The violinist moves in the first week of April.
“You heard them practicing?” asks Yanli, sitting out on the tiny slip of a balcony that his studio apartment boasts. It’s not quite warm enough for it, not really, but four months of snow can do a lot to change one’s perceptions of what counts as outdoor weather. The sun is out so they are too, folded up shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee in his dusty, weather-stained plastic chairs with their view of the dog park, which isn’t the back alley or the main street and therefore luxurious by city standards.
Wei Wuxian pours them both a little more tea and nudges the door closed behind him to keep his sheet music from blowing around in the chill breeze.
“The other day, yeah. Mozart.”
“Yeah,” says Wei Wuxian. Really good, actually, from the five minutes or so he’d caught before he’d had to run off to his volunteer gig at the elementary school––before he’d been nearly late to his volunteer gig at the elementary school, distracted listening to the most elegant rendition of Sonata No. 21 he’s heard.
“Hm,” says Yanli, watching him from behind the lip of her mug. Steam curls pleasantly in the slanting light of the morning. He frowns.
“Nothing. Maybe you should introduce yourself.”
“Absolutely not,” he declares. “I deal with more than enough boring, puffed-up musicians every day. I don’t need to add another one to the collection. Besides, I have no idea where they live.”
“The apartment block sounds a good place to start.”
“I’ll just put up a notice down next to the mail boxes then.”
She huffs. “You don’t always have to make things difficult for yourself, A-Xian.”
“I’m not making things difficult. I mean it, I’ve got plenty of stuff to do already. I don’t need to go bothering the neighbors for entertainment.”
“When has that stopped you before?”
“Wen Qing doesn’t count.”
She hums again and goes back to her tea. He watches her a careful moment before he sips at his.
“What if they’re hot, though?”
He chokes on his drink. “A-jie!”
She smiles serenely and looks out over the park. He doesn’t pick up his cup again.
The weather stays nice all week, nice enough that Thursday evening he’s sitting out on his scrap of a balcony with a glass––well, it’s a mug, one of those unwieldy ones with the university crest emblazoned across it, whatever––of wine and wondering if it’s worth calling up Nie Huaisang or Jiang Cheng to do something fun for the night when they both have day jobs to get to in the morning. Though, what exactly Huaisang does he’s not sure, and they’ve been friends since undergrad.
He’s halfway through a text, because fuck it, live life while you can, etc. when the strains of a violin curl up from one of the apartments around the side of the complex, and Wei Wuxian leaves off his text, head tilted to listen. It takes him about six bars to recognize the piece, and when he does he grins and scrambles for his flute where it’s sitting out on the kitchen table from his practice earlier.
It’s been… honestly, an embarrassingly long time since he’s played any Bach, but he’s done this one for more than one end of term recital––the orchestra directors always seemed to appreciate it––and in the way of old music, his fingers remember their placements better than his brain. So he gives his head joint a few perfunctory puffs and adjusts it, then steps back out onto the balcony, nudging one of the chairs as out of the way as it will go. The violinist is still playing, lilting and quick, and it takes him another twelve count to pick up the line of the melody again, but once he has it he sets his lips to cool metal and blows.
He chirps out in D-minor, listening intently. The violinist stutters, briefly––falls out of tune, first flat and then too sharp, notes tumbling off the staff––but they recover in the amount of time it takes Wei Wuxian to shake his hair out of his face and fix his positioning.
He would smile, if he weren’t otherwise occupied.
They pass the sonata back and forth, and in the stillness afterwards Wei Wuxian throws out the opening phrase of Baxtresser’s Lakme arrangement. The violinist picks it up slowly, a hesitant familiarity. It’s unbalanced without the piano, but there’s nothing to be done for that, not unless one of their neighbors wants to step in with a handy keyboard and make it a trio.
No one does.
It goes well enough until Wei Wuxian flubs the theme coming back in after the solo and descends into laughter, fingers skittering across all the wrong keys. The violinist tugs the melody away from him––clearly they’ve picked it up by now; it’s not a complicated line––and Wei Wuxian gathers himself to play the second part, all replies, simpler and more sedate. The echo of their final note drifts out into the evening air, circling the sunset.
From one of the apartments below, someone applauds. Wei Wuxian plays a trill like a laugh. The violinist stays quiet. He waits for the next invitation, fingers poised, listening.
It doesn’t come. Or, rather, before it might the oven dings, and he swears and shins himself on a chair in his haste to get to dinner before it burns. Behind him, the violin starts up again, a slow and lilting piece he doesn’t know off the top of his head. It trails off after a few bars, like a question, but he's too busy trying to find somewhere to put the casserole dish among the clutter of his kitchenette to answer. A minute later they pick up again, playing through the piece three times without pause. The sun sets through the open door, and he should close it against the dark and the chill but he can’t bring himself to cut off the music. It isn’t until much later, after dinner is done and the kitchen is half as much of a mess and nearly an hour of silence has passed beneath it all, that he finally closes the door and methodically cleans and dismantles his flute.
He takes to practicing outside, when he can. It’s a little tricky; the snow clears only for the rain to rush in, long dripping days, and school becomes more and more of a nightmare the closer they get to the end of term, assignments piling up and obligations looming large. Anyone who says grad students don’t have to worry about the semester system is a fucking liar. He has two compositions due––sort of his own fault, for not turning the first one in on time––two end-of-term performances with different chamber groups plus one with the wind ensemble, a conducting practicum, and a hands-on term project about music education that, though mostly covered by the elementary school volunteering, still requires him to write up, well, a lot of bullshit as part of his degree. (The technical term is “quarterly lesson plans and bi-weekly reflections” but whatever, it’s bullshit. Wei Wuxian has been teaching long enough to know that prep work means nothing if you can’t engage the kids, okay? He’s signing up to do this for the rest of his life; he doesn’t need to rehash Piaget and Hargreaves every two weeks for a dusty old professor who wouldn’t know a child if it bit him.)
But a degree is a degree and he’s pretty sure the Jiangs would disown him for real if he flunked out of his oh-so-unsexy musical education masters after turning down a real music school. So he covers four weeks of late reports in a miserable all-nighter halfway through April, ensconced in the undergrad library because some motherfucker in the Composition doctorate program booked his practice room from four in the afternoon until the music building closes at midnight.
But in spite of all the work, in the odd hours when he doesn’t have to be on campus or volunteering or attending to the other half-dozen responsibilities he’s heaped on himself because he can’t say no––which is only a problem if you let it be, Jiang Cheng––he practices out on his balcony, doors thrown open. The violinist, whoever they are, keeps hours almost as scattershot as his own, so it works out. They're probably a student, Wei Wuxian assumes, between the off-campus housing and the weird hours. They exchange a flirtation of a Mozart and then a selection of Chopins and a few modern pieces Wei Wuxian doesn’t know but can fake well enough. It’s… nice, sort of, to play music without the pressure of school or a performance or some kind of review at the end of it. To play around with the pieces, bounce themes and refrains off each other until they’re unrecognizable but not unlovely, taking old standards and doing something new with them. It’s fun.
“I mean,” says Nie Huaisang when he comes over, lounging on Wei Wuxian’s mess of a bed. “You play music with people literally all the time. How’s this any different?”
“You mean besides the sexy mystery duet partner aspect of it?”
He doesn’t even blink, just fans himself with an old score that Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he was supposed to return to the music department at the end of last semester. Whoops. “Yeah, besides that.”
“Dunno. We’re just playing around, really.”
“Don’t you want to know who it is?”
“And ruin the mystery?”
“Maybe, but don’t you want to play together properly, or whatever? Especially if they’re around campus too.”
“Nah,” says Wei Wuxian, pressing down an unexpected spike of something not unlike panic. If he met them it would be… well, real. They’d have a name and a face and he’d have to say hello to them in the foyer or whatever, make small talk and all that. It would just muddy up the rest of it. It’s so easy right now, with only the music between them. He likes it that way. “I hang out with obnoxious music students way too much anyway. Besides, what if they’re super weird? It’s better like this.”
“If you say so,” says Nie Huaisang with a shrug. “You sound like the weird one to me.”
“Well, they haven't reached out either, have they? So clearly we’re on the same page.”
“Or they’re just really shy. Or haven’t figured out where you live. Hey, maybe they’re going from apartment to apartment through the whole complex trying to find you.”
“I hope not,” says Wei Wuxian. Nie Huaisang flops back on the bed.
“You think they’re hot?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“It’s an important question, bro. Violin’s a hot instrument.”
Wei Wuxian shoves him off the bed.
