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under my red-valve heart

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Lan Zhan is six the first time she feels it.

There is a girl on TV that instantly catches her eye. Lan Zhan isn’t allowed to watch much TV, only at certain times and never without supervision. Her brother, Lan Huan, is a few years older and thus allowed to watch a little more. He also constitutes as supervision in her uncle’s eyes, so she is sometimes allowed to be in the same room when he’s watching one of his shows.

Lan Zhan has no strong feelings about the TV either way; she’ll watch something when she’s allowed, if it’s interesting, but she doesn’t make a fuss when she isn’t. There are plenty of other things she likes to do that keep her occupied, and she rarely makes a fuss anyway.

She barely pays attention when Lan Huan puts on the show he’s been obsessed with lately, letting the sounds wash over her as she sets up her dolls on the floor to hold an elaborate conference like her uncle often does at the university where he teaches. He takes her with him sometimes, letting her listen if she’s quiet and good.

Lan Zhan is always quiet and most of the time she’s good too. She enjoys being at the university, seeing all the books she is only just learning to read, the old halls of the building that look so different from her own school. She enjoys playing university too, lectures and conferences, and it’s pure chance that she looks up from her set-up and notices the girl on the screen at all.

She’s so pretty. Lan Zhan stares at her, the dark, long hair falling over her shoulder in waves, the big brown eyes and the cute dress she’s wearing. She’s laughing, and maybe that’s what caught her attention, a pleasant and melodious sound and a sparkle in her eyes to accommodate it. She’s so pretty. Lan Zhan can’t look away.

Lan Huan, noticing her sudden interest, smiles at her. “What is it, meimei?” he asks. “Do you like the show?”

Lan Zhan lifts her shoulders in a shrug, then remembers that it’s rude not to answer properly and says, “I don’t know.”

“Hm. Do you like her?”

He glances at the girl speaking on screen, the one that drew her eye. Lan Zhan nods hesitantly, and Lan Huan smiles wider.

“I like her too. You can come watch it with me, if you like. Uncle won’t mind.”

Lan Zhan isn’t actually sure about that, but Lan Huan sounds certain, and she wants to keep watching. She wants to believe him so that she can.

So she does.

She doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, but Lan Huan does his best to explain it to her and catch her up, and she doesn’t mind the parts she doesn’t get. Most of her attention lies on the girl anyway. The scenes that don’t have her in it quickly make her lose interest, waiting impatiently for her next appearance. She stays in her seat, staring at the TV dejectedly when the end credits roll.

“There’s another episode tomorrow,” Lan Huan assures her. “We can watch it together.”

She nods and tries not to be too disappointed. Tomorrow is so far away still.

She makes it through somehow, though she thinks about the pretty girl the whole day.

Just like that, a habit is born. Every afternoon, she sits down with Lan Huan to watch the newest episode, waiting for the girl’s appearance with breathless impatience, her fingers twitching around her stuffed rabbit when she’s there. Her eyes are glued to the screen, to every shift in her expression, how she brushes her hair behind her ear and the dimples on her cheeks when she grins.

Every afternoon, she is filled with sorrow when the episode ends. Fridays are worst, because there are no new episodes on Saturdays and Sundays. It is on a Friday that she sits on the sofa gloomily as Lan Huan switches off the TV before something occurs to her.

“Ge,” she begins, then stops.

Lan Huan smiles at her. “What is it, A-Zhan?”

She hesitates, then says, “I want to use the computer. Can you do it with me, please?”

“Of course! What do you want to do?”

She gnaws her lip. “Can we look at pictures?”

“Sure,” he agrees readily. “Pictures of what?”

She glances at the TV, and understanding dawns on his face.

“Oh! I see. Of course, let’s look for some pictures.”

They do, and they lose the better part of the afternoon to it. Sitting in her brother’s lap to have a better view, Lan Zhan points at the ones she wants to see a bigger version of, asking him to save those she thinks are especially pretty.

“Uncle won’t mind?” she asks, twice to be sure. Lan Huan assures her that he won’t, and the second time he adds, “We can create an extra folder just for you and put the images in there. They won’t bother anyone.”

She nods, relieved, though she’s still not fully happy. Lan Zhan isn’t allowed on the computer by herself, which means that she can’t look at the pictures whenever she likes. She feels ungrateful pointing that out and thus decides not to, but Lan Huan knows her very well, and he can tell that something’s wrong.

When he has coaxed the problem out of her, he smiles.

“I think we can do something about that. We’ll ask uncle tonight.”

Lan Zhan isn’t sure what they are going to ask, but nods eagerly anyway. She eats her dinner quickly that night, trying to get to the point of being allowed to speak again faster, but forces herself to stop when her uncle throws her a look.

When everyone has finished eating – their uncle being last – Lan Huan starts talking.

“Uncle, A-Zhan and I would like to print some pictures to hang up in our rooms. Would that be okay?”

“Please,” Lan Zhan adds, clutching the fabric of her shirt. She doesn’t want to risk her uncle saying no due to a lack of manners on their part.

Lan Qiren looks at her, then back at her brother. “What pictures?”

“From this show I’m watching,” Lan Huan explains. “A-Zhan has seen some of it. She likes the characters.”

“Hm. And how many pictures are we talking about?”

“Maybe… three each?”

Lan Qiren looks between them, then nods. “That is acceptable. Help your sister select the pictures she wants. When you’re done, call me so we can print them.”

Lan Huan beams and nods. “Thank you, Uncle.”

“Thank you,” Lan Zhan repeats.

Choosing the three pictures she likes most is hard, but Lan Huan waits patiently as she looks through them, finally settling on her favorites. Lan Huan’s pictures show different people, hers are all of the girl, smiling.

She takes them reverently when her uncle has printed them out on thicker paper, helping Lan Huan tape his pictures over his desk and then putting her own on the wall next to her bed. She can look at them before she falls asleep, and anytime during the day when she is playing on the floor.

She looks at them a lot. Sometimes she touches them too, when no one is there to see it. They make her all fuzzy inside, and warm. There’s a distant desperation to it, like she wants more, but she doesn’t know what more means. She contents herself with staring at them all day instead, dreaming about the girl and her laugh, about having her here with her in real life, as a real person. Maybe they could be friends. Maybe they could do everything together, and she would laugh for her too.

Lan Qiren catches her looking sometimes.

Lan Zhan notices, but she’s not doing anything forbidden, so she sees no reason to stop.

"What is she doing?” she can hear him ask some days later, bemused. Lan Huan chuckles.

“She has an idol, I think. She seems to admire her a lot. She’s become a big fan of the show.”

Lan Qiren humphs. “Well, at least it’s distracting her from your mother. It’s good to see her focusing on something else again.”

Lan Zhan pretends not to have heard them speaking in the hallway, continues spinning the idle fantasy in her head instead, but the words nag at her.

She supposes she has been less sad about not seeing her mother so often. Or perhaps not less sad, but less often. Is that a good thing? Her uncle seems to think so. And it’s good to not be sad all the time. But it means she’s thinking less about her mother, and she doesn’t want to forget her.

Lan Huan didn’t seem worried that she will, though. She knows he wouldn’t want that either. Maybe it’s okay then. She’ll make sure to always remember her.

Satisfied, she returns her attention to the girl.

She has an idol, Lan Huan said.

An idol. She’s heard that before, she knows what it means. It makes sense.

That’s what this is. An idol.

*

That was not what it is.

In the following years, Lan Zhan becomes increasingly aware of this, encountering more people who make her feel that way, who leave her all warm and fuzzy and with her heart pounding in her chest.

It’s not people, though.

It’s girls, always girls. Women, sometimes. Her piano teacher. The lady who sells flowers down the street and gave her one for free once, winking as she smiled at her.

As she gets older, Lan Zhan understands those feelings better; understands that most of the girls around her don’t have them, or if they do, it’s usually for boys.

Lan Zhan doesn’t like boys. Not like that, anyway. She can’t imagine ever looking at a boy and feeling the way she does when she looks at women, when she looked at those pictures on her wall that have long been taken down and replaced by other things, but still linger in the drawer of her desk.

This is a problem for later, she decides.

She doesn’t think how she feels is a problem. But she’s heard the whispers. She knows the words, lesbian, gay, knows that they are often said unkindly, or hesitantly, like it’s something forbidden. Something dirty.

Something bad.

She’s not sure if it’s bad. Maybe she’s afraid to find out. But she’s still young. It’ll be years yet before she has to decide who she wants to marry (if she wants to marry, Lan Huan reminds her sometimes, it’s an option, A-Zhan, not an obligation). She doesn’t have to worry about finding a man she likes yet. She doesn’t have to worry about maybe not being able to find one.

Later, it turns out, is when Lan Zhan is twelve.

She has been thinking about it again. She doesn’t like that it’s an it. She doesn’t like that there is somehow a secret she is keeping now.

It feels like lying, even if no one has ever outright asked her about it. Would she lie, if they did? What would she tell them?

The idea is… uncomfortable, the longer she thinks about it. Being put on the spot. Having to come up with an answer in an instant, having to be sure, because any hesitation would surely be an answer in itself.

It’s not that she minds other people knowing.

Does she?

She can’t be sure. No one else knows. She’s never told anyone.

She imagines it, saying the words to someone, waiting for their reaction. Not knowing what it’s going to be like. She finds that there’s immense discomfort in that; in not knowing. Not having control over what happens afterwards.

She can’t change that. But she can take control of how she lets people know. She can make sure she’s not put on the spot, not unprepared for any questions.

Now who would she tell?

Her brother is the obvious choice. There is nothing Lan Huan doesn’t know about her, nothing except this, and he has never judged her for anything. She doesn’t think he would judge her now; he always says that she can tell him anything. Lan Zhan never usually does, because he picks up on what’s going on with her before she herself does most of the time, so there is no need to.

But he hasn’t picked up on this. This is her secret to tell. She doesn’t like keeping a secret from him. She wouldn’t want him to keep anything from her either.

She ponders this for a while, thinks about what to tell him, how to tell him. Lan Huan sends her glances every once in a while, like he knows something’s going on with her, which he probably does. But he also knows that she needs time to think things through before talking about them sometimes, so he doesn’t pry.

It’s Lan Zhan who takes initiative eventually, sitting cross-legged on the floor in Lan Huan’s room with a puzzle while he’s working on his politics presentation.

She doesn’t know what inspires her to break the silence in that specific moment, only knows that the queasiness in her stomach will get worse if she keeps it in any longer, that if she doesn’t say it now, she might never say it at all.

"Ge? What if I were gay?"

It feels like jumping off a cliff, terrifying and liberating at once with absolutely no way of knowing what will happen once she hits the ground, no way of bracing for the impact when she has no idea what’s waiting on the other end.

Lan Huan stops typing immediately. He turns his chair around to look at her, his lips parted. In surprise? Shock? She can’t be sure.

There is a beat of silence before he says slowly, clearly choosing his words with great care, “Then I would still love you the same, because you would still be the same, of course.”

Lan Zhan hums.

Lan Huan gets up to join her on the floor, picking up a stray puzzle piece.

“I’d be very impressed too,” he continues, folding his legs until he mirrors her position. “That you know who you are so well already at such a young age.”

That’s funny, because Lan Zhan has always known, in a way. She hasn’t always had a name she could put on it, but she has always known.

Lan Huan holds the puzzle piece to the part Lan Zhan is working on, which has similar colors. She shakes her head and points to the other end.

“Ah,” he says. When he puts it in place, it slots in perfectly. He picks up another piece and figures out where it goes in silence, then asks almost casually, “Are you gay?”

Lan Zhan shrugs. “I don’t like boys,” she explains.

“But you do like girls?”

She nods.

Lan Huan smiles. “Thank you for telling me, meimei. You know I love you, don’t you? Whoever you are. You’re still my A-Zhan.”

She nods again, decisive.

