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Lan Zhan pauses at the entrance to his walk-in wardrobe.

 

It should be just another part of his day, another one of the motions he goes through without having to put any thought to it. Just like waking up every morning at exactly thirty seconds to five, exercising on his balcony, taking a shower and sitting down to practise the qin by six.

 

It’s not an ordinary day.

 

Lan Zhan looks around the shelves lining the walls on all four sides. All his clothes are arranged methodically, each category with its own section. Button-up shirts, turtlenecks, jumpers and cardigans, coats, slacks in varying shades of white, light blue and tan, and so forth.

 

“Do you have a catalogue? You have to! There’s no way you don’t have an actual catalogue.”

 

Lan Zhan exhales. Thinking about Wei Ying every time he gets ready to go to his best friend’s house is a pointless exercise, but he’s given up trying to fight it.

 

Just like the jolt of heat that will always rise to his ears at the thought of Wei Ying. He waits patiently with his hand on the doorknob for it to pass.

 

This is only because Lan Zhan hasn’t been to Jiang Yanli’s flat in weeks. Or, as a consequence, seen him in weeks. He only needs to see Wei Ying once, remind himself how annoying he is and everything will be just fine.

 

(It won’t.)

 

Lan Zhan takes out a blue turtleneck sweater and a cream cardigan to wear over it. He pairs it with tan slacks and steps in front of his mirror.

 

He had tried to branch out a bit the last time he’d placed an order on Secoo. He really had. Pictured a certain insufferable boy with cheeky eyes, tongue poking through his mouth as he bent over Lan Zhan’s shoulder, scrolling down his app and loudly commenting on each of the clothes.

 

Despite imaginary Wei Ying’s best efforts, Lan Zhan’s order had ended up fitting just right in his wardrobe. Full-sleeved, high-collared and heavy on the powder blue and white tones as always.

 

It is a little known fact that Lan Zhan does, in fact, care quite a lot about how he dresses. Jiang Yanli knows this, of course. After all, she’s his usual shopping partner whenever they meet for brunch at Nanjing Road. Responsibly sourced, ethically produced fashion as far as possible, but luxurious and painstakingly selected nonetheless.

 

So all things considered, it makes sense that Wei Ying still thinks his outfits are fuddy-duddy, his colour scheme drab. They’ve never had anything in common, so it’s just as well.

 

The second person who knows just how particular Lan Zhan can be about his wardrobe is his brother. If he’s noticed the time Lan Zhan takes to get ready spike every time he heads over to Jiang Yanli’s house, at least he has the good grace not to mention it.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to stop him from smiling at him over his cup of coffee when Lan Zhan emerges from his room.

 

“Hello, brother,” says Lan Huan. He’s smiling so widely his eyes look like half-moons. Lan Zhan bristles. “Going somewhere?”

 

Lan Zhan nods. He makes a beeline for the shoes rack, eager to leave before—

 

“You look nice.”

 

It takes every shred of discipline Lan Zhan has to stop to give his brother a curt nod in acknowledgement. Even when every instinct in his body is telling him to walk away at once.

 

“You brought out the Santal Blush, too,” continues Lan Huan, after a deep inhale. “Must be somewhere really special.”

 

“I am going to Yanli-jie’s,” Lan Zhan grits out. “To film,” he adds pointedly, hitching his bag full of filming equipment a little higher on his shoulder.

 

“At her flat?” says Lan Huan, eyes twinkling.

 

“Yes,” says Lan Zhan resignedly.

 

“Wonderful,” says Lan Huan. “Although, those sandalwood notes of your cologne - while very lovely and intense - good choice, brother... I don’t think they’re quite strong enough for your channel’s viewers to catch.”

 

Lan Zhan exhales. Here it comes.

 

“Unless,” says Lan Huan, “The reason for all this is at your friend’s flat instead? A person, perhaps?”

 

Lan Zhan turns fully towards him. He resists the urge to glare at him, but only just. “I don’t know, brother,” he says. “You seem perfectly capable of drawing your own conclusions.”

 

Lan Huan smiles. “I’m sure A-Ying will appreciate the effort,” he says. “If he was aware he is the target audience, that is.”

 

Lan Zhan tries to ignore the way his stomach turns. Appreciate the effort? He’s already made a massive fool of himself once before. He isn’t about to repeat that mistake.

 

That had all started after one particular movie night last year at Jiang Yanli’s flat.

 

Lan Zhan has no recollection of the actual movie, of course. Because midway through the movie, Wei Ying had walked in out of nowhere and sank right next to him on the couch. Like it was nothing.

 

Like he hadn’t just made Lan Zhan undergo the 21st century equivalent of qi deviation in the space of three seconds.

 

Looking back, he had to wonder if he ever thought while growing up that he would end up this way. Twenty years old and grateful for Wei Ying’s terrible posture, because this way his foot was on his thigh. He even kept bursting into that easy, carefree laughter that had made Lan Zhan feel like there were flowers blooming in his chest, or some such ludicrous metaphor.

 

There’s no way Lan Zhan would have caught even a word of the whole movie.

 

That is, till Wei Ying had clutched his arm and whispered, “Oh my god, he looks so cool in that jacket!” Lan Zhan had finally torn his attention away from him, and really looked at the television. Equal parts to burn a hole into the actor’s face on the screen with his glare, and also to take pointers.

 

One week later, he’d showed up to Jiang Yanli’s flat in a light washed denim jacket over a white turtleneck and white jeans.

 

“A-Zhan!” she’d said as she’d looked him up and down, slightly bemused. “You look nice.”

 

The jacket had been rather stiff and the jeans were too tight. But it was a small price to pay if Wei Ying would look at him with a fraction of the admiration he’d had on his face for the actor.

 

There had been a loud crash behind him at that moment, and Lan Zhan had turned around to find Wei Ying standing at the foot of the stairs. Frozen in place and staring at him, with half of a watermelon on the floor in front of him, splattered messily everywhere.

 

He’d started to cough, then. Still looking at Lan Zhan. Red in the face from his coughing fit, he had turned right around and flown up the stairs.

 

Ridiculous. That’s what Lan Zhan must have looked like, trying to mimic the actor on screen who’d caught Wei Ying’s eye. Of course, Wei Ying wasn’t cruel enough to have laughed outright.

 

Callous, perhaps, but still considerate towards things that really mattered, empathetic, wonderful, perfect

 

So it was fine. He’d mourned the watermelon instead. If it weren’t for him and his pathetic attempts at trying to look like someone Wei Ying should give his time of day, Wei Ying would still be eating that watermelon.

 

Wei Ying had always loved watermelons.

 

Lan Zhan blinks himself back to the present. His brother could smile knowingly all he liked. Wei Ying is happy this way. Living his life the way he is meant to, bright and carefree with no spilt watermelon to ruin his day.

 

Lan Zhan puts on his shoes quickly, back carefully turned to his brother.

 

“A-Zhan.”

 

His brother’s voice comes from right behind him. There’s a different edge to it, and it makes Lan Zhan pause with his shoelaces between his fingers to listen.

 

His brother is still smiling, but there’s a crease between his brows. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

 

Lan Zhan knows what he’s talking about, of course.

 

“See you, brother,” he says, and gets up to leave.

 

 

Lan Zhan waits outside the door to the Jiang’s flat. As usual, he’s prepared for the worst.

 

The first time Wei Ying had answered the door in tiny shorts and a massive T-shirt that barely skimmed the bottom of them, they were sixteen years old. He’d started to dress particularly shamelessly around the house by that time, although Lan Zhan wasn’t entirely sure if he noticed it then because his own feelings about it had changed.

 

“A-Zhan?”

 

Lan Zhan starts. Jiang Yanli is standing in front of him, holding the door open. She steps aside with a smile to let him enter.

 

The Jiang siblings’ flat is large and airy, with three bedrooms on the upper floor leading down by a staircase the living room and kitchen area. They live minutes away from the university campus, unlike the flat Lan Zhan shares with his brother. It takes the Lans a good twenty minutes to come to class in the morning, while from here it’s a five minute walk even if you were being leisurely about it.

 

But it’s just as well. At least this way Wei Ying ends up attending some of his early morning classes, even if he enters at least fifteen minutes too late.

 

“You’re sweating,” Jiang Yanli chides gently, when she gets a good look at Lan Zhan. She takes out a piece of cloth from a drawer and dabs at his forehead with it. “Did you really need to wear all these layers? It’s April, you know.”

 

The turtleneck Lan Zhan is wearing under his cardigan is far too form-fitting. Of course he needed it.

 

He makes a huff in protest as Jiang Yanli pulls it off his shoulders, but he is pretty warm. It’s a relief to be rid of it. His turtleneck still shows his torso off in too much definition for his liking, but it’s only him and Yanli-jie here. She’s always made him feel comfortable.

 

He takes the glass of icy cold water that she presses into his hands.

 

“Have you eaten?”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head.

 

“Good, you can help me make lunch and we can film it?”

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees.

 

“You said the show is at four, right? The gallery is in Chaoyang, so taking the traffic into account - we should be okay if we leave by three.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Cool, come with me for a second then - I have something to show you. You’re not too hungry, are you?”

 

“No, brother made pancakes for breakfast.”

 

“Well, that’s a coincidence - so did I,” says Jiang Yanli, as Lan Zhan follows her up the stairs to her bedroom. “I also ended up eating all three servings of it, since A-Cheng and A-Ying for some reason decided to wake up at four in the morning today, of all days, and go swimming at the university pool. They fell right back asleep afterwards, of course.”

 

“It is open at that time?” asks Lan Zhan, a pang of something ugly shooting through him. How many years has it been since he’s swum in the same pool as Wei Ying? How many times has Jiang Cheng gone swimming with Wei Ying in that time?

 

He’s being ridiculous again, of course. Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng are flatmates. Brothers, too. If anything, Lan Zhan should be happy that Wei Ying has started to swim again.

 

And he is. Wei Ying was born to swim, of course. Just not with him.

 

“Yes, yes,” says Jiang Yanli. They’ve entered her room, and she motions him over to sit on her bed. She bends over her desk, rummaging for something. “I think A-Cheng planned to, then he must have knocked something over while getting ready and woke A-Ying up. A-Ying probably complained, and A-Cheng must have told him it was his fault he’s too delicate to deal with being up so early and of course, A-Ying saw it as some sort of challenge. Or something like that.”

 

Lan Zhan nods. That does sound a likely chain of events.

 

“You could have called me,” he says. Jiang Yanli’s magic fingers could make even pancakes taste like they belonged on the menu of a Michelin star restaurant.

 

Jiang Yanli turns around, beaming as she pinches Lan Zhan’s cheek. “I know, I know. You would have come, too, even if it was only to help me finish my pancakes,” she says.

 

Lan Zhan lets her squeeze his cheek between her fingers longer than he’d ever have allowed his brother to. Firstly, because she’s Jiang Yanli and not his brother. And secondly, because he’s still thinking how it would be to run into Wei Ying over breakfast again. Clingy and whiny-voiced as he always is right after he wakes up, complete with bedhead and his too-large pyjamas.

 

“Here it is,” says Jiang Yanli triumphantly at last. She has a small diary in her hand. Lan Zhan’s eyes grow wide.

 

“That diary...” he says. “It’s our—”

 

“Yes,” says Jiang Yanli. She gets on the bed facing Lan Zhan, and places the diary between them. They both stare down at it for a while. “Well, are you ready?”

 

Lan Zhan nods, and she opens the diary to the first page.

 

On the yellowed page in fading ink, they’d written their names. Jiang Yanli in her big, loopy hand and Lan Zhan below it in his spindly, microscopic lettering.

 

Jiang Yanli had pasted dried lotus petals around their names but they’d crumbled to dust to some point. The tape and light stains on the paper remain, and Lan Zhan runs his fingers over them absently.

 

He was ten years old at the time, and she was twelve.

 

Best friends, Lan Zhan used to secretly think. But he’d never tell her that, of course. He was just the kid she’d started talking to at swimming camp two years ago and occasionally hung out with on weekends. It was only convenient, since they lived on the same street.

 

Jiang Yanli was friendly and kind, loved by everyone who knew her. She was gentle, well-read and quiet too, nothing like the kids in his class who had never read Cao Wenxuan or would probably gag if they tasted tieguanyin tea.

 

Then one weekend, when they were browsing through a book store in their neighbourhood, she’d said “A-Zhan, guess what?”

 

Lan Zhan had glanced up at her from the book he was flipping through. She was still a full three inches taller than him.

 

She’d shown him a diary. It wasn’t like the others, with written directions and places for you to fill. Lan Zhan didn’t understand why those were so popular. He was always being taught what to do. Why would you choose that even for a personal diary for your thoughts? A blank space was what you needed.

 

And this one had been perfect.

 

“A-Zhan, do you want to make a best friend memory journal?”

 

Lan Zhan hadn’t been sure how to react to that. “Best friend?” he’d repeated quietly, after a while.

 

“We’re best friends, aren’t we?” she’d said, squeezing his hand.

 

Lan Zhan had a lot of questions. How. Why. Out of all her friends - every one of them more interesting than he was - whom she could choose to be best friends with?

 

But he’d nodded eagerly, not willing to let the opportunity go.

 

With the diary between them on Jiang Yanli’s bed thirteen years later, Lan Zhan finds himself half hoping they had never found it. He treasures his best friend, of course. So many of his fond memories of growing up have happened thanks to her.

 

Still, there are things that he’d much rather forget.

 

But this may be good. Possibly cathartic. Perhaps revisiting the memories would be a good way to remind himself how ridiculous and embarrassing certain aspects of his childhood were.

 

He reaches forward and turns the page.

 

As they pore through the first few pages together, he almost forgets why he was wary of looking at the diary. The corners of his lips turn upwards in a small smile as he flips through pages filled with items pasted on them, a reminder of the times they’d spent together.

 

They find a pair of ticket stubs to the first movie they’d seen at the cinema hall together. “Cinderella Moon,” Jiang Yanli says with a laugh. “Don’t worry, A-Zhan, no one will ever know you cried at the ending. I don’t think anybody would believe me even if I told them.”

 

Lan Zhan’s ears go pink. “I was ten,” he says.

 

“Yes, yes you were,” Jiang Yanli says with another laugh, and they move to the next pages.

 

They find a checklist they’d made of things to do over the summer: books to read, films to watch and cafes to try. Then Lan Zhan skips a section of the journal by accident, and a page opens up with handwritten notes pasted on it. Notes they’d passed during a particularly long guqin lesson at the music school they went to on weekends, years ago.

 

Lan Zhan’s fingers freeze over the frayed, yellow paper.

 

He remembers how startled he’d been to find quick fingers slip the note between his sheet music. He’d turned to find Jiang Yanli giving him a sheepish, yet pointed look. Perhaps the Jiang siblings were not quite so different after all.

 

It’s A-Ying’s fourteenth birthday this weekend. You’re coming, aren’t you?

 

Lan Zhan would up end up going, of course. He always did. For no reason other than it would upset Jiang Yanli if her best friend didn’t turn up for her beloved little brother’s birthday.

 

And, well - if you were being technical about it, he had already spent weeks choosing an appropriate present. Wei Ying was loud and annoying, and his favourite pastime seemed to be teasing Lan Zhan at every chance he got. If he was going to have to attend his party, Lan Zhan would make sure his present was good enough to shut him up for the rest of the evening.

 

So he’d done his recon, blithely steering conversations with Jiang Yanli till she’d disclosed Wei Ying’s deepest desire at the time. It was a new dizi after he’d broken his last one, and Madam Yu had refused to get him a new one.

 

“Lan Zhan, you really... is that—?”

 

And for once, it had worked. Voice trailing off into speechlessness, Wei Ying had stared at the beautifully crafted bamboo dizi - painted black, with a dark red knot. Then he’d looked up at him. Eyes sparkling, a lovely blush on his cheeks (Lan Zhan did that!), and a smile that most definitely had not made Lan Zhan feel like heart was close to bursting right out of his chest.

 

Except - that had not been all.

 

“A-Zhan?”

 

Lan Zhan jolts back to the present. Jiang Yanli is looking at him with an unreadable expression on her face.

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head, and moves his hand to turn the page. To his surprise, her hand falls on his.

 

“Hold on,” she says softly. “Maybe you could take it home, and go through it on your own time?”

 

Lan Zhan searches Jiang Yanli’s face swiftly. She’s never mentioned anything to make him think she suspects his less than appropriate feelings for Wei Ying. Still, older siblings had a way of unnerving you. Like they could see right through you, maybe even down to the particularly shameful thoughts he’d had about bending her beloved baby brother over every surface in this house.

 

Eager to change the subject, he nods.

 

Jiang Yanli pushes the notebook towards him and gets to her feet.

 

“Shall we head to the kitchen?”

 

 

Lan Zhan rolls up his sleeves. Next to him, Jiang Yanli takes off her bracelet and places it to the side along with Lan Zhan’s watch.

 

Lan Zhan steps around the counter to the camera, bending over it to check that the counter is in view. When he’s satisfied with the angle, he comes around next to Jiang Yanli again.

 

“The spring onions are washed,” she tells him. Lan Zhan takes a pair of scissors from the stand and starts to snip at the stalks.

 

They settle into an easy rhythm. Jiang Yanli washes the vegetables and divides them between them to chop up.

 

“What did your uncle have to say about your latest piece?” she asks after a few minutes.

