacks. The sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and Xichen catches sight of a strange, braided string bracelet on his wrist. It reminds him a bit of those friendship bracelets little children make for their best friends.

“Officer?” Xichen says, confused. If Jiang Cheng is going to search his house again, why is he dressed so casually? He is almost unrecognisable like this.

Jiang Cheng runs a hand through his short hair. “I...”

“Are you here to search my home again?”

No. I came here to thank you.”

Xichen's eyebrows raise. Now that is a surprise.

The officer frowns at him, but his voice remains calm. For once. “Jin Ling told me about today.”

“I was under the impression he did not want you to know.”

“Oh, he didn't.” At this, Jiang Cheng lets out a short smirk. “His clothes had blood on them and he's a shit liar so I made him tell me.”

Xichen has a feeling that conversation did not go very well at all.

“But anyway,” Jiang Cheng continues. “Thanks for helping him. You didn't have to.”

“You are welcome.”

For some reason, Jiang Cheng's eyebrows knit together even more. He folds his arms and lets out a displeased scoff. “You don't have to look so surprised that I'm thanking you!”

“Well, I must admit you thanking me is the last thing I expected...”

“Tch. Whatever.”

They stand there for a while. Xichen is not sure if that dismissive reply was a sign their conversation has already finished. He keeps his hand on the door handle and waits for the officer to leave.

Jiang Cheng doesn't. He tilts his head, looking behind Xichen.

“Aren't you going to tidy that up?” he asks.

Xichen glances over his shoulder. At this point, the state of his apartment is beginning to look homely in all its destruction.

“I have been meaning to,” he slowly says.

Jiang Cheng's dark eyes return to him. His scowl is gone, and Xichen is once again surprised to see he looks almost... sheepish?

“Also... sorry about yesterday,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “I, uh, shouldn't have wrecked your apartment. I don't even have a warrant to do it, so...”

A smile spreads onto Xichen's face. “That is fine. Technically, what you did was illegal, therefore I believe that cancels out my crime now.”

“That's not how it works.”

Jiang Cheng still has not left. In the corner of Xichen's eyes, he can see Sizhui peeking out, most likely wondering what is wrong. Xichen is also wondering why Jiang Cheng looks like he is struggling to say something.

“Uh. Do you need help cleaning that up?”

Xichen blinks. “Are you offering? How nice of you.”

“Shut up! Don't look so shocked!”

Xichen turns around, inspecting his apartment. In truth, he does not need any help. He should have cleaned all this yesterday, but the shock of seeing Jin Guangyao on the TV distracted him too much to do anything. He'd been planning to properly tidy everything when Sizhui leaves later, to distract himself from being alone.

Regardless, it must be rare for Jiang Cheng to offer help, let alone help him. Xichen was under the impression he is going to get arrested again tonight.

“I could do with some help,” he says, opening the door wider. “My nephew is still here, by the way. He's friends with Jin Ling. Perhaps Jin Ling will like to join us?”

“Hmm... I'll call him.”

He watches as Jiang Cheng takes out his phone, barking words at his nephew.

“He asked if you had any more cookies,” Jiang Cheng says after a while.

Xichen laughs at that. “I have a few left. He can have all of them.”

“Then yeah, he's coming.”

Cleaning the apartment does not take long, especially when you have three people helping you. Or two, and Jin Ling occasionally does something after eating a cookie. While tidying, Xichen catches glimpses of Jiang Cheng frowning at a few things, as if tempted to search them. He refrains from doing so, but Xichen is amused he is still convinced he has stolen the sword.

Well, he has. But it is not stealing if Xichen is taking back what is rightfully his. Jiang Cheng, however, does not need to know that.

They finish in less than an hour. Xichen offers tea for everyone (coffee for Jiang Cheng) while Sizhui and Jin Ling watch TV together on the couch. Jin Ling is a bit more animated, showing off about his father's business and how big their house is back in Lanling. Whatever is on TV now is ignored as Sizhui's whole attention is on his friend, patiently nodding at everything Jin Ling is spouting out.

Jiang Cheng sighs, shaking his head at what his nephew is saying. Both adults are sat by the kitchen counter, quietly sipping their drinks with only the sound of Jin Ling's boasting to fill the silence.

“Officer, are you ever going to ask for my name?” Xichen says all of a sudden. It only occurs to him now they have not introduced themselves to each other yet. “I'm afraid you will keep referring to me as 'Criminal'.”

“I remember asking for your name when I fined you...”

“That is hardly an introduction.”

Jiang Cheng shrugs. “Not my fault you didn't give me a good first impression.”

He takes another sip of his coffee, staring at Xichen from the corner of his eyes. After a while, he places his mug down and turns to him slightly.

“Lan Xichen, wasn't it?”

Xichen nods. “Yes. My birth name is Lan Huan.”

There is a slightly twitch in his eyebrows. Xichen is used to the reactions some people get when they realise him and his brother still use courtesy names. Now that it is rare for anyone in modern society to have one, they ought to stop using them, but it is a difficult habit to drop and the change isn't necessary. With their long hair and tendency to be... out of touch with modern behaviour, most simply assume the two brothers are old fashioned.

Jiang Cheng nods. He hesitates for a second before offering his hand. “I'm Jiang Cheng.”

Xichen stares down at his outstretched hand for a bit. He takes it, and they do an awkward handshake wherein Jiang Cheng's frown makes this slightly worse and Xichen tries his best to keep his amused smile to himself.

The officer's hand is softer than he expects. Jiang Cheng is the first to pull away, averting his eyes down at his empty mug.

“I still think you took the sword,” he mutters.

Xichen nearly rolls his eyes. He has been around Jin Ling for too long today.

“Believe what you like, Officer.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying's eyes keep darting to the clock. He's been pacing on this same spot for over fifteen minutes. At this point, he's going to wear a hole through this floor and fall through it. The good thing about that is that if he breaks a few bones, this dinner can be cancelled for a good reason and maybe he'll stop being anxious for nothing.

“What do you mean you're not sure about this?” Wen Qing says over the phone.

“I don't even want dinner with him! You made me accept!”

“You were practically a tomato on that table! You never blush!”

Wei Ying shakes his head. All this pacing is making him dizzy. He sits down and looks up at the clock for the hundredth time this afternoon.

“Do you know how much I ran just to find you guys?” he says. He practically tore through the entire city in less than five minutes to find them in that café!

“Oh, please.”

He hears Wen Qing sighing. She's probably rolling her eyes right now too.

“Do you really not want to go to this dinner?”

Her voice is softer. It makes Wei Ying sigh because that tone calls for a serious conversation and he doesn't know his thoughts enough to explain them.

It's not that he doesn't like Lan Zhan. He's a nice guy and there's also the added bonus that he's annoyingly attractive. Unlike previous guys he's dated before, Lan Zhan actually looks like he's not a dick. Yeah, he might be quiet and conversations with him sometimes feel like a funeral, but it's not as if Wei Ying hates being around him. If anything, he likes it. There, he'll admit he likes being around the guy—but he doesn't like that.

He doesn't need that.

“I mean... He's a nice guy, he really is,” Wei Ying mumbles. “But I don't want anything more, Wen Qing. I don't want to lead him on either.”

He really shouldn't have started texting him. He thought it wouldn't do any harm, but now that it's obvious everyone and their mother is apparently trying to get them together, Wei Ying is worried Lan Zhan might expect something from this.

“I'm happy you're trying so hard to get me laid but I don't want this,” Wei Ying continues. “I'm perfectly fine by myself.”

Wen Qing sighs again. “But you're still going tonight?”

“Well... I already said yes... Should I cancel?”

“No, at least give him a chance. Or see how tonight goes.”

Wei Ying falls silent. It's quarter to five. If he cancels now then he's going to feel like a dick for doing it last minute. Lan Zhan would have probably cooked dinner by now as well. Damn, why did he even agree to this in the first place? Food is nice, yeah, but this stress isn't!

“Listen,” Wen Qing continues. “Just forget about everything tonight and enjoy yourself, okay? You said yourself the guy is nice.”

What if he's too nice? Wei Ying almost asks. What if he enjoys himself too much? Then what?

“He is...” Wei Ying mumbles.

“Just see how you feel after tonight. And then if you really don't want anything more then I'll back off as well.”

He lets out a groan. He's fighting a losing battle here. “Fine, fine.”

“Tell me how it goes. If you don't want him then I'll introduce him to A-Ning.”

Wei Ying has to laugh at that. He'd like to see that. Lan Zhan doesn't talk and Wen Ning can barely talk. How will that even work?

His phone vibrates. He looks at the screen and sees Lan Zhan texting that he's already outside. Shit. Guess he really can't cancel the date now.

Dinner. Not date.

“He's outside,” Wei Ying tells Wen Qing. “I gotta go.”

“Have fun. Tell me how it goes later!”

“I will, I will.”

Before he leaves, Wei Ying checks himself in the mirror. He didn't want to look like he was putting too much effort in an outfit so he just chose to wear another black turtle neck jumper with jeans. Now that he thinks about it, maybe he looks too dreary wearing black. Should he have worn more colour instead? What if Lan Zhan is all formal and he's here wearing jeans? Should he tie his hair up? He's left it loose for tonight, but it's doing that thing where it's sticking up everywhere no matter how many times Wei Ying tries to tidy it.

Fuck, why is he even worrying about this? He sends his own reflection a frown.

Well, at least these jeans makes his ass look good.

He grabs his coat and leaves, wishing tonight will go by without any problems. He'll go there, eat dinner, make nice conversation with Lan Zhan, and then leave. And that's it. No more flirting or going on more dinners. That's it.

Lan Zhan's white car is as spotless as ever in the car park. Wei Ying wraps his coat around himself and runs over, shivering. Before he reaches it, Lan Zhan gets out of the car, opening his door for him.

Shit, he isn't even wearing a coat! Isn't he freezing?

He flashes the taller man a quick smile before diving inside, his whole body trembling from the cold.

Lan Zhan is only wearing a light blue shirt and black trousers. He has a blazer on as well, but it doesn't look thick enough for this weather.

“Hello, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says as he gets in the car. “Aren't you cold?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head, starting the engine. His hair is loose for once and Wei Ying takes a moment to see just how long it is. For its length, it looks really soft and smooth... and nice. He pulls off the whole I-just-stepped-out-of-Ancient-China look very well.

The drive to Lan Zhan's house is quiet. Too quiet. Wei Ying is too busy repeating Wen Qing's words in his head. Just enjoy tonight... Stop worrying over everything....

He stares out of the window, having only just realised that the houses they're driving past are getting bigger and bigger. Wei Ying has never been to this part of the city before. This neighbourhood makes Burial Complex look like a cemetery—more so than usual.

They finally stop outside of a house. It looks similar to the other ones around it, though that doesn't make it any less impressive. From how big it is, Wei Ying guesses it's at least three stories high. The front garden is probably larger than Wei Ying's living room and kitchen put together. Despite the season, he can still see flowers standing tall and bright; there are rose bushes that are neatly trimmed in shape and even a little bird fountain surrounded by ivy.

“Wow,” Wei Ying breathes, stepping out. He should have expected Lan Zhan would live in a nice house, but he didn't expect how nice.

And this is just the outside! As soon as he steps inside, Wei Ying feels bad for even taking his shoes off. He should have worn cleaner ones; just leaving them there on the floor is making him feel bad.

He's surprised at how the interior looks very sleek and modern. The floor itself is a creamy marble, without a single speck of dirt or dust on it at all. It's so clean Wei Ying can literally see his reflection. The walls are white, and a lot of the furniture has a silver or glass theme to it, making everything look so shiny. From what he can see, everything is monochrome. There doesn't seem to be any furniture that isn't black or white, or something in between. The only spot of colour he can find are the plants that hang on the walls, or the flower vases on the tables.

The house isn't huge—but it's big and expensive looking enough for Wei Ying to feel out of place.

“It's just you and Sizhui living here?” he asks, turning to Lan Zhan. The smell of sandalwood is strong in this house. Wei Ying takes a deep breath.

Lan Zhan nods. He slips off his blazer, smoothing down the non-existent creases on his shirt.

“Yes,” he says. “He is not here now though.”

“Oh. Where is he?”

“With my brother.”

So that means he's alone here with Lan Zhan? Well, great. Wei Ying grits his teeth and nods slowly. This is only dinner. They're just going to eat and talk and then he can forget about all of this by tomorrow. Nothing to worry about! Nothing!

“So, Lan Zhan, what have you got for dinner?” Wei Ying asks. “You know, I specifically didn't eat anything today just for this.”

He receives a frown. “That is not healthy.”

Sometimes, talking to Lan Zhan makes him feel like Lan Zhan is the teacher, not him. He lets out a quick laugh and pats the taller man on the arm.

“Better feed me then.”

Lan Zhan nods. “I will lay out the table then.”

Wei Ying follows him, his eyes travelling around the large house. It really does look empty with just him and Lan Zhan here. He wonders what living here with the silent man must feel like. Sizhui doesn't strike him as a talkative person either; this must be a very quiet house with just the two of them.

“Here, let me help,” Wei Ying says. “Where are your plates and chopsticks?”

Lan Zhan points to a cupboard in the kitchen. Wei Ying does his best not to drop any of his fancy plates. One plate is probably more expensive than his groceries for one week. He lays out all of the plates and bowls, watching when Lan Zhan slowly fills the entire table with an assortment of food.

There's so much; from soup, congee, vegetables, beef, tofu... Wei Ying sees a plate of sea bass with ginger and spring onions, and... is that chilli he smells? In another bowl, there is crispy chicken on a bed of red and green peppers. When he takes a closer look, he spots chilli flakes sprinkled on the chicken and the sauce. Egg fried rice, steamed wontons, bowls and bowls of different vegetables...

Is Lan Zhan feeding an army?

“Wow, you cooked so much. Are you sure this is enough?” Wei Ying laughs. It all smells so good though. He's glad he barely ate anything today.

“You said you have not eaten all day,” Lan Zhan says, sitting down.

Wei Ying sits opposite him, still eyeing everything on the table. He doesn't think he's ever sat in front of so much food.

“Even I don't think I'm this hungry—but this does look good. Part of me expected you'd give me a salad or something.”

Lan Zhan lifts a drink to his lips. Wei Ying catches the faintest sight of a smile behind the glass.

He doesn't know where to start eating. He sips a bit of the soup and sighs at the warmth that travels down his throat. That tastes good! It's especially nice after he almost froze outside. He takes more sips, still deciding what to add on his plate first.

His eyes land on the chicken with all the chilli.

“Spicy!” Wei Ying comments as soon as he bites into one, eyes widening at the sudden heat that explodes in his mouth. He takes another bite.

Lan Zhan's gaze is fixed on him, watching his every reaction. He tries the other bowls, picking up some beef with his chopsticks.

Nice. Oh, this is spicy too! Do you like spicy food, Lan Zhan?”

“...Yes.”

Even as he says that, Wei Ying notices he doesn't touch any of the meat on the table. He sticks to all of the vegetables or the tofu, quietly eating each one. Compared to Wei Ying, who is shoving everything down in throat, Lan Zhan is the very picture of beauty and grace.

Looking up, Wei Ying wipes his mouth with a napkin. “You and Sizhui came from London, right? Were you a music tutor there too?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “I was a university tutor for a few years.”

Okay, well that explains why he acts more like a teacher than Wei Ying does.

“I always knew you looked like a teacher. What did you teach?”

“History.”

Wei Ying expected something like math or music, but history works too. Lan Zhan literally looks like he's part of history anyway.

He continues to look at the silent man, wanting to ask more questions though also knowing he shouldn't get too ahead of himself. Everything about this man is so contradictory and it frustrates Wei Ying that his natural reaction to it is curiosity. The way Lan Zhan acts; it's almost as if he knows Wei Ying, and yet he maintains enough distance for the teacher to think he's just being paranoid.

Lan Zhan is quiet and likes to keep to himself, and yet he's always offering to help Wei Ying.

Maybe he's just friendly?

Maybe. But something tells Wei Ying that's not the case.

“What made you adopt Sizhui, if you don't mind me asking?” he asks, hoping the question isn't too personal.

Fortunately, Lan Zhan's face doesn't change. “I found him abandoned in the streets. He was only five.”

Wei Ying nearly drops his chopsticks. “Oh, wow. That's horrible.”

“Hmm.”

He thinks back to the polite student, how every morning he'd greet Wei Ying with a large smile and tell him he hopes he has a nice day. It's a shame his real parents did not appreciate such a nice child.

“Does he... Does he know?” Wei Ying asks. “That you're not his real dad?”

Lan Zhan nods.

“Ah, okay. He's such a nice, happy kid. I would have never known. You raised him up very well, Lan Zhan.”

Wei Ying flashes Lan Zhan a genuine smile, but he doesn't even notice. He's staring down at his food, lips pressed together.

“What's with that look?”

“He... becomes lonely.”

“Lonely?”

Lan Zhan averts his eyes back to Wei Ying. “We move a lot. Cannot stay in one place for too long.”

“Why's that?”

All the other man does is shake his head. He doesn't answer the question, instead reaching across the table for some more vegetables. Silently, Wei Ying watches him take a bite out of the lotus roots.

He frowns. Was his question too personal? What on earth could be the reason for why they had to move around a lot?

“Well, he's... what, fifteen now?” Wei Ying continues, trying not to think too much on why Lan Zhan didn't answer. “Three years on and he'll probably be going to university or something.”

It's an attempt to comfort the other man, but Wei Ying winces at how useless it is. Basically, he's saying Don't worry about your son being lonely; he's going to leave you soon anyway!

Idiot!

“Hmm,” is all Lan Zhan responds with.

Hmm, you're an idiot, Wei Ying.

“You said you were born in Yunmeng,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying is glad for the subject change.

“Yeah, and then moved here.”

“You have always lived here?”

“Pretty much. I spent some time in America in my twenties... Didn't like it much so I moved back here.”

It's half the truth. He only went to America because he wanted to see how Yanli was doing. He got to the entrance of the hospital and asked himself if he really deserved to see her, after everything he did.

The answer was no. Wei Ying turned back around, spending the rest of his days drinking and letting strangers help him forget about how stupid he was for even going to America in the first place. He stayed there for almost a year until the loneliness got too much. It also didn't feel right being that close to Yanli. He felt he needed to stay away. It was the least he could do.

“Tell me... about yourself.”

Wei Ying raises an eyebrow. “Eh? Me?”

“Yes.”

“Uh...” Wei Ying puts his chopsticks down, scratching his head. “Well, my birthday is on Halloween... I'm thirty-three years old. Uh, I like spicy food as you can tell.”

Lan Zhan nods. The expression he has on his face looks like he's expecting more.

Unfortunately for him, Wei Ying's brain has gone blank. “I don't really know. There's nothing interesting about me, Lan Zhan.”

“Wrong.”

How do you know that?

Wei Ying breaks eye contact, feeling his cheeks heat up. Lan Zhan's gaze is too heavy on him and he doesn't know how to respond to that. They barely know each other; why is he so eager to know more about him? He's really not that interesting at all.

He can't say he's not flattered, because he is, but most of all he's confused.

“Um.” Wei Ying racks his brains for anything. “I... don't remember my real parents much.”

“Why?”

“There... was a burglar attack at our house when I was six. They were killed.”

This is certainly a bright conversation. He could have chosen anything to tell Lan Zhan and he decides to go for this.

“I am sorry,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying shrugs. He reaches for one of the steamed wontons and pops it into his mouth. “Like I said, I don't remember them so... it doesn't really hurt if you don't have any memories to miss.”

“You... are adopted too?”

The wonton becomes hard to swallow. He winces, wiping his mouth. “I, uh, was. My, um, adopted parents... They passed away as well.”

Unlike his real parents, he remembers that. If only he didn't.

“I see.”

Wei Ying forces out a laugh. “I guess you can say I'm cursed.”

“You are not.”

You don't know that.

Lan Zhan is only being polite. Would he still say the same things if he actually found out what Wei Ying did? Would he still be here, having dinner with him?

Anyway,” Wei Ying says. It's his fault for bringing up the subject of his own parents. Don't bring up personal topics if you're going to regret it after.

“How about you, Lan Zhan? Tell me about yourself—actually, how old are you?”

He must be older than him, though he doesn't look much older. Maybe just a couple of years.

Lan Zhan doesn't answer straight away. He stares at a bowl of tofu, eyebrows slightly furrowed.

A minute passes and he still doesn't say anything.

Wei Ying blinks. “Why do you look like you've literally forgotten your own age?”

“Thirty... three. Or thirty five.”

“How is there a two year gap?” Wei Ying asks, laughing. “You're not even that old to forget your own age. Silly, silly Lan Zhan.”

He stares at the man sat opposite him. There's a timeless quality about him; you could say he was twenty five or forty and Wei Ying would believe either of it. While Lan Zhan didn't have any wrinkles or any blemishes on his skin at all, the way he presented himself made him look much, much older.

“Do you have family living here?”

“Our parents died a long time ago,” Lan Zhan says. He has stopped eating now, leaning back on the chair and staring at Wei Ying as well. “We have an uncle. Jingyi's grandfather.”

There is no change in his expression or his voice when he talks about his parents passing away. It really must have been a long time ago then.

Wei Ying nods, suddenly remembering something. “Your brother. Are you two twins or something?”

A shake of the head. “He is older by three years.”

Three years? Wei Ying could have sworn those two looked like mirror reflections when he met Lan Zhan's brother.

“You two literally look the same...” he mumbles, eyes trailing to the last piece of chicken in the bowl. “Hm, are you gonna eat that?”

Another shake of the head.

Happily, Wei Ying eats the last piece of chicken, patting his stomach when he's done. They actually managed to clear all of the plates. Wei Ying must have been more hungry than he thought, and it helped the food was so good.

He helps Lan Zhan clear the table, insisting he can bring all of the plates to the kitchen. Lan Zhan has already started to wash them at the sink when Wei Ying strides over to him, grabbing one of the glasses in his hand.

“Let me help with washing up,” he says. “It's the least I can do.”

Lan Zhan says nothing. He takes one step to the right, allowing Wei Ying to stand beside him in front of the sink. They wash the dishes together, and Wei Ying is suddenly very aware of how close they are stood like this. Sometimes, they'll bump elbows and mutter apologies to each other. Still,neither move away.

Isn't this a bit too much like those movies where the couple do domestic shit together?

Wei Ying bites his bottom lip. No, he's over-thinking. He's just being polite. Lan Zhan went through all this trouble cooking for him; he should at least help with washing up!

He reaches for the last dish.

Lan Zhan has the same idea.

Their hands touch—and fuck, this really is a romcom movie!

Wei Ying flinches, snatching his hand back as if it burnt. He looks away, cheeks flushing, and forces out a laugh that sounds more like he's choking.

“S-Sorry,” he mutters, watching as Lan Zhan cleans the last dish.

His hands are slender and graceful, even when doing something trivial such as this. It's kind of annoying.

As soon as they're done, Wei Ying looks at the time on his phone. Over an hour has already passed. He should really go. They never really planned anything after dinner and there's no way Wei Ying wants anything more. Lan Zhan probably wants to rest after all this anyway...

He turns to the older man, taking a deep breath.

And then something fluffy catches his eye.

Frowning, Wei Ying walks closer, squatting down. It's a bunny. There's a white bunny on the floor.

Aaw, what the fuck?

Wei Ying is so overcome by how fluffy and cute it is that he forgets about leaving. He slowly reaches for the bundle of fluff—but it hops away before he can touch it.

He stands up, laughing as he follows the small thing. Keeping a bunny is the last thing Wei Ying expected from someone like Lan Zhan.

The white rabbit leads him into another room. As soon as he steps inside, Wei Ying's jaw drops.

There's a whole group of them! It's a room just for rabbits! Fences are placed around the room, creating something that resembles both a rabbit pen and a maze. Around the pen, Wei Ying sees fresh vegetables and small toys laying around. He quickly counts how many bunnies he can see; three white ones and three black ones.

Shocked, Wei Ying turns around. Lan Zhan has followed him into the room, face still empty. He strides over to one of the rabbits on the floor and kneels down, taking it into his lap. The little black rabbit nuzzles its nose against his hand, letting him stroke it.

Oh no, Wei Ying thinks. That's cute.

Lan Zhan has hit him with his weakness: fluffy animals (NOT dogs).

He sits down beside Lan Zhan, grinning as more rabbits hop over to them. Most of them group around Lan Zhan, jumping onto his lap while some even nudge Wei Ying's leg. He gently takes one of the white rabbits into his arms, stroking its soft ears. Rabbits don't usually like being held but these ones seem perfectly fine with it.

“Lan Zhan, you didn't tell me you had a bunch of rabbits,” Wei Ying says. “They're so cute!”

Lan Zhan makes a content noise. While his face is as deadpan as ever, there's a gentleness in his eyes that makes Wei Ying's chest feel all warm. He looks down at the rabbit on his lap and continues to rub its ear.

It wiggles in his arms, jumping out. Wei Ying raises as eyebrow, watching as it hops out the room. These things are so active; it's a miracle Lan Zhan's house stays neat and clean.

Sighing, he stands up and decides to follow it. The next room he steps in is much bigger. At the end of it stands a large black piano, which he guesses is where Lan Zhan must teach Jingyi for his lessons. But that's not the only thing in this room. Wei Ying also sees other instruments; there's a harp on the left corner, a violin stand near him, a flute...

What catches his eye the most is the guqin in the centre of the room. He slowly approaches it, running his eyes over the ebony black surface and the seven strings. His breath hitches. He can almost hear the sound it makes without it needing to be played. He's seen this before.

But where?

Wei Ying breathes in. His breath comes out shaky.

“You can play the guqin?” he asks Lan Zhan, turning to him.

Lan Zhan's golden eyes feel like they're burning. He nods once.

“Play for me,” Wei Ying says. He sits down in front of the guqin, tempted to stroke a finger along it, to see if it would feel familiar too.

The white rabbit from earlier comes back, settling onto Wei Ying's lap. He rubs it again, watching Lan Zhan kneeling down in front of the guqin. When Wei Ying breathes, the smell of sandalwood and rain is stronger, closer. It's Lan Zhan's scent, he realises now, and he's everywhere.

Then, he starts playing.

It's the same song he played to Wei Ying over the phone. On the guqin, the notes echo and reverberate through this room. Each strum shakes the teacher and everything shudders in silence until it's followed by another note, and another. It's much different played on the guqin, it's much different played here. All Wei Ying can do is stare at Lan Zhan while he plays, eyes closed, stroking the guqin as he always has.

Wei Ying freezes.

As... he always has?

Lan Zhan opens his eyes.

Wei Ying swallows the lump in his throat. The room feels hotter, hallow. He struggles to breathe and it's like there's this sudden fever coursing through his body. The music room is gone. He's frozen on the spot, unable to look around, but Lan Zhan is in front of him in white robes and a ribbon around his head.

“Wei Ying.”

Once he blinks, Lan Zhan is back to wearing his shirt and jeans. His golden eyes are boring straight through him.

“Lan... Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Have we... Have we met before?”

The music stops. Lan Zhan's eyes are wide.

He grabs Wei Ying's wrist.

Something flashes. Wei Ying blinks and sees a spectrum of images.

It’s Emperor’s Smile! If I share a jar with you, can you pretend that you never saw me?

The moon is large, and this man's robes are brighter than the light it gives off. His eyes are cold, the sword in his hand glinting as he points it towards him.

Time rushes faster than their duel. They sit in a study, with papers and papers scattered around them. The man refuses to talk, not even when Wei Ying repeats his name again. Again.

Let me ask you a question. Do you… really hate me that much?

Those golden eyes are brighter and alive, burning with an anger that screams over his silence.

Get lost!

His voice breaks the reverie. The images shatter. Wei Ying flinches, snatching his hand away. He blinks and blinks, and they're back in the music room.

He stands up, stumbling over his own feet. Lan Zhan reaches out to steady him, but Wei Ying is quick to push him away. The rabbit on his lap has now scurried off.

What happened? What happened?

It's hard to breathe. His thoughts are circling around and around, and he's losing grasp of the past few minutes. He remembers the music... He remembers Lan Zhan staring at him... but what were those things he saw? Flashbacks? Hallucinations? What the fuck is happening to him?

“Wei Ying.”

He clutches his head. “S-Sorry, I don't... I don't know what came over me.”

Lan Zhan walks around the guqin, closer to him. Wei Ying needs space. He needs to breathe.

“What happened?”

Wei Ying ignores him. He turns around and all he can see is the door. He wants to leave. He needs to leave.

Wei Ying.”

“Don't worry,” he forces out. “I'm fine. I should go.”

A hand closes around his wrist before he can walk out of the door. It's warm, soft, and Wei Ying can do nothing but tremble and wish he would let him go.

“Wait,” Lan Zhan says.

“I don't want to waste any more of your time, Lan Zhan.”

The hand tightens. “Stay.”

When Wei Ying looks over his shoulder, Lan Zhan's gaze is intense. He's shaking just as much as Wei Ying is.

Wei Ying slips his hand out of Lan Zhan's grip. “I'm... I'm not staying.”

He takes a step back, The distance between them finally allows him to think.

He doesn't know who Lan Zhan is, or what he wants. If he stares at him for long enough, Wei Ying's eyes blur and it's replaced by a figure of a man in white robes, eyes that hold nothing but hatred for him.

He doesn't know want to know who Lan Zhan is.

“I... I don't know what you expect from me, but I... I don't want... anything more,” Wei Ying says. “Okay?”

Lan Zhan's lips part. There are no words that come out of him.

“I'm sorry if you expected more,” Wei Ying continues. “But I'm not looking for that. I don't want to lead you on.”

Wei Ying does not miss the way Lan Zhan's fists clench. Shaking.

Why? Why?

Why is he like this? Why does he look like he care so much?

There's nothing going on between them. They haven't known each other long enough for Lan Zhan to care.

“Are you... I'm... I'm really sorry,” Wei Ying says. “This is why I didn't want Wen Qing to talk to you in case she said something—”

Lan Zhan nods, looking away. “It is fine. If that is what you want.”

“Yes. Yes, it's... it's for the best.” Wei Ying nods back. He should go. He needs to go. “I'll... I'll walk back. Evening walks are nice, anyway.”

It's a lie. He doesn't know his way back and he'll probably end up calling a taxi, but he needs to go.

Lan Zhan nods again. It seems that's all they can do now.

He leads Wei Ying back to the entrance, handing his coat to him. They make sure not to brush hands.

“Thank you for tonight, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

“You too.”

They remain there for a second too long, staring at each other. Wei Ying's foot is almost out of the door, every part of him wanting to leave and never turn back.

“I'll... see you around school,” Wei Ying says. The smile he gives is barely a smile at all.

He leaves before Lan Zhan can respond, stepping out into the cold. He walks and walks, ignoring the breeze that bites him. Even as he reaches the end of the street, he knows Lan Zhan still hasn't closed the door, not until he's out of sight.

It's pitch black outside now. Above him, there are barely any stars, and the moon is a slither of white in the void. He should call a taxi before he gets lost, but he doesn't. He keeps walking, not knowing where to go, not knowing what to do.

What happened back there? What's happening to him? Who is Lan Zhan? Why does he feel so familiar?

He's just tired. This is nothing. This is nothing, and tomorrow he'll be fine and he'll tell Wen Qing to stop pestering him about Lan Zhan. Tomorrow, he'll go back to not bothering with any of these dates and everything will be just as it used to be.

He walks until he can no longer feel the cold. He walks until there are no more houses and the path has turned thin. There is a forest before him, darkness staring back.

Finally, he stops.

There's someone.

A woman emerges from the forest, eyes as dark as the shadows that engulf the trees. Her walk is slow, too slow. She wears all white, and it makes her skin look paler. There's something ghostly about her, something inhuman, and Wei Ying is not sure why he is still standing here staring back.

When she speaks, her voice is everywhere. It does not come from her. It speaks through the air that sends goosebumps up his arms. It speaks through the trees that sway in the darkness. It speaks through the moon covered in the mist.

“You have been given a second chance after all these years. Still, you choose to squander it.”

Wei Ying shudders. “What?”

He blinks, and she is gone. He whirls around, checking the darkness around him to see where she has disappeared. There is nothing. No rustle of sound, no movement of trees. The only thing he can hear is the sickening rampage of his pulse.

He is alone.

Was it real? Is he seeing things? Shaking, he wraps his arms around himself and backs away from the forest. His eyes dart everywhere, unable to shake off the feeling he is being watched.

It is not long until he finally calls a taxi. Even when he stumbles back into the safe confines of his own apartment, Wei Ying cannot bring himself to turn off the lights. He closes all of the curtains and double checks to make sure the locks are in place.

After two hours of staring wide eyed at the ceiling, he falls asleep. In his dreams, he sees golden eyes piercing through him. There's nothing but anger and disdain in those eyes. This man, whoever he is, hates Wei Ying down to the very core of his soul.

 

 

Chapter Text

Breakfast, as usual, is quiet. Wangji silently flickers through the newspaper, his eyes skimming each article with little interest. Human affairs do not matter to him, less so their excitement with celebrities or trends he has never managed to understand. He does not even spare a glance at the articles about new films and drama shows. Jingyi will end up telling him all about them anyway, rather than actually playing the piano as Wangji will request him to.

At this point, Wangji has lost hope in reaching his uncle's expectations of what he wants from Jingyi. He will have to talk to him about discontinuing Jingyi's lessons—not that it will stop the teenager from barging into his house every weekend to pester Sizhui.

Wangji takes a quick sip of his coffee, reading through one article. Trouble in the Nightless City, the title reads, catching him off guard.

He soon finds it is nothing to worry about. The Nightless City now, it seems, is a large casino in Qishan. Nothing like the grandeur residence of the Wens, where the sun apparently never set, and where their flames burned too bright even for them. Wangji quickly reads through the article, skipping most of the details. The casino has only opened recently, although it is already popular among celebrities and the rich. Perhaps the only thing it has in common with the original Nightless City is that this casino is attracting trouble too, with fights and disputes happening within its halls almost everyday.

But that is what happens when you gather the greedy together. Wangji shakes his head to himself. Humanity and its thirst for material possessions is what he hates the most about modern society. With a sigh, he puts the newspaper down.

Sizhui looks up from his breakfast. “Dad... How are you?”

Wangji raises an eyebrow.

“...I don't mean to pry but aren't you talking to Teacher Wei anymore?”

He takes a slow gulp of his drink. No, would be the answer to that. Not in two weeks. Wei Ying has not sent him a single text and Wangji does not want to disturb him. They cross paths whenever he needs to pick Sizhui up from school, but their quick greetings are empty and awkward, at best. Wei Ying's smile never reaches his eyes.

Wangji shakes his head.

“Oh,” Sizhui says, shoulders slumping. “I thought...”

“It is nothing.”

That is what he tries to convince himself anyway. As long as Wei Ying is safe, then this is enough. Wei Ying has never belonged to him; Wangji has no right to try and change this fate.

Sizhui lets out a sigh, pushing his bowl away from him. He has not finished his breakfast today.

“What is wrong?” Wangji asks.

For some reason, the teenager refuses to meet his eyes. It is rare for Sizhui to mumble, let alone fidget like this. Wangji hears him taking a breath before finally speaking.

“Dad, I know you've lived for a long time...”

Wangji frowns. This is new. Sizhui never talks about this. The only time they have discussed Wangji's immortality was when a nine year old Sizhui first asked about it. Wangji was beginning to think he had forgotten about it after all these years.

That, or he wanted to maintain a normal life despite his father figure being immortal.

“I want you to be happy,” Sizhui says. He hesitantly meets Wangji's eyes, cautious.

How many times has he come across Sizhui's incarnations? How many times has he taken him in? Sometimes, when Wangji looks at him, he sees the polite disciple he used to be; sword in one hand and a talisman in the other. Sometimes, he sees him much younger, under a different name; his smile as wide as Wei Ying's once was.

Wangji has not thought about it for some time. Why does he continue to take in Sizhui, even after every version of him eventually moves on? He has lost count of the amount of times Sizhui grows up before his very eyes. He does not even count their goodbyes. If Sizhui does not question the fact he never ages, then Wangji will maintain the act until he must leave.

He hates leaving the most, but there is some comfort in Sizhui being old enough to take care of himself, finding happiness in other people who can age with him.

He wonders how he will say goodbye to Sizhui this time.

He wonders if he will have to say goodbye to Wei Ying as well. If he can do that.

Wangji is the first to break eye contact. Thinking about this gets him nowhere.

“I don't understand a lot of things and I don't want to bring up anything that may be painful but...” Sizhui pauses for a second. “Is Teacher Wei someone you used to know?”

A flash of a grin, laughter echoing in his ears. It's gone in seconds and all he sees are red eyes looking back at him; cold, uncaring.

“...Yes,” Wangji says.

Sizhui leans a little bit closer. “Were you two close?”

Wangji swallows the lump in his throat. “A bit.”

They were closer than they are now, at least. Wei Ying does not even consider him an acquaintance anymore. 

“Dad... You know what they say? The body remembers what the mind has forgotten,” Sizhui says. His face spreads into a small smile. “I'm sure everything will fall into place.”

There is hope in Sizhui's eyes that Wangji will consider naïve, and still, he takes his words to heart. The body remembers what the mind has forgotten. If Wei Ying remembers, is that a good thing? Wei Ying's memories are filled with pain and suffering. Wangji only wants nothing but happiness for him.

He remembers their last encounter; the way Wei Ying's eyes clouded as if he saw something Wangji did not.

Have we met before?

Wangji's heart lurched at those words. He had grabbed Wei Ying then, desperate to see some recognition in his eyes—but there was nothing. Completely nothing. Wei Ying walked away from him and Wangji let him. Again. It is the only thing he can do.

“By the way... It's parent's evening later.”

He looks up. Sizhui is gathering his things for school.

“I am aware,” he says.

“You don't have to go if you don't want to—”

“I will go,” Wangji says, shaking his head. “You are my son.”

Sizhui stops what he is doing, arms frozen. He does not say anything, but the smile he gives Wangji is enough of a response. There was a time when Wangji kept some distance between them, be it because of cultivator status, or his inability to interact with most. But now, he can say for certain, that whoever Sizhui is, or wherever he is, Wangji will always see him as his son.

“I should go for my bus,” Sizhui says. “Goodbye, Dad.”

Wangji nods. “Have a nice day.”

When he leaves, the house is filled with a silence that is no longer comforting for Wangji. He stares down at his mug of coffee, catching a rippling reflection of himself on the black liquid. He has not changed at all. Everyone and everything moves around him, and he is stuck in the same place he has always been.

Wei Ying, too, will move on again. Wangji can only watch him.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying stifles a yawn behind his hand. Today could not have gone any slower—and it isn't even over yet. He has Parents' Evening to suffer through. Before that happens, he'll have to down at least three cups of coffee to keep himself awake at this point.

Two weeks. Two weeks of these weird dreams keeping him up at night! Constantly waking up in the middle of the night and having an existential crisis is bad enough, but not knowing where to even start with deciphering these dreams makes things even worse. What is going on with him?

He considered telling Wen Qing about it—but what the fuck can she do? She's a doctor. She helps with illnesses or disease or whatever, not creepy dreams that are making Wei Ying question his whole existence. At the very least, it'll cement the fact he's finally going insane.

No, he shouldn't tell anyone about this. He's praying it'll just go away if he keeps pretending everything is okay.

So far, that's not working.

He yawns again, rubbing his eyes.

A small cough draws his attention. Wei Ying looks up, finding his class is already empty, save for Lan Sizhui who is standing in the middle of the room. He hesitantly approaches the teacher.

“Sizhui? What is it?”

Sizhui pulls at his bag strap. “I wanted to talk to you... about Jin Ling.”

To be honest, Wei Ying expected him to mention his father. How long has it been since he last spoke to Lan Zhan? Over two weeks, right?

He sits back down on his chair and blinks several times, trying not to make it too obvious he is half asleep.

“Oh, what's wrong?” he asks the teenager.

“Those kids from last time... They're still going after him.”

Wei Ying frowns. Those kids they had that fight with ages ago? It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was just last month. After the incident, the rumours about Jin Ling died and everyone seemed to have moved on. Children are little shits when it comes to someone new, especially if that someone looks different or stuck up. Wei Ying was hoping that it meant everyone got bored of judging Jin Ling and finally left him alone.

“Well, they got into a fight out of school two weeks ago,” Sizhui continues. “I wanted to tell you sooner but Jin Ling wouldn't have it.”

Wei Ying sighs. Of course he wouldn't have wanted him to know. No doubt Jin Ling didn't even want his own family to know, let alone someone he hates.

“I don't think they've been getting into any more fights recently because Jingyi and I are always with him... Still, I don't like seeing the way they treat Jin Ling,” Sizhui says. His eyebrows knit together. There is genuine concern on his face.

Wei Ying nods. “Thanks for telling me. I'll have a talk with them next time.”

He still can't remember what the names are of those kids fighting with Jin Ling. He'll recognise their faces when he sees them again, then he can yell at them to drop it.

“It's good he has you and Jingyi for friends,” Wei Ying adds with a smile.

Jin Ling isn't the easiest person to talk to; he got his stuck up attitude from his dad and his temper from Jiang Cheng. It doesn't help Jin Guangyao looks after him as well, so fuck knows what he ends up teaching Jin Ling. Last he heard, that midget gave Jin Ling a dog. A dog, of all things! Wei Ying is half convinced that was Jiang Cheng's idea just to spite him.

“I like him,” Sizhui says, laughing slightly. Then, he blinks and scratches his head. “I mean, as a friend. He's nice when you get to know him.”

The little blush on his face is a bit too suspicious. Wei Ying rests his chin on a palm and raises one eyebrow, watching Sizhui's ears flush slightly. It takes all of his strength not to burst out laughing.

“I-It's not like that, Teacher Wei!” Sizhui insists. He desperately looks away, but it just gives the teacher a better view of his reddening ears.

This time, Wei Ying does let out a laugh. “I'm not saying anything. What are you getting all shy for?”

Sizhui stays quiet. The teacher decides to spare him the embarrassment and stops laughing. How cute though. What he'd give to be young again, only worrying about high school crushes and your grades!

Life was so much easier back in high school. His grades were great without him even needing to do anything, which only pissed Jiang Cheng off because he made sure to study every night. 

He lets out a deep sigh. “Is your dad going to Parent's Evening later?” he asks.

Why is he even asking?

Sizhui nods. “Yes, Teacher Wei.”

So they will see each other then... Wei Ying is not sure how he feels about that.

“Hmm. How has he been?”

“Um, he's been well. Quiet as usual.”

Wei Ying is smiling before he realises it. “Is he quiet with you too?”

Sizhui lets out a low chuckle. “He has always been like that, Teacher Wei. But he's a good father.”

He doesn't need to tell that to Wei Ying. The teacher remembers how much Lan Zhan cooked for him, how he didn't mind at all when a bunch of rabbits were climbing all over his shoulders.

“I guessed as much,” Wei Ying says. “You're a good kid, after all.”

Sizhui blushes again.

“I saw the rabbit room,” Wei Ying adds on. The shyness on Sizhui's face disappears in less than a second, replace by amusement.

“Haha, the rabbits adore him. Sometimes when he's in his music room, they'll start crowding around him while he plays.”

Wei Ying actually laughs at that. “I can see that happening.”

Who'd have thought the silent Lan Zhan had such a soft side? When you look at him, you think rich CEO, probably, or strict businessman. You don't think he has a room dedicated to six rabbits, or that he can't unlock his own phone, or that he'll cook for a whole army when he only has one guest over.

The teacher's laugh fades off into quiet sigh.

“Anyway,” he says. “Run along now. Aren't you supposed to be going home?”

Sizhui nods. “Yes, Teacher Wei. Thanks for listening to me.”

He leaves, and Wei Ying finally drops the smile off his face. He thinks of Sizhui going home, greeting his father. He thinks of both of them living in that huge house by themselves; Lan Zhan all alone when Sizhui leaves for school.

Does he get lonely?

They don't know each other very well, but Wei Ying will admit he has thought of the silent man far too much for the past two weeks. More than he should.

 

- x -

 

Parents' Evening was going fine until Lan Qiren appeared with a notebook of what he wanted to discuss about Jingyi. These little meetings are only supposed to be ten minutes at most, but Wei Ying has been listening to Lan Qiren ranting about his grandson for over an hour. Is this what they mean when you're having an out of body experience?

In the time that the old man has been rambling on, Wei Ying has already decided what he'll order for dinner. He's also decided where he'd like to go for holiday next year. Maybe Europe? London? He's never been to Europe before. Maybe listening to guys with posh British accents might get him to consider the whole I'm-Not-Sleeping-Around thing.

“If he is lazy during PE, please tell me. I have been meaning to get him to start doing handstand exercises to increase his physical strength. I am sure they will help tremendously with his school work too.”

Wei Ying blinks, his fantasies of some hot guy with a nice accent dissolving as he tries to imagine what the fuck a handstand exercise is supposed to be.

“A handstand... exercise?”

Lan Qiren strokes his goatee. “It's an exercise our family has been perfecting for generations. The Lans have tremendous arm strength because we are trained to do handstands for many hours.”

Now, Wei Ying's mind is conjuring up at image of Lan Zhan doing a handstand amidst his many rabbits. Cute. Oh, and did he say tremendous arm strength? Is Lan Zhan ripped under all those posh clothes?

Wei Ying rubs his temples. Away with that image! He doesn't need to think about Lan Zhan with a six pack!

“I see,” he chokes out. “I, uh, don't think handstand exercises will be necessary with Jingyi. He's just bad at Math.”

Lan Qiren continues to stroke his goatee. “I will make him solve algebraic equations while doing a handstand...”

There is absolutely no saving Lan Jingyi from his own grandfather. Wei Ying gulps down the rest of his coffee and forces out a pained smile.

“If you feel that will help his progression in school then, uh, by all means...” He waves a hand, still smiling. “Anyway. I think that's all I wanted to discuss with you about Jingyi today.”

To hell with that. He didn't even do the discussing! It felt like he was the parent and Lan Qiren was the teacher complaining about Jingyi!

“Actually, I wanted to discuss his attendance to school. While I make sure he attends everyday, I am worried he is not arriving on time. If he doesn't arrive to his classes within five minutes, fifteen seconds then feel free to call me—”

Fuck sake. If only this meeting lasted five minutes and fifteen seconds.

“Yes, yes,” Wei Ying nods. “If you have more to discuss with me, I'll be here later. But I'm afraid I need to move onto the next meeting.”

Idiot! Why the fuck did he say that!

Lan Qiren gives a stiff nod. “Then I shall see you later. Thank you, Teacher Wei.”

Great. Now Wei Ying will never go home at this rate. He's almost tempted to bang his forehead against this table, but it's not long until the next parent walks into the class.

It's Jiang Cheng.

Oh, now he really wants to bang his head against this table.

Wei Ying sighs. He's ran out of coffee now. This is going to be torture.

It doesn't help he's brought Jin Ling along as well, probably just so that he wouldn't be alone here with him. Fair enough; Wei Ying doesn't want to be alone with Jiang Cheng too, but having two people glaring at you at the same time is hardly fair.

“Let's make this quick,” Jiang Cheng says, taking a seat in front of his desk.

Just think of this as a job and nothing more. Jiang Cheng is only another parent—or uncle—of one of your students. That's it. You don't know anything else about him apart from that. That's it.

He manages to go through Jin Ling's grades, ignoring the little missy's deadly glare when he mentions he is failing at Physics. No amount of glaring is going to save your grades, you brat, Wei Ying wants to say, but of course, he keeps his mouth shut.

Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything, thank fuck, and only makes little grunts to show he is listening. Occasionally, he'll send a quick scowl at Jin Ling when his grades are below average, then go back to scowling at Wei Ying instead. He stays where he is, back straight, arms folded. Wei Ying spots a thin, string bracelet around his right wrist. It looks a bit like those friendship bracelets they made for each other when they were younger, but those broke a long time ago.

Did Jin Ling make him a new one?

Wei Ying tears his eyes away from it, focusing on the sheet of paper in front of him instead. He is talking too fast, eager to get this out of the way.

When he is done, he looks back up at Jiang Cheng, waiting for him to say something. Hoping he won't say something.

“What's this about Jin Ling being bullied?” he asks.

Jin Ling's eyes widen. He slams his fist on the table. “Uncle!”

Jiang Cheng ignores him. “There were some kids who beat him up a few weeks ago. Why aren't you doing anything about that?”

“They didn't do that!” Jin Ling cries, reddening.

Wei Ying should have expected this meeting would go in this direction. Jiang Cheng will blame everything on him. If Jin Ling arrived home with a cold, then Jiang Cheng will likely blame that on Wei Ying too.

“I wasn't even aware until today,” he says.

“What kind of excuse is that?”

A sigh escapes the teacher. He keeps himself occupied by sorting through the papers on his desk, stacking them neatly on top of each other. Jiang Cheng's glare is burning right through him but Wei Ying won't lose his temper. For now.

“I'll talk to the other kids when I can,” he reassures.

Jin Ling slams another fist on the table, shaking the papers. “I don't need you to do that!”

Jiang Cheng doesn't even bat an eyelid at his nephew about to lose it right next to him. He may as well have forgotten he even brought Jin Ling along.

“What good is that going to do? You act like you care about him but you don't notice when he's getting bullied?”

“I didn't know it was still happening—”

“You can't even do your job properly!”

Wei Ying's eyes narrow. “Is this even about Jin Ling anymore? Or are you just using any excuse to yell at me?”

His words come out louder than he meant them to be. As expected, that doesn't bode well with Jiang Cheng. His fists clench and he leans closer on the table.

“Of course it's about Jin Ling!”

Wei Ying doesn't care anymore. He raises his voice, shouting over the other. “Then I told you; I'm going to sort it out!”

“Fucking forget it!”

Jin Ling rises on his chair, kicking it aside. “Can you two just stop arguing for once! This is exactly why I wanted my dad to come instead!”

Silence. Wei Ying leans back on his chair, taking a moment to breathe. He can see Jiang Cheng's jaw clenching and it's sad that after all these years he still knows just where his thoughts are going. He slowly turns to Jin Ling.

“Your dad?” he scoffs. “What good is he going to do? He's barely here! He can't even put you in a decent school, he's useless!”

Jin Ling flinches as if his uncle struck him. Wei Ying catches his bottom lip trembling before he bites it and tries to match Jiang Cheng's glare. It doesn't look anything similar, not when his eyes are already watering.

“No, shut up! I'm sick of this!” he cries. “I wish he was here right now!”

With that, he storms off, slamming the door as he goes. It leaves a painful echo through the class.

“Good job,” Wei Ying says under his breath.

Jiang Cheng's dark eyes snap back to him. “Shut up, this is all your fault!”

He's too tired to get upset over Jiang Cheng today. No matter what he says, the other will only retaliate with words he won't even think about anyway. There's no point trying to fix anything between them now.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Wei Ying says. “But you didn't have to say that to him.”

Don't tell me what to do.”

With Jin Ling gone, they're both alone in the classroom. It's easy to see neither want to be here.

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Just go, Jiang Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng doesn't need to be told twice. He leaves just like his nephew did; slamming the door twice as loud.

All Wei Ying can do is stare at the door, thinking back to times when Jiang Cheng did not always greet him with hatred and anger. It all seems like a lifetime ago, or a dream. They once used to be best friends, brothers, even. Jiang Cheng remained by Wei Ying's side, keeping him out of trouble—or trying to. They vowed they would both be policemen when they grew up, that they'd protect the city together. The Twin Heroes, they would have been, working together to fight crime.

Funny how you have so many dreams as a child, how everything seems so easy when you're small and the future is vast, endless, and amazing.

There is a knock on his door. He'd almost forgotten he had other parents to see.

He looks up, shoulders slumping when he sees who it is.

“What is it with you and bad timing, Mr. Lan?” Wei Ying says. He tries to make himself sound carefree, but he knows his voice is still shaking from his argument with Jiang Cheng.

Wei Ying coughs, watching Lan Zhan take a seat in front of him. He's wearing a light grey suit, tailored and fitted to perfection. He even has a dark blue tie on. There's not a single crease or speck of dirt on him, and his hair is tied into a loose ponytail as usual. He looks like he should be walking down a catwalk instead, not sitting here for Parents Evening. Wei Ying feels weird checking him out when he's still pissed off over Jiang Cheng.

It makes for good distraction, at least.

“Are you here for Sizhui's grades?” he asks. “This will be fairly quick; your son is perfect.”

Lan Zhan stiffly nods.

The music tutor is silent as always, listening intently to Wei Ying as he goes through Sizhui's progress for each class. Like he mentioned, the kid is perfect in every subject. Not only that; he's got a good attitude with teachers and other students. The only thing he's done wrong is that fight he was involved with several weeks ago, though Wei Ying guesses he was only trying to defend Jin Ling. No harm done.

“As I said, your son is perfect,” Wei Ying concludes. “Perfect grades, perfect behaviour. Just tell him to keep at it and I'm sure he'll get the grades he wants by the end of the year.”

Lan Zhan nods again.

They sit like that for a while. Wei Ying's eyes flicker around the class. He's sure his meeting with Lan Zhan is already over, but he isn't sure if he should tell the older man to go. Part of him is hoping he will take this as a sign to leave.

Another part of him is hoping he will say something. Anything.

“How... are you?” Lan Zhan asks.

Wei Ying raises his eyebrows. Why does this feel like déjà vu?

“Tired. Can you pretend you didn't hear my conversation with Jiang Cheng again?”

He hears a sigh coming from the music tutor. “You do not have to endure everything alone.”

Now, Wei Ying can't help but roll his eyes. He rises from his chair, letting out an empty laugh. Sitting right in front of Lan Zhan with nothing but that tiny desk is too suffocating. He needs some space.

He pretends to tidy the books on one of the shelves, knowing full well the older man is still staring. Each book has a thin layer of dust on them; they are here more for decoration rather than being used. Wei Ying wipes the dust onto his trousers and turns back around. Lo and behold, Lan Zhan's golden eyes are fixed on him.

“Spare me your preaching, Lan Zhan. You're wasting your time on me.”

Lan Zhan's lips press together.

“Why do you care so much?” Wei Ying asks. “I don't get you. We barely know each other.”

This isn't the first time he's come across persistent people, but comparing Lan Zhan to them feels... wrong. Lan Zhan has not once made any physical advances on him. He keeps his distance, letting Wei Ying approach him first. When he looks at him, it's almost as if he genuinely cares—but that can't be the case. They don't know each other at all. They've only known each other for—what? Less than two months? Hardly any time at all.

He doesn't understand what Lan Zhan wants. If he wants sex, then why doesn't he make any moves? He's unlike anyone Wei Ying has ever met and it's annoying.

Lan Zhan says nothing. He rises from his seat too, standing taller than Wei Ying, his expression betraying nothing.

Wei Ying feels his frustrations rising.

Why is he so difficult to understand?

What do you want?

What do you want?

Why does he feel so familiar? Just who is he?

Clenching his jaw, Wei Ying walks forward. There's a tiny bloom of satisfaction in his chest when he notices Lan Zhan's eyebrows twitching, his body more rigid as the teacher approaches. Wei Ying stops in front of him, searching his golden eyes for something.

He doesn't think he has ever seen eyes like this, although he knows he has. He's seen them before, and not just in the dreams that plague him now every night.

Wei Ying trails his gaze over the man in front of him, studying the slope of his nose, his cheekbones, the thickness of his bottom lip. There isn't a single blemish on his face. If Wei Ying touches his cheek, will it feel as smooth as he thinks it does? Will he be warm? Or cold as jade?

He licks his lips. His hands grasp Lan Zhan's collar, smoothing down non-existent creases. He can feel those golden eyes piercing into him, burning. Wei Ying does not stop.

He meets Lan Zhan's gaze. He has never seen anything as intense. Standing there in that classroom, Wei Ying thinks he must be drowning in molten amber, liquid gold. He swallows the lump in his throat and licks his lips again. Lan Zhan follows the movement of his tongue.

“It can't be just attraction, right?” Wei Ying says. His voice has gone quiet, though he knows Lan Zhan has heard him. “What do you want from me, Lan Zhan?”

If he kisses him here now, will that give Lan Zhan what he wants? Will Wei Ying finally understand him? Will that get rid of this conflict inside Wei Ying? Can he finally stop thinking about this man he barely knows anything about?

Wei Ying moves his hands up Lan Zhan's chest, slipping under his suit jacket to grab his tie. He tugs at it, causing the taller man to bend down slightly. His long hair cascades down his shoulders, and the smell of sandalwood is stronger. Closer. He's so close he can feel Lan Zhan's breath on his lips.

Lan Zhan grips his arm. Wei Ying doesn't know if he is trying to stop or encourage him. They stare at each other, unmoving. Unblinking. Wei Ying keeps his eyes on the lips in front of him, admiring their shape, the way the bottom lip is slightly thicker than the top. Then, they move. Lan Zhan speaks.

“I want you to be happy.”

Wei Ying's eyes widen. His hands loosen around the tie.

He leans back, replaying the words over and over. There is clear desire in Lan Zhan's eyes, but that's what he says? Why? Why? Why is he still impossible to understand, even now?

This should be easy for Wei Ying. He has always been able to wrap people around his fingers, crumbling their defences with a single wink of his eye, getting them to fall as soon as he showers them with words they want to hear, affection they want to get. It's always been easy.

He shakes his head, backing away. Why is he even trying this with Lan Zhan? He wants nothing from him! Why is it so hard to think around this man!

Wei Ying lets go of Lan Zhan and continues to shake his head, as if denying all this will somehow make everything fall into place.

“And why does that concern you?” Wei Ying demands. “Why should anyone care about me?”

That seems to have struck a nerve. Lan Zhan's fists clench. His eyes, so warm before, are suddenly cold.

Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying returns the glare. “Lan Zhan.”

Pain pulses in his head. He flinches and sees a flash of gold and crimson, emerald flames engulfing everything in this room.

After all, on the topic of how my heart is, what could other people know about it? Why should other people care about it?

Anger. Fists clenching.

Wei Wuxian!

Irritation bubbles inside him. He doesn't understand what he wants.

Lan Wangji!

The flames rise. There is nothing but burning, hot anger. He drowns everything, his thoughts, his common sense, and all he sees is this man in front of him who gives him more questions than he has ever known.

What do you want? What do you want from me?

Wei Ying blinks. There is no more burning, or flames, or the stench of death around him. The classroom is as empty as ever, white walls so bright compared to the darkness he was thrown in.

A hand rests on his shoulder. Lan Zhan's voice is filled with concern as he speaks.

“What is wrong?” he asks.

I don't know, Wei Ying wants to say. I don't know what's going on anymore.

He is tired. He wishes he can be weak. He wishes he can use Lan Zhan for distraction, pretend the man cares about him as he likes to think he does. He wishes he doesn't have to force himself to be alone, especially when he is starting to doubt just who he is supposed to be in the first place.

Sighing, Wei Ying places a hand on top of Lan Zhan's. His touch is warmer than he expects, not at all cold.

He looks into his eyes.

“I killed my adopted parents,” Wei Ying says. “And I almost killed my—Jiang Cheng's sister too. She was in a coma for over ten years because of me. She's still in hospital now.”

Finally, there's something on Lan Zhan's face that Wei Ying can read. His lips part, silent, and the hand under Wei Ying's twitches slightly.

Wei Ying lets out a bitter smile. “You want to know more about me, Lan Zhan? You still think I deserve your sympathy?”

He wants to laugh. He wants to cry. He sees the bodies of his adopted parents, bloodied and lifeless, hardly recognisable. He sees Yanli, laying on the marble floor. The blood pooling around her head blends in with her crimson wedding dress. 

All Wei Ying can do is cling tighter onto Lan Zhan's hand.

Lan Zhan takes a step closer. He slips his hand out of Wei Ying's and grasps his shoulders.

“Wei Ying—”

The loud hammering against the door makes Wei Ying jump. He jerks away, sighing as more knocks follow. Reluctantly, Lan Zhan lets go of him, hands closing into fists.

Both of them breathe out. The door opens.

“Teacher Wei? May I speak with you? Oh, Wangji you are here.”

Lan Qiren. Wei Ying feels like screaming at the sky. Lan Qiren, of all people.

“Mr. Lan was just leaving,” he says through gritted teeth. It's a miracle he manages to plaster a smile on his face. “Thank you, Mr. Lan. We are done here.”

Lan Zhan stares at him for a moment too long. His warm touch is nothing but a memory now. Wei Ying feels cold and tired. So tired.

Finally, Lan Zhan gives a final nod. Even after he is gone, Wei Ying is still having trouble breathing. He closes his palm, trying to remember what it was like having Lan Zhan's hand in his.

 

- x -

 

It is almost eight PM when Xichen hears thundering footsteps outside his apartment, followed by screaming. At first, he brushes it off. For the past two weeks, he has grown used to the sound of Jiang Cheng arguing with his nephew. Sometimes, if the two of them are not bickering, he will invite them over for a cup of tea. The company, while awkward at first, is strangely comforting now.

But their screams are louder this time. Confused, he opens his door and peeks outside, catching a glimpse of Jin Ling running past.

“Oi, Jin Ling, come back here! Don't walk away from me!”

Jin Ling doesn't even look back. He stomps away, disappearing off into Jiang Cheng's apartment. The sound of the door slamming close is enough to make the walls tremble.

Then, Jiang Cheng appears into view. He groans out loud, grumbling under his breath.

“Oh dear,” Xichen says out loud, catching his attention. “What seems to be the matter?”

Jiang Cheng's head snaps to him. As expected, he looks away after a second, glaring at the wall. “None of your business.”

Slowly, Xichen nods. He opens the door wider and leans on the frame, folding his arms. The officer remains where he is, staring at his apartment door as if it has caused all of his problems. Xichen has no idea why these two are arguing again, though the fact Jiang Cheng seems to be hesitating in approaching his nephew tells him their fight is a bit more serious this time. Usually, the officer will not hesitate to yell at the teenager, shouting empty threats that sound comical rather than terrifying.

“He won't listen to you if you're angry as well,” Xichen says.

Jiang Cheng turns back to him, frowning. “How the fuck do you know that?”

“Would you listen to someone who is equally as angered as you?”

Jiang Cheng's lack of response is enough of an answer.

“It is best to give him some time until you speak to him again,” Xichen tells him.

“I don't need you to tell me how to talk to my own nephew.”

“I'm not trying to. I apologise if it came across that way.”

Jiang Cheng's blue eyes narrow.

Sighing, Xichen pushes himself off the door frame. “I am only trying to help. Do not let your anger cloud your own emotions.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

He decides to speak slower, not because he thinks Jiang Cheng is a child who must be spoken to in such a way, but because he's learnt that mirroring the officer's irritation will only make him worse.

“You care about your nephew, yes?”

Jiang Cheng nods. “Of course.”

“Then calm down yourself before you speak with him. He will listen when he is ready.”

If there is something Xichen has learnt, it is that pride is a very dangerous thing. One's pride will control his own emotions if he feels he is weaker than his opponent. It does not matter who that opponent may be; your nephew, brother, or wife. If your pride is so strong that it clouds your attachment for that person, and makes you care more about the weakness you are showing in front of them, then it will only be the beginning of your downfall.

Xichen has observed humanity for far too long. It makes him wonder if he has ever done such deeds, if he is not as grounded as he thinks.

Of course, he isn't perfect. He may not have an issue with his pride, but his flaw is that he cares too much about others.

He cared too much about Jin Guangyao. Xichen was too busy treasuring the golden days to notice the greed that had long corrupted his sworn brother.

He was not blinded by his pride. He was blinded by his heart. He is not sure which is worse.

When he looks at Jiang Cheng, he sees the complete opposite of himself. But perhaps they are more alike than he realises.

“I said some things I shouldn't have,” Jiang Cheng eventually says. The anger in his eyes has faded.

Xichen gives him a smile. “We all do. As long as you realise you are in the wrong, there is still hope for you yet.”

The officer squints at him. He folds his arms, tilting his head slightly. For a while, he doesn't say anything, only staring at Xichen as if it is the first time he is seeing him.

“You don't strike me as someone who ends up saying things he shouldn't. You seem like you have your emotions under check,” he says in the end.

He is right, maybe. Wangji and him have been taught to control their emotions, to not let such trivial feelings cloud their judgement. Ever since they were children, they learn to hide everything behind a pleasant mask. It is best everyone sees who you need to be, not who you are. It is best not to burden anyone, or yourself, with emotions.

It was difficult to hide their grief when their mother died. They were children, hardly understanding the concept of death at all. Now, they are immortal. Death is all they are surrounded with, yet they can never experience it themselves. As the centuries pass and they watch the same people die over and over again, it becomes easier to control these emotions.

Xichen thinks that this must be why humans are so impulsive, so emotional. They have not yet exhausted themselves, losing everything and everyone.

“Maybe you are right,” Xichen says. “But that is not necessarily a good thing.”

He envies Jiang Cheng. To be able to express yourself, to be able to die... They are both something Xichen will never be able to do. The smile on his face has slowly faded, replaced by a longing he has not felt for quite a long time.

“I shall go now,” he says. “I'm sorry for prying.”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. There is some confusion on his face, but he makes no comment on Xichen's sudden silence.

“It's okay. Thank you... Thank you for the advice,” he says. His own smile is awkward, shy. It is enough to get Xichen to leave with a light laugh of his own.

He shuts the door behind him, leaning against it with a deep sigh.

He wonders how long he and Wangji can keep this up. Is immortality really so long? Is there truly no end to it?

He thinks back to his brother and how he has managed to find Wei Wuxian. Even if they are blessed with happiness after all these long years, what will happen once everyone around them must move on? Time is inevitable. The people they meet are only human, only temporary. Around them, they are surrounded by ticking clocks while theirs are forever frozen.

Why did cultivators think this was a gift?

What is there to life, if you lose everything in the end?

Xichen sighs. He stands up straighter and forces himself to stop thinking such things.

Life is long, but tonight will be much longer if he allows himself to be tormented by these thoughts.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is running. He doesn't know why and he doesn't know where to, but there's this rush, this desperation, inside him that makes his legs move faster. His heart is hammering under his ribs and his whole body feels like glass. Every step he takes causes the whole forest around him to crack. There are screams surrounding him and he isn't sure if they belong to him or someone else, and still he keeps on running because it's all he can do.

