The bus, at this hour, is a creaking, hollow shell.
Wei Ying gets on the bus and finds that it is no warmer on the inside. He sits, because there are too many empty seats and no reason not to, and stuffs both hands into the pockets of his jacket.
The doors close with a hiss and a groan. Outside it is 7pm, outside the sky is an inverted bowl dipped in black ink but inside, inside the lights are bright and white and blank like unblinking eyes. He folds into himself a bit, and watches the city start to move again as the bus leaves its stop.
He hopes the bus routes haven’t changed. Wei Ying has always been a sufferer of the act now, think later syndrome -- as Jiang Cheng would say -- and he’s only beginning to re-evaluate, now, his decision of ‘taking a walk’ at this hour and with his phone at a screen-dimmed 15 percent.
The bus driver is a dark-skinned man, cheeks splattered with even darker sunspots. Like Wei Ying he has sunken into his seat up front, swallowed by his coat with the zipper pulled as far up as it will go. (Wei Ying can’t see much of him, but he supposes bus drivers in this city are like that.)
He diverts his eyes back out the window. The buildings beyond the bus are beginning to grow shorter, walls older and stained red. The streets are far from bustling, tourists driven away by the cold and the night, but the stores remain open. Barbershops. Tailors. Asian grocers, produce piled into cardboard boxes filling half the street. Front windows scrawled with Chinese characters -- five minute haircut, four dollars, roast duck, dim sum. The words open their mouths to speak the second his eyes reach them, and he relaxes.
The bus enters a tunnel, and when it emerges it begins to pull to a slow. Wei Ying stumbles to his feet and withdraws his freezing fingers from his pockets, the doors dragging open with the same, laboured creak with which they’d opened.
He steps out, the bottoms of his scuffed sneakers finding purchase on pavement quietened under the spell of winter, and instantly collides with something soft.
It takes him a moment to find the right words. “Sorry,” he blurts out finally, after righting himself, after molding the 不好意思1 in the back of his throat into something tasting more like this city. Under the buzzing white light of a streetlamp, Wei Ying turns to look unfortunate bumper car number two in the eye, and finds --
Dark, clear irises. A pair of equally-dark, stupidly perfect eyebrows, raised in the closest thing to shock -- a straight, soft nose. Lips pink and chapped and parting.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes, at 7pm on a winter’s day.
Behind him, the bus pulls away.
(He does not manage to find words for this as quickly.)
“Lan Zhan,” he blurts out, finally. Dumbly. Lan Wangji stands before him on the sidewalk -- dressed in white as if returning to a funeral, staring at him with a gaze so intense Wei Ying has to look away. (He lands his eyes on the large, slender instrument bag strapped to the man’s back instead, and for a moment devoid of any situational awareness whatsoever, Wei Ying almost smiles.)
“Excuse me,” someone snaps from behind. It is only when Wei Ying turns around does he realize they are clogging the bus stop, Lan Zhan and him -- “Sorry,” he rushes to say again, for the second time that evening. He makes to move out of the way, and is distinctly aware of a warm, steady hand gripping at his forearm.
Lan Zhan follows.
They end up borrowing the space next to the boba shop tucked away behind said bus stop. It’s freezing but Lan Zhan’s eyes are still wide and golden and absolutely fucking unreadable, his fingers still wrapped around his arm as if he’d disappear if he let go. (Wei Ying, for once in his life, doesn’t quite know what to say. What can he say, after all this time?)
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan repeats, voice deep and shaking, dark blue like the night sky. Wei Ying. Not whatever god-awful name he’d had to take on when he first stepped foot into America five years ago, just so he wouldn't have to hear his real one butchered every two seconds. Wei Ying. He’d only ever called him Wei Ying.
“Lan Zhan,” he says now, soft. Feels the corner of his lips curl upwards, finally, and does not feel for a single second the need to duck, to be prepared for a blow. (Lan Zhan’s hand tightens around his wrist, then loosens, like a squeezing heart.) “You still play the guqin.”
When Lan Wangji opens his mouth he has switched to speaking in chinese, the words on his tongue tasting of home.
“When did you,” He swallows. “When did you come back?”
The silence that follows is not quite silence at all. It is the fuzzy sound of the city, thrumming streetlamps in the dark -- it suddenly feels a lot colder, the night air sharp with it, and Wei Ying wishes he had another layer of clothes on.
“A day ago,” He answers finally. With the same tongue, the words coming to him easier now that they don’t feel so foreign. Lan Wangji stares at him like he does not quite believe him -- a little voice sounding a lot like his own, reminds him he probably deserves it.
He makes a face.
“I’m telling you the truth, Lan Zhan! I promise. I’ve barely even gone anywhere yet.”
Lan Zhan’s fingers loosen from his wrist, slowing in the motion as if hesitant, before dropping back down to his side. (He does not stop looking at him, and Wei Ying’s heart beats like rain on a roof.) “You,” he starts. Then stops.
Wei Ying exhales. There is a near-crease forming on Lan Wangji’s forehead -- the same, pale blue headband pulled over it, he realizes. It feels like a jab at him, somewhere to the left of his chest. He drags his eyes back down to Lan Zhan’s.
“I was going to take a walk, Lan Zhan,” he says, soft. Subconsciously pushes his hands back into his pockets -- not quite trying to warm them up now, just curling them into the fabric of his jacket. Looks at Lan Wangji, strange and familiar and handsome, and swallows against a rush of emotion. “Walk with me?”
They end up queueing for boba next door.
The line is long. But the line has always been long, even when Wei Ying had first discovered the place. The shop is tiny and the queue slips right out the door, snaking, sometimes, down the sidewalk -- the 7pm crowd is calmer, but steadfast nonetheless. They find a place at the very end of it, Lan Zhan’s expression unreadable but shoulders gentler than he’d held them before.
The silence between them is stifling.
Wei Ying looks around the shop, like if his eyes were busy all of him would look busy too. Like it would take an onlooker’s attention off the fact that Lan Wangji made him not quite know what to do with himself. The walls are white and bricked -- the breadth of the small shop lined with students and friends and people off work, wrapped up in winter coats and boots and scarves.
Wei Ying remembers it clearly.
Joining the line on odd days of the week, sometimes with Huaisang, sometimes with Mianmian. Sometimes with both. He remembers -- remembers the smell of the store, a fragrant blend of tea and honey. Remembers the anteater decal on the right wall. The bustle of the place right in the midst of rush hour.
Now, Lan Wangji is beside him.
Wei Ying takes the chance to get a proper look at him, out of the corner of his eye. The other man’s coat is pure white and spotless, at that, a heavy-looking wool reaching down until the middle of his thighs. He’s still got the Lan hairband on, of course, and his hair is still long -- not the longest Wei Ying has seen it, but reaching down to his chest nonetheless. It’s black and soft-looking and pulled back into a ponytail, loosened by this hour.
The store’s lights are a bright white, and Lan Wangji’s eyes glint with it. Wei Ying clears his throat.
“What are you getting, Lan Zhan?” He asks, just to fill the space between them with something, anything. Lan Zhan looks over at him, eyes ebony and unblinking.
“I am not.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows raise. “Ah? Then -- I’d feel bad making you queue with me, Lan Zhan! We can just --”
“It is not a problem,” Lan Wangji says. Looks at him. "You," he starts again, suddenly seeming hesitant -- Lan Zhan's face remains a perfected image of impassiveness, but the words do not come after several seconds of his lips parting. Wei Ying stares. "You used to…...come here."
Wei Ying hears the question in it. He tears his eyes away from Lan Wangji's face, and pushes a small laugh from his throat.
"Yeah, I'd --" he waves a hand in what he hopes looks to be a nonchalant fashion. "I used to come here with them sometimes." When he musters the courage to look back again, Lan Wangji is already staring at him. He forces out, "the strawberry matcha latte here is really good, Lan Zhan. You should try it. They can make it with vegan milk."
The other man regards him with -- something. "I do not drink," he pauses. "Boba."
Wei Ying is smiling before he quite realizes it. Lan Wangji, upright and stony and impassive, saying boba. Wei Ying does not know why it's amusing, the way that it suddenly is, but he can feel himself grinning and can see the look in Lan Zhan's eyes shift. He doesn't know what to make of his expression. He tries to tamp his smile down.
"Aish, you’re no fun, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says. The queue moves and he looks away. "Then again, I'm not surprised. Only rice and tofu, still?"
Wrong move. Rice and tofu easily brings back memories of eating with Lan Zhan, which makes him remember going to school with Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan stays silent, and Wei Ying tries to steer the conversation down another path.
"Why are you carrying your guqin around, Lan Zhan ah?” He asks. Looks at it again, the large, silken bag strapped to the other man’s chest. Lan Wangji, when they’d still been in school, had always been a gifted musician -- Wei Ying had, many times, the honour of listening to him play.