 

“He seemed to like the tracking shots for the scene I filmed at Zhongshan park,” says Lan Zhan. “But he said that some more low-angle shots would have made the climax better.”

 

“High praise, coming from him.”

 

Lan Zhan knows this. Award-winning documentary filmmaker turned professor Lan Qiren is an impossible man to please. So when he doesn’t have twenty critical things to say about a three minute scene, Lan Zhan knows he’s impressed him.

 

He isn’t so sure his uncle would appreciate how he’s been practising, though.

 

Lan Zhan glances at the viewfinder of the camera pointed at their hands working on the counter. To this day, he isn’t sure why 2.6 million people follow his channel and religiously watch his content when all he does is film himself going about his day. He never shows his face or speaks a single word and ignores all emails from companies trying to sponsor his videos. Those were the things that made you famous on social media platforms, weren’t they?

 

And yet - here he is.

 

He’d really only made his channel to serve as an archive for personal reference. The first video he’d uploaded was a year back - something he’d filmed for an assignment. An ordinary Saturday in his life starting with guqin practice, playing with his bunnies, spending the afternoon at a bookstore, studying at a coffee shop and then coming home to make dinner. He hadn’t bothered to tag the video, so it had taken a few weeks for people to notice.

 

A few shout-outs from famous “aesthetic lifestyle channels” later - whatever that meant - he’d found himself with twenty three thousand followers and two thousand new comments overnight.

 

He’d told no one but Jiang Yanli about it, and she’d promised not to let out his secret. Not even to her brothers. So his channel had grown and grown, his subscribers coming in by the thousands every week to watch Hanguang-jun film his everyday life.

 

A year has passed and he still doesn’t quite understand it, but at least it’s decent filming practice.

 

“A-Zhan,” says Jiang Yanli, “The soup looks almost done, would you mind calling A-Ying to eat?”

 

Lan Zhan splutters. He blames it on the smoke from her stir frying. “What?”

 

“Would you mind calling A-Ying?” she repeats, louder. “He’s definitely still asleep.”

 

“Wei Ying...” says Lan Zhan carefully, “Is home?”

 

“Yes, yes - I told you, didn’t I? He came home from swimming and fell right back asleep without breakfast. A-Cheng napped a bit too, but he woke up a while back to meet Huaisang.”

 

Wei Ying is home. He’s here. Sleeping. In his pyjamas. In his bed. Where Lan Zhan is supposed to wake him up from.

 

“Don’t mind the closed door,” Jiang Yanli tells him as he sets down the knife. “You’ll probably have to go inside. He usually needs an extra push to wake up.”

 

Lan Zhan tries very hard to act like his brain hasn’t just blown a fuse at the thought of going inside Wei Ying’s room and waking him up. It’s not even the first time he’s been in Wei Ying’s room, which makes it worse. He should definitely not be this affected by the mere suggestion, but it’s not like his brain has ever cooperated when it came to Wei Ying.

 

He holds up quite well till he’s out through the doorway and taken a few steps down the corridor. Once he’s sure Jiang Yanli can’t see him, he stops dead and lets out a shuddering exhale.

 

Well, this is happening.

 

He takes a few steps further and stops in front of Wei Ying’s door. He recognises the stickers, but that’s only because he had looked them up on Baidu using search strings he’d rather not remember.

 

(animated human-pig hybrid character. maroon cartoon boar. five member idol group spiked hair leather—)

 

Lan Zhan focuses on the problem at hand. He needs to wake Wei Ying. A sleeping Wei Ying, which means he’s at his most whiny, clingy and—

 

Cute, he thinks. Lan Zhan passes a hand over his burning face. He hasn’t even walked inside yet.

 

He raises his hand to the door in preparation to knock. He runs through what he’ll say.

 

“Hello, Wei Ying.”

 

They’re not on the phone. Besides, he can’t even see him.

 

“Wei Ying, lunch is ready.”

 

That just makes him sound like he’s his mother.

 

“Wei Ying. It’s me.”

 

No - too casual.

 

“Wei Ying, it is I.”

 

That sounds like an invitation for Wei Ying to call him stuffy or fuddy-duddy. Although, if he’d say it in his soft, sleepy, petulant voice, Lan Zhan doesn’t think he’d even mind too much.

 

There’s a clatter from the kitchen, and Lan Zhan starts and knocks on the door in a knee-jerk reaction.

 

“Wei Ying, it is I,” he calls out automatically, and winces inside. “Your sister wants you for lunch.”

 

As do I, he thinks before he can help himself. Breakfast and dinner too, and possibly every other meal for the rest of his life.

 

The fact that he’d even had that thought is so mortifying that he has to do something, so he pushes the door open. The first thing he sees is Wei Ying sprawled diagonally across his bed on his front, fast asleep.

 

Lan Zhan turns his face to the side as he walks to the side of the bed. Wei Ying’s shirt has ridden high enough up his torso to bunch up nearly around his armpits. It feels wrong to look at him now that he’s here,

especially when not a single thought in his head right now is appropriate.

 

He glances around the room instead. Maybe it’s not quite what Jiang Yanli had in mind when she’d sent him to wake her brother up, but he’ll probably never get the chance again.

 

Lan Zhan has always been used to pristine, sparse places. Everything Wei Ying’s room isn’t. Every inch of his room is lived in, unquestionably Wei Ying, with the piles of clothes lying around, his dizi on the table and stickers and pictures on every surface.

 

His eyes linger a moment on the dizi. It’s the same one Lan Zhan had handed over to him on his fourteenth birthday. Wei Ying used to have a terrible track record before, breaking them on an average of once a year. He’d probably just grown up after that, but still - it was Lan Zhan’s gift that had survived.

 

Lan Zhan allows himself a self-indulgent moment watching it lie in the middle of Wei Ying’s everyday mess.

 

He runs his gaze then over the pictures on the walls. Wei Ying had brought most of them from his old room in the Jiang’s house: pictures of his favourite punk rock bands, comic book and cartoon characters, photos of him with his friends, his siblings and his pets. Lan Zhan’s eyes roam, subconsciously searching till he stops at that one picture of himself with Wei Ying after a tournament.

 

His fifteen year old self is glancing sideways at Wei Ying in it, as he grins widely back. Lan Zhan can’t help the wave of relief that washes over him to find it still pasted right in front of his desk.

 

A soft snore reminds him of his task at hand.

 

“Wei Ying,” he says, still trying his hardest not to look at him. There’s no response at all.

 

“Wei Ying, it is one thirty in the afternoon,” he tries again, louder. Still no response

 

He exhales. He really had been hoping it wouldn’t come to this.

 

Face averted, he reaches out in Wei Ying’s general direction and gives him a gingerly prod.

 

A split second later, he realises to his horror that what he’s touching is bare skin.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he finds his fingers skimming Wei Ying’s bare hip, just above the waistband of his low-slung pyjamas. He pulls his hand away as if it’s on fire, but he’s too late.

 

Wei Ying stretches - his lean, lithe swimmer’s body arching off the bed as he groans softly into the mattress. Then he rolls over lazily and blinks directly up at Lan Zhan.

 

Lan Zhan turns a full hundred and eighty.

 

“Lan Zhan?” says Wei Ying. His voice is just like Lan Zhan remembered from the few times he’d run into a sleepy Wei Ying when he’d come over for breakfast with Jiang Yanli. Soft, raspy and cracking slightly around the edges.

 

Also solid and real, inches behind him, complete with the image of his bare torso that had forever been seared into his brain even in that split second. His shirt had ridden up so high that if he skimmed the edge of it with his fingers he’d probably brush his nipples—

 

“Breakfast,” he says stiffly, before that mental picture can progress any further. “Ready.”

 

Perfect. He sounds like a caveman. Exactly the way you’d like to sound addressing the love of your life when he’s half naked and squirming in his bed barely a foot away from you.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs again. “Lan Zhaaan.” His voice is soft and whiny as he says his name, and Lan Zhan is only human.

 

He turns around. Wei Ying smiles lazily, stretching again. His body rolls and twists and arches off the bed shamelessly.

 

Well - maybe that’s not entirely true. Maybe it would have been a perfectly innocent series of body movements on anyone else. People stretched when they woke up, didn’t they?

 

“Come for breakfast,” he says shortly, before he can project any more of his own shameless feelings onto Wei Ying. Then he turns to leave.

 

“Lan Zhan.”

 

He freezes, halfway to the door. “Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan, you never look at me.”

 

The statement is so ludicrous, it sends a prickle of irritation under Lan Zhan’s skin. It’s almost two in the afternoon, just how asleep is Wei Ying still?

 

“Stop wasting your sister’s time,” he says before he steps towards the door, more harshly than he’d intended. “She’s waiting for you.”

 

I’ve been looking at you since we were eight years old, he doesn’t say.

 

 

Jiang Yanli doesn’t like eating before everyone’s at the table, so they wait. When Wei Ying enters, he’s still in his pyjamas. His hair sticks out in every direction, but at least he’s washed his face.

 

Lan Zhan is the first to reach for the spoon and dip it into the soup, with perhaps a fraction more force than was necessary. He’s aware of Jiang Yanli giving him a look, but he doesn’t make eye contact.

 

“How was practice today, A-Ying?”

 

Lan Zhan is grateful for the way his best friend never presses him, waiting instead for him to tell her whatever’s on his mind in his own time.

 

“Good, good. Jiang Cheng really improved his butterfly, you know! He beat me on one of our laps, too.”

 

He sounds far too happy and proud for someone talking about how they’d been beaten in a race. It’s absolutely, definitively, devastatingly Wei Ying.

 

Lan Zhan realises with a start that there’s soup dripping from the spoon he’s forgotten on the way to his mouth, hovering above his bowl.

 

“A-Cheng went out a few hours ago,” continues Jiang Yanli, and Lan Zhan is thankful for it because maybe no one noticed. “What are you up to after this, A-Ying? This includes a bath, by the way,” she says with a dimpled smile.

 

“A-jie, what can I say? You know how I am when I just wake up. It’s just so hard to move, especially after all those laps... Lan Zhan didn’t even wait long enough to carry me to the bathroom. He didn’t even wait to listen to me.” Wei Ying crosses his arm, pursing his lips like a petulant child.

 

Wait.

 

What?

 

The whole universe shrinks to two entities: the blood rushing in Lan Zhan’s ears, and Wei Ying’s voice saying, carry me to the bathroom.

 

Of course, Wei Ying is just trying to get a rise out of him as usual. As usual, it works. Lan Zhan feels the tips of ears grow hotter at each replay of his voice, completing with an image of carrying a sleepy, half-naked Wei Ying in his arms. This isn’t good.

 

So he does what seems the next most appropriate step. He pops a whole chilli in his mouth.

 

“A-Zhan?”

 

Jiang Yanli reaches out to touch his back in alarm. Lan Zhan splutters, holding a hand to his mouth. It was a perfect plan. Absolutely foolproof. You’d never be able to tell if the flush spreading down to his toes was thanks to the chilli, or something else entirely.

 

Except what he hadn’t factored in is that his tongue is on fire, his eyes are watering and his whole throat right up to his chest is burning. He’s decidedly not having a good time.

 

Jiang Yanli presses a glass of ice cold water in his hand. With some effort, he raises it to his lips and gulps it down.

 

The haze before his eyes clears, and the first thing he sees is Wei Ying. He’s staring directly at him with an unreadable expression on his face, chopsticks clenched tightly in his hand.

 

“Are you okay?” says Jiang Yanli.

 

Lan Zhan nods stiffly, back to looking anywhere but at Wei Ying.

 

The rest of the meal passes in relative peace. Or as much as Lan Zhan could ever expect with Wei Ying across the table.

 

“—Yes, yes, I did that yesterday - only needed one pair of non-ripped jeans because that I’m on thin ice with that one professor. Not everyone takes half a day to select a single button-up shirt! In Lan Zhan’s case, you literally have two colour options to choose from!”

 

“—So it’s extra cool, A-jie, because Jiang Cheng hasn’t beaten me at butterfly ever! Lan Zhan here is the only who’s ever beaten me before, this poor weakling body of mine just doesn’t stand a chance against those big, rippling muscles—”

 

“—Ah - sorry, sorry, won’t happen again - if only I had a friend like you have to drive me to places in his nice, big, sensible car, maybe it wouldn’t matter if I kept forgetting my subway card!”

 

Lan Zhan focuses on his meal, trying to recall the notes he’d been studying earlier in his head. It’s better this way. Nothing good could come from rising to Wei Ying’s bait again.

 

 

Once they’re done, Jiang Yanli gently wheedles Wei Ying back to his room for a bath.

 

“If you had just carried me into the tub after I woke up, Lan Zhan, I would have been bathed by now,” he sighs as he leaves the kitchen, with a lingering glance at Lan Zhan.

 

Lan Zhan focus very intently on replaying in his head the notes he’d been revising that morning. 

 

Aspect ratio is the size of the screen image measured by its width and its height. The two common ratios are 4:3 for standard definition and 16:9 for widescreen. When shooting in widescreen 16:9 the director should always remember to shoot everything 4:3 safe ’—

 

“A-Zhan?”

 

Lan Zhan blinks. He’s relieved to find that Wei Ying has left the room, leaving only Jiang Yanli with him.

 

“Do you think we should head out now?” she asks.

 

Lan Zhan nods, and gets to his feet.

 

 

They sit side by side on the train. Through the window opposite, the city flies by as they make their way to M50 district. The route takes them past the French Concession, one of Lan Zhan’s favourite parts of the city, and he films the passing scenes for several minutes.

 

“Happy with the footage?” Jiang Yanli asks as he puts the camera back into his bag.

 

“Mn,” says Lan Zhan. “Think so.”

 

They settle into a comfortable silence again. For Lan Zhan, that doesn’t last long. His brain seems particularly loud today. Memories he’d pushed back earlier when they’d been going through the journal start to resurface.

 

“—So the rest of us will hide, and the first one that the blindfolded person finds and can correctly recognise will be the next to get blindfolded, and that’s how it continues!”

 

It had been a few hours after he’d placed the dizi in Wei Ying’s hands at his fourteenth birthday party. Lan Zhan wasn’t sure how he’d ended up hiding in a corner of a dark room in the Jiang’s house. The game had sounded pointless, he’d been hot and sweaty and it had been fifteen minutes to his usual bedtime. He couldn’t wait to leave.

 

On the other hand, Wei Ying had been excited about the game. And he’d volunteered to be blindfolded first. The thought of him stumbling across somebody in the dark and feeling up their face had made Lan Zhan’s stomach start to coil unpleasantly.

 

He’d been stewing in the jumble of thoughts in his head, when the floorboards had creaked. It was Wei Ying. Wei Ying, about to enter the room he’d been hiding in.

 

Lan Zhan had frozen in place, heart hammering in his chest so loudly he was sure Wei Ying would be able to hear him.

 

“I know someone’s here,” Wei Ying had said, grinning. His arms had reached out as he’d walked further inside.

 

In the moonlight filtering through the window, Wei Ying had looked lovely. Messy hair tied in a short ponytail, loose strands framing his face and lips stretched into a blinding smile.

 

Suddenly, Wei Ying had come too close. Close enough to touch him. If he recognised Lan Zhan - which he would,  he’d be stuck playing this stupid game. It was close to his bedtime already, even if it was mortifying to admit to a party full of teenagers. Lan Zhan needed to get home. He had to go to bed by nine so he could wake at five to practise qin at six—

 

And Wei Ying’s lips had looked very, very soft.

 

Lan Zhan had lunged forward, grabbing Wei Ying’s face in his hands and pressed his mouth to his. Hard, clumsy and furious, till he was sure he’d never be able to dream about anything else other than how sweet and soft he felt against his lips.

 

It was also enough to leave Wei Ying flushed, breathless and dazed, and for Lan Zhan to slip away unnoticed and out of the house.

 

“Hey.” Jiang Yanli’s soft voice next to him on the seat of the train to M50 district makes him start. “You spaced out for a bit.”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head. Jiang Yanli gives him a gentle smile and doesn’t question any further.

 

 

When Lan Zhan returns home that evening, he films himself playing with his bunnies for a while.

 

His viewers love his bunnies. Of course, they also enjoy his arms, his hands, or the outfit details he shoots in the mirror from his neck down once in a while. They’re extremely vocal about it, too. But the appreciation for his bunnies pleases Lan Zhan, and that’s the only thing he’ll include gratuitous footage of in each of his vlogs.

 

There’s one part of that train of thought that isn’t completely accurate, of course. There is one commenter he actually does pay a significant amount of attention to. Even the arm comments, even if nobody else knows.

 

Hours into his first video going viral a year ago, Lan Zhan had turned off email notifications for his channel. The last thing he was interested in was what hordes of strangers on the internet had to say about him.

 

A few weeks and a couple more vlogs later, he’d opened his latest video to check the formatting and caught an accidental glimpse of the most upvoted comment.

 

It had simply been: arms, followed by an eyeball emoji.

 

The name of the user had been yilinglaozu.

 

The first thing Lan Zhan had done after that was to slam his laptop shut. He’d got to his feet, paced three times around his room and then sat down at his desk again. He’d turned his laptop on, opened up his browser window to his vlog and checked the comment right on top of the page.

