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I know what my heart wants

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It’s a cold December evening when A-Yuan goes missing.

Lan Wangji has read the news articles about children wandering off in busy places. Has seen harried parents urgently calling a name, panicked eyes searching the crowd. Has distantly registered the announcements sometimes interrupting bland commercial tunes in stores.

He never thought he’d at some point in his life be the one standing at a clerk’s desk, spelling out A-Yuan’s name with an awful tight fist of anxiety where his heart should be, bags full of groceries lacerating his sweaty hands. The staff behind the desk barely spared a glance for him before going back to their respective tasks. The woman he’s talking to now fished out a green form from a drawer and pushed it in front of him before he could proceed further than “my son is”.

It must happen every day, Lan Wangji tries to reason.

Children wandering off. Forms to fill. Announcements.

Parents trying very hard to remain civilized, and not act upon the hysterical urge to barricade an entire supermarket and order that every human being with their heads around knee-level be brought forth for inspection. Such demands don’t sound so unreasonable, Lan Wangji thinks now. It’s the week-end before Christmas. The supermarket is bustling with stressed parents failing to rein in their kids’ buoyant energies. Surely they would understand the distress of a fellow dismayed father.

“Eye color?” the clerk glances up at him through round glasses. She looks thoroughly bored under her Santa hat.

“Brown” Lan Wangji wets his lips, preventing just in time a pack of flour from falling from the bag squeezed under his left arm. A-Yuan had wanted them to bake, after another kid at kindergarten brought a box of homemade cookies for everyone to share.

Lan Wangji has never touched dough in his life, but two hours ago he was willing to try.

He wants to banish cookies now. He wants to banish parents who bake with their kids. We wants to banish Christmas, with the cookies and the parents who bake cookies, and the crowded stores filled with running kids who all look the same from behind, the stores that use every trick ever engineered by capitalism to lure innocent four years-old away from their not-cookie-baking but well-meaning adoptive fathers.

“Your address?”

Why does that even matter, Lan Wangji wants to yell.

But because he’s civilized, well-mannered, and aware that the clerk must be yelled at at least once a week by overreacting parents, and Lan Wangji never overreacts, he doesn’t yell and very calmly answers her.

She nods, finally turning aside on her revolving chair to switch on a microphone with a red Christmas bubble dangling from the head.

The announcement is made, similar in every detail to the ones Lan Wangji heard previously, that is with practiced lack of any sort of empathy. The clerk twirls the chewed pen she used to fill the form in her hand as she talks. She’s not looking at him, more interested in the coffee stain on the counter than in the man currently hanging onto her monotonous voice like onto a lifeline.

Lan Wangji wants to tear the microphone from her hands and beg every human being with a heart who can hear him to please find his son.

But because he’s civilized, and because his hands are busy holding together approximately a year’s worth of baking ingredients, plus the required cooking utensils they didn’t have at home (including the cute star-shaped molds A-Yuan was staring at with that look that means he didn’t dare to ask, so Lan Wangji had to buy them of course), he doesn’t take the microphone.

Ten minutes pass.

The clerk is scratching at the stain encrusted in the fake wood with a short bitten nail when Lan Wangji asks, “could you please try again?”

She throws him a malevolent look. “I was going to” she scowls in a tone that suggests ‘but I might not, just to spite you’.

She makes another announcement anyway.

By then Lan Wangji has deposited his bags on the floor, with his coat folded on top of them. He keeps A-Yuan’s coat on one of his arms. The little boy felt too warm barely five minutes after they got inside the supermarket, and after some coaxing, he allowed Lan Wangji to relieve him from his dearly loved coat (fluffy and soft, with little carrot buttons and bunny ears on the hood).

Lan Wangji hopes A-Yuan is not cold now. He hopes he has not wandered in the Forbidden Aisles with the open fridges where they sell rabbit meat. He hopes he’s still inside, and stifles a sharp spike of panic when the possibility that he might not crosses his mind for the first time.

Thirty minutes and three announcements later, the clerk calls her boss.

Forty five minutes after Lan Wangji realized that A-Yuan was not in the spot with the mailbox to Santa set-up where he had left him to watch their bags, he is in the office of the store manager.

His bags are crammed in one corner on the room. The grey tiles are dusted white where the flour pack fell and cracked open when Lan Wangji put the bags down earlier. There’s a sagging plastic “Merry Christmas” wreath on the wall facing him, above the manager’s desk. The “e” is missing.

It’s warmer here than in the supermarket, but Lan Wangji feels cold from head to toe as the manager dials the number to the nearest police station.

“Don’t worry” the man mouths in his direction as they wait for someone to pick up. He’s smiling professionally, trying to be inconspicuous about how he’s replying to his e-mails at the same time.

It must happen all the time, Lan Wangji tries to reason through the dense fog of fear clouding his brain, his eyes fixed on the empty spot where the “e” should be.

Children who wander off. Worried parents. Calls to the police.

He must not panic. A-Yuan is a smart kid, a shy kid. If he got lost he wouldn’t have gone far. Besides, Lan Wangji wrote his name and phone number on the inside tags of each of A-Yuan’s piece of outwear, in case he loses them at the park or the kindergarten. The thought gives him about three seconds of relief before he remembers about the soft fluffy coat he’s clutching in his hands.

Two hours after A-Yuan disappeared, Lan Wangji is in a square office at the police station, filling more forms, answering more questions.

“Is it the first time your son goes missing?”

“Yes.”

“Did you quarrel with him before he left?”

“No.”

“Do you frequently have arguments?”

“No.”

“Was there an argument in the past days?”

“No.”

“Did he mention wanting to leave?”

“No.”

Lan Wangji feels a little hysterical. It took him weeks to convince A-Yuan he could safely let go of his hand when they’re outside. That Lan Wangji wouldn’t suddenly disappear if he did. That they would go back to their apartment afterwards, their apartment with the small bedroom made specially for A-Yuan, with his bed and his toys and the wooden trunk where he can put his most precious belongings.

“He wouldn’t have run away” Lan Wangji says, his heart in his throat. He knows as he says it just how well that’s true.

A-Yuan – sweet and shy A-Yuan, whose prudent eyes automatically look around every three minutes to search for him when they are outside, unless he’s holding his hand – would never have willingly left the spot where Lan Wangji asked him to wait.

“You said that you adopted him.”

“Yes.”

Lan Wangji looks the policewoman in the eye, somewhat defiantly. He can’t help it, even after more than one year.

She scrunches her nose, about to say something, but decides against it. She resumes typing and looking at her computer screen. A scowl clings to her glossy lips.

She’s got the most vivid pink lipstick Lan Wangji has ever seen, including on TV sets and theater stages, which he frequents on a regular basis as part of his job as a music composer. Complete with her furry pink earrings, pink nail polish, and thick eye make-up, it makes for a stark contrast with her police uniform. Lan Wangji couldn’t care less about dressing conventions and tries not to judge people based on appearances. Still, he thinks he’d prefer it if the policewoman in charge of locating his son didn’t look like her topmost concern at the moment was to not damage her manicured nails as she prints out a form.

“All done” she slides the paper across the desk in front of him. “Sign here.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t read what he’s signing. “What are you going to do?”

“Make some calls and wait” she shrugs. “Children who run away never go very far. They find a place to hide, feeling all smug with their little trick, and they come out when they get bored or hungry.”

“A-Yuan didn’t run away” Lan Wangji repeats.

A-Yuan must be scared. He must be so scared, wherever he is, and Lan Wangji’s heart all but stops for a good five seconds when he allows himself to think about it. Then he shakes his head and forces the thought away. He needs a clear mind for this.

“My son” he insists slightly on the ‘son’, “would never leave my side willingly. He didn’t run away. We cannot just wait.”

I heard the first hours are crucial, he wants to say, but doesn’t. Lan Wangji heard it in the kind of movie he absolutely refuses to think about right now.

“If he doesn’t show up in the next hour we’ll see what to do” the policewoman attempts a smile but decides halfway that it’s too much work. She stands up, her pink mouth frozen in a grimace. “I need a coffee, don’t go anywhere alright?”

She doesn’t ask Lan Wangji if he wants one. Lan Wangji doesn’t. His stomach feels twisted up in so many knots that he can barely breathe. One hour, she said. It feels unbearable. It must be standard procedure.

It must happen all the time.

Children who wander off. Dismayed parents in police offices. Kids found hiding under bushes or in back stores, meaning to play a prank or enact a petty revenge.

A-Yuan wouldn’t play such a cruel prank on him. A-Yuan has nothing to feel petty about. They were going to bake cookies, and here, right at this moment, in the square office of a police station with the sound of laughter and conversations filtering from the break room next door, when for the first time since his son went missing he finds himself alone, Lan Wangji wants to cry.

One agonizing hour and nine minutes later, two other police officers come in. They ask more questions that Lan Wangji barely hears himself answering. His mind is full of static.

It’s past 10pm.

A-Yuan has been missing for nearly four hours. It’s a cold December night, and it gets even colder when the white coat folded with care on Lan Wangji’s lap is taken away by one of the officers. He puts it in a transparent plastic bag.

“For the sniffer dogs” the middle-aged man explains with a brief smile in Lan Wangji’s direction. “It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

The attempt at comfort slides over him like icy water on glass. The full realization of what is happening has been slow to settle, but it’s finally here. Lan Wangji feels that he might throw up. Or yell. Or run outside like he should have done already, and search the streets until he finds his son, wraps him in his bunny coat, and then they can go home. It’s too late to bake cookies but Lan Wangji can buy some on the way.

He looks in silence at the retreating back of the police officer who’s holding the plastic bag. He feels hollow. Untethered. As if A-Yuan’s coat was the last string tying him to hope.

Lan Wangji is about to surrender to the mounting wave of blind panic that has been building up at the edges of his mind when his phone rings. It’s his brother.

Lan Xichen is the best brother in the world, on top of having impeccable timing.

He has supported Lan Wangji through every important decision in his life, from his career choices to his decision to adopt A-Yuan. He doesn’t need Lan Wangji to say more than two words to understand something’s wrong. He doesn’t try to reassure him with words that suggest that ‘it happens all the time’. He doesn’t say anything implying that Lan Wangji maybe didn’t watch his son closely enough, maybe had an argument with him, maybe is a bad parent, maybe is the reason why A-Yuan is not asleep right now in his bed, in the small bedroom that was made specially for him, with the revolving night light projector that makes a starry sky on the walls and ceiling. A-Yuan is afraid of the dark.

Lan Xichen somehow understands what is happening from the eight disjointed words Lan Wangji manages to string together.

“Oh Wangji”, he says, then he’s silent.

Lan Wangji is silent too. It’s a common way of communication for them, and there’s a tendril of comfort in the familiarity of it, solid and warm. Lan Wangji clutches onto it, desperately.

“Do you want me to come?” his brother asks at last.

“No it’s okay” Lan Wangji looks down at his empty hands. He opens and closes his fingers, staring like they are not his own. There is a black stain between the thumb and the index, where the pen he used to fill the form at the supermarket leaked. The supermarket must be closed now. Closed, dark and empty.

“Are you sure?”

Lan Wangji nods. His brother can’t see him, but gets it anyway. “Alright, tell me as soon as he is found.” A pause. “They’ll find him soon Wangji, A-Yuan is a smart child.”

“Mnh.”

“Call me if there’s anything I can do alright?”

“Mnh.”

Lan Xichen allows a blank of about ten seconds, in case Lan Wangji wants to say something else, before he quietly hangs up.

His brother’s intervention grants him about ten minutes of relative clearness of the mind, when the worst-case scenarios stop succeeding each other in his mind like a broken set of old black-and-white slides, before Lan Wangji succumbs to a new surge of gripping anxiety. He cannot stay here. He cannot stay here and do nothing, while A-Yuan is out there maybe in the streets, maybe alone in the dark, wandering off without his coat in the cold December night.

He just stood up when the door to the office opens. Yet another policeman comes in.

“Lan Wangji?”

The man sounds resolute. It’s the voice of someone with answers, when every single person Lan Wangji has talked to so far only had questions. He nods, his throat too tight for him to say anything.

“We found your son” the man says. “He should be here soon.”

All the air leaves his lungs at once. Lan Wangji’s legs give out from under him. He falls back down on his seat, limp and weak as a ragged doll.

“You found him?”

“Yeah, he’s alright.”

“Where?”

The policeman checks his phone. “An apartment ten minutes from here. We caught your son with a man on CCTV, not far from the supermarket where he went missing. That guy has a record so we were able to identify him, a team just went and found the kid at his place. They are bringing them back as we speak.”

Lan Wangji still isn’t breathing, stuck somewhere between absolute horror and the deepest wave of relief he’s ever felt.

“A-Yuan” is all he manages to say in one punched-out breath.

The man looks up from his phone. He smiles, kind and not quite professional.

“Your kid is fine, I promise” he reaches out, giving Lan Wangji’s shoulder a tentative pat. “There… you should eat something, you look like you’re going to pass out. I’ll go get you something from the vending machine alright?”

Lan Wangji has just texted his brother, he’s fumbling with the wrapping of his second chocolate bar, and the trembling in his hands is starting to subside, when the door opens and a policewoman appears, carrying A-Yuan in her arms.

The next minutes are a blur. Lan Wangji thinks he’s crying. There are people talking, moving around them. There’s a dear, dear, dear weight in his arms, warm and familiar. There is the soft, sweet scent of A-Yuan’s baby skin and strawberry shampoo that he wants to drown into. There are his son’s warm hands clasped around his neck, and nothing else matters. Lan Wangji barely notices the man in handcuffs being taken away by two police officers – later, he can think about that later.

A-Yuan says nothing, his head burrowed against Lan Wangji’s shoulder and clutching to him with all the strength he can muster in his short arms and legs (“like a koala on their favorite tree” Lan Xichen said once, with a twinkle in his eyes), and it’s perfect, it’s good, it’s fine, it’s okay, it’ll be okay, Lan Wangji whispers again and again and again, his mouth pressed against the side of A-Yuan’s head.

They make him sign more papers after that. It’s not easily done given that A-Yuan absolutely refuses to let go, but Lan Wangji manages.

It’s nearing midnight when they reach home.

A-Yuan says nothing as Lan Wangji helps him undress. Someone gave him a black adult-sized hoodie to fight off the cold. It falls down to A-Yuan’s knees like a loose shapeless gown, and his small hands are lost in the sleeves, but the worn material is thick and soft with use. It kept him warm alright. Lan Wangji will return it in a few days, and reclaim A-Yuan’s coat at the same time as he gives his thanks to everyone who helped find his son.

“Are you alright A-Yuan?” Lan Wangji asks once the little boy is in bed, all set for the night in his favorite pajamas and surrounded by a literal crowd of plushies, with the stars dancing on the ceiling.

A-Yuan still hasn’t said a word since they came back, beside a few mumbled “yes baba” and “no baba” in answer to his questions.

The thing is, A-Yuan is a quiet child. He was especially quiet in the first weeks after Lan Wangji took him in. He can still go for very long period of times without speaking if unprompted, but Lan Wangji doesn’t pressure him about it. A-Yuan is talking more now as he opens up, sharing his thoughts more spontaneously, taking things at his own rhythm, and it’s fine. But right now he’s also avoiding looking at Lan Wangji, which is new, and he doesn’t like that.

“If something is wrong you can tell me, you know?” Lan Wangji insists gently when he doesn’t get an answer, kneeling down by the bed as he tries to catch A-Yuan’s eyes.

His son presses his lips together. He shakes his head, briefly meeting his eyes before he looks away again. “It’s good.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t frown, to not make it worse. ‘It’s good’ is A-Yuan’s default answer, when he doesn’t know what he thinks he’s expected to say in the face of a question that makes him nervous or scared.

“Good?” he probes as delicately as he can.

A-Yuan nods. “Good night baba” he says, and he closes his eyes.

That’s it, then.

Lan Wangji kisses his forehead and exits the bedroom, leaving the door ajar. Then he goes to the bathroom, takes a quick shower and puts on his pajamas. One last check to the small bedroom tells him that A-Yuan is asleep, his breathing even, his tiny hands clutching his favorite bunny plushie to his chest. Lan Wangji leaves the night light on, just in case, then goes back to his room and slips between the cold sheets of his own bed.

It’s a long, long time before he’s able to fall asleep.

 

*****

 

The next day is a Monday.

Lan Wangji took a day off and called the kindergarten to tell them that A-Yuan wouldn’t come today. He decided last night that the one-day window was a necessary transition, and he was right. A-Yuan is still very silent that morning, quietly going through the usual routine of washing-dressing-eating. He lets Lan Wangji decide what clothes to wear today, what cartoon to watch, what cereals to eat. He still avoids meeting his eyes, but Lan Wangji can feel his gaze on him whenever he moves more than three steps away.

It’s past 10am, and he just sat down on the couch next to the little boy, trying to think of a way to get him to open up, when an unknown number calls.

It’s the police station.

They want him to come. A-Yuan too.

“Some steps missing in the procedure that was followed yesterday, we need to confirm a few things.”

Lan Wangji tries to refuse at first, because he really, really doesn’t think that bringing A-Yuan back to the police station so soon is a good idea.

“It’s important” the female voice on the other side of the phone says in a final tone.

And so Lan Wangji finds himself climbing the steps to the police station once again half an hour later, A-Yuan’s hand safely wrapped in his own.

