The labour & delivery unit is warm – warmer than the rest of the hospital, uncomfortably so. Women and men bypass him, their clothes apt for the temperature and their level of worn-out. The unit is filled with children – tiny, sleepy, or yet to be born.
Lan Zhan is in his coat, the handle of the car seat digs reassuringly into his palm. He resists looking at the clock or his watch. Still, he counts: ten, ninety-seven, five hundred and four seconds.
He shifts, his sweater sticking to his back. The added warmth makes him sleepy, too.
The midwife, a woman of a respectable age and hands that brought so many lives into this world you can see it in how she glances at everyone, seeing tired and tall children in every adult, emerges from the room three doors down and spots him exactly where she left him, rooted to the spot. She is carrying – a baby.
A boy, Lan Zhan thinks feverishly.
“I thought you’d at least shed your coat!” the lady chuckles, approaching him.
Lan Zhan traces the bundle in her arms, expecting a cry, a whimper – something. The only thing he can hear is blood pounding in his ears, making the midwife’s voice sound like from underwater.
“There he is,” she coos, and stops right in front of Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan almost drops the car seat when he looks down, daring.
A baby, awake, eyes black and puffy, likely disoriented. In a grey babygrow and a matching hat that Lan Zhan had bought and brought for him.
For his – son.
“Is anyone here to help you out?” the midwife asks. Now she sounds worried.
“I am alone,” Lan Zhan admits, unable to look away from the boy, who studies him back with the focus of a five-day-old.
The woman lets out a barely audible sigh, but Lan Zhan pays it no mind. He’s heard things far worse than a disapproving sigh after he announced he would be raising a newborn on his own.
Lan Zhan finally looks up at her, swallows. “Can I hold him?”
“Oh, of course!” she says, and Lan Zhan hastily puts the car seat down. “He’s yours to hold for decades to come.”
The midwife puts the boy into his arms, sure but gentle, and tells Lan Zhan to not be scared. Lan Zhan isn’t scared, but he doesn’t know how he is still breathing.
His son weighs nothing and bears all the meaning of life at the same time. Lan Zhan’s throat is tight, but his surprisingly steady hands enclose the boy’s tiny figure, protective and huge over the blanketed bundle.
“Hello, my little one,” Lan Zhan says.
The boy looks intently at him, if for the barest of moments, and then switching to the lamp above their heads. Everything about him is so fragile and small Lan Zhan is terrified to let out a single exhale over him, and wants him home this instant, in the cot that’s waiting by Lan Zhan’s bed, and watch his son, watch him breathe, cry, grunt, demand attention.
“He is a very curious boy,” the woman muses. “Not much of a crier, either! But that might change, so be ready.”
Lan Zhan allows himself a deep breath and a touch of a boy’s scratch mitten-covered hand. Lan Zhan will take these off as soon as they are at home and kiss the tiny fingers until he believes that the boy is his to keep.
“He ate half an hour ago, so he will be out any minute.”
Lan Zhan hums, counting his son’s lashes. Brave, he touches his button nose, his rosy cheeks, chubby and softer than anything Lan Zhan has ever felt.
He is so warm.
The boy is sound asleep by the time Lan Zhan pulls up outside his house. Lan Zhan watches him in the rearview mirror and the mirror on the seat, wrapped in two blankets besides his winter jumpsuit. It’s the middle of January. Lan Zhan rests his head against the cool window and breathes in, out.
Lan Zhan unbuckles the seat at record speed, but then reconsiders his choice and instead takes the boy out. It’s snowing heavily, and Lan Zhan all but runs across the driveway, keeping the boy wrapped up securely against his chest. The house is quiet and ready for its new member.
The boy is still unbothered, asleep when Lan Zhan peels one blanket off of him to look at his face.
Lan Zhan shuts his eyes and presses his son to his heart. It’s done. They both made it.
Lan Zhan doesn’t flick any lights on, and the heavy darkness of the snowy day makes him feel safe and sure when he musters some semblance of his voice, but in the end, still whispers, “Welcome home, Lan Yuan.”
“How are you?”
Lan Zhan licks a drop of formula off his wrist. It’s too hot and tastes horrendous. A-Yuan seems fine with it, but Lan Zhan still feels guilty, and every time he makes a bottle and tests the temperature, he licks it off and not wipes it, sharing the burden.
Lan Huan sighs. “A-Zhan.”
“Brother,” Lan Zhan responds, “my hands are full. It’s tummy time, we have to go.”
“Kiss him for me,” Lan Huan says, and reminds Lan Zhan that he can and will come whenever Lan Zhan asks, or, to be clear, allows.
Lan Zhan puts the bottle on the sink, where a couple of his plates and cups have found a semi-permanent residence. It distresses Lan Zhan a great deal, but in order to wash them, he has to unload the dishwasher first. He prefers bed to all of the above.
It’s week three, and Lan Zhan thinks he’s gotten a hang of napping instead of sleeping. Lan Zhan suspects he is lying to himself because, at this point, any vertical surface seems excruciatingly appealing. Blinking too slowly is dangerous, too.
Nestled in the crook of Lan Zhan’s left arm, A-Yuan yawns. Lan Zhan knows that there’s no one in the house to make fun of him for being too – emotional about it, but he still feels like a thief whenever he peppers those cheeks and eyebrows and tiny baby feet and hands and knees every other second.
It’s tummy time, which Lan Zhan dreads because A-Yuan hates it. They’ve progressed to two minutes at a time, and every time A-Yuan makes those little sounds of distress, Lan Zhan has to fist the carpet to stay in place. They are making progress nonetheless.
The living room looks lived in, which hadn’t been the case until A-Yuan was brought here. There’re more cups, A-Yuan’s socks, muslin cloths, blankets, a third changing mat, a baby brush, and a permanently turned on playlist with the rain sounds on. A-Yuan adores them.
“I am sorry, but I have to do it,” Lan Zhan says, lowering his son on the carpet and sitting down in front of him as a questionable consolation and a cheering company at the same time. They’re waiting for the bottle to cool down. Two minutes before it’s too cold.
A-Yuan manages forty seconds without growing red-faced from the effort, and then the sounds start.
“I know,” Lan Zhan placates when A-Yuan makes another attempt to fully look up at him. He won’t succeed for months to come. “I know, little one, it is very hard.”
It’s close to ninety seconds when Lan Zhan’s wobbly sanity gives out, and he lies down beside A-Yuan. He should have taken his t-shirt off. Lan Zhan lives off skin-to-skin with his son.
“Here,” Lan Zhan says apologetically, placing A-Yuan on his chest and stomach. “Better?”
He’s flat and even, Lan Zhan could argue if someone would protest. He’s warm, too. He bests the floor. The most important thing is not to let his head drop and cork off.
A-Yuan stops grunting immediately, and Lan Zhan counts thirty more seconds before he gets up.
“Splendid job,” Lan Zhan tells both of them, kissing A-Yuan’s forehead. “Exemplary performance.”
A-Yuan coos in response, which means many things. Right now, though, it only means, ‘I’m hungry.’
Lan Zhan checks the formula once again, licks another drop off, and goes to the sofa for the evening feed.
Three months before A-Yuan’s arrival.
Lan Zhan watches Zixuan cut the bread with a chef’s knife instead of a serrated one, effectively squishing it. Lan Zhan says nothing.
“In the fridge,” Lan Zhan says. Zixuan spreads fridge-cold butter with the same knife.
Lan Zhan hands him honey, which Zixuan scoops out with the tip of the knife, too. Lan Zhan accepts it with the dignity of a person on a mission.
“Done?” Lan Zhan asks.
Nodding, Zixuan licks his fingers clean. “You’ve got the nicest food. And Yanli’s trust.”
Lan Zhan beckons him to go into the living room.
“Why didn’t you use dolls? Or your shelter bunnies? Or your brother?” Zixuan asks, sprawling on the floor. Lan Zhan assesses his height and decides to add another blanket.
“Unresponsive,” Lan Zhan tells him, nudging Zixuan’s legs apart a little.
“The dolls? Or your brother?”
“Bend your knees.”
Zixuan grows hot in the cheeks. “Is that necessary?”
Lan Zhan is deeply unimpressed by his reaction. “Yes. Newborns’ knees are–”
Zixuan fumes, but obeys. Yanli will find it insightful. “Fine, just – be quick.”
Lan Zhan will not be quick. He needs to learn to swaddle.
“Tell me if it is too loose or too tight,” Lan Zhan says and folds one side of the blanket over Zixuan’s left side.
Working with four safety-pinned blankets is not ideal, but Lan Zhan can’t wrap Zixuan in a duvet.
“With all your Lan money, you could’ve hired someone with a baby and learn with them. And yet,” Zixuan says as Lan Zhan shoves his palm between Zixuan’s chest and the blanket.
“A bit, yeah,” Zixuan agrees.
Lan Zhan unswaddles him, makes another attempt.
“With all your Jin money, you could have hired someone and make them look like Yanli. And yet,” Lan Zhan says, tightening the fold. Zixuan tries to kick him through the blanket.
“Shut up,” Zixuan hisses. “You promised me a date with her.”
“I promised you her number,” Lan Zhan amends, and tugs on Zixuan’s arm. “Good?”
“Yeah, I feel like a baby in the womb.”
“No, fucking wet, it’s so hot in here, unwrap me now,” Zixuan grumbles.
Lan Zhan uncovers him, letting Zixuan sit up. He burps his honey sandwich.
“Why didn’t you ask Huan-ge to help you?”
Lan Zhan did. Brother was so tired after work he fell asleep on the second attempt.
Zixuan laughs out loud. “Fine. Fine, baby me, then, I deserve it.”
“You do not,” Lan Zhan says, but he truly is thankful. He needs to try, to learn, to know some basics. He will be shown how to do it on the babies much later on, but he wants to be prepared nonetheless.
“Okay,” Zixuan sighs, and settles back on the floor. “Swaddle the life out of me.”
Lan Zhan does.
Of all things Lan Zhan is skilled at, he never thought he’d become an expert in kinds of a baby’s cries. When A-Yuan is hungry, his crying is demanding. When he’s wet, he sounds annoyed. When he is tired or lonely and wants attention, it’s more whimpers than tears.
This is different.
This is desperate screaming that Lan Zhan has barely any means to stop, if any.
Lan Zhan has read about colic and was ready to deal with it, but in reality, his head feels leaden and he wants to cry too, at this point.
He stumbles over furniture and drops cutlery on the table, hands shaking from sleep deprivation and A-Yuan’s prolonged, overwhelmed yelling. Lan Zhan knows A-Yuan is hurting, and he can do nothing about it, only wait it out. Lan Zhan thought he was good at waiting.
The thought of calling his brother comes to him at some point at night, maybe, because it’s dark out. It’s a foggy sort of an idea that comes and goes away, and that Lan Zhan dampens down as a cry for help he can’t burden his brother with.
He can’t, but he has to.
Lan Zhan looks at his left wrist, where a watch should be. There’s none. Instead, the watch is on his right wrist, upside down, and uncharged. Lan Zhan stands up to find his phone, and trips on a plush dinosaur A-Yuan seems to favour when he’s not screaming his lungs out.
The phone is in the bathroom, where Lan Zhan apparently left it when Huaisang called and asked if Lan Zhan would appreciate a battalion of nannies for a week. Lan Zhan declined and asked Huaisang to call back in four months because Lan Zhan cannot do people now more than ever.
There are five messages from brother and one from Zixuan. All from yesterday, because it’s ten to three in the morning.
Lan Zhan sits on the lid of the toilet and dials his brother, and in what feels seven seconds and a whole uninterrupted dream later, Lan Huan answers.
“A-Zhan? What happened?”
Brother sounds remarkably awake at this hour, but maybe everyone sounds awake to Lan Zhan, now.
He takes a breath. “I,” Lan Zhan manages, wincing at the sound of his voice. He is crying.
“Give me forty minutes,” Lan Huan says, calm and so steady Lan Zhan hears a sob wrench itself from his mouth. Lan Zhan nods, unable to say anything else, and drops his phone.
He wakes up from a cry. Quiet, not desolate, like the evening type. A-Yuan is hungry.
Lan Zhan walks from the bathroom to his bedroom, where his bed is made but rumpled because Lan Zhan has no energy to slip under the covers. He sleeps – naps – like that.
In the kitchen, Lan Zhan swirls the bottle instead of shaking it. Like that, he’s learned, there’s less air that leads to hiccups and A-Yuan being windy. He licks the formula off his wrist – the new one, hypoallergenic – when he hears the front door open.
Brother emerges in the hallway seconds after, the keys from Lan Zhan’s home in one hand and a bag and the biggest cup of takeout coffee Lan Zhan has ever seen in the other.
“Oh, A-Zhan,” Lan Huan exhales, and all but drops the bag and coffee on the floor, striding up to them.
Lan Zhan flinches when his brother gathers him and A-Yuan in his arms, because he hasn’t touched anyone but A-Yuan in almost two months. It feels –
“Ge,” Lan Zhan says, his eyes hot and what feels like dusted with crushed glass.
Lan Huan withdraws, because he’s cold and big and A-Yuan makes a small sound about it all.
That gets brother’s attention, and he takes A-Yuan from Lan Zhan’s barely trembling hands with a soft cooing and repetition of the boy’s name.
“Hello, little nephew,” Lan Huan says, propping A-Yuan’s bottle. He sounds delighted and, more importantly, crushingly awake.
“Your silly but very responsible baba didn’t want to ask for anyone’s help, did he?”
Lan Zhan leans on the kitchen island, spotting a puddle of melted snow beneath Lan Huan’s boots. Neither care about it whatsoever.
“I tried the pacifier, the no noise ambience, a warm shower, and only my hand on his tummy works temporarily,” Lan Zhan admits quietly.
Lan Huan looks up at him, frowning. Lan Zhan can’t even manage that.
“You did everything right, it’s not your fault,” Lan Huan placates.
Lan Zhan hums, unconvinced. Brother, of course, understands that.
“A-Zhan, I brought food. Eat and go to sleep. Please.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head and regrets it immediately. He grips the stone counter.
“He is – he will cry,” Lan Zhan says, “less in the morning and more in the evening, and I cannot – ”
“You won’t,” Lan Huan interrupts, but Lan Zhan has no strength to reprimand him. “I will stay with him. I will move in, if you agree, for a couple of months.”
Lan Zhan studies his brother, who looks very determined.
“Your job,” Lan Zhan says.
“Doesn’t matter. The two of you do.”
A-Yuan makes another noise, a slightly distressed one, and Lan Zhan rushes up to him to take the bottle, but brother beats him to it.
“Good boy,” Lan Huan says, and plants a kiss on A-Yuan’s forehead. “Let’s make your baba sleep for three days, shall we?”
“I need to burp him,” Lan Zhan protests, but Lan Huan is already shaking his coat off, which ends up on the floor and almost in the puddle.
“I will do it, and you go sit down. Now, please.”
Lan Huan is still watching A-Yuan, but his tone brooks no argument.
Lan Zhan is immensely grateful and annoyed at the same time.
There’s food in the bag, which apparently is leftovers from brother’s dinner. Lan Zhan eats in the kitchen, not bothering to plate or reheat anything.
Brother is in the living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and rubbing A-Yuan’s back and supporting his chin. He looks like he has done this many a time before.
Lan Zhan nods, the food a welcome but still added weight on his exhausted body.
“Wake me up if –”
“I will,” Lan Huan interrupts again. “Go. Don’t worry about us.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t close the door to his room, because in less than an hour brother will bring A-Yuan here to sleep. Lan Zhan should have prepared the spare bedroom. Lan Zhan should have called brother earlier.
The sounds of rain are seeping in from the living room, as well as brother’s murmurs. For once, Lan Zhan makes an effort of getting under the duvet. He shuts his eyes for no more than one second, but when he opens them, it's bright out, and A-Yuan is smiling at him from the crib.
“No,” Lan Zhan says, trying to extricate a lock of his hair from A-Yuan’s deathly grip. He rescues a hair at a time, almost, frowning when A-Yuan tugs, laughing. He is playing, after all. Determined to avoid a premature haircut, Lan Zhan tickles A-Yuan’s foot.
A-Yuan bursts out with a delightful and full-body giggle, releasing Lan Zhan’s hair for a split second and then grasping at it once again. Patiently, Lan Zhan tries to wriggle his finger into A-Yuan’s fist.
“Let go, little bunny, you are hurting me.”
A-Yuan makes an inquisitive sound and accompanies it with another ruthless tug, which forces Lan Zhan to bend his head and wince at the brutal baby force his four-month-old son possesses.
“That was unnecessary,” Lan Zhan reprimands him, and kisses A-Yuan’s fist.
That earns Lan Zhan a released lock and a pat on the nose. A successful exchange.
A-Yuan reaches to grab at Lan Zhan’s nose with both hands, little fingers exploring and poking Lan Zhan’s cheeks and mouth along the way. Warm.
Lan Zhan can’t help a smile that feels almost as familiar on his lips as A-Yuan’s hand or foot by now.
“Yuanyuan,” Lan Zhan says, baiting the boy’s attention with his index finger that A-Yuan immediately shoves into his Toothless mouth and bites down on it. “Thank you.”
Since brother moved in, A-Yuan picked up from him something essential that Lan Zhan would never be able to deliver in a mandatory amount – smiling and laughing.
A-Yuan smiles at Lan Zhan without anything significant to summon such a reaction. Lan Zhan can be doing baby massage and A-Yuan will laugh his time through it, enjoying the touch and a song.
A-Yuan smiles at him or brother first thing in the morning, and Lan Zhan’s breath catches every time. He doesn’t know if A-Yuan would do it if it wasn’t for brother’s emotional proficiency, which took no time to spark a proper response from the boy.
With his son being a lavish source of smiles, Lan Zhan can’t help but echo them, which delights A-Yuan more than any toy or game or a daily kissing session. It’s like A-Yuan encourages him to smile, too. Not demanding – simply appreciative of Lan Zhan’s tries.
Years later, if A-Yuan decides to ask him if there’s anything he taught Lan Zhan, among other things, Lan Zhan will tell him that he taught Lan Zhan to smile.
“Love you,” Lan Zhan murmurs into A-Yuan’s palm, heading for the sunny garden. “Baba loves you very much, baobao.”
A-Yuan dodges the spoon, and his right cheek takes the blow of the puree. Zixuan sighs.
“Does he always do this? All my cousins loved when I said shit like that while feeding them.”
Lan Zhan plates their dinner. “My son does not wish to be fed trains and planes.”
Zixuan snorts, wiping A-Yuan’s face. “What does he wish to be fed, then?”
“Fruit purees and plastic toys.”
A-Yuan plunges his hand into the bowl and slaps the food across his stomach and the high chair. Lan Zhan doesn't flinch, reaching for more wipes.
“Come on, baby, one for baba and one for me,” Zixuan coaxes more insistently now. This time, A-Yuan opens his mouth and lets Zixuan feed him mashed parsnips. “See? He loves me.”
Lan Zhan hums. With someone else around to feed A-Yuan, he has the privilege of a hot meal.
“Yanli taught me a song and I want to put this little munchkin down tonight, can I try?” Zixuan asks, not looking at him. Lan Zhan can hear a trace of nervousness in his voice.
“Book first, then your song.”
At that, Zixuan turns to him, smiling. Lan Zhan suspects Yanli and Zixuan are somewhat using A-Yuan as a training ground, more so Yanli than Zixuan, but Lan Zhan does not mind.
“Your dinner is getting cold,” Lan Zhan points out, but Zixuan shrugs.
“I need to get used to this anyway, so why not start now?”
Zixuan wipes his hands and face once more, cleans the sides of the chair, the plastic counter.
Lan Zhan watches A-Yuan hesitance towards anything but fruit and potato, how dedicated Zixuan is to make him finish dinner, coaxing spoonful after spoonful into A-Yuan’s mouth, considering his own is steaming enticingly right beside his elbow, and smiles to himself.
“...and then these two goblins of her brothers basically threw me out of the house, can you believe that?" Zixuan fumes.
Lan Zhan has never met Yanli's brothers but certainly heard a lot.
“Aaggghr!” A-Yuan rawrs out of nowhere, clawing at Zixuan's bare arm, and Zixuan nods fervently.
“That's what I said and did! But they wouldn't listen and...”
The august evening is warm and golden-lit, a respite before the final heatwave. Lan Zhan recalls today's attempts at crawling A-Yuan made, trying to reach his horrendous spider plushy. It's half his size, and Lan Zhan has to close his eyes every time A-Yuan throws it at him.
They are going away in two months from now, because uncle is waiting for them back at home and especially for Lan Zhan to prove that he is an upstanding father. Lan Zhan glances at his perpetually food and paint and dirt-stained son, his bare feet swinging impatiently. His son, who giggles when he tries to eat grass or sand in the garden, or hiccups from laughter when Lan Zhan merely sneezes in front of him, or how A-Yuan dozes off on his chest when he gets too tired after playing all morning, curled up and feeling safe, and knows that he is doing a decent job of parenting without anyone else's opinion.
“Good morning, little bunny,” Lan Zhan murmurs, stroking A-Yuan’s rosy and slightly swollen cheek. It’s almost eight in the morning, and after a rough night caused by teasing, it’s a bit of a lie-in for both of them.
A-Yuan’s lashes flutter against his cheeks. He turns his head to look at Lan Zhan, and smiles sleepily. It must hurt, because he makes a tiny sound of discomfort and reaches for Lan Zhan to hold him. Lan Zhan’s stomach still drops whenever A-Yuan does it.
Every time A-Yuan wants to touch him, grab any part of him, to crawl up to him, to sleep on him and beside him, when A-Yuan raises his arms every morning for Lan Zhan to take him out of the cot makes Lan Zhan’s heart beat faster from so much love he has to breathe through it.
Lan Zhan breathes in the scent of his son – milk and tender warmth – the warm bundle of limbs and needs, unconditional love, and tiny hurts he aches to kiss away. A-Yuan hides his face in his neck, arms loose on Lan Zhan’s chest. Lan Zhan kisses his temple for the third time when hears a very quiet, “wawa.”
Lan Zhan takes a sharp breath and looks down at A-Yuan, who peeks back at him, eyes huge and glassy from discomfort.
“Wawa, wawa,” A-Yuan says again, and Lan Zhan’s brain fails to accept it as something else but “baba.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan exhales, heart in his throat making it hard to say something more elaborate. “Yes, little one, I am here.”
At that, A-Yuan gives him a shy smile and hides again, mumbling endless ‘wawa-wawa-wawa’ into Lan Zhan’s caving chest.
Lan Zhan’s eyes are so hot he squeezes them shut and presses A-Yuan closer still. He wants to kiss A-Yuan’s feverish cheeks and make him giggle, make him laugh openly, but it would only hurt.
Lan Zhan strokes A-Yuan’s back and kisses the top of his head. Today, he is a wawa.
“Wave bye-bye to auntie Yanli.”
A-Yuan flaps his hand enthusiastically at the screen and presses his face against it when Yanli blows him a kiss.
“Good boy,” Yanli coos, which immediately makes A-Yuan hide his face. Lan Zhan kisses the top of his head.
“Are you sure you can’t wait?” Yanli inquires. “They’re baking something for A-Ying’s birthday in his flat, because they said if it will explode, at least his nemesis of a neighbour will hear it.”
Lan Zhan inclines his head. “We will meet them another time.”
A-Yuan is getting restless on his lap, so he scoots to climb down the sofa, clutching Lan Zhan’s index finger for support. Lan Zhan takes A-Yuan’s hand in his for better leverage.
Yanli’s expression softens. “I know. But I can’t help the feeling that every time I try to introduce you to my brothers, something always comes up.”
A-Yuan makes a content noise when he picks up Lan Zhan’s set of keys off the floor and immediately tries to put a bunny charm in his mouth. Lan Zhan pries it from his sticky hands.
“Please wish Wei Ying a happy birthday from me,” Lan Zhan says. A-Yuan tries to climb on the sofa now, alone.
“I will. Tell A-Huan I’m waiting for your vacation dates for summer, okay?”
A-Yuan doesn’t want to be carried to the kitchen, so Lan Zhan lets him crawl after him. Lan Zhan intentionally walks slowly, and A-Yuan catches up with his foot in the middle of the corridor. A-Yuan rawrs at him.
“I am terrified,” Lan Zhan informs him honestly.
A-Yuan paws at Lan Zhan’s loose sock and tries to take it off, and Lan Zhan moves the foot from his grasp. A-Yuan looks up at him, surprised.
“No sock theft before dinner,” Lan Zhan says, cocking one eyebrow. A-Yuan grins at him, one tooth barely visible.
A-Yuan makes another attempt and lunges forward, and Lan Zhan moves again. A-Yuan screeches from indignation. Lan Zhan smiles.
“You can get them off if you finish your bowl of congee,” Lan Zhan says, and A-Yuan makes breathy sounds as he tries to catch Lan Zhan’s leg.
A-Yuan race-crawls into the kitchen, and as soon as he sees something he can lean against for purchase, he stands up, legs quite wobbly. The concentration on his face makes Lan Zhan smile. Lan Zhan steps backwards and crouches, arms open. A-Yuan gets the cue.
High on the racing adrenaline, A-Yuan tries to walk without support, and immediately falls on his bum. Lan Zhan waits.
“You can do it. Come on, sunshine.”
A-Yuan shrieks, and Lan Zhan ducks his head, incredibly amused.
A-Yuan sticks his tongue out as he leans on the bar stools that barely move under his weight. Lan Zhan flexes his hands as bait. His son has barely started to crawl, sometimes dragging one foot out of sheer laziness, and he already wants to skip it in favour of walking.
A-Yuan falls into his hands with a delighted scream that Lan Zhan has long gotten used to, and Lan Zhan scoops him into his arms, peppering A-Yuan’s face with well-deserved pre-dinner kisses. Brother calls them smooches. Lan Zhan almost agrees.
Lan Huan texts him just before bed, the tone of the text betraying not a tinge of worry they both choose not to discuss.
Ge: picking you up at nine.
Lan Zhan folds A-Yuan’s clothes for a week-long stay at their family house. He is yet to choose toys.
A-Yuan, propped with three pillows on Lan Zhan’s bed, watches a cartoon about dogs, trying to bark along. Lan Zhan wonders if his uncle with try to silence him. Brother said their trip would be cut short should that happen.
That night, sleep proves elusive. In a moment of a selfish need for comfort, Lan Zhan bends over the cot railing and strokes A-Yuan’s soft hair. Touching his son brings him as much feeling of safety as it does for A-Yuan.
“We will be fine,” Lan Zhan whispers.
“Ah, I see you slept as well as I did last night,” brother says as A-Yuan tries to stick his hand into Lan Huan’s mouth and shrieks when brother bites at it playfully.
Lan Zhan loads the car without any commentary to that. At least A-Yuan is in good mood.
“Got everything?” brother asks, checking on A-Yuan’s straps.
“Half of the house, give or take,” Lan Zhan says. He is driving because brother insisted. Insisted, because he knows that of the two of them, Lan Zhan feels more comfortable with the long country trips and Lan Huan feels better in the city.
“Regardless, I asked him to prepare everything you two might need should you choose to stay.”
Lan Zhan checks his phone for messages. Predictably, there’s a string of hearts from Yanli and a sour-faced emoji from Zixuan. “I do not require anything specific.”
Lan Zhan looks up. Lan Huan delivers mercy of not raising one brow at him. “Anything for my precious nephew, then.”
Lan Zhan was going to tell brother he’d bought chocolate buttons for him for the road snack but chooses to reconsider the idea.
An hour into the trip, it starts raining heavily, and A-Yuan corks off within minutes. He rather enjoys being in the car, babbling to himself or Lan Zhan or brother when he gets too bored with the cartoons or his toys.
Lan Zhan eyes Lan Huan, who turns out to be asleep, as well. Lan Zhan dials up the heating in the car and draws a quiet breath.
