It was such a stupid idea to come to this class reunion.
Jingyi sipped the expensive Japanese whisky Zizhen had put in his hand, determined to nurse it for the night so he wouldn't have to buy something himself. He already stood out like a too casual sore thumb, in jeans and a lumpy black sweater and sneakers that had all the bruises of withstanding recess monitor duty. He was the only guy not wearing a watch in the room.
Jingyi had always stood out a little from this crowd anyways; despite his family name his parents had to scrape up the academy fees not covered by his scholarship. While every other boy in his form was being dropped at the gates by a driver in a Lexus, Jingyi schlepped eight blocks from the closest city bus stop. His teachers had always been quick to point out that Jingyi was too loud and lacking in the more refined manners of his peers, a mantra that had shaped Jingyi's own classroom management philosophy, namely that kids should be kids. That relaxed attitude did wonders for his student's test scores, but was harder to execute here, in a fancy bar in a wealthy part of Shanghai, where VIP service meant the hostess had to take his cheap beige parka to the coat check without looking like it was killing her a little inside. He should have been more prepared for it – any hope he'd had as a teen that he wouldn't be ostracized for being different had been quickly put aside the minute he showed up for class in a secondhand uniform – but Jingyi hadn't had to rub shoulders with rich kids in a long time, and he was rusty.
The bar was loud, and that suited him just fine. Beyond the awkward hellos from classmates he hadn't seen in over ten years, he had very little in the way of small talk to offer anyone. Age and experience had made Jingyi a little less exuberant. At fifteen he would have rushed headlong at whatever it was he wanted, attention-seeking without meaning to be. At twenty-seven he was content to stand against the wall and follow it only with his eyes.
Lan Sizhui, of course, looked great. The years had been kind to him, and Jingyi was glad to be able to confirm it, to see that the world had treated his former friend with all the care he'd always taken in treating it. He'd only arrived fifteen minutes ago, but there was already a large crowd of their old classmates around him, all slapping him on the back and calling him "Prez", the nickname he'd good naturedly endured in second year when he became head boy and class president. He was shaking hands with people like he might actually be the president, and Jingyi had to catch his laugh on the edge of his rocks glass, the ice rattling with his suppressed mirth.
Like Asian Barack Obama, he thought, smile turning fond. There was something undoubtedly foreign in Sizhui's appearance, lending to his usual aura of effortless prestige. His hair was cut crisp and shorter in the American style, unlike the floppy idol-inspired cut most men their age wore, and his clothes were well tailored and simple, lacking the extra embellishments of Chinese fashion on so many of their peers this evening. A white dress shirt, an emerald green sweater, black trousers, and oxfords the colour of burnt sugar; like he'd stepped out of a Burberry advertisement. He looked sophisticated and well-travelled, things he was, differences that were acceptable in this kind of setting. Lan Sizhui had always been better at navigating his differences than Jingyi was.
At the bar Jin Rulan had caught up to his cousin, he pressed a bottle of beer into Sizhui's hand and managed, with three turns of his broad shoulders, to extricate Sizhui from his admirers by way of showing them his back. It was the type of rudeness only the youngest and most successful CEO of LanLing Enterprises could get away with, brusqueness built up during his summer internships at Yunmeng Inc. – where he'd shadowed his uncle Jiang Wanyin, who knew a thing or two about how to be young and successful. Jingyi watched him lead Sizhui away to a high-top table in the corner. Zizhen was leaning against it, talking to another classmate, and he paused to give Sizhui an enthusiastic hug in greeting. They stood with their arms around each other's shoulders, talking and smiling, with Jin Rulan smugly drinking his highball and looking on.
It had been Jin Rulan who invited Jingyi to this party. Since coming back to China Jingyi had made no effort to reconnect with his former classmates, or anyone he'd known before at all. Meeting Jin Rulan again had been completely by happenstance; Zizhen's niece was one of Jingyi's tutoring students, and Jin Rulan had been the one to drop her off for her Saturday morning session. Jingyi had been pleased to discover that Zizhen had finally been rewarded for all his patience with Jin Rulan's brusque denial of being able to experience anything remotely romantic; they were getting married in the spring. He highly suspected that Jin Rulan's rekindling of their friendship had more to do with Zizhen than any interest on Jin Rulan's part, they'd been something like friends in high-school, even if they'd always been bickering, and of the two of them, Zizhen was the more sentimental. Still, it was nice to be in touch, if only for the rare scrap of news Jin Rulan had casually dropped two weeks ago when they'd met for coffee, that his cousin Lan Sizhui was in town, and planning to come to the school reunion, and had Jingyi heard about their class' reunion party?
Jingyi of course had not heard about it. He hadn't graduated with any of them, and was exempted from the usual alumni procedures of being invited to things and hassled for money. He'd stared down the official invite – forwarded helpfully by Zizhen with the note A-Ling said you didn't get this; I'm on the organizing committee so I RSVP'd for you! – with a mixture of trepidation and foolish longing. He hadn't spoken to Sizhui since that stupid day in second year, he hadn't even written to Sizhui, despite Dr. Wei scribbling their home address onto the back of one of his cards at Jingyi's final appointment, suggesting that Sizhui would want to hear from him. Jingyi still had that card, pressed between two poems by Keats in his Norton Anthology of English Literature, shame forever buried but never forgotten. He'd eventually reasoned that they were adults, and Jin Rulan had probably already told his cousin that Jingyi would be there, so he might as well thicken his face, show up, and be polite. All he was obligated to do was say hello.
There was a single mouthful of whiskey left in his glass, a helpful out of the conversation; he could finish it and make excuses about going to the bar for a refill, and then slip out. Jingyi pushed his shoulders away from the wall and made his feet propel him across the floor, towards the high-top table around which his once high school friends were clustered. Zizhen and Sizhui had their backs to him, and as he approached, the other classmate lingering at the table spoke to Sizhui, loud enough that Jingyi could hear over the music and the din.
"Are you still looking for someone? I have the perfect girl I can introduce you to!"
Sizhui tucked his left hand behind his back, his thumb drawing across the back of his third finger. Maybe it had been a trick of the light before, Jingyi hadn't noticed the gold band on his ring finger.
"Oh, really? Thank you." Sizhui's voice was deeper now than it had been at fifteen. Melodious and rich, and still, as always, so gentle and kind. There was a good natured smile in it as he asked "Is she pretty?"
"My sister is very pretty!" His hand clambered into the breast pocket of his jacket to retrieve his phone so he could prove the statement via instagram, just as Jin Rulan locked eyes with Jingyi between Zizhen and Sizhui's shoulders.
"Lan Jingyi," he said loudly, like the absolute asshole he was, "there you are."
Sizhui started to turn, his giant doe-eyes sweeping around, and Jingyi was suddenly fifteen again, it was raining and his lungs were burning and he couldn't get in enough air–
"I'm going out for a smoke!" Jingyi blurted to the room at large, and spun around on his foot, practically sprinting for the exit even though he certainly wasn't allowed to do that with his heart thundering in his ears like it was. He had enough presence of mind to down the rest of his expensive malt liquor and set the glass on the bar as he stormed by. He gave the girl at the coat check the entirety of his cab fare home for retrieving his embarrassment of a parka efficiently and with minimal judgment, though from the flat stare she gave him it was probably still lower than the tips she typically received from this bar's clientele.
In the cool November air it was easier to breathe; Jingyi found a dry bit of curb to sit on around the corner and pulled his inhaler out for good measure. Two elongated puffs held in his lungs, and then he tilted his head back, exhaling his warm breath into the atmosphere. It curled up from his lips like smoke, like he was breathing out his soul, letting it escape his mortal coil to freedom, where it didn't have to endure the fraught social minefield of being confronted by his mistakes. Jingyi rubbed his bottom lip with his first knuckle, exhaling again in a sigh.
