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i'm the one for your fire

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It’s Wei Ying’s birthday tomorrow, and after 10,949 days of life, he is still, against his wishes, a card-carrying virgin.

 

Wei Ying doesn’t mind most of the time. Not really. He’s busy enough with work that it isn’t often he actively finds himself reflecting on his own lack of experience. But there is something about a 30th birthday that feels like a failed milestone. A sad little flag-wave of unwilling abstinence.

 

As his best friend, apparently, is so keen to remind him.

 

“Year thirty, Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says, and leans over Wei Ying’s chair so that it tilts backwards with a creak. “And still nothing, huh?”

 

“Fuck off,” Wei Ying says absently, clicking through a case study. 

 

Huaisang sniffs and slouches into a chair next to Wei Ying’s desk. “A dangerous way to speak to someone who has sole control over your birthday rager tonight.”

 

That...is probably true. “I can’t talk about sex at work, Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying says, very diplomatically. “I’m pretty sure it’s in my contract somewhere.”

 

Huaisang scoffs and gives a dismissive wave of one hand, then tugs at one of his earrings. “I write half of those contracts, so that’s bullshit. I’m fully within my rights to question you, on the eve of your third decade alive, how on earth you’re both my hottest and my least-laid friend.”

 

“Remind me why we’re talking about this to begin with?” Wei Ying asks, tapping the window shut and leveling a pointed look at Huaisang. “Didn’t Nie Mingjue condemn you to preliminary research for the day?”

 

Huaisang places a sentimental hand over his heart. “Because I care, Wei-xiong. And don’t bring my brother into this to distract me.”

 

It had been worth a shot. It’s not like this is the first time Huaisang has broached this subject, though usually not at this volume and not in their place of business. 

 

And, well. Huaisang is right, after all. Wei Ying is all too keenly aware that the older he gets, without experiencing that particular rite of passage into adulthood, the more of an anomaly he becomes.

 

The thing is. Wei Ying has had plenty of chances to finally — get over that last hill. The big bang, and all of that. Throughout his twenties, he’s been trashed at more parties than he can count, and there had been no shortage of cute girls who’d eagerly offered themselves up. He’s had surprisingly good traction on dating apps, something which his friends and his brother vocally resent him for. But text conversations have rarely gone beyond the first few, superficial lines; the few dates he’d landed had been resounding flops, a mutual fizzling that neither party cared to follow up on. 

 

So, Wei Ying has had chances. Many of them. And he likes flirting! A lot! Flirting is fun! It’s just that — whenever the opportunity had presented itself, it hadn’t seemed like the right time, for whatever reason. Or the right person, or the right situation, or the right mood.

 

So, yeah. Here he is. A day away from thirty years old, single, (technically three-fourths of) a virgin, and currently at the mercy of his best friend and whatever hazing rituals he’s got in the works for this evening.

 

“I think what really drives me crazy about it is,” Huaisang begins, introspectively.

 

“Drives you crazy about it?” Wei Ying feels compelled to ask.

 

“Is that it would be so easy,” Huiasang continues as if he hadn’t spoken. “It would be so easy for you. You just go around dangling yourself in front of people like a walking snack, and then you do nothing with it. Hot privilege is wasted on you, Wei-xiong.”

 

“Thank you,” says Wei Ying. “Also, I hate you.”

 

Huaisang perks up, his face brightening as though a thought has suddenly occurred to him. “You know, you could probably land someone tonight, if you really wanted to. The ‘it’s my birthday’ angle and all of that, entering a new decade of life. Thirty is kind of a sexy age, you know?”

 

Wei Ying tilts his head, considering. It would be nice to finally have some experience to back up all of his empty, nonsense talk about his own game. Provided that he gets enough alcohol in his system, maybe this could be the time he actually convinces himself to go through with it. To swallow down that panicked, squirmy impulse shoving him toward the exit doors whenever he’s confronted with the actual prospect of sleeping with a girl.

 

He would never admit it, not even to Huaisang or Jiang Cheng. He’d never recover face again, given all his boasting over the years.

 

“Plus you know how the urban legend goes,” Huaisang is saying, tapping a pen against his wrist.

 

Wei Ying informs him that he does not.

 

“Oh, you know, that old myth about cherry magic,” Huaisang says, then his eyebrows knife up at Wei Ying’s answering, blank stare. “You know, the whole thing where if you hit thirty and you’re a virgin, you get cursed?”

 

“That sounds so fake,” Wei Ying says. “You just made that shit up.”

 

Huaisang practically splutters in indignation. “I did not! It isn’t my fault you’re uncultured!”

 

“There’s a real and very-not-fake urban legend that says I have to fuck someone tonight or else I’m cursed forever,” Wei Ying says, dropping his voice so as not to prick the ears of nearby coworkers. “That’s what you’re saying?”

 

“I could help you,” Huaisang suggests. “Like I said, if you really wanted to do it, it would be easy for you. I just think you don’t really want to.”

 

“I do — ” Wei Ying starts to protest.

 

“Nothing wrong if you don’t,” Huaisang is quick to amend. “I’m just saying. You spend a lot of time talking about the sex you want to have and then never having it.”

 

Wei Ying makes a face at him in lieu of a response. When Huaisang’s right, he’s right, after all.

 

But, if you truly want to enlist my services,” Huaisang says, dipping his head with a small, circular hand gesture. “I have literally nothing better to do with my afternoon than devoting myself to this wholesale.”

 

“Good,” Wei Ying says, bluffing through his teeth. “Because I do. Want you to, that is. Set me up and I’ll do it.”

 

“Our options at the firm are kind of limited,” Huaisang points out. “But I’ve been known to work well in dire circumstances. As is evidenced by most of my career.”

 

Huaisang makes a show of scanning the office, narrowing his eyes as they jump from person to person.

 

“Hmm…what about Mianmian?” Huaisang asks, swiveling Wei Ying in his chair so he’s facing her direction. “She’s exactly your type.”

 

Wei Ying raises his eyebrows. “Which is?”

 

“Pretty and mean,” says Huaisang.

 

Wei Ying opens his mouth to protest, then snaps it shut, which earns him a sage nod from his friend.

 

“You know who else ticks those boxes?” Huaisang leans over the back of the chair to talk closer into Wei Ying’s ear, and then he swivels the chair about 45 degrees so that Wei Ying is facing toward where Lan Zhan is frowning over a series of documents.

 

Wei Ying rolls his eyes and casts his head against the seat-back. “Yeah, right.”

 

“Why not?” Huaisang asks, then starts to waggle Wei Ying’s chair back and forth in a way that makes his stomach lurch and bounce.

 

Stop that, I’m gonna puke up my Fruity Pebbles. Also, did you want the answer to that question alphabetically or chronologically?”

 

“Chronologically,” Huaisang says promptly.

 

“Well, it all started when I was born heterosexual,” Wei Ying says, ticking off on his fingers. “Then it progressed to Lan Zhan almost kneecapping me at university, multiple times.”

 

“You asked for it,” Huaisang reminds him.

 

“Rude,” Wei Ying says. “Betrayal. Some friend you are.”

 

He had asked for it, repeatedly and at length.

 

“Listen, I don’t care how straight you are or aren’t,” Huaisang tells him. “I mean, I’ll always maintain that you’re way too into being bossed around to be straight. But putting that aside, there isn’t a single person on earth I can imagine who wouldn’t make an exception for that face. I mean, my god, look at him.”

 

Wei Ying folds his arms and frowns at Lan Zhan’s flawless profile, letting his feet swing back and forth. Lan Zhan’s hotness is a distracting irritant at best. He’s definitely very pretty and very mean, but in a way where he clearly thinks he’s better than everyone else. He certainly acts like it.

 

“Why don’t you go for him then,” Wei Ying says to deflect.

 

“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Huaisang says plaintively. “It was like flirting with a brick wall. A contemptuous brick wall.”

 

Contemptuous brick wall. Not a bad bio for Lan Zhan, really.

 

Then Huaisang bends down again to croon next to Wei Ying’s ear, “He only has eyes for you, Wei-xiong.”

 

Huaisang is just teasing — badly, at that — and there’s clearly no truth intended to it, but something about the words still makes heat prickle along Wei Ying’s collar, itchy and uncomfortable.

 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Wei Ying grumbles. “The only eyes he has for me are, y’know. Dagger ones.”

 

“If you say so,” Huaisang half-sings, and as if sensing their scrutiny, Lan Zhan looks up and locks eyes with Wei Ying across the office. He doesn’t waste a second searching for him — his gaze lasers to him immediately, like he’d known exactly where to find him.

 

Nie Huaisang whisper-yells “ohshit” and swings Wei Ying around in the swivel chair so fast that he nearly crashes into the desk, leaving them both cackling until Nie Mingjue strides by and smacks the back of the chair threateningly.

 

They scramble into order after that, Wei Ying diving back into his work with studious focus, and when he sneaks a glance across the office again, Lan Zhan is gone.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Ying had only started working at the Nie family’s cultivation firm a couple years ago. Right out of school, he’d started out in the Jiang family’s practice alongside his adopted brother, Jiang Cheng. His employment there hadn’t even been a question, given that he’d grown up with the Jiangs. However, not long after he started, Wei Ying had been disgracefully dismissed following a certain, ah — Incident. 

 

Like a true pal, Huaisang had informed him of an opening at his own family’s practice, which is actually quite a competitive firm in the cultivation field. After a couple of interviews, skill assessments, and some close calls on background checks, Nie Mingjue had agreed to hire Wei Ying on, and that had been that.

 

Huaisang isn’t a cultivator himself, to his older brother’s eternal chagrin, but he does manage the administrative stuff fairly well, in Wei Ying’s opinion, when he puts his mind to it. That includes case assignments. The process is fairly straightforward: A case or request comes through, usually a haunting or a possession or something else deadly or monstrous that needs taken care of; Huaisang assigns it to one or two of the cultivators, based on their experience and availability; and off they go into the field.

 

As for the cultivators on staff, there’s Wei Ying, of course. There’s Mianmian, who he’s known since they were kids but has never truly surpassed casual familiarity with. Nie Mingjue, his boss and the head of the firm, although he rarely takes on cases himself unless they’re the rare category 1. A few others he’s not close with and who hadn’t gone to his school.

 

And then there’s Lan Zhan. 

 

Hot, boring, grumpy Lan Zhan. He and Wei Ying had both studied cultivation at the same university, though their approaches to it had been markedly different. Wei Ying hadn’t hesitated to dabble in less orthodox methods in his cultivation path, which had been a source of Lan Zhan’s persistent reproach. They’d only actually, truly fought once or twice, but it had evidently been enough to earn Lan Zhan’s eternal antipathy.

 

Anyway, Wei Ying had mostly found Lan Zhan’s unconcealed dislike of him hilarious. He still does, but it cohabits with irritation at the fact that in spite of his boring personality, Lan Zhan somehow manages to outshine him in absolutely everything cultivation-related.

 

Take today, for instance.

 

Not long after that conversation with Huaisang, Wei Ying finds Lan Zhan hogging the copier, scanning his own case studies with a lifeless expression.

 

“Heyyy, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, just to be annoying. He slinks up next to Lan Zhan and playfully hip-checks him. Lan Zhan doesn’t budge a single cun. “Hard at it making those copies today, huh?”

 

Lan Zhan tilts his chin to look at Wei Ying square on, his uncanny eyes unblinking. 

 

Eesh, looking at him directly is like going snowblind. Nevertheless, Wei Ying tips his own chin up and matches the stare with a wide grin.

 

“I am almost finished,” Lan Zhan says. Another thing about Lan Zhan: he always speaks with such gravity, even on the most mundane of topics, like he’s a real-life android.


“No rush, no rush.” Wei Ying leans his shoulder familiarly against Lan Zhan’s, who stiffens at once. Lan Zhan has been weird about touching since they were teenagers, and Wei Ying usually does all in his power to test how far he can push his boundaries. It’s for Lan Zhan’s own self-betterment, really, Wei Ying tells himself. He’ll never find a girlfriend if he doesn’t loosen up a little.

 

Lan Zhan always smells so fresh, some sort of cologne or aftershave or deodorant with a unique scent. Sandalwood, maybe, or balsam.

 

Although he’d gone a little rigid when Wei Ying leaned against him, Lan Zhan hasn’t moved away yet, his shoulder warm and solid against Wei Ying’s. This close, Wei Ying can peer down at the documents that Lan Zhan’s copying. He freezes when he catches the name printed at the top of the papers. “The yaoguai in Wuxi?”

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, inclining his head slightly to look at Wei Ying. 

 

A sour feeling curdles in Wei Ying’s stomach. He takes a step back, putting distance between them. “That was originally my case.”

 

Of course Lan Zhan would take his case — he’s the darling of the firm, after all, and his results speak for themselves. Wei Ying is a solid second-best performer, but he’s gotten yanked off of higher-risk cases before due to his...preexisting condition. Nie Mingjue is the only one here who knows about it, so he must have requested that the case be transferred.

 

Great, Wei Ying thinks, his spirits sinking as his shoulders slump.

 

Lan Zhan blinks at him, appearing to be somewhat at a loss as he observes Wei Ying’s sudden mood shift.

 

“I did not know,” Lan Zhan says.

 

Wei Ying doesn’t meet Lan Zhan’s eyes as he forces a laugh; it’s brittle, humorless. “I mean, it’s whatever. You’ll do better on it anyway.”

 

A tiny frown pinches Lan Zhan’s marble brow, and he opens his mouth as if to say something, but Wei Ying cuts in, a little rudely, with, “Are you done using that or what?”

 

Lan Zhan steps aside in one smooth stride, allowing Wei Ying access to the copy machine. 

 

Wei Ying’s expecting Lan Zhan to turn and go with that implicit dismissal, but then he...doesn’t. He hovers awkwardly in Wei Ying’s periphery, for far longer than is socially comfortable.

 

Then Lan Zhan steps closer to him again. 

 

“Wei Ying,” he says, which is an aberration. They usually don’t talk unless Wei Ying initiates, and he usually initiates for the purpose of being obnoxious. Wei Ying blinks up at him. 

 

Lan Zhan returns the stare levelly. “Happy birthday.”

 

Wei Ying’s mouth hangs open a little in his surprise before he snaps it shut. “It’s — it’s not until tomorrow.”

 

“I know,” says Lan Zhan, and then continues to appraise him gravely with his strange, amber-gold eyes.

 

“Okay, well,” Wei Ying says, perking up at Lan Zhan’s sudden attention. “Thanks! Ah, you’ll probably say no and everything but — Huaisang is throwing a party for me tonight and um, you’re welcome to come if you like.”

 

He coughs after the words are out, sealing his lips together in a tight line. That had come from nowhere, his mouth motoring into the invitation before his brain had consented to it. He’s never initiated plans with Lan Zhan, ever, certainly not outside of work.

 

Lan Zhan blinks at him as though making a similar observation, his face as blank as fresh parchment.

 

“Ah, let me guess, boring, right?” Wei Ying rushes to say. It’s always easier to preemptively reject Lan Zhan, somehow, before he can get a snide or sullen word in on Wei Ying edgewise. “Or frivolous, or something. You can just forget I asked.”

 

Lan Zhan’s mouth pulls down at the corner, his gaze unwavering as Wei Ying turns to scan another document.

 

“I will consider it,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying snaps up with an open-mouthed “ah?” at Lan Zhan’s perfectly-sculpted back, which is already retreating across the office.

 

Hmm. What the fuck. 

 

Well. There’s a first time for everything.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Wei Ying wakes up with a jackhammer headache and his cherry firmly unpopped. 

 

For a few moments, he lies as still as he can until the room stops whirling, tracking patterns in unfamiliar ceiling plaster from a couch that is not his. Then he presses his palms to his eyelids and grinds down, hard enough that his eyes throb.

 

The evening had started out fun enough — from what he can recall, at least — but had started to go black-mold and fuzzy around the edges around his sixth drink. He remembers getting into it with Jiang Cheng, both of them drunkenly shouting at each other in a stairwell. He doesn’t even remember what they’d fought about — something to do with Uncle Jiang? Anyway, he has brief, patchy blips in his memory of Jiang Cheng locking him out of their apartment, his own numb fingers fumbling on the keypad as he punched the wrong code again and again. He remembers wandering aimlessly until his legs had gone wooden, as temperatures sank from brisk to biting. Finally, Huaisang, stoned out of his mind, had rescued him from the street like a stray kitten and offered him a friend’s couch to crash on.

 

(Lan Zhan had never showed. Of course he hadn’t. Wei Ying hadn’t really expected him to, anyway. And now, on the other end of the night, he’s a little grateful for it.)

 

All in all, not one of his better birthday celebrations. Also not one of his worst. But not one for the books, and certainly nothing notable in the sex category.

 

Anyway, Wei Ying is fucked for the day, not in the way he would prefer, because all of his work clothes are at his shared place with Jiang Cheng, and he’s already running late. He manages a harried face-wash and mouth-rinse in a stranger’s sink, grimacing toothily at his own puffy reflection. Huaisang’s friend had evidently departed for work earlier, and Wei Ying feels only a little guilty about rifling through their closet for suitable clothing. He’ll give them right back, anyway.

 

Wei Ying’s phone is a brick, long-dead from the previous night, so he has to hail a cab the old-fashioned way. The second he’s in the car, he passes into a dead sleep in the backseat until his destination, at which the driver snaps him awake to get moving. 

 

“Thanks,” Wei Ying mumbles, still half-asleep, and he passes some crumpled bills into the driver’s outstretched hand. “Keep the change.”

 

Fucking asshole, the man says.

 

Wei Ying startles, fully awake, his mouth popping open. “I — excuse me?”

 

“Excuse you what?” the driver snaps, throwing a black look over his shoulder. “Can you get a move on? I’ve got other riders.”

 

Wei Ying gets a move on, stumbling out of the backseat onto the pavement. For the next couple of minutes, he’s left to scratch his head in bewilderment, staring after the cab’s shrinking taillights.

 

Weird. Wei Ying has his many faults, but he’s likable as a general rule. People aren’t usually so openly rude to him.

 

Still a little more nettled than he’d like to admit, Wei Ying shuffles into his building. There are about seven people waiting for the elevator, and they all pile in at once alongside Wei Ying, weirdly chatty for so early in the morning. Usually his rides in the building’s elevator are silent and uneventful.

 

Shit, this tea-stain is everywhere, it looks like I pissed myself. Typical fucking Tuesday.

 

Wei Ying glances around to see who’d spoken, but everyone has their heads down, focused on their shoes or with their noses in their phones.

 

Someone bumps into Wei Ying’s right side, jostled as the elevator creaks and lurches upward.

 

If Pei Ming doesn’t fuck me tonight, I’m finally ordering a vibrator online, a woman’s voice says. I don’t give a fuck anymore.

 

“Excuse me?” Wei Ying blurts in his shock, turning toward the woman beside him. Everyone in the elevator swivels to stare at him, their faces a blend of hostility and confusion.

 

The unfamiliar young woman stares back at him, clearly perplexed. “W-What?”

 

“You said,” Wei Ying says. “You just said —”

 

Shit, morning meeting got moved to nine, a man mutters on his left. Boss will kill me if I’m late again. If this elevator weren’t always so fucking slow —

 

Why is this weirdo staring at me? the woman next to him says. Wei Ying stares at her — her unmoving mouth — and feels something in his brain glitch. Hey, actually, he’s not bad-looking, although he seems kinda sick. I wonder if he’s interested? The woman’s face shifts from looking rankled to more appeasing, and she shyly tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and drops her gaze. Ugh, who am I kidding. As if someone like him would ever be interested in you, ugly. Dream on.

 

“What’s,” Wei Ying says aloud, as the elevator dings for his floor. His voice is small and very lost. “What’s happening.”

 

A few people shove their way out when the doors open, Wei Ying caught up in the current of them like a leaf in a gutter. Their unintelligible voices brush against him, clamoring all at once — and then he’s finally alone with his thoughts, staring blankly at the closed elevator doors as he reels.

 

Okay, so. Unless this is the worst, weirdest hangover of his life — he’s fucked.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Huaisang beelines for him the second Wei Ying steps foot in the office, a hand wiring around his arm.

 

Shit, Wei-xiong looks rough. Totally my fuck-up on the birthday planning. Wait, are those Zonghui’s clothes?! Shit, he’s going to kill me —

 

Still a little shell-shocked, Wei Ying tugs his arm quickly out of Huaisang’s grip. It’s one thing to hear — thoughts, if that’s what they really are — from total strangers, but the idea of overhearing something private from a friend is deeply uncomfortable.

 

“ — okay?” Huaisang is asking him something. A question about his general well-being, probably.

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying hazards, and judging by Huaisang’s expression, he’s answered the wrong question.

 

“Hey, I’m really sorry about last night,” Huaisang says. “That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Can’t really prep events around Jiang Cheng being a fucking asshole.”

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says on autopilot. The daze he’d already been feeling from sleep loss and alcohol has settled into a light state of dissociation. His surroundings feel vague and slippery, a little unreal. Maybe he’s dreaming all of this, after all. Or maybe he’s dead.

 

Surely his stomach wouldn’t hurt this much if he were actually dead.

 

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Huaisang asks, his brows knitting together.

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying mumbles, and shifts the too-large suit jacket over his shoulders. “I’ve got a case, I’ll talk to you later.”

 

He shuffles across the office toward his desk, aware of the curious stares trailing after him. From his desk, Lan Zhan watches his approach, probably judging his bedraggled appearance and making his own conclusions about the previous night. Whatever. Wei Ying gives a wry wave to acknowledge his judgment, and Lan Zhan darts his gaze away, his expression unchanging.

