Chapter 1: On Ducks and Snacks
Meng Yao is leaning against the cashier stand, coloring on one of the kids’ coloring pages.
It’s been a slow day.
He glances up. The restaurant is empty except for one or two regulars at the bar chatting with Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng is wiping down already clean tables out of boredom.
Wen Ning is concentrating intently on the special’s board, his artistic skill is, as always, impressive.
He sighs and returns to coloring a duck in purple.
The bell jingles and he straightens up.
“Hello, Welcome to Yiling!” he puts his perfect customer service smile on his face. It nearly falters as his gaze lands on a customer who has to be the absolute pinnacle of male perfection: easily over 180, maybe even 190 centimeters, his frame is double Meng Yao’s and it is very clear he’s solid muscle. He looks like he can break Meng Yao in half and Meng Yao would probably happily let him. His hair is pulled into a ponytail, falling to his shoulders. His regal brows are drawn together in a frown, chiseled jawline taut.
“H-how many today?” he forcibly recovers himself.
The man glowers at him.
“I have a takeout order,” he says gruffly.
Meng Yao blinks but nods and smiles sunnily.
“If you want to head over to the bar, they’ll take care of you over there!”
The man looks at him for a second too long and Meng Yao resists the urge to check his reflection in the window.
He grunts, presumably in thanks, and makes a beeline for the bar. He’s slightly purple around the ears and Meng Yao can’t help wonder if he said something wrong.
“W-what did you s-say to h-him??” Wen Ning sidles over.
“I have no idea,” Meng Yao stares bemusedly as Wei Wuxian handles the man with his usual chipper attitude.
“H-he’s kinda s-scary”
Meng Yao sort of wants to agree with the shy busser, but he can’t exactly pull his eyes away from the broad shoulders.
Wen Ning is staring at him with wide teal eyes as if he’s seeing the secrets of the universe.
The man approaches with his takeout bag and Wen Ning lets out a startled sound, scurrying behind the cashier stand and ducking down to pretend to organize crayons to avoid interacting with him.
“He said the machine at the bar is down,” the man glowers at Meng Yao as he jabs his thumb in the direction of the bar.
Wei Wuxian shoots him a wicked grin and winks. Wen Ning drops the crayons in his hand.
Meng Yao grits his teeth. He’s going to kill him. He turns back to the man and plasters on his smile.
He can handle this. It’s fine.
He tabs to the takeout screen. The man’s order is the only one on there, but he confirms anyway.
Taking the man’s card, he can’t help but glance at the name.
Sounds familiar, but he can’t quite place it.
He glances at Wen Ning, who peeks up at him. He’s moved on to organizing the complimentary mints. Meng Yao nudges him with his foot and Wen Ning pokes back.
“Here you go sir!” Meng Yao says in a falsely cheery tone as he hands the man his card and the receipts he needs to sign. He puts on his best smile, one that earns him compliments every time he works as a waiter.
Meng Yao has dealt with worse.
The man, Nie Mingjue, fumbles with his card before grabbing a pen with more force than necessary. His ears are purple again as he scowls at the receipts he’s signing.
He pushes them across the counter and picks up his takeout bag.
He looks at Meng Yao like he wants to say something before the furrow in his brows deepens.
“Ducks aren’t purple,” he says gruffly, pointing to the coloring page Meng Yao had forgotten about.
The mints clatter to the floor. The man tightens his grip on his takeout bag and storms out of the restaurant.
Wen Ning shoots a wide-eyed look at Meng Yao from where he sits surrounded by mints.
Meng Yao blinks as he tries to process what just happened. He comes up empty.
Shaking his head, he bends down to help Wen Ning clean up the scattered mints.
Well, it’s not the strangest thing he’s encountered working in a restaurant.
Nie Mingjue gets in his car and slams his fist against the steering wheel.
Ducks aren’t purple.
What. Was. That.
Mingjue has never been suave or sophisticated in his dealings with others. His brother would go so far as to say he’s completely socially inept.
Normally he would disagree but given his most recent interaction, Huaisang might actually have a point.
He starts his car and pulls out of the lot, stewing in his own embarrassment.
He didn’t plan to get tongue-tied, but the man at the front desk had to have been the prettiest person he had ever seen.
And that was saying something considering his best friend had been approached to model before.
Wide honey gold eyes framed by ridiculously thick lashes on a youthful, almost feminine face. Soft-looking brown hair pulled half-up sweeping slender shoulders. The whole man was slender and petite. Mingjue is pretty sure he’s benched more than his weight. He looked like some kind of sprite.
All of this was fine. Mingjue was able to handle that.
Until he smiled.
His smile caused Mingjue’s brain to skip the overheating stage and go straight to the emergency shutdown stage.
He had been grateful when he was waved over to the bar. Less grateful when the cheeky bartender had sent him back.
He had decided he just wasn’t going to speak. Less of a chance for him to fuck something up.
But that hadn’t quite gone according to plan and of course he fucked it up the minute he opened his mouth.
He hadn’t waited for a response after the words left his mouth, he had fled as fast as he could.
Shoving his embarrassment down, he turned his thoughts to the pretty cashier.
What would Huaisang say?
The man was a...snack?
Mingjue snorts as he pulls into the parking structure of his office.
He was certainly small enough.
Mingjue glances at the takeout bag and swears to himself that Huaisang will never find out about this social blunder.
Chapter 2: He Tries
Wei Wuxian is busy.
It’s a Friday night and the waiting list is already up to an hour.
Normally he works as a bartender, but one of the servers, an unreliable kid by the name of Xue Yang, had called in sick for the third time this week, so he was stuck covering his shift while the manager on duty, Xiao Xingchen, took over bartending.
Meng Yao is flitting from table to table, calm amidst the chaos. Wei Wuxian has always envied how immaculate Meng Yao manages to look even after having been moving nonstop for two hours.
Wei Wuxian’s own unruly hair has already begun to puff out from his ponytail.
He sees Wen Ning carrying two massive containers filled with dishes into the back.
He’s always amazed at the hidden strength the timid busser possesses. He once asked Wen Ning if he went to the gym only to embarrass the poor guy into walking into a table.
“Hey, Jiang Cheng, can you take extra soy sauce to table ten?” he glances at his brother.
Jiang Cheng scowls at him but dutifully takes the container.
Wei Wuxian pops up at a table that was just seated by the hostess A-Qing.
“Welcome to Yiling!” he smiles brightly. “My name is Wei Wuxian, have any of you been here before?”
Wei Wuxian studies the table and has to keep his jaw from dropping.
Are they models?
The younger two look almost identical. Wei Wuxian is used to long hair, his own falls to his elbows after all, but usually it was pulled up so it looked much shorter. All three men have long, long silky dark hair.
The one with the softer, warmer features has his hair pulled into a neat plait falling gracefully over his shoulder. His brown eyes are smiling.
The eldest, probably in his forties, has a goatee that Wei Wuxian feels the strangest urge to shave off to see if he is as handsome as the younger two. His expression seems mildly irritated.
It’s the one nearest to him that catches his eye though. He has only ever seen eyes that color on Meng Yao, but Meng Yao’s are a warmer almost amber color. This man’s eyes are cold and clear and gold and Wei Wuxian swears he’s seen these eyes before. But he’s pretty sure he would remember someone this gorgeous.
His expression is impassive. He looks like a carved jade statue. His silky dark hair falls loose to his waist, not a tangle in sight.
All three men are dressed impeccably and are drawing admiring stares from the other patrons. They also all wear a peculiar ribbon around their foreheads.
“I’ve only had takeout,” the gentler-featured one says. “None of us have ever been in before”
“Well!” Wei Wuxian claps his hands, “our setup is a little different! Instead of waiters being assigned sections, we’re all responsible for every table! So if you need something, you can flag down any employee and they’ll be able to help you! Can I take your drink order or would you like some more time?”
“Water all around to start, I believe,” he smiles, glancing at his companions for confirmation.
“Great! I’ll be back in a few minutes!”
He makes a quick detour by the cashier desk. Wen Ning is returning a high chair.
“Table fifteen...oh my god”
Wen Ning blinks.
“I’m pretty sure they’re models,” A-Qing whispers, standing on her toes to try and see better.
“Guys,” Wen Ning shakes his head, “i-it’s rude to s-stare”
“Oh, Wen Ning, even you would stare!” Wei Wuxian grabs his friend’s arm. Wen Ning barely manages to grab his dish bin before Wei Wuxian hauls him to the back and gets three waters. “Come with me, I think thirteen needs to be bussed anyways”
Wen Ning looks like he wants to protest, but docilely allows the manhandling.
Wei Wuxian flounces over to the table and sets down the waters.
“Have you had a chance to look at the menu yet?” he grins brightly.
The gentler featured one and the eldest both order the vegetarian special.
“And for you?” he turns to the remaining man, feeling a strange anticipation.
Gold Eyes looks at Wei Wuxian intently. Such an intense stare does something to his chest.
He can’t shake the feeling of familiarity.
His tone is clipped, cool. Almost disdainful.
“No tomatoes, got it!” he chirps. “I don’t like tomatoes either,” his grin widens. “Will that be all?”
“Perhaps two pots of Jasmine tea?”
Wei Wuxian gets the feeling the gentler featured one has been elected as spokesperson for the trio.
His gaze flits to Gold Eyes, who is still staring at him intensely.
Wei Wuxian feels the tightness in his chest get joined by a curl in his stomach and he has to remind himself to breathe.
He quickly puts the order in and tracks down Wen Ning.
The latter is carrying three high chairs one-handed.
“Soo...?” Wei Wuxian chirps.
“Y-yes,” Wen Ning turns beet red, “th-they are a-attractive”
Wei Wuxian crows in victory. The fact they can even make Wen Ning take notice is something.
He goes to assist another table and when he turns around, he catches a pair of intense gold eyes staring right at him, sticking him to the floor.
“Move, idiot,” Jiang Cheng grouses, carrying a tray of food.
Wei Wuxian ducks. When he looks back, Gold Eyes is looking at his brother.
Had he just imagined that?
Lan Wangji had not wanted to go out.
He’s not fond of restaurants. Too noisy, too many people, too claustrophobic.
But his brother had been talking almost incessantly about this restaurant that his best friend had brought takeout from earlier in the week.
After their weekly outing, this time to a guqin performance, Lan Xichen had managed to convince both him and their uncle to go.
Which is how Wangji found himself with his back against a leafy potted plant and surrounded by too many people after the giggling and blushing hostess had directed them to an open seat.
He focuses on the table. An anchoring point against the noise.
“Welcome to Yiling!” a cheerful voice breaks through the clamor and something inside Wangji instinctively latches onto it. “My name is Wei Wuxian!”
He looks up into playful grey eyes and finds himself unable to look away.
It’s almost as though the waiter has some magical ability to make all the other noise fade into a distant murmur. He doesn’t really hear what he’s saying, or what Xichen is answering, but the waiter bounds off.
The noise returns.
He looks at his brother. Concerned brown eyes are looking back.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Wangji manages, eyes seeking out the waiter.
He’s dragging a fellow employee by the arm into a back area. Wangji feels a flicker of possessiveness somewhere deep inside.
He’s only half-listening to his brother and uncle discuss the performance when the waiter, Wei Wuxian, returns with a tray of three drinks and the coworker in tow.
He leaves the coworker at a nearby vacant table and brings the water over.
Again, the noise dies down to a distant murmur.
“Have you had a chance to look over the menu yet?” Wei Wuxian chirps. He’s so bright. To Wangji, it’s like looking at the sun. Maybe that’s why all the other noise fades to nothing. His brightness overwhelms it.
It’s a familiar brightness that causes a deep ache in his chest.
Those grey eyes look at him expectantly and Lan Wangji panics.
He hadn’t been paying attention to what was asked.
What? He looks at his uncle and his brother for some kind of cue.
Xichen looks at him and casually collects his uncle’s menu, stacking it on his and it clicks.
He’s not sure what they ordered, but it’s probably fine.
That bright grin becomes impossibly brighter and Wangji wants to look away, but he also wants to never stop staring.
“No tomatoes, got it! I don’t like tomatoes either,” he makes a face and Wangji swears he can hear his pulse as his ears grow warm.
Xichen says something else and the waiter takes off.
Again, the noise returns almost tenfold.
Wangji wants to cover his ears.
He brushes off his brother’s concerned gaze as he looks for the waiter again.
After popping out of the back area, Wei Wuxian finds the coworker from earlier and says something to him that causes him to blush and the impressive stack of wooden baby seats to wobble.
Another table flags him down and he writes something on his pad.
As if feeling his gaze, Wei Wuxian looks up.
Gold meets grey and everything falls away again.
The moment is broken when another waiter, carrying a heavy tray of food, snaps something to him.
Wei Wuxian does a funny little twist to get out of the way.
He looks back at his brother, smiling his knowing expression. His uncle hasn’t seemed to notice anything.
The waiter to bring their tea is a pretty young man with amber eyes. His smile is charming, but lacks the vibrancy of Wei Wuxian’s.
Wei Wuxian only comes to their table once more and Wangji feels a sharp curl of disappointment.
Chapter 3: Meow
Wen Ning doesn’t particularly enjoy Fridays.
The days are quiet, but they’re always so busy in the evenings. Usually his sister is able to pick up their cousin at daycare when Wen Ning works late on weekends, but she has to do a double shift at the hospital.
He texts the daycare and asks if it would be okay to pick up A-Yuan later than normal. He knows they’ll have to pay extra and it’s mildly stressful, but he doesn’t have a choice.
“You know, I could ask A-Yu to pick him up, right?” Meng Yao looks at him. “A-Yuan’s daycare isn’t far from our place”
The large, scary patron had left and the mints had been cleaned up but Wen Ning lingered.
“I a-appreciate it,” Wen Ning says, “b-but A-Yu i-isn’t much o-older”
Meng Yao’s half-brother is nine. Wen Ning is not particularly keen on leaving his three year old cousin alone with a nine year old even though said nine year old is more mature than most teenagers.
His friend shrugs.
“Our neighbor, Sisi, checks on him. It’s up to you, but the offer stands”
“Th-thank you, A-Yao”
Wen Ning and Meng Yao had bonded over the fact that they were both raising a younger family member basically on their own.
Wen Ning had his sister, but with the increased hours at the hospital she was hardly around. Meng Yao had help from his neighbor, but he didn’t want to rely on her too much.
“Wen Ning, you can go on break,” the manager on duty, Song Lan, emerges from the back.
Wen Ning bobs his head and clocks out. Because he’s doing a double shift, he’s not expected back until five so he grabs food and goes to sit in his car and watch cat videos for two hours.
It’s one of his favorite parts of the day.
The rush is already beginning to start when Wen Ning clocks back in.
He greets A-Qing and picks up his dish bin.
He doesn’t mind bussing tables. He’s really, really not good with the whole people interaction thing. Dirty dishes are easy to deal with.
He watches his much friendlier coworkers flit from table to table.
Even grumpy Jiang Cheng manages to handle it.
Wen Ning focuses on wiping down the table he’s at. Jiang Cheng had dragged him over to it earlier, complaining about some parent letting their kid smear sour cream everywhere.
Why can’t he be friendlier like them?
Between his stutter, his naturally timid personality, and a past trauma, he’s a walking ball of anxiety.
Pushing the bad thoughts out of his head, he pictures the video of a small orange kitten tumbling off a bed. The owner catching it and chiding it for being so clumsy.
He smiles at the memory as he picks up a high chair and carries it to the front desk.
Wei Wuxian whirls around the corner half a second later. His face is peculiarly red.
“Table fifteen,” he says in a stage whisper, “oh my god”
“I’m pretty sure they’re models,” A-Qing whispers back, eyes sparkling.
Her and Wei Wuxian crane their necks to try and see the table.
It makes Wen Ning nervous.
“Guys,” Wen Ning shakes his head, “i-it’s rude to s-stare”
“Oh, Wen Ning, even you would stare!” hands wrap around his bicep and he suppresses a flinch.
He barely manages to grab his dish bin before Wei Wuxian is hauling him across the restaurant. Despite there only being a three centimeter difference, Wen Ning isn’t forceful enough to try and pull away.
Not that he actually would. Wei Wuxian tugs him over to thirteen.
He doesn’t really mind. He just sometimes wishes people wouldn’t tug him around so much.
Wen Ning is cleaning the table off and glances up to table fifteen.
He feels a flush creep up his neck.
Wei Wuxian was right.
The trio of men are gorgeous.
Wen Ning suddenly feels self-conscious. One of the younger two catches him staring and glares, golden eyes glinting like frost.
Wen Ning gulps and hurriedly wipes down the table before moving to the next one.
He’s stacking high chairs when Wei Wuxian finds him.
“So...?” his friend teases him, a glint in his eyes. Wen Ning nearly loses the high chairs he’s holding.
“Y-yes,” Wen Ning feels a flush creep up, “th-they are a-attractive”
Wei Wuxian looks like he just won the lottery, but gets flagged down by another table.
Wen Ning breathes a sigh of relief. He jumps as a hand lands on his shoulder.
“Need a hand?” Jiang Cheng frowns at him.
“N-no, th-thank you th-though!”
Jiang Cheng eyes the stack of high chairs but shrugs.
Wen Ning pushes the attractive table out of his mind. Dwelling on things like that is useless.
Until he finds himself cleaning off the table.
He picks up an expensive looking cashmere scarf from the chair with a frown.
Had one of them forgotten it?
It smells like sandalwood and vanilla. It’s a strangely soothing scent.
“Oh! You found it!”
Wen Ning startles and turns.
The one that didn’t glare at him is standing a few feet away, his hair falling over his shoulder in a thick braid.
Up close he’s even more attractive and Wen Ning feels himself blushing at the gentle smile.
“Y-yeah,” Wen Ning holds it out with a shaky hand.
The handsome stranger accepts the scarf, gaze briefly landing on the scars circling his wrists.
Brown eyes flick to Wen Ning’s face and the smile softens. Wen Ning feels his heart rate pick up.
“Thank you,” he wraps the scarf around his neck, “it’s very cold out”
“Y-yeah. I-it, it is”
“The food was very good by the way. I will definitely be back”
“G-glad t-to hear th-that,” he chances a shy, fleeting smile.
Something about this man puts him at ease. Normally he can’t even get one word out when talking with a customer.
The man looks surprised before smiling again. His smile is warm, like sunlight, and Wen Ning wants to bask in it like the video of a fat tabby laying in a sunbeam.
“Have a good night!” the man waves.
Wen Ning watches him disappear.
“Oooh!” Wei Wuxian slings his arm around Wen Ning’s shoulder. Wen Ning blinks. “You actually spoke to him? My NingNing is growing up!” he pretends to wipe a tear.
“Stop harassing Wen Ning!” Jiang Cheng scowls.
“Guys, no fighting in front of customers,” Meng Yao chides quietly.
Wen Ning smiles at his ridiculous coworkers and finishes clearing off the table.
He wonders if the handsome stranger really will come back.
Lan Xichen is excited.
His brother and uncle aren’t quite as fond of doing things as he is.
While Xichen isn’t exactly the epitome of a social butterfly himself, he does enjoy trying new things.
Their weekly outings sometimes seem to be more than enough socializing for his family.
So to have them both agree, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to try the restaurant that A-Jue had brought takeout from was a victory.
It’s the small things, really.
The hostess was charming, the decor not offensively overwhelming; so far Xichen is quite pleased.
The crowd was to be expected but he did worry about Wangji.
He knows his brother is slightly agoraphobic, preferring the company of bunnies to people. He could function in society, but always seemed to look towards Xichen as an anchor.
“Welcome to Yiling!”
Xichen looks up at the cheerful waiter. He can tell the young man’s enthusiasm is genuine. It’s a charming and refreshing change.
He notices Wangji sit up a bit straighter.
This is a development.
He listens to the waiter, Wei Wuxian, and orders water for them.
Xichen has fallen into the role of family spokesperson. He doesn’t mind it at all. His uncle usually finds some way of offending people and Wangji hates speaking in public.
As the waiter leaves, Wangji’s gaze follows.
“Wangji?” Xichen prompts.
His brother looks at him, eyes slightly wider than normal. Their uncle is occupied with the menu.
“Are you alright?” he notices his brother looks a bit dazed.
“Fine,” Wangji seems to come back to himself, but his gaze flits towards Wei Wuxian.
Xichen pushes down the bubble of hope in his stomach.
Wangji? Interested in someone?
“The performance was quite something,” Lan Qiren says, setting his menu down.
“It was. She’s quite talented. You trained her, right uncle?”
“I did,” Qiren strokes his goatee, “she was always a promising student. I am quite pleased that she continued”
They discuss the performance a bit more before Wei Wuxian returns.
Like a homing pigeon, Wangji’s gaze snaps to Wei Wuxian.
“Have you had a chance to look over the menu?”
“Ah,” Xichen smiles, “I think I’ll try the vegetarian special,” he hums, “extra sauce, please?”
“You got it!”
“I will do the same,” Qiren says imperiously. Xichen’s smile becomes slightly strained. His uncle doesn’t mean anything, but sometimes he can have a haughty attitude.
Fortunately, it rolls off Wei Wuxian’s back like water off a duck.
He rises a bit in Xichen’s estimation.
When he addresses Wangji, Xichen can see his brother’s panic.
Wangji looks at him and Xichen realizes his brother doesn’t know what he’s being asked. He deliberately picks up his uncle’s menu and stacks it on his own.
His brother’s eyes widen and his posture relaxes marginally.
Xichen smiles at his brother.
“No tomatoes, got it!” The waiter smiles brightly and Wangji’s eyes widen again. “I don’t like tomatoes either. Will that be all?”
“Perhaps two pots of Jasmine tea?” Xichen directs the attention back on him before his darling brother combusts.
Wei Wuxian leaves and Xichen can see the discomfort in the line of his brother’s lips again.
Curiously, his gaze seeks out the waiter as well.
Clearly, his brother is interested. Why?
He sees the waiter talking to a coworker. Xichen is impressed by the stack of high chairs the other man is wielding with ease.
His slender frame seems at odds with such a strength, but Xichen would be remiss if he were to judge someone’s strength by their appearance.
He himself can lift nearly double what his best friend can, despite being significantly more slender.
The other man blushes red at something Wei Wuxian says.
How charming, Xichen thinks.
In between light conversation with his uncle before the meal and the silence during, he notices Wangji staring at Wei Wuxian.
His family is not particularly talkative, which suits Xichen well most days. It allows him to observe his surroundings.
They’re even less talkative when the food arrives since they still follow strict ancestral rules, including no talking at mealtime.
Every now and then, Xichen’s eyes are drawn by the coworker.
He seems to keep his head down and doesn’t seem to interact with any of the customers beyond retrieving what they need and refilling drinks. He blends into the hustle and bustle well, drawing no more attention than the wallpaper.
His strength is quite impressive though. Xichen wonders how much he can lift.
Xichen chews thoughtfully on the last bite of eggplant and glances at his brother and uncle, both of whom have finished their food.
He’s pleased that the food is just as good as the day A-Jue picked it up.
Wei Wuxian only returns to their table once and Xichen can see his brother’s disappointment.
Well, he can’t blame him. The restaurant is quite busy.
He can also tell the amount of social activity in one day has been taxing on his family. Truthfully, he’s beginning to feel it too and he’s a bit relieved when they’ve finally cashed out.
The hostess is pink as she bids them a nice night.
They’ve made it to the car when Xichen realizes he left his scarf at the table. A testament to how tired he is.
Sighing, he returns to the restaurant and weaves his way towards the table.
The strong coworker is holding his scarf thoughtfully.
“Oh! You found it!” Xichen calls.
Much to his chagrin, the young man startles. He looks up at Xichen before fixing on a point on his shoulder.
In those few moments though, Xichen is struck by the deep blue-green of his eyes.
Y-yeah,” he holds it out as he turns a pretty shade of red. His hand is shaking slightly.
Xichen frowns internally. The skin of the man’s wrist is strangely scarred. As though the skin had been rubbed off. What could cause such a mark?
Quickly, so as not be be rude, he fixes his gaze on the handsome face.
He really is quite adorable.
“Thank you,” Xichen wraps the scarf around his neck, “it’s very cold out”
“Y-yeah. I-it, it is”
He doesn’t know why, but he wants to draw more words out of the other. His stuttering is quite endearing.
“The food was very good by the way. I will definitely be back”
“G-glad t-to hear th-that”
He’s rewarded with a soft, shy smile that disappears as fast as it appeared. It causes his heart to skip a beat.
Maybe Wangji isn’t the only one with a crush.
Xichen really should leave. And it looks like the young man has used his conversation quota up for the day. He has a similar look to Wangji and it makes something soft grow in him.
“Have a good night!” he waves.
“Y-you too,” comes the soft reply.
Xichen steps into the cool night air and allows a smile to cross his face.
Yes. He decides. He will definitely be back.
Jiang Cheng is so done with people.
He has to restrain himself from leveling a death glare at the brat that’s been screaming for the past ten minutes while her parents ignore her.
He needs this job and it’s significantly better than his tenure at a frozen yogurt place.
Between the bubblegum pop, excessive amount of kneecap gnawers, and the frilly pink uniforms that had Wei Wuxian laughing himself sick over, it’s a wonder he made it a year before upending a container of frozen yogurt on his whiny coworker’s head and storming out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
He grits his teeth.
Jiang Cheng looks up. The young man in front of him is peeking from behind a fan.
“Nie-xiong,” Jiang Cheng greets. “How are you?”
“Quite well. I didn’t know you worked in a restaurant”
Nie Huaisang is a classmate of his. They’ve had three classes together so far, which is apparently enough for Huaisang to declare them friends and proceed to beg for Jiang Cheng’s homework.
He doesn’t mind much. Huaisang reciprocates by buying him food and signing in for him when he has to miss class due to work.
“Yup. A year now”
He flutters his fan.
“My brother really likes it here,” he walks in a circle around Jiang Cheng, examining the decor. “He says the food is great”
“Are you meeting him here?” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. His gaze lands on Huaisang’s lips. They’re shiny.
His sister often had shiny lips.
She had once tried to give him and Wei Wuxian a makeover. His idiot brother had gleefully agreed which meant Jiang Cheng had to as well, lest he lose face.
His lips had been shiny too. Shiny and sticky. It had been unpleasant.
What was it...?
Lip gloss! That’s what it was.
Pleased at himself for remembering, he notes Huaisang’s lips are quite full. They look soft. Like pillows.
If he were to kiss Huaisang, would the lip gloss transfer to his own lips?
He pulls the brakes on his train of thought.
Why the hell is he thinking about kissing Huaisang?
Jiang Cheng is pulled from beating up his thoughts by those shiny soft lips forming his name.
“Huh?” he says, ever so eloquently.
“You seemed out of it for a second!” Huaisang responds cheerfully. “As I was saying, I’m only here to pick up his takeout. I don’t know why he won’t do it himself,” exasperation crosses Huaisang’s face.
Jiang Cheng shrugs. From what he’s heard of Huaisang’s brother, it’s a surprise the guy doesn’t just exist off protein powder and motivation.
“Yeah. My coworker will-“ he glances towards the decidedly empty register. “Wait. Where’s Meng Yao?”
