Ironically, it’s only thanks to his brand new hearing aid that Wei Wuxian hears Jiang Cheng say, “Hey, what’s that thing in your ear?”
From long years of physical sibling nonsense, Wei Wuxian anticipates rather than sees the finger poked towards the ear in question and twists out of reach before Jiang Cheng can make contact.
“It’s a hearing aid,” he says, plastering on a big, bright smile. “What, you’ve never seen one before?”
“Of course I’ve seen one before,” retorts Jiang Cheng, sounding offended. “But why do you have one?”
Fashion, Wei Wuxian almost says, the flippant response at the tip of his tongue – but then he catches Lan Zhan’s eye, and the will to lie evaporates. “Because I need it,” he says instead, hating that he can’t keep the trace of defensiveness from his tone.
Jiang Cheng stares at him. “What?”
If Lan Zhan weren’t there, Wei Wuxian would laugh it off as a joke, put his brother in a headlock and tease him about his embarrassing heterosexual crush on known lesbian Wen Qing until the subject was thoroughly changed; but Lan Zhan is there, coming to rest a warm, gentle hand in the small of Wei Wuxian’s back, which makes dissembling impossible. Setting aside the lifelong instinct of deflection, Wei Wuxian looks away and says, “I have unilateral hearing loss. My right ear doesn’t work properly.”
Jiang Cheng frowns. “Isn’t that, like, a shitty thing to joke about? Having a disability? If I did that, you’d tear me a new one.”
“It’s not a joke, Jiang Cheng. I really –” he breaks off, unable to muster the energy to defend himself. Damn Lan Zhan and his calm, unshakeable faith in Wei Wuxian’s right to exist as he is; just look where it’s landed him!
“Wei Ying is not lying,” Lan Zhan says, voice even as his thumb strokes slow, warm, slow against Wei Wuxian’s back. “He was diagnosed by an audiologist, who recommended a hearing aid.”
“But,” says Jiang Cheng. Stops. Falters a little, looking between them as though he’s just had a familiar script yanked out of his hands, which in a way he has. Lan sincerity will have that effect on a person, Wei Wuxian thinks, and tries not to feel unbearably fond about it. Cross, cross, he’s trying to be cross!
Ah, but he can’t be cross at Lan Zhan.
“But,” repeats Jiang Cheng, “isn’t that, I mean… do I need to be worried?” He looks painfully young, suddenly, all his hostility falling away like a child’s blanket cape when the poorly-tied knot comes loose. “Sudden hearing loss, that’s – you could have a brain tumor, or some other bad thing –”
“It’s not sudden,” Wei Wuxian makes himself say. He stares determinedly at a very interesting stain on the dorm room carpet. Odds are, he’s responsible for it. Lan Zhan doesn’t spill things. “It’s. I’ve had it for a long time.”
Lan Zhan’s hand slides further up his back, spreading warmth through his body. For this reason alone Wei Wuxian doesn’t burst into nervous laughter and tease his brother into changing the subject. Instead he says, the words as awkward as crooked teeth, “It’s. I mean, the doctor, audiologist person, they said – I probably hurt myself as a kid. The right ear got busted when I was too young to realise or explain it to anyone, so I just got used to it being like that.”
Jiang Cheng’s worry visible edges into the safer, more familiar territory of skepticism. “And, what – you just so happened to notice it now?”
“I noticed it,” says Lan Zhan smoothly. Before Jiang Cheng can respond to this, he adds, “We should leave. We don’t want to keep your sister waiting.”
“Yes, let’s go!” says Wei Wuxian, grabbing the lifeline with both hands. “Shijie’s probably already there, you know she likes to be early –”
“You’re the one who’s always late,” says Jiang Cheng, but mercifully drops the subject of Wei Wuxian’s brand new hearing aid in favour of bickering.
Bickering is good, familiar: they know how to bicker, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng. Lan Zhan listens to their back and forth with all the quiet curiosity of a naturalist studying juvenile monkeys, detached except for the press of his fingers tangled with Wei Wuxian’s. Jiang Cheng has doubtless noticed the hand-holding – there was a scowl to that effect when they left the dorm – but elected not to mention it, which is a tiny blessing.
As expected, Yanli is already at the café, smiling as she waves them over to a corner table. Wei Wuxian leans in to hug her, anxiety easing at the familiar press of her hands on his shoulders, the scent of her favourite shampoo.