In his one theory course, which he’s taking mostly for fun and also because the professor is an easygoing concert pianist who hates grading assignments as much as the class hates doing them so the workload is laughable, they spend two hours discussing Brahms and classical structures and the interplay between tradition and innovation, and Wei Wuxian goes home and learns one of the Hungarian dances in a fit of insomnia and inspiration. When he plays it a few days later in invitation, the violinist surprises him by playing it back, then embellishing it and writing a countermelody on the spot, which is quite possibly the sexiest thing he's ever heard. Between the two of them, they weave a dizzying duet that spins in circles and up into the afternoon. They keep at it long enough that Wei Wuxian ends up being properly late for volunteering. Old Mrs. Wen only sighs when he shows up, out of breath and cheerfully apologetic, and tells him Jingyi broke one of the glockenspiels.
“Sorry,” says Jingyi, looking vaguely heartbroken. Wei Wuxian ruffles his hair.
“Accidents happen. Are you hurt at all?”
His lip wobbles. “No.”
“That’s good then. Ah, don’t look so gloomy. The instrument’s replaceable. You aren’t. Why don’t you go play with Yuan for today, and maybe be careful about where you put your elbows, hm?”
After the lesson, when the class has filed back to their home room, Mrs. Wen corners him picking up his lesson notes.
“So what was it this time?”
He blinks up at her. “Hm?”
“What did you get caught up in? Something interesting, I hope?”
“Oh. Um, a duet.”
She hums. “One of your classes?”
“No, with a. Um, a neighbor? It’s kind of a weird situation.” She stares at him with her wrinkly, patient grandma face and Wei Wuxian finds himself opening his mouth explaining the whole thing. When he finishes, old Mrs. Wen laughs.
“That’s very sweet.”
“You don’t think it’s weird?”
“No.” She shrugs. “It’s good to have music in life. That’s why we teach it, right? However it comes, it’s good to have.”
He leans in impulsively to kiss her cheek. “Thanks. Um, I’ll have that arrangement for the upper class done by next week. I promise.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” She’s sweet, Mrs. Wen, but not stupid. He laughs, sort of, and winces his way out the door.
There are a few days in late April that the violinist spends practicing nothing but Lan Yi variations, each of which is hauntingly gorgeous, if sort of archaic. Wei Wuxian knows them of course because his aunt is nothing if not a stickler for tradition, but still. Weird.
That doesn’t stop him from joining in, of course. If anything, it’s encouragement. Those are some of his favorite pieces. Playing them feels almost like a conversation, like they could be speaking face to face, except there’s only music between.
Wei Wuxian thinks maybe that means something. He’s not sure what. He finds himself humming them at odd times, all soaring embellishments and misplaced fourths and fifths.
“What?” he says, halfway through ensemble rehearsal when the oboist gives him another one of her looks.
Wei Wuxian likes Mianmian. She’s mean and sharp and doesn’t take any shit, even from him.
“You’re being weird.”
“You’re being weird,” he says, which is maybe not his best comeback but Mianmian rolls her eyes and leaves him be through the rest of the Holst.
One particularly slow evening, when the violinist has spent nearly an hour picking at a Dvorák with an irritable impatience Wei Wuxian can hear clearly through the music, he interrupts to play a full jazz rendition of the part, then beatboxes it on the flute until he can’t play for laughing. The violinist is silent for a long time afterwards, long enough that Wei Wuxian worries maybe he’s offended them. He’s about to play it right, as an apology, when he gets roughly twenty bars of honest-to-god American fiddle for it.
He spends the rest of the week feeling sweeping, romantic feelings about folk music, and ends up on an impassioned phone call with Jiang Cheng extolling the virtues of common music and its roots, and why doesn’t he play more modern stuff, like really modern stuff? Y’know, low-brow art. He’s going into pop flute, or whatever. Lizzo does it and she makes so much money. Like, so much money. What’s Lizzo’s net worth, anyway?
“Mom would disown you,” says Jiang Cheng pleasantly when Wei Wuxian has finally run out of things to say.
“I dunno,” he says, stretched out on one of the couches in the student union because that composition asshole is in his practice room, again, so he’s stuck drawing up his lesson plans out here like an undergrad. “Imagine busting out some R&B at the final concert. Might be kind of fun to watch everyone have an aneurism.”
“For you, maybe.”
True. He shifts his phone to his other ear. “Something to think about.”
“Please,” Jiang Cheng says. “Don’t make it worse than it’ll already be.”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
He can practically hear his brother roll his eyes.
He’s picking up his mail in the small hours of the morning––junk, junk, a postcard from Wen Ning studying abroad, more junk––when he catches sight of the post-it note pinned up to the notice board and the sheet music behind it.
For the flautist it says in crisp handwriting, and Wei Wuxian has to do a double––and then a triple––take to be sure he’s not making it up. He juggles his mail and backpack and flute case awkwardly so he can pull out the pushpin, then goes diving after the papers when they scatter across the foyer, but it’s fine because it’s late enough to be early and there’s no one around to watch him make a fool of himself.
Not that that would stop him, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.
For the flautist is three pages of a flute solo he doesn’t know, but when he gets up to his room and sheds his billion personal belongings in a pile by the door and slots his flute together––despite the hour and the exhaustion and the dozen and one things he still needs to do––he finds it’s beautifully bright, a sweet and soaring piece that sticks in his head and his fingers long after he’s finished learning it. He doesn’t have anything to give in return, but one afternoon once the violin has gone quiet he plays it in its entirety, soaring out into the evening.
The next day there’s a new duet pinned up to the board. Wei Wuxian grins.
So April showers pass into the full bloom of May, and the first strains of summer begin to set in. Wei Wuxian throws open his windows and dashes off his late composition, finally, something whistling and bright that reminds him mostly of Yanli, who has not stopped texting him about making friends with the violinist. Eventually, fed up and halfway through a bottle of wine that’s supposed to be helping him with his homework but is mostly just there to keep him company, he replies to her unsubtle probing.
we’re playing music together quit pestering me
Her response comes moments later.
You reached out!
And maybe it’s the wine, or the mountain of work he still has to do, or the fact that he just wants Yanli to be happy with him for something and stop asking about it all the time, that he says––
What are they like? Hot?
Which. Well. Fuck.
He panics for about two minutes then decides––fuck it, he’s never going to meet the violinist and neither is Yanli, so who cares if he makes something up. Actually, maybe it’s more fun that way. Besides, it’s not lying to say he’s reached out. Even if it’s just sheet music and resident requests pinned to the apartment notice board at odd intervals.
(Wei Wuxian keeps half hoping to catch the violinist in the act, and keeps hoping to not. He’s a little worried about what will happen if things change. Or a lot worried. It’s just–– Most things in his life are a poorly-balanced jenga tower of potential disaster. It’s nice to have one good thing that’s not tied in with the rest.)
He settles on:
super hot 👌👌👌
The three dots blink at the bottom of his screen for a moment before his phone buzzes again.
Do you have a picture? 👀
what no of course not I’m not gonna make things weird
anyway he’s shy
What’s his name?
Wei Wuxian panics. Again.
I’m not telling u ur gonna facebook stalk him or smth
then u’ll tell wq and she’ll fb stalk him just leave him alone
Alright. I hope I can meet him. Maybe at the concert?
He waits warily for his phone to buzz again but it doesn’t.
He’s so fucked.
He hands in his completed composition, the one that was due back in March, and the four weeks of late Developmental Psychology reports from volunteering, and learns an impossibly bland arrangement for flute trio for a classmate’s end-of-term showcase––his fourth of the semester, now, why does he keep doing this to himself––and finds that composition asshole is in his practice room again. So he spends the afternoon tucked away in the lobby of the music building with staff music spread across ninety percent of the table, all of it ignored while he furiously pounds out another stupid Dev Psych reflection where he has to talk about shit like achievable educational goals and developmental milestones instead of how fucking cool and smart his kids are. Maybe personal pleasure and self-confidence aren’t measurable developmental goals but anyone with half a brain and a single eye in their head could see that these kids are doing better with music than without it, and if that doesn’t just make him want to write to every single local and regional politician to tell them how important it is to have music in schools and they shouldn’t need numbers to show that, they can just look at the kids.
But that’s off topic. He writes his report––at least this one isn’t late––and prints it out, waiting impatiently for the department printer to finish spitting out half a dozen pages of someone’s score, some orchestral arrangement with a complicated, intriguing flute part. He’s leaning in close to get a better look at it when one of the composition grad students sweeps by to pick it up, dressed in pressed slacks and a chic white jacket that are immediately familiar as––
––the fucker who keeps booking his practice room.
The man looks at him blankly. “Me.”
He’s unbelievably handsome with his dark hair and his cheekbones and his fancy rich boy clothes, but Wei Wuxian’s not willing to forgive him for carrel theft just because he’s hot. And tall. Mostly hot.
“You keep stealing my practice room.”
“Your practice room.”
He seems big on repetition and variation. Wei Wuxian huffs as the printer finally begins spitting out his report, folding his arms.
