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Lifelong Confidant

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Wei Ying wakes up to Wen Qing glaring at him.

“Ah!” he shouts, pressing himself against the back of the couch.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “You’re an idiot.”

Wei Ying isn’t sure what he’s done this time, but it’s normally not untrue. “You’re going to give me a heart attack, Wen Qing,” he says, instead of responding. He pouts. “Do you want me to end up on your operating table?”

“You know damn well I’m a pediatrician,” she says crisply. “Just like you know damn well that Wen Ning shouldn’t be drinking large amounts of alcohol.”

Wei Ying follows the nod of her head. Wen Ning is fast asleep on the leather armchair opposite the couch, drool escaping from the corner of his mouth. Wen Qing is crouched in front of Wei Ying, and behind Wen Qing he spots two well used glasses and two empty bottles of wine.

Wei Ying’s back twinges as he sits up.

“Ah,” he says again, weakly. “That’s- we were only celebrating Wen Ning’s new job! You can’t be mad at me for being happy for our brother.”

My brother,” Wen Qing says acerbically.

“Wen Qing,” Wei Ying whines. He leans against her shoulder and gives her wide, wounded eyes.

“If he’s hungover you get to deal with it,” she says, before rising gracefully to her feet and shrugging her purse onto her shoulder, rudely dislodging Wei Ying in the process.

“But what if I’m hungover, too? Don’t you have any pity?” Wei Ying asks. Wen Qing strides out of the living room without looking back. “Wen Qing? Wen Qing!”

The slam of the front door is her only response.

Wen Ning has managed to sleep through the entire affair; Wei Ying covers his face with a couch pillow to swallow down his moan of despair.

He and Wen Ning hadn’t set out to get drunk last night. Wen Ning had shyly brought home the news that after eight long years of being a substitute teacher he’d been invited to be a permanent faculty member at a local elementary school, and so of course Wei Ying had grandly declared that a celebration was in order and that they’d break out their finest bottle of wine - well, Wen Qing’s finest bottle, because Wei Ying is poor.

It was Wen Qing’s own fault, Wei Ying thinks grumpily, for not being home to stop them. She’d had a date that had kept her out late, even though she knows that Wei Ying and Wen Ning make incredibly poor decisions when left on their own.

“Your sister doesn’t love us,” he mournfully tells the still sleeping Wen Ning. “This is all her fault, and we’re completely blameless.”

Wen Ning doesn’t even twitch.

The problem with getting older, Wei Ying thinks as he turns the shower as hot as it can go to help soothe his aching head, is that he can’t drink like he did when he was in his twenties. After turning thirty his entire body is in a constant state of betrayal to him: his knee sometimes hurts randomly, he can’t pull an all-nighter without wanting to kill himself and everyone else around him, and while he can still hold his liquor extraordinarily well, it only takes one extra swallow of alcohol to let the hangover take hold the next day.

He grumbles and moans his way through getting dressed and pulling his hair into a messy bun, and by the time he slips down the stairs - feeling only about thirty percent better than he did going up them - Wen Ning is awake and sitting on the couch, miserably staring at the empty wine bottles.

“Oh, my precious son whom I birthed from my very own body,” Wei Ying says. He sweeps into the living room and smashes Wen Ning’s face against his stomach, tenderly stroking the top of his head. “My poor child. What have I done to you?”

Wen Ning bears it commendably. He lets Wei Ying push him down into the plush couch cushions to sit comfortably, and lets Wei Ying chatter about kids and his new job while he makes coffee, and lets Wei Ying press a strong cup of coffee into his empty hand when it’s done brewing.

“Drink up,” Wei Ying says encouragingly. “It’ll make you big and strong.”

“Thank you,” Wen Ning says softly. Everything that he does is soft. It’s what Wei Ying appreciates about him the most, along with his cooking skills, and his financial skills, and the way that he lets Wei Ying curl up next to him on the bad nights when Wei Ying is missing people from his old life. Wen Ning doesn’t even try to make Wei Ying talk about it, unlike Wen Qing. Wen Ning, Wei Ying thinks, might just be his favorite person in the entire world.

Well, besides-

Wei Ying shoves the thought away before it can even fully form.

“Your sister was very angry at me,” Wei Ying says. He drapes himself on the couch, half sitting on Wen Ning, and Wen Ning doesn’t shove him away so Wei Ying snuggles in. “She reminded me you shouldn’t be drinking at all.”

Wen Ning smiles down at him while he takes a sip of coffee. Wei Ying didn’t even think to grab a mug of his own, and he pouts at Wen Ning until he sighs and hands the cup over.

“I’m fine,” Wen Ning says. “One night of drinking won’t send me into a seizure. You know how sister worries.”

“Yeah, she’s so boring,” Wei Ying groans. “And entirely too strict about how many snakes is too many snakes to have as a pet. One snake, Wen Ning! That’s all I ask!”

He hands the coffee back over to Wen Ning, who takes a long, grateful drink of it.

“You would have to feed it mice,” Wen Ning tells him.

“I’m man enough to do it!” Wei Ying cries. Wen Ning only takes another sip with his small, soft smile.

Something cramps inside Wei Ying’s chest, the same thing that cramped in his chest the first time that Jiang Cheng had shoved a kid at school to the ground because he’d called Wei Ying annoying, or when Jiang Yanli fed him soup for the first time. The thing that claims a person as his, as family, as an unnamed concept that he can’t explain even if he wanted to try, which he definitely doesn’t. Wen Ning and Wen Qing had taken him in years ago, and he’s been scrambling to make it worth it for them ever since.

“I couldn’t do it,” Wen Ning murmurs. “I’d feel too bad for the mouse.”

“You’re a tender heart,” Wei Ying says, and takes the opportunity to steal the coffee back when Wen Ning looks appropriately touched.

They turn on the television and share a second cup of coffee back and forth, until they reach the last episode of the drama they’re watching and then Wen Ning selects an old episode of Great Gusu Bake Off to watch next.

“Shit!” Wei Ying shouts, looking at his phone. “I have a lesson at noon, and it’s already eleven twenty. I’m gonna be late!”

“Don’t forget the sheet music,” Wen Ning calls, and Wei Ying pauses in between shoving his hi-tops onto his feet so he can run to his room to grab the sheet music. He’s halfway out the door by the time the hosts of GGBO are introducing the judges, waving a small goodbye to Wen Ning as he goes.

-

Wei Ying is late a lot.

It’s annoying, honestly, and completely beyond Wei Ying’s control no matter what Wen Qing says. His newest music student lives in downtown Caiyi Town, in an elegant and established neighborhood that just screams old money. It makes sense, because his newest student is a Lan, although it’s far enough away from-

Wei Ying cuts the thought off.

Get it together, he scolds himself. Almost thinking about- thinking about- whatever, twice in the same morning, is dangerous and must not be done. Wei Ying had decided a long time ago that he’s allowed to think about- to think about that-which-must-not-be-thought-about only once a day, because otherwise he’ll lose whatever last tiny bit of sanity that he has left.

Thankfully Lan Jingyi is far enough removed from that-which-must-not-be-thought-about that Wei Ying doesn’t have to worry. The kid’s parents never intrude on Wei Ying’s dizi lessons, and the kid himself is sixteen and aggressively mediocre at any instruments Wei Ying has tried to teach him, which is great for Wei Ying’s bank account. He’d been hired a year ago to teach Lan Jingyi the guqin, then the piano, and now the dizi.

“Mister Wei!” Jingyi calls excitedly from his window as Wei Ying locks his bike outside the impressively tall and expensive townhouse. Lan Jingyi looks like he’s about two seconds away from leaning too far out the window in his obvious excitement.

He’s completely unlike any other Lan that Wei Ying has ever met. He fucking loves this kid.

“Sorry I’m late!” Wei Ying calls back to him. “I’m hungover!”

“You’re probably not supposed to be telling me that!” Lan Jingyi calls down, but he sounds delighted.

Wei Ying laughs.

The doorman waves him through when he sees him, and Wei Ying stops to give him a high-five and ask about his newly born daughter before heading to the elevator. He hums along with the boring muzak version of a popular pop song that plays on his way up, and by the time he gets to Lan Jingyi’s door the kid is waiting for him.

“Mister Wei!” he says, just as excited as he was out the window. “My friend Sizhiu said the funniest thing this weekend, you have to hear it!”

Wei Ying lets himself get pulled into the apartment. He and Lan Jingyi spend half the lesson trading stories and eating spicy peanuts in Lan Jingyi’s kitchen before Wei Ying actually whips out Chenqing.

“Today we’re playing,” Wei Ying pauses dramatically, “Beethoven’s Symphony number five!”

Lan Jingyi instantly pales, and he grasps his new, expensive dizi with tightly wrapped fingers. “Uh,” he manages to squeak out.

Wei Ying bursts out laughing at his expression. “Just kidding!” he says. Lan Jingyi instantly laughs along with him. “Today we’re learning Chopsticks.”

Lan Jingyi bumbles his way through the best that he can - which is, frankly, not great - and Wei Ying leaves the lesson feeling headache free with some extra tip money burning a hole in his pocket.

Wei Ying has two jobs: one is teaching music to wealthy teens in Caiyi Town whose parents have money to burn, and the other is pulling shifts at a local coffee shop. He loves teaching music, and absolutely hates making coffee, so he figures those two balance each other out. His life right now is small, in the best of ways: he lives with Wen Qing and Wen Ning - his two best friends - and he makes enough money to afford rent and the occasional takeout or mid-level wine. He has a regular noodle place that he frequents, and he has enough acquaintances that he gets invited out every other weekend or so.

He’s doing fine. He maybe gets drunk more than he should for a man his age - a healthy thirty-two years old, and aging like a fine wine, if he does say so himself- but that’s alright. He can live with that.

He also visits his sister’s grave once a year. He would go every month, but he’s afraid that if he starts to go more often he eventually won’t ever leave again to come home. He saves up the grief - which has, in the last thirteen years, congealed into a messy, oozing ball of sorrow that never quite leaves him - and lets it out once a year, on the half-anniversary of Jiang Yanli’s death. He can’t go on the actual anniversary, because he knows he wouldn’t be welcome.

It’s been thirteen years since he last spoke to his brother, thirteen years since he last heard Jiang Cheng’s voice.

It’s a small life, and not what he had ever thought he’d be doing, but he’s fine. It’s fine.

 

The bike ride from downtown Caiyi Town and his own house in the Yiling district is only about half an hour, and he spends the time composing a new tune in his head as he rides. The old apartment that the three of them had lived in had been a real shit hole - to put it politely - but Wen Qing had scraped and saved her way into buying a proper house in a nice section of town, close enough to bars and restaurants and the doctor’s office that she works in that Wei Ying can bike pretty everywhere he needs to be. His coffee shop - Yi City Coffee - is only a five minute ride away from the house, so he stops by to drop Chenqing off at home before he heads back out for his afternoon shift.

Yi City Coffee is nice, with the dark wooden lines of the countertop and floors contrasting the stark white walls where eclectic local art is hung. It’s owned by Xiao Xingchen, who’s about the nicest person that Wei Ying has ever met besides Wen Ning, and who lets Wei Ying get away with entirely too much shit. Even though Wei Ying hates the job he likes the people he works with, so it works out okay. Today A-Qing is whipping up some milk froth as he slips behind the counter, and she sticks her tongue out at him when she sees him.

“Xue Yang was in here again this morning,” she says in distaste.

“Ugh,” Wei Ying says with feeling. “That guy is such a weirdo. Did he try to get us to hang his art again?”

“Yep,” A-Qing says. She hands the waiting customer their cup of coffee and turns to Wei Ying, propping her hip against the counter. “This time it was an oil painting of a stabbed owl.”

“What the fuck,” Wei Ying says. Xue Yang has been trying to get the coffee shop to hang his creepy art the entire five years that Wei Ying has worked here. They haven’t hung a single piece yet. “Has anyone checked the local deaths to make sure he isn’t murdering people?”

A-Qing hums. “He also refused to leave until Xiao Xingchen came out of the office to personally say hi to him.”

“He knows Xiao Xingchen is married, right?” Wei Ying asks. “He’s actually met Song Lan a few times before.”

“He’s a creep,” A-Qing says. “Maybe Xiao Xingchen can get a restraining order.”

“It’d be hard to back up an allegation against him since he hasn’t done anything yet,” Wei Ying says. “The judge probably wouldn’t grant it.”

A-Qing shoots him a look. “You know the weirdest things,” she says.

Wei Ying grins and bows. “I’m a true renaissance man,” he tells her.

“You’re an old man with too much free time and access to the internet,” she retorts.

“Ah!” Wei Ying smacks lightly at her shoulder, but she bounces out of the way with a giggle.

The bell on the door jangles, signaling a customer, and Wei Ying drapes himself across the till to take the order. He might not like making coffee, but during a rush the hours tend to fly by, and the sky is just turning red with the setting sun by the time Wei Ying has another chance to gossip with A-Qing.

“Did you watch GGBO last night?” A-Qing asks as she rinses out a blender. “Wait, no, you’re the one person in Caiyi Town who doesn’t watch it.”

“If I wanted to watch people bake, then I’d sit in my kitchen and watch Wen Ning,” Wei Ying says. Behind him there’s a tapping sound, and Wei Ying whirls around to see that Xiao Xingchen has emerged from his office and is making their way to them. “Hey, boss! A-Qing is bullying me!”

Xiao Xingchen smiles as he makes his way toward them, signature white sunglasses firmly in place. He doesn’t need the white walking stick in the shop after business hours, Wei Ying knows, but when there are customers around Xiao Xingchen takes every effort to ensure he doesn’t literally trip over someone.

“We were talking about Great Gusu Bake Off,” A-Qing says. “Even Xiao Xingchen watches it, Wei Ying! You’re so uncultured.”

“Song Lan does like describing the baked items to me,” Xiao Xingchen agrees. “And it’s amusing to hear the baker’s thought processes.”

“And last night,” A-Qing says, “Lan Zhan’s shirt was unbuttoned by one button. I almost died.”

Wei Ying carefully wipes down the countertop and doesn’t look at A-Qing or Xiao Xingchen.

“And this is unusual?” Xiao Xingchen sounds amused as he leans the white stick against the counter and joins A-Qing and Wei Ying. “Song Lan has informed me that both of the judges are very handsome men.”

“So handsome,” A-Qing gushes. “Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen are like works of art, but Lan Xichen is the most attractive. He actually smiles. Lan Zhan is so stiff and cold all the time. He must hate everybody, his face never moves.”

Wei Ying presses his lips together and wipes very hard at the counter that’s been clean for the last five minutes.

“Lan Zhan does sound to be very serious,” Xiao Xingchen says. “He looks as he sounds, then?”

“Oh, yeah,” A-Qing says. “But he’s gorgeous, so I forgive him I guess, and he always wears white, which compliments-”

“How boring,” Wei Ying interrupts without meaning to. His brain is always trying to catch up to his stupid mouth. “Always wears white. Is he constantly going to a funeral or something?”

A-Qing sticks her tongue out at him, while Xiao Xingchen turns his kind smile Wei Ying’s way. “And why don’t you like the show?”

“Nepotism, for one,” Wei Ying says. A-Qing lets out a small cry and hits at his arm. “Ah! Xiao Xingchen, she’s abusing me!”

“It’s not nepotism,” A-Qing says. “Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen have been the most successful bakers in the Gusu region for the past decade, at least.”

“Yeah, and their uncle is a really rich businessman who basically owns the entire region,” Wei Ying points out. “It’s not hard to be famous and successful when you start out rich.”

“Hm,” A-Qing grumbles, but she’s got nothing to say against that because she knows it’s true. None of them were born with the silver spoon in their mouths that the Lan’s were - even if Wei Ying had a brief taste of it for a time - and they all ruminate in their sorry state of poorness for a long second. Well, Wei Ying does, at least.

“They’re still very talented,” A-Qing says eventually. “Have you ever been to one of their bakeries? The pastry melted in my mouth.”

Wei Ying has, in fact, eaten at one of the famous Lan bakeries. He’s eaten at all of the famous Lan bakeries, to be exact, because sometimes when he gets a bruise he likes to poke at it just to feel the small flash of pain.

Wei Ying has also eaten a Lan pastry straight out of the oven, in a small, cozy kitchen that-

“Nope!” Wei Ying says loudly, because he can’t seem to stop thinking today, and if he doesn’t stop thinking he’s going to cry at work. A-Qing would never let him live it down. “And I never will.”

“Your loss,” A-Qing says with a shrug, and the conversation is done. She starts talking about a course she’s taking in college, and Xiao Xingchen mentions a new vacation spot that he and Song Lan are looking to go to sometime next year, and Wei Ying weaves his own chatter in between them, making sure to keep everything light and cheerful.

It’s one thing to poke at a bruise, it’s another to pour salt into the gaping hole in his chest. He doesn’t let himself think about anything at all besides what A-Qing and Xiao Xingchen are saying.

The ride back home is quiet, and by the time he gets there the sun has long set and Wei Ying’s stomach is cramping in hunger. The smell of spicy food wafts through the air as soon as he opens the door, and he practically starts drooling as he follows the scent.

Wen Ning is cooking, of course, because if it was Wen Qing something would be either burnt or terribly undercooked. Wei Ying swings into the kitchen and hooks his chin on Wen Ning’s shoulder, arms coming to close around him.

“Oh,” Wen Ning says. “Wei Ying, I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Got in just now,” Wei Ying says. The pot in front of him is bubbling with something red and spicy; Wei Ying might not be able to wait to eat it. He eyes it hungrily.

“It’s not ready yet,” Wen Ning says, like he can read Wei Ying’s thoughts. “Go wait in the living room.”

“But I don’t want to,” Wei Ying whines. “You can’t deprive me the pleasure of your company, Wen Ning! That’s cruel and unfair.”

He’s hoping that Wen Ning can’t hear the undertone of what Wei Ying really wants to say: he doesn’t want to be alone right now.

Wen Ning pauses, then gently pushes Wei Ying off his back and points towards the small kitchen table behind them.

“Sit down and tell me about your day,” he says. “Is Young Mister Lan still bad at playing?”

Wei Ying sinks into a chair, grateful that Wen Ning doesn’t ask why he wants to stay. “Just awful,” Wei Ying says delightedly. “My absolute favorite student.”

Wen Ning lets him chatter on until Wen Qing gets home, then Wen Qing complains about work as they eat and Wei Ying cleans up. They all head to the living room, full and tired, where they watch one of Wen Qing’s favorite dramas.

It’s a good night, and Wei Ying doesn’t have to think about anything at all. It’s everything he wants.

-

The next Saturday night Wen Qing holds a rager, as Wei Ying loves calling it, by which he means she invites three or four work colleagues over for a nice dinner and some drinks while they discuss the newest advances in medical science. She bullies Wei Ying into helping her clean the house - Wen Ning gladly offers to cook without being asked, the adorable asshole - and so by the time dinner rolls around and her guests start arriving Wei Ying is just tired and hungry enough that he’ll risk eating with Wen Qing and her stuffy colleagues.

They’re not actually terrible, Wei Ying will admit. Sometimes at home when he’s bored Wei Ying will borrow Wen Qing’s case notes and research papers, or crack open one of the thick medical journals scattered around her room. It’s been a long time since she and Wei Ying were interns sharing rounds in medical school, but Wei Ying still likes to keep on top of what’s new and exciting in the medical world, just for shits and giggles.

Most of the topic of conversation while they eat is about a controversial new study that was released a few weeks ago, which Wei Ying contributes his opinion to here and there, but mostly he focuses on catching Wen Ning’s eye and making horrible face so that Wen Ning has to stifle a laugh at inappropriate moments; Wen Ning is the only one at the table who really has no clue what they’re talking about.

One of Wen Qing’s colleagues looks extremely familiar, which Wei Ying attributes to the fact that he sees a lot of people at the coffee shop, but when she inclines her head and says, “That’s an interesting thought, Wei Ying,” it hits him.

“Wait,” he says slowly, tilting his head. “It can’t be- Mianmian? Why didn’t you just say so? I’ve been treating you like a stranger!”

“I thought you had recognized me and were giving me proper deference,” she says starchly, then turns to the rest of the table to say, “Wei Ying did residency along with Wen Qing and myself.”

“Where do you work now?” one of the doctors asks. “Wen Qing hadn’t mentioned that her brother was a doctor, as well.”

“Oh, ah.” Wei Ying rubs at his nose. “I’m not in the medical field anymore.”

“You’re still obviously keeping abreast of things,” another doctor chimes in. “Are you in a related field?”

“He’s a music teacher,” Wen Qing says. Wei Ying wiggles his eyebrows and mouths brother, huh. She ignores him. “And Wen Ning is an elementary school teacher.”

“What an accomplished family,” the doctor says. “Your parents must be proud.”

“Oh, we’re all orphans,” Wei Ying says cheerfully. He shoves another bite of rice into his mouth and lets them all stew in the awkwardness, cackling on the inside.

“Yes, thank you, Wei Ying, for not understanding social cues,” Wen Qing says drily. She steers the conversation back on track, but Mianmian leans in close to Wei Ying.

“I just wanted to say,” she starts sincerely, “that it was a real shame to lose you from the class. You were the brightest one out of all of us.”

“Ha,” Wei Ying says. “That’s very kind of you, but if I recall correctly you had the best grades in class and the professors constantly fawned over you.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t good, too,” she says with a wink, and Wei Ying laughs.

It’s strange, to be reminded of who he was back then. He and Wen Qing had met through the hospital where they’d interned, both of them on the path to becoming pediatricians, and for the first little while there’d been an intense rivalry between the two of them for top spot in the class. Mianmian had eventually outshone the both of them, and then Wei Ying had dropped out, so things between Wen Qing and Wei Ying settled into a quick friendship.

Wei Ying swallows a little, feeling the smile drop off his face. He doesn’t like thinking about that time, especially since most of his memories from back then are hindered by a thick haze of alcohol.

Wen Ning catches his eye across the table, questioning, but Wei Ying just smiles tightly and shakes his head. He’s okay. He’ll be okay. Wen Ning shouldn’t ever have to worry about him, not when he should be worrying about Wen Ning and Wen Qing.

Eventually the doctors all move to the living room, and Wei Ying hangs back to start cleaning the kitchen. Wen Ning lingers with him, even though Wei Ying tries to shoo him away.

“You cooked all afternoon,” Wei Ying says. “I’ve got this.”

“I can help,” Wen Ning says insistently, and Wei Ying folds like a pack of cards.

Wen Ning washes the dishes while Wei Ying dries them, and Wei Ying spends most of the chore talking about Wen Ning's new coworkers and teasing Wen Ning about an idol that he likes.

“I like his music,” Wen Ning insists, his face the color of a tomato.

“Yeah, his music is definitely why you have a poster of him in your top drawer,” Wei Ying says slyly, nudging Wen Ning with his elbow.

Wen Ning busies himself with scrubbing a plate and doesn’t look at Wei Ying again for at least five whole minutes. Wei Ying cackles to himself, then gets bored that Wen Ning is ignoring him.

“Wen Ning,” he says. “Wen Ning! Pay attention to me.”

Wen Ning gently sways towards him until their shoulders brush. Wei Ying grins at him.

“You shouldn’t let it bother you,” Wen Ning says.

“Huh?” Wei Ying says. “What bothers me?”

“Working at a coffee shop,” Wen Ning says. He isn’t looking at Wei Ying, but his tone is as patient and kind as always. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Wei Ying blinks down at the glass in his hand. He carefully wipes the edge where a drop of water was persistently clinging.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he scoffs, but it’s a second too late to be believable. “Why would it bother me? I make the best cup of coffee in Caiyi Town. I should get a parade thrown in my name for my coffee excellency.”

“It’s not a shameful thing to do with your life,” Wen Ning says. “You don’t need to have a high stress job to be worthwhile, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying laughs, and it sounds too loud in the small kitchen. “Wow, Wen Ning! You sound like a psychologist! How smart and intuitive my brother is!”

“Wei Ying,” Wen Ning says.

“Wen Ning,” Wei Ying says pointedly.

Wen Ning sighs, but stops pushing.

There’s silence in the kitchen while they finish up the dishes, and Wen Ning is about to slip out the door when Wei Ying catches his arm.

“I’m not ashamed,” he says. “I know there’s nothing shameful about not having a high paying job or saving lives. I know that. It’s just-”

He can’t explain the sense of guilt that lays over him. He’s guilty about the fact that Jiang Fengmian took him in and gave him the best education and a hope for a bright future, and Wei Ying has let them down. He hasn’t talked to either of his adopted parents in thirteen years - not that Madame Yu is crying about it or anything - but he still knows how hopeful Jiang Fengmian had been about Wei Ying’s future.

Not just Jiang Fengmian, really; it had been everyone. Wei Ying can say without boasting that he’s exceptionally bright. He can hear a song once and perfectly replicate it. He had high marks in every subject in school, and would have graduated early if it hadn’t meant leaving Jiang Cheng alone in his last few years of high school. One weekend in high school he’d poked and prodded at the Jiang Corporation business model, and on Monday morning he’d presented Jiang Fengmian a complete list of changes that would help strengthen the business and improve working conditions for employees. As far as Wei Ying is aware Jiang Corporation is still using those changes.

He’s smart, and within that genius there was always an expectation that he could change the world. That he would change the world. For a short time, Wei Ying himself had believed that.

Now he works as a part time music teacher and barista. He’s surely let down everyone who used to believe in him, even if he hasn’t seen any of them in over a decade.

“Nevermind,” he says to Wen Ning, who’s looking at him with encouraging eyes.

“If they knew what you did for me and Wen Qing,” Wen Ning starts to say, but Wei Ying slaps a hand over his mouth and gives him a brilliant grin.

“This is boring,” he says. “I’m bored, Wen Ning. Let’s crash Wen Qing’s rager and tell them about the time you tried to adopt a feral street racoon.”

“That was you,” Wen Ning protests, but he lets Wei Ying drag him into the living room all the same.

“It was really cute,” Wei Ying insists. He grabs an extra bottle of wine on his way out the kitchen.

Wei Ying has no time to be maudlin. There are people to entertain, after all.

-

Wei Ying has a new client, a kid named Ouyang Zizhen who’s apparently friends with Lan Jingyi. Their first meeting, presided over by the kid’s stern father, had actually been relatively successful, and the kid shows an actual inkling of talent for playing the piano. Wei Ying is in particularly high spirits by the time the session is over.