 

Wei Ying flops into his seat, then spends the next hour staring at documents without seeing them.

 

Okay, so. Huaisang had been right, somehow. This is a curse, or at least some kind of weird magic. Maybe it’s someone’s idea of a practical joke, someone he’d pissed off on a past case. It can’t really all be because he’s still a virgin, can it? 

 

If that’s the case, then there’s a very straightforward fix. And surely being a mind-reader isn’t the end of the world. It might even be kind of fun. Who hasn’t wanted the ability to read people’s thoughts at least once in their lives, anyway?

 

After a few energy drinks, Wei Ying’s spirits have considerably lifted into a low-simmering mania, by which point Huaisang fetches him for lunch and drags him to the break room.

 

“I’m sorry I failed you,” Huaisang begins, hanging his head. “Both on the party front and the sex front. I am the world’s worst best friend and wingman.”

 

“Nie-xiong, don’t worry about it,” Wei Ying tells him, meaning it. “I’ll always have other birthdays.”

 

“But this was a big one,” Huaisang whines. “Thirty is huge! It was supposed to be epic!”

 

Forgetting himself, Wei Ying gives Huaisang’s shoulder a kind pat, and promptly gets an earful. Despite the current conversation topic, Huaisang is consumed by thoughts of that guy Zonghui — so maybe he’s more than a friend, after all. Wei Ying quickly retracts his hand, feeling like an intruder.

 

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Huaisang asks, just as Lan Zhan skulks into the break room with an empty mug and some tupperware. Lan Zhan soundly ignores both of them, moving toward the cabinets.

 

Wei Ying lowers his voice, his gaze idly tracking Lan Zhan’s movements. “Not strictly. Not exactly. Jiang Cheng changed the entry codes to the apartment last night, and my phone’s been dead so I have no way to contact him.”

 

Huaisang sucks his teeth in sympathy. “Shit. Well, you know I’d offer my place, but given the state of, well, my everything — ”

 

Nie Mingjue suddenly pokes his head into the break room, interrupting their conversation with a loud rap of his knuckles and a scowl. “Huaisang. My office, now.”

 

Huaisang starts to whine, but he scrambles up from the table quickly when his brother’s glare darkens. He mutters an apology to Wei Ying and scuttles out, trailing after Nie Mingjue.

 

Which leaves just him and Lan Zhan, alone.

 

With a hand propped to his cheek, Wei Ying continues to watch him as Lan Zhan maneuvers around the kitchenette, pulling things down from the cabinet for his lunch. He still won’t look in Wei Ying’s direction, which seems like a step back, somehow, from any progress made at the copier yesterday. 

 

Lan Zhan always dresses so sharply, his clothes tailored to accentuate each muscular line of his frame. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, crisply ironed. Even his underwear is probably custom-made, Wei Ying imagines. Would Lan Zhan wear boxers or briefs? No way is Lan Zhan a boxers guy; he’s too uptight to just let his junk hang out at work. Or maybe he just goes commando all the time?

 

As he continues to stare, Wei Ying abandons the train of thought on Lan Zhan’s taste in underwear in favor of another, given recent events. 

 

What could the righteous, boring, stuffy Lan Zhan possibly be thinking about? Probably his filing system that he loves so much, or deep breathing exercises or something. 

 

Well. He could actually find out, if he wanted to. And he does want to. It would be the first time using his newfound ability for evil purposes, but given how Lan Zhan has treated him over the years, Wei Ying thinks he’s a little entitled to it.

 

Wei Ying pushes his seat back with a metallic scrape against the floor and sidles over to the kitchenette. Feigning concentration on his task, he soaps up his hands in the sink and washes them, drifting closer to Lan Zhan as he waits on his tea. Finally, when he’s close enough, he brushes their arms together and bites his lip on a grin.

 

Lan Zhan’s voice is so clear, so sudden that it’s as though it’s spoken, the slice of a sharp object through velvet.

 

He’s touching me.

 

Wei Ying startles for a moment, wonders if he’d somehow heard his own thoughts instead, but — no, that had definitely been Lan Zhan’s steady, factual baritone, loud and clear.

 

God, this is still so weird. It still doesn’t seem totally real. But how else can he account for hearing Lan Zhan’s voice in his head, as clearly as if he’d spoken to Wei Ying directly?

 

Wei Ying slides his arm against Lan Zhan’s again, casual enough to be accidental.

 

Do. Not. Give anything away, Lan Zhan thinks inside Wei Ying’s head.

 

...huh. Give what away? Lan Zhan had never seemed interesting enough for secrets. Wei Ying would probe into that further, but hearing Lan Zhan’s voice seizes him with a sudden, all-consuming need. An itch he can’t not scratch.

 

He wants to hear Lan Zhan’s inner monologue when Wei Ying is annoying him. 

 

Wei Ying had always imagined, when he’d teased Lan Zhan mercilessly at school, that the inner life of Lan Zhan involved privately breaking each code of his stiff decorum to curse him out. Or running calculations on the nearest locations to dump a body.

 

Of course, he never thought he’d actually have the chance to find out.

 

For a few silent moments, Wei Ying thoughtfully watches Lan Zhan heat his tea before he opts for one of his more artless tactics. He reaches out again, tugs on Lan Zhan’s starchy sleeve, and whines, “Lan Zhaaan. Lan Zhan, you’ve been ignoring me since yesterday. Haven’t I told you how that hurts my feelings? You can’t treat your coworkers like this!” He pitches his voice up loud enough to draw some nearby stares from their colleagues within the eyeline of the break room. Making a Scene in front of others, as Wei Ying very well knows, is the fast track to pissing Lan Zhan off. “Lan Zhan, LanZhanLanZhan —”

 

“Enough,” Lan Zhan says through his teeth. He holds his arm rigid to keep tea from sloshing over the rim of his mug as Wei Ying tightens his grip on his wrist and pulls, grazing against skin.

 

An image strikes Wei Ying as suddenly as a bolt of lightning — oh, it’s the first time that he’s actually caught pictures with this new ability of his — and it’s of himself. In it, clearly through Lan Zhan’s eyes, imaginary-Wei Ying is glaring indignantly, his mouth stuffed with a black gag.

 

It takes all of Wei Ying’s willpower not to die laughing as he keeps his hand steeled to Lan Zhan’s arm. God, of course Lan Zhan would fantasize about muzzling him. It’s exactly how he’d always imagined.

 

The image shifts, continues to play out in motion like a reel of film  — okay, Wei Ying realizes as the pictures dart across his mind’s eye, he’s also restrained now, brought to his knees with his hands tied behind his back. That makes sense, that Lan Zhan would want to shut him up, keep him from moving and annoying him further. The fake Wei Ying is struggling a little against the restraints, muffled and whiny complaints through the gag — very nice job, Wei Ying thinks with approval, that is how he would react —

 

Then the image flickers again, and suddenly Wei Ying is looking at himself with the clothes stripped away, the gag and ties still intact, and Lan Zhan is stopping in front of him, gripping Wei Ying’s jaw hard enough to dent the skin with the press of his thumb, tilting it up, Wei Ying’s mouth working around the damp gag, his cheeks flushed and his eyes glazed over, glassy and wanting —

 

Wei Ying rips his hand back as though he’s been scalded. His own brain buzzes suddenly with white static, blanking around the shock of what he can’t unsee.

 

He stares at Lan Zhan with huge eyes, clutching his hand to his chest. Lan Zhan stares back. He looks bored, maybe a little disdainful. 

 

“Was there something else I could help you with?” Lan Zhan says dryly, like he hadn’t just been — like he hadn’t been thinking about —

 

“Ummmmm,” Wei Ying says in a voice like a creaking metal hinge. “Nope!” And he bails, fleeing toward the safety of his desk.

 

What the fuck. What the fuck, what the fuck. His face is as hot as a summer sidewalk, stifling under his stiff work clothes as he sinks into his chair. He’s a little (?) turned on (????), which is only natural when you have a mental video of yourself like — that — unwittingly beamed into your brain, it’s not like it has anything to do with the fact that — that it had been —

 

Wei Ying buries his face in his hands, his cheeks warm to the touch. 

 

What the fuck.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Surely, there’s an explanation, Wei Ying reasons after fifteen minutes of brown-noise panic. This is Lan Zhan, after all. Who wants him dead. There is a rational answer here, and Wei Ying will find it. For the sake of his own sanity, if nothing else.

 

He resolves to avoid Lan Zhan for the rest of the day (or potentially, based on how that fares, the rest of his life), but not even two hours later, they end up stuck on a crowded elevator together on their way to the same meeting. People pack in around them, their thoughts brushing against Wei Ying along various points of contact, dragonflies skimming across a pond surface — idle complaints and discomforts and trivialities that he hardly registers. Beside him, Lan Zhan’s shoulder crams against Wei Ying’s as they’re jostled, and like the blurry flash of an image whizzing by on an amusement park ride, Wei Ying sees himself being pushed to his knees by Lan Zhan’s hand, his mouth parted wide, gazing up at Lan Zhan dark-eyed and hazy, just as he had before. Wei Ying jerks away, plasters himself against the elevator wall, and reels.

 

Okay, so. Lan Zhan wants to fuck him. Just a little bit, maybe not even the full thing. But like, out of spite, which honestly tracks.

 

Even though Wei Ying is a virgin, he watches his fair share of pornography — but even he isn’t at work imagining his coworkers in such scenarios. Lan Zhan, of all people, Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan?! For all his musings about what goes on in Lan Zhan’s head — for all his teasing about Lan Zhan’s stiff discomfort around sex — Wei Ying never would have sincerely guessed such thoughts brewed beneath such a righteous, stoic exterior. It would be almost funny, if he weren’t the subject of them, but he is the subject of them, which makes it terrifying.

 

Maybe, Wei Ying thinks later that afternoon, once he recovers from the initial shock of it, maybe he’s getting worked up over nothing. Isn’t it just human nature, after all? Everyone is thinking about sex all the time, at least a little bit, at least peripherally. Virgin or not. Everyone has fantasies, especially when they’re bored at work. Right?

 

Wei Ying is probably just. The nearest possible shiny object. He’s under no illusions about his own looks — well, he’s nowhere near the league of Lan Zhan’s ethereal, Harper’s-Bazaar-cover beauty, but he’s not bad to look at either. Girls have told him he’s cute, that he has a nice smile.

 

That must be it, Wei Ying finally reasons. Boredom, spite, maybe some weird psychological projection shit that Lan Zhan needs to unpack. Lan Zhan may not even be consciously aware that he’s experiencing these thoughts. Does it mean Lan Zhan is gay? Maybe, but not necessarily. Wei Ying has had thoughts about plenty of guys before, after all — he’s comfortable enough in his heterosexuality to admit that. 

 

Okay, so he’s Lan Zhan’s idle fuck fantasy when he’s bored at work. He can work with that. Wei Ying isn’t into men, but it’s pretty flattering that someone as staggeringly hot as Lan Zhan would consider him in such a way, especially given, you know. Their entire history.

 

Wei Ying throws himself into work for the rest of the day, pulling file after file on a recent haunting in Jiaxing. It sounds like the situation has resolved for now, but sometimes Nie Mingjue deploys him or one of the other cultivators for a post-mortem, just to tie up the final ends and to ensure no other kinks have appeared after a case is closed. Wei Ying usually wouldn’t dedicate such attention to backlog work like this, but he’s desperate to distract himself. He finds himself hyper-conscious of Lan Zhan for the rest of the afternoon, suspiciously tracking each of his movements from the corner of his eye.

 

He buries himself so deep in documents that he’s startled to find when he looks up, an unknown amount of time later, that he’s nearly alone in the office, darkness bruising the windows. His eyes are dry, stinging with exhaustion and eyestrain, and he rubs them hard with the heels of his palms until spots of color appear.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says directly by his shoulder, and Wei Ying startles so badly that he nearly crashes his rolling chair into him.

 

“You,” Wei Ying says, rocketing out of his seat. “You’re — why aren’t you gone?”

 

Lan Zhan stares at him. He’s holding a sheaf of documents in his hands, Wei Ying notices.

 

“I stayed late to work on a case,” Lan Zhan answers, after another beat. “As I usually do.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says, feeling horrifically awkward. Is Lan Zhan still thinking about putting him on his knees? He’s terrified to know what happened next, in that mental scenario. Maybe Lan Zhan had tied him up like he had in the first image, trussed up and immobilized —

 

“Wei Ying does not usually stay so late,” Lan Zhan observes.

 

“No,” Wei Ying says. “I, ah, also got sucked into a case.”

 

“The gui in Jiaxing,” Lan Zhan agrees. “I saw. I pulled supplemental information on it. From my own research.”

 

Wei Ying’s gaze drops to the files that Lan Zhan’s holding, and he narrows his eyes in suspicion. “Why would you do that?”

 

Lan Zhan’s expression is blank, maybe a little confused. “I thought it could help.”

 

Wei Ying had been a notorious slacker in school, but it’s only because he’d never needed to study. He’d still pulled off top marks; high enough to rival Lan Zhan’s, anyway. It’s to be expected that Lan Zhan would keep the same opinion of him, even now that they share a profession: that Wei Ying’s work is lacking, that he can’t do his own research.

 

Wei Ying is itching to say he’s got it covered on his own, thank you very much, that he doesn’t need Lan Zhan’s patronization. But it would be openly rude to reject the offering, so he moves forward, bumbling and too fast, to accept the files with mumbled thanks. Due to aforementioned exhaustion and eyestrain, his depth perception skews, and the files fall just short of his hands, scattering all over the floor.

 

“Shit,” he says with feigned cheer, and wearily drops to his knees to start scooping them up in quick scrapes. “Sorry, Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t respond; he simply kneels down next to Wei Ying and also begins to gather the files, the white glint of his watch-face bobbing. He’d probably had all of these systematized in some way, Wei Ying realizes, and feels a little abashed for the first time. 

 

Lan Zhan reaches out to pass them one at a time, and their fingers brush even as Wei Ying tries to move his own hand away.

 

Ying looks tired. Has he been sleeping? He did not eat today, either. Something must have happened.

 

Wei Ying’s hands slow in their motions, unconsciously lingering on Lan Zhan’s as he tunes into his thoughts. Had he been that off today that even Lan Zhan noticed?

 

I have not seen him smile all day, Lan Zhan thinks, and hands another file to Wei Ying. Nothing is given away on his face — still that unreadable mask, the smooth cast of his features like marble. The entire office was dimmer without it.

 

Wei Ying yanks his hand back, blood rushing to his head. The reaction is strange, too abrupt for the current context, but he suddenly — feels weird. His face is furnace-hot, a squirmy feeling kicking around his ribs.

 

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks. The remaining files have frozen in his hands. “Are you alright?”

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying says immediately, on reflex. “Just — ah, long day. Really long, really weird day. I think I’m probably just gonna go. Thanks for the — files and stuff.”

 

Gathering the documents messily to his chest, he shoots to his feet, then uses one arm to shrug on the suit jacket draped over the back of his chair. 

 

Lan Zhan stands and watches him in silence, and then, just as Wei Ying is about to turn to go with a hurried good night, he says, “I will accompany you out.”

 

As if today could get any fucking weirder.

 

“Ahhhh,” Wei Ying says, completely thrown for how to respond. “I. Ah. S...ure, I guess?”

 

And this is how he ends up in the elevator with Lan Zhan for the second time that day. Wei Ying keeps a careful distance between them, hawkishly monitoring Lan Zhan’s movements to make sure he doesn’t stray too close.

 

He finds that he doesn’t need to worry — Lan Zhan and his thing with touching people, after all. Wei Ying never thought he’d be so grateful for that particular quirk. Lan Zhan keeps to his space all the way down, then follows after him as Wei Ying books it toward the office exit.

 

The burst of night air across his skin makes him shiver, goosebumps rippling along his arms. The material of his borrowed clothes is far from insular, and the weather has started to cool in the evenings as the autumn months bed down into winter. Of course, in his rush, he hadn’t even thought to steal more layers from Huaisang’s friend this morning.

 

Before Wei Ying knows what’s happening, Lan Zhan is shrugging out of his coat beside him. He’s sporting yet another peacoat underneath, because Lan Zhan wears an absolutely obscene number of layers when it gets cold out. Or during any other time of year, actually.

 

“Lan Zhan, what, no,” Wei Ying protests. He has sort of a knee-jerk panic reaction to people doing charitable things for him. “You don’t need to do that, aiyo, I’m really fine.”

 

Lan Zhan’s mouth flattens as if in displeasure or impatience, and then he’s stepping forward, draping the coat around Wei Ying’s shoulders. It’s warm from Lan Zhan’s body heat, thick and crafted from some nice material that Wei Ying could never afford. Despite himself, Wei Ying hunkers into it, reaching up to tug the coat tighter around himself.

 

Lan Zhan’s hands are also working swiftly, adjusting the fabric over his shoulders. He has big hands, graceful and guqin-callused. Before Wei Ying can move his own away, Lan Zhan’s fingers collide with his, and just like that, Lan Zhan’s thoughts are ringing in his ears again —

 

doesn’t look after himself. Wei Ying deserves to have someone care for him. If he would let me —

 

Wei Ying retreats a few steps, his breath punching out of him. Lan Zhan’s hands hover in their current position, then lower, very slowly, to his sides.

 

“Wei Ying?” he asks. 

 

Wei Ying watches his mouth move to make sure the words are spoken out loud. Maybe he’s truly losing it.

 

“I’ve just got to —” Wei Ying stammers, taking one stumbling step backward toward the street. “Ah, go —”

 

And then Lan Zhan surprises him, for the umpteenth time that night. He stops him, reaching out to grab the fabric of his coat sleeve. Close, very close, but no body contact — the quiet in Wei Ying’s head feels precarious, holding its breath.

 

“I overheard your conversation with Nie Huaisang earlier today,” Lan Zhan says. “You said you have nowhere to stay tonight.”

 

Shit. Lan Zhan had heard that? Wei Ying rapidly bounces his weight from toe to heel, cold and uncomfortable in equal measure.

 

“Ah, my brother and I got into a fight yesterday and so he changed the locks,” Wei Ying says, tugging his sleeve away from Lan Zhan’s grip. “He’ll get over it in like two days. It’s fine, I can find a couch somewhere for the night.” 

 

Maybe Mianmian will take him up. They’ve never been all that close, but they are colleagues, after all, and she seems cool enough. Wen Qing’s probably on a night-shift at the hospital and totally off-grid, but he could probably get a hold of her if he needed to. Huaisang would offer if his studio wasn’t an absolute bomb-blast with no spare room to stand, let alone sleep.

 

“Stay with me,” Lan Zhan says. It is hardly a question.

 

Wei Ying blue-screens for one, two, three seconds, then starts to laugh, reedy and nervous. “You really want me under your roof, Lan Zhan? I might destroy your apartment. I might annoy you to death.”

 

Somehow, Wei Ying is expecting that reminding Lan Zhan of his long-standing distaste for him will be an effective tactic.

 

It is not.

 

“You have nowhere to stay,” Lan Zhan says slowly. “I have a spare bed. I insist.”

 

“You insist,” Wei Ying echoes.

 

“I insist,” Lan Zhan repeats, and there’s — holy shit, the tiniest crook of a smile, a small hooked shadow in the corner of his mouth.

 

What the fuck is happening, Wei Ying thinks, a little hysterical.

 

“Have you eaten?” Lan Zhan asks, although Wei Ying knows that he knows the answer is a resounding no.

 

Wei Ying considers lying, then decides the effort would be futile. Lan Zhan is so damn stubborn about things, when he wants to be.

 

“No,” he says, a little sullenly. Then adds, feeling defensive, “Sometimes I forget, it’s not a — it doesn’t have to be a whole thing, I’m really fine.”

 

The concern that he’d read from Lan Zhan, just moments ago, still needles Wei Ying with small teeth. The prickling sensation, he realizes, is discomfort, although he isn’t sure for what. 

 

It’s just that — knowing someone is evaluating how he cares for himself is uncomfortable.

 

Knowing Lan Zhan is the one doing so, it’s — even more uncomfortable. More uncomfortable, for whatever reason, than if it were anyone else.

 

“You should eat,” Lan Zhan says firmly. “There’s a place nearby, a close walk from here.”

 

Wei Ying wants to drag his heels and protest. Any second longer spent with Lan Zhan, accidental brushes of hands and limbs, purposeful touches or whatever, means further risk of another gag incident. Or, worse, another is he getting sleep incident. 

 

“It is still your birthday,” Lan Zhan points out, as if this has something to do with anything. 

 

Oh. Yeah, it is. Somehow, in all of today’s madness, Wei Ying had forgotten.

 

“I guess,” he says uncertainly.

 

“Come,” Lan Zhan says, already a few strides ahead of him, and he stares at Wei Ying expectantly in his stupid, well-fitted peacoat until Wei Ying mutters and complies, slouching his way after Lan Zhan.

 

He has to jog a little to keep apace — Lan Zhan’s legs are long, and his gait is brisk. In doing so, their shoulders jostle, and Wei Ying catches himself hesitating, lingering on the musical sound of Lan Zhan’s voice —

 

Is he still cold? Should I offer my other coat? He will say no if I ask him directly. Does he run cold when he sleeps? I have spare blankets if he

 

Wei Ying quickly moves his arm away. A ridiculous, flustered warmth has risen to his face, tingling against the cold. 

 

It is rapidly becoming evident that, in a horrible turn of events, Lan Zhan may actually be a decent person in addition to being beautiful and very competent at his job.