Before things had started getting bad, before everything that’d gone down in their final year -- Wei Ying would spend afternoons in Lan Zhan’s single room, socked feet criss-crossed on the linoleum wood floor. They’d study together, the shifting sun spilling gold onto the dorm’s blank walls, across Lan Zhan’s bed, and when Wei Ying began to grow restless Lan Zhan would get up and pull his guqin out and play for him.
They had been taking different classes. They’d had different endgoals. Lan Zhan was pursuing neurosurgery, and Wei Ying was -- well, Wei Ying had thought he was doing the pediatric surgery thing. But it didn’t quite seem to matter, back then. They’d bring their books together anyway. The silence, then, had been comfortable. Familiar.
Wei Ying doesn’t know how to make it feel like that again.
Lan Zhan, he realizes, has begun to speak. “I just got off my shift. I..” his voice, low and velveteen, quietens. “I play the guqin in the childrens’ ward before I leave. Sometimes. When it's not too busy.”
Wei Ying looks at him. Really looks at him -- handsome, sweet Lan Zhan. Unfamiliar like a song he’d once played on repeat, a long time ago. Lan Zhan, who’d been his best friend throughout his four years in this strange, foreign country. Lan Zhan, now in his second year of residency, probably -- who stayed behind past his shifts to play music for children stuck in hospital beds. Lan Zhan, who’d stayed.
It is the same feeling that’d driven him away, back then. Here, now. Something swollen and saturated and too big, squeezing its way beneath his ribcage, knocking his breath askew.
Lan Zhan is staring at him. Here, now, at half-past eight in the middle of winter, Wei Ying plants his feet into the floor. Digs his heels in and feels them thrum, feels them whisper, I will not go.
They are next in line.
He orders a strawberry matcha latte for himself, and gets oat milk instead. Lan Zhan steps aside as he pays, and when Wei Ying turns to look for him -- receipt in hand, side-shuffling out of the next customer’s way, he is met with the sight of Lan Wangji, crammed into a corner of the shop. The young man does not look uncomfortable, not exactly -- he is staring up at the wall, scanning the black decal and white brick. A hand on the strap of his bag. Black hair slipping out of his ponytail, feathering over his face.
Lan Zhan’s eyes move until they meet his own.
It takes a second, before Wei Ying is clearing his throat over the noise. “Let’s wait outside, Lan Zhan,” he says, softer than he’d intended. He almost thinks Lan Zhan hadn’t heard him -- begins to repeat himself when Lan Zhan’s gaze finally breaks away from his, and then they are stumbling out of the tiny, crowded shop.
Outside, the air is fresh and cold and sharp on his skin. It is fully dark now, and it makes the city lights gleam red and white and gold; when taxis whiz by on the search for their last passengers they leave streaks of crimson that fade into black asphalt. And then, he remembers --
“Lan Zhan!” He says abruptly, spinning around to face said man.
Lan Zhan is already looking at him, warm in his white coat and long, wispy hair. (It makes Wei Ying’s words falter, makes him need a second to recentre.) “Don’t you sleep at nine, Lan Zhan? You should -- I shouldn’t be keeping you here, we can meet up some other time --”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts, uncharacteristically. Wei Ying does not know the expression on his face, but it is something softer. “It is okay.”
It is okay, Lan Wangji says. I don’t care, Wei Ying hears.
He exhales, and tries to keep himself upright over the full, burning feeling rising in his throat. It's almost too much.
“Okay,” Wei Ying forces out. His voice breaks at the end of it, and Lan Zhan’s face remains tender. Perhaps a little confused, a little lost, almost sad -- but tender, nonetheless. Like he wanted to know, but he didn’t mind folding his questions into themselves like they were mere pieces of paper if he knew Wei Ying would just stay. “Okay, Lan Zhan.”
The order numbers get called out and the sound drifts outside where they stand in the cold, twin blotches of black and white. Wei Ying clears his throat. Says in english -- "So. Residency, huh."
Lan Zhan looks at him. "Mn."
God, it used to drive him crazy.
Even back then, five years ago -- especially back then, it had been the only thing his chattering was met with. Look at this, Lan Zhan, isn't it cool? Mn. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan -- Mn. It’d frustrate him to no end, in the beginning -- but then the days had gone by, and Wei Ying realized, that’s just how Lan Zhan is. That’s just -- Lan Zhan. And if the other man didn’t want him there, if he’d for a single second felt uncomfortable in Wei Ying’s company, he would’ve told him.
Now, the sound is a precious, delicate thing. It leaves Lan Zhan’s lips and slips straight between the strings of Wei Ying’s chest, melting into pink flesh like a snowflake.
“You got in?” He’s smiling a little, now. “The one you wanted?”
Of course he had. Wei Ying wouldn’t have doubted it for a second. But he asks him anyway, just to hear him speak.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan repeats, softer. Wei Ying’s grin widens.
“Good. That’s good, Lan Zhan,” he says, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. The action is done partly to shake the cold from his limbs, and to calm his jittering heartbeat. (It’d been knocked unsteady, perhaps, the second he’d set his eyes on Lan Wangji again. Self-conscious and nervous, in a way it hasn’t quite known in a long time.) “You…” he slows. Tears his eyes away from the other man, then. Swallows. Forces out, because he has to, because Lan Zhan needs to know --
“I’m sorry. For not being there,” he says. There is a beat of silence, before he continues, struggling to find his voice again. “I knew you’d get in, Lan Zhan. That’s really -- that’s really good.”
He hears the breath Lan Zhan takes in. A car rumbles by, and the sound of it fills the air between them. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan starts. Perhaps it is the haze that comes with the night, perhaps Wei Ying is just tired -- but Lan Zhan’s voice, for a second, seems to waver. “You,” the other man tries. Hesitates. “Graduation. That day, why did you --”
The staff at the counter shouts the next order number, and the sound tumbles outside. It is Wei Ying’s.
When he retrieves his drink and reappears, whatever that’d been there before -- the thick and palpable thing hanging in the air between them -- seems to dissipate. Wei Ying stumbles out and stops right in front of Lan Zhan, busying himself with jabbing the straws into the top of the sealed cup. When he looks up again, Lan Zhan is staring at him.
“Try it, Lan Zhan!” He says cheerfully. Raises the cup of iced tea closer to Lan Zhan’s face. “I got it with oat milk. I promise it’s good.” Twin straws protrude from its lid and Lan Zhan blinks, eyes dropping down to give the cup a cautious once-over.
Wei Ying waits.
Finally, because he seems to know that Wei Ying won’t be the one to give in -- Lan Zhan does. He leans down, both hands still curled around the straps of the instrument bag on his back, and perhaps Wei Ying should have thought this through.
Lan Zhan leans down before him, and puts his mouth to the straw -- takes a sip like that, rouge, full lips wrapped around the tip of it, mere inches from Wei Ying’s hand, and -- Wei Ying really, really should have thought this through.
It is a whole year, thrown away in the span of a second. 11,640 kilometres, a twelve hours time difference. (All of it is gone, like a streetlamp blowing and leaving him standing still in the dark.) Lan Zhan straightens up and his hair has fallen into his face, the short, wispy strands curled around his ears and parting over his forehead; in the dark, dark winter he is a beacon of light, white like snow and soaked in the artificial colours of a drowsy city. He, he is, Wei Ying wants to, wants to --
“It is good,” Lan Zhan agrees, soft.
Wei Ying wants to be knocked out. Come at him with your cleanest shot, someone, anyone, please --
“Okay,” he says hoarsely. Blinks once, twice, and sucks in a breath. The cold air burns its way down to his lungs, and it provides him enough of a distraction to tear his eyes away from Lan Zhan’s face. “Okay. That’s good.”
Then he turns around, and speedwalks in the other direction.
He is two seconds into it when he realizes, perhaps he shouldn’t have just, y’know, walked off without saying anything -- he is about to turn around, swallow and face the mortifying situation that is coming up with a good enough excuse that Lan Zhan won’t see through immediately, when he hears measured footsteps following after him.
When Lan Zhan catches up, Wei Ying has slowed down considerably -- taking the time to clutch at his drink and even his breaths out. They have entered the tunnel and the cold wind is even harsher against his face, now that it has, rather violently, squeezed in with them. Lan Zhan, of course, is barely out of breath.
“Where are you staying?” Lan Zhan asks over the roar of a passing truck and the howl of the wind. His voice is raised, so gently and carefully, that it wouldn't quite make a difference if he'd whispered.
Wei Ying huffs out a laugh. "A Holiday Inn. Down in Polk Gulch?" He sips at his drink a little, slowing his footsteps to match Lan Zhan's and pointedly making an effort not to look at the straw the other man had used. "S'nothing fancy. I'm not……" he starts, then stops. Something weighs down on his tongue, and he finds himself not quite wanting to finish the sentence.