Lan Huan pinches her cheek like he used to do when they were little and laughs when she huffs. They continue puzzling mostly in silence, his presentation forgotten for the time being.

Lan Zhan’s heart is still beating a little faster than usual, leaving her a little jittery, a little lightheaded, but it’s fine. Her brother is there to catch her, if she falls.

It doesn’t come up again for a while. Lan Huan gives her a secret smile sometimes, when he notices her eyes lingering, but apart from that it’s just as it used to be.

When she gets older, and her peers start dating and entering relationships around her, she wonders if she should come out. Uncle has never asked her about any boyfriends, probably assuming that she would bring it up herself if it were relevant. She doesn’t have many friends at school, not the kind to ask personal questions anyway. Still, people… assume. To her face, sometimes, and she never quite knows what to do with that. She feels indignant when they do that. When they look at her and make an assumption based on nothing but her gender appearance and their heteronormative worldview. It’s not that she’s giving any indication that she likes men, on the contrary. She’s not giving any indication that she likes women either, granted, but that’s beside the point. People shouldn’t just assume. If they do, that’s on them, not on her.

This, she finds, is a good compromise. She does not pretend to be straight, and she’s not having a big coming out either, but when she talks about potential future partners, she will only ever speak of women. If people do not pick up on that, they cannot be helped anyway.

“I noticed that you started mentioning your sexuality,” Lan Huan remarks after the first time she does it, mentioning a possible girlfriend she might one day move in with to an aunty at a gathering of their extended family. Lan Huan usually hovers near her at these functions, knowing how uncomfortable they make her, and jumps in when a conversation goes south. Lan Zhan knew he would hear it, just as she knew he would ask her about it.

“It is not a secret. I do not intend to hide it.”

He hums.

“So are you going to come out officially?”

“Straight people never come out to me,” she points out. “And if they did not assume things about me that are untrue, I would not have to come out to them either.” She lifts her shoulders. “I do not mind people knowing. I will not keep it a secret to accommodate anyone. But I do not owe them a spectacle because of their limited perspective.”

“I see,” Lan Huan says, his eyes narrowed in thought. “You're right about that, meimei. I never considered it, but you make a good point.” He pauses. “Does that mean it’s alright for me to mention it too? Or would you rather I didn’t?”

“By all means,” Lan Zhan agrees. “Like I said, I do not mind.”

As expected, Lan Huan doesn’t take this as permission to walk around proclaiming his sister’s sexual orientation at every opportunity. But he is less careful in his phrasing when he talks to her within earshot of others, mentions her future girlfriend rather than partner, uses she rather than they.

“Of course not,” Lan Zhan tells him when he asks if she is going to need her plus one for his graduation ceremony. “You can give it to Nie Mingjue.”

“Why ‘of course’? One day you might have a nice woman you want to bring along to these things, meimei. It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

She rolls her eyes. “Perhaps, but I do not have one right now. Invite Nie Mingjue.”

Lan Huan chuckles, and when Lan Zhan turns around as he leaves the kitchen, she finds her uncle standing in the doorway, his eyes on her.

She waits, but he doesn’t say anything. After a moment of blankly staring at each other, he humphs and turns to go, which, all things considered, is a positive reaction. If he disapproved, he would not hesitate to let her know.

It’s after dinner that day, just as Lan Zhan is about to rise and collect their plates, that he says her name and then pauses.

When she looks at him, he continues, “If you wish to introduce your partner to the family, I hope you know that you may bring her here. We will welcome her anytime.”

Lan Zhan blinks. “I do not have a partner,” she feels the need to point out.

“Still.”

She swallows, nodding once. “Thank you, Uncle.”

He huffs, affronted. When she catches Lan Huan’s eyes, he’s poorly holding back a smile.

*

Lan Zhan is a model student.

She always has been, ever since she started school, and she has never slipped up since, not even once. She has perfect focus. Impeccable time management. A good grasp of the material. She is eager to learn and never lacks drive, putting her studies above everything, allowing for no distractions.

Until she meets Wei Ying.

Wei Ying is a new student joining the school in her eleventh year, who is sorted into her grade. This is unfortunate for Lan Zhan, because she is quite infuriating.

Infuriating because she has no respect for the fact that schools are a place for learning, a place relying on rules to keep order, to create the productive atmosphere that is needed to focus on one’s studies. Infuriating because she’s loud, and obnoxious, and inserts herself in places Lan Zhan has never had access to like she simply belongs there. Infuriating because she keeps trying to get a reaction out of her, having mistaken her silence for a challenge and clearly refusing to concede defeat, instead doing just about anything she can to get her attention, to even just get her to look at her.

Infuriating because Lan Zhan can’t look away.

It surprises her how angry Wei Ying is able to make her. Lan Zhan doesn’t usually get angry, and never this quickly. But there is something about Wei Ying. Something that won’t let her turn away and pretend she’s not there, something that won’t let her focus on anything but her.

Something that feels familiar, scratching at the back of her mind when she lies awake at night or gets lost in thought over her homework. Something she hasn’t felt in a while, but not so long that she forgot what it means.

She leaves it unnamed at first. Tries not to poke at it, to look the other way. Set it aside to deal with at a later time. But she still knows it’s there.

Every day, she grows more aware of it.

The thing is.

The thing is, Wei Ying isn’t always obnoxious. She isn’t always loud. She smiles, often, and sometimes just for Lan Zhan. She thinks a lot, shocks her again and again with the clever things coming out of her mouth. She touches her, too. The first time it happens, Lan Zhan freezes up entirely, which Wei Ying must notice but pretends not to, because she is kind like that, and oh.

Oh.

Maybe she cannot deal with this later. Maybe the right time is now.

*

“Hey, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Zhan resists the urge to close her eyes. Barely.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying calls again, even though she has caught up with her by now and there is no need to raise her voice anymore. “Didn’t you hear me? Why are you ignoring me?”

She can hear the pout in her voice without having to look at her. Lan Zhan heaves a quiet sigh.

“Anyway,” Wei Ying chatters on, clearly not needing her input to carry the conversation, “I was thinking we should get a head start on our assignment. I know you’d probably get started on it early anyway, but I’m really pumped for this, I’ll be honest with you. I was thinking we could start today, if you want? We could go to your house? We could go to mine, but my brother will be home and I spilled soda on his pillow this morning so it’ll be this whole thing. Can we go to yours? Are you free right now?”

Lan Zhan takes a moment to recover from being steamrolled by all the information Wei Ying has packed into half a minute before she says, “Yes.”

“Great!” Wei Ying lights up. “Do you live far? Are we taking a bus? I live the other way but it’s pretty close. Too close, probably, because it always gives me a sense of security in the mornings, like I still have so much time and then I end up late!”

Lan Zhan walks home in a daze, learning more about Wei Ying in the fifteen minutes it takes them than she has learned about another person in eleven years of school.

“This is lovely!” Wei Ying proclaims when she unlocks the door and lets them in, looking around unabashedly. She stares even more once she’s led her to her room, greedily taking in whatever details her room betrays about her.

Before she settles in, she stops in the hallway. “Are your parents home?”

“I live with my uncle. He is at work.”

“Oh. Okay, maybe I’ll get to say hi later then!”

Lan Zhan makes a noncommittal sound, waiting for the inevitable question. It never comes. Wei Ying just drops on the floor next to her, legs crossed as she rummages through her backpack to find the singular pen she seems to own.

Lan Zhan shocks herself when she says, “My mother died when I was six. My father is… absent.”

Wei Ying looks surprised for a split second.

“Oh, right! Mine too. I mean, they’re dead, both of them. I was adopted by my father’s friend, but, you know, I call them uncle and aunt, so it’s not like that.”

Lan Zhan hums in acknowledgment. “Uncle has never wanted children, but he does his best.”

“Have you been with him since you were six?”

“Longer.”

She nods and, again, doesn’t ask. “You have a brother, right?”

“Yes. He should be home soon.”

“Do you get along? Is he older?”

“Yes. We get along well. He… understands me.”

Wei Ying smiles at that, soft and genuine. Lan Zhan loses herself in it a little bit. Then she snaps out of it, suddenly remembering what Wei Ying is here for in the first place.

“Industrialization,” she says.

Wei Ying looks at her blankly. Then her eyes widen. “Right! The assignment. Let’s get started, huh, Lan Zhan? What did you think about the chapter we were supposed to read? I personally think it’s bullshit.”

And just like that, they’re working. Granted, working has never included this much talking before, but it does get them somewhere. By the time Lan Zhan hears the front door opening, she is surprised by how late it’s gotten and how much they managed to get done.

“A-Zhan?”

“In here,” she says, barely raising her voice. She is usually in her room. She doesn’t know why her brother keeps calling out for her when he gets home.

Lan Huan pops his head in, immediately zoning in on Wei Ying.

“Hello- oh! A-Zhan, I didn’t know you had a friend over!”

He doesn’t have to sound so delighted about it. She just so resists rolling her eyes, instead saying, “We have an assignment together.”

“Hi!” Wei Ying chimes in. “I’m Wei Ying.”

“I’m Lan Huan. It’s wonderful to meet you. I was going to start cooking in a minute, are you staying for dinner?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t wanna impose.”

“Nonsense. We’d be so happy to have you eat with us. Wouldn’t we, A-Zhan?”

Lan Zhan throws him a look at his slightly too wide smile. Lan Huan does this sometimes, when he thinks he knows something Lan Zhan isn’t letting on. Unfortunately, he is right in this case.

She nods when Wei Ying glances at her, who promptly starts beaming. Lan Huan, in turn, smiles even wider, a mischievous spark in his eyes. Lan Zhan is in trouble.

Wei Ying comes over often after that.

She gets along well with Lan Huan, who embarrasses both himself and Lan Zhan with how pleased he is every time Wei Ying shows up. She gets along slightly less well with Lan Qiren, who struggles to see past her disruptive nature, but Lan Zhan keeps their encounters to a minimum whenever possible, and Wei Ying never seems to mind that he’s a bit short with her. She keeps coming over, after all. That has to mean something.

If only she knew what.

She doesn’t kid herself into believing that Wei Ying might feel the same fluttering in her stomach every time they look at each other a little too long, every time they touch. But there has to be something in it for her, something drawing her to Lan Zhan other than just getting a reaction out of her. They are long past that stage now. Wei Ying doesn’t lack her attention; she has it. Constantly. And yet she hasn’t put her aside yet, hasn’t looked for someone else to tease into becoming her friend.

“If I were an animal, what would I be?” Wei Ying asks one afternoon, lying flat on her back on Lan Zhan’s carpet with a pencil in her mouth, and without thinking Lan Zhan returns, “Bunny.”

“What- Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying sits up, her mouth dropping. “That was so fast! You didn’t even think about it! Why a bunny?”

Lan Zhan could say your teeth remind me of them, or she could say bunnies are my favorite and so are you. What she ends up asking is, “What do you have against rabbits?”

“Nothing! I just- I was expecting something different? A little more…” She gesticulates wildly. “You know?”

Lan Zhan hums skeptically. She does not know.

“What did you want to hear?”

“I don’t know, something cool, like an eagle or something.”

“Possum,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying bursts into laughter.

“Lan Zhan!” she wheezes, clutching her chest. “You’ve killed me on the spot! Fatal injuries! What did I do to deserve this? How can I ever recover?”

“Try,” she gives back dryly. Then, “What would I be? As an animal?”

Wei Ying’s laughter fades as she turns to look at her, and even after weeks of being her friend, Lan Zhan is still not used to the weight of her full attention on her. She nearly shivers, holding her breath and trying to look like she isn’t as she lets Wei Ying’s eyes wander over her.

“Swan,” she decides, smiling. “Beautiful and graceful just like you, but also fucking mean, so it’s a perfect fit. Did I ever tell you about the time we went to the park and a swan attacked Jiang Cheng?”