 

This cannot stand, Wei Ying thinks, very put out by this discovery. It ruins the whole — their whole thing if Lan Zhan secretly doesn’t hate him.

 

What whole thing? he then has to wonder. And what would be so bad about ruining it, morphing into something else beyond it?

 

Wei Ying abandons the line of inquiry, suddenly uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to think about it.

 

Lan Zhan stops on the sidewalk, then holds the door for him so that Wei Ying has to duck under his arm to burrow his way into the warm bubble of the restaurant.

 

“Oh, hey,” Wei Ying says, blinking around the red-lit interior as he finally registers their surroundings. The familiar smells and ambiance are an immediate wash of comfort to his senses. He feels himself uncoiling, relaxing. “I love this place.”

 

Lan Zhan hums and moves past him, their shoulders knocking together, Lan Zhan’s thinking I know, and suddenly Wei Ying is blushing and rendered stupid all over again.

 

This is so dumb. It’s dumb to get worked up about this, any of it. So what if Lan Zhan knows his sleep schedule and which restaurants he likes and thinks about gagging Wei Ying with all the casual apathy of reading the morning news. It’s not like it has to mean anything, anyway.

 

They slide into the booth on opposite sides. Lan Zhan orders them both hot water while Wei Ying rubs his hands together to jog the feeling back to his fingers, his knuckles splotchy with pink along the patches of his drier skin.

 

No sooner has he made the observation that Lan Zhan is saying, “Here,” and passing a small bottle of hand lotion across the table. Wei Ying stares at it like he’s been handed a live scorpion, then engages Lan Zhan in a long, fearful staring contest. He’d never paused to consider if this mind-reading thing was a two-way street, and he experiences a sudden, sickening lurch at the notion, but it’s not like he has anything to hide, right? Other than the fact that if Lan Zhan were reading his thoughts, he would know that Wei Ying —

 

— that Wei Ying what?

 

Lan Zhan stares at him, his perplexity deepening into a visible furrow the longer Wei Ying doesn’t take the offering. 

 

“Thanks,” Wei Ying eventually mutters, then takes the lotion from Lan Zhan, careful to avoid any contact.

 

Lan Zhan is younger than he is, anyway, by a few months. If this wretched virgin myth really is for real (and he cannot fathom a universe in which Lan Zhan is not a virgin), then he should be in the clear for now.

 

It is enough just to sit here with him, Lan Zhan’s voice says, and Wei Ying startles, badly, before he realizes their feet are touching under the table. Just to be with him. To see his

 

Wei Ying clears his throat and hastily moves his foot away. The situation is devolving at a breakneck pace. Heavens, he thinks dismally, Lan Zhan might actually care about him underneath all those layers of permafrost. A warm current that runs beneath the thick iceberg of his façade. 

 

The knowledge feels threatening, and Wei Ying doesn’t know why.

 

Lan Zhan silently waves over the server, who bustles over to greet them and take their order.

 

“Hi,” Wei Ying tells the server, then opens his mouth to order before —

 

— Lan Zhan thinks, He will order kou shui ji. The foot is back, Wei Ying realizes too late.

 

Wei Ying had been about to order kou shui ji, but now he feels the contrarian need to spite Lan Zhan and his quiet, idle assuredness. The way he hadn’t even glanced up from the menu as he’d thought it. 

 

“I’ll have the dan dan noodles,” Wei Ying says doggedly, “with a side of —”

 

Chili oil wontons, Lan Zhan thinks absently, still not looking up from the menu.

 

“ — chili oil wontons,” Wei Ying finishes, deflated, and he props his chin on his arms to sulk.

 

“Just jasmine tea, please,” Lan Zhan says, finally glancing up at the server. When had he put on reading glasses? Lan Zhan wears glasses? How does Lan Zhan know which side-plates Wei Ying orders and Wei Ying is unaware of the extant relationship between Lan Zhan and glasses? Wei Ying can’t even enjoy a moment of smug satisfaction at the evidence that Lan Zhan has a biological flaw because he finds himself too distracted by how Lan Zhan looks in them, professorial and a little supercilious. How he’d look with them in that image Wei Ying had accidentally unearthed earlier, if Wei Ying were on his knees and gagged, Lan Zhan’s thumb working Wei Ying’s mouth open wider around the cloth.

 

Wei Ying excuses himself to find refuge in the bathroom.

 

He spends the next several moments splashing cold water on his face, wetting the ends of his hair and the collar of his shirt. He unkindly tells his reflection to get a grip. 

 

Wei Ying scrutinizes his own features, the familiar bow of his lips pushed out in a natural pout. His ears are still red as coals from the cold outside. His hair is a little windswept, the dark lines under his eyes stark. He does look very much like someone who’d passed a sleepless night, or several in a row. 

 

Well. Now, he...has a place to stay. Maybe to get a full night’s rest. Which isn’t so bad when he thinks about it, after all.

 

Wei Ying considers this. It might actually be kind of nice, in the long run, that Lan Zhan doesn’t secretly despise him. It’s also a small win, in a way. Take that, Lan Zhan, Wei Ying thinks, triumphantly. So he’s not so stuffy and uncaring, after all. Wei Ying’s charms had eventually worn him down at least a little bit, no matter how much Lan Zhan may feign disdain on the surface.

 

Yes, Wei Ying can do this. He just has to pretend as though nothing’s changed. 

 

He returns to his seat a few moments later, feeling a little brighter and fresher than before. Lan Zhan’s tea has arrived, and he has the black mug clasped between his pale hands to warm them.

 

After another silent moment, Wei Ying starts to squirm in his seat. He and Lan Zhan, they don’t often — do this. Spend time alone outside of work, that is. He’s used to chattering circles around Lan Zhan while Lan Zhan either silently nods or frowns and hms with disapproval. Wei Ying has no compass for the evening, no scripts. For the first time in his life where it concerns Lan Zhan, he is excruciatingly unsure of what to say.

 

Lan Zhan is still sipping at his tea, slow and intermittent. He hadn’t ordered any dishes, Wei Ying remembers.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, wiggling forward a little. “You hate spicy food, and you don’t eat meat. Why did you take us to a place that almost exclusively serves those things?”

 

“I do not need to eat,” Lan Zhan says pointedly. “You do.”

 

Wei Ying makes a face at him. “I eat.”

 

“Two Red Bulls do not qualify as sustenance,” Lan Zhan says.

 

Wei Ying tilts his head and leans his weight forward into his elbows. He decides to push his luck. “Tell me, Lan Zhan, do you often watch what I eat?”

 

Lan Zhan’s lashes lower over the rim of his mug, as black as ink runes. His eyelashes have always been so long, Wei Ying thinks, almost feminine. 

 

Lan Zhan sets the mug on the table with a quiet clop. His mouth is startlingly pink, shiny with tea. He looks up at Wei Ying through his lashes, catches him in the act of close observation, and Wei Ying finds himself caught like a fox with its foot in a trap, unable to look away.

 

Lan Zhan is the first to break the stare, dropping his gaze again to drink more of his tea.

 

Wei Ying wets his lips, then says, far more weakly than before, “You didn’t answer my question.”

 

“Would it bother you if I did?” Lan Zhan asks.

 

“Would it bother me if you,” Wei Ying says, having lost the plot entirely. “What?”

 

“Noticed you,” Lan Zhan answers. He speaks with a strange intentness, his gaze a gravitational center. “And the things you do.”

 

Wei Ying’s mouth is so dry, drought-dry. He’s so out of his depth here that he’s spinning loops around it, dizzied.

 

“Um,” is all he can summon, and then food is being set down in front of him, nicely severing the conversation.

 

Wei Ying eats quickly and quietly, cautious to keep any stray limbs or feet away from Lan Zhan. He had ordered too much food for one person, especially with his appetite as fickle as it’s been lately, but he eats as much of it as he can because Lan Zhan had taken the time and effort out of his evening for this.

 

“Sorry,” Wei Ying says a moment later through a mouthful of chicken, then chases it with a swig of water. “I’m taking forever and you’re stuck here with me.”

 

“I am in no rush,” Lan Zhan replies. “Take your time, Wei Ying.”

 

Wei Ying still hasn’t adjusted his footing to Lan Zhan being nice to him. And so weirdly considerate. Has Lan Zhan always been this nice to him, and Wei Ying simply hadn’t noticed? No, there’s no way. He has distinct memories from school of Lan Zhan berating him, his clenched jaw and flinty eyes and his fury when he’d discovered Wei Ying’s experimental cultivation work.

 

Wei Ying stretches his memory like taffy, grappling desperately to recall the last time Lan Zhan had been mean to him at work. There had been this afternoon, when Lan Zhan had snapped at him a little right before the — The Gag Incident — but it had been prompted by Wei Ying deliberately winding him up.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says abruptly, too absorbed in this revelation to be tactful. “I’ve always thought you really disliked me.”

 

Lan Zhan stares at him for a moment, perhaps questioning the randomness of this admission. Then he says, slowly, “I do not.”

 

“But I,” Wei Ying says feebly. His food is starting to cool, and he’s completely lost his appetite, anyway. He sets his chopsticks down. “I always pester you.”

 

“You do,” Lan Zhan agrees.

 

“Exactly,” Wei Ying says. “So.”

 

“So…?” Lan Zhan says.

 

“So you don’t like me,” Wei Ying says. “Right? It’s always been that you — that we —”

 

Wei Ying is frazzling a little at the edges, from sleep loss and the events of the day and his own confusion, his brain sparking up and smoking like a shot power line.

 

“That we what,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“That we don’t get along,” Wei Ying says. He’s surprised to hear how upset he sounds. “That’s always been how we are — oil and water. Dog shit and Velcro. Right?”

 

“Who is the dog shit in this analogy?” Lan Zhan wonders.

 

“Me! Obviously me!” Wei Ying says, and resolutely ignores the little zap that circulates through him at the unfamiliar sound of Lan Zhan swearing. “Lan Zhan, you can’t tell me that we’re actually friends and I never knew about it. I mean — who was going to tell me?!”

 

Lan Zhan stares at Wei Ying for another long moment. The heart shape of his mouth is slightly parted. He looks a little lost.

 

“We are colleagues,” Lan Zhan eventually says. More stiffly, he continues, “We do not have to be friends. If you do not wish it.”

 

“Wait,” Wei Ying says, “hang on, I didn’t say that.”

 

It’s just that — if they’re friends, then there’s no — there’s no friendly way to think about gagging someone and tying them up, right? With clothes or without, but the without does seem significant here. Wei Ying may be a virgin, but he’s definitely no prudish, innocent maiden. If Lan Zhan considers them friends, then that means — when he’d been thinking those things earlier, it means —

 

It doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s not even a possibility.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, his voice softer than before. “Is everything alright?”

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, shaking his head. “Yeah, I just. I’m just tired.”

 

“Then we will go,” Lan Zhan says, and pulls out his phone to pay the tab.

 

“Hey, hey, wait, you’re not paying for me,” Wei Ying protests, reaching across the table to make a quick grab for the phone. “You didn’t even eat anything!”

 

“I do not mind,” Lan Zhan says, holding the phone just out of Wei Ying’s reach. With a deadly focus, he starts to tap the screen.

 

“That’s not the point,” Wei Ying insists. “I can pay for myself, Lan Zhan, this isn’t a —”

 

Lan Zhan goes frozen in subtle, disjointed increments — his fingers stilling, his expression settling into a plaster mold. Wei Ying is watching him, watching him closely as he has been all night, so he notices. His cheeks sting with heat.

 

He was going to say date. Lan Zhan knows it too. He attempts to save face anyway.

 

“ — charity event,” Wei Ying recovers.

 

“If it makes you uncomfortable,” Lan Zhan says, tapping one last button and clicking the lock button on his phone. “You can pay next time.”

 

Next time. Next time, as in — future plans to eat somewhere with Wei Ying. Okay.

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying mutters, and rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s just that I’m already putting you out by staying at your place, you don’t need to — do all of that.”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is kind. “I offered. In both cases. If I minded, I would say so.”

 

Wei Ying puffs out his cheeks and pinches his lips, then lets the air out in a slow whistle through his teeth. “Fine. You win on decency for the night.”

 

“It is not a competition,” Lan Zhan says, in a tone that Wei Ying interprets to mean, But I would be winning.

 

“But I’m calling the DiDi,” Wei Ying says quickly, just as Lan Zhan slides out of the booth and gets smoothly to his feet.

 

“It just arrived,” Lan Zhan says with a tiny shake of his phone, and then he’s moving toward the exit of the restaurant. 

 

Speechless, Wei Ying gapes after him for a moment, and then has no choice but to grudgingly follow.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

The first thing Wei Ying notices about Lan Zhan’s place is that he lives alone.

 

This is obviously a given, knowing Lan Zhan. It’s just that Wei Ying is so used to sharing his cramped space with another person that it’s the first perception that strikes him when he walks in the door — the smooth silence of the space, as undisturbed as a fresh layer of snow.

 

Wei Ying kicks off his shoes, then unpeels Lan Zhan’s coat from his shoulders to hang up. It smells like Lan Zhan, whatever that distinct woodsy scent is. The apartment also smells like it. Wei Ying will probably smell like it now, too. He’s surprised to find that he doesn’t really mind the thought.

 

Lan Zhan’s place is monkishly clean, because of course it is. There are a few live plants potted around the place, but other than that, the decor is fairly colorless, black countertops and gray hardwood floors. There’s a small bookshelf, a mid-sized white sofa, and a guqin mounted on the wall; a frankly astonishing array of cookware arranged like an art display in the kitchen, and a round, slick white table with some paperwork still neatly stacked atop it. The furthest wall is entirely windows from ceiling to floor. A panoramic view of the city skyline glitters like crushed jewels through the glass panes, the lights flickering with smog.

 

All in all, it looks like a place where someone lives alone. It looks like a place where someone expects to live alone for the foreseeable future. Wei Ying feels a little dirty just standing there, like he’s trailing the chaos and filth of the city in with him. Like he’s soiling the space just by his presence.

 

Lan Zhan gives Wei Ying a quiet and unceremonious tour of the main space and bathroom, though the bedroom door remains firmly shut. Wei Ying manages to keep his commentary to himself for most of it, but goggles when they reach the enormous shower.

 

“You could fit like four people in there,” he tells Lan Zhan.

 

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, a little critically. “It’s too big. I have looked into downsizing.”

 

“But this place is so nice,” Wei Ying protests. If he ever had a place as nice as this, he’d cling to it until he got forcibly evicted. Plus, it feels very — Lan Zhan. Sharp, sleek interiors, but not ostentatious. Understated, almost humble in spite of the clear caliber of lifestyle.

 

It’s not really Wei Ying’s personal taste, but if he could spend time in a place like this, well — he thinks he’d be really content about it.

 

“At the very least, don’t get rid of this place because of the shower,” Wei Ying adds. “It’s so cool.”

 

Lan Zhan inclines his head slightly. “You’re welcome to use it, if you need it.”

 

The idea of showering at Lan Zhan’s place is so suddenly bizarre — even moreso than the idea of sleeping here — that Wei Ying laughs outright, even though it’s a perfectly normal and polite suggestion for a guest. Plus, this shower is way too luxurious for him, so much so that he can’t even visualize the concept of himself actually using it.

 

Lan Zhan, though, he could imagine using it. It suits him, just like the rest of this place. Not that he can imagine Lan Zhan showering. Or that he would want to. It had just been a thought experiment. Anyway.

 

Lan Zhan leads him into the kitchen, where without any further preamble, Wei Ying starts to rummage through the cabinets, curious about what food Lan Zhan keeps in-home. Lan Zhan exhales lightly, like he’s exasperated, but does nothing to stop him, surprisingly enough.

 

Not surprisingly, Lan Zhan doesn’t keep any snacks around, just raw ingredients for things. Which means he probably cooks, because of course he does.

 

“Lan Zhan, are you getting balanced meals?” Wei Ying asks, moving onto the next cabinet. “I’m picking up on a severe lack of processed foods here.”

 

“I prefer to cook,” Lan Zhan replies. Wei Ying knew it. He knows things about Lan Zhan now, he guesses, which is a new development.

 

Wei Ying stretches on tiptoe to reach the top cabinet, and audibly gawks when he opens it. There are at least five jars of liquor neatly lined up inside. No cheap shit, either — it’s Emperor’s Smile, he realizes, which is like. So far above Wei Ying’s paygrade that he isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

 

“Lan Zhan, are you actually a secret alcoholic?” Wei Ying demands, reaching out to touch one of the jars.

 

Lan Zhan gives a small huff next to him. “No.”

 

Wei Ying turns to look at him with a raised brow. “Planning on a huge rager, then?”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No.”

 

“So mysterious, gege,” Wei Ying teases, and shuts the cabinet. “Alright, keep your secrets, but I whole-heartedly approve of your choices!”

 

It’s good he approves, Lan Zhan thinks, when Wei Ying brushes past him, when all of it is for him.

 

Wei Ying stumbles, and Lan Zhan reaches out to steady him by the elbow. Wei Ying jerks away, more on a panicked reflex than anything, and Lan Zhan drops his hand.

 

Lan Zhan had spent God even knows how much money on liquor that he doesn’t even drink, for. For what, as a gift for Wei Ying? How long has he had it? The bottles had been fuzzed over with a thin layer of dust.

 

“I think I’ll take you up on that shower now,” Wei Ying says, avoiding Lan Zhan’s gaze.

 

None of it makes any sense. This isn’t the Lan Zhan that Wei Ying had imagined at all — all of his preconceptions about the person he thought he knew have been violently uprooted, just in the span of a single day. It’s all very overwhelming.

 

The rainfall of shower water that beats down on his head is percussive. Soothing, mostly because Lan Zhan has sick water pressure. (Of course he does.) Wei Ying spends so long in the shower, lost in his own thoughts, that his skin flushes salmon-pink from steam and heat, his fingertips pruning. 

 

Does everyone buy a small liquor store for people they want to spite-fuck? Wei Ying wonders as he towels off. (Oh, Lan Zhan’s towels are soft. Bunny-soft.) As has been firmly established, Wei Ying can hardly claim any experience in the way of sex and romance. Maybe this is just a very...normal thing, and he’s simply too naïve to realize it. Maybe Lan Zhan trots a whole host of prospects through and woos each of them with dinner and nice liquor and comfortable pajamas.

 

Either way, there’s no reason to freak out about it, he reminds himself.

 

When Wei Ying emerges from the bathroom, the cool air of the apartment cuts through the gummy heat of shower mist. He feels more refreshed than he has in — well, weeks, maybe. Just a really long shower and a nice towel is all it takes, apparently. He tucks the towel more securely around his shoulders and meanders out into the main area, where he finds Lan Zhan settled into the couch in his sleep-clothes, reading a book with a cup of tea. He looks like something out of a still-life painting, perfectly rendered. His hair is loose from its usual ponytail, brushing against his shoulders. Wei Ying has never seen him with his hair down, or so generally…uncollected. He can’t help it: he stares.

 

Lan Zhan glances up at his approach, and there’s a flicker of — something across his expression that Wei Ying can’t name, as fleeting as a mote of dust catching the light.

 

“Hi,” Wei Ying says, then scrubs a hand through his wet hair, feeling awkward.

 

“Hi,” Lan Zhan echoes, weirdly soft, and he shuts his book.

 

“Thanks for letting me use your fancy shower,” Wei Ying says, just for something to say, so there are no pockets of weird silence between them left uninterrupted. “Like, holy shit, that might have been the best shower of my life.” He wags a chiding finger. “You’ve been holding out on me all this time, Lan Zhan!”

 

“You can use it any time you want,” Lan Zhan replies, then purses his lips and turns slightly pink.

 

Wei Ying coughs out a strange sound, half-laugh and half-nervous hum. “Okay, yeah. Okay.”

 

“The bed has been made up for you,” Lan Zhan says, clearly keen to switch subjects. “You should find everything you need there.”

 

Wei Ying blinks at him, a half-step behind. “Wait, you said you had a spare bed.”

 

“I do,” Lan Zhan says. “An air mattress, which I will take.”

 

“Lan Zhan, what,” Wei Ying protests. A visceral discomfort wriggles through him. “I’m already putting you out by staying here, there’s no way I’m kicking you out of your actual bed.

 

“Wei Ying is a guest,” Lan Zhan says. “I insist.”

 

“Well, I hate beds,” says Wei Ying. “So there.”

 

The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches in amusement. “Wei Ying.”

 

“Lan Zhan, I would be happy to sleep in your bathtub. I’m not going to force you out of your bed,” Wei Ying insists. It’s the charitable-things panic again, a slow clench in his stomach that makes him scratchy all over. “Please, I really want to sleep on your air mattress.”

 

Lan Zhan surveys him a little bit longer, inscrutable, then gives a slow nod. “If that is your preference.”

 

Wei Ying relaxes, his shoulders sagging a little. “It is, I promise.”

 

“It is already made up,” Lan Zhan says, standing up and rounding the couch. He’s wearing slippers, Wei Ying notes. Oh, that’s. Hmm. Fine, it’s cute. Objectively. “Anything in the apartment is yours, should you need it.”

 

“Lan Zhan, you can’t say things like that,” Wei Ying says with a stilted laugh. “Or else I’ll hang around here too long and then you’ll end up stuck with me.”

 

Ah, he hadn’t — meant to say that out loud. Not all weird like that. Lan Zhan stops in front of him and just stares at him. Wei Ying stares back, paralyzed, his heart in his throat.

