It’s a sunny morning in August and Wei Ying is idling at the curb in front of the apartment building that Lan Zhan’s got for the summer. He’s here early, as they’d agreed, just after sunrise, and the shadows are long on the sidewalk. The air is cool but with the promise of heat later; Wei Ying’s sunglasses are already perched on his nose. He flips them up, checks himself out in the rearview mirror, tugging at the loose strands of hair around his face. Jiejie was right when she’d mentioned it on the call: his skin has been tanned brown from a summer of being outdoors as much as humanly possible; a summer of barbecues on the deck and early morning swims in the local outdoor pool and hiking on the weekends. But a summer of work too; camp counselling five days a week, meaning that he hasn’t had the chance to do a proper trip out of Waterloo this summer. Until now. He feels jittery with anticipation, an excited knot in his stomach.
Lan Zhan appears at the entrance to the building, and Wei Ying’s stomach knots even tighter. Hiking clothes are objectively not sexy, but somehow Lan Zhan makes them work for him. He wears his cargo pants with the zips at the knees to turn them into shorts like he’s about to walk a runway. Over his shoulder is a big rucksack, and he’s got a fleece knotted around his waist. When he sees Wei Ying’s car, canoe strapped to the roof like a shell, he smiles.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says, rolling down the passenger-seat window and leaning over. “Nice of you to show up! What sort of time do you call this?”
“I’m not late,” says Lan Zhan. “You’re early.”
“Only for you,” Wei Ying replies, trying to keep his tone light so it’s not obvious how much he means it. “Is there any chance you could get your backpack in through the rear window? The canoe was such a bitch to strap on.”
Lan Zhan, bless him, considers it. “I think not.”
Wei Ying sighs and unbuckles his seatbelt. It turns out that Lan Zhan is far more helpful at securing the canoe than Jiang Cheng had been last night, so it doesn’t actually take that long before everything is ready and they’re both strapped in the car. Wei Ying notices with a lurching fondness that Lan Zhan is wearing a pair of those horrifically ugly, deeply functional Keen walking sandals.
“All good?” Wei Ying asks. “You’ve got everything?”
Probably a superfluous question, because this is Lan Zhan, but it never hurts to check. Wei Ying thinks of items forgotten on previous canoeing trips: Jiang Cheng’s toothbrush, gas for the camping stove, jiejie’s raincoat, toilet paper, and once, horribly, the paddles.
“I have everything,” Lan Zhan confirms. “And you?”
“Canoe, check; paddles, check; bear canister, check; tent, check; sleeping bags, check; personal items, check,” Wei Ying rattles off. “All good, baby.”
Because he’s watching Lan Zhan closely, he doesn’t miss the slight reddening of Lan Zhan’s ears at the way Wei Ying calls him baby.
“Then we should leave,” Lan Zhan says, eyes fixed firmly on the windshield. “You know the way well?”
“Yeah, but put it in the GPS anyway,” Wei Ying says, putting the car in gear and pulling out. “I always get a little lost doing the non-toll route past Toronto. Use Huntsville, it’s the closest town to the entrance we want.”
Lan Zhan diligently plugs in the address and settles it on the dashboard. His hands are so big, Wei Ying notices for the millionth time; he wonders what they feel like, whether they might be rough with callouses or smooth to the touch. Like Wei Ying, Lan Zhan has a bracelet around his wrist from camp; brightly coloured plastic beads and some waxy white ones that change colour with UV light.
Their destination is Algonquin Provincial Park: a vast wilderness with thousands of lakes scattered throughout the rolling maple hills. Wei Ying has been going there on canoeing trips since he was small with Jiang-shushu, jiejie, and Jiang Cheng (Yu-ayi never came); and then just Jiang Cheng and jiejie when they were finally old enough to be trusted on their own.
Wei Ying loves those trips: the pull in your arms as you paddle over the clear smooth waters of a lake; the exhilaration when your campsite is finally in sight; the joy of cooking over a fire and watching the stars at night with his siblings. He loves the feeling of being wholly alone in the wild, just you and the water and the forest, punctuated by the high lonely cry of a loon.
Wei Ying risks a glance over at Lan Zhan as he pulls onto the highway. Lan Zhan always looks beautiful, but the early morning sunlight over the dashboard gives him a soft, ethereal loveliness. It’s lucky that Wei Ying has to keep his hands on the wheel, otherwise he might be tempted to reach out and brush his fingers over Lan Zhan’s, just to check that he’s real. Wei Ying swallows and turns his eyes to the road.
“You’re what,” Jiang Cheng said flatly to Wei Ying, a few weeks ago, while they were watching Netflix on the couch, eating peanuts and waiting for Nie Huaisang to get home from his internship at the Institute for Quantum Computing.
Wei Ying sighed and repeated himself: “Lan Zhan and I are planning a canoeing trip. For after camp wraps up.”
Jiang Cheng’s face went very red. “Where? Not Algonquin.”
“Where else?” Wei Ying said. He tossed a handful of peanuts into his mouth. “What are you so mad for, didi?”
“I’m not mad,” Jiang Cheng yelled. He got up off the couch and stomped out of their living room.
“What’s A-Cheng so mad about?” Nie Huaisang said when he arrived home, shrugging off his silk jacket and hanging it on the coat rack, to the soundtrack of Jiang Cheng violently clattering pans in the kitchen.
“He’s having a fit because I’m going canoeing with Lan Zhan in Algonquin Park next month,” Wei Ying said from the couch, where he had not budged an inch. Nie Huaisang settled next to him, reaching out to try and steal some of Wei Ying’s peanuts. Wei Ying swatted his hand away.
“Because that’s our thing,” Jiang Cheng said, putting his head around the door, a cleaver in one hand and a half-sliced onion in the other. “Algonquin is our sibling place.”
Wei Ying rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t suppress the tiny spark of happiness that shot through him every time Jiang Cheng (or jiejie, for that matter) referred to him as their brother. Even after all these years.
“Of course it is. That doesn’t mean I can’t take Lan Zhan,” he said gently. “Look, Lan Zhan’s never been to Algonquin! He’s only here for another few weeks before he heads back to Vancouver. I can’t not take him. Everyone needs to experience those lakes at least once.”
“Hmmph,” Jiang Cheng said, and returned to the kitchen, presumably to continue to brutally mutilate the onion.
“Hold on,” Nie Huaisang said, looking up from his phone—he always claimed the only reason he was able to live with both Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng was due to his ability to mentally or physically check out of reality when they argued. “You’re going canoeing with Lan Zhan?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying said.
“As in, you’ll be… camping together? Sharing a tent?”
“That is generally what happens when you go camping, yeah.”
Nie Huaisang let out a low whistle.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wei Ying demanded, even though he already knew.
“You’re going to be sharing a tent with the guy you’ve been flirting with shamelessly all summer?” Nie Huaisang said; it wasn’t really a question.
“I do not flirt with Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying protested, but extremely half-heartedly: he knew full well how he’d been acting.
Nie Huaisang didn’t even dignify him with a response. Jiang Cheng, though, put his head back through the door, waving the cleaver around rather dangerously, and said, “You do, and it’s literally disgusting. The way you two were eye-fucking at Mianmian’s barbecue made us all want to throw up.”
“And if even A-Cheng has noticed it, you know it’s bad,” Nie Huaisang commented.
“What? You perceive flirting as ‘telling someone repeatedly to shut the fuck up and-slash-or to die, and desperately hoping that they catch on eventually’,” Nie Huaisang said, and let out a little shriek when Jiang Cheng jabbed the knife threateningly in his direction. “See! I rest my case!”
“Well, I may—or may not!—be flirting, but Lan Zhan definitely isn’t flirting back,” Wei Ying protested.
Nie Huaisang said, “Please. He is shockingly into you. Why else would he agree to share a tent for multiple nights with you?”
“Hey, I’m a delight to share a tent with,” Wei Ying said, crunching through another handful of peanuts. “Tell him, A-Cheng.”
“Fuck you,” Jiang Cheng said.
“We’ve been friends for years and yet there’s no way I would share a tent with you,” Nie Huaisang continued, as if Jiang Cheng had not spoken.
“That’s because you hate camping!”
“And even if I didn’t, you’d still have to pay me to get in a tent with you, or, like, be alone with you in a situation where bears might maul us in the night. Clearly Lan Zhan has ulterior motives which outweigh the negatives here,” Nie Huaisang said. He stole a handful of Wei Ying’s peanuts.
“I could kill a bear with my bare hands,” Wei Ying said, in a tone that indicated, This conversation is over now.
Nie Huaisang threw his hands up in the air in disgust and said, “I give up! I give up!”
What Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang don’t know is that Lan Zhan has been flirting back, and Wei Ying is well aware of that. The way he’s been looking at Wei Ying all summer is unmistakable—dragging his eyes up and down Wei Ying’s body whenever they meet; refusing to glance away when Wei Ying catches him staring. And yet… nothing has happened between them. They’ve been suspended in the tension of it all, neither of them willing to break the safety net and go crashing off the edge of the cliff. Part of the reason Wei Ying had suggested the camping trip was to try and push it; see how far they could go before something had to give. Or until Lan Zhan had to return to Vancouver, back for his final year of his Biology degree, while Wei Ying stayed at home in Waterloo.
The first couple of hours of the drive pass by uneventfully. Wei Ying insists on stopping by a Tim’s drive-thru because he is in dire need of coffee, and Lan Zhan makes a feeble protest about it, but he lets Wei Ying order him a lemonade anyway. He refuses to partake in the box of Timbits, though.
“You should have a Timbit, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says through his own mouthful, pulling back onto the highway. “We’re gonna be burning so many calories over the next few days! You need the strength!”
“I would rather eat trail mix,” Lan Zhan says, and does. He’s made his own mix of raisins and nuts and parcelled them out into small plastic snack bags, labelled with the name of each day they’ll be camping. He had sent Wei Ying a photo of all of them last night, lined up neatly on his kitchen counter alongside the rest of the food for their trip.
“Weirdo,” says Wei Ying affectionately. “Who actually likes trail mix? Raisins are so gross.”
“You don’t like raisins? But you eat raisins all the time,” Lan Zhan says, looking over at Wei Ying. “I would have made the trail mix raisin-free if I’d known.”
“Oh, I don’t mind them that much,” Wei Ying says, uncomfortable now. He glances at Lan Zhan, sees that his brow is furrowed, and immediately regrets mentioning anything. “Don’t worry! It’s fine! I eat whatever, I told you.”
“Is it only raisins you don’t like? How about other dried fruits?” Lan Zhan persists.
Wei Ying is momentarily distracted by a truck undertaking him. “Asshole,” he mutters under his breath. Then to Lan Zhan, “Uhhh, yeah, like, apricots are good? But raisins are more than okay! Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll eat the trail mix, you don’t need to worry.”
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan. He eats a handful of his trail mix. “Do you want another donut piece?”
“You can just call them Timbits like everyone else,” Wei Ying says. “It won’t kill you. And yeah, please—”
He takes a hand off the wheel and turns to Lan Zhan, expecting Lan Zhan to pass the box to him. Instead, he’s faced with Lan Zhan holding a Timbit very close to his mouth. Surprised, Wei Ying opens up automatically, and Lan Zhan feeds him, his fingers slipping over Wei Ying’s bottom lip and into his mouth, just a little.
Wei Ying’s entire brain short-circuits. It’s a miracle he doesn’t crash the car.
When they eventually stop for lunch at a service station a few hours later, Wei Ying is expecting that they’ll order from Burger King or something—an indulgence that jiejie always allows him and Jiang Cheng on the first day of a trip—but it turns out that Lan Zhan has made sandwiches for them both, neatly sliced into triangles and nestled into paper bags. They eat across one of those depressing black plastic picnic tables, to the sound of trucks rumbling in and out of the parking lot.
“God, I can’t wait until we’re in the wild,” Wei Ying says as he finishes his sandwich and balls up the paper. “Free of the depressing trappings of civilisation! Thanks for making these, Lan Zhan! You’re such a good cook.”
“Mm. You’re welcome,” Lan Zhan says. “If you don’t mind, could I go into the service station for a moment?”
Wei Ying is going to die—why is Lan Zhan so cute? “You don’t need to ask,” he says, smiling, nudging Lan Zhan’s knee with his own beneath the table. Lan Zhan’s ears redden and Wei Ying smiles wider. “I’ll come with you, I need to pee—meet you back at the car?”
While he still has cellphone service, Wei Ying sends a text to the group chat: lz FED ME A TIMBIT WITH HIS FINGERS????
Jiang Cheng replies immediately with four vomiting emojis and for the love of God drive safely, if you total the car I’m not standing between Mom’s rage and u
From Nie Huaisang, he gets: Absolutely love that for you A-Ying!!!! Also if you could bang Lan Zhan in the tent on day 1 of your trip, specifically, I’d appreciate it! Mianmian and I have got a bet going 🙏🙏🙏🙏
Jiang Cheng again: if you bang him in OUR(!!!!!!!!) tent, forget Mom, I will be murdering you with my bare hands
Wei Ying just replies with 👀👀👀👀👀 and turns his phone off. His friends are no help and he needs to conserve battery anyway.
When Lan Zhan returns to the car, he’s carrying several packets of—of dried apricots.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, helplessly. “Oh my God. You didn’t have to do this.”