She chatters on as she tells the story, and Lan Zhan does her best to listen instead of replaying her voice complimenting her in her head on repeat.

Something flutters in Lan Zhan’s stomach, but it’s not that which draws her attention. It’s the warmth in her chest, threatening to expand so much that it might burst her ribcage from within. It’s tight, and immediate, but steady too, like the beating of her heart, unchanging and… lasting.

This is a problem.

Lan Zhan has had crushes before.

They have never felt like this.

This… isn’t a crush anymore. She is in love. The realization, setting in slowly, doesn’t shock her per se. It does leave her dismayed. Wei Ying, for all her easy affection and flirty banter, has never indicated real interest. Not in her, not in any woman. She’s probably straight, and that’s not a rabbit hole Lan Zhan wants to go down, but it seems she has already fallen in beyond the point of still clawing her way out.

It’s going to be like this, then. The two of them, close, but never as close as Lan Zhan wants. A taste of what she craves, never enough to satisfy, just to keep her hooked.

She finds that she doesn’t actually mind so much. It hurts, yes. Often, in a hundred different small ways that she discovers anew every day. But it’s good, too. As long as she has Wei Ying in her life, in any way, it can’t be anything but good.

She looks at Wei Ying, and she can’t help the smile stealing onto her lips. She loves her, yes. It is surprisingly easy to make her peace with it.

“Riveting,” she says when Wei Ying finishes her story. “I particularly enjoyed the part where Jiang Cheng fell into the lake.”

Wei Ying starts laughing again. Lan Zhan basks in the sound. If she could make her laugh for the rest of her life, she would never ask for anything more.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs. “I like you so much.”

Lan Zhan hums, instead of saying anything in response and accidentally letting on too much. This is enough.

This is good.

It’s good, until it isn’t.

Two months later, Lan Zhan comes to class and Wei Ying doesn’t. She doesn’t show up all day, all week, doesn’t respond to texts, doesn’t pick up the phone.

Her brother is still at school, and eventually Lan Zhan grows desperate enough to approach him. With his resting scowl and the generally unpleasant way of talking to Wei Ying he has, she has never really warmed up to him or sought him out, but needs must.

“Yeah, she’s gone,” he tells her when she asks, and everything inside Lan Zhan comes to a screeching halt.

“Gone?” she echoes dully, uncomprehending.

Something flickers across Jiang Cheng’s face that could almost be sympathy.

“She didn’t tell you either, huh? I shouldn’t be surprised, but I somehow thought you’d be the exception, what with the way she was about you.”

The way she was about her? Part of Lan Zhan wants to ask, but it’s hardly the most pressing of her concerns right now.

“She’s gone?” she asks again, and Jiang Cheng’s expression shutters into his usual frown.

“She left home,” he explains, his voice clipped. “Dropped out of school and changed her fucking number or whatever. We can’t reach her, and she didn’t leave us more than some stupid ass letter, so I guess she doesn’t want to be found.”

He leaves before Lan Zhan can ask anything else. She wouldn’t have known what anyway.

Wei Ying is gone. She’s gone, and she doesn’t want to be found. Does it really matter why?

It does matter. It must have hurt Wei Ying for her to do something so drastic. It matters, but it’s too late now. She’s already gone.

The way she was about you, Jiang Cheng said. But she left. She didn’t even say goodbye. There wasn’t even a letter for Lan Zhan.

She doesn’t want to be found.

Lan Zhan doesn’t hear a word of her remaining classes that day. She goes home in a daze and then sits on her bed and stares at the wall for hours, the same spot where the pretty girl with the bright smile used to look back at her. Thinking about absence. Thinking about loss. Thinking about losing what was never meant for her anyway.

She allows herself a day to wallow. One day to remember, and to mourn, and to feel sorry for herself.

The next morning, she rises with swollen eyelids and far too little sleep and picks up her routine again. Routine is important, uncle always says. It provides structure. Stability.

Lan Zhan can use those things right now. So she pushes down the pain, again and again until she almost succeeds. She picks up her routine again, determined to keep doing it even if it feels like an act, like she’s only pretending. If she pretends often enough, it’ll start feeling real again.

She returns her focus to school, where it always should have been. She never slacked off, because no girl could hold the power to permanently distract her from her studies, but she can’t deny that her attention has been… divided.

It still is, reminders of Wei Ying creeping up on her at the most inconvenient moments and leaving her struggling to breathe with their intensity. It still hurts after that. But Lan Zhan is no stranger to pain. She can function around it. She makes just enough space for it so that she doesn’t crumble underneath the weight it puts on her shoulders.

She carries on.

*

Lan Zhan is glad to finish high school. Looking back on that time of her life as a whole, it was neither a particularly amazing nor disastrous experience for her, but she finds that she is ready for something new, something bigger. College, as Lan Huan has told her before, is when life really begins, after all.

Lan Zhan wants that. She wants to know what it’s like.

Moving to a bigger city, away from her family, is a necessity she doesn’t think too much about beyond the abstract, not until it’s already happening. One night, she sleeps in her bed for the last time without being a guest in her childhood home, and the next she sleeps in what’s going to be her new home from now on, in a bed that doesn’t yet smell like her.

It’s an adjustment, but Lan Zhan adjusts. She has plenty of things keeping her mind occupied and her heart from growing too homesick; new places to visit, new classes to start, new people to meet.

Lan Zhan has never been great at the last part. She has been wondering, idly, how it would go – meeting people. Trying to make friends. She’ll even admit, at least to herself, that there is a sliver of nervousness in her gut when she enters the university for orientation.

It doesn’t come naturally to her, approaching other people. Being approachable herself. She doesn’t have a gift for it. Not like… other people. Not like Wei Ying.

It would be so different, if Wei Ying were here with her. Starting college alongside her, taking the burden off her. Making friends wherever she went, pulling her along, making everything a little bit easier.

But she’s not here. Lan Zhan has no idea where she is. Daydreaming about it won’t make this awkward introductory stage any less awful.

Lan Zhan takes a deep breath and makes herself go inside.

It’s fine.

It’s not a disaster. That’s good enough.

Come Monday, she feels a little better for knowing a few of the faces sitting in the lecture hall beside her, some of them even smiling at her in recognition after a short conversation they had before. A boy and a girl chat next to her and try to include her, but don’t force her when she mostly keeps silent.

Then the lecture begins, and any worries about social interactions disappear as she leans forward and listens eagerly.

This, this is what Lan Zhan is here for. The rest is inconsequential.

The weeks proceed. Lan Zhan finds a rhythm soon, a little different from before, a little more free and self-determined. She likes it. She likes studying too, likes the material and most of her professors, the university grounds and living on her own.

It’s towards the end of her first semester that Lan Zhan meets Mianmian and realizes that there is more to college than that.

Mianmian is paired up with her for the final project of Lan Zhan’s favorite class. She would have preferred to do it by herself, but at least it’s not a group project. One person is easier to manage than five.

Luckily, they work well together. Mianmian is reliable and a quick thinker with good ideas, enriching the result of their work rather than taking from it, as Lan Zhan feared. She’s a quiet person herself, more outgoing than Lan Zhan but not by much, and it’s easy to be around her without the expectation to be something other than what she is.

The day they have to present their results, they volunteer to go first, both of them eager to get the public speaking part over with. Lan Zhan is less nervous and more inconvenienced by it, but would prefer to be done with it soon as well.

After that, they get to sit back and listen to the other groups, which is much less taxing. Until the third group, two boys from their class Lan Zhan has never talked to and never wanted to either, present their results.

Which aren’t just blatantly false, but outright offensive. Lan Zhan frowns, raising her hand and pointing this out once they finish, but all she gets for her trouble is a half-baked, nonsensical response that the professor nods in agreement with, vindicating them in their ridiculousness.

Next to her, Mianmian raises her hand.

“All due respect, but that’s bullshit,” she says. Lan Zhan turns to blink at her. “You’re saying that there were so few women in the arts not because of misogyny, not because of a lack of opportunity, but that there were in fact so few opportunities because women are just not as good as men?”

They didn’t say it in those words exactly, but it is pretty much what was implied.

“Of course not,” one of the students lies while the other unsubtly rolls his eyes. “But it’s actually quite simple, if you take the law of supply and demand into account, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it? Basically what it means is that as long as there is demand for something, it’s going to be sold and make a lot of profit. So if women’s art was so good that people were interested in buying it, there would have been more opportunities for women anyway.”

What, Lan Zhan thinks.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Mianmian snaps. “This is so ridiculous! But that’s how it always goes, isn’t it? You know some fancy words, and you talk louder, so you must be right. How disappointing. I’m not going to sit here and listen to this any longer.”

With that, she gathers her things to her chest and gets up, throwing the professor a reproachful look on her way out.

Lan Zhan stares after her. The students are talking again, saying something about overly emotional women, and something inside her snaps. Lan Zhan, who has never walked out of a single class in her life, calmly collects her things and then strides out of the lecture hall, sending the boys a withering glare as she goes.

Outside, she barely has time to consider what to do now before she catches sight of Mianmian on a bench to her left, stuffing her belongings into her backpack furiously.

“Mianmian.”

She looks up, her eyes widening.

“Lan Zhan. You walked out too?”

“It was the right thing to do. I will have words with the dean about the professor’s conduct.”

“Oh, hell yeah, you will. Can I come along?”

Lan Zhan offers a small smile. “Two voices are louder than one.”

Mianmian blinks at her, then smiles too. Lan Zhan looks at her, and she realizes that she didn’t just gain a project partner in her. She might have gotten a friend, too.

“Would you like to get some tea?”

Mianmian looks surprised, but nods vigorously. “Yes, absolutely. Let’s go?”

“Let’s go,” Lan Zhan agrees.

It becomes a habit, after that. The next day, Mianmian texts her, and that weekend Lan Zhan initiates another conversation. They go for tea again, and then for lunch, and when Lan Huan asks next how things are at school, she doesn’t feel like she’s stretching the truth when she tells him that everything is great.

Mianmian, while not one to go out every weekend and return with a bunch of new people to call friends, has a lot more acquaintances than Lan Zhan does and slowly introduces her to them as they hang out more. Sometimes they ask Lan Zhan to come along to some bar or club, and even though she still has no desire to drink, she joins more often than she declines.

Which is how, on a Thursday night early in the next semester, Lan Zhan finds herself at a bar by herself. They agreed to meet up later, but her study session in the library ran late and it wouldn’t have made sense for her to go home, only to have to leave again and come back to the bar near campus. So Lan Zhan chooses one of the tables that are usually occupied by the time they meet up, gets herself a glass of fresh orange juice, and settles in with a book.

She doesn’t know what it is that makes her look up a few pages in. Maybe the soft laugh traveling over the so far low volume of the music and chatter around her. Maybe the light falling in through the windows blinding her. Maybe it was nothing at all, a whim that made her raise her gaze and lay eyes on the two women sharing the booth across from hers, directly in her line of vision.

The women don’t notice her looking, absorbed not in the conversation that seems to plod along but in each other. One of them, dressed in white, is leaning against the other one, her dark clothing a stark contrast that somehow complements her perfectly. The one in white is laughing, the one in black smiling, more reserved, but no less engaged in whatever it is that brought them such joy.

They are beautiful. They are also clearly together. A couple.

Lan Zhan has seen gay couples in passing, two men holding hands on the streets, two women sharing a quick kiss at the bus stop before one of them got on. Fleeting moments, images that would stick in her mind but always remain just that; an image. Static.

This, this is real. These two women are here, and they’re together, and Lan Zhan can’t look away, can’t tear her eyes from the sight stirring something primal deep inside her.

They look almost ethereal, bathed in the soft evening light, their hands entangled and their bodies close, angled towards each other, a perfect fit. She didn’t know two people could be so attuned to each other, so obviously two halves of the same whole.

Lan Zhan is utterly enchanted.