 

yilinglaozu (4 hours ago): arms, and the eyeball emoji,

 

He’d taken a deep breath, put on his coat and shoes, gathered one of his bunnies in his arms and walked out of the house. He’d walked for a good five minutes gripping the squirming bunny to his chest till his heart had calmed down enough, then opened his phone and chanced a glance at his comments.

 

Still there.

 

The thing is, Lan Zhan had done a lot of things in his life so far that he wasn’t proud of.

 

You could take your pick. From kissing Wei Ying in a dark room during a party game to Baidu searching descriptive phrases to identify the stickers in his bedroom to buying a denim jacket because Wei Ying thought a movie star looked cool in it. Each more mortifying than the last.

 

Still, a strong contender for first place would have to be the new email account he’d made after the death of Wei Ying’s first pet. They were eleven years old, and it was a rat Wei Ying had found in their schoolyard. He wouldn’t come out of his room for days, Jiang Yanli was stressed and even Jiang Cheng was concerned, which was most unsettling of all.

 

petheavenofficial@qq.com: Hello. This is to inform you that your pet rat has successfully arrived at heaven. He is doing well. He is happy and eating enough. If there is any message you wish to leave for him, you may convey it through this email address. Wishing you a pleasant day.

 

onmywei2olympics@qq.com: wait... suibian is that really you???  *(>д<)* i miss you so much... are u getting enough boiled apple? yiling laozu couldn’t protect you this time... i’m sorry our last mission together had to end this way (╥﹏╥) please take care of him!!!

 

petheavenofficial@qq.com: Suibian is well cared for and happy and getting plenty of boiled apple. He hopes you are well and wishes for you to remain happy.

 

onmywei2olympics@qq.com: ah... okay... if you say so. thank you for taking care of him! and no seeds with the apple, please (>﹏<)

 

petheavenofficial@qq.com He is not getting any seeds. Please do not worry. Be well, Yiling Laozu.

 

That night, Lan Zhan had casually brought up the name Yiling Laozu in conversation with Jiang Yanli over the phone. He’d seen it in a sticker on Wei Ying’s locker at swimming camp, he’d said.

 

“Ah, that’s the name A-Ying used when he used to play with his rat. Said it was his fierce necromancer persona that would protect his rat from our mother, since she was not a fan. A-Ying is very into fantasy role-playing games these days, if you couldn’t already tell.”

 

Walking around his neighbourhood years later with his comfort bunny in his arms, Lan Zhan had half-wished he’d never learnt the name. He could have been blissfully unaware, not having to cope with the surreal, terrifying awareness that it was Wei Ying.

 

Wei Ying had commented on his video. arms, followed the eyeball emoji.

 

Of course, Lan Zhan could put it into perspective. He was addressing the enigmatic Hanguang-jun, to whom people proposed marriage daily after watching twenty minute videos of him cooking his everyday meals and playing with his bunnies.

 

But he’d paused that train of thought.

 

What had just come into his head was selfish, and awful and most certainly shameless. Perhaps more shameless than something even Wei Ying would do.

 

But what if... no one had to know?

 

Just like he’d done with the rest of his viewers, Lan Zhan must have tricked Wei Ying into thinking he’s a handsome, suave man with his life together. Hanguang-jun would certainly not talk like a caveman in front of his crush or have a miniature crisis while attempting to wake him up in his bedroom.

 

Still. If he replied as Hanguang-jun, just once - just to pretend, would it really be so wrong?

 

Before he could talk himself out of it, he’d opened yilinglaozu’s private message page, and sent:

 

Hanguang-Jun: What are you looking at?

 

Minutes later, his phone had dinged with a reply.

 

yilinglaozu: Your bunnies, of course. Have you seen how ripped they are? What have you been feeding them? I wonder if they work out.

 

In the year since then, yilinglaozu has left several comments on his videos. Lan Zhan has replied privately to all of them. Of course, he can pretend all he likes that it’s his hands that Wei Ying finds pretty, or his day he’s been tuning in to see for twenty minutes each week, or his smoothly worded messages he’s sending flirtatious replies to, but the reality is this:

 

He’ll never be that effortlessly cool actor in the denim jacket, making Wei Ying gasp in awe. He’ll never even be charming, confident Hanguang-jun as hard as he pretends, not really.

 

And yet, because this is his life, Lan Zhan has somehow been catfishing the love of his life into being enamoured with his own nameless, faceless social media persona.

 

 

His brother walks into their kitchen at around seven thirty, just home from the library.

 

“How was your day?” he asks.

 

Lan Zhan looks around from the counter. At the same time, Lan Huan spots the camera pointed at Lan Zhan’s hands as he chops the vegetables.

 

“Went to M50 art district,” Lan Zhan replies. “With Yanli-jie. They always have something new there.”

 

“Oh, did you go there directly?”

 

Lan Zhan looks down at the vegetables. He knows where his brother is going with this.

 

“No, I took her from her flat.”

 

Lan Huan’s smile widens. “Did you meet anyone there?”

 

Lan Zhan exhales. Then he turns to give his brother a look. “I do not understand how that is relevant.”

 

“Come on now, can’t I hope for the possibility of my little brother expanding his social circle? You’ve been friends with Yanli for years.”

 

“You want me to make friends with Jiang Cheng?” he says, his nose wrinkling very slightly in distaste.

 

“I think Yanli has two brothers, does she not?” says Lan Huan, tapping his chin.

 

Lan Zhan had walked right into that one. He looks down at his work, his knife striking the chopping board a little harder than the spring onions deserved.

 

After a long moment he quietly says, “Wei Ying and I cannot be friends.”

 

The mere suggestion is laughable. Wei Ying deserves friends who could laugh easily as him, fill the room with their presence and smile as bright as the sun. Everything Lan Zhan isn’t.

 

Lan Huan’s smile softens. “You cannot be anything with him if you don’t make the least bit of effort.”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, moving on to pour his feelings onto the garlic instead.

 

“Ah, I must correct myself,” continues Lan Huan. “You have made the effort. I’m sure our neighbours have heard enough of your efforts, from your balcony at five fifteen in the morning. But will Wei Ying ever?”

 

Lan Zhan tosses the garlic into the hot oil, followed by the vegetables. They sizzle angrily as if in response.

 

Lan Huan sighs, and watches his brother stir-fry with a vengeance.

 

 

After dinner, Lan Zhan goes to his room and sits at his desk. He goes over the footage from the day critically, slicing away parts that weren’t right. He watches his and Jiang Yanli’s hands chopping vegetables for lunch, the view from the train which they’d taken to M50 district, then him cooking his dinner of steamed vegetables and rice. He mutes the audio on it.

 

Later, after his brother had left the kitchen, he’d brought his two bunnies on camera, making them sniff at the prepared food. He watches the footage of them squirming around excitedly in his arms at the sight and smell.

 

My dinner has their stamp of approval, he types in the subtitles.

 

Once he’s done, he gets into his bed. He reaches over for his backpack to and pulls out the diary he’s been thinking about all day.

 

Straightening up, he starts to go through the diary again from the very beginning.

 

They’d been fairly regular with it for all of middle school and Lan Zhan’s first year of high school, after which Jiang Yanli had moved on to university. Jiang Yanli had always been better at it, of course.

 

Lan Zhan spends long moments looking at the pasted ticket stubs, polaroid photos and receipts from their favourite cafes with their usual order. A green tea for him and an iced latte for her. Only Jiang Yanli could have known at the age of twelve that looking on things like that later would make them smile.

 

A few pages in, Lan Zhan’s fingers freeze over a photograph. It’s of himself, Jiang Yanli and her two brothers at swimming camp.

 

He’s ten years old in the picture, and Jiang Yanli is twelve. Lan Zhan had been going to the swimming camp for two years now, and it was here that he’d met Jiang Yanli.

 

It was also where he’d met Wei Ying.

 

Lan Zhan in the picture has his brows furrowed, eyes directed away from the source of his irritation. There is a beaming Jiang Yanli and an exasperated Jiang Cheng between them, but Wei Ying is craning his neck to the side to say something to Lan Zhan.

 

Elbows on his knees, Lan Zhan leans over to stare at the journal placed on his crossed legs as thirteen year old memories begin to play in his head in vivid colour.

 

 

When Lan Zhan had turned eight, his uncle had enrolled him for a summer swimming camp. He’d been given the option of horse-riding or swimming, the two sports the Lan family traditionally took part in. His brother was a keen horse-rider but Lan Zhan had ended up choosing swimming: a more valuable life skill to learn, with much less sweating involved.

 

He’d been doing his laps at the shallow end of the pool, when a skinny boy with hair sticking out from under a red cap had swum up to him.

 

“Hey, do you wanna go to the deeper side?”

 

Lan Zhan had whipped around in shock. The deeper side was off limits till you’d crossed into the advanced level. You weren’t even allowed to compete for advanced level till you turned ten years old. Lan Zhan was eight, and this boy looked even younger.

 

“It is off limits,” he’d answered stiffly. “Your cap isn’t even on properly,” he’d added, to emphasise how far-fetched his statement was.

 

The boy had stuck out his bottom lip. Then he’d reached out and tugged Lan Zhan’s white cap right off. “Yours isn’t either!” he’d said, his laughter ringing in Lan Zhan’s ears as he turned around and shot through the water directly towards the deep end.

 

Lan Zhan had bristled, something about the boy’s laughter and his messy hair and his loud, annoying voice making his skin prickle. He’d scissored through the water in pursuit, his swimming cap forgotten where the boy had tossed it.

 

Lan Zhan was one of the best in their age group, taller and stronger than most of his peers. But this boy was swifter. He’d slow down every so often, turn back with a grin and speed away just when Lan Zhan had almost caught up to him.

 

Dimly, Lan Zhan had been aware he was breaking rules. Several, in fact. But this stupid boy’s laughter and his loud, annoying voice had fast drowned out every other thought in his head.

 

When he’d caught up finally, the boy had grinned sideways at him. Then he’d stopped altogether, kicking his feet to say afloat.  “Hi, I’m Wei Ying,” he’d said. “What’s your name?”

 

“Lan Zhan,” he’d said, coming to a stop as well. They’d reached the middle of the pool. It had been quiet and peaceful somehow, like they were the only two people in the world.

 

It hadn’t felt as unpleasant as it should have.

 

“I go to Yunmeng Primary,” Wei Ying had said. “You?”

 

“Gusu Academy.”

 

The boy had made a face at that. “Oh, that’s why you know all the rules by heart.”

 

Lan Zhan had found himself reaching out for the boy’s hair. How irresponsible of him, he’d thought. He’d tucked the hair under the boy’s cap. Then he’d caught his eye, and quickly pulled his hand away and turned his face to the side.

 

A while later, the boy had said with a cheeky grin, “Guess you don’t mind breaking rules as much you want people to think, huh, Lan Zhan?”

 

Lan Zhan had turned around in surprise, finding in the process a small crowd gathered at the opposite end of the pool. They’d looked worried, waving and calling out to them to come back.

 

Lan Zhan had flushed, immediately disappearing underwater and cutting through the water to speed to the end. He hadn’t realised till he’d reached the end that his heart had been racing with excitement the whole time.

 

 

Thirteen years later, Lan Zhan flips the pages of his memory journal with Jiang Yanli.

 

In the beginning, Lan Zhan had been too embarrassed to use the journal at all. Luckily, Jiang Yanli had taken over for him. She always did have a head for things like this, and she’d pasted items most would never even have dreamt of preserving.

 

Lan Zhan must be a little bit sentimental too, because a pair of ice-cream sticks tacked onto a page fills his head with more memories from that first day at swimming camp.

 

“Hello, I’m A-Ying’s big sister!”

 

She’d come over to talk to him after the incident with Wei Ying at the pool. He’d been mortified at having broken rules and furious with Wei Ying, and she’d offered him ice cream in apology. It had taken a lot of coaxing and cajoling, but she was patient and his stomach had been starting to growl.

 

She hadn’t laughed when he’d told her he’d prefer vanilla over the rest of the array of flavours available.

 

They’d started talking after that, and every day for the rest of that month at swimming camp. It was mostly initiated by Jiang Yanli, but Lan Zhan had somehow found it easier to answer her than anyone he’d ever met. The exact opposite of her foster brother, who unsettled Lan Zhan like no one else ever had.

 

They learnt that they both read Wei Menghua’s series, took qin lessons and lived close by as well, even if they went to different schools. Yunmeng Primary was a lot more lax with rules than Gusu Academy, but unlike her obnoxious brothers, Jiang Yanli was gentle and well-behaved.

 

They’d started running into each other at their favourite libraries and book stores after that. Then they’d start to plan these run-ins. Lan Zhan had taken a while to get over his embarrassment, but he did eventually begin to add a few things of his own to their journal.

 

When he was eleven years old, his uncle had given him his first camera. It was a big deal to be given such a meaningful gift by the stern, perfectionist Lan Qiren.

 

“You don’t need to prove anything to him,” his brother had told him gently. “Uncle sees something in you, but in his own way he really just wants what’s best for you. Just remember to have fun, won’t you?”

 

Lan Zhan had started with photography. He’d taken to the art of composition, the power of telling a story with a scene, and the impact you could create with something as subtle as a play on colour or lighting.

 

Quickly, he’d discovered that he was very, very good at it.

 

Sitting on his bed all these years later, Lan Zhan leafs through the printouts of his shots he’d pasted onto the journal. First photographs, then stills from the short sequences he’d start to film. Turning the pages feels like watching the textbooks he’d read in his spare time come to life. With every chapter he’d cover, his shots would get a little more refined.

 

Then a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, he’d abruptly stopped adding anything to the journal.

 

But Jiang Yanli had persisted. Page after page, she’d continued to paste small notes with cheerful messages and lines from her favourite poems.

 

Lan Zhan thinks of her helplessly pouring her feelings into the journal, because she didn’t know what else to do for her best friend. His heart swells till it feels too large for his chest to contain.

 

Finally, one month after he’d stopped, Lan Zhan had starting adding to the journal again. He’d marked his reappearance with a scrap of paper with his bunnies’ paw prints imprinted on them.

 

 

Twelve year old Lan Zhan had followed his brother out of his room in no small amount of confusion. Lan Huan had been very mysterious when he’d come to inform Lan Zhan there was someone here for him.

 

Ever since his mother’s death a month ago, even Jiang Yanli had been cautious about approaching him. She wouldn’t call on him without messaging him beforehand. No one else ever called on him.

 

And yet, right in the middle of the drawing room had been Wei Ying.

 

Wei Ying, with two excitable bunnies in his arms.

 

“I found A-Ying outside, trying to squeeze the bunnies in through the flap. He brought them for you but didn’t want to meet you at all—is that right?” Wei Ying had looked to the side, lips pursed in a pout and a light flush over his cheekbones. “Well, I thought you both should talk.”

 

With a blinding smile, Lan Huan had walked back into his own room. Left in silence, the two boys had faced each other in the middle of the drawing room.

 

“Sorry,” Wei Ying had muttered. He never had been able to stay quiet for long. He’d walked up to Lan Zhan and deposited the bunnies in his arms. “I know you don’t exactly wanna see me right now. But I found these bunnies in the woods behind our house and Auntie Yu didn’t let me keep them, so I was wondering if you, uh, wanted them and—wait, are you... Lan Zhan, is that a smile?”

 

The bunnies were adorable. They’d nuzzled at his fingers and blinked beadily up at him.

 

“Have you eaten?” Lan Zhan had asked stiffly, turning around towards his room as he’d tried his hardest to straighten his face.

 

“Uh, yeah, I mean - A-Jie brought me a bit of last night’s noodles? I was late for breakfast so Auntie, uh, didn’t let me - Lan Zhan?”

 

“Follow me,” Lan Zhan had gritted out.

 

They’d sat side by side on Lan Zhan’s balcony, eating congee with apple and beet salad as the bunnies nibbled at the steamed bok choy Lan Zhan had offered them. Wei Ying had kept talking about this and that all afternoon till their shadows grew longer.

 

His chatter was loud and incessant, and would perhaps have given anyone else a headache. Curiously enough, it was midway through this that the cacophony in Lan Zhan’s head had started to quiet down for the first time that month.

 

 

Lan Zhan falls asleep with the journal under his arm, and wakes at three thirty.

 

After a quick shower, he dresses himself and places a towel and swim trunks in his backpack. He reaches the campus swimming pool just before four. There isn’t a soul in sight.

 

When Lan Zhan lowers himself into the water, his first thought is that he should really be doing this more often. The water laps gently around him as he wades into a lane in the centre. It’s calming, and the gentle, almost unconscious effort he has to take to keep himself afloat is tethering. Slowly, the knot in his stomach he’d felt ever since he awoke starts to unravel.

 

As he settles into his laps, he grows aware of his times. He never actually times himself, but a point of reference is always satisfying. And his always been Wei Ying.

 

The thought of him has him accelerating in the water, a familiar rush of blood coursing through his veins.

 

As he’s towelling his hair dry later, he thinks maybe this wasn’t so bad. Yes, he’d definitely only come here this early hoping to run into Wei Ying. Yes, he’s crushed at not running into Wei Ying despite all the effort. No, it isn’t the proudest moment in his life.

 

But he can’t deny that it had felt good, once he manages to get past the abject mortification.

 

 

It becomes something of a routine.