Time passes between measured movements of the windscreen wipers and signs that say how far away Gusu still is, yet closer than Lan Zhan would like it to be. Because of the clouds, it’s dark and, in the liminal space of the car, uneventful. Safe.
A-Yuan wakes up with a small, needy sound, which makes brother jolt in his seat and snap his eyes open.
“Pit stop?” Lan Huan says, and Lan Zhan nods. He needs to walk A-Yuan and have a coffee.
The weather gets better as they have about two hours’ worth of the road left when Lan Zhan spots a familiar lake he and brother used to frequent years ago.
Lan Huan turns to him. “Maybe we can show Yuanyuan around on the way back?”
A generous stretch of time with no specific date. “Mn.”
Lan Zhan pulls up in front of the front door of the house he left over ten years ago; uncle, unchanged just like the pillars of the grand porch, greets them with a curt nod even before they got out of the car.
Lan Huan squeezes Lan Zhan’s forearm, uptight just like Lan Zhan.
A-Yuan looks around the unfamiliar driveway, clutching Lan Zhan’s coat. He’s not scared, which is a relief that Lan Zhan hopes will not be stretched thin within hours. Minutes, perhaps.
“Shufu,” brother says for both of them. Lan Zhan says nothing, pressing A-Yuan’s head to his chest to hide him from the wind and uncle’s seeking eyes.
“A-Huan, A-Zhan,” Lan Qiren says, voice even and low, “Welcome home.”
They are led to their old rooms, neither of them saying anything about the irrelevance of the gesture. Perhaps it’s uncle’s courtesy. Perhaps he reminds them of their places – here, in the mansion, they are still his wards and not grownups with lives and worlds of their own.
In Lan Zhan’s room, there’s a cot for A-Yuan, all sharp edges of furniture covered and doors locked from A-Yuan’s prying hands. There are toys and books, too – soft and ordinary, educational, if Lan Zhan were to guess. He will thank brother and uncle later.
Lan Zhan lets A-Yuan crawl around the room that smells of nothing but cleanness, unlived in but cared for. The rain outside picks up again.
Lan Zhan puts A-Yuan down for a nap, which, as expected, is an ordeal in a new place, and ends up singing for a full half an hour.
Brother comes to get him with no distress smeared across his face, which is more than he could hope for. Lan Zhan follows him down the carpeted corridors, their steps muted and quick.
Uncle is waiting for them in his office, as always.
Lan Zhan doesn’t get the chance to express his gratitude for the hospitality, because uncle pins him to the chair with a tired gaze.
“A-Zhan,” he starts, and then stops. Lan Zhan knows that what uncle is about to say has been rehearsed and battled for, including with brother. “I hope you deem your room suitable for your stay.”
Lan Zhan nods. “Thank you, shufu.”
Lan Qiren watches him carefully, also waiting for Lan Zhan to say something that might make this feeble armistice go down the drain. Lan Zhan has no such intention.
“A-Yuan is napping.”
It sounds like an explanation, like a defence and a warning. Lan Zhan does not care which option uncle chooses to hear.
“If there is anything you or he will need, let me or A-Huan know.”
An escape for both of them. “Thank you, uncle.”
They are dismissed for a couple hours all to themselves and their memories that creep from every shaded corner and the sharp edges of the paintings on the walls that Lan Zhan used to stare at when he was eight, thinking that the colours blend in with his habitat to the point of being unnecessary – they bring nothing but more dust. With a call for an early dinner, and Lan Zhan sends Zixuan a thumbs up and wakes A-Yuan up.
There’s a high chair near Lan Zhan’s seat at the table, a bib, and a variety of bowls of food for A-Yuan.
“May I suggest I feed him?”
Both Lan Zhan and Lan Huan turn around, where Lan Qiren stands at the head of the table.
Lan Zhan’s fingers on A-Yuan’s back twitch minutely. “Of course.”
A-Yuan, half-conscious after his nap, is groggy and moody, but Lan Qiren looks unstirred by that.
His hand is steady when he feeds A-Yuan, who makes more mess here than ever at home. Lan Zhan can’t taste anything of his food but acrid unrest.
“Good boy,” Lan Qiren says when A-Yuan finally swallows maybe a third spoonful. Lan Zhan drops a fork.
“Apologies,” he says hastily, but his reaction rings clear across the dining room. Lan Huan watches their uncle with a knife unintentionally stuck mid-air.
“None required,” Lan Qiren says. He looks – busy, his food gone cold while he was spooning congee to A-Yuan.
Lan Zhan retires to his room straight after dinner, stomach too twisted to feel hungry, and there, he makes an effort of not grabbing unpacked luggage and driving home straightaway. Instead, he bathes A-Yuan.
His uncle is trying, but Lan Zhan is unskilled at mending burned bridges.
“He asked me if A-Yuan was your blood,” Lan Huan says. It’s past midnight. He has tea in his room. Lan Zhan has brought chocolate buttons. “He said if he isn’t, his position of the heir is unstable.”
“Is that what concerns him the most?” Lan Zhan asks.
“I told him that he isn’t,” brother says simply. “He said nothing.”
A-Yuan is, is the thing. But that piece of information is only for Lan Zhan and brother to keep.
Lan Huan hums, stretching his legs on the floor. “He wants to hold A-Yuan badly.”
Lan Zhan pours more tea. “We will stay, then.”
Brother nudges him with his foot. Lan Zhan knows he’s smiling without looking at Lan Huan.
“Good. I’ll be here, too.”
As you always are, Lan Zhan thinks, as you always have been.
The morning of A-Yuan’s first birthday is the colour of winter pink, every sound outside muted with heaps of snow, the day ahead promisingly soft in terms of temperature. The snow is positively up to Lan Zhan’s knees. Mid-thigh for everyone else.
Lan Zhan tiptoes to A-Yuan’s bedroom that he moved into almost a month ago, and Lan Zhan still has trouble sleeping without his son’s presence in his bedroom. It’s too quiet, too scary to leave him alone, and too much for Lan Zhan to be alone in a big room again, as well.
Surprisingly, A-Yuan is awake, playing quietly with the two toys he religiously sleeps with. One is a bunny Lan Zhan had bought for him even before A-Yuan was born, and the other one is a radish from Yanli’s brother, Wei Ying, for New Year, shipped within Yanli’s care package.
“A-Ying told me he looked at it and thought of A-Yuan’s cheeks,” Yanli said once Lan Zhan had unpacked everything and asked A-Yuan to say thank you, which was just a string of conscious but unintelligible sounds. “He should be home after New Year, he’s dying to see A-Yuan.”
Lan Zhan wants to thank the man, too, for being considerate towards his son for no reason other than his kindness. He knows Yanli trades him A-Yuan’s photos for pictures of meals Wei Ying has during the day. Lan Zhan is happy to help keep his best friend’s sibling alive.
A-Yuan spots him in the doorway and greets Lan Zhan with a proper “baba!” which does things to Lan Zhan’s brain still. It’s a never-ending process of accepting the true happiness and unconditional love of your child.
“Happy birthday, my little bunny,” Lan Zhan says, taking A-Yuan from the cot. It’s dark in the room, but the snowy glow adds enough light to see A-Yuan’s not really toothy smile, but they are getting there. Lan Zhan kisses his nose. “You are one today.”
The morning proceeds as usual, mostly, save for brother’s early video call and a message from uncle. Lan Zhan sends him a photo of A-Yuan chewing on the corner of the gifted book about dragons without the slightest hesitation. In response, uncle wishes them a good day.
Their morning exercise of walking around the house, A-Yuan holding Lan Zhan’s forefingers and all but breaking into a run, is fine, too. Lan Zhan makes it a one-finger situation on round five; A-Yuan doesn’t protest, but doesn’t let go yet, either.
Lan Zhan has been nursing an incredibly selfish idea of combining their birthday presents, and watching A-Yuan get excited about small animals on the screen or dogs and cats outside has only added to the idea of getting pets for themselves. Mostly for Lan Zhan, for now.
Despite the city being effectively snowed in, Lan Zhan drives to the chosen pet store, A-Yuan chewing on the chained plastic keys that rattle a little when he shakes them. Lan Zhan is proud of himself for finalising the need of getting bunnies on his son’s birthday. Now, brother has nothing on him.
A-Yuan almost falls out of his arms when he surges up to plaster his face against the glass that shields pets from the kids, and Lan Zhan tells him to be careful and mindful. A-Yuan doesn’t spare him a glance.
Lan Zhan looks at the cages and wants all fifteen bunnies, preferably at once.
“What do you think, Yuanyuan?” Lan Zhan says, bouncing A-Yuan on his hip a little. “Would two bunnies suffice as a birthday present this year?”
In lieu of an answer, A-Yuan drools a little. Lan Zhan takes that as a definite yes.
In the end, they choose two: a white one that Lan Zhan absolutely refuses to leave the shop without, and a black one, which A-Yuan has been trying to grab through the glass the entire time.
“Do you know how to care for them?” the woman at the checkout asks.
Lan Zhan has not been reading parenting books, articles, and opinions on taking care of bunnies for nothing.
“Yes,” he ways, wiping A-Yuan’s chin with a handkerchief. It’s cold outside.
The woman frowns. “They can bite children if they are too eager to grab and pull.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says again and hopes it sound dismissive.
On the way back, they visit a larger store to buy a big hutch, food, bedding supplies, and toys. The shopping list doesn’t look too different from A-Yuan’s early ones in some capacity.
“I’m getting fish,” Lan Zhan hears at another checkout, with A-Yuan baby-chatting to himself and squished between Lan Zhan’s ribs and elbow. Lan Zhan desperately wishes he had three more hands right now.
“You can’t keep yourself alive, the fuck are you talking about.”
Lan Zhan winces. A-Yuan doesn’t understand crude language yet, but it doesn’t mean he has to hear it everywhere, either.
“I’m thinking Nemo fish. Or, wait, was it a blue fish? The one has a bad memory, like me.”
There’s a loud sigh and a laugh behind Lan Zhan.
“There’s no such thing as Nemo fish, it’s his literal name. It’s a clownfish, which does suit you, though.”
“Aw, A-Cheng, does it mean you watch Disney and Pixar movies, too?”
A light punch, probably, and a giggle.
“I won’t tell anyone, pinky promise.”
Lan Zhan eyes the stuff he is about to purchase. For all his planning skills, he failed to think this particular endeavour through.
“Sorry, do you need help?”
Lan Zhan turns his head to the sound. There are two men, and the one standing by Lan Zhan’s side is so pretty Lan Zhan loses his train of thought for a second.
“Ah,” Lan Zhan says, because – well.
“I see that your hands are full, and I thought – A-Yuan?!”
On instinct, Lan Zhan immediately looks at his son, who looks completely unperturbed and just fine.
“A-Yuan!” the man shrieks, and Lan Zhan takes a step back on instinct, too. “I know this little face! Oh my god, A-Cheng, it’s A-Yuan! You’re Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan’s brain is running on not many hours of sleep and the bunny euphoria. A-Yuan tries to wriggle out of his grasp; Lan Zhan tightens it.
The man is positively beaming at him. Lan Zhan swears he’s never seen anyone smile so wide.
“Do I know you?”
The man is trying to get a better look at A-Yuan, and Lan Zhan turns to the side half-heartedly.
“Oh, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!” the man all but shouts, smiling and laughing, and Lan Zhan doesn’t know why he’s doing it. “I’m Wei Ying! You know our sister.”
It all clicks immediately. A-Cheng, bad memory.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and he knows he sounds dumb. But he is suddenly so relieved and so shockingly flustered he wants to stomp away. “Wei Ying,” he repeats, more composed now. “Nice to meet you.”
“No, it’s nice to meet you!” Wei Ying says. “I’ve wanted to meet you for so long!”
Lan Zhan can see how Wei Ying all but jumps from excitement, so happy just to see them. He wonders if Wei Ying refers to A-Yuan, or him, or both.
There’s a pointed cough from the cashier, and Lan Zhan wrenches his mind back to order.
“Oh, sorry, sorry, can I – A-Cheng, you pay, I’ll take the goods.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says, “Wei Ying, don’t –”
“Aiyah, Lan Zhan, stop it, just get the hay, you have a baby in your arms.”
“A toddler,” Lan Zhan amends. “He is one today.”
Wei Ying makes a roaring sound of pure joy. “All the more! Come on, come one, shoo!”
Lan Zhan takes a bag of hay and moves. Jiang Cheng, he supposes, doesn’t protest and doesn’t even blink at the lengthy check. Lan Zhan is very uncomfortable but intrigued.
He glances at A-Yuan, who now looks puzzled at the commotion. Lan Zhan shrugs.
Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng pack everything, and Wei Ying takes the biggest bag and the hutch.
“Do you need a lift?” Wei Ying asks. He can’t decide whether to look at Lan Zhan or A-Yuan. Lan Zhan can’t decide whether to check on A-Yuan or check Wei Ying out.
“Thank you, we are fine,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying beams at him. Again.
“Really? Do you need help with assembling the thing? Wait, do you have pets to put into it?”
Lan Zhan feels his ear grow very, very red. “Bunnies,” he says. Wei Ying’s eyes widen.
“Oh god, oh my god, is that his birthday present? Can I see? Oh Lan Zhan, please, can we see them?”
Wei Ying can’t stand still, Lan Zhan notices.
“Stop harassing him,” Jiang Cheng finally says. Grits out, really. “He already needs a break from you. And the kid.”
A-Yuan looks like a starfish in his winter jumpsuit. He is tired from overexcitement, which means an upcoming bout of crankiness.
“We have to go,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying’s smile falters a little. “A-Yuan needs a nap.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure, of course, um, can we?” Wei Ying fumbles a bit and takes his phone out of his pocket. “I’ve just moved to the city, can I have your number?”
Lan Zhan is pretty sure Yanli never told him about it. “You live here now?”
“Yeah, work stuff, you know, last minute, more like last hour, maybe week, hah, yeah. You don’t have to!” Wei Ying says, suddenly very still. “Am I being too much? Lan Zhan, sorry, you have a baby–”
“You can,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying’s face returns to what appears to be its default state – smiling. Lan Zhan enjoys it, which he will analyse later, alone, when A-Yuan will be asleep.
Lan Zhan tests his luck. “Bunnies are in the car. You can help with the hutch if you wish.”
Wei Ying nods furiously. “Can I? Really?”
“Oh, dear lord,” Wei Ying exhales. “Please, show me your baby and your bunnies.”
A-Yuan makes a whiny sound. He is too hot, Lan Zhan realises. They should have been back home already.
Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng load his car with bunny stuff, and Wei Ying has a local meltdown over the pets. Lan Zhan relates.
“I have to go,” Jiang Cheng says, unmoved by the rabbits. “The train’s in half an hour.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying mutters, turning around. “Already? Lan Zhan, can I?”
He is Yanli’s brother. Lan Zhan was expecting to meet him anyway at some point. “Yes.”
“Great!” Wei Ying says and pats Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “I’ll get a didi later.”
“I will drive you home.”
Some emotions Lan Zhan can’t put names to flicker across Wei Ying’s face.
“Ah, no need. Lan Zhan, you’re too good.”
Lan Zhan frowns, strapping A-Yuan. “I will drive you home… after the nap. It is of no trouble.”
Wei Ying giggles at that. Lan Zhan likes the sound.
In the car, Wei Ying asks if Lan Zhan wants him to sit in the back and watch A-Yuan, and is very surprised when Lan Zhan says no.
Wei Ying talks, chatters, laughs, gestures, smacks Lan Zhan’s shoulder a lot on the road. And checks on A-Yuan, too, Lan Zhan sees.
“I’m stuck here for a while, I think. A-Cheng helped me find a flat and move in, what a guy. Lan Zhan, can we get a coffee, please?”
They get coffee. Back in the car, Wei Ying brandishes a chocolate and cherry cupcake with a thick layer of frosting for A-Yuan’s dessert.
“They didn’t have any candles there, but I know you can light up a spaghetti instead of a candle. Lan Zhan, do you have spaghetti at home?”
Wei Ying doesn’t look despaired. If anything, he looks even more determined to organise a proper mini celebration for A-Yuan. Wei Ying says he’s been wanting to nom on A-Yuan’s cheeks for months.
Lan Zhan feels very, very confused and overloaded.
Wei Ying doesn’t let him get anything but A-Yuan out of the car, which is very polite of him. It’s snowing again, and thick clumps land on Wei Ying’s hair as he runs between the car and the front door. Bunnies are the first to be brought home.
Lan Zhan excuses himself and A-Yuan, and asks Wei Ying to feel comfortable – if he wishes, there is food in the fridge. It is polite, too.
“Can I hold him, please?” Wei Ying asks, hastily shrugging off the coat and boots. “Please please please? I’ll wash my hands!”
He looks around and spots the sink in the kitchen, runs up to it and washes his hands for five seconds, and dries them over his jeans. Lan Zhan looks at A-Yuan, who is rubbing his eyes with his fists.
Lan Zhan nods. “Not long.”
Wei Ying is practically vibrating with excitement when Lan Zhan hands him A-Yuan, who doesn’t sound happy about it.
Wei Ying, on the other hand.
“Hi, Yuan-er, hi, little one, hi, hello, come here,” Wei Ying says, and now he is not nearly as loud as he was in the pet store.
Wei Ying adjusts A-Yuan in his arms, grinning so wide it must hurt his cheeks. He looks like it’s the best day of his life. Wei Ying kisses A-Yuan’s forehead, and suddenly, he lingers. A-Yuan is too tired to care, but Lan Zhan still watches him for any signs of distress.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says again, but very quietly, almost a whisper. He carefully cradles the back of A-Yuan’s head and kisses his temple. “Little bunbun.”
Lan Zhan’s heart flips suddenly.
Wei Ying closes his eyes, and Lan Zhan hears him draw a breath.
“He smells like a baby. Lan Zhan, I’m sorry, just a second, please. I’ve wanted to hold him since I first saw him.”
Lan Zhan waits, and he doesn’t know why. No one has reacted to his son like that, not even brother. Zixuan is downright scared to touch him.
A-Yuan leans his head against Wei Ying’s face, his own scrunched up.
Wei Ying doesn’t even look back at Lan Zhan. “May I… can I try to put him down? I swear I’m not a creep, I just – please. I know stories and I can sing if he needs to. I can change him, too, just – please. Lan Zhan?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. It is that simple.
Wei Ying does everything like he’s read books or has a child of his own. Seamless work, even by Lan Zhan’s standards.
Wei Ying tucks A-Yuan in, strokes his head, and kisses his cheek. A-Yuan is asleep before they close the door to his room.
“Sorry,” Wei Ying whispers.
Lan Zhan leads him downstairs and heads straight for the kettle. He needs to do something with his hands because he wants to touch Wei Ying and he doesn’t know why.
“So,” Wei Ying says in his normal volume when Lan Zhan turns to face him. “Hi, Lan Zhan. Hi! I, um. Sorry.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No need.”
There isn’t, but everything feels extremely rushed and odd.
Wei Ying clasps his hands in front of himself. “Who would’ve thought, huh. We went to the store to get food for Jiang Cheng’s hamster and met you. The odds, wow.”
Improbable, Lan Zhan thinks.
Wei Ying gives him a crooked smile.
“Jie told me you’re not much of a talker. You can tell me to shut up, you know, I won’t be offended.”
Lan Zhan tilts his head, he can’t help it. “What else do you know about me?”
Wei Ying barks a startled laugh. He shifts his weight. “Well, not much, you see! I believe you know a lot about me, though. Like, disaster brother, mouthy brother, got-himself-into-something-again-brother, something like that?”
“Nothing of the kind,” Lan Zhan says.
Put like that, he does know a lot about Wei Ying, or something, at least.
He knows Wei Ying can’t live without spicy food, but that’s out of the question with the Jiangs. He is scared of dogs and he loves summer and swimming. He hates porridge and raspberries but loves potatoes and sweets. Lan Zhan knows that a scar above Wei Ying’s brow is from when he fell down the stairs when he was eight. Knows that Wei Ying speaks four languages and can’t sleep on his back. Knows how Wei Ying loves his family and feels like he is not welcome anywhere.
To the jar of odd facts about Wei Ying he suddenly realises he has he adds another two: Wei Ying is good with kids. With A-Yuan.
Lan Zhan now knows how Wei Ying smiles.
The kettle clicks, soft but still intrusive.
“I can brew coffee for you,” Lan Zhan offers.
“I’ve had one in the car.”
“I can make more. It’s cold outside.”
Wei Ying huffs out a laugh and leans against the island, loose-limbed. He looks like all he does for a living is leaning on the kitchen islands.
“No, thank you. I need to make a home for the bunnies.”
Lan Zhan feels stupid because he’s already forgotten about his own present for himself. He abandons the idea of the tea altogether.
The bunnies are huddled side by side in the box, more creatures to take care of and be indescribably happy about it.
“Tiny,” Wei Ying coos, hunched over the box. “A black and white, yin and yang. You’ve got taste, Lan Zhan.”
“A-Yuan chose the black one. I chose the white.”
“Still,” Wei Ying chuckles.
They’re sat on the floor, assembling the hutch, when Wei Ying’s stomach grumbles.
Wordlessly, Lan Zhan gets up and makes a quick late lunch, while Wei Ying stays with the bunnies and the hutch that refuses to click in one place. Lan Zhan takes his phone out and sends a question mark to both Yanli and Zixuan.
“Do you have chilli oil?” Wei Ying asks at the table.
Lan Zhan doesn’t. There was no need for it in his house.
“Aw, you’ll have to get one, now that I’m here!” Wei Ying smiles, a little sly.
Lan Zhan hums, which Wei Ying interprets as a dismissal. His expression changes in a flash.
“Or not. Lan Zhan, don’t let me bother you so much, I already invaded your home and kissed your child, I’m obnoxious.”
“A little,” Lan Zhan says. He’s long used to talking at the table because talking to A-Yuan during meals was successful. “I do not mind.”
Wei Ying blushes bright pink in front of him. “You’re not supposed to agree with me, Lan Zhan! Rude.”
Lan Zhan sees A-Yuan waking up on the baby monitor and stands up.
“What is it,” Wei Ying asks, concerned.
“Nap is over.”
Wei Ying puts down the chopsticks and stands up. “Lan Zhan, can I get him?”
Lan Zhan has never heard his name be pronounced so many times and in so many ways in such a short period of time.
When Wei Ying comes up to A-Yuan’s cot, A-Yuan looks alarmed but relaxes visibly when sees Lan Zhan.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “His toy.”
He reaches down to pick up the radish toy, and A-Yuan tries to get it back immediately.
“Sorry! Sorry, I’m not taking it away, I’m just looking,” Wei Ying utters, hands up in defeat.
“He will not sleep without it,” Lan Zhan says from the doorway. “I was meant to thank you for it.”
Wei Ying eyes the toy and A-Yuan, lips parted. “I’m glad he likes it.”
Downstairs, A-Yuan warms up to Wei Ying so quickly Lan Zhan finds it a little annoying, but mostly bewildering. Granted, Wei Ying is – fun.
He dances with A-Yuan around the living room, crawls with him, makes a lot of noises and impressions. A-Yuan laughs until he hiccups when Wei Ying tickles him, and Lan Zhan smiles privately.
“Can he have a cupcake?”
“A bite. Otherwise, he will not sleep.”
Bouncing A-Yuan on his lap, Wei Ying sings a happy birthday song, which Lan Zhan hates wholeheartedly, even if it is sung by Wei Ying. His voice is pleasant, pitch-perfect.
A-Yuan inhales his bite of the cupcake to Wei Ying’s absolute delight.
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan tells him.
Wei Ying just smiles, and smiles, and smiles at him. Lan Zhan is at a loss. He doesn’t know what it means.
Everything is over too soon, but it’s late. The bunnies have been placed in their new home and sufficiently petted. Lan Zhan offers Wei Ying to stay for dinner, but Wei Ying shakes his head.
“I took your whole day.”
He did. “You helped us very much, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying ducks his head, feeling uncomfortable. Lan Zhan doesn’t want him to feel like that in his home. “I did next to nothing.”
“A-Yuan and I will be happy if you find time to visit us again someday.”
Wei Ying looks up at him, and Lan Zhan’s rapidly growing collection of Wei Ying’s smiles is enriched with a new, shy one.
“I’d be glad. Thank you, Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying hugs A-Yuan before he leaves the car, having chosen the back seat this time.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “I am afraid I do not have your number.”
Lan Zhan is pushing it, but Wei Ying asked him first.
Wei Ying makes an adorable sound of sudden realisation. “Yep! Ah, Lan Zhan, so smart, you remember everything, that’s so exciting.”
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says again before Wei Ying is about to leave the car. “I am glad we met today.”
Wei Ying laughs, a melodic reflection of his thoughts. “Me too. Night, Lan Zhan. Night-night, A-Yuan.”
Lan Zhan checks his messages. Zixuan answered with seven more question marks, and Yanli sent five heart emojis. Lan Zhan answers neither.
He watches Wei Ying disappear in the doorway of his apartment building, and starts his car.
Lan Zhan is decidedly not panicking.
A-Yuan is whimpering quietly on his shoulder, his body too-warm and limp in Lan Zhan’s arms. He’s run out of ibuprofen and paracetamol, which he was sure there were extra bottles of in the cabinet.
Lan Zhan kisses A-Yuan on his feverish forehead and takes out his phone to call the ambulance when several messages come from Wei Ying.
Wei Ying: my mint’s growing! and basil. AND spring onions [photo attached]
Wei Ying: lan zhan, i can be a fresh herbs supplier for u and bb haha
Wei Ying: i meant toddler, ofc
Wei Ying: no but really, d u wanna some rosemary?
Wei Ying: pls tell me you hate cilantro, be my one and true friend, i canNOT stand it
Wei Ying: I’m a kitchen greenery dad now, take that, house plants
Wei Ying: cacti a re overrated anyway
It’s almost three am, which is usually Wei Ying’s peak productivity time, Lan Zhan has learned over the last couple of weeks. It’s three am, and Lan Zhan doesn’t need any herbs.
Lan Zhan: Cilantro is fine.
Wei Ying responds immediately.
Wei Ying: LAN ZHAN!
Wei Ying: what happened???? why are you not sleeping?
Lan Zhan bites his too-dry lips.
Lan Zhan: A-Yuan is having a teething fever, neither of us can sleep.
Lan Zhan hits ‘send’ and goes to the kitchen to make some warm water for A-Yuan, which he will likely spit out.
Lan Zhan’s phone buzzes three times.
Wei Ying: ohmy do you have everything? can I help? please tell me i can Lan Zhan
Wei Ying: i can watch him if you want, my hands are strong and i can go without sleep for a solid week
Wei Ying: sorry you probly don’t wanna anyone in the house rn
Lan Zhan’s finger hovers over the screen for five seconds, at best.
Lan Zhan: I have run out of ibuprofen and paracetamol.
Wei Ying: say no more
Lan Zhan: Wei Ying, I am going to call the ambulance, please do not worry.
Wei Ying: i’ll be at yours faster than any ambulance, you just watch
Lan Zhan smiles at his phone, but then A-Yuan starts crying more insistently, biting his fist and drooling on Lan Zhan’s worst looking home t-shirt. Wei Ying will have to excuse his appearance.
Wei Ying knocks quietly at his door exactly fifteen minutes later.
Lan Zhan takes the look of him in. Wei Ying must have been running, judging by his laboured breathing. It’s very slippery outside.
Wei Ying, in turn, looks directly at A-Yuan and brandishes a bag in front of Lan Zhan’s face.
“I’m here, I’ll take your shift, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls. His throat feels very tight and dry, and Wei Ying did not have to do that, they would have waited until the morning or the ambulance just fine. But Wei Ying rushed to help them deep into a cold night. “Please come in.”
Wei Ying looks up, chest still heaving. He beams.
“Yeah! Sorry, yeah.”