She knew, on a rational level, that there are queer couples out there. Living life just like everyone else is. Being happy.

But she’s never, ever seen it like this before. She’s never had proof.

Lan Zhan has known for years that she’s gay, that this would mean something for her life, the shape it was going to have. So far, that was the same it's always been; her, by herself. That, she realizes, is how she assumed it would always be.

Being gay was a part of her, but it was never something to be lived. Something she could live. She pictures it, someone else with her, another person by her side. Another woman, leaning into her like the woman in white is doing to her partner. The depth of her wanting surprises her, renders her motionless in place as she keeps staring, keeps trying to absorb every detail of the scene before her like she can make it her own that way.

It is inevitable, of course, that she is eventually caught staring.

It’s the woman in dark who looks up directly at her, meeting her eyes. There’s a faint frown on her face when she realizes that Lan Zhan must have been looking at them, probably for a while. Her partner, likely having sensed the sudden tension in her posture, lifts her head to follow her gaze.

Now they’re both looking at Lan Zhan, and she drops her eyes quickly, mortified to have been caught red-handed. When she chances another look, the woman in white is saying something to her partner, glancing at Lan Zhan and offering a smile when she notices her looking.

Lan Zhan tentatively tries to smile back, though she’s not sure it translates on her face.

They exchange another few words, then sit up. To her horror, they both get up from the booth and approach her, the one in white two steps ahead and with the same friendly expression still lingering on her face.

“Hello,” she greets her.

“I’m sorry,” Lan Zhan says hastily, her ears burning. “I did not mean- I meant no offense. I hope I did not make you uncomfortable.”

She wants to add that she’s not a homophobe, that she didn’t stare because they’re gay, only that she did stare because of that exact reason.

“I’m gay,” she blurts out, then pauses, shocked by her own conduct.

The woman in white smiles. Her partner next to her seems to relax, which eases Lan Zhan’s nerves in return.

“Great! Us too.” She waves towards her partner. “This is my fiancée Song Lan. I’m Xiao Xingchen. And you are?”

“Lan Zhan,” she breathes out, staring at them in awe. Fiancée, she said. They are fiancées.

“Pleasure to meet you, Lan Zhan. Would you like to join us for a drink?”

“I don’t drink,” she says automatically, then hurries to add, “but I’d love to- sit with you.”

“Lovely.” Xiao Xingchen slides into the booth, then turns to Song Lan and holds out her glass. “Could you get me another one of those?” Song Lan nods, taking the glass, and she smiles softly. “Thanks.”

She turns to Lan Zhan with the same soft look in her eyes when Song Lan has left.

“How old are you, Lan Zhan?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Ah. You know, I’ve been where you are. Song Lan has, too. Still fairly new to being queer, I take it?”

“I’ve known for a while. I just- never did anything about it.”

The confession almost feels like too much, when she has only just realized it herself, but there’s something about Xiao Xingchen that makes her think she’ll understand, that she’ll know what to do with this. That whatever she says will be safe here.

“I see. Have you ever heard about queer people going through second puberty in their twenties or thirties, because they didn’t get to make their experiences in their teenage years like everyone else? It’s a real thing. There’s no shame in that.”

Lan Zhan blinks. “Still. I should not have- stared.”

“It’s alright if you didn’t do it with malicious intent. I remember before I moved here and met Song Lan, I didn’t really know any other queer people. Certainly no couples. It’s important to see yourself reflected in others. To see that there are more people out there like you.”

Song Lan returns, passing her the drink and sliding into the booth next to her. Xiao Xingchen smiles, shifting to make space. They don’t lean into each other like they did before, but Lan Zhan can tell that they are still aware of each other, of their bodies and where they connect. Fascinated, she watches as their hands entwine naturally, Song Lan’s thumb brushing the back of Xiao Xingchen’s hand tenderly.

When she looks up, she asks, “How did you meet?”

Surprisingly it’s Song Lan who answers, speaking to her for the first time.

“We were assigned the same case. I’m with the district attorney’s office, Xiao Xingchen is a social worker. We got along right away.”

“Song Lan asked me out for a drink once the case was done, and the rest is history,” Xiao Xingchen adds with a smile. “Your typical romance, I believe.”

Indeed.

Lan Zhan doesn’t know why she thought one of those wouldn’t be in the cards for her. It feels ridiculous now. Yes, it is harder to meet a fellow queer woman than it is for straight people to meet their counterparts outside of an artificial setting like a dating app, but it’s clearly not impossible.

Huh.

Lan Zhan would love to know more, to know everything about their lives, but she pushes the questions back, not wanting to intrude too much. They came here for a night out, after all, not to coach a lost lesbian through her gay crisis. Not that she’s in crisis. She’s just… wondering.

She’s also apparently not as good as hiding what she’s thinking as she believed.

“If you have any questions, you can ask them,” Xiao Xingchen tells her with a knowing smile. “We’ll let you know if we don’t want to answer.”

Well, if she has permission, there is no reason not to take advantage.

“What about your families?”

“They know. Reactions… varied,” Xiao Xingchen explains. Lan Zhan listens quietly as she talks, as Song Lan joins in quietly with her own, somewhat worse experiences. Though she herself has never had to deal with any homophobic remarks directed at her from her family, she feels a kinship with them unlike any other she has experienced. It’s like there is something connecting them, a shared sense of belonging to the same group.

Lan Zhan has never really belonged anywhere. Not like this.

Perhaps it’s obvious, because at one point Xiao Xingchen asks, “Have you been involved in the community at all?”

Lan Zhan shakes her head.

“Okay. There’s no pressure, but I have a feeling it might be good for you to be around others like you. Like us. I know a lot of queer culture is centered around partying and going out, but that’s not all there is. Especially in the bigger cities like this one. If you’re interested, I can give you my number and send you some links about events and the likes. Song Lan and I attend a queer book club, for example. It’s a really nice way of getting to know others.”

“That would be nice,” Lan Zhan agrees.

By the time her friends arrive, she has both of their numbers saved in her phone. They say goodbye with the promise to be in touch, and Lan Zhan feels warm all over from how flustered she is.

“Did you just meet them?” Mianmian asks as she slides into the booth next to her, handing her an iced tea. “They seemed cool.”

“Yes,” she agrees, watching them where they’ve sat down at the other end of the bar, already lost in their own world again. “They are. Very cool.”

*

Overall, Lan Zhan is doing very well. She talks to her family regularly, is sure to always make time for them. She visits every few weeks at the latest and keeps in touch otherwise. At college, she has her small social circle that she has become an integral part of, and she makes time for those people as well. Between that and her studies, she hardly has any downtime to be idle, to be by herself and really feel it too.

Sometimes, though, the loneliness creeps in.

It’s not all the time, not too often. But it’s enough.

When she stands in the kitchen to prepare dinner and finds herself wondering how it would be to cook for two. When Mianmian tells her that she can’t meet up that weekend because she has a date. When Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen share a quiet moment that she catches entirely by accident.

She wonders, sometimes. What it would be like. On those occasions, rarely, she can admit to herself that she wants that. That it seems nice. Like something she would enjoy.

For a long time, that’s all there was to it. She would like it, but she doesn’t have it. Moving on.

But now… now she knows it’s possible. She always knew, in an abstract way, but now she’s seen it.

And she wants it.

It’s strange, allowing herself to do so. Opening herself up to the possibility of it, which of course means that she’s opening herself up for rejection or loss as well.

But she does want.

It’s a spontaneous decision to download a dating app and give it a shot. She doesn’t overthink it, picks three pictures of herself that seem like an adequate reflection of what she looks like, writes a short description indicating her major, her hobbies and what she’s open to, and then she swipes.

It’s a strange way of getting to know people, artificial and forced, and it doesn’t always work.

Sometimes it does, though.

Lan Zhan loses her first kiss and her virginity to the same woman on the same day, who is a generous lover and a patient teacher and who she never sees again after that night. Others follow. Lan Zhan finds that she enjoys the sex, with some women more than with others, and that kissing is very nice when it’s done right too. She also finds that, while she does hook up with some of them several times, it never turns into anything more serious. It’s not that she isn’t open to the idea, it’s just that none of the women ever make her feel enough for that. They make her feel good, physically. But they never make her feel more.

In her third year of college, she meets someone who is different. Lan Zhan arrives at the agreed upon destination with little hope that anything will come of it after a string of bad dates, a hook-up at most if she’s lucky.

Instead, they talk. They talk all night, for much longer than Lan Zhan intended to stay. They take a walk after dinner, and they don’t run out of things to say, and when she meets her eyes, she smiles in a way that makes her stomach prickle pleasantly.

They don’t kiss at the end of the night, but she takes her hand at some point and doesn’t let go again until they part ways, and Lan Zhan thinks, this could be something.

They meet again. They kiss this time. They kiss a lot, and then they sleep together, and it feels better than it usually does. Lan Zhan doesn’t have to pretend, doesn’t have to work for it to be comfortable, it just is.

She thinks that she understands her, in a way people don’t often do. She thinks, again, that this could be something.

And maybe it could have been. But in the end, it isn’t.

“I like you, I really do, but I think it’s more in a friend way,” she tells her the following week, and Lan Zhan pretends that it doesn’t hurt, and suddenly she is pretending, and she realizes that whatever this might have been, they’ve already lost it.

“I appreciate your honesty,” she says stiffly, and the pitying look she receives in return nearly makes her recoil.

“Hey, I understand if it’s too hard for you, but I’d really like to be friends if you’re up for it.”

Lan Zhan swallows the bitter taste in her mouth. Friends. She doesn’t want to be her friend.

“I do not think that is a good idea,” she tells her and then makes her excuses to leave, humiliation burning in her throat and prickling behind her eyes as she walks home. Humiliation and… something else.

She allows herself to really feel the pain because there isn’t much she can do against it. She wallows the rest of the day, regretting the day she downloaded those stupid dating apps and feeling very sorry for herself.

The next day she feels a little better, good enough to tell her brother about what happened on the phone without bursting into tears. She does cry again afterwards, the sympathy in Lan Huan’s voice striking a chord in her that is impossible to ignore, but it’s alright.

She stays away from any dating apps for a while after that. Life goes on, and her heartbreak heals, and Lan Zhan is fine. She doesn’t need more than what she already has, instead chooses to focus on that: her friends, her family, her studies. She’s so close to graduating now, she doesn’t have time for a relationship anyway.

She feels the absence of it sometimes, how she still wants it even if she doesn't need it; in the quiet moments, when her friends start seeing someone, when Lan Huan tells her that he’s engaged. When she stands at his wedding and watches him being so happy, happier than she can remember feeling. Her own happiness is more quiet. Fleeting, sometimes. Never as vibrant as it seems to be for her brother as he smiles at the love of his life.

She feels the absence, and she lets herself feel it, and then she moves on. She has the occasional hook-up, never with any strings attached, never with any expectations. The women don’t tend to hold her interest for long anyway. It serves her just fine.

Everything is just fine, neither particularly great nor particularly hard. Lan Zhan reminds herself to count her blessings every once in a while, to look on the bright side, and carries on.

*

Turning thirty feels strange, certain expectations seeming attached to the number that Lan Zhan doesn’t see in her immediate future, if at all. Turning thirty-one is less strange, with the past year behind her and very little actually changing. She’s still at her job, stable and fulfilling. She might be up for a promotion soon, but she’s content where she is. She has a nice apartment in a good area and no intention of moving again. Things are just fine as they are.

Which is, of course, when everything changes.

Lan Zhan is at the farmers market she likes to go to on weekends. It’s a twenty-minute drive away, but they offer fresh produce and a variety of homemade goods that she likes to look at and purchases frequently. Usually she’s one of the earlier visitors, her internal clock never letting her sleep in anyway and first pick being a privilege she quite enjoys.

Today she’s having breakfast at Lan Huan’s place though. She hasn’t seen her brother in a while, both of them busy with work, and so they gladly linger a little after they’re done eating, finishing another pot of tea before Lan Zhan takes her leave.