“He went on break,” Song Lan tilts his head as he walks over. “I was just coming over to ask you to mind the register”
Song Lan and his partner, Xiao Xingchen actually own the restaurant. Song Lan tended to manage days, where there were fewer people whereas Xiao Xingchen, the more outgoing of the pair, managed nights.
They were an odd couple, but they worked. And they were great bosses to boot.
“Right,” he gestures for Huaisang to follow.
As he’s ringing him up, something flashes in his vision.
Gold from a gaudy wristwatch. He bites back the snarl creeping up his throat.
“Excuse me,” Jin Guangshan snaps his fingers to get Jiang Cheng’s attention and irritation flares in Jiang Cheng. “I’m thirsty, I need more water”
“The only thing that could quench his thirst is about five gallons of holy water,” Jiang Cheng grumbles under his breath, hefting the water jug as he passes Huaisang the receipts he needs to sign.
Huaisang lets out a squeak of stifled laughter, hazel eyes going bright with amusement.
“Jiang-xiong!” he can’t hide the mirth in his tone.
Jiang Cheng ignores the warmth in his chest at making Huaisang laugh as he goes over to refill Jin Guangshan’s glass.
He’s dismissed with a flick of a hand and it takes all his willpower to not upend the jug over that ridiculously styled hair with enough hair gel to cement bricks.
“I think hair gel was invented to make it easier to identify assholes from a distance,” Jiang Cheng gripes to Huaisang when he returns.
Another squeak of laughter as the other male hides behind his fan.
“Good thing I only use hairspray,” he says in a light teasing tone, eyes glittering with amusement as he runs his hand through his shoulder-length hair.
“Yeah but your hair is nice. Even if you used gel, it’d probably still look perfect,” Jiang Cheng says without thinking. At Huaisang’s widened eyes, he clamps his mouth shut and closes the ticket. “I’m. Going to go get your order,” Jiang Cheng says stiffly as he flees to the safety of the back.
He thunks his head against the wall trying to shove down his flush.
“Get it together asshole,” he says, taking a breath.
“Step one on the road back to sanity, stop talking to yourself”
Jiang Cheng looks up. Meng Yao is hovering a few feet away, looking slightly concerned and vaguely amused.
The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes Meng Yao expresses emotions without actually expressing them.
Right now it’s irritating.
“Need me to handle something?”
“No.” Jiang Cheng grits out. He grabs Huaisang’s order and steels himself. “Don’t tell Wuxian”
“Sure thing,” Meng Yao hums and glances back down at his phone.
The guy is probably blackmailing someone, Jiang Cheng thinks uncharitably. His secrets have secrets and he knows Things.
Things he probably shouldn’t know. And Jiang Cheng can never tell what he’s thinking.
He hands Huaisang the bag.
Huaisang is kind of like that too.
Hazel eyes blink up at him and he smiles brightly. Jiang Cheng wonders if he has heartburn.
“Thank you, Jiang-xiong!” he waves, “I’ll see you in class!”
He rings up Jin Guangshan, but his thoughts overlap Meng Yao and Huaisang.
Ah well, he really does like them both, even if he’ll never admit it.
Jiang Cheng rests his head against the desk.
He should just put an “Out of Order” sticker on his forehead and call it a day.
Nie Huaisang sighs and studies his fan and laments his inability to admit he likes the other out loud.
The smell of his brother’s takeout permeates the car and makes him crinkle his nose.
He feels vaguely stalkerish.
He did know Jiang Cheng works at Yiling. He had seen him there once before in passing, so when his brother had mentioned he had a takeout order, Huaisang had jumped at the chance.
His da ge seemed a little like he would rather go, but Huaisang wheedled his way into it this time.
He had no way of knowing if Jiang Cheng was even there, but his luck tended to be good.
He’s had a crush on the other since they were assigned partners in a chemistry class.
It had gotten to a point where Huaisang had started acting dumb to get Jiang Cheng to help him.
It worked to some extent.
He could tell the other liked being the one to teach someone something and Huaisang didn’t particularly care that people thought he was useless.
People didn’t try to use people who were useless.
Besides, watching Jiang Cheng puff up with pride whenever Huaisang “finally understood” something was more than enough to make Huaisang content with his strategy.
It worked; Jiang Cheng got to please whatever part of him seemed to settle with knowing more than those around him and Huaisang got to slide through their shared classes without doing half of his work on his own.
Besides, he had learned in high school that it was nice setting such a low bar. Nobody had any expectations of him and as long as he did the bare minimum, they would be pleased.
It was much easier to skate through life when nobody expected anything spectacular from you.
Work smarter, not harder was the motto of Huaisang’s life.
Also, C’s get degrees was pretty applicable.
Yet, almost two years of slowly turning classmates into some semblance of friendship is beginning to wear on him.
This truly was a slow-burn romance. The slowest.
But, he is nothing if not patient and when he wants something, he has a determination to rival his brother’s.
Speaking of his brother.
Huaisang peels out of the parking lot, knowing his brother might actually follow through on his threat of breaking his legs if he didn’t get back soon.
His brother was the worst when it came to getting hangry.
He wonders what Jiang Cheng is like.
Like his brother, Jiang Cheng is a simmering pot. Huaisang has gotten very adept at managing to keep the heat at a tolerable level.
Ironic, considering he failed home economics in high school after burning a hole in a pot.
His brother still doesn’t let him in the kitchen after the mug cake incident either.
He sighs and shakes the extraneous thoughts away.
This is getting a little out of hand.
He has class with Jiang Cheng on Tuesday. He’s been bringing Jiang Cheng a snack every class.
His phone pings and he glances at it.
It’s a message to his encrypted email address.
At the stoplight, he opens it and skims the contents.
Easy enough request to fill.
He sends back a response just as the light changes green.
He wonders what Jiang Cheng would think if he knew Huaisang founded and ran the Sunshot University black market.
Pushing these thoughts aside, he goes back to thinking about what kind of snack he should bring this time.
I don’t know why Jiang Cheng came out so sassy. But I’m kinda down for it. Also, Nie Huaisang is a character I STRUGGLE with. So I hope the Sangcheng chapters work.
Chapter 5: Smile Like You Mean It
Nie Mingjue is going to handle this just fine. He’s got this.
He turns off his car and steels himself like he’s going into battle.
The door chimes as he enters, but there’s no cheerful voice welcoming him.
He breathes a sigh of relief despite the faint flicker of disappointment.
Mingjue heads for the bar to pick up his order when movement catches the corner of his eye.
The pretty young man is sitting at a table by the back, conversing with a young man holding a bin.
He has his phone out and Mingjue ascertains he’s on break.
He knows he’s staring, but he can’t help it; the fluffy brown hair is swept into a loose bun. Several strands frame his face. His warm golden gaze lights up as he shows the other guy something on his phone.
“Can I help you?” a dry voice reaches him. Mingjue turns. A grumpy looking employee is standing in front of him.
“Takeout order,” Mingjue says gruffly. The employee gestures for Mingjue to follow him to the bar.
Mingjue finds himself rather comfortable around this man. No false smiles or overly saccharine greetings that put his teeth on edge. He just does his job.
The guy punches something into the touchscreen and rattles off his order and total.
Mingjue hands over his card and glances back over to where the pretty employee is sitting. His friend has left and he’s flipping through his phone. He’s worrying his lip between his teeth and Mingjue wishes it was him.
Mingjue glances up.
“You wouldn’t happen to be related to Nie Huaisang?” the employee asks.
“Brother. You know him?”
“We have classes together”
Mingjue wonders if this is the guy that Huaisang is always talking about.
“What’s your name?”
Mingjue sizes the guy up; sharp violet eyes, dark hair pulled into a smooth, tight bun. He’s a good-looking guy. He approves.
“Yeah, he’s mentioned you”
“Really?” those eyes widen, “I didn’t-hm”
Mingjue signs his receipts and picks up his takeout bag.
“Nice to meet you”
“Yeah. You too.” Jiang Cheng still looks slightly befuddled.
Mingjue glances to the table near the back. The pretty employee is no longer there.
Quashing his disappointment, he leaves.
His phone buzzes with a message from his brother telling him they’re out of milk and asking him to pick up oranges.
Making a mental note to stop at the grocery store after work, he heads back to his office.
During his more boring meetings, he wonders if Jiang Cheng would tell him the name of his coworker. Or would that be creepy?
Normally he would just ask himself, but Huaisang has told him that his tactic of approaching things head-on can come across as overly aggressive and could scare away potential partners.
He’s just not sure how to go about things any other way.
Shouldn’t the person he’s interested in know of his interest right away? He doesn’t have the patience for this dancing around.
But he can hear Huaisang’s exasperated tone.
“Da ge! You have to be subtle about this! You can’t just charge forward like a bull!”
Mingjue sighs as he leaves his office.
“Bye Director Nie!”
He grimaces at the secretary.
He hates that title. Even if he does run the company. He’s repeatedly told people to just call him by his name but only half his staff actually do.
It’s snowing lightly as he walks to his car.
Mingjue pulls into the lot of the store nearby his office. The snow is falling in big clumps as he walks through the sliding doors.
Like a magnet, his gaze is drawn to a familiar person by the entrance.
The pretty employee from Yiling is holding the hand of a kid, fussing with his scarf.
He glances over, honey colored eyes widening.
Before he can stop himself, Mingjue approaches him.
“You work at Yiling. Don’t you?”
Mingjue receives a slightly wary glance before it disappears behind a smile.
“I do. You’ve been in before, right?”
Mingjue fervently hopes he doesn’t remember the duck incident as he nods.
“Yao-ge,” the both glance at the boy, who is staring at Mingjue apprehensively with wide grey eyes. His hair is shaggy beneath a knit beanie. “Who’s this?”
“Don’t worry, A-Yu. He’s just someone I know from work,” the young man smiles and Mingjue is startled by the difference between a real smile and what he now knows is a practiced fake.
It lights up his face, softening the edges. It makes him look so much younger and Mingjue feels vaguely like a creepy old man.
Yao-ge’s words seem to placate the child. Mostly. He’s still shooting Mingjue suspicious stares from behind his brother’s arm.
“Sorry,” he turns his smile on Mingjue, fond exasperation in his tone. “A-Yu can be a little protective”
Mingjue smiles, remembering a young Huaisang glaring at people similarly.
“My brother was like that too,” Mingjue says. The expression on the young man’s face relaxes slightly. “Nie Mingjue,” he holds out his hand.
“Meng Yao,” a slender hand curls around his. He marvels over the size difference between Mingjue’s meaty, calloused hand and Meng Yao’s slender, fair one. “How old is your brother?”
“Now he’s eighteen. But I raised him since he was six”
Mingjue isn’t sure why he’s telling him this.
Meng Yao blinks and another genuine smile crosses his face. Mingjue wants to take a picture.
“It’s not easy, is it?” Meng Yao says softly. “I took over A-Yu’s guardianship a year ago. It’s at least better than where he was before...” his expression goes distant.
Mingjue frowns. Meng Yao straightens and sends him another fake smile.
“Anyways, we should get going,” he tugs his hat tighter over his head and picks up the grocery bags sitting on the ground. “It was nice to actually get your name”
“You too,” Mingjue says, frown deepening. Again, he feels like he did something wrong as Meng Yao walks away with his brother.
“Hey. Meng Yao”
He turns, inquisitive. A-Yu blinks.
“You’re a good brother”
“You don’t even know me”
“He clearly loves you. So you’re a good brother”
Meng Yao stares at him for a long moment before a soft smile plays across his lips. Mingjue wonders how many different smiles Meng Yao wears.
“Thank you,” he says so softly Mingjue has to strain to hear him.
Mingjue watches the pair disappear into the parking lot.
Well. How was that for subtle? He managed to get his name without being “aggressive”.
Huaisang would be proud.
Meng Yao is obviously a wary person. Getting to know him might be more work than Mingjue had initially thought.
Well, if there’s one thing that can be said, it’s that Nie Mingjue never backs away from a challenge.
Meng Yao risks a glance over his shoulder before they get on the bus.
He hadn’t expected to run into Nie Mingjue of all people.
“Yao-ge?” he feels a tug on his sleeve.
“Hm?” he looks down at Xuanyu.
“Do you like him?”
Meng Yao blinks.
“What do you mean, A-Yu?”
Xuanyu frowns. “You look at him funny”
Meng Yao stares at his half-brother. The expression on his face is determined.
“You should be his boyfriend”
Meng Yao nearly drops the grocery bags. A few people nearby look at them in amusement.
“A-Yu! Where did you even learn about that?”
“I’m eight, Yao-ge! I know about these things”
Meng Yao wonders what he’s going to do when Xuanyu gets to middle school.
“And why do you think I should be his boyfriend?” Meng Yao is genuinely curious what his brother thinks a boyfriend is.
“Well. If you have a crush on him and he has a crush on you, shouldn’t you guys be boyfriends?”
Meng Yao winces slightly. How does Xuanyu even know about crushes?
“Why do you think I have a crush on him?”
“You smiled at him”
“I see. And why do you think he has a crush on me?”
“He smiled at you too”
Meng Yao stifles his laugh.
“So when you smile at someone it means you have a crush on them?”
Xuanyu looks thoughtful.
“No. But when you smile nice. Like if you’re smiling at a puppy or your favorite food or something”
Meng Yao ruffles his brother’s beanie.
“He’s just someone I know from work”
Xuanyu looks disappointed.
“So you won’t be his boyfriend?”
“Not likely, A-Yu”
“Do you want to be?”
Meng Yao opens his mouth, but realizes he doesn’t have an actual answer.
Sure, Nie Mingjue is ridiculously attractive. He’s reasonably friendly and has an endearingly direct manner about him. But Meng Yao doesn’t know anything about him.
Besides, between Xuanyu, school and work, he doesn’t have time.
“Why do you want me to get a boyfriend?” he asks in lieu of answering.
“Cause I want you to happy smile,” Xuanyu pouts. “You always smile like plastic but you happy smiled at him”
Meng Yao sighs. He feels a rush of affection for his little brother and hugs him.
“You’re the only one I need to happy smile at”
Xuanyu seems pleased with this answer and he holds onto the hem of Meng Yao’s jacket.
“Yao-ge. Will you make brownies when we get home?”
Meng Yao hums his agreement. His thoughts turn, unbidden, to Nie Mingjue.
He really is attractive. And, unfortunately, exactly Meng Yao’s type.
The guy is probably straight anyways. He looks straight at least, and Meng Yao isn’t about to ask.
But he had mentioned raising his younger brother by himself. The only other person Meng Yao knows is sole caretaker for a younger relative is Wen Ning, and A-Yuan is much younger than A-Yu.
He wonders if Nie Mingjue would have advice for him.
The past year has been entirely trial and error. He’s just glad that A-Yu is pretty self-sufficient, having had to fend for himself in and out of horrible foster homes before Meng Yao found him.
It would be nice to have someone to ask questions to.
He glances at A-Yu, who is reading quietly.
Why had Nie Mingjue acknowledged him anyways?
Does he always acknowledge restaurant employees when he runs into them?
Meng Yao snorts quietly at the thought.
The bus stops at their stop and Meng Yao nudges his brother out.
Oh well. He’ll probably have more opportunities to interact with Nie Mingjue in the future.
Maybe at the very least, they could become friends.
Chapter 6: No Pain, No Gain
Lan Wangji has a problem.
He wants to go back to Yiling. He wants to see Wei Wuxian again.
He just doesn’t know how.
It would be weird if he went alone.
So he goes to the one person in the world that he trusts beyond all else.
Xichen looks up from something he’s writing. A smile blooms across his face.
“Wangji! How are you?”
“Me too,” he sets down his pen and studies him. Wangji shifts under his brother’a scrutiny. “As much as I appreciate spending time with my brother, I get the sense that you want something”
Wangji feels his ears turn red. Even when they were younger, Xichen could always, always read him.
“Brother,” he’s not sure how to tell his brother he wants to go back to the restaurant without his brother knowing why.
Fortunately, Xichen possesses an endless well of patience.
“The restaurant,” Wangji finally says.
“You wish to return?”
He nods. Xichen smiles his knowing smile and Wangji is pretty sure his ears are on fire.
“Sure. Do you want to go this evening?”
Panic rockets through Wangji. He hadn’t expected his brother to want to go that soon! He wants to, but he’s utterly unprepared.
Xichen seems to sense this because his smile softens.
“How about tomorrow then?”
Wangji nods, relief washes over him. Tomorrow works. Tomorrow he can do.
“I’ve been wanting to try the veggie spring rolls there,” Xichen says, pleased.
Wangji nods again.
Xichen knows. He knows Xichen knows. There’s something oddly freeing about Xichen knowing.
Wangji isn’t even sure what it is about Wei Wuxian that draws him in.
The waiter reminds him a bit of his first crush, actually. An unruly kid with wild hair and a warm smile who shamelessly called him Lan Zhan and hung off his arms at every given chance.
They had played together in elementary school after A-Ying had crashed into him while he was reading during recess.
He had found the other boy annoying. Even more annoying than his brother, A-Cheng, who was always yelling and glaring. But A-Ying hadn’t given up and continued to pester Wangji every day.
Unbidden, a memory flits through his head.
“We’re close, right Lan Zhaaan?” A-Ying drawls out his name.
Wangji glares, ignoring the flushing in his ears.
“Not close.” he grits out, wondering why those words hurt his chest.
“Yes we are!” A-Ying grabs his hand and pulls him to the slide. “Come on Lan Zhan! Let’s go down together!”
“Shameless,” Wangji says, but allows the smaller boy to pull him up the playset.
A-Ying settles in his lap on the slide, small body warm against Wangji’s chest. Wangji gets a funny feeling in his stomach.
“You’ve gotta hold on tight, okay Lan Zhan?”
Wangji doesn’t say anything, but his arms wrap around A-Ying’s tiny middle.
He smells like cinnamon.
“On three. One...two!”
A-Ying pushes them down the slide. Wangji grips him tighter.
He hadn’t said three.
They land in a heap in the dirt.
A-Ying laughs, high and clear. The funny feeling comes back.
“Let’s do it again Lan Zhan!”
“Dangerous,” Wangji gets up and dusts himself off before going back to his swing.
“Aww,” A-Ying crinkles his nose. “No one got hurt!”
“Dangerous,” Wangji repeats. Dangerous for him.
A-Ying pouts for a total of five seconds before hopping on the swing and standing.
“Look at what I can do!”
“Dangerous,” Wangji feels something like worry crawl up his throat.
“Nothing safe is ever fun!”
Wangji glares at the other boy and proceeds to ignore him.
A-Ying had gone to a different middle school and Wangji hadn’t been able to find him. He had tried until sophomore year of college, but he hadn’t even had a name to go off of and his search lost steam.
He still perked up whenever he heard “Ying”, but none of them were ever his A-Ying.
Wei Wuxian reminds him of A-Ying. The same bright smile and magnetic charm.
He really wants to see him again.
The next evening can’t come soon enough and Wangji knows Xichen can sense how nervous he is.
The drive over is silent but Wangji feels like his nerves are going to vibrate out of his body.
It’s quieter than last time. Wangji is grateful.
“Welcome to Yiling,” a pretty, amber-eyed boy smiles, “please have a seat wherever you would like”
“Thank you,” Xichen smiles back.
They find a table in an alcove.
“Welcome to Yiling!” a familiarly chipper voice drifts over Wangji, settling something inside him. “Oh! You guys have been here before, right?”
He looks up into playful grey eyes. The ink black hair has been pulled into a messy bun that several strands have managed to escape from.
“We have,” Xichen smiles, “good memory!”
“Thanks!” he grins, “it’s really not. It’s just easy to remember such good looking customers”
Wangji’s ears flame RED.
Wei Wuxian thought he was good looking?
Good looking thought he was Wei Wuxian?
Thought good he looking was Wei Wuxian?
He looks at his brother for help. Xichen looks amused.
“My brother, Wangji, and I are both vegetarian,” Xichen says casually, “what do you recommend?”
“Oh! We have quite a few vegetarian options!” Wei Wuxian chirps.
“We were thinking of the spring rolls”
“Those are good, but not spicy enough for my taste! If you want something with loads of flavor, the noodles with eggplant are the way to go. I usually get them with chicken but my coworker, A-Ning, is vegetarian and he likes the eggplant!”
Wangji looks at the menu and winces at the five chiles next to the name.
Wei Wuxian likes spicy?
“I will try it”
“What level of spice would you like?”
“Ahh,” Xichen laughs, “I’m not much for spice”
“No spice it is,” Wei Wuxian smiles sunnily before turning to Wangji.
Wangji isn’t ready for him to turn those eyes on him!!
“The same,” Wangji says.
“No spice as well?”
Wangji opens his mouth to confirm but is struck by a sudden bout of madness.
It’s worth the future pain to see Wei Wuxian’s eyes light up. Xichen casts him a worried glance, which he ignores.
“You like spicy food too?” Wei Wuxian asks. Wangji nods. It’s not necessarily a lie. He doesn’t eat enough spicy food to have formed a solid opinion. He neither likes it nor dislikes it.
“A man after my own heart!” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully.
Wangji’s own heart does something dangerous.
“I’ll go put this order in!” he bounces off.
“Wangji,” Xichen leans forward, “are you sure?”
“He said it was good,” Wangji replies stubbornly.
Xichen sighs and silently pushes his water across the table.
He flags down another employee.
“Can I get another glass of water please?” Xichen smiles at the man who is wearing a faint scowl.
“What’s wrong-I mean, sure,” he hurries off to the back and returns with a water that he plunks down. “Anything else I can get you?”
“Not right now, thank you”
Bless his brother for being so personable.
This waiter reminds him of A-Ying’s noisy, grumpy brother.
“Wangji,” Xichen fixes him with a look.
“Brother,” Wangji returns it.
“Just be careful”
The food comes out fairly fast. Wei Wuxian carrying the tray with ease.
Wangji stares apprehensively at the bright red noodles.
“Ah, perhaps a pot of Jasmine tea as well?” Xichen asks brightly.
He looks at his brother’s regularly colored noodles.
“H-here y-you g-go,” a soft, stuttering voice says.
Wangji looks up with a slight frown.
The person bringing the tea is not Wei Wuxian. It’s the coworker with absurd strength. He glances over to where Wei Wuxian is chatting with another table.
“Thank you,” Wangji looks up in shock at the tone in his brother’s voice. “I told you I would be back,” Xichen smiles.
Wangji fixes his stare on the newcomer, suddenly intrigued; slender with brown hair tied into a high ponytail, the end of which is just barely brushing his shoulders. His bangs hide his face and he keeps his head bowed.
He bobs his head and fidgets.
“Th-that’s my, my f-favorite,” he gestures to Xichen’s dish.
“Oh! You must be the vegetarian coworker Wei Wuxian talked about”
The young man looks up, eyes wide. His face is bright red.
Okay. Maybe Wangji can see why his brother is interested. While not Wei Wuxian levels of attractive, he is quite pretty. His eyes seem to shift from blue to green. And his demeanor is enough to draw in the soft-hearted Xichen who feels the need to protect small, cute things.
A startled head bob before he scurries off.
“Brother?” Wangji glances back.
Xichen shakes his head. “I know,” he says slightly ruefully.
They focus on their meal in silence. Wangji takes a bite and the first and only thought is pain. His eyes widen and he grabs his water glass, taking several small sips.
Xichen is watching him, concern written across his features.
Wangji powers through, taking a second and a third bite in between sips of water.
By his fifth bite his mouth has gone numb to the pain and it gets easier. His lips tingle and he feels slightly feverish. He finishes the entire thing because he fears the minute he stops, he’ll feel things again.
Wei Wuxian returns as he finishes off his brother’s glass of water.
“Wow!” Wei Wuxian’s smile makes Wangji forget all about the pain in his face. “You must really like spicy food!”
Wangji says nothing as Wei Wuxian clears the plates.
“Can I get more water, please?” Xichen holds up his glass.
“Sure thing!” he peeks over his shoulder. “A-Ning!”
The stuttering young man that Xichen expressed interest in hurries over with a large bin.
“Thanks!” Wei Wuxian chirps, placing the plates in the bin and ruffling his hair. The young man shies away slightly, but allows it.
Wei Wuxian goes to a counter nearby and picks up a water jug.
“Since you like spicy food,” he pours more water for both of them, “there’s this place on Lotus Root drive that serves only spicy foods! I always make my brother go with me. You should check it out!”
Wangji nods and Wei Wuxian rattles off the name.
Wei Wuxian has a brother. Wei Wuxian likes spicy food.
He tucks these tidbits of information close to his heart.
Wei Wuxian bounces off to get the check and Wangji drinks more water.
Strangely, the burn doesn’t feel so bad anymore.
Wei Wuxian watches the brothers leave.
He now has a name for Gold Eyes.
He hums to himself as he fills up the water jugs. Wangji likes spicy food too apparently.
Not many people can handle the level five spice. Most people, even those who have a fairly high spice tolerance, struggle with their level five. The majority of the time, people order level five and have to send it back because it’s too much.
Aside from Jiang Cheng, he only knows of two others who have been able to eat it without a problem. Both are from Yunmeng too.
But Wangji actually ate it all and didn’t even flinch! Wei Wuxian was definitely impressed and his heart may have done a little jig in his chest.
Maybe he’s from Yunmeng too? That would explain why he looks so familiar.
But his brother wasn’t able to handle spice, so probably not.
Unless they didn’t grow up together. That could be it.
“Oi, idiot!” Jiang Cheng’s voice breaks into his thoughts. “You entered the order for table five in wrong! They had the fried rice”
Wei Wuxian double-takes and glances at the order screen
“You’re looking at table six,” he points.
Jiang Cheng blinks before scowling.
“I knew that,” he scoffs.
Wei Wuxian hums.
“You’re daydreaming,” Jiang Cheng snaps.
Jiang Cheng levels him with an unimpressed stare.
“Are too. You have that stupid dazed expression on your face”
Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out at his brother.
Jiang Cheng flips him off.
“You shouldn’t let your mind wander. It’s too little to be out alone”
“Oh wow. That was actually clever”
Jiang Cheng leans back against the counter.
“Alright, I’m gonna regret asking. But what are you thinking about?”
Wei Wuxian studies his brother and sighs.
“A customer. I swear I’ve met him before...but there’s no way I could forget someone that gorgeous. He looks like a model, Jiang Cheng, and his eyes. He has the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re gold kinda like Meng Yao’s except they’re such a clear, cool gold, and-“
“You like him”
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“You have a thing for a customer,” Jiang Cheng cackles.
“Do not! I just. He’s just familiar, that’s all”
Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrow.
“You were just waxing poetic about his eyes”
“I can appreciate good-looking people who like spicy food!”
“Whatever you say,” Jiang Cheng snorts, pushing off the counter and leaving the back.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
He doesn’t like Wangji. He doesn’t even know the guy!
(He ignores the voice in his head telling him he did at some point)
Besides, it seems like every time Wangji looks at him, he’s glaring. Wei Wuxian has never had anyone stare at him so intensely before! He knows he can be a lot to deal with, but he makes sure to reign in his natural exuberance and characteristic shamelessness at work.
Wangji isn’t even his type. Wei Wuxian tends to go for the more outgoing types. Wangji barely talks even when he’s ordering.
Jiang Cheng appears in the back, hauling Wen Ning by the arm.