It’s actually been a great day, he thinks to himself as he hitches himself onto his bike and starts pedaling. He’d woken up before Wen Ning - when it was still dark out, because Wei Ying has fun dealing with the occasional bout of insomnia - and managed to eke out a passable steamed bun breakfast that both Wen Qing and Wen Ning declared not bad - one begrudgingly and one encouragingly - and Wei Ying hadn’t been scheduled at the Yi City today, so he spent most of his day huddled in a blanket on his bed and gorging himself on spicy ramen and Wen Qing’s fresh soy milk that he definitely needs to replace before she notices.

After his session with Ouyang Zizhen is over the sun is already sinking low in the sky, tingeing the bustling streets of Caiyi Town a warm orange, and Wei Ying finds himself smiling as the wind stings his cheeks as he rides home.

Wen Qing’s car is already parked in front of their house, which means that both of the siblings are home since Wen Qing is Wen Ning’s carpool.

“I made breakfast!” Wei Ying yells as he whips the door open. “I’ve done my due! Now somebody needs to feed me more spicy ramen and wine as I lounge around in my underwear!”

Instead of any answering cries a silence meets him, until Wen Qing’s voice calls from the living room, “You have a visitor, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying frowns; although a lot of people tend to like him, none of them would have any reason to visit him at home, or to make Wen Qing sound so stilted and formal. He dumps his bag and jacket on the ground next to where he kicked off his shoes, and sticks his head cautiously around the living room door.

Nothing could’ve prepared him to see Lan Xichen sitting on their oversized couch, calmly holding tea.

Wei Ying’s heart thumps around in a strange staccato.

“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing says tightly when she sees his head peeking around the doorway. “Lan Xichen has come to visit you.”

Wei Ying thinks about slinking back into the hallway and out the front door; he can pretend like they never saw him. He can fill the house with carbon monoxide and drag Lan Xichen’s body into a nearby street and then pretend like Lan Xichen showing up to their house and looking for him was all just a gas-related hallucination. Unfortunately Lan Xichen will have to wake up in a gutter with no memory of what happened, but Wei Ying thinks that’s probably for the best anyway.

Wen Qing narrows her eyes while Wei Ying hesitates, and that prompts Wei Ying to scurry into the room with a strained laugh.

“Lan Xichen, ah, Lan Xichen,” Wei Ying says. He sketches a little wave with one hand and smiles. “Hello.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Xichen says. He reaches forward to place the cup of tea on the coffee table. “I apologize for bothering you in this way.”

“Ah, Lan Xichen, always so formal,” Wei Ying says. He skitters further into the room and, with nothing else to do, jams his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “What can I do for you?”

Lan Xichen’s lips thin. Wen Qing is looking back and forth between the two of them like she’s watching a tennis match, her face increasingly baffled with each turn.

“Lan Zhan was in a car accident,” Lan Xichen says directly.

Wei Ying stumbles, despite the fact that he hasn’t moved. There’s a pressure behind his eyes, and his throat is thick when he tries to swallow.

“He-” Wei Ying tries to say. “Is he-”

Wei Ying can’t do this again. He can’t go through this again.

Lan Xichen must see something on his face, because he’s standing in front of Wei Ying in the blink of an eye, reaching a hand out to clamp around Wei Ying’s shoulder to help keep him steady.

“He is alive,” Lan Xichen says. Wei Ying feels both relieved and nauseous all at once, and even though his throat unsticks he’s still finding it hard to breathe.

“But he’s hurt?” Wei Ying manages to say. “You wouldn’t be here if it was just a small accident.”

“Yes, you are correct,” Lan Xichen says. There’s a sad, tired smile tucked in the corner of his mouth. “You always were quick to think of the correct answer.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Wei Ying says. “What are his injuries? Is he in the hospital? What-”

Lan Xichen holds a hand up to stem the tide of Wei Ying’s questions.

“He sustained a mild head injury, as well as a deep laceration at the top of his shoulder. Everything else was minor and easily treated. The hospital is holding him for a few days to monitor him, but we’ve received assurance that he’ll most likely be able to go home at the end of the week.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Okay. That’s- I’m glad he’s okay.”

Lan Xichen smiles a bit and steps back, giving Wei Ying room to breathe. His hands are trembling, he notes in surprise. He tucks them back into the pockets of his hoodie.

“My uncle wasn’t sure if we should contact you,” Lan Xichen says. His eyes are kind, because what he probably means is that Lan Qiren steadfastly refused to even think about contacting Wei Ying. “But I thought you may want to know. There will be a statement released to the press in the morning, and I thought finding out that way-”

His voice trails off.

“Thank you,” Wei Ying blurts out. “Honestly, thank you, Lan Xichen. I- finding out from you is preferable.”

Lan Xichen nods. He throws a quick glance at Wen Qing, who’s still sitting on the leather armchair, and takes another step back, hands held behind his back.

He’s going to leave, Wei Ying knows. He’s done his job, and Wei Ying knows what he needs to know, and Lan Xichen is going to leave. Even looking at Lan Xichen is like getting impaled; he looks so much like Lan Zhan, and so different, all at the same time. Wei Ying can’t stand to look at him, but he doesn’t want to look away.

But Lan Xichen hesitates. “Would you,” he says heavily, looking directly into Wei Ying’s eyes, “come to the hospital with me to see Lan Zhan?”

Wei Ying freezes.

He can’t go to the hospital. Lan Zhan won’t want to see him, for one, and Lan Qiren might actually keel over from a heart attack if Wei Ying shows up unannounced. Lan Zhan should have time to heal in a quiet, restful environment, one that’s not infested with Wei Ying’s...Wei Ying-ness. Even back then, thirteen years ago, Lan Zhan had barely been able to stand being in the same room as him; surely Wei Ying showing up now would be a slap in his face.

And on top of that, surely Lan Zhan is still angry with him, after everything that happened. Of course Lan Zhan will still be angry- if he hasn’t completely forgotten about Wei Ying in the years since he last saw him.

Wei Ying finds it hard to breathe at the thought. If he goes to the hospital and Lan Zhan looks at him as he’d look at a stranger, Wei Ying might crack and splinter apart. There’s a reason he doesn’t let himself think about Lan Zhan more than once a day, and that’s because of all the what-if’s that bounce around his head and fill him with dread.

Still, Lan Xichen had asked. Maybe Lan Zhan has softened in his old age. Maybe Lan Zhan has found a way to forgive him, and if Lan Xichen is asking Wei Ying to the hospital he can’t have forgotten about him. Lan Zhan was always clever, far more clever than Wei Ying - he can’t have forgotten him altogether.

They are, after all, still married.

Wei Ying realizes that he’s been standing still, staring blankly over Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and Lan Xichen is waiting patiently for his answer.

“Yeah, yes!” Wei Ying all but shouts. “Yes, I just- let me get my shoes.”

Lan Xichen nods again, then turns to thank Wen Qing for the tea as Wei Ying hurries into the hallway to re-gather up all the stuff he just dumped. He hops back into his shoes, and by the time he’s ready Wen Qing is coming forward to give him a hug.

“We will talk about this later,” she hisses into his ear, squeezing her arms in a vice-like grip around him. Wei Ying tries not to squeak. She pulls away and brushes a stray hair behind his ear. “I hope your friend is okay.”

Wei Ying swallows and nods, then follows Lan Xichen out the door.

-

The ride to the hospital is long and quiet. Lan Xichen is checking something on his phone, a worried crease across his face, so Wei Wuxian stares out the window as Caiyi Town rolls by; he doesn’t want to think about the past, or the present, or the future, because if he thinks about any of those things he might fling himself out of the car right here and now.

Except Wei Ying’s mind is not meant to be idle. He can’t help but think that if anyone had asked back then - on the day after Wei Ying and Lan Zhan got married - how their marriage would end, Wei Ying would have been adamant that the marriage could only end with Lan Zhan leaving him. The other way around didn’t make sense, after all. Wei Ying was embarrassingly fond of Lan Zhan, and most days Lan Zhan couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as him. Wei Ying had always thought that it was a miracle that Lan Zhan had agreed to let Wei him crash on his couch for a bit until he found his own place, until Wei Ying accidentally got Lan Zhan drunk and had felt the need to get just as drunk to make up for it, in a stupid tit for tat exchange.

Apparently there was a place in Caiyi Town that held quick marriages. Wei Ying hadn’t known about it before he and Lan Zhan got drunk, but he definitely did after.

It was a miracle that Lan Zhan had agreed to let Wei Ying crash on his couch; now, after thirteen long years later, Wei Ying still hasn’t figured out why Lan Zhan let them stay married.

In the end, though, Wei Ying was the one who left. He always takes the cowardly way out.

The car comes to a stop outside the gates of Cloud Recesses.

“Oh!” Wei Ying exclaims, before he can help himself.

Lan Xichen looks up at his obvious surprise, then tucks his phone away when he sees they’re at their destination.

“Ah, yes,” Lan Xichen says. “About five years ago Uncle had a modest hospital built on the grounds. He thought it would be easier to deal with any small maladies after the show started to gain popularity.”

Gain popularity, Wei Ying thinks derisively. The Great Gusu Bake Off had been a hit since the very first episode, and they’ve kept up their audience in the six years since it first aired.

Wei Ying has seen exactly five minutes of one episode, and not a single second more.

Lan Xichen sends the car on it’s way after they get out, and Wei Ying hurries to catch up to him as he strides towards the Cloud Recesses gates.

“Lan Xichen,” Wei Ying says. “Lan Xichen, are you sure your uncle hasn’t set an order for me to be executed on sight if I ever set foot in Cloud Recessess again?”

Lan Xichen shoots him a smile as he walks. “Not that I’m aware of,” he says, and pauses, then says, “But perhaps you shouldn’t offer any suggestions if you see him.”

“Smart man, great idea,” Wei Ying says.

Cloud Recessess, ostensibly a suburb of Caiyi Town, is more like a city of it’s own. It holds the offices of the Lan Corporation, the infamous GGBO tent and various production offices, an assortment of apartments and small homes for those who want to live and work in the same place, a hospital, apparently, as well as a small, prestigious academy that Wei Ying had been expelled from after only attending for a year.

It was also where he met Lan Zhan for the first time.

Cloud Recesses still looks the exact same: nestled in the mountains, set against the backdrop of intense green trees and grey mountains, beset with clear streams and pristine natural cold springs, named so because of the pure white clouds that settle into the valleys of the suburb, shrouding the entire city in an ethereal aura.

Wei Ying has never fit in here.

Various people call greetings to Lan Xichen as they walk past, and give confused glances at Wei Ying as he skulks behind the man. They must look quite a sight: Lan Xichen, in his pristine light blue suit, perfectly pressed and self-assured, and Wei Ying, hurrying along behind him in ripped black jeans, a red t-shirt that has armpit stains, and an oversized black hoodie that keeps falling off one shoulder. Wei Ying completely understands the confused glances.

Soon enough they arrive at a building that, while being newly built, fits perfectly well into the surrounding apartments and offices. Xan Lichen ushers Wei Ying inside, ignoring the front desk to make a beeline towards the elevators. The ride up is silent; Wei Ying can’t even start to think of anything he could say.

“My coworker loves your show,” he says, because he can’t keep his mouth shut. Lan Xichen glances at him. “Well, everyone does. Can’t get away from it, you know? Not that I’d want to!” Wei Ying laughs and glances at the ground, rubbing at his nose. “Anyway, everyone seems to love it.”

Lan Xichen lets a pause grow, then politely asks, “You don’t watch it?”

“Uh, nah, that’s- no,” Wei Ying admits.

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, and turns to face the elevator doors again.

Wei Ying presses his lips together and stares down at his feet; it only takes a second for him to start tapping a song tempo on the stylish tiles.

When the elevator door opens again, Wei Ying can see that the modest part of the hospital refers only to the size. Tasteful yet expensive art hangs on the walls, and vases of fresh flowers and flora sit on every desk. Still, every hospital will always smell the same, and this one is no different: Wei Ying can smell the tang of sanitizer and cleaning products, the harsh musk of medicine, and underneath it all, the scent of illness and death.

Wei Ying spent a lot of time in hospitals during his school years, but the only thing he remembers when he smells that distinct blend of scents is huddling by himself far apart from the Jiang’s and the Jin’s, trying desperately to sober up and make himself invisible all at once while they waited for news about Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan, while Jin Ling cried in Madame Yu’s arms.

Wei Ying presses his lips together; he’s not going to cry in front of Lan Xichen.

He follows Lan Xichen to a plain, unmarked door; surely, Wei Ying thinks, a room containing Lan Zhan should be more venerated than this. Surely a room containing Lan Zhan couldn’t deign to be so boring and unremarkable.

Against all odds Lan Xichen pushes the door open and motions Wei Ying inside.

Lan Zhan is lying still against the crisp white bed sheets, his long hair fanned around him like the spread of wings. His eyes are closed, and Wei Ying can see a bandage spilling up his neck from underneath his hospital gown, and another bandage wrapped around his head in place of his usual Lan headpiece.

Wei Ying’s chest cracks.

“Oh,” he breathes out.

“He’s been sleeping a lot,” Lan Xichen explains quietly. “The doctors say that it’s normal, and he’s showing no signs of a traumatic brain injury.”

Wei Ying nods his understanding, but he doesn’t move any further into the room.

“Please,” Lan Xichen says. “Wait in his room for him to wake up. There’s a couch, and the hospital has internet.”

“Ah, I don’t-” Wei Ying starts weakly.

“Please,” Lan Xichen implores again. “He’ll be happy to see you.”

Wei Ying has serious doubts about that, but he slips into the room all the same. He expects Lan Xichen to follow him, but Lan Xichen’s phone lights up and he makes a pained face at Wei Ying before closing the door, with himself on the outside and Wei Ying on the inside.

Wei Ying takes a deep breath, and then wishes he hadn’t. He can’t untangle the smell of the hospital and his feelings from that night with what’s happening right now. His eyes flutter closed, shoving the deep river of emotion back down inside him before it can burst like a geyser out of him.

Lan Zhan is staring at him when he opens his eyes.

“Shit!” Wei Ying gasps, jolting a little.

Lan Zhan doesn’t move a muscle. He’s still laying down, hands folded over his chest, lines of the IV that he’s hooked to stretching up and out. He has dark circles under his eyes, and his lips are dry and cracking, but he looks every bit as beautiful as Wei Ying remembers.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes.

Lan Zhan doesn’t look away. His gaze is the same as it ever was: burning Wei Ying up, eating him up from the outside in, brimming full of an intensity that Wei Ying is helpless to understand. Wei Ying doesn’t look away, he can’t. He’s never been able to.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again. It’s a prayer and plea, all rolled into one. Is Lan Zhan mad that he’s here? Does Lan Zhan want him to leave? Does Lan Zhan still remember him, or is Wei Ying an old, discarded memory from the past that needs to be dusted off before it can be fully remembered? He needs to know.

The door opens, and Wei Ying is forced to tear his gaze away from Lan Zhan’s.

“They didn’t have the tea you like, so I got another- oh!”

It’s a teenager, probably around Jingyi’s age. He looks comically startled to see Wei Ying standing in the hospital room, but the hand holding the cup of tea is calm and steady despite his surprise.

“Lan Xichen brought me here,” Wei Ying says in a rush. “He said- I didn’t mean to- I can go, it’s not a problem.”

“No,” Lan Zhan says, and when Wei Ying looks back at him Lan Zhan is still staring. Wei Ying swallows and licks his lips.

“Hello,” the kid says to Wei Ying. He crosses the room to place the cup of tea on the table next to Lan Zhan, then sends a peaceful smile Wei Ying’s way. “My name is Lan Sizhui. You know my dad and my Uncle Xichen?”

“Dad?” Wei Ying squawks.

“This is Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan tells Lan Sizhui.

Wei Ying feels a bolt of heat travel throughout his entire body just by hearing Lan Zhan say his name. Lan Zhan still hasn’t looked away. Wei Ying stares back at him.

There's silence for a long moment, and then the kid coughs, bringing Wei Ying’s gaze swinging back back to him.

“Are you friends with my dad, then?” Lan Sizhui asks politely. “ I’ve met most of his co-workers and co-stars, but I don’t remember meeting a Wei Ying.”

“That's me,” he says, introducing himself. He throws in a silly bow, as well, and is rewarded with a soft laugh from Lan Sizhui. “I, well. Me and your dad go way back, I guess.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan agrees.

Wei Ying can’t help it; for as long as he’s known Lan Zhan, the temptation to poke and prod at him is too great for one man to bear.

“Verbose as ever, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Stop talking, let some of us get our words in, too!”

Lan Sizhui laughs again, even though Lan Zhan doesn’t do more than move his gaze between the two of them.

“Lan Zhan and I were at Cloud Recesses together when we were your age,” Wei Ying continues. “I mean, not for long- hey, Lan Zhan, do I still hold the record for being the only person kicked out of the Cloud Recesses Academy?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying grins. He’ll be okay, he thinks, if he keeps talking. If he talks to Lan Sizhui, then maybe Lan Zhan won’t look at Wei Ying like he wants something from him. Wei Ying has never figured out what the hell Lan Zhan wants from him, other than for him to shut up.

Wei Ying has never been able to shut up.

“Anyway, your dad and I were fast friends. Well, he was my friend. He couldn’t stand me! Still can’t probably, haha,” Wei Ying, not looking at Lan Zhan to see if it’s true. “But Lan Xichen told me today that he was hurt and I had to come right away.”

Lan Zhan looks at him again, and this time his mouth pinches, just a little.

“Well, I was worried!” Wei Ying tells him. “Stop looking at me like that, I didn’t have anything going on anyway so you’re not inconveniencing me. It’s not a big deal. For me! It’s a big deal for you, since you’re hurt! Lan Xichen said you’re getting out of here at the end of the week?”

Lan Zhan inclines his head.

“That’s great!” Wei Ying says. “I’m sure you’ll have the best homecare, what with Lan Sizhui here to help. He looks like a fine, upstanding young man. Are you a fine, upstanding young man?”

Lan Sizhui, who already looks like he has no idea what’s happening, looks further panicked when Wei Ying addresses him directly, but when he speaks it sounds almost confident.

“I try to be,” he says seriously.

“He is,” Lan Zhan says.

“Of course he is!” Wei Ying says brightly. “He’s your son after all, Lan Zhan. How could he not be?”

“Okay,” Lan Sizhui says. He darts another glance at Lan Zhan, who’s now looking at his hands instead of staring at Wei Ying. It’s unbearable when Lan Zhan is looking at him; it’s unbearable when he’s not. Wei Ying hates it either way. “I’m going to- I’m going to go look for Uncle Xichen?”

Lan Zhan inclines his head again. Lan Sizhui looks even more confused, but he obviously picks up on the fact that Lan Zhan’s nudging him out the door.

“Okay,” he says again. “It was good to meet you, Mister Wei.”

“You too, kid,” Wei Ying says.

Lan Sizhui leaves.

Wei Ying drums his fingers against the nearest table. Lan Zhan looks at him.

“I can leave,” Wei Ying says softly. “I didn’t mean to barge in, or whatever. Lan Xichen said that it would be okay if I came to see you.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying closes his eyes. His hand is still trembling, he notices now. He doesn’t think it’s stopped since he saw Lan Xichen seated in his living room.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, without opening his eyes. “I’ll go, if you want. You just have to tell me.”

There’s a long silence, of course. When Wei Ying opens his eyes Lan Zhan is staring down at his hands again; this time, his fingers are gripped around themselves so hard that his knuckles are white.

“You do not need to leave,” Lan Zhan says, in a low, strained voice.

Wei Ying laughs. The disparity between his words and the tone that he says them in is a real kick in the teeth. Lan Zhan is forcing himself to accept that Wei Ying is visiting him. Of course Lan Zhan would be good enough to let Wei Ying stay even if he doesn’t want him here. Lan Zhan has always been too good for Wei Ying, in every way.

He’ll go. He’ll leave, and it’ll take him another thirteen years to stop thinking about Lan Zhan all the time, and it’ll be fine. He got to have this precious time with Lan Zhan right now, he’d be greedy to try and take too much.

But first, he has to know.

“A kid, huh?” Wei Ying says, friendly and bright. It’s all fake. “Wow, hey, that’s. That’s great! He’s a teenager? Am I going to meet his mom? Are you-” he doesn’t let his voice falter. “Did you get married?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, with a pointed look.

“Ah, haha,” Wei Ying laughs weakly. “That’s, yeah, of course. I meant to someone else! Of course we got married, I have a bad memory but it’s not that bad.”

Lan Zhan minutely shakes his head.

“Wow, a kid out of wedlock, didn’t know you had it in you, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying smiles at him, and Lan Zhan watches him impassively.

“He is adopted,” Lan Zhan says, after a long pause.

“Oh, wow,” Wei Ying says. “You’re still so good, Lan Zhan, just like always.”

Lan Zhan turns his face away.

“I’ll, um,” Wei Ying says, wishing he could learn how to just keep his mouth shut. “I’ll get out of your hair.” Lan Zhan instantly lowers his eyes again. “I just wanted to see you. I’m glad that you’re okay, Lan Zhan.”

It’s probably too much honesty. It feels like too much honesty. But Wei Ying imagines what it would be like to read on his phone that Lan Zhan had died, to turn on the television to see it on the news, to find out from A-Qing or Wen Ning that Lan Zhan, his Lan Zhan, had died, and Wei Ying hadn’t known or been able to stop it.

It’s selfish, really, to ask to come back. Lan Zhan hadn’t asked him here in the first place, after all, and Wei Ying basically accosted him with his presence while Lan Zhan is in the hospital and can’t get away from him. It’s so selfish, to walk back into Lan Zhan’s life thirteen years later and ask for more, when Wei Ying has already asked for so much.

“Can I come back?” Wei Ying asks anyway, because he’s not a good man. “Not, I mean, not here, if you don’t want. Your house! I can come to your house. Or, no, that’s invasive. Maybe you can just- I can text you? And ask how you are? Or I can check in with Lan Xichen or, or- you probably don’t want me to have Lan Sizhui’s phone number. I can call the hospital!”

It’s so much to ask for. Wei Ying stops talking all at once and gives Lan Zhan a smile that hopefully hides the uncertainty.

Lan Zhan looks at him.

He nods, once.

Wei Ying can’t help the brilliant grin that overtakes his face.

“Great!” Weu Wuxian exclaims. He claps his hands. “I bet the food in here hasn’t been any good, but I’ll take care of that. I’ll bring you real food tomorrow, Lan Zhan. Is six o’clock okay?”

Lan Zhan says, “Mm.”

“Okay!” Wei Ying is smiling so much that he must seem manic by now. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Lan Zhan. Try not to get hurt even worse while I’m gone.”

Lan Zhan hasn’t looked away from him since he said Wei Ying could come back again. Wei Ying doesn’t look away, either.

There’s a soft cough from the doorway; it’s Lan Xichen.

“Ah!” Wei Ying says, face flaming for no reason. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Lan Xichen. Text me your dinner order so I can get it all correct!”

Lan Xichen looks at Wei Ying, but Wei Ying gets the strange feeling he’d rather be looking at Lan Zhan.

“That sounds nice,” Lan Xichen says. “I’ll make sure that Lan Sizhui and I are here for dinner tomorrow.”

“A family affair,” Wei Ying agrees, then backpedals. “Family and me, of course. Text me!”

He doesn’t run down the hall to the elevator. That would be unbecoming. He power walks, because he’s very health conscious, is all. Never mind that his heart is beating fast enough to power an electric plant.

“Tomorrow,” Wei Ying says to himself as he gets into the elevator. “Oh, shit.”

-

Lan Xichen has the same car take Wei Ying back home, because the Lan’s are always honorable in everything they do.

Wei Ying closes his eyes and slumps against the seat as soon as the car starts; he’s so stupid. After thirteen years he thinks he has the right to just walk back into Lan Zhan’s life. Lan Zhan has a kid - an actual teenager - and a television show, and a bakery. He has a whole life that he’s been living without Wei Ying.

He might even have a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

Of course he might, Wei Ying scolds himself angrily. Of course Lan Zhan might have found someone who wanted to be with him; who wouldn’t want to be with Lan Zhan? There are internet forums dedicated to people who want to be with Lan Zhan - Wei Ying would know, he’s gotten drunk and read all of them.

Wei Ying tries to imagine the type of person that could catch the eye of someone like Lan Zhan: someone small, and soft, and reserved. Someone who would take in the world with a graceful ease and peaceful smile. That’s the sort of person that Lan Zhan should end up with, someone who complements him in every way.

Never Wei Ying, he reminds himself harshly. He can’t allow himself to feel bitter over the thought of Lan Zhan dating anyone. Wei Ying can’t feel bitter about the fact that Lan Zhan never wanted him like he wanted Lan Zhan. Wei Ying is the dumbass who fell in deep, irrevocable love with someone who’s never even wanted him around, so he can’t be bitter that Lan Zhan’s actually found someone to love.

“Sir,” the driver says, startling Wei Ying out of his thoughts. “We’re here.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says stupidly, looking out the window at his house. “So we are.”

“Sir,” the driver says again, seemingly hesitant. “Are you alright, sir?”

“Am I what?” Wei Ying asks in confusion. The driver grimaces and points to his face, and Wei Ying raises a hand to find that there are tears streaming from his eyes down his cheeks.

“Ah.” Wei Ying sighs. He laughs through the tears. “I’m fine. Please tell Lan Xichen that I’m grateful for the ride home.”

“Of course,” the driver says. He still looks concerned, but Wei Ying ignores that to scramble out of the car.

It’s late, much later than Wen Qing normally stays up, but all the lights in their house are blazing in the dark night. Wei Ying already feels worn out and torn apart just from his whiplash of feelings over the last few hours, but he takes a deep breath and straightens his back before going inside; he knows there’s no putting off this awkward conversation.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning are both in the living room, cuddled together on the couch, and Wen Ning springs to his feet when Wei Ying enters the room.

“Is your friend okay?” Wen Ning asks, ushering Wei Ying to sit down on the couch where he was just sitting. Wei Ying sinks bonelessly against the comfortable cushions as Wen Ning perches himself on the armchair. Wei Ying notices the concerned look shared between Wen Ning and Wen Qing, and he waves it away with a smile.

“Lan Zhan is fine,” he says. “A little bit battered up, but no big injuries. He’s being released at the end of the week.”

“That’s good,” Wen Ning says gently.

“How the fuck do you know Lan Xichen and Lan Zhan?” Wen Qing asks harshly.

“That’s a long story,” Wei Ying says. “I don’t think we have-”

“We’ll stay up to hear it,” Wen Qing says unflinchingly.

