It took almost three years to fuck everything up with Lan Zhan, which was impressive considering Wei Ying had literally never been chill about him.
The first time they’d met was when Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli had started volunteering with MusicForYouth Shanghai, Wei Ying as an instructor and Jiang Yanli as general helper and child-wrangler, and of course they’d been late to the first volunteer training session on account of something Wei Ying didn't remember but was probably a-jie’s husband’s fault. What mattered was that they’d showed up almost forty minutes late. The moment they’d opened the classroom door, the head instructor had fixed them with the most magnificent glare Wei Ying had ever seen. Jiang Yanli had ducked her head and apologized, but Wei Ying had been so taken aback that he… well, he may have laughed a little. The glare had immediately become ten times colder. The next hour had continued in that vein; the head instructor, who introduced himself as Lan Zhan, gave Wei Ying a withering look every time he so much as shifted in his chair. Each time, Wei Ying grinned brightly back at him. Lan Zhan concluded his boring lecture on the MFY Vision Statement and Strategy for Impact with, “Remember that this is not just childcare. We are instructors; our job is to teach. More importantly, MusicForYouth serves children from low-income backgrounds. For many of them, our after-school program is their only opportunity to learn an instrument, study music history and theory, or simply experience music in a low-stress environment. You must take this seriously.” And he’d given Wei Ying a pointed look, to which Wei Ying had replied with a cheerful thumbs-up, which made Jiang Yanli whisper, ‘A-Ying, be nice.’
After that they’d had two hours of volunteer practice with that afternoon’s group of kids. Wei Ying played flute, dizi, and xiao, so he’d been assigned a small group of kids who were learning about traditional instruments. They were given an empty classroom, with the implication that Wei Ying should stand up front and the kids should sit at the desks, but he thought that was dumb so he just had everyone sit in a circle on the floor with him. He’d come prepared with a handful of cheap bamboo dizis, a loose lesson plan, and a ton of terrible jokes. He was walking the kids through ‘The Small Murmuring River,’ intentionally botching some of the high notes to make them laugh, when he glanced over at the classroom door to find Lan Zhan standing there, watching. “Ah?” he'd said. “It’s not time to go, is it?”
“…No,” said Lan Zhan, and then, “You should show them a serious example. So they can hear the dizi as it is meant to be heard.”
“Oh, okay,” said Wei Ying, and brought one of the bamboo dizis to his lips. Stuffy Lan Zhan probably wanted something traditional, but Wei Ying played ‘Painted Heart,’ long notes wavering in the air, a song that felt like it should be played at the top of a mountain under an endless blue sky, not in the middle of a city. When he finished, one of the kids said, “Teach us how to play that!” and Wei Ying laughed and said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” Then he looked back at Lan Zhan. “How was that?”
Lan Zhan had just blinked at him, nodded, and left. That evening, when all the volunteers were packing up to go home, Wei Ying had approached him. “Hi,” he’d said. “So, ah… I know I was late and stuff, and I can’t realistically promise it won’t happen again, but also I was wondering if there’s like an application process to become a regular instructor? I work weird hours, so I’m pretty much always free on weekday afternoons. And I just—I don’t know, those kids are so great. They’re brilliant. I’d really like to keep teaching them the dizi.”
Head instructor Lan Zhan had stared at him for so long that Wei Ying almost said ‘haha, never mind,’ sure that he’d blown it and would be told not to come back. But then Lan Zhan said, “You can fill out the application form. Then there is a trial period.”
“Cool!” said Wei Ying. “Do you want my email?”
“Like for the form. Or, wait, I guess all my info’s already on the volunteer form, isn’t it?”
Lan Zhan cleared his throat. His eyes were lowered; he was looking at Wei Ying’s shoulder or thereabouts. “Yes, it is.”
“Cool,” Wei Ying said again, and smiled at him. “Well! I’ll see you next week, I guess.”
“Mm,” was all he said.
Within a year, Wei Ying had successfully annoyed Lan Zhan into being his friend. What started as exchanging wechats for practical purposes became Wei Ying messaging Lan Zhan before the weekly MFY session to ask how he took his coffee (‘I don’t drink coffee.’ ‘Excuse me?????? Uhh ok tea then??’ ‘I like most kinds of white or oolong, why?’ ‘Ok do you take anything in it?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘You do realize white tea has like zero caffeine. Like theres almost no caffeine in there.’ ‘What? Are you telling me I’ve been drinking it every morning for nothing?’ ‘hhhhhhh oh youre funny huh!!!!! I knew it!! Paying now be there in 5 min ♡✧( ु•⌄• )’), which became the two of them taking turns bringing each other coffee or tea before each session, which became occasionally grabbing dinner afterward, which became always grabbing dinner afterward, which became meeting up at various cafés to discuss lesson plans, which became meeting up at Lan Zhan’s flat to discuss lesson plans, which became just hanging out, no pretenses (‘There’s an exhibition on Tang-era guqin & guzheng coming to the McaM from 11/20 to 2/20.’ ‘Is this you asking me to go with you?? ∠( ᐛ 」∠)＿’ ‘If you’re not busy.’ ‘Well I’ll have to move some things around as I’m a very important person but I think, just for you, I can probably clear out an afternoon at some point in those uhh 3 months.’ ‘Thank you for your sacrifice.’).