On the sidewalk in front of the bar, more classmates must have been arriving. Jingyi heard a car door close and then a man's voice exclaim "Hey Prez! Is that you?"
"Hello," Sizhui said brightly, and Jingyi tried to fold himself into three like the accordioned letters he sent home to parents. "I'm just going out for a smoke, I'll see you inside, yes? Great, great, good to see you."
Please god, all gods, everybody, just let him go the other way, Jingyi thought, at the same time Sizhui's footsteps halted somewhere in front of him.
"Jingyi! There you are!" Sizhui laughed, delighted, and nearly knocked Jingyi over with surprise when he set his hand onto Jingyi's shoulder to lever himself down onto the curb beside him. "Whoops, you okay? Lan Jingyi, I didn't know you smoked! What will I tell Baba Wei?"
Jingyi pressed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, the fingers of his right hand curled around his inhaler. "I don't," he groaned forlornly into his wrists, in dejected acceptance that he was going to be doomed all night to look ridiculous. "It just sounds cooler!"
"Oh!" Sizhui laughed. He patted Jingyi on the shoulder in understanding. "That makes sense; I won't tell on you. What are you taking?" He plucked Jingyi's inhaler from his fingers. "Albuterol? Aren't you lactose intolerant?"
"I'm allergic to Sprivia," Jingyi said defensively, snatching back his medicine. The reunion pamphlet might have described Lan Sizhui as a distinguished young surgeon who'd gone to Yale, Harvard, and then completed a Masters at Oxford while doing his residency, but it didn't mean Jingyi's health was his business.
"Is this a house call or something?"
"What? Oh, no!" Sizhui laughed again. "Sorry, it's hard to turn it off. I'm glad you're not smoking."
"I'm not," he muttered. "Don't let it stop you though."
"Stop me from what?"
"Didn't you come out here to smoke?" Jingyi was beginning to feel irritated. It was clear fate, genetics and Jin Rulan were all out to get him.
"I don't smoke either," Sizhui admitted, the apples of his cheeks gone ripe in the cold. "It's just noisy in there, and easier to talk out here."
Sizhui's smile was still as bright as ever. He'd lost some of the youthful roundness to his face and grown into those enormous eyes; sitting shadowed on the curb at the side of an alley in an expensive looking black wool coat, the fog of his breath made him look like a model in a cologne commercial. For a type of cologne Jingyi wanted to wear. He shook his head abruptly to chase the thought away and stared down at his ratty sneakers.
"Zizhen told me you teach at a high school," Sizhui said, voice calm and relaxed, smooth and pleasant. He must get fantastic reviews about patient care, with a voice like that. "And that you tutor too?"
"Yeah, I teach English and French." Jingyi loved teaching, and he loved teaching languages; he loved the way understanding broke across a person's face for the first time, the success of achievement he felt when his students were able to hold a conversation or decipher a text. He loved his boisterous classroom with its bright posters of the roman alphabet and its ceramic bust of Shakespeare, which one of his students had stuck a red clown nose onto that he'd never taken off. He liked tutoring too, he had students of all ages and walks of life, everyone from kids needing extra school support to university students hoping to make the move to Hong Kong to businessmen wanting to expand overseas. Jingyi's favourite student was an elderly auntie who paid him in mooncakes and dumplings and simple mending, learning French so she could talk to her two grandsons growing up in Belgium.
"Will you say something? In English?"
"You say something in English," Jingyi said in English. And then, to show off, he added in French, "Didn't you go to those fancy schools?"
"I did," Sizhui laughed, waving Jingyi off. "But I don't use it very often anymore. I'll say something incorrect."
"Oh I get it," Jingyi huffed. "You need help brushing up on your languages. Well, Lan Sizhui, I'm afraid I don't have an acquaintances discount, Jin Rulan already tried that for his niece–"
"You are exactly the same," Sizhui said, lips curled fondly. He spun the ring on his left hand with the fingers from his right. "You look just like you did back then."
Jingyi wrinkled his nose. A gust of wind kicked up and made him shiver in his flimsy coat. "It's been twelve years," he told Sizhui quietly, staring at the wedding band on his finger. "You're different."
It wasn't quite true; Sizhui looked more grown up, but he still had the same kind eyes, the same warm smile, the same friendly disposition that made him seek out the boy sitting alone, apart from everyone else. Sizhui reached across the distance between them to zip Jingyi's jacket up a little higher, under his chin.
"Hey Prez!" someone called from the entrance of the bar. "You still out here?"
Sizhui didn't answer, just looked at Jingyi for a long moment. "Do you want to get out of here?" he asked softly. "I'm not too far away."
Amongst other nuggets of pertinent gossip over coffee, Jin Rulan had mentioned that Dr. Lan and Dr. Wei were currently away on their yearly honeymoon, and that Sizhui had been tasked with collecting their mail, watering their plants, and tending to their two ancient rabbits, who by all rights should have been long dead when Jingyi was in high school. Jingyi had assumed that was why Sizhui was in town, so he was surprised when their taxi pulled up in front of a swanky condo building. He let Sizhui help him out of the backseat, ignoring the fact that he was now a few inches taller than Sizhui was.
"Did your dads move?"
Jingyi had the address on the back of Dr. Wei's card burned into his brain, and even if he didn't, he knew every bus route and bike path that led to that big white house with its elegant flower garden and plasma screen TV, the first place of refuge he'd sought even before his health deteriorated and everything at home went to shit. It existed in his memory like a palace, full of snacks and video games and laughter, Dr. Wei's pranks and Dr. Lan's good cooking, the music they played together in the evenings on the guqin and the flute.
"They downsized a couple years ago," Sizhui explained, buzzing them in to the lobby. "Now that Bo-bo lives in Italy, the garden was getting to be a lot for them."
The condo Sizhui scanned them into was a lot smaller than Jingyi would have expected Dr. Lan and Dr. Wei to inhabit. It was certainly bigger than Jingyi's cramped, single-roomed apartment in terms of square footage, but it appeared to be only three modest rooms and a bath, the kitchen and entertaining space shared and open. Still, it bore all the markings of their joint décor, simple furniture with clean lines in muted colours, so the vibrant pieces of art on the walls and tucked onto shelves were given precedence. It was clear that the people who lived there had good taste, the money to execute it, and were definitely male, none of the frilly lady stuff his mom was always foisting upon him was present in the space. Sizhui hung Jingyi's parka up in the closet next to his handsome wool coat, which once Sizhui removed, clearly had a famous tartan lining. Jingyi crammed his feet into the Muji slippers kept on hand for guests and tried not to think about it.
"Did you eat?" Sizhui asked, shuffling into the kitchen. He plucked a flyer from the refrigerator and waved it towards Jingyi with a beaming smile. "If you’re hungry there's this really good chicken place close by, I could call for some."
"I ate," Jingyi promised with a laugh. The thought of ordering take-out chicken wings to Dr. Lan's house was borderline hilarious. "Thank you though."
"Some tea then?"
"Yi-ma just sent me some Dang Shen," Sizhui mused, opening a cupboard. "Or, I have this toasted rice and ginger tea from Sichuan; it's really fresh. Let's have that, I haven't opened it yet."
"Lan Sizhui, congratulations," he deadpanned, sitting at the kitchen island. "When are you going into confinement?"
"No, no," Sizhui laughed. He set a yellow box of expensive looking tea on the counter and took a fancy jar of honey out of the fridge. There were little discs of ginseng floating in it. "It's good for you; you were outside for too long in that thin coat."
