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won't take the easy road

Chapter Text

When Wei Ying was younger, growing up on Yunmeng, he sometimes spent the long summer days doing nothing but floating in the lake by Lotus Pier. The water there was slightly salinated, and spiney fish swam under him as he bobbed along. He turned over occasionally to search the lake-bed for colorful stones, or the remnants of old terraforming tech. But most of the time he would just drift.

On other days, he and Jiang Cheng had epic water battles, using their developing golden cores to drench each other until Jiang Yanli came to tell them it was time for dinner. His brother could never understand why Wei Ying sometimes felt the urge to do nothing at all and Wei Ying couldn’t explain it. “It’s nice,” he would say, and shrug.

Two planets and what seems like six lifetimes later, Wei Ying thinks he’s still floating. It’s not that he does nothing! He works part-time at a private cultivation school on the outskirts of Caiyi, and tutors students regularly, and picks up substitute jobs at the public schools whenever he can. He has a slightly haunted apartment. He messages Wen Qing and Wen Ning on Yiling all the time and his sister calls him once a month if the intersystem voicecomms are working. He stays busy.

But everything has that same feeling of drifting along, pushed and pulled by a force he doesn’t control. He’s trying, he thinks, and that’s the best he can do right now.

Only sometimes, in his dreams, he sees Yunmeng as if from a shuttle window; the cloudy blue sphere receding into the dark expanse of space as they pull away.

*

The middle of the week is the worst time, in his personal and professional opinion. At the beginning of the week, everything is fresh and possible. At the end of the week, everyone’s excited about going home. But the middle of the week is terrible and he hates it. It doesn’t help that Gusu’s days are longer than Yunmeng’s or Yiling’s by at least two hours. So he plans practical demonstrations, small field trips, guest lectures: anything to get himself and the kids through.

Technically, his title is Cultivation Enrichment Aide, and his three-day-a-week class is meant to supplement the standard curriculum that the students practice the rest of the week. Caiyi has a lot of families who hope to send their children to the Cloud Recesses Academy when they’re older, and his job is to get them all ready.

When he saw the job posting, back in Wen Qing’s tiny apartment on Yiling, he laughed and laughed until it started to edge into hysteria.

“Wei Ying,” Wen Ning said, worried. He had been the one to point it out to Wei Ying, but now he looked like he regretted that choice.

“I’m fine! I’m fine!” Wei Ying had to wipe his eyes. “Just—can you imagine? Me applying for a job on Gusu?”

“You have the qualifications,” Wen Ning pointed out, and it was true. Wei Ying had managed to acquire a degree in Cultivation Education; he had experience with private tutoring. In the end, Wen Qing bullied him into applying, and somehow he had aced the interview, even with the patchy cross-system data stream, and now here he is.

Here he is: currently herding a group of kids to the Caiyi shuttle station, on their way to a field trip to the museum on Cloud Recesses. Most of them have been off-planet before, but all of them still have that look of excitement that comes with being a kid and going into space. Wei Ying finds it transferring over to him, like a bit of spiritual energy, jolting him awake.

The main concourse of the shuttle station is always busy, with travelers, tourists, and long-haul freight crews mixing in an orderly cacophony. The floors of the station wind around a central atrium. Far above, a glass dome hangs over an arrangement of plants that twist out into the open air, while a model of Gusu with the city of Caiyi picked out in blue rotates endlessly just below the branching fronds. They've even included a smaller silver disc for Cloud Recesses circling around the planet. Wei Ying wonders, as he always does when he sees it, if the moon's orbit has astronomically accurate timing, or if there was some creative license taken.

The concourse is lined with small shops selling food for hungry travelers. The shop owners make a big production of it: swirling thin pancakes on their hot plates before stuffing them with sauce and fried vegetables. The dumpling stalls waft a comforting mix of cultured shrimp and chives and fat. The kids are not hungry; they just finished lunch back at school. But they're all excited about traveling, and it's part of the experience, so Wei Ying lets them buy snacks anyway. They’re old enough to make their own bad choices, he thinks.

