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the thrill of knowing

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Wei Ying first meets Lan Zhan on a Monday morning in early October. Meeting, in this case, is synonymous with Wei Ying doing his best to breathe while Jiang Cheng has him in a chokehold against the couch as Nie Huaisang does nothing to help, when Lan Zhan steps into the living room and falters at the sight of them.

Wei Ying is no stranger to making a memorable first impression, but he can’t say this is one of his best.

There’s a beat of silence, and then Nie Huaisang lets out a startled, albeit belated, shriek and Jiang Cheng falls onto the floor with a dull and painful sounding thud. As Nie Huaisang rushes around the sofa to check that Jiang Cheng isn’t dead or unconscious or some other awful thing, Wei Ying pushes himself up on his elbows and grins. Widely. He’s been told he has a charming smile.

Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to think so.

Then again, it’s kind of hard for Wei Ying to figure out what Lan Zhan does think, given that he makes no indication to move or speak, or do anything at all.

From the floor, in the most timid voice Wei Ying has ever heard, Nie Huaisang says, “Hi, Lan Zhan.”

Wei Ying had figured that much out, honestly, but it’s still surprising to see Lan Zhan in the flesh. Not that Wei Ying knows him as Lan Zhan so much as he knows him as Nie Huaisang’s mysterious roommate.

The Roommate, in fact.

The Roommate—Nie Huaisang rarely calls him by name, as if doing so would somehow summon him—is quiet and serious and scary. He’s scarcely at the apartment and is something of a workaholic. He does meal prepping on Sundays and leaves enough leftovers in the fridge that Nie Huaisang doesn’t feel guilty when he stress eats as he’s working on deadlines. He doesn’t have any social media profiles, except the one he uses professionally, and the only traces of him that exist at all are the plethora of books on the living-room bookshelf and the plants dotted around the living room.

It's strange, Wei Ying thinks suddenly, the things you can know about a person without knowing them at all.

The Roommate, Lan Zhan, only ever asks that Nie Huaisang respects his things and his space, and tries not to make too much noise after 11 pm or before 6 am. Considering the cushions strewn over the floor, the half-finished cake spreading crumbs over the kitchen counter, and the fact it's 5:36 am, Wei Ying can confidently say they’ve ignored every single one of those requests.

He can also, confidently, say, “You weren’t meant to be here this weekend!”

Lan Zhan arches an eyebrow as if trying to ascertain whether a stranger is genuinely asking him to justify his presence in his own home, then says, “It’s not the weekend.”

And Wei Ying will give it to him: he’s not wrong.

He’s also, Wei Ying thinks, distressingly pretty. The kind of pretty that’s hard to ignore. Well dressed, wearing a cream cashmere sweater and tailored navy coat, he looks every inch the rich boy that can afford to live in an apartment like this. His skin is smooth and pale, almost iridescent in the low morning light, and his dark hair is barely long enough to tie back, wavy strands falling artfully on either side of his face. His mouth, pursed and concealing the plumpness of his lower lip, is a soft petal-pink reminiscent of cherry blossoms in the spring, and his nose—

Well, his nose is kind of rounded. Softens the sharp edges of his face.

The silence between them draws on, Wei Ying looking at Lan Zhan and Lan Zhan looking at him, a strange static building beneath his skin. It’s only broken because Jiang Cheng suddenly tries to stand only to fall flat on his back, and instead of attempting to get up again, he simply lies on the floor and stares at the ceiling with a wounded expression on his face. Nie Huaisang snorts, and then giggles, and then can’t seem to stop. It’s probably time for them to go to bed.

Lan Zhan disappears as Wei Ying helps them into Nie Huaisang’s room, and, once Wei Ying is sure that they’ve settled, leaving painkillers and a glass of water on the bedside table, he steps into the bathroom to freshen up.

As he assesses himself in the mirror, Wei Ying decides he could look significantly worse; he’s pulled an all-nighter and the only telling trait is the redness rimming his eyes. Sure, his hair has almost entirely fallen out of its bun and the faint eyeliner Nie Huaisang had put on him has smudged into a smoky shadow, jeans erring on the side of uncomfortable, but he’ll shower and change when he gets home. No one will know any better.

He makes his way back to the living room to clean up, trying to arrange everything as it was, and doesn’t realise that Lan Zhan’s sitting at the breakfast bar that separates the living room from the kitchen until he turns around. Wei Ying startles at the sight of him, and then grins, stepping into the kitchen.

“Oh! I didn’t realise you’d still be here!”

Lan Zhan’s fingers twitch against the steaming mug of tea cradled in his hand, looking at Wei Ying as if to ask where else would I be? and also like he’s questioning why he’s even seeing Wei Ying here at all. Still, he doesn’t actually say anything, so Wei Ying goes about tidying the mess in the kitchen with more care than he usually would; everything here is familiar to him, but it feels weird being so obviously comfortable in a space that half-belongs to a stranger he’s only just met.

Ghosting his fingers over the side of the kettle, Wei Ying pulls out his favourite mug from the overhead cupboard and says, “You must’ve taken the early train, right? Huaisang said you were with your brother in—Suzhou?” He glances over his shoulder and Lan Zhan, after a moment’s hesitation, nods. “Yeah, shit, you must be exhausted.”

“I’m fine,” Lan Zhan says, quiet and clipped, and it’s a shame because Wei Ying thinks his voice has the capacity to carry so much warmth, to be soft and melodic, if he let it.

“Ah, well,” Wei Ying says, eyelashes fluttering as his nose fills with the smell of coffee, and stands directly opposite to Lan Zhan. “You know your body best—I’m the kind of person who can either stay awake for days or fall asleep constantly, anywhere and anytime. Like I’m doing now, actually! I’d be asleep if I didn’t have a class to get to.”

Several emotions flicker over Lan Zhan’s face, all of them too quick to decipher. “You have class.”

Wei Ying grins. “Yeah, I know. In my defence, though, I didn’t plan on staying up all night! We were eating out and then Jiang Cheng dared me to drink something that I’m pretty sure had more than the legal alcohol content in it, and then he wanted to prove he could do it too.” He blows over the steaming mug, shoulders relaxing. “Huaisang just started ordering drinks at some point and didn’t stop.”

“Irresponsible,” Lan Zhan says, so bluntly it startles a laugh out of Wei Ying.

“Absolutely,” Wei Ying agrees, biting down on his lip. “This humble one apologises for his recklessness.”

He realises that he hasn’t stopped smiling since he walked into the kitchen, that Lan Zhan hasn’t looked away from him once. The static that had thrummed beneath his skin returns, more electric than it was before.

Wei Ying likes the weight of Lan Zhan’s gaze on him, the heavy focus of it. Likes the curl of his eyelashes and the shape of his mouth. He wonders what it would look like if Lan Zhan smiled. If he laughed. If he said Wei Ying’s name.

Wei Ying sets his mug down on the counter and leans forward, chin in one hand as his fingers drum against the glossy granite. “Do you know,” he says thoughtfully, “that you’re very, very pretty?”

Lan Zhan’s expression morphs, finally, into something more—expressive. His eyes, a beautiful, shimmering shade of amber, widen, and his mouth falls open just the barest amount, shining with tea or balm or spit. He looks so gorgeous that Wei Ying wants to smack him, just a little bit, for looking like he does. Like the kind of person Wei Ying would see across the room at a club, or bar, or party, and not dare approach. Untouchable. Which only makes Wei Ying want to touch him even more.

Lan Zhan’s features smooth over barely a second later, but the tips of his ears burn red beneath the growing golden glow of the sun and it makes something warm and satisfying gather at the base of Wei Ying’s stomach.

“You’re still drunk,” Lan Zhan says, eyes flickering away as if it’s easier to believe that Wei Ying is amazingly good at pretending to be sober than it is to believe that Wei Ying thinks he’s pretty.

“Oh, please.” Wei Ying pushes himself upright, coffee forgotten as he puts his hands on his hips. “You must get compliments about how you look all the time. Maybe I’m the first person today, but that’s because literally no one else in the world is awake right now. I’d be surprised if you didn’t get them daily, even.”

Lan Zhan stays quiet. It’s a telling silence.

“You do,” Wei Ying says, gleeful, grinning wider when Lan Zhan glares. There’s no heat in it though, not really, and even if there was, Wei Ying is too delighted to care. “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. Do you get notes passed to you in class like some sort of high school cliché? People sliding into your DM’s?” He gasps. “Do you get love letters? You look like someone who’d appreciate a love letter.”

Lan Zhan closes his eyes, a visible effort to stay patient, and Wei Ying is familiar enough with the sentiment even if this is the first time he’s seeing it on Lan Zhan’s face. Wei Ying takes a long sip of his coffee, and then says,

“Also, I was drunk until about three, but I’ve been sobering up since. Huaisang and Jiang Cheng, though—well, they drank more and ate less, and they were really adamant on having cake which is why, you know.” He jerks his head to the side, at the closed cake box. “Somewhere between that, we got to, um, what you walked in on.”

“You were,” Lan Zhan says slowly, “being strangled.”

“By my brother, yes,” Wei Ying says, and then laughs again at the frown that tugs on Lan Zhan’s mouth. It’s a pretty frown. A pretty mouth. “Honestly, what you saw was relatively tame compared to some of the shit we’ve done to each other.”

Lan Zhan makes an obvious attempt not to ask. Wei Ying thrills in every shift and shadow of his face.

“Listen, my point is—if I were drunk and called you pretty, I’d still mean it sober. But I’m already sober, and I think you’re pretty. I can tell you again tomorrow if you’d like.”

Wei Ying doesn’t know if he’s ever been so overcome with the urge to compliment someone before, but he can’t help himself; there’s just something about Lan Zhan that’s undeniably stunning, and Wei Ying needs him to know that. To know that it wouldn’t matter if Wei Ying were drunk or stoned or sober, Lan Zhan’s beauty would be something worthy of praise. He takes another sip of his coffee, now cool enough to drink, and watches Lan Zhan’s ears burn an even brighter red than before. It’s a lovely sight, really, and he tamps down on the urge to reach across the counter and run his fingers over the delicate, ridged cartilage.

It takes him a moment to notice the intensity with which Lan Zhan suddenly assesses him, eyes flickering over every feature of his face. Slowly, Wei Ying lowers his mug, mouth opening to ask what’s wrong, but Lan Zhan speaks first.

“Thank you,” he says, and, gently, adds, “you’re pretty, too.”

The first thing Wei Ying thinks is: I was right about his voice.

The second thing he thinks is: I’m still so fucking drunk—because there’s no way. There’s no fathomable way that Lan Zhan can look at his face in the mirror every morning and then think anyone can compare, especially not people who look like Wei Ying. Sure, Wei Ying has a bright smile and his sister calls him cute, and people like it when he flirts with them, but that’s just—that’s different. That’s pretend. It’s easy to pretend to be pretty and feign the confidence that comes with it, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, not in the way he means it with Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying is pretty when he dresses up, or when he’s happy, or when he’s so filled with love that it radiates from him like light from a lighthouse. He’s the kind of pretty that looks nice in a snapshot, a blurred silhouette at golden hour, when liner’s not smeared around his eyes and his hair isn’t a tousled mess, but Lan Zhan—

Lan Zhan is the kind of pretty that’s always pretty. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing or where he is, the sight of him is like the reflection of a full winter moon against dark water. A burning constellation spread out across the sky. A glowing circle of jade at night. Lan Zhan is pretty because that’s just how he is.

“Um.” Wei Ying knows he’s been staring at Lan Zhan with his mouth open for a solid second, a visible flush spreading beneath his skin like a wildfire, and it takes an embarrassingly long moment for him to half-form a coherent sentence and say, “Thank you—for that. That’s—you’re very nice. To say that.”

Lan Zhan looks faintly concerned at Wei Ying’s sudden inability to speak.

“Ah,” Wei Ying says, scratching the side of his nose and then huffing out a breath of laughter. “You see, ha, the thing is—it’s not every day that someone like me gets called pretty. Especially not by someone like you. A nuisance, sure. A brat, most definitely. Hot, on a good night out, maybe. But this is—a lot. And you don’t seem like the person who’d tease, which means you’re being genuine? Which is nice, but then maybe you’re so nice you’d be nice instead of honest.” He curls his arms around his waist and says, “I can only handle so much this early in the morning.”

Lan Zhan stares at him silently. Then, still looking at Wei Ying, he takes a long sip of tea. It feels pointed, in some way.

“You’re not much of a conversationalist, are you?” Wei Ying asks absently, more of a statement than a question, and then feels his heartbeat stutter from its rhythm when he notices the small twitch at the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth. It’s barely-there, so slight and subtle it’s a wonder Wei Ying even catches it at all.

He feels himself smile, and then at the look on Lan Zhan’s face—faintly amused and somewhat, strangely, curious—smiles even wider.

Lan Zhan, Wei Ying thinks, is a treasure waiting to be found. A puzzle waiting to be pieced together. A secret ready to be known. Wei Ying wants to know him.

“How have I never met you before?” he wonders, and doesn’t realise he’s asked aloud until Lan Zhan’s brow furrows. “It’s just—I’ve known Huaisang for years. I once spent a semester half-living out of your apartment. I’ve met all of Huaisang’s friends. But not you.”

Lan Zhan says, “A lot of his friends don’t know me.”

It’s a sound explanation, and yet it doesn’t sit well with Wei Ying; two years, he thinks, two years lost in which he could’ve known Lan Zhan. Learnt about him. Grown close to him.

Wei Ying nods, says, “That’s fair,” and then pushes himself away from the counter. He finishes his coffee and reaches for Lan Zhan’s empty mug, smiling at the murmured thank you. He’d leave the washing for Nie Huaisang to do, a parting gift of sorts, but there’s something about the quiet of the early morning and the gentle way Lan Zhan is framed by the light that makes Wei Ying want to linger, to draw this moment out. Be selfish with the time he’s stolen from Lan Zhan’s day.

“Well,” he says lightly, “I’m glad we’ve met now. It’s been a long time since I've wondered about Huaisang’s enigmatic roommate. At least now I can say I know something else about him.”

He glances over his shoulder to grin at Lan Zhan, faltering when he notices Lan Zhan watching him with something strange and sweet and unfamiliar. 

“Something else?”

“He’s pretty, of course,” Wei Ying says, and laughs when Lan Zhan immediately turns his face to the side with a frown. His ears are red again.

They don’t know me, Lan Zhan said.

As the softness of dawn settles solidly into the horizon, Wei Ying can’t help but think: I’d like to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within the following week, they see each other around campus so often it’s a wonder how they’d ever missed each other before. Whenever they pass one another by—Lan Zhan, steady and calm, sometimes talking to one of the two close friends he seemed to have, and Wei Ying in a dizzying rush to get from one side of campus to the other—Wei Ying makes a point to shout hello. Most times, he’s also able to ask Lan Zhan how his day’s going, even if he has to leave before he gets an answer.

It quickly becomes a routine, something Wei Ying looks forward to and Lan Zhan expects, always arching a challenging brow as if Wei Ying will somehow be too busy to remember—the sight of which always sends a spark of heat through Wei Ying’s blood—and it’s nice. It’s fun. But it’s also fleeting. Wei Ying wants to speak to him, to say more than two words, but the next time he gets the opportunity, it’s an early Sunday morning, he’s consumed an entire vat of coffee and he can’t remember the last time he slept. That is to say: he’s not doing his best.

Wei Ying wouldn’t say he’s the picture of perfect health, necessarily, but he exists in a decent state that he’s usually able to manage. He works out with Jiang Cheng and eats his greens, and he thinks that balances out the fact that he also drinks coffee like it’s water and gets an average of five hours of sleep a night. This time, though, the exhaustion he feels isn’t technically his fault. Midterms are a week away, and everyone’s getting overwhelmed, and as an RA, Wei Ying feels responsible for the kids on his floor. It’s not his job to help them study, but it’s also not his job to let them drunkenly cry on his shoulder at 3 am or go to the store and pick up comfort food when they’re missing home a little more than usual.

Maybe he has a bit of a complex about taking care of people. At least it’s not as bad as it was before.

So, Wei Ying offered to spend the weekend helping his kids catch up with everything and organise their notes, and all eight of them had taken him up on it. From the hours of 11 pm on Friday to 7 am this morning, Wei Ying has rotated between almost every single class available in first year, digging out his own notes or walking them through theirs. He’s not sure when he last slept, or if he’s napped for longer than an hour, but he couldn’t just leave them to it, either. And now he’s here, crashing from a caffeine-induced buzz, stomach churning, lying on a park bench and doing his best not to fall asleep.

Wei Ying senses the moment someone stops beside him because the gradient of coloured phosphenes behind his eyes suddenly dulls from oranges and yellows to muted purples and greens.

“I’m not homeless,” he says immediately because that’s something he’s been accused of and he looks less put-together now than he did then. “I’m just tired and I can’t feel my limbs.”

“Why?”

Wei Ying jerks upright. It takes a moment for his vision to adjust, the world awash in a hazy blue light that slowly recedes as other colours begin to bleed into sight. Lan Zhan is looking at him with a strange expression on his face, chest rising and falling as he tries to catch his breath; he’s clearly in the middle of a morning run, an earbud hanging on his shoulder while the other is still pressed in his ear, wearing an all-black ensemble so well fitted that Wei Ying can make out the hard, flat line of his stomach, the curves of his muscles and the narrowing of his waist.

Okay, Wei Ying thinks, mouth dry. So, he looks like that.

Then, he realises Lan Zhan is still waiting for an answer.

“Well,” Wei Ying begins, squinting against the glare of the brightening day. “I’m tired because I don’t think I’ve slept in three days—I was helping my kids, the usual. And I can’t feel my limbs because I’m pretty sure I died at some point in the past twelve hours.”

Lan Zhan looks appropriately horrified.

“Sit down, won’t you? You’re very tall, and I can’t tell if I’m dizzy or sick or both.” Thoughtlessly, Wei Ying reaches out to tug Lan Zhan’s sleeve and pull him close, shuffling on the bench so that there’s room for them both to sit comfortably. “I think you’d be nice enough to tell me if I was dead, though, so I have to assume that I’m, unfortunately, very much alive and thriving." He pauses, considering. "The thriving part is subjective.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth is pursed and he looks over Wei Ying’s face carefully, like he’s searching for something. Wei Ying hopes he finds it. Hopes Lan Zhan keeps looking. He might feel like death, he probably looks like it, too, but Lan Zhan looking at him feels so nice. “Kids?”

Wei Ying frowns. He feels like he’s said a lot in a very short amount of time, and it takes a second for him to track the conversation back and see which part Lan Zhan decided to focus on. “Oh! I’m an RA in the halls just off-campus. The ones that are like, twenty minutes from central? I call the students on my floor my kids because they’re my actual babies, even if one of them is terrifyingly tall.”

Lan Zhan is still looking at him, and Wei Ying bites down on the sudden urge to smile. Being around Lan Zhan makes Wei Ying want to smile, and they’ve only met two times, but Wei Ying would say that’s a very strong positive response to have to someone.

“That’s not the point, is it? Ahh, well, I was helping them with their work because midterms, first years, you know how it is. So, I had to have a lot of coffee—turns out that’s not so good on an empty stomach.” He sighs and looks out towards the park, a messy kaleidoscope of oranges and browns and greens. “I figured I’d keep myself awake until tonight and then crash early, but I couldn’t stay in my room because I think I’d legitimately perish.”

It feels, for a moment, like Lan Zhan will say something, but Wei Ying turns to glance at him, Lan Zhan’s looking forward, cheek hollow as he bites down on a visible effort to stay quiet. He’s either holding back a reprimand, or wanting to find a way to leave without being rude and upsetting Wei Ying, which is really considerate of him, and also a jarring reminder that Wei Ying just—dragged him away from his morning routine to talk about nothing at all.

