He's already sitting at the end of the bar when Wangji walks in, easy to notice, haloed under one of the floating exposed-bulb fixtures. Probably on purpose. Wangji appreciates the directness. He spent the elevator ride to the rooftop lounge worrying about spotting him; whether he was going to have to walk around glancing at tables like a ditched date, a stalker, someone missing a briefcase. This is much easier. Unlike Wangji, this must not be his first time.
He's wearing the outfit he described in the confirmation: a black designer shirt, black slacks just a shade shy of skintight. The shirt's got printing on it, but Wangji supposes that wasn't worth mentioning. It's definitely him. He's almost the only man in here who looks under thirty. And he's beautiful. Achingly, shockingly beautiful. He freezes Wangji in the entryway for a moment, heating and chilling him at once: the long slim angle of his neck, his broad shoulders and slim waist, his purposefully disheveled hair. He's much more beautiful than his picture, which Wangji sees now was artfully angled but not exactly accurate. Maybe it's easier that way. He might have another job, one that would… look down unfairly on other sources of income. It's hardly something Wangji could or would complain about: is there such a thing as an escort who's too good-looking? If so, this is him. Nobody else in the bar, or out on the street, or who Wangji's seen lately in all those boring in-flight magazines could hold a candle to him. And for fifteen hundred dollars Wangji will have his company for three hours, time exactly for a cocktail and a long leisurely dinner. Wangji thought it might be too much time, padded a little in case the courses come slowly, but suddenly it doesn't seem like quite enough: not the time, or the money either. He imagines walking up to this stranger, touching his arm lightly. Saying, I'm sorry, this can't happen, you're too beautiful. So beautiful you frighten me a little. I don’t think I could pay what it’s worth to stand near you.
The man tilts his head back, right then, laughing at something the bartender's just said. He laughs sincerely, delightedly, full-throated and deep. Wangji thinks for a moment, very pathetically, in the safety of his own head, that it would be nice if he laughed that way for Wangji tonight. Just once would be enough. But Wangji has tried to hold reasonable expectations: he's paying to be kept company, not to be genuinely liked. If money could buy that, he'd have grown up with friends.
Wangji gathers himself and comes up to the bar. Leans in close enough to be heard, but not so close that he's looming.
"Mo Xuanyu?" he says, and Mo Xuanyu turns and looks up at him, and his handsome eyes—pretty at a distance, but staggering up close, the color of whiskey, red oak—do something strange. They go wide and curious and then skim up and down Wangji like Wangji is a plate-glass window in a high-rise being squeegee'd clean. Mo Xuanyu's mouth opens and shuts. As nice as that is to watch, Wangji starts to feel embarrassed at the once-over. Didn't he send a picture? A plain one taken in even light from the front, in this exact outfit? To confirm he wasn't an identity thief, an axe-murderer? Not that a picture could confirm that, but still. "Mo Xuanyu?" Wangji repeats.
"Sure," he says, faintly, and then smiles. "Just my luck. You could've called me anything you wanted to."
Wangji doesn't understand.
"What am I supposed to call you?"
"Oh. Uh. Oh!" he says, more brightly. "Um, you can call me Wei Ying?" he says, like it's a question.
Maybe this was a mistake.
"Wei Ying," Wangji repeats, to be certain, and Wei Ying's eyes dilate a little, and his mouth curves up. "Lan Wangji."
It's not what's written on his birth certificate, or how he appears in the company directory, but it's not a fake name, either. That felt... overcautious. But also kind of gauche. Just because their evening will be paid for, Wangji didn't think it had to be a lie. He's lonely, not ashamed of being in a restaurant with a… handsome, slightly younger man. There's no one left in the family that gossip would surprise. Nor would it hurt him professionally. CloudGroup has a strict commitment to Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Leaving the CEO's nephew out of water-cooler conversations, at least when he's in earshot. He’s been clear, maybe even zealous, about his boundaries at work. It does somehow make Wangji's skin crawl to think of anyone knowing he paid for company, though he’s not wholly certain why: without any connotations of sex, is it so very different from hiring a driver, which he does constantly? Maybe it is. Maybe Wei Ying privately finds people like him disgusting. Maybe his drivers do, too. But he couldn’t really think of an alternative. He's not even in the same time zone as anyone he likes. It's this or another solitary dinner, and Wangji can't bear it. He truly can’t. He's doing so much better than he was last year, he can give himself credit for that. But even so. This isn’t a night he can dare spend alone.
"God," Wei Ying says, after the introductions, in an admiring tone of voice, like Wangji's really impressed him somehow. He doesn’t seem disgusted. "You don't waste any time at all, do you?" he grins. Wangji flushes, embarrassed. Isn't that the point of this? But then Wei Ying makes a musical little laugh with a hand over his mouth, not quite his belly-laugh from before, and says, "oh no, that's a compliment. No, I really like that. I like people who get right to the point. My friends call me tactless, but I just like to know what other people are really thinking. It's so hard to tell sometimes, when somebody's pretending. Like, do you secretly hate me? Just say so! It's stupid to beat around the bush."
"It is," Wangji says, slowly, surprised. It really is.
"But you sure don't!" Wei Ying smiles. "I mean, look at you in that gorgeous suit, coming right up here and just… getting to it. Wow. So are you going to buy me a drink or what?"
"Oh," Wangji says, "of course." He makes eye contact with the bartender. "What would you like?"
"To never wake up," Wei Ying mutters, and then says, "um, they have this… really good habanero margarita?" It sounds disgusting but Wangji orders it without flinching, and a spritzer for himself, and then Wei Ying really does laugh. "A spritzer?" he says. "I'm sorry. Oh fuck, I'm being really mean, aren't I. I just thought you'd be like… I don't know, hmm. Rye, neat? Or no. A martini? A really expensive pinot noir? You know what? Ignore me. I don't know a thing about fancy alcohol. You should drink whatever you want. Oh cute, there's a little rosemary sprig in it!" he says, when the bartender hands over Wangji's drink. "I’m jealous now. I should have gotten the same thing."
They sip their drinks for a minute, chatting idly. Mostly on Wei Ying’s side. He’s still watching Wangji with oddly assessing eyes, as if he's trying to work something out. It makes Wangji feel nervous. And excited, for no logical reason at all. This is essentially a business meeting. He's fine at those. Maybe that means the pressure's off. Maybe Wangji's brain should power down and let him enjoy it.
"You… like the cocktails here?" Wangji asks, and then mentally slaps himself with a brick. Too far in the other direction, he thinks. This is a high-end cocktail lounge on the top floor of a high-end business hotel; if this is Wei Ying's line of work, he's tasted the drinks here before. But Wei Ying just nods and pops a little twist of candied ginger off a skewer and into his mouth.
"A friend of mine works here," he says. "Sommelier. Actually, that makes it even more embarrassing that I'm wine-ignorant, doesn't it." He leans in; his knee brushes Wangji's leg. "Don't tell anybody, I come here to get the employee discount," he whispers, and laughs again. "But I love it up here. It's even better in the summer when they open up the deck. I'd still come up and sit if I could only drink water. It's such a beautiful view, don't you think?"
Wangji hadn't noticed, actually. He'd been looking at Wei Ying.
But here at the end of the bar there's a clear view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows, panoramic and dazzling: they're on the fortieth floor, looking out over the rest of the high-rises. At this angle he can see the spanning bridge that links the business district to the waterfront, the cutaway where the buildings drop off precipitously into the bay. It's just past sunset and all the lights are on, all the headlights, shimmering against the eerie blue-black sky. It's too bright for stars but if the power went out, they'd be vivid and clear tonight, sharpened by the bitter temperature and the thin, cloudless air. When he'd walked out of the terminal three days ago into the waiting car, he'd stopped for a moment and opened his mouth and tasted winter, pure and cold, like a porcelain plate. He can't remember the last time he was in the mountains, but he remembers what the air was like there in January, still.
He looks for a little too long.
"I'm sorry," he says, remembering himself. "I didn't hear the last thing you just said." But Wei Ying just smiles at him again, a little less brightly. More softly.
"You're kind of sentimental, aren't you," Wei Ying says. "Nobody looks out a window that way unless they're a little sentimental." He leans forward, rests his cheek on one hand. "I like that, too. You have hidden depths, Mr. Confidence."
Wangji looks into his glass. No responses surface.
"I have a dinner reservation in fifteen minutes," he says, finally. "Downstairs. Is that alright?"
"Oh," Wei Ying says, and sits up, nervously. "I mean, yeah. Of course. Thanks for the drink. This was… this was really fun," he says, strangely subdued, and Wangji lifts his head to look at him. Does he think Wangji wants to call things off? He doesn't. Less and less every minute. Nobody besides Xichen has ever referred to spending time with Wangji as fun.
"You're… not hungry? Would you rather do something else?"
Wei Ying's cheeks flare scarlet for a second, and then he laughs and takes a huge sip of his drink.
"I don't want to mess up your plans."
"You are my plans," Wangji says, very honestly, and Wei Ying stares at him.
"Fuck," he says, after a second. "That wasn't even a line."
"No," Wangji says. He's really not sure how this is supposed to work. None of this is happening the way he imagined it would. And the spritzer is making his teeth ache a little. Wei Ying is still staring at him. He downs the rest of his drink and slides off the chair. Grabs his giant, puffy coat off the back.
"Okay," he says. "Let's get crazy." He holds out a hand. Wangji just looks at it, uncomprehending. "Come on, take me to dinner."
Wangji catches up and takes his hand. It's warm and a little damp, from the condensation on his glass. Touching him sends a jolt through Wangji's body, hopefully an imperceptible one. Wei Ying squeezes his fingers and says, "god, you've got nice hands, if this is a hallucination it's amazing," and then somehow they're walking to the elevator, and Wangji is pressing the buttons from somewhere far outside his body. He manages through miraculous muscle-memory to pick the right floor.
When the doors shut, and they're alone with their million mirrored selves, Wei Ying fidgets and then says, in an oddly shy tone, "I don't, um. Normally. This is pretty fast, even for me."
Does he mean the hand-holding? He still hasn't let go. It felt fast to Wangji, too. And unexpected. He hadn't assumed they would touch. He was clear in his messages that it wasn't remotely expected. When Wei Ying had reached for him he'd thought, maybe he's trying to make me comfortable. To make it feel as if they were just another couple, going to a nice dinner out. Wangji had thought it was kind.
"Is it… alright?"
"Yeah," Wei Ying says. "It's fine. I mean, that makes no sense," he counters at himself, and then laughs. "But it's fine somehow. Can I ask you, though? Why would you… why me? I'm just curious."
"Why not you?" Wangji says, a little flustered. For the first time he thinks, maybe Wei Ying isn't as practiced at this as he seemed. He must know how appealing his picture is, how heart-stopping he is in reality; the combination of those two things in succession was overwhelming. Is he new at this? Does he not get many messages? Have other people walked away before? Looked at him and turned around? Cancelled their appointments? That seems impossible. Wangji thought about doing that, purely out of anxiety, but he couldn't have, not after seeing him under the lights. It was intimidating, thinking about going through with it. Actually taking a stranger to dinner. But from the minute he looked at Wei Ying, from the moment he’d heard him laugh, he'd known he would have to try. "Who wouldn't want to spend time with you?" Wangji says.
Wei Ying looks at him; in the mirror a thousand Wei Yings look at a thousand Wangjis.
"I don't know," Wei Ying says, in a wondering tone. "I don't know why I asked." He glances away again, his fingers still clasped between Wangji's. In the mirror Wangji watches him tuck his coat between his thighs so that he can fuss with the tucked-in hem of his shirt, tousle up the side of his hair, all one-handed. "I hope what I'm wearing is okay."
"It's good," Wangji says. "You look good."
"I guess I must," Wei Ying says, and then he smiles and bites his teeth into his bottom lip for a second, devastatingly, and before Wangji can drop dead the doors to the elevator slide open, and the hostess station appears.
They're put in one of the smaller dining rooms, at a two-top right up against the giant windows, towards the back corner. Probably the most private table in the whole restaurant. Wangji's tested out a few before; this hotel is part of his quarterly rotation. His seating request for tonight was very specific and they've obliged nicely, for which he plans to tip fifty percent minimum. "This is spectacular," Wei Ying says, nose nearly pressed to the glass. "It's funny, I hate walking through this part of the city, but I love looking down on it."
Wangji rarely walks in this neighborhood, though he's stayed here half a dozen times in the last few years. There's a gym and a pool and pickup dry-cleaning and three restaurants in the tower, so he's almost never bothered to step out. Unless it's to get into the car and be whisked away to meetings.
"Why do you hate it?"
"Well, it's all hotels," he says, and laughs. "Actually, no, it’s that there are just so many fucking driveways. Every tower has like, three. No matter where you walk somebody's driver or delivery van is halfway to mowing you down. And all the courtyards have that… what do you call it. Hostile architecture."
"I don't know what that is."
Wei Ying snorts.
"It's when you build a nice little plaza and then you put sharp spikes on all the edges of the planters so homeless people can't lie there," he says. Wangji must make a face, because Wei Ying points the menu at him and says, "yeah, exactly, exactly it. So now you know, this neighborhood sucks."
Wangji hadn't ever thought about it before, not once, but now he can recall riding through town in the back of the car, staring out into an endless series of flat concrete zones where people bustled through without stopping. He hadn't looked at the benches. He'd barely looked at the people. Most of those rides he's spent staring into documents on his phone, anyway. Strange to imagine stopping, getting out. Going somewhere for lunch, just wandering around. Idle and curious, like a tourist. He never has the time. No, that's not true. He doesn't know how to make the time. He wouldn’t know where to start.
"I don't know this city very well," Wangji admits.
"Your first time?" Wei Ying says, chin in his hands. Wangji wonders if he's making a joke. It doesn't look like he is.
"No," he says. "But it's always for business."
"Ah," Wei Ying says. "Where are you from?"
"That's where tv is from!" Wei Ying says, lighting up. "I mean, like, the whole tv industry—"
"There's always something filming in Robson Square," Wangji says, nodding. "Our corporate headquarters looks over it. My co-workers hate it because it moves the food trucks around."
"Ha, I bet," Wei Ying says. "Then have you ever met anyone famous?"
Wangji thinks about it.
"Jeff Bezos," he says. “Through work.” Wei Ying's face screws up with distaste.
"What was that like."
"He was a prick," Wangji says, and Wei Ying laughs for him then, a good real laugh, so loud that someone comes over very anxiously to refill their water and tell them about the chef's additions.
Wei Ying gets lamb and Wangji gets vegan scallops on a sweet potato puree and Wei Ying drinks several glasses of wine to Wangji’s second spritzer and tells Wangji all about being an admissions administrator for the city college, which is another thing Wangji's never thought of once in his life but is suddenly eager to hear all about. Wei Ying makes the students sound funny and interesting, the bureaucratic struggles so vivid, like battles. He likes helping people, Wangji thinks. He likes solving problems, getting people on track. He’s utterly captivating to listen to. It has the side-effect of making Wangji realize how many of his normal conversations are about the same few things: flying, portfolio management, the grain-free diet of Xichen's Lhasa Apso, Vancouver real estate fluctuations, Qiren's recalcitrant joints. His life’s so small, somehow. It goes in circles.
"Full disclosure, I was a dropout," Wei Ying laughs. "I never thought I'd step foot on a campus again after that. But now I'm taking classes part-time, too. They do tuition waivers. I'll probably have a Master's finished in… another year and change? Maybe three semesters?"
"What's your focus?"