The school is small enough that they largely dispense with grades for supplemental classes like his. The younger group, the first three grades, meet with him in the morning: he always thinks of them as The Babies. The Babies mostly go on very small excursions to the nearby park. Today's group are the school's upper three grades, the ones he teaches in the afternoon. He calls them The Terrors, due to their fractious and stubborn nature.

But today they’re all in a good mood and chatter brightly as they wait for the shuttle and then file on to find seats, until the shuttle pilot turns on the standard safety protocol vid, which they watch with wide eyes. Wei Ying, who has seen this vid enough that he could practically recite it, takes the opportunity to zone out for a moment.

At least, until Zhu Qian elbows him in the side. “Wei laoshi,” she says. “Laoshi. Wei laoshi.”

“Aiya, Qianqian, what?” he asks. She has been known to cause problems on purpose, but secretly she’s his favorite. Not at this particular moment, though.

“Why are we going to Cloud Recesses anyway?” she asks. “I’ve never been there.”

Wei Ying knows. She’s a scholarship kid and this is probably her first time off-planet. “It’s a good opportunity to learn about the history of cultivation and terraforming,” he says. He thinks it’s a good answer, but she heaves a sigh and rolls her eyes. No respect at all.

“Okay, but why are we really going?”

He gives her a tired smile. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he says, quietly. It’s true. When he attended the Academy there briefly, he spent the whole time wondering how it could be real. Yunmeng was his heart; there was no question of that. But even he couldn’t deny that the mountains and rivers of Cloud Recesses had a deep elegance nothing else could match.

“Hm,” she says, clearly unconvinced. But then the shuttle disengages from the dock with a familiar shudder, and she’s distracted. He watches the way she holds onto the edge of the seat tightly. But it wouldn’t help to say anything and thereby draw attention to her inexperience. Instead he sighs and stretches out his legs, making a point of his lack of concern. He had put on one of his nicer jumpsuits this morning, knowing that there was some likelihood, however slim, that he’d bump into someone from his past.

As they approach Cloud Recesses, the pilot drops the screening on the windows so they can watch Gusu’s moon grow larger and larger. It looks serene, even from up here. Zhu Qian forgets her nerves and kneels on the seat so she can peer over his shoulder.

“Wow,” she breathes, and Wei Ying smiles. "My little brother would like this."

Zhu Qian's little brother is currently a three-year-old and one of the crankiest children Wei Ying has ever met, but he appreciates the sentiment.

The shuttle is one of the newer models that can fly in-atmosphere as well. It stops first in the town that has grown up around the sect’s territory. A few people get off and a few more get on. The next stop is Cloud Recesses itself, and Wei Ying stands.

“All right!” he yells. The other passengers startle violently and he shoots them an apologetic glance. “My students! We are getting off on the next stop. If you don’t get off with us, you will be trapped on this shuttle forever! Your ghost will be sadly haunting your seat for the next hundred years!”

“No, thanks,” he hears the pilot mutter. One of the passengers is giving him an appalled look, as if he is telling The Terrors that they’re all doomed to failure for the rest of their lives, or something. But the kids giggle and line up, ready to get off.

“Thanks,” he tells the pilot. “Sorry about all the commotion.” He grins, and the man reluctantly smiles back.

He counts and double-counts the row of students, but they’re all there. The shuttle lands with a thump and the doors open. It’s foggy and raining here. It feels like the clouds have come to roost, blocking out both of the suns. The kids flip up the hoods on their uniform raincoats and disembark, for this one brief moment looking disciplined and responsible. Then Zhu Qian tries to shove Du Meifeng into a puddle and Wei Ying has to address that. The shuttle takes off and they all gather around Wei Ying clamoring to know where they’re going and when they can eat.

“You’ve already had lunch and snacks!” he points out. “Come on, this way.”

The shuttle station is far enough from the gates proper that the drama of the view is unspoiled. Wei Ying has always liked this path: the way you round the last corner and the ancient gate comes into view. Cloud Recesses was one of the first settlements in the system, and it shows. The original cultivators who terraformed the moon modeled the gate on traditional Earth architecture, but it’s carved out of the mountain stone, and tiny mosses and lichen grow up the side, encouraged by the ambient humidity of the air. It’s very Cloud Recesses, this mix of practicality and tradition and beauty all at once.