Staying for long. Is he staying? He'd promised Jiejie he'd think about it, while he was back here. He doesn't have many reasons to stay. But then again, Wei Ying supposes -- he doesn't have many reasons to go, either.
Lan Zhan does not comment on his trailing off. Perhaps Wei Ying's voice had gotten carried away by the wind. He is glad to fall silent again, feeling something calm and familiar lap at his toes as they walk with shoulders brushing.
When they emerge from the tunnel the sky has turned a near-black, diluted where patches of clouds rest. They walk for two blocks. The streetlamps and city lights burn their brightest at this hour; when Wei Ying blinks they echo in the empty space behind his eyelids like fireworks against a misty sky. That, and the cold against his skin, makes him want to do something stupid like pull Lan Zhan in and kiss him.
When he'd gone back to China, Lan Zhan had been what he'd missed the most.
Of course, he'd ended up missing many things -- even if he'd ruined them for himself, at the end. He missed dragging Nie Huaisang along to cause mischief. He missed sweet, bold Mianmian and the way they'd bantered, he'd missed doing clinicals and talking to the patients and feeling like maybe, maybe he had something set out for him this time. Something that would turn out good.
But then -- but then he was back in China, and it all seemed so far away. He hadn't been quite sure if he'd actually lived it all out. And over time how much he liked Lan Wanji had mellowed down to a crush, or something dumb like that, a product of Wei Wuxian's constant need for attention. Across the North Pacific ocean, it hadn't seemed that bad. But perhaps he'd just let himself forget.
Now, Lan Zhan stands next to him at the traffic junction bathed in city smog and a streetlamp's amber gaze, making Wei Ying want him all over again.
He clears his throat.
"How's work, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying speaks up as they wait for the traffic lights to turn green. Lan Zhan's eyes flicker to meet his, and it takes the other a moment's thought to reply.
"Hard," he replies quietly. Honestly. It stills Wei Ying a little -- but Lan Zhan looking at him with those eyes, making an open admission like that, makes something in his stomach stumble. "The seniors try their best. But sometimes…" he pauses there, lips pursing the slightest bit. Repeats, softly -- It's not easy."
They'd been warned, all of them, about what they'd be getting into from the very beginning. Of course they'd known. But just knowing was far easier than doing. Next to him in the city's false lights, Lan Zhan blinks softly.
Lan Zhan opens his mouth as if he were about to speak, before closing it again. When he seems to finally find the right words, Lan Zhan breathes and says, very quietly -- "You would've liked it. Wei Ying."
It throws him off course. Every time Wei Ying thinks he’s successfully led them off the topic of back then, of would have, if only you'd stayed, he blinks and they are back where they were, Lan Zhan looking at him with those dark, quiet eyes. It’s like, like trying to get lost in a forest you grew up in. Wei Ying swallows. The traffic light turns green, and they cross the street.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he replies finally. Smiles a little, something small and lopsided and hesitant, before it melts into a pout. He huffs -- “But Lan Zhan, if even you find it hard, wouldn’t I have it worse?”
Lan Zhan looks at him -- soft but firm, like music with purpose, and says -- “Wei Ying has always been capable.”
Wei Ying trips on absolutely nothing.
He yelps, flailing, and in enough seconds to count on a single hand he is righted again. Lan Zhan has a hand on his arm and it is large and warm and steady, the other’s gaze now slightly alarmed. For a moment, Wei Ying just stands, in the middle of the freezing sidewalk, and blinks.
Then he laughs, slightly too loud for this night in winter. Heart running wild.
“When did you learn to say these things, Lan Zhan ah?” He teases. Finds his own footing, and, because it’s right there -- curls his free fingers around Lan Zhan’s wrist, where the other grips at his left arm. Exhales, and after a moment’s hesitation, squeezes it softly.
(Wei Ying meets Lan Zhan’s gaze, and prays that he gets it.)
“See, you scared me to death, saying things like that,” he continues in chinese. Huffs, and lets his smile soften into a pout. Lan Zhan blinks, and looks at him for a long while.
“It is true,” he repeats finally.
The sidewalk they’re on now is shadowed, the light from a nearby streetlamp casted in odd directions. For a moment the road is free of cars and it is quiet, too quiet, for a city like this and at this hour -- but Lan Zhan stands here, all his soft, tender parts exposed, and Wei Ying finds that the ground beneath his feet has never felt so steady. He has never known safety in this shape, but the more he reaches out to touch the more he finds that it feels like Lan Zhan, like Lan Zhan’s hands and eyes and voice and breath.
Wei Ying breathes.
“Thank you,” he says quietly. (He knows Lan Zhan hears him.) His lips lift into a smile, something small and delicate and trying -- perhaps, tainted with something sad. Something awfully regretful. "And -- I'm sorry, Lan Zhan."
Lan Zhan looks at him for a long while. The moon in his eyes and his hand still gripping his bicep.
“A year ago,” he starts quietly. “What happened?”
He'd known they'd get here. There is, at this point, really no reason not to tell Lan Zhan. God knows, the man deserves an explanation. But Wei Ying -- does not want to think. Does not want to look back on the fortresses he'd knocked down and explain how he'd done it.
Wei Ying swallows.
"I'll tell you," he forces out finally, because Lan Zhan is too good, because Lan Zhan deserves better. Wei Ying can at least give him this. "I'll tell you, Lan Zhan. Come with me."
Then he walks, and Lan Zhan follows. As if he had all the trust in him not to lead them to another cliff.
Wei Ying brings him to his favourite dim sum place.
It’s the very definition of hole-in-the-wall, a small tea room tucked away in a back alley on Pagoda Place. Wei Ying hasn’t been here in a year but the shop is still open like he’d remembered, artificial lights making the red lanterns on their doorstep glow.
When they get downstairs to the basement the place has quietened down already. There are a handful of customers still scattered around, some in pairs and others very evidently just off work. Most sound comes from the clinking of bowls from the kitchen, and the quiet murmuring of patrons sharing supper. Only when he finds Lan Zhan looking at him, does he realize he’s let his smile grow.
Before either can say anything, a staff member surfaces from the kitchen and comes over. Wei Ying recognizes her immediately -- he’d been a loyal customer, back when he was still studying here. The middle-aged lady takes a few moments to do the same.
“Eh? You haven’t been here in so long!” Is what she greets him with. Well-worn from the day but saturated with familiarity nonetheless. Wei Ying beams.
“Ah, yes,” he says sheepishly. She does not quite offer him a smile, she hadn’t back in the day either -- but like a distant, stressed auntie, there is closeness in the way the lady asks where he’d gone. “I went back home, for a while,” he tells her simply, smiling and abashed. Lan Zhan’s gaze is a steady thing on his back.
She gets them a table for four, because the place is empty enough for it. When the menus come Wei Ying is picking one up immediately, scanning the list of dim sum like he didn’t already have a copy in the very back of his mind. Lan Zhan stares at him.
“Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he says when he notices, grinning sheepishly at the other man. “I’m hungry. I haven’t even had dinner yet, before coming here. Really!”
Lan Zhan’s face changes. Wei Ying doesn’t quite know what name to put to it. “You should take care of yourself,” Lan Zhan says, finally. Quietly. Posture perfect even at this hour, something awfully tender in the snowy layers of his coat, in the softened planes of his face.
Wei Ying’s smile widens a little. He huffs.
“I know, Lan Zhan.” He waves a hand dismissively, then pauses. His grin simmers down into something smaller, yet genuine still. “I am. Promise.”
Lan Zhan looks at him. The other man’s eyes are deep and dark and honeyed; Wei Ying sees him swallow, the bob of his adam’s apple visible beneath the tan column of his throat, and suddenly it -- this -- is a little too much for him to handle again.
He breaks his gaze away. Lan Zhan does not say anything more, but he does pull a menu closer for inspection. The silence that forms, this time, is something calmer. Like warm, moving air.
They end up getting several plates between them. Pan-seared pork buns and wontons in spicy sauce for Wei Ying, vegetarian potstickers for Lan Zhan. The waitress leaves with their order and Wei Ying wonders, if Lan Zhan wants him to start speaking, now -- but then, the other man opens his mouth. Says, softly -- “how is your family?”
Wei Ying, a little surprised and very much caught off guard, blinks. “Oh. Uh,” he starts. Stops to think, and regrets doing it. (Perhaps he winces, for Lan Zhan’s eyebrows are raising slightly in question.)
“It’s nothing too bad,” he says hastily, then makes a face. “Actually, it is. But it’s -- it’s better now, Lan Zhan. Really. I wouldn’t have come back if it weren’t already.”
Lan Zhan’s expression is unreadable.
“Jiejie’s still with that peacock, of course --" he rambles on. "I’d sock him if he did anything. They’re still back at home with the Jins, but the peacock received a job opportunity some months ago for a branch of his company down in L.A or something. They're probably going to take it." He sniffs a little, lips downturned. "Of course, he's going to drag Jiejie there with him. Like, Jiejie's perfectly capable, she's the best -- but it's just, so far away."