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan and gets into the car. “You don’t like raisins.”
He rips open the packets and starts parcelling them out into snack bags. Wei Ying watches him do it until Lan Zhan looks up and says, “Drive?”
“Right, right, sorry—” Wei Ying turns the key in the ignition and gets out of the parking lot.
Back on the highway, Lan Zhan is still diligently dividing up the dried fruit he’d bought. Wei Ying doesn’t like silence, as a rule; his brain starts spiralling and he gets filled with the itch to say something, anything, to stop the chaotic jumble of his thoughts from choking him. He doesn’t want to babble on at Lan Zhan, though, so he puts on a podcast, one by the Little Red School House called “Grades are Capitalism in Action”. It helps settle his anxiety, gives him something to focus on and direct his thoughts.
They make it to Huntsville in good time; early afternoon, the hot sun beating down on the car by now. Wei Ying longs desperately for the cool water of the lakes, a light breeze coming off the water.
“Last call for anything we might need from civilisation?” he says. Lan Zhan shakes his head, so on they go, down a dirt trail leading them to the park entrance.
Wei Ying rolls the windows down and rests his arm out of the window. “Nearly there!” he says, mostly to himself, unable to contain his excitement. Lan Zhan glances over at him, with a tiny smile tugging at one side of his mouth. Wei Ying can’t help but grin back—it always feels like such a victory to make Lan Zhan smile. Like when he’s coding and finally figures out which line needs editing to make everything come out right.
Wei Ying first met Lan Zhan back in May, at the week-long training session that the science camp organised for new head counsellors. Wei Ying was already late because the bus driver hadn’t let him off at the right stop, so he had to cut across half of campus. He careened around a corner and ran straight into Lan Zhan, who stepped backwards and steadied Wei Ying with a hand on his bicep.
“Sorry, sorry,” Wei Ying said, and moved to go past, but Lan Zhan held on.
“Wei Ying?” he said, and Wei Ying looked at him properly: up into his dark eyes, under those sharply-angled brows. He was wearing a pristine white shirt that Wei Ying would have probably instantly stained with grass or food or coffee, were it his.
“Yeah,” he said, a little disconcerted by his proximity to someone so, well, gorgeous. Then his brain caught up. “Wait, how do you know who I am?”
“You’re a head counsellor for science camp this summer,” Lan Zhan said. He was steering Wei Ying by the shoulders, back the way he had come. Wei Ying, still disoriented, went along without resistance. “I’m Lan Zhan, I’m here for the training too. I looked up all the other counsellors head counsellors before arriving. You stood out.”
From anyone else, this would have been creepy as fuck, but from Lan Zhan… it was strangely flattering. Wei Ying managed to say, in a voice that was, embarrassingly, an entire octave higher than usual, “Um, thanks? But, uh, we’re going the wrong way, we’re supposed to be meeting in the Engineering department foyer.”
“The meeting point changed,” Lan Zhan said smoothly, still directing Wei Ying with a firm hand between his shoulder blades. “There was an email this morning.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said, still in that weird high voice. Get a grip, he told himself. “Um, well, thanks for letting me know. It’s nice to meet you, Lan Zhan. You haven’t been a counsellor before, right? Are you from out of town?”
“I am from Vancouver,” said Lan Zhan. “I study at UBC, the University of British Columbia—” as though Wei Ying wouldn’t have heard of it!—“and no, I haven’t been a counsellor here before, but I have done a lot of work with children.”
“Oh, right,” Wei Ying said. “Well, I’m Wei Ying, as you know, and I’m from Waterloo, so I’ve been coming to camp here since I was a kid. You’re going to have a great summer! Science camp is the best. Do you know which age group you want?”
“I don’t mind. I’ve worked with all age groups previously,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Ying himself was hoping to get the Edison group, the 7-to-9-year-olds—his favourite age. Young enough to be silly and cute, but old enough that they actually do as they’re told, so you’re able to do proper science with them rather than just games. He’d been one of the head counsellors for the 4–6 age group the year prior and it had been a nightmare.
When they arrived at the meeting point, Wei Ying spotted a few familiar faces instantly. Mianmian and Wen Qing, old camp friends who’d also stayed on as counsellors. Qin Su, who came from out of town last summer to be a junior counsellor and was now going to be a head counsellor for the first time. Nie Mingjue, who had been one of Wei Ying’s favourite counsellors back when he was a camper, but was now one of the directors of the camp, along with Song Lan, another favourite counsellor of Wei Ying’s. The last person that Wei Ying recognised was Xiao Xingchen, wearing Birkenstocks and socks while also somehow being the most beautiful person in the room. Well—Wei Ying looked at Lan Zhan—maybe the second most beautiful person now.
During the meeting, Nie Mingjue handed out group assignations. Wei Ying did end up getting the Edison group—and was only slightly disappointed that his joint head counsellor was Wen Qing and not Lan Zhan, who was assigned to the 10–12 campers with Mianmian. He’d been looking forward to spending more time with Lan Zhan—to see if he could get that smooth facade to crack a little. Wen Qing elbowed him and told him to wipe that frown off his face, which he did—he was genuinely excited to be working with her. They always made a good tag team: they had the good-counsellor stern-counsellor routine down. The fun part was that both of them could be either good or stern; it kept the kids on their toes.
And there would be plenty of time to get to know Lan Zhan, Wei Ying told himself. All the counsellors would be living in each other’s pockets by the end of the summer; it was a bonding experience like no other. The promise of long, warm days of summer stretched ahead. Wei Ying found himself smiling at the thought.
By the time they arrive at the parking lot beside Rain Lake, Wei Ying is itching to get on the water. He throws himself out of the car, and all but drags Lan Zhan out of the passenger seat to help him unstrap the canoe.
“Your canoe is very well-made,” Lan Zhan observes. “Where did you buy it from?”
Wei Ying has been waiting for this moment.
“Oh,” he says as airily as he can, though he can’t help the note of pride that creeps into his voice, “Jiang Cheng and I built it a few summers ago.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “Impressive.”
His voice is so devoid of tone that a casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that Lan Zhan is being sarcastic. In fact, to a casual observer, Lan Zhan’s expression would probably read as ‘neutral to the point of not giving a fuck about your canoe’, but Wei Ying hasn’t spent all summer staring at Lan Zhan and mentally cataloguing all of his micro-expressions for nothing: the slight widening of his eyes and the minute twitch of his eyebrows mean that Lan Zhan is actually impressed.
Thus vindicated, Wei Ying hustles the rest of their stuff out of the car, carrying everything down to the dock while Lan Zhan packs up all their food in the bear canister. Then they take the canoe together and lower it into the water.
The lake is a perfect, deep blue. It’s a still day, so there’s hardly a breeze, and the sunlight dances over the placid surface. Wei Ying looks out at the bottleneck they’ll have to go through, and feels that ache of anticipation in his chest again. He can’t help but smile.
Wei Ying hefts their backpacks into the canoe, along with the bear canister . The weight makes the canoe bob in the water—Wei Ying nudges it with his foot, checking the balance.
“Alright, do you want to take front or back?” he says to Lan Zhan. “This lake is a big paddle, so choose wisely.”
“Front,” Lan Zhan decides. “Here.”
He hands Wei Ying a set of laminated print outs—maps of their route, with the portages carefully marked out. Each one has been hole punched and a piece of twine wound through it, “So it can be tied on to a backpack or around your neck,” Lan Zhan says, demonstrating. It’s so cute. He’s so cute.
Wei Ying busies himself with putting away the maps for the other days in his bag so he doesn’t kiss Lan Zhan on the cheek or something awful like that. He doesn’t really need the map for day one—they’re heading for the lake that he and Jiang Cheng and jiejie always camp at on the first night, and he could get there blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back—but he puts it around his neck anyway.
Lan Zhan gets into the front and Wei Ying hands him a paddle before getting in the back. The canoe rocks a little as they settle themselves.
“Comfortable?” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan looks over his shoulder and nods. Wei Ying decides, abruptly, that this is probably the one of the best views he’s ever going to get in his life: Lan Zhan in the front of the canoe, wearing his baby blue baseball cap, bathed in sunlight, with the sparkling expanse of water all around them and the lush sugar maples in the background.
Wei Ying hasn’t thought much about what will happen when Lan Zhan goes back to Vancouver. Whenever the thought comes to mind, it feels like he’s pressing at a bruise that he didn’t know was there. But now, as he pushes off the pier and begins to paddle, he decides that no matter what happens, he can handle the loss. Because he’s had this.
They only have one portage on the first day, but it’s a long one, almost 800 metres. Wei Ying warns Lan Zhan about this as they steer the canoe into the portage point.
Lan Zhan says over his shoulder, “That is not very far to hike.”
“Try doing it with a sixty pound canoe on your head,” Wei Ying says. “Don’t worry, I’ll take it the first time, if you can get the backpacks and stuff.”
The nose of the canoe bumps against the shore and Lan Zhan clambers out carefully. He reaches out a hand to help Wei Ying up; his hand is warm, lightly callused on the palm. Wei Ying holds it for far longer than he needs to in order to get out of the canoe—the amused look that Lan Zhan gives him indicates that this does not go unnoticed. Wei Ying passes him their bags and then they drag the canoe up onto the path.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “You’re good with the bags? We can do two trips if you can’t get—”
Lan Zhan has already loaded himself up with all the backpacks, which is impressive: the bear canister in particular weighs a ton.
It’s been a while since Wei Ying has been canoeing, sure, but the muscle memory of how to swing it up and onto his shoulders hasn’t left him, and he does it in one smooth motion. He can’t see Lan Zhan on account of how the canoe is over his head, but he hopes that Lan Zhan had been watching how easily he hefted the canoe up.
“You go first,” he says to Lan Zhan. “I’ll be kinda slow.”
Lan Zhan obediently sets off, and Wei Ying plods along behind him, breathing through his nose, trying to keep the canoe steady on his head. The pain of doing portages is, without a doubt, the worst thing about these trips. He and Jiang Cheng had tried to make the central bar of the canoe as ergonomic as possible, but it still digs into his shoulders and neck like crazy. He wonders if he can convince Lan Zhan to give him a shoulder massage later, which is an extremely tempting and somewhat dangerous thought.
Once they finally reach the lake on the other side, Wei Ying, sweaty and exhausted, groans and says, “Longest eight hundred metres of my fucking life.” It always takes him a few portages to get back into the rhythm of carrying the canoe.
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan. All Wei Ying can see is Lan Zhan’s Keen sandals from beneath the canoe, so he has no idea how Lan Zhan coped with the walk—he hopes that Lan Zhan is at least a little out of breath, too. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.
Wei Ying lets the bottom of the canoe bump down onto the ground and twists out from underneath, catching the front before it falls. He rights it and settles it gently on the ground. He looks up to see that Lan Zhan is watching, a slight smile playing over his lips. Wei Ying does a little motion with his hands like, ta-da! and Lan Zhan’s smile widens. Wei Ying’s stomach flips over, like an idiot.
“Don’t just stand there!” he says, mostly for something to say. “Help me get this thing into the water!”
Before they get back into the canoe, Wei Ying beckons Lan Zhan over and pulls out his laminated map. The lamination is handy—normally their maps end up wet and ripped on day one. Wei Yng makes a note to tell Jiang Cheng and jiejie about the idea, for future trips.
“There are three campsites on this lake,” Wei Ying says, pointing them out on the map. “Which one do you want to go to? You can pick.”
“I thought that you said you always camp on this lake for the first night,” Lan Zhan says, looking over the map.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying replies, meaning, What’s your point?
“So you must have a favourite campsite. Why don’t we go to that one?”
Wei Ying wrinkles his nose. “Um, I guess. I didn’t want to just, like, take you on a guided tour of all the places I go with my siblings. This is our trip! So we should pick together.”
“I would like to see your favourite campsite. If you don’t mind.”
Lan Zhan’s mouth is twitching up at the corner like he wants to smile again; Wei Ying wants to kiss him. So why don’t you? says a voice in his mind that sounds suspiciously like a fusion of Nie Huaisang and Mianmian. Push him up against that tree and… Wei Ying gives himself a mental slap—they haven’t even got to the first campsite yet and he’s already thinking of ways to upset the fragile balance that he and Lan Zhan have spent all summer maintaining. They have to be out on the water for another three days: he doesn’t want to ruin this trip by making an inappropriate move. So he takes a deep breath, tells the voices in his head to be quiet, and turns back to the canoe.
The campsite is Wei Ying’s favourite for a reason—it faces west and gets all of the setting sun, and has a perfect fire-pit atop a little cliff overlooking the lake. They find a nice flat, grassy place to set up the tent, which doesn’t take long, because Lan Zhan is actually a decent person who understands the meaning of teamwork, unlike some unnamed younger brothers.
After they finish, Wei Ying stands on his tiptoes and stretches out, not entirely unaware of the way Lan Zhan’s eyes track up and down his body.
“Would you like to go swimming?” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying considers it and shakes his head. “Nah, you go ahead, though. I might take a nap before we eat.”
Lan Zhan shrugs and disappears into the tent with his clothes bag. When he emerges in his trunks, Wei Ying determinedly busies himself with rooting through the bear canister—he can’t handle seeing Lan Zhan shirtless right now.