It was also the first place he ever saw Lan Zhan, but he tries not to think about that part.

The Terrors seem to be suitably impressed—or at least that’s how he interprets their reaction. Before they reach the gate, he stops and goes over the ground rules once again. No running, no shouting, no touching anything without explicit permission. If any of them shame him, he will have to cast himself into the nearest abyss and then where will they be? They’re all used to this speech by now, but he still delivers it with great conviction.

The disciples at the gate are expecting them and hand over their day passes with no fuss. Wei Ying hands them out and then leads them to the Cultivation Museum, The Terrors trailing after him in a ragged line.

They examine the museum’s collection of cultivation tools and artifacts, and Wei Ying delivers what he believes to be a very engaging impromptu lecture about how the styles of cultivation influenced the terraforming of different planets. It somehow turns into an overview of historical attitudes towards non-traditional cultivation styles. The Terrors, who are all a little too excited about the idea of demonic cultivation, listen avidly.

“Anyway,” Wei Ying says, “can anyone tell me why some of the paths here are laid out in octagonal patterns?”

He nods to the first hand he sees and the kid tells him that it’s because the original domes, which were built before terraforming, were in octagonal shapes and the paths follow them. One of the other kids jumps in to add that the later paths aren’t like that, and Wei Ying points out that the newer paths follow the shape of the land, working in harmony with the natural world. He asks if they know why this is important and they start throwing out theories about how the cultivators used qi to enhance the terraforming tech, as they pour out of the museum at a speed that can barely qualify as a walk. Wei Ying follows in their wake, hissing at them to slow down. With his luck, Lan Qiren will be lurking somewhere close by, and wouldn’t that be a great first re-impression.

Du Meifeng turns the corner and stops abruptly, the rest of The Terrors piling into her back. Wei Ying shoves his way forward to see what the problem is, which is how he unexpectedly comes face to face with Lan Zhan for the first time in five years.

Lan Zhan stands at the head of an orderly line of teenage Lan disciples, neat in their powder-blue hanfu and headbands. They, of course, are not shoving or running. Lan Zhan does not have to shush them furiously because they are already quiet.

Lan Zhan who stares at him with eyes like dark pools. Lan Zhan who says, quietly but with an intensity that echoes, "Wei Ying?"

Wei Ying laughs awkwardly. "Ahhh, hi, Lan Zhan! Sorry about all of this. We're on a field trip? To see the Museum? Ah, so I see you're teaching now too, that's great. Raising the next generation of Lan ducklings, following the righteous path, huh? Cool, cool, that's good."

Stop talking!!!! he wails internally. He takes a deep, gulping breath and manages to shut up.

Lan Zhan has a frown line between his eyebrows now, which is really only fair given that stream of nonsense. "You live...here?"

Wei Ying laughs again, too loud and too high. "On Gusu, yep. Yeah. Just since the start of the school year. Well, we're on a schedule, so I'd better get going!"

He sketches a weird wave and then jerks his hand down. What is wrong with him? Why can he not be a normal person when faced with the secret crush/mortal enemy of his teenage years unexpectedly? Hahaha.

"Wow, Wei laoshi, that was horrifying," one of the kids says. Everyone else murmurs their agreement and Wei Ying groans, but quietly, so they don't hear him and lose any shreds of remaining respect for his authority.

"Okay, new plan! Back to school! No time to waste!"

They complain loudly, but he holds firm. He will not risk another embarrassing encounter today. He does buy everyone slices of fresh melon at the shuttle station, and eats his own portion thankfully. It’s one of the hybrid Gusu varieties they’ve developed: sweet and cold and refreshing. Zhu Qian sits by him to eat her own slice and then offers to throw his rind in the station compost bin, which is how he knows that he really humiliated himself back there.

They file back on the shuttle and fasten their seatbelts for takeoff. Wei Ying leans wearily against the window. A very successful outing, he thinks, viciously sarcastic. Everything he was hoping to avoid!

