When Wei Ying was seven and his hands grew used to the weight of wooden swords and the too big hand-me-down sweaters that made his shoulders sag, he started playing in the forest that stood at the outskirt of the city. There was something that was pulling him in, something calling out to him. That... and the fact that the aunties grabbed their kids by their collars and threw them back into their house whenever he’d do nothing more than glance in their direction. The town wasn’t designed for black sheep, it was linear with streets that crossed at even points and made sense. It was established backhanded logic where change wasn’t necessary.
The forest liked to cradle every new being that entered. Paths opened and leaves fell to reveal misshapen rays of sunlight.The shrubbery was lush, sunlit shades of green and yellow that walked alongside the spring months. Wild flowers and mushrooms sprang up beneath the shade of the trees that were as ancient as the concept of time itself. The birds sang shrill songs, the cicadas droned annoyingly on and the sun continued to beat down on a world that took advantage of its heat. Listening to the sound of the crashing river currents against the rocky bank beneath the shade of flowering trees, Wei Ying became friends with the baby blades of grass that tickled his ankles and the white petals of baby’s breath that caressed his cheeks as he tucked their stems behind his ears.
Wei Ying was seven and a half and no longer a problem for the wary aunties that spoke of him as if he was never there, seven and a half and no problem for homeless dogs that grew ruthless in the face of hunger, seven and a half and picking berries and fruits from flora that smiled down at him and wished him well every twilight as he made his way back to the abandoned barn Madam Yu graciously provided on nights she was plagued with an unfamiliar feeling of decency.
He was her son, after all.
Somewhere within the rush of growing a year older, Wei Ying found a herd of rabbits and followed them as they skipped over thick roots that protruded from the ground. He tripped once, twice - excitement was a fickle thing - his smiles so abundant that the atmosphere grew richer from the sound of his youthful giggles as he ran and stumbled across the land.
The rabbits had lead him further into the forest than he’d ever been before. The inside of the forest was darker and cooler, the air fresh without the congestion of the smell of frying oil and such. He settled beside the few rabbits to rest, the laughter tiring his body more than he thought capable. With the gentle and welcomed weight of three rabbits on his chest, Wei Ying fell asleep beneath the shade of a tree that would soon bear witness to growth, tragedy, love and disaster within the span of a single soul’s lifetime. Whether it be fated by the Immortals, a coincidence, or myths spread from tavern to tavern within the city, Wei Ying fell asleep on a bed of moss in a moment of peace and awoke a few hours later between quilts and fabric that bogged him down.
He first heard a voice, soft in a way only angels in make belief stories tended to be, “Brother! Brother! Come quick, he’s awake!”
Immediately the shuffling of footsteps and general sounds of life grew louder.
Wei Ying opened his eyes to see a boy standing right before him, eyes wide and imploring, lips parted, hands inching forward to touch.
Who are you? Where am I? , should’ve been the first questions. They were on his tongue, really, but his mind was really far off. The bed was soft and the pillows more so - he tried to remember if he even had a fluffy blanket that tickled his nose back at the Jiang household. Jiejie had always given him hers, she still came out every night to do so, but he’d never wanted her to get cold instead of him. Anyone but his Jiejie.
Caught up in the feeling of warmth and the accumulation of thoughts regarding his familial lack of it, Wei Ying didn’t immediately register that he was being spoken to. In fact, he all but tuned it out and opted to rub his cheeks against the blanket.
“Pardon me, Young Master, what was that?” asked the unfamiliar voice of a taller figure that hadn’t been in the room earlier. He was tall, dressed in blinding white and had his hair tied into a simple knot atop his head, but above all else, he was smiling. At Wei Ying! And he had called Wei Ying ‘Young Master’!
“The blanket is soft,” Wei Ying whispered.
The child who stood before Wei Ying nodded, “Mother knitted it for me.”
From behind the child came that same voice, the smile still there, so startlingly welcoming, “It is Lan Zhan’s favourite. He hopes it has kept you warm?”