Jingyi pressed his lips together, watching Sizhui hum quietly as he made himself at home in his parents' kitchen. They had a tap for boiling water that Sizhui used to warm a teapot with, and then make tea. He brought the pot and two cups over to the kitchen island, the earthenware clicking against his ring has he set the cups down.
"Mm?" he pulled open a drawer to dig out a teaspoon.
"Are you trying to medicate me?"
Sizhui looked up at him, mouth open in shock. Jingyi chewed his lip and stared at his own hands, folded on the counter.
"My emphysema; I've been living with it for a long time now. I'm managing it okay, and I have a doctor, so you don't have to worry about me like this."
He could feel Sizhui's eyes on him and didn't dare look up, not even as the silence dragged on uncomfortably, or when Sizhui sighed, or when he came around the kitchen island to stand beside him.
"It's why I became a doctor, you know." Sizhui laughed a little, wry. "Everyone thinks it was so I could be like my dads, but I wanted to find out how I could make you better."
"Don't be silly," Jingyi scoffed, because it was easier to brush a statement like that aside, then to dig at what was behind it. "I was gone by the time you went to university."
"Why did you come tonight?" Sizhui asked, and it was Jingyi's turn to stare at him, lips parted in surprise. "Why did you come, Jingyi? You're not friends with any of those guys, you didn't graduate with us. You were so uncomfortable, and I saw you, all you did was watch me."
"I should go," Jingyi said, standing quickly. "I have papers to grade–"
"At 11pm at night?"
"Thank you for the tea."
Sizhui grabbed his arm as he tried to step past, grip strong and precise. "Did you come to see me?"
"I came to see you." Sizhui's hand was shaking around his wrist, sending tremors up his arm and down his spine and through his entire body. "I came only to see you; Jin Ling told me, that you were back in China. I don't care about any of those stupid alumni events or any of those people. I just wanted to see you."
"You could have just asked Jin Rulan," he said, eyes hot, "or Zizhen. They could have told you how I was doing."
"You didn't want to see me?"
He tried to brush Sizhui's hand off, but it clung tightly, like it was hospital bracelet he no longer needed to wear, but couldn't remove without cutting. "That's ridiculous," he hissed, hand over top of Sizhui's. "Of course I wanted to–"
Sizhui grabbed him by the front of his sweater, hauled himself up by that anchor and the vice-grip on his wrist, and planted his lips over Jingyi's.
It was rough and messy and warm and stupid, Jingyi gasped into Sizhui's mouth and let himself be backed into the kitchen island, let himself be kissed raw, until his fingers were raking through Sizhui's cropped hair and Sizhui's were reaching for Jingyi's belt. Jingyi pulled Sizhui's sweater off and then Sizhui had the button of his jeans undone and was mouthing down the side of Jingyi's neck, and he thought, oh god, what the fuck.
The year Jingyi turned fifteen, he suddenly started to get tired easily. Stairs would make him winded, running to catch the bus became a marathon. Jingyi had always loved to sing, and he was very talented at it, but in choir he suddenly couldn't hold notes for as long as he used to be able to. In gym, he couldn't do anything for very long without it feeling like a huge effort. Both teachers had pulled him aside after class to talk to him about laziness. Jingyi would wake in the morning with a headache, an irritant that made him snap at their homeroom teacher and earned him after-school detention. His deteriorating school behaviour got him into trouble at home, where his father took away his electronics and told him to improve his attitude. It put a strain on his parents already crumbling marriage; Jingyi sat through dinners where they bickered about him as though he wasn't there. As though if they hadn't stopped loving each other, their son wouldn't be betraying them by growing up so bad.
His one saving grace was his friendship with Lan Sizhui. They'd been friends since preschool, where Jingyi had bounded up to Sizhui on the first day, oblivious to the fact that he was huddled into Dr. Lan's leg and clearly didn't want to be left alone without him, and proudly pointed out that they had the same name, and since Jingyi didn't have any friends it meant Sizhui had to be his. They had an entire conversation on the foundational childhood logic of how you put your name on the things that belonged to you, with Dr. Lan's shins in between them. Jingyi mentioned the class turtle, and Sizhui forgot that he didn't want to be separated from his dad and let himself be taken by Jingyi's grubby hand to the aquarium.
From then on, they were pretty much inseparable, even though in temperament and behaviour they couldn't be more different. Jingyi was loud, boisterous, and liable to jump into things and think about them later. Sizhui was calm and patient, quietly mischievous. They made each other laugh. When Jingyi got himself into hot water for speaking without thinking, Sizhui smoothed it over. When Sizhui had to be kind and upstanding, Jingyi fought his battles for him. Even when they attended different middle schools, they remained best friends, and it was Sizhui, who helped Jingyi study and encouraged him, that really got Jingyi his academy scholarship. It was easy to work hard when the reward was going to be attending the same high school as his best, brightest, and closest friend.
Jingyi was already a mainstay at the Lan-Wei household before he got sick, it wasn't strange for one of Sizhui's dads to come home from their clinic or the hospital to find the two of them doing their homework at the kitchen table. But more frequently they'd arrive to find Sizhui tucking a blanket over Jingyi on the couch, who'd fallen asleep holding on to his xBox controller, blissfully unaware that he'd died in their Halo campaign. Jingyi's mom even asked Dr. Lan about it, worried about mumps one evening when she came to pick him up, and he'd reassured her that Jingyi was growing, it was natural for his body to need more rest and more food. Dr. Lan was one of the top pediatric surgeons in the country, second only behind his older brother, and his diagnosis was good enough for Jingyi's parents. But Jingyi's appetite waned, he grew lethargic, and he wasn't growing at all, he was getting skinnier, looking tired and pinched. He came down with a dry cough that he couldn't shake off, lingering and rattling in his chest, and keeping him up at night.
It was Dr. Wei who noticed something wasn't exactly right. Jingyi had asked him if he would teach Jingyi the flute; he was still struggling in choir and thought the breath control would help, and Jingyi was a little enamoured with the idea of being able to accompany Sizhui at the guqin, the same way Dr. Wei played duets with Dr. Lan. They only got ten minutes into their first lesson before Dr. Wei stopped Jingyi with a frown, put his hand between Jingyi's shoulder blades, and asked him to breathe in as deeply as he could. Jingyi couldn't breathe in very deep at all. His attempt dissolved into a coughing fit, and Dr. Wei went to get him a glass of water and his stethoscope. He phoned Jingyi's mom and asked her to make Jingyi an appointment at his office. Jingyi was a little nervous, sitting in a paper gown on Dr. Wei's examining table and eyeing the various test tubes that were supposed to get filled with his blood, but Dr. Wei was so hilarious and silly about everything that Jingyi immediately stopped worrying himself about it. Dr. Wei explained that he was just going to do a few tests to help Jingyi finally get rid of his cough and stuffed Jingyi's pockets with the lollipops he kept in a jar on his desk for temperamental children as he left with his mom. He said he would give them a call when he got the results back, and Dr. Wei was an adult Jingyi trusted.
Jingyi was thinking how nice it'd be to stop coughing a week later. Rainy season had started and the heavy air was even harder for Jingyi to pull into his body, his cough kicked up on the bus ride in to school, was exacerbated by the eight hilly blocks he had to walk in the damp, and nagged him all through first and second period. By chemistry he couldn't stop coughing, and the other students, who were trying to take notes on the video they were watching in the darkened classroom, kept shooting Jingyi annoyed looks. He tried to fold himself up smaller and will himself to stop, but it just got worse, the effort of breathing making him gasp painfully.
He felt, more than saw Sizhui get up, the scrape of his chair legs vibrating on the floor. Sizhui told the teacher he was going to take Jingyi to the school clinic, which was one of his duties as the head boy. He took hold of Jingyi's wrist and hauled Jingyi out of his chair by way of a hand under his armpit.
