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cedar and bubblegum

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“Are you kidding me?” Mianmian moans from the back room. “Fuck!” 

Her voice cuts through Lan Zhan’s semi-meditative state as he stands in front of the cash and stares at the chipped paint in the upper corner. It’s a Thursday morning in the middle of October in a mall that should be demolished, because no one comes here to buy anything, and the entire building is falling apart. He blinks, takes in his surroundings again, and remembers it’s Thursday. Shipment day.

“I’m not even surprised anymore,” Mianmian mutters, stalking to the front of the store. “They sent us five boxes of soap. Fucking soap!”

He wrinkles his nose. Now their back room is going to smell like soap for the rest of the day. For the rest of the week, even. That sickly-sweet, near-metallic, absolutely horrendous soap. He can already feel the headache incoming.

It’s been like this as long as he’s worked for Build-A-Bear Workshop: every Thursday, shipment day, they’re greeted with boxes addressed to “BABW.” The only problem is half the time, these boxes are actually meant for Bath and Body Works—but of course the delivery people don’t look close enough to see that. Not that he blames them—he’s sure they’re paid just as badly as he is. But it’s still very frustrating.

“Do you mind running them down?” Mianmian asks him. 

He frowns. Normally, she jumps at the opportunity to do it herself. While the task itself is annoying, being allowed to leave the store while on the job is a welcome reprieve. And she’s not nearly as sensitive to scents as Lan Zhan seems to be. It’s a winning arrangement.

“I’d do it myself, but they hired this new guy?” Mianmian explains, wincing. “And he’s… either really awkward, or really creepy. I haven’t figured it out yet, and I don’t want to get arrested for murdering on the job.”

“Understood.”

He can take the boxes if he must—even if it’s a guarantee he’ll have a headache for the rest of the day. It’s a much better alternative than Mianmian committing murder, even if the person in question seems to deserve it.

“I’ll go.”

Mianmian relaxes visibly—her shoulders slumping, her face slackening. She pushes her bangs away from her forehead and sighs in relief. “You sure?”

He nods.

“Thanks,” she says with a grin. "I’ll man the counter til you get back.”

He nods again and heads to the back room to load up the offending boxes. Mianmian has already opened all the boxes that were delivered today, so it’s easy to spot the soap in the midst of all the teddy bear clothes. He pops a preemptive Advil before the soaps even have a chance to wreak their havoc, and stacks them onto their store’s half-functioning dolly, securing them down with a bungee cord. He wheels the cursed thing to the front of the store, nods at Mianmian’s salute, and pushes into the mall.

There are a few people walking about the dilapidated hallways, but for the most part, the only sounds as Lan Zhan heads down the hallway are his own footsteps, the screech of the dolly’s half-stuck wheels, and the tinny mall sound system playing “Love Talk” by WayV. He’s not even a fan of popular music, but he recognizes the song because it seems that’s all they play, and one day he snapped and asked Mianmian if she knew what it was. He catches himself humming along and scowls at no one. He’s heard it far too many times at this point, it’s entered his subconscious.

The Bath and Body Works is on the other side of the mall, of course, so it takes him several repeats of the song to reach it. By the time he’s come upon the too-colourful display of scented candles, he’s about ready to throw the broken dolly into oncoming traffic and watch all the bars of too-sweet soap smash against the road. How Mianmian doesn’t want to commit murder on the regular by making this trip astounds him.

He takes a deep breath. He was not made for this sort of job. He’s an artist. He should be spending his days composing music, not pasting smiles on his face while irritated parents yell at their children for building their bears the “wrong” way. And he shouldn’t be pushing around a busted dolly to a bath and body store with far too many fragrances, either. But he has to pay for college somehow. He’s not about to accept his father’s trust fund money. He can choke, for all he cares.

He breathes again and pushes his delivery into the store. The array of scents hits Lan Zhan all at once as he crosses the threshold—like running into a wall. Scents that should never mix together, like cedar and bubblegum, swirl around him. He wills himself not to sneeze.