Lan Zhan leads him into the living room, where he can now see that Wei Ying’s attire is a mismatched pyjama set under a coat. His socks don’t match, either. Lan Zhan feels better about his own t-shirt and something else entirely about Wei Ying’s NASA one.
“The lady at the pharmacy gave me different bottles and asked me to try if ibuprofen or paracetamol works better on him, but you know that already, don’t you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying looks wired, watching A-Yuan’s flushed face and tear-stained cheeks with visible worry. “Can I hold him?”
Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, just carefully extricates A-Yuan from himself, which A-Yuan sounds very displeased about, but then Wei Ying says, “It’s me, little bunbun, I’m here, you’ll feel better in no time,” and A-Yuan settles into his neck and shoulder with no complaints.
Lan Zhan does want to ask Wei Ying why he is so attached to A-Yuan, but not today. For now, his hands are free to at least close the front door. Then he checks the bag, where he sees six different bottles of medicine and three chocolate bars he likes most.
“I saw them in your kitchen the last time, thought you won’t mind a pick me up,” Wei Ying says, rocking A-Yuan a little. A-Yuan drools on him, too.
“Hm,” Lan Zhan offers, but his ears are the colour of A-Yuan’s cheeks, and just as hot.
Lan Zhan fishes out the Calpol spoon out of the sink, washes it, and unpacks the medicines when A-Yuan starts crying again. Wei Ying shushes him with careful kisses, and then he starts humming something soft and quiet enough for A-Yuan to not be disturbed by.
Lan Zhan beckons Wei Ying to sit on the sofa, and Wei Ying climbs on it without a hitch in singing. Lan Zhan files the image of A-Yuan nuzzling into Wei Ying’s slightly torn t-shirt into his ‘Wei Ying’ box of memory mementos.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan calls.
It takes more coaxing from both of them to make A-Yuan open his mouth and spoon in the liquid, but eventually, with Wei Ying’s soothing strokes over his back and neck, A-Yuan swallows it.
“Such a good boy, Yuan-er, scared your baba so much,” Wei Ying says, smiling.
Lan Zhan will not argue with that, because being unable to help your child, knowing that the only thing you can do is wait and see them in pain until it goes away is not simply scaring – it is obliterating.
“Wei Ying, thank you,” Lan Zhan says. “I am sorry for bothering you.”
Wei Ying shakes his head, and it looks so much like when A-Yuan does it when he doesn’t want to eat something other than fruit or potatoes that Lan Zhan’s stomach tightens for a brief second.
“Lan Zhan, I’m so happy I could help. Please call me anytime if you need anything.”
Lan Zhan hums in assent. “Even if I need cilantro?”
Wei Ying’s jerks his head up from where he'd been resting it on A-Yuan’s, and gives Lan Zhan a look of pure disgust and amusement at the same time. “I’ll grow cilantro just for you, then.”
And then he smiles so earnestly Lan Zhan – no.
Wei Ying, Lan Zhan wants to say, I cannot kiss you when you’re holding my feverish son in your careful hands. Wei Ying, I do not know why you care about him so much, but I hope it is not a bother. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying, I am not alone with you, and it scares me.
“Would you like something to eat or drink?” Lan Zhan offers, and it comes out more like a rasp.
Wei Ying’s expression softens into a tired half-smile. He must be wrung-out and in need of sleep. Lan Zhan has to take A-Yuan from him and offer Wei Ying a spare bedroom.
“Tea, if it’s not a problem,” Wei Ying says, his voice going down in volume in time with how A-Yuan’s breathing is evening out. Lan Zhan nods and goes to make tea.
He decides to make honey, lemon, and ginger tea for Wei Ying when he hears soft snoring.
Lan Zhan peeks into the living room. Wei Ying’s head has lolled back and his mouth is open, and he is snoring, holding A-Yuan securely against his chest. Lan Zhan draws a shaky breath and goes to retrieve a blanket to cover them and one for himself.
Lan Zhan settles on the other side of the sofa. He checks the time – it’s almost five, and A-Yuan is finally asleep. So is Wei Ying, in his NASA t-shirt, Harry Potter socks and a stray feather in his hair. Lan Zhan wants to hold both of them in his arms and sleep for a week.
He wakes up to A-Yuan’s shriek and jolts awake, throwing away the blanket and blinking rapidly.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan croaks and feels hands on his thigh and shoulder.
“Lan Zhan, it’s okay I’m here, A-Yuan is just petting the bunnies, it’s okay, don’t worry.”
Lan Zhan blinks through the ruthless feeling of sandiness in his eyes as Wei Ying’s face gradually comes into focus.
“There,” Wei Ying says, and grins from ear to ear. “Good morning, Lan Zhan. We were just playing here.”
It’s bright out, and A-Yuan is by the bunny hutch, looking at him, worried.
“Morning, little one,” Lan Zhan says, and A-Yuan breaks into the speediest crawl Lan Zhan has ever seen him do. “Hi,” Lan Zhan says, scooping A-Yuan into his arms. A-Yuan breathes excitedly into his face and leans to get his morning portion of kisses. He is of a normal degree of warm when Lan Zhan peppers his face with kisses, relief washing over him like a tide.
“Did he wake you?” Lan Zhan asks and then finds Wei Ying staring at them with a flushed face.
Wei Ying tears his gaze away from them the next instant. “Ah, no? We sort of woke up together. I took the liberty of wandering around your house and changed him, so, yeah,” Wei Ying says, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls as A-Yuan starts half-jumping on his lap. “Thank you.”
Wei Ying nods absently.
Lan Zhan cooks breakfast and brews coffee for Wei Ying. It’s nine in the morning, Wei Ying has got to be somewhere for work, Lan Zhan believes, but instead, he is watching the garden with A-Yuan in his arms and points at the bare trees and explains what they produce.
A-Yuan mouths ‘apples’ and ‘pears’ and ‘cherry’ and other things with the most adorable lisp, and Wei Ying cheers.
“Lan Zhan, do you grow something?” Wei Ying asks. “Like, radishes? Potatoes? Cute babies?”
Lan Zhan places a cup of coffee in front of him. “I only grow A-Yuan.”
Wei Ying gasps when Lan Zhan puts a bottle of chilli on the table
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries out. “You didn’t have to! I was joking and – Lan Zhan, oh my god, this is too much, you’re too cute, I can’t, I’m now stuck with you for real.”
“My garden is at your disposal,” Lan Zhan says, and takes a sip of his tea. It burns his tongue.
Wei Ying looks up at him from the bottle and flushes a gorgeous red down his throat. Lan Zhan enjoys the view very much.
Later, when Lan Zhan washes the dishes and hears Wei Ying scream, “Lan Zhan! He’s walking! Lan Zhan, come here now, Lan Zhan!” from the living room, Lan Zhan doesn’t even feel jealous that Wei Ying was the first one to witness his son take his first sure steps alone without Lan Zhan there to see it.
Wei Ying bounces into the kitchen after about twenty minutes of A-Yuan mindlessly walking Lan Zhan around the island with the string of Lan Zhan’s sweatpants in both hands. Wei Ying’s got a large box of seedlings in his hands and he’s dressed – well, for gardening.
It’s April, and the weather is so generously warm Lan Zhan had to go for an urgent shopping spree for clothes for A-Yuan, who is now waddling barefoot and singing a potpourri of Lan Zhan’s and Wei Ying’s songs in his tiny but very clear voice.
Wei Ying somehow managed to twin with A-Yuan today – they are both in loose dark navy shorts and red t-shirts. Lan Zhan thinks it’s his fault – he saw this outfit on Wei Ying when Wei Ying sent him a photo of him holding a giant bunny he’d won for A-Yuan at a fair in another city.
A-Yuan sees Wei Ying and drops the string immediately, and breaks into a run to the strategic place – Wei Ying’s knee.
Wei Ying laughs, ruffling his hair one-handed. “Yuan-er! Are you ready to roll in the dirt and give your baba a mild cardiac arrest?”
Lan Zhan ties back the string and does not look at Wei Ying’s toned arms and legs. He has work to do – finally. Being somewhat back in the field feels refreshing and, if Lan Zhan is very honest with himself, pleasantly distracting.
“No grass eating,” Lan Zhan reminds Wei Ying.
Wei Ying tsk-s at him. “That was one time and I was nine and I lost a bet.”
Lan Zhan knows that. He also knows his son’s love to stuff various things in his mouth. “A-Yuan enjoys the wilderness just as much.”
Wei Ying grins down at A-Yuan, who tries to grab at Wei Ying’s leg hair, mostly succeeding. “I’ll watch this munchkin for any signs of lawn decimation. Lan Zhan, go do your work, we’ll be fine.”
We’ll be fine, Lan Zhan thinks with a fleeting sense of fierce ownership, but gives Wei Ying only a nod.
“I will be on the patio.”
Lan Zhan is a shameful liar and even more shameful stalker, he realises about three minutes into digging around his bursting email box.
He is not working, he is not helping anyone in the office, he is not reading his humongous debrief paper – Lan Zhan is watching Wei Ying and A-Yuan planting tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peas, chilli peppers, and other vegetables from his shaded corner of the patio.
Lan Zhan situates his laptop on his outstretched legs so that he can see Wei Ying and A-Yuan and make sure that if Wei Ying looks at him, he won’t suspect anything. Lan Zhan thinks he is doing a good job of spying until Wei Ying winks at him and brandishes a crumbling clump of soil.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying calls so loudly A-Yuan drops the plastic shovel he’s been poking the ground with. “You can join us, I won’t tell anyone that you like getting your hands and knees dirty!”
He laughs. Lan Zhan flushes and hides behind the screen.
“Do you have sunscreen on?” Lan Zhan asks approximately two minutes later. If his inbox could scream from being so rudely neglected, it would.
Wei Ying looks up, swiping a dirty hand across his forehead. “Uh, no? Why?”
The possessive void in Lan Zhan squares its shoulders. Lan Zhan stands up from his chair.
“No gardening without sunscreen on,” he instructs, and Wei Ying stifles a laugh when Lan Zhan strides past him into the house.
“My hands are dirty,” Wei Ying needlessly informs Lan Zhan as he crouches near Wei Ying.
“I am aware,” Lan Zhan says. He is only being protective of Wei Ying’s health. “I will do it.”
Wei Ying’s lips form a bestial smirk. “Of course you will.”
For that, Lan Zhan chooses to press the sunscreen more insistently into the heated skin of Wei Ying’s arm and not topple him into the dirt. Lan Zhan has work to do.
Lan Zhan covers Wei Ying’s arms and the back of his neck while A-Yuan tries to talk to ants and some little red bugs about his breakfast.
Lan Zhan says nothing when Wei Ying tries to plant A-Yuan alongside red cabbage, yelling that Lan Zhan has told him that he grows A-Yuan and Wei Ying wants one for himself. Lan Zhan accidentally deletes a message at that.
It’s closer to noon when Lan Zhan tells them to make a pause and get in the house, because he doesn’t want any of them to overheat. A-Yuan looks like he’s been through a military drill. Wei Ying doesn’t look any better. Lan Zhan wants to offer to bathe them both.
“I will clean it,” Lan Zhan tells Wei Ying when Wei Ying hovers at the patio door, soil and sweat rolling off of him and on the floor. Wei Ying gives him an apologetic smile and rushes into the guest bathroom. There’s soil in A-Yuan’s belly button when Lan Zhan bathes him.
Wei Ying comes out of the shower looking pink in the face and already a bit tan, and Lan Zhan turns away, lathering A-Yuan’s unruly curls.
“Lan Zhan ah, thank you for indulging my gardening inclines,” Wei Ying muses, leaning on the doorframe. “It’s been my dream for years.”
A-Yuan sends a rubber dragon out of the bath and says, “oh no,” then sends three more toys out of the tub as well. Wei Ying silently picks them all up and tumbles back into the water, and then harasses A-Yuan around the bath with a dinosaur in one hand. Lan Zhan is drenched.
He doesn’t mind it one bit.
Wei Ying wraps A-Yuan into a fox towel with a hood on and carries him into the patio to air dry him, leaving Lan Zhan with a bathful of dirty water and his soaked front.
When Lan Zhan joins them, fresh clothes on and a tray of drinks in both hands, A-Yuan is asleep on Wei Ying, face squished against Wei Ying’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying mouths to Lan Zhan, looking mildly apologetic and severely smug about being trapped underneath A-Yuan.
Wei Ying, just like A-Yuan, has a rare talent of falling asleep at pretty much any time of the day, given the chance, and Lan Zhan counts minutes until Wei Ying dozes off in the shade of the patio. Lan Zhan watches them without one gram of shame for forty minutes.
“Got work done?” Wei Ying mumbles sleepily as A-Yuan starts fussing on him, demanding Lan Zhan pick him up.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan white-lies to him. “I have managed to supervise an important event in a short period of time.”
Wei Ying nods at him, rubbing at his face.
Lan Zhan doesn’t look at Wei Ying when he speaks next. “Wei Ying, could I trouble you with flowers?”
Wei Ying hums inquisitively.
“I would like to have gentians planted here. I know they are rock and mountain flowers, but I hope Wei Ying’s skilled hands will create a miracle.”
At that, Wei Ying huffs out a cough that might as well be a laugh.
“Of course, Lan Zhan! I will look them up and then let you know how soon you can see them bloom.”
Not even a shade of doubt in his success. Lan Zhan will let Wei Ying do a stone garden if he’ll need or want one.
Wei Ying can’t stay for dinner, but he does spend the afternoon with A-Yuan, playing with bunnies. Wei Ying hasn’t named them yet. Lan Zhan urges him to.
“Bye, little bunbun,” Wei Ying says, thoroughly kissing A-Yuan all over his face. “Be a good boy for your baba.”
When Wei Ying leaves, neither he nor Lan Zhan knows how to behave – to touch Wei Ying so frivolously apart from a clear goal to tug him into a ‘stay here’ kiss feels unacceptable.
“Bye, big bunbun,” Wei Ying flashes him a smile. “I’ll drop you some suggestions soon.”
Lan Zhan is hiding A-Yuan’s What Does This Animal Say? book that Lan Zhan already has nightmares about into the highest compartment of his built-in wardrobe when his phone buzzes with a few new messages.
Wei Ying: which ones? [10 photos attached]
Lan Zhan sees the dark blue gentians, and his stomach twists.
Lan Zhan: These, please. [photo attached]
Lan Zhan: I hope it is not a bother.
Wei Ying: gimme a few months lan zhan k
Wei Ying: goodnight <3
“Goodnight, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and closes the compartment door.
“She said yes.”
Lan Zhan’s hand pauses mid-air.
Zixuan looks more distraught than if Yanli said no. Lan Zhan waits for the punchline, but it never comes.
“You do not sound happy about it.”
Zixuan gulps down the rest of the beer and thuds the bottle on the dining table. “I am happy, but now I’m fucking panicking.”
Lan Zhan shoots him a look and then glances down, where A-Yuan is circling Zixuan’s chair, imitating a mewling cat. Zixuan folds his legs tighter.
“Do not swear,” Lan Zhan tells him, but Zixuan doesn’t even look at him.
“What if she changes her mind? What if her jackasses of brothers will dissuade her from marrying me? What if I’m– ” Zixuan ducks his head, studying A-Yuan’s plastic tail. “What is I’m not good enough?”
Lan Zhan opens the second beer for him. “She will not. They will try, but I will talk to Wei Ying. And you are.”
Zixuan snorts. “Yeah, he’ll most probably kidnap her before the tea ceremony and hide somewhere until he marries her off to someone else but me.”
“I will talk to him,” Lan Zhan repeats. “He will not object to Yanli’s decision and subsequent happiness.”
Zixuan jerks his head up, staring at Lan Zhan with narrowed eyes. “You’ve fallen for him, haven’t you.”
Lan Zhan bristles and blushes simultaneously. He has not fallen for Wei Ying; he is simply besotted.
“Your ears,” Zixuan sniggers. “Shit, you’re gone.”
“Do not swear,” Lan Zhan bites out, and hides his face behind the cup of tea. It’s scorching hot outside, but the tea helps regulate the temperature.
Zixuan laughs and then yelps because A-Yuan caught his toe and now giggles vengefully.
“You’re not a cat, you’re a crocodile!” Zixuan cries, extricating himself from A-Yuan’s nimble fingers.
“Alligator, not a crocodile,” Lan Zhan amends. He can feel his face heating up up to his forehead.
“Does it matter? Both are deadly.”
“Alligators are rounder and don’t have their teeth poking out,” Lan Zhan says.
Zixuan suspiciously raises an eyebrow at him. “Why do you even know that?”
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer straightaway. He doesn’t mind a defeat, but the exposure still prickles at his skin. “Wei Ying and A-Yuan like watching documentaries about animals.”
“Of course,” Zixuan says, taking a long pull at the second beer. “Of course they do.”
“Ge?” A-Yuan says in the evening, just after a bath. Lan Zhan doesn’t even towel him dry.
“Wei Ying is away, little one,” he explains. He knows A-Yuan misses Wei Ying, who has been away for work for over a week and barely answers any messages.
A-Yuan looks thoughtful, then pouts. He picked up this habit from Wei Ying, which Lan Zhan finds both immensely endearing and very frustrating.
Lan Zhan hums. “He will come back soon and play with you and the bunnies. I promise.”
In bed, Lan Zhan sends Wei Ying a photo of A-Yuan that he took in the garden earlier in the morning, when A-Yuan was sniffing the tomato leaves and then running after a honey bee.
Lan Zhan: He misses you. [three photos attached]
Lan Zhan then types ‘I miss you, too’ and backspaces it. He doesn’t want Wei Ying to feel obligated by whatever Lan Zhan feels for him.
Lan Zhan: We miss you. Have a safe trip home, Wei Ying.
Wei Ying knocks on his door two days later like it personally offended him and owns him a lot of money.
“She said yes,” Wei Ying barks out and strides past Lan Zhan when Lan Zhan opens the door for him.
Lan Zhan wheels Wei Ying’s suitcase inside, biting his tongue.
“Where’s my son?” Wei Ying shouts, looking around the first floor of the house. “He’s not napping, I know his naptime.”
Wei Ying came to Lan Zhan’s house straight from the airport. Lan Zhan has no A-Yuan to console him. Only Lan Zhan himself.
“He is at my brother’s house. I had a pressing workload for today, so ge took him for two days.”
Wei Ying stops in his frantic baby-seeking tracks and turns to Lan Zhan. He looks wild and very, excruciatingly lost.
“I messaged you,” Lan Zhan says, and he begs all Heavens Wei Ying doesn’t hear it as a reprimand. “Wei Ying, forgive me. If you do not want to stay, I can drive you home.”
Contrary to his words, Lan Zhan grips the handle of the suitcase. Wei Ying blinks at him.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says finally. “I haven’t checked my messaged for– ” he takes his phone from the back pocket and scrolls through messages. “–oh. Five days.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls. He can offer Wei Ying bunnies, but Wei Ying craves A-Yuan’s comfort. Lan Zhan in not jealous.
“I am sorry,” Lan Zhan says, because he genuinely feels guilty and at a loss of what to do. He could go to Lan Huan’s house and bring A-Yuan home, but they had plans for the evening.
“What for?” Wei Ying frowns. “Lan Zhan, you think I’m angry with?”
“No,” Lan Zhan lies. Wei Ying may not be angry with him, but he is stressed and Lan Zhan doesn’t know yet how to help him.
Wei Ying pockets his phone and marches up to Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan swallows involuntarily.
“You think I only come here to cuddle A-Yuan and pester you to let me grow whatever the fuck I want to in your garden, don’t you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, his expression very serious and marred with worry.
Lan Zhan thinks this is an inaccurate choice of words. He nods.
Wei Ying laughs bitterly and turns away. He sounds exhausted, he sounds hungry and in a need of a hug. “I’m not. I’m – Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan, if you think so, why haven’t you kicked me out yet?”
Lan Zhan frowns. “Why would I kick you out?”
“Well,” Wei Ying laughs again, running a hand through his tousled hair. “Like you said, I only need your baby and your land. It’s rude, to say the least.”
Lan Zhan bites back a smile. “Wei Ying is good with both. I do not mind.”
Wei Ying snaps his gaze back to Lan Zhan, mouth open. “Oh. Oh, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry, I – I’m not,” he says, and he looks just like A-Yuan when he knows he did something very wrong like petted a bunny against its fur. “I’m here not only for A-Yuan. Or your rich soil.”
Lan Zhan’s face flares up and he has to turn away to close the door, the handle of the suitcase still in hand.
“Would you like to stay for dinner?” Lan Zhan asks, not looking at Wei Ying on his way to the living room.
“Yes,” Wei Ying says behind him. Lan Zhan hears him stumble over one of A-Yuan’s toys that perpetually falls out of the box. “I look and smell gross, can I use the shower?”
“You can take the spare bedroom,” Lan Zhan says before he can – has to – stop himself. His ears are the colour of Wei Ying’s scrunchy.
“Lan Zhan, don’t turn around,” Wei Ying says, and before Lan Zhan can turn around and find a spider the size of an apple and leave Wei Ying to deal with it, Wei Ying wraps his arms around Lan Zhan’s middle and presses his face to Lan Zhan’s back.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles.
Lan Zhan’s entire body goes hot and cold, he tenses up and feels Wei Ying’s arms hold him even tighter.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan exhales.
Wei Ying kisses him between the shoulder blades, searing hot. Lan Zhan shivers.
“Lan Zhan, I’m sorry, I know you don’t like casual touch, and I’m overstepping so much, I have been for half a year, but I have to tell you.”
Lan Zhan’s heart is in his throat, his temples and fingertips. “Yes.”
Wei Ying breathes out hotly into his skin. “Thank you. If it wasn’t for A-Yuan and for you, most of all, I,” and then Wei Ying falls silent for what feels like three eternities. “Thank you. You’re too good to me.”
Wei Ying lets him go, steps away, and flies up the stairs to the second floor.
Lan Zhan feels like crying and hurling things into the wall. His back feels like he has a brand in the form of Wei Ying’s face and body on it. Lan Zhan feels stupid from hoping and bereft without Wei Ying’s arms looped securely around him. Lan Zhan closes his eyes and lets out a quiet sob.
He is already cooking when Wei Ying emerges from the shower and wordlessly joins the process – washes the vegetables, checks on the fish, and mixes something as an appropriate condiment for himself that makes Lan Zhan’s eyes water from a distance.
“I have known Zixuan for twenty years,” Lan Zhan begins, knowing full well that it’s none of his business. Wei Ying says nothing, chopping scallions into a small plate. “He is a decent person and he loves Yanli.”
Wei Ying hums, a noncommittal sound. He doesn’t look up at Lan Zhan.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, “Please be reasonable in your mandatory brotherly defence.”
Wei Ying huffs out a small laugh and moves on to dicing a piece of ginger. “Did he run crying to you and complaining that I threatened to decapitate him if he hurts my sister again?”
Lan Zhan cocks an eyebrow at that. “No. He told me he is afraid of being not worthy of her.”
“He’s right. For once.”
“Fine,” Wei Ying says, and drops the knife on the counter, raising his hands up. “I won’t kill him and I won’t kidnap her.”
“Not before the tea pouring ceremony, not after,” Lan Zhan tells him, and Wei Ying’s eyes grow comically wide.
“How did you know?”
Lan Zhan turns back to the stove. “Guessed. Please set the table.”
At the table, Wei Ying talks about his trip, his loud hotel neighbours, and the overall misery of being around people who are stupid and feel proud about it.
“You are home now,” Lan Zhan says quietly, and Wei Ying ducks his head, chopsticks buried in a mountain of spiced rice.
“I am,” Wei Ying says, just as quiet. “I am.”
Wei Ying helps him with washing up and feeds the rabbits, then watches two episodes of Mindhunter with Lan Zhan and says that if he has nightmares at night, he’ll come to Lan Zhan to hide and cry. Lan Zhan simply nods.
Wei Ying stays in the spare bedroom, yawning uncontrollably through a good third of the second episode.
“Night-night,” Wei Ying smiles at him and closes the door.
Lan Zhan is half-asleep when a message drops.
Wei Ying: i missed you too, Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan smiles stupidly into his pillow.
A-Yuan shrieks consistently as brother throws him into a pile of leaves, rakes it fresh, and then repeats everything twenty more times until the leaves are dust and not suitable for being a toddler’s landing point.
A-Yuan crawls out of the pile, leaves in his hood and up his trousers, yelling “more!” but Lan Huan smiles apologetically and tells him that his back needs a rest. A-Yuan pouts. Lan Zhan grabs him and throws him into the air a couple times to complete the process of wearing him out.
“You are tense,” brother tells him, stretching his legs on a sofa, A-Yuan tucked into the crook of his neck.
Lan Zhan doesn’t turn away from the stove. “I am not.”
“A-Zhan,” Lan Huan calls very softly, in a tone he uses on A-Yuan when he doesn’t want to dress after a bath and runs away from brother, naked and giggling.
Lan Zhan feels exactly the same, if he is being honest, except he is not giggling.
“It is Wei Ying’s birthday next week,” Lan Zhan offers.
“I want to gift him something personal.”
Brother hums, then yawns.
“I do not know what.”
Lan Zhan has never been so invested in gift-giving. Lan Zhan has never been so invested in a person, apart from his son, let alone finding a perfect present for them.
“Everything you do for him is personal,” brother says, and Lan Zhan burns his hand on the uncovered pan handle.
Lan Huan wipes A-Yuan’s fingers after A-Yuan’s licked them clean of dinner. “Have you tried asking him what he wants?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head.
“Try,” brother smiles, not even looking at him. “Easier for you and him.”
“Wei Ying will not ask for anything,” Lan Zhan says. “Nothing that is of real value for him.”
“What is of value for him, then?” brother prompts.
Lan Zhan’s answer is immediate. “His family. A-Yuan.”
It sounds like A-Yuan belongs to Wei Ying’s family, to Wei Ying, which –
“There you have it,” Lan Huan encourages, smiling wider. “Gift him something of A-Yuan’s that he will always have on him.”
An idea appears in Lan Zhan’s head so quickly is almost leaves him reeling. He takes out his phone and messages a midwife who delivered A-Yuan.
“You’re free on my birthday,” Wei Ying says, popping a yellow cherry tomato he’s just harvested – the leftovers of this year’s yield – into his mouth. Lan Zhan hears the breaking of the tomato skin. His sentence doesn’t sound like a question.
“I am not sure,” Lan Zhan hedges. “I will be sure to check –”
“You are free,” Wei Ying interrupts him. “And I’m taking you and the babe to our family cabin for two days.”
Lan Zhan jerks his head up from the cupcakes he has been frosting and sees Wei Ying smiling wickedly.
Insolent. Lan Zhan loves him.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, putting down a small palette knife. “What do you wish to have for your birthday present?”
“I just said,” Wei Ying says, reaching out and scooping a lump of frosting with his finger. “You and A-Yuan, in our family cabin.”
Lan Zhan knows he blushes up to his roots and down his chest, but marches on. “It is not a present but a company. I wish to gift you something.”
“Bake me a cake,” Wei Ying says, and licks the frosting off his finger. “The filthiest and most unhealthy cake you can come up with, or find a recipe of.” Wei Ying takes the half-frosted cupcake and unpeels the casing. “We will eat it in the dark with spoons when Yuan-er is already out, because if he tries it, he won’t sleep for a month and a half. And when we’re done with the cake, we will watch a horror film and I will eat more sweet stuff, and then we’ll pass out on the sofa until morning.”
Lan Zhan cannot imagine a better scenario. “Which film?”
Wei Ying taps his index finger on his lower lip. There’s frosting on it. “You like serial killers, so that’s decided.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, because this is all he can muster.
Wei Ying says nothing, just stuffs the whole cupcake into his mouth and runs off before Lan Zhan can admonish him that he will spoil his appetite before dinner.