The clinic was deserted when they arrived; Jingyi could barely stand and slumped against the wall, chest heaving in an effort to breathe through his coughing fit. Sizhui told him he was going to go find the nurse, and Jingyi keeled over, vomiting a little bit of saliva onto the floor in front of him.
Jingyi! Sizhui knelt beside him and set his hands on Jingyi's back. Jingyi, try to calm down!
Jingyi couldn't say anything to acknowledge Sizhui, he was too busy hyperventilating, and Sizhui grabbed him by the shoulders and manhandled him against the wall in an effort to keep his airways clear.
His memory of what happened next was always the clearest part, uncluttered by his panic and fear. Sizhui was crying as he leaned over him. Jingyi felt Sizhui's tears against his own cheeks as Sizhui cupped his face and pressed their foreheads and noses together, pleading, begging Jingyi to breathe, to just breathe. He promised Jingyi that everything would be okay, that he just had to hang on until the nurse arrived, that Sizhui was there and all he had to do was breathe. And Jingyi tried for him, he really did, but his vision started to grey out and he was doing nothing but fruitlessly gasping. Sizhui's grip on his face then turned firmer, he tilted Jingyi's chin up, tilted his own head to the side, and stole Jingyi's first kiss.
The shock of it stopped the entire world for three seconds. Jingyi knew precisely how long, because he counted his own rabbiting heartbeat in his ears. And then Jingyi inhaled, deep and clear through his nose. He broke away from Sizhui's lips with a gasp, coughing a little to the side. Sorry, he'd whispered, sorry. He didn't know exactly what for, but tears sprung up in his eyes that had nothing to do with exertion. That was how the nurse found them, huddled on the floor with Jingyi coughing in Sizhui's arms, their lips both glistening with saliva. As Jingyi slipped from consciousness he had felt Sizhui's arms tighten around his shoulders and heard him shout tearfully at the nurse that they needed to call his fathers immediately.
Jingyi woke up from that in the hospital, with Dr. Wei winking beside him and welcoming him back to the living. He was hooked up to several monitors, on a drip and oxygen, and there was a sharp little pain in the left side of his ribs. He'd been rushed there in an ambulance, and Dr. Lan had performed an emergency surgery to drain pockets of air in the membrane of his lungs.
Congratulations, Dr. Wei had grinned, like Jingyi had just won the lottery, you have a rare protein deficiency!
It took weeks for Jingyi to recover, during which time he underwent further tests and monitoring, to help Dr. Wei and Dr. Lan plan the best course for his treatment. Jingyi's condition wasn't fatal, but it wasn't reversible either. Dr. Lan was very patient as he explained to Jingyi's parents that they could treat the symptoms of his disease with inhalers and antibiotics, but that he was forever going to be hindered by the holes in his lungs. He'd need to be careful about his diet and exercise to keep his body strong, get a flu shot and tuberculosis immunization every year, and have regular check-ups to monitor the condition of his lung membrane and drain any excess air. The projected expense of Jingyi's disease was the final nail in the coffin of his parent's marriage. His mother decided that she was going to take Jingyi to Canada to stay with her sister's family, where he would be able to get universal health care and better schooling opportunities than what a professional academy of teachers who'd almost let her son die on their premises could provide. Jingyi had no say in his future; his mother constantly reminded him that their move was for his benefit, and Jingyi was filial, he knew better than to argue.
Jingyi had grown up speaking English at home with his Hong Kong-educated parents, and in spite of his setbacks was still top of his class in the subject, but he was worried about life in a different country beyond understanding the language. At the hospital he grew despondent, and only responded to Dr. Wei's attempts to cheer him up. Jingyi wasn't allowed to have visitors except his parents; his condition made him highly susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, and Dr. Lan hadn't wanted to risk his health. So Dr. Wei snuck in magazines and DVDs, hid bags of spicy lotus seeds behind Jingyi's pillow, and brought him a daily report of the goings on at school, relayed from Sizhui. He brought Jingyi's homework for him, assignments annotated in Sizhui's neat handwriting and sets of perfectly copied notes for him to study off of, and Jingyi didn't have the heart to ask Dr. Wei to tell Sizhui to stop, because he wasn't coming back to school.
Looking back on that time, when his parents were too caught up in fighting each other for supremacy in every aspect of Jingyi's life, and he was stranded, alone and frightened in a private hospital room, Jingyi was able to recognize exactly what Dr. Wei and Dr. Lan did for him. He'd learn later, when he was coming back to China as an adult, that it had been Dr. Wei and Dr. Lan who paid for all of Jingyi's medical expenses while his parents fought to divide their meagre assets. But more than that, Dr. Wei didn't have to take time from his busy schedule at his pediatric practice to come to the hospital every day with novelty balloons and snacks that were not approved on Jingyi's dietary plan. Dr. Lan didn't have to check on him multiple times a day, when he was busy with his rounds and surgery and all the other patients who depended on him.
He didn't have to align those visits with the times when both Jingyi's parents happened to be in the room. He didn't have to ask the nurse, during a particularly bad bout of shouting, to take Mr. and Mrs. Lan to his office to finish their conversation, but he did. And then he'd shut the door, taken the heart rate monitor off of Jingyi's finger and sat on the edge of his bed, and waited. Just listening, as Jingyi finally broke about how scared he was that he was going to die, about how his parents were crushing his heart just as much as his disease was crushing his lungs, about how he knew he was gay and he didn't know how to tell them when everything else was falling apart. Dr. Lan held Jingyi for three quarters of an hour while he cried, rubbing his back and making quiet, patient, soothing noises, and then when Jingyi was done he said simply Everything, you're surviving. Lan Jingyi is brave.
Jingyi had rubbed his fists into his eyes and accepted Dr. Lan's white handkerchief, professionally embroidered on the corners in pale blue with the characters for Baba and Lan Zhan, a joint birthday present from Sizhui and Dr. Wei that Sizhui had been particularly proud of. Jingyi blew his nose with it and handed it back and Dr. Lan didn't even flinch, just put the handkerchief back into the pocket of his lab coat. Jingyi looked forlornly at the neat stack of detailed class notes on his bedside table, and then back at Dr. Lan.
Will you tell him I'm leaving, he'd asked, feeling incredibly cowardly. He wanted to tell Sizhui a lot of things, that he was wonderful and perfect and that Jingyi was so in love with him it hurt. That that day at the end of term last year, when Sizhui had come into the classroom wearing his gym clothes, sweaty from running track, stood in front of the air conditioner and hiked up his shirt to cool his skin, Jingyi had definitely been staring at him and thinking he was unfairly beautiful and put on earth specifically to tempt him. That he was sorry their first kiss had gone the way it did and that he wanted to kiss Sizhui again to make up for it, but that he was sick and leaving the country and it wasn't fair to do that to Sizhui, that a clean break was better. So he just said, Will you let him know I'm grateful? Tell him he saved my life.
Dr. Lan had closed his eyes for a minute, and then he'd just nodded.
It was difficult not to think about it, at least a little, as Sizhui pulled his sweater off in the same move he used to sweep Jingyi down onto the bed. Sizhui threw it somewhere and then started tackling the buttons of his own shirt, and without his mouth or hands causing a distraction, Jingyi had a terrifying moment of clarity over the fact that Dr. Lan and Dr. Wei had been the pillars of his young life, the adults he based his own interactions with young people on, and now he was repaying their kindness by letting their son sprawl him naked across their marital bed while they were on vacation, celebrating their enduring years of union. Their son – who had thrust Jingyi's jeans and underwear halfway down his legs and then stepped on them to get them down around his ankles – who was bare chested now above him and very clearly wearing nothing but his own wedding ring.