“A-Xian, A-Cheng! It’s so good to see you.” She beams at the pair of them, then turns her best welcoming smile on Lan Zhan. “And you too, Lan Wangji – A-Xian has told me so much about you!”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Lan Zhan says, eyes crinkling slightly in approval. It makes Wei Wuxian’s stomach swoop, to see his boyfriend (Lan Zhan is his boyfriend!) getting along with shijie. There’s a scrape of chairs as they all sit down, Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian opposite Jiang Cheng and Yanli, who pours them all water from the glass bottle on the table.
And then, before Wei Wuxian has even managed to open his menu, Jiang Cheng announces, “Wei Wuxian has a hearing aid.”
Yanli’s head jerks up, eyes wide with surprise and worry. Resisting the urge to kick his brother under the table, Wei Wuxian rushes to reassure her that it’s fine, he’s not sick, it’s just an old thing that never got diagnosed properly, and tilts his head so that she can see. The hearing aid is small, looking more like a wireless earbud than anything else, and bright red, because Wei Wuxian loves red and with Lan Zhan there to encourage him, he’d been brave enough not to go for the beige, which was less conspicuous but made him feel like he belonged in a nursing home.
“Oh, Xianxian,” says Yanli, voice wavering. “All this time you needed one, and we didn’t know? I’m so sorry I never noticed!”
Wei Wuxian hunches, fakes a smile. “Ah, shijie, don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault. And I’ve always gotten by, so it’s fine! I can just hear a little better now, that’s all.”
A little better is an understatement, and one with which he’s still coming to terms. He’s known for a decade that his hearing isn’t perfect – crowded rooms and background noise were hard to deal with, and aside from the obvious weakness on the right side, sound often lacked directionality – but he hadn’t realized how much he was struggling until last week, when he first put the hearing aid in. Suddenly, he can tell what’s being said around him without having to strain or focus on context cues; he knows where sounds are coming from. He can keep track of multiple conversational threads at once! He can hear whispering, even! Last night, he challenged himself to watch one of those gritty, atmospheric movies with naturalistic dialogue that Jiang Cheng is always foisting on him, and for the first time, he understood a solid eighty, maybe even ninety percent of it. Which isn’t to say the actual film was any good – Wei Wuxian prefers his drama with some comedy and a healthy dose of romance, thanks, or at the very least, some explosions – but had Jiang Cheng been present, he could’ve argued against the film’s themes using specifics instead of drawling, generic sarcasm to cover up the fact that he’d barely heard a word of it.
Two days ago, as an experiment, he took out the hearing aid in the middle of the dining hall. It was like shoving his head in a fishbowl full of cotton: everything went muffled and drifty, sharp sounds blunted and unmoored from context, bright chatter rendered inchoate. Putting the hearing aid back in had overwhelmed him, but not because of the influx of noise: he’d fled back to his dorm room, curled up in his bed with his face to the wall, until Lan Zhan, who had a sixth sense for when Wei Wuxian was hiding, came in and quietly spooned up behind him, wrapping him in a hug.
“It’s so much,” Wei Wuxian whispered, fighting back tears. “Why is it so much?”
“It’s the world,” said Lan Zhan, kissing the nape of his neck. “The world, and your place within it. What could matter more?”
It’s so unfair, Wei Wuxian thinks, how Lan Zhan can just say stuff like that and mean it. How is his poor heart meant to cope? He already has a hearing aid; at this rate, he’ll need a pacemaker just to handle Lan Zhan’s goodness.
“Well,” says Yanli, valiantly drawing him back to the present moment. “If it’s helping you, then I’m glad you have it.”
Wei Wuxian flashes her a grateful smile, and squeezes Lan Zhan’s hand beneath the table.
Lunch goes well after that, give or take the odd barbed comment from Jiang Cheng, who keeps trying to bait Lan Zhan into arguing with him and doesn’t understand why it isn’t working. Wei Wuxian knows Lan Zhan is mystified by his and Jiang Cheng’s relationship – he hasn’t yet met Lan Xichen, but it’s pretty clear that he and Lan Zhan have a different sort of sibling bond, one that involves more musical instruments and less violence. Still, it counts for a lot that Lan Zhan is willing to trust Wei Wuxian’s word, that Jiang Cheng is more bark than bite, and what matters most of all is that Yanli likes him. By the time their food is served, the two of them are bonding over tea preferences, a topic about which neither Jiang Cheng nor Wei Wuxian has ever been able to muster much enthusiasm, but which has Yanli leaning eagerly forward, nodding as Lan Zhan extols the virtues of rooibos.