 

He’s always enjoyed swimming, even if it had been hard to shed the clinical mindset towards it that had been driven into him since he was a child. To the Lans, swimming was about winning. Just another item to cross off the list of achievements they were expected to have under their belt. But what Lan Zhan has always loved is this - the calm that the water brings, the steady thrum of his racing heart even from the thought of a boy in a red swimming cap in the lane next to his.

 

Some days, he’ll see other students from the swim team. He knows they stare at him as he swims, the questions obvious on the tips of their tongues. Why the hell aren’t you on the team? But he has enough of a reputation around campus that they know not to ask him directly.

 

It goes pretty well for around a week. Then one day, Jiang Cheng shows up just as he’s emerging from the pool.

 

“You?!”

 

Lan Zhan glances up at the source of the voice. He straightens up on the wet tiles and turns towards the changing room, ignoring him entirely.

 

“What are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng demands of his retreating back.

 

Lan Zhan exhales. He’d really been hoping to avoid this. He continues to walk, hoping Jiang Cheng will tire himself out eventually.

 

“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing up just like this when my brother has been whining about wanting to race you again for ages,” Jiang Cheng says loudly. Lan Zhan freezes mid-step.

 

Wei Ying? Did he hear that right? Wei Ying wanted to race him again?

 

He turns around. “Wait—”

 

Jiang Cheng gives him an almost sadistically satisfied grin, ignoring him in turn as he dives into the pool.

 

In all fairness, Lan Zhan probably deserved that.

 

 

 

He spends the rest of the day replaying Jiang Cheng’s words in his head.

 

My brother has been whining about wanting to race you for ages.

 

The last time they’d properly raced each other was six years ago. Lan Zhan wouldn’t say he missed racing, but he missed racing Wei Ying.

 

He’ll miss anything with Wei Ying.

 

When he gets home and into his bed, he opens his phone to the vlog he’d posted last night and finds the comment he’s been hoping to see all day.

 

yilinglaozu: Could watch you playing with your bunnies all day <3

 

Lan Zhan fights down the painful clench of his heart.

 

It’s Hanguang-jun. Wei Ying thinks he’s talking to Hanguang-jun. Wei Ying is sending hearts to Hanguang-jun. Mysterious, suave, charming Hanguang-jun.

 

Taking a deep inhale, he opens his private messages thread with yilinglaozu and types out his response.

 

Hanguang-jun: Is the heart for my bunnies, or me?

 

yilinglaozu: aiyo hanguang-jun... you cant play with my heart like that... you must be a heartbreaker irl

 

Hanguang-jun: I am not playing. I truly cherish you.

 

Inhaling sharply the second after he’d hit send, he quickly begins to type a second response.

 

Hanguang-jun: I truly cherish your messages.

 

yilinglaozu: no! no! the poor, defenceless yiling laozu has been struck down by the mighty hanguang-jun (⁄ ⁄>⁄ ⁄<⁄ ⁄)

 

Hanguang-jun: I will tell you as many times as you need to hear it. I cherish you, I love you, I worship you, Wei Ying.

 

Hurriedly backspacing the self-indulgent words he’d typed, he scrolls up their conversation thread instead.

 

 

Comment on “Vlog #18: Antique Market & My Bunnies’ Grooming Routine”

 

yilinglaozu: get you a man who keeps his bunnies better groomed than me on a good day

 

Direct Messages with yilinglaozu:

 

Hanguang-jun: Thank you for appreciating my bunnies. I wish you would not be so disparaging of yourself.

 

yilinglaozu: ooh look at you acting like a real social media star for once, encouraging your viewers to live laugh love themselves

 

Hanguang-jun: I am serious. I would only say this to you.

 

 

Comment on “Vlog #31: Shanghai in the Rain”

 

fightingxdream3r: making bread should NOT be this sexy

 

pohtaeto: ikr wtf when he start kneading??? tag ur p*rn

 

yilinglaozu: omg stop objectifying the poor man just let him make his bread!!!

 

pohtaeto: ur literally on every one of his videos please the man can’t turn around to get his spatula without you writing epic poems dedicated to his flat ass

 

yilinglaozu: his ass is not flat pls it reveals itself only to those who are worthy!!!

 

Direct Messages with yilinglaozu:

 

Hanguang-jun: Thank you for protecting my honour.

 

yilinglaozu: aaaaaaaaaa i was... hoping you wouldn’t see that

 

yilinglaozu: i mean, i did say those things about your ass

 

Hanguang-jun: I don’t mind.

 

Hanguang-jun: You were protecting my honour, after all.

 

yilinglaozu: omfg you...

 

yilinglaozu: you’re not sliding into pohtaeto’s dm’s with the same thing are you

 

Hanguang-jun: Never. Only you.

 

 

Comment on “Vlog #53: A Midsummer Week”

 

jisoosmilexo: This man is so dreamy - he cooks, bakes bread, grooms his bunnies and has sexy arms. Can I say... #husbandmaterial

 

yilinglaozu: omg please step away from the internet you literally don’t even know his name

 

Direct Messages with yilinglaozu:

 

Hanguang-jun: You do not think I would make a good husband?

 

yilinglaozu: omg i just get annoyed sometimes! like a man can’t groom his bunnies without two million people getting their wedding veils ready

 

Hanguang-jun: So you think I am husband material?

 

yilinglaozu: ofc you are that’s not the point!!!

 

Hanguang-jun: But you don’t know my name.

 

yilinglaozu: i still uh... feel like i know you

 

yilinglaozu: sorry if this is weird? but it’s true so

 

Hanguang-jun: I feel like I know you, too.

 

 

 

Lan Zhan is a rational person. He really is.

 

So he knows there isn’t a chance Wei Ying could know that the channel he’s been commenting on is really Lan Zhan’s. It’s ridiculous to even think of him leaving comments like that if he did.

 

The person Wei Ying wishes he could watch all day is Hanguang-jun. Faceless, mysterious Hanguang-jun with his perfect, aesthetically pleasing life. Suave Hanguang-jun, who doesn’t talk like a caveman or dress like he’s heading to a funeral.

 

Of all the dreams he had of the future as child, he’s pretty sure being jealous over his own social media persona at the age of twenty-one wasn’t one of them. But he’s realised long ago that things often turn out the way you least expect them to.

 

 

The next morning, he’s midway through a lap when he senses someone approaching him from the lane next to him.

 

Someone swift as an arrow, slicing effortlessly through the water.

 

Wei Ying?

 

Lan Zhan picks up his pace without even realising it, his heartbeat ringing in his ears. Of course it’s him. He’d know his presence in the water next to him even if he forgot his own name.

 

They swim side by side, as perfectly matched as ever. Lan Zhan doesn’t think he’s swum quite as fast ever before and he can tell from the force of the splashes in the neighbouring lane that Wei Ying is stretching himself too.

 

When they reach the other end at exactly the same moment, he’s gasping for breath. He glances to the side, and finds Wei Ying grinning at him, face flushed from the race.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he says breathlessly, and it’s all Lan Zhan can do to stop himself from lunging at him, slamming him against the wall and kissing his beautiful, beautiful face.

 

He turns around immediately without a word and launches himself back down the pool. A split second later, Wei Ying follows.

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t think he’s felt this alive in a while.

 

 

“I think I’ll come tomorrow around eight in the evening,” says Wei Ying, as they towel themselves dry. “Early mornings just doesn’t agree with someone like me, you know.”

 

“You came here with Jiang Cheng this time last week,” Lan Zhan can’t help saying.

 

“Ah - that was only because he was being an asshole,” Wei Ying says, matter-of-factly. “Hmm, can’t believe I woke up this early twice in two weeks. Must be some kind of record.”

 

“Why today?” Lan Zhan asks, before he can stop himself.

 

Wei Ying colours at that, for some reason. “Ah! Well, it’s just that Jiang Cheng said - I mean, I couldn’t sleep, so...”

 

Later, Lan Zhan gets into bed after dinner and takes the journal out from his drawer again.

 

The pasted scraps of memories with Jiang Yanli begin to change the further Lan Zhan goes. Their weekend dates involve rarer teas at more niche, obscure tea houses now, with tickets to live classical music performances and art galleries, and photos of them trying out clothes at their favourite boutiques.

 

Some time later, Lan Zhan comes across a photo of fifteen year old Wei Ying that he’d taken after one of their races at the swim camp. He’d debated if he should add it here, but he’d figured it was okay if he did just once. After all, in recent years he’d been seen with his camera so often around the camp that it’d be more suspicious if he didn’t include at least something.

 

Especially since most of his footage had just been of Wei Ying and his different moods.

 

“Lan Zhan, take a picture when I’m actually posing for once?” Wei Ying had whined. “You take candids all the time and you never let me look at them and I’m sure I look like shit—”

 

“You do not,” Lan Zhan had replied immediately. If anything, he was more beautiful like that, unselfconscious and free.

 

But he’d held his camera at the ready, waiting for Wei Ying to pose.

 

After taking a few shots, he’d looked down at the photos again. He’d lingered too long on Wei Ying’s face, and in that time Wei Ying had bounded over next to him.

 

Wei Ying had placed his head on his shoulder - his shoulder - and peered at the viewfinder with Lan Zhan.

 

“Got you,” he’d said with a grin, and pressed on the back button to go through his gallery.

 

Lan Zhan’s heart had been in his throat, both from Wei Ying being so close to him and from the fact that he was looking at his gallery.

 

In the four years since his uncle had gifted him his first camera, Lan Zhan had realised quickly that filming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He’d studied textbooks, done online tutorials and even plucked up enough courage to seek help from his uncle. With Wei Ying looking at his work, Lan Zhan had felt like his soul was just laid bare for him to see.

 

 “You’re so... Lan Zhan, wow. You’re so talented.”

 

Lan Zhan’s heart had begun to race, a warm feeling spreading all the way to his toes at the look of admiration on Wei Ying’s face.

 

“I’m almost jealous,” Wei Ying had said with a sudden laugh. “My whole life is swimming, and I thought it was yours too but now I feel like there’s this whole other life you have—”

 

“Swimming is my life, too,” Lan Zhan had answered quickly.

 

Swimming with Wei Ying, that is. Lan Zhan’s uncle had started to inquire about his times at the dinner table lately. Applications for high school swimming teams would be opening soon. The forms had been sitting on Lan Zhan’s desk for weeks.

 

Wei Ying had looked up at him in surprise. Then his face had relaxed.

 

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool, isn’t it? You know, Lan Zhan, I always used to wonder what it’d be like if you went pro too, winning Olympics gold for China with me. But you’re really good at filming, and I don’t know - I feel like it really makes you happy.”

 

Lan Zhan hadn’t known how to respond. It was probably the first conversation they’d had in the years they’d known each other that didn’t consist of Wei Ying teasing him in some way. Wei Ying was being insightful, telling him things about himself that he’d hardly even realised, and it had made his head spin.

 

“So make sure to take good footage of me! You’ll be auctioning them for millions when I win gold at the Olympics!”

 

He’d sprung away with a laugh, diving back into the pool. Lan Zhan had sighed, as the world turned upright again.

 

 

Wei Ying shows up at the pool the next day, at eight in the evening like he’d mentioned. Lan Zhan is already there, for no particular reason.

 

The day after, he shows up as well.

 

And the next.

 

And the next.

 

He doesn’t stop showing up.

 

He’ll usually arrive a few minutes after Lan Zhan has started. They’ll race non-stop for forty five minutes, after which Wei Ying will follow him to the changing room, talking a mile a minute.

 

“Lan Zhan, when did you start coming here?” he asks one day, after a few particularly furious laps.

 

“A few days ago.”

 

“Ah - you don’t look totally out of practice, though. Have you been swimming somewhere else all this time?”

 

Lan Zhan glances at him. He’s towelling his hair dry, carefully avoiding Lan Zhan’s eyes.

 

“The Lanling Hotel pool, sometimes,” Lan Zhan says. Generations of friendly business relations between his family and the Jins had made them all lifetime members of their exclusive chain of sporting clubs.

 

It wasn’t far from his flat so he’d end up going occasionally, for exercise and a change of pace. But it’s nothing like swimming right here, with Wei Ying next to him.

 

“Oh.”

 

Lan Zhan looks at him, waiting to catch his eye. Wei Ying closes the door of his locker and steps to the side, and his eyes meet Lan Zhan’s. There’s a hollow look in his eyes, all of a sudden.

 

“It was... boring,” Lan Zhan says stiffly.

 

“Why is that?”

 

Lan Zhan exhales, still looking at him. Because you weren’t there.

 

Whatever he sees on Lan Zhan’s face makes Wei Ying look away, his face bright red for some reason.

 

“Ah, whatever the reason - I hope you’re ready to remember just badly I used to kick your ass!” Wei Ying says, his voice too loud in the small changing room.

 

“That is not how I recall it,” says Lan Zhan, raising his brow as he closes his own locker.

 

“Fine, fine - so you kicked my ass the remaining half of the time,” says Wei Ying. “And Lan Zhan, I... I missed it,” he adds, much more quietly.

 

Lan Zhan freezes in place. His heart races so fast it couldn’t possibly be healthy. After a long moment, he says, “I missed it too.”

 

Then he walks into the changing cubicle before he can say any of the other things that are bubbling up to his lips.

 

 

On Friday, Lan Zhan brings his camera to the pool. He films the still waters for a few moments.

 

Afterwards, he sits side by side with Wei Ying on the bench in the changing room as they towel dry their hair.

 

“Your bag looks pretty well packed today, are you planning to go directly to class?” Wei Ying laughs lightly. “Reaching the lecture hall at five in the morning is kinda a lot, even for you!”

 

Lan Zhan slows the motions of the towel on his hair. “I brought some filming equipment,” he says shortly.

 

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “What - What did you film today?” he says. His cheeks are pink. They’re always pink after they swim. It makes Lan Zhan’s chest swell just a little bit, knowing that racing him made that happen.

 

It also makes Lan Zhan want to touch his cheeks, to see if they’re as warm as they are pink. To kiss him, undress him again right here, lick his whole body till he’s mindless with pleasure and his skin is this particular shade of pink right down to his toes.

 

“Some shots of the pool,” he says instead, and pulls the towel lower to rub circles all over his burning face.

 

Wei Ying hums in response. “Are you enjoying this term?”

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies. “We have a new visual storytelling class. It is interesting.”

 

It hits him just then that this is really happening. He’s having a conversation with Wei Ying. Wei Ying isn’t teasing him, or trying to rile him up.

 

“And you?” he asks, not wanting this to end just yet.

 

“Ah, it’s not bad...” Wei Ying shrugs. “I mean - it’s chemistry, you know? It’s cool. Um, not sure what else to say about it?”

 

Lan Zhan watches him. Wei Ying is still smiling, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes anymore.

 

“Will you ever compete again?” Lan Zhan asks, unable to help himself. Perhaps he isn’t allowed to ask something so personal, but he needs to know.

 

Wei Ying starts. For a moment, he stares at his hands with a faraway look in his eyes. Then he says, “Ah, I’m too old for that now, aren’t I? Had such childish dreams when I was younger, god I was embarrassing—”

 

“Wei Ying can still apply,” says Lan Zhan quickly. “The swim team tryouts—”

 

“Anyway,” Wei Ying cuts in loudly, grinning wider, “Let’s talk about you and why you’re suddenly being so regular with swimming? Wanna get back in shape? Lan Zhan, didn’t you know you’re in perfect shape already? You should tell me who the girl you wanna impress is, I’ll introduce you, there’s no way she’ll say no - ah, why are you looking me like—?”

 

Lan Zhan gives him a withering glance before getting to his feet.

 

“You look happy, though,” says Wei Ying. Lan Zhan turns just enough to see him smiling. This time, he’s brimming with it, right up to his eyes.

 

The truth is, swimming always had made Lan Zhan happy. Stripped of everything else, he’d always found the water calming, the rush of a race invigorating.

 

(Perhaps only with Wei Ying, but still.)

 

“I like swimming,” he’d told Wei Ying once, when they were fifteen years old and days away from applying to high school swimming teams. “Having to swim... I do not like it.”

 

Wei Ying had stared at him for several moments, the swing of his feet in the water coming to a halt. His eyes had softened. He’s looked proud, for some reason.

 

“You know, I kinda get that?” he’d said. He’d smiled gently, looking at the still waters of the pool in front of them. “Can’t lie, I’ll really miss competing with you, ha...”

 

“Can still race you,” Lan Zhan had said at once. He’d like to race Wei Ying. He thinks there’s nothing he wouldn’t want, as long as it was with Wei Ying. “If - If you ever want to.”

 

Wei Ying’s eyes had widened at that. He’d torn his gaze away to look at his feet, the back of his neck pink. “That... That’d be cool. I mean, I don’t think I would have improved this much—I mean, the whole reason I already have times that’ll qualify me for a uni team us because I had to keep up with you, so... But I also don’t think you should ever feel like it’s something you have to do because you’re expected to, you know? Especially if it’s something that makes you happy just the way it is.”

 

A week later, Lan Zhan had faced his uncle in his office and told him he wouldn’t be competing in swimming tournaments anymore.

 

It’s been six years since then, and Lan Zhan has never looked back. After lingering a few moments in the changing room to watch Wei Ying tie his hair up in his usual high ponytail, he turns to the door again.

 

“See you tomorrow, Wei Ying,” he says quietly before he steps outside.

 

 

It’s half past eight when Lan Zhan reaches home. He’ll start feeling sleepy by nine, and he needs to put his vlog up tonight. For the first time in his life, he opens up his laptop on the dinner table to edit his video while he eats dinner.