Then Lan Zhan is gone, but Wei Ying decides against napping. Instead, he makes dinner.
The food they’ve brought is mostly those freeze-dried just-add-water ready meal packages; this had taken Lan Zhan by surprise, when they were shopping for the trip in the local MEC store. He had seemed to think they would be cooking gourmet meals every night.
“Fresh stuff weighs too much,” Wei Ying had said, aware that he sounded exactly like Jiang Cheng, who was a weight fiend when they went camping, obsessed with getting everything down to the barest essentials. He would literally remove the plastic wrapping on their band-aid packages, saying, It all adds up, Wei Ying!
“A little extra discomfort is worth it for enjoyable meals,” Lan Zhan had argued, regarding the selection of dehydrated meals with distaste.
“I know they’re objectively disgusting, Lan Zhan, but everything tastes incredible after a day in the outdoors,” Wei Ying had said, adding four packets of freeze-dried mac and cheese to his basket.
Lan Zhan hadn’t looked convinced. Eventually they’d arrived at a compromise—they would bring fresh food for the first day and lots of healthy snacks.
So here Wei Ying is, frying (burning) onions in their shitty camping frying pan over an open fire in an attempt to make fajitas.
When Lan Zhan gets out of the water, he notices that Wei Ying has begun to cook without him and looks personally offended him. Which is more than a little fair, because Wei Ying can’t cook to save his life (fajitas are one of the three meals that he even knows the ingredients for). But Wei Ying thinks he knows Lan Zhan fairly well by now, after a whole summer spent watching him, and he suspects Lan Zhan’s affronted look is more than that.
Lan Zhan had driven Mianmian all the way to Mississauga when her car broke down the weekend she was supposed to be visiting her sister; he had picked up the tab at Wen Qing’s birthday drinks even though he had barely drunk anything himself; he had carried Wei Ying home after Xue Yang’s insane pool party got out of hand. In a hundred small and large ways, Lan Zhan always takes care of the people around him. But Wei Ying always finds himself wondering just who takes care of Lan Zhan.
Maybe Lan Zhan’s brother, who is Lan Zhan’s phone background and laptop screensaver and who Lan Zhan diligently calls every Friday night, without fail. But Lan Huan is back in Vancouver.
So today, it’ll just have to be Wei Ying.
Admittedly, it’s not a huge act of service, making dinner. But it’s the kind of thing that Wei Ying knows makes him feel cared for: when Wen Qing comes into their camp room in the mornings and tosses him a foil-wrapped burrito like it’s a hot potato, or when jiejie visits and stacks his and Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang’s freezer with three billion labelled Tupperwares.
It’s also the kind of thing that Lan Zhan would like to do for other people. Hence the glare and the reproachful, “Wei Ying.”
“What?” Wei Ying says, giving up on the onions and tipping them into a bowl.
He opens a can of black beans, dumps them into the frying pan and glances up at Lan Zhan, who’s still in his swimming trunks, water droplets trailing down his bare chest, the curve of his pectorals, the taut muscles of his abs. It shouldn’t take Wei Ying’s breath away—he’s seen Lan Zhan shirtless before, at that nuts pool party—but it does. Hey, he’s only human.
“Go on, go get changed before I lose all control and ravish you beneath the pine trees,” he jokes, which, now that he’s said it, is actually a pretty appealing image—but more importantly, his words have the double desired effect of making Lan Zhan blush violently and also making him actually head off for the tent and stop giving Wei Ying that wounded look.
Wei Ying watches him go fondly. Who blushes like that at the word ravish? Lan Zhan is so cute. It’s almost unbearable. Then he remembers the beans, and leaps to stir them before they burn too.
The fajitas, against all odds, taste good.
They eat sitting cross-legged beside the fire. Lan Zhan has changed into warmer clothes for the evening; a fluffy Patagonia fleece and long soft leggings. His hair is loose around his face, drying in soft waves that curl over his shoulders. He could pass for a male model doing an ‘outdoorsy’ photoshoot, if it weren’t for the fajita spilling beans out of his hands, or the pine needles clinging to his leggings, or the smudge of dirt high on one cheekbone.
“Hey,” Wei Ying says, “you have, uh.” He gestures at his own cheek and Lan Zhan wipes at the wrong side of his face. “No, here, let me—”
Wei Ying licks his thumb, leans over and brushes it over Lan Zhan’s face gently. His skin is soft under the pad of Wei Ying’s thumb.
Is it just Wei Ying’s imagination or have Lan Zhan’s eyes gone dark? “Thank you.”
Wei Ying sits back. Act normal, act normal, act normal. Everything is fine. “No worries,” he says as casually as he can manage, and takes a final bite of fajita. “Hey, sorry I burned dinner, but it’s not a total disaster, right?”
“Not a disaster at all,” says Lan Zhan. “It is delicious.”
“Okay, delicious is a bit of a stretch, Lan Zhan. You can give me credit where credit’s due, but I won’t accept idle flattery.”
“You hardly ever accept compliments at all,” Lan Zhan says quietly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wei Ying says, a little unsettled. He pokes a stick into the fire and the flames jump and flicker.
“Nothing,” Lan Zhan replies. He pauses, gazing into the flames. “Only… you have many exceptional qualities. I wish you would be more comfortable with people acknowledging them.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He’s not sure how to respond. Lan Zhan’s sincerity can be difficult to respond to sometimes. He just… says things like that, the kind of things that most people keep to themselves. “Um. Sorry?”
Lan Zhan side-eyes him—he has the most effective, devastating side-eye Wei Ying has ever seen—and says mildly, “You don’t need to apologise.” All of a sudden, he uncrosses his legs, takes Wei Ying’s plate from him and stands in one fluid motion. “I will wash up.”
Wei Ying doesn’t bother arguing—he’s warm and full and content by the fire, and more than happy to let Lan Zhan scrub away at the dishes. Idly, he tosses another log into the fire—some kind soul who camped here previously had collected and split several logs, leaving them in a nice stack by the fire pit.
By the time Lan Zhan comes back, Wei Ying has stoked the fire up to a nice, warm blaze. Summer isn’t over yet, but the evening already has a chill to it.
Wei Ying leans back on his elbows in the dirt and looks up at Lan Zhan. “Thank you for doing the dishes.”
“My pleasure,” says Lan Zhan, and holds up an apple. “Would you like some fruit?”
“Sure,” Wei Ying says, expecting Lan Zhan to toss it to him or something, but Lan Zhan drops into a graceful cross-legged position and gets out an honest-to-God Swiss army knife. He peels the skin off the apple deftly and cuts it into slices. He offers one to Wei Ying; when Wei Ying takes it, their fingers brush. It’s stupid, because he and Lan Zhan have touched in hundreds of ways over the summer—Lan Zhan carried him home that one time, for God’s sake!—but the brief touch makes a shiver go down Wei Ying’s spine.
“Having fruit like this reminds me of being a kid,” he says.
Lan Zhan ducks his head and smiles a small, private smile. “Me too.”
“What are you thinking about?” Wei Ying asks. He wants to know what made Lan Zhan smile like that.
“Ah,” Lan Zhan says. “When I was a baby, I hated sweet things. The only fruit that my uncle could get me to eat were lemons and limes. He had to wean me off them using slightly less sour citrus every time—grapefruit, kumquats…”
“That’s cute,” Wei Ying says. “Weird as fuck, but cute. Were you a fat baby? I bet you were a super fat baby.”
Lan Zhan glances sideways at him, which means yes.
“I knew it,” Wei Ying says triumphantly. “As soon as we get a cellphone signal, I want to see your baby pics!”
“Only if I can see yours,” Lan Zhan says.
Despite himself, Wei Ying can’t summon up a snappy response.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan says, after Wei Ying has been silent for too long. “I—did I say something wrong?”
“Ahahaha,” Wei Ying says weakly, then realises he actually has to respond, because Lan Zhan looks properly concerned. “No, no, don’t worry, you didn’t at all, I was just, uhhhh—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, brow furrowed. “You don’t have to, but you can tell me.”
“Ah, it’s not a big deal,” Wei Ying mutters. He looks down at his hands, sun-browned fingers twisting at the little bracelet around his wrist. “I don’t have any. Pictures of myself as a baby, that is. Before I was adopted by the Jiangs… it’s almost like I didn’t exist.”
He flashes a look at Lan Zhan, expecting pity, but Lan Zhan meets Wei Ying’s eyes steadily. “That must be difficult,” he says.
“No, it’s honestly—it’s so stupid, sorry, I normally don’t get upset by it—it’s just. One of those things, you know? Something everyone has except me.”
“Not stupid,” Lan Zhan says firmly. He reaches out to hand Wei Ying another piece of apple. “Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry I inadvertently brought up something painful for you.”
Wei Ying opens his mouth to say, Oh no, you didn’t, or No worries!, but something in Lan Zhan’s gaze arrests him. Instead, he puts the apple slice in his mouth, chews, swallows. It’s a good apple, sweet but slightly tart. They finish the rest of the slices in silence.
Dusk has fallen now, and the sounds of nightlife start stirring in the undergrowth; bugs and other nocturnal creatures, reminding Wei Ying that even in the dark, there are things alive in the woods. That they’re not really alone here.
Lan Zhan tosses the apple parings into the fire, which has died down just to the embers now, and stands. He takes a few steps towards the edge of the little cliff, out of the canopy of trees.
“Clear night,” he says, one hand behind his back, the outline of his body just visible in the soft light of the fire.
“Good for stars,” Wei Ying says, getting up to join Lan Zhan. “Ah, look—there’s Venus. Right there on the horizon.”
Lan Zhan leans into Wei Ying’s side slightly, following the line of his arm.
“I don’t know many constellations,” Lan Zhan confesses. “Only… Orion and Ursa Major.”
Wei Ying grins. “You’re in the right company, then.”
He tells Lan Zhan about the many, many nights he spent with Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng in their backyards as teens, using Nie Huaisang’s telescope to chart the night sky. The wonder and joy of seeing the patterns amongst the stars.
“We were such nerds!” Wei Ying says fondly. “Sangsang especially. He taught me everything I know. Hey, there’s Cassiopeia—look at that W in the sky. See?”
“I see,” Lan Zhan says. He sounds like he’s smiling.
“And there’s Lyra too—that really bright star in it is Vega.”
“Oh,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying glances sideways at him, and yes, there’s that smile. “Star Trek?”
“Of course that’s how you know it,” Wei Ying says fondly. “Yeah, it’s the same. Hey, what’s your star sign?”
“Aquarius,” says Lan Zhan.
“Ah! That’s just on the horizon. Look, that long line of stars there.”
Wei Ying traces out the shape of Aquarius.
“Oh, Scorpio! It should be visible but only to the South—” Wei Ying jerks a thumb over his shoulder, back through the trees—“so we can’t see it right now.”
“Do you… like astrology?” Lan Zhan says, in a voice that he’s clearly striving to keep neutral.
“I know, like, the basics,” Wei Ying says. “Impossible not to pick up on them when you’ve been friends with Sangsang for as long as I have! He harasses me and Jiang Cheng with memes dragging Scorpios about ten times a day.”
“You three have an... interesting friendship,” says Lan Zhan. “Still. I wish—”
He breaks off, which is uncharacteristic for Lan Zhan. Everything he says is usually so considered. Wei Ying is itching to jump in with a reply, but he holds back, in the hopes that Lan Zhan will continue. After a long while, he does.
“I had a very lonely childhood,” Lan Zhan says slowly. “I wish I had had a friend that I grew up with, the way you and Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang had each other.”
The way he says it—wistful, regretful—just about breaks Wei Ying’s heart. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Lan Zhan says. “I was a strange child. Melancholy, a little feral. I rejected the company of others, rather than the other way around. I wish I hadn’t.”
“I think you make up for it now,” Wei Ying says honestly. “Seriously. You’re one of the most considerate people I’ve ever met, Lan Zhan. Everybody likes and respects you.”
“You’re very kind,” Lan Zhan says, low, and Wei Ying turns towards him involuntarily. They’re already standing close from gazing at the stars together, and the movement brings their faces closer. They’re practically breathing the same air. Wei Ying’s breath hitches in his throat.
He could reach out, place a hand along Lan Zhan’s jaw, lean in and kiss him. He can see it playing out in his mind like a movie clip. He watches imaginary Wei Ying slide a hand around the back of Lan Zhan’s neck, kiss him slow and deep and sweet like he’s wanted to ever since he first ran straight into Lan Zhan that bright May day.
Then Lan Zhan says quietly, “We should get some rest,” and the moment splits and shatters. Wei Ying feels the ache of lost possibility deep in his chest. He breathes through it and then he tucks the hurt away, throwing his arms out in a big stretch and doing a dramatic yawn to dispel any lingering awkwardness.
“Yeah, I’m beat! And we’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He doesn’t say anything more as they get ready for bed: making sure the fire is fully out, brushing their teeth by the water of the lake, stringing the bear canister up in a tree, eventually crawling into the tent.
It’s only when they’re lying side-by-side, ensconced in the closeness of the tiny tent, that Lan Zhan says, “Goodnight, Wei Ying.”
“Night,” Wei Ying says.