When he stops, the sword he's carrying is dripping with blood. He squints his eyes and tries to see through the darkness, find the danger he's been evading. Everything continues to spin. The only thing he is seeing is the crimson that continues to stain his sword.

Uncle...”

Jiang Cheng whirls around. The towering trees of the forest cage him in, laughing.

Uncle, stop!”

The whole world shakes and the laughter gets louder, louder. Jiang Cheng is screaming. Is he scared? Angry? Insane? He doesn't know but the laughing won't stop, not even when he blindly attacks at the trees.

Uncle!”

He's knocked back. His head slams against the ground. Everything shatters.

When he opens his eyes, Fairy is licking his face and quite literally crushing him.

“What the—?” Jiang Cheng splutters. His left cheek is now covered is dog slobber. “Jin Ling, get him off me!”

Fairy whines as Jin Ling tugs on his collar, pulling him off the drowsy adult. Jiang Cheng has to blink several times to readjust himself back to reality.

“He's only waking you up from your nightmare,” Jin Ling grumbles, stroking Fairy's ears.

At the mention of nightmare, Jiang Cheng glances down at his bed. As usual, his sheets are a mess and his pillows are on the floor. He knows he's been struggling in his sleep, attacking some unknown thing in his dreams. It's always the same dream; he's running in the forest and trying to kill something. He'll wake up before he ever finds out what's going on.

Usually, he's not one to care for superstition, but if the same dream's been haunting him for years then that's got to mean something. He even tried to see if walking through an actual forest will do anything, but all he found was that Lan Xichen guy waving around a sword in broad daylight.

And he knows his dream definitely isn't anything about that weirdo.

Clutching his head, Jiang Cheng tries to shake away the drowsiness still clinging to him. “Ah, shit. What time is it?”

Jin Ling juts his chin up. “Just past nine.”

The officer almost doesn't hear him. His nephew is purposely mumbling, his lips curled. It takes Jiang Cheng a second to realise Jin Ling's making a show of looking pissed and he has to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

Still half asleep, Jiang Cheng sees an image of Lan Xichen. Do not let your anger cloud your own emotions, he says in Jiang Cheng's head. The smile accompanied with those echoing words has the officer wondering why this feels like a goddamn religious experience. He shakes his head and shoves Lan Xichen's angelic face out of his head.

He rubs his eyes, holding back a yawn.

“Look, Jin Ling... I'm sorry about yesterday, okay?” he says. The words he said to the teenager plays back in his mind. Jiang Cheng can't help but wince.

Jin Ling blinks. “What?”

“I said I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that.”

“You're sorry?

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth. Jin Ling isn't even bothering to hide the shock on his face!

“Wow,” he says.

Wow? Wow? Jiang Cheng forgets all about Lan Xichen's benevolent advice and glares at his nephew.

“Shut the fuck up, I'll break your legs!”

Jin Ling hides behind Fairy, throwing out a scowl of his own over the dog's fluffy ears. “You can't apologise and then say that!”

“I'll do whatever the fuck I want!”

No! Apology not accepted!”

Jiang Cheng has half a mind to chuck a pillow at his nephew, but stops just in case he hits Fairy instead.

“You really want your legs broken?!” he yells instead.

“N-No! I-I mean... I'll forgive you if you help me with my history homework!”

What? What? Is that why he's here? So much for waking Jiang Cheng up from his nightmare—the brat just needed someone to do his homework for him!

“You've got some nerve!”

Jin Ling finally jumps out from behind Fairy, clasping his hands together and bowing his head. “Please, Uncle! It's due on Monday!”

Today is Saturday and he's going to that midget's house tomorrow. Anyone with a brain will know that Jin Ling never gets any work done when he's with Meng Yao. All the actor does is shower Jin Ling with gifts he doesn't need, forgetting the fact Jin Ling is fifteen now and is too old for toys.

But, as expected, Jin Ling won't complain about it.

“Why the fuck haven't you started it yet?” Jiang Cheng asks. He leaves the bed with a groan, combing his fingers through his hair.

Jin Ling looks down, shuffling his feet. “It's the class I have with those kids, okay... I haven't been able to focus much on the work.”

He must mean the idiots that keep picking a fight with him. Jiang Cheng sighs; he can just imagine Jin Ling trying his best to ignore those assholes, but his nephew, like him, feels too much. Both of them can pretend all they want; it doesn't stop it from hurting.

“What's it even about anyway?” Jiang Cheng asks, no longer feeling the urge to break Jin Ling's legs.

“I don't know, like Ancient China history and whatever.”

Well, shit. He knows nothing about that as well.

“Wait, I'll get dressed first and then... we can research it or something,” Jiang Cheng says. How typical that he ends up spending his only day off helping his nephew with his essay.

Researching for the essay is a harder first step than Jiang Cheng realised, and it's all because he can't find his laptop at all. He searches around his apartment, trying to remember when was the last time he saw it. Chief Nie wanted him to do more research on the gang attacks... Jiang Cheng brought his laptop to the police station so he could get some extra work done during his breaks...

“Ah, shit. I left my laptop at the police station,” he says, finally remembering.

Jin Ling looks at him like all hope is lost.

“Fucking hell,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “Let's go to the station first and then I'll help you with your damn homework. This is the only time though!”

Just like that, his nephew grins. Beside him, Fairy barks and wags his tail.

“Thank you, Uncle!”

Why is he thanking him already?Jiang Cheng hasn't even started the damn essay yet.

They make their way to the police station. Jiang Cheng is not at all happy he still ends up going to work during his day off, but at least it doesn't look like everyone is on edge. That can only mean Chief Nie is in a relatively okay mood.

Song Lan spots him, frowning when he catches sight of Jin Ling and Fairy behind.

“I thought it was your day off?” he asks. Song Lan spares a moment to kneel down and ruffle Fairy's head. The smile creeping up on his face makes him look more relaxed, reminding Jiang Cheng this guy is around ten years younger than everyone here, despite how mature he acts.

Jiang Cheng nods. “Yeah, I just forgot my laptop.”

Standing back up, Song Lan taps his chin. “Oh, right. Chief Nie found it earlier. He's kept it in his office. I think he should be on his break now, so you should be okay to get it.”

“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng says.

He beckons Jin Ling to follow him, who is staring around the station with wide eyes. This is one of the rare times he's brought Jin Ling to the station. It's always funny how cautious Jin Ling gets when he's here; it's like he expects some random criminal to jump out of nowhere.

They reach Nie Mingjue's office. Jiang Cheng knocks once, but he doesn't hear anything. He knocks again and hears a faint sound of what must be grunting, so he decides that's enough of a response to go in.

He doesn't expect to find Nie Mingjue watching TV and dabbing his eyes with a tissue. He sniffs a couple of times before whirling around and roaring at Jiang Cheng.

“What the fuck are you doing in here!” he yells, chucking the tissue away. His face contorts into its usual scowl, although that doesn't get rid of his swollen red eyes.

“I knocked!” Jiang Cheng says. “Are you... Are you crying?”

Nie Mingjue slams a fist on the table. “No!”

Meanwhile, Jin Ling has ducked under Jiang Cheng's arm and slipped inside the room. His face lights up when he sees the TV screen, pointing at it with a grin.

“Oh, it's Uncle Meng Yao! You're watching his drama?”

If Nie Mingjue could get any redder, he probably would have exploded by now.

“No, I'm not!”

Jiang Cheng might have believed him if the DVD for Crimson Heart isn't currently on his desk for the whole world to see. Following his gaze, Nie Mingjue snatches it and shoves it into one of his drawers.

“Huaisang was pestering me to watch his stupid show!” he growls.

All Jiang Cheng does is nod. He was friends with Huaisang back in high school and he knows how much of a pain he can be. Still, he also knows Nie Mingjue has a soft spot for his younger brother—even if he won't admit it.

He watches the TV screen, scoffing at the scene it's on. For some reason, Meng Yao is on the floor with a puddle of blood under him. He's dressed in fancy golden robes; the type of robes you'd find people wearing two thousand years ago. His hair is much longer here too, almost down to his waist. It kinda reminds Jiang Cheng of Lan Xichen, actually. He'd probably be able to walk around in robes like these and pull it off.

As annoying as the guy is, Jiang Cheng will admit Meng Yao's a good actor. He makes a good show of coughing up blood and crying for a bit, even though Jiang Cheng doesn't know what the hell is happening. After an emotional internal monologue and sad music playing in the background, Meng Yao finally dies.

“Why is that midget dead?” he asks. The scene pans out to show his character, all alone, with no one to witness his tragic end.

“He sacrificed himself! He only realised he cared for the older prince in this scene, after betraying them in the first place!” Jin Ling says. He sounds a bit too passionate for Jiang Cheng's liking. “Later on, he gets reincarnated and vows to atone for all his—”

“No spoilers!” Nie Mingjue snaps.

So much for only watching it because Huaisang made him. Jiang Cheng resists the strong urge to facepalm and returns to the matter at hand.

“Anyway, sorry to, uh, disturb you, Chief Nie,” he says, ignoring the older man's murderous gaze. “I was looking for my laptop.”

Nie Mingjue points to one of his shelves. Sure enough, Jiang Cheng immediately spots his laptop bag.

“Get it and go! Stop bothering me!” Nie Mingjue says.

Gladly, Jiang Cheng thinks as he pushes Jin Ling and Fairy out of the office. They leave the station in record timing. Jiang Cheng mentally vows he will forget ever seeing Nie Mingjue sobbing his eyes out watching Crimson Heart.

“Uncle, I know a library where you can do my essay,” Jin Ling says, leading the way.

can do your essay? Don't be so cheeky! I'm only helping!”

Jin Ling doesn't say anything, but the pout on his face is enough to say he's not happy about that. He has some nerve!

They stop outside a small building at the end of a quiet street. It doesn't look like it's busy, which is just as good because they're going to need a miracle to get this essay done today.

The smell of lavender hits him when he enters. He frowns, not because he recognises that scent, but because he sees a familiar face standing by the counter.

“Good morning, both of you,” Lan Xichen says. He is in the middle of tying his hair back into a bun.

How many times is he going to bump into this guy? With him living so close to Jiang Cheng, it's literally impossible to go through one day without seeing his face.

Jiang Cheng frowns, looking around. For what it's worth, the place looks really neat and organized, though he wouldn't have expected any less from this guy.

“You work here?”

Lan Xichen nods. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

Before he can open his mouth, a head pops out from the shelves. Jiang Cheng recognises it to be that kid that was with Lan Xichen a few weeks ago, when he helped him tidy his apartment. Jin Ling's friend, apparently. What was his name again?

“Jin Ling! You're here again!” the kid says, running to Jin Ling.

Jin Ling does that thing where he pretends he's not happy to see someone when he actually is. He turns away, waving a dismissive hand.

“I-I just need to do my history homework! It's not like I remembered you worked here or anything!”

So that's why Jin Ling suggested they go here. Does he want this essay done or is he just here to hang out with his new friend? By the looks of it, he really expects Jiang Cheng to do all the damn work.

“Uncle is good at history,” Jin Ling's friend says. “He can help.”

Jin Ling looks at Lan Xichen as if he is seeing the answer to all his problems. “Really?”

The older man chuckles. “I will be happy to help with what knowledge I have. The library is fairly quiet so far anyway.”

Luckily, the library remains quiet for most of the morning. They all gather around one table; Jin Ling typing like mad as Lan Xichen tells him all about the different Chinese Dynasties. His voice is strangely calming, and the way he talks makes it sound like he's been there in person. Even Fairy is huddled by the librarian's feet, settled and quiet for once. Jin Ling's friend (who is apparently called Sizhui) sits next to Jin Ling, listening to his uncle with a small smile on his face. Jiang Cheng does the same, but he doesn't smile. He keeps his gaze on Lan Xichen.

At first, he wondered just how this guy knew so much. Now, he's got other questions on his mind, like why does it look like he's reminiscing instead of spouting out facts? Sometimes, Lan Xichen will smile, or even laugh to himself, when he describes how people used to act. Other times, there's a strange, far-away sadness in his eyes; the type of expression you'll see if someone is talking about what they've lost.

Still, he remains silent. It wouldn't feel right to interrupt him.

It's only when Jin Ling's stomach lets out a sound that resembles a choking cat that Lan Xichen stops. Blushing, Jin Ling shrinks into his chair, trying in vain to hide behind the laptop. Jiang Cheng looks at his watch. It's almost lunch time. Has he been listening to Lan Xichen that long?

“Let's get lunch first,” Jiang Cheng says. He stands up and winces when he feels a few bones clicking. “Lan Xichen, is it okay if we get some food to eat here?”

The librarian nods, rising as well. “Feel free to do so. I will close the library for lunch.”

Jiang Cheng hands Jin Ling some money for him to go out and get food for all of them. His friend goes with him, as expected, and Jiang Cheng can only hope they'll actually come back with lunch and not get distracted.

“Oh, Officer?” Lan Xichen's voice gets his attention.

Jiang Cheng turns to him.

“You can call me Xichen. There is no need to be so formal.”

He says while still referring to Jiang Cheng as Officer and talking like he's from the middle ages.

“Alright, Xichen. Then you can call me Jiang Cheng. I already told you.”

Xichen smiles. “I know, Officer.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. So he's just doing it to annoy him or something? Whatever. It doesn't matter. He actually doesn't mind the title. Considering how they met, Xichen should respect him. Jiang Cheng is still convinced he has the sword. Although, since he's helping Jin Ling with his homework then he can let it slide for now.

The teenagers return with three large boxes of pizza. True to his word, Xichen closes the library while they eat their lunch—not like it matters because they've barely received any customers today.

Jiang Cheng is hungrier than he thought, easily eating three slices within ten minutes. He feeds Fairy a few slices as well, laughing under his breath at the sight of his tail wagging faster than it's ever done. Everyone is silent, enjoying their lunch.

Well, mostly everyone. Jiang Cheng pauses, watching Xichen awkwardly picking up a pizza. He stares at it for a second, as if not knowing how to hold it, and then takes out a napkin from his pocket and proceeds to take the smallest bite in the history of all bites.

Jiang Cheng has never seen someone eat a pizza with so much stuck up grace in his life. Even Jin Zixuan, who eats his slices with a fucking knife and fork, isn't this bad.

“Have you never eaten a pizza before?” Jiang Cheng asks.

Xichen lets out a small laugh and one of the mushrooms fall off from his pizza. Who the hell is this guy? First, he owns a sword and now he doesn't know how to eat a pizza? Not to mention, he also has Chinese history memorised like he's lived through each day of it. If Jiang Cheng was crazy like Wei Ying, he'd have though Xichen was a time traveller.

“It's pizza,” Jiang Cheng says with one raised eyebrow. “You literally just shove the whole thing in your mouth.”

Xichen's eyebrows furrow together. He contemplates for a second before finally dropping that fucking napkin. Then, he takes another larger bite.

“I'm afraid I do not have much experience in shoving large things into my mouth, as you say,” he says after he has finished chewing.

Jin Ling snorts so loud he ends up choking on his food.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, glaring daggers at his immature nephew from across the table. He didn't need that mental image, thank you very much. Not over food. Not any time, actually.

Sadly, Jin Ling is too busy still spluttering to even notice him glaring. In the end, Sizhui has to smack his back for him to cough it out. The rest of lunch is eaten without any more choking or unintended innuendos, much to Jiang Cheng's relief.

Spending his day off holed in a library, listening to some guy go through China's historical timeline isn't exactly what Jiang Cheng had in mind today. At the very least, it's not as bad as he thought. Xichen is doing most of the work and the library is quiet enough that he still gets some peace. It's no luxurious day off, but it'll do. He's not complaining.

In fact, it's too peaceful. Jiang Cheng ends up dozing off on his seat; Xichen's voice and the faint scent of lavender is the last thing he remembers before he lets his eyes drift close.

 

- x -

 

Today is too quiet and it is not a silence that Wangji is comfortable with. Rather than welcoming, it feels delicate, fragile. It is the calm before the storm, the glass you step on that breaks beneath your feet and throws you into the unknown. He knows this could be paranoia, but it does not stop the weight he feels in his chest as he walks around the city.

There is nothing that looks different. The city is as bland as ever, its people minding their own business and living about their lives as they always have. On the surface, it is just any other day.

Wangji sighs. He ought to go home. It is pointless ambling through the city when there is nothing needed for him to do. On his way back to his car, he walks past a woman wearing a bright red coat. The vibrancy of the coat is the only reason why Wangji's eyes flicker to her, and then he stops when he sees it is someone he knows.

“Mr. Lan,” Wen Qing greets with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

Wangji bows his head at her. “Good afternoon, Doctor Wen.”

She buries her hands into her coat pockets, shivering slightly. Many people say Wangji has a face that is permanently cold and unapproachable; Wen Qing, on the other hand, has one that looks like she is always criticising you. It is a clear contrast to the timid behaviour of her younger brother.

“It's lucky I bumped into you, actually,” she says. “I've been meaning to talk to you. Do you want to go for a coffee? I was just heading to the café.”

Wangji frowns.

She sighs. “I was hoping to talk about Wei Ying.”

It is impossible for Wangji to deny anything that is remotely related to Wei Ying. He nods, following the young woman as she leads him to the café her brother works at. It is emptier than usual; it does seem there is barely anyone ambling through the city today.

They order their coffee and sit down by the window. Wangji does not say anything as Wen Qing takes off her coat, neatly hanging it behind her on the chair. After taking a sip of her coffee, she does not waste any time on small talk.

“Has he been speaking to you?”

Wangji remembers Wei Ying pulling him closer, his slender hands gripping his tie. He was so close that Wangji could almost taste him. It took every ounce of his self control not to close the distance between them. He does not know how he survived through that with his sanity still in tact.

“No,” Wangji says. It is the truth anyway. Wei Ying will not voluntarily speak to him now.

Wen Qing does not even look surprised. “Did anything happen during your date?”

“He... did not want anything to happen between us.”

“Is that it?”

No. Wangji can still see Wei Ying's grey eyes glossing over. He did not seem to breathe or move at that moment. Just when Wangji began to worry, Wei Ying returned and asked him if they had met before. He's lost count of the amount of times he's replayed that memory in his head.

Is Wei Ying getting his memories back? How? Why?

Is that a good thing?

Wangji wants nothing more than for Wei Ying to smile at him like he used to, though he knows that smile already disappeared long before Wei Ying died. He would rather Wei Ying not remember him at all if it means he will never go through the turmoil that was his original life.

Wei Ying deserves better than that.

“He seemed to... remember something,” Wangji slowly says.

Wen Qing's brows wrinkle. “What do you mean?”

“He froze and became unresponsive. Then he asked if we had met before.”

“And have you?”

“...No.”

It will make no difference if it was the truth or not with the way they are now.

Wen Qing lets out a sigh, shaking her head to herself. “I don't think he's been sleeping well these days. I'm worried about him.”

She takes another sip of her drink, giving Wangji a polite smile afterwards. “I'm sorry. I just thought that maybe something happened during your date. He hasn't been his usual self recently.”

Wangji nods. He hates that he envies her; not because she is closer to this Wei Ying than he is, but because she has seen a side to him that he has not yet.

“Has he told you anything about himself?” she asks.

Wangji narrows his eyes. He recalls what Wei Ying last said to him.

“A bit.”

Wen Qing motions for him to carry on. “As in...?”

“He blames himself for the death of his adopted parents, and his sister being in hospital.”

It is eerily similar to what happened back then, but those events had not been Wei Ying's fault either. He has always been someone who takes on the burden of his loved ones too much. Wangji fears the same thing is happening now. He does not want to lose Wei Ying to himself again.

Wen Qing stares down at her hands. “None of that was his fault. It's not my place to say what happened... but whatever he told you... None of it... None of it has ever been his fault.”

“I know,” Wangji says. He has always known that.

“You seem like you're a good guy. Listen, I'm—”

Her words are cut off as the café door opens. She stops, tilting her head to one side. Wangji follows the direction of her gaze, frowning at who walks in.

It is two people, but it is the taller figure that catches his attention.

Whoever they are, they look exactly like Wei Ying—perhaps not exactly a mirror image, yet it is enough that Wangji has to make sure it is actually not him. This person is shorter, younger, and his hair is longer than Wei Ying's now. It is tied back into a messy bun—even his hair sticks up in random places, just like Wei Ying's does.

Who is he? If Wei Ying was not here now, Wangji would have mistaken this person for an incarnation of him.

The person beside him is a bit shorter. It is difficult to see his face because his thick scarf is obscuring the bottom half, while his large black sunglasses hide his eyes. It does not help he is even wearing a beret.

“I thought that was Wei Ying for a minute,” Wen Qing mumbles.

Wangji nods at her. He continues to watch the pair walk towards the counter.

“Xuanyu, I want a latte,” the smaller man says.

The Wei Ying imposter pouts at his companion. “Wait, I'm ordering? But, Brother, you're the one with the money!”

His brother, by the looks of it, sighs. “I'll pay, but you order.”

That seems to please the imposter. He turns to Wen Ning, who is waiting patiently by the counter. As soon as he sees him, the Wei Ying imposter freezes. Wangji can see his cheeks flushing even from where he is sitting.

He does not do anything. His sudden silence has caused Wen Ning to fidget more than usual, his skittish eyes flickering everywhere but the man in front of him.

“Xuanyu,” the brother calls, raising his voice.

Wangji cannot help but feel he has heard that voice before.

The Wei Ying imposter, or Xuanyu as he is called, does not stir. He wobbles a bit on his feet.

“...He's cute,” he mumbles while still staring at Wen Ning.

Wen Qing turns her chair even more to face the pair. By now, Wen Ning is resembling a human tomato.

Then again, this Xuanyu is the same too. His hands fly to his mouth and he turns to his brother in horror.

“Shit, did I say that out loud?”

“Yes, Xuanyu, you did.”

All of a sudden, the strange imposter spins around and quite literally runs out of the café.

Wangji is not really sure what just happened. Everyone in the café has gone silent, staring at the swaying door. Xuanyu's brother lets out another loud sigh and shakes his head to himself. He approaches Wen Ning's counter and pushes some money onto the table, not sparing a glance at how much he has placed.

“Just a latte, please,” he says. “Keep the change.”

The only reason Wangji is still observing this man is because his voice is something he knows he has heard before. After he collects his coffee, he finally turns to leave. It is still impossible to see his face properly, which is only more frustrating now that Wangji wishes to match it with the voice.

However, his frustrations are cut short when the stranger walks past their table. He freezes on the spot, head jerking towards Wangji's direction. Wangji sees his hand clenching the coffee cup he is holding, his fingers shaking ever so slightly.

With his free hand, he takes off his sunglasses. His eyes are wide, a shade of brown that is so vibrant they almost look golden.

It's then that Wangji sees who this man is, or who he used to be. He sees him wearing a black felt hat that he is rarely seen without. He sees the red vermilion mark that used to be painted between his brows. He sees the golden robes, that proud white peony motif on the chest. He sees a sect leader who has manipulated his way to get where he is. He sees Xichen defending him again and again, insisting only he knows his true character when, really, he was the one who knew him the least.

He sees Jin Guangyao.

Wangji's fists clench.

Jin Guangyao's gaze flickers down. His chest rises as he takes one breath, and then he is walking out of the café. Even as he leaves, Wangji watches his back disappearing off into the streets. He has never trusted Jin Guangyao. He is not sure what to make of the fact he is here as well.

“Huh, that was weird,” Wen Qing says after a while. “Did you know him or something?”

Wangji is still frowning.

“No,” he says.

“Strange. He looked like he knew you.”

That is what is making Wangji uneasy. He is not sure if he was imagining it, but there was recognition in Jin Guangyao's eyes. He had stopped because he saw Wangji.

But why? How?

Wangji cannot think. That feeling of uneasiness he has been having all day has returned. It is impossible to ignore now. There is something stirring in the air, and for once, he does not know what to do.

 

- x -

 

Jin Zixuan doesn't usually fiddle but being in this hospital makes it impossible for him to sit still. The white walls around him have all began to blur into one headache, and still he continues to wait because it's all he can do. He should be used to the waiting by now. He's spent countless days and nights, years, staring at these same white walls, praying for a miracle. He should be used to this.

Gently, he takes Yanli's hand into his. It's always been cold, but he hates how he notices it's colder than usual. Limp. Pale. He wishes it was only his imagination. If he tries to warm her hands, it will only wake her up.

He sits still, clutching onto her, wishing he can do more.

A weak cough has him jolting up. He squeezes Yanli's hand tighter, watching her eyelashes flutter open. Her lips are dry and she struggles to lick them, to speak. She is barely audible when she finally manages to get some words out.

“How is... How is A-Ling...”

Zixuan swallows the lump in his throat. “He's fine. Don't strain yourself. Rest.”

Stubborn as ever, she doesn't listen to him. Her hand shakes, almost as if she is trying to squeeze his back.

“Y-You said he's... he started—”

She stops as coughs wreck through her entire body. Yanli snatches her hand back to clutch her chest, hacking and choking. Her entire body is trembling and every cough she lets out worries Zixuan. He's scared because he doesn't know what to do, what he can do. All he does is rush to his feet and rub her back, knowing it's useless, he's useless.

It feels like forever until she finally stops. She's panting for breath and her eyelids are beginning to close again. Zixuan sits back down and squeezes her hands. He's shaking much more than she is now.

“I said rest,” he tells her. “I'll tell you everything when you're well.”

When you're well. He says that all the time. He waits for the day he can walk out of this hospital with her beside him, squeezing his hand as tightly as he's squeezing hers now. It's all he wants in the world and he's willing to wait as long as he can for her.

He's waited so long already. He's done so much—but is it enough? He moved her to one of the best hospitals in America, travelling across the world every month just so he could juggle both his business and his wife's health. There's only so much his money and time can do. Zixuan hates not knowing if it's enough. How can it not be enough?

As he looks down at his wife, he prays to whatever is up there watching them that they will give her back to him. He has given all that he can... He will continue to throw as much money, whatever he has left, in order to get his family back together. Not just for himself, not just for Yanli, but also for Jin Ling who has never known what it's like to live in a house with both of his parents.

He doesn't know how long he sits there, holding her hand. Yanli has fallen back asleep ages ago. At the very least, her slumber is peaceful. If it weren't for the fact she is pale and sickly, you would have mistaken her to just be sleeping back at home, where she belongs.

For now, he's fine sleeping by her side like this. Zixuan lays his head on the side of her bed, not once letting go.

His phone vibrates in his pocket. His brows furrow together, irritated, and he sneaks a peek in his pocket to see who is calling him when it's almost midnight.

Jin Ling.

The irritation he's feeling is gone in seconds. Yawning, he reluctantly lets go of Yanli. Before he leaves, he kisses her on the forehead and then makes his way out of the ward. It must be broad daylight back in China.

As soon as he's out of the ward, he takes his phone out and groans internally. Jin Ling isn't only calling him; he's actually trying to video call him. Zixuan always finds it harder to fake his expressions to his son. Jin Ling is still young and gullible, yes, but it doesn't make it any less harder.

It makes him feel worse.

Regardless, he can't deny his son's call. He forces a smile on his face before answering it.

Jin Ling pops up on the screen. Beside him, Zixuan can just make out Fairy's ear.

“Dad!” Jin Ling calls, grinning.

“A-Ling, you sound like you're in a good mood. Where are you?”

Zixuan doesn't recognise the place he's in. Usually when he's calling, he'll either be at Jiang Cheng's apartment or Meng Yao's house. The place behind him looks like... a library? Zixuan sees a few shelves... Jin Ling would never willingly go to a library unless he really needed to.

“I'm at this library. I just finished a three thousand word essay, Dad.”

Suddenly, he's pushed out of the camera. Jiang Cheng's scowling face comes into view.

“Bullshit. He made us do most of the work.”

“Uncle! Get out the way! I'm calling Dad!”

Zixuan watches as the screen shakes; most likely Jin Ling snatching the phone back from Jiang Cheng.

“They helped! I still wrote the whole thing!” he says once he's back on screen.

Jiang Cheng's voice is still heard. “You typed. Xichen told you what to write.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. In the background, Zixuan hears laughter that doesn't sound like it belongs to either Jiang Cheng or his son. And who is this Xichen person? Why has he never heard Jin Ling mention him before?

He clenches his jaw, forcing out another smile. He hates not knowing what his own son is up to.

“How is your new school? How have you been, A-Ling?” he asks, desperation leaking into his voice. Jin Ling won't notice anyway.

His son rambles on about school. He tells Zixuan he has made two friends called Sizhui and Jingyi, but then proceeds to deny it because one of them is apparently there at the library as well. For a few seconds, he rants about having Wei Ying as a teacher too, but thankfully drops that topic quickly.

He's talking so quick, as if he wants to fit everything and anything into this call. It eases Zixuan's worries a bit. No matter how far away his son is, he's always eager to try and close the distance between them.

Jin Ling deserves better than this.

“How's Mom? Is she awake?” Jin Ling asks afterwards. “Can I talk to her too?”

The smile on Zixuan's face twitches. He doesn't know how he can still fake it. “She's just asleep right now. You called at a bad time. It's midnight, A-Ling.”

“Aaw, oops,” Jin Ling says. “I keep forgetting time zone differences! Is she alright though?”

Deep breath. “Yes, she's fine. Don't worry.”

Jin Ling nods. He looks like he wants to say more but he stops himself. “Okay, I should go then. Get some rest too, Dad!”

“I will.”

“I... I miss you two. I hope I can see both of you soon.”

The hope in Jin Ling's eyes may as well be an arrow that tears through his chest. No matter how many times Zixuan swallows the lump in his throat, it's still there.

“Goodbye, A-Ling,” is all he can choke out. “Be a good boy, okay?”

Jin Ling huffs. “I always am!”

With that, he hangs up. Zixuan can finally shudder out a breath.

His eyes are stinging. He refuses to cry. He refuses to be weak. He needs to be strong for his wife and his son. It's the only thing he can do.

Be strong. Do as much as you can. Lie. Pretend everything is okay.

It's not lying, he wants to say. It's not lying because Yanli will be okay. She'll recover and learn how to walk again. She'll get out of this hospital and they'll return to China where they can be the family they should have been twelve years ago. Everything will finally fall into piece.

He walks back to the ward. Everything will fall into piece. Everything will fall into piece.

Yet, every step he takes feels like this whole limbo Yanli is stuck in will eventually crumble away. He grasps her hand again, afraid that if he squeezes too tight then she'll shatter before his very eyes.

He isn't lying to Jin Ling. Yanli will be okay.

Jin Ling doesn't need to know what the doctor has told him. Jin Ling doesn't need to know she's contracted pneumonia, that she's deteriorating. Jin Ling doesn't need to feel that sickening lurch in his stomach that Zixuan felt, when the doctor told him Yanli's body may not be able to handle it if she continues at this rate. Jin Ling doesn't need to spend every day, every night praying for a miracle.

Yanli is going to recover. She won't leave them. She can't leave them.

Shaking, Zixuan tightens his hands around hers. His eyes are wet. Still, even in the darkness of that ward, he refuses to let out any tears.

All he can do is hold his wife's hand.

“Don't leave me, A-Li,” he says. He begs.

 

 

Chapter Text

Today is almost over. Wei Ying has been allowing this week to drag him on, getting through each day because it's the only thing he can do. The winter gloom outside does nothing to help. Everywhere is grey, lifeless, and empty. All of his lessons blur into one memory he'll have forgotten come evening. In front of him, his students' blank faces are exactly what he feels and he has no energy left in him to bother changing that.

He looks at the clock on the opposite side of the room. Less than an hour left until today is done. What a pain.

Rambling on, he makes the students copy useless paragraphs onto their books. If only he had the energy to actually make this fun for them—but he doesn't. These days, it feels like all he does is wake up, do something in between, sleep, have bad dreams. Rinse and repeat. Is he finally reaching a mid-life crisis? He's only thirty-three, can't it wait for another twenty years?

There's only half an hour left of class when a soft knock breaks him away from his thoughts. Wei Ying raises his head, frowning at the receptionist that's standing by the doorway.

“Sorry to interrupt, but could I speak to Jin Ling please?” she asks.

Wei Ying turns to Jin Ling. “Is something wrong?”

The receptionist only shakes her head. “He'll have to leave school early today. Please get your things, Jin Ling. Your uncle is already here.”

Her voice sounds serious. Wei Ying knows this receptionist; not her name, but he knows what she's like. Whenever he walks past her, she's always gossiping or slacking off. It's weird to hear her sound like this.

His frown deepens. He stares at Jin Ling who is glancing between him and the receptionist. For once, he's not scowling at Wei Ying. His eyes are wide, confused, and all it does is make him look much younger. After a while, he slowly begins packing his things.

Wei Ying says nothing as Jin Ling stands. He watches him leave the class, unable to shake off this feeling already festering in his chest. There's only half an hour left until school is over for today. Jiang Cheng's shift doesn't even finish yet. Whatever it is, it must be serious.

He can only think of one thing. The rest of this lesson is a blur.

It gets worse once the day is over. He should be going home, he should be thankful for what little time he has to rest. Instead, he can't get it out his head that something bad has happened and he needs to know—but how? Who can he even ask? There has to be a reason Jin Ling got called out of class.

Wei Ying can't go home. Instead, he does something stupid and reckless and hopeless, but it's the only thing he can do. He goes to Jiang Cheng's apartment, waiting outside the entrance and screaming at himself for even thinking of this in the first place.

He doesn't know how the fuck he can get inside. There's no way Jiang Cheng is going to let him in—there's no way he will talk to him. This is stupid. This is pathetic.

But he can't give up. How is he supposed to walk away, knowing that something could be happening? How is he supposed to ignore that? Wei Ying paces outside the apartments, trying to think, trying to calm down. No matter how much he convinces himself he's being paranoid, his heart pounds against his ribs and all he remembers is Yanli, Yanli, Yanli.

What is he supposed to do? What can he do?

He looks up at the block of apartments in front of him. It's nothing like the place he lives in. This actually looks like somewhere you can live in, as opposed to the Burial Complex where it looks like a garbage dump instead.

He doesn't even know Jiang Cheng's number—and if he does, what is he supposed to say? Hey, it's Wei Ying. I know you hate me but can you tell me what the fuck is going on because I'm about to lose my shit? That's really going to go down well.

Wei Ying must have spent about twenty minutes just standing out here looking like an idiot. Part of him is contemplating the consequences of breaking into this place, but sadly the security here looks like it works, unlike Burial Complex. He also doesn't think Jiang Cheng, a policeman, is going to appreciate Wei Ying trespassing into his home.

This isn't working out at all. He's kidding himself if he thinks—

Wait.

Who's that?

He squints his eyes, spotting the unmistakeable long hair. Lan... Zhan?

Wei Ying sees him getting out of his car—only it doesn't look like the usual car he drives. Lan Zhan normally drives a white car; something expensive looking and a model that Wei Ying has never bothered to learn. This car he has now is dark blue, still equally expensive by the looks of it, but Wei Ying is confused as to why it's different. How many cars does he have? Is he so rich that he switches them up everyday?

And why is he here?

He's so confused that he doesn't bother moving. He stands there, arms folded, and watches as Lan Zhan heads for the entrance. Eventually, he stops in front of him. When he spots Wei Ying, he blinks a few times before flashing him a blinding smile.

Okay, now Wei Ying is even more confused. He shuffles his feet, unable to keep the surprise off his face. Lan Zhan? Smiling? If he smiles any more, Wei Ying thinks his face might break.

“Teacher Wei?” Lan Zhan calls out. “What are you doing here?”

Oh. That doesn't sound like Lan Zhan at all. Lan Zhan's voice is deep and husky. This one is softer, friendlier. It suddenly dawns on Wei Ying this isn't the music tutor at all. He relaxes, remembering that Lan Zhan has a brother who looks exactly like him. This must be him then.

“Lan Zhan's brother...?” he asks. “I'm sorry, I forgot your name.”

Lan Zhan's brother doesn't look offended. In fact, his face warms up more. It's strange how one smile can completely transform a person. Even though they look like mirror images of each other, staring at this man now, Wei Ying would never mistake him for Lan Zhan at all.

“Please call me Xichen,” he says.

Wei Ying nods. He turns to the apartments, and then back at Lan Xichen.

“You live here?”

“Yes.”

Huh. What a coincidence.

“Can you let me in? I need to talk to Jiang Cheng—you know, that guy who arrested you.”

The smile on Lan Xichen's face wavers. “Yes, I know him.” He opens his mouth to say something else, but decides against it.

“Of course,” he says. He walks over to the entrance and finally, finally unlocks it. “Is there something the—”

“What's his room number again?”

Lan Xichen's eyebrows furrow. “Seventy-five.”

“Thanks.”

Just like that, Wei Ying is gone, ignoring the hint of suspicion on the older man's face.

As the elevator gets closer and closer to the right floor, Wei Ying's stomach lurches. He's not sure if it's because he's dreading talking to Jiang Cheng again, or it's because he's scared of what he'll find out. He just knows that, either way, this meeting isn't going to go very well. At all.

By the time he's standing outside room seventy-five, he wants to be sick. He takes a deep breath and knocks.

The door opens too soon. Jiang Cheng's eyes widen for a fraction of a second before they narrow and become cold. Wei Ying hates this. He hates throwing away his pride to literally come begging outside Jiang Cheng's door. But it's all he can do. There's no other choice.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng demands.

Wei Ying does his best to keep eye contact. “Has something happened?”

“I asked you a question! Why are you here? Fuck off!”

Jiang Cheng shuts the door—or at least he tries to. Wei Ying is faster. He grabs the door and puts himself between it, flinching at how close Jiang Cheng becomes. If he wants to, he could hit him. Wei Ying can already see it happening.

“Not until you tell me if something's happened!” Wei Ying says. He keeps his grip on the door, watching as Jiang Cheng's patience runs even thinner.

“It's none of your business! You don't have any right to come here and harass me!”

“So something has happened? They took Jin Ling out of school earlier—”

“I told you to fuck off. We have enough to worry about without you coming back when you're not wanted!”

There's a sudden pain in his chest as Jiang Cheng shoves him. Wei Ying flinches, grabbing the officer's wrist in time before he can push him off.

Tell me if Jiejie is okay! I need to know!”

His hands are shaking. He tries to search Jiang Cheng's eyes for any sign of weakness. Please, just this once, listen to me. I'm sick of fighting. I'm sorry.

There's nothing. Jiang Cheng looks at him as if he's the most disgusting thing he's ever seen. He snatches his hand away.

“You don't need to know anything!” he yells. “Why are you always trying to come back to our lives when you've done enough!”

Wei Ying grits his teeth. He doesn't know what else Jiang Cheng wants him to do. Does he want him to go down on his knees and literally beg him? Does he want him to cry? What can he do to fix all this? Is there anything left for him to do?

Nothing, nothing, nothing. You've done enough.

“I know! I know you hate me! I know what I've done! Don't you think I blame myself everyday too?!”

The more he speaks, the harder it is to think. He doesn't want to cry—he won't cry. Not in front of Jiang Cheng. He hasn't cried in so long, he won't start now.

Jiang Cheng sneers. “What good is that going to do? Nothing you say will ever fix anything.”

Wei Ying wishes he can shake him. He wishes he can say everything; all the regrets that have plagued him since that day, all the apologies he knows will never be enough. He wishes he can say something that will reach Jiang Cheng.

“I know that,” Wei Ying mumbles. “You don't think I spend everyday wishing I died instead of your parents? That I never hurt Jiejie? Jiang Cheng, you don't need to remind me because I know.”

His voice cracks halfway. He's long thrown his pride out the window. He keeps his eyes on Jiang Cheng, letting the hatred on his face sink in.

“I just... Can you please just tell me if Jiejie is okay?” he begs. “Please, Jiang Cheng. Please.”

He can hear Jiang Cheng breathing harder. The seconds pass by painfully. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight... He doesn't know what he'll do if Jiang Cheng refuses him this. All he needs to know is that Jiejie is fine, that he hasn't ruined everything again. It's Wei Ying's last hope.

Please. Please let her be okay. Once she's okay, I can go. I'll leave. I promise. I'll go away so that no one will ever see me again.

“No, she's not,” Jiang Cheng says. “She's getting worse. The doctors don't know if she's going to make it by the end of the week. Is that what you want to hear?”

Jiang Cheng may as well have hit him. By the end of the week. It's Wednesday now. That's not enough time. It's been years—she's been in hospital for over ten years and Wei Ying has spent every day of it praying she'll recover, that he hasn't lost her as well. He can't lose her too.

He shakes his head. “She's... She's going to be okay.”

Jiang Cheng pushes him again. This time, Wei Ying lets himself stumble back.

“You... This is all your fault! Why are you even here! Why do you even care!”

Why do you even care?

Why is that a question? Why can't he care about the family that raised him up? Why is he not allowed to cherish the memories he still has of them, even though he knows how much he's done? Is he not allowed to even have this? Is he so horrible?

He clenches his fists. “Of course I care! She's my sister too!”

Jiang Cheng's eyes widen. “No, she's not! She's my sister! Just like how they were my parents and they're gone because of you!”

Wei Ying flinches. Their smiling faces flash in his mind—and then—gone, replaced by blood, by everything he's caused. He wants to cover his ears and close his eyes, but Jiang Cheng is right.

“Wasn't it enough that my dad always preferred you!” Jiang Cheng continues, slamming his fist against the door. “Wasn't it enough that you always got the attention! Do you have to take everything away from me!”

Jiang Fengmian's face appears before him, reaching out a hand. He takes it, only six years old, and forces a smile on his face despite the tears that have dried on his cheeks.

It's okay, A-Ying, you're safe now. I'll take care of you.

“I never... I never meant... I'm sorry—”

His words are cut off as Jiang Cheng grabs him by the collar, pulling him inside. He slams him against the wall, and there's pain as Wei Ying's head collides with the hard surface. For a second, he sees stars, and then there's Jiang Cheng's face inches in front of him, livid, shaking. The hand around his throat is loose. Wei Ying almost wishes he would squeeze tighter.

“Sorry. Isn't. Enough.” Jiang Cheng spits out.

Wei Ying can barely him through his own heartbeat. He doesn't move—he can't.

There's the sound of footsteps behind them. In the corner of his eyes, he sees a smaller figure getting closer.

“Stop it! Just stop it! Stop fighting!”

Jin Ling. Where did he come from?

The teenager tugs at Jiang Cheng's arm, but no matter how much he cries or shakes his uncle, Jiang Cheng doesn't move an inch.

“I hate you, so much,” Jiang Cheng says. “Why couldn't it have been you! Why did it have to be my parents or A-Jie!”

Why couldn't you have died instead?

Yanli smiles, eyes downcast. She strokes Wei Ying's hair, and her voice is enough to calm all of the anxiety he's ever felt in his life.

A-Cheng says things he doesn't mean. If he says he hates you, he means the opposite. He doesn't hate you, he can never hate you. He thinks of you as his brother. You two are inseparable.

Jiang Cheng shakes him. Wei Ying's head rattles. Yanli's face, and her voice, is gone.

“Don't you have anything to say? Anything!”

What do you want me to say? What can I say?

I'm sorry?

I wish I died instead too?

Wei Ying can't let the words out. He can stay there and let Jiang Cheng yell at him, hit him. He can go, if that's what he wants. That's all he can do—he doesn't know what else is there left for him. Why is he here? Why does he think he still has a chance to fix everything he's done wrong? Why is he still trying?

Jiang Cheng's hands loosen. His breath shakes, and for a moment, Wei Ying thinks he might cry.

“You didn't even stay,” he says. “You just left! You didn't even care!”

There's a weakness in his voice that Wei Ying clings to. He shakes his head, gathering the courage to hold onto Jiang Cheng's arm.

“I care! I've always cared!”

“Shut up! Just shut up!

Jiang Cheng is shaking him again, and this time, Wei Ying grips him by the arm. He wants to snap Jiang Cheng out of it, force him to understand that he has always cared, he has always been here and he still cares.

The floor trembles beneath him. Jin Ling is behind them, red-faced and crying.

“Stop it! Uncle! Please! I'm sick of you two always fighting!”

But they can't stop. Wei Ying is looking into Jiang Cheng's eyes and he knows there's nothing reaching him. Nothing ever will. He lets his hands fall limp by his sides, giving up.

Just hit me then, Wei Ying wants to say. Tell me how much you hate me, how much I've ruined your life. Tell me how much you wish I was dead instead.

It's what he deserves, and more. He stays there, closes his eyes and accepts everything.

Nothing happens.

“Stop it. Jiang Cheng.

When Wei Ying opens his eyes, Jiang Cheng is no longer gripping him. He breathes out, trembling, and sees Lan Xichen in front of them.

“Let go of me!” Jiang Cheng demands, struggling against the older man's hold. Wei Ying can see the rage in him, that someone would dare interfere, that someone would actually try and stop him when he's like this. He knows how Jiang Cheng's mind works.

Still, no matter how much Jiang Cheng struggles, Lan Xichen doesn't bat an eyelid.

Stop it,” he says again.

Lan Xichen lifts his eyes to meet Wei Ying's. There's no accusation in them, yet it doesn't stop Wei Ying from looking away. Their eye contact only lasted a brief second but Wei Ying knows what sympathy is when he sees it. He can still hear Jin Ling sobbing nearby; just a lone child who needs comfort instead of him trying to stop a fight between his two uncles.

Why are you always trying to come back to our lives when you've done enough?

Why did he come here in the first place? What good has it done? Jiang Cheng is still struggling in Lan Xichen's arms. The distance between them is worlds apart and Wei Ying needs to get it through his head that no amount of pride he throws away will ever be able to fix what he's already destroyed.

There's nothing left for him. He's lost Jiang Cheng. He's losing Yanli. It's his own fault. Everything is his fault.

Backing away, he turns and leaves like the coward he is. As soon as he steps out of the room, he runs as fast as he can, away from this place, away from everyone.

 

- x -

 

Xichen sighs, watching Wei Wuxian run out of the room. He will have to tell Wangji about this in a bit... But first...

He glances over to his side where Jin Ling is sobbing as quietly as he can. Fairy is whining by his feet, nudging him with his nose in an attempt to console the young boy. As if noticing the sudden silence, Jin Ling looks up, flinching at Xichen's gaze. He furiously rubs his eyes and throws a quick glare of his own before running off into his room.

Xichen winces at the sound of the door slamming.

“Xichen! Let me fucking go!” Jiang Cheng snaps.

He had almost forgotten he was holding him. Xichen had barely felt anything when Jiang Cheng was struggling against him.

“Calm down first,” Xichen says, still sensing anger coming from the officer. He had his suspicions when he saw Wei Wuxian outside, remembering that the relationship between the two had become hostile all the way back to their original lives.

Xichen knew nothing about their lives now, though this was enough to tell him nothing much has changed.

“You don't even fucking know anything!” Jiang Cheng says. “Don't tell me what to do!”

Sighing, Xichen stares at the closed door where Jin Ling has disappeared off to. No doubt the teenager is inside, crying.

“Jin Ling needs you,” he softly says.

That, at least, gets the officer to stop moving. His clenched fists loosen with a tired sigh of his own. Within seconds, Jiang Cheng slumps against Xichen and all of the anger dissipates from him like a demon leaving his body. All that is left is a tired shell of a man.

Slowly, Xichen releases him. Jiang Cheng does not look at him once, leaving for Jin Ling's room without a word.

Has he crossed the line? A small part of Xichen worries he is meddling into affairs that are not his own. He did not think when he rushed here. He heard the screaming, the crying, and ran as fast as he could. There was no thinking involved; he did not do it because it seemed right, he did it because was no other option. Ignoring it was unthinkable.

It is strange to see Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng still fighting with each other, even in this lifetime. If we are given a new beginning after death, then why must history repeat itself?

If Xichen were to die, would he make the same mistakes? Hurt the same people? Is there no end to such a life?

Jiang Cheng returns too soon. Xichen remains quiet, staring at the man approaching him. He wonders how many times Jiang Cheng has been reincarnated, only to retain the same hatred for his adopted brother.

It hardly seems human. The gods may as well be playing a game.

“You're still here?” Jiang Cheng asks. He is dressed in his police uniform, and just like the first time they met, he looks at Xichen with distrust and caution. Nothing like the hidden smiles he has been giving for the past few days.

“I can go, if you wish.”

“Why are you here?”

“I heard shouting,” Xichen says, as if the answer is obvious. “I wanted to see if you were in need of help.”

The frown on Jiang Cheng's face does not move. “Why do you care?”

“Is it not right to be concerned about people you know?”

We hardly know each other.”

Xichen does not know what to say to that. It only seemed right to see if the officer was okay... They were not close, barely even acquaintances, but Xichen thought their constant meetings at least meant they were above strangers.

He has always treated everyone with the same kindness. He did not think there was anything wrong with that.

While he rarely spoke to Jiang Cheng's original self outside of sect business, Xichen thought he at least had a vague grasp of this incarnation now. They often bumped into each other in the morning, sharing a quick conversation in the elevator before heading their separate ways for work. Sometimes, they would share tea together once they returned home, listening to Jin Ling talk about what he did for school.

Xichen will admit he had grown somewhat used to Jiang Cheng's blunt behaviour. Enjoyed it, even.

He tries to smooth the frown on his face. “Perhaps,” he says, weakly. “I am sorry if I overstepped my boundaries. I shall go now.”

His steps are heavy. He does not know why but... he is disappointed? Why? Why does leaving feel so difficult?

“Jin Ling and I are going to America tomorrow.”

Xichen stops and takes a moment to understand what those words mean. He slowly turns back to Jiang Cheng.

He is looking down at his feet, refusing to meet his gaze. “My sister... Jin Ling's mother is in hospital. The doctors are saying she might not make it.”

Jiang Yanli. Xichen did not know her very well, but he had heard of her, and her death. How cruel that she must face similar hardships even in this life.

In truth, he did not know what to say. He has witnessed so many deaths that the fragility of human life has become numb to him. He has long stopped trying to reach for comfort when it comes to losing someone. Loss is inevitable, death is inevitable; humanity is privileged to know such a thing and Xichen is but a witness to it.

He searches for the right words. Everything feels empty. Meaningless.

“I am sorry. I... I don't know what to say.”

He does not mean to say it out loud, but he knows as soon as Jiang Cheng's blue eyes narrow that he should not have opened his mouth at all.

“I'm not asking you to say anything,” he spits out. “I don't even know why I'm telling you this! I don't want your fucking sympathy.”

Xichen shakes his head, wishing his immortality granted him the power to rewind time as well. “No, I did not mean... I...”

For all the smiles and kind words Xichen is constantly giving, he does not know how to comfort someone. How can he offer hope when he himself does not believe in such things?

He has never been good at offering comfort. When their mother died, Wangji asked and asked when they would see her again, and Xichen could only smile at him, tell him everything was going to be okay. How was he supposed to tell a boy of only six years that their mother was no longer there? How was he supposed to tell Wangji their mother could never tell them the stories about the stars she longed to reach out for?

I know their stories, but it is difficult to see the stars from this house. One day, I hope you boys will be able to recognise them for yourselves and know the story behind each star.

They never did. As they grew older and achieved immortality, Xichen realised the stories his mother loved so much were just that; stories. The magic and hope she weaved into those stars died along with her.

He swallows the unspoken words in his throat. He thinks instead to what he would have done, if he were given the chance to be with his mother again, or anyone he has ever lost. His sworn brothers.

“There is still hope for your sister,” he says. “Do not believe you will lose her just yet. If you are able to be with her, then go. Cherish all the time you have with the people you care about.”

“I don't need you to tell me that,” Jiang Cheng sneers. He does not understand—or maybe, maybe it is Xichen that doesn't understand. “What makes you think you can come here and tell me what to do like you know anything?”

“I wasn't... I am trying to comfort you.”

Don't. I don't want it.”

Xichen presses his lips together.

“Don't just come into people's lives trying to help them when you know nothing,” Jiang Cheng says. “You don't know my sister, you don't even know Jin Ling. Why are you here telling me to act calm like you have any idea about what's happened? Why are you even here?

Every word pierces straight through him. He is right, of course he is. What he knows from the past is nothing like the present now. He is treating Jiang Cheng as if he is someone he can predict and read, just because he knows who he used to be.

He is trying to help, for the wrong reasons.

Jin Guangyao suddenly grins in his head, large eyes still so innocent. Teacher Lan, what will you be teaching?

Xichen's own voice responds, unknowing of what his response would begin. He thought only of his sworn brothers, at peace with each other again. All three of them; united, as they once had been.

How about Sound of Clarity?

Xichen clutches his head, willing the voices to leave him.

If you had never taught A-Yao... If you had never tried to meddle... Mingjue-xiong would not have had to suffer. None of it would have happened. You could have stopped it.

“You are right,” Xichen says hurriedly. His breath comes short and he can no longer see Jiang Cheng in front of him. He wants the ground to swallow him whole and the voices to stop.

What is he trying to do? Why is he even trying to help Jiang Cheng? Why does he think he needs his help? Is he trying to drag more people down into ruin with him? Is he trying to hurt Jiang Cheng too? How many more must he hurt?

“Forgive me. I will leave you alone now.”

He leaves. He thinks he hears Jiang Cheng calling after him, but it's drowned out by the sound of Jin Guangyao playing the guqin. The Sound of Clarity is loud in his ears. Too loud.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying's head is killing him. He doesn't remember the journey back home. All he can think about is Yanli wasting away in that hospital, pale and lifeless; nothing like the sister who used to carry him and Jiang Cheng on her back. By the end of the week, she could be gone. By the end of the week, everything will be over.

He can't do this. He runs away because it's all he has left to do. The bottle of vodka in his hand is already half gone and, still, it's not enough to make him forget. It's not enough to undo everything he's done. It's never enough.

He knows it's stupid drinking this much. Wen Qing is already yelling in his head, telling him he's going to die at this rate if he really tries to down the whole bottle. His only response to that is so what? It's not like he's scared of dying. It's not like he has anything he wants to do in life.

The only thing really keeping him is the hope Yanli will make it. If she can walk out of that hospital and live her life again, then Wei Ying can be at peace knowing she is happy.

Everything begins to spin. Wei Ying lays the bottle down with shaking hands, holding his head. There's a loud ringing that gets worse and worse, tearing his head apart. He groans and covers his ears, squeezes his eyes shut. It doesn't stop.

What the fuck is that?

He sits up and looks around the room. The ringing is still there.

What...

Wei Ying's eyes land on his phone. It's vibrating against the table, flashing. Oh. He picks it up and manages to make out Wen Ning's face amidst all the spinning.

“Yeah, what is it?” Wei Ying says, shaking his head in a useless attempt to steady his surroundings.

“I saw you going past the café... You looked upset.”

Even Wen Ning's timid voice is too loud for him now. Wei Ying pushes the phone away from him, dropping it back down onto the table. He turns the speakers on and slumps back down onto the couch.

He lets out a laugh. “Did I?”

“Are you... Are you okay?” Wen Ning's voice sounds more hesitant than usual.

“Am I ever okay? Does it matter?”

A sigh. “You're drunk.”

Wei Ying lays his head against the cushions. “Hmm. Like I said, does it matter?”

“Should I call Jiejie—”

“No, don't. I don't need her to yell at me right now.” Wei Ying groans, wriggling to reach for the bottle of vodka again. When he takes another swig, he has to stop himself from being sick on the spot.

Maybe he should stop. Or carry on. Does it matter?

“Say, Wen Ning,” Wei Ying slurs, shaking the bottle and listening to the alcohol slosh around. “Tell me... Tell me something. Do you ever wonder what's the point to life?”

“H-Huh?”

“Like... what's the point? You just wake up everyday, go to work, eat, sleep. That's it. Why do we bother? It's all so monotone, don't you think? What's the point?

Silence. Wei Ying continues to shake the bottle. Part of him wants to throw it away, smash it against a wall. Part of him wants to down it all and see if it really kills him.

“I-I... You find things that make it better,” Wen Ning mutters.

Wei Ying can only laugh. “Like what?”

“People. O-Or things that make you happy?”

He doesn't know why he's laughing, but he can't stop. Wei Ying puts the bottle down again, laughing until his sides hurt, laughing until he's sure there are tears coming out of his eyes. They sting. He doesn't think it's because any of this is funny.

“You're really drunk,” Wen Ning says.

Wei Ying rubs his eyes, shaking his head. His cheeks hurt. His head hurts. Everything hurts.

“I am, I am. Silly me. Eh, it doesn't matter.”

“Be careful.”

“It doesn't maaaatter.

“It does... Me and Jiejie care about you. We... I-I want you to be happy.”

Wei Ying freezes. He doesn't expect that, not from Wen Ning. His eyes sting even more and he rubs them, refusing to let out any tears. He forces out another laugh. Happy? Wen Ning is being too cheesy.

“Ah, I'm really drunk this time. I fucked up, Wen Ning,” Wei Ying says. Maybe drinking half a bottle of vodka wasn't such a good idea.

“I'll call Jiejie.”

“No, no, no. She's busy with work.”

“Then... please don't drink anymore.”

The rest of the bottle is right in front of Wei Ying. He wants to laugh again but he's too tired. “Maybe.”

“Wei Ying...”

“Okay, okay.”

Another sigh comes from the other line. “I... I gotta go. My break's over.”

“Okaaaay.”

“Take care...”

“Hmm.”

He doesn't know who hangs up first, but he knows he hates the silence when Wen Ning is gone. The bottle in front of him is starting to multiply, spinning in sync with all of the thoughts that refuse to leave his head. Wei Ying does the only thing he can do; he grabs it and starts drinking again.

Or he tries to. He can only take one gulp before he's lurching forward, choking at the taste. It takes all of his strength not to puke out everything in his stomach, and even then his body is shaking violently. He takes deep breaths and watches as the floor beneath him spins and spins and spins. This is stupid. He's so stupid. Why did he do this? What good is getting drunk going to do?

Wei Ying pushes the bottle away from him, uncaring when it falls onto the ground with a loud smash. He shuts his eyes, takes deep breaths. He wants to sleep. He wants to sleep and forget about everything and never wake up. He holds his head in his hands and counts all the breaths he's taken.

One, two, three.

Useless, useless, useless.

Four, five, six, seven.

I hate you so much. Why couldn't it have been you! Why did it have to be my parents or A-Jie!

Eight.

A-Xian, you… you should stop first. Don’t, don’t…

He stops counting. Yanli? He's drunk and he knows he's hearing things but—Yanli? But who? Who is A-Xian? She has never said this to him.

I'll stop, he wants to say. Tell me to stop. Come back and tell me to stop, please come back.

Her voice doesn't return. In the darkness, he sees a splash of crimson, a sword embedded into her neck. He sees her mouth, still parted with words she wanted to say, blood gushing out her lips.

His stomach lurches. Wei Ying's eyes snap wide open and he staggers away from the couch, almost tripping over all of the bottles of wine on the floor. The room around him is shrinking but all he sees is Yanli, dead, dead because of him.

No. No. No no no no no.

Wei Ying runs out of his apartment, stumbling and tripping down the stairs. He doesn't know where he's going—but he needs to get away. Go away. Cold wind bites at his skin and he chokes at the breaths he struggles to take. He continues to run. Anywhere, awayjust away.

If he leaves and never comes back, will Jiejie be okay? Will she be happy? Will everyone be happy?

A sob breaks through him. He covers his mouth and swallows it back. He doesn't deserve to cry. Not here. Not now, not ever. He can only go away.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying shivers. He spins around, stomach heaving at every move. There's a blurred figure of white in front of him. He knows who it is without even needing to move closer.

Out of everyone, it's him. Of course it's him. Wei Ying wants to laugh, or cry, or scream. He opens his mouth to speak and nothing comes out. His knees buckle underneath him. Everything turns black, but not before he knows Lan Zhan has caught him just in time.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying is light. Too light. He weighs nothing in Wangji's arms, and it is not because Wangji is immortal and Wei Ying is but a mere human. Wei Ying does not take care of himself, and it hurts Wangji to see him like this after all these years. Even when unconscious, his eyebrows furrow with worry and pain. Wangji pulls him closer to his chest and brings him inside the house, away from the unforgiving cold.

Sizhui is in the lounge, reading a book on the couch. He looks over his shoulder, the smile on his face dropping as soon as he sees who Wangji is carrying.

“Dad! Teacher Wei! I-Is he okay?”

“He will be fine.”

Sizhui stands up, hesitating. “Do you... Do you need me to do anything? I can make tea—”

Shaking his head, Wangji walks past him, careful not to stir Wei Ying too much.

“No need,” he says. “I will take care of him.”

He sees Sizhui nodding from the corner of his eyes. Wangji does not say anything else, carrying Wei Ying upstairs into his bedroom. He is still unconscious. One of his hands cling to Wangji's shirt, occasionally tightening in his sleep.

Gently, Wangji lays Wei Ying down on the bed, not once taking his gaze off him. When his brother called, he had said Wei Ying fought with Jiang Cheng again. His brother hung up before Wangji could ask any more questions about what happened, or why Xichen's own voice sounded so tired as well.

Wangji sits by the edge of the bed. The only sound that fills the room is the sound of Wei Ying breathing. A distant memory of Wei Ying's head resting on his lap returns to Wangji. Wei Ying was younger, shorter, and even with the fever coursing through him, he had that radiant smile on his face, the light in his eyes. Will it ever return?

A groan pulls him away from his thoughts. He stiffens, watching Wei Ying's eyelids flutter open.

For a second too long, Wei Ying only stares at the ceiling. Then, he clutches his head and struggles to sit up. Wangji is by his side in seconds, helping him.

“Lan Zhan...” Wei Ying mumbles. His eyes are not on him, they are unfocused on the bed, as if he is not entirely seeing what is in front. “Where... Where am I?”

“My home.”

To his surprise, Wei Ying lets out a low laugh. His shoulders shake; each laugh that escapes him sound more and more like choked sobs.

“Your home? You took me to your home? Your bed?”

Wangji frowns. Wei Ying finally looks up and there is a glint in his eyes that do not match his face. He is still laughing as he wraps his arms around Wangji's neck, pulling him down, down until they fall back onto the blankets. His laughter is like a siren that lures Wangji, rendering him still even as Wei Ying spreads his legs and closes the distance between their lips.

Wei Ying is quick to open his mouth, moaning and pulling Wangji closer. Everything is rushing and stopping all at once. Wangji cannot stop the tides that threaten to drown him as Wei Ying wraps his legs around his waist, sliding their lips together. He remembers the first kiss he had stolen from Wei Ying, how he had tasted so sweet, how clumsy and shy he had been.

Wei Ying's mouth is bitter. Wangji tastes nothing but alcohol with each slide of his tongue and each moan. Under him, Wei Ying's hands are nimble, trailing up his chest and unfastening the buttons of his shirt quicker than Wangji can think.

This is not how it is supposed to be.

Wangji pulls away. “No.”

Wei Ying clings to his shirt. One of his hands run through Wangji's hair, trying to push his head down again.

“Lan Zhan, fuck me,” he says, causing Wangji's heart to stop. “I don't care anymore.”

It is hard to breathe. How long has he imagined Wei Ying under him like this, begging for his touch? How long has he imagined what it is like to hear him moaning, to feel his mouth against him again? He swallows the lump in his throat and licks his lips, turning away from the sight of Wei Ying's hazy eyes.

No,” Wangji repeats.

Wei Ying's legs wrap tighter around him. It is maddening.

“Isn't that what you want? Just fuck me, Lan Zhan!”

He brings a hand to Wangji's face and tries to turn him, but his palm is cold and sticky. His words are slurred. Does Wei Ying see him? Does Wei Ying know what he is doing?

“You are drunk,” Wangji says.

“Does it matter? Don't you want me?”

Wei Ying's voice rises, shakes. It cracks ever so slightly, and it is enough to pierce through Wangji's heart. He wants nothing more than to give Wei Ying what he wants—but not like this. Not like this.

“You... You deserve better.”

He hears Wei Ying's breath hitch. The legs around Wangji's waist loosen. When Wangji looks back at him, there are tears welling in his eyes. Wei Ying shakes his head, lips trembling.

“No... No, I don't,” he says.

Wangji wipes the tear that is falling down his cheek, gently as if a mere touch will cause Wei Ying to shatter before him. He listens to Wei Ying hold his breath, trying to contain the rest of the tears Wangji knows he has been keeping in for too long.

“Why do you care so much?” Wei Ying asks.

Because I love you. Because I have always loved you from the very beginning, from the moment you appeared and made me question everything I have ever believed in. Because I want you to be happy and I want you to be safe, even if I do not know how to help you.

He wants to tell Wei Ying everything. He wants to pour his heart to him and give him the love he deserves. But Wangji is a coward. He keeps every word to himself and pulls Wei Ying into his embrace instead. He feels him stiffening against his body—and then he breaks.

Wei Ying sobs, clutching at his back and burying his face into Wangji's chest. Every cry hurts as if Wei Ying is digging glass shards into his flesh. Wangji only holds him tighter. He does not let go, not this time.

“What am I supposed to do, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying weeps. “Why do I ruin everything? I never meant for any of this to happen!”

Wei Ying was alone when he died. He had been alone for a long time, bearing the hatred of everyone who wanted him dead. He stood tall and proud, refusing to shed the pride he always held. It was only when he began losing everyone he loved did Wangji start to see the cracks forming.

He should have been there for him a long time ago. He should have never left Wei Ying alone.

He wraps his arms tighter around him, stroking his hair. This time, he will be with Wei Ying. This time, he will make sure Wei Ying is not alone.

Wangji does not know how long they remain like that. Wei Ying cries until his sobs subside into shallow breathing. He is still clinging onto Wangji, his breath tickling his collarbones. Nevertheless, Wangji does not move. He runs his hands through Wei Ying's hair and hums their song, letting it fill the silence of the room. He wonders if Wei Ying knows this song is made for him, every note a message of love Wangji has kept for thousands of years.

Wei Ying sighs. “I don't know what I'm doing here. I shouldn't be here.”

“Rest,” Wangji says.

Please, do not leave. Do not ask to leave.

Wei Ying's hands drop from his back. He stirs, pulling himself off Wangji's chest.

“Can you... Can you stay? I-I don't want to be alone.”

His voice is small, but Wangji hears him. Slowly, he lowers both of them back onto the bed. Wei Ying freezes, uncertain. Wangji gives him a chance to pull away, to leave, and almost sighs in relief when he relaxes into his arms instead.