 

“You must be tired,” Lan Zhan says quietly. “I’ll let you rest.” Then he reaches out, and Wei Ying short-circuits — is he going to —

 

Lan Zhan tugs the damp towel from his shoulders. Oh. Okay. Just that. But then his fingers brush against Wei Ying’s shoulder when he pulls away, and just like before, the image borrows his eyes, consumes his entire field of vision —

 

— with Lan Zhan’s hand on Wei Ying’s cheek, Wei Ying’s skin blushy and pink and warm to the touch, his mouth slightly open with surprise, but his eyes dark with heat, a little moist.


“Lan Zhan, what...” the other Wei Ying breathes, and Lan Zhan leans in without hesitating, his thumb to the bolt of Wei Ying’s jaw, and kisses him — backs him up so that Wei Ying is crowded against the countertop, Lan Zhan’s other hand on his waistband, cupping his hip —

 

The kiss is earnest but sweet, wet and deep and imploring, Lan Zhan drawing Wei Ying’s tongue into his mouth with his teeth and sucking on the tip of it lightly, almost a tease. Gentle, for now, let Wei Ying set the pace, what does Wei Ying want — 

 

Wei Ying jerks back from Lan Zhan with a small animal sound. A pulsing heat throbs in his chest like a trapped star. He can feel the blood in his face turning him crimson, his mouth stinging.

 

He stares at Lan Zhan in open shock. Lan Zhan stares back at him, clearly a little bewildered by the intensity of his reaction.

 

That hadn’t been. Angry, or punitive. That fantasy. There had been no trace of that sentiment in Lan Zhan’s thoughts, in those — images, and sensations. Lan Zhan had thought about kissing him with care behind each touch.

 

Wei Ying can feel the trapped-star heat full body, through each of his limbs. He might actually be melting into the floor like candle wax.

 

Lan Zhan’s expression shutters at whatever he sees on Wei Ying’s face. Which — who the fuck even knows what that is. He’s scared to know whatever his face is doing.

 

“Sleep well, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs without looking at him, then moves past him toward the bedroom.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says hoarsely. When he hears the door nudge shut down the hall, he brings one hand to a blazing cheek, the other to touch his lips.

 

He doesn’t sleep a fucking wink.

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying spends most of the evening staring into the dark cavern of Lan Zhan’s ceiling. Straight-backed like a corpse, hands templed over his chest, tracking the occasional white checkering of passing headlights that glance off the walls. 

 

At one point, he twists onto one side, tucking himself into a curled position to get more comfortable; and then he flips back, wriggling down deeper into the poofy pouches of the air mattress wobbling under his weight.

 

So. Here’s the thing. 

 

Wei Ying’s been kissed before. He has kissed people. He has been the kisser and the kissee. He’s always enjoyed it, too. But it’s not like those kisses had ever meant anything. He’s kissed most of his friends, strangers, even a few trivial crushes.

 

Wei Ying stares, unblinking, at the flickering lights of the city through the window-glass. For so long that his eyes start to deliberately unfocus, like a camera lens sliding out of alignment, the skyline fuzzing.

 

He’s never been kissed with even one ounce of the feeling in which Lan Zhan had imagined kissing him.

 

Wei Ying rolls back onto his other side, the sheets tangling around his legs. 

 

The longer he thinks about it, the less it makes any sense. There’s no reason that Lan Zhan should have a crush on him, not even one. Not with the way Wei Ying has treated him, and it’s certainly not like their personalities mesh. Lan Zhan is, by several li, the most attractive person Wei Ying has ever encountered, so the idea that he would be even a little bit into him is...well, laughable.

 

Wei Ying flips onto his back, rubs his hands over his face. A crush is manageable. Crushes are fleeting, hormone-driven, often depthless. Wei Ying can handle being crushed on, as little sense as it might make in the first place coming from Lan Zhan.

 

He just has to keep Lan Zhan from falling for him any further.

 

Not that that should be a difficult feat, given Wei Ying’s...everything. Lan Zhan had hated him at one point, right? It shouldn’t be hard to get there again.

 

A tiny, very irritating voice pipes up that maybe he doesn’t want to, which Wei Ying squashes under a proverbial boot heel.

 

Although he spends most of the night awake and turning, he must slip into unconsciousness at some point, because he soon finds himself blinking awake to a bright beam of sunlight across his face and the rich, sugary smell of fried dough.

 

Wei Ying wriggles upward and casts wildly about for his surroundings, disoriented before he remembers where he is. When he does, he glances quickly over at Lan Zhan, who’s already watching him from the kitchen table with a bag of takeout in one hand. 

 

“Good morning,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“Huh?” Wei Ying replies. His brain is making that noise like a spoon stuck in the garbage disposal. Partially due to sleep loss, moreso due to the fact that the last sense-memory he has of Lan Zhan is where they’d been —

 

“Did you sleep well?” Lan Zhan asks. 

 

Wei Ying must look like a complete wreck to warrant the question. He self-consciously shuffles a hand through his porcupined hair. 

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying lies. “Thanks for letting me stay here.”

 

Lan Zhan simply inclines his head and begins to unpack breakfast onto the table.

 

“You really didn’t have to get me anything,” Wei Ying protests even as he shuffles over to the table, his stomach gurgling loudly. Unable to contain his curiosity, he starts to poke around the dishes, fully prepared to criticize Lan Zhan’s taste before he realizes there’s no need — he’d picked up da bing and youtiao, as well as doujiang and ci fan gao. So, pretty much an array of Wei Ying’s favorite breakfast foods that he’s usually too lazy or running too late to pick up before work.

 

“This looks,” Wei Ying says, “incredible. Where did you go for this?”

 

“Next door,” says Lan Zhan. “There were casualties.”

 

Wei Ying feels his eyebrows shoot up in interest. “Oh?”

 

This is how Wei Ying discovers that, every single morning at 5am sharp, Lan Zhan walks down to the stall across the street to fight some elderly people for the freshest breakfast food before it sells out. Wei Ying laughs himself to death at the mental image of it — of Lan Zhan, of all people, engaged in passive-aggressive warfare with the local geriatric community.

 

“Well, I appreciate their sacrifice,” Wei Ying says, when he finally stops laughing. “It’s for a good cause.”

 

“Agreed,” Lan Zhan says, and scoots a plate over to Wei Ying.

 

Wei Ying nearly inhales his breakfast, stuffing himself so full that his stomach starts to hurt. Lan Zhan barely touches any of the food, which makes Wei Ying prickle with guilt, but overall he feels much brighter than he has in a while. Usually mornings are a boring and unwanted affair, something he slogs through to get himself to work on time, but there’s something refreshing about eating breakfast with another person. About starting the day with someone.

 

Plus, Lan Zhan might actually be? Funny? It doesn’t seem like it should be possible, but he’s keeping tabs on what could be another potential startling development for the week.

 

Lan Zhan’s apartment is located close to a subway stop, so they agree to leg it rather than driving in morning traffic. On the way out the door, Lan Zhan hands him one of the small plastic tubs from his refrigerator. Wei Ying stares at it in incomprehension.

 

“For lunch,” Lan Zhan says, in response to the unspoken question.

 

“You,” Wei Ying stammers. He reaches out to take the container, careful that their fingers don’t brush. “You really didn’t have to.”

 

“You should eat during the day,” Lan Zhan says, with undisguised reproach.

 

“I told you, I eat!” Wei Ying protests. “But still, um, thanks.” More quickly, he adds, “I owe you one.”

 

Lan Zhan frowns at him. “For?”

 

“For letting me stay,” Wei Ying says. “For making me meals. For paying for my meals. It’s really not — I mean, I — you don’t have to.”

 

Lan Zhan’s response is measured, patient. “I know that.”

 

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. He kind of wants to crawl out of his own skin. “As long as. Okay.”

 

The last time someone had actually cooked a meal for him, it had been his jie. He’s not really sure how to cope with such charity from someone outside his family, even though it had clearly been no great ordeal for Lan Zhan to prep an extra meal for him. Wei Ying will make it up to him somehow anyway, maybe with lunch or something.

 

They head out. The subway ride is quick and painless, although each car is jampacked for the morning commute. Wei Ying takes public transit to get around all the time, given he doesn’t own a car and only ever borrows Jiang Cheng’s, but tagging alongside Lan Zhan for it is certainly a new experience. He notices a couple of key differences right away. 

 

The first is that people stare. Age, gender, fashion demographic — no categorization seems to be a discriminating factor for who’s ogling Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan doesn’t even seem to notice — or if he does, he’s well-practiced in acting aloof about it — but Wei Ying certainly does. It’s like people’s attention deflects right off of him. 

 

The other is that the berth of personal space around the two of them widens compared to when Wei Ying commutes alone. Whether it’s the fact that he’s too intimidating or too beautiful, people unconsciously maneuver to stay out of Lan Zhan’s way. Wei Ying reminds himself to instruct Huaisang that this is, in fact, hot privilege in action.

 

After watching one older lady stare at Lan Zhan with unadorned longing in their subway car, Wei Ying finally asks him, “Does it ever go to your head, all of these people looking at you all the time?”

 

He turns his head as he speaks; Lan Zhan is already watching him closely, nearer than Wei Ying expected. Wei Ying has been mindful to keep space between them, especially since last night, but it’s nearly impossible to keep from jostling into each other with the subway as crowded as it is. The jolts are quick enough that he can’t pick up anything coherent from Lan Zhan’s thoughts, but the effect is still disconcerting.

 

“No,” Lan Zhan is answering his question. “I don’t notice.”

 

Wei Ying gives a little scoff of disbelief, unable to keep from teasing him. “You’re just so used to everyone’s adoration and attention all the time? Is that it?”

 

The subway hits a bump and Wei Ying’s shoulder knocks into Lan Zhan’s, just as Lan Zhan thinks, Not everyone’s.

 

Wei Ying rights himself quickly and clings onto the pole, leaning his body back from Lan Zhan’s.

 

Maybe he should find a random person to have sex with. He contemplates the idea a little morosely. It would be uncomfortable and probably unpleasant, but then at least this problem would be abated. Then he could at least stop unconsciously violating everyone’s privacy, over and over again.

 

The walk to their workplace off the stop is quick, and the moment they’re in the door, Nie Mingjue intercepts them, Huaisang lingering just behind. Over his brother’s shoulder, Huaisang raises one delicate eyebrow at Wei Ying and Lan Zhan’s joined entry, and Wei Ying makes a face at him in return.

 

“ — the case in Jiaxing,” Nie Mingjue is saying.

 

Lan Zhan inclines his head slightly. “Very well.”

 

“I,” Wei Ying says, because clearly he’d missed something. “What?”

 

Nie Mingjue glances at him with a trace of impatience. “The gui in Jiaxing. We received a call this morning reporting heightened activity. You and Lan Zhan have been assigned to investigate.”

 

Wei Ying immediately perks up at the thought of being in the field. It’s the fun part of his job, and far preferable to being stuck in the office all day. It’ll mean yet another day of tiptoeing around Lan Zhan, trying to avoid thoughts of — kissing in kitchens, or getting tied up and whatnot, but they’ll be focused on work, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. 

 

“Be careful,” Nie Mingjue says, but the words are directed only to Wei Ying, his dark stare boring into him with intention.

 

Wei Ying mutters a thanks and doesn’t meet his gaze.

 

The place they’re going isn’t reachable by subway, so Nie Mingjue hands the keys to one of their work rentals to Lan Zhan, which — why is it the implicit assumption that Lan Zhan should drive? It’s a little insulting. 

 

It’s absolutely the correct call — Wei Ying’s driving has been likened to a heart attack on wheels — but it would be nice to be asked.

 

Once Lan Zhan has the keys, they turn and head right back out the door, back to the elevator. They both reach for the button at the same time, their hands colliding, and Lan Zhan’s voice fills his head, low and familiar.

 

It’s good I will be with him, he’s thinking. So I can ensure that nothing happens to 

 

“I’m not helpless, you know,” Wei Ying blurts out, turning toward Lan Zhan before he knows what he’s saying. The words come out irritated, almost hostile. 

 

Lan Zhan’s answering stare is blank, maybe confused. The elevator dings and spreads its doors.

 

Once they’re inside, Wei Ying shifts from foot to foot, restless to be on the move. He feels like a prickly cat, like all of his hackles are up. Nie Mingjue already babies him on case assignments because of — well. It’s whatever, but he doesn’t need it from Lan Zhan too.

 

“I know that,” Lan Zhan says eventually. 

 

“Good,” Wei Ying says. He fixes his attention to a greasy thumbprint smear on the elevator door. “It’s just that. I am capable of looking after myself, you know.”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything in response, maybe wary of annoying Wei Ying further. Which, it’s not like he’d meant to be a dick about it. The outburst probably seems nonsensical to Lan Zhan. 

 

The fact of the matter is...Wei Ying has this restless urge to prove himself to everyone at the firm. Lan Zhan most of all, given their history, given Lan Zhan’s opinion of him up until now.

 

He doesn’t need to be coddled, anyway. He does fine on his own.

 

The drive to Jiaxing is long and mostly quiet. Wei Ying would usually take the time to annoy Lan Zhan, provided a confined space and two hours to kill, but the lack of sleep is starting to catch up to him a little, so he dozes in fits while Lan Zhan tunes in to some classical radio station. He really is like an old man in a hot young guy’s body, Wei Ying thinks, watching him blearily with his cheek smashed against the window. Lan Zhan is relaxed when he drives, at ease in spite of the traffic and symphony of blaring horns. The sleeves of his pressed shirt are rolled up to his elbow, one hand on his knee — the one with the expensive watch — and he taps his fingers lightly against the wheel with the music.

 

Despite the whole fuddy-duddy geezer thing, Wei Ying has discovered that the more time he spends with Lan Zhan, the less boring he seems. He finds himself curious about aspects of Lan Zhan’s life that he’d never bothered to consider before — where he’d grown up, if he’s close to his brother still, what his parents are like, if he plans to return to his family’s practice after he gets sick of working for Nie Mingjue. And also more personal details that he has no business asking: Has Lan Zhan dated someone before? Has he had sex before? Has he even kissed someone? It would have seemed impossible, a few days ago, that the answer to any of those questions would be yes, but now Wei Ying has witnessed firsthand the prowess of Lan Zhan’s...colorful imagination. What if it’s based on experience?

 

Wei Ying finds himself deeply rankled by the thought. Does Lan Zhan go around fantasizing like that about every pretty boy he meets? Maybe he’s a secret sex fiend. Maybe he has a fetish for oblivious straight guys.

 

“What are you thinking,” Lan Zhan says, and finally turns to look at him with the barest arch of an eyebrow.

 

Wei Ying props himself up on an elbow, more alert at having Lan Zhan’s attention. “What do you mean?”

 

“You were looking at me,” Lan Zhan says. “Which you rarely do. You seemed as though you had a question.”

 

“I’m always looking at you,” Wei Ying says just to be contrary, before he really processes what he’s saying. He freezes up a little, because that’s exactly the kind of thing he’s not supposed to say to someone he’s trying to dissuade from having a crush on him, but Lan Zhan gives a tiny, dismissive shake of his head, like he thinks Wei Ying’s messing with him.

 

“Ask,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“Bossy,” Wei Ying mutters. “Fine, I was wondering about your life. I realized yesterday that I don’t really know much about you.”

 

“You know more than most people,” Lan Zhan replies, “I would wager. What happened yesterday?”

 

You took me on a whole-ass birthday date? is what Wei Ying wants to say, but he wisely abstains. What he’d said about not knowing much about Lan Zhan is true — Lan Zhan is apparently a walking repository for obscure information about Wei Ying, and Wei Ying doesn’t even know Lan Zhan’s favorite color or what TV shows he likes.

 

“I don’t know, just when we were hanging out,” Wei Ying says. “When we talked about being friends. I feel like if we’re friends, I should know more about your life. Like, um, what are your parents like?”

 

“Dead,” Lan Zhan says, with absolutely no trace of humor. Well. Actually, maybe a little humor.

 

Wei Ying’s mouth pops open, then shuts again. Usually he’s the one to make flippant dead parent jokes to people. He now realizes that being on the receiving end is not as fun as being the arbiter of them.

 

“Same!” Wei Ying says, obnoxiously bright. “Wow, we have so much in common.”

 

Lan Zhan hums, then says, “How was your birthday?”

 

“Oh, that,” Wei Ying says, souring at the change in subject. “You mean other than getting temporarily evicted by my brother? I honestly don’t really remember most of it, so. Good, I guess.”

 

Come to think of it...the more he reflects on the day, the more he realizes that dinner with Lan Zhan had actually been the highlight of that entire event. The revelation makes him feel a little funny in a way he can’t articulate. It’s just unexpected, is all.

 

“You didn’t show up,” Wei Ying remembers, then juts his lower lip in a pout when Lan Zhan glances over to appraise him. “Very hurtful, gege.”

 

“I don’t drink,” Lan Zhan replies. “I didn’t imagine my company would be valuable.”

 

Oh, that’s. That’s a little sad. And also — not even accurate.

 

“That’s dumb,” Wei Ying protests, without any trace of teasing. “I would’ve liked having you there. You’re fun to be around.”

 

“Fun,” Lan Zhan echoes, flat and skeptical.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying insists, and he realizes, as he says it, that he really means it. Lan Zhan is fun. In a weird, droll, offbeat kind of way.

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, pressing his lips tight together, and Wei Ying notices his ears are a little rosy, and then he realizes he’s also a little flustered, just from doling out compliments. He returns to staring out the window, his cheek warm against the cool glass.

 

“How did we get back to talking about me, anyway?” Wei Ying asks. “I was asking about your life.”

 

“I don’t have one, outside of work,” Lan Zhan answers. “And we have arrived.”

 

Wei Ying scrambles up in his seat in surprise, then peers out the windshield. They have fully stopped — Wei Ying had assumed they were at a traffic light. Lan Zhan’s already unbuckling his seatbelt, pushing his shoulder against the door to exit the car without another word.

 

“This isn’t over!” Wei Ying calls after him, then follows suit.

 

The site of the haunting, for this specific case, is a local hotel. According to Wei Ying’s reports, the place had shut down a couple months ago due to heightened resentful activity that had been physically terrorizing guests. Even though management had failed to exorcise the creature, construction had — for reasons unknown — started up again in an attempt to renovate the deserted building. Their firm had been called in after a worker was flung from a third-story window last week.

 

Never a dull moment, in this line of work.

 

Lan Zhan waits for him at the entrance, his guqin already tucked under one arm, while Wei Ying fishes around in his bag and pulls out his gear to set up. He nods at the contraption Wei Ying is messing with. “What is that.”

 

Wei Ying blinks up at him with his mouth slightly open, pausing in where he’s fiddling with a speaker. 

 

“Oh, a new thingy I made,” he says. “I used an old cell phone and wired it with resentment-detection technology, then I recorded different songs on flute.” He plays one of them on the phone, a song of rest, and it trills through the speaker. “Allows me to keep my hands freer to work, and also, this little chart replicates a thermal map that tells me where resentment is strongest, kind of like a metal detector. Then based on the level of resentment in an area, the tech auto-plays the appropriate song. Neat, huh?”

 

Lan Zhan observes him impassively for another moment before he notes, “Clever.”

 

Wei Ying preens. “I know. Thanks.” 

 

What he doesn’t say is that he’s not fucking around with new cultivator tech for fun; that it’s become a necessity, by this point, to stay safe on cases. But that’s nothing Lan Zhan needs to know.

 

“Very clever,” Lan Zhan adds. “You could sell that technology.”

 

Oh. He could, couldn’t he? He hasn’t really thought about it before. Cultivator tech firms already exist, but Wei Ying usually forgoes their products; it’s easier to make his own stuff, based on his own individual preferences.

 

“Lan Zhan, you really shouldn’t flirt with me on cases,” he says. “It’s very distracting.”

 

Lan Zhan flares him a look that’s not quite exasperated, but enough to let Wei Ying know that he’s pushing his limits.

 

“Focus,” Lan Zhan says, and together, they enter the hotel.

 

Wei Ying feels the energy ripple the moment he steps foot through the door, pricking the hair on his arms. Powerful resentment always leaves an ashy taste in his mouth, like wildfire smoke.

 

“Nie Mingjue said this was a category 3 gui?” Wei Ying murmurs in a low voice, picking his way around a shattered ceiling light.

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. He must detect something in Wei Ying’s tone, because he adds, not quite a question, “You disagree.”

 

“Categorization could be wrong,” Wei Ying says, checking the thermal map on his device. The entire room is awash in blue and green. “The energy here feels stronger than that. Don’t you think?”

 

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “Stay close.”

 

The temperature creeps down and down as they pick their way through the ruined building. Most of the windows have been blown out, the glass shattered on the outside. Like something from inside the building had punched them out. More broken glass pops under the soles of Wei Ying’s shoes, crunches and grinds in the thick silence.

 

Wei Ying follows the map on his phone to the lobby, Lan Zhan tailing close behind him. The moment they enter the opened space, chills ripple up the back of Wei Ying’s neck. A powerful feeling of dread descends over him, a terror that’s reactive, instinctive. Alongside that primal fear, he finds himself teeming with sudden bitterness and fury, swirling around inside him in a maelstrom.

 

“It can manipulate emotions,” Wei Ying murmurs, closing his eyes in concentration. “Wow, it’s strong. Can you feel it?”

 

Lan Zhan draws close to Wei Ying’s side, his fingers tightening over the strings of Wangji. “Stay alert.”

 

Wei Ying feels the movement in his periphery before he sees it, a darkness from that shadows that solidifies and takes shape, unspools wider and wider. He whirls in its direction just as a heightened song of rest bursts from his speaker, Lan Zhan’s music immediately striking up to accompany it.

