Lan Wangji has known Wei Ying for a fortnight, the first time he sees him get hit by a car.
He’s too far away to stop it from happening, but close enough to be horrified. Wei Ying is walking with his brother, a loud, angry young man who’s just starting his first year at Gusu University, and who’s scowling at whatever it is that Wei Ying is saying. Wei Ying, typically, is unmoved by this: he’s still smiling, talking as much with his hands as his voice, and when the pair of them reach the road, Wei Ying simply – keeps going. Steps right out into the path of the car, his eyes still turned to Jiang Cheng, and gets hit hard enough that, despite the squeal of breaks and the car’s comparatively low speed to begin with, he rides right up over the bonnet and onto the windshield.
Lan Wangji bolts forward, shocked and tense and frightened, and is utterly unprepared for Wei Ying to roll sideways off the windshield, twisting to hit the ground feet-first, and promptly burst into laughter.
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji not-quite-shouts, hovering anxiously beside Jiang Cheng, whose lip is curled in disgust. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, I’m fine!” Wei Ying laughs again and makes a show of dusting himself off, though he’s unable to disguise a wince when he moves his right arm.
By now, the driver has recovered sufficiently to get out of the car and ask, in high, frantic tones, if Wei Ying needs an ambulance. She’s clearly a student, maybe even a first year like Jiang Cheng, and easily the most shaken up of any of them. Wei Ying winces again – though not because of his arm, this time – and shakes his head.
“I’m fine, I’m sorry, it was my fault. Silly, didn’t look where I was going! You did nothing wrong, and I’m only bruised. Truly, I’m sorry. Here.” And before Lan Wangji can intervene, Wei Ying is fumbling for his wallet, pulling out a handful of notes and pushing them at the young woman, who takes them with a stunned look on her face. “Go and have a cup of tea, or hot chocolate, or whatever it is you like to drink to help you calm down. Please, I insist. I must’ve scared you to death!”
The young woman looks like she wants to cry. “Are you sure I didn’t hurt you?”
“He’s sure,” says Jiang Cheng, speaking for the first time. He rolls his eyes. “He’s made of rubber. Trust me, this happens a lot.”
“What?” says Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng blinks, as if noticing him for the first time. Then he sighs. “You’re the new roommate, right? Seriously, you’ll get used to it. He’s always been like this. Just –” he flips a hand, as if to indicate Wei Ying, the car, the whole concept of roads and motor vehicles, “– zero situational awareness.”
“Good thing I’ve got a head like a rock!” says Wei Ying cheerfully. He waves to the young woman as she gets back into her car, continuing to smile as she drives away. The smile falls, however, when he sees Lan Wangji’s expression. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry to have worried you. Jiang Cheng is right, this happens all the time.”
“Your arm is hurt,” says Lan Wangji, somewhat stupidly. He steps forward, reaching for Wei Ying before either of them can stop him, taking gentle hold of his wrist with one hand and running the other carefully over forearm, elbow, bicep, probing the extent of his injury. “Your ribs and hip, too – you’ll need ice on the bruising –”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “Don’t coddle him,” he says. “He’s insufferable enough already.”
Wei Ying bats his lashes. “Aww, Jiang Cheng, I know you love me.”
“Coddle him,” repeats Lan Wangji, staring incredulously at Jiang Cheng. “Your brother was just hit by a car, and you think it’s coddling him to offer basic medical care?”
Jiang Cheng has the grace to look uncomfortable at that. He shuffles his feet, a slight blush rising on his cheeks, then says, “Whatever. I’ve got a class to get to. Wei Wuxian, try not to die, okay?” And with that, he crosses the road – making sure to look both ways first, unlike his brother – and turns toward the business and finance buildings.
“He wasn’t lying,” Wei Ying says. “This really does happen a lot.”
“That makes me more concerned, not less.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, seriously.” Wei Ying grabs his sleeve and smiles, though there’s something tired about it. “You’re my roommate, you’ll be sick of me soon enough anyway, and I’m an awful patient. Don’t fuss, okay? Please.”
Stubbornly, Lan Wangji folds his arms. “We’re going to the clinic for an icepack.”
