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i'm the one for your fire

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It’s Wei Ying’s birthday tomorrow, and after 10,949 days of life, he is still, against his wishes, a card-carrying virgin.


Wei Ying doesn’t mind most of the time. Not really. He’s busy enough with work that it isn’t often he actively finds himself reflecting on his own lack of experience. But there is something about a 30th birthday that feels like a failed milestone. A sad little flag-wave of unwilling abstinence.


As his best friend, apparently, is so keen to remind him.


“Year thirty, Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says, and leans over Wei Ying’s chair so that it tilts backwards with a creak. “And still nothing, huh?”


“Fuck off,” Wei Ying says absently, clicking through a case study. 


Huaisang sniffs and slouches into a chair next to Wei Ying’s desk. “A dangerous way to speak to someone who has sole control over your birthday rager tonight.” probably true. “I can’t talk about sex at work, Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying says, very diplomatically. “I’m pretty sure it’s in my contract somewhere.”


Huaisang scoffs and gives a dismissive wave of one hand, then tugs at one of his earrings. “I write half of those contracts, so that’s bullshit. I’m fully within my rights to question you, on the eve of your third decade alive, how on earth you’re both my hottest and my least-laid friend.”


“Remind me why we’re talking about this to begin with?” Wei Ying asks, tapping the window shut and leveling a pointed look at Huaisang. “Didn’t Nie Mingjue condemn you to preliminary research for the day?”


Huaisang places a sentimental hand over his heart. “Because I care, Wei-xiong. And don’t bring my brother into this to distract me.”


It had been worth a shot. It’s not like this is the first time Huaisang has broached this subject, though usually not at this volume and not in their place of business. 


And, well. Huaisang is right, after all. Wei Ying is all too keenly aware that the older he gets, without experiencing that particular rite of passage into adulthood, the more of an anomaly he becomes.


The thing is. Wei Ying has had plenty of chances to finally — get over that last hill. The big bang, and all of that. Throughout his twenties, he’s been trashed at more parties than he can count, and there had been no shortage of cute girls who’d eagerly offered themselves up. He’s had surprisingly good traction on dating apps, something which his friends and his brother vocally resent him for. But text conversations have rarely gone beyond the first few, superficial lines; the few dates he’d landed had been resounding flops, a mutual fizzling that neither party cared to follow up on. 


So, Wei Ying has had chances. Many of them. And he likes flirting! A lot! Flirting is fun! It’s just that — whenever the opportunity had presented itself, it hadn’t seemed like the right time, for whatever reason. Or the right person, or the right situation, or the right mood.


So, yeah. Here he is. A day away from thirty years old, single, (technically three-fourths of) a virgin, and currently at the mercy of his best friend and whatever hazing rituals he’s got in the works for this evening.


“I think what really drives me crazy about it is,” Huaisang begins, introspectively.


“Drives you crazy about it?” Wei Ying feels compelled to ask.


“Is that it would be so easy,” Huiasang continues as if he hadn’t spoken. “It would be so easy for you. You just go around dangling yourself in front of people like a walking snack, and then you do nothing with it. Hot privilege is wasted on you, Wei-xiong.”


“Thank you,” says Wei Ying. “Also, I hate you.”


Huaisang perks up, his face brightening as though a thought has suddenly occurred to him. “You know, you could probably land someone tonight, if you really wanted to. The ‘it’s my birthday’ angle and all of that, entering a new decade of life. Thirty is kind of a sexy age, you know?”


Wei Ying tilts his head, considering. It would be nice to finally have some experience to back up all of his empty, nonsense talk about his own game. Provided that he gets enough alcohol in his system, maybe this could be the time he actually convinces himself to go through with it. To swallow down that panicked, squirmy impulse shoving him toward the exit doors whenever he’s confronted with the actual prospect of sleeping with a girl.


He would never admit it, not even to Huaisang or Jiang Cheng. He’d never recover face again, given all his boasting over the years.


“Plus you know how the urban legend goes,” Huaisang is saying, tapping a pen against his wrist.


Wei Ying informs him that he does not.


“Oh, you know, that old myth about cherry magic,” Huaisang says, then his eyebrows knife up at Wei Ying’s answering, blank stare. “You know, the whole thing where if you hit thirty and you’re a virgin, you get cursed?”


“That sounds so fake,” Wei Ying says. “You just made that shit up.”


Huaisang practically splutters in indignation. “I did not! It isn’t my fault you’re uncultured!”


“There’s a real and very-not-fake urban legend that says I have to fuck someone tonight or else I’m cursed forever,” Wei Ying says, dropping his voice so as not to prick the ears of nearby coworkers. “That’s what you’re saying?”


“I could help you,” Huaisang suggests. “Like I said, if you really wanted to do it, it would be easy for you. I just think you don’t really want to.”


“I do — ” Wei Ying starts to protest.


“Nothing wrong if you don’t,” Huaisang is quick to amend. “I’m just saying. You spend a lot of time talking about the sex you want to have and then never having it.”


Wei Ying makes a face at him in lieu of a response. When Huaisang’s right, he’s right, after all.


But, if you truly want to enlist my services,” Huaisang says, dipping his head with a small, circular hand gesture. “I have literally nothing better to do with my afternoon than devoting myself to this wholesale.”


“Good,” Wei Ying says, bluffing through his teeth. “Because I do. Want you to, that is. Set me up and I’ll do it.”


“Our options at the firm are kind of limited,” Huaisang points out. “But I’ve been known to work well in dire circumstances. As is evidenced by most of my career.”


Huaisang makes a show of scanning the office, narrowing his eyes as they jump from person to person.


“Hmm…what about Mianmian?” Huaisang asks, swiveling Wei Ying in his chair so he’s facing her direction. “She’s exactly your type.”


Wei Ying raises his eyebrows. “Which is?”


“Pretty and mean,” says Huaisang.


Wei Ying opens his mouth to protest, then snaps it shut, which earns him a sage nod from his friend.


“You know who else ticks those boxes?” Huaisang leans over the back of the chair to talk closer into Wei Ying’s ear, and then he swivels the chair about 45 degrees so that Wei Ying is facing toward where Lan Zhan is frowning over a series of documents.


Wei Ying rolls his eyes and casts his head against the seat-back. “Yeah, right.”


“Why not?” Huaisang asks, then starts to waggle Wei Ying’s chair back and forth in a way that makes his stomach lurch and bounce.


Stop that, I’m gonna puke up my Fruity Pebbles. Also, did you want the answer to that question alphabetically or chronologically?”


“Chronologically,” Huaisang says promptly.


“Well, it all started when I was born heterosexual,” Wei Ying says, ticking off on his fingers. “Then it progressed to Lan Zhan almost kneecapping me at university, multiple times.”


“You asked for it,” Huaisang reminds him.


“Rude,” Wei Ying says. “Betrayal. Some friend you are.”


He had asked for it, repeatedly and at length.


“Listen, I don’t care how straight you are or aren’t,” Huaisang tells him. “I mean, I’ll always maintain that you’re way too into being bossed around to be straight. But putting that aside, there isn’t a single person on earth I can imagine who wouldn’t make an exception for that face. I mean, my god, look at him.”


Wei Ying folds his arms and frowns at Lan Zhan’s flawless profile, letting his feet swing back and forth. Lan Zhan’s hotness is a distracting irritant at best. He’s definitely very pretty and very mean, but in a way where he clearly thinks he’s better than everyone else. He certainly acts like it.


“Why don’t you go for him then,” Wei Ying says to deflect.


“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Huaisang says plaintively. “It was like flirting with a brick wall. A contemptuous brick wall.”


Contemptuous brick wall. Not a bad bio for Lan Zhan, really.


Then Huaisang bends down again to croon next to Wei Ying’s ear, “He only has eyes for you, Wei-xiong.”


Huaisang is just teasing — badly, at that — and there’s clearly no truth intended to it, but something about the words still makes heat prickle along Wei Ying’s collar, itchy and uncomfortable.


“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Wei Ying grumbles. “The only eyes he has for me are, y’know. Dagger ones.”


“If you say so,” Huaisang half-sings, and as if sensing their scrutiny, Lan Zhan looks up and locks eyes with Wei Ying across the office. He doesn’t waste a second searching for him — his gaze lasers to him immediately, like he’d known exactly where to find him.