Sizhui set his fingers on Jingyi's wrist and then drew his hand up the length of Jingyi's arm, slowly slipping closer and making Jingyi shiver. Jingyi bit his lip and Sizhui stopped the ghost of his fingertips at the line between his bicep and shoulder.
"What’s wrong?" he whispered.
All of Jingyi's words were caught in his throat, the same way air betrayed him and clamped his lungs shut. He put the back of his hand over his face so he didn't have to see Sizhui's big dark eyes flooded with concern, or the soft tenderness on his handsome face.
This is a bad idea, he didn't say. You're making a mistake, you're not free to do this. I shouldn't have come tonight.
"Do you want to stop?"
Sizhui drew away from him, removed his hand from Jingyi's arm. Jingyi caught his wrist before he could slide off the bed. That was exactly the trouble, he didn't want Sizhui to stop. At all.
"Take your ring off," he said, voice gruff from kissing and his disappointment in himself. But he could wallow in his bad decisions later, that was a problem for the Jingyi of tomorrow.
"My ring." Sizhui blinked and then smiled at him indulgently. "Okay?"
"Okay," Jingyi agreed, watching Sizhui set the little loop of metal on the bedside table.
"Tell me what you like," Sizhui whispered, hands sliding up Jingyi's ribs.
"Anything," Jingyi blurted and then wrinkled his nose at his own foolish and greedy abruptness, thinking back on that one term party at McGill and how the heated attentions of that varsity volleyball player had given him a cramp in his calf muscle for weeks. "Either," he amended, voice going breathy as Sizhui leaned down to kiss behind his ear. "Ummm, most things…"
"Most things." Sizhui laughed, husky in his ear, and then sucked Jingyi's earlobe into his mouth.
Oh god, Jingyi thought, and then Sizhui was rummaging through the bedside drawer, reaching for a foil packet and a bottle Jingyi recognized from his own bathroom cabinet, and Jingyi blushed, mortified to discover that he bought the same brand of lubricant as Dr. Wei and Dr. Lan, and that they were about to make use of their personal supplies.
"Hey," Sizhui said softly, cupping Jingyi's face with his other hand. He stroked his thumb across Jingyi's cheekbone. "Tell me, if you're uncomfortable, or something doesn't feel right. Please?"
"Sure," Jingyi giggled, almost hysterical. "I will, I promise."
There wasn't much Jingyi had to contest with on that front, because Lan Sizhui had clever hands, deft with a surgeon's precision, and a preference for kissing on the mouth. It was convenient, because Jingyi was barely capable of thought, let alone speech, too wrapped into himself and the mounting tension in his body. He was grateful to Sizhui for taking the lead; left to his own devices he was certain he would have faltered and second guessed everything he did. With Sizhui in control everything was wonderful, every gentle touch and soft caress offset by the way he manhandled Jingyi around, collecting his wayward limbs. He knelt behind Jingyi and kissed his way across Jingyi's shoulder, whispering a question, and when Jingyi nodded Sizhui put one hand on Jingyi's hip and the other on the small of his back, shoving Jingyi down at the same time he pressed forwards.
Jingyi was by no means inexperienced or naïve, it had just been awhile, maybe long enough for him to forget how exerted he could get. He had to stifle himself in the mattress, worried about making too much noise and having Dr. Lan and Dr. Wei's neighbours ask questions, and his gasps of enjoyment tipped over into struggles for air. Jingyi kept an inhaler on the shelf above his headboard, but they weren't in Jingyi's bedroom; his closest inhaler was in his coat pocket. His breath started coming out in little coughs and sharp sighs, and then Sizhui's arm looped around his chest, hauling him carefully upwards. Sizhui stopped moving, curled his free hand delicately around Jingyi's chin and tipped it up, elongating his airway.
"Shhh, Jingyi," he whispered, the fingers on Jingyi's chest tracing the faint scar on his ribs. "Just breathe love, just take a minute." His mouth trailed soft along the back of Jingyi's neck, kissed the damp seam of his eyelid and the ridge of his cheek. "It's okay," he promised, ever gentle, ever caring. "I've got you, I'm here."
Maybe it was the closeness, being held with the warmth of Sizhui's chest pressed against his back. Maybe it was the overwhelming tenderness of Sizhui's voice, rumbling against him, or the kiss he placed on the corner of Jingyi's mouth. Maybe it was just that it was Sizhui, his best friend, his first kiss and first love, holding him and making foolish, wonderful promises. Jingyi's lips opened under Sizhui's kiss, his eyes teared up and his vision whited out, he bore down and arched his back and cried out, dimly aware that Sizhui swore behind him and shouted his name as he seized up and chased Jingyi's release. He felt Sizhui kiss him as they fell forward together, and Jingyi, overcome and emotional, exhausted by everything, let himself tumble into the safety of sleep.
Jingyi woke up in a bed that wasn't his, wearing a t-shirt that was a little too small and boxers that didn't belong to him. In the soft light of early morning, he stared at the back of Sizhui's head and the rise and fall of his shoulder, and then he slipped out of bed, plucked his sweater up off the floor, and quietly put a door between himself and Sizhui's sleeping body. In the hallway he let himself give in to panic, movements turning frantic as he pulled on his sweater, jeans and socks, crumpling the briefs he'd worn into the apartment into his inner coat pocket. He let himself feel quietly mortified over the fact that Sizhui had cleaned and dressed his comatose body last night, had cared for him like that, and that Jingyi was now making off with a t-shirt far softer than the ones he bought in bulk, and Tom Ford silk shorts. In the elevator he indulged in the look Jin Rulan would give him if he showed up to their next coffee date carrying Sizhui's unmentionables and asking him to return them, and had to take three hits off his inhaler when he nearly choked on his own manic laughter.
He made it all the way to the turnstiles of the train station before he opened his wallet and was confronted with the fact that Jingyi of the past had not thought to provide Jingyi of the future with his transit pass – you should treat yourself Jingyi, and take a cab home from the party! – and he was now going to have to tackle the three flights of stairs to climb back to the entrance of the station and buy a single ride ticket. Because nothing was better, on a walk of absolute shame, than winding oneself with exertion as every step you took spread warm silk over your backside to remind you of your indiscretions. Jingyi gripped his wallet and put his left hand over his face, just to give himself a minute to fully appreciate all the nuances of his failures in decision making, and when he opened his eyes, sunlight filtered through his hand and caught across the bottom of his third finger.
"What?" he exclaimed softly.
Jingyi lowered his left hand to stare at it, willing the shimmering reality on his ring finger to be a trick of the light. But it stayed there, glinting, an article of Sizhui's clothing that would be far more noticeably missing than a pair of designer underwear.
"What the fuck," he breathed, lungs constricting. "Oh god, what –?"
Jingyi, ill-advisedly, ran. His long legs took the stairs three at a time, beat-up sneakers skidding on the tile floor of the station when he reached the top and didn't slow down. His body, conditioned with weight-lifting and light cardio and driven by overriding panic, somehow carried him over four city blocks back towards Dr. Lan and Dr. Wei's condo, until it promptly decided, on the corner of the fifth, that it had had enough and pulled him up short, gasping against a light pole.
He looked up, shoulders shaking and pulse thundering in his ears, blinking the wetness out of his eyes to bring Sizhui into focus, watching him dash headlong into early Saturday traffic to cross the street to get to him. Jingyi put his arm out, a wordless, ineffectual plea for Sizhui to not be so reckless, and then Sizhui was crashing into him, arms a firm, solid band around him, and his lips pressed a wet kiss to Jingyi's face.
"I thought you left," Sizhui smiled into his neck. "Why are you running?"