He notices several things as he goes in that he didn’t the day before. The bright posters displaying the kind of emergency numbers you automatically try to engrave in your mind wishing you’ll never have to use them. The group pictures on the walls from training camps and team building sessions. The Christmas tree blinking with blue and silver lights in a corner of the room. The smell, coffee and paper, mixed with the drifting scent of pastries that someone reheated in the microwave of the break room.

It looks nearly friendly, like this.

Someone leads them to an office and opens the door for them. It is twice the size of the room where Lan Wangji waited the day before, but the overall impression is the same – square, confined, professional.

There are two people inside. A female police officer is sitting behind the large desk, with an air of authority about her that tells him first that she must be in charge here, and second that she’s probably the one he talked to earlier on the phone. The other person is a man with long hair, jeans and a black T-shirt, sprawled on a chair in front of her desk. He’s facing away from them. Lan Wangji has two seconds to wonder what he’s doing here when the man turns around to look at them.

Several things happen at once. Lan Wangji spots the handcuffs tying the man’s hands together and to his chair. A-Yuan goes very still, his fingers tightening minutely around Lan Wangji’s. The man smiles widely, and tries to wave with his tied hands.

“Look who’s here! Hi kid, didn’t think I’d get to see you again so soon!!” he laughs.

He laughs. Lan Wangji would feel sick if he wasn’t beside himself with anger.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Lan Wangji hisses, glaring at the woman behind the desk, foregoing being polite, because what kind of police officer provokes a confrontation between a kidnapper and their four years old victim without even a warning?

He tugs on A-Yuan’s hand, already thinking of the strongly worded letter he’s going to send to whatever administration is in charge, but A-Yuan is rooted on spot.

“Please sit down, Sir” the policewoman gestures to the free seat in front of her desk. “There’s some explaining to do, nothing you need to worry about. And you” she narrows her eyes at the kidnapper, “I promise it won’t kill you, so do yourself a favor and try to behave for once in your life, else I’m putting you back in your cell.”

“I always behave, I’m behaving right now. How can I not behave?” the man whines, shaking his handcuffed wrists a little to prove his point. “You’ve got me tied up to a chair, Wen Qing! No sleep, no food, not even a coffee. The quality of service in this place is seriously awful. I’m giving it one star, you’re lucky I know you.”

“We are not staying” Lan Wangji raises his voice.

He never raises his voice. He tells himself it’s anger, not concern at seeing A-Yuan stand hypnotized in front of that stranger like a mouse petrified before a dancing snake.

“See, even this very nicely behaved man agrees your sense of hospitality is terrible.”

“This is a police station, not a free hotel” the woman scowls. Her voice is drier than Lan Wangji’s uncle’s the day Lan Wangji told him he wouldn’t take over the family’s antique business. “If you like bad instant coffee and sleeping on the floor so much, I know a very nice train station. Sit down, Sir” she repeats with another sharp look at Lan Wangji, who doesn’t move an inch.

He knows she can’t tell, because he has the sort of face that makes it impossible for most people to tell, but Lan Wangji is absolutely furious.

“You should be careful Wen Qing” the man says after a brief look at his face. “This one looks like he could break your desk in half with the flat of his hand.”

“I’m going to break you in half, Wei Wuxian, just so that I can have one peaceful day off in my life.”

“Hey! I’m not the one who let Wang Lingjiao get a police badge!”

“We’re leaving” Lan Wangji announces one last time for anyone who might care.

A-Yuan tugs on his hand. “Baba, Xian-Gege is here!” he chirps.

Lan Wangji freezes. Then he looks down. There’s no mistake. It’s a smile on A-Yuan’s face. A-Yuan’s very first smile since Lan Wangji brought him back the night before.

“Right, Xian-Gege is here” the man laughs again, twisting in his seat as best as he can to turn toward A-Yuan, and sends a wink in his direction. “And turns out I’m not going anywhere right now. I hope you had a good night’s sleep, kid, that’d make one of us at least” he says with an accusing glare in the woman’s direction.

“You were snoring when I came in” she deadpans.

“That was me crying” he protests vehemently. “Can’t you recognize the raw accents of despair in the wails of the unjustly accused??”

“Well, it’s written here that you’re a child abductor” the woman raises her eyebrows, tapping with a sharp red nail on a file in front of her. “I make child abductors wail in despair. It’s in my job description.”

“I’m the victim of a judicial error” the man complains loudly. “Wen Qing, this is abuse of power! I’ll expose you on social media!”

“You’ve got eighteen friends on Twitter and half of them are bots.”

“You’re stalking my account?! That’s a violation of privacy!”

“We’re mutuals, you dumbass” she smacks him on the head with the file, before turning to Lan Wangji again with a long-suffering sigh. “Sir, I am aware this sounds confusing, but while I deeply regret that fact every day, I know this man. I can assure you that Wei Wuxian is perfectly unable of harming or kidnapping a child. He is, however, very likely to have once again found himself tangled in some convoluted, implausible, stupid situation leading to the circumstances we’re in now.”

The man tries to say something, but shuts his mouth when the policewoman glares at him viciously.

“Why are we here?” Lan Wangji asks, tightening his hold around A-Yuan’s hand.

He doesn’t sit down. As far as he’s concerned, it is not very good news that the new police officer in charge of the kidnapping appears to be well-acquainted with the man who had A-Yuan last night. Who was caught on CCTV taking his son away. Who has a record.

“We’re here to hear your son’s side of the story” she says, rubbing circles against her temples with the tip of her fingers. “The police officer who attended to you yesterday… overlooked some necessary steps in the procedure.”

The man snorts. The woman looks up to the ceiling, as if calling to the gods of hassled police officers to bestow her with extended patience.

“Wang Lingjiao will face the consequences for her mishandling of the case” she resumes talking, her voice toneless. She’s looking resolutely at Lan Wangji and not at the man handcuffed on a chair in front of her and mumbling mutinously under his breath. “Meanwhile, we need to clear up the situation, which I can only do with a formal statement from your side. I can’t keep this idiot in jail forever.”

“The idiot didn’t walk into jail on his own, you know?”

They both ignore him, turning to A-Yuan at the same time. The little boy stiffens under the attention. This is not going to be easy, Lan Wangji thinks as he kneels down next his son.

“A-Yuan” he calls gently, lifting the child’s chin with two fingers so that he’s looking at him. “You heard Ms. Wen Qing” he hopes she’ll not be offended by the use of her name. “This is important. I know you don’t want to talk about it, but we need you to tell us what happened yesterday at the supermarket.”

“No need for details” the woman leans forward with her elbows on the desk, her chin resting on her joined hands. “Just the general idea is good.”

A-Yuan looks at him, then at the policewoman, then at the man in the chair. His face reddens a little but he keeps his mouth shut.

“A-Yuan” Lan Wangji insists, trying not to sound too pressing. “It is very important.”

The little boy’s face turns even redder. He stares down at his feet, little fists clutched at his sides.

“What’s wrong with you kid?” the policewoman frowns, sounding impatient. “Cat got your tongue?”

Lan Wangji looks up at once, ready to snap, when the man shifts in his chair. “Don’t pressure the kid Wen Qing! Can’t you see he’s scared?? That’s a lot to take for a little guy like him, even if he’s very brave like you… A-Yuan, right?”

A-Yuan chances a look at the man’s smiling face and quickly looks back down. He has this look on his face that he gets when he’s about to cry. He looks like he’s feeling guilty. Lan Wangji, for his part, is getting increasingly helpless.

“A-Yuan…” he tries again. “Please tell me what happened. I won’t be angry, I promise.”

A-Yuan bursts into tears.

Even when he cries he’s not loud.

But A-Yuan is four years old, so it is still a jumbled mess of uncontrollable sobs and flowing tears, soon mixed with halted apologies. Lan Wangji gathers him in his arms, with very little effect. A-Yuan goes on crying, muffling his sobs and his “I’m sorry baba” against his shoulder. The man in the chair – Wei Wuxian – bites down on his lower lip, staring at them with a sympathetic look. The policewoman leans back in her seat with a heavy sigh. She extends an arm toward her plastic coffee cup and grimaces when she realizes it’s empty.

It takes a lot of “it’s fine”, “I’m here” and “I’m not angry” before A-Yuan calms down enough to tell them what happened, in between stray sobs and the occasional emotion-filled hiccup.

It turns out he did leave on his own.

There was some sort of event going on outside in the street, which A-Yuan saw from his waiting spot next to the Santa mailbox. It’s unclear whether there was a bear or a bear that looked like a bunny or a bunny that wanted to be a bear (the policewoman dugs painkillers from a drawer at some point, during the five minutes it takes for A-Yuan to move past this part), but the conclusion is, A-Yuan wanted to see, so he went outside, and got lost in the crowd.

“There was a Christmas parade yesterday” Wen Qing nods as A-Yuan blows his nose in the handkerchief Lan Wangji is presenting to him. “It made the searches more complicated when the team went out to look for him.”

The rest is relatively easy to understand. A-Yuan wandered off, trying and failing to find his way back to the supermarket. He went as far as the busy intersection leading to the beltway (at this part Lan Wangji’s stomach does a painful little twist), where the man apparently found him and where they were caught on CCTV.

“I was coming back from the studio” Wei Wuxian tells the policewoman here. “I forgot my subway card so I was walking back home. I guess that was a stroke of luck. I found him walking alone along that road. You know the one, it’s-” he cuts his sentence midway, glancing at A-Yuan, then at Lan Wangji. “A little bit unsafe”, he finishes vaguely.

It’s more than “a little bit unsafe”, Lan Wangji knows. The cars pouring in from the beltway are always going too fast, the traffic is always heavy, the visibility is always bad. The lighting at night is not good either. The spot is known for its high rate of accidents. There are regular campaigns to request stronger safety measures, Lan Wangji even signed a petition once. He pulls A-Yuan a little closer.

“Alright. What happened after that, kid?” the policewoman continues, looking like she wants nothing more than to be done with them, so that she can hand over her resignation in peace.

A-Yuan looks at her, his eyes red but dry, having finally run out of tears. “We had pancakes” he says, sniffing.

Wei Wuxian bursts out laughing.

Lan Wangji doesn’t know whether to smile in relief or crawl into a hole.

The policewoman looks like she’s reconsidering the life choices that led her up to this moment. “Pancakes” she repeats, then shakes her head as if to signify she refuses to give a damn anymore. “Perfect. Great. Let’s write this down, then we can all forget it happened.”

She stands up, moving around the desk to leave the room.

“Wen Qing, come on untie me!!” Wei Wuxian cranes his neck, trying to catch her eyes. “I don’t even know why I’m handcuffed! I could ask for a lawyer you know! I could make you lose your job! I could tell your brother!!” The handcuffs make a little metallic jingle as he shakes his wrists insistently.

The woman doesn’t deign replying, but she leans down and unlocks the handcuffs with a little snap.

“If he touches anything” she says, looking at Lan Wangji sternly while the man rubs his wrists and sighs in deep contentment, “and I mean anything in this room, feel free to knock him out.”

“How do you have so little faith in me??” Wei Wuxian protests. “We’ve known each other for years!”

“The last time I let you roam in this place freely, you stole my keys” Wen Qing looks at him, her face completely blank. “Then you stole every badge you could lay your filthy hands on, two uniforms, a pair of handcuffs and a two-way radio before you took off with a set of flashing lights which we found strapped to your shower head.”

“It was for a theme party, and I had asked nicely before” Wei Wuxian argues, but she’s already out of the office.

The silence after she leaves is the strangest Lan Wangji experienced in his life, and he is familiar with an extensive range of silences.

There is his son, still sniffing while koala-clinging to Lan Wangji’s leg.

There is a man stretching in his hard chair like a lazy cat after a nap.

Now that he’s neither half-mad with worry nor consumed by anger, Lan Wangji can take a proper look at the non-kidnapper, and notices that Wei Wuxian looks pale and exhausted. If he did get some sleep, it can’t have been much. He probably hasn’t eaten anything substantial in the last (Lan Wangji quickly does the math in his head) thirteen hours. He’s wearing only jeans and a simple black T-shirt, and Lan Wangji realizes then whose hoodie it must be that he left at home this morning on the drying rack.

It is still unclear to him why Wei Wuxian’s role in all this wasn’t clarified sooner, but what Lan Wangji is now certain of is that this man rescued A-Yuan last night. Rescued him from the cold December darkness. Rescued him from the “what ifs” that ran through Lan Wangji’s head for hours the previous evening, and then this morning again as he heard the full story. This man gave A-Yuan pancakes and his hoodie and a safe place to stay, and spent a night in jail in exchange for his kindness.

“Thank you” Lan Wangji says. He doesn’t need to try very hard to sound earnest. His gratitude feels like it’s coming off in pulsing waves out of him.

Wei Wuxian stops mid-stretch to look at him. He lets out a startled laugh. “Why, there’s no need. Honestly, anyone would’ve done the same. And your kid is adorable, we had a lot of fun, didn’t we A-Yuan? ”

A-Yuan nods vigorously, before he glances at Lan Wangji, then back at Wei Wuxian.

“Thank you very much Xian-Gege” he says in a serious little voice that apparently has the same devastating effect on Wei Wuxian as it always has on Lan Wangji. It’s good to know it’s not only him.

“Ow” the man lays both his hands dramatically over his heart. “I take back what I said, Wen Qing isn’t the deadliest being on this earth!”

“I’m serious, I am very thankful” Lan Wangji insists, unhappy with how lightly his thank you was received. “And I’m really sorry too” he adds, “for everything.”

“I know you’re serious” Wei Wuxian flashes a smile at him.

This is precisely the moment when Lan Wangji realizes that in spite of the gigantic eye bags, disheveled hair, and slightly smelly rumpled clothes, Wei Wuxian has a very nice smile. Wei Wuxian has a very nice face. Expressive grey eyes, plump lips and full cheekbones, soft curves complementing the sharp lines of his jaw and nose. His smile is tired at the edges but sincere, easy, etched effortlessly in every nook of his features. 

“I’m also serious when I say you don’t need to thank me, or feel sorry for that matter” Wei Wuxian continues, bringing his legs under him to sit cross-legged on his chair in a precarious-looking balance. “It’s got nothing to do with you. That officer you saw yesterday, she… ah, let’s say she’s got this petty grudge against me? So, she sort of had a field day last night. You know, with evidence against me, me alone in her office, Wen Qing away on her day off, all that. It was like an advanced Christmas present for her.”

It doesn’t sound particularly funny to Lan Wangji, but Wei Wuxian chuckles as he attempts to bring his long hair back to a semblance of order, tying them into a bun.

“Can I offer compensation in any way?” Lan Wangji asks, and hates how formal it sounds.

“What?? No! Of course not!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, swaying dangerously on his chair. “But… actually, do you mind lending me your phone? You’d be a life savior!”

Lan Wangji fishes his phone from his pocket and hands it to him without question. A-Yuan is silent at his side, watching the exchange with hawk eyes.

Wei Wuxian calls his family first, based on the side Lan Wangji hears of the conversation. He downplays the whole thing (“I’m telling you, I was in bed at eleven, jail did wonders for my beauty sleep!”), gets yelled at (“there’s a child in the room and he’s hearing everything you’re saying Jiang Cheng, he’s crying in terror as we speak, you’re a walking children trauma you know that”) before he reassures them everything is good now (“just need a little nap and a real coffee, I bet the police would be way friendlier if you gave them real coffee, the one they’ve got here is like dishwater”).

He follows approximately the same pattern when he calls what must be his workplace. He just gave Lan Wangji his phone back when Wen Qing reenters her office.

“It’s done” she drops a file on her desk and throws a chocolate bar at Wei Wuxian that he catches midair, the same brand from the vending machine that Lan Wangji had yesterday. So she noticed the paleness too. “You can go Sir” she tells Lan Wangji, “thanks a lot for your time, and my apologies for having had to ask you to come back here. Wei Wuxian-”

“I’ll see you at your brother’s next week!” the man singsongs and all but flies to the door, hitting his hip against a protruding drawer in his haste to get out.

Wen Qing shrugs, already switching on her computer screen. “Idiot” she mutters, but there’s undoubtedly fondness in her exasperated tone. Lan Wangji wonders if she saw like him the little stumble in Wei Wuxian’s steps as he left. He takes A-Yuan’s hand, they say their thanks politely, and then they are out in the sharp midday light of a sunny December morning.

There’s another Christmas tree outside, by the entrance of the police station. Wei Wuxian is standing next to it, wolfing down his chocolate bar with one hand while rubbing the other against his hip.

“Hey again…” he grins at him a little sheepishly when Lan Wangji and his son exit the building. “I’m really sorry to bother you again, but I just remembered, no subway card and all, and my phone is dead” he takes his phone out for evidence. “Can I borrow yours again? I’ll get a friend to pick me up.”

It’s 11:30am on a Monday. Lan Wangji doubts many of Wei Wuxian’s friends are currently free to fetch him from the police station. There’s also a cold wind blowing, making the Christmas tree ornaments swing on their strings and the twin flags planted on either side of the police station door slap and flutter ceaselessly. Wei Wuxian is shivering, his bare arms covered with goosebumps. In the bright winter light he looks even more tired, in spite of the smile on his face. Lan Wangji thinks back of the way he tripped earlier and makes a decision.

“I will drive you home.”

“Eh? No, really there is-”

“I will drive you home.”

“That’s not-”

“Xian-Gege come with us?”