Lan Zhan bakes a three-tier brownie cake with cookie dough frosting for it and tops it with spiced chocolate ganache. A-Yuan weeps when Lan Zhan tells him it’s for gege and not for A-Yuan.
“I wanna,” A-Yuan sobs, eating separate chocolate. Lan Zhan gives him another piece, and makes temporary peace.
“Forget the spoon, I will eat it with my bare hands,” Wei Ying gasps when he sees the cake on his birthday. A-Yuan had run into him the second the front door opened and gifted Wei Ying his drawing of gege – a blob of red that Wei Ying swore to put on his fridge.
“I have big spoons,” Lan Zhan offers. Wei Ying’s reaction of utter awe and disbelief at a mere cake is intoxicating.
“No spoons, yes hands,” Wei Ying refutes, poking at the solid ganache. He clicks his tongue when his finger comes off clean.
Lan Zhan puts the lid on the box, and Wei Ying looks up at him, betrayed but very excited. “Later, after dinner.”
Wei Ying whines, and A-Yuan seconds him, just because he can. “Lan Zhan! It’s my birthday, I will have cake for dinner!”
“Cake!” A-Yuan shouts, hopping at Wei Ying’s side. Wei Ying nods furiously.
“Proper dinner, then cake,” Lan Zhan deadpans, and makes Wei Ying carry bags of food and A-Yuan to the car.
The road takes four hours and a joint nap of A-Yuan and Wei Ying, with Wei Ying curled up on the passenger seat under Lan Zhan’s blanket that now smells more of Wei Ying than Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan knows that Wei Ying asked other people to join, but everyone was too busy.
Lan Zhan also knows that no one truly is that busy, and knows that it was Yanli who made everyone else politely excuse themselves from the trip. If Lan Zhan were to ask her if it was her doing, she would be too polite to say that it wasn’t.
When Wei Ying and A-Yuan are not sleeping, they talk – more Wei Ying than A-Yuan, but A-Yuan tries his very best to repeat after Wei Ying – they sing and make Lan Zhan sing with them, which Lan Zhan doesn’t like that much but secretly enjoys how his and Wei Ying’s voices pair.
“You like it,” Wei Ying says, undeniably gauging Lan Zhan’s reaction to the cabin.
This, again, doesn’t sound like a question.
Wei Ying pats him on the thigh approvingly like he knows what Lan Zhan is thinking. Lan Zhan believes he does, most of the time.
“Three bedrooms, a huge fireplace, a gigantic kitchen, and a forest. Acceptable?” Wei Ying asks, and Lan Zhan hears how smug Wei Ying is at his own creation.
“Wei Ying’s skills are outstanding,” Lan Zhan says, “the cabin complements the environment.”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, don’t make me blush on my birthday, it’s against the law,” Wei Ying grumbles, unbuckling his seat. “Come on, it’s even better inside.”
It is, and Lan Zhan tells Wei Ying as much. The interior is in soft colours that echo the forest outside: greens, browns, rust and mustard yellow, pops of colour for flowers, maybe. Lan Zhan would happily live here, given the chance.
“The house itself it my project, Jiang Cheng and jie did the inside,” Wei Ying says, bouncing A-Yuan on his hip. “We don’t come here often, though.”
Lan Zhan frowns. The cabin is gorgeous and built for a family. “Why?”
Wei Ying shrugs. “Guess we fulfilled our dream of having a tree house and then were done with it. But you’re here now, so that’s great. The kitchen is yours to boss. Well, everything is yours if you want to, so,” Wei Ying puts a buzzing A-Yuan down to take his shoes off and let him have an exploratory run around.
Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying, who avoids his gaze at every cost – at the cost of A-Yuan’s boots, that is.
“Thank you for bringing me and A-Yuan here, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying makes an unintelligible sound, then picks up the bags of food and flees to the kitchen. Lan Zhan follows him, cake in hands, and wonders if his present for Wei Ying would be enough to express what Lan Zhan cannot put into words or actions.
They wander around the muddy forest for a while after everything has been unpacked – A-Yuan dangling off of his and Wei Ying’s hands when they pass a puddle or a particularly soaked patch of ground. Wei Ying sits A-Yuan on his shoulders, dirty boots and all when A-Yuan wants to reach out and get a ‘pretty leaf for gege,’ and by the end of their walk, they have an autumn-coloured herbarium as a second present. Wei Ying sends a photo to Yanli, which makes A-Yuan extremely proud of his leaf scavenger hunt results.
A-Yuan forgets about the cake the moment he is done with four watermelon chunks after a proper dinner, and, thoroughly worn out and happy with Wei Ying’s prolonged cuddles by the fire that Wei Ying made, he is out before eight. Wei Ying is the one who puts him to bed.
“Cake, cake, my cake, where is my present,” Wei Ying sing-songs quietly, tiptoeing into the kitchen. Lan Zhan puts his hand over the box lid, and Wei Ying slants him a surprised look.
“Your present,” Lan Zhan says, and reaches into his inner pocket, stomping out the thought that the gift is obnoxious.
Wei Ying inhales so sharply Lan Zhan expects him to feel dizzy with it, but Wei Ying stays put and doesn’t even reach out.
“I want you to have it,” Lan Zhan tells him. “Happy birthday, Wei Ying.
Wei Ying looks between Lan Zhan’s hand and his face, eyes red and glassy in mere seconds.
“Lan Zhan, it’s – it’s his baby tag,” Wei Ying breathes out, sounding vaguely choked. “Lan Zhan, I can’t. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chants, and the next second he is crushing Lan Zhan in a hug.
Lan Zhan, feeling mad with tenderness, kisses Wei Ying’s forehead.
Wei Ying lets out a muffled sob into Lan Zhan’s shoulder, then another one, and a quieter one.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, feeling molten inside from such a reaction and stroking Wei Ying’s back one-handed, the other one trapped between his chest and Wei Ying’s. “We have a cake to eat with our hands.”
Wei Ying nods into him but doesn’t let go.
Lan Zhan lets him calm down, pressed against the island by Wei Ying’s shuddering and too warm to feel dismissive about it body, and when Wei Ying emerges from his impromptu hideout, his face is puffy and with traces of Lan Zhan’s sweater lines on both cheeks. Lan Zhan immediately feels acutely desolate without the pressure.
“And you?” Wei Ying grunts, sounding very nasal. He wipes his face and Lan Zhan’s shoulder with his sleeve.
“I have made a copy,” Lan Zhan confesses and glances down at the tag in a little ziplock bag. “Yours is the original one.”
At that, Wei Ying lets out a barely human wail and hides his face in his hands, shoulders trembling from how hard he is crying.
Lan Zhan gently pries Wei Ying’s hands away from his face, and Wei Ying tries to wriggle out of his grasp, but then throws himself at Lan Zhan and cries more – quietly this time, while Lan Zhan holds him and kisses the top of his head, his pulsating temple, his brow.
Lan Zhan hopes Wei Ying will forgive him for a moment of emotional weakness.
Wei Ying eats the cake out of the box, silent and red in the face, sniffling the remnants of his tears away. Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying can’t taste anything now, but eats it anyway to avoid speaking altogether.
Lan Zhan lets him hide for however long Wei Ying needs to.
“Delicious,” Wei Ying tells him after no more than ten spoonfuls and goes to sit on the floor by the fire, clutching A-Yuan’s birth tag in his right hand. Lan Zhan turns on a documentary about America’s first serial killer and sits by Wei Ying’s side, head heavy and heart light.
Wei Ying takes his hand and laces their fingers, making Lan Zhan’s stomach twist so viciously he lets out an involuntary exhale. Wei Ying tightens his grip.
Lan Zhan watches the rest of the documentary with a remarkably vacant look, letting Wei Ying fall asleep on his shoulder, hand in hand and A-Yuan’s tag between them.
The shadows from the windows are long, and the fire is crackling. Lan Zhan falls asleep, dreaming of more tags.
“Wei Ying, it’s fine.”
“It’s not. Lan Zhan, it’s not, and stop being nice about it.”
Wei Ying is so angry Lan Zhan is scared he will combust in the middle of his kitchen.
Lan Zhan offers Wei Ying a ball of salt dough he and A-Yuan made today to do crafts from.
Wei Ying eyes it sceptically, then takes the ball and squeezes it until the already hard dough takes the form of his palms and fingers. Wei Ying rips it apart and crumbles it on the counter.
“Thanks,” Wei Ying grumbles, “I’ll clean that in a minute.”
Lan Zhan nods and cleans everything himself.
“I had plans,” Wei Ying says, much calmer now, studying A-Yuan’s dried elephant but more of an antbear figure. “I wanted to take you and A-Yuan to a resort and teach you two to ski. To make snowmen and go for a hike up the mountains.”
Lan Zhan busies himself with watering plants on the first floor, because, despite Wei Ying being upset at the situation, Lan Zhan is smiling foolishly.
“Wei Ying, we can do it after you come back.”
“I wanted to do it on your birthday.”
“I am not offended. Please, Wei Ying, do not feel pressured.”
Wei Ying slams his palm on the counter. “I’m not pressured. I just wanted to arrange a perfect birthday getaway for us, but now I have to be half a globe away, fixing stupid mistakes of asinine people instead of it.”
Lan Zhan watches A-Yuan wipe the floor with a toy mop Lan Zhan got him for his second birthday with great enthusiasm.
“You are coming back on the 26th,” Lan Zhan says. “Three days change nothing.”
They do not, Lan Zhan tells himself. He doesn't believe himself.
The flowers are sufficiently watered, so Lan Zhan goes through the pantry to check how filled the jars are. Everything is disturbingly well tended for.
Lan Zhan hears Wei Ying stand up from the barstool, the sound of its legs dragging urgent and brisk, and then –
“I’m sorry I won’t be here on your birthday, bunbun,” Wei Ying says, hugging Lan Zhan from the back. Lan Zhan clutches the jar with Wei Ying’s favourite squid ink pasta so hard it might shatter, and the subsequent cuts would be the least of Lan Zhan's problems in that case.
Wei Ying kisses his shoulder, hugs him tighter for a second too long for it to be considered just friendly and apologetic, and then retreats back to his seat, like nothing out of the ordinary has just happened.
Lan Zhan stares at the clock on the microwave – 19.50, and ponders if he has enough time to go to Wei Ying’s apartment, find his passport, and hide it alongside the collection of A-Yuan’s highly irritating books that have been piling up in Lan Zhan’s wardrobe.
“I should go,” Wei Ying says, “I need to pack and also give you my herbs for babysitting.”
Lan Zhan closes the pantry doors. “Mn.”
Lan Zhan drives him home, A-Yuan in the back, flapping a small teacup that is part of the kitchen assembly Wei Ying and Yanli gifted him for New Year. Wei Ying says nothing the whole way, but frankly, Lan Zhan doesn't know what can be said so that Wei Ying doesn’t feel upset about being away.
Wei Ying laces their fingers over the pot with mint, flashes Lan Zhan an overly confident smile, kisses A-Yuan goodbye, and runs back to his flat. Lan Zhan stays parked under the building for so long A-Yuan falls asleep, a torn basil leaf pressed between his lips.
Lan Zhan drives to the family house to stay there for the rest of the month. Lan Huan arrives two days later, looking too excited about the upcoming birthday to Lan Zhan’s petty liking.
Uncle has allocated a separate room for A-Yuan to play in, and arranged it with meticulous care: there are toys, the tunnel Wei Ying got for A-Yuan, so wide Wei Ying can crawl through it, and does; toys of various degree of eye-catchingly colourful and meaningful for a two-year-old. There is a sofa for Lan Zhan to sit and work on, watching A-Yuan at the same time.
Lan Zhan, uncle, and brother take turns watching him, and traces of A-Yuan having fun with everyone can be seen from the other end of the room. Lan Zhan finds stickers on his important papers, on uncle’s elbow and knee – peels them off without any commentary. Lan Huan’s face is painted in multiple colours that in places mix into a murky brown. Brother is beaming at his expression in the mirror and lets A-Yuan paint on his extremely important papers.
A-Yuan runs around the house, leaving his imprints on everyone and anything, two different socks he chooses each morning and Wei Ying’s scrunchy he’d stolen from Wei Ying a month ago and laughed about it while Wei Ying watched him hide it under the sofa, and asks for gege.
Lan Zhan tries to explain to him that Wei Ying is busy saving people’s lives – literally; says that gege will come back home and play in the snow with A-Yuan, climb through the tunnel and continue the puppet show they left on pause. A-Yuan goes silent and stays like that for indefinite stretches of time until something catches his attention or he grows tired and groggy and has to sleep it off.
Lan Zhan is worried about Wei Ying leaving after his workload in their city is finished. It has been a year, and then Wei Ying has to return home, where his family is. A-Yuan wants Wei Ying near all the time. Lan Zhan wants Wei Ying near all the time.
It’s almost midnight, and Lan Zhan is in the kitchen, making tea for himself. He cannot sleep, cannot work, and watching A-Yuan sleep with a cup of something warm is better than doing it without the tea.
“He has your nose,” Lan Zhan hears from the other side of the kitchen, and whirls around to find uncle standing at the threshold, looking tired but not ill-intending. Lan Zhan says nothing, his palm burning around the cup that has become Lan Zhan’s momentary tether.
Uncle rubs at his winter-dry knuckles and steps further into the kitchen. “You underestimate how much your son looks like you when you were little.”
Lan Zhan looks away, because shame washes over him in waves of nausea. Lan Zhan has lied to uncle before, but lying about his own son is a betrayal and the biggest manifestation of distrust.
Uncle makes himself tea, too. Lan Zhan cannot feel his palm anymore, and he will have to nurse the burn for the rest of the week.
“Shufu,” Lan Zhan calls, but nothing else comes out. His act of lying is unforgivable, and Lan Zhan braces himself for a late drive home.
“I hope you will not resort to more drastic measures when you decide to have more children to hide them from me,” Lan Qiren says, adding room temperature milk to his tea. Lan Zhan wants to wince, but Wei Ying loves oysters. Lan Zhan can withstand a tea. “Biological or not.”
Lan Zhan exhales silently, and turns to his uncle. “Forgive me,” he says, or rather chokes out.
Uncle turns to him, too, expression unreadable. “A-Huan.”
Lan Zhan bows his head, more shame flooding every cell of his body.
Uncle hums, then comes up to Lan Zhan and puts a hand on his shoulder. Lan Zhan tenses up under the touch, feeling just as small as A-Yuan is, or even smaller – like his rabbits.
“You are a good father, A-Zhan,” uncle says, and if Lan Zhan didn’t know better, he would say that uncle sounds fond. “A-Yuan is a happy and smart boy. I am happy to have such a bright grandnephew.”
Lan Zhan’s heart feels too big for his body, and he wants to do what Wei Ying does in this case – throw himself at the reason of his physical discomfort caused by excessive emotions and hide, hide, hide.
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says, and he sounds like he feels – guilty, relieved, forever grateful.
Uncle pats him on the shoulder and leaves him in the kitchen. Lan Zhan pours out his tea into the sink and goes to his room to find a bandage for his blisteringly red palm.
On the morning of his birthday, brother brings A-Yuan to his room and then bed, and A-Yuan, intoxicatingly warm and sleepy, wraps his hands around Lan Zhan’s neck and murmurs, “birdsay,” and then promptly falls back asleep on Lan Zhan’s chest. Brother chuckles and goes to make breakfast for the three of them, and brings it to the bed.
Lan Zhan checks his phone, finds a message from Zixuan that says, “you’re so hard to buy for, for fuck’s sake. enjoy your present. kiss the monkey for me.” and an extensive message from Yanli, apologies for Zixuan’s language written at the very beginning. Lan Zhan doesn’t mind it – he is hard to buy for, after all.
Wei Ying hasn’t replied to any of the texts Lan Zhan has sent him since he left, and Lan Zhan wills his heart not to worry. He doesn’t succeed, and counts the days. With how bad the situation is at the building site Wei Ying is at at the moment (Lan Zhan knows it’s night there; he also knows Wei Ying is still there), Lan Zhan doesn’t expect him to return until the beginning of next months, at best.
“A delivery for you,” brother says, looking at his phone. “Something massive.”
Lan Zhan lets A-Yuan finish biting off a piece of a chocolate croissant. “Zixuan,” he says, like an explanation and an apology.
Lan Huan turns to him, cocking one eyebrow. “He sends you flowers on your birthdays?”
Lan Zhan narrowly avoids spilling tea over himself at that.
“Go,” brother grins, tugging A-Yuan and the breakfast tray into his own lap. “I think you’ll like it.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t run downstairs, because running is forbidden. Lan Zhan is still in his pajama set, which is also forbidden. He, as Wei Ying says often, doesn’t give a fuck.
There are bouquets of flowers downstairs, all tulips with snow still on them, looking like they were cut minutes ago. Red, baby pink, red and white, red and yellow, violet and orange. And a cake.
Lan Zhan takes several bouquets from the servants, who look professionally unbothered, and his front gets soaked with melted snow in moments. Lan Zhan’s heart is beating so loud he hopes Wei Ying can hear it.
“Well?” brother says from behind. He sounds smug, like he knew about it. “How many?”
Lan Zhan takes all the flowers and kneels to count them, when A-Yuan runs up to him, barefoot, and tries to sniff the tulips. They don’t smell like flowers in Lan Zhan’s garden in late spring and summer, so A-Yuan looks bewildered.
Lan Zhan shoots his brother a look of despair – Lan Huan kneels beside the boy and explains to him about the flowers while Lan Zhan counts.
“Fifty-two,” Lan Zhan mouth, fingers trembling. “Wei Ying.”
Lan Zhan stands up so abruptly he trips over the carpet and almost falls, but steadies himself before he can faceplant into the cake.
He takes the lid off and makes a sound, probably.
Lan Zhan cannot breathe. He drops the lid and looks around, in case Wei Ying will jump out and laugh at him, call it a joke and then run away, or hide behind Lan Zhan’s back, because that’s what he does.
Lan Huan picks up a single purple and orange tulip for A-Yuan to inspect and looks at Lan Zhan.
“How many?” He repeats.
“Fifty-two,” Lan Zhan says, voice hoarse. “Zero.”
Lan Huan smiles at him exactly like he does when Lan Zhan succeeds at something terrifying like basic arithmetic.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, eyes burning.
There is no note to anything. Lan Zhan abandons brother and A-Yuan, sprinting to his room, and grabs his phone to call Wei Ying, but Wei Ying’s phone is turned off. Lan Zhan curses and throws his on the bed, sinking to the floor.
Lan Zhan has to feel good, happy, breathless from the confession and his feelings being reciprocated, but Lan Zhan is crying into his palms, because Wei Ying is not here but half a globe away. Lan Zhan wants to touch him so much he wants to scream his constricting throat raw.
Brother comes after him and says nothing, and at least A-Yuan is not with him so see Lan Zhan like that.
“I love him,” Lan Zhan breathes out wetly. “I love Wei Ying.”
Lan Huan strokes his back rhythmically, and Lan Zhan once again feels like a jittery rabbit. Wei Ying loves him and couldn’t say it to Lan Zhan in person.
Lan Zhan spends the rest of the day trying to reach him, but to no avail. A-Yuan looks worried and keeps bringing him toys and flowers and his allocated daily chocolates, which makes Lan Zhan feel even worse.
“I’m sorry, little one,” Lan Zhan says, hugging A-Yuan tightly and kissing his forehead. “Baba is sad today. Baba needs gege, too.”
They watch The Treasure Planet until A-Yuan asks Lan Zhan if he can have the flying jelly as a pet and then falls asleep. Lan Zhan starts crying again, looking at Jim Hawkins.
Wei Ying doesn’t call.
Lan Zhan doesn’t want to look at anyone else’s presents, and chooses to spend the rest of the day immersed in work. He doesn’t attend dinner, and no one questions him about it, but brother brings the tray in the playroom anyway. There’s no dessert on it.
In the evening, Lan Zhan tries to call again, and again, until he grows so sick of hearing ‘the number you have dialled is not available now, please try to call later’ that he turns his phone off from sheer rage and despair.
Lan Zhan hides completely under the duvet, hands icy-cold from how long he has been clutching his phone. He knows brother puts A-Yuan to bed at some point, because Lan Zhan can hear him singing to A-Yuan. He doesn’t undress, only makes a little exit for himself to breathe.
Lan Zhan wakes up in increments. There is a hand in his hair, carding through it, comforting but insistent enough for him to feel it through his slumber. The hand feels too big to be A-Yuan’s and too small to be brother’s. Why would brother be in his bed, anyway.
There is something solid pressed against his side, and when Lan Zhan makes a sound of ‘what are you, you’re not A-Yuan,’ there’s a huffed out laugh.
“Wakey-wakey, birthday baby.”
Lan Zhan jolts awake like he’s been plunged into a tub of ice water, head spinning.
“Shh, it’s me, don’t scream,” Wei Ying whispers, tugging Lan Zhan back into bed. Lan Zhan can’t see him, it’s pitch black in his room, and he nearly knocks the bedside lamp over trying to turn it on.
They both wince at the bright light.
Wei Ying groans, “Did you have to? I’m literally blind now, I won’t see you or Yuan-er anymore, Lan Zhan, turn it off.”
Lan Zhan does, blinking into the full darkness again.
Wei Ying is here. Wei Ying, Wei Ying. In his family home, in his bed.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers, reaching out and cupping Wei Ying’s chin. Wei Ying catches his wrist and kisses it, lips dry and hot.
“Happy birthday, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quietly. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Lan Zhan pushes the duvet down with his legs and pulls Wei Ying closer, until Wei Ying is sprawled on top of him, his coat wet and cold.
“I wanted to do that,” Wei Ying says into Lan Zhan’s throat, wiggling his hands under Lan Zhan’s waist. “And I will, but let me say something first.”
Lan Zhan’s heart is going to give out if he doesn’t kiss Wei Ying at the next inhale.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan rasps, holding Wei Ying so tight he must be hurting him.
“I threatened everyone at the construction site, you know. I can no longer set my foot there. But they deserved it.”
Lan Zhan flexes his numb fingers on Wei Ying’s waist.
“And I didn’t look at my phone the whole time because I didn’t want to waste any time on anything but pushing these fuckers to work faster and let me go sooner, for one, and because I was scared.”
Wei Ying rubs mindless circles on both sides of Lan Zhan’s waist. Lan Zhan thinks he might be burning from inside out.
“Did you like the cake?” Wei Ying asks, sounding very small.
“I didn’t try it,” Lan Zhan admits.
Wei Ying raises his head, but Lan Zhan can’t see his expression. “Why?”
“Was angry. Did not eat dinner.”
Wei Ying pushes himself up on his elbows on Lan Zhan’s chest. “Angry?”
“I wanted to talk to you, to hear you,” Lan Zhan says. “You weren’t here to hear me, either.”
Wei Ying falls back down, hiding his face in Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “’m sorry. I was on the planes and then in the car, and my phone was dead. I had to throw a snowball at your brother’s window to let him know I arrived. He let me in.”
“You know where my brother’s window is.”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
Wei Ying barks a laugh, and mumbles ‘sorry-sorry-sorry’ when Lan Zhan shushes him quietly.
“I love you,” Lan Zhan says without preamble. “I love you, Wei Ying. I have for many months.”
Wei Ying shivers in his arms, snuggling impossibly closer. Lan Zhan can’t draw a full breath because of his weight on him, but breathing, as Wei Ying points out at the most necessary things at times, feels overrated right now.
“I think I loved you before I met you,” Wei Ying says after several minutes, but Lan Zhan doesn’t wait for his answer with bated breath. He knows it anyway. “But I didn’t know until I saw you and the little one. I must’ve annoyed you into loving me, eh, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head against the crown of Wei Ying’s. “Not annoying.”
“I am, though. I have more of my stuff in your house than in my flat.”
“And I’ve charmed your son, your garden, and your brother into loving me, as well.”
“Wei Ying is irresistible.”
Wei Ying headbutts him into the chin slightly. “Shut up.”
“Lan Zhan, I’ve been on the road for a full day now, spare me.”
“Wei Ying, kiss me.”
Wei Ying surges up so quickly Lan Zhan has no chance to take a proper breath before Wei Ying cups his face and kisses him.
Wei Ying’s lips are too dry for the glide to be ever remotely smooth, but none of it matters at the sound Wei Ying makes when Lan Zhan bites him and rolls him over, pinning Wei Ying to the bed.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out, before Lan Zhan ducks down and licks into Wei Ying’s open mouth without inhibition.
Wei Ying can’t keep up with him, trying to kiss back, pawing at Lan Zhan’s back and neck. Lan Zhan swipes his tongue over Wei Ying’s soft palate and teeth, angling his face to have better access.
Wei Ying’s whimpers helplessly when Lan Zhan buries his hands in Wei Ying’s hair and guides his head, while Lan Zhan sucks at his tongue and then bites down hard at Wei Ying’s lips.
“Mine,” Lan Zhan rasps out, and licks another little sound out of Wei Ying’s sweet mouth.
Wei Ying pats his shoulder when there’s no air left in his lungs, and Lan Zhan is tempted to push him until Wei Ying goes limp and breathless from kissing, until Lan Zhan has his fill of feeling Wei Ying’s lips against his, bitten to cuts and visible sores.
“Beast,” Wei Ying croaks when Lan Zhan withdraws, breathing so hard Lan Zhan thinks they might wake up A-Yuan. “Did you want me to pass out?”
Wei Ying slaps his arm.
“Next time,” Lan Zhan promises, and bites Wei Ying’s lips for the last time. “Sleep now.”
Wei Ying is heaving. “I am the big spoon and I take no objections, not even on your birthday. I’ve been dreaming about holding you in my arms while you sleep since day one.”
“Come here, Lan Zhan, let go of my coat.”
Lan Zhan stops trying to take off Wei Ying’s coat while Wei Ying is on his back. His mouth is aflame. He wants to hide and hibernate on Wei Ying’s chest until next century.
“Good boy,” Wei Ying murmurs when Lan Zhan tucks his face into Wei Ying’s warm neck. “Better?”
Lan Zhan feels the frantic beat of Wei Ying’s heart with his nose. “Mm.”
Wei Ying strokes his back in shallow circles. Lan Zhan feels like a spoiled house cat. He doesn’t mind it.
“My big bunbun. I scared you today. I’m sorry.”
Lan Zhan can’t hold his eyes open. He hums, meaning to say, “no need,” which Wei Ying interprets perfectly well.
“Still. I’m free until the end of the month. We can stay wherever you want.”
“Home,” Lan Zhan murmurs.
“Where Wei Ying is.”
Wei Ying huffs out the quietest laugh Lan Zhan has ever heard from him. “I’m here.”
Lan Zhan is fraying at the corners of his consciousness, tongue too heavy in his mouth. “Here, then.”
“Here, then,” Wei Ying repeats, tugging the duvet back up to cover them both.
Lan Zhan kisses Wei Ying’s neck, he thinks. He thinks Wei Ying will overheat and that Lan Zhan is too heavy on top of him. Wei Ying is slowly stroking his head, saying something Lan Zhan doesn’t understand.
Wei Ying is home, and Lan Zhan sleeps.
Lan Zhan wakes up to an unobtrusive light from the window – the snow hides a third of it, softening the morning glow and making the room feel much smaller than it is without a full view into the garden. Partially locked. Absolutely safe.
He is alone and too hot, wrapped in the duvet like a burrito. He has a second to feel panicked that everything from last night was his sick imagination until he spots Wei Ying’s suitcase in the corner of the room. Lan Zhan’s stomach dips, then unravels into a hot pool of relief.
He throws the cover off and sees Wei Ying’s coat on an armchair on the other side of the room. Lan Zhan thinks Wei Ying made sure he would see his possessions first thing to reassure him that it was not a dream. Lan Zhan could cry just from this thoughtfulness alone.