"Information systems. I like project management." He waves his fingers over the table like he's juggling invisible marionettes. "I'm power mad. I want to order people around so they'll do things the right way."
"The first time?" Wangji adds, and Wei Ying's mouth curls up while he pops a red bite of lamb into it.
"See, you get it,” he nods. “So what does a risk analyst do?"
Wangji is very tempted to say, mostly think about not being a risk analyst anymore.
"I look for danger," Wangji says. "Try to figure out where a company or a portfolio is weakest, so they can shore it up with better investments, divert or divest if needed."
"I presume this involves… stocks," Wei Ying says, raising an eyebrow.
"You presume correctly."
"What else," Wei Ying says, and leans on the table, closer and closer. "What else do you do? What do you like? Besides bringing random peasants to the most fabulous dinner of their lives, of course. What do you do for fun?"
"I… play music."
"Cello." He hasn't really played it in a long time. It's not particularly transportable. And more than that, he hasn't felt moved to touch it lately. Lately everything reminds him that there is no one around to listen. He's forced himself into scales and finger placement exercises, but when he opens one of his old scores something weighs his arms down, aches deep in his back.
He knows what it is, of course. He doesn't want to know, but he does.
"Are you serious?" Wei Ying says. His jaw actually drops, like in cartoons. "Cello is literally the sexiest part of the orchestra. Wow. I am… you know, surprised is the wrong word. This just confirms everything. I wondered, but it all makes sense now."
"Yeah," he says. "Tall hot guy, perfect suit, perfect hair, fancy incomprehensible job, no offense—"
"None taken," Wangji says, to make him grin, and it does.
"And to top it all off, bam. Cello! I know what's happening now. This is a coma fantasy. I'm having a coma fantasy in a drama. You're like, the sexy grim reaper who's come into my memories to get me to leave my regrets behind. I was probably run over by some undergrad's illegal scooter and I'm flopping on the pavement in my death throes."
Wangji's stomach clenches for a second, putting a sour taste in his mouth. He looks down at his half-finished food, willing himself not to spiral down into his own thoughts. It doesn't matter. Wei Ying can't have known. The food is good, and he's not alone. It's fine. It's so much better than he even expected. He’s fine. "Hey," Wei Ying says. "I'm sorry. Did I say something stupid?"
"No," Wangji says. He makes himself look up, reach for his water glass. Take a sip. "You're fine."
"I'm a stranger, remember?" Wei Ying says. "You don't have to lie to me. Tell me what I said wrong."
"It wasn't wrong," Wangji says. "It's really fine."
"Okay," Wei Ying says, dubiously. He slides a hand across the table to where Wangji's clutching his napkin too tightly; his fingers go around Wangji's wrist, gentle but firm. "But now you have to eat dessert," he says. "And you're obligated to enjoy it. Okay?"
"Okay," Wangji says.
It's mango sorbet. He does enjoy it. Wei Ying even takes a bite from his spoon.
Wangji takes care of the check while Wei Ying's in the restroom, and only then does he realize he's got two missed calls from a private number and a series of unread DMs. He didn't even feel his phone in his pocket. He wasn't paying attention to anything else. When he opens the app his heart drops into his shoes, and from there through the floor, and into the center of the earth.
The first message says, running just two minutes late! see you soon. The second one says, are you here? is that you at the elevators? turn around and you’ll see me! And then, about fifteen minutes later, remember that my cancellation fee is 50% of the balance due.
Wangji's fingers fumble over the keys, but he manages to get out Wei Ying????
There are typing dots, and then, did you message the wrong person? i've already left. i'll send you the secure link for the cancellation fee. if you pay that you can rebook with me. otherwise bye bye.
Wangji's eyes focus and unfocus for a long minute. He drops the full balance into the link out of automatic courtesy; he hates to have his own time wasted. And then Wangji sets the phone face-down on the table.
A waiter brings him his credit card back.
The room swims.
When Wei Ying comes back to the table, he's already carrying his coat. "Wei Ying," Wangji says, standing up too fast and feeling dangerously unsteady, "I have to tell you something—"
"Look," Wei Ying interrupts. "Look outside!"
"It's snowing," Wangji says, kind of stupidly, transfixed. It's flurrying softly but thickly, a pretty wall of glowing white, muting the streetlights into lanterns. Not a mundane snow but the snow of childhood, of fantasy. Wei Ying is pulling his big coat on; he slips a hand around Wangji's elbow.
"Let's go out," he says. "Take a walk. You want to?"
"I… okay," Wangji says. Outside is better, Wangji thinks. If Wei Ying wants to… yell at him. Swear at him. Walk away.
"You need to get a coat?"
"I'll be fine," Wangji says.
"Mm, a hardy northern type, I see, I see," Wei Ying says, and tugs him into the elevator. A thousand mirrored Wangjis stare accusingly back at them on the ride downstairs.
They go out of the revolving door and into the street, and Wei Ying stretches his bare hands out to catch snowflakes and then laugh and shiver when he does. They walk down to the corner; there's an empty plaza on the opposite side of the street, with a big piece of modern art sculpture in the middle. Wei Ying tugs him across to it when the light changes. "It's so pretty," he says, turning in a slow circle in the park. The snowflakes rest in white clouds on his hair, his shoulders, the fur trim of the hood on his enormous puffy coat. The cold makes his nose turn pink, charmingly. He looks like an illustration, a magazine spread, fifteen perfect winter dates. Wangji's never going to see him again, after tonight. But Wangji's going to think of this moment every time it snows for the rest of his life. "You know, I never saw snow until I was twenty," Wei Ying says. "I grew up in Florida. I only saw snow on tv." He smiles at Wangji. "You must've seen a lot."
"Wei Ying," Wangji says, heart in his throat. "I made a mistake."
"I made a mistake, in the bar," Wangji says. "I thought you were someone else."
"What?" Wei Ying says. His hands are still up at his sides, elbows bent to catch snowflakes. He looks like a statue. "Wait, what?"
"I'm sorry. But I had a wonderful time. I didn't think I could—"
"Mo Xuanyu," Wei Ying says, faintly. "That's what you said. You thought I was him? But why didn't you… I told you I wasn't. Why would you… why wouldn't you recognize… what was it, like, a… blind date?"
Wangji wishes very much that he was a better liar.
"Not exactly," Wangji says. "An… escort. I wanted company. For dinner."
Wei Ying's hands drop to his sides.
"Oh," he says.
"I've never," Wangji says. "I never did anything like that before. I didn't know what I was doing. But that's no excuse. I shouldn't have assumed anything. I should've been clear."
"So you didn't," Wei Ying says, "so you just thought… you'd booked me," he says, and turns on his heel and scrubs his hands over his face. "Okay. Sure. That makes more sense, than like… whatever the hell I was thinking. Wow."
"I only wanted someone to have dinner with," Wangji says. "So—"
"Fuck!" Wei Ying says. "I mean at least just own it," he says, and turns around. "I thought you were just hoping you'd get to fuck me. You must be so disappointed," he says, bleakly.
"Whatever. You stood this Mo Xuanyu guy up, you know. You owe him."
"I paid," Wangji says, miserably. "In full. When I realized."
"And when was that?"
"When you were getting your coat."
"Okay," Wei Ying says. He chews his lip. "You're either the best liar in the world or the shittiest liar I've ever seen in my life. You could have just… if I wasted your time, if I'm not the one you were looking for, you didn't have to rub it in my face like this. You could've kept it to yourself and just never seen me again."
"I know," Wangji says. I didn't know what I was looking for, he thinks. I didn't know, and now I do, but it's too late. And it would have ground on him forever, not telling the truth. It always does.
Wei Ying stares at him for a long time. His hair, like Wangji's, is getting wet.
"I want to know what I said," Wei Ying says. "What I said to make you upset, at dinner. I want to know what it was. Did I," he says, and then suddenly puts a hand over his mouth in horror. "Oh fuck, did I like, remind you of your fucking wife or something?"
"No," Wangji says, affronted. "I don't have—"
"Fine," Wei Ying says. "Okay. Just tell me what it was. If you tell me I promise to leave and just… think of you forever as a nice weirdo who paid for lamb. Okay?"
"It's personal," Wangji says.
"I bet it is," Wei Ying says.
Wangji looks at the ground. Grey stone, turning slowly white. It's such a light snow. The kind that melts by morning. Like it was never there at all.
"It's my birthday," he says. "I'm… a year older than my mother was when she killed herself, and... I just needed to listen to someone else talk. You really didn’t say anything wrong." Wangji looks up at Wei Ying's stricken face and smiles. "Thank you for dinner," he says. "I'm sorry it was under false pretenses, but I'm glad I met you. You didn't waste my time. I had a wonderful night."
And Wangji turns and walks away, across the street before the light can change, snow pattering at his face; through the rush of heated air in the revolving door, up the short steps to the lobby and into the elevator. Ten thousand Wangjis look at him with tears starting in their eyes, until he clamps his shut.
Wangji actually manages to sleep.
In the morning he takes a bracing shower and makes phone calls and eats his flavorless room service breakfast and repacks his bag; he'll be going straight to the airport after the luncheon ends, the suitcase can just sit in the trunk. He wheels it downstairs to the check-out desk and turns in his key card, and when he turns to head for the doors he sees Wei Ying sitting there miserably in his gigantic coat, holding a bucket of iced coffee, his long legs sticking out across the carpet. Wangji stops and thinks that maybe he should go the other way, back out the concourse exit, call his driver and ask him to come around. But then it's too late. Wei Ying looks up and his face narrows with determination and he gets up, comes across the lobby, to stand in front of Wangji's roller case. The ice in his huge plastic cup rattles loudly.
"You should go to therapy," Wei Ying says, quietly, without preamble. "I'm not saying that to be an asshole, I swear. I mean, you should talk to someone about that. That’s a lot to deal with. I probably seemed really mad last night, but I thought about it and I had to come and say something. I know a lot of guys don't think they need help, and maybe your family wouldn't—"
"I'm in therapy," Wangji says. He pauses. "Not that my therapist… recommended this, per se." She'd encouraged him to join a club, actually, or to facetime Xichen when he felt on edge and lonely. He's tried the latter. The former still feels like a bit of a stretch.
"Ah," Wei Ying says, fidgeting with his zipper. "Well. Anyway. I'm sorry I was shitty to you."
"I hurt your feelings," Wangji says. "I thought it was a transaction and you didn't, and you didn't consent to those terms."
"Shit," Wei Ying says. "You really are in therapy."
"She has an emergency line," Wangji says.
"It was crazy anyway," Wei Ying says, and itches at his cheek. "Without the rest of it, right? People get picked up in bars on tv but like, does that happen in real life? You walk in and see somebody and walk out with them? And they don’t just want to harvest your skin?" He laughs, nervously. "I was just hanging around for leftover wine, I wasn't like… trying to live out a movie. Part of last night was my fault. I should've figured out we weren't on the same page."
"We were, though," Wangji says, quietly. "I thought, without the rest of it, we were."
Wei Ying looks at him. It's the look from the elevator again, from that wonderful moment last night, but this time there's only one of it. There was only ever really one.
"Um," Wei Ying says. "You're checking out?"
"I have a meeting," Wangji says. "I fly out at five-thirty."
"Okay," Wei Ying says. "Do you… maybe this is stupid to ask. You probably never want to see me again. But if… if you did, would you want my number?"
Wangji's surprised, but he would. They stand in the lobby for a minute, typing into each other's phones and then handing them back. Looking at each other uncertainly. "Well," Wei Ying says. "Have a good… like, be safe, and… maybe I'll see you again, someday? Like if you come back for work, or. You know, text me? If you'll be in town? And we could… try again. From the top. Start over."
"I will," Wangji says. “I’d like that.” He's supposed to be back in three months. He’ll definitely text. But it probably won't matter. Somebody else will do what he did, less convolutedly, less ignorantly, dragging less baggage behind them: they'll see him under the light across a room and fall in love, and they won't wait. Wangji is naïve, probably, but not quite so young anymore. He knows this is goodbye.
"Okay," Wei Ying says. "Then, uh, I'll go first."
"Alright," Wangji says. "Take care."
"Yeah, you too." And Wei Ying bites his lip and half-smiles and backs away and turns into the small throng of a tour group, passes through them and down the stairs, away, his big fur-lined hood bouncing a little as he goes.
Wangji follows after a minute and his driver is already at the curb. He puts his case in the trunk and climbs in the back and they pull out into the slow, heavy traffic, and Wangji tries to get himself to stop vibrating, to stop feeling like he's going to shake out of his skin. It was an accident. It was just an accident, and Wei Ying's not even angry anymore, it was a misunderstanding and a harmless one in the end. No one was deeply hurt or cheated and they had a good meal. His birthday was alright, after all. Thirty-six has been looming over him a long time, but now he's here. He made it, and it doesn't feel… it doesn't feel like what he was afraid it might feel like. And the night itself wasn't what he expected, not in any sense or form. The novelty should be welcome. He shouldn't feel upset anymore about his mistake. It takes him a stoplight to realize he isn't. He's upset about something else.
Wangji doesn't… he doesn't date, he doesn't go out, he doesn't do so many of the things he assumes other people do. He hasn't had sex in almost two years; not because he doesn’t want it or like it, but because he likes so little about the posturing, false rituals around it. The thought of dating makes him tired and maybe a little afraid. He rarely likes anyone enough to try and see them twice. It's made his life very neat, like a perfectly folded flat sheet, like a fucking shroud.
Wangji puts his hands over his eyes in the back seat.
It was a miracle, he thinks, with tearing, searing clarity. With pain. It was one in a million, in ten billion, that it was Wei Ying in the bar, that Wangji had made him laugh and smile and touch his wrist. That Wei Ying had made Wangji feel so present, so turned-on: not aroused, or... not only aroused, but more importantly awake and excited. And all of it had been because Wei Ying had wanted to, with nothing attached to it or behind it. Not just the gentle social generosity of a skilled professional, which would have already been wonderful. But Wei Ying had just done whatever he wanted to do, for no reason other than that he wanted to, and he'd wanted to have dinner with Wangji, and Wangji had wanted to have dinner with him, like the convergence of two planets in random orbits that were never meant to touch. Wangji had gone out and met someone he liked, who'd liked him back. It was so simple. It had felt so simple. It supposedly happens to people all the time. But he's already waited all his life for it, and now he's driving away.
He rubs his eyes and starts a quiet breathing exercise and glances out the window at a jogger and a dog running by, and then he realizes the puffy little mushroom shape of someone in the distance is Wei Ying in his big coat, with his hood up. He’s still a block away but Wangji can just tell. He must have cut diagonally through the parks, while they went around in a square, in the thick press of traffic converging on the bridge entrance. He's actually walking towards the car. He's going to walk right past Wangji and not know it.
Panic presses in. And something else Wangji can't even name.
"Can we," he says, suddenly, sitting forward. "I'm sorry, can we stop? Can we pull over?" The driver is as unbothered by this request as he was by Wangji slowly losing it in the backseat; he flicks the signal on and starts to slide them over. When he pulls them against the curb and throws the flashers on Wangji gets out and shuts the door and walks quickly across the plaza, hands balled up at his sides, afraid. Excited. Not knowing at all what he's doing. "Wei Ying!" he calls, and Wei Ying looks up from sipping the dregs of his huge cup. How he’s drinking something iced in this weather, Wangji will never know. There’s so much he doesn’t know, but he wants to. For once he wants to. “Wei Ying!” Wei Ying’s eyes go shocked. He stands still. "Wei Ying," Wangji says, when he's closing the distance between them, "before I go, can I—"
The cup slips out of Wei Ying's hands and he laughs in a startled way and tries to catch it, and then Wangji tries to catch it, but it drops on the sidewalk anyway and the lid splits and ice goes everywhere, scattering around their feet. Wangji crouches to pick it up and Wei Ying stares down at him while he does it, and then Wangji straightens up, embarrassed, and says, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"
"Can you what?" Wei Ying interrupts.