"Thanks for taking us, Wei laoshi," Du Meifeng says. "It was very cool." He turns to look at her. She's a quiet kid, but a good student. She'd be a good fit for the Cloud Recesses Academy in a few years. She folds her hands neatly in her lap and swings her feet a little bit. "Except when Qianqian shoved me in a puddle."

He smiles, drawn out of his bad mood. He can't help it. The Terrors are all so awful, and he loves them so much. "No problem," he says. "It was very cool, wasn't it?" The shuttle takes off and he resists the urge to watch Cloud Recesses drop away, serene and perfect as always. Instead, he watches the kids as they compare their purchases from the shuttle's autodispenser and play complicated clapping games he couldn't begin to grasp. Let the past slip by like fog. This is what matters now.

*

But that night, while playing the flute for old Granny Li, he admits to himself that Lan Zhan is as beautiful as ever. Maybe more so. It feels totally unfair—could he not have one pimple, or a frizzy hair, or something? But no.

Five years since Wei Ying last saw him, left him standing in Yiling City, a beam of radiant light against the dingy backdrop of the town. He still keeps his hair cultivator-long, and he still has that air of pristineness. Like snow when it first falls; the beauty of something that has never been ruined.

Wei Ying finishes playing the lullaby Granny Li likes and lowers his flute. He has had to put up so many sound-proofing talismans, because the walls in this apartment are extruded building material, the kind people jokingly call cardboard. This building was a hasty pre-fab affair, twenty floors of new housing for families built back when the neighborhood was booming. Now it's a little worse for wear, much like Wei Ying himself.

The central courtyard is lovely, though. The balconies hold small individual garden spaces for the residents of each floor, and on the ground floor there's a community space with a purple maple tree arching gently over a little pond. The fish are long gone, but there's a bench where Wei Ying likes to sit when he has a moment. The older neighbors wave to him as they play cards and he helps them with their shopping. All in all, he has lived in much worse places than this gentle decay.

“Now, remember our deal, Li nainai,” he says. “I play you a lullaby and you let me rest peacefully.”

“Yes, yes,” she answers, batting her ghostly hands about. She always moves confidently, though she has silvery hair and wrinkled cheeks. “I’ll leave you alone now. Thank you for the music, little one. And don’t be too sad! Whoever you’re thinking of is sure to realize how you feel eventually.”

Wei Ying does not rise to this bait. He had unwisely dropped the fact that he is estranged from his adoptive parents when he first moved here, and the ghost gossip network sprang into force with such effect that he got a rare message from Jiang Cheng the next week, asking why his father was being berated by ghosts. Wei Ying hadn't known what to say, so he just ignored the message and passed his apologies on through Shijie the next time he talked to her.

And that was all the way over on Yunmeng! Lan Zhan is just on Cloud Recesses. Who knows what would happen if he let anything slip?

He waves goodnight to Granny Li as she disappears. He checks the lock on his front door—the mechanism sticks sometimes and doesn’t quite latch—and cleans his face and teeth. Then he gets into bed and messes around on his handheld for a while. Usually that sends him off to sleep, but tonight he’s in a strange mood. He wants to sleep, even though it’s early, craves the oblivion of it. He's jittery, though, replaying that moment when he rounded the corner and saw Lan Zhan: the tree behind him; the foggy horizon beyond him; the color of his robe.

Finally he gives up and goes to the kitchenette. The lights of downtown Caiyi flicker in the distance, but the kitchenette itself is dark and the streets below are dim except for the cold glow of halogen lamps. It's a foggy night, wrapping the world in shrouded quiet. Wei Ying could turn on the lights, but he stands in the dark, looking out over the city.

He opens a bottle of water and drinks it slowly, leaning against the counter. He tries to ground himself with what’s real and around him: the slide of the cool liquid down his throat, the hum of the elevator outside his door, the hiss of the air recycler the next floor up, and distant voices from one of the other apartments.

Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn't. He did a lot of work with a friend of Wen Qing's when he lived on Yiling, figuring out strategies for the moments when his brain tries to fight him. And he's glad that he has them now. But some nights his mind is too busy and the world is too far away.