Wei Ying nods; he hadn’t expected any less. He heaves himself up to a seated position with a groan, crossing his legs underneath himself and placing his elbows on his knees so he can put his head into his hands.

“Okay,” he says into his lap. He looks up. “You know about what happened to my sister.”

Wen Ning and Wen Qing both nod; they’ve seen Wei Wing drunk and weepy over it multiple times.

“Well, before-” Wei Ying breaks off to swallow, because the memories are still painful. “Before, you know, the funeral proceedings, when Madame Yu and Jiang Fengmian asked me to leave-”

“Threw you out of your own home,” Wen Qing says viciously.

Wei Ying pauses, then continues without contesting that. “After I left that night, I had no clue what to do. I knew any one of my friends would let me couch surf for a while, but there was one person who was always steadfast and reliable and would know what to do next.”

“Lan Zhan?” Wen Ning asks.

Wei Ying nods. “We’d gone to school together, and even though we hadn’t kept in contact he was the first person I thought of to call. So I did. Lan Zhan was- he is always so good and honorable. He let me stay with him that night, even after I broke down crying on his shoulder, and then told me the next day I could stay as long as I wanted.”

Wen Ning leans forward to put a hand on top of Wei Ying’s; he hadn’t realized that he started crying again.

“Ugh, this is so embarrassing,” Wei Ying jokes, wiping at his tears. “I need to have a thicker face!”

“Shut up and tell us the rest,” Wen Qing says, but her voice is gentle in comparison to her words.

Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “I wasn’t doing good, back then,” he says. “Wen Qing, I don’t know if you remember much about how I was.”

“You were hungover a lot on shift,” Wen Qing says.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “I drank a lot. I was missing Jiang Yanli. Jiang Cheng refused to talk to me, and Madame Yu had made it very clear that I wasn’t welcome to contact them at all. I missed all of them. So I drank, and my grades started tanking, and I started missing shifts, which made me feel even worse. Who would have thought that drinking so much was actually bad for you, huh!”

Wei Ying swallows and looks down at Wen Ning’s hand, which is still on his own. He turns it over to cling to Wen Ning.

“I even managed to convince the esteemed Lan Zhan to get drunk with me once,” Wei Ying says. “And, well, when we woke up the next morning we’d apparently gotten married while we were drunk.”

Wen Qing sighs and closes her eyes. “Wei Ying,” she says tightly.

“I know!” Wei Ying says, raising his hands. “It was so stupid! I can’t even remember what led up to that, I just remember that it was actually real and valid, and Lan Zhan’s uncle and brother came over to his apartment to tear him a new one. It wasn’t unfounded, anyway, because Lan Qiren always hated me, so it was a really poor decision on Lan Zhan’s part. Ouch!”

Wen Qing's pinched him in the side.

“Ah, take pity on your poor brother, I’ve had a long day,” Wei Ying whines. He’s stopped crying now, at least. “Anyway. Lan Zhan sat and listened to his uncle yell at him for a good couple of hours, and then said that while he appreciated their concern he got to choose his own life, and then politely kicked them out. Maybe that’s why he didn’t file for divorce immediately, to help save face.”

“What happened after?” Wen Ning asks.

Wei Ying blows out a breath. “I kept getting worse,” he says bluntly. “I kept getting drunk earlier and earlier in the day, and Nie Huaisang came over with weed so I started to get high, too. That’s when I dropped out of school,” he says, with a nod to Wen Qing.

Wei Ying thinks that if his life were a story there’d be some grand reason that he decided to leave, some big commotion that caused the collapse of Wei Ying’s life. If it was a story it would be Wei Ying slipping up and letting Lan Zhan know exactly how he felt, or Lan Zhan finally getting tired of him and ordering him to leave.

Instead, it was this: Wei Ying woke up in the middle of the night, still drunk and high, to find that Lan Zhan had left food out for him because he knew that Wei Ying hadn’t eaten. He’d even left a bottle of chili oil next to the then-cold congee, because he knew that Wei Ying loved spicy food.

It was that stupid bottle of chili oil. Wei Ying remembers staring at it, tearing up thinking about Lan Zhan setting it down with the same implacably calm expression that he always wore. He remembers knowing, then and there, that Wei Ying was doing nothing but holding Lan Zhan back from having a real life. He was doing nothing more than taking up space in Lan Zhan’s home, in Lan Zhan’s life, and Lan Zhan was getting nothing in return except a constantly drunk Wei Ying stumbling around in his house, making a mess of things.

Wei Ying had to leave. He couldn’t let his fuck-ups affect Lan Zhan, not any more than he already had.

“I left,” Wei Ying says. “It wasn’t working, so I left. In a cruel way, too,” he says with a bitter laugh. “I didn’t even let Lan Zhan know. I left while he was out of the apartment. I gathered up all my stuff and left a note that just said I couldn’t be there anymore.”

This is what Wei Ying regrets the most: that he didn’t even have the courage enough to say goodbye to Lan Zhan’s face. At the time he hadn’t wanted Lan Zhan to look at him with relief that Wei Ying would be gone, he didn’t think he could survive knowing how deeply he was inconveniencing Lan Zhan.

Instead, he’s survived the last thirteen years bitterly knowing that he slipped so easily out of Lan Zhan’s life, like water down a stream.

“I slept on Nie Huaisang’s couch for a few weeks, and then I ran into Wen Qing at the grocery store,” Wei Ying says. “And then we all moved in together, and the rest is history.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell us?” Wen Ning asks. “We wouldn’t have done anything bad about the fact that you knew a famous person.”

“No, it wasn’t that at all,” Wei Ying is quick to say. “I didn’t think you’d use me to get to him, or anything. And besides, he wasn’t even that famous back then.”

Although, that wasn’t exactly true. Even back then, at the tender age of nineteen, Lan Zhan was making a name for himself. He’d already opened up his own bakery - Bichen - and was getting rave reviews left and right. He’d been featured in a half dozen magazines and websites for being innovative and talented, and was working on his first cookbook when Wei Ying lived there. Wei Ying still remembers the nights that Lan Zhan sat hunched over the computer in the kitchen, face serious as he tweaked recipes and carefully wrote out the reasons certain ingredients worked together and the science behind baking. He remembers the long nights where Lan Zhan would ignore his self-imposed bedtime just to work on recipes, to get them to the exact specification of perfection that only Lan Zhan could dream up.

“Anyway,” Wei Ying says. “I didn’t want to talk about it, besides. And then life went on, and Lan Zhan was happy that I’d left, and it all worked out.”

Wen Qing sits back and thinks. “Why did Lan Xichen come here today?” she asks. “It seems strange to come all this way just to let his brother’s ex-husband know he was hurt. Even if it was necessary, he could have just called.”

“Oh, hm,” Wei Ying says, rubbing his nose. “That’s not quite right, though. I’m not his ex-husband.”

Wen Ning looks at him, confused, but Wen Qing seems to get it instantly. “You never got divorced?” she asks, voice rising with each word.

“Nope!” Wei Ying says. “After we got settled in the new apartment I sent him my address so he could send the paperwork, but for some reason he never did.”

“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing says, pinching between her eyebrows like she’s trying to stave off a headache. “Why didn’t you seek out a divorce for yourself?”

“Well,” Wei Ying says, “at first I didn’t have the money, you know? No, don’t look guilty!” He wags a finger at Wen Ning, who is indeed wearing a guilty expression. “I don’t regret anything, Wen Ning. So at first I couldn’t afford it, right, and then it just seemed like such a hassle. Do you know how much paperwork I’d need to do to get divorced? And I’d need to get a lawyer!” Wei Ying scoffs. “That’s a lot of trouble. It was working just fine to ignore it.”

Wen Qing buries her head in her hands and says something that vaguely sounds like such a fucking dumbass.

“So what, now?” Wen Ning asks.

“What now what?” Wei Ying asks, playing dumb. It doesn’t work.

“Are you getting a divorce now?” Wen Qing asks. “I’m sure his uncle made him draft up a prenuptial agreement after your disastrous drunk marriage.”

“Oh, yeah, he tried,” Wei Ying says. “But Lan Zhan refused to sign it. How naive, huh? I told him that if he kept up this trusting attitude people would eventually take advantage of him, but he still didn’t sign it.”

Wen Qing looks apoplectic. “Wen Ning,” she says, looking at her brother.

Wei Ying looks between the two of them. “What?” he asks.

“Wen Ning,” Wen Qing says again. She stands up. “You deal with this. I’m going to bed.”

Wen Qing sweeps out of the room.

“What?” Wei Ying says again, looking at Wen Ning in bewilderment.

Wen Ning doesn’t say anything, but he does look thoughtful. “Do you want to see him again?” he asks.

“Oh, ah,” Wei Ying demures. “I’m seeing him again tomorrow, actually. I’m taking him dinner.”

“Okay,” Wen Ning says. It looks like he wants to say something else, but at the last minute closes his mouth and shakes his head with a smile. “Thank you for telling us about this, Wei Ying.”

“Sorry I didn’t earlier,” Wei Ying says, feeling guilty. Wen Ning pulls him to his feet - Wei Ying is always surprised at how strong he is, given how small and slight Wen Ning is - and gives him a gentle hug goodnight.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Wen Ning says, and then he follows his sister upstairs to his own bedroom.

Wei Ying breathes out a sigh and falls back against the couch. He should drag himself upstairs. He’s going to. He’ll get right on that, he’s just going to sit for a second and think about how awful today has been so far.

-

“Wei Ying!”

A hand is shaking him awake.

Wei Ying sits up with a start, headbutting Wen Ning in the process. They both fall back, clutching their foreheads.

“Why do you hate me,” Wei Ying moans.

“You fell asleep on the couch,” Wen Ning explains. He climbs to his feet; Wei Ying can see he’s already dressed for the day.

“What time is it?” Wei Ying asks in dawning horror. “Please tell me it’s still early.”

“It’s fifteen past six,” Wen Ning says. “I’m heading off to work.”

“Ah!” Wei Ying leaps up, not bothering to even consider brushing his teeth or hair. He doesn’t even change his clothes. He’s scheduled to open the coffee shop this morning, which is supposed to be opened promptly at six o’clock every single morning. “Oh, this is bad, oh no.”

He’s out the door in three minutes flat, completely forgetting to grab his jacket on his way, which means that even though he pedals his bike as fast as it can go he’s still freezing cold in the crisp morning air.

Lurking at the back of his mind is a remnant of his dream, a hint of a nightmare. He thinks it might’ve been about A-Yuan. Wei Ying lets out a deep breath and tries not to think about it, not right now. He has to get to work, first, before he allows himself to have a mental breakdown.

He’s almost to Yi City, turning onto the correct street just five doors down, when his bike breaks. The chain fractures, whipping across Wei Ying’s shins, and he almost falls over trying to look down to figure out what’s happened. He pumps the brakes in dismay when he sees the flapping chain, then gets his foot stuck in the pedal when he tries to dismount and falls painfully down onto one knee.

“Ugh!” he exclaims.

His jeans are ripped along his knee, and there’s a huge bump that’s not bleeding but will definitely bruise by tomorrow morning.

Wei Ying sighs, then picks the bike up and practically runs it the rest of the way to the coffee shop; by now it’s past six thirty, and there’s a person huddled around the doorway, trying to peer inside the windows.

“I’m here,” he announces loudly as he limps towards the man. “I’ve got it, okay, just let me open the door.”

“This is bad for business!” It’s one of their regulars: Jin Zixun, who’s always an arrogant asshole. Everyone on staff hates him, even though he comes every morning. He never leaves any tips. “I’m going to report you.”

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Wei Ying says. “Just let me open the door, okay?”

Jin Zixun scoffs and grumbles, but let’s Wei Ying open the door and flip on the lights before he starts complaining again.

“I should get a free coffee for waiting,” he demands. “Free coffee for a month, for putting up with this ruckus.”

Wei Ying shoves his broken bike into Xiao Xingchen’s office, then limps his way behind the coffee bar to start Jin Zixun’s flat white latte, ignoring Jin Zixun’s complaints the entire time.

“Here,” Wei Ying snaps, when the coffee is done. By this point there are a few more people waiting in line, and Wei Ying hasn’t been able to get a single morning opening task done. He normally would’ve been at the shop by forty minutes past five so he could get the shop completely ready.

“I’m reporting you!” Jin Zixun announces before snatching up his coffee and hurrying away.

“I gave it to you for free!” Wei Ying calls after him, huffing when Jin Zixun ignores him. Wei Ying rubs his face before he pastes a smile on and turns to take the next order.

The morning doesn’t get better.

A-Qing calls out because she has a cold - she actually does sound miserable on the phone, so Wei Ying can only hate her so much before it makes him the asshole - and then it starts raining mid-morning, which means that all at once a whole group of people duck into the shop to get out of the rain and get a hot beverage. Then Jin Zixun actually does call in a complaint about him, which Wei Ying knows because the guy leaves a fifteen minute ranting message on the shop’s answering machine.

With A-Qing being out Wei Ying works his entire shift alone, which means he doesn’t get any breaks. Seeing as he’d missed out on breakfast in his haste to get here his stomach is literally cramping with hunger by noon, and he has two more hours to go before the next shift starts and he can leave.

And on top of all that, Wei Ying abruptly remembers his nightmare in the middle of making an espresso, and promptly drops the coffee all over the ground, which takes fifteen minutes to clean up and leaves him with some very irate customers.

It had been about the accident.

Wei Ying wasn’t in the car when Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan were hit, but he’s heard enough from the news reports and Madame Yu that he knows a lot more than he wants to. He knows that Jin Zixuan had been in the driver's seat crossing an intersection when a truck shot into the lane, crashing directly into the passenger seat. Straight into Jiang Yanli. There’d been no chance for her to survive, Madame Yu had told Wei Ying coldly. She was dead on impact.

They had been driving to pick up Wei Ying. It was his fault. It was his fault that his sister died, and his fault that his brother hasn’t talked to him for over a decade.

Except in his nightmare it wasn’t just Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan; A-Yuan and Jiang Cheng had been in the car with them. Wei Ying had watched as the truck hit, as Jiang Cheng and A-Yuan and Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan had all jolted, limbs flying, heads slamming into windows and doors, blood flying through the air as they all stared at Wei Ying, agonized.

Wei Ying has to take a quick break to throw up in the employee bathroom.

By the time his replacement arrives Wei Ying is feeling like death warmed over. He grabs his broken bike from Xiao Xingchen’s office and wheels it out the back door of the shop, only to realize that it’s raining harder than ever.

Wei Ying grimly grits his teeth and walks his bike the entire way home in the cold rain.

He’s shivering by the time he makes it to the front door, and since both the Wen siblings are still at work Wei Ying briskly undresses right after he slams the front door closed, heads straight to the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine, then straight to the bathroom so he can run himself the hottest bath that his body can stand.

He’s about halfway through the wine, bathwater turning lukewarm, when Wei Ying remembers that he’s meeting with Lan Zhan for dinner.

“Fuck,” Wei Ying whispers.

He wants today to just be over already.

“Fuck,” he says again, sitting up, when he remembers that he’d told Lan Xichen to text him food orders. Nobody has his number, and now he has to guess what they might want. Does Lan Zhan still like bland, tasteless food, he wonders. Did Lan Sizhui inherit his father’s taste? Wei Ying tries desperately to think of any restaurants that he knows of that are vegetarian and not filled with spice, and he’s coming up blank.

do u ever want to go to sleep and restart ur day, he texts Wen Qing as he heaves himself out of the bathtub and wraps a towel around himself.

All the time, she texts back.

At least he’s not alone.

It takes him an agonizingly long time to choose something to wear. It doesn’t matter, he furiously tells himself, but he still vacillates over his clothes like it’s life or death. In the end he shrugs on a different pair of worn black jeans, a black shirt, and an old leather jacket that he found at a thrift store years ago. It’ll have to be good enough.

He’s ready to go with enough time to make it to Cloud Recesses early, until he remembers that his bike broke. He quickly checks his bank account and sees that he can’t afford a car, so he’s stuck with the bus, and the nearest bus stop close to his house is a twenty minute walk away, and the next bus running to Cloud Recesses after that is another twenty minute wait.

He can’t even text anyone at the hospital to tell them he’ll be late.

He does manage to spend the entire bus ride furiously searching online for an appropriate restaurant for the Lan’s taste buds, and thankfully finds one only a few streets away from the hospital. He quickly orders with his phone. When the bus drops him off at Cloud Recesses Wei Ying throws himself through the streets, with more than one outraged person scolding, “No running in Cloud Recesses!” to his retreating back. He practically grabs the bags out of the employees hands at the restaurant before tearing off towards the hospital, yelling an enthusiastic goodbye in his wake and a hefty tip that means he’ll have to tighten his wallet next week.

It’s well past six o’clock by the time he makes it to the hospital.

“Sorry!” he wheezes, flinging himself into Lan Zhan’s room while trying to make sure that the pile of takeout boxes don’t tumble out of his arms. “I’m so sorry, I know I’m late.”

He stumbles to a quick stop. There are three pairs of eyes on him: Lan Xichen, trying to hide his amusement, Lan Sizhui, looking just as alarmed with Wei Ying as he was yesterday, and Lan Zhan, looking as calm and collected as always. He’s sitting up today, and his bandages look fresh and new; the bags under his eyes are smaller like he’s gotten more rest, which Wei Ying is glad to see, and his lips are shiny and red, which Wei Ying is not glad to see, because it makes him think things that he’d prefer not to think.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying shivers.

“I’m so late,” he says, in lieu of launching himself into Lan Zhan’s lap. “Today was just the worst day ever, and I didn’t have anyone’s phone number to text, I’m sorry. But I got food from the vegan place just a few blocks away! Here.” He thrusts one of the takeout boxes at Lan Xichen, then another at Lan Sizhui. When he turns to Lan Zhan he delicately places the box on Lan Zhan’s waiting hands. “Hopefully you guys like it.”

“We eat there often,” Lan Xichen says. “Thank you for dinner tonight, Wei Ying.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Lan Sizhui says.

There’s silence as the Lan’s open their boxes, and Wei Ying busies himself with opening his own food and chopsticks. “How’re you feeling, Lan Zhan?” he asks, cramming an alarming amount of rice into his mouth before he remembers. “Oh, I forgot the whole no talking while eating thing! You can tell me after we’re done.”

Lan Zhan pauses, chopsticks raised halfway to his mouth. “We will make an exception to the rule,” he says, “as you are unused to following it.”

There’s a clatter, and when Wei Ying looks over he sees that Lan Sizhui has dropped his chopsticks.

“Sorry!” Lan Sizhui says, hurriedly retrieving them from the floor. He sends an alarmed glance to his father as he straightens back up.

“You need to be more careful, Young Lan,” Wei Ying intones seriously, handing him an extra pair. “Clumsiness is forbidden in Cloud Recesses.”

Lan Xichen laughs at that.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, drawing his attention again like a moth to a flame. “You said you had a bad day.”

“Ugh, just the worst,” Wei Ying says. “I accidentally slept in and was late for work, then my bike broke and I had to walk home in the rain. But I’m not the one stuck in a hospital bed! Lan Zhan, how are you feeling? Have you been getting headaches? How’s the mobility on your arm?”

“I am doing well,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying scoffs. “You’re in a hospital, Lan Zhan, you can admit if you don’t feel good.”

“The doctors here are the best in their field,” Lan Xichen says. “They’re making sure to take care of brother.”

“Well, not the best,” Wei Ying says, stabbing his chopsticks in Lan Xichen’s direction. “I mean, Wen Qing doesn’t work here. But otherwise I guess it’s good enough for our Lan Zhan.”

Wei Ying instantly wants to stab himself with his own chopsticks. Our Lan Zhan. He settles for stuffing another bite into his mouth so he can’t say anything else.

Lan Xichen hums. “How is Miss Wen doing today?”

“She’s good,” Wei Ying burbles, through a mouthful of rice. He swallows, even though it’s half-chewed. “She’s my roommate,” he turns to explain to Lan Sizhui and Lan Zhan. “Her and her brother, Wen Ning. She’s a pediatrician in Caiyi Town.”

Something in Lan Xichen relaxes at Wei Ying’s words.

“She was in your class,” Lan Zhan says.

“Yeah!” Wei Ying breaks into a smile. “I’m surprised you remember that, Lan Zhan, it was so long ago.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything in return.

“Did you ever finish your schooling?” Lan Xichen asks him. “What do you do these days?”

“Oh, I’m just a lowly employee,” Wei Ying says, making sure to keep a smile on his face. “I work at a coffee shop. Gotta pay the bills somehow. But hey, Lan Zhan, how did you become a big time television star? You never even owned a TV!”

“It took some convincing,” Lan Xichen says.

“Uncle Xichen kept bringing it up for an entire year,” Lan Sizhui says. “I think Dad did it in the end just to make him shut up.”

Wei Ying turns just in time to see a small twitch of Lan Zhan’s lips before his face settles back into his normal expression.

“I bet you hate how popular you are, huh?” Wei Ying asks, delighted.

“It has been...trying,” Lan Zhan says.

“And what about you, Young Lan?” Wei Ying swings his gaze to Lan Sizhui. “Do you go to the academy here? I bet you’re at the top of your class.”

“He is,” Lan Xichen says, smiling at his nephew.

“I study and work hard,” Lan Sizhui demures.

“Of course you do, you’re a Lan,” Wei Ying says. “But what about fun, huh? Got a girlfriend yet? Or a boyfriend?”

Lan Sizhui’s face turns pink. “No,” he says with a mumble.

“Oh ho!” Wei Ying reaches forward to jab Lan Sizhui’s arm with his chopsticks. “There’s at least a crush, am I right? Spill all about it!”

“Stop teasing him,” Lan Xichen chides gently. “He doesn’t have to tell us anything if he doesn’t want to.”

“Then I get to tease you, instead,” Wei Ying says. “Do you have a crush, Lan Xichen?”

“Yes, I do,” Lan Xichen says simply.

“Uncle!” Lan Sizhui cries. “You didn’t tell us you’re dating anyone.”

“We’re not dating,” Lan Xichen says. “It’s...a bit complicated.”

“It is Jin Guangyao,” Lan Zhan tells his son.

Lan Xichen turns to him, surprised. “You know?”

Lan Zhan inclines his head.

“He’s our producer,” Lan Xichen informs Wei Ying. “We have several guidelines about not dating co-workers.”

“Jin Guangyao,” Wei Ying repeats. “Jin Zixuan’s half brother?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says softly.

Wei Ying casts his eyes down toward his almost empty takeout box. “That’s great,” he says. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon, Lan Xichen, with how smart all you Lan’s are. What about you, Lan Zhan? Are you dating? Crushing? Tell me all about it!”

Wei Ying will be completely fine for whatever Lan Zhan says. He’ll have to be. He bravely turns to face Lan Zhan, who’s already looking at him.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“No?” Wei Ying breathes a little easier. “A handsome man like you? I’m sure you get offers left and right.”

“And what about yourself, Wei Ying?” Lan Xichen asks, when Lan Zhan doesn’t answer.

“Oh, no, I’m single,” Weu Wuxian says. “Too much going on to worry about dating, you know how it is.” Wei Ying is pretty sure Lan Xichen doesn’t know how it is, given that how it is means Wei Ying has been mooning over his own husband for the last thirteen years, completely alone. How it is means that Wei Ying has never even had a kiss, let alone anything else, because just the thought of it feels like he’s being unfaithful to Lan Zhan. Which is stupid, because they were never together for real, but Wei Ying has also never wanted another person like he wants Lan Zhan.

Lan Xichen is looking at his brother instead of Wei Ying after his answer, and when Wei Ying looks at Lan Zhan he’s sending a tiny frown to Lan Xichen.

“Dinner was good, Mister Wei,” Lan Sizhui says, setting his box aside. “Thank you for bringing it, and for joining us tonight.”

“So polite!” Wei Ying beams at him, and Lan Sizhui smiles in return. “Thank you for putting up with me. I’m honored.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, turning his small frown Wei Ying’s way.

“Ah, you’re right, I should be thanking you,” Wei Ying says. “I did just invite myself yesterday. Thank you, Lan Zhan, for the honor dealing with me for the second day in a row.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again.

“Don’t get so exasperated, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says. “You’re the injured one! You have full rights to kick me out when you get tired of me, I’m surprised you haven’t yet, honestly. You’re too nice for your own good.”

Lan Zhan presses his lips together, just a little.

Wei Ying’s heart skips a beat, because Lan Zhan literally all but just admitted that he isn’t getting annoyed at Wei Ying being here. It's nothing like when they were younger, when Wei Ying would pass out on the couch and wake up to Lan Zhan staring at him in stern disapproval. If Lan Zhan has actually gotten soft in old age Wei Ying isn't sure his heart is going to make it.

“Okay,” he says, a little breathless. “I guess you don’t hate having me here, point made.”

Lan Zhan looks at him.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Xichen says, and Wei Ying starts.

Lan Xichen is standing next to him, holding a hand out to take his empty takeout carton, eyebrows high on his head in amusement. Wei Ying flushes.

“Right, thank you,” he says, handing the carton over. Lan Xichen disposes of all the detritus from dinner, then nods to Lan Sizhui, who instantly stands.

“It’s getting late,” Lan Sizhui tells his dad. “Uncle will take me back home now so I can make curfew.”

Lan Zhan inclines his head, and Lan Sizhui smiles and moves forward to press a kiss against Lan Zhan’s cheek. Wei Ying has to close his eyes so his heart doesn’t burst out of his chest at the sight.

He opens them a second later when Lan Sizhui says, “It was good to see you again, Mister Wei.”

“You too, kid,” Wei Ying says. He impulsively leans forward to squeeze Lan Sizhui’s shoulders in a sideways hug; the kid goes stiff with surprise, but then squeezes Wei Ying back with a big smile.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zichen says. “It was indeed a pleasure to see you again.”

“Your uncle just got a headache and he doesn’t know why,” Wei Ying jokes; Lan Xichen’s eyes twinkle at him as he suppresses a laugh. Wei Ying leans forward to hug him, as well, and Lan Xichen gives him a hug with gentle ease, like he’s more used to human touch than his brother or nephew.

“Until next time,” Lan Xichen says. Wei Ying is surprised that he thinks there will be a next time, but nods along all the same as they exit the room.

And now Wei Ying is alone with Lan Zhan.

"Ah, here, let me fluff your pillow," Wei Ying says, just for something to do. Lab Zhan obediently bends forward and lets Wei Ying fuss with the pillow for a second.

It’s a tactical error. This close Wei Ying can smell the old, familiar sandalwood scent that has always clung to Lan Zhan, can see the fine baby hairs climbing up his temple until they disappear underneath the gauze, can hear his even breathing as he sits upright and waits for Wei Ying to be done.