“I’m rambling, aren’t I?” Wei Ying asks suddenly, flicking his finger against the side of his thumb. “Sorry. You should get back to your run. I’ll be fine, honestly! There's nothing to worry about.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t look reassured, and somehow manages to sound both soft and stern when he says, “You should eat.”

“Aha—what?”

“Eating will help your nausea.”

Wei Ying is used to causing confusion but he’s very unfamiliar with being confused—he’s the kind of person who picks things apart to put them back together, stays up all night to study concepts he’s never heard of just to explain them back to his kids because it’s fun, and he likes getting to the root of things, how all the tiny details fit together to make a big picture. Given how little Lan Zhan speaks, it’s strange that Wei Ying is struggling to keep up with him.

“I mean, I guess?” He blinks slowly, and barely refrains from pinching his thigh to check this isn’t some caffeinated hallucination. “I had an oat bar earlier if that counts? It was really dry though, so I don’t think that helped, and also I kinda just…couldn’t think too much about food without feeling sick—the idea of an actual meal was too much.”

He's faintly aware he’s rambling again, but Lan Zhan doesn’t seem bothered by it. In fact, now that Wei Ying pays attention, although Lan Zhan’s looking out into the park, it’s so clear that he’s listening intently, like he wants to take everything into careful consideration before he gives a reply. And that’s—nice. It’s more than nice. Most people tend to disregard Wei Ying after a certain point, for saying so much so often, but he doesn’t know how to do anything else. To be any other way. The reason that he’s been able to get so far, to get recognised by friends of friends and get pulled aside by his lecturers for research and networking opportunities, is because he knows how to say the right thing to the right person, how to keep their attention long enough that they’re interested in hearing more.

He’s still figuring out how to get people to like him enough to want him to stay, to want him just for him, but that’s different. He’ll get there one day, too.

Lan Zhan, though, doesn’t know him and has no reason to indulge him like this. Wei Ying has nothing to give him, and in the few times they’ve spoken, has barely strung together a coherent sentence. Lan Zhan’s not quick to speak and he’s unnervingly difficult to read, and he sits beside Wei Ying and listens to his rambles as if what Wei Ying says actually matters.

Wei Ying wants to make everything he says matter.

They’re close enough that he can make out each individual hair of Lan Zhan’s eyebrows, the small red bruise at the corner of his mouth—a tiny imperfection that makes him so devastatingly human. The high of Lan Zhan’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose are pink from the cold. Beside him, Wei Ying, in washed-out, black denim overalls, feels warm.

“You should eat,” Lan Zhan says again, more a statement than a suggestion, and yet somehow gentler.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying sighs, glancing as someone jogs past them, another early riser. “I know.” He makes no move to get up, though, because conjuring up the energy to do something is different from knowing he needs to do it, and after a moment, realises that Lan Zhan isn’t standing either. Instead, he’s looking down at Wei Ying’s lap with a frown. “Um—”

“Your hands are shaking,” Lan Zhan says quietly. Their knees are less than an inch away from knocking.

Wei Ying glances down. “Oh. That’s—so they are!”

It’s barely there, a tremor more than a shake, but Wei Ying becomes acutely aware of how it wracks through his body like a frigid wind, the past three days finally catching up with him. He’s usually better at pacing himself between moments of careless overexertion, nowhere near as reckless as he used to be, but now Wei Ying is tired, and hungry, and he’s shaking, and Lan Zhan is looking at him like he’s worried Wei Ying is a breeze away from bowling over.

“Ah,” Wei Ying says, laughing past the discomfort of Lan Zhan’s concern. He’s gotten used to worry from friends, if only, but not so much from strangers, and despite how much he’d like for Lan Zhan to be something more than that, it makes his stomach feel funny. “Don’t worry about me! I promise I’ve had worse, and I know that doesn’t sound reassuring, but—I’ll be fine in a little bit, honestly. And being outside has helped!”

It's clearly the wrong thing to say because Lan Zhan’s mouth pinches.

“Worse doesn’t mean better,” he says, the sweetest chastisement.

“I mean. Yes, alright, that’s fair, but! But, listen, you’ve got better things to do than worry about a stranger, Lan Zhan! I’m sure you want to get back to your run!”

It’s the first time he’s said Lan Zhan’s name out loud. Wei Ying likes the way it sits on his tongue, sounds against his teeth, like a half-remembered lullaby from a favourite childhood memory.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying likes the way his name sounds coming from Lan Zhan’s mouth even more. “Huaisang’s first friend. Jiang Cheng’s brother. Double majoring in physics and politics. Not a stranger.”

It’s strange, Wei Ying thinks again, the things you can know about a person without knowing them at all.

“Huaisang told you?” he asks, quietly, stunned.

It takes a moment, but Lan Zhan nods. Wei Ying wonders if Huaisang had offered that information forthright, explaining the presence of the two new faces in their apartment after he’d woken up on Monday, or if Lan Zhan went out of his way to ask. Wei Ying knows which answer he'd like better.

“I just know your name,” Wei Ying admits, feeling inexplicably guilty about it. “And that Huaisang is terrified of you. Which I know isn’t saying much, considering he’s terrified of most things, but you’re definitely up there with Mingjue-ge.”

Lan Zhan’s expression morphs into something that, oddly, resembles amusement. “He’s not.”

Wei Ying frowns, curling one leg between him so he can turn to Lan Zhan on the bench. Everything else is forgotten in place of watching Lan Zhan speak, hearing his voice, selfishly stealing more of his time. “Are you sure?”

“We grew up together,” Lan Zhan says, glancing at Wei Ying from the corner of his eye before he, too, shifts slightly so he can face Wei Ying better. His own wordless indication that he doesn’t mind staying, that he’ll indulge Wei Ying for a little while, at least.

Nie Huaisang had conveniently left that information out. Conveniently left many things out, in fact, but Wei Ying is suddenly grateful for his evasiveness because it means Wei Ying can figure Lan Zhan out for himself. Pick apart the pieces of him, examine them against the light, see the mosaic of colour that spills from the shards of his soul.

Around them, the breeze picks up and the sun begins to peek through the clouds, the scattered autumnal colours growing vibrant beneath warm, golden rays.

“He doesn’t talk about you,” Wei Ying confesses. “Everything I know about you, which isn’t much, honestly, is just from shit he’s mentioned casually. The plants, for example, in your living room. Or the one time he showed up at the library for a study session with one of your dinners in his bento box—that’s how I found out you even existed, because he made me swear I wouldn’t tell you. Like somehow, despite never meeting you, I’d tattle on him for taking your food.” He shakes his head, his smile small. “But—I don’t really know anything else.”

Lan Zhan hums and doesn’t look as offended as Wei Ying thinks he has the right to be for having a childhood friend act like you don’t exist. Then again, that makes Nie Huaisang sound cruel, and Nie Huaisang is the farthest thing from cruel.

Then, Lan Zhan says, “He respects my privacy.”

Wei Ying turns the words over in his mind, brow furrowing. “So, what…the less he says about you, the less people know?” When Lan Zhan nods, Wei Ying relaxes against the back of the bench as it presses against his side. “I guess that sounds like something he’d come up with, now that I think about it. He’s unnervingly good at twisting truths and telling not-lies, don’t you think? I mean, he managed to convince Mingjue-ge he was happy doing law for an entire semester—it took a drunken breakdown and me shoving them in a room together with the promise of bringing back Thai that got him to cave, in the end.”

He's not really expecting an answer, even less so the small breath of laughter that Lan Zhan lets out. Wei Ying can’t help the wide grin that threatens to split his face at the sound of it. Next time, he thinks determinedly, he’ll draw the laughter out. Make it linger. Make it last.

He really hopes there’s a next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

wei ying
hypothetically!

angry bird
Shut up

wei ying
i didn’t even say anything???

angry bird
Don’t

wei ying
HYPOTHETICALLY!!!!!
if i met lan zhan and we spent the entire day in the park and if he walked me home to make sure i got food and if i wanted to see him again
how would i like
do that

fanboy
you did what with you and where and why and when 🤭

angry bird
Who the fuck is Lan Zhan

fanboy
you really spent the day with lan zhan 👀

wei ying
this is so helpful wow amazing thanks guys!!!!

fanboy
lololololol
literally just text him
you have his number right

Wei Ying you have his number right
WEI YING 😠😠

wei ying
so about that!

angry bird
Holy fuck. Did you get distracted by his pretty eyes or some shit

wei ying
how do you know they’re pretty

fanboy
[Contact Shared: Lan Zhan]
you’re welcome 🙄

I said You’re Welcome dickhead
Wei YING 😣

don’t speak to me ever again

angry bird
Fucking lol

 

 

 

 

 


Wei Ying is in the library a few days later, huddled in the corner by the rattling old radiator, when he sees Lan Zhan again. At first, he’s too engrossed in his work to notice Lan Zhan lingering between the bookshelves, skimming his fingers over the spines of old textbooks, but then he glances up from the messy scrawl of his notes and endless blocks of text from online articles, and feels something in his body hum.

“Lan Zhan!” he says, and immediately flinches. He’s not worried about disturbing anyone—people rarely use this library despite how quiet and resourceful it is, and he doesn’t think he’s ever even seen another person on this floor in particular—but the sound of his own voice is startling after hours of silence.

Lan Zhan walks towards him, a book tucked under his arm. “Wei Ying.”

“You look nice,” Wei Ying says lightly, smiling. “Going somewhere?”

Lan Zhan’s expression barely shifts, save for the slight softening of his eyes when he answers. “Coming. From dinner with my brother.”

“Stopped by for some light reading on your way home?” Wei Ying teases, grinning wider when Lan Zhan looks at him, unimpressed. The textbook at his side is thick and heavy, something about ethics and education. “Education major?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “A credit requirement.”

Wei Ying hums sympathetically. “What are you majoring in?”

“Literature and music.”

Wei Ying doesn’t know Lan Zhan well, not as well as he wants to, not as well as he hopes he will, but he suddenly can’t imagine Lan Zhan studying anything else. It just makes sense. Nie Huaisang’s interests lie primarily in art, in fashion, but a lot of the books on his living room shelf are about music theory, biographies of contemporary composers, and a variety of classic literature from all over the world, titles Wei Ying’s never even heard of, their spines worn through with age and with love. Wei Ying can picture Lan Zhan ghosting his fingers over the edge of each page as he reads, memorising the page number whenever he puts a book down, and wonders if he annotates with pencil, or uses post-it notes, or keeps a separate journal altogether to jot down his thoughts.

“Oh, wow,” he says, entirely earnest, and then shakes his head. “I love music, but I could never wrap my head around the theory of it, and I don’t have the patience for lit. That, and I also really struggle with focusing on something I don’t enjoy—I've seen your reading lists. They're not pretty. But...I suppose it isn't too dissimilar from physics? Like, at the end of the day, you're piecing together ideas from all these different places to get a grasp of a bigger concept, right? And the concept itself is entirely subjective." He pauses, humming thoughtfully, and then says, "It's all about the abstract, isn't it? It's whatever you make of it. Half of physics is just making it up as you go, really. Learning something before you have to unlearn it to know even more. That's why I love it so much."

Lan Zhan makes a quiet, considering sound.

"The more I think about it, actually, the less different they seem." He shrugs at Lan Zhan, smiling. "Ah, anyway, ignore me. I could ramble on about this forever."

Surprisingly, Lan Zhan takes a small step forward instead of away, adjusting his grip on the book. “And politics?”

“Ah?”

“Why politics?”

“Oh—aha, um.”

Wei Ying feels flustered, suddenly. A lot of people end up assuming that Wei Ying does what he does because he can, and because he’s good at it, and he doesn’t bother to correct them because they’re half-right. But he also does what he does because he loves it. Because he’s driven by passion, excels because of it. Very few of them take the time to actually ask.

Standing in front of him, Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying the same way he did in the park. Quietly attentive, like he’s turning all Wei Ying’s words over, considering them carefully, as if the things he says matter.

“I just think people are so interesting,” Wei Ying says finally, because he’s always excited for an opportunity to talk about his work, and shuffles forward on his seat. “Like, the way they thrive and the way they fail, as individuals and within society. I didn’t even mean to make a major of it, but I took a couple of sociology modules, and then this fantastic human rights one, and—it just ended up with me having enough credits in this really specific area, you know? And, it doesn’t hurt, does it? It’s just another way to understand how the world works.”

Lan Zhan looks at him thoughtfully. “It was unintentional?”

“Basically. And I don’t think it’ll come in handy at all in the future, but if I’ve done half the work I need to, then there’s nothing stopping me from gaining a qualification out of it, you know? Two for the price of one!” He smiles and likes the way that Lan Zhan’s expression seems to ease at the sight of it. “Anyway, I’m glad you had a nice evening, Lan Zhan! Thank you for indulging me, but you should go! It’s good that you let yourself have a bit of a break—there’s no point spending it stuck in a library. You already work so hard!”

Lan Zhan glances pointedly towards where Wei Ying’s papers are spread out, and then at the three empty cups of coffee stacked behind his laptop.

“Ah! I’m here because I don’t work hard enough—I’ve gotta make up for it somehow! This library’s literally open all night, which is really handy. My sleeping isn't as bad as it used to be, but it’s still nice to know this place is here for me if I need it. And I think the librarian here likes me—not that awful, grumpy man, but the cute old lady!" He sighs and puts a hand on his chest, expression sombre. "I’m pretty sure I break her heart each time I leave.”

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Lan Zhan says drily, mouth twitching when Wei Ying cackles. 

"This is actually my favourite place to study, cute old librarians aside. I've never seen you here before, though! We've missed each other a lot, don't you think? We've got lots to make up for," Wei Ying says, and then cups his cheek in his hand and takes note of the slight drop of Lan Zhan’s shoulders, the barely there strain around his eyes and how he blinks soft and slow. Voice quieter, Wei Ying says, “You should go home and rest, Lan Zhan. I didn’t mean to hold you back.”

“You’re staying?”

Wei Ying feels his eyes crinkle in a smile. “It’s still early for me. I’m so close to finishing this, Lan Zhan, I can’t just leave. But I promise I’ll be out of here by midnight!”

“Hm.” Lan Zhan glances over Wei Ying’s papers again, and then out the floor-to-ceiling length windows that look over the city. The skyline glows a cold shade of blue, and the yellow lights of the library blur their reflection in the glass. Suddenly, he asks, “Have you eaten?”

Wei Ying laughs, breathless and stunned, and then says, “You’ll be proud of me. I’ve only had four cups of coffee today, and I had lunch.” He reaches for his satchel and holds it open, nodding his head to the empty wrappers stuffed inside. “And snacks, too! I’ll get dinner from the vending machine on the way home.”

Lan Zhan’s expression relaxes slightly, and Wei Ying allows himself to delight in how Lan Zhan is so good, so warm—even if he doesn’t appear to be.

“I’ll be fine, Lan Zhan, I promise,” Wei Ying says, ignoring the quiet voice that selfishly wants him to ask Lan Zhan to stay, keep him company for a little while, walk Wei Ying across campus again to make sure he gets home safe. The final thought has him sitting upright, fingers twitching. “Actually—”

“Hm?”

“Could you text me when you get home, maybe? Just so I know you’ve made it back safe. I know you’re like, very capable and strong and independent and everything but it’d make me feel better. It’s just—it’s really dark outside and this area is super quiet but it’s not the best, so it’d—if you could just.” The more he speaks, the faster he gets, and Wei Ying stops, suddenly, embarrassed. The soft look on Lan Zhan’s face surprises him.

“I don’t have your number.”

Wei Ying’s phone feels like it’s burning a hole in his pocket, and he bites down on his lip to stop himself from confessing that he has Lan Zhan’s, toying with the idea of texting him all week but backing out each time, not knowing what to say and not knowing whether Lan Zhan would even want Wei Ying to contact him. He knows Nie Huaisang wouldn't give Lan Zhan's number away so easily when he'd worked so hard to protect Lan Zhan's privacy, but that doesn't take away the desperation Wei Ying feels not to be overwhelming, not to be too much. He's been accused of that before. 

Over time, Wei Ying has learned when to push a friendship, when it'll be wanted, and when to take a step back and let it go. He doesn't want to push Lan Zhan into anything, but he also doesn't want to let Lan Zhan go, either. Wei Ying wants to get a chance to know him, truly, deeply, on Lan Zhan's own terms.

Swallowing around a lump in his throat, Wei Ying rattles off his number. “Thank you—for indulging me, I mean. It’s probably stupid, but it makes me feel better, and it doesn’t hurt to be safe, right? I do it with all my friends, and with my kids."

“It’s not stupid.”

Wei Ying grins at the intensity in Lan Zhan's voice, then says, “I know you’re like, well within your rights to tell me to fuck off, but now that we have each other’s numbers I need you to know I happen to send great memes.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches.

“I also know some great boba places,” Wei Ying continues, feeling faintly giddy, because Lan Zhan isn’t saying no. “And I think at least three ingenious things a day.”

“Only three?”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, grinning too wide to even act affronted. “I said at least, didn’t I? Be nice to me and I might send you more.”

Lan Zhan’s amusement is only apparent in his eyes, but it’s obvious enough to make Wei Ying’s heart flutter. Then, “Text me, too.”

The flutter turns into something stronger. It takes Wei Ying a second to nod, and another to find his words. “It’ll be late, though. I don’t want to wake you up.”

Lan Zhan frowns. It’s a subtle thing in the way that all his expressions seem to be, but Wei Ying is getting good at noticing the subtle things about him—after all, whenever Lan Zhan is around, Wei Ying can scarcely look at anything else.

“Alright, yes. If you want, Lan Zhan, of course I will.”

Lan Zhan could ask for anything, Wei Ying thinks suddenly, helpless, and Wei Ying would find a way to give it to him.

He watches Lan Zhan disappear behind the swinging library doors before he covers his face with his hands and groans. There’s no way he’ll be able to focus, not after that, not after the way Lan Zhan had looked and how he’d spoken and how soft he seemed, surrounded by the harsh lines of the shelves and the unfaltering glow of overhead lights. By the time Wei Ying manages to get back into the flow of things, albeit less engrossed than before, his phone vibrates with a notification from Lan Zhan that confirms he got home safely, and that he hopes Wei Ying has a productive evening.

Wei Ying stares at the work on his laptop, at the half-finished equation in his book, and begins to pack his things, heading home an hour and a half earlier than he planned to. And if accompanies his text to Lan Zhan with a blurry photo of himself standing in front of the vending machine he stopped at to get some food, and instead of being asleep, Lan Zhan texts him back that he’s glad Wei Ying ate, that he’s home safe, and then they spend the next few hours messaging each other about everything and nothing at all—well, no one else has to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It becomes a thing. A thing that Wei Ying refuses to think about too hard, because thinking about things too hard has never done him any good. He likes whatever this is, whatever normalcy they’re establishing between them, and he wants it to stay.

Somewhere, in between all their responsibilities, they manage to talk, and they talk a lot. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a simple good morning, lan zhan!!!!! or sleep well, Wei Ying, but even that’s more than enough to make Wei Ying’s day. And then, between conversations about their favourite brands of tea and the last film they watched, their favourite memes and stories about where they grew up, they start studying together at the library. Studying, of course, means Wei Ying alternates between working and staring at Lan Zhan, or sketching him, or rambling about nothing and everything at all until Lan Zhan nudges a cup of steaming tea towards him, silently determined to wean Wei Ying off coffee, and says, “Focus, Wei Ying.”