Nie Huaisang whisper-yells “ohshit” and swings Wei Ying around in the swivel chair so fast that he nearly crashes into the desk, leaving them both cackling until Nie Mingjue strides by and smacks the back of the chair threateningly.


They scramble into order after that, Wei Ying diving back into his work with studious focus, and when he sneaks a glance across the office again, Lan Zhan is gone.


◈ ◈ ◈


Wei Ying had only started working at the Nie family’s cultivation firm a couple years ago. Right out of school, he’d started out in the Jiang family’s practice alongside his adopted brother, Jiang Cheng. His employment there hadn’t even been a question, given that he’d grown up with the Jiangs. However, not long after he started, Wei Ying had been disgracefully dismissed following a certain, ah — Incident. 


Like a true pal, Huaisang had informed him of an opening at his own family’s practice, which is actually quite a competitive firm in the cultivation field. After a couple of interviews, skill assessments, and some close calls on background checks, Nie Mingjue had agreed to hire Wei Ying on, and that had been that.


Huaisang isn’t a cultivator himself, to his older brother’s eternal chagrin, but he does manage the administrative stuff fairly well, in Wei Ying’s opinion, when he puts his mind to it. That includes case assignments. The process is fairly straightforward: A case or request comes through, usually a haunting or a possession or something else deadly or monstrous that needs taken care of; Huaisang assigns it to one or two of the cultivators, based on their experience and availability; and off they go into the field.


As for the cultivators on staff, there’s Wei Ying, of course. There’s Mianmian, who he’s known since they were kids but has never truly surpassed casual familiarity with. Nie Mingjue, his boss and the head of the firm, although he rarely takes on cases himself unless they’re the rare category 1. A few others he’s not close with and who hadn’t gone to his school.


And then there’s Lan Zhan. 


Hot, boring, grumpy Lan Zhan. He and Wei Ying had both studied cultivation at the same university, though their approaches to it had been markedly different. Wei Ying hadn’t hesitated to dabble in less orthodox methods in his cultivation path, which had been a source of Lan Zhan’s persistent reproach. They’d only actually, truly fought once or twice, but it had evidently been enough to earn Lan Zhan’s eternal antipathy.


Anyway, Wei Ying had mostly found Lan Zhan’s unconcealed dislike of him hilarious. He still does, but it cohabits with irritation at the fact that in spite of his boring personality, Lan Zhan somehow manages to outshine him in absolutely everything cultivation-related.


Take today, for instance.


Not long after that conversation with Huaisang, Wei Ying finds Lan Zhan hogging the copier, scanning his own case studies with a lifeless expression.


“Heyyy, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, just to be annoying. He slinks up next to Lan Zhan and playfully hip-checks him. Lan Zhan doesn’t budge a single cun. “Hard at it making those copies today, huh?”


Lan Zhan tilts his chin to look at Wei Ying square on, his uncanny eyes unblinking. 


Eesh, looking at him directly is like going snowblind. Nevertheless, Wei Ying tips his own chin up and matches the stare with a wide grin.


“I am almost finished,” Lan Zhan says. Another thing about Lan Zhan: he always speaks with such gravity, even on the most mundane of topics, like he’s a real-life android.

“No rush, no rush.” Wei Ying leans his shoulder familiarly against Lan Zhan’s, who stiffens at once. Lan Zhan has been weird about touching since they were teenagers, and Wei Ying usually does all in his power to test how far he can push his boundaries. It’s for Lan Zhan’s own self-betterment, really, Wei Ying tells himself. He’ll never find a girlfriend if he doesn’t loosen up a little.


Lan Zhan always smells so fresh, some sort of cologne or aftershave or deodorant with a unique scent. Sandalwood, maybe, or balsam.


Although he’d gone a little rigid when Wei Ying leaned against him, Lan Zhan hasn’t moved away yet, his shoulder warm and solid against Wei Ying’s. This close, Wei Ying can peer down at the documents that Lan Zhan’s copying. He freezes when he catches the name printed at the top of the papers. “The yaoguai in Wuxi?”


“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, inclining his head slightly to look at Wei Ying. 


A sour feeling curdles in Wei Ying’s stomach. He takes a step back, putting distance between them. “That was originally my case.”


Of course Lan Zhan would take his case — he’s the darling of the firm, after all, and his results speak for themselves. Wei Ying is a solid second-best performer, but he’s gotten yanked off of higher-risk cases before due to his...preexisting condition. Nie Mingjue is the only one here who knows about it, so he must have requested that the case be transferred.


Great, Wei Ying thinks, his spirits sinking as his shoulders slump.


Lan Zhan blinks at him, appearing to be somewhat at a loss as he observes Wei Ying’s sudden mood shift.


“I did not know,” Lan Zhan says.


Wei Ying doesn’t meet Lan Zhan’s eyes as he forces a laugh; it’s brittle, humorless. “I mean, it’s whatever. You’ll do better on it anyway.”


A tiny frown pinches Lan Zhan’s marble brow, and he opens his mouth as if to say something, but Wei Ying cuts in, a little rudely, with, “Are you done using that or what?”


Lan Zhan steps aside in one smooth stride, allowing Wei Ying access to the copy machine. 


Wei Ying’s expecting Lan Zhan to turn and go with that implicit dismissal, but then he...doesn’t. He hovers awkwardly in Wei Ying’s periphery, for far longer than is socially comfortable.


Then Lan Zhan steps closer to him again. 


“Wei Ying,” he says, which is an aberration. They usually don’t talk unless Wei Ying initiates, and he usually initiates for the purpose of being obnoxious. Wei Ying blinks up at him. 


Lan Zhan returns the stare levelly. “Happy birthday.”


Wei Ying’s mouth hangs open a little in his surprise before he snaps it shut. “It’s — it’s not until tomorrow.”


“I know,” says Lan Zhan, and then continues to appraise him gravely with his strange, amber-gold eyes.


“Okay, well,” Wei Ying says, perking up at Lan Zhan’s sudden attention. “Thanks! Ah, you’ll probably say no and everything but — Huaisang is throwing a party for me tonight and um, you’re welcome to come if you like.”


He coughs after the words are out, sealing his lips together in a tight line. That had come from nowhere, his mouth motoring into the invitation before his brain had consented to it. He’s never initiated plans with Lan Zhan, ever, certainly not outside of work.


Lan Zhan blinks at him as though making a similar observation, his face as blank as fresh parchment.


“Ah, let me guess, boring, right?” Wei Ying rushes to say. It’s always easier to preemptively reject Lan Zhan, somehow, before he can get a snide or sullen word in on Wei Ying edgewise. “Or frivolous, or something. You can just forget I asked.”


Lan Zhan’s mouth pulls down at the corner, his gaze unwavering as Wei Ying turns to scan another document.


“I will consider it,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying snaps up with an open-mouthed “ah?” at Lan Zhan’s perfectly-sculpted back, which is already retreating across the office.


Hmm. What the fuck. 


Well. There’s a first time for everything.


◈ ◈ ◈


On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Wei Ying wakes up with a jackhammer headache and his cherry firmly unpopped. 


For a few moments, he lies as still as he can until the room stops whirling, tracking patterns in unfamiliar ceiling plaster from a couch that is not his. Then he presses his palms to his eyelids and grinds down, hard enough that his eyes throb.


The evening had started out fun enough — from what he can recall, at least — but had started to go black-mold and fuzzy around the edges around his sixth drink. He remembers getting into it with Jiang Cheng, both of them drunkenly shouting at each other in a stairwell. He doesn’t even remember what they’d fought about — something to do with Uncle Jiang? Anyway, he has brief, patchy blips in his memory of Jiang Cheng locking him out of their apartment, his own numb fingers fumbling on the keypad as he punched the wrong code again and again. He remembers wandering aimlessly until his legs had gone wooden, as temperatures sank from brisk to biting. Finally, Huaisang, stoned out of his mind, had rescued him from the street like a stray kitten and offered him a friend’s couch to crash on.


(Lan Zhan had never showed. Of course he hadn’t. Wei Ying hadn’t really expected him to, anyway. And now, on the other end of the night, he’s a little grateful for it.)


All in all, not one of his better birthday celebrations. Also not one of his worst. But not one for the books, and certainly nothing notable in the sex category.