Lan Zhan is in his day clothes, rumpled to such a degree he thinks he won’t be able to iron them out. Lan Zhan is ready to sacrifice every piece of his clothing if it means he gets to destroy them by lying in bed with Wei Ying.
The time is inexcusably late – half eight in the morning. Lan Zhan had missed putting A-Yuan to bed and getting him up in the morning, and the euphoria of feeling Wei Ying in his arms dissipates, replaced by a bout of guilt. Lan Zhan’s selfish behaviour is inexcusable, too.
Lan Zhan gathers fresh clothes to carry into the bathroom and stand presentable in front of his family when there is a very quiet knock on the door.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers, hot in the ears and heart rate tethering on frantic, and hurries to open the door.
“Morning,” Lan Huan beams at him. Lan Zhan looks extremely unpresentable, but brother pays it no mind. “I wasn’t sure if you were awake yet. Your boyfriend is downstairs with A-Yuan, he got him in the morning before I or shufu could.”
Lan Zhan ducks his head, biting his sensitive lips. Boyfriend. Lan Zhan was so out of it he didn’t get to see A-Yuan’s reaction to Wei Ying’s return.
“Do you want to have breakfast here?”
“How much did you know?” Lan Zhan asks.
Lan Huan leans on the doorframe. “Not much. He asked me for our address before he left, not knowing if he’d find you here or at home. I believe he first went to your house and then came here.”
Lan Zhan grips the hems of his wrinkled shirt. “I see.”
“He’s very sorry that he didn’t tell you he was coming,” brother adds cheerfully, “go easy on him.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says, because he won’t. He will prove to Wei Ying that he is not angry with him and does not require more apologies than what Wei Ying has already expressed.
Lan Huan laughs. “I’ll go tell them you’re up. A-Yuan missed you.”
More shame and guilt. Lan Zhan nods, and leaves his door open.
Lan Zhan is on his way to the bathroom, carrying a change of fresh clothes that don’t wrinkle, when he sees Wei Ying striding down the corridor, holding A-Yuan and flicking his nose, making the boy giggle. Lan Zhan stops in his tracks, the sight familiar and strikingly not all at once.
Wei Ying is dressed in his all-black loungewear that looks so Wei Ying and so not this house Lan Zhan needs to shut his eyes for a moment to sear the picture into the most protected and coincidentally revisited parts of his memory. Wei Ying is in his family home, childhood home, soft and carrying Lan Zhan’s laughing son. It is as bizarre and astonishing as it is entrancing.
A-Yuan sees him first, yells, “baba!” forcefully wriggles out of Wei Ying’s hold in second, and then sprints across the hallway into Lan Zhan’s arm.
Lan Zhan scoops him up and peppers his face will apologetic kisses, A-Yuan hugging him around the neck, careful of Lan Zhan’s loose hair, and pressing his whole body to Lan Zhan.
“Hello, little bunny,” Lan Zhan murmurs, stroking A-Yuan’s back, little arms, feather-soft curls. Wei Ying dressed him, or encouraged A-Yuan’s severely not matching top and bottom of choice, different socks and a red scrunchy wrapped twice around his wrist to complete the picture. “I love you very much, and I am deeply sorry about yesterday.”
A-Yuan sighs into his neck, the most comforting sound and weight Lan Zhan has ever felt on himself. Apart from Wei Ying, now.
Lan Zhan lifts his gaze. Wei Ying is three steps away, hands clasped behind his back. He smiles at them, and Lan Zhan gets a horrible feeling that Wei Ying feels like an outsider in this scene.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls. “Come here.”
“Nah,” Wei Ying says, tilting his head. “It’s father and child bonding time.”
“Exactly. Come here.”
Wei Ying’s grin of deliberate self-deprivation disappears. His lips part in the immediate realisation, and then his arms are wrapped around Lan Zhan and A-Yuan, face pressed to Lan Zhan’s hand on A-Yuan’s back.
“You can’t do that,” Lan Zhan hears Wei Ying groan, lips soft and moving against the back of his hand. “No. No. And no.”
Lan Zhan smiles to himself. Yes.
The breakfast is served in the playroom, where Wei Ying is sprawled on the floor and A-Yuan is running around him, putting stickers on Wei Ying’s arm that had just suffered an injection from the kids medical kit. Lan Zhan gets about five percent of the work done before Wei Ying is tugging him from the sofa to go outside.
The snow is too dry for a proper play, but it does not hinder Wei Ying’s intention to make a mess of A-Yuan, who shrieks, yells, and laughs in delight when Wei Ying drags him across the garden through the snow by the foot.
Lan Zhan stands at the back door in his slippers, watching them make snow angels and throw heaps of snow at each other. A-Yuan’s heaps are so small they fall apart barely a few centimetres away from his palm.
“Come on, you, get dressed and roll in the snow,” Wei Ying says, dusting a small snowhill off of A-Yuan’s head. “You like the dirt, and snow’s clean.”
“I have work to do,” Lan Zhan says. He knows he sounds lame, but watching these two is much better than participating.
“No, you don’t,” Wei Ying says, approaching him along a newly made moat in the snow – courtesy of A-Yuan’s body. “Apologies, love.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t yelp when Wei Ying picks him up and throws him into the nearest snowdrift. The dry cold swallows Lan Zhan whole, and he sinks into it, the impact barely audible.
Lan Zhan doesn’t move, too stunned. He wants to laugh so much his lungs burn, but he can’t open his mouth because snow will get into it. There’s snow under Lan Zhan’s rucked sweater, on his face and under his hands. It feels like the softest and coldest blanket he has felt.
The quiet lasts for three seconds, at best: A-Yuan screeches from mixed horror and joy, and then Wei Ying is digging him out, grinning from ear to ear. “Sorry, I had to,” Wei Ying cackles, brushing snow from Lan Zhan’s face.
Liberated, Lan Zhan laughs, because he can’t not. It startles Wei Ying so much he stops his pawing motions.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes out, and Lan Zhan laughs again, carefree and sparkling in his soul, tugging Wei Ying down and rolling him over with great difficulty.
Wei Ying is soaking wet against him, pupils blown wide. Lan Zhan kisses his cold, red nose.
“Apologies. I had to.”
Wei Ying lurches forward and kisses him, hard and needy. He rucks Lan Zhan’s sweater up even higher, his gloves icy cold on Lan Zhan’s heated skin.
A-Yuan shrieks again, almost in tears, Lan Zhan can hear, because he wants to get to them, but he must be stuck.
“I love you so much,” Wei Ying murmurs against his lips and kisses him two more times before A-Yuan starts bawling from being abandoned. “So much.”
“I lost my slippers,” Lan Zhan says when they are back inside, all three huddled up on the sofa by the fire, drinking hot chocolate.
“I’ll find them in the spring,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan smiles into the half-melted whipped cream in his mug.
Wei Ying is fussing over his suitcase after dinner.
“Don’t yell at me,” he says, his back to Lan Zhan, “but I can’t sleep.”
Lan Zhan puts down the book he has been reading to A-Yuan. A-Yuan looks up, not understanding what’s wrong. They’ve progressed to castles and dragons and knights. No one has been eaten so far.
“I,” Wei Ying croaks, not turning around. There are clothes on the floor. “Can’t sleep here. Can I sleep in your car?”
Lan Zhan gives the matter ten seconds of consideration.
“We will set off home in twenty minutes.”
Wei Ying whirls around, scowling.
“Lan Zhan!” he hisses. “No! I’ll just – no! It’s late and Yuan-er is dozing off already, look at him. I’ll be fine, I just–”
Lan Zhan is already on his feet and heading for the door. “I will inform brother and uncle that we will be leaving.”
Wei Ying catches his ankle. Lan Zhan looks down.
“No. In the morning, when both of you have slept.”
“No. Now, and all three of us will sleep.”
Wei Ying makes a tiny sound at the back of his throat, looking extremely uncomfortable and apologetic.
“Wei Ying, we are going home. Please collect A-Yuan’s toys from the playroom.”
Wei Ying lets go of his leg and nods, lips tight.
Lan Huan told him that Wei Ying had spoken to uncle while Lan Zhan was asleep. Lan Zhan doesn’t even need to bet that no one will ever tell him what the talk was about.
Uncle and brother bid then farewell without a single question, but brother insists they take food, thermoses, and him, too, in case the car gets stuck. Wei Ying laughs at that, clearly tired if he thinks it was a joke.
Lan Zhan knows he is not in the best condition to drive, either, but Wei Ying has been awake for at least two days by now, not considering the time zones. If they get home by morning, at least Wei Ying will have rested in the car.
Both Wei Ying and A-Yuan are asleep as soon as Lan Zhan has passed the gate. A-Yuan is bundled up and will sleep through an apocalypse, wrapped tightly and in the car. Wei Ying – maybe. Lan Zhan dials the heat up, touches Wei Ying’s hand through the blanket, and drives.
The road is empty but barely cleared of snow, and the journey takes twice as long. By the time Lan Zhan parks on his own driveway, it’s almost five in the morning and his eyes are burning.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers, caressing Wei Ying’s warm cheek. “Wei Ying, we are home.”
Wei Ying doesn’t wake up until Lan Zhan takes the blanket off him and rubs his arm and thigh. Wei Ying yawns a couple of times, blinking blearily at him.
Wei Ying throws his head back. “Shit. I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Get A-Yuan out and into my bedroom, undress him. The left switch on the wall is for the dim light. I will get the bunnies and your plants out of the car.”
Wei Ying nods, then nods again, processing what Lan Zhan has just told him, and whistles quietly when he sees how much snow they will have to brave.
The outside is excruciatingly cold after the warm shelter of the car, plus Lan Zhan has to fight his way through the snowed-in driveway and front door to let Wei Ying in. His teeth are clattering by the time he managed to open the door.
The house is no better than the outside, and Lan Zhan rushes to turn the heating on first thing, shoes on. From the sudden drop of temperature, he is trembling badly.
Wei Ying steps into Lan Zhan’s boot indents to move faster, carrying A-Yuan into the cold house and up the stairs, and thankfully, doesn’t come down while Lan Zhan shuttles between the car and the kitchen, bringing the rest of their belongings and Wei Ying’s herbs in. Lan Zhan has never thought they were excessive. He is quick to change his mind and ask Wei Ying to grow rubber plants instead.
Lan Zhan is sweaty, out of breath, and his legs are aching from power-walking through the snow by the time he gets to his bedroom, bunny hutch in hands. Wei Ying is in the middle of his bed with A-Yuan on top of him. Lan Zhan hopes Wei Ying has borrowed something from his wardrobe.
Wei Ying waves weakly at him, still awake. Lan Zhan will go through the image of Wei Ying being in his bed for the first time another day, maybe month.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers. “I got your clothes on, is that alright?”
Anything, Lan Zhan doesn’t say.
Lan Zhan puts down the hutch and, too exhausted to think about it, takes his clothes off, and changes into his warmest loungewear. He will order the same for Wei Ying tomorrow.
“Come here,” Wei Ying whispers as soon as Lan Zhan switches the light off.
It’s much warmer under the covers than Lan Zhan expected it to be, thanks to Wei Ying being a human radiator.
Wei Ying gently slides A-Yuan down between them and turns to Lan Zhan, who is only dimly aware that Wei Ying has chosen the side that Lan Zhan doesn’t sleep on.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying whispers, and reaches out to cup Lan Zhan’s face. “I’m sorry I’m such a bother.”
Lan Zhan kisses his palm and tugs the duvet up to his chin.
A-Yuan rolls over, tucking himself into Wei Ying’s side. Lan Zhan presses Wei Ying’s hand to A-Yuan’s back, which makes the boy sigh contentedly.
“Nothing you do is a bother,” Lan Zhan whispers. “Sleep.”
Wei Ying finds his hand under the covers and laces their fingers.
Lan Zhan hopes they will hibernate until spring like that. He needs his slippers back.
“Lan Zhan, can I – ”
Wei Ying stops gathering his blueprints. “You don’t even know what I was gonna say.”
“Wei Ying, yes.”
Lan Zhan twists Wei Ying’s socks into neat balls. Most of them don’t have respective pairs, so Wei Ying told him to fold them how Lan Zhan saw fit. Lan Zhan folded them according to colour; Wei Ying wheeze laughed when Lan Zhan paired an R2D2 sock with a Dalek one. Lan Zhan knows what neither of those things are, but it made Wei Ying laugh. Lan Zhan is very proud of himself.
“Stop, or I’ll get ideas,” Wei Ying murmurs, switching to his mechanical pencils.
Lan Zhan says nothing, collecting the sock balls into a box with other clothes, indulging in a sixth sense type of an assurance that Wei Ying’s ideas would be far more ingenious than his own.
Wei Ying’s apartment is small and bears almost no signs of a person living here, save for a huge drafting desk with a load of papers on it and an unmade bed. The fridge is empty, although Wei Ying swears he had food but ate everything before the trip. Lan Zhan frowns at him, disbelieving, and Wei Ying goes to pack an army of his mismatched cups and mugs that Lan Zhan finds agonisingly adorable. Some of them Wei Ying made himself. Lan Zhan hopes he will get one in time, too.
“I’ll take a lot of space with all my stuff, you know,” Wei Ying says. “Last chance to change your mind and back down on this whole living together with an architect thingy. I honestly won’t mind, Lan Zhan, I know I’m a lot and I have a lot of things, and I, um.”
He moves, Lan Zhan hears, somewhere within arm’s reach, but Lan Zhan doesn’t get the chance to turn around and reassure him because Wei Ying wedges himself between Lan Zhan and the chest of drawers and loops his hands around Lan Zhan’s middle and shoulders.
Wei Ying shudders when Lan Zhan takes a step back to make more room for Wei Ying, and holds him tight.
“Too much love to accept?” Lan Zhan says into his messily tied hair. It smells of Lan Zhan’s shampoo and Wei Ying’s tobacco perfume. Lan Zhan wants to inhale him whole.
Wei Ying nods, small and honest. For all his garrulity, he is rarely able – or wants, Lan Zhan already knows – to articulate his feelings, so Lan Zhan holds him and will continue to until Wei Ying accepts that Lan Zhan accepts him whole, too. With cups and socks and blueprints.
With anything Wei Ying is willing to bring into Lan Zhan’s life.
“Why are you so good,” Wei Ying sighs, hands roaming over Lan Zhan’s figure. “What am I to do with you, bunbun?”
Lan Zhan could name many things Wei Ying could do to him. He settles on, “Be with me.”
Wei Ying jerks in his embrace, startled with violent honesty Lan Zhan will never cease to like to shower Wei Ying with.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, still muffled by the creases of Lan Zhan’s sweater. “I can do that.”
Lan Zhan needs nothing more.
“I came up with names for the bunnies,” Wei Ying announces, fiddling with the International Space Station LEGO set Lan Zhan got for him. “Toothless and Bounty.”
Lan Zhan is petting the one who is supposed to be Bounty. “Bounty is white only on the inside.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying cackles, so when Toothless is on him – ”
Lan Zhan misses the rest of the sentence because he flushes up to the tips of his ears and down his neck, heart racing treacherously in his throat.
“Shameless,” Lan Zhan utters under his breath, but Wei Ying hears him anyway and throws a solar panel at him, giggling like a caught schoolboy.
Lan Zhan loves him.
Wei Ying moves into his – their, now – home seamlessly, save for a few scratches on the stairs from carrying the drawing desk that Wei Ying swears can be fixed with a rubbed in walnut. Lan Zhan doesn’t mind the scratches, but Wei Ying’s nick to various repairing techniques truly baffles him.
A-Yuan is so excited about this he won’t come off Wei Ying’s lap, asking him if Wei Ying will stay with them forever.
“Do you know what ‘forever’ means, Yuanyuan?” Wei Ying asks in lieu of the answer neither of the adults dare think of yet.
A-Yuan nods solemnly. “When everyone else dies.”
Wei Ying laughs at that, sharp from bewilderment. Lan Zhan wonders which book or cartoon he needs to inspect. A-Yuan is two.
“Well,” Wei Ying begins, and kisses A-Yuan on the cheek several times. A-Yuan makes a ‘yikes’ sound and leans in for more. “No one is dying anytime soon.”
Lan Zhan texts his brother and asks for books and movies they watched when he babysat A-Yuan last week.
Lan Zhan drives Wei Ying to work and picks him up, which sends Wei Ying into long rambles about how Lan Zhan doesn’t have to do it, and Wei Ying can walk or, in the worst case, call a didi. Lan Zhan keeps driving him around, and Wei Ying keeps kissing him for that.
It is late March when Lan Zhan hears Wei Ying’s inhuman scream on the second floor. He shoves the laptop off his lap and flies up the stairs and into their bedroom, where Wei Ying, Lan Zhan knows, was supposed to be napping. A thousand scenarios go through his mind until he reaches the room.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, flinging the door open.
Wei Ying is on his knees on the bed, looking unharmed and staring at his phone. Lan Zhan rushes to him anyway, giving him a painfully quick once-over, before taking Wei Ying’s free hand in both his.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls again, sick in his stomach. “What is it?”
Wei Ying looks up at him, eyes so big Lan Zhan is scared to ask what he must have read.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers, and then he bursts into tears, flinging himself at Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan holds him close through it, mentally arranging A-Yuan’s babysitting and plane tickets to fly to Wei Ying’s family city, because this is the only thing that could upset him so much.
Lan Zhan risks peeking at the screen of Wei Ying’s phone, and there –
Lan Zhan takes a sharp breath. He knows these pictures. He has the same in his box of A-Yuan’s things.
It’s a scan. A baby scan.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls tentatively, stroking up and down Wei Ying’s back.
Wei Ying withdraws, breathing hard. His eyes and nose are red. “I’m gonna be an uncle, Lan Zhan,” he whispers, and then drops his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder once again, sobbing loudly.
Lan Zhan exhales slowly, panic receding and picking up again. He hears A-Yuan’s terrified wailing downstairs. But the only thing Lan Zhan can think of is his seething regret that Wei Ying telling him, “We’re gonna be fathers, Lan Zhan” didn’t happen sooner.
“You look ghastly,” Lan Zhan says right off the bat.
“Fuck you very much, too” Zixuan grins at him, patting Lan Zhan on the shoulder and all but skipping further into the house.
Lan Zhan closes the front door and goes to the kitchen to make lunch for both of them.
Zixuan disappears somewhere inside the house and emerges several minutes later, sparing no attention to Wei Ying’s stuff in every corner. “Where’s the monkey? I need him.”
Lan Zhan’s brows fly upwards. “Why?”
The expression on Zixuan’s face is a mix of genuine excitement and horrifying determination that Lan Zhan saw on him once when Zixuan said he would be moving into a condo that was built by the rivalling company because they do them better than his father’s, for one, and because Zixuan wanted to experience life in its true form. Lan Zhan had suggested he live in one of his family company’s manufactured houses. Zixuan did for half a year, not once complaining, and later warred for discontinuing the very thing with his father for months, eventually succeeding.
Lan Zhan is so proud of him.
“I gotta learn to swaddle.”
Lan Zhan narrowly misses cutting himself with a chef’s knife, maiming a red bell pepper instead. Lan Zhan despises bell peppers, but one has just saved his finger.
Zixuan leans on the island and takes a single lychee out of the fruit bowl.
“You never touch him,” Lan Zhan points out.
Zixuan studies the spiky fruit with vivid disinterest. “This or the babe?”
“We all change, mm?” Zixuan sniggers. “I want to impress A-Li with my profound knowledge of babies and what to do with them. So you will help me, like, now.”
Lan Zhan would say that people grow up, or don’t, rather than change, but that is of no matter to Zixuan.
“A-Yuan is with Wei Ying at soft play. They will not be returning for another two hours.”
Zixuan peels the lychee and sniffs it. “Then we’ll do it the old way. I’m the og girl here, so I already know what to do, I just need a body.”
“You have a fiancée.”
“And you think I’d roll my pregnant A-Li around and let her lie on the floor?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says honestly. He meant that Yanli could roll him around.
Lan Zhan is almost done with lunch. At 33, Zixuan still eats like a growing, lanky teenager. “But I thought she would be happy to teach you.”
“She is. But, like I said, I want to impress her. So get your blankets and lie down. My train is in ninety – no, seventy-eight – minutes. I promised her I’d be back for dinner.”
Zixuan pops the lychee in his mouth, makes a pleased sound, and then scowls.
Lan Zhan puts the bowls into the fridge and goes to fetch blankets and pins.
Wei Ying and A-Yuan are squatting near the bed of primroses along the driveway when Lan Zhan notices them in the kitchen window. Wei Ying’s hand is on A-Yuan’s back, gentle and guiding, while A-Yuan is sniffing the flowers, eyes closed and inhales deep, concentrated.
Lan Zhan smiles at the tray with oat and raisin cookies, some of which he will dip in dark chocolate for Wei Ying, milk chocolate for A-Yuan, with Lan Zhan snatching cookies from both piles for himself.
Wei Ying is telling A-Yuan about the significance of bees when they step into the house, Wei Ying carrying a bag of fertilisers for the gentians and A-Yuan carrying an empty stick from spun sugar. Wei Ying stops mere steps past the threshold, drawing a long breath.
“I smell the Jin moronness,” Wei Ying says, voice metallic. “I thought I smelled his orchid on the driveway, but primroses covered him. Here– ”
“Pity you do not smell the cookies,” Lan Zhan cuts him a look, nodding to an exhausted A-Yuan, who is still on his feet only because Wei Ying is holding his hand.
Wei Ying puts down the bag, eyes zeroed in on Lan Zhan. “Did you purposefully send us off to avoid a bloodbath?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, grabbing A-Yuan’s hand and walking him upstairs. “Wei Ying, lunch is in the fridge.”
A-Yuan half-slurs his impressions from soft play, how he made two friends there, how he only wants to only eat spun sugar from now on, while Lan Zhan strokes his overgrown curls and already sun-kissed, chubby arms.
“Sleep, little bunny,” Lan Zhan whispers, kissing A-Yuan’s forehead. A-Yuan’s hand twitches – he is already sleeping, but even like that, he wants to touch Lan Zhan back, which makes his heart swell from infinite tenderness and love.
Downstairs, Wei Ying is washing his plate and glass from lunch, tellingly quiet. Lan Zhan could sense his guilt from another end of the city. He nuzzles into the crook of Wei Ying’s neck, hugging him from behind. Wei Ying smells of plastic balls from the soft play, which he must have jumped into a pool of together with A-Yuan, and spun sugar – so sweet Lan Zhan wants to lick the scent off him.
“Wei Ying,” he calls softly, and Wei Ying stops scrubbing his long-clean plate. He turns the water off.
“Sorry, Lan Zhan, I’m acting territorial,” Wei Ying draws out on the exhale. Lan Zhan sees him grip the edge of the sink.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan murmurs into his skin, making Wei Ying shiver the tiniest bit. “He is my friend.”
Wei Ying barks out a cruel laugh. “You need better friends.”
“You are my friend, above all.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.”
Lan Zhan turns him around harshly, caging Wei Ying against the sink, and kisses him once, unrelenting and punishing.
“No,” Lan Zhan bites out into his lips, Wei Ying sagging a little against him. “I am sure of my choices. I need no one else.”
Wei Ying spends the afternoon, gloomy from impending rain and promising the first thunderstorm of the year, in the garden, working on the gentians with A-Yuan.
Lan Zhan watches them from the open patio door, ozone and faraway petrichor filling his thrumming heart with comforting melancholy. Lan Zhan drinks his tea, thinking that he needs to teach Wei Ying swaddling, too.
Heat is getting to all of them, including the garden and the bunnies. It’s past one in the morning. It’s been no more than half an hour since Lan Zhan managed to put A-Yuan down, who cried for the better part of the evening, to boot, overheated and needy.
The night is pitch black and short, and the house is spotless. Lan Zhan has already tidied Wei Ying’s office that used to be Lan Zhan’s study, too. Wei Ying has been in a snappy mood since Monday, and Lan Zhan tried to soothe him, but Wei Ying only asked him to not get in the way.
Lan Zhan is sat on the floor, breathing in a sorry excuse of the fresh night air. Wei Ying is at work, and Lan Zhan worries that he must have not even eaten his lunch, not to mention gone out to get something for dinner. Lan Zhan hasn’t called Wei Ying to check on him.
Lan Zhan, sat on the tiled floor, moving his bare feet from time to time to find a cooler spot, wants to talk to his mother who somehow managed to raise him and brother all on her own. Lan Zhan has A-Yuan, brother, and Wei Ying. Mother had no one, and then no one had mother.
Lan Zhan would ask her, were brother and I so fussy with food at A-Yuan’s age? What did you do to make him, or me, eat when it was so hot your palms couldn’t hold a spoon without sweat dripping off them a minute later? Or you fed us only ice cream, too?
Lan Zhan would like to sit with her on the floor, listening to her quiet chatter, because A-Yuan is asleep, but she would still talk. And eat ice cream, too – pistachio, Lan Zhan remembers. A-Yuan would’ve fallen asleep to her made-up stories faster than to Lan Zhan’s anything, maybe.
Lan Zhan wants to call his uncle and ask him how he did it, too. Lan Zhan was the one being brought up and ended up severing ties with uncle for a decade. Lan Zhan would like to know how, despite the moments of slipped softness, uncle still managed to raise two decent people.
There’s a soft click of the front door, and Lan Zhan doesn’t bother to stand up. He might end up sleeping here, tired and a little snappy, too.
Wei Ying enters the house and doesn’t switch the light on. He thinks both Lan Zhan and A-Yuan are asleep. Even in a bad mood, Wei Ying is careful.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, and Wei Ying drops something – his drawing tube, most likely.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying whispers. He turns the phone flash on and finds Lan Zhan, making him wince from the light.
Wei Ying pockets his phone with the flash on that is now beaming through his linen trousers.
“What’s wrong, bunbun?” Wei Ying asks, plonking himself down beside Lan Zhan and giving him a soft kiss on the cheek. “Can’t sleep?”
Lan Zhan feels the heat rolling off Wei Ying’s body, making him feel more uncomfortable than he already is.
“No,” Lan Zhan says, and it means both, ‘no, I probably can sleep’ and ‘no, it’s something else.’ Wei Ying hums, then yawns.
“How’s the little one?”
Lan Zhan stares at the moonless garden with wilting trees and vegetables and takes a shallow breath.
“After the playground, he told me he wanted a mama. Because children at the playground have one, and he does not. I told him that he has me and you, and brother, and uncle. And Yanli-jie, Zixuan, and your brother. But he cried the entire evening and refused to eat.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying only says several shallow breaths later, small. “I had a shitty day, but at least we’re done now.”
Lan Zhan has nothing to offer to that, so he stays silent, relocating his feet.
Wei Ying gets up, picks up his bag, opens the fridge, then the freezer, then opens a drawer to get cutlery. Lan Zhan is sadistically happy that Wei Ying is so hungry he doesn’t need to tell Wei Ying to eat.
Wei Ying nudges something against his shoulder, something cold and cartony-feeling.
“I got ice cream on the way home,” Wei Ying says. “I was shitty to you too. I’m sorry, baby.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t want ice cream but takes the tub anyway, then a tablespoon. Wei Ying says eating ice cream with a teaspoon is for the faint of heart. Lan Zhan agrees.
“They didn’t have your favourite with hazelnuts, nor my mint and choc one, so I got caramel, strawberry, and pistachio.”
Lan Zhan’s stomach twists so viciously his eyes start watering from the onslaught. He puts the tub on the floor, spoon rolling under his thigh, maybe, and hides his face in his palms.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying calls, too loud for the night with an unsettled child on the second floor. “Lan Zhan, sweetheart, what is it?”
Lan Zhan wants to laugh, but he is crying. No, he’s not crying – it’s just his stomach spasming, and he can’t breathe, waiting it out, black of the night on the black of his cupped hands, with a whiff of pistachios.
Wei Ying is getting unsettled, too, palming Lan Zhan’s hands and his ears, his shoulders and arms, making anxious sounds.