There's an odd look, on Lan Zhan's face. It's all gone awfully soft, an expression that the other man had rarely let show even back in school. Wei Ying realizes, after a few moments of rapid blinking, that Lan Zhan is smiling -- just barely, the corners of his lips displaced slightly upwards in something tentative, almost subconscious.
He snaps his eyes away from Lan Zhan's face abruptly, pulse suddenly feeling like tender hoofbeats beneath his skin.
“A-And,” Wei Ying finds the voice to continue. “Jiang Cheng’s still -- well, an asshole,” he says, unabashed and waving a nonchalant hand about. “But that’s nothing new. Oh!” He perks up, remembering. Grins a little. “That loser got into -- you know the hospital down in Chongqing? Third Military?”
Lan Zhan nods softly.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says gleefully, relaxing back into his chair a bit more. “Madam Yu’s really happy. Or -- as happy as she ever gets. He’s doing really good, there. He deserves it.”
Lan Zhan, for a long while, remains silent. Looks at him carefully, then says --
Wei Ying blinks, not expecting the topic to be shifted onto him as quickly as it had been. He laughs awkwardly, growing a bit small. “Ah, me?”
Lan Zhan meets his gaze steadily, and waits.
“I’ve been -- good,” Wei Ying tries. Grins with it. (It'd be bright enough, if Lan Zhan's eyes weren't as sharp as they were. If he didn't know him as well as he did.)
The look Lan Zhan gives him is flat. Wei Ying sighs.
“Better. I’ve been better,” he concedes. Pauses. “Better than in our last year," he pouts. "I promise I’m telling the truth, Lan Zhan. There's no need to worry about me."
Said man's eyes flicker, and it makes Wei Ying brush at his own face self-consciously. But Lan Zhan doesn't say anything about it, just looks at him again and exhales, shoulders falling and rising -- "I do," he says finally, then -- "I believe you." Meets his gaze again, face still like the surface of an untouched lake. Tender, like the reflection of the moon in it.
Lan Zhan never lies.
Wei Ying doesn't deserve his trust. Not anymore, not after all that he’d done -- But Lan Zhan sits here, past his bedtime, in Wei Ying's favourite restaurant, and offers it to Wei Ying anyway. He would put a hand on Lan Zhan’s chest and call him a fool, if his hands themselves weren’t already trembling beneath the table.
The words feel like a glass of warm water, and in this weather it makes Wei Ying feel sleepy. Hazy, like all he wants to do is to be wrapped up in something strong and warm and safe. A feeling like this is dangerous, dangerous because Lan Zhan is right there, sitting across from him and looking like -- like that, steady and graceful and so, so gorgeous -- Wei Ying bites down on nothing. The food arrives.
They get distracted by it quickly. The wontons are steaming and the sight of it almost makes Wei Ying tear up.
"Oh my god, I am so happy," he manages to say in english, already reaching for the chopsticks. Repeats, "I've been eating nothing but instant noodles for two days, Lan Zhan. Oh my god."
He thinks he hears Lan Zhan sigh. "Unhealthy," the other man chides softly, reaching for his own plate of meatless potstickers.
It should be a reprimand. It sounds more like guqin-string-scarred fingers, brushing a lock of hair behind his ear.
They eat quietly. Lan Zhan has always been eating quietly, but this time Wei Ying is quiet too. He busies himself with shovelling food into his mouth, crispy pork buns and steamed wontons soaked in chilli sauce. He dumps a spoonful of their homemade chilli oil into his plate, and finds that it is just as good as before.
“Try it, Lan Zhan,” he urges between sips of boba and mouthfuls of dim sum. “It’s really good.”
Lan Zhan does. Wei Ying regrets ever opening his mouth, then -- because now the other man’s mouth is stained crimson, swollen and shiny and tender, and Wei Ying doesn’t know what to do with himself.
(Lan Zhan blinks at him slowly. Wei Ying wants to ask him, beg him, to take them home.)
“It’s good,” Lan Zhan agrees softly. Pauses. “You should eat more, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying buries his face into his plate, and doesn’t raise it for a long while after they’re done.
When their plates finally do fall silent, empty -- Wei Ying’s phone buzzes. When he pulls it out he finds a notification reading, Low battery, 10% , and sighs. His eyes drift to the time. “It’s almost nine,” he says, surprised. Lan Zhan looks at him. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be heading back? Don’t you have work tomorrow? You must be tired, Lan Zhan.”
“Am not,” Lan Zhan replies as quickly as the questions come. “Tired.” He pauses. “I will not be on call tomorrow,” he adds softly. “Do not worry about it.”
Lan Zhan almost looks like he wants to say more, but it doesn’t quite manage to take shape. Still, Wei Ying thinks he knows. I haven’t seen you in a year. You disappeared. And now you sit here, and ask me if I’d rather go home and sleep?
Wei Ying huffs.
“If you say so. But I won’t have the energy to drag you home if you fall asleep halfway, Lan Zhan. Okay?”
Lan Zhan looks at him steadily.
“Where are we going?”
Wei Ying blinks, and wants to kiss him.
He blurts out, “I want to see the Dragon’s Gate, Lan Zhan. Can we go?”
The streets are quiet when they emerge from the teahouse.
Wei Ying’s mouth, warm from food and talking, almost instantly begins to freeze over again. He shivers without quite noticing it. They step back out into the winter night and Wei Ying tosses his emptied cup of tea into the closest bin, just so he can stick his hands back into the pockets of his jacket again.
Lan Zhan looks at him.
“You,” he starts, then pauses. Wei Ying realizes, all of a sudden, that this might be the most he’s ever seen Lan Zhan hesitate before speaking. Lan Zhan had always been steady, sure with his words, back in school. Calm, but always knowing what to say. Lan Zhan, on this night, seems to take a second to think. As if he doesn’t quite know how to talk to Wei Ying anymore. “You are cold,” he says finally.
Wei Ying, despite himself, snorts a bit. “Yeah,” he drones from where he’d begun to drift ahead -- spinning around to look at Lan Zhan again, swaying lazily on the spot like a loose leaflet in the wind. “It’s November, Lan Zhan.”
For a strange moment, a frown passes over Lan Zhan’s face.
“Why are you standing there? Let’s go --” Wei Ying starts, before Lan Zhan begins to pull his instrument bag off of himself, ducking beneath its strap and setting it down on the ground with all the grace and care Wei Ying could never have. It’s Wei Ying’s turn to frown, now, looking on bewilderedly as the other man begins to undo the buttons on his heavy, snow-white wool coat. “Lan Zhan, what are you --”
In one swift motion, Lan Zhan rids himself of his winter coat. Then, in nothing but his undershirt and an equally-as-white, soft turtleneck on his slender frame, he steps forward and drapes his coat over Wei Ying’s shoulders.
Wei Ying thinks he’s going to die.
This must be a dream. At this point, it has to be a dream -- Lan Zhan, while Wei Ying stands, frozen and lost for words, begins to get the coat onto him properly. He is infuriatingly gentle with it, however firm -- the arms go in first, Wei Ying’s arms, maneuvered into the right spaces by Lan Zhan’s warm, steady hands. Then Lan Zhan straightens up a little, and begins to tuck the collar beneath that of Wei Ying’s old, ratty jacket that he already has on. Lowers himself to clasp all the buttons into place. When he’s done he steps back and gives Wei Ying a once-over as if ensuring his work is done -- before he wordlessly picks his guqin up, straps it back over his chest, and begins to walk again.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying yells out, turning and running to catch up after he’s somewhat shaken out of his stupor. “Lan Zhan, I’m really not cold,” he begins to whine, fumbling for the buttons on the pure white coat. His need to return the article of clothing, because does Lan Zhan want to freeze? momentarily takes up enough space for his imminent mental breakdown to be pushed aside. “Take it back, do you have a death wish? It’s like, two degrees --”
Lan Zhan pauses in his footsteps. Turns to face him, then reaches out and grabs Wei Ying’s fumbling hands. Grabs Wei Ying’s fumbling hands, with his own. “Wei Ying,” he says calmly, face still like the surface of an untouched lake. “I am fine.”
Wei Ying, for a moment or two, quietens. Reddens impossibly, something old and creaking and unoiled shifting beneath his chest. Then he remembers he’s supposed to be protesting.
“Lan Zhan!” He splutters. “It’s not a big deal, I’m really, really not cold -- you have like, nothing on right now, can you please --”
Lan Zhan does not respond. The man, infuriatingly, only begins to walk again -- Wei Ying’s right wrist still encircled in his grasp. Out of commission. Wei Ying tries to work at the buttons of the coat with his other hand, but, being naturally of a much better quality compared to his own, it takes much more than a single hand and Wei Ying’s poor hand-eye coordination to undo any one of them.