Anyway, Wei Ying is fucked for the day, not in the way he would prefer, because all of his work clothes are at his shared place with Jiang Cheng, and he’s already running late. He manages a harried face-wash and mouth-rinse in a stranger’s sink, grimacing toothily at his own puffy reflection. Huaisang’s friend had evidently departed for work earlier, and Wei Ying feels only a little guilty about rifling through their closet for suitable clothing. He’ll give them right back, anyway.


Wei Ying’s phone is a brick, long-dead from the previous night, so he has to hail a cab the old-fashioned way. The second he’s in the car, he passes into a dead sleep in the backseat until his destination, at which the driver snaps him awake to get moving. 


“Thanks,” Wei Ying mumbles, still half-asleep, and he passes some crumpled bills into the driver’s outstretched hand. “Keep the change.”


Fucking asshole, the man says.


Wei Ying startles, fully awake, his mouth popping open. “I — excuse me?”


“Excuse you what?” the driver snaps, throwing a black look over his shoulder. “Can you get a move on? I’ve got other riders.”


Wei Ying gets a move on, stumbling out of the backseat onto the pavement. For the next couple of minutes, he’s left to scratch his head in bewilderment, staring after the cab’s shrinking taillights.


Weird. Wei Ying has his many faults, but he’s likable as a general rule. People aren’t usually so openly rude to him.


Still a little more nettled than he’d like to admit, Wei Ying shuffles into his building. There are about seven people waiting for the elevator, and they all pile in at once alongside Wei Ying, weirdly chatty for so early in the morning. Usually his rides in the building’s elevator are silent and uneventful.


Shit, this tea-stain is everywhere, it looks like I pissed myself. Typical fucking Tuesday.


Wei Ying glances around to see who’d spoken, but everyone has their heads down, focused on their shoes or with their noses in their phones.


Someone bumps into Wei Ying’s right side, jostled as the elevator creaks and lurches upward.


If Pei Ming doesn’t fuck me tonight, I’m finally ordering a vibrator online, a woman’s voice says. I don’t give a fuck anymore.


“Excuse me?” Wei Ying blurts in his shock, turning toward the woman beside him. Everyone in the elevator swivels to stare at him, their faces a blend of hostility and confusion.


The unfamiliar young woman stares back at him, clearly perplexed. “W-What?”


“You said,” Wei Ying says. “You just said —”


Shit, morning meeting got moved to nine, a man mutters on his left. Boss will kill me if I’m late again. If this elevator weren’t always so fucking slow —


Why is this weirdo staring at me? the woman next to him says. Wei Ying stares at her — her unmoving mouth — and feels something in his brain glitch. Hey, actually, he’s not bad-looking, although he seems kinda sick. I wonder if he’s interested? The woman’s face shifts from looking rankled to more appeasing, and she shyly tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and drops her gaze. Ugh, who am I kidding. As if someone like him would ever be interested in you, ugly. Dream on.


“What’s,” Wei Ying says aloud, as the elevator dings for his floor. His voice is small and very lost. “What’s happening.”


A few people shove their way out when the doors open, Wei Ying caught up in the current of them like a leaf in a gutter. Their unintelligible voices brush against him, clamoring all at once — and then he’s finally alone with his thoughts, staring blankly at the closed elevator doors as he reels.


Okay, so. Unless this is the worst, weirdest hangover of his life — he’s fucked.


◈ ◈ ◈


Huaisang beelines for him the second Wei Ying steps foot in the office, a hand wiring around his arm.


Shit, Wei-xiong looks rough. Totally my fuck-up on the birthday planning. Wait, are those Zonghui’s clothes?! Shit, he’s going to kill me —


Still a little shell-shocked, Wei Ying tugs his arm quickly out of Huaisang’s grip. It’s one thing to hear — thoughts, if that’s what they really are — from total strangers, but the idea of overhearing something private from a friend is deeply uncomfortable.


“ — okay?” Huaisang is asking him something. A question about his general well-being, probably.


“Fine,” Wei Ying hazards, and judging by Huaisang’s expression, he’s answered the wrong question.


“Hey, I’m really sorry about last night,” Huaisang says. “That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Can’t really prep events around Jiang Cheng being a fucking asshole.”


“Yeah,” Wei Ying says on autopilot. The daze he’d already been feeling from sleep loss and alcohol has settled into a light state of dissociation. His surroundings feel vague and slippery, a little unreal. Maybe he’s dreaming all of this, after all. Or maybe he’s dead.


Surely his stomach wouldn’t hurt this much if he were actually dead.


“Are you sure you’re alright?” Huaisang asks, his brows knitting together.


“Fine,” Wei Ying mumbles, and shifts the too-large suit jacket over his shoulders. “I’ve got a case, I’ll talk to you later.”


He shuffles across the office toward his desk, aware of the curious stares trailing after him. From his desk, Lan Zhan watches his approach, probably judging his bedraggled appearance and making his own conclusions about the previous night. Whatever. Wei Ying gives a wry wave to acknowledge his judgment, and Lan Zhan darts his gaze away, his expression unchanging.


Wei Ying flops into his seat, then spends the next hour staring at documents without seeing them.


Okay, so. Huaisang had been right, somehow. This is a curse, or at least some kind of weird magic. Maybe it’s someone’s idea of a practical joke, someone he’d pissed off on a past case. It can’t really all be because he’s still a virgin, can it? 


If that’s the case, then there’s a very straightforward fix. And surely being a mind-reader isn’t the end of the world. It might even be kind of fun. Who hasn’t wanted the ability to read people’s thoughts at least once in their lives, anyway?


After a few energy drinks, Wei Ying’s spirits have considerably lifted into a low-simmering mania, by which point Huaisang fetches him for lunch and drags him to the break room.


“I’m sorry I failed you,” Huaisang begins, hanging his head. “Both on the party front and the sex front. I am the world’s worst best friend and wingman.”


“Nie-xiong, don’t worry about it,” Wei Ying tells him, meaning it. “I’ll always have other birthdays.”


“But this was a big one,” Huaisang whines. “Thirty is huge! It was supposed to be epic!”


Forgetting himself, Wei Ying gives Huaisang’s shoulder a kind pat, and promptly gets an earful. Despite the current conversation topic, Huaisang is consumed by thoughts of that guy Zonghui — so maybe he’s more than a friend, after all. Wei Ying quickly retracts his hand, feeling like an intruder.


“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Huaisang asks, just as Lan Zhan skulks into the break room with an empty mug and some tupperware. Lan Zhan soundly ignores both of them, moving toward the cabinets.


Wei Ying lowers his voice, his gaze idly tracking Lan Zhan’s movements. “Not strictly. Not exactly. Jiang Cheng changed the entry codes to the apartment last night, and my phone’s been dead so I have no way to contact him.”


Huaisang sucks his teeth in sympathy. “Shit. Well, you know I’d offer my place, but given the state of, well, my everything — ”


Nie Mingjue suddenly pokes his head into the break room, interrupting their conversation with a loud rap of his knuckles and a scowl. “Huaisang. My office, now.”


Huaisang starts to whine, but he scrambles up from the table quickly when his brother’s glare darkens. He mutters an apology to Wei Ying and scuttles out, trailing after Nie Mingjue.


Which leaves just him and Lan Zhan, alone.


With a hand propped to his cheek, Wei Ying continues to watch him as Lan Zhan maneuvers around the kitchenette, pulling things down from the cabinet for his lunch. He still won’t look in Wei Ying’s direction, which seems like a step back, somehow, from any progress made at the copier yesterday. 


Lan Zhan always dresses so sharply, his clothes tailored to accentuate each muscular line of his frame. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, crisply ironed. Even his underwear is probably custom-made, Wei Ying imagines. Would Lan Zhan wear boxers or briefs? No way is Lan Zhan a boxers guy; he’s too uptight to just let his junk hang out at work. Or maybe he just goes commando all the time?


As he continues to stare, Wei Ying abandons the train of thought on Lan Zhan’s taste in underwear in favor of another, given recent events. 


What could the righteous, boring, stuffy Lan Zhan possibly be thinking about? Probably his filing system that he loves so much, or deep breathing exercises or something. 


Well. He could actually find out, if he wanted to. And he does want to. It would be the first time using his newfound ability for evil purposes, but given how Lan Zhan has treated him over the years, Wei Ying thinks he’s a little entitled to it.