He listens to Lan Zhan’s breathing even out, wondering whether he might have been able to win Nie Huaisang his bet if only he’d just been a little braver. He doesn’t get to sleep for a long time.
When he suggested the trip, Wei Ying didn’t actually expect Lan Zhan to say yes. They were both lingering late after camp one day, because each of them had a camper in their group whose parents were late—siblings, they eventually realised. After the apologetic mother finally showed up and collected her children, Wei Ying rooted around in the cooler for leftover popsicles (a Friday treat for the campers) and dug out two—one red and one blue.
“In my hands I have two pills…” he said portentously to Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan regarded him silently.
“It’s a reference to The Matrix,” Wei Ying said. “You know, the film—”
“Wei Ying. I have seen The Matrix.”
“Okay, well, how was I supposed to know that?” Wei Ying complained. “You didn’t even react to the joke!”
“That’s because it wasn’t very funny,” said Lan Zhan. “Try harder next time. Also: red, please.”
“Wow, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying said, tossing him the red popsicle. “Heading down the rabbit hole! Bold choice. I declare your third eye to be officially open.”
The pick-up and drop-off area for camp was the circle of grass in front of the main campus building. Between the hours of eight-thirty and nine am, and three-thirty and four pm, it was full of shouting kids; playing cards or catch or showing off to each other what they’d made that day. Now, though, it was quiet, empty of everybody except Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. They would have to go back to the counsellors’ main room before they left to return the cooler and their registers.
Wei Ying sat down in the shade of a tree, legs sticking out into the sun. It was a blisteringly hot day, and he was already dreaming of dragging Jiang Cheng to the pool later when he got home.
He bit the top off the blue popsicle; the cold shock instantly numbed his teeth. “Ahhhh. Brain freeze!”
Lan Zhan didn’t roll his eyes but the expression on his face practically did it for him. He licked his popsicle in a way that felt vaguely obscene, or maybe it was just the fact that Wei Ying’s brain apparently existed permanently in the gutter since meeting Lan Zhan.
“Come sit,” Wei Ying said, flicking his wrist out to indicate a spot in the shade. “God, it’s so hot today. I wish I was on a canoeing trip or something rather than stuck here in town.”
Lan Zhan sat down cross-legged opposite Wei Ying. He continued to lick the popsicle, the red of it turning his mouth red, tongue flicking out to swirl at the top in a way that made Wei Ying feel even warmer, like he was having a hot flush or something. He bit into his own popsicle again savagely, blood rushing in his ears, and didn’t hear Lan Zhan’s question until Lan Zhan said, “Wei Ying?”
Wei Ying blinked and came back down to Earth. “Yes,” he said automatically. “Wait, what did you say? Sorry, I missed the question.”
“I asked if you go canoeing often,” Lan Zhan said.
“Oh! Yeah, as often as we can,” Wei Ying said, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. “It’s the best. There’s this national park—well, technically it’s a provincial park—a few hours’ drive north with the most amazing lakes. Jiejie and A-Cheng and I used to go on these long camping trips there all the time, but we can hardly find time for it these days. Like, we probably won’t get to go this summer, ‘cause right after camp finishes, Jiang Cheng’s got some dumb internship for two weeks and then we’re both back to school, and jiejie’s really busy doing fieldwork at the moment. So. It fucking sucks.” He paused, aware that he had been monologuing (Lan Zhan never interrupted while he rambled, unlike most other people Wei Ying knew, namely his terrible brother and their equally horrible friends) and tacked on a lame, “Uh, how about you?” at the end.
“There are many beautiful places to canoe back home,” Lan Zhan said. “My brother and I have been on day trips, and I have taken camping trips before, but I’ve never combined the two.”
“Hey, we should go to Algonquin together, then, before the end of summer,” Wei Ying said, without really thinking, mind fixed on how badly he wanted to go on a canoeing trip. His popsicle was melting all over his hand. He licked his fingers clean and went on, “After camp is over. We could drive up and spend a few days there.”
“I would like that,” Lan Zhan said. He took out his small black diary from his back pocket and thumbed through the pages. “My flight home is ten days after the final Friday of camp. When do you suggest we go?”
“Um,” Wei Ying said, taken aback, which was silly because hadn’t he been the one to suggest it? “Wait. Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said. He looked up at Wei Ying. “Unless you weren’t being serious.”
“No!” Wei Ying said, too fast and too loud. The last thing he wanted was for Lan Zhan to think he wasn’t serious. He always was, when it came to Lan Zhan. “No. I’m serious. I—that’d be really fun. I’d love to show you the lakes.”
“Good,” Lan Zhan said. He glanced at their empty popsicle wrappers and said, a slight note of reluctance in his voice, “We should return the registers to Nie Mingjue.”
“Ugh, if we must,” Wei Ying said, aware that he sounded whiny, indulging himself a little—it had been a long day. He scrambled to his feet and stuck out his tongue at Lan Zhan. “Is my tongue blue?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said, staring very intently at Wei Ying’s mouth. Wei Ying put his tongue away and said, “Haha, I bet yours is red—if we kissed, they might turn purple!”
Silence. Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow.
“They might,” he said, and Wei Ying nearly choked.
Let’s test it, he almost said, but at the last second the words didn’t come out. Instead he said, “So, Algonquin. How about the Monday after camp finishes? Three nights of camping and that leaves you one final weekend in Waterloo.”
“That suits me,” Lan Zhan said. He quirked a little smile at Wei Ying and Wei Ying thought, helplessly, This? For four full days? How am I going to cope?
But, well, Wei Ying’s never backed down from a challenge in his life, so he smiled back at Lan Zhan and said, “Oh, baby, these lakes are gonna blow your mind.”
Wei Ying wakes just before dawn the next morning, sprawled over onto Lan Zhan’s side of the tent, which is already empty. When he pokes his head out of the tent, he notices that Lan Zhan has already got the fire going and a pan on the grate. Wei Ying smiles to himself and wriggles fully out of his sleeping bag.
“Hey,” he says softly as he sits next to Lan Zhan, “what’s cooking?”
“Just boiling water for now,” Lan Zhan replies. “Coffee or tea?”
“You already know the answer,” Wei Ying says, and accepts the steaming mug of instant Timmies cappuccino that Lan Zhan hands to him.
They eat oatmeal out of their tin mugs—Lan Zhan has his plain, and Wei Ying puts three sachets of brown sugar on top of his—and pack their belongings into the canoe.
“Long day today,” Wei Ying says. He’s still speaking quietly; although they’re the only two people around, he doesn’t want to disturb the pristine peacefulness of the morning. It’s an unusual feeling for him—camping trips are normally when he’s at his most exuberant, unable to keep quiet. The memories of their trips are all bright colours and loud noises—yelling to his siblings across the clearing, splashing Jiang Cheng with water as they paddle, shrieking when they get to jump in the lake at the end of a long day, telling stories by the fire. But with Lan Zhan, he feels differently. More contemplative. Wants to move through the world softly for once. Speak when it’s necessary and not for the sake of it.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He’s got out the new laminated map for day two and is studying it. “A lot of portages, and the big lake at the end.”
“Yeah, that lake can be a real pain in the ass if the wind’s blowing the wrong way,” Wei Ying says. He licks a finger and holds it up. “Seems fairly calm now but it could pick up this afternoon when the clouds roll in.”
“We should get started then,” Lan Zhan says. “Would you like to sit at the back again?”
“Sure. Or I can take the front, I don’t mind. I go both ways.” He flashes a knowing grin at Lan Zhan, who raises a sceptical eyebrow at him.
“I would like to try being at the back,” Lan Zhan says, not rising to the bait. “If you think the steering won’t be too much trouble.”
“You’ll be absolutely fine,” Wei Ying says. “I trust you.”
As they paddle across the lake to the next portage, Wei Ying spots a pair of loons on the water. They call out their harsh, lonely cry, which always sends a shiver down Wei Ying’s spine for some reason. The animality of it, maybe. A sound no human being would ever make, a noise belonging firmly to the kingdom of nature.
Lan Zhan messes up the steering only once, as he attempts to navigate around a tiny island in the lake’s centre; after that, he’s deft with the canoe, gently manoeuvring it around a tangle of lily pads and into the portage point.
“Nice work,” Wei Ying says, as they drag the canoe up to the path. He prepares to hoist it up onto his back but Lan Zhan says, “May I?”
Wei Ying has to help him pick up the canoe, but once it’s settled on Lan Zhan’s shoulders, he moves away quickly through the trees. Wei Ying has to hurry to collect the rest of their stuff and catch up with him. He walks behind Lan Zhan, watching the strong muscles of his calves, stepping into the footprints left by those ridiculously functional sandals.
By the time they reach the end of the path, Lan Zhan is still walking steadily—no mean feat, when you’ve got a huge canoe balanced on your head—but he’s sweating, and he stretches out his shoulders for a long time after he sets the canoe down.
Lan Zhan huffs out a little sound of amusement at the sight of the next lake, which is practically the size of a puddle. Wei Ying can see the next portage point, across about two hundred metres of water. They could probably wade across it without getting the tops of their heads wet.
Halfway across the puddle-lake, Wei Ying glances to his left and spots a moose in the trees, picking its way delicately through the undergrowth. It ducks its antlers beneath a low-hanging branch, and regards their canoe with its big, soft eyes.
“Lan Zhan!” he hisses excitedly, turning in his seat and pointing. Lan Zhan looks, and Wei Ying is rewarded by the sight of his mouth parting in a gentle, awed smile. Eventually, he manages to tear his eyes away from Lan Zhan to snap a couple of photos of the moose on his phone; and they paddle on.
Throughout the day, they see a lot of wildlife, far more than Wei Ying usually notices—Lan Zhan’s sharp eyes miss nothing: two long water snakes coiled by a portage point; a huge snapping turtle that their canoe glides over; a bird of prey circling high that Lan Zhan identifies as a kestrel using a Birds of Algonquin Provincial Park guide that he’d brought along; a few herons fishing by the side of one of the lakes. Lan Zhan regards them all with the same delighted fascination, making small noises of appreciation when he manages to spot a new animal. Wei Ying finds it impossibly charming.
At the final lake of the day, the wind starts to pick up, blowing against them and sending up waves that rock the canoe alarmingly. Before they set off, Wei Ying insists on them swapping positions and Lan Zhan stubbornly tries to resist, but Wei Ying wins by sheer force of logical argument: Wei Ying is the more experienced canoeist, and conditions are extremely adverse; it makes sense for him to steer. They pull as steadily and as hard as they can, and eventually run aground at their intended campsite on an island in the lake’s centre.
“Ahh, finally!” Wei Ying says, tumbling out of the canoe and throwing himself down into the warm, soft sand.
Lan Zhan assiduously drags the canoe a little further up the beach, and then comes to sit by Wei Ying. He draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. Wei Ying rolls onto his side and props up his head on one hand.
“You okay? That was a tough paddle,” he says.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “I’m fine, thank you for asking. You?”
“I’m good,” Wei Ying says. He has to squint against the glare of the late afternoon sun to look at Lan Zhan. It makes him feel a little dazed.
Lan Zhan glances up the beach, where there’s a little path into the trees. Wei Ying follows his gaze.
“Hey, I’ve never camped here before,” he says, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. “It’s cool to be on an island, huh? Like our own private kingdom.”
“I’m glad,” Lan Zhan says. He draws a line in the sand with one long finger. The UV beads on the bracelet around his wrist have changed—pale pink, yellow, light purple.
“I’m glad that you haven’t been here before,” Lan Zhan clarifies. “So it’s a place just for the two of us.”
He’s looking at Wei Ying with an intense, focused expression that makes Wei Ying feel sort of weak at the knees even though he’s already lying down.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says lamely. “Yeah. Yeah, ours—that’s nice.”
Silence. It draws on and on and on, Wei Ying holding his breath, until finally Lan Zhan glances away and says, “I will go and set up camp.”
It’s been a hot day, so Lan Zhan’s zipped off the bottoms of his cargo trousers. When he stands, it exposes the lean lines of his calves, the soft backs of his knees.
Wei Ying rolls back onto his back and lets his head sink into the forgiving sand. He’s not a hesitant person, normally—he throws himself headlong into action without a second thought. But for some reason, when it comes to this, with Lan Zhan, he can’t seem to do anything. He exhales, then gives it one breath, two, before he gets up and goes to help Lan Zhan.
“Is it not possible to dehydrate meat?” Lan Zhan asks, later, sifting through Wei Ying’s selection of dehydrated meals—all of them vegetarian.
“Hmm?” Wei Ying says, distracted by trying to shake water out of one of his ears—he’d gone for a much-needed swim after they’d set up the tent, washing off the dirt and sweat of the day in the cold limpid water of the lake. He sweeps his damp hair up into a bun and looks over at the packets. “No, you can dehydrate anything. Jiang Cheng and jiejie are obsessed with the sweet and sour pork flavour.”
“So why—” Lan Zhan begins, and breaks off. He picks up one of the vegetable curry packets. “Did you bring only vegetarian meals for… me?”
“Um,” Wei Ying says. His face feels hot all of a sudden. A tendril of hair has escaped his bun and is dripping water down his collar. “Yes?”
“You noticed?” Lan Zhan says, looking at him sharply.