“I am here,” Wangji tells him.

Wei Ying says nothing more. He closes his eyes and inches closer, laying his head by his shoulder. If he comes nearer, he will be able to hear how fast Wangji's heart is pounding against his ribcage.

Wangji watches him. Eventually, the sound of Wei Ying's breathing evens and his face relaxes into the only peaceful expression Wangji has seen on him today. He sleeps, and still, Wangji holds him. He will not let go, not unless Wei Ying wants him to.

Here in his arms, Wei Ying looks fragile. Human. He has always been human, even when demonic cultivation clutched his sanity and turned him into someone Wangji could barely recognise. He has always been too human. Wangji thought he hated it; the way Wei Ying felt every spectrum of emotion he was used to controlling. Wei Ying was everything he was not, everything he could never hope to understand. He pushed it away, thinking he did not need this distraction in his life.

But he was wrong. Wangji had always thought of Wei Ying as a fool when, really, it was him all along. Wei Ying is perfect and lively and human. He is everything Wangji has missed in life and everything he could ever want.

He will not lose him, not to himself, not to anyone. Not this time.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying does not stir. Before he succumbs to his dreams, he feels the slight tightening of arms around him, the light brush of lips against his forehead. There's nothing but pounding in his head, but he leans closer to the warmth. He needs to sleep, he wants to sleep, and the gentle lull of Lan Zhan's breathing is slowly, but surely, pulling him into the void.

He sighs. Even amidst the mess of his thoughts, he recalls this is the first time in a while he hasn't slept alone. It isn't so bad. Part of him clings onto whatever consciousness he can just to savour the warmth, the company. It really isn't so bad. He moves even closer and finally, finally allows himself to fall asleep.

The smell of sandalwood guides him in the night, taking him back to years he has been running away from for so long.

 

- x -

 

His real parents are nothing but empty memories to him. They were happy and kind, Wei Ying knows that much, but the only clear memory he has left is when he lost them.

It was evening, maybe almost midnight. Wei Ying was six, reluctant to go to sleep even after his father read several fairy tales to him before bed. His parents loved to tell him all sorts of stories, be it fictional or little tales from their travels. Wei Ying would sit on his bed, wide-eyed, too excited after hearing about the adventures his mother and father once had. He never knew if they were real or his parents were just lying, but he didn't care. He was only a child, and his parents were exciting; the main characters in all the stories he knew.

“One more story!” he'd say, and his father would laugh while his mother promised he could have more tomorrow evening instead.

Except he didn't.

He was shaken awake by his father, so sudden Wei Ying can still remember the fright of being pulled away from peaceful sleep. His fears multiplied as he saw his parents' faces. He had only ever seen them smiling. Wei Ying did not know why they were so scared. They were heroes in their stories; why would they be scared of anything?

His father carried him into his arms, breathing hard. He opened their wardrobe and pushed Wei Ying's small body into the depths of their coats and clothes. Wei Ying whined, reaching for his parents but his mother shushed him, stroking his hair.

“Stay here, A-Ying,” his father said. “Whatever happens, stay here.

Why were they shaking? What was wrong?

“We love you, A-Ying,” his mother said. She kissed him one last time before prying his small hands away from her. “We love you so much.”

Wei Ying didn't know why, but he wanted to cry. His bottom lip trembled and tears blurred his vision. He didn't want to stay in this wardrobe, he wanted to follow his parents. He was scared they would go on adventures without him, that they would leave him all alone in this darkness.

His father cupped his face, squeezing his cheeks slightly. “Hey, don't cry. Give us a smile, come on.”

He frantically rubbed his eyes, wiping any traces of tears away. It didn't feel right to smile, but if his parents wanted him to do it then Wei Ying would listen. He looked up at them and gave them the biggest grin he could, wishing it would get rid of the sadness in their own eyes.

“Good boy,” his mother whispered. “Never ever let anyone get rid of your smile.”

There was a bang on the door. Wei Ying jumped, the smile on his face erased within seconds. He turned to his parents and only saw the wardrobe's doors closing in on him.

Then, darkness.

He heard muffled voices, deep, gruff, and unknown. There was a crack in the wardrobe he could peak through. The figures he made out were dressed in black, their faces obscured. Below them were two dogs sniffing at the floor, growling.

He was scared. These people sounded a lot like any villain from the stories his parents told him, but why were they here? Could his parents get rid of them?

Wei Ying wanted nothing more than to jump out and hug his mom and dad. The only thing stopping him was his dad's voice telling him to stay in this wardrobe, no matter what happened. How long was that supposed to be? What did these people want?

He peaked into the crack again, just in time to see a large man raise a knife at his father. Wei Ying's eyes widened, looking away.

And then, the screaming began. Wei Ying covered his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut, desperate to muffle out the sounds of his own sobs and whimpers. This shouldn't be happening. He was scared! He wanted his mom and his dad, but all he could hear were their screams over the sounds of struggling, furniture breaking and smashing. It felt like it would never end.

As silence finally fell, the only thing left Wei Ying could hear were the dogs. They were still growling, closer and closer.

One of them began to nudge the wardrobe door with its nose.

Shaking, Wei Ying buried himself deeper into the coats around him. He could smell the perfume his mother always wore here. He wished he could hug her right now.

“Hey, there's someone else here.”

The dogs were growling much louder. Footsteps neared the wardrobe, and the six year old child could do nothing but squeeze his hands tighter around his mouth and nose, holding his breath. He shouldn't make a noise. He didn't know why, but these people were bad. He couldn't let them find him.

“Leave it. We were told to keep the kid alive, remember?”

“I don't see the point of that. Why does he want to keep a kid alive?”

“Does it matter? Just do your job. Let's go.”

The footsteps trailed off. Before Wei Ying could sigh in relief, the dogs barked again. They lunged at the wardrobe, shaking it. He whimpered and shuffled deeper into the darkness—not before he caught a glimpse outside through the crack.

Blood. There was so much blood. On the floor, his parents lay face down in a red puddle. They weren't moving.

Wei Ying almost screamed. The view of his parents was replaced by a set of snarling, pointed teeth, snapping and barking at him. He covered his eyes and scrambled away, squeezing himself against the dark corners of the wardrobe.

“These fucking dogs. Come here.

There was muffled scrambling. The dogs seemed to whine, and after an eternity, they stopped pawing at the wardrobe and left it alone. Wei Ying still did not breathe, even when the footsteps trailed off and their house was filled with silence.

Whatever happens, stay here.

He stayed, huddled in the cramped space, crying into his hands. No matter how much he cried, he couldn't get rid of the image of his parents there on that floor, bleeding. He couldn't stop hearing their screams, the loud growls of those dogs—those monsters. He didn't know how long he stayed there, but he cried enough that his eyes stung and his tears were no more.

When the wardrobe door opened, Wei Ying thought he would cry all over again.

“A-Ying. It's me,” a voice said. It was soft and gentle, a bit like his dad's, but it wasn't his dad at all. “Don't worry, you're safe now. I won't let anyone hurt you.”

Wei Ying allowed himself to be carried out of the wardrobe. He clung onto the tall figure, sobbing into his shoulder. His parents were no longer on the floor although the stain of blood was still there. The room was thrashed, hardly looking like the place his dad would tell stories in.

“I want my mom and dad,” Wei Ying mumbled, turning to the man who was carrying him.

Indigo eyes were staring back. The man had black hair that almost reached down to his shoulders and a softness about him that would make anyone feel at ease. Wei Ying recognised him: Uncle Jiang. He was his dad's best friend and he would often visit them on weekends to talk to his parents. Sometimes, he gave Wei Ying sweets or little toys, and the child grew to anticipate his visits solely because of this. Wei Ying liked him a lot, but he still wanted his dad more.

“I'm sorry, A-Ying,” Uncle Jiang said, wiping the tears away from Wei Ying's cheeks.

Maybe, at that age, Wei Ying already knew what had happened. He couldn't understand why it had to happen, only that it did. There were bad people out there and they decided to take his parents away from him. He bit his trembling lip and remembered what his mother said.

Never ever let anyone get rid of your smile.

And so, he took a deep breath and gave Uncle Jiang the biggest smile he could muster.

 

- x -

 

Uncle Jiang's house was much bigger than Wei Ying expected. It was clean and tidy, nothing like the comfortable mess his family lived in. His parents never cared for making their house look nice yet it was enough for the Wei family. It was home.

Wei Ying looked around the large rooms. His mother's little ornaments and stuffed toys were nowhere in sight, and neither were his dad's sketchbooks. He couldn't see the family portraits they hung on the wall, lopsided and crooked, with his parents laughing at a silly expression Wei Ying was making for the camera. There were no pictures here, or ornaments, or anything to tell Wei Ying this place was anything like a home at all.

He suddenly felt very lost. He clung tighter onto Uncle Jiang's hand and chewed his bottom lip. His mother wouldn't want him to start crying again.

Uncle Jiang led him to a room with two women inside. One of them couldn't have looked much older than him; maybe nine or ten years old. She greeted Wei Ying with a friendly smile that eased his worries a bit. That was soon gone by the time he turned to the other woman.

Wei Ying guessed she was Uncle Jiang's wife. Her long black hair was loose, trailing down to her waist, and her eyes were outlined with dark make-up that made them stand out more. She was very pretty, though the way she glared at Wei Ying made the young child look away in an instant.

“What's going on?” she asked.

“This is Wei Changze's son,” Uncle Jiang said. He laid a hand on Wei Ying's shoulder as the child continued to cling onto him. “I'll be taking care of him from now on.”

Uncle Jiang's wife continued to stare at Wei Ying. He fiddled under her gaze, wondering what he had done wrong for her to be like this. Was it because he looked dirty? Or he hadn't taken his shoes off before entering the house? He had been too busy looking at the house to remember taking his shoes off... He vaguely remembered his mother telling him it was rude if he ever did this.

“And it didn't occur to you that you should have discussed this with me before?” she said.

Uncle Jiang gave a sigh. “Dear, he has nowhere to go. I can't just leave him.”

A bitter laugh came from the woman. Wei Ying found himself hiding behind Uncle Jiang again, not wanting to anger his wife more. He had only been here for less than ten minutes and he'd already done something wrong.

“He looks exactly like her,” Uncle Jiang's wife said. The scowl on her face was gone, though Wei Ying still couldn't return her gaze.

In the end, she shook her head and turned away. “Do what you like,” she said, and left the room.

Wei Ying heard another soft sigh coming from Uncle Jiang. He said nothing, stroking Wei Ying's back before smiling up at the younger girl.

“A-Li, this is Wei Ying,” he said. “I've told you about him before.”

The girl nodded, joining them. Her smile was bright and lovely, the complete opposite of her mother. It was impossible not to return it.

“I'm Jiang Yanli,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

Wei Ying shook her hand, revelling at how warm it was. Her hair was tied up into two braids and her eyes held a maturity in them that was much older than her age.

“Where's A-Cheng?” Uncle Jiang asked, looking around.

As if right on cue, footsteps sounded from the other side of the room. Wei Ying looked up and saw a boy of his age running towards them. He stood up straighter, glad there was also another kid here he could be friends with—and then immediately froze when he saw what followed him.

Three dogs. Three dogs!

Wei Ying yelped, throwing himself onto Uncle Jiang. He cried, shaking and trembling, remembering the horrible growls those dogs were making last night. Because the animals were there when his parents were hurt, the young child was convinced it had been their fault. They had taken his family away from him—they would try and hurt him next! Wei Ying sobbed and sobbed until Uncle Jiang picked him up, running a hand through his tangled hair.

“A-Ying, A-Ying, it's okay. They won't hurt you,” he said.

All Wei Ying could hear were the barks the dogs were making. They were only small puppies, resembling clouds rather than the large mongrels he saw through the wardrobe. Regardless, that did little to calm the child. He did not stop crying, burying his face into Uncle Jiang's shoulder.

“No, no! Please get them away! They're scary!”

For the rest of that day, Wei Ying did not let go of Uncle Jiang. He refused to be let down, wailing every time the puppies dared to enter the same room as him. Thankfully, Uncle Jiang never complained once. All he did was sigh and stroke Wei Ying's hair, reassuring the child that the animals would not hurt him. Even so, it was clear Wei Ying was not overcoming his fear of dogs so soon. Everything about them reminded Wei Ying of the night he lost his parents. No matter how much Uncle Jiang promised to protect him, it would not get rid of the awful memory of hiding in that wardrobe.

After a few days, Uncle Jiang decided it would be best to give the puppies away to another family. His son was not happy, at all.

Jiang Cheng used every opportunity to glare at Wei Ying, showing his dislike for him without any hesitation whatsoever. He made Aunt Yu look friendly at that point, which was saying a lot considering Wei Ying knew just how much she did not like him either.

“I want my puppies back!” Jiang Cheng would scream for hours. “Who cares if he's scared of them! Who cares about him!”

It was a shame. Wei Ying had hoped to become friends with Jiang Cheng, especially as he got very lonely whenever Uncle Jiang had to go for work. As his uncle felt it would be better for him to adjust to his new home first, Wei Ying did not go to his new school yet. Jiejie was very friendly and kind, but Wei Ying did not want to bother her. Instead, he spent his days all alone in Uncle Jiang's room.

For some reason, Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu did not sleep together in the same room during most nights. Because Jiang Cheng was still angry, Wei Ying stayed with Uncle Jiang, at least until his son calmed down. If such a thing was possible.

Uncle Jiang tried his best. He comforted and apologised to his son, telling him Wei Ying was terrified of dogs, that it could not be helped. However, Jiang Cheng was just as stubborn as his mother. He would only shake his head and stomp his feet, demanding he wanted his puppies back. Then, he'd glare at Wei Ying and blame everything on him until his father told him off. That silenced him, but it did not get rid of the scowl on his face. If anything, it made it worse.

One day, Uncle Jiang came home carrying a large plushie. Wei Ying's gut lurched when he saw it looked exactly like a gigantic dog, but he managed to stop himself from freaking out once he realised it was only a toy. Still, it looked terrifying. He wrung his hands and stayed away, watching from the distance as Jiang Cheng's eyes lit up at the sight of it.

“This is for you, A-Cheng,” Uncle Jiang said, kneeling down to give his son the oversized plushie.

Wei Ying did not think he ever saw Jiang Cheng look so happy. He grabbed the plushie and hugged it, drowning in its fur.

“Mine?” Jiang Cheng asked. His grin alone could rival the sun. “It's so fluffy!”

Watching them, Wei Ying couldn't help but think of his own father. He shuffled his feet and looked down, remembering what his Mom said. Keep smiling... Don't be sad...

With Jiang Cheng in a much better mood, Uncle Jiang thought that night would be a perfect opportunity for Wei Ying and him to start sharing a room. Wei Ying entered Jiang Cheng's bedroom with his own sheets and blanket, only to be met with a very unwelcoming glare from the other child.

It was worse because Jiang Cheng was hugging the oversized plushie. It looked nothing like a real dog, yet it was still enough to make Wei Ying freeze on the spot. He wrapped his arms tighter around his sheets, stepping away until his back hit the wall behind him.

“I don't want you here!” Jiang Cheng snapped. “I don't like you!”

Wei Ying flinched. “Uncle Jiang said I could sleep here too...”

“He's my dad, not yours! And this is my room! Get out!”

Clueless, Wei Ying remained where he was. Uncle Jiang looked so happy when he said Wei Ying could finally sleep in the same room as Jiang Cheng. He didn't want to disappoint him after everything he had done...

“Uncle Jiang said we have to share rooms now...” Wei Ying mumbled, risking a glance at Jiang Cheng.

As soon as he looked up, Jiang Cheng pushed him. He yelped, bringing up the sheets to block the other from doing it again.

“Get! Out! If I ever see your face again, I'm going to get a big dog to bite you!”

All Wei Ying heard was that a big dog was going to bite him. His eyes widened and he quickly dropped his sheets.

“I-I'll go away!” he said, fumbling for the door. “Don't get the dogs!”

He tripped out of the room and didn't look back. It was quite late in the evening and everyone was probably trying to sleep. Wei Ying didn't want to go back to Uncle Jiang's room in case Aunt Yu was there now that he was supposed to share with Jiang Cheng. He had already bothered the adults enough since living here. Not knowing where else to go, he scurried to the living room.

All of a sudden, he heard loud barking. The noise was so loud that he tripped over his own feet, landing on the floor with a loud thud. To make things worse, the first thing he laid his eyes on when he got up again was a large dog on the TV screen.

Wei Ying didn't even think twice. He covered his eyes and ran off, sobbing. In his head, the dogs were barking non-stop, growling as they neared him. They would bite him, eat him alive! All he could do was keep running, running as far as he could, until he stumbled out of Uncle Jiang's house and into the cold streets.

He wanted to go home! Even if his parents weren't there anymore, Wei Ying missed his house and his toys and his own room. He was sure he could probably look after himself if he went back home... He used to watch his mom cook dinner—surely it wouldn't be so hard? If he tried extra, extra hard, he could copy her. Maybe, if he tried hard enough, he could get himself a job like his dad said adults had. He didn't need to bother Uncle Jiang at all, he could look after himself just fine!

Inspired, the young child ran further down the streets. He didn't know where his house was, but he would find it eventually...

Wei Ying didn't know how long he was running for. He ran until he grew tired and the night got too cold. He left in such a rush that he didn't bother to bring a coat with him. He was still in his slippers!

Panting, he stopped to take a few deep breaths. He was tired, cold, and sleepy. He wanted a nice, warm bed to sleep in but it only dawned on the young child he didn't have a home anymore. Not yet, anyway. He needed to keep on running... He couldn't stop here...

He was just about to start running again when heard it. Barking.

Wei Ying fell back, a scream lodged in his throat as he saw two dogs barking at him from behind this house's fence. All of the courage he built up in trying to be independent drained out of him. He sank to the floor, covering his ears, wishing his parents were here to save him from the bad monsters.

“Shoo! Shoo! Go away!”

Slowly, he looked up to see Jiang Cheng throwing a stick over the fence. The dogs scrambled away, yelping after the flying branch. Once they were gone, Jiang Cheng turned back to Wei Ying with a frown, folding his arms.

“They're gone now...” he mumbled.

Wei Ying shook his head. “What... W-What if they come back?”

“Then get up! Let's go away from here!”

Jiang Cheng yanked Wei Ying to his feet, grumbling to himself. The memory of the dogs were still haunting him, filling his head with paranoia, therefore Wei Ying didn't hesitate to grab Jiang Cheng's hand. His eyes kept flickering to the fence, convinced the dogs would return, jump over and rip him to shreds.

Rolling his eyes, Jiang Cheng tugged him closer. “What are you doing out here, running by yourself? You're so dumb!”

Wei Ying rubbed his eyes with his other hand, pouting. “You said... the dogs...”

“I-I didn't mean it, okay!” Jiang Cheng groaned. He turned around and pulled Wei Ying along. “Let's just go home.”

As long as they were getting away from the dogs, Wei Ying was not complaining. He hurried after Jiang Cheng, keeping their hands clasped together. His hand was sweaty and it only occurred to Wei Ying that Jiang Cheng was also slightly panting. Did he run after him?

“Why are you so scared of dogs anyway?” Jiang Cheng asked after a while, looking at Wei Ying from the corner of his eyes.

Wei Ying was glad Jiang Cheng was no longer glaring at him, although he didn't like where the conversation was heading. He couldn't stop the image of his parents laying lifeless on the floor, surrounded by a red puddle. Those horrible men... those dogs... Wei Ying shook his head and forced it out of his mind.

“They hurt my parents... They're the reason why... why they're...”

He trailed off. A week had now passed and he still didn't dare to utter that word out loud. He already knew his parents wouldn't be coming back, but he couldn't say that word. If he did, then... then he didn't know what he would do. He was scared he would start crying again. His mother wouldn't want him to be sad; he had to keep on smiling, no matter what.

To his surprise, he felt Jiang Cheng squeezing his hand. Wei Ying turned to him, raising his eyebrows. The other child gave him a toothy grin, transforming the unfriendly expression on his face into something that made Wei Ying's chest blossom with a feeling he hadn't felt in a while. It was the same feeling he felt when Uncle Jiang found him. He was... he was glad.

“Well, I'm going to scare away any dog that comes near you now then!” Jiang Cheng said. “You just have to stay by my side!”

Wei Ying found himself beaming back. “Okay!”

Hand in hand, the two made their way back home, or at least they tried to. All the streets looked the same, and it didn't help Wei Ying did not pay attention to his surroundings when he ran off. He thought that Jiang Cheng would know the way back, but half an hour passed and Wei Ying was certain they'd seen the same tree for the third time.

“Are we lost...?” he asked, trying not to sound worried.

Jiang Cheng threw a scowl in his direction. “No, s-shut up! I know... I know the way home!”

They carried on walking until they passed by that tree for the fourth time. Wei Ying's feet were beginning to ache. He could also tell Jiang Cheng's patience was running thin even if he refused to admit they really were lost.

“You two! There you are!”

The two of them froze, slowly turning to the source of the voice. It was like seeing an angel coming out of nowhere; Jiang Yanli emerged from the shadows, dressed in a large white coat. Within seconds, both boys clung to her, shivering.

“A-Jie!” Jiang Cheng cried.

She laughed at the two kids refusing to let her go. Although only nine years old, Wei Ying always got the feeling she acted much older than her age. Wei Ying hugged her tighter, burying his face into her fluffy sleeves.

“Both of you are freezing! You'll get a cold out here!” she said, gathering both boys to huddle inside her coat.

Although it was awkward to walk like this, Jiang Yanli held onto Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng, making sure they were always inside the coat with her. It did little to shield them from the cold and probably made things even worse; what mattered was that they were on their way home, guided by their older sister.

As soon as they spotted their house, Wei Ying saw Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu waiting outside.

“A-Ying! A-Cheng!” Uncle Jiang called, rushing to their side. “You're both safe! Where have you been?”

Jiang Cheng fiddled with his sleeves. “It was my—”

“It's my fault,” Wei Ying cut in. “I-I thought I heard a dog, so I ran away.... Jiang Cheng found me...”

Aunt Yu scoffed. She had her arms folded, looking down at Wei Ying with no concern whatsoever. “I told you he would only cause trouble, making us worry like this.”

Uncle Jiang said nothing to her. He stroked back Wei Ying's hair and then did the same for Jiang Cheng. Just looking at how worried he seemed made Wei Ying feel bad. He didn't like burdening others, especially with how much Uncle Jiang had already done for him.

“Please, both of you, don't run off in the middle of the night. What if something bad happened?”

Looking down, both boys nodded. “Sorry...” they mumbled in unison.

Luckily, that was that. Uncle Jiang pulled both of them into a hug afterwards, ushering them inside where it was warm.

Wei Ying pretended not to notice the way Aunt Yu glared at him. She had not been the slightest bit worried about his safety. Would she have cared if he ran away and never came back? Probably not.

For now, he did not let it bother him. He was happy enough having Jiang Cheng as a new friend.

That night, both of them finally shared a room, with Jiang Cheng cuddling his large plushie and Wei Ying drooling onto his new sheets. It was not the home he longed for and missed, but it was something. He was lucky he had something to begin with.

 

- x -

 

The years passed by and life was... life wasn't very exciting, to be honest. Wei Ying excelled in school without trying, and he made friends with even less effort. He was the type of person that slacked off with most things and yet still received results that people would work ages for. Some called him a prodigy, some called him lazy. Jiang Cheng called him an idiot.

At the age of thirteen, Wei Ying wondered if his life would ever be like the stories his parents used to tell him. If he couldn't travel as much as they did, could he at least find the same happiness doing something else? For now, he was content, but content was boring. He wanted more.

“Wei Ying, could you help me study for this test...? If I fail it again, my brother will kill me...”

Wei Ying sighed. He definitely wanted more than having to act as Huaisang's tutor.

Scratching his head, he leaned closer to take a look at the book the other teenager had been stressing about for the past hour. Beside them, Jiang Cheng was writing notes faster than the wind.

“Eh, what test? I never study for anything.”

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “When will you stop messing around?”

Wei Ying turned to him, grinning. “I still pass though, right?”

Huaisang made a noise that resembled a crying whale. He faceplanted the desk, pushing his book away from him. Wei Ying was certain he hadn't even read three pages of that thing yet; all he had been doing for the past hour was complain about studying rather than doing it.

Then again, Wei Ying never studied himself. His attention span was non-existent. If he needed to do any notes, he'd just copy Jiang Cheng's.

Ever since they started school, Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying were inseparable. Whenever there was trouble, Wei Ying was there, and Jiang Cheng wasn't far behind to clean up his mess. Despite this, Wei Ying managed to get good grades, sometimes even top of the class. He'd be a perfect student if he learnt to shut his mouth, the teachers would say.

“Wei Ying, teach me how to get good grades... With Parents' Evening coming up, I'm scared I won't survive this time...” Huaisang whined, still embracing the desk.

Nie Huaisang was just as lazy as Wei Ying, perhaps even lazier. Unfortunately for him, he lacked Wei Ying's natural ability to bullshit his way through life and therefore crashed down with grades that barely passed. Even more unfortunately for him, his brother would not accept anything lower than an A.

“Is your brother really that scary...?” Wei Ying asked. He barely saw Nie Mingjue, but he knew he was seven years older than Huaisang. And that he was terrifying.

“The other day, he threw my PlayStation 2 out the window because he saw I failed my Physics test.”

Wei Ying winced. “Ouch. Good luck then.”

Parents' Evening for him wasn't a problem. Even if the teachers had complaints, all Uncle Jiang would do was smile at Wei Ying and pat his back. They were honest about his achievements and even more about his shortcomings, yet Uncle Jiang never paid attention to the negatives. No matter what trouble Wei Ying started, he had nothing but praise for him.

“A-Ying, you're doing so well in school,” he said when they were back at home. Wei Ying was now far too old to be picked up, though that didn't stop Uncle Jiang from ruffling his hair with a doting smile. “I'm so proud of you.”

Wei Ying laughed, secretly loving the attention. Uncle Jiang had always been kind to him, and for that he was endlessly grateful.

“Thank you, Uncle Jiang!” he said.

“And what about your own son?”

Aunt Yu's voice immediately made the smile on Wei Ying's face drop. His eyes flickered to Jiang Cheng, who was sitting on the other side of the room with his gaze fixed on the floor. Although he said nothing, Wei Ying could see the way his fists clenched, how his eyebrows furrowed at the mention of him.

Uncle Jiang sighed. “That goes without saying. Of course I'm proud of A-Cheng too.”

Aunt Yu shook her head, sneering. “Really now? With how much you focus on that brat, you'd think he was your son instead!”

They were always having fights like this. Not a day passed without them arguing with each other, filling the room with a thick tension that choked the children until tomorrow came and repeated the cycle, over and over again. Wei Ying should have been used to it, but he couldn't brush them off—not when he felt he was the reason the two adults could not see eye to eye.

He knew Aunt Yu didn't like him, at all. He knew she would never see him as a son, and he would never see her as a mother. They were not family; they simply lived under the same house and rarely spoke a word to each other. As much as he wanted her approval, she would always see something in him that she despised.

Uncle Jiang rose. The softness in his eyes were gone, replaced with a stern disapproval that only appeared whenever he defended Wei Ying. It made Aunt Yu glare even more.

“Dear, please. Not now,” he said.

He always called her that; Dear. His parents used to call each other names too, like love and darling, but those felt like they were filled with adoration. Wei Ying would listen to them talking to each other and hope he would find love like that one day. When Wei Ying listened to Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu, all he felt was a need to leave the room. He could not stand to be there when they were together. It was suffocating. He didn't know how they could live like this.

Aunt Yu shook her head, sneering. She was a beautiful woman who didn't look like she ever aged. Yet, in all the years Wei Ying lived with the Jiangs, he had never seen her smile. Not once.

She took one last glance at Wei Ying, as if to say this was all his fault, and then left the room. Even when she was gone, the tension remained. Wei Ying stayed silent. Uncle Jiang looked more tired. Jiang Cheng, who was still sitting all alone on the couch, only clenched his fists tighter, shrinking into himself.

 

- x -

 

If you were to ask other people who they preferred out of the two, they would most likely choose Wei Ying rather than Jiang Cheng. Although he could be annoying, Wei Ying was easy and pleasant to talk to. Meanwhile, Jiang Cheng was almost a copy of his mother; his temper was uncontrollable and unpredictable, and his remarks were blunt, often insulting. He didn't bother to sugar-coat his words like his father did; rather, he thought it was best to tell the truth and go.

Wei Ying often joked around that Jiang Cheng would never get more friends if he continued to act like this. They were fifteen now, and they were still joint at the hip in school. Jiang Cheng didn't care for popularity, and neither did Wei Ying although it came naturally for others to love him. They stuck together, not because they were brothers, but because they were most comfortable with each other's presence. Jiang Cheng could reign in Wei Ying's habit for finding trouble, and Wei Ying was one of the rare people who could bring a smile to his anti-social brother's face. They were complete opposites, but they were best together. They never separated.

If there was one thing they united in, it was to protect their beloved sister—especially from the likes of a certain stuck-up, rich asshole like Jin Zixuan.

He was a few years older than Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng, although that did not stop either from vowing to beat him up if he ever dared to hurt Yanli.

“Look who's here,” Jiang Cheng whispered under his breath.

Wei Ying looked around, spotting the older teenager straight away. They were on their way back home from school, looking forward to the upcoming weekend. Of course they had to walk past Jin Zixuan to ruin their mood.

“That guy's so annoying and stuck up, I don't understand what Jiejie sees in him,” Wei Ying said, not bothering to lower his voice.

Almost immediately, Jin Zixuan's head snapped in their direction. “What did you say?”

Wei Ying raised an eyebrow. This was a first. Usually, this jerk didn't bother to acknowledge their existence, thinking he was better than everyone here just because he was rich.

“Oh, you take notice of us now?”

Jin Zixuan smirked. “You two are more annoying than that sister of yours.”

Now, it was Jiang Cheng's turn to raise an eyebrow. From the corner of his eyes, Wei Ying could already see Jiang Cheng's hand squeezing into a fist.

“What did you just say?” he said, slowly.

“You heard me. Maybe it runs in the family. She won't stop pestering me when I don't want anything from her—”

Jin Zixuan never got to finish his sentence because Wei Ying had already punched him by that time. He managed to land in a few more punches before some adults walking past tore them away from each other. It was worth it to see that jerk with a swollen eye and a bleeding nose, though.

“You'll regret this!” Jin Zixuan hissed as he left.

Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng snorted at that. What was he going to do? Throw money at them?

As it turned out, Jin Zixuan told his own mother, who obviously told Aunt Yu. While Wei Ying no longer cared for Aunt Yu's opinion of him, he did care that another argument was happening between the Jiang parents by the time he returned home.

“You think it's not obvious? The way you coddle and spoil him? It's obvious to everyone but you!” Aunt Yu's voice echoed through the house.

Jiang Cheng had been in the middle of laughing at something Wei Ying said. When he heard his parents arguing again, the mirth on his face drained, replaced by an uncomfortable frown. He looked away from Wei Ying and dropped his bags off at the living room.

Wei Ying turned to the dining room where the two adults were standing face to face. There was a half opened jewellery box on the table; no doubt another gift Uncle Jiang tried to offer his wife. Aunt Yu did not even spare it a glance.

“What do you want me to do? Neglect the child, ignore him?” Uncle Jiang said.

“You seem to be doing that just fine with A-Cheng.”

Uncle Jiang shook his head. He raised a hand, as if reaching for her, but dropped it in a second. The distance between them remained.

“You know that's not true. I love A-Cheng just as much as I love A-Ying.”

“No. No, you love her! You're still in love with her! Even after all these years, it's about that woman!”

Wei Ying felt his own chest hurt. He knew exactly who they were talking about. He could just about remember his mother's smile whenever she teased Uncle Jiang, poking him in the side and laughing whenever he grew flustered. Uncle Jiang visited them a lot when his parents were still alive, usually drinking with Wei Ying's father during the evening. It never occurred to Wei Ying how frequent those visits were. Did Uncle Jiang spend enough time with his own family?

No, he shouldn't be thinking these things. Uncle Jiang had done so much, so much, for him. Wei Ying owed him his life, at least.

“You still doubt my love for you?” Uncle Jiang said, his voice low.

It wasn't right to listen in on their argument. Wei Ying found it impossible to move. He took a deep breath and released it. Would there ever come a time when they would stop fighting about this? He didn't think so.

“How can I not when I see the way you look at Wei Ying?” Aunt Yu spat out his name as if it was acid. “How can I not when he looks exactly like his mother and you adore him?”

“That's enough!”

Uncle Jiang never raised his voice. At least, he didn't use to.

Aunt Yu, on the other hand, was not one to back down. She raised her voice higher, louder, for the whole house to hear.

“Fine, keep denying it! Keep lying to yourself!”

Wei Ying had heard enough. He left them to argue among themselves, trying to block out their voices. It was always the same. He'd long forgotten what it felt like to live in a house that was not constantly pricked with needles. Memories of his parents laughing and enjoying each other's company seemed like a distant dream to him now.

He found Jiang Cheng and Jiejie in the kitchen. As always, Jiejie greeted him with a lovely smile. The distant voices of her parents yelling in the background could almost be ignored if Wei Ying focused on her face. Almost.

Jiang Cheng didn't look up. He was staring into the cup of tea in front of him. It didn't look like he had taken a single sip yet.

Sighing, Jiejie stroked Jiang Cheng's shoulder and beckoned Wei Ying over. “Come here, you two. Let's go upstairs.”

They were quiet even when all three of them were upstairs. Wei Ying laid back on Jiejie's bed, counting the colourful butterfly decorations she had stuck on her ceiling. Jiang Cheng sat beside him, hugging his knees, refusing to say anything. Downstairs, Aunt Yu and Uncle Jiang could still be heard.

“Don't worry,” Jiejie said after a while. “They are only arguing because they care for each other.”

Jiang Cheng made a muffled noise. He sat up, stretching his legs before him.

Jiejie smiled at him. “You don't believe me? I think... I think if you truly don't care for someone, then you won't bother being upset with them. Deep down, Mom cares because she wants things to work out between her and Dad. If she didn't care, then she'd feel nothing.”

None of them said anything about that. Wei Ying could only sigh, releasing a breath he didn't know he had been holding in all this time. Eventually, the voices downstairs calmed down, but it was difficult to tell if the adults had reconciled or if they simply gave up. Most of the time, it was the latter.

“I think Mom hates Dad,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice was quiet, small. “She's always angry at him.”

Jiejie shook her head. “No, she loves him. It's just... sometimes, anger is the easiest emotion to let out.”

Jiang Cheng flinched at that.

At that time, Wei Ying didn't understand her. He had always tried to stick to what his mother told him, to keep smiling, push his problems away and focus on the positives. Why did he need to be angry? What could he be angry for? Who else would he direct those emotions at?

Wei Ying's life was not perfect, he knew that much, but this was not enough for him to complain. If he had a problem, the only person he could blame was himself. He couldn't burden anyone when he had already been given enough help from the beginning.

Just keep smiling. Don't let anyone take it away.

 

- x -

 

As much as they hated Jin Zixuan, their sister loved him, and by some twisted turn of events, the jerk loved her all along too. Wei Ying was sixteen when he found out Jiejie was pregnant with her first child.

“She's pregnant?!” Wei Ying choked. “They're not even married! That dick! How dare he!”

Jiang Cheng was just as murderous as he was; only, he knew his boundaries. Wei Ying was tempted to travel all the way to that rich bastard's house and kill him for doing this to their Jiejie . Who the fuck cared if Jin Zixuan loved her? The least he could have done was wait until they were married—until they had their family's approval!

“A-Jie told me that... that she doesn't regret anything,” Jiang Cheng mumbled. “Only that she didn't tell us sooner.”

“How are we supposed to know that he didn't force her?”

Jiang Cheng's eyes narrowed. “He didn't. I would know.”

Wei Ying clenched his jaw, glaring at the wall in front of him as if it was Jin Zixuan's smug face. What he would give to be able to punch him one more time.

“What do you mean? I don't think Jiejie would be the type to act this rash.”

“She loves him,” Jiang Cheng said, simple as that. “You do stupid things when you're in love.”

Their sister was nineteen now. While she was no longer the girl with the twin braids and butterfly stickers up on her ceiling, she was still their sister. What was going to happen to her now that she was pregnant, with a man she had not even married yet?

“Have Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu said anything?” Wei Ying asked, although already knowing what the answer was.

“I don't know. They were arguing about it when I was there, but I didn't bother to stay.”

Both of them sighed. If Jiejie kept this child, then she would eventually leave them for Jin Zixuan. They would be a family together, regardless of whether Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying hated that very idea. Jiejie would leave, and they would no longer have her comforting smile to distract them from the daily fights that tore their house apart.

What were they going to do?

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying never cared for children. When he first laid eyes on Jin Ling, he felt a tenderness in him that he never would have expected. His face broke into a smile he could not control, reaching for the baby's outstretched hand. Jin Ling garbled some nonsense, his small palm squeezing around Wei Ying's finger. At that moment, Wei Ying let out a laugh and asked to hold his nephew, trying to contain the excitement bubbling in him.

“Here you go,” Jiejie said, helping Wei Ying carry Jin Ling into his arms. “You're doing better than A-Cheng. He started crying as soon as he saw A-Ling.”

“A-Jie!” Jiang Cheng hissed, looking away. His cheeks were turning red. “I-I was worried for you! I wasn't crying because of the baby!”

Jiejie only laughed. She was pale and had bags under her eyes, but she had never looked so radiant before. Beside her, Jin Zixuan was stroking her back, staring at his son with a gentleness Wei Ying didn't think he would ever see on his face. For once, he didn't have an urge to punch the stuck up man.

“Hello, you,” Wei Ying said to Jin Ling, nuzzling his little button nose. He lightly weighed the baby in his arms, grinning when Jin Ling focused his eyes on him. “You're so cute, yes you are.

They were all huddled around Jin Ling. It was perhaps the only time Wei Ying also saw Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu together with no hostility between them. For once, both of them were smiling, admiring their new grandson. It was amazing how one baby could unite a family together, even for a fleeting moment. Wei Ying knew he would treasure this memory for the rest of his life.

“Ah! Are you looking at me? Do you think I'm the more handsome uncle?” Wei Ying said, lightly poking Jin Ling's cheek.

Jiang Cheng kicked his chair. “Shut the fuck up!”

“No swearing around my son,” Jin Zixuan said, eyes slightly narrowing.

Jiejie was laughing at their exchanges. She looked up at Jin Zixuan and leaned closer when he stroked her face, softly asking if she was tired. Listening to them there, Wei Ying was reminded of the love his parents had before they disappeared from his life.

His heart ached slightly. For once, he could forgive Jin Zixuan's existence. If he truly made Jiejie happy.... If he managed to give her the love she deserved, then that was enough.

Hey, you're holding him wrong,” Jiang Cheng said. He sat closer to Wei Ying, trying to take Jin Ling away. “He's not comfortable like that.”

“Go away, it's my turn to hold him!” Wei Ying grumbled, moving his seat. He adjusted Jin Ling in his arms and tried to remember how Jiejie was doing it. As long as the baby wasn't crying, then that was fine, wasn't it?

“Both of you, stop fighting,” Aunt Yu sighed. There was no malice in her voice. “You're going to drop A-Ling.”

“A-Ying, let me hold him,” Uncle Jiang said. He was already approaching them, arms outstretched.

Reluctantly, Wei Ying allowed his uncle to take his nephew away. He watched as Uncle Jiang showed Aunt Yu their grandson, allowing her to lean in and stroke the baby's hair. Their voices were soft, both talking to Jin Ling under their breaths. Wei Ying could not hear them, but it was enough to know they weren't arguing for once. He sat back on his seat and shared glances with Jiang Cheng, who looked just as relieved.

The brothers smiled at each other. Things were changing, but maybe, just maybe, everything would be okay.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying began to drink in university. It was a new environment where he didn't have to come home to Aunt Yu's disapproving scowls or the sound of arguments spanning for the entire evening. He was older, not exactly more mature, but mature enough that he could look after himself. His grades continued to prosper and everyone said he had a bright future ahead. At the age of eighteen, Wei Ying was happy. He was unstoppable.

“Aaw, come on, Jiang Cheng. Lighten up for once, will you?”

He hooked an arm around Jiang Cheng's shoulder, laughing into his ear. Grumbling, the other half-heartedly tried to shake him off.

“We have exams coming up. Quit messing around.”

“One night out can't hurt.”

Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow at him. “This is your fourth night this week.”

Shrugging, Wei Ying waved a hand and dismissed that. He never counted how many times he went out—this was university after all. It was supposed to be a time of not being responsible and drinking your liver to death! Where was the harm in that if his grades didn't suffer?

“Like I said, lighten up! It can't be fun staying here all the time. Come out with us!”

“I'll pass.”

Wei Ying pulled a face. “Killjoy.”

Jiang Cheng shook him off, returning back to his notes. “Try not to get too drunk. I'm not driving you back home again.”

Aaw, why not?”

“Learn how to drive yourself, idiot.”

They always had this conversation before Wei Ying went out to drink and it still ended with Jiang Cheng giving him a lift back home in the end. He'd yell at Wei Ying and call him an annoying fucker, but Jiang Cheng could never say no to him—even if that meant driving out in the cold at three AM.

And so, Wei Ying left, ready to get absolutely wasted that night.

It started out like it normally did. If Jiang Cheng didn't go out with them then he'd just hang around Huaisang and a bunch of their other friends. By the end of the night, Wei Ying would have met other people too.

Huaisang was a funny drunk. At first, he'd start crying about how scary and loud his brother was, and then as the alcohol started to sink in even more, he'd suddenly start pouncing on the closest guy and making out with them. It used to freak Wei Ying out because he'd have never expected it from someone as meek as Huaisang. Maybe having a strict and controlling brother made him want to loosen up a little bit.

As much as he loved to get drunk, Wei Ying was careful not to get physical with anyone. Believe it or not, he was quite reserved. The only thing that's happened with him was when Mianmian kissed his cheek back in high school—but did that really count if it was a small peck in the dark, so fleeting that Wei Ying was half convinced it was only his imagination? Besides, it was only a kiss on the cheek. Nothing close to a real one.

He hadn't felt sparks yet. He wanted to save that for someone he really cared about, someone that reminded him of how his parents loved each other, not how Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu fought every night. Jiang Cheng would laugh until he broke a rib if he ever found out Wei Ying had this side to him.

Like any other night, Wei Ying drank and drank until the world spun and the colours around him pulsed brighter. He could barely remember what happened, only that Huaisang was sick somewhere behind a tree and Wei Ying was very tempted to join him. Maybe he drank far too much so early into the night. It was barely even eleven PM yet; they definitely started too soon.

Although it was shameful to leave now, Wei Ying suddenly found his bed more appealing than dancing in a crowded club. Huaisang was still vomiting behind a bush but insisted he wanted to return inside with their friends. Go ahead, Wei Ying thought, not envying the hangover Huaisang would surely get in the morning.

He ambled through the dark streets before finally taking his phone out. Jiang Cheng would pick him up. Or he would... if he answered his phone. Groaning, Wei Ying called him several more times, glaring at Jiang Cheng's picture on his screen. That jerk couldn't be asleep now, right? Right?Was he purposely ignoring Wei Ying so he wouldn't need to drive him home? How mean.

All the alcohol he drank was starting to not feel so good. With no other option, Wei Ying stumbled through the streets, trying to remember if his dorms were down that street... or that street.

A car slowly stopped by him. Wei Ying spun around, swaying on his feet. The windows rolled down and he grinned as soon as he saw Uncle Jiang's face staring back.

“A-Ying?”

“Uncle Jiang!” he cried.

Behind his uncle, he could see Aunt Yu sitting on the passenger seat. As usual, she didn't look happy—but when did she ever?

“What are you two doing here?” Wei Ying asked, still swaying. He squeezed his cheeks between his palms in an attempt to sober up a little, not realising that only made him look more drunk than he already was.

Nevertheless, Uncle Jiang's smile widened even more. “Your Aunt and I went out for dinner. We were just on our way home.”

Dinner? Did that mean they finally stopped fighting?

“That's... That's good!” Wei Ying said. “I hope you two live a happy and long life!”

He honestly didn't know what he was rambling on about anymore. That was what they said at weddings, as far as he could remember. It seemed like a fitting thing to say at that time.

Aunt Yu's sigh was loud and impatient. “He's drunk.”

Uncle Jiang chuckled under his breath. He motioned his head towards the back of the car. “I'll drive you back, A-Ying. It's not safe to walk out here at night by yourself.”

Wei Ying dove inside the car without needing to be told twice. It was warm and comfortable here, nothing like the horrible freezing weather outside. He wanted nothing more than to go back to his bed and pray he wouldn't get a hangover tomorrow morning.

He closed his eyes, remembering to put his seatbelt on even in his drunken state. He was starting to fall asleep, vaguely listening to his adopted parents talking. As their conversation continued, Wei Ying noticed they were too loud to just be having a normal talk. He cracked open one eye and saw Aunt Yu glaring at her husband, shaking her head at whatever he was saying. Uncle Jiang, too, was shaking his head, frowning at her with a tired look on his face. They were arguing, as usual, but Wei Ying was too sleepy to find out why.

He shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. His eyelids were getting heavier and heavier.

That was when he saw it. Lights. A car swerving in their direction.

His eyes widened.

He didn't know who screamed first. All he saw was the blinding glare of the headlights and Uncle Jiang frantically spinning the wheel.

Then, the whole world spun and plunged everything into black.

He didn't feel anything, not at first. There was an endless ringing in his ears and a hollow void that threatened to swallow him whole. It was all Wei Ying could see, could feel. He was numb and it felt like that was all there ever would be. Part of him wondered if he was already dead. If so, then why did it feel too easy? He expected more.

The ringing didn't stop, not even when his eyes opened.

He thought he saw someone in the distance, watching. A woman, dressed in white, and then he blinked and she was gone.

Pain followed soon after. The void was gone and he was thrown back into the wreckage he was in. He gasped, now aware of the gash on his head, the blood trickling down his face. There was a piece of metal lodged straight into his thigh. Just looking at it was enough to get him to start heaving.

“U-Uncle... Jiang...” Wei Ying called out. He fumbled to take off his seatbelt, breathing through his mouth when every move he made only made his leg explode with agony.

Shaking, he gripped the piece of metal stuck inside his thigh but quickly let go. He couldn't take it out. He was too scared.

“Uncle!” Wei Ying called again. He gripped onto the seat in front of him and tried to crane his neck, searching for the two adults.

What he saw first drained all the blood in his body.

The car that had crashed into them had rolled onto their bonnet, crushing the front part with its weight. Wei Ying scrambled forward, ignoring the searing pain in his limbs, and choked at the sight he was met with. He couldn't breathe. He was hyperventilating and shaking.

He didn't even know where the wreckage began and ended. All he saw were the limp bodies of Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu, crushed under the metal. He couldn't see their legs, he couldn't even see if they were breathing—if they were still alive.

The blood. There was so much blood. He was thrown back to the night he lost his parents right in front of him; that was the last thought he had before he started screaming.

 

- x -

 

He must have passed out. When he awoke, he was met with white walls, the stench of something sterile, clean. His whole body didn't feel like it belonged to him; his limbs were too weak, his mind too empty. He wanted to stay there and stare at the white ceiling for eternity, not have to find out why they were needles in his arms and why he wanted to burst into tears.

It was all a bad dream, it had to be. He just got too drunk... He was still drunk. He would wake up, back in his dorms, with Jiang Cheng shrieking down his ear. This was all a nightmare.

He kept his eyes on the ceiling, refusing to look around. None of this was real. None of that happened.

“A-Ying.”

Jiejie's voice tugged at him. He could already feel his eyes stinging, unable to ignore her. Reluctantly, he turned to her, immediately regretting it when he saw her swollen eyes, the dark bags under them. He had never seen her without her smile, not even when she was sad about their parents fighting.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. Beside her, Jiang Cheng was sat by his bed, staring off into the distance. He didn't blink or say anything, or even move. He didn't even seem to be breathing.

Wei Ying struggled for words.

“Jiang Cheng, I—”

Jiang Cheng's hand shot like a viper. Within seconds, he was gripping Wei Ying's collar, pulling him off the bed.

“They're dead! They're both dead!

His words were knives being plunged into Wei Ying's chest. They echoed; deaddead, and Wei Ying saw their mangled remains right in front of his eyes. He heard the car's impact, the world shattering around him. Glass, metal, Uncle Jiang's lifeless face staring ahead of the road. Dead.

Jiang Cheng was shaking him, screaming. Wei Ying heard none of it. He wanted to be sick.

“I-I didn't—”

“I told you not to go out! I told you! And you just had to drag my parents into it! They're dead!”

Wei Ying did not know what to say.

If he had never crossed paths with them, Uncle Jiang wouldn't have needed to drive that way. He would have returned home, with Aunt Yu, alive and well.

What had he done?

What had he done?

After everything they did for him.... Offering him a home, taking care of him, giving him a family. He had always thought he would repay Uncle Jiang in the future. Once he was older, once he had his life sorted out, he would make sure to give Uncle Jiang what he deserved, whatever that may have been. Wei Ying would have done anything to repay him.

Instead, he killed Uncle Jiang and his wife. They were gone. Dead.

He couldn't say anything. What could he say? What could he do?

Jiang Cheng's cries were loud and they filled the whole room until it was all Wei Ying could hear. His hands trembled as he clung onto Wei Ying, sobbing into his neck.

“They're dead... My parents are dead,” Jiang Cheng wept. His voice was muffled by Wei Ying's hospital gown, soaking the thin material within seconds.

Wei Ying was pathetic. His hands rose to wrap themselves around Jiang Cheng, but he could not say anything to comfort him. How could he? What gave him the right to comfort him, when it was his fault to begin with? Even embracing Jiang Cheng felt wrong. He was pathetic, so pathetic.

“A-Cheng. A-Ying.”

Jiejie's voice was gentle, as always. She gathered both boys into her arms and the three of them remained there, listening to each other's breaths. Eventually, Jiang Cheng's sobs subsided into tired tremors that shook his chest. As much as he wanted, Wei Ying did not dare to cry. It was all his fault. He shouldn't be here, craving for comfort, when this was all because of him.

“Please, don't fight,” Jiejie said. “Please.”

They said nothing. In the end, she tightened her arms around them even more, as if it was the only thing keeping their lives together.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying barely remembered the funeral. The days passed and they felt nothing more than empty shells of a week. When they returned back home to Yunmeng, they were not greeted by the sounds of an argument that refused to end; they were greeted by silence. Wei Ying did not realise how much he hated silence until that moment.

He remembered walking through the rooms, staring at the walls that lacked a family portrait, anything to show who lived together in this large house. He remembered seeing all of the gifts Uncle Jiang gave his wife, carelessly left on tables or shelves where they could fit and never be touched again. He remembered the dining table they never sat around, not as a family, not ever. He remembered the house he lived in for all these years, the home he never thought of as a home before it was too late.

It wasn't perfect, and it never had been. It wasn't supposed to be perfect. Wei Ying needed a place to belong, and it was only then, when he missed Uncle Jiang's smile and the lavender incense sticks Aunt Yu used to light up, that he realised he should have called this place a home much, much sooner.

He recovered fast. According to the doctors, it was a miracle he was even alive at all. The collision between the cars should have crushed him as well, but he was left with only a head and leg injury. Wei Ying couldn't even be thankful. How could he? How could he appreciate his survival, when it came at the cost of other people's lives? How could he live with that?

Part of him wished he died instead of them. Deep down, he wondered if Jiang Cheng thought the same.

The funeral did not feel right. He stood there, listening to the prayers, hearing nothing but the sound of swerving cars and crushing metal. There were people crying around him, but the sight of Yanli sobbing into Jin Zixuan's chest was probably the worst. Wei Ying swallowed the lump in his throat and looked away, unable to shed tears of his own. Jin Ling was here too, cradled by Jin Zixuan's mother. It didn't seem right for a one year old baby to be surrounded by so much grief.

Jin Zixuan and Jiejie were supposed to be getting married next month. Was that even going to still happen? Had Wei Ying ruined that as well?

His mother's voice rang in his head. Never let anyone get rid of your smile.

How could he smile now?

They laid Uncle Jiang's and Aunt Yu's remains and buried them beside each other. As they disappeared into the earth, Wei Ying could not help but think of their life, spending every waking day questioning their marriage. He wondered if they would be at peace, wherever they were now. He wondered if they would appreciate being buried together.

He wondered if they hated him.

As the funeral finished, they returned to their empty home. Jiang Cheng, who had not said anything for the whole day, retired to his parents' room and did not leave for the rest of the evening.

“Give him time,” Jiejie told Wei Ying. Her smile was still there, attempting to comfort him as usual. He didn't think he deserved it.

Wei Ying shook his head. “He's right though. It's my fault.”

“A-Ying, no. What happened was an accident. A-Cheng... A-Cheng knows that too. Deep down, he knows that.”

She walked over to him, gently grasping his hands into hers. At eighteen, he now towered over her, his hands larger, rougher, and still Wei Ying shrunk into himself and refused to look into her eyes. She raised a hand to stroke his cheek, wiping away tears he did not let out.

“You and I both know what he's like when he's upset. He says things he doesn't mean.”

Wei Ying did not say anything. He feared that if he did, he would start crying.

Another hand grasped his face. Jiejie stroked his hair through her fingers, pulling him into her arms. She was warm. Wei Ying breathed in the smell of lotus and lavender and it was almost enough to get him to start crying. Home, it smelt like. A home he wanted to have back.

“Listen to me, A-Ying. What happened was a tragic accident. It was no one's fault. A-Cheng will need some time, but he doesn't hate you. He can never hate you.”

Wei Ying closed his eyes. He listened to the steady sound of her heartbeat, repeating her words over and over, wishing he could believe them.

 

- x -

 

As he dreaded and expected, Jiejie cancelled her wedding. She continued to try and be strong for her brothers, but even she needed time to mourn her parents. To his credit, it was Jin Zixuan who actually insisted they move the wedding back, telling his fiancée he would wait forever for her if he had to. If Wei Ying had been younger and more naïve, he would have blanched at such a cliché line, maybe even laughed. Now, he was only glad Yanli had someone who could comfort her at a time like this.

Yanli moved in with Jin Zixuan. Their house back in Yunmeng was now empty with all three siblings refusing to set foot in it, not with the wounds still aching from their loss.

It was difficult to focus on his studies after the accident. Too many times, Wei Ying contemplated dropping out of university but he couldn't do it. Uncle Jiang's disappointed face haunted him every time the thought crossed his mind. He would want him to continue with his courses, to attempt the impossible, as he would always say.

Easier said than done. Wei Ying hated every single day he spent in Gusu University. He barelyspoke to Jiang Cheng, who was determined to ignore reality and focus on perfecting his grades instead. Although they still continued to share dorms, Wei Ying rarely saw the other man throughout the remainder of their first year. If he did, it would be filled with a painful silence that only reminded him more of what he had done to tear this family apart.

By the time it was their second year in university, there was an unspoken agreement between them that they wouldn't be sharing accommodation anymore. Jiang Cheng moved into a flat of his own, while Wei Ying shared an apartment with another student from his course. He didn't care who he ended up with. As long as he got his degree and left this university, he wouldn't have minded if he was paired up with the biggest jerk in the world.

Luckily, he wasn't paired up with a jerk at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“H-Hello. I... I think I'm sharing apartments with you.”

His new roommate spoke as if he expected Wei Ying to suddenly attack him. He had short brown hair, and there was a strand by his forehead that didn't look like it wanted to join either side of his parting. Wei Ying could relate to the troubles of having hair that didn't obey his commands; he'd long given up on brushing his, simply saying he was going for a permanent bed hair style when, really, he was just a lazy shit.

“Yeah, I think we are,” Wei Ying said, smiling. “I'm Wei Ying. Nice to meet you. I hope you can cook.”

His new roommate's eyes widened. They were a pretty shade of green, the type that reminded him of Uncle Jiang's garden back home. “I'm Wen Ning... and my Jiejie says I'm a good cook, b-but I don't know if she's just saying that.”

Wei Ying patted him on the back, holding in another smile as he felt the other man stiffen under his touch. He gently pushed him inside their new apartment.

“Sounds good enough for me,” he said.

Wen Ning was easy to get along with. He was quiet, which Wei Ying didn't mind at all. It meant he didn't ask questions whenever Wei Ying woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and panting because of a nightmare that refused to leave him. As soon as he woke up, Wei Ying would only find breakfast already made for him, along with a cup of hot chocolate. He never questioned it, but he knew it was Wen Ning's way of comforting him in his own shy way. He was sweet like that; never daring to ask any personal details but always trying to help you in any way he could.

Unfortunately, no amount of hot chocolate could chase away the nightmares. Wei Ying found himself drinking more alcohol, not because he enjoyed it, but because it helped to forget the memory of being crushed under that wreckage. If he fell asleep to the feeling of wine or vodka poisoning his head, he could be saved from the nightmares that plagued him sober. Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu wouldn't visit him in his sleep, blaming him for their deaths, asking why, why they were buried together when they hated every living moment they spent under the same roof.

No matter how many empty bottles were left discarded by Wei Ying's bed, Wen Ning never asked any questions. The concern in his eyes was loud enough.

“Wen Ning, are you single?” Wei Ying asked one day, drunkenly laying his head on his roommate's shoulder. He chuckled upon hearing the timid mad stutter at his question.

“Y-Yes,” Wen Ning said. “Why?”

Wei Ying shook his head, reaching for the bottle of wine. He took another swig, all too aware of Wen Ning's eyes following his every move. It was evening now and both of them already finished dinner. As always, Wei Ying spent the evenings drinking until he passed out, saying it was the only way he could fall asleep. Wen Ning would stay awake, studying or reading a book. Secretly, Wei Ying thought he only stayed awake just to make sure nothing bad happened while all the alcohol was out.

“Nothing, just wondering. You're cute and all, so I expected you to have a girlfriend or something.”

Of course, Wen Ning blushed at that. He shook his head again, staring at the cup of tea in his hands. “How about you?” he asked.

Wei Ying shrugged. “Single, obviously. Who'd want to date me?”

In all honesty, the idea of dating anyone went out the window ever since the accident. It didn't seem right to be focusing on trivial things like that. He wouldn't allow himself to enjoy life, not when it came at the cost of losing those he loved. Wei Ying knew it was a dumb reason, that Uncle Jiang would want him to carry on and be happy instead, but he couldn't shake it off. Every time he found himself laughing, he'd remember Jiang Cheng screaming at him in the hospital, Jiejie crying in Jin Zixuan's arms. He did that. How was he supposed to forget it?

“A lot of people,” Wen Ning said. “You're smart, funny... attractive—”

Wei Ying threw his head back, laughing. “Are you confessing to me?”

If Wen Ning's face was red before, he was practically purple now. “N-No!”

“I'm kidding, I'm kidding,” Wei Ying's laugh trailed off into a sigh. “I don't care for stuff like that. I don't need anyone.”

“No one?”

Wei Ying nodded.

His past daydreams about meeting the love of his life stayed as nothing but daydreams. He couldn't see himself indulging in stuff like that—and anyway, he barely went out to meet new people these days. All he did was go to his lessons, study, drink at home, sleep. The enthusiasm he had for partying and socialising was long gone.

Yawning, Wei Ying got up and stretched his arms. It was almost ten PM. He considered that late enough to try and get some sleep. As he was about to make his way for his bedroom, there was a knock on the door that stopped him right in his tracks. He turned towards it, frowning. He wasn't expecting any visitors tonight.

He looked at Wen Ning, who also shook his head.

Wei Ying shrugged and went over to open the door. His eyebrows raised as soon as he saw who it was. Jiang Cheng was the last person he expected to visit him.

“You,” he said, opening the door further. “What are you doing here?”

As if offended, Jiang Cheng's eyes narrowed. He craned his head, scanning the room behind Wei Ying before settling his gaze on Wen Ning still sat by the couch. For some reason, his face turned even more sour.

“Can't I even visit you?” Jiang Cheng snapped. “I tried calling but you weren't picking up.”

Oh, Wei Ying thought. He always left his phone on silent now, not expecting anyone to want to talk to him.

In the corner of his eyes, he saw Wen Ning scurrying into his bedroom. He didn't blame him. With the way Jiang Cheng was glaring at the poor guy, it was no wonder Wen Ning wanted to hide away instead of stay here.

“Sorry, it was on silent,” Wei Ying said, letting him inside. “I was just about to head to sleep.”

Jiang Cheng continued to look around his apartment. It only occurred to Wei Ying now this was the first time since they lived separately that Jiang Cheng was visiting. They still saw each other around campus, but only exchanged a few greetings, often awkward, before going their different ways. It was odd to see Jiang Cheng here; Wei Ying didn't know how to act around him and he hated it. Since when did things get so strained between the two of them?

Since you killed his parents.

He pushed aside those thoughts and folded his arms, watching Jiang Cheng's gaze land on the discarded wine bottles laying on the floor. As easily as that, his face grew cold.

“After all this time, you're still drinking?” He turned to Wei Ying, hands already clenching into shaking fists. “Have you not learnt? Are you going to insult my parents like this!”

Wei Ying winced. He stared at the countless bottles, remembering the nightmares that would plague him if he didn't drown everything with the bitter taste of alcohol. He struggled to find the right words to tell Jiang Cheng the real reason why he was here, hiding in his apartment instead of visiting him.

“That's not what I'm doing—”

“Then what are you doing, prancing around with other strangers, getting drunk? I barely see you!” Jiang Cheng hissed, throwing out his arm.

Other strangers. Did he mean Wen Ning? Was he angry Wei Ying spent more time with him?

“I thought you didn't want me around,” Wei Ying said. “I thought—”

“So it's my fault?”

“I didn't say that!”

Jiang Cheng was the first to look away. He glared at the bottles again. There was so much resentment in that gaze that Wei Ying knew it was directed towards him.

“It doesn't matter,” Jiang Cheng said. Everything, from his voice to his posture, told Wei Ying it did matter.

There was that thick silence between them again, the same one that Wei Ying had grown to hate for this past year. When was the last time he laughed with Jiang Cheng? When was the last time either of them smiled together?

In the end, no more words were said. Jiang Cheng shook his head and turned for the door, leaving without another glance. Wei Ying, not knowing what else he could do, simply let him.

It was only when he was gone that he realised Jiang Cheng must have visited for a reason, and he never bothered to ask why.

 

- x -

 

Jin Zixuan eventually proposed to Yanli again. Wei Ying was twenty one now, almost done with his engineering degree, although he didn't really have a clue as to what he was going to do by the time he actually finished with university. He'd always hoped life would shape itself as he went along. As the years went by, he was starting to doubt this method was working.

He didn't have Jiang Cheng's goal to be better. At only twenty one, he was following in his father's footsteps to become a police officer. He studied criminology while helping out at the police station, already on good graces with one of the seniors there.

When they were younger, both of them wanted to be just like Uncle Jiang. The thought of fighting crime was a childish dream they'd act out, imagining they were going to work together to beat up villains and gangs. As he grew older, Wei Ying's curious mind took the form of creativity and he began making things instead. They were only little inventions he thought were flimsy and useless but Uncle Jiang praised him endlessly, telling him he would make a great engineer in the future.

He chose this degree to make Uncle Jiang proud. It didn't really matter now that he was gone.

Nevertheless, he was happy for Jiang Cheng's growing success, and he was even happier Jiejie would finally be getting married, even if it was to Jin Zixuan.

That didn't erase his doubts, however. Arriving to the wedding would definitely raise a few eyebrows. After the accident, gossip had morphed the details of the crash so much that Wei Ying forgot how the real thing even happened. They said he was drunk, that it had been his fault Uncle Jiang lost control of the car. Some said he distracted Uncle Jiang, while others even believed it was him driving to begin with. Wei Ying had no energy left to correct them. They were all from Jin Zixuan's side of the family anyway—why should he care what a bunch of stuck up, rich snobs thought about him?

As much as Jin Zixuan tried to dismiss the rumours for the sake of his own fiancée, it didn't change the fact that gossip was gossip. Anyone who wasn't part of it was determined to twist everything.

Wei Ying almost didn't go, not if it was going to make things worse for Jiejie.

On top of being a guilty man who could do nothing right with his life, he was also selfish and weak. He went in the end, only because he couldn't stand to miss what could be the best day of his sister's life. What kind of a brother would he be if he did?

They were holding the tea ceremony in their old home back in Yunmeng, where Jiejie and Jin Zixuan could offer tea to a shrine built for Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu. The last time Wei Ying set foot in this house, he was mourning his adopted parents. Now, he would be celebrating Jiejie's marriage. He tried his best to keep the smile on his face, though it didn't stop the aching in his heart as he walked through these halls again.

“Thank you for coming, A-Ying,” Jiejie told him when they were alone. He was helping her with her hair, twisting it into braids decorated with golden hairpins and jewels.

“Of course I came,” Wei Ying said, as if he hadn't been thinking of not going. “I wouldn't miss this for the world.”

When they were done, Wei Ying had to hold in a breath at the sight of her. She was a stunning visage in red, her qipao perfectly fitted and adorned with golden patterns. Her hair was twisted up into a bun, various braids coiled and tucked into place. Wei Ying recognised one of the hairpins; it was the jade hairpin Uncle Jiang once gave to Aunt Yu. He bought it specifically for her, thinking it would look beautiful in her hair. Aunt Yu never wore it.

He swallowed the lump in his throat, forcing himself not to look away. It was then that Jiang Cheng decided to enter the room, saving Wei Ying the difficulty in finding any words to say.

Jiang Cheng froze, eyes widening at the sight of his sister.

“A-Jie...” he muttered. “You look beautiful.”

“You do,” Wei Ying added, still struggling to put it into words.

Their sister looked away, shaking her head slightly. “It doesn't count if you two say it. I can't take it seriously.”

Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying turned to each other. There was a hint of amusement in their eyes, just like the old times. Sighing, Jiang Cheng pretended to massage the temples of his forehead. “You don't believe me and you don't believe him. Is it that you'll only believe it when a certain someone says so?”

Yanli laughed. Her cheeks flushed a tinge of pink, colouring her snowy skin. She shook her head again, eager to change the subject. Still smiling, she did a quick twirl, showing Jiang Cheng her hair. “Look what A-Ying did. It looks good, doesn't it?”