“The blanket is soft,” Wei Ying repeated and then nodded when he realised that a question was directed at him.
Between the ever growing population of wild rabbits and the boy named Lan Zhan, Wei Ying made his very first friends. They were both soft to the touch and as beautiful as the coming of every year’s first snow. There were so many things that had to be said about them, uncannily shared characteristics that made Wei Ying scrunch his nose in joy. It was the carrot sticks and pieces of lettuce that almost always got to him.
Every morning Wei Ying would make his way to the forest and dye his fingertips purple beneath a mulberry tree where the rabbits always waited for his arrival. Together, they walked further into the forest, reaching a point where a cottage was buried between snaking tree branches and crawling plants that weren’t that poisonous. Wei Ying was eight, nine and ten, clumsy with scarred knees and bruised elbows and always, Senior Lan stood besides Lan Zhan with a glass jar of alcohol and cotton to dress his wounds, which he tried to reason were never that serious.
Senior Lan would always nod and say solemnly, “Of course not, but allow me to help anyway, Young Master.”
Wei Ying never corrected Senior Lan, never told him he was no Young Master, but he could never really ever say no to Senior Lan, not when he made the best and spiciest soup he’d ever tasted and treated him with so much care.
That day, Wei Ying brought along his wooden swords to play with. They spent the afternoon dancing on flat ground with unsteady steps and trembling hands. Lan Zhan was so impressed with Wei Ying’s demonstrations that his eyes grew wide and a small smile emerged now and then. When they fought against each other and Lan Zhan kept on getting the better of Wei Ying, he’d shriek with laughter, “I’m letting you win! I’m letting you win!”
Lan Zhan would roll his eyes at that, take a quick jab at Wei Ying’s chest and say, “Stop letting me win then, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying giggled, he giggled and never stopped. It was the sound that brought upon a new day and saw it to its end. Gracious and beautiful, Wei Ying giggled, “I’m the best! Try and beat me, Lan Zhan!”
They played into the early evening until they could hardly stand and with wobbly legs, moved back to the cottage to rest and clean themselves. They were small enough for both of them to fit in the tub comfortably, splashing water at each other and using the soap suds to give themselves beards and mustaches that eventually drooped off before they even got the chance to laugh the situation out. They waved at each other and promised to spend more time together the following day, with the first streaks of twilight as their witness.
“What does Senior Lan do while we play, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asked one day, both feet dipped into the icy river water, as schools of struggling fish migrated upstream.
“What other grown ups do,” Lan Zhan replied.
“Senior Lan isn’t a grown up, though!” Wei Ying protested. “He’s good to me. Is he a doctor? He takes care of me well.”
“Are other grown ups not good to you?” Lan Zhan asked.
“All grown ups are mean! They get old and grumpy and have kids even though they can’t look after them properly. Anyway, Jiejie says I should pay them no mind, most of them don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Mnm, your Jiejie is right,” Lan Zhan agreed.
Wei Ying wore a proud smile on his face, “My Jiejie is always right! One day you should come and visit us, Lan Zhan. You and Senior Lan, I’ll get Jiejie to make her lotus seed and rib soup, too!”
Playing around and swinging their legs, they hummed short tunes that sounded heavenly to the ear. Wei Ying believed Lan Zhan’s voice was pretty enough to belt out a few lyrics, but the other boy refused and instead ceased their conversation about music altogether. The sound of the harsh rush of water moved to the foreground once again - agonisingly loud, but repetitive enough to lull the world around it to sleep.
“ Xiongzhang looks after people,” Lan Zhan said after a while. “If someone needs help, he’s always there.”
“I’ve never seen him in the city, though,” Wei Ying said. His features were scrunched up in thought, “I really don’t think I have.”
Lan Zhan never replied. He always opted for silence instead of a lie.
