It all happens because Mianmian starts bragging to the whole cabin — which means bragging to the entire Cloud Recesses University Outdoors Club, because everyone has come out for the winter trip — about how great it is to finally be in a relationship.
“See? She made me these,” she says, smugly, and holds out a bag filled with date-and-cashew energy balls.
“Hey! She didn’t make me anything for this trip!” Wei Ying pouts, from his seat at the other end of the long table.
Behind him, the wood-burning stove belches smoke, but the heat on his back is burning away the chill from the two hours of strenuous snowshoeing it took to get here, and his thigh is warm where it’s pressed against Lan Zhan’s. Later tonight, Wei Ying is going to suggest to Lan Zhan that they slip out and walk beneath the stars, and when they’re far enough away from the cabin he’ll say something like Lan Zhan, my lips are so cold, I need you to warm them up (which, cheesy, but the last three weeks have taught him that Lan Zhan likes cheesy), and then Lan Zhan will push him up against a pine tree and kiss him senseless.
It had started on a Thursday night, this thing with Lan Zhan, after they’d finished studying for the linguistics final, when Lan Zhan had said, “You have cheese dust on your lip,” and reached out to wipe it off. Something in Wei Ying had shorted out at that and he’d licked Lan Zhan’s thumb, and before he’d had a chance to regret it, Lan Zhan had him pressed flat against the couch, tongue in his mouth and hands tangled in his hair.
(Three delirious weeks of that, and Wei Ying hasn’t once asked what they’re doing, because he doesn’t want it to stop. He wants to keep biting kisses up the edge of Lan Zhan’s jaw, feel Lan Zhan’s heart beating beneath his lips, grind against his thighs. If he wants more — well, Wei Ying knows better than to ask for more. Life has taught him that if you ask for too much, what you’ve already got slips away. He’s not going to say no if Lan Zhan wants to secretly make out with him, even if it hurts his heart; he’ll take what he can get.)
And so, in the circumstances, Wei Ying is too happy to really be offended that his jiejie somehow forgot to make him treats to take on this three-day trip to a cabin in the Gusu wilderness.
“That’s because you’re her brother, and I’m her girlfriend,” Mianmian says, chewing one of the energy balls. “Ugh, it feels fantastic just to say that. Girlfriend. I never want to be single again. Being in a relationship is bliss.”
Beside him, Lan Zhan makes the low hum that he uses to signify agreement. Su She — who is of course sitting close enough to hear him, Wei Ying suspects Su She only joined the club because he has a crush on Lan Zhan (and, fine, Wei Ying also joined the Outdoors Club because Lan Zhan had mentioned it once in their first-year poetry class, but he actually likes hiking and camping and loves the summer boat trip, whereas Su She complains about blisters and mosquitoes and damp clothing every damn weekend) — turns sharply towards Lan Zhan.
“I thought you were single,” Su She says. “Are you seeing someone?”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying’s stomach drops like he’s just jumped from a cliff and discovered that the swimming hole at the bottom is gone. He can see the ground rushing up to meet him—
“What?” he says, sharply, before he can stop himself. Lan Zhan flicks him a confused look, like he assumed Wei Ying knew, and oh, there’s the ground, he hits and it knocks him breathless. Has Lan Zhan been fooling around with him to practice for his boyfriend? Or was he going to break things off this weekend, let him down easy, say, sorry, Wei Ying, it was fun but I’ve met someone I can actually see a future with?
Su She snorts and says, “What about you, Wei Ying? Still single?”
“Um. Yeah. You’d all know if I wasn’t,” he says, shifting away from Lan Zhan on the bench. He feels dizzy, oxygen-deprived, like the end of the too-long swim through the underwater tunnel when they went caving, when he’d thought his lungs might burst. That day, though, Lan Zhan had been ahead of him, reaching out a hand and pulling him up and out of the water and now …
“You’ll find someone soon, Wei-qianbei,” Lan Yuan pipes up. He has one arm around Lan Jingyi, their hands intertwined. Even the first years have their lives more together than he does, Wei Ying thinks.
“We can help if you want,” Jingyi adds. “We’re really good matchmakers, you know. Just ask Jin Ling and Zizhen!”
He’s saved from answering by someone suggesting they play a round of Werewolf before lunch, and then a bunch of people drift away from the table to claim bunk beds, and after a minute Wei Ying finds himself alone on the bench, staring at the crackling flames in the wood stove. He deliberately doesn’t look up to see where Lan Zhan has gone, because who is he to wonder about that? That’s for Lan Zhan’s boyfriend.