Studying turns into having meals together, lingering in diners so small there’s barely room to move, turns into hours spent in each other’s bedrooms as they listen to music or podcasts, watching films and dissecting each frame, each moment, until they’re talking about something entirely different from what they started with. And the more time they spend together, the more Wei Ying learns—about Lan Zhan’s likes and dislikes, the things that make him happy and the things that make him sad.

It’s weird, because he doesn’t remember feeling like this with anyone. He clicks with a lot of people, sure, but it’s never been with the same intensity, with this sense of familiarity that seems to run deeper than anything Wei Ying’s ever felt. Like they knew each other in some way, a lifetime ago; the more Wei Ying knows, the more the puzzle pieces that make Lan Zhan up fit into place to form a picture that he swears he’s seen before. And that intensity is matched by this impossible fragility, a shimmering spiderweb caught in a rainstorm, glowing from a distance and so easy to ruin up close.

Wei Ying is trying his best not to ruin it. Trying his best to get as close as possible without everything falling apart.

 

 

 

 

 


“Lan Zhan!”

That’s all the warning he gives before crashing into Lan Zhan’s room and sprawling across his bed. Immediately, the energy he’d been feeling morphs from something electric, static building in a thundercloud, to something more settled and calm.

Lan Zhan’s bedroom is neat and minimalistic, the window propped open despite the late November chill, thin white drapes dancing in the wind. There are no photos on the wall, and the desk is always clear of clutter, the few books he keeps here organised first by genre and then the author’s name, and there’s a digital white piano beneath the window. That’s where Lan Zhan is sitting now, fingers hovering over the keys as he glances over his shoulder, exasperated and—Wei Ying’s probably imagining it, but—fond. Wei Ying is so lucky to have a best friend like him.

Lan Zhan doesn’t know that part—that he’s one of Wei Ying’s best friends, and he’s not sure Lan Zhan would say the same about him, but it’s the truth.

“Wei Ying.”

“Huaisang let me in as he was leaving,” Wei Ying explains. “He said he was going to the store so I told him to get that sweet mint tea you like—you said you were running out last night, remember? And also some peanut brittle.”

Lan Zhan nods, quietly appreciative, and turns around his chair so he can face Wei Ying properly. Wei Ying grins and cups his face in his hands. It’s early evening, and the familiar smell of jasmine and linen fill the room around him. This is one of Wei Ying’s favourite places on earth, and it’s almost entirely because Lan Zhan is here.

“Hi.”

Lan Zhan’s expression softens. “Hello, Wei Ying.”

“I haven’t seen you in forever,” he says. It’s been four days at most—but that’s more days they’ve ever been apart since they first started hanging out, and Wei Ying has missed him. Wei Ying knows how to be without his friends, knows how to be happy in his own company—though it took him a while to learn—but this is something different. Some deeper. In missing Lan Zhan, Wei Ying feels like he’s missing part of himself.

“Mn.” Lan Zhan’s eyes flicker over Wei Ying’s face, lingering on his smile. Wei Ying smiles wider.

“We’re having a movie night,” Wei Ying continues. “Do you want to join? It’ll be fun! We’re watching love films tonight because Jiang Cheng lost a bet, but we’ll try not to be too loud if you don’t.”

This is something Wei Ying has started doing, too. His closest friends are his own patchwork family and it’s been a while since he introduced someone new—it’d be nice, if Lan Zhan could be a part of it. So, whenever everyone is getting together to do something, Wei Ying does his best to invite Lan Zhan and hope that, at some point, Lan Zhan will accept, especially if Nie Huaisang is there too.

Regardless, he expects Lan Zhan to bow out, to have plans with his brother or his friends—Wei Ying has met them, albeit briefly. There’s Luo Qingyang, a third-year journalism student, and Jin Zixuan, a second-year business student and part-time model, and he knows that their version of spending time together doesn’t involve movie nights or clubbing or getting drunk in the park.

“Love?”

Wei Ying blinks slowly up at him and then shuffles to sit upright, wrinkling the bedsheets beneath him. “Yeah, like, romance? Sometimes it’s a comedy and sometimes it’s tragic shit that we put on so we all have an excuse to cry about something, even Qing-jie and Jiang Cheng. But honestly? We’ve had breakdowns watching comedy films, so it’s not an exclusive requirement.”

It draws a huff of laughter from Lan Zhan that Wei Ying revels in. He’s so lovely today, so soft, wearing a pale blue sweater that hangs delicately off his frame; Wei Ying wants to press his hand to the flat of Lan Zhan’s chest and feel the heat radiate from him, heartbeat thudding against Wei Ying’s palm. He doesn’t, though. He won’t.

Although Wei Ying is usually the first to reach out for his friends, hug them tight or hold them close, he and Lan Zhan haven’t had that conversation yet, so Wei Ying is hesitant to breach that invisible line. He pushes things a lot, but he’s seen how Lan Zhan seems to falter when people get too close, how he seems to keep a sliver of space even between his friends, and Wei Ying doesn’t want to overwhelm him. Push him too far. Push him away.

“We try to avoid the romcoms when Qing-jie is around, though,” Wei Ying says, roaming his eyes over the small plants on the window ledge behind the piano, the rounded, deep green leaves of the money plant and the crooked arch of Lan Zhan’s bonsai. “She refuses to watch those on principle. She gets too much second-hand embarrassment.”

Lan Zhan hums. He’s never met Wen Qing before, but he has met Wen Ning—they study at the same teashop, and once had to share a table when the place was packed with people hiding from the rain. Wei Ying had to hold back tears of genuine pride when Lan Zhan told him that Wen Ning had offered Lan Zhan a seat, because Wen Ning was lovely and amazing and wonderful but he struggled to speak to people, to put himself out there and make friends.

(“You’re friends,” Wei Ying said, staring at Lan Zhan, knowing he sounded more serious than Lan Zhan had ever heard—but he needed Lan Zhan to understand how important this was to him. “You’ve only spoken once, but you are. Wen Ning is my precious little mooncake and you cannot break his heart, do you understand?”)

Wen Qing is another one of Wei Ying’s favourite people, a steady anchor keeping him grounded in high tide, and it’d be nice if, one day, Lan Zhan could get to know her, too. They're both so similar, he thinks, quiet and considerate, cold to anyone they don't know, sharper than everyone in the room put together and so overwhelmingly talented it's humbling. They'd get along well.

“I get it, though,” Wei Ying continues thoughtfully, gaze drawn back to Lan Zhan with a small smile. “Love at first sight, destiny and serendipity. It’s all a little much.”

Lan Zhan’s expression shifts into something unfamiliar. There’s still so much about him that Wei Ying has yet to learn. “Do you believe in that?”

“In love at first sight?”

Lan Zhan nods.

“Not—no, not really. I mean, I can’t say it doesn’t exist, but I’ve never experienced it, either?” He falls back onto the bed with a heaving sigh, legs still crossed, and throws his arms out on either side. His fingers skim the edge of Lan Zhan’s pillow. “I don’t know if it’s realistic enough for me! Which is ironic considering I’m making a career out of studying stuff that doesn’t sound realistic, I know. But like, if you’ve never been in love before, how are you going to know whatever you feel is…that? And how do you know whatever you feel when you meet someone, if you do, is romantic and not just—intimately platonic?” He sighs again, then shrugs. “I do think there’s something similar, though. A kind of spark. A kind of knowing.”

“Knowing?”

“That someone’s going to be important to you. Like it makes sense for them to be in your life. I think love, and being in love, that comes later.” Wei Ying pushes himself up on his elbows, unnerved by Lan Zhan’s silence. “Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t you think so? I don’t think love can exist without knowing. And I don’t think it can exist without wanting to be known, either.”

“Hm.”

Tilting his head with a frown, Wei Ying watches Lan Zhan glance away. He doesn’t know what Lan Zhan’s thinking, and wishes that he did. “So,” he says instead, “movie night?”

Lan Zhan stares at him, and then his shoulders relax. Just like that, the air feels suddenly lighter. “Mn.”

“Yeah?” Wei Ying’s grin is wide enough to ache. “No take backs, Lan Zhan! You’ve said it now. We’re going to watch people fall in love and it’s going to be awful and we’re going to have so much fun.”

The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth quirks up.

Wei Ying spends the next couple of hours alternating between dozing in bed and commenting on the little melodies that Lan Zhan plays, and only moves because Nie Huaisang comes back and loudly declares he has snacks, and if Wei Ying wants any later, he has to help set up. He’s waiting in the kitchen, hand on his hips, and his expression falters when Lan Zhan follows Wei Ying out. Then, Nie Huaisang smiles in this small, secretive way, and Lan Zhan responds in kind.

It’s so strange watching them interact, these two people who Wei Ying would never consider to exist in the same space, and yet have this quiet, deep understanding between themselves. They’ve also been much more comfortable interacting openly in front of Wei Ying, and it makes him wonder how often they hold back on account of other people’s company, how carefully Nie Huaisang must respect Lan Zhan’s space to not draw him into familiarity with people he’s unfamiliar with.

Everyone else trickles in over the course of the next half hour, Jiang Cheng with drinks and Wen Ning trailing after Wen Qing with three large boxes of pizza. Wei Ying spends five minutes cuddling a very tired, exasperated but indulgent Wen Qing before he squishes Wen Ning’s cheeks between his hands.

“Wen Ning,” he says seriously. “My sweet little lotus. I missed you. Have you had a good week? How many people have fallen in love with you since Monday? I think at least ten, no? More? You’re right. It’s definitely more—”

Jiang Cheng, who’d received a hug from Wei Ying and complained for the entire six seconds of it, rolls his eyes as he sinks into the loveseat. Nie Huaisang squeezes beside him. “Do you ever fucking chill?”

Wei Ying frowns at him, absently patting Wen Ning’s cheek. “I’d shower you in praise too if you weren’t so fucking repressed—”

“And maybe if you weren’t so fucking annoying—”

Nie Huaisang suddenly jumps in before Jiang Cheng can attempt to get up and strangle Wei Ying, as seems to be his go-to attack recently, nudging him to help choose a film from their queue. Unsurprisingly, in all matters involving Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng is quickly distracted.

Gently, Wen Ning taps the back of Wei Ying’s hand, drawing Wei Ying’s attention back to him. “Ying-ge,” he says, smiling, and Wei Ying automatically smiles back. “Could you let go of my face, maybe? That might be nice. But only if you want to! Feel free to just…hold it.”

Wen Qing, pulling away from introducing herself to Lan Zhan, snorts.

“You’re perfect and I will do literally anything you ask,” Wei Ying says immediately, letting go so Wen Ning can set the pizza boxes down on the coffee table amidst bowls of chips and jars of sauce, cold bottles of soda and beer dripping with condensation all pushed together on the floor. He sinks onto the sofa between Lan Zhan and Wen Qing, and then reaches out to pull Wen Ning onto the floor in front of him so he can rest his head back against the leg Wei Ying has bent up on the cushions.

Wei Ying doesn’t think he’s ever been happier—he wishes Jiang Yanli were here in his room full of favourite people because he always wishes she were here, but her laughter from their phone call earlier is still ringing his ears, and it’s enough for now.

Beside him, Lan Zhan is quiet.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says suddenly, turning to look at him. “We’re very loud, I know. Feel free to leave or like, kick us out at any time. Huaisang will probably cry at some point, which isn’t pretty, and Jiang Cheng will pretend he’s drunk just so they can cuddle.”

The movie has already started, music loud, but Wei Ying clearly isn’t quiet enough because Wen Ning chokes around a mouthful of cheesy pizza. Wei Ying blindly reaches out to pat his head.

Lan Zhan’s eyes search over his face, expression thoughtful, and Wei Ying feels his smile soften as he waits. He hopes Lan Zhan will want to stay here, stay with him. The room smells of salt and cheese and something sweet, lights on low and the world a mystery behind closed blinds. They’re surrounded by Wei Ying’s friends—their friends, hopefully, maybe, one day—but like this, looking at one another, everything else feels impossibly far away. Wei Ying’s knee presses against Lan Zhan’s thigh, closer than they’ve ever been.

“I’ll stay,” Lan Zhan says finally, something soft in his voice, something stubborn, and Wei Ying grins and wishes he could press his nose against the base of Lan Zhan’s neck and breathe him in.

It’s, unarguably, the best movie night he’s ever had.

 

 

 

 

 


Nie Huaisang drops his bag on the floor with a dull thud and slides into the booth beside Wen Ning, trapping him against the window. He barely waits for Wei Ying and Wen Ning to push their laptops and work to one side of the table before setting down a tray of drinks and warmed paninis, the bread scored with dark, glossy brown lines from the grill.

“We need to talk,” he says without preamble, and then picks up an iced latte and looks pointedly at Wei Ying as he takes a sip.

Wen Ning glances between them and then, quietly, reaches out for his drink and one half of a mozzarella panini. They’re surrounded by a pleasant evening buzz, enough people around them that the sound of their chatter mixes with the whirring of coffee machines, the hiss of whipped cream topping off various drinks. Occasionally, there’s a lag in sound, a gust of cold wind as the door swings open and shut.

Wei Ying picks at a steaming piece of tomato that’s fallen onto the plate. “Talk about what?”

“About your massive crush on my roommate.”

Wei Ying chokes. It’s not a dignified choke. He waves away Wen Ning’s concerned gaze and then presses his palms on the table and sits back. “My what?”

“Listen,” Nie Huaisang sighs, setting down his drink. “You’d have figured it out yourself at some point. Like, in your next life maybe. But you’re not exactly subtle about it, so I figured I might as well ask outright. It’s been, what, two months? Three? That’s a solid amount of time to have a crush.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t have a crush—"

“Um,” Wen Ning says, reaching out to hold one of his hands, fingertips warm from the panini. His touch is very grounding, even if his words aren’t. “You’re—I mean. You do. And you’re very obvious about it, actually. Only a little bit! But a lot of a little bit, you know?”

Nie Huaisang sighs again. “How are you literally so nice all the time?” he asks without any heat, and then turns his gaze towards Wei Ying, ticking off his fingers as he proceeds to list all the ways that Wei Ying is, apparently, a lot of a little bit obvious. “You’re at my apartment more than ever but I see you less than I used to—I see Lan Zhan more, by the way, because of you. Every time we meet up, you talk about Lan Zhan, about what he’d like or what he’d order or what he’d say. And you’re always texting, even when you’re in the same room, because you’re literal nerds.”

Wen Ning is nodding his head sagely like he didn’t stay up until 3 am the other morning texting Wei Ying about how different species of trees radiate different feelings. His cheeks are rounded as he chews, and Wei Ying wants to reach out and pinch them between his fingers. He refrains, but only barely.

“You fall asleep in his bed, and he lets you. I barely go into his room, you know, and I’ve basically seen him in diapers. Yes, he was cute. Yes, I have pictures. Yes, I’ll send them to you.” Nie Huaisang shakes his head. “You’re around each other all the time, Wei Ying. The first time you met, you called him pretty. You call him pretty all the time.”

"That's because he is!" Wei Ying says and then bites down on the inside of his cheek when Nie Huaisang stares at him, deadpan and unimpressed. Suddenly, he realises that maybe that's Nie Huaisang's whole point. 

"If it helps," Wen Ning begins sweetly, because he's always sweet, and Wei Ying knows for a fact that whatever he's about to say won't help at all but he appreciates any and every contribution Wen Ning makes, "Xuesheng thinks you're pretty too!"

Wei Ying feels himself turn a furious shade of pink. Lan Zhan has said that, once or twice, and he's no liar, so Wei Ying has been forced to believe him in those specific instances, but hearing someone else acknowledge that Lan Zhan has gone on record to say he thinks Wei Ying looks nice, sometimes, makes the words feel so much more weighted. Forcing his expression to stay neutral, he says, "Thank you, A-Ning."

Anyway.” Nie Huaisang takes another long sip of his drink. "It doesn’t have to be a big deal. And it isn’t, if you don’t want it to be, but I just figured you should know that we’re here. If you ever wanted to talk. Also that you should know, in general, because clearly you don’t. Didn’t. Whatever.”

“Thank you,” Wei Ying says automatically, because even if he’s still reeling from the sudden ambush, he appreciates their intent. “But there’d only be something to talk about if I had a crush. Which I don’t. Because Lan Zhan and I are friends. Just friends! And that’s nice, I like that. I like what we have, and I like—”

He stops abruptly. Across the table, Nie Huaisang and Wen Ning are wearing identical expressions on their faces, equally as bemused as they seem to be expectant.

“I like him,” Wei Ying breathes, a revelation to himself. He stares at them, eyes wide, and then drops his gaze to the table and covers his face with his hands. “Holy shit. I like him? I like Lan Zhan? I like Lan Zhan.” A pause. "Oh fuck me."

He releases a long, drawn out groan. Wen Ning pats his head consolingly. Nie Huaisang snorts and slurps the rest of his coffee, ice almost entirely melted.

Lan Zhan dresses like he’s walked out of a fashion ad and goes to Sunday morning markets to buy his groceries because he believes in supporting farmers and sustainability, and all the old ladies give him free samples of honey and jams—which he takes graciously each time, even if he doesn’t eat them, storing them aside for his brother. He's unexpectedly petty in a way that makes Wei Ying cry with laughter and he doesn't speak a lot—it's still a mystery to Wei Ying how they became friends, how Lan Zhan managed to speak to him long enough to hold a conversation—but when he does, he makes sure to speak carefully. Thoughtfully. He's nice and good and kind and Wei Ying likes him so much.

Nie Huaisang hums, contemplative, but Wen Ning smiles as though he understands all the unspoken things Wei Ying doesn’t. Then, Wen Ning pushes one of the spiced paninis towards Wei Ying, who eats it because if he doesn’t eat then he has to think, and he doesn’t want to do that. Not ever, and especially not now. When he thinks about this, if he thinks about it, he needs to be alone and preferably in the dark, and he needs to make sure no one’s around in case he has to scream or cry or do both those things at once.

The spice of the cabbage and carrots sits heavy on his tongue.

Jiang Cheng walks in as Wei Ying’s finishing his food, and Nie Huaisang lights up at the sight of him. As he stands to order at the counter, Wei Ying watches the shifts of Nie Huaisang’s face, the brightening of his eyes and the nervous smile playing at the edges of his mouth, and asks, not unkindly,

“What about your crush on my brother?”

Nie Huaisang stares at him, wide-eyed, and stays quiet for so long that Wen Ning pokes his shoulder in concern. “Sang-ge?”

“I’m. Okay.” Nie Huaisang says, voice tight and high. “Wow. Thanks, Wei Ying! Thank you so much.”

Wei Ying frowns. “I feel like, just maybe, I dealt with this much better than you, and you’ve been crushing on Jiang Cheng for literal years.”

Nie Huaisang groans. “That’s because you’re not actually dealing with it yet,” he says, because he's a dick, and Wei Ying lifts a hand to his chest but doesn’t get a chance to defend himself before Nie Huaisang groans again, somehow more mournful than before.

“I think you broke him,” Wen Ning observes thoughtfully.

Jiang Cheng comes over, already halfway between exasperated and frustrated. “Broke who?”

He slides into the seat beside Wei Ying, their knees knocking beneath the table, and it’s been long enough that Wei Ying doesn’t hesitate in resting his head against Jiang Cheng’s in a wordless, quick hello. Jiang Cheng must have missed him too, in his own quiet way, because all he does is roll his eyes when Wei Ying sits up again.