A-Yuan is a great kid, Lan Wangji has always known. A kid of few but powerful words. A kid who will get somewhere in life.

He gets more evidence of that fact that day again, as Wei Wuxian grudgingly allows A-Yuan to take his hand and drag him to the car. Lan Wangji can’t help but wonder what happened exactly in the several hours his son spent with Wei Wuxian, pancakes aside. A-Yuan doesn’t warm easily to strangers. Lan Wangji can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people he spontaneously holds hands with. Lan Xichen had those small tears in his eyes the day A-Yuan first took his hand unprompted.

But Wei Wuxian, it turns out, is easy to warm to.

He chatters for the entire ten minutes ride to his place (with the car heating pushed to maximum). Lan Wangji tends to dislike mindless chatter. People who have nothing to say should say nothing. But Wei Wuxian always has something to say, and to his own surprise, Lan Wangji isn’t annoyed by it. It doesn’t sound forced. It doesn’t sound like small talk. It doesn’t sound like those people who relish in the sound of their own voice.

Wei Wuxian sounds simply like someone who is always thinking of something, and enjoys sharing it with others. Lan Wangji doesn’t participate much in the mostly one-sided conversation. He lets A-Yuan do the talking, and much to his surprise again, A-Yuan does talk – talks a lot too, by his standard at least.

A-Yuan is positively enchanted, Lan Wangji confirms through glances in the rear-view mirror. The little boy is happy in that quiet way of his, his smile real and carefree, his round cheeks red in excitement.

A-Yuan is completely, irrevocably smitten with the stranger who picked him off the streets last night.

Lan Wangji can’t blame him.

“I’d like to invite you for dinner” he hears himself say as he parks the car in front of Wei Wuxian’s building. “To thank you.”

“That’s- that’s really nice…?”, Wei Wuxian scratches the back of his head. “But, uh… you shouldn’t? I mean, you don’t have to?”

“We would really appreciate it” Lan Wangji insists. “Unless you are averse to the idea, of course.”

“I’m not averse” Wei Wuxian protests quickly, waving his hands around and hitting one of them against the inside of the car’s door. He doesn’t even look at it as he rubs it against one knee. Lan Wangji suspects hitting things or being hit by them is not a rare occurrence for him. “But like I said, I didn’t do anything special.”

“We would really appreciate it” Lan Wangji repeats, firm.

“We would really appreciate it” A-Yuan’s small voice pipes up from the back.

Wei Wuxian says nothing for a grand five seconds, the longest he’s stayed silent in the past ten minutes.

“You are monsters, both of you” he says at last, pointing at Lan Wangji and then at A-Yuan with an accusing finger. The smile is right here, everywhere, sparkling, alive and warm in spite of Wei Wuxian’s obvious tiredness, etched in every corner of his expression, like shiny nuggets ingrained in the vein of a gold mine. “You are terrifying, and I don’t know what I’m getting into, but okay.

Several minutes later, when Wei Wuxian has disappeared inside his building, Lan Wangji takes a moment to soak in the silence and breathe. He looks back at A-Yuan, safely strapped in his toddler seat with his happy smile and red cheeks. He looks down at the phone in his hands, where Wei Wuxian entered his phone number before leaving. He looks at himself in the rear-view mirror, and notices the tiny spark of a smile etched at the corner of his own lips.

Very easy to warm to indeed, he thinks, before he starts the car.

 

*****

 

The first dinner with Wei Wuxian effortlessly takes a spot among the ten happiest memories of Lan Wangji’s life.

Wei Wuxian, he decides that evening after the door closed behind his guest, must be a sort of careless genie who accidentally sprinkles happiness wherever he goes. A gush of warmth and laughter made flesh. A being of chaos and brightness in equal measure. The kind of person whom you can only blink at in wonder when they stumble into your life, and immediately try to think of ways to make them stay.

The apartment is quiet after Wei Wuxian leaves, yet something lingers in the air. Golden and sated. An afterglow.

Lan Wangji makes his way to the living room, where the dinner table is mostly empty already because Wei Wuxian refused to go before giving a hand at tidying up the place (“it’s the least I can do!” he says, balancing three plates and two glasses in one hand, his eyes very bright, his face a bit flushed because of the wine).

It doesn’t take long for Lan Wangji to finish cleaning up the dinner table, then the kitchen. As he dries his hands, his gaze stops on the two bouquets of flowers by the window (“A-Yuan told me he liked flowers, you know, that day, so I thought, hey, like father like son, you must like them too!”). The mimosas are for A-Yuan (“little suns for a little sunshine”). The white freesias are for Lan Wangji (“they’re very pretty and they smell really nice, I like them, I hope you do too”).

Lan Wangji didn’t dare to do it before, not with Wei Wuxian in the room, but he’s alone now. He lowers his head above the flowers and breathes in deeply. They do smell nice. He likes them.

When Lan Wangji goes to check the small bedroom, A-Yuan is sleeping soundly, curled snugly under the bed covers. He fell asleep the moment his head touched his pillow, in spite of his reluctance to see their guest leave. It was a tiring day for him, bustling with the excitement of knowing that “Xian-Gege” would come, and then with the excitement that “Xian-Gege” was here.

There was the formal presentation of the drawing A-Yuan had made for him (“that’s you”, “yes I can see that, really fancy hair you’ve given me, why is there a snake?”, “It’s pancakes, Xian-Gege!”).

There was the (long and tedious) introduction ceremony to every single toy, plushie and piece of furniture in his bedroom, during which Wei Wuxian was made to turn off the lights then lie on A-Yuan’s bed to watch the stars with him.

There was a brief struggle, when A-Yuan thought he’d have to choose between helping Lan Wangji do the cooking like every day, or staying with Xian-Gege in the living room. It was resolved when Wei Wuxian picked him up in his arms and moved to the kitchen with his glass of wine. He stayed there, leaning against the sink, chattering in Lan Wangji’s ears and praising A-Yuan’s vegetable-washing skills while dinner was taking a lot more time than planned to get ready (it turns out that Wei Wuxian’s voice makes it very hard to concentrate on other things).

There was the decisive moment at the end of their dinner when A-Yuan once again demonstrated the full power of his rare but efficient words, with a quiet, hesitant “next time we draw?”. Wei Wuxian had looked at Lan Wangji, a question in his eyes. Lan Wangji had stared back, his hands safely hidden from sight under the table as they gripped the fabric of his trousers. Wei Wuxian had nodded, trying to appear serious and looking delighted instead. “Next time we draw.”

There was the short conversation they managed to have in the hallway, just the two of them, while A-Yuan was in the bathroom brushing his teeth after dinner.

“How has he been?” Wei Wuxian asked, looking worried as he fiddled with the hem of his shirt. “You know, after all that…? I mean, he looks fine now, and I tried to reassure him and keep him busy that evening, and it seemed to work, but I don’t really know him after all so I’ve been kind of concerned…?”

“He’s fine” Lan Wangji assured him. “You did great, thank you.”

“I had no idea what I was doing” Wei Wuxian chuckled, looking embarrassed at the admission and twisting his fingers together nervously.

Wei Wuxian’s hands are rather small, rather angular, his fingers rather thin. They move all the time, in sync with his words and the expressions on his face. Lan Wangji had maybe stared.

“I mean, there was this kid I didn’t now, and he wouldn’t even tell me his name, but he kept following me everywhere once we got to my place, and I kind of… made it up as I went?” Wei Wuxian shrugged as he grabbed his glass of wine again, maybe to give his restless hands something to hold. “I guess I was panicking, I didn’t even think of calling the damn police, that’s stupid isn’t it?”

“You did great” Lan Wangji insisted, tearing his gaze from Wei Wuxian’s hands. Then, because Wei Wuxian is the kind of person who is bright and chaotic but also clearly needs to be told important things twice, “thank you.”

Wei Wuxian smiled at him self-consciously above his glass of wine, wine which Lan Wangji had bought for him that morning in a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was a good decision. The wine had made Wei Wuxian’s cheeks red and his eyes very bright.

It suited him.

It gives him something pretty to think of as Lan Wangji lays wide awake in bed that night, in the big bedroom and between his cold bedsheets – Wei Wuxian’s warm smile and sparkling grey eyes. And something to think of the night after that. And the night after that.

 

*****

 

There is a second dinner, a third, then a fourth.

 

 

There is the first time Wei Wuxian comes with them to the park on Sunday afternoon.

There are the weird games he makes up on the spot, the picture he takes of A-Yuan and Lan Wangji as they are leaning down to examine a snail on the ground, and the twin yellow hearts in his message when he sends it to Lan Wangji later that evening.

There are the lively inflections of his voice as Wei Wuxian talks and talks and talks, and all the silences he crafts in the right spaces for A-Yuan and Lan Wangji to talk too. There is the distance Wei Wuxian keeps at times, as if suddenly reminding himself that maybe he shouldn’t act so close, maybe he’s imposing. Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to tell him that there’s no need. That he’s not imposing. That they like him being close.

There’s the way Wei Wuxian blows on A-Yuan’s hot chocolate before he lets him have it, at the outside stall that sells hot drinks in the winter and ice-cream in the summer, where they always stop on Sunday afternoons. There’s the smell of the mulled wine Lan Wangji buys for him in spite of Wei Wuxian’s protests, rich and heady, tangling with the familiar blended scent of A-Yuan’s hot chocolate and his own green tea.

There is the way Wei Wuxian looks when wrapped in Lan Wangji’s white scarf as the afternoon light starts to dim and the low winter sun paints the sky orange.

(His jacket is too thin, and he’s shivering in the sharp breeze now that it’s getting dark.

“You’ll catch a cold” Lan Wangji says, handing him the scarf.

“You’ll catch a cold” A-Yuan echoes, his little nose red and his dark eyes serious under the hood with the bunny ears.

Wei Wuxian makes a weird noise at the back of his throat, but he takes the scarf. It suits him.)

 

 

There is a second time at the park, and a third, and a fourth.

 

 

There is the Saturday evening when A-Yuan comes down with a nasty bug.

Lan Wangji is kneeling on the hard tiles of the bathroom floor, desperately trying to reach their doctor on the phone while rubbing A-Yuan’s back as the little boy heaves above the toilet bowl, when Wei Wuxian rings at the door for what was supposed to be the eigth dinner.

Wei Wuxian enters, removes his shoes, and stops to take in the state of the apartment (the bags of groceries abandoned next to the couch, A-Yuan’s stained sweater on the floor, the pile of plates and the glasses laid out forgotten on the dinner table). He gives Lan Wangji’s face a long look.

He says “I’ll call my sister”.

It’s the first time Lan Wangji talks to Wei Wuxian’s sister, but Wei Wuxian regularly professes unshakable faith in her and he’s at his wit’s ends here. It’s easy enough to trust her and they follow her instructions to the letter. Lan Wangji spent his first year of raising A-Yuan trying to figure out alone how to take care of a child, and he finds it’s good to be told what to do. It’s good too to have someone else next to him with worry in their eyes and caution in their hands.

It’s good not to be alone with his sick son on a Saturday night.

An hour and a half later, after much unpleasantness and through some miracle he’s too weary to process, A-Yuan is asleep. The boy is still pale, a frown marring his smooth face, his thin hair fanned out around his head on the pillow. He’s clutching Lan Wangji’s index finger hard with one hand, and his bunny plushie with the other.

“You should stay with him” Wei Wuxian says with a frayed smile before he leaves the small bedroom, careful not to make any noise as he closes the door.

It takes a while before Lan Wangji successfully manages to remove his finger from A-Yuan’s grip without waking him up, reassured by the little boy’s steady breathing and the color returning to his cheeks.

After he quietly closed the door behind him, Lan Wangji goes to the bathroom and finds that it is clean. A-Yuan’s day clothes have been washed and laid out on the laundry drying rack, same as the towels and washcloths. In the living room, the bags of groceries are gone. The dinner table is in order.

Wei Wuxian is a messy being by nature, Lan Wangji knows by then. He forgets to charge his phone every other day, bumps into the things in his way like avoiding them is too much trouble, drops his bags, spills glasses, annoys the hell out of people he doesn’t like, aggravates the ones he does like for fun, misplaces his keys and his subway pass, forgets people’s names and his doctor appointments, misses the deadlines to pay for his bills, and would only sleep and eat when compelled to by his body’s urgent reminders if it wasn’t for his sister’s texts, and recently by Lan Wangji’s subtle probing.

Wei Wuxian is loud and all over the place, easily distracted, sloppy and mischievous, except when it comes to caring for others. This, Wei Wuxian does quietly, with undivided attention and painstaking dedication.

Lan Wangji finds him in the kitchen, arranging yellow and white flowers in their customary vases by the window.

“Thank you, you didn’t have to” Lan Wangji tells him, his voice raw with equal gratitude and exhaustion.

“It’s nothing” Wei Wuxian turns around to face him.

His smile is the same warm smile Lan Wangji has grown intimately familiar with, although he looks as tired and high-strung as Lan Wangji feels. His hair is a hair salon’s nightmare, tangled and dry, hastily tied in a messy ponytail that looks about to fall apart. His hands are fumbling with the flowers’ transparent wrapping. There is a dark stain on his grey hoodie, at shoulder level. Wei Wuxian was the one keeping A-Yuan’s hair from falling in his face when the child was throwing up earlier.

“I will give you a change of clothes” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian follows his gaze. “Oh…” he laughs a little awkwardly.

Lan Wangji expects him to continue speaking – to tell him that it’s fine, it’ll go away with water, there’s no need to bother. Lan Wangji expects to have to say it again, “I will give you a change of clothes”, so that Wei Wuxian will understand that he means it.

He doesn’t expect Wei Wuxian to rub his eyes tiredly and say “that’d be appreciated, thank you.”

The yellow lights of Lan Wangji’s kitchen suddenly feel kinder.

 

Later they end up at the kitchen table, sitting across from each other, each with a fuming cup of tea in their hands.

The empty boxes of their take-out dinner are piled up in the sink. It smells of tea and the spicy sauce that Wei Wuxian ordered with his noodles. It smells of freesias and the fragrance of wet earth, drifting in from the small stretch of garden on the other side of the ajar window. The April rain plays them a soothing song, delicate and tranquil.

“It’s not even ten, and look at us old men” Wei Wuxian is complaining, “twenty years old me would judge me so hard. I’d go on for days with like, a power-nap here and there, and now I feel half-dead from one evening sitting on my butt in a bathroom. That’s pathetic.”

He’s complaining while smiling above the rim of his cup – the cup with the blue stars that has become Xian-Gege’s during the past four months, through an unspoken but unanimous agreement, and by virtue of A-Yuan’s insistence that Wei Wuxian should drink tea after dinner “like baba”. The weariness is crinkling his grey eyes, stretching the corners of the smile on his lips. Lan Wangji’s sweater is too big for him, and Wei Wuxian pulled the sleeves high above his wrists. They cover the lower half of his hands, which are still for once, wrapped around his cup for warmth.

It suits him – his restless hands nestled like sleepy birds in the sleeves of Lan Wangji’s sweater, his lively eyes made soft by tiredness, the openness of his weary smile, here and now, in the hushed light of Lan Wangji’s kitchen and the gentle pattering of the April rain.

It gives Lan Wangji something comforting to think about that night, as he goes to sleep after Wei Wuxian left, and after he made sure again that A-Yuan was alright. And something to think of the night after that. And the night after that.

 

*****

 

Lan Wangji meets Wei Wuxian’s sister one week later.

It’s mid-morning on a Friday. A-Yuan is at the kindergarten, and Lan Wangji’s work for the week is mostly finished. He leaves his apartment early, nervous for some reason, and has to go back when he realizes he forgot his umbrella. Rain fell all of last night again. The weather is still windy, low grey clouds rolling across the sky in a hurry. The streets are covered with large puddles and the city asphalt gleams like a broken sky mirror.

They meet at a newly opened fancy café on the eight floor of a glinting building, where Lan Wangji invited Jiang Yanli. “By way of thanks” he told her on the phone, for her help the past week (Wei Wuxian gave him her phone number after extracting a promise from him that Lan Wangji would call her if he needed, and Lan Wangji gratefully made good on that promise).

Jiang Yanli is a nice, composed, graceful young woman.

Her voice is soft, and her gestures are elegant and measured as they take a seat at a table by the large window overlooking the street. She doesn’t look like Wei Wuxian, neither her manners nor her face nor her voice. But Lan Wangji easily places the kind twinkle in her light brown eyes. It’s familiar as well, the way she tilts her head to the side when the café staff comes to their table with the day’s choice of cakes and pastries, to show them that she’s listening, that they’ve got her full attention.

Above all, Lan Wangji recognizes the way she waves her hands dismissively and says “it’s nothing, anyone would have done that” after they ordered their drinks and he expressed his gratitude again.

Then she says, “I should thank you instead.”

When Lan Wangji asks why, confused, she smiles with a smile Lan Wangji can’t read, looking at him with kind eyes through her eyelashes.

“For taking care of A-Xian” she answers, gentle and sure.

Jiang Yanli says nothing for a long while after that, absorbed by the fluid motions made by her spoon in the rich brown liquid as she stirs her cappuccino. She looks perfectly at ease with letting silence settle around them like a bubble, away from the murmur of hushed conversations and tinkling dishware. Lan Wangji knows few people who are friends with silence. Wei Wuxian, for one, while he understands the value of it, feels an irresistible need to keep silence at bay, as if the absence of noise feels suffocating to him.