“Oh, bunbun,” Wei Ying utters, and then he is forcefully pulling Lan Zhan into his too-hot lap, ice cream tub getting in the way and Wei Ying shoving is aside unceremoniously.
Wei Ying is hotter than the kitchen, than the weather, than the sun, being the sun of Lan Zhan’s life himself, and Lan Zhan thinks there will be light burns from where Wei Ying is touching him, still gentle but firm enough to make him feel safe, effectively caged.
Wei Ying is rocking them a little, flicking sweat-damp strands of hair from Lan Zhan’s face, and kisses his wet and cold forehead, which forces a stifled sob from Lan Zhan’s throat.
“I’m here,” Wei Ying murmurs, in case Lan Zhan doubts that already.
Overheated, too, Lan Zhan calms down to the point of thinking that the ice cream must be completely melted by now, and it disturbs him more than his pulsating headache from the raised blood pressure.
“The ice cream is melting.”
Wei Ying huffs a silent laugh against Lan Zhan’s ear. “We are melting, Lan Zhan. Ice cream is fine.”
Wei Ying holds him until it starts to lighten up outside – Lan Zhan sees the bags under his eyes before his eye colour.
“Want me to carry you upstairs?” Wei Ying suggests, even more tired than Lan Zhan is. But Lan Zhan nods, because being carried to bed, no matter if you’re thirty-one or five, sometimes solves more problems than sleep itself.
“Take the ice cream, Wei Ying.”
“I want a bigger one.”
“So that we all could sit in it. And Huan-ge, when he’s around.”
“Wei Ying, my garden is not fit for a pool big enough to fit four of us.”
Wei Ying chews on the inside his cheek thoughtfully, then points at another box, which hosts a pool just slightly smaller than their garden.
“It’s too hot, Lan Zhan, I literally can’t imagine how big it is.”
“You measure distances by eye with pinpoint precision.”
Wei Ying throws his head back and makes a prolonged, whiny noise. “I just want an inflatable pool to sit in for the rest of the month, why is this so hard. I’m literally a puddle that wants a puddle.”
Lan Zhan eyes the boxes. All the better fitting ones have already been taken, of course, but they can drive around and find something nicer.
Wei Ying grabs one of the boxes and shakes it violently. “I’m taking this one and the water pistols, and if it doesn’t fit, I’ll dig out some trenches for us to swim in.”
The pool fits perfectly, shy only of the vegetable patches and A-Yuan’s sandbox.
The sounds of Wei Ying’s indignation are getting louder with each new message he gets. Biting his lip, Lan Zhan ghosts his fingertips over Wei Ying’s ribs, fully aware that it tickles. Still half-asleep and poorly coordinated, Wei Ying tries to bat his hand away.
“It has to be important,” Lan Zhan says, and kisses a mole between Wei Ying’s shoulder blades. It tastes like salt and olive body wash Lan Zhan lathered over him last night.
“Mhm,” Wei Ying articulates, which means, ‘it’s too damn early,’ ‘it tickles here, too,’ ‘more.’
Lan Zhan kisses him lower down the spine, but pulls away when Wei Ying leans in.
A protesting growl.
“Answer your messages,” Lan Zhan says. “And I will keep going.”
Wei Ying reaches blindly to his nightstand, palms his phone, and places it on his head. For that, Lan Zhan kisses Wei Ying’s lowest rib.
“Do I get kisses for every message I read?”
“Read and answer.”
“I hate you, you’re so mean, the meanest of the mean, a criminal.”
Lan Zhan pointedly rests his head on Wei Ying thigh, warm against his cheek and lips. “Read.”
Wei Ying unlocks his phone and squints at the screen. “A-Cheng. It’s fucking dresses, Lan Zhan.”
“For jie’s wedding.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t need to see what Wei Ying types in reply – he knows it’s at least eight heart emojis and no words.
Wei Ying shoves the phone under his pillow. “Done, now kiss me all over.”
Lan Zhan does.
“They are horrible,” Wei Ying says at breakfast, looking at his screen and Jiang Cheng’s messages. A-Yuan tries to feed him a piece of bread, poking Wei Ying’s cheek with it.
Lan Zhan says nothing. He understands next to nothing about dresses, other than there are mini, midi, and maxi. He remembers Yanli favouring the second ones during their university days.
“They are fine. She liked them.”
“Of course she did, she’s seven months pregnant, she wants to be done with it.”
Lan Zhan pushes the plate closer to Wei Ying. “Then help her with the choice.”
Wei Ying lowers his phone, the breadcrumbs falling off his cheek as he frowns. “What do you mean?”
“You have not visited your home for over a year.”
The expressions on Wei Ying face change with lightning speed – hurt, annoyance at Lan Zhan for keeping track of time, hurt that it’s been so much time, bristliness that Lan Zhan does not know the reason for, can only suspect, exasperation, then – guilt.
“I can’t leave you and A-Yuan,” Wei Ying mumbles, making a mess of his breakfast by piling everything into one blob.
Lan Zhan’s unease regarding Wei Ying’s unwillingness to go home grows acrid. “Wei Ying, do you not want to go home because you feel guilty about leaving me alone with A-Yuan?”
“No,” Wei Ying says too quickly. “Yes. Not exactly. Not really. Not just that.”
Lan Zhan leans back on his chair. “Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying won’t look at him. It’s Lan Zhan’s turn to be dragged down by the waves of shame.
Wei Ying must be feeling obligated, feeling like he can’t take a step away from them, like he now has to spend all his free time potty training A-Yuan and being tied up to and trapped in Lan Zhan’s – their – house.
Lan Zhan realises that he should have talked Wei Ying into not leaving the flat he was renting behind.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan repeats, breakfast sour on his tongue. “You need to go home.”
“I don’t,” Wei Ying looks up at him. “Stop thinking whatever hell you’re thinking about. It’s not about that.”
“Then what is it about?”
Lan Zhan slants a glance at A-Yuan, who is, of course, watching them – he has stopped eating. Lan Zhan turns away. “Later.”
Wei Ying nods.
Lan Zhan lets him escape the topic until it’s time for bed, and Wei Ying still lingers in his office, hoping that Lan Zhan will go to bed first and let him sleep it off.
Wei Ying never closes the door to his office, so Lan Zhan knocks on the doorframe.
“No,” Wei Ying says, hunched over the drafting desk. Lan Zhan needs to get him a better office chair.
“Wei Ying, look at me.”
“No, because you won’t let me let it slide, and I don’t want to talk about it, not now.”
Lan Zhan walks up to him and starts massaging Wei Ying’s tense and bony shoulders.
“Criminal,” Wei Ying breathes out, straightening up. “You’re a menace.”
Lan Zhan digs his thumbs in. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what.”
“Do A-Yuan and I burden you and you are too scared to tell me.”
Wei Ying tries to get away, but Lan Zhan is holding him down.
“The hell are you talking about?” Wei Ying hisses. A-Yuan is sleeping two doors down. “Is that what you’ve been thinking all day?”
He reaches up and puts his hands on Lan Zhan’s. “No. Lan Zhan, no, how could you even think about that. Lan Zhan, I don’t even stand under a tree I don’t like, do you think I’d stay in a house I don’t like with people I don’t love being around?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says without missing a beat.
Wei Ying immediately sags under his palms. “I would, wouldn’t I? Hah, you’re so smart, and for what.”
Lan Zhan steps away, stomach dropping. Of course.
A helpless rasp. Lan Zhan will have to tell A-Yuan something. Something other than ‘gege wants to be alone and I did not give him that, and now neither of us have him.’
Wei Ying turns to him, lip corners twitching. “Lan Zhan, it’s not I don’t want to go home. I don’t have any, back home.”
Lan Zhan sinks to the floor, not trusting his legs to keep him upright.
Yanli never told him much about their family situation, not after they graduated, but Zixuan shared what he could with Lan Zhan – the bits he managed to pry from her or witness himself. And the bits were – disturbing, to say the least.
Lan Zhan knew about their parents, knew that Wei Ying was adopted, but never knew the full extent of it. He is starting to think that Wei Ying moving into this city was never just a work thing.
Wei Ying slides off his chair and shuffles across the floor to him, takes his hands in his smaller ones.
“I have a home here. I have you, you never burden me, you never could. If anything, it’s me leeching off you and the little one. Lan Zhan, you are my home. I’m sorry I haven’t made that clear.”
Lan Zhan flexes his fingers in Wei Ying’s grasp. “Did they – kick you out.”
“No,” Wei Ying says, fierce, and squeezes Lan Zhan’s palms. They are damp and cold with worry. “I left on my own. I’m fine, Lan Zhan, I swear. I deserved it.”
“No. Wei Ying does not deserve whatever your family did to you.”
Wei Ying lets go of his hands, a deep frown on his forehead. “You don’t know that.”
Lan Zhan’s protectiveness presses him into calling Yanli and questioning her, questioning Jiang Cheng, if need be, because Wei Ying will never tell anyone that he is hurting. If he is hurting, he is a bother – a bother is never welcome.
“I don’t care. Wei Ying did not deserve it.”
Wei Ying huffs out a laugh, dark like a pencil refill. “I could’ve killed someone, you know. And you’re protecting me.”
“Wei Ying would never kill someone because Wei Ying is too compassionate for his own good. But even if he did, it would not be without reason.”
Wei Ying bumps Lan Zhan’s knee with his own. He smiles at that, small and uncomfortable because of being treated like a person.
“Look at you, protecting a potential murderer,” Wei Ying moves to a safer field – to teasing. “How did I get so lucky to have you, hm?”
He is letting it slide, he doesn’t want to burden Lan Zhan, not a bother, not a problem.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan tries, his throat tight with an unmanageable surge of care. “I will never kick you out. Whatever you do, you will always have me. Me, and A-Yuan. A home.”
Wei Ying makes a broken sound that sounds like Lan Zhan’s name and drops his head low.
Lan Zhan swallows around the lump. “I know you cannot accept that. Not now, but I hope that one day, you will. And we will be there to prove it once again.”
Lan Zhan is suddenly on his back, being kissed. It feels very shaky and wet, with Wei Ying’s hands roaming all over his face and upper body.
“You can’t be so good, I’ll never leave,” Wei Ying breathes into his mouth, their noses and foreheads touching.
Lan Zhan looks into his eyes, red from crying. “Then don’t.”
“Whatcha doing?” Wei Ying doesn’t wait for an answer and just peeks from behind Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Oh.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, cutting off the white edge. “I was meant to be doing it since his birth.”
Wei Ying settles behind him, tucking his feet under Lan Zhan’s calves and encircling his waist. “Need help?”
Lan Zhan hums, then instructs him to choose photos for every month.
“I think I have this one, jie sent it to me. Can we glue all of them? I can’t choose.” Wei Ying flips through the stack and starts crowing at A-Yuan’s photo when he was three months. “Ooooh, he’s so cute here, look at those baby cheekies and his button nose, Lan Zhan,”
“He still has them.”
Wei Ying giggles into his heck. “He does. He has your nose and eyes, you know. And he frowns in his sleep just like you do.”
Lan Zhan goes deadly still in Wei Ying's embrace, scissors nipping at the corner of the actual photo. He never – of course. Of course Wei Ying has noticed the blood relation. It took uncle several days and photos to realise that, and Wei Ying has been living with them for the better part of the year, and he is, amongst other things, an architect. He sees the pattern.
Wei Ying senses his turmoil but doesn’t comment on it, just kisses his shoulder.
“He’s yours, and that’s all that matters.”
“Ours,” Lan Zhan says, and wants to slap himself for that. He is not trapping Wei Ying in and with this house, with a child, no matter how much Lan Zhan wants him to stay forever and have seven more kids and a house that Wei Ying would build himself.
But Wei Ying only nuzzles closer, nosing at Lan Zhan’s flaming ear, and says, brutally smug, “Ours.”
They glue every photo into A-Yuan’s First Year baby book, pictures overlapping. None of them have Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan hurries to start year two.
It has been a while since Lan Zhan last visited a baby store, but he still gets overwhelmed with how small everything is, and how much he wants to buy everything.
At his side, Wei Ying vibrates with excitement. “I want everything.”
Lan Zhan relates, but they have a list that they share with Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng wants to buy everything, too. But he and Wei Ying have one advantage – Lan Zhan’s parental experience.
“We can get some essentials. Your brother is participating.”
Wei Ying grumbles. “We can buy loads of stuff, and when she has more babies, she won’t need anything.”
Lan Zhan smiles. If Yanli decides to have more children, Wei Ying will buy twice as many things, just for kids of different ages.
Wei Ying rolls his shoulders. “Right, I’m going in. If you need me, I’ll be crying at baby shoes for the next millennium.”
Lan Zhan finds some things A-Yuan needs, and locates Wei Ying at the socks section, approximately fifteen pairs in his arms. He reaches out for more.
“You can never have too many socks, not as a newborn, not as a grown-up. I constantly lose socks, you know that,” Wei Ying says, deadly sure that it makes sense. He is right.
Lan Zhan does. Wei Ying loses his socks, hair ties, pencils, and reading glasses all the time. Lan Zhan tends to find them under the sofa, and suspects A-Yuan has a raccoon gene.
Their cart is overflowing, and Lan Zhan knows that Wei Ying will whine about wrapping it all in pretty paper – it was his idea, Lan Zhan suggested bags – but the way Wei Ying’s face lights up at every item takes Lan Zhan’s mind… places.
“I think this is enough toys.”
Wei Ying decidedly takes out a vaguely-shaped kitty and adds more rabbits. Lan Zhan is proud of his legacy.
“No dogs, because my nephew will not be my nemesis that likes dogs. He will like butterflies and cats.”
Wei Ying whirls around, pupils dilated. He beams, “Yeah?”
“We are sharing a list. And your sister will not be able to take everything home with her.”
“That peacock can hire a truck to ship it all to their house.”
Wei Ying sulks a bit, but only until it hits him – again – that Yanli is coming for a week-long visit in a few days, and then he is jumping and clapping, tugging at Lan Zhan’s sleeve and making excited noises.
Lan Zhan loves him.
On the way to check-out, Wei Ying balks at the dresses section, and pulls Lan Zhan closer to the one that catches Lan Zhan’s attention – it’s a pastel green dress, woodland-themed. Hedgehogs, deer, acorns, little leaves.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying exhales, running his fingertips over the frilled edge of a sleeve. “Can we – ”
Lan Zhan takes the dress off the railing and carries it separately to the check-out.
Wei Ying looks at him, smile tentative. He knows they have room to grow, too.
“Good boy?” A-Yuan asks, checking himself in the mirror. He touches the drawing of a Brontosaurus Wei Ying made for him and that Yanli ordered a custom-made t-shirt for.
“The best,” Wei Ying praises. “Auntie will be so happy to know you like it.”
A-Yuan nods, very serious. He chose Brontosaurus for Lan Zhan. He is still on the fence about which one fits Wei Ying.
Wei Ying suggested Coelophysis, which is very small. When Lan Zhan asked him why, Wei Ying counted the similarities on his fingers.
“They are slender, long necks, fast – they’re runners. Deadly.”
Lan Zhan nodded, but the description fit a lot of bigger dinosaurs, too.
Wei Ying cocked his head to the side, a cattish smile tugging on his lips. “And they eat much bigger species.”
Lan Zhan flushed deep red then and made a mental note to check how many dinosaurs one Brontosaurus could trample in a life-or-death situation.
Wei Ying pulls A-Yuan into a quick hug. “Now, no jumping on her, remember? Protect her at all cost from the peacock.”
“And give her lots of cuddles and tummy kisses. And keep the peacock away, he’s scared of you and dinosaurs.”
“No peacock,” A-Yuan nods at Wei Ying. “Who is peacock?”
Lan Zhan coughs into his fist, earning a betrayed look from Wei Ying and A-Yuan announcing that peacocks scream a lot.
They arrive at the station thirty minutes earlier, because Wei Ying can’t sit still – he barely slept, too, and Lan Zhan kept waking up to his violent turning.
Wei Ying grabs A-Yuan’s hand and takes him on an exploratory walk across the station, while Lan Zhan ‘finishes reading whatever boring adult stuff he has to do.’
Lan Zhan is down to three obligatory reports when an announcement rings about the train. Lan Zhan pockets his phone and hears Wei Ying running before he sees him – with A-Yuan in his arms, both of them covered in ice cream, both panting.
“She’s here!” Wei Ying yells and pulls Lan Zhan in the direction of the railway platforms. Lan Zhan takes A-Yuan from his arms because, as much as Wei Ying was strict to instruct A-Yuan not to jump on Yanli, he hurls himself onto her side with a loud cry as soon as he gets to her.
A-Yuan is shouting too, trying to wriggle out of Lan Zhan’s grasp, but there is a lot of people, so Lan Zhan holds him tight, maneuvering in the human sea.
“A-Ying,” Lan Zhan lip-reads her say, petting Wei Ying’s hair. Wei Ying has tucked himself awkwardly into her neck, body shuddering, and Lan Zhan can’t see if he’s crying or laughing. Probably both.
Yanli sees them and waves her hand, the one that’s not holding Wei Ying. She looks very pregnant. She looks delightful.
“Zhanzhan, A-Yuan,” Yanli greets them with the warmest smile. Lan Zhan thinks it’s a climate zone peculiarity, perhaps, because Wei Ying smiles quite similarly. Looking at them, it’s hard to get over the fact that they are not family by blood.
“Yanli-jie,” Lan Zhan says a little shyly. Yanli has never insisted everyone call her that, but it’s such a natural response that it’s hard to call her just ‘Yanli’ when talking to her.
“A-Ying, let me hug baby A-Yuan and Zhanzhan, I haven’t seen him for years,” she says, still stroking Wei Ying’s back.
Zixuan emerges by Lan Zhan’s side, looking thoroughly debauched. He looks like he’s the one in the third trimester and not Yanli. He smacks Lan Zhan’s shoulder and ruffles A-Yuan’s hair. Lan Zhan will question him about that later.
Wei Ying pulls away, hastily swiping both palms across his face, and then he laughs apologetically about a wet patch on her shoulder.
Lan Zhan wants to talk to Yanli, too.
“Hello, baby,” Yanli coos and kisses A-Yuan on both cheeks, then cups his face with immense tenderness.
A-Yuan looks very eager to climb on her and squish her back but knows he will be admonished by Wei Ying and Lan Zhan if he does.
“I have a dino!” A-Yuan grins at her, toothy and proud, and pats his chest. “Good boy!”
Yanli gasps, noticing the t-shirt. “Oh, you’re such a good boy, A-Yuan, I hope you like it!”
A-Yuan reaches out to touch her, and Yanli kisses his little palm, eliciting a giggle from him.
Lan Zhan nudges Wei Ying’s arm, and Wei Ying takes A-Yuan, not taking his eyes off Yanli. His eyes are red and he tries to hide his trembling lips with a lopsided grin.
It is very hard to hug Yanli, but Lan Zhan does his best – he, too, hides his face in her shoulder, choosing the dry one, and takes a breath.
When they were in university, she was the one to approach him on the very first day and say that she lived in the room next door to his, so if he needed anything, she’d help, especially if Lan Zhan couldn’t cook.
Lan Zhan could cook and he didn’t need any help, so he just nodded and bolted his door until morning. Simple gestures of friendliness – basic human interaction, even – were foreign to him. He had Zixuan, yes, but that was Zixuan alone. Zixuan never had a lot of friends either – as far as Lan Zhan knew, he only had him and his two half-brothers.
Yanli was checking on him in the dorm and in class, and Lan Zhan couldn’t understand why. He was fine alone, always, and having a dorm room all to himself was more than he could ask for.
Yanli started feeding him her cooking approximately one week into their student life.
“I have two brothers who are back at home, so I desperately need to take care of someone,” she’d laughed at his door, holding a pot of something that made Lan Zhan’s mouth water. He’d never smelled anything this flavourful.
She looked very bright and homely. She looked soft and painfully considerate, and Lan Zhan, a boy of eighteen, who no longer had his older brother within two rooms’ reach, who smelled something delicious and, if he thought deeply, wanted something he couldn’t name, invited her in.
She never pushed him, just was near – warm, smelling of lotus and spices. She was brilliant in class, quick-witted and generous with smiles and praise, with a family that, as Lan Zhan learned much later, was no less complicated than his own.
They bonded over her cooking, the need of siblings and late night essays, quiet stories about their brothers and even quieter tears, when Yanli told him that she was scared to leave her A-Cheng but especially A-Ying alone with their parents, and Lan Zhan said he’d fled his home and wasn’t coming back.
At home, A-Yuan leads Yanli to his room to demonstrate all his toys and drawings he prepared for her and the baby. A-Yuan is very excited about the baby and wants to hug him very much, preferably now. Wei Ying follows them, touching Yanli every second, scared, Lan Zhan thinks, that she will disappear into thin air the moment he leaves her side and stops feeling her hand, arm, shoulder, stomach. Wei Ying touches it and gasps at the slightest movements the baby makes.
“He’s doing good,” Zixuan says, setting the table while Lan Zhan reheats their lunch. “She’s very grateful for that.”
“I am grateful for him,” Lan Zhan says, dicing ingredients for mango salsa for Yanli.
Zixuan hums, sympathetic, and leaves it at that.
The day passes in presents and meals and stories, in Wei Ying touching Yanli all the time and her knowingly moving very little because of that; in A-Yuan’s hurried stories about the vegetables gege grows for them and the houses he draws for other people, about his two friends at soft play and how he loves the baby in Yanli’s tummy; in Wei Ying being very loud or very quiet; in Zixuan being very tired; in Lan Zhan being stupidly happy to see them all in this house.
Yanli excuses herself in time for A-Yuan’s bedtime, and Wei Ying jumps up to lead her to the spare bedroom and put A-Yuan down at the same time. Together, they bathe A-Yuan for so long Lan Zhan hears Wei Ying lamenting over Yanli’s back pain. Lan Zhan and Zixuan are left with the disaster of the kitchen and all the torn wrapping paper all over the living room.
Wei Ying crashes down shortly after, exhausted from the sleepless night before and the ruthless excitement of having his sister here. Zixuan drinks his compulsory cup of instant coffee before bed and goes to sleep, too, and Lan Zhan stays downstairs to finish his work.
He’s on his third cup of tea and not even one report done when he hears a quiet chuckle, “Need help?”
Yanli wobbles across the living room and climbs onto the bar stool, flapping Lan Zhan’s hands away alongside his suggestion to move to the sofa.
“Zhanzhan, just tea, please.”
While the water boils, Lan Zhan takes her in – and she does the same. Yanli looks older, settled, still as soft and homely as almost fifteen years ago, a little swollen and clearly tired. Lan Zhan missed her so much.
“You look happy,” she tells him with a smile of an older sister, unchanged.
“I am,” Lan Zhan says honestly. “Thank you, Yanli-jie.”
She takes his hands in hers, which looks ridiculous, because his are almost twice the size of hers, but Lan Zhan’s nose still tickles from the feeling of a familiar heat of her narrow palms.
“A-Ying is happy, too. It’s me who has to say thank you, not you.”
Lan Zhan tries not to squirm under her gaze and takes a breath. “What happened to Wei Ying back at home? He would not tell me.”
Yanli’s smile morphs into something bitter like Zixuan’s mandatory bedtime coffee. “He wouldn’t tell me, either. All I know is that one day he was there, in our family home, and by the evening, when he called me, he was telling me he was not coming back and that he would be leaving the city. I asked him to come here.”
Lan Zhan nods, a little more understanding of what happened seeping into the whole picture Lan Zhan is trying to put together.
“I wanted to give him your number, just in case, but A-Ying barely agreed to have A-Cheng help him, and,” Yanli cuts herself off as the kettle clicks.
Lan Zhan takes the dinner leftovers from the fridge, takes two tablespoons, and makes tea.
They finish the food and the tea, Yanli complimenting on Lan Zhan’s cooking and the dishes he obviously enriched his repertoire with just to cater to Wei Ying’s palate. Lan Zhan feels like he is eighteen again, and like he is thirty-one, too, and all the years in-between.
“Now, do you need help?” Yanli grins at him, pointing at the laptop.
Lan Zhan does, and turns it around so that Yanli could see the screen.
“Did you bring the paper?”
“No, only tea.”
Wei Ying coughs into his palms, then wheezes. A-Yuan doesn’t pay them any attention, watching Brave for the third time today, and wipes his nose with the corner of the blanket.
“Then how am I supposed to write my will? Lan Zhan, I’m dying, I need paper. Oh, wait, there’s A-Yuan’s colouring book somewhere under the table, that’ll do.”
Lan Zhan kisses A-Yuan’s forehead, which is cold on his lips. Good.
Wei Ying makes grabby hands, and Lan Zhan kisses him too; hot.
“You’re so cold, come here, hug it out of me,” Wei Ying whines, trying to pull Lan Zhan into an embrace over A-Yuan’s head, but Lan Zhan gently pries Wei Ying’s hands from his shoulders.
“Wei Ying, you need to drink.”
“No, I need a hug and a scorching bath.”
Wei Ying’s feverish blush is blotchy and spreads down his chest, his whole body shivering. Lan Zhan’s heart throbs from the sight of him – Wei Ying looks very small and sick, like Toothless when he had tummy issues, and just as helpless.
Lan Zhan abandons the cups, sits down on the sofa patch unoccupied by an ever-growing tissue pile, and pulls Wei Ying into his lap so that Wei Ying straddles him.
“Good, good, that’s so good, you’re so cold,” Wei Ying stammers out into Lan Zhan’s ear, pushing his face into Lan Zhan’s neck. “Bunbun, hug this out of me.”
Lan Zhan is not cold, just body temperature. Wei Ying has already had paracetamol, but he is still so hot to the touch Lan Zhan will have to fetch a cool cloth.
As he places his hands on Wei Ying’s waist, Wei Ying sighs in relief. “Oooh, your big hands, so cold, nice, so nice.”
When Wei Ying is having a fever, Lan Zhan has learned, he is talking non-stop unless he is asleep, which hasn’t been happening a lot since A-Yuan caught something at the playground. A-Yuan did have a fever, too, but it lasted for two days, and now he is just snotty and coughing.
“Wei Ying, let me wet a towel for you, you feel better,” Lan Zhan says, running his hands under Wei Ying’s threadbare t-shirt.
Wei Ying whimpers quietly somewhere under Lan Zhan’s jaw. “No, don’t go, you’re better than a towel.” Lan Zhan stays, watching Brave for the fourth time in a row.
It’s worse at night. When Wei Ying manages to doze off, on top of everything, the high temperature spurs nightmares, and Wei Ying jerks in his sleep, making tiny noises. Lan Zhan watches him, afraid to touch, because Wei Ying will wake up. If he wakes up, he will not go back to sleep, and exhaustion will exacerbate his condition.
As Wei Ying chokes out another sound akin to a sob, Lan Zhan pulls Wei Ying into his arms and holds him close, until Wei Ying gasps awake and starts squirming, the shadow of the lingering nightmare still chasing him.
“I am here, I am holding you,” Lan Zhan says, brushing sweaty strands from Wei Ying’s forehead. “I am here.”
Lan Zhan has left the light on in the corridor, so now he can see how unfocused Wei Ying’s gaze is when he looks at him.
“Huan-ge?” Wei Ying slurs, attempting to raise himself onto his elbow. “Is Lan Zhan sick, too?”
Lan Zhan frowns. “Wei Ying, it is me. Brother is abroad.”
“Ah,” Wei Ying breathes out, the exhale dragon-hot on Lan Zhan’s face. “Sorry, Huan-ge, you’re cold like Lan Zhan, I must’ve been out when he left.”
Wei Ying worms his way out of Lan Zhan’s arms and sits up, leaning on the headboard. “Did I annoy him so much he asked you to come and help him? Oh, can I hold your hand?” he grabs Lan Zhan’s hand, but doesn’t lace their fingers. “Thank you, I just need – something to hold onto.”