It's too much. Wei Ying thinks about his dream last night, about how he already lost A-Yuan and his sister and his brother, about how he’s going to lose Lan Zhan again after tonight. Wei Ying feels like he’s already lost so much, and how it’s because he keeps doing it to himself.

He doesn’t notice that he’s stopped fluffing the pillows until there’s a touch of cool fingers around his wrist.

“Wei Ying?”

Lan Zhan is turned to look at him in a way that’s definitely not good for his shoulder.

“Ah, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says. He turns Lan Zhan around and presses him back against the pillows. “Don’t reopen your wound. You need to rest.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again. Wei Ying settles into the seat closest to Lan Zhan, where Lan Sizhui had been sitting earlier. “You are uncomfortable.”

Wei Ying gives him a rueful smile. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just reminiscing.”

Lan Zhan studies his face.

“The last time I was in a hospital was because of my sister,” Wei Ying says. “That’s all.”

“Coming here has upset you,” Lan Zhan says.

“I’m not the one that should be upset right now,” Wei Ying says determinedly. “You just lay back and don’t worry about me, you know I’m always fine.”

“I am sorry,” Lan Zhan says. “For distressing you.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. He looks him directly in the eye, deadly serious. “If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be. I’m glad to see with my own two eyes that you’re okay.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t look away. Wei Ying feels like his heart is caught in his throat. Lan Zhan’s hair, normally flat and shiny, is greasy from being in the hospital, and Wei Ying lifts a hand to unstick a stray piece from Lan Zhan’s face.

“Ah!” Wei Ying cries out, snatching his hand away from Lan Zhan at the last second. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like people touching you.”

He sits back quickly, practically plastering himself to the seat. Lan Zhan looks down at his own lap; Wei Ying feels awful for making him so uncomfortable.

“I should go,” Wei Ying says, after a long moment of silence. Lan Zhan looks up sharply at that. “I don’t want to miss the last bus.”

“I’ll have someone drive you,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying lifts a hand and makes a shooing motion. “No, no need to disturb anyone. I can make it home on my own, I’m a big boy after all!”

Lan Zhan watches him gather up his jacket and pat himself down to check to make sure he has his wallet, keys, and phone.

“Thank you,” Wei Ying says, when he’s done, “for indulging me with dinner tonight.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “May I see your phone?”

Wei Ying frowns, but digs it out all the same and hands it over. “Sure, why?”

A few minutes later Lan Zhan tucks it back into Wei Ying’s waiting hand.

“I have programmed my number in there,” Lan Zhan says. “So you can reach me if need be.”

Wei Ying stares at him. If this is the last chance he’s going to have to see Lan Zhan, he might as well make the most of it. Lan Zhan simply looks back at him, unfathomable as ever.

Did you think about me over the years, Wei Ying wants to ask. Did I cross your mind? If Lan Xichen hadn’t dragged me here, would I have ever seen you again?

Just two days ago Wei Ying thought he’d made peace with the fact that Lan Zhan was in his past and would never be his future, but the truth of the matter is that the thought of leaving here tonight and not seeing Lan Zhan again might just ruin him this time.

“Ah,” he says, when he realizes that he’s been staring too long. He’s probably making Lan Zhan uncomfortable. “Goodbye, then, Lan Zhan. Stay well.”

“Good night, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying leaves, despite the fact that everything inside of him is yearning for him to stay.

-

“So,” Wen Qing says over breakfast the next morning.

Calling it breakfast might be a bit of a stretch. Wen Ning’s already left for work with a co-worker to meet with the school principal and has left the two of them to fend for themselves, so Wen Qing is eating undercooked congee - Wei Ying’s fault - and tough, over-steamed buns- her own fault. Wei Ying has the same plate of food in front of him, but he’s too busy staring down at the cup of coffee clutched tightly in both hands to care about stuffing his face.

“Hm?” Wei Ying asks listlessly. His shift at Yi City doesn’t start for another few hours, but he’s already not looking forward to the walk. Bike chains aren’t expensive to buy, but with the cost of dinner last night Wei Ying won’t be able to afford it until his next paycheck.

Maybe, Wei Ying thinks brightly, Lan Jingyi’s parents will give him another tip after the lesson today.

“Wei Ying!” Wen Qing’s voice cuts sharply through his thoughts, obviously not the first time she’s said it.

“Sorry, what?”

“I said what’s wrong with you today?” she asks. “You look like you accidentally just insulted Wen Ning.”

“I don’t look that bad,” Wei Ying protests, but Wen Qing just cocks her eyebrow at him. “I’m just- ugh. This week is the worst. Qingqing, can you just make this week go away and things can go back to normal?”

“You’re such a child,” she says, pursing her lips, then she says in a much quieter voice, “Wen Ning has been worried about you these past few days.”

“I’m fine,” Wei Ying says. “Nothing like seeing your old husband that you haven’t heard from in thirteen years to really spruce up your life, eh?”

“Do you remember what you told me back when you first approached about helping me and Wen Ning?” Wen Qing asks.

Wei Ying taps his cheek as he thinks. “Never mix bleach and ammonia?”

Wen Qing glares. “Sometimes it’s okay to ask other people for help.”

“That doesn’t sound like me,” Wei Ying scoffs, trying not to let Wen Qing catch his gaze. “That sounds like a motivational poster with a kitten hanging from a tree.”

“I won’t say it again,” Wen Qing says. She stands to leave, shoving the rest of her steamed buns towards Wei Ying, which means she must be as worried about him as Wen Ning.

“Ah, fine,” Wei Ying says. He straightens up and starts pinching at the bun with his finger and thumb. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Yanli, and A-Yuan.”

Wen Qing looks at him sadly.

“Yanli died in a car crash,” Wei Ying says. “It would’ve been so easy for Lan Zhan to have died in one, too.”

“He didn’t,” Wen Qing says. “He could have, yes, but he didn’t. Isn’t that what we should hold on to?”

“Saying is easier than doing,” Wei Ying says. Wen Qing reaches across the table and puts a hand on the back of Wei Ying’s head.

“And A-Yuan?” she asks.

“Well, he’s the other person from back then that I left without any explanation,” Wei Ying says.

Wen Qing strokes his head for a second, then withdraws and looks at him seriously. “None of us are perfect people, Wei Ying.”

“I don-” Wei Ying starts to say, but Wen Qing’s glare stops him.

“Not one of us is perfect,” she says severely. “It will be good for you to remember that.”

“Sister,” Wei Ying says. It sounds too much like how he feels inside: wavering and helpless.

The doorbell rings before either of them can say anything else.

Wen Qing gives him a long look, then turns to get the door. Wei Ying tries to take a bite out of the dense bun, wincing as he does. Nobody in the house should cook except Wen Ning.

“Wei Ying!” Wen Qing calls. “It’s for you.”

“Is it Lan Xichen again?” Wei Ying calls back. “Tell the guy to get off my ass already, huh!”

It’s not Lan Xichen. It’s a bored looking delivery person, holding out papers for Wei Ying to sign.

“What’s all this?” Wei Ying asks.

“Receipt for the bike,” the delivery person says.

“Bike?” Wei Ying repeats.

The guy sighs and gestures beside him to the gleaming bicycle that Wei Ying had completely overlooked.

“Uh,” he says.

“Look, I’ve got five more deliveries to make within the next twenty minutes,” the delivery guy says. “If you’re Wei Ying please just sign for the bike.”

“Okay, uh, yep, that’s me,” Wei Ying says. He signs the papers, eyes on the new bike the entire time. The delivery guy leaves without a goodbye, and Wei Ying circles the bike with uncertainty.

It’s clearly new. It’s not one of those obnoxious mountain bikes that people who actually work out use; it’s red and black and designed to vaguely look old-fashioned, complete with a silver bell. Wei Ying dings it just because he can.

“Wow,” Wen Qing says, from where she’s still standing in the doorway. “Good luck with this. I’m going to work.”

“What happened to having my back?” Wei Ying cries imploringly. Wen Qing grabs her purse and sidles past him, giving both him and the bike a significant look.

“Every man is an island,” she says, then climbs into her car.

“That’s not how the saying goes!” Wei Ying cries, but she’s already driving away.

Wei Ying is left with a queasy stomach from a bad breakfast, a headache from his talk with Wen Qing, and a bike that looks like it was made just for him.

-

what is this, Wei Ying sends, pacing back and forth in front of the living room window and occasionally peeking out like the bike might ride away on its own.

Good morning, Wei Ying, he gets back promptly, Please specify what you are referring to.

The utter asshole, Wei Ying seethes. As though Lan Zhan didn’t have a bike sent over this morning just for him.

Wei Ying takes a furious picture of the bike from the window and stabs the screen as he presses the send button.

That appears to be a bicycle, Lan Zhan writes back.

Wei Ying stares at the screen. He turns his phone off, then back on, just to look at Lan Zhan’s stupid message again.

Instead of texting back, Wei Ying calls Lan Zhan.

“Why did you buy me a new bike?” he demands as soon as Lan Zhan answers.

“Good morning, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says dispassionately. “It seems that you’re angry about the gift I sent to you.”

“You-” Wei Ying starts. “I- Why did you buy me a new bike?”

“After our conversation last night it was apparent that you were in need of a new bicycle,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again. “Take it back.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “If the bicycle disturbs you that much I will retract the gift, but I must ask why it has made you so mad. It was not my intention.”

Wei Ying closes his eyes. How dare Lan Zhan ask why he’s angry, when Wei Ying himself doesn’t understand why he’s angry! What nerve of the guy, to try and make sense of Wei Ying’s emotions and reactions!

Because the real problem is that Wei Ying has so many reasons he feels angry. How can Lan Zhan - who was born into wealth and has only amassed more wealth over his life - understand what it’s like to be shuffled from home to home? To go hungry for days in a row because nobody wanted to feed him? To distrust anyone and everyone he meets, because people can be cruel, even to children? How can Lan Zhan - who has been able to afford anything he’s ever wanted - understand what it’s like to suddenly be thrust into a rich family, to distrust every gift and kind gesture, to become slowly able to trust that life can actually be stable and supportive, only for it to all be torn away in the space of one night? How can Lan Zhan - who has suffered in different ways, silent and alone, from childhood until adulthood - not understand why sudden kindness can be the worst that’s ever happened?

But the real problem, Wei Ying thinks, is that he doesn’t want Lan Zhan to be kind to him. Not to Wei Ying, the one who ruined everything. Not to Wei Ying, who has only inflicted annoyance and obstacles in Lan Zhan’s life. Wei Ying doesn’t deserve it.

His hand trembles against the smooth casing of his phone.

“I’m bringing it to the hospital after work,” he says. “I can’t accept it.”

There’s a silence, which he expects, then Lan Zhan says, “I am being released early. I will be at my home later in the day.”

“Then I’ll bring it to your house,” Wei Ying says. “Wait, why are they releasing you early? That’s irresponsible. It’s only Thursday, you were supposed to be at the hospital until the end of the week!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again. Wei Ying scowls and looks at the bike; it looks really comfortable. “If you insist on bringing the bicycle back, then I will text you my address.”

“Fine,” Wei Ying all but snarls, and hangs up.

-

Righteous anger fuels Wei Ying enough that he decides to walk to work; he remembers halfway through the walk that he has an immediate appointment with Lan Jingyi after his shift, and then Wei Ying has to run back home to grab the bike.

The bike is really comfortable to ride. Wei Ying grits his teeth.

His anger carries him through most of his short shift, until he remembers that Lan Zhan is a Lan. They’ve built their entire business empire on their personal principles of being righteous and good. Of course Lan Zhan would see that Wei Ying has a need and would immediately try to fill it; he’s seen Lan Zhan literally take off his expensive over coat and give it to a homeless man who needed it. Lan Xichen and Lan Zhan both run multiple charities to help the people of Gusu.

Wei Ying’s anger leaves him all at once. He still doesn’t think he should keep the bike, but he won’t yell at Lan Zhan about it. That would be like yelling at a kitten for being too cute: Lan Zhan can’t help how he is.

Wei Ying bikes to Lan Jingyi’s straight from the coffee shop.

“Mister Wei!” Lan Jingyi greets him brightly when he opens the door.

“Hey kid,” Wei Ying says, following him inside and dumping his stuff next to the front door. “Are your parents still at work?”

“Yeah,” Lan Jingyi says, with a questioning glance.

Wei Ying sprawls into a chair in the kitchen and waves a hand, motioning that Ln Jingyi should do the same. “Great. Because I’ve had a rough week and we should play hooky on your lessons. Wanna lie to your parents that we got a ton of work done today?”

“Um, yeah!” Lan Jingyi enthuses. He is Wei Ying’s absolute favorite ever.

Lan Jingyi fetches some prawn chips to snack on, then asks, as he’s setting the bowl on the kitchen table, “Mister Wei, are you dating anyone?”

Wei Ying chokes. ABORT MISSION, his brain is screaming.

“Oh, no!” Lan Jingyi says quickly, face turning bright red. “I didn’t mean because- not like- no!”

“Okay,” Wei Ying wheezes. “You just about gave me a heart attack, kid, give me a minute.”

“I just have a question,” Lan Jingyi says. “About dating and stuff. I can’t ask my parents,” he makes a face at the thought, “and I can’t ask my friends because- because the guy I like is one of my friends.”

“Ah, young love,” Wei Ying says, now that he’s not in danger of swallowing his own tongue. “I’m not dating anyone, so I might not be able to help.”

“But you’ve dated people before,” Lan Jingyi persists.

“I’m married,” Wei Ying’s mouth says, before his brain can catch up. He instantly wants to smack himself in the face.

“”What, that’s even better!” Lan Jingyi enthuses. “Obviously that means that something you did worked!”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” Wei Ying tells him, but Lan Jingyi ignores it.

“Okay, so here’s my problem,” he says. “I have a crush on my best friend. He’s so great! He’s handsome, and talented, and really nice to everyone, and-”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying says with a laugh, holding up his hands. “I don’t need his CV or anything.”

“But he’s just so great!” Lan Jingyi all but wails. “But how do I ask him to date me without ruining our friendship? What if he doesn’t want to date me and I’ll die all alone and my cats will eat my body and nobody will know for years.”

“That’s a possibility,” Wei Ying says. He rubs his nose; telling Lan Jingyi to get his crush drunk and then marry him probably isn’t good advice for a teenager. Wei Ying ignores the fact that he was technically a teenager when he got married, because nineteen is so much older than sixteen. “Hm. You could do the mature thing and talk about your feelings with him.”

Lan Jingyi visibly wilts. “Yeah,” he says glumly.

“Or,” Wei Ying says, “you can write him a note from a secret admirer and stick it in his locker or something. You go to the same school, right?”

Lan Jingyi perks up right away. “Oh!” he exclaims. “It’ll be like a romantic comedy!”

“Yes!” Wei Ying high-fives the kid. “You write him some love notes from a secret admirer pointing out the things you like about him and gauge his reaction! If it seems like he wants them to be from you, then you’ll reveal yourself!”

“Yeah!” Lan Jingyi says. “And if he wants them to be from someone else then I can pretend like I have no idea who it was and take the secret to my grave!”

“You get it,” Wei Ying says triumphantly. “Ah, we’re so good at this.”

They spend the rest of the lesson time thinking up notes and small gifts that Lan Jingyi can slip to his crush. Wei Ying feels strangely accomplished by the time he’s waving goodbye to Lan Jingyi.

He lets the feeling carry him all the way to Lan Zhan’s home in Cloud Recesses.

It’s not the same apartment that he and Wei Ying lived in all those years ago, which is good, because Wei Ying’s not sure he’d be able to sit in that same dining room or kitchen without being crushed by his own feelings. Instead, Lan Zhan now lives only a few houses away from his uncle, and Wei Ying quickly and furtively ducks his head as he knocks on Lan Zhan’s door, just in case Lan Qiren catches him. Lan Zhan’s uncle can’t punish Wei Ying anymore, but that doesn’t mean he wants to see the guy.

Thankfully Lan Sizhui answers the door quickly, a welcome smile on his face.

“Mister Wei,” he says happily. “Please, come in.”

From a cursory glance around, Wei Ying can see the house is exactly what he expected from Lan Zhan. Like his small apartment when they were younger, the furnishings are simplistic and austere, though the walls are lined with pictures of Lan Sizhui from over the years. Wei Ying barely has time to glance at them before Lan Zhan enters the room.

“Ah, sit down!” Wei Ying scolds, darting forward to grab his arm. Lan Zhan lets himself be led to the nearby living room that Wei Ying had seen out of the corner of his eye, and Lan Zhan sinks to sit on the couch that Wei Ying imperiously points to.

He looks much better today, being at home. He has his customary Lan headband back in place - although underneath there’s a white gauze and bruising around the edges of the bandage - and his hair is immaculately pulled back in a sleek ponytail. He has comfortable clothes on, but even his sweatpants and loose t-shirt look a thousand times nicer than anything that Wei Ying owns.

He looks soft and approachable, besides the normal severe impression that he wears. It’s almost unbearable.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, before he can help himself. “How are you feeling?”

“It is nice to be home,” Lan Zhan says. He folds his hands and looks at Wei Ying, who’s still standing. He quickly looks around and sees a loveseat behind him, so he plops down and crosses his legs underneath him, propping his chin on his hand.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier,”Wei Ying says. “I was surprised. But I forgot how you are, Lan Zhan, and I’m not mad anymore.”

Lan Zhan looks at him. “Then you will keep the bike?”

“I can’t!” Wei Ying says. “It’s too nice. My ass doesn’t even hurt after riding it all day! You can’t just give away nice things like this, Lan Zhan, people will take advantage.”

“You will not,” Lan Zhan says decisively.

“Dad?” Lan Sizhui says from the doorway. “Should I add more food for Mister Wei to our dinner order?”

“No,” Wei Ying says, as Lan Zhan nods. “No, I don’t want to intrude on your dinner! I just came to give the bike back, that’s all.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“Great, I’ll add more food,” Lan Sizhui says. “Mister Wei, would you like me to make yours extra spicy for you?”

“Please call me Wei Ying,” Wei Ying says. “Mister Wei makes me feel like you’re one of my students.”

Lan Zhan shoots him an inquisitive glance.

“Oh, yeah, I teach a few kids music,” Wei Ying says. “Dizi, guqin, guitar, whatever! It’s fun.”

“Mist- Wei Ying, do you teach someone named Lan Jingyi?” Lan Sizhui asks.

“Yeah, he’s my favorite!” Wei Ying laughs sheepishly and glances at Lan Zhan. “I’m probably not supposed to have favorites, huh, Lan Zhan? But he’s mine! Do you know him, Lan Sizhui?”

“He’s my best friend,” Lan Sizhui says happily. “We’ve known each other since we were kids. He’s mentioned his cool music teacher a few times.”

“Huh!” Wei Ying says. He wonders if he’s just spent the afternoon helping Lan Jingyi woo Lan Sizhui; the thought is adorable. “Small world. Tell me more about how he called me cool.”

Lan Zhan is watching them, his face soft with a small smile. He doesn’t even stop when he sees Wei Ying looking at him, so of course Wei Ying doesn’t look away.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “I would like you to keep the bicycle.”

Wei Ying sighs; he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to say no to Lan Zhan when he’s doing things like smiling and saying Wei Ying’s name. Lan Zhan is shameless. “Fine,” he agrees petulantly. “But if I become spoiled and start demanding bikes from everyone in my life, just know it’s all your fault.”

“I will take the blame,” Lan Zhan says, so seriously that Wei Ying knows he’s playing along. It’s delightful.

“Mark your words, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, just as seriously, then bursts out laughing as the tucked-away twitch lurking at the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth.

“The food is ordered,” Lan Sizhui says, wandering into the room as he tucks his phone into his pocket. He sits down on the same couch as Lan Zhan, both of their postures perfect.

Lan Sizhui might be adopted, but he and Lan Zhan look so alike at this moment. It makes something ache inside Wei Ying’s chest. He purposefully slouches even more, practically lounging on the sofa.

“Since you bullied me into staying for dinner, you have to tell me about your job, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying demands. “A bigshot celebrity like you! You’ve gotta have a whole lot of stories. Drugs! Parties! Come on, give me something juicy.”

Lan Zhan looks at him, and Wei Ying grins back.

He forgets why he came here in the first place.

-

After that, Wei Ying starts texting Lan Zhan every day. Small things, like pictures of what he’s eating for lunch, or random emojis when he’s bored at Yi City. Lan Zhan replies back to every single text, even the nonsensical ones that Wei Ying sends him late at night when he can’t sleep; in the mornings when he wakes up there’s always a reply waiting for him.

Wei Ying has no idea what he’s doing. He obviously isn’t annoying Lan Zhan, because the man had all but told him outright that he doesn’t hate Wei Ying, but he doesn’t know how far he can take this, how far he can push Lan Zhan as he pursues their friendship.

He hopes he can be Lan Zhan’s friend. Lan Zhan is the best person that Wei Ying knows, even better than Wen Ning, and being able to call him a friend would be an honor. Wei Ying’s always wanted more than anything for Lan Zhan to consider him a friend, even back at the academy. It’s embarrassing to look back now and see all the ways that Wei Ying was harboring the biggest crush ever; back then, he just wanted Lan Zhan to look at him and never look away.

Wei Ying’s been gone for Lan Zhan since the first moment he met him, it just took getting married to the guy for him to realize that.

Living with Lan Zhan, seeing the way he was so careful to always do and say the right thing, seeing how he held himself so tightly wound all the time: it made Wei Ying ache. And despite his discomfort with the world, Lan Zhan still set out to make it better. Even back then he was using the success of Bichen to highlight the problem of homelessness in Caiyi Town, giving away leftovers from the bakery every night to shelters that could use them. He volunteered at animal shelters, and donated a large amount of his personal income to ensure that the animals had the resources they needed. He held free baking classes at Bichen after hours for low-income kids. He always upheld the Lan family name in every way.

Wei Ying had remembered the Lan Zhan at school as being impenetrable, cold and hard as a jade statue, something that Wei Ying could crack if he tried hard enough. And he had tried, time and time again.

But living with Lan Zhan - being married to him - Wei Ying had gotten to see that underneath his cold, glossy armor, Lan Zhan cared deeply. He cared deeply about his brother, and his uncle, and the people who worked at his bakery. He cared deeply about injustice, and bringing peace to a chaotic world. Wei Ying doesn’t have an exact moment that he realized he was in love with Lan Zhan; it happened so slowly, over time, that he was already in over his head before he was even aware there was anything at all.

All he had wanted, back then, was to be a person that Lan Zhan cared deeply about.

But he wasn’t. Lan Zhan, in all his goodness, had seen that Wei Ying needed help, and so he helped. He’d made a mistake and gotten married, and so set out to be a good husband. Wei Ying wasn’t special; Lan Zhan would have done the same for anyone.

Wei Ying guesses that he can count himself lucky that he got to see that part of Lan Zhan at all. That he got to peel away even part of Lan Zhan’s cold exterior to see the warm, molten core hiding within.

Seeing Lan Zhan again has brought all of that back up to life. Wei Ying wants to push back the layers again, to see Lan Zhan eating breakfast, to see him meticulously folding clothes, to see him smiling at his son over a cup of tea. Wei Ying wants, and wants, and wants.

So he sends stupid memes and inane chatter over text, and tries not to suggest that he and Lan Zhan get together for dinner again, because Wei Ying is trying not to be too greedy. He doesn’t want to push his luck.

Instead of seeing Lan Zhan’s face in the flesh, Wei Ying decides to man up and do something he should have done a long time ago.

“We,” Wei Ying says dramatically, halfway through dinner with Wen Ning and Wen Qing on a Friday night, a week and one day after he last saw Lan Zhan, not that he’s counting, “are going to have a GGBO marathon weekend.”

The statement isn’t met with the cries of excitement and joy that he was expecting. Instead, Wen Ning cocks his head and looks at him in confusion, while Wen Qing is narrowing her eyes like she’s just realized something.

“C’mon!” Wei Ying says cajolingly. “It’ll be fun! Wen Ning, you’ve been trying to get me to watch for ages.”

“Yeah, and you always tell me you’ll watch when it’s more exciting,” Wen Ning says. “Like if they added explosions.”

“It’s common sense, explosions make everything more exciting.” Wei Ying says. “Even baking competitions.”

“Here’s a question,” Wen Qing says. “Why do you want to watch it now?”

Wei Ying narrows his eyes at her. “I’m supporting my husband,” he says.

“Interesting,” Wen Qing says. “Why haven’t you been supporting him this entire time?”

Wei Ying ignores her. “Me and you, Wen Ning, what do you say?”

“Sounds good,” Wen Ning says, glancing at his sister.

“Here’s another question,” Wen Qing says pleasantly. “Why did you keep the bike that he gave you?”

“Oh, that was from Lan Zhan?” Wen Ning asks. “That was nice of him.”

“He bullied me into it,” Wei Ying tells her. “What is this, twenty questions? How about I start asking you things, huh?”

“Why haven’t you dated anyone in the entire time that we’ve known you?” Wen Qing asks, cutting right to the heart of it. Wei Ying stares at her, pleading with his eyes that she shut up right about now.

“I thought it was because you didn't want to, or weren't good at people, like me,” Wen Ning says, sounding unsure. “But, if that’s- if you’re not-”

“It’s because he’s in love with his husband and has been this entire time,” Wen Qing says.

“No!” Wei Ying yells. “That’s- slander, is what that is! How dare you, Wen Qing, come into my house-” he shakes a finger first at Wen Ning, then Wen Qing. “That’s- unfounded-”

“Oh, Wei Ying,” Wen Ning says softly. He gets up from the table to pull Wei Ying’s head into his chest for a hug.

Wei Ying doesn’t fight it. He lets his shoulders slump, and he brings his own arms up to hug Wen Ning’s stomach. There are, embarrassingly enough, tears prickling at the back of his throat.

“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing starts to say, but Wen Ning hushes her.

“Sister,” Wen Ning scolds gently. “Let Wei Ying have a moment.”

“One small moment,” Wen Qing says. “Then we’re going to talk.”

It sounds like a threat, and Wei Ying clings onto it like a life raft in a sinking boat. “Wen Ning, save me from your sister,” Wei Ying whines, grasping Wen Ning’s sweater even tighter. He turns his head to look at Wen Qing out of the corner of his eye, letting her see his small smirk.

“We can talk tomorrow, Wen Qing,” Wen Ning bargains. “Tonight let’s watch GGBO and let Wei Ying take it in, okay?”