So within a year they were friends, and for the next year and a half they just got closer. Then, six months ago, things had gotten really bad between Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng. They’d barely spoken for weeks, which sucked considering they lived together. Wei Ying had taken to spending almost all his time at Lan Zhan’s flat instead. He’d hated the idea of overstepping or taking advantage of Lan Zhan’s kindness, but Lan Zhan told him multiple times it wasn’t a problem. When he’d noticed Wei Ying was living off cup noodles instead of eating the food in the kitchen, he’d actually seemed pretty upset. He’d gone to the kitchen and silently prepared a whole meal, rice and sautéed vegetables and steamed tofu, and then he’d brought Wei Ying a full bowl and the jar of chili garlic sauce he kept in the fridge specifically for him and said, “Eat.” And he’d sat there and sort of eaten his own dinner but mostly just watched Wei Ying. After Wei Ying had finished, Lan Zhan had taken a deep breath and said, “You always assume your existence is a burden, and that taking anything means taking everything. It is not, and it does not. Everything under this roof is yours. Do you want more eggplant?”
Something had changed between them, after that.
Even once he was back on speaking terms with Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying spent more time at Lan Zhan’s flat than he did at his own. The futon was permanently made up for him. But more than that, they’d just been growing even closer, in a lot of ways. Lan Zhan wasn’t a tactile person. Their touches had always been limited to a hand on the shoulder or the wrist, a nudge of the elbow, once or twice a hug. Over the past few months, they’d been touching each other more and longer. When Lan Zhan cooked, Wei Ying would come up behind him and stand on his tip-toes to hook his chin over Lan Zhan’s shoulder. Where before they'd sat on opposite sides of the couch, now Wei Ying shoved his cold toes under Lan Zhan’s thigh and acted innocent when Lan Zhan gave him a Look, and then as the evening progressed they drifted together like snow, till Wei Ying was curled into Lan Zhan’s side. Once, Wei Ying had been making a pot of coffee and Lan Zhan had come over and put a hand on his waist, just resting it there, and for some reason that, more than anything else, had made Wei Ying dizzy and breathless with wanting him.
The problem was that Lan Zhan had always been captivating. Of course he was beautiful, but that wasn’t it. There was something else about him, something bright and perfect glowing in his eyes, like being seven years old again sitting in the backseat of Jiang-shushu’s rattly volkswagen, driving through the countryside at night past little farmhouses with the windows lit up yellow, sometimes catching a glimpse of someone moving past the window, usually not seeing anyone at all, just the lamplight, a single crystallized moment of stillness and warmth and home, there and gone; not his.
The problem was that Lan Zhan had always been captivating and also completely off limits. Not Wei Ying’s. He was so good, and his friendship was so good, he was so steady. Sometimes Wei Ying’s brain flashed and shivered like an electric grid in a lightning storm, his thoughts crackling out in all directions, too fast for him to keep up. He didn’t know how Lan Zhan could tell, but more than once Wei Ying had been sitting there staring blankly at his work, thoughts racing, snippets of sound and color flickering madly behind his eyes, and then there was a hand on his shoulder and a soft, low voice in his ear, and like sea to shore the world came rushing back. So Lan Zhan was the best, and Wei Ying wanted to be close to him forever, and that meant he couldn’t fuck it up.
Recently, he’d started to wonder.
Two times in the past month, they’d been watching a movie in Lan Zhan’s bed and Wei Ying had passed out halfway through and Lan Zhan just hadn’t moved him. He’d woken in the middle of the night with Lan Zhan asleep beside him, their hands brushing under the blankets. Two times. And when they’d watched the movies, they had been full-on cuddling. There was no other way to describe it: Wei Ying’s head on Lan Zhan’s chest, fingers curled over his heart; Lan Zhan with an arm around him. Lan Zhan had even played with Wei Ying’s hair, the kind of prolonged casual touch that did not come naturally to him, that he would never do with anyone else, so Wei Ying had... wondered. They’d watched Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke because poor tragic Lan Zhan had somehow made it to age twenty-seven without ever seeing a Studio Ghibli movie, and they’d cuddled the whole time, or at least until Wei Ying fell asleep. And with Lan Zhan’s fingers in his hair Wei Ying’s heart had cracked open like a pomegranate, revealing all the soft sweet parts inside.
Tonight they were cuddling in Lan Zhan's bed for a third time. They weren’t watching a movie; there was no excuse like ‘oh, we both need to see the laptop screen.’ Lan Zhan was reading a translation of Gi Hyeongdo and Wei Ying was on his phone reading an article about horseshoe crabs, which he had somehow reached via an article about synthesizing silver nanoparticles using the extract of the winter jujube. They were lying on top of the blankets, Wei Ying’s cheek pressed to Lan Zhan’s shoulder, Lan Zhan’s arm around his back, and everything would have been alright, really it would have been fine, except the horseshoe crab article made Wei Ying think about how they should watch Ponyo, and he glanced up and started to say, “Hey Lan Zhan,” but Lan Zhan was already looking at him.