Wei Ying pushes his seat back with a metallic scrape against the floor and sidles over to the kitchenette. Feigning concentration on his task, he soaps up his hands in the sink and washes them, drifting closer to Lan Zhan as he waits on his tea. Finally, when he’s close enough, he brushes their arms together and bites his lip on a grin.


Lan Zhan’s voice is so clear, so sudden that it’s as though it’s spoken, the slice of a sharp object through velvet.


He’s touching me.


Wei Ying startles for a moment, wonders if he’d somehow heard his own thoughts instead, but — no, that had definitely been Lan Zhan’s steady, factual baritone, loud and clear.


God, this is still so weird. It still doesn’t seem totally real. But how else can he account for hearing Lan Zhan’s voice in his head, as clearly as if he’d spoken to Wei Ying directly?


Wei Ying slides his arm against Lan Zhan’s again, casual enough to be accidental.


Do. Not. Give anything away, Lan Zhan thinks inside Wei Ying’s head.


...huh. Give what away? Lan Zhan had never seemed interesting enough for secrets. Wei Ying would probe into that further, but hearing Lan Zhan’s voice seizes him with a sudden, all-consuming need. An itch he can’t not scratch.


He wants to hear Lan Zhan’s inner monologue when Wei Ying is annoying him. 


Wei Ying had always imagined, when he’d teased Lan Zhan mercilessly at school, that the inner life of Lan Zhan involved privately breaking each code of his stiff decorum to curse him out. Or running calculations on the nearest locations to dump a body.


Of course, he never thought he’d actually have the chance to find out.


For a few silent moments, Wei Ying thoughtfully watches Lan Zhan heat his tea before he opts for one of his more artless tactics. He reaches out again, tugs on Lan Zhan’s starchy sleeve, and whines, “Lan Zhaaan. Lan Zhan, you’ve been ignoring me since yesterday. Haven’t I told you how that hurts my feelings? You can’t treat your coworkers like this!” He pitches his voice up loud enough to draw some nearby stares from their colleagues within the eyeline of the break room. Making a Scene in front of others, as Wei Ying very well knows, is the fast track to pissing Lan Zhan off. “Lan Zhan, LanZhanLanZhan —”


“Enough,” Lan Zhan says through his teeth. He holds his arm rigid to keep tea from sloshing over the rim of his mug as Wei Ying tightens his grip on his wrist and pulls, grazing against skin.


An image strikes Wei Ying as suddenly as a bolt of lightning — oh, it’s the first time that he’s actually caught pictures with this new ability of his — and it’s of himself. In it, clearly through Lan Zhan’s eyes, imaginary-Wei Ying is glaring indignantly, his mouth stuffed with a black gag.


It takes all of Wei Ying’s willpower not to die laughing as he keeps his hand steeled to Lan Zhan’s arm. God, of course Lan Zhan would fantasize about muzzling him. It’s exactly how he’d always imagined.


The image shifts, continues to play out in motion like a reel of film  — okay, Wei Ying realizes as the pictures dart across his mind’s eye, he’s also restrained now, brought to his knees with his hands tied behind his back. That makes sense, that Lan Zhan would want to shut him up, keep him from moving and annoying him further. The fake Wei Ying is struggling a little against the restraints, muffled and whiny complaints through the gag — very nice job, Wei Ying thinks with approval, that is how he would react —


Then the image flickers again, and suddenly Wei Ying is looking at himself with the clothes stripped away, the gag and ties still intact, and Lan Zhan is stopping in front of him, gripping Wei Ying’s jaw hard enough to dent the skin with the press of his thumb, tilting it up, Wei Ying’s mouth working around the damp gag, his cheeks flushed and his eyes glazed over, glassy and wanting —


Wei Ying rips his hand back as though he’s been scalded. His own brain buzzes suddenly with white static, blanking around the shock of what he can’t unsee.


He stares at Lan Zhan with huge eyes, clutching his hand to his chest. Lan Zhan stares back. He looks bored, maybe a little disdainful. 


“Was there something else I could help you with?” Lan Zhan says dryly, like he hadn’t just been — like he hadn’t been thinking about —


“Ummmmm,” Wei Ying says in a voice like a creaking metal hinge. “Nope!” And he bails, fleeing toward the safety of his desk.


What the fuck. What the fuck, what the fuck. His face is as hot as a summer sidewalk, stifling under his stiff work clothes as he sinks into his chair. He’s a little (?) turned on (????), which is only natural when you have a mental video of yourself like — that — unwittingly beamed into your brain, it’s not like it has anything to do with the fact that — that it had been —


Wei Ying buries his face in his hands, his cheeks warm to the touch. 


What the fuck.


◈ ◈ ◈


Surely, there’s an explanation, Wei Ying reasons after fifteen minutes of brown-noise panic. This is Lan Zhan, after all. Who wants him dead. There is a rational answer here, and Wei Ying will find it. For the sake of his own sanity, if nothing else.


He resolves to avoid Lan Zhan for the rest of the day (or potentially, based on how that fares, the rest of his life), but not even two hours later, they end up stuck on a crowded elevator together on their way to the same meeting. People pack in around them, their thoughts brushing against Wei Ying along various points of contact, dragonflies skimming across a pond surface — idle complaints and discomforts and trivialities that he hardly registers. Beside him, Lan Zhan’s shoulder crams against Wei Ying’s as they’re jostled, and like the blurry flash of an image whizzing by on an amusement park ride, Wei Ying sees himself being pushed to his knees by Lan Zhan’s hand, his mouth parted wide, gazing up at Lan Zhan dark-eyed and hazy, just as he had before. Wei Ying jerks away, plasters himself against the elevator wall, and reels.


Okay, so. Lan Zhan wants to fuck him. Just a little bit, maybe not even the full thing. But like, out of spite, which honestly tracks.


Even though Wei Ying is a virgin, he watches his fair share of pornography — but even he isn’t at work imagining his coworkers in such scenarios. Lan Zhan, of all people, Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan?! For all his musings about what goes on in Lan Zhan’s head — for all his teasing about Lan Zhan’s stiff discomfort around sex — Wei Ying never would have sincerely guessed such thoughts brewed beneath such a righteous, stoic exterior. It would be almost funny, if he weren’t the subject of them, but he is the subject of them, which makes it terrifying.


Maybe, Wei Ying thinks later that afternoon, once he recovers from the initial shock of it, maybe he’s getting worked up over nothing. Isn’t it just human nature, after all? Everyone is thinking about sex all the time, at least a little bit, at least peripherally. Virgin or not. Everyone has fantasies, especially when they’re bored at work. Right?


Wei Ying is probably just. The nearest possible shiny object. He’s under no illusions about his own looks — well, he’s nowhere near the league of Lan Zhan’s ethereal, Harper’s-Bazaar-cover beauty, but he’s not bad to look at either. Girls have told him he’s cute, that he has a nice smile.


That must be it, Wei Ying finally reasons. Boredom, spite, maybe some weird psychological projection shit that Lan Zhan needs to unpack. Lan Zhan may not even be consciously aware that he’s experiencing these thoughts. Does it mean Lan Zhan is gay? Maybe, but not necessarily. Wei Ying has had thoughts about plenty of guys before, after all — he’s comfortable enough in his heterosexuality to admit that. 


Okay, so he’s Lan Zhan’s idle fuck fantasy when he’s bored at work. He can work with that. Wei Ying isn’t into men, but it’s pretty flattering that someone as staggeringly hot as Lan Zhan would consider him in such a way, especially given, you know. Their entire history.


Wei Ying throws himself into work for the rest of the day, pulling file after file on a recent haunting in Jiaxing. It sounds like the situation has resolved for now, but sometimes Nie Mingjue deploys him or one of the other cultivators for a post-mortem, just to tie up the final ends and to ensure no other kinks have appeared after a case is closed. Wei Ying usually wouldn’t dedicate such attention to backlog work like this, but he’s desperate to distract himself. He finds himself hyper-conscious of Lan Zhan for the rest of the afternoon, suspiciously tracking each of his movements from the corner of his eye.


He buries himself so deep in documents that he’s startled to find when he looks up, an unknown amount of time later, that he’s nearly alone in the office, darkness bruising the windows. His eyes are dry, stinging with exhaustion and eyestrain, and he rubs them hard with the heels of his palms until spots of color appear.