There’s a long silence. Wen Qing stares at Wei Ying, lips clamped together. Wei Ying sticks just the tip of his tongue out at her, angling himself so that Wen Ning can’t see.

“Fine,” Wen Qing says shortly.

Wei Ying cheers, the sound muffled by Wen Ning’s stomach.

He may, he realizes just a few minutes later, have made a tactical error. Wen Ning starts the first season of GGBO, and as soon as they introduce Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen as the judges Wei Ying remembers why he never watched it in the first place.

Lan Zhan is beautiful.

His white clothes are impeccably pressed, and he gives each baker a serious head nod before they start baking, his expression promising that he expects perfection from them. Lan Xichen banters a bit with the hosts of the show, and smiles at the contestants as they talk about what they’re making and why, and in the background Lan Zhan glides along like a stone statue, silent and commanding and glorious to watch.

It becomes apparent by the halfway mark of the episode that because of his inexpressive nature, the bakers are desperately trying to impress him. One of the contestants burns an egg tart that she was making, and when she starts crying when she realizes that it’s ruined she says that she’s ashamed she’s disappointed Lan Zhan. Out loud, unashamedly, telling the world she wanted to impress him.

This is what I look like, Wei Ying thinks in dawning horror. This is what other people see when I’m around him, isn’t it.

“I lied,” Wei Ying says faintly, as they show a close up of Lan Zhan delicately chewing on a piece of moon cake. “I can’t watch any more of this.”

“Too late,” Wen Qing says grimly. “You promised Wen Ning you’d do a marathon. You have to.”

On screen, Lan Zhan’s throat bobs as he takes a bite of a bun.

“I’m going to die,” Wei Ying says. He can’t tear his gaze away from the TV. “This is how it ends for me.”

“You brought it on yourself,” Wen Qing says unsympathetically, “for marrying such a handsome man. Now shut up, I want to see who won.”

They watch three more episodes by the end of the night. At one point Lan Zhan particularly likes something that he eats, so he purses his lips in an almost smile and gives the contestant a nod of his head. The contestant literally gasps and clutches onto the table in front of him.

“Hard same,” Wei Ying whispers.

Eventually Wen Qing bullies Wei Ying and Wen Ning upstairs to go to bed, and they both go willingly, yawning and leaning against each other as they do. When Wei Ying is done getting ready for bed he slinks into his room, blinking when he sees that Wen Ning is waiting for him.

“Come on,” Wen Ning says, patting the pillow next to him.

Wei Ying smiles gratefully and sinks down next to him, wrapping around Wen Ning like an octopus in an instant.

“Have you really been in love with him this entire time?” Wen Ning whispers in the dark. His words are a puff of air against Wei Ying’s cheek.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispers back. “But I haven’t been like, pining. I just shoved it to the back of my head most of the time so I didn’t have to think about it.”

“You could have told me,” Wen Ning says. “I would’ve listened.”

Wei Ying sighs. “I know you would’ve,” he says. “I didn’t want to add to your burdens, worrying about me.”

Wen Ning is silent for a long moment, then he says, “Wei Ying, you need to stop thinking that you know what other people can or can’t handle.”

“I don’t-” Wei Ying starts to say, wiggling away from Wen Ning, but Wen Ning holds tight.

“You do,” Weh Ning says. “You take everything on yourself to spare other people, but by doing that you don’t give anyone else a choice. I want to be here for you, Wei Ying. I want to be able to talk about the things that are bothering you. You don’t have to make everything a self-sacrifice because you think other people can’t handle it.”

Wei Ying can feel tears slipping down his face. “Wen Ning,” he chokes out.

Wen Ning hushes him. “Sleep now,” he says. “Think about it, okay? And talk to me if you want to.”

“Ah,” Wei Ying sighs. “You’re too good to me, Wen Ning.”

Wen NIng sighs, too. “Or maybe you’re just not good enough to yourself.”

“I miss Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says. Wen Ning doesn’t say anything about the abrupt change in conversation, but he does turn to look at Wei Ying. “He would’ve said the exact same thing, probably, but with a lot more yelling and threats.”

“You could contact your brother,” Wen Ning says.

“You know I can’t,” Wei Ying says. “You know why-”

Wen Ning tucks himself against Wei Ying’s side, a warm line of heat in the cool night air.

“You’re a pretty good brother, though,” Wei Ying says. Wen Ning smiles and butts his shoulder with his forehead.

They fall asleep like that.

-

He dreams about A-Yuan again, about something that never happened in real life.

He dreams about this: A-Yuan, happy and healthy, with a head full of hair, laughing and running as Wei Ying chases him. There’s no hospital beds, no IV drips, no hushed whispers of doctors as they prepare A-Yuan’s chemotherapy treatments. Instead there’s just the sun, and the sky, and A-Yuan grinning his bright, happy, little-boy smile as Wei Ying lifts him high into the air. Lan Zhan is there as well, humming a tune as he watches them with soft eyes.

Wei Ying wakes up crying and smiling all at once.

-

“What are you humming?” A-Qing asks, as she wipes down one of the tables.

It’s the third time she’s wiped them down. They’ve both been on shift for hours and only two people have come in for coffee. A-Qing is clearly bored.

Wei Ying would be bored, but he keeps thinking about the song from his dream. He can only remember snatches of it, whispers here and there, and he can’t remember where he even heard it in the first place.

“A song,” he says, distracted.

“Yeah, no shit,” A-Qing says. “That’s normally what people hum.”

“Does this sound familiar?” Wei Ying asks, humming it louder for her. She listens carefully, face scrunched up in thought.

“Nope,” she says at the end. “It’s pretty, though.”

The bell above the door dings, and Wei Ying looks up with a customer service smile that quickly turns into a real grin.

“Kids!” he calls delightedly. “My little gremlins, all together!”

It is, indeed, his little gremlins: Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi, and Ouyang Zizhen. There’s also another kid with them who looks a few years younger; he’s scowling around at the coffee shop like it’s personally offended him.

“And a new gremlin!” Wei Ying says, so he’ll feel included.

The fierce scowl gets turned onto Wei Ying instead. “I’m not a gremlin!”

“Wow,” Wei Ying says. “If I was a betting man I’d bet that you get yelled at a lot by your parents.”

The kids scowl deepens even further, then he stalks off and sits down at a table, faced away from Wei Ying.

Lan Sizhui follows after him, looking distressed.

“He’s an orphan,” Lan Jingyi explains, while Lan Sizhui sits across from the kid and starts talking earnestly.

“Oh, me too!” Wei Ying says brightly. “Me, him, and Lan Sizhui should start a club. The sad little orphans club!”

“I want to be part of your club!” Lan Jingyi cries, then stops and thinks about what he says. “Or, wait.”

“My dad is constantly disappointed in me and wishes I’d never been born,” Ouyang Zizhen says. “Can I be part of the club?”

Wei Ying tips his head back and forth like he’s thinking about it, then says, “Sure, that’s good enough!”

“Aw, man,” Lan Jingyi whines. “My parents love and support me, this sucks.”

“You can be an honorary member,” Wei Ying says graciously. Lan Jingyi cheers and high-fives him.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Wei Ying asks. “Oh, can I experiment on you? I want to make some new drinks but nobody I work with will drink them.”

“Why not?” Ouyang Zizhen asks suspiciously, while Lan Jingyi instantly says, “Yes, please!”

“Great!” Wei Ying says, clapping. He ignores Ouyang Zizhen’s look of doubt.

“Sizhui was talking about how you’re friends with his dad,” Lan Jingyi says. “Which is weird, because his dad is super scary and I didn’t think he had any friends.”

“I know!” Wei Ying exclaims. “He glares a lot, he’s pretty great.”

“So we decided to come and visit you!” Lan Jingyi says. His eyes dart to look meaningfully at Ouyang Zizhen, then back to Wei Ying.

“Why don’t you go grab a seat with the others?” Wei Ying asks Ouyang Zizhen. “I’ll make Lan Jingyi carry the drinks over to you.”

“Cool,” Ouyang Zizhen says, none the wiser.

Wei Ying turns smugly back to Lan Jingyi. “How’s operation romcom?”

“So good!” Lan Jingyi says. “I slipped a letter to my friend on Monday, and when he read it he turned so red and then hid it away before me or Zizhen could ask what it was! But then I saw him reading it again later and he looked confused but he was smiling, so I think Si- my friend really liked it.”

“Nice,” Wei Ying says, trying not to laugh at the accidental name slip. “Did he try to figure out who it was from? Swoon and ask you to hold him in your arms? Admit that he wants it to be from you?”

“None of those things,” Lan Jingyi says cheerfully. “He hasn’t even mentioned it to anyone yet. But on Monday I’m gonna give him a little bunny charm because of his rabbits.”

Wei Ying, who’s busy getting an assortment of sweet syrups set up for his new creations, pauses to gasp dramatically. “Lan Zhan has rabbits?”

“Yeah,” Lan Jingyi says. “Two of them. Sizhui is such a good rabbit brother, he feeds them every day.”

“I’m too weak to survive this,” Wei Ying mutters, trying not to imagine Lan Zhan cuddling a rabbit. His weak constitution can’t take it.

Lan Jingyi ignores him and starts to chatter about Lan Sizhui some more while Wei Ying starts making drinks. The end results look more like a science experiment than a real coffee order, but Wei Ying proudly thrusts two of them into Lan Jingyi’s hands all the same.

“Lead the way,” Wei Ying says, pretending to bow. Lan Jingyi bows back with a laugh.

The other kids look at Wei Ying’s drinks in trepidation, but Lan Sizhui is the first to reach his hand forward to accept one. He takes a sip, then chokes and coughs, his eyes watering.

“It’s interesting,” he says politely, when he gets his breath back. “Thank you for making them, Mister Wei.”

“My pleasure,” Wei Ying says. He plops down at the table next to Lan Sizhui and smiles brightly at all of them. “What are we talking about?”

“A school report,” Ouyang Zizhen says. “Young Mister Jin over here just started recently, so we’re trying to catch him up.”

The kid shoots Ouyang Zizhen a glare at the title.

“Oh, a middle of the year start,” Wei Ying says to him. “Tough break, kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” the kid spits out. “Stop insulting me, or I’ll break your legs!”

“Wow!” Wei Ying says. “It’s like watching a meerkat pester a lion. This is great.”

That just makes him scowl even more. “I’m not a meerkat!”

“Another Jin, huh? There’s so many of you guys,” Wei Ying says. “You’re at the Cloud Recesses academy with the rest of these guys?”

“He’s really smart,” Lan Sizhui says, smiling at the kid. “He skipped a few grades to join our class. He’s Jin Guangyao’s nephew.”

“Oh, Jin Guangyao,” Wei Ying says, with a secret smile to Lan Sizhui. “He’s a family friend, right?”

“Everyone in Cloud’s Recesses knows each other,” Ouyang Zizhen says. “And they’re probably all related somehow.”

“No, we’re not!” Both Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui say it at the same time, studiously avoiding each other's eyes.

Wei Ying beams at them.

“Oh, Mister Wei,” Lan Sizhui says, still blushing but obviously valiantly trying to get past it. “My dad wanted me to invite you to join us tomorrow morning. We always go to the town market on Sunday to get our produce for the week.”

“Oh!” Wei Ying says. A hint of warmth creeps through him at the thought of Lan Zhan seeking him out to spend time together. “Are sure you don’t want it to be just you and your dad, though, if it’s a tradition?”

“No, it’s cool,” Lan Sizhui says. “We both want you to come! There’s always food stalls and snacks, so it’s not just produce. And art and trinkets! Please say you’ll come, Mister Wei.”

“Fine, fine,” Wei Ying says, laughing. “You wore me down, kid. I’ll come.”

Lan Jingyi is frowning, though. “Just Mister Wei?” he asks Lan Sizhui. “You’re not inviting his wife, too?”

Wei Ying wants to bury his head into his hands. Scratch that, he wants to find the nearest patch of earth and bury his head deep inside it and never come out again.

“His wife?” Lan Sizhui says, looking betrayed. “Mister Wei, you told Uncle that you were single!”

“Ah, haha, yeah, yeah.” Wei Ying says. “I am. And I’m also not.”

“You can’t be married and single at the same time,” the Jin kid says brattily. “That’s stupid.”

“And yet,” Wei Ying says, swinging his arms open to gesture at himself.

Lan Sizhui still looks upset. “You should tell my dad,” he says quietly. “I think he’d want to know.”

Wei Ying actually laughs at that, startling out of him like a bark. “Believe me, your dad is well aware.”

Lan Sizhui looks even more confused and upset by that, but he looks down at the table instead of asking for more information.

“Still want me to come tomorrow?” Wei Ying asks jokingly, even though his heart is in his throat.

Lan Sizhui’s expression clears up immediately. “Of course!”

“Then it’s a da- day out with your family!” Wei Ying says cheerfully. It’s not a date. He’s going out with Lan Zhan and his kid to buy food, he tells himself sternly. Don’t be an idiot.

Still, after the kids leave Wei Ying sets an alarm on his phone so he can get up early and make himself look presentable. He’s going to be with Lan Zhan, after all. He doesn’t want to show up looking like a street urchin.

-

The market in Caiyi Town is bustling with people by the time Wei Ying gets there: vendors selling bright fruits and vegetables, stalls set up with paintings and toys and wine, food carts that smell like grease and spices and everything that makes Wei Ying’s stomach happy.

Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui are waiting exactly where they said they’d be, both standing stately and tall amongst the crowd. People’s eyes linger as they pass by, taking note of their pristine clothes and Cloud Recesses headband, and as Wei Ying approaches he sees one brave soul scurry forward to ask Lan Zhan for a selfie.

“I am here with my family,” Lan Zhan tells the person gravely. “I'm sure you understand why it would be untimely.”

The girl seems crushed to hear it, but she still smiles at Lan Zhan and tells him how much she loves the show. He gives her a head nod in return, which makes her squeal.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, bravely resisting the urge to drape an arm across Lan Zhan’s shoulders. “Breaking hearts everywhere you go.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. His eyes are bright and arresting in the early morning sun; Wei Ying feels his breath catch in his throat just looking at him.

“Good morning, Mister Wei,” Lan Sizhui says. Wei Ying tears his gaze away from Lan Zhan.

“Hey!” Wei Ying says. “Okay, I’ve been dying to know. What kind of dad is Lan Zhan, huh? Is he the strict no fun stuff guy, or is he the I’ll buy you whatever you want spoiling you kind of guy?”

Lan Sizhui laughs as Lan Zhan slants a glance at him. “He won’t admit it,” he says. “But dad loves to spoil me.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“You big softie!” Wei Ying says. “Will you buy me whatever I want, too, Lan Zhan?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says again.

“You’re going to regret agreeing to that,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan is obviously teasing, because there’s no way that he’d really buy Wei Ying whatever he wants. “I’m going to ask for so many things.”

“Mark your words, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying is going to die staring into his eyes.

“Right!” he says brightly, stepping away from Lan Zhan before he launches himself at the man tongue first. “I’m hungry, I haven’t eaten yet. Anyone else wanna find some food and hunker down before we shop?”

“Sounds good,” Lan Sizhui says. Lan Zhan doesn’t respond, but he starts herding them gently towards the food carts.

Wei Ying orders enough food to fill him up for days: crepes and rice balls and kebabs and scallion pancakes. Every time he reaches for his wallet Lan Zhan is there first, handing over the money for Wei Ying’s food.

“I’m not so poor that I can’t pay for my own food,” Wei Ying finally says in fake exasperation, not mentioning that he only knows this because last night he and Wen Ning had sat down and carefully figured out how much Wei Ying could spend today. It’s considerably less than Lan Zhan has already spent on food for him.

“I know,” Lan Zhan says.

“Your father is impossible,” Wei Ying complains to Lan Sizhui. Lan Sizhui only smiles widely at Wei Ying, then his dad.

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says disapprovingly to Lan Sizhui. Wei Ying missed something, he can tell, but he’s not sure what.

They find a curbside that’s not crowded with people, and Wei Ying plops down to sit on the sidewalk while Lan Sizhui and Lan Zhan stand serenely next to him while they eat. It’s hilarious to see how careful and delicate both of the Lan’s are when they’re taking bites of the steaming hot kebabs and the greasy scallion pancakes; Wei Ying has no compunctions. He scarfs down his food with relish, only realizing that he’s spilled onto his shirt after the fact.

“Oh, well,” he says, looking down at the newly acquired grease stain on the sleeve of his red shirt. “It was worth the sacrifice.”

Lan Zhan looks away in fond disapproval, while Wei Ying wiggles his eyebrows at Lan Sizhui until he laughs at Wei Ying’s ridiculousness.

Eventually they finish eating, and Lan Zhan pulls up an app on his phone that seems to be an ordered shopping list.

“Oh, wait, ah, let me see!” Wei Ying says, bounding to his feet to tug the phone out of Lan Zhan’s hand. He scrolls through the list. “I bet that you’re the type of person to have certain dinner on certain days, huh? Eggplant Wednesday, baked tofu Thursday, that kind of thing.”

Lan Zhan looks at him, then takes his phone back.

“Tofu is on Monday’s,” Lan Sizhui says helpfully.

“Wow,” Wei Wing says. “Lan Zhan, could you get any more boring?”

Lan Zhan looks away at that.

“Wait, no!” Wei Ying cries. “I wasn’t judging! Just, where’s the flavor? Where’s the surprise? What happens if you start craving something halfway through the day, huh?”

“We eat what we have,” Lan Zhan says, but he doesn’t seem as tense as he did a second ago.

“I’m gonna make you noodles,” Wei Ying says, pointing threateningly at Lan Zhan and then Lan Sizhui in turn. “Spicy noodles. On a Monday!”

It occurs to him that he’s just invited himself over yet again, but Lan Zhan merely inclines his head in acceptance.

“Wait, really?” Wei Wing asks. “Lan Zhan, don’t you remember what happened the last time I cooked for you?”

“I remember,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying, in a drunken fit of guilt, had remembered that he was an awful roommate and husband and had decided to cook for Lan Zhan after his day at the bakery. The food was miraculously cooked all the way through, but Wei Ying had drunkenly upended almost an entire half of a bottle of chili oil into it without realizing it. The first bite that Lan Zhan took must have killed his taste buds, but he determinedly ate his way through the entire bowl. Wei Ying only realized his mistake the next morning when he tried to eat the leftovers for breakfast, only to find that they were too spicy even for him.

“I really don’t deserve this benefit of the doubt you’re giving me,” Wei Ying says. “I haven’t learned how to cook at all in the last dozen years.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, then starts walking towards the produce stands.

Wei Ying lets him look at the vegetables in peace, and starts poking at a nearby barrel full of loquats.

“Mister Wei,” Lan Sizhui says, appearing next to him. Wei Ying does not shriek and drop the loquat; instead, he yells and squashes it hard enough to break the skin.

“Oh, sorry!” Lan Sizhui says. He hurriedly hands money over to the vendor before Wei Ying can even think about it.

“What did I tell you about calling me Mister Wei?” Wei Ying says. He wipes the sticky loquat juice onto a nearby wooden table, making sure that the vendor isn’t looking at him while he does it.

“Sorry,” Lan Sizhui says again, ducking his head. “Wei Ying, I wanted to apologize for my response to the news yesterday that you’re married. My dad made it clear to me last night that it was inappropriate.”

Wei Ying’s eyebrows raise. He wonders how Lan Zhan handled that conversation without lying - because Lan’s don’t lie, of course - considering that Lan Zhan himself is the person Wei Ying is married to.

“It’s okay,” Wei Ying says. “I mean, it kind of did seem like I lied, so I can’t blame you.”

“Dad reminded me that I can’t judge a situation until I know all the details, and I don’t know all the details in your case,” Lan Sizhui says. “Please accept my apologies, Mis- Wei Ying.”

“Ah, it’s totally fine!” Wei Ying says. He grabs the kid into an impromptu hug, and Lan Sizhui actually squeezes him back right away this time.

“One more thing,” Lan Sizhui says. “I think- I just wanted to let you know that I’m glad you came to see my dad in the hospital. You’ve- you’re- it’s been good to get to know you.”

Wei Ying stops to look at the kid, feeling like his chest is growing about six sizes. “Hey, you too,” he says.

Lan Sizui throws him a grin, and for just a second it reminds Wei Ying of A-Yuan’s beaming smile.

There must be some strange expression showing on his face, because Lan Sizhui leans forward, looking concerned. “Wei Ying?”

“Yeah, sorry!” Wei Ying waves off his concerned look. “Sorry, I’m fine! Just insomnia lately, sleeping weird, you know how it is.”

“You are having trouble sleeping?” Lan Zhan appears at Wei Ying’s elbow; he doesn’t have a fruit to ruin this time, but he does squawk in surprise.

“What is that?” Wei Ying asks, instead of answering the question. Lan Zhan is holding a handful of peonies, which Wei Ying knows for a fact wasn’t on his fastidious list.

Lan Zhan looks down at them. “Mm,” he says.

“Did the vendor give it to you?” Wei Ying asks, delighted. “Were they a fan of yours?”

Lan Zhan ignores him, turning to his son with a questioning look.

“Oh, I forgot!” Sizhui says. "Wei Ying, will you join us for lunch?"

“You already bought me breakfast,” Wei Ying protests. “You can’t buy me lunch, too!”

“We will not buy it for you,” Lan Zhan says.

“Good,” Wei Ying says in relief.

“Sizhui will make it,” Lan Zhan continues. “He needs the practice.

“I really like cooking,” Lan Sizhui says. Wei Ying can’t say no to that face, he really can’t.

“Fine,” he says. “But next time is my treat! I’m serious, Lan Zhan!”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“You’re a menace,” Wei Ying complains.

Lan Zhan looks at him and smiles.

-

Lan Sizhui is actually a really good cook, and Wei Ying doesn’t even break the no talking while eating rule. Well, he doesn’t break it excessively. After lunch he spends most of the afternoon chatting with Lan Sizhui about music theory while Lan Zhan cleans the kitchen; he finishes up just as Wei Ying is listening to Lan Sizhui play the guqin.

“He takes after you,” Wei Ying tells Lan Zhan, as the last few notes of the song fade out.

Lan Zhan inclines his head. “He has been taking lessons since a young age.”

“Hard not to be good when Lan Zhan is his teacher,” Wei Ying says. Lan Sizhui practically sparkles at him, he’s smiling so hard. “Does your dad still play?”

“On occasion,” Lan Zhan says. He sits on the couch, looking perfectly put together with his white sweater vest and neat bun.

“And on what occasions does the esteemed Lan Zhan deem respectable enough to play?” Wei Ying asks.

Lan Zhan looks at him.

“If you have a dizi we could do a duet,” Wei Ying suggests.

“I will retrieve it,” Lan Zhan says.

While he’s gone Lan Sizhui is preoccupied with his phone, and as soon as Lan Zhan comes back Lan Sizhui is on his feet.

“Dad,” he says, in a respectful tone of voice. “Uncle Xichen has invited me to the bakery to try a new pastry. Can I go with him to Liebing?”

Lan Zhan’s eyebrows twitch, which means he’s frowning deeply. “We have a guest,” he says.

“It’s fine!” Wei Ying says hastily. “I’m not a real guest. Lan Sizhui should go eat delicious things with Lan Xichen.”

Lan Sizhui shoots him a grateful look. Wei Ying winks back.

“I suppose,” Lan Zhan says. “Please thank Wei Ying for his presence today.”

“Ah, no, that’s-” Wei Ying starts to say, but Lan Sizhui turns to him with a serious expression and says, “Thank you, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying waves him off with a scoff. “I’m the one who really made out today,” he says. “I got fed two delicious meals! Thank you, Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui, for your hospitality.”

Lan Sizhui hesitates, then moves forward to give Wei Ying a brief hug before he kisses Lan Zhan on the cheek.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, watching Lan Sizhui sail out the door, because apparently Lan Xichen lives right next door. “You did a great job on that kid.”

Lan Zhan pauses, then says, “I am very proud.”

Wei Ying looks at him. He remembers how Lan Zhan was when they’d met on his first day at the Cloud Recesses Academy: the boy who’d followed every rule to the last letter, the boy who held himself stiffly aloof from anyone and everyone, the boy who looked shocked and scandalized when people had fun. Wei Ying hadn’t realized at the time how hard it must have been to be raised by Lan Qiren, to have such a stiff and formal parent figure teaching him about how the world worked.

“You’re not your uncle,” Wei Ying murmurs, and Lan Zhan looks at him with a shocked face. Well, he looks at Wei Ying with slightly widened eyes, which means he’s shocked. “I mean it. You’re a great dad, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan studies his face for a long moment, eyes roving around Wei Ying’s features like he’s looking for something. After a long minute he nods, and Wei Ying gives him a small, crooked smile.

“How about playing a duet, huh?” he asks, and the heavy mood is broken.

Lan Zhan plays the guqin like he does everything else: with precision, grace, and an immense amount of natural talent. He starts with a song that Wei Ying knows - an old folk song - and Wei Ying uses the lended dizi to play around the mournful tones of the original, adding a new note of playfulness and cheer to the tune.

Lan Zhan must take that as a challenge, because Wei Ying doesn’t know the next piece he plays. He listens to Lan Zhan play it once, then says, “Again,” and lets the music carry him through the piece, winding around the deep, even tones of the guqin.

“You have always been talented at music,” Lan Zhan says when the song is over.

“Gotta be okay at something,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan opens his mouth, like he’s about to say something nice, but Wei Ying doesn’t think his heart can bear it right now. Not after the morning and afternoon they’ve had, not now that Wei Ying knows what it might feel like to slip into a typical day with the Lan’s, how Wei Ying might have a place in their life if he wishes hard enough.

Stop, he tells himself firmly.

“Anyway,” he says, before Lan Zhan can say anything at all. “I’ve had this piece of music stuck in my head for the last few days, do you think you can listen and see if you know what it is? It’s been driving me crazy.”

Lan Zhan nods, and so Wei Ying closes his eyes and starts to play the song that’s been stuck in his head since he woke up yesterday.

When he’s done he opens his eyes to see Lan Zhan sitting stiff and straight, hands clasped tightly together in his lap. His own eyes are closed, and his mouth is pursed tightly like he’s in pain.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks in surprise.

Lan Zhan opens his eyes, catching Wei Ying’s gaze immediately. “I am familiar with the song,” he says.

“Well, yeah, I can see that,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan’s hands are still so tightly clasped that his knuckles are white. “But do you hate it or something? It looks like it’s really affected you.”