Lan Wangji is friends with silence, and it speaks to him in the way words speak to others.

Judging by the smile tucked at the corner of Jiang Yanli’s lips, it speaks to her as well.

He looks away, staring out the window as he plays absently with the multicolored beaded stretch bracelet around his wrist (A-Yuan made it last week and has brought it to him expectantly every morning since). The people in the street below are cautious, navigating around rain puddles. It’s like that game Wei Wuxian plays with A-Yuan where they have to walk only on the white stripes of crosswalks. Or rather, that other game where they can say neither “yes” nor “no”.

The few words Wei Wuxian’s sister just said have a question in them. A question that can’t simply be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.

Lan Wangji thinks about their meaning a lot after they part. He thinks about it all afternoon, as he carries out the administrative tasks he laid out for the day. He thinks about it when he picks his son at the kindergarten. He thinks about it while he prepares their dinner and shows A-Yuan how to crush potatoes with a big spoon.

He thinks about it as he lays in bed that night, in the silence of the big bedroom – about what she could have meant, when she said it, and about what Lan Wangji thinks it could mean, “taking care of A-Xian”.

He thinks about it for many, many nights.

 

*****

 

Wei Wuxian meets Lan Wangji’s brother three months later.

It happens one early morning in Lan Wangji’s kitchen.

It happens, in the two senses of that word that are “come to pass” and “become a reality”. “Come to pass” because no, it was not planned. “Become a reality” because of the truth that Lan Xichen unearths that morning.

His brother knows him best. In a single visit, he takes all the half-shaped thoughts at the back of Lan Wangji’s mind, the ones he turns over at night, and places them in plain light where they become real in the way of things that have been seen.

 

Wei Wuxian stayed over that night.

It’s not the first, or the second, or even the tenth time. Lan Wangji has stopped counting, it has become enough times to no longer matter. Lan Wangji has stopped trying to gauge the meaning and importance of every fact that involves Wei Wuxian and him. He’s afraid that doing so gives them a meaning and importance they don’t actually have. Truth is, he can no longer tell what’s meaningful, important, or even just normal.

He does know however that he doesn’t want it to stop.

They started sharing information about their respective schedules around a month ago. A-Yuan just started school, Lan Wangji has a new project with a dance school which often requires for him to travel to the other side of the city, and Wei Wuxian’s work hours at the photography studio are never the same from one week to the next. Knowing the other’s schedule makes it easier to arrange their time accordingly, so that there will always be one of them available to pick A-Yuan from school, help him with his homework, make him dinner, give him his bath, and make sure he’s in bed at nine.

Wei Wuxian has the keys to Lan Wangji’s apartment. He has several changes of clothes at the bottom of the big bedroom’s shelves. He has packets of his favorite coffee in a kitchen cupboard, next to the brand new coffeemaker.

There are three people now in the drawings A-Yuan brings back from school. They don’t speak about it, and Lan Wangji eludes the teacher’s questions. He pins some of the drawings A-Yuan gives him on the fridge door and keeps the others in a box. The ones that are for Wei Wuxian all end up on the walls of his apartment, as A-Yuan was ecstatic to find out the last time they came from a visit.

When he ends up staying at their place until it is too late to leave, Wei Wuxian sleeps on the couch in the living room.

Sometimes it’s because he gets absorbed into his work after dinner, or because there is a movie he insists on watching with Lan Wangji. Most often it’s because they are talking and forget to pay attention to the time (Lan Wangji does, he always pays close attention to the time, and always hopes that they will keep going until the clock hands move past that point when Wei Wuxian proclaims the hour as “too late to leave” and asks if he can sleep here tonight).

Lan Wangji may be friends with silence, but Wei Wuxian handles words with a mastery akin to witchcraft.

Wei Wuxian, inconceivably, makes Lan Wangji talk – never against his will, never aimlessly, but in a way that allows him to shape the thoughts in his mind and voice them precisely how he wants to. Wei Wuxian is aware that Lan Wangji’s silences have a meaning of their own. He spends entire evenings patiently distilling words from them, listening attentively to everything Lan Wangji says and doesn’t, like he can detect the subtle nuances and assess the exact weight of each word.

It makes Lan Wangji feel like he is heard. It makes him feel like he exists, in a way he didn’t know a person could exist before.

Every time, after Wei Wuxian has left (back to his apartment or gone to sleep on the couch next door), Lan Wangji feels self-conscious and a little baffled at how easily he just confided in him. Every time he is with Wei Wuxian again, Lan Wangji feels once more as if he could talk for hours, and he never wants it to stop.

 

It was precisely what happened, the night before the morning when Lan Xichen shows up without warning.

It’s just past seven when he rings at the door.

Lan Wangji is in the middle of preparing A-Yuan’s schoolbag, having just finished cleaning the bathroom. He’s the one who goes to open the door, only to find his older brother (whom he talked to on the phone two days ago and is certain never said anything about an impromptu visit) on the other side. He listens with a distinct sense of impending doom as Lan Xichen explains that he is on his way to an auction sale happening in the city. He still lives in their hometown, two hours away by car, and wanted to make his visit to his brother and nephew a surprise. His brother looks fresh, energized, pleased with himself for surprising him.

He ends up as the one staring in bewilderment.

Lan Wangji understands.

Lan Xichen couldn’t possibly foresee that he would find a man in pajamas in Lan Wangji’s kitchen, pouring orange juice for A-Yuan while singing cartoon songs off key but in time with the little boy’s enthusiastic spoon-drumming against the table.

After a stunned silence when everyone is either panicking or confused or both, save for A-Yuan of course (who is reveling in the joy of having all the people he likes in one room), Lan Wangji retrieves enough presence of mind to make introductions.

“This is Lan Xichen, my brother. And this is Wei Wuxian.”

He stops here. He doesn’t know how Wei Wuxian ought to be described.

It’s not that Lan Xichen never heard about him, but what Lan Xichen knows of Wei Wuxian are small parts of a whole Lan Wangji himself keeps finding new pieces of.

The man who rescued A-Yuan when he got lost last year. A-Yuan’s infamous Xian-Gege. Lan Wangji’s friend. Lan Wangji’s best friend. Lan Wangji’s best friend who’s a lot more than a friend, whom he talks to and whom he thinks of a lot, at all times. Every description he tries to pin on it is another detour made around a puddle become so large that it covers nearly all of Lan Wangji’s life.

“I see” is all Lan Xichen says.

Lan Wangji instantly feels trapped.

Wei Wuxian, who is quite resigned about his systematical bad handling of authority figures such as older brothers, policewomen or teachers (yes, he has a record, he once told Lan Wangji, for his defiling of the statues of his university’s founder and a couple more influential people with toilet paper when he was drunk and nineteen), has developed an irresistible compulsion to flee whenever faced with one.

He pretexts an urgent mission to tidy A-Yuan’s toys in the bathroom to escape.

Lan Wangji watches him leave as precipitately as is possible with a child koala-clinging to one’s leg. He winces in sympathy when Wei Wuxian bumps his hip hard against the corner of the table in his haste to leave the kitchen. The glass of orange juice he just poured for A-Yuan wobbles dangerously but thankfully doesn’t fall.

“I just washed the bathroom floor” Lan Wangji tells to his retreating back, ignoring the speed at which his brother’s eyebrows are rising. “It’s still wet. Be careful not to slip.”

“Be careful not to slip” A-Yuan’s high-pitched voice echoes from next door.

When Lan Wangji forces himself to meet his brother’s eyes, Lan Xichen’s smile has doubled in size and intensity. Lan Wangji wants to squirm. He takes A-Yuan’s orange juice between his hands to keep them still.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” his brother asks.

“Tell you what” Lan Wangji says, in a futile attempt to buy time.

“That you were with someone.”

“I’m not with anyone” Lan Wangji says, feeling his ears burn in embarrassment and his stomach drop due to some other feelings he doesn’t want to name.

It is not technically a lie, especially if like Lan Xichen you don’t know about Wei Wuxian’s clothes in the laundry basket, or Wei Wuxian’s chili oil in the fridge, or Wei Wuxian’s shampoo in the shower. Lan Xichen doesn’t know, can’t know, but judging by the expression on his face, he has strong suspicions.

“Wangji.”

“I’m not with anyone” he repeats.

But his brother is not Wei Wuxian, and he needs a lot more than two takes to let himself be convinced of something he doesn’t believe in.

“Then what is this?” Lan Xichen asks, gesturing in the general direction of the bathroom.

“Nothing.”

“Xian-Gege, that’s baba’s pants!” A-Yuan yells with great timing. He has become not only more talkative, but also a lot louder in the past six months.

Lan Wangji downs his son’s orange juice, too fast. When he looks again after he’s done coughing, Lan Xichen’s kind smile has turned evil in a way only little brothers could possibly comprehend.

“That is nothing?”

“Wei Wuxian helps. Sometimes. It’s all there is to it” Lan Wangji says with a tinge of desperation. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It happens all the time.”

It happens all the time.

Strangers who rescue lost kids from streets. Who come for one thank you dinner, and then countless dinners, before they come for nights and week-ends, until they end up with a duplicate of the keys. Who don’t mind drying the tears and wiping the nose of a child who’s not their own. Who don’t mind coming over at a call’s notice and getting backaches due to sleeping on a couch rather than in their own bed at least twice a week. Who don’t mind constantly rearranging their life to make time and space for a father and son they didn’t know a year prior.

Who not only apparently enjoy doing all those things, but are also effortlessly, overwhelmingly, brilliantly good at them.

Surely, that happens a lot, to a lot of people. It’s not special in any way.

“Wangji…” Lan Xichen delicately puts down the cup of tea he’s making for himself, having realized that Lan Wangji wasn’t going to think of offering him one. “Even if it did happen all the time, which I am far from convinced of, it does not seem to be nothing.”

Of course it’s not nothing.

Of course it’s everything.

Lan Wangji just doesn’t know how to work that into words, or maybe he doesn’t dare to. Maybe he’s afraid that in doing so, he would make it real in the way of things that have been named.

Lan Xichen sits down across him with his tea, in the spot by the window where Wei Wuxian always sits. He was sitting there yesterday, when they were talking about the fundamental changes brought by technology in film music composition, and the best times and spots to go hiking, and whether A-Yuan was old enough to take swimming lessons. Wei Wuxian was sitting with his socked feet on the edge of the chair and his arms around his knees. He was leaning his head against the window, and it was distracting, the way it looked like there was two of him because of his profile reflected in the glass panel. A very nice profile.

Lan Wangji makes an effort to refocus.

It’s still early and it’s pitch dark outside. The kitchen yellow lights catch on the condensation on the window, not reflecting anything. They do reflect however on the black mirror of Wei Wuxian’s coffee, in the cup with the blue stars. Lan Wangji wonders if Lan Xichen noticed – if he noticed the flowers by the windowsill, the red hair tie on the table tangled with a few long black hair, and the drawings on the fridge. Probably, he must have.

His brother crosses his hands on the table in front of him, like he always does when he has something important to say. It was what he did three years ago, when Lan Wangji told him he was considering giving up on the adoption process because it was so hard.

“Good things don’t happen all the time, Wangji” he says, gentle but firm, as if Lan Wangji doesn’t know that already – as if Lan Xichen doesn’t know just how well he knows that. “Sometimes they happen not to require working for, but even so, that doesn’t make them nothing.”

A pause.

“Love especially” he says, and Lan Wangji’s heart plummets like it wants to escape and hide in the depths of him, but too late. Way too late. “Love is never nothing.”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes. He breathes out. His heart was pulled back inside his chest like a ball tied to a rubber band, hammering irregularly against his ribcage. He can hear the faint pounding of blood in his ears.

He can hear the sound of running water from the bathroom, and the soft twittering of A-Yuan’s voice above it – sweet loving A-Yuan, once quiet and shy A-Yuan, who talks and laughs so much more now than he did before. He can hear the animated voice blending with his son’s, reliable like a sturdy stake for a growing flower, bright and warm as trickling sunlight, breaking free at times in a burst of loud laughter.

It frightens him, how dear this has become to him. The intensity of it.

When he opens his eyes again, Lan Xichen’s eyes have grown very soft.

“It’s scary, isn’t it?” he says, and chuckles when Lan Wangji nods furiously, a wave of profound relief washing over him that Lan Xichen understands.

His brother knows him best, after all.

 

 

“I’m glad for you” Lan Xichen says when he leaves half an hour later.

Wei Wuxian is already gone, having offered to drive A-Yuan to school to give the two brothers more time together. He was nervous when saying goodbye. It was in the speed of his voice and the fluttering of his hands. In the way he didn’t ask Lan Wangji if he wanted him to pick up A-Yuan from school tonight. In how careful he was not to be in their space, or rather, take as little space as possible.

Nervousness doesn’t suit him. It made Lan Wangji want to hold him until Wei Wuxian quieted down. Hold him until he wasn’t anxious anymore about whether he belonged here. Hold him until he felt close again, the way he is close when it’s just the two or three of them.

Lan Wangji couldn’t hold him, no matter how much he wanted to, and he felt a rush of affection for his son when A-Yuan grabbed Wei Wuxian’s hand and tugged, saying “Xian-Gege look” as he proudly pointed to his shoelaces. Tied loose, but correctly, after weeks of patient efforts.

“See Lan Zhan! I told you he could do it!!” Wei Wuxian cheered and cooed, and then forgot about being nervous as he grabbed A-Yuan for a celebratory round of throw-and-catch that made the child breathless with laughter.

(Lan Wangji became “Lan Zhan” back in June, after one late conversation in the kitchen that carefully unwrapped sections of Lan Wangji’s past that no one knows about, not even his brother. Lan Wangji likes that Wei Wuxian calls him that. He likes that he is the only who does, just like he is the only one who knows.)

“He seems good for A-Yuan” Lan Xichen adds, as if as an afterthought but looking at him intently.

“Mnh” Lan Wangji agrees, and then, because ‘good’ really doesn’t cover it, “he makes A-Yuan happy.”

“He makes you happy.”

It isn’t a question. Lan Wangji looks in his brother’s eyes, making sure there is no reserve here, no opposition, before he nods. “He does.”

Even though ‘happy’ really doesn’t cover it.

 

*****

 

Lan Wangji thinks about his brother’s words a lot.

They come to him at random times, during breakfast, in the middle of composing, while cleaning the shower or when he’s browsing for scores in the music store. Mostly, they come to him at night, along with Jiang Yanli’s thank you “for taking care of A-Xian”. They tell him there’s something he should be doing, unless it’s something he should be saying.

Something he might have regrets about later, if he doesn’t act upon it now.

He gets closer to it one Wednesday, the evening when A-Yuan comes back home with that look that means he has cried and won’t talk about it.

All evening Lan Wangji tries to get him to explain what happened, to no avail. It takes Wei Wuxian’s efficient coaxing once he arrives after dinner to get past the little boy’s reluctance (Lan Wangji tried not to tell him, had resolved for once to not get him involved and let him enjoy his own child-free, Lan Wangji-free life, except Wei Wuxian could tell from three monosyllabic texts that something was off and then there was no stopping him from coming over. Lan Wangji’s relief and selfish happiness at seeing him at the door outweighed the guilt by far).

They are both sitting next to A-Yuan, Lan Wangji on the bed next to him, Wei Wuxian on the floor facing them, when A-Yuan finally opens the gates to his worries and allows the tears to come rushing out. He’s still quiet when he cries. It is, if Lan Wangji thinks about it, one of the very few things that have not changed during the past months.

“Baba is my real dad” A-Yuan asks-not-asks once he can form full sentences again, the question mark breaking against a soft sob.

Lan Wangji swears he feels his heart shatter to a hundred tiny pieces. “Of course I’m your dad, A-Yuan.”

“My real dad?”

Lan Wangji hesitates – a split second, but it’s enough. A-Yuan notices. Round tears start rolling down his cheeks faster, fat and silent. He curls on himself a little, shoulders hunched and tight fists clutching his dinosaur pajamas pants, looking absolutely miserable. Lan Wangji wants to beat himself.

“Your real dad.”

Lan Wangji looks up at the same time as A-Yuan does.

Wei Wuxian’s face is stern. Unsmiling. Angry. The sight is enough for A-Yuan to stop crying in mild shock. Lan Wangji can’t help but feel unsettled too.

“Your real dad A-Yuan” Wei Wuxian repeats, because as he has learned with them, important words should be said twice. “I don’t know who made you upset or what they told you, but they are stupid and it’s bullshit.” There is such conviction in his voice that Lan Wangji doesn’t even mind the Swearing In Front Of A-Yuan. “Lan Zhan is your real dad, A-Yuan, and that’s it. That’s all.”

“But I am adopted” A-Yuan’s voice trembles, although it’s steadier already. “It’s not the same.”

Lan Wangji hears another person’s words. Something someone told him. Something cruel that went in deep and found a tender spot in his son’s gentle heart, and now he feels angry too.

“It doesn’t matter A-Yuan” he says, fiercely, and takes A-Yuan’s hands in his own and squeezes hard. “You’re my son, my real son.”

“But I am adopted” A-Yuan repeats. Echoing. Echoing.

“So what?” Wei Wuxian shrugs with superb contempt. “I am too, how is it a bad thing?”

Again, Lan Wangji looks at him at the same time as A-Yuan does.