Wei Ying blushes harder. He’s unsure why Lan Zhan is making such a point out of this, but maybe it is a strange thing to do: catalogue someone’s food habits, that is. Especially as he hasn’t actually eaten that many meals with Lan Zhan over the summer—the different camp groups took lunch breaks separately—it was just at barbecues and group dinners that he’d picked up on the fact that Lan Zhan never touched meat. He didn’t mean to be weird about it!
He’s about to try and explain that he’s not a creep who’s been watching Lan Zhan eat all summer, but Lan Zhan continues, “But you’re not a vegetarian,” so maybe Wei Ying isn’t the only creepy food-watcher here.
“Well, no,” Wei Ying says. “But like, solidarity, or whatever. I thought it would be nicer if we could eat the same thing, you know, like we’re cooking together.”
It sounds sort of pathetic when said aloud, but Lan Zhan is smiling.
“That is very thoughtful of you, Wei Ying,” he says. “Which would you like to eat tonight?”
Wei Ying considers the options. “Mac and cheese?”
Lan Zhan makes a tiny grimace, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but Wei Ying is paying attention.
“What?” he teases. “Does Lan Zhan have too refined a palate to enjoy a humble mac and cheese?”
“Not at all,” Lan Zhan says. “Xiongzhang and I make a very good truffle mac and cheese. We eat it often. I simply object to this… rehydrated version.”
“Truffle mac and cheese, huh?” Wei Ying says. “I’d like to try that. You should—”
You should cook it for me sometime is what he was going to say, but he suddenly realises that he and Lan Zhan don’t have a ‘sometime’. After this trip, Lan Zhan will go home to Vancouver and Wei Ying will stay in Waterloo and that will be that. He’s tried not to think about it, but the thought hits him like a tonne of bricks and stays lodged in his chest.
Lan Zhan is looking at him, so Wei Ying finishes his sentence hurriedly, “Um, you should send me the recipe. If your brother doesn’t mind sharing.”
“I can do that,” Lan Zhan says, still staring at Wei Ying like he knows that isn’t what Wei Ying intended to say. “Wei Ying—”
“I, I have to go pee,” Wei Ying says, and escapes into the trees.
He does walk toward the camping toilet, but only because it’s the best-concealed place from the tent and Lan Zhan’s all-too-knowing eyes. Once he’s sure he’s out of sight, he puts his forehead against the trunk of a tree, feeling the rough bark scrape against his skin.
All summer, he’s thought that the reason he hasn’t acted on his desire is because of a love of the game, a love of the tension stretching out. But he realises now that it comes from fear too. A fear that once he reaches out for Lan Zhan, steps across that line, he won’t be able to let go. And he’ll have to let go, won’t he? Lan Zhan lives in Vancouver. Of course Wei Ying knows that people can make long distance relationships work. But that’s way too presumptuous to expect, isn’t it? It’s more likely that they’ll probably vaguely stay in contact through social media, maybe exchange a few texts, watch each other’s Instagram stories for a while, until nothing. Until the summer when Lan Zhan was here fades into a hazy memory.
He feels stupid. Jiang Cheng would tell him he’s being stupid. People have been coming and going in and out of Wei Ying’s life for as long as he’s been alive; he doesn’t expect anyone to stay, has learned not to want it. Lan Zhan is just another person he’s met at camp, a coworker turned friend for the summer. So why does he want Lan Zhan so badly? And, more importantly, why can’t he step past that fear to actually act on that want, that desire? Why does he keep pulling himself back?
It would be easier to pretend that his feelings don’t exist, that there’s not this simmering undercurrent of unfulfilled desire flowing through him every time he looks at Lan Zhan. He could let Lan Zhan return to Vancouver without ever knowing for sure whether something might have happened between them. Or. Or he could actually do something about it. Take a chance. Step off the edge of the cliff.
Wei Ying looks back in the direction of the tent. Not yet, he thinks. He doesn’t want the memory of their camping trip to be soured if he makes a move and it doesn’t go well. But he’s also tired of being a coward. He knocks on the trunk of the tree, and resolves that he’ll say something when they return home. Before Lan Zhan leaves.
By the time he comes back, Lan Zhan has the water on to boil. They make no mention of their previous conversation, but Wei Ying feels Lan Zhan’s eyes on him when he isn’t looking. He swallows and tries to concentrate on pouring the water into the packets and sealing them up to rehydrate.
They walk down to the water to eat. At one end of the beach, there are a few big boulders that are practically made to sit on: Wei Ying scrambles to the top of the largest and Lan Zhan sits on one to his right.
Wei Ying is so hungry at first that he can’t focus on anything but his food, but then he looks up. The wind from earlier has died down, just a gentle breeze stirring the waters of the lake, sending ripples over the reflected sunset, the rays of light filtering through the piled-up clouds on the horizon. It’s beautiful.
The mac and cheese isn’t gourmet dining by any means, but it tastes pretty fine to Wei Ying, especially after a long day outdoors. He’s about to make a comment along those lines to Lan Zhan, but when he glances over and sees Lan Zhan’s thoughtful face, he changes his mind. Even in contemplation Lan Zhan has an intensity about him, a sharp focus. His brows are drawn together in the centre, his gaze fixed on the horizon, the dark rows of trees against the orange sunset sky.
“Hey, what are you thinking about?” Wei Ying asks. He kicks his heels lightly against the boulder, licks the last of the mac and cheese off his aluminium spork (another weight-saving idea from Jiang Cheng: two utensils for the weight of one).
“The future,” Lan Zhan says, eyes still on the horizon.
Wei Ying smooths a hand over the dark rock, feels the grains scrape over the palms of his hands. He says, “What in particular about the future?”
Lan Zhan takes a little time to answer, during which Wei Ying tries to identify the rock he’s sitting on, casting his mind back to the one geology class he took in freshman year. Probably metamorphic because of the wide deformed bands of minerals running through it. He traces a fingertip along a line of quartz. Migmatite? Or maybe gneiss? He can’t remember what the difference is.
Eventually Lan Zhan admits, “I don’t know what I want to do after I graduate.”
“Well, it’s okay not to know,” Wei Ying says, because that’s what jiejie always says to him. “In fact, I’d say that’s a pretty normal feeling.”
“I don’t like feeling uncertain,” Lan Zhan says, which Wei Ying understands—Lan Zhan always seems so purposeful, intentional about everything he does. Wei Ying’s never seen him look the way he does now—unsure, speculative. He watches as Lan Zhan tips his head backwards to the sky, breathes out through his nose.
“Well, sorry to break it to you, dude, but I think uncertainty is kind of a part of life,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan tilts his head so he’s looking over at Wei Ying. “Not everything has a perfect right answer.”
“I know that rationally,” Lan Zhan says, a little petulantly. Sometimes Wei Ying can’t believe that Lan Zhan is the youngest sibling and sometimes he’s such an archetypal didi that it makes complete sense. “I haven’t felt this way before. It unsettles me.”
“Can’t relate,” Wei Ying says. “I feel uncertain about things about fifty times a day. I change my mind about what I’m going to do after I graduate all the time.”
“What are you deciding between?”
“Well, most engineering students either go to grad school or start working for some company or other,” Wei Ying says, leaning back to rest his hands behind him on the rock. “I don’t really want to do either, although Yu-ayi pushes the corporate route so hard that I sometimes wonder if she might not kick me out of the family if I did something else entirely. Job security, Wei Ying!”
Lan Zhan doesn’t laugh at his—pretty impeccable, if you ask Wei Ying, not that Lan Zhan would know—impression of Yu-ayi. He zips his fleece up to his chin, the fluffy white one Wei Ying has privately started calling Lan Zhan’s sleepy fleece, because of how soft and cosy it looks. Right now, Wei Ying kind of wants to bury his face in it. Above the fleece, though, Lan Zhan’s expression is all solemn earnestness.
“Something else like what?” he asks.
“Teaching,” Wei Ying says, surprising himself. It’s something he’s only thought about privately; he hasn’t even spoken about it with jiejie yet. But it feels right to tell Lan Zhan. “I… I really like being a counsellor at camp. Opening kids’ eyes to how exciting science can be, helping them be curious about the world, you know? I think maybe I’d be alright at teaching in a school too. I think teaching really matters.”
“I also feel very strongly about pedagogy,” says Lan Zhan with complete seriousness. Wei Ying wants to kiss him. “You would be more than alright at teaching; you’d be excellent.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says helplessly, trying to pull his thoughts away from Lan Zhan’s mouth without much success. “That’s too kind! I haven’t, like, thought seriously about it or anything, this is really just an idea that I kind of thought about one day, I don’t even really know if I want to do another year of school.”
Lan Zhan looks at him steadily. “You can find out. It wouldn’t be hard for someone of your experience and ability.”
Lan Zhan always makes everything sound so straightforward. Wei Ying sometimes wishes he could transplant a miniature Lan Zhan into his own head, to help sort out the mess in there.
“What about you?” Wei Ying asks. “I know you said you feel uncertain, but are there options you’re thinking about, or…?”
“Graduate school is the obvious route,” Lan Zhan says. “And it is appealing. I would like to do research. But…”
Lan Zhan lets out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t quite know how to explain. Academic success has always been something that made me feel good about myself, but it doesn’t any more. I don’t know when it stopped being like that.”
“It runs in your family, right?” Wei Ying says. “I think I remember you saying.”
Lan Zhan nods. “Mm. My father, my mother—for a time—and my uncle. And now my brother too.”
“It must be a lot of pressure,” Wei Ying says softly, thinks of Jiang Cheng and jiejie, and what Jiang-shushu and Yu-ayi expect from them, the things they have to live up to. Nobody’s ever expected much from Wei Ying, which has always only made him more desperate to prove them wrong.
“Sometimes I think I might be happiest working as… a florist, or in a garden centre,” Lan Zhan says. “Something mundane.”
“I can’t imagine you being happy working in retail,” Wei Ying says.
“I might,” Lan Zhan says. “If I had… other things to make me happy.”
He flickers the barest glance sideways at Wei Ying.
Wei Ying’s mouth feels dry all of a sudden. He clears his throat and says, “How about a park warden? You could mend all the footpaths, keep the campsites clean and tidy. Be in nature all day! See all the birds in your book!”
Lan Zhan hums, considering. “It’s not an unappealing idea.”
Wei Ying had suggested the idea light-heartedly, but now that he thinks about it—he can really see Lan Zhan helping with forest management, protecting nature, ensuring that people respect the lakes and the woods. He’d look cute in the uniform, too.
A gust of wind blows over the lake, sending up little white-tipped waves, and Lan Zhan shivers a little.
“It’s getting cold!” Wei Ying says. “Also, my ass is totally numb from this rock, do you wanna go get the campfire going so we can warm up?”
A little later, holding out his hands to the bright warmth of the fire, Wei Ying clears his throat and says, “Um, Lan Zhan. Thank you. For taking what I was saying earlier seriously. About teaching. It means a lot.”
The orange light of the flames plays over Lan Zhan’s face, sending shadows dancing over his jaw, his brow. He says, “You should take yourself seriously too, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying hardly sleeps that night. He tosses and turns for hours, his mind unable to let his body rest, until eventually he gives it up entirely, right before dawn. He pulls a fleece over his head and ducks out of the tent, leaving Lan Zhan sleeping peacefully.
Wei Ying walks down to the lake—where else?—and stands at the water’s edge, hands shoved in the pockets of his fleece to stave off the chill. Everything is very quiet and very still. The lake is so calm it’s like a mirror, reflecting the pale grey-blue hues of the pre-dawn sky, until there’s a small splash and a ripple. Wei Ying turns, seeking the source of the noise, and spots the head of a beaver in the water by the far shore. It’s followed by another beaver, then another and another, their sleek bodies slipping easily into the lake.
Wei Ying senses motion behind him, and then Lan Zhan is there. Wei Ying doesn’t turn, doesn’t say anything, just keeps watching the beavers bob in the water as they swim across the clear waters of the lake. Lan Zhan draws in a breath and Wei Ying knows that he’s noticed them too. He’s standing very close to Wei Ying, close enough that their arms are touching. Somehow, it feels right: Wei Ying takes his hand out of his pocket, lets his knuckles brush against Lan Zhan’s, and then somehow they’re holding hands, fingers intertwined.
They stay like that for a long time, not looking at each other, even after the beavers are out of sight, until the sun begins to rise through the trees on the eastern horizon, sending shafts of light over the water. Only then does Lan Zhan let go, and disappear back into the trees as quietly as he came.
Wei Ying’s hand feels cold. He stoops to pick up a flat grey rock from the lake shore. He sends it skipping over the water, counts them, one two three four five six seven skips, until finally it sinks and all that’s left are the ripples, spreading over the flat surface of the lake.
When Wei Ying finally comes back to the tent, Lan Zhan hands him a mug of coffee silently, and continues to stir the oatmeal in the pot. Neither of them mention what’s just occurred. Wei Ying almost feels like he might have dreamed it: one of those stupid fantasies he has where Lan Zhan is his, and Wei Ying would be able to hold his hand any time he likes, reach out and touch Lan Zhan with the easy familiarity that comes from years of intimacy. And at the end of the trip they would drive away together to a place they both call home.