“No,” Lan Zhan says. He pauses, mouth open just a hare, obviously trying to figure out what to say. “The song is of my own composition.”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries. “You wrote it? That must be why it’s so beautiful.”

Wei Ying has a sudden memory of laying on Lan Zhan’s expensive couch - drinking wine directly out of the bottle, not caring if he spilled on himself or the couch; he probably left so many stains - and hearing music flowing from Lan Zhan’s room. He’d thought back then that it sounded sad, or sweet, or longing; in his drunken haze he couldn’t decide which one.

He hadn’t wanted Lan Zhan to be sad, or longing, or sweet - Wei Ying hadn’t wanted him to be anything other than just Lan Zhan - but he hadn’t been able to convince his legs to lift him up and carry him to Lan Zhan’s door to cheer him up. Instead, Wei Ying had laid on the couch and let the music wash over him.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says softly, now. “I remember hearing you working on it.”

Lan Zhan looks down at his lap. “Forgive me,” he says. “I was unaware you could hear me playing.”

“Forgive you?” Wei Ying laughs. “Lan Zhan, the song is beautiful! I’d love to hear the whole thing, I only remember bits and pieces. Will you play it for me?”

Lan Zhan continues staring down at his lap.

“Oh, nevermind,” Wei Ying says. He’s disappointed that he won’t be able to hear Lan Zhan play his own song, but he doesn’t want to make Lan Zhan even more uncomfortable. “You don’t-”

“I will play,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying closes his eyes again. Much like he did thirteen years ago, he lets the music wash over him. This time, though, he pays attention to what Lan Zhan’s song is trying to say.

It’s still sweet, and longing, and sad. Not sad, Wei Ying corrects himself, more like waiting, or resigned.

The last note fades out, and Wei Ying opens his eyes.

“Lan Zhan,” he says seriously. “Will you let me play it with you this time?”

Lan Zhan looks at him, then dips his head in a nod.

This time Wei Ying keeps his eyes open so he can watch Lan Zhan’s fingers as they deftly stroke the guqin. Wei Ying raises the dizi to his mouth and plays in harmony, at first, then lets his own notes wander around Lan Zhan’s.

Don’t be resigned to wait, Wei Ying wants his music to say. Don’t be filled with longing. Be filled with hope.

Neither of them speak when they’re done; Wei Ying feels like they’re caught in time, suspended in this moment, staring at each other across an abyss that Wei Ying desperately wants to cross.

Lan Zhan’s phone beeps; time starts again.

Wei Ying lets out an embarrassed huff of laughter as Lan Zhan rises to check it.

“Everything okay?” Wei Ying asks, rubbing his nose. He thinks the back of his neck might be on fire with how hard he’s blushing.

“My brother has asked if Sizhui can stay the night,” Lan Zhan says.

“That’s so cute,” Wei Ying croons.

“Xichen has been very instrumental in raising Sizhui,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying has a hundred questions about Lan Sizhui: why did Lan Zhan adopt him? Is he actually related to Lan Zhan in any way? Had Lan Zhan ever mentioned Wei Ying before the day at the hospital, even in passing? How is Lan Sizhui just the best kid ever?

Wei Ying knew the answer to the last question: he has Lan Zhan for a dad.

“Are you hungry?” Lan Zhan asks, and with a start Wei Ying realizes that it’s already late afternoon.

“No!” he exclaims. Lan Zhan looks at him. “You can’t feed me three times in a single day, Lan Zhan, that’s too much.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“No, it really is,” Wei Ying insists. “I should get going, I’ve taken up all of your day! Really, Lan Zhan, you have to stop being so polite all the time. Kick me out after I’ve worn out my welcome!”

“You do not need to leave,” Lan Zhan says politely. Wei Ying scoffs.

“I’m not going to intrude on you further,” he assures Lan Zhan. He sets down the borrowed dizi and stands, stretching; his back cracks ominously. When he’s done he looks back to Lan Zhan, who’s looking at his own hands again.

“I had a good day,” Wei Ying says. “Thank you, Lan Zhan, for the honor of spending the day with me.”

Lan Zhan’s lips tighten, but he stands all the same and ushers Wei Ying to the front door, a hand at the small of Wei Ying’s back. Wei Ying tries not to shiver at the slight contact, even over his shirt.

“Ah, wait!” Wei Ying exclaims. “I forgot something important! Lan Zhan, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Lan Zhan leans closer, probably because Wei Ying sounds so serious.

“I heard a rumor,”Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan’s eyes open a fraction. “I heard you own rabbits.”

Lan Zhan exhales softly; Wei Ying wonders if asking about the bunnies annoys him.

“You don’t have to show me,” he assures Lan Zhan. “It’s just so adorable, you know?”

“Follow me,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying clambers after him.

Lan Zhan takes him through parts of the house he hasn’t seen before, and Wei Ying peeks his head into open doors whenever he can. He sees glimpses of a study with a lot of books, a bathroom, and what must be Lan Sizhui’s room, but no evidence of Lan Zhan’s room. It must lie behind one of the closed doors, Wei Ying figures, and tries not to feel cheated at the fact that he won’t get to see it.

The rabbits have their own room, apparently. They’re penned in with a toddler gate, with a litter box filled with hay in the corner and various cardboard boxes strewn around the room. Wei Ying can see two rabbits just chilling in the middle of the room, and when Lan Zhan gently steps over the toddler gate they instantly hop over to him.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says weakly, trying to take it all in. “Ah, okay. This is fine.”

“Be calm and gentle,” Lan Zhan advises. He crouches down to sit on the floor and picks up one of the rabbits, inclining his head to lure Wei Ying into the room.

Wei Ying takes the bait. He quietly makes his way to Lan Zhan and sits down, trying to project an aura of calm and peace. The rabbit not in Lan Zhan’s hands seems hesitant, but let's Wei Ying slowly stroke it’s soft little head.

“They’re so cute,” Wei Ying breathes. “What are their names?”

“Sizhui named them,” Lan Zhan says. “I am holding Donut. You are petting Lego.”

Wei Ying instantly starts to laugh. “Lan Zhan,” he says, bowing his head. “Lan Zhan, are you being serious right now?”

“He was nine,” Lan Zhan answers sedately. “He wished to name them after the things that mattered most.”

Wei Ying laughs until he cries. It startles the rabbit away, and Wei Ying regrets instantly it, but then he remembers that it’s name is Lego and he starts laughing again.

Eventually Wei Ying needs to breathe, and as he calms down he looks up to see that Lan Zhan is smiling at him softly. Wei Ying can’t help but smile back.

Lan Zhan looks away, and when he looks back he’s as serious as always.

“Wei Ying,” he says, almost hesitantly. “There is something I learned this morning that I feel I should share with you.”

“Hit me with it,” Wei Ying says, leaning back against his elbows.

Lan Zhan’s mouth tightens. “Sizhui has informed me that when he went to your work to invite you to come with us today, he had taken his friends with him.”

“Oh, yeah!” Wei Ying says. He frowns. “Is that not okay? Because they just came by to study and hang out, but I can tell them not to do that if you don’t like it.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head, and Wei Ying relaxes, because he likes having the kids drop by. They’re a blast.

“I am aware that one of the young men that Sizhui has recently befriended is of the Jin sect,” Lan Zhan says.

“Yeah, he’s a cute kid,” Wei Ying says. “He’s got an attitude the size of a mountain, though. Who raised that kid? He’s such a brat all the time. Lan Sizhui said that his uncle is Jin Guangyao, but I can’t imagine that Lan Xichen would be in love with someone who could raise such a sour kid, so it had to have been someone else.”

Lan Zhan looks at him. “He is raised by Jin Guangyao half of the year.”

“When do I get to meet him?” Wei Ying muses. “Oh, we should figure out how to set up Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao! Will you matchmake with me, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. He takes a breath and sets Donut down, away from himself and Wei Ying, then turns until they’re facing each other. Wei Ying smiles at him quizzically.

“This morning Sizhui informed me of the identity of his other uncle,” Lan Zhan says. “It is Jiang Cheng.”

The words ping senselessly around Wei Ying’s brain for a long minute; he can feel his breath shorten, and his face drain of color, but it takes a moment for his mind to make the connection of nephew and Jiang Cheng.

“Jin Ling,” Wei Ying whispers. Lan Zhan inclines his head. “That’s- it’s Jin Ling? A-Li’s son?”

Lan Zhan nods again, just as seriously.

Wei Ying doesn’t know what to do with his body. He jumps up and paces around the room for a second, startling the rabbits, who flee and hide behind one of the cardboard boxes.

“That’s my nephew,” he mutters incredulously to himself. “I’ve been hanging out with my nephew and I didn’t even know it.”

Lan Zhan watches him with hooded eyes. Wei Ying sinks to sit down next to him, listing against his shoulder. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, so softly he can barely hear himself. “Lan Zhan, I don’t-”

It’s like a dam bursting. Wei Ying starts crying: huge, gulping sobs that he can feel with his entire body. He’s distantly aware that he’s burrowed himself into Lan Zhan’s neck, and that Lan Zhan’s arms are wrapped around him, but he can’t focus on anything other than the well of emotions that’s currently pouring out of him.

He misses his sister. He’s never stopped missing her. Jiang Yanli was a delicate guiding light in the darkness, a calm port in a sea of storms, a guardian of secret bruises and scrapes and night-time escapades. She was the bridge between Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng, the only one who could calm them down when they aggravated each other, the gravity between the three of them that pulled them all together.

Wei Ying shouldn’t have even been out that night. He was technically grounded, but he had decided that since he was eighteen he didn’t need to listen to what Madame Yu said, no matter the fact that he still lived under her roof.

It wasn’t the first time that Wei Ying had snuck out. Back then Wei Ying had chafed living in the Jiang household; he’d wanted to skip school, and get drunk, and hook up, but Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu were strict about all of their children being disciplined in their schooling. It was supposed to just be a normal party with Nie Huaisang. He’d drank, and danced, and made out with someone in a dark hallway, and then he’d taken a hit of acid and most of the night after that was a blur.

He remembers being outside, cold and sad and unable to make sense of what was happening; the world kept melting, and he wanted to just lay down and sleep, but the people he was with wouldn’t let him sleep on the sidewalk. He’d called Jiang Yanli, because his sister would always help him. She would always be there for him.

She never showed up. It had been Jiang Cheng, instead, crying and shouting about a hospital and a car accident, telling Wei Ying that it was all his fault.

“I miss her,” he whispers into Lan Zhan’s neck; he’s not sure if Lan Zhan can hear him, but he needs to say it all the same. “I miss her so much. I just want to see her again.”

Lan Zhan’s hand sweeps up and down his back, slow and steady.

“Jin Ling has to grow up without her, and without his dad,” Wei Ying whispers. “I took that away from him.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying can feel the words reverberate in this throat as he speaks. “It is not your fault.”

Wei Ying hiccups a bitter, horrible laugh. “Lan Zhan,” he says.

Lan Zhan doesn’t stop rubbing his back. “Other’s words that are said in sadness and anger do not always reflect the truth,” he says. “The things that we tell ourselves do not always have merit.”

It’s not the first time that Lan Zhan’s said this to him. The first time was two weeks after Wei Ying had moved in with him, before they’d gotten married, and Wei Ying was drunk enough to wake Lan Zhan up in the middle of the night to crawl into his arms and bawl.

“I still feel it,” Wei Ying whispers; a confession. “Wen Ning, and Wen Qing, and you, you all tell me that it wasn’t my fault. You all tell me that it wasn’t me. But I still feel like it was. How can I believe you when I know the truth?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. He pulls back and looks down at Wei Ying with startling intensity and clarity. “Lying is forbidden in Cloud Recesses.”

It’s enough to shock a laugh out of Wei Ying. “You just made a joke,” he says in wonder. “You made a joke while I’m crying my eyes out. That’s horrible, Lan Zhan. That’s the worst time ever to make a joke!”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying sniffles and brushes the tears from his cheeks; he’s stopped crying, for now, but he bets he looks as awful as he feels.

“There is something else,” Lan Zhan says. He looks uncomfortable. “I have lied. Not to you, but to someone else. After you first moved in with me, Jiang Cheng reached out to ask if I knew where you were. I was aware that you were not on good terms with him, and so I lied.”

“Ah,” Wei Ying says. “You did? Lan Zhan. You lied for me.”

“I apologize if I was in the wrong,” he says. “It occured to me after I turned him away that he might have had good intentions in seeking you out.”

“Probably not,” Wei Ying says bitterly. “He was so mad. He-” Wei Ying swallows. “He agreed with everything that Madame Yu said. He told me never to come back or he’d make sure to sic a dog on me.”

Lan Zhan, who knows how much Wei Ying fears dogs, looks disapproving.

“Regardless of the past,” Lan Zhan says, “I have heard that he is still searching for you.”

“After all these years?” Wei Ying says with a snort. “Yeah, let me just stroll up into his DM’s.”

“I am unsure of what that means,” Lan Zhan says, after a long pause.

“Wait, Jin Ling doesn’t know who I am, does he?” Wei Ying says. “He can’t, because if he did Jiang Cheng would’ve already beaten down my door in an uproar. That’s- should I tell him? Probably not.”

Lan Zhan hums. “Perhaps,” he says, almost hesitantly, “that is a discussion that can be put on hold with Jin Ling until you have spoken with Jiang Cheng.”

Wei Ying sighs. “You’re really gonna make me talk to him, huh? I can’t believe you’d be so cruel, Lan Zhan.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“Yeah, I know I make my own decisions. But if I don’t listen to you you’ll look at me with that one expression,” Wei Ying whines. “Yeah, wait! That one, right there!” He pokes at Lan Zhan’s cheek as he looks disapproving. “That’s the expression. You can’t give me that expression, Lan Zhan, it makes me sad.”

Wei Ying is abruptly aware that Lan Zhan is still rubbing his back, and he sits up with a start. Lan Zhan folds his hand in his lap tightly.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, instantly hating how tender it sounds. “You’re too good to me. I’m sorry for ruining your shirt with my tears! I was serious about making you spicy noodles tomorrow. Will you and Lan Sizhui come over? You can meet Wen Ning and Wen Qing.”

Lan Zhan dips his head, glancing out of the corner of his eye at Wei Ying. “We would be honored,” he murmurs.

“Thank you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says.

It isn’t all that he wants to say, but it will have to do for now.

-

The kitchen is a disaster.

“The grease is on fire,” Wen Qing tells him, from where she’s sitting at the table holding a cup of wine.

“Shut up!” Wei Ying yells. “I know it is! It’s intentional!”

“No, it’s not,” Wen Qing says.

His night so far has been awful. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Jin Ling all day, and his shift at Yi City had run late, and Wen Ning had been held back at work in a meeting with a parent, and Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui are set to arrive at their house in less than ten minutes and absolutely nothing about dinner is remotely close to ready.

Wei Ying desperately tries to remember what puts out a grease fire. Flour, maybe, he thinks hysterically. He reaches into the cupboard and grabs the nearest bag with a white substance and tosses it on the fire.

It isn’t flour, it turns out; it’s sugar. The grease fire doesn’t die down, but the entire kitchen instantly starts to smell like burnt caramel.

“Shit,” Wen Qing says mildly. She takes another sip of wine.

“Shit!” Wei Ying cries. He reaches into the cupboard again and pulls out baking soda and throws that on the fire in hopes that something will happen.

The fire goes out.

“What restaurant should we take them to?” Wen Qing asks, phone already in hand.

Noodles are stuck to the bottom of Wen Ning’s good wok. Wei Ying tries desperately to dig them out, but they remain a thick sludge that won’t budge. He dumps a cup of water into the wok, hoping that might help, and gingerly lifts the baking soda covered grease pan to set in the sink.

The front door opens and closes, and Wei Ying gives Wen Qing a panicked look.

“Stay right there, Wen Ning!” Wei Ying bellows, trying to hide the wok underneath the grease pot in the sink. “Don’t come in here! It’s like the Troy with pizza gif, you don’t want to see it!”

Wen Ning’s footsteps falter and stop. “What did you do, Wei Ying?” he calls.

“Nothing!” Wei Ying yelps. He raises threatening eyebrows to Wen Qing, who only toasts him and drains her wine. “Just. We’re going out for dinner!”

“Okay,” Wen Ning says, and his footsteps recede back towards the front door.

“You should have people over more often,” Wen Qing says. “This is the most entertainment I’ve had all year.”

“Fuck off,” Wei Ying whispers vehemently.

Wen Ning is waiting patiently by the door, still bundled up in his black coat, and he gives Wei Ying and Wen Qing a smile when he sees them.

“Where are we going for dinner?”

“No clue,” Wei Ying says. “But I need to change.”

He’s a sweaty mess. His hair is limp and falling out of his ponytail, he smells like failed fried food and burnt sugar, and his face is shiny and red from the heat of the kitchen. He’s about to slip upstairs and get somewhat cleaned up when the doorbell rings.

“No, don’t-” Wei Ying says, but Wen Ning opens the door.

Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui look as respectable as always. Wei Ying freezes, one foot on the stairs.

“You look nice,” is the first thing he says to Lan Zhan, and he instantly wants to smack himself.

“You as well,” Lan Zhan says back.

“Lying is forbidden in Cloud Recesses!” Wei Ying blurts out in a panic, then clamps a hand over his mouth so he won’t say anything else ever again.

Lan Sizhui politely turns his head to try and hide a cough; it’s not successful.

“Uh, I mean-” Wei Ying says, peeling his hand away from his mouth. “Good evening, Lan Zhan, Lan Sizhui. There’s been a slight change of plans and we’re all going out to eat.”

Lan Zhan sweeps his gaze over Wei Ying’s state of disarray, then moves on to Wen Ning and Wen Qing.

“Oh!” Wei Ying shouts. He hurries forward to thrust himself between the two pairs of people. “Lan Zhan, meet my sister and brother! Wen Qing and Wen Ning, respectively. Guys, meet Lan Zhan and his son!”

Lan Zhan inclines his head, and Lan Sizhui steps forward to give each of them a smile and a handshake; even Wen Qing looks charmed.

“We’ve heard a lot about you,” Lan Sizhui says.

“We’ve heard of you, too,” Wen Qing responds. “Although not nearly enough.”

“There’s a sushi place nearby,” Wen Ning says quietly. “If the esteemed Lan Zhan would care for it? We’re close enough to walk.”

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying. Wei Ying looks back.

“That is acceptable,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying grabs his coat and tries to stuff his hair into a bun as he follows the rest of the group.

The night is pleasant, if not a bit chilly, and the cold air holds a promise of snow. It hasn’t snowed yet so far this year, which Wei Ying is grateful for because he lost one of his gloves from last year and keeps forgetting to buy a new pair. For now he stuffs his hands into his pockets, even though he’d rather be wrapping them around Lan Zhan’s long fingers.

Lan Zhan’s fingers are something that Wei Ying has been thinking about a lot lately. He used to think about them a lot back then, too, and then he tried not to think about Lan Zhan at all, but now he can’t help remembering how they’d looked plucking at the strings of the guqin, or tenderly picking up a rabbit, or folding them over top each other.

Wei Ying would like those fingers folded over top of him.

His heart stutters a little when he looks up to see that Lan Zhan is glancing at him out of the corner of his eye; Lan Zhan can’t read minds, he knows this, but he still can’t help the guilty blush that settles across his cheeks.

“What?” he says, then, waving a hand, “Nevermind. How was your day, Lan Zhan? Did you broker world peace? Did you make any women swoon? Did you-”

“It was fine,” Lan Zhan says, interrupting him. It’s probably a good thing, because Wei Ying only knows what’s about to burst out of his mouth only half the time. “I have received word that I am able to start filming a new season soon.”

“Clean bill of health!” Wei Ying exclaims. “That’s great. Hey, Wen Ning should go on the show! He’s been a fan for a while, and he’s so good at cooking. Wen Ning!” Wei Ying yells, even though Wen Ning is only a few steps ahead of him and Lan Zhan. “Why haven’t you tried out for the Gusu Bake Off yet?”

It’s hard to tell in the dim streetlight, but Wei Ying would bet anything that Wen Ning is blushing right now.

“Oh, I’m not good enough for that,” he demures.

“Nonsense,” Wen Qing says, just as Wei Ying yells, “Shut the hell up, yes you are!”

Wen Ning ducks his head.

“Mister Wen,” Lan Sizhui says, obviously seeing his discomfort, “since you cook a lot, maybe you could give me a tip about how to cook radishes? I’ve only just started learning.”

Wen Ning falls into step between him and Wen Qing and starts talking about cooking things; Wei Ying stops paying attention.

“Must be weird, huh?” Wei Ying muses to Lan Zhan. “Being famous and having people recognize you. Does it make them act differently around you?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying sighs. “Heavy is the head who wears the crown,” he intones, and laughs when Lan Zhan gives him an unimpressed look. “Maybe I should be using your fame to start acting differently around you! It’d probably help you tolerate me better, huh.”

Lan Zhan stops walking, and Wei Ying’s footsteps falter when he notices. “Lan Zhan?”

“I do not tolerate you,” Lan Zhan says.

“Oh, wow, okay,” Wei Ying says, feeling like he’s just been shot through the heart. “That’s-”

“I enjoy being around you, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “I have always enjoyed being around you.”

Wei Ying’s heart feels wounded again, in a much different way. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “You hated me that first year in school! Honestly I was shocked that you let me stay with you when I called.”

Lan Zhan starts walking again, silent, and Wei Ying scrambles to catch up. He’s just now realizing that this is the first time either of them have brought up the year that Wei Ying lived with Lan Zhan, the year that they got married. He holds his breath, hoping that Lan Zhan won’t decide to take Lan Sizhui and leave.

“I did not dislike you,” Lan Zhan says, after a moment of silence between them. “You were very different from what I was used to.”

Wei Ying thinks about that for a minute, tapping his lips, then he breaks out into a smile. “Are you saying that you were scared of me!”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying exclaims. “If I had known that back then I wouldn’t have bothered you so much.”

Lan Zhan slants him a look.

“Okay, I still would have,” Wei Ying admits. “But I actually thought you hated me! Even after I moved in I was sure you were counting down the minutes until I left.”

Lan Zhan gives him a look that Wei Ying can’t read; he seems confused, and startled, and discomfited, and maybe hurt, but Wei Ying can’t figure out why. Is he shocked that Wei Ying thought he should leave? Wei Ying rubs his nose as Lan Zhan opens his mouth.

“Here we are,” Wen Qing says, pointing to the restaurant. The moment between Wei Ying and Lan Zhan passes, and Lan Zhan goes back to looking normal and predictable as always.

The host clearly knows who Lan Zhan is, given how she drops the menus when she sees them, but they’re seated and served drinks without any fuss. Lan Zhan even orders wine for the table, despite the fact that he declines it for himself; Wei Ying beams as he takes his first gulp.

It doesn’t take long for Lan Zhan and Wen Qing to get into a discussion about medical practices, because Lan Zhan is very smart, and Wei Ying and Wen Ning takes turns regaling Lan Sizhui with stories about stupid things they’ve done over the years, and Lan Sizhui laps it up.

Wei Ying’s heart twinges. Mine, it says, as Wei Ying looks around at the people surrounding him.

Lan Zhan is not yours, he scolds himself, but his thoughts catch around the idea and spread out contentedly, like a cat lying in the sun.

“Eh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, to try and drown out his own internal monologue. “Sorry this isn’t spicy noodles like I promised. Try some of this chili oil, huh? It’s good!”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, like the boring old man that he is.

“I’ll try it,” Lan Sizhui pipes up. Wei Ying turns to him in excitement.

“There’s hope for the young generation yet!” he enthuses. “Give me your bowl.”

He adds a small dash of chili oil to Lan Sizhui’s food, then watches, enraptured, as he takes a bite.

Lan Sizhui instantly starts coughing, face turning red. Lan Zhan calmly hands him a cup of water.

Wei Ying sighs. “My hopes are again cruelly dashed,” he laments. “I am alone in this world.”

“You’re an idiot,” Wen Qing says, but she smiles at him as she says it. Wei Ying grins back.

Lan Sizhui eventually stops coughing, even though his face stays red.

“Miss Wen,” he says - Wen Qing looks like she wants to adopt him on the spot - “I know that Wei Ying and my dad went to school together. How did you and Mister Wen meet Wei Ying?”

“We also went to school together,” Wei Ying answers for her. “Medical school. She’s a big fancy doctor, we’re so proud of her!”

Wen Qing gives him a dry look. “Exactly what he said,” she confirms.

“But that’s not the whole story,” Wen Ning says. He looks surprised when everyone looks at him, ducking his head down like he can hide behind his hair even though it’s pulled into a neat bun.

“What happened?” Lan Sizhui asks.

Wei Ying scoffs. “It’s an old, boring story,” he says. “You don’t want to hear it, trust me.”

“I would like to hear it,” Lan Zhan says, like a traitor. Wei Ying glares at him, but Lan Zhan just ignores him.

“Well,” Wen Ning says, with a hesitant glance towards Wei Ying. “I have a medical condition. I have seizures, and they can strike at any time. About thirteen years ago, when Wen Qing was in medical school, I had a seizure at home while I was alone. I fell and hit my head.”

“Traumatic brain injury,” Wen Qing interjects tightly. “He fell into a coma for a few days, and had complications that required him to stay in the hospital.”

Wei Ying looks down at his bowl, his fingers playing with the lip of it. He doesn’t like to hear this story: he doesn’t like to think about how easy it would be to lose Wen Ning, and he hates that when people hear it they think he’s some kind of hero. Wei Ying just did what he’d needed to do, that’s all.

“Sister couldn’t afford to go to medical school, and pay rent and bills, and deal with my hospital bills while only having a part-time job,” Wen Ning continues. “We were thirty days away from being evicted from our apartment, and Wen Qing was on the cusp of dropping out of medical school.”

“I had already dropped out, haha,” Wei Ying says. “But mine was because I’m just an idiot.”

Four pairs of eyes look at him in disapproval; Wei Ying rubs his nose and looks away.

“I ran into Wei Ying at the store,” Wen Qing says. “I lost it. I started crying on his shoulder, and ended up telling him everything.”

Wei Ying still remembers that day. How he’d spotted Wen Qing and bounded over, asking how she was; how she instantly broke down, and he led her to a nearby boba shop to sit down for a minute; how her nails were chewed up and ragged, and the bags under her eyes told him how little sleep she was getting; how her voice cracked in fear whenever she said Wen Ning’s name.

“So Wei Ying got an apartment,” Wen Qing says, “and he convinced me that Wen Ning and I should move in-”

“He spent three whole days trying to convince her,” Wen Ning says.