It is perhaps for this reason that Jiang Cheng, whose ability to feign interest in tea is less even than Wei Wuxian’s, interrupts Lan Zhan to ask, “So how did you figure out his hearing thing, anyway? You never said.”
Yanli looks, if possible, even more approving of Lan Zhan. “It was you who noticed?”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, bless his self-effacing heart. He glances briefly at Wei Wuxian – a silent request for permission – and when Wei Wuxian nods, he says, addressing Yanli more than Jiang Cheng, “Wei Ying told you he was hit by another car?”
“He did,” says Yanli, her sympathetic face a contrast to Jiang Cheng’s reflexive smirk. Wei Wuxian, who still has a scabbing cut on his temple, pokes out his tongue at his brother.
“I noticed,” says Lan Zhan, ignoring the byplay, “that he was hit on the right, the same as last time. Wei Ying is not a careless person, and I know his vision is excellent, so I wondered about his hearing. And once I wondered, I realized he often positions himself to put his left ear forwards, or keeps whoever he’s walking with on his left-hand side.”
Wei Wuxian startles; this last detail is news to him. “You did?” he blurts, staring at Lan Zhan. “I thought it was just the car stuff.”
“It was not.” Lan Zhan smiles, small and soft and just for Wei Wuxian. “I realized I’d been… noticing you, in some detail.”
Wei Wuxian flushes all the way down his throat. “Noooo,” he moans, using theatricality to cover up the fact that he’s genuinely, mortifyingly touched by this information. Wei Wuxian presses his hot face to the cool cotton of Lan Zhan’s shirt. “Lan Zhan, you can’t just say things like that!”
“I can,” says Lan Zhan, dropping a kiss in Wei Wuxian’s hair. “And I will.”
Yanli coos, delighted; Jiang Cheng pretends to retch.
It’s kind of perfect.
The rest of lunch goes smoothly, and once they’re finished, Wei Wuxian is treated to the sight of Jiang Yanli and Lan Zhan trying to out-polite each other over the cheque. Even Jiang Cheng is captivated, watching as the pair go graciously back and forth with increasingly detailed explanations as to why they should pay for lunch.
“I insist,” says Yanli, smoothing a lock of hair behind her ear. “You’ve already helped A-Xian so much, I can’t allow you to pay for lunch as well!”
“I would be remiss to let you pay when you’ve only just met me,” Lan Zhan counters, and back they go again, until Yanli wins by virtue of flagging a waitress and handing over her credit card before Lan Zhan can stop her.
Lan Zhan looks so sweetly grumpy about this loss that, once they’ve farewelled his siblings on the pavement – it’s the weekend, and Yanli is taking Jiang Cheng shopping for some much-needed new clothes – Wei Wuxian hooks his arm through Lan Zhan’s, rests his head on his shoulder and says, “You know, if you’re feeling unfulfilled, you can always buy me green tea ice cream from that place on the corner.”
“…That is acceptable.”
The ice cream is so good, even Lan Zhan consents to have some. Wei Wuxian makes a show of holding the little plastic spoon up to Lan Zhan’s mouth, and is utterly unprepared for the way Lan Zhan maintains eye contact while slowly closing his lips over the ice cream, sucking gently until it’s all gone.
“Oh god,” says Wei Wuxian faintly.
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, radiating smugness.
Somehow, they make it all the way back to their dorm room before Wei Wuxian gives in and kisses his boyfriend, twining his arms around his neck and backing him up against the nearest bed. Lan Zhan kisses back hotly, sitting as he pulls Wei Wuxian into his lap. They haven’t been exactly chaste – they’ve fallen asleep together, mutual orgasms have been exchanged – but there’s certain things they’ve held off on doing, trying to take their relationship some semblance of slow on account of the fact that they already live together. Neither of them is wholly inexperienced – Lan Zhan experimented with a boy at his private high school and went on a few dates last year, while Wei Wuxian has indulged in his fair share of drunken makeouts and a handful of enlightening one-night stands – but romantically, emotionally, this is different, and they both know it. The physical stuff is amazing, but it’s so much less important than the way Lan Zhan walks up behind Wei Wuxian when he’s studying, kisses his temple and sets a fresh coffee beside his notes, or how Lan Zhan lights up when Wei Wuxian gives him little rabbit-themed gifts for luck.