 

He has a schedule to stick to, even though he’s not sure he knows what that means anymore.

 

When he’s almost finished, he glances over the top of his laptop and finds his brother eyeing him with a smile. Lan Zhan has always made it a point to never do anything else during a meal, deeming it disrespectful to both the meal and everyone else at the table.

 

“Sorry,” he says shortly. “Returned late. Have to post tonight.”

 

His brother nods, his smile widening.

 

“Swam at the campus pool again?” he says.

 

“Yes,” Lan Zhan answers tightly.

 

“Any reason for the sudden change? You know you can just tell Jin Zixuan if there’s anything about the Lanling pool that’s bothering you.”

 

“No reason,” Lan Zhan grits out.

 

“Sure, sure. The university pool must have a very different crowd from Lanling, especially this near closing time.”

 

“I am going to my room now,” Lan Zhan informs his brother. He drives a last, too-large spoonful of rice into his mouth before getting to his feet with his plate and laptop.

 

When he’s back in his room, he sits at his desk to lay the final finishing touches to his video and hits post. He crosses over to his bed, settles in and reaches for the journal on his nightstand.

 

It’s almost nine again, so he doesn’t have a lot of time. He’s been getting through the pages slowly but surely since he’s been returning so late these days, and perhaps it’s for the best. As the years pass, the entries become few and far between, each making Lan Zhan lie back in bed lost in his thoughts for several moments.

 

He’s aware he’s acting like a lovesick romance novel protagonist. It’s mortifying, but it’s also an inevitable side-effect of replaying your teenage years when you’d spent most of it being in love with Wei Ying.

 

The simplest way out is probably to just power through.

 

The first page Lan Zhan opens today has a photo pasted on it. It’s from the last tournament they’d ever played at that summer camp, weeks before they started high school.

 

After graduating from summer camp, most kids ended up competing for a spot on their high school swimming teams. Most had no choice, with parents desperate for something to brag about at dinner parties. Lan Zhan’s uncle hadn’t been pleased with his decision to quit competitive swimming, but he would live with it.

 

For some - like Wei Ying - high school swim teams would lead to university teams, which were hopefully a stepping stone to being scouted by professional teams.

 

The first summer after Jiang Yanli graduated, she’d given Lan Zhan a talk.

 

“A-Zhan, I know you don’t get along really well with my brothers, but you’ll keep an eye out for them, won’t you?”

 

Lan Zhan had considered it. He’d always had a possibly irrational distaste for Jiang Cheng, which may or may not have multiplied exponentially every time Wei Ying slung an arm around his shoulder. As for Wei Ying himself, well—

 

Lan Zhan had come to realise a long time ago that the pounding of his heart when he raced Wei Ying in the pool wasn’t simply because of the exertion. Wei Ying wasn’t like anyone he’d ever met. His sister was gentle, shared his interests and understood him. She was the best friend he could have ever asked for, and possibly didn’t deserve.

 

But Wei Ying made his blood race, had been talking about winning the Olympics at the age of eight, tried to smuggle in pet bunnies to cheer him up after his mother died, and was clever and brilliant and bright and perfect.

 

“Mn,” he’d grunted in agreement in response to Jiang Yanli’s question. If he’d been picturing himself swooping Wei Ying to safety in his arms from some imaginary horror just happening to strike at a children’s swimming camp - well, she didn’t have to know.

 

Lan Zhan focuses his attention back to the photograph in the journal.

 

Fifteen year old Lan Zhan stands at second position, with Jiang Cheng in third place. Jiang Cheng looks down at his feet. Wei Ying is in first place, looking at his brother with his forehead creased in worry.

 

Back then, nearly every tournament would end with Lan Zhan and Wei Ying vying for first and second. Lan Zhan usually ended up first for backstroke, and Wei Ying for freestyle. So it hadn’t been the first time Jiang Cheng had come third.

 

It had been the first time his parents had come to watch, though.

 

Lan Zhan had watched the Jiang parents glare at their younger son from the crowd. Jiang Cheng had cowered, and Wei Ying had climbed off his place on the podium to stand next to him.

 

It had only angered them more.

 

Lan Zhan remembers Jiang Cheng being dragged off by his mother in a vice-like grip the moment the photo session was over. They hadn’t even spared a glance back at Wei Ying. Wei Ying had glanced around uncertainly before following them to the car. Suddenly, he’d looked very, very small.

 

A few days later, Lan Zhan had got a call from a tearful Jiang Yanli. “A-Zhan,” she’d sobbed, “I don’t know what to do... Mother and father won’t stop yelling at Jiang Cheng for not doing better.”

 

“His times are good, though,” Lan Zhan had told her. “They are still enough to let him easily qualify for any of the high school teams.”

 

“I know, but they just wouldn’t listen, and kept comparing him to - god, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the deadline just passed and we found out A-Ying withdrew his applications for the high school teams. He says he’s never going to swim again at all.”

 

Lan Zhan couldn’t remember feeling as helpless as he had in that moment.

 

 

Next morning, Lan Zhan reaches for his phone before he heads for the bathroom and opens the video he’d posted last night.

 

shineefucker420: you guys are a bunch of mosquitoes, thirsting over veins like that

 

yilinglaozu: not his blood i’m trying to drink tho

 

xxxLordOfDarknessxxx: Excuse you, we are vampires, not mosquitoes!

 

Lan Zhan opens his message thread with yilinglaozu.

 

Hanguang-Jun: What do you wish to drink? You mentioned that it’s not my blood you wish to drink. Is there a particular recipe you want me to try?

 

He gets up after that, brushes his teeth, exercises, showers and practises his qin with his head full of the conversation he’d just had despite his best efforts to concentrate. The moment it strikes seven, he heads to his desk where he’d left his phone. He opens the message thread again.

 

yilinglaozu: what

 

yilinglaozu: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

 

yilinglaozu: omg you’re too pure i swear i’m in tears

 

Hanguang-jun: Why are you in tears? Did I say something wrong?

 

yilinglaozu: NO... no omg you’re fine... you’re perfect

 

yilinglaozu: also uh... sure i want you to do a drink next time

 

yilinglaozu: would you mix me up a cocktail or two?

 

Hanguang-jun: Shameless...

 

He places his phone on his bed. Then he turns on his side and presses his burning face into the pillow, the words you’re perfect playing over and over in his head like a broken film reel.

 

 

That evening, he heads to the pool after a session at the library.

 

Session sounds good. Session is a catch-all term. Session does not necessarily imply he’d been sitting in his corner in the library, researching mixology and ordering items from Taobao at breakneck speed.

 

He arrives at the pool a few minutes before eight. It’s empty. He takes his camera out and begins to film the water, walking slowly along the edge. He’s looking intently at his viewfinder, so he’s understandably flustered when someone pops his head into view.

 

Wei Ying holds him around his waist to steady him, but it’s too late. He crashes into the water, bringing Wei Ying down with him.

 

He breaks the surface, pulling his camera up with him. He can’t see Wei Ying around him and the water looks quiet, so he goes under again.

 

Hovering just beneath the surface, Wei Ying smiles at him through the water.

 

Lan Zhan is eight years old again, and time has stopped in the middle of the pool with Wei Ying next to him. Almost without thinking, he points his camera and starts to film him.

 

He watches Wei Ying smile wider through the viewfinder, then kick his heels and start to swim away from him. Lan Zhan follows, filming him all the while.

 

Wei Ying is beautiful. He’s beautiful when he wakes up, frowning and messy-haired. He’s beautiful when he answers the door in his too-large shirt and tiny shorts. Lan Zhan can’t think of a Wei Ying in any form, in any universe, that wouldn’t be beautiful.

 

But like this - darting through the water like he was born to, smiling at him through the water that he loves so much, Lan Zhan thinks he may be most beautiful of all.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he gasps as he breaks the surface, moments before Lan Zhan comes up next to him. “Sorry this is probably a bit late to ask, but - your camera is waterproof, right?”

 

Lan Zhan opens his camera to the gallery and starts to play the footage. Wei Ying wades closer to him, and peers over his shoulder.

 

“Oh hey, that’s me,” he says sheepishly, as his grinning face comes into view before they’d fallen into the water.

 

The next footage starts at him smiling in the water, still fully clothed. He looks like he’s glowing softly in the light from the floodlights above the pool. He spins in the water gracefully, launching himself through the water. Lan Zhan glances around at Wei Ying, watching the viewfinder intently.

 

Twelve centimetres. Maybe twelve point five.

 

Studying film for so many years has helped him get pretty accurate at estimating distance. He’s fairly certain that’s the distance he’d have to lean to kiss Wei Ying.

 

He’s also studied perspective distortion. So he knows that really, he could be about twelve million miles away.

 

 

A week goes by before he knows it, each day flying by with the anticipation of seeing Wei Ying in the evening. When Friday comes around, he gets a message from Jiang Yanli after his morning lecture.

 

Jiang Yanli (12:03): A-Zhan, what’s up? Feel like we haven’t talked in ages. Are you free for tea?

 

Lan Zhan meets her at Heyuan Tea House. It’s been one of their favourite haunts at university, close enough from campus that they could get back in time for post-lunch classes.

 

“You’re friends with Jin Zixuan, aren’t you?” says Jiang Yanli suddenly, some minutes into a conversation about the potted plants she’d been considering for their flat.

 

“Not a friend,” says Lan Zhan hurriedly. Because they’re not. They’re really not. “Family acquaintances.”

 

“Really,” says Jiang Yanli, knitting her brows. “I seem to recall him being at all your birthday par—”

 

“Only as a formality,” says Lan Zhan. He rarely cuts in, but the concept of being friends with Jin Zixuan is too humiliating to even allow an extra moment floating around in the universe. “I was also made to attend his birthdays.”

 

Jiang Yanli takes a sip of tea. “Well, I’m asking because I need his help on an assignment. Do you have his number?”

 

“... Yes,” Lan Zhan admits. He opens his phone to the contact page and hands it over to Jiang Yanli. He should probably be a bit more curious about what kind of assignment would necessitate his help since she’s studying architecture, and he’s in business. But Lan Zhan mostly just wants to go back to pretending he doesn’t have Jin Zixuan’s number on his phone, so he lets it slide.

 

“Heard you’ve been swimming at the university pool lately,” Jiang Yanli says, handing back his phone after she’d keyed in his number.

 

“Who told you?” says Lan Zhan. He answers a beat too quickly, suddenly wondering if it was possible Wei Ying ever spoke about him to her.

 

“A-Cheng, of course,” she says. Her voice is light and teasing. “Why, is there anyone else I know you’ve been swimming with?”

 

Lan Zhan keeps walking into these traps. Were all older siblings trained somewhere for this?

 

“Wei Ying comes there sometimes,” he answers briefly.

 

“A whole week went by, and I didn’t even get my usual message about filming help. Have you been getting enough footage elsewhere, then?”

 

Lan Zhan’s ears go warm.

 

Wei Ying had asked him to film them swimming the day after they’d fallen into the pool together. So Lan Zhan had chosen three spots around the pool to place his cameras for the best possible angles.

 

“I feel like I should have worn new trunks for this,” Wei Ying had said, looking around at the elaborate setup with wide eyes.

 

But Wei Ying had asked, and he’d get nothing but the best.

 

So the days had passed, and by the end of the week Lan Zhan had collected enough footage to make a whole mini-series. The two of them racing, Wei Ying flipping his head up as he hit the finish line, Wei Ying turning to smile at him, Wei Ying laughing, Wei Ying stopping midway through a race to tackle Lan Zhan in the middle of the pool, Wei Ying starting a water fight with him—

 

“Just some here and there,” Lan Zhan tells Jiang Yanli, before taking a long sip of his tea to bury his face behind the cup for a bit.

 

 

On Monday, Lan Zhan is just leaving his last lecture for the day when someone barrels into him in the corridor.

 

“Wei Ying?”

 

“You’re coming with me.”

 

Lan Zhan looks down in horror as Wei Ying grasps his hand.

 

Time and space shrink to the singular act of Wei Ying taking his hand in his own. His hand. Wei Ying’s hand.

 

The sudden momentum has him tipping forward, and with Wei Ying whirling around to pull him in the opposite direction, he gets a face full of his short, messy ponytail. Lan Zhan inhales, time and space expanding a little to make room for the smell of apples and cinnamon, some sweat, and oddly, sandalwood -

 

He sneezes.

 

Wei Ying turns around. “Are you okay?” he asks, frowning.

 

“Yes,” says Lan Zhan. He’s still dizzy from the thought of Wei Ying smelling even slightly like himself. It’s not the same products he uses, and he’s afraid to sniff any more in case he actually is allergic. But it makes his heart clench painfully tight.

 

“Sorry, I - uh, tried a new shampoo recently,” Wei Ying murmurs, looking ahead as he tugs Lan Zhan into an empty room. The nape of his neck is faintly pink again. “Anyway, that’s not the point, damn it!”

 

He turns to face Lan Zhan, letting go of his hand.

 

“What did you tell my sister about that asshole Jin Zixuan?”

 

Lan Zhan frowns. “What?”

 

“Jin Zixuan!” Wei Ying cries. “Imagine having to hear from my sister that she’s going on a date with that posh, arrogant prick? And that you had something to do with it?”

 

“I - I merely gave her his number, since she needed it for a project. She asked me for it. Wei Ying, I don’t—”

 

“How many more friends do you have?” Wei Ying bursts out. He goes instantly red, as if he’s just realised what he’s said.

 

Lan Zhan searches his face. For one wild moment he’d thought Wei Ying sounded jealous. But that couldn’t be true. There’s no way Wei Ying - bright, carefree, brilliant Wei Ying - would be jealous of who he’s friends with—

 

“I - I mean, you’re lucky your friends with A-jie, or I’d really start to doubt your taste in friends, hah...”

 

There it was. He was right.

 

“Jin Zixuan and I are not... friends,” Lan Zhan says. He tries to ignore the way Wei Ying seems to perk up instantly. “We are... acquaintances.”

 

“Oh, that’s a rel— I mean, he’s an asshole, and he definitely doesn’t deserve A-jie! Lan Zhan, we need to put an end to this.”

 

“Yanli-jie is a grown adult,” Lan Zhan reminds him.

 

“She’s my sister! I’ve got to protect her honour,” says Wei Ying. “And you - since you’re responsible for them exchanging numbers, you’re now morally obliged to help me.”

 

“Morally obliged?”

 

“Of course,” says Wei Ying, with more conviction. “You created this mess. You’re going to help me fix it.”

 

Lan Zhan exhales. “And just what is your great plan of action?”

 

“We give Jin Zixuan the talk.”

 

“The talk?”

 

“Yes, Lan Zhan, the talk! You know how it goes. You, the intimidating best friend. Me, the scary brother.”

 

Lan Zhan blinks. “Scary.”

 

“Sure,” Wei Ying says. He puts his hands on his hips and frowns, cheeks filling with air. Lan Zhan wants to kiss him really, really badly. “What?” Wei Ying demands.

 

“Wei Ying looks...” He stops himself. He’d almost called him cute. But he isn’t allowed to, as much as he deludes himself into thinking that one day he’d tell Wei Ying about how he feels. Wei Ying deserves to know he’s loved, but he doesn’t need to know that from him.

 

Wei Ying twists his lips into a pout, then frowns. He draws his brows together, clenching his jaw. He looks furious.

 

It’s very, very attractive.

 

Lan Zhan swallows.

 

Wei Ying breaks the expression, and grins. It all happens so quickly it gives Lan Zhan whiplash. “Ah, I was good - wasn’t I?” he crows. “I knew it! I intimidated you so well. Should have know that I’d pull it off best if I just pictured that asshole Jin Zixuan being friends with y—um, being friendly with A-jie. A-Anyway, it’s your turn now!”

 

He beams at Lan Zhan, waiting.

 

Lan Zhan sighs. He frowns at Wei Ying. It’s hard to feel actually angry at him. He’s been annoyed at him for the greater part of their lives, of course. But if he’s being honest, he’d really only been annoyed with himself for all the uncomfortable feelings Wei Ying made him feel.

 

It’s always easier to be angry at himself, so he thinks of Hanguang-jun.

 

Hanguang-jun, with his stupid hands that Wei Ying likes, the stupid messages he sends that Wei Ying sends blatantly flirtatious replies to, the stupid things he does all day that Wei Ying says he’ll never tire of watching.

 

All things that Wei Ying would be put off by if he ever figures out it had been Lan Zhan all along. Lan Zhan with his fuddy-duddy clothes, who has to Baidu search his favourite spiky-haired punk rock band members and looks ridiculous in a denim jacket.

 

“Lan Zhan...”

 

Lan Zhan relaxes. Belatedly, he realises he had worked himself into quite a mood. His heart is still thudding in his chest as he lets out a breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.

 

Wei Ying is avoiding his gaze, face bright red for some reason. “Th-That works, I guess,” he says. He turns around towards the door.

 

“Wei Ying?”

 

“Um.” Wei Ying turns. “Sorry. Uh, that was a bit - Anyway, shall we meet Jin Zixuan this weekend?”

 

 

“Lan Zhan!”

 

Lan Zhan turns outside the entrance to the cafe where he’d been waiting. Wei Ying skids to a halt next to him. “Sorry, sorry, had you been waiting long? Forgot my subway card... again.”