Wen Ning looks panicked.
“What happened?” Wei Wuxian frowns. He knows his friend went through something traumatic their senior year in high school, but he doesn’t know the details. Just that Wen Ning didn’t come back to school and became more withdrawn and anxious than normal.
“This one nearly hyperventilated by the register,” Jiang Cheng scoffs.
“I d-don’t kn-know wh-why he t-talks to me!” Wen Ning stammers out.
“O-one o-of th-the models”
“The brothers?” Wei Wuxian asks curiously, wondering why he even cares. Wen Ning nods. “Which one?”
“Th-the n-nice o-one”
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“What did he say?”
“H-he s-said it, it w-was good t-to see me, see me a-again. A-and a-asked for m-my name”
“P-people d-don’t talk to, to me!” Wen Ning frets. “Th-they’re certainly n-never g-glad to s-see me”
“We are,” Wei Wuxian throws his arm around Wen Ning’s shoulders. “He’s just being nice, A-Ning. He’s much friendlier than his brother”
Wen Ning bobs his head.
“Although, Wangji is probably the more attractive of the two,” Wei Wuxian hums, “if he smiled like his brother, he would have half of China falling in love with him! It’s a shame he looks so frigid. I mean, those eyes alone...”
He misses the look Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng exchange.
Chapter 7: My Therapist Senses Are Tingling
Xichen watches the young man move from table to table with his bin.
He’s certainly efficient.
The blush that colored his cheeks when Xichen had spoken to him made Xichen want to get to know him.
He can tell that A-Ning is more than just shy. The way he reacted when Xichen acknowledged him made him think that A-Ning is unused to being addressed.
He’s also a vegetarian. That little piece of information settles comfortably in Xichen’s heart and makes it lighter.
His gaze follows the timid busser as he wipes down a nearby table. He really is quite adorable. A-Ning smiles to himself at nothing quite a bit and Xichen wishes he could see what the other was thinking about.
Xichen knows he’s romantically interested in A-Ning, but he gets the distinct feeling that the other man is too shy to approach directly. He doesn’t want to scare him off.
A-Ning smiles to himself again.
Xichen smiles too.
Xichen looks at Wangji, who is staring at Wei Wuxian and amusement flickers through him.
Isn’t that funny?
That both of them would find someone at the same restaurant.
He knows Wangji is aware of his romantic inclinations towards A-Ning. It was easy enough to see when he figured it out.
Well, it certainly makes it easier, he thinks as he watches Wei Wuxian ruffle A-Ning’s hair.
He’s watched the interactions of all the staff members and it’s clear they’re all very close to each other.
Xichen glances at his brother again. He can see the pain written across Wangji’s face as he takes a bite of the alarmingly red noodles and he winces.
What was he thinking?? His brother sneezes at ground black pepper!
Why so stubborn, Wangji?? Xichen despairs as his brother takes another bite of those dangerously red noodles and a quick sip of water.
He pushes his new glass of water towards his brother and focuses on his Jasmine tea instead.
They eat in silence. Even if it weren’t for the no talking at mealtime rule, Xichen is pretty sure Wangji wouldn’t be able to speak anyways.
Wangji finishes his noodles faster than normal and finishes his third glass of water.
He still looks pained.
Xichen flags down Wei Wuxian.
“Wow!” Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen, “you must really like spicy food!”
Xichen is unsure whether the red of Wangji’s ears is a blush, the result of the spice, or a combination of both.
“Can I get some more water please?”
“Sure thing!” Wei Wuxian grins and calls over A-Ning.
The young man brings his bin and looks at Wei Wuxian inquisitively. Wei Wuxian gathers the empty dishes and dumps them in the bucket.
He moves to ruffle A-Ning’s hair and Xichen feels a coil of concern as A-Ning stifles a flinch.
He’s noticed that the young man shies away from physical contact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anyone else has because his coworkers are always bodily dragging him somewhere, ruffling his hair, or throwing their arms around his shoulder.
He doesn’t understand why they don’t seem to respect their friend’s boundaries.
Blue-green eyes flick over to him and he smiles. A-Ning widens his eyes and hurries away. Xichen stifles his laugh at how adorable he is when flustered.
He wants to make A-Ning comfortable, coax him out of his shell. He wants to know why the younger man is so afraid and reassure him it will be okay.
His therapist senses tell him that A-Ning has been through far too much and that makes him sad.
Anyone who looks at A-Ning can tell he’s a gentle soul, and the idea of someone taking advantage of that causes Xichen’s rarely seen temper to flicker.
Wei Wuxian is chattering something to Wangji. Something about another restaurant.
His brother is still reeling from the spice, it seems like, but he clings to every word the waiter says.
Wei Wuxian brings the check and shoots a flirtatious smile at Wangji.
His brother seems to have recovered from the spice, so Xichen can confidently state the redness of his ears is due to the smile.
The grumpy waiter brings them their check and Xichen can sense Wangji’s disappointment it’s not Wei Wuxian.
A-Ning is standing at the counter talking to the pretty young man behind the register when they go up to pay. The other man is gesturing something with his pen and he lightly pokes A-Ning’s hand.
Xichen notes A-Ning doesn’t flinch at that contact and wonders why.
“It’s good to see you again, by the way,” Xichen smiles at him as he hands the cashier his card.
A-Ning knocks over the complimentary candy container as he stares at Xichen in mild shock.
His clumsiness is adorable.
The pretty young man at the register furrows his brows as he picks up the spilled candies.
“The eggplant noodle dish was very good. You have good taste,” A-Ning’s face is bright red. The cashier pokes him in the back with a pen before sliding the receipts to Xichen.
“O-oh. U-um. Th-thank you,” A-Ning startles.
“What do you recommend for next time?”
A-Ning fidgets and glances at his feet.
“W-well. U-um. Th-the s-spring, spring rolls a-are g-good. B-but th-the. U-um. Th-the tofu s-stir fry i-is a-also g-good”
That’s probably the longest sentence Xichen has heard from the guy.
Xichen rewards him with a smile that turns him burgundy.
“I’ll definitely have to try that next time,” he says cheerfully, “I’m Lan Xichen by the way. What’s your name?”
Aquamarine eyes widen in shock.
“M-me?” A-Ning asks, glancing at his coworker like Xichen meant to ask for his name instead. It would be endearing if it didn’t scream self-esteem issues.
“O-oh. U-um. W-Wen N-Ning”
“It’s nice to officially meet you, Wen Ning,” Xichen offers him a smile. Wen Ning stares at him in a daze.
The grumpy waiter comes over.
“Everything alright?” his gaze flicks between the four of them.
“It’s fine,” the cashier waves his hand, “has Wen Ning taken care of the drink station in the back?”
The server blinks before sighing.
“No. He hasn’t,” he grips Wen Ning by the arm and hauls him off.
Xichen watches in confusion.
The cashier smiles charmingly.
“Don’t worry about him,” he soothes, “Wen Ning is painfully shy and doesn’t always handle social situations well. It’s not your fault”
“Will he be okay?” Xichen asks, concerned.
The young man laughs.
“Of course. He just needs to. Hm. Recalibrate,” honey colored eyes study him, “don’t give up on him,” he says, “once he gets past the initial shock that people do actually want to talk to him, he’s fine, but a lot of people either aren’t patient enough or worry about scaring him off”
“I’ll take your advice,” he smiles. The young man smiles back. “Have a good day!”
Xichen follows Wangji out. His thoughts turn to Wen Ning.
He’s no stranger to dealing with people who are less than stellar in social situations.
He worries a bit about the young man.
Would it be rude to recommend a therapist?
Obviously not Xichen himself, he hasn’t actually done anything with his counseling degree since taking over his family’s company. But he does know several very good ones.
Perhaps he’ll hold off. Maybe try to coax some more words out of Wen Ning first.
“A-Ning, you can’t keep panicking when people ask you for your name!” Wei Wuxian sighs after Meng Yao joined them in the back and explained what happened.
“I kn-know!” Wen Ning flails, “I w-wasn’t e-expecting it!”
“Could he be interested in you?” Wei Wuxian leans forward. Wen Ning widens his eyes.
“M-me!? N-no w-way!”
The idea of a guy that looks like Lan Xichen being interested in boring, mousy Wen Ning is laughable at best.
A guy like that probably has men and women falling all over themselves.
“Why not?” Meng Yao asks, leaning his hip against the counter and peeking at the register to check for customers.
Everyone stares at him expectantly and he shrinks into himself.
“M’nothing s-special,” he mumbles.
Besides. The last time someone showed any interest in him he had ended up...
Nope. He’s not gonna think about that. Instead, Wen Ning thinks about the video of the cats trying to jump past plastic wrap on a door.
“Of course you are A-Ning!” Wei Wuxian slings his arm around Wen Ning’s shoulder. Wen Ning stifles his flinch, but Meng Yao catches it and sighs.
“Oh, right! Sorry A-Ning!” Wei Wuxian removes his arm but ruffles Wen Ning’s hair before bounding out to check on his tables. Meng Yao sighs again and shakes his head.
“Don’t worry A-Ning,” he smiles. Wen Ning returns it. “He was probably just being nice”
The rest of his shift passes without incident and he pushes the encounter to the back of his mind.
It’s started snowing as he boards the bus to A-Yuan’s daycare.
He’s grateful Wen Qing found a daycare open late. Between her hectic hospital schedule and his own inconsistent one, it was a worry who was going to watch A-Yuan.
In the beginning, they had debated Wen Ning quitting his job since Wen Qing made more than him, but then she reasoned that the extra income was helpful and the job was a good, non-traumatic way to reacclimatize him to interacting with strangers after everything that had happened.
It was also probably the only thing standing between Wen Ning and being a recluse. He even took his classes online.
Fortunately, one of Wen Qing’s coworkers recommended this place and it was proving to work well.
It was in a nicer part of town, where the big companies made their headquarters, and a bit pricier than they could probably afford, but the added peace of mind that they could pick A-Yuan up late was worth it. They just had to make certain concessions to pay for it.
After Wen Qing had publicly denounced their family, they were left on their own. Wen Ning was recovering from his trauma and Wen Qing was struggling through medical school.
It had been a dark time for them, but they’d weathered past it.
Then their grandma passed away and they ended up being responsible for their one year old cousin because Wen Qing refused to let the main family corrupt him. Then Qishan Industries went belly up thanks to Wen Ruohan’s shady business practices.
It had been a series of chaotic ups and downs and when the dust settled, Wen Qing and Wen Ning were raising a toddler in a rundown apartment while working overtime.
Their grandma had left them a small amount of money, not much but enough to help them when times were really rough. They didn’t touch it if they didn’t have to.
Wen Ning doesn’t feel responsible enough to be responsible for a small human, but here they are. And he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The bus stops in front of the massive silver and white building of Gusu Group. Wen Ning has always admired that building. It’s so much more elegant than the intimidating Qishan building was.
The daycare, Cloud Recesses, is right next door. Wen Ning pushes open the door and greets the teacher.
“H-how w-was he t-today, M-Mianmian?”
“Perfect as always. I swear, Wen Ning, I’ve never met a better behaved three year old”
“Ning-ge!” A-Yuan calls, waving wildly. Wen Ning bends down and holds his arms open for A-Yuan to hug him. “Guess what A-Yi did?”
Wen Ning listens to his cousin chattering about his “best friend” A-Yi did as he bids Mianmian goodbye.
They’re walking towards the bus station when Wen Ning hears his name.
He turns to see Lan Xichen emerging from the Gusu building with several folders.
Panic sets in and for a brief moment Wen Ning fears he’s being stalked again.
“I thought that was you!” Lan Xichen smiles. “What are you doing over here?”
“U-um...p-picking u-up A-Yuan,” he holds his cousin tighter.
“Who is this, Ning-ge?” A-Yuan asks softly from Wen Ning’s arms, clearly sensing his cousin’s unease.
“U-um,” Wen Ning doesn’t want A-Yuan to inherit his fear of strangers. “Th-this i-is s-someone f-from w-work. S-say h-hi, A-Yuan”
“Hello!” A-Yuan waves cheerfully. “My name is Wen Yuan but you can call me A-Yuan!”
“Hello A-Yuan,” Lan Xichen responds just as cheerfully, “my name is Lan Xichen. But you can call me A-Chen!”
“Are you Ning-ge’s friend?”
Lan Xichen laughs.
A-Yuan looks pleased.
“Qing-jie says Ning-ge needs more friends”
“A-Yuan...” Wen Ning flushes. Lan Xichen smiles, clearly charmed.
“Well, anyone would be lucky to be friends with your Ning-ge”
Wen Ning knows he’s blushing darker. Lan Xichen looks up at him with a warm smile.
“W-what a-are y-y-you-“ Wen Ning is struggling to get the words out.
“Just picking up some documents,” Lan Xichen replies, taking pity on him, “I work here,” he gestures to the Gusu building.
Wait. Lan. Gusu. He’s one of those Lans. Vague memories of Wen Ruohan cursing a Lan Qiren floats through his head.
Wen Ning feels himself panicking again. This is exactly like what happened last time...
Lan Xichen looks at him in concern.
He can’t let himself panic in front of A-Yuan. He remembers a video of an absurdly fluffy white kitten playing with a string toy, spinning in circles.
He thinks of the video of an orange kitten sleeping next to a large pitbull.
“Wen Ning?” Lan Xichen asks kindly, “are you alright?”
The snow has started falling again. A-Yuan holds out his hands to catch snowflakes.
“I sh-should...g-go,” Wen Ning gestures to the bus stop.
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
Get in a car with a member of the Gusu Lan family? He’s not looking to get kidnapped again, thanks.
Especially not with A-Yuan.
“I-it’s o-okay,” he shakes his head.
“Are you sure?” Lan Xichen’s brows furrow. “I don’t mind”
“We’re fine!” Wen Ning blurts out in a panic. Lan Xichen looks confused.
Fortunately the bus rolls up.
“S-sorry!” Wen Ning apologizes for his outburst before ducking into the safety of the bus.
“Ning-ge? Are you okay?”
“Y-yeah,” Wen Ning hugs his cousin tightly. “I-I’m okay”
Lan Xichen probably isn’t trying to do anything shady, but after what happened with Lanling Corporation he’s not about to take any chances.
He’d never forgive himself if something happened to A-Yuan
Jiang Cheng drops down into his seat with a tired thud.
Nie Huaisang jumps dramatically.
“Jiang-xiong!” he wails, “you scared me!”
Jiang Cheng huffs.
Nie Huaisang studies him. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a packet of mooncakes. Jiang Cheng takes them gratefully and begins to munch.
Somehow Huaisang had figured out his secret sweet tooth.
He glances at his classmate-sort-of-friend. Something about him is different but Jiang Cheng can’t quite figure out what.
He squints as he chews.
“Jiang-xiong?” Huaisang nervously blinks at him. “Is there something on my face?”
“I dunno. You look different”
Huaisang looks thoughtful before his expression brightens.
The mooncake goes down Jiang Cheng’s throat wrong and he wheezes, scrambling for his water bottle.
Once his eyes stop watering and he feels like he can breathe without tiny razor blades in his throat, he looks at Huaisang again.
Hazel eyes are watching him concernedly.
“You alright, Jiang-xiong?”
“I’ll live, unfortunately,” Jiang Cheng says dryly. Huaisang blinks.
He’s about to say something when the professor walks in. Huaisang props his book open in front of his face and slides down behind it, resting his head on the desk.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. It’s nothing new. Huaisang would sleep through class, then wail about not knowing anything, then plead with Jiang Cheng to share his notes
It’s amazing Huaisang isn’t failing all his classes. He wonders if the smaller male has other classmates like him.
The thought of Huaisang wailing at someone else, bringing someone else snacks, pleading with someone else to help him with his homework sits heavy in Jiang Cheng’s chest.
He scowls at his notebook, annoyed at his thoughts.
Why should he care who Huaisang annoys? Huaisang is free to annoy anyone he wants. He glances at Huaisang, who is currently snoozing away behind his textbook.
He leans in closer.
That’s what’s different about him. With his eyes closed, the dark liner around the edges is more apparent.
Jiang Cheng wonders if it will smudge with Huaisang sleeping on it.
A hand creeps into his vision and he looks down.
It’s his own. And it was on it’s way to rub at the liner on Huaisang’s eyes without his permission.
He glares at the offending appendage and turns his attention back to the professor who is droning on about genetics.
Jiang Cheng vaguely remembers high school biology and pea plants.
His had died the first week. Wei Wuxian had not stopped teasing him about it until Jiang Cheng had dumped his pea plant out the window.
Their sister had given them such a disappointed look before driving them to the store to buy new plants.
He doesn’t remember why they were growing pea plants.
The only person who managed to keep their pea plant alive was Wen Ning, who brought it everywhere with him.
He was also the only one to not do anything wrong with the fake baby he had been assigned for health class.
Jiang Cheng shudders as the shrill mechanical wail from that hellish semester creeps up in his mind like the soundtrack from a particularly ghoulish horror movie.
He looks at Huaisang and snorts quietly. Huaisang would probably have killed the baby too. The idea of his classmate being responsible for anything was a funny one.
But the thought of Huaisang holding a baby is...interesting.
Class ends and they’re walking out and Jiang Cheng has to ask.
“Hey, did you ever have those fake babies in high school?”
“Huh?” Huaisang blinks.
“The robot babies from hell”
Jiang Cheng is regretting asking. So he explains.
“In my high school, by senior year, students had been sufficiently traumatized by garish photos of fatal car crashes and STDs, so we attacked the real practical stuff necessary for fledgling adults,” Jiang Cheng gripes. Huaisang looks vaguely confused and more than the slightest bit concerned. “We got robot babies to teach us sex in high school was bad”
Not that it seemed to do much good. He’s pretty sure half his graduating class was pregnant during or before graduation.
“Yeah. Fake babies with a huge ass battery pack and who’s heads felt like shaved suede,” Huaisang’s eyebrows shot up, “if you failed to pay attention to them quickly enough when it cried or moved it too much while it was “sleeping,” the baby technology took note and took off half a letter grade. If you dropped below a D, your baby was dead”
“Jiang-xiong...what the actual fuck?”
Jiang Cheng shrugs and pushes open the door to his next class, leaving a bemused Huaisang in the hall.
It was kinda worth it to see Huaisang’s expression.
Huaisang blinks as Jiang Cheng disappears into his classroom.
That was easily one of the weirdest conversations Huaisang has ever had and he’s an art major.
They had spirited debates about the proportions of men’s buttcheeks to women’s, and whether or not to draw veins to make a penis look anatomically correct.
(The latter conversation had happened in an American-style deli and the looks they received from other patrons were amazing)
Huaisang sighs as he heads to the student union building to meet up with classmates.
Ouyang Zizhen and Qin Su flag him down with bright smiles.
The English major and him had bonded over a shared love of certain literature. While Huaisang’s tastes were a little more...explicit, Zizhen was a true romantic.
They had decided to collaborate on a series of books; Huaisang illustrated, Zizhen wrote. The books varied in explicitness. They had brought A-Su into the fold when they realized the business major had good marketing strategies.
Together, they made The Three Flowers.
Their little venture had been surprisingly lucrative and Huaisang had convinced them to expand their horizons.
Completely anonymous. They took all manner of requests through a private ask box run by Huaisang.
Test answers? Easy. Need a paper written? Sure thing. Fake ID? Done.
They’d handle everything online and payment would get wired to a dummy account to be evenly divided three ways.
A-Su had once joked that they’d hide a body for the right price. Zizhen had gone pale.
Huaisang sat down next to Zizhen.
“Did you have class with A-Cheng?” A-Su didn’t waste any time in teasing him. Huaisang pouts.
“Come on, Huaisang,” Zizhen snickers, “your crush on him is obvious. It’s sweet”
“I’ll shove this brush sweetly up your ass if you don’t shut up,” Huaisang smiles pleasantly. “Did you get the draft finished?”
Zizhen grins and slides a tablet in his direction. Huaisang reads as he chews on a fry he stole from A-Su’s abandoned lunch.
This story is a xianxia novel about a cultivator who specializes in healing and a warrior cultivator who, through several ups and downs and a severe lack of communication, realize they love each other.
If the warrior character resembles Jiang Cheng in personality, well, Zizhen is the one actually writing it.
“We should have them kiss under the moonlight instead,” Huaisang critiques, passing the tablet back, “after the bathing scene when Liu Qingge gets succubus poisoning and Mu Qingfang has to help him”
“Ooh, you’re right,” Zizhen replies, changing part of the chapter. “Moonlight kisses are so romantic”
“My contact at Cang Qiong University should be able to pique interest there,” she says, tapping a red painted nail on the table, “Liu Sumian Hua is quite interested in this particular novel. I guess Resentment of Chunshan was a hit because the characters resembled a professor and his teaching assistant”
Liu Sumian Hua and Ning Fan Bing were something like their counterparts at the Cang Qiong University. At least in the literature dissemination aspect of things.
They weren’t quite so varied in their services as The Three Flowers.
They work in silence for awhile; Zizhen rewriting a chapter while Huaisang draws the lake scene. A-Su is doing actual work for one of her classes.
Zizhen glances up.
“Hey, Huaisang, your boyfriend is glaring at me like he wants to kill me”
Huaisang turns to see Jiang Cheng standing at the door, glaring at them as if he could set them on fire.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Huaisang mutters, waving him over as he saves his work and hides the evidence. “Put that away”
Zichen curls his lip.
“I’m only working on my assignment?”
“You didn’t meet me outside my classroom,” Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepens as he reaches their table.
“Oh! Jiang-xiong! I’m sorry,” Huaisang wails. A-Su hides her eye roll behind her phone. “I forgot! We’re working on a project and I got distracted”
“You? Doing actual work?” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Yeah right”
“Jiang-xioooong,” he draws it out, “walk me to my next class?”
Jiang Cheng scowls again.
“Why can’t you walk yourself?”
Huaisang turns on his best puppy dog eyes. Zizhen chokes on his soda.
“Please, Jiang-xiong? It’s more fun to walk with a friend”
“Who’s your friend,” Jiang Cheng looks away and Huaisang knows he’s won. “Fine. Let’s go. Don’t hold me up”
Huaisang gathers his stuff and follows Jiang Cheng across the student union building.
He sends a triumphant wink over his shoulder at his partners in crime. A-Su rolls her eyes and Zizhen shakes his head.
“Oh! Jiang-xiong, can I borrow your notes from biology this morning?” Huaisang asks his companion.
Jiang Cheng huffs.
“Maybe if you actually took notes instead of sleep, you wouldn’t have to”
Huaisang beams, feeling affection bloom in his chest.
He quietly laments the fact life isn’t like the romance novels he works on.
If it were, he would end up dating Jiang Cheng by the end of it. Classmates to friends to lovers trope would be in full effect.
But it’s not a romance novel and he’s pretty sure his feelings are doomed to be forever unrequited.
This crush really is getting ridiculous, isn’t it?
I feel like my Jiang Cheng gets more ridiculous each chapter *despairs*.
Also, I never had the fake babies, but my friends did and I’ve seen it on several tv shows. It just sounds so obnoxiously hilarious.
Chapter 9: Cliche Coffee Shop
Meng Yao is debating between apples and bananas. Xuanyu has been on a caramel apple obsession after he watched one of Meng Yao’s favorite cooking shows and Meng Yao is slightly worried about his brother’s teeth.
Should he relent and buy the apples and caramel sauce? Or should he be a responsible adult and stick with the bananas and peanut butter?
Xuanyu’s hopeful expression flickers across his mind and Meng Yao hates himself for being so weak as he bags the apples.
He’s rounding the corner past the cereal aisle, (he refuses to let Xuanyu eat the brightly colored sugary monstrosities marketed as “cereal”) when he collides with what has to be the human equivalent of a wall.
With a quiet “oof”, Meng Yao stumbles backwards.
Two broad hands grip his arms, keeping him from ending up in a completely undignified sprawl on the grocery store floor.
“You alright?” a deep voice booms somewhere above his head.
“Mr. Nie?” Meng Yao blinks up at the man.
Nie Mingjue is staring down at him, strong brows furrowed.
Meng Yao takes a moment to stare at the man. His thick hair is pulled into a low ponytail falling over his shoulder. He’s wearing a fleece-lined leather bomber jacket and dark-wash jeans.
He looks like he could ride a motorbike and the image does Things to Meng Yao.
“Oh,” Meng Yao flushes at having been caught staring. “Yeah, sorry,” he puts on his best smile, “are you alright?”
Nie Mingjue snorts.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he stares down at Meng Yao.
Meng Yao suddenly doesn’t know how he feels. Compared to Nie Mingjue’s dark and cool biker aesthetic, Meng Yao’s yellow turtleneck makes him feel like a little ball of sunshine. He self-consciously tugs his beanie down slightly further.
“We seem to keep running into each other here,” Meng Yao smiles, trying to distract himself from his internal wallowing. He notices Nie Mingjue twitch slightly and wonders if the older man is annoyed.
“Yeah,” he frowns, “it’s by my office”
Ah. That would explain it.
“Did you not work today?” Nie Mingjue asks gruffly. Meng Yao shakes his head.
Well, if Nie Mingjue is holding a conversation, he can’t be that annoyed can he?
“I work a double shift tomorrow though,” Meng Yao hums. “Day shifts are usually easier for me, but they usually need people more on evenings”
Nie Mingjue grunts.
“No brother today?”
Meng Yao is unsure why Nie Mingjue is still talking to him. He pushes down his warning bells telling him Nie Mingjue can’t be trusted.
Conversation never hurt anyone, right?
“He’s at school right now,” Meng Yao studies him. Nie Mingjue had said something about his office. It’s the middle of the day, why isn’t he there? “Are you not working today?”
Nie Mingjue shrugs.
“I had my last important meeting an hour ago. Everything else I can do remotely”
“Where do you work?”
At this, Nie Mingjue looks slightly uncomfortable.
Oh? Meng Yao’s warning bells go off again.
“It’s that big dark building two blocks down. You wouldn’t know the name of the company. I’m...in charge of operations”
Meng Yao knows the building. It’s very intimidating.
Kinda like Nie Mingjue himself.
Meng Yao catches a glimpse of Nie Mingjue’s basket and has to bite back a smile.
He has a rather large container of protein powder, microwaveable dumplings, and a box of the sugary cereal Meng Yao won’t let Xuanyu eat.
Nie Mingjue must catch his amusement, because he shifts as if to hide the basket.
“Hey,” he says suddenly. Meng Yao blinks. “Do you drink coffee?”
Nie Mingjue’s face is an odd shade of purple.
“The coffee place next door is pretty good,” his voice becomes gruffer.
Meng Yao blinks in confusion.
“I’ll...take your word on that?”
What on earth...?
“You should,” he lets out a breath and glares at Meng Yao. “You should meet me there. When you’re done”
Meng Yao isn’t sure he heard right through the sudden buzzing in his ears.
Had he just been asked out?
“If you want,” Nie Mingjue adds, glare getting sharper.
“I...okay,” Meng Yao says. “Half an hour sound good?” he ventures cautiously.
Nie Mingjue gives a sharp nod.
An awkward silence falls over them.
Meng Yao coughs to break it, plastering a smile on his face.