Other than that, the morning proceeds mostly as normal. Lan Zhan applies a frightening amount of sunscreen to his face, and looks so disapproving when Wei Ying declines it that Wei Ying gives in and puts a dab on his nose. Wei Ying washes up the oatmeal pot in the lake and brushes his teeth. Lan Zhan packs up the tent and stamps out the fire. It feels like an ending, even though they still have one final night.
Wei Ying tries to shake the melancholy feeling, be cheery and chatty as they get into the canoe, but he can’t quite manage it.
“Wei Ying, are you alright?” Lan Zhan says from behind him.
Wei Ying grimaces. I used to be better at hiding my feelings, he wants to say, but he’s always found it hard to pretend in front of Lan Zhan. Even when Lan Zhan can’t see his face, he still somehow knows.
“I’m just sad it’s our last full day,” he says, which is all the honesty he feels capable of right now.
“Mm. Me too,” Lan Zhan says softly. “I am glad we have a final night here.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, against the stupid lump in his throat. Lan Zhan pushes the canoe out and they paddle away.
It’s a nice final day. They’ve been going in a circle, looping back to the entrance, and today is the longest leg of it; Wei Ying planned it that way so that they’d have the lightest loads to carry. They paddle through lake after lake, and Wei Ying marvels as he always does at how all-encompassing Algonquin Park feels. It seems as though this is all there is: the shining water, separated by thin strips of land. He doesn’t want to go home.
On the penultimate lake before their final campsite, they see another moose, this time with a baby behind it, all spindly legs and too-big snout. Wei Ying, tired from the long day, loses his head and fully stands up in the canoe to take a photo for Mianmian. Lan Zhan has to grab at the back of his shirt to stop him from tumbling into the water. Wei Ying sits down heavily and the canoe rocks back and forth.
“Whew,” Wei Ying says, turning to grin at Lan Zhan. “Good catch. Sorry about that! I got a sick photo, though—”
He breaks off, realising that he hasn’t taken a single photo of Lan Zhan this entire trip. Wei Ying isn’t really a photo-taking person—he usually leaves that to Nie Huaisang, who documents every single social occasion for Instagram in exhaustive detail, and jiejie, who’s always been the family record-keeper. You’ll thank me when we’re fifty and not this beautiful any more, she’ll say, skilfully manoeuvring Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng into positions in the most flattering lighting, while they moan and roll their eyes. Wei Ying does appreciate it, though, having pictures to look back on—his desk in the lab is covered with snapshots from previous summers—but he never remembers to take them himself.
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” he says, “let me take a picture of you! Pose!” and he takes several, capturing the moment Lan Zhan’s head turns towards him, the unmistakable fondness visible on his face, before he schools it into a more neutral expression.
“Wow, at least try to look like you’re having a good time,” Wei Ying complains.
“This is just what my face looks like, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying rolls his eyes, still taking photos like he’s a mom at a high school graduation. “You can smile! I’ve seen it!”
“Not on command,” Lan Zhan says, but he is smiling a little now. Satisfied, Wei Ying snaps one last picture and tucks his phone away.
“I can’t believe we hardly took any photos on this trip,” he says. “I have like, those ones of you and a couple of the moose.”
“…I have been taking photos,” Lan Zhan says. His ears are pink.
“Oh, you have?” Wei Ying says. “Sneaky! I hardly noticed. Show me when we get to the campsite later? You’ll have to Airdrop me them when we get cellphone service again.”
Lan Zhan’s ears go a deeper pink. “Mm. If you wish.”
Pleased that once again someone has taken on the role of trip-documenter, Wei Ying grabs his paddle and says, “Last portage of the day, baby, let’s go!”
It’s been a boiling hot, long day and Wei Ying is relieved when they finally get to their last camping spot. It’s on a small lake, teardrop-shaped on the map, with a tiny island right in the centre. There’s only one campsite right at the northern shore.
After they’ve pulled the canoe out of the water and secured it, Wei Ying suggests, “Hey, want to swim? The afternoon’s gonna be hot for a while yet, it’ll be so refreshing!”
“Tent first,” Lan Zhan says, although he looks as hot as Wei Ying feels, sweat glistening lightly at his temples.
“Ugh,” Wei Ying says, but he knows Lan Zhan is right—otherwise they’ll never get it up.
When the tent is up at last, Wei Ying strips his shirt off with an over-exaggerated shout of relief, followed by the rest of his clothes. His boxers too.
He glances over at Lan Zhan, about to say something offhand like, No time to put on trunks, Lan Zhan, I’ll die if I don’t get in that lake right now, but the words die in his throat at the look in Lan Zhan’s eyes.
Wei Ying and Lan Zhan have been trading stolen glances all summer, but he’s never seen Lan Zhan—self-contained, dry, restrained Lan Zhan—look like this. Hungry, like he wants to eat Wei Ying alive. He drags his gaze—heated, heavy with intent—up and down Wei Ying’s naked body and it’s like a bolt of electricity has been sent along Wei Ying’s spine, sparking every nerve to life.
They’ve been careful on this trip, careful not to get into situations where the fragile thing between them would be impossible to ignore. They’ve swum separately, changed behind each other’s backs, kept enough space for Jesus in the tent. But Wei Ying’s impulsive, thoughtless, nudity has ruined all of that.
Lan Zhan’s eyes meet Wei Ying’s again, and his resolution to wait until after the trip to say something, to act, disappears in an instant. He can’t even remember why he’d made it. There’s no barrier, now, nothing standing between them and the fact that Lan Zhan wants him, the fact that Wei Ying wants Lan Zhan.
He says, voice low, “Hey, come here,” and Lan Zhan comes, crosses the distance between them in two long strides, and then he’s in front of Wei Ying, close enough to touch.
Lan Zhan leans in, noses along Wei Ying’s cheekbone. His breath is warm on Wei Ying’s cheek. Wei Ying’s heart is hammering in his chest. He doesn’t want to move in case he startles Lan Zhan, breaks the spell, reminds Lan Zhan of all the reasons why this is a stupid idea. They’ve held back from this for so long, and Wei Ying can’t remember why; doesn’t want Lan Zhan to remember, either. Not now. Not with Lan Zhan placing a hand on his jaw and finally, finally, finally kissing him.
Lan Zhan cradles Wei Ying’s head in his hands and kisses the breath out of him, slides his tongue into Wei Ying’s mouth. It’s wet and rough and a little messy. It’s perfect.
When Lan Zhan pulls back, he looks dazed, pupils blown large. “Wei Ying,” he says, almost wondrously, and at that—at just the sound of his own name in Lan Zhan’s deep, kiss-hoarse voice—Wei Ying has to kiss him again, kiss the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth, along his jaw, up to the soft skin behind his ear.
Lan Zhan smells like summer: sweat and sunscreen and beneath it, something else, that indescribable Lan Zhan scent, a little musky and woodsy. Wei Ying has wanted to taste him all summer, and now he can. He kisses down the long line of Lan Zhan’s throat, right down to his clavicle, dipping his tongue into the hollow, scraping his teeth along the bone as Lan Zhan says ah, Wei Ying, above him. Lan Zhan’s hands are tangled in Wei Ying’s hair; convenient for how he drags Wei Ying back up roughly so their mouths meet again hungrily, teeth clacking together until they find the right angle, Wei Ying letting Lan Zhan tilt his head sideways, licking into the wet heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth.
At some point, Wei Ying realises two things: one, that he’s impossibly hard and two, that Lan Zhan is still wearing all of his clothes. He can fix at least one of those things, and he tugs at the bottom of Lan Zhan’s t-shirt, moving his hands up and under it. Lan Zhan pulls back and yanks off his shirt, emerging rumpled with his hair sticking up every which way and Wei Ying can’t take how cute and dishevelled he looks; has to kiss him before dropping to his knees right there in the dirt.
He looks upwards at Lan Zhan, tugging down his hiking shorts and briefs, releasing his cock against his belly—and abruptly, Wei Ying realises that his hands are shaking a little, that he’s nervous, which is weird. Wei Ying is good at sucking cock—he’s been told so on many occasions!—but the pressure of going down on Lan Zhan after practically months of build-up hits him all at once. What if he’s not good enough? What if this doesn’t live up to the fantasy of whatever Lan Zhan has been expecting?
Wei Ying knows only one way to deal with nerves: say something inappropriate. “Oh Lan Zhan, your cock is so big!” he says in mock awe and flicks Lan Zhan’s hard cock with a finger.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and his voice is desperate and hoarse and, suddenly, Wei Ying isn’t nervous any more. Lan Zhan wants this like he does. He can hear the need in his voice.
“Please,” Lan Zhan gasps, and Wei Ying says, “I got you, baby,” and swallows him down.
Lan Zhan tastes like sweat and salt. Wei Ying hollows his cheeks, feels Lan Zhan’s cock brush against the back of his throat, savoring the burn in his throat, before he pulls back to swirl his tongue over the head and then takes him down again.
Lan Zhan’s hands are in his hair, and he’s making soft noises above Wei Ying. Wei Ying hums in reply, letting the sound vibrate in his throat, his mouth, around Lan Zhan’s cock. Lan Zhan gasps in a breath and his hips buck involuntary towards Wei Ying, then away, like he’s trying to control himself. Wei Ying could pull off and tell him he doesn’t mind, but he doesn’t want to take his mouth off Lan Zhan even for a second, so he grips Lan Zhan’s hips and tugs them forward. Wei Ying swallows down again, as deep as he can go and licks his tongue down the underside of Lan Zhan’s cock over and over.
Lan Zhan comes with a muffled cry, pulled out of him like he’s too undone to keep quiet, and Wei Ying swallows it, runs his tongue over the length of Lan Zhan’s cock as he pulls off. Lan Zhan hardly gives him a moment to breathe before drags Wei Ying to his feet and kisses him, kisses the taste of himself out of Wei Ying’s mouth, frenzied, almost furious. Then he stops kissing Wei Ying, and says, very seriously, “Tent.”
And oh, Wei Ying is so very tempted, but he shakes his head firmly.
“Jiang Cheng will kill me,” he says with feeling.
Lan Zhan makes an inarticulate noise of frustration and pushes Wei Ying against the rough bark of the nearest tree, knocking his head back. It’s painful but Wei Ying finds, shocked and delighted, that he likes it, likes Lan Zhan being a little rough with him. Lan Zhan kisses him, a bruising, searing kiss, and then he spits in his palm and takes Wei Ying’s cock in his hand. His long fingers cover a good amount of the length, and the feeling of finally having Lan Zhan’s hands on him, after imagining it for so long, makes Wei Ying moan involuntarily.
The friction is so much—too much, almost—but Wei Ying is close enough from just… kissing Lan Zhan and grinding against him and making him come, he’s not going to last long at all. Oh God, Wei Ying thinks and then says, “Lan Zhan, God, fuck, please, yes,” not even good dirty talk, just random words, spilling out before he can help himself. And when Lan Zhan kisses him again and slides his hand up and down along the length of Wei Ying’s cock, Wei Ying says, “Fuck, Lan Zhan,” and comes in spurts over his and Lan Zhan’s stomach.
“Oh God,” Wei Ying says. His ears are ringing. He feels like the world has just shifted beneath his feet. He doesn’t know how he’s still standing. He probably wouldn’t be standing if not for the tree at his back, bark digging into his skin, and Lan Zhan at his front, bracketing him, keeping him upright. “Lan Zhan…”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says softly. He tucks a lock of hair behind Wei Ying’s ear, and the easy tenderness of the gesture takes Wei Ying’s breath away.
“Ahahaha,” Wei Ying says weakly, mostly to fill the silence. This whole summer has been one long foreplay session, leading up to… that, and now he doesn’t know what to say.
And then Lan Zhan picks him up, effortlessly, one arm under Wei Ying’s ass and the other tight across his back. Wei Ying wraps his legs around Lan Zhan’s waist and they kiss like that, Wei Ying hot and shivery all over because of how good it feels to be held like this, supported, lifted high and not let go of.
“Ah, Lan Zhan!” he says, teasing, bracing his arms on Lan Zhan’s shoulders. “You’re so strong!”
Lan Zhan rolls his eyes briefly and says, “You wanted to swim,” and then he’s walking them back to where they left the canoe—it can’t have been that long since they arrived here, but it feels like they’ve been doing this forever. Wei Ying can’t remember a time that he wasn’t kissing Lan Zhan, pressed skin-to-skin, hot and hungry and crazy with desire, finally able to reach out and touch everything he’s wanted to for months.
The cold of the water is shocking, delicious, the perfect balm. Wei Ying spread-eagles backwards from Lan Zhan, plunges his head beneath the surface. He emerges with wet hair over his eyes and lakewater in his mouth. He spits and tosses his head backwards, sending crystal-clear droplets flying. Lan Zhan is watching him, bobbing in the shallows, just his head and shoulders visible. He’s smiling.
Wei Ying swims to him, desperate to touch him again, barely thirty seconds after he let go. It should be pathetic except how can he feel that way when Lan Zhan looks so happy at Wei Ying coming back, when he’s automatically opening his arms for Wei Ying?
“Hi,” Wei Ying says, wrapping his legs around Lan Zhan, who’s braced against a rock. Lan Zhan kisses him, and Wei Ying just came, like, two minutes ago, but the wet slide of their bodies, the slick motion of skin against skin under the cool water, is starting to turn him on again. Just enough to relax and enjoy it: holding Lan Zhan, being held, low currents of desire sparking in his belly.