“-and then he got three jobs, convinced me to focus on school full time, and he supported the household for years,” Wen Qing says. “He worked himself to the bone, and then came home and helped care for Wen Ning. Without Wei Ying we would have had a very different, very difficult life.”

“I just did it for that sweet doctor money you’re pulling in now,” Wei Ying says. He still hasn’t looked up at anybody.

Because the truth of the matter isn’t that he saved the Wen’s; the truth is that the Wen’s saved him.

He had only been away from Lan Zhan for a few weeks at that point, staying with Nie Huaisang on his couch. Wei Ying doesn’t remember what happened in those few weeks; he was drunk the entire time. He was drunk, and desperately missing Lan Zhan, and hating himself for ruining everyone’s life. He had felt like a disease, like everyone he touched withered and died.

Until Wen Qing had laid everything bare for him, all the struggles she was dealing with, and Wei Ying had felt a sense of rightness for the first time in a long time. He could help someone, and he could do something that actually, really mattered.

In the end he’d gotten far more than he’d given. Wei Ying had only given away his time and money and effort, and in return Wen Qing and Wen Ning had given him a new family. There’s no way that Wei Ying can repay them for what they’ve done for him.

The server comes by with their check, and Wei Ying gladly grasps at the excuse to change the subject.

“My treat!” he says, groping for his wallet. “After all, I did ruin the actual food, haha, so clearly I’m the one who’ll pay.”

By the time he’s pulled it out of his pocket Lan Zhan is already silently handing his phone over to the server to pay.

“Fine,” Wei Ying says, throwing himself against the seat with his arms crossed.

Wen Qing raises her eyebrows. “You’re not going to object at all?” she asks in disbelief.

“It’s no use,” Wei Ying whines. “Whenever I fight him over money he always wins. Why bother fighting at all? I’m just going to have to take him to a more expensive place next time.” He throws in a wink to Lan Zhan at that.

“Shameless,” “Lan Zhan murmurs, but there’s a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

It’s fully dark by the time they’re done paying and bundling up for the cold night air, and Wen Qing starts asking Lan Sizhui about subjects at school.

Wei Ying hangs back so that he and Lan Zhan can walk closely together, their shoulders brushing, and if Wei Ying wanted to he could so easily tangle their fingers together. He plunges them into the pockets of his coat so he doesn’t give in.

He can see Lan Zhan glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, bumping his shoulder against Lan Zhan’s. “Thanks for dinner tonight.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.

“No, please,” Wei Ying cries. “Don’t use that tone, I know what it means! You’re going to ask me about what Wen Ning told you.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, like a traitor. “He stated it was thirteen years ago.”

Wei Ying sighs. “Yeah,” he says. ”It was just a few weeks after-” he can’t say the words out loud.

Lan Zhan nods, understanding. “You were having a hard time,” he says, which is the understatement of the century.

Wei Ying snorts. “Yeah,” he agrees. “Between my sister, and A-Yuan, and- well, everything,” he says, trying not to say and you. “I guess helping the Wen’s was just a way to figure my shit out.”

“A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan repeats softly. Something flits across his face.

“Oh, yeah, you probably don’t remember,” Wei Ying says. “A kid from my residency. It’s-” he waves his hands around, trying to convey that he doesn’t want to talk about it. “Anyway, let’s stop talking about me, okay? Let’s talk about the illustrious Lan Zhan! I heard he helped kittens that were stuck in a tree! I heard he personally rescued thirty orphans from being swept away in a flood! I heard-”

“You are a good man,” Lan Zhan says firmly, cutting through all of Wei Ying’s bullshit.

“Ah,” Wei Ying breathes. “Lan Zhan.” He hates how helpless he sounds.

“I will stop talking about it now,” Lan Zhan says. “As you wish.”

There’s silence between them as they walk; the night around them is cold and still, and fat snowflakes have started to drift down. Wei Ying takes a deep breath, relishing the way he can see his breath hovering in the air as he breathes out.

“You’re a good man, too,” Wei Ying says, just as they reach his house. Lan Zhan looks at him, and Wei Ying smiles at him.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Sizhui says, coming to stand next to Wei Ying and his dad. “Thank you for inviting us over tonight.”

“Lan Sizhui!” Wei Ying says. “Come over any time you or your dad want, okay?”

He instinctively reaches forward to gently pinch at Lan Sizhui’s cheek; the kid's face turns to stone for a brief second as his breath catches, then almost instantly his face melts into his normal smile. It happens so quickly that Wei Ying is half convinced that he imagined it. Lan Sizhui still steps forward to give Wei Ying a tight hug, then bounds over to Wen Ning and Wen Qing to do the same for them, much to Wen Qing’s consternation and Wen Ning’s embarrassed but pleased surprise.

Wei Ying must be high on all the good spirits floating around in the air, because he darts forward to grab Lan Zhan into his own tight hug before he can stop himself. Lan Zhan is stiff and rigid in his arms, of course, and Wei Ying lets go at the speed of lightning because he knows that Lan Zhan doesn’t like being touched.

“Haha,” Wei Ying laughs. “Sorry, sorry. It won’t happen again, okay, Lan Zhan? Just had to get that one out of my system.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, and Wei Ying doesn’t say anything, and then Lan Sizhui is sliding into the passenger seat of the car and waving an enthusiastic goodbye to Wei Ying.

“Gotta get home!” Wei Ying tells Lan Zhan brightly, stepping backwards and away. “Wouldn’t want to miss curfew, right? I’ll text you later! Bye, Lan Zhan!”

“Good night, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and a minute later they’re driving away.

Wen Ning and Wen Qing are both watching him from the porch, and he sighs and droops at the expression on both their faces. “I know, okay, I’m pathetic. Wen Ning, don’t go into the kitchen until I’ve cleaned everything up tonight, I don’t want you to murder me.”

Wei Ying makes his way inside the house, shedding off his warm layers like a snake shedding his skin. He heads towards the kitchen, but is stopped at the last minute by Wen Ning gently pulling on his hand. Wen Qing is standing right behind him in the hallway, arms crossed.

“Eh?” Wei Ying inquires.

“You should tell him how you feel,” Wen Qing says bluntly.

Wei Ying tries to bodily throw himself away from this conversation, jerking backwards and out of Wen Ning’s grip. “No! Why would I do that? It would just ruin everything again!”

“Wei Ying,” Wen Ning says kindly. “I think he’ll take it well.”

Wei Ying scoffs. “Yeah, of course he’ll take it well. He’ll tell me he doesn’t feel the same way but we can still be friends, and he’ll mean it, too. He’ll go on being like he always is, except that he’ll know that I love him, and that will be the third worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing says this time. “You are a very smart man, but right now you’re being so stupid. That man has the thickest face of anyone I've ever met, and I can still tell how he looks at you.”

Wei Ying doesn’t know what to do with that. His chest feels like it’s being carved open and displayed for all the world to see.

“How,” he croaks out. “How does he look at me?”

Wen Ning and Wen Qing share a look.

“Like you’re the only thing he can see,” Wen Qing says decisively. Wen Ning nods.

For so long the only thing that Wei Ying wanted was for Lan Zhan to just see him. Surely he would have noticed if it had worked. Surely he would’ve seen and understood it.

He must’ve been too quiet for too long, because Wen Ning pats his arm and moves past him towards the kitchen, slipping inside without saying a word. Wen Qing heads to the living room, already scrolling through her phone. Meanwhile, Wei Ying is trying to examine every look that Lan Zhan has ever given him, to catalogue every single time that Lan Zhan has locked eyes with him. Lan Zhan looks the same now as he ever did, Wei Ying thinks. Lan Zhan has never looked at him any differently than he does now.

It can’t be true, Wei Ying thinks, his heart beating wildly. It can’t.

-

Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling drop by Yi City on Wednesday afternoon, hauling their backpacks with them.

“Jin Ling,” Wei Ying says brightly, then realizes how weird that is when the kid has no idea who he is, so he adds a happy, “Lan Sizhui!” to his greeting as well.

“Hi, Wei Ying,” Lan Sizhui says, smiling back.

Lan Sizhui looks so much like Lan Zhan, with his pristine hair and pressed clothes and neat headband. Wei Ying has been texting Lan Zhan like normal for the past few days, but every time he responds Wei Ying wants to shake his phone until answers to his questions fall out. Am I special to him? Does he think about me the way I think about him? Is it possible? Is it possible?

He blames Wen Ning and Wen Qing for the fact that he can’t stop thinking about Lan Zhan at all. If Wei Ying had thought that Lan Zhan had consumed his mind before, it’s nothing compared to now. He thinks about Lan Zhan when he bikes to work. He thinks about Lan Zhan when he’s teaching students. He thinks about Lan Zhan when he’s brushing his teeth.

He thinks about Lan Zhan when he’s alone in bed. He thinks about what Lan Zhan would do, if Wei Ying were to slip into bed with him. How Lan Zhan would touch him, how he’d look, what he’d sound like. Wei Ying has been having sexy dreams about Lan Zhan for the past two nights, and it is all Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s fault.

He flushes, realizing that he’s thinking sexy thoughts about Lan Zhan in front of his kid and Wei Ying’s own nephew. Wei Ying groans out loud and slips down until his head is resting on the counter.

“Bad day?” Lan Sizhui says, gently patting the back of Wei Ying’s head.

“Bad life,” Wei Ying mumbles. He manfully pulls himself back up to peer at the two kids. Lan Sizhui is smiling at him in sympathy, while Jin Ling rolls his eyes. Everything about him suddenly makes so much sense: he’s been half-raised by Jiang Cheng, after all.

“We’re here to study,” Lan Sizhui says. “Is that okay?”

“Kid, that is what coffee shops are for,” Wei Ying says. “That, and writing bad first drafts of novels.”

Jin Ling actually snorts a laugh at that, then looks betrayed by his own body. Wei Ying beams at him.

They put in their orders, insisting that they’re fine ordering off the menu instead of letting Wei Ying experiment again, and while he makes their drinks Weu Wuxian tells them about how Xiao Xingchen just left a half hour ago, and how he’d love to meet all the kids, and how cool A-Qing is. Lan Sizhui listens attentively with a smile, while Jin Ling shifts back and forth on his feet like he’d rather be anywhere else than here.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Sizhui says, after he’s handed them their drinks. “Do you have a minute? I sort of need some advice.”

“Oh, I am full of advice,” Wei Ying says. There’s nobody else waiting in line, and most of the other people in the shop seem to be fine, so Wei Ying props his hip against the counter and smiles at the kids. “What wisdom do you need today, Young Lan?”

Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath, then says, “Neither of you can say anything, okay? I want to keep this a secret.”

Even Jin Ling looks interested as he sips at his latte. Wei Ying puts on a serious face and holds up three fingers. “I swear.”

“Okay.” Lan Sizhui digs for something in his backpack and emerges a second later clutching two pieces of paper. He’s blushing; it’s adorable. “I’ve sort of- I’ve been getting letters from a secret admirer.”

“What?” Jin Ling says with a laugh. “What is this, a stupid teenage movie?”

“That’s amazing,” Wei Ying says, mentally rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee. “What’s in them?”

“Well, the first one was sort of-” Lan Sizhui stops and bites his lip, looking horribly embarrassed. “You can’t make fun of it, okay?”

“Of course not!” Wei Ying cries, while Jin Ling mumbles, “I can’t make any promises.”

“It’s a list of things that the person likes about me,” Lan Sizhui says. He holds out one of the papers for Wei Ying to read.

The list is pretty long, so Wei Ying skims it. There’s generic things like: is brave, and, is handsome, and then there’s also things like, has cute ears, and is a bad singer but is still great to listen to.

Weu Wuxian mentally high-fives Lan Jingyi; Lan Sizhui is clearly very endeared by the list.

“What’s the second letter?” he asks, handing the first one over for Jin Ling to read.

“It’s shorter,” Lan Sizhui says. “It basically just said that they always hope I’m having a good day because they like my smile.”

“Who the hell notices calluses on fingers?” Jin Ling mumbles as he reads the first letter. “This is probably a serial killer.”

“They also gave me a rabbit charm,” Lan Sizhui adds shyly.

Wei Ying whistles. “Somebody’s got it bad for you!”

“I don’t know what to do,” Lan Sizhui says. He accepts the first letter as the Jin Ling hands it back, tucking it carefully back into his backpack. “The person just left them in my locker, so I don’t know who it could be.”

“Well,” Wei Ying muses, propping his chin on his hand. “You could do a stakeout. Get to school early every day and catch the person red-handed.”

“Hm,” Lan Sizhui says doubtfully. “I don’t know. That seems invasive. They don’t want me to know who it is, after all.”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying says. He looks slyly at Lan Sizhui. “Is there anyone that you wish it could be?”

Lan Sizhui sighs, then nods his head.

“Ugh. If it’s Ouyang Zizhen I’m going to stop being your friend,” Jin Ling says brattily. “He’s just the kind of romantic idiot to do this type of thing, too.”

“It’s not Zizhen,” Lan Sizhui admits. “It’s Jingyi.”

“That’s not better,” Jin Ling screeches, looking deeply unimpressed.

Lan Sizhui ignores him. “I like him so much. It would be nice if-” he trails off.

“Hm,” Wei Ying says, pretending to think. “You could always do the mature thing and talk to him about your feelings.”

Lan Sizhui looks down at the counter. “What if he doesn’t like me?” he asks quietly.

“Then it’s going to feel like you want to die,” Wei Ying says cheerfully. “For a while, too.”

Jin Ling gawks at him. “You’re an adult!” he says. “You should give better advice than that!”

“Maybe you’re just not old enough to understand my wisdom,” Wei Ying counters. Jin Ling sneers, and Wei Ying happily sticks his tongue out.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Sizui says, ever the grounding influence, “thank you for your advice. I appreciate it.”

“Okay, you get coffee free today,” Wei Ying says. “It’s a company policy that if people are nice to me they get coffee for free. And Jin Ling, too!” He wasn’t planning on making Jin Ling pay for coffee anyway, but he wisely decides not to mention that.

“I wasn’t nice to you,” Jin Ling says suspiciously.

“No, you’re a terrible little gremlin,” Wei Ying says.

Jin Ling grabs his coffee and angrily storms to a table. Lan Sizhui shares a smile with Wei Ying and follows, much more sedately.

Wei Ying watches them for a long minute as they settle in with their books. He can see Jiang Yanli in the curve of Jin Ling’s cheeks, and in the slant of his brows. Everything else looks like an exact replica of Jin Zixuan.

Wei Ying remembers being that young. He remembers how he’d felt invincible, and immortal; most days he doesn’t feel old, but watching Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling joke around as they study makes his bones ache.

“I’ll watch him now, A-Li,” Wei Ying promises to the bag of espresso beans he’s holding. “I won’t let you down again, okay?”

The coffee doesn’t deign to answer, but Wei Ying feels lighter all the same.

-

The text from Lan Zhan comes the next morning.

Wei Ying, it says, with perfect capitalization and punctuation. Wei Ying feels a rush of fondness run through him. There are some things I must discuss with you. Are you available at noon today?

Wei Ying reads the words again. Things I must discuss with you. He yelps and flings the phone away, then crawls across his bed to get it again.

r u breaking up w me? Wei Ying sends back with shaking fingers, then adds a smiley face to indicate that he’s joking. He’s not.

He knows that there has to actually be something there to break up. He knows that. But even if Lan Zhan were to tell him that they couldn’t be friends, that reconnecting with Wei Ying was a mistake, that he wants Wei Ying out of his life: Wei Ying wouldn’t be able to withstand that.

Ridiculous, Lan Zhan sends back.

of course i kno were not dating, Wei Ying sends - because of course that’s what Lan Zhan focuses on - with the laughing emoji. is everthng ok?

Are you available at noon? Lan Zhan sends again.

yep, Wei Ying sends, then turns his phone off so he doesn’t do something like ask if Lan Zhan is mad at him. Or disappointed, which is a hundred times worse than Lan Zhan being mad.

The entire bike ride there Wei Ying feels tense with nerves. He makes it to Cloud Recesses by fifteen past noon, which isn’t too bad for Wei Ying’s normal track record. He spots Lan Qiren shoveling snow off his porch a few doors down from Lan Zhan’s house, and Wei Ying gives him a sunny wave when Lan Qiren sees him. Lan Qiren glowers, practically trembling with rage.

“I was invited!” Wei Ying shouts. Lan Qiren mutters something that Wei Ying can’t hear; probably that there’s no shouting in Cloud Recesses. “Whoops! Sorry!” Wei Ying shouts back, even though he’s not.

Lan Zhan opens the door straight away when Wei Ying knocks, stepping aside to let him inside. Wei Ying kicks his shoes off and leaves his coat in a heap on top of them, wandering into Lan Zhan’s living room.

“I’m dying,” Wei Ying says. “You have to tell me what’s wrong, I’ve been worrying about it all morning. I’m going to have a heart attack, Lan Zhan, a heart attack.”

“It was not my intention to alarm you,” Lan Zhan says with a wrinkle between his immaculate eyebrows.

Wei Ying flops down onto the couch and stares at Lan Zhan with tragic eyes.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, a hint of disapproval at how Wei Ying is acting. Wei Ying sits up and tries to act like the actual adult that he is. Lan Zhan nods at him approvingly as he sits down, so Wei Ying can’t be in too much trouble, he figures.

“Is this gonna be like the Jin Ling talk?” Wei Ying asks. “Am I gonna have an emotional hangover?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“Oh, shit!” Wei Ying exclaims. “I was joking! Is this- am I gonna cry again? Do we have to do this now?”

“I believe it is best to discuss this now,” Lan Zhan says. “I am unsure if it will make you cry.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. He takes a deep breath and bends over, touching his toes, then stretches the other way against the back of the couch, raising his hands above his head. “Okay, lay it on me. I think I’ve got the mental fortitude for this.”

“The other day you said a name,” Lan Zhan says carefully. “A-Yuan.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He slumps down until his shoulder hits Lan Zhan’s again. “Yeah. Like I said, you probably don’t remember. He was a kid in the cancer ward of the hospital where I had my residency. He was- he was so little and in so much pain, but he’d still smile and hug my leg whenever he saw me. I loved that kid, Lan Zhan, I really did. And then I dropped out, and I tried to go back to see him later on, but he’d been transferred to a different hospital. Even Wen Qing couldn’t find him after that. I keep wondering- I keep thinking that he might have died, and I never would know. What if he didn’t make it, Lan Zhan? He was so little.”

Lan Zhan is silent through his entire speech, sitting still as a stone. When Wei Ying tips his head up to look at Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan gazes back.

“I do remember you talking about him,” Lan Zhan says. “You visited the hospital many times outside of your normal shift.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “Once I smuggled in a whole bunch of sheets and pillows and made his entire room into a fort. We pretended we were camping and I got eaten by bears.” He laughs sadly at the memory.

Lan Zhan looks down at his own lap again.

“He called me Poor Uncle,” Wei Ying continues. “Because he’d always beg for sweet stuff from the vending machines and I never had any money. Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, sitting up straight. “You have a lot of connections. Do you think you’d be able to track him down for me?”

“No,” Lan Zhan says immediately. Wei Ying must look as disappointed as he feels, because Lan Zhan continues. “There is no need. I know what happened with A-Yuan.”

“What!” Wei Ying sat up with a cry. “Where is he? Is he okay? How old is he now? Lan Zhan, you have to tell me!”

“He is sixteen years old,” Lan Zhan says. “Soon after you dropped out of medical school he contracted a life-threatening fever. He was transferred to a specialty hospital to better suit his needs. He recovered from the fever, and within the year he was cancer free.”

“Oh, wow,” Wei Ying breathes, then says, “Wait, how do you know all this, Lan Zhan? You never met him.”

“No, I did not,” Lan Zhan says. He seems even more tense than normal. “Not until after you left.”

Wei Ying stares at him, mouth hanging open.

Lan Zhan opens his mouth; it looks like he’s forcing himself to get the words out. “I remembered how much he meant to you,” he says. “I visited him at the height of his fever. I was the one who requested the transfer, as his grandmother did not have the funds at the time.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying manages to say. His thoughts swirl around: Lan Zhan went to see his A-Yuan. Lan Zhan got him the medical help he needed. He’s so good, Wei Ying thinks, not for the first time and definitely not for the last. Wei Ying’s heart aches with how good Lan Zhan is.

Lan Zhan looks down at his lap, then towards the front door. He rises gracefully and holds out a hand to Wei Ying, who takes it without complaint.

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything as he heads towards the front door; specifically, towards the wall where the family pictures are hanging. Wei Ying looks between Lan Zhan and the wall, not understanding what he’s meant to be doing, until his eye catches on a picture near the middle of the collection.

It’s Lan Zhan and A-Yuan. A-Yuan has spiky hair, like it’s starting to grow back, and he’s beaming at the camera from behind a sticky chocolate ice cream cone. Most of the ice cream covers his face and hands, and there’s even a smudge of chocolate on the normally pristine Lan Zhan.

There’s another picture: A-Yuan’s hair is a little longer, and he’s mid-motion as he attempts to pop a bubble.

And another: A-Yuan is sitting in Lan Xichen’s lap, blowing out a candle on what is obviously a birthday cake, decorated with the number six.

And another: A-Yuan is standing, while Lan Zhan kneels in front of him as he fastens the infamous Lan ribbon to his forehead, the one that can only be touched by parents or spouses.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says.

A-Yuan’s entire life is laid out in front of him, with Lan Zhan in almost every picture. There, horse riding; there, building sand castle; there, practicing music together. There’s a new one, obviously taken just a few weeks ago: Lan Zhan and A-Yuan at the hospital, Lan Zhan in bed still looking imperious and A-Yuan gently holding his hand.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says again. His eyes are filling with tears. “Oh, Sizhui. My little A-Yuan is Sizhui.”

“His grandmother died shortly after his fifth birthday,” Lan Zhan says tightly.

Wei Ying beams through his tears. His eyes trace the map of A-Yuan’s life over the years, how he grew from being a chubby-cheeked kid to an awkward pre-teen to the put-together teenager that he is today. It’s everything that Wei Ying had wished for him back then: the chance to live, the chance to thrive, the chance to have a stable home.

“Do you know,” Wei Ying says, eyes lingering on a picture of A-Yuan and Lan Zhan admiring a live butterfly exhibit. A-Yuan’s hand is held out to try and lure a butterfly, and Lan Zhan is knelt next to him, looking down at him with a small smile. “I thought about adopting him. His grandma was sick even back then, and I had daydreams about becoming his legal guardian and moving him in with us.”

Lan Zhan lets out a soft exhale, looking at the pictures on the walls.

Wei Ying feels his tears drip down his cheeks and chin to fall onto his shirt; he doesn’t care.

“Lan Zhan,” he says. “You’re so good.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t reply. He herds Wei Ying back into the living room, then lets Wei Ying sit and take it all in while he makes tea. Wei Ying takes a sip of the fragrant white tea when Lan Zhan hands it to him, thoughts bouncing around his head.

“Does he remember me?” Wei Ying eventually asks, when Lan Zhan sits down next to him with his own cup of tea. “Does he remember his Poor Uncle?”

Lan Zhan takes a sip of tea. “I am not sure,” he says, after a long pause. “The fever took a lot of his memories.”

Wei Ying nods. “He’d probably say something if he remembered me,” he says. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I-”

He almost says, I wish I had brought him home back then. He almost says, I wish I had been here for him, side by side with you. He almost says, I wish we had been a family, a real family, growing together over the years.

“Thank you,” he says instead. He’s about to start crying again; he’s cried more these past two weeks than the last thirteen years. “Thank you for watching him for me. Thank you for taking care of him.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“Will you tell him?” Wei Ying asks. “I’ll understand, if you don’t want to. It’s so long ago, and like you said, he probably wouldn’t remember me anyway.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“I’ll only say something if it’s okay with you,” Wei Ying insists. “It’s not just my decision.”

“You may tell him,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying exhales, closing his eyes.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying starts to say hesitantly, with no clue how the rest of his sentence will end.

The front door opens before he can figure it out, and Lan Sizhui’s sunny voice calls, “I’m home early, dad. Class was dismissed because Lan Hui-”

Lan Sizhui stops talking when he sees Wei Ying.

“Ah!” Wei Ying cries, scrubbing at the dried tears on his cheeks. “Hello! Hi! It’s good to see you, Lan Sizhui!”

“You too, Wei Ying,” Lan Sizhui says. “Hi, dad.”

Lan Zhan nods in response.

“Is everything okay?” Lan Sizhui asks both of them.

“Yes!” Wei Ying says. “I wasn’t crying! We were- we just- we were making out?”

Lan Zhan chokes on his tea.

“Oh, sorry!” Wei Ying says, thumping him on the back. “But you need to stop being so repressed, Lan Zhan! You need to make out more with people if even the words make you choke.”

Lan Sizhui is watching the entire thing with wide eyes.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan hisses.

“How was school?” Wei Ying asks Lan Sizhui. “Did you do good in class? Of course you did. I bet you can tell me all the Lan sect rules at the drop of a hat.”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes bounce between him and Lan Zhan. Now that Wei Ying is looking he can see A-Yuan: in the curve of his cheeks, in the dip of his chin, in his huge, guileless eyes.

“Ah,” Wei Ying says; he’s started crying again. It’s only been a few weeks since the hospital visit, and Wei Ying already has Lan Zhan, Jin Ling, and A-Yuan back in his life. It’s almost too much joy to bear.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Sizhui says with distress. Lan Zhan’s hand lands on his back, a steady presence. “Are you okay?”

“Ah,” Wei Ying warbles. “Lan Sizhui. You’ve grown to be such a good boy.”

Lan Sizhui catches the eye of Lan Zhan, clearly speaking without words. After a second of furious questions and answers between their gazes, Lan Sizhui makes his way into the room and squeezes himself to sit next to Wei Ying on the couch.

“I’m okay,” Wei Ying says. He can’t help it: he reaches up to pinch at Lan Sizui’s cheek. “Lan Sizhui, can I tell you a story?”

“Sure,” Lan Sizhui says, obviously still confused. Wei Ying sniffles and pats his hand.

“When I was still in medical school, I did my residency at a nearby hospital,” Wei Ying says. His throat is still tight, and his voice is scratchy, but he wants so badly to say this. “My favorite part of the hospital was the children’s ward. And I wasn’t supposed to have one, but I had a favorite. I’m not looking at Lan Zhan but I know he’s making his exasperated of course you did face behind my back.” Lan Sizhui’s amused expression confirms it. “This kid was so cool. He was funny, and really smart, and he always kept trying to bribe me to smuggle sweets into the hospital for him.”