Jiang Cheng's lips tugged up. “Hmph, it does. Maybe he's not so useless after all.”

At that, Wei Ying allowed himself to chuckle. If he could ignore how empty this house felt without Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu, it would almost feel like home again. Jiang Cheng was smiling instead of glaring at him, and Jiejie wasn't crying either. He relaxed his face into a smile of his own, sighing under his breath. He missed this.

Just then, they heard the sudden sound of what could only be Yanli's bridesmaids greeting the groom. They squealed and laughed, already clapping. Wei Ying even heard the distant clicks of cameras and phones flashing.

“Well, it's going to take a while for him to get through all of them,” Jiang Cheng said, smirking as the jeers outside increased in volume.

Yanli laughed again. She looked radiant; it was good to see her being happy. “I hope they're not giving him a hard time.”

“It's their job to give him a hard time,” Wei Ying said, almost tempted to peak out to see what sort of ordeal the bridesmaids were making Jin Zixuan go through. He didn't think he had ever heard this house being so lively. Even when his adopted parents were still here, the loudest noise you could hear was them arguing. In any times of peace, they were careful not to disrupt it, lest it would anger Aunt Yu or disturb Uncle Jiang's work.

“Shall we?” Yanli eventually said.

Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng exchanged glances. Without saying a word, both of them offered their arms for her to hold. She took them, beaming brighter than the sun, and let her brothers lead her out of the room and towards her new husband.

Even with all the bridesmaids blocking and giggling at him, Jin Zixuan's eyes sought out Yanli. His face softened as soon as he spotted her, the most gentlest of smiles gracing his arrogant face. The couple beamed at each other, ignoring the commotion in the room, the world, and it was then that Wei Ying could sigh in relief. Jiejie would be okay with him. She would be happy.

The ceremony itself was a blur. Wei Ying's heart ached at the sight of Yanli and Jin Zixuan offering tea to Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu's shrine. Although there was nothing but smiles on their faces, Wei Ying could not shake off his thoughts. They should have been there, accepting the tea for themselves. They should have seen their own daughter, head over heels for the man who was dedicating his life to her that very moment. They should have joined in with the photos, laughing at Jin Ling suddenly sneezing as the camera went off. It was a happy day for everyone, but they should have been there.

Everything went fine; the tea ceremony, the exchanging of rings, even the endless photos they had to take with every relative for hours on end. They moved to another venue for the banquet; one large enough to fit all of Jin Zixuan's rich relatives and satisfy them at the same time. Wei Ying knew his father had a habit for sleeping around, but he never realised how much of a habit it was until you were introduced to all of the children he seemingly had. No wonder his wife hated his guts.

The actual venue exceeded all of his expectations and more. You walked into it and you were instantly greeted by a gigantic staircase that must have had over fifty steps. It looked more like a palace rather than a venue. Every corner was decorated in red and gold, each room more lavish than the next. Wei Ying did not want to think how much renting such a place would cost, not that it would be a problem for a rich family such as the Jins.

They spent more hours taking photos in the venue, meeting with each different relatives and feigning friendly greetings with them. Wei Ying's cheeks hurt from all of the smiles he'd been forcing. By the time it was nearing the second hour of being in this venue, he dropped the smiles and stopped caring whether he looked unapproachable.

Things were going smoothly, until the actual banquet when Wei Ying heard the inevitable whispers about him.

It was Jin Zixuan's cousins, sat in a far-away table that Wei Ying could only see from the corner of his eyes. He didn't know who said it, but he heard his name and couldn't block the voices soon enough.

That's him, isn't it? Wei Ying?”

The one who was in the accident with Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan?”

Yes, I heard he was drunk and caused the car to crash. I'm surprised Jiang Yanli even invited him.”

Of course she did! Her parents brought them up as siblings!”

And still, he repaid them with their deaths! If I was her, I'd never want to see him ever again.”

Wei Ying found it difficult to breathe. He stood up, leaving his table as quickly as he could. Even as the voices trailed off, he could feel everyone's eyes fixed on him. No amount of smiling in wedding photos could erase the truth. It was his fault, and they all knew that. Jiang Cheng knew that. Deep down, maybe even Jiejie believed it.

He shouldn't care about what other people thought. He wished he could go up to that table and tell them to shut up. Jin Zixuan's relatives were nothing but snobs, only caring about themselves and their money. Their opinions shouldn't matter. It shouldn't.

It doesn't. What mattered was his family, or what was left of it. What mattered was the guilt stirring in his chest, suffocating him until he could no longer breathe or think. What mattered was that he suddenly felt alone in that banquet, surrounded by strangers who were quick to lay the blame on him. What mattered was that he couldn't do this. He should have never decided to come here.

He poured himself a glass of wine, filling it to the brim. In less than a few seconds, he had already drank the whole glass and began to pour himself a new one.

“Stop drinking,” Jiang Cheng's voice came out of nowhere.

Wei Ying's eyebrows furrowed. He didn't stop. “It's not even that much.”

He couldn't see Jiang Cheng's face, content instead to watch the crimson liquid of the wine, letting it distract him until he could no longer think, until he could no longer hear everyone. He could see his reflection on it; tired, bags under his eyes. He was pathetic. Wei Ying shook the glass, his reflection breaking into ripples, and downed the drink once again.

Jiang Cheng sneered. “If you're going to be like this; leave. A-Jie didn't have to invite you.”

“I bet you were telling her not to.”

Wei Ying put the glass away, drinking from the bottle instead. He managed to get one gulp down before Jiang Cheng grabbed his shoulder, forcing Wei Ying to look at him.

“Isn't it bad enough what your stupid drinking has done?” he hissed. “Now you're doing this at A-Jie's wedding?”

Wei Ying's eyes narrowed. “If you don't want me here, just say so.”

Their conversation was starting to get the attention of the relatives around them, already so nosy to begin with. They didn't bother to hide the fact they were craning their necks trying to see what was going on.

Jiang Cheng shifted, purposely turning his back on their audience. He lowered his voice slightly. “What am I supposed to do when you're always drunk? What do you think people say behind your back when they keep seeing how much of a mess you are? How do you think that makes our family look?”

Wei Ying looked over Jiang Cheng's shoulder. He met the eyes of everyone watching, sipping their wine and whispering among themselves.

“I don't care what anyone thinks,” he said.

“What about us then? Do you not care about me and A-Jie!”

“Do you need to ask that? Of course I care!”

Without a warning, Jiang Cheng knocked the bottle of wine off his hands. A series of gasps sounded through the room as the bottle shattered, painting the marble floor with its crimson liquid. Neither of them moved. They stood face to face, glaring, a thousand words evident through their silence.

Jiang Cheng's fists clenched, trembling, as if he wanted to knock some sense into Wei Ying as well. “Then why are you here embarrassing yourself? Why did you even bother to come if you're just going to get drunk! There's already so many rumours about you; how do you expect me to defend you if you carry on doing this!”

The frown on Wei Ying's face deepened. Defend him? Defend him?

“I never asked for you to!” he said, raising his voice just as loud. “There's no need to defend me, just let go!”

Jiang Cheng jerked back. There was a hint of surprise on his face for a second, painting him as a lost child rather than the angry man he tried to be. As quickly as it appeared, it was replaced by a cold gaze. At that moment, he was exactly like his mother when she looked at Wei Ying, when she hated Wei Ying.

All Wei Ying could do was sigh. He looked down at the spilt wine on the floor, unsure if he despised it more than he despised himself.

“Just let go. I can look after myself. I don't need you to do that,” he said.

He didn't want to bring any more hardships to the family. It was already bad enough they lost their parents and it took so long for Jiejie to marry Jin Zixuan. All Wei Ying wanted was for his family to live their life in peace, and for him to be able to live with this guilt. If he could, he would make it up to them. He didn't have anything to offer, but he would find a way. One day. Somehow.

“Oh, I see,” Jiang Cheng said after a while. He was shaking. His fists were white. He looked as livid as he did the night he lost his parents. “Now that you have your new friends, you don't need our family. Now that Mom and Dad are gone, you don't need to stay!”

Wei Ying's eyes widened. “That's not what I meant!”

Jiang Cheng grabbed his collar. “Just let go? Fuck you!” He pushed him with all the strength he had in his body, shoving Wei Ying into a nearby wall. Wei Ying winced, ignoring the throbbing in his shoulder. His eyes burned the same anger as Jiang Cheng's.

“Go then!” Jiang Cheng continued. “See if I care! Don't think about showing your face here ever again, we don't need you!”

The urge to punch him was strong, but it went away as soon as he heard Jiejie's voice through the aching in his head.

“A-Cheng! A-Ying!” she called, rushing to them. “Stop this!”

Wei Ying couldn't bare to see the disappointment in her eyes. He spun around, eager to leave the venue. Jiang Cheng's words ran around in circles in his mind until it was all he could hear. We don't need you. That was right! He knew that all along! He would just go, leave them in peace just as they wanted!

He rushed to the exit, ignoring the footsteps that followed him. He knew it would just be Jiang Cheng, telling him he was stupid and useless. He didn't need to fight with him anymore, he was so tired. He saw the large staircase leading downstairs, quickening his steps only so he could leave this suffocating place.

A hand grasped his shoulder.

Wei Ying flinched.

We don't need you.

He pushed them off with all the strength he had left. A gasp pierced through his thoughts, too high to be Jiang Cheng's, and pulled him back to reality. Jiejie's wide eyes were the last thing he saw before her feet slipped and she went tumbling down the stairs.

Wei Ying couldn't reach out in time. Every limb in his body turned numb as he watched her fall down those fifty steps. Around him, screams and gasps of horror deafened his ears, but he still heard the sickening crack as Yanli landed at the bottom, her head slamming against the marble floor.

A-Li!”

Jin Zixuan pushed past him, sprinting for his wife. By the time he reached her, there was already a growing puddle of blood where her head laid, staining her dress even redder than it already was. Wei Ying remained by the top of the stairs, staring down at them. Jin Zixuan was shouting for someone to call the ambulance. Jiang Cheng was beside him, begging his sister to open her eyes. Somewhere in the crowd, Jin Ling was crying at the top of his lungs.

What...? What was going on?

Had he done this? Was that his fault? Had he pushed her down?

Shaking, Wei Ying looked down at his hands.

Why? Why did this happen? Why did he do this?

 

- x -

 

They rushed to the hospital. Wei Ying's memory of the last time he was here was still fresh in his mind, only now he was one of the people waiting. He couldn't focus on anything else. Everything spun around him and time no longer followed its course. He didn't know if he'd been waiting for an hour, or for a whole day. All he could see was the image of Jiejie on the marble floor, laying in a puddle of blood just like his parents did the night they died.

They waited, and waited. As day blended into night and Wei Ying thought he would vomit from the anxiety, the doctor appeared before them with a grave look on his face. He was saying all sorts of things, talking too fast. All Wei Ying could hear was that Jiejie wasn't waking up. She wasn't responding.

The doctor promised they would do whatever they could in their power to help her. It was a trembling rope to cling on, but Wei Ying hung onto it, desperate to see his sister walking out of this hospital. He kept his eyes on the doctor as he left, praying to whatever deity was up there that they would let her survive. Please.

For the first time since they entered the hospital, Jiang Cheng looked at him. His eyes were red and swollen, now narrowing as he approached Wei Ying with shaking fists.

Wei Ying didn't try to move away when Jiang Cheng punched him right in the face.

“Get the fuck out of here!” he screamed. “You heard me, get out! Don't ever show your face ever again!”

His jaw throbbed. He didn't allow himself to move, simply remaining where he stood like the pathetic man he was.

“Haven't you done enough? First my parents and now A-Jie! Haven't you done enough!

Wei Ying's eyes watered. He frantically shook his head, reaching for Jiang Cheng. “I-I'm sorry. It was an accident. I never meant to—”

“Shut up!” Jiang Cheng pushed him away. “If she dies.... If she dies!”

Hands shot up to grab him by the neck. Wei Ying choked, struggling as Jiang Cheng shoved him against the wall, squeezing his throat tighter and tighter. There was nothing but hatred in Jiang Cheng's eyes. He didn't look like he would hesitate to snap Wei Ying's neck right there and then.

Stay away,” he hissed. “Stay away from my family from now on. We don't want you. Stay away!”

His hands tightened. Wei Ying gasped. Black spots danced in his vision.

Stop it!”

Too soon, Jiang Cheng's grip slipped off him. He collapsed against the wall, gasping for breath, and opened his eyes to the sight of Jin Zixuan holding Jiang Cheng back.

Jiang Cheng thrashed and shook his fist, aiming for Jin Zixuan's face. He missed, screaming loud enough for his voice to echo through these white walls. “Why are you defending him! What kind of a fucking husband are you?!”

Jin Zixuan winced at his words, but nevertheless didn't let Jiang Cheng go. He refused to look at Wei Ying, squeezing his eyes shut. His hands were unsteady. It was only then that Wei Ying noticed the lone tear sliding down his cheek before he angrily wiped it away.

“A-Li wouldn't want you two to fight,” he said quietly.

Jiejie's name was like water dousing Jiang Cheng's flames. He broke into a sob and weakly pushed Jin Zixuan off. He wasn't looking at Wei Ying anymore. Every sob he let out may as well have been a stab to the chest.

“If I ever see you again,” Jiang Cheng said, voice shaking. “I swear I'll kill you myself.”

Wei Ying, like the coward he was, could say nothing to that. He looked at the man he called a brother, his closest friend, the one he thought would stay by his side until they grew old. He looked at Jiang Cheng and saw there was nothing else he could do, that he had done enough to ruin his life. Wei Ying, like the coward he was, turned around and ran away.

He ran as fast as he could, out of that room, out of that hospital, out into the dark streets where the rain hit his face and soaked him to the bone. Even as he continued to run in that weather, no tears escaped him. He ran and ran, not knowing where else he could go, who else he had left. He ran until he tripped and the cement greeted him. He screamed and punched the ground, ignoring the blood now painting his knuckles.

It was Jiejie's wedding. It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, the beginning to her new family. He could still remember her smiles and laughter earlier today, the way she twirled when she showed her dress to them.

What had he done?

As he knelt there in the rain, it dawned on him that he was truly alone. His real parents were dead. Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu were gone. Jiejie was in hospital, her future uncertain. Jiang Cheng, more than anything, wanted him dead.

Wei Ying shook and trembled. He clawed at the ground, bowing his head. Why did everyone have to leave? Why did they leave him?

Never ever let anyone get rid of your smile.

I'm sorry, Wei Ying wanted to tell his mother. I can't do this.

His eyes stung. Finally, everything shattered and he burst into tears.

 

- x -

 

Jiang Yanli had fallen into a coma. Day and night, the doctors did everything they could for her but she remained unresponsive. They didn't know when she would wake up, if she would ever wake up.

As the accident happened in front of every relative connected to her and Jin Zixuan, Wei Ying was shunned from the family. Jiang Cheng's vows that he would kill him if he ever saw him again rang in his head. Whether true or merely a threat, Wei Ying did not challenge it. He stayed away from the Jiangs and the Jins. It was the least he could do.

The months passed, and still, Yanli did not wake up.

Wei Ying had nothing left to do but to wait.

The pulsing lights and blaring music around him gave him a headache. He chewed on his nails, glancing around the crowded nightclub, trying to see where Huaisang had disappeared off to. He'd probably gone off with some random guy by now, too drunk to remember he even came with Wei Ying into this club in the first place.

Sighing, Wei Ying reached for his drink and downed the rest, ignoring the burning in his throat. It had been a while since he had gone out drinking. Somehow, Huaisang managed to convince him tonight, telling him he needed to stop sulking in his apartment and have fun for once.

Fun was the last thing he was having at the moment. A headache maybe, but not fun.

He gazed at his empty drink. That wasn't nearly enough.

In the back of his mind, he could hear Jiang Cheng's disapproval as he beckoned the bartender to serve him another, stronger drink, the strongestin the house. It didn't matter anymore. He was doing everything he could to stay away from the Jiangs, making sure he would no longer harm them. Whatever happened to him didn't matter at all. Not to him, not to anyone.

He took a sip of his new glass, blanching at the horrid taste that invaded his mouth. That was vile. If he didn't know any better, the bartender had given him poison.

Still, he did ask for the strongest drink he could get.

Wei Ying knocked back the glass, choking as the burning sensation gushed down his throat. He only took one gulp so far and, already, everything was blurring—but he was sure that was because of the awful taste. He took more drinks, each one not as unbearable as the last. The more he drank, the more he got used to the taste. He no longer felt like gagging by the time he finished the whole thing. Instead, he stretched his arms and got up from the seat, scanning the club once again.

The colours were brighter. The music was louder. Huaisang was still nowhere to be seen, but that was okay. Wei Ying would pass the time by himself just fine. He called for the bartender again, asking for the same drink.

He stopped counting how many drinks he bought after that. The bartender wasn't joking around. He really gave Wei Ying the strongest one in the house! It came to a point that he could no longer finish his current glass, pushing it away in defeat and stumbling away from the bar.

Around him, everything was glowing, flashing like a heartbeat in the night. He couldn't hear anything over the deafening music, not even what this man was saying as he bumped into Wei Ying and dragged him into the dance floor. He didn't know who the man was, he'd never seen him before in his entire life. He looked just like anyone else; tall, dark hair, dark eyes, a nose that had likely been broken in the past. He smelt of alcohol and cigarettes; he had a boyish grin as he grabbed Wei Ying's waist and pulled him closer.

“What's your name?” he asked.

Wei Ying could barely find his voice. “Wei Ying.”

He thought he heard the man introduce himself as well, but the name didn't stick to his mind. He smiled and danced in tune to the music, letting the alcohol swimming in his head guide his limbs. The man's hands roamed over his skin, drawing circles around Wei Ying's waist, trailing down and squeezing his ass.

He gasped. He didn't know who moved first but his mouth was crushed against this stranger's, teeth knocking, tasting vodka and nothing but vodka in his tongue. Wei Ying's eyes fluttered close and he allowed the man to grind against him, moaning into his mouth.

Some part of Wei Ying still sober reminded him this wasn't how he wanted his first kiss to go.

He pushed it aside and told himself he didn't care. All he focused on was the rush in his head, the pleasure pooling in his gut as this man's hands continued to roam all over his body. They pulled away, panting. Wei Ying gazed at him from under his eyelashes and licked his swollen lips. He wanted more. He never wanted this feeling to end.

The rest of the night was a void. He remembered getting more drinks, laughing until his eyes watered and his cheeks ached. He remembered stumbling into a room that didn't belong to him, fumbling to take off his clothes. He straddled the man under him and smiled with a confidence he didn't even know belonged to himself. Everything spun and spun and spun. Large hands kept him in place, stroking his back and convincing him, at that time, that it was gentle and safe. Wei Ying took deep breaths and allowed himself to get lost in this feeling.

Then, time rushed. In the middle of it all, he realised he was naked and he was losing his virginity to a man whose name he couldn't even remember. He pushed it all aside and focused on the heat threatening to overcome him, moaning as loud as he could to drown out all of his worries. Tomorrow could wait. For now, he rode the man's dick and threw his head back, begging him to take him harder, make him forget who he was.

 

- x -

 

He woke up around five AM, to the sound of snores that he had never heard of before. Wei Ying's stomach lurched at the sight of the unknown man curled against him, a heavy arm wrapped around his waist. He sat up, staring around the dark room. He could make out the faint bruises now forming on his thighs and waist, the dried splatters of cum all over his body. Slowly, he took a deep breath and slipped out of bed, gathering his clothes with shaking hands.

He didn't know how, but he managed to find his way back home. He threw himself into the bathroom in time, puking out everything. It felt like something was pounding against his skull and flames were stirring in his gut. Wei Ying slumped against the toilet until there was nothing left in his stomach, until the bathroom was spinning and he wanted to die.

“Wei Ying...?”

Wen Ning peeked into the bathroom, gasping as soon as he saw him.

“Wei Ying!” he called, rushing to his side. “What happened?”

Wei Ying shook his head, groaning. He could barely last two more seconds until he was trying to vomit again. With nothing left in his stomach, he was only heaving and quivering. There was sweat dripping down his forehead—and the pounding just wouldn't stop.

“Y-You don't look good! I'll call my sister!”

He didn't have any strength to ask who the fuck his sister was, and why the hell he thought she could help him at five in the morning. He heaved even more, spitting and spluttering.

Wen Ning's sister arrived quickly, although she made no effort to hide how annoyed she was.

“You called me for this?” she snapped, gesturing towards Wei Ying's pathetic figure still bent over the toilet. “To help a drunk?!

“He's my friend!” Wen Ning said. “Jiejie, I'm worried about him!

“What kind of friends do you have?! I told you to stay out of trouble and turns out you've been living with an alcoholic all these years!”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Wei Ying did his best to block them out his head. He flitted in and out of consciousness, no longer caring that he was still here embracing the damn toilet. When he opened his eyes again, he was on his own bed. Wen Ning's sister leaned over him, enveloping his room with the scent of citrus and cinnamon. She was muttering to herself, too quiet for Wei Ying to hear, and laid a cool hand on his forehead before flicking him between his eyebrows.

“Ow!” he jolted, shaking himself awake.

“You're alive,” she said. Her voice didn't sound happy about it. “Next time, try not to drink your body weight in alcohol. Are you stupid?”

Wei Ying struggled to get up. He moaned, clutching his head, immediately feeling a pair of soft hands helping him into a sitting position. He looked to his side, frowning at the familiar timid expression Wen Ning had on his face.

“Are you okay? You didn't look too good last night,” Wen Ning said, rubbing his back.

“Five AM in the morning!” his sister added. “You better be okay!”

Honestly, he felt like shit. They could tell him he had been thrown off a cliff and left for dead and he would have believed them.

“Thank... Thank you,” he said, turning to Wen Ning's sister. “I'm sorry for causing you trouble.”

She folded her arms, looking down at him as if he was just a bug. With Wen Ning beside her, it was almost funny how both of them were the complete opposite of each other. His roommate had mentioned he had a sister before, that she was a hard-working doctor with a passion for helping others. Wei Ying had expected someone more like Jiejie, not this glaring woman right in front of him who looked like she'd sooner punch him in the face than save his life.

“Who are you?” she suddenly asked.

For some reason, it felt like he was introducing himself to a very displeased parent. Couldn't they do this another time? He was still hungover as fuck and his memories from last night weren't exactly giving him a good time either.

Wei Ying glanced at Wen Ning, who seemed like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole.

“Well?” his sister pressed on.

He sighed. “I'm Wei Ying. And you?”

Her eyebrows furrowed together. “Wen Qing.”

Wen Ning looked between them, fiddling with the sleeves of his jumper. He stuttered to his sister, something inaudible that only made her direct her glare at him.

“Stop mumbling! And why are your hands shaking? What's wrong with you! Are you going to die!”

The more she yelled, the more Wen Ning stuttered and shook. It would have been funny if Wei Ying's head wasn't currently splitting into two.

Nevertheless, their presence in his room helped him stop thinking about what happened last night. He was stupid for getting carried away, he knew that, but he couldn't bring himself to regret it.

It wasn't like he deserved any better.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying dropped out of university. It was during his final year, when he couldn't focus on his exams no matter how long he stared at his notes, that he realised he shouldn't be here anymore. He took this degree in the hopes of making Uncle Jiang proud. Did that matter now? Wasn't it too late to do that?

Henceforth, he quit, just like that. Wen Ning did everything he could to convince him to stay, but he didn't know how stubborn Wei Ying could be. He continued to share apartments with his shy friend, at least until Wen Ning graduated and decided he wanted to do something more than just stick with Wei Ying's drunken breakdowns every evening.

A year passed and Yanli was still in a coma. Wei Ying had made a habit of going out to get drunk, sleeping with anyone that took his mind off things. It was a good thing he'd given up on his degree; Uncle Jiang was likely ashamed of him already.

He hadn't spoken with Jiang Cheng ever since. According to what people said, he landed himself a job at the police station. Good for him, Wei Ying thought. As for Jin Zixuan, he carried on with his family business, visiting Yanli every day. Wei Ying had not spoken to him either, but he rarely interacted with the man in the first place. There was hardly any difference.

He only knew what was going on because of an unexpected acquaintance. Jin Zixuan's younger half-brother, Mo Xuanyu, was quite chatty if you bumped into him at the local café.

"Da-ge is thinking of moving his wife to America.”

Wei Ying choked on his coffee. He coughed, wincing as the hot liquid scalded his throat. As the seconds passed by, Mo Xuanyu handed him a napkin.

Ignoring it, Wei Ying repeated what he had said. Jin Zixuan was thinking of moving Jiejie to where now?

“Why?” he asked. “Why would he do that? Why America?”

“Well, you know how our father has connections in America... We lived for a bit there, you see. Dad knows a really good private hospital that can take better care of her.”

He knew the Jins often moved back and forth America, but was moving Yanli there really necessary? Would it help?

He took another sip of his drink, not knowing what else he could say.

“It's for the best, I think,” Mo Xuanyu continued, unaware of Wei Ying's hurtling thoughts. “I think Da-ge is making the right decision.”

Whether it was the right decision or not, what Wei Ying was more concerned about was that Yanli wouldn't be here with them anymore. He had not dared to visit her ever since the accident, but the thought she was still there in that hospital fighting for her life was somewhat a comfort, rather than thinking she was completely gone.

What would happen if she were to move to the other side of the world?

It was selfish to want to be near her, especially when he couldn't ever show his face around her family ever again.

Wei Ying was a selfish and useless man, but everyone already knew that.

He sighed, setting down his drink. He suddenly wanted to go back home, hidden in his bedroom where he could get rid of this fake smile he was now forcing on his face.

“Yeah, you're right,” he said, nodding. “It's a good idea.”

And so, they moved Jiejie to America. More months passed and nothing changed, not as far as Wei Ying could tell. A naïve, hopeful part of him thought that, maybe, if they moved her there, she'd somehow wake up and everything would be okay again. Of course, a single change of environment wasn't going to wake her up from a coma. He didn't know what would anymore.

The months turned into more months. Another year began and ended. Wei Ying was twenty three when he got the crazy idea of going to America, just to see his sister.

“You're crazy,” Wen Qing said at the airport. “Have you even been to America before? Do you know where she is?”

“Of course I do, Xuanyu told me.”

Wen Ning clung onto his suitcase, insisting he held it until it was time to board. He kept looking around him, fiddling with the handle. Wei Ying knew he hated large, crowded places like this, and still he wanted to go and say goodbye before he left. It warmed his heart.

“How long will you be gone...?” Wen Ning asked. “It's going to be quiet in the apartment without you.”

Wen Qing scoffed. “Good! Maybe then I won't have to look after his drunken ass anymore!”

She was charming as always. Wei Ying blew her a kiss, obviously causing her to scowl even more. Wen Qing elbowed him in the guts, her medical precision finding the exact place where it would hurt the most. He whined in pain, clutching his ribs and exaggerating it until people walking by looked at him with concerned eyes.

“When is your plane arriving? The sooner you're gone, the better,” Wen Qing muttered. She looked like she was tempted to elbow him again.

Wei Ying glanced at the time. “In twenty minutes. And don't say that, I know you'll miss me. If not you, then I know Wen Ning will.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, realising he hadn't answered Wen Ning's question at all. “Wen Ning, I don't know how long I'll be staying. Probably not for long.”

Wen Ning nodded silently, looking down at his feet.

Wei Ying didn't plan this trip very well. The only reason he was going was to visit his sister without having to worry about Jiang Cheng finding out—and if he did, what could he do? Swim across the Pacific Ocean and stop him? It was a selfish reason and he knew he would only hate himself afterwards. He promised to stay away from their family as much as he could, and now here he was, flying off to America just to visit Yanli.

Just once, he told himself. He needed this, just once.

 

- x -

 

America gave him an even bigger headache. Mo Xuanyu directed him to a friend who needed someone else to share the rent for their house. Apparently, this person lived in Gusu as well, but decided to study in America to get their Masters. That sounded smart enough for Wei Ying.

He didn't know what he expected from his new roommate. It was safe to say, his experience in life meant he didn't have very high expectations anymore. Therefore, it was completely fine when his new roommate answered the door in nothing but pyjama bottoms and a stained t-shirt. He even had slippers that had patterns of... cucumbers, or whatever the fuck those things were.

“You're Xuanyu's friend?” the man said. Wei Ying stopped looking at his weird slippers and nodded. This man couldn't have been older than thirty. The bed hair and deep eye bags definitely helped in giving him that mid-life crisis look. Big mood, Wei Ying thought. He was already finding similarities with this guy. “I'm Shen Yuan. I used to tutor Xuanyu back in school but all he did was tell me about his crushes.”

“That sounds exactly like him,” Wei Ying muttered. “I'm Wei Ying. Thanks for letting me share your house.”

Sharing a house with Shen Yuan wasn't so bad. The man barely left his room. If he did, it'd be at midnight when he raided through the fridge, grabbing whatever was left on the shelves. Wei Ying was pretty sure half the food he ate was close to expiring, but the man wasn't dead yet so that counted for something. Shen Yuan didn't look like he gave a shit. He could die from food poisoning and he'd most likely just shrug and play it cool.

Whatever, it wasn't his business what Shen Yuan did in his spare time. Wei Ying wasn't here for him.

He eventually gathered the courage to go to the hospital. He managed to get to the entrance of the large building before his hand froze on the door and he wondered if he could really do this.

Jiejie was there because of him. How many years has it been now? Two? Two years she had missed in her life, all because of him. Two years she could never get back. She wouldn't have been able to witness Jin Ling growing up from a little baby and into a toddler. The sister he adored and admired... After everything she did for him, Wei Ying repaid her by pushing her down the stairs.

What was he doing here? He withdrew his hand, looking around him at all of the people entering and leaving the building. Some were workers; some were relatives like him, eager to visit their loved ones. Most of them were in groups, carrying gifts. He doubted any of them were the reason why their loved one was in hospital in the first place. He doubted any of them carried the same crimes he had done over the years.

Wei Ying was a selfish man, yes, but on top of that, he truly was a coward.

He turned around and walked away as quickly as he could. Jiejie would be better off without his presence anyway.

His main reason for coming here was to visit Yanli, but he didn't know why he decided to stay in America for almost a year in the end. Shen Yuan's boyfriend owned a restaurant where Wei Ying was lucky enough to work there as a waiter to help pay for his rent. At that time, he was glad for any type of distraction, anything to help get his mind off the fact Yanli was in the same city as him, still stuck in that coma.

It was fine, at first. He got used to the monotonous lifestyle of waking up, working, drinking, sleeping. Every day was the same. He expected nothing less, nothing more. On weekends, he'd stumble through the streets drunk off his mind, giggling in some man's arms and convincing him to fuck him for the night. Wei Ying began to find comfort in sex; the rush that made him forget who he was, where he was. He liked the empty compliments they'd give him, telling him he was a good boy; as if they knew anything about his life to begin with. For that single night, he could pretend he was someone else. He could pretend his whole life felt just as good as this dick shaping him, fucking him raw until he blacked out and was thrown back into harsh reality.

Rinse, and repeat. It was like that for months on end. At some point, Wei Ying saw his life laid out before him; working at a job that didn't give him any sort of satisfaction, drinking himself stupid every night, sleeping with countless men that all blurred together into forgotten faces. Was this all there was? Was he really born into this world, just to live for this?

No. He didn't want that. As much as he hated himself, he didn't want that.

“Where are you going?” Shen Yuan asked, watching as Wei Ying struggled to lift his suitcase through the cramped corridor.

“Back home,” Wei Ying said. He couldn't bring himself to look at Shen Yuan in the eyes. “To Gusu.”

There was silence at first. Shen Yuan nodded, adjusting his glasses back up on his nose.

“Good,” he said. “I hope you're happier in Gusu.”

Wei Ying gritted his teeth. He didn't know what to say to that. In the several months he'd spent with Shen Yuan, they didn't speak much, especially not about personal matters. The sympathy in the older man's eyes was almost unbearable.

I hope so too, Wei Ying wanted to say. “Thank you for letting me stay here,” he said instead. “It's been nice knowing you. Say thank you to Luo Binghe as well, please. I appreciate all of the help you two have given me.”

Shen Yuan offered him a rare smile, nodding again.

Wei Ying left without looking back.

 

- x -

 

Gusu was the same as always. It never changed. Wei Ying, also, did not change. He drank more. It became a challenge now. Every night, he'd drink more than the last, just to see how much he could take. He moved out of his apartment with Wen Ning and got one of his own; the only reason being that he couldn't stand to see Wen Ning worrying about him every night.

He continued to sleep around with just about anyone; men, women, it didn't matter to him. As long as they made him feel good, that was all he wanted. Before they woke up, he'd make sure to leave, finding his way back home where he could hate himself just a little bit more and more as each day passed.

Nothing changed. Nothing ever would.

Wei Ying was twenty five, and he'd already had enough of what life had to offer him. Even the sex that used to give him comfort felt like something that should be part of his schedule instead. No matter how much he begged them to fuck him harder, faster, it no longer made him forget. He would close his eyes shut, tears threatening to brim over, screaming inside his head that why, why didn't this feel good anymore? Why couldn't he even have this?

“Faster,” Wei Ying begged, clawing at the man's back. “Please, faster—harder. Just fuck me! Don't stop, please, don't stop!”

They went faster, harder, grunting into his ear. They crushed him against the bed, pounding inside him until his bones hurt and his head spun, until he was screaming and his eyes rolled back. Even when he came, all he felt was the disgusting shame that this was all he was, all he ever could be. The man slumped against him, his dick slipping out of Wei Ying's hole, already snoring away without a care.

Wei Ying laid there, staring at the wall opposite him. The wallpaper was peeling off and the room smelt of cigarettes, sweat, and sex. He wanted to be sick.

Deep breaths. He took three deep breaths, and then swung his legs over the bed. Standing up made the room spin, but staying was not an option. He gathered his clothes, putting them back on with trembling hands. He saw the bottle of wine left on the floor and drank the rest of it, welcoming the bitter pain shaking his surroundings. The man on the bed was still snoring on his bed. What was his name again? It didn't matter.

Wei Ying hurried to leave, only freezing when he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He was thin and pale, dark bags under his swollen eyes. His lips were chapped from his habit of chewing them when he grew anxious, which seemed non-stop these days. He felt dirty. He could still feel the cum sticking to his skin, even if he had done all he could to scrub it off before he left the bed. He was pathetic. Ugly. In the background, he could see the figure of that stranger still asleep, having already forgotten his existence.

The shame ate him away. A sob built up in his throat. He covered his mouth to muffle it, running out of that room, that building. He ran into the streets, ignoring the tears now wetting his cheeks. How pathetic! Why was he crying? Didn't he already accept this was all there was? Why was he crying?!

He ran. He didn't go to his home, but he kept running. When he reached the house, he knocked so hard his knuckles ached. He knocked again and again and again—

“I'm coming, I'm coming! What is it?”

Wen Qing opened the door, glaring at him. As soon as he saw her face, his shoulders shook and Wei Ying could only cry harder.

“W-Wei Ying?” She looked around, as if expecting someone to come after him. “What's wrong? Hey, why are you crying?”

“What... What am I supposed to do?” he sobbed. “Can you tell me what I'm supposed to do?”

He didn't know what he was saying. He slumped against her and let the void lull him into sleep. The last thing he heard was the sound of her calling his name, asking him if he was okay.

Wei Ying swam in and out of consciousness. The smell of citrus and cinnamon guided him back to reality; Wen Qing's hand stroking his damp hair, her voice, strangely softer than it usually was, telling him to wake up and drink some water. He fluttered his eyes open, first seeing the ceiling above him. His head was laying on her lap and it took him a few moments to realise the fluffy thing rubbing against his feet was her cat, Puyi.

Groaning, Wei Ying struggled to sit up. He let her help him lay his back against the couch, lifting a glass of water to his lips. Wei Ying drank it, keeping his eyes on the ginger cat now stretching on the table.

Once he finished the whole glass, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He could feel Wen Qing's gaze on him, as if convinced he would collapse at any second. The fact she wasn't yelling at him right now only told him he'd gone too far this time.

He heard her sigh. “What are you doing to yourself?” she said.

Wei Ying looked down. “I don't know... I don't care.”

“You can't live like this, Wei Ying.”

What if I don't want to live?

He clenched his jaw. He almost said it out loud. Almost. But he'd already burdened Wen Qing enough. She didn't need him dumping his emotional turmoil onto her as well.

Wen Qing sighed again. Perhaps she knew what he was going to say. She'd always been good at reading his thoughts.

“Things will get better, Wei Ying, but only if you allow it to.”

She rose, gathering her tray and leaving for the kitchen. He was left to mull over her words, thinking over them as if they were a different language.

 

- x -

 

The years were relentless, and so was life. After his talk with Wen Qing, Wei Ying tried his best drink less. He also stopped sleeping with strangers; an easier feat than his goal to quit alcohol. He didn't miss it. He was glad to forget the lingering touches of strangers who pretended to care about him.

Shen Yuan returned to Gusu with Luo Binghe. They opened up a restaurant somewhere in the city, and word has it that the food there was unlike any other. Wei Ying spared a visit one day, greeting the older man with a smile that felt easier to force onto his face. They exchanged words; Shen Yuan told him he moved back to Gusu because he'd been given the opportunity to become a headmaster to one of Gusu's newer schools. It was definitely a stark contrast to the memory of him walking around with cucumber patterned slippers.

“I could offer you a job, if you want,” he said.

Wei Ying failed to hide the shock on his face. “Me? A teacher?”

“Well, some training would do you well first. Afterwards, if you're good, you can start teaching.”

Shen Yuan's last words in America rang in his head. I hope you're happier in Gusu.

He's only pitying you, Wei Ying told himself.

He looked away from Shen Yuan's gentle gaze. He wanted to refuse. He didn't want to rely on others, not anymore, not if he couldn't repay them with something else other than pain.

“Just training for now,” Shen Yuan said. “Think about it.”

How could he allow himself to take this chance? How could he live with this guilt? Even if things, somehow, got better, he would never be able to forget the memory of being in that car, or in that wedding. He couldn't live with this.

Uncle Jiang's voice passed his thoughts like a sudden breeze, gentle and welcomed. Attempt the impossible, he would say. Don't ever give up.

Taking a deep breath, Wei Ying lifted his gaze and met Shen Yuan's.

“I'll do it,” he said. “Thank you for the offer.”

 

- x -

 

At the age of thirty-three, Wei Ying wouldn't say he was happy, not even content. He was living, that was for certain, and it was enough for now. Teaching helped a lot in distracting him; when he was in the classroom, he could focus instead on making sure these children were set to have better lives. For once, he was actually helping people instead of ruining them. Accepting Shen Yuan's offer was one of the best things he could have done for himself.

Nevertheless, life carried on in its dreary path. Gusu did not change. He did not change. Nothing would ever change.

Wei Ying scribbled notes on his book, planning his lessons ahead. In the corner of his eyes, he could see Lan Sizhui sitting by the window, watching the rain pour endlessly as it always did. The pit-patter of raindrops soothed him; he tapped his feet along to their sound, writing more plans as the hour went on. He barely stuck to these plans; he was the type to improvise on the spot, but it gave him something to do, something to think about.

A knock on the door halted his thoughts. Wei Ying finished the sentence he was writing first, his handwriting almost illegible. With a tired sigh, he put his pen down and looked up.

There was a man standing by the classroom's entrance. He gripped the door and stared at Wei Ying with wide, golden eyes. In them, was an emotion Wei Ying couldn't place. His own heart raced, fast, too fast, that he wondered if the man could hear it from where he was standing. Who was he? Wei Ying had never met him before.

“Wei Ying.”

The voice rippled his surroundings. Wei Ying blinked. He rose, frowning at the man now fading before his very eyes. He wants to call out, to ask who he is and why it feels like he has seen his face before.

Wei Ying.”

The man disappears. Wei Ying does not know his name and he can't call him back. The memories slip from his fingers like sand and he is out of time.

Wei Ying. Wake up.”

Wei Ying jolts. His eyes snap wide open and he jerks up on the bed, panting, shaking. There is sweat rolling down his forehead and tears blurring his vision. He can't hear anything through the sound of his own shuddering, the sickening rampage of his heart threatening to escape his chest.

Warm hands stroke his back. “It is okay. You are awake.”

He struggles to calm his breaths. The seconds turn into minutes and he's still shaking. Lan Zhan doesn't stop rubbing circles on his back, wiping the sweat away from his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ears. The actions are gentle, like he's scared Wei Ying will shatter any second now.

Wei Ying lets a sob escape him. It's hard to tell whether he wants to cry or to laugh, but he allows his eyes to brim over with tears and his lips to spread into a smile.

As easily as that, Lan Zhan's arms tighten around him. He frowns, leaning down to gauge at his face.

“What is wrong?” he asks.

Wei Ying can only shake his head. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing. I'm just so... relieved.”

“Relieved?”

He isn't alone. After everything life threw at him, he isn’t alone, at least not for now. He lets out another shuddering breath and buries his face into Lan Zhan's chest, unsure if the sounds coming out of him are sobs or laughter.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying is more than content to stay in this warm bed. Lan Zhan has laid them back down and the temptation to close his eyes and sleep the day away is very tempting. He snuggles closer to the warmth, breathing in sandalwood. The even beats of Lan Zhan's pulse, his gentle breaths, the almost inaudible tick-tock, tick-tock of a distant clock; it all sounds like a lullaby pulling him back to his dreams. He takes another deep breath and releases it, relaxing his whole body—

Wait. Wei Ying's eyes snap open. He sits up, looking at the clock on the wall. The whole world spins and comes crashing back down when he sees the time. It's past eleven AM? What the fuck?

“Oh shit,” he says, shoving the blankets off him. “I have work!”

His mind conjures up an image of Shen Yuan giving him his signature cold glare. The man rarely lost his cool but if you managed to piss him off then you were in for it. Being over two hours late for work will definitely piss him off. Wei Ying can't even think of an excuse with this headache!

His surroundings are slowly starting to spin again the longer he sits up. Teaching like this is going to be impossible—and that's if he even manages to get to the school in the first place.

Beside him, Lan Zhan sits up. “Doctor Wen has already called the school to tell them you are unwell today.”

Wei Ying turns to him, frowning. “Huh?”

Lan Zhan rises with all the grace in the world. Wei Ying is still on the bed, his hair standing up in every direction, looking like a bear has just mauled him to death. He watches as Lan Zhan combs his hair, inky black strands flowing like water past his fingertips. The difference between them would be funny if Wei Ying doesn't currently feel like death will hurt less than this hangover.

“She called your phone earlier,” Lan Zhan explains, twisting his hair into a loose bun. “I told her you were unwell. She said she would inform your headmaster.”

That... makes things easier, at least.

“What exactly did you tell her?” Wei Ying asks. He's not sure he wants to know the answer.

Lan Zhan hesitates for a second. “She already knew you had been drinking. She went to your apartment and saw the state it was in.” He pauses as Wei Ying lets out a string of curses. “I reassured her you were fine.”

Great. Wei Ying holds his head in his hands. Most people had the fortune of forgetting what dumb shit they get up to when they're drunk but Wei Ying has never had that privilege. No matter how much he drinks or how much of a mess he becomes, he'll remember everything the next morning. Today isn't any different.

He clearly remembers how many empty bottles were left on the floor in his living room. Didn't he smash that bottle of vodka too? Wen Qing knows where he keeps his spare key so she would have been able to get inside, only to find his apartment looking like someone's just broken into it.

Fuck.

Wei Ying lets out a sigh. “I'll call her later... I'm sorry about that.”

He stands up, and immediately regrets it. The room literally tips over and his stomach lurches. Wei Ying covers his mouth, swallowing back the bile just in time. He pushes Lan Zhan out of the way and dives into what he thinks is the bathroom, locking it before proceeding to throw up into the fancy looking toilet.

“Wei Ying!”

Wei Ying can barely hear Lan Zhan's voice over the sounds of him heaving everything out his stomach. He hasn't felt this horrible in—fuck, how many years? Why did he decide to drink so much last night? He's too old to be dealing with hangovers like this.

The door rattles dangerously. Weakly, Wei Ying looks up. If Lan Zhan keeps doing that then he's going to tear the door right off its hinges.

“No, wait,” Wei Ying grumbles. Let me die in peace, Lan Zhan. He groans some more, slumping against the bathroom wall.

“Are you okay?”

Wei Ying glares at the door, his head pounding. “I'm having the time of my life, Lan Zhan.”

“Unlock the door.”

He barely finishes that sentence before Wei Ying is lunging for the toilet again. He retches and splutters, wincing at the horrible taste filling his mouth. Over the years, he's managed to hold his alcohol down pretty well. It's been a literal decade since he's been sick this badly.

“You really want to see me puking my guts out?” Wei Ying says afterwards, wiping his mouth. “I don't look cute like this.”

“Stop joking around. You are not well.”

Wei Ying throws another scowl at the door. “No shit.”

He hears Lan Zhan sigh. “Do you need anything?”

It takes a while for Wei Ying to answer. He blinks several times, clutching his stomach. There is still the ringing in his ears and the non-stop battering in his head, but he thinks the urge to be sick is gone. For now. That will probably change if he tries to stand up again; all the better to stay here on the floor and pretend this is the afterlife instead.

Wei Ying groans. He slowly turns around, scanning the bathroom. It's very large, much bigger than his own bedroom—probably even bigger than his living room and kitchen put together. The walls and the floor are spotless white marble, and the counters are a contrasting black. In the centre of the room is a circular hot tub raised on a platform, surrounded by candles and incense sticks.

He pulls himself up to his feet, flushing the toilet. Every step he takes feels like an earthquake, but he ignores it for now. He walks past the tub, finding another section around the corner of the room much to his surprise. There is a walk-in shower, by the looks of it, encased in black marble and glass.

He shakes his head to himself. How rich exactly is Lan Zhan? This bathroom alone is probably more expensive than Wei Ying's whole rent.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying leaves the shower, rushing back to where the toilet is. Lan Zhan is trying to open the door again.

“Wei Ying, are you there?”

“Yes, sorry,” he says. “I was exploring your fancy bathroom.”

“Unlock the door.”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Nope.”

Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan, let me get cleaned up first. I feel filthy. Can I use your shower?”

Well, that gets Lan Zhan to leave the door alone. It stops rattling, and Wei Ying thinks he hears the quiet sound of him taking a deep breath.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan eventually says.

“Do you have a spare toothbrush anywhere?”

“Hmm. The second drawer, next to the mirror.”

Wei Ying follows his instructions. Not only is there dozens of spare toothbrushes, but also toothpaste, shampoos, shower gels, everything. You'd think Lan Zhan is hoarding them for an apocalypse! He muffles a chuckle behind his hand, shaking his head to himself.

“Shower,” Lan Zhan commands. “I will make you some breakfast.”

Wei Ying catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, wincing at how much of a mess he looks.

“Lan Zhan, before you go,” he says. “Do you have some spare clothes I can borrow too? Anything will do.”

Lan Zhan is only half a head taller than him. Wei Ying can probably fit into his clothes just fine.

“I will see.”

“Thank you, Lan Zhan.”

Finally, he hears Lan Zhan walking off. When his footsteps fade into nothing, Wei Ying releases a sigh of relief.

What a mess, he thinks, still staring at himself. Even when he combs his fingers through his hair and tidies it up a bit, it doesn't stop him from looking like someone in a horror movie.

To make things worse, his brain chooses this fine moment to give him some much needed flashbacks from last night. Wei Ying covers his face, remembering the way he practically manhandled Lan Zhan onto his bed. No, he mentally screams. He can never face him ever again. Wei Ying will never leave this bathroom.

He groans for the umpteenth time today and pulls a face at his reflection. No use sulking now, at least not until he looks presentable again.

With that, he drags himself to Lan Zhan's posh shower room. One side of this room is a whole window overlooking the lush fields. The shower itself has frosted glass which will prevent you from being seeing with your bits out, but he can't say he's comfortable with that unnecessarily large window. He narrows his eyes at the view outside, seeing nothing but grass and trees.

Fuck it, he thinks. He's too hungover for this.

He steps inside the shower and sheds his clothes off, throwing them over the side. From the looks of it, it's one of those fancy showers that rains down; the entire section of the ceiling above him is a whole shower head itself. This thing alone can fit a group of people, let alone just one person. He's surrounded by black marble dark enough to show his reflection if he squints, patterned with fine, silver cracks. It's a pretty shower. A bit over the top though.

Wei Ying frowns at the contraption above him, and then towards these several faucets. Which one turns this thing on? He turns what he thinks is supposed to be the one to get it to start working—and gasps as freezing cold water is dumped onto his head.

Wei Ying jumps out of the way, pressing himself against the marble walls. Okay, he's got it to start working—now how can he get it to not give him hypothermia? He hurriedly turns another faucet and prays it's the option for the temperature.

Nope. The shower is now raining down like a fucking monsoon. Wei Ying stares at it with wide eyes, fearing for his life.

“Fuck this thing,” he mutters, fumbling along the wall for another faucet. This is ridiculous. He's hungover, cold, and naked. If he didn't care so much about his pride, he'd be screaming for Lan Zhan to fix his damn shower.

He gives up on the faucets and presses one of the buttons instead, using a little too much force. As Wei Ying stands there, drenched, frozen, and pissed off, the shower starts playing classical music on full volume.

“Oh my fucking god,” Wei Ying snaps, slamming his fist down on that same button. The classical music doesn't stop. It switches to dubstep.

At this point, he's not sure if it's the freezing water soaking him or he's actually started crying.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Wei Ying says to this monstrosity Lan Zhan calls a shower. He jabs several buttons, doing everything from increasing the volume to even switching on some flashing lights to accommodate with the dubstep music. This shower does everything apart from fucking heat up!

He throws his hands in the air. Is this a joke? Does this shower actually work? Who pays for this shit?! He screams one last time before admitting defeat. He'll just ask Lan Zhan how the fuck this thing works!

Grumbling to himself, he walks through the freezing monsoon and makes his way for the exit.

Then, something catches his eye. There, next to the shower's door, is a touch screen panel, with the clear options of changing the temperature.

Oh.

Wei Ying stares at it for a whole minute, still standing underneath the downpour of freezing cold water. He didn't see that. He'd been so focused on all the faucets that he didn't notice there was a panel right behind him. At this point, he has literally grown numb. Slowly, he raises a finger and chooses the temperature he wants. In an instant, the shower heats up.

It's as easy as that.

Oh.

He unclenches his fists and walks back to the centre. Wei Ying glares up at the shower, mentally throwing it every swear word known to man. He's hungover, cold, naked, and he wants to fight an inanimate object. Today is off to a great start.

At the very least, the shower feels good once you get it going. He begrudgingly turns the music and flashing lights off. Why you would even need those in the first place, he will never know. Wei Ying soaks himself under the water, closing his eyes. The tension in his muscles is washed away and he stands there for ten minutes, staring off into space. It takes a while for him to shake off his murderous intentions for the shower but he eventually lets his mind wander elsewhere.

He's always had this rule he stuck with throughout the years: Never stay over at someone else's house. Granted, he didn't have sex with Lan Zhan, but still, he shouldn't be here. He stopped caring about the significance of intimacy a long time ago. That, however, doesn't mean he's willing to get attached. Attachment is the one thing Wei Ying has been avoiding the most.

Nevertheless, he finds he doesn't care about that right now. He's got other things to be worrying about. Jiejie is still in hospital, deteriorating with each day. For all he knows, she could be...

Wei Ying can't bring himself to finish that train of thought. He grabs some shampoo and washes his hair. For the rest of the shower, he focuses on the water and nothing but the water. He doesn't want to think this morning.

When he is done, he uses one of Lan Zhan's spare towels and dries himself off. His head is still hurting but it no longer feels like an elephant has been dropped on him. A bear now, maybe. He wraps the towel around his waist and gathers his dirty clothes, eager to leave this demonic bathroom.

Wei Ying peeks a head out from the door, narrowing his eyes at Lan Zhan's bedroom. There's no one here; he's probably downstairs still cooking. He breathes a sigh of relief and steps out, immediately spotting the pile of clothes left for him on the bed.

He was only expecting a shirt and some pants. Of course, Lan Zhan outdoes himself and provides him with a whole outfit, including underwear and some socks. He's even provided Wei Ying some hair ties for his hair, in case he wants to put it up.

Before he realises it, he's smiling. The thought of Lan Zhan laying this out for him and neatly presenting it onto the bed is... oddly endearing.

The smile is wiped off his face when he puts on Lan Zhan's shirt. Lan Zhan isn't that much taller than he is, no, but it doesn't occur to Wei Ying he could be more... built. Wei Ying glares at his reflection, unhappy at how baggy this shirt looks on him. It doesn't help the sleeves are also too long. Lan Zhan's eagerness in providing him everything is now a blessing. If it weren't for a belt, Wei Ying is sure these pants would have fallen off him by now.

He checks his reflection again. In the end, he shrugs to himself. At least he looks better than he did last night. He's too lazy to do anything with his hair, only towel drying and quickly combing it with a brush. After he's done brushing his teeth, he finally deems himself presentable and leaves the bedroom.

He instantly recognises the unmistakable scent of congee coming from downstairs. His stomach rumbles and he quickens his steps, already finding the table laid out with all of the food. Lan Zhan is sitting down, sipping his coffee while waiting for him. Today, he's wearing a white V-neck sweater and grey trousers. Nothing special about that, although Lan Zhan's rolled the sleeves of his sweater up to his elbows, distracting Wei Ying for a few seconds because of how nice his arms look. It's annoying how he manages to pull off any outfit.

Lan Zhan's golden eyes lift up. Wei Ying stops, letting Lan Zhan's gaze travel up and down his body. He fidgets under his scrutiny, not knowing why he's looking at him like that. Does he look silly? It's because Lan Zhan's clothes are too big for him, isn't it? Wei Ying hasn't even bothered to dry his hair yet—he must look like a mess compared to the musician.

Lan Zhan is the first one to break eye contact. He takes another sip of his drink.

“Are you feeling better?” he asks.

Wei Ying almost tells him about the disaster that is his shower, then decides against it. He wants to keep some semblance of pride he has left, even if he has now formed a grudge against Lan Zhan's fancy bathroom. “A bit,” he says instead.

He sits opposite Lan Zhan at the table. It reminds him of that dinner they had a while ago, back when he vowed he didn't want anything to do with Lan Zhan. Now... well, he's not sure. It's difficult to think now. Not with everything going on.

Just eat, Wei Ying thinks. Maybe his common sense will come back to him once he's got a full stomach.

The congee tastes nice and reminds him a lot of what breakfast used to be like at the Jiang household. Jiejie always made this before the three of them left for school. Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu were too drowsy from sleep to argue; it was one of the rare times their house was actually peaceful. Once, Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng tried to cook their own version of congee because they missed their sister. It was going well—that is, until Wei Ying decided to dump half a handful of chilli powder into the mix. Suffice it to say, Jiang Cheng refused to eat the final product.

He sighs, shoving another spoonful into his mouth. Hearing this, Lan Zhan glances up at him.

Wei Ying keeps his eyes on the bowl, stirring what's left inside. Lan Zhan has barely said anything this morning. He half expected him to ask all sorts of questions, demanding why he felt the need to drink so much. Maybe he doesn't care.

That thought doesn't sit well with Wei Ying. He finishes the rest of the congee, wishing Lan Zhan would at least say something.

Unable to take it anymore, Wei Ying looks up. Lan Zhan is still staring. As soon as he catches sight of those golden eyes, he loses his nerve and averts his gaze away. Just last night, he threw himself onto this man and literally begged to be fucked. Of course Lan Zhan isn't going to talk to him! He's probably waiting for him to leave now!

“I'm sorry for last night. I don't know what came over me,” Wei Ying blurts out.

In the corner of his eyes, he sees Lan Zhan shake his head. “It is fine. You... remember everything?”

Wei Ying can do nothing to stop the blush spreading onto his cheeks. If only he could forget the memory of him climbing on top of Lan Zhan, forcing his lips on him. Fuck, he even tried to undress him, didn't he? It's a miracle Lan Zhan even let him stay after that.

“More or less,” he admits. “I was shameless last night, Lan Zhan, you didn't deserve that. I'm really sorry. It won't happen again.”

“I said it is fine, but you should not drink so much.”

Surprisingly, there's no anger in his voice. Relief spreads through Wei Ying, enough that he gathers the courage to stare at Lan Zhan again. Devoid of any emotions whatsoever, Lan Zhan's face is the same as usual. Wei Ying's eyes travel down to his lips. He can recall kissing Lan Zhan but he can't remember what it felt like...

Why is he even thinking about this?!

Wei Ying coughs quietly, scanning the house instead. It's eerily quiet.

“I'm guessing Sizhui's gone to school?”

“Hmm.”

“Don't you have work?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head.

Silence.

Wei Ying sips his coffee, counting down the seconds that pass between them. Is this what it feels like to live with Lan Zhan? Normally, he'll fill any silence in a room but it feels wrong to do that with what happened between them last night. He taps his fingers on the table, watching the musician from the corner of his eyes.

In the end, he can't take it anymore.

“Aren't you going to ask any questions?” he says.

“Only if you are ready to talk.”

Wei Ying frowns. He didn't expect that. Is he ready? Probably not. But this lack of talking is killing him; he'd rather things not be awkward between both of them.

“Go on then, ask,” Wei Ying insists, gesturing towards himself.

For a moment, Lan Zhan looks like he hesitates. He lets go of his cup of coffee, perfectly aligning it with the bowl in front of him.

“You were asking me what you were supposed to do, and that you had never meant for certain things to happen,” he says. “What did you mean by that?”

“Didn't I already tell you? My adopted parents died because of me... Jiejie is in hospital right now...” Wei Ying's frown deepens, remembering his encounter with Jiang Cheng. “Jin Ling was sent home early yesterday. I figured there was something wrong, so I went to Jiang Cheng's apartment to ask him what was happening.”

She's getting worse. The doctors don't know if she's going to make it by the end of the week. Is that what you want to hear?

Wei Ying grips the table. “I'm worried she doesn't have much time left.”

“What... is wrong with her?”

“I don't know. Jiang Cheng wouldn't tell me anything.”

Lan Zhan slowly nods. “Where is she?”

Wei Ying looks up, tilting his head. “Jiejie? She's in Ohio right now. Her husband admitted her to a private hospital there.”

Speaking of which, he should call Jin Zixuan and get some answers from him... How ironic it is that it's easier to speak to him now compared to Jiang Cheng. Back when they were kids, Wei Ying was always getting into fights with the older man. Luckily, Jin Zixuan has matured considerably ever since he got together with Jiejie.

Just then, the shrill noise of his phone makes him jump. He takes it out of his pocket, groaning at the sight of Wen Qing's photo.

“Fuck, it's Wen Qing,” he says, standing up. “Excuse me, I have a feeling she's about to yell at me.”

Lan Zhan nods. Bracing himself against Wen Qing's upcoming tirade, Wei Ying runs to another room. Lan Zhan doesn't need to witness this.

He takes a deep breath and answers the call.

“Wen Qing—”

“So you are alive!”

Wei Ying flinches. “I'm sorry, I never meant to—”

“A-Ning told me you got drunk. How much exactly did you drink?”

His words fall short. Lying to Wen Qing is useless; she's already been to his apartment and seen all of the empty bottles.

Wei Ying.”

“Just a few cans of beer... Some wine...” Wei Ying pauses, gulping. “And half a bottle of vodka.”

Her breath hitches from the other line. “Half a bottle?”

He squints. “Maybe a bit more.”

“Are you trying to kill yourself?!” she snaps, her voice rising several octaves higher. Then, she sighs. “Actually, don't answer that. We're not going through this again, Wei Ying. I'm not standing here and watching you ruin your life again.”

Wei Ying rubs his head, pacing around the room. He's glad this conversation isn't taking place face to face. It's bad enough having to listen to Wen Qing worry; he doesn't think he'd be able to take seeing her face either. He swallows the lump in his throat, his chest now filled with the heavy weight of guilt.

“I know, I know. I'm sorry, okay? I didn't even mean to drink that much, I just... I got emotional.”

She is quiet. Over the years he's known Wen Qing, she's only ever quiet if she's genuinely upset or angry. Wei Ying would prefer it if she is angry. He hates upsetting her.

“I threw away all the alcohol you had left,” she says after a while.

He stops pacing. “I guess I deserve that. I... I'm sorry. I really am.”

Wei Ying hears another sigh coming from her. His gaze flickers to the clock; it's just gone past twelve in the afternoon. She's likely calling him during her lunch break. Wen Qing is already busy enough as it is; the thought of her taking time out of her own breaks just to see if he's okay doesn't bode well with Wei Ying. Not for the first time today, the guilt inside him swells up.

“Where are you now?” Wen Qing asks.

“Lan Zhan's house...”

“That guy you went on a date with? Wait—no, you didn't...”

He quickly shakes his head, as if she can see him. “No, nothing happened between us. I think I tried to do something but he wouldn't have it.”

“Oh? But he let you stay the night?”

“Yes. He even let me have a shower this morning. And cooked me breakfast.”

Wen Qing lets out what sounds like an amused hmph! “He's nice. I like him. And I think he likes you too.”

Wei Ying scoffs. His cheeks heat up, much to his dismay. “What is this, high school?” he mumbles. “But yeah, he is nice...”

His brain betrays him again, playing back more memories. He refuses to dwell any more on their kiss, but he thinks back to how nice Lan Zhan's arms were around him. Although the dreams he had were far from pleasant, Lan Zhan's presence helped him forget them in an instant.

Stop it, Wei Ying thinks to himself. He shakes his head until it begins to pound again. His hangover is still killing him and these thoughts aren't helping either.

“So what happened anyway?” Wen Qing asks. “What was so bad that you decided to drink that much?”

The thought of having to tell her all about his fight with Jiang Cheng only makes his headache worse. Wei Ying suppresses the groan he wants to let out.

“I'll text you everything later. My head's killing me,” he says.

“That's what you get for drinking almost a whole bottle of vodka, you idiot.”

He smiles at her tone. That's more like the usual Wen Qing. “Love you too, goodbye.”

“Take care of yourself. Don't do anything stupid.”

She hangs up before he can tell her that doing stupid things is practically part of his existence. He places his phone back into his pocket, wondering what he should do now. Every time he moves, it literally feels like his head is splitting apart—but that's hangovers for you. He should be thankful he's not being sick anymore.

The sensible option would be to ask Lan Zhan to drive him back home where he can rest all day. That way, he won't have to disturb anyone either. Lan Zhan can go back to a peaceful life where he's not having a random drunk jump on him, and Wei Ying can return to being lonely. How depressing.

Wei Ying shuffles his feet. Does he really want to stay here all day? Should he? There's still the matter with Jiejie to sort out, but he knows he's not going to be able to face that now. At least not with this hangover. If he goes back home, he'll just sulk even more and probably do something stupid, as Wen Qing quotes it. He's not good with depressing thoughts; he'll try to distract himself and usually that will come in the form of either drinking or something equally reckless.

So, really, he should stay with Lan Zhan, right?

He doesn't even know what he's trying to justify. Wei Ying shrugs to himself and leaves the room, returning to where Lan Zhan is sat.

“So," he says, “she did yell at me.”

Lan Zhan nods.

Wei Ying wrings his hands together. Well, here goes nothing...

“Would it be too much trouble for you if I stayed here, at least until this hangover goes away?” he asks. “I feel like I've been stabbed in the head.”

The only change in Lan Zhan's face is that he blinks. There isn't a hint of surprise in his expression, and if there is then he's very good at hiding it.

“Stay as long as you need,” he says.

Wei Ying lets out a laugh. “Lan Zhan, don't say things you don't mean. What if I stay forever?”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm? What's that supposed to mean?”

Instead of answering him, the musician rises and begins to stack all of their bowls. Wei Ying hurries to help him.

“You are not well. Rest,” Lan Zhan says. “I will handle these.”

Wei Ying's hands fall limp by his side. “If you insist...”

He leaves Lan Zhan to do the washing up and makes his way to the living room instead. There's a sofa there that looks comfortable enough to lay on for the rest of the day, surrounded by plump cushions—and, oh look, it even has a blanket neatly folded for Wei Ying to use. He sits down and spreads the blanket over himself, smiling at the familiar scent of sandalwood. On the sides of the sofa are buttons that enable it to raise the ends, turning it into a makeshift bed.

Now this is much better than Lan Zhan's fancy bathroom. Wei Ying sinks down the sofa and snuggles into his blanket, grabbing a random cushion to hug. This thing is even comfier than his own bed back in his apartment. He'd happily fall asleep here.

“Your house is so nice, Lan Zhan—well, most of it. Your bathroom confused me earlier and I almost had a fight with your shower, but this sofa is nice. I don't know how you can deal with that shower every morning though, Lan Zhan. You've wasted money on that thing.” Wei Ying rambles on, glancing over his shoulder. He sees Lan Zhan walking towards him, every step making him look like a catwalk model.

“The shower?”

“Yes, the shower. All the options are so confusing!”

“Use the hot tub next time.”

“That thing's too much—wait, next time?” Wei Ying quickly looks away, sinking further down into the blanket. “A-Anyway, doesn't it get lonely here though? It's only you and Sizhui, isn't it?”

He quickly changes the subject, only because he doesn't want his treacherous mind to start running away with the idea of coming back to this place, especially if it's to use Lan Zhan's hot tub.

Lan Zhan leans against a pillar. “I am used to it.”

“Used to being lonely? That's not good.” Wei Ying pats the space next to him, beckoning the other man over. “Sit next to me, Lan Zhan. It's not fun talking with you across the room.”

Lan Zhan takes a seat on the other side of the sofa. He's so far away you would think Wei Ying's hangover is contagious.

“You can sit closer, you know...”

Lan Zhan inches a bit closer.

Wei Ying pouts. “Now you're starting to offend me.”

Seeing as Lan Zhan won't do it, Wei Ying takes the liberty of closing the distance and throwing the blanket over both of them. The blanket isn't very large, therefore he has to squeeze against Lan Zhan to fit under. He feels the other man stiffen beside him but Lan Zhan doesn't move away. Eventually, the musician relaxes, smoothing down the blanket over their laps and ridding it off any creases. His touch, even with the blanket over them, tickles.