Again, he feels his heart shatter, except this time it’s quieter, hushed and faraway, and even from a distance he can tell there are many pieces he’s seeing for the first time.

 

They focus first of all on the emergency at hand, that is soothing A-Yuan.

Lan Wangji gathers his son in a very necessary hug while Wei Wuxian continues talking to him. Lan Wangji dries the last tears. Wei Wuxian wheedles out the first smile. It’s wobbly and wet, a bit tight at the corners, but it’s a smile still. Lan Wangji watches Wei Wuxian poke at A-Yuan’s face with a teasing finger until he manages to pry a giggle and a mildly annoyed “stop Xian-Gege” from his son, and wonders not for the first time if there is a limit to how much he can feel about this.

About them.

About him.

Wei Wuxian is messy, buoyant, unruly, forgetful and brash, and he loves A-Yuan as fiercely as Lan Wangji does. Lan Wangji knows – of course he knows, how could he not? He would have to be deaf and blind not to see. Lan Wangji doesn’t mind. He’s so glad, he’s so immensely grateful for it that it hurts sometimes.

Wei Wuxian tends to the hearts of the people he loves with utmost care, and he does it with such talent that it’d be easy not to notice. It’d be easy to take it for granted. It’d be so easy to just let it happen, let oneself be lulled by a comfortable warmth, and stop wondering about it.

Lan Wangji has a theory that Wei Wuxian actually wants it to be that way.

He thinks Wei Wuxian doesn’t want the people he loves to notice. He thinks Wei Wuxian believes it would make his efforts worthless, if people realized the full extent of the way he cares. He thinks caring for people is what makes Wei Wuxian happiest, and he wonders if Wei Wuxian feels selfish about that. If he avoids the gratitude and attempts of returned care because he feels they are undeserved.

Tonight, Lan Wangji thinks Wei Wuxian is very selfish indeed. Not because he finds his happiness in caring for others, but because he refuses to accept that others could feel the same for him.

Wei Wuxian avoids meeting his eyes the whole time it takes to fully ease A-Yuan’s fears.

It means he knows they are going to talk after this, and he’s going to allow it. It is a good thing, and Lan Wangji thinks again of Jiang Yanli’s and his brother’s words as he switches on the night light, and stars start dancing on the walls and ceiling and across Wei Wuxian’s profile. He looks at Wei Wuxian’s face, at those ever-so-expressive grey eyes that are not meeting his, and thinks that both Jian Yanli and Lan Xichen were wrong. Lan Wangji is neither doing enough nor nothing.

Right now, Lan Wangji is doing too much and too little.

It’s the same as writing music, he thinks. Too much, and the intention supposed to be conveyed gets lost in a cacophony of sounds. Too little, and no one even notices there’s a melody here, trying to tell them something.

It’s the same as the pointillism art exhibit they went to in August, the three of them. Too far, and it’s just another painting with nothing special about it. Too close, and it’s all dots of colors that don’t mean anything.

It’s a matter of balance, of distance, of steps to be followed, and this Lan Wangji knows. It’s quite simple, always the same process. It begins with finding the right place to start, the first note, the correct angle.

It begins that night in Lan Wangji’s kitchen.

Their cups of teas are on the table between them, next to Lan Wangji’s phone, which is playing songs from his favorite piano playlist at a low volume. The kitchen lights cast the same subdued glow as always upon Wei Wuxian’s features, now as familiar to Lan Wangji as his own, though he never gets tired of looking.

Wei Wuxian is curled on his chair, the heels of his socked feet on the edge of the seat, his chin resting on top of his knees. He is scratching his index finger against a small irregularity on the handle of his cup, his gaze strained on the tiny bump. He doesn’t look nervous, but he’s not smiling either.

He is waiting.

“I didn’t know” Lan Wangji says after a long silence. He still feels a little stupid for not having figured it out before.

Just like he did earlier, Wei Wuxian shrugs, and without looking up he says “it doesn’t matter.”

Lan Wangji disagrees.

It’s not about whether it matters or not (Lan Wangji is doing everything he can, every day, so that it won’t ever matter in any way for A-Yuan, and he hopes – hopes very, very much – that it is how it was for Wei Wuxian). It’s about the fact that he didn’t know. Lan Wangji didn’t know.

It has been nearly a year.

Wei Wuxian knows the name of every plushie of the army invading A-Yuan’s bedroom – is in fact responsible for at least half of them. Wei Wuxian knows what brands to pick when he goes for groceries and he buys Lan Wangji’s with his own, “to save time”. Wei Wuxian knows the compositions Lan Wangji is most proud of and the ones he hates. He knows the things that annoy him and how far he can push, just on the edge of “too much”. He knows the story of Lan Wangji’s mother. He knows from one look at his face when Lan Wangji is happy or angry or worried that he’s not doing the right thing, knows Lan Wangji’s boundaries and fears, knows him inside out.

Wei Wuxian knows every important and unimportant thing there is to know about him. He has welcomed that knowledge carefully, drop by drop, word after word, all through the hours they spent talking in that very kitchen.

“It matters” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian looks up from his cup at last. A smile forms on his lips, different from all the ones Lan Wangji knows. A small smile, fond and happy in a quiet, secret way.

“It doesn’t, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji continues to disagree, and is about to say just so, when Wei Wuxian extends his hand across the table. He gives Lan Wangji’s fingers a brief squeeze. He does it like it’s normal, like they do it all the time, like Lan Wangji hasn’t been replaying in his mind over and over again every accidental touch that occurred in the past ten months and dying to provoke more of them (maybe he did).

Wei Wuxian leaves his hand here on the table, right next to Lan Wangji’s, their fingers brushing.

“It doesn’t matter, I promise it doesn’t” Wei Wuxian says again with the same small smile, a teasing light flashing in his eyes. “Don’t you glare at me Lan Zhan, I’m not going to lie to you just so that you can fret over my nonexistent terrible past. But there is something I’d like, if it’s alright with you” he asks-not-asks, the question mark blanketed by the soft music playing on Lan Wangji’s phone.

His skin feels so warm against Lan Wangji’s hand.

Anything you want, Lan Wangji wants to say. Anything at all. My heart if you’d like, if that’d be enough, if you’d want it.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Would you call me Wei Ying?” he says, and the look in his eyes burns him in the way of things that burn for a long time, charged, incandescent and stubbornly warm. “That’s what my parents called me. Before.”

“Wei Ying” Lan Wangji tries the name on his tongue.

It suits him.

“Wei Ying” he says again, shifting on his chair a little. If the motion causes his hand to press closer to the fingers next to it, then it is not his fault. His brain is not responding, hyperfocused on details like the moist feeling of the palm of his hand around his cup of tea, the effort he’s making to control his respiration as if one too loud breath could shatter the moment, the lines of the hand brushing against his own, rather small and rather angular, and how obvious it is, all of a sudden, like a revelation, the way this hand would fit perfectly in Lan Wangji’s own.

He nods. Wei Ying nods with a small, secret smile. His hand is warm, unmoving where it touches Lan Wangji’s. His eyes are fond and thankful.

He looks neither too far nor too close.

He looks like he’s at the exact right place, happy to be here, and here doesn’t just mean in Lan Wangji’s kitchen.

There you are, Lan Wangji thinks, feeling lightheaded with the knowledge, with the sheer worth of it. Finally, there you are.

 

*****

 

One late afternoon three weeks later, when Lan Wangji comes back from the ruthless battlefield that’s a shopping mall on the last Saturday before Christmas, the apartment is suspiciously quiet.

In the entrance, A-Yuan’s small fur-lined boots are properly tidied against the wall and a pair of sneakers lays sideways, discarded on the tiled floor. Lan Wangji straightens them before he removes his shoes and goes inside the apartment.

The lights in the living room are on, welcoming after the chill obscurity of the winter dusk that fell over the city in the time it took to drive back from the mall. The darkened windows reflect the colorful fairy lights of the Christmas tree they prepared two days ago for A-Yuan, but there is no one here. The kitchen is dark when Lan Wangji goes to put his bags on the table, silent but for the light buzzing of the fridge. The recipe for baking cookies that he printed this morning is a pale blueish rectangle on the table, waiting next to the star-shaped molds and the new heart-shaped ones.

Lan Wangji finds them the small bedroom, asleep on A-Yuan’s bed.

He can only see the back of his son’s head. A-Yuan’s face is buried against Wei Ying’s shoulder, one of Wei Ying’s arm wrapped around his body, his bunny plushie squeezed between them. Wei Ying is leaning sideways, curled on himself to fit on the small mattress. It looks uncomfortable, with his knees bent and his right arm angled at a weird corner against the wall, but he doesn’t even stir at the noise when Lan Wangji opens the door. He must have fallen asleep while reading with A-Yuan, if the picture book laying upside down on the floor is any indication.

Lan Wangji stays at the door. He doesn’t move for a long time, just looking at them, content with letting his heart expand and expand inside his chest like a supernova until it feels like it’s going to burst into a never-ending rain of warmth and golden stars.

Wei Ying offered to keep A-Yuan busy today, while Lan Wangji was dealing with the usual weekly errands topped with Christmas logistics. Judging by the texts and pictures that flowed in all afternoon, they were very busy indeed.

They went first to the temporary skating rink installed next to the park entrance, before going inside the park to greet the ducks living by the pond (Wei Ying is adamant that he can tell them apart, has even given them names, and A-Yuan is so awed by this specific ability of his Xian-Gege that Lan Wangji is going along with it). After that they went to look at the shop windows and food stalls downtown, stopping for a snack and a hot drink. The picture Lan Wangji received of Wei Ying’s and A-Yuan’s faces squeezed together for a selfie full of toothy smiles, cold-red cheeks and chocolate-stained lips went straight to his saved folder.

After a while, once it has stopped feeling like his heart is striving to break out from his chest, Lan Wangji steps back and quietly closes the small bedroom’s door.

There is a little guilt. He knows that the end of year is a busy time at work for Wei Ying. He’s running from one project to the next those days, working late and on week-ends in an attempt to meet impossible deadlines. Lan Wangji suspects that this afternoon with A-Yuan will come at the price of an all-nighter.

He should probably wake him up now, in case Wei Ying intended to catch up with some work today after Lan Wangji was done with his shopping.

He doesn’t want to.

He likes the knowledge that Wei Ying is asleep with his son in the bedroom next door, while Lan Wangji himself is going about the apartment, putting the day’s purchases away in the kitchen cupboards or in the big bedroom (where A-Yuan’s presents are hidden in the closet), before he prepares dinner for the three of them. He likes that Wei Ying is here, resting, warm and at peace after a tiring afternoon out in the winter cold while Lan Wangji takes care of him in the small ways he can.

He kept the big brown bag for last. Lan Wangji brings it to the big bedroom, puts it down next to the bed and looks at it for a long time, considering.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. A compulsive purchase. The long red coat with black seams, a waterfall style collar and a large button belt is not exactly Wei Ying’s style. At any rate, it was way more expensive than the clothing he usually wears.

But the more Lan Wangji inspected it, the more the coat looked like it’d suit him. It’s comfortable and warm, when Wei Ying is always shivering in his too-thin jackets. It’s loose enough to allow him to move around freely, with wide pockets to tuck his hands in and store the variety of small things he always carries around – his phone, keys, wallet, crumpled receipts and notes as reminders to himself, loose change, the lip balm his sister buys for him, the subway tickets Lan Wangji insists he keeps in case he forgets his pass, and sweets he never fails to grab handfuls of when they are distributed for free in shops.

The coat looked like Wei Ying would be beautiful in it, and Lan Wangji had wanted to see him wear it.

He had wanted to see Wei Ying beautiful and warm in a coat Lan Wangji had bought for him – had wanted it so much that before he could think twice about it, he was leaving the mall with one more bag than planned.

Lan Wangji perfectly gets it, how selfish it is, the happiness that comes with taking care for others. He gets it more than Wei Ying himself probably imagines. He has been better so far at holding it in, but he doesn’t want to hold it in any longer. He doesn’t think he can. He hopes Wei Ying won’t mind.

The issue remains of when to give Wei Ying his present.

They share information about their daily schedules on a regular basis, but neither of them broached the topic of Christmas. Lan Wangji doesn’t know if or how Wei Ying celebrates, but if he does, it’ll be with his family. His own, real family. Wei Ying has a nephew, a sister and brother-in-law, a brother, parents or friends that he probably plans to be with next week.

Plans or not, Lan Wangji knows Wei Ying would say “yes” in a heartbeat if he asked, if only for A-Yuan’s sake. So he didn’t ask. Wei Ying didn’t ask either.

It’s fine, Lan Wangji tells himself as he puts the big brown bag in the closet, next to A-Yuan’s presents. He will give it to Wei Ying when the time will be right. Maybe next week. Maybe later, when he’ll be sure, one hundred percent sure that Wei Ying won’t mind.

It doesn’t feel sad. It feels, strangely, like a matter of time – like this Christmas will be the third and last one he spends with just A-Yuan, and Lan Wangji can wait a little longer.

 

****

 

Four days later, on Christmas Eve, Lan Wangji decides he’s an idiot.

He came to pick up A-Yuan at Wei Ying’s place after wrapping up some urgent, last-minute work, and let himself in when no one answered the bell. Lan Wangji has the keys, because “the intercom doesn’t work half the time, and Jiang Cheng caught that monstrous cold once because he was stuck waiting downstairs in the rain and he’s still going about how I did it on purpose, which I didn’t, and I’d rather not you die at my door, so take the damn keys Lan Zhan. I swear they won’t bite you.”

Lan Wangji is familiar by now with Wei Ying’s three-rooms apartment. The cramped bedroom, the even more cramped bathroom, and the generally cramped “big room” which serves as living room, kitchen, office, playground, exhibition hall for A-Yuan’s artwork and garden at the same time (it turned out Wei Ying likes flowers too and has no qualms about buying some for himself, every week, and Lan Wangji might have been keeping records regarding which ones he likes most).

He is familiar as well with the permanent state of (“organized!”) chaos of Wei Ying’s apartment, but this is a new high.

The kitchen space doesn’t remotely look like a kitchen anymore.

Pointillism artwork, rather. From up close, with multicolored splashes of paint covering every surface – the counter, the sink, the tiled floor and walls, the fridge and the cupboard doors, everywhere. Distantly, Lan Wangji wonders about the purpose and process for flying rings of orange paint all over a ceiling, before his gaze returns to the two harlequin beings cackling in the middle of the multicolored pandemonium.

There is his son, pressing a red right hand and a green left one against the sides of Wei Ying’s face. He is wearing a yellow plastic apron that bore the brunt of the damage, but still managed to dye his entire left foot in baby blue paint.

There is Wei Ying, kneeling in front of him and making faces as A-Yuan squeezes his cheeks together. Wei Ying didn’t bother with an apron. Lan Wangji stops trying to catalogue the number of colors on him after seven seconds of dismayed staring. Distantly, he registers his heart stuttering in a rather concerning way.

Wei Ying finally notices him and springs up with a bright, “Lan Zhan, you’re here!”, knocking down a container of purple paint that spills on the floor at his feet.

“Baba!!!” A-Yuan shrieks in delight, having reached the kind of high that only overstimulated five years old are capable of achieving without bursting from the sheer excitement contained in their small bodies.

Wei Ying, Lan Wangji notices without surprise, is buzzing with a similar kind of energy. He laughs, sounding a little wild as he tucks a loose strand of blueish hair behind his ear.

“Don’t make that face Lan Zhan, I swear no rainbow was killed in the process” he says with three fingers held up next to his face and the biggest grin on his face. He looks ridiculous.

He looks madly, dizzyingly, breathtakingly beautiful, and Lan Wangji is such an idiot.

“Are you okay baba?” A-Yuan pipes up, looking worried at Lan Wangji’s absolute lack of a reaction.

“Ah, don’t be angry Lan Zhan…!” Wei Ying shakes his head – one cheek red and the other green from the blotched imprints of his son’s hands. “It was me who asked A-Yuan if he wanted to do hand paint with me! No one ever let me do it as a child, I guess it’s obvious why” he chuckles, glancing around with blatant lack of concern for the post-war condition of his kitchen. “Don’t worry okay? It goes away with water, I’ll clean up after you go.”

Lan Wangji breathes in sharply when he says that, realizing only then that the last time he breathed was a minute ago. That must be where the dizziness comes from.

There is no “after you go”, of course.

There is no “after you go”, because Wei Ying is coming with them.

Wei Ying is not watching them leave to have a nice dinner which he helped Lan Wangji think of, next to a Christmas tree which he helped A-Yuan decorate, while he himself is left behind to clean up alone the kitchen which he spent two hours thoroughly ruining for the sake of Lan Wangji’s son.

It doesn’t matter whether Wei Ying has plans to join his real family after that.

It might have mattered, once, but that was when Lan Wangji was an idiot. And he’s done being an idiot. He’s done looking from afar instead of gratefully taking with both hands the happiness that has been easily, repeatedly, unconditionally offered to him for months on now, for stupid reasons he cannot remember.

Lan Wangji is taking his happiness home. Tonight.

“Can I borrow your bathroom?” he asks first with a meaningful look at A-Yuan, because it’s a safe, polite thing to say, and because as happy as his son looks covered in multiple layers of paint, Lan Wangji just cleaned his car interior yesterday.

Also, he needs a moment to think of the firm, coherent and convincing way he’s going to explain to Wei Ying just how stupid he has been all this time.