 

Twenty three minutes, to be precise. But most of that was his own fault, arriving too early in the anticipation of seeing Wei Ying again.

 

“No,” he replies.

 

Wei Ying reaches over to touch his arm as they make to enter, momentarily freezing every thought in his brain.

 

“Lan Zhan, you have to be the one to open the conversation,” says Wei Ying, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

 

Lan Zhan gives him a small frown. “This was your idea,” he says.

 

“I know, I know, but Lan Zhan - you promised to help!” says Wei Ying. “We have to have the upper hand from the start. You know, take control of the conversation. It can’t be me, because I’ll have the fucker running back to his shitty yellow Ferrari in two seconds flat and fleeing the country in his stupid private jet. And then A-jie will never get an explanation, and she’ll be sad.”

 

“You have a lot of faith in your powers of intimidation.”

 

“I was good yesterday, admit it! I saw you. You know. Gulping. You were terrified!”

 

“I did not gulp,” Lan Zhan says. “I do not gulp.”

 

(In fright, that is. In the crushing awareness that angry Wei Ying is yet another one of his moods that he finds attractive? ... Possibly.)

 

“Do you want a replay?” Wei Ying says, cocking his head to the side.

 

Lan Zhan balks, turning quickly to enter the cafe.

 

“Make sure to do your moody, disappointed thing!” Wei Ying calls behind him as he follows. “You know, for a gentle buildup.”

 

They find Jin Zixuan already waiting at a table for them, and make their way over.

 

And Lan Zhan will eventually say something. At some point. After he gets over the fact that Wei Ying’s thigh is flush against his own from how close they’re sitting.

 

Jin Zixuan gives them an exasperated look, and breaks the deadlock. “What’s up?” He looks at Lan Zhan. “Come on, I’m too curious to know. Didn’t take you for someone who’d willingly hang out with him.” He tilts his head towards Wei Ying.

 

Lan Zhan clenches his fists. Before he can answer, Wei Ying explodes next to him. “With me?” he exclaims. “Here I was wondering why my sister would willingly hang out with you.”

 

“Well, too bad she already agreed to go out with me,” says Jin Zixuan smugly.

 

“Oh, you’re lucky punching people is illegal. Lan Zhan, there must be a loophole - will you find a loophole for me?”

 

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan places a hand on Wei Ying’s arm.

 

Wei Ying turns to him in surprise, but he unclenches his fists.

 

“Wei Ying, I am not unwilling,” he says. He looks at Wei Ying, hoping he’ll be able to convey even a fraction of what he wants to say without putting it into words.

 

“Lan Zhan...?” Wei Ying breathes. Lan Zhan is aware more than ever of just how close they’re sitting.

 

“Hanging out with Wei Ying,” he says firmly, “It is - not unpleasant.”

 

“Uh, am I necessary here?” says Jin Zixuan. He gets to his feet before Lan Zhan even realises he’s said something.

 

Then he looks up at him. “Apologise to Wei Ying.”

 

“What?”

 

Lan Zhan crosses his arms and looks patiently up at him.

 

“You’re really standing up for him?” Jin Zixuan scoffs, as though he’d been waiting for the punch line. It doesn’t come, which shouldn’t surprise him since it’s Lan Zhan he’d been expecting it from. “Is it weed? Did you finally decide you’re not above smoking a little weed sometimes? We tried so hard to get you to, at that party last year but - ”

 

“You went to a party with him?” says Wei Ying, whirling around to face him. “You go to parties with him?”

 

“Just one time,” Lan Zhan tells him quickly. He sounds like he’s reassuring Wei Ying, which doesn’t make sense to him at all. But something in the way Wei Ying is looking at him with his brows creased and his lips twisted into a pout makes him feel like he should. “It was my brother’s friend’s birthday, and our families are old acquaintances,” he says, with a dismissive motion in Jin Zixuan’s direction.

 

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. He nods, and gives Lan Zhan a small smile. Colour blooms on his cheeks again. “I, uh. I just thought—”

 

Lan Zhan waits breathlessly for him to finish. He’s probably being completely ridiculous, too deep into the illusion to know what’s real anymore, but he needs to know why Wei Ying cares who he’s friends with, which parties he goes to—

 

“To reiterate,” snaps Jin Zixuan from the other end of the table. “Is my presence fucking necessary here?”

 

The moment breaks. A shadow of something seems to pass across Wei Ying’s face. “I was just wondering if A-jie was going to those parties too,” he says. He’s smiling, but it sounds hollow. He doesn’t meet Lan Zhan’s eyes. “You know, just watching out for my big sis.”

 

“Whatever,” Jin Zixuan says. He turns to leave, then pauses with a hand on his chair. “I’ll see your sister this weekend,” he says gruffly to Wei Ying, like it’s causing him physical pain. “I’ll take her to Shintori, will bring her home by eleven. And don’t ever fucking insinuate again I’ll treat her any less than she deserves.”

 

He walks away before Wei Ying can retort. Lan Zhan glances to the side to find Wei Ying looking distracted, like he hadn’t even been trying to find a way to retort. It’s not an opportunity he’d normally miss.

 

They sit in silence for a while. Wei Ying seems like he doesn’t have much to say after Jin Zixuan’s parting rejoinder.

 

As much as it pains him to admit it, Lan Zhan can’t find fault with his intentions either. He’s tolerated Jin Zixuan over the years mostly for the sake of their families, but he’s never actively liked the guy. But he has to admit that his little speech had almost, after all these years, made Lan Zhan feel like the guy might actually have a soul buried deep underneath his flashy cars and nauseatingly expensive cologne.

 

If that’s true, though - Lan Zhan digs his nails into his palm. He’s starting to get a sinking feeling that this operative may soon become redundant, and he isn’t ready just yet.

 

“Jin Zixuan did not seem outwardly ill-intentioned,” he begins. “However—”

 

Wei Ying turns quickly to look at him. “Yeah?”

 

“He always has been hard to read. Poker. He is quite good at it.”

 

“Yeah!” says Wei Ying. He nods vigorously. “Told you. Knew there was something off about him.”

 

Lan Zhan nods solemnly. “The investigation cannot stop here,” he says.

 

“Right!” says Wei Ying. He straightens up from the slump he’d fallen into at some point. “So, we’re on for the date?”

 

Lan Zhan picks a glass of water and tips it bottoms up into his mouth till he coughs, hoping it’ll hide the way his face burns.

 

 

Lan Zhan finds himself in front of his wardrobe again. He’s spent so long trying to choose an outfit it’s starting to feel like he’s the one going on a date with Wei Ying.

 

Except: if you were technical about it, he will be going to a romantic restaurant with Wei Ying. Wei Ying had insisted they’d order enough food as well, to ensure they don’t get kicked out.

 

“You’ll be paying, since you’ve still got to make up for dragging everyone into this mess,” Wei Ying had told him cheerfully.

 

As if Wei Ying had to ask.

 

Lan Zhan tries to remember if Jiang Yanli had ever mentioned what Wei Ying’s favourite desserts were. Either way, whatever Wei Ying would want, he’d get. He’d placed the emergency credit card he shares with his brother in his wallet too, just in case.

 

Lan Zhan finally settles on a white button up shirt and light blue jeans. He is decidedly not a jeans person, but it doesn’t feel as ridiculous without the denim jacket. He’s also a bit less of a scrawny teen than he was, so the way his legs fill out the jeans he right now isn’t terribly unpleasant.

 

Maybe.

 

If he’s watched one too many douyins about good outfit ideas for a first date, that’s between him and his search history.

 

In a reckless moment, he’d offered to pick Wei Ying up from the Jiang’s flat. It’s definitely selfish of him. But it’s probably the first and last time he’s ever be able to live out the illusion of being on an actual date with Wei Ying. And it’s all just in his head, so could it really be that wrong?

 

Besides, Jiang Yanli is always worrying about how Wei Ying keeps forgetting his subway card. Maybe Lan Zhan is just saving the delay he’d experience if he realises he’d forgotten his card once he’s already at the station. And, consequently, be late to begin their mission. Lan Zhan could be doing him a favour. All for the greater good.

 

... Probably?

 

He drives to the Jiang’s building. He pauses at the door, heart thundering in his chest. There’s a brief moment of panic at the fact that he didn’t bring flowers, and he has to remind himself that it isn’t actually a date. Before he can think of anything else as ridiculous as that, he rings the bell.

 

The door opens almost immediately.

 

“H—” Wei Ying freezes in the doorway. He looks wonderfully soft, in a fuzzy cropped black cardigan over wide-legged burgundy jeans. His eyes go wide as he looks at Lan Zhan.

 

Blinking several times, he glances at his feet and says, “Uh, can I get you - uh, anything? Water?”

 

“No,” says Lan Zhan. Wei Ying looks as flushed and distressed as Lan Zhan feels. Perhaps there is something wrong with the air conditioning in their flat?

 

“We should... We should head out,” croaks Wei Ying, after what feels like an eternity.

 

They walk downstairs in silence and get into the car. The drive is a short one. Lan Zhan is so distracted by the fact that he’s alone in a car with Wei Ying on the way to a romantic restaurant that he nearly misses a stop sign.

 

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries.

 

The car screeches to a halt.

 

“Hey, relax,” says Wei Ying with a laugh. He reaches out for Lan Zhan’s hands, white on the steering wheel from how hard he’s gripping it. “I know I’m a bad influence, but running stop signs for me? Lan Zhan, I’m impress—”

 

Lan Zhan draws his hands away like he’s been burnt. Wei Ying’s fingers hover in mid-air, just over the wheel.

 

“Sorry,” Lan Zhan says. “My hands... sweaty.” Caveman. “You are not a bad influence.”  Not even one of the cultured cavemen drawing pictures on walls.

 

There’s a loud snort. Lan Zhan watches in dismay as Wei Ying slumps over, laughing maniacally.

 

“Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan,” he manages to say, his words punctuated by helpless huffs of laughter, “Sorry, I just—” He looks up, shoulders still shaking, and reaches for Lan Zhan’s hand again. “I can’t believe you get sweaty hands? That’s so - sorry, I’ve got to see for myself... ah.”

 

His voice trails off as his fingers make contact with Lan Zhan’s palms. He traces it lightly.

 

Lan Zhan watches their joined hands till there’s nothing but the sensation of Wei Ying’s fingers tracing circles on his damp palm. Wei Ying isn’t laughing anymore.

 

“Lan Zhan?” he says eventually, from a million miles away.

 

“Mn.”

 

“I think you should start driving.”

 

Lan Zhan looks up with a start. The signal is green, and there’s someone honking behind him. Ears growing hot, he tears his hand away from Wei Ying and starts up the car.

 

Shintori isn’t far, a nice Japanese restaurant that seems more Jiang Yanli’s style than Jin Zixuan’s. It’s unexpected, but Lan Zhan has to grudgingly respect it. His best friend deserves nothing less than the best, after all.

 

And if Lan Zhan is being honest, he’d do a lot worse than dress in Wei Ying’s favourite movie character’s outfits if ever given the chance.

 

They end up choosing a table in the corner, separated from the rest of the restaurant by a screen.

 

“It’s better if we, uh, both sit on that side,” says Wei Ying, pointing to the mats lined against the wall. “Since we’ll both be able to see through the other tables from there.”

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees, maybe a beat too quickly.

 

They sit cross-legged on the mats. Lan Zhan sits on the outer side, his knee touching Wei Ying as he lowers himself next to him. Wei Ying doesn’t move away, and neither does he.

 

When a waiter brings them menus, Wei Ying pores over his with a wide grin.

 

“Lan Zhan, this is a fancy restaurant. I’m halfway through and I haven’t seen a single item under a thousand yuan. I hope you’re prepared to go home significantly poorer than you are right now.”

 

“Mn.”

 

Wei Ying whips his head up to give him a look of bemusement. Lan Zhan wonders if he hadn’t been plain enough. “Wei Ying can choose whatever he likes,” he says firmly. “Please do not hesitate.”

 

To say it’s probably not what Wei Ying had expected him to say would be an understatement. He stares at him for a long moment. When he buries his face in the menu card again, the back of his neck is pink.

 

They order till Lan Zhan is satisfied they’ve got every single item that had made Wei Ying’s eyes sparkle with interest, and then they wait. They have a pretty good view of the restaurant including the entrance, and they soon spot Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan entering and taking their table.

 

“They’re here,” whispers Wei Ying. He leans closer to Lan Zhan. Jiang Yanli looks stunning in a violet slip dress and her hair up in a bun. “Ugh, look at him pulling out a chair for A-jie. Patronising piece of shit - A-jie, if you don’t break that chair on his face by the end of this date—”

 

Lan Zhan exhales, and gives him a look.

 

“Okay, whatever, maybe he’s trying to act like a decent human being. He could still be - No, he still is fake, an asshole, crass, pretentious, an asshole—”

 

“Wei Ying.”

 

Wei Ying pouts, settling against his side. “I’ll catch him in the act by the end of the night. Just you wait.”

 

“Mn,” is all Lan Zhan can manage, with the warm weight of Wei Ying leaning into his side.

 

They wait.

 

And wait.

 

And wait.

 

Jiang Yanli takes a sip of water. Jin Zixuan rubs his palms on his trousers. Jiang Yanli calls the waiter over. She reaches over to point something out on the menu in front of Jin Zixuan, the top of her head nearly touching Jin Zixuan’s forehead. Jin Zixuan rubs his palms on his trousers again. They order, and make conversation. Jiang Yanli laughs occasionally, and Jin Zixuan nods a lot and talks less than he normally does and looks horribly earnest the whole time.

 

It’s... sweet.

 

Granted, Lan Zhan spends most of the time trying to memorise the way Wei Ying feels next to him. Arm to arm, thigh to thigh. But Wei Ying continues to pout as he watched the scene, so Jin Zixuan must be pretty good at the upstanding gentleman act.

 

“Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Zhan glances down at him. It’s a mistake. This close, he could count Wei Ying’s eyelashes if he tried. His lips look very soft.

 

He remembers in excruciating detail just how soft.

 

“Lan Zhan, what’ll you treat me with if I’m right and Jin Zixuan actually turns out to be the piece of shit I know he is?”

 

“Anything you want,” Lan Zhan says, without thinking.

 

His ears feel warm again. Next to him, Wei Ying shifts

 

I’ve messed this up, Lan Zhan thinks as his stomach drops.

 

To his surprise, Wei Ying smiles softly down at his lap. “You know... I’d like to keep swimming with you, Lan Zhan,” he says.

 

Lan Zhan’s heart springs to his throat.

 

“Lan Zhan, I just...” Wei Ying looks up at him, and Lan Zhan is thankful he’s sitting down because it’d be pretty hard to stay upright with Wei Ying smiling at him so brilliantly. “These past few days, swimming with you... really reminded me of when we were kids, at that summer camp... I know you hated me, but—”

 

“Did not hate you.”

 

“What?” says Wei Ying, breathless.

 

“Never hated you,” says Lan Zhan, firmly.

 

“You don’t have to be nice, I know I was annoying, trying to get my big sister’s best friend to look at me all the time—”

 

“You were not annoying,” says Lan Zhan. Perhaps a little, but it was nothing compared to his own shameless feeling for him.

 

“Ah,” Wei Ying flushes. “Well, what I was saying is that... I know I only started swimming again a year ago, but these past few days... I remember how it used to feel, winning those races back when we were kids. Of course, couldn’t ever stand a chance in the backstroke ones because of you, but...”

 

“2012,” says Lan Zhan at once. “It was the qualifiers, but you did beat me at backstroke.”

 

Wei Ying looks at him wide-eyed for a moment, then burst into laughter. “We were thirteen, Lan Zhan,” he says. “How do you remember that?”

 

“You swam well that time,” says Lan Zhan simply. “You helped me improve for the next races.”

 

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “Well, I - I remember because I was super annoying to Jiang Cheng about it. You actually looked at me for once that day. I remember, at the finish line.”

 

“Wei Ying.” I’ve been looking at you since we were eight years old.

 

“Sorry, I - ah, keep getting distracted,” says Wei Ying, sounding flustered again. “You’re distracting, Lan Zhan! It’s just that.. these last few days, I’ve been thinking of how it felt. Competing. I’m a lot more rusty than I used to be, and I’m almost halfway through my degree, but I - I think I want to try out for the university swim team.”

 

Lan Zhan’s eyes go wide.

 

When Wei Ying had started swimming again, Lan Zhan hadn’t hoped he’d ever compete again. Just the thought of Wei Ying starting what he’d loved so much again was enough. But this, and knowing that in some small way he had a hand in it—

 

“Wei Ying, I—”

 

“Mm?” Wei Ying blinks up at him. He waits as Lan Zhan tries to gather his thoughts to formulate a response that would sound slightly less caveman-like.

 

“I - ” Out of the corner of eye, something approaches. Something clothed in violet, making a beeline towards the bathroom that would take them right past Lan Zhan and Wei Ying’s table. Oh. Oh.  “I see your sister coming,” he says, and turns to face Wei Ying completely, in an attempt to hide his face.

 

“What?” says Wei Ying, frowning. He cranes his neck, peering over Lan Zhan’s shoulder. Then he hisses, “Oh, shit.”

 

He curls into himself, trying to make himself as small as possible and hide from view against Lan Zhan’s front.

 

All of a sudden, they’re very close. Too close. So close that Lan Zhan can almost feel Wei Ying’s soft exhales against his lips.