Lan Zhan is not sure Wei Ying processes what is happening around him at the moment. Still, Lan Zhan talks. “Wei Ying, you are not annoying. I can hold you if you want.”
Wei Ying pulls his legs towards his chest and rests his head atop the knees.
“When will he come back?” Wei Ying asks. He sounds like a little lost animal. “Will he come back?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, stomach turning. He reaches out to touch Wei Ying’s arm with his free hand. “I am not going anywhere, I am here, always.”
Wei Ying slants him a clouded look and nods. Lan Zhan cannot even imagine how twisted his words sound to Wei Ying right now.
Wei Ying says nothing for a long moment, and when he speaks next, he sounds much clearer. “That’s good that you’re here, actually. I wanted to ask you something.”
Wei Ying chews on his chapped lips for a bit, frowning. “Can I marry Lan Zhan?” he croaks, then tries to clear his dry throat. “When I asked your uncle for his blessing, he said yes, but I haven’t officially asked you, his older brother.”
Lan Zhan’s heart leaps into his throat, big and pounding. Did Wei Ying – his uncle? Is that what they talked about? Wei Ying had asked – for uncle’s blessings?
“Please don’t tell him I wanna marry him, but please tell me if he’s gonna propose, because I want to do it first.”
Lan Zhan feels very, very hot under his collar, but the smile on his face must look astronomically stupid.
“I – I will not tell him,” Lan Zhan says as solemnly as his voice allows. “Wei Ying will be the first one to propose.”
“Good,” Wei Ying says. “I would’ve done it ages ago, but I’m not finished with something important yet, so. Bunbun will have to wait a little longer.”
Lan Zhan bows his head, a little sun bursting deep in his chest. “Bunbun will wait for as long as Wei Ying needs.”
Wei Ying lets out a quiet sigh, then slides down and tugs the duvet up to his chin. This time, he sleeps well, while Lan Zhan stares at the ceiling of their bedroom, still smiling.
In the morning, Wei Ying’s fever finally breaks without any memories from last night.
“Do we have everything ready?”
Wei Ying checks if the scarf on A-Yuan is secure and helps him put on gloves.
Lan Zhan puts his hand on the back of Wei Ying’s neck for several seconds – I’m here, I’m going with you, we can leave, can stay, we will do whatever you need me to.
Wei Ying kisses A-Yuan on the forehead and straightens up, then flashes Lan Zhan a smile – as always. This one is wide, concerned, scared. Lan Zhan checks Wei Ying’s scarf and kisses him on the lips.
Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying understands everything he cannot put into words.
“We need to go,” Wei Ying whispers, eyes closed. Lan Zhan kisses his long lashes, the lashes that had been clumped from tears all morning, and hums his assent.
Their train snacks occupy the entire table, as well as A-Yuan’s toys and Wei Ying’s planner. It was a no-occasion gift after Lan Zhan saw Wei Ying struggle with days of the week, let alone meetings and trips, which is often the case when Wei Ying gets too busy. Wei Ying was sceptical about it, because ‘Lan Zhan, I have apps, why would I need a planner?’ but Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying loves writing, scribbling, drawing, drafting. Instead of names, he draws relevant houses and facilities on the days he will be working on at the site of or in the office.
A-Yuan loves the road, loves every kind of transport, so Wei Ying pulls him into his lap and points at whatever they pass – cars, trucks, other trains, houses, naming their colours, shapes, numbers. A-Yuan says he loves trains and their sounds, and loves Wei Ying. Wei Ying preens.
Full of food and new impressions, A-Yuan dozes off on Lan Zhan just past noon. Lan Zhan enjoys the feeling of a juice-sticky kiss on his cheek and the ever-growing weight of his son on him. Lan Zhan kisses his hair, adjusting his coat lapel to hide A-Yuan from the piercing sunrays.
Wei Ying plays on his phone, chewing on one of his many pencils. The edge of his left hand still has traces of charcoal dust from yesterday’s evening.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls.
Wei Ying mumbles, ‘just one second,’ then promptly kills some slugs – Wei Ying loves this, as he puts it, mind-numbing game, which helps think of nothing but murder – and looks up at Lan Zhan. “what is it?”
“I love you.”
Before Wei Ying, Lan Zhan never understood how one could say these words with such ease. Now, they slip out unbidden, at any time of day and night, and often serve as an explanation or an excuse for everything between them. Wei Ying smiles back, says it back, says it first, says it more.
Wei Ying smiles – a reaction to absolutely everything in his life. “I love you too, bunbun. Very much.”
He squints, shading his eyes with the charcoal-stained palm, and smiles wider. Lan Zhan wonders if one’s heart can give out from feeling too much. He looks down at A-Yuan; it can’t.
Zixuan meets them at the station, the bags under the eyes complimenting Wei Ying’s drawing evidence.
“Hi, lot,” he says. Wei Ying shakes his hand – it was Lan Zhan’s request, and Zixuan kisses A-Yuan – it was Yanli’s request.
Yanli meets them at the hotel lobby, kisses all of them several times, then kisses Wei Ying separately and whispers something into his ear, and Wei Ying nods, expression serious.
“Right, off you go, have a rest,” she shoos them off into an elevator. “I’ll come up to you once everyone’s arrived and settled.”
Their suite is lovely, and A-Yuan breaks into an exploratory run around once his boots are off. Wei Ying wheels in their suitcases and promptly rests his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“It’s just two days, right? And then we will go home.”
“We can go home whenever you want us to,” Lan Zhan tells him, warming Wei Ying’s cheeks with his palms. “Promise me you will tell me.”
“I already did.”
Wei Ying exhales through the nose, long and resigned. “Promise.”
Lan Zhan pulls him into another kiss – longer this time, deeper, with hands on Wei Ying’a nape and one on his waist, hidden by the coat. Wei Ying kisses back, and makes peace with the wedding for two days, while A-Yuan screams something unintelligible about cookies.
“Hi,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, pushing Lan Zhan out of the way. Lan Zhan allows that – for Wei Ying, and because Jiang Cheng looks worried.
Wei Ying is on the floor, folding some origami bunnies to portion out A-Yuan’s chocolates.
“Mum wants to see you,” Jiang Cheng bites out, and Wei Ying crumples one of the bunnies in his palm. A-Yuan makes a little noise. Wei Ying doesn’t look up.
Jiang Cheng crouches near him and squeezes Wei Ying’s shoulder, tight. A-Yuan pries a crumpled bunny out of Wei Ying's loose fist and looks helplessly at Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan beckons him to go to his and Wei Ying’s bedroom, shutting the door behind himself.
“Bunny,” A-Yuan whispers, eyes glassy, petting the paper. He knows something is wrong, and, what is worse, something is wrong with gege – he never destroys toys, never hurts bunnies.
Lan Zhan kneels before him, taking both his hands holding the paper rabbit. “Little one, remember when I told you why we needed to be here?”
A-Yuan nods, lower lip jutting out.
“And you remember when I told you that gege can be very sad today and in the next couple of days?”
Another nod. “If gege is too sad, we go home.”
Lan Zhan kisses A-Yuan’s concerned frown. “Yes. Gege being sad has nothing to do with you or me. We are here to protect him, remember?”
A-Yuan’s expression clears instantly. “Now?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says very seriously. “Later, perhaps. I will tell you when he will need extra hugs from you, okay, bunny?”
A-Yuan lets go of the paper and hugs Lan Zhan around the neck – a promise of cooperation and a need to hide from something that he doesn’t understand but knows makes people hurt.
In the living room, Wei Ying talks quietly to Jiang Cheng, and as soon as Lan Zhan and A-Yuan appear, he opens his arms to hug A-Yuan, looking extremely apologetic.
“I’m sorry, munchkin, I must’ve destroyed the rabbit,” Wei Ying says quietly into A-Yuan’s round cheek, kissing him throughout the sentence. “I will make you another one – no, another ten and a dragon to keep them safe. Does that sound okay?”
A-Yuan pets Wei Ying’s cheek in response. Lan Zhan’s fatherly pride is growing by the second. “Okay.”
“We need to go,” Jiang Cheng says, “Like, now.”
“I will go with you,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng turn to him. Wei Ying’s eyes go wide from horror and embarrassment. “No, Lan Zhan, I can – no.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, taking A-Yuan’s hand like an anchor. “We need to find Yanli first.”
Yanli understands everything without a single word from either of them and nods to Zixuan standing next to her, just as worried, meaning, ‘I will go with them.’
“No,” Wei Ying protests, high in pitch, “you stay there and watch the babies, I will do it myself.”
“The hell you will,” Jiang Cheng barks.
“You will not,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying shoots them an annoyed look. Lan Zhan doesn’t budge.
“Yuanyuan, come here,” Yanli calls, voice strained. Lan Zhan wants to tell her not to worry, and not only because she is pregnant, but because he will not let Wei Ying be treated how he was. Nut – she is his sister. She knows and has seen more than Lan Zhan ever could.
“Right, that was fun and very therapeutic, but no,” Wei Ying says in the elevator. “I’ll go on my own.”
“I am coming,” Lan Zhan says, while Jiang Cheng silently fumes. Lan Zhan is genuinely happy to be here – Jiang Cheng will not sour his relationship with their mother on the eve of the wedding day and Wei Ying will not be alone.
Wei Ying’s hand twitches in Lan Zhan’s – a thank you, a reprimand, a cry for help never to get past his lips.
Lan Zhan is the one who knocks on the door, with Jiang Cheng pacing impatiently along the hallway.
Madam Yu is alone in her suite, standing by a desk with stacks and stacks of paper and a wedding book on it. She gives off an impression of a highly refined woman with excellent taste and an impeccably inscrutable face. Lan Zhan appreciates the combination; despises how she looks at Wei Ying.
She scrutinises Lan Zhan without a shade of civilities. Lan Zhan bows his head in lieu of a greeting. He is holding Wei Ying’s clammy hand, to the point it must be hurting him. Lan Zhan will kiss his hands later, every knuckle and every salty patch of skin.
“You will not be attending the tea pouring ceremony,” Madam Yu says without preamble. “And you will not sit at the family table.”
Wei Ying jerks – a full-body shiver, but says nothing. He is looking somewhere past her, his hand clenched in a fist.
Lan Zhan doesn’t even take another breath to speak. “Wei Ying will do both things. It was Yanli’s wish.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says.
Madam Yu doesn’t spare Lan Zhan even a twitch of an eyebrow – she is looking at Wei Ying, waiting for nothing but a nod.
Wei Ying nods.
“Wei Ying will attend the ceremony and he will sit at the table, with me and our son,” Lan Zhan presses, tightening his grip on Wei Ying’s fist. It hurts him, it hurts him to the point of an exhale.
Madam Yu shifts her gaze, now targeting Lan Zhan. “This is none of your business.”
“This is Yanli’s wedding,” Lan Zhan says, knowing perfectly well that this is none of his business. “Wei Ying is family.”
Wei Ying tries to get out of the lock of their hands, but Lan Zhan holds him down.
Madam Yu narrows her eyes. She looks every bit predatory. “I don’t want to see either of you after the wedding.”
“You will not,” Lan Zhan says, and turns around, pulling Wei Ying after him.
Jiang Cheng is waiting for them under the door, pale as A-Yuan’s paper rabbits. “Well?”
“I’m attending the ceremony and sitting with the family,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan hears how his teeth are clattering.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen for a brief second, then he looks at Lan Zhan and nods. Lan Zhan says nothing, leading Wei Ying out of the floor to get their coats.
The outside is biting, loud and crowded, but it clears Lan Zhan’s head from the need to fight his way through the violence of the family he doesn’t belong to. He is still holding Wei Ying’s hand, still clammy, still clutched in a fist.
Lan Zhan leads them somewhere – it’s already dark, it’s late October. It’s Lan Zhan’s favourite month. It’s Wei Ying’s month.
He remembers some sort of a park they passed on the way to the hotel, but he needs to warm up Wei Ying first. He pulls Wei Ying trailing after him into the first store he spots and buys wine – expensive, red, and a bottle opener.
They are both hungry and cold with adrenaline, but Wei Ying will drink and feel warmer. If Lan Zhan drinks, he will annihilate everyone who hurt Wei Ying in a span of half an hour.
The park is several blocks away is not crowded, but Lan Zhan leads them deeper, where lamps are few and trees are thick.
Once there’s a decent pile of leaves, Lan Zhan pushes Wei Ying into it, and Wei Ying sinks into it like in a bag chair. Lan Zhan uncorks the wine and closes Wei Ying’s hand around the bottle. Wordlessly, Wei Ying takes several big gulps, then takes a breath and takes another five.
Lan Zhan sits down on the ground, cross-legged, pulls out his phone, and text Yanli to let A-Yuan sleep in her and Zixuan’s room tonight. Lan Zhan is violating their last unmarried night, the premarital customs, and is grossly interfering in the family business. He doesn’t care.
“Good,” Wei Ying says, voice hoarse. “Thank you.”
“You are not thankful,” Lan Zhan says, taking the bottle and leaning it against his knee. He can barely see Wei Ying’s face.
“No, I’m not,” Wei Ying says. He burps the wine. Lan Zhan suspects that he is not cold anymore.
Neither of them speaks, but Lan Zhan knows that even if Wei Ying’s war is not won, at least this battle is.
“Always too much and never enough,” Wei Ying says some time later, then laughs, bitter with grief. “No, actually, always too much. Never enough is about A-Cheng.”
Lan Zhan says nothing, so Wei Ying takes the wine and finishes it in one go, flinging the empty bottle somewhere into the bare bushes. Lan Zhan stands up to find it.
Wei Ying is sprawled on the ground when Lan Zhan comes back, so he lies down beside him, the leaves crunchy under his body. He finds Wei Ying’s hand – warm, soft, with the traces of the charcoal.
“Wei Ying, will you marry me?”
Wei Ying rolls onto his side a hundred seconds later. “Are you proposing? Now?”
With the amount of adrenaline in both of them, he’s not drunk even after a bottle of wine on an empty stomach.
“No,” Lan Zhan says. “Just asking.”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says. “I will marry you.”
“Then I urge you to consider eloping.”
Wei Ying huffs a laugh. Lan Zhan smells the fruity wine and the dampness of the leaves underneath the both of them.
“Only if we will elope with A-Yuan.”
Lan Zhan nods to Wei Ying, to the sky, to himself.
“To the cabin.”
“To the cabin.”
“I will send you lots and lots of photos and videos and voice messages and just texts,” Wei Ying says, rummaging through his bag to find something. His phone, probably, that has been stuffed between his knees less than a minute ago and is under the bag now.
Lan Zhan taps his thigh twice. Wei Ying stops making a bigger mess of his belongings and looks up. “Yeah?”
Wei Ying lifts up the bag and makes an ‘oh’ sound.
“How did i survive without you for thirty years?” he gasps, genuinely astonished and teasingly thankful.
Lan Zhan looks to the side, where A-Yuan is trying to read a fashion poster on his own. “You had an older sister.”
“Why are you always right? It’s unfair.” Wei Ying scratches Lan Zhan’s knee a little. “But the question still stands. Thirty years without Lan Zhan is a lot of years.”
Lan Zhan does his best not to blush but knows his efforts are futile when Wei Ying flicks his ear lightly. Lan Zhan grabs his wrist and kisses Wei Ying’s knuckles in revenge. Wei Ying ducks his head, delightfully defeated.
The announcement of Wei Ying’s train rumbles across the station, and Wei Ying’s fingers twitch in Lan Zhan’s palm, but for once, his smile grows bigger before they part.
“A-Yuan!” Wei Ying shouts, and then there’s a response – a yell from a running A-Yuan.
Wei Ying hoists him up and into his lap for a hug and a kiss. “What did you manage to read?”
A-Yuan beams, pointing at the correct character. “Flower!”
Wei Ying ruffles his hair, incredibly proud. “Yuan-er! Soon you’ll be able to read everything by yourself and won’t need gege to read for you before bedtime!”
At that, A-Yuan’s expression sharpens into panicked. “I won’t read anymore,” he promises, holding two of Wei Ying’s fingers. “Will gege read for me then?”
Wei Ying laughs, startled by that reaction. He looks at Lan Zhan, face twisted into ‘how did I fuck this up?’
Lan Zhan tried to deliver, ‘you did not. He values you more than his skills, but he is still proud to show them off.’
Wei Ying jumps into the train seconds before it departs, and frantically waves at them, grinning all the way. Happy to go home, to meet his newborn nephew, to see his sister. Zixuan swore to Lan Zhan to take care of him.
A-Yuan waves at the tail of the train, transfixed and a little lost. He looks at Lan Zhan then, waiting for the cue. Lan Zhan bounces him on the hip.
“Little one, what do you think about a little adventure?”
Every time Wei Ying leaves for a work trip, Lan Zhan does what he considers to be a criminally selfish thing – a father and son day, a pamper day, fully dedicated to A-Yuan and him. They go to new places, eat at new places, and sleep in Lan Zhan’s bed until Wei Ying returns.
Today is sunny and cold, so A-Yuan’s cheeks are perfectly frost-bitten. He smiles, toothy and ready for whatever Lan Zhan has planned.
“Can we go see dinos?” A-Yuan asks.
“If you want. But do you want to try ice-skating?”
A-Yuan frowns adorably, then scratches his forehead under the hat. Lan Zhan knows it itches.
“Yeah!” he yells, having no idea what Lan Zhan is talking about. Lan Zhan bites at his cheeks for that, making A-Yuan squirm a little and laugh.
Lan Zhan hasn’t been on an ice rink for ages, but his body remembers the equilibrium nonetheless.
A-Yuan wants to let go of his hands approximately ten minutes into their joint attempts at skating, excited to do everything on his own, to show off, to impress Lan Zhan and gege later. His little legs shake, Lan Zhan sees, but A-Yuan pushes forward, tongue poking out and cheeks crimson. He wants to let go, but slips all the time, and ends up tightening his grip on Lan Zhan’s fingers after each attempt.
“Hard,” A-Yuan says, a little breathy. Lan Zhan’s back is complaining a little, too, but he just kisses the top of A-Yuan’s head.
“Do not rush.”
A-Yuan nods absently, digging his feet into the ice. He is tired already.
Only five or so reassurances that they will come back to the rink later does A-Yuan agree to leave and go for lunch. Lan Zhan takes photos of him standing at the edge of the rink, grinning from ear to ear and determined to learn something new and very difficult.
In bed, snuggled under the duvet and both exhausted, Lan Zhan strokes A-Yuan’s back – a habit that grants him instant reassurance month after month, year in and year out. A-Yuan is three in a couple of months and will go to kindergarten. Lan Zhan tries not to think about it.
“A-Yuan, what do you think about gege staying with us forever?”
A-Yuan peeks from under Lan Zhan’s chin. “Forever?”
“Yes. When Wei Ying and I get married, he will be able to be your father, too. If you want, you can call him a-die, or dada, instead of gege.”
A-Yuan lies back down, sleepy and silent for so long Lan Zhan is already starting to have second thoughts.
“A-die is good,” A-Yuan says. “Baba and a-die. Forever.”
Lan Zhan exhales into the safe near-darkness of his and Wei Ying’s bedroom, illuminated partially by the TV with Wall-E on.
“Forever,” Lan Zhan echoes.
His phone lights up. Careful not to disturb A-Yuan, already sleeping and even snoring quietly, Lan Zhan reaches out to grab it.
Wei Ying: [photo attached]
Wei Ying: want more of these?
Lan Zhan looks at Jin Ling, his red and scrunched up face and tiny form, at Wei Ying’s teary eyes and a watery smile, and wants a lot more.
Lan Zhan: Yes.
Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying wants to tell him something, something he wants to ask for, something for himself. He is combing Lan Zhan’s hair – an attempt to lull him into a state not quite meditative but still too distracted to react promptly.
Lan Zhan lets him. Once, he told Wei Ying that brushing his hair makes him sleepy, so Wei Ying uses it as a safety precaution every once in a while. Lan Zhan keeps telling him that this is unnecessary, that he will not deny Wei Ying anything, but Wei Ying – is Wei Ying.
He never asks for anything significant.
Wei Ying is collecting the hair behind his right ear, and Lan Zhan feels goosebumps run down his spine, making him shiver.
Wei Ying laughs quietly. “You’re adorable, bunbun. And you’re ticklish, too. What if I scratch your neck a little, will you paw at me like Bounty when I scratch him behind the ear?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls, reminding him about the matter at hand, because otherwise, he will paw at Wei Ying. “What do you want to tell me?”
The comb stills. “Oh.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t turn, waiting for Wei Ying to let himself want.
“This isn’t eloping yet, right?” Wei Ying says tentatively, resuming the rhythmic moves. “I’m not proposing yet, I’m just – it’s not.”
Lan Zhan hums. He knows it will happen at some point, and even if it doesn’t – deep down, he knows Wei Ying will not leave, and nothing else matters. They have grown into each other like ancient tree roots.
“Lan Zhan, can the two of us go to the cabin?”
Wei Ying doesn’t stop the combing, so when Lan Zhan turns around, he only catches a glimpse of panic on Wei Ying’s face before he ducks his head to find some hair ties for Lan Zhan’s overnight braid. The comb is now loose in his hair.
“Forget it,” Wei Ying grumbles, “just pretend you didn’t hear me, okay?”
Lan Zhan feels like he is about to go on the first date all over again, heart racing and ears changing colour from coral to crimson.
Wei Ying looks up from the pouch with the ties, eyes huge. “Yes?”
“Yes. Wei Ying, yes.”
“Oh. Oh, really?” Wei Ying shifts on the bed, knee-crawling closer. “And you won’t hate me for not taking the little one? Lan Zhan, I swear I love him, and if you want, all three of us will go, and –”
Lan Zhan kisses him – not to shut Wei Ying up, but to show that no, he will not hate him, and as a yes to everything else.
Wei Ying’s cheekbones are flushed when Lan Zhan withdraws. He looks stupefied. “Is that a yes?”
Lan Zhan kisses him more. It is a yes.
“We will bring you lots of presents and yummy things when we come back, I promise,” Wei Ying says, kneeling before A-Yuan, who looks betrayed at not coming but excited to stay with his uncle. Lan Zhan still doesn’t know what brother and A-Yuan do together when he’s at Lan Huan’s, but every time Lan Zhan comes back to collect him, his son looks absolutely wired yet frazzled. He knows ordinary things are involved, but perhaps it’s just brother’s disposition to entertaining children peaks around A-Yuan in particular.
“Fine,” A-Yuan says, accepting the kisses and hugs. “I want chocolate.”
Wei Ying laughs. He is giddy with the upcoming trip, their getaway, so he agrees with every demand A-Yuan has been making since they told him that they would be going away for a couple of days.
“Loads and loads of chocolate, I promise,” Wei Ying says, three fingers pressed in a solemn vow. “We will call you every day.”
Lan Zhan then lifts him up and holds him for a few minutes, feeling very guilty for being selfish and going away. He wants A-Yuan to go with them. He wants to spend three days with Wei Ying, have an extended and belated first date with a man he aches to call his husband.
“We love you, bunny,” Lan Zhan murmurs into A-Yuan’s swollen cheek – he is teething a little again. Brother will have the time of his life.
“Alright, off you go,” Lan Huan says, ruffling A-Yuan’s curls. “It’s going to be dark soon.”
Lan Zhan lets him take A-Yuan, then mouths ‘thank you’ to brother, who smiles at him – open, understanding, encouraging. Lan Zhan blushes in response.
When they roam the supermarket for their food shop, Wei Ying spends a long time in the alcohol section. “I want to get very drunk and brave,” he informs Lan Zhan, not facing him, at which Lan Zhan raises one brow and says, “Wei Ying is always brave.” Wei Ying disagrees.
Lan Zhan secretly hopes it will snow while they are away – it’s December, it’s ruthlessly cold and humid, but no snow yet. The forecast has no hopes for a miracle, but Lan Zhan does. He has A-Yuan and met Wei Ying, after all.
It is quite late when they arrive, past A-Yuan’s bedtime and somewhat approaching Lan Zhan’s, but Lan Zhan feels electrified – three days with Wei Ying alone, all to himself. He knows Wei Ying feels exactly the same. The way he keeps looking at Lan Zhan makes his stomach twist from anticipation. And when Wei Ying presses him to the wall of the cabin and Lan Zhan’s head doesn’t thud against it – there is Wei Ying’s palm, protective and assaulting, too, holding him by the hair – Lan Zhan frowns.
Wei Ying smiles at him, only a little feral. “Look at you, bunbun. Walked right into a wolf’s den. Willingly.”
Wei Ying doesn’t answer – he bites Lan Zhan’s lips, then licks into his mouth.
The rest of the cabin is dark and arctic-cold, but when Lan Zhan wraps his legs around Wei Ying’s waist, he feels how hot he is under several layers of clothing.
Their first date starts off quite well, Lan Zhan thinks distantly as Wei Ying carries him upstairs.
“I need to make a fire,” Wei Ying says, running mindless circles on Lan Zhan’s back. “I feel like a caveman.”
“You behave like one.”
Wei Ying snickers, poking Lan Zhan under his ribs. “Will you keep the fire steady, then? While I kill off some beasts outside for our very late dinner slash very early breakfast?”
Lan Zhan smiles into his chest. Wei Ying’s heart sings a steady tap-tap-tap under his cheek.
“All the beasts have been pre-killed. Wei Ying only has to find a necessary bag with their parts.”
Wei Ying laughs again, then heaves a sigh so deep Lan Zhan’s head lifts a little, and goes to light a fire.
In the morning – closer to noon, really – Wei Ying stumbles downstairs, squinting at the sunlight. Lan Zhan puts the laptop away, happy to see Wei Ying dressed in the softest home clothes Lan Zhan packed for him.
“How long did I sleep?” Wei Ying slurs, climbing into Lan Zhan’s lap and wrapping his arms around his shoulders.
“Enough to feel better,” Lan Zhan offers, effectively pinned by Wei Ying’s sleep-warm body to the sofa. Lan Zhan would not mind spending the rest of their little vacation just like that.
“Mm,” Wei Ying grunts, pressing closer. “How’s the baby?”
“Fine. Dreamed of dolphins and jellyfish.”
Wei Ying breathes out a soundless laugh. “Nice. Is he angry?”
“No, but asked me to tell you he misses us.”
“I miss him too already,” Wei Ying says. “It’s so quiet without him here.”
Lan Zhan says nothing, because he misses A-Yuan, too – desperately, guiltily, but he is still very, very happy.
After a very late breakfast, they go for a walk in the forest, and this time, they walk up to the lake. It’s big and the shore is already hidden beneath a layer of ice. Wei Ying toes at it with his army boot, but doesn’t attempt testing its thickness by stepping on it. Lan Zhan watches the heavy clouds collecting above their heads with utmost hope.
As the day goes by and they spend it sneaking in touches, kisses, bolder words and confessions, Wei Ying becomes more and more agitated. Lan Zhan realises somehow that the request during the hair-combing was just a beginning.
Lan Zhan waits, cooking dinner and watching Wei Ying talk to A-Yuan over video call and listen to his daily accomplishments in learning simple characters and numbers. Wei Ying asks how many dolphins A-Yuan saw in his dream, and A-Yuan shows him four fingers.
Wei Ying drinks, but Lan Zhan doubts he tastes the wine – it looks like Wei Ying is indeed drinking to work up the courage to say something. Lan Zhan looks at his dinner and pushes away the plate, suddenly feeling sick in his stomach.
An hour later and two bottles down, Wei Ying climbs onto the sofa in front of the fireplace and pats the area beside him. Lan Zhan sits down, gauging Wei Ying’s wine-induced flush, and waits some more.
“I lied to you,” Wei Ying begins, sounding very, very sober.
Lan Zhan’s fingers twitch, hands folded on his lap. Wei Ying studies him, waiting, too, for the initial reaction.