They don’t see each other as much as they used to—they go to the same university, but they live on different sides of campus and are in the midst of pursuing entirely different careers—and it’s strange, only meeting when they’re surrounded by their friends or on an occasional evening Wei Ying will drag Jiang Cheng away from his work to have dinner. They used to be attached at the hip. But Wei Ying knows the distance has done them some good, too, allowed their relationship to continue on steadier, calmer waters than it would have if they’d stayed close. Jiang Cheng’s sharp edges have softened—only slightly, but it’s something—and his confidence grows as he manages to excel in a field, a place, where Wei Ying isn’t.

Jiang Cheng has always been brilliant, Wei Ying thinks fondly, a little sadly, and it’s nice that he’s getting a chance to see that for himself.

“Broke who?” Jiang Cheng asks again, nodding at Wen Ning in hello before his eyes are, inevitably, drawn to Nie Huaisang. Wei Ying watches his expression relax, his own private declaration, the almost permanent tightness around his eyes easing just slightly—Wei Ying can read his best friends’ well. He can read his brother even better. “Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang shakes his head, dismissing the question or breaking out of his reverie, and Wei Ying looks across the table to catch Wen Ning’s eye and grins. In watching them, teasing them, the conversation slowly moves towards their classes, their work, the approaching finals, and the past half hour spent talking about Lan Zhan can almost be forgotten. Almost.

If not for how Wei Ying can’t stop thinking about it.

 

 

 

 

 


The thing is, though, the thing is

Liking Lan Zhan is so easy. It’s so easy because Lan Zhan is so wonderful. He smiles at cute animal videos and reads foreign poetry because he values all forms of art, no matter where it comes from. His favourite fruit are loquats—though he never refuses the spare tub of mango cubes and pomegranate seeds that Wei Ying buys from the convenience store—and cooking helps him relax. He volunteers at a music centre for young kids and wants to go into primary education because he believes in children, genuinely believes in their passion and their potential, and feels strongly about nurturing and supporting them. He gets emotional listening to his favourite music scores and touches meaningful passages in his favourite books like he’s coaxing secrets from between the lines.

He loves his older brother—they alternate between visiting each other every other week—and he never knew his father, and his favourite season is spring because he likes to watch the colours bloom after the unrelenting white and blue of winter. He has flecks of gold in his eyes and multiple piercings in the lobes of his ears, and his teeth are practically perfect, even if the right canine is slightly sharper than the left. In the sun, he gets a constellation of freckles just beneath his left eye, a small cluster of stars resting beneath the shadow of his lashes. He doesn’t wear a lot of jewellery, but he loves dainty silver pieces, his favourite earrings embedded with tiny opals that look pink-blue in the sunlight. He wears his mother’s favourite ring around his neck.

He peels tangerines slowly and pulls the pith away before giving the wedges to Wei Ying because he knows Wei Ying hates the texture. He hums in the silent pauses between Wei Ying’s rambles, thoughtless and sweet, and laughs in this quiet, breathy way when he thinks Wei Ying is funny, even though he’d never actually admit it. He always keeps a spare oat bar in his bag—a brand that he doesn’t like but once saw Wei Ying reach for in a convenience store, and he rolls his eyes when Wei Ying teases him even though his ears turn a furious shade of pink. And once, when Wei Ying called him in the middle of the night, drunk and happy and wanting to say hello, he stayed on the phone until the early hours of the morning when Wei Ying's breath finally evened out with sleep.

Liking Lan Zhan is so easy, because liking Lan Zhan feels knowing, and being known.

 

 

 

 

 


Two days before Lan Zhan’s last final, Wei Ying walks into his and Nie Huaisang’s apartment and immediately knows something’s wrong. The blinds are still open, despite the late hour, and there’s a strange, unsettling silence that makes the fine hairs of Wei Ying’s arms stand on end.

Nie Huaisang went home three days ago.

“Lan Zhan?”

Wei Ying carelessly toes off his shoes and leaves his bag on the floor; there are mugs beside the sink and the fruit bowl, usually brimming with fragrant citruses, is entirely empty. It’s unnerving seeing this apartment, so often neat and organised and warm, in its own form of disarray.

“Lan Zhan?” He knocks the backs of his knuckles against Lan Zhan’s bedroom door, worry winding itself around his heart when there’s no reply, and pushes it open after a moment’s hesitation. “Lan Zhan, what’s—?”

The sight he walks on makes him falter. Lan Zhan is sitting on his bed, still and silent, the window opened wide enough that his room is entirely cold. His eyes are rimmed red.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, eyes darting all over—to the two half-finished mugs of tea on the desk, the dry, flaking soil of his succulents and the messy stacks of papers scattered around—before they settle back on Lan Zhan and he takes an aborted step forward. There’s always been an untouchable quality to Lan Zhan, a moonbeam on a summer night, but this version of him is a version made of ice and snow, a breath away from shattering into jagged shards sharp enough to cut.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, rasps, lips dry and chapped where they’d usually be soft with balm.

Wei Ying takes another step forward, fingers reaching out, before he turns and darts back into the kitchen, filling two large glasses with warm water. Lan Zhan doesn’t stress about exams, not like other people do, and he doesn’t work on his bed because he likes to keep everything on his desk. He doesn’t let papers gather in messy piles and he doesn’t leave pens on his piano. His piano. The thing he loves more than life itself, only marginally less than the piano in his childhood home.

Whatever has Lan Zhan looking like this has nothing to do with work.

“Hey,” Wei Ying murmurs, walking back into the bedroom and carefully setting one glass of water down on the bedside table. “Lan Zhan, hey.”

It takes a second for Lan Zhan to reach out and take the other glass that Wei Ying holds out. Wei Ying doesn’t know whether this is an anxiety attack—one of those awful, mind numbing moments where the world feels like too much and too little all at once—or something heavier, something steeped in sadness. Lan Zhan, controlled and calm and composed Lan Zhan, whose silences are so full of sound if anyone cares enough to listen, now sits in the quiet like it’s an unfamiliar, suffocating beast.

Wei Ying wants to make it better. He doesn’t know how. This is the side of Lan Zhan he’s never known before. A side of Lan Zhan he wishes he knew better and also that he’d never known at all.

Speaking has always come easy to him, but it doesn’t now—all he can think of is how much he wants to hold Lan Zhan, be held by him, even though they’ve never touched before. Not really. Never with any meaning. With anything that would be too telling of how Wei Ying really feels. How much he really wants. And Wei Ying knows it’s selfish to want to touch him more than ever when Lan Zhan will want it least, but he can’t help himself. Can’t help the desire to reach out, stroke his fingers through Lan Zhan’s hair, skim them down his jaw, trace every dip and curve of his body to make sure he’s alright, but he doesn’t. He won’t.

Wei Ying clenches his hands into fists and watches Lan Zhan drink, but restlessness builds beneath his skin and he stands, suddenly, swapping the glasses of water the moment Lan Zhan finishes the last drop. “Drink,” he says, because it’s the only thing he can. “I’m just—I’m just going to clean up, alright?”

Lan Zhan looks at him, blinking slow, and then nods. It takes more effort than Wei Ying’s willing to leave Lan Zhan alone, even if they’re in the same room, but he does. First, he closes the window shut and turns the shutters like he can hide them away from the world by pretending it doesn’t exist, and then he gathers all the papers scattered around—on the piano and the desk, caught beneath the edge of the bed—and orders the notes as best he can. He’s seen Lan Zhan work enough times, watched him arrange things in his little system, that Wei Ying feels confident enough to replicate it.

And then, because he hates the silence, hates the way it rings, he starts talking. It’s to make himself feel better, even though the selfishness of it only makes him feel worse, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He tells Lan Zhan about his final yesterday and the box of chocolates his kids left him a few days ago before half of them disappeared. He tells Lan Zhan about the email he received asking if he’d be willing to TA for a physics class next semester and how he’s found this nice café, and he and Lan Zhan will have to make a date of it in the spring.

He's fiddling with the dog-eared corner of a textbook, back to the bed because he thinks looking at Lan Zhan will genuinely break his heart, when—

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying turns immediately, feeling his eyes water through a small smile. Lan Zhan’s eyes are clearer, shoulders relaxed, as if having his space looks like it usually does makes him feel a semblance of normalcy, removing a fraction of the worry that’s weighing him down.

“There you are,” Wei Ying says. “There you are, Lan Zhan.”

Lamplights and neighbouring apartments flood the street with their orange and blue glow, casting shadows in the room around them through the slits of the shutters. Wei Ying takes another deep breath and walks forward. Falters. Stops.

“Do you think you have the energy to shower? And I won’t believe you if you tell me you ate today, so don’t try.” He speaks gently, but quickly, everything forgotten in his determination to make sure Lan Zhan is okay, to keep himself focused so he doesn’t have the time to worry if he’s overstepped, if he’s being too much. He's never felt like too much around Lan Zhan because Lan Zhan has never let him. “If I ordered for us, do you think you could stomach something?”

Lan Zhan nods.

“Alright,” Wei Ying says. “Okay. I’ll let you…”

He trails off, unable to look away as Lan Zhan watches him with an unreadable expression on his face. Wei Ying’s fingers twitch at his sides, and if he walked a few steps closer, reached out just a little, he could touch the back of Lan Zhan’s hand and ground himself in the fact that no matter how Lan Zhan is feeling, no matter what he’s going through, he’s still here.

Wei Ying leaves.

He wouldn’t be surprised if Lan Zhan took time to freshen up, so he orders food and then begins to clean the apartment, even though it looks barely lived-in. He wonders how long Lan Zhan’s been so distant, how long he’s been alone. They haven’t been speaking much these past few days, caught up in their own finals—or, Wei Ying has been caught up. He’d been busy, and hadn’t taken Lan Zhan’s silence for anything other than focus.

He doesn’t—he knows it’s selfish to feel guilty, that ignorance doesn’t equate to neglect and he’d never known Lan Zhan could get like this so he shouldn’t blame himself for not realising, that taking care of Lan Zhan isn’t his responsibility, and yet he can’t help the way shame curls in his gut

It takes a second to notice Lan Zhan standing in the doorway that leads down the hall to the bedrooms. The look on his face makes something in Wei Ying ache.

“Here,” Wei Ying says, filling the spray bottle by the sink and putting it on the raised counter. They were like this, almost in this exact position, three months ago. It feels like a lifetime since that morning. It feels like no time at all. “They’re looking a little droopy.”

He tries to make his voice light, but he can’t, and Lan Zhan’s expression would usually soften in exasperated amusement, but it doesn’t. Instead, Lan Zhan steps forward, and in a voice that sounds distant and foreign, says, “Wei Ying. Thank—”

“Don’t.” For all that Lan Zhan’s tone is unfamiliar, so is Wei Ying’s. He clenches his hands into fists at his sides and shakes his head. “Don’t you dare, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan’s brow furrows, mouth a thin, pale line on his face. His skin is flushed a healthy pink from the shower, his hands steady, his hair damp and curling slightly against his skin. Wei Ying wants to wind his arms around Lan Zhan’s waist and hug him so tightly, so fiercely, that Wei Ying will be able to hear and feel every breath he takes.

“I ordered us some danhua tang and baozi from that place you like downtown,” Wei Ying says, forcing another smile on his face when Lan Zhan picks up the bottle, though it immediately drops when Lan Zhan turns to water the plants. “I told them to put the chilli oil separate this time. I also, um, placed an order at that little convenience store down the street? Not a lot! I know you’re going home on Sunday but like, a few fruits and things for you to snack on. I’ll pick it up after we eat?”

Lan Zhan glances at him, opens his mouth only to close it, unsure of what to say, and Wei Ying realises with a sudden sinking feeling that there’s a limit to how much he can impose. That he’s spent so many weeks learning the unspoken lines drawn between them—don’t touch in ways that linger, don’t look at Lan Zhan for so long that he notices, don’t be in the room when he’s on the phone with his family because it makes him uneasy—and he might be overstepping a new one.

“Not that I have to stay here!” he says suddenly, loudly, waving his hands in a placating gesture. “You don’t have to—I obviously don’t have to stay. I know you can take care of yourself and you don’t need to be worried about me worrying. You can definitely—you can tell me to leave! I know sometimes it’s just easier to be alone when you’re feeling, um.”

Lan Zhan watches him, unmoving. “Feeling?”

“Low,” Wei Ying says, looking down at the floor. “When you’re not feeling yourself, Lan Zhan. That’s all.”

It’s quiet. Devastatingly, distressingly quiet. The kind of quiet that lingers like an echo of a thunderclap.

Wei Ying glances up just in time to watch Lan Zhan’s eyes flutter closed, the hand not holding the spray bottle clenched into a tight fist at his side, so hard that his nails must be biting into his skin. Wei Ying wants to reach forward and pry each finger back, soothe his thumb over the risen valley of Lan Zhan’s palm.

“I would like it,” Lan Zhan says quietly, strained, “if you stayed.”

Breath rushes from Wei Ying’s lungs in a tidal wave. 

Lan Zhan opens his eyes and meets Wei Ying’s gaze directly. “Will you?”

Yes,” Wei Ying says, breathless. “Lan Zhan, of course I will.”

The food arrives before either of them can say anything else, and they sit on the floor between the coffee table and the sofa—it takes a little shuffling, their legs squeezing into the narrowed space, but they make it work. Wei Ying spends more time stealing glances at Lan Zhan than he does eating. When he unevenly splits the dumplings between them and takes radishes out of his soup to put them into Lan Zhan’s cup before adding an abundance of chilli oil, Lan Zhan only sighs quietly, and murmurs his thanks.

Outside, the city is a blanket of darkness that looks stark compared to the yellow light radiating from the low lamps behind them, their dark silhouettes blurred against the glass. From Wei Ying’s room, he can see the blue and orange light that projects into the sky and pushes the black of night away, keeping the city ever-awake, but they’re on the other side of the river, away from the noise and the chaos. It’s strangely comforting, more so now than ever before.

“When I was sixteen,” Wei Ying says when he's finished his food, leaning back against the sofa, still looking outwards. “I used to help my teacher with those study programmes where you pair up with a younger student, like an unofficial tutor? That’s how I met A-Ning. And it was weird because my circle of friends was really limited to jiejie and Jiang Cheng—I had friends, obviously, but I wasn’t really close to them? My family was enough, you know.”

Lan Zhan is quiet. Wei Ying can see the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes.

“But I met A-Ning, and he was this shy, stuttering mess of a kid, and he wasn’t failing class because he was bad but because he didn’t really know he was good. And I didn’t even know how to relate to that. I was this arrogant brat who was just—good at stuff. And I didn’t really appreciate that until I met him.”

Wei Ying sighs, a smile tugging at his mouth as he recalls the months they spent together, tucked away in the library before Wei Ying started dragging Wen Ning out to ice cream parlours and ramen bars. He remembers the day he met Wen Qing—two years older than him and about to leave for university—and how she’d cornered him, the soft surprise on her face when Wei Ying said that all he wanted was to be Wen Ning’s friend. Wen Ning, who was nervous and timid but loved fiercely, could be so passionate about so much if he was just given the chance. 

“Anyway, there was this—one time, Wen Ning didn’t show up to our study session. And he didn’t text. And Qing-jie wasn’t at school, either, but their dickhead cousin was making these shitty comments so I, you know, I punched him. But! I did it on purpose, because when I was waiting for uncle Jiang to pick me up, I snuck into the office—”

At this, Lan Zhan finally turns to look at Wei Ying, a slight reprimand in the tight corners of his eyes, and Wei Ying smiles at him, sheepish and relieved in equal measure. 

“I know, I know. Sixteen year old Wei Ying is very sorry.”

An easing of Lan Zhan’s expression is enough to make Wei Ying smile wider.

“So! I snuck into the office and I got his address, and after class I took a bus all the way across town to hunt him down. Qing-jie opened the door, and she wasn’t...happy, to see me. She was really angry, actually. And I remember standing there, thinking, ‘Wei Ying, you really fucked up. You did something, and now you’ve fucked up the first friend you ever really had’.”

It’d been cold and wet, and Wei Ying had stood in a thin t-shirt with a backpack hanging from his shoulder, knuckles so pink it was like raspberries had burst against his skin, glaring at Wen Qing as furiously as she glared at him. He remembers how desperate he’d felt in that moment, because she was his friend, too, even if it took her longer to warm up to him, and it’d felt like in losing Wen Ning he would lose them both. Seventeen years old and overwhelmed with having people in his life he didn’t feel indebted to, Wei Ying had been ready to beg.

“She told me A-Ning wasn’t in the mood to see anyone, and I should go home. But even though I was less cocky, less arrogant—I used to be really insufferable as a kid, believe it or not, ha—I was still stubborn. I figured if I’d fucked up, I at least had to say sorry. And I don’t know, I figure she saw something genuine in me because she let me inside.”

Wei Ying sighs, looking down at his lap. This is the hardest part, because very few people know about it. This is the easiest part, because it's Lan Zhan.

“I walk into his bedroom, right? And the curtains are closed, and the lights are off, and there’s a lump on the bed. I think Wen Qing was standing in the doorway, watching us, I don’t really remember. All I know is walking closer, and pulling back the covers to see A-Ning’s face, and he looked so exhausted and sad and empty, and I just—I crawled into bed right beside him, and hugged him tight, and all I could think was ‘oh, so someone else gets this, too’.”

Wei Ying doesn’t lift his gaze as Lan Zhan takes a quiet, trembling breath beside him.

“I don’t remember when I first started getting it,” Wei Ying continues softly, “only that I don’t remember a time when I didn’t. I didn’t really get quiet, either—reclusive, sure. But I’d get angry at myself and then, just, take it out on anyone who was around me. So it was safer to be alone, and easier to hide—not that I meant to hide it. But I’m also, like, insanely reliant on the people around me to keep me sane, so the more I needed people, the less I could have them around.”

Locked doors and the shrill ringing of Madam Yu's voice in his ears, dark rooms and the echoing thud of his own heartbeat, blood rushing through his ears. Jiang Cheng's wounded expression, the way it so quickly morphed into anger, and Jiang Yanli's trembling fingers carding through his hair, the only person in the world who half-understood what he felt. Grey days blending together, memories stolen from one part of his mind by another, blurred and ruined into something abstract, something vague enough to easily forget.

Wei Ying shrugs, and tries for a small that feels tight and fragile. “I’ve gotten better at dealing with it—you know, the internet. Then therapy. Talking about it helped, probably not surprisingly. But up until that point, I didn’t even realise that was a thing I dealt with.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes bore into the side of his face, and from his periphery, Wei Ying can see Lan Zhan’s mouth parted soundlessly around the shape of his name.

“I don’t want to belittle you. Or act like I know exactly what you’re going through, because it’s different for everyone. You probably know how to deal with it already, and have your own routine or whatever, but.” Wei Ying sighs and finally looks up, stares right at Lan Zhan and says, “I get it. Whatever you’re feeling, I don’t know it like I know mine, but I get it.”

It’s not clear how long they let the silence sit between them. Wei Ying doesn’t mind. He’ll sit in the quiet for as long as Lan Zhan needs. Tell Lan Zhan the very worst of him, if that’s what he wants.

Then, Lan Zhan looks out towards the windows, out towards the city that feels so distant, and says, “My mother died fifteen years ago. December sixteenth.” Lan Zhan’s words come softly, slowly, strained. Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan lost his mother when he was young, knows how much he cherished her, but that’s all. He watches Lan Zhan’s throat shift as he swallows. “This Monday. I had an exam. I...”

He trails off, because it’s hard for him to say, maybe, harder to admit. But Wei Ying knows. Just like that, the pieces click into place, and Wei Ying knows.

“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, throat tight. “Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan closes his eyes, hands clenched into fists on his thighs, and they’ve never touched before. And there’s a reason they’ve never touched before—Lan Zhan doesn’t like it, seems to shy away from it, and Wei Ying has never been good at hiding how he feels—but in that moment, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.