"I," Wangji says. "If—"
"Do you want to kiss me?" Wei Ying says. "Please say it's that. I wanted to kiss you so bad the whole night. I kicked myself later, I know it's insane, considering what I said."
"I'm,” Wangji says, hesitantly. “A mess.”
"Yeah," Wei Ying says. "Me too. But I still thought maybe you," he says, and Wangji reaches for him at last and cups his neck with his one free hand, knocking his hood off, and Wei Ying shivers and angles his face up and then they're kissing, tentative at first and then open-mouthed, slow, hot wherever they touch, burning against the frigid morning air. Wei Ying's mouth tastes like sugar and burnt coffee and almonds; his perfect bottom lip is soft and fat and bitable, which is something Wangji's never thought before, but he tries it now, very gently, blunt teeth just touching to the skin and then sucking, licking the spot. Wei Ying fists his hands in the back of Wangji's coat and groans. "Oh fuck," he breathes, when they break off for air. He ducks up for another brief kiss and laughs. "Wow, wow," and Wangji lowers his head again and kisses him until he feels dizzy. "What the fuck," Wei Ying murmurs afterwards, and strokes Wangji's face with his knuckles. "This is crazy. I know this is crazy. How are you like this? You seemed so buttoned-up. But you are absolutely fucking wild."
Wangji almost laughs. His therapist has said the same thing, though not in so many words. Once he told her very guiltily that he sometimes imagines literally, physically running into the woods and living out the rest of his life in a cabin amidst the wild deer and the rabbits, chopping wood and carrying water, and Lan Yi—no relation, they'd checked—had smiled at him placidly and said, that doesn’t surprise me at all. According to her that’s a very normal escape fantasy, especially for people who organize their pens and catastrophize the way that Wangji does.
“Have dinner with me,” Wangji says, letting the wilderness drive for a moment. It's frightening, exhilarating. “Tonight. Let's start over.”
“I’ll fly out tomorrow. I have a day off. It doesn’t matter when I go home. Someone else waters my plants.”
“You are so terrifying,” Wei Ying says, seriously. “Yeah, okay. Okay.” His face lights up. “Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere,” Wangji says. “Someplace you like.”
“It’s not going to be in this neighborhood,” Wei Ying says.
“That’s fine,” Wangji says. “I’ll have a driver, we can go anywhere you want. Can I—”
“Yeah, please, yes,” Wei Ying says, and lets Wangji kiss him again. He loops his arms around Wangji’s neck and they stand like that for a second, holding each other, and then Wei Ying says, “oh shit, is your car just like… idling over there? Oh god, get going. Go to your meeting.”
Wangji kisses his mouth one more time, just a brief warm press, and lets him go.
“Tonight,” he says. “I’ll text.”
“Go!” Wei Ying laughs.
Wangji stares out the window for the whole car ride; he doesn’t even look at his phone. He knows what’s in the documents. He compiled them all himself. He spends the time watching buildings go by, instead. Glass storefronts and bare trees and guard rails on the divided parkway; little crowds of people in their winter coats moving along the sidewalk. He looks at their knitted hats and mittens, the way they stop and laugh and sneeze and look at the bus maps and hold hands. He watches the glittering water under the bridge as they go over it, the way the white sunlight hits the side of skyscrapers, briefly blinding as they pass.
When he’s ushered up into the boardroom he sets up his notes and someone brings him a tall glass of cold water without ice and then takes their seat immediately; this isn’t his first time here, and his reputation is one of cold efficiency. He knows it is, he cultivated it. A room full of polite, slightly anxious people turn their faces his way. He smiles at them, just faintly, because for once he thinks he should. He knows it’s not much of a smile; he hasn’t had much practice. Everybody blinks. For a second they make the face that Xichen’s little dog makes, when it meets someone at the private dog park that it doesn’t know.
“Can we,” Wangji says. “Start with the good news?” There is a little murmur and then a flutter of activity with laptops down at the other end of the table, as somebody starts re-ordering slides furiously.
“Sure,” they say, with a mix of cheer and caution. “Of course!”
He doesn’t get bored today, or at least not very; somewhere in the middle of the afternoon he remembers that he used to like this part, used to like the way people relaxed when he gave them a good prognosis, when he gave them action steps and approved the progress reports. He used to like the eagerness in their eyes, and today he does again. The day passes in a blur. His lunch tastes good.
He wonders if this is what other people feel like sometimes, waiting. When they have an idea of what they're waiting for.
He meets Wei Ying at seven in the same hotel lobby, where he’s slouched on one of the leather couches in a slinky red sweater and skintight matte-black jeans and big furry boots. The iced coffee notwithstanding, he must always be cold, Wangji thinks. He's reclining on top of his big coat and thumbing around on his phone. When he sees Wangji he sits up and smiles and tucks it away.
"Wow," Wei Ying says. "I like this suit even better. But you really didn't have to get so dressed up."
"It's all I have left that's clean," Wangji says.
"Ah, then I'm just kidding, it's perfect," Wei Ying says.
Wei Ying makes friends with his driver in about forty seconds; they chat companionably about landmarks and neighborhoods and the worst highway exit as they wind their way up the hill to a fashionable little neighborhood of renovated warehouses. When they get out Wangji tells his driver he won't need him on the way back. He'll get a rideshare or a cab or something; he doesn't like the idea of worrying about the hour, keeping someone out late. He doesn't want to think about time passing at all. If Wei Ying is right and this is a dream, he’d rather it was a long one.
They stop first at a chic, narrow cocktail bar, where Wei Ying orders Wangji a citrusy gin and tonic and then drinks the rest of it for him when he makes a face. Wei Ying convinces him to split a basket of tater tots and then leads him over a couple of blocks to an open-air art market criss-crossed with string lights and ringed with propane heaters. Wei Ying stops at half the booths and talks to the vendors, some of whom he seems to know well. When a tattooed woman selling recycled glass tumblers eyes Wangji appraisingly and asks Wei Ying what he's up to tonight, Wei Ying says, "I'm on a second date!" and looks over his shoulder at Wangji, not exactly coyly, and not exactly not coyly. "And I think it's going well."
When Wei Ying says he’s starving they sit down for phở, at a place he swears makes a decent vegetarian broth. He's right: the soup is fragrant and rich, smelling of ginger and star anise, piled with noodles. Wei Ying swirls his rare steak and pushes his sprouts on Wangji and both of their sinuses soak pleasantly in the heat.
"Just one brother," Wangji says. “Four years older than me.” They've gotten around to talking about their families. It was surprising, and maybe more than that, to find out both of Wei Ying's parents died when he was young, too. It's not that other people aren't sympathetic, or can't understand. But when they’d starting morbidly comparing notes in the market Wei Ying had nodded and looked up from a display of hammered silver bangles and said, very simply, yeah, you just never feel completely safe again, and it was like he’d pulled a crinkled receipt right out of Wangji’s heart and was reading from it aloud. Wangji doesn't know what complete safety would even feel like. He wouldn't know how to form the comparison.
“Are you guys close?”
“Very,” Wangji admits. They don’t see each other as much as he’d like, even considering they work for different departments within the same firm. And their regular family dinners at Qiren’s often turn into meetings. But Xichen is the one person he tells everything to. The one person he can trust with anything. “He’s always… looked out for me.”
“My sister’s like that,” Wei Ying says. “She was my protector when I was little. She still kind of is. It’s funny, we have the same exact age gap as you two. She has a kid now, a really cute kid, but we still text like every day.”
“And your brother?”
“Eh, I never know with that guy,” Wei Ying says, but he smiles and slurps up a huge mouthful of noodles and then chews thoughtfully. “I’m just kidding. We’re pretty close too. He’s only a year younger than me. And like, thank goodness. He totally would have lorded it over me if he was the older one. We’d still… we’d literally still be hitting each other in a mall parking lot somewhere. We’d never have grown up at all.”
“But you didn’t,” Wangji says. “Do any lording.” Wei Ying scoffs.
“No, I was a perfect brother. Perfect model child,” he says, and then laughs. “No. I was a little shit. But I wasn’t trying to be. I knew that everything was… you know, contingent. I didn’t want to be, um. Returned.” His eyes dip down. “Sad thoughts alert! Should we talk about something else?”
“What would you rather talk about?”
“You playing the cello, obviously,” Wei Ying drawls, and sets his chin in his hand. “When did you start? Are you really good? Did your uncle make you start playing because of like, Jian Wang?” he laughs. “Is it weird to hold it between your knees?”
“No,” Wangji says, “and no. Or actually, I don’t know. It was my mother's idea, I never got to ask. I consider myself an intermediate player. And second grade.”
“I really like how you took that backwards,” Wei Ying says. He rubs his knuckles against Wangji's wrist for a second, almost idly, but his face isn't idle. It's kind. “That’s a long time to practice an instrument," he says. "I mean, I played flute for five years and still sucked, but I feel like you’re probably really good. I’d love to hear you play.”
“Okay,” Wangji says. He manages not to choke on the next piece of cilantro. He’s sure his ears are turning pink, though maybe he can pretend it’s from the steam. “I’ll… make a recording. When I get home. If you'd like.”
“I would!” Wei Ying says. “Oh, I so would.” He picks up the last piece of cha gio and puts it on Wangji’s plate and watches him eat it with something like satisfaction in his eyes. “I’m full already,” he says, leaning back in the booth. “But there’s a really good bakery around the corner I thought we could stop at. They do these boozy cupcakes. They’re kind of dangerous, you forget there’s actually alcohol in them.”
The bakery turns out to be just a window counter under a cute striped awning, but there’s a long line down the sidewalk, so they stand with their hands in their pockets and wait, chatting, until Wei Ying’s cheeks are red and he has to keep rubbing his legs together for warmth. “Motherfuck this wind,” he says, and shivers. “If these cupcakes weren’t the real deal I would absolutely bail.” They finally get a half-dozen in a pink box tied up with string, and Wangji hands it over to Wei Ying, who scrunches up his face and says, “you don’t want any?”
“I… you should get somewhere warm,” Wangji says. “Home. I thought we’d… call it a night. Unless you don't want to.”
“Your room’s warm,” Wei Ying says. His eyes drop to the pink box. “If that’s not… too creepy, to invite myself up. I know you have a flight tomorrow, so you probably have to like… pack,” he says, thinly.
“I don’t,” Wangji says. “You want to come over?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “But, um. Past that I don’t know what I want, actually. I mean, I don’t want to go home yet. I don’t want to stop hanging out. But I don’t know yet if I want anything else, if you catch my drift. Is that okay?”
“Of course it is,” Wangji says. “I just like being with you.”
Wei Ying lifts his eyes incredulously and studies his face, and then Wei Ying’s mouth softens with gentle amusement. But Wangji doesn’t think he’s being laughed at. Not exactly.
“You have no chill,” Wei Ying says. “Like none at all, do you? I didn’t think I liked that in a guy. But I do like it in you.” Wangji flushes. “Like look at that. You’re so fucking cute. You’ll never be able to do anything about those pink ears. They’re always going to give you away.” He leans in and kisses Wangji’s cheek. “Want to treat me to hotel cable?”
So Wangji gets them a rideshare back, and they go up in the mirrored elevator looking at their own reflections, noses chapped, coats half-unzipped. Wei Ying smiles at him in the mirror and slides their hands together again, and does the same thing in the background endlessly. “It’s good luck, holding hands in an elevator,” he says, which is something Wangji’s never heard of.
Wei Ying turns his face up, not playfully but guilelessly, openly, waiting for Wangji to look back. As if there was something in Wangji’s eyes he needed to see; something he needed to show.
“Don’t you want it to be?” he says. So they keep their hands clasped all the way to the thirty-seventh floor.
“This is a joke!” Wei Ying says, hands on top of his head. He turns in a circle in the living room in front of the suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “You are punking me! This is not your room!”
“You watched me open the door,” Wangji says, mildly.
“They cannot possibly allow normal people to stay in rooms like this. How much does this cost per night? Ballpark figure. Don’t tell me the real number, it’ll probably blow my head off.” Wangji tells him. “Huh,” Wei Ying says. His hands slide down to his hips. “Actually, that’s… I mean, it’s completely terrible, it’s insane, that could be somebody's rent, but it’s not as bad as I would have thought. I thought we were talking, you know, Beyoncé prices.” He thinks for a moment. “I feel like I’m having a… third eye opening about the economy.”
“Sounds painful,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying points a scandalized finger at him. “What?”
“Laugh it up, but when I’m in charge… oh, is that the one with bourbon frosting?”
Wei Ying sits cross-legged on the sectional in his wooly socks, picking the wrapper off gingerly and then stuffing half of the cupcake in his mouth at once and groaning. Wangji finds a knife in the courtesy kitchenette and cuts the lime tequila cupcake in half and takes a bite. Wei Ying was right: the alcohol is buried beneath sugar and butter, and would be easy to miss until, well. Wangji didn’t have much of a tolerance even before the Zoloft. He sets the other half of the cupcake aside in its wrapper. When he looks up Wei Ying's already devoured his cupcake and is eyeing a second one. But he looks up from the box to Wangji, assessingly. "You don't drink much, do you," he says, and Wangji shakes his head. "I'm sorry if I pressured you too much tonight."
"You didn't," Wangji says. He really didn't. He'd finished Wangji's drink without complaint and just breezily said he'd find something else that Wangji would like better next time. Plenty of people have made Wangji feel embarrassed about alcohol before, but Wei Ying isn't one of them.
"Tell me if I ever do, though. Okay?"
The future encounters presumed in that sentence are enough to render Wangji briefly non-verbal.
"Mm," he manages.
"Weird question," Wei Ying says, switching gears. "Can we turn the lights down? And just… look out the window? I know I joked about cable but the view's so pretty. You already know I'm a sucker for plate glass." He does. But Wangji doesn't mind the idea. He rarely turns on hotel televisions at all, anyway. "I think it's because I live in a cave," Wei Ying says. "Like, not a real cave."
"How disappointing," Wangji says, and Wei Ying laughs.
Wangji opens the drapes all the way and flicks the overhead light off and lowers the accent lamps, until the room is velvety and shadowed at the corners, and the city outside’s grown sparkling and vivid. He sits beside Wei Ying again, not quite touching, facing the bare twinkling panorama of night. Wei Ying sighs with pleasure and settles into the couch, knee raised, one arm looped around it.
"It is disappointing," Wei Ying muses, after a moment. "It really should be a real cave. I want bats. If I have to live in a basement I’m owed bats, don’t you think?”
“Mm,” Wangji agrees.
“I should live in a cool cave with like, an underground pool,” Wei Ying says, warming up to it. “And those fish that don’t have eyes. If I had stalactites to look at I'd definitely like my apartment more. Stalactites or stalagmites? Is there a difference? Am I saying it wrong?" Wangji thinks about it for a second.
"The c is for ceiling and the g is for ground."
"Huh. Hey, that's cool. That makes perfect sense. I might actually remember that," he says, pleased, and stretches out so that his head is resting against the low back of the sofa. "I'm sure somebody told me in middle school, but I retain geology facts best when I hear them from super hot people." Wei Ying grins; even in the dim room Wangji can tell he's smiling, by the cool line of light on the curve of his cheek. "I hate that it's too dark to see what your ears are doing."