"Your ring," Jingyi gasped helplessly, lacking any ability to imbue the words with any sort of chastisement. How could you do something so stupid? Why would you do that to me?
"Oh," Sizhui laughed, his hand rifling through Jingyi's pockets and coming up with his inhaler, making Jingyi, for once, proud of his forethought for putting his soiled underwear on the inside pocket of his coat. "I guess that's a little bit fast," Sizhui blushed as he uncapped Jingyi's inhaler and held it up to his mouth. "Here, come on."
Jingyi shrugged out of Sizhui's arms and took hold of his inhaler, turning away to medicate himself without Sizhui watching. When he was finally in control of his breathing again he turned back to find Sizhui standing there, in hastily thrown on jogging pants and the latest model of Nikes, with his stupid designer coat overtop of the t-shirt he'd slept in, holding the plastic lid for Jingyi's inhaler like it was a priceless treasure.
"Your ring," Jingyi hissed, voice thick. He pulled it off his finger and thrust it at Sizhui. "You didn't think your partner would notice it was missing? How could you be so cavalier, Lan Sizhui?!"
"What?" Sizhui breathed, and then he blinked his large eyes a few times and understanding broke across his face. "Oh no, Jingyi, it's not – that's not the reason I wear it. I'm not married."
Sizhui had the nerve to laugh a little as he took his ring back. "I realize that's exactly what someone who'd just cheated on their spouse would say. We can call Jin Rulan? Or no, he would definitely lie for me. We can call Yi-ma! She'd never lie about something like this."
"I'm not married. Or engaged, or seeing anyone. Not yet."
"Oh god," Jingyi gasped, nearly having an out of body experience at the heady mixture of embarrassment, relief, and self-loathing. He pressed his hands to his face. "I thought that about you. I'm a terrible person!"
Sizhui outright laughed then, he took two steps forward to take Jingyi's hands from his face, and then stood there, smiling up at him and holding onto his elbows.
"I didn't even think about it," he admitted, always kind, and giving Jingyi this out. "I should have clued in when you asked me to take it off. I know it keeps all the nurses at the hospital from flirting with me and didn't think it'd have this opposite effect. It's okay, Jingyi."
"Why did you tell that guy you'd date his sister?" Jingyi nearly shouted. "I ran outside because I didn't want you to be that sort of person –"
"I'm not," Sizhui promised gently. "And that guy's sister; Baba Wei is looking for a new receptionist for the clinic. You remember, he likes to hire pretty staff because for a few months it makes Baba jealous until he gets used to them."
"Your dads are the worst," Jingyi groaned. "Why is Dr. Lan like that? Dr. Wei is not going anywhere!"
"He's not," Sizhui agreed fondly, sliding his hands down Jingyi's forearms to thread their fingers together. "They love each other very much."
Jingyi bit his lip and looked down at his sneakers, away from the brilliance of Sizhui's smile. "And now..." he said softly, "Now you think that I'm this type of person..."
"No." The grip of Sizhui's fingers turned firm. "There is nothing that could make me think badly about you, Lan Jingyi."
"You don't even know me anymore, Sizhui. High school was a long time ago."
"But I want to know you, again. I want to know all about you."
"That's..." Jingyi chewed his lip, reeling still from everything he'd been through in the last twelve hours, and his frenetic sprint from the train station.
"Can I make you breakfast?" Sizhui asked. "Will you come back to my flat?"
"Your flat? I thought you were house sitting for your dads?"
"No?" He threw his head back and laughed. "Lan Jingyi, you think Baba could live with Baba Wei in a condo with only three rooms? Baba Wei needs his own separate floor just to contain his mess. Where would they even keep the guqin?" And then, noticing Jingyi's embarrassed face and inability to meet his eyes, he blinked. "Wait, you thought I took you back to my parents’ place? To do that?"
Jingyi squeezed his eyes shut. "I felt really awkward about it," he grumbled. "I'm sure you remember..."
"Come back for breakfast," Sizhui laughed. "Please. I have so much to make up for, I see that now."
"You don't, really." Jingyi traced Sizhui's knuckles shyly with his thumb. "Even with everything, it was still pretty amazing..."
"I can do better." He leaned forwards and grinned, adding brightly, "I will do better! I want to convince you to see me again."
Jingyi looked down and their hands, at the bright morning light shining off of the ring on Sizhui's third finger. "You said it was a little fast," he said slowly, and then looked up, into Sizhui's eyes. "What's the reason, that you wear it?"
Sizhui released his breath in a long, shaky exhale. His hands gripped Jingyi's, hard, but he didn't stop meeting his eye.
"When you left, I was devastated," he admitted. "I spent weeks after, staring at your empty chair in class. And then I told my parents I was going to become a doctor. They were trying to help, letting me go to school overseas; I know it was hard for them for me to live so far away. It was hard for me, I did some silly things, dated some bad decisions. I was always looking for you, in other people. I came home to China and I was frustrated with myself for still not moving on. But Baba gave me some good advice; he said I could make a promise to myself, and that good things were worth waiting for."
"Do you understand? When Jin Ling told me he saw you... Jingyi. I don't want to scare you. I know what happened last night meant something really different for me – especially now, knowing what you thought – but I really want to get to know you. I want to try." He cupped Jingyi's cheek and smiled, his eyes watering. "The reason I wear this ring is because I was hoping, someday, to be able to give it to you."
Jingyi gasped, breath flying from his lungs wordlessly, and his hands flew up to press against the tight feeling in his sternum. He forgot he was holding Sizhui's hand, and so it was with his ring pressed against his own thundering heart that he complained "Lan Sizhui! I already have weak lungs, how can you make my heart so weak too?!"
"Sorry, sorry," Sizhui laughed, thumb drawing across Jingyi's cheek. "Can I kiss you, Jingyi?"
"Now you're asking? Yes!"
It was a good kiss, warm and soft and promising, in the cool air and morning sunlight, and when Sizhui drew away he asked, voice gentle and understanding, "Are you freaked out?"
"A little," Jingyi whispered. "This is... a lot fast. But maybe we could start with breakfast."
Jingyi's t-shirts, Lan Sizhui noted, were bigger. He stood in the living room holding up the one Jingyi had shucked off and left hanging on the back of the couch, and then because he was still sleep soft and fond and only wearing lounge pants, he pulled the shirt on over his head. The edges of the sleeves tickled the crease of his elbows, and the neck hung loose, below the curve of his collarbones. Sizhui grabbed the front of it, bunching the jersey cotton up and pulling it to his nose, inhaling the deep musky scent of Jingyi's body lingering in the fabric. It was Sizhui's favourite smell, the one he liked best on his bed linens and scarves, to discover on his own skin after love making.
He liked Jingyi's things tucked around his space, the stack of assignments to be graded on the kitchen island, the beige coat in his closet. The extra toothbrush and razor in the bathroom and the photo of Jingyi and his mom at Niagara Falls on the bookshelf. He even liked that this t-shirt had been on the sofa instead of in the hamper, because it meant that Jingyi was comfortable now, in their cohabitation, to leave his shit lying around.
Jingyi's comfort and happiness was always of paramount importance to Sizhui. As kids, everything of Sizhui's had also been Jingyi's, given freely and shared without constraint. His toys, his snacks, the love and care of his fathers; Sizhui had so much and Jingyi deserved to have it too. When Baba Wei bought him a new bicycle for his eighth birthday, Sizhui had been so forlorn over the fact that Jingyi didn't have one and that they couldn't ride bikes together, that Baba bought a matching one, and left it in the garage for Jingyi to use when he came over to play. Jingyi had liked to jibe about how Sizhui was so fancy that he had two bicycles, and Sizhui bore it with good natured silence and let Jingyi win all their races. When they were separated in different middle schools, Sizhui made certain, by way of a standing slumber party every weekend and a collect calling card that charged their nightly phone calls to Baba's bill, that they remained friends.