Lan Zhan presses kisses against his neck, hot and open-mouthed, making Wei Ying moan. His hands are on Wei Ying’s waist, holding Wei Ying steady in his lap. As they kiss, Wei Ying can feel Lan Zhan hard beneath him, cock bumping against his ass, and he’s getting hard again, too, pulled inexorably to the edge of the cliff once more.
He leans down, and Lan Zhan tilts his head back and they kiss, slow and languid. Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s cock in his hand and strokes it, lazier than before, looser, but even the light pressure is almost too much for Wei Ying, oversensitive from coming once already.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, please,” he says desperately, not knowing what he’s asking for, only that he’s close to coming, so close. He grasps at Lan Zhan, hands slipping over the smooth wet skin of his shoulders, and says again, “Please.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan gasps and he sinks his teeth into Wei Ying’s shoulder, somehow knowing that that’s what Wei Ying needs—a small sharp edge of pain, just enough to send him over the edge. Wei Ying digs his nails into Lan Zhan’s back and comes with a cry.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and his voice sounds wrecked, undone. Wei Ying has never heard his name spoken like that, and it shakes him out of his daze enough to reach between their bodies, and replace Lan Zhan’s hand on his cock with his own. He wants to feel it, Lan Zhan coming apart. It doesn’t take long: a few firm strokes, and a messy kiss pressed to Lan Zhan’s mouth, Wei Ying drawing his full bottom lip between his teeth and biting down, and then Lan Zhan is coming, flying over the edge too. Lan Zhan moans and says, “Wei Ying, Wei Ying,” again, and then he buries his face in Wei Ying’s shoulder, overwhelmed.
Wei Ying doesn’t know how long they stay there, Lan Zhan’s arms loosely around his waist, Wei Ying cradling his head close. He’s only dimly aware of sensation: the sun hot on his back, the roughness of the rocks on the lake-bottom against his feet, the soft huff of Lan Zhan’s breath against his shoulder.
Eventually, Lan Zhan says, slowly, “We should go and cook dinner.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying agrees. He feels wrung-out, shaky, reborn. He looks across the lake, at the gentle ripples spreading out, travelling all the way to the further shore. He doesn’t want to move, wants to stay here, held by Lan Zhan, surrounded by the water, sheltered from the rest of the world. The light reflects straight into his eyes, but he keeps looking.
They have to move eventually, slipping on the wet stones by the lake’s edge as they return to the campsite. Wei Ying rifles through his pack for his clothes, dries himself off with his micro-towel. Lan Zhan moves around him, not-quite hovering but definitely closer than he would have allowed himself, before today. The wind blows, stirring the branches of the trees, and Wei Ying shivers involuntarily. Lan Zhan, without being asked, hands him his fleece and Wei Ying shrugs it on gratefully.
For the rest of the evening, he feels a little nervous—shy, maybe. Wei Ying doesn’t quite know how to name it: he’s never felt shy before, not even on the first day after he’d come to live with the Jiangs, banging on Jiang Cheng’s door and asking to be let in. But there’s no better word for how he feels. He’s not sure how to act, what he’s allowed to do now. What he’s permitted to say. He thinks they should probably… talk about it, or something, but at the same time, that’s the last thing he wants to do. So instead he stands and watches Lan Zhan pile up wood for the fire, make the last of their dehydrated meals. He puts his hands in the pockets of the fleece to still their restless motion.
Dinner is the same as it always is. Wei Ying inhales his food in about five minutes, slightly crunchy because he got bored of waiting the full amount of time for it to rehydrate. Lan Zhan eats his as delicately as it is possible to eat vegetable curry with a spork out of a plastic bag. Wei Ying feels like he needs to make conversation, but he can’t think of a single thing to say that’s not variations on so, I really liked having your cock in my mouth, or hey, I know I said no sex in the tent but honestly, if you wanted to later, I wouldn’t say no.
Still eating, Lan Zhan reaches out and puts one of his hands over both of Wei Ying’s. He hadn’t even realised that he had been twisting them in his lap again, but he keeps them still now, under the gentle, firm pressure of Lan Zhan’s palm. They stay like that for a while, until the silence is feeling almost too full for Wei Ying to bear, when Lan Zhan, with his uncanny intuition, stands and says, “I brought something for our final night.”
“Oh?” Wei Ying says, getting to his feet and following Lan Zhan over to their packs. From a zipped pocket inside another zipped pocket, Lan Zhan extracts a slightly squashed packet of giant marshmallows.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says in disbelief. “You brought marshmallows.”
Lan Zhan’s ears are red. He says with the slightest edge of defensiveness in his voice, “It’s a camping tradition.”
“And it’s a perfect one,” Wei Ying hastens to say. He reaches out to take Lan Zhan’s hand. “C’mon, let’s go find sticks to put them on.”
Wei Ying makes a marshmallow kebab, which requires a lot of maintenance to keep any of them from falling into the fire. Triumphant, he pulls it out of the flame, all of them perfectly toasted; just as Lan Zhan’s own marshmallow slides straight off his stick and onto the fire.
Wei Ying laughs a little at Lan Zhan’s crestfallen expression, and then laughs harder when Lan Zhan turns his Disappointed Eyes on Wei Ying. “Ohhh, Lan Zhan—that was so sad! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh at your trauma! We can’t all be as skilled as I am, huh? Here, have one of mine—” Deftly, he slides the end marshmallow off his stick, warm and sticky between his thumb and forefinger, and offers it to Lan Zhan. Some bold thing in him makes him say, “Open up.”
Lan Zhan eats the marshmallow from his hand, and then he sucks Wei Ying’s thumb into his mouth, right up to the first knuckle. Wei Ying drops his stick but he hardly notices. Every cell of him, every stupid atom, is perfectly attuned to Lan Zhan at that moment.
Lan Zhan glances down at the stick, then back to Wei Ying. He smiles, softened by the firelight, and leans in to kiss Wei Ying, softly, letting Wei Ying tease his tongue along his bottom lip and into his open mouth. He tastes smoky and sweet and Wei Ying craves the taste like he’s never wanted anything before.
He wants to tell Lan Zhan that—how badly he’s wanted this all summer, how good it feels to be able to have it now—but he doesn’t want to break the spell of this final evening. He clutches Lan Zhan’s broad shoulders and tries to pour it all into the kiss instead, deepening it, crowding as close to Lan Zhan as it’s possible to be.
Tomorrow, Wei Ying thinks as Lan Zhan pulls him into his lap. The firelight plays over Lan Zhan’s dark hair, turning his skin golden. I can tell him tomorrow.
When Wei Ying crawls out of the tent the next morning, he sees Lan Zhan, as always, stoking the fire and cooking breakfast. It makes his stupid heart skip a beat. He’s nervous walking over—what are the rules now? Can he kiss Lan Zhan? Is that too presumptuous? He passes the tree where they’d—well, where Lan Zhan had made him come, and feels his face heat up.
Lan Zhan looks over as he approaches and hands Wei Ying a mug of coffee without speaking. His face is unreadable, calm and untroubled as the lake at dawn. He makes no move to touch Wei Ying or come closer. For one of the first times in his life, Wei Ying feels totally tongue-tied. He’s glad of the coffee, so he can take huge gulps of it. It scalds the roof of his mouth, but at least it’s something to do with his hands and mouth that won’t betray him completely.
Lan Zhan crouches down to the grill to put on the pan of boiling water for oatmeal. He’s making no indication that anything unusual (or momentous, or mind-blowing, or—shut up, Wei Ying thinks at himself) happened last night.
Wei Ying finishes his coffee, mouth so burned by now that the final sips are physically painful. There’s nothing stopping him from speaking now. All that comes out, thankfully is, “Morning.”
Lan Zhan glances up at him. “Good morning.”
“Did you, uh.” Wei Ying clears his throat. “Did you sleep okay?”
“Yes, thank you,” says Lan Zhan. “Oatmeal?”
And then Wei Ying has another thing to occupy his mouth with that isn’t speaking. He spoons oatmeal into his mouth mechanically, not even bothering to put sugar on it. How is Lan Zhan acting so normal? He feels a little sick and abruptly like he might cry. Is Lan Zhan—does he regret that they had sex?
The thought is so horrifying that he has to ask, “Lan Zhan?” only it comes out as, “Luh Zhuh,” because his mouth is still half-full of oatmeal.
“I didn’t quite catch that,” Lan Zhan says. His eyes are amused.
Wei Ying swallows and blurts out, “Do you regret last night? I’m so sorry, I kind of threw myself at you and you—if I crossed a line and you didn’t like it I—”
“Wei Ying, no,” Lan Zhan interrupts, which is such a rare occurrence that Wei Ying actually stops talking. “Not at all.”
Wei Ying breathes out. He still feels a little sick—if Lan Zhan doesn’t regret it then why is he being so evasive?—but at least Lan Zhan’s not sorry it happened.
“Do you regret anything that happened?” Lan Zhan says. He’s using the tone Wei Ying recognises from camp, the careful, quiet one everyone uses to address a scared or homesick or upset camper.
“No,” Wei Ying says. “Sorry, ah—we don’t have to talk about it, I just, I… wanted to make sure.”
Lan Zhan says, still in that same gentle tone, “Okay. Finish your oatmeal and I will pack up the tent.”
Wei Ying feels so miserable that he doesn’t even offer to help, just stands there slowly scraping oatmeal out of the mug, drawing out the process of eating as long as is physically possible. It tastes absolutely vile eating it plain.
So: Lan Zhan doesn’t regret that they had sex, but he doesn’t want them to talk about it. Wei Ying supposes it’s for the best. What did he expect? That perfect-beyond-belief Lan Zhan would actually want more from him than a quick fuck, a release of the tension that’s been building up all summer? Get real, Wei Ying. And even if there’s the smallest chance that Lan Zhan could want something more, he’s leaving forever in a few days, Wei Ying reminds himself forcibly. A summer of eye-fucking and one night of sex is no basis for a long-distance relationship.
Wei Ying isn’t an irrational person, usually. So why does he feel like he’s had his heart broken?
He doesn’t even notice Lan Zhan approaching until he takes the mug from Wei Ying’s hands—it barely needs washing because Wei Ying has been scraping every molecule of oatmeal out of it for the last ten minutes.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, brow furrowed with concern. “Are you okay? Do you feel unwell?”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m okay,” Wei Ying says, attempting to pull himself together. He smiles. “Sorry! I always get melancholy on the last day of a trip. It just sucks to leave, you know?”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He studies Wei Ying for a long time; Wei Ying does his best not to squirm under that appraising gaze. “I understand. I feel similarly. Although it will be…very nice to have a proper shower once more. With soap. And shampoo. And conditioner.”
“Your poor hair,” Wei Ying teases. “How it must have suffered.”
Lan Zhan rolls his eyes and hands Wei Ying back the mug, and his mug, and the pot, and says, “Go make yourself useful and wash these up.”
Wei Ying salutes and hops to it, scrambling down to the water’s edge.
Not talking about it. That’s fine. Wei Ying can do that. He knows how to do it: how to gather up the frayed edges of hope and wish and desire and want and tuck them neatly away in a corner at the back of his heart where nobody can see them. Least of all him.
It’s not a long paddle back out, just a few lakes, a couple of short portages. Wei Ying has never felt more torn leaving a trip—he both wants it to last forever, and also he wants nothing more than it to be over, to stop feeling bruised and upset every time Lan Zhan so much as breathes. He does his best at faking cheerfulness, not wanting to be a downer, but the way Lan Zhan looks at him makes him feel that he’s not doing a great job at it.
They paddle back into Rain Lake and Wei Ying goes through the little ritual he and Jiang Cheng and jiejie always do—saying goodbye to everything, only he does it inside his head rather than aloud: goodbye trees, goodbye loons, goodbye moose. Goodbye tent, goodbye campfire, goodbye lake, goodbye canoe.
Wei Ying is distracted as they climb out of the canoe for the final time, and his foot misses the pier entirely. He would have fallen straight into the lake if not for Lan Zhan grabbing hold of his arm and hauling him to safety. It makes Wei Ying think of last night—how could it not?—Lan Zhan shoving him up against that tree, Lan Zhan carrying him into the lake.
He blushes and—so does Lan Zhan. Who’s still holding onto his arm. Wei Ying could—he could lean up and kiss Lan Zhan again. It would be so easy. And he wants—
He steps away, detaches his arm from Lan Zhan’s grip and says lightly, “Ahh, thanks Lan Zhan! My saviour. My siblings would never have let me live it down if I’d fallen in!”
Lan Zhan is watching him, face unreadable, which only makes Wei Ying feel worse—he can usually tell what Lan Zhan is thinking, but his expression is closed-off today, giving nothing away.
It takes until they’re back on the highway for something to give.
Lan Zhan says, “Wei Ying,” with the weight he always gives Wei Ying’s name, like it’s important in and of itself. “Wei Ying, I’d like to talk about what happened last night.”
Wei Ying’s hands tighten on the steering wheel, dreading what might come next. He imagines Lan Zhan saying, I feel like last night meant more to you than it should have, or Your feelings are making something that should have been just casual fun into something messy and complicated and you need to stop.