“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says directly by his shoulder, and Wei Ying startles so badly that he nearly crashes his rolling chair into him.


“You,” Wei Ying says, rocketing out of his seat. “You’re — why aren’t you gone?”


Lan Zhan stares at him. He’s holding a sheaf of documents in his hands, Wei Ying notices.


“I stayed late to work on a case,” Lan Zhan answers, after another beat. “As I usually do.”


“Oh,” Wei Ying says, feeling horrifically awkward. Is Lan Zhan still thinking about putting him on his knees? He’s terrified to know what happened next, in that mental scenario. Maybe Lan Zhan had tied him up like he had in the first image, trussed up and immobilized —


“Wei Ying does not usually stay so late,” Lan Zhan observes.


“No,” Wei Ying says. “I, ah, also got sucked into a case.”


“The gui in Jiaxing,” Lan Zhan agrees. “I saw. I pulled supplemental information on it. From my own research.”


Wei Ying’s gaze drops to the files that Lan Zhan’s holding, and he narrows his eyes in suspicion. “Why would you do that?”


Lan Zhan’s expression is blank, maybe a little confused. “I thought it could help.”


Wei Ying had been a notorious slacker in school, but it’s only because he’d never needed to study. He’d still pulled off top marks; high enough to rival Lan Zhan’s, anyway. It’s to be expected that Lan Zhan would keep the same opinion of him, even now that they share a profession: that Wei Ying’s work is lacking, that he can’t do his own research.


Wei Ying is itching to say he’s got it covered on his own, thank you very much, that he doesn’t need Lan Zhan’s patronization. But it would be openly rude to reject the offering, so he moves forward, bumbling and too fast, to accept the files with mumbled thanks. Due to aforementioned exhaustion and eyestrain, his depth perception skews, and the files fall just short of his hands, scattering all over the floor.


“Shit,” he says with feigned cheer, and wearily drops to his knees to start scooping them up in quick scrapes. “Sorry, Lan Zhan.”


Lan Zhan doesn’t respond; he simply kneels down next to Wei Ying and also begins to gather the files, the white glint of his watch-face bobbing. He’d probably had all of these systematized in some way, Wei Ying realizes, and feels a little abashed for the first time. 


Lan Zhan reaches out to pass them one at a time, and their fingers brush even as Wei Ying tries to move his own hand away.


Ying looks tired. Has he been sleeping? He did not eat today, either. Something must have happened.


Wei Ying’s hands slow in their motions, unconsciously lingering on Lan Zhan’s as he tunes into his thoughts. Had he been that off today that even Lan Zhan noticed?


I have not seen him smile all day, Lan Zhan thinks, and hands another file to Wei Ying. Nothing is given away on his face — still that unreadable mask, the smooth cast of his features like marble. The entire office was dimmer without it.


Wei Ying yanks his hand back, blood rushing to his head. The reaction is strange, too abrupt for the current context, but he suddenly — feels weird. His face is furnace-hot, a squirmy feeling kicking around his ribs.


“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks. The remaining files have frozen in his hands. “Are you alright?”


“Fine,” Wei Ying says immediately, on reflex. “Just — ah, long day. Really long, really weird day. I think I’m probably just gonna go. Thanks for the — files and stuff.”


Gathering the documents messily to his chest, he shoots to his feet, then uses one arm to shrug on the suit jacket draped over the back of his chair. 


Lan Zhan stands and watches him in silence, and then, just as Wei Ying is about to turn to go with a hurried good night, he says, “I will accompany you out.”


As if today could get any fucking weirder.


“Ahhhh,” Wei Ying says, completely thrown for how to respond. “I. Ah. S...ure, I guess?”


And this is how he ends up in the elevator with Lan Zhan for the second time that day. Wei Ying keeps a careful distance between them, hawkishly monitoring Lan Zhan’s movements to make sure he doesn’t stray too close.


He finds that he doesn’t need to worry — Lan Zhan and his thing with touching people, after all. Wei Ying never thought he’d be so grateful for that particular quirk. Lan Zhan keeps to his space all the way down, then follows after him as Wei Ying books it toward the office exit.


The burst of night air across his skin makes him shiver, goosebumps rippling along his arms. The material of his borrowed clothes is far from insular, and the weather has started to cool in the evenings as the autumn months bed down into winter. Of course, in his rush, he hadn’t even thought to steal more layers from Huaisang’s friend this morning.


Before Wei Ying knows what’s happening, Lan Zhan is shrugging out of his coat beside him. He’s sporting yet another peacoat underneath, because Lan Zhan wears an absolutely obscene number of layers when it gets cold out. Or during any other time of year, actually.


“Lan Zhan, what, no,” Wei Ying protests. He has sort of a knee-jerk panic reaction to people doing charitable things for him. “You don’t need to do that, aiyo, I’m really fine.”


Lan Zhan’s mouth flattens as if in displeasure or impatience, and then he’s stepping forward, draping the coat around Wei Ying’s shoulders. It’s warm from Lan Zhan’s body heat, thick and crafted from some nice material that Wei Ying could never afford. Despite himself, Wei Ying hunkers into it, reaching up to tug the coat tighter around himself.


Lan Zhan’s hands are also working swiftly, adjusting the fabric over his shoulders. He has big hands, graceful and guqin-callused. Before Wei Ying can move his own away, Lan Zhan’s fingers collide with his, and just like that, Lan Zhan’s thoughts are ringing in his ears again —


doesn’t look after himself. Wei Ying deserves to have someone care for him. If he would let me —


Wei Ying retreats a few steps, his breath punching out of him. Lan Zhan’s hands hover in their current position, then lower, very slowly, to his sides.


“Wei Ying?” he asks. 


Wei Ying watches his mouth move to make sure the words are spoken out loud. Maybe he’s truly losing it.


“I’ve just got to —” Wei Ying stammers, taking one stumbling step backward toward the street. “Ah, go —”


And then Lan Zhan surprises him, for the umpteenth time that night. He stops him, reaching out to grab the fabric of his coat sleeve. Close, very close, but no body contact — the quiet in Wei Ying’s head feels precarious, holding its breath.


“I overheard your conversation with Nie Huaisang earlier today,” Lan Zhan says. “You said you have nowhere to stay tonight.”


Shit. Lan Zhan had heard that? Wei Ying rapidly bounces his weight from toe to heel, cold and uncomfortable in equal measure.


“Ah, my brother and I got into a fight yesterday and so he changed the locks,” Wei Ying says, tugging his sleeve away from Lan Zhan’s grip. “He’ll get over it in like two days. It’s fine, I can find a couch somewhere for the night.” 


Maybe Mianmian will take him up. They’ve never been all that close, but they are colleagues, after all, and she seems cool enough. Wen Qing’s probably on a night-shift at the hospital and totally off-grid, but he could probably get a hold of her if he needed to. Huaisang would offer if his studio wasn’t an absolute bomb-blast with no spare room to stand, let alone sleep.


“Stay with me,” Lan Zhan says. It is hardly a question.


Wei Ying blue-screens for one, two, three seconds, then starts to laugh, reedy and nervous. “You really want me under your roof, Lan Zhan? I might destroy your apartment. I might annoy you to death.”


Somehow, Wei Ying is expecting that reminding Lan Zhan of his long-standing distaste for him will be an effective tactic.


It is not.


“You have nowhere to stay,” Lan Zhan says slowly. “I have a spare bed. I insist.”


“You insist,” Wei Ying echoes.


“I insist,” Lan Zhan repeats, and there’s — holy shit, the tiniest crook of a smile, a small hooked shadow in the corner of his mouth.


What the fuck is happening, Wei Ying thinks, a little hysterical.


“Have you eaten?” Lan Zhan asks, although Wei Ying knows that he knows the answer is a resounding no.


Wei Ying considers lying, then decides the effort would be futile. Lan Zhan is so damn stubborn about things, when he wants to be.


“No,” he says, a little sullenly. Then adds, feeling defensive, “Sometimes I forget, it’s not a — it doesn’t have to be a whole thing, I’m really fine.”


The concern that he’d read from Lan Zhan, just moments ago, still needles Wei Ying with small teeth. The prickling sensation, he realizes, is discomfort, although he isn’t sure for what. 


It’s just that — knowing someone is evaluating how he cares for himself is uncomfortable.