Eventually, it sinks in that he isn’t getting this coat off of him anytime soon. Wei Ying huffs, loud enough so Lan Zhan hears him, but allows himself to be dragged down the street.
Lan Zhan’s hands are large -- firm, yet slender and gentle all at once. Wei Ying stumbles after him and feels a little bit drunk on something; Lan Zhan’s ponytail is soft and swinging and Wei Ying wants to reach out and touch it.
He hasn’t touched alcohol in four months. But in Lan Zhan’s voice Wei Ying finds wine again, sticky-sweet and warm and dizzying, painting the insides of his ears a deep garnet.
Lan Zhan drops his hand halfway down the street, seeming convinced that Wei Ying won’t attempt to struggle against his coat again. Wei Ying does not. He presses his lips together instead, trying to tamp down at the disappointment blooming in his blue-green veins, trying not to keep struggling just so Lan Zhan might touch him again.
They fall into step. Wei Ying turns his focus to the feeling of Lan Zhan’s coat on him, now, patting around his own waist and finding pockets. They are large and fuzzy and warm.
“What do you do at the hospital, Lan Zhan?” He speaks up now. His voice starts out quiet and he doesn’t quite know why -- he raises his voice halfway through the question, clearing his throat against the cold air. “Have you been in any live surgeries yet?” He asks, before blinking a grin onto his own face. “Oh, are there any pretty girls working with you?”
Lan Zhan looks at him, unamused. Wei Ying grins back at him, and tries not to let it falter at the actual thought of Lan Zhan, with any girl.
He was back, here in America, for -- friendship. For making up what he had left hanging. To give his friends, back here, an explanation they deserved. Not for anything else. It would already be a miracle if Lan Zhan forgave him; no, Wei Ying would not allow himself to ruin what they had for a second time. He couldn’t.
He would tell Lan Zhan, why he’d left. Apologise. And if Lan Zhan forgave him, if Lan Zhan for some reason still wanted to stay friends -- they would.
One day Lan Wangji would fall in love, and Wei Wuxian would be happy for him.
He refocuses on Lan Zhan’s voice, now. Soft and low and earthy, answering his question about work. Telling him about the patients they’ve had. Their footsteps slow, like that, matched as they walk down the sloping sidewalk to the traffic junction. The red light buzzes, fluorescent and bleeding into the night. They stop beneath it.
(Wei Ying thinks, wine-drunk, that he wouldn’t mind just staying here for a while. With Lan Zhan.)
The red turns to a blinding green and they cross, turning onto the main street in Chinatown.
Most of the shops are preparing to close, the lights illuminating the storefronts going out one by one. They weave past the trickle of people still wandering the sidewalks, store-owners on their way home -- Wei Ying, after reaching the other side, slows in front of a large shop at the corner of the junction.
BARGAIN BAZAAR, the words overhead read. The store is closed, shelves of cheap touristy shirts and knicknacks shadowed in the moonlight, distorted by the lights from oncoming cars and thrumming streetlamps. In the corner of the store, right up against the display window, hangs a flag striped with six colours.
It’s slightly rumpled, through the glass. Next to it there is California’s flag, then two of San Francisco’s. Wei Ying comes to a stop right in front of it as if his feet have met stone. Or home. He is not quite sure.
Through the glass, he blinks. With the pride flag, hung from the ceiling and still in the night, he sees his own reflection in the window. Hair black and eyes undoubtedly asian on first glance. Lan Zhan’s snow white jacket pulled over his shoulders, almost reaching down to his knees.
When he looks back down the street, Lan Zhan has paused a few metres down, has turned back to look at him. He is silent, but when he blinks and waits Wei Ying knows he has asked a question.
Under the moonlight, in a winter like this, Lan Zhan is a still lake. A stretch of ocean. Deep and dark and glimmering, handsome and tall and beautiful.
(Wei Ying thinks, that he has always loved water.)
“Lan Zhan,” he croaks out, the sound of his own voice sobering. Exhales, his breath scalding in the unforgiving cold. In chinese, in the tongue he knows best, he says, a little bit wine-drunk -- "Lan Zhan, I like guys."
Lan Zhan is surprised. His face has always been a cheapskate with emotion but Wei Ying sees it in his eyes anyway, sees it in the slightest raise of his brows.
"I like girls too," he finds the voice to add. Stuffs his hands deeper into the pockets of his -- Lan Zhan’s -- jacket. Wonders if he’ll need to take it off, now. "But I -- yeah. I'm. Whatever. I like both, Lan Zhan."
It is silent for far too long. Wei Zing had not been expecting a fast answer but he stands there, watching Lan Zhan stare back unblinkingly at him, and wonders if he will get any at all.
The laugh that leaves his mouth is strange. Ugly.
“I just, thought you should know. It’s not a big deal, Lan Zhan!” He says cheerfully. Rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet and hopes it looks like a young tree swaying in the wind, not a stick in the ground seconds away from toppling. “I’m not gonna, uh. Start trying to make a move on you, or anything. If you were worried about that.”
Lan Zhan wasn’t -- like that. He’d known,, since a long time ago, that Lan Zhan wouldn’t be one to care about what the people he liked looked like. If they were girls, or not. Lan Zhan was -- too good for that. But he stands here, now, sweating and feeling colder than before, and Lan Zhan still does not say a thing. And Wei Ying thinks, maybe Lan Wangji does have his limits. Maybe being this close to him, with the knowledge of what Wei Ying is, now, is it.
Lan Zhan opens his mouth, and, quiet like falling snow, he says -- “I am not.”
Wei Ying blinks. Once, twice, then -- exhales. Feels his hands tremble and curls them deeper into his pockets, feels a weight lift off his chest and his lungs unfurl like trees after winter. “Okay,” he says wetly, swallowing something down. Huffs out a laugh despite himself, and they both ignore how it comes out unsteady. “Okay, Lan Zhan. That’s -- good. For a moment I, I thought I could finally make you take this jacket back, haha --”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan cuts in softly, voice sounding like rainfall. “You are my best friend.”
The words are a punch to his gut. Fingers tight around his throat.
Wei Ying, stood in a corner of Chinatown at nine on a winter's night -- coming out to his best friend, in the middle of the street with all the shops closing around him, is suddenly struck with the overwhelming urge to kiss Lan Zhan. Sweet, handsome Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan, who was kind and smart and worked hard, who was righteous and quiet and beautiful. Lan Zhan, who’d stayed, even when Wei Ying had pushed at him and pleaded for him to go. Lan Zhan, who is here now, after all this time, looking at him like this. Calling him his best friend.
It is a hurricane, a raging storm against his windows. Wei Ying stumbles a little, shakes with it, and tries not to cry.
“You --” he chokes out, taking in a shuddering breath. Lan Zhan, concerned, almost seems to hesitate -- but then he is walking back up the sidewalk and slowing to a stop in front of him, blinking gentle and slow.
Lan Zhan just stands there, then, and looks at him. Face soft and eyes glimmering. Like a gentle slice of moonlight, dark eyes honeyed and unblinking and devastatingly beautiful.
(Beneath this moon, he is the most magnificent thing.)
“Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs wetly, huffing something choked up beneath his breath. Meets said man’s gaze and how tender it is startles him, knocks something down in a room inside of him that has always been silent.
“You’re so --” he finds himself blurting out, voice watery and saturated. “You’re so good, Lan Zhan. Who let you do this, huh?” He pouts softly, blinking away the tears gathering on his waterline. “I could’ve sworn Lan Wangji hated me not that long ago, what happened? What did you do to him?”
“Never,” Lan Zhan’s answer is swift. Tender, and impossibly sure. “Never hated Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, holding his gaze with gentle hands.
It beats at his chest and makes it hard to breathe.
Instead of trying to formulate a reply, Wei Ying turns his attention to a weak attempt at drying his eyes, sniffling miserably. Lan Zhan looks at him, and for a moment -- for a moment, something soft and impossibly fond, flashes across his stupidly handsome face. Like a glitch. Like dozing off but catching yourself just as your head begins to fall.
Wei Ying blinks through drying tears, the city lights dragging and webbing across his vision like spilling water on fresh highlighter ink.
Then, Lan Zhan’s gaze flits over to the pride flag Wei Ying had been staring at.
He opens his mouth, and asks quietly -- “when did you…...realize?”
Wei Ying makes a noise. The question sets his heart off all over again, making him feel -- stupid. Sad. A little bit like bursting. (You, Lan Zhan, he doesn’t say.)
“A few months after I went home. Um. Yeah. I mean, I’d never really thought it was an option -- not that I ever had anything against it, but I always just assumed that I -- y’know.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes meet his again, his expression different from what it’d been a few moments ago. Wei Ying can’t quite put a name to it. It shifts again, before he can try.