“Well, I’ll see you in half an hour then,” he says cheerfully. Nie Mingjue nods again and Meng Yao ducks around him, heart hammering in his chest.
He finishes his shopping with his mind spinning a hundred miles an hour running over and over the awkward exchange.
Had he been asked out on a date? Or was this Nie Mingjue’s way of trying to be friends? Or some kind of apology?
Really, the older man was impossible to read.
Meng Yao lingers at the checkout as reality sets in.
Whatever it was, had he really agreed to it?
Nie Mingjue had not been planning to ask Meng Yao on a date.
Ever since the first encounter, Mingjue had started going to the grocery store by his office instead of the one closer to his apartment.
He had yet to see Meng Yao, and was about to give up and start going back to his normal one when he had quite literally bumped into him.
Meng Yao had stared at him in a daze and Mingjue had worried the smaller male had been hurt.
He could tell Meng Yao was slightly wary around him; keeping up his polite, restaurant employee face as he answered Mingjue’s blunt questions with ease. The only sign of obvious discomfort came when Meng Yao had ventured his own question about Mingjue’s work.
Mingjue didn’t like to tell people he was the CEO of Qinghe Company, one of the big four companies in China. It usually sent people into two categories: ones who wanted to be his friend and ones who wanted to be more than friends simply because of his position.
He likes Meng Yao, and he doesn’t want to think that would be the case, but he has been proven wrong many times before.
Yet the slight tightening of slender hands around the basket, and the shuttering of his expression when Mingjue hesitated made him panic.
He already knew Meng Yao was cautious, so he told him as much of the truth without revealing too much.
Meng Yao seemed to relax at that.
In an attempt to further get the smaller man to trust him, Mingjue had blurted out what had to be the worst date request ever.
Fortunately, Meng Yao had seemed curious and had hesitantly agreed to meet him in half an hour.
Mingjue is done with his shopping, so he quickly checks out and stuffs his groceries in his car before going to the coffee shop.
He hadn’t been lying when he said it was good coffee. His office usually got coffee from here and the employees all recognized him.
He picks a table near the door, deciding to check his emails while he waits.
He’s just finished typing out a response to one of his suppliers when the door opens and Meng Yao enters.
He glances around the interior with the air of a fox sniffing its surroundings. Honey colored eyes land on Mingjue and he smiles in greeting.
Mingjue notes the smaller man has his grocery bags with him. In his haste to get up, he bumps his knees into the table with a loud bang.
People glance at him in amusement and he feels embarrassment creep up his neck. The embarrassment quickly disappears when he catches sight of Meng Yao’s soft smile. It’s equal parts fond and amused and Mingjue decides he’d endure any embarrassment to see it again.
He’s quickly coming to the conclusion that he’ll do anything to see Meng Yao smile a real smile and not one of his restaurant employee ones.
“Are you alright?” Meng Yao asks when Mingjue reaches him.
“Fine,” he says, gesturing to the bags. “Tell me what you want and go sit down somewhere while I order”
“Oh,” Meng Yao seems startled, “okay...” he pulls out his wallet but Mingjue shakes his head. Meng Yao frowns slightly and looks about to argue.
“I invited you, didn’t I?” Mingjue says before Meng Yao can speak. “What do you want?”
Meng Yao’s gaze flits across the board.
“Medium hazelnut mocha, please?”
He wonders if Meng Yao has a sweet tooth and decides to grab a couple pastries too.
He watches as Meng Yao finds a table against the wall. His movements are graceful, almost like a dancer, and economical. No effort is wasted.
Mingjue quickly places the drink order and gets two chocolate pastries before joining Meng Yao. His movements, by contrast, must seem clunky and awkward.
Meng Yao looks at the pastries inquisitively.
“People from my company come here a lot,” Mingjue says, pushing the plate towards him. “These are good”
Meng Yao delicately picks at the edge of one of the pastries.
“How long have you worked at Yiling?”
Meng Yao blinks, pausing halfway through chewing, and smiles. Fake.
“A little over a year,” he says, swallowing. “It’s a good place to work. Everyone is really nice”
Mingjue grunts and bites into his own pastry.
“Everyone seems close”
Meng Yao smiles. Real.
“We are. Most of us started there around the same time. I started the earliest though”
“My brother goes to school with one of your coworkers. Jiang Cheng”
“Oh!” Meng Yao laughs, Mingjue’s heart gives a funny little stutter. “He’s funny. Him and Wei Wuxian are brothers”
“Hmph. Do you go to school?” he’s pretty sure Meng Yao is university age.
(God he hopes so because otherwise this would be awkward)
“Mhm.” He smiles. Fake. “I’m studying business. I want to work in marketing”
“When do you graduate?”
“I have a year or so left,” Meng Yao looks at him. “Are you in university?”
Mingjue wonders how old Meng Yao thinks he is.
“Graduated four years ago,” he says gruffly. “I studied business too”
Meng Yao smiles. Real.
Mingjue isn’t sure how long they’re there but the more time goes by the more Meng Yao seems to relax. Real smiles come more than fake.
Talking about his brother seems to draw them out the most.
Mingjue can tell Meng Yao is hesitant to talk about his life. He mentions Xuanyu is his half-brother and he’s been his legal guardian for just over a year, but the minute Mingjue ventures into questions about his past, Meng Yao clams up and the fake smiles return.
Despite this, it’s a pleasant time. Meng Yao has a dry sense of humor and his stories about various customers have Mingjue roaring with laughter more than once.
Mingjue in turn answers questions about raising Huaisang. He can tell Meng Yao is trying to figure out how to handle his brother and offers as much advice as he can.
Eventually Meng Yao’s phone beeps and worry crosses his face.
“Everything alright?” Mingjue asks, worriedly.
“Just. Just my neighbor asking where I am. I guess A-Yu is worried”
Mingjue glances at his watch and realizes they’ve been here for three hours.
“We should probably go,” he says reluctantly. Meng Yao agrees. “Would you want to meet up again?”
Meng Yao hesitates before smiling. It’s a real one and Mingjue feels something gooey melt in his chest.
“I would like that,” he says softly.
They exchange numbers and bid each other farewell and Mingjue’s offer to drive Meng Yao home is met with resistance. He knows how private the other man is, so he doesn’t press even if all his instincts are screaming to do so.
Halfway home, his phone buzzes.
I had fun with you.
The floaty feeling stays with Mingjue the rest of the evening.
Wei Wuxian huffs in irritation.
“This is ridiculous,” he laments.
Meng Yao leans over the back of the chair.
“What is it?” he crinkles his nose as his honey-colored eyes skim the paper.
“It’s an assignment for my anthro class,” Wei Wuxian frowns.
“You mean the one you’ve gone to twice this whole semester?” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms.
It’s quiet in the restaurant. A couple regulars at the bar and a table containing a sweet elderly couple who can’t hear anyone but Jiang Cheng, who’s natural inclination to shouting makes him ideal.
“Three times,” Wei Wuxian holds up three fingers. “And it’s not like I have to go. The professor literally just reads from the textbook. I get my friend to sign me in on the attendance sheet. There’s like, a hundred people in the class. He’s not gonna miss me!” Wei Wuxian slumps in his chair. “But I have to go today cause he’s gonna he talking about the final exam and I have to bring a ‘study sheet’” he emphasizes the words in annoyance.
“If it’s as big a class as you say, why bring one? It’s not like he’s gonna check?” Meng Yao leans further over the back of Wei Wuxian’s chair. Wei Wuxian can smell the citrusy scent of his hair.
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“You make a very good point my friend,” he slams closed his book.
“B-but a-aren’t you s-supposed to d-do one?” Wen Ning’s big blue-green eyes are worried.
“Technically,” Wei Wuxian grins. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “But if he’s not gonna check, then it’s not gonna affect my grade, so there’s no need”
“B-but i-it’s an, an a-assignment, r-right?”
“More like an optional one”
Wen Ning looks confused and Wei Wuxian reaches up to ruffle his hair.
“You’re too precious, A-Ning,” he coos, ignoring Meng Yao’s exasperated look. “Never change”
Wen Ning looks even more confused, but he nods.
“Hey, dumbass. Isn’t your class at six?” Jiang Cheng snorts.
Wei Wuxian glances at the clock.
“Fuck me,” he grabs his stuff and practically runs out of the restaurant.
He makes it to his class at 5:59 after having broken several traffic laws and sprinting across the green.
Bounding in seconds in front of the professor, he snags the nearest open seat and plops down.
He rummages through his backpack for a pen before realizing he left it at the restaurant.
“Hey,” he turns to his classmate, “do you have a pen I could-“ he trails off as cold golden eyes meet his. “Hey!” he brightens, “I know you! You come into Yiling with your brother! Wangji, right?”
He gets a blank stare and a curt nod. Wei Wuxian feels slightly embarrassed for remembering him when he clearly doesn’t seem to recognize him.
Right. Who would remember the waiter at a restaurant?
Well, he can fix that!
“I’m Wei Wuxian,” he grins. “I didn’t expect you to remember me, but I couldn’t forget a customer as beautiful as you”
He can see Wangji’s ears go slightly pink.
“Shameless,” he says, turning to face the podium.
Wei Wuxian is filled with an internal glee. Stoic Wangji is just as stoic away from the restaurant.
“I didn’t know you were in this class too!”
Well, he might have if he bothered to go.
Wangji looks at him.
“I have never seen you here,” his tone is cool and clipped. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Well, I was here on the first day...oh, and for midterms!”
Wei Wuxian realizes Jiang Cheng was right. He had only been to this class twice.
Wangji gives him a decidedly unimpressed stare. Wei Wuxian glances at his notebook.
“Wow,” he peeks over at Wangji’s notes; his handwriting is neat and small and perfect. “You take really good notes!” he leans further over and Wangji closes his notebook. “Aww,” he whines. “I just wanted to see how pretty your handwriting is”
Really, was everything about this guy perfect? His looks, his notes, his GPA is probably a perfect 4.0.
Wei Wuxian is the human equivalent of a dumpster fire and he’s somewhat proud of it. His life is at least interesting.
He glances at Wangji in his light blue button down and perfectly, pristinely white cardigan (seriously, how is it so white? Wei Wuxian avoids white clothes like the plague. They’re lucky if they survive more than ten minutes in his presence) and wonders what kind of life he has.
Wangji is sitting prim and proper; watching the teacher intently.
He was probably every high school teacher’s wet dream.
He decides Wangji probably doesn’t have many friends despite his looks.
He’s beautiful. Wei Wuxian would hesitate before calling another guy beautiful. Maybe Meng Yao. Or Wangji’s brother. Oh, and Xiao Xingchen.
But even though they were all varying levels of beautiful, Wangji surpassed them. How is his hair so perfect? It looks so smooth that Wei Wuxian wants to touch it, mess it up.
He reasons that tangles are probably scared of the icy Wangji stare, so they don’t go anywhere near his smooth locks.
His gaze tracks across the coldly handsome face and Wei Wuxian feels a knot form in his chest. He also can’t shake the vague feeling of familiarity.
You have a thing for a customer. Jiang Cheng’s voice drifts snidely through his head.
Shut up. Wei Wuxian mentally flips it off.
His gaze flicks down to Wangji’s hands; his fingers are long and slender, graceful. He can see callouses lining his fingertips and idly wonders what those callouses would feel like against his hair.
He’s pulled from his contemplation as something clatters to his desk.
He glances down to find a blue pen rolling to a stop by his hand.
“Pay attention.” Wangji says, gold gaze not straying from the professor.
“Ah, Wangji-xiong,” he grins, “handsome and generous. What a dangerous combination”
Wangji says nothing, but his hand tightens around his pen.
Wei Wuxian hums and proceeds to use the pen to draw in his notebook instead of taking notes.
He glances up at Wangji occasionally. His classmate will look at his notebook every now and then and Wei Wuxian feels mildly judged despite the fact his expression never changes.
It’s a boring class, okay!
Really. How could Wangji pay attention?
His gaze lingers on the full lips. They look soft.
Wangji probably carefully moisturizes every day. He must have some kind of ridiculously regimented skincare routine. There’s no way someone so beautiful and flawless doesn’t put a ridiculous amount of effort into maintaining that appearance.
He wonders if he wears makeup.
His fingers begin to itch and he picks up his borrowed pen as inspiration strikes.
Wei Wuxian is in his class.
Wei Wuxian is in class with him.
Wei Wuxian is sitting next to him in class with him.
Breathe, Wangji. He tells himself, sneaking a glance at Wei Wuxian.
He had gone this entire semester not seeing Wei Wuxian in his class. So to suddenly have him turn up like this, well, one could be forgiven for not knowing how to handle having their crush suddenly sitting next to them in class.
The waiter is even prettier up close; his grey eyes sparkle with mirth and his lips curl up into a devilish smile that does dangerous things to Wangji’s heart.
I couldn’t forget a customer as beautiful as you.
Wangji also remembers the compliment at Yiling. Did Wei Wuxian really think these things or was he just being nice?
He wishes he could be braver. That he could respond to Wei Wuxian’s flirtatious remarks with something equally flirtatious.
I just wanted to see how pretty your handwriting is
Handsome and generous. What a dangerous combination.
Even though he knows Wei Wuxian is only teasing, he stores these compliments close to his heart.
He glances over at Wei Wuxian again.
The latter is drawing random doodles in his notebook; lotus flowers, a caricature of the professor.
He’s a really good artist.
He’s chewing on the end of the pen Wangji had let him borrow and Wangji’s brain whirls like an out of control top.
Those lips wrapped around Wangji’s pen make him start to wonder what they would look like wrapped around Wangji’s something else...
...he slams the thought down hard and beats it for good measure before locking it in a box and reciting the last one hundred rules as penitence.
Wei Wuxian catches him staring and grins brightly.
Wangji turns his attention back to the teacher in an attempt to not melt underneath the smile.
Class passes agonizingly slowly and it takes all his self-control to not get caught staring at Wei Wuxian again despite the burning desire to look.
As soon as the professor announces the end of class, Wangji packs up with superhuman speed. He sees Wei Wuxian tear off a piece of his notebook paper and put it in his pocket.
Wangji is out the door and halfway down the hall when he hears a loud call of his name.
Torn between wanting to stop and wanting to speed up, he maintains his current speed.
“Ah, Wangji-xiong, you’re in such a rush!” Wei Wuxian catches up, red-faced with his hair in disarray. “I had to run to catch up to you! You should wait for your friends, you know”
“Not friends,” Wangji says. He’s not sure if he wants to never see Wei Wuxian again, or if he wants to be more than friends...
(A voice inside that sounds remarkably like Uncle Qiren reminds him: do not tell lies)
...but he definitely doesn’t want to be friends.
Wei Wuxian pouts.
“That’s okay! People say that about me a lot!” he shrugs. “They usually change their mind! Besides, maybe we’ll see each other in class again!”
Wangji feels a deep sense of loss at the fact that in two weeks they’ll never have this class again.
“Hey, what’s your schedule look like for next term?” he pulls out his phone, “maybe we have a class together!”
Wangji’s hands move without his permission as he pulls up his own schedule.
He’s torn between dread and hope as he scans them.
“Damn,” Wei Wuxian pouts. “Nothing. But we do have class in the same room right after each other, so we’ll definitely see each other then!”
Disappointment settles deep in his stomach.
“Oh! You’re in advanced band?”
“What do you play?”
“That’s awesome! I bet you’re really talented,” Wangji feels his ears turn pink at yet another compliment. “I play the dizi myself. Oh, right. I have something for you”
Wangji is still trying to process the compliment when Wei Wuxian pulls out the folded paper from earlier.
He holds out a small drawing of Wangji himself; him in profile; gaze focused intently on somewhere in the distance.
The detail in the individual lines of his hair, the perfect curve of his face. Even his forehead ribbon has small designs on it.
Wangji is in awe. His heart feels like it’s trying to jump out of his throat and his legs feel shaky.
Wei Wuxian had drawn him?”
“It’s not great since I didn’t have much time”
“It is,” Wangji insists. Wei Wuxian colors a pretty shade of pink and Wangji knows he’s lost. “It is great”
“You flatter me, Wangji-xiong,” he whines. “You can’t say things like that! It’s terrible for my heart!”
Wangji doesn’t know how to respond.
“I should probably go,” Wei Wuxian says reluctantly. “I have class on the opposite side of campus,” his hand snakes out to squeeze Wangji’s wrist.
Wangji is seconds away from spontaneously combusting as his brain gives up and shuts down. The spot Wei Wuxian is touching burns at the contact.
“See you around Wangji-xiong!” he darts off without any idea how much inner chaos he’s caused for a stunned Wangji.
I love stressing Lan Zhan with feelings.
Chapter 11: Normal Panic in Yiling
cw/tw: panic attack
His last encounter with Wen Ning had been confusing to say the least.
He figured that the younger man was picking his brother up from Cloud Recesses daycare. The boy was absolutely adorable and seeing Wen Ning interacting with him had been dangerous for Xichen’s heart.
He wasn’t sure what set off Wen Ning’s panic, but one moment everything was fine and the next he was practically sprinting to get on the bus.
Xichen has been running through the conversation in his mind and the only thing he can think of is when he mentioned where he worked.
And maybe nothing. Xichen knows panic attacks can set in for any reason, even if there really isn’t one.
Still, he feels the need to apologize to the young man. Which is how he finds himself pulling into the parking lot of Yiling.
He’s surprised to see Wen Ning leaving. Isn’t it the middle of his shift?
The younger man looks wan, like he didn’t sleep very well the night before. Xichen can see the trembling of his hands.
“Wen Ning!” Xichen calls.
Wen Ning freezes. Xichen can see the blank panic in his eyes and the way his breathing starts to come in short bursts.
“Wen Ning?” Xichen recognizes the signs of another panic attack and levels his voice. “Wen Ning. It’s Lan Xichen. You’re in the parking lot of Yiling. Can you hear me?”
Wen Ning nods. His skin is ashen and his hands are trembling. He’s digging the fingers of his hand into his wrist.
“Wen Ning, you’re safe. You’re in the parking lot of Yiling. Do you need to leave?”
“I d-d-do-don’t kn-kn-know”
“Alright. That’s okay. Can I touch your hand?” Xichen asks calmly. Wen Ning nods. Xichen carefully reaches out and wraps his hand around Wen Ning’s, stopping the death grip on his arm.
His skin is clammy.
“Focus on breathing,” Xichen says, “squeeze my hand”
Wen Ning obeys, clutching Xichen’s hand tightly.
“Good. You’re safe, A-Ning,” he slips into the affectionate name.
“Th-th-they’re g-going t-to f-f-find m-me,” Wen Ning whimpers.
“I’m here with you. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise. So I want you to take a deep breath, can you do that?”
Wen Ning shakes his head and squeezes Xichen’s hand harder.
“I-I’m n-n-not s-s-safe”
“Yes, you are,” Xichen’s voice is gentle but firm. “I’m here with you. I won’t let anything happen to you”
“Y-y-you c-c-can’t s-stop th-them”
“Yes I can. No one is going to get to you if I’m here. A-Ning, breathe for me, okay?”
Wen Ning takes in a shaky breath and lets it out.
“Good job,” Xichen praises. “I’m going to touch your head, okay?”
Wen Ning nods. Xichen slowly reaches out and tugs Wen Ning’s hair tie out. He runs his fingers through the soft strands.
“Is this okay?”
Xichen gently cards his fingers through Wen Ning’s hair, talking to him. Reassuring him he’s safe and that Xichen won’t let anyone hurt him.
Eventually, Wen Ning’s breathing regulates and he slumps against Xichen’s shoulder.
Xichen maneuvers them so they’re sitting on the curb. He carefully wraps his arm around Wen Ning’s shoulder and the younger man presses his face against Xichen’s shoulder.
He’s warm and smells like gingerbread and Xichen tightens his grip.
“Are you feeling better?” he keeps his voice soft and level. Wen Ning nods. “Do you want to talk about it?”
No answer except for Wen Ning pressing closer to his side.
“Alright,” Xichen hums, gently playing with the ends of Wen Ning’s hair. He knows Wen Ning has been through something traumatic, and it’s pretty apparent the scars are still with him. “Have you ever seen anybody for this?” Xichen asks.
Wen Ning shakes his head.
“T-too e-expensive,” his voice comes out thready and tired.
Xichen hums, running his hand through Wen Ning’s soft hair again.
“You know, one of my degrees is in counseling,” he says softly, “I haven’t worked as a therapist in a few years and I’m not licensed anymore but, if you want, I’m more than willing to help you as a friend”
Wen Ning is silent for a bit. Xichen lets him think as he strokes through his hair.
“I c-couldn’t a-ask-“
“You’re not,” he says softly, “I’m offering”
Wen Ning is silent again.
“You don’t have to give me an answer right away,” Xichen tells him, massaging his scalp. Wen Ning’s shoulders relax more. “How about I give you my number and you can let me know when you’ve thought about it?”
He feels more than sees the nod. Wen Ning pulls out his phone and hands it to Xichen without removing himself from his side or looking at him.
Fortunately, their phones are the same model even if Wen Ning’s is older.
He inputs his number and texts himself before handing it back to Wen Ning.
“Can I drop you off somewhere?” Xichen asks softly. Wen Ning hesitates before shaking his head.
“Are you sure?”
He nods. Xichen isn’t convinced, but he helps Wen Ning get to his feet.
Wen Ning is pale and shaky and struggling to stay upright. There’s no way he can take the bus in his condition.
“Come on,” Xichen gestures. He’s not about to grab Wen Ning like some of his coworkers. He can tell such forward physical contact bothers him. “I really don’t mind. It will give you some time to be somewhere quiet. Getting onto a crowded bus after a panic attack is probably not the best thing”
Wen Ning nods and follows him to his car, but hesitates before getting in. He can tell Wen Ning is fighting with himself about it and Xichen wonders why.
The ride is silent except for Wen Ning giving directions. He had looked panicked at the thought of using Xichen’s GPS and Xichen got the feeling it was because Wen Ning didn’t want him to have his address.
Yet another piece of the puzzle.
Wen Ning lives in a slightly dangerous part of town and Xichen worries a bit. He would be an easy target walking from the bus stop to his apartment. And he probably wouldn’t put up much of a fight, if any.
He drops Wen Ning off in front of an apartment complex as close as he can get him. It’s not as rundown as some of the others nearby but it’s still a little shabby.
“Let me know what you decide, okay?” Xichen says gently. “I want to help you”
Wen Ning gives him a long, searching look as if he’s looking for a lie or deception in Xichen’s words. He wonders if Wen Ning thinks he has an ulterior motive.
“I’m not out to hurt you,” Xichen says as things seem to fall into place.
He knows Wen Ning has been through a trauma, he was afraid that whoever had hurt him was still after him, he was reluctant to get in a car with Xichen and even more reluctant to give him his address. He had panicked when he had run into Xichen outside of work and his most recent panic attack had been after Xichen called his name.
Perhaps Wen Ning had misunderstood his intentions and taken them as a threat.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Xichen repeats as honestly as he can. Wen Ning blinks.
“Th-thank you f-for th-the r-ride,” he says softly.
“Call me if you need anything,” Xichen tells him. “Anything at all. I want to help you. I want to show you I don’t mean any harm”
Wen Ning looks conflicted before a flush creeps up his cheeks.
“Th-thank you,” he whispers before fleeing the car.
Xichen watches him disappear into the building and sighs as he drives off.
What had started off as a crush on an adorable busboy had quickly turned into something more. Now he desperately wants to help the sweet soul. But he isn’t about to pursue Wen Ning while the other thinks he’s a threat. So he has to try and get Wen Ning to trust him.
Which is probably easier said than done.
Wen Ning locks the door to his apartment and slides down.
He feels wrung out and exhausted enough to sleep for a week. He’s also confused.
Song Lan had sent him home in the middle of his shift telling him he looked rough and to go rest. Wen Ning hadn’t even argued.
Ever since realizing the attractive customer that went out of his way to talk to Wen Ning is a member of the Lan family, Wen Ning has been on edge.
He hadn’t expected to have a panic attack in the parking lot. In front of the very person who had caused such turmoil in his mind.
But Lan Xichen had been a comforting presence. His voice was calm and reassuring and the scent of sandalwood and vanilla was oddly soothing. His hand had been steady and warm in Wen Ning’s hair and before he knew it, he was using the other man as a pillow.
Something about Lan Xichen had settled the panic and in his haze, Wen Ning had latched onto the warmth and security he felt when Lan Xichen had wrapped his arms around him.
He had managed to calm Wen Ning down faster than anyone else. Except maybe A-Yuan. Wen Ning blames that for his willingness to give Xichen his number and get in a car with him.
Knowing Lan Xichen has a counseling degree makes a strange amount of sense in Wen Ning’s mind.
I’m more than willing to help you as a friend.
A friend. Wen Ning mulls the thought over in his head.
I’m not going to hurt you.
Lan Xichen had looked at him with such gentle sincerity that Wen Ning could believe him.
Although his tendency to trust is what got him in trouble in the first place.
Could he trust Lan Xichen?
Aside from his sister, he didn’t really spend much time with anyone outside of work. Wei Wuxian would make sure to drag him along when he made everyone go for “work bonding trips” and Meng Yao would occasionally meet him for coffee or play dates between A-Yu and A-Yuan.
It’s been almost three years since the Incident.
Maybe he could meet a new friend?
Wen Ning tastes blood on his tongue and glances down.
He’s chewed off half of his nail.
Suddenly, the door opens and Wen Ning is nudged forward.
“What-?” his sister’s voice reaches his ears, “why are you home A-Ning? And what are you doing in front of the door?”
“Jie,” Wen Ning scoots away. Wen Qing enters, A-Yuan in tow.
“Ning-ge!” A-Yuan throws himself into Wen Ning’s lap.
“H-hey A-Yuan,” Wen Ning squeezes his cousin.
“A-Yuan,” Wen Qing says, “go put your stuff away”
“Okay!” the toddler races down the hall.
Wen Qing holds out her hand and pulls Wen Ning up.
“Alright,” she studies him with a critical eye as she herds him to their sofa. “What happened?”
Wen Ning haltingly begins to explain the situation; the first meeting with Lan Xichen, running into him while picking up A-Yuan, the discovery of who his family is, his earlier panic attack and his tangled web of thoughts and feelings surrounding the other man.
Wen Qing listens without changing her expression.
“W-what should I d-do, jie?” Wen Ning finally asks.
His sister sighs.
“It’s up to you, A-Ning. But it doesn’t sound like this Lan Xichen wants to hurt you. And from what I remember about Gusu Group, they don’t use underhanded methods like Lanling does. In fact, they were so rigidly above board. It’s why Wen Ruohan was always so frustrated with them. They refused bribes and wouldn’t play his stupid games. I think it’s not a bad thing, unless he makes you uncomfortable”
Wen Qing nods.
“I think talking to someone qualified about what happened is a good thing. I wish we had the money to get you to an actual therapist, but if he’s offering to help you with it then it’s not a bad thing”
Wen Ning picks at the scab forming on his thumbnail as he processes his sister’s words.
She’s probably right. She usually is. Wen Ning hasn’t talked to anybody except the police and that was more stressful than helpful and nothing had come from it anyways.