 

The creature swarms with shadows, expanding in Wei Ying’s line of sight; its eyes are hollow red sockets, and its mouth gapes with teeth and foam. A low rattle emanates from its center, a ticking growl. Its hatred thickens in the air, as solid as a knife.

 

“Oh, you’re a big boy,” Wei Ying says inanely, suddenly swamped by nerves, because — they’ve definitely been accidentally thrown into a category 1 case, and that is definitely a yangui. 

 

He switches the song on his device, the strongest song of exorcism in his arsenal, and the creature reacts at once with fury. It rears up and screams, more shadows unfurling from its dark mass into long sheaves.

 

One of the shadows spears toward Wei Ying, quicker than a blink, and he feels Lan Zhan’s hand on his shoulder, his voice suddenly everywhere in his ears, the loudest thing in the room, Don’t touch him

 

Before he can react, the darkness knifes right through Wei Ying, into his lower abdomen — it had aimed for his core, the cunning fucker, but of course it had missed its target, it had hit the wrong side. He hears Lan Zhan yell his name, and he can’t tell if it’s in his head or outside of it, but the ground rises to meet him as he sinks to his knees, blood dribbling from his mouth, coppery in his throat —

 

When the dark recedes, Wei Ying finds that he’s horizontal, the ceiling skewed at the wrong angle. Sensation, or observation of sensation, trickles back through him like the tingle of bloodflood to a dormant limb. 

 

There’s a grip on him so tight that its discomfort is primary, singular. Then the heartbeat-thud of a name in his ears, over and over and over —

 

Wei Ying Wei Ying Wei Ying Wei Ying

 

“Right here,” he mumbles, reaching up with closed eyes to pat Lan Zhan’s chest. His mouth is clumsy and slow, tripping its way into the shapes of words. “What’re you calling me for?”

 

“Wei Ying.” The air cracks around Lan Zhan’s spoken voice, a footfall on a splintering sheet of ice.

 

Wei Ying, hurt, hurt, hurting, my fault, my fault my fault my fault 

 

“Shhhhh,” Wei Ying whispers, winces. It isn’t like Lan Zhan to be so loud. His head is an echo chamber, Lan Zhan’s thoughts and his own rolling over each other in a senseless din of sound. 

 

The lobby has gone silent around them, the resentment dissipated; Lan Zhan must have finished the thing off by himself, because his cultivation talent is unmatched and Wei Ying is — useless, deadweight —

 

The elevation shifts under Wei Ying, the ground falling away; the hard lines of Lan Zhan’s forearms digging into the tender skin of Wei Ying’s ribs, his weight ricketing against Lan Zhan’s limbs uncomfortably as he’s carried, but it’s nice to be held firm, to be held in place by something.

 

Oh, he thinks, all of my bones feel bruised.

 

Oh, he thinks, Lan Zhan was worried —

 

Awareness slides away from him, a tilt downward into dark shallows; he’s dimly aware of movement and sound as though through a thick curtain, and when he comes to, it takes a moment for his surroundings to realign, for familiarity to settle in, sluggish and layered. 

 

He’s back in his apartment, the sheets damp beneath him with (hopefully) sweat. A chill has buried itself at the root of him, spreading outward like ice crystallizing on a pane. He’s shivering uncontrollably, his teeth knocking together, and Lan Zhan is there, a hallucinatory figment, dabbing sweat away from his brow with hushed murmurs, the tides of sound overlapping.

 

He passes out again, and when he wakes, more clear-headed and far warmer than before, Lan Zhan is still there, solid and real. He’s propped at the foot of Wei Ying’s mattress with his back pressed at an uncomfortable angle against the wall; his guqin is resting next to Wei Ying’s mattress. He’s still wearing his work clothes, his dress-shirt bunched up awkwardly around his shoulders and forearms. His arms are crossed, his eyes screwed shut — he is asleep, at least partially, but not restfully. 

 

Wei Ying observes him for a long moment, turning over the improbability of Lan Zhan’s physical presence in his home. In his bed. So strangely incongruous. Then he nudges Lan Zhan with his socked big toe and murmurs, “Hey.”

 

Lan Zhan jolts awake at once, his bleary eyes finding Wei Ying’s, and then he shifts off the mattress, moving back to Wei Ying’s side.

 

“The yangui,” Wei Ying murmurs. “It’s gone?”

 

Lan Zhan nods. “Mn. Our combined music was enough to exorcise it.”

 

Is Lan Zhan trying to give him face? Wei Ying hadn’t done anything except make them both a liability. He turns his face toward the wall, closing his eyes.

 

“I can’t believe you’re still here,” Wei Ying rasps. His throat is so dry, cracking and arid. “How did we get in? Where’s Jiang Cheng?”

 

“Not here,” Lan Zhan answers. “I found the entry code in your phone. Jiang Cheng must have changed it back before he left.”

 

Ah, Jiang Cheng had likely gone to visit the Jiangs for the week. Probably for the best that he doesn’t know about this whole fiasco.

 

Lan Zhan grips Wei Ying’s elbow, helps him sit up as he passes a sweating glass of water into his hands.

 

Thank god he’s awake, Lan Zhan is thinking. It doesn’t bear thinking if — what would I have done if

 

It’s Lan Zhan who moves away, standing to stride quickly toward the kitchen. The rupture leaves Wei Ying strangely bereft, wondering what the rest of that sentence might have been.

 

“You ran a high fever,” Lan Zhan says when he returns, and presses a cold rag to Wei Ying’s forehead. The crispness of it is an immediate balm against his clammy skin, and Wei Ying sighs, closes his eyes. Tries to shelve away the guilt, the low-simmering embarrassment of his predicament.

 

It’s always been Wei Ying who’s been the rag-bearer, the mopper of foreheads and changer of sheets and vomit-hair-holder. His immune system had been uncannily formidable as a kid, but Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng had caught sick all of the time. It had been his jie who cared for him, the one time he can remember seriously falling ill.

 

No, Wei Ying had never gotten sick often. Not before. Now, it’s become much more common, this weakness of his.

 

“The yangui impacted your core,” Lan Zhan says, and he settles into a cross-legged position by Wei Ying’s bedside. “I suggested a doctor, but Nie Mingjue said you would recover so long as I provided spiritual energy.”

 

Wei Ying grimaces and gulps another long sip of water. Nie Mingjue is the only other person besides his family who knows the truth, so his recommendation makes sense.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. Quiet, a little hesitant. “The blow you took. It had a significant impact on you.”

 

Wei Ying gives a resigned nod. He can sense the question that Lan Zhan is implicitly asking but won’t outright — a question that Wei Ying is going to answer, because for whatever reason, he actually wants to.

 

“If I tell you something,” Wei Ying says, his voice still rusty. It fissures in two places. “Will you promise not to think less of me for it?”

 

Lan Zhan shifts forward to flip the rag on Wei Ying’s forehead, his fingers against Wei Ying’s overwarm skin, and thinks, I could never, not for anything.

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying whispers, and he hadn’t meant to say that out loud, it just — the sound just sort of escapes him, involuntary and airless, like he’d been kicked in the ribs.

 

“You can tell me,” Lan Zhan says, and moves his hands away. “If you wish.”

 

Wei Ying closes his eyes and licks at his cracked lips. His face is still feverishly warm, moreso from Lan Zhan than the sickness now.

 

“I’ll keep it short,” he says. “Because I’m tired and I’m sure you are, too.” He takes a deep breath, holds it in the deepest places of his lungs. “A few years back, right out of school, Jiang Cheng and I worked a case just like this one. A very similar thing happened, only the yangui was immensely more powerful. The fuck-up was on me; I wasn’t covering Jiang Cheng’s back like I should have, and he got caught in the line of fire.”

 

Lan Zhan’s eyes, amber in the lone lamplight, sear into his, steady and intent.

 

“The thing destroyed half of his core,” Wei Ying says, and his eyes flutter shut again. “The damage was irreparable; it meant Jiang Cheng would never advance beyond his current position. But if I could...”

 

“No,” Lan Zhan says suddenly, like the pieces have at last slotted into place. His inhale is sharp, his voice strangely small. “Wei Ying.”

 

“ — it was only fair, right?” Wei Ying says. “It was my fault that it happened in the first place. I said I would keep it short, so — yeah, I donated half my core. It was enough so that Jiang Cheng could continue his career, and I wouldn’t entirely lose mine.”

 

A shadow has fallen across Lan Zhan’s face, the looming stillness of a thunderhead in a windless sky.

 

“Jiang Cheng agreed to this,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is toneless, each word deliberately placed.

 

“He didn’t really have a choice,” Wei Ying is quick to say. “He put up a fight about it, he’s got such a fucking pride. But in the end, his parents and I managed to persuade him into it. The prospect of losing his purpose, his job, his life, it was — it was enough to get him to agree.”

 

“And he still changes the locks,” Lan Zhan says. Still in that same voice, curiously detached.

 

“Oh, well, I mean.” Wei Ying winces and squirms. The sheets are uncomfortably sticky against his skin from where he’s sweated through them. “At the end of the day, we’re still brothers, right? We fight like any other siblings. But at least we still talk. We’re still friends. Yu-ayi stopped speaking to me after the case happened, even after the procedure.” He winces and laughs, but the sound is too sharp for humor, too brittle. “Let’s just say I’m no longer welcome in the Jiang household.”

 

Lan Zhan exhales, slow through his teeth. Halfway, there’s a hitch, the smallest tremor.

 

“You did not deserve that,” Lan Zhan says. His eyes are eclipsed from view, his features shadow-cast. Wei Ying itches to reach out and touch. He’s become so strangely accustomed, even in this short time, to hearing what Lan Zhan’s thinking behind the veil of his silences, between his sparse words.

 

But the longer this predicament goes on, the more each touch feels like a gross invasion of privacy. It had felt kind of like a joke before, or at least nothing too serious if he happened to pick up on Lan Zhan’s inner monologue. Things had changed. Surprisingly quickly. From the deepest part of him, Wei Ying doesn’t want to take advantage of this person, not ever, not even inadvertently.

 

“It’s not about deserve,” Wei Ying says softly. “It’s about debts owed. The Jiangs adopted me when my parents died; the means and education they provided are the only reason I learned cultivation at all. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have lost half of his core in the first place if it weren’t for me. This was a fair repayment.”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head and says nothing, and an unbroken silence follows for several minutes.

 

Lan Zhan had said — had thought to himself — just moments before that he wouldn’t think less of Wei Ying for anything. But faced with Lan Zhan’s stormy, unreadable expression, a knot of anxiety tightens in Wei Ying’s chest. Lan Zhan is orthodox in his cultivation methods, after all, arguably to a fault. Maybe this — maybe this really did cross a line.

 

“Say something,” Wei Ying whispers, and licks his lips again. “Please.”

 

Lan Zhan takes another moment before he replies. There’s a creak as he shifts his weight on a floorboard.

 

“It is remarkable that you have half a core and still cultivate with the skill that you do,” Lan Zhan says.

 

Wei Ying blinks once, twice. Lan Zhan has never complimented him. Ever. Not out loud, at least. Wei Ying swallows around the bubble of heat that rises in his throat. He had grown so used to Lan Zhan’s perceived disdain of him that he has no idea what to do, recently, with the inverse of it.

 

“You’re just being nice to me now because I’m an invalid,” Wei Ying complains, a little weak-sounding, but he’s suddenly desperate for levity, to decompress the heaviness that crowds thicker and thicker between them.

 

Lan Zhan gives a single shake of his head, as though impatient, and then he says, “Rest, Wei Ying.” He looks tired, more tired than Wei Ying has ever seen him.

 

“You should rest too,” Wei Ying whispers. “I’ll be okay.” He hesitates, then trips out, before he loses the nerve, “Lan Zhan, will you. Would you — are you going to stay here?”

 

He feels like a small child for asking, helpless and unforgivably needy, but it’s been a long time since anyone has been there at his side when he’s woken up. No one has ever...

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says with a resolute nod. “I will be here.”

 

Wei Ying relaxes, sinking back into the pillows and closing his eyes with a soft exhale.

 

“There’s, ah, a sleeping bag in the closet, or —” He swallows, blames his own fever-wrought delirium, and continues, much more rushed, “ — or I know my bed isn’t even really a bed, and it’s small and kind of gross because I’ve been fever-sweating all over it but we could share, only if you want to, only if you didn’t want to sleep on the floor.”

 

He doesn’t dare open his eyes, afraid of whatever expression Lan Zhan is wearing. The answering silence is a wall, impossible to decrypt.

 

What are you thinking? Wei Ying is suddenly desperate to know. Tell me what you’re thinking.

 

“The sleeping bag will suffice,” Lan Zhan says, and gets up from the floor. 

 

Wei Ying nods and stifles the bizarre stab of disappointment he feels. Lying next to Lan Zhan so close, hearing his thoughts so unimpeded, it would be — terrifying, uncomfortable, wrong of him. Why is he disappointed? 

 

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything anymore, he’s quickly come to realize. 

 

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, before Lan Zhan can turn away to hunt for the sleeping bag. “I know you wouldn’t say anything, but. The core thing, it’s. It’s kind of a family secret. Not even my jie knows. Only Nie Mingjue does, for the sake of my assignments and, you know, liability stuff. Please don’t tell anyone.”

 

“I will not,” Lan Zhan says firmly. 

 

“And you don’t need to baby me on cases, either,” Wei Ying adds quickly. “This was just a weird one-off thing, I swear I can hold my own and I don’t need — any kind of handicaps, or —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts, gently enough not to be brusque. “I think no less of you than before.”

 

Wei Ying clenches his hands in and out of the blanket, his knuckles flexing.

 

“Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

 

Lan Zhan crosses back toward him, the shuffling of his dress pants loud in the quiet, his socks shuffling in a quiet hush across the wood floors. He leans to pick up the glass by the mattress and passes it to Wei Ying.

 

And Wei Ying, he’s — too selfish to pull back, too greedy. His guilt thickening, he lets their fingers brush.

 

Lan Zhan’s voice rings out in his ears, steady and resolute. — enough to tell me. I will protect him with my life, so long as I am by his side.

 

Wei Ying inhales, ragged and too fast, and tucking the glass close to his chest, he rolls so that he’s on his side, his back facing Lan Zhan. His heart is crashing drum-loud against the walls of his chest. It had probably looked weird to Lan Zhan, to turn away so quickly, but the reaction had possessed him, visceral and reflexive. He can’t look at Lan Zhan’s face right now, not without giving everything away, and he’s afraid of whatever Lan Zhan might see on his own.

 

That had been. Too much. Very much. Wei Ying can take it when people are mean to him — he thrives on it, in fact. There’s always something a little sexy-edged about meanness. But he flounders at niceness. It completely poleaxes him.

 

Wei Ying presses the cool glass of water to his burning cheek, careful not to spill it. He frantically wills his heart to slow as Lan Zhan moves away, off to search for something to sleep on.

 

As his body calms down, he dozes briefly, then stirs long enough to listen to the sounds of Lan Zhan settling down beside his bed, the crinkle of a sleeping bag and Lan Zhan’s breathing, and Wei Ying thinks, mostly unconscious, it’s good he’s close —

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

When Wei Ying wakes up, it takes him a moment to recognize Jiang Cheng by his bedside. 

 

Jiang Cheng stirs a little in his chair when he sees Wei Ying awake, a frown already settling over his features.

 

“Where’s Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks. It’s the only question, for whatever reason, he can think to ask in the moment.

 

The gruff look on Jiang Cheng’s face smoothes out into genuine concern. “Are you concussed?”

 

Wei Ying blinks, still discombobulated. He’s not sure, by the dim blue cast of the room, if it’s morning or evening. “He...he said he would stay.”

 

Jiang Cheng huffs a derisive sound, then says, “He was annoyingly hard to get rid of. But I told him that he was the last person you’d want to see when you woke up, so he beat it.”

 

Wei Ying wriggles up into a half-sitting position, suddenly alert in his indignation. “Why the hell would you say that to him?”

 

Jiang Cheng’s mouth hangs slightly ajar as he stares at Wei Ying. “Isn’t it true?”

 

“It’s,” Wei Ying says, then rubs a knuckle over his gritty eyelid. “I don’t know. Things are...different now.”

 

“Um, okay. Why are we talking about Lan Zhan, anyway?” Jiang Cheng gripes. “Is that really all you have to say to me right now?”

 

Wei Ying is at once profoundly irritated. “What else should I say to you?”

 

A vein starts to throb in Jiang Cheng’s forehead. “Gee, I don’t know, maybe sorry for almost dying? That was really fucking stupid of me, Jiang Cheng, I won’t do it again?”

 

“I’m not sorry for that,” Wei Ying says, petulant. “And it will probably happen again.”

 

“You’re so,” Jiang Cheng says through his teeth. Another bopping vein has joined the beat of the first, like a tiny EDM concert on his forehead. “I don’t know why I even bother worrying about you when you’re clearly so hell-bent on risking your life.”

 

“You weren’t so worried about me when you locked me out in the middle of the night,” Wei Ying retorts. He’s not usually one for petty snipes or grudges, but the grogginess is quickening his temper.

 

“For fuck’s sake,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I’m sorry, alright? I was fucking blackout, I wasn’t exactly in control of my actions. It’s not like I spent the entire next day trying to get a hold of your dead phone. Oh wait, I did. Where the hell have you been staying, anyway?”

 

“With Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, mostly just to watch the art show of Jiang Cheng’s face changing several different colors.

 

“You’re,” Jiang Cheng splutters. “Him? Since when are you even friends?”

 

“Lan Zhan has always liked me very much, as it happens,” Wei Ying says loftily.

 

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “God.”

 

Wei Ying pauses, thinking for a moment, before he asks, “How did you know to come back? Weren’t you with your parents?”

 

“I was,” Jiang Cheng says. “I’m your emergency contact, dumbass. Nie Mingjue called me.”

 

“Oh,” says Wei Ying.

 

An awkward beat of silence falls between them. Jiang Cheng fidgets in the chair and shuffles his hands and legs, like he’s deliberately trying to make noise. 

 

“A-jie called you like a million times for your birthday, by the way,” he says, after another stilted pause. “Your phone was dead all day.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says again. A small ache shivers in his chest at the thought of his sister. It’s been so long, since he’s gotten to see her in person. “I’ll, um, be sure to call her back.”

 

Another strange stretch of silence unfolds; not as strained as before, but not quite comfortable, either.

 

They could talk about what happened, but it would mean bringing up things they both refuse to acknowledge. Like a giant, jagged hole in a sunroof that they pick their way around. Wei Ying can sense that Jiang Cheng wants to grill him for details about the case, but — well, it’s a moot point anyway. They both know how it ended and why.

 

“Because you’re a good brother and I almost died,” Wei Ying begins, with deliberately placed lightness. “Any chance you can order takeout for us? It feels like my stomach is trying to digest itself.”

 

“You’re insufferable,” says Jiang Cheng. “What do you want.”

 

Wei Ying gives him his order as the tension between them palpably settles, kicked dust returning to the earth. He and Jiang Cheng have always had that kind of relationship — vicious fights, nearly to blows, and then a quick smoothing-over, no words needed. 

 

Before he leaves the room, Jiang Cheng shoves Wei Ying’s shoulder once, rough and brief, but it’s enough to catch the trailing end of his thoughts.

 

If anything really happened to this idiot, Jiang Cheng thinks, I’d never forgive myself.

 

Wei Ying ducks his head to hide his smile in the sleeve of his hoodie, and rolls out of bed to follow Jiang Cheng into the kitchen.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

The next afternoon when he arrives at work, Wei Ying almost crashes into Lan Zhan’s desk, sending a small flurry of papers to the floor like an upset chicken coop. “Lan Zhan!”

 

Lan Zhan blinks up at him from where he’s buried in paperwork. Then he very pointedly moves his full cup of tea away from where Wei Ying had flailed into his space. “Wei Ying. How are you feeling?”

 

“I’m really sorry for whatever dumb shit Jiang Cheng said to you,” Wei Ying rushes out, still out of breath from practically sprinting up four flights of stairs. (Elevator’s out.) He can feel his suit jacket is rumpled and that there’s sweat matted along his hairline, which really just. Adds to the entire aesthetic. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I thought maybe I — maybe we could — I could make it up to you with — do you want to get lunch?”

 

Lan Zhan stares at him with his mouth slightly parted, his eyes wide with surprise.

 

Shit, had that crossed a line? Wei Ying frets. He’d rehearsed that spiel the entire way up and had somehow still vomited it at Lan Zhan’s feet. Who the hell would want to go anywhere with him right now, anyway, when he’s a damn mess —

 

“Okay,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“Oh. Okay,” Wei Ying echoes with a sharp, relieved exhale. “Okay. Great. Cool.”

 

“I’m just wrapping up a meeting,” Lan Zhan says, and nods toward Wei Ying’s shoulder in indication.

 

Wei Ying spins around on his heel and is promptly greeted by — another Lan Zhan.

 

No, not Lan Zhan. A darker eye color, slightly different features, a little older-looking, more smile-lines, but still surreally, traffic-stopping handsome in the way only Lans can be. 

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says, once he recovers from the surprise. “Uh, hi.”

 

“My brother, Lan Huan,” Lan Zhan says from behind Wei Ying as he gets up from his chair.

 

“Hi,” Wei Ying says to Lan Huan again.

 

“Mr. Wei,” Lan Huan says affably, then gives a slight bow. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

 

Where Lan Zhan exudes a perpetual aura of frost, Lan Huan is all summery warmth and effusive smiles. Like anyone within the immediate orbit of his attention could feel their company is desired. The contrast to Lan Zhan, given the similarity of their features, has an almost unnerving effect.