“Yes! I’ve been using it all year. It’s practically assigned to me. You can’t keep booking it.”
Fancy Hot Boy blinks. “The acoustics are the best.”
“Yes I know, that’s why I use it.”
“Mn. You should reserve it in advance then.”
Wei Wuxian splutters. The composition student frowns at him for a moment, then collects the papers off the printer, his and Wei Wuxian’s both, and stacks them neatly. He frowns at the first few pages of the report, and hands them over.
“Your title is misspelled, Wei Ying,” he says, and turns to go, perfect line of his back retreating across the lobby. Wei Wuxian hasn’t even got his name.
He’s right too. The double sized font at the top of the page reads Dvlopmental Psych & Music: Weeks 11 & 12 . Wei Wuxian brings the report up to his face and groans.
A little whiteout, a borrowed pen, and a wheedling promise to his prof to be on time with his last report and subsequent final paper solves the immediate problem. But ensemble rehearsal is a mess and Mianmian isn’t there to complain about it with him, and his long walk home in the perfectly still heat of mid-May sours his mood further. He’s sweaty and sticky and gross by the time he gets back to the apartment and discovers there’s nothing in his cabinets but a couple packets of instant ramen––and not even good flavors; they’re all the funky ones he’s been studiously avoiding.
He wants to lie down on the floor and never get up, or drink, or both.
Instead, he breaks out his flute and opens the balcony in the hopes it might encourage an evening’s cross breeze and rifles through his music binder for the sharpest, most prickly piece he can find. He settles abruptly on the Rimsky-Korsakov score he’s supposed to be studying for his conducting class, transposing by sight where the melody jumps away from flute, fingers flickering across the keys like he could exorcise his mood through music alone.
He’s looping back around to start again when the violinist jumps in, and Wei Wuxian is just––not about it, not today. He picks up the tempo from irritable to punishing, and this fast his pitch slips, music going sharp and bitter. The violin keeps up––not fair, the piece was written for them to begin with––but that doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian. They race each other to the finish, almost, and when it ends Wei Wuxian lets out a short, sharp shrill of protest that cuts through the evening. A breeze finally stirs, catching at the edges of his score.
After a quiet, almost tentative minute of silence broken by nothing but his breathing and the soft fluttering of paper, the violinist plays a run, not nearly so harsh as the piece. Wei Wuxian plays something minor and morose back. Bad day, he means. The violinist echoes it, then brings it up to major key. Wei Wuxian finds himself smiling despite himself. He offers the opening notes of one of the Lan Yi pieces. The violin gently slides in to join him, sweet and gentle and curling through the night, and by the time it comes to a close, Wei Wuxian feels lanced, cleansed.
He wishes there were some way to say thank you like this. He hopes his violinist understands.
There’s a small package in front of his door when he gets home from class, a bottle wrapped in paper and on top of it a post-it note in the handwriting of Mr. Four down on, well, four, whose name Wei Wuxian definitely knows. Knew. Probably knew?
A request for the musician. Yiruma?
Wei Wuxian laughs. Piano, sure, but he could learn an arrangement. There are probably a dozen out there at least.
He crouches down to pick up the paper-wrapped bottle and discovers it’s Mr. Four’s own hand-distilled fruit wine.
Hell. He’ll write an arrangement.
Which he does, staying up too late and ignoring his coursework and lesson planning and the paperwork he needs to be filling out for his prospective summer courses, in favor of playing around with keys and flourishes. He performs it one Saturday morning when he knows Mr. Four likes to talk a turn around the courtyard so he can flirt with Ms. Ouyang in building D. His violinist isn’t around, but Wei Wuxian catches them playing a variation on it when he leaves for the Jiangs’ weekly family dinner late that afternoon, and it puts a smile on his face all the way across town. Not even Mrs. Yu’s vaguely disapproving comments about finding a real profession can wipe it away.
Sometimes, he tries pop songs. Call Me Maybe doesn’t go over particularly well, which is really too bad because Carly Rae is fucking great, and also he kind of means it. He apologizes, sort of, with the tritest solo and ensemble piece he can think of, metronomic and dull and properly classical. In return, his violinist refuses to play anything but covers of 80s power ballads for three days straight, which is some real commitment to the bit. Wei Wuxian kind of appreciates that even more.
As May comes to a close, the end of term crashes down with the inevitability of a finale, pulling no punches and leaving no survivors. Wei Wuxian learns second flute for a quartet in forty-eight hours when one of the members pulls out over artistic differences––seriously, Su She can go fuck himself––and then turns around and has his conductor’s recital the next afternoon, which Yanli shows up to even though he’s not actually the one playing.
“You’re leading a whole orchestra,” she says, excited, like it’s something besides a 3pm showcase for one of the undergrad music ensembles. It’s sweet of her to come, though. She brings flowers and he wears a clean shirt and sort-of pressed slacks and they take pictures just inside the lobby of the concert hall, blown out from the sunlight filtering through the enormous windows that look out over the arts green, but it’s fine, it’s nice.
Afterwards, most importantly, she takes him out for dinner at the cheap Mexican place down the street, where they meet up with her roommate and Wei Wuxian’s friend from undergrad, Wen Qing.
“Hey, so,” says Wen Qing halfway into the appetizer. “I hear you made friends with your hot violinist neighbor.”
“I’m not talking about this,” declares Wei Wuxian. Wen Qing leans further forward, elbows braced on the table and Yanli leans back with a quiet smile. It’s classic good-cop-bad-cop and he’s not falling for it this time. He isn’t.
“A-Li says you won’t tell her anything.”
“She’s right. I won’t.”
“But you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
“No. I refuse." He sticks a chip in his mouth, and says, mouth full, "This is bullying, you know.”
“Real mature,” snorts Wen Qing. He presses his lips together.
“You don’t have to tell us his name,” says Yanli patiently, picking at her food.
“Though I don’t know why you wouldn’t,” interjects Wen Qing.
“But what’s he like? Do you like him?”
“Yeah, I like him,” says Wei Wuxian, then promptly closes his mouth again. Yanli smiles, and he offers up, nonchalant, “I mean, he’s my friend.”
Are they? Oh. Yes. Huh. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure they are.
“And?” prompts Wen Qing. Wei Wuxian shrugs.
“What’s he like?”
Wei Wuxian looks between them and relents. There’s no winning against them all teamed up like this. It’s like big sister energy squared. What’s he to do? He slumps back in his chair.
“I don’t know, he’s like, a normal person. He’s really serious about his music, but he likes to mess around with it too, he's not all uptight. He’s got a sense of humor, but he’s quiet about it. He’s a good listener.” A really good listener, in more ways than one. In all the ways that count.
Mostly, Wei Wuxian knows he likes playing music with them. Likes their strange conversations, part music and part instinct. Likes how he can understand what they’re saying without using words at all.
“Ah,” says Yanli. Both Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing look over at her. Wei Wuxian frowns. Wen Qing looks dangerously pleased about something.
“Nothing,” she says. “I’m just looking forward to meeting him.”
“Well, he’s busy,” says Wei Wuxian, because they probably are. It’s been days since he’s heard anything from them; they’re probably equally inundated with end-of-term shit. “Anyway, enough talk about my mysterious and sexy neighbor. You know what we should talk about? There’s this absolute asshole in the music department, the rudest man I’ve ever met, with absolutely no understanding for personal boundaries or, like the dibs rule––”
He gets home late that night, caught up remembering how much he likes hanging out with people who don't live and breathe the university life, and as he’s crossing the courtyard he catches a snatch of violin, muffled through a window. Wei Wuxian pauses.
He can’t tell which apartment it’s coming from in the dark. The music is muted and distant, and the piece, whatever it is, isn’t one he recognizes in the slightest. After a few bars the violin falters, then starts up again, playing the same line but different, just a little. Then another pause, and another variation, sometimes looping back to play something slightly different three or four times in a row, and he realizes suddenly what’s going on.
His violinist is composing something.
He also realizes he’s standing smack in the middle of the courtyard, staring up like an idiot. He shakes himself and crosses to his building, hoping his violinist will still be playing when he gets up to his apartment.
They aren’t. Wei Wuxian dumps his bag and his case and opens his balcony doors wide and receives nothing but the eddying May breeze and the sounds of the city. He breathes in deep and stares out over the dark of the dog park, the buildings beyond it.
Then, chewing on his lip, he pulls out his book of blank staff music and starts on his composition final.
Jingyi breaks one of the bongos the last week of class, which is actually really funny in the moment and Wei Wuxian spends more energy trying not to laugh at the shocked face the kid makes when his hand goes straight through the drum skin than he does being upset about it.
“Maybe not quite that hard,” he says mildly, and once the kids leave he breaks down laughing until he cries.