“And until you know he’s not a threat, carry your tracker with you and let me or one of your coworkers know where you are when you’re with him. But I don’t think you have to worry. Gusu isn’t Lanling”
“Qing-jie, I’m done!” A-Yuan chirps.
“Awesome! How about we watch a movie together?” Wen Qing says. A-Yuan cheers.
They settle on the couch with A-Yuan nestled between them.
It’s not often the three of them are home at the same time, so they make the most of it.
They order a pizza and watch some animated movie about pets trying to reunite with their owner. Wen Qing pops open a bottle of wine and Wen Ning teases her about it.
Halfway through the movie Wen Ning pulls out his phone, finger hovering over Lan Xichen’s name.
Taking a breath, he sends a message.
Hi. Thank you for earlier.
!Hello! (: and it was no problem
About what you said...are you still willing to help me?
Wen Ning stares at the response. His phone buzzes again.
:) ?Do you want to arrange a time to meet
Okay. When is a good time for you?
?Do you work on Sunday
I’m off Sunday and Monday...
?How about Sunday at 2pm
.We can meet at the coffee place by Yiling
Ok...that works for me.
.I’m really glad you accepted my offer
.I want to help you, Wen Ning
Wen Ning stares at the screen. He feels a small smile creep up his face. He feels his sister’s eyes on him and he meets her gaze.
She looks proud.
Maybe he can do this.
Chapter 12: Book Smart vs People Smart
“Jiang-xioooooong~!” Huaisang wails.
Jiang Cheng sighs and looks up at his classmate-friend dramatically sprawling across the table in the library.
“I’m so confused”
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow.
“Everything!!” Huaisang flails his hands, “I don’t get biology!! Who is Mendel??”
“Geneticist. He studied pea plants”
Huaisang pouts and slumps in his seat.
“I’m gonna fail and then my brother is gonna kill me!!! Jiang-xiooong!!”
He really should have been a theater major instead of an art major, Jiang Cheng thinks dryly. His theatrics are phenomenal.
“Alright,” Jiang Cheng gives in. He always fucking gives in. “Bring over your notes and let me see”
Huaisang brightens and Jiang Cheng takes off his jacket. The library is suddenly much too warm.
His classmate-friend settles next to him with his notebook open.
“Where’s your textbook?”
Huaisang digs through his backpack. A black tablet falls out.
Jiang Cheng recognizes it as the one he and his friend had been using.
He’s never seen it before. He knows Huaisang doesn’t take notes, much less electronically. He also knows his classmate-friend carries a laptop that he uses.
He didn’t even know Huaisang had a tablet.
“What’s this?” Jiang Cheng picks it up. The lock screen is an image of three white flowers.
“Ooh! Ha ha!” Huaisang’s laughter takes on a nervous edge and he stuffs the tablet in his backpack. “Just some stuff. Nothing important! Jiang-xiong, what’s mitosis again? Isn’t that like, bad breath?”
Jiang Cheng snorts, forgetting about the mysterious tablet in the face of his classmate-friend’s idiocy.
“That’s halitosis, dumbass”
“Mitosis is the division of a cell...” Jiang Cheng leans over the textbook. Huaisang smells like apples and something vaguely spicelike.
Cinnamon maybe? Or nutmeg? That’s the extent of his spice knowledge. Yanli would probably know. All he knows is that his classmate-friend smells like an apple pie.
Jiang Cheng silently baffles.
Why is he suddenly noticing how Huaisang smells? Has Huaisang always smelled like this?
He leans in slightly more, trying to trace the scent. The apple scent is definitely coming from his hair, but the spice scent is strange.
Maybe some kind of cologne?
Jiang Cheng blinks. Hazel eyes stare up at him inquisitively.
He takes stock of their positions; he’s leaning in, face inches away from inky black locks.
Thank the gods above that Huaisang had spoken up when he did otherwise Jiang Cheng might have awkwardly buried his face in Huaisang’s hair without realizing it.
What is it with his body moving without his permission when Huaisang is involved?
“You have. Fuzz.” Jiang Cheng says gruffly, trying to save the situation. He reaches up and pretends to grab a piece of nonexistent fuzz from Huaisang’s soft, apple-scented hair. “I was. Checking for more”
A baffled expression crosses Huaisang’s face before he smiles.
“How considerate of you, Jiang-xiong”
Jiang Cheng gets the feeling he’s being laughed at and he scowls.
“Fine. See if I help you next time,” he snaps. Huaisang reaches out and grabs his hands. There’s a pink flush on his cheeks and Jiang Cheng wonders if he’s too warm as well.
“Don’t be like that, Jiang-xiong,” Huaisang smiles.
Maybe the librarian could turn down the heater?
“Thank you for helping me keep my hair fuzz free”
Jiang Cheng huffs and scoots a safe distance away.
“Then don’t get fuzz in your hair,” he pretends to organize his notecards. “Alright. What is ATP?”
Huaisang gives him a horrified look and descends into more wailing about failing the final.
Jiang Cheng sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
This is almost worse than dealing with his brother.
Huaisang is completely ridiculous.
He manages to redirect his attention to the page of the notebook.
“I’ve gotta be at work in two hours,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “So if you wanna learn anything, you need to pay attention”
Probably that his theatrics are being ignored.
Jiang Cheng has long suspected his classmate-friend isn’t really as dumb as he acts, but then sometimes Huaisang does something phenomenally stupid like mixing sodium phosphide with water in chemistry, or like the time Jiang Cheng went over to his house to study and Huaisang had set off the smoke detectors when he burnt the pizza he was heating up.
His brother had come home and given him a Look and a lecture before calling a pizza place for delivery.
Jiang Cheng had gotten the feeling the older Nie didn’t allow his brother anywhere near the kitchen.
Why Huaisang acts dumb, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know. How much is an act and how much is genuine, Jiang Cheng also doesn’t know.
He also finds he doesn’t care.
It’s kind of nice being around someone who doesn’t know everything and is willing to admit it. Even if it is an act.
Having grown up around Wei Wuxian, who is probably a genius, had not done wonders for Jiang Cheng’s self-esteem.
He loves his brother (he will deny that if asked) but sometimes it’s nice to not feel the need to compete.
Maybe Huaisang senses that on some level.
The one thing he can say Huaisang excels at is reading people.
He’s watched the other twist their professors and classmates around his pretty painted finger. The aunties in the student union building cafe adore him and he never does not stop to gossip and titter with them about various things.
Jiang Cheng teases him he’s like an auntie himself, which usually earns him a pout or, if he’s been particularly teasing that day, a whiny “Jiang-xiooong”, but Huaisang always shares whatever little treat they give him.
Even Wei Wuxian, for all his charisma and personality, is not nearly as skilled in the art of peopleing as Huaisang.
The one thing Jiang Cheng knows without a doubt is that he will never be a people person. He doesn’t have the patience and people are annoying.
Maybe that’s why Huaisang is so bad when it comes to his courses. Too much brain power devoted to dealing with people.
He doesn’t doubt the other is actually pretty smart underneath the cheerful demeanor and painted lips and apple-scented hair products, he just suspects his intelligence is channeled into things other than school.
Jiang Cheng is pulled from his thoughts by a warm weight slumping against his side.
“I’ll never get this,” Huaisang despairs.
Jiang Cheng awkwardly pats the top of the soft hair, thought process stalled by the apple-spice scent of the other.
They really need to turn down the heater.
Jiang Cheng is frustrating.
For all his skill in figuring out what makes other people tick, Huaisang has always struggled with Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng is abrasive, sarcastic, unfriendly, short-tempered and insecure.
But buried deep underneath that he’s also caring, helpful, and endlessly patient with Huaisang’s antics. He’ll snap and snark and complain bitterly about Huaisang’s incompetence, but he’ll lend him his notes and patiently explain the concepts that Huaisang genuinely doesn’t understand.
He’s a paradox. An enigma in human form.
Which is probably why Huaisang is so fascinated by him.
One minute he’s leaning in close enough that Huaisang’s heart is trying to leap out of his chest, and the next he’s practically shoving himself to the opposite end of the table.
Huaisang has given up on studying. He really doesn’t understand the concept they’re going over and he doesn’t want to expend brain power on something useless.
He knows enough that he’ll at least nab a C on the final. Which would bring his overall grade to a low B.
His brother will be happy he’s not failing. Even if Huaisang’s overall GPA is at risk of dipping below acceptable.
It’s not like he needs a degree to be an artist.
He and school have never gotten along and he had debated on not going to university at all, but his brother had been adamant about it, even given him his blessing to major in art, provided he also minor in business.
Huaisang knows his brother hopes he’ll take over Qinghe Company, but Huaisang isn’t interested.
He’s aware of the stereotype of starving artist but he also knows that’s not him. He’s actually found his niche in illustration, something that had come as quite a surprise to him. He had even discovered an interest in graphic designing.
He still paints landscapes and fans every now and then, but he finds drawing people to be much more fascinating.
The nuances of their expressions, their postures, it can tell an observer quite a bit about their emotions.
Huaisang can enter any restaurant and tell the relationships between people just based on their body posture.
Even more fascinating if his illustrations can take on a risqué appeal.
He could work at a publishing house or attach himself to a prolific author. That wouldn’t be such a bad life.
Huaisang had toyed with the idea of working for a company that publishes erotic books. He could even work for a video game company designing characters.
Hell, if his brother insists he works for Qinghe Company, he could probably find something in their marketing and advertising department.
He had looked up salary for illustrators and graphic designers and had not been disappointed.
Take that da-ge.
“You’re not paying attention!”
Huaisang looks at an exasperated Jiang Cheng. His friend is glaring at him, but it lacks heat.
“How can you expect to pass this class if you don’t study?”
Huaisang has done the math. He knows he’ll pass.
“Jiang-xiong...” he whines, sprawling out over the desk. “I don’t get any of this! I’m an artist, not a biologist”
Jiang Cheng snorts.
“But you need to take this damn class”
“I don’t wanna take this damn class”
Jiang Cheng levels him with an unimpressed look.
“Nobody wants to take these classes. But they’re required for a reason, Huaisang”
“Waste of time. Why do I need to know the pollination properties of plants to be an artist?”
Jiang Cheng shrugs.
“It’s not helping me become a police officer either. But it’s something we have to do. Do you have notecards?” Huaisang nods. “Get them”
Huaisang sighs and digs in his backpack, pushing aside the tablet to pull out a stack of notecards and hands them to Jiang Cheng.
His heart had about stopped when the tablet had fallen out of his backpack and his crush had picked it up.
He had successfully managed to redirect the conversation by playing dumb.
He’s just grateful Jiang Cheng is easy to redirect like that. If he were a better person, he might feel slightly guilty about manipulating him like he does, but he does enjoy the exasperated and incredulous glances he gets when he says or does something particularly stupid.
And it’s not to say everything he does is an act. He really is horrifically clumsy, and genuinely doesn’t grasp a lot of the concepts in his obnoxious pre-requisite classes, but that’s mostly because he’s deemed them unimportant.
He enjoys the reluctantly amused snorts he gets, the exasperated eye rolls, the stern glares. One time he even made Jiang Cheng laugh and had felt his heart soar out of his body.
He enjoys the way Jiang Cheng teaches, his direct and simple way of explaining concepts and illustrating things in a way that’s easy to understand.
Huaisang thinks Jiang Cheng missed his calling as a teacher. If not for his too blunt and rather prickly personality, he could see his friend being a very good teacher.
After all, he’d happily fail all his classes if it meant he could spend more time being tutored by Jiang Cheng.
His brother would kill him if he knew Huaisang was risking his GPA to catch the attention of his classmate.
Speaking of his brother, Mingjue-ge has been acting weird lately; smiling at his phone like an idiot and actually going out on weekends instead of working.
When he had asked if his brother had found a boyfriend he had received a cuff over the back of his head and his usual threat about breaking his legs.
Naturally, Huaisang took that as a yes.
If his brash and aggressive brother could find someone, why couldn’t Huaisang?
His gaze slides over to Jiang Cheng, who is writing something on a note card.
“What’s that?” Huaisang leans in close, brushing Jiang Cheng’s shoulder with his own.
His friend freezes and blinks.
“Definitions of the important terms,” he says in an odd tone, focusing intently on his writing.
“Okay, I’m going to quiz you,” Jiang Cheng shifts so they’re no longer touching, much to Huaisang’s disappointment. “Pay attention”
Huaisang dramatically whines for good measure, delighting in the amusement that flickers in those striking violet eyes.
Chapter 13: Uh-Oh Spaghetti-Ohs
A-Qing looks up from where she’s writing out a takeout order and boggles.
The four men that had just entered were incredibly familiar and also all really attractive. Two of them could pass as twins; one had warmer brown eyes and the other had cool gold eyes.
“Welcome to Yiling,” she puts on her most innocent smile, the one that makes aunties coo at her. “The four of you?”
“Yes, please,” the brown-eyed twin smiled.
“Have a seat wherever you’d like!”
The minute they’re gone, A-Qing bolts for the back.
Meng Yao looks up from where he’s clocking in.
“Mayday, mayday!” she flails her arms. Meng Yao furrows his brows as he fills up a cup with water.
“So. You know those super attractive customers? The ones that look alike and Wuxian has a crush on one?” Meng Yao nods. “They just came in with a pretty guy and a dude built like a house who always has a takeout order”
Meng Yao drops the cup.
“Oh.” he says faintly. “Thanks for the heads up”
“You should probably tell A-Ning,” A-Qing furrows her brows. “Didn’t he panic over one of them?”
“Yeah. Thank you, A-Qing”
A-Qing nods and bounces back to the cashier desk. She passes Xue Yang on the way. He flips her off and she sticks her tongue out.
She never liked him to begin with.
Meng Yao, Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng and Wen Ning are cloistered in the back.
“This is a development,” Meng Yao says calmly after their mini discussion.
Everything is out in the open: Meng Yao’s developing friendship with Nie Mingjue, Wen Ning’s panic around Lan Xichen, Wei Wuxian’s discovery that Lan Wangji is his classmate and Jiang Cheng’s friendship with Nie Huaisang.
They carefully steered away from discussion of feelings, despite everyone except Wei Wuxian virtually agreeing on Wei Wuxian’s painfully obvious crush.
“Did you know they knew each other?” Wei Wuxian blinks.
“I had no idea”
“I don’t get what the big deal is,” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “So what? We know them outside of work. The only one who has a problem with them is Wen Ning, but he’s scared of everyone. No offense”
“Guys!” A-Qing comes into the back. “You guys need to get out there. Su She and Xue Yang are by themselves and Xue Yang’s threatening to stab the next person who wants him to refill their water”
“I can’t believe you dated that freak,” Jiang Cheng looks at Meng Yao, who holds up his hands. “What did you even see in him?”
“We were in high school. I was 166 centimeters and like, a hundred and ten pounds tops. He was an effective way to get people to leave me alone”
Wei Wuxian snickers.
“Come on.” Jiang Cheng gestures, “you guys are stressing out for no reason”
“I’m not stressing out,” Meng Yao sighs, following him out. “It’s just unexpected”
“Yeah! It’s nice to see Wangji again. We had class together and it was fun seeing him outside of here. He’s really not much different. Still just as quiet and inexpressive”
Meng Yao and Jiang Cheng exchange a look.
“I-I’m s-stressed out,” Wen Ning raises his hand. Wei Wuxian pats him on the head. Wen Ning flinches away.
“We know Wen Ning. It’s okay”
“Wei Wuxian,” Meng Yao gestures in exasperation, “what did we say about respecting people’s boundaries? Not everyone likes physical contact”
Jiang Cheng snorts.
“Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand the concept of boundaries,” Jiang Cheng heads off in the direction of the most recently seated table and greets them with poorly concealed irritation.
“Do you mind me touching you places, A-Ning?”
Meng Yao’s hand goes to his face as Wen Ning turns red and splutters.
“Wuxian! You. Be careful how you phrase things!”
Wei Wuxian looks baffled, wondering what he said wrong. Meng Yao shoves him off in the opposite direction wondering when he became the only sane one. Wen Ning tries to recover from his embarrassment.
This is going to be a long night.
“I’ve never actually eaten here,” Mingjue looks around. “It’s busy”
“It’s usually like this,” Xichen laughs at his best friend. “Sometimes busier!”
“Thanks for suggesting this, er-ge,” Huaisang smiles sweetly. “It’s been awhile since we’ve all gone out”
Wangji’s eyes are scanning the restaurant looking for Wei Wuxian.
After Mingjue had told him about his thing for an employee here, Xichen had told him about Wen Ning and suggested they all go for dinner one night.
Huaisang had wanted to tag along too.
There’s a small commotion from over by the door that disappears into a back part of the restaurant.
The four employees they may or may not have come to see are talking to each other.
The four of them watch as Jiang Cheng peels off in annoyance, greeting a nearby table.
Wei Wuxian says something and Wen Ning flushes a bright shade of red. Meng Yao facepalms and it looks like he’s scolding Wei Wuxian.
Like a teacher dealing with unruly students, Meng Yao sends Wei Wuxian in the opposite direction before saying something to Wen Ning.
“He’s certainly something, A-Jue,” Xichen laughs. “I get why you like him”
Mingjue glares at his friend and Huaisang chokes on his water.
“You like someone da-ge?” he perks up. “Someone here?”
“None of your business,” Mingjue glares at the menu, face purple. Xichen laughs and leans forward.
“I think his name is Meng Yao, right A-Jue?” Xichen asks innocently. Mingjue’s glare sharpens.
“Oh! I think Jiang Cheng has mentioned him before! He’s the really pretty one, right?”
“Mhm,” Xichen sips his water.
A young man comes up to their table, his eyebrows are a little...peculiar.
Huaisang desperately wants to pull out his makeup kit and teach this unfortunate soul how to get proper eyebrows.
“Can I take your order?” his gaze lands on Wangji and his expression brightens. “Oh, Lan Wangji!”
Wangji looks at him, his confusion visible to only his brother.
“Oh, you know Wangji?” Xichen asks on behalf of his brother.
“We went to high school together! It’s Su Minshan! But I’m going by Su She now”
Wangji definitely doesn’t recognize him. He blinks.
The expression on Su She’s face falters, smile wobbling.
“You don’t...remember me?”
Wangji gives a shake of his head.
“Oh well. That’s alright!” his expression changes to something unnaturally cheerful. “What can I get you?”
They place their orders and watch as Su She goes over to Meng Yao. The pretty face becomes sympathetic and Meng Yao rests a hand on his shoulder as he takes the notepad from him before directing him to the back.
Mingjue is irritated by how friendly Meng Yao is towards the weirdo with the funky eyebrows.
“Wangji-xiong!” a cheerful voice reaches them and Wangji sits up straighter. Xichen stifles a laugh at his brother’s sudden interest.
Wei Wuxian comes bounding over, all chaotic energy and bright smiles.
“How are you, Wangji-xiong? It feels like I just saw you yesterday!”
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“Oh! Class was yesterday?”
“Ah well,” he laughs.
“Wangji,” Xichen smiles pleasantly. Wangji knows this smile means nothing good. “Who is your friend?”
“I’m Wei Wuxian,” he smiles, “but Wuxian is my courtesy name. My birth name is Wei Ying!”
Wangji feels electricity rocket through his body. Sticking him to his seat. Xichen looks at him, concerned.
“Wei...Ying?” he asks with bated breath.
“Yup!” he says cheerfully. “Oh, did someone take your order?”
“Ah, yes,” Huaisang smiles brightly when it becomes clear no one else will answer. “Um, Su She I believe?”
“Oh! I wondered what he was upset about,” Wei Wuxian laughs, completely unaware of Wangji’s inner bluescreening, Xichen’s worry and Mingjue’s confusion.
“You’re Jiang Cheng’s brother, right?”
“Yup! Adopted. But whatever. You must be his classmate!”
“He’s...mentioned me?” Huaisang tries to sound conversational.
“Yup!” Wei Wuxian grins. “My memory is usually pretty terrible, but he never mentions classmates so I paid special attention”
“Oh, I see,” Huaisang smiles, trying to calm the beating of his heart. Jiang Cheng talks about him? He wants to know what Jiang Cheng says, but doesn’t want to seem too eager.
“Well I should probably get back to work, but I figured I’d come say hi!”
It’s only after Wei Wuxian bounds off that Huaisang realizes he never told him his name.
He watches Jiang Cheng swat him with a menu. Meng Yao chides them both and Wen Ning takes the menu away.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji blinks, surfacing back to the present moment. Xichen pats his hand sympathetically, gaze flicking over to where Wen Ning is currently carrying two bins of dirty dishes, one on each arm, impressed by the display of strength.
Mingjue mumbles something about lovestruck idiots before his gaze is caught by Meng Yao laughing at something a customer says; the way the light in the restaurant makes his golden eyes warmer, the dimple on his cheek on full display.
A-Qing watches in amusement. She might only be a high schooler, but she’s not blind.
She sees the way Jiang Cheng intentionally passes closer to the table the four men are sitting at and the way Wen Ning nearly drops a glass when the friendlier looking of the twins smiles at him.
She sees the way Meng Yao carefully avoids looking in that direction, sending either Wei Wuxian or Su She and the way Wei Wuxian’s exuberance nearly doubles when he interacts with them.
This is so entertaining.
Her amusement is ruined when Xue Yang trots over and steals a handful of mints from the bowl.
“Hey! Those are for customers!”
“Whatever,” Xue Yang snorts, popping one into his mouth. “What are you staring at?”
“None of your business,” she sticks her tongue out. He throws a mint.
Meng Yao calls him away.
A-Qing glances at the table. All four occupants are trying, and failing in varying stages of obvious, at not staring.
She snickers and cashes out the person who walks up to the register.
Mingjue frowns as he looks at his phone.
Ever since their coffee date, he’s been spending time with Meng Yao. He’s learned the younger man’s mannerisms and moods. He’s also figured out his texting style.
He can tell from the lack of emojis in the most recent message that something is wrong.
Instead of respond, he calls.
“Hello?” Meng Yao sounds slightly frazzled.
“Hey, are you okay?”
“Y-yeah, I’m fine. Why?” he hears rustling in the background followed by a plaintive whine. “Yao-ge...my throat hurts...”
“Hold on,” Meng Yao says into the phone. Mingjue can hear his voice. Distant. “Drink this...”
“Do you have to leave?”
“I’m sorry A-Yu...I have to work...I know you don’t like being alone but...” he can’t hear the rest of the conversation.
“Sorry,” Meng Yao’s voice returns. “A-Yu isn’t feeling well”
“Does he have someone to stay with him while you go to work?”
The silence over the line is answer enough.
“Usually our neighbor, but she’s visiting family right now,” he can hear the stress in Meng Yao’s voice. “And it’s only for a bit. It should be fine...”
“Let me look after him,” Mingjue says suddenly.
“It’s better than him being alone, right?”
Meng Yao’s silence is fraught with unspoken emotions. Mingjue desperately wants him to agree.
“I know how hard it is to do this alone,” Mingjue says when it seems like Meng Yao won’t respond. “I’ve been there before. Let me help you. I’ll stay with him until you get off work”
The line crackles with a sigh.
“...alright,” Meng Yao says softly. “I’ll...text you the address”
After they hang up, Mingjue’s phone buzzes.
The address isn’t far from the grocery store. Mingjue logs off his computer and grabs his coat and his laptop. He can do work from Meng Yao’s.
The apartment complex is only a ten minute drive from his office. It’s on the older side; worn and battered in places, but it’s reasonably well-kept.
He climbs the stairs to the third floor and knocks on the apartment door.
It’s opened by a frazzled looking Meng Yao. He’s wearing his uniform but his hair is in disarray and he has dark circles beneath his eyes.
“Come on in,” he says quietly.
The apartment is small, but cozy and quite neat. He steps into the living room.
“Yao-ge...?” A-Yu is standing in the hallway, gripping the edges of the blanket around his small frame. His nose is red.
“A-Yu, you remember Mr. Nie, right?”
A-Yu nods sleepily and leans into Meng Yao’s leg.
“He’s going to be staying with you while I’m at work, okay?”
“Otay,” he sniffles and pads over to the couch.
“He’s been like this for two days,” Meng Yao sighs, leading Nie Mingjue into the kitchen. “I’ve left the medicine on the table. There’s soup in bowls in the fridge. Feel free to help yourself to any food,” he waves his hand. “The WiFi password is on the back of the modem. He’ll probably sleep most of the time, but if he watches tv don’t let him watch anything about ghosts or zombies. He likes things like that but he’ll have nightmares for weeks...”
Mingjue stops his frantic fluttering with a hand on his shoulder.
“We’ll be fine”
Meng Yao blinks at him before running a hand through his hair.
“I know. I just.” he frowns.
“I get it,” Mingjue says. And he really did. He had hated leaving his brother with other people. He at least had Xichen, who was usually more than willing to help out. The longer he knew Meng Yao, the more he got the sense the other was truly alone.
Meng Yao’s expression is soft.
“I know you do,” he says. Mingjue can’t help the warmth that blossoms inside him. “I’ll be back at ten. Call me if you have any trouble”
“We’ll be fine,” Mingjue repeats, holding out the cream coat hanging on the back of a chair. “Don’t worry, alright? Focus on work”
Meng Yao nods, tying up his hair. He goes to the living room.
“Behave for Mr. Nie, okay?” he presses a kiss to A-Yu’s hair. “I’ll be back soon”
“Otay,” A-Yu sneezes and Meng Yao hands him a tissue.
“Thank you,” Meng Yao says from the door. “You have no idea how much this means to me”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mingjue shakes his head. He’s a little amazed at how put together Meng Yao looks from just a few minutes ago.
Meng Yao sends him a smile. Real. Even if it’s tired. And he’s out the door.
Mingjue locks it and goes to the living room.
A-Yu is curled on the couch, staring at the television. It’s some kind of cooking show.
Mingjue settles on the couch next to the kid and logs into his computer.
He manages to work for an hour while A-Yu dozes on and off.
The kid is a quiet one. He remembers a sick Huaisang wailing and whining between his sniffles.
“I’m hungry,” A-Yu finally says softly.
“Do you want me to heat up the soup?” Mingjue asks. A-Yu grimaces but hides it behind a smile. So he’s learning from his brother. Fortunately he’s not half as good.
Mingjue studies him.
“You don’t want soup, do you?”
A-Yu stares at him wide-eyed.
“Soup is fine,” the boy says, picking at the hem of his blanket. “It’s easy. I don’t want to be difficult”
Mingjue holds back a sigh. This kid is way too mature.
“Did Yao-ge tell you that?”
A-Yu stares at his lap and shakes his head.
“Not Yao-ge. But Yao-ge works really hard. I don’t want to make it harder for him”
Mingjue reaches out to ruffle the kid’s shaggy hair.
“How about this? You tell me what you want to eat and we won’t tell Yao-ge?”
A-Yu looks hesitant before crawling across the sofa.
“Are you sure that’s okay?”
“I don’t want to eat soup either,” Mingjue mock-whispers. “How about...we order a pizza?”
A-Yu’s face lights up.
“Really?” he frowns. “Yao-ge says pizzas are only for special occasions cause they’re expensive”
“This is a special occasion, isn’t it?”
A-Yu looks thoughtful. A cautious expression crosses his face.
“Are you sure?”
“What kind of pizza do you like?” Mingjue pulls out his phone.