The young man at the counter jumps into action as soon as he notices him, throwing his phone into his pocket, which is highly unprofessional. Not that Lan Zhan should really be judging. He’s just… ready to judge this man for anything if he’s the awkward-but-maybe-creepy person Mianmian encountered.

“Hey!” he calls, rushing over to him. “You from Build-a-Bear?”

He nods, eyes drifting to the name tag pinned to his apron. He’ll have to ask Mianmian if this is the same person. He seems to be the only one working today, at least at the storefront.  The tag just reads “Sunshine Mimosa.” Obviously not his real name. He must’ve forgotten his tag at home. Build-a-Bear has a similar policy. Once, Mianmian had to go around with a name tag that read “Pawlette” because she’d forgotten her real one at home.

“Sorry about that,” Sunshine Mimosa says, bending down to take the boxes from him. “I’ll go and check we don’t have any of your stuff.” 

“Thank you,” he murmurs. 

Sunshine Mimosa glances up at him and grins, and Lan Zhan’s stomach does an unfortunate flip.

If he’s Mianmian’s awkward-but-maybe-creepy person, he’ll be—

Devastated isn’t the right word. But he’ll be… disappointed. The man is cute. His front teeth peek out from his smile like a rabbit, and his grin is wide and lopsided. And his hair… messy, but long, twisted into a hasty braid. It’s shining, too—probably thanks to some miserable product in this cursed store.

“Are you new?” this unfortunately cute man asks, raising an eyebrow. “Never seen you before.”

Ah. So that’s where the creepy comes in. Or could come in. Lan Zhan doesn’t feel particularly bothered by him, but he’s also not a young woman who deals with public harassment, so his interpretation could be wrong.

“No,” he says.

The man blinks, like he’s off-put by Lan Zhan’s bluntness. “Well! I guess they’ve never made you come up here, have they?”

“No.”

Sunshine Mimosa stifles a laugh. “That all you’re gonna say?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t bother to answer him. With a shrug, the young man takes the boxes—two at a time—and brings them to their back room. Lan Zhan tries to ignore the way his back muscles stretch against his tight black shirt as he scurries away with them, as though they were weightless. If he’s the same person Mianmian mentioned, it’s such a waste of an attractive man.

“Alright!” the man yells as he emerges from the back room. “Looks like we don’t have any of your shit.” He grins and leans against a display of candles, propping his face up with one hand. “Will I ever see you again?”

He rolls his eyes and picks up the empty, broken dolly. This is clearly the same person Mianmian was talking about. No wonder she didn’t want to come back.

“So—who was working?” Mianmian asks upon his return. 

“He had forgotten his name tag.”

“Oh?” She raises her eyebrow, eyes alight—like she already knows who he’s talking about. “What’d he look like?”

Beautiful is what he wants to say. Adorable. Dangerous.

“Long hair,” is what he actually says.

“Oh,” Mianmian says with a laugh. “That’s probably Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying. Not the awkward-but-maybe-creepy person she’d met before. Wei Ying, who’s loud and has a nice back and a grin that will ruin him. Wei Ying, who flirted with him in spite of Lan Zhan’s misplaced disdain.

Wei Ying.


The next Thursday morning, Lan Zhan and Mianmian are once again working. Mianmian is once again sorting through the back room, and Lan Zhan is once again staring at the crack in the wall thinking about nothing. 

So, when he’s wrenched from his relative peace by the sound of squeaking wheels, and a piercing voice yelling his name, he’s quite displeased.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says again as he blinks back to attention. “I was hoping I’d see you! Hi!”

He stares at him blankly, altogether unprepared for this encounter. At least, when he had to go to Bath and Body Works, he had the whole walk there to prepare himself. Now, Wei Ying has just infiltrated his workplace—his very thoughts—and he’s too bright, too loud, too there. And he was hoping to see him. Hoping.

“Right,” Wei Ying says with a laugh. “Sorry—I didn’t introduce myself last time. I’m Wei Ying.”