 

Wei Ying returns the greeting, and on reflex, he offers his hand to shake. Lan Huan takes it.

 

— what A-Zhan sees in him, Lan Huan thinks. His easy, effortless smile is still fixed in place, falling warm on Wei Ying like a shaft of sunlight. If he hurts him, I will ensure there are consequences.

 

Wei Ying yanks his hand back a little too abruptly. He stares at Lan Huan, wide-eyed. Lan Huan’s inviting smile has not wavered in the slightest.

 

The Lans and the thickness of their public-facing personas, he thinks, are no joke. He’s never seen anything quite like it.

 

“Ah, Lan-xiong,” Nie Mingjue greets from behind them, and claps a friendly hand to Lan Huan’s shoulder. “Just on time, as always.”

 

“It’s always good to see Nie-xiong,” Lan Huan replies, then offers a close-lipped smile that still manages to be heartfelt. Wei Ying had already known the two were close friends — it’s pretty much the only reason that the Nie firm had been able to poach Lan Zhan from his family’s business, at least for the time being. The Lans run their own prestigious institute of musical cultivation, but to Wei Ying’s understanding, Lan Zhan had wanted to spend some time in the field, and Nie Mingjue had eagerly agreed to enlist him.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Nie Mingjue says, as he turns toward the two of them with his hand still on Lan Huan’s bicep. “You’ll deploy for the category 2 in Wuxi tomorrow. Li Mei will accompany you.”

 

Then he turns to smile at Lan Huan again, who reflects the look back at him.

 

Lan Zhan tilts his chin up. “Wei Ying is with me.”

 

A dead-zone silence follows these words. Both Nie Mingjue’s and Lan Huan’s smiles freeze in place, slowly cooling as Lan Zhan’s words settle in. Wei Ying finds that he’s holding his breath in his disbelief.

 

Nie Mingjue’s jaw clenches as he cuts a look to Wei Ying. “Wei Ying was just injured in the field. I won’t put him on a case until he’s fully recovered.”

 

“He is capable nonetheless,” Lan Zhan replies. “Wei Ying will accompany me, or another cultivator can take the case.”

 

Lan Huan is staring at his younger brother as though he’s seeing him for the first time and is uncertain of his impression. Nie Mingjue’s mustache jumps left, then right as his mouth works, his face reddening.

 

The tense silence drags out. Some of their colleagues, shamelessly eavesdropping, are observing the exchange with round, interested eyes. Lan Zhan doesn’t budge, his gaze pinned coolly on Nie Mingjue. The setup of the situation is surprisingly underhanded, for what Wei Ying would expect of Lan Zhan. Anyone watching well knows that if Nie Mingjue takes Lan Zhan off the case in front of onlookers, it will cause Lan Huan, a close friend and business partner, to lose face.  

 

Finally, Nie Mingjue breaks the silence, speaking through his teeth. “Very well. As long as Wei Ying is familiar with the risks.”

 

Lan Zhan nods once, apparently satisfied, then turns to Wei Ying. “Lunch?”

 

Wei Ying gives three quick nods, then practically scrambles to tail Lan Zhan out of the office. He tries to ignore Nie Mingjue’s and Lan Huan’s stares burning into his back the entire way.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he says, once they’re out the doors. Strange patches of warmth keep flaring up in his chest in a firefly cadence, and he suspects it’s not just the heartburn from chugging three cups of coffee this morning. “You really didn’t have to do that.”

 

“Yes, I did,” Lan Zhan says dismissively. “You’re the most skilled cultivator in the firm. It is nonsensical to have someone else work the case.”

 

Wei Ying hastens to catch up with Lan Zhan’s pace, a little bounce in his step. “Lan Zhan, I’m blushing,” he teases. “Who knew you were such a flirt?”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says without looking at him. Wei Ying reaches out to — do something, to grab his shoulder or maybe bump their arms together, before he remembers himself and retreats. He shouldn’t — do that now, with Lan Zhan, not knowing what he knows. It would be an unfair violation. He probably shouldn’t tease him about flirting either, on second thought. He hadn’t really considered that; he’s never even had to think about it before. 

 

Lan Zhan had indulged Wei Ying’s preferences last time they’d eaten together, so Wei Ying returns the favor and drags Lan Zhan to some mostly-vegetarian restaurant he’d spotted the other day on his way home, right next to Jing’an Temple. It’s only a few li away from their office, not far from the place Wei Ying likes, and Lan Zhan doesn’t put up a fight about following Wei Ying wherever, although he does appear a little surprised when they stop in front of the restaurant.

 

“Is this okay?” Wei Ying asks, suddenly uncertain when he catches Lan Zhan’s expression. “I just, I know you don’t eat meat —”

 

Lan Zhan blinks at him, his features thawing from where they’d frozen into blank confusion.

 

“This is excellent,” Lan Zhan says. He still seems perplexed. “Will you eat?”

 

“Oh, I’ll find something,” Wei Ying says with more confidence than he feels. His knowledge of healthy food is approaching absolute zero, but he does know that he likes plenty of vegetables, and there should be non-vegetarian stuff here anyway.

 

“After you,” Lan Zhan says, and holds open the door for him.

 

“And they say chivalry is dead,” Wei Ying says with a hum as he wriggles past him. He’s careful that their skin doesn’t touch. “Thanks, gege!”

 

“Hmm,” Lan Zhan says, as he usually does, but it sounds slightly. Off. A different note, a little choked, maybe a little longer and less curt than normal.

 

It gives Wei Ying pause, abruptly aware of himself in a way he’s never been before. Had that also been flirty? If that’s flirting, how long has Wei Ying been interacting with Lan Zhan that way and he hadn’t realized? Does he even know how to stop?

 

He isn’t sure he knows the answer to that.

 

They go through the buffet line quickly, piling their plates with food before they pick one of the nearby tables. 

 

“Look at all these plants on my plate, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying is complaining good-naturedly as he takes up one of the spots. “Look at how healthy you’ve made me. Next up I’m going to open a community garden.”

 

Lan Zhan hums and joins him at the table. As he slides into the chair, their ankles knock together, and on reflex, Wei Ying braces himself for what comes next, nearly recoiling —

 

The scene that strikes him is brief but vivid, dripping with the saturated color of a dreamscape. He sees himself in a small garden, barefoot in the loose earth with his clothes rucked up to his elbows and knees. He’s turning to beam at Lan Zhan with all of his teeth, a white comet in the midday sunlight. He has a silly sunhat on, something he’d probably never wear in real life. There’s a streak of dried mud across his cheek, and his arms are overflowing with a crop of plants and vegetables. His skin is summer-bronze and flushed from the sun, and his face gleams with sweat and grime from a hard day’s work but it doesn’t seem to matter, because Wei Ying watches himself bound toward Lan Zhan until he falls laughing into a pair of arms, and the arms catch him and hold him fast, vegetables and all.

 

Wei Ying shakes the image away like he’s blinking sun out of his eyes. An odd feeling, a dull throb like a bruise, spreads and spreads in his chest until the ache takes root in him. Lan Zhan isn’t looking at him, the fall of his lashes fluttering minutely as he eats his lunch, but for the first time, Wei Ying finds that he —

 

He can’t stop staring.

 

It strikes him suddenly, as perhaps it should have earlier, that there hasn’t been a single instance, since he gained this ability, where Lan Zhan has wished him ill. Wei Ying hasn’t detected even a trace of resentment or grudge-bearing or even irritation in Lan Zhan’s thoughts, as he had imagined all of these years. Wei Ying has always thought that if Lan Zhan ever found out the truth about his core, his opinion of Wei Ying would be irreversibly tainted, but — that hasn’t been the case at all.

 

Lan Zhan fantasizes about seeing him happy. Lan Zhan fantasizes about them gardening together. The bruise burrows deeper until it pinches, until Wei Ying almost puts a hand to his chest to massage away the strange sensation around his heart.

 

He had known, pretty quickly after gaining his magic, that Lan Zhan was a decent person. He’s starting to realize, even more quickly, that Lan Zhan may be the best person.

 

Until very recently, Wei Ying might have resented this discovery — of course perfect Lan Zhan is actually, underneath it all, not a sullen and mean person as he’d once thought. But he doesn’t feel that way anymore. He almost feels like...he’s lucky to be liked by a person this good. Because it ostensibly must mean that, even if just a little bit, he might also be good.

 

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks, tugging him from his thoughts. He stares across the table at Wei Ying, his chopsticks suspended mid-air. His gaze points to Wei Ying’s untouched meal. “Is it good?”

 

Wei Ying blinks a little. Then he smiles. “Yeah. It is good.”

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

The next couple weeks go by quickly, and they’re weird. Weird for the mind-reading that persists — even weirder for how normal it’s quickly become, a low-humming backdrop of Wei Ying’s day-to-day that he only selectively pays attention to.

 

Weirdest, for how quickly consumed he becomes with spending every second with Lan Zhan.

 

If Lan Zhan questions Wei Ying’s sudden desire for his company, he doesn’t vocalize it. He seems content to follow whatever Wei Ying wants to do, whether it’s dragging him to boba or to a nearby park on the weekend. They get lunch together almost every day at work, and the eyes and whispers of their colleagues incredulously follow their sudden camaraderie. Huaisang is downright baffled by it, but he seems to decide it’s wise not to pry into it. At least, not too much.

 

“You’re not, like. Fucking him, right?” Huaisang asks Wei Ying on a Wednesday, out of the blue. “Just wanted to make sure that’s still the case.”

 

“Still straight, Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying informs him.

 

“I’ll give it two weeks,” says Huaisang.

 

The following night, Wei Ying brings over some Nintendo games and takeout to Lan Zhan’s place, because Lan Zhan had recently made the outrageous claim that although he’s nearly thirty years old, he’s somehow never played MarioKart before. It doesn’t seem like it should be possible, and Wei Ying suspects he might be getting hustled, especially when Lan Zhan beats him after the first couple rounds.

 

“Why are you good at everything,” Wei Ying complains as he pouts at his second place star. “It’s actually a flaw in and of itself to be good at everything, you know.”

 

Lan Zhan settles his shoulders deeper into the cushions of the couch. “I am not good at everything.”

 

“Name one thing you’re not good at,” Wei Ying says.

 

Lan Zhan pauses to think about it for a moment, before he allows, “Drinking.”

 

“Drinking isn’t a skill!” Wei Ying protests. “Except in my case, because I’m very good at it. Lan Zhan, tell me you’re bad at volleyball or something to appease me.”

 

“I am bad at volleyball,” Lan Zhan says, completely unconvincing.

 

Wei Ying sulks at him. “Okay, you can add lying to that growing list of things you’re bad at.”

 

Lan Zhan’s mouth tilts up on one end, not quite a smile but close. He’s wearing some old, threadbare sweater that still somehow manages to look like a fashion statement, given his built physique and stupidly perfect face. More and more, Wei Ying has gotten to see Lan Zhan out of business clothes — which makes sense, given how much they’re hanging out outside of work now. Wei Ying has been careful with his touches, cautious to protect Lan Zhan’s privacy where he can. The less he hears of Lan Zhan’s thoughts, the more he can pretend that this whole — crush situation doesn’t exist. 

 

The helpless fact of the matter is that Wei Ying actually likes Lan Zhan. As in, somehow along the way, has started enjoying his company and actively looking forward to it. Lan Zhan is funny and decent and a good listener and weirdly fun, open to doing whatever spontaneous thing Wei Ying wants to do. He’s changed a lot from their early days at university, and Wei Ying feels a little abashed he’d clung onto a singular idea of him for so long. He’s really been missing out.

 

However, Wei Ying is a tactile person by nature. It’s hard for him not to touch, to push and tease and shove and worm himself into Lan Zhan’s personal space. It starts to feel more and more like a chore to keep himself distant, to shy away from Lan Zhan’s rare touches, whenever they come.

 

Tonight, though, he pushes his limits. Maybe it’s something about the casual, relaxed ease between them, teasing each other back and forth. Maybe it’s the jar of Emperor’s Smile. Either way, for the next round of the game, Wei Ying puts his socked feet in Lan Zhan’s lap, like it’s a joke or something, but he doesn’t move away, and neither does Lan Zhan, so he keeps them there.

 

Then the countdown to the race begins, and Lan Zhan’s thinking about —

 

Wei Ying kneeling between Lan Zhan’s thighs, swallowing his cock with a dreamy, faraway expression while Lan Zhan focuses on the game. Every so often, he would thread a hand through Wei Ying’s hair, to ground him or as an encouragement, but for the most part, he would focus on playing, on keeping up an act of idle indifference even as Wei Ying whined for his attention, working hard to make it good for him.

 

Finally, when he’s close enough, Lan Zhan would pull Wei Ying’s mouth off of him by his hair; Wei Ying would make a whimpered sound of protest that quiets as Lan Zhan strokes himself three times and comes, all over his face. Wei Ying would open his mouth to catch some of it, his eyes closed and his cheeks flushed. He would look so good like this, heart-stopping —

 

Lan Zhan would pull Wei Ying up into his lap then, make him wait for it until Lan Zhan’s hard again even if he begs and squirms. If he’s good enough, he’d put Wei Ying on his cock and let him ride it like he wants. (After some reflection, he’s concluded that Wei Ying is probably the type that can come untouched, that can get off without a hand on him.) As Wei Ying got closer, closer, Lan Zhan would murmur, “Good boy,”

 

Wei Ying, who’s crashed his virtual car approximately twenty times in the last thirty seconds, gets up from the couch mid-round and excuses himself to use the bathroom.

 

The second the door closes behind him, he’s struggling with the zipper of his jeans, the denim too tight, painful and chafing against his dick. His underwear is sticky with precome, which is something he can be embarrassed about in another few minutes. With a trembling hand, he jerks himself off, imagines Lan Zhan’s cool grip instead while he tells him, low and approving, good boy —

 

Wei Ying comes in about four pumps, biting hard on his lip to stifle the noise of it. He manages to catch most of the mess in his other hand, and he spends the next few minutes shaking against the bathroom door, entirely blank. He takes in his flushed, slouched reflection in Lan Zhan’s wide mirror and momentarily doesn’t recognize the person that stares back at him, glassy-eyed and a little lost.

 

Then Wei Ying moves to wash his hands, grabbing toilet paper to clean the rest of himself off. 

 

Okay, that had just been a one-off. Because of the liquor, for one. His sexual inexperience is such that he’s never actually seen himself in such lewd situations — of course he’s bound to get hot and bothered over it. It doesn’t mean — it doesn’t mean that —

 

He dries his hands and rejoins Lan Zhan on the couch, and sticks to the other side of it.

 

So, yeah, there’s the occasional situation like that.

 

But other than that, other than the occasional wet dream where Wei Ying wakes up in a state of half-fogged, searing arousal with only the leftover impression of Lan Zhan’s low, wordless voice, they’re fine.

 

Oh, and except for:

 

“Are you ever going to tell me,” Jiang Cheng snaps to him over breakfast the following Thursday.

 

Wei Ying pauses half-chew to stare blankly, then he swallows. “Tell you what?”

 

“You know that I’m like, accepting of all types or whatever,” Jiang Cheng says, red as a beet and glaring at his congee like it’s personally crossed him. “I don’t know why you feel like you can’t talk to me.”

 

“Types?” Wei Ying echoes, a little warily. “Talk to you about what?”

 

“The fact that you’re dating Lan Zhan,” Jiang Cheng says, then stabs a bite of his breakfast into his mouth.

 

“We’re not dating,” Wei Ying says to the room at large. “I’m straight. I don’t know why I have to keep telling everyone this.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I always thought, too,” Jiang Cheng says, some of the flush receding from his face. “But you’re over there like every night, you bring him food, all you do is talk about him and text him. I just wanted to, like —” He makes a face like he’s passing an uncomfortable bout of gas. “I know I said some stuff about him a few weeks ago, before I knew you actually liked him, and I just wanted to say, like. I accept. Or whatever.”

 

“I appreciate your accepting my friendship with Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You do know that’s what friends do, right? Go over to each other’s houses and sometimes eat together?”

 

“Oh, don’t give me that,” Jiang Cheng snaps. He gets so rankled at being patronized. Youngest siblings. “It more has to do with the fact that you’re fucking obsessed with him.

 

“I am not,” Wei Ying protests, just as his phone dings. He dives for it without thinking, and bites down on a tiny grin when he sees it’s a string of rabbit emojis from Lan Zhan. Wei Ying has recently been instructing him on emoticon usage, and Lan Zhan has been an apt, if somewhat predictable, student.

 

“I rest my case,” Jiang Cheng says, bitchily, then moves his dish to the sink.

 

So, it’s all fine. Other than the occasional wet dream, and the occasional stray fantasy of Lan Zhan’s, and other than the fact that everyone he knows thinks they’re together, it’s all fine. Maybe it should be weirder than it is, that Lan Zhan is attracted to Wei Ying and Wei Ying is aware of it, and that’s somehow increased their hangout time more rather than less, but he doesn’t really — it doesn’t really factor in. He just likes hanging out with Lan Zhan. There’s a lot about him that he’d never known before, more and more layers he keeps unpeeling under the stony surface of him. 

 

It’s all fine, and then they get invited to one of Huaisang’s house parties.

 

Of course, Wei Ying drags Lan Zhan along with him. Huaisang hosts one of these shindigs like once a month, and Wei Ying has long grown bored of the usual company there, but it might be a fun experience with Lan Zhan by his side. Lan Zhan, who doesn’t drink, who acts as a natural human-repellant wherever he goes. It’s perfect.

 

The music is already throbbing through the walls of Huaisang’s two-story apartment by the time they show up, an audible vibration through the walls. Wei Ying already has a few drinks coursing through his system, because going to Huaisang’s parties sober is intolerable. Bravened by the alcohol, he’d opted for a slightly sluttier look tonight, which mostly means a nicer sweatshirt and tighter skinny jeans. He hasn’t dabbled in the world of makeup yet, but he had seriously considered it for the evening before he’d chickened out. Just to...maybe Lan Zhan would like it, or think it was interesting. Huaisang wears makeup and it’s all cool — plenty of guys do, to hide blemishes or just to look nicer.

 

Anyway, not that it matters what Lan Zhan thinks. It’s just — gay men are into that, right? Into other boys wearing makeup?

 

The trail of thought derails when the door swings open and Huaisang ushers them in, wreathed in weed smoke and reeking of liquor. He’s wearing this lacy shawl-type situation and a completely sheer black top, his nipple piercings nearly poking through the material. Is that the kind of thing Lan Zhan would be into? Wei Ying wonders as Huaisang drags them around the apartment, making introductions and flashing Lan Zhan around like a shiny new gadget.

 

Lan Zhan, because he’s an incessantly good person, tolerates all of it in good form, but Wei Ying can sense his private discomfort even without thought-checking him. 

 

Maybe he shouldn’t have dragged him here tonight, after all.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says in a low voice the moment Huaisang is distracted. “We don’t have to stay if you’re miserable here.”

 

“You wanted to come,” Lan Zhan says, like that settles the matter.

 

“Yeah, but I want to do a lot of things. Most of them aren’t good ideas, and most of them I get bored of halfway through anyway. Just — I don’t know, tap me three times if you want to leave.”

 

“Fine,” Lan Zhan says, in this serene tone of voice that indicates he will do no such thing because he’s a martyr to the cause of suffering.

 

Wei Ying sighs at him good-naturedly, then he crowds closer to Lan Zhan, their sides brushing together.

 

“See anyone you like?” Wei Ying asks. He scans each attendant critically. None of these people look like good enough suitors for Lan Zhan.

 

You, Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying snorts and shoots back, “Okay, that doesn’t count. You’re forced to be here with me.”

 

Lan Zhan is silent in response, and when Wei Ying turns to look at him, Lan Zhan is watching him with a slightly baffled expression.

 

Fuck. Had Lan Zhan not said that out loud?

 

“Kidding,” he scrambles to say with an awkward, shrill laugh. “Ah, I’m just kidding, Lan Zhan. I’ll be on the lookout for you, okay? I make a pretty good wingman when I put my mind to it.”

 

“No need,” says Lan Zhan.

 

Except there is. There is a need. Surely there’s someone here, or — or out there in the world — that can give Lan Zhan what he deserves while Wei Ying — can’t. The thought makes Wei Ying’s throat tighten, an uncomfortable clench in his chest.

 

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, more seriously than before. “Um, would you mind getting me a drink? There should be some stuff set out in the kitchen.”

 

Lan Zhan nods and immediately complies, and Wei Ying watches him go, feeling that weird ache through every part of him.

 

“Wei-xiongggg,” Huaisang’s voice breaks in, and a hand winds tightly around his wrist. Wei Ying turns, only to find that Huaisang also has Mianmian by the arm. She looks tipsy and a little wine-flushed but mostly annoyed.

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says, taken off guard. “Hi, Mianmian.”

 

“Hi,” Mianmian says curtly. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

 

Without another word, Huaisang begins to drag both of them toward the hallway, listing a little in his steps as he does. He’d looked a little gone behind the eyes, misty like it gets when he’s twisted, and in Wei Ying’s experience, the look usually means a horrible decision is close behind.

 

“I figured I could give you two some alone time,” Huaisang throws over his shoulder, almost lost under the pounding of the music. “My roommate’s out, so…”

 

“I’m really good, thanks,” Wei Ying says loudly. Anxiety is a brick in his stomach, solid and sudden. 

 

“Don’t be a dick, Huaisang,” Mianmian says, but she lets herself be tugged along behind him anyway, her face bright red.