Lan Sizhui’s face is starting to change, like he’s right on the cusp of understanding what Wei Ying is trying to say.

“There was this one time I made his entire room into a gigantic blanket fort,” Wei Ying says. “At the end of the day I buried him in blankets and told him it would help him grow big and strong.”

Lan Sizhui gasps quietly.

“I really loved this kid,” Wei Ying says. “But I had to go away, and I accidentally left him for a very long time. I didn’t mean to, but I did.”

“Poor Uncle?” Lan Sizhui asks incredulously. His eyes are clinging to Wei Ying’s face like he’s afraid to look away, like Wei Ying will go away again if he does.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying tells him. “I’m sorry I never came back.”

The words are swallowed up in Lan Sizhui’s frantic hug. “Poor Uncle,” he says. Wei Ying can feel his tears against his neck. “I can’t believe I found you again.”

Wei Ying’s not sure how long they sit there, hugging and crying intermittently, but it’s long enough for Lan Zhan to clean up their tea and start cooking a late lunch. Lan Sizhui looks just as emotionally exhausted as Wei Ying when they draw apart, but he smiles at Wei Ying radiantly.

“I’m still poor,” Wei Ying warns him, which makes Lan Sizhui laugh. “So don’t expect sweet treats every day, do you hear me? I’m not rich like your dad.”

“I don’t need anything,” Lan Sizhui says. “Just- please don’t go again, Wei Ying.”

“Go?” Wei Ying says, eyebrows raised. “You can’t get rid of me. I’ve moving into the crawl space underneath your house and will raid your trash like a raccoon every single night, don’t think I won’t!”

Lan Zhan appears in the living room doorway, hands held sedately behind his back.

“Lunch is served,” he says.

It’s a simple enough meal - just rice and vegetables - but Lan Zhan sets a bottle of chili oil next to Wei Ying’s plate before they tuck in.

It makes Wei Ying think of the chili oil from the night he decided to leave. He’d wanted Lan Zhan to not be bogged down by him, to have a chance to live without the heavy weight of being married to Wei Ying hanging around his throat. He may not have liked to think about it, but he’d always imagined Lan Zhan settling down with a new wife or husband, taking care of them the same way he’d taken care of Wei Ying.

Instead, Lan Zhan had sought out Wei Ying’s kid, the one he talked about all the time, and made that kid his own. He’d protected Wei Ying from Jiang Cheng, even though he had to break his own moral code to do so, and kept Wei Ying’s address a secret for thirteen years just in case. He’d never sent divorce paperwork, even though he wasn’t sure if he’d ever see Wei Ying again.

He thinks about what Wen Qing said, about how Lan Zhan looks like Wei Ying means everything to him.

Lan Sizhui and Lan Zhan are already eating their food, in complete silence as usual, and Wei Ying is staring at this dumb bottle of spicy chili oil like it holds all the answers to the universe.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, dazedly. Lan Zhan, obviously already used to Wei Ying’s interruptions during his mealtimes, looks up. “Lan Zhan, do you love me?”

Lan Sizhui drops his chopsticks into his bowl.

Lan Zhan angles his gaze away from Wei Ying and slowly brings another bite of food up to his mouth.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. He feels like his entire life has shifted just a few feet to the left in the past thirty seconds. He thinks about how Lan Zhan has never changed the way that he looks at Wei Ying. “Lan Zhan, have you loved me for the past thirteen years?”

Lan Zhan carefully puts down his chopsticks and looks at Wei Ying. Lan Sizhui is sitting completely still, like he’s afraid if he moves they’ll remember he’s there.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, heart racing and mind going a million miles a minute. “Have you loved me since you first met me?”

Lan Zhan stares down at his bowl and chopsticks for a long minute, holding himself tensely, then looks directly back at Wei Ying. “There is no talking during meals,” he says.

Wei Ying is going crazy. His heart is going to burst out of his skin if he doesn’t know for sure. “Lan Zhan,” he pleads. He has to know.

Lan Zhan picks up his chopsticks, but the corners of his mouth twitch down. There’s Wei Ying’s answer.

He flings himself out of his chair and clambers around the table, dropping to his knees in front of Lan Zhan.

“Will you marry me?” he blurts out.

Lan Sizhui is sitting so still he could be made of marble, but his eyes are wide. Lan Zhan looks down at Wei Ying, who must look ridiculous, but Wei Ying doesn’t care. He grabs Lan Zhan’s hands so he can’t move away.

“Please marry me,” Wei Ying begs.

“Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan says. “We are already married, Wei Ying.”

Lan Sizhui gasps.

“Marry me for real,” Wei Ying insists. “Be my husband. Live with me- if Lan Sizhui is okay with it!”

Lan Sizhui nods dumbly.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, completely serious. “I want to wake up with you. I want to go to bed with you. I want to spend every night with you, even if we’re not doing anything at all. I want to cook for you and have you eat it even when it’s terrible. I want to be married, Lan Zhan. You’re my soulmate.”

Lan Zhan's lips part, just a bit, and then he slides out of his chair until he’s kneeling in front of Wei Ying. They’re still holding hands.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying gasps, then throws himself face first into Lan Zhan, crashing their lips together. It’s not a good kiss: their teeth clack almost painfully, and Wei Ying’s probably gripping Lan Zhan’s hands too tightly, and Lan Zhan’s lips are slick from the steamed vegetables so Wei Ying ends up kissing mostly just his bottom lip.

It’s the best thing that Wei Ying has ever felt in his life.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs happily against his lips. “I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. I’m so sorry I left you.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Xhan says.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says again. “I won’t ever do it again, okay? I promise. I swear it.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. Instead, he leans forward to capture Wei Ying’s lips in another kiss. This one is soft and sweet, just a quick press of their lips together. Wei Ying is going to get addicted to the feeling of it, he can already tell.

“A-Yuan!” Wei Ying exclaims suddenly, clattering to his feet. He hurries over to grab Sizhui into a hug, tugging him until he's standing up, then says, to his still shocked face, “Sizhui, can I marry your dad? Only if you say yes!”

“You’re already married?” Lan Sizhui says in confusion. “I mean, yeah, of course! I’m a little confused, though.”

“I can explain,” Wei Ying says. “Me and your dad are idiots. The end!”

“It is a long story,” Lan Zhan says. He gracefully rises to his feet, coming to stand next to Wei Ying when he makes an impatient noise. Wei Ying wraps his arm around Lan Zhan’s waist; he’s never letting go away. He lays his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.

“We have so much time to make up for,” he muses. “So many dates we missed out on. We could’ve had twelve more children by now, Lan Zhan! Sizhui, you want siblings, right? We can adopt Jin Ling and get him away from Jiang Cheng. Can we get another rabbit? Then there’ll be a rabbit for all of us. Oh, Lan Zhan, I’ve got so many things I want to do with you.”

“Okay,” Lan Sizhui says. “On that note, I’m going to stay overnight at Uncle Xichen’s.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says disapprovingly, while Wei Ying devolves into delighted laughter.

“Young man!” Wei Ying pretends to gasp, laughing his way through it. “Get your mind out of the gutter!”

Lan Sizhui is slowly turning redder and redder, but he still says, “I’ll go text Uncle now.”

“Tell him you’ll both come over for breakfast tomorrow!” Wei Ying calls, as Lan Sizhui leaves the room to fetch his phone. “Wait, no, brunch! I don’t want to wake up too early! Oh,” he turns to Lan Zhan. “I just invited myself to stay tonight, huh? I don’t have-”

“Do not leave,” Lan Zhan says. His grip tightens around Wei Ying’s shoulders.

“Good,” Wei Ying says. He closes his eyes and inhales the scent of sandalwood and crisp air; the scent of Lan Zhan. He can’t believe that his day started out like normal and is ending like this: safe and warm in Lan Zhan’s arms, loved by Lan Zhan. “Lan Zhan, I want to burst from happiness.”

Lan Zhan turns his head, placing a kiss on Wei Ying’s forehead.

Wei Ying breathes, in and out.

-

“Lan Zhan,” Weu Wuxian groans.

Lan Zhan is currently nosing along Wei Ying’s jawline, leaving a trail of delicate kisses with each new batch of skin he encounters. It’s infuriating, because a moment ago he was sucking and biting an immense hickey at the dip of Wei Ying’s collarbone, making him writhe and gasp at the bite of pain.

“You’re teasing me,” Wei Ying pouts, when Lan Zhan gently - too gently - nips at his chin before turning his attention to the other side of his neck. “What have I done to deserve this?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says into Wei Ying’s skin.

“Ah, c’mon,” Wei Ying says. He’s currently straddling Lan Zhan on the couch, and he tries to rock down so his aching cock can brush against Lan Zhan’s lap. Like the last time he tried, Lan Zhan firmly moves his hips away with one of his big hands. “This is definitely punishment for something, isn’t it?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“If I guess what it’s punishment for, can I please put my hand on your cock?” Wei Ying asks breathlessly. Lan Zhan’s mouth slips against his skin as his breath hitches, and he pulls back long enough to nod at Wei Ying.

“Okay, great,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan starts pressing gentle kisses to Wei Ying’s shoulders, nudging his t-shirt aside with his nose as he does. “Uh, is this about how I won’t shut up when we eat?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. Wei Ying feels like he’s burning up, like he’s about to explode if Lan Zhan doesn’t pick up the pace. It’s so slow and gentle, and all Wei Ying wants is for Lan Zhan to destroy him. Lan Zhan is obviously the worst.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. He tries to shift again; Lan Zhan wraps his hand around Wei Ying’s hip to keep him still. “Is it about the time I got you drunk and then you married me?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer again, but his free hand does slip underneath the hem of Wei Ying’s shirt to stroke lightly at his stomach.

“Okay, fuck,” Wei Ying pants. “Is it- is it about how I slipped porn onto your phone lock screen that one day in the library?”

Lan Zhan suddenly opens his mouth and attacks Wei Ying’s shoulder with his teeth and tongue; Wei Ying bucks in surprise, yelping a bit, as Lan Zhan shifts from holding his body too far away to hauling him in as close as they can get: chest to chest, hips rubbing against each other frantically through the fabric of their pants.

“Ah!” Wei Ying moans, when Lan Zhan’s other hand snakes up to flick at one of Wei Ying’s nipples. “I can’t believe you’re punishing me for that, it was sixteen years ago, Lan Zhan!”

“Irrelevant,” Lan Zhan murmurs. He drags his lips across Wei Ying’s collarbones, stopping to bite every few inches.

“Take my shirt off,” Wei Ying demands. “Take me to bed. Love me forever, Lan Zhan, can you do that?”

In response Lan Zhan grips Wei Ying’s ass and lifts him up, coming up to stand with Wei Ying’s legs wrapped around his waist. Wei Ying sucks in a delighted gasp.

It takes them a while to make it to Lan Zhan’s bedroom, since he keeps pressing Wei Ying against every available surface to wildly kiss him, sinking his tongue into Wei Ying’s mouth like he’s trying to suck his soul out with a kiss. It’s the hottest thing that’s ever happened to Wei Ying.

Eventually they make it, and when Lan Zhan dumps him onto the bed, Wei Ying takes a second to look around. The room is sparse, of course, but there are little personal touches here and there: the cologne that Lan Zhan has used for as long as Wei Ying’s known him, the photos of Sizhui sitting on Lan Zhan’s vanity, the soft leather case of Lan Zhan’s guqin tucked in the corner.

Lan Zhan has both hands underneath Wei Ying’s shirt and is tonguing at his stomach when something in the corner of Lan Zhan’s mirror catches his eye.

“Wait,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan instantly stills. “Wait, is that-” he sits up - Lan Zhan obligingly moving out of the way - so he can scramble off the bed to get a closer look.

It’s exactly what he thought it was: one of the paper men from school that Wei Ying used to cut out and write notes on to stick in Lan Zhan’s desk or backpack when he wasn’t looking. Most of them were teasing and lighthearted, and a few of them were crude with innuendo, but the one that’s tucked into Lan Zhan’s mirror has two small hearts for eyes and a hastily written note that says, Lan Zhan is the cutest!!!! in Wei Ying’s messy, cramped handwriting.

Wei Ying doesn’t even remember writing this one. He probably thought it would bother Lan Zhan that someone like Wei Ying thought he was cute, because Lan Zhan always hated when Wei Ying would pretend to flirt with him. Wei Ying’s hand hovers over it.

“You kept this,” he says. Lan Zhan is silent behind him. “I can’t believe that you kept this all these years.”

There’s a rustle, then a shift of fabric moving; when Wei Ying turns around Lan Zhan is reaching for something from inside his closet. It’s a box, small enough to be easily tucked away but larger than a bread box, and Lan Zhan carefully retrieves it and sits on the bed. Wei Ying instantly bounds over to sit next time him.

The box is stuffed full to the brim: tiny paper men, sketches and drawings that Wei Ying had done when he couldn’t sit still in class, scribbled half-completed songs that Wei Ying would compose and then forget. Tucked against the side of the box is a marriage certificate, carefully situated so it doesn’t crease, and in another corner is a miniature bottle of Wei Ying’s favorite chili oil.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He wants to rifle through everything, but this feels too precious to mess around with. Instead he delicately picks one of the paper men up by it’s little arm to stare at it.

There’s something underneath it, and at first Wei Ying can’t understand why it’s in the box. It’s a ring, plain silver with no ornamentation, and it’s not something that Wei Ying has ever seen before in his life. Lan Zhan picks it up, then picks Wei Ying’s hand, and understanding flashes through Wei Ying in a heartbeat.

Lan Zhan slides the ring onto his finger, slowly but surely.

“When did you buy this?” Wei Ying asks breathlessly. “Was it all those years ago?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“It’s not traditional,” Wei Ying says. He looks at the ring on his finger, looking foreign against his long, knobbly fingers.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says again. He sits back and folds his hands in his lap, looking at Wei Ying.

“I’ll wear it,” Wei Ying promises. It's suddenly vitally important that Lan Zhan understands what this ring is doing to him. “I’ll never take it off. They’ll have to cremate me with it, Lan Zhan, and then someone is going to have to sift through my ashes because it’s going to be with me forever, okay?”

Lan Zhan’s lips tip up, just the smallest amount. Wei Ying is elated; he feels like a balloon has just inflated in his chest.

“Ah, my husband,” Wei Ying says. He rubs his fingertips along the sacred family headband, and Lan Zhan shudders. “You’re so good to me. If you don’t fuck me right now I’m going to die.”

Lan Zhan actually huffs a small laugh at that, and it makes Wei Ying tackle him back against the bed, the box full of mementos falling to a thump on the floor. Wei Ying doesn’t give a shit; he needs to get his hands on Lan Zhan right away.

He starts with Lan Zhan’s shirt, which he unbuttons so quickly that there’s a danger of it ripping the buttons, not that Lan Zhan is complaining. He’s wearing an undershirt, because he’s always so stuffy and formal; Wei Ying loves it. The undershirt gets tossed to the side, and Lan Zhan’s hair is mussed with flyaway strands from the effort.

Wei Ying leans forward to claim his lips in a kiss, while his fingers fumble along the zipper of Lan Zhan’s pants. It’s a joint effort to get his pants and socks off, and then he’s lying underneath Wei Ying, most of his skin exposed and his lips red from Wei Ying’s mouth; Wei Ying is going to burn out of his skin.

He throws his own shirt off, then hops out of his jeans as quick as he can, and he’s back on top of Lan Zhan as soon as he’s down to just his underwear. He kisses Lan Zhan desperately, one hand holding himself up over Lan Zhan’s chest and the other running over all the skin that he can get to at the moment. He can feel Lan Zhan’s cock through his underwear, hard and thick and ready. Wei Ying can’t help but get his hand on it, just to feel the weight of it in his hand.

Lan Zhan makes a small, choked off sound, and Wei Ying laughs breathlessly.

“What do you want, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks, running his lips over Lan Zhan’s ear, over his chin, bringing them back up to Lan Zhan’s lips for a bruising kiss. “What do you want?”

“You,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying moans into the next kiss. “Have you thought about it, Lan Zhan?” he asks once they’ve broken apart, moving down Lan Zhan’s body until his mouth can press against the stretch of fabric around his dick. Lan Zhan swallows, the sound loud in the small room.

“I thought about you,” Wei Ying says. “I’ve thought about all the things you could do to me. How you could finger me open, rough and quick, like you wanted me too badly to take your time. I’ve thought about how I’d let you put your cock right on my mouth, but you wouldn’t let me do more than lick at the tip while you stroke yourself off, and at the last minute you’d slip inside so you could come in my mouth.”

Lan Zhan’s back arches at that. Wei Ying takes the opportunity to slide his underwear down his thighs, throwing them somewhere behind him.

Lan Zhan’s cock is a triumph of humankind. Wei Ying runs a finger along the underside of it, reveling in feeling Lan Zhan’s soft skin and the pulsing veins.

“I’ve thought about you on your knees,” Wei Ying says. “In every which way possible. Sucking me down, letting me fuck you, waiting for you to tell me when it’s okay to come.”

Lan Zhan’s cock gives a tiny jerk.

“Did you think about me, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks. He sits up and draws Lan Zhan up, too, pushing him back until he’s sitting against his pillows, knees bent and cock jutting up bright red in between. Wei Ying kicks his own underwear off, Lan Zhan watching him hungrily the entire time, then crawls forward to fit his knees in between Lan Zhan’s thighs to drape his arms across his neck.

“Did you think about me?” he asks again, in a whisper, lips close enough to kiss. He doesn’t yet, though.

“Only you,” Lan Zhan says hoarsely. “Only Wei Ying.”

“Did you think about tying me up with your headband?” Wei Ying asks breathlessly. “About taking me and fucking me while I wear your precious Lan ribbon? Only family and spouses can touch it, you know.”

He emphasizes his words by rubbing his finger underneath the edge, and Lan Zhan’s hips jerk and he quietly gasps.

“I love you,” Wei Ying tells him seriously, before he kneels down to take Lan Zhan into his mouth.

The position isn’t the most comfortable, being folded over while his own cock jabs him in the stomach, but he leaves his arm bent up to touch Lan Zhan’s headband, and the sound that Lan Zhan chokes back makes any discomfort worth it. He uses one hand to cup the base of Lan Zhan’s cock, then slides his lips down until he’s sucking as much of it as he can take.

Lan Zhan curls forward, making the strain on Wei Ying’s arm easier to bear; his finger slips along the edge of the silk, caressing the soft skin of Lan Zhan’s forehead. Lan Zhan is panting, now, and Wei Ying uses his tongue to curl around Lan Zhan’s cock as his mouth slips up and down.

Lan Zhan’s thighs tremble, like he’s trying to hold himself still, and Wei Ying moves his hand down from the headband to Lan Zhan’s mouth, slipping his thumb into the thick wet heat. Lan Zhan shudders again, and Wei Ying starts moving his other hand in tandem with his mouth as he moves.

Lan Zhan sighs and catches Wei Ying's wrist in his long fingers, a warning, and Wei Ying hums and brings his hand back up to Lan Zhan’s headband, getting it wet with Lan Zhan’s own spit.

Lan Zhan’s hips rock up, minutely, and Wei Ying takes his mouth off Lan Zhan’s cock.

“Husband,” he says, staring up into Lan Zhan’s eyes. “My husband, my Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan chokes out a grunt and comes, striping along Wei Ying’s cheeks and mouth.

Wei Ying licks his lips, revelling in the salty and sour taste, before hauling himself up and situating his thighs on the outside of Lan Zhan’s, straddling him.

“Fuck,” Wei Ying says. He grabs his own cock and starts fucking into his fist, leaning his forehead against Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Lan Zhan, you’re so beautiful. I can’t believe I get to have you. Lan Zhan, my husband.”

Lan Zhan grips at Wei Ying’s hips, holding him still as Wei Ying writhes against him, until he comes on Lan Zhan’s chest with a loud groan.

There’s a long silence as they both catch their breaths; they pant against each other’s mouth, until Lan Zhan leans forward to catch Wei Ying in a long, tender kiss.

“I really wanted you to fuck me,” Wei Ying says, looking down at the mess they’ve made. When he looks back up Lan Zhan is eyeing his face hungrily, and Wei Ying remembers that he has come all over his face.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He finally relaxes his grip on Wei Ying’s waist.

“We’re old,” Wei Ying tells him. “We can’t go all night long. You’re going to throw your back out.”

Lan Zhan pulls him in to kiss him again. Wei Ying lets him with a contented sigh.

“Come,” Lan Zhan says, nudging Wei Ying with his thigh. “Shower.”

“Only if you promise to fondle me in the shower,” Wei Ying tells him.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says seriously.

Wei Ying rests his head against Lan Zhan’s heart, listening to the steady thump.

-

“Do you know why I left?” Wei Ying asks.

Lan Zhan is making crepes with scallions and radish; a treat for a Friday morning, but Lan Zhan is still technically out on sick leave until the new season starts, and Wei Ying doesn’t work at Yi City today, and his meeting with Ouyang Zizhen isn’t until much later. He’d badgered Lan Zhan into texting Sizhui and letting him know that he doesn’t need to go to school today, and he and Lan Xichen are set to come over for brunch in a few minutes.

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer the question, but Wei Ying didn’t expect one.

“I was scared,” he lets Lan Zhan know anyway. “I thought you were only tolerating me, and I was afraid that if I stayed with you any longer I’d do something stupid, like let you know how I felt about you.”

Lan Zhan turns around from his position at the stove to look at Wei Ying.

“We’ve both been stupid,” Wei Ying says wryly.

Lan Zhan walks to the table and drops a kiss into Wei Ying’s hair.

“You will stay,” he says.

“I’ll stay,” Wei Ying agrees. “Always. Besides, you put a ring on it. You can’t back down now.”

He flashes his ring, and Lan Zhan flushes, flustered. Wei Ying pulls him in for a long kiss.

Lan Zhan goes back to cooking, and Wei Ying spins the ring around his finger for a minute.

"Does it bother you?" he asks the strong lines of Lan Zhan's back. Lan Zhan doesn't turn around, but he inclines his head just a bit in supplication for more information. "That I didn't amount to anything. That I didn't live up to my expectations."

Lan Zhan's back tenses, and when he turns around he looks serious and disapproving. "You are a good man," he says.

"Okay, I mean- that's not what we're talking about," Wei Ying says. "I'm not- I'm not like you, or Wen Qing. I'm not impressive, or-"

Lan Zhan cuts him off. "You are a good man," he says again. "What more is necessary?"

Wei Ying has spent most of his life with the Jiang's being told that a lot more is necessary. He was always expected to be smart, to strive for excellence, to be the best.

"Lan Zhan," he says, helplessly. It's hard to believe that it doesn't matter to Lan Zhan that he's marrying a barista. "You can't-"

Lan Zhan stalks forward until he's standing directly in front of Wei Ying. His eyes look luminous in the morning light, like they're on fire. "You are a good man," he says again, firmly, like there's no argument at all.

Wei Ying yanks him down by his shoulders to kiss him, hard and deep. Maybe someday he'll believe it, if Lan Zhan keeps saying it. Maybe he'll feel worthy of Lan Zhan eventually, but for now he'll have to trust Lan Zhan when he says that Wei Ying deserves him.

After all, there's no lying in Cloud Recesses.

Lan Sizhui and Lan Xichen trundle over soon enough, and Wei Ying greets them both with big hugs.

“Lan Zhan and I are getting married,” he tells Lan Xichen in delight.

Lan Xichen beams. “I’m sorry I missed the first wedding. I am excited to help plan this one. Oh, and my brother told me you might want this.”

He holds out a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. Wei Ying takes it with a puzzled expression.

“It's Jiang Cheng’s number,” Lan Xichen explains.

Wei Ying’s fingers tightens around it, briefly, but he tucks it into his pocket all the same.

Lan Zhan has already set the table, and they all sit and reach for the various foods that are scattered across the table. Wei Ying is so thankful that he’s married to such a good chef; he presses a quick kiss to Lan Zhan’s cheek, which gets him a smile in return.

“Poor Uncle,” Lan Sizhui murmurs happily. “I’m so glad you found us again.”

“As if you could keep me away,” Wei Ying scoffs, then says, “Oh! I need to call Wen Ning and Wen Qing! Nobody eat yet!”

Everyone obediently pauses in reaching for food as Wei Ying fumbles for his phone. Wen Qing’s face fills up his phone screen, looking grumpy and rumpled like she’s just woken up.

“What?” she snaps.

“Get Wen Ning!” Wei Ying cries. Wen Qing pauses, then looks closer at Wei Ying.

“Did you not come home last night?” she asks suspiciously.

“Get Wen Ning!” Wei Ying says again. She grumbles, but the camera moves as she walks to Wen Ning’s room.

“Brother,” Lan Xichen says, while they wait. “It seems that you were not the only one to have a romantic connection last night.”

“Uncle!” Lan Sizhui hisses, turning bright red. Lan Zhan turns to look at him, and Lan Sizhui stares furiously at his plate.

Wei Ying gasps. “Are you dating Lan Jingyi?”

“Keep it down,” Wen Qing mutters grouchily from the phone.

Lan Sizhui ducks his head, face flaming, as he nods.

“My child!” Wei Ying cries, throwing an arm around Lan Sizhui’s shoulders. “My son! You’re getting so old!”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.

“He’ll come around,” Wei Ying whispers to Lan Sizhui. Lan Sizhui beams at him.

“Okay, what?” Wen Qing asks. Wen Ning is behind her, sporting an adorable bedhead and looking confused.

“First of all, say good morning to everyone!” Wei Ying says brightly, flashing the phone around the table. Lan Xichen and Lan Sizhui both smile and wave, but when Wei Ying looks back at the phone Wen Qing looks murderous.

“Please don’t tell me that you just showed Lan Xichen what I look like when I first wake up,” she says.

“I’m engaged!” Wei Ying tells her. “Me and Lan Zhan are getting married.”

“Oh!” Wen Ning cries happily. “Congratulations, Wei Ying!”

“You’re already married,” Wen Qing grits out.

“Wen Qing!” Wei Ying wails. “Be happy for me! I found my true love!”

Her face softens imperceptibly.

“Congratulations,” she says. Wei Ying beams.

Wei Ying wants to stay in this moment forever: sitting in a sun-drenched room, surrounded by people he loves who love him in return.

He catches Lan Zhan’s eye from across the table; his expression is so old and familiar that Wei Ying knows it like the back of his hand. For so long he’d thought it meant something that it didn’t, but now he knows.

I am yours, Lan Zhan's eyes say. You are mine.

Wei Ying grins.