“You never asked me why I behave like I do around A-Yuan. From the very beginning. Aren’t you curious, Lan Zhan?”
Something caves in the solar plexus area. Lan Zhan stands up from the sofa, and then he is looming over Wei Ying.
One corner of Wei Ying’s mouth twitches when he looks up. “Nothing rotten. Well. He saved my life – rotten. Please sit down.”
Lan Zhan stays standing.
Wei Ying runs a hand through his hair. Lan Zhan had washed it hours ago. “Right before he was born, it all got very, very bad. To the point that I don’t remember most of it, because I was – drinking. Doing things, probably. Jie tried to help. And then A-Yuan was born.”
Suddenly, Lan Zhan remembers how Yanli looked that winter – pale, haunted, smiling rarely and only when Lan Zhan talked her through recent baby purchases and sent her the scans. He asked her several times, hoping that it wouldn’t be perceived as an intrusion, but Yanli said that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
“Photos,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying laughs, a broken sound. He doesn’t look away from Lan Zhan. “Yeah. She baited me into recovery with his photos, you know. I don’t know what happened to my slug of a brain when I first saw him. But when I did, Lan Zhan, I –”
Wei Ying lowers his head, draws a breath, then another one. “Something clicked. I looked at his little face and felt disgusting about doing what I was doing. I felt dirty and unworthy of even looking at your tiny son. I cried the whole night back then, you know.”
Lan Zhan takes a step back and lowers himself on the floor. Wei Ying studies the thumb holes in his sweatshirt.
“In the morning, I had the first proper meal in months. I wouldn’t let anyone close, Lan Zhan, not even jie. So she said, I will send you more photos if you eat properly. The thing was, after so much alcohol, I couldn’t eat much, and tried to sneak in photos of other people’s meals, but she always knew when I lied to her. So I cooked. Me, Lan Zhan, see what your son does to people? He made me stand by the stove and nurse myself back to life.”
A wave of horror washes over Lan Zhan – back in October, he made Wei Ying drink a whole bottle on an empty stomach. Wei Ying never told him anything, never said –
“I made you drink,” Lan Zhan says quietly.
Wei Ying stops stretching his sleeve holes, looks up. “I have a very high alcohol tolerance, Lan Zhan. As you can see, two bottles barely did anything to me. To get properly drunk, I need a lot more and for more than three days. But it doesn’t matter, because I won’t drink anymore after today. I only bought so much in case you will break up with me and I could drink it away for one day, and then head out – somewhere, because you wouldn’t let me see him anymore.”
“I will not break up with you.”
“You did nothing for me to opt for that.”
Wei Ying scoffs. “I’m saying that I creep-watched your baby grow for a year, watched videos you sent Yanli, heard your voice in the background and felt a lot about that, and when I saw you two, I basically threw myself at you and demanded to hold your baby, and then found every excuse to stay by your side, fell in love with you pretty much before I met you, probably – and you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with that?”
Wei Ying groans, hiding his face in his palms. “You’re impossible. Please break up with me, I can’t do this.”
Lan Zhan grabs Wei Ying’s ankle and slowly pulls him off the sofa. Wei Ying doesn’t fight, doesn’t run, and in the bright light the fire lends, Lan Zhan sees how bloodshot his eyes are from unshed tears.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, pulling him into an embrace, and only then does Wei Ying start crying. It is quiet and interrupted by quiet ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘I love you.’
In the morning, they go home, back to A-Yuan, to play snowballs.
The moment the light goes out, Lan Zhan hears two incredibly synchronised screams – from Wei Ying and A-Yuan.
A-Yuan screams once, startled in the middle of petting Toothless. Wei Ying screams a couple of times, and Lan Zhan suspects it has to do with the work he’s been doing.
Lan Zhan’s laptop is still beaming, bright and working, so A-Yuan doesn’t panic that much, but still makes little sounds of fright when he climbs into Lan Zhan’s already empty lap, and asks, “What happened?”
Wei Ying trips over the baby gate, which they agreed would to stay up for a bit longer, although A-Yuan is perfectly capable of getting past it, but it still stands.
“What happened?” Wei Ying grumbles, tripping over more stuff in the living room.
“I believe it is because of the heavy snow on the wires.”
Wei Ying heaves a sigh so deep Lan Zhan can feel in on his arms wrapped around A-Yuan, and sits down on the floor. “I think I butchered that thing. Now what?”
A-Yuan tries to make Wei Ying climb on the sofa, patting his head, but Wei Ying stays down.
“Now we call the services and ask, and then wait for the repair team to do their job,” Lan Zhan says, nagging Wei Ying with his foot to get off the floor. “The evening is going to be candle-lit.”
Wei Ying groans into his cupped palms. “The one time I sat down to do that thing, and the light went out. I feel like that god of misfortune. A calamity, even.”
Lan Zhan takes out his phone and nudges Wei Ying’s shoulder with it. Since the day Wei Ying started living here, he does all the mandatory people calls that take Lan Zhan hours of mental preparation to make.
The news is unpromising – next morning, at best. Wei Ying politely thanks the person who answered the call on the thirtieth try, and then faceplants into the sofa cushion.
“How many candles do we have?” Wei Ying says some minutes later. “Unscented.”
Lan Zhan turns the phone flash on. “Three. Once A-Yuan is bathed, you can take all of them.”
“I want a story,” A-Yuan says, wrapped in a fox towel that desperately needs a replacement, but Lan Zhan knows A-Yuan will throw a tantrum if he will buy a fresh one. “New story!”
Wei Ying makes a thoughtful sound, combing his hair. “Spooky or funny?”
“Spooky!” A-Yuan says immediately, tone mischievous. Lan Zhan thinks A-Yuan inherited his love for conventionally pressing topics.
In the candlelight, Wei Ying looks soft at the edges and impossibly domesticated. Lan Zhan files away this new knowledge to be savoured later. “Do you know a story about the Yiling Patriarch?”
“No?” A-Yuan says after a moment. “What is Yiling Patriarch?”
Lan Zhan leans over the banister, prepared for a mild trauma A-Yuan is going to have. He knows this story – a myth, really.
“Well, not what but who! There once was an old city called Yiling, and there was a man who ruled it. Well, its adjusting area, but that’s details. It was said that this man could raise corpses and ate babies for breakfast!”
A-Yuan responds straightaway, “Why breakfast?”
Wei Ying looks up at Lan Zhan – he is trying very hard not to laugh out loud. He clears his throat. “Dunno? Because babies are tasty and easy to swallow? You don’t eat potatoes for breakfast, do you? You like eggs and soldiers.”
“What else did he eat?” Lan Zhan asks.
Wei Ying slaps his ankle. “Um, radishes, I’ve heard? Although he didn’t like them much – he preferred potatoes, just like you, bunny.”
“Babies and radishes,” A-Yuan says, folding his legs. “Corpses?”
“He used corpses to protect his den,” Wei Ying continues. The hair is done, so now he and A-Yuan are just sitting on the floor. “He was very scary and lonely, and he had a very clever corpse that served him, the Ghost General.”
“Oh,” A-Yuan pipes up. “Ghost?”
“Yeah, like, a man but dead but not really a ghost. A zombie, but clever.”
“I want a clever zombie,” A-Yuan says, peering at Lan Zhan. “For birthday?”
Lan Zhan scoops him off the floor and carries him into the dark nursery. “What would you do with a clever zombie?”
Wei Ying hands Lan Zhan A-Yuan’s fleece pajamas, also willing to know what use is of a clever corpse.
“Play with him,” A-Yuan says, very serious. “Friends?”
Lan Zhan glances at Wei Ying, who bites his lips.
“Did the Yiling King had friends?” A-Yuan suddenly asks, climbing into bed. “Not ghosts.”
“Not that I’ve heard of,” Wei Ying confesses, tucking him in. “Not King – Patriarch, little one.”
Lan Zhan frowns. “You do not know the rest of the story?”
Wei Ying turns around. One candle is not enough to see his expression clearly, but he must be confused. “The rest of the story?”
A-Yuan peeks around Wei Ying’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “The Patriarch had a friend. And it turned out he did not eat the babies – only radishes.”
“Never heard of a friend,” Wei Ying repeats. “Your version is like a director’s cut of mine.”
Lan Zhan settles down on the floor, now. “His friend’s name was Hanguang-jun, who waited for the Patriarch to return from the mountain he resided on.”
“Did they meet?” A-Yuan asks. He sounds not a bit like it’s his bedtime.
Lan Zhan nods. “Many years later. It is said that the Patriarch died, protecting the people who lived on that mountain, but his powers were too great, and eventually, he could not control the corpses anymore.”
Wei Ying exhales a quiet, ‘oh.’
“Still, years later, he came back to life, and his friend found him. Together, they solved a great mystery, and the Patriarch stayed by Hanguang-jun’s side.”
Neither Wei Ying nor A-Yuan says anything for several flicks of the candle’s flame.
“Woah,” A-Yuan says first. “What is Hanguanbun?”
“The one who bears light,” Wei Ying says right away. “Alright, bunny, you liked the story, now sleep! I will count to one. Three –”
A-Yuan shrieks and throws the duvet over his head, giggling.
Lan Zhan watches Wei Ying undress several hours later, in the wintery light from the outside.
“Nice story,” Wei Ying says, “I didn’t know the second part.”
“Mother told me it when I was little,” Lan Zhan admits. “I remembered it.”
“Is there any part that you omitted? Because it was too scary to tell him?”
Wei Ying climbs under the duvet, feet like icicles.
Lan Zhan waits until Wei Ying settles behind him, pulling Lan Zhan closer.
“There was a boy that lived on a mountain with the Patriarch. He survived only because Hanguang-jun found him after the Patriarch’s death, and took him in.”
“That’s rough,” Wei Ying utters sleepily into Lan Zhan’s nape. “What was his name?”
“Sizhui, I think.”
Wei Ying hums. “Romantic. And sad. Just like you, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan says nothing to that but knows that if they had courtesy names now, he’d give A-Yuan a similar one, perhaps.
“If we continue like that, we will divorce.”
“We are not married yet.”
Wei Ying throws his head back in frustration. “You know, I will literally marry you tomorrow and file for a divorce the day after. The topper is crooked.”
Lan Zhan gently grabs him by the shoulder and points at the top of the tree. “No. See?”
“All I see is a star askew. Come on, pick me up, I need to redo it.”
“We have redone it five times. It is enough.”
Wei Ying whines, rubbing at his face. “We haven’t even started the lights yet. This is gonna be a disaster.”
Lan Zhan kisses his temple. “It is just a tree to be decorated. Besides, A-Yuan wants to participate.”
“With the ornaments we have picked, it’s impossible to fuck up the look. Unless he will hang them all at his eye level, which… oh, he gonna do it, isn’t he?” Wei Ying peers at him from where his head rests on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. His architect’s vision is currently suffering a great deal.
“He is going to, yes,” Lan Zhan says. “When he is asleep, we will fix it and say that a fairy flew in and arranged the baubles to her liking.”
“That’s cheating,” Wei Ying frowns and flicks Lan Zhan’s nose. “You don’t have a chimney, how’d she come in?”
Lan Zhan ducks down and lifts Wei Ying on his shoulders, holding his ankles. “She is a fairy. She can walk through the wall.”
“Beast,” Wei Ying purrs, tugging on Lan Zhan’s robust pigtails. “So you agree that the topper is lopsided?”
Lan Zhan leans forward, careful not to throw Wei Ying into the Christmas tree. “I do not.”
Wei Ying grunts as he moves the topper around in increments, then makes Lan Zhan walk away and back to the tree, still not satisfied. The tree is huge – A-Yuan refused to have anything that is less than an entire corner of the living room-big. Lan Zhan was very supportive of this.
“Can you step back? Oh yeah. Ooooh, now it’s straight. Oh heavens, we did it, bunbun, now for the fun part – the lights!”
Lan Zhan hears the click of the lower baby gate as A-Yuan skips into the room.
“The star is crooked,” he announces, tugging on Wei Ying’s sweatpants.
Both Wei Ying and Lan Zhan look down, where A-Yuan is now touching the needles, soft and vibrant green, then smells his palm. Lan Zhan looks up and sees the desperately pained expression on Wei Ying’s face.
“No topper?” Lan Zhan offers.
Wei Ying grins – ‘try me.’
Lan Zhan did toy with the thought that making gingerbread houses with Wei Ying would be a challenge. Not for Wei Ying – for A-Yuan, who is currently at the age of smashing and destroying and then reconstructing things, while Lan Zhan himself has always lacked artistic skills.
Wei Ying, surprisingly, is content with just a carton mold to shape the walls, windows, and doors in the dough, but he carves chimneys without one. After everything is baked, every part fits perfectly – including the chimney parts.
“I just want to decorate the hell out of it,” Wei Ying says, mixing the royal icing. “Wanna be a babey about it.”
Lan Zhan adds a couple drops of water into the mixture. “You are a baby.”
Wei Ying smiles – broad and insolent. “Yes. Remember that when I ask you to buy me a load of kinder chocolate eggs.”
While Wei Ying tears apart the packets with candy and chocolates, Lan Zhan amends the grocery shopping list on his phone and adds chocolate eggs to the ‘for the babies’ section, where A-Yuan’s ever-changing snack choices and Wei Ying’s shaving cream are written down.
All three of them work on A-Yuan’s gingerbread house at A-Yuan’s personal request, because he wants to station all of his dinosaurs there. Wei Ying nods and glues the roof higher to accommodate baba-Brontosaurus, gege-Coelophysis, shushu-Diplodocus, and the rest of the family.
A-Yuan is very delicate when it comes to decorating: although his icing is rather blobby and smeared in places (he used his fingers to spread it), he sprinkles colourful sugar and candy and mini marshmallows with great care, and then spills a cup of shredded coconut on top of it.
Lan Zhan keeps his ascetic – more snow, no colourful sugar, but the does draw flowers on the window-ledge – blue for gentians. He loves his house – it looks like his own, save the flowers that bloom from late April until late autumn – courtesy of Wei Ying’s many talents.
When he looks at Wei Ying’s, it looks like it’s been decorated by a one-year-old. Wei Ying glued everything on the roof and sides: candy, marshmallows, pretzels, sprinkles, wafers. It looks like a disaster of a house. It looks brilliant.
“How’d I do?” Wei Ying asks, wiping his forehead with the palm covered in blue icing. “Enough of a mess?”
Lan Zhan looks back at his own – it looks boring. “Impressive. Would you mind helping me with mine?”
Wei Ying eyes the house, then Lan Zhan. He tilts his head inquisitively. “Bunbun, your house is so classy. You want me to mess it up for you?”
Lan Zhan’s ears are the colour of the peppermint candies Wei Ying used as doorframes. “Yes.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying sighs, reeking of feigned innocence. “Maybe I should mess you up, too? Your pretty pigtails?”
Without a warning, Wei Ying grabs one of the side ponytails with the hand covered in blue icing, and drags it down. Lan Zhan watches the icing clump his hair, leave traces on his shirt, sees the grin on Wei Ying’s face – challenging, calling, stupidly pleased with himself.
Lan Zhan sticks his hand in the bowl of red icing and drags it across Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying’s eyes grow so big he looks like a human-sized doll. It takes him a second to realise what’s just happened, and then he screeches, “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan wrestles Wei Ying down to the floor, and Wei Ying topples two bowls of icing trying to stay up, resulting in splotches of egg and sugar and lemon concoction all over their hair, hands, faces, and clothes. Wei Ying fights so feebly Lan Zhan wants to glue M&Ms all over his face and then lick them off while Wei Ying wraps both pigtails over his fists and pulls Lan Zhan into the most sickly sweet kiss either of them has ever experienced.
“You look like Harley Quinn,” Wei Ying giggles against Lan Zhan’s lips.
“You look mine,” Lan Zhan says, palming the counter to find the M&Ms, and knocks the bottle of sprinkles over their heads.
“I like it more now. Looks like our house,” Wei Ying says, unpeeling the candy off Lan Zhan’s face.
It does. The gentians, the mess of colours, stray dinosaurs, and plastic bunnies.
“We need a bigger house,” Lan Zhan says.
At his side, Wei Ying laughs. “I’ve got you, bunbun.”
“We have enough food to live through a short apocalypse,” Wei Ying notes, studying the insides of their overflowing fridge. “Or one family gathering. Which is basically the same thing.”
“You love family gatherings.”
“It’s still a disaster.”
Lan Zhan will not argue with that – everyone is coming down after New Year, family and friends, some people Wei Ying hasn’t seen in years. Lan Zhan has heard a lot about Wen Qing over the time he’s known Wei Ying and wants to meet the woman who’d sheltered him for months, once.
Brother and his two friends are coming, Huaisang promised to come by with his new boyfriend. Uncle is coming, too. Lan Zhan’s skin prickles with restless anticipation.
Wei Ying ends up taking a yoghurt pot out of the fridge when it starts beeping about being open for too long.
“It’s good that they’re coming after, not on the very day. Our first proper New Year together, like a family,” Wei Ying says, wiggling his eyebrows and sticking a teaspoonful of cherry yoghurt into his mouth.
He doesn’t stutter over ‘family,’ but Lan Zhan sees his unblinking gaze and knows how much panic and courage Wei Ying packs into it: I know I belong here, but give me time to accept that.
Lan Zhan would give him anything, most of all time and space.
On New Year’s Eve, Lan Zhan wakes up to an empty bed. It’s six in the morning, the bedroom is pitch-black and uncomfortably quiet without Wei Ying’s shallow and sleepy breaths. He must have been working all night, Lan Zhan thinks, feet touching the slippers.
The door to A-Yuan’s bedroom is wide open and the lava lamp is still on. Lan Zhan switches it off and goes to check Wei Ying’s office – it’s empty. It looks pristine: not a paper or a pencil refill out of place. Lan Zhan’s stomach flips at the unusual sight.
Downstairs, the lights are dim and the voices are hushed, and relief crashes over Lan Zhan with torrential force.
“–only when he wakes up, because we don’t want him to be groggy from lack of sleep, do we?” Wei Ying murmurs.
Lan Zhan doesn’t make any sound as he leans against the door frame, watching Wei Ying and A-Yuan set up the train tracks that would be going around the Christmas tree later today. It was one of A-Yuan’s presents, and for some reason Wei Ying let him open it. The lights on the tree are on, the gentle setting Lan Zhan so enjoys.
Some parts click together as Wei Ying slots them, and it disturbs the bunnies. One of them perks up – Bounty, of course – so Wei Ying looks to the side to check on him, and spots Lan Zhan.
The smile on his face is equal parts distractingly blinding and apologetic. “Morning, love. Did we wake you?”
A-Yuan whirls around and makes a high sound of excitement, getting to his feet and speed-running into Lan Zhan’s ready arms.
“No,” Lan Zhan says, wrapping A-Yuan into one side of his robe.
“I have a train!” A-Yuan screams into his ear, making Lan Zhan wince. “My present!”
“Yeah, about that,” Wei Ying says immediately, pushing all the parts under the tree. “I’ll tell you later.”
Lan Zhan looks at him long enough for Wei Ying to shake his head, as in, ‘don’t worry.’ Lan Zhan worries more at that, and goes to make breakfast.
Wei Ying is unsettlingly quiet for the rest of the morning, smiling every time Lan Zhan adds spoonfuls of fruit salad into his plate. A-Yuan looks tired, too.
“Did you sleep well?” Lan Zhan asks him when he dresses A-Yuan for the day.
A-Yuan shakes his head. “Bad dream.”
Lan Zhan’s fingers still on the third button of A-Yuan’s big boy shirt, as he calls it. “What dream, bunny?”
A-Yuan shakes his head again, a bit more vigorously.
“Okay,” Lan Zhan says, doing the rest of the buttons and tucking the shirt into the trousers. If A-Yuan wants to tell him the dream, he will. “Can you say, where the night goes, the dream follows?”
“Where the night goes, the dream follows,” A-Yuan repeats dutifully, and strokes Lan Zhan’s hair at that. “Why?”
“It chases bad dreams away,” Lan Zhan says and pulls A-Yuan into an embrace. A-Yuan is still small enough to hide his face in Lan Zhan’s shoulder when Lan Zhan kneels, and he hopes A-Yuan’s confidence in safety that Lan Zhan’s body provides will never fade, even when he is as tall as Lan Zhan.
A-Yuan nuzzles closer and exhales, soft and trusting, little arms circling Lan Zhan’s neck. Lan Zhan holds him close, stroking his back and curls that stick out after A-Yuan slept funnily. “I am here, bunny.”
“Love you,” A-Yuan says. He kisses Lan Zhan on the cheek and giggles when Lan Zhan tickles his ribs.
Lan Zhan catches him by the wrist and kisses him on the forehead. “I love you too, my little one.”
Wei Ying hugs him from behind as Lan Zhan kneads dough, bringing shaggy bits into a semi-uniform ball.
“He had a nightmare and woke me up,” Wei Ying says, resting his head on the same shoulder that A-Yuan sighed into hours earlier.
“Did he tell you what he dreamt about?”
Wei Ying’s thumbs press mindlessly on Lan Zhan’s hipbones, looking for more purchase. “Yes. And I didn’t really realise he was talking to me when he came into the room because I thought he’d mistaken me for you.”
Lan Zhan frowns, leaning forward to get the plastic wrap. “Why?”
“He called me a-die. I thought he was talking to you.”
Lan Zhan’s hand stops mid-air, lungs feeling too small for the breath he aches to draw. “But he was not.”
Wei Ying’s fingers flex on his waist. “He wasn’t. He called me that, Lan Zhan.”
He sounds so lost Lan Zhan has to take half a breath and then turn around, gauging Wei Ying’s expression. It’s as lost as his tone.
“Did you not like that?”
Wei Ying’s eyes grow huge, mouth parting. “No! Lan Zhan, what are you – I loved it!” Wei Ying almost shouts, and then he smacks Lan Zhan’s forearm. “Silly bunbun! That was my dream for many, many months!”
Now he sounds nearly indignant, which makes Lan Zhan’s lungs even smaller – from the overwhelming relief. “What is the problem, then?”
At that, Wei Ying’s lips curl into such a small smile Lan Zhan reaches out and traces it with his flour-dusted thumb. Wei Ying smiles wider.
“Did you tell him to call me that?” he says, Lan Zhan’s thumb moving alongside Wei Ying’s mouth.
“I offered him that once, but did not know he would do it this soon.”
Wei Ying blushes beautifully. “I am a-die, Lan Zhan, can you believe that? A dad. A father, oh my god, how is that – Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying drops his head on Lan Zhan’s chest, still smiling.
A-Yuan’s nightmare is mostly fragments of Wei Ying burying him in dirt and living on a mountain with him, but he woke up from being too hot and not because he actually dreamt of something bad.
“I touched his forehead when he came, and it was a little warmer, so maybe he was rolling around a lot and got too hot, and then woke up,” Wei Ying suggests, legs dangling off the counter. “Anyway, I let him tidy the office and open one present.”
Lan Zhan adds orange zest to the cherry filling for the pie. “Did you open yours?”
“Nope! Waiting for the morning. But I want to give you yours now.”
“I will wait for tomorrow.”
“But what if I want you to have it now? What if I wanted you to have it a year ago?”
His tone changes with every word, obtaining a slightly desperate key. Lan Zhan turns around. “Then I want to have it now, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying stops flinging his legs, and the next instant, he jumps off the counter and grabs Lan Zhan by the shoulders, searching his face for any doubt. Lan Zhan has none – not with Wei Ying.
“Oh, bunbun,” Wei Ying breathes out, sounding almost reverent. “Oh, I’m – I’ll be right back, you stay here and don’t move, okay? I’ll – I’ll be right back!”
Wei Ying then looks further into the living room but doesn’t find what he needs there, apparently.
“Yuan-er! Come here to your baba and a-die!”
At the last word, the grin on his face is astronomical and so boyish Lan Zhan huffs a laugh.
Wei Ying bolts, the floury traces on his lips and chin still intact, and Lan Zhan, as instructed, stays rooted in place. Yet, he feels like a balloon filled with helium – weightless, reaching up, to the skies and the sun that is Wei Ying.
A-Yuan runs into the kitchen with a toy fire engine in one hand, looking at Lan Zhan for further instructions. And then Wei Ying yells, “Come to the Christmas tree!”
He sounds breathless. As Lan Zhan and A-Yuan approach, Lan Zhan’s chest tightens – Wei Ying looks nearly insane, clutching a huge drawing tube in his hands.
Before Lan Zhan has a chance to say something, Wei Ying falls to one knee, holding out the tube like a sword. It even has a name.
“Lan Zhan, my love, my life, my breath, my bunbun. I love you and I love A-Yuan. Can I have both of you forever in my present?”
A-Yuan reacts first, screeching so loudly Wei Ying’s hands waver. He looks at Lan Zhan, unblinking, breathing heavily.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, but he can’t hear his voice through the blood pounding in each part of his body, most of all ears.
Wei Ying understands that, for once, Lan Zhan’s mouth opens without his volition, and he reaches to open the tube and then shakes it – two ring boxes fall out, and a huge scroll.
Lan Zhan’s knees feel exceptionally weak, and he drops low near Wei Ying. In the corner of his eye, A-Yuan follows suit, reaching for the ring boxes.
Wei Ying says something to him and picks the boxes himself. One is navy and big, and there –
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying’s mouth forms the syllables, lips perfect around the sound Lan Zhan cannot hear. “Will you marry me?”
Lan Zhan stares at the open ring box with a ring in it – and then back at Wei Ying, who is smiling, smiling, smiling.
Wei Ying takes Lan Zhan’s hand – bits of dough still stuck to it, flour falling on the carpet as his wrist shakes violently in Wei Ying’s steady grasp.
“Lan Zhan,” Lan Zhan hears – finally. “Bunbun, can you signal flare me if you agree or not?”
Lan Zhan nods, a jerky move.
Wei Ying laughs and takes a ring out of the box, not looking away from Lan Zhan’s face.
“Will you be my Hanguang-jun, Lan Zhan ah? Will you be my friend that solves the mystery of tetrising things into our fridge? In a house that’s big enough for us and our three children?”
The ring slides onto his finger, a wet patch of dough coiling around it to keep it in place.
“Forever,” Lan Zhan breathes out. “Yes. Wei Ying, yes.”
Wei Ying makes a sound so victorious it rivals A-Yuan’s harshest tantrum noises. His smile takes half of his face. He blindly reaches down and takes the scroll, and then unfolds it.
It’s a house. Lan Zhan catches the sight of the rooms called ‘master bedroom’ and ‘girls’ room,’ and then Wei Ying lowers it.
“I have found land, too! It’s in Gusu, and peacock actually helped, you know? And your brother said yes! And your uncle! I know you care about that, so I asked both! And I wanted to wait until I was done with the house and the land and all, so I kept you waiting for –” Wei Ying looks at his wrist to check the time. He never wears a watch. He looks back up. “A year? Sorry it took me so long, bunbun, but it’s a yes? A yes-yes-yes? I will plant more gentians and chilli peppers, and –”
Lan Zhan kisses him stupid, tackling Wei Ying to the floor under the Christmas tree, in front of A-Yuan and with flour all over Wei Ying’s face and hair.
A-Yuan throws himself onto Lan Zhan’s back, making noises that are both frustrated and happy, because his parents are kissing and he doesn’t know why.
“Wait, I gotta,” Wei Ying ducks his head, and only then does Lan Zhan register that they’re compressing the huge scheme. But Wei Ying reaches for the second ring box.
“A-Yuan, come here, son. Can I marry your baba and have him forever?”
There’s a second ring, but it’s very small and made of plastic. It looks like a ring from a kinder egg.
Wei Ying looks like he’s just won at life when A-Yuan yells into his face and takes the ring, putting it on his index finger.
Lan Zhan looks at his son, then at Wei Ying, whose lips twitch from overworking. His almost-husband.
“Wei Ying, do you wish to learn to swaddle?”