Three — maybe four? — drinks later, someone grabs Wei Ying by the back of his t-shirt, yanks him outside, and pushes him down in the snow.
“What was that for?” he says, blinking up at the person standing above him. Even in the starlit dark — the sun has set, now — Wei Ying recognizes Wen Qing from the way she stands with hands clamped to her hips. “It’s incredibly cold out here, you know that?”
He struggles up so that he’s not lying flat out in the snow, and tries to massage some feeling into his icicle arms.
“That’s because you’re in the snow in just in a t-shirt.”
“Whose fault is that? I was inside” — he waves back at the cabin — “until you dragged me out here!”
“Yeah, because I need to talk to you without everybody gawking. What the fuck were you thinking?”
“About … what?”
“About Oh, of course I’m single, I’d tell you if I wasn’t, asshole.”
“What? It’s true,” he splutters. And he’s probably never going to date again, because three weeks kissing Lan Zhan have ruined him for anyone else.
“The hell it’s true. I should toss your drunk ass in a tree-well and leave you to die. I should feed you to the wood stove for fuel! You and Lan Zhan have been” — she twines her hands together in a vague approximation of two people kissing — “for weeks now. I have not been forced to listen to my best friend talk, ad nauseam — literally, it is nauseating — about how great you are and how much he likes kissing you, for you to come out here and claim to be single.”
Wei Ying has never before understood Wen Qing’s reputation for ferocity. Now he shrinks back into the snowdrift, because Wen Qing is vibrating with anger and she definitely has a utility knife in that jacket, she knows exactly how to use it, and next spring someone will hike out to this cabin and find his headless corpse decomposing in a stream.
“But he said … he said he was seeing someone.”
“He was talking about you, Wei Ying. He’s dating you.”
“What? No! I mean, we’re hooking up, yes, but …”
Not even that, really — they hadn’t gotten beyond making out, yet.
“Really? You were just hooking up? You were just fucking around with him? Say that to me again, Wei Ying.”
“No! It’s not that! I thought he only wanted to hook up. I didn’t think — I didn’t think he would want to date me,” he mumbles. And then, looking up, something inside of him thawing in a great golden rush of meltwater: “Wait. Are you serious? He thinks … Lan Zhan thinks he’s dating me? He actually wants to go out with me? Are you sure?”
“You think Lan Zhan hooks up with someone he doesn’t have feelings for? Like, the first time Jiang Cheng came back to my place and went down on me, I wasn’t like, oh, is this guy interested in me? Does he want to go out? They’re the same, those two. They show how they feel with what they do.”
“Oh my god, what, what, what—”
“Did you not know we were dating?”
“Oh my god.”
“Seriously. How are you this dense? We’ve been going out for months now! How do you get through life when you’re such a mess?” She doesn’t seem angry any more, just exasperated, and Wei Ying figures he can stand up without having to worry about the utility knife making an appearance.
“I don’t know. That’s part of why I thought Lan Zhan … well, you know.”
“Yeah, nobody knows what he sees in you. But now you’ve hurt him, and he’s gone back home — and I happen to know he’s been looking forward to this trip for ages — so you’d better start figuring your shit out fast, right?”
“He went home? Lan Zhan’s not here anymore?”
“Yeah. He left hours ago.”
Left or right?
Under the white blast of Wei Ying’s headlamp, the narrow paths look the same: snow and silent pines stretching into the distance. He hesitates, and catches sight of a snowshoe print in the snow to the right. Fresh snow has fallen since they came through in the morning, so this must be Lan Zhan’s track, and Lan Zhan is the best backcountry navigator in the club. He goes right.
Wei Ying knows, when he thinks about it, that Wen Qing was not suggesting that he run out into the darkness to chase after Lan Zhan. Well, he’s pretty sure that’s not what she was suggesting, but then he hadn’t really been thinking straight at the time. There was no cell reception at the cabin, and he'd been frantic: he couldn’t just let it go until morning, not if Lan Zhan was sitting somewhere thinking Wei Ying didn’t like him, didn’t want to be with him, because he does, so badly it's a physical ache.
In his rush to go he'd forgotten to tell anyone he was going, just said, “I’ve got to make it right, A-Ning, you understand,” when Wen Ning had asked him why he was piling random supplies into his backpack.
That’s one rule broken.