"Mm," Wangji says. They're warm.
They're quiet for a moment, watching the lights on top of one of the corporate towers change slowly from green to blue. His last room, the one he only left this morning, hadn't been a suite. A king room with a view of the bay, yes. But he'd booked a suite between meetings today because, in a fit of wild presumption, he'd imagined what it might be like if Wei Ying wanted to come up, to hang out just like this. He'd castigated himself for the hope, but now here they are. How incredibly strange. Some part of Wangji had cringed at the idea of asking him to sit around in what was essentially just a bedroom, considering the misunderstanding last night. Wangji had wanted him to feel comfortable. Unpressured. A suite with a sofa felt safer. Sofas were good, neutral pieces of furniture that didn't imply anything specific. Or at least Wangji thinks so, until Wei Ying leans over to rest his cheek beside Wangji on the back of the sofa, baring the skin of his throat almost to the shoulder in his slinky, scoop-necked sweater, revealing the strap of a thin undershirt. His neck is a perfect curve in the dark, faintly blue from the distant LEDs. Wangji swallows.
"I think… actually, do you want to make out?" Wei Ying says, chewing his lip. "No pressure if not."
A part of Wangji thinks, he was right, this is a coma. But then he leans up and rests one arm on the back, just so that he's in closer reach. An invitation. He doesn't touch, just waits. He's not sure he trusts himself to be composed if he touches Wei Ying first. Wei Ying comes up to run his fingers over and across the lapels of his suit jacket, tucking them under the flaps and smiling, eyes downcast, while he plays with them. He leans up and presses their mouths together, softly. His lips survey Wangji's in little nipping kisses, curious and a little shy. And then he leans in closer, parts his mouth and Wangji's, slides his tongue just inside. Angles his head so they can merge into one hot sugary breath. He moans when Wangji sucks his tongue, laps at him. Strokes up his arm. Wei Ying makes a noise that's almost a purr when Wangji slides a hand up and holds the back of his neck to deepen the kiss. They break off for a second for air. "I like your mouth," Wei Ying murmurs, nuzzling his face into Wangji's cheek. "I really like the way you kiss."
"Like I have your complete attention," Wei Ying says. He brushes a brief kiss onto Wangji's bottom lip. "I like attention, huge shocker, I know," he says, and laughs.
Wangji slides an arm around his waist and they lean back, Wei Ying sprawled over his front, hands feeling up and down his chest, gripping into the muscles teasingly. "You have to lift," Wei Ying says, groping him through his button-down. "Do you lift? You're like a granite countertop."
"Bodyweight exercises," Wangji says, as if it's a serious question, and Wei Ying laughs and dips his head again, kissing him messily, playfully, nibbling and sucking at him. Slowly it gets a little more heated, a little more intense. Wangji's hands slide along Wei Ying's back, over his thin sweater, down to the curve of his hip. He rubs his fingers over the hipbones, prominent and sharp in his poured-on jeans. Wei Ying groans and opens his mouth wider, letting Wangji tongue him, insistent and hot. There's a curling warmth in Wangji's gut, in the base of his spine; a clench in his thighs. He's hard from this already. He probably started getting hard when Wei Ying's sweater slipped down. Wangji trails kisses down his cheek, the curve of his jaw, to that perfect neck. Mouths at his pulse with mindless hunger, sucking a little at the skin, clasping blunt teeth there, not quite hard enough to bruise.
"Ah," Wei Ying says. "You're bitey, huh, wild thing."
Wangji pulls back.
"Oh, no, no, you're fine," Wei Ying says, and leans in to kiss the corner of his mouth. "I like it. I think you should eat me up a little, if you want. I own at least one turtleneck."
Wangji shivers. And then pulls Wei Ying's thigh over his own and cradles his ass and sucks his way down Wei Ying's bare neck the way he wants to, the way he’s wanted to since Wei Ying threw his head back last night in the bar. He sucks the skin pink and then licks the marks, mouthing along his collarbone. Wei Ying makes little broken noises and finally starts to hump his thigh in unconscious, rolling thrusts, pressing the hard bulge in his skintight jeans against Wangji's leg. "God, your mouth," he pants. "You feel so fucking good."
"Can I suck you?" Wangji blurts out. He wants more in his mouth, on his tongue; there's a gut-deep pull in him that he's rarely ever felt before, with any other passing lover. He wants Wei Ying to slide into his throat, to fill it, to fuck his face, turn off his air, turn off the world. Wei Ying chews his lip in the dark and Wangji runs a hand gently over his shoulder, down to his elbow. Smacks himself for getting carried away. “I’m sorry,” Wangji says. “That’s too… never mind.”
“You want to?” Wei Ying says, almost as if it’s a surprise.
“Yes,” Wangji says. “But that’s… it only matters what you want. I didn’t mean to make you—”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says. “I mean, you didn’t, you—it’s fine, I want to, yes, you can, I want you to,” he says, and captures Wangji’s mouth again, rises against his lap to press his belly to Wangji’s and kiss him deeply, and Wangji’s hands slide around his ass and cup him firmly in his jeans, fingers digging into the meat of his cheeks and tucking under his thighs. “Yeah,” Wei Ying murmurs, “I definitely want to be in your mouth,” and Wangji tips him over onto his back on the couch and kisses him some more, grinding their hips together and sucking his neck, and Wei Ying’s fingers fumble with his own fly and push the zipper down. “I have, um, there’s condoms in my back pocket,” he says, and lets Wangji dig around to find them. Wei Ying shoves his jeans off around his hips and takes himself out, Wangji kneeling between his thighs. The red tip of his cock pokes out through his fingers, turning Wangji’s brain further into mush. “Go ahead and make fun of me for, uh, all the mixed signals,” Wei Ying says, sounding nervous, on his back.
Wangji leans down to nose at his jaw, taste his mouth. The edge of his suit jacket brushes down against Wei Ying’s fingers, making him exhale.
“No,” Wangji says, against his lips, and Wei Ying fists a hand in his hair and kisses back ferociously. He strokes his cock a couple of times, hard and getting harder; he’s uncut and long and curved a little, the soft skin darker than his hands and flushing red at the tip that perks through his foreskin. He has a thatch of wiry hair at the base, and Wangji follows a compulsion to brush his fingers there, to cup around his balls and squeeze lightly, and Wei Ying makes a noise that’s not quite a squeak and then holds his cock in his fist, breathing through his mouth.
“Okay whoa,” he says. “I mean, not whoa, just give me a second, whew. Okay.”
“Can I?” Wangji says, and holds a foil packet up. Wei Ying nods and Wangji tears it open and pinches and rolls the condom over him carefully, feeling a little dizzy as his fingertips brush skin. When it’s on completely Wangji settles down into the cradle of his hips, but looks up first to meet Wei Ying’s eyes. They’re bright, even in the low light; bright and strange and wanting, as stunned-seeming as Wangji feels. “Is this really—”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, “yes, please,” and Wangji lowers his head and sucks at the end of his cock through the latex. The taste is a little gummy but his blood is so hot here it barely registers; Wangji sucks and dips his head and feels something untether inside him, loosen and drift away. It’s so good to hold him here, to be this close. His tongue slides flat along the underside of Wei Ying’s vein, and the curve of him bumps Wangji’s soft palate. “Oh shit,” Wei Ying says, and Wangji hears his fingers clenching in the couch cushions, the nails making little raking noises in the fabric.
Wangji starts slow and finds a rhythm, bobbing his head and just relishing the fullness, the way Wei Ying’s cock pushes past his lips, slightly fatter at the base, where he’s thick enough it aches a little to part for him. Wangji’s out of practice, but Wei Ying is making groaning noises above him so he keeps at it, dipping shallowly and then taking him all the way into his throat. He smells ripe here, with Wangji’s face pressed all the way to his groin. He smells like warm skin and sweat from walking around all night, like laundry soap and musk and denim. Wangji inhales through his nose and takes him as deep as he can, letting him rest there for a moment, swallowing and flexing around the tip, feeling anchored to him, Wangji’s hands hanging onto the back of his shoved-down jeans. “Fucking shit,” Wei Ying gasps, above him. “Oh fuck. You… take it so good, oh it’s so good. You’re so good.”
Wangji only backs off when he needs to breathe; his head feels overfull like a balloon and his heart is racing, and in his suit pants his cock feels tight and painfully hard. He licks and suckles at Wei Ying’s tip and then goes back to his building pace, shallow and deep in alternating passes, tonguing him hard as he pulls up each time. When Wei Ying starts to make harsh little panting noises Wangji brings up a hand around him and jerks him as he bobs. His other hand palms his own cock in his pants, where it’s straining at the zipper. “I’m gonna come,” Wei Ying breathes, “I’m so close, fuck, oh—”
“Lan Zhan,” Wangji says, hoarsely, and licks him to feel him shudder.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes, mouth soft around his name, and Wangji’s cock throbs. “Lan Zhan, make me come. Your mouth is so perfect, please make me come,” and Wangji lowers his head and sucks his cheeks in and Wei Ying cries out and grabs his shoulder and jerks up helplessly. Wangji feels him pulse against his tongue when he spills into the condom; the world spins around them for a second and Wangji’s hips roll hard against his hand and the empty air and hot electrical surges pulse through his knees, his back, out of the place where they’re joined together.
Wei Ying’s leg wobbles and slides off the couch and his heel thuds onto the floor.
“Good?” Wangji says.
“I don’t know,” Wei Ying says, loosely, and laughs. “If you find my fucking brain in your throat, you can ask it.” He sits up awkwardly and reaches for the condom, pulls it off gingerly and loops it shut. He holds it out for a second, glancing around with worried eyes, and Wangji stands up and gets him a wad of tissues from the dispenser on the end table. Wei Ying wipes himself and wads up the condom in the tissues and gets up to put everything in the bathroom trash; Wangji sits back on the couch feeling boneless and oddly peaceful, listening to him wash his hands. Wei Ying pads back into the living room with his sweater off and his undershirt rucked up and his jeans back up around his waist, tucked in, but he still hasn’t done up the zipper. He looks like a softcore modeling spread, like a wholesome idol singer who’s been roughed up for a themed photoshoot. Wangji would suck him again, right now. “You were holding out on me,” Wei Ying says, unaware of Wangji’s spiraling conceptual fantasies. He puts his hands on his hips. “I didn’t know you had the fucking Gulf of Mexico in there.”
“That bathtub,” Wei Ying says. “That bathtub is like, orgy-sized. You could wash a car in it.”
“You want to take a bath?” Wangji says.
“No,” Wei Ying says. “I mean, yeah, maybe. But first I want to jerk you off,” he says, and sits down unceremoniously across Wangji’s lap.
“Oh, you don’t—” Wangji says, but Wei Ying is already reaching to palm him through his dampened suit pants. When he feels the wet spot he goes still.
“Did you,” Wei Ying says, in a slightly strangled tone, “did you come already?”
“Is it not obvious,” Wangji says, feeling his face go hot. Wei Ying sits back against his knees.
“Holy shit,” he says, blankly. “You came from sucking me off.” He huffs a tiny, incredulous laugh and Wangji squirms against him, now uncomfortable and exposed and feeling raw in his clothes, and Wei Ying smushes him back against the couch and kisses him and strokes his hair. “I’m not teasing you,” he says, tenderly, and Wangji stops trying to get up. “I’m not. I’m… in awe. I’m in awe. That is the hottest thing that’s ever happened to me. Bar none. I wish I’d known it was happening. I really wanted to watch you come apart.”
“Oh?” Wangji says.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “You’re amazing.” He punctuates each short sentence with a kiss. “That was amazing.”
Wangji settles back against the couch and lets himself be petted for a moment, lipping slow kisses onto Wei Ying’s fingers when they come near his cheek. The orgasm was consuming and spine-tingling but the warmth is starting to wear off, and he feels somewhat distant in his body. He can’t name the source. It takes him a while to realize that the strangeness is actually coming from how good he feels. How contented he is to sit and be held. He’s never been especially cuddly with other people, not even in bed. It’s always felt very humiliating to experience that little tugging desire to be spooned, to be hugged or caressed after sex, so he’s shrugged it off, made himself go quickly into the shower. And nobody’s really ever expected it of him. He can’t even blame them. He’s mainly chosen partners who seemed… straightforward, to the point. People who’d get him and themselves off with a minimum of fuss and complications. That had always seemed like the best way. He’s almost never been touched by a partner like this, with the kind of easy affection Wei Ying is giving him with every gentle squeeze of his hands. It's so foreign his body's not sure how to take it. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, softly, and runs a thumb under his eye. “Hey, are you crying?”
Oh, Wangji thinks. He is.
“It’s just,” he says, and swipes it away. “Endorphins.”
“Ah,” Wei Ying says. He doesn’t press. He only loops his arms around Wangji’s neck and snuggles against his chest, a warm firm weight bearing him down, making it paradoxically easier to breathe. Wangji holds onto him, probably harder than he should. “You were really good,” he says. “You made it really good for me.”
“Mm,” Wangji says, eyes shut, into his shoulder. Fights the bizarre shivery feeling inside him, the line of pleasure that's so close to pain. It’s difficult to tamp down. Maybe he shouldn’t.
“You know, this is the longest date I’ve ever been on,” Wei Ying says, and noses at Wangji’s ear. “If you count yesterday, we’ve been at this like twenty-four hours. Nobody’s ever put up with me that long in one go before.”
How can that be true, Wangji thinks. He’s beautiful and funny and so alive that he sparkles, like the water of the bay. Wangji should have had to fight off a crowd to even talk to him.
“I’m not... putting up with you,” Wangji says.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, and sits back in his lap. “I noticed. You really do...”
“Stay,” Wangji says. “Stay the night. My flight’s not until eleven-thirty.”
Wei Ying sits silent for a long moment, his back to the lamp and face shadowed.
“Um,” he says.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to,” Wangji says, probably pathetically. His voice grates in his own ears. “We could meet for breakfast.”
“I do want to,” Wei Ying says. “That’s... kind of the problem. Can I say something? I don't want you to take this the wrong way. But I’ve been… I’ve been fucked and dropped before. I have. I run my mouth a lot, I’m, well, you already know I’m mean when my feelings get hurt. I know what I’m like. And I’m not asking for some kind of commitment. I know we just met. But I don’t think I can… I don’t think I can actually sleep next to you and never get called again. Okay?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Wangji says. “I won’t do that to you.”
“Promise,” Wei Ying says. His voice barely trembles, but Wangji hears it anyway. Just the faintest shake in his breath.
Wangji knows what promises are like, what they’re worth to most people. He knows how easily they can be broken, and in how many different ways, for so many different reasons. His mother probably meant to keep all of hers. But there’s no world in which he gets up tomorrow and never looks back.
“I promise,” Wangji says.
Wei Ying touches a thumb to his lip.
“Okay,” he says, softly. “Alright. Then run us a bath. Let’s see if we can run the reservoir dry.”
“Part of me still thinks this is a joke,” Wei Ying confesses later, wrapped up in bed and smelling like the hotel’s custom lemon-verbena shampoo. He’s rolled against Wangji in the huge fluffy comforter, only the top of his head poking out. His skin was so warm after the bath that he steamed; Wangji kissed almost every inch of him and then they jerked each other off right there in the bathroom, pressed against the sink counter, hands swiping lines down the sweating mirror. “Or like, when I wake up tomorrow it won’t be real. We won’t even have met yet. It’ll be like Groundhog Day. I guess this is my damage, huh.”
“I don’t joke,” Wangji says, instead of saying I’m not a groundhog, and Wei Ying shoves him, like he can hear that stupid thought in his head anyway.