“Yes of course” Wei Ying looks a little sheepish, his gaze wandering down to A-Yuan’s blue foot. “Sorry about that, we got a bit excited trying to make the sky, right A-Yuan?”

“Look that’s the stars baba!!” A-Yuan points to the orange-dotted ceiling with a red hand and the widest smile Lan Wangji ever saw on his son’s face.

The stars. It makes sense, and Lan Wangji now regrets that it was not in his own kitchen that they played with hand paint today. It would have been nice, stars on the ceiling, when eating breakfast, or preparing dinner, or during late night talks. But they can always do hand paint again some other time, of course, and Lan Wangji is taller, so he can help them reach the ceiling better.

“It’s beautiful A-Yuan” he says, not looking at the ceiling but at his son’s excited smile and Wei Ying’s vibrant one. “Come with me, you need to wash.”

Lan Wangji takes a prudent step inside the kitchen and grabs his son under his armpits, the only part of his body where he didn’t manage to paint himself. He catches Wei Ying’s eyes on him as he stands up.

“I’ll help you clean up when we are done” Lan Wangji says, and ignores Wei Ying’s protests that there is no need, marching toward the bathroom with his multicolored son held at arm’s length.

It’s not as bad as it looks. The paint does go easily with water, and in addition to the apron, Wei Ying dressed A-Yuan in the set of clothes he keeps at his place for rainy days when they go to the park. The little boy babbles all the time Lan Wangji helps him wash in Wei Ying’s cluttered shower – about the stars, about the shapes of the cookies he wants to make, about Xian-Gege’s sister who looked so pretty when she came to bring the paint earlier. A-Yuan talks so much those days that Lan Wangji sometimes finds it hard to keep up.

Presently, it makes it hard to think of what he’s going to tell Wei Ying.

He’s still working on it when they emerge from the bathroom, all of A-Yuan’s body parts having been returned to their natural color.

Wei Ying has been diligent in his task to clean up the kitchen, maybe to prove his point that “it really isn’t any trouble”, so Lan Wangji and A-Yuan can go already and have their nice Christmas party together.

Well. Wei Ying doesn’t know yet he’s coming with them, that’s why.

Lan Wangji settles A-Yuan on the couch, in the living-room-area of the big room, with the set of crayons and papers that has found permanent residence under the low table. He tells him to stay still while he helps Xian-Gege in the kitchen. A-Yuan is a good kid, one that has just been soaked in hot water and scrubbed clean after intense creative painting activities, and his energy level has considerably dropped in the past ten minutes. He nods and takes the crayons Lan Wangji is giving him without protesting.

Wei Ying opens his mouth the moment he sees Lan Wangji reappear, probably to say something unnecessary along the lines of “I don’t need help”, but he changes ideas when he sees Lan Wangji’s face.

“Are you alright Lan Zhan? You look a bit weird?” he frowns. The dry purple paint on his forehead crackles, small flecks catching in his eyebrows.

Lan Wangji wordlessly takes a wet cloth on the sink. He is not alright. He has been stupid, and Lan Wangji is not used to acting stupidly. He hopes Wei Ying will forgive him. In his defense, Wei Ying is very good at making him stupid.

Right now for instance.

Right now Wei Ying is looking up at him from where he’s crouching on the floor, with his head tilted up and blue hair in his grey eyes. His lips are as red as the paint on his left cheek. One would be hard pressed to guess the original color of his clothes. He is a mess, even more than usual.

Wei Ying is always a mess.

Lan Wangji has never loved anything as messy as him in his life, but then again, there are very few things he has ever loved as much as he loves Wei Ying, so it doesn’t really mean anything.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying’s frown deepens.

He looks confused, a bit concerned. Ah. Of course, he doesn’t know that Lan Wangji is currently working on how to tell him he loves him.

Lan Wangji thinks that as much as he loves him, Wei Ying is a little stupid too. Wei Ying knows every important and unimportant thing there is to know about him. It shouldn’t be so hard to figure this one out, when Lan Wangji is feeling it so intensely every minute, every waking moment and admittedly quite often in his dreams too. Especially in his dreams.

Lan Wangji has dreamed a lot about Wei Ying, in an embarrassingly wide range of circumstances. The present moment feels so much like an extension of those dreams that the only way he knows it’s real is the fact that he is not reaching out to smooth the frown on Wei Ying’s face with his fingers, or his lips maybe.

Not yet.

“I will finish cleaning up” Lan Wangji says, because it’s the polite thing to do when one’s son has ruined their loved one’s kitchen. “You should go take a shower.”

“Ah…” Wei Ying raises his hands at eye level and turns them to examine them. “I should, right. Okay, here I go.”

He stands up, putting his hands on his knees for leverage and smearing more paint on his jeans as he does. Looking attentively at his face, Lan Wangji finds a spot with no paint below his right ear, another one between his eyebrows, and a third one at the corner of his right eye. It is still the wrong side of the afternoon, the one when Lan Wangji hasn’t told him yet he loves him, which is why he doesn’t lean in to kiss him there. Lan Wangji resents it very much. Those three spots are clearly begging for him to kiss them, but he holds it in.

Just a little longer.

Wei Ying gives him a long, appraising stare. “You look really strange Lan Zhan. Are you sure you’re alright?”

Lan Wangji nods, distracted. The spot below his ear especially is really appealing.

“Go take your shower” he says and lifts his hand to show the wet cloth in it, as evidence that he’s being perfectly normal, just a normal Lan Wangji whose deepest desire right now is to clean a kitchen. “I’ll finish here.”

“Alright” Wei Ying takes two steps in the direction of the bathroom, before he whirls around. “Ah Lan Zhan, don’t clean here okay! I want to keep it like that!”

Lan Wangji follows the direction of his finger, until his gaze falls upon one of the cupboards. There are two handprints on the white surface. A small yellow one and a bigger red one, slightly overlapping. Lan Wangji’s heart does a wild, thumping thing inside his chest.

They really should have done that hand paint thing at his place.

It is very clear now, Lan Wangji’s kitchen urgently needs a hand paint makeover. If there is still enough paint, maybe they can do that tomorrow afternoon, after opening the presents and eating lunch. If there is no more paint, Lan Wangji can also go buy some.

“Isn’t it cute?” Wei Ying is chuckling. “A-Yuan’s hands are so small now, I want to do that every year and see how big they get!”

A pause, during which Lan Wangji ponders over ‘every year’. He’ll never (mentally) call anyone stupid again, because no one could possibly be as stupid as he is.

“What if A-Yuan’s hands grow as big as yours Lan Zhan??” Wei Ying exclaims, “my hand would look so small next to his!”

He glances down at his hands, looking upset for reasons Lan Wangji isn’t capable of deciphering now. There is something he really wants to do though, and no reason he can think of that would stop him. So he crouches, extends his right arm toward a plate full of blue paint on the floor, and dips his hand inside it. Then he carefully applies his palm on the cupboard door, on the other side of the yellow handprint.

Lan Wangji takes a moment to admire his handiwork. It looks good, their three hands next to each other. Whatever real family Wei Ying already has, he’s sure they don’t have this, because of whoever was foolish enough to prevent Wei Ying from doing brilliant messy things with hand paint.

When Lan Wangji looks at him again, Wei Ying has this half-awed, half-horrified expression on his face.

“Lan Zhan, you just…”

“I won’t clean this part” Lan Wangji tells him, standing up and walking to the sink to wash his blue hand. “Go take your shower.”

Wei Ying nods, and remains rooted on spot, staring at him.

“Shower, Wei Ying” Lan Wangji repeats, which finally startles him into action.

Wei Ying looks a bit red in the face as he leaves, but it’s hard to tell with the paint, so maybe Lan Wangji is imagining things. He doesn’t imagine however the little grunt of pain when Wei Ying hits his foot against the kitchen counter. He shakes his head.

When they will live together at Lan Wangji’s place, he’ll proof it against all hard, sharp and pointy surfaces. Unless they need a bigger place. Maybe Wei Ying would like a bigger place, one with an office for instance, where he could work on his personal photography projects. Lan Wangji will ask him. Later. After he has told him he loves him.

He cleans the kitchen.

He is aware of being in a sort of daze all throughout the process of dipping the wet cloth in water, rubbing the paint off, washing the wet cloth in the sink, wringing it off multicolored water, and starting again. Lan Wangji remembers to check up on A-Yuan at regular intervals, but the little boy doesn’t require much attention, fully absorbed in his drawings.

The kitchen is paint-free again, save for their three handprints, when Wei Ying comes back from his shower.

“Thanks Lan Zhan” he says, looking around appreciatively after he shoved his towel in the washing machine. “Wow, I don’t think my kitchen has ever been this clean!”

He laughs, the warm laughter with the sparkling grey eyes and easy smile that Lan Wangji loves so much. He remembers it was that smile he noticed the first time, when Wei Ying was still a stranger stretching on a chair at a police station.

Lan Wangji takes a moment to look at him, because why not. He can. He should. Wei Ying is beautiful, and beautiful things should be looked at.

Wei Ying looks good, alert, fresh from his shower and dressed in clean clothes (casual black pants and a burgundy and white sweater, not quite indicative of the plans he might have regarding the rest of the evening, not that Lan Wangji cares). His hair, which he always gives up blow-drying halfway, is still wet and tied into a bun, with a few wavy strands framing his face. He smells good – Wei Ying’s smell, grapefruit soap and sharp-scented minty shampoo. He’s standing one step away from him, not quite in Lan Wangji’s space but nearly. All that’s left now is to bridge a gap that speaks much more of closeness than distance.

Wei Ying looks close but not yet here, just what Lan Wangji needs to do this right.

And Lan Wangji does have a bright, blinding moment of amazing confidence when he’s one hundred percent sure that he will do it right, until he spots the speck of leftover blue paint on Wei Ying’s temple, next to his left ear. It all crumbles here.

You are an idiot, Lan Wangji’s brain is yelling at him, but it doesn’t stop his hand from reaching out.

He reaches out for an interminable few seconds until his thumb is rubbing against Wei Ying’s face, making the blue paint go away.

Lan Wangji doesn’t remove his hand when it’s done.

He can’t.

His hand is stuck. He thinks. Stuck to a patch of warm skin.

There is no longer paint on Wei Ying’s face. It’s very, very obvious now that he’s blushing hard. A pretty shade of red, if you ask Lan Wangji. He could attribute it to the shower, if it wasn’t for the fixed look in Wei Ying’s eyes or the sudden stillness of his hands. Wei Ying is never still, so maybe, maybe he’s just as overwhelmed with a massive tide of rolling feelings as Lan Wangji is right now.

Wei Ying looks like he’s barely breathing as Lan Wangji allows his fingers to do whatever it is they want to do.

They want, it turns out, to touch Wei Ying’s face.

Whatever, just do it, Lan Wangji’s brain gives in with a resigned sigh. Lan Wangji makes good of the permission and tentatively runs his fingertips against Wei Ying’s cheek. His skin is soft, which he has wondered about for months, and is glad to confirm now. His skin is warm too, but that’s not a surprise given how red Wei Ying looks. For someone who claims to be shameless, it takes very little to make him flustered. Lan Wangji feels oddly triumphant at the discovery.

“Lan Zhan…” Wei Ying croaks, which has for main effect to draw Lan Wangji’s attention to his mouth.

Wei Ying’s full, curved, red mouth. Like a ripe cherry waiting to be tasted.

Lan Wangji’s brain is telling him something that he doesn’t process, his lips already buzzing in anticipation. He’s vaguely aware of the sounds A-Yuan is doing in the background, oblivious of what is going on as he mutters to himself while absorbed in his drawing. A-Yuan could go hours without talking before, and now he mutters to himself. It’s all thanks to Wei Ying. It’s another thing Lan Wangji will have to tell him, later. He has so many things he wants to tell him.

It feels fitting, somehow. That now Wei Ying is silent and Lan Wangji wants to talk.

His fingers wander down to Wei Ying’s lips, barely touching. Wei Ying’s sharp intake of breath is so loud it rivals the pounding of blood in his ears. Lan Wangji brushes his fingers across his mouth once, reverently, before his hand moves to cup Wei Ying’s warm face and he meets his eyes again. Wei Ying is so still under his touch, so open under his gaze – a water mirror waiting to be rippled, a question wanting to be answered, silence needing to be filled.

“I want to kiss you” Lan Wangji says, because it’s the polite thing to say before you kiss someone, in case they disagree.

He is nearly sure Wei Ying will not disagree.

He has been nearly sure for a while now. Maybe since the night when Wei Ying caught his hand across the kitchen table. Or that evening mid-November, when he was preparing dinner, and Lan Wangji had been tasting the soup when he had caught Wei Ying staring at what was undoubtedly his mouth instead of the e-mails he was supposed to be answering. Or before that. Way before that. It doesn’t matter.

“I want to kiss you very much” Lan Wangji says again, soft.

It really doesn’t cover it.

Lan Wangji would need hours to fully rattle off his list of things he’s been dreaming of that have “want” and “you” in them to Wei Ying. But “I want to kiss you” is a good way to start, and feels inevitable anyway. Wei Ying’s skin feels searing hot under his palm. There’s that spark in his grey eyes, like the red glow a hidden fire. His lips are parted, consciously or not, and he’s close enough that Lan Wangji can tell how fast he’s breathing.

Wei Ying is very close. Much closer than ever in the entire past year.

Lan Wangji kisses him.

It’s not underwhelming – nothing that is Wei Ying could possibly be. It does feel however like something they should have been doing since a long time ago, easy and necessary as breathing.

Lan Wangji feels again the full extent of how stupid he has been as his lips press against Wei Ying’s in a chaste, gentle kiss. A soft mouth. The tip of Wei Ying’s nose brushing against his cheek. Warm breaths against his skin. The wetness of his hair against his fingertips as Lan Wangji slides his hand higher around his cheek, to better hold and feel his face.

Kissing Wei Ying is simple, easy, and fits perfectly in the life-size puzzle Lan Wangji has been assembling all this time.

Their lips part with just a breath of warm air between them. It’s where Lan Wangji would have said it, surely, “I love you”, if Wei Ying hadn’t suddenly stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his chest (which is absolutely fine, and necessary, and mandatory at least once per hour from now on) then slapped one hand hard against his back (which Lan Wangji doesn’t know what it is).

“Wei Ying…” he starts, for the first time allowing some uncertainty to slip in his mind, because Wei Ying didn’t exactly agree to be kissed, although he didn’t disagree, but maybe Lan Wangji should have done it differently after all. “Wei Ying, if that’s-”

“Shut up” Wei Ying’s voice comes out muffled with his mouth is pressed against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. His arms tighten around Lan Wangji’s back so he feels authorized to return the embrace, a compensation of sorts since he isn’t allowed to speak.

Obediently, Lan Wangji says nothing for the entire next minute.

It’s a good minute. The first minute of holding Wei Ying in his arms. Lan Wangji is perfectly happy with it, but he still needs to tell him he loves him.

“Wei Ying, I-”

“I can’t… I. You. Damnit Lan Zhan, you can’t just…” Wei Ying’s stifled voice interrupts again, “all this time I’ve been like, you know, and you didn’t, so I thought, I was going crazy here and now you just, like that.”

“You’re not making any sense” Lan Wangji says with no small amount of fondness.

“I am making sense” Wei Ying’s muffled voice becomes clearer as he turns his head to the side, his cheek still pressed against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to cup his face again, already a little addicted to the feeling of his hand holding Wei Ying’s face. “I’m making perfect sense Lan Zhan” Wei Ying goes on in a slightly chocked voice, “how dare you tell me I’m not making sense now?”

“You are making sense” Lan Wangji agrees at once. Agreeing with Wei Ying is important, much more than not contradicting himself.

“Right, I’m making sense” Wei Ying sniffs. His hands shift to press fully against his back, warm and needy, and Lan Wangji goes a little weak in the knees. Maybe not so easy to get used to after all. “And you just kissed me.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t get to ask him how that is related in any way.

“Baba…” a familiar voice says awfully close, at the same time as something tugs at his trousers. “Baba, Xian-Gege is crying.”

Lan Wangji tries to pull away at once, because he needs to see Wei Ying’s face and because A-Yuan is, well, right here, but the arms around him stubbornly hold him in place.

“Wei Ying?” he probes, cautious.

“You don’t move” Wei Ying’s voice comes again, authoritative but definitely strangled. “You don’t go anywhere, Lan Wangji, or I swear I’ll… I’ll do something terrible, alright?”

“Alright” Lan Wangji complies and stops trying to pull away. He starts running his fingers against the shell of Wei Ying’s ear instead, guessing that doesn’t count as “not moving”. He’s right, based on the pleased sound that rises from around his shoulder.

“It’s alright A-Yuan” Lan Wangji adds for his son, who’s still around if he interprets correctly the slight pressure against his leg. “We are just talking.”

“Xian-Gege is crying” A-Yuan observes again, in the tone of someone who isn’t impressed with Lan Wangji’s handling of the current crisis. “There is a situation.”

That one is a sentence A-Yuan recently picked from his favorite cartoon, and has been squeezing in at the most random times.

Wei Ying makes a sound against his shoulder, halfway between a laugh and a snort. Lan Wangji shares the sentiment but says nothing, unwilling to aggravate his son in addition to the love of his life, whom he apparently upset enough for him to be crying in his arms three minutes after their first kiss.