Knowing Lan Zhan is the one doing so, it’s — even more uncomfortable. More uncomfortable, for whatever reason, than if it were anyone else.


“You should eat,” Lan Zhan says firmly. “There’s a place nearby, a close walk from here.”


Wei Ying wants to drag his heels and protest. Any second longer spent with Lan Zhan, accidental brushes of hands and limbs, purposeful touches or whatever, means further risk of another gag incident. Or, worse, another is he getting sleep incident. 


“It is still your birthday,” Lan Zhan points out, as if this has something to do with anything. 


Oh. Yeah, it is. Somehow, in all of today’s madness, Wei Ying had forgotten.


“I guess,” he says uncertainly.


“Come,” Lan Zhan says, already a few strides ahead of him, and he stares at Wei Ying expectantly in his stupid, well-fitted peacoat until Wei Ying mutters and complies, slouching his way after Lan Zhan.


He has to jog a little to keep apace — Lan Zhan’s legs are long, and his gait is brisk. In doing so, their shoulders jostle, and Wei Ying catches himself hesitating, lingering on the musical sound of Lan Zhan’s voice —


Is he still cold? Should I offer my other coat? He will say no if I ask him directly. Does he run cold when he sleeps? I have spare blankets if he


Wei Ying quickly moves his arm away. A ridiculous, flustered warmth has risen to his face, tingling against the cold. 


It is rapidly becoming evident that, in a horrible turn of events, Lan Zhan may actually be a decent person in addition to being beautiful and very competent at his job.


This cannot stand, Wei Ying thinks, very put out by this discovery. It ruins the whole — their whole thing if Lan Zhan secretly doesn’t hate him.


What whole thing? he then has to wonder. And what would be so bad about ruining it, morphing into something else beyond it?


Wei Ying abandons the line of inquiry, suddenly uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to think about it.


Lan Zhan stops on the sidewalk, then holds the door for him so that Wei Ying has to duck under his arm to burrow his way into the warm bubble of the restaurant.


“Oh, hey,” Wei Ying says, blinking around the red-lit interior as he finally registers their surroundings. The familiar smells and ambiance are an immediate wash of comfort to his senses. He feels himself uncoiling, relaxing. “I love this place.”


Lan Zhan hums and moves past him, their shoulders knocking together, Lan Zhan’s thinking I know, and suddenly Wei Ying is blushing and rendered stupid all over again.


This is so dumb. It’s dumb to get worked up about this, any of it. So what if Lan Zhan knows his sleep schedule and which restaurants he likes and thinks about gagging Wei Ying with all the casual apathy of reading the morning news. It’s not like it has to mean anything, anyway.


They slide into the booth on opposite sides. Lan Zhan orders them both hot water while Wei Ying rubs his hands together to jog the feeling back to his fingers, his knuckles splotchy with pink along the patches of his drier skin.


No sooner has he made the observation that Lan Zhan is saying, “Here,” and passing a small bottle of hand lotion across the table. Wei Ying stares at it like he’s been handed a live scorpion, then engages Lan Zhan in a long, fearful staring contest. He’d never paused to consider if this mind-reading thing was a two-way street, and he experiences a sudden, sickening lurch at the notion, but it’s not like he has anything to hide, right? Other than the fact that if Lan Zhan were reading his thoughts, he would know that Wei Ying —


— that Wei Ying what?


Lan Zhan stares at him, his perplexity deepening into a visible furrow the longer Wei Ying doesn’t take the offering. 


“Thanks,” Wei Ying eventually mutters, then takes the lotion from Lan Zhan, careful to avoid any contact.


Lan Zhan is younger than he is, anyway, by a few months. If this wretched virgin myth really is for real (and he cannot fathom a universe in which Lan Zhan is not a virgin), then he should be in the clear for now.


It is enough just to sit here with him, Lan Zhan’s voice says, and Wei Ying startles, badly, before he realizes their feet are touching under the table. Just to be with him. To see his


Wei Ying clears his throat and hastily moves his foot away. The situation is devolving at a breakneck pace. Heavens, he thinks dismally, Lan Zhan might actually care about him underneath all those layers of permafrost. A warm current that runs beneath the thick iceberg of his façade. 


The knowledge feels threatening, and Wei Ying doesn’t know why.


Lan Zhan silently waves over the server, who bustles over to greet them and take their order.


“Hi,” Wei Ying tells the server, then opens his mouth to order before —


— Lan Zhan thinks, He will order kou shui ji. The foot is back, Wei Ying realizes too late.


Wei Ying had been about to order kou shui ji, but now he feels the contrarian need to spite Lan Zhan and his quiet, idle assuredness. The way he hadn’t even glanced up from the menu as he’d thought it. 


“I’ll have the dan dan noodles,” Wei Ying says doggedly, “with a side of —”


Chili oil wontons, Lan Zhan thinks absently, still not looking up from the menu.


“ — chili oil wontons,” Wei Ying finishes, deflated, and he props his chin on his arms to sulk.


“Just jasmine tea, please,” Lan Zhan says, finally glancing up at the server. When had he put on reading glasses? Lan Zhan wears glasses? How does Lan Zhan know which side-plates Wei Ying orders and Wei Ying is unaware of the extant relationship between Lan Zhan and glasses? Wei Ying can’t even enjoy a moment of smug satisfaction at the evidence that Lan Zhan has a biological flaw because he finds himself too distracted by how Lan Zhan looks in them, professorial and a little supercilious. How he’d look with them in that image Wei Ying had accidentally unearthed earlier, if Wei Ying were on his knees and gagged, Lan Zhan’s thumb working Wei Ying’s mouth open wider around the cloth.


Wei Ying excuses himself to find refuge in the bathroom.


He spends the next several moments splashing cold water on his face, wetting the ends of his hair and the collar of his shirt. He unkindly tells his reflection to get a grip. 


Wei Ying scrutinizes his own features, the familiar bow of his lips pushed out in a natural pout. His ears are still red as coals from the cold outside. His hair is a little windswept, the dark lines under his eyes stark. He does look very much like someone who’d passed a sleepless night, or several in a row. 


Well. Now, he...has a place to stay. Maybe to get a full night’s rest. Which isn’t so bad when he thinks about it, after all.


Wei Ying considers this. It might actually be kind of nice, in the long run, that Lan Zhan doesn’t secretly despise him. It’s also a small win, in a way. Take that, Lan Zhan, Wei Ying thinks, triumphantly. So he’s not so stuffy and uncaring, after all. Wei Ying’s charms had eventually worn him down at least a little bit, no matter how much Lan Zhan may feign disdain on the surface.


Yes, Wei Ying can do this. He just has to pretend as though nothing’s changed. 


He returns to his seat a few moments later, feeling a little brighter and fresher than before. Lan Zhan’s tea has arrived, and he has the black mug clasped between his pale hands to warm them.


After another silent moment, Wei Ying starts to squirm in his seat. He and Lan Zhan, they don’t often — do this. Spend time alone outside of work, that is. He’s used to chattering circles around Lan Zhan while Lan Zhan either silently nods or frowns and hms with disapproval. Wei Ying has no compass for the evening, no scripts. For the first time in his life where it concerns Lan Zhan, he is excruciatingly unsure of what to say.


Lan Zhan is still sipping at his tea, slow and intermittent. He hadn’t ordered any dishes, Wei Ying remembers.


“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, wiggling forward a little. “You hate spicy food, and you don’t eat meat. Why did you take us to a place that almost exclusively serves those things?”


“I do not need to eat,” Lan Zhan says pointedly. “You do.”


Wei Ying makes a face at him. “I eat.”


“Two Red Bulls do not qualify as sustenance,” Lan Zhan says.


Wei Ying tilts his head and leans his weight forward into his elbows. He decides to push his luck. “Tell me, Lan Zhan, do you often watch what I eat?”


Lan Zhan’s lashes lower over the rim of his mug, as black as ink runes. His eyelashes have always been so long, Wei Ying thinks, almost feminine. 


Lan Zhan sets the mug on the table with a quiet clop. His mouth is startlingly pink, shiny with tea. He looks up at Wei Ying through his lashes, catches him in the act of close observation, and Wei Ying finds himself caught like a fox with its foot in a trap, unable to look away.


Lan Zhan is the first to break the stare, dropping his gaze again to drink more of his tea.