It’s much later than she usually heads out to the market. It closes at four, so there is still plenty of time, but Lan Zhan has never gone there this late. After debating whether it’ll even be worth it, she decides to just have a look. At the very least she’ll get a nice stroll out of it.

The market is indeed still going when she arrives. A few of her favorite vendors have left or are packing up already, but there is plenty to go around still.

She walks for a while, her gaze catching on a few lovely tomatoes that would make a great addition to her salad tonight when something collides with her leg and shocks her to a standstill.

Looking down, it turns out that the something is, in fact, a child. A child who takes in her startled expression and promptly starts crying.

Lan Zhan breaks into a cold sweat.

“Hello,” she tries, but the child only cries louder. “Can I help you? Are you lost?”

People are starting to stare, making it abundantly clear that she is the one who is lost in this situation. Before she can figure out what to do about the wailing boy clinging to her leg, preferably without being accused of attempted kidnapping, a frantic voice cuts over the chatter of the crowd.

“A-Yuan!”

Lan Zhan freezes. She knows that voice. She knows it intimately, still, but she hasn’t heard it so long, it can’t be-

It can’t actually be-

Wei Ying pushes a bystander aside, her eyes falling on the boy – A-Yuan, presumably – as she follows the sounds of his crying. Her shoulders sag in relief as A-Yuan’s wailing immediately dies down at the sight of her. She steps forward, her hands on her hips.

“A-Yuan! I told you that you can’t just- Lan Zhan?”

Her eyes travel upwards for the first time, and if Lan Zhan was worried for a split second that she wouldn’t remember her, there was clearly no need. The recognition settles in instantly.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, her mouth too dry.

Wei Ying is staring at her, her mouth hanging open before she shuts it with a click. Lan Zhan’s eyes are drawn to her plush, red lips. She forgot how red they always were.

“Wow. Oh, wow, this is- I never thought I’d see you here, I don’t… I can’t even be mad at A-Yuan now, out of everyone here he found you to cling to!”

She still crouches down to the boy, though she seems to struggle to drag her eyes away from Lan Zhan to scold him, “A-Yuan, you know you have to stick close to me. I get so worried when I can’t find you. Imagine if I lost my little radish forever, whatever would I do then, huh?”

A-Yuan nods sheepishly and takes her hand, though he hasn’t let go of Lan Zhan’s leg with his other one yet.

Lan Zhan swallows twice to find her voice.

“He is-?”

Wei Ying blinks up at her, then smiles. Lan Zhan was not prepared for the full force of it. She’s not accustomed to its vibrancy anymore.

“My son!” Wei Ying proclaims proudly, and before the mix of emotions Lan Zhan experiences at that can settle in fully she bursts into laughter. “No, no, he’s not really. I mean, a little bit maybe, I’d like to think, but not biologically. I just help raising him here and there.”

“I see,” Lan Zhan says, valiantly attempting not to examine the rush of relief flooding her at that.

Wei Ying is still grinning, but her expression softens into something almost wistful as she looks at her.

“God, Lan Zhan, it’s been so long. How have you been? Hey, do you have anywhere to be? Because I’m not really needed here, if you’re free we could just-“

“Yes,” Lan Zhan interrupts before she can finish, and Wei Ying blinks at her before breaking into a beaming smile.

“Great! Uh, do you mind if we bring A-Yuan along? I’m mostly here to watch him because Qing-jie and Wen Ning can’t keep an eye on him when it gets really crowded, otherwise I’m gonna have to-“

“Bring him,” Lan Zhan cuts in, feeling horrible about having interrupted twice now, but there is something about Wei Ying that brings out an urgency in her, a thrumming that is hard to ignore. “I do not mind.”

A-Yuan beams up at her, his expression matching Wei Ying’s so precisely that it’s hard to believe they aren’t related.

“Well then, let’s go! My treat! Are you hungry? There’s this café nearby, they have really good cakes if you’re in the mood, but the tea’s decent too. I know you don’t drink coffee- or do you now? God, it’s really been a while, huh? Who knows what I missed!”

“I rarely drink coffee,” Lan Zhan says. She’s not exactly hungry, but finds herself adding anyway, “Cake sounds good.”

Wei Ying smiles again. Lan Zhan’s stomach swoops. God, she’s in trouble.

They are lucky to get a table at the café, walking in just as two men are leaving. They sit down and Lan Zhan scans the menu, listening to Wei Ying’s recommendations and then promptly ordering all of them.

My treat,” she says when the waiter has left.

“Lan Zhan!”

“We can share,” she explains. “This way we can try everything.” This is very sensible and not at all an excuse to spoil Wei Ying, or get her to stay a little longer than she might have otherwise.

“Alright, alright. Good thing we have A-Yuan with us, you wouldn’t believe what this little guy can eat! Nothing will go to waste, that much I can tell you.”

A-Yuan has visibly perked up at the prospect of cake, beaming when Wei Ying pinches his cheeks.

“He is a growing boy. He needs sustenance.”

“Not in the form of sugary cake, but we’ll make an exception because it’s you, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying cocks her head. “Are you speaking from experience? Any little ones I should know about?”

“No.”

Wei Ying hums, her gaze lingering. “Surely you’re not on the market anymore though. You’re too perfect, someone must have snatched you up at some point.”

Lan Zhan tries not to flush with the sudden heat coming over her. It’s Wei Ying’s interest and her rapt attention as much as embarrassment about the fact that no one, in fact, ever snatched her up. She is fine with that, usually. Most of the time. But every once in a while, she still feels foolishly inadequate.

But this is Wei Ying. Unless something drastically changed, she’s never going to make her feel bad about something like this.

“As a matter of fact, no one did,” she gives back. Wei Ying blinks, then makes an acknowledging sound.

“I see, I see. No one’s good enough for Lan Zhan, of course.”

She sends her a look. “Wei Ying.”

She snorts. “Oh, how I’ve missed you giving me that glare. Ah, how have you been, hm? I wanna hear everything!”

Lan Zhan doesn’t tell her everything, because she has no idea how to pack over a decade into a few minutes. She tells her the basics, where she lives, what she does, where she went to college and how her brother is doing. Wei Ying listens attentively, asking a million questions about everything and anything as they share the cakes between the three of them. She doesn’t talk about herself.

Lan Zhan, though hesitant to ask, finally caves when the curiosity outweighs her anxiety of crossing a boundary. Who knows when – if they’ll see each other again after this. If she’ll get another chance to ask. The thought stings, enough to spur her into action.

“Wei Ying. Where have you been?”  

Wei Ying looks up from where she was wiping A-Yuan’s mouth, even now a mess of cake crumbs and buttercream.

“Ah. Guess I should have started with that, huh? Well, here, mostly. Well, not here as in the city, but close? There’s this little town just outside the city where I ended up after I left. I didn’t intend to stick around for so long, but I met these people and they offered me a place to stay if I helped with their family’s farm, and I sort of just… never left. We sell our produce here every other weekend, you should drop by more often!”

“I am here almost every week,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying blinks.

“But I’ve never seen you before!”

“I usually come in the early mornings.”

“Oh. And I don’t show up here until noon.” She huffs. “So all this time we just missed each other. What are the chances, huh?”

What indeed. It would be easy to lose herself in the despair the thought evokes; the improbability of them meeting now, like this, at all. The idea of them never meeting instead, always this close and never even knowing.

But Wei Ying’s voice cuts through the thoughts before they can overwhelm her, teasing and light.

“Lan Zhan, don’t tell me you still get up at five? You realize your uncle won’t know if you stop doing that, right? Even if he does, he can’t do anything about it anymore.”

“I rise early naturally.”

“Naturally! Nothing natural about getting up in the middle of the night. Brainwashed is what you are.”

Lan Zhan, distracted by the smile accompanying her words, nearly hums absently in agreement.

Wei Ying sighs.

“Ah, Lan Zhan. I can’t believe all these years passed and you’re still the same.”

Is she? In some ways there are miles between who she was back then and who she is now. In some ways nothing has changed at all, if the way her stomach flutters and her heart has been pounding a little too hard since she heard Wei Ying’s voice for the first time is any indication.

“You are different.”

Wei Ying makes a surprised sound. “Am I?”

She nods. She didn’t really think about it before saying it, but realizes that it’s true the more she looks at her now.

“You seem more… settled,” she tries to explain. “Still energetic, but it is like you know what to do with that energy now.”

Wei Ying blinks at her, then huffs out a laugh. “Lan Zhan,” she says, and then doesn’t elaborate.

A-Yuan, who has been mostly quiet as he was occupied with eating his body weight in cake, chooses this moment to hold out his fork.

“Ying-jiejie?”

“Hm? You want to share your cake with me? Are you sure?”

He nods, and she gushes about how filial he is and what a good boy she’s raised as she makes a show of letting him feed her the cake. Lan Zhan, already softened by the display she’s watching, has to swallow roughly when A-Yuan piles more cake onto the fork and then holds it out to her.

“Zhan-jiejie too?”

Wei Ying poorly suppresses a smile, watching to see what she’ll do.

“You don’t have to,” she says. “We both ate from that fork, you probably won’t want to-“

Before she can finish, Lan Zhan has leaned in and closed her lips around it, holding her gaze as she lingers before she pulls back and chews slowly.

“Mn,” she makes, her ears burning. “It’s very good.” She turns to A-Yuan. “Thank you, A-Yuan. It is very kind of you to share. Would you like a piece of my slice as well?”

They would have shared it between the three of them anyway, but she figures that it can’t hurt to encourage kindness. Wei Ying, when she meets her gaze again, looks a little flustered, but she’s smiling.

“Listen, I… would you- don’t feel obligated! But would you like my number? We can hang out again another time, without A-Yuan. Catch up some more.”

Lan Zhan feels a warm glow in her chest. “I would love that,” she agrees. “And I do not mind if A-Yuan joins us. He is a sweet boy.”

And he’s important to Wei Ying. She would like to get to know him more, to share this part of her life with her even if only for an hour or two. Any scrap of her she can get her hands on, she’ll take.

They exchange numbers, and then they talk some more until Wei Ying’s phone pings with an incoming text and she nearly topples her chair over as she jumps up, suddenly remembering the time and that she was meant to assist with loading the truck. Lan Zhan’s chest aches as she watches her go with a hurried goodbye and A-Yuan on her hip, looking back and waving at her twice more until she rounds the corner.

But she has her number in her phone. She knows now that Wei Ying comes here every other week. She told her all about the farm where she lives and works, barely an hour’s drive away.

This is not like last time. Last time there wasn’t even a goodbye, and this one certainly isn’t forever.

She’s not sure what she expected to happen now, though some variation of her texting Wei Ying in a few days to set up another time to meet seemed most likely. Instead, her phone lights up with an incoming message that very night, displaying her name with approximately ten exclamation marks and several heart emojis in glaring red for everyone at the table to see.

“What,” Mianmian asks, her eyes still fixed on her phone even after it’s gone dark again, “was that?”

Lan Zhan clears her throat discreetly. “A text message.”

Xiao Xingchen throws her an amused look as Mianmian splutters, “I can see that! Why could I see that? Your phone never lights up when you get a text, and now you get one that looks like that?”

Lan Zhan tries to keep up a semblance of dignity as her voice washes over her. It is hard when she has specifically changed the notifications for Wei Ying to show up immediately and a good number of her friends have caught her in the act.

“Looks like Lan Zhan has met someone,” Song Lan remarks, a small smile playing on her lips. She resists the urge to roll her eyes or, alternatively, hide.

“No,” she says automatically, then corrects reluctantly. “Yes. We… recently reconnected. It is an old friend from high school.”

“Friend, huh?” Mianmian says in an entirely too knowing voice.

“Yes,” she agrees pointedly.