And yet, at the same time: the physical stuff. Wei Wuxian wants to do all of the things, and it’s killing him just a little to be responsible, but in the mean time, he gets this: the heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth on his, the curl of his hands against his hips, and the simmering burn of arousal that only comes from a truly good, protracted makeout session.
At some point, they roll over, Lan Zhan fitting perfectly between Wei Wuxian’s thighs as they rub up against each other, hands sliding messily under shirts and over skin, until Wei Wuxian is so turned on he can’t think straight.
“Please, Lan Zhan,” he gasps, “I need –”
The sentence chokes off into a moan as Lan Zhan slips a hand down the front of his jeans. There’s a semi-awkward moment where they both fumble with zippers, and then they’re jerking off together, panting into each other’s mouths as they steer towards a joint climax.
Afterwards, when Lan Zhan has put their now-filthy clothes in the laundry basket and they’ve taken turns showering (because dorm etiquette frowns on couples doing naked things together in communal spaces), they climb into the unspoiled bed – Lan Zhan’s, this time – and curl up against each other, Wei Wuxian’s head on Lan Zhan’s chest. It feels peaceful, right in a way that almost nothing else in Wei Wuxian’s life ever has, and though he shies away from acknowledging why that might be, he still drifts off into an easy sleep.
“Mmph,” he says, an indeterminate amount of time later. The light through the curtains is dim and orange-gold, casting the room in patterns of warmth and shadow. He’s not initially sure what’s woken him, until a familiar banging on the door starts up again.
“Wei Wuxian, open up!”
Lan Zhan glares furiously doorwards. Sighing, Wei Wuxian gives his boyfriend an apologetic kiss on the cheek and forces himself out of bed.
“I’m coming, Jiang Cheng, just give me a second!”
Fishing two pairs of pajama pants out of the dresser drawer, he tosses one to Lan Zhan and pulls on the other, rubbing his eyes as he goes to let his brother in. Jiang Cheng has never enjoyed clothes shopping; probably a sales assistant was slightly rude and now he needs to yell about it to someone who isn’t shijie.
But when Wei Wuxian opens the door, whatever joke he’d been on the cusp of making dies on his lips. His brother looks genuinely upset, and Wei Wuxian’s alarm only increases when Jiang Cheng doesn’t so much as huff at the fact that both Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan are shirtless.
“A-Cheng, what is it?” Wei Wuxian asks, stomach twisting with uncertainty.
Red flag number three: Jiang Cheng doesn’t react to the nickname. Instead, he just stands there, rubbing anxiously at the silver ring Madam Yu gave him on his eighteenth birthday.
“I,” says Jiang Cheng, and stops. Swallows. “I spoke to mom. After jiejie took me shopping, she called – a video call, so she could see what we’d bought. And jiejie mentioned your hearing aid. And mom… she went so still, and then she started screaming at us. How she couldn’t believe we’d take your word for it over hers after all she’s done for this family; how you’ve always been a liar and a burden – sorry,” he adds, when Wei Wuxian fails to suppress a flinch, “that’s not – you know I don’t think that, but it’s what she said –”
“I know,” says Wei Wuxian. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, though admittedly not for a year or so. “It’s okay.”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head at that. Takes a shaky breath. “Anyway. She was spitting mad, but jiejie managed to get a word in and ask, what do you mean, taking A-Xian’s word for it? And then mom went all pale and quiet, and snapped at us when we asked her what she was talking about, and then she yelled that it didn’t matter, and then she hung up on us.”
Wei Wuxian’s stomach has dropped through his feet. He stares at a point to the right of Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, only dimly aware that Lan Zhan has risen to stand beside him, putting a steadying arm around his waist.
“Wei Wuxian,” says Jiang Cheng, and the tone of his voice is so fraught, so uncharacteristically pleading, that Wei Wuxian gives in and looks at his big, brown eyes. “Did mom – does mom have something to do with your hearing thing?”
Wei Wuxian’s throat closes over. He can’t answer, and the fact that he can’t is answer enough. Something raw and tremulous cracks across Jiang Cheng’s face; he exhales as hard as if he’s been hit and thumps down on Lan Zhan’s desk chair.