“That is a lie,” he says. “That is a big fat lie. Do other people believe you when you say that stuff?”
“Yes,” Wangji says.
“You don’t joke,” Wei Ying says, and tucks their bodies in closer, warm and nested in the center of the bed. “Give me a break.”
Wangji cries in the morning, silently on the plane; hides his face in the warm business-class towel and feels himself bursting like a dam somewhere, somehow, like a stream that won’t go dry. When he lands hours later there’s a picture from Wei Ying on his phone, a weird slightly dark picture that looks like a messy room where the ceiling is starting to droop in. It takes Wangji a second to realize he’s looking at an assemblage of craft foam. i’m making a real cave!!!! Wei Ying’s typed. my roommates think i’m a LUNATIC but now every time i look up i’ll think about you. this is a warning by the way. you’ll be in for a lot more of this if you try to date me.
Wangji stares at the texts so long his phone screen times out.
Wangji has never imagined kissing anyone in an airport. Planes make his mouth dry, and even if they didn’t there’s just too many people everywhere, coughing and crowding each other and bumping their rolling cases over the ankles of strangers. Airports are unromantic places. Sad liminal places for waiting, for buying expensive snacks that don’t taste good. He dreams about terminals a lot, the long boring endless sameness of their hallways.
But then Wei Ying is standing by the baggage claim when Wangji comes down the escalator. He's wearing jeans with holes in the knees and a chunky sweatshirt and sunglasses hung on the neck. He’s staring at the people coming down the exit with open frowning disapproval, at least until he catches sight of Wangji. His face lights up and Wangji has to fight the urge to leave his bag on the moving stairs and start pushing his way through the crowd.
“Lan ZHAN,” Wei Ying shouts, as if he didn’t already know Wangji could see him. Wangji’s heart does a flip. Ten strides out from the bottom of the escalator, Wangji drops the handle of his rolling case and opens his arms and Wei Ying comes into them, and Wangji wraps his arms around Wei Ying’s waist and crushes him so hard and so tight his feet actually leave the ground. “Lan Zhan, you’re squishing me, you’re squishing me,” he says, laughing, like he doesn’t also have his arms around Wangji’s neck in a death grip. Wangji releases him and he frowns and says, “oh, I didn’t mean let me go,” but then cuts off with a soft noise as Wangji presses their mouths together, kisses him with one hand on his hip. When they break apart someone’s clapping. “Hi,” Wei Ying says, starry-eyed. “You miss me?”
Wangji doesn’t bother answering in words.
He didn’t book a driver for today, and Wei Ying doesn’t own a car, so they get a cab into the city, Wei Ying’s hand burning a hole through his slacks on top of his thigh for the whole ride. The weather is stunning, the sky vividly blue and the trees in such effusive bloom that the air is almost cloying. Wei Ying rolls the window down in the backseat and lets the breeze wreck his hair, face turned up to it gladly. Wangji came out early this time; he has two and a half whole days before his meetings start, with nothing planned except for this. To enjoy watching Wei Ying enjoy things. They’ve called or texted each other almost every day for three months, and facetimed and emailed and everything else, just short of Wangji dropping everything and getting on an early flight, but here in the cab Wangji feels overwhelmed by him, by the ability to reach out and tangle their fingers together, to watch his smile dawn at the contact. It's so real it's tipping over into feeling unreal.
“Did you eat already?” Wangji says. “You want to stop for lunch?”
“Nah,” Wei Ying says, absently. “Had a late breakfast. I’m not really hungry yet. Why?”
“Good,” Wangji says.
The door to the suite’s barely shut when Wangji backs him into the wall and peels his sweatshirt off, kneels to unbuckle his jeans; Wei Ying fists his hands in Wangji’s hair and gasps above him while Wangji pulls the first orgasm out of him there in the hallway, kneeling on the rug in his suit. Wei Ying kisses the salt taste of himself out of Wangji’s mouth and then they stumble to the bedroom, kicking Wei Ying’s jeans off and losing pieces of Wangji’s clothes one by one in a trail; Wangji only stops to get the lube out of his suitcase and a towel out of the bathroom.
They fuck for the first time, and then for the second time almost immediately afterwards, when Wangji’s blood rushes back to his groin at the sight of his come leaking down Wei Ying’s thighs. When their tests came back a few weeks ago he’d jerked off furiously over the phone listening to Wei Ying fantasize about Wangji rawing him and realized he might have some very specific and as-yet unplumbed desires. Wangji’s life has been so neat, but there is nothing neat about what he finds he wants, and the reality is much better than he even imagined. He didn’t know he had a thing for this, for mess, for stopping up Wei Ying’s hole with his thumb and kissing him breathless and then sticking his cock back in and pumping into the full dripping-wet glide of him, until Wei Ying cries out and comes again and then lets Wangji lick his fingers off.
They take a shower and then an extremely luxurious bath together, while Wangji reads aloud from the room-service menu and Wei Ying says yes to everything; by the time Wei Ying’s hair is dry there’s a cart at the door. They eat on the sofa and then take a nap, not even bothering to go to the bed; Wei Ying just curls against him like a cat, under his arm, and they doze that way until the sun is starting to drop.
“Whew, we’re lazy,” Wei Ying says, and stretches, when he wakes up. “You want to go out? I thought we could try that Syrian place I told you about. You’ll like it, their vegetarian stuff is out of this world. They have music on Fridays, too. That sound good? Let me go change.”
Wei Ying brought a backpack with him, with more clothes and his toothbrush; he didn’t even plan on going home. When Wangji sees his toiletry bag sitting on the edge of the hotel sink his lungs empty and have trouble filling again for a second. He goes out to the bedroom, where Wei Ying’s pulling on a pair of dress pants, and watches him bend over to wriggle his socked feet through the ends.
“What?” Wei Ying says, when he looks up to find Wangji staring at him too raptly. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Wangji says, heart unusually light. Right then it’s completely true.
“Oh,” Xichen says, frowning over his salad, when Wangji tells him he’s not coming to the summer house until mid-August. “I thought you took the last week of July off.”
“I did,” Wangji says. “I have other plans.”
“Huh,” Xichen says, and his frown evaporates, and turns into something that’s not quite an eager grin. He must be suppressing it, Wangji thinks. It’s the expression he wears when he thinks Wangji’s about to tell him something new about Wei Ying. “You two taking a trip?”
They are. Between both their work schedules they couldn't manage more than a night and a morning together when he was in town in the last week of June for a shareholders' meeting, so Wangji’s going back in three weeks and then they’re going to drive to the coast. It’ll take about five hours one way, but he’s looking forward to being alone in a car with Wei Ying for all of it, listening to whatever radio stations he flips them to, watching him put his feet up on the dash or eat disgusting gas station food or do whatever it is he likes best on road trips. And then they have a balcony suite overlooking the water booked for four entire days, close to a boardwalk and shore attractions—which Wei Ying will like, because he claims to be a fiend for miniature golf—and also close to the nature preserve, where they can walk in the morning before the heat’s too oppressive. “I’m happy for you,” Xichen says, almost sighing. “We haven’t done a road trip since… huh, sometime after college.” He pokes at his poached shrimp, obviously thinking of Nie Mingjue, who seems to think a romantic vacation requires a sixty-foot boat or safari guides. “It sounds wonderful to me.”
It does, Wangji realizes. It sounds like something that would be happening to someone else. But it isn’t. It’s happening to him. He’s actually making it happen. It was easier somehow, to plan a trip for Wei Ying. To tell himself that's what he was doing: picking things Wei Ying would like, places Wei Ying would be interested in stopping. Somehow he tricked himself into choosing things he might like, too.
As Lan Yi says sometimes, whatever works.
“He might come here in December,” Wangji says. “Over winter break.”
“I’d love to meet him,” Xichen says. “I’d like to thank him for putting that look back on your face.”
“What look,” Wangji says, affronted.
“That look,” Xichen says, and smiles. “Where you’re excited for something and you don’t even know what it is yet.”
Wangji asks his therapist about it.
“Anticipation,” she says. “Letting yourself want things. Without becoming overwhelmed in advance by the fear that they’ll be lost. That fear is protective. It’s trying to keep you safe. But it also cuts you off from things.”
Wangji thinks about it.
“I am afraid,” he admits. “That he’ll stop wanting this.”
“But I want it anyway,” he says, and is amazed to find that he means it.
“Ah,” she says. “Then what do you think you should do?”
Wangji buys stickers for his big desk calendar; fingernail-sized red hearts. He puts them on the week of his vacation and stares at them every day and feels the thrill in his gut and then the sick swoop of fear and later the cold crowding weight of doubt, and doesn’t force any of them down. Just feels them, rising in his chest like brutal heartburn. It hurts and it aches and it stings at his eyes, but the red hearts stay there, and every day they get closer.
On the first hour of their trip Wei Ying sits up in the passenger seat and says, “oh CRAP!” in a loud voice.
“What?” Wangji says. “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot my toiletry bag,” he says. He puts a hand over his face. “Like the whole thing. And I actually packed in advance! Like a whole day before! I was so careful! Shit. It had like, all my sunscreen and stuff in it. What kind of dummy doesn’t bring sunscreen to the beach?”
Wangji reaches for him, without looking away from traffic, and Wei Ying’s hand meets his.
“We’ll stop and buy whatever you need.”
“I know,” Wei Ying sighs. “I just know the whole bag is like... sitting right there on top of the bed. It’s so stupid. I was so busy making sure I had nice stuff to wear to dinner. So we didn’t look like, you know. Prince and schlub, as usual.” Wangji can hear him chewing his opposite thumb. “I wanted everything to be perfect.”
Wangji squeezes his hand. He’s learned that Wei Ying is a worrier, too, though he hides it better behind charm and bravado. He sometimes acts like he's sure Wangji is about to break up with him, like it could happen any minute over the most trivial things. It never once occurred to Wangji that there was any marked difference in their clothes, though he’s aware that his budget for those things is bigger and his style more conservative. When people look at them in restaurants Wangji assumes they must be asking themselves what a laughing, gorgeous creature like Wei Ying is doing with a stiff block like him. When he’d said that to Wei Ying back in June he’d scoffed and then said, wait really, you think that, and then given him the slowest sweetest head of his life and refused to let him come until Wangji said aloud that he was handsome and fun to be around.
Wangji’s still not sure he’s fun to be around, but now sometimes when he starts to think those thoughts he thinks about Wei Ying’s mouth instead, which he supposes was the point.
Wei Ying finds them a department store enroute and Wangji follows him through the personal care aisles and sunscreen end-caps and waits for him to collect everything he's looking for, and then Wangji steers him into menswear and starts going through the lightweight short-sleeved shirts one rack at a time, trying to find something palatable. “What are you doing?” Wei Ying says. “Did you forget stuff too?”
“No,” Wangji says. He holds a pale shirt up against himself. It’s not unlike the breezy v-neck tee Wei Ying has on over his jean shorts, though his is charcoal grey. “I thought I could get something that matches.”
“What,” says Wei Ying.
“If it makes you anxious,” Wangji says. “That I’m so formal.”
Wei Ying blinks.
“You don’t… I was only kidding,” he says, which Wangji’s sure isn’t true. “It’s not a big deal anyway.”
“Neither is a shirt,” Wangji says. “I buy clothes with work in mind, but I don’t have to. I don’t want you to worry about that when we’re together.”
Wangji picks up another shirt and Wei Ying bats it out of his hands.
“Oh my god, not that one.” Wei Ying says. “Did you go blind just now?”
"Hm," Wangji says, innocently. "Maybe I need help with this."
"You are literally unbelievable," Wei Ying says, but he finds Wangji two summery white linen button-downs with faint novelty prints that oddly aren't terrible—Wangji kind of likes the little cactuses—and walks back out to the car with him and then sits quietly in the passenger seat for a while, one knee drawn up, watching Wangji while he watches the road. When Wangji looks at him at a stoplight there is something in his eyes that takes his breath away, something shining out of his face like daylight; the start of an answer to a question Wangji can only yet imagine asking in his wildest dreams. "It's green," Wei Ying just says, after a minute.
Wangji doesn't know it then—how could he—but Wei Ying will look at him that same way whenever he wears his doofy vacation clothes for the rest of their lives.
A few days before Wangji's due to fly out, Wei Ying calls him and sneezes into the phone when he picks up.
"Dese fubking undegrabs," he says. He blows his nose. "They don't wash their hands between September and New Year's."
His doctor says it's the flu, nothing more serious, and Wei Ying says he's just going to sleep and wallow in his cave, that maybe if he's well enough he'll meet Wangji for a birthday lunch later in the week before he flies back out. But then he says even that might be a dumb idea, because he doesn't want to get Wangji sick. They'll just have to pack more into December.
"Mm," Wangji says. "No. I'll come early."
"Noooo," Wei Ying whines. "I don't want you getting sick."
"I had a flu shot," Wangji says. He always gets a flu shot. He's not sure why Wei Ying doesn't, considering his job, but this is probably not the time to rub it in. "I'll be fine."
"I’ll wear a mask the whole time," Wei Ying threatens. But Wangji can hear his resolve weakening. "You can't kiss me. I don't want you to experience my mouth like this. It's not a great situation in here."
“Fine,” Wangji says, and hangs up to rebook his flight.
When he lands he goes right to Wei Ying’s apartment, down the steps to the back of the building; Wei Ying’s youngest roommate lets him in. Wei Ying’s asleep when Wangji ducks his head in, so he sits in the living room on their futon for a while, making awkward small talk with Wen Ning while he bustles around getting ready for work.
They’ve met before, but Wangji still has less than no idea how to act around him. Wei Ying is twenty-eight but this kid is only twenty-two, the younger brother of Wei Ying’s high school best friend. He’s quiet and kind and only seems to own mugs with donghua characters on them. He’s extremely polite to Wangji, as if Wangji were one of his teachers, and not someone who’s... known his roommate carnally. But this time it doesn’t matter; Wen Ning’s too obviously worried about Wei Ying to bother doing his usual routine of repeatedly offering Wangji tea or coffee or a beer or a juice or anything else they own that Wangji might like to help himself to.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Wen Ning says, shouldering his backpack. “He hasn’t come out of his room since yesterday. I made him cup noodles but uh, he usually does the grocery shopping, so. We don’t have much in the fridge. I’m gonna go after work today though.”
“I can do it,” Wangji says. “Give me a list.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t let you,” Wen Ning says, but then bends at another hard look and writes out a long list of things they usually keep in the house, almost none of which are vegetables.
Wangji orders everything from a delivery service, and then some nutritious extras, and then sits around reviewing documents on his phone, waiting for Wei Ying to wake up. He does in about half an hour; he shuffles out into the living room rubbing his eyes and does a double-take when he sees Wangji on the sofa, then starts to look wobbly, like he might cry.
“You’re going to get sick,” Wei Ying says, miserably, “you shouldn’t be here,” but he doesn’t fight off the hug when Wangji gets up to hold him. He shivers in Wangji’s tight grip and clutches at the back of Wangji’s jacket. “Oh,” he says. “I take it back. I didn’t mean it. Please don’t let go.”
Wangji gets him into the shower and strips and re-makes the bed while he’s soaking in the steam; by the time Wei Ying’s been tucked back in with clean pajamas the groceries are there. Wangji puts them away and then makes a strong garlicky beef broth and brings it into the bedroom and watches Wei Ying drink it.
“Better?” Wangji says. Wei Ying shuffles down and rests his head on Wangji’s thigh. He shuts his eyes and his shoulders slump down with relief, like he’s been out walking a thousand miles alone.