At least the next day he only has an afternoon tutoring session and he can sleep in. He sighs and refills the bottle, watching the filtering indicator blink to green, sets a later alarm and gets back into bed.

A fast train goes by, shaking the building. Most people would probably find it disruptive, but the sound reminds Wei Ying of Wen Qing’s apartment. It’s also by a train track, and when he stayed too late and ended up sleeping on the couch, the sound of the trains would always lull him to sleep. In the morning, Wen Qing would make him breakfast, the one meal she was good at, and Wen Ning would shove tea his way, and A-Yuan would flit between them like a butterfly between flowers.

So now he wraps himself up in his worn cotton comforter, and listens to the train pass, remembering the happiness of that cramped apartment. He’ll be fine. He really will. At last, he manages to slip into the river of sleep and float away.

*

In the morning, he goes to buy himself breakfast. There’s a place around the corner selling youtiao and noodles that he likes, when he has time to do anything but grab something premade from his cupboards or stop by one of the stands near the train station.

The food is different on Gusu than what he grew up with on Yunmeng. They're all obsessed with freshness and light flavors here, making tiny delicate portions of the local produce. He still hasn't found anywhere that knows how to cook peppers the way he wants. But the breakfast place is hot, filling, and affordable, and that’s all he really asks for.

It’s raining today, clouds hovering over Caiyi, but he doesn’t mind that too much. The rain softens the harsh angles of the new buildings and makes the city a little dreamlike. He’s still tired after his broken sleep, but he waves to Grandpa Chen, haunting his usual spot by the newsvid stand, and buys himself coffee and fresh soy milk and a hot youtiao, drinking the coffee on the spot.

He heads back to his apartment, balancing the bag of youtiao and the warm soy milk. As he rounds the corner, he sees someone standing outside the front door of the building, looking uncertain. He’s about to ask if they need help when they turn.

It’s Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying almost drops the food; has to fumble it; does drop the soy milk. Lan Zhan reaches to catch the bag at the last moment. “Ah, thank you,” Wei Ying says, as he takes the bag back. “Lan Zhan! What are you doing here?”

Lan Zhan gives him a look, as if the answer to that should be the most obvious thing in the world. And it is, really, because what else would one of the Lan sect’s Twin Jades be doing on Gusu, in Caiyi, in this district, besides visiting Wei Ying? But it’s still so weird to see him standing there, wearing a pale blue jumpsuit and a white coat, carrying a light grey umbrella. Weird to feel the warmth coming off of his skin and remember that he’s an actual real person and not only a dream that Wei Ying had long ago.

“Um, do you want to come upstairs?” Wei Ying asks. Everything is spinning away from him; uncontrolled flight. A familiar feeling, but still uncomfortable. He swallows and says, “Or if you’d rather not, there’s a cafe nearby. Might be nicer.”

“Anywhere is fine with me,” Lan Zhan replies. His voice is deeper than Wei Ying remembers. Well, maybe there’s no surprise there, considering they were barely nineteen the last time they spoke, on the dusty streets of Yiling. Wei Ying still notes it; feels the depth of Lan Zhan’s voice vibrating through his bones.

“Cafe, then!” he says brightly, unable to handle the thought of Lan Zhan sitting on his sad burnt-orange couch and contemplating the empty takeout containers on Wei Ying’s kitchen counter. Also, he doesn’t know how Lan Zhan thinks about ghosts these days and Granny Li likes to listen to the news on his vidset while he’s out.

“But you already have your breakfast,” Lan Zhan points out.

“Oh, I’ll eat it on the way and get tea or something, no need to worry about me!” Wei Ying says. He’s never very hungry in the mornings. He usually eats a little bit at a time until his stomach wakes up. But if he says that to other people, they usually look worried about him, and that’s another thing he’s totally unable to handle.

So he chokes down the youtiao, mourning the lost soy milk, while they walk through the rain-slick streets. Traffic is heavy at this hour and the aircars and groundcars both zip along their routes. The suppliers who send produce into the city every day are unloading and partially blocking the sidewalks. It’s city life; quite unlike the serenity of Cloud Recesses, and Wei Ying has to suppress a bizarre urge to apologize.