Lan Zhan’s eyes went from gentle to startled, caught out. Embarrassed. He looked away.
He was watching me, Wei Ying thought, stunned.
Clarity was the green flash at the very end of sunset. Lan Zhan, who didn’t touch people, was holding Wei Ying. Lan Zhan had been watching him. He’d been smiling, almost. Certainly smiling with his eyes.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, softer.
Lan Zhan was staring at his book, clearly not reading. His ears were pink.
“Lan Zhan ah, look at me.”
Slowly, Lan Zhan turned his head. Wei Ying hadn’t moved, so their faces ended up very close together. A couple inches and their noses would touch. Wei Ying saw it when Lan Zhan swallowed. Wei Ying opened his mouth to speak and Lan Zhan’s lips parted as if mirroring him, and no part of this could be explained away. Lan Zhan had been watching him read with a soft, reverent look on his face like Wei Ying had been doing something wonderful instead of just lying there.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered, and made a decision.
He leaned up, brushing their mouths together. It was quick and light, barely a kiss at all. He was so nervous he didn’t even register the sensation. He leaned back to check Lan Zhan’s reaction, heart pounding like rain on a tin roof.
Lan Zhan’s eyes were wide and dark in his pretty face. His lips were parted. He looked thunderstruck, but not… not in a bad way. Oh. Oh.
Wei Ying plucked the book from Lan Zhan’s hands and reached across him to put it on the nightstand, along with his phone. “You’re on page fifty-two,” he murmured. Lan Zhan was silent. Wei Ying settled back onto his side, but this time he rested his head on the pillow beside Lan Zhan’s. He laid his hand out over Lan Zhan’s bell-toll heart, trailed it up to the nape of his neck under the fall of his black hair, drew Lan Zhan’s face toward him again. For a moment they gazed at each other, right here on the fulcrum. Then Wei Ying leaned in again.
This time he lingered long enough for Lan Zhan to kiss back, for Lan Zhan’s mouth to form the shape of a kiss, a sweet little press. Their lips moved together once, twice, then separated with a tiny raindrop sound. Wei Ying kept his eyes shut. He heard Lan Zhan shift on the mattress, turning onto his side so they were facing each other. One of his hands slid up Wei Ying’s arm to his shoulder and Wei Ying shivered, letting out a sharp breath, and that was the next kiss, Lan Zhan’s warm mouth on his. “Oh,” Wei Ying said between kisses, punched-out, wondering, dreamy, “oh, oh, Lan Zhan,” and he squirmed closer, clutching at the back of Lan Zhan’s soft blue sleep shirt. He tugged and Lan Zhan came easily, settling on top of him without breaking the kiss, pushing the pillow aside and lowering Wei Ying’s head onto the mattress, elbows planted on either side of his head. His weight on Wei Ying was perfect. Wei Ying opened his eyes mid-kiss to see the black smear of Lan Zhan’s eyelashes, his brow furrowed in concentration; beyond that the spill of his hair over one shoulder, the golden curve of his neck in the lamplight, he was perfect, his mouth was perfect, the flicker of his breath on Wei Ying’s cheek. Wei Ying closed his eyes again and let everything slip away, sinking into this endless kiss, spreading his thighs around Lan Zhan's narrow hips, hands drifting from Lan Zhan’s shoulders to his hair to his back, fingers curling in his shirt. They kissed slowly for a long time, figuring out how to do this. How much pressure, the right angle, how to fit their noses together. Lan Zhan kissed the center of Wei Ying’s mouth, the corner, trailed kisses across his cheek. He kissed the shell of Wei Ying’s ear, closed his teeth lightly around the earlobe.
Wei Ying’s entire fucking body shuddered. Gasping, he jerked away from Lan Zhan’s mouth out of pure shock.
Lan Zhan pulled back, equally startled. He looked like he didn’t know whether to be worried or not. “Are you….”
“I—I don’t know what that was,” said Wei Ying, trying to catch his breath. “Oh my god.”
Lan Zhan blinked. Slowly, he bent his head again and did the same thing, kissing first the shell of the ear, then the earlobe, sucking it into his mouth, scraping his teeth over it. Wei Ying shivered and whined involuntarily, hips twitching up off the bed.
“Oh,” he panted, aware that Lan Zhan was staring at him again, but his thoughts were sticky honey, dripping oil, “oh, okay, that’s—that’s a thing. That’s a thing. Oh fuck, Lan Zhan.” He swallowed hard. “Oh, fuck.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes were almost black. “Wei Ying,” he breathed.
One heartbeat. Two.