He distinctly remembered the moment he realized he was in love with Jingyi; they'd been sitting in his room, reading manhua up past the time they'd promised his dads they'd be asleep, and a summer storm shook the windows of the house and cut the power out. Sizhui went to the window, but Jingyi was scared of the dark. He'd turned to tell Jingyi it had started to rain, and lightning lit his bedroom, illuminating the maturing lines of Jingyi's face and his deep dark eyes, outlining the soft moue of his lips as he tilted his head back, bracing for the thunder. Sizhui was thirteen years old, and he knew he'd never care for anyone the way he cared for his best friend.
He told his dads immediately, because it was the responsible thing to do. Baba Wei had suggested that maybe Jingyi shouldn't sleep over so much if he felt that way, and Baba had cut his husband a sharp look that clearly indicated he thought Baba Wei was being unhelpful, before he calmed Sizhui's flustered nerves by thanking him for trusting them with this part of himself, and telling him both of them would be there if he needed to talk. Sizhui hadn't needed to talk beyond that initial confession for a long time, content to just be close to Jingyi and share his friendship, secure in the knowledge of his own feelings. But as he got older, as Jingyi's voice deepened and his shoulders broadened, Sizhui found himself staring at the way Jingyi's big hands held his pen in class. He found himself getting irritated by the girls who visited twice a week from the neighbouring academy for choir, who flitted around Jingyi with lozenges and thermoses of tea. He found himself sitting on his parent's couch, barely daring to breathe when Jingyi fell asleep with his head on Sizhui's shoulder, consumed so deeply with longing that he promptly died in Halo without saving and destroyed all their hard work to achieve their current level.
Sizhui's fathers were very different from each other, and in that way were useful for different types of advice. When Sizhui asked Baba Wei how do I confess to someone , Baba Wei had offered several good options for being successfully charming, but most of all, told Sizhui to tell the truth and be himself. As long as you are honest, Baba Wei smiled, your feelings will be understood. When he asked Baba, more serious, in the quiet safety of the music room, what do I do, if he doesn't return my feelings, Baba had played a soft, yearning tune on his guqin and then sat silently for a long time. Even if they aren't returned, Baba explained, they are still your meaningful feelings.
There were several times that year, when Sizhui almost worked up the nerve to talk to Jingyi, but the timing was never, ever right. He watched, aching and helpless, as a strange mysterious sickness sapped Jingyi of his vitality and strength, as his parents constant fighting stole his spirit and wore him down. There was nothing Sizhui could do but let Jingyi in, into his house and his family and deeper into his heart. Nothing he could do, except care, and worry, and then, when it was almost too late, force the air from his own lungs into Jingyi's mouth, and hope it was enough. Jingyi nearly died in his arms on the floor of the nurse's office, and even when his fathers, working together in the way they did best, prevented Jingyi from dying, his friend was still so abruptly removed from Sizhui's life that it felt like he had.
Maybe it was the incompleteness, the unrealized truth of his feelings for Jingyi, that made it so painful. Sizhui tried to console himself with the knowledge that wherever Jingyi was, he was living well, being treated and provided for. He hadn't defied his father's medical orders for Jingyi by trying to visit him in the hospital, even though he knew that if he'd asked either of them, they would have let him. Jingyi had almost died in his arms, and Sizhui was irrationally panicked that if he tried to touch Jingyi again, his fragile health would crack under the weight of Sizhui's emotions and put him in danger. He couldn't stop copying his notes for Jingyi, even after Baba brought them home from the hospital and explained. Even after the date for Jingyi's departing flight had come and gone, after Baba Wei mentioned, in passing conversation with Baba and pitched loud enough for Sizhui to hear in the adjoining room, that Jingyi's new Canadian physician had been in contact for his medical records. He couldn't make himself stop so he gave them to Jin Ling and Zizhen to study with, and tried not to be bitter as they huddled over them together, too close to be just friends.
And then one afternoon, rain broke heavy over the school grounds, spattered the classroom windows, and lightning illuminated the empty chair, one row over and two seats up, where Sizhui was used to resting his eyes on a broad back when he wasn't studying or listening to the teacher. Something indescribable clawed its way up Sizhui's throat, he excused himself to the nurse's and asked them to call his fathers' office. Baba Wei was the one who arrived, hair wild from rushing over in the rain, still wearing his lab coat and his stethoscope around his neck, with his pager insistently notifying them that Baba was also on his way from the hospital. Sizhui hugged Baba Wei so hard it hurt, his tie clip and stethoscope digging into Sizhui's chest.
I want to become a doctor, he'd sobbed to his harried, confused father, who had the presence of mind enough not to laugh but to return his son's tight embrace and say Okay, your Baba and I will help you.
It was not the easiest decision Sizhui ever made, it was a lot of hard work and discipline, things Sizhui was no stranger to, but not used to navigating in a foreign country, without the nurturing oversight of his parents. Still, he pushed on. He buried himself into study at Yale, finished top of his graduating class at Harvard Medical. He nearly killed himself, working on a Masters while trying to complete his residency, but Oxford was where they were running tests on alpha-1 antitrypsin injections for sufferers of emphysema due to protein deficiency, and Sizhui would have cleaned lab floors or done the coffee run just to get his hands on that data. The inconclusive results crushed him; made convocation day sour in his stomach, despite the way Baba Wei carried on, and the proud tears shining in Baba’s eyes. Sizhui spent all that effort, and in the end, did not have what he wanted to show for it.
Directionless, he came home. Sizhui put himself back under the safety of his fathers' wings, living at their house, taking care of their garden and helping his Uncle Xichen close up his assets and move to Tuscany. He tucked his uncle into the guest bedroom on his last night in China, who'd managed to go shot for shot with Baba Wei until both of them were passed out under the dinner table. Bo-bo had patted Sizhui's face for being so filial and muttered something vague about not living with regret.
In the kitchen he found Baba tidying up the carnage of the evening, and he'd poured Sizhui a dish of the very expensive baijiu he kept hidden from Baba Wei at the back of a cupboard he was not tall enough to reach. Warmed by the liquor, Sizhui unburdened himself of a lot of things; disappointments in his professional and personal life, and the one constant ache in his chest that had begun at fifteen and never left him. Baba poured them both a dish then, and Sizhui listened, amazed and awed, as Baba told him the story of how he and Baba Wei had met, fallen in love, fallen apart, and come back together, all before Sizhui was old enough to remember. He told Sizhui that sometimes the heart made choices you just had to endure, hoping for the best. He'd smiled over Sizhui's shoulder, and Baba Wei, who was leaning in the doorway and not comatose from alcohol poisoning as Sizhui had previously believed, walked into the kitchen, plucked up the jar of baijiu and took a deep healthy swig straight from the bottle.
Your Baba is right, Baba Wei smiled, leaning over to put a kiss on his husband's temple. Anything worth keeping will always return to you.
The following week, Sizhui bought himself a simple, gold ring. He interviewed for a children's hospital that was not the one Baba worked at, but in a rougher part of town, where the children more often than not were malnourished and bruised, and in even more need of care. He volunteered with LGBTQ+ youth on his off days, exercised, practised the guqin, helped his fathers move out of his childhood home and into a smaller house, closer to Yi-Ma and Jiu-Jiu. He hung out with his cousin Jin Ling and the tight knit group of friends Zizhen had accumulated around them, and for the most part, Sizhui was happy. If he thought sometimes, when he had a quiet moment, about what it would be like to meet Lan Jingyi again, whose social media he had ceased stalking in his final year at Yale, that was his own private business. He lived his life and didn't ask more from it, until Zizhen sent him a slew of text messages one Saturday afternoon.