Wei Ying keeps walking ahead and then remembering that Lan Zhan doesn’t know where they’re going and doubling back. The food sits heavy in his stomach, and Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything at all. It’s driving Wei Ying wild, and he breathes a sigh of relief when the cafe comes into sight, a small holosign out front cycling through their offerings.

The cafe is always crowded in the morning, and especially so with the rain. The servers shout and the line snakes through the small tables. It’s overwhelming even for Wei Ying, and he sneaks a glance at Lan Zhan, who’s standing there looking unconcerned. He has the faintest hint of dark shadows under his eyes, but he still looks unreasonably, unfairly good.

“So!” Wei Ying says, much too loudly. The woman in front of them jumps. “Sorry, sorry. So, Lan Zhan, what’s going on with you these days?” He doesn’t know why he’s asking; the same instinct as scratching at a scab or pressing down on a bruise.

Lan Zhan answers in a more reasonable volume. “I teach part time at the Academy. Otherwise, I head up an investigative team.”

The teaching part isn’t a surprise, considering how they met the day before. Wei Ying nods. “Cool, cool, cool, makes sense. Um, investigative team, what, like you look into bad cultivators?”

Lan Zhan turns his head fully to look at Wei Ying. Is it his imagination, or is Lan Zhan’s expression a little hurt? But Wei Ying reminds himself that it’s been years. It’s been years and he never understood Lan Zhan as well as he thought he did.

“No, not usually,” Lan Zhan says. “Strange phenomena, problems that are too large for individual sects to handle. That sort of thing.”

They’re almost at the front of the line now. Wei Ying tries to think of his remaining budget for the month and what he can afford here. What he’ll actually manage to eat. Having to weigh all these different things is so exhausting that usually he doesn’t. Usually he does what he needs to so he can keep going.

Lan Zhan orders a tea he doesn’t recognize and a plain steamed bun. Then he turns to Wei Ying and waits.

“What?” Wei Ying asks, startled. Not quite sure what’s going on.

“What do you want?” Lan Zhan asks. He’s patient about it too, waiting for Wei Ying to get his shit together and answer.

“Oh! I...some oolong.” Wei Ying manages at last. He's still adrift, pushed about by the eddies of the other people in the cafe, by his conversation with Lan Zhan, by the bone-deep tiredness that his sleepless night left him with. He doesn’t realize at first that Lan Zhan has not only ordered but already paid for both of them.

“I’ll pay you back,” he promises as they walk towards a table. “Really. I can do it right now.”

“No need,” Lan Zhan says quietly, tucking his umbrella into a corner and hanging his coat over the back of his chair. He sits. His hair spills over one shoulder. There’s a weight in his gaze that Wei Ying doesn’t know how to meet. Wei Ying sits himself, abruptly, like a puppet with cut strings. He looks at the table and his own hands, the familiar nicks and scars that he’s accumulated over the years.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, but then the server calls out his name for their order. Wei Ying hears the faintest sigh as he moves away.

He knows he should get up to help, at least to get his own tea. But he is so tired, and instead he rubs his eyes with the heels of his hand, runs his fingers through the tangled mess of his own hair. He had put it up hastily on his way out the door and the rain and stress have made it go haywire. He pulls the elastic out and lets it fall around his ears. No point trying to fix it right now, he thinks.

Lan Zhan sets down a tray with two cups of tea and a steamed bun on a plate. He sits down again. He cuts the bun exactly in half and sets it in the center of the table. He takes his cup and waits until Wei Ying takes his.

“The bun is for you too,” he says pointedly.

Wei Ying’s laugh surprises himself. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I usually barely eat breakfast anyway.”

Lan Zhan nods, but he still only takes one half. Wei Ying sips his tea, to have something to do. Something to think about besides the whirling refrain of facts: Lan Zhan is sitting right there. Lan Zhan came to find him. Lan Zhan bought him tea. He picks at the bun after all, pulling a little piece off and letting it melt on his tongue.