Wei Ying turns to the large TV. “Do you have Netflix? Let's watch something.”

“Netflix?”

“Yeah, Netflix. You have it, don't you?”

Like a marble statue, Lan Zhan's expression is as stiff as ever.

“Or not,” Wei Ying says. “That's okay. I use Wen Ning's account so we can just log onto that.”

He notices Lan Zhan's eyebrows knitting together at the mention of Wen Ning's name.

“Something wrong?” Wei Ying asks. Lan Zhan barely reacts to anything, so he's starting to grasp onto any change on his face as a sign. “Do you have an account we can use?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Do what you must.”

Strange. His tone is quicker there, like he's forcing out the words... Or Wei Ying is looking into things too deeply.

“Okaaaaay, Lan Zhan, do you have a laptop? Please tell me you have a laptop.”

“Sizhui has one.”

Wei Ying nudges him with his elbow. “What about you?”

With him sat so close to Wei Ying, Lan Zhan's golden eyes are brighter than ever. It never occurred to the teacher before how pretty they are. He's in the middle of admiring them when Lan Zhan speaks.

“I have a typewriter.”

Wei Ying blinks. “Oh. Okay.”

“Use that?”

“You're kidding.”

All Lan Zhan does is frown.

Unable to hold it anymore, Wei Ying throws his head back and laughs. A typewriter? A typewriter? Who even has those anymore?

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying wheezes. “What... What is going on with your head? I have never met anyone who thinks you can use Netflix on a typewriter! Please tell me you're joking! You're joking, aren't you? I never thought you'd be the type to make jokes!”

He cracks open one eye, in time to see Lan Zhan throwing him the coldest scowl known to man. Not wanting to push his luck more than he already has, Wei Ying stops laughing.

“Don't look at me like that, Lan Zhan. Okay, okay, let's use Sizhui's laptop instead. Can you get it for me?”

Luckily, Lan Zhan's scowl disappears. He nods, getting up to retrieve his son's laptop. Once he's gone, Wei Ying lets out a few more chuckles at the idea of Lan Zhan attempting to use Netflix on a typewriter.

Huh, come to think of it, he hasn't laughed like this in a while... Part of him feels that he shouldn't be laughing with everything going on in his life, but it really is difficult to think when Lan Zhan is around. There's something about him that makes Wei Ying forget about all his troubles.

In another time, he'd feel guilty about this. Maybe, when he's back at home and all alone, he'll think to this moment and berate himself for being so selfish and carefree.

For now, he doesn't want to dwell too much. His laughter dies down eventually, although the smile on his face is hard to drop. He's glad when Lan Zhan comes back, carrying Sizhui's laptop under one arm.

Because Lan Zhan is clearly not an expert with technology, Wei Ying crawls out of the sofa to connect the TV and the laptop together. He logs into Wen Ning's account, sparing a few seconds to laugh at the fact Wen Ning was watching a documentary about pandas last night.

“This is my favourite movie, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says once he's picked something. He returns to his spot next to Lan Zhan. “You'll love it; it's got everything from romance, adventure, humour, everything.”

Lan Zhan says nothing, only nodding. The movie starts and music fills the large house, bringing it to life. Wei Ying sways in tune with it, singing along to the lyrics he knows. As expected, Lan Zhan is as emotionless as a spoon.

“Why is he green?” he asks.

Wei Ying turns back to the screen. Shrek has just appeared, scratching his butt, while All Star by Smash Mouth plays in the background. Lan Zhan makes a displeased noise when Shrek is shown naked, bathing in mud and gargling with it in the next scene. It only gets worse from here. By the time Shrek is farting at the swamp, Lan Zhan looks just about ready to leave. The movie hasn't even been going on for ten minutes yet.

“Stop judging Shrek,” Wei Ying says. “The message of this movie is not to judge others for their appearance. You have to look deeper inside Shrek, Lan Zhan. He has lots and lots of layers—like an onion. Get it?”

Lan Zhan gives him a suffering look.

“I'm only teasing. You're too easy to tease.” Wei Ying nudges him with his elbow, pointing back at the screen. “But I mean it when I say it's a good movie. Look, you're going to miss Prince Charming.”

There are no more complaints made about Shrek afterwards. Occasionally, there's a disgusted noise coming from Lan Zhan, but that only happens when Shrek does something unsightly like pick his nose or scratch his butt. Halfway through the movie, Lan Zhan stops making these noises, now used to Shrek's ghastly behaviour.

Wei Ying doesn't know when it happens. He ends up with his head on Lan Zhan's shoulder and one of Lan Zhan's arms around his waist. After some convincing by a more a daring part of his brain, he grabs Lan Zhan's hand and entwines their fingers together. His fingers are longer than Wei Ying's; calloused, but more graceful. That must come with being a musician.

Lan Zhan doesn't move, and neither does he. Smiling, Wei Ying squeezes Lan Zhan's hand, so gently that any normal person wouldn't even notice it, wouldn't even care.

His cheeks flush. Lan Zhan squeezes back, almost instantly. Wei Ying remains quiet, mentally screaming at his senses to stop freaking out over something so small. He's thirty-three years old and here he is, swooning over this. He won't bat an eyelash when it comes to having sex with strangers, but he'll blush like some virgin holding Lan Zhan's hand? How is this possible?

Wei Ying chews his bottom lip. It's hard to focus on the rest of the movie now, not when he's too busy staring at how nicely his hand fits into Lan Zhan's.

 

- x -

 

Jiang Cheng taps his feet against the floor, glaring at the door his nephew is supposed to have gone through ten minutes ago.

“A-Ling, hurry the fuck up or else we'll miss our flight!” Jiang Cheng yells into his apartment.

Right on cue, Jin Ling leaves the bedroom, tugging a gigantic suitcase with him. The suitcase crashes into several of Jiang Cheng's furniture, including a shelf that dangerously sways, knocking off a few books onto the floor. Jin Ling doesn't give a shit though, continuing to barrel through the apartment and whacking everything in sight with that unnecessarily large suitcase. You'd think they were leaving for a year and not just a week.

“The jet belongs to Dad,” Jin Ling grumbles. “It's not going to go off without us, Uncle.”

Jiang Cheng's eye twitches. “I said hurry the fuck up!”

His nephew grumbles some more but luckily keeps the rest of his sassy remarks to himself. As Jin Ling struggles to get out the apartment, Jiang Cheng looks around the corridor. It's empty now with everyone having gone to work. Too empty.

Unable to help himself, he turns towards Xichen's door.

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. Even with all the problems he has right now, he hasn't been able to forget the way the librarian reacted yesterday. He hadn't meant to say all of those things to him—he just got angry. As soon as the words left his mouth, Xichen acted as if Jiang Cheng stabbed him through the chest. He left before Jiang Cheng could even think of apologising.

“He's probably at work right now, Uncle,” Jin Ling says, finally emerging from the apartment.

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at him.

Jin Ling nods at Xichen's door. “Lan-guang. He's at work right now, isn't he?”

“I don't give a shit about him. Why are you telling me that?”

Pursing his lips, Jin Ling fiddles with the handle of his suitcase. Jiang Cheng doesn't miss the way he rolls his eyes. The urge to smack him is rising.

“Well, you were looking at his door... I heard you two arguing yesterday so I thought you might want to apologise.”

Jiang Cheng glares at him, fists clenching. He resists smacking some sense into his nephew and directs all of his frustration into angrily locking his apartment instead.

“Mind your own business!” he snaps. “Why should I apologise when it was his fault for prying in the first place? I told you to hurry up!”

He walks off, not bothering to wait for Jin Ling at all.

“This suitcase is heavy!” Jin Ling complains from behind him. Like the caring uncle he is, Jiang Cheng ignores his struggles and walks faster. That'll teach that brat.

His plans of leaving Jin Ling to catch up to him are thwarted when his phone rings. Jiang Cheng answers it, not bothering to check who's calling him now.

What is it?” he hisses.

“Good morning to you too.”

Jin Zixuan. Now his mood plummets even more. Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath and attempts to calm his voice down.

“Zixuan. How is she?”

He hears a sigh. “Still the same. They're trying to treat her pneumonia but she's getting weaker.”

Jin Zixuan already explained everything yesterday. Although A-Jie was on the path to recovery, she caught pneumonia from being in the hospital for so long. To think, before this, she managed to leave her bed a few times and the doctor even said she could leave in a few months if she continued to show positive signs. Why did this have to happen out of nowhere?

“She'll fight through it. She always does,” Jiang Cheng says. The thought of his sister not managing to make it isn't something he's willing to accept. She will make it through this.

“Are you bringing him with you?” Jin Zixuan asks all of a sudden.

Jiang Cheng immediately knows who he's talking about. He grips the phone tighter, tempted to end this call already. Behind him, Jin Ling has finally caught up. He pants and leans against the suitcase, complaining under his breath.

“I told you to bring Wei Ying,” Jin Zixuan says when Jiang Cheng doesn't respond. “We talked about this yesterday.”

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “Why does he need to come? We don't need him.”

You might not, but your sister asked for him. This isn't about you, Jiang Cheng. She wants to see him.”

He hates it whenever Jin Zixuan brings Sis up. He hates it even more that he is right.

It's become normal for him and Wei Ying to fight whenever they see each other. As soon as he sees his face, Jiang Cheng is hit with a multitude of emotions he can't understand; hatred, frustration, grief, and—as much as he hates to admit it—loss. He doesn't want to know why it hurts him that he can never have his old relationship with Wei Ying again, so Jiang Cheng turns to the only emotion he can understand; anger.

He's angry it's turned out this way, and he's angry Wei Ying has done nothing but run away. Does he not care?

Does it matter?

I care! I've always cared!

No, you don't, Jiang Cheng thinks. Wei Ying was just saying that. If he cared, he would have never left, he would have stayed by his side when he was mourning their parents, when he was worried sick about A-Jie, unable to sleep every night at the thought of losing another member of his family. If he cared, Wei Ying would have done something instead of getting drunk to the point that Jiang Cheng barely even knew him anymore.

“It's too late now,” Jiang Cheng says.

“What do you mean?”

“We fought yesterday, okay?”

Again, he hears a sigh coming from Jin Zixuan. It sounds more impatient than the last, and he can imagine the arrogant man glaring from wherever he is back in America.

“It's been over ten years.”

“She's your wife. How can you not hate him?”

“Don't get me wrong. There are days where I wish we never bothered to invite him to the wedding, then maybe she would have...” Jin Zixuan trails off, the frustration in his voice seeping through. “It doesn't matter. She wanted him there, and she wants him here now. You can blame him all you want but he never meant to push her down those stairs.”

“If he had never started drinking at the banquet—”

“I'm not arguing about this with you right now,” Jin Zixuan interrupts. There's an edge to his voice that reminds Jiang Cheng of the times he and Wei Ying used to fight him when they were children. “Same as I'm not letting your stupid war with Wei Ying stop A-Li from seeing him.”

Before he knows it, Jin Zixuan has hung up on him. Jiang Cheng is so shocked at his sudden outburst that he stares wide-eyed at his screen for a few seconds. He lets out a frustrated noise, shoving his phone back into his pocket.

“Fucking bastard!” he mutters.

“Was that my dad?” Jin Ling asks.

“Yes. Fuck him.”

His nephew frowns, standing up straighter. “Why was he calling? Is Mom okay?”

“She's fine, don't worry. Your dad was just being annoying. Come on, let's go. We've wasted enough time.”

Jiang Cheng walks off again. All he wants is to arrive in America and be by his sister's side. He doesn't want to think about Wei Ying. He never knows what to think when it comes to Wei Ying.

His gaze travels outside, squinting at the sunlight. Lan Xichen's voice is stuck in his head; the words he said yesterday has been unable to leave him.

Cherish all the time you have with the people you care about.

Jiang Cheng snapped at him for saying that. He didn't like the way his heart agreed with the sentiment, and he hated that, not only did he think of his sister, he also thought of Wei Ying. 

Pathetic. Jiang Cheng is so pathetic.

He pushes aside all of these thoughts and leaves the apartment block. Sunlight glares down at him although the chill of the wind bites at his skin. He wraps his coat tighter around himself and waits for Jin Ling to join his side.

Jin Zixuan had asked the impossible and told him to bring Wei Ying with them to America. Jiang Cheng can't imagine what it would have been like if he had Wei Ying by his side now. Would they talk? Argue? Would it have been worth it? He refused to ask Wei Ying for obvious reasons, but deep down he knows it's also because he's not ready to properly face him.

Turns out Wei Ying isn't the only one running away after all.

Jiang Cheng sighs. He gazes up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the blinding rays. He doesn't know what Wei Ying is doing right now, and he's quick to think he doesn't care. At the end of the day, wherever he is, he isn't by Jiang Cheng's side.

Even after all these years, that thought still manages to jab his chest.

It doesn't matter, he thinks.

But it does. And he hates that the most.

 

- x -

 

Wei Ying falls asleep halfway through the movie. He must have been more tired than he realised and Lan Zhan is far, far too comfortable. When he opens his eyes again, the TV has been switched off and he's now almost lying on top of the musician, safely wrapped around his arms. Wei Ying lets out a content noise and rubs his eyes, drowsily looking around. He should sit up and untangle himself... later. He'll do that later.

“How... How long was I asleep for?” he asks, yawning.

“Half an hour.” Lan Zhan's voice sounds so nice being this close to him.

Wei Ying closes his eyes again, listening to the musician's steady pulse. He feels one of Lan Zhan's hands rub his back, tempting him to fall back asleep.

“Only that...? It feels like I've been sleeping all day...”

“Rest some more.”

“Maybe...” Wei Ying yawns. “I'm not crushing you, am I? Should I move?”

“No,” Lan Zhan says. His fingers bury themselves into Wei Ying's hair, pressing him closer to his chest. Wei Ying is only too happy to remain where he is. “Rest.”

With the way Lan Zhan is stroking his hair and rubbing his scalp, Wei Ying really will fall back asleep. He threads his fingers through Wei Ying's strands as if he's glass; every touch, every stroke, is gentle and light. It's nothing like the rush Wei Ying used to be addicted to; that feeling of skin against skin, unknown fingers digging into his waist and leaving bruises by the next morning. No, Lan Zhan chases away the weight in his chest, replacing it with a contentment he hasn't felt in years. As he listens to the gentle lull of the musician's breaths, Wei Ying can't even find the energy to feel guilty about this moment of peace.

He wraps his arms around Lan Zhan's neck and breathes in the scent of sandalwood.

“This is nice, Lan Zhan,” he admits. “I like this.”

Lan Zhan's arms tighten around him; not so much that it feels like he's being crushed, but enough for Wei Ying's heart to skip a beat.

He could stay like this forever. He wouldn't mind staying like this forever.

Unfortunately, his phone has other plans. It rings, interrupting the peaceful silence between the two of them. Wei Ying whines, slowly untangling himself from Lan Zhan's welcoming arms and fishing his phone out with a scowl. As soon as he sees who's calling him, the scowl drops, replaced with a million questions racing through his head.

“What is wrong?” Lan Zhan asks.

“Nothing,” Wei Ying says. “Can I take this call?”

Lan Zhan nods. Reluctantly, Wei Ying leaves him, rushing off into one of the other rooms.

It's the rabbit room, he realises as he steps inside. The sight of the small rabbits hopping around brings a smile to his lips, one that goes away when he stares back at his phone.

With a deep breath, he answers it.

“Hello?”

“Wei Ying, Jiang Cheng told me you two had a fight.”

Jin Zixuan doesn't even bother with introductions; he goes right into it. It takes a while for Wei Ying to catch up. Jiang Cheng spoke to him? Why would he talk about Wei Ying?

“Did he?”

“I take it you know about A-Li's condition.”

Wei Ying walks further into the room, watching the small bunnies jumping around. He forces himself to think back to his argument with Jiang Cheng.

“He said that she was deteriorating. Is she... Is she okay?”

He hears Jin Zixuan inhaling before he speaks. He sounds tired; isn't it late there in Ohio? Why is he still awake?

“She caught pneumonia at the hospital. The doctors are trying to treat it but she's getting worse by the day.”

Wei Ying has no idea what to say to that. Whenever he thinks of Jiejie, he thinks of her cooking in the kitchen, telling him off for trying to eat the ingredients before she's finished with them. He doesn't think of her laying in a hospital bed, connected to a ventilator, fighting for her life.

“I'm calling you because she wants you here.”

He blinks, not expecting to hear those words at all.

“What?”

“A-Li says she wants to see you,” Jin Zixuan says slowly for him to let that sentence sink in. “She wants to see all of us together.”

Wei Ying's throat suddenly feels dry. “I...”

“Don't tell me that you can't.”

Just like that, Jin Zixuan's voice starts to rise. Old habits die hard and Wei Ying has to clench his fists to stop himself from snapping back.

“Wei Ying, stop running away,” he continues. “What are you going to do if she... if she...”

“How am I even going to get there?” Wei Ying asks. He doesn't want Jin Zixuan to finish that sentence.

“I've got plenty of private jets back in Lanling. I can get my men to fly you over here tomorrow.”

So typical of the Jins. If Jin Zixuan is offering him one of his private jets then he must really be desperate to get Wei Ying to come to America.

“Does Jiang Cheng know you want me there?”

“I asked him to tell you.”

A bitter smile spreads onto Wei Ying's lips. “I think he must have forgotten while he was screaming about how much he hated me.”

Jin Zixuan lets out a tired sigh.

“I'll have to think about it,” Wei Ying tells him.

“What the fuck do you mean think about it—”

“I'll call you back later today. This is a lot to take in, okay?”

There's a frustrated scoff coming from the other side. “Wei Ying. This could be your only chance to fix things. If you really love your family so much, you'd do whatever it takes to be there for them.”

As much as Wei Ying wants to hate Jin Zixuan, he's right. Deep down, it's always baffled him how Jin Zixuan manages to juggle his business and visits to Jiejie. It isn't as if he has an easy job either; along with his father, he helps with running their family car company. Mo Xuanyu once told Wei Ying that Jin Zixuan cannot afford a break, not even when he returns back to the country. When he's here, he has to meet with other businessmen, as well as help calculate their shares. On top of that, he still tries to spend as much time as he can with Jin Ling.

It all sounds too much for one person. Yet, here he is, doing just that for the past decade or so.

Meanwhile, Wei Ying has done nothing but avoid reality.

He clutches his head. His headache is returning.

“I'll call you back,” Wei Ying says again. “Just let me think for a bit, please.”

He hangs up, finally releasing the breath he's been holding in. Sighing, Wei Ying squats down to stroke the rabbits gathering by his feet.

Jiejie wants him to go to America... She wants to see him.

Actually going there isn't going to be a problem; Jin Zixuan is offering a free flight, and Wei Ying knows Shen Yuan will understand if he can't go to work for a few days because of Jiejie. Although strict, Shen Yuan has a good heart and has always tried to encourage him along a better path.

The only problem lies with him. Can Wei Ying do it?

Wei Ying quickly stands up, scaring the rabbits away. He walks back to the living room where Lan Zhan is waiting for him on the sofa, eyes following every step Wei Ying takes.

“What is wrong?” Lan Zhan asks.

Tired, Wei Ying sits back down. He doesn't allow himself to return into Lan Zhan's arms.

“My sister's husband just called. He's asking me to go to America for her tomorrow. I haven't been in America in years...” His eyebrows knit together as he's hit with unpleasant memories. “Last time I was there, Lan Zhan, I... I didn't have a good time.”

He clutches his head, willing the images of his past to leave him alone. No matter how much he tries, he sees the dark streets he frequented, the clubs that stank of sweat and sex. He sees the hospital Jiejie is in, the looming entrance he ran away from.

“I can't say no to Jiejie,” Wei Ying mutters.

“Then go,” Lan Zhan says.

Easier said than done.

His time in America was when his self worth hit rock bottom. Wei Ying stopped caring about anything else and only sought out to distract himself with alcohol and sex. Thinking back to it now, he hates that side to him, and he hates how much time he's wasted because of it. He'll never return to that lifestyle again, but the thought of being back there in those same streets, seeing all the places he stumbled in drunk, hooking arms with some stranger whose face he'll forget the next morning... The thought makes him sick.

Seeing Jiejie again, when he's changed so much since the last time he was with her, also makes him sick. Will she even recognise him?

Wei Ying looks up, meeting Lan Zhan's golden eyes.

“I'm scared,” he admits. “I don't know how to face her.”

Lan Zhan's lips part. He says nothing at first and it's even more difficult to guess what sort of emotion is playing on his face. The seconds pass and, still, there is silence. Lan Zhan's hand reaches for his, squeezing slightly.

“You love your sister,” he says softly. “If you love someone, you... try to stay with them as much as you can.”

But what if my love has only ever given everyone pain?

His parents were killed, stolen from his life when he was too young to even understand the concept of death. Every single day of living with the Jiangs was a constant reminder that Aunt Yu hated him, that he ruined their family just by being there. And she was right; he'd torn apart Jiang Cheng's family until there's now nothing but shreds to piece it back together.

How can he face them? How can he be sure he won't ruin anything else?

“Will you be going alone?” Lan Zhan asks. His thumb strokes the back of Wei Ying's hand.

“I suppose I'll have to,” Wei Ying says.

“I will go with you.”

Wei Ying's eyes widen. “Why would you do that?”

Lan Zhan looks down at their entwined hands. “So you will not be alone.”

Why...? Wei Ying can't understand why Lan Zhan would go to such lengths for someone like him. Is he so nice, or is Wei Ying so pathetic?

“Lan Zhan, do you think I'll start drinking again if I'm left alone? Don't worry, I've learnt my lesson. My head is killing me right now, I'm in no rush to drink again.”

He makes a move to pull his hand away but Lan Zhan only squeezes it. Shocked, Wei Ying stays still, searching the musician's face for any answers. He finds none; all he sees are burning golden eyes.

“Not that. If you are scared... It will help if someone is supporting you.”

“You don't need to do that. Thank you for the offer, but I've troubled you enough."

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No trouble.”

He still won't let go. Why is he so insistent on staying?

Wei Ying has gotten used to being alone. His fear of hurting those he loved has isolated him from others, only choosing to remain at a distance. It's been so many years... He thought he could stay like this; that he'd be happy by himself as long as he didn't drag anyone down with him. He's fine with staying in his rundown apartment, living a life that provided him nothing but repetitive days and a grey future. He's long stopped asking for anything, or anyone else.

It's always been like this, he thinks.

He stands, surrounded by flames and corpses, listening to the screams demanding for his head. There's no one else left and he's too tired to care. Grief claws at his heart; the unbearable weight that he's truly alone, that everyone's gone because of him. There's no one left in this world who will mourn him when he is finally dead.

The flames rise higher. He hears the approaching army coming to end his life, led by the very man he once thought was his brother.

He smiles. It's all so fitting. He deserves this.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying blinks, shivering. Lan Zhan squeezes his hand again, reminding him he is here. The panic that threatens to bubble inside him dies down; Lan Zhan's presence is too calming—even with the strange flashbacks he receives out of nowhere.

Are they flashbacks? Or hallucinations?

He wants to tell Lan Zhan about it but this is all too much for one day. As if all energy drains out of him, Wei Ying falls forward into Lan Zhan's chest, resting his head on his shoulder. He closes his eyes, sighing.

“I will go with you,” Lan Zhan says again.

Wei Ying can't bring himself to deny him anymore.

“Are you sure? What about Sizhui? And your job?”

“My brother can look after him and I can reschedule any classes I may miss.”

“Are you really, really sure?”

Lan Zhan tucks his hair behind his ear, smoothing down the strands that refuse to stay in place. “Wei Ying, I would not offer if I was unsure.”

There is a significant change in the pace of Lan Zhan's heartbeat. It's nice; even with his expressions rarely shown, it makes Wei Ying happy to know he is still human. Wei Ying's own pulse is racing too; at the thought of actually accepting Jin Zixuan's offer, and at the thought that Lan Zhan doesn't want him to be alone.

“Okay,” he says, at last.

He sits up, smiling at the surprise now evident in Lan Zhan's eyes.

“I'll have to ask Jin Zixuan first... but okay.”

Lan Zhan nods.

Nauseous with fear and anxiety, Wei Ying forces himself to stand. He leaves the room, playing the words he'll say to Jin Zixuan over and over in his head. He'll see Jiejie again. He'll go to America and he'll see her. He'll apologise and... and...

He's not sure. He doesn't know what he's going to do.

But, surely, this is better than doing nothing.

Wei Ying has no idea what will happen in the future; all he knows is that he is tired of everyday being the same disappointment. Seeing Jiejie again is the first step. He will worry about everything else when the time comes.

 

- x -

 

Wangji watches as Wei Ying leaves to call Jin Zixuan. He did not expect Wei Ying to agree to his offer; over the years and in this lifetime, Wei Ying has been insistent that he wishes to remain alone. He has always been eager to shoulder the burden of others, thinking his heart is strong enough for this lonely path. Wangji can do nothing but follow him, stepping in to catch Wei Ying whenever he falls.

He looks down at his hand, still feeling the ghost of Wei Ying's touch. Around him, his home is enveloped in the scent of lotus flowers and mint. It has only been a few hours and, already, Wei Ying has left an imprint he will never be able to forget. Wangji takes a deep breath, committing everything to memory.

Wei Ying told him his sister is in America. Jiang Yanli has managed to survive death in this lifetime, just barely. Wangji is not sure if she has much time left, though he knows for certain that Wei Ying's state will only deteriorate if he were to lose his sister. Jiang Yanli had been the catalyst that caused Wei Ying to finally snap in his previous life. After that, he destroyed himself, ignoring all of Wangji's desperate pleas.

Blue energy gathers at Wangji's fingertips, dancing along his jade skin. It is cool to the touch, crackling into the air like fine dust. It dissipates now, unseen to the human eye; Wangji can still feel its energy around him, the familiar warmth of life it has gathered for all these endless years.

If Jiang Yanli dies, history will be repeated. Wei Ying will destroy himself once again.

Wangji will not lose him for a second time. He cannot.

The sound of footsteps alert him. He closes his fist and all of the spirit energy dancing around him fades into nothing.

“It's sorted then,” Wei Ying says. “We're going to Ohio tomorrow.”

Wangji nods, standing up. He meets Wei Ying before he reaches the sofa, admiring the small smile now playing on his lips. It is nice to see him smiling again. While it is nothing like the large grins Wei Ying used to tease Wangji with as a teenager, these fleeting smiles he has given today are enough to remind him why he fell in love in the first place.

Wei Ying opens his mouth, pausing for a long while. He looks like he is struggling to find something to say; his eyes flicker to the ceiling, nibbling at his bottom lip in thought. Wangji watches him, endeared, memorising every emotion that animates his face.

“Ah, I want to thank you, Lan Zhan...” Wei Ying says. The smile on his face widens, although it is shy. Wangji has never seen Wei Ying like this before.

“You do not have to thank me,” Wangji assures.

Wei Ying shakes his head, releasing an exaggerated sigh. He places his hands on Wangji's shoulders and quickly leans in. Wangji's heart stops at the feeling of soft lips pressing against his cheek.

It is over too soon. Wei Ying pulls back and there is a flush on his own cheeks, a nervous laugh that escapes him. Frozen on the spot, Wangji has to summon every ounce of self control he has to stop himself from grabbing Wei Ying and kissing him senseless.

“Shrek,” Wei Ying says out of nowhere, avoiding his gaze.

Wangji blinks. “Shrek?”

“Yes, we still have three movies of Shrek to go through.”

It is now Wangji's turn to shake his head. Amused, he watches Wei Ying diving back onto the sofa, grabbing the remote. He pats the space next to him with a grin and Wangji does not hesitate to join his side, pulling him to his chest again.

Although there is a fire inside him that burns only for this man, Wangji is willing to wait. He has waited over two thousand years already; he will wait a thousand more if he has to, just as long as Wei Ying is happy.

Nevertheless, that does not mean he approves of Wei Ying's choice in entertainment. Wangji suffers through an entire afternoon of watching this green oaf, with only the sound of Wei Ying's laughter to spur him on to finish the entire saga.

 

 

Chapter Text

Their flight to Ohio is early; something which Wei Ying has clearly not prepared for. Wangji takes in his crumpled clothes, the drowsy scowl on his face, and the fact his hair is sticking up in several directions all at once. Compared to some flights Wangji has had over the years, eight AM is not too bothersome, but Wei Ying's eyelids are drooping and he is yawning non-stop. It should not be a surprise to see, that even in this life, Wei Ying is still not a morning person.

Once they enter the private jet, the scowl on Wei Ying's face drops. His eyes boggle at their surroundings, standing frozen on the same spot for several minutes that Wangji begins to think he is in shock.

“So typical of the Jins to own something like this,” Wei Ying mutters. He then runs off to explore the jet, leaving Wangji by the entrance.

Wangji watches him go, sighing when Wei Ying almost runs into a lampshade. Alone, Wangji allows himself to take in the cabin he is in. It is something you would expect from the Jin family; overly extravagant and gaudy. The interior itself is lavished in gold and white, reminding him of the Lanling Jin Sect's robes many, many years ago. Hanging from the ceiling is a gleaming chandelier; Wangji would not be surprised if it was made out of real diamonds and gold, considering how much the Jins like to show off. There is a white sofa running along one side of the jet and a large plasma TV on the opposite wall, playing a movie of some sort. Thankfully, it is not Shrek.

In one corner is a bar with an array of wine bottles behind its counter; a lady wearing a golden dress is already there, waiting to serve. She bows to Wangji, smiling when he passes her. As he walks further, he spots a table large enough for two, overlooking a wide window clearly designed for a romantic ambience once they set off flying. He frowns at the vase of roses on the table, stroking the petals before entering the next cabin.

Wangji almost fails to see Wei Ying. He hears a faint chuckle, spotting him nestled in the large bed at the centre of the room. Once he has been seen, he pops out of the blankets.

“I know the Jins are rich but this is ridiculous,” Wei Ying says, although it looks like he is enjoying the bed. “Lan Zhan, have you ever been on a private jet like this?”

Wangji shakes his head. With the money he and Xichen have, they could buy a private jet of their own but doing so will only attract unneeded attention.

Yawning, Wei Ying stretches on the bed. He has taken off his coat now, and as usual he wears a black turtle-neck jumper with those jeans that Wangji deems are far too tight. Over the months he has seen him, Wangji has noticed Wei Ying likes to wear jumpers, mostly baggy; pairing them with the most form-fitting jeans he has ever seen in his long life. It is both a blessing and a curse. Wei Ying looks wonderful, as he always does, but watching him lay around in bed with that outfit is almost too much for Wangji. It is even worse when Wei Ying rolls to one side, causing the jumper to ride up and expose his stomach for a brief second.

Wangji looks away, forcing himself to study the details of a nearby painting.

“I'm tired, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines. “This bed is so comfy...”

Refusing to look at him, Wangji turns back to the main cabin. “We will depart soon. You should sit down.”

He leaves, hearing the sound of Wei Ying's footsteps shortly following him.

Both of them sit down, waiting for the jet to depart. Wei Ying is beside him, already laying his head on Wangji's shoulder as he had done yesterday. It is still taking Wangji a while to get used to all of this; even before Wei Ying died, he was more prone to pushing Wangji away rather than welcoming him. His time as the Yiling Patriarch only caused a rift between them that grew as the years passed. Wangji will never forget that Wei Ying's last words to him were to tell him to get lost. How ironic that was one of the first phrases Wangji himself said to Wei Ying.

He had taken for granted Wei Ying's affection before. He will not do that again.

Wangji wraps an arm around Wei Ying's waist, his heart hammering under his ribs the moment Wei Ying leans closer. They remain like that, even as the jet is taking off; Wei Ying's eyes are closed, one hand resting on Wangji's chest. The view of the country underneath them is lovely in this weather, though Wangji keeps his eyes on Wei Ying the whole time.

“Have you ever been to America, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks out of nowhere.

It takes Wangji a while to revisit all of the countries he has travelled to. He has definitely been to America before. It is remembering when that is the problem.

He nods.

“Oh really? When?”

“A while ago. Too long.”

Wei Ying cranes his head to look up at him. “Did you like it? Where did you go?”

The last time he was in America... It cannot have been in these past two centuries. He did not stay there for too long; roughly only twenty years as far as he can remember. Because they had to be careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves, Wangji and Xichen spent a lot of their lives isolated and in hiding, limiting their interactions with everyone and disclosing as little information about themselves as possible. It was an empty existence, one that was necessary to survive—even if both of them did not care for their lives.

Even so, there is one memory in America that stands out to Wangji.

“It was nothing special,” he says. “I remember... a circus in California.”

It was some time after the Industrial Revolution, around 1880. Men wore fitted tailcoats and ruffled muslin shirts, styling their hair with wax and adorning them with hats. Wangji only remembers because he hated how tight the clothes felt on him. It was his first time travelling to the West, and the differences he found in America made him want to return home. Xichen also did not accompany him, choosing to travel by himself instead.

Alone and already despising the new environment, Wangji focused on the same goal he had been chasing for endless years: finding Wei Ying. If Wei Ying was nowhere to be found back home, then perhaps he would be hiding at the opposite side of the world.

His search led him to many odd places: bustling town centres where the air was thick with smog; dark alleyways roaming with prostitutes and thieves whose eyes never left him; the wilderness of a forest where he thought he heard the faint sound of a flute, only to find it was nothing but his tired imagination. Despite everything, the oddest place was a circus he stumbled upon in the middle of the night.

Wei Ying would have enjoyed the bright lights and loud music, the dozens of people dressed in extravagant costumes. Considering his phobia of dogs, Wangji wondered if he would have been scared of the tigers and lions too; even he was surprised to see them being used for performances at first. He had never witnessed such pure chaos. In the circus, there were no rules; only the goal to entertain and to shock.

But he did not come to the circus to enjoy the shows. At first, he came for the simple reason of finding Wei Ying. As expected, he was not there among the cheering crowds, or even the performers. While the circus was packed with lively faces, Wangji knew he would have spotted Wei Ying from a mile away. He would have known.

Wangji stayed for the fortune teller. He had heard the crowds talking about a beautiful woman who spoke of unknown, impossible things, revealing information about themselves they never dared to tell anyone. Wangji did not believe it; circuses were famous for fooling their audiences—but that did not mean he was not desperate.

And so, he sought out this mysterious fortune teller.

To say he was surprised was an understatement. The mysterious fortune teller was no fake; she was an immortal, just like him. She greeted him with a smile, as if they had known each other all their lives.

“Hanguang-Jun, I was beginning to wonder if you were going to visit or not,” she said.

Her irises were like a void; completely black and endless. The more Wangji stared at her, the more he felt time disintegrating around them. She had hair as black as her eyes, falling in inky waves down to her waist; and her skin was a pale and sharp contrast, as colourless as the full moon during that evening.

He had never seen her before. She was dressed entirely in white; if Wangji did not sense the spiritual energy illuminating in this tent, he would have mistaken her for a ghost.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Her lips spread into a smile. “Don't you want to ask something else?”

She was an immortal much older than him. Much, much older. Wangji wondered why she bothered to stay here with the humans. Surely, with her power, she could ascend to the heavens?

The smile she had on her face did little to reassure Wangji. He did not want to show weakness in asking her the question that threatened to scream out, begging for an answer.

But he was weak, and Wei Ying mattered more than his pride.

“Where is he? Where is Wei Wuxian?” he asked. Will I ever see him again?

The immortal's eyes softened and she gave a soft sigh. Wangji was reminded of his own mother; it was the same look she gave him whenever he asked if they could visit her again.

As he grew up, he learnt not to ask impossible questions. Wei Ying was different. Wangji refused to make him impossible.

Rather than answering his question, the immortal answered his thoughts.

“You want to see him again,” she said, her voice dancing around the tent. “That will depend on whether he wants to be found.”

Wangji did not understand what that meant—or rather, he did; he just did not want to. If Wei Ying's soul refused to return, then what else could he do? Why was he still waiting for him?

For many years, he asked himself that question; and yet, for all those years, he still waited for Wei Ying. There was nothing else left for him but to wait.

“So,” Wei Ying says, “you met a fortune teller at a circus... Did you ask them anything, Lan Zhan?”

Wangji returns his gaze to Wei Ying. That night at the circus was two centuries ago, back when he dreaded he would never see Wei Ying again. Now, as Wei Ying clings to his arm and fills this jet with the scent of lotus blooms, Wangji is glad he never gave up.

“One question,” he replies.

“What was it? Don't people usually ask about their true love or something? Did she tell you you'll meet them in the distant future?” Wei Ying laughs.

“Close.”

The laughter dies, replaced by a small pout. Wei Ying shakes his arm.

“Are you not going to tell me? That's mean, Lan Zhan.”

“Hmm.”

Wangji expects Wei Ying to throw a barrage of questions his way. He has never been one to give up, especially when he is trying to pester something out of someone. To his surprise, Wei Ying falls silent, the grip on Wangji's arm loosening.

“Have you ever been in love?” he asks out of nowhere.

Wangji's eyebrows furrow. He looks down, only to find Wei Ying's gaze is not on him. He is fiddling with the sleeve of his jumper, twisting and pulling it over his hand.

“Yes,” Wangji says without hesitation.

Wei Ying blinks, a frown tugging at his eyebrows. “Oh. Huh. Did it not work out?"

You did not love me back. You would not accept my love. You died.

“I have never told them,” Wangji says. The conversation makes him feel like he is treading on eggshells; one wrong word and Wei Ying will know everything.

Oh... That sucks.”

“What... about you?”

Wangji holds his breath, despising himself for asking such a question. When Wei Ying shakes his head, he despises himself even more for feeling relief. Wei Ying deserves to be loved but Wangji's selfishness is a strong emotion that wins over him.

“No. Not yet. Are... Are you still...” Wei Ying turns to Wangji; the frown on his face deepens before he lets out a sigh. “Never mind.”

“Hm?”

Wei Ying shakes his head for the second time. “Anyway, I'm tired.”

The change in topic is strange. Wangji decides not to pursue it.

“Sleep,” he says.

“Maybe... Oh, wait. I want to use that fancy bed!” Wei Ying stands up all of a sudden, grabbing his hand.

Wangji allows himself to get dragged to the next cabin. The implications of being led into a room with a bed is not entirely lost on him. For the sake of his own sanity, he ignores whatever his brain is trying to conjure and desperately recites the Cloud Recesses' four thousand and nineteen rules in his head.

Wei Ying lets go of his hand, diving first into the bed. As he makes himself comfortable, Wangji takes a seat by the desk.

“You know, Lan Zhan, I never thought that private jets could have beds in them. Wouldn't you fall off it once the plane lands?”

“Sit down when the plane is landing,” Wangji says, watching the clouds outside.

“Speaking of which, why are you sitting there?”

Sighing, Wangji turns to Wei Ying just in time as a pillow is thrown at him. It hits his shoulder and rolls onto the floor.

“Sit here, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, patting the space next to him on the bed.

Wangji slowly retrieves the pillow, running his hands over it in case it has picked up any dust from the floor. He has no intentions of denying Wei Ying, even if all of this affection being thrown at him is maddening.

The bed dips as Wangji joins Wei Ying in the centre. Wei Ying does not hesitate in laying his head on his chest, no doubt hearing how fast Wangji's heart is pumping against his ribs. Fortunately, he makes no comment on it.

“How are you feeling?” Wangji asks.

“I'm... nervous about seeing Jiejie, but I'm okay for now,” Wei Ying says. “It helps you're here.”

“I am glad.”

Silence falls between them. It is comfortable; not the sort of silence where Wangji feels he has to say something. Wei Ying hums, reaching for his hand. He traces a finger along Wangji's palm.

“You have very nice hands, Lan Zhan. Has anybody ever told you that?”

Wangji breathes out. “Hm?”

“Yeah, you have very pretty hands,” Wei Ying says, playing with his fingers.

Curious, Wangji repeats the same to him. Wei Ying's skin is soft, his hands surprisingly smaller than Wangji's. He follows the lines on Wei Ying's palm, drawing over them with his finger.

Wei Ying giggles. “That tickles.”

The sound alone is enough to make Wangji's heart swell. His eyes soften at the expression Wei Ying has on his face, the content smile spreading over his lips. It reaches his eyes now; nothing like the fake smiles he has been forcing for these past few months.

“You have a nice smile,” Wangji tells him, unable to stop himself.

In an instant, it disappears. Wei Ying bites his lip, avoiding his gaze. “Only I'm allowed to tease you, Lan Zhan,” he mumbles.

“Not teasing. It is the truth.”

The blush spreads on Wei Ying's cheeks. He shakes his head, lightly swatting Wangji's chest.

“You should smile more,” Wangji continues.

His comment succeeds in getting Wei Ying to do so, although it is obvious he is trying his best not to. Why is he being so shy all of a sudden? Wangji is only saying the truth. There is no need to hide from such facts.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, where are all these compliments coming from?” Wei Ying asks. “You're going to milk my ego at this rate. Do you think my smile is cute?”

Wangji nods. “Not just your smile.”

A choked noise comes out of Wei Ying. He looks like he is tempted to hit Wangji again. 

“I can't win against you,” Wei Ying says. “I admit defeat, Mr. Lan. I never thought you'd be such a smooth talker after all this time.”

Wangji says nothing, merely content with lying on this bed with Wei Ying in his arms. Wei Ying continues to play with his fingers and Wangji gathers the courage to stroke his hair, smoothing back the strands that curl in different directions. He hears a faint sigh coming from the teacher, inwardly smiling as Wei Ying leans much closer. Seeing that he seems to like it, Wangji does not stop.

In time, Wei Ying's eyes close and his breaths turn even. Quiet, Wangji looks down at him, studying the slope of his nose; his thick eyelashes fluttering out; the parting of his lips. He is still. It does not take Wangji long to realise he has fallen asleep.

Wei Ying must have been tired to fall asleep so suddenly. Gently, Wangji tucks his hair behind his ear, moving the strands away from his face. He is content staying like this for the next several hours, drowning in the scent of lotus flowers and mint.

 

- x -

 

Jiang Cheng hates waiting. No matter how many years have passed, he can still remember the agony of waiting in that hospital corridor, only for the doctor to tell him his parents were dead. He remembers the second time, how he'd been too numb to let it all sink in that he could lose his sister too; how he'd wanted, more than anything, to tear Wei Ying apart once the doctor told him she was in a coma. Wei Ying ran away that day, and Jiang Cheng was left alone, to wait—as usual. He waited and waited; still, his sister is in hospital and Wei Ying will never fit into this family he'd torn apart.

So, it's an understatement to say Jiang Cheng hates waiting. He hates not having control, leaving his life to chance where it could fall apart again. He hates not being able to do anything.

He and Jin Ling arrived in Ohio earlier this morning, and ever since then A-Jie has been fast asleep. Jiang Cheng knows she's only sleeping, but the waiting is giving him all sorts of anxiety. It's past eight PM here now; they've been sat by Yanli's bed for almost two hours with only the sounds of the machines around her to keep them company.

Jin Ling has fallen asleep on his chair, still tired from their flight. As much as Jiang Cheng would like to rest as well, he can't. Not until he's managed to talk to his sister and made sure she's okay.

She's breathing, which is always a good sign. That seems to be the only good thing he can see. Jiang Cheng can barely recognise his own sister; she's bone thin and her skin is sickly pale, nothing like the smiling bride she should have been on her wedding day. He clenches his fists, seeing something else other than this hospital. He sees the banquet before him, the blinding colours of red and gold. Most of all, he sees his sister falling down those marble stairs, surrounded by a puddle of her own blood.

Jin Zixuan can tell him time and time again it was an accident. Jiang Cheng himself knows it was just an accident. But that doesn't stop the overwhelming anger that engulfs him whenever he remembers who exactly pushed his sister down those stairs.

A soft murmur catches his attention. He quickly sits up, watching his sister's eyes flutter open.

“A-Jie!” he calls.

That wakes up Jin Ling. He jumps, looking around in panic. As soon as he sees his mother, the teenager lunges forward and clings to her arm. “Mom!”

“A-Ling... A-Cheng?” Yanli's voice shakes as she looks between both of them.

She reaches for Jin Ling, stroking back his bangs with shaking hands. Her eyes well up with tears, a weak laugh escaping her as Jin Ling starts to cry too. He tries to hide this fact by ducking his head down, furiously wiping his cheeks.

Although she is pale and thin, the smile animates her whole face. All of the anxiety leaves Jiang Cheng for now; he's just happy his sister is here.

“A-Ling, you've grown so much,” she says, wiping his tears for him. “You're starting to look like your dad.”

Jiang Cheng smirks, folding his arms. “Is that a compliment?”

Yanli lets out another laugh, turning to him. “And you, A-Cheng. You've become so handsome.”

It's impossible to stop the blush that creeps up on his cheeks. Jiang Cheng is quick to glance away, pretending to be unfazed by her compliment.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Tired, but I'm better now that you two are here.” Yanli looks around them, searching the room. “Where is...?

“Dad's taking a nap right now. He was up all night yesterday,” Jin Ling tells her.

She sighs. “I keep telling him to sleep but he never does.”

With the way Jin Zixuan is constantly travelling back and forth both countries, Jiang Cheng wonders how he even deals with jetlag. Does the man ever sleep? Whenever he calls them back at home, Jiang Cheng swears it's always dead in the night wherever Jin Zixuan is supposed to be.

He may find the man annoying, but there's no denying how dedicated he is to his wife.

“Is A-Ying coming?”

Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling exchange glances at her question. Just the mention of his name and there's already tension in the air; anger automatically coursing inside Jiang Cheng. Jin Ling purses his lips, awkwardly looking down at his hands. If it's already like this now, how can they bear to have Wei Ying in the same room? Jin Zixuan should have never invited him here.

Yanli sighs.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Jiang Cheng forces himself to speak. “I... I think so. Your husband called him yesterday and offered him a flight here.”

It's hard to ignore how much it hurts to see her smiling at this.

“Oh, really?”

Jiang Cheng stiffly nods. “Yeah.”

He wishes he can change the subject. In the space of a few seconds, his sister's face is filled with life again. The sickly tone of her skin is nothing compared to how wide her smile is, how excited she is to see the same man Jiang Cheng wishes will leave their lives for good.

“It's been too long since all three of us have been together,” Yanli says.

“...Yeah.”

The three of them together. She says it's like they can still live like they used to before all this happened. Does A-Jie expect him to shake hands with Wei Ying? Hug him? Call him his brother again? Even just thinking about it is making Jiang Cheng want to laugh. There's no way he and Wei Ying can go back to that. At the very least, he'll keep things civil between them—for A-Jie—but he doesn't want anything else. There's nothing more they can say to each other.

He doesn't have the heart to tell this to his sister, of course. Jiang Cheng keeps his thoughts to himself, letting it fill his chest with needles.

It's only when Yanli suddenly starts to cough that Jiang Cheng forgets about these feelings—for now.

“Mom!” Jin Ling cries, panicking at the sight of her struggling to breathe.

Jiang Cheng stands, rubbing her back and waiting for her coughs to subside. When she's done, he passes her the glass of water on her bedside table.

“I-I'm fine,” she reassures, patting Jin Ling's head. “Don't worry.”

“A-Jie, you should rest more,” Jiang Cheng says.

“I want to talk to both of you... A-Ling, I can't believe how much you've grown.”

Jin Ling grins, sitting up straighter. “I'm taller than Uncle Meng Yao now!”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “Everyone's taller than him.”

“Yeah but Dad says I'm even taller than you when you were this age!”

“He's a fucking liar!”

The room is filled with the sound of Yanli's laughter. Jiang Cheng clings onto it, having missed his sister for too, too long.

“A-Ying was taller than you,” she says.

Hearing his name almost ruins the mood. Jiang Cheng desperately ignores the bitterness that instantly claws at him; he won't let Wei Ying ruin this moment.

“By one centimetre. I'm taller than him now though.”

Yanli raises her eyebrows. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah, he's fucking tiny.”

That gets her to laugh again. Even if Jiang Cheng doesn't approve of the topic of their conversation, he's glad she's happy.

Behind them, the door opens.

“What are you two doing, not giving her any rest?”

Jiang Cheng turns around and sees Jin Zixuan walking over to them. He looks more rested than he did earlier. When they met with him, he had dark bags under his eyes and Jiang Cheng was convinced he'd fall asleep standing up. It took Jin Ling almost half an hour to convince his dad to actually take a nap, reassuring him they'll call as soon as possible if anything happened.

“Dad! I thought you were sleeping?” Jin Ling says, groaning when Zixuan ruffles his hair. He tries to push him off, though the smile creeping up on his face tells Jiang Cheng he doesn't mind the attention at all.

“Just woke up. A-Li, how long have you been awake?”

“Not too long.” Yanli reaches up to stroke his cheek, frowning slightly. “You look tired. Sleep properly, okay?”

Zixuan shakes his head. His eyes squint with a glow that is neither arrogant or playful; just doting. “I should be worrying about you. Anyway, what were you laughing about?”

“A-Cheng was telling me how short A-Ying is now.”

Eyebrows raised, Zixuan turns his attention to Jiang Cheng. After all the difficulty he had in trying to get Jiang Cheng to invite Wei Ying here, he knows more than anyone that reconciliation between the brothers is impossible. Jiang Cheng ignores his confused glance, pretending to be interested in his phone instead.

“Hmm. Yeah, now that you mention it, he is,” Zixuan says after a while, averting his gaze back to his wife. “He just texted me to say he's on the jet now. He should land in fourteen hours.”

Fourteen hours.

Tomorrow, he'll be here.

What would they do?

Jiang Cheng scans the room. Jin Ling is staring at his parents with large eyes, as if trying to commit this to memory. Zixuan is now holding Yanli's hand, fussing over her and asking a dozen questions about how she's feeling. No matter how many times she tells him she's okay now, he's still worrying. Jiang Cheng has half a mind to tell him to shut up.

Would Wei Ying be here among them tomorrow? He grits his teeth, unable to imagine having him in the same room. How could they pretend everything is okay, after all that's happened between them?

Jiang Cheng stands.

“A-Cheng?” A-Jie calls, her voice raising with concern.

“I'm tired,” he quickly says. “I think I'll go take a nap as well.”

His sister smiles when he says goodbye for now. He knows there's no fooling her. She's always been able to read what's on his mind. He leaves, already suffocating in that room when Wei Ying's presence is only the mention of his name. There's no way Jiang Cheng will be able to take whatever tomorrow throws at him.

It's dark out. He wraps his coat tighter around himself, gazing up at the sky. Here in the city, the lights are too bright to see any of the stars; above him is nothing but a black void staring back. They're staying over at Zixuan's penthouse for the week, which is luckily at walking distance from the hospital. Nonetheless, Jiang Cheng takes his time walking through the city. It's only eight PM but the night is already bustling with life; flooded with couples and families who want to go out for dinner, groups of friends beginning their drunken parties.

Looking at them, Jiang Cheng can't help but feel old. It really has been too long.

Sighing, he makes his way back to their hotel, alone.

 

- x -

 

Xichen regrets taking a day off. He thought the time alone would benefit him in some way, perhaps help him sort through his mind. So far today, he has done nothing but stare into space, too distracted to do anything productive, too troubled to pass the time meditating. It is a blessing that Wangji has decided to go to Ohio with Wei Wuxian, leaving Sizhui in his care. At least then he will not have to be alone with his thoughts later tonight.

For now, the only way to pass the time is to distract himself. He enters the café his brother once mentioned, immediately recognising the Ghost General working at the counter—well, of course, he is no longer known under that title.

As he waits for his drink to be served, Xichen leans against the counter and admires the interior of the place. It is a cosy little café; there are plants hanging from the ceiling and the walls, befitting of its name The Hidden Forest. At the moment, it is fairly empty with everyone either being in school or at work. He can only see a lone university student typing away at their laptop in one corner, and two men huddled by the window—

Xichen freezes. His eyes must be deceiving him.

Those men... Are they...?

No.

He is thrown back to the treasured times he's locked away deep inside. A flash, and he sees himself in that same table, laughing at something either of them had said. They drink together; tea for him, and wine for the two, wondering what the future has in store for the three of them. It is a rare memory stashed in between the time of war and the time where his two dearest friends began to fight with each other; a memory untouched by troubles, when Xichen thought this peace would last forever.

“Lan Xichen? Sir? That is you... r-right? I have your coffee.”

Xichen blinks, turning back to Wen Ning. He forces a smile on his face, taking his drink.

“Thank you,” he says.

He needs to leave. Now. Everything burns at the thought of being in the same room as them, and the flames engulf him more when he sees a head turning towards his way. Xichen grips the drink tighter, preparing to go.

“Sir! Mister!”

He stops. The blood in his veins turn cold.

“You, yes, you, handsome Sir! Why don't you sit next to us?”

Xichen's body moves by itself. He faces them now, unable to breathe, willing the ground to collapse under his feet. He has already seen Mingjue-xiong at the police station when he returned to Gusu but the sight of him continues to suffocate Xichen. Today, he is not in his police uniform, dressed instead in a casual T-shirt and jeans. He stares at Xichen with a raised eyebrow, then turns to the other man sat in front of him.

A-Yao.

No. Jin Guangyao.

He is smiling at Xichen, transporting him back to the time when his life crumbled into ashes, when the Cloud Recesses was destroyed and his father fatally injured. He had ran away to preserve what little he could of their sect's books and scrolls, hating himself with every step he took. After days and days of running, he finally collapsed.

Jin Guangyao found him. He was called Meng Yao at the time; still so young and innocent, with dreams of joining the cultivator world. Without any other source of comfort or help at that time, Xichen quickly trusted Meng Yao. He helped him when Xichen was on the run, comforted him when no one else could. Xichen preserved the memory of that young man in his mind, choosing to let Meng Yao blind him from the true colours of Jin Guangyao.

It is difficult to see who is in front of him now.

His hair is shorter, although not cropped short like Nie Mingjue's; Jin Guangyao's is long enough that it trails down to his shoulder, tucked behind his ear on one side. He wears a black beret on his head, and an oversized cardigan over his shirt. If Xichen did not know him, he would have mistaken him for any friendly looking stranger.

But he does know him, and it hurts.

“Wait, I know you,” Nie Mingjue says.

Jin Guangyao's eyes widen at him. “You do?”

“Jiang Cheng arrested him a while ago.”

Arrested?”

“Yeah, what'd he arrest you for again?”

Xichen does not expect to be included into this conversation. He fumbles for something to say, but comes up with nothing.

“Oh, right,” Nie Mingjue says, suddenly remembering. “He was in possession of dangerous weapons in public. A sword.”

“A sword? My, my, that is... something.” Jin Guangyao releases a chuckle, gazing up at Xichen. “Don't just stand there. Would you like to sit with us?”

Nie Mingjue scoffs. “Why?”

“Da-ge, don't be rude. I thought he looked a bit lonely so I'm inviting him to talk with us. Besides, your company leaves a lot to be desired.”

Da-ge.

This is bringing back too many memories all at once. Xichen cannot find the strength to move.

“I told you to stop calling me that!”

Just go, Xichen tells himself as he listens to the two. Neither of them know who he is here. If he says he is busy, they will easily brush him off and the three of them can return to their separate lives. He will do everything in his power to stay away from them, to make sure history is not repeated.

Just go.

However, as he looks between the two, he cannot ignore the feeling of relief in his heart. They seem well. Happy. If they are sat here together, that must mean they are no longer fighting.

He misses them.

Xichen does not know what possesses him; he grabs the seat between the two and sits down.

Jin Guangyao's smile grows. “My name is Meng Yao, and... well, I suppose you already know Chief Nie Mingjue.”

Meng Yao... So he is calling himself Meng Yao. Xichen is not sure what to feel about that.

“I... I am Lan Xichen.”

“Do you go here often?”

“No, it is my first time here in this café.”

Jin Guangyao—Meng Yao slowly nods, raising his drink to his lips. “This is my favourite café in Gusu.”

Xichen looks around the small café. More people have entered it now but it is still fairly quiet. Nevertheless, he remembers the first time he saw Meng Yao here in Gusu. It was a TV interview, was it not? If he is famous, then why is he here?

“I thought... Am I right in saying that you are an actor?”

Meng Yao's eyes widen, laying his cup down on the table.

Beside them, Nie Mingjue smirks. “Stop pretending to be so humble about it.”

“I am, Chief Nie. I'm not used to being recognised yet,” Meng Yao defends himself. “But yes, Mr. Lan, I am a fairly new actor; Jin Guangyao is my stage name. This café mainly attracts the older generation though, so not many tend to recognise me here.”

Oh. He uses Jin Guangyao as his stage name? It is... strangely fitting.

Meng Yao tilts his head at Xichen. “Have you watched me acting?”

Xichen shakes his head. “No, I saw one of your interviews a few weeks ago.”

“Ah, I see.”

Nie Mingjue is quietly eating his rice wine soup, occasionally looking up to roll his eyes at something Meng Yao says. Catching one of his glances, Meng Yao frowns, pointing his chopsticks at him.

“Chief Nie, A-Sang told me you started watching Crimson Heart. What do you think of it?”

“A waste of my time.”

Old habits die hard; as soon as Xichen thinks they are beginning to squabble, he opens his mouth to try and mediate the situation. Calm down, you two. Stop fighting.

He presses his lips together, swallowing down the words.

“That's not very nice,” Meng Yao says. “I don't think A-Sang will be happy to hear that.”

Tch. His parts were fine.”

“And what about mine?”

“I didn't care for them.”

Meng Yao exchanges looks with Xichen. He acts out a dramatic sigh, reaching for his drink again. Xichen spots the amusement in his amber eyes.

“Are you two... friends?” Xichen asks, unable to hide his curiosity.

Mingjue-xiong is not actively trying to kill Meng Yao, therefore that is already an improvement from last time; nevertheless, it still does not look like they are on the best of terms.

Nie Mingjue snorts.

“Us?” Meng Yao shrugs. “would presume we are, but Chief Nie seems to think otherwise.”

“How do you two know each other?” he asks.

“Jiang Cheng is his brother-in-law; we met through him,” Nie Mingjue tells Xichen. “Meng Yao hasn't stopped bothering me ever since.”

Meng Yao leans into Xichen, feigning a whisper. “Chief Nie doesn't approve of my... celebrity status.”

Nie Mingjue's dark eyes narrow at them. “Not when you're always getting into shitty scandals.”

“It was one or two, Chief Nie. Everyone does silly things when they're drunk. I must say though; your brother is quite the party animal. If you are unhappy with me, perhaps you should pay more attention to him.”

“He gets it from you, I'm sure.”

“Let's not argue in front of our new friend,” Meng Yao says, nodding towards Xichen. He offers Xichen another smile; a sharp contrast to the exasperated look he was directing towards Nie Mingjue a second ago.

Another scoffs comes out of the older man. Nie Mingjue sits back on his chair, folding his arms. His gaze lands on Xichen as well.

“Did Jiang Cheng ever interrogate you about the missing sword?”

“Oh... Yes, he did.”

Meng Yao frowns. “Missing sword?”

Nie Mingjue nods at him. “We confiscated the sword he was caught with, but it went missing after a few days. Jiang Cheng was convinced he stole it back.”

A smile tugs up on Xichen's face as he remembers Jiang Cheng's insistence on the matter. However, the fond memory is quickly dashed away. Their last encounter had not been so good; Xichen regrets his thoughtless actions, but he should be used to unknowingly hurting people by now. It seems he has a talent for it.

He looks down, taking a sip of his coffee. “I've told him time and time again that I did not steal it. I even allowed him to search my home.”

Nie Mingjue quickly shakes his head. “Don't let him search your home. He'll rip it apart.”

A forlorn laugh escapes Xichen. “I... am aware of that.”

Come to think of it, Jiang Cheng should be in America by now. Xichen hopes his sister is well.

“Mr. Lan, what do you do for a living? I've never seen you around before,” Meng Yao says.

Xichen faces him. His curious eyes really are far too much like the old Meng Yao, the one who used to offer to do his laundry for him because he knew Xichen would just rip his clothes apart instead. It is funny how, even after all these centuries, Xichen is still clinging onto these naïve memories.

“I am a librarian,” he says, urgently trying to hang onto the present. “I've only just moved back to Gusu a couple of months ago.”

Nie Mingjue stretches his arms, clicking a few bones and causing Meng Yao to wince at him. “Where did you live before?” he asks.

“London.”

“London!” Meng Yao exclaims. “Chief Nie, that was going to be my suggestion for your holiday. Go to London! I heard it's very nice.”

Nie Mingjue's lip curls. “I don't give a shit about cities. I'd be fine just finding somewhere to go camping.”

It is currently winter. While the cold does not affect Xichen, the thought of camping in this season sends a shiver up his spine.

“Camping does not sound pleasant in this weather,” he says.

Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “Not now. Can't afford a holiday now. There's too much mess going around Gusu.”

“Oh yeah,” Meng Yao murmurs, “are there no leads on the gang attacks yet?”

The conversation stops. Nie Mingjue averts his eyes to Xichen, eyebrows twitching.

“I'm sure Mr. Lan can be trusted,” Meng Yao assures him.

The chief police officer sighs. “I'm not sure I even trust you. But no, there's no new leads yet. It's been quiet since the last attack.”

Xichen cannot ignore that. “What attacks?”

Meng Yao looks around them, leaning closer again and speaking in a quiet voice. “For the past year or so, there have been random attacks happening around Gusu. Chief Nie reckons a gang is responsible for them.”

“Enough of that,” Nie Mingjue snaps. “This is confidential information. Don't just go telling it to a random guy.”

Raising his eyebrows, Meng Yao leans back. He beams at Xichen and says nothing more, returning to his food. Nie Mingjue grumbles something under his breath, asking himself why he bothers to tell Meng Yao anything. The two of them exchange quips; it is harmless, and Xichen would have been tempted to laugh in another life, but he cannot ignore the looming thought that he should not be here in the first place.

For some odd reason, Meng Yao has been trying to add him into their conversation. He is friendly—perhaps a bit too friendly. Xichen gathers it is because he is content in this life; if he is a successful actor, then it must mean the public is not scorning him like they had done so back when they were cultivators. He has everything he could want here, as should Nie Mingjue.

Xichen wants to be happy for them. He has always hoped to see his sworn brothers at peace with one another, enjoying a life they deserved. Now, as he is faced with the very thing, all he feels is loneliness.

He does not belong here. He should not be here.

Gripping the table, he stands up. “I... I ought to go.”

“So soon?” Meng Yao says.

“I must pick my nephew up from school.”

“I see...” Meng Yao nods. “Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Lan. It was nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure was mine. Thank you... Actor Jin, Chief Nie.”

Nie Mingjue grunts a reply, half-heartedly waving in his direction.

“Ah, please, just call me Meng Yao,” the actor tells Xichen.

“...Meng Yao, then.” Saying his name out loud felt so strange. It has been too, too long since that name has been used. “Likewise, please call me Xichen.”

Meng Yao grins. “How about Er-ge?”

Xichen almost drops his drink.

Er-ge, whatever I've said is the truth.”

I have already told you that you do not need to call me Er-ge anymore.”

His throat dries. In his place, Xichen does not see Meng Yao. He sees Jin Guangyao, still smiling, trying to explain the reasons for his crimes.

“What are you going on about now?” Nie Mingjue snaps, glaring at them.

Meng Yao laughs. “Da-ge; since it's the three of us, haha.”

Too much. It is all too much. Meng Yao's laughter dances around him, reminding him of happier times. He wants to grasp onto them and convince himself everything is okay, everything will be easier now that he can get the closure he needs. After all, is this not what he has always been hoping for? Can he not move on? Why must he hold onto his mistakes?

“I'm just kidding. Don't mind me, Xichen-ge,” Meng Yao says.

Xichen forces a smile at both of them. It is all he can muster with all of these memories rushing in his head. He bids farewell, praying to the heavens he will never have to see them again. He cannot do this. It is all too much.

How long has he lived for now? Over two thousand years? Almost three thousand? An eternity could pass and his mistakes will continue to haunt him.

For the rest of the afternoon, he moves automatically, not paying attention to his surroundings. Even Sizhui's light conversation is nothing but background noise inside his head; he responds as he usually does, but Xichen's mind is elsewhere. It is stuck in the past.

He thinks back to how Meng Yao smiled at him today. Is there a difference between him and Jin Guangyao? If someone's memories are different, does that change who they are as a person?

Xichen does not know—but perhaps it is no longer his business to know. He will stay away from Meng Yao here, and also Nie Mingjue. He will not allow himself to slip as he had done today.

It is the sensible thing to do, the only thing he can do.

But why does it hurt so much?

He cannot forget the times he spent sat down with Jin Guangyao, drinking tea and discussing irrelevant things that made the two of them smile and laugh. After Mingjue-xiong's death, the hole he left behind was never quite filled. It did not feel right to drink tea without his presence, even if their final days as a three were filled with fights and arguments between the other two.

Still, A-Yao's presence was a growing comfort throughout the years. Xichen trusted him with his life.

Therefore, when he found Huaisang's letter revealing all of A-Yao's crimes, Xichen felt his world crumbling before his eyes. He did not want to believe it, but he could not ignore it either. All of the pieces lay before him; he was the only one capable of putting them together. How could he ignore such a burden?

As much as he hated himself for doubting him, Xichen set about to discover things for himself. He did not say a word to Wangji, or his uncle. He needed answers first; he would decide what course of action he would take after he saw the evidence with his own eyes.

For all of the secrets he kept, A-Yao trusted Xichen enough with his treasure room. He had often seen his sworn brother entering and leaving it through his mirror, but Xichen, being the polite man that he was, never dared to touch it himself. Lanling Jin Sect's secrets and treasures were not in his interest. He only visited Koi Tower for A-Yao's company.

That day, he visited for the secrets. Once A-Yao left to tend to some matters, Xichen examined the mirror. As he expected, the Jin sect leader protected it with a barrier that only allowed its owner to enter.

Xichen was a strong cultivator, the highest ranked in his generation. On top of that, he was well versed with talismans and magical spells; it was no trouble breaching through the barrier at all. He managed to create a space large enough for him to slip inside, disappearing into the ripples of the mirror.

Once inside, the oil lamps on the walls ignited on their own, illuminating his path with an eerie, amber glow. Xichen walked into the darkness, observing the towering shelves stacked with books, stones, and weapons. He was not surprised to find instruments of torture hanging on the walls; he knew long ago that A-Yao gained Wen Ruohan's trust with his knowledge of the macabre. Even so, staring at them made Xichen uneasy. Iron manacles, spikes, silver hooks... There was even an iron table in the centre of the room, crusted with dried blood. Xichen did not need to guess what that was used for.