The pizza arrives and they watch a movie about a talking robot while they eat. A-Yu manages to eat three slices before he begins to sway.
“Time for bed, bud?” Mingjue asks the sleepy looking kid.
“I don’t wanna,” he mumbles. “Wanna wait for Yao-ge”
Mingjue feels inexplicably fond of the kid.
“You really love Yao-ge, huh?”
“Yao-ge is my hero,” A-Yu says sleepily, “he doesn’t hit me or yell at me ever,” Mingjue gets a sinking feeling in his chest, “not even if I break a plate. So I have to be really good so he won’t send me away too”
“Why,” Mingjue talks past the tightness in his chest. “Why do you think Yao-ge will send you away?”
Mingjue can feel his heart break. He also realizes the maturity might be entirely due to fear of messing up.
“Let me tell you something,” Mingjue holds out his arm. A-Yu cautiously curls against his side, a light weight against him. “I have a brother too. I love my brother. And I know that Yao-ge loves you. He’ll never send you away”
A-Yu seems pleased at that. Mingjue isn’t sure the kid believes him though. He keeps A-Yu tucked snugly against him as he turns on some police tv show. The boy falls asleep sometime around nine, head pillowed on Mingjue’s side.
Mingjue runs his hand through the kid’s hair and feels admiration rise in his chest. Meng Yao really is amazing; to have taken in his abused nine year old half-brother while going to school and working.
He decides he wants to help Meng Yao in whatever way he can.
He wonders if his feelings have exceeded a simple crush.
Meng Yao can’t focus. He’s hyper careful to not mess up, but he still makes a couple uncharacteristic blunders. Fortunately the Friday night hustle keeps him mostly alert.
“Y-you o-okay?” Wen Ning pulls him to the side.
Meng Yao sighs and shakes his head.
“A-Yu is home sick”
“She’s visiting family,” Meng Yao worries his lip. “No, Nie Mingjue”
Wen Ning stares in shock.
Meng Yao has told Wen Ning about the new friendship he’s made with the tall customer.
“Y-you a-actually let h-him s-stay with A-Yu?”
“I think...” Meng Yao worries his lip harder. “I don’t know why but I feel like I can trust him”
Wen Ning smiles; soft and sweet. His smiles are rare, but they light up his face.
“I-I’m g-glad, A-Yao”
Meng Yao smiles at his friend as he goes to greet a new table.
By the time they’re closing, Meng Yao is exhausted. He hasn’t been sleeping well thanks to worry about A-Yu and studying for finals.
“See you guys tomorrow,” Meng Yao waves as his coworkers finish locking up the restaurant. It’s snowing again as he waits for the bus. Usually him and Wen Ning take it together, but Wen Ning’s sister picked him up.
He feels like he’s moving on autopilot as he climbs the stairs to his apartment and unlocks the door.
Mingjue is sitting on the sofa with A-Yu curled up against his side sleeping. Some kind of action movie is playing on the television. Mingjue is stroking through A-Yu’s hair. It’s adorable and does something funny to Meng Yao’s chest.
A half-empty pizza box sits on the table.
Mingjue looks up when he enters.
“He fell asleep about an hour ago,” Mingjue’s deep voice is soft as he continues carding his hand through A-Yu’s hair. “He wanted to wait up for you”
The affection Meng Yao feels for his brother nearly wipes him off his feet.
“Pizza?” Meng Yao gestures. Mingjue shrugs, completely unapologetic.
“It’s a special occasion, right?” Mingjue responds, shifting over.
Meng Yao joins him on the couch.
“How was he?”
“He’s better behaved than my brother ever was,” Mingjue snorts. “He’s lucky to have you,” Mingjue reaches up and tugs Meng Yao’s hair loose.
“He’s a good kid,” Meng Yao agrees, feeling exhaustion wash over him. Mingjue runs his hand through Meng Yao’s hair. “Sometimes I worry he’s too good”
“Yeah. You know he’s worried about you sending him away?”
Pain squeezes Meng Yao’s chest and he closes his eyes.
“Yeah. I’ve told him that’s never going to happen, but...it’s hard to shake some of those behaviors and mindsets,” Meng Yao would know. “Thank you for watching him. I can pay you back for the pizza”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mingjue shakes his head. “He was too polite to say it, but I think he’s sick of soup. And I felt like pizza, so it worked out”
Meng Yao laughs softly.
“It’s things like that,” he sighs, leaning into the broad, calloused hand in his hair instinctively. “He’s so good. Too good. I have to figure out what he really wants”
“Hey, A-Yu,” Meng Yao says as A-Yu scrambles from Mingjue’s side to wrap his arms around Meng Yao. “Feeling better?”
A-Yu nods. “Jue-ge is nice,” he murmurs, “can he come over again?”
Meng Yao sighs yet again and opens his mouth.
“If Yao-ge wants, I can come over whenever,” Mingjue’s deep brown eyes tell him he’s being honest. “I liked spending time with A-Yu”
Meng Yao can’t help the fond smile that pulls at his lips.
“If Jue-ge is okay with it...”
“Now say goodnight and get ready for bed,” Meng Yao nudges his brother. A-Yu bows respectfully to Mingjue.
“Goodnight!” he says as he wanders back down the hall.
“Do you work tomorrow night?” Mingjue asks at the door. Meng Yao nods. “I can come over then too”
“You don’t have to-“
“I want to”
Meng Yao studies Mingjue. The other man is honest and straightforward. If he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t.
“Okay,” Meng Yao says softly. “I’ll text you?”
Mingjue nods and they wish each other goodnight. Meng Yao stares at the door until A-Yu comes out to tell him he’s brushed his teeth.
Perhaps it’s not so bad to let someone else in.
I’m less than happy with how this chapter turned out. The holidays attacked.
Chapter 15: Musical Memories
Wei Wuxian twirls his flute and leans back in his chair.
“It’s not so bad,” he shrugs at his classmate. “It’s been awhile”
Wei Wuxian is hanging out in the on-campus music practice rooms.
Talking to Lan Wangji about band made him dig out his flute and he was pretty pleased to learn his skills were still up to par.
He’s taken to hanging around the music hall and quickly became popular with the other students.
Right now, he’s in the center of a cloister of five. He can’t remember their names, but they’re all real nice so he sticks around.
“So play something!” one of his new friends urges.
Wei Wuxian holds his flute up to his lips and closes his eyes, playing a lively tune he recalls from his childhood.
Once the song ends, his classmates clap for him.
“Dude, that was super cool!”
“You’re really talented! You should join the orchestra!”
Wei Wuxian laughs, clear and mirthful as he leans back on the back legs of his chair.
“Nah, not my thing,” he grins, “I’ll stick with just playing for friends and family”
A round of good natured groaning before Wei Wuxian bids them farewell and makes to head out of the building.
Guqin music reaches his ears as he’s passing by the open door of the practice rooms. It’s the most beautiful playing Wei Wuxian has ever heard.
Usually the practice rooms are empty at this time, so Wei Wuxian’s curiosity is piqued.
He follows the music to the furthest practice room. The door is open slightly and he can see inside.
He stops, rooted to the floor in the hallway.
Lan Wangji is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the practice room, a guqin in his lap. His striking golden eyes are closed as his long, slender fingers pluck a melody on the strings by memory.
His silky hair pools around his waist; dark against the soft white of his cashmere sweater.
The first thought through Wei Wuxian’s head is beautiful.
The song itself is beautiful too; melancholy and longing and Wei Wuxian forgets how to breathe.
It’s not one that he’s familiar with, but his fingers itch to lift his flute and join in with the melody.
Except Lan Wangji doesn’t know he’s there and he’s pretty sure if he did, the other man would stop playing and glare at him.
Wei Wuxian hovers by the door and listens.
Halfway through the song, something white on the chair outside the practice rooms catches his eye.
He picks up and looks at the paper. It’s handwritten sheet music. His gaze is drawn to the name at the top of the paper.
Lan Zhan, courtesy Wangji.
Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan.
Wei Wuxian decides Lan Zhan has a better ring to it than Lan Wangji.
The name is oddly familiar too...
He sees the object of his attention packing up his guqin with graceful, elegant movements.
Lan Wangji freezes and Wei Wuxian feels glee fill him at the stoic man’s reaction.
“Lan Zhan! Your sheet music!” he holds out the paper.
Gold eyes stare at him, intent.
A shiver travels down Wei Wuxian’s spine at the intensity of the stare. No one else has ever looked at him quite like that.
Wei Wuxian ignores the thundering of his heart at the other male’s use of his birth name.
“That’s me!” he recovers quickly. “You remembered!”
Gold eyes widen.
“Mn. Remember everything”
Wei Wuxian flushes at the intent stare, as if Lan Wangji, Lan Zhan, is trying to communicate something to him without words.
He’s about to say something when his phone buzzes in his pocket.
Glancing at it, he rolls his eyes.
Where are you, idiot? I found your key. Come get it before I leave.
“That’s my brother,” Wei Wuxian sighs dramatically. “Ah, Lan Zhan, he’s so mean to me”
Dark brows draw together slightly and Wei Wuxian is again struck with the strange feeling of familiarity.
“I mean, really, it’s not like I’m always forgetting my key...just sometimes,” he sends a response back, planning to meet his brother in front of the science hall. “Lan Zhan, are you done with classes?”
“We should go get something to eat!”
Gold eyes widen again and Wei Wuxian laughs, pleased that he’s able to pick up small reactions from the stoically handsome visage.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m glad you came into the restaurant so I could meet you!”
To Wei Wuxian’s surprise, his expression shutters as his eyes grow cool.
“I forgot,” he says calmly, “I have to meet a professor”
Wei Wuxian feels a sinking disappointment.
“Oh, well, that’s okay!” his smile is bright with a cheer that he doesn’t feel. “Maybe next time then!”
Lan Zhan picks up his guqin and pushes past him.
“Bye Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian calls cheerfully, feeling strangely hollow as he’s left standing in the abandoned music room.
He glances down at the paper in his hands in surprise.
Lan Zhan had forgotten his sheet music!
Wei Wuxian’s eyes skip over the notes and he realizes it’s for the song that Lan Zhan had been playing.
An idea begins to form in his head. Maybe he’ll learn to play the song on his flute so he can ask to play with Lan Zhan the next time he sees him!
He’s imagining the surprise on Lan Zhan’s face when his phone buzzes angrily.
Fishing it out of his pocket, he’s greeted with the unflattering contact photo he had set for his brother: drunk Jiang Cheng glaring, with thirty marshmallows shoved in his mouth.
Wei Wuxian chuckles at the memory.
Wei Wuxian grins around the fifteen marshmallows expanding his cheeks.
Jiang Cheng glares. “That’s nothing. I can do twenty”
“You’re a hazard to society,” Meng Yao sighs from where he’s leaning on the counter.
“And a coward!” Xue Yang crows. “Do thirty”
Wen Ning blinks from his spot on the couch.
“G-guys...is th-that safe?”
“Come on Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian cackles, having swallowed all of his marshmallows. “I bet you can’t do thirty”
The challenge was all that was needed for his brother to begin shoveling marshmallows into his mouth at rapid speed.
Wei Wuxian slides his finger across the screen and waits.
“Idiot! Where are you? I’ve been waiting for five minutes!”
“I’m on my way,” Wei Wuxian folds up the sheet music. “I’m in the music building”
He can hear his brother’s sneer.
“Stalking your precious Wangji?”
Wei Wuxian is grateful his brother can’t see him flush.
“Just admit it Wuxian, you like him”
“Well of course I like him! He’s entertaining”
“You know what I mean, dumbass”
Wei Wuxian does indeed. He’s just not willing to think that much about it.
“I’ll see you in a bit!” he sing-songs.
“Wei Wuxian, you-!” he hangs up on his brother’s angry tirade and snickers.
He casts a glance at the practice rooms and down at the paper.
So much for not thinking about it.
He sighs and runs a hand through his messy dark locks as he starts off towards the science hall.
His mind lingers on the way Lan Zhan’s clear gold eyes stared at him with such an unnerving intensity. The way he looked so peaceful lost to the guqin music.
It’s not a song Wei Wuxian is familiar with and the sheet music is handwritten.
Had Lan Zhan composed it himself?
It was clearly a love song. A love song that spoke of longing and deep, intense feelings of affection.
The thought of Lan Zhan writing music for someone, someone he clearly feels so deeply about, makes Wei Wuxian’s stomach knot painfully.
Who could inspire such devotion from someone so impassive?
He sees Jiang Cheng’s back standing grumpily in front of the science hall and takes a breath.
Shoving the thoughts and feelings threatening to drown him away, he bounds up behind his brother and throws his arm over his shoulder to startle him.
Jiang Cheng’s squawk of annoyance and flailing arms help distract him from his sudden, painful realization.
He really does like Lan Zhan.
Why had he done that?
Wangji walks home feeling like an idiot.
Why had he done that?
Wei Ying had asked him to get food (Wei Ying had asked him to get food!!!) but he had been overcome by an uncharacteristic burst of emotion and had coldly turned him down.
All because his feelings were hurt.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m glad you came into the restaurant so I could meet you!”
He clenches his fist in unison with the clenching of his heart.
Wei Ying doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember teasing a young Lan Zhan to the point of tears. He doesn’t remember A-Zhan’s reluctance to play with him or the way A-Ying would hold onto his hand or his arm.
He doesn’t remember.
The thought pierces Wangji’s heart and painfully twists.
He knows it’s stupid.
Why would Wei Ying remember? A-Ying had had many friends and was always pestering someone. Why would he remember the too quiet and painfully shy Lan Zhan?
The way Wei Ying had called his name had caused hope to soar in his chest. Ever since the revelation that Yiling’s Wei Wuxian was actually his childhood crush A-Ying, Wangji had been at a loss.
He supposes having been mildly obsessed with finding Wei Ying hadn’t actually prepared him for what he was going to do if he ever actually found him.
Also, even Wangji can admit that the fact that he’s held onto a crush since the fifth grade is more than a little pathetic.
Does he tell Wei Ying and risk having Wei Ying think he’s a weirdo? Does he not tell Wei Ying and risk losing him again? Does he not tell Wei Ying but try to get his attention anyway?
Wangji sighs in frustration as he enters his apartment.
His brother looks up at him sympathetically from where he’s texting someone. He’s been texting someone quite a bit.
“No luck, Wangji?” Xichen asks gently.
“I’m not sure what to do,” Wangji admits. Xichen pats his hand.
“Why don’t you just ask him out?”
Wangji looks at his brother in disbelief. Him ask out charming, friendly Wei Ying who he’s had a crush on for nearly a decade?
“I’m sure Wei Wuxian wouldn’t laugh”
Wangji wishes he could share his brother’s confidence.
He wishes it was as easy as Xichen says.
Wangji looks up as a boy crashes into him. Bright grey eyes peek up at him from beneath shaggy dark hair.
“You’re Lan Zhan right?” he asks brightly.
Why is the strange boy talking to him?
Grey eyes light up.
“I’m A-Ying! We’re gonna be friends!”
“Aww,” A-Ying pouts. “You’re no fun...let’s go play on the swings!”
A-Ying pulls at his hands. Wangji tries to resist but eventually gives in and allows A-Ying to pull him. His small hands are warm.
Wangji doesn’t think he’s ever felt anything quite as warm as A-Ying’s hands.
He sighs and runs his hands through his hair.
It’s foolish, he knows. The fact he’s had a crush on Wei Ying for so long...
His brother sends him another sympathetic look as he leaves the room.
Wangji picks up his book bag and pulls out his music folder, flipping through the sheets of music. Panic settles in when he can’t find the sheet Wei Ying had picked up.
Wei Ying has the sheet music.
Wei Ying has the sheet music Wangji had written for him.
Wangji hopes that Wei Ying doesn’t figure out the song was meant for him.
He wonders if he’ll see Wei Ying on campus again. He wonders if Wei Ying would invite him out again.
“Hey, Lan Zhan! We’re close, right?”
A-Ying pouts at him and it makes Wangji’s chest ache.
“Oh come on Lan Zhan,” he whines, “we’re close!”
Wangji wishes he had been less unfriendly towards A-Ying. He hadn’t known how to deal with his strange feelings towards the other boy and now...
Well, Wangji still doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings.
Stupid Wangji, he sighs to himself. He supposes his actions were not much different than fifth grade Lan Zhan.
Actions he regretted when A-Ying disappeared from his life and left a vibrant, painful hole.
That’s that. Even if he never tells Wei Ying how he feels, he’s never going to turn down an invitation from him again.
He hopes Wei Ying is still as persistent.
He hopes he didn’t lose his chance.
Chapter 16: Here Kitty, Kitty
cw/tw: dissociation and mentions of past physical abuse
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wen Ning is nervous.
He’s supposed to be meeting Lan Xichen at 2 and it’s 1:30.
Nervousness makes him early.
He had told his sister where he was going to be and her response had been encouraging.
He fidgets with the tracking device on his wrist. It’s disguised as a bracelet and transmits his whereabouts to his sister’s phone every hour.
If something happens to it, it alerts the police.
He’s glad they’re meeting somewhere more public.
The coffee shop is fairly quiet and he picks a table along the back wall. He sits facing the door, his back against the wall. The only other patrons are a couple students with laptops and headphones and a group of elderly women playing some kind of board game.
He can do this.
He’s incredibly early, so he puts in his headphones and watches his cat videos to try and calm his nerves.
He’s halfway through a video of a small munchkin kitten trying to jump onto a glass coffee table when he gets a text from Lan Xichen.
I’m here :) I see you, but didn’t want to startle you.
Wen Ning looks up. Lan Xichen is standing by the door. He waves when Wen Ning looks at him and heads towards the table. Wen Ning feels warmth blossom in his chest at his consideration.
Most people didn’t think about the possibility of startling Wen Ning, they just kinda did whatever.
Several of the elderly ladies giggle as he walks by and Wen Ning can’t exactly blame them.
Lan Xichen is wearing a soft-looking light blue sweater over a white collared shirt and grey slacks. His long hair is swept into a high ponytail.
He looks like a modern day version of a xianxia cultivator in one of those shows Wei Wuxian watches. Wen Ning can imagine him in flowing white robes with a sword hanging on his hip.
“Hello,” he sits down, sweeping the ends of his forehead ribbon to the side. “I’m glad you came”
“Y-yeah,” Wen Ning smiles nervously.
Lan Xichen seems to sense his unease because his expression softens.
“We don’t have to talk about anything now,” he shakes his head. “Whenever you’re ready. There’s absolutely no rush. How about we talk about what you were watching?”
Wen Ning flushes.
He knows it’s kind of weird for a grown man to watch cat videos the way he does. Only his sister knows, and Meng Yao found out by accident, but he trusts the other man to keep his secrets.
Cat videos became his way of calming his nerves and stabilizing himself. He sometimes watches puppy videos or bunny videos, but it’s usually cats.
Maybe Lan Xichen would understand. People have all kinds of weird ways of coping with things, right?
He holds out the phone to Lan Xichen shyly. Lan Xichen presses play.
“Oh how adorable!” Lan Xichen coos. “Do you like cats?”
Wen Ning nods, relieved Lan Xichen hadn’t laughed.
“Have you seen the one where the orange cat snuggles with the white bunnies?”
“May I?” Lan Xichen gestures to Wen Ning’s phone and Wen Ning nods, slightly awed.
They pass an entire hour watching cute animal videos.
At some point Lan Xichen had moved to sit next to Wen Ning. The scent of sandalwood and vanilla wraps comfortably around him like a thick blanket and he finds himself leaning closer to Lan Xichen.
Eventually his phone tells him his battery is low and he puts it away, much to his disappointment.
“I w-watch c-cat v-videos b-because it, it helps,” Wen Ning says softly.
Lan Xichen is watching him with an indescribably gentle expression.
Wen Ning is pretty sure no one has ever looked at him like that.
“Everyone handles things differently,” he says gently. “If it helps, that’s a good thing”
Wen Ning relaxes tension he didn’t even know he had and he smiles at Lan Xichen.
“Do you have any pets?”
“N-no. W-we’re not h-home o-often enough,” Wen Ning picks at his cuticle. “A-and th-they’re t-too expensive”
“Mm,” Lan Xichen nods. “They’re quite a commitment. I don’t have any myself, but I live with my brother and he has two rabbits”
Conversation flows easily between them. Lan Xichen is patient and doesn’t seem to mind when Wen Ning struggles with his words or changes the subject. He directs the conversation to things that aren’t likely to trigger a panic attack. He doesn’t judge anything Wen Ning tells him.
“How long have you worked at Yiling?” Lan Xichen asks, taking a sip of his now-cold tea.
“A-almost a y-year,” Wen Ning replies, toying with his empty mug, “m-my f-friend W-Wei W-Wuxian got, got me th-the job”
“You’re close with him?”
“W-we w-went to h-high school t-together”
“I think my brother has a crush on him,” Lan Xichen confides.
Wen Ning stifles his laugh. Lan Xichen looks surprised.
“I th-think W-Wei W-Wuxian d-does too,” Wen Ning responds.
Lan Xichen looks pleased.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that. Is there anyone special in your life Wen Ning?”
Wen Ning quickly shakes his head. A nervous laugh escapes his lips.
“N-not me,” he says, picking at a chip in his mug. “I c-can’t e-even hold a, a n-normal c-conversation”
“You’re doing just fine right now,” Lan Xichen points out.
Wen Ning shrugs.
“Y-you’re e-easy t-to t-talk to,” he says quietly. “I-I’m a, a m-mess”
“Messes can be cleaned up”
Wen Ning peeks at him through his bangs. His expression is soft. It makes Wen Ning’s chest burn with something strange.
He wants to tell Lan Xichen.
“N-not th-this,” Wen Ning shakes his head.
“Do you want to talk in my car?” Lan Xichen asks gently. “It’s a little more private?”
Wen Ning nods. That’s probably a good idea.
Lan Xichen pulls out cash and leaves it on the table. Wen Ning reaches for his own wallet but Lan Xichen waves him off.
“I’ve got it”
“A-are y-you sure?”
Wen Ning wants to argue, but at Lan Xichen’s borderline pleading expression he relents. He follows the taller man out of the coffee shop and braces himself.
The more time he spends with Wen Ning, the more he feels.
He could tell Wen Ning had been uncomfortable in the beginning, but he had relaxed enough while watching videos that Xichen was able to sit next to him without him flinching.
The fact that Wen Ning watches cat videos is completely adorable to Xichen. It’s strangely fitting too. Wen Ning himself is a bit like a wary stray cat.
Everything about Wen Ning is adorable; his stutter is charming, his soft little giggle is precious, the one strand of hair that curls in front of his face is endearing, and the way he lights up when talking about things he likes makes Xichen want to bundle him up in a blanket and hide him in his closet where nothing can hurt him.
He already knows whatever Wen Ning is going to tell him is going to be difficult to hear.
He drives a little further into the parking lot. Empty enough that they won’t see a lot of people but not so empty that Wen Ning feels isolated.
The young man is picking at raw cuticles.
“I d-don’t kn-know wh-where to s-start,” Wen Ning admits.
“How long ago was it?”
“A-almost th-three years a-ago,” he says quietly, “I w-was a s-senior in h-high school,” he looks out the window. “Y-you’re o-one of th-the G-Gusu L-Lans, r-right?”
Lan Xichen shouldn’t be surprised that Wen Ning figured it out. He wasn’t exactly hiding it, but he didn’t broadcast it either.
“W-well,” Wen Ning’s hands are shaking slightly.
“May I?” Lan Xichen reaches out to Wen Ning’s hands. Wen Ning nods. Lan Xichen takes his hand and laces their fingers together.
Wen Ning’s hands are broader than his, and very warm.
“M-my f-family...w-well. D-distant f-family. W-were th-the Q-Qishan W-Wens”
Lan Xichen had wondered when he first heard Wen Ning’s name. The Qishan Corporation had been the biggest in the industry. Their CEO Wen Ruohan had bullied his way into assimilating smaller companies through hostile takeovers, blackmail and threats. Five years ago, he had pissed off the other large companies; Qinghe, Gusu, Yunmeng and Lanling, and they decided to bankrupt Qishan by exposing his business tactics.
Wen Ruohan and his sons had faced prison time, but someone had killed them before their sentence.
“M-my s-sister a-and I h-had...w-we h-had r-renounced th-the f-family b-before e-everything h-happened. B-but w-we, we s-still h-had th-the W-Wen surname”
Xichen hides his wince. The scandal had been all over the news. It couldn’t have been easy.
“I w-was w-walking h-home. H-home f-from s-s-school,” he feels Wen Ning’s hands tighten in his. “S-some-someone p-put a, a b-bag o-over m-my h-head a-and, and kn-knocked, knocked me out”
“Breathe, Wen Ning,” Xichen squeezes his hand. Wen Ning nods.
“I w-woke u-up i-in a-an, a-an a-abandoned, abandoned ware-warehouse. I w-w-was ch-chai-“ Wen Ning stops talking. Xichen squeezes his hand again. “I w-was ch-chained u-up. Th-there, th-there w-wasn’t a-anyone a-around. I, I w-was th-there a-alone f-for, for I th-think a, a c-couple d-days. Th-then. I-it w-was a c-class-classmate o-of m-mine. W-we b-became. W-we w-were f-f-friends, I, I th-thought. B-but,” Wen Ning shrugs and his gaze goes distant.
Xichen recognizes the signs of him dissociating.
“I don’t really know how long I was there,” the sharp disappearance of his stutter concerns Xichen. “My sister says I was missing for four months. Things get blurry after the first week. It was Jin Zixun, my classmate, and some of his friends. They found out I was a Wen and decided I was an easy target. So after getting to know me and getting close enough that I would trust them, they held me captive, starved me and beat me up,” Xichen feels ill. “Sometimes fists, at one point they used a metal pipe. They smashed my face into the window, shattered my kneecaps with bricks, broke nearly every rib and my sternum, almost broke my spine. I was in the hospital for eight months after I was rescued,” Wen Ning stares out the window. “I thought Jin Zixun was my friend but it had all been a lie”
Wen Ning falls silent. Xichen’s stomach is in knots and he feels his temper flare.
To have done that to Wen Ning of all people?
“A-Ning,” Xichen squeezes his hand. “Come back,” he gently brushes his thumb across the scar on Wen Ning’s wrist. Scars from being chained up. “Come back, A-Ning,” he says more firmly.
Wen Ning blinks and looks at him in confusion.
“Hey,” he smiles even if it feels hollow, “you went somewhere. How are you doing?”
“F-fine...” Wen Ning murmurs, looking at their linked hands. “W-what h-happened?”
“You told me about what happened...”
“I, I d-did?” Wen Ning looks surprised. “I d-don’t r-remember”
“Wen Ning. Do you know what dissociating is?” he shakes his head. “It’s a disconnect between your mind and body, a little like zoning out,” he brushes his thumb across the back of Wen Ning’s hand. “Your mind goes somewhere else”
“O-oh,” Wen Ning glances at their hands. “I-I th-think I do th-that a l-lot”
“It happens a lot after a traumatic experience,” Xichen says gently. “And what you went through...I’m sorry that happened”
Xichen can now understand Wen Ning’s reluctance and anxiety with getting to know him, especially after having discovered he was a member of the Gusu Lan. He wants to pull Wen Ning into his arms and hold him close, but the center console is in the way
Wen Ning shrugs and looks out the window.