“And your family?” Lan Zhan asks softly. “Do they know?”
“Oh, god,” Wei Ying blurts out at the question, a wince blooming across his face the same time a snort leaves his lips. “Madam Yu doesn’t know, no. Jesus Christ.” (Lan Zhan exhales, a watered-down sound of amusement.) “Only Jiejie and Jiang Cheng know.”
“And they took it well?” Lan Zhan presses. Wei Ying wants to do something stupid, like fall into his arms. Like kiss him, here in the open street. Like tell him how much he likes him, his face and his hands and his neck and his voice and his mind.
“Of course Jiejie took it well!” He huffs instead, almost indignantly. “Jiejie’s the best. Jiang Cheng -- I don’t think Jiang Cheng really cares, to be honest.” He grins a little to himself, at the thought of his brother’s signature scowl. “But I suppose that’s more than enough. Anyway --” he straightens up. Eyes dried but tender, still, like bruised fruit. He puts on his serious face. “I’ve already cried more times about this than what is acceptable, so you’re not allowed to do that again, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan looks like he’s about to make Wei Ying tell him about all the other times, now. Before he can, Wei Ying is curling his hand around his wrist and dragging him down the street, in a fashion not unlike how Lan Zhan had dragged him just minutes before.
(Truthfully, Wei Ying himself hasn’t quite kept count. He’d definitely done a lot of it in his graduating year, in-between getting drunk every other day and throwing himself at the nearest person possible. He’d only come to accept it, perhaps, when he’d gotten on a plane back to China and found himself back in his childhood bedroom, and the same unwanted feelings had refused to leave, piling up in a mess by the door instead.)
(One of the last times, though -- one of the last times, was on a weekend when Madam Yu had gone out shopping with friends. That morning he’d stumbled out of his room from the fourth sleepless night in a row, bedhead and all, skin pale and eyes rimmed red -- had shuffled into the kitchen, small and quiet. Jiejie had taken one look at him, and, gentle features pinched with worry, had brought her hand up to brush against the surface of his left cheek.)
(“A-Xian,” she’d sighed, soft.)
(In the middle of their kitchen, at noon on a summer day’s, Wei Ying’s face had crumpled.)
(Jiang Cheng had found them like that. Wei Ying sobbing, dry heaving into his sister’s arms. And he hadn’t quite known what to say, but when Wei Ying had calmed down enough to stumble over and sit down, the usual furrow between his brows had grown uncertain with worry.)
(“What happened to you?” Jiang Cheng had been the first to speak up. Others would’ve strung the same sentence together with a tone of accusation, but he’d only sounded -- soft. Hesitant. And there was something harder beneath all of it, like a sword waiting for a command to unsheathe.)
(Wei Ying’d stared into his own lap, hands held close as if he’d been afraid to lose them.)
(“I need to --” he’d croaked out. “I need to tell you guys something.”)
(Jiejie had reached over and clasped a hand over his. Jiang Cheng’d been uncharacteristically silent. Wei Ying had been sure his Jiejie would’ve felt his whole being trembling beneath her palm -- but when he’d looked up she’d only looked at him softly, eyebrows furrowed in an expression her pretty face never deserved to know.)
(“I, um,” he’d stared back down at his hands. Voice cracking quietly like the first clap of thunder, heart sounding like a tin roof in the eye of a storm. His vision began to blur, again. “I’m. I think I’m bisexual.”)
(The room, for a long few seconds, had fallen dead silent. And then --)
(“Okay,” Jiang Cheng’d blurted out, almost defensively. As if he were fighting both Wei Ying and for Wei Ying, at the same time. “And?”)
(Wei Ying’d swallowed harshly, something sour building beneath his jaws. His body rose and fell with a weak snort. “As in. I like guys, Jiang Cheng.)
(Without quite missing a beat, his brother’s face had turned sharply. Eyes darting between his two siblings, he’d retorted -- “Jie does too. What about it?”)
(And the tears had began to drip like a faucet left running, drawing unsteady lines down his cheeks, tracing the curve of his nose. He’d raised his head, then, feeling like a river’s worth of water had been dumped out of him all at once.)
(He’d only looked at Jiang Cheng. Said man, glaring at him in a way that Wei Ying has grown so, so familiar to, had blurted out, as if offended --“Don’t pout at me." And Wei Ying, all snotty and gross, had grinned, teary and wide and alive.)
(Later, Jiang Cheng had paused. Making a face that quickly turned into a frown. “Why, did someone bully you back in America? I’ll kill them.”)
(He'd felt Jiejie squeeze his hand. When he turned his gaze to her her face had been soft -- eyebrows tugged together gently in something hopeful, tender.)
("Or…" she'd said slowly, lips lifting into a small smile. "Has our Xianxian met someone back in the states?")
(And then all of it had rushed back in through a crack in the door. Lan Zhan, cold like the corner store on a summer’s day. Lan Zhan, voice quiet and hands quieter, sat still and just listening. Lan Zhan, all lightning storms and scalding fury, the night he’d gotten into a fistfight at the bar because someone had touched Wei Ying and Wei Ying hadn’t wanted it. Lan Zhan, breathtaking and groundshaking and nothing short of devastating, fifteen hours away by plane.)
(And then he’d fallen quiet, and somehow his Jiejie had known not to ask again.)
Now, his determined footsteps almost falter, slowing a little on the freezing sidewalk. Lan Zhan lets himself be led with full confidence anyway, as if it didn’t quite matter, not to him. Wei Ying’s grip on his wrist loosens -- but this time, this time he does not let go, and Lan Zhan does not let his hand fall away either.
The Dragon’s Gate is an old, lonely thing.
But Wei Ying stands across from it, hands tucked into Lan Zhan’s coat pockets, and feels oddly comforted. He has always found the strangest things to be beautiful, as he’s been told -- and at this hour, against the contained blaze of the traffic lights and the inky blackness of the sky, he wants to keep the image of this place in a corner of his heart forever. A section of the wall of his left ventricle, dedicated to the time he went back to the place he’d sworn he’d never return to again, and Lan Zhan had been right there waiting for him.
Of course, he doesn’t know if Lan Zhan had really been waiting. Perhaps the other man has been grateful for the peace and quiet the past year has given him. But it’s a nice thought to turn over in his hand, and the nighttime is making him drowsy, drunk -- so he holds on to it a little longer. Pulls his phone out to take a photo, as if he were a tourist.
“I know I said, um,” he starts. A car rolls by, turning in the road junction before leaving it silent again. “That things were kind of bad back at home.” His voice quietens. Lan Zhan looks at him.
“The thing is, um,” he purses his lips, watching the red, neon strip lights beneath the bumpy rows of the gate’s roof. “Uncle Jiang…...passed away. Last year.”
He hears Lan Zhan take in a breath. Without much thought, Wei Ying squeezes around Lan Zhan’s wrist, turning to smile a little ruefully. “That’s why I left so suddenly. He had a stroke, and they didn’t know when he’d --” the sentence dies off, there. And then he starts again, “Jiang Cheng called at like 2am, the day before graduation. I had to take the earliest flight back, and everything was packed already and I know I was supposed to be moving in with Mianmian but,” he swallows. “I don’t know,” comes out softly. “I wasn’t thinking. So I took everything I could with me. Uncle Jiang…...passed on, a few hours after I got to the hospital.”
Lan Zhan, for a while, is quiet. And then he says -- “I’m sorry,” soft in the winter night. Wei Ying makes a little face at him.
“Don’t do this,” he chides in chinese, tenderly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Lan Zhan looks at him, eyes golden. “You got to…see him? Talk to him?”
Wei Ying takes a deep breath in, and lets it out slow.
“Yes,” he says on exhale, a corner of his lips quirking up the slightest bit. “I did. I suppose that’s generous, already.” He sways a little on his feet. Their shoulders brush, but the night tastes like wine and maybe Lan Zhan tastes it too -- so they don’t move, for a while. It is more comforting than anything he’s had in a while.
His grip on Lan Zhan’s arm loosens. “Anyway,” he continues, forcing a smile. “When I got back to China, I…...um, I guess I didn’t know if I wanted to, come back.” He keeps his eyes steadily away from Lan Zhan’s, voice falling further and further in volume. “For a lot of different reasons.” Wei Ying swallows. “But it wasn’t -- it wasn’t your fault! Lan Zhan,” he repeats. “I was doing pretty shit leading up to that anyway. I guess I just. I don’t know.” The store on the corner of the street flickers out, and he watches the lights go. “I thought, I had a chance to just -- forget. So I took it.”