They met in the middle, teeth clacking with a hollow sound, but it didn’t matter; Wei Ying inhaled hard through his nose and they were kissing open and messy, he was pushing Lan Zhan sideways and climbing on top, straddling him, sinking down. Lan Zhan’s fingers found Wei Ying’s hair tie and tugged his ponytail gently free, then one hand was buried in Wei Ying’s hair and the other was on the dip of his back, fingertips brushing the bare skin where his sweater had ridden up. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbled into his mouth, his hips starting a slow, helpless grind. “Ah, look at you, you’re so hot, you can touch me if you want, like, wherever you want—”
Lan Zhan rolled them back over, tipping Wei Ying’s head back and kissing him deeply. He put a hand on Wei Ying’s waist over his sweater but that wasn’t enough, Wei Ying wanted him everywhere, so he reached down and took Lan Zhan’s wrist and guided it to the hem of his sweater. Lan Zhan stilled, lips hovering over Wei Ying’s. He opened his eyes. It was a whole new kind of intimacy, their faces this close without kissing, just sharing breaths.
Holding his gaze, Wei Ying pushed Lan Zhan's hand up under his sweater. Lan Zhan's palm was hot on his bare stomach, fingers spreading out.
Lan Zhan’s eyes fluttered shut. He swallowed visibly.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered. “Is this okay?”
He nodded once.
“Okay,” said Wei Ying, and guided Lan Zhan’s hand to the curve of his waist. They were both breathing even harder now. He wriggled a little, feeling restless, scooped-out behind his navel. His hips ached; his thighs wanted to spread wider, wanted Lan Zhan’s hand between his legs. “C’mere,” he said, which didn’t make sense, but Lan Zhan understood anyway. He closed the tiny space between their mouths, kissing Wei Ying slowly, dipping his tongue inside. His thumb stroked the sensitive skin below Wei Ying’s ribs, a hot, shivery sensation. “That feels good,” Wei Ying said, and Lan Zhan waited, their lips still brushing, to let him speak. Wei Ying laughed under his breath, making a scrunchy-nosed face at himself. “Ah, no, that was it,” he said. “Sorry, you can tell me to shut up.”
Lan Zhan shook his head. “Don’t shut up,” he said, kissing Wei Ying’s lower lip. “Tell me when it feels good.”
“Oh,” said Wei Ying. “Oh. Okay. Keep touching me.” He caught Lan Zhan’s mouth again, their lips parting together. “Ah Lan Zhan, just keep touching me. It’s so good, it’s really so good. This is fun, right?”
Lan Zhan hummed into the next kiss. Then he paused. “...Fun?”
“Yeah?” said Wei Ying, distracted. “Just—you know, fun.” Did that sound stupid? He was a little preoccupied with Lan Zhan’s hand under his sweater. His choices were ’this is fun’ or ‘your hands are incredible, I want to go down on you, we’re not leaving this bed for the next forty-eight hours, I think I just found God.’ Both were true; one required less brain power.
He pulled Lan Zhan down into another kiss, but something was off. Lan Zhan didn’t really kiss back. His hand on Wei Ying’s waist had gone still. Wei Ying broke the kiss, frowning, about to ask ‘are you okay?’
Lan Zhan said, “Wei Ying. I…. We shouldn’t do this.”
It took a second to sink in. Then Wei Ying went cold all over. “What?” he said dumbly.
Lan Zhan took his hand out from under Wei Ying’s sweater. He climbed off of Wei Ying and sat up, kneeling on the bed. “We shouldn’t do this,” he said again, very quiet. His eyes were fixed on the bedspread. “It’s not a good idea.”
Wei Ying realized abruptly that he was spread out on the bed, sweater rucked up around his ribs, one leg still bent open, while Lan Zhan sat there looking perfect and unruffled except for his hair and the redness of his mouth, the slight flush in his cheeks, and Lan Zhan thought this was a mistake and they shouldn’t have done it, and Lan Zhan regretted this and didn’t want to touch Wei Ying at all. Humiliation crawled over his skin, a slow, hot prickle. He shoved his sweater back down and scrambled upright, blood rushing in his ears. Lan Zhan was right. Of course Lan Zhan was right, he was always right, Wei Ying shouldn’t have done this, it wasn’t a good idea. What had he been thinking. Really, what had he been thinking. They’d cuddled a couple times after three years of friendship and he’d taken it as a green light to jump Lan Zhan’s bones? What was wrong with him? “You’re right!” he said, thankful his voice didn’t crack. He even managed a smile, not that Lan Zhan was looking at him. “You’re right, yeah. Wow. Sorry, sorry Lan Zhan. You’re right, we shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have—it would just make things complicated.” He cleared his throat. Damage control, damage control, come on. “Yeah, no, not a good idea, not worth it. Let’s just strike this from the record, ah? I mean, friends kiss sometimes and it’s fine, it’s not a big deal. But also this didn’t happen. It doesn’t count.”
None of this was particularly coherent, but Lan Zhan just nodded. “Mm,” he agreed, eyes still downcast.
“I’m sorry,” said Wei Ying. “I’m really sorry.”
Lan Zhan looked pained. “Don’t apologize,” he said. “You did nothing wrong.”
Right, he did nothing wrong, and that was why his closest friend couldn’t even look at him. His heart was a too-ripe fruit, worm-eaten. “I think I should head out,” he said.
“You can sleep on the futon,” Lan Zhan said with a tiny frown.