“I think she crossed the friendship line about ten red heart emojis ago,” she remarks, unashamedly glancing at the string of new incoming messages. Lan Zhan can’t help but look too, allowing herself to feel the rush of it for a split moment before quashing it.

“She is just expressive.”

“Clearly.”

Xiao Xingchen tilts her head curiously. “How recent is recent?”

Damn her for always being so perceptive, knowing exactly what to ask to dig up more information.

“Today.”

Mianmian snorts, nearly choking on her drink before setting it down with a little too much force.

“And she’s blowing up your phone the same night? Using a frankly worrying amount of heart emojis?”

Lan Zhan flips her phone so that it’s upside down, ignoring the knowing grins surrounding her. Her friends are all horrible gossips. They should not be encouraged.

Worse, their teasing is putting ideas into her head. The day has made it pretty clear that her feelings for Wei Ying have been dormant for the past couple of years rather than gone, but she has no illusions about the nature of Wei Ying’s feelings for her. She never did. It is nice that she’s excited to see her again, yes. But that is all there is to it.

*

Wei Ying is very excited to see her again.

“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, over here!” she yells when Lan Zhan rounds the corner, even though she’s the only person there and she hardly could have missed her.

It’s still a shock to her system to see her, to actually have her in front of her. Real, alive, not a figment of her imagination or a memory dulled by time, a romanticized version, a slightly off reflection after years apart. This Wei Ying is older, a little more filled out, a little more at home in her own body. Lan Zhan tries not to spend more than a moment to acknowledge this thinking about her body and is thankfully saved by Wei Ying skipping ahead until she’s almost in her face, bouncing up and down on her heels.

“Lan Zhan, it’s so good to see you again! How was the drive? Did you find the way alright?”

“It was fine. I made good time. And it was not hard to find.” She pauses. “It is good to see you too, Wei Ying. Thank you for inviting me over.”

Wei Ying blinks, then laughs a little. “Ah, of course, of course! I said you were welcome here anytime, didn’t I? I want you to see where I live, it’s small but we’re all pretty proud of it. And A-Yuan was over the moon when I told him you’d come to visit! Qing-jie and Wen Ning and Granny have been looking forward to seeing you as well. There’s a lot of food, I hope you’re hungry!”

Still chattering, she pulls her along down the path that leads to the Wen farm, though anything after that only registers in bits and pieces because Lan Zhan is too focused on where Wei Ying’s hand is curled around hers.

She doesn’t let go until they reach the farm, which is when A-Yuan spots them and collides with Lan Zhan’s leg, and from then on her attention is thoroughly diverted.

She meets Wen Qing and Wen Ning, a handful of uncles and aunts that also live on the farm, and finally Granny when they make their way into the kitchen. Wei Ying wasn’t lying, everyone is delighted to meet her, eyeing her with varying degrees of undisguised curiosity that have her wondering what exactly Wei Ying has told them about her. Or does she just never usually bring people around?

Either way, it’s flattering. It makes the attention a little easier to bear, still demanding, but not in an uncomfortable way. She is introduced and shown around, told about life at the farm and asked about hers in the city in return. Lan Zhan finds that it’s easy to talk about it, to engage with these people that have taken Wei Ying at a time when she needed it, that have been so good to her that she decided to stay.

So yes, it is easy to immerse herself fully in this space Wei Ying has carved for herself, has made her own. It’s a nice day, with A-Yuan refusing to leave her side and frequently making her smile, with Granny pampering her with an insane amount of food to take home with her, with Wen Qing gradually warming up to her until she feels like she earned her approval, which seems important for some reason.

And always, always there is Wei Ying, right next to her, watching closely with a smile so gentle that it pulls at her heartstrings.

Lan Zhan stays much longer than she intended, and when she eventually leaves she isn’t the only one who feels crestfallen.

The Wens have scattered eventually as Wei Ying showed her her room, which is really the attic, and Wen Ning stole A-Yuan away to distract him so they could 'have some privacy'. Lan Zhan purposely did not think about what they might need privacy for, instead focusing on whatever Wei Ying chose to tell her.

She talks a lot throughout the day, about everything and anything. She does not, she notes, talk about her family. But maybe she doesn’t need to. If she looks around, Lan Zhan can tell that her family is right here.

Now that she’s on her way out, most of them have come back to see her off, which feels very official and a little touching.

“A-Yuan, she really has to go now,” Wei Ying says when he refuses to let go of her, gently prying his arms off her.

“Will you come back?” he asks, sulking against Wei Ying’s chest when she lifts him up. Lan Zhan swallows, glancing up to meet her eyes.

“I would like to,” she says. Wei Ying smiles.

“Of course she’ll come back, A-Yuan! She would miss you too much if she stayed away now, hm?”

“I would miss him,” Lan Zhan agrees, finding that it’s the truth. Feeling bold, she adds, “And you.”

Wei Ying blinks, her throat bobbing. “A-alright, everyone say goodbye to Lan Zhan now! We’re going!”

They make it out of the house eventually, and A-Yuan insists on waving after them until they’re out of sight. Wei Ying huffs out a laugh once it’s just the two of them.

“Well. That was us, I suppose.”

“It has been lovely to meet everyone. And to see your home,” Lan Zhan tells her sincerely.

Wei Ying makes a sound that is hard to identify. When she chances a look at her, she looks flushed, but somewhat pleased.

“Lan Zhan, you never told me! What did your uncle have to say about the fact that we’re friends again?”

Friends, Lan Zhan thinks warmly. Not strangers, not old acquaintances. Friends.

She likes that. She likes that very much.

“Uncle does not know yet.”

Wei Ying cackles. “Yet? So you do plan on telling him though?”

“I don’t see why I should keep it from him. He never disliked you.”

“Lan Zhan. Come on. He disliked me at least a little bit.”

“He was… unsure what to make of you. He did not understand you. It is not the same thing.”

Wei Ying shakes her head with a smile. “If you say so. It would be fun to see him again, I’ll admit. See that vein popping on his forehead again.”

Lan Zhan rolls her eyes fondly. “Perhaps we could arrange something,” she then finds herself saying. “I know that my brother would love the opportunity to catch up with you, for one.”

“Oh! So you’ve told him about me, at least?”

Lan Zhan didn’t need to, not really. Lan Huan knew something was up the minute he saw her after that first time they ran into each other again. He may not have known that it was about Wei Ying, but she is quite sure he would have figured it out in embarrassingly little time if she had kept that information from him. So she didn’t even attempt to, knowing a losing battle when she sees one. He has always been able to read her a little too well.

And if she’s honest, it was… nice, to have someone to talk to about Wei Ying who used to know her as well. Who liked her, and who understood what she felt for her, what she went through when she left.

Even back then, Lan Huan could always tell.

Lan Zhan hums in agreement, then adds, “He hopes to catch you in person at some point, but he says hello and hopes that you are well.”

“Aw, you Lans! Of course I’m well, especially now that I have you back in my life! How couldn’t I be?”

Lan Zhan opts not to respond to that, feeling that the flush in her cheeks is enough of a reaction.

As they reach the end of the path where they met up this morning, half a lifetime ago or so it feels, Wei Ying slows down until she comes to a halt, her hands linked behind her back.

“Well. Here we are. Your car’s not far, is it?”

Lan Zhan shakes her head. “I parked it just down the footpath.”

“Okay then. Drive safely, text me when you get home, alright?” Wei Ying sucks in her lip, rocking on her feet. “Thank you for visiting,” she says and then surprises her by wrapping her arms around her, the embrace as short as it is deep.

“Thank you for letting me,” Lan Zhan returns when she has found her voice.

“Ah.” Wei Ying looks a little sheepish, rubbing her nose. “I still haven’t apologized for… all that, huh? Disappearing?”

“You do not have to apologize to me,” Lan Zhan tells her at once.

“No, I mean, I kinda do though, and I definitely want to. I think I want to explain what happened back then, why I did what I did. But that’s a bit of a longer conversation than we really have time for now, so… raincheck?”

“Only if you want to,” Lan Zhan insists, even though she’s dying to know more about what happened to Wei Ying then.

“I do, I do, promise. I don’t mind if it’s you. But I’ll let you drive home now, it’s getting late for you. Text me- no, I already said that. But do text me, alright? And… we’ll figure something out?”

“I’ll text you,” Lan Zhan promises. “We will figure something out.”

She takes in Wei Ying’s smile one last time before turning to go. The drive back is silent, but it doesn’t feel that way, Wei Ying’s voice and memories of the day playing in her mind on repeat until she makes it home.

Once inside, she dutifully texts Wei Ying and then checks her schedule for the next week, proposing two days on which she could meet up again.

Wei Ying chooses both of them.

*

It’s easy to say that you are friends. Actually being friends, Lan Zhan has learned over the years, is much harder.

Wei Ying makes it easy to be friends.

Saying that it’s like no time at all passed would be a step too far, but it seems to be the most natural thing in the world to pick up where they left off and go from there.

While Wei Ying and Lan Qiren have yet to meet again, she has since been reintroduced to Lan Huan and still got along with him like a house on fire. Lan Zhan has been back to the farm three times over the last month, which certain acquaintances of hers consider an excessive amount to visit a friend.

Lan Zhan, knowing full well they are only needling for information, refuses to give in.

She has heard the story of Wei Ying’s disappearance by now, about how Jiang Cheng got himself into trouble and she took the fall before anyone could find out, even him. How she was disowned afterwards, how she didn’t talk to her siblings for five years before they tracked her down and she realized they were looking for her at all.

How Wei Ying doesn’t understand she is worth looking for, that there are people who never stopped, is beyond Lan Zhan. She hopes that she knows now. She hopes that she knows Lan Zhan looked for her too, or that she at least wanted to. She makes it clear that she never stopped thinking about her, which always leaves Wei Ying flustered and moaning about her poor weak heart, but Lan Zhan is unrepentant. Wei Ying should hear these things.

Tonight, she is taking Wei Ying to meet her friends at her insistence (“Lan Zhan, I need to know who your other friends are, I need to check out the competition!”). She hopes that her vaguely threatening looks in the direction of anyone who dares to suggest anything untoward will be enough to keep them in check, but there is no telling with her friends.

She has decided to go with the small circle tonight, those she really counts as her close friends rather than people she sometimes spends time with in larger groups. That narrowed it down to Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen and Mianmian, which is a good combination, but also a potentially dangerous one. She will have to wait and see how it goes.

“I’m here!” Wei Ying declares when she rushes down the street to meet her in front of the bar, her cheeks pink with a healthy flush. “I’m here, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

“Did you run here?” Lan Zhan asks, lifting an eyebrow.

“No,” Wei Ying pants. At the look she gives her, she sighs. “Okay, fine, maybe a little. Save me some face, huh?”

“Why did you run?” Lan Zhan asks, bemused.

“I didn’t want to be late, obviously!”

“You are ten minutes early,” she feels the need to point out. Wei Ying is never early to anything.

“Well- good! Ah, Lan Zhan, these are your friends, you know? I heard the way you talked about them. They must be important to you, so… I just want to make a good impression.”

“You do not need to worry about that,” she gives back decidedly, though she finds herself utterly charmed by how much thought Wei Ying must have given this subject. “They will like you.”

Wei Ying huffs out a laugh. “Okay, okay, if you say so.”

When they head inside, Song Lan is already saving a table for them while Lan Zhan spots Xiao Xingchen at the bar, looking like she got lost in conversation with the bartender there.

“She will be back soon,” Song Lan says, following her gaze, then pauses and corrects herself, “eventually. You must be Wei Ying. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Song Lan.”

Wei Ying, unsurprisingly, draws her into a conversation at once, allowing Lan Zhan to go to the counter and order for them without feeling guilty about leaving her alone for a few minutes.

When she returns with Xiao Xingchen in tow, Wei Ying has already managed to make Song Lan loosen up enough for an in-depth discussion of one thing or another, which is no small feat. Lan Zhan smiles to herself. She knew Wei Ying would fit right in with her friends.