He could not imagine A-Yao using this room. The A-Yao he knew was gentle, innocent. He would only resort to such deeds if he had a viable reason... He must have had a reason for all these crimes.

Open your eyes and see him for the man that he is, Nie Huaisang had written in his letter. Jin Guangyao killed my brother.

Repeating those words in his head, Xichen walked towards the treasure cabinet. With trembling hands, he lifted the curtain and looked at what was hidden behind.

He staggered back.

Everything he had ever believed in was shattering before his eyes. Meng Yao's kind eyes; gone, the promises all three of them uttered at their brotherhood ceremony; gone, the countless times he defended Jin Guangyao, again and again; gone. Xichen could no longer deny the truth, not when Nie Mingjue's face was right in front of him; dead, sealed, beheaded.

His hands flew to cover his mouth. Tears welled up in his eyes, covering the sight of his sworn brother. His head was a pallid grey; eyes, ears, and mouth all sewn shut. There were numerous talismans attached to him, rendering him useless in this hidden room.

But it was him. It was Nie Mingjue, their eldest sworn brother, who supposedly died of Qi Deviation; now cut into pieces and imprisoned in A-Yao's torture chambers.

Footsteps echoed behind him.

Xichen spun around. Jin Guangyao's face was devoid of its smile for once.

“A-Yao, explain the meaning of this!” Xichen demanded, his voice resounding through the darkness. “Why would you have Mingjue-xiong's... Why...

Jin Guangyao's eyes softened.

“What do you think?” he said. “I trust you with my life, Er-ge; do you not trust me?”

I do. I did.

“Uncle, are you okay?”

A hand lightly shakes his arm. Xichen jumps, blinking back into the present. In front of him, Sizhui is gazing with concern. He clutches his head and looks around the room, taking in the familiar surroundings of his own apartment. He can smell the faint aroma of hot pot coming from the kitchen, reminding him he should have finished preparing dinner ages ago.

“I... I am okay,” Xichen says, rising up from his seat. He hears a faint buzz from his nephew's pocket. “Your phone is ringing, Sizhui.”

Sizhui fumbles through his pockets. “Oh!”

As his nephew gets distracted talking to whoever is calling him, Xichen makes himself busy in the kitchen. He pushes aside all of his thoughts about the past, focusing his attention on preparing the rest of the vegetables for dinner. Sizhui's presence is a blessing. Xichen listens to the idle chatter, refusing to remember his encounter with his sworn brothers today.

 

- x -

 

Of all the times Jin Ling decides to call his damn friend, he chooses to do it at four fucking AM. Jiang Cheng groans, grabbing a nearby pillow and covering his ears with it. Sharing a penthouse with Jin Ling and his dad is a nightmare. The suite is large enough to accommodate two whole families, but that's useless if you can still hear Jin Ling from the other side of the room when you're trying to get some sleep.

It doesn't help he's put the phone on speaker. Of course he fucking has.

“Sizhui, what time is it there now?” Jin Ling asks, his voice booming through the suite.

From his bed, Jin Zixuan groans. He rolls over to his side, somehow still fast asleep even though his son may as well be yelling down his ear beside him.

“Um, it's just past five PM.” Jiang Cheng hears Jin Ling's friend reply. “Isn't it four in the morning there?”

“Yeah, I'm still jetlagged. Where are you?”

“I'm with Uncle Xichen. My dad's gone with Teacher Wei to Ohio, I think.”

Eh?” Jin Ling sits up, turning to where Jiang Cheng is lying on the couch. “Uncle, did you hear that?! Teacher Wei's bringing Sizhui's dad with him!”

Jiang Cheng rises too, gripping the pillow. He wants to chuck it at Jin Ling, but knowing his luck, he'll hit Jin Zixuan instead.

“Keep your voice down, I'm trying to sleep!” Jiang Cheng snaps, swinging his legs over the couch. “Who are you even calling at this time?”

Jin Ling shows his phone to him when he joins his side. He's video calling his friend, who is now waving shyly at Jiang Cheng despite the deadly glare he throws at him. In the background, Jiang Cheng recognises the familiar paintings Xichen has in his apartment.

“Uncle, you know Sizhui, right?” Jin Ling says.

Jiang Cheng spots Xichen in the background. Before he realises it, he's reaching for the phone.

“Hey, give me that.”

Jin Ling frowns at him, snatching the phone away and almost whacking Jin Zixuan in the face as he sleeps. It must be a miracle he still hasn't woken up.

“I said give me your damn phone. I want to talk to Xichen!”

Grumbling, Jin Ling hands it to him. “Don't be too long! International calls are expensive!”

“Your dad is rich, who gives a shit?” Jiang Cheng says, then narrows his eyes at Sizhui on the screen. “Oi, you, let me talk to your uncle.”

The kid nods and does exactly that. Within seconds, Jiang Cheng sees Xichen's confused face greeting him.

“Jiang Cheng? Is that you?”

Jiang Cheng nods, walking away from the bed. He goes outside onto the balcony and allows the cold air to wake him up.

“Did you... need anything?” Xichen asks.

Shit. Now that he's supposed to say something, Jiang Cheng's brain blanks out on him. Did Jin Ling have to use video call? This would be easier if he didn't have to stare at Xichen while talking.

“Yeah, I... I wanted apologise for last time,” he forces out, finding it difficult to keep his eyes on the screen.

Xichen shakes his head. “You don't have to. It was my fault for prying.”

“No. It's like you said; you were only trying to comfort me.”

The corners of Xichen's lips lift up, though you could barely call it a smile. It looks more like a grimace. “I don't think it was a success though.”

He's right. Jiang Cheng isn't used to people going out their way to try and comfort him though; instead of thanking the librarian, he lashed out on him.

“Are you in America now?” Xichen asks.

“Yeah, I visited A-Jie earlier.”

“How is she?”

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath. “She's... okay for now. Hanging on.”

“I am glad. I hope you are feeling better.”

Like last time, Xichen offers another smile that doesn't reach his eyes. He is constantly looking away too, sighing under his breath. They don't know each other that well yet, but even Jiang Cheng finds this behaviour a bit odd.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Xichen raises an eyebrow. “Hmm?”

“You seem down.”

“Do I? Hmm, I suppose I've had a tiring day... Is it that noticeable?”

Jiang Cheng shrugs. “Usually, you're always smiling and all that.”

Right away, Xichen beams at him. It's surprising how convincing it looks; his eyes brighten up and his face is animated with the same friendly atmosphere Jiang Cheng is used to seeing.

“Is that better?”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Tch, you don't have to force it.”

For a second, Xichen's eyebrows raise. His smile falters until he finally relaxes. “Thank you for your concern,” he quietly says.

The gratitude in his voice catches the officer off. Jiang Cheng only said it as an offhanded comment, but it only occurs to him that, maybe, the librarian has been faking too many smiles. Xichen's life is none of his business and it's not in Jiang Cheng's nature to pry; anyhow, he's somewhat glad the librarian looks a bit better now.

“Is it not late there?” Xichen questions. “You ought to rest, Officer.”

“I will in a bit.”

“How long will you be there?”

“Just a week. How come?”

“I'm just curious. It is odd not seeing you around.”

Jiang Cheng squints, hating the fact his cheeks heat up at that comment. “What's that supposed to mean?”

Xichen only laughs at his response. Although it livens him up a bit, he trails off with a sigh.

“I met with Chief Nie and your brother-in-law today.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. “Meng Yao?”

“Yes.”

“I didn't know you knew them.”

“I don't. I bumped into them in the café.”

Meng Yao and Chief Nie were seeing each other? Jiang Cheng knows those two had some strange history behind them, although he's never bothered to ask why. He doesn't want to know. Chief Nie is his boss and Meng Yao is annoying; whatever they have between them is none of Jiang Cheng's business.

“Huh. Okay,” Jiang Cheng says. “I didn't know they were talking again.”

Xichen shrugs slightly, distractedly twisting a long strand of his hair around his fingers. His hair is loose for once; usually Jiang Cheng sees it up in either a bun or a ponytail.

“They seemed fine, although they were bickering a lot. Do they fight often?”

“Not big fights. Chief Nie doesn't approve of Meng Yao's career as an actor, especially since his manager's an asshole.”

The librarian tilts his head. “His manager? Who's that?”

Jiang Cheng looks up at the sky, trying to search his brain for a name. It's on the tip of his tongue but he's too tired to remember it.

“I forgot his name. I just know Chief Nie hates him,” he says.

Xichen slowly nods. “Isn't Chief Nie's younger brother an actor too? Does he not approve of that as well?”

At the mention of Huaisang, Jiang Cheng can't help but smirk. He hasn't seen Huaisang in years, not since they graduated from uni. He seems to be doing well though, what with him being a famous actor now. Good for him.

“Chief Nie doesn't approve of anything Huaisang does. Huaisang's mainly been acting as extras until now. I think Crimson Heart was his début as a proper actor; same as Meng Yao,” Jiang Cheng explains. “Why do you care so much anyway?”

“Nothing. Just curious.”

“Hmph. Didn't think you'd be into celebrity gossip.”

Xichen lets out another laugh. “Have you watched Crimson Heart?”

Me? I don't watch that sappy shit.”

“I heard it's very good. We should watch it together, Officer.”

Jiang Cheng chokes. The amusement now dancing in Xichen's eyes tell him he's only joking but it doesn't stop the heated flush spreading onto Jiang Cheng's cheeks.

“You're not getting me anywhere near that thing. Go watch it yourself!”

Xichen feigns a sigh. “You're so cold.”

Behind him, the balcony door slides open. Jiang Cheng turns around, seeing Jin Ling shuffle outside. “Can I get my phone back now?”

Jiang Cheng says nothing, glaring at his nephew.

“You can call me on my phone, Officer.”

He directs his glare at Xichen now. “Who says I want to call you? And I don't even have your number!”

Jin Ling taps his feet on the floor, folding his arms and rolling his eyes with attitude. “Ask for it, duh, Uncle.”

“Shut the fuck up, you brat!”

Xichen chuckles. “I'll text it to Jin Ling in a bit so you can write it down, Officer.”

“You don't need to!”

Just then, they hear the evident sound of Jin Zixuan groaning from inside the penthouse. “Jiang Cheng, shut the fuck up and just accept whoever is giving you their number! Let me sleep.”

Not even the cold breeze outside is enough to cool down his heated face. Jiang Cheng shoves open the balcony doors and scowls at his brother-in-law.

“S-Stop listening in on our conversation!”

Jin Zixuan copies his glare. “I don't want to but you've been talking for ages! Stop flirting and go!”

Flirting? Flirting?! Jiang Cheng nearly throws the phone right into Jin Zixuan's annoying face. Flirting? Him? What the fuck!

“I-I'm not flirting! This isn't even—! I don't flirt with guys!”

To make things worse, Xichen is laughing. His voice resonates out of the phone, filling their penthouse.

“You s-shut up!” Jiang Cheng yells at him. “I'm going!”

He ends the call in less than a second, chucking the phone back to Jin Ling. His nephew yells at him, demanding why he had to end the call when he wanted to talk to his friend afterwards. Jiang Cheng yells back, telling him to shut the fuck up and go to sleep. Of course, that only causes Jin Zixuan to snap at him, not at all happy his son is being spoken to in such a manner.

It's a mess. All three of them staying in the same penthouse is a recipe for disaster.

Even after all that, he still manages to get Xichen's number. The temptation to delete it is strong, but Jiang Cheng doesn't. It's only because Xichen lives in the same apartment as him anyway. It could be useful to contact him if he needs anything. That's all.

- x -

 

It is morning when they arrive in Ohio. Wei Ying slept for most of the flight, tucked into Wangji's arms. The carefree mood he was in yesterday significantly fades as soon as they land; the closer they get to the city, the quieter Wei Ying becomes until Wangji can do nothing but worry.

They sit silently in the taxi. Wei Ying's eyes are fixed on the window, seeing something Wangji cannot. He is nibbling on his bottom lip, sometimes wincing at buildings that pass them. It is obvious there are memories in this place that plagues Wei Ying, and the fact that Wangji has no idea what they are is maddening. He searches in his head for something to say, but Wangji has never been an expert of filling in silence. That is Wei Ying's talent.

After some time, Wei Ying turns away from the window, sighing.

“Wei Ying?” Wangji calls.

The teacher inhales a deep breath, leaning into Wangji. As if by habit now, Wangji wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him closer. If he cannot find the words to comfort Wei Ying, then he will make sure he can at least show him he is here. They remain like that for a while. Wei Ying runs his hand up Wangji's chest, often fiddling with the collar of his shirt. Wangji stays still, simply watching him.

“Lan Zhan, if you weren't here with me now, I think I'd be freaking out,” Wei Ying mutters.

Wangji holds him tighter. “I am here.”

“I know,” Wei Ying says. “I'm glad.”

For the rest of the journey to their hotel, they do not say anything. Wangji no longer feels it is necessary; Wei Ying has calmed down in his arms, busying himself by playing with their fingers. He compares their hands together, laughing softly at how small his looks against the Wangji's.

“You know... Last time I was here, I was by myself,” Wei Ying says. His voice is quiet, muffled by Wangji's chest. “You said you went to America too, didn't you? Did you go with your brother?”

Wangji shakes his head. “I was alone.”

He had been scouring the world for any clue of where Wei Ying could be, if he would ever return; it feels like a miracle now that he should come back here with the very same man curled against him.

“Well,” Wei Ying says, sitting up and grinning at him. “Good thing we have each other this time.”

Wangji nods, tucking a stray hair behind Wei Ying's ear. “Yes,” he says.

It is impossible not to smile back.

 

 

Chapter Text

Cleveland is as suffocating as he remembers. When Wei Ying lived here, the apartment he shared with Shen Yuan was on the outskirts. The older man favoured the peace, he said, but Wei Ying favoured distractions and noise. He frequented the city often, stumbling around its dark streets and relying on strangers to bring him home. Even after all these years, he clearly remembers each club he went to; each alleyway he hid in the shadows, making out with some man or woman against the wall.

Looking back at it now, he blanches at all of the reckless decisions he made. Back then, he didn't care about what happened to him; he just wanted something to make him feel alive, even when the thought of living no longer held any worth.

As luck will have it, the hotel Zixuan booked for him is right in the heart of the city. One look outside the bedroom window and Wei Ying can easily recognise at least five places he's been to in the past; all of which don't give him any pleasant memories at all—very much the opposite, in fact.

Wei Ying turns away from the window. He's barely paid attention to the room since he entered it, too busy to worrying about what he'll do once he sees Jiejie again. And what about Jiang Cheng? What is Wei Ying even going to say to him? How is he going to face any of them?

Sighing, he stares at the room before him, not at all surprised by how fancy it looks. After all, this is Jin Zixuan he's talking about. It looks a lot like the jet they stayed in; unnecessary large and golden. Wei Ying is starting to notice the Jins have a thing for gold.

“Oh,” he quietly says, only noticing the double bed in the centre. “There's only one bed.”

Lan Zhan nods beside him, his face passive as always. Wei Ying should have asked him if he would have preferred separate rooms. They've already shared a bed twice, but there's nothing going on between them in terms of a relationship so Wei Ying doesn't want to assume.

“You don't mind sharing, do you?” he asks, then points to the couch near the window. “I can take the couch—”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Sharing is fine.”

Wei Ying shrugs. “Okay.”

The bed is fairly large anyway. He looks at the time on his phone, wondering if he should head there now or spend a few hours resting. To be safe, he sends a quick text to Jin Zixuan, telling him he's arrived at the hotel. It's almost eleven AM; for all he knows, it's still too early to visit Jiejie.

Waiting is excruciating though. Wei Ying paces the room, waiting for his brother-in-law to reply. He feels Lan Zhan's eyes on him the whole time although he says nothing to break the silence. Several minutes pass until Wei Ying is tempted to send another text to pester Zixuan.

That's when, finally, his phone vibrates.

Wei Ying doesn't know if that gives him relief or more anxiety. The thought of seeing Jiejie now, after he's spent so many years avoiding it, is making him want to be sick. He stops pacing the room and tries his best to calm himself down. He needs to do this.

Zixuan's response makes him frown. It's Friday now; didn't Jiang Cheng say that the doctors warned them Jiejie might not make it until the end of the week? Is she okay? Is he too late?

Wei Ying wants to hits himself for that train of thought. He didn't travel all the way to Ohio just to give up on Jiejie.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying looks up. He'd been quiet for so long that he nearly forgot Lan Zhan was watching him all this time. His eyes are filled with concern; he doesn't need to say anything for Wei Ying to know what he wants to ask.

“I'm fine,” Wei Ying says. “My brother-in-law just sent me a text.”

He checks the time again. Zixuan said he could visit whenever... As nervous as Wei Ying is, he doesn't think he can wait any longer here in this hotel room. If he avoids this any more than he already has, he might actually be sick from the anxiety alone. Even Lan Zhan's presence isn't doing anything this time.

“I think I'll... go visit Jiejie in an hour,” Wei Ying says.

“Are you not tired?”

“I've slept enough on the jet. I don't think I can sleep any more like this anyway.”

The journey to Ohio itself had been nice; Wei Ying spent most of it cuddling with Lan Zhan who, surprisingly, is very good at cuddling. Wei Ying will have to admit he tried his best to forget why he was on the jet to begin with. It was easier to forget he was going back to Ohio when there was still fourteen hours before their arrival. Now that he's here, he's starting to feel guilty relying on Lan Zhan for comfort.

“I will go with you,” Lan Zhan says.

“No.”

Lan Zhan's eyebrows rise.

“I mean—not yet,” Wei Ying quickly says, feeling bad. “I know I asked you to go with me but... not yet.”

It's been over twelve years since he last saw Jiejie. As thankful as he is for Lan Zhan coming all the way here, Wei Ying doesn't feel it's right for him to be there—not now, anyway. Maybe it's his own pride not wanting anyone to witness such a moment, maybe it's his guilt not wanting to accept any support for that. Whatever it is, Wei Ying knows he needs to see Jiejie alone. This is a family matter—even if Jiang Cheng has said Wei Ying no longer has a place with the Jiangs.

Wei Ying doesn't want to make things worse by bringing Lan Zhan with him. When he accepted Lan Zhan's offer to come to Ohio, he didn't think about why he wanted him by his side. It was a reckless decision on his part, mostly fuelled by his fear of being by himself.

“This is my first time seeing Jiejie ever since it happened,” Wei Ying explains.

Lan Zhan doesn't say anything, the only change in his expression being that his eyes narrow just by a fraction.

“I'll be fine,” Wei Ying insists. “But I need to do this.”

He says it to convince Lan Zhan, but he knows the only person here who needs convincing is himself.

“Maybe we can go together tomorrow, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan nods at that. “If that is what you want.”

Wei Ying doesn't know what else to say. For some reason, he wants to apologise for dragging Lan Zhan all the way here. He still has no idea why the musician has gone to so much effort to comfort him. While Wei Ying would like to think there's some attraction between both of them, he knows they don't know each other well enough for Lan Zhan to care this much.

But then again, he's not exactly an expert when it comes to these things. He spent his twenties fucking just about anyone; what does he know about relationships? Or... whatever this is supposed to be. Maybe Lan Zhan is just nice and this is all in Wei Ying's head.

Tired, he falls back onto the bed and stares up at the ceiling. He feels the bed dipping a few seconds later; Lan Zhan must have sat down as well. After more long minutes of nothing but this awkward silence between them, Wei Ying sits up and frowns at the other man.

He's been quieter than usual—which is really quiet. Lan Zhan isn't the type to talk a lot and Wei Ying is slowly getting used to it; living with Wen Ning for so long has made him an expert of talking to people who don't respond back to him. Nevertheless, Lan Zhan has been staring at the wall for far too long now. It's impossible to guess what in the world he's thinking.

“Got something on your mind?” Wei Ying asks, nudging him gently.

At last, Lan Zhan turns to him, slightly frowning.

“What... happened?”

Now it's Wei Ying's turn to frown. “What happened where?”

“You have never told me... about your past,” Lan Zhan slowly says, as if searching for the right words. It's useless; Wei Ying has already frozen as soon as he understands what's being asked of him.

Wei Ying breaks eye contact, reaching for one of the cushions on the bed. He pulls at its corners, debating if he wants to reveal all the lovely details to Lan Zhan.

“I told you my real parents died and the Jiangs adopted me afterwards,” he says. “Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu got into an accident because of me... They died as well. Now, Jiejie is in hospital, also because of me.”

“But why?”

Wei Ying digs his fingers into the cushion. “What do you mean why?”

Because I ruin everything? Because I hurt everyone I love? Why do you have to ask why?

He has to grit his teeth from saying anything more. He shouldn't take his frustrations out on Lan Zhan; just because he's anxious doesn't mean he can lash out on him. Wei Ying takes a deep breath and lets out a sigh, hugging the cushion close to his chest. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Lan Zhan is staring at him.

“Sorry,” Wei Ying mutters. “I didn't mean to raise my voice.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “There is no need to be sorry.”

Gathering the courage to look up at him, Wei Ying sees nothing but patience in his eyes. He's surprised to find the words threatening to escape him, eager to tell Lan Zhan the depressing details—but why? He's always tried to avoid getting too personal. Even Wen Qing or Wen Ning don't know everything about his life; they've seen him waste it away on alcohol and sex, but he's avoided telling them why. He doesn't want to burden anyone with his problems.

Lan Zhan doesn't say anything else. He simply waits. Wei Ying can't help but think he'll wait for however long as it takes with the way he looks at him.

Still, he can't do it. Wei Ying swallows the lump in his throat and looks down.

“I can't. I don't want to talk about it,” he says. “There's no point talking about it.”

There's no point in weighing Lan Zhan down with his life. It's enough that he offered to come with him here.

Faintly, he hears the sound of Lan Zhan sighing. He stands up, a bit too quickly, and walks over to their suitcases. It takes Wei Ying a while to see that he is beginning to unpack. Wei Ying remains on the bed, eyes fixed on Lan Zhan's back, wondering why he should feel bad for pushing him away. They're not together; they barely know each other at all. Not once have they discussed anything about what their relationship is supposed to be, despite how much they've been all over each other since Wei Ying woke up from his drunk breakdown.

With the distance between them now, Wei Ying hates himself just a little bit more for not knowing what to do in a situation like this. He doesn't want to assume anything, in case Lan Zhan isn't on the same page as he is.

Most importantly, he doesn't want to hurt him either.

“Lan Zhan,” he calls. When the musician turns around, Wei Ying swallows down the apology he nearly says again. He quickly fishes out a different topic from the top of his head, running away, as he always does. “I'm hungry. Should we get a takeaway?”

Lan Zhan nods, taking out a credit card from his wallet. “I will pay.”

How typical. Wei Ying forces out a smile and leaves the bed. “You know, I can pay too.”

“Sizhui says you are broke.”

“What the fuck?” Wei Ying says. “I give him good grades and he slanders me like this?”

And so, they end up ordering pizza to pass the time. As expected, Lan Zhan pays for everything and Wei Ying is left wondering just how much money you can earn from being a music tutor. Considering how huge his house is, it must be a lot. What kind of people is he even teaching? Celebrities?

Lan Zhan doesn't ask any more questions, and the laughter Wei Ying forces out starts to feel more natural. Deep down, his thoughts nag him to tell Lan Zhan, to trust him—trust someone for once. He's tired of keeping everything to himself; there's only so much he can bottle inside his tired body.

For someone so weak, Wei Ying is stubborn. It's easier to grin at Lan Zhan rather than form the sentences he wants to share. It's easier to tease him, laugh at his reactions, rather than admit he's scared stiff and the thought of seeing his family again is destroying him inside. When he's with Lan Zhan, it's easier to pretend he's someone else, forget about everything from his past and focus solely on how much he enjoys teasing the musician.

Too soon, the hour rushes by. Wei Ying can no longer pretend. He stands up and gathers his things, ignoring the way his hands tremble, the fact it's harder to breathe.

“I'll be back later,” he tells Lan Zhan. “Be a good boy, okay?”

Lan Zhan nods. “Take care.”

Wei Ying leaves before he can regret not asking Lan Zhan to go with him. The hotel is near the hospital; he arrives there far too quickly, staring at the same entrance he couldn't bring himself to go through all those years ago.

He's twenty two again, standing on this spot where everything is rushing back all at once.

Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic! Go, just go! Turn around, run away as usual!

It would be too easy to do that; turn around, pretend he's doing this for the Jiangs when, really, he's just a coward. For a second, he takes a step backwards, considering the straightforward path before him where he runs away and numbs everything with alcohol all over again.

Then, he remembers Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, who is waiting in their hotel room; Lan Zhan, who came all the way here to Ohio because he wanted to support Wei Ying; Lan Zhan, who barely knows him, yet believes in him more than he believes in himself.

Wei Ying really is pathetic. He takes a deep breath and steps forward, pushing the doors open.

It's cold. He's instantly hit by the sterile smell so typical of hospitals. He remembers a time when he lay in a hospital bed of his own, listening to the machines around him telling him he is still alive instead of Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu.

Wei Ying hates hospitals. He will be happy man if he never has to set foot in one ever again.

With every step he takes, he reminds himself he's actually doing this. It's a slow progress and he's walking at a tortoise's pace, but he's doing this. It's too late to run away now.

He spots Jin Zixuan soon enough. As he promised, he's waiting near the entrance, his arms folded. He gives Wei Ying a quick nod when he sees him, although there is also the unmistakable hint of shock on his face. It seems Wei Ying isn't the only one convinced he wasn't going to be able to gather the courage today.

“Wei Ying,” Zixuan greets.

“Thanks for waiting,” Wei Ying says.

Zixuan looks around. “Weren't you going to bring someone with you?” he asks.

“I thought it would be best if I went alone at first.”

“Ah.”

That's all he says: Ah. They both know this is for the best.

With nothing left to say, Zixuan leads him through the hospital's endless corridors. Wei Ying allows his eyes to wander the different rooms he passes. There are some patients well enough to walk around by themselves, followed by relatives whose faces are lit up, all too happy with their recovery. They're gone in seconds, disappearing off into the corridors; and there will come another group of people who are not so happy, not so lucky. Wei Ying doesn't have to guess why they're like this. He can't bear to look at the people who pass by, crying, huddled together.

“How is she?” Wei Ying asks, returning his gaze to Zixuan's back.

“She's getting a fever.”

He barely hears what he says. Wei Ying frowns, unable to stop himself from looking back at the same group still sobbing together in that corner. His heart lurches at the thought that could be them in a few days.

“But she'll be okay, right?” he says, quickening his steps to walk by Zixuan's side. He notices the older man is glaring ahead, refusing to turn his way.

“I don't know,” is all Zixuan says before he walks faster, leaving Wei Ying behind him again.

Eventually, they reach Jiejie's private room. The door is closed, as expected, and Jin Ling is waiting outside, fast asleep on his chair. Zixuan sighs upon seeing him, sitting next to his son and moving his head so that he can lay it on his shoulder. He looks up at Wei Ying and motions towards the door.

“Jiang Cheng is still inside, I think,” he says. “I'll stay out here for now.”

Wei Ying turns to the door.

What is he even scared of? Is he scared of seeing what he's done to Jiejie? Is he scared she hates him after all this time? Is he scared she doesn't? Why can't he move?

“Come on,” Zixuan says. “Just go. I'll be here if anything happens.”

If anything happens. He means if he and Jiang Cheng start fighting again—but there's no need for that. Wei Ying is tired of fighting.

He pushes the door open, unable to breathe. As soon as he steps inside, he finds Jiang Cheng sitting by the bed, holding Jiejie's hand. He doesn't look up.

It's a miracle Wei Ying can approach them. The closer he gets, the harder it is to keep his emotions in control. Jiejie is fast asleep on the bed, her breathing so shallow that Wei Ying is scared just looking at her. The last time he saw her, she was a smiling bride, radiating with joy. This woman in front of him looks nothing like the sister he's grown up with.

You did this.

Wei Ying clenches his fists and wills himself not to turn around and run out this building. He sits down opposite Jiang Cheng, who hasn't moved at all, not even acknowledging Wei Ying's arrival.

The only sounds in this room are the machines keeping Jiejie alive.

He counts the seconds that pass, until the seconds turn into minutes, and the minutes turn into numbness. Wei Ying blinks back the tears that he won't let out, keeping his hands on his lap. He wants to hold Jiejie too, but he doesn't think he's allowed. Jiang Cheng still hasn't looked up and this silence between them hurts much more than all their fights in the past. Wei Ying almost wishes Jiang Cheng will scream at him, tell him to go—just say something.

All he can do is stare at Jiejie.

“When did you get here?”

Wei Ying's breath hitches. For a second, he thinks he's imagined Jiang Cheng talking. The machines continue to fill the silence. After an eternity, Jiang Cheng glances in his direction, his lips twitching.

“Around three hours ago,” Wei Ying quickly says. “How... about you?”

“Wednesday. I spoke to her yesterday.”

This is the first time in years they've spoken without fighting each other; yet, Jiang Cheng's clipped responses don't make things any better. He talks fast, as if he wants this conversation to end as soon as possible.

Wei Ying digs his fingernails into his palm. “How was she?”

“Better. She's not doing so good today.”

He doesn't miss the way Jiang Cheng's eyes narrow at him as he says this. His words may be civil, but there's no denying the malice in his tone. He blames Wei Ying—of course he does—and he wishes he isn't here. Wei Ying presses his lips together and stops talking.

More silence.

Funny how Jiejie was always the one helping both of them to reconcile after their arguments. Now, even with her in between them, it's not enough to build a bridge again.

Jiang Cheng is the first to move. He rises.

“I'll go,” he says, already making his way for the door. He's gone before Wei Ying can stop him.

Wei Ying doesn't move. He stares at the door Jiang Cheng has left through. Why is it so difficult to find the right words to say to him now? They've always fought; since they were children, they'd fight over the silliest of things—but Wei Ying could always find the right words to make Jiang Cheng smile again. It was easy to read his brother; Jiang Cheng wore his emotions on his sleeve whereas Wei Ying hid them. He knew what Jiang Cheng was feeling before the stubborn man could understand it himself.

That was why they fit well together; two brothers, so unlike each other, side by side like matching puzzle pieces.

When Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu fought everyday, it was impossible not to listen to the accusations they threw at one another. The children never interrupted them. All they could do was hide in their rooms, waiting for the arguments to die down, replaced by the silent tension they had grown to welcome. One evening, so similar to all the evenings they fought over the same thing, Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu argued about Wei Ying's presence in this family. It was always the same. Why did Uncle Jiang prefer him over his own son? Was it because he was still in love with Wei Ying's mother? Was it because Jiang Cheng was Aunt Yu's child and Uncle Jiang hated Aunt Yu?

Wei Ying had long learnt to ignore these questions; thinking about the possible answers to them hurt his head.

Jiang Cheng, however, couldn't ignore them.

They'd sit in the room they shared together as teenagers; Wei Ying would try his best to distract himself from the shouts downstairs whereas Jiang Cheng would stay in one spot, glaring at his hands. Wei Ying knew he was listening intently, taking in every word and letting it poison his heart.

He sighed, reaching for Jiang Cheng.

“Jiang Cheng, let's go. Let's get out of here,” he said.

Jiang Cheng snatched his hand away. “Why? Shouldn't we be used to this by now?”

“We don't have to listen to them fighting.”

The voices downstairs got louder. Wei Ying clutched his hand to his chest and wished they could stop.

“What's the matter? You can't stand the truth?” Jiang Cheng scoffed. “Mom's right; Dad's always preferred you.”

Don't say that!”

“Why can't I?! Why are you upset about that?! Shouldn't I be the one who's upset? I'm the one who can never compare to you, no matter how much I try!”

Jiang Cheng was shouting now too; almost as loud as his mother, who he always took after. His eyes burned like hers did whenever she blamed Wei Ying for every inconvenience in their home. It hurt more to see it on Jiang Cheng's face.

“That's not true!”

“It is and you know it! My own dad doesn't care about me but he loves you! Every day he's always praising you, but he's never once bothered to pay attention to me!

Jiang Cheng shook, breathing hard. He was already crying. Wei Ying rushed forward to grasp him by the shoulders, but Jiang Cheng only shoved him off. The sounds of Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu fighting could no longer be heard; all Wei Ying could listen to was Jiang Cheng trying his best to stifle his sobs, wiping furiously at his eyes.

“So tell me, Wei Ying, why don't you want to listen to this?!” he demanded. “Shouldn't you be fucking happy?! You have my parents who pay more attention to you than anyone else!”

Wei Ying weakly shook his head. “Stop saying that nonsense! Uncle Jiang is only strict with you because you're his own son!”

“No, he hates Mom so naturally he hates me too! Who cares about me when you're always going to be better?!”

This was what Wei Ying hated the most. He was forever thankful the Jiangs gave him a home, but the constant reminder that his presence did nothing but hurt those he loved the most tore him inside. As a child, it gnawed at him even when he didn't understand why. The years passed and he eventually understood—but still, there was nothing he could do. He could only hope to repay them in the future, when he was older, when he could look after himself without being a burden to anyone.

Not knowing what else he could do now, Wei Ying grabbed Jiang Cheng by the shoulders and shook him.

Stop it!” he said, he begged. “Why does there need to be any competition between us? Why does that matter? I have never cared for any of that! Jiang Cheng, didn't you once tell me to stay by your side when we were kids? That you'll scare away any dogs for me?”

Jiang Cheng recoiled from him. “Why the fuck are you bringing that up—”

“No matter what happens, I'll be here to knock some sense into you. None of this competition matters!” Wei Ying said. He was throwing out everything and anything he could think of, desperate to make it up to Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng was his best friend, his brother; the first person he'd greet in the morning and the last one he'd see at night. They were the twin heroes, as they used call each other when they were kids; Wei Ying would stay by his side until they grew old and grey.

“If you don't believe in yourself then I will, and I'll beat up anyone that tells you you're not good enough,” Wei Ying continued. “We're brothers, aren't we? I don't want to fight you, I want to stay by your side.”

Jiang Cheng's eyes widened. Gone was the expression he saw more on Aunt Yu, replaced by a childlike hope. It was the same expression you'd see on a child who wanted to reach out for something, but was too scared to take it. Wei Ying gave him a shaky smile.

In the end, Jiang Cheng punched him on the shoulder. It was weak, barely even a punch, but it brought a smile to Jiang Cheng's face. He shook his head to himself, muttering under his breath.

“What fucking romantic movie did you quote that out of? Are you trying to comfort me or give me second hand embarrassment?”

Wei Ying's smile widened into a genuine grin. Their argument ended, even if the one downstairs was still continuing—but that didn't matter anymore. For the rest of that evening, the two boys watched TV together, laughing among themselves; knowing that whatever happened in the future, at least they would have each other.

I want to stay by your side.

How easily he broke that promise. No wonder Jiang Cheng hates him.

Wei Ying sighs, pushing the memories to the back of his mind. He looks down at Yanli, wishing she would wake up and tell him what to do. She'd always been good at comforting him.

“Jiejie,” Wei Ying quietly says. “Jiejie, I'm here.”

She doesn't say anything.

Wei Ying blinks back the stinging in his eyes and leans closer, carefully taking her hand into his. It's cold, but just as soft as he remembers. If he closes his eyes, he can think back to when she'd hold his hand, stroking his hair and telling him everything was going to be okay. He squeezes her hand tighter.

“It's Wei Ying. I'm here,” he says again. “I'm sorry it took me so long to visit.”

A lump catches at the back of his throat and it's becoming harder to see her with the tears that threaten to brim over. What does he even say to her? Can she hear him now? Does she want him to stay?

He clutches her hand closer to him and squeezes his eyes shut. Some of his tears escape him, dripping down onto the bed. He shrinks into himself. He's glad Jiang Cheng has left the room, even if it hurt to see him go.

“Please wake up. I'm sorry, Jiejie—I'm so sorry,” he begs.

Still, there is nothing. The machines continue to answer him instead, reminding Wei Ying his sister is not well; that it's his fault.

With no one else left in the room and Jiejie not waking up, Wei Ying allows himself to cry—just for now. He's tired of pretending he's okay. For now, all alone here with not even Lan Zhan to comfort him, Wei Ying cries into Jiejie's bed. He doesn't let go of her hand and he continues to beg her to wake up, repeating over and over again he's sorry. He's not sure if he wishes she can hear him.

When his tears dry and his apologies subside into hiccups, Wei Ying finally looks up. He takes a few seconds to compose himself, swallowing back the rest of the sobs that want to escape.

Jiejie has not moved at all. She sleeps on.

He takes a deep breath and stands up, gently letting go of her hand. He doesn't know how long he's been here, but this is enough. Wei Ying is tired—much more than he was before. He looks at Jiejie one last time and leaves the room; the weight in his chest doesn't go away even after he closes the door.

He knows why. Jiang Cheng is on the other side of the corridor, arms folded, staring at him. As always, his emotions are on show for everyone to see; he wants Wei Ying to leave. He's been here long enough.

For once, Wei Ying doesn't run away. He takes a step forward, and another, and another; until he's face to face with Jiang Cheng, unable to ignore the slight widening of his eyes. Jiang Cheng unfolds his arms. His fists clench ever so slightly.

“What do you want?” he asks.

What does he want? It's not about what he wants; it's about what he needs to do.

“Jiang Cheng. I'm sor—”

Don't,” Jiang Cheng hisses. “Don't even say it.”

Wei Ying bites the inside of his cheek. Jiang Cheng's face is devoid of the usual anger he expects. He's as tired as he is.

“Just—don't say anything,” Jiang Cheng says again. He rubs his temples with one hand, closing his eyes. “There's nothing left to say. Both of us... There's no point.”

There's no point. Years and years of growing up together and it boils down to this; nothing. The unsteady path they've both taken, running at each other again and again, trying to see whose words hurt the most; does it finish at a dead end? Is this it?

Wei Ying licks his dry lips, forcing himself to speak up. “I have something to say.”

“I told you not to—”

“Can you listen for once?” Wei Ying says. He doesn't have to raise his voice; Jiang Cheng glares at him, but allows him to speak. “You can hate me all you want. You don't even have to think of me as family anymore. I know I wasn't there when Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu died. I know I made things worse and it's my fault Jiejie is here.”

Wei Ying has said these things to himself countless times. For all his arrogance and his pride, he's good at remembering his wrongdoings, refusing to let himself forget them.

“Instead of being there for you, I just got drunk and I ran away from everything. I thought it was what you wanted. After everything I made you go through, I was convinced you hated me and staying away was the only thing I could do to help... but I was just too scared to face you,” Wei Ying continues. Everything is still so fresh to him. It feels like yesterday when he would down a bottle of wine instead of facing reality, ignoring the world; even going as far as to ignore Jiang Cheng.

He never intended to abandon him. He thought he was helping his brother by staying away, but he was only helping himself.

Wei Ying looks into Jiang Cheng's eyes and wishes they can start again.

Life isn't that easy, and no amount of wishing will erase his mistakes. Wei Ying can only sigh. “I don't have anything else to offer but to say I'm sorry.”

The way Jiang Cheng looks at him takes Wei Ying back to the times they'd argue, only for them to set aside their differences and laugh it off afterwards. However, now, instead of staring at him like a child with hope, Jiang Cheng stares at Wei Ying as if he's too wary, too tired of giving him a second chance.

He shakes his head and his voice is low, weak. “What's the point of saying all this now?”

“Do I need a reason to?” Wei Ying answers. “That's all. Thanks for hearing me out.”

Before he goes, Jiang Cheng speaks louder. There is some anger laced in his tone, but that's expected. Jiang Cheng always relies on anger before any other emotion.

“What do you want me to say? Forgive you? Say I'm sorry? What's the point of talking when there's nothing else we can do?!”

Wei Ying bows his head. “I don't want anything from you. It's been so long. You... don't need to say anything.”

Jiang Cheng says nothing, and neither does Wei Ying. In the end, Jiang Cheng is right; there really is nothing left for them to say to each other. Wei Ying spares him one last look and walks away, leaving the hospital.

He doesn't want to linger around the city, not when there's so much here that reminds him of who he used to be. Wei Ying quickly returns to the hotel; the only place where he finds he can breathe properly again. Seeing Lan Zhan waiting for him immediately takes away the weight on his shoulders.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, standing up from the couch. He'd been reading a book, by the looks of it.

“Hey,” Wei Ying weakly greets. He kicks off his shoes and throws himself onto the bed, letting the events of today drain him completely. He'd only been at the hospital for a few hours yet it feels like an eternity since he last saw Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying stays on the bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling. He follows the intricate patterns of its golden swirls, weaving around the room until it joins the chandelier at the centre. The room smells faintly of ginger, but he forgets about that when Lan Zhan sits next to him. Turning to face him, Wei Ying breathes in sandalwood and smiles.

“Do you want to come with me tomorrow, Lan Zhan?” he asks.

Lan Zhan nods.

Sitting up, Wei Ying lays his head on the musician's shoulder and closes his eyes. Now that he's back with Lan Zhan and away from the stifling hospital, his anxiety calms down—slightly. It continues to gnaw at him, reminding him his sister is still unwell and there's a chance he could be saying goodbye to her very soon.

“I'm scared she's dying,” Wei Ying says out loud. “She can't... Just when I'm finally here.”

He never expected Lan Zhan to say something. When he feels an arm snaking around his waist and pulling him closer, Wei Ying releases a shuddering breath and welcomes it.

“I... Lan Zhan, what are you most scared of?”

“Hm?”

“You heard me. What scares you the most?”

For some reason, the grip around his waist tightens. He thinks he feels Lan Zhan shaking for the shortest second.

“Losing... the people I love,” he says after a while.

Wei Ying's chest aches. He wants to ask who he has lost, but he keeps those questions to himself. He can't even answer Lan Zhan's inquiries about his own past; what right does he have to pry on his as well?

“Oh. You see, I'm scared of hurting the people I love,” Wei Ying mumbles. “But I've already done that so much, Lan Zhan. It's easier to be alone than to hurt them.”

Lan Zhan leans in. He kisses the top of Wei Ying's head, causing his heart to skip a beat.

“I'm here,” he says.

Wei Ying smiles. “I know.”

 

- x -

 

Wangji has always made sure to avoid hospitals. Being immortal, neither he nor his brother need to ever set foot in one. In fact, it is best they don't; if any doctors or nurses noticed the advantages they have as immortals, then it would be detrimental. Coming to Ohio with Wei Ying had been no problem; joining him at the hospital is another matter entirely.

The next day, Wangji and Wei Ying make their way to the hospital as planned. He follows Wei Ying along the white corridors, keeping his gaze straight. Around them are reminders that humanity is weak and their lives are short. It does little to comfort Wangji, knowing that Wei Ying is exactly the same. Even if he has found him after all this time, he is temporary. Wei Ying will leave, just like everyone else.

He hates how there is nothing he can do about this. What is the point of being immortal?

Wangji ignores these thoughts for now. He is not here in the hospital for this reason; he is here to support Wei Ying. Keeping an eye on him at all times, he remains by his side, following him until they reach a closed door. Outside, Wangji recognises Jin Zixuan and his son, staring at him with obvious curiosity in their brown eyes. Neither speak. Beside them is Jiang Cheng, who makes it obvious he is not pleased Wangji is here with Wei Ying. He scoffs under his breath, so quiet that Wangji knows Wei Ying wouldn't have been able to hear it.

Wei Ying clears his throat and motions towards the door.

“Can we...?”

Jin Zixuan nods. “Don't be long. The doctor wants to see her soon.”

They enter the room.

It is clear, as soon as he sees her, that Jiang Yanli is dying. It is the first thing Wangji notices and the only thing he can focus on after. Her pulse is weak, barely there, and what little life she has left in her is slowly dwindling away with every second that passes. She would not survive another day; perhaps two if she is lucky.

“This is Jiejie,” Wei Ying tells him, taking a seat next to her. He holds her hand in his; the naïve hope in his face as he stares at his sister almost makes Wangji look away. “I hope she wakes up soon. I think she'll like you.”

Wangji sits down as well. Not for the first time in his life, he hates how fragile human lives are.

Wei Ying talks to his sister as if she is awake. He tells her that Wangji was gracious enough to come with him to Ohio, that he is a parent of one of the students he teaches. He keeps repeating that Jiang Yanli will like him, maybe even more than she likes Wei Ying—although Wangji finds that very hard to believe. One does not have to look twice to see how much Wei Ying loves his sister, and how much it will destroy him to lose her.

Wangji has already seen that happen. He does not want to see it again.

“Wei Ying,” he says.

Wei Ying glances at him. “Yeah?”

“...A drink. Can you get one? Outside.”

“Huh? Oh, are you thirsty?”

Wangji nods.

“Okay, wait.” Wei Ying stands, patting his pockets. Wangji offers him his wallet, but he pushes it away. “I'm not that broke. I think I saw a few vending machines on the way here. I'll get us some.”

“Please.”

Wei Ying's eyes flicker to Jiang Yanli, hesitating. “Wait here, okay? I'll be quick.”

Again, Wangji nods. “Hmm.”

He breathes a sigh of relief when Wei Ying runs off, slipping outside. Wangji does not waste any time. He rises and takes Jiang Yangli's wrist, pressing his fingers against her pulse point; weak, as expected. Her pulse struggles to carry on.

With his other hand, he hovers it just above her heart, watching her face for any sort of reaction. She sleeps on, and so he begins.

It has been years since he has done this properly. He transfers his energy to her body, feeling the warmth leave him momentarily and basking her in a blue glow. A faint hum of magic hovers in the air; time is still, as frozen as Jiang Yanli. Wangji uses more energy, his eyes narrowing at the lack of response on her part. This needs to work. Jiang Yanli cannot die.

He gathers as much of his spirit energy, letting it dance between his fingertips before they sink into her skin. More, more, until Wangji remembers what it feels like to be weakened, until he begins to worry this is not working. Seconds turn into minutes. He does not stop; he is immortal and this will not kill him. He cannot stop.

She remains unmoving. Wangji clenches his jaw, roaming his hands over her head, stomach, any vital organ that is still weakened. He is beginning to breathe harder with how much energy he is losing, but still he continues to transfer everything he can into her deteriorating body—

The door bursts open. Wangji snatches his hands away, trembling.

“Lan Zhan, I didn't know what drink you'd like so I just got you water. Is that okay?”

He turns around and watches Wei Ying draw closer. He is none the wiser, waving two bottles of water in front of him. Wangji manages a quick nod.

“Sorry I took so long, by the way. The vending machine in this corridor didn't sell any drinks. I had to walk around to find another one.”

Wangji grips the bottle, glancing back at Jiang Yanli. He is not sure if he has done enough, and he cannot think of another lie to get Wei Ying out of this room. If he waits any longer, then Jiang Yanli's time may run out. He needs to to do this now.

“What's wrong?” Wei Ying asks, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You look tired.”

“I am fine,” Wangji insists. He keeps his eyes on Jiang Yanli, searching his brain for a solution. Under no circumstances can Wei Ying witness him using cultivation. He will need to get Wei Ying away from here, preferably for a longer time.

“We might have to leave soon. Jin Zixuan said the doctor needs to see her.”

No.

Wangji's eyes narrow. He needs more time. He needs—

A soft whimper breaks through the air. Wei Ying hears it too; within seconds, he's by Jiang Yanli's side, grabbing her hand.

“Jiejie? Jiejie, it's me, Wei Ying,” he says. “Jiejie, I'm here.”

She groans and the hand in Wei Ying's twitches. Wangji's eyes soften, watching Wei Ying's lips tremble as he tries his best not to cry. He repeats over and over again that he is here, stumbling over his own words. It does not feel right to witness this; Wei Ying has always had too much pride to show weakness in front of others.

Finally, Jiang Yanli's eyes flutter open. She looks around the room in confusion before settling on Wei Ying, who is shaking like a leaf in front of her. She gasps, raising her hand to stroke back his hair.

“A-Ying? A-Ying, is it you?”

That is when Wei Ying finally cries. He breaks apart, clutching her hand and ducking his head down, filling the room with his sobs. Wangji has to look away.

Jiang Yanli's pulse has steadied itself. She gathers Wei Ying into her arms and sobs with him, running her fingers through his hair.

“Jiejie, I-I am so sorry—”

She silences him, shaking her head. Wei Ying looks so small in her arms; hardly a middle aged man, but a child who only missed his family.

“Sshh, sshh. There's nothing to be sorry for. I've missed you so much.”

Wei Ying continues to cry, repeating again and again that he is sorry. No matter how much Jiang Yanli reassures him, Wei Ying is inconsolable. His sobs are loud, no longer held back; he can only hold onto his sister's hand and apologise for everything he has done.

As much as Wangji wishes to comfort him, he knows his place. He quietly slips out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

For now, he has done enough.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying can't stop crying. He feels Jiejie's arms around him, pulling him closer like she used to do when they were younger. Everything rushes back to him all at once; over ten years of avoiding her and it's as if she was never gone to begin with. He doesn't know how long he spends crying into her shoulder. At that moment, he stops caring about his pride. He's never been good at hiding his emotions around her anyway.

After what feels like an eternity, Wei Ying's sobs finally trail off into hiccups. He sniffs a few times, still laying his head against Yanli's shoulder. Not once has she stopped comforting him, telling him again and again that everything is okay. She carries on rubbing circles on his back, waiting for him to make the first move. Too scared to properly face her just yet, Wei Ying stays there until his pulse calms down and his tears dry.

Eventually, he quietly clears his throat and slowly moves away. He keeps his eyes down, fixated on the white hospital sheets.

Jiejie reaches out for him and it takes all of his self control not to flinch away. She tucks a stray piece of hair behind his ear and strokes his cheek. Even without looking at her, he knows she's smiling.

“Look at you,” she says. “So handsome. Don't cry, come on.”

He's no longer crying but if she carries on talking then he might just start again. Wei Ying finally gathers the courage to look at her.

“Jiejie, I am so sorry—”

“I already told you there's nothing to be sorry for,” she interrupts.

Wei Ying desperately shakes his head. “No, please. Let me apologise. It was all my fault, Jiejie. I-I ruined your wedding and I hurt you—”

“A-Ying, it was an accident.”

“That doesn't change anything! You've been here for over ten years—and—and y-you're still...”

His voice trails off when she begins to pat his head, trying to smooth down the rebellious strands of hair that never stay in place. She used to do this when he was a teenager, laughing at how impossible it was to ever tidy Wei Ying's hair. The fact that she's still doing this when he's now thirty-three years old brings a small smile to his face.

“I'm only happy to see you again,” Jiejie says. “You've grown so much.”

Jiejie takes his hand. Hers feel thin and frail, but they are much warmer now; still as soft as he remembers.

“A-Ying, have you been bottling all this inside?” she asks.

Wei Ying swallows the lump in his throat. He doesn't answer her. She already knows anyway.

She sighs and squeezes his hand tighter. “There, there. It's okay. You're here now. It's okay.”

As happy as he is to see her again, Wei Ying can't shake off his thoughts. Is this it? Is this what he's been avoiding all this time? He almost wishes Jiejie will hate him; give him what he deserves and more. It doesn't feel right for everything to lead up to this when it's all he's been worrying about for the past decade.

In a way, it's harder to face than what he's been dreading. He has no idea how to go on from here.

“Tell me; how have you been? A-Xuan tells me you're a teacher now.”

Wei Ying looks away again. He doubts she'll want to hear what exactly he's been doing for the past decade.

“Yeah. I... I got lucky. A friend I used to live with became the headmaster to our current school. He basically gave me the job,” he explains.

Yanli pats his hand. “I'm sure it's because he knew how smart you are too. Didn't you get your engineering degree?”

Wei Ying winces. “Ah, I dropped out of uni.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, it... didn't really feel like something I wanted to do.”

Jiejie's hand tightens around him. His last year in uni would have been around the time of her accident. He knows his pathetic lie hasn't convinced her.

“As long as you're happy,” Jiejie says. “That's all that matters.”

Again, Wei Ying remains silent. He scans the room and stops at the door, eager for a change in subject—anything that isn't about him.

“Jiang Cheng is outside. Should I go and let you talk to him?”

“No. I want to talk with both of you. Can you get him?”

Wei Ying wishes he never asked. He slowly slips his hand out of her grasp and stands up. “Right. I'll go get him then.”

He walks over to the door and pops his head outside. The first person he spots is Lan Zhan leaning against a wall. He looks up, concern evident in his golden eyes. Wei Ying flashes him a quick smile before turning to Jiang Cheng.

“She wants to talk to us. Together,” he says.

Jiang Cheng sighs. Wei Ying doesn't miss the way his fists clench, but nevertheless he stands up and enters the room. He says nothing as he brushes past Wei Ying.

Great. Wei Ying turns around and sits back down on his seat. He tries not to read Jiang Cheng's expression too much. Between the both of them, Jiang Cheng has never been good at concealing what he really feels whereas Wei Ying is practically an expert at it. The smile Jiang Cheng is giving to Jiejie looks strained, awkward. Wei Ying hates it.

“A-Cheng, you were exaggerating when you said A-Ying is far shorter than you now. There's hardly a difference,” Jiejie says.

Jiang Cheng's forced smile widens into something that looks more like a grimace. “A-Jie, I never said that.”

Jiejie lets out a small laugh. “I can't believe how much you two have grown.”

“Every time you say that, you make me feel old,” Jiang Cheng mutters.

“You know I don't mean it like that. Although, I am curious. Two handsome men... Why are you both still single?”

Wei Ying raises his eyebrows, spotting a familiar glint in Jiejie's eyes. It's not long until Jiang Cheng is blushing, squinting his eyes at her.

“H-How do you know that I'm single?” he says.

His stuttering almost makes Wei Ying smirk. Jiang Cheng hasn't changed one bit.

Jiejie beams at them with all the angelic innocence in the world. “A-Xuan keeps me up to date.”

“It's none of his business!”

“Well?” she insists.

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. His cheeks redden even more, which really does nothing to help him. Wei Ying leans his chin against his palm, allowing a small genuine smile to tug on his lips. He's forgotten how easily flustered Jiang Cheng gets.

“I don't care for things like that!” Jiang Cheng keeps saying.

“A-Ying?” Now, Jiejie turns her attention to Wei Ying, wiping the smile clean off his face. “A-Xuan told me you brought someone with you here.”

Wei Ying lets out a nervous chuckle. “Lan Zhan and I are just friends... He offered to come with me.”

“Then you two must be very close for him to want to come with you.”

Close... Are they? Lan Zhan gives nice cuddles and has a very soothing voice... He's very patient and not once has he complained about anything Wei Ying's put him through. Even after pushing him away countless times, Lan Zhan is still here, supporting him by some miraculous reason.

Apart from that, Wei Ying doesn't know anything else about him. He knows he's good at music and he's brought up Sizhui like a son. He knows Lan Zhan likes black coffee and black tea, and the very idea of it makes Wei Ying blanch. He also knows he didn't enjoy watching Shrek that much, but he still sat through all the movies in one afternoon.

But... what did Lan Zhan even think about him? Why did he come all the way here to Ohio?

“Not... really,” Wei Ying admits, frowning.

Jiejie turns to the door, tilting her head. “Was he the one who left earlier?”

“Yes, that was him.”

“He's very handsome.”

Wei Ying laughs at that. Handsome may as well be an understatement.

“Isn't he Xichen's brother?”

Surprised, Wei Ying turns to Jiang Cheng. He didn't expect him to talk to him at all.

“Yeah,” he nods. “I think Lan Zhan is younger.”

Jiang Cheng folds his arms. He scoffs slightly, but there doesn't seem to be any malice behind it. “Huh. You're dating Xichen's brother?”

“I'm not dating him. We're just friends.”

Jiang Cheng scoffs again. For a second, Wei Ying thinks he sees him rolling his eyes. He allows it; this is much better than Jiang Cheng glaring at him.

Jiejie laughs again. “How about you, A-Cheng?”

“I told you! I don't care for—”

“A-Xuan told me he couldn't sleep the other night because you were too busy flirting with someone over the phone.”

Within seconds, Jiang Cheng is once again as red as a tomato. Even Wei Ying can't stop himself from snorting but he quickly tries to hide it with a cough.

“Why does he tell you everything?!”

Jiejie's smile is evil. “He said you even gave your number to them.”

No, Xichen gave his number to me!”

Wei Ying raises an eyebrow, not expecting that name. “You're dating Lan Zhan's brother? I didn't even know you were gay.”

Jiang Cheng looks like he's seconds away from lunging across the bed and punching Wei Ying in the face.

“Shut the fuck up! I'm not!

The room is once again filled with the sound of their sister laughing. If he ignores where they are, Wei Ying can convince himself he's back in Yunmeng.

“I've missed you both so much,” Jiejie says, taking both of their hands.

Wei Ying looks down at them. Yesterday, only silence drifted through this room. Both brothers had nothing to say to each other. Even if Jiejie is here to make them smile again, is it really enough to fix the broken relationship between the two of them? Is it enough to forget Wei Ying not being there for Jiang Cheng when he needed him the most? Is it enough to cast aside all of the threats Jiang Cheng has said in the past, insisting he wished Wei Ying was dead instead?

Jiejie is a good sister, but she is only one person. She can't heal the problems of two brothers who have allowed too many years to drift them apart.

She sighs, breaking the silence.

“I can't force you both to set aside your differences, but just know that whatever has happened—whatever happens—we are still a family. Nothing will ever change that.”

Wei Ying doesn't even know what to say about that. This isn't how he expected things to go. He'd been convincing himself that all he wanted was to see if Jiejie was okay; once he made sure that she was, he'd leave their lives and that was that. It was for everyone's sake. Jiang Cheng wanted him gone and Jiejie deserved to live her own life without Wei Ying there to hurt her again.

It was easier to convince himself this was the best option back then. Now... Now, he doesn't know. Every time he looks at Jiejie, it hurts. He knows deep down that she wouldn't want him to leave. She's too nice. Too forgiving.

Wei Ying sneaks glances at her and Jiang Cheng, hating himself for being unable to fill this dreaded silence. All he can do is squeeze Jiejie's hand and force a smile on his face. He's surprised when he sees Jiang Cheng doing the same. The three of them smile at each other; still tense under this awkward silence filling the room, but for now it's enough.

It's something.

 

- x -

 

The doctors say it's a miracle. Jiejie is rapidly getting better at an alarming speed. They have no idea how it's happening and, frankly, neither does Wei Ying—but he doesn't care. He visits her often; sometimes with Lan Zhan, sometimes alone. With every visit, Jiejie smiles wider and looks much better; she's no longer pale and she's starting to fill up where she has lost all the weight. Realistically, since it's only been a few days, Wei Ying understands why all the doctors are baffled. It really is a miracle if you look at it. He can only hope this means she'll be able to come back home soon.

Even so, she's not well enough to leave her bed yet, something which does not please her. Every time Wei Ying visits, he'll hear Jin Zixuan having to convince Jiejie not to rush herself. She insists she wants to try and get up, but Zixuan won't allow it. Listening to him nag Jiejie gets on Wei Ying's nerves even if he does have a point.

At the very least, she's taken off the ventilator. It's safe to say everyone was happy about that.

Everything is strangely peaceful. While Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying are still not on speaking terms, they exchange conversation whenever Jiejie asks to talk to both of them. It's somewhat awkward, but it's better than all of the fights they've been having for these past years. Wei Ying doesn't expect anything from Jiang Cheng; this is enough as it is.

They only have three days left here in Ohio. Wei Ying isn't sure what he's going to do once he's back in Gusu. For now, he pushes that to the back of his mind.

“A-Ying, is something on your mind?” Jiejie asks, already reaching for his hand.

Wei Ying quickly shakes his head. “I'm just tired, Jiejie. Don't worry.”

She nods, thankfully not asking any further questions. Her eyes flicker between him and Lan Zhan, who has quietly been sitting next to him this entire time. It's one of the rare times Wei Ying managed to convince him to stay. Lan Zhan has been leaving the room whenever Jiejie is awake, excusing himself so Wei Ying can spend time with her privately. Such a gentleman, as always.

Just then, the shrill sound of a phone interrupts the silence. Wei Ying turns to Lan Zhan.

“Who's that?” he asks.

Lan Zhan looks down at his phone. “My brother.”

“You better answer that then.”

Lan Zhan nods. He leaves the room shortly, shutting the door behind him.

“He's a very nice man,” Jiejie says once Lan Zhan is gone.

“He is...” Wei Ying mumbles. More than nice, in fact.

“How did you two meet?”

Wei Ying purses his lips, thinking back to the first time he laid eyes on Lan Zhan. Fuck, that felt like ages ago... It was when Sizhui volunteered to stay after school and help him with the new art display. Wei Ying remembers glancing up and seeing Lan Zhan by the door, as pretty as ever.

“I teach his son,” Wei Ying says, unable to keep the smile off his face. He hasn't even known Lan Zhan for half a year and yet it already feels like he's been part of his life forever. How strange is that?

Jiejie giggles into her hand. “You like him.”

Wei Ying jerks back. “Jiejie, please.

“You do! You're so easy to read, A-Ying.”

Wei Ying bites his bottom lip. No... He doesn't like Lan Zhan in that way. It's too soon to tell, surely? He may be attracted to Lan Zhan—but who wouldn't be? Lan Zhan is very good looking and it doesn't help he's been nothing but kind to Wei Ying since they met. Even when Wei Ying was drunk, Lan Zhan still took care of him. He may be quiet and shit at holding a conversation, but that doesn't bother Wei Ying at all. In fact, he finds it easy to talk to Lan Zhan; it's as if he can be himself around him, forgetting about all of his worries. Lan Zhan is good at cuddling and Wei Ying would be lying if he said he hasn't enjoyed sleeping in the same hotel room as him these past few days... It's been a while since he's felt thiscomfortable around anyone.

But—wait, does that mean he actually likes him?

Wei Ying frowns.

Ah, shit.

Jiejie laughs, as if she's just heard his entire thought process.

“Have you two gone on a date yet?”

Jiejie.”

“You're blushing.”

Wei Ying sighs. He doesn't know if Jiejie is teasing him more than usual or if she's always been like this...

“We had a date before,” he mumbles. “But I sort of told him I didn't want anything to happen between us.”

“How come?”

“I don't want a relationship. I mean... I didn't.” Wei Ying shrugs, heaving a sigh. “I don't know, Jiejie. Feelings are complicating.”

Yanli strokes his hair, fiddling with his unruly bangs. His hair is a bit longer than it used to be, and it seems Jiejie has taken a liking to running her hands through it. Just the other day, she spent a whole hour trying to braid it, only for Jiang Cheng to walk in and roll his eyes at the scene. Of course, Jiejie tried to do the same with Jiang Cheng, but wasn't as successful with his hair being shorter.

“But do you want to be with him?” she asks.

Wei Ying whines. “Jiejie...”

“Come on. You and A-Cheng are so stubborn when it comes you admitting these things.”

Admit what exactly? What is he even supposed to do? Wei Ying will admit that, okay, he likes Lan Zhan more than he's ever liked anyone in the past—which shouldn't be a lot in the first place considering he's only ever looked for sex. Feelings never mattered to him.

Even now, the thought of dating anyone felt wrong. He'd gotten so used to being by himself for all these years. Suddenly changing that didn't sit well with him.

Jiejie sighs. She trails her hand down to cup one of his cheeks, gently moving his face so he can look at her.

“A-Ying, you deserve to be happy too.”

Wei Ying flinches. As always, she has it spot on.

“Don't isolate yourself. Do what makes you happy. Don't worry about anyone else,” she says. “I know you, A-Ying. You punish yourself so much when you don't need to. For once in your life, focus on what makes you happy, instead of everyone else.”

Everything she says are all words that refuse to sink into him. They confuse him more than give him comfort. Do what makes you happy. Does he deserve that? How can he do that when he's always going to have this guilt clinging to him, reminding him of every mistake he's ever made in his life? How can she make it sound so easy?

“Jiejie, you...” Wei Ying sighs, shaking his head. “You don't know half of the things I did while you've been in here.”

She furrows her eyebrows together. “Does it matter? All I want is for you to be happy, A-Ying. Stop punishing yourself for the past.”

Even if he tries, where does he even start? What even makes him happy? Not just content, but actually happy?

His brain conjures an image of the nights he's spent with Lan Zhan; uneventful and innocent, just safely tucked in his arms as Wei Ying slowly falls asleep. Every night has ended like that, and every morning begins with the comforting feeling that Lan Zhan is still there. Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan wakes up earlier than he does, but he waits for him to wake up before leaving the bed. Today, Wei Ying woke up to Lan Zhan stroking his hair. The thought of someone watching him sleep and seeing him when he's so defenceless should unnerve him; instead, it made Wei Ying's stomach flip, filling his body with a giddiness that he thinks is as close to happy as he can get.

Wei Ying groans, resting his head on Jiejie's bed. He's suddenly very tired thinking about all of this.

“It's been so long,” he says. “I feel like I wouldn't even know where to start.”

Jiejie pats him on the head. “Everything will fall in place, A-Ying. I believe in you. And anyway... If you want a place to start, maybe you should go on a second date with Mr. Lan?”

Jiejie.”

She laughs again.

When they hear the door opening, Wei Ying doesn't have to look behind him to know Lan Zhan is back. He stiffens slightly as Lan Zhan sits beside him again, their shoulders brushing for the shortest of seconds. Jiejie's words refuse to leave him alone. For the rest of their visit, he sneaks glances at Lan Zhan from the corner of his eyes, wondering if it's worth asking him on a second date.

Shit. He can't really be considering this, can he?

 

- x -

 

A-Ying is as stubborn as ever. Yanli is unsure whether she finds it endearing or sad that he has barely changed after all these years. She's endeared he remains as clueless as ever, but of course she's also upset he continues to blame everything on himself.

A-Cheng has not changed either. If anything, he is much more stubborn than Wei Ying. While both of them try to talk to each other in her presence, Yanli is not blind; she doesn't miss the way they stiffen whenever the other addresses them, or the way their smiles never quite reach their eyes. They're trying—but only for her sake. Yanli doesn't have to ask her husband to know that A-Ying and A-Cheng do not talk to each other once they leave her room.