“You’ve been hurt. You trusted someone who betrayed you, who you thought was a friend. Your trust in people has been shaken horribly. Everything you’re feeling is valid”
“H-how d-do I g-get o-over it?” Wen Ning asks softly. “I-I’m s-scared t-to go, go o-out a-and t-to t-talk t-to people”
“You need to get out of your comfort zone,” Xichen says. “You need to do something new. Start small; go to the park for an hour. Talk to one new person every day”
Wen Ning blinks.
“How about this? I’ll go with you the first few times. Until you’re comfortable with things on your own”
“O-okay,” he says softly.
They make plans to meet on Tuesday after Wen Ning’s morning shift and go to the park. Xichen keeps a gentle hold on Wen Ning’s hand as he drives him back to his apartment. Wen Ning’s hand is warm and Xichen doesn’t want to let him go.
“Th-thank you,” Wen Ning says softly as Xichen idles in front of the complex, “f-for everything”
“I want to help you, Wen Ning. I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want you to be afraid”
Wen Ning turns over their hands before squeezing.
“I t-trust y-you,” Wen Ning says quietly. “Th-thank you”
Those words leave Xichen with a warm feeling in his chest. He drives off feeling like he’s made a significant breakthrough.
Wen Ning is my precious bean and he deserves the world.
Nie Huaisang is sitting next to Jiang Cheng in the library.
They’re studying for an upcoming exam in their biology class.
He swears there’s more tests in this one class than in all the rest of his classes combined. It’s terrible.
“Jiang-xiooong...” he whines, “I’m tired. Can we take a break?”
“We’ve only been studying for five minutes,” Jiang Cheng shoots him a look. “You already want to take a break?”
Huaisang whines more dramatically.
A loud shush hisses through the library and they glance up at the librarian; an elderly lady wearing a grey traditional qipao. She glares at them.
“She does realize that’s louder than us talking, right?” Jiang Cheng grumbles.
Huaisang bites back his laugh. He’s not sure whether Jiang Cheng even realizes his dry sense of humor is actually as funny as it is.
He sighs and props his chin in his hand, drumming his fingers against the table and ignoring the librarian’s irritated stare.
He had tried to befriend her once, dropping a bit of gossip and a compliment here or there, but she wasn’t having any of it so Huaisang had partially given up after putting in almost a year’s worth of effort.
Rumor had it she was retiring at the end of the month anyways, so he’ll just try his charm on the next one.
Huaisang knows not going to be able to focus on something as boring as biology homework.
He pulls out his tablet, dimming the screen as he opens the shared document Zizhen sent him and begins to skim through it.
Huaisang is supposed to write the erotic scene, which means matching his writing style to Zizhen’s.
The latter tends to use more flowery prose than Huaisang would prefer, and has a tendency to overuse the phrases “long, fluttering lashes” and “wide <color> eyes”.
It’s a bit reckless, working on the next novel next to Jiang Cheng, but they have a deadline to meet.
His companion glances at the tablet curiously but doesn’t question it before turning back to his notes.
Huaisang takes a brief moment to observe Jiang Cheng. He’s wearing a soft-looking purple sweater over a black collared shirt and black jeans. Huaisang wonders if the sweater is cashmere.
His dark hair barely brushes the base of his neck and the sides are pulled back into braids low on his head. His bangs frame his face perfectly and Huaisang resists the urge to lean forward and brush them out of his violet-grey eyes.
Long, fluttering lashes pops into his head and he takes a moment to curse Zizhen.
He flicks his gaze back to the novel.
...Mu Qingfang felt safe securely ensconced in the warrior’s arms. As though he didn’t have to worry about anything. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Liu Qingge would protect him from all manner of nefarious beasts including the demon he just rescued him from. The medic looked up at the other man’s beautifully sculpted visage with wide hazel eyes...
Huaisang makes a note by the phrase.
“I’ve got you.” Liu Qingge’s dark gaze penetrated the very core of Mu Qingfang. “You’re safe now”
“I’m always safe with you,” Mu Qingfang’s wide hazel eyes met Liu Qingge’s own onyx orbs. The warrior’s long, fluttering lashes swept sculpted cheekbones as he leaned down and pressed his pink lips against the soft rose petal cushion of Mu Qingfang’s own.
Huaisang sighs and makes another couple of notes. He hates when eyes are described as “orbs”, so cliche. Flexing his fingers, he begins to type.
The taller male pushes his shorter companion backwards, guiding him to the bed...
He gets so absorbed in his work, he fails to notice Jiang Cheng watching him fondly.
“Given how focused you are on what you’re doing,” his voice startles Huaisang out of his fog and he shrieks, “I’m guessing it’s not schoolwork”
“Jiang-xiong!” he wails, “you scared me!”
Another sharp shush. They duck their heads sheepishly.
“What has your attention like that?” Jiang Cheng tries to peek at the tablet. Huaisang locks it and sets it down.
“It’s a secret,” he holds a finger to his lips and winks playfully.
The flush that creeps up Jiang Cheng’s neck is lovely. He scowls and spins the tablet to try and unlock it but Huaisang knows he’ll never guess the password.
He makes a playful grab for it, but Jiang Cheng holds it out of his reach and Huaisang misjudges the distance between and ends up sprawled across his lap.
They stare at each other; golden-hazel and violet-grey.
Again, the phrase long, fluttering lashes flickers through Huaisang’s head.
Jiang Cheng is watching him with an odd, fondly inquisitive expression and Huaisang can’t help it.
He’s like a magnet being pulled by a stronger force and before he realizes what he’s doing, he’s leaning in and pressing his lips to Jiang Cheng’s.
The other man’s lips are soft beneath his and taste like the chai tea he had been drinking.
It’s too much and not enough.
A thud from somewhere nearby snaps him out of his daze and the reality of his actions set in.
He pulls away from Jiang Cheng, who is blinking at him in confusion.
“Huaisang...?” he holds his hand up to his lips, “why?”
Horror floods Nie Huaisang. He quickly grabs his tablet and shoves it in his bag, ignoring Jiang Cheng’s call of his name as he flees the library.
Jiang Cheng is baffled.
Had that actually happened?
Had Huaisang actually kissed him?
Confusion floods him as he stares at the door where Huaisang had disappeared out of.
He’s not sure what he’s more confused over: exactly why Huaisang had kissed him or why he didn’t mind. Why he considered pulling the shorter male closer and deepening the kiss.
It wasn’t his first kiss in general.
That dubious honor goes to Wei Wuxian after a drunken game of truth or dare when they broke into their parents’ liquor stash at sixteen.
But it was his first real kiss.
He should be a little more annoyed that his first real kiss was with another guy, considering he was straight.
Truthfully, Jiang Cheng has never given much thought into who he likes. He’s been able to find both men and women attractive, but he’s never really felt the urge to sleep with or date either.
Objectively speaking, Huaisang is really pretty. People would say it was the makeup, but Jiang Cheng has seen him without makeup and he’s no less attractive.
He’s also interesting. His paradoxical behavior, the fact that there’s more to him than most people think. His ability to charm and befriend almost anyone.
He’s the total opposite of Jiang Cheng.
Is that a bad thing?
Jiang Cheng allows himself to toy with the idea of being something more with Huaisang. He didn’t mind the kiss. He actually kind of liked it; Huaisang’s lips were soft. Like pillows. They tasted like something sweet that Jiang Cheng couldn’t quite place but knew came out of the tube of shiny lip stuff that Huaisang seemed fond of.
Jiang Cheng blinks as everything slides into place: his fascination with Huaisang’s painted lips, the way his apple spice scent lingers in Jiang Cheng’s mind, the fact Huaisang’s theatrics entertain more than annoy, the way he’s willing to endure Huaisang’s constant pestering about notes...
He’s in love with Nie Huaisang.
He’s been in love with Nie Huaisang for awhile.
And apparently Nie Huaisang has similar feelings.
And apparently he fucked up big time.
Jiang Cheng lets his forehead slam into the library table with a thud. The librarian shushes him. Jiang Cheng flips her off and grabs his backpack.
He has to get to work. Maybe that’ll help distract him.
The bustle of the restaurant isn’t enough to keep his thoughts off his sudden realization.
And after the third time he’s mixed up the soy sauce and teriyaki sauce, Wei Wuxian tugs him into the back with a nod at Meng Yao.
“Out with it,” Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be a mess”
Jiang Cheng sighs in irritation. If it’s bad enough even Wuxian notices...
“It’s nothing. We should get back”
“Nuh uh,” Wuxian blocks the door. “We’re staying back here until you tell me why I’ve watched you almost walk into a table three times”
“Twice...” Jiang Cheng grumbles. His brother doesn’t look like he’s going to give up anytime soon so Jiang Cheng gives in.
The sooner he gets it over with, the better.
“Huaisang kissed me”
“And? Did you kiss back?”
Jiang Cheng is a little surprised that Wuxian isn’t laughing at him. It eases a pressure in his chest that he didn’t know was there.
“He ran off before I could process things”
Wei Wuxian hums.
“You like him”
Jiang Cheng snorts.
“Am I that obvious?” he asks dryly, deflecting.
“Look, if I’m able to see it, it must be obvious”
“Are you teasing me or yourself?”
Wei Wuxian grins. “That’s more like it,” he lightly punches Jiang Cheng in the arm. “It’s honestly not that complicated. Just tell him the next time you see him. Obviously he likes you, otherwise he wouldn’t have kissed you. Do you want to date him?”
“I dunno,” Jiang Cheng admits the true cause of his hesitation. “I’ve never really thought about dating”
“It’s easy! Just take him to fun places; laser tag, the arcade, places like that!”
“Sounds very...you,” Jiang Cheng snorts.
“Knowing you, I can’t tell if that was a compliment or an insult,” Wuxian grins again.
“Since you think it could be an insult, it’s probably that,” Jiang Cheng fires back, feeling lighter.
“And here I’m trying to help you, brother dear. You should listen to your elders”
“Thanks for the advice, grandpa,” Jiang Cheng retorts. “Why don’t you use it yourself?”
“On your precious Lan Zhan”
The squawk of dismay coupled with the ferocious blush on Wuxian’s cheeks is the best source of happy endorphins for Jiang Cheng, who teases his brother mercilessly.
“Why don’t you ask Lan Zhan to go to an arcade? How about the next time you see him, you tell him how pretty his eyes are or how much you enjoy his music, or-”
“This isn’t about me, thank you very much!” Wei Wuxian says loudly. “I think I hear Meng Yao calling! Let’s go”
Jiang Cheng laughs as his brother flees into the restaurant proper.
His problem might not necessarily be completely solved, but at least he doesn’t feel as bothered.
Does he want to date Huaisang?
He imagines Huaisang playing laser tag; he’d probably hide behind Jiang Cheng the whole time if they were on the same team or hide behind someone else if they were on different teams.
The idea of Huaisang relying on someone else rankles Jiang Cheng.
It can’t hurt to try, can it? It would just be a date. See if it even works out. It’s not like he’s proposing marriage...
The thought of Huaisang in wedding red dances through his head and he finds he’s not actually against the idea.
Huh. Well then.
One gay crisis at a time, please and thank you.
He pulls out his phone and thumbs through his contacts.
I want to talk to you. I’m going to call after my shift is over.
Sending the message he smiles to himself, mood lighter and mind more focused.
Maybe talking to his brother isn’t all that bad.
But it didn’t quite go according to plan...
Will it work out better next time?
Something had shifted between them since the first night Mingjue had watched A-Yu. Meng Yao was more open with him, more willing to spend time with him and even bring A-Yu along.
Their conversations had also shifted from somewhat stilted to playful.
It was nice. A-Yu had even begun opening up. Acting more like a nine year old than a sixteen year old.
It’s a Sunday and Meng Yao didn’t have work so Mingjue had invited them to go see a movie that A-Yu had mentioned wanting to see.
“Are you sure?” Meng Yao eyes him suspiciously as he hands him a ticket.
Mingjue had quickly realized that Meng Yao protested Mingjue paying for things, feeling like it was charity. So he had had to find a way to convince Meng Yao to let him.
“My company was giving them away,” Mingjue shrugs. Which isn’t a lie, considering Mingjue is the one in charge of the company.
Meng Yao is clearly still not convinced, but doesn’t argue so Mingjue chalks it up as a win.
A-Yu is practically bouncing in excitement. It’s some kind of superhero movie and the superhero is apparently A-Yu’s favorite.
Seeing the kid being an actual kid warms Mingjue’s heart and he listens patiently as A-Yu tells him everything he knows about the superhero.
Meng Yao is watching them with poorly concealed affection.
Mingjue is suddenly struck by how much he wants this.
He wants to listen to A-Yu chatter in the unabashed way only a kid can. He wants to argue with Meng Yao about who’s paying for popcorn or dinner. He wants the evenings on Meng Yao’s couch helping A-Yu with homework and staying for dinner.
These are the thoughts in his head as he sits through the movie.
He glances at Meng Yao, who seems as interested in the movie as A-Yu. His hair is bundled into a loose bun.
He’s in love with Meng Yao. He also loves A-Yu. The kid probably stole his heart the first time they met in the grocery store.
The only problem is that he’s not sure how Meng Yao feels towards him and he’s afraid of messing up what they have.
The movie ends and Mingjue isn’t any closer to figuring things out as they leave the theater.
A-Yu is chattering excitedly about the movie, bouncing on the balls of his feet as Meng Yao listens patiently.
One of the movie theater employees watches in amusement.
“Here kid,” the guy tosses A-Yu a ball with the superhero’s face on it. “It’s one of the leftover promo items, you can have it”
A-Yu’s face is bright.
Meng Yao nudges him and A-Yu bows respectfully as he thanks the employee.
“Yao-ge,” A-Yu tugs his sleeve. “Can we go to McDonald’s?”
Meng Yao sighs. Mingjue can tell he’s battling with himself. Really, Meng Yao’s health food thing is adorable.
“Alright,” he relents. A-Yu throws his arms around Meng Yao’s waist before turning to Mingjue and continuing his chatter about the movie as they walk to the McDonald’s across the street.
Mingjue teases Meng Yao about waffling over the menu as the smaller male tries to decide what the least unhealthy option on the menu is before settling on a chicken sandwich.
A-Yu eats all of his food before politely asking Meng Yao if he can go play.
“He’s a good kid,” Mingjue says as A-Yu rushes off.
Meng Yao watches A-Yu playing in the playset with another kid.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m really capable of being his guardian,” Meng Yao says quietly, picking at the edges of the sandwich bun he had picked off. “Or if he’d be better off with someone who isn’t juggling school, and a job with inconsistent schedules. He deserves so much more than what I can give him...but then I remember where he came from and, well, I might not have had the most privileged childhood but I knew I was loved and that made a difference”
Mingjue listens. Meng Yao is excessively private. He never talks about himself, his life. He’s always been a mystery to the older man and Mingjue is not going to risk the sudden willingness to talk.
“I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen,” Meng Yao stirs his coffee. “Maybe even before that...” he peeks at Mingjue from the corner of his eyes. “My...my mom was a prostitute. She loved me but...” he shrugs. “We lived in a one bedroom apartment and...well, she tried her best, but I basically raised myself. She passed away when I was fifteen and I just...lived on my own. I loved her though”
Despite his nonchalance, Mingjue can tell admitting this was a touchy subject and he is nervous.
“I want A-Yu to have someone that loves him even if I can’t give him a perfect life,” Meng Yao continues, staring into his drink. “It’s...kind of ironic, huh? I’m basically raising him the way my mom raised me”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Meng Yao’s head shoots up. “She must have been a pretty amazing woman to raise you”
Meng Yao stares at him for several long minutes with a complicated expression and Mingjue wonders if he said something wrong.
A bright, genuine smile blooms across Meng Yao’s face and Mingjue falls a little more in love.
“And I’m here if you need help,” Mingjue can understand Meng Yao’s reluctance to let people in, being used to being entirely self-sufficient his whole life. But he hopes that by telling him about his childhood, this means Meng Yao is willing to accept his help.
Meng Yao nudges his fries in Mingjue’s direction, smile content.
They’re leaving the restaurant and A-Yu is bouncing his ball when things go wrong.
They’re at the streetlight when the ball bounces away from A-Yu and into the road.
With the single-mindedness of a child, A-Yu runs into the street.
“Xuanyu!” Meng Yao shouts in a panic.
Mingjue doesn’t even think. He’s in the middle of the road, scooping A-Yu up with one arm and the ball with another seconds before a car slams on it’s brakes.
He carries A-Yu back to the sidewalk. Meng Yao is ashen and he holds his brother tightly once Mingjue sets him down.
“Don’t run into traffic!” he shouts. A-Yu startles. “You could’ve died! A-Yu, I can’t lose you!”
“I’m sorry Yao-ge”
Meng Yao looks up at Mingjue, an expression of desperation on his pretty features.
“And you,” he holds A-Yu tightly by the hand as he faces Mingjue. “I can’t lose you either...you...” frustration flickers across his face. “Screw it,” Meng Yao mumbles and before Mingjue can process, Meng Yao’s arms are around his neck and his lips are on his own.
It takes Mingjue all of one second to pull Meng Yao tighter and deepen the kiss.
Meng Yao isn’t aware of much, just Mingjue’s strong arms wrapped around him as the taller man devours his mouth.
Mingjue smells like pine.
It has slowly been creeping up on him. At first, it was just a passing attraction. But the more time they spent together and the more time Mingjue spent with A-Yu, Meng Yao found his feelings deepening.
He had never really had many relationships. He had dated Xue Yang briefly in high school and then Qin Su in college, but neither relationship had gone anywhere. Meng Yao had never been able to devote the time to them and they had been frustrated with the fact he always held them at arm’s length.
Mingjue is different. Somehow the man had bulldozed down all of Meng Yao’s walls and managed to insert himself into Meng Yao’s life.
Now, he kisses Meng Yao like he does everything; with confidence and assurance. Like he knows without a doubt what he wants, and what he wants is Meng Yao.
The idea of being desired like that makes Meng Yao’s heart race and the surprisingly soft strands of Mingjue’s thick hair tangles beneath his fingers as he gently curls his fingers against those broad shoulders.
They finally break apart, panting heavily. Mingjue’s calloused fingers come up to brush across Meng Yao’s cheek.
“Don’t do that again,” Meng Yao chides, gripping the hand tightly.
“What?” Mingjue rumbles, “kiss you?”
Meng Yao rolls his eyes and lightly thumps Mingjue’s chest.
“Don’t run into traffic. Do kiss me again”
Mingjue obliges, leaning down and kissing Meng Yao softly. Softer than before, more tender and romantic. It causes Meng Yao’s knees to weaken.
They break apart and Meng Yao looks at his brother.
“Does this mean Jue-ge is your boyfriend?”
Meng Yao flushes, remembering their conversation on the bus. He looks up at Mingjue, who is watching them with a soft expression furrowing his brows.
Even with an expression like that, he still looks fierce and Meng Yao smiles a little.
“What do you think, da-ge?” Meng Yao hums teasingly. “Does this mean you’re my boyfriend?”
Mingjue laughs and wraps an arm around Meng Yao, pulling both him and A-Yu against him.
“It does mean I’m your boyfriend, A-Yao”
Meng Yao flushes at the affectionate name but leans into the embrace.
A-Yu cheers happily, holding onto Mingjue’s leg and Meng Yao’s hand.
“Just no more running into traffic,” Meng Yao pleads. “Either of you”
”Okay, Yao-ge,” A-Yu looks chastised. “It was so cool! Jue-ge is like a real life superhero!”
Mingjue responds with a ruffle of A-Yu’s hair and a soft kiss to Meng Yao’s lips.
It’s getting there...
Wei Wuxian repeats the line, fingers flying gracefully over his flute.
He’s spent the past week practicing the song from the sheet of music that Lan Zhan forgot.
It’s a beautiful song; melancholy and longing. He had wondered a few times if it’s a love song.
The idea of Lan Zhan writing a love song for someone makes Wei Wuxian feel things that he doesn’t want to investigate.
It’s been distracting him at work and at school.
Wei Wuxian is currently folding silverware and thinking about Lan Zhan. His shift is almost over and he’s killing time before he has to leave for the university.
“What s-song is th-that?” Wen Ning’s voice breaks into his daze.
He looks up as his friend sits down across from him with a bowl of noodles. He realizes he’s been humming.
He’s also noticed Wen Ning’s stutter has been getting less severe and wonders why that is.
“It’s a song I’m practicing on the flute,” he smiles.
“I-it’s nice. Wh-what’s it c-called?”
Wei Wuxian hesitates.
“I don’t actually know,” he admits, “it’s not...someone wrote it”
“Um. Lan. Lan Zha-. Lan Wangji”
Wen Ning’s aquamarine eyes soften with something akin to understanding.
“L-Lan Wangji w-wrote a, a song and y-you’re practicing i-it?”
“Yeah! I wanna play it for him!”
Wen Ning levels him with a look that’s a combination of pity and understanding. Wei Wuxian steals a bite from Wen Ning’s noodles.
“Y-you l-like him,” Wen Ning nudges the noodle bowl closer to Wei Wuxian.
“A-Ning!” Wei Wuxian flails his hand, “you can’t say these things!”
“W-why not?” Wen Ning is genuinely confused.
Once it becomes apparent Wei Wuxian isn’t going to say anything further, Wen Ning sighs and shakes his head taking another bite of his noodles.
Wei Wuxian folds more silverware as he snitches the vegetables out of the noodles and waits for his shift to end before
Once his shift is over, he bids his coworkers farewell and heads to the university library where he curls up at his favorite table.
He is supposed to be studying for his biology final but his thoughts are elsewhere.
His thoughts are on Lan Zhan.
They’re always on Lan Zhan. He wants to tell him how he feels. He’s wanted to tell him how he dwells on the other man, how Lan Zhan’s eyes and hair distract him, how he’s developed a Pavlovian response to the scent of sandalwood.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t realize he’s fallen asleep until he wakes up to that same smell of sandalwood wrapped around him.
He burrows deeper into the soft warmth of the coat around his shoulders.
Cracking open an eye, he peers at the white coat draped over his shoulders like a blanket.
He looks up.
Lan Zhan is sitting across the table from him, completely engrossed in his book.
Wei Wuxian’s breath is swept from his throat at how gorgeous the other man looks bathed in the warm light from the window. It falls over his shoulder in a silky dark curtain. The way the sunlight hit his hair highlighted lighter brown and golden streaks. His eyes were a warmer gold.
God, this man is beautiful. Everything about him is beautiful.
Lan Zhan looks up.
“Wei Ying is awake”
“How long have you been here, Lan Zhan?” he yawns and stretches.
“I wonder how long I’ve been asleep...” he glances at his phone and realizes he’s been asleep for an hour and a half.
”Wei Ying needs sleep”
”Mm,” Wei Wuxian sprawls on the table. “What are you reading?”
Lan Zhan holds up the biology textbook. He’s in the second half of the biology course Wei Wuxian is in. Maybe Wei Wuxian can convince Lan Zhan to lend him some notes from when he took the class.
“Lan Zhan! We’re close, right?” Wei Wuxian grins playfully, beginning to wheedle. He’s suddenly hit with the vague wisps of an old memory.
“A-Zhan! We’re close, right?”
That’s when it hits him.
The constant familiarity that he’s felt ever since the first day he met Lan Zhan.
His heart stutters in his chest.
Wangji had found Wei Ying sleeping peacefully at the desk in the library.
Wei Ying had looked so peaceful with his head pillowed on his arms and his lips softly parted. He had draped his coat around Wei Ying and settled across from him.
Now Wangji is watching Wei Ying. He’s always watching Wei Ying. Which is how he sees the recognition as it crosses Wei Ying’s face.
“You-” Wei Ying blinks. “I knew you in elementary school, didn’t I?”
Wangji nods, feeling a tangled ball of elation and hope and anxiety.
Wei Ying remembers?
Wangji fights back the shudder that threatens to travel down his spine at his name said so affectionately.
Wei Ying remembers!
Wei Ying laughs, high and clear and bright. There’s a charming red flush to his face.
“I knew you were familiar! I swore we had met before but I was pretty sure I would remember someone as beautiful as Lan Zhan”
Wangji tries not to preen at the compliment.
“I tried to find you, you know!” Wangji looks up, surprised. “But my family had moved to Yunmeng and it was almost impossible”
“Tried to find you too,” Wangji admits. He can feel his heart in his chest.
“I knew you liked me!” Wei Ying grins.
“Mn,” Wangji laces his shaking fingers together under the table. “Like Wei Ying”
“I don’t annoy you?” Wei Ying scoots closer, head tilted inquisitively. “You don’t think I’m obnoxious?”
Wangji wishes he was better with words. He wishes he had the eloquence and confidence to tell Wei Ying how much the latter means to him. How much he had missed his bright laughter and sunny smile.
“Not obnoxious,” is what he settles for, “you could never annoy me”
Wei Ying flushes, holding a hand to his face.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, don’t say those things!” he flails his other hand.
“Don’t be so earnest!”
“Lan Zhan?” he peeks at him through his lashes.
“You did not annoy me then. You do not annoy me now. I spent ten years looking for you. You could never annoy me”
Suddenly, Wei Ying’s face is close.
“Ten years?” he whispers. Wangji nods.
Wei Ying leans in closer, soft lips brush Wangji’s. Wangji’s heart is trying to leap out of his chest at the light brush.
Wei Ying pulls away. The uncertainty on his features breaks Wangji’s heart. He never wants Wei Ying to look like that again so he remedies it.
He wraps his hand around the back of Wei Ying’s head and pulls him into a deep kiss.
Wei Ying’s lips are soft and warm and he tastes like coffee. His hands find Wangji’s wrists as he kisses back. It’s perfect and amazing and everything Wangji ever imagined.
Wangji gently moves his hand around to cup Wei Ying’s cheek, angling his head to deepen the kiss.
They part briefly only to change the positions of their heads.
Wangji isn’t sure how long they were kissing for but it isn’t long enough. It will never be long enough as far as Wangji is concerned.
He loves Wei Ying. He’s been in love with Wei Ying. Even before he knew Wei Wuxian was his A-Ying. He had fallen in love with Wei Wuxian.
There’s the sound of a throat clearing and they break apart to see the ancient librarian glaring at them.
“Really,” the librarian huffs. “What is it with you young people making out in a place of literature?”
Wei Ying looks at him and Wangji feels himself melt at the mischievously amused look on the other’s face.
Wangji wraps his hand around Wei Ying’s wrist and grabs both their backpacks with his other as he pulls Wei Ying out of the library.
The librarian raises a judgmental eyebrow at them. Wangji stares her down.
As soon as they exit, Wei Ying stops them and spins, coming up on his tiptoes and pressing his lips against Wangji’s in a soft kiss.
Wangji twines his arms around Wei Ying’s waist as he kisses back.
He revels in the fact that he can now kiss Wei Ying and that Wei Ying will actually kiss him.
“Can I...can I show you something?” Wei Ying murmurs, breaking the kiss.
Wangji will allow Wei Ying to do anything, to show him anything, take him anywhere.
But he just nods.