Xiao Xingchen introduces herself and joins in easily, and Lan Zhan is content to hang back, looking up when someone puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey.” Mianmian smiles, squeezing in greeting before sliding into the booth next to her. “Sorry I’m late. Work was chaotic as all hell, as per usual.”

“No need to apologize. I am glad you’re here now.”

Mianmian smiles, bumping her shoulder gently. “You must be Wei Ying,” she then says. “I’m Luo Qingyang, Mianmian to my friends.”

“Mianmian!” Wei Ying exclaims, leaning in eagerly. “I heard so much about you.”

“I could say the same.”

That’s pushing it a little, truthfully – Lan Zhan never talks much, but her friends have unfortunately developed a knack for gathering quite a lot of information from what she does and sometimes even what she doesn’t say.

“Ah, ahah. I’d say only good things, hopefully, but I think that’s a bit too unrealistic given my general… everything.”

“Oh, no,” Mianmian says serenely. “It was all… very good.”

She grins when Lan Zhan narrows her eyes, then smooths out her expression when Wei Ying glances at her.

“You are good,” she just says. Wei Ying blinks a couple of times, making a vague sound in her throat and promptly stifling it with a huge gulp of her cocktail.

“Drinks!” she announces, a tad too loudly. “Let’s drink. Let’s toast! To being here, as Lan Zhan’s friends. Oh! To being Lan Zhan’s friend!”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan mutters, clinking their glasses together with a longsuffering look to mask the fluttering sensation in her stomach.

As their glasses empty, Wei Ying seems to loosen up more and more, seemingly forgetting that she was ever nervous about meeting her friends in the first place. Lan Zhan doesn’t know why she was nervous at all. She’s Wei Ying. As if anyone couldn’t like her.

Though no one has outright stated it, things are slowly dwindling down when they finish their next round of drinks. Lan Zhan has never adapted to staying up late, though she’s better at making it close to midnight by now, and her friends never make a big deal of accommodating her.

“Ah, this has been so nice,” Wei Ying sighs. “I’m so glad this worked out. It’s been so great getting to know you all!” She bumps her shoulder into Lan Zhan’s. “I think I’m all caught up now. I’ve met your family, your friends… Lan Zhan, if you have a secret boyfriend now’s the time to tell me so I can get to know him too!”

The table is silent for a long moment.

“A secret what now,” Mianmian eventually asks. Song Lan’s eyebrows have risen while Xiao Xingchen delicately glances between them, looking like she’s caught between amusement and alarm.

“Boyfriend? I… what is it? Why are you all looking at me like that?” Wei Ying asks with a nervous laugh.

Song Lan snorts softly while Mianmian tries to hide her laughter by taking a sip of her drink, promptly choking on it.

“You haven’t told her?” Xiao Xingchen asks, throwing Lan Zhan a look that she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge.

“It has not come up,” she gives back stiffly. Wei Ying looks between them, vaguely alarmed.

“Lan Zhan…?” she asks hesitantly. “You… don’t tell me you do have a secret boyfriend.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “I am gay.”

Wei Ying blinks. “You’re- gay. What. I mean. What? Since when?”

“Probably since birth,” Lan Zhan says dryly. “Definitely since I was six and developed my first infatuation on a woman.”

Wei Ying stares at her. “You’ve been- wow. All this time? And I never-? Huh. Wow.”

Song Lan lifts her eyebrow, on guard as she gauges Wei Ying’s reaction. Before Lan Zhan can assure her that no, she has not brought a homophobe into their circle, Wei Ying’s eyes widen, clearly coming to the same conclusion.

“Oh! I mean, shit, that doesn’t- obviously I’m not, like, mad about it or anything. I’m just- shocked. Not shocked! Surprised. I’m… yeah. Wow, sorry, I’m butchering this. Lan Zhan, I- you know I support you, right?”

“I do,” Lan Zhan assures her as Song Lan relaxes back in her seat, intertwining her hand with Xiao Xingchen’s when it finds her.

“Okay, good. Great. Whew. Good talk, good talk. I’m… hah. You don’t, you don’t have a secret girlfriend, do you?”

Lan Zhan blinks at her, the way she’s fidgeting with her hands, not quite meeting her eye. “I do not have a girlfriend. If I did, she would not be a secret.”

“Right. Good. I mean, good that you’re, that you wouldn’t feel the need to hide. So. Well! What an interesting night. We should do this again soon.”

To their credit, her friends simply nod in agreement, giving her the courtesy of not looking at her strangely after whatever the hell that was. Funnily enough, they’re all looking at Lan Zhan strangely, but she would rather have it this way than the other way around. She will simply ignore it until it goes away.

After that, it doesn’t take long for the group to resolve.

“Are you sure it’s okay that I’m staying over?” Wei Ying asks once they’ve said goodbye and step outside.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan gives back, exasperated.

“I’m just asking!”

“You have asked approximately seven times already. My answer has not changed.”

Truthfully, she doesn’t know why Wei Ying is so hesitant to stay the night. She seemed delighted by the idea at first, but now she keeps asking. Perhaps she is just reluctant to believe that she is welcome. She’s always had trouble believing that.

“Alright, alright. If you’re really sure…” She huffs out a laugh at the look she throws her, then falls silent. It’s not hard to guess what she’s thinking about. Her face is contemplative, and her eyes dart to her a couple of times before she breaks the companionable quiet.

“Lan Zhan…”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan makes, bracing herself for any questions Wei Ying might have. She is ready for anything, except for what actually ends up coming out of her mouth.

“Do you like Mianmian?”

Lan Zhan is so caught off guard that she stops walking. Wei Ying halts as well, her eyes widening.

“Oh,” she breathes out. “You do like her.”

“I do not,” Lan Zhan says, blinking. “Not romantically. Why would you think that? We are friends.”

“I mean… that’s never stopped anybody from falling for someone.”

Oh, if only she knew. She wonders if Wei Ying is speaking from experience. Instead of asking, she says, “I have not. Fallen for her.”

“Oh. Okay then.” Wei Ying is quiet for a few seconds. Then she asks tentatively, “Have you ever been in love?”

Lan Zhan swallows against the lump in her throat. It feels dangerous to admit it, like playing with fire or balancing on the edge of a steep cliff. But lying to Wei Ying is not an option. It never has been.

“Yes,” she says.

Wei Ying takes that in quietly. Lan Zhan braces herself for the question that never comes. Instead, Wei Ying asks, “You always knew you were gay?”

“I did not always have a word for it, but I always knew, yes.” She glances at her from the side. “Lan Huan used to watch this show when I was a child. One of the girls drew my eye. I figured out gradually that she was not just an idol to me, as my brother suggested. In the following years, the knowledge… solidified.”

She does not mention that Wei Ying played a big part in that; though she knew before that she was gay, she had never actually loved a woman before her.

“Right.”

Wei Ying is wringing her hands, fiddling with the button of her pocket, opening and closing it, opening and closing.

“So you… you came out and everything?”

“More or less,” Lan Zhan agrees.

“Huh. Guess I just… missed that.”

“I did not have a big, public coming out. I just never hid it when the subject came up.”

“Ah. I see. Were you never… scared?” She winces. “I’m sorry. You don’t- have to answer that. I don’t know why-“

“I don’t mind, Wei Ying,” she interrupts gently. “And yes, I was. I still am, sometimes. I am okay with myself. I am proud of it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still scary to be queer in a world like ours.”

Wei Ying is quiet. “Yeah,” she breathes out eventually, barely a whisper. “Yeah, it’s. I can. I can imagine.”

She makes a face, her nose wrinkling adorably, and then she sucks in a sharp breath and glances at her.

“Lan Zhan, I’m… I think. I think I might be, uhm, bisexual?”

Lan Zhan falters in her steps, just enough for Wei Ying to notice, who stops and swallows.

“Oh,” Lan Zhan says. Then, “Thank you for telling me.”

Wei Ying offers a hesitant smile. She looks very young and vulnerable. Lan Zhan wants to hug her. “Yeah, that’s… I’m. I wanted you to know, so. I would have told you sooner, but I didn’t… it’s never been…”

“It can take time to get to this point,” Lan Zhan says. “I understand. And you do not owe an explanation to anyone. Be kind to yourself about this.” She hesitates, then remembers how Wei Ying clung to her the last time they embraced. Her heart rate picks up as she asks, “Would you like a hug?”

Wei Ying blinks at her, then nods. “Yeah,” she breathes out, “yeah, that’s-“

And then she nearly collides with her, wrapping her arms around her waist and holding on tightly. Lan Zhan tries to keep her breathing even as she holds her in return, the warmth of her body and her scent so clear from up close that it’s almost dizzying. She closes her eyes, allows herself to sink into it and hold on for as long as it will last.

It lasts a long time. When Wei Ying eventually pulls back she looks a little sheepish, her eyes darting to her with a small smile that seems to ease when Lan Zhan returns it.

“Thanks. For that.” She clears her throat.

“Mn,” Lan Zhan hums. “If there is every anything you want to talk about, I am here for you.”

“Yeah. I know.” She elbows her gently, poorly concealing a smile. “Thank you.”

“Not for this.” Throwing her a hesitant look, Lan Zhan asks, “How long have you known?”

Wei Ying huffs out a laugh.

“A while, I think. I mean, I didn’t know for the longest time, but at some point it just… clicked. I’ve been figuring stuff out in retrospect, like, oh, guess I had a crush on this and that person, what do you know!” She shakes her head, not meeting her eyes. “It’s just been a lot. To work through. I don’t- I don’t mind or anything. It’s just this whole new side of me that I never knew existed.”

Lan Zhan nods. “You have time to figure it out.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying looks at her from the side. “I’m working on it.”

*

Lan Zhan resolutely did not let herself think about Wei Ying’s confession any more than the basic acknowledgment that Wei Ying apparently likes women and she, Lan Zhan, is a woman. That is a rabbit hole she is not willing to go down, and it’s not what Wei Ying needs from her, for her to speculate when she isn’t even sure about who she is herself. For her to try to take advantage. The fact that Wei Ying is bi has nothing to do with her, it doesn’t even have to mean that she finds her attractive, and even if she does, there is no telling that she actually wants to pursue that.

But then Wei Ying starts acting strangely.

They see each other regularly, as they have ever since running into each other, but now Wei Ying is weirdly adamant about keeping up their routine. Far be it from Lan Zhan to complain, of course, but it does make her listen up. Pay attention.

When they’re together, Wei Ying is very… clingy. She’s always been a tactile person, she touches everyone close to her all the time, but she’s never touched Lan Zhan like this. Where before her touches were automatic, unthinking, they are now with intent. They are slow, careful, measured; accompanied by glances at her face and shy smiles. Wei Ying will walk up to her and put a hand on her arm, or she’ll brush her hand on the table with hers as they eat, or she’ll caress Lan Zhan’s hair as she passes her on her way to the kitchen, and always, always, she’s looking at her.

Lan Zhan catches her looking often. That, of course, isn’t unusual; Wei Ying has always been looking at her from the moment they met in high school. But now she looks at her with possibility. With potential. Like she’s contemplating something, intense and focused and just a tad hopeful.

And when she realizes that she’s been caught looking, even as her cheeks grow flushed and she tries to stifle an embarrassed smile, she doesn’t look away.

Lan Zhan doesn’t either.

This could be something, a treacherous voice in her head whispers. This actually could be something. She doesn’t want to silence it.

Part of her, of course, is still terrified that she is making things up, though she is not generally in the habit of doing so. To clear her head, she finds herself looking for a second opinion. Not from her brother, who, bless his heart, is overly enthusiastic every time there is even the slightest possibility of Lan Zhan getting close to anyone, whether it is actually a realistic prospect or not. No, she needs someone level-headed, someone who is intimately familiar with queer women and has spent time with both her and Wei Ying.