Which. Might be a stress response. Whatever.
He plays in his two chamber ensembles, which is utterly anticlimactic because he’s been practicing for those, actually, unlike all the pinch hitting he’s been doing the past few weeks, and then all that’s left is finishing his composition, the write-up for his stupid fucking Dev Psych course, and the final music department concert which, in his experience, is a slog, but one he can sleep through once the wind ensemble is done, since all the concert band and full orchestra will also be performing and Wei Wuxian isn’t stupid enough to participate in more than one of those.
Not since that first semester, anyway.
He pulls another all-nighter for his Dev Psych final, which is probably indecipherable but whatever, fuck that class. One of the nice things about reading week is that the music building stays open all night long, so he doesn’t even need to make the walk of shame to the undergrad library––he can park himself in his corner table and continue to steal coffee out of the staff lounge all night long.
He’s there humming to himself and waiting for another pot to brew when the tall and hot and rude compositional PhD student appears in the doorway. Wei Wuxian blinks.
“Oh,” he says dumbly. “It’s you.”
“I apologize,” says Tall-Hot-and-Rude, which is actually very polite of him, isn't it? Not rude at all. “I did not realize anyone else was here.”
“You stealing from the faculty too?” Wei Wuxian asks. It’s about one in the morning and he’s six cups in and not entirely sure if he’s speaking actual human language or just projecting his thoughts into the air and hoping someone picks up on them.
Clearly it's the former, because Tall-Hot-and-Rude goes fishing through the cabinets and says mildly, “It is not stealing. I pay tuition.”
Wei Wuxian takes a moment to process that, then laughs. Tall-Hot-and-Rude looks slightly surprised at the sound.
“What are you looking for?” Wei Wuxian asks him, unfurling slightly. It’s hard to be pissed off at one in the morning when the faculty kitchen feels like a netherworld and everyone who passes through it is a comrade in the fight against higher education, a hopeless cause they should all have abandoned long ago. Also, sue him, he’s hot. And not even that rude, practice-room-theft aside, obviously. Tall-Hot-and-Rude hesitates.
“There is tea somewhere,” he says finally. “I… left it. Earlier.”
Wei Wuxian nods and taps the side of his nose knowingly––he fully understands squirreling away vital provisions in the music building; he’s done it himself more times than he can count––and steps aside, opening the drawer behind him. There’s a collection of tea bags within, and ah, yes, someone’s tucked a few jars of loose leaf away at the back. Tall-Hot-and––
Wei Wuxian huffs.
“Hey, listen. What’s your name? You know mine but I don’t know yours and that’s just unfair. I can’t keep going around calling you Tall-Hot-and-Rude in my head. It’s a mouthful. Head-full. Whatever.”
The composition student looks down at the tea in the drawer, then up at Wei Wuxian. His mouth opens a few times.
“Lan Zhan,” he says finally. Then, “Tall, hot and… Rude?”
“...Mm,” he says, and flips on the electric kettle. They both stand there for an awkward moment.
“I did not––”
Wei Wuxian blinks. Lan Zhan clears his throat. “Please,” he invites.
“I was just gonna,” says Wei Wuxian. “You’re composition, right? The PhD program?”
“Cause I haven’t, like. Seen you around before. I don’t think.” He’s pretty sure he would have remembered. Like, really sure. He would have recalled someone who looks like, y’know, that coming and going from the music building, his home away from home-away-from-home.
“I transfered. Recently.” He says it stiffly, and offers nothing else. Wei Wuxian, for once in his life, doesn’t pry.
“Neat. So you’ll be performing at the end-of-term concert then? Like, the comp students usually––” Lan Zhan is giving him a strange look. “Um, they told you about that right?”
“Yes you’ll be performing or yes they told you?”
There’s the faintest, faintest tightening of amusement at the corner of his mouth, which makes Wei Wuxian feel like he’s fucking, like, won something or some shit. “Both.”
“Okay, well. Cool. Good. Can’t wait to hear it. Better be fucking good, since you’re using my practice room to do it.”
The amusement smooths away, which is a legitimate tragedy and makes Wei Wuxian feel bad, even though he means it as a joke. After a stiff moment, Lan Zhan says, “If you need the room, I can find another.”
“Oh, no. No, see, now it’s our thing.” Wei Wuxian shakes his head and pours himself more coffee once the pot stops burbling. “Anyway, I’ve got a groove going out here, I couldn’t move now. And it really is the best practice room. I think there’s a still bottle of whiskey in the wall where I hid it, behind the piano. You should definitely help yourself, if you want. Just, good luck, y’know? Composition’s a bitch.”
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan, looking faintly overwhelmed. Then, “I do not think you are meant to drink in the practice rooms.”
“What? I pay tuition,” he says, and grins at his own joke. “Nice to meet you properly, Lan Zhan.”
“You as well, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian considers correcting him but he kind of likes this familiarity. He’s easy to talk to, Lan Zhan. He listens.
Wei Wuxian wonders, as he returns to his staked-out table, if his violinist is anything like Lan Zhan in person. He kind of, for some reason he can’t quite figure out, hopes so.
He doesn’t speak to another soul for the rest of the night, and ends up getting home shortly after sunrise. He’s got five hours before his deadline, so he takes a long shower, flops into bed to sleep for a few hours, and gives his final report a perfunctory once-over before emailing it in along with a video of his elementary schoolers playing Happy Together. It’s not necessary, but he hopes the cute factor wins him some bonus points. He could really use them.
Afterwards, he goes back to sleep. By the time he wakes up, it’s dark and he’s starving and he’s missed a text from his brother and a call from Old Mrs. Wen down at the school.
The text is something about a late surprise for Yanli’s birthday since she was sick and he was busy when they were supposed to do something, which he agrees to on principle and then promises Jiang Cheng he will think about it with his actual brain just as soon as the semester ends.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t text him back.
Old Mrs. Wen’s has left him a voicemail about a few of her students who want to continue private lessons, which makes Wei Wuxian’s heart so big and happy he has to lie back on the bed and grin up at the ceiling until he thinks his whole chest might explode. It’s entirely possible he cries. Definitely a stress thing.
It’s after dinner when he hears the violin start up, the same half-finished composition from a few nights ago. Wei Wuxian, staring blankly at his own composition final, certain it’s missing something but no idea what ––see, this is why he prefers arrangements; it’s easier when you’re just, like, resurrecting different parts or whatever, making them do what you need them to do––perks up, grabbing his flute and stepping out onto the balcony.
His violinist plays through a phrase, twice, and then stutters to a stop, scraping over the same three notes. Wei Wuxian takes a breath and echoes them. Hello, I’m here.
The violin cuts out. Then, slowly: the phrase again, inviting. Wei Wuxian echoes it again, tossing in a walkdown in the last measure. His violinist is quiet for a moment––contemplative, he thinks, and can’t say why he thinks it––and then plays the pickup, moving onwards. He falls into harmony, uncomplicated, punctuating what is at its heart a simple piece with embellishments while the violin keeps a steady melody, an anchor line.
It’s no different from any other time they’ve played back and forth, Wei Wuxian pushing as far as he can while his violinist keeps solid beneath, echoing his tricks and trills with subtle embellishments of their own. It’s only that there’s no music pinned to the notice board this time, no old classics everyone knows. This is music Wei Wuxian has never heard before, music no one has ever heard before, and he is content to let his violinist lead. It’s easy, anyway, to hear where he should fall, to anticipate what comes next, fingers responding before he even has to think about it. There’s something of those traditional Lan Yi pieces to it, both in their synchronicity and in the way the music unfolds, conversational, a meaning beneath the sound so close to language that he can nearly taste it.
They play late into the evening, looping through the piece until it steadies under their hands, shaped into a twining duet, its melody passed back and forth, one voice light and laughing and the other smooth and steady. The sun has long-since set when the last note rings out, and they fall silent by mutual unspoken agreement. Wei Wuxian breathes.
Then he plays the Mario level-up ditty. It feels right.
Someone downstairs laughs, and there’s scattered applause from around the apartment. They’ve picked up an audience, it seems.
He lingers out on the narrow balcony in the cool of the evening, waiting for a reply, but nothing comes. Eventually he admits defeat and steps back inside, oddly adrift in his own apartment. In the dark, everything feels strange, unspooled and remade again. As though some great change has taken place, invisible.
He shakes his head, huffing to himself. It’s just his apartment. There’s nothing different here.
His ear stays half trained outside, windows open, but his violinist doesn’t return. Wei Wuxian fits himself back into his chair at the kitchen table in front of his own incomplete composition, and picks up his pen.
When he finally drops into bed with the sunrise, it’s finished.
Mr. Four and Ms. Ouyang accost him in the foyer on his way out the door that afternoon, comp final in his backpack and flute case in hand.