“No, it’s fine, I haven’t slept in my own bed for like a week anyway,” Wei Ying said, forcing a laugh. The last two times he’d spent this much time in Lan Zhan’s bed, he’d fallen asleep and Lan Zhan hadn’t kicked him out, just pulled the blankets over him and slept beside him all night, and Wei Ying had thought that meant something. Here was what it meant: Lan Zhan was a nice person. The end. “I’m just gonna….” He got out of bed, grabbing his phone from the nightstand. His red hair tie was on the floor, because Lan Zhan had dropped it there after he’d undone Wei Ying’s ponytail and run his fingers through Wei Ying’s loose hair and kissed him so deeply it had felt like learning a new language all at once.
Wei Ying scooped up his hair tie and twisted his hair back into a ponytail.
“Wei Ying. Let me call you a Didi,” said Lan Zhan from the bed.
“Nope,” said Wei Ying. He kept his back to the bed; it was his turn to not look. “No, it’s fine, I’m gonna take the bus, I like the bus. So I’ll just—ah, I’ll just see you later!”
He didn’t wait for Lan Zhan to reply. He just smoothed out his sweater one last time and left the bedroom, closing the door carefully behind him. He walked through Lan Zhan’s dark, quiet flat. He collected his shoes from the shoe rack and his coat from the coat rack. The coat rack was the kind that was like a shelf mounted on the wall with hooks beneath. On the shelf there was a little ceramic rabbit figurine and a picture frame with three photos in it: Lan Zhan with his older brother, Lan Zhan with a bunch of the MusicForYouth kids, and Lan Zhan with Wei Ying. The rabbit figurine was a gift from Wei Ying, he’d found it at a street market and thought it was so cute. The photo of him with Lan Zhan was a selfie he’d taken, he didn’t even remember when. He was beaming and Lan Zhan was solemn-faced but tossing up a peace sign.
Wei Ying’s eyes burned. His mouth felt bruised in a way he would have liked under different circumstances. He could feel the phantom imprint of Lan Zhan’s hands; he imagined golden fingerprints scattered over his hips, trails of gold up his ribs. Kintsugi.
Not a good idea, no.
The bus ride home took an hour. Wei Ying spent all of it staring blankly out the window. By the time he got home it was almost ten and the self-loathing had settled over him like silt in a riverbed. He couldn’t stop replaying it. The way he’d thrown himself at Lan Zhan. Kissed him, kissed him again, put Lan Zhan’s hand up his sweater, ‘touch me, oh Lan Zhan, touch me more.’ The way he’d been so obviously into it, the way he’d been—making noise, arching up into Lan Zhan’s body, thinking to himself that this was so good, this was incredible, they were so good together, and the whole time Lan Zhan had been—trying it out? And ultimately deciding he wasn’t into it. That was… that was just….
Wei Ying brushed his teeth three times in a row, avoiding his own eyes in the mirror. He got into bed and curled up in a ball beneath the blankets.
Humiliation was hot; fear was his heart submerged in an ice bath. Alone in the dark, it was easy to think about how understandable it would be if Lan Zhan wanted to not see him for a while. He should have known better. He did know better. Hadn’t he always told himself that when it came to Lan Zhan, he would take what he could get?
Oh, but Lan Zhan had been watching him read. Clearly that changed everything! Clearly that was enough to bet a whole friendship on! He was an idiot.
Wei Ying wrapped his arms around himself, squeezed his eyes shut, and didn’t sleep at all.
The next two weeks were possibly the worst in his life, including the two weeks when it had looked like he might get kicked out of university and disowned by the Jiangs at the same time. He and Lan Zhan barely spoke. The first time they saw each other in person was the MFY meeting two days after the night in Lan Zhan’s bedroom, and it was so awkward that by the end of it Wei Ying was one uncomfortable silence away from going to cry in the bathroom. They were both trying to pretend nothing had happened, but Lan Zhan couldn’t act for shit and Wei Ying, who was otherwise a good liar, had unfortunately spent the last three years submitting to the mortifying ordeal of being known by Lan Zhan, and could not hide any of his fucking feelings anymore. Right now his primary feeling was ‘devastation,’ closely followed by ‘virulent self-hatred’ and ‘fear of abandonment,’ so that was just not a great situation.
The funny thing was that normally if he’d been this fucked up he would have gone to Lan Zhan’s. He wouldn’t have told Lan Zhan that anything was wrong, but Lan Zhan was magic. He’d know.
The MFY meeting had been so, so bad. To everyone else Lan Zhan might have looked alright, if a little stiffer and quieter than usual, but Wei Ying knew him. He knew Lan Zhan’s enormous, voidal sadness, the way it yawned open inside him sometimes; the way it swallowed him whole. It lived in his eyes, his shoulders, his soft voice.
What Wei Ying didn’t understand was why Lan Zhan would be sad. Lan Zhan was not the one who had crossed every boundary.