Wei Wuxian winces. “Jiang Cheng, it really –”
“Don’t you dare,” his brother snarls, “tell me it doesn’t matter. And don’t apologise, either!” he snaps, as Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to do just that. “This isn’t like mom getting mad that you did better than me on a math exam, okay? This is your health, and it matters.” He looks away briefly, still rubbing his ring, and when he looks up again, his jaw is clenched with determination. “Tell me the truth, Wei Wuxian. Please.”
It’s the please that does it. Trembling only a little, Wei Wuxian stares at the floor and forces out the story which, up until now, he’d only ever told to Lan Zhan: that Madam Yu caught a nine-year-old Wei Wuxian looking at a photo of his mother that Uncle Jiang had secretly kept, and was so enraged that she smacked him across the head with the heavy frame, hard enough to knock him out and make his ear bleed.
Hard enough to damage his hearing for life.
“I promised her I’d never talk about it,” Wei Wuxian says, softly. “So I didn’t.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes are red and wet. “You – all this time, you knew what was wrong?” He makes a pained noise, scrubbing his wrist across his eyes. “And she must’ve known, she would’ve seen – that first time you got hit by a car, she yelled at you for not listening, and after that – you kept on laughing it off, you let me make it into a joke –”
“Jiang Cheng –”
Without warning, his brother surges out of the chair and hugs Wei Wuxian, hard. Lan Zhan steps back to let it happen, giving them space as Wei Wuxian tentatively folds his arms around his little brother. There’s a lump in his throat, and he’s starting to tear up, too, and so he does what he always does in such moments: he makes a joke.
“To be fair,” he says, voice cracking, “that time with the fruit was pretty funny.”
Jiang Cheng makes a honking noise against his shoulder and lifts his head, lips twitching. “Don’t you dare –”
“Agh, my melons! My perfect melons!”
Jiang Cheng snorts, and then they’re both laughing, leaning on each other as they cackle at the memory. Lan Zhan looks on with his usual fond bemusement, and when they straighten up again, Wei Wuxian feels better than he has in a long time.
“I’m sorry,” says Jiang Cheng. He sighs a little, but his earlier despair is gone. “What she did – that was really fucked up.”
Carefully, Wei Wuxian says, “She was pretty fucked up to you, too, sometimes.”
Jiang Cheng nods, and now it’s his turn to stare at the carpet. “After mom hung up, jiejie said – she told me she’s been seeing a therapist. Not, like, because she’s struggling, but just to help her sort out some of the stuff we dealt with growing up. And I think, like. Maybe I could do that, too.”
He darts a glance upwards, braced for teasing in a way that breaks Wei Wuxian’s heart.
“Shijie has great ideas,” Wei Wuxian hears himself saying. “That’s… maybe I could do that, too.”
The ghost of a smile flickers over Jiang Cheng’s face. “Copycat. You’re only saying that because I said I’d do it first.”
“I bet my therapist gives me a better grade than yours.”
“I bet my therapist will kick your therapist’s ass!”
They grin at each other, and something unlocks in Wei Wuxian’s chest he hadn’t known was sealed.
“Anyway,” says Jiang Cheng, reverting to type as he steps back, wrinkling his nose. “You two are like, way too naked to hang out with, so I’m gonna go call jiejie.”
Tell Yanli the truth, he means. Wei Wuxian’s heart swells at having that burden lifted from him. He pouts at Jiang Cheng, pretending to grab for his arm. “Aww, don’t be like that, didi! We can all have a nice big hug and maybe –”
“I’m going now!” Jiang Cheng shouts, and leaves the room to the sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter.
“That seemed to go well,” Lan Zhan says a moment later.
“Yeah,” says Wei Wuxian. “It kind of did.” Shutting his eyes, he rests his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder, smiling as Lan Zhan strokes his hair with his long musician’s fingers. He feels tired and wired, raw and cosy and cared for in a way he can’t articulate.
“Perhaps,” suggests Lan Zhan, “we might have takeout for dinner? That place you like does delivery now. There’s a menu in my drawer.”
“The spicy place?”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “You don’t even like spicy food!”
“I don’t,” says Lan Zhan, “but you do. And besides,” he adds, while Wei Wuxian wrestles with feelings, “their tofu is above average.”
Above average, Wei Wuxian thinks, smiling into the fresh, clean skin of Lan Zhan’s collarbone. That’s my life right now. What an understatement!
“All right,” he says, mock-stern, “but only if you pay for me!”
Lan Zhan’s smile is like the sun coming out. “It would be my pleasure.”