“Yeah,” he says. “Much better.” He rubs his face into Wangji’s leg. “I wab my song,” he says, thickly.
Wangji connects to the bluetooth speaker and puts the music on, and turns the lights down, and Wei Ying curls back into his leg. They lay like that for a while, Wangji stroking his clean hair, his slightly sweaty neck. He can tell Wei Ying’s not asleep yet. He’s humming faintly along with the music.
“Did you guess yet?” he says.
“Yeb,” Wei Ying says.
“Happy birthdab to my mosb favorib person,” Wei Ying declares, and clears his throat and snorts a little. “That’s the name of the song.”
Wangji recorded it in September, after writing it in a strange fugue at the summer house, tapping it out on his fingertips while he sat on the patio and listened to Nie Mingjue try and convince his brother that catamaran racing lessons were a perfectly suitable anniversary gift. Qiren had given up that conversation an hour ago and was off somewhere with Xichen’s dog, probably staring out over the pond and wishing the dog could take a memo. Wangji had gone upstairs alone and plucked out the basic gist of the melody and built it from there over the week, playing it over and over obsessively in his room. He’d only brought the cello on a whim, but then found his fingers cramping at night in bed, a little raw from overuse.
Playing more led to playing more; once he’d started in earnest it was hard to stop. He’d whirled through Bach and Saint-Saëns, played all his mother's favorites, songs that he hadn’t been able to attempt in years, that had peeled the skin off his soul to even listen to. They came out of him like exhalations, like held-in breath. They’d hurt to play, but somehow it had started to feel like a good hurt, like an ache after running; his mother had always told him that music wasn’t just for making you feel pleasant. It was for feeling something at all. She was right.
Later he’d even unpacked some of his own old fumbling compositions. He’d always thought of himself as a very dull and imitative writer but some of the passages were good after all, maybe uninspired but solid and melodic and unfussy. It had done strange things to him to listen to those pieces aloud again, to hear his old thoughts and old feelings and old pains pour out through them wordlessly. He’d been sadder when he wrote them. Maybe not sadder; sadder might be the wrong word for that particularly low place he'd been resting in too long. He would probably always be sad, just to a greater or lesser extent. But it was surreal to play his own songs and know for certain that he wouldn’t have written them the same way today. That the feelings didn't line up exactly; couldn't be mapped onto each other neatly without the edges showing.
Maybe, setting everything else aside, that was just how time worked.
He’d sent the song to Wei Ying and Wei Ying had recorded a video of himself listening to it and then shut off the screen before the end because he’d thought the faces he was making were too ugly; he’d told Wangji that it was too beautiful, so beautiful it was like tasting a bruise. He’d listened to it over and over, though, Wangji could tell. The counter on the private SoundCloud link tattled on him.
“Hm,” Wangji says now, and strokes the shell of his ear. “So close, but not quite.”
“You’re so meab,” Wei Ying says, placidly. “Just tell me alreaby.”
You already know, Wangji thinks. You must already know.
It takes Wangji almost an hour to realize what’s happening, why Wei Ying’s been so quiet and clipped on the edge of the sofa, his eyes darting down past the coffee table every couple of minutes, like he’s concerned a poisonous snake is going to jump out from underneath it. When Xichen gets up to go into the kitchen, Zizi trailing loyally at his heels, Wei Ying exhales and Wangji turns around and says, “are you afraid of dogs?”
Wei Ying shoots him a panicked look.
“No,” he says, unconvincingly. “I’d have to be really stupid to be afraid of a little dog like that.” Wangji stares at him. “I’m not,” he says. “It’s fine.” There’s a little jingling sound in the hall; Wangji watches Wei Ying’s fingers curl up in the seams of his pants. Wangji can’t believe he thought Wei Ying was worried about getting dog hair on himself at first. It just didn’t occur to him that anyone on earth could be afraid of a harmless overbred mop like Zizi, but Wei Ying’s hands are being more honest than his mouth at the moment. Wangji gets up. “Hey!” Wei Ying says. “Don’t you dare—”
“He won’t mind,” Wangji says. “He’s got a dozen dog gates.”
“It’s his house!” Wei Ying says. “It’s this dog’s house! It’s not my house! I’m not trying to make trouble.”
“It’s not trouble,” Wangji says.
“I’m trying to make a good impression,” Wei Ying hisses. “There are photographs of that dog in the hall. He’ll hate me!”
“He won’t,” Wangji says, frowning.
“I can’t let him hate me,” Wei Ying says. His voice sounds desperate. “I can’t have him hate me, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji sits back down. Wei Ying’s actually vibrating a little. Wangji clasps their hands together and he relaxes, just a fraction. “I need him to like me,” Wei Ying says. “I need him to, you know. Approve.”
“He already does,” Wangji says, and lifts his hand to kiss it. “Besides, even if—”
“It would matter,” Wei Ying says, gravely, knowingly. “If he didn’t.”
Wangji thinks about that for a second. Looks at his serious face. He doesn’t seem upset by the idea, or angry at it, or jealous over it. But he does look very much like he means it. It makes Wangji think harder. It would sting, if Xichen really didn’t like Wei Ying. It would be difficult to get past. It would hurt. Wangji’s always wanted his brother’s approval. Wanted his understanding even more.
“Yes,” Wangji says, accepting it. “You’re right. But he’s… trust me. He won’t be upset.”
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, dubiously, but he doesn’t try to yank Wangji back down to the couch. He sits on his hands, in fact. “If you’re sure.”
When Wangji goes into the kitchen Xichen is finishing up a little tray of cut fruit and snacks; he raises an eyebrow at the look on Wangji’s face.
“He’s afraid of dogs,” Wangji says, bluntly. “I didn’t know, and he didn’t want to put you out.”
“All dogs?” Xichen says. “Even—”
“Apparently,” Wangji says.
“Huh,” Xichen says. He nudges the grapes into place, so they drape over the sliced melon artfully. “I’ll put a gate up.” He leans down to look at Zizi, who tilts her head and prances for him in expectation of reward. “You frightened our guest, little lioness,” Xichen says, in mock solemnity. “I think I should give you a chew and let you contemplate your actions in seclusion.”
When they come back into the living room, dogless, Xichen sets the tray on the coffee table in front of Wei Ying and smiles and says, “sometimes she gets too excited over company. I’ve put her in the sunroom to calm down a bit, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He looks at Wangji and then back at Xichen. “No, that’s… whatever she needs. This is her house.”
“She’d certainly like everybody to think so,” Xichen says.
In bed that night Wei Ying twists around to face him and says, chewing his lip, “my first foster mom had dogs, cocker spaniels. They used to bite the shit out of me when I was little.”
“What?” Wangji says. “She let them?”
“I mean, it was probably my fault,” Wei Ying says.
Wei Ying was six when he finally got to the Jiangs, after passing through other houses he rarely talks about; sometimes when Wangji thinks about that tiny, frightened version of Wei Ying his heart aches like it’s going to split itself in half.
“Would you say that to a child?” Wangji says.
“No,” Wei Ying says. “No. Never.” Wangji gathers him up and kisses the top of his head. Wei Ying’s arms go around his waist. “Okay, I see your point,” he says, dryly, muffled into Wangji’s chest.
“Mm,” Wangji says.
Xichen takes them out to lunch a couple of days later, at a place with panoramic windows overlooking the square. There’s something filming in the middle of the big stair plaza, something that requires artificial snow. It pours down in buckets over just one spot, shining under the lights, but it flurries out everywhere else, too, turning the square and the sidewalk beyond into a wintery fantasy.
“Huh,” Wei Ying says, watching it raptly, almost to the point that he’s ignoring his burger. “I bet they thought they weren’t going to have to pay for snow. They probably thought they were going to get snow for free, this time of year.”
“More likely they’d get freezing rain,” Xichen says. Wei Ying makes a face. “Ah, you’d fit right in around here. It’s our local pastime to complain about precipitation.”
“Ha,” Wei Ying says, but his eyes do something funny for a second. Whatever it was, it vanishes, and he takes a bite of his fries and says, “I’ll have to tell my brother about that. He’s moving here. Not here, but to Seattle.”
“Do you have other family on the west coast?” Xichen asks.
“No. It’s for work. He’s a watershed engineer. There’s a project around, um… Bellingham?” he tries, and Xichen nods. “He’ll go back and forth between there and the city. His contract’s for a few years, so. We’ll see if he settles down this time. Mostly I think he wanted to get out of Virginia.”
“Hm,” Xichen says. “Well, if he’s ever in Vancouver, he should let us know.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says, smiling, surprised. “Yeah. Sure. I’ll tell him that.”
They take a walk afterwards towards Harbour Green, just the two of them, when Xichen goes back to the office. It’s cold but not bitterly so, and the air coming off the water is salty and good. Wei Ying has gloves but he doesn’t bother to wear them; he takes Wangji’s hand in his and sticks them both into his own coat pocket, and they walk that way for a quarter of a mile, linked up.
“I’ve been thinking,” Wei Ying says, when they’re standing by the railing at the edge of the water, cold air turning their cheeks pink; it’s making Wangji a little nostalgic. He's pretty in summer, in spring, but looking at him in the winter again does something to Wangji's heart. “Spring semester I’m bumping up to two classes. And my last class will be virtual. So I’m already kind of… looking around at jobs. I was thinking, um. I'd mostly look here. If that’s okay with you.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, taken aback. Wei Ying has people back home, people he’s close to: old friends, colleagues, neighbors, a solid network in his department. He wouldn’t… would he? Maybe he would. Maybe he would. Something shifts in Wangji all at once, changing his footing like a moving floor. He sees with blank surprise that he has been operating under a massive assumption. Probably since the night they met. He has been thinking all this time—unsurprisingly, considering the tracks his mind runs on—that he is the lucky one, the lonely one, the hungry one, the one who’s been granted something precious that he’ll have to keep furiously earning. But maybe that’s not the right way to look at it. Maybe that’s doubt talking, and not love. It makes him lightheaded. “Really?”
“Yeah, really,” Wei Ying says, eyeing him up. “You think I don’t want to be where you are?”
“You have—friends,” Wangji says, feeling his eyes start to heat. “You have a whole life.”
“So do you,” Wei Ying says. “Your family’s here. And my brother will be out here pretty soon, so... it feels like it’d be the right time. It’s not like I’m in love with my apartment,” Wei Ying says, and turns to look at him. “I’m in love with you.”
Wangji kisses his windburned mouth and Wei Ying kisses back, and when they break apart Wangji blurts out, “I had a job interview.”
“I had a job interview,” he says. “Just a phone call. I didn’t take it, but I thought,” he tries, but Wei Ying can clearly see what he thought, because he touches Wangji’s face gently and then starts laughing so hard that Wangji has to hold him up.
“When,” Wei Ying manages. “When.”
“October,” Wangji admits, and Wei Ying wraps his arms around Wangji and cracks up wildly into his coat for a second, muffling the sound in Wangji’s shoulder. When he looks up his face has gone pink. He looks at Wangji and then leans his head back down again, shoulders shaking silently.
“Fuck,” Wei Ying says, “we were grown in a lab for each other,” which is impossible, but then, everything is.
Wangji sits alone in his hotel room in the dark for a while, because he wants to, because he’s allowed to; he’s allowed to feel his negative feelings as well as his positive ones. He knows it’s not a good idea to wallow past the point of self-maintenance, however. He hasn’t eaten since before his flight, because he was too excited, stomach filled with moths and confetti and the mild coppery taste of his own bitten lip. He can’t go to bed hungry, regardless. Or rather, he absolutely could, but he knows he shouldn’t. So after a while he gets up and turns a lamp on and flips through the room service menu.
There shouldn't even be information systems conferences in January, he thinks. ICIS should be held in the spring. Preferably at Wangji’s condo. Where Wei Ying could have his neck rubbed in between sessions.
Wangji throws the room service menu onto the desk and then sits back onto the little rolling chair and sighs deeply, from his gut. He’s being a petty, sulking child. Wei Ying’s return flight was only delayed, not cancelled. He’ll be here in the morning, tired and travel-worn and ready to let Wangji feed him and steer him into bed. They’ll still have two days before Wangji’s own meetings start. True, this is a bizarre reversal of their usual order, but it’s absolutely fine. This will not, in any way, be his worst birthday. It couldn’t possibly touch it. The very idea is laughable.
For the first time in a very long time, Wangji wants a drink.
It’s the same hotel as last year, the same glossy rooftop bar; he sits at the end and orders a veggie flatbread and a spritzer—no rosemary in this one, they’ve switched to a torched orange peel, which Wei Ying would probably make much over—and eats perfunctorily and nurses his drink for a while, looking out the windows.
He takes a picture of his glass, though, with the orange peel curled over the big ice cube, because Wei Ying would want to see it. And because Wangji increasingly likes having a camera roll to scroll back through when he’s alone. He has a year’s worth of pictures in it, all kinds of pictures. Photos of especially fat pigeons and dirty graffiti that he's texted to Wei Ying to amuse him; healthy meals for one that he's cooked and shown to his therapist. Places they’ve been and sunsets they’ve seen and composed dishes in restaurants. And Wei Ying. Wei Ying in sunglasses, Wei Ying wet and sandy; Wei Ying in front of the campus administration building where he works. Wei Ying on the terrace of Wangji’s condo in the silk robe Wangji bought for him and likes to fuck him in; Wei Ying sick with the flu on his birthday, propped up in bed with a huge bowl of soup, his hair pulled into a crazy high ponytail like the little spout of a whale. Wei Ying and Xichen standing side to side in parkas on the deck of a ferry, both laughing improbably at something Wangji just said. In previous years he took about three photographs a month, mostly to send Xichen pictures of things he was considering buying. Once in a while to take a picture of a view out a hotel window, of a city he hadn’t spent any real time in, hadn’t bothered getting to know.
It’s different now. Wangji’s different. He looks at places differently; looks at the names of the galleries and markets and restaurants as they drive by, looks in the windows to glimpse walls and tables, to see the people sitting inside. Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes he has to make himself do it. To go through the motions of anticipation and curiosity. But doing it has become a habit, and it usually feels better to slide into it now than to slide out of it. When he looks he thinks, maybe we’ll go there someday. Maybe we’ll like it. We’ll take a picture and talk about it again months from now, and the memory will taste almost as good. Which makes no sense, but has turned out to be true.
Wangji knows the conventional wisdom says to work on yourself first, and it's true he was doing that before they met. It's not Wei Ying's duty to change him. But he is. He is changing Wangji. He does it whenever he listens, whenever he trusts. Whenever he pushes Wangji towards things that he wants, for no other reason than that he likes to see Wangji pleased. He leads by example, tugging Wangji in his wake. It matters, the way he's treated. It makes a difference. It makes Wangji wonder what might have been, if his father hadn't been the kind of person who'd dismissed his wife's moods so flatly. She'd lost her career in music and then her marriage and the custody of her sons. Maybe her brain chemistry would have worked against her anyway; maybe nobody could have made her happy ever again. He'll never know. What he does know is that nobody had even tried.
He's never really blamed her. Somehow she wasn’t the one he was angriest with. He knows there was a part of her that didn't want to leave. A part that held his arm straight, very gently, to correct his bowing. A part that kissed his forehead and told him she was proud. The part of her that had gone out and bought a stack of scores for him only hours before she died, because she'd hoped he would keep playing, that she wouldn't ruin it for him, wouldn’t ruin his life. Wangji knows that part of her must have fought like a hundred devils to keep living. It must have almost won. But she'd fought alone. Maybe everyone does, but still. When he was young he'd thought he'd understand one day, why his father chose to stand back and let her fall. He's old enough now to know he never will.