Sometimes change happens so gradually that all it takes is a single instance for something to fall apart. It’s cherished within the sticky hands of an excited child, shifted from a harsh winter to a balmy summer, thrown high into the sky with the silent prayer of one day maybe we too could fly and it carries on. It survives the batter of a gruelling monsoon and slowly as it’s roused, time after time, the thick skin begins to dissipate until all that’s left is something so fragile a single, awry glance might just do it away.
There were no longer candy covered fingertips that grasped onto Jiejie’s dresses, there was no holding onto anything good, because suddenly you’re nineteen and your very Not Nice mother leaves and that’s one good thing to come out of growing up, but its permanence is scrawled on the purple bags beneath Wei Ying’s sibling’s eyes - this baggage a testament to their losing a parent, but gaining a brother.
There was no time for Wei Ying to spend basking in the presence of his best friend, no matter how much he wished for it. He was finally allowed to help them out with household errands, accompanying Jiang Cheng at sunrise to catch fish and spent alternating afternoons helping his Jiejie out at home and selling their freshly caught wares at a stall in the city with his brother. Amidst it all, he tried his best to keep a smile wide enough to make up for all the hurt that shrouded his siblings’ faces. They needed someone to lift them up and Wei Ying thought if he couldn’t do that, what could he do?
Between sunrise and sunset, there were copious amounts of time where Wei Ying’s mind would wander. He’d be seated with his face resting on the palm of his hand and suddenly a collection of Lan Zhan’s words would echo in his mind.
“Wei Ying, be careful,” he cautioned in the softest voice.
“ Xiongzhang looks at me weirdly whenever I talk about you recently. He looks at me with this strange smile on his face,” he confided in him just the previous day. “It’s unsettling to not know what it is he’s thinking.”
“Please stay longer.”
“You’re my best friend.”
“The rabbits and I miss having someone to play with.”
Those thoughts, amongst others, lingered. There were some words uttered beneath knitted blankets and transient brushes of skin against skin, words ladened with love - from one lifelong companion to another.
“The forest takes too much from me. You don’t,” Lan Zhan sighed, a deep breath that Wei Ying knew was filled with things he’d never understand.
“One day we should travel West together, I’ve heard the ocean is beautiful.”
If soft smiles played along Wei Ying's lips during the day , a deep contrast to the ones he wore that were filled with mirth around others, nobody commented.
That night, as he walked to the Lan’s cottage with a basket filled with steamed buns and rabbits hopping at his feet, he was ten years old all over again. It was Lan Zhan, who was seated on a cushion with a book in hand, that Wei Ying saw first. He was covered head to toe in those white robes he’d recently started taking a liking to. They were flimsy and delicately crafted, the lace like the handiwork of a silk-spinning spider. He sat cross-legged looking like royalty that existed solely in stories crafted around the fae. Effortlessly graceful, pink nose, pink cheeks, pink ears.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, it’s getting cold. You shouldn’t wait outside for me every night,” Wei Ying chided.
“It’s only right. Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan greeted.
Wei Ying took a seat beside him, patted his thigh and readjusted the strands of hair that fell over his face.
“A good evening for steamed buns and a drink, don’t you think?”
“You know I don’t drink,” Lan Zhan replied.
“I know, I know. That’s why I brought you fresh juice and vegetable buns,” Wei Ying replied quickly. “Ah, Lan Zhan, have some faith in me.”
They ate in silence, Wei Ying occasionally muttering compliments to the chef and moaning in appreciation. After eating a single bun, he turned to Lan Zhan and watched his cheeks double in size as he took small bites from the bun, chewing leisurely. The lighting wasn’t very good. The moon was covered by the dense clouds and the lights from within the house were much too dim to reach the outer area they were seated at, yet through Wei Ying’s squinting and Lan Zhan’s uncaring attitude to being watched so closely by Wei Ying, something was changing.
There was a mess of emotions poking at the seams of an already overwhelmed Wei Ying’s heart and when Lan Zhan’s eyes moved to focus on Wei Ying and not what he was eating - it burst. Wei Ying had no idea what it was. There was something different running through his blood, it felt like his whole body was on fire from the inside out.
He looked up to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes.