Wei Ying reaches out to curl his hand around one of Lan Zhan’s, fingers pressing into the side of his palm where the flesh has rounded, firms, and then feels his breath hitch when Lan Zhan turns his hand so their fingers can slot together, palms pressing against each other perfectly, the rise and valleys of their muscles fitting together like shifting sand. Wei Ying can feel each movement of Lan Zhan’s tendons, the fine ridges of his bones.

Lan Zhan looks down at their fingers. Even in the dim lights, his skin looks pale. “I only remembered after. It...overwhelmed me.”

“Of course it did,” Wei Ying says. “Fuck, Lan Zhan, of course it did. It would have overwhelmed anyone, but that’s okay. It happens. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or a bad son. You’ve been so busy, and you had so much to do.”

He wonders, suddenly, if Lan Zhan had been punishing himself, by not eating, letting the cold air fill his room in a way that would make it difficult to focus, difficult to sleep. The thought shatters something in Wei Ying that already feels broken beneath Lan Zhan’s revelation.

He shifts onto his knees and cups their clasped hands with his left one so he can soothe his thumb over Lan Zhan’s thumb, his knuckles, the risen rivers of his blue-green veins. He’s taking too much, he knows, indulging in the thing he’s never allowed himself to have, but Lan Zhan needs him and Wei Ying doesn’t know what else to do. He focuses on the angle of Lan Zhan’s jaw, the curve of his nose, the sharp line of his eyebrow and the shell of his ear.

“I don’t remember when my parents died,” Wei Ying confesses, because being known doesn’t feel so terrifying when it means being known by Lan Zhan. He smiles, but it’s shaky, when Lan Zhan’s wide-eyed gaze snaps towards him. “One day they were there, and then they weren’t, and not a single day that I spend happy goes by where I don’t think that, you know, maybe that’s the day they died.” He swallows around a lump in his throat.

Lan Zhan’s breath trembles.

“You’re so good,” Wei Ying says, reverent. “Listen to me, Lan Zhan, you’re human, alright? You’re only human, and humans are allowed to do shitty things like forget important dates and feel guilty about it, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not still so good. Lan Zhan. You’re the best. You’re the best person I’ve ever known.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes, wrecked and ruined. “Wei Ying.”

It’s all he says.

It’s all he needs to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wei Ying stares outside the window with his breath fogging against the glass, arms wrapped tightly around his torso. His phone has finally stopped vibrating with messages, and he revels in the silence, in the sight of the city covered in a thick blanket of snow. Tomorrow, the world will be bright and busy once more, awash with red and gold as the weekend begins—for now, everything is quiet and radiant and a silver shade of blue. His phone lights up for the first time in an hour. Wei Ying goes to ignore it until he sees the name on his screen. Thank you, Lan Zhan texts, yes, you told me first.

wei ying
you don’t need to thank me!!!!! i’m glad you liked your present lan zhan
and good! i can’t have anyone else wishing you happy birthday before me!!!!!!
wah...you’re all grown up now….you were just a baby before

pretty boy, stunning
There’s barely three months between us.

wei ying
tch
you’ll understand when you’re older

pretty boy, stunning
When I’m your age, I suppose?

wei ying
exactly!! you’re so wise now!!

pretty boy, stunning
I’ve heard turning older will do that.

Wei Ying snorts, and then laughs, and then covers his face with his hands and cries a little bit, because he’s allowed that. Because he’s alone in the city for New Year’s because he chose to be, because the choice he was given when he first left for university wasn’t much of a choice at all, and this is the first time he’s laughed since he waved everyone goodbye at the train station last Sunday, only ten days after they returned from the winter holidays.

He’s barely spoken to Lan Zhan this week—it’s okay, because he’s with his family like he should be, busy with preparations—but Wei Ying has missed him, and now Lan Zhan has messaged at three minutes past midnight on his birthday to say thank you, and hello, and god, this feels like so much more than a crush. So much more than liking him. Something bigger. Something he’s never really known.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a space centre by the coast that Wei Ying has visited since he was a child—it’s one of the only memories he has of his parents, sitting between them in the folding, cushioned seats of the planetarium and watching the universe shift and expand above his head. Wen Qing and Jiang Yanli are the only two people who know it exists, this special sanctuary by the sea, and they gifted him a renewable annual pass when he got into university. As Wei Ying’s workload has increased, it’s been hard to find time to visit, but a rare morning in March finds him with little else to do, and Wei Ying sees an opportunity to steal the day away for himself.

It’s meant to be his secret. A little corner of the world he’s selfishly kept to himself. So there’s really no fathomable reason for why he invites Lan Zhan with him. Lan Zhan, who’s busy and has his own work to do, and probably isn’t even interested in this kind of stuff, and who’s free to say no, obviously, and—

“I’d like that,” Lan Zhan says, not even looking up from his book.

And now they’re here, pressed side-by-side in an empty train carriage early on a Sunday, dawn barely breaking over the horizon. They’re wrapped in jumpers and warm coats, winter yet to thaw, and Lan Zhan watches the scenery pass with a soft expression on his face. The groan of the hinges and the rhythmic, steady clink of the train over the tracks every other second is soothing and familiar in its own strange way, and it’s so peaceful that Wei Ying feels like he could fall asleep between one breath and the next. He rests his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.

That’s something they do, now. Wei Ying had thought Lan Zhan didn’t like to be touched, but in reality, Lan Zhan liked to be touched in a specific way, in a certain manner. Wei Ying had forced away many thoughts wondering how Lan Zhan would like to be held, to be kissed, but it’s been hard. It’s been much harder than he’d expected. Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile.

Wei Ying watches the transmission towers blink and out of sight, feels the rise and fall of Lan Zhan’s shoulder, lets his eyes drift shut, and—

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, fingers gentle over the back of his hand. “Wake up.”

It takes a moment for Wei Ying to blink the sleep away, to uncurl from his position—nose tucked against Lan Zhan’s throat, face angled against his shoulder—and then he bolts upright.

Shit,” he breathes, the train coming to a screeching halt. “Sorry, Lan Zhan. I didn’t mean—”

Another touch, somehow gentler, and then Lan Zhan stands as the train doors open. Wei Ying scrambles to follow him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan—”

“I don’t know this area,” Lan Zhan interrupts, shocking Wei Ying into silence. And then, sunlight glimmering over his eyes, the dainty silver chains that hang from his ear, he says, “I’m glad you slept well.”

Wei Ying did, is the thing. What should have been an uncomfortable and disturbed nap was a lovely, light sleep, and Wei Ying feels more rested from the past hour and a half than he has the entire weekend.

“The space centre?” Lan Zhan prompts, and Wei Ying needs little more encouragement. They climb into one of the taxis waiting outside the station, and it’s not long before the metropolitan of the town fades as the coast comes into view, the sea a deep, electric blue. The sky is a pale expanse above it. The observatory is on the other side of town, up in the mountains, but the centre itself is closer to the coast and acts as an education centre for local schools and wandering tourists who find themselves this far away from the major cities.

“My favourite school trips,” Wei Ying says as they walk towards the facility, the car only able to take them so far, “would be ones like this. If there was a space themed exhibit, in a gallery or museum or whatever, I’d be desperate to go. The more bizarre a concept was, the fewer answers there were, the more I wanted to know about it.”

Wei Ying doesn't need to look at him to know Lan Zhan is listening, as he always is, managing to keep up with Wei Ying despite the fact they’re walking at entirely different paces. Wei Ying dances between cracks on the pavement, weaving through the silver bollards that line the path, as Lan Zhan walks in a straight, steady line.

“Places like this that feed childhood passion are so important, don’t you think? People who feed that are so important.” He glances at Lan Zhan and smiles widely. They’re close enough to the ocean that they can smell the sharp sting of salt. “You’ll be good at that, Lan Zhan. Feeding passion. Helping kids pursue the things they love.”

He’s still looking, so he can see the shift of Lan Zhan’s expression, astonishment and wonder and gentle, overwhelming joy. “Wei Ying,” he breathes, “Thank—”

“Oh!” Wei Ying waves his hands and immediately turns away. “Don’t say that! I’m just being honest!”

Lan Zhan sighs, but it’s fond, and then, “They host themed events here. For children.”

“Yeah!” Wei Ying tilts his head curiously, slowing his gaze. “How did you know that?”

“I researched the centre.”

“Ah,” Wei Ying says quietly, slowing as they arrive at the entrance, eyes flicking over Lan Zhan’s face. “Of course you did.”

They leave their coats and bags in the lockers at the front after scanning their tickets—it’s always quieter in the wintertime, less busy—and then step through the sliding glass doors.

Just like that, the rest of the world falls away.

Wei Ying tends to stroll through each section slowly, rereading information panels and updates at his leisure, sometimes breaking away to talk to the curators or local volunteers—students older and younger than him from neighbouring universities or schools. With Lan Zhan here, Wei Ying finds himself distracted, reading things out loud even though Lan Zhan is entirely capable of reading himself, drawing his attention to Wei Ying’s favourite facts, or mindlessly throwing out bits of trivia that have Lan Zhan’s eyes widening in this wondrous way.

Wei Ying talks, and he talks, and Lan Zhan listens. To everything he says. There’s a moment, several, where he wonders if he’s said too much or if he’s been speaking for too long, but Lan Zhan simply glances away from the displays and asks why Wei Ying doesn’t continue. He’s devastatingly sincere each time, and it strikes a chord in Wei Ying that reverberates like a plucked piano key, an echo humming through his blood.

“Come on,” Wei Ying says, watching Lan Zhan’s face change colour beneath the lights of a supernova simulation. “I want to show you my favourite part.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches as he glances towards Wei Ying, because they’ve been here for almost three hours and Wei Ying has said that about everything they’ve seen. Still, he follows.

The lights of the exhibits slowly dim the closer to the planetarium they get, and the section they step into is filled with enlarged photos of the year’s best space photography, gathered from an annually hosted international competition. The resolution of each photo is so sharp, so clear, that he feels his breath hitch at the sight of them, faltering to a stop in front of the clear winner of this year's submissions. Lan Zhan makes a small, soft sound beside him.

In front of them, the Orion Nebula is spread over a wide panel, pinks and greens and yellows forming a dense, thick cloud of gas, a cluster of stars caught off-centre, blanketed beneath wispy folds like a precious pearl hidden in the heart of an oyster.

“Orion is my favourite constellation,” Wei Ying says suddenly. “It’s the first one I identified—I think I was ten, maybe? I was so proud of myself. Whenever I see it, I just feel safe. I think that also might be because my mum used to tell me the three stars that make the belt were her, me and my dad.” He smiles, caught in the memory of her smile, the echo of his father’s laughter. As the years go by, it’s harder to remember the exact shape of her mouth, the depth of his voice, but Wei Ying clings to what he has while he still can. “This is just beneath the belt of it, actually.”

Beside him, Lan Zhan hums, sweet and understanding. Wei Ying drags his gaze away from the photo to stare at him, and then feels his breath catch again when he realises Lan Zhan is already looking back.

He’s dressed in a gradient of blue and grey, silver jewellery glinting daintily on his fingers, from his ears and his hair is soft and wispy where it falls loosely around his face, the rest of it tied back into a small bun. He’s so pretty, Wei Ying thinks for the fifth and tenth and hundredth time.

He’s pretty and handsome and perfect, and all these wonderful things wrapped into the best person Wei Ying has ever known.

The purple-blue hues of the lights reflected on Lan Zhan’s face make him glow, and he looks celestial. Like a fallen star, plucked out from the dense folds of a vivid nebula, surrounded by this constant, thrumming energy. Like the gentle pulsing of the north star, white and silver and blue, a forever guiding light even in the darkest night, on the blackest waters. Like something special and sacred. Like love.

Lan Zhan looks like love.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying startles as Lan Zhan’s fingers still a hair's breadth away from his shoulder, curling back into his palm as Wei Ying turns towards him. “Sorry,” he says, clearing his throat to cover the way his voice shakes. “My mind just—went wandering for a little bit! It’s so easy to get caught up in everything here.”

Lan Zhan’s brows are still furrowed in concern, and he’d been looking so content and lovely as they walked around, whatever brand of peace he’d settled into in being here suddenly disrupted because of Wei Ying.

Wei Ying resists the urge to soothe the wrinkle in Lan Zhan’s forehead with his thumb—he can only take so much, he reminds himself. He’ll only be given so much.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says, "are you okay?"

“I’m just hungry,” Wei Ying says, which isn’t entirely unbelievable—he’d been too tired to have more than a large cup of coffee for breakfast. Lan Zhan glances around at the photos, the lights, then towards the door that leads towards the last bit of the museum. “Oh!” Wei Ying says, curling his fingers around Lan Zhan’s wrist, palm against the soft wool of his coat. “This leads to the planetarium. That’s my favourite part! We could catch the last showing of the day if you want! They close early on Sunday’s.”

“You’re hungry.”

“I won’t starve,” Wei Ying laughs, shaking his head and pulling Lan Zhan down the hall, following a small family into the room, the domed ceiling curving high above them. “They’re only thirty minutes long, anyway. And you said you’ve never seen one before, right? It’ll be fun!”

There are more people crowded into the room than Wei Ying thought there’d be, and he laughs when a couple of children gasp as the lights begin to change colour, the doors closing to leave a starry sky above their heads a moment before a voice filters out from the speakers to begin the show.

It’s one of the less content-heavy displays, suitable for people and children whose interest in the stars is nothing more than a fleeting appreciation, but the projections are beautiful regardless. Wei Ying is usually tucked into the back-most row, legs curled up on the seat and watching, enraptured, along with everyone else. This time, though, he isn’t. He can’t be.

Not when Lan Zhan is right beside him.

They get lunch from a nearby noodle shop that makes some of the best broth Wei Ying has ever had, the owner from a small village in Sichuan who always grins delightedly when he orders the spiciest option available. They sit facing each other on the low stone wall that borders the beach, Lan Zhan with his legs crossed neatly while one of Wei Ying’s legs kicks back and forth over the pale coloured sand.

The sun has broken through the dense clouds of the morning and warms the chilli that breezes in with the ocean; Wei Ying cups his hands around the still-steaming styrofoam cup and watches the waves roll into the shore.

“Sometimes,” Wei Ying says, “I think it’d be nice to work here. Get my degree, get a doctorate, and just—hide by the sea for the rest of my life. Get a little house close to the village with a small vegetable patch and spend every day looking out at the stars.”

There’s a strange tone in Lan Zhan’s voice. “You could.”

Wei Ying grins. “If only. It’s so far away from everything and everyone.”

“You'd be happy.”

“I would, most of the time.” Wei Ying knocks his shoulder against Lan Zhan’s. “But I don’t know if it’d be filial to fuck off to the coast. And I don’t do well with being alone—I’d be happy because of my work, and I could very easily lose myself in it, but I’d get lonely without anyone I love around me.”

A glance to the side shows Lan Zhan looking thoughtful as he stirs his broth, allowing the steam to escape. Wei Ying takes a bite of his noodles, humming at the peppery heat of the spice.

“Maybe one day,” Wei Ying says, indulging himself in the fantasy, “I could move here with someone I love, and make friends with all the locals, and visit the city every weekend. That’d be nice, don’t you think? Or I could make everyone tiny enough to fit in my pocket and just bring them all here with me.”

He huffs out a breath of laughter, taking another bite of his noodles as Lan Zhan does the same beside him.

“I always thought I’d live and die in the city—I love the dirty of it, you know? The energy. The way it’s never really still. Like me, don’t you think? But whenever I come here, I feel so settled and calm that it’s tempting enough to make me want to stay forever. I feel like a different person.”

“Hm.”

Smiling, Wei Ying asks, "Don’t you have that? A reality that’s not entirely unbelievable, but probably isn’t going to happen?” He tips the cup to his mouth and sips the broth. A particularly large wave rolls and crashes against the shoreline. “Anyway, it’d be hard to find someone who loves me enough to leave everything behind and come here.”

He says it thoughtlessly, without weight, but there’s something about the intense way that Lan Zhan looks at him that’s suddenly overwhelming.

“You will,” Lan Zhan says quietly, sincerely. “Find someone.”

Smile faltering, Wei Ying laughs. “If you say so, Lan Zhan, then I’ve got to believe it.”

The silence sits between them for a longer while, then. And it’s nice, to sit by the sand and the sea, beneath the cold blue sky, and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t matter, their responsibilities and their work fading away.

Unprompted, Lan Zhan suddenly says, "Thank you for inviting me.”

“What—Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying turns so that his knee can press against Lan Zhan’s thigh and then pokes his shoulder. “I wanted you here! You don’t have to thank me for that, oh my god. Thank you for coming. I’ve been talking your ear off all day! I’m surprised you’re not tired of my voice—more so than usual, I mean.”

Lan Zhan stares quietly at him. Wei Ying grins and very pointedly refuses to look at the pink swell of his mouth, the oil from the noodles leaving a shine to his lips, the cute pink tip of Lan Zhan's nose and the flush spread over his cheeks.

“Silly man,” Wei Ying says, “having you here just made me love this place even more than before. I don’t know how I’ll ever come back without you!”

He says it dramatically, heaving a deep sigh, but he’s quietly winded by the honesty of his own confession. This place is important to him, and having Lan Zhan here feels so natural, so easy, that Wei Ying once again wonders how he lost out on two entire years of having this, of knowing him.

Lan Zhan smiles, and the waves and the wind, the salty smell of the water, all disappears. It’s a little lopsided, uneven, and it’s the most perfect thing Wei Ying has ever seen. He wants to press his fingers against it. His mouth. Wants to feel Lan Zhan’s warm breath against his lips. Wants to kiss away the taste of his food until all that’s left is the sweet heat of him.

Lan Zhan looks happy, Wei Ying realises, and it’s not that he’s never looked happy before, but this feels different. It’s not exasperated amusement or thoughtless joy. It’s deeper, like contentment spilling out from his soul, a burning bright blaze of a bonfire compared to a glittering spark.

Softer than he means to, Wei Ying says, “It’s decided, then. You’ll just have to come with me every time I visit this place from now on.”

Lan Zhan hums, still smiling, and he looks at Wei Ying like he’s somehow more wondrous than anything else they’ve seen today. Or maybe, Wei Ying thinks, he’s just projecting.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says finally, eyes gentle, voice sweet, “if I have to.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re sitting together on a train ride back to the city, golden hour sinking like warm honey into the horizon, and Lan Zhan is looking up the shortlist for the photography competition, tabs open on his phone with articles on space phenomena that Wei Ying had mentioned throughout the day. Wei Ying has one of Lan Zhan’s earbuds in his ear, head resting in the corner between the window and the back of the carriage, feet propped up onto the seat between them as they listen to one of Lan Zhan’s endless playlists. The light keeps catching on the silver of his earrings, the high of his cheekbones, turning his eyes into a beautiful burnt amber. Love, Wei Ying thinks, looks like this.

Lan Zhan is curled up in bed, wearing a jumper and socks beneath the duvet because he feels cold despite what the sweat gathering on his brow says. Wei Ying had teased him relentlessly a few days earlier for getting grumpy about falling ill, ignoring the fact that he'd been much worse about it a few weeks earlier and Lan Zhan had patiently taken care of him, but now holds back on account that it’d taken a full hour to convince him to rest and stop working. The day is warm and the window is wide open, and Wei Ying only leaves to say hello to Nie Huaisang, who’s come back with tubs of warm stew and a box of herbal tea. Back in the bedroom, Lan Zhan’s eyes are closed, hair messy and a little damp where it curls against the side of his neck, and his skin is flushed pink with fever. Love, Wei Ying thinks, looks like this.