“You want to know if I think Wei Ying could be attracted to you,” Xiao Xingchen summarizes after Lan Zhan has tentatively broached the subject.

“Yes.”

“I… don’t know what to say.”

Lan Zhan swallows, dropping her gaze. “If you think it unlikely, just tell me. I can take it.”

She looks up at the soft snort Xiao Xingchen lets out, smiling at her as she shakes her head. “Lan Zhan, I think you’re misunderstanding me on purpose. Why do I get the feeling that you want me to tell you it’s hopeless?”

Lan Zhan takes a delicate sip of her drink and doesn’t respond.

“Well, I’m not going to. I don’t know what to say because it’s so obvious to me. To anyone who has spent even a minute with the two of you, except for you, apparently. Lan Zhan, I don’t believe Wei Ying could be attracted to you, I think she already is. And I think she is half in love with you too, even though she might not be fully aware of it. Yet.”

Lan Zhan, who has miraculously not choked on her drink at this proclamation, feels hot all over as she tries to gather her wits.

“Xiao Xingchen…” she begins, her voice rough. She smiles, putting a hand over hers on the table.

“I know you must be scared. I would be, too. But I wouldn’t be saying this to you if I didn’t think it was true. You don’t see the way she looks at you, how she hangs on your every word. I think she didn’t know she could feel that way for a long time. That it was allowed, and that it might be returned. Give her some time to figure it out, and I fully believe that you’ll end up on the same page.”

Lan Zhan swallows, nodding once.

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.” She smiles serenely, like it could really be that simple.

And maybe, just maybe, it is.

They finish their tea, Lan Zhan stirring the conversation to other topics and Xiao Xingchen graciously pretending she isn’t noticing what she’s doing.

When Lan Zhan checks the time on her phone, she sits up straight.

“I have to go.”

Xiao Xingchen turns a sly smile towards her. “Got a hot date?”

“I am meeting Wei Ying for coffee,” she says with a look meant to silence her, even though she knows Xiao Xingchen is unfortunately immune to those.

“Like I said,” she just gives back cheekily. “A hot date. Tell her I said hi, will you?”

“Not with that attitude I won’t,” Lan Zhan mutters as she rises, though they both know she is going to dutifully relay the message.

“Have fun on your date!” Xiao Xingchen calls after her. Sometimes Lan Zhan wonders what she has done to deserve her friends.

(That, of course, is a lie. She counts herself very lucky to have them. It’s just… now she has hope.)

Wei Ying is already waiting for her when Lan Zhan approaches the café, looking up from her phone as if she sensed her presence. “Lan Zhan!” she greets her brightly, stuffing the phone into her pocket. She leans in as if to hug her, as she does in greeting sometimes, then drops back on her heels, her eyes wide. Lan Zhan, who was already preparing herself for the short embrace and was actively looking forward to it, frowns.

“Ahah,” Wei Ying laughs half-heartedly, clearly noticing her look. “I was just- don’t mind me!”

“Is everything alright?”

“Sure! Sure, sure, I mean, why wouldn’t it be?”

Lan Zhan blinks. “Do you not want a hug?”

Her eyes bulge. “No, I mean- yes, I, I do, why? Do you?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Okay then! Let’s… let’s hug.”

They do, and it’s a little weird after all that preamble, but it’s also Wei Ying, so it can only be amazing.

Lan Zhan steps back after drawing it out for as long as possible without making it even weirder and asks, “Why did you think I would not want to hug you? We have been doing this for a while. Did I do anything to make you think I was uncomfortable with it?”

“Oh, no, no, Lan Zhan, that wasn’t- at all! I was just- I thought, now that. Uhm. I thought maybe… but you don’t! Mind! And neither do I! God, I’m dying for some coffee, let’s go inside?”

Lan Zhan allows the clumsy subject change, turning her words over as they wait in line and Wei Ying deliberates back and forth what she should get. Lan Zhan already knows her order.

Maybe Xiao Xingchen has a point. Maybe there is indeed reason to have hope.

“Do you want to sit down or take a walk?” she asks when it’s almost their turn.

“Oh, uh… it’s pretty nice outside so if you don’t mind, we could stroll around a little?”

Lan Zhan nods and orders her chai latte to go, then patiently waits while Wei Ying’s more complicated order is made.

The streets are full, a typical Saturday afternoon in the city. It’s almost uncomfortable. It does mean that Lan Zhan has to walk very closely to Wei Ying though, squeezing against her sometimes to make space for someone passing them by, so she can’t really make herself feel annoyed about it.

Wei Ying’s hands are curled around her cup, warming her hands – they are always cold, something Lan Zhan was surprised to discover. It’s one of the many small ways Wei Ying has changed. Back then, her hands were always warm. She chatters on about this and that as they walk, and Lan Zhan is content to just listen, providing a contribution to the conversation whenever appropriate, but otherwise basking in Wei Ying’s presence unashamedly.

Wei Ying mostly looks at the windows they’re passing, but every once in a while her eyes flicker to Lan Zhan when she points something out or watches her reaction to something she said. Lan Zhan feels every single look acutely and hopes that the flush in her cheeks will be put down to the cold rather than anything more… revealing.

If Wei Ying catches it, she doesn’t say anything. She seems quite flushed herself, now that she thinks about it.

When they pass a bookstore with children’s books on display, Wei Ying stops in her tracks and coos in delight at the rabbits on one of the covers.

“Look at that! Isn’t that cute!”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees, her gaze softening. “Very.”

Wei Ying turns to her with a grin, nudging her with her elbow.

“Lan Zhan, remember that time I asked you what animal I’d be and you said I’d be a bunny?”

“Of course. I stand by it.”

“Lan Zhan!” she gasps in mock outrage. “Well, I guess I should be glad you’ve let go of the possum idea. Bunnies are adorable, at least.”

“They are.” Possessed by a boldness she can’t fully explain, Lan Zhan keeps her gaze trained on her and adds, “They have always been my favorite.”

Wei Ying shuts her mouth with a click, dumbfounded.

“Lan Zhan!” she whines. “How can you just say that to my face?”

“Adorable face,” Lan Zhan says, only joking a little bit. Wei Ying moans and buries her face in her hands.

“Terrible woman,” she mutters, turning away to resolutely continue walking. “Terrible, terrible woman, so shameless-“

Lan Zhan falls into step beside her easily, smiling to herself. Wei Ying, she notices, has an even healthier flush in her cheeks than before for the rest of their walk.

*

“So correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the outdoor restaurant thing is a good idea.”

Lan Zhan looks up to find Wei Ying twisting on the sofa and peering out of the window, which, on second glance, is wet with rainwater pouring down from above.

“Hm. I suppose we will have to stay in then.”

“Huh. Raincheck? Literally.”

“Raincheck,” Lan Zhan agrees. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Ohh, what am I not in the mood for.”

“The Moroccan place we tried before the cinema last time?” Lan Zhan suggests.

Yes,” Wei Ying agrees emphatically. “You read my mind, Lan Zhan!”

She hums, ridiculously pleased by this. “Think about what you would like. I will place the order once I’ve finished this.”

She’s putting the final touches on a work project, somewhat surprised that she was able to focus this much with Wei Ying right next to her, but she seemed happy enough to keep herself busy and let Lan Zhan do her work, and it was… quite lovely to find Wei Ying’s face in front of her every time she looked up.

Wei Ying hums and snatches up her phone, presumably scrolling through the menu until Lan Zhan is ready. They order, and then Lan Zhan goes to make tea for both of them, finding Wei Ying turned around to gaze outside once again when she returns.

“Thanks,” she mutters absently when she hears the sound of the cup being set down. “Shit, this is bad. I don’t even know if the bus is gonna drive in this weather. It’s a gamble on a good day.”

“You are not taking the bus home,” Lan Zhan says, appalled. The station is at least a fifteen minute walk away.

Wei Ying slumps back down on the sofa, blinking at her. “Well, I’m not walking home in this weather, Lan Zhan.”

“No, you’re not. You will stay here.”

Wei Ying stares at her. She stares back, unrelenting. “I- you only have one bed.”

“I also have a sofa.”

Strangely, Wei Ying’s face falls at that. Lan Zhan’s heart skips a beat.

“Which I do not intend to let you sleep on,” she adds. Wei Ying’s eyes snap up. “Unless you are- uncomfortable otherwise.”

“No, I- of course I’m not. But, uh, you’re sure you won’t- that is, I can totally take the sofa and just, like, get out of your hair as much as I can if I’m sticking around already?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan admonishes, frowning. “You know I always want you here.”

Wei Ying’s throat bobs as she swallows. She opens her mouth, then closes it again.

“Lan Zhan,” she says helplessly. “When you say things like that…”

She trails off, red down to her neck.

“I mean it,” Lan Zhan says when nothing else comes. “Wei Ying. You have to know that I mean it.”

Wei Ying’s eyes flicker over her face, searching, before she nods once, hesitantly.

“Yeah, I… I think I know.” She swallows again, something like fear in her eyes, vulnerable and yet determined. Resolute.

She shifts closer, her hands curled around the edge of the sofa.

"Can we try something?" she murmurs, so afraid and so brave.

Lan Zhan nods, and Wei Ying kisses her.

It’s chaste, a warm pressure of lips more than anything, neither demanding nor shy. It just is; a question, perhaps, or a greeting.

Lan Zhan responds immediately. There is the softest hitch in Wei Ying’s breath when she kisses her back, and the sound is like gasoline to the fire burning in the pit of Lan Zhan’s stomach. She leans in closer, tilts her head for a new angle, deepens the kiss, and Wei Ying melts against her, so warm and perfect and undeniably her that Lan Zhan almost staggers with it.

It’s heartfelt, and gentle, and so very, very easy. It overwrites everything else until it’s all there is, until there is only this.

The kiss could very easily derail into something else, something more. Part of Lan Zhan wants it to, wants to explore all of it and see how far Wei Ying will let her go, will go with her. Another part of her just wants to stay in this moment forever, exactly as it is, until she has committed the unnamable feeling growing inside her to perfect memory.

Wei Ying seems torn between staying where she is and coming closer as well, though she eventually pulls back reluctantly, her lips red, wet, and shiny as she gazes at her. Lan Zhan would swear in front of God and everyone that she has never looked more beautiful. Not when like this, she looks like hers.

Her heart beats painfully in her chest, in the very best way. It burns inside her. She was wrong before, it’s not impossible to name.

Wei Ying does with her next breath, speaking it into the space between them.

“Lan Zhan, I think I’m in love with you. No,” she corrects, “I know I’m in love with you.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers. “Wei Ying, I’m in love with you too.” She cups her face, cradles it gently in her palms. “It has always been you.”

Wei Ying swallows. “Always?”

“Always,” she confirms fiercely. “You have had my heart all these years.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying breathes out. “Well, don’t expect to get it back, because I’m never going to let go now that I know.”

“Good.” Lan Zhan kisses her again, pouring everything she’s feeling into it. Wei Ying makes a quiet, desperate sound. It makes her smile into the kiss, and then Wei Ying smiles too, and it’s even better than before even though they’re barely able to kiss like this anymore.

Wei Ying starts giggling, breaking the kiss to lean her forehead against Lan Zhan’s shoulder as she tries to compose herself. Lan Zhan finds herself laughing a little too as she rubs her back, full of disbelief, full of joy.

“Wei Ying,” she says. “Wei Ying.”

“Yeah,” she sighs when she has caught her breath, her smile audible in her voice. “I’m here.”

She is. As unlikely, as improbable as it is, Wei Ying is here. And she kissed her. She loves her back.

Lan Zhan thanks her lucky stars as she wraps her arms around her and pulls her closer. “Don’t let go,” she says, and Wei Ying shakes her head, reaching up to hold her face in both hands.

“Never,” she promises. “Never again, Lan Zhan.”