Sad thoughts hour, Wangji thinks. That's what Wei Ying would call this. It's gruesome, but somehow it makes him smile.
Wangji sits there a long time, until the ice melts and waters his spritzer, which frankly is alright with him. He isn’t as upset anymore, he doesn’t think. He was entitled to feel sad about tonight, to be disappointed. But that’s all it is, now. He’s not feeling a familiar welling terror, a sense of doom: a gripping anxiety that the rug is about to be yanked away, that they’ll never see each other again, that Wangji's happiness will all be over. He used to feel that way whenever they parted. But they’ve parted again and again, all year. They’ve hung up and let go and gotten on planes and then come back, called back; returned again and again, hand in outstretched hand. That has to mean something, he thinks. Meeting Wei Ying was the best, the literally greatest mistake of his life, but it has to mean something that they keep coming back together on purpose. It isn’t only chance. What they have doesn’t rely on something so fickle.
“Another?” the bartender says, and Wangji shakes his head. He pays his tab and slides the book across the bar and turns around to see—Wei Ying.
Wei Ying’s getting off the elevator.
For a second Wei Ying doesn’t see him; he’s busy fumbling with the strap of his soft-sided duffel, where it’s slung across his back. His huge puffy coat is slung over that, so that he looks stooped-over like an old man carrying a giant bundle of rags up a mountainside. Wangji is only a few paces away when Wei Ying straightens up and sees him and a bright, goofy smile splits his exhausted-looking face.
“You will never believe,” he manages, before Wangji scoops him up and hammers the elevator button and then pushes them into the empty car, backing Wei Ying’s bag into the mirror. “Mmph,” Wei Ying says, when Wangji presses their mouths together and clutches at his waist. A million reflected Wei Yings kiss back. “Ah, ha, so, turns out, taking the train to Newark does in fact—”
“You’re here,” Wangji says, several steps behind. “You made it.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, defensively. “It's your birthday. Some stupid power outage wasn’t going to stop me.”
Wangji kisses him again.
The doors open with a ding behind them. There’s a family standing in the hall. They turn around guiltily and Wei Ying’s huge bag whacks Wangji in the hip by accident.
“Hi, ah, sorry, this one’s, this one’s full! Taken!” Wei Ying says, and he pushes the CLOSE button forcefully and then hits a high floor. “Shit,” he says, and laughs. “That was so mean.” He tugs Wangji back in by his belt, and does it in echo all around them, on and on into infinity, closer and closer. “Where were we? Wait, what floor are you even on?”
They make out in the shower and order room service late and curl up in bed naked with the drapes open, watching the lights in the office buildings go out, one by one. “Happy birthday,” Wei Ying says, and rubs his fingers in a circle on Wangji’s bare hip. “Thirty-seven. You know, my landlady thinks you should get married soon.”
“Does she,” Wangji says.
“Mm, yeah. I told her you’re my boyfriend but I’m pretty sure it didn’t take. She thinks you’re wasting your life coming down to the basement to play video games with me. That you’ll never meet a girl that way.”
“Hm,” Wangji says. “What do you think?”
"I think she needs a hobby," Wei Ying yawns.
"About me getting married," Wangji says, and Wei Ying lets out a long, shaky breath that's not really a laugh, no matter how hard it's trying to be.
“Um," he says. "I think, if you want to get married, you should.” Wangji sits up on one elbow to look at him. "Not to anybody else," Wei Ying adds, hurriedly.
“Married to you?”
“I mean,” Wei Ying says. His fingers open and close against Wangji's skin, with shivering gentleness. “Since you’re thirty-seven and all.”
Wangji rolls over him and pins him to the bed, hands on his shoulders, thighs over his hips. Wei Ying doesn’t wrestle him off or poke at his ribs or make a joke out of it. He just stares up from the pillows, his damp hair curling a little, his eyes wide.
“I'll wait, then,” Wangji says.
“For what,” Wei Ying says, in a small voice.
“For you to ask me properly."
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. His eyes are going red. "You'd… really, would you?"
He's going to cry, Wangji thinks, shocked and moved and oddly fascinated. He's going to cry like this, him, Wangji’s sweetheart. He almost never does. Wangji's the one who feels like his taps are always going on and off. Wei Ying's the one who shrugs things away, makes them into another unfunny self-lacerating joke; the truth is he's so much tougher and harder inside than he pretends to be, actually much tougher than Wangji, though their fears have almost the same shape. He only really tears up, it seems, when he thinks he might really be wanted. Wangji should make him cry more often.
"Yes," Wangji says. He dips his head and kisses Wei Ying's cheek. "But not until you're ready to ask. I'm not in a hurry."
"I'll make it perfect," Wei Ying says. Fat tears are sliding off the sides of his face, but he's smiling again. "I promise. I'll ask the shit out of you." Wangji hides a smile by ducking a kiss down on Wei Ying's bare chest. He can scarcely imagine what that's going to mean; if experience is anything to go by, it'll involve superglue. "Don't marry anybody else in the meantime," Wei Ying says, fiercely. "I'll tear their hair out. You'll have a bald wife."
"I'm not going to have a wife," Wangji huffs. “Why do you always—”
"Yeah, I know you won't," Wei Ying says. "Because I'll tear their hair out. Keep up."
Wangji squishes him on principle. Wei Ying protests his innocence, among other things, until Wangji pulls the covers over their heads, and then for a long time that soft place around them is the whole entire world.
"Aw," Wei Ying says, lifting his head. "I just remembered. It's our sexiversary!"
"Hng," Wangji says. His eyes feel crossed. "Our what."
Wei Ying licks a flat stripe up the underside of Wangji's cock, base to tip, and grins at the groaning noise he makes.
"Our sexiversary," he says, patiently. "The first time we went all the way." He pops a wet tongue-kiss on the head. "Although. Who really says all the way. I sound like a character from Grease." Wangji doesn't have the data to confirm or deny that. He settles for shifting his hips, trying to chase Wei Ying's mouth. "Ah, greedy," he says, with evident delight. "So you do want to fuck my face."
"I never said I didn't," Wangji protests.
Wei Ying's mouth feels so hot it should be steaming; he rolls them over and pulls Wangji's thighs over his head and moans in his throat when Wangji settles down into it, and the humming vibration is almost too much. Wangji braces an arm down and cants his hips and pumps between his open lips, teasingly at first and then hard and deep, until Wei Ying's fingers dig into his leg. Wangji pulls out at once, trailing spit and precome along his cheek.
"No, I'm good," Wei Ying pants, glassy-eyed, chest heaving. "I'm good. I just wanted to grab you. You’re so grabbable. Come back."
Wangji fucks his throat until he's tearing up, mouth red as a sticker heart, and then leans down to fist Wei Ying's cock and take just the head into his mouth and suck the tip viciously. Wei Ying's shout is muffled. When he spills into Wangji's hand Wangji pulls out and climbs down the bed. He jerks off with Wei Ying's come, and sticks the head of his cock against Wei Ying's hole just before he goes off, to spurt just inside and around him and then finger it in until Wei Ying is twitching and pleading with both hands over his face. He comes again like that, in what looks like a huge quaking tremor, and then rolls over and almost falls asleep while Wangji rubs off another orgasm on the back of his thighs. "Yaaay," Wei Ying murmurs, muzzily, when Wangji flops down over him and presses his face into Wei Ying's neck. He wraps an arm around Wei Ying and Wei Ying tucks fingers around his wrist, secure and possessive. "Sexiversary," he yawns, with his eyes shut.
When he’s awake again and clean they sit propped against the headboard in bathrobes and look at photographs of condos sent by Wangji’s realtor; they could just look at them online, but seeing the prices made Wei Ying feel like he was going to have an anxiety attack, no matter how many times Wangji insisted he didn’t need to worry about it. So, a compromise: the realtor’s PDFs don’t have numbers on them. “Three bedrooms is a lot, isn’t it?” Wei Ying is still saying, chewing on his torn-up thumbnail. “For just us.”
“You need a studio,” Wangji says. Wei Ying likes to build project boards, big elaborate visual reference boards, project flowcharts: anything where he can see the whole picture coming together at once. Wangji can work on a laptop at the kitchen island, but Wei Ying will need wall space. And although they haven't talked about it specifically, because Wei Ying has barely voiced any demands in this process so far, Wangji suspects Wei Ying will want a guest room, to have at least the suggestion of a designated space for friends. It just seems better to have too many rooms than too few. Wei Ying hems and haws but ultimately nods and lets Wangji show him another couple of options.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says, tentatively. “I like the green roof. Are there pictures of that one at street level? Is it by a train stop?”
Wangji emails back their two favorites and Wei Ying lies back down, hands drumming over his stomach, eyes on the ceiling.
“I’m moving anyway,” Wangji reminds him. Wei Ying nods, silently. Wangji screws up his courage and says, “if you’d rather keep two places for a while—”
“No,” Wei Ying says. He stops drumming and reaches over to pet Wangji’s arm. “I wouldn't. It’s not that.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Wei Ying says. “I’m just… bad braining, I don’t know why.”
Wangji pulls Wei Ying over his lap a little, so he can rub his shoulders. Wei Ying goes easily and slumps across Wangji's thighs, lets himself be gently manhandled; there's a side of him that's so purely animal, so openly craving of touch and comfort, it makes Wangji's heart clench sometimes. Wangji's upbringing left him familiar with pain, but not the physical kind. The same isn't true of Wei Ying. The resilience Wangji thinks it must take, to keep reaching out for affection anyway. There's a shining edge on him that's never been blunted, though people tried.
"What are you afraid of?" Wangji asks.
Wei Ying shudders.
"Oh," he says. "Nothing much. Just that you'll, you know. Bring me home and, um. Regret it later."
Ah, Wangji thinks. Nothing much. Just the central trauma of his beloved's life.
"You can't know," Wei Ying says. He doesn't really sound upset about it, as if it's only a statement of fact. Maybe it is; who can know anything for sure, beyond things like calendar dates or atomic mass. "You can't know for sure."
"Wei Ying," Wangji says, carding fingers through his hair. "I won't. I won't regret trying. Even if you leave me, I won't."
Wei Ying sits up.
"LEAVE you," he says, with disgust. "I wouldn't."
"I might be horrible to live with," Wangji says. "Nobody can vouch for me."
"You won't be," Wei Ying says. "I'm the one who always forgets my leftovers or eats the thing somebody was saving. I leave my laundry in the washer for days."
"I clean before the cleaners," Wangji says. "I have a system for the fridge. I've been told it's obsessive."
"By who? Your brother? That guy makes dog food from scratch with butcher cuts. Neither of you have a leg to stand on."
"Maybe we'll both be awful," Wangji says. "Which would make us even."
"God, you weirdo," Wei Ying says, and sprawls across his lap again. He's quiet for a while. Wangji pets him mindlessly in the meantime, like he's a cat. Being with Wei Ying has probably lowered Wangji's blood pressure. "We'll need a chore chart," he says, eventually. “Ironically, I have trouble remembering household tasks, and I have a feeling you won't remind me about them, because you don't feel entitled to tell me what to do and you think you're, like, crushing my free spirit by making me do the dishes.”
He's too fucking smart for his own good sometimes, Wangji thinks.
"You don't have to earn your place," Wangji says.
“No, I know,” Wei Ying says, almost convincingly. “But I won't be a guest anymore. I’ll be a co-captain. Picard wouldn’t miss trash day two weeks in a row."
"I know you have no idea who that is.”
“I got it from context,” Wangji says. He thinks for a second. "Will the chart have stickers?"
"Oh yeah. Hell yeah, tons of stickers."
"Mm," says Wangji. "Good."
Wangji is represented on the chore chart by a bunny sticker: a little white cartoon rabbit that Wei Ying claims is named Miffy. Wei Ying is represented by Pikachu.
"Because I'm an electric type," Wei Ying explains. "I took a quiz." He makes Wangji take the quiz too, but then disputes the results. "I mean, ice type kind of fits? But not really. I think you're grass type."
"I fail to see how that's better."
"That's because you don't know anything about Pokemon," Wei Ying says, confidently, correctly. "Grass type means you're quiet but grounded. You say things only when you really mean them. You're soft and tough at the same time, and you have strong roots. And you need to be tended, like this,” he says, and folds Wangji’s hands in between his, reeling him in. “Ah, there your ears go. Come here, baby."
"This is from a children's cartoon?" Wangji wonders aloud, getting his earlobes bitten.
Wei Ying is still unpacking; every few days he produces yet another pile of unsorted things from somewhere. Wangji’s old condo was spare and clean-lined, because clutter has always made him mildly anxious—as if everything he could see in the room was his responsibility to deal with immediately—and Wei Ying doesn’t technically own all that much, but none of what he does own matches. So they look at catalogs for a while and put a few old things on the curb and order a set of white lacquered wood cube shelves, so that the profusion of graphic novels and cat-ear headphones and kitschy photo frames will have a plain, unified setting, which makes some of the boiling-pot sensations in the back of Wangji’s head go away. Everything else goes in baskets; Wei Ying’s hideously patterned throw blankets go into hidden storage in the big ottoman. The room that results from this work is the nicest room that Wangji’s ever inhabited. It’s coordinated without rigidity, cool and soothing without coldness. Sometimes looking at the plastic souvenirs and mismatched spines of the unsorted books still makes him slightly twitchy, but mostly it makes him feel like a weighted blanket’s been laid over his heart, like Wei Ying is holding him by the wrist even when he’s not there. Wangji never wants to live alone again.
He’s been feeling strange spikes of anxiety, though, ones that feel unconnected to specific moments. He’ll be pulling his own laundry out of the dryer or reviewing a spreadsheet and suddenly his chest will clench and his vision will grey for a minute, and he’ll find himself checking his pulse, cycling through visions of Wei Ying waiting in a plastic chair in the hospital, attending Wangji’s funeral. It feels almost like a backlash, an equal and opposite reaction to the kinds of feelings he’s been having sometimes when they’re just doing normal things, like when they cook dinner or sit crowded together on the couch at night, watching something that Wei Ying’s picked out, Wangji’s cheek pressed against the top of his head and his body filled with a kind of tingling electric foreign joy. There’s a feeling he gets when Wei Ying sits up in bed reading, with just the faint nightstand lamp on; he turns the pages in his paperback and then rests his hand on Wangji’s back, rubbing in slow circles, idly. As if below his conscious mind his body was just a radio permanently tuned to Wangji. When Wei Ying rubs his back like that, Wangji falls asleep like a rock dropping from an observation deck. He physically can’t stay awake.
Wangji doesn’t know what to name that feeling.
“Try,” Lan Yi says. He thinks about it for a long time, minutes in the session ticking down.
“Happiness,” he says, and then shakes his own head. Wangji’s fingers curl up, where they’re resting on his knees. “Safety,” he says, and a shiver runs through him.
“Ah,” Lan Yi says. “And how does that word feel?”
“Terrifying,” Wangji says, which sounds so stupid, even to him. But it does. He didn’t even like saying it aloud.
“People can come through tremendously frightening things, feeling intact,” Lan Yi says. “Your body has a lot of systems to protect you. It can… turn things off. Mute them. Hide them away. And it can do that for a long time.” She smiles at Wangji. “You said your dreams have gotten bad again.”
“Very,” he admits.
“Think of it this way,” she says. “You’ve been carrying something very hurtful around. Your body and your mind didn’t want you to set it down too soon. Because as hurtful as it is to carry, it’s hurtful to unload it, too. So a part of you was waiting.”