Everyone is studying for midterms and Wei Ying splits his time between his own work, TA and RA responsibilities in a way that leaves him with barely any time to shower or sleep or eat. He hasn’t seen the people he loves in two weeks and he hasn’t even had a moment to be sad about it. He shows up at the dorm on Friday night, half-swaying on his feet, only to find Lan Zhan in the lounge, everyone working around him. There are papers spread out over every surface and textbooks piled on the floor, the students who prefer to work alone keeping their doors propped open with chairs or boxes or books. Empty snack packets and ramen pots are littered everywhere, and the air is thick with frantic determination. Lan Zhan catches his eye and then gestures to the empty space on the sofa, and says nothing when Wei Ying drifts into a deep, sudden sleep beside him. Love, Wei Ying thinks, looks like this.

Summer is finally beginning to make itself known, bringing longer days and bright blue skies, and he’s walking out of his final class on a Tuesday afternoon when he sees Lan Zhan waiting for him with two cups of iced tea. People are stealing glances at him as they walk by but he keeps his eyes fixed on Wei Ying, a devastatingly gentle smile on his face. They take the long way back to the apartment, talking about nothing and everything—well, he talks, Lan Zhan mostly listens, mostly smiles, mostly says his name like it’s something precious—and then Wen Qing texts and says that she’s waiting at his favourite hotspot restaurant. They planned this, Wei Ying realises, when he walks in to see Jiang Cheng, Wen Ning, Nie Huaisang and her already huddled around a circular table waiting for him to arrive. He glances at Lan Zhan, who’s smiling at him, who hasn’t stopped smiling at him all day, and oh, Wei Ying thinks, love looks like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

wei ying
breaking news
i’m in LOVE

precious mooncake
oh my god!!! congratulations!!!!

wei ying
a-ning my precious peapod never change
it has been a slow progression but now i have realised THINGS

precious mooncake
that you love xuesheng!!!

killer queen
What I love most about this is the fact you’ve never even had a crush before and now you’re in love.
Just like that.

wei ying
idk if it’s just me but this doesn’t exactly feel Supportive™

precious mooncake
i’m really happy for you ying ge ٩( ◕‿◕ )۶

wei ying
a-ning ilu MOST

precious mooncake
(。´・‿・`。) ♡

killer queen
So what are you going to do about it?

wei ying
perish???

precious mooncake
no wait don’t do that :(((

wei ying
FOR YOU A-NING MY SON I WILL THRIVE

killer queen
Wei Ying.

wei ying
rip tough crowd
idk qing-jie like. how do you tell someone that you've thought they're pretty since day 1 and now you wanna find out if their dick is pretty too

killer queen
Holy fuck Wei Ying.
Probably not like that.

precious mooncake
it’s a good start!!!!! not the best...but still good!!!!

killer queen
I literally mourn every brain cell my brother loses around you...

wei ying
be nice to me i’m literally experiencing an emotion and it’s kind of a lot
lol

killer queen
I finish work at 5. I’ll order Korean.

wei ying
and a hug?

killer queen
Ugh.
And a hug.

precious mooncake
(ノ・∀・)ノ

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jiang Yanli is waiting at the arrival gates when Wei Ying steps off the plane. The moment he sees her, he runs, crashing into her, laughing, happier at that moment than he can ever remember being. Her hair is shorter than it used to be, and she looks so radiant that Wei Ying wonders how the moon hasn’t started seeking her light out instead of the sun’s—she nudges his chin with her knuckle when he tells her as much, but her smile is wide and fond and no one else smiles at him the way that she does. Wei Ying brushes her tears away with his thumbs and doesn’t even realise he’s crying, too, until she laughs and dries his face with gentle fingers.

It’s been over a year since they last saw each other.

They speak almost daily, text each other even more, but there’s something different in having each other close. Wei Ying always underestimates how much he misses her until they meet again and he’s hit by the magnitude of her presence, her love. Already, he knows leaving her when the weekend ends will be so, so hard.

“A-Ying,” she says, a tremor in her voice. She barely reaches his shoulder, small and dainty, but she cups his face in her hands and brings Wei Ying’s head down so she can press their foreheads together, kissing his nose. “My didi’s come home to me.”

This city hasn’t been home to Wei Ying since he left, but his true home has always been with her, anyway.

“Jiejie,” he says through a breath of laughter. “Jiejie, happy birthday!”

“Oh,” she breathes, and then winds her arms around his shoulders and pulls him into a tight embrace. Not for the first time, he wonders if he could fit her into his heart, somehow, make her a fraction tinier so she could climb into his chest and stay there. Stay safe. “Yes. It is now.”

Jiang Yanli lives in an apartment with her two friends, though they’ve gone away for the weekend to give her and Wei Ying some privacy. She usually goes to the suburbs herself to stay with her parents, but she’d made a last minute excuse the moment she’d heard Wei Ying would be coming to visit—unlike Jiang Cheng, she never pushes Wei Ying into seeing them. It’s not entirely filial, but it’s made things easier, and Jiang Cheng knows that—benefits from that, too—even if he can’t quite understand it.

They go out for brunch on Saturday, drinking iced rosé in the park before they walk through the early-evening market, stumbling into a cute Italian restaurant with outdoor seating where they stay until the late hours of the night. On Sunday, he helps her cook lunch and they sit out on the small balcony that extends from her living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking about nothing and everything all at once. Their mouths are stained red with the cherries she'd bought for them yesterday.

Jiang Yanli was his first family, his first home, the first person he knew how to love. Nothing is sweeter than the smell of her perfume, the sound of her laughter, the look in her eyes when he sits back against the sliding glass door and pulls her knees onto his lap. There’s something in Wei Ying’s soul that recognises himself in her, he thinks, something in her soul that recognises herself in him. It’s not something he’s ever felt with anyone else, until he’d met Lan Zhan.

“Ah,” she says knowingly, breaking Wei Ying from his reverie. “There it is.”

Wei Ying glances at her. “There’s what?”

“That look,” she says. “The one you’ve been wearing all weekend. Are you going to tell your jiejie who’s got you looking so wistful from so far away?”

Flushing, Wei Ying says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No?” she teases, and reaches out for his hand, her fingers barely long enough to curl around his palm. “It has nothing to do with—hm, what was his name? I can’t remember. Your friend! You know the one—tall? Intelligent? Quiet? Oh! You call him pretty a lot—does that ring a bell?”

Wei Ying keeps his gaze fixed furiously out towards the apartments across from them. Cubes of yellow and white light expose families eating around a dinner table, a cat lazing on the floor behind the glass doors of the balcony, the lady watering her small garden of plants on the balcony below.

He can still remember how Jiang Yanli teased him for mentioning Lan Zhan so often when they called that she demanded to be introduced over the phone, remembers the sound of her laughter and the light in Lan Zhan’s eyes. Wei Ying had quietly promised himself he’d only be able to love someone who loved his sister, was loved by her, and in that moment, it hadn’t been hard to picture that someone as Lan Zhan.

To think it took Wei Ying another two months to actually realise how he felt is almost laughable. Almost.

Lan Zhan.” She giggles when he frowns at her, lower lip jutting out. “Oh, sweetheart,” she says consolingly, squeezing his hand. “I already know.”

“Know what?” he asks, petulant, but it’s always been hard to frown when she’s so happy. “I haven't told you anything yet!” She continues looking at him, eyes bright, and he groans and rests his head back against the door. “Was it Qing-jie?”

“We’re just happy for you, A-Ying!” She squeezes his hand again. “Aren’t you happy?”

“I think so,” Wei Ying says, surprising himself with how low and warm his voice is. Jiang Yanli’s smile falters and then softens. “I thought it'd be scarier—and it is, a little bit! But I also just feel so lucky. Don't you think I am? All the people I've met in the world, and I've had the chance to fall in love with him?”

“Mhm” she says, smiling, and lifts her free hand to brush her thumb over his cheek. “I’d say Lan Zhan is luckier having someone like you to love him.”

“Jiejie!” Wei Ying laughs, flustered, and lifts their joined hands to kiss the back of her knuckles. “You have to say that.”

She makes a doubtful sound under her breath, but her smile is still soft, still sweet.

Wei Ying sighs and looks back out towards the opposite apartments. “I just—I don’t know. It’s scary to know someone so much, you know, and it’s scarier wanting to be known by them, I think. But Lan Zhan makes it less so. I want it, with him. I don't have to think about it. I want him to know me, better than anyone else—other than you, of course!”

She laughs again and Wei Ying beams at her. Shaking her hand, though it’s hardly enough to jostle his grip, she asks, “If loving Lan Zhan makes you so happy, how do you think you’d feel if he loved you back?”

Wei Ying feels his heart drop like a pebble in still water—caught in the euphoria of being in love, of feeling it so deeply for the best person he’s ever known, Wei Ying hasn’t even considered the possibility. He prides himself on knowing Lan Zhan, but he'd never stopped to wonder if Lan Zhan could love him back. He's not even sure if he wants to know. Lan Zhan likes him as a friend, trusts him enough to be vulnerable in front of him, but to love him, and be in love with him—that’s another thing entirely, isn’t it?

“Oh,” Wei Ying says quietly. “Oh, I don’t—I didn’t think—”

She hums encouragingly, but says nothing, giving him the time he needs to unscramble his thoughts.

“I’m just so happy loving him,” Wei Ying says finally, “that I—I didn’t even think beyond that. I’d be happy to love him forever, and stay like we are. It’s just—it’s already so perfect. I wouldn’t want to ruin that. I don’t.”

It’s subtle, barely there, but Wei Ying sees the frown on her mouth as clear as day. “A-Ying,” she says sternly, “your love isn’t a burden, and it wouldn’t ruin anything.” She reaches forward again, but this time it’s to cup his face in both her hands, look him straight in the eye as she says, “I love you, A-Ying, and I love the way you love. I love how you share that love. But I would also love it if you let yourself be loved back, too.”

Wei Ying is stunned by her sudden sincerity, the serious way she’d said his name, and he can only laugh in reply.

“You said you know him. You said that. You know him, and you like him, and you love him.”

“The more I do one,” Wei Ying confesses, “the more I do the other.”

“And Lan Zhan knows you, doesn’t he? You say he knows you like no one else.” She smiles encouragingly when he nods. “And he likes you, A-Ying. He knows you, and he likes you. Loving you just makes sense, sweetheart. It’s just the next step.”

Jiejie,” Wei Ying says, a whine in his voice to cover the way it tremors, but he isn’t very successful, going by the look on her face, kind and amused. “That’s—”

“So,” she says, shaking his head gently in her hands, “how happy would you be if he loved you back? If you knew that about him, too? Isn’t it worth knowing?”

Wei Ying thinks about it. He thinks about Lan Zhan, and the way he looks, and the way he’d look if he saw love in Wei Ying the same way Wei Ying sees love in him, and—

Jiang Yanli finally lets go of him, but only so she can shuffle to sit back against the glass, too. Wordlessly, Wei Ying makes himself smaller so he can rest his head on her shoulder and hug her around the waist, timing his breath to match the rise and fall of her chest. As the flickering lights of an airplane pass overhead, she kisses his hairline.

Voice no louder than a whisper, barely audible over distant city traffic, Jiang Yanli whispers, “I would. If I had someone like you have Lan Zhan, then I’d want to know.”

And though he doesn’t say anything, Wei Ying can’t deny that he does, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes ten seconds for the ringing to stop. “Wei Ying?”

“Lan Zhan—sorry, I know you’re busy.”

The sound of rustling papers, Lan Zhan’s hand muffling the speaker when someone calls his name, and then, “Is everything alright? You sound…

“I may have had a drink or two—or ten, but! I’m fine! No, yes, I’m fine. I’m okay.” A pause. “Lan Zhan.”

Wei Ying.” His voice is clear now. Fond. This is how he sounds when he’s fond. This is how he sounds when he speaks to Wei Ying.

The wind is pleasant cool against Wei Ying's skin, lamplights flickering orange and yellow, stars blinking in and out of sight. If he closes his eyes, he can trace the curls of Lan Zhan's eyelashes from memory, map the lines of his palm, tap out the rhythm of his heartbeat. “You’ve eaten, right? You’ve not been working too hard? Jiejie says hello, by the way! Well, she said hello last night, but I’m telling you now.”

A breath of laughter. “Mn. I ate well. Did you?”

“A-Ning and Qing-jie always take care of me, don’t worry! I just—I wanted to say hello, Lan Zhan! To hear your voice.”

A hum, a murmur, a whisper of his name. “Hello. I’ve missed yours.”

“Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan.” He can feel how drunk he is, warm honey sinking slow into his blood. Or maybe that's just Lan Zhan's voice over the phone, sweet and lovely. Wei Ying loves him so much. He wants to tell him. He thinks maybe he should, but his eyes are falling shut and he'd like to see Lan Zhan's face when he does. If he does.

Wei Ying.”

“Rest well, okay? Rest easy! I’ll go now, but I’ll see you soon. You won’t even have time to miss me.”

It sounds like he’s smiling. Wei Ying likes when Lan Zhan’s smiling. “Yes. Soon. Goodnight, Wei Ying.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quietly, quietly, the months pass, spring shifting into summer. Wei Ying’s not sure how it happens, where they go, but suddenly so much else requires his attention. There are reports and assignments, finals and kids moving out, tears shed when they say their goodbyes and then again when Wen Qing graduates at the top of her cohort—he and Wen Ning buy her a burgundy and bronze engraved stethoscope and pretend they can’t see her tears behind a bouquet of flowers. There are classes in the summer term and reapplying to be an RA in the same halls. Seeing Jiang Cheng off at the airport when he goes back home, pride radiating from every pore when he secures an internship at a prestigious law firm from his own merit, as compared to the family's, and waving Lan Zhan goodbye at the station as he returns to spend the holidays with his family.

Even apart, Lan Zhan and Wei Ying speak every day, more regularly than Wei Ying speaks to anyone else. They send each other photos of the city and the sea, video calling when Lan Zhan goes to see a space exhibit with his brother, leaving voice messages instead of texts just so they can hear each other laugh, breathe. People don’t do that, Wei Ying thinks, if they don’t like you in some way. And Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan likes him. He knows that now.

Love, though. Love is something else.

And then it’s September, and everyone comes back and it's like nothing has changed at all, except for the way that something has so obviously shifted between them. They’re busy, obviously, but no more than they have been before—Lan Zhan because he’s insanely organised, and Wei Ying because he’s worked ceaselessly for the past three years that he’s filled nearly all of his necessary credit requirements save for the lab hours needed for his research. They message each other, sure, but they very rarely meet up like they used to, and Wei Ying does his best not to think about it, not to jump ahead and assume—because Lan Zhan deserves better than that, and because the only conclusion he ever draws to is that Lan Zhan knows how he feels, and doesn’t know what to do about it.

So, Wei Ying doesn’t think about it. He gets so caught up in not thinking, actually, that he doesn’t even realise it’s the week of his birthday until Nie Huaisang texts the groupchat—the big one, with Lan Zhan and his friends—that they should all go out for dinner and drinks. Wei Ying, who’s been busy helping his new batch of kids adjust and spending all his office hours giving consolatory pats over midterm results, is the first to agree. Everyone’s replies trickle in over the next half hour—even Wen Qing, doing her block on the psych ward, has time to come—but Lan Zhan’s text comes in hours later.

He’s sorry, he says, but his brother is in the city for an impromptu business trip, and they'll be spending the weekend together.

And that’s fine.

Wei Ying is fine.

He goes out and buys everyone drinks and dinner, and gets drunk enough that he’s filled with a pleasant, electric buzz. They’ve never really celebrated his birthday before, Jiang Cheng usually going home for the weekend and Wei Ying preferring not to make a fuss, but everyone’s filled with sentimentality because it’s their final year together. They even manage to draw a smile out of Jin Zixuan before Luo Qingyang has to half-carry him home, waving their offers to help away and kissing Wei Ying on the cheek, winking, before they leave.

Lan Zhan isn’t here, but neither is Jiang Yanli, and that’s fine. Wei Ying is fine. Lan Zhan doesn’t deserve to be the cause of melancholy on his birthday, and Wei Ying doesn’t deserve to make himself feel anything other than loved and warm and good.

The five of them find themselves in their favourite park, coats spread out on the ground in a makeshift blanket, littered with snacks and beer bottles. Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng have been murmuring between themselves for the past half hour, and leaning against him, Wen Ning gives a soft and sleepy hum. Wei Ying catches Wen Qing’s eye and grins, and doesn’t realise Nie Huaisang’s camera is aimed towards him until it flashes with a photo.

“Not fair,” Wei Ying says, brow furrowing as Nie Huaisang’s phone tilts downwards. He’s been taking photos all night, but Wei Ying wasn’t ready this time. “I wasn't prepared!”

"When have you ever been prepared for anything ever?" Jiang Cheng retorts, and Nie Huaisang looks at him, glitter on his cheeks and half his hair tied back into a cute bun, long strands framing his face, and then shrugs.

“I’ve never taken a bad photo of you in my life.”

Wei Ying frowns. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. “Let me see.”

He reaches out with his left hand, curling his fingers into a fist repeatedly until Nie Huaisang sighs and leans forward—Wei Ying notices that Jiang Cheng has yet to move back to let him, a hand on Nie Huaisang’s thigh, but he chooses not to say anything. Something’s shifted between the two of them, too, and Wei Ying doesn’t want to press if they’re not ready to tell him. Not when they’ve been pining for each other for so long, when Nie Huaisang has been so heartbreakingly patient waiting for Jiang Cheng to catch up with how he feels. Contrary to popular belief, Wei Ying knows when not to push.

Looking at the screen, Wei Ying realises that, actually, it’s not a bad photo at all. The light distorts the edges, makes them hazy, and Wen Ning’s angelic face is half-smushed into his right shoulder, but Wei Ying’s grin is wide. His face is turned towards Wen Qing, though she’s not visible, and the shadows against his skin flatter the lines of muscle in his neck, the scooped collar of his top low enough to accentuate the curved edges of his collarbones as he leans back on his hands. It’s a good photo, even. A very good one.

“Send it to Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says immediately. “Tell him if he were here I’d be so happy I’d combust so it’s a good thing he’s not, because I don’t want to combust on my birthday.”

Wen Qing snorts into her beer as Jiang Cheng groans into his hands. “You’re helpless,” she says, words harsh and eyes undeniably fond. “You’re so fucking helpless, Wei Ying.”

“What?” Wei Ying frowns again, and isn't quick enough to stop Nie Huaisang from taking another photo. “Huaisang—hey!”

“Hi, hello,” Nie Huaisang mumbles, and Jiang Cheng looks up at him with such fondness that it makes Wei Ying a little breathless, seeing that expression so openly on his brother’s face.

“Yeah,” Wen Qing whispers beside him, low enough that only Wei Ying can hear. It’s barely audible over the sound of shifting leaves, the endless chatter of city crowds muted behind dense thickets of trees. “I’ve noticed it, too. They’re acting differently. Something happened over the summer—has Jiang Cheng said anything to you?”

Wei Ying shakes his head, watching them from his periphery. Although they’d been sitting in a distorted circle on top of one of many slopes, he’s now sandwiched between Wen Qing and Wen Ning as Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang sit across from them, a little to the side. It means Wei Ying can clearly see the lamps dotting the winding paths, bathing the grass in white-blue light, and the dark glimmer of small ponds dotted through the park. Over the tall buildings that surround them, there’s a faint glow radiating into the night.

Suddenly, Wen Ning’s head lolls on his shoulder, and Wei Ying huffs out a breath of laughter and presses a dry kiss to the top of his head.