Wei Ying has probably broken all three thousand of the rules the Outdoors Club keeps in a worn binder at the office on campus by coming out tonight — at least he has duct tape and peanut butter and a foil emergency blanket with him, but he left behind the merino wool undershirt Lan Zhan bought him for his birthday last year — and if he gets out of these mountains alive, he is going to add snowshoeing while drunk is forbidden to the list. About an hour in to the trek he’d slipped climbing a steep slope and fallen onto something sharp hidden beneath the snow, and he’s pretty sure his leg is bleeding in at least two places. He hasn’t stopped to examine it, though, because an awful lot of his skin is starting to feel numb and he really doesn’t want to ask Wen Qing to amputate his fingers because of frostbite. He needs those fingers.
He has so, so many things he wants to do with those fingers, when he gets to Lan Zhan. If Lan Zhan will still let him, if he hasn’t fucked everything up.
An owl hoots overhead, and then there’s a loud blaaaat from a truck horn, and that’s the road, thank god, he’s made it.
In the parking lot, Wei Ying looks around for Lan Zhan’s battered old Corolla before he remembers why it’s not there, and anyway even if it was there, he’s not exactly in a state to drive. When he pulls out his phone, it’s dead. He’d meant to charge it, he really had. Wen Qing is right to say that he’s a mess. How could Lan Zhan possibly like him?
Lan Zhan might like him. There’s a glowing coal deep in his belly, at the thought, that’s warm enough to ward off frostbite.
The first ten cars ignore his outstretched thumb, whipping by at top speed, and Wei Ying begins to despair that he’ll ever get off the side of this road. But then a car going in the other direction, a white Volkswagen sedan, slows down and pulls a U-turn after the headlights drift over him.
I’m going to be murdered, Jiang Cheng was right about hitch-hiking …
“Wei-gongzi,” a cold voice says, when the door opens, and oh god, it’s Lan Qiren.
“Professor Lan?” he squeaks out. “What … what are you doing out here?”
“I am driving to our cottage,” the man says, stiffly, and Wei Ying remembers that the Lan family cottage is in the mountains here, too. Then Lan Huan leans over from the passenger seat and says, “Hello, Wei Ying.”
“Oh, hi, Huan-xiong!” Lan Huan is a frequent visitor to Lan Zhan’s apartment, which means Wei Ying sees him all the time, because he spends a lot more time at Lan Zhan’s place than he does in his own drab little dorm room. “How are you?”
“Well, I would be better if I hadn’t received a distraught call from my brother a couple hours ago, crying and saying something garbled about how someone wasn’t actually dating him at all, that it had been a misunderstanding. And so, as you see, we are now heading to the cottage to determine what the problem is.”
“Oh. He was crying? Uh.” That hurts more than the wounds in his leg, the thought that he made Lan Zhan cry. “I think … I think I’m the problem?”
“But I don’t want to be the problem! It was a misunderstanding, but not the way he thinks! You see, I do want to date him, it was just that I thought he didn’t want to date me. If I could just see Lan Zhan, maybe I could fix it?”
“Ah. Could we perhaps offer you a ride, then?”
Lan Qiren grips the steering wheel like he wants to pull it out and throw it at Wei Ying, but then sighs and gestures curtly to the back seat. “There is a towel, in the back. Please sit on it.”
When he’d signed up for the winter trip, Wei Ying would never in a million years have imagined that it would end with him getting a shovel talk from Lan Qiren while he shivers and bleeds all over the backseat of his car.
“I understand that my nephew may perhaps be involved with you,” Lan Qiren says, with distaste, while Wei Ying sits on his hands to warm his fingers.
“Uncle, is this really necessary?” Lan Huan murmurs, but Lan Qiren apparently thinks it is, because he keeps going.
“You must understand, Wei-gongzi, that my nephew is not a casual person. He does not take things lightly. He feels very deeply, do you understand?”
Wei Ying would never have dared to imagine getting a shovel talk about Lan Zhan in the first place, because that would have implied that he’d somehow gotten Lan Zhan to return his feelings (oh god, Lan Zhan likes him,) but if he had, he likes to think he wouldn’t have imagined himself falling asleep in the middle of it.
The last thing he hears before he drifts off is, “… and so if I were to discover that someone has been toying with my nephew’s feelings, it would be necessary to …”
If he was awake Wei Ying would say, You don’t have to worry, Professor Lan. I love him. I’ve loved him forever, but he’s not.
The first thing Lan Zhan says, when he opens the door to the cottage, is “Wei Ying — are you bleeding?”