“That was beautiful, last night,” says Mr. Four. “I didn’t recognize the piece.”
“It's an original composition,” Wei Wuxian hedges. Ms. Ouyang nods.
“Ah, of course. You boys are so talented, you know. Have you been playing together long?”
“Oh, uh, no,” says Wei Wuxian, feeling sort of weird about knowing his mysterious violinist is definitely a dude. “Nope, just a happy coincidence.”
“You must practice on campus, then,” she decides. “I think it’s sweet, how dedicated you both are to your work. Be sure to tell him how much we enjoyed last night’s performance, when you see him.”
“Sure thing,” Wei Wuxian agrees, weirdness multiplying, trying to think of which violinists he knows on campus, if he’s been playing with any of them. Oh, fuck. What if it’s Meng Yao? Has he been playing heartfelt duets with Meng Yao for the past two months? He clamps down on a shudder. “Uh, I actually have to get to class, now, so, um, thanks! Bye!”
He spends the walk to campus in spiraling into an existential crisis, and ends up calling Yanli from outside the music building, pacing back and forth, tugging at his hair like a madman. The day is warm and breezy, and students sit sprinkled across the green like dandelion seeds, taking advantage of the weather. No one pays him any mind, because finals season does this to people on a regular basis. He’s feeling the lack of sleep, and something else underneath that he’s pretty sure is panic, but also might be stomach cramps. He'd slept through breakfast, and also lunch.
“Pick up,” he mutters. “Pick up, come on.”
She picks up.
“I think I know him,” he blurts out, moving out of the way of an undergrad who looks about twenty seconds away from tears. He relates.
“My––” He realizes how loud he's talking and pitches his voice low. “My violinist.”
Yanli is quiet for a moment. “I don’t understand. You’ve met.”
“I don’t––” He huffs. Ugh. This is why he hates lying to Yanli. It always makes him feel all squiggly inside. “I may have stretched the truth just a little.”
“A-Xian,” she sighs.
“We are friends! Really! I just–– I mean, it’s not like we’ve met face to face, y’know? Which is fine, or has been fine, except now I’m all––” He sighs again and slumps back against one of the trees outside the music building. Up above him, a cardinal gives him a baleful look and flits to a higher branch.
“You’re all what?” she asks, patient. She’s the best. He loves her.
“I was talking to a couple of my neighbors and they mentioned that he’s a student here too.”
“You suspected that.”
“Yeah but–– I mean, what if he’s someone I hate? What if he’s really obnoxious, or like, boring? Have you met the students here, A-jie? They’re the worst! Everyone’s got an ego the size of the sun and the interpersonal skills of a professional artist. It’s a bad combination!”
Yanli hums down the phone. “Didn’t you say they were dedicated and funny and a good listener? That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Maybe I got it wrong!” Which is what’s eating at him, really. Maybe he should have tried to find out who his–– who the violinist is earlier, so he and Wei Wuxian never had the chance to become whatever it is they are. Duet partners. Co-composers. Friends. He should have made it real right away, instead of trying to live in some bubble away from everything else. Then he wouldn’t have to worry he’s gone and poured heart and music out to someone who can’t return any of it.
“––Xian,” Yanli is saying down the line, voice pinched with worry. “Breathe, didi.”
“I know everything is stressful right now,” she says, gentle and firm in a way only she can be. It cuts through the panic and fear and carves the fight-or-flight right out of him. He sinks further back against the tree and covers his eyes. “But this isn’t something you have to worry about right now, okay? Focus on your schoolwork. He's not going anywhere. You can fret over everything once the semester is over and you’re not in the middle of finals.”
It’s a reasonable suggestion. He makes a face.
“Anyway,” she says after a moment. “I don’t think anyone who can make you smile like that is so bad.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he mumbles. If his face is hot, it’s from the sun.
“Mhm,” she hums, indulgent. “I’ll see you Friday, alright?”
Oh, shit. The concert. “No, right, I remember.” He sighs. “I’ll see you Friday.”
“Be kind to yourself,” she tells him, and hangs up.
He takes a moment to press his head against the trunk of the tree and call himself an overdramatic idiot, which doesn’t help with anything, actually. Funny that. So he drags himself upright and ducks into the music building, dim and grainy after the sunny glare outside. That’s why it takes him a minute to realize that the other student standing in front of the professors’ mailboxes at the far wall is Lan Zhan.
“Oh, hey,” says Wei Wuxian, setting aside his existential crisis and pushing his hair out of his face so he can go digging through his backpack for his composition final. Lan Zhan glances aside at him.
Wei Wuxian hums. “How’s finals treating you?”
Lan Zhan makes a non-committal noise in response, but he looks vaguely unhappy. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Yeah, same. Still, we’re almost free. You have anything left after the concert?”
“This is my final project,” he says, holding up a thick manilla envelope with his name and the class number printed across the front in crisp handwriting.
“Cool, same. Nice to be nearly done, right?”
“Mm,” he says.
“I guess you’ve still got your composition to perform, though.”
“What’s it for? Orchestra? Chamber ensemble?”
Lan Zhan looks pained. “Duet.”
Wei Wuxian nods, slotting his assignment into the right box. It feels like a physical weight lifts off his chest; he’s suddenly lightheaded. “Oh, cool. Well, like I said, can’t wait to hear it.”
Lan Zhan stares at him for a long minute, long enough that Wei Wuxian becomes starkly aware of how much a mess he must look and halfheartedly tries to smooth the rumpled front of his shirt. He's distantly sorry to have so thoroughly ruined any chance he had at appearing collected and levelheaded in front of Lan Zhan, but the guy kind of started it with the whole poaching of his practice room. Really Lan Zhan should be the one trying to make it up to him.
“Y’know, next semester we should work out a timeshare or something. For the practice room, I mean. Split it 50/50 or whatever.” He grins. “I don’t mind sharing.”
Lan Zhan blinks at him. “Alright.”
They stand in front of the boxes, not saying anything, until another student apologetically reaches between them and Wei Wuxian realizes they’re in the way.
“Anyway,” he says, taking a step back. Lan Zhan’s eyes follow him. “See you Friday night, yeah?”
“I’m sorry?” says Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“The concert, Lan Zhan. The final concert, remember? You’ve got your composition to perform.”
Wei Wuxian claps him on the shoulder. “Don’t practice too hard before then.”
“Mn,” he says. His face is doing something funny, but it’s hard to tell what exactly. Finals will do that to you.
“Welp,” says Wei Wuxian, feeling sort of final about the whole thing. Ha. Final, finals.
He really needs sleep.
“Bye, then,” he says into Lan Zhan’s silence. Lan Zhan’s eyes follow him all the way out the door.
Maybe he needs sleep too, Wei Wuxian decides, and treats himself to a monstrosity of a sugary, over-caffeinated drink that can barely be called a coffee at the campus cafe before returning home.
He spends the week doing absolutely nothing except for every now and then taking out his music for the final show and playing through it, keeping it fresh. It’s not even anything complicated; there’s too much going on at this point in the semester for the conductors to pick anything that requires too much brain power. They have one rehearsal Wednesday afternoon, but beyond that, Wei Wuxian is free.
He celebrates by ruining his sleep schedule, playing video games on his secondhand game console he keeps stashed away in the corner for times like this when he actually has, like, time, and setting up summer music lessons for little Yuan from Mrs. Wen’s class. She tells him they can use her classroom, which is great because she actually has a piano, unlike him.
“Jingyi might want lessons too,” she warns him over the phone. “I spoke with his parents. You made quite the impression.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “The more the merrier.”
This is what he’s studying for, anyway. This is what makes it all worthwhile.
Friday he sleeps in late, then drags himself out of bed to eat and shower and fish his concert suit out from the back of his closet. He arrives on campus late in the afternoon, feeling something in the realm of human for the first time in ages and buzzing with the usual pre-concert anticipation. It’s a nice mix. He parks himself in a corner of the rehearsal room, which doubles as a green room tonight, and watches the space fill up with the various music majors and minors and grad students. There’s a sort of cheer in the air, the incipient relief of being done for the year. It’s the same humming energy of his elementary school classes a week ago. Wei Wuxian enjoys a good, private laugh over that. No matter how old they get, students are all the same.
That continues until, just under half an hour until curtain, Lan Zhan corners him, panicked.
“Wei Ying,” he says intently.
It’s not an obvious sort of panic, more a tightness around his mouth and a widening of his eyes. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure how he’s picked up on it, except that once he notices, he can’t un-notice. He straightens up immediately, leaving off a conversation with the cello junior he’d been talking with, one of the members of his conducting ensemble. She takes one look between them and promptly disappears into the seething crowd of concert attire. Wei Wuxian barely notices her leaving.