“It’s fine A-Yuan” Wei Ying says at last, still plastered against Lan Wangji’s chest. “I’m happy, that’s all. People sometimes cry when they are happy.”

There is a long silence during which A-Yuan mulls over that confusing answer.

Lan Wangji keeps himself happily busy by moving his fingers from Wei Ying’s ear to his hairline, smoothing the short hair here, touching his forehead, his temples, the warm spot behind his ear. Wei Ying stays very still and very much glued to him. Lan Wangji can hear it now, the slightly irregular sound of his breathing, a bit thick, a bit wet. He places a kiss on top of Wei Ying’s head, rewarded by a small squeeze of the hands on his back.

“Do you want Bunny?” A-Yuan asks, having apparently resolved to take the matter into his own hands.

“I’m good A-Yuan, I don’t want Bunny” Wei Ying says at the same time as he nuzzles a wet nose against Lan Wangji’s neck, making it very clear what he wants. Lan Wangji kisses the side of his head. “I’m very happy right now.”

“Xian-Gege is crying” his son huffs in the face of this blatant contradiction.

“Am I not allowed to cry now?”

“There is a situation.”

“There is a situation” Wei Ying repeats, before he finally pulls away to look up at Lan Wangji.

His eyes are red and wet at the corners. It’s because of Lan Wangji, because of how much of an idiot he has been. He can’t bear to see Wei Ying cry. Worst of all because of him. It makes Lan Wangji want to carve his heart out from his chest, hand it to Wei Ying all red and pulsing, and have him do whatever he wants with it that’d make things better. Lan Wangji’s heart and everything in it are pretty much useless if they can’t stop Wei Ying from crying.

Lan Wangji always thought Wei Ying would be the dramatic one if (when) they ever ended up together like this, but now he’s not so sure.

“Lan Zhan, you heard your son, there is a situation” Wei Ying says again with more insistence. There is a bright, pretty, wonderful spark of laughter in his red-rimmed eyes. “What should we do with the situation?”

“We should do anything you think would fix it” Lan Wangji rubs his fingers under his eyes, conscientiously drying the last traces of the offending tears he never wants to see again. “Right A-Yuan?”

“Mnh” his son approves in a scary impression of Lan Wangji’s monosyllabic answers.

“Anything?” Wei Ying raises his eyebrows, a challenge in his eyes. “Are you sure about that? ‘Cos I’m quite a handful, if you let me have my way.”

“Anything” Lan Wangji repeats, touching his cheek with careful fingers, then the corner of his mouth, and the spot below his ear where he wanted (still wants) to kiss him earlier. It’s distracting, and he should be focusing on the conversation more, but he loves touching Wei Ying’s face. He really, really loves the way Wei Ying is looking at him right now. “Wei Ying is never a handful.”

“That’s sweet Lan Zhan, but I’m a walking disaster.”

“You are a disaster even when you are not walking” Lan Wangji says, having solid evidence of that fact, and ignores the hard slap that lands on his arm. “And you also are the best thing to have ever happened to me, Wei Ying. With A-Yuan of course.”

Wei Ying’s face twists into something complicated. As always, everything he’s feeling is written plainly on his face. He must be feeling a lot, because Lan Wangji can’t tell if Wei Ying is more pleased or annoyed or about to start crying once more. He leans forward and pecks his lips.

“We are kissing?” A-Yuan asks, sounding profoundly relieved at this turn of events.

Wei Ying chuckles before he disentangles himself from his arms. Lan Wangji isn’t happy about it, but he supposes they can’t reasonably spend the rest of their lives hugging. Lan Wangji will settle for twelve hours a day. Surely that’s manageable, if you count the nights.

“Yes, we’re kissing!” Wei Ying kneels down, grabbing A-Yuan’s face with both hands and smacking two loud kisses against each of his cheeks. “How great is that eh?!”

“You are silly” A-Yuan carries on with his merciless and terribly accurate running commentary of the Situation.

“We are very silly” Wei Ying nods, ruffling his hair. “But we’re going to do better from now on, right Lan Zhan?”

“Mnh” Lan Wangji nods, looking down at him, and then at A-Yuan, his heart full to the brim. He holds out both his hands. “Should we go home now?”

A simple question for his son. A more complex one for the man next to him, for whom Lan Wangji would have given up so much, if only for this one moment – for this one shining look in Wei Ying’s eyes – except there was nothing he needed to give up in the end.

And maybe that question isn’t such a complex one either.

Wei Ying takes his right hand at the same time as A-Yuan takes the left one. Lan Wangji tugs on Wei Ying’s hand to help him stand up, and doesn’t let go afterwards.

“I’d like that” Wei Ying says, intertwining their fingers. He’s looking at Lan Wangji the same way he did that night when he asked him to call him Wei Ying, with the same small secret smile, except it isn’t quite secret anymore.

“Yes Lan Zhan, I think I’d like to go home.”

 

****

 

They go home to Lan Wangji’s apartment.

They switch on the Christmas tree lights and pick a playlist on Lan Wangji’s phone to set the mood. Lan Wangji gets started in the kitchen while A-Yuan helps Wei Ying prepare the dinner table with three plates, three glasses and the three little paper snowmen that A-Yuan made at school last week.

In the kitchen, steam rises from the pots on the stove and condensates on the cold windowpanes as cooking smells start building over each other. Above the hush of boiling water, Lan Wangji can hear the chatter of voices disrupted by peals of echoing laughter from the living room. One is soft and fast with excitement. The other is lively and loud, as always, lined tonight with a layer of extra-bright happiness. He finds himself smiling just listening to them.

He thinks he was right, the night of their first dinner. Wei Ying is a genie of sorts, and A-Yuan and he were lucky enough to convince him to stay.

Around seven, Lan Wangji is called for a formal inspection of the dinner table.

Wei Ying and A-Yuan are wearing mirroring grins. They both have glitter all over their hands and clothes, from the glittering powder Wei Ying insisted they bought last week for A-Yuan to sprinkle above the table. Wei Ying was right, the golden glitter does look good on the table. Although it looks good on the two of them too. Lan Wangji praises them with a hand on A-Yuan’s head and a long look at Wei Ying’s face that somehow slides down to his lips. Wei Ying flushes visibly.

Really easily flustered.

Wei Ying eclipses at this point. “Just a short call to make” he says, and is gone for thirty minutes.

When he comes back in the kitchen, he slips his hand in Lan Wangji’s and squeezes. Lan Wangji’s hand is sticky with mango juice but he squeezes back, turning to look at him. The expression on Wei Ying’s face sends his heart racing at twice its normal rate. Lan Wangji takes advantage of A-Yuan’s focus on molding star-shaped cookies to capture Wei Ying’s mouth in a kiss. That one takes them further than their first chaste peck on the lips. It takes like the wine in Wei Ying’s glass and the cookie dough he keeps stealing from the mixing bowl on the table.

The eat dinner next to the Christmas tree and, what would have been unimaginable last year, A-Yuan does most of the talking. Lan Wangji is mostly silent, content with basking in the moment, while Wei Ying prompts his son to go on with questions and comments.

Wei Ying plays with Lan Wangji’s hand under the table the whole time it takes for A-Yuan to finish his mango pudding while plodding through the retelling of a story he heard at school. Lan Wangji remembers to “mnh” at regular intervals. Lan Wangji is a horrible father for not paying attention to his son’s painstaking description of a lonely ice princess and her friends the polar foxes (that unexplainably become bunnies halfway through the story). He blames the constant running of Wei Ying’s thumb across the knuckles of his hand.

It takes a while to convince A-Yuan to go to sleep after dinner.

The little boy has remained blissfully unaware of the stares they kept exchanging all through dinner, but the particular atmosphere of the evening is not lost on him. He is not the slightest bit sleepy when bedtime comes, and demands a story, then a second, then a third, at which point Lan Wangji says “no”.

“There is a situation, baba” A-Yuan tugs pleadingly on his sleeve, with the big eyes on.

“There is a situation, Lan Zhan” Wei Ying sides with him of course, already handing him A-Yuan’s book about the three bunnies who want to escape and explore the world.

Lan Wangji resigns himself to a hundredth re-reading of the book. Wei Ying is much better than him at doing the voices of the brave bunny, the wise bunny and the scared bunny, but unfortunately he doesn’t stay with them, quietly leaving the room once A-Yuan has become absorbed in the story.

When Lan Wangji comes out of the small bedroom after kissing his son goodnight and switching on the starry night lights, the living room has been tidied. The table is empty and clean, with just the three paper snowmen lined in the center.

There is a small present under the Christmas tree, a blue box with a silver ribbon. Lan Wangji remembers Wei Ying’s “wait I forgot something” before they left his place earlier. He goes to the big bedroom, retrieves the big brown bag from the closet, and places it under the tree too.

He finds Wei Ying in the kitchen, in front of the sink, the sleeves of his sweater rolled up to his elbows as he finishes drying the mixing bowl with a dish towel.

“Hey Lan Zhan” he says, turning around when he hears him come in. “I take it he finally agreed to sleep?”

“Mnh” Lan Wangji answers, not quite registering the question.

There are traces of glitter on Wei Ying’s face, flashing gold in the kitchen’s mellow lights. A stray lock of hair is dangling in front of his eyes. With both his hands busy, Wei Ying attempts to get rid of it using his upper arm – not for the first time, based on the impatient gesture. He tsks in frustration when his hair falls right back in his eyes. He could use Lan Wangji’s help. Lan Wangji wants to help.

Lan Wangji is busy digesting the realization that they are on the right side of the evening at last.

“Lan Zhan, we need to finish wrapping A-Yuan’s gifts, right?” Wei Ying says as he puts the mixing bowl upside down next to the sink. He tucks the unruly lock of hair behind his ear, looks down and frowns as he spots a dark wet spot of water on the front of his sweater. “You said you still had some left”, he goes on, wiping his sweater with the dish towel a couple times before he gives up with a shrug and drops the towel in a heap on the sink.

Lan Wangji’s hands are itching.

“Mnh.”

“Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji wonders idly if Wei Ying likes saying his name just as much as he likes saying Wei Ying’s.

“Mnh?”

“Where did you hide the wrapping paper? I’ll help, I’m good at wrapping gifts!”

That’s a lie. Wei Ying is atrocious at wrapping gifts. He tries to do it as fast as possible, rushing through three or four presents in the time it takes for Lan Wangji to meticulously prepare one.

Lan Wangji knows this from that one time when they prepared A-Yuan’s birthday together. It was a late summer evening, in his kitchen of course. The table between them was crowded with colorful gift wrap paper, balloons to inflate and presents to wrap. There was a festival outside and they had opened the window to better hear the music and see the fireworks. Wei Ying had lined bits of scotch tape all along the edge of the table in anticipation but he got distracted looking out the window, and ended up with tape so stubbornly stuck in his hair that he lost patience and used the kitchen scissors to cut the recalcitrant strand altogether.

Wei Ying is a mess. He is always a mess.

But he is Lan Wangji’s mess.

“Lan Zhan” he says, still standing in front of the sink, his eyes on his sleeves as he tugs them back down his arms, neither too close nor too far under the yellow lights. “How long are you going to just look at me?”

On second thought, maybe a little too far.

Lan Wangji crosses the kitchen in two strides, puts his hands around Wei Ying’s wrists and pulls him forward for a kiss.

Instantly he feels himself melt into it – the softness of Wei Ying’s full lips, the skin of his thin bare wrists, his smile pressing against his mouth, his scent and warmth and presence and everything. Everything, he’s everything, and Lan Wangji lets go of his wrists to wrap his arms around him and bring him closer. Wei Ying immediately leans into him. A pair of arms loops around his neck and Lan Wangji stops thinking, delving deeper into his warm mouth, pushing him against the sink until he has Wei Ying pressed up the length of his body.

He kisses him until he feels breathless, dizzy and drunk with it, until Wei Ying’s lips go pliant under the onslaught of his mouth, until he forgets where they are and what time it is, his hands roaming over Wei Ying’s back and keeping him here, where Lan Wangji needs him. Close. Close enough that he would drown in him.

He doesn’t know how long they make out against the sink. It lasts forever and it’s over in a heartbeat, and then Wei Ying is looking up at him with red lips and wide, dark grey eyes.

Lan Wangji kisses the spot below his right ear, the one between his eyebrows, and the third one at the corner of his right eye. Then he kisses the tip of his nose and the shell of his ear and the dip of his chin, until Wei Ying is giggling and chasing his lips for another short but blazing kiss, full of smiles and wrapped toward the end in a whispered “Lan Zhan” that’s so fervent it makes him feel fragile inside.

Lan Wangji holds him tighter.

He has this.

Lan Wangji has this, and he leans his forehead against Wei Ying’s shoulder, needing a moment to hold him, to be with him, to breathe with him and know that it’s real.

He loves him and it’s real, it’s alright to have this much and not even have struggled for it, or doubted it, or made himself less or more or different for it.

Lan Wangji buries his face against Wei Ying’s neck and holds on tight. He thinks he understands why A-Yuan insistently clings onto the legs of the people he likes. Good things don’t happen all the times, so one needs to hold onto them when they come to pass.

Love especially.

Love is worth holding onto with everything you have, when it’s happy and true.

Lan Wangji breathes in deeply against his neck, his hands clutching the back of Wei Ying’s sweater. He loves Wei Ying’s scent, grapefruit and mint, wine and dish soap. He loves the shape of him, the feel of him in his arms. He loves his rather small hands, the never-ending sound of his voice, and every single one of his smiles. He loves his grey eyes when they crinkle with laughter or narrow in concentration, and the unbearable softness on his face when he’s looking at A-Yuan.

He loves him and right now, at this moment, with Wei Ying held close and his heartbeat thumping just across Lan Wangji’s own, it feels real enough to shatter him in pieces.

He wouldn’t mind spending his whole life reassembling that puzzle.

“Lan Zhan” Wei Ying starts threading his fingers through the hair at the back of his head, his voice impossibly warm and tinged with wonder. “My Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji’s heart lurches. His Lan Zhan, right. He’s glad they agree on that already.

He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t move for a long time, his forehead on Wei Ying’s shoulder, anchoring steadfastly the rest of his life into this moment, this here and now in the kitchen that has seen his everything bloom night after night, word after word, smile after smile. He doesn’t move even when Wei Ying’s fingers stop threading through his hair and when he shifts a little in his arms.

“It’s getting late” Wei Ying says.

“Mnh.”

It’s not even past Wei Ying’s “too late to leave” time yet, Lan Wangji knows without looking at the clock. He tightens his arms around his back.

“Lan Zhan” Wei Ying chuckles close to his ear. “As much as I love you, I’d hate for A-Yuan to wake up with half his presents still unwrapped in your closet.”

Then he is silent.

Unusually silent.

Nervously silent.

Lan Wangji doesn’t get it at once, and when he does, it strangely makes him feel less overwhelmed. Steadier. Grounded already in the next part of this, of them, together.

He pulls away just enough to be able to peer at Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying looks like someone who has been kissed thoroughly for several minutes, which is flushed and tousled and dark-eyed. He also looks a little hesitant as his eyes meet Lan Wangji’s, searching, asking for an answer of sorts, for a place where to land and stay.

“As much as I love you” Lan Wangji says, slow and deliberate, “I would hate that too.”

Wei Ying relaxes in his arms, which is when Lan Wangji realizes he had tensed. “Presents then?” he says with a small smile, as if nothing of importance just happened.

As if they do this all the time, saying “I love you” in Lan Wangji’s kitchen.

Lan Wangji nods and pulls away, allowing Wei Ying to take his hand and drag him toward the living room.

They finish wrapping A-Yuan’s gifts.

Wei Ying sits down cross-legged on the floor with his back to the couch. He hands him bits of scotch tape, wrapping paper or ribbons, depending on what Lan Wangji asks, having good-naturedly agreed to let him do the present wrapping and save A-Yuan’s Christmas esthetics. He’s chatting in a low voice, sipping on the wine in his glass. He keeps finding pretexts to brush his fingers and shoulders against Lan Wangji’s hands and legs. He only stops fidgeting when Lan Wangji takes his hand and kisses it, long and purposeful and looking in his eyes.

Truly, it takes next to nothing to make Wei Ying flustered.

But oh, he looks beautiful, sitting at Lan Wangji’s feet with his head tilted back to look at him, with that pretty blush riding his cheeks and the soft twinkling of the remaining glitter on his face, flickering in time with the blinking of the Christmas tree lights.

It takes no little amount of self-control for Lan Wangji to let go of his hand and focus back on gift wrapping.

Eventually, the last present is wrapped.

By then Wei Ying’s glass is empty, and his chatter has slowed to random comments that don’t quite follow with each other. His hands have slowed too, since at least two presents ago. His shoulder is fully pressed against Lan Wangji’s right leg, and if he were to move his foot, Lan Wangji could easily run it along the length of Wei Ying’s thigh.

He moves his foot.

Wei Ying makes a small noise at the back of his throat.

Lan Wangji puts the last present down on the floor, tugs on his arm a little, and the next moment Wei Ying has climbed on the couch as well, and he’s kissing him like he intends to make up on the spot for the last twenty seven minutes they didn’t spend kissing, or maybe it’s the last twelve months.

It’s messy this time, rushed and uncoordinated. Less relief at being together and wanting the same thing. More urgency and anticipation of everything they crave but have yet to say or do.