She sighs. She cannot force them to reconcile, but why must they be so hard-headed?

“How are you feeling?”

Her husband's voice breaks her out of her thoughts. She turns to her side, smiling at the concern already stirring in A-Xuan's amber eyes. He must have thought her sigh meant something bad.

“You ask this every hour,” Yanli murmurs.

“Because I'm worried,” he says, reaching for her hand.

She squeezes it. Regardless of how much he worries, A-Xuan has not aged at all for the past decade. Perhaps she is biased, but her husband remains as handsome as ever. She only wishes he'd smile more rather than look at her as if she's a glass doll waiting to shatter.

“I feel... good,” Yanli reassures. “And happy.”

A-Xuan raises an eyebrow. “Happy?”

“Yes, everyone's here. I know it's all thanks to you that A-Ying came as well.”

At last, A-Xuan's face relaxes into a low laugh. He shakes his head to himself, shuffling his chair forward so he can lean closer to her.

“I'm still in shock he's actually here. He's one stubborn man.”

Yanli nods. Considering A-Ying and her husband have not had a pleasant history together (A-Ying has punched A-Xuan far too many times), it is a miracle A-Xuan even managed to make him come to Ohio. While A-Xuan is not as... proud (arrogant would be a better word, but A-Xuan will only sulk if he catches her calling him that) as he used to be, Yanli knows that it would have still been difficult for him to invite A-Ying here.

“Thank you for convincing him,” Yanli says, stroking his hand. “I know it was hard for you.”

A-Xuan shakes his head. He gives her a soft smile; that type of smile she knows he never shows to anyone but her. Even now, it makes her heart race faster, as if she's a teenager all over again.

“Anything for you,” he says.

He leans closer. Yanli closes her eyes and smiles when she feels his large hands cupping her face, his breath tickling her lips.

And then the door slams open.

Yanli jumps. A-Xuan sighs and looks over his shoulder.

A-Ling runs into the room, not at all noticing that his parents' faces are inches apart. He grins at both of them; it's hard not to laugh at his impeccable timing.

“Mom! How are you feeling?” he asks eagerly, already stealing his father's seat. Yanli laughs harder once A-Xuan ruffles their son's hair and A-Ling fills this room with the sound of him whining, insisting he's not a little boy anymore.

“You're just like your dad; always asking me how I'm feeling...” Yanli says. “I feel fine, A-Ling. Very happy now that you're here.”

A-Xuan stops ruffling A-Ling's hair, having succeeded in making it stand up in every direction. He pinches A-Ling's cheeks, earning another whine from their son. “You finally woke up?”

A-Ling pouts. “You didn't wake me up! I thought we were visiting together?”

“You and Jiang Cheng were snoring so much when I woke up. I didn't want to disturb you both.”

In less than a second, A-Ling's whole face turns red. He stomps his feet on the floor—goodness, that looks exactly like A-Xuan when they were teenagers! Yanli hides a giggle behind her hand, resisting the urge to pinch her son's cheeks as well.

“I-I don't snore!”

A-Xuan scoffs. “Trust me; you do. You were snoring down my ear last night.”

Dad!”

Yanli laughs for what feels like the hundredth time this week. Ever since she woke up from her fever, she's been so happy. It's been forever since she had her whole family with her. She prays she can go home soon, back to Lanling where they could all be together again.

She would be lying if she said she isn't sad she missed A-Ling growing up. Before her accident, A-Ling was still a toddler, barely able to walk in a straight line. Now, he was as tall as A-Xuan when he was his age. It's a conflicting set of emotions; on one hand, she's proud her little boy has grown up so fine; and on the other, she wishes she could have been there to witness all of that.

But there's no point wishing about impossible things. Yanli is lucky she is able to be here for moments such as this.

“Where's your uncle?” she asks after a while. A-Ying and his boyfriend (or not, as he insists) left an hour ago. Yanli has yet to see A-Cheng today.

“He's coming,” A-Ling says. “He was texting for all of last night.”

A-Xuan smirks. “That Lan Xichen guy?”

“They text all the time. I thought Uncle didn't even like him.”

How typical. It seems A-Ying isn't the only one being stubborn with his feelings.

“A-Cheng is like that,” Yanli says. “The more he pretends not to like someone, the more he actually does.

“How about you, A-Ling?” A-Xuan says, poking their son's cheek again. “Do you like anyone in school?”

W-What?!”

“Any girls that've caught your eye?”

No!”

Yanli has dealt with far too many stubborn men in this family. Her son's reaction only tells her that he does indeed have a crush on someone. Ah, young love... Who could the lucky girl be?

A-Xuan grins, reaching to ruffle A-Ling's hair again. This time, A-Ling manages to duck out of the way. “No need to be shy,” A-Xuan insists. “If you need any advice, you can always ask me.”

Yanli lets out a very undignified snort at that. “Like you were any better! You told me I was plain and boring!”

That wipes the grin off his face. A-Xuan turns away, trying very hard to hide the blush on his face. “I was intimidated by you, okay? You know I meant the complete opposite!”

Yanli spares him and fights the urge to laugh. She presses her lips together and looks towards her son instead, who is sporting a similar blush.

“A-Ling, don't listen to anything your father says. If you need advice for any of your crushes, you come straight to me.”

Amazingly, A-Ling blushes even more. He is resembling an eggplant rather a tomato at this rate. How cute.

“I-I don't have a crush! I don't need advice!”

Now, Yanli laughs. Now that she has succeeded in embarrassing both her son and her husband, Yanli clutches her stomach and beams at both of them.

Yes, she has missed a lot while being here in hospital, and yes, she wishes she hasn't; but she's still alive, isn't she? There's an unexplainable warmth in her body that makes her feel stronger with each passing day, giving her the second chance she'd been praying for. She's missed a lot, but she will not waste this opportunity to catch up with her family.

Yanli looks between her husband and her son, eyes softening with love. She hopes she can go home with them soon.

 

- x -

 

Jiang Cheng yawns into his hand. Even though he only has two days left in Ohio, he hasn't been able to recover from jetlag at all. At most, he had three hours of sleep last night and now he's trying his best not to pass out in front of A-Jie.

He's glad that every time he visits her, she looks healthier. Last night, Zixuan told him that the doctors confirmed her pneumonia is gone. If she carries on like this, she might actually be able to finally leave the hospital. They've been waiting for news like this for fuck knows how long; and now that it's a possibility, it's hard to explain what exactly he's feeling. Obviously, he's happy—more than happy, in fact.

It's just not hard not to ignore the drop in his stomach whenever he has to see Wei Ying here.

They've barely spoken—which is good. It's awkward enough having to force a conversation with him when they're both with A-Jie. Jiang Cheng has no plans to do it when he doesn't need to.

Wei Ying seems just fine with his new boyfriend anyway. It takes all of Jiang Cheng's self control not to roll his eyes whenever he sees him clinging onto that guy. Why does he even need to parade him around like that? Is he purposely trying to piss Jiang Cheng off?

Whatever. Jiang Cheng doesn't give a shit about what Wei Ying does with his life. Luckily, he visited A-Jie earlier and left before Jiang Cheng arrived here.

“A-Cheng, you should get some sleep.”

Jiang Cheng blinks. He blearily focuses back on A-Jie, stifling another yawn.

“Sorry, A-Jie,” he says, scratching his head. She'd been talking about something and all Jiang Cheng's been doing since he got here is space out. He's going to fall asleep in front of her at this rate. “Still jetlagged.”

A-Jie frowns. “Hmm, you do look tired.” She leans closer, lips pursing together in what looks like rare disapproval coming from her. “Is that smoke I smell on you? Have you started smoking again?”

Jiang Cheng grimaces. He should have known she'd catch onto that.

“Just a bit,” he admits. “Not as much as I used to, I promise.”

The frown on her face doesn't budge. “You only smoke whenever you're stressed.”

She's got it spot on as always. Ever since he got here, Jiang Cheng's emotions are all over the place; he's worrying about A-Jie, he's pissed off about Wei Ying, he's being hounded by Chief Nie's emails about work... While Wei Ying looks like he's enjoying this holiday of his as much as possible, all Jiang Cheng's done is lose sleep. Part of him is glad to return to normal schedule again, but he's also not looking forward to going back to Gusu.

Chief Nie was gracious enough to give him a break though he's made it very clear that Jiang Cheng is doing double hours to make up for his absence. Jiang Cheng hopes Gusu's been quiet since he's been gone. With his luck, he's going to come back and half the city's in ruins with that gang still going around stirring shit.

Come to think of it, he hasn't had the chance to properly read the emails Chief Nie has sent. He skimmed over them last night, but Xichen decided to choose that as a perfect moment to text him. Between reading work emails and texting Xichen, there isn't much competition about what Jiang Cheng would rather do—even if Xichen texts him about the most useless shit.

“Have you been speaking to A-Ying?” A-Jie asks.

Jiang Cheng sighs. “A-Jie, you already know the answer to that.”

“What's stopping you?”

“What would I even say to him? Things have changed, A-Jie.”

A-Jie folds her hands in her lap and looks at him with all the patience in the world. Jiang Cheng would rather she frown at him. With this, he feels like he should talk to Wei Ying again, even if he knows A-Jie will never force him to do something he doesn't want to do.

Nevertheless, that doesn't stop him from feeling like he's the bad guy.

“I may not know everything about what happened while I've been here,” A-Jie says. “But I do know that no matter how much has changed, the bond you two have is still the same. You two are family. We're all family.”

“Can we talk about something else?” Jiang Cheng massages his head. Just the mention of Wei Ying is giving him a headache.

A-Jie isn't as disappointed in his change of topic as much as he expects. She sits up, nodding. “Alright. Who's this person you've been texting so much?”

Jiang Cheng's headache worsens. “Ugh.”

The rest of his visit is spent trying to dodge his sister's enthusiastic questions. If it's not about Xichen, it's about Wei Ying. Jiang Cheng doesn't know which one is worse but he does know that his head is pounding by the time he leaves the hospital. A-Jie seems determined to catch up on all the years she missed out on teasing him.

He trudges back to Zixuan's penthouse, intent on spending the rest of this day passing out. It's only four in the afternoon, but Jiang Cheng is more than happy to hibernate until tomorrow. Anything to get rid of this headache.

Thankfully, Jin Zixuan and Jin Ling have remained in the hospital. Jiang Cheng has the whole penthouse to himself and he wastes no time diving on the couch, falling asleep within seconds. He's so worn out that he doesn't dream about anything; not about Wei Ying, or A-Jie, or even that weird forest that keeps popping up in his sleep.

When he awakes, it's already dark outside. He groans, pushing himself up from the couch. The penthouse is still empty, much to his surprise. One look out the window and Jiang Cheng can see it's night time; usually Jin Ling and Zixuan would be back by now.

They must still be with A-Jie, he thinks. Now that A-Jie has been staying awake for longer, the family has been trying to make up for lost time.

Yawning, he stretches his arms and spends the next few seconds trying to return to the land of the living. As he planned, he pretty much slept for the rest of the day. According to Jiang Cheng's phone, it's actually ten PM now. Great. He's never going to adjust to the time zone here.

There's no point anyway. He'll be back in Gusu in a couple of days.

Still half asleep, Jiang Cheng drags himself off the couch. He yawns several more times and walks out into the balcony. The cold air should wake him up.

He's never cared for all the fancy things the Jins have but he will admit this penthouse is very nice. Cleveland is flashy and busy as any city, and while Jiang Cheng favours Gusu's peaceful atmosphere more, he can't complain about the nice view in front of him at this moment. He takes a deep breath of the cold breeze, leaning against the balcony's railings.

Zixuan's penthouse overlooks the Stonebridge Towers, giving Jiang Cheng a perfect view of the city lit up beneath him. He watches the tiny specks of cars driving over the bridge. It's oddly peaceful in a way. Their house back in Yunmeng was near the countryside; a lot of Jiang Cheng's childhood memories were spent running after Wei Ying and pushing each other into the lakes. Gusu, while also a city, is relatively peaceful—or it was. Jiang Cheng isn't sure what's going on with it now that people are randomly getting attacked in the streets.

His phone buzzes, disturbing his thoughts. He takes it out and sighs at the name on the screen.

Jiang Cheng frowns at the weird... face at the end of the text. Xichen's always using those things. What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? He shakes his head to himself and quickly types a reply.

It takes him a few minutes to get a good picture of the view in front of him. He discards several shots that he thinks aren't good enough, grumbling to himself. After the twentieth attempt, Jiang Cheng decides this one is decent enough to impress Xichen.

Jiang Cheng squints at the little heart Xichen has sent, and wonders not for the first time why he bothers using these dumb faces. He rolls his eyes and returns inside the penthouse, settling back onto the couch.

It looks like Zixuan and Jin Ling are staying over at the hospital tonight. Wide awake at ten PM with nothing else to do, Jiang Cheng continues to text Xichen.

Jiang Cheng smirks. The image of Xichen getting up to take a picture of his own apartment just for him—even though he's already seen it—is making him want to facepalm. He's been over his apartment enough times to memorise it in his head. Jin Ling enjoys going round there too much, just to eat whatever Xichen baked the night before.

Even as he tells Xichen to fuck off several times, they don't actually stop texting. Like the previous nights, Jiang Cheng stays up texting the librarian, giving up completely on ever adjusting to the time zone here.

 

- x -

 

Sharing a room with Lan Zhan is all fun and games until Jiejie teases him about it non-stop. Now, all Wei Ying can think about is if it's perfectly okay to ask Lan Zhan to go on another date with him—or maybe he shouldn't even bother because, technically, it would be the same, wouldn't it? They're already spending this whole week together; it's practically a one week date!

No, you idiot, his brain chides in. A date will have some sort of establishment that he's interested in Lan Zhan. It's supposed to go somewhere, develop whatever the fuck their relationship is!

He thinks, anyway.

Wei Ying has actually never bothered dating anyone seriously before. There was a time when Wen Qing thought Wen Ning and him had a thing going on, but Wei Ying valued their friendship too much to risk it. Besides, both of them established it wouldn't work out. They cared for each other—just not in that way.

Aside from that... Wei Ying doesn't have much experience with the whole romance thing. He's great when it comes to sex; he knows how to give a good blowjob and more than enough people have told him he's a good fuck—but romance? Feelings? He's at a dead end. The only flirting he knows is how to get someone to lead him into the bedroom... He's already sharing a bedroom with Lan Zhan anyway. Most importantly, he doesn't want to have sex with him!

Well.

Well...

Wei Ying clutches his head and smacks his cheeks. Shut up, improper thoughts! Lan Zhan is a gentleman! He doesn't deserve this!

He rolls off the bed. What time is it anyway? As usual, Lan Zhan woke up before him, but Wei Ying vaguely remembers he left earlier to do some shopping for both of them. Apparently, they've ran out of food.

He spends a few minutes standing there and spacing out, still trying to wake himself up. Lan Zhan would be back soon, hopefully. He should get dressed before he gets back.

Wei Ying sluggishly makes his way towards his suitcase. His half of the room is littered with clothes and shoes all over the floor, whereas Lan Zhan's is as neat as ever. He shrugs to himself and throws out a bunch of outfits, frowning at each and every one. Wen Qing actually packed for him because he'd been too busy organising lesson plans for the substitute teacher that was supposed to take his place. As thankful as he is for Wen Qing's help, it takes him twice as long to find what he's looking for.

Where the fuck is his hairbrush?

Grumbling, he yanks open the zippers and takes a peak inside. Wen Qing's packed so much unnecessary shit; seriously, why did she include an English dictionary here? What the fuck? Wei Ying throws it aside and shoves his hand into the large pocket. His eyebrows raise when he grabs something that looks like it could be shaped like a brush.

Oh, wait. No, it's a bottle.

He rolls his eyes and—

What the fuck.

He yelps and throws the bottle across the room. What the fuck?!

He sits there in shock for a few seconds before realising that he should probably get that bottle in case Lan Zhan finds it. Wei Ying crawls across the hotel room, groaning when he finds it under their bed. He slips under and glares at it once it's back in his hands, knowing exactly why Wen Qing decided to pack this of all things.

Lube. Fucking lube. He'll kill her.

“Wei Ying. What are you doing?”

Wei Ying screams. He lurches up, banging his head. Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan?! When did he get back? He panics for a few seconds, rolling around on his back and peeking out from under the bed.

There is Lan Zhan, staring down at him with the emotional capacity of a fork. He says nothing.

Wei Ying makes sure to hide the bottle of lube, forcing a painful grin on his face.

“Ah, Lan Zhan! Hello! Welcome home—I mean back! Welcome back! This isn't our home—or your home. Not ours. Anyway!” Wei Ying laughs, wishing for the ground to swallow him up.

“Why are you on the floor?” Lan Zhan asks.

“That's a very good question, Lan Zhan. I'm... admiring how soft this carpet is. Seriously, the Jins are so rich that they can afford hotels this good.”

Lan Zhan stares at him. Wei Ying has not gotten rid of the smile on his face. His cheeks are hurting and so is his back. This carpet isn't soft at all.

“What are you staring at me for?” Wei Ying says. “Go, go, Lan Zhan. Don't mind me. Go back to whatever you were doing.”

“It is dirty down there. Get up.”

“I will in a bit! Just go! Leave me to admire this carpet more!”

Lan Zhan furrows his eyebrows. He shakes his head and sighs, but finally turns away to sort through all of the food he's bought for them. Wei Ying makes sure he's distracted enough with that before scurrying out from under the bed, shoving the bottle of lube deep into his suitcase where it will never—NEVER—see the light of day.

He lets out a sigh of relief. That must have taken out ten years off his lifespan.

Fucking Wen Qing. Why did she pack lube?

He dives back into the bed and grabs his phone, typing with all his rage.

Wei Ying groans and sinks back under the blanket. First Jiejie, and now Wen Qing! At this rate, he won't be able to look at Lan Zhan in the eye!

He glares at his screen. For the rest of the morning, he tries to function like a normal human being instead of getting flustered whenever Lan Zhan looks at him. This is stupid! He's thirty-three years old and here he is acting like some school kid with a crush! Lan Zhan is hot but that doesn't mean Wei Ying wants to get laid! He's still having trouble actually accepting that he might just like Lan Zhan more than he should; he doesn't want to rush into things with his dick instead of his brain.

But, it seems that everything is trying to work against him.

A few hours later, Wei Ying is finally getting ready to visit Jiejie again. He still hasn't found his hairbrush and he's reluctant to search through his suitcase again in case Wen Qing has packed more questionable things in there. He knocks on the bathroom door, remembering that he was brushing his hair last night.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, have you seen my—”

Wei Ying's eyes nearly boggle out of their sockets. He stands frozen by the door, staring straight at Lan Zhan who is only wearing a towel around his waist. Water droplets are dripping down his abs, telling Wei Ying that he's only just stepped out of the shower and he should probably stop admiring Lan Zhan's evident six pack. Shit, you could scrub laundry on those abs with how firm they look. And—wait, what's that? A tattoo? There's a strange symbol on Lan Zhan's chest, shaped like a sun. The more Wei Ying looks at it, the more he thinks it's not a tattoo but more like... a burn? A burn scar?

Why is it shaped like a sun though? Don't kinky BDSM people do that if they want to mark their partners? Wei Ying once slept with some girl who asked him if he could do that to her. Suffice to say, Wei Ying politely declined and escaped the fuck out of that place.

He gulps down the lump in his throat, forcing himself to stop oggling the strange mark. It looks nice and all... Edgy, even. Wei Ying's eyes travel down, following the light trail of hair disappearing into Lan Zhan's towel.

Fuck.

Bad Wei Ying! Stop staring at his crotch!

Wei Ying jumps and desperately looks around—anywhere but Lan Zhan's six pack!

“Ah—shit! S-Sorry! I-I was... I thought... you... I... I was looking for my... hairbrush... but I-I think I lost it...” Wei Ying stutters, feeling his cheeks redden as the seconds pass.

“I have one,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is as calm as ever, but that does nothing to silence Wei Ying's mental shrieking.

Alarm bells ring inside his head when Lan Zhan approaches. He stiffens as Lan Zhan brushes past him, assaulting him with the scent of sandalwood and fresh shampoo. He bends down to root through his suitcase and all Wei Ying can do is pray to the heavens above that the fucking towel around his waist stays in place for his own sanity.

“Here,” Lan Zhan says, offering Wei Ying his hairbrush.

Wei Ying all but snatches it away. He clings it to his chest, still unable to look at Lan Zhan in the eyes. “O-Oh... Oh. Thanks.”

“No need to thank me.”

Lan Zhan turns back for the bathroom. Now that Wei Ying isn't staring at his ass, he notices his back.

Now, he frowns. Lan Zhan has numerous scars all over his back—and not just a few but a lot. The whole expanse of his back is practically covered in lashes and scars, and although they look old and healed, Wei Ying can't help but wince.

Whip scars?

What the fuck does Lan Zhan do? Whip and burn scars? Is he some sort of hardcore BDSM enthusiast? What the fuck?

For the sake of his slowly diminishing sanity, Wei Ying spins around and dives back into the bed. He considers screaming into a pillow, but that will not help him. Instead, he grabs his phone and begins to text Wen Qing again.

She has a good point there. He's never trusted anyone enough to consider BDSM, but are you supposed to go that hard when you whip someone? Doesn't it just leave a few red marks? That's what it looks like in porn, anyway. Wei Ying's pretty sure he'll get turned off at the sight of someone looking like they got their back shredded by Wolverine.

Lan Zhan leaves the bathroom, now fully dressed. Wei Ying is thankful, although he can't deny the shameful part of his brain mourning the lack of abs on display. Today, Lan Zhan is wearing a light blue V-neck sweater with a black blazer over it, paired with black pants. Smart, as always.

It's still not enough to forget the image now burned into his mind. Wei Ying rolls around on the bed, mentally whining at the direction his thoughts are taking him. He carries on texting Wen Qing, hoping she'll get his mind off things before he's really tempted to put that stupid bottle of lube to use.

Wen Ning? A date? Wow. Wei Ying sits up, scratching his head. Wow. That's something you don't see everyday. As far as he knows, Wen Ning has always been too shy to get with anyone. Huh. Good for him! It's about time someone appreciated how much of a nice guy he is.

Wei Ying nearly drops his phone. Xuanyu? Mo Xuanyu? His brother-in-law?! How the fuck? He hasn't spoken to him in ages. After Wei Ying got back from America, he tried not to contact the Jins too much. Xuanyu had been his main source of news when it came to Jiejie; Wei Ying couldn't bear hearing about her after he knew he'd been too much of a coward to even visit her when he was in Ohio.

He sneaks another glance at Lan Zhan who is sitting down by the couch, reading a book. They should be heading off to visit Jiejie by now, but here he is having a crisis over Lan Zhan. This is so silly.

Wei Ying sits up with a sigh. He sees Lan Zhan turning to him from the corner of his eyes, waiting. The sensible part of his brain is telling him they should just go visit Jiejie—but then again, she'll probably tease him about this too. Really, there's no escape from any of this.

And he's never been particularly sensible anyway.

Fuck it.

“Say, Lan Zhan... I was wondering... Seeing as we're already spending so much time together... I know I said ages ago that I didn't want anything between us... and... uh, to be honest, I still don't know what's really going on here... but...”

Ah, fuck. He's not doing well with this. Wei Ying scowls at his hands and forces himself to look at Lan Zhan. His golden eyes pierce into him, head slightly tilted although there is obvious concern etched on his face.

Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “I'm trying to ask you... if you want to go on a date with me.”

Lan Zhan's eyebrows twitch. “A date.”

Blushing, Wei Ying nods. “Yes. Like. Us. Spending time together—even though we're already together a lot these days. But I want a proper date—if you'd like that as well.”

His heart almost stops when Lan Zhan's lips tug into a small smile. “I would.”

Wei Ying bounces on the bed, unable to keep the grin off his face. “Oh! Okay! So... that's a yes? To the date?”

“Yes, Wei Ying.”

Nice. That's... that's great. How does tomorrow sound?”

“Tomorrow is fine.”

“I'm looking forward to it,” Wei Ying says. It only occurs to him now he's still on the bed and there's all this distance between them. He takes a seat beside Lan Zhan, nudging him gently. “What do you think we should do?”

Lan Zhan's smile is so small that it's easy to miss. The softness in his gaze, however, makes Wei Ying's stomach flip over.

“Anything,” Lan Zhan says.

“I don't mind either. I can show you around Cleveland!”

“Hm.”

For the rest of that day, Wei Ying finds it easier to smile and laugh. As expected, Jiejie comments on it and teases him until he tells her he's got a date with Lan Zhan tomorrow. She cheers for him and makes him promise to tell her all about it, reminding him she'll find out sooner or later anyway if he doesn't. Once Jiang Cheng hears the news, he scoffs and leaves the room. Even that's not enough to ruin Wei Ying's mood.

“I'm excited for you, A-Ying,” Jiejie says, beaming at him. “It's so good to see you being happy.”

Happy? Wei Ying has to pause at that. Is he happy?

He looks down at his hands and thinks back to Lan Zhan, who is waiting outside for him as usual. A smile tugs on his lips before he can stop it.

Maybe he is happy. Whatever this is, it's a nice feeling. He glances back up at Jiejie and lets out a small laugh.

 

 

Chapter Text

- x -

 

Wei Ying is still asleep. Wangji is not surprised, considering that Wei Ying does not normally wake up until eleven AM at the earliest. For some reason, he slept later last night, texting away on his phone and snickering at whatever he was discussing with his friend. Wangji had tried to look at what their conversation was about, but Wei Ying proceeded to roll away from him with a faint blush on his face. It was only hours later that Wei Ying yawned and shuffled closer to him, falling asleep within seconds.

It has only just turned nine now. Wangji doubts Wei Ying will wake up any time soon. He looks down at him currently curled up against his chest; Wei Ying's hair is covering half his face and Wangji suspects he is drooling all over him again. After the first night here, Wei Ying spent the next morning repeatedly apologising for drooling on Wangji; he said it was a bad habit and he could not help it. Wangji reassured him it was fine. Amusing, even.

He remains there, his eyes roaming all over Wei Ying's face. How odd it is that, before he met Wei Ying again, Wangji was convinced he had forgotten what he looked like. Ever the artist, his brother once tried to paint Wei Ying for Wangji in a futile attempt to comfort him. Although his brother's artistic ability was incredible indeed, Wangji did not think the brush strokes compared to the real thing—of course it didn't. The oils Xichen used were vibrant, but not as vibrant as Wei Ying's smile.

Now, as Wangji gazes down at the slumbering man beside him, he engraves his face back into his memory; the gentle slope of his nose, how his bottom lip is fuller than his top, the thickness of his eyelashes and the way they cast shadows on his cheeks.

Gently, Wangji brushes aside the locks of hair that tickle Wei Ying's face. For a brief second, Wei Ying's nose twitches. He grumbles slightly and then wriggles closer to Wangji. The frown on his face disappears and he is back to snoring.

Wangji feels a warmth inside of him blossoming. He continues to stroke Wei Ying's hair, allowing his thoughts to wander to anything, anywhere. At this moment, he is content. At peace. He can think back to the eternity he has waited and none of it will matter, not when Wei Ying is here with him now.

But will he stay?

His hand stills.

That is right. He has an eternity and Wei Ying will only have several decades. There is nothing he can do to avoid this.

The warmth inside Wangji turns into icicles. He takes a long, deep breath and lets the seconds pass by until his thoughts calm again. He cannot be greedy. It is enough he has Wei Ying at this moment. For now.

Even as he desperately repeats this, he cannot ignore the fear gnawing inside him that he will lose Wei Ying again.

No.

Wangji inhales again. Inhale, exhale. Inhale. He tucks Wei Ying's hair behind his ear and looks up towards the ceiling. He must not waste the present by focusing on the future. He will worry about such matters when the time comes. For now... For now, he has Wei Ying.

For now, he has a date with Wei Ying.

His lips twitch at that. What he feels for Wei Ying is indescribable; most of the time, he cannot even understand it, let alone put it into words. A date. It sounds so trivial, so human.

Wangji has never bothered with anything of the sort. When his brother was still the sect leader of Gusu, the elders hounded him to find a wife. That eventually stopped when Xichen achieved immortality. He was fine with being by himself—or rather, he feared having to be with someone else.

Regardless, he is aware Xichen has more experience in dating than Wangji. Many believe the assumption that his brother is the epitome of benevolence and self control, but no—Xichen can easily fall victim to his own emotions and desires. The very reason why Xichen was so adamant to travel by himself, rather than stay with Wangji for most of the centuries they have lived, is because of this. Wangji knows his brother tried to seek out what it meant to live, or at least why they were still alive.

Wangji does not think he has ever found it. Xichen always came back in the end, still faking his smiles, still tired of life as Wangji was.

He doubts Xichen has been on any dates recently, but he will still know much more than Wangji does. If there is anyone who can give him advice, it is his brother. After all, his brother is more enthusiastic when it comes to blending in with humanity. He will actually try to adapt to their strange technologies and inventions, whereas Wangji does not see the point in doing so.

His brother can definitely help him in preparing for this date.

He stirs to the side, reaching for his phone.

Wangji waits for his brother, listening to Wei Ying snoring away beside him. Back when Wei Ying was still the Patriarch, he recalls they spent a day together in Yiling. Could that have been considered a date? Perhaps not. Wei Ying did not have any feelings for him then... but who is he to say that he has feelings for Wangji even now? It is impossible to tell what goes on inside Wei Ying's mind.

His phone vibrates.

Hmm. It seems that, by today's standard, he is doing as he should be when it comes to courting. That is comforting then. While Wei Ying seldom voices any complaints, Wangji worries he will eventually drive him away with his lack of knowledge on modern society.

Wangji blinks. That... That is unexpected. His gaze flickers back to Wei Ying. His lips are parted slightly and he has drooled a small patch onto WangJi's shirt. He would like to kiss Wei Ying, but why is there a specific time one must kiss someone in a date?

He is not sure how to respond to that. He is not sure he wants to. For too long, he stares at the screen, reading the text over and over again. It has been maddening enough having to sleep beside Wei Ying every night. He... He will not think on this. He cannot afford to let his self control slip.

Wangji remembers Wei Ying once mentioned he has been with other people before. The thought fills him with bitterness, even more so when he starts thinking about how that most likely involves sex. Wei Ying is very attractive and charming; in the past, Wangji has not been the only one who has admired him.

He grips his phone tighter and forces the thoughts out of his mind. Wei Ying is an adult capable of doing whatever he wants with his body. Wangji has no rights to feel jealous or possessive.

Asking his brother for advice is not as successful as Wangji expected, but it is not Xichen's fault. Modern society's strange methods on courting is merely not something Wangji would like to partake in. He pushed Wei Ying away before, back when he still smiled like the sun and he had no care in the world. Wangji has lived every day of his long, long life regretting those days.

He reaches for the bedside table again, placing his phone back where it was. Unfortunately, his movements jostle Wei Ying awake. He whines quietly, peeking open one eye.

“Good... morning...” He yawns. His eyelids are already drooping close again. “What... What time is it...?”

“Nine.”

“Huh... Still early... More sleep for me...”

Wei Ying settles back onto his chest, using him as a human pillow as he has done so for all these nights. He mumbles something, patting on Wangji's shoulder.

And then he sits up. His eyes are suddenly wide.

“Ah, shit. I've drooled all over you again,” Wei Ying says. He pulls at his sleeve and tries to wipe the wet patch on Wangji's shirt. “Lan Zhan, why don't you just push me off whenever I start drooling? This is so embarrassing.”

All of the tension Wangji felt this morning relaxes away at the sight of Wei Ying frantically trying to wipe his shirt. He stills Wei Ying's wrist, shaking his head.

“It is fine,” he says.

There is a slight flush on Wei Ying's cheeks but he shrugs and pulls his hand away, sitting back.

“Have you been awake for long?”

Wangji shakes his head again, regardless that he has been awake for three hours now. He is not sure what Wei Ying will think though; if he finds out Wangji has done nothing but admire him for all of that time.

Wei Ying stretches and yawns for the second time. He spends a few more seconds blinking into the distance before swinging his legs off the bed. Wangji watches him, not expecting Wei Ying to leave the bed so early. There are still signs of drowsiness in his eyes as he runs his fingers through his hair, trying to comb through its tangles.

“How about we visit Jiejie first and then have our date after?” he asks. “Does that sound good?”

Wangji nods. Wei Ying flashes him a grin.

With that, they get ready for the day. It is easier to forget his worries whenever Wei Ying is awake. Wangji can only focus on him and him alone, whether it is to smile inwardly at the sound of Wei Ying singing from the shower, or if it is to frown when Wei Ying jokingly asks him if he can tie his long hair up into pigtails.

Wangji loses himself in Wei Ying's smile. He would not have it any other way.

 

- x -

 

“You're looking very nice for your date.”

It's the first thing Jiejie says to Wei Ying when he steps into her room. Jiang Cheng is also there, not quite admiring his outfit the same way Jiejie is. As a matter of fact, he's actually scowling at him right now but Wei Ying doubts that's anything to do with what he's wearing.

He scratches the back of his neck and sits down next to Jiejie's bed. She looks just as well as she did yesterday. It's good there aren't any more problems now.

“You should see Lan Zhan. He's wearing a suit,” Wei Ying says.

He almost had a heart attack when Lan Zhan stepped out of the bathroom looking like he's about to attend a royal wedding. The annoying thing is that it actually works for him. He could do his groceries in the fanciest suit there is and no one will question it because there's this air about him that screams Hot Rich Man.

So, yes; Lan Zhan is wearing a suit today. A very nice looking suit, as well. It's light grey, almost white—but again, Lan Zhan pulls it off. If anyone else wore a suit this colour then Wei Ying would roll his eyes and judge their fashion taste. As someone whose wardrobe is ninety percent black, Wei Ying will never be seen wearing a white suit. Or a suit at all, for that matter.

Lan Zhan's even wearing a tie. You'd think he and Wei Ying are about to get married instead of have their first (second) date.

Not that he's complaining. Lan Zhan does look very good. Too good, actually.

Still, that does leave the problem that they look a bit mismatched today. To no one's surprise, Wen Qing didn't pack any suits or anything close to formal wear in Wei Ying's suitcase. There's no avoiding that he only has jeans with him, so he tries to make do with wearing his best black pair. (Well, he deems them the best because they're the pair that makes his butt look greater than it normally is.) He matches it with a red V-neck sweater and a black leather jacket. It's a cute outfit. If he fastens the jacket up and hides his red sweater, he looks like he's dressed all in black and ready to rob a bank—or Lan Zhan's house, considering he looks like he's dressed as a billionaire.

Before both of them left to visit Jiejie, Wei Ying chuckled at their reflections. They're the most mismatched pair he's ever seen, though he did think they looked a bit... cute. And then he shoved that thought away before he ended up being too soft first thing in the morning.

“What are you two even going to do?”

Jiang Cheng's voice drags him out of his daydreams. Wei Ying turns to him, wide eyed. He'll never stop being shocked whenever Jiang Cheng actually speaks to him.

“I don't know yet. Do you have any ideas?”

Shaking his head, Jiang Cheng folds his arms and sighs. It's the same sigh he used to do when they were kids, whenever Wei Ying did something stupid and Jiang Cheng was right behind him, grumbling about how he always, always looked for trouble. The corners of Wei Ying's lips twitch to respond with a grin but he stops himself before it slips. They're not kids anymore. He doubts Jiang Cheng will return the smile if he offers it.

“How can you go on a date but not plan it?” Jiang Cheng says.

“Impulsive dates are nice too,” Jiejie chirps in.

Wei Ying squints at Jiang Cheng. “Have you even been on a date before?”

In an instant, Jiang Cheng looks like a volcano about to erupt. “What the fuck do you mean by that question? Just because you get one date doesn't make you all high and mighty!”

“Well, have you?”

Yes, I have! Now mind your own fucking business!”

Wei Ying sits back and exchanges looks with Jiejie. She hides her smile behind her hand, but that doesn't really do anything when her eyes are shining with mirth.

She sits up, reaching over to touch the necklace Wei Ying is wearing today.

“This is nice. Where did you get this?”

He looks down. It's a chain necklace, almost short enough to be a choker. The pendant is a small slab of black opal shaped like a coin.

“Oh, Wen Qing gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago,” Wei Ying says, touching the smooth pendant. It's supposed to be for good luck. At least that’s what Wen Qing said.

“Wen Qing?”

“Wen Ning's sister.”

He hears a scoff that Jiang Cheng doesn't even try to hide.

“Oh yes,” Jiejie says. “I remember Wen Ning. Do you two still keep in touch?”

Wei Ying nods. Of course she remembers Wen Ning. They met around the time Uncle Jiang and Aunt Yu passed away; back when Wei Ying slowly began to distance himself from Jiang Cheng because he thought it was for the best. No wonder Jiang Cheng wasn't pleased with the current topic of their conversation.

“He owns a café now. I go there regularly.”

Jiejie smiles. “You'll have to take me there when I'm back.”

Her smile is hard to look at. He ducks his head down, seeing Jiang Cheng stiffen from the corner of his eyes. When she's back... Who knows if he can even see her when she's back?

As if sensing the tension in the air, Jiejie claps her hands together. “I can't believe a week has already gone by. What time is your flight tomorrow, A-Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng clears his throat. “Seven in the morning.”

Tomorrow? That soon already?

“You're leaving tomorrow?” Wei Ying asks. Jiang Cheng nods at him.

The last time they were both in Gusu, they had that horrible fight... among all the fights they'd have whenever they crossed paths. Will they fall back into that routine now that Jiejie won't be there to keep them in line? He wouldn't be surprised if they did, though he will admit the thought of it hurts. He's long accepted that they can't go back to the way they used to be; that doesn't mean he wants them to keep fighting.

“Back to work, huh?” Wei Ying mumbles, more as a need to say something.

Jiang Cheng nods again. “Yeah.”

Their conversation ends there. As much as Jiejie tries her best to get them both to talk, they're stuck at an impasse. Everything they say is awkward. Ten years might have drifted them apart but Wei Ying knows Jiang Cheng enough to hear the strain in his voice whenever he speaks to him. He knows he sounds the same.

Jin Zixuan and Jin Ling join them half an hour later. The conversation flows a bit better with more people in the room, especially with Jin Ling making it so easy to tease him about this budding crush he apparently seems to have. The more he tries to deny it, the more obvious it becomes.

Come to think of it, Wei Ying remembers teasing Lan Sizhui about a crush he had on Jin Ling a few weeks ago... He was only joking at that time but Sizhui's reaction is eerily similar to how Jin Ling is reacting right now, albeit less of a drama queen.

Interesting.

Wei Ying keeps his mouth shut. Like Jiang Cheng, his relationship with Jin Ling is still rocky. He's not about to ruin that more by throwing him into the deep end about who could possibly be his mystery crush.

It's still funny though. Lan Zhan's brother is apparently texting Jiang Cheng every night until the ass crack of dawn too... If it is Sizhui that Jin Ling is crushing on then, man, the Lans are going wild.

It's not long until it's almost three PM. Time flies when you're stuck in the middle of an awkward family gathering where half the people in the room hate your guts. Wei Ying bids farewell, trying his best not to get flustered when Jiejie very enthusiastically wishes him luck on his date. Jin Zixuan smirks, Jin Ling grunts something that he thinks sounds like a goodbye, and Jiang Cheng... well, Jiang Cheng is Jiang Cheng.

Wei Ying releases a sigh as soon as he's out the room. He spots Lan Zhan straight away, sat ever so gracefully and looking like he's waiting for a photo shoot rather than just for him.

“Lan Zhan, why do you never go inside Jiejie's room with me? It's so awkward with Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says, joining him.

Lan Zhan rises. Wei Ying notices his collar is a bit crooked so he reaches forward and fixes it for him, patting Lan Zhan's shirt once he's done.

“I'm sure Jiejie won't mind if you're there. Jiang Cheng might glare at you but he does that to everyone,” he continues, his voice trailing off into a mumble once he remembers Jiang Cheng won't be here anymore tomorrow. “Not like it matters now anyway. He's leaving tomorrow.”

Wei Ying shakes his head. Enough about that.

He links his arm around Lan Zhan's and grins up at him. As always, Lan Zhan gives him the same deadpan look he gives everyone, although there's a gentle glint in his eyes that makes Wei Ying smile wider.

“Anyway, time to explore Cleveland! Do you have any place you wanna go to?”

“Anywhere.”

Wei Ying purses his lips, frowning up at the ceiling. They didn't have a proper breakfast before they came here; only coffee and some snacks Lan Zhan bought yesterday. Now that he thinks about it, Lan Zhan didn't even eat any of those snacks.

“Hmm... Let's get some food first. I'm hungry.”

With their arms still linked, they leave the hospital and walk out into the bright streets of Cleveland. Wei Ying points at all of the buildings he recognises, telling Lan Zhan this and that. (There's my favourite restaurant—wow, it's still here after all this time? Lan Zhan, look, that flower shop used to be a sex toy store! Haha, don't look at me like that! Oh—oh! That bakery sells the best cinnamon buns. Let's get some next time, okay?)

He's quick to steer Lan Zhan away from the street that has all of the bars and clubs he was frequenting. They're closed now because it's the middle of the day; come night time and they'll be lit up again, luring everyone with music and alcohol. Wei Ying used to love that; the noise, the chaos. Something to make him feel alive when everything else was empty.

Funny how that all seems so empty to him now. Wei Ying clings tighter to Lan Zhan, happy to forget about those places.

Lan Zhan listens to everything he rambles on about; whether it's how nice the weather is today, whether it's when Wei Ying gets sidetracked and starts listing all of his favourite movies aside from Shrek. The way Lan Zhan looks at him only makes Wei Ying want to talk more. So he does.

“There's always food around here if I remember correctly... The restaurant I used to work was here but I think they closed it when the owner moved back to Gusu—oh, there's a food truck!” Wei Ying points at a brightly coloured truck in the distance.

Luck is on his side; this food truck is selling tacos. Wei Ying doesn't hesitate in grabbing the bottle of sriracha sauce and dumping half its contents onto his food. He feels Lan Zhan's eyes on him the entire time, frowning at the bright river of red now drowning everything. Lan Zhan orders vegetarian tacos for himself and doesn't even touch any of the sauces. His tacos look so sad and empty that Wei Ying offers to let Lan Zhan take a bite out of his.

Lan Zhan's eyes narrow. He doesn't say anything, only staring at the sriracha sauce for a few minutes before taking a bite. Wei Ying waits for a reaction. Lan Zhan pulls away and chews. Very, very slowly. His face is as blank as ever.

Then, he coughs. It's the daintiest and quietest cough Wei Ying has ever heard. With the way Lan Zhan is squinting and frowning at the tacos, Wei Ying will take that as a sign that he doesn't want a second bite. He swallows down the laugh threatening to bubble out of him.

Wei Ying is about to leave Lan Zhan alone with his bland looking taco when he spots the tiny speck of red still clinging to his lips.

“Wait!” He leans in, wiping his thumb across Lan Zhan's bottom lip. “You had some sauce on you.”

He pulls back, ignoring the way his thumb tingles slightly. You idiot, he thinks. He hadn't meant anything weird by that. Lan Zhan couldn't walk around with sauce on his lips, could he? Why is he being shy over small things like this all of a sudden?

As expected, Lan Zhan remains quiet. His eyes flicker down—is he looking at Wei Ying's lips? No, he can't be. Lan Zhan turns away, so quickly that Wei Ying shrugs it off as his imagination.

They eat their food in silence. Wei Ying tries not to think about how soft Lan Zhan's lips had felt under his thumb.

The tacos they had were only small; barely enough to satisfy his appetite at all. Wei Ying glances at his watch and finds it's not even four PM yet. Maybe they should wait until later to have dinner together... He knows a bunch of fancy restaurants around here in Cleveland; one of them should be perfect for a cheesy date.

Alright, so he doesn't have a clue what they should do on this date. They have a few hours to kill until it's time for dinner and it occurs to Wei Ying now that planning ahead would have helped. With nowhere else to go, he leads them to the park, finding a bench near the lake where they can sit down.

Since it's a weekday, there's not much people here. There's a few couples having picnics on the grass, but of course they're all too busy staring into each other's eyes to notice anyone else. Wei Ying takes a deep breath of the cool air and shrugs his jacket off.

“Lan Zhan, let's get to know each other more,” he says. “We've spent all this time together but I don't know much about you.”

Lan Zhan leans back on the bench, knees turned to him. The breeze plays with the long strands of his hair. “What would you like to know?”

Wei Ying studies the older man. He's got a couple of questions on the tip of his tongue; something along the lines of Why do you have whip lashes all over your back? How did you get your burn scar? Do you like me?

He... probably shouldn't ask any of those.

“How about this; I ask you a question, you answer, and then ask me a question back? And then I answer that. So on and so forth.”

Lan Zhan nods.

Wei Ying taps his chin. “Hmm... I'll start then.” Okay. Don't ask any awkward questions... Just ask him a perfectly normal question that's safe to ask anyone. “What... What do you normally look for in a partner?”

Damn it.

That's not a perfectly normal question that's safe to ask anyone!

“I have never looked.”

Wei Ying tilts his head. “Huh?”

“They have always taken me by surprise.”

What's that supposed to mean? A thousand other questions threaten to spill out of him. Wei Ying forces them down in case he ends up getting answers he doesn't want to hear.

“Okay... You ask me a question then,” Wei Ying urges.

Lan Zhan nods towards him. “What do you look for in a partner?”

Wei Ying sighs. He should have made a rule that you're not allowed to ask the same question back.

“I... Come to think of it, I've never looked for one either...” He shrugs. “I guess anyone who makes me feel comfortable is good enough for me.”

He gave up on all the romantic stuff ages ago. Instead of looking for someone, he started looking for a distraction.

But he's not going to get into that conversation with Lan Zhan.

“If you had a time machine, where would you go? The past or the future?” Wei Ying asks next.

Lan Zhan answers straight away. “The past.”

“Really? Most people say the future.”

“Would you go to the future?”

Wei Ying nods. “Yeah. I wanna see hovering cars, you know? Or if we can live on Mars in the future.”

Lan Zhan actually looks like he's judging him. Wei Ying would have been offended if the expression on Lan Zhan's normally stoic face wasn't so funny.

“Live on Mars?”

Grinning, Wei Ying shakes his head and elbows him lightly. “Hey, you already asked one question. It's my turn. Do you believe in aliens?”

Now, Lan Zhan's frown deepens. “No.”

No? But the universe is a big place, Lan Zhan!”

“Ridiculous,” the older man mutters. “What is something you have always wanted to do?”

Wei Ying stops to think for a bit. That's a hard question seeing as he's grown into quite a cynic. He roots through his brain, trying to find an answer. The only thing that pops up into his head are his parents, sitting by his bed and telling him of their adventures.

“I want to... go travelling with the person I love,” Wei Ying mumbles, staring down at his hands. Oh fuck, that sounds so lame when he says it out loud. “It's cheesy, I know, but my parents did the same and they were always telling me stories about their travels when I was a kid. I want something like that.”

He sees Lan Zhan nodding from the corner of his eyes. “It sounds good.”

“Anyway,” Wei Ying mutters, looking back up. The first thing he lays his eyes on are Lan Zhan's lips. “What was your first kiss like?”

Now it's Lan Zhan's turn to avoid his gaze. Great job, Wei Ying. Way to make things awkward.

“A long time ago,” he stiffly says. “It was... wrong. I lost control and they did not know it was me.”

“What do you mean?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “My turn to ask.”

“Hey, you barely answered my question!”

“Your first kiss. What was it like?”

Wei Ying pouts. “You're no fair, Lan Zhan.”

His first kiss... Damn, is it bad he can't remember who his first kiss was? He was drunk, he remembers that much. He also knows that was the first night he lost his virginity. All in all, not a very romantic experience.

“Mine... Well, I don't actually remember mine. I was drunk. I don't even know who it was with.”

Lan Zhan narrows his eyes. Why's he looking at him like that?

He probably hates flings... Lan Zhan doesn't look like he's the type of person to go around sleeping with just anybody.

Wei Ying fiddles with the sleeves of his sweater. Why did he suggest doing this game? The only questions going through his head are stuff like How many people have you slept with—and no, he's not going to ask that. Knowing Lan Zhan, he's going to direct that question back to him and heaven knows it's impossible to count how many people Wei Ying's slept with.

He studies Lan Zhan's face again. Patiently, he waits for Wei Ying to ask something, so still he could have been mistaken for a marble statue. It doesn't help he's just as handsome as one.

“Do you...” Do you like me? “Do you think I'm attractive?”

“Yes.”

The word leaves Lan Zhan's lips so quickly that Wei Ying nearly misses it. He breathes out a laugh. “Well, you're not half bad yourself, Mr. Lan...”

Lan Zhan's eyes soften. Wei Ying's grown to think that's his own way of smiling; the piercing gold of his eyes warm into amber whenever he stares at Wei Ying like this. In response, Wei Ying's stomach flutters and it's not long until he has to break eye contact. Lan Zhan's effect on him is too strong. It's not fair.

“What did you do when you lived here?” Lan Zhan asks.

The warmth in his body cools uncomfortably. He shifts in his seat and looks away, suddenly all too aware of the intensity of Lan Zhan's gaze.

“Just... working and stuff. You know the headmaster at my current job? Shen Yuan? I used to live with him here.”

“Live with him?”

“We were roommates. When he returned to Gusu, he offered me the job. I guess he felt sorry for me.”

“Why... would he pity you?”

Wei Ying lets out a bitter laugh. He gazes back up at the skyscrapers towering towards the sky. When he was younger, he craved for the city life. Yunmeng was peaceful—home—but Wei Ying, naïve and hungry for more, wanted to see what everything else had to offer him. He wanted to live where everything was lively, surrounded by people who were just as starry-eyed as he was.

Then, everything turned to shit. He got the city life he asked for, but it wasn't the bright chaos he envisioned. Wei Ying was surrounded by strangers whose names he forgot the next day. It was lonely, and dark, and suffocating.

“I was a sorry state back then. Cleveland is a nice city but the memories I have here aren't so nice...” He trails off into a sigh. “And hey, you asked like three questions in a row. Stop cheating!”

Wei Ying forces a grin on his face, lightly elbowing Lan Zhan. “I get to ask three questions now—”

His words are cut off. He hears a bark right behind them. Every limb in his body freezes in an instant and his eyes widen. The barking gets louder, closer. Wei Ying lets out a hitched whimper and grabs Lan Zhan's arm, gripping it as tight as he can. He squeezes his eyes shut. Calm down, calm down. There's the distant sound of a little girl laughing, shouting for her dog to fetch the stick—but the barking is all Wei Ying can concentrate on and he doesn't see a little girl with her pet; he sees the cramped space of a wardrobe, his parents lying dead through that small crack, and the bared teeth of dogs waiting outside for him.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan's voice is a beacon through the memories. He turns to him and focuses on the warm tones of his eyes. “Let's go.”

Wei Ying allows Lan Zhan to help him up. The barking is still too loud in his ears; he barely registers Lan Zhan wrapping an arm around his shoulder, leading him away.

Once the barking is gone, Wei Ying realises Lan Zhan has taken him to another part of the park. He swallows the lump in his throat. They're under a large pavilion overlooking the children's playground. Lan Zhan sits both of them on one of the benches, stroking Wei Ying's back until all of the tension leaves his body. It takes a few moments to shake off the memories still clinging to him. The sound of children laughing and screaming fill the silence, their parents trailing after them not too far away.

“There were dogs when my parents died,” Wei Ying says out loud, watching the families. He doesn't have memories of his parents ever taking him to the park. They probably did; but the only memories Wei Ying can treasure are their stories. The laughter of those children in the distance fade away.

Lan Zhan stops rubbing his back. He leans in slightly, closing a hand around Wei Ying's, listening as always.

“I don't remember much. I was six,” Wei Ying says. “Some people broke into our house and killed Mom and Dad. Dad made me hide in the wardrobe before they could find us, and all I saw were the dogs through the doors. I don't... I don't know why those people killed my parents. I didn't see—I-I looked away but... I did see their bodies afterwards. Sometimes I still have dreams about it.”

He can feel Lan Zhan's grip tighten. Wei Ying looks down at their hands.

“It's silly,” he mutters. “I know the dogs didn't kill them but... still.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Not silly.”

Wei Ying squeezes his hand back. He hates remembering these memories, but telling Lan Zhan... doesn't feel so bad. His hand is warm. Safe.

“The intruders... Were they caught?” Lan Zhan asks.

“I... don't think so. I was too young to understand. Uncle Jiang was a police officer like Jiang Cheng; I think he was trying to investigate it but he never got anything.”

It had been filed off as a burglar attack, as far as Wei Ying could remember. As a kid, the only way he could process it was that there were simply bad people in this world. His family was just one of the unlucky ones who the villains managed to get to.

Now, he doesn't know. It's been too long.

He takes a deep breath and releases it as a sigh. For some reason, Lan Zhan is frowning to himself. No matter how many times Wei Ying nudges him, he doesn't budge or blink. He waves a hand in front of his face, calling him several times.

“Lan Zhan, you okay?” Wei Ying says.

Belatedly, Lan Zhan sits up. He nods, blinking out of his reverie.

“Yes.”

Wei Ying smiles. “Let's get out this park. We've been here long enough.”

As it gets closer to dinner, they look around for a place to eat. Seeing as Lan Zhan wasn't a big fan of the sriracha covered tacos earlier, Wei Ying gathers that he's not into spicy food. (What a shame.) They amble around the city, stopping every so often to peak at the restaurant windows and the menus by their entrance. After a while, they find a fancy looking French restaurant.

“This place looks a bit expensive...” Wei Ying mumbles, squinting at the prices. A bit is an understatement; he could buy a three course meal with the prices they had for the appetisers! “Maybe we should go somewhere else.”

Lan Zhan is already leading him inside. “I will pay.”

Wei Ying rolls his eyes. “You're always paying.”

As soon as they step in, Wei Ying instantly realises this place is literally packed with couples. Everywhere he looks, there's a couple staring into each other's eyes! The whole place is darkly lit, but it's enough for Wei Ying to see that he really should have worn something more formal than black jeans and a leather jacket. He shuffles closer to Lan Zhan; maybe if he stands next to him then Lan Zhan can be posh enough for both of them.

They're given a table that's thankfully in a section where not too many people are there. Wei Ying takes a seat, eyeing the roses and the candles laid out before them. He's tempted to touch the petals but knowing his luck, he's going to end up accidentally knocking that candle over and setting this whole place on fire. He keeps his hands on his lap instead, fiddling with his sleeves.

On the other hand, Lan Zhan fits in perfectly with this place. He looks like a prince straight out of a fairy tale, surrounded by flowers and dimmed candles—and where the fuck is that image coming from? Prince? Fairy tale? Damn, he's getting too cheesy.

Wei Ying grabs the menu, hiding behind it before his mind conjures up any more embarrassing thoughts.

It doesn't occur to him that being in a French restaurant meant the menu would be in French as well. He squints at all of the foreign words, trying to make sense of what he's supposed to be eating. There aren't even pictures! The only thing he can understand are the huge prices and he'd really prefer not to understand them!

Wei Ying sneaks a peak at Lan Zhan from above his menu. He doesn't look like he's having any trouble at all. Knowing him, he probably knows how to speak French.

Too soon, the waitress comes over to their table asking for their orders.

Panicking, Wei Ying randomly chooses an appetiser. Foie gras—whatever that's supposed to be. (Grass? Maybe it's a salad?) For his main, he recognises the word steak in one of them so he goes along with that because you can never go wrong with steak.

To no one's surprise, Lan Zhan pronounces the French words perfectly. The waitress gets a bit too enthusiastic for Wei Ying's taste, even going as far to respond to Lan Zhan in French. Wei Ying has no idea what she just said to him, but he still narrows his eyes. He doubts Lan Zhan's French is what's getting her excited. No doubt she's thirsting over him too. I'm on a date with him, he bitterly thinks. Shoo. Go away.

All Lan Zhan does is nod at her, returning his attention back to Wei Ying once he's finished ordering. As soon as the waitress goes away, Wei Ying drops his glare.

“I didn't know you knew French,” he mumbles. “Is there any other languages you know?”

“Hm. Japanese, Italian... Latin. And a few more.”

Latin?”

Lan Zhan nods.

Why is he even surprised at this point? Is there anything Lan Zhan isn't good at? He's ridiculously attractive, rich, good at music, smart enough to be a university tutor, and he also knows how to speak several languages. The list grows by the day.

It's impressive, although it does make him wonder why Lan Zhan is on a date with him of all people. If, by some unexplainable reason, that he doeslike Wei Ying... then why? Compared to him, Wei Ying isn't really anything special. In fact, quite the opposite actually. Both of them couldn't be any more mismatched.

Right from the start, Lan Zhan's always been willing to help him. Hell, the first time they met, Lan Zhan didn't hesitate to ask Wei Ying if he would like a lift home. From then on, he's appeared all over the place, ever the perfect gentleman.

Maybe he's just this nice to everyone. Stop over-thinking.

He nods to himself. Whatever the reason is, he shouldn't dwell too much on it. Not tonight anyway.

It's not long until their appetisers arrive. To Wei Ying's surprise, foie gras isn't actually grass or any type of vegetable. He has no idea what it's supposed to be when he first looks at it; maybe some shiny meat? Curious, he slices off a chunk and puts it into his mouth.

Wei Ying's eyebrows rise. It literally melts in his mouth. There's a rich, almost delicate flavour of butter on his tongue, followed by a salty after-taste. The sauce it's served with is nice too; more on the sweet side, but it complements it well.

“This is good,” Wei Ying says. He offers Lan Zhan a small piece with his fork. “Wanna try? I promise it's not spicy this time.”

Lan Zhan leans in and Wei Ying watches as his lips close in around the fork. He sits back, slowly chewing. After a while, he nods his approval. Lan Zhan also lets him try what he ordered, which is a goats cheese tart with olives and sundried tomatoes. Wei Ying hates olives; he's thankful Lan Zhan gave him a forkful without those nasty things.

“Not bad,” Wei Ying says, nodding as well.

Their mains arrive shortly after they finish their appetisers. As the food basks in all their mouth-watering glory, it only occurs to Wei Ying now that he's forgotten to do the most important thing that you must do when you're on a date.

Wait! Don't eat it yet!” Wei Ying cries. “I need to Instagram this first!”

Lan Zhan frowns, placing his fork down. “Instant... gram?”

Wei Ying nods, taking a few shots of his food from all different angles. What good is going on a date if you can't show off about it online?

“Yeah, don't you have an account?” he says. “See?”

Grinning, Wei Ying shows him the post he just uploaded onto Instagram. 

Lan Zhan looks at him with amusement. For the rest of their meal, they talk about anything and everything. Wei Ying asks him how Sizhui is doing back in Gusu; Lan Zhan tells him he's well, he enjoys staying with his brother. Lan Zhan lets Wei Ying taste the salmon he ordered, and Wei Ying comments it would be so much better if it had some chilli on it. As expected, Lan Zhan does not agree with this.

By the time they're done with the food (and dessert included), Wei Ying can barely walk. He groans, patting his stomach as they leave the restaurant. He didn't even want to ask to look at the bill. Lan Zhan was perfectly happy (or, well, emotionless) whipping out his credit card and paying for everything.

“I'm so full, Lan Zhan! That was good,” Wei Ying says, linking their arms together again.

“Hm.”

Wei Ying scans their surroundings. One look at his phone tells him it's almost eight PM. Has time gone that fast?

“Cleveland is pretty during the night. I remember I used to like walking around here when it was dark.” He tugs on Lan Zhan's arm. “Let's go to the public square. There's always stuff going on there.”

If there's one thing Wei Ying likes about the city life; it's the bright lights during the evening. While he stopped appreciating the chaos and the noise, Wei Ying has always loved all the colours lighting up at night. Sometimes, if he's not drowning in all the marking he has to do, he leaves his apartment to walk around Gusu. The nightlife there is nothing compared to Cleveland but its bright lights illuminating the darkness is as pretty as ever.

The public square is bustling with life as usual, more so than Wei Ying remembers. He soon finds out why. Wei Ying excitedly yanks on Lan Zhan's arm, pointing towards the centre.

“Look! They have the ice rink!” he says, bouncing on the heels of his feet. He hasn't gone skating for years. “Have you ever skated before, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head.

“Let's go then!”

Wei Ying drags him to the rink, and it doesn't take long to realise that Lan Zhan, for all his talents and perfection, cannot skate to save his life. His limbs are too long and stiff; he stands there looking at Wei Ying like a lost puppy. Somehow, the sight of him struggling to ice skate, while wearing the fanciest suit known to man, makes Wei Ying burst out laughing.

“Aaw, Lan Zhan, now I finally see something you're not good at!” he teases, laughing when the older man only narrows his eyes. Wei Ying winks and spins around him a couple of times, not even hiding the fact that he's completely showing off now. Not once does Lan Zhan's gaze leave him, following him around the rink as he twirls and laughs.

“You are good,” Lan Zhan says. He stumbles back a bit, and for a second, Wei Ying thinks he'll fall on his butt. Luckily, he regains his balance.

“Jiang Cheng and I used to go to the skating rink in Gusu all the time. He always got pissed off I was better than him so I tried teaching him how to skate,” Wei Ying explains. He holds out his hand, rushing to Lan Zhan's side. “Here, take my hand.”

Lan Zhan grabs onto him, tripping forward. Giggling, Wei Ying steadies him.

“Don't worry. Steady there, Lan Zhan. I've got you.” To demonstrate, Wei Ying squeezes his hands tighter, skating back a few steps and slowly pulling Lan Zhan with him. “See? Not so bad, huh? Keep holding onto me.”

Lan Zhan's lips twitch slightly. “Okay.”

He stumbles again, almost bumping heads with Wei Ying.

It only occurs to Wei Ying how close they are. He keeps his eyes on Lan Zhan's face, searching for a reaction. Finding none, he slowly wraps his arms around his neck and pushes himself a little closer.

“Hold onto my waist,” Wei Ying says under his breath.

His heart hammers against his ribs as Lan Zhan does exactly that. He catches Lan Zhan's gaze for a second too long and hurries to look away, his face heating up within seconds. This is bad, he thinks. This is really, really bad.

This feels like something out of all the romantic movies he's always watching with Wen Qing; the same movies he'd end up sobbing about in the end because why couldn't life be like that? Where's his Prince Charming sweeping him off his feet? Lan Zhan isn't sweeping anyone off their feet because he can barely skate right now, but fuck, Wei Ying's heart won't stop fluttering. Is this what it feels like to have butterflies in your stomach? He's going to end up puking out the fois gras at this rate.

“You're getting the hang of it,” Wei Ying mutters. “Do you want to let go now?”

“No.”

Surprised, Wei Ying ducks his head and tries his best to stifle the smile spreading through his face. In the end, he gives up understanding this feeling and lays his head on Lan Zhan's shoulder instead, closing his eyes.

There's silence, but he's beginning to like these silences with Lan Zhan. It's a nice feeling; being comfortable with someone regardless of whether he's rambling his head off or when he has nothing left to say. Wei Ying leads them around in circles, listening to the gentle sound of Lan Zhan breathing.

They could stay like that for an eternity and it wouldn't have been enough for Wei Ying. Even when they leave the rink, they're still holding hands. Wei Ying's thoughts are more of a mess than usual. With no destination in mind, they walk around the square. For once, he doesn't know what to say around Lan Zhan because any coherent sentence his brain can make up is drowned out by non-stop mental screaming. His pulse refuses to calm down and he's pretty sure Lan Zhan can feel how sweaty his palms are. He sneaks glances at the older man from the corner of his eyes, knowing full well he's waiting for him to say something.

Wei Ying doesn't want this date to end—but it's getting pretty late. They should head back, right?

He stops walking, looking down at the ground.

“This was fun. I've had a really good time with you, Lan Zhan,” he says, forcing himself to make eye contact. “I suppose we should... we should head back, right? It's getting pretty late.”

“Hm.”

Neither of them move. Lan Zhan is staring at him so intensely that it's as if Wei Ying can just about make out what he wants to say—but of course, he can't. Lan Zhan is forever a mystery. Wei Ying licks his lips and waits.

A gentle breeze of cold air drifts past them. Wei Ying can't help but shiver, edging closer to Lan Zhan who is warm, and tall, and nice. In response, Lan Zhan leans closer too, ducking his head down ever so slightly.

Fuck it, Wei Ying thinks, grabbing Lan Zhan by his tie and pulling him down to meet his lips.

One second. One second where both of them freeze. Then, as Wei Ying is thinking shit shit shit, Lan Zhan holds his waist and slides their lips together. The relief is overwhelming and the butterflies do cartwheels in Wei Ying's stomach. He wraps his arms around Lan Zhan's neck and presses himself against his chest, closing his eyes.

Lan Zhan's lips are softer than he expects. The kiss is gentle at first, like they have all the time in the world and everything, anything, around them doesn't matter. A small noise escapes him when he feels Lan Zhan's tongue entering his mouth; for a second, Wei Ying is a teenager again and this is his first kiss, the first kiss to make his heart pound, the first kiss to make him want more. He pushes himself closer, burying his hands into Lan Zhan's long hair and humming in content against his lips. By now, the kiss is no longer gentle. He's aware he's trying to clumsily meet every caress and taste of Lan Zhan's tongue. Through the rush, he vaguely registers the slight tremble of Lan Zhan's body, his fingers digging deeper into his waist.

Wei Ying gasps into his mouth. He's forgotten they're in the middle of the public square. He wants more.

Wei Ying has always wondered what it's like to feel sparks when you kiss someone; as in genuinely enjoy it like the people in those romantic movies do. For the longest time, he's began to think the movies exaggerated everything. Kisses are just kisses; wet and boring.

But no. This is nice. Too nice. Wei Ying is the first to pull away, overwhelmed, blushing to the point that he thinks his head might burst.

He raises a shaking hand to his lips, breathing hard.

“Oh. Um. Sorry,” he mumbles. “I... I... You didn't mind that, did you?”

Lan Zhan doesn't answer. His eyes are a golden fire. Instead, he gives Wei Ying a rare smile; and if that isn't enough to make his heart stop, Lan Zhan strokes his cheek, pulling him in for another kiss.

Wei Ying smiles against his lips. He'll take that as a no.

