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Cut Through The Clouds

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Lan Zhan finds out that Wei Ying is hoarding his per diem on their long layovers -- the only time the flight attendants get paid decently and the money comes in little cash envelopes. The company says the per diem is fair because everyone gets the same, but the envelopes of play money burn in the pocket of Lan Zhan’s pilot’s blazer. It’s nothing to him, but he knows it can be double the normal pay the flight attendants get. He uses it to buy food for himself, drinks for the crew when he’s forced to join them in the hotel bar, and otherwise collects small stashes of foreign currency.

Lan Zhan knows he’s using the money in the way it’s intended, but instead Wei Ying is trying to live off of plane food and the continental breakfast at the bland airport hotel and anything cheap he can scrounge -- vending machine chips, dollar pizza, street food if they're in a place where the water is safe to drink.

It’s... it's an injustice that the pay scale is so inadequate.

He’d give Wei Ying his money if he thought it would be accepted. If he thought Wei Ying would take it instead of laughing his polite laugh, so small in comparison to his real laugh, and smile until Lan Zhan gave up.

However, Lan Zhan is not easily deterred when he sees a need.

He starts finding increasingly flimsy pretexts to feed Wei Ying.

It is trivial to ascertain which room is Wei Ying’s, and just as easy to walk up to his door:

'This meal came with an extra order of dumplings as part of the combo.'

'I was going to share with my relief pilot, but he is in the gym and cold french fries are not worth reheating.'

He keeps this up, small excuses and proffered take-away packaging, until he's just buying entire extra meals and bold-faced handing them over to a bemused Wei Ying in his hotel room.

The rest of the crew often get drinks, but of course that costs money. Lan Zhan has previously been convinced to join them, but he cannot be forced now that he has something better to do.

The end result is that their block of hotel rooms are empty, save for Lan Zhan outside of Wei Ying’s door, and Wei Ying standing in the doorway in his socks, moisturiser still shining on his face. Lan Zhan stands there backlit from the harsh glare of the hallway lights, bag of food in his outstretched hand.

It could be any hotel, any country, any time of day.

This hallway is like a bubble unhooked from time and space. They could be the only people in the world.

It’s an illusion Lan Zhan allows himself to participate in, because Lan Zhan always knows exactly when and where, the lat and air conditions ingrained in him with the first breath he takes when he deplanes. His time awareness is as profound and necessary as his life is timed out. He knows when exactly he will get his wake-up call, when it is no longer acceptable to drink -- though of course he doesn't in the first place.

This night is like any of the other nights, and Wei Ying can decide, or not, to take the gift. Lan Zhan is standing there, arm outstretched, bag gently swaying. Inertia.

This is a movement that has been established, one that could continue as long as the force exerted is greater than the continuous drag of gravity. Lan Zhan is happy to keep it that way. But this night is different from the others.

Instead of stepping forward to take it, Wei Ying steps back and the movement pulls Lan Zhan inside. It’s one force acting on another. Lan Zhan can only obey the laws of motion.

They have dinner together, at the small table by the window, its beautiful view overlooking the carpark and beyond it the twinkling lights of the runway. It should be awkward, because Lan Zhan is awkward, sometimes, in informal settings. He is reminded of this every time he has to refresh the protocols or come in for sims. They usually bring the pilots in in small groups, which is worse, the pressure to relate to his colleagues and make conversation overwhelming.

But here, with Wei Ying, it isn't, in large part because Wei Ying tells a story about one of his First Class passengers from the flight over. Wei Ying is usually dedicated to the First-Class cabin and so he only has one or two passengers a flight even on a full booking. It’s one of the perks of First Class that the passengers get that dedicated attention. He self-deprecates and says it’s due to his English, but Wei Ying has a way with these passengers. He can soothe them and make them feel valued without being impressed by their wealth. His skills often lead to him being called over when there is an incident, which is what happened on this flight. The guest slept through the main meal and then asked for the steak, but all the steaks had already been given out. It’s airline policy not to pack a full complement under the assumption that passengers will want a variety of foods. This is usually correct, but was not this time.

Wei Ying says, “So I had to go to him and be like, 'sir, unfortunately steak is no longer available for your meal, but we can provide any of the other meal options' and the guy turns purple, I swear, and pulls out his Diamond Premium Business Plus Stars card right in front of me and snaps it in half right.”

The corners of Lan Zhan’s lips twitch.