 

“Come onnnn, you two,” Huaisang wheedles as he pulls both Wei Ying and Mianmian through the main area. A few of their other coworkers start clapping and hooting when they realize what’s going on, a smattering of drunken encouragement.

 

Wei Ying twists in Huaisang’s grip, and as he does, he locks eyes with Lan Zhan across the room. Lan Zhan is staring at them, a little pale and stricken-looking, frozen in the doorway to the kitchen. He’s holding Wei Ying’s drink in one hand.

 

Wei Ying has no time to open his mouth and say something — to even make some sort of face to indicate what’s going on — before Huaisang pushes the two of them into the nearest room of the hallway and locks it behind him. Who has exterior locks, anyway? Serial killers?!

 

“Nie-xiong,” Wei Ying complains as he pounds on the door, and he hears Huaisang cackling through the wood. “This isn’t funny.”

 

“Have fun, you two!” Huaisang calls, then raps three times on the door.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Wei Ying tells Mianmian at once. “He knows nothing’s going to happen, he’s just messing around.”

 

“I know,” Mianmian snaps. Her obvious embarrassment is prickly, sharpening her tone. She folds her arms over her chest. “This is so stupid and juvenile. We’re adults.”

 

Wei Ying rotates to look at her, then leans back slightly against the door. He rubs his arm awkwardly. “Well. I guess we’re stuck here, for at least a little while.”

 

Mianmian drops her gaze to her feet, her crossed arms tightening. “You know people are expecting us to do something.”

 

Wei Ying thinks of Lan Zhan’s expression, the moment he’d watched Wei Ying and Mianmian thrown into a bedroom together. That strange ache that’s still knotted tight inside him. What Lan Zhan must think of Wei Ying, what he must be imagining is happening. “Yeah. I know.”

 

Mianmian gusts out an irritated sigh. “Well, we might as well get it over with. It doesn’t have to be weird or anything.”

 

Wei Ying blanks. “Huh?”

 

Mianmian’s hand raises between them, and it floats awkwardly in midair before she rests it on Wei Ying’s shoulder. She looks as nervous as he feels, her eyes darting uncertainly over Wei Ying’s face.

 

Her thoughts roll into him, a distinct ringing in his ears.

 

— wouldn’t be so bad to kiss Wei Ying, would it? He’s kind and a friend and has a sweet face. I might even like him, if I actually

 

Wei Ying swallows, opening his mouth to say something to abate the situation.

 

liked men like that, Mianmian’s thoughts continue. I guess if I close my eyes, it’ll be the same as kissing a 

 

Wei Ying’s speaking before his brain signs off on it — something to salvage this, to keep Mianmian from feeling like she has to do anything, when she’s —

 

“I’m gay,” he blurts out, and then he freezes, his body going cold all over. 

 

Mianmian stills too, her eyes widening and her mouth parting in surprise. Her hand slips off his shoulder, her inner monologue dropping off into silence.

 

Wei Ying reels. 

 

He had not. Meant to say that. Some wires had gotten crossed, somehow.

 

“Oh, Wei Ying,” Mianmian is saying, then she blinks as she visibly softens. “I had no idea. Thank you for telling me.”

 

She reaches up to squeeze his shoulder again, her face creased with sympathy.

 

— never have guessed. It’s a relief that Huaisang and I aren't the only ones in the office. There’s a click then, her tone shifting to some kind of comprehension. That must be why he and Lan Zhan

 

“I’m not,” Wei Ying interrupts her, and then drops off into silence again. He can’t just — fake-come out, and then immediately take it back, he’ll look ridiculous. He can’t say that he’s not involved with Lan Zhan, when he’d accidentally snatched that piece of information from Mianmian’s private thoughts. He has no idea what he’s supposed to say.

 

Mianmian seems to detect the dawning panic in his tone, or in whatever must be evident on his face, because she quickly says, “Wei Ying. I won’t tell anyone. You don’t have to worry about it. It’s really not a big deal at all, believe me — your business is your business. Okay?”

 

“Yeah, I,” Wei Ying says in a small voice. I’m not gay, is what he wants to say. “Okay.”

 

Mianmian smiles warmly at him, then turns and bangs on the door with a savage furor. “NIE HUAISANG!!! If you don’t let us out right now, I’m going to tell your brother why you were really out of office on Friday!”

 

The doorknob wiggles, then the door finally cracks open, Huaisang’s whining filtering through. “Mianmian, you can’t use da-ge against me, what the fuck, that’s cheating.”

 

Mianmian raises her eyebrows, and says, very crisply, “Fuck you,” and storms off toward the front door.

 

“Oh, shit,” Huaisang says, staring after her with a distressed expression. “It was just a joke. Sorry if it went too far?”

 

“Where’s Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying demands. He’s desperately scanned the main area by now, but Lan Zhan is nowhere to be found, Wei Ying’s untouched drink abandoned on the table. 

 

Had he left? Wei Ying feels a lurch in his chest. Surely Lan Zhan wouldn’t do that, he wouldn’t leave Wei Ying here without at least telling him he was going —

 

“Kitchen, I think,” Huaisang says, scratching the back of his head. “Did anything happen with Mianmian?”

 

“I told you we’ve known each other forever,” Wei Ying says, unable to conceal the annoyance in his voice. “It was just weird.”

 

“I’ll take the constructive criticism under advisement,” Huaisang says, then hiccups. Wei Ying rolls his eyes and moves quickly toward the kitchen, grabbing the drink Lan Zhan had left for him on the way.

 

He finds Lan Zhan standing by the counter, pressed stiffly against its ledge and wearing a guarded, irritated expression. There’s another man talking to him that Wei Ying doesn’t recognize, closer to Lan Zhan than what’s usually allowed. Wei Ying can’t hear what the stranger is saying over the music, but the tone of it sounds unctuous, almost nasal.

 

At the sight, Wei Ying feels an unpleasant sensation curdle through him, sour in his throat. “Who the hell is that?”

 

“Some douchebag named Su She,” Huaisang replies, probably not quiet enough. “He shows up at these things like a cockroach or something. Meng Yao always invites him along without asking anybody first and it’s like, for fuck’s sake, why.

 

Wei Ying watches the two of them closely. Lan Zhan is backed up as far against the counter as he can manage, a plastic cup of water gripped tight in his hand. He hasn’t noticed Wei Ying yet; he’s staring at a fixed point beyond Su She’s head like he’s trying to astral-project. 

 

Why isn’t Lan Zhan moving away and telling this guy to fuck off, the way he does with everyone else who invades his personal space?

 

“You’ve got a little something,” Huaisang says, dabbing at Wei Ying’s cheek with a concentrated expression.

 

Wei Ying finally tears his eyes away from Lan Zhan. “Huh?”

 

“It was just the vinegar leaking out of your pores,” Huaisang says, then smirks. “Really, Wei-xiong, control your face.”

 

“I’m not,” Wei Ying mutters. He wrenches his gaze away again from where Su She is still trying to unsubtly wriggle past Lan Zhan’s wall of personal space. “I’m not jealous.”

 

Huaisang gives an airy little laugh. “If I’d known better, I would have thrown you in that room with Lan Zhan instead.”

 

Wei Ying opens his mouth, a witty retort already shaped in his mouth, but then he thinks about what that would have really entailed — what might have happened, if Lan Zhan and he had….

 

He feels a slow flush warming his cheeks, and his mouth shuts again.

 

Any trace of teasing clears from Huaisang’s face.

 

“Oh, wow,” Huaisang says. “Oh, you really...”

 

“Shut up,” Wei Ying says. “Whatever you’re going to say, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

Huaisang’s face starts to soften into understanding, into sympathy, and Wei Ying quickly glances away, back toward Lan Zhan. 

 

Watching him with another person, Wei Ying feels some bitter clench knotting tighter and tighter in his stomach. Even if it’s not Su She, it’s only a matter of time before another boy comes along and snags Lan Zhan’s attention, steals his affection and all of that steadfast devotion. Someone that can give Lan Zhan all of that in return, someone who’s actually comfortable with who they are. Wei Ying is suddenly, irrationally envious of this hypothetical gay person to the point of rage; they would be so at ease with themself, enough so to flounce into a relationship with Lan Zhan in a way that Wei Ying — 

 

No, no — it’s just that it would mean seeing Lan Zhan less. Right? It would alter their friendship in some weird and unspeakable way, if Lan Zhan dated someone else. Fell in love with someone else. Of course Wei Ying would be jealous of anyone else sponging up Lan Zhan’s attention, friend or not, when he’s been in the warm epicenter of it for the last few weeks. Which — when had that happened? When had Lan Zhan become so inextricably woven into his life that the thought of a life without him hurts in the strangest, most buried places?

 

Wei Ying is arrested by the sudden, unwelcome image of Lan Zhan kissing this faceless man. Marrying him, with that soft smile that curls at the corners of his mouth, that hidden smile that has to be coaxed out, that isn’t for anyone else. He can feel his chest aching like it’s split around something hollow.

 

“Wei-xiong,” Huaisang’s voice floats into his awareness, and there’s a hand on his shoulder. His friend’s thoughts are tangled and buzzed, but his concern is unmistakable. “You look like you got kicked in the spleen. Or like you’re about to cry.”

 

“I need air,” Wei Ying says, swatting his hand away, and hares toward the balcony.

 

Once he’s outside, he wraps his arms tighter around himself, shaking a little with the cold as it washes over him. He still has that gross, acid-wash feeling in his chest, building and building. It’s ridiculous to be so upset just at the hypothetical of something; Lan Zhan hadn’t even indicated any interest in that person.

 

But what if he had?

 

Wei Ying hears the door quietly slide open behind him, and he peeks over his shoulder. It’s Lan Zhan, who watches him steadily as he shuts the door again.

 

“Hi,” Wei Ying says weakly.

 

Without another word, Lan Zhan slips out of his coat and drapes it over Wei Ying’s shoulders.

 

“Stop,” Wei Ying says. He feels, heinously, like he might burst into tears.

 

Lan Zhan’s hands hover over his shoulders where he’d dropped the jacket. Not touching, not quite. “Stop what?”

 

“Stop being so nice to me all the time,” Wei Ying says in a thick voice. His eyes are stinging. Maybe he’s a little drunker than he thought. “I don’t even deserve it.”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t say a word, just silently rounds the bench to sit next to Wei Ying with his hands clasped on his knees.

 

“You’re upset,” Lan Zhan observes, his voice gentle. “What happened?”

 

Wei Ying blows out a wet breath and looks off down the street. His eyes are tearing with the cold, the streetlights streaking and dripping sideways. “Nothing even happened. I’m just drunk and stupid.”

 

“You are only one of those things,” says Lan Zhan.

 

“Stupid,” Wei Ying agrees.

 

Lan Zhan huffs a small sound, then rubs his hands together once. “Not that one.”

 

“Nothing happened,” Wei Ying blurts out. He still resolutely refuses to look at Lan Zhan. He stares down at a smudge on his high-tops instead. “With Mianmian. I — nothing happened at all. I don’t know, I just wanted you to know that.”

 

Peripherally, Wei Ying sees Lan Zhan shift in place. Then he asks, “Why?”

 

“I just,” Wei Ying says. “I wasn’t really — um, into it? I guess? I mean, she’s a long-time friend, and it would just be weird for both of us —”

 

“No,” Lan Zhan interrupts, not rudely. “I meant, why did you want me to know that.”

 

“Oh.” A big punch of air escapes Wei Ying’s lungs. He scrambles. “I just — I didn’t want things to be weird at work. If you thought Mianmian and I hooked up or something.”

 

Lan Zhan nods once, slowly. “I see.”

 

Wei Ying huddles tighter into Lan Zhan’s coat, pulling the sleeves so that the warmth cocoons around him more completely. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Lan Zhan says, a moment later, “that you were put in a situation in which you were uncomfortable. I should have said something.”

 

“Huh?” Wei Ying says, his mouth hanging open a little, then he blinks. “Oh, I mean, it’s really fine. It wasn’t that uncomfortable, it’s just that Mianmian’s a lesbi — ” 

 

He claps a hand over his mouth, shocked by his own indiscretion. Wow, he’s really just. A fucking sieve for information. Get a few drinks in his system and he’s hemorrhaging everyone’s personal details.

 

“I see,” says Lan Zhan again, after a silent moment. “She told you that?”

 

“Ummmm,” Wei Ying hedges. “More or less.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, and then, because apparently he’s committed to seeing out his own self-destruction, he adds, “I told her I was gay.”

 

Lan Zhan freezes next to Wei Ying; it wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone else, but Wei Ying feels him stiffen, ever so slightly. Their knees are barely a finger’s width’s apart. He could so easily reach out and know what he —

 

“Even though you are not,” Lan Zhan says, blankly. Carefully.

 

Wei Ying swallows, struggling with how to answer, before he says, in a small voice, “Yeah.”

 

Lan Zhan’s brow furrows ever so slightly. “Then...why.”

 

“I don’t know!” Wei Ying says, wondering if Lan Zhan’s sleeves would make for an effective noose. “I was just — trying to make her feel more comfortable, I don’t know!”

 

“A strange way,” Lan Zhan says evenly, “to do that.”

 

“My methods are unconventional,” Wei Ying concedes.

 

Lan Zhan exhales, slow and steady and quiet. 

 

Wei Ying blames the liquor for the next line of inquiry, because that’s the only rational explanation for how quickly it stumbles out of him. “If I were, though, would you — I mean, hahaha, theoretically, would you think I was —”

 

Lan Zhan’s stare into him bores through to the very core, so unsparing that Wei Ying almost shrivels up before he finishes. But he commits, and concludes, very timidly, “Hot?”

 

Lan Zhan keeps staring at him. He looks like he might want to sigh again.

 

God, what the hell is Wei Ying doing. What is he even trying to do? He already knows Lan Zhan has some sort of attraction to him. Maybe he needs to hear it; maybe hearing it in a spoken voice will solidify that it’s real, that if things were different on his end, they really could…

 

Lan Zhan looks like he may also be questioning whatever the fuck Wei Ying is doing, but he indulges him, because he’s Lan Zhan and probably just — the best person on earth, potentially.

 

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says slowly. “I would.” 

 

Okay, so the past few weeks haven’t been a mass hallucination. Lan Zhan really does think he’s hot, straightness notwithstanding. He at least has that over the imaginary man that Lan Zhan is going to marry.

 

“Okay, cool,” Wei Ying says, in a decidedly uncool voice. “Because I just wanted to say that...if I were gay, you would be the first person I would...”

 

Lan Zhan is looking at him now like he’s been sucker-punched in the stomach.

 

Oh, god, he’s making it worse, somehow; he’d been hoping to make Lan Zhan feel better about the unrequited-crush situation with a it’s not you, it’s me spiel, because it’s really true — if Wei Ying were physically attracted to men, if things were different, he would jump Lan Zhan so fast their heads would both spin.

 

“I,” Wei Ying flounders, then scrubs a hand over the back of his neck, which is growing warmer and warmer. “I just think you’re really great. And whoever gets to have you would be really — really lucky.”

 

It’s at that moment that Lan Zhan reaches over, so quickly that Wei Ying can’t even blink, and without another word, he downs the rest of Wei Ying’s drink in one shot.

 

Wei Ying stares at him with his mouth fully open.

 

Lan Zhan turns to look at him, his gaze already a little unfocused.

 

“We’re leaving,” Lan Zhan says, with a small hiccup, then he gets to his feet without another word and unsteadily moves back into the house.

 

Wei Ying stares after him for another few speechless seconds before he mouths what the fuck to himself, and follows after him.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

So: apparently, a single slug of whatever horrible concoction Wei Ying was sipping on had been enough to get Lan Zhan absolutely plastered. Which means that a DiDi is a necessity. Huaisang evidently feels guilty enough about the Mianmian situation earlier that he calls it for them and also pays. He watches with his thin, lace-crusted arms looped anxiously over his chest as Wei Ying and Lan Zhan bundle into the backseat, then gives a little wave as they drive off.

 

Lan Zhan is fully passed out against the window, his head bobbing with the motions of the car and his mouth slightly parted. Wei Ying watches him in disbelief, even pokes him a few times, but his thoughts are complete static. He’s truly lights out. It’s kind of cute. Poor Lan Zhan can’t hang. The dear.

 

Wei Ying rests his cheek against the cold window-glass and feels himself smile, a creeping fondness collecting in his chest like lichen.

 

As they get closer to their destination, he reaches out to touch Lan Zhan’s face — just to shake him awake, but he feels his heart do something funny, a skip then a hard ba-dump. Lan Zhan’s skin is cool to the touch, unbelievably soft — he probably has some insane, vegan skincare routine. It’s the first time that Wei Ying has been able to touch him without reservation. Without the guilt of knowing what he shouldn’t know. It’s just Lan Zhan, asleep and his face tilted into Wei Ying’s hand. Wei Ying’s pulse accelerates as he continues to stare. Lan Zhan’s mouth is a little pouted, his lower lip jutting out where his cheek is pressed against Wei Ying’s hand. He looks so sweet like this, young and vulnerable and so much warmer than his usual exterior. He’s really...

 

“Your stop,” the driver tells him.

 

It takes some considerable work to wake Lan Zhan, and even more to actually get him vertical and moving. He’s nearly deadweight against Wei Ying’s side, but he stirs a little more alertly when he seems to recognize their surroundings.

 

“Yeah, I brought you all the way home,” Wei Ying teases him, then groans a little as Lan Zhan stumbles and sends them both zagging sideways along the sidewalk. “Lan Zhan, it’s no wonder you don’t drink. Look at the state of you!”

 

“Hm,” says Lan Zhan, managing even now to sound disdainful.

 

Lan Zhan can probably walk fine enough on his own, but he keeps a bear-trap grip around Wei Ying as they stumble through the building. Lan Zhan is evidently at a point drunk enough where his thoughts are unintelligible, which is sort of a relief for Wei Ying, in its own way.

 

They thump their way through Lan Zhan’s front door, and with his arm still around Wei Ying, Lan Zhan steers both of them toward the bathroom.

 

“Pretty sure you can let go of me for this part of being drunk,” Wei Ying says, then pauses in concern. “Unless you’re feeling sick?”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head. The motion-sensored lights of the bathroom automatically flicker on as they stumble in. Lan Zhan finally releases Wei Ying to peel off his jacket, his gaze fixed sightlessly on the floor.

 

Wei Ying is a little at a loss for what to do, but he thinks his role for the evening might be over. “Do you want me to go?”

 

“Do not go,” Lan Zhan says, at once so forceful that he sounds angry. He snaps his head up to glare at Wei Ying; in any other context it would be unnerving, but Wei Ying has to work to suppress the roll of laughter that works through him. He looks so grumpy.

 

“Okay, okay,” Wei Ying says appeasingly, playing along. “I won’t leave, okay? Lan Zhan, you’re such an unreasonable drunk. Just what is it you intend to do with me, hm?”

 

He doesn’t realize how suggestive the words are until they’re spoken, and his jaw snaps shut with an audible click. Lan Zhan’s eyes flash like the strike of a match, and then he’s advancing toward Wei Ying, who stumbles a step back, his pelvis colliding with the sink.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying stammers, when Lan Zhan closes in on his personal space, near enough that his body warmth pulses between them, his scent everywhere. “I —”

 

Wordlessly, Lan Zhan holds up his arm for Wei Ying’s inspection. Wei Ying blinks, and also looks at the arm.

 

“Look,” Lan Zhan says.

 

“What am I looking at?” Wei Ying says.

 

Lan Zhan observes a smudge on his skin with a rapt intensity. “Dirty.”

 

Wei Ying feels himself relax at the new focus of Lan Zhan’s attention; he gives a small huff of amusement. “It’s just some mud. If you really want to, you can wipe it off.”

 

Lan Zhan speaks slowly and with heavy gravity. “No.”

 

“No?” Wei Ying echoes.

 

Lan Zhan stumbles over to the shower and flicks it on. Then he steps inside, fully clothed, and stares at Wei Ying with the world’s most solemn expression as he gets absolutely soaked.

 

Wei Ying can’t help it; he breaks into a fit of laughter so unrelenting that he almost cries, bending over at the waist. 

 

When he resurfaces, wiping at his eye with a knuckle and laughter still petering out of him, Lan Zhan is still observing him from under the shower spray. He looks more upset than before.

 

“No, no,” Wei Ying says, his voice thrumming with laughter even as he crosses quickly over to him with soothing hand gestures. “Gege, I’m not laughing at you. I mean, I am a little. But it’s only because you’re so...”

 

Lan Zhan continues to appraise him indifferently as rivulets of shower water pour down his face, a slight, dissatisfied pinch between his brows.

 

“ — cute,” Wei Ying finishes, then breaks down into giggles again. He can’t seem to stop himself, laughter bubbling out of him in every direction. 

 

God, he really needed to laugh like this. It’s been so long since he laughed hard enough that his ribs ached around it. To think that it had been Lan Zhan who’d wrung it out of him.

 

“Lan Zhan, I need to get you drunk more often,” Wei Ying continues. “Who knew you would be so fun?”

 

Lan Zhan’s face does something indecipherable, but it looks like he’s come to some sort of decision. His arm snaps out, with far more speed and grace than such a state of inebriation should warrant, and he grabs Wei Ying’s arm, hauling him into the shower.

 

Hey!” Wei Ying yelps, then flinches as the warm spray soaks into his clothes, spilling uncomfortably down the neck of his hoodie. “Lan Zhan! You can’t just bully people into showers with you!”