Wei Ying stares at him, a look on his face that Lan Wangji doesn’t yet know how to read. They’re both in their second year at Gusu, but until they were paired up as roommates this year, they’d never crossed paths before. It’s not that surprising, all things considered – Gusu is a major university, and they’ve got no classes in common – but Lan Wangji feels a sudden pang, to think of Wei Ying being hit by a car at some point during their first year without anyone to look after him.
“Lan Zhan, you don’t have to –”
“I want to.”
“But you don’t even like me!” Wei Ying blurts.
Now it’s Lan Wangji’s turn to stare. “I like you,” he says, ears heating at the admission.
Wei Ying gapes at him. “But I’m messy, and you hate mess! I spilled tea all over your music notes! I can’t stop clicking my pen when I’m working, and I never shut up!”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t like you,” Lan Wangji says, struggling for words. “You’re… lively. Interesting. Clever. Yes, you can be frustrating –” Wei Ying makes a noise as if to suggest that Lan Wangji is grossly understating matters, “– but I frustrate you too, do I not?”
Wei Ying opens his mouth. Shuts it again. He’s blushing now, unable to figure out where to look. “Perhaps,” he admits. “Just a little.”
“Just a little.” Lan Wangji’s lips twitch in amusement. “You called me a fuddy-duddy. I wake far earlier than you, and often disturb your sleep. But –” and here he hesitates, brows furrowing as he realizes he’s unsure of the answer, “– you don’t dislike me, do you?”
“No!” says Wei Ying. “No, I don’t – I do like you.”
Lan Wangji feels a small rush of relief. “And if you’d just seen me get hit by a car, I assume you’d be concerned?”
“Of course, but that’s different!” Wei Ying flaps a hand at this, wincing as he instinctively uses the right one. “I just. I mean –”
“Wei Ying. Let me take care of you.”
Wei Ying swallows and stares at the pavement. “Okay,” he says, and submits to being herded towards the clinic like an errant sheep. They’re seen within fifteen minutes of arriving, and Wei Ying is diagnosed with a pulled muscle in his right shoulder and bone bruising over his ribs, which have already flushed a magnificent shade of purple. Wei Ying is uncharacteristically meek throughout, and consents to Lan Wangji carrying his bag back to their dorm room with only minor protesting.
Jiang Cheng, to Lan Wangji’s severe disapproval, doesn’t check in on his injured brother at all in the coming week, though his older sister, who’s evidently been apprised of the situation, calls him that night to fuss over him, and texts throughout his recovery period to make sure he’s taking it easy.
“I’m fine, shijie,” Wei Ying tells her one night, while Lan Wangji is transcribing his notes. “Honestly. Lan Zhan is almost as much of a mother hen as you are.”
“Then send him my thanks,” says Jiang Yanli, her voice faintly audible despite the call not being on speakerphone. “You need to look after yourself.”
“Shijie,” Wei Ying whines, and promptly changes the topic to moaning about his history professor.
The second time Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying get hit by a car, it’s a week before midterms. Lan Wangji, who has a car, has agreed to drive Wei Ying, who is carless, to his favourite dumpling place as a reward for all his studying, and is waiting for him in the parking lot. Leaned up against the pale blue door of what used to be Xichen’s coupe, Lan Wangji has a perfect view of Wei Ying’s approach, raising a hand in acknowledgement when Wei Ying beams and waves at him from a distance.
And then Wei Ying steps right into the path of a reversing car.
The driver slams on the breaks, but not before the force of the impact knocks Wei Ying to the ground. Lan Wangji moves before he’s even conscious of doing so, bolting over to find the angry, bewildered driver yelling at Wei Ying for his carelessness.
“Seriously, what the hell? Pay attention! You frightened the life out of me!” he’s saying, clutching his hair with both hands.
Wei Ying grins crookedly at the stranger. “I’m really sorry,” he says. He’s propped on one elbow, and Lan Wangji is horrified to see that there’s a gash on his left temple from where he hit the ground, a thin trickle of blood standing out against the embedded dirt and gravel. “It’s my fault, I wasn’t looking.”