“Is he?” Lan Huan says, mildly, and Lan Qiren says, alarmed, “— in my car?” and Lan Zhan gives them both a glare and picks Wei Ying up and carries him into the cottage.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying says, trying to control his shivers. When he looks up, Lan Zhan’s eyes are puffy and red around the rim from crying, but because it’s Lan Zhan he still looks beautiful, eyelashes a dark smudge against his bronze eyes. “I need to tell you —”
“Wei Ying, it can wait. You are freezing. We need to warm you up immediately, and bandage your leg.”
“But — ”
“Hush.” Lan Zhan deposits him on a bed — his own bed, if the silk cloud-pattern quilt is any indication — and and begins to remove Wei Ying’s pants. This is not how Wei Ying wants Lan Zhan to remove his pants, with this efficient and clinical touch, but when the fabric pulls harshly against dried blood, he decides it’s probably for the best.
Lan Zhan inspects the two cuts on his thigh — both are shallow, the blood now mostly clotted — and then brings over a warm, wet cloth and carefully wipes them. Wei Ying is almost shaking with the desire to confess his feelings, but every time he opens his mouth, Lan Zhan hums softly and shakes his head. When he’s finally satisfied that the wounds are clean, he applies a thick gauze bandage to each of them.
“Now. What did you want to tell me?” Lan Zhan says, and runs a gentle hand over Wei Ying’s other thigh.
“Ah. Okay. Right,” he says. In the car he’d tried to come up with a speech that would make up for how awful he’d been, but he’d fallen asleep before he could get beyond I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. And I love you doesn’t seem adequate for the feeling Wei Ying’s had, ever since the day in that first-year poetry class when Jiang Cheng had muttered “what is the point of all this” and Lan Zhan, sitting in the row in front of them, had turned around and said, “the point is that a poem can say all the things we have no words for.” But there are no poems coming easy to Wei Ying’s tongue, now, and he can’t find words big enough to hold how he feels without all the meaning leaking out. “Look, it’s all my fault. I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan, I just didn’t understand — well — you see, the thing is, I — ”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s hand presses against his inner thigh, and the pulse in his leg jumps. “My brother texted me from the car. He explained everything.”
“Oh! That’s good, I guess.”
“Is it not good?”
“Well … I wanted to be the one to tell you! Because it was me that screwed things up. But it’s good that your brother told you quickly, because I didn’t want you to be sad.” He is screwing this up, too, his attempt to explain how he feels. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I have so many things I want to say, but it’s all coming out wrong. Maybe you could help warm me up, first? I’m so cold, my teeth are chattering, I don’t think I can talk if you’re not — ”
Lan Zhan nods. “Yes. The best way to warm you is with body heat. We must go skin-to-skin.”
He slides his shirt off and then slowly undoes Wei Ying’s jacket, pulls off his sweater, his t-shirt, until finally his skin is bare, and he is shivering, but not from cold anymore. Lan Zhan leans in and captures his lips, soft at first, and then the kiss deepens and their hands are everywhere. The feeling in Wei Ying’s fingers comes roaring back he strokes over the heated skin of Lan Zhan’s back. He could kiss Lan Zhan forever, he thinks, and digs his fingers in to pull Lan Zhan closer. The heat from Lan Zhan’s mouth on his warms him until he’s a fire.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, pulling back, “does this mean we’re dating?”
Wei Ying laughs, breathless. “Ah! That had better be a joke, Lan Zhan. Yes. If you’ll have me, we are definitely dating.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs, and rubs a thumb over his lower lip, the way he did the first time they kissed. “Of course I’ll have you. You hold me in your hand like the sky holds the stars. You always have.”
“Oh, no fair, Lan Zhan! I like you so much, I love you so much, but I’m muddling around trying to find the words to explain it and you come out with that!”
“There’s no need for words, between us,” Lan Zhan says, and then they are kissing again, gentler now, soft. There will be time for more, Wei Ying thinks. He can ask for more.
“Well, we do need words sometimes,” he says, against Lan Zhan’s lips. “Look at where not talking got us this time, right?”
“Mn. Yes. Here we are.” Lan Zhan’s fingernails scrape a delicate line up the back of his neck.
“Yes, but only because of Mianmian! Just think, Lan Zhan! If she hadn’t started talking about dating my sister, what would have happened? You’d still think we were in a relationship and I would think we weren’t, and I might have made an even bigger mess of things! We owe her, big-time. And Wen Qing, too, she really shook some sense into me.” He pauses, hit by a horrible thought. “Oh, no, we really owe Su She. Now we’ll have to invite him to the wedding!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, “does this mean we’re engaged?”