Wangji lets Wei Ying to lead him to the music hall and into the practice rooms. He doesn’t want to let go of his hand but Wei Ying gives him a hopeful look so he does.
Wei Ying picks up his flute and looks at Wangji and Wangji falls even more in love.
He begins to play and Wangji feels his chest tighten at the familiar notes.
The song he had written but hadn’t officially named.
“My song,” he tells him when Wei Ying stops playing.
“What’s it called?” Wei Ying asks softly.
Wangji swallows. He had written the song with A-Ying in mind, finishing it before he knew Wei Wuxian was A-Ying.
He didn’t have an official name but he had a name he had been calling it in secret.
This is it. This is the precipice.
“...Wangxian,” he whispers past the tightness.
The expression on Wei Ying’s face is soft and something fragile and so very open. He pulls Wei Ying into his arms. Wei Ying twines his arms around Wangji’s neck.
“I like you,” Wei Ying says softly. “I fancy you, I love you, I want you, I can’t leave you, I whatever you”
Wangji feels the tightness in his chest loosen and tightens his grip around Wei Ying.
Wei Ying keeps talking. “...I don’t want anyone but you-it can’t be anyone but you...”
“Wei Ying,” he cuts him off, cupping his cheek. “Fancy you. Love you. Want you. Cannot leave you. Do not want anyone but you...cannot be anyone but you”
He can feel Wei Ying trembling in his arms so he kisses him again, feeling Wei Ying melt against him.
Wangji can’t describe the happiness he’s feeling as he pulls Wei Ying tighter.
He’s hopelessly in love but his love isn’t hopeless.
Almost done with the main story! Two of four couples have sorted out their lives.
There will be an epilogue tying things up, but I’m debating on writing smut chapters for each pairing.
Let me know in the comments if that’s something you guys would like to see...
Xichen feels like he’s been successful getting Wen Ning into public areas.
The park had been successful but the second time they had gone out, Xichen had brought him to the mall. Wen Ning had gotten too overwhelmed so they had gone to the movie theater inside the mall to watch some comedy movie that had recently come out.
Wen Ning had confessed that even before he had been held captive he had been shy, which made it that much more difficult for him afterwards.
They had also taken to holding hands. Something Xichen himself is quite fond of.
Apparently something about the contact is grounding for Wen Ning. After the first panicked grab of his hand and subsequent string of apologies, Xichen had convinced him it was more than alright.
He discovered Wen Ning didn’t mind light touches and was okay with being touched if he knew it was coming.
Xichen took every opportunity he could to get Wen Ning used to being touched; a light hand on his waist or his shoulder, a gentle tug here or there. But his favorite was always the tangle of their fingers or, when Wen Ning had mittens, the press of their gloved palms.
It was their fifth outing. Xichen had convinced Wen Ning to try the mall again.
So far it was going fairly well.
Wen Ning sticks close to his side and flinches slightly when people get too close, but he’s handling it remarkably well.
They’re looping the second floor when a rowdy group of guys emerge from a shoe store.
They’re pushing people out of the way and making obnoxious and crude jokes about everyone.
Xichen doesn’t give them much thought until Wen Ning stops. Xichen looks at him in concern; aquamarine eyes are blown wide with panic and vague horror as he stares at the group. He’s trembling.
He’s never seen Wen Ning this panicked, so it doesn’t take much to put things together and come to the conclusion that the group are the same people who hurt Wen Ning.
Again, Xichen struggles to keep his temper in check. Both at the fact that they did what they did to someone as gentle and completely innocent as Wen Ning, and that they’re still walking around laughing and joking while Wen Ning is stuck being too scared to venture anywhere on his own.
“A-Ning,” Xichen presses his forehead against Wen Ning’s, cupping his face. “You’re okay. You’re safe. They’re leaving”
He can feel Wen Ning trembling violently and he knows he needs to get him somewhere quiet.
“A-Ning, I’m going to take your hand and I want you to follow me, okay?”
Wen Ning is non-responsive. Xichen laces their fingers together and pulls Wen Ning into a nearby department store.
The department store is quiet except for their music; an unassuming elevator song. It muffles the noise from the mall. But Xichen knows he needs to get Wen Ning somewhere private.
He spots the dressing rooms and gently tugs Wen Ning behind him.
He pulls him into one of the rooms and closes the door.
“A-Ning. You’re safe,” he wraps his arms around Wen Ning’s trembling frame and draws him in close. “I’ve got you. I won’t let anything happen to you, alright?” he tugs Wen Ning’s ponytail loose and begins to stroke his hair. “I’ll protect you,” he murmurs in Wen Ning’s ear, “you’re safe”
He’s not sure how long they stand there before Wen Ning stops shaking. He doesn’t leave the circle of Xichen’s arms until his phone buzzes.
“J-Jie is s-staying w-with her g-girlfriend,” he whispers, looking at the screen, “I h-have t-to p-pick up A-Yuan”
Wen Ning looks exhausted.
“Let me,” Xichen says gently, “my family runs Cloud Recesses daycare. They know me”
Wen Ning nods.
He’s alarmingly docile as Xichen leads him out of the department store. He’s not risking going back through the mall even if the walk to the car is longer.
Wen Ning is silent the entire time, answering Xichen’s questions with gestures rather than words. Xichen holds tight to his hand even as he drives the short distance to the daycare.
“Are you going to be okay here while I go in?” he asks Wen Ning. Wen Ning nods.
Xichen gets out of the car and heads into the daycare.
“Oh! Mister Lan,” Mianmian bows. “Jingyi isn’t here today...”
“I know,” Xichen smiles. “I’m actually here to pick up A-Yuan. Wen Yuan. Wen Ning got held up”
“Oh!” Mianmian’s face lights up. “You’re the friend that A-Qing was telling me about!”
“A-Qing says that since you’ve been spending time with her brother, he’s been happier. She’s even gotten more comfortable leaving him on his own”
Xichen can’t help the warmth blossom inside him at Mianmian’s words.
“It’s nice because now she can stay with me more often”
“Oh, are the two of you-?” Xichen blinks. Mianmian nods, blushing. “I’m glad to hear that,” Xichen’s smile is warm. Mianmian looks relieved.
Xichen looks down over the wall.
A-Yuan is peering up at him, worriedly.
“Ning-ge is in the car,” Xichen smiles. Mianmian looks at him concerned. “He had an...issue while we were out,” he tells her. She nods in understanding. “Let’s go see him, okay?” A-Yuan nods enthusiastically.
He takes A-Yuan by the hand and leads him out. Wen Ning smiles and waves weakly.
Xichen carefully buckles A-Yuan in the backseat.
The drive to the apartment is subdued. Xichen asks A-Yuan about his day and the toddler chatters softly. Xichen parks in the area marked for guests and takes Wen Ning’s hand in one of his and A-Yuan’s in the other.
They walk to the third floor and Wen Ning unlocks the door.
The apartment is small but tidy.
A-Yuan casts a worried look at Wen Ning and quietly walks down the hall.
Xichen guides Wen Ning to the couch and sits next to him and Wen Ning presses close.
A recently returned A-Yuan climbs into Wen Ning’s lap.
“Is Ning-ge okay?”
“Ning-ge is just tired,” Xichen explains, tugging A-Yuan into his own lap.
A-Yuan looks thoughtful before clambering down and running down the hall.
Wen Ning wordlessly squeezes Xichen’s hand thankfully. Xichen combs his hair back from his face.
A-Yuan returns holding a stuffed dinosaur. He puts it in Wen Ning’s lap before clambering back up and plopping himself in Xichen’s.
“When I’m tired, Ning-ge and Qing-jie make me take a nap,” A-Yuan explains earnestly, looking up at Xichen, “but I can’t nap without Dino. Ning-ge needs to take a nap so he can have Dino”
Wen Ning manages a weak smile for his cousin. Xichen feels his heart melt into a gooey puddle and he resists the urge to kiss Wen Ning on the forehead.
“That’s very thoughtful of you, A-Yuan,” Xichen ruffles his hair. He glances at Wen Ning. “A-Ning,” he says softly, “do you want to take a nap?”
Wen Ning nods. Xichen takes Dino from him and gives it back to A-Yuan before standing. Wen Ning looks confused.
Xichen slides his arms beneath Wen Ning and picks him up easily. A-Yuan stares at him, open-mouthed.
“Why don’t you show me where Ning-ge sleeps?”
A-Yuan looks proud that he’s been tasked with something so important as he leads Xichen down the hall.
Wen Ning’s room is simple; a bed, closet and nightstand. It’s also terribly impersonal.
He sets Wen Ning on his bed and turns to leave.
Wen Ning grips his sleeve. His face is red.
“Do you want me to stay?” Xichen asks. Wen Ning nods. Xichen climbs into the bed, feeling his heart race. The bed is a little too small for two grown men and it takes a little adjusting but they settle into a position where Wen Ning’s back is pressed against Xichen’s chest.
A-Yuan climbs up and settles against Wen Ning’s chest, promptly falling asleep.
Xichen has the strangest image of nesting dolls and he smiles. This is comfortable. He feels indescribably content crammed into a bed with Wen Ning and A-Yuan.
Wen Ning lies silently in the bed. He can feel Xichen’s strong arm wrapped around him. A-Yuan asleep against his chest. He closes his eyes, feeling unbelievably secure.
It’s been a long time since he’s felt safe like this. Not since he was younger and he would climb into his sister’s bed when he’d have nightmares, or they’d drag their mattresses into their living room on snowy nights.
“Are you doing better?” Xichen’s voice is barely a whisper. Wen Ning nods.
He’s not even sure what possessed him to tug Xichen into the bed with him. He’s just grateful the other man didn’t object.
He feels safe with Xichen in a way he’s never felt safe with anyone.
“A-Ning,” the soft, affectionate tone makes Wen Ning’s heart race. “I’m glad you trust me”
“Y-you make me feel s-safe,” Wen Ning tells him.
In the dimness of the room, everything seems so much more intimate. The scent of sandalwood and vanilla wraps around Wen Ning like a comforting blanket and he feels brave enough to investigate the feeling in his chest.
He suspects he might be in love. That Lan Xichen has somehow managed to gently and carefully chip away at Wen Ning’s protective shield.
This thought causes him to despair slightly because now that Xichen has seen what a mess he really is, there’s absolutely no way the other would feel the same.
So Wen Ning will take what he can get and rather shamefully nestles further against Xichen. He feels the arm tighten around him and he falls asleep.
When he wakes, he’s alone in the bed. A glance at the clock tells him he’s been asleep for two hours.
He still feels drained; mentally, physically and emotionally.
He had only ever seen Jin Zixun once before and the resulting panic attack had him hiding in his closet for two days.
Wen Ning hears voices from the kitchen and wraps his childhood blanket around his shoulders, taking comfort in the familiarity as he pads down the hall.
“Ning-ge can’t eat spicy food either!” A-Yuan says cheerfully. “One time, Xian-ge made us soup and it was so spicy that Ning-ge started crying!”
“Mm. Wei Wuxian does seem to like spicy food”
“I don’t,” A-Yuan’s voice is pouting. “It makes my face hurt”
Xichen’s soft laugh fills the small apartment with warmth.
“Chen-ge,” A-Yuan hums, “will Ning-ge be okay?”
“Ning-ge has been through a lot. He needs a lot of help. But I think he will be okay one day”
“Will you help him?”
“Sometimes Ning-ge yells at night. Qing-jie stays with him, but it’s really scary”
Wen Ning feels his chest clench. He didn’t know A-Yuan was aware of his nightmares.
“Do you ever get bad dreams, A-Yuan?”
Wen Ning can see into the kitchen. A-Yuan is sitting on the counter holding a spatula.
“Ning-ge always comes in and tells me he’ll scare away the monsters,” A-Yuan says, “but sometimes I wonder if he just takes them with him so they leave me alone and that’s why he gets bad dreams too”
He sees Xichen ruffle A-Yuan’s hair.
“I won’t let the monsters hurt Ning-ge”
A-Yuan looks at him with an expression far too serious for a toddler.
Xichen hands him a bowl.
“Do you want to help me take this to Ning-ge?”
“What if he’s still napping?” A-Yuan queries.
“I-I’m a-awake,” Wen Ning says. The pair in the kitchen turn to look at him and he’s struck by the domesticity of the scene.
“Then let’s sit down at the table,” Xichen scoops A-Yuan off the counter and sets him on the ground.
He picks up two other bowls of congee.
“How are you feeling?” Xichen studies Wen Ning as they sit down.
“B-better. Th-thank you,” Wen Ning takes a hesitant bite. It’s surprisingly good if a little bland. But he’s okay with that. His stomach probably couldn’t handle anything else.
“I’m glad,” Xichen responds.
They eat in silence. Wen Ning remembers Xichen mentioning his family’s rules. He’s grateful for them. The lack of conversation allows him to collect his thoughts without pressure.
A-Yuan is the first to finish eating.
“Can I be ‘scused?” he asks.
“Y-yes,” Wen Ning nods. “H-half an hour b-before y-you have to g-get ready for b-bed”
A-Yuan chirps a happy agreement and carries his bowl to the sink, using his step-stool to put it away.
Xichen watches him run out of the kitchen with a soft expression.
“He’s so well-behaved”
“Th-thank you,” Wen Ning smiles, “h-he’s a-an easy kiddo”
“You and your sister have done a remarkable job”
Wen Ning flushes and looks down. The atmosphere in the kitchen is comfortable, but there’s an undercurrent of awkwardness.
“A-Ning,” he laces their fingers together. “This is probably a terrible time to tell you this,” Wen Ning tenses, bracing himself for whatever bad news he’s going to get. “I’ve always liked you. Probably from when I first saw you. And the more time I’ve spent with you, the stronger my feelings have gotten. I understand if you don’t feel the same...but I felt you should know”
Wen Ning blinks.
“Y-you. R-really? M-me?” Xichen nods. “Why?”
“At first, I thought you were adorable. But then I got to know you. I got to know how strong you are, how brave you are”
“Y-you th-think th-that?” Wen Ning whispers, feeling overwhelmed. “Y-you don’t th-think I’m, I’m a m-mess?”
“No. I think you’ve been hurt. But you’ve also survived. You’ve made an effort to try and move past it; working at Yiling, going to school even if it’s online. It would’ve been easy to just give up. But you didn’t”
Wen Ning tightens his grip on Xichen’s hand while he finds his words.
“I d-do,” he says. “I f-feel th-the same about, about y-you. I f-feel safe a-and c-comfortable with y-you. I. I r-really like, like you t-too”
Xichen cradles Wen Ning’s face in his warm hands, his brown eyes bright with a radiant happiness.
“I’m going to kiss you, okay?” Wen Ning nods and Xichen leans in.
The kiss is soft and chaste. Wen Ning has only ever been kissed once, in middle school, so he doesn’t really know what to do.
Xichen’s lips are warm against his. Smooth against chapped.
Wen Ning’s hands go up to curl around Xichen’s wrists. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer sweetness in the contact.
Xichen pulls away, but not far. His hands still cupping Wen Ning’s cheeks.
“Okay?” he asks, gaze tracking across Wen Ning’s face. Wen Ning nods.
“K-kiss me again?” he feels his face flame red and he looks away in embarrassment.
Xichen laughs; soft and happy.
“You don’t need to ask,” he murmurs, leaning in and kissing him again.
Sunshine Ship has sailed!
Nie Huaisang knows he’s a coward.
He’s never had a problem being a coward and in this case it’s probably for the best.
He looks at his phone. The text glaring at him accusingly from the bright little screen.
I want to talk to you. I’m going to call after my shift is over.
Just getting that text had sent Huaisang into a panic and he had not responded.
Jiang Cheng had definitely called. Huaisang had definitely ignored the call.
He is not going to talk to Jiang Cheng, not after kissing him like that.
It’s been a week since that fateful day and Huaisang has gone out of his way to avoid him. He’s skipped all his classes, avoided all his usual haunts and ignored Jiang Cheng’s insistent calls and texts.
He knows this isn’t the way to handle the situation. He’s not going to be able to avoid Jiang Cheng the rest of his life.
But he can at least avoid him until things settle down.
His phone buzzes on the desk and he grimaces.
He turns the phone face down and looks at his tablet again.
“So, not that I don’t love having you here,” Qin Su eyes him across the table, “but why are you here? And why are you ignoring your phone?”
Because Huaisang is avoiding everything and everywhere that Jiang Cheng could possibly find him, he had taken to hiding in the business building.
It is the last place that Jiang Cheng would ever look for him.
Huaisang gives her a pitiful look that causes her to sigh.
His phone buzzes and Qin Su reaches over to grab it.
“A-Su!” Huaisang whines as he fails to grab it.
“Fighting with lover boy?” she asks when she sees the name on the phone.
“He’s not my... we’re not...” Huaisang dramatically drops his head on the table. “There’s nothing between us”
“So then why are you avoiding his calls and hanging out in my building?”
If there’s one thing Huaisang knows, loves, and hates about Qin Su it’s that she won’t give up.
“I kissed him”
A sharp, elegant eyebrow quirks upwards.
“You kissed him? I would say good for you but I get the sense it’s not a good thing”
“I kissed him and then panicked and left”
Qin Su sighs heavily.
“I say this with utmost affection,” she says, clasping her hands in front of her. “You’re a dumbass”
Huaisang pouts as Qin Su continues.
“You kissed him, did a runner and now you’re avoiding him. How do you think this is making him feel? If it were me, I would be pretty hurt and very confused”
“I can’t face him! I ruined everything!”
“You should’ve been a theater major,” Qin Su snorts. “You didn’t ruin everything. Just see what he has to say,” she gestures to where Huaisang’s phone has lit up again.
Huaisang turns it face down and lets out a pitiful whine.
Qin Su shakes her head and turns back to her laptop.
Huaisang knows he’s not going to get anymore work done, so he packs up his backpack.
His phone buzzes and with a sigh he answers it, expecting Jiang Cheng’s sharp tones.
“Are you heading home, didi?” Nie Mingjue’s deep rumble travels down the line.
Huaisang is torn between relief that it’s not Jiang Cheng and annoyance because he had resigned himself to talking with him.
“I want you to pick up takeout from Yiling,” his brother’s voice echoes down the line, filling Huaisang with dread at the name of the restaurant. “I’m leaving work early and was thinking we could eat dinner together”
Eating dinner with his older brother has become a rare occurrence due to conflicting schedules and overall busyness. This was a strange suggestion.
“A-Yao thinks I’m neglecting you and he’s right. It’s been awhile since we’ve spent any time together”
Hearing his stoic brother admit to being wrong is a new experience for Huaisang.
He decides Meng Yao is a good influence on his brother.
This also means he has to face the Den of the Beast.
Huh. Maybe he should go into theater.
Hopefully Jiang Cheng is not at work.
Of course, Huaisang has the worst luck when it comes to romance because the moment he is about to leave behind the safety of the double glass doors is the minute violet eyes lock on him.
“Nie-xiong,” Jiang Cheng approaches him almost cautiously. “Haven’t heard from you in awhile”
“Ah, Jiang-xiong,” he laughs, trying to hide his nervousness behind his wallet against his lips, “my phone met an unfortunate accident. It’s currently being repaired”
Jiang Cheng’s brows furrow.
“You haven’t been in class either”
“When have I ever consistently gone to class?” Huaisang looks away mock-shyly. “You know I don’t like these courses!”
“You haven’t pestered me for homework”
“We haven’t had any!” Huaisang is beginning to get panicky. “I have to go. My brother is a bear when he’s hungry. Bye Jiang-xiong! I’ll see you around!” he turns and flees the restaurant without looking like he’s running away.
He ignores the call of his name by pretending not to hear.
Once outside the restaurant proper, Huaisang books it to his car and jumps inside.
He lets out a whine as his head hits the steering wheel.
What has he gotten himself into??
Jiang Cheng knows when he’s being avoided.
He’s also known Huaisang long enough to know when the younger male is lying.
He was definitely lying about his phone.
“What was that about?” Wei Wuxian trots over to him. Wen Ning pokes his head up from where he had hidden behind the cashier desk, wide aquamarine eyes blinking inquisitively.
“Beats me,” Jiang Cheng sighs. “He’s been avoiding me”
“W-What did y-you do?” Wen Ning asks, standing up. Wuxian begins cackling.
“Even A-Ning thinks it’s your fault!”
“I n-never s-said th-that!” Wen Ning holds his hands up in surrender, panic written on his face.
“Breathe, A-Ning,” Wuxian grins, “no one is mad at you”
Jiang Cheng scoffs and shakes his head.
“But really,” Wuxian leans in close, “what did you do?” he teases. Jiang Cheng swipes at his brother, who dances backwards with a crow of laughter. Jiang Cheng makes another swipe.
“Really, guys,” Meng Yao’s exasperated voice drifts across the nearly empty restaurant, “can we go a day without an attempted assault charge?”
Jiang Cheng groans. To complicate things even more, Meng Yao is dating Huaisang’s older brother.
“I kissed him, okay!!” Jiang Cheng shouts as the doors open.
A young couple blink at him in confusion. The elderly men who were reading the newspaper and drinking tea look up.
“Congratulations?” the young man gestures. His girlfriend titters behind her hand.
Jiang Cheng’s face flames red and he books it to the back as Meng Yao’s smooth voice greets the new customers.
Dying now would be a really, really good time. And! He’d get like, workers comp or something.
Once his face looks more like a mantou and less like a tomato, he emerges from the back ready to work.
He’s got this. It’s fine.
The pair of elderly men nod approvingly at him as he brings them their check.
“Don’t give up, boy,” the older of the two grins. “You’ll get your lad. It took ten years for Old An to agree to go on a date with me”
“A-Mao,” the other man shakes his head. “It’s truly a different time,” he pats Jiang Cheng’s hand. “Best of luck to you”
Jiang Cheng smiles stiffly. He can’t even form words through the lump of embarrassment in his throat.
His shift ends and Wei Wuxian looks at him as he emerges wearing his street clothes and carrying his backpack. He had swapped shifts with Su She at the last minute because he needed the extra study time.
“G-good l-luck!” Wen Ning calls with an oddly cheeky tone. Jiang Cheng whirls you look at his timid coworker, who blinks innocently up at him.
Gods, Wuxian has even managed to corrupt the sweet, innocent Wen Ning.
He glares at the living embodiment of a shit-eating grin with legs that he has the misfortune to call brother as he leaves the restaurant.
Jiang Cheng is just going to the damn library to look for a book. If he takes a shortcut through the art building, it’s totally coincidental even if the “shortcut” adds an extra ten minutes because he’s looking around both floors.
Eventually, he really does head to the library, feeling very morose.
He calls Huaisang once more, but like usual it goes to voicemail.
He can’t fathom why Huaisang would be avoiding him. Huaisang is the one who kissed him after all.
Jiang Cheng wanders down one of the aisles. The familiar apple spice scent he’s come to associate with Huaisang drifts over to him and he nearly stumbles over his feet to round the corner.
Sure enough, Huaisang is browsing one of the sections in the library.
Jiang Cheng is momentarily thrown for a loop. Why is Huaisang looking for a book? Huaisang actively avoids anything to do with schoolwork unless absolutely necessary.
Huaisang glances around and pulls out a thin glossy-backed book from between two heavy tomes. He slips it into his bag and looks ready to leave.
It’s now or never.
“Huaisang,” he walks over. Huaisang jumps, knocking over a stack of books and earning a sharp glare from the librarian.
“Jiang-xiong,” Huaisang lifts a book to his face, eyes wide. “What are you doing here? I thought you worked tonight!”
He opens his mouth to speak when a gaggle of their classmates sits at a nearby table and he loses his nerve.
“Switched shifts. Looking for a book”
Huaisang bobs his head.
“Well,” he says, faux-cheerily. “Don’t let me stop you!”
Jiang Cheng knows Huaisang is going to flee and he may never see him again. It really is now or never, audience be damned.
“I like you,” Jiang Cheng blurts out, hyperaware of their classmates staring at them. “Like, like-like you”
Huaisang blinks hazel eyes in shock.
Jiang Cheng moves towards Huaisang, cupping his cheeks with a gentleness he didn’t realize he possessed, and clumsily mashes their mouths together; bonking noses and clacking teeth.
“Mmph,” Huaisang flails and extricates himself from the kiss. Jiang Cheng looks at him, hurt and confusion flickering through him in rapid succession. “Try it like this,” Huaisang carefully angles Jiang Cheng’s head and gently seals their lips together.
Jiang Cheng lets Huaisang guide the kiss; gentle and soft. Huaisang’s lips are soft and have a generic fruity flavor. Jiang Cheng grips the slender waist as his tongue slips past the glazed lips.
Huaisang presses closer with a soft whine and Jiang Cheng decides to embody his family motto by attempting to hold Huaisang impossibly tighter.
A cheer erupts from the table of classmates but Jiang Cheng doesn’t care.
Now that he has him, he’s never going to let him go.
The librarian heads for the explosion of noise like a heat-seeking missile.
Who has the gall! The audacity! The effrontery! To make such a cacophony in HER library??
She rounds the corner and stops, sighs, and throws her hands up in defeat at yet another pair sucking face in the middle of her sanctuary of peace and quiet.
“Thank gods I’m retiring in a month,” she shakes her head and waddles over to the desk to pull out a bottle of alcohol disguised as desk cleaner, taking a hearty swig.
She’s so done with these young people and their raging hormones and utter disrespect for a place of literature.
Done. Finished. Concluded. The fucking end.
She takes another swig for good measure.
Song Lan watches as his four best employees bicker with one another.
Fortunately the restaurant is empty.
He’s had a front row seat to all the drama that’s been going on between them.
He would be a little more concerned at the fact his employees are being flirted with by customers if his employees weren’t as okay with it as they made it sound.
Also, Xingchen finds it endlessly entertaining and they have a private bet running between them; Xingchen thinks that all the couples will find happiness. Song Lan has always been a bit more pessimistic than his better half and doesn’t think they’ll all work out.
Winner gets to surprise the other with something they’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t said anything about.
For a while, Song Lan thought Xingchen would win but after the display between Jiang Cheng and the young man he knows is named Huaisang and has some relation to the Mingjue that has Meng Yao’s attention, he’s not so sure.
“Young love,” Xingchen’s musical voice washes over him and Song Lan glances at his husband, who leans next to him at the bar. “Remember when we were young and stupid?”
Sometimes Song Lan still feels young and stupid when he looks at his partner, even after five years of marriage and ten years of friendship.
He doesn’t say this, choosing instead to press a gentle, lingering kiss to Xingchen’s temple earning a contented hum.
He watches Jiang Cheng successfully swat Wei Wuxian, Meng Yao scrubs his hand over his face and Wen Ning looks concerned.
“I kissed him, okay!!” Jiang Cheng’s voice rings out throughout the restaurant.
Xingchen grins brightly at Song Lan, who shrugs. The winner doesn’t matter anyway. Even if Song Lan wins, he’ll choose to do whatever Xingchen wants to do.
He watches a red-faced Jiang Cheng bolt for the back. Meng Yao competently seats the newest customers and Wei Wuxian is doubled over wheezing with laughter as Wen Ning pats him on the back.
Well, work is never boring, that’s for sure.
All the couples have gotten together! There will be an epilogue and extra smut chapters for each, so stay tuned!
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