He nods, swallowing the sudden ache in his throat.

“And I know you’re Lan Zhan because….” He gestures towards his apron, “Name tag.”

He nods again. Wei Ying’s mouth twitches into a small smile. It’s so different from his easy grin last week. So charming.

“So…” Wei Ying says when the silence stretches a little too long, “I got some adorable bear clothes! Where should I put them?”

“I’ll take them!” Mianmian says. When did she get here?

Before Lan Zhan can even begin to question it, she’s grabbing the first box off the dolly and marching away with it. She’s so fast when she wants to be.

“So…” Wei Ying says with a dangerous smile. “You work here every Thursday?”

“Depends.”

“Me too,” Wei Ying says. “Can’t keep a regular schedule to save my life—though I’ve asked my managers enough times.” He rolls his eyes. “These people think your whole life is this fucking job, am I right?”

He’s right. Painfully right. Saying what he’s already thought, but never voiced to anyone. He knows he should be grateful he has a job at all. But the way upper management treats them sometimes… he absolutely can’t stand it.

“Yes,” he agrees.

Wei Ying’s smile spreads wider, emboldened by his affirmation. “I know it’s hard to believe, but we have lives.” He lets out a long sigh, and taps on the counter. “Anyway—sorry. There’s my rant for the day. Gotta get at least one of them in there, otherwise who am I but a cog in the endless machine of capitalism?”

His mouth twitches, and Wei Ying’s eyes widen in delight. “Aw, there’s a smile!”

He freezes, attempting to feel his expression without being able to see it. He doesn’t smile. He never smiles. How could he—

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chides. “I won’t point it out next time. I’ll just enjoy it in silence, okay?”

What can he say to that?

Wei Ying opens his mouth to speak, just as Mianmian takes the final box. She’s so fast and quick, Lan Zhan didn’t even notice her presence. All he could see was Wei Ying.

This could be a problem.

“Well,” Wei Ying says brightly, “here’s to another Thursday, huh?”

“Yes,” he manages to say.

“Goodbye, Lan Zhan.”

“Goodbye, Wei Ying.”

The name hangs heavily on his tongue. Sweet and metallic, like the scents at Bath and Body Works. 


It’s early Monday afternoon, and Build-a-Bear is predictably dead. Today, Lan Zhan is working with Nie Huaisang for a change—though right now, they’re taking their break. Lan Zan is alone in the store, with nothing to do but waste time. He doesn’t stare at the crack in the wall like he normally does. Considering he’s the only person working, he has to be somewhat aware of his surroundings.

He’s tracing swirling patterns into a piece of receipt paper when a familiar voice rings through the store.

“Lan Zhan!”

It’s Wei Ying, of course, and Lan Zhan’s heart does a silly little flip it always does when he hears his voice. They’ve been at this for weeks, delivering mail to the appropriate BABW, slowly opening up about their interests and aspirations outside of work. And every time, Lan Zhan can’t stop that heart of his from reacting. Wei Ying is… so Wei Ying. So everything.

But today, he’s not wearing his work apron. He’s in regular clothes—ripped skinny jeans and a leather jacket with patches all over it, hair straightened and pulled into a neat ponytail instead of his usual messy one. He’s even wearing eyeliner.

And each of these elements alone would be enough to render him speechless. Each would be so much on any given day. But what really gives him pause is the fact Wei Ying is holding a child in his arms. A child who looks to be about four or five, staring at him curiously.

“We’re here to build a bear,” Wei Ying tells Lan Zhan with a grin.

They don’t look alike, really, but there’s something about them that would suggest they’re family. Which… could really mean anything. He always assumed Wei Ying was around his age—and that’s far too young to have a child this age. He must just have a lot of siblings. He must be an uncle.

“Baba,” the child protests with a pout, “I want a rabbit.”

Wei Ying raises his eyebrows. “A rabbit,” he repeats with a laugh. “Do you do that here?”