Wei Ying wets his lips, then says, far more weakly than before, “You didn’t answer my question.”


“Would it bother you if I did?” Lan Zhan asks.


“Would it bother me if you,” Wei Ying says, having lost the plot entirely. “What?”


“Noticed you,” Lan Zhan answers. He speaks with a strange intentness, his gaze a gravitational center. “And the things you do.”


Wei Ying’s mouth is so dry, drought-dry. He’s so out of his depth here that he’s spinning loops around it, dizzied.


“Um,” is all he can summon, and then food is being set down in front of him, nicely severing the conversation.


Wei Ying eats quickly and quietly, cautious to keep any stray limbs or feet away from Lan Zhan. He had ordered too much food for one person, especially with his appetite as fickle as it’s been lately, but he eats as much of it as he can because Lan Zhan had taken the time and effort out of his evening for this.


“Sorry,” Wei Ying says a moment later through a mouthful of chicken, then chases it with a swig of water. “I’m taking forever and you’re stuck here with me.”


“I am in no rush,” Lan Zhan replies. “Take your time, Wei Ying.”


Wei Ying still hasn’t adjusted his footing to Lan Zhan being nice to him. And so weirdly considerate. Has Lan Zhan always been this nice to him, and Wei Ying simply hadn’t noticed? No, there’s no way. He has distinct memories from school of Lan Zhan berating him, his clenched jaw and flinty eyes and his fury when he’d discovered Wei Ying’s experimental cultivation work.


Wei Ying stretches his memory like taffy, grappling desperately to recall the last time Lan Zhan had been mean to him at work. There had been this afternoon, when Lan Zhan had snapped at him a little right before the — The Gag Incident — but it had been prompted by Wei Ying deliberately winding him up.


“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says abruptly, too absorbed in this revelation to be tactful. “I’ve always thought you really disliked me.”


Lan Zhan stares at him for a moment, perhaps questioning the randomness of this admission. Then he says, slowly, “I do not.”


“But I,” Wei Ying says feebly. His food is starting to cool, and he’s completely lost his appetite, anyway. He sets his chopsticks down. “I always pester you.”


“You do,” Lan Zhan agrees.


“Exactly,” Wei Ying says. “So.”


“So…?” Lan Zhan says.


“So you don’t like me,” Wei Ying says. “Right? It’s always been that you — that we —”


Wei Ying is frazzling a little at the edges, from sleep loss and the events of the day and his own confusion, his brain sparking up and smoking like a shot power line.


“That we what,” Lan Zhan says.


“That we don’t get along,” Wei Ying says. He’s surprised to hear how upset he sounds. “That’s always been how we are — oil and water. Dog shit and Velcro. Right?”


“Who is the dog shit in this analogy?” Lan Zhan wonders.


“Me! Obviously me!” Wei Ying says, and resolutely ignores the little zap that circulates through him at the unfamiliar sound of Lan Zhan swearing. “Lan Zhan, you can’t tell me that we’re actually friends and I never knew about it. I mean — who was going to tell me?!”


Lan Zhan stares at Wei Ying for another long moment. The heart shape of his mouth is slightly parted. He looks a little lost.


“We are colleagues,” Lan Zhan eventually says. More stiffly, he continues, “We do not have to be friends. If you do not wish it.”


“Wait,” Wei Ying says, “hang on, I didn’t say that.”


It’s just that — if they’re friends, then there’s no — there’s no friendly way to think about gagging someone and tying them up, right? With clothes or without, but the without does seem significant here. Wei Ying may be a virgin, but he’s definitely no prudish, innocent maiden. If Lan Zhan considers them friends, then that means — when he’d been thinking those things earlier, it means —


It doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s not even a possibility.


“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, his voice softer than before. “Is everything alright?”


“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, shaking his head. “Yeah, I just. I’m just tired.”


“Then we will go,” Lan Zhan says, and pulls out his phone to pay the tab.


“Hey, hey, wait, you’re not paying for me,” Wei Ying protests, reaching across the table to make a quick grab for the phone. “You didn’t even eat anything!”


“I do not mind,” Lan Zhan says, holding the phone just out of Wei Ying’s reach. With a deadly focus, he starts to tap the screen.


“That’s not the point,” Wei Ying insists. “I can pay for myself, Lan Zhan, this isn’t a —”


Lan Zhan goes frozen in subtle, disjointed increments — his fingers stilling, his expression settling into a plaster mold. Wei Ying is watching him, watching him closely as he has been all night, so he notices. His cheeks sting with heat.


He was going to say date. Lan Zhan knows it too. He attempts to save face anyway.


“ — charity event,” Wei Ying recovers.


“If it makes you uncomfortable,” Lan Zhan says, tapping one last button and clicking the lock button on his phone. “You can pay next time.”


Next time. Next time, as in — future plans to eat somewhere with Wei Ying. Okay.


“Fine,” Wei Ying mutters, and rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s just that I’m already putting you out by staying at your place, you don’t need to — do all of that.”


“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is kind. “I offered. In both cases. If I minded, I would say so.”


Wei Ying puffs out his cheeks and pinches his lips, then lets the air out in a slow whistle through his teeth. “Fine. You win on decency for the night.”


“It is not a competition,” Lan Zhan says, in a tone that Wei Ying interprets to mean, But I would be winning.


“But I’m calling the DiDi,” Wei Ying says quickly, just as Lan Zhan slides out of the booth and gets smoothly to his feet.


“It just arrived,” Lan Zhan says with a tiny shake of his phone, and then he’s moving toward the exit of the restaurant. 


Speechless, Wei Ying gapes after him for a moment, and then has no choice but to grudgingly follow.


◈ ◈ ◈


The first thing Wei Ying notices about Lan Zhan’s place is that he lives alone.


This is obviously a given, knowing Lan Zhan. It’s just that Wei Ying is so used to sharing his cramped space with another person that it’s the first perception that strikes him when he walks in the door — the smooth silence of the space, as undisturbed as a fresh layer of snow.


Wei Ying kicks off his shoes, then unpeels Lan Zhan’s coat from his shoulders to hang up. It smells like Lan Zhan, whatever that distinct woodsy scent is. The apartment also smells like it. Wei Ying will probably smell like it now, too. He’s surprised to find that he doesn’t really mind the thought.


Lan Zhan’s place is monkishly clean, because of course it is. There are a few live plants potted around the place, but other than that, the decor is fairly colorless, black countertops and gray hardwood floors. There’s a small bookshelf, a mid-sized white sofa, and a guqin mounted on the wall; a frankly astonishing array of cookware arranged like an art display in the kitchen, and a round, slick white table with some paperwork still neatly stacked atop it. The furthest wall is entirely windows from ceiling to floor. A panoramic view of the city skyline glitters like crushed jewels through the glass panes, the lights flickering with smog.


All in all, it looks like a place where someone lives alone. It looks like a place where someone expects to live alone for the foreseeable future. Wei Ying feels a little dirty just standing there, like he’s trailing the chaos and filth of the city in with him. Like he’s soiling the space just by his presence.


Lan Zhan gives Wei Ying a quiet and unceremonious tour of the main space and bathroom, though the bedroom door remains firmly shut. Wei Ying manages to keep his commentary to himself for most of it, but goggles when they reach the enormous shower.


“You could fit like four people in there,” he tells Lan Zhan.


“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, a little critically. “It’s too big. I have looked into downsizing.”


“But this place is so nice,” Wei Ying protests. If he ever had a place as nice as this, he’d cling to it until he got forcibly evicted. Plus, it feels very — Lan Zhan. Sharp, sleek interiors, but not ostentatious. Understated, almost humble in spite of the clear caliber of lifestyle.


It’s not really Wei Ying’s personal taste, but if he could spend time in a place like this, well — he thinks he’d be really content about it.


“At the very least, don’t get rid of this place because of the shower,” Wei Ying adds. “It’s so cool.”


Lan Zhan inclines his head slightly. “You’re welcome to use it, if you need it.”


The idea of showering at Lan Zhan’s place is so suddenly bizarre — even moreso than the idea of sleeping here — that Wei Ying laughs outright, even though it’s a perfectly normal and polite suggestion for a guest. Plus, this shower is way too luxurious for him, so much so that he can’t even visualize the concept of himself actually using it.