He looks at Lan Zhan, then, and the expression on his face -- something tender like a wound, the first signs of a wall building itself back up again, makes him stumble to clarify. “It wasn’t you, Lan Zhan! I promise. You were -- I was always happiest with you,” the words get a little stuck on their way out, but he throws them up anyway. Softer, “you know that,” and then he pauses, exhales. And suddenly it is quiet again. “I’m sorry I left, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan just -- looks at him, for a long while. Face impassive but eyes glimmering like the moon, breathing slowly next to him. At some point his gaze becomes too much and Wei Ying has to look away, ducks down beneath the collar of said man’s jacket and is assaulted with the familiar smell of sandalwood instead. (He has to try embarrassingly hard not to bury his face into it right there, and it’s nothing short of mortifying.)
“Are you better?” Lan Zhan speaks up quietly. When Wei Ying looks at him he seems to take a moment to rearrange it all. “Now. Are you…” he swallows visibly, voice soft like grass in spring. Wei Ying wants to put his mouth against the bob of his Adam's apple, wants to kiss him where he breathes. “Happy?”
It makes his lungs squeeze a second too soon, the feeling an ache beneath his chest. Gravity tugs at Wei Ying’s hand, around Lan Zhan’s wrist, and he fights to keep it where it is.
On his face a smile grows -- unlike his usual beaming grins, this one is small. Unassuming, glowing shyly where others would blind. But Wei Ying means it all the same. “是2,” he says, fondly exasperated and dragging the word out. Then he pouts, just a little, and swings both his and Lan Zhan’s arms as if a breeze were passing by. “Better. I got my shit sorted out. Promise.”
And then he swallows, and says, quieter and delicately -- “Thank you, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan looks at him. For a moment he is silent, and then he is murmuring, “no need.” Eyes soft and dark and golden, flicking down as he says -- “I am glad.”
The phrase is not delivered out of politeness. Lan Zhan had said it himself, back when they’d been in school. There is no need for thank yous and sorrys between us, Wei Ying, he’d told him back then in a moment of seriousness. Now, Lan Zhan remembers, and Wei Ying begins to feel heavy again. As if he were a soft sponge soaking all of it up, saturated with Lan Zhan’s gaze and voice and hands, but it only keeps on coming.
(He is not sure how much more he can take, before it all comes spilling back out.)
“What are you…...planning to do? After this?” Lan Zhan speaks up again, quietly.
Wei Ying looks at him, and squints. Pauses.
“Um. Go home? Sleep?”
Lan Zhan almost looks exasperated. It nudges a giggle from Wei Ying’s throat. He laughs and Lan Zhan’s face gets all soft again, strings loose and gaze fond and it is nothing short of devastating. (In some other universe out there, this would be when Wei Ying brings their hands up to his mouth and presses a kiss into the back of Lan Zhan’s palm.)
In this universe, he says -- “sorry, sorry.” Grins wobbly and waves a hand, looking back out to the road. “I’m gonna -- I don’t know. I was hoping to meet up with Mianmian and Huaisang again. So I’m just a tourist for now, I think!" he looks back at Lan Zhan and flashes him a smile.
“How long?” Lan Zhan asks softly. Wei Ying wraps his other hand around his arm, and begins to swing from it absentmindedly, like a little kid. If the other man minds, he does a good job at not showing it. Wei Ying shrugs, and lets himself be distracted by something on the floor.
“Um. I have the hotel for two weeks.” He makes a face at the thought of the sheer cost of it. “I would’ve found something cheaper, but Jiejie told me the peacock was willing to pay for me to come back, and --” a snort. “Of course he wasn’t doing it voluntarily, I’m not stupid. But Jiejie insisted, and I think she was about to bring the peacock along to insist with her, and I’d --” he shudders. “I’d really rather not.”
Lan Zhan looks at him, eyes flickering somewhere on his face.
“You’ll go back?” He asks quietly. Voice low and warm and drowsy and gentle. “After?”
Wei Ying meets his gaze, and swallows. Tries not to dupe himself into finding disappointment, or worse, sadness, in the other man’s face. Lan Zhan cares for him, for some goddamned reason -- he knows that much. Lan Zhan cares for him much more than he deserves. But Wei Ying will not be the one to lead himself on. Lan Zhan, tender and soft-edged and concerned, has to be enough.
(And God, is it already so much. So generous, for the way Wei Ying had left him. For all the trouble he’s gotten him into.)
He shrugs a little, and keeps his eyes off Lan Zhan’s face.
“Ah, to be honest -- I don’t know, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying blows a strand of hair out of his own face. “I came back -- I came back just to see you guys, really, and, um. Explain. I guess.” He coughs, gaze averted. “I mean. I have a degree now, still, and I know it’s kinda useless if I don’t do anything with it, but. I don’t know.”
It’s quiet, for a while. Wei Ying begins to think Lan Zhan won’t say anything, after all, and meets the cold air with an absentminded sigh -- and then there’s a hand grasping at his left wrist, gentle like flowers rooted in earth.
“Consider it,” Lan Zhan speaks up softly. Lashes brushing against raised cheekbones as he blinks, quiet. “Wei Ying would be an asset. Wherever you decide to be.”
Wei Ying blinks back. Just stands there for a while, feeling something collapsing in his chest, like a star into itself. It sets something off and suddenly, suddenly all of him is tumbling, one by one -- as if Lan Zhan had brought a domino to his lips then used it to knock the rest of him down. He crumbles like a castle.
“Jesus Christ, Lan Zhan,” he inhales, a little blocked up and bleeding with colour. Said man only stares back, tall and soft and handsome, hands folded behind his back in a way that’d look pretentious if it were anyone else. Wei Ying, an asset. Anywhere. It drapes itself gently over his shoulders like Lan Zhan’s coat.
Wei Ying is many things. Wei Ying is a lot, and he knows it himself. But Lan Zhan looks at him in all that mess, and, like it were simply just a matter of fact, picks out: Capable. Valuable. Best friend.
“My God, can I just --” he blurts out. Cuts himself off and decides, fuck it. He leans in, making his intentions clear just so Lan Zhan could step away if he wanted to -- Lan Zhan doesn’t move, and so he curls his arms around him. Buries his face into his left shoulder, and pulls him into a hug.
It takes a second or two, but then Lan Zhan’s own arms are coming up around him. Large, warm hands fitting into the dip of his waist, molding into the fabric of his own coat, on Wei Wuxian’s frame. Arms thrown around the other man’s neck, slotted carefully yet tenderly around his strong, steady shape, Wei Ying mumbles into the fabric of his snow-white turtleneck -- “That’s not allowed.”
Lan Zhan makes a quiet, contemplative noise. Wei Ying exhales, and thinks he feels Lan Zhan shiver.
Perhaps it’s the smell of him, all sandalwood and familiarity -- perhaps it’s the time, the cold messing his inner wirings up. Perhaps it is the grounding weight of Lan Zhan’s hands, large and gentle and careful, cradling him so tenderly despite the other man’s own aversion towards being touched. He doesn’t know what it is, but Wei Ying definitely isn’t quite thinking, when he noses into Lan Zhan’s shoulder and huffs -- “You need to stop saying things like that, Lan Zhan. Aish. You’re going to make me fall for you.”
Lan Zhan freezes.
And then, then Wei Ying realizes what he’d said -- panic sets in like a rushing whirlpool, making his eardrums sound like the sea. He pulls back immediately, stumbling back a step or two.
“Hahaha, I mean --” he’s grinning, bright like a flimsy lamp. “Sorry, Lan Zhan. Bad joke, bad joke.” He dusts himself off like he’d taken a fall, trying not to let his smile falter at Lan Zhan’s blank face. (Here, a safe near-metre away, things suddenly feel a lot colder than they’d been seconds ago.)
It is silent for a moment too long. A streetlamp on the corner flickers once, twice, then returns to buzzing amber with the same frequency it had before -- Wei Ying curls his fingers into the fabric of Lan Zhan’s coat, and finds that they have begun to shake.
Lan Zhan stares resolutely at a spot near Wei Ying’s collarbone.
“And that would be,” the other man speaks softly, voice low and dark and crackling. He is swallowing, not meeting Wei Ying’s eyes. “Bad?”
Lan Zhan's face is impossibly blank. Wei Ying finds emotion in it anyway, in the tight set of his eyebrows and the way his lips hold close to every word like they're afraid to let them go. Lan Zhan looks -- pained. A little bit scared.
(The whirlpool still rushes, rising in his throat, but it now seems a little lost, itself.)
Wei Ying swallows.
“Ah, I mean --” he curls his fingers into the pockets of Lan Zhan’s heavy, woollen coat, and chuckles a little uncertainly. “It’s not like you like me like that, Lan Zhan! Of course it’d be bad.”
What follows is silence. Cold, almost seasonal, as Lan Zhan refuses to lift his eyes where they’re fixed, lowered. The more he does not say anything the faster Wei Ying’s heart beats, harsh and heavy like fists against his chest -- he knows, he’d only just promised not to lead himself on. He’d only just promised not to let hope fester. But the set of Lan Zhan’s jaw is firm in its sadness and frustrated in its resignation, and Wei Ying hopes and hopes and hopes.