The stranger hesitates. “You’re okay, though, right?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” says Wei Ying. He flashes a smile at the guy, but it turns sheepish when Lan Wangji stoops down to help him up. “I’m okay, Lan Zhan, I’m really okay,” he murmurs, but doesn’t protest as Lan Wangji slings an arm around him and lifts. Wei Ying stands unsteadily, legs trembling before they’ll take his weight. Lan Wangji steers him out of the way and keeps him there, Wei Ying’s body a warm line against his own, as the driver huffs and gets back into his car.
“Let me guess,” Wei Ying says, as the stranger drives off. “We’re not getting dumplings anymore.”
Lan Wangji blinks. “Of course we’re getting dumplings,” he says. “We just need to go to the clinic first.” And then, because it’s genuinely upsetting him, “Wei Ying, your head is bleeding.”
“Is it? Oh.” Wei Ying gives a funny laugh and slumps against Lan Wangji. “That’s not ideal.”
“No, it is not,” Lan Wangji murmurs, snugging Wei Ying closer.
They drive to the clinic, which is on the opposite side of campus, and somehow end up seeing the same nurse practitioner as last time.
“Hit by a car again!” she exclaims, after hearing about the reason for their visit. She’s an older woman with a no-nonsense expression, and her eyes narrow as she takes in Wei Ying’s scrapes. She tests him for concussion – he doesn’t have one, thankfully, though there’s a goose-egg forming beneath the cut on his temple – and gives him another ice pack for his bruised ribs, which –
“That’s the same side,” Lan Wangji says.
“What?” asks Wei Ying.
“Both times, the car hit you on the right.” Lan Wangji furrows his brow, aware that he has the nurse practitioner’s attention. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but something tells him otherwise. What might make Wei Ying vulnerable on his right side? It’s unlikely to be his vision – Lan Wangji has seen him wield various projectiles with fearsome accuracy – but if he thinks about it (and there is, he realises distantly, a lot to think about; he’s fallen into the habit of paying close attention to his roommate) Wei Ying’s hearing is a different story. He thinks about how Wei Ying often doesn’t respond the first or even second time his name is called; how his default listening posture is to sit with his head braced on a hand, so that his left ear tilts towards the speaker. He thinks about how easily Wei Ying startles when he hears a dog bark, head whipping in all directions as he struggles to identify the direction of the sound, even when the dog is nearby; how he constantly jokes about his own poor focus to explain why he seemingly didn’t hear what the person standing next to him was saying.
“You,” Lan Wangji says, then stops. His conclusion feels presumptuous, but Wei Ying keeps getting hit by cars – on the off-chance he’s right, he has to say something. “Wei Ying, I think you might have hearing loss in your right ear.”
Wei Ying laughs, falsely bright. “What? Don’t be ridiculous. You know me, Lan Zhan, I’m just bad at paying attention –”
Out of Wei Ying’s line of sight, the nurse practitioner snaps her fingers behind Wei Ying’s right ear. He doesn’t react.
“– and I always have been.” He falters, aware that Lan Wangji’s expression has changed. “What?”
“He’s right,” says the nurse practitioner, sounding a little surprised herself. “I just made a noise by your right ear, and you didn’t register it.” She folds her arms, considering. “Do you have trouble telling where sounds are coming from, or distinguishing conversation from background noise?”
Wei Ying pales a little. His gaze darts imploringly to Lan Wangji, but after a moment he gives a short, hesitant nod.
By the end of the visit, Wei Ying has an appointment with an audiologist and a suspected diagnosis of unilateral hearing loss – something he’s assumed to have had since childhood, as it’s not a recent development, but for which he can potentially acquire a hearing aid. He’s quiet on their walk back to the car, and Lan Wangji realizes belatedly that they always walk together with Wei Ying on his right, so that his left ear is positioned to catch whatever Lan Wangji might say. His stomach twists: how long has Wei Ying been dealing with this? Why didn’t his family ever notice? He knows enough about Wei Ying’s upbringing to understand that the relationship with his aunt and uncle is a strained, complex thing, but his sister, at least, cares deeply for him. He wants to ask, but it’s a rude, personal question, and Lan Wangji isn’t entitled to an answer.