 

“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying.

 

“Mn?”

 

“I think - I think we should kiss.”

 

It’s - not what Lan Zhan expected to hear. Ever. In any plane of existence. So he stares back at him, stunned into silence.

 

“I...” Wei Ying grips the front of his shirt. He licks his lips, his eyes fixed on the sliver of skin just above the topmost button. “She’ll see me. I think... you should kiss me. Then, maybe she—”

 

Lan Zhan never hears the rest of that sentence, because he’s weak, and the boy he’s been in love with for all these years is asking him for a kiss.

 

Lunging forward, he presses his mouth against Wei Ying’s.

 

There’s a soft noise of surprise. Lan Zhan isn’t sure if it’s him or Wei Ying. It doesn’t matter. Suddenly, nothing matters other than the reality of Wei Ying’s lips pressed against his. The same mouth - Wei Ying’s mouth - that he’d clumsily kissed in a dark room when they were fourteen. Heart hammering till he’s sure the whole city could hear him, he studies the shape of them again. Soft, closed-mouth kisses first. How is it that they feel even softer and sweeter than the dreams he’d had about them? He brings one hand to cradle the back of his neck. He rests the other at his waist. Wei Ying arches against his hand, tightening his fingers in his shirt.

 

It’s too much.

 

Lan Zhan breaks, tugging Wei Ying desperately closer and into his lap and he whimpers in surprise, his lips falling open. Lan Zhan holds him in place and licks his way into his mouth.

 

He opens his eyes at some point, as if to make sure this is real. It’s a mistake. The sight of Wei Ying in his arms, cheekbones flushed pink as he pants into his mouth is enough to make his brain melt to the floor.

 

He squeezes his eyes shut, continuing to kiss Wei Ying with everything he has, touching him everywhere, the hand on his hip travelling southwards, biting gently at Wei Ying’s lower lip—

 

Wei Ying moans into his mouth, and the moment shatters.

 

Lan Zhan tears himself apart and pushes away from Wei Ying. Wei Ying throws a hand out to stop himself from tipping over. He doesn’t look up at him, and something breaks inside Lan Zhan.

 

“Sorry,” he says. “I - I will take care of the bill.”

 

He gets to his feet, stumbling as he does. His legs feel like jelly. Wei Ying is frozen in place, a faraway look in his eyes.

 

Lan Zhan tears himself away, walking to the front desk with his head lowered. He has no idea how long they’d been kissing, if Jiang Yanli had returned to their table or if Jin Zixuan could see him. He places a wad of notes at the front desk and pushes through the door.

 

 

Lan Zhan is halfway home when he realises he’d forgotten the car at the restaurant. He turns and begins to retrace his steps.

 

The busy traffic of downtown Shanghai at nine in the evening has nothing on the jumble of half-formed thoughts in his head. He’d kissed Wei Ying. Really kissed him, with no blindfold to hide the reality of what he’d done.

 

He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t pictured this before. His first time kissing Wei Ying - at least, his first time with Wei Ying knowing it was him he was kissing. He’d cup Wei Ying’s face, gentle and careful. Kiss him soft and slow, maybe touch his hair.

 

Except - he’d had to go and put his tongue in his mouth, touch him everywhere with his sweaty palms, bite him, and ruin everything.

 

Not that there was anything to ruin in the first place, of course. It was supposed to be a distraction. Wei Ying had said that. It’s not like there’s any other conceivable reason he’d ask Lan Zhan to kiss him, after all. Funny how things turn out - the first time Lan Zhan had kissed him, he’d convinced himself it was a distraction. The second time, Wei Ying had meant for it to be only a distraction.

 

But he’d also been in his lap, flushed and breathless and perfect, and Lan Zhan hadn’t been strong enough.

 

Cold terror grips his insides suddenly as he wonders if Wei Ying may not even have expected a real kiss. Perhaps he’d meant for them to pretend they were kissing, so that people wouldn’t recognise them. Lan Zhan tries to recall the exact words he’d said, but his brain had gone too cloudy right about the moment Wei Ying had said kiss.

 

Standing in the middle of the bustling pavement, it happens all over again.

 

Wei Ying on his lap, his fingers gripping his shirt. Wei Ying’s mouth, sweet and hot against his. The firm muscles of Wei Ying’s sides, built from years of swimming. The way his spine had arched against his hand. The way his waist had fit in his palms, the unexpected softness of his hips—

 

“Yo, watch it!”

 

He starts as someone pushes past him, his stomach churning even harder at the stench of alcohol. He feels exhausted all of a sudden, his legs unbearably heavy, but he keeps walking.

 

When he reaches Shintori, he pauses at the entrance for a long moment with his heart in his throat. There’s a wild moment when he wants to run inside and see if Wei Ying is still there, waiting.

 

It’s a ridiculous thought, of course. Wei Ying must have moved on a long time ago.

 

 

Lan Zhan has lost track of time.

 

He wakes up every day at thirty seconds to 5 in the morning, brushes his teeth, exercises, takes a shower and sits down to practise the qin on his balcony at a quarter past five. He eats breakfast, reaches his first lecture by eight, leaves campus by five, and studies in his room till dinner time. Then he goes to sleep by nine.

 

Everything’s right back to how it was. Just as it should be.

 

So he’s understandably surprised when his brother knocks at his door and informs him someone’s at the door for him.

 

He makes his way to the door and finds quite possibly the last person he’s expecting to see at his doorstep. Now or ever.

 

“Look, I’ll keep this short,” says Jiang Cheng.

 

“Please do,” says Lan Zhan. He can’t help it, Jiang Cheng always has been his least favourite Jiang sibling.

 

“Have much better things to do.”

 

“As do I.”

 

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. “My brother. He isn’t taking part in the fucking swim team tryouts.”

 

“What?” says Lan Zhan. In the moment he replays Jiang Cheng’s words in his head as if to make sense of them, his head starts to feel extremely light.

 

“I don’t know what the fuck happened to him, but. You. Need to fucking fix it.”

 

“But... Wei Ying said he would take part. He told me, only last—”

 

“I don’t want to know what you guys talk about!” Jiang Cheng says loudly, making a face. “I checked the applications after practice today, and saw that he’d cancelled his.”

 

“But I don’t understand. Why?” He replays the conversation they’d had in the restaurant three days ago, just before he had gone and ruined everything.

 

“What do you think I am, a fucking fortune teller? I don’t know what goes on in that idiot’s head. I even asked him a couple times the last few days if he wanted to do some practice laps, but the dramatic little shit would just go all mopey at the mention of swimming.”

 

Lan Zhan remembers the colour in Wei Ying’s cheeks as he told him how he’d remembered what swimming used to feel like when he was younger.

 

“So,” continues Jiang Cheng. “You need to fucking do something.”

 

“Me?”

 

“No, the fucking rabbit behind you. Yes, you, for fuck’s sake!” he yells, when Lan Zhan actually looks behind him at the cage he keeps his bunnies in.

 

“But I don’t... Wei Ying and I, we—” Nothing’s changed. “We are not friends.”

 

Jiang Cheng snorts. “No shit, you aren’t.”

 

Lan Zhan blinks at him.

 

Jiang Cheng assesses him. “You don’t lie. You really are that dense, huh...”

 

Lan Zhan bristles at that, coming from Jiang Cheng of all people. “You drank swimming pool water because Wei Ying told you it would make you grow taller.”

 

Jiang Cheng clenches his fists. “You waited in the water to catch my brother when he jumped from the highest diving platform because he told you to.”

 

“Boys, is everything okay?” a voice calls out pleasantly from behind them. Lan Huan is holding his door open.

 

“Yes, brother, everything is fine,” Lan Zhan says, turning to address him. Looking back at Jiang Cheng, he mutters, “He could have... hurt himself.”

 

“It was a kid’s swimming pool,” Jiang Cheng snorts. “Pretty sure his ass ended up hurting you more when he fell on top of you.”

 

“You have been visiting a dog therapy cafe in secret for years.”

 

“How the fuck did you—” begins Jiang Cheng, turning purple. “You - You left A-jie’s twentieth birthday party midway and came back with a bag full of stolen chicken skewers because my brother had cravings.”

 

“That cafe is owned by the Jins. And that... That was never confirmed. To be acquired. By the process of theft.”
 

 

“You didn’t take your wallet and we never found a receipt on you. That’s fucking confirmation, friend.”

 

“I was... drunk.”

 

“You’re a fucking idiot, is what you are,” says Jiang Cheng. He lets out a deep exhale. “You’re the reason my brother started swimming again, a year back.”

 

Lan Zhan goes very still.

 

“What?” he says, his quiet voice a stark contrast to the utter chaos in his head.

 

“My brother,” he says. “For his twentieth birthday party, that sappy video montage thing of him growing up that A-jie asked you to make? That - That was it. He told me, when he came crying to my room in the middle of the night and asked me if he could start swimming again.”

 

“I don’t...”

 

It doesn’t make sense. Yes, he’d poured his heart into that little video that Jiang Yanli had requested him to make. Had chosen clips he’d filmed over the years at swimming camp - of Wei Ying laughing, swimming, fighting with Jiang Cheng in the water, and just being as happy as the water always made him.

 

But to think that that was the reason Wei Ying wanted to start to swim again, after so many reasons of thinking he shouldn’t, giving up his big dreams so Jiang Cheng’s parents would stop being so cruel—

 

“Don’t start crying,” Jiang Cheng warns, with a shudder. “Or expect me to give you a hug.”

 

He turns to leave.

 

“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says quietly, just before he’s out the door. “For telling me.”

 

Jiang Cheng nods curtly, and closes the door behind him.

 

 

Later in his room, Lan Zhan thumbs through the pages of his journal. He’s been through all of it by now, but this time he’s looking for the scraps of sheet music he’d pasted over the years.

 

Jiang Yanli was the only one from the Jiang family who took those weekend qin lessons at the music school in their neighbourhood. It was a good thing, because the amount of concentration the qin demanded would have been impossible with Wei Ying in the room.

 

Over the years, Lan Zhan had built together a piece. Something to give a shape to the feelings he’d never put into words. Something he’d finally finished a year before, and would never share with the world.

 

(Except perhaps his brother, who he lived with, and the neighbours, who’d probably had enough of his qin playing every morning at six from his balcony. But besides that - no one.)

 

Not until now.

 

 

Three hours later, Lan Zhan’s fingers pause over the keyboard.

 

The video he’s just finished editing plays before him. He’s woven in footage from their childhood at the swimming camp together with everything he’s filmed at the university swimming pool the past week.

 

Wei Ying swims like he was born to, laughs as he hits the finish line, splashes around with his friends and siblings with a sparkle in his eyes and smiles when he’s underwater as if he’s finally home.

 

Lan Zhan’s heart squeezes in his chest every time he watches it, even if he’s made it himself and watched the individual clips hundreds of times before. Finally, he adds in the song he’d composed.

 

for yilinglaozu, he titles it and hits post.

 

 

In the morning, he plays his qin for a full three hours. He expects the neighbours to complain about him playing the same song over and over any day now, but there’s nothing else he wants to play. When he finally checks his phone, there are messages waiting for him.

 

Jiang Yanli (07:33): Hey... What was that about? Call me?

 

Jiang Yanli (07:38): That made me cry... I can only imagine what A-Ying must have felt watching it. I don’t know what happened suddenly, but it’s so thoughtful and sweet. I’m proud of you.

 

[unknown number] (07:51) This is Jiang Cheng... Uhh idk what you just did but A-jie mentioned something about a video??? She said it was sweet, which probably means it was sappy as hell so... yeah not about to put myself through that

 

[unknown number] (07:53) Can’t believe that fucker still goes by Yiling Laozu... 

 

[unknown number] (07:54) Anyway, A-jie told me to thank you so uh... I guess it s cool or whatever

 

[unknown number] (07:55) Only said this because she told me to, I haven’t even seen the video and I’m not going to

 

[unknown number] (07:57) Oh, and my brother hasn't been in his bed all night and he isn't answering his phone

 

Lan Zhan scrolls back to the first notification. It’s a comment on the video he’d posted.

 

yilinglaozu (04:33) lan zhan?

 

 

Jiang Yanli seems a little too cheerful about the fact that her brother has been missing since last night. She’s baking, and humming through it when Lan Zhan reaches their flat.

 

“Yanli-jie,” says Lan Zhan, standing in the doorway to her kitchen. The utter insanity of the scene hits him. He’s posted what is essentially a love letter to Wei Ying for all the world to see, Wei Ying knows that he’s Hanguang-jun, Wei Ying is missing on the morning of the swim team tryouts, and Jiang Yanli is baking. “Why are you baking?”

 

“Oh, cupcakes,” she says, turning around to beam at him. “Hi, didn’t hear you come in. Want to try the batter?”

 

“I asked why you are baking,” says Lan Zhan. This makes no sense at all. Jiang Yanli is acting like someone just got engaged. “Wei Ying is missing?”

 

“Oh, that,” she says. “Yes, he is. It’s fine,” she says, waving a hand as Lan Zhan’s eyes widen at the confirmation. “He’ll show up. Here, try some of the batter.”

 

Lan Zhan thinks quickly. There’s a thought simmering at the back of his mind, but he hasn’t allowed himself to even think it fully yet.

 

“When are the tryouts for the swim team?” he asks.

 

“Try the batter first,” Jiang Yanli pleads.

 

She looks so happy holding out the spoon towards him, that Lan Zhan leans in for a taste. Besides, he needs answers.

 

“It’s today,” she tells him. She’s still smiling, but the look in her eyes is suddenly sharp and full of meaning.

 

“Oh,” says Lan Zhan. “I should... check.”

 

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli tells him. “You should.”

 

Lan Zhan turns on his heels like he’s in a daze, and walks towards the door.

 

 

The white noise that’s been buzzing in Lan Zhan’s head all this while is drowned out by splashes of water and cries as he approaches the main university pool that’s reserved for tournaments. As he walks down the damp tiles, a quick cursory look over everyone crowding around the pool leads him to what he’s been looking for.

 

Wei Ying is third at the starting platform. Even with his goggles over his eyes, he’s unmistakeable as he leans forward in black swim trunks, waiting for the whistle. There’s an errant lock of hair that peeks out from under his dark red cap. Every muscle in his body is wound tight as he waits, frozen in place like a spring ready to uncoil.

 

Then the whistle goes off, and Wei Ying dives in.

 

There is no way Lan Zhan could look away from Wei Ying. He shoots down his lane with immaculate form. Lan Zhan doesn’t need to look at anyone else to know they could never compare.

 

Lan Zhan’s heart thuds against his chest, faster and faster as Wei Ying leaves the others far behind - to hit the finish line in what is surely record time.

 

He breaks the surface with a deep inhale and lifts his goggles to his forehead. He turns his head to the other lanes where the others are just reaching the finish line. Realising he’s won, his face breaks into a wide grin.

 

Lan Zhan turns and walks swiftly towards the exit.

 

 

Lan Zhan walks home, enters his room and sits on his straight-backed chair at his desk. He opens his iPad to the last slide set he’d been revising.

 

Wei Ying had messaged him on the way back. It was probably minutes after he’d come out of the water. Why wasn’t he celebrating with his friends?

 

Wei Ying (11:44): hi

 

Wei Ying (11:45): i won... i’m going to be on the uni team lan zhan

 

Lan Zhan (11:46): That is wonderful. Congratulations, I am happy for you.

 

Wei Ying (11:47): lan zhan...

 

Wei Ying (11:48): how long did you know... that i was yilinglaozu? i’m sorry, there’s something i should explain

 

Wei Ying (11:49): but lan zhan, if you knew all this while and still wanted to...

 

Wei Ying (11:50): lets talk?

 

Wei Ying (11:53): that song on the video... did you write it?

 

Wei Ying (11:53): does it have a name?

 

Wei Ying will be chosen for the team, of course. He’ll start competing again, maybe even get scouted soon. Within the year, Lan Zhan guesses. He’s had a late start but he’s talented enough that it won’t matter.

 

Wei Ying must be happy. It’s everything he deserves, and Lan Zhan is happy for him.

 

Nothing’s changed. Lan Zhan tightens his grip around his stylus and continues to read.

 

Wei Ying is still bright and beautiful, and he still doesn’t need spilt watermelon to ruin his day.

 

 

An uncertain length of time later, Lan Zhan’s phone buzzes by his elbow.

 

Jiang Yanli (14:44): Hey, just found a new recipe to try. Would be nice to film for your next vlog!

 

Lan Zhan (14:46): I am studying for an exam next week. Can we schedule this later?

 

Jiang Yanli (14:47): Noooo I already thawed the meat :( Please please! I know you’re already over prepared anyway.

 

Lan Zhan sighs.

 

Lan Zhan (14:49): I will be there soon.

 

 

Lan Zhan knocks at the door. When it opens, he finds Wei Ying in the doorway.

 

Lan Zhan’s brain is immediately wiped clean of every single thought he has had since the day he was born.

 

Wei Ying opens the door wider to let Lan Zhan enter. It’s probably a decent indicator of how fried his brain is that it takes a moment for him to register that Wei Ying is dressed only in a loose black tank top and obscenely tiny red shorts.

 

Wei Ying shuts the door behind him and faces him. Lan Zhan looks around the flat. There doesn’t seem to be any noise at all, any indication that there’s anyone else besides the two of them.