“Yeah?” he says, proud of how he manages to keep his voice level. He risks a look over at Lan Zhan; he’s staring out of the front windshield, hands folded neatly in his lap.
“I feel,” Lan Zhan says and stops. He sighs, the barest exhale. “I feel that last night meant more to me than it did to you.”
And there it is—wait. What did Lan Zhan just say?
Wei Ying says in a slightly strangled voice, “What did you just say?”
Wei Ying doesn’t think he misheard; maybe Lan Zhan misspoke. He hasn’t clenched his hands so tightly on the steering wheel since the first time he drove Yu-ayi to a hospital appointment just after he’d passed his test.
Lan Zhan repeats, tone miserable now that Wei Ying’s listening for it, “I feel that last night meant more to me than it did to you.”
So he didn’t mishear. Wei Ying feels… he doesn’t know how he feels. He wants to laugh and laugh, but he holds it in with a superhuman effort, not wanting to upset Lan Zhan. He glances over at Lan Zhan, who is still staring determinedly out of the window. His face looks calm but there’s a downward tug to his mouth.
“I… Lan Zhan. Fuck,” Wei Ying says, because he’s not sure what else to say.
God, he wishes he weren’t doing 100km an hour on the highway right now. Then he realises he doesn’t have to be, and after a quick glance in his side mirror, he wrenches the car over two lanes and into the hard shoulder. He pulls the car to a stop and turns to Lan Zhan, who is gazing at him in undisguised shock, that perfect mouth gaping open a little.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Wei Ying says. “You’re the one who decided to start this conversation in, like, the worst possible place.”
“Not the worst,” Lan Zhan says. “The airport would have been worse.”
“Whatever,” Wei Ying says, because while he loves—likes, he reminds himself forcibly, let’s not get ahead of ourselves—Lan Zhan’s argumentative spirit, how he never lets Wei Ying take the easy way out, this isn’t the time to get pedantic. “Forget that. Let’s rewind. You said you think last night meant more to you than it did to me.”
Lan Zhan inclines his head, eyes not meeting Wei Ying’s.
“Hey,” Wei Ying says. “Hey. Look at me.”
He reaches out a hand and tilts up Lan Zhan’s chin gently. When he meets Lan Zhan’s eyes, the depth of feeling in them almost knocks him out. Faced with Lan Zhan with all his walls down, open and vulnerable even though he thinks Wei Ying doesn’t feel the same way as he does—what can Wei Ying do but be honest in return?
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he says, speaking quickly so he doesn’t lose his nerve, words tumbling fast out of his mouth, “I’ve been freaking out all day because I thought it didn’t mean as much to you as it did to me.”
He’s gazing right into Lan Zhan’s eyes, so he catalogues the exact moment that Lan Zhan’s expression changes: turns from a little fearful to hopeful. Wei Ying’s still got his hand on Lan Zhan’s face and Lan Zhan places his own hand over it.
“Wei Ying,” he says, low, “really?”
And faced with Lan Zhan speaking his name in that voice, what can Wei Ying do except throw himself into Lan Zhan’s lap?
He’s promptly yanked back into place by his seatbelt, which sort of ruins the sexy vibe he was going for.
“Ugh! Road safety sucks!” Wei Ying says, letting go of Lan Zhan so he can fumble with the clasp. “Uh—hold on—hold that thought—”
Lan Zhan, biting back a smile, reaches over to unbuckle it for him. Wei Ying frees himself from the hateful thing and clambers over the gearstick. He’s not even that embarrassed—he figures he left his dignity behind a long time ago, when it comes to Lan Zhan, and plus he’s about ninety percent sure they’re going to have sex in this car, so. He’s mostly thinking about that, and about the way Lan Zhan’s big hands come up to hold his waist, guiding Wei Ying down until he’s settled in Lan Zhan’s lap, thighs bracketing his hips.
“Hi,” he says, and Lan Zhan says, “Hello,” and Wei Ying isn’t sure who moves first but then they’re kissing again, finally, finally. It’s been less than twenty-four hours since he last kissed Lan Zhan but it feels like a lifetime. The kiss is sloppy, full of teeth, both of them too eager. Lan Zhan winds his arms around Wei Ying’s waist, and strokes a hand up and down his spine, and even that, the barest touch makes Wei Ying shiver and moan.
“So good,” Lan Zhan says, pulling back to rest their foreheads together and Wei Ying whimpers and rolls his hips, desperate for more, for Lan Zhan to touch him everywhere. He’s getting hard already, can feel that Lan Zhan is too, just from this, grinding in his car like a couple of sixteen-year-olds.
“Fuck,” he gasps out, as Lan Zhan kisses down his neck, “ah, Lan Zhan, you drive me crazy, you don’t even know—”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He drags down the zipper on Wei Ying’s shorts roughly, gets his hand on Wei Ying’s cock and Wei Ying’s head spins.
Lan Zhan is jerking him off and again there’s hardly any lubrication, the friction is so much—Wei Ying is never going anywhere without lube ever again—but even so he knows it’s not going to take much for him to come.
“Fuck, Lan Zhan,” he says, “oh my God, holy shit, I—let me touch you as well, fuck, I’m not gonna last long—”
He pulls back and has just enough presence of mind left to drag down the zipper on Lan Zhan’s hiking trousers, trying to manoeuvre himself so he can jerk them both off at once. It’s exceedingly awkward; his car is not exactly built for space. Eventually he manages it, bracing with one hand on the headrest. Lan Zhan’s arm comes up to hold him steady, and Wei Ying guides their cocks together, gasping at the sensation.
Lan Zhan gets really wet; he’d noticed yesterday before blowing him but it clearly wasn’t a one-off, his cock is dripping with pre-come, slick and wet enough to relieve the painful friction. Lan Zhan’s hand comes down to cover his and they stroke themselves together. It’s messy and inelegant and awkward in the cramped front seat, and yet it’s even better than either of the times they’d had sex yesterday, because Wei Ying can look into Lan Zhan’s face—his half-lidded eyes, his open, red mouth, looking a little stupid with desire—and know with certainty that Lan Zhan likes him.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, look at me,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Zhan’s eyes snap up to meet his, and Wei Ying sucks in a breath at the intensity of his gaze, how stripped-raw it makes him feel. “You’re so beautiful,” he can’t help but say, “so fucking hot, Lan Zhan—”
Lan Zhan shudders into orgasm with a moan and Wei Ying strokes himself once, twice more before he’s coming too, come striping across Lan Zhan’s t-shirt. He collapses into Lan Zhan’s lap, nestles his head into Lan Zhan’s shoulder. There’s come all over both of their shirts, their open pants. Lan Zhan’s zipper is digging into his stomach. The car smells of sweat and sex and it’s objectively completely disgusting, but Wei Ying can’t bring himself to care just yet.
“Lube,” Wei Ying says after a while. “Great invention. Never thought I’d miss it so much.”
Lan Zhan huffs a breath that’s probably a laugh and Wei Ying smiles to himself, satisfied as he always is whenever he manages to amuse Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan finds him funny. Lan Zhan likes him back. Lan Zhan likes him enough to let Wei Ying jerk him off in a car by the side of the highway.
He’s feeling pretty pleased with himself until he realises he and Lan Zhan have just had sex in the car he shares with Jiang Cheng, and if Jiang Cheng was threatening murder at just the thought of Wei Ying fucking Lan Zhan in the tent…Wei Ying had better start planning his own funeral.
“Oh, God,” Wei Ying says, face buried in Lan Zhan’s neck, “Jiang Cheng is gonna fucking kill me.”
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned your brother during sex,” Lan Zhan remarks. “Please don’t make a habit of it.”
He’s trying to sound stern, but he mostly sounds fond, and Wei Ying’s heart leaps at those words, a habit of it. Like Lan Zhan is certain they’re going to do this again. And then Wei Ying remembers Vancouver and his heart sinks right back down like a lead balloon. He has to say something. He has to.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, into the crook of Lan Zhan’s shoulder. His skin is so smooth and warm. “Um. So… what now?”
“What do you mean?” Lan Zhan says. He slips a hand up the back of Wei Ying’s t-shirt, tracing figures of eight idly along Wei Ying’s lower back.
“You said this… us… it meant something to you,” Wei Ying says, hating every word coming out of his mouth. He forces himself to keep talking, focusing on the gentle motion of Lan Zhan’s fingertip across his skin. “Um. It means something to me too. If that wasn’t obvious.” He sits up suddenly, because he wants to say this properly, not mumbled against Lan Zhan’s neck like a coward. “I like you so much. More than I’ve liked anyone, ever. But…”
Lan Zhan is smiling. He catches Wei Ying’s hand in his and kisses the palm. “But what?” he says, like he can’t see the huge logistical issue here.
“But you live in Vancouver, Lan Zhan!” he bursts out, finally. “You live in Vancouver and I live… here. How is it—this—” he gestures between them—“gonna work?”
Lan Zhan looks bemused by the question. “Long distance relationships exist, Wei Ying.”
“You—relationship?” Wei Ying says. The word terrifies him.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, just like that.
“You’re impossible,” Wei Ying tells him. “How—this is crazy!”
“Why are you arguing with me?” Lan Zhan says. He looks unsure for the first time. “Is that… is it not what you want?”
“Of course I want,” Wei Ying says, a little desperately. He can’t bear the uncertainty in Lan Zhan’s face, bends to kiss him, soft and gentle, nipping Lan Zhan’s lower lip into his mouth, tracing his tongue over it. He tucks a strand of hair behind Lan Zhan’s ear, traces a finger over the curl of it, hooking it into Lan Zhan’s little hoop earrings. “It’s just. Long distance relationships are hard, Lan Zhan. How can you be sure that this is going to work? What if I make you miserable and what if we can’t communicate and what if it crashes and burns and, and—” He trails off. Lan Zhan is watching him steadily. Wei Ying repeats, “Long distance relationships are hard. I just don’t know if I’ll be worth it.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says gently. He picks up his phone from the drinks holder in between the seats. “I promised to show you the photos I took on this trip. Will you look at them?”
“Um,” Wei Ying says. He has no idea why Lan Zhan is choosing now to show him some pictures of the lakes. “Right now?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. He passes Wei Ying his phone. It’s open to a photo of Wei Ying that Lan Zhan must have taken on their first day canoeing: he’s standing on the pier, looking down into the canoe. Wei Ying scrolls: the next photo is him, too, carrying the canoe through the woods. Next photo: also Wei Ying, laughing as he crouches over the campfire; next photo, him standing by the lakeshore, hands in his pockets. Wei Ying keeps scrolling. There’s not a single photo that doesn’t have him in it. Lan Zhan’s captured him in motion, sitting still, smiling, frowning in concentration, sleepy and slow in the early mornings, vibrant and bouncing with energy in the afternoons. All the varieties of Wei Ying. Wei Ying’s never looked at himself like this before; never been seen like this before.
Wei Ying looks at Lan Zhan incredulously. The faintest blush steals over Lan Zhan’s face, but he meets Wei Ying’s eyes steadily, like he always does.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else to say. “I—this is. This is how you see me?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. He takes Wei Ying’s hand, kisses the knuckles softly. “I told you I don’t like to feel uncertain. Remember? I have never, not for one moment, felt uncertain about you.”
Wei Ying, overcome, looks back at the final photo Lan Zhan took. It must have been right after they swam in the lake last night; he’s wearing Lan Zhan’s fleece and his hair is wet and curly around his face. He’s got the bag of marshmallows in his hand. Wei Ying doesn’t think he’s ever looked so purely, uncomplicatedly happy. He manages to say, “Hey. I look happy in all these photos because of you, you know that, right?”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says. “I also have not been this happy in a long time—perhaps ever. That’s how I can be sure this is going to work. Even if it’s hard. You are worth it.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again, helplessly. “If you keep talking like that I’ll have to marry you or something.”
“I wouldn’t object,” says Lan Zhan. He kisses Wei Ying’s hand again, almost reverently. “How do you feel about a spring wedding?”
Wei Ying snatches his hand back in mock indignation.
“Lan Zhan!” he says, trying to keep up the indignation but he ends up laughing instead. “How can you talk like that? We’ve never even been on a date.”
“I’m here for another three days,” says Lan Zhan. “Pick a day and we will go for dinner. Then am I permitted to propose?”
“You’re crazy,” Wei Ying says. He can’t stop smiling, filled with such a wild, unbelievable joy that it can’t be contained, has to burst out of his face like sunlight. He can’t believe this. Nobody is going to believe him when he tells them this was all instigated by Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan says, “Only for you,” and crooks a smile, and Wei Ying has to kiss him, then, can’t hold back any longer. Lan Zhan comes up to meet him halfway and Wei Ying curls his hands around the back of Lan Zhan’s head, cradles it and kisses him long and deep, pouring all he feels, all the longing and wanting and waiting he’s endured all summer, into it. Lan Zhan kisses him back, tries to pull Wei Ying closer even though there is literally no room in the cramped front seat. Wei Ying’s calf is cramping and the seatbelt clasp is digging into his knee uncomfortably but it’s the best kiss of his life.
The summer might be ending, but Wei Ying feels—he knows—that whatever this is with Lan Zhan is only just beginning.