“Lan Zhan” Wei Ying keeps saying in between wet, sloppy kisses. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”

He turns breathless soon, his hands restlessly running over Lan Wangji’s shoulders, his arms, his chest and neck and face, like he doesn’t where to touch first and is trying to get his hands everywhere at the same time. Lan Wangji tugs and pulls until he manages to maneuver him on his lap and Wei Ying is settled firmly on top of him, held close by Lan Wangji’s arms around his back.

“Lan Zhan” Wei Ying says breathlessly for the umpteenth time after one particularly long and enthusiast kiss, one hand clutching the collar of Lan Wangji’s shirt and the other pressed against his nape.

“Mnh” Lan Wangji acquiesces, sliding one hand down against his side until it reaches the hem of his sweater.

“My Lan Zhan” Wei Ying says, his voice full of affection and his eyes dark with need.

The combination is devastating. Lan Wangji leans forward to take his lips in another kiss that’s all teeth and raw desire, fingers digging into Wei Ying’s hips until he arches against him with a soft moan that fans the embers of a fire he has been feeding for a long, long time.

“Your Lan Zhan” Lan Wangji manages in between two halted breaths against his lips, “yours, Wei Ying, if you would want me.”

“How the fuck are you asking that now?” Wei Ying half-complains and half-laughs, shifting on top of him in an uncalculated move that has them both gasp at the same time. Lan Wangji slips one hand under his sweater and his fingers finds bare skin. He presses them hard into the warm flesh of his lower back, relishing in the tremor that runs through Wei Ying’s body.

“Seriously, how much more obvious do you want me to be?” Wei Ying breathes unsteadily, his sweaty palm tightening around the back of Lan Wangji’s neck as he pulls even closer.

That hits real close to many of the things on Lan Wangji’s “want”-and-“you” list.

They flash through his mind in a tumbling mess of words and thoughts, a mess of them, of everything they have been and are and could be, and will be, in the next five minutes and the next two or ten or twenty years.

Lan Wangji leans forward to get his mouth on Wei Ying’s neck, fully sliding his hand under his sweater until it’s resting flat on Wei Ying’s back and he can feel the burning warmth of him, the muscles under his palm, the softness of his skin, already a little damp with sweat. Wei Ying tilts his head back obligingly and Lan Wangji trails his neck with open kisses, until he reaches one ear and bites into the tender flesh.

“Fuck, Lan Zhan” Wei Ying pants, fingers digging into his collarbone and the back of his neck. He shudders when Lan Wangji does it again, his hips stuttering forward. “Say something… ah, say something before I say something stupid and embarrass myself, please.”

“I want you” Lan Wangji offers, which is the simplest of the things on his list but pretty much encompasses all the rest.

He says it close to Wei Ying’s ear, because that’s where his mouth was, and his voice comes out halted and rough because breathing has dropped low on the list of his current priorities, but Lan Wangji registers with interest the way Wei Ying all but whimpers at the sound of it.

“Say it again” Wei Ying demands, an expert by now when it comes to the importance of saying some things twice.

“I want you” Lan Wangji complies, and again “I want you”, before he takes Wei Ying’s lips between his own and brings them both under for a couple more minutes of breathless kissing.

“We need to move” Wei Ying manages to utter once he has enough air back in his lungs to talk again. He sounds surprisingly lucid for someone with their hands halfway through unbuttoning Lan Wangji’s shirt while their neck is being devoured. “I sleep here Lan Zhan. I’m never going to find sleep on that couch again if we do any more than this.”

“That should not be a problem” Lan Wangji says against his neck, “since you’re never sleeping on the couch again.”

“Right” Wei Ying gasps when Lan Wangji’s teeth dig into the sensitive skin below his jaw, “right, okay, that, fine, what if we argue and you need me out of your hair, what then?”

“We don’t argue.”

“Lan Zhan” he gives his chest a light smack. This closer Wei Ying has an obvious tendency to hit Lan Wangji’s body parts when he doesn’t know what to say. “We will argue, that’s what couples do.”

Lan Wangji disagrees, but he’s too pleased with the word “couple” to contradict him now.

“I will forgive you” he kisses Wei Ying’s neck where his teeth just were. “I will always forgive you. You will forgive me too. You will never sleep on the couch.”

“You’re the worst” Wei Ying whines, “I’m not going to survive you, I’m going to die from how perfect you are, do you know you’re perfect you are? I’m sure you don’t, I hate this shirt, how many stupid buttons does it have?? Can I rip it off?”

He starts tugging impatiently on the hems of his shirt until Lan Wangji pushes his hands away, just the time to slip it over his head. Another intense making out session ensues when Lan Wangji stops thinking entirely, his mind full of nothing but Wei Ying’s hands hungrily roaming over his bare chest, sides, shoulders and back in random, uncoordinated patterns, his fingertips drawing lines of fire across Lan Wangji’s skin.

“What if I want to nap?” Wei Ying says against his mouth at last. It’s a mystery how he can still talk when Lan Wangji has long lost the ability to form words beside his name, but then again, it’s Wei Ying. “What then?”

“What what?” Lan Wangji manages, which is by far the single most incoherent question he has uttered in his entire life. His uncle would disown him if he knew, for real this time. Lan Wangji doesn’t want to think about his uncle now and throws the thought far, far away.

“What if I want to nap on the couch” Wei Ying insists, for some reason still fixated on the fate of a piece of furniture even as Lan Wangji’s hands are holding his waist under his sweater and his thumbs are running circles on the bare skin of his hips. Lan Wangji loves Wei Ying’s slim waist. He has wondered for a long time how his hands would feel around it, and now that he knows, Lan Wangji fears he’ll have a lot of trouble not thinking about it. “What if I’m already napping? What will you do then? Wake me up?”

“I won’t wake you up” Lan Wangji somehow fishes out an actual answer. “I’ll get you to bed.”

“Of course you- you’ll what?”

Lan Wangji is not the best at talking, doesn’t want to talk now, has always been better at expressing himself with actions rather than words. He slips his hands under Wei Ying’s thighs, takes one second to adjust, and stands up from the couch with Wei Ying scooped in his arms.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying squeals a little too loud, scrambling to put his arms around his neck again, his legs reflexively wrapping around Lan Wangji’s waist. “What are you doing??”

“Getting you to bed” Lan Wangji answers, listening carefully as they pass the closed door to the small bedroom. It’s thankfully very silent in there. Lan Wangji has never been so glad that it is separated from the big bedroom by the entire length of the corridor, the bathroom and a large closet.

“Oh fuck” Wei Ying groans, letting his head fall forward against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “You know right? You’re doing this on purpose, so you’ve noticed right? Right?? Oh no, I knew you’d noticed…”

“Noticed?” Lan Wangji shifts until he manages to open the door to the big bedroom with his knee.

“Noticed me watching you, I mean, you know, your damn arms” a light slap lands on his left arm, “come on Lan Zhan, at least you must remember that day when we went to the swimming pool and A-Yuan’s friend fell in the water?”

“Mnh” Lan Wangji stops at the entrance of the bedroom and tries to switch on the lights with his elbow, confused about how his rescue of a drowning child could be related to the man currently exploring his bare back with hot, hungry, very distracting hands.

“You got that kid out of the water with one hand Lan Zhan” Wei Ying whines against his neck just as Lan Wangji manages to switch on the lights. “One fucking hand, do you have any idea how sexy that was?! I dropped my phone in the foot bath when you did it, I looked at nothing else but your freaking biceps for the rest of the afternoon, I even lied there was a fly on it to touch your arm, it was so embarrassing I had to go to the changing cubicle to shout in a towel, you must have noticed??”

“Was it the day you were wearing those shorts?” Lan Wangji asks, though he now remembers said day very well. Those were very memorable shorts.

Wei Ying lets out a strangled laugh, which turns into a squeal when Lan Wangji drops him on his back on the mattress.

Lan Wangji crawls on top of him and looks down at his face.

Wei Ying, unsurprisingly, is smiling. His lips are red, shiny, swollen from all the kissing they’ve started catching up on. His grey eyes are blown and swirling with the same mix of need and affection Lan Wangji spotted earlier, except it has grown tenfold, intense, unabashed, not withholding anything. There’s some glitter left above his right eyebrow, and a reddening string of bite marks along the column of his neck. His long hair is half undone, spilling on Lan Wangji’s pristine pillow.

It suits him.

It suits him – the redness of his mouth and of the marks blooming on his skin where Lan Wangji’s mouth has been, the flush on his cheeks that’s not just from the wine, the brightness of his eyes afire with want and imbued with love, the black tangled flow of his hair against the whiteness of the sheets. The radiating warmth of his body waiting for Lan Wangji’s touch, drumming with the same needs as his, already reaching for more.

It suits him, and Lan Wangji decides he wants him like this tonight, and the night after that, and the night after that.

And all the nights that follow.

 

*****

 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Lan Wangji reflects in the part of his brain that is not incoherent yet with mounting panic, that Wei Ying is the kind of parent with zero inhibitions about having an anxiety attack in front of the staff’s desk of a supermarket.

“Where is the microphone? Aren’t you supposed to have a microphone somewhere??”

Wei Ying doesn’t have experience however, unlike Lan Wangji who has already lost a child once.

“Come on, it’s that thing right?! I can see it, what are you waiting for?! Just switch the damn thing on!”

Wei Ying doesn’t know that it’s useless shouting in the face of the ever-so-bored person in charge (it happens all the time, children wandering off in stores, panicked parents at the desk, useless noise and agitation). The more he yells, the more they will delay handing them the forms and making the announcements.

“Why are you just looking at me?! I’m telling you my son is gone!!”

Still, it’s cathartic, Lan Wangji muses. Wei Ying screaming out loud what he’s politely yelling inside his head. Another way they complement each other. Wei Ying doing the outward panicking while he does the inward. Wei Ying’s knack for finding the items on offer at the bottom of shelves while Lan Wangji is tall enough to reach the highest ones. Wei Ying liking to sleep on top of him while Lan Wangji enjoys being slept on.

They have complemented each other from the very first day, when Wei Ying found the child that Lan Wangji had lost.

Except this time they have both lost a child.

“We were picking salads” Wei Ying is saying to the unmoving clerk, wringing his hands and sounding a little desperate. “Say that in your announcement okay? A little boy, very very cute, around this size, next to the salads. Ah, do you need a picture?! I have lots of pictures, wait a minute.”

“Please fill out this form Sir” the clerk slides a paper across the counter while looking at Lan Wangji, having mistakenly identified him as a non-panicking parent, as Wei Ying brandishes his phone in his face.  

Lan Wangji fills out the form while Wei Ying continues taking charge of the yelling, with enough persistence to draw a second person to the desk.

“It’ll be fine Sir” the woman says with a smile and tone of voice that Lan Wangji recognizes from last time as calmly professional. “Don’t worry, it happens all the time, we’ll find your son. There’ll be no problem.”

“How do you know that?!” Wei Ying counters at once then makes a U-turn. “Of course there’ll be no problem, A-Yuan is a good kid, the smartest kid, right Lan Zhan? Why are you saying it happens all the time?? So you’re doing nothing to prevent it?! Do you have any idea how traumatic it is for children when they get lost??”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know about children, but he does know about parents.

He hands the form back to the clerk and puts his hand above Wei Ying’s.

“We will find him” he says, and doesn’t wince when Wei Ying grabs his hand in a crushing grip.

The announcement is made, and even includes a mention of salads on Wei Ying’s insistence. A few people have gathered near the desk by then, store employees and some clients. A middle-aged woman comes forth and asks if she can help. Lan Wangji notes to himself that yelling does come with advantages, as Wei Ying nearly weeps in gratitude and starts showing the pictures of A-Yuan on his phone to her.

Ten minutes later A-Yuan still hasn’t been found in spite of the additional help, and Lan Wangji is starting to feel a little sick.

It was fine the first time in the end, because while he didn’t know at the time, Wei Ying was out there, ready to rescue his son.

But this time Wei Ying is right here, with him. There is no one to find A-Yuan.

“Are you freaking out?” Wei Ying asks with a dismayed look at his face. “Please tell me you’re not. Oh no. Oh my god. Oh my god Lan Zhan you are freaking out. What is it? It’s serious right?! It’s been too long? I knew it’s been too long, we need another announcement, make another announcement! Why aren’t you, I don’t know, barricading this damn place or something?!”

Things are starting to turn ugly, with security staff marching through the hall in their direction as Wei Ying is attempting to take the microphone and call A-Yuan himself, when Lan Wangji hears it.

“Baba!! Dada!!”

The abrupt wave of relief is so strong he nearly collapses on the floor.

Because Wei Ying really complements him so well, he does collapse on the floor, showcasing a range of public displays of a relief that Lan Wangji feels, down to his bones, but can only dream of ever expressing so openly in his life.

“A-Yuan sweetheart!” Wei Ying shouts, opening his arms as the child removes his hand from a woman’s grasp and barrels into his arms. “Where have you been?! Are you alright? Are you hurt anywhere??”

Lan Wangji kneels down next to them, his ears buzzing, vaguely aware of the people moving and talking around them. The boots of the security guards are already turning in another direction.

“A-Yuan are you okay?” he asks when he manages to catch his son’s eyes and Wei Ying’s voice has lowered to a wet, muffled string of “my little radish”, “my sweet baby” and “if you do that again I’ll die”.

“I’m sorry baba” his son says softly, his hands clasped around Wei Ying’s neck. His dark eyes are wide and relieved but slightly uncertain. “There was a bunny.”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes and breathes in deeply.

“A-Yuan…” he starts, then feels a light touch on his shoulder.

“Would you mind moving elsewhere Sir?” the calm and professional woman is saying with a strained smile.

Lan Wangji realizes that they are in the middle of the hall, with a growing circle of onlookers gathering around them as Wei Ying deals with the remnants of his anxiety the only way he knows, which is by muttering to himself like a madman while inspecting every inch of A-Yuan’s body. He dropped his bags the moment they arrived at the desk earlier, and there is flour all over the right leg of his jeans. His eyes are red and wet at the corners as A-Yuan conscientiously wipes the last of the tears on his dada’s cheeks. His hair makes a wild crown around his head, ruffled from having been threaded through mercilessly in anguish.

Wei Ying is a mess.

But he is Lan Wangji’s and A-Yuan’s mess, and he lets them take each one of his hands as he stands up from the floor.

He doesn’t look the slightest bit embarrassed as he smacks his jeans to remove the flour. Wei Ying even throws the clerk behind the desk a malevolent glare, which is returned with equal silent violence, before he turns around to ardently thank the middle-aged women who offered to help and the younger one who ended up finding A-Yuan.

“It was no trouble, your son is very cute” she says, and Wei Ying beams in answer.

Lan Wangji takes his hand, thanks her, then drags him away before Wei Ying can launch into a eulogy about A-Yuan’s cuteness. They retrieve their bags. Wei Ying insists on taking most of them – “go look after your son Lan Zhan, I can’t do it, I don’t ever want to be responsible for losing him again”. The crowd of onlookers is dispersing and the space in front of the desk is empty once more, save from the cleaning staff mopping the floor where the flour pack fell.

“Baba?” A-Yuan asks, staring up at him as he holds out his hand. He still looks a little unsure.

Lan Wangji takes his hand and squeezes tight.

“It’s alright, I’m not angry A-Yuan” he says, and smiles back when a genuine smile surfaces on his son’s face.

“Wei Ying” Lan Wangji asks, glancing around. “Are you ready? Can we go home?”

A hand slips in his free one, and he turns his head only to find Wei Ying just behind him. The smile on his face is a little sheepish. Sorry, he mouths, and Lan Wangji shakes his head. There’s no need.

He squeezes his hand too. The ring on Wei Ying’s finger feels cold against his skin, and he intertwines their fingers for it to warm faster. It’s a simple gold band, engraved on the inside with the date when he first met him. Lan Wangji offered it to him around a year ago. Wei Ying cried when he saw it. Wei Ying, it turns out, never cries unless he’s profoundly happy (or extremely relieved, like now). Lan Wangji got used to it.

It isn’t anything bad.

It rather suits him – tears of happiness making his eyes shine brighter than usual, when that happiness is one Lan Wangji can claim responsibility for. Lan Wangji always wants to be part of Wei Ying’s happiness, every moment of every day. He always want to be there, somewhere, whether Wei Ying is laughing or crying those precious tears of his.

That’s how selfish he is.

With Wei Ying on one side and A-Yuan on the other, Lan Wangji starts walking toward the exit.

The two of them are already talking, on either side of him.

There is the sound of their voices echoing each other, leaving silences in the right spaces should Lan Wangji want to join. There is a warm breeze blowing, making A-Yuan’s short hair flutter and Wei Ying’s long one dance around his face. There is the warmth of their hands, held securely in Lan Wangji’s grasp. There is how neither of them pays attention to where they are going as Lan Wangji guides them toward the parking lot, making sure that Wei Ying’s way is clear from any obstacle and that they are not walking too fast for A-Yuan’s still short legs.

There is how much Lan Wangji tries to give them, every moment of every day – a home, a home with flowers and meals taken together, with stars on the walls and ceiling and late night talks in the kitchen’s dim lights. A home where nothing matters but what they want to be for each other.

There is how Lan Wangji is the one who keeps receiving more, and more, and more, until he feels saturated with the warmth of their love. And it’s alright.

Between them, Lan Wangji is right where he should be.

 

*****