They’re halfway to the dumpling place before Wei Ying speaks, and when he does, his voice is strange, an eerie mixture of light and flat, like he’s trying to sound irreverent but can’t quite manage it.
“When I was nine, I snuck into Uncle Jiang’s study. I wanted to teach myself lockpicking, and I had this idea that his filing cabinet would be the perfect thing to practice on.” He laughs, small and hollow. “Well, I unlocked it. Mostly it was boring stuff, but at the back of the bottom drawer was a picture in a frame. I’d never seen it before. It was of my mother, smiling.”
Lan Wangji’s hands clench on the steering wheel.
“There’s a lot of reasons why Madam Yu’s never liked me,” Wei Ying says, as if he’s discussing the weather, “but the main one is, Uncle Jiang used to be in love with my mother. He only started dating Madam Yu once my parents got married, and even then… anyway. My living with them, she hated it, because Uncle Jiang was nicer to me than he should’ve been – nicer than he was to Jiang Cheng, a lot of the time – and she thought it was because he loved my mother’s memory more than he loved her.” He swallows. “Anyway. I’d meant to get out of the office, but that photo.... Madam Yu came in. She found me holding it, saw where it must’ve come from. The look on her face, Lan Zhan; I’ll never forget it. She grabbed it from me, and I tried to get up, but she just – hit me with it. Hit me with the photo frame, right over my ear.”
Lan Wangji inhales sharply. “Wei Ying –”
“I don’t think she meant to, not really. Not that hard, at least. But she was so – and I moved, and the frame – it was a heavy frame, solid, and it smacked right over my ear, like a slap to the head, and it knocked me over. Knocked me out. And when I woke up, my ear was bleeding and I was back in bed, and Madam Yu was hovering over me like she usually only did for Jiang Cheng, wiping the blood off my ear and fussing. And she told me I shouldn’t have been in the study, it was wrong to pick locks, but if I never said anything about being in there then she wouldn’t either. So I didn’t, and she didn’t, but my hearing on the right went fuzzy after that. I kept waiting for it to get better, but it never did. And after a while…” He shrugs, unable to meet Lan Wangji’s eye. “I just got used to it. Most days, I don’t even remember it happened. But you… nobody’s ever noticed before, Lan Zhan.” He looks at him, both gaze and words weighted with meaning. “How come you noticed?”
“I notice Wei Ying,” says Lan Wangji. It comes out raspy; he sees a parking space and abruptly pulls the car over, even though they’re still two blocks from the dumpling place. Wei Ying’s eyes are wide as Lan Wangji reaches over and grabs his hands, squeezing them tight. “Wei Ying,” he says, voice shaking with how much he feels right now, “that should never have happened to you. What she did was wrong. And you – all this time, why didn’t you get it looked at?”
Wei Ying stares at their joined hands, a faint tremor to his voice. “I just… didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to explain how it had happened, or make shijie feel bad for never having noticed. She’d blame herself, and I didn’t want that. And I was afraid, I guess.”
“Of having one more thing about me be different.” He forces a smile. “I’m already queer and an orphan. That’s weird enough, you know?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, helplessly. “That’s me, too.” He raises a hand and cups Wei Ying’s cheek, heart pounding at the admission. They stare at each other, and Lan Wangji doesn’t know which of them moves first, but suddenly they’re kissing, bodies angled awkwardly over the center console as they strain against their seatbelts. Lan Wangji has just enough time to register the plush warmth of Wei Ying’s mouth, the sweet little noise he makes in his throat, before they break apart again.
Then Wei Ying laughs, grinning as he gestures between them, and it’s the most beautiful sound in the world. With affected seriousness, Lan Wangji unclips his belt before doing the same for Wei Ying, and then fall back together, eager and desperate and – impossibly, perfectly – smiling against each other.
“Fuck,” Wei Ying gasps. “Please tell me that wasn’t a pity kiss, because –”
“Dumplings can be a date,” says Lan Wangji. He feels addled, giddy, aware that he’s lost his eloquence and for once not caring, arrested by the brilliance of Wei Ying’s smile. “A first date, I mean. With dumplings. Now. We can do that, if you want to –”
“Yes,” breathes Wei Ying, and kisses him again.