“You moved to Gusu,” Lan Zhan says at last. Probably when it becomes clear that Wei Ying is at a total loss. Usually he’s good at carrying a conversation.

“Um, yep. I was in Yiling for a while before that. I mean, you knew that.” He laughs awkwardly, thinking of the way they had last met, by accident, in the middle of Yiling, in the middle of Wei Ying’s worst time.

“You moved to Gusu and didn’t tell me,” Lan Zhan says. “Why?”

Wei Ying’s teacup clatters as he sets it down. “Oh! Well…” He thinks better of saying I didn’t think you’d care to see me just before the words come out of his mouth. Lan Zhan’s frown line is back and Wei Ying wants to smooth it out with his thumb. He wants to tell him that he wasn’t even sure if they’d ever been friends. He wants to tell him that the powerful sects would rather Wei Ying simply disappear, so he’d done his best to oblige. “I’m not—the most popular person,” he manages at last. “You know. After everything. So I, uh, figured it was better to let the past alone and focus on the future.”

Lan Zhan looks down and nods. Wei Ying feels a bittersweet pang of relief at the agreement. But then he says, “In that case, I apologize for bothering you,” and Wei Ying’s terrible heart, which never ever learns its lesson, slams to a halt.

"No, no, Lan Zhan, that's not what I meant. I didn't mean you." He almost reaches out to take Lan Zhan's hand. He would have, before. At the last moment, he curls it around his own teacup instead.

Lan Zhan meets his gaze. It has always felt like he could see deeper into Wei Ying than most people. When they were young, that's all he wanted: Lan Zhan to look at him. Now—now it's like hot coals. Wei Ying could swear he can feel his own pulse in his throat, beating too fast.

Sometimes, in the middle of a fight or a complicated problem, time goes funny around the edges. The world keeps speeding by, but everything else slows down, turning around this one still point, this fulcrum where everything rests, the center of a drawing compass where it meets the paper.

Wei Ying crumples under the point of Lan Zhan’s gaze. “I wanted to, I wanted to so much,” he babbles. “But I knew it wasn’t a good idea because I’m me, and you’re you. Even if you tolerated me before, that doesn’t mean you wanted me to show up and cause problems with everyone and everything you care about.”

The faint look of hurt is back, and this time Wei Ying doesn’t think he’s imagining it. But Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, at least not with words. He reaches out and curls his hand around Wei Ying’s bare wrist as Wei Ying’s hand is curled around the cup. Wei Ying can feel the warmth of Lan Zhan’s skin and the calluses on his fingers and his palm against the soft inside of his own wrist.

“Breathe,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying sucks in a breath, shuddering. Lan Zhan doesn’t quite meet his eyes, but he doesn’t take his hand away either. Wei Ying can hardly bear the slight pressure, the reality of Lan Zhan’s skin on his; he would fly away without it.

“I’m sorry you thought I’d react so poorly,” Lan Zhan goes on. Quiet, sincere. “But now you know. Wei Ying, if you need anything, please ask me. Please.”

Wei Ying manages to laugh. Manages to turn his hand over and catch Lan Zhan against his own callused palm instead of the tenderness of his wrist. “Okay, okay, I promise,” he says. Does he mean it? Who knows. He’s broken so many promises, but he still doesn’t want to break this one.

Lan Zhan nods, apparently satisfied. He drinks the last of his tea. Wei Ying has to look away from the line of his throat. His hair, spilling over one shoulder. Coming to Gusu was such a mistake. “I have to go,” Lan Zhan says. “I have a class this afternoon and I know they are not prepared.”

Wei Ying laughs, grateful for the lighter turn of the conversation. “Are you very strict with your students, Lan Zhan? Do you frown at them and make them quiver in their shoes.”

“Indeed, I have only to look in someone’s direction if I want to produce instant pools of tears,” Lan Zhan says, as he stands and puts his coat on. Wei Ying thinks this is a joke, delivered in a desert-dry tone. But before he can ask, Lan Zhan says, more seriously, “Be well, Wei Ying.” And then he departs, leaving Wei Ying open-mouthed and then grinning.