“Alright, A-Ning. One minute.” He pushes himself upright to manoeuvre Wen Ning’s head onto his thigh, crossing his legs and throwing a jacket over his lap. When he’s sure Wen Ning has settled, Wen Qing reaches forward to run her fingers through her brother’s hair, thumb over his cheek in the exact manner Jiang Yanli does with Wei Ying. Wei Ying rolls his shoulders with a sigh and, fondly, murmurs, “Lightweight.”

Wen Qing sits back and smiles in that soft, secretive way she reserves just for Wen Ning and him. The kind of smile that makes Wei Ying feel like he’s done something to be proud of, something right—if Jiang Yanli’s smiles make him feel safe, like no matter what he does, it’ll be okay, then Wen Qing’s makes him feel steady.

He smiles back wide enough that his eyes crinkle.

“You’re okay, Qing-jie?” he asks as she runs the tip of her finger around the rim of her bottle. With her workload, it’s been difficult to find times to meet like they used to, and while he still shows up at their apartment with takeout, can tell from her texts when she’s had a hard day and knows that comfort food will help, it’s harder for her to lie to him in person.

She glances at him from beneath her lashes, eyes dark and assessing, smile warm, and nods. The hint of a dimple is visible in her cheek. “Yes, A-Ying,” she says; she hardly ever calls him that, and Wei Ying feels warmth bloom in his body like a wildflower in spring. “Are you?”

“I’m with my favourite people,” Wei Ying says truthfully. “How could I not be?”

Wen Qing reaches out to tug at a loose strand of his hair—it’s been slowly growing out, tips feathery against the back of his neck when he ties it up, and he can tell Wen Qing thinks it suits him. Wei Ying opens his mouth, not quite sure what he’s about to say next, when he hears a sudden gasp to the side.

They both look up just in time to see Nie Huaisang cup Jiang Cheng’s face in his hands and kiss him.

“Holy fuck,” Wei Ying breathes at the same time Jiang Cheng’s hands curl tightly around Nie Huaisang’s wrists, keeping him close, and Wen Qing covers her face with her hands and laughs.

“Oh my god,” she says through giggles. “Oh my god.”

Qing-jie,” Wei Ying hisses, not at all subtle, watching as his best friend and his brother kiss, feeling as stunned as he does proud and overwhelmed. “What the fuck?”

It’s a testament to how caught up they are in each other that neither Jiang Cheng or Nie Huaisang break away at the sound of their voices, even if Nie Huaisang raises a finger towards them against Jiang Cheng’s cheek. How caught up Wei Ying is in the moment that he doesn’t notice the figure walking towards them until they stop a short distance away.

“Wei Ying?”

If Wei Ying’s heart was a storm, Lan Zhan would be the eye of it. If his soul was a star, Lan Zhan would be the nebula keeping it safe. Everything—his breath, his blood, his body—feels like it stills. The brush of grass against his palms, the chill of the wind biting against his skin, the bright lamplight and Wen Qing’s amused sigh, all disappear. Wei Ying is scared to blink, lest Lan Zhan be a shooting star scoring across the sky, leaving only an echo of himself behind.

“Lan Zhan?” he whispers, and then he’s scrambling to get up, trying to ease Wen Ning’s head onto the coats, his movements frantic enough to finally pull Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng apart. He doesn’t pay them any mind.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, softer, sweeter. “Happy birthday.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, and, before he can think about it, throws himself forward, his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders, his nose against Lan Zhan’s neck. Lan Zhan catches him, steadies him, large hands warm against Wei Ying’s waist. “Hi. Hi, Lan Zhan. Hello.”

He must be imagining the way Lan Zhan squeezes him, just slightly, before pulling back. “Hello, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying had thought he’d been drunk before, but it’s nothing compared to the static rush beneath his skin now, like the kind he felt the very first time they met, but amplified. “You’re here,” he says. “How are you here? What—how!”

“You’re welcome,” Nie Huaisang says from behind them, and Wei Ying doesn’t want to step away from Lan Zhan, doesn’t want to look away from him, but he turns his face just enough to see Nie Huaisang lean back on his hands with a smug smile. Beside him, Jiang Cheng looks equal parts frustrated and fond.

Wei Ying glares at them, but his expression falls almost immediately when he turns back to Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, who’s still looking at him, still smiling in his soft, stunning way, fingers gentle where they press on either side of Wei Ying’s spine, over the elasticated waist of his clothes.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again. “You’re here.”

“My brother left early,” Lan Zhan says quietly, just for him. He doesn’t stop holding Wei Ying. He doesn’t stop smiling. This isn’t someone, Wei Ying thinks suddenly, who’s been avoiding him, or doesn’t want to be near him. This is Lan Zhan. This is a version of Lan Zhan that Wei Ying doesn’t know. One he desperately wants to. “Huaisang texted.”

“I’m so happy,” Wei Ying says, and it’s like his mouth only knows how to say three different things on repeat, and the only important one of them all is Lan Zhan’s name.

“Mn.” Lan Zhan sounds happy. He looks happy. He doesn’t let go. Wei Ying never wants him to.

Bravely, heart jackrabbiting in his chest, Wei Ying hugs Lan Zhan again, laughs into his neck and breathes in the familiar warmth of him, the heady cologne that sits so perfectly on his skin. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “you’ve made me so happy!”

He means now, he means tonight, he means always.

“I’m glad,” Lan Zhan whispers, lips just shy of brushing against Wei Ying’s ear. “You should be happy.”

Wei Ying thrills at the sound of his voice, at the firmness of his body, the feeling of his hands. If he could capture any moment in time, keep it locked away in a safe, hidden in the ground like a nugget of gold, only to be dug out when he needed to be reminded of what it feels like to be so weightlessly happy, brimming and breathless with it, it would this moment right now.

Somehow, some way, they all decide to call it a night. Wen Qing waves him and Lan Zhan away, saying that the rest of them will clean up and that Wei Ying doesn’t need to worry, that she hopes they have a good night. There’s no suggestion behind her words, no teasing, not in the way there is with Nie Huaisang's gaze—though it quickly fades when Wei Ying glances pointedly between him and Jiang Cheng—and Wei Ying kisses her forehead and both her cheeks before he leaves.

It doesn’t register that he’s holding onto Lan Zhan as they walk, their hands swinging between them, fingers intertwined, until Lan Zhan gently tugs him to a stop to get them a car.

“I can’t believe you came all this way only for us to go home,” Wei Ying says, and thinks about how easily home passes from his mouth when he thinks about the place where Lan Zhan is. “We can stay out a little longer if you want! Get some street food and have a wander? The city is so beautiful at night, don’t you think? It might be fun! We passed a lady selling fresh tanghulu—I know you like that, Lan Zhan.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says sweetly. “Whatever you want.”

I want to be with you, Wei Ying thinks. All I want is to be with you.

“Let’s get some tanghulu,” Wei Ying says decisively, already pulling Lan Zhan back towards the crowds. “And then we can go home.”

Wei Ying’s only wearing a sleeveless shirt beneath his jumpsuit, the buttons only half-done up, and as the night gets darker, the chill heavier, he uses the cold as an excuse to huddle close to Lan Zhan as they stand and wait for the car. He hums, delighted, as the strawberry bursts sweet on his tongue, sugar melting in the heat of his mouth, sticking to the backs of his teeth. Beside him, Lan Zhan bites delicately into his kiwi, preferring the bittersweet contrast of it with the hardened syrup, and makes a soft sound.

Thrumming with a seemingly endless supply of energy, Wei Ying hardly remembers the drive back to Lan Zhan’s apartment. All he knows is the shifting blocks of light over Lan Zhan’s face, the smile playing on his mouth and the stars in his eyes, the warmth of his hand as he lets Wei Ying twine their fingers together, only letting go when they get to the door and Lan Zhan needs to get his key card from his pocket.

In the dim glow of the hall lights, Wei Ying leans back against the wall and closes his eyes, sighing, happy, content, and so overwhelmingly in love. He hears the click of the door opening, but he doesn’t move.

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan sounds patient, fond. Wei Ying wants to touch him again.

Wei Ying turns his face so he can smile at Lan Zhan, his temple pressing against the cool wall. “I’m so happy,” he says, “and I know I keep saying it, but it’s just—it’s true! And you showing up, Lan Zhan—it made my night. This is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

Lan Zhan’s expression, impossibly, softens further. He rests his shoulder against the door, fingers curled around the handle, and watches Wei Ying watch him. It’s the most relaxed Wei Ying has ever seen him. “I like making you happy.”

God, Wei Ying thinks. I love him.

“There’s only one thing,” he says suddenly, words spilling from his mouth before he can think of stopping them, boldness blanketing him, confidence creeping over his heart in a way that makes him feel daring. He wants to blame it on the drinks. He wants to blame it on being happy. He can’t blame it on anything other than Lan Zhan. “There’s only one thing that’d make me happier.”

Lan Zhan hums, indulgent, but then inhales sharply when Wei Ying smiles and says,

“A kiss.”

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks, breathless. His ears are flushed pink even in the low light, standing upright.

“Lan Zhan.”

Now that he’s said it out loud, Wei Ying is almost winded by the depth of his desire. Helpless, his gaze drops down to the shift of Lan Zhan’s throat as he swallows, and then doesn’t move higher than the shine of his mouth, the curve of his lower lip. He lets Lan Zhan see it, see him—this is another way, Wei Ying thinks, that he’d like to be known.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, somehow quieter, and takes a step closer, and that’s a good sign, Wei Ying thinks, isn’t it? That Lan Zhan is taking a step closer. If he took another, he’d be close enough for Wei Ying to feel the heat of him.

“Don’t you think,” Wei Ying murmurs, “it’s unfair that my brother gets kissed by someone he’s been pining over, and I don’t? On my birthday?”

It’s a little more honest than he means to be, the implication that he’s been pining, too, but Wei Ying has little more to lose, now, if Lan Zhan does this. Kisses him. Wei Ying wants Lan Zhan to kiss him.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, as if it’s the only word he knows. Wei Ying likes the way his name sounds against the shape of Lan Zhan’s lips, likes the way it looks. “You’re asking me to kiss you?”

“Will you?”

“You’re drunk.”

“You said that the first time we met,” Wei Ying says, finally smiling up at him. He feels his breath catch, just a little, when he realises how dark Lan Zhan’s eyes are. Hope makes him reckless. “Was I?”

“Wei Ying.”

“You don’t have to,” Wei Ying says, but it’s not laden with the same doubt it would be any other night, any other day. Tonight, on this day, he’s allowing himself to look at Lan Zhan long enough to realise that Lan Zhan is looking back. “But I’d like it if you did. And I think maybe—” he pauses, takes a breath. “I think maybe you’d like it too, Lan Zhan.”

The door clicks as it falls shut. Lan Zhan lets go of the handle so he can step towards Wei Ying and place a hand on his waist, instead, right against the drip of it, cradling Wei Ying’s jaw with the other, thumb resting on his chin. Having him this close is dizzying.

It’s only like this, only now, that Wei Ying truly realises what he’s asked for, what he’s done, and his breath hitches just as Lan Zhan’s lips come close enough to hover over his.

“Wei Ying?”

It’s a question. A phrase. A prompt. The warmth of Lan Zhan’s breath is molten against Wei Ying’s mouth. Wordlessly, Wei Ying tips his head back just a fraction, and lets their lips slot together.

Kissing Lan Zhan, Wei Ying thinks, shouldn’t feel as familiar as it does, but it’d be impossible for it to feel like anything else, either. It makes sense that his body should want to know Lan Zhan as deeply, as desperately, as his heart does. Wei Ying drapes his arms over Lan Zhan’s shoulders, wrists bowing behind his head, and hums as he sinks into the feeling, the grounding, steadying touch. Every point of contact between them burns. It feels like the most natural thing in the world.

It’s soft at first, gentle and sweet and slow, as Wei Ying learns the hidden creases of Lan Zhan’s mouth, the shape of his cupid’s bow, the swell of his lower lip. And then it shifts, or they do, Lan Zhan taking another step closer, Wei Ying canting his hips forward so that something more than their mouths have a chance to touch, and it becomes a wilder, more wondrous thing. Wei Ying has kissed people before, has enjoyed it, even, but everything pales in comparison to the delightful innocence of this, the overwhelming tenderness. Lan Zhan kisses him like he’s been wanting to, waiting to. Like he already knows how.

Wei Ying doesn’t know when he closed his eyes, doesn’t know when he last took a breath, but when Lan Zhan’s mouth slips to the corner of his, he barely manages to murmur Lan Zhan’s name before Lan Zhan is kissing him again. He’s more insistent this time, more firm, the heat of his body warmer than the sun. Wei Ying wants more of it. Of him.

Sweet syrup from the tanghulu lingers on Lan Zhan’s lips, and it fades as Wei Ying licks into his mouth, behind his teeth, tracing the ridges of his gums. Wei Ying revels in the heat of him, the endless warmth of him, makes a high, quiet sound when Lan Zhan pulls away to take a breath. Lan Zhan kisses him, this time chaste and placating, and his spit-slick lips are soft against Wei Ying’s.

They could stay like this forever. The hum of the hallway lights and the rattle of the elevator as someone else comes home after a late night. The sound of their mouths moving, breaths mingling, the feeling of Lan Zhan’s eyelashes against his skin. Wei Ying wants them to stay like this forever.

“Oh,” Wei Ying sighs as Lan Zhan’s breath falls wet and warm, ragged, against Wei Ying’s cheek. The shadows on his face are enough to drive Wei Ying to ruin. “Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes flutter open, his hand on Wei Ying’s waist heavy and tight enough to leave a bruise. Wordlessly, his thumb brushes over Wei Ying’s mouth, drying the moisture gathered there, pressing it down against his teeth and then, tenderly, Lan Zhan’s angles his head to kiss the swells he’s created on either side.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, laughs, and savours the unsteady rhythm of Lan Zhan’s breath, the softness of him. “You wouldn’t kiss me if you didn’t want to, right?” he asks, not sure if he’s asking for confirmation or reassurance. “You wouldn’t kiss me if—?”

“I want to,” Lan Zhan says, and drags his gaze away from Wei Ying’s mouth to look at him. Because he knows what Wei Ying needs. Because he knows Wei Ying. “I want.”

God,” Wei Ying says, in a voice that trembles. “Oh god. Alright, yes, okay—”

He holds Lan Zhan tighter, wants to kiss him again but, overwhelmed, buries his face in Lan Zhan’s neck instead, letting his lips drag over the sliver of exposed skin above the collar of Lan Zhan’s coat. This is perfect, he thinks, this moment and this love and this person here with him—it’s perfect. He couldn’t wish for anything more than this.

“I’m so happy,” Wei Ying murmurs, because he is. Because happiness can’t be anything other than this. “Lan Zhan, I’m so happy.”

Against his mouth, he can feel Lan Zhan’s pulse jump.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daylight streams in through the window, and Wei Ying wakes to the sound of shifting fabric. He groans, turning his face into the pillow, and lets awareness come to him in small increments. He’s in a bed that smells familiar, with soft sheets beneath his hands; he’s wearing his own top but his jumpsuit has been exchanged for a pair of loose-fitting sweatpants, and it’s early enough that the sky looks lilac through the half-open shutters.

His lips feel bruised in the best way.

There’s another sound, and Wei Ying turns his face just in time to see Lan Zhan pushing himself up off the mattress, shoulders tense. Wei Ying frowns.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s voice is raspier than he expects it to be, as quiet as the rustle of cotton bedsheets, and he swallows past the dryness in his throat and tries again. “Lan Zhan.”

It’s impossible that Lan Zhan hasn’t heard Wei Ying this time because he freezes on his way to the ensuite, body taut and tense, and then turns his face just enough that Wei Ying can make out his side profile, the tight line of his pursed mouth and the thick line of his eyelashes as he keeps his gaze downwards. Even in the dim light of a pre-dawn, he looks beautiful.

Still, he doesn’t actually look at Wei Ying, which makes Wei Ying frown harder. 

“Lan Zhan,” he says seriously, pushing himself up on one elbow. It takes a lot more effort than he wants to admit this early in the morning, but Lan Zhan is worth the effort. Worth being awake at this ungodly hour. Worth the world. “If you don’t get your ass back here when you’re done in the bathroom I will come in after you.”

Lan Zhan turns so suddenly that Wei Ying jerks back a little, despite the distance. He’s wide-eyed, his pretty mouth parted, and he stares at Wei Ying with an expression of such surprise that Wei Ying falters.

“Um.” Wei Ying pushes himself upright, because Lan Zhan shouldn’t look as stunned as he does, and Wei Ying’s not exactly sure what it is that he’s said in the handful of moments he’s been awake that could have Lan Zhan react like that. “I won’t—actually follow you in,” he clarifies. “I’ll probably just start yelling from the bed.”

Lan Zhan blinks slowly at him.

Wei Ying squints. He’s still wrapped in the duvet, warm and comfortable, and his mind is clouded in a soft sleepy haze. “Actually,” he says after a moment, letting himself fall back on the bed and closing his eyes as he tangles himself back in the sheets. “If you don’t come back out and wake me up with kisses I’ll just start crying. I’m not a pretty crier, Lan Zhan. This is a threat.”

He’s smiling by the end, hopes that Lan Zhan is, too, and the room dips into a pleasant kind of quiet. Wei Ying could easily drift back into a lovely and light slumber, but he waits until he can hear the muted whir of the vent as the light comes on and the click of the bathroom door closing before letting himself sink entirely back into the mattress—except it takes a moment to realise that he can’t hear either of those things. Instead—

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice is hoarse from sleep, low, and Wei Ying loves how Lan Zhan speaks. How he says Wei Ying’s name. “Wei Ying.”

But there’s something, Wei Ying realises suddenly, urgent in Lan Zhan’s tone. Bordering on frantic, or as frantic as Lan Zhan gets, and Wei Ying blinks his eyes open again just in time to watch Lan Zhan approach the edge of the mattress, looking at him with a frown, eyes glittering in the dark.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks quietly, pulling one hand out from between the sheets to reach out for him, grasping blindly for his hand. He hums, happy and sleepy, when he’s able to curl his fingers around Lan Zhan’s palm and pull him back down, though it’s less of a pull and more of a weak tug. Lan Zhan settles onto the edge of the bed instead of lying beside him, one knee bent up onto the duvet. That’s okay, though. If he’s close, then Wei Ying will take what he can get. “What is it?”

In the silence that follows his question, the strangely stilted quiet, Wei Ying realises Lan Zhan’s hand is trembling.

That, more than anything else, is what alerts Wei Ying to the fact that something’s going on. He lets go of Lan Zhan’s hand only so he can push the blankets down and sit up, turning to face Lan Zhan properly. He’s made a mess of the bed, he knows, but that doesn’t matter. Nothing matters when Lan Zhan looks torn between something that resembles confusion and something that resembles fear. Wei Ying feels concern creep up his spine.

“Hey,” Wei Ying murmurs, reaching out for Lan Zhan again, squeezing his hand. “Lan Zhan, what’s wrong?”

Instead of answering, Lan Zhan’s eyes dart over Wei Ying’s face, as if he’s searching for the answer to his own unspoken question, as if he’s trying to figure something out. Wei Ying, confused and tired and so helplessly in love, waits patiently. He’s better at being patient than people would assume, and he’s especially good at waiting for Lan Zhan. He’d wait forever for Lan Zhan, if he needed to.

Wei Ying breathes, soft and deep, watching Lan Zhan watch him, and then lets his gaze drop down to Lan Zhan’s mouth. Pink and pretty and plump, like it was the first day they met. Back then, he’s wanted to discover how it shaped itself around his name, around a smile. Now, Wei Ying has traced the curves of it with his tongue, kissed away the honey of hard candy until all that’s left is warmth.