Sizhui had given himself one stunned moment, and then he'd dialed his parents land-line. Baba Wei had answered, and before he'd even finished his usual greeting – Well if it isn't the prodigal son, love child of the two handsomest doctors in China – Sizhui had frantically blurted out that Jin Ling had found Jingyi.
Honey, take a deep breath, Baba Wei advised. I'm going to put your Baba on speaker phone.
When Sizhui had walked into that bar, having received a text from Jin Ling that Jingyi had indeed arrived, his heart thumping in his throat, his eyes had jumped immediately to the figure against the wall, clutching a rocks glass and standing alone. He'd grown taller, long legged and slender; his height had caught up to match his shoulders. And god, he was still so beautiful, with his hair falling into his eyes and hiding his smile in the curve of his drink. Sizhui wanted to get his hands on him, see what was under all those bulky, baggy clothes, take him apart and then treat him like a gentleman should. He would have done something embarrassing if Jin Ling hadn't rescued him.
And then Jingyi running out of the bar, throwing back his drink and turning his back on Sizhui, it was almost too much. He had to see him, he had to speak to him, he just had to know, one way or the other. He made himself be brave, be bold. He found Jingyi interesting and hilarious, unchanged and so desirable it almost made Sizhui delirious. He took Jingyi home. He made love to him and held him after, and then, when he was tenderly cleaning up and dressing Jingyi in his own clothes for sleep, he noticed Jingyi's wet eyelashes. Sizhui had run the pad of his finger over Jingyi's eyebrow, apologetic that he'd overtaxed Jingyi in his greed for him. He'd taken up the gold ring from the bedside table and slid it onto Jingyi's finger, kissing Jingyi's hand and making a silent promise that he'd make it up to Jingyi in the morning. He was confident, after years of early rising, that he'd be awake before Jingyi was, and sentimental enough that he wanted Jingyi to wear the ring while he slept. He believed he'd be able to slip it back onto his own finger in the morning, and he was wrong.
But it was that ring, the promise Sizhui made to himself on his enduring love and the example of his parents, that brought Jingyi back to him.
Sizhui's ring finger was bare now, as he held Jingyi's t-shirt to his nose. After Jin Ling and Zizhen got married, it was Jingyi who suggested they move in together. Sizhui was already storing half of Jingyi's clothes at his flat and hoarding Jingyi's company so much that he was rarely ever at his own place, which was stuffy, occasionally damp, and not great for his condition. Sizhui hired movers that day, making space in his home the exact same way he'd made space in his heart. And then a few months later, during a very enthusiastic make-out on their couch one evening, Jingyi had slipped the ring from Sizhui's finger and whispered ask me . Sizhui had been waiting to make that step; they'd needed to reacquaint themselves with each other as adults. Doing so made Sizhui love Jingyi even more, made him even more sure that he wanted to spend his life building something together, and willing to be patient for it. And now, Jingyi wanted that commitment too.
Sizhui took one more huffing breath of the shirt, his other hand drifting down his abdomen. Thinking about marriage was… thinking about Jingyi…
The door to the flat opened with a crash, and Sizhui jumped.
"Ughhhh!" Jingyi groaned, throwing his keys into the little bowl by the entryway. "I have had such a day, you would not believe. The air conditioning at school is broken again and the kids were off the walls – one of them confused 'courage' and 'porridge' and they all went hysteric, it was impossible! I'm so glad you did your last night shift yesterday, because I want someone else to cook dinner! They were out of pea shoots at the grocery store and the corner market, you are so lucky I remembered the vegetable lady, because I was this close to giving up and ordering chicken for dinner again, and – oh!"
Jingyi paused with one of his shoes half off, arms juggling a large paper bag of groceries and his work bag dangling off his shoulder, his eyes wide as he stared at Sizhui, who had one hand on his groin and the other holding Jingyi's t-shirt up to his face.
"Lan Yuan," Jingyi said slowly, his voice gone husky soft, "do you have a dirty little laundry kink you want to tell me about?"
Sizhui felt his skin catch fire from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, but he thickened his face and said "Maybe?"
Jingyi kicked off his shoes, thunked the groceries down on the kitchen counter, and dropped his bag beside the table, all while maintaining eye contact. He didn't remove any of his clothing as he crossed the apartment to the living room, and Sizhui shivered. Jingyi knew Sizhui liked to undress him himself.
"You're smelling a t-shirt, when you have the real thing right here."
"Mn," Sizhui agreed, and tipped forwards to wrap his arms around Jingyi and kiss him. "I'm sorry your day was so bad."
"It's looking up," Jingyi grinned. He winked at Sizhui and then, quicker than lightning, he scooped Sizhui up over his shoulder.
"Ah hey!" Sizhui cried. "Hey, put me down!"
"Nope! I clearly need to take you to the bedroom and punish you, you dirty–"
"It’s not that kind of kink!"
"No? Well too bad, I'm giving you detention, Dr. Lan!"
"No, you promised, no role play! Jingyi!"
Jingyi dumped him on the bed and then climbed on after him, giggling. He straightened the collar of his t-shirt over Sizhui's shoulders. "Tell me what you like," he whispered, smiling.
Sizhui grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him down, because he liked all that firm weight and slender muscle pressing against him. "You," he said, and kissed Jingyi. "I like you so much."
Jingyi kissed him back, warm and messy, the way he knew drove Sizhui a little crazy. "That's all?" he complained, eyes shining with mirth. "You like me a lot? I'm in love with you, A-Yuan."
"I see," Sizhui said very seriously, and then he rolled them over so quick Jingyi couldn't stop him with his longer arms and stronger shoulders. He crouched over Jingyi and started unbuttoning his shirt. "I need to convince you of my feelings."
"You do," Jingyi whined, breath hitching when Sizhui leaned down to kiss wetly at his neck. His next breath hitched too, and Sizhui checked both bedside tables for the location of his inhalers. The rainy-season heat was harder for Jingyi, and Sizhui kept their central air and air purifier running at all times, even when Jingyi wasn't home.
"Was the air bad today love?" he whispered, stroking his fingertips along Jingyi's ribs, over the scars of his surgeries. "Do I need to be slow?"
"You need to get my pants off," Jingyi growled. "I ran all over looking for those damned pea shoots for you, where is my satisfaction, Lan Sizhui?"
"You're right, you're right. My Jingyi is too good to me." Jingyi squirmed a little, as Sizhui undid his fly. "I'm going to prove my love to you, reward my dutiful fiance…I'm going to make you forget all about your day, and then –" Jingyi gasped, arching a little under Sizhui's careful touch – "I'm going to order you chicken."
"Oh I love you, I really love you, Sizhui…"
"Mn," Sizhui laughed, touch tender and reverent, the way it always was for Jingyi. The boy who he’d loved and lost, and then waited for, patient and hopeful but never demanding. The man who’d returned to him, who’d relearnt him, and wanted to love Sizhui in return.
They were getting married in November, and Baba Wei was going to cry the entire time, hopeless, but Baba would probably cry too, both of them so happy they wouldn’t be able to keep it in. Jingyi was planned and prepared for it, he had told Sizhui at their fitting that they each had to have three handkerchiefs on hand. One each, for Sizhui’s fathers, and then a spare, of course, for themselves. And Sizhui had nearly cried right then, thinking about how he was going to spend his life standing up with this man, knowing he’d be supported and cherished and loved, that everything he gave, would come back to him in turn.
Curled close together on the bed where they’d first fit together, Sizhui leaned over and kissed the love of his life, heart grown so big it felt like it would escape his chest. His thankful breath over Jingyi’s lips and tongue and into his enduring lungs.
"Jingyi, I really love you too."