“Waiting,” Wangji echoes. He uncurls his hands, understanding at last. “For me to be somewhere safe.”
Lan Yi nods.
“Sometimes people collapse at finish lines,” she says. “Not because they can’t go any further. But because they don’t have to.”
Because they’ve made it, Wangji thinks. Not because they'll never run again, but because for now they’ve made it to a place they badly wanted to be.
“Will it pass?” Wangji says. “This… letting go?”
“That’s a difficult question,” Lan Yi says. “Do you feel the same today as you did last year?”
“No,” he says. “So. You’re saying it won’t be… static.”
“Feelings rarely are,” she says.
When Wangji gets home Wei Ying is unpacking a grocery order, squirreling away bags of corn chips like he thinks Wangji wouldn't approve of them, as if Wangji wasn’t the one who put them on the list for his sake without complaint. Sometimes, about certain small things like this, Wangji thinks it’s a game he’s playing: a game of pretending he's being a little bad, a little reckless and silly, like he’s poking at what he thinks are Wangji’s edges on purpose. To see if he’ll still be loved, still be liked, if he eats too much junk food, if he plays spangly pop music, if he wants neon sheets for the bed. Like he’s waiting to see what Wangji will do.
What Wangji does now is come up behind him and wrap his arms around Wei Ying’s waist, bury his face in Wei Ying’s neck. He’s still in his workout clothes and he smells like the complex pool. Safe, Wangji thinks, with slow intention, trying it out. When he thinks it and presses his mouth to Wei Ying's shoulder something locks into place inside him, a loose piece that's been rattling and rattling for as long as he can remember.
Wei Ying strokes the arm that’s across his belly.
“Rough today?” he says.
“Mm,” Wangji says, noncommittally. He’s not sure yet if it was or wasn’t.
“Well,” Wei Ying says, and cups his head and sways them a little, side to side, like he’s rocking Wangji, like they're slow-dancing. “I think we should stay just like this, then. But that means you’ll have to come into the shower with me. Think you can handle that?”
He can and he will.
Wangji feels good enough afterwards to make tortellini for dinner, with lemon zest and a little green salad, and they eat out on the terrace. He knows Wei Ying is secretly afraid that one day he’s going to drop a fork off the side and down onto someone’s car, but tonight Wei Ying doesn’t even joke about that, he just sits relaxed on his side of the little table and drinks his glass of wine and tells Wangji about the contract job he was offered, to run a project for a digital developer that’s building educational modules for a science museum. It’ll involve juggling about a million assets and keeping three simultaneous timelines for the grant, the app, and the exhibit opening. Wei Ying says he’s nervous about it, but what Wangji really thinks he is, is excited. He twists the ring on his forefinger around and around while he talks, at least when he's not waving his hands around in the air to sketch an idea. It's Wangji's ring, a ring that Wangji gave him, and he touches it a lot, runs his fingers across the stone over and over when he thinks Wangji's not looking.
In June his stuff had arrived before him; he'd had a final presentation for his spring class, so the moving truck went ahead. Wei Ying had shown up a week later with the rest of his luggage, and when Wangji had peeled him out of his rumpled flannel shirt there was a t-shirt under it with the first half of a question hand-drawn on it, and when Wangji had pulled that over his head the second half of the question had been written in red and gold marker over his heart. Wei Ying had cried again in bed that day and then laughed really hard, because Wangji had waited, yes, but not… completely patiently. He'd pulled a ring box out from the side of the mattress, where it had been sitting since February. It was red opal, Wei Ying's birthstone. Like him, it was beautiful in a different way every time you looked at it. They'll be married in April: a leap month, spring, lucky and sunny and too far away, but both of their families had insisted on complicated arrangements that couldn’t be rushed, so there they were, that was life. Wangji has an eighteen-month calendar, so they’ve put foil stickers on that whole week.
After dinner they stay on the terrace, curled up on the wide wicker settee, Wei Ying's feet in his lap. It's almost nine but the sun is barely down, and the day feels stretched so thin that night may never come. "I could get used to this," Wei Ying sighs, when Wangji rubs both thumbs hard into his instep.
"You'd better," Wangji says, gravely, and Wei Ying laughs and pushes him with the other foot.
He takes up a lot of the bed: he starfishes, he snores. He hates tomatoes and seitan. His mind has so many parallel strings that sometimes he watches videos on his phone while he's already got the tv on, without fully losing track of either. He's almost always still asleep when Wangji wakes up, but when Wangji tries to roll out of bed Wei Ying reaches for him blindly, reflexively, fumbling for his hip, his hand. He kisses the fog of Wangji's bad dreams away and argues with him over toilet paper brands and tries very hard to be polite to Qiren and doesn't always quite manage. He never goes to the market without bringing home tangerines, the tiny super-sweet seedless ones that Wangji never bothered buying but now eats compulsively. He’s always mildly simmering over an inexplicable nonsense argument with his brother. He secretly paid to have one of Wangji’s mother’s old recital programs framed. He's working up the courage to pet Xichen's dog.
"He really doesn't have to force himself," Xichen's said, multiple times. "She's not exactly hard up for attention."
But he wants to, Wangji knows. He doesn't want any member of Wangji's family to feel left out.
Here, now, Wei Ying slides his feet off Wangji's lap.
"Ahhh, you're so warm," he says, settling again against Wangji's side, tucking his shoulder under Wangji's arm and resting his head on Wangji's chest. He shivers a little. It was a hot day but there's a cool breeze that turns cold this high up; Wangji wraps both arms around him and feels him shudder. With pleasure, this time.
"You want to go in?" Wangji says.
"Not yet." Wei Ying nuzzles his face in. "Not yet. I want to stay like this for a little bit. Just like this.”
“This sucks,” Wei Ying says. “You’re having fun in a hotel without me.”
“I’m not having fun.”
“Why not?” Wei Ying demands. “Did they give you a bad room? Were your meetings okay? Did you eat? You didn’t eat? I googled three good places in just that block. I’m sending them right now. You’re supposed to be missing me, not starving yourself!”
Wangji gets a veggie protein bowl at one of the places Wei Ying suggests and eats it in the park under the unseasonably warm sunshine; he texts a picture and Wei Ying sends back a series of drooling emojis and fireworks and, for reasons only he’d know, a buff arm and a parasailer.
The next night they facetime in bed, and Wei Ying talks about his first meeting with the education consultant and then about the dwarf lemon tree he bought, that they can put out on the terrace in the summer and keep by the big sliding-glass doors in the winter. “And then free lemons forever!” he says. “Before you ask, yes, I got a saucer to put under it. Actually I got one on casters, so we can wheel it wherever we want to. It’s so cute. Really not big at all. You’re going to love it.”
Wangji already loves it, like he loves the freaky octopus-patterned throw pillow and the red plastic wine cube that Wei Ying found at IKEA last month. Wangji just likes watching him nest. He could barely be convinced to keep a toothbrush and a drawer of clothes at Wangji’s old condo; he can build a small arboretum in their living room now if he wants to, Wangji’s hardly going to discourage him. They’ll have the rest of their lives to pick patterns and replace curtains and argue about whether or not a bathroom needs art. “Duh, of course,” Wei Ying says. “Bathrooms are spaces of contemplation.”
“Mm.” Wangji doesn’t actually disagree, but it is extremely funny to hear him articulate the position.
“Jerk,” Wei Ying huffs, oddly breathlessly. “You already bought something, didn’t you. Was it that botanical woodblock thing you bookmarked? If it’s another canvas print of us I’m vetoing it. No human faces in there.”
“Sensible,” Wangji admits. He can find another place for the canvas print, then. Maybe the hallway.
“I’m incredibly sensible,” Wei Ying says. He chews his lip for a second. “Like, so sensible. Reasonable. Totally on the ball.” Wangji raises an eyebrow. Wei Ying smiles and holds the camera back a little further from his face, and now Wangji can see that his shoulder is moving just slightly, as if his other arm was occupied. Well, that explains the shift in tone. “Capable of multitasking, even.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji breathes.
“God, I miss you,” Wei Ying says. “I can’t believe we used to be apart like this all the time.” Wangji can’t either, suddenly; his chest aches and the hotel bed stretches on for an eternity in every direction. “My fingers aren’t so big like yours,” Wei Ying says, plaintively. “You want to watch?”
He really does.
“I miss you, too,” Wangji says, later, come cooling on his stomach. He longs to roll over and feel Wei Ying’s sweaty weight against him. He’s wearing one of Wangji’s undershirts, an old one with a stretched-out neck. It makes Wangji want to climb through the phone and curl up against him, inside him. Tomorrow night isn’t soon enough. How did he stand it, sleeping alone in hotels all these years? Probably by not having a basis of comparison.
“Aw, baby,” Wei Ying says. “I know. You ought to get some sleep. Your flight’s at three-thirty? Your time?”
“Be safe,” Wei Ying says, and kisses at the screen. “Hurry back.”
The day’s meetings are long and involve a lot of tiring metaphorical hand-holding; Wangji actually dozes a little on the plane. But he wakes up when they’re circling to land. He opens his eyes to the long cutting line of sunset raking over the water, turning the strait into a wash of cold yellow fire, a flat sea of gold that stretches out with searing brilliance to the edges of the sky. When the plane turns and Wangji blinks the after-image away, the city appears. It’s bright-lined and sprawling and busy, mobile as an anthill. As they come lower and lower Wangji finds himself doing something he hasn’t done in years: he scans covetously over the towers, looking for his own neighborhood, for their condo building. It looks so different from above that it’s hard to register at first. He finds the Shangri-La and looks southeast from there, trying to count blocks unsuccessfully. For no logical reason at all he badly wants to see it, even a glimpse of it. He badly wants to press his eyes to the glass walls of the place where Wei Ying is right now, where their bed is, their dishes, their lemon tree. He feels like a runner looking for the tape, like a bow pulling forth the last tremulous harmonic. He is very nearly home.
He flies through baggage claim and into the car and out of it again; up twenty floors in an elevator with no mirrors at all, so he never sees exactly what his face is doing. Wei Ying’s face is usually mirror enough to know. He opens the door in time to see Wei YIng fling himself bodily over the back of the sofa and actually run across the room; Wangji drops his bags and catches him and swings him up and Wei Ying’s legs go around his waist, Wangji’s hands firm under his thighs. They topple back against the door, just shy of falling. Wei Ying peppers his face with kisses, like they haven’t seen each other in months. “Four! Whole! Days!” Wei Ying says, punctuating everything with another wet smack. “An eternity!”
“I brought you something,” Wangji says.
“I bet you did,” Wei Ying says, and squeezes his thighs together; Wangji swallows and then smacks him on the ass, to make him yelp. “Oh, like a present?” He slides down and lets go of Wangji, but hovers while he digs in the flap of his shoulderbag. “You didn’t have to. My birthday’s in a week anyway.”
It’s a slightly smushed cupcake in a little plastic to-go container. They didn’t have the one with bourbon frosting anymore; this one has limoncello over vanilla bean. When Wangji takes it out, Wei Ying’s eyes go huge. “You’re kidding me,” he says. “You remembered the place?”
“You think I’d forget?” Wangji says. Wei Ying’s face softens; he takes the cupcake out and takes a bite from it and shuts his eyes for a second in bliss. Then he puts it on the counter and lets Wangji taste his mouth, sugary and sweet, like the second time they ever kissed.
In bed that night Wei Ying rolls over and smushes his face into the space under Wangji’s arm; Wangji lifts his tablet and Wei Ying scoots closer, lining up their bodies all the way from nose to belly to hip to knees. His feet tuck beneath Wangji’s. He sighs in relief when they’re pressed tight together.
“Sometimes I wonder,” he says.
“What would have happened. You know?” He chews his lip. “If I’d just gone home. If I hadn’t spent the night that time.”
Wangji thinks about it for a moment.
“I would have called you in the morning,” he says.
“Would you?” Wei Ying says. He smiles. “Hm, then I would have met you for breakfast. Made you buy me waffles.”
“Mm,” Wangji says. “I would’ve switched my flight again.”
“Oh? Presumptuous much?” Wei Ying says, as if he hadn’t had a back pocket full of condoms at the time. “You think I would have fucked you after the waffles?”
“I’d make sure they were good waffles,” Wangji says, mildly, and Wei Ying laughs.
“Tell me more about this strange alternate reality.”
“It’s not very different,” Wangji says. He strokes the back of Wei Ying’s neck. “I wouldn’t want it to be.”
Wei Ying looks up at him for a long time. It ought to be difficult, to be looked at this way. If it were anyone else it would be awkward, painful. But he trusts Wei Ying’s eyes. They’re gentle and fair and clear; they miss nothing, and they know him to the bone. If Wangji is truly safe anywhere it’s here, inside them.
“Well. If you ever meet your doppelganger, remember,” Wei Ying says, and spreads his hand over Wangji’s gut, territorially. “I only want this one. My one.”
If Wangji ever meets a version of himself that isn’t marrying Wei Ying, he’s probably going to have a fight to the death on his hands. But that is absolutely too weird to say out loud.
“Mm,” he manages.
“Unless you two want to fight,” Wei Ying says slyly, clairvoyantly, “then let me watch. But you’ll have to wear, like, different color shirts or something, so I can make sure I’m rooting for the right one. Are you laughing? Why are you laughing, I’m serious. I don’t want to accidentally root for the wrong you.”
“What if the other me wins?”
“No chance,” Wei Ying says, loyally. “You’d wipe the floor with you. Come on, c’mere, show me your moves. Think you can pin me, gege?”
“You’re ridiculous,” Wangji says, ears blazing, but he doesn’t have to be told twice.
Wei Ying actually falls asleep before him for once; Wangji stays awake, ostensibly still reading but mostly watching his face while he slides into dreaming, his brow lightly furrowed and his mouth parted, as if he was going to talk even in his sleep. Actually, it’s funny that he doesn’t. He’s so often in motion that Wangji treasures these moments, when he relaxes completely and Wangji can stare his fill at his beautiful mouth, his lush fringe of lashes, the slack soft skin of his cheeks. If there’s another world where they’re not together, Wangji never wants to know about it. He shuts the light off and rolls over; Wei Ying rolls too, eyes still shut, sniffing and tucking his hands under his chin and butting his ass unconsciously against Wangji’s thighs. Wangji slides an arm around his waist and tucks his nose against the back of Wei Ying’s neck, warm and boneless with simple animal contentment.
He drifts for a while, tired but not exhausted. Just thinking.
A part of him wishes they could have met, just once. Wangji’s mother would have smoothed the hair back on his head, called Wei Ying handsome until he blushed. She’d have turned to Wangji and said, you did well. Sometimes he imagines it, his most indulgent fantasy. Lan Yi says it’s normal to keep grieving this way, to keep finding new things to miss: the milestones they’ll never see, the partners they won’t know. More than once he’s imagined his mother putting their hands together at their wedding and saying, be happy. Then again, maybe she already did. He wonders about that, a little. Maybe it’s silly. But he’d been thinking of her so strongly before the elevator doors opened that night, aching in the long vacant space of his life, like the silence after a held note. And then music had started up again, unexpected and haunting and wondrous and loud.
Wei Ying’s just barely awake enough in the morning to kiss him before he leaves for work.
“Mmmm, I love you,” he says, warm and rumpled, pulling Wangji easily in by his tie. “Have a good day.”
“I will,” Wangji says, and then he does.
“Why this candle? / Why this cake?
The day of my birth / is not today.
I was born / when you said, 'Hey.”
― Kamand Kojouri