So he tries.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying licks his lips. “Can I…..can I ask you a question?”
This time, Lan Zhan draws his eyes back up to meet his, a soft breath escaping his mouth. It takes shape in the form of a white cloud, as if the man were water himself. A still, abundant ocean. Lan Zhan does not answer, but waits nonetheless.
So, Wei Ying says --
“While I was gone,” and then he pauses, just to feel himself shake. “Did you really -- not meet any pretty girls? None you liked?”
Lan Zhan looks at him, and while his expression spells out insufferable, like it always does when Wei Ying'd joked around like this, there is something else in his eyes now. Something saturated and choked up and almost, angry.
“I need to know, Lan Zhan,” he adds quietly. Swallows, and pushes the words out before Lan Zhan can turn away. Heart making a punching bag out of his chest -- “I promise I’m not just trying to tease.”
At the airport gates, right before his flight back to America, his Jiejie had told him to find out what he really wanted. There’s no pressure, ah-Xian, she’d said, voice sweet and soft, a hand curled around Wei Ying’s face. But think about it, okay? What you really want.
Now, standing here before the fading colours of the dragon’s gate, Wei Ying wants and wants and wants.
Lan Zhan is silent for a moment. And then he parts his lips, soft, eyes dropping to the floor, and says -- “I do not want a girl, Wei Ying.”
His heartbeats feel like fighter jets tearing across a blue sky.
“Did you,” he whispers without quite knowing why. Fingers folding into the fabric of Lan Zhan’s coat, draped over his own shoulders. “Did you want someone else?”
Lan Zhan does not look at him. His voice is lower than it’s ever been, quiet and dark and honeyed.
Wei Ying shakes all over.
“Do I -- do I know them?” He pushes on, hushed. When he pauses the cold bites at his face, but he seems to have forgotten all about it during the past hour or two. It’s startling, now. “What happened?”
Lan Zhan purses his lips. Dark hair from his ponytail spilling over his shoulder, across the white of his turtleneck. Mouth looking like softly-glowing embers in a winter’s night.
“Yes,” he answers after a long while. Voice cracking on the first word. Lan Zhan moves to wrap a hand around the strap of his instrument bag, wrapped all the way around his shoulder, and Wei Ying sees them tremble. (It feels like an earthquake, almost, in Wei Ying’s chest. Like the fields and valleys and mountains shaking right before they split open, to reveal all the light and gold and blinding life they’ve been hiding for so long.) “Nothing happened.”
The other man almost looks back up at him, but then his eyes settle back down to a spot on Wei Ying’s shoulder.
“He took a plane,” the words come softly. Quivering, even as they leave Lan Zhan’s mouth. Lan Zhan, who has always seemed so sure of everything. “And I did not have the chance to let him know. But I wanted him, nonetheless.”
It falls silent. Lan Zhan stands, stripped. And Wei Ying, heart thudding like a thousand wild horses, breathes -- “and now?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes dart up to meet his, finally.
“Wei Ying,” the man croaks out -- voice tight, eyebrows drawn together as if in pain. As if confused, as to why Wei Ying would be doing this. It’s pleading, almost, and it’s perhaps the most emotion he’s ever seen on Lan Zhan’s face. It throws Wei Ying off-kilter.
“Fuck,” Wei Ying blurts out. “I --” he takes a step forward, two, closing the space between them again. Lan Zhan’s eyes glisten, and Wei Ying sees him swallow. “Lan Zhan,” he breathes. Croaks , in chinese -- “If I’m -- if you don’t want it, punch me, okay?”
And then he dips forward. Slow, shaking, pausing inches from Lan Zhan’s face just to give him the time.
Up close he is breathtaking, and Wei Ying spends a second thinking about how he might never be able to walk far from him again. There is something raw in the look on the other man’s face -- carefully-crafted features held still under the light of a golden streetlamp, sharp eyes now nothing but gentle edges.
Lan Zhan doesn’t punch him. He exhales instead, quiet in the night, and Wei Ying feels it fall against his lips.
It’s ridiculous. It’s too much. Wei Ying surges forward, and kisses him.
In full honesty, when Wei Ying pulls back after a second, he can barely remember any of it. His heart is thudding, fast and hard and heavy in his chest, fingers trembling even as they attempt to curl around the fabric of Lan Zhan’s coat for leverage -- his head, all of it screams Lan Zhan Lan Zhan Lan Zhan and, for a moment or two, Wei Ying thinks he might throw up.
(He’d always sort of felt like that, even back in school. After he’d realized he liked Lan Zhan, after he’d realized he liked him so, so much -- he’d spent a lot of his time, feeling like he was about to hurl. It got worse with Lan Zhan in the room. It was all so much, building beneath his chest and swelling like a river about to burst its banks -- he hadn’t known what to do then. He doesn’t quite know what to do now.)
Soft, slender fingers reach out, curling beneath the collar of his own coat that’s draped over Wei Ying’s shoulders. They are trembling too, Wei Ying finds -- perhaps even more than his own. It’s awfully comforting, to know that he isn’t alone. To know that Lan Zhan is here, in front of him, with a pair of hands shaped a little different, but shaking all the same.
He is pulled in again -- softly, almost as if Lan Zhan were, for some reason, afraid. The other man, for a second, pauses. A hair’s width between them, just looking at him. Breath scalding in the cold.
Wei Ying doesn’t know what to do with himself. Lan Zhan, gentle, guides him through it.
Leans forward in a quiet, small movement, and kisses him on the mouth. Again and again and again. A soft peck, then dragging it out, slow and sweet like a summer’s day in the middle of november -- Wei Ying, with his eyes squeezed shut, commits every one to memory.
“Lan Zhan,” he croaks out, when they part for breath. He’d be embarrassed by the way his voice cracks, if Lan Zhan wasn’t looking at him like -- like that. Eyes dark and face flushed, the tips of his ears dipped in a pink even the cold could not conjure up.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes. “I,” he swallows. (Wei Ying knows to stay silent, focusing on taking air into his lungs. Resting his hands,tenderly, at the base of Lan Zhan’s neck.) The other man’s turtleneck is soft.
“I love you,” are the words Lan Zhan finds. His voice is almost a whisper, soft and hoarse and low. “Like you. Want you. Can’t live without you.”
Wei Ying takes his face in his hands, and kisses his soft mouth until Lan Zhan shakes. Until Wei Ying can barely remember his own name.
“You’re so good,” Wei Ying mumbles, pulling back ever so slightly. Still close enough for their lips to brush, and for a moment he is mesmerised by the shiny redness of Lan Zhan’s mouth. The way he looks thoroughly kissed. How Wei Ying had been the one to do that. Lan Zhan goes cross-eyed staring at him, and he breaks the moment to laugh a little.
“I love you,” Wei Ying echoes after a while, after he realizes he’s been staring at Lan Zhan for too long without saying anything. “Like you so much, Lan Zhan. Even all the way back in fucking China.” His voice softens, a smile tugging at the frozen corners of his face. Hands cradling Lan Zhan’s face, he thumbs a little at the other man’s bottom lip. “How dare you, huh?” He mumbles, eyes dropping to Lan Zhan’s mouth again, repeats -- “You’re so good，Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan’s face goes incredibly soft. And then he smiles, barely visible if you didn’t know where to look. (Wei Ying finds it in the corners of his eyes, in the warm apples of his cheeks.)
It feels like summer. The night is so dark but the streetlamps are so, so bright.
“Let me drive you home,” Lan Zhan is saying. Voice a soft, deep murmur. Large, gentle hands sitting perfectly in the dip of Wei Ying’s waist. It makes his legs go weak.
"Okay," Wei Ying says, voice cracking. "Go out with me, Lan Zhan."
And Lan Zhan eyes soften even more, impossibly.
"Of course, Wei Ying."
It feels like hands on his heart. Fingers smoothing out his shirt, slipping underneath without quite needing to fight the buttons of his coat. Lan Zhan’s coat. Lan Zhan’s -- looking at him. Stood still, glowing and graceful like the moon, eyes looking like glimmering pools of water.
When Wei Ying blinks, everything is blue. He tips forward, and kisses him again.
And when they pull back -- when they pull back, the world has not shifted. The dragon’s gate stays steadily illuminated, red neon and golden streetlamps; somewhere, the lights in another shop down the street flicker out. It’s late, and it’s freezing -- but here, for some reason, Wei Ying feels like he’s found fire.
The warm, amber kind. The kind to build a home around.
“Shall we,” Lan Zhan says softly. “Go?”
Wei Ying looks at him. Smiles. It spreads like, like wildfire, reaching the corners of his eyes and the furthest edges of his face.
He takes Lan Zhan’s hands in his.
“Yes, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Let’s stay.”
(And my god, do they stay. They stay, and stay, and stay.)