Anyway, it was almost two weeks of not seeing each other, not talking, not cooking or eating or working or listening to music or reading or just existing together, and Wei Ying was losing his mind. Even Jiang Cheng had noticed something was wrong. First he’d been Jiang Cheng about it (‘Will you stop moping? Go hang out with your boyfriend, you’re giving me hives.’) and then he’d seemed to realize Wei Ying was like, really very fucked up, and the next day Wei Ying had gotten a call from Jiang Yanli. He’d said “Jie!” and she’d said, “Hi, didi, I miss you,” and he had panicked and hung up on her because he was about to start crying. Then he’d called her back and given a dumb excuse about his phone battery and she hadn’t even called him on it, because she was the nicest person who had ever existed.
Jiang Yanli’s advice, upon receiving Wei Ying’s summary of the situation (‘I fucked up with Lan Zhan’) had been: “A-Ying, he’s your best friend. He adores you. I’m sure whatever happened, it’s not irreparable. Just go talk to him, okay?”
So now on the thirteenth day, Wei Ying was waiting outside Lan Zhan’s door.
A rustle, then the door opened. Lan Zhan blinked at him, looking caught off guard. Of course: Wei Ying never knocked. He just let himself in.
“Hi,” said Wei Ying. “Um. Can I talk to you?”
“...Mm,” said Lan Zhan. He let Wei Ying inside and began to turn away, but Wei Ying caught his sleeve. Then let go at once, cheeks burning.
“It’s just,” he tried to smile. “It won’t take long, so.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes flicked over his face. Whatever he found there made his mouth tighten, expression shuttering like it only ever did when he was really anxious. He was bracing for something. Wei Ying wanted to die a little bit.
On the bus ride over he’d practiced his totally cool and mature apology speech like ten times, but in the face of Lan Zhan’s obvious dread he couldn’t remember a god damn word of it; all he could think about was how Lan Zhan’s flat smelled like the sandalwood incense he burned in the mornings, and his pretty powder-blue coat was hanging on the coat rack and if Wei Ying pressed his face to it and breathed in he’d smell the orchid and sandalwood and almond scent of Lan Zhan’s body, his soap and shampoo and lotion, he always smelled so good, a spray of flowers with a trace of woodsmoke, charcoal-sharp and heady. It felt like as long as Wei Ying could breathe him in, as long as he stayed close to Lan Zhan, everything would be okay and he’d always know what day it was and he’d sleep through the night at least most of the time.
Anything to keep that. Really, anything.
“I’m sorry,” he said, already too loud and too desperate. “Lan Zhan, I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again, I promise. I know once was bad enough but never again, I really promise, okay?” The walls in the entryway were a spotless eggshell white. There weren’t even any scuff marks along the baseboards. Wei Ying’s vision was blurring. “I’m sorry. I was selfish, I took too much. I won’t do it again. Lan Zhan, I’ll never do it again, really I meant it when I said we could strike it off the record, we can just forget it ever happened, okay?” He blinked and a tear fell. God damn, this was pathetic. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his hoodie, furious with himself. “I won’t do it again,” he said, “if that’s what you’re worried about. I won’t. Lan Zhan, I promise. You trust me, right?”
He checked Lan Zhan’s face. He was expecting to find discomfort or even pity, but Lan Zhan just looked confused, maybe concerned, a crease between his brows. He was so handsome, backlit by the warm light of the living area, silky black hair loose around his shoulders like it only ever was at home. He was wearing a white sweater with a pale blue ribbon sewn into the collar.
“You trust me,” Wei Ying said, feeling shaky and hollow, abruptly terrified that he’d fucked up even worse than he thought. “You do, I know you do. Lan Zhan, you trust me. If I say I won’t do it again then I won’t. You believe me, right?”
“I believe you,” said Lan Zhan, and then, “…Wei Ying. What do you mean, you ‘took too much’?”
“It was my fault!” said Wei Ying. “My fault, my fault, I started it. I’m sorry. I thought—it doesn’t matter what I thought. I was wrong.” He wiped his face again. “If you need some space that’s fine, but also, if you’re mad because you think I’m going to try it again or that I don’t understand I was wrong, that’s not true at all. Okay? Please don’t—,” he cut off, pressing his sleeve over his mouth. Instead, “You can keep talking to me. Lan Zhan, I’ll never do it again.”
“Wei Ying. I'm not mad at you," said Lan Zhan, then paused. "Why… why did you kiss me?”
Wei Ying actually took a step back. “Hah? What? You know why. But just forget about it, okay?”
“Is that what you want?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. Lan Zhan ah, what are you talking about?”
“It matters what you want,” said Lan Zhan. His eyes were so intent on Wei Ying’s face. “Wei Ying,” he said, “why did you kiss me?”
Good lord, was he going to make Wei Ying say it? That felt cruel, and Lan Zhan had never been cruel in his life. Every year he used his own personal money to take all the MFY kids to see the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Peking Opera. He caught spiders in cups and brought them up to Wen-popo’s tiny garden on the roof of his building. On Weibo he followed Lan Huan, Wei Ying, a bunch of pages that posted nothing but baby animals, and this sweet little grandpa from Liaoning who posted guqin lessons and covers of popular OSTs. Sometimes he said things like, ‘I bought sweet potatoes. BohaiQinStudio27-laoshi said they’re particularly good this season,’ and Wei Ying had to think up an excuse to leave the room lest he fling himself at Lan Zhan out of sheer adoration.