“The worst part, Lan Zhan, is that I couldn’t laugh.” Lan Zhan can imagine it, Wei Ying’s only expression when he is working is Placid, sometimes mixed with Gently Concerned. “No, really, Lan Zhan, it was so funny. The card didn’t snap right away!” Wei Ying spends a long time describing how the passenger’s fingers, uncoordinated from sleep and sparkling wine, really hard to work the plastic back and forth to get that card to snap. “He almost dropped it twice. It really undermined the effect.”

Lan Zhan is listening, of course, could not do otherwise, but he's more focused on the sloppy way Wei Ying is eating, food diverted last second from his mouth to emphasise a point. He tilts his face to the sky to drop them directly into his mouth so that sauce doesn’t drip anywhere.

They're eating directly out of the cartons. Lan Zhan rotates their configuration when Wei Ying hesitates, making sure he can reach for whatever he wants. By the end of the meal Wei Ying is bigger, somehow, spread out, limbs stretched like they never can be in the cramped dimensions of the cabin, smile wide enough to stretch his face.

They don't have sex.

It doesn't even occur to Lan Zhan. He goes back to his room on cat feet, lifted and lightened by knowing that Wei Ying didn't go hungry today, that he wouldn't be subsisting on airplane snacks.

It's only notable in retrospect (Johannesburg, 1420, 18 hours til report) when Wei Ying finishes his curry and chakalaka, stretches from fingertips to toes, and rolls his neck to peer at Lan Zhan.

“What else?” he asks and Lan Zhan stares. Wei Ying’s eyelashes are so long. “What else is for me?'

Lan Zhan mouth moves like his lips were trained for this moment. He doesn’t have to think when he asks, “What do you want?”

“Hm,” Wei Ying says, all the warning Lan Zhan gets before he has a lapful of warm Wei Ying. his hands come up naturally to frame Wei Ying's hipbones, edges sharp through the soft cotton blend of his off-duty sweatpants.

When Wei Ying leans down, Lan Zhan can smell the spice from the meal he ate. When he licks inside he can taste the traces of tomato.

Lan Zhan moans.

When he wakes up, Wei Ying is still sleeping next to him. He's not adjusting to local time, not worth it, but it's still early by any standards. The hour is a gift though. He can take the time to look at Wei Ying, the play of shadow on his cheekbones, the curve of his shoulder.

They have breakfast. Delivered to their room, two silver covered plates. Lan Zhan puts his fruit slices on top of Wei Ying's. Wei Ying’s eyes light up for the orange slivers and he makes a smiley face with the fruit. “Look, Lan Zhan!” he says, laughing, and Lan Zhan does. Then Wei Ying bites into them, licking the juice off of his fingertips.

After that it's a habit. Lan Zhan goes to his room. They eat, they spend the night, they have breakfast.

Lan Zhan decides, watching Wei Ying vacuum up tapioca pearls without pausing to stir the burnt sugar into his bubble tea, that if he's doing this he's going to do it right.

***

He gets on the apps.

***

Yelp, Zomato, Dianping, travel blogs with no followers, even a couple of Buzzfeed videos -- worth it for the hot chocolates they have in London, an architectural triumph that got whipped cream in Wei Ying's eyebrows. That got Lan Zhan the chance to wipe whipped cream off of Wei Ying’s eyebrows with his thumb.

He will always remember the way Wei Ying darted forward to lick the cream off Lan Zhan’s thumb, the picture of a satisfied kitten.

Jiang Yanli interrupts his reverie, bringing his on-duty dinner to him up in the cockpit.

"You seem happy," she says and Lan Zhan blanks his face, "now that you've stopped being such an Olympic Torch."

He blinks.

"Travels around the world, but never goes out," she explains.

He can feel something happen to his face, like an all-over twitch, and he wishes he had a camera so he knew what it was.

"Oh, don't be embarrassed!" she says and laughs. "It's a good thing."

***

Of course, he and Wei Ying don't always fly together. They often do, because there aren't that many long-haul qualified pilots and crew on their airline, but not always. It’s not a given.

Lan Zhan has never cared about rostering more in his life.

A typhoon coincides with a crew going down with noro and plays merry hell with everyone's rotas. Due to this, Wei Ying is asked to work a back-to-back flight -- technically not allowed, but the company can get away with anything if no one complains. As part of their ‘no complaints’ agenda, Wei Ying is offered a free trip to Bali for the weekend.

While their flights are always overbooked, it's just a truth of the logistics that sometimes planes are going somewhere less than full, and it's easy to slide in off-duty crew on those.

"it's a bribe," Wei Ying says cheerfully.

Lan Zhan is caught up in the circles under Wei Ying's eyes, magnified over video call, so caught up he also misses Wei Ying asking him to come along.

Wei Ying bites his lip. "Only if you want."