“We have rabbits,” Lan Zhan assures him, fighting to keep his face neutral. If Wei Ying really is his age, he would’ve been a father at no more than sixteen. Sixteen. He can scarcely imagine that—being suddenly thrust into a role with so much responsibility. No wonder Wei Ying is constantly angry at his management. Of course he wants more. Of course he deserves more.

Wei Ying gives the child’s cheek a little pinch. “A-Yuan, listen to that! Lan Zhan’ll help you build a rabbit. How about it?”

A-Yuan nods with a little smile as Wei Ying sets him on the floor.

He leads them through all the steps to build a bear—or a rabbit, really, which is the one part of his job he actually enjoys. He likes seeing the faces of the children light up as their new toy slowly fills with stuffing from the machine. He likes watching their mouths scrunch up in contemplation as they pick the perfect outfit and accessories for their new friend. Overall, he just likes dealing with the children, period. They’re far more appreciative than their parents.

But Wei Ying isn’t a problem parent, like some of the ones he’s dealt with. Not that he ever thought he would be. Wei Ying simply stands back to let A-Yuan pick what he wants. He watches with an amused smile as his son thinks deeply about whether to choose a white or a grey rabbit.

“Ah, such an important decision,” Wei Ying agrees sympathetically, crouching beside him. “What about your toys at Mama’s? Don’t you already have a grey bear?”

A-Yuan shakes his head. Wei Ying’s grin deepens. 

“Well… aren’t we in a predicament?” he exclaims. “What should we do?”

“Get gege to pick,” A-Yuan decides with a firm nod.

Wei Ying glances up at Lan Zhan with widened eyes, smiling. “Hear that? The future rests on your shoulders, Lan Zhan!”

He decides they should get the grey one—mostly for practical reasons. A white rabbit will get dirty far quicker than a grey one. 

He helps A-Yuan fill his new friend with stuffing, smiling at his delight as he watches it grow bigger and bigger. A-Yuan picks a red bowtie to go around his rabbit’s neck, and when it comes time to naming it, he very confidently names it Chenqing.

“After my old cat,” Wei Ying explains while Lan Zhan makes up the birth certificate, “That’s very nice of you, A-Yuan. Chenqing would like that you named someone after her.”

As he rings them up, he watches the total climb with every addition. He knows how much Wei Ying is struggling from all their past conversations, how difficult it is to keep up with all his bills sometimes.

He makes an impulsive decision.

Wei Ying squints at the total as he digs around for his wallet, chewing on his lip thoughtfully. “Thought it’d be more, honestly,” he mutters.

Lan Zhan’s ears betray him. He’s never been good at keeping secrets. 

Nothing, of course, gets past Wei Ying, even as Lan Zhan adjusts his hair to hide the tips of his ears and inconspicuously as he can. “What?” he asks with an amused grin. “What’d you do?”

He gulps and turns around the screen to show him. The employee discount code he’d entered is in bold letters at the bottom of the screen, above the total.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying exclaims. “You don’t have to! I can pay.”

He shakes his head firmly. “I never use it.” And then, he adds one of Wei Ying’s own expressions to further drive his point home, “Manipulate the system.”

Wei Ying’s whole face smiles as he pulls out his card. “Right on, Lan Zhan. Screw these corporations. If you ever need anything at Bath and Body Works, I got you covered.”

A few days later, on his day off, Lan Zhan goes to Bath and Body Works and Wei Ying sells him half a dozen sandalwood products he really doesn’t need. It’s all about manipulating the system, after all. 


Before, Wei Ying was highly selective talking about his personal life. He was eager to talk about his interests: music, art, makeup. He was eager to talk about his political views. But he never talked about his life outside of Bath and Body Works. He never talked about his family, or friends, or significant others. 

But after he and A-Yuan paid their visit to Build-a-Bear Workshop, it’s like the floodgates open. Wei Ying tells him everything and anything. Wei Ying asks him for his number. Wei Ying brings A-Yuan by when Lan Zhan is working, and Lan Zhan can’t stop smiling when the child clings to his legs as Wei Ying tells him they have to go. 