“Ai Lan Zhan,” he snapped, leaning into being annoyed, as it was better than weeping in Lan Zhan’s doorway. “What do you think! Why do people kiss other people!”
“Lots of reasons,” said Lan Zhan. Then, quieter, “For fun.”
For fun. For fun? For— "Oh my god," said Wei Ying. He remembered saying something along those lines, but he'd just been talking, he'd been rambling, his thoughts bobbing in warm, dark water, all he'd been thinking about was Lan Zhan's hands on his skin. "Oh my god, Lan Zhan, what the hell," he started, but then it began to sink in: Lan Zhan's reaction, what he'd clearly been thinking this whole time. Wei Ying curled into himself, small and bloodless. "Lan Zhan, you.... Did you think I was just fucking with you?"
"No," Lan Zhan said immediately. "No, not that. I know you. But."
Lan Zhan looked fractured. "Wei Ying. You never wanted to."
"How do you know?" Wei Ying demanded. "Aiyo, you dummy, do you really think it's more believable for me to kiss you on a lark than it is for me to actually want you?"
Lan Zhan was silent.
Wei Ying stared at him. "Seriously? That's the problem?"
"You never wanted to," he repeated. "You never...."
“Sorry, am I supposed to go around in a T-shirt that says ‘Please Fuck Me Lan Zhan’? And on the back it says ‘And Then Let’s Get Married’? Smaller text, ‘Because I Fancy You’?”
By the end of this, Lan Zhan had gone from astounded to entirely nonverbal. His eyes were very wide.
“I’ll have it made,” Wei Ying threatened. “I’ll wear it in public. I’ll wear it to monthly silent tea with your uncle if that’s what it takes.” He paused. “I will not wear it to MFY, on account of they are children.”
“I,” said Lan Zhan.
“Because it’s true,” said Wei Ying. He wilted. “It’s true. That night—it wasn’t for fun, it just was fun. It felt really good, I really liked it, I…. Lan Zhan, you're incredible. I really like you. So. That’s, ah. That’s where I’m at.”
“Wei Ying,” said Lan Zhan, hoarse with shock.
Wei Ying looked at him. "I mean it," he said, letting Lan Zhan see it on his face. "You're incredible. I really like you so much."
"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan said again, and his voice was so warm, he always said Wei Ying’s name so gently, like he was cupping it in his hands, like it was something he cared about treating well. “Wei Ying. I really like you. I've—always.”
Wei Ying took a shaky breath. “Oh,” he said, hushed.
“I’m sorry,” said Lan Zhan. “I misunderstood, thought the worst, and hurt you.”
“Ah? No, it’s fine,” said Wei Ying, waving a hand. He was still caught on the words ‘I really like you’ in Lan Zhan’s voice, from Lan Zhan’s mouth, with his eyes so dark and soft. “Don’t apologize.”
Lan Zhan shook his head. “I misunderstood, thought the worst, and hurt Wei Ying,” he repeated. “I listened only to his words, not his actions. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said. His eyes were pricking with tears all over again and he didn’t even know why. “Okay. Well. Obviously you’re forgiven.”
“Hm,” said Lan Zhan. Then he stepped forward and drew Wei Ying into a hug, one hand on the back of his head. Wei Ying slumped against him, clutching at his soft white sweater, and they stayed like that for a long time, until both of them were breathing normally again. Then Wei Ying kissed Lan Zhan’s shoulder and in return Lan Zhan brushed his lips over Wei Ying’s temple, his hair, his ear. With the third kiss Wei Ying shuddered so hard his knees went weak for a moment. “….Hm,” said Lan Zhan.
“Shut up!” Wei Ying squeaked.
“I mean! It sure seems that way!”
“You really didn’t know?”
“How on earth would I know?” Wei Ying asked. “It’s not like touching your own ears is a standard part of jacking off. I don’t even think it would work if I did it to myself.”
“You…?” Lan Zhan started, then just kissed Wei Ying’s temple again.
“Me? I? I’m what?”
“Hm. Cute,” said Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying reared back to gape at him. “NO,” he said.
Lan Zhan’s eyebrows raised a fraction. “No?”
“No! That’s not allowed. That’s against the rules.”
“The rules,” Wei Ying said, strangled. “The rules of—society.”
“I see,” said Lan Zhan. “I was unaware you’d started caring about those.”
“Alright, fine. First rule of being my boyfriend is no compliments unless I explicitly demand them,” said Wei Ying. “Addendum: this rule only applies if the compliment in question is sincere.”
Lan Zhan blinked twice. His hands had fallen to Wei Ying’s hips, and now he pulled Wei Ying close again, nosing at his hair. “I am always sincere,” he said. “And Wei Ying likes compliments.”
“Wei Ying likes breathing,” said Wei Ying. “You can’t just call me cute out of nowhere like that. It’s too much. I’ll perish. I’ll astral project into the fourth dimension. I’ll implode like a dying star.”