He does want.

***

By rights, Wei Ying should spend the trip sleeping, but both of them have moved past a life lived only in hotels.

So they go out.

Wei Ying seems to love food on sticks and Lan Zhan is happy to buy as many as he can carry, happy to be dragged around by the elbow to various vendors. They get sate with peanut sauce, and Wei Ying puts sambal on everything regardless of the looks he gets from vendors and passers by alike.

Wei Ying eats frozen mangoes on sticks, melting in and on his mouth until he's a sticky mess and it's all Lan Zhan can do to drag him back to the hotel so he can lick it off of him, taste every last bit of the mango nectar. He chases it down the line of Wei Ying’s jaw, the hollow of his throat.

When they fall asleep later, it’s with a sense of perfect satiation. “Ugh, I don’t think I can move,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan hums, curls his arm tiger around Wei Ying’s body. There’s nowhere Wei Ying needs to go.

When Lan Zhan wakes up in the pre-dawn, he's shocked to discover that the reason is Wei Ying looking down at him, hair already up off of his neck, baring the freckle on the left that's normally hidden by the sweep of his hair. Lan Zhan knows that freckle, he thinks of it as a friend. His thumb seeks it out, a perfect resting spot when they’re kissing.

"Wei Ying?" Lan Zhan asks, awake but still dreaming, hand coming up to find its home.

He blames that freckle for Wei Ying managing to talk him onto a surfboard.

***

They come back to the hotel sweat and salt-sticky and starving. Wei Ying only stops kissing him long enough to squeal when he sees the food Lan Zhan scheduled, vegetables and rice and minced meat steamed and wrapped in leaves, like little gifts for Wei Ying to unwrap.

Lan Zhan watches Wei Ying unwrap each one avidly, the sureness of his fingers, his little gasp of delight as each array of vibrantly coloured food is revealed.

***

It ends, like everything. The cabin crew greet Wei Ying enthusiastically on the flight back, and Lan Zhan, tense as he always is when someone else is flying, watches them and says nothing, a dark spot in their bright sea of motion.

That weekend felt like a slice of stolen time, Lan Zhan thinks, back in his grey apartment that the airline found for him when they moved him to this city. He hasn’t done anything to the place since he moved in. It still has the same two cups, two bowls, one chair at one table. This is the world Lan Zhan lives in, and nothing about it matches the time he spent with Wei Ying.

They had to spread their last meal across the verandah to fit it all, a riot of colours, an orchestra of smells. There’s no space for that here, in his home. Everything was in small, bite-sized bits, and Wei Ying complained that his arms were too tired from swimming out, that he couldn’t lift them, and could Lan Zhan feed him, please?

Lan Zhan tookevery care to pick the best morsels, the right size that Lan Zhan could press into Wei Ying’s mouth. Even so, the way Wei Ying looked at him… arms down at his side, mouth open, just waiting. When a small amount of sauce dripped down Wei Ying’s chin he thought for a moment about chasing it with his thumb, his tongue, but no. Making sure Wei Ying got what he needed was more important.

It was a perfect evening, and at the end, when Wei Ying giggled and batted his hands away, insisting he couldn’t eat any more, Lan Zhan was suffused with a feeling of warmth, a pleasure that went down to his fingertips.

Looking back on it, the colours of his memories feel oversaturated, too bright. They hurt to look at. It’s nothing at all like the monochromatic reality in front of him.

***

Lan Zhan is out grocery shopping. He’s looking for a particular mushroom for a soup he’s planning, which has taken him to a slightly further market. Such is the scope of his adventures in his real life.

He exits the market, looks up, and there is Wei Ying.

For a moment his brain can’t make sense of what it’s seeing. Wei Ying is standing there in the open, out in the street.

Wei Ying in his memories is mostly framed by doorways. hotel, cabin, restaurant -- except when he isn't, when he’s framed by Lan Zhan's hands, dragged through the water and cold with it on Wei Ying's sun soaked skin.

Here, now, Wei Ying is smiling as he swings a laughing child into the air. He's with a man and woman, people Lan Zhan doesn't know, people not from the airline. Clearly people he knows well.

Lan Zhan knows the moment Wei Ying sees him. He's not subtle about it. Wei Ying straightens up, smiles, and waves. Both of his companions crane their necks to see what he's looking at.

Lan Zhan feels disconnected from his body, from the moment. he can feel his blood pumping sluggishly up to his brain, getting stuck in his neck which has gone hot. The moment lingers. The bags feel heavy in Lan Zhan’s hands as he -- says nothing.

Does nothing.