 

“A-jie isn’t here,” says Wei Ying. There’s a rueful sort of smile playing at his lips. “Sorry. I told her to send those texts. I was right, at least now you’re here.”

 

Lan Zhan’s fingers tighten over the strap of his backpack. “What?”

 

“I - ” Wei Ying makes a frustrated noise, and steps closer towards him. “Lan Zhan, isn’t there something you want to say to me?”

 

“I already did,” says Lan Zhan shortly. “I messaged you. Congratulations on making the team. It is quite an achievement.”

 

“Thank you,” says Wei Ying. “I - Lan Zhan, you really helped me see how happy I was in the water again. And when I saw what you titled the video, and realised that you knew, and still wanted to - Lan Zhan, isn’t there anything else?”

 

Lan Zhan think it’s quite unfair of Wei Ying to seek a response from him as he steps closer and closer. His brain is growing foggier by the minute. Is there really no ventilation in this house? Do the Jiangs really live like this? Lan Zhan must remind Jiang Yanli sometime to get the air conditioning fixed. It wouldn’t do for Wei Ying to keeps strutting shamelessly around like this, what if someone dropped by, what if someone else saw him looking like—

 

“Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan, you can look at me.”

 

“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, his voice strained. “Why did you call me here?”

 

“Tell me what that really meant,” says Wei Ying. He sounds breathless. He rarely sounds breathless, even after their most intense races. “The video you posted.”

 

It means you’re incredible, you’re perfect, you should never doubt it, and I love you.

 

“That I think Wei Ying is talented and should continue competitive swimming,” he says instead. “It is... only right, and I am glad.”

 

Wei Ying watches him for a moment, lips parted. “Oh,” says Wei Ying. He sounds like he’d been waiting. “That’s good. That’s good to know. I think you are very talented too, at - you know, filming. Brought out all the - the emotions, and everything.” He glances at his feet, lips falling close.

 

“I am sorry,” says Lan Zhan, because he feels like he needs to do something to change that look on Wei Ying’s face. “I knew who you were - your account, I mean. yilinglaozu.”

 

Wei Ying glances up at that. Then he walks even closer, till his toes touch Lan Zhan’s.

 

“How long?” he asks. “Lan Zhan, how long did you know it was me?”

 

Lan Zhan swallows thickly.

 

“Was it before you said... you cherish me?”

 

Lan Zhan’s ears burn. “Before,” he says quietly. “Always.”

 

It’s Wei Ying’s turn to colour. His whole face burns red, down to his chest. Lan Zhan wonders just how low that flush goes.

 

“Well, I guess I should tell you then that I... I knew all this time, too,” says Wei Ying. He shrugs like it means nothing, but the way he pinches fitfully at his nose suggests it might. “That you - You know... That you were Hanguang-jun.”

 

Lan Zhan’s head spins. “How long?” he asks quietly, when he can bring himself to speak again.

 

“Long enough,” says Wei Ying. “You have this mole on your left third knuckle—” He huffs out a laugh. “Sorry,” he adds, when Lan Zhan’s face crumbles. “I start laughing when I’m nervous.”

 

“You are nervous?” says Lan Zhan. Nothing makes sense anymore.

 

Wei Ying squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. “You just found out that I sent you all those messages, knowing it was you,” he says. “What other emotion could I possibly be feeling right now?”

 

Could watch you playing with your bunnies all day.

 

Of course you’re husband material, that’s not the point!

 

You’re perfect.

 

Lan Zhan replays those comments and messages he’d told himself a hundred times over were for Hanguang-jun. Not Lan Zhan in real life, not ever.

 

Except Wei Ying had known all this time, and still told him all those things. To Lan Zhan, not Hanguang-jun.

 

“I just - I couldn’t help it,” Wei Ying says, “Your followers are just so thirsty, and I had to take matters into my own hands... Lan Zhan, some of them are really out of control! And I thought you wouldn’t recognise me but then you started to respond to my flirting, and I - I was so jealous it drove me insane but I couldn’t stop because at least as yilinglaozu you’d talk to me and I just... Lan Zhan, why would you keep replying to me?”

 

Lan Zhan pauses for a moment. He’s too light-headed from everything Wei Ying has just said to make up an excuse. Besides, he’s already embarrassed himself enough - what’s the worst that could happen anymore?

 

So he says, “I thought it was the only way I could keep talking to you.”

 

There is a long pause. Wei Ying looks like he’d just been punched in the face. “What?” he says.

 

“Wei Ying, I know I am not the kind of person you would want to be friends with. I understand. But I - I thought I could keep talking to you if you did not know who I was. I deceived you, and I’m truly sorry.”

 

“Hold on.” Wei Ying’s voice is strained. “You wanted to talk to me all this while?”

 

“Yes,” says Lan Zhan. Something Wei Ying had said a minute back hits him just then. “You were jealous?”

 

“You had me thinking you’d flirt with any random commenter on your channel while I couldn’t get you to talk to me after everything I tried!” Wei Ying says, turning his face to the side. “But I thought if I - if I kept talking to you it wouldn’t be so bad, because there’s no way you’d know it was me, and I could pretend it was me you were talking to, not yilinglaozu—” He says the name with a petulant twist of his mouth that Lan Zhan wants to kiss away at once.

 

“I thought that you would only talk like - like that to someone like Hanguang-jun. That you would not anymore if you knew it was me,” says Lan Zhan. “I was afraid what I would end up telling you if I - if I was truthful.”

 

Wei Ying licks his lips, and steps even closer. “The truth?” he asks. “What’s that?”

 

Lan Zhan exhales. The boy he’s been in love with for as long as he can remember is standing in front of him, asking for the truth. “I like Wei Ying,” he says.

 

There is a beat. And another. And a third.

 

Then—

 

“Lan Zhan likes me?” repeats Wei Ying, flushing harder.

 

“Yes.” Once he’s told him, he can’t stop. He’s so, so in love. “I like you.”

 

“Ahh...” Wei Ying looks flustered, his face bright red now. “That can’t be right, Lan Zhan is Lan Zhan, and I’m only your best friend’s annoying brother! And - you never even looked at me.”

 

Lan Zhan has always thought that Wei Ying deserves to be loved desperately and wholeheartedly. He thought Wei Ying should be reminded of it too, thoroughly and often. Only he’s always thought Wei Ying is better off not knowing this from him.

 

But Wei Ying is looking at him in disbelief now, as if he can’t wrap his head around the fact that Lan Zhan had ever looked at him. It would be laughable, if Wei Ying didn’t actually look so confused. 

 

Lan Zhan sighs, and finally says the words he’s held back all this time. “I’ve been looking at you since we were eight years old,” he says.

 

“But the kiss,” presses Wei Ying, “It grossed you out, didn’t it... That’s why you left...”

 

“But I thought I took advantage of Wei Ying that time,” says Lan Zhan. “You only wished me to pretend to kiss you so it would look—”

 

He never finishes that sentence because Wei Ying moves the final few inches that separate them to kiss him, his hands coming up to wrap around his neck. After a long, glorious moment, he tears apart to press his face into Lan Zhan’s shoulder.

 

“Unbelievable! You’re unbelievable,” he wails. “The nerve of you to say I only wanted to pretend to kiss you... I can’t believe I spent all these years of my youth liking someone who could be so dense.”

 

Years?

 

Lan Zhan pries him off his shoulder to look at him. “Wei Ying,” he says sternly. “You are no better. You thought I never looked at you.”

 

Wei Ying swallows. “Yeah, well, you kept glaring and looking off into the distance when I caught your eye? I, on the other hand, was practically throwing myself at you at every opportunity.”

 

“Thought you were... trying to get a rise out of me,” Lan Zhan admits.

 

“You had me get jealous of myself!” Wei Ying cries. “You were fine flirting with yilinglaozu.”

 

“You had me... feel the same about Hanguang-jun.”

 

Wei Ying makes a noise of frustration and leans in to kiss him again. But Lan Zhan places a hand on his shoulder and holds him back.

 

“Wei Ying,” he says, like it’s a warning. “I am in love with you.”

 

Wei Ying gives a tiny shake of his head, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. Perhaps Lan Zhan wasn’t clear enough.

 

“On your fourteenth birthday,” he presses. “During the blindfolded game...”

 

“That was you?” says Wei Ying.

 

“What?”

 

“The kiss in my bedroom... Lan Zhan, was it you?” says Wei Ying urgently.

 

Lan Zhan feels his ears burn. “Yes,” he says. “It was wrong, I know. I was too—”

 

“It was my first kiss, Lan Zhan. I - I wanted it to be you so badly.”

 

“Me?”

 

“Of course, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying in exasperation. “Do I need to tattoo it on my forehead? Because I will, don’t test me. You’re just so great, Lan Zhan, and I like you so much. I always have.”

 

“But why?” Lan Zhan can’t help asking. “I am not the actor in the denim jacket. I am not Hanguang-jun.”

 

It strikes him just how ludicrous that statement is for the first time as he says it out loud.

 

“What the fuck are you on about?” says Wei Ying. He curls his fingers in Lan Zhan’s hair, shaking his head absently. “Do you know how hard it is to survive when your big sister’s best friend looks like you? Just chilling in the next room with her, looking like that, sweet and intelligent and kind and sexily intellectual while being so, so hot...”

 

Wei Ying thinks he’s hot?

 

He isn’t finished either. “... Of course I like you, I love you, it’s never been anyone else, not since you got mad at me for not having my swimming cap on properly. Want you so much, want to swim with you every day, kiss you, tear those turtlenecks you wear off your body because they drive me insane with how fucking ripped—”

 

Lan Zhan kisses him then, pulling him into his arms. Wei Ying likes him. Loves him, even. And he thinks he’s hot.

 

It’s all too much, so he decides it’s best to stop trying to think altogether.

 

The kiss turns furious fast, and Wei Ying tightens his arms around his neck. If it was hard to hold back at the restaurant, it’s impossible now. Knowing they’re alone here, with Wei Ying pliant and willing in his arms, thinking he’s hot, is almost more than Lan Zhan can bear.

 

With an arm around Wei Ying’s back and another at his waist, he steers Wei Ying over to the wall without breaking the kiss. Pushing him against it, he breaks away to kiss a trail down his jaw and the soft skin of his neck.

 

With a flash of frustration at the narrow strap of Wei Ying’s tank top, he yanks it off till it falls somewhere around his arm.

 

“Lan Zhan - I can’t...” Wei Ying says, unable to stop talking again once his mouth is free. “You want me - I can’t... Lan Zhan really wants me... Lan Zhan could have taken me whenever he wanted, but he left me waiting so long, and now he’d better make it up—”

 

Heartbeat thudding in his ears at the shameless words, Lan Zhan grinds their hips together and bites at his shoulder. Holding Wei Ying so close, Lan Zhan is suddenly all too aware how little he’s wearing. He takes both of Wei Ying’s hands in his own and presses them against the wall over his head. Then he pins his wrists together with one hand over Wei Ying’s head.

 

There’s so much Lan Zhan wants to do, he doesn’t know where to start. He runs his tongue across Wei Ying’s collarbones and shoulders, digging his teeth into the soft, lightly tanned skin on the way.

 

“Ah, Lan Zhan - You’re really killing me here... Those are going to leave a mark. That’s so hot, please don’t leave an inch of my skin unmarked, ever, for the rest of my life...”

 

Lan Zhan rucks Wei Ying’s top up under his arms and palms his lean, muscled torso. Panting, Wei Ying lifts a leg around Lan Zhan’s waist for purchase. Lan Zhan lifts his other thigh around him till Wei Ying is suspended in mid-air. Then he lets go of Wei Ying’s wrists so he can wrap his arms around his neck.

 

He takes a good look at Wei Ying, at the way he’s splayed against the wall, flushed and panting and beautiful as locks of hair slip loose from his ponytail.

 

“Wei Ying,” he says. Saying it loud makes it feel like it isn’t a dream. No, it really is Wei Ying. Wei Ying really wants this. With him. And he likes him. Loves him. Looking thoroughly kissed - by him.

 

It’s a look Lan Zhan is going to make sure he wears as much as possible from now on.

 

He runs his palm down Wei Ying’s side, down his ass to the bottom of his shorts.

 

“Shameless,” he murmurs into Wei Ying’s neck, as he lightly skims his fingers over the skin of his thighs. The tips of his fingers slip under the fabric of his shorts.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying gasps breathlessly. “My bedroom.”

 

“Very far,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“Oh, that’s so hot,” Wei Ying babbles. “Remind me next time, I’ll - ah, I’ll let you take me wherever you want in the house... or anywhere, but like - oh, ah - it’s just been a fantasy of mine to just hold your hand and bring you into my bedroom and - and make out with you in my bed, so—”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t know which part of that string of words to focus on first. Wei Ying letting him take him? Wei Ying fantasising about him? A next time?

 

They make their way to Wei Ying’s bedroom somehow - Lan Zhan carrying him half the way till he stops to press him up against the wall again to kiss some more. They stumble the rest of the way in each other’s arms till Wei Ying is pushing him onto his mattress.

 

It hits him then that he’s really in Wei Ying’s bedroom. Whether in their big house back home or here, Lan Zhan has passed his bedroom door too often with his heart racing at the thought that Wei Ying was behind it. Later, after one too many fantasies set in it, it had started to a trigger a knee-jerk response in him.

 

Lying here now on Wei Ying’s bed and staring at the ceiling, Lan Zhan thinks he’s never going to be able to cross his door ever again without thinking of this. Wei Ying crawling over his body. Wei Ying unbuttoning his shirt. Wei Ying mouthing at his chest with his eyes fixed on his. He tightens his fingers in the sheets as Wei Ying enthusiastically licks his abs, then comes up to kiss him again.

 

As they kiss, Lan Zhan’s hand wanders down his almost bare back and reaches his ass. He palms it, wondering if it’s possible to die from being too turned on.

 

His brother would busy himself with finding a more palatable way to break the news to the rest of the family, suppressing his own feelings as always. His uncle would certainly pass out. Jiang Yanli would cry a lot. And Wei Ying - well, he wouldn’t get to fuck Wei Ying and eat his ass, so that simply wouldn’t do.

 

He slips his fingers under those demonically tiny shorts and rubs circles into his bare skin. Wei Ying bucks in surprise, the motion make him grind against Lan Zhan abruptly.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying gasps, his breath hitching as his toes curl and scramble at the sheets.

 

Rolling them over till he’s on top, Lan Zhan tugs Wei Ying’s shorts down in one swift motion. They kiss messily as Wei Ying fumbles with the fly of his trousers and finally takes him in hand.

 

Lan Zhan wants so many things his head spins. He wants to mark every inch of Wei Ying’s skin like he’d asked, finger him open, fuck him with his tongue for hours, then with his cock for days.

 

But it can wait. Because Wei Ying loves him for some reason he still cannot quite fathom, and they have all the time in the world.

 

It takes only a few quick strokes before they’re both coming all over each other, exhaling against each other’s lips.

 

 

Lan Zhan has never laid in bed for a moment longer after he awakens. He has a routine, and it demands for him to be on his feet the moment he opens his eyes.

 

But he doesn’t always fall asleep in the middle of the day, and certainly not with Wei Ying curled against his side.

 

It’s not an ordinary day.

 

Lan Zhan watches Wei Ying, till the elbow he’s propped himself on falls asleep. He shifts then, but not before pressing a gentle kiss by the side of Wei Ying’s brow. Maybe another, into his hair. A third, on his cheek.

 

His phone has been buzzing by his ear, so he reaches for it eventually.

 

Jiang Yanli: (18:42) Good evening, A-Zhan!

 

Jiang Yanli: (18:43) No hurry, but let us know when we can come home!  (o´▽`o) I’m at the library with Zixuan and A-Cheng is with Huaisang, so we’re set as long as you need us to be!

 

Lan Zhan hurriedly responds.

 

Lan Zhan (18:45): Please come home whenever you wish.

 

Jiang Yanli (18:47): Really? Already? ( ̄ω ̄;)

 

“I told A-jie to send those messages,” Lan Zhan recalls Wei Ying saying. He winces. She knows. She knows everything.

 

Lan Zhan (18:48): Yanli-jie, there is something I wish to tell you.

 

Lan Zhan (18:48): I will speak to you in person.

 

Lan Zhan (18:49): But I wish to seek your permission to date Wei Ying.

 

Jiang Yanli (18:50): Oh.

 

Jiang Yanli (18:51): I was actually expecting an engagement hahaha

 

Jiang Yanli (18:52) So I don’t have to plan a wedding anytime soon?

 

A wedding?

 

Lan Zhan glances at Wei Ying, who’s just stirring awake.

 

“What are you looking at?” Wei Ying asks sleepily, with a languid stretch of his body. “More thirsty comments from your fans?”

 

“Only ever had notifications on for yilinglaozu,” Lan Zhan answers. He bends to kiss him on the lips, just because he can.

 

One kiss turns to another, and he makes sure Wei Ying is thoroughly flushed and panting with lips kiss-bruised before he tears himself away.

 

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan, you can’t just say things like that before kissing me senseless,” Wei Ying says, after a long moment of staring blissfully up at him. Lan Zhan takes his hand, and kisses each of his fingers as he replies to his last message.

 

Lan Zhan (18:68): Not yet, but I will keep you informed.

 

He doesn’t look at his phone again for a long time after that.