Lan Zhan, though, he could imagine using it. It suits him, just like the rest of this place. Not that he can imagine Lan Zhan showering. Or that he would want to. It had just been a thought experiment. Anyway.


Lan Zhan leads him into the kitchen, where without any further preamble, Wei Ying starts to rummage through the cabinets, curious about what food Lan Zhan keeps in-home. Lan Zhan exhales lightly, like he’s exasperated, but does nothing to stop him, surprisingly enough.


Not surprisingly, Lan Zhan doesn’t keep any snacks around, just raw ingredients for things. Which means he probably cooks, because of course he does.


“Lan Zhan, are you getting balanced meals?” Wei Ying asks, moving onto the next cabinet. “I’m picking up on a severe lack of processed foods here.”


“I prefer to cook,” Lan Zhan replies. Wei Ying knew it. He knows things about Lan Zhan now, he guesses, which is a new development.


Wei Ying stretches on tiptoe to reach the top cabinet, and audibly gawks when he opens it. There are at least five jars of liquor neatly lined up inside. No cheap shit, either — it’s Emperor’s Smile, he realizes, which is like. So far above Wei Ying’s paygrade that he isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.


“Lan Zhan, are you actually a secret alcoholic?” Wei Ying demands, reaching out to touch one of the jars.


Lan Zhan gives a small huff next to him. “No.”


Wei Ying turns to look at him with a raised brow. “Planning on a huge rager, then?”


Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No.”


“So mysterious, gege,” Wei Ying teases, and shuts the cabinet. “Alright, keep your secrets, but I whole-heartedly approve of your choices!”


It’s good he approves, Lan Zhan thinks, when Wei Ying brushes past him, when all of it is for him.


Wei Ying stumbles, and Lan Zhan reaches out to steady him by the elbow. Wei Ying jerks away, more on a panicked reflex than anything, and Lan Zhan drops his hand.


Lan Zhan had spent God even knows how much money on liquor that he doesn’t even drink, for. For what, as a gift for Wei Ying? How long has he had it? The bottles had been fuzzed over with a thin layer of dust.


“I think I’ll take you up on that shower now,” Wei Ying says, avoiding Lan Zhan’s gaze.


None of it makes any sense. This isn’t the Lan Zhan that Wei Ying had imagined at all — all of his preconceptions about the person he thought he knew have been violently uprooted, just in the span of a single day. It’s all very overwhelming.


The rainfall of shower water that beats down on his head is percussive. Soothing, mostly because Lan Zhan has sick water pressure. (Of course he does.) Wei Ying spends so long in the shower, lost in his own thoughts, that his skin flushes salmon-pink from steam and heat, his fingertips pruning. 


Does everyone buy a small liquor store for people they want to spite-fuck? Wei Ying wonders as he towels off. (Oh, Lan Zhan’s towels are soft. Bunny-soft.) As has been firmly established, Wei Ying can hardly claim any experience in the way of sex and romance. Maybe this is just a very...normal thing, and he’s simply too naïve to realize it. Maybe Lan Zhan trots a whole host of prospects through and woos each of them with dinner and nice liquor and comfortable pajamas.


Either way, there’s no reason to freak out about it, he reminds himself.


When Wei Ying emerges from the bathroom, the cool air of the apartment cuts through the gummy heat of shower mist. He feels more refreshed than he has in — well, weeks, maybe. Just a really long shower and a nice towel is all it takes, apparently. He tucks the towel more securely around his shoulders and meanders out into the main area, where he finds Lan Zhan settled into the couch in his sleep-clothes, reading a book with a cup of tea. He looks like something out of a still-life painting, perfectly rendered. His hair is loose from its usual ponytail, brushing against his shoulders. Wei Ying has never seen him with his hair down, or so generally…uncollected. He can’t help it: he stares.


Lan Zhan glances up at his approach, and there’s a flicker of — something across his expression that Wei Ying can’t name, as fleeting as a mote of dust catching the light.


“Hi,” Wei Ying says, then scrubs a hand through his wet hair, feeling awkward.


“Hi,” Lan Zhan echoes, weirdly soft, and he shuts his book.


“Thanks for letting me use your fancy shower,” Wei Ying says, just for something to say, so there are no pockets of weird silence between them left uninterrupted. “Like, holy shit, that might have been the best shower of my life.” He wags a chiding finger. “You’ve been holding out on me all this time, Lan Zhan!”


“You can use it any time you want,” Lan Zhan replies, then purses his lips and turns slightly pink.


Wei Ying coughs out a strange sound, half-laugh and half-nervous hum. “Okay, yeah. Okay.”


“The bed has been made up for you,” Lan Zhan says, clearly keen to switch subjects. “You should find everything you need there.”


Wei Ying blinks at him, a half-step behind. “Wait, you said you had a spare bed.”


“I do,” Lan Zhan says. “An air mattress, which I will take.”


“Lan Zhan, what,” Wei Ying protests. A visceral discomfort wriggles through him. “I’m already putting you out by staying here, there’s no way I’m kicking you out of your actual bed.


“Wei Ying is a guest,” Lan Zhan says. “I insist.”


“Well, I hate beds,” says Wei Ying. “So there.”


The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches in amusement. “Wei Ying.”


“Lan Zhan, I would be happy to sleep in your bathtub. I’m not going to force you out of your bed,” Wei Ying insists. It’s the charitable-things panic again, a slow clench in his stomach that makes him scratchy all over. “Please, I really want to sleep on your air mattress.”


Lan Zhan surveys him a little bit longer, inscrutable, then gives a slow nod. “If that is your preference.”


Wei Ying relaxes, his shoulders sagging a little. “It is, I promise.”


“It is already made up,” Lan Zhan says, standing up and rounding the couch. He’s wearing slippers, Wei Ying notes. Oh, that’s. Hmm. Fine, it’s cute. Objectively. “Anything in the apartment is yours, should you need it.”


“Lan Zhan, you can’t say things like that,” Wei Ying says with a stilted laugh. “Or else I’ll hang around here too long and then you’ll end up stuck with me.”


Ah, he hadn’t — meant to say that out loud. Not all weird like that. Lan Zhan stops in front of him and just stares at him. Wei Ying stares back, paralyzed, his heart in his throat.


“You must be tired,” Lan Zhan says quietly. “I’ll let you rest.” Then he reaches out, and Wei Ying short-circuits — is he going to —


Lan Zhan tugs the damp towel from his shoulders. Oh. Okay. Just that. But then his fingers brush against Wei Ying’s shoulder when he pulls away, and just like before, the image borrows his eyes, consumes his entire field of vision —


— with Lan Zhan’s hand on Wei Ying’s cheek, Wei Ying’s skin blushy and pink and warm to the touch, his mouth slightly open with surprise, but his eyes dark with heat, a little moist.

“Lan Zhan, what...” the other Wei Ying breathes, and Lan Zhan leans in without hesitating, his thumb to the bolt of Wei Ying’s jaw, and kisses him — backs him up so that Wei Ying is crowded against the countertop, Lan Zhan’s other hand on his waistband, cupping his hip —


The kiss is earnest but sweet, wet and deep and imploring, Lan Zhan drawing Wei Ying’s tongue into his mouth with his teeth and sucking on the tip of it lightly, almost a tease. Gentle, for now, let Wei Ying set the pace, what does Wei Ying want — 


Wei Ying jerks back from Lan Zhan with a small animal sound. A pulsing heat throbs in his chest like a trapped star. He can feel the blood in his face turning him crimson, his mouth stinging.


He stares at Lan Zhan in open shock. Lan Zhan stares back at him, clearly a little bewildered by the intensity of his reaction.


That hadn’t been. Angry, or punitive. That fantasy. There had been no trace of that sentiment in Lan Zhan’s thoughts, in those — images, and sensations. Lan Zhan had thought about kissing him with care behind each touch.


Wei Ying can feel the trapped-star heat full body, through each of his limbs. He might actually be melting into the floor like candle wax.


Lan Zhan’s expression shutters at whatever he sees on Wei Ying’s face. Which — who the fuck even knows what that is. He’s scared to know whatever his face is doing.


“Sleep well, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs without looking at him, then moves past him toward the bedroom.


“Yeah,” Wei Ying says hoarsely. When he hears the door nudge shut down the hall, he brings one hand to a blazing cheek, the other to touch his lips.


He doesn’t sleep a fucking wink.