He can see when Wei Ying notices that too, the flash of something on his face as his hand hangs awkwardly in the air, mid-wave.

Lan Zhan turns away.

***

Their next flight they're perfectly professional during pre-flight checks, Lan Zhan would expect nothing less.

After, he goes by Wei Ying's hotel room, food in hand, noodles this time from a place the concierge recommended.

Wei Ying opens the door, hand braced against both sides of the frame.

"I'm still mad at you," he says.

Lan Zhan nods. Wei Ying should be.

He hands over the bag. Wei Ying bites his lip.

"Please, take it," Lan Zhan says. He still needs to do this. no matter what Wei Ying thinks of him, he doesn't want him to be hungry. He's looked so well these last few months. His skin has been so bright. Lan Zhan doesn't want to see him fade at all, not because of Lan Zhan.

A strange light comes on in Wei Ying's eyes. “Why did you start bringing me food?" Wei Ying asks.

Lan Zhan tilts his head. What a question. "You weren't eating."

Wei Ying doesn't move but he -- crumples. somehow.

"Ok," Wei Ying says. "I think you should go." Lan Zhan has to -- step back, as Wei Ying closes the door.

He has to throw the noodles away. Too many for one person.

***

He was warned, when he first started crewing real flights, not to develop a reputation.

The flight crew remembers, every pilot said. And they talk.

Lan Zhan nodded and filed the information as irrelevant -- he was polite and distant, this would never be an issue. The idea of him developing a reputation seemed preposterous.

It's an issue now.

He asks for a coffee because his rest had been suboptimal the night before, and waits. Everyone else is served before him. Perhaps there is a delay, Lan Zhan thinks. Continues to think even as Captain Luo shoots a look at his empty hands and then asks for a Ginger Ale, which is delivered promptly.

His coffee does come eventually. Three sugars in it, when he only takes it black. He drinks it, does not complain.

His meals come overcooked or cold. This is fine, however. This is trivial, easy to tolerate.

What's difficult is going to his hotel room. Dragging his roller bag along the stiff carpet, every bump trying to jerk it out of his hands. Difficult is opening his door and closing it behind him and having no reason to open it again.

***

He gets back on the plane.

Stephen the Senior First Officer gives him a consoling pat on the shoulder. Lan Zhan tries not to shudder away. Lan Zhan grips his cup of coffee -- cold -- and focuses on the instruments. Wei Ying isn't even on this flight.

“Listen, mate,” he says, like Lan Zhan would ever be mates with Stephen, “you don’t want to get coffee.” Stephen mistakes Lan Zhan’s suppressive look with one of confusion. He waggles his can of coke. “Get it closed, you see, so you can be sure of what you’re drinking.”

Lan Zhan does see. He sees that Stephen thinks they are the same, cut from the same cloth

and maybe they are, Lan Zhan thinks later, running on the treadmill in the hotel gym, halfway across the world and not going anywhere.

"Oh please," Captain Luo says, in a blissfully Stephen free cockpit. She asked him point blank how he managed to anger Shijie.

When he gives her a blank look she explains. “You know? Jiang Yanli? She has serious big sister ‘I will fuck you up energy.’ The nickname came out of somewhere, and it stuck. We’re all her junior disciples.”

“Ah,” Lan Zhan says, like that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers. He then tries to explain what he did to earn his current treatment.

She hisses when he describes ignoring Wei Ying out in public.

"Yeah, that'd do it," she says. "Yingying is her favourite."

He shoots her a look. She waves him off. "It's fine, he calls me Mianmian, I'm not in danger of being treated like, well, like you." He nods.

"What do I do?" He asks morosely, staring at his can of coke. He hates carbonated drinks.

"Have you tried apologising?"

Lan Zhan shakes his head. The idea of staring at Wei Ying's closed door, and knocking, and it staying closed to him is unbearable. He'd rather never drink coffee again.

He thinks of the way Wei Ying used to welcome him in, smiling at him, pulling him by the wrist, waving him into a seat. The way that he would run ahead and then stop to look back and wait for Lan Zhan to catch up.

He thinks about the way Wei Ying called out his name, gasped into the space between them, like it had tasted good in his mouth.

And then he thinks of the way Wei Ying said 'you should go' and closed the door. The look on his face, the look Lan Zhan put there.

He wonders how Wei Ying is eating now.

Luo Qingyang sighs, like she recognises that he's hopeless. "Well, you should think about what you want, aside from coffee."

He thinks about it. He's got nothing but time to think about it, curled up in his bunk in the pilot relief area.