“Wei Ying,” he says again, and wets his lips. He’s dressed in his concert blacks, bow-tie crooked. Wei Wuxian reaches out to fix it sort of automatically, and Lan Zhan hesitates. “I need your help.”
“I––” he says, and then nods, pulling his hands back. “Okay. Yeah, sure. With what?”
“My composition,” he says. “A duet.”
“Yeah?” He remembers. Lan Zhan wets his lips again. It’s by far the most discomposed Wei Wuxian has ever seen him, including their post-midnight kitchen exchange.
It’s also kind of just a little unfair that he’s wearing his concert suit and looking all slick and formal while he’s doing it. Like, damsel-in-distress level unfair.
Wei Wuxian puts it out of his mind. Lan Zhan needs help. Focus.
“My partner–– left.”
That brings him up short. “You–– They left?”
He opens his mouth and closes it again. “What the fuck? When? Why?”
“Now,” he says. Checks the clock up above the door. “Mm. Twenty minutes ago.”
“What the fuck,” Wei Wuxian repeats. “Who the fuck is your partner?”
“Su She,” says Lan Zhan, and Wei Wuxian makes a face.
“He’s a flakey bastard.” Which Lan Zhan has clearly figured out. Lan Zhan, who is staring at him, imploring.
“Please,” he says softly. Wei Wuxian hesitates.
“I–– I mean, yeah, yes of course, sure. But I don’t–– Lan Zhan, I don’t know if I can learn a piece in twenty minutes.” Maybe if he misses the concert band he can spend some time with it, run it once backstage? Not that it’s ideal, but at least he might have half an idea what he’s getting into. “It’s your final composition, I don’t want to, y’know. Fuck it up.”
“You will not,” Lan Zhan says. He sounds sure but he looks… conflicted. Wei Wuxian laughs, sort of, rough and not really amused.
“I mean, I’m glad you have such faith in my abilities but I don’t know how well it’s gonna go if my first time playing your music is up there.”
“It will not be.”
Lan Zhan looks, if anything, even more pained. Or, no. Embarrassed. There’s a pink tinge to the tops of his ears. He swallows, noticeably bracing himself. Wei Wuxian frowns at him, all confusion.
“It will not be your first time playing it.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand.
“But it’s your composition. You wrote it for this. It’s an original work.”
“Right. How could I possibly know it, then?”
Lan Zhan holds out a few pages of sheet music like it’s an answer. Wei Wuxian is still watching his face as he accepts them, cataloguing all the little furrows and shifts. He looks down at the music in his hand.
It’s a flute part, of course. There’s a placeholder title––LAN Z. COMP 522 FINAL––and Wei Wuxian snorts at that as he skims over the music, humming it under his breath.
He gets two lines in before he realizes what it is. His head snaps up.
“No,” he says.
Lan Zhan stares at him, lines around his mouth deepening
“No way. Are you fucking serious?”
He’s going to–– what. Laugh? Cry? Hard to say. His ears are buzzing. Lan Zhan is still looking at him.
“You’re my–– the violinist.”
“Yes,” he says.
Wei Wuxian sits down. He doesn’t quite mean to; his legs just sort of decide it’s the thing to do right now. Lan Zhan catches him under one arm and helps him sit.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “Are you alright?”
“What? Yeah. Yes. No, I’m fine, I'm––” He stares at the music, then at Lan Zhan, crouching in front of him, concern written clear across his face. The only thing he can think to say is, “I didn’t know you played violin.”
Lan Zhan looks at him like he’s very stupid, which he might be. “I have been practicing in your practice room for two months.”
Which–– Yeah, he doesn’t have anything to offer in response to that. “You never said anything!”
“I didn't want to make you uncomfortable. You did not seem to like me very much.”
“I like you plenty!”
“You called me rude.”
“And tall, and hot.” He holds up a hand to forestall him, even though Lan Zhan doesn’t look like he’s going to actually say anything. He just crouches, staring at Wei Wuxian with a tiny tick of a frown between his brows. “No, it’s okay. We’ll revisit that misunderstanding later. Just–– give me a minute.”
Lan Zhan gives him a minute.
Okay, so. So, the facts. The facts are these. Lan Zhan is his mystery violinist.
It’s more of just the one fact, actually. Great. Even better. He takes a deep breath.
He can handle that. He can deal with the thought that this person who plays music with him like it’s breathing, like it’s a conversation, is also the very hot, quietly funny composition PhD student who agrees with him that practice room 113 is the best and likes to stash tea in the faculty kitchen. That’s not a bad outcome. That’s actually a really good outcome. That’s–– Yeah.
Ugh. Yanli is going to be insufferable. Wen Qing’s going to be even worse.
At least he was right about him being hot.
“Okay,” he says. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Lan Zhan's face suggests he doesn't entirely believe that. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He takes another deep breath and gets a hold of himself. “And yes, of course I’ll play your duet. Our duet. Hey, do I get a composer credit?”
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan, which, yeah, that’s fair. Across the rehearsal hall, the concert band conductor steps up on the rehearsal podium and claps to get everyone’s attention.
“Concert band to the stage, please,” she calls over their heads. “Wind ensemble, you’re seated house left, full orchestra, house right. Those of you performing in the Comp 522 showcase, you’ll be playing between the ensemble and the orchestra, so just stick around backstage until your group is called. You all know the drill by now, I hope.”
The rehearsal hall buzzes to life like a kicked hive, everyone moving in the direction of the main concert hall. Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath and lets Lan Zhan pull him back up to his feet.
“Hey,” he says, fingers tightening around the sheet music, reaching out to grab Lan Zhan’s hand where it’s locked around his wrist before he can step away. “Lan Zhan. Listen. You didn’t make me uncomfortable or anything, okay? I really like playing music with you. I’m really glad it’s you, actually.”
“I'm glad it is you too, Wei Ying,” he says. “I will see you on stage.”
“You sure will,” he agrees, and then Lan Zhan disappears into the churn of black suits and black dresses. Wei Wuxian tucks the duet into his music folder, grabs his flute, and follows the crowd.
The concert stretches on endlessly, like end of term concerts always do. The concert band plays a few interesting selections––the march is by far the best––and then Wei Wuxian is up with the wind ensemble, front and center. He can’t see Lan Zhan in the black void of the audience, but that doesn’t keep him from looking.
(He can’t see his family either, but he doesn’t look nearly so hard. He’ll see them afterwards anyway.)
“Could you please focus,” Mianmian hisses next to him when he almost misses the ready cue.
“I’m focusing,” he replies, and brings his instrument up to his mouth.
Their pieces pass in a blur of familiar music and counting rests against the side of his leg, and when everyone rises, Wei Wuxian follows Mianmian and a handful of others to linger backstage while the department head comes out to extol the virtues of the school’s music programs. It’s a bid for funding, mostly, but they do it every year and have gotten it down to a pat two minute speech, which everyone appreciates.
Then it’s time for the composition students.
Lan is somewhere in the middle of a group of roughly half a dozen doctorate candidates, so Wei Wuxian listens through a morose piano ballad and a lively brass quintet and then an ambitious but surprisingly good ensemble piece from one of the Jin cousins before Lan Zhan is introduced.
“Duet for flute and violin, by Lan Wangji,” says the department head, and Wei Wuxian steps out on stage from one direction as Lan Zhan enters from the other. They meet downstage right, Wei Wuxian with an easy smile and Lan Zhan with a brief nod. They take a moment to adjust the sheet music on their stands, but Wei Wuxian’s pretty sure they’re not going to need any of that. Lan Zhan settles his shoulders and raises his violin. Wei Wuxian takes his cue from him, wetting his lips and bringing his flute up. In the dark before them, the audience rustles, the soft susurrus of anticipation. There’s a muffled cough.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes fix on Lan Zhan. He only has to breathe and Wei Wuxian is there, ready.
The audience falls away. The stage disappears. The high walls of the concert hall fold outwards, the world opening around them and they the only two people in it, their music the only sound. It is a conversation without words, and they understand each other perfectly.
Wei Wuxian is right. Neither of them glances down at the music even once.
The final note rings out, reshaping the concert hall, the attentive audience. Not until it fades entirely does Wei Wuxian lower his flute, a slow motion that matches the arc of Lan Zhan’s bow. The auditorium holds the quiet for a moment, then breaks into applause. Wei Wuxian grins, face tilting up in a smile. Lan Zhan returns it, brief and small and impossibly soft.
Wei Wuxian feels his entire heart turn over right there up on stage. He almost forgets to take his bow.
Lan Zhan still has to play with the orchestra––and now, for the first time, Wei Wuxian is kicking himself for not joining that too, even though it had patently been a terrible idea the semester he’d tried to do both groups––so he disappears backstage again, leaving Wei Wuxian to slide into an empty seat at the back of the concert band section, impatient for the concert to end already so he can corner Lan Zhan and… something. He’s not sure yet. Maybe yell at him. Possibly profess his undying love. Both? Jury’s still out.