They kiss until he's dizzy and he can no longer breathe. At some point, Wei Ying has pulled out the tie securing Lan Zhan's ponytail, happily running his fingers through his hair. They break away every few minutes, and Wei Ying laughs off his shyness, mentally hitting himself for acting like such a starstruck teenager.

It's not so bad though, not when Lan Zhan rewards him with a smile of his own and pulls him in for their umpteenth kiss in a row. He doesn't get tired of the way Lan Zhan kisses him; gentle at first, then it's as if his control slowly slips and it ends up with Wei Ying gasping for breath, his knees almost buckling.

Once he's sure they've been standing there and making out for fifteen minutes, Wei Ying presses a finger against Lan Zhan's lips and laughs. He can't stop the grin spreading through his face and the way Lan Zhan's eyes soften at the sound of his laughter is almost enough for Wei Ying to pull him in for another kiss.

He controls himself and leans in to whisper into Lan Zhan's ear.

“Let's go home, Lan Zhan,” he says. The butterflies in his stomach have practically died from cardiac arrest by now. “I... I don't think doing this in public is a good idea.”

He pulls back, stiffening at the hungry look in Lan Zhan's eyes. His grip on Wei Ying's waist tightens.

“We can continue this in the hotel,” Wei Ying promises. It's hard to talk when it feels like his breath is stuck in his throat. He licks his lips, not missing the way Lan Zhan's eyes follow his tongue.

Wei Ying runs his hands through Lan Zhan's hair, looking deep into his eyes. “I want you too.”

Lan Zhan takes a deep breath. “Mark your words,” he says. His voice is huskier, rougher. It's nearly enough for Wei Ying to think fuck public decency and just suggest they do it here on the grass.

He's lost any ability to talk. The only thing Wei Ying can do is untangle himself from Lan Zhan, grabbing his hand and dragging him down the streets back to their hotel.

 

- x -

 

Chapter Text

When Wei Ying asked Lan Zhan out on a date, he honestly had innocent intentions. Maybe he was expecting to hold hands like the sap he is, and maybe he was also hoping for a kiss at some point—but still! Completely innocent! Lan Zhan didn't strike him as the sort of person who slept with just about anyone. Then again, Lan Zhan also didn't strike him as the sort of person who would kiss him so hard his knees felt like jelly either.

Wei Ying barely registers anything aside from the deafening pounding of his heart, louder with each step he takes. Lan Zhan's hand is warm in his grasp; a constant reminder that he is right here—and that's where his thoughts go downhill because Wei Ying will remember how much of a good kisser Lan Zhan is and why the fuck is their hotel so far away?

He fumbles with the key card to their door, opening it a bit too aggressively and wincing at the loud bang that follows when it collides with the wall. Wei Ying awkwardly steps inside, sighing in relief once he sees there's no damage done. Jin Zixuan can afford to pay for damages if anything happens, but how is Wei Ying going to explain that he was too eager to get inside the room because he wants to continue what Lan Zhan and him started in that park?

Wei Ying winces at that train of thought. He hears the sound of the door closing behind him; Lan Zhan's soft footsteps get closer and closer.

“Wei Ying.”

Releasing the breath he's been holding all this time, Wei Ying turns around. It comes out in the form of a nervous laugh as he takes in Lan Zhan's loose hair and the crooked angle of his tie. Lan Zhan steps forward, and that's all the confirmation Wei Ying needs to close the distance between them.

Like before, their kiss starts out gentle. Lan Zhan cups his cheeks, sliding their lips together so slow that it makes Wei Ying's heart palpitate. It's the sort of thing that catches him off guard; he's used to just rushing onto the bed, taking off his clothes and getting straight to it—but no, Lan Zhan kisses him like he's got all the time in the world and he wants to focus every second of it on this moment.

Wei Ying likes it. He snakes his arms around Lan Zhan's neck, reaching up to run his hands through his long hair. The soft strands escape his fingers and he hears a low noise coming from the musician. Wei Ying does it again, angling Lan Zhan's head so he can kiss him deeper.

In time, Lan Zhan's hands trail down, leaving goosebumps in their journey. A shudder escapes Wei Ying as Lan Zhan grips his waist, leaving no space between them. His head is dizzy with nothing but Lan Zhan invading his senses; sandalwood, mint, the hard expanse of his body against Wei Ying's.

Wei Ying eagerly parts his mouth open, letting out a content hum as their tongues meet. Through the haze, he hears Lan Zhan's breath quicken; he feels him shuddering, his hands gripping Wei Ying's waist even more. Even so, his actions are slow. Hesitant.

He's holding back.

Wei Ying pulls away, searching Lan Zhan's face for any sign that he may not want this. There's a brief flash of hurt that squeezes his heart at the thought Lan Zhan doesn't want him, but it's soon squashed away when the older man leans in again, eyes fixed on Wei Ying. He stops before their lips meet, simply because Wei Ying has not moved.

“Wei Ying...” Lan Zhan's voice is barely audible. Wei Ying watches his Adam's apple bob up and down, wondering what words he's swallowing away.

“It's okay,” Wei Ying reassures. “Don't hold back.”

Lan Zhan's jaw clenches. He inhales a deep breath and kisses him again. Although it was exactly what he asked for, Wei Ying is surprised by the hard press of Lan Zhan's mouth, immediately parting his lips open and sucking on his tongue. He struggles to catch up and tugs on Lan Zhan's hair. In an instant, a low moan escapes the older man. He pushes Wei Ying back until he's pressing him against the wall and all Wei Ying can do is gasp into his mouth.

Wei Ying rakes his fingers through Lan Zhan's hair. The only sounds he hears now are the stampede of his pulse and the wet noises of their lips desperately trying to meet each other. His body heats; he wants nothing more than to take his clothes off and go on the bed, but Lan Zhan won't move. He's relentless, not once wanting to part from Wei Ying. He chases his lips again and again, biting and sucking. It's not long until Wei Ying's chest aches and he has to pull away. He rests his head against the wall, gasping for breath.

A surprised moan drawls out of him as Lan Zhan's lips trail down his jaw. Wei Ying cranes his head, pleased when the other man takes this as a sign to kiss his neck. Lan Zhan sucks on his pulse point; occasionally biting, only to soothe the momentary pain by pressing gentle kisses afterwards. He does this repeatedly until Wei Ying is a dizzy mess and his neck is covered in marks that he knows will stay with him for days.

He doesn't care. The thought of waking up and seeing all of the marks Lan Zhan has left on him excites him more than it should. Wei Ying impatiently tugs on Lan Zhan's hair again. In the back of his mind, he can feel strong hands running down his thighs; the tips of Lan Zhan's fingers leave him trembling and Wei Ying unconsciously parts his legs—

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries, bracing himself as he's literally lifted from the ground. Lan Zhan grabs hold of his legs and crushes him into the wall, capturing his lips once again.

Wei Ying wouldn't say he's heavy but the way Lan Zhan holds him makes him feel like he weighs nothing at all! The hard surface of the wall behind him digs into his spine, yet Wei Ying welcomes how uncomfortable it is, clawing at Lan Zhan's back. He wraps his legs tighter around him and stiffens at the unmistakable bulge that presses against his groin. Fuck, Wei Ying thinks. Fuck.

Moaning, Wei Ying bucks his hips forward, rewarded by a husky groan that comes from the musician soon after. Wei Ying grins. He does it again and again, until Lan Zhan is doing the same and they're desperately grinding into each other.

Fuck fuck fuck, Wei Ying mentally chants. He throws his head back and loses himself in the rush. He can feel the ache of his own dick straining against his pants but as much as he wants Lan Zhan to just fuck him already, he can't pull away from this. Lan Zhan overtakes him, bucking into him with a ferocity that Wei Ying would have never expected. The back of his head knocks against the wall and he can't even bring himself to complain. All Wei Ying can do is moan and close his eyes, clinging onto Lan Zhan as if his life depends on it. He needs more, fuck—Lan Zhan is driving him insane.

Bed,” Wei Ying gasps. “B-Bed. Lan Zhan—the bed.”

Lan Zhan hefts him up. He travels across the room with no difficulty whatsoever and lays Wei Ying down on the bed. Panting for breath, Wei Ying sinks into the sheets.

“Lan Zhan... You... You're so...” Wei Ying struggles to find a word to describe him, so all he can do is pull him closer. He spreads his legs as Lan Zhan crawls over him, enveloping all of his senses with the overwhelming scent of sandalwood. His lips are red from all the kissing they've done, and – for once – his hair is a mess—but not in an I-just-woke-up-and-my-life-is-a-mess kind of way, but I'm-about-to-wreck-you-and-you-should-be-begging.

Well, kind of. Wei Ying isn't the sort to beg (that's a lie; he is) and as hot as Lan Zhan looks right now, he wants to have some fun first. Lan Zhan is so stiff and proper all the time, surely there's a limit to that?

Running his hands over Lan Zhan's chest, Wei Ying smiles at the evident hunger in his eyes. He deliberately takes his time to stroke his tie, tugging on it ever so slightly. As usual, Lan Zhan is as stiff as a lamppost; all hard muscle and self control. Wei Ying makes a show of pouting, even going as far as to look at Lan Zhan from beneath his eyelashes. The only indication he gets that it's working is when Lan Zhan's golden eyes narrow and his Adam's apple bobs up and down again. It takes all of Wei Ying's mental strength not to burst out laughing.

“Mr. Lan, aren't you hot in this suit?” Wei Ying asks. He yanks on the tie—harder this time—and brings Lan Zhan down till he can brush their lips together. “I think we should take it off.”

Lan Zhan shudders. Within seconds, he's pulling his blazer off and Wei Ying is grinning as he loosens Lan Zhan's tie, helping him. He throws that onto the floor and makes quick work of unbuttoning Lan Zhan's shirt, running his hands over the hard planes of muscle under.

“Isn't that better?” Wei Ying teases, slipping Lan Zhan's shirt off his shoulders. He can't resist leaning back and admiring the sight of the man looming over him.

His gaze falls on the circular brand on his chest. It's impossible to ignore and the obvious question almost rolls off his tongue. Wei Ying bites it back, not wanting to interrupt the moment. Questions can wait.

Instead, he pushes himself up on his elbows and trails his lips over the uneven ridges of the scar. Lan Zhan stiffens; a choked breath escapes him as Wei Ying darts his tongue out, licking along the edge of his brand.

Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan hisses. He grasps Wei Ying's shoulders.

Wei Ying stops, waiting for him to push him off. When Lan Zhan doesn't, he slowly continues what he started, kissing each ridge of the sun-like brand on his chest. He's never bothered to pay this much attention to someone else's body before. If this was anyone else, Wei Ying's clothes would be off and they'd have already started fucking.

It's not that he doesn't want Lan Zhan inside him already, because he does, fuck, he really does; it's just that with Lan Zhan here in all his glory, it's impossible not to take a moment and appreciate how good he looks. Wei Ying is starting to enjoy the subtle changes in his breathing whenever he teases him. Lan Zhan is usually so mysterious and hard to read; the fact that Wei Ying can have this effect on him makes him smug and happy. Strangely happy.

His mouth travels up Lan Zhan's collarbone, sucking on the crook of his neck. He leaves a mark, similar to the ones that now cover his own. Pleased, Wei Ying pulls back and smiles up at the older man. He notices the obvious flush in his ears, such a stark contrast to the white jade of his skin.

How cute.

That thought soon leaves him as Lan Zhan crushes him back into the bed. Wei Ying grins. He reaches down and presses the hard length straining Lan Zhan's pants. As he expected, and hoped, Lan Zhan chokes out in surprise. His eyes narrow again.

A shiver runs up Wei Ying's spine. Lan Zhan's eyes are cold and hazy, and his expression is enough to tell him that he'll regret it if he keeps teasing him like this.

Which is exactly what Wei Ying wants.

He chews on his bottom lip, looking up at Lan Zhan with feigned innocence.

“Why are you glaring at me, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying whispers. He lightly pats the hem of Lan Zhan's trousers, resisting the urge to start grinning again. Lan Zhan is practically frozen, but that doesn't stop Wei Ying. In fact, it spurs him on.

“I know you like this,” Wei Ying continues. “Didn't I tell you not to hold back?”

Lan Zhan's jaw clenches. Before he can say anything, Wei Ying slips his hand into his pants and grasps him.

Wei Ying!”

Wei Ying can't hide the surprise in his eyes. Lan Zhan feels much bigger than he expected. He pumps the hard length, trying to gauge how big he is exactly before his pants come off. He's barely able to wrap his whole hand around him, that's for sure. Wei Ying takes his time to stroke him from the tip to the base, up and down, up and down, listening to every struggling breath Lan Zhan takes. The large dick twitches in his hands and Wei Ying himself starts to find it harder to think when he imagines this will be inside him soon. He bites his lip, squeezing his palm around the length ever so slightly.

“Wei Ying... You...” Lan Zhan shudders as Wei Ying presses his thumb against the slit of his dick. He takes several breaths through his nose, shaking. “Enough.”

Wei Ying widens his eyes, slowly rubbing his thumb over the engorged head. “You don't like this?”

Lan Zhan closes his eyes, gripping his arm tight. “You are teasing me.”

I know,” Wei Ying grins. “I like your angry face, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan doesn't say anything but the noise he lets out almost sounds like a fucking growl.

Okay. Shit. That's kinda hot. Wei Ying swallows down the lump in his throat and loosens his hand. I'm going to die.

He's wasted enough time. Leaning into Lan Zhan's ear, Wei Ying whispers: “There's lube in my suitcase. The big pocket by the side.”

He pulls out his hand, fixing Lan Zhan's pants for him. A laugh nearly escapes him as he watches Lan Zhan leave the bed to find the infamous bottle of lube in the blink of an eye. Wei Ying ignores Wen Qing's smug face appearing in his head, already gloating that she was right all along. Actually, imagining your best friend while you're about to get dicked down isn't normal once he thinks about it. Wei Ying vehemently shakes his head, pushing her out his thoughts.

He busies himself by slipping off his jacket, chucking it into a far corner of the room. His sweatshirt follows shortly after. Before he can start working on his trousers, Lan Zhan returns with the bottle of lube in his hands.

“Don't ask why I have lube with me,” Wei Ying quickly says. “I swear I wasn't planning on having sex with you—not that I don't want to have sex with you because you're really hot and everything but I didn't know if you wanted—”

Lan Zhan shuts him up with another kiss.

From then on, everything is a rush. They fumble to take off each other's pants, unwilling to break off from their kiss. At some point, Wei Ying whines and impatiently shakes off his pants himself while Lan Zhan does the same (minus the whining). Every time they part, they meet for another kiss, and another. Wei Ying is greedy and wants to keep Lan Zhan all to himself, messing up his hair as he shuffles his bottom so his boxers can be pulled off. He shudders at the feeling of Lan Zhan's naked body pressing against his own, eyes snapping open at the realisation this is actually happening.

Wei Ying groans, bucking his hips forward, chasing the sensation of their dicks rubbing with each other. Now that his eyes are open, he's left breathless at the sight of Lan Zhan before him. He was already perfect before but, wow, he's unreal without clothes on. How is it possible for one man to look so good?

He can't be human. He looks more like a marble statue—except better than a marble statue. Wei Ying's been in a lot of museums; those statues have nothing on Lan Zhan. For starters, those statues have tiny dicks! Lan Zhan's dick is definitely not tiny at all!

Wei Ying's eyes shamelessly trail down, staring at the impressive length. He's seen a lot of dicks in the past; over time, they all end up looking the same to him. Maybe it's because he hasn't had sex in ages that he finds he's getting excited now, more than he remembers he ever has been when it comes to sex. Come to think of it, has he ever had sex completely sober?

Once he stops staring at Lan Zhan's dick, Wei Ying realises he's not the only one taking this opportunity to admire the person in front of them. He blushes at the intensity in Lan Zhan's gaze, resisting the urge to cover himself. Why is he even getting shy all of a sudden?

“Don't look at me like that,” he mutters, forcing out a half hearted chuckle.

Lan Zhan moves closer. His long hair brushes Wei Ying's stomach; it tickles, making him squirm.

“Why?” Lan Zhan asks. “You are beautiful.”

The urge to cover his face is ridiculously strong. For the sake of his own pride, Wei Ying lightly smacks Lan Zhan on the shoulder instead.

Ahh, Lan Zhan. You certainly know how to flatter my ego.”

Lan Zhan ducks down and presses a kiss on his lips. It lasts one second, but Wei Ying's heart still stops. “It's the truth,” he says.

When he says it like that... Wei Ying bites his bottom lip in a vain effort to hide his smile. Lan Zhan really is unlike any person he's met before...

“Touch me,” Wei Ying says. “I want you, Lan Zhan.”

His eyes flutter close as Lan Zhan presses kisses down his collarbone and chest. All the while, his hands grip Wei Ying's thighs, keeping them parted. Lan Zhan is too slow, nothing like the need Wei Ying has right now. He wants to beg him to hurry up and take him already, though Wei Ying will be lying if he said he didn't like the attention. An impatient whine drawls out of him as he feels Lan Zhan's breath hovering above one of his nipples, fingers lightly brushing Wei Ying's dick.

Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying moans, tugging on Lan Zhan's hair. When Lan Zhan finally closes his lips around Wei Ying's nipple, Wei Ying involuntarily arches his back, begging for more.

Lan Zhan still isn't touching him down there. Wei Ying thinks he might go insane, with only the feeling of Lan Zhan's tongue and teeth. In time, he sucks harder, alternating between each nipple, ignoring Wei Ying's obvious attempt in grinding against him. One of Lan Zhan's hands holds his waist, surprisingly strong enough to pin him down despite Wei Ying's strugglesWhy is he being so slow? Does he want Wei Ying to literally beg him?

Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying all but cries. “Please touch me properly! You're not being fair!”

He stiffens at the feel of Lan Zhan suddenly grasping his bottom. Before it dawns on him what he's doing, a finger grazes along the rim of his hole. Wei Ying holds his breath and spreads his legs wider, letting out a hiss of pleasure as finally, finally, the finger sinks inside him, already slick with lube.

“Oh, yes.” Wei Ying jerks his hips forward. “Ah, ah... Lan Zhan, yes...

Lan Zhan's fingers are longer than his. Wei Ying is used to fingering himself whenever he feels like masturbating, but it's not the same. He's dizzy with need and this rush making his head spin isn't helping; it amplifies the pleasure surging through him. More, he thinks. More. Slowly, Lan Zhan strokes the insides of his walls, pushing his finger in and out, in and out. It feels good but it's not enough.

“Y-You can... You can add another finger in—please,” Wei Ying begs. “And f-faster! Please, Lan Zhan! Stop teasing!”

Wei Ying might cry from frustration at this rate. He gasps at the stretch of the second finger, twisting its way inside him until Lan Zhan is knuckle deep. Once Wei Ying begins to whine again, Lan Zhan sets a steady pace. He pulls out, then back in, digging his fingers deeper than the last. In time, Wei Ying meets his thrusts and moans louder as Lan Zhan's pace increases, sometimes arching his fingers against the spot that makes him want to scream.

Fuck,” Wei Ying gasps out. He's practically bouncing on Lan Zhan's hand at this rate, unable to stop himself. If this carries on, he'll come too soon.

All of a sudden, Lan Zhan lifts his hips off the bed. Wei Ying's eyes open wide, just in time to feel Lan Zhan's fingers driving deeper inside him. He cries, squirming as a third finger is squeezed past his rim. Shit. Lan Zhan relentlessly drives his fingers into the same spot, forcing choked moans out of Wei Ying until he no longer has the strength to keep meeting his thrusts. The pleasure in his stomach pools dangerously, his dick aching.

God, Lan Zhan! Y-You're—!” Wei Ying shakily tries to grab Lan Zhan's arm. The fingers pound against his prostate again and he throws his head back, trembling. “Not yet! Stop! Please!

Too soon, Lan Zhan stops. He pulls his fingers out of Wei Ying.

“Not good?”

Wei Ying licks his lips, panting. He looks up at Lan Zhan, spotting the concern in his golden eyes. Seriously? He has the audacity to think he isn't good after almost making Wei Ying come from his fingers alone? Wei Ying isn't sure whether to cry or laugh.

“No, no...” Wei Ying says, his voice still shaking. “Too good. I want you now. Please, Lan Zhan. I want you so much.”

By this point, Wei Ying's thoughts are too hazy with need to think properly. He shivers at the hands gripping his hips tighter and spreads his legs for Lan Zhan to position himself.

He fumbles to find the bottle of lube, squirting out a few drops into his shaking hands. He quickly strokes Lan Zhan's hard dick and impatiently coats it in lube, rubbing it along his hole. Lan Zhan pushes his hands away, pressing against him so there's no longer any space between their bodies. Another whine escapes Wei Ying, thinking that Lan Zhan is teasing him again.

His complaints die on his tongue as he feels the tip of Lan Zhan's dick slowly entering him. Fuck, finally. Wei Ying clings around Lan Zhan's neck and moans into his ear, spreading his legs as wide as he can. With every inch Lan Zhan sinks into him, Wei Ying loses any ability to function.

Lan Zhan stretches him full; when Wei Ying thinks this is enough, he pushes more, more inside. Groaning, Wei Ying clenches around him, thankful for once that Lan Zhan isn't rushing. It's been a while since he's bothered touching or playing with himself, and a much, much longer time since he's had sex. The burning stretch is uncomfortable, but certainly not unwelcome. Wei Ying takes a few moments to accommodate himself to Lan Zhan's size, leaning in to lick at his lips.

He only notices now that Lan Zhan is shaking.

“Wei... Wei Ying,” he hisses out. He still hasn't moved; most likely waiting for Wei Ying to confirm he's okay.

Wei Ying shuffles his bottom slightly, testing himself. He stifles a moan. “Shit.”

Lan Zhan frowns. “Are you okay?”

“I'm okay. It's... It's been a while.”

For some reason, something shifts in Lan Zhan's eyes; they narrow and his jaw clenches. The grip he has on Wei Ying's hips tightens, his fingers digging into his skin. It's gone in a blink of an eye, and so is the question that plays on Wei Ying's tongue. Lan Zhan pulls out, slow and torturous, and snaps his hips forward.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries.

All thoughts abandon him as Lan Zhan barely gives him time to catch up. He eases out, then pounds back into Wei Ying with a force that leaves him breathless. Each thrust rips a moan out of Wei Ying; he desperately tries to meet Lan Zhan's pace but he's never fast enough, only able to whine at the pooling pleasure in his gut. Lan Zhan is deliciously deep inside him and with each second that passes, Wei Ying has to stop himself from going over the edge too soon.

Hng! Lan... Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying pulls back, catching Lan Zhan's gaze. All he hears from the older man are low grunts, the occasional hitch of his breath.

As their eyes meet, Lan Zhan leans in and brushes their noses together, pressing his forehead against his. There's something intimate in the way he looks at him. Wei Ying's heart stutters and he doesn't hesitate to cup Lan Zhan's face. They kiss, and Lan Zhan's pace slows down; he rolls his hips, grinding into the spot that makes Wei Ying see stars. He moans loud into Lan Zhan's mouth, digging his heels against his back in a desperate attempt to get him deeper.

With a gasp, Wei Ying pulls away. He looks into Lan Zhan's eyes and shudders.

“Faster,” he pants. “I need you to go faster. Fuck me, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan says nothing. He sits up, his burning gaze refusing to leave Wei Ying. From beneath, the sight of Lan Zhan looming over him is almost too much for Wei Ying to stand. He's still buried inside him, his dick twitching but not moving. Wei Ying steadies his breathing, watching as Lan Zhan grabs hold of his thighs.

Before he knows it, Lan Zhan roughly pulls him down, hooking one of his legs over his shoulder. Wei Ying grips the sheets in surprise, and that's really all he can do as Lan Zhan eases out completely and slams back into him.

Ah! L-Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying squeezes his eyes tight, stiffening at the slight change of angle. “Lan Zhan! S-So deep!”

Lan Zhan doesn't stop now. He fucks Wei Ying as fast as was asked of him, keeping a tight grip on his hips. With his leg over Lan Zhan's shoulders, the angle he's fucked at is much better, making his toes curl at the overpowering jolts of pleasure.

The moans that spill out of Wei Ying's lips are loud and long, almost drowning out the sounds of Lan Zhan's thighs hitting against his ass. Frantic with pleasure, Wei Ying starts babbling out anything, everything that can get him to feel better than he already does. He chants Lan Zhan's name, loud enough that he's sure the whole hotel floor knows who is fucking him right now. Let them know, Wei Ying thinks, screaming louder.

“Don't... Don't hold back! Lan Zhan! Fuck! Please, please—fuck me! Har... Harder! Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Lan Zhan!

Lan Zhan hoists Wei Ying's hips off the bed. He lifts and drops Wei Ying to meet his thrusts, moving him with ease as if he's nothing but a doll. Limp and incoherent, Wei Ying is all too happy to let him have his way with him. He arches his back, trying so, so hard to keep himself together because he never wants this to end.

“Oh fuckoh fuck, oh fuck... Yes, fuck! T-That feels good!” Wei Ying sobs. “It feels so good, Lan Zhan! Ah, don't stop! Please don't stop! Right there! Right there!”

He gets what he asks for. Not once is there a pause; Lan Zhan continues to slam into him, each one as fast, as deep, as hard as the other. His fingers dig into Wei Ying's hips in a way that merges the pleasure with a stinging ache, but Wei Ying welcomes everything and asks for more. Always more. Fuck, he can't get enough. He doesn't think he's ever screamed or moaned for anyone so much in his life; he doesn't know if it's because he hasn't had sex in years or Lan Zhan is just this good—but fuck. Wei Ying is more than happy to think it's the latter option; the way Lan Zhan slams back into him each time pulls him closer and closer the edge. His own dick strains against his stomach, aching for release. He nearly reaches over to stroke himself, but he knows he'll come straight away if he does. Not yet. He wants more.

Desperate, Wei Ying hooks his other leg over Lan Zhan's shoulder. The next thrust almost has his body folded in half and the way Lan Zhan slams straight into his prostate makes his world tremble.

Fuck!” Wei Ying screams. “Harder! Right there, Lan Zhan, right there! Harder, please! Faster! Don't stop!

A husky grunt is all he hears. Lan Zhan's arms raise up on either side of his head, driving his hips forward so suddenly that the bed rocks with him. Wei Ying jolts—shit. He has no time to gather his senses before Lan Zhan's pace increases even more, relentlessly pounding into him with a strength that leaves his bones shaking. 

What the fuck, is all Wei Ying can make out of his thoughts. What the fuck. Every time Lan Zhan pistons back into him, the breath is knocked out of Wei Ying's lungs and part of him fears his bones are literally going to break. It verges on being too hard and too deep; Wei Ying's moans are twinged with a surprised cry of pain—followed by the shaky realisation that he likes this. It's all too much. Unable to keep up, Wei Ying can only cling onto Lan Zhan's shoulders. The bed continuously hammers against the wall, in tune to the sound of Wei Ying's delirious cries.

Ah, yes! Yes! Lan Zhan! You're so good! You feel so good, Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan... Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying digs his fingernails into Lan Zhan's back. He's so close. So close! “I can't... I can't anymore...! You're... You're driving me—insane! Fuck—fuck! So... So close! I can't!

One, two, three thrusts are all it takes for Wei Ying to snap. His body tenses and he throws his head back, the only noises coming out of him are garbled nonsense that imitate Lan Zhan's name. His body spasms and his eyes roll back as he spills all over his stomach. The warm feeling of cum splattering all over him is nothing compared to the overwhelming pleasure that empties his mind. He can feel Lan Zhan's pace becoming unsteady and yet he fucks Wei Ying through his orgasm, reducing him into nothing but weak whimpers.

With barely any strength left, Wei Ying's legs slip from Lan Zhan's shoulders. He's left in a state of bliss, aware of the hard dick buried deep inside him. Lan Zhan still hasn't come, but from the way his thrusts are now erratic and shallow, Wei Ying gathers it's not long until he will. Weakly, Wei Ying peppers kisses all over his face; his cheeks, the corner of his mouth, his forehead. Lan Zhan shudders and captures his lips, kissing him as he chases his own climax.

Wei Ying winces at the stinging pleasure that now drag through his sensitive walls. He whimpers and hears Lan Zhan moaning into their kiss, slamming into him one last time. Drained out of all the energy in him, he squirms at the feeling of Lan Zhan's dick twitching as he releases inside. Unconsciously, Wei Ying clenches around him, groaning at the feeling of being filled. It's too late to consider that they probably should have used a condom... Then again, he doubts Wen Qing packed those as well.

They kiss, both struggling to breathe. The kiss is slow and barely a kiss at all, but Wei Ying is content to stay in Lan Zhan's arms with the feel of his limp dick still buried inside him. He brushes aside the sweat-dampened locks from Lan Zhan's face, smiling when the older man finally opens his eyes.

“What the fuck, Lan Zhan...” Wei Ying mumbles. “You really surprise me every time.”

Almost immediately, Lan Zhan's eyebrows furrow and he leans back. Wei Ying has to cling onto him to stop him from pulling out.

“Are you... okay?” he asks, voice laced with worry.

Wei Ying chuckles. “Let me catch my breath.”

Lan Zhan looks away. The corners of his lips twitch slightly, turning down.

“Don't look like that,” Wei Ying tells him. He cups Lan Zhan's cheeks and directs him to look back at him. “I liked it.”

“You did?”

Yes. Wasn't I loud enough for you?”

The tips of Lan Zhan's ears instantly turn a shade of red. Wei Ying laughs harder, pulling Lan Zhan into another kiss.

“You're so cute, Lan Zhan,” he says, then gets inspired to tease him more. “Lan Er-gege.”

Lan Zhan's eyes widen a fraction.

“Ooh, you like that? Lan Er-gege?

Lan Zhan presses his lips together. “Silence.”

“But you like it! Lan Er-Gege! I'll call you that from now on! Lan Er—”

His jeers are cut off as Lan Zhan shuts him up with another kiss. Laughing, Wei Ying is only too happy to reciprocate it. He's not sure how long they spend there just kissing; Wei Ying wouldn't mind if they stayed like this all night. Despite the cum all over his stomach and the slight ache in his bones, he's one hundred percent all in favour of keeping Lan Zhan like this.

Sadly, Lan Zhan doesn't have the same thought process as him. He's the first to pull away, glancing down at Wei Ying's stomach.

“I will clean you,” he says.

“Hmm, such a gentleman as always... But, you know, I won't mind it if you stay inside me. In fact, I want you to.” With that, Wei Ying clenches around him, winking when Lan Zhan ears flush yet again.

Shameless.”

Wei Ying whines as Lan Zhan pulls out but does nothing to stop him from going to the bathroom. At the very least, he can admire Lan Zhan's ass from this view. What a very nice ass it certainly is.

Lan Zhan returns with some tissue and a warm, damp towel. He gets rid off all of the cum with the tissue, handling Wei Ying with care like he's supposed to be glass and Lan Zhan didn't just wreck him five minutes ago. After he's done, he uses the damp towel to wipe Wei Ying's stomach and face; the warmth is soothing to the touch and Wei Ying sighs in satisfaction.

“Good sex and aftercare? Lan Zhan, you're spoiling me,” Wei Ying says, cuddling next to Lan Zhan once they both settle under the blankets.

As usual, Lan Zhan doesn't say anything; the small smile playing on his lips is enough. They lay like that, with Wei Ying slotted beside Lan Zhan, their legs tangled with each other's. Wei Ying strokes his long hair, playing with the soft locks. He's tired beyond belief and he knows he'll feel the ache tomorrow, though Wei Ying doesn't want to sleep yet. He's too content like this. Too happy.

He's never felt anything like this before, especially after sex. His experiences were always a rush; nothing more than just a need to chase pleasure. After that's done, Wei Ying will stare into space, filled with nothing but self hatred and shame. He'd stumble back home and fall asleep asking himself why he's let some stranger have their way with him.

This is the first time he's ever wanted to stay with someone. It doesn't feel wrong to cuddle up to Lan Zhan, stroking his bare arms and smiling when Lan Zhan does the same.

“Tell me more about yourself,” Wei Ying finds himself saying. “I feel like I've known you forever but... but I don't. I want to know more about you, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan raises his eyebrows. “Myself?”

“Yeah, anything! As in... what were you like as a child? I bet you were cute.”

“That was a long time ago.”

Wei Ying smirks. “You're not that old.”

“Hm.” There's a slight hint of amusement that dances in Lan Zhan's eyes. It disappears in less than a second, but it was still there. Wei Ying likes to think he's getting good at reading the silent man.

“I was... quiet,” Lan Zhan says.

“You're still quiet...”

“Does it bother you?

“Me? Nah. You're fine the way you are,” Wei Ying says, rewarded by another smile from Lan Zhan. “So, you were a quiet child. What did you like to do?”

Lan Zhan stares off into the distance, as if thinking. Waiting for him, Wei Ying busies himself by braiding a lock of Lan Zhan's hair. He revels at how soft the strands feel between his fingers, although it does make him wonder why Lan Zhan decides to keep his hair long. He'd probably be just as hot with short hair.

“Spending time with my mother,” Lan Zhan says after a while.

Wei Ying looks up, not expecting that answer. “What was she like?”

Something softens in Lan Zhan's face. “She was loud, like you. She teased me a lot.”

Grinning Wei Ying pokes Lan Zhan's cheeks. “You're fun to tease!”

He imagines a cute little Lan Zhan sitting on his mother's lap, pouting slightly whenever she teases him. The image is too adorable; Wei Ying doesn't hesitate to poke Lan Zhan's cheeks again.

“Hm,” Lan Zhan nonchalantly says. “She liked the stars a lot. She wished to know their stories.”

“Stories?”

Lan Zhan nods. “She believed every star had a story.”

“Did she ever tell you any of them?”

Shaking his head, Lan Zhan looks down. “She did not know any. She... yearned to explore the world and find stories, but she could not.”

The urge to ask what he means by that is strong, although Wei Ying does not miss the sudden change in Lan Zhan's tone. His voice is quieter, almost a whisper now. If his mother wished to explore the world but she couldn't, then did that mean she was too ill? She passed away when Lan Zhan was only young?

Wei Ying doesn't want to ask. He keeps quiet, for once.

It's Lan Zhan that continues to speak. “She told Brother and I to find them ourselves. For her.”

“Did you?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head again. He falls silent, and Wei Ying is left to his own thoughts.

His memories of his real parents are very few. As the years passed, time has robbed him of even the image of their faces. If he imagines them, he can only picture unclear faces smiling at him, urging him to go to sleep. The only clear memories he has are the stories they used to tell him every night.

“My mom used to tell me a lot of stories,” Wei Ying says. “She was brought up by this lady who would tell her all these myths and legends. Mom loved them so much that she travelled the world with Dad, just so her life would be as exciting.”

Lan Zhan's arms tighten around him, listening as always. Wei Ying lays his head against his shoulder and roots through his head for any remnants of his family. When he thinks of his parents, he can only think of his bedroom; Mom and Dad sitting either side of him, taking turns to share stories that left Wei Ying starry eyed. Dad liked to share tales of their travels, while Mom told him all sorts of myths. She was a dreamer, her head stuck in a world unlike reality.

“She told me so many...” Wei Ying mumbles. “I remember one of them was about this immortal woman who fell in love with a human.”

Lan Zhan's head turns to him.

“Do you wanna hear?”

Lan Zhan nods.

Wei Ying takes a deep breath. How did that story go again...? It was one of his mother's favourite ones to tell; she'd always share it whenever they looked up at the sky and found there were barely any stars visible.

“So, there was this immortal woman whose eyes were as black as night,” Wei Ying starts. “Her skin was as pale as the moon; and whenever she spoke, it sounded as if all of the stars in the universe were talking to you. She was very beautiful, but all of the humans feared her.”

He knows full well that he's no storyteller like his mother. He can't weave the right words like she does, spinning it into a tale that rivals any novel out there. Nevertheless, Lan Zhan remains silent, waiting for him to carry on.

“One night, a human farmer stumbled upon her while he was in the forest gathering fruits. Unlike any of the other humans she came across, this farmer didn't shy away from her; they talked until the night turned into day and the immortal had to go. For the next few months, they met up in the same forest, talking until the sun returned and they had to part.”

Wei Ying sighs. “Anyway, it wasn't long until they both fell in love. The immortal was so blinded with love that she left the heavens to stay by this man's side. They lived together for years, ignoring the fact that one of them was ageing and the other wasn't. The human never cared that she was an immortal and he wasn't; it was enough for him that he could be with her.”

Beside him, Lan Zhan stiffens. He says nothing, although Wei Ying catches sight of his jaw clenching. Is he that invested in the story?

But in the end, the human fell ill and slowly began to die,” Wei Ying says.

“What did the immortal do?” Lan Zhan asks. Wei Ying almost doesn't hear him because his voice is so quiet.

“Everything. But no matter how much the immortal tried to help him, it was no use. He died.”

Lan Zhan breathes out. Wei Ying can't help but think it comes out shaky. Is he that affected? Wei Ying didn't think Lan Zhan as the type to get emotional during stories.

“Unable to face eternal life of being alone, she offered her own heart to him; thinking her magic would resurrect the human back to life.”

“Her... heart?”

Wei Ying nods, waving a hand. “Yeah. Her heart. Or the source of all her magic. Whatever.”

“Did it work?”

“It did—but the human didn't remember her at all. He was resurrected but it was like he was a completely new person. A blank slate.”

Lan Zhan's fists clench. Wei Ying spares a moment to pat his hands, loosening them enough so he can entwine their fingers together.

“For many years, she tried to make him remember, telling him about all of the nights they spent together. She neglected her health and didn't eat or sleep. It never occurred to her that, by giving away the source of her magic, it meant she was no longer immortal either.”

Lan Zhan frowns. “She was no longer immortal?”

“Yeah, because she gave her heart away, remember? That was the source of her immortality.”

“But... the human? Did he turn immortal?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Nah, I don't think so. I think her heart only brought him back to life, but that was it. I don't know—don't ask me.”

He lets out a chuckle, squeezing Lan Zhan's hand. “Anyway, where was I? Years passed and, still, she didn't give up. Her mortal body grew weaker by the day and the human only continued to think of her as a stranger.”

“She died,” Lan Zhan says, as a matter of fact.

“How very blunt, Mr. Lan. But yes, she did. The human found her dead body during the night, when the sky was empty and devoid of stars—except for one.”

Wei Ying points up at the ceiling. This story isn't as effective compared to being outdoors looking up at the stars, but Lan Zhan will have to make do with his improvisation.

“The human looked up at the star and was reminded of her; of how she stayed by his side every day and how she never gave up. The star was so bright and beautiful that he wanted to name it after her, but even after all this time, he couldn't remember her real name.”

He lets his arm fall back on the bed, craning his head to look at Lan Zhan. “So, if you ever look up at the sky and see one lone star; that's her. The Nameless Star. A bright star among the darkness, yearning to be remembered.”

Lan Zhan is too busy staring off into the opposite wall. His jaw is clenched and the grip he has on Wei Ying's hand is too tight.

“Kinda depressing... I should have probably picked a happier story, sorry,” Wei Ying quickly says. Nothing better than a depressing story after sex... Why couldn't he have told the story about the flying unicorns?

Lan Zhan turns back to him. His hand loosens, shaking his head slightly.

“No. It is a good story,” he says.

“At least that's one for you.”

“...Yes. Mother would have liked to hear it.”

Wei Ying beams at him. “I'm glad I told you then. If you want to know more, just tell me. Mom and Dad told me so many of them...”

Lan Zhan pulls him closer, leaning down to kiss his forehead. “Hm. Another time then.”

Silence settles between them. They stop talking and it's not long until Wei Ying's eyelids begin to droop close. Everything catches up with him; the aching of his limbs, the overwhelming peace he feels with Lan Zhan, this strange happiness he doesn't want to end.

Nestled in Lan Zhan's arms, Wei Ying falls asleep to the sound of his heartbeat, dreaming of starless skies, of other lifetimes where immortals exist and his parents' faces are as clear as their love for each other. He dreams of golden eyes and white robes, of a voice that sings him the same song every night. The dreams have no pattern and he travels across various years and various lives, wondering if any of this will ever make sense.

 

- x -

 

Wangji remains awake. Wei Ying's story repeats in his mind, ridding him of any ability to keep his eyes off the slumbering man curled against him. He strokes his fingers through Wei Ying's short hair in a vain attempt to calm his anxiety, but the thought of losing him plays again and again, in different scenarios, different ages, different lifetimes. No matter how and when he loses Wei Ying, it will all be the same.

He had allowed himself to get lost in this momentary happiness. He is lucky enough that Wei Ying welcomes his presence now. Is it not enough that he has been given the chance to be with Wei Ying? To kiss and love him, as he has always yearned to do so? Is this not enough?

Wangji hates the voice inside his head that screams no. No, it is not enough.

Nowhere near enough.

Wei Ying continues to sleep, unaware of the turmoil that Wangji faces every time he looks at him, every second of the day. One day, Wei Ying will sleep and never wake up. One day, Wangji will be alone again.

What will he do then?

His inability to answer that makes him feel useless. He shudders out a breath and forces his gaze away from Wei Ying.

He stiffly leaves the bed, reaching for a dressing gown that hangs nearby. Behind him, Wei Ying mumbles something in his sleep but thankfully does not wake up. He simply rolls over, hugging the closest pillow.

Wangji's eyes soften. He leans down to kiss Wei Ying's cheek before turning away. Covering himself up, Wangji walks across the room and slips outside into the balcony, breathing in the cold air that washes over him. The city is as bright as ever. Wangji spots a few drunkards stumbling home, laughing into the night; he waits until they are gone, taking their noise and distraction with them.

In the silence, he sighs and looks up. The city lights are far too bright for any stars to come out, but Wangji does not miss the solitary speck in the centre of the sky.

A lone star, brighter than any of them, bright enough to rival the city lights.

A nameless immortal whose real name has been forgotten by history; whose eyes are as black as the night sky, skin as pale as the moon. A nameless immortal who Wangji once met at a travelling circus many centuries ago, sharing her riddles with him.

Wangji squints at the star. Another gust of wind envelops him, colder than the last. Like the human in the story, he too does not know her real name.

 

 

Chapter Text

Although they have spent this past week sleeping in the same bed, Wangji still finds himself at a loss for words every time he wakes up to the sight of Wei Ying curled against him. The first thing he notices is the overwhelming scent of lotus flowers and morning dew, more so than usual. Savouring this moment, he breathes it in and tightens his arms around the slumbering man.

Sunlight glares from the gaps of the curtains, streaking gold onto Wei Ying's bare skin. In the light, his hair glistens in different tones of brown and black. Long ago, when they were still naïve teenagers, Wangji would watch sunlight paint over Wei Ying's hair, until morning turned into afternoon, and until Wei Ying left with that same grin he rarely ever dropped. After he turned to demonic cultivation, the smiles were no longer genuine and his laughter was laced with bitter mockery rather than the lively cheer Wangji had grown to love.

It was a painful experience; to watch the man you loved—the man you love—turn into someone you did not recognise. Regardless, no matter how far Wei Ying threw himself into darkness, Wangji loved him. He loved Wei Ying, who spent more time drawing him rather than copying Gusu Lan's rules; he loved Wei Ying, who stole his forehead ribbon – along with all its implications – without knowing anything about the chaos it did to Wangji's heart. He loved Wei Ying, even after he lost himself and pushed Wangji away with words that still hurt even today. He loved Wei Ying after he died and was reborn into a new man with the same face, the same sadness that haunted his grey eyes. He loves Wei Ying now, more than he ever thought he could.

Wangji strokes back the strands that fall over Wei Ying's eyes. A smile threatens to pull at his lips and he allows it to. There is no one here but them, and he has always struggled to keep his defences up around Wei Ying anyway.

As he runs his fingers through Wei Ying's hair, he notices the marks that now cover his neck and shoulders. Wangji's hand stiffens. His concern is short lived, suddenly remembering all of the details of what occurred between them last night. In an instant, his head is filled with images of Wei Ying clinging to him; the column of his neck as he threw his head back, screaming his name for the whole world to hear. It had all been a rush then and Wangji will admit he lost control. The marks and bruises that now mar Wei Ying's body are a clear indication of that.

Does he regret it? No... not at all. He's long yearned for the day he could touch Wei Ying and show the extent of his love for him. While Wei Ying does not know everything yet, Wangji hopes he has felt something during their time together.

He traces his fingers over Wei Ying's waist, drawing lines along the bruises that have formed overnight. At first, he worries that he has hurt Wei Ying, but it is followed by the undeniable feeling of satisfaction that surprises Wangji. He remembers the way Wei Ying clung to him, how good their bodies felt pressed against each other, how maddening it was to sink into Wei Ying's warmth and listen to the way he moaned for more...

Wangji swallows the lump forming in his throat. Of course Wei Ying will destroy the self control he has built for almost three thousand years in a single night. Only him.

An almost inaudible mumble comes from Wei Ying. His eyelashes flutter open. As per usual, his bottom lip juts out; a clear indication that he is not a morning person. It is the same procedure every morning; Wei Ying will glare at whatever his eyes have landed on before gathering his senses and waking up entirely.

“Hmm... Good morning, Lan Zhan,” he mumbles. Although his eyelids are drooping close again, Wei Ying offers him a lopsided smile.

Wangji pulls him closer. “Good morning, Wei Ying.”

“What time is it?”

“Eleven.”

Wei Ying opens one eye, groaning. “Ah, shit. Why didn't you wake me up?”

“You looked peaceful.”

“Silly Lan Zhan, we're supposed to visit Jiejie for lunch!”

With a huff, Wei Ying rolls out of his arms and reaches for his boxers on the floor. Wangji remains where he is, contently watching Wei Ying struggling to put them on. Once he has succeeded, he swings his legs over the bed... and promptly falls straight down.

“Fuck!” Wei Ying cries as he lands with a resounding thud.

Wangji is by his side in seconds. “Wei Ying?”

For some strange reason, Wei Ying starts laughing. He is still kneeling on the ground, holding his hips. He shakes his head to himself and jabs a finger at Wangji's chest.

“Lan Zhan, seriously... I think you've actually crippled me,” he says.

It slowly dawns on Wangji what he is talking about. Guilty, he can only help Wei Ying back to his feet, internally berating himself for being so rough last night.

“I can't stand up straight!” Wei Ying cries, although still laughing. True to his word, he hunches over and winces every time he attempts to take a step forward.

Wangji clenches his jaw. “You are hurt.”

Wei Ying pats him on the cheek. When Wangji does not respond, he pouts and tugs at his dressing gown, playing with the belt. “It's not your fault. I was asking for it.”

Even though there is no blame in Wei Ying's tone, Wangji cannot shake off his thoughts. Wei Ying is only human. The differences between them are far too great for him to act so careless. He should have been more careful.

But if you really want to make it up to me...” Wei Ying snakes his arms around his neck, directing Wangji's gaze back to him. “Carry me to the bathroom. I need a shower.”

Wangji stares at him. Wei Ying is giving him the same smile that makes it impossible to deny any request he makes.

And so, he sweeps Wei Ying into his arms, easily carrying him.

Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying shrieks.I was joking!”

“You said you desired a shower,” Wangji says, already making his way for the bathroom. Wei Ying weighs next to nothing in his arms, even with all of the wriggling he does to try and escape. In the end, he huffs and throws his head back in laughter.

“Fine, fine! To the bathroom then!”

They begin the usual morning routine of brushing their teeth side by side. Now that they are in front of a mirror, it is much more difficult to keep his eyes off Wei Ying. The bruises forming all over his body are a stark contrast to his fair skin, especially the ones that cover his neck and shoulders. When Wangji looks at himself, he sees a few marks peeking out of his dressing gown too, courtesy of Wei Ying.

As an immortal, he can easily get rid of these. In fact, he can even choose to do that with the scars that cover his back and the brand on his chest—but Wangji will never consider it. These marks are reminders of Wei Ying. He will never part with them.

“You need a shower too, don't you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks him after they are finished brushing their teeth. He points at the shower, raising an eyebrow.

Wangji shakes his head. “You first.”

Pursing his lips, Wei Ying turns to the shower. He taps his feet on the floor.

“Or... we can take one together?”

Wangji did not expect that. He spots the undeniable blush spreading through Wei Ying's cheeks as he turns back to him.

“Okay,” he says.

“Alright, but help me into the shower so I don't slip and die,” Wei Ying says, chuckling. His choice of words leave Wangji frowning at him but he says nothing and guides Wei Ying to the shower.

They are both silent as they slip off what little clothes they are wearing. Wangji does not mind if Wei Ying sees his naked body—he has nothing to hide—although it does make him somewhat curious when Wei Ying sneaks glances at him with an expression that is difficult to read. His eyes roam over the brand on his chest for far too long.

Wangji has already expected him to ask about the scars and the brand. Even now, he is struggling to form an answer should the question rise. Lying to Wei Ying does not sit well with him, but telling him is an impossible task. How can he explain to Wei Ying that the marks he carries on his body are because of him, over two thousand years ago?

Wei Ying will think he is mad. Wei Ying will think he is mad and he will leave. Wangji cannot risk that.

Fortunately, Wei Ying says nothing for now. He enters the shower with Wangji, turning his back far too quick in order to switch the device on. Within seconds, warm water washes over both of them. Wangji hears a quiet sigh escape Wei Ying before he turns to face him again, a small smile playing on his lips.

For a brief moment, Wangji does not know what to do. He can only remain where he is, silently allowing this image of Wei Ying to imprint in his mind. The water has now soaked his hair, running droplets down his neck and his body. He is slender – but not sickly as he had used to look when he was the Yiling Patriarch. There is no brand on his chest and nor is there the apprehensive look of caution Wei Ying would often have around him, possibly in fear that Wangji would ask him to return to Gusu again. Instead, Wei Ying's eyes are large. Waiting. He takes a step forward.

Wei Ying reaches up to run his fingers through Wangji's hair. The feeling of his hands massaging his scalp is soothing. Wangji closes the distance between them, ducking his head down.

“No offence but this shower is much better than the one you have in your house,” Wei Ying says, spinning the shower head away from them and reaching for the bottle of shampoo.

Wangji raises an eyebrow.

Squeezing the shampoo onto his hands, Wei Ying begins to massage it into Wangji's hair. He is more than capable of doing this himself, but he cannot deny the surprising surge of contentment he feels watching Wei Ying in front of him.

“How do you even work that thing?” Wei Ying asks.

“It is fine.”

Wei Ying's lip curls. “It took me ages to realise how to change the temperature last time... Oh, Lan Zhan, close your eyes.”

Wangji does as he's told. “Temperature?”

Water washes over him once again. He keeps his eyes closed and remains still as Wei Ying rinses the shampoo off, humming a faint song that Wangji recognises is the song he made for him all those years ago. He recalls playing it for him several months ago too; the fact that Wei Ying still remembers is a miracle.

“Yeah, it was freezing when I stepped inside,” Wei Ying says. “Geez, Lan Zhan, you have so much hair! We're going to run out of shampoo at this rate!”

Wangji opens his eyes. “It is always cold.”

“What do you mean? Your shower? Do you not change the temperature?”

He says nothing. It had never occurred to him that changing the temperature was one of the options. The shower itself had already been installed into the house when he bought it; it had always been cold and he saw no reason to change anything. It reminded Wangji of the cold springs they had back in the Cloud Recesses. Sizhui used a different bathroom in his own bedroom as well, therefore he had never said anything amiss about Wangji's shower.

Pausing, Wei Ying leans back and frowns at him. “Are you telling me you've never changed the temperature of your shower? You take cold showers?”

Again, Wangji does not respond. He takes the bottle of shampoo and begins to give Wei Ying the same treatment he had given him.

A light laugh comes from the other man. “Too bad for you, Lan Zhan. We're having a warm shower now. I'm not freezing my balls off.”

Wangji shakes his head at Wei Ying's unnecessarily crude language but nevertheless does not let it distract him from the task at hand. Although Wei Ying's hair is not as long as it used to be, he lathers it thoroughly, careful not to let any shampoo splash onto his eyes.

“You have such pretty, long hair but isn't it a pain to handle?” Wei Ying says.

“I am used to it.”

“You've never cut it before?”

“No. Close your eyes.”

Wei Ying closes his eyes as Wangji directs the shower head in his direction, rinsing the shampoo off. “Why not?” he asks, peeking open one eye. “You'd look hot with short hair—not that you aren't already.”

Wangji wipes the water off Wei Ying's face. “Would you like me to?”

“Haha, that's not my decision, Lan Zhan.”

“Hm.”

His brother had once suggested they both cut their hair in order to fit in with modern society. It was an offhanded suggestion that neither decided to follow in the end; Wangji did not care for blending in, and Xichen eventually forgot about his own idea. As long as no one grew too suspicious of them, then Wangji saw no reason to waste any effort in adapting their ways.

Wei Ying rests a hand on Wangji's chest, right over the brand.

“How did this happen? And your back?”

Wangji stiffens. He looks away before an answer can form itself into his mind. Even as he desperately tries to think of a response, he cannot bring himself to lie to Wei Ying.

“You don't have to tell me if you don't want to!” Wei Ying quickly says. He laughs, but it does not sound like the usual laughter that reaches his eyes.

“It is a long story,” is all Wangji can respond with.

The silence that dawns between them afterwards is uncomfortable. Wangji cannot ignore the obvious curiosity in Wei Ying's eyes. While he insisted Wangji does not have to say anything, he is still staring at the brand as if he's attempting to decipher the answers himself. The urge to tell him is maddening—but how will he even begin with such a story?

Wei Ying, I have been waiting for you for almost three thousand years. You died, but I have never once given up on you.

Wangji takes a deep breath and swallows down the words. Wei Ying will never understand. He will think Wangji is insane before he can even contemplate to understand such a story. The distance between them remains as large as ever.

Wei Ying strokes the back of Wangji's neck, pushing his head down. As easily as that, Wangji's thoughts dissipate away and all he can focus on is the smile tugging on Wei Ying's lips. The curiosity in his eyes is long gone, replaced with that same glint that crumbles all of Wangji's defences within seconds.

“If it's so long then I'd rather do other things in this shower,” he says.

Before he finishes that sentence, Wei Ying's hand is already trailing down his stomach, deliberately slow and torturous. A shudder escapes Wangji and it becomes difficult to breathe as Wei Ying finds his length, wasting no time in stroking him, firm and hard. His palm is soft, warm, pumping him in a way that it's almost impossible not to thrust forward. It does not help that Wei Ying is so close, close enough that Wangji pictures himself pushing him into the tiles, silencing the quiet laughter that teases him now.

Wangji stills himself, breathing through his teeth. He thinks back to all of the bruises on Wei Ying's body and the fact he can barely walk this morning. He needs to control himself.

The smile on Wei Ying's lips widen and he leans closer, sucking one of the existing marks on Wangji's neck. Wangji does not stop him—how can he?

Wei Ying squeezes him, forcing out a hiss from his lips. “Hmm, Lan Zhan, you're already hard...” he murmurs against his skin. The heat from the water pouring over them is long forgotten; Wangji is lost in the pleasure that Wei Ying gives, relishing the way he expertly strokes him. He does not realise he has closed his eyes, unable to stop himself from bucking into Wei Ying's hand.

Too soon, it stops. When Wangji opens his eyes again, Wei Ying is down on his knees, licking up his length.

He grabs Wei Ying's shoulder, stopping him. “Wei Ying!”

Wei Ying looks up and licks his lips. There is a dangerous spark in his eyes that tells Wangji he is up to no good. He doesn't have the heart, or the self control, to stop whatever it is he has planned. His grip on Wei Ying's shoulder loosens. As always, Wei Ying is a storm he has no control over, bringing chaos into his life. All Wangji can do is stand back and admire him, his pulse quickening at the mere sight of Wei Ying grasping his member.

“You don't mind, do you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying teases. He strokes him again, his mouth tantalisingly close. “I need my breakfast, you know.”

Wangji does not have the opportunity to react to what he says. Wei Ying opens his mouth and slips him inside.

The image of Wei Ying kneeling with his mouth closed around him is nearly enough to drive him to insanity—but it is much more maddening once he begins to move. Wangji grits his teeth, leaning his head against the tiles as Wei Ying swallows more of his length. He cannot prepare himself for the tight warmth that surrounds him, the consuming sensation of Wei Ying's tongue. His hands rest on Wangji's thighs, gripping him harder when he begins to struggle taking all of him inside.

He has always tried to avoid imagining scenarios like this. There have been times during the past centuries that his control slipped and he would find himself trying to chase pleasure, losing his thoughts in fantasies he would later regret once sense returned to him. Often, he would imagine Wei Ying in this same position, taking him into his mouth, eager and enthusiastic as he always is with everything. Now that it is becoming reality, Wangji realises his fantasies dulled in comparison to the real thing.

Wei Ying pulls away, sparing a glance up at him as he slowly licks up his member. There is that usual smile that plays on Wei Ying's lips, although the message behind them is much more different with what he is doing now. Wei Ying does not break his gaze and the mirth in them is evident, teasing. He pulls back again, allowing the tip of Wangji's length to bump against his cheek and his lips. By now, he is painfully hard and the temptation to thrust back into Wei Ying's mouth is staggering. He wants nothing more than to feel everything Wei Ying's body has to offer, to spend everyday losing himself in Wei Ying and nothing but Wei Ying...

Wangji clenches his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms. Wei Ying presses a kiss on the tip of Wangji's length, swirling his tongue around it before enveloping it back into his mouth.

It feels amazing, and it is not long until Wangji buries his hand into Wei Ying's hair, jerking his hips forward. He groans, hearing the sound of Wei Ying choking beneath him.

Wangji loosens his hold.

“No.” Wei Ying pulls back to speak, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Keep doing it, Lan Zhan. I told you not to hold back, didn't I?”

Wangji averts his gaze away, narrowing them at the tiles. “I do not want to hurt you.”

Laughter rings in the air. Wei Ying is back on his feet, snaking his arms around Wangji's neck until his eyes are on him.

“Don't worry about that. I liked how rough you were last night...”

As he says this, he presses their bodies against each other, trailing kisses up Wangji's jaw. With no space between them, Wangji can feel Wei Ying's own arousal rubbing against his stomach. Everything and everywhere is Wei Ying, and he is all too glad to drown. He follows the path of Wei Ying's spine with his fingers, the curve of his waist, the softness of his skin. He can spend hours losing himself just admiring this man in front of him, but Wei Ying's impatience does not match his plans. He kneels down once again, winking in Wangji's direction.

Wet heat envelops Wangji's length once again. This time, Wei Ying moves his head up and down much quicker. The sounds that come out of him are obscene, shameless, but Wangji will be lying if he said it did not excite him in ways he never thought possible. He grips Wei Ying's hair, thrusting forward. For a brief moment, Wei Ying chokes as the length hits the back of his throat, but he holds onto Wangji's thighs and refuses to part. Wei Ying moans around him, the vibrations multiplying the heat that threatens to consume Wangji all too soon. When he looks down, he vaguely sees that Wei Ying is stroking himself while pleasuring him.

Wei Ying pulls away with an audible pop. “Fuck my mouth, Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice strained. “Come on, just grab my head and use me. I want you to.”

Wei Ying really will be the death of him.

Wangji clenches his shaking fists, slowly reaching for the back of Wei Ying's head. His eyes darken at the image Wei Ying is conjuring in his head; the control he's spent years and years building up disperses before them. He repeats what Wei Ying has told him. Use me.

He grips onto Wei Ying's hair and begins to thrust into his mouth in earnest. The tight, wet heat is maddening, more so when Wei Ying tries his best to match his pace. He moans and swallows around him, not once looking away. From here, Wangji can see tears welling up in his eyes, the momentary flinches on his face whenever his length hits the back of his throat. Nevertheless, neither of them stop. The water that pours between them is forgotten; the only thing Wangji can hear are the guttural sounds that escape Wei Ying, filling this small bathroom. Wei Ying makes no attempts to slow him down, not even as tears begin to fall down his cheeks and his jaw slacks.

Together, they build a mismatched pace; Wangji struggles to maintain his sanity whereas Wei Ying clumsily licks and sucks him, moaning all the way. He is a beautiful sight when he is losing himself in moments like this. Wangji finds himself admiring the way Wei Ying's hands shake to stroke what he cannot fit into his mouth, the way his tongue darts out to taste the tip of his length, the way his eyes are glossed over, only fixed on him.

It is all too much. Heat builds in Wangji's stomach, tightening—

He snaps his hips forward one last time, shuddering at the white-hot pleasure that overwhelms him. Too late, he tries to push Wei Ying off but he swallows as much of Wangji's length as he can, drinking what is being spilled down his throat.

It feels like an eternity before Wangji comes to his senses again. He watches Wei Ying rise, holding onto him for balance. His eyes are red and his lips are swollen. There is an unmistakable trail of white liquid dripping down his chin, which he does not hesitate to wipe with his finger and suck back into his mouth.

Wangji cannot even deny the fact he's blushing at the mere image of it.

“Thanks for my breakfast, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, grinning. “That tasted good.”

Shameless,” Wangji chokes out.

Wei Ying's laughter is music to his ears. He wraps his arms around Wangji's neck, kissing him deeply. His mouth tastes salty, bitter; Wangji is not so clueless to miss the reason why it is like that but he does not allow this to deter him. He reaches for Wei Ying's own length, swallowing down the moans that escape the other man as he begins to stroke him. It does not take long for Wei Ying to keen over, pulling away to gasp and moan his name. Wangji pumps him twice, three times, until Wei Ying finally spills into his hand.

As he loses himself in his climax, Wangji admires him; the way his eyes squeeze close, the way he bites his bottom lip, the deep flush painting his cheeks. Wei Ying is beautiful—so, so beautiful. He is the calm after the storm; Wangji clings to his trembling body, drowning, too, in the waves of pleasure both have submerged themselves in. Amidst the dripping of water and their synchronised breaths, Wangji hears the rampage of Wei Ying's pulse.

“I'm getting dizzy.” Wei Ying laughs under his breath. “Maybe we've spent too long in this shower.”

Wangji smiles into the crook of Wei Ying's neck. He nods, pressing a kiss to the spot where he can feel his veins thrumming with life.

They finish the rest of their shower with no other distractions. Luckily, by the time they are dressed, Wei Ying's limp is less prominent, although that does not stop him from making exaggerated moans of pain whenever he bends over. Wangji can only sigh at this. In order to hide the marks both have inflicted on each other, they wear turtle-neck jumpers to cover their necks. Wei Ying makes a comment that he does not mind letting everyone see the hickeys – as he calls them – but admits that he'll be a bit embarrassed if his sister says anything about it.

It is odd how everything and nothing has changed. Wangji is lost in this strange feeling of bliss where his attention is on Wei Ying at all times, listening to him, responding when needed, admiring everything the exuberant man does. It has always been the same; Wei Ying is too bright, too blinding, and Wangji is a lost cause when it comes to following him. This time, however, his love for Wei Ying is accompanied by an overpowering happiness that leaves him breathless.

Whatever worries he has about their future are drowned out by Wei Ying's grin, his non-stop nonsensical rambles about anything and everything. Wangji cannot deny it now. He is happy.

 

- x -

 

It is their last day in Cleveland. Tomorrow, they will set off in the morning to return to Gusu. Wangji will admit he is not sure what this will mean; will he and Wei Ying return to simply being acquaintances? Will Wei Ying wish to see him more? He has grown too comfortable with the idea of being with Wei Ying everyday. The thought of not spending his days constantly listening to his voice is disheartening.

But Wangji refuses to let that cloud his mind for now. He accompanies Wei Ying to visit Jiang Yanli, following him to her room rather than waiting outside as he usually does.

He is relieved to find that Jiang Yanli looks much healthier than she did before he transferred his spiritual energy to her. At first, Wangji worried it was not enough, but the brightness in her eyes and her smile is a clear indication she is on the road to recovery.

Wei Ying informs him that Jiang Cheng and his nephew have already departed for their flight back to Gusu. With both gone, it is only four of them in this room; Jiang Yanli, Wangji, Wei Ying, and Jin Zixuan.

Wangji sits back, listening to Wei Ying talk to his sister. Often, he will spot Jin Zixuan rolling his eyes at something Wei Ying has said. In response, Wei Ying will squint at him and talk faster, causing his sister to laugh. Wangji has nothing to offer to their conversation, simply content with listening to what Wei Ying has to say.

An hour has passed when Wei Ying's phone suddenly rings. He winces as soon as he checks it.

“Hang on, it's Wen Qing,” he says, standing up. “I'll be back in a bit.”

Jiang Yanli nods at him, smiling. Wei Ying pats Wangji's shoulder before he leaves and Wangji squeezes his hand, spotting the quick twitch on his lips. He says nothing and scurries outside.

Once he is gone, Jiang Yanli laughs, shaking her head.

“I'm glad A-Ying is happy. I can tell he really likes you,” she says.

Jin Zixuan scoffs. “Anyone can tell.”

Jiang Yanli makes no comment on what her husband has said. Instead, she directs her smile towards Wangji's direction. “And you feel the same.”

Wangji cannot deny that. He remains silent.

“Please take care of him,” Jiang Yanli says.

He nods without hesitation. “I will.”

“A-Ying is too hard on himself... He will always put everyone first, regardless of how much it affects him. I worry about him.”

Wangji knows that all too well. In his previous life, Wei Ying did not hesitate to destroy himself in order to protect those he loved, even when they turned against him in the end.

“I will take care of him and... make sure he does not come to harm,” he says, more as a promise to himself. He will do whatever it takes to ensure Wei Ying is happy.

Jiang Yanli beams at him. It is difficult not to feel comfortable in her presence; Wangji understands now why Wei Ying adores his sister so much. There is an air of maturity around her that can make anyone feel at ease.

“Thank you. With the way you look at him, I can see how true your words are,” she says. “It's about time A-Ying started living for himself, rather than for others.”

It is then that Wei Ying returns to the room. Wangji watches as he sits back down on his chair, repeating Jiang Yanli's words in his head. He cannot spend an eternity with Wei Ying, but he will at least try to make him happy for the rest of his life. If Wei Ying allows him the chance.

“What did your friend want?” Jiang Yanli asks.

Wei Ying waves his hand, huffing out a breath. “She was, uh, demanding to know how our date went.”

Something in Jiang Yanli's eyes shift. Beside him, Wangji notices Wei Ying fi