The idea of thinking about what he wants is foreign. He doesn't think things like 'What do I want?’ Instead, he thinks about risk mitigation, what events is he trying to avoid. That's why he's a pilot. For every situation, there is a guideline, a policy, and a series of checklists and steps to go with it. Deviating from those is reckless.

A good day for Lan Zhan is one where absolutely nothing happens. That's how he measures success. The number of reports he doesn't have to write.

Wei Ying was hungry. Lan Zhan mitigated that.

Now Lan Zhan is the one who is starving.

He sees Wei Ying in the galley after all of the passengers have deplaned, writing something up.

He wants to talk to him, but he remembers the door, the leaving and thinks that there's no way out in this tiny space not if Wei Ying wants out and he won't, he can't be the one to trap him. The lighting is terrible, as always, but Wei Ying is still beautiful. If it wasn’t here, wasn’t now, he would say something, he thinks. He will.

***

What does he say? Scenarios race through his mind. He can’t compensate for them all. He inhales. Remembers.

Wei Ying drops himself into Lan Zhan's lap in one of those terribly padded hotel armchairs.

"What's wrong?" Wei Ying asks, picking up Lan Zhan’s hands to play with his fingers. He laces and interlaces them between his own.

"Hm?"

"You've got that 'we're flying into Manila' face on." Wei Ying detangles their hands to press his thumb to the space between Lan Zhan's brows.

Lan Zhan grunts, his hands coming up to pull Wei Ying in closer.

"But you know," Wei Ying says lips on his ear, "there aren't any more incidents flying into Manila than there are any other airport." Lan Zhan does know, he read the report. He reads all the reports. Wei Ying continues, "Because you know it's going to be chaos, and you adjust."

Lan Zhan leans up to kiss him. "We're not flying into Manila."

He dries his glass and puts it in the cupboard, closes it with a thunking sound. He exhales. And he sends a message asking Wei Ying to meet him.

where, Wei Ying responds

Lan Zhan dithers. He started, recently, looking at the restaurants in his neighbourhood and wondering - are these cakes good? this hotpot? this place that advertises 'Italian' food? There are so many options. However. Wei Ying asking 'where' is already more than he deserves.

If this is his last time, he wants Wei Ying out in the open, he wants wind in his hair, and sun on his face.

***

They meet in a park.

Lan Zhan is sitting on a bench when Wei Ying stalks up to him, standing over him, hands on his hips.

"I'm here," Wei Ying says.

"Yes." Lan Zhan is prepared this time, for the experience of seeing Wei Ying in the world, in his world. He’s prepared for the curve of his lip and the way his black jeans are worn at the hem and the bottom of the pocket, the way his hair is down and the freckle is tucked away.

Wei Ying shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Well?"

The silence sits between them like a tangible presence.

Wei Ying sighs. looks away. "I'll tell Shijie to take you off the blacklist." He shifts his weight forward and Lan Zhan knows what a take-off position looks like.

Lan Zhan's hand shoots out, grabs Wei Ying's wrist. This wasn’t the plan, but: adapt to the chaos. No checklist.

"That's not why I asked you here."

Wei Ying looks at him, long and steady, but he isn't leaving and that gives Lan Zhan confidence.

He rolls his words back and forth in his mouth. Settles on, "I have...regrets."

Wei Ying waits.

"I don't want your pity," Wei Ying says finally when nothing else is coming.

This is his chance, he has to act now. There's no option to wait it out, there never is. They are objects in motion, they either stay in motion, or they fall.

Lan Zhan has already fallen.

"That is what I regret," Lan Zhan says. "to have ever made it seem that I pitied you, could ever pity you. Wei Ying, I could never.” The words are rising up too fast now, backed up in his throat as they attempt to break free. “There is joy in everything you do. Motion and light." Wei Ying is clear sky and tailwinds.

To touch the sky Lan Zhan needs tons of steel and burning fuel, or he could simply reach out his hand and Wei Ying would take it. He had that. And he let it slip out of his hands. "I froze that day, and it was wrong, I should have talked to you.” He swallows. “No. I should have run to you. I always want to be with you. I never want to turn away again.”

Wei Ying melts, sinking down next to Lan Zhan on the bench and kissing him.

"We're going to talk about this more," Wei Ying warns, and licks into his mouth. Lan Zhan nods, catching Wei Ying's lower lip. "And you're going to have to make it up to me." Lan Zhan nods again, fingers winding into Wei Ying's hair.

Wei Ying pulls back and everything in Lan Zhan cries out to chase him.

Wei Ying laughs and Lan Zhan wants to bottle it, wants to drink it to its dregs.

"Come on," Wei Ying says, "let's get ice cream."