There was numbness in his fingertips and his nerves were on high alert, sensitive to every single thing for no more than a few seconds, until everything dimmed down to nothing more than eyes that remained golden through everything and he realised, painstakingly so, oh,
The air was crisp, the night tranquil, two boys lanky, one afraid of so much and one unabashedly staring. There was no room left in Wei Ying’s vessel for denial.
Perhaps Lan Zhan is love. From the very beginning he always had been, wrapping him up in blankets that meant the world to him, sharing everything with him.
He remembered Senior Lan once said to him, on a particularly dreary afternoon when Lan Zhan was sick in bed, “He loves stubbornly, he loves resolutely. He used to be so selfish with his heart, but he’s giving you everything.”
Wei Ying never understood. Wei Ying would never understand.
Distance was something Wei Ying could never comprehend. Not in all his years alive and not in all the time he spent with his subconscious awake while his eyes were shut. He never understood why he had to be away, what good it would do, why he couldn’t have everyone with him at all times. How was he supposed to care for everyone if they were always so far, hours away and lives apart?
Yet he found himself staying days away from Lan Zhan. He thought it better. Let it be known that sense and thought were not connected. Distance couldn’t possibly make the heart grow stronger, there was just no way. So he did what every other person of his like (inventor extrodinaire, disaster bisexual, jaded fool) did, ran away from an overthought problem until the guilt became too much to manage.
He missed the bunnies and the mulberries, the shades of green that existed solely beneath the summer sun. He missed running around, playing in the river, skipping rocks and laughing. He missed the warmth that emanated from the Lan’s cottage, the smell of Senior Lan’s cooking and the entire experience of playing with fire as Senior Lan laughed and Lan Zhan hmph-ed. He missed the way his words would run away from him and still Lan Zhan would understand him completely, wholeheartedly. There was always so much truth between them, it never burned, not once. They apologised and picked up where they left off, often a lesson learned or with a feeling that no longer snagged hearts.
The risk of breaking their mutual respect hurt more than Wei Ying could bear. It showed on his face, his heavy, tired eyes and his sluggish movements.
“A-Xian, would you come here for a second, please?” his Jiejie asked.
They were both outside, his Jiejie picking at the chestnuts and handing them one by one to Wei Ying, who popped them in his mouth and held out his hand for more. He moved closer to her, letting his head rest in her lap, his hands wringing themselves. His Jiejie brought her slender fingers to his hair, running through it so skillfully that peace immediately enveloped him. He let his eyes close.
“What’s the matter, a-Ying?” she asked.
He figured dodging the question wouldn’t do him any good. “How does it feel to love Maiden Wen?”
“It feels like I might just die from all the love she gives me and that I have.” His Jiejie laughed, short and sweet. “Ah, what spurred this on?”
“Nothing!” Wei Ying said quickly, “Nothing. I was just curious. How did you two meet?”
His question was met with disbelieving silence, but his eyes remained hopeful. Jiang Yanli didn’t have the heart to shatter that image so she answered simply, “She’s our neighbour, a-Ying.”
“Yes, yes, but I meant how did it happen? How did you know? How did you know she felt the same way?”
They spoke freely with each other until Jiang Cheng returned, his face pinched with irritability. He was muttering under his breath about whatever it was, a horrible day by the looks of it.
Before turning around to greet Jiang Cheng, Jiang Yanli cupped his cheek and said softly, “A leap of faith is all it is.”
She looked happier than she did in ages. She handed him a few pots and placed her hand over his, “Lotus root soup without the pork ribs. For your vegetarian friend.”
Consistently self-assured, Wei Ying was absolutely losing his mind. The walk to the Lan’s was too long, the city was too crowded, the evening too alive. He kept on thinking, a leap of faith, that’s all it is , but what did that mean?
The rabbits weren’t where they usually were and the path he took had sprouts growing about haphazardly, a physical reminder of his noted absence. He picked up his pace. He wanted to see Lan Zhan. He also didn’t want the soup to get cold even though it wouldn’t really take much to reheat it. He really wanted to see Lan Zhan!