Despite the rapid bouncing of his leg, he does enjoy the rest of the concert. Mianmian’s comp group performs a dizzying woodwind quartet built around a catchy ditty he sort of wants to learn, and afterwards, while the full orchestra is getting settled, she slides into the seat next to him and raises both eyebrows, which.
“I’m not talking about it.”
Lan Zhan is, of course, beautiful up on stage, both music-wise and face-wise. The orchestra plays a Respighi which is just absolutely delectable––Wei Wuxian is even more jealous––and then a ballad Wei Wuxian doesn’t know where Lan Zhan has a solo that he does. It’s funny, putting all his practice in a modicum of context. Discovering what was fun and what was study, and the line between the two. It’s a big, warm feeling, like being part of something secret. Like watching from the wings, metaphorically speaking.
“Oh, Jesus,” mutters Mianmian.
And then, blessedly, finally, there are bows and ovations and someone brings out flowers for the conductors––which is sweet; they deserve a reward at the end of the year as much as everyone else––and it’s over. He’s free.
Wei Wuxian laughs. He feels like he could fucking fly.
“Good luck,” says Mianmian, and vanishes before her family can lay hands on her. He's not so lucky.
Students mill with friends and family, concert hall turned to a brutal free-for-all of well wishes and brimming bouquets. Yanli waves at him from four rows back with the rest of the Jiang family, and oh, Wen Qing and Wen Ning are here too. Wei Wuxian glances up at them and then back at the emptying stage and the tangle of people between here and there.
He doesn’t even get a chance to make a run for it. Yanli descends upon him with a bouquet––a tasteful one, though––and Jiang Cheng.
“You were good,” says his brother bluntly, which pretty much counts as glowing praise. Yanli hugs him tight and only hits him in the face with her flowers a little bit.
“You were wonderful. I didn’t know you were performing with the compositional group.”
“It was a last minute thing,” he says, and tries to convey with his eyes that now is not the time to talk about it. She frowns.
“Really? It sounded amazing.”
“Well, what can I say. I’m the best.” The stage has emptied completely by now, undergrads starting to stack the chairs. If Lan Zhan is somewhere talking to his family, Wei Wuxian can’t see him.
Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. “I didn't know you were friends with any of the strings.”
Wei Wuxian huffs, offended. “I'm friends with everyone, violinists included.” He catches Yanli’s eye as he says it, completely by accident, and she makes a choked noise, eyes widening in understanding. Her mouth opens, but he’s rescued by the rest of the Jiang family, and the Wens.
He’s never been quite so grateful to see Mrs. Yu in his life.
“Thanks so much for coming out,” he says, accepting an approving shoulder clap from Uncle Jiang and a not-disapproving nod from his aunt. Wen Qing gives him one of her rare smiles and Wen Ning lets him loop one arm over his shoulders, positioning the boy between himself and his sister so he doesn’t have to pretend to ignore the look she’s giving him. “And you! I didn’t know you were back already.”
“I got back last week,” Wen Ning says, half as stuttery as usual and looking the most composed as Wei Wuxian’s ever seen him. Studying abroad has been good for him, clearly. “You were really good.”
Wei Wuxian preens. “I know.”
Jiang Cheng snorts.
“Anyway,” he says, ruffling Wen Ning’s hair and letting him go. “I should go pack up, so…”
“We’ll meet you back out front,” says Uncle Jiang. “We thought we’d take you for dinner, if you’re not doing anything else.”
Mrs. Yu huffs.
“Yeah, sure, sounds great. I don’t have plans. Let me just, um.” He holds up his flute in front of him like he could use it to ward them off and turns tail, pushing towards the rehearsal room. Behind him, Jiang Cheng says, “What’s up with him?”
The rehearsal room is somehow twice as chaotic as the concert hall, though there are half as many people in it. The percussion section is trying to roll the marimbas in, and one of the trombones is making a concentrated effort at getting a quintet going, and Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he hears a champagne bottle pop, and most importantly, Lan Zhan isn’t anywhere.
He does spy Mianmian, though, over near the woodwinds, and beelines for her.
“Have you––” he starts, and she’s already shaking her head.
“I don’t know where he went.”
“Fuck,” says Wei Wuxian.
“What’s with you?”
“Nothing. It’s complicated.”
“When isn’t it?”
“Nope. I changed my mind, I don’t want to hear it. The semester is over and I’m going to get drunk.” She pauses and gives him a quick, contemplative look. “Want to come?”
“Yes,” he says. “But my family’s here. We’re getting dinner.”
He laughs. “You don’t want to go drinking with my family.”
“What, do they not know how to have a good time?”
“Other way around,” he says. He'll invite her to the annual summer barbecue, then she'll understand. “Anyway, I really can’t keep them. You’re sure you haven’t seen him?”
“I’m sure. You could ask his section. Or just, y’know, text him?”
“I don’t have his number.”
“Oh, buddy,” says Mianmian, and claps his shoulder. He sighs.
He leaves her to pack up, taking his time dismantling his flute and cleaning it. Every time the door opens his head comes up, searching, but Lan Zhan doesn’t reappear. When he finally manages to find a violinist he knows, he gets a shrug.
“He took off right away,” says Meng Yao. “He doesn’t usually stick around.”
“Right,” he says. “Well, thanks.”
Meng Yao has already turned back to his case.
Dinner is a pleasant enough affair, by Jiang dinner standards. Jiang Cheng informs him on the walk to the restaurant that he’s been promoted at work, so Mrs. Yu is only about half as acrid as usual. The meal itself is delicious, because the entire point of having your family visit is that they can pay for really nice dinners at the fancy restaurants right off campus. Uncle Jiang is stubbornly oblivious in the way only he can be, and mostly Wei Wuxian spends the meal exchanging looks with his siblings and avoiding pointed questions. Wen Ning appears mostly happy to be here. Wei Wuxian’s glad he’s back––Wen Qing is twice as cheerful now that her brother is within arm’s reach again.
Which isn’t saying much, but still.
Afterwards, while they’re saying their goodbyes and Uncle Jiang and Mrs. Yu are arguing about something, Wei Wuxian pulls Yanli aside.
“Okay, so,” he says, watching everyone else over his sister’s shoulder. Her mouth presses together in excitement and her eyes widen, like she already know's what he's going to say, which she might. He's pretty sure she can read minds when it comes to stuff like this. “Remember when I was like, 'what if he’s terrible?’ and all that? Well, he’s not. Terrible. He’s actually, um. He’s pretty not-terrible.”
“I was right,” she says. “It’s him, isn’t it? Lan Wangji.”
Wei Wuxian nods. She grins a grin that almost puts him to shame.
“I knew it. As soon as I saw you two up there, I knew it.”
“Well I didn’t,” he huffs. “He just dropped it on me like, twenty minutes before the concert.”
“Poor A-Xian,” she says, sounding only, like, fifty percent sorry. Seventy percent, max. “What happened?”
“His flautist dropped out and he just, like, came up to me and asked if I’d cover. A-jie, he knew it was me. Like, knew-it-for-a-while knew it was me. Maybe the whole time.”
“And? What am I supposed to do about it now?”
“Well,” she says, with that infinite older sister wisdom, “what do you want to do about it? Maybe that’s the place to start.”
Maybe it is, but he just–– He doesn’t know.
What he ends up doing is this: He goes home, unties his bowtie and sheds his jacket and pours himself a glass of wine, and steps out onto the balcony.
It’s a sultry night, the first week of June. Summer has crept into the corners, slunk over the windowsills, curled up in the flowerpots and made itself at home. Condensation drips off his wine glass––mug, whatever––leaving a neat ring on the arm of his plastic chair. The breeze smells like the Thai place down the street and woodsmoke. Whooping laughter echoes somewhere in the distance. Closer, his phone buzzes. Yellow light spills out of his apartment and across the narrow jut of the balcony, his own tiny stage.
He brings his flute up to his lips and plays.
It’s no piece in particular. He drifts lazily from one to the next, playing snatches and snippets, the interesting parts, a semester’s catalogue of music. They’re recollections. Reminders.
He finishes with the duet, just the melody line, and when it ends he stands out on the balcony for a long, long time, waiting for an answer.
The city hums and buzzes and rumbles. He lowers his arms.
Behind him, someone knocks on the door.
“One sec!” he calls, and shins himself on the chair trying to get to it. His mug tips over. Shoes splattered with wine and clutching his shin, he yanks the door open.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, breathless and disheveled. “Hi.”
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. He’s changed out of his concert attire and into something better fit for the heat and the hour, white of his sleeves rolled up over his forearms. One hand is tucked behind his back, like a proper gentleman. Wei Wuxian grins, stupidly happy just to see him, and puts his foot down. “Good evening.”