“Second rule is,” Wei Ying faltered when Lan Zhan’s thumbs stroked over his hip bones, “second rule is you have to kiss me all the time always.”
Lan Zhan kissed the side of Wei Ying’s head. “I like that one,” he murmured.
“Not just there.”
“Don’t just kiss me there.”
Lan Zhan gripped his hips tighter for a moment. Something panged behind Wei Ying’s navel, a sharp twinge, a plucked string, and with shaking hands he let go of Lan Zhan’s sweater and reached between their bodies to unzip his own hoodie, letting it fall open. Lan Zhan moved his hands to Wei Ying’s waist, his fingertips brushing bare skin. “Where, then,” he said.
It took Wei Ying a second to remember what they were talking about. He smoothed his hands up Lan Zhan’s chest to his shoulders and swayed in but didn’t kiss Lan Zhan yet, just pressed his forehead to Lan Zhan’s cheek. “My, um. My shoulder.”
Lan Zhan bent to kiss his shoulder over the hoodie.
“Up,” said Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan obeyed. He trailed slow, sweet kisses from Wei Ying’s shoulder, following the ridge of his collarbone up to his throat. His hands found their way under Wei Ying’s T-shirt, palms so hot, skin tingling in his wake. Wei Ying sighed, tilting his head, and Lan Zhan kissed up the curve of his neck, lips parting, the next kiss warm and wet, a brush of tongue. Wei Ying felt dizzy, thoughts rearranging like iron filings drawn only to this; he tried to speak, couldn’t, closed his eyes and tried again, “My….” He could feel his heartbeat between his hips. He could smell Lan Zhan’s hair, flowers and woodsmoke. His whole body was lit up like a neon city, humming with energy, he couldn’t think coherently and for once it wasn’t a bad thing, it wasn’t scary at all. “My mouth,” he said at last. “My—,” and the next word was a hum as Lan Zhan kissed him there, crowded him up against the door and kissed him. One hand slid out from under Wei Ying’s shirt to curl around the back of his head, fingers sinking into his hair.
Oh. Wei Ying twined his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck, surging up into him. He took Lan Zhan’s full bottom lip into his mouth and closed his teeth around it, and Lan Zhan made a low, startled noise, and that was it; the next kiss was hard and hot and deep, mouths moving slickly together, Wei Ying digging his fingernails into the back of Lan Zhan’s neck. Whenever he’d let himself imagine this, he’d thought Lan Zhan might kiss like he spoke, beautiful and measured, somehow elegant. He had, to put it delicately, thought wrong. Lan Zhan kissed like he wanted to fuck Wei Ying against the door. He kissed like he wanted his head between Wei Ying’s thighs, like he’d drop to his knees right here. It was all Wei Ying could do to remain upright, just clinging to him.
He didn’t know how long they stood there making out in the entry well before Wei Ying shivered and broke the kiss, gasping, just long enough to say, “Do you—do you have—?”
“Have what,” Lan Zhan said, ducking to kiss and bite at Wei Ying’s neck, both hands up the back of his shirt, fingertips dipping beneath the waistband of his jeans, holy fuck.
“Holy fuck,” Wei Ying half-breathed, half-moaned, head tipping back against the door. “You know. Like. Stuff.” When Lan Zhan just made an inquisitive noise, mouthing at the other side of Wei Ying’s neck, “Like condoms.”
Lan Zhan went still. “…No,” he said, and he sounded so forlorn that Wei Ying burst out laughing, taking Lan Zhan’s head in his hands and pulling him up.
“How tragic,” he said, brushing his thumbs over Lan Zhan’s pretty cheekbones. “Oh, that’s so sad. There’s simply no solution. I guess we can never, ever fuck.”
Lan Zhan narrowed his eyes. He looked more wrecked than Wei Ying had ever seen him, more wrecked than he had the first time, ears and cheeks glowing, hair messy where Wei Ying had been running his fingers through it, his mouth the deep jewel-red of wine. “Convenience store,” he decided.
“Aha! Do you know, I think that could work,” said Wei Ying. “Ah Lan Zhan, you’re so wonderful, I really love you. Should we both go? Mm… yeah, let’s both go, there’s different kinds to choose from. Okay. Put your coat on.”
He looked at Lan Zhan expectantly. Lan Zhan blinked once, very slow, and said, “What?”
“Put your coat on,” Wei Ying repeated.
“...Okay,” said Lan Zhan. He put on his powder-blue coat that always smelled good. He put on his very nice tan suede boots. Then he straightened up and took Wei Ying’s face in his hands, his eyes soft and bright, and said, “Wei Ying. I love you.”
Wei Ying felt himself turning pink. “Ah. Love you,” he managed.
Lan Zhan kissed him on the forehead, the cheek, the corner of his mouth. He zipped up Wei Ying’s hoodie for him and said, “Love you. Okay. Convenience store.”
“Yes, that,” Wei Ying said. He slipped his hand into Lan Zhan’s, intertwining their fingers, and followed him out the door.