Wei Ying wants to kiss Lan Zhan again. To kiss him all over. To breathe him in, and hold him, and keep him close. He doesn’t ever want to let Lan Zhan go.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says after a moment, drawing Wei Ying’s eyes back up to his. “You said—”

Wei Ying waits for Lan Zhan to finish what he’s saying before he realises that Lan Zhan has stopped, and then it’s Wei Ying’s turn to stare, mouth opening soundlessly. Lan Zhan has never cut himself off before, never started a sentence without ending it.

Lan Zhan looks down at their hands with a frown, a furrow between his brow, and Wei Ying thoughtlessly strokes his thumb over the backs of Lan Zhan’s knuckles.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and lifts his other hand to place his fingers beneath Lan Zhan’s jaw, tilting his head up. “Hey. I don’t know what’s happened. I’m so sleepy, sweetheart, Are you alright? What’s wrong? Give me another second and I’ll wake up properly.”

“Sweetheart,” Lan Zhan echoes, as though it’s a foreign word, as though no one has ever called him that before—and Wei Ying knows that’s not true, because Wei Ying called him sweetheart last night, called him baobei and my love. Lan Zhan’s eyes are dark, the line of his body still tense, and Wei Ying doesn’t like it. Doesn’t like this look on him at all.

He lifts himself up on his knees and lets go of Lan Zhan’s hand only so he can stroke his fingers through the wispy strands of Lan Zhan’s hair, tug on the dainty hoops of his earrings, trace over every lovely feature of his face with the tips of his fingers, outlining each groove and dip and curve.

Lan Zhan’s eyelashes flutter, expression easing slightly, and Wei Ying ducks down to press a chaste kiss to his cupid’s bow. Lan Zhan kisses Wei Ying back, almost thoughtlessly, but doesn’t reach out to touch him.

“Hey,” Wei Ying mumbles against his mouth. “You’re worrying me. What’s wrong?”

He can hear the click of Lan Zhan’s throat as he swallows, and drops one of his hands to press against the pulse of Lan Zhan’s neck, thumb soothing over his adam’s apple. It takes a second for Lan Zhan to reply.

“You wanted,” Lan Zhan says quietly, “me to come back.”

Wei Ying leans back slightly, tilting his head to the side with a frown, and then nods. Lan Zhan’s comment doesn’t justify the weight that seems to sit on his shoulders, the stilted way he’s speaking or the heavy way he moves. “Yeah? Of course I did—why wouldn’t I? It’s a Sunday! I know you go for your run, but you wouldn’t just leave me, would you? And it’d be nice to stay in bed with you, don’t you think? We’d do nothing for the whole day.”

He keeps his voice light, almost borders on teasing, but Lan Zhan’s expression flickers momentarily. It’s enough to make Wei Ying still. To make realisation sink like a leaf on still water, just large enough to make a ripple.

“You would,” Wei Ying murmurs, sitting back on his heels. He’s still staring at Lan Zhan, he knows, but it suddenly doesn’t feel like he’s seeing him. “You were going to leave.”

Lan Zhan immediately shakes his head, lips parting as he finally—finally—touches Wei Ying, curls his fingers around Wei Ying’s wrists hard enough that Wei Ying can feel the thrum of his own pulse against Lan Zhan’s fingertips. It’s almost enough to be reassuring.

Almost.

“No,” he says, so certainly that Wei Ying can’t doubt him—not that he would. Not that Lan Zhan would ever lie to him in the first place. “Wei Ying. No.”

Wei Ying swallows around a lump in his throat. “Then—"

“I wasn’t sure,” Lan Zhan admits, like it’s difficult for him to say. “Of what you wanted.”

It’s clear that he means more than just this morning.

“You,” Wei Ying says slowly, frowning. “You, Lan Zhan. Always. I thought you knew that.”

Lan Zhan’s silence lingers, and then it drags, and suddenly the only thing that’s keeping Wei Ying’s grounded is the bruising press of Lan Zhan’s fingertips against his skin, shifting over the fine lines of his bones. Wei Ying’s not sure what to think, or what to feel, and the weightless euphoria from last night—the soft, sweet contentment of this morning—feels like nothing more than a distant dream.

He thought Lan Zhan knew how much Wei Ying wanted him. How much Wei Ying liked him. How much Wei Ying revelled in him. He thought Lan Zhan knew, because he thought Lan Zhan felt the same.

Thought.

Not known.

“Last night,” Wei Ying begins, and it takes some time for the words to come to him, for his thoughts to untangle themselves from one another. He licks his lips, chapped against his tongue. “I wasn’t drunk, Lan Zhan. And even if I had been, I told you I meant it, didn’t I? And I thought you’d believe me. I wanted you. I only ever want you.”

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying with the same kind of expression as last night, like he’s not sure what’s unfolding in front of him, guarded and curious all at once. Wei Ying wants to sink into him, into his embrace, but he can’t move. Doesn’t think he can breathe, all of a sudden, and pulls his hands from Lan Zhan’s grasp to curl them on his thighs, instead, fists so tight that his knuckles go white and his nails bite into the warm skin of his palms.

Softly, softly, “Wei Ying?”

“I thought you knew how I felt,” Wei Ying says quietly, looking down at his lap. It seems impossible that Lan Zhan wouldn’t know, that he wouldn’t realise. “I thought you’d know what it meant if we—if we kissed. I thought you did. Because you know me best.”

He thinks he hears Lan Zhan say his name again, gentle fingers reaching out for his face, and it’s Lan Zhan reaching out this time, trying to break Wei Ying from the maze of his own mind, but Wei Ying can’t focus on anything past the fact that Lan Zhan had kissed him last night, let Wei Ying kiss him, and still doesn’t know.

The only reason Wei Ying can think that Lan Zhan doesn’t know, in some distant, awful part of him that is getting harder and harder to ignore, is because Lan Zhan doesn’t feel the same. Because the pieces don’t connect for him the way they do for Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan.” His voice is no better than a rasp. “Tell me you know what it means. Tell me you know how I feel, and what I want. What I—”

He forces his eyes open only to see hesitation in Lan Zhan’s expression, mouth pinched like he doesn’t know what to say, like he’s trying to figure out what the right answer is. Wei Ying had been so obvious, hadn’t he? He’d been so clear.

“Do you remember,” Wei Ying says, then, voice shaking, hands shaking more, trying to draw on an echo of the confidence he had last night, the fine thread of security he felt in Lan Zhan’s kiss. “Once, we talked about how love is about knowing. And being known. How I don’t think one can exist without the other?”

Slowly, Lan Zhan nods.

“No one knows me like you do,” Wei Ying confesses, and watches realisation finally trickle into Lan Zhan’s features, watches understanding dawn on his face. “I don’t want anyone to know me like you do.”

One of Lan Zhan’s hands is curled around his waist, the other cradling his jaw, and he’s turned towards Wei Ying as much as he can be, one leg still hanging off the edge of the bed. He hasn’t looked away from Wei Ying even once. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Wei Ying had thought it’d be a good thing, but he doesn’t—he doesn’t know, anymore.

“And I—” Wei Ying pauses, strangely breathless, and shakes his head when Lan Zhan says his name again. “Lan Zhan, I really thought you knew. But I wasn’t clear enough, I guess. And I’m sorry. I don’t, um—I should’ve told you last night. I should’ve told you from the very beginning. That I want you. That I like you. That I lov—”

Wei Ying stops as Lan Zhan’s breath hitches, and he looks down again. There’s only so much he can say, it seems, out loud.

“I know you,” Wei Ying admits instead, softly, a little uncertainly. “Or, I think I do. I’ve tried really hard to. And it feels like you know me even better. And I thought that…if knowing you made me feel so—so much, that maybe in knowing me, you could—you could—"

Gently, Lan Zhan asks, “I could?”

Wei Ying braves his heart and steadies his breath, and in a voice no louder than a whisper, says, “That maybe you could love me too.”

And then, for the first time this morning, Lan Zhan kisses him. He rocks forward at the same time he pulls Wei Ying close, kissing Wei Ying in a harsh and messy way, like he moved before he could think about it, driven by instinct. Mindless and restless and harried, in ways he’s never been before. He only eases when Wei Ying gasps. Gasps, and kisses him back, curling trembling hands around Lan Zhan’s neck.

The kiss is insistent and deep and nothing at all like last night—explorative, tentative, inviting—and it steals Wei Ying’s breath away. He arches into Lan Zhan, desperate to stay close, mouth falling open somewhere between the second kiss, the third, the fourth, and then makes a soft sound when Lan Zhan pulls back, sated only slightly when Lan Zhan kisses the corner of his mouth, the high of his cheek, the corner of his eye.

Wei Ying blinks slowly. Lan Zhan’s skin is flushed even in the low light of the room, his eyes beautiful and bright, and he’s shifted onto his knees, his back to the door. It takes a moment for Wei Ying to even think past the dizzying warmth of him. 

With the gentlest expression, the gentlest voice, Lan Zhan kisses the dips of his cupid’s bow and says, “I want you.” The movement of his mouth against Wei Ying’s is almost as heartbreaking as his words. “I know you. I love you.”

“You love me,” Wei Ying repeats. It takes a moment for the heady haze in his mind to dissipate, to pick Lan Zhan’s words apart and piece them back together, and the moment he does, it’s like a thunderclap—the deafening sound of the storm that follows seconds after lightning strikes through the sky in a harsh, blinding white that it takes a second for the world to reorient itself again.

“You know me,” Lan Zhan murmurs, low and steady, like it’s simple, like it’s enough. And it is. It is. Because Wei Ying does. Because more than knowing him, and more than loving him, Wei Ying knows how Lan Zhan loves: late nights in the city and moonlight walks along the river, the bottle of chilli oil stored in the cupboard and a copy of someone else’s schedule on his phone. Sundays spent by the sea and phone calls that linger into the early hours of the morning. Bearing his heart out on a quiet, lonely night in the middle of December and the tight grip of his hand.

“How long?” Wei Ying asks, breathless, and he thinks he’s smiling but he also thinks he might be a moment away from crying, too. “Since when?”

Lan Zhan sighs quietly, fondly, and strokes his thumb over Wei Ying’s cheek. His ears are red, his eyes are bright, and he looks like everything Wei Ying has ever wanted. He’s the only thing Wei Ying has ever wanted.

“You called me pretty.”

It takes a second for the words to register.

“I always call you pretty,” Wei Ying says, frowning, though the frown almost immediately melts when Lan Zhan kisses him chastely, lingering, smiling against his mouth when Wei Ying whines and sways into him as he tries to pull away. “I called you pretty the very first night.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, squeezing Wei Ying’s face, expression soft and open.

“The very first night,” Wei Ying says, and then he smiles, and he laughs, and he wraps his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders to drag him down, drag him closer and kiss him, over and over, until Lan Zhan is huffing out a breath of laughter against his mouth. And that’s wonderful, Wei Ying thinks, that he can feel Lan Zhan’s laughter. The shape of his smile. “The first night, Lan Zhan? Since then?”

Lan Zhan nods, nose brushing Wei Ying’s.

“For me, too,” Wei Ying says, and grins widely. “Since the very first night for me, too.”

There it is, he thinks. That weightlessness, that giddiness, that joy.

They kiss again, and it’s euphoric, like a million bright sparks igniting beneath his skin, all the stars in the galaxy growing and expanding until they burst into clouds of colour, bright enough to burn them through. This is how kissing should feel, Wei Ying thinks. This is how kissing Lan Zhan should always feel, Wei Ying thinks, and kisses him harder, until joy turns into something tinged with desperation.

Wei Ying ends up pressed against the bed, lying on his back, as Lan Zhan hovers over him with a hand on his waist, fingers slipping against a sliver of skin on his hip, just over the jut of Wei Ying’s bone.

Oh,” Wei Ying breathes, tilting his head as Lan Zhan trails kisses along his jaw, down the curve of his throat. “Yes—yes. Lan Zhan—” He tangles his fingers in Lan Zhan’s hair and tugs, rolling his hips up against the knee Lan Zhan has bent between his legs.

There’s no space between them, chests pressing together each time they take a breath, a small cavern forming between their bodies each time they exhale. Wei Ying laughs when Lan Zhan nips at the juncture of his throat, though it turns into a long, breathy moan when he feels the heat of Lan Zhan’s tongue drag over his skin.

“You’re perfect.” Wei Ying gasps, hips jerking up, body going momentarily tight. “Lan Zhan, you’re so, ah, perfect. So fucking lovely—”

Lan Zhan pushes himself up to look down at Wei Ying with a dark, steady gaze, and it sends a spark of heat through Wei Ying’s blood, body a live wire. Wei Ying’s fingers trace over every dip and angle of Lan Zhan’s face like he’s wanted to for months. The hairs of his eyebrow, the curve of his bitten lips.

Resting his index finger below Lan Zhan’s chin, he pulls Lan Zhan close enough to kiss again. Once. Twice. Barely there. A third time.

“I like you,” Wei Ying says, keeping his eyes open so he can see Lan Zhan’s face. “I love you. Remember that time I called you? I wanted to tell you then. All the times I called you. The day by the sea. Then. Always.” He shakes his head slowly, rests his palm against the steady, heavy pulse in Lan Zhan’s neck. 

Lan Zhan looks overcome, and he looks beautiful. “You love me.”

Light breaks through the sky in streaks of orange and gold, hazy where it filters through the narrowed slits of the shutters, and it gilds Lan Zhan’s skin, his hair, turning him into something kissed by the sun. There won’t be anyone else, Wei Ying realises, watching him. There won’t be another love. Another sun for the planet of his body to orbit, the shadowed moon of his heart. Love doesn’t look the same without Lan Zhan, and Wei Ying doesn’t want a love that doesn’t look like this. Like him.

Wei Ying kisses him again. Kisses Lan Zhan and then, smiling against his mouth, says, “Wake me up like you should’ve. Wake me up like you were meant to.”

And Lan Zhan grins, revealing a perfect row of teeth, the sharper point of his right canine. Wei Ying’s breath hitches at the sight of it.

Wei Ying hadn’t realised how steadily it’d been building beneath his skin, in his blood, until Lan Zhan presses his thigh firmly against Wei Ying. He’s not as broad, not as tall, but he’s strong enough that in a moment of thoughtless movement, he’s able to flip them over with ease.

Lan Zhan gasps, both his hands steadying Wei Ying’s hips, Wei Ying’s fingers curling into the sheets on either side of Lan Zhan’s head.

“Hi.” Wei Ying smiles, leaning down to kiss Lan Zhan a moment before he rolls his hips, slow and firm and sure, smiling wider when Lan Zhan groans and grips him tighter. “Hi,” he mumbles against Lan Zhan’s lips, tongue flicking against the bruise on his mouth, the small shadow on his cupid’s bow from where Wei Ying had bitten down and tugged. “I love you so much.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, eyes glittering. “I love you.”

“God,” Wei Ying says, feeling warm all over. “You really do. You really, really do.”

Lan Zhan is a solar flare, Wei Ying thinks, bright and beautiful and burning. Consuming everything around him, so stunning that it’s impossible not to watch until the heat is too close to escape. He’s a supernova, a shock of sudden light. A black hole, drawing everything into him. The way he says Wei Ying’s name feels like it takes all the air from the room, the breath from Wei Ying’s lungs.

Wei Ying ducks his head to nuzzle his nose against Lan Zhan’s neck and lets Lan Zhan guide him, indulging in the tiny, helpless movements his body makes. Everything feels so easy, even like this, the way they fit together like two halves slotting back into place, two stars caught in each other’s orbit, eclipsing one another. It’s perfect: the synchrony of their bodies, the echo of Wei Ying’s heartbeat in Lan Zhan’s chest—it’s perfect.

“I’m going to love you forever,” he says, stuttering through gasps and moans and the unwavering warmth of Lan Zhan’s hands. “I’m going to—map all your moles, make a little constellation on your skin. Name it after me.” He kisses Lan Zhan’s throat, his jaw, the juncture of his neck, laughs against his pulse. “You’re going to make me so happy, and I’m going to make you—ah, so mad. I’m going to make you so angry, and then let you fuck me until you—Lan Zhan—”

Lan Zhan drags Wei Ying’s face up with a firm grasp on his chin and kisses him hard, teeth clacking, the delicate skin of his lip catching in a way that stings. Wei Ying laughs into his mouth, laughs until it turns into a breathless groan.

“You’re gonna fuck me so good,” he says dreamily, and then can’t say anything more, because the easy fluidity between them becomes frantic, movements growing messy, energy thrumming between them like a living, tangible thing. Lan Zhan bites down on Wei Ying’s lip like sinking his teeth into a ripe cherry, juice spilling into his mouth, and Wei Ying keens. His arms are shaking as he continues to hold himself up, but then he falls onto his elbows, and Lan Zhan’s left hand shifts to cup his cheek, angle their mouths together to keep them close even as they become too breathless to kiss.

Wei Ying feels boneless, wine-drunk, every piece of him untethered as heat builds and builds and builds

Fuck,” he says, mouth slipping against Lan Zhan’s, dragging spit across his cheek, teeth grazing over his skin. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—sweetheart—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and it’s sweeter than any sound Wei Ying knows. “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying nods, gasping, laughing, body like a taut bow. “'M here—Lan Zhan, I’m here—”

For all the fervour, all the rush, coming takes Wei Ying by surprise. He’s not sure if he follows Lan Zhan, or if Lan Zhan follows him, only that their bodies tense, their breaths hitch and pause, a static rush pulsing through Wei Ying’s blood, and then he feels steady enough to return the kiss that Lan Zhan draws him into. Soft perfection. Gentle knowing.

Wei Ying’s fingers shake against Lan Zhan’s face, and he watches Lan Zhan’s swollen mouth catch on the ghost of a smile. He wants to be the eyelash caught on Lan Zhan’s cheek, the freckle on his nose, the firefly caught in the glass jar of his body. Wei Ying wants to be kept like a golden bird in the cage of his ribs, the lamplight that casts shadows on his skin, a radiance of kisses.

“This is forever,” Wei Ying says gently, watching Lan Zhan’s eyes open again. “You and me, it has to be forever, Lan Zhan. I don’t want to be known by anyone the way you know me. I don’t want anyone, ever, to know you like I do.”

He thinks he's trembling. He thinks Lan Zhan is, too. 

Quietly, Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s hand and drags it down to his chest, above his heartbeat, the tips of Wei Ying’s fingers catching on his mother’s ring, a pale green circle of pure jade.

Wei Ying stills above him, unable to look anywhere else, and Lan Zhan uses his other hand to slip the ring onto Wei Ying’s index finger, right above the silver band Wei Ying always wears—it’s a little big, because she used to wear it on her thumb, but it sits against his tan skin like it belongs. Breathlessly, he says, "Lan Zhan—"

“Forever,” Lan Zhan echoes, and it’s—it's not a promise, not like that, Wei Ying knows, but it’s the tender offering of one. Wei Ying, wide-eyed, breathless, looks up just as Lan Zhan reaches out to trace over the soft, sore curve of his lower lip.

“I’m going to learn what you look like when you’ve loved me for a year,” Wei Ying states suddenly, determined, even though his serious expression falls away immediately the moment Lan Zhan's eyes lift away from his mouth to meet his gaze, tender in the way he's always been and somehow so much more than before. “Lan Zhan, I’m going to learn what you look like when you’ve loved me for fifty.”

Lan Zhan’s smile is sweet, and gentle, and familiar.

They don’t know me, Lan Zhan said once, almost exactly a year ago from this moment, this morning.

As the softness of dawn settles solidly into the horizon, Wei Ying looks at Lan Zhan and thinks, but I do.