One month was a long while - three days used to be - and back then a few hours were too much. Wei Ying wasn’t very sure he was alive, but the closer he got to the clearing in the forest, the faster he felt his heart beat - a few seconds of surety and then the white robes of a familiar figure came into view and with no grace whatsoever, he tripped over his own feet and let out a screech.
Lan Zhan was by his side in an instant.
“Lan Zhan!” he wailed, “It hurts so much!”
There was familiarity in having scraped knees messed with a mixture of blood and mud, being helped up and supported as he wobbled to the cottage and made himself comfortable on Lan Zhan’s bed. Lan Zhan was quiet as Wei Ying moaned and twitched about, unnecessarily dramatic as his knees were disinfected with alcohol and dressed with cotton, the bleeding having stopped a while back.
Lan Zhan was seated at Wei Ying’s feet, but he kept his eyes resolutely on his injured knees, the bottle of alcohol still at his side.
“I brought some of Jiejie’s lotus stem soup, but when I fell it all spill-” Wei Ying started.
He was interrupted by Lan Zhan, “Where have you been?”
Wei Ying was caught off guard, he knew he owed Lan Zhan an explanation, but his mind was reeling - and the soup!
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said.
“Thirty four days, Wei Ying.”
Lan Zhan’s voice was hoarse, his gaze unsteady and fleeting, looking everywhere but at Wei Ying.
“Please let me explain,” Wei Ying said.
Lan Zhan nodded, “Let’s eat first.”
The quiet wasn’t the one Wei Ying had grown accustomed to when they ate meals together. It was thick and bleak and left a sinister taste on his tongue, making him want to wretch.
“Xiongzhang has gone away for the week so the dumplings I made aren’t as good as his,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Ying argued loudly, “These are ten times better, Lan Zhan! Your cooking really is the best.”
And it was true, the soup dumplings were incredible, Wei Ying was everything but an unreliable narrator.
Lan Zhan looked down, his ears that were dusted red on full view.
“I think my Jiejie wants to marry Maiden Wen. She said she made the lotus root soup especially for me to bring to you, but I think she just wanted an excuse to go over to Maiden Wen’s and give her some too,” Wei Ying smiled.
“There is no shame in her love,” Lan Zhan whispered.
“No, no, of course not. That’s not what I meant. What I’m trying to say is that the soup is,” he paused for a while to find the word he was looking for, “special .”
Lan Zhan looked up, “What do you mean?”
“Something happened that last night we were out and I was so scared. You were eating the buns that I brought and you keep on wearing these robes and it’s like, you’re glowing, you look like royalty surrounded by these bunnies that love you and hair’s so soft and I swear on all the Gods above, the forest moves itself to suit you,” Wei Ying was running out of breath and he needed to breathe, but it felt like he had no idea how.
“Breathe, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispered and then even softer, “You’re shaking. Let me hold your hand?”
Wei Ying nodded, his eyes closed and mind focused on inhaling and exhaling. His heart was elsewhere, but compliant nonetheless. Lan Zhan’s thumb was rubbing along his hands and knuckles. His touches filled with soft assurances and warmth.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathed, so unsure it scared him to death, but he thought about his Jiejie’s tender gaze as she watched Wen Qing walk over to her, all bright smiles and warm hands, thought about how good it would be if he himself had that and willed himself to pull through.
“Is it okay if I said I love you? I love you like the boys before me were afraid of admitting, like I might just burst and all my innards will be on your floor and it’ll be so gross to clean up and you might hate me for that, but I love you and-.”
Wei Ying watched as Lan Zhan’s eyes grew wider, how his face completely transformed, all round O’s in shock and pink, pinker than usual. “That’s disgusting,” he said with a scrunched up nose, but something caught in his throat.
Within the cascading roar of pumping blood, he could’ve sworn he heard the words, “Can I kiss you, Wei Ying?” leave Lan Zhan’s mouth.