“That’s how you know he likes you, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says with a laugh as he pries his son away.

If only it were so simple when it comes Wei Ying. Clearly, he likes Lan Zhan—as in he likes talking to him. He likes commiserating with him about the state of their jobs and the endless grind of paying bills. But he can’t tell if he likes him. Truly.

He learns Wei Ying became a father at sixteen. That he dropped out of school to support the mother. Their relationship didn’t last much longer than the pregnancy, but Wei Ying remained. They share custody, but live on opposite ends of the city. Wei Ying lives in a shoebox of an apartment and used to have a cat named Chenqing who died peacefully of old age. Wei Ying likes rabbits. Wei Ying completed his high school diploma last year. Wei Ying wants to go to college. Wei Ying has a brother and sister whom he doesn’t get to see often due to the strained relationship he has with their parents. Wei Ying was adopted. Lan Zhan keeps all this information within him—an ever-growing list etched onto his heart.

“I know I’m kind of a fuck-up,” Wei Ying jokes one day as they stand over boxes of misdelivered scented candles.

Once, Lan Zhan would have judged someone for dropping out of high school, for becoming a young parent, for not pursuing higher education. But Wei Ying is so… real. So good. So warm. Why should the circumstances of his life matter?

“You are not,” Lan Zhan says, meeting his eyes.

Wei Ying flinches and quickly grabs a box.

Lan Zhan tells Wei Ying about his parents. He tells him about his late mother and her love of music. He tells him about the father he refuses to see. He talks about his uncle who raised him and can’t afford to put both himself and his brother through college. And Wei Ying asks to hear his music. Wei Ying asks so many questions about his music. Lan Zhan invites him to his place to listen.

He’s a black blot of ink against Lan Zhan’s white carpet. Lan Zhan sits beside him on the floor, guqin in his lap, and plays some of his solo pieces. Wei Ying sits close enough Lan Zhan smells vanilla and cedar and bubblegum all at the same time. He sits far too close, and if he were anyone but Wei Ying, Lan Zhan would hate it. But as his fingers brush against the strings, he has to bite his lip to stop himself from pleading, closer, always closer, please. 

He later learns the vanilla is his shampoo, the cedar is his deodorant, and the bubblegum is his moisturizer. Why he can’t just buy the same scent for every product confounds him—and when he tells him so, Wei Ying just laughs and tells him he’s no fun. He wonders if his apartment is as confusing to smell as Wei Ying is himself. He imagines he would be. Wei Ying is a combination of so many things that sometimes don’t make sense. But together, they make Wei Ying. And Wei Ying makes sense. The only thing he can’t make sense of are his feelings.


When Wei Ying leaves Bath and Body Works ten months later, after endless Thursday mail runs and late night conversations, he asks Lan Zhan to celebrate with him. In his small, confusing-smelling apartment, Wei Ying persuades him to dance to his favourite songs. They stand too close and bump noses and Lan Zhan can only stare at him. Because even though he has his number, even though they’re still friends, something is coming to an end. No more work visits while on the job, no more annoying mail runs. No more “running into each other” during their breaks. Wei Ying will exist in a separate plane from him. What if they fade?

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says, as he guides Lan Zhan’s hips to the beat of an old slow song. “I kept you waiting.”

And before he can ask, Wei Ying is kissing him, and it’s everything he could never imagine. He tastes like lemon and he smells like vanilla-cedar-bubblegum, and his hands grip his hips like they were meant to hold them.

“I thought…” Wei Ying whispers, touching his forehead to Lan Zhan’s, his voice a low murmur over the thundering of Lan Zhan’s heart, “if we… if things went badly, it’d be so awkward at work. So…”

“I understand,” he whispers back.

He almost prefers it like this. The way the two of them slowly opened and intertwined. The way he knows everything about him. Nothing could ever change his mind now. No secret would be too great.

He smooths back Wei Ying’s hair and breathes him in.