They stare at each other
“I looked for you,” says Wei Wuxian after a moment. “Afterwards. You disappeared.”
“I had to speak with my uncle,” says Lan Zhan. “I… am sorry.”
“No, no, don’t be. You’re here now.” He is. He’s right here, standing out in the hall, because he lives here, because he's Wei Wuxian's violinist.
But, maybe they shouldn’t talk about that out in the hall. “Do you, um, do you want to come in? It’s kind of a mess.”
More than kind of, actually. The end of the semester has more or less exploded over his tiny apartment. At least most of the dishes are clean.
“Mm,” he says, so Wei Wuxian steps back and lets him across the threshold and closes the door behind him. His already stuffy apartment feels twice as small.
“Brought you this,” says Lan Zhan after a moment, pulling his other hand out from behind his back. It’s the whiskey bottle Wei Wuxian stashed in the practice room. He laughs.
“Lan Zhan! How thoughtful of you. Now I don’t have to go back for it.” He accepts it, still grinning. “Did you have any?”
“I do not drink.”
“Ah, you’re missing out. It’s the good stuff.” He tucks it away in one of his cabinets, then finds himself standing in his mess of an apartment with his… Duet partner? Friend?
“Um,” he says. “Do you want anything? Water? Tea? Coffee?”
“Water is fine,” says Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian pulls the Brita out of the fridge. There’s enough in it for one glass, which he pours for Lan Zhan. His fingers are dry and callused when they brush against Wei Wuxian's own. He swallows.
“Should we, uh, balcony?”
Lan Zhan sits in the chair that isn't dripping with spilled wine while Wei Wuxian props himself against the railing, folded in close enough that their legs bump together. Lan Zhan sips his water. Wei Wuxian stares at him, then realizes he’s staring and looks away.
“So,” he says. Lan Zhan sets his water down.
“I owe you an apology.”
“What?” It’s not what he expects at all. He looks back at Lan Zhan. “Why?”
“I was dishonest.”
“I hid myself from you.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him for a moment, then shakes his head in disbelief. “That’s not dishonest. That’s just, I don’t know, being shy. You didn’t lie to me.”
“I did not reveal myself. There was a misunderstanding.”
“Not about that,” Wei Wuxian says. He feels vaguely like he’s going crazy. “About when I called you rude.”
Lan Zhan makes a face. “You did.”
“And tall, and hot,” Wei Wuxian reminds him, then waves it away. “No, sorry, yeah, I’m not arguing about that. I’m just saying, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like you.”
“You... did like me.”
Lan Zhan’s face does the gentle, fond thing it did up on stage and Wei Wuxian’s entire heart goes thud right in his chest, a timpani hit.
“Wei Ying,” he says, and that’s fond too and oh, no, he’s fucked, he’s really so fucked. “You're very confusing sometimes.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, only half sure what he’s agreeing to, and then recalls himself, mostly. “No, wait. Hang on. When did you know it was me?”
For a moment Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything. He picks up his glass, leaving a perfect circle against the arm of his chair, and takes a sip. His thumb smears at a bead of condensation. Wei Wuxian watches, fascinated by him, by his fingers and his hands and the oceans of meaning in each small shift of his expression. It’s no wonder he’s such a good musician, when he does everything with such focus.
He sets the glass down. This time, Wei Wuxian doesn’t pretend to not be staring.
“You were humming,” he says softly. “Lan Yi. My variation.”
“Oh,” says Wei Wuxian. Then, “That was weeks ago. That was last month!”
“You knew? The whole time?”
“I guessed,” he admits, holding Wei Wuxian’s gaze and then flickering away. “I was not sure until tonight. When I asked for your help.”
“That’s…” Ballsy, he thinks. “Kind of sweet.”
“Hm,” says Lan Zhan.
“What if you were wrong?”
“I trusted you would help regardless.”
He pitches forward a little, surprised. “Really? Why?”
Lan Zhan shrugs without really moving, an infinitesimal tension-and-release. Like how he embellishes music, such a light hand you’d barely notice it, unless you knew what to listen for.
Wei Wuxian knows how to listen.
“You're a good person. You help.”
“Oh,” says Wei Wuxian, vaguely two-by-foured. “Right. Yeah.”
Lan Zhan picks up his glass, then puts it down without drinking. The new circle overlaps slightly with the old one. His eyes come up to meet Wei Wuxian’s, expression smooth and sure.
“I would… like to continue.” When Wei Wuxian gives him a furrowed look he clarifies. “I would like to continue to play music with you.”
“I’d like that too,” he says. He doesn’t even have to think about it. Didn’t think it was something that needed saying. Lan Zhan nods, once.
They fall quiet. Wei Wuxian should say something now, probably. He’s very good at saying things, usually; saying this is one of his best skills. Unfortunately, most of the things he would say have fuzzed out into white noise. Lan Zhan stares at him for another lingering moment, then stands. In the tight confines of the balcony, they are very nearly nose to nose.
“I will go,” he says, stilted, and Wei Wuxian’s white-noise brain makes a vague, affirmative noise. He sees Lan Zhan to the door.
“We will… see each other later?”
“Yeah,” says Wei Wuxian. “Of course. You know where I live.”
Lan Zhan nods, and then turns down the hall. Wei Wuxian closes the door behind him.
He takes a deep breath.
He takes another.
Out on the balcony, Lan Zhan’s glass of water waits on the arm of the chair, half finished. Wei Wuxian stares at it, glinting in the light spilling from his apartment. He feels like he is lying on the bottom of the riverbed, like he’s spun back the years of his life to an afternoon spent diving deep and watching the sky dance through the silt, the world a million miles away, nothing but the water and the stirring sunlight. He blinks, syrupy slow. He should do something. He should do something.
He should do what he wants to do.
Okay. Well. What does he want to do?
Ah, fuck. Fuck.
He yanks the door open.
He dashes down the hall, nearly upsetting Mr. Zhao and his groceries. When he reaches the stairs he grabs the railing and twists himself down all six flights, until he’s on the ground floor and sprinting out towards the courtyard. He doesn't know which building Lan Zhan lives in. If he loses him––
“Lan Zhan,” he calls again, stumbling out the door into the courtyard, desperate.
He needn’t worry. Lan Zhan is standing there, right in the middle of the courtyard in the middle of the apartment complex, staring at him with a funny look on his face, gleaming in the lights. Wei Wuxian skids to a stop in front of him.
“Listen,” he says, panting. “We should definitely play music together. I am all for that. One hundred percent in, absolutely. But also, can I take you to dinner? I think we should do dinner. Or maybe drinks? No, you don’t drink. Um, a movie? I don’t know. Do you like movies? I really hope so. I love movies.”
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. “What?”
“I’m asking you out. Do you want to go out with me? I’d really like to go out with you. If that’s, like, something you’d be interested in.”
Lan Zhan stares at him, all eyes and attention and looking, and it’s kind of unbearable except that Wei Wuxian never wants it to end.
“Yes,” he says.
“Yes. I would be happy to go out with you.” And his face does the soft, smiling thing again. Wei Wuxian is going to do whatever he has to do to make sure Lan Zhan always looks like that. He’s deciding it right now. He's going to spend the rest of his life making sure Lan Zhan looks like that.
“Great,” says Wei Wuxian. “Okay. Cool.”
And, like, it’s not his smoothest move––none of this has been his smoothest move, actually, except maybe for taking out his flute that very first evening and calling out in the hopes that this violinist might listen, might play along in every sense of the word––but fuck being smooth, anyway, who cares about being smooth? Not Wei Wuxian.
He does what he wants to do and puts his hands on Lan Zhan’s collar and pulls him in close and kisses him.
Lan Zhan makes a tiny, shocked noise against his lips, and then his hand comes up to cradle Wei Wuxian’s jaw, easing him into a better angle, one where Lan Zhan can kiss him back, soft and slow. His other hand pulls him in close, steadying, and Wei Wuxian lets himself be swept away.
“Wow,” he says when they part. Lan Zhan hums, pleased, and Wei Wuxian can feel it against his palms where they’ve slid down to press against his chest. He swallows.
“Hey, um,” says his mouth all on its own. “Can I name that duet?”
“It has a name,” says Lan Zhan, fingers still pressed against his jaw like a brand, like burning. His thumb strokes against the line of his cheekbone, and Wei Wuxian has never been more aware of every single one of his nerve endings in his life. This should be illegal, probably. He wets his lips.
“It does? Really? What is it?”
Lan Zhan just smiles at him, all soft and fond and enigmatic.
But he also kisses Wei Wuxian again, so maybe it’s alright.
The night opens around them, honey-gold and glowing. This is only the opening. The pickup note. There's plenty of time.
They don't need to rush.