 

“Dirty,” Lan Zhan repeats, and Wei Ying watches warily as he lathers his hands with shampoo.

 

“You’d better not,” Wei Ying warns him, then sighs when Lan Zhan reaches out to work two gentle hands through his dampening hair. His thoughts are completely illegible, the black-water smooth of the truly wasted.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying complains, although the shampoo smells nice, herbal and a little sweet. It smells like Lan Zhan. The suds of it are soaking into Wei Ying’s clothes, but he’s a little afraid of what Lan Zhan will do if he tries to break away.

 

“Eyes,” Lan Zhan instructs with a frown. Wei Ying closes them, careful to keep them squeezed shut as the shampoo slides over his face.

 

“You’re a madman,” Wei Ying informs him. “Lan Zhan, I have never, in my entire life, been treated like this. You’re lucky you’re so cute.”

 

“Hmph,” Lan Zhan says, but he seems very content and at peace with the situation, as though there’s nothing he’d rather do when blackout drunk than this.

 

“I’m afraid of your reaction tomorrow, when you wake up and remember all this,” Wei Ying says. He keeps his eyes closed as Lan Zhan’s skilled fingers continue to massage soap into his scalp. “You’ll be so embarrassed.”

 

“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. “Shh.”

 

“Don’t shush me!” Wei Ying says with real indignation. “Lan Zhan, you can’t yank me into a shower and then tell me to — mmf.

 

Lan Zhan has sealed one sudsy hand over Wei Ying’s mouth, the other continuing to mindlessly work through Wei Ying’s hair.

 

Unbelievable. Wei Ying licks Lan Zhan’s hand and gets a mouthful of shampoo for his trouble. Lan Zhan yanks his hand away as Wei Ying turns to the side and spits, screwing up his face at the soapy taste.

 

“I think I’m good on the shower now, really, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “These clothes are starting to get soggy and uncomfortable.”

 

With a blank-faced concentration, Lan Zhan reaches out and starts to work at the hem of his sweatshirt.

 

“Aiyo, aiyo!” Wei Ying yelps, slithering away from him. “I’m really good, thanks!!”

 

Lan Zhan frowns at him, as though Wei Ying has done something confusing or displeasing. Then he starts to shampoo his own hair, tilting his face up into the shower spray. Absolutely no one on earth should look this sexy while fully clothed in a shower and blitzed out of their mind. It’s absolutely ludicrous, Wei Ying thinks as he watches Lan Zhan shower, as if this is a thing that’s totally normal that they do now. At least there are clothes involved.

 

Wei Ying waits until he’s finished, then rinses the rest of the suds off of him, tilting his face up into the water as he does. He’s never taken a shower in which he wasn’t naked, so the sensation is incredibly odd, and his clothes weigh heavy and uncomfortable the more water they absorb.

 

Once he’s done, Wei Ying checks Lan Zhan over for any stray suds before he yanks him out of the shower. All of Lan Zhan’s downy white towels are neatly folded on the sink; Wei Ying retrieves one of them, then stands up on tiptoe to roughly scrub Lan Zhan’s hair dry. He’s hoping for that same petulant, disgruntled reaction as before, to get another laugh out of it, but Lan Zhan watches him with this strange, soft light even through the roughest of his ministrations, oddly pliant under Wei Ying’s care. That, more than anything, makes Wei Ying’s heart patter nervously in his chest.

 

“All done,” Wei Ying announces, dropping the towel over Lan Zhan’s head. “Lan Zhan, you —”

 

“Come,” Lan Zhan interrupts, and grabs Wei Ying’s wrist so tightly the bones creak.

 

“Lan Zhannn,” Wei Ying whines as he’s dragged, but he adheres to Lan Zhan’s whims, trailing after him into the bedroom.

 

The lights flick on when they step through the door, and Wei Ying blinks around to take in his surroundings. This is the one part of the apartment he hasn’t seen yet. Lan Zhan’s bed is massive and neatly made, the comforter a dazzling white with some light blue accents. Lan Zhan’s personal scent is stronger here, sandalwood and whatever other herbal products he uses. There’s a small desk in the corner, another neatly-aligned bookshelf, and a closet, but the bed takes up most of the real estate of the room. 

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, turning on his heel, “your bed could fit like four people —”

 

Lan Zhan’s already out of his shirt, his face entirely devoid of expression. Without so much as looking Wei Ying’s direction, he hooks his thumbs in his waistband and drops his pants, not before Wei Ying spins back around on his heel and stares unseeingly at the far wall, blushing so hard that his eyes smart.

 

“Warn a girl first,” Wei Ying says weakly, still staring at the wall — he hadn’t seen anything he shouldn’t, but it had come very close, there’d been a flash of pale skin and the sharp jut of Lan Zhan’s hipbones, his distinct treasure trail.

 

Wei Ying is still dripping all over Lan Zhan’s floors. His sweatshirt feels heavy, chafing and dragging against his skin, and as if reading his thoughts (ha ha), Lan Zhan drops a t-shirt and sweatpants on the bed in front of him.

 

“Oh. Thanks. Great,” Wei Ying says. “I’ll just.”

 

They’re both men here, anyway. Wei Ying’s the only one making things awkward; Lan Zhan’s too obliterated to form full sentences, let alone pay attention to Wei Ying’s physical lack of gym routine for the last three years. He quickly peeks over his shoulder to make sure Lan Zhan’s back — very muscular, sculpted back — is turned before he wriggles out of his wet clothes, leaving every stitch of it heaped on the floor. He stumbles into the sweatpants as fast as he can manage; they’re a little big on him, being Lan Zhan’s, and he has to tighten the drawstring to make sure they don’t slip. He turns just as Lan Zhan does, and for a frozen moment, they stare at each other across the room, both shirtless and silent.

 

“Thanks for the clothes!” Wei Ying says to dispel the awkwardness, and he throws on the shirt as quickly as he can. “Nice and dry.”

 

Lan Zhan nods once and goes back to whatever he’s doing in his closet. He’s still not wearing a shirt, and his sweatpants are on backwards.

 

Wei Ying is a coward. That’s the only explanation for why he would use the cover of drunkenness to coax answers out of Lan Zhan, but he can’t help himself, he has to know —

 

“I saw you talking to Su She at the party earlier,” Wei Ying says casually. “He definitely is like, completely in love with you, hahaha.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, as though the reminder of the conversation displeases him.

 

Wei Ying begins, “You know, if you liked him back, you could —” 

 

“Hate him,” Lan Zhan interrupts, completely dismissive.

 

The harsh answer shocks a laugh out of Wei Ying, as well as the sudden, giddy relief of it. “Lan Zhan! Hate is such a strong word!”

 

“Hate him,” Lan Zhan repeats, and he stares at Wei Ying with such a fixed intensity that Wei Ying’s nerves start to jitter, a warm and heavy churn in his stomach.

 

“You could always try, um, Huaisang,” Wei Ying hedges. “He thinks you’re hot.”

 

Lan Zhan shakes his head like an irritated horse batting away a fly. “No.”

 

“Or there’s, uh —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts, with such quick force that he sounds sober. “No.”

 

“No,” Wei Ying repeats, inanely. His knees feel spongy, starting to weaken.

 

Lan Zhan crosses to him slowly, just as he had before, his gaze honed on him. Wei Ying’s feet are rooted into the ground; his teeth are clenched so tight his jaw is aching. A tinny, wordless panic floods him as Lan Zhan’s approach nears, the cut lines of his body sharpening with his proximity. Wei Ying involuntarily takes a step backward, retreating again, and his back hits the wall.

 

Wei Ying had done this to himself — he’s always doing that, unwittingly backing himself into corners. Lan Zhan’s not in control of his actions right now; he could do anything he wanted to Wei Ying, and Wei Ying wouldn’t be able to —

 

His cock throbs hard in his borrowed sweatpants, momentarily so distracting that he sucks in a deep breath.

 

He’d let him, Wei Ying thinks dizzily as Lan Zhan stops in front of him, hazy gold eyes alight on Wei Ying’s face, if it was what Lan Zhan wanted, needed, he’d let him take —

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, his voice a low rasp, his gaze hypnotic like he’s — a fucking snake charmer or something, and Wei Ying’s a tiny sand boa, helpless to resist, utterly ensnared.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispers, his pulse high in his throat.

 

Lan Zhan reaches out then, as quickly as he had in the shower, and shoves Wei Ying toward the bed. It’s so unexpected that Wei Ying stumbles, falling halfway onto the mattress, nearly bent over. It splays him out inappropriately, his limbs sort of akimbo as he tries to re-balance himself.

 

“Lan Zhan?!” he says over his shoulder, a little hysterically. Lan Zhan can’t really be planning on — he can’t really mean to —

 

The lights flick off — some remote-operated situation — and then Lan Zhan is clambering into bed behind him. He twines an arm tight around Wei Ying’s middle and pulls him in close against his front.

 

“Rest,” he mumbles, then exhales through his nose.

 

Wei Ying remains stiff for another few moments, then the tension uncoils from his muscles when he realizes that this is really all Lan Zhan intends to do. It’s just cuddling. Cuddling he can handle. Cuddling is actually kind of nice. Lan Zhan is warm, and bigger than him, and his grip is tight in a way that’s grounding, not restrictive.

 

By his silence, Wei Ying had assumed Lan Zhan had passed out again, so he startles when Lan Zhan mumbles a moment later, the sound abrupt in the dark, “Wei Ying.”

 

Wei Ying swallows, and twists a little in Lan Zhan’s hold to show he’s listening. “Yeah?”

 

He feels Lan Zhan rest his forehead between his shoulder-blades, the hot-cold push-pull of his breath through his thin, borrowed shirt. It sends goosebumps prickling across his skin. Lan Zhan’s thoughts are still fuzzy radio static, but there’s a mantra that’s slowly sharpening in clarity, that pierces through to Wei Ying.

 

Tell him tell him tell him tell him tell him

 

Wei Ying’s hands tighten in their grip on the sheets; he’s suddenly terrified at the prospect of what Lan Zhan might say to him, when he’s not in control of when and how he says it.

 

“Lan Zhan —” he begins, in a futile attempt to derail.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, his voice a little muffled. He inhales deep through his nose, then exhales just as evenly. His next words are quiet but distinct, unmistakeable. “Like you.”

 

It’s nothing Wei Ying didn’t already know, and yet — it still feels like some white-hot fork of electricity through him, to hear Lan Zhan say it. 

 

A few beats of silence pass between them — far too long of a pause for a situation in which something like that is admitted, and Wei Ying is still too tense to pretend to have fallen asleep. Lan Zhan is also unmoving and quiet, still holding him tightly.

 

Finally, Wei Ying swallows, his throat dry, and he begins to speak.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he whispers. “I’m really...I don’t know what to do. I really like you. I want to spend all my time with you. I don’t want you to be with anyone else, even if that’s selfish of me. I think I might...really, actually like you like that, not just as a friend. But I don’t...I’m not…” He takes a deep breath, trying not to hyperventilate. The liquor has well worn off now, and he feels like he’s spinning out, unsure of what he’s even saying or what he means. “Can we maybe take things slow? Like, um, be with each other without the physical stuff? I just don’t know if I — what I like, but I just know that I actually, um, do like you, and I...I like that you like me, I don’t want you to like anyone else.”

 

Lan Zhan has gone very still and heavy against him, the pattern of his breathing slow against Wei Ying’s back. 

 

“Please say something,” Wei Ying says, a little unhinged from scooping out the insides of his chest for the last full trainwreck of a minute. “Lan Zhan?”

 

He peeks over his shoulder, terrified at what reaction he’ll find.

 

Lan Zhan is dead asleep, his face entirely slack and his arm still slung around Wei Ying’s waist.

 

At once, a cool wash of relief floods through Wei Ying, so visceral that it’s euphoric. 

 

Okay, so. That had been a freebie. 

 

And also the world’s shittiest practice run. He hadn’t even really — known what he wanted or felt, until he was saying it out loud, letting his mouth fit words to thoughts.

 

Wei Ying presses his burning face into the pillow and chews viciously on his lip. One thing from the evening has become glaringly clear, impossible to get around.

 

He hadn’t been talking out of his ass just now. His words may have stumbled, hesitated and circumvented, but he had meant them honestly.

 

He likes Lan Zhan.

 

Wei Ying tests the thought, lets it float experimentally for a moment just to see how it feels. I like Lan Zhan. He tries again, feeling bolder, pushing it further. I have a crush on Lan Zhan. To think it so directly feels a little weird, but not inaccurate. I want Lan Zhan to —

 

There’s the wall. He slams into it headfirst. His desire for something physical with Lan Zhan...definitely exists. That much has been made excruciatingly clear by the MarioKart incident, by the numerous wet dreams, by what had just transpired moments ago. Why is it so much harder to articulate than the other stuff? Why can’t he just admit it, let himself imagine it without shying away from it?

 

It doesn’t make any sense. 

 

Wei Ying must somehow manage to panic himself into a sleep-state, because the next thing he knows, he finds himself blinking awake into bright, whitewashed sunlight.

 

The first thing he notices, beyond the fact that it’s no longer nighttime, is that the bed is empty, the sheets next to him cold and stiff.

 

Wei Ying sits up at once and glances around the room, just to be sure, but the fact of the matter is self-evident. 

 

Lan Zhan is gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying spends the next ten minutes staring unseeingly at the ceiling. He’s not really sure what he’s expecting, by waiting around — maybe that Lan Zhan will slip back into the room, unobtrusive, freshly showered or with breakfast in hand.

 

The minutes tick by, each one a slow, cold drip over Wei Ying’s head. Every passing moment surrounded by Lan Zhan’s absence feels more unbearable, the silence of the apartment a hefty and looming weight.

 

As he appraises Lan Zhan’s dustless ceiling, an awful thought occurs to him. Maybe Lan Zhan actually had heard Wei Ying’s confession last night, and had been pretending to be asleep last night to give him an out. That’s suddenly the only characteristic explanation Wei Ying can think of, for why Lan Zhan would disappear so abruptly and without a word.

 

Maybe the confession had made him angry, or...or upset? Wei Ying racks his brain to remember exactly what he’d said, panic clawing its way up and up in his throat. He’d said he didn’t want to be physical, at least not yet, but pretty much also that he didn’t want Lan Zhan to like other people. What kind of shitty, selfish ask is that? Of course Lan Zhan would be upset. Most of Lan Zhan’s fantasies about him up until now have been very physical, because Lan Zhan actually knows who he is and what he wants from a person. Why the hell would he want to waste his time waiting around on a wreck like Wei Ying? On someone who’s still figuring his shit out, but would still be self-interested enough to request that Lan Zhan put his life on hold until he does?

 

If Wei Ying finds him, he can make things right. He can tell Lan Zhan that he’s sorry, that it had been the liquor talking, that he hadn’t meant any of it after all. Maybe then they can go back to normal — as normal as things can be in their friendship, with mutual feelings trenched between them.

 

If the apartment had seemed quiet before, it feels barren with Lan Zhan gone. Wei Ying quickly strips out of Lan Zhan’s clothes and picks up his own where they’re heaped on the floor, cold and crumpled and still damp. He folds the borrowed clothes neatly at the foot of the bed, like a good guest would.

 

And then he leaves.

 

Sometimes Lan Zhan works weekends — maybe he’s at the office logging some case work, just to distract himself? As Wei Ying heads toward the subway, he sends a couple of texts Lan Zhan’s way:

 

hey can we talk?

 

can you let me know youre ok

 

He bites his lip as he hesitates, his eyes tearing up with the cold, before he types out quickly im sorry and shoves his phone into his pocket.

 

The subway ride is quick, and, as it turns out, fruitless. When Wei Ying keys into the office, he finds it completely vacant, the lights shuddering on with his steps as he enters. 

 

For a moment, he stands there in the empty office, reveling in the strangeness of its stillness with his shoulders drooped. Then he turns and leaves there too.

 

At some point a cold, dreary rain had started up, a thin and spitting mist that toes the edge of snow. Wei Ying hunches his shoulders up by his ears and flips the hood of his sweatshirt up as he walks briskly back to the subway, his hands jammed in his pockets. He could just go home, but the concept of being in his apartment all day is suddenly too anxiety-inducing to consider. He’ll spend all of his time pacing and climbing up walls anyway.

 

Wei Ying decides, right then and there, that he’s going to sit by Lan Zhan’s door until he comes back from wherever he’d gone. Lan Zhan has to come home at some point, even if a small and unpleasant voice in Wei Ying chimes in that Lan Zhan may not want to see him. But if Lan Zhan is going to vanish and ignore Wei Ying’s texts, then that leaves camping out as the last resort. 

 

His phone dings while he waits for the subway, and Wei Ying scrambles to fish it out of his pocket, his fingers numb and stiff with damp chill. He squints down at the screen, speckled with mist.

 

He has two texts, the first from Jiang Cheng.

 

jiang cheng

you good? you didn’t come home last night

 

The other is from Lan Zhan. Wei Ying’s heart slams to a halt like it’s hit the concrete, a spike of adrenaline rocketing through him.

 

lan zhan

Come over.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Ying has experienced some truly agonizing subway rides in his time, but not one of them can touch this particular trip. Each stop seems to linger, the seconds unspooling into half-hour spans. He has no service either, so he can’t even text Lan Zhan a confirmation that he’s seen the text and he’s on his way.

 

Once he’s off the stop, he practically sprints the three blocks to Lan Zhan’s. The rain stings his face, tangling in his eyelashes, and it feels absurdly like a movie scene as he runs, because his life — this entire scenario and how it had come to be — is ridiculous. And no less awful for its ridiculousness, but it is what it is. Once he reaches the familiar building, Wei Ying ducks into the warm shelter of the lobby and makes for the elevator. Eight floors up, off the elevator, down the hall, to the right and then the left, and —

 

He gets one knock in before the door is swinging open. 

 

Lan Zhan’s appearance is startling, as it always is, immediately arresting in its handsomeness no matter the circumstance or time of day or the length of time since they’ve seen each other. His attire is somewhat incongruous; he’s dressed as though for work, a familiar dress-shirt and crisp black slacks, but his long hair is loosely braided over his shoulder, like he had been in the middle of dressing down (or up?) before Wei Ying’s arrival.

 

In spite of himself, looking at him, Wei Ying feels his pounding heart trip over a beat.

 

For a moment, they both stand there, staring at each other as though petrified into stone, Lan Zhan’s hand still on the door; Wei Ying panting and shivering through his clothes, now dampened twice over.

 

“Come in,” Lan Zhan says abruptly, then turns away from him without another word.

 

Not the most promising sign. Wei Ying feels some knot in his stomach twist into a tighter shape, but he follows after Lan Zhan. He stumbles out of his wet shoes.

 

“Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry,” Wei Ying scrambles to say, just as Lan Zhan begins, “Wei Ying, I —”

 

They both stop again to stare at each other, the door crunching shut behind them.

 

“No, me first,” Wei Ying rushes out. “Lan Zhan, everything I said last night, you can just — forget it, it was just the alcohol talking, I — I know you want something physical with someone, and I should never have asked you to even consider — when I’m figuring everything out and I’ve been all over the place, you know, and — we can just start over from scratch, okay?”

 

Lan Zhan’s face, in real time, muddles by the second as Wei Ying talks, his eyes a little wide and his brows drawing together.

 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying finishes, feeling wretched. He’s sorry for all of it, for leading Lan Zhan on and causing conflict and for taking so long to realize anything, everything.

 

“Stop apologizing,” Lan Zhan says, sounding frustrated. “Wei Ying.”

 

Wei Ying waits, twisting his wet hoodie string around and around his finger until the circulation cuts off.

 

Lan Zhan speaks slowly, with deliberate care. “I have no memory of last night. Of anything that was said or done. I asked you to come so I could apologize.”

 

All of Wei Ying’s breath leaves him in one dizzy rush. He feels himself sag, pressing his shoulders back against the front door. 

 

Oh, so — Lan Zhan hadn’t heard any of it. He really hadn’t...when he’d seen Lan Zhan missing, Wei Ying had assumed that...

 

“I woke up and,” Wei Ying says, in a shrunken voice. He hates how small he sounds. “You were gone, I thought that you were upset —”

 

“I went for a walk. To clear my head.” Lan Zhan’s jaw works, and he speaks the next words with clear difficulty. “When I woke this morning...I knew something had...that I had...”

 

Wei Ying pictures the scene Lan Zhan must have woken up to, piecing things together in reverse. Wei Ying in his arms, Wei Ying in his clothes.

 

Lan Zhan swallows hard. He keeps his gaze lowered, not meeting Wei Ying’s eyes. “Taken advantage.”

 

“What,” Wei Ying croaks. “No, that’s not. Lan Zhan, nothing happened.”

 

Lan Zhan does meet his eyes then, a little warily, like he thinks Wei Ying might be lying to him.

 

“I mean it,” Wei Ying insists, shaking a hand in front of him. “Nothing happened. I mean, you got into the shower with all of your clothes on, but other than that we just — went to sleep, pretty much.”

 

“Pretty much,” Lan Zhan repeats, like he senses there’s more Wei Ying isn’t saying.

 

“Nothing physical happened,” Wei Ying clarifies. “Really, I promise. I wouldn’t lie to you about this.”

 

Just about other things. Wei Ying bites down on his lip against the sudden surge of guilt he feels. All of Lan Zhan’s secrets are still just a hand-brush away, all of his thoughts available for Wei Ying’s perusal.

 

Lan Zhan stares at him for another wordless moment.

 

“I returned this morning,” Lan Zhan says in a low voice. “And you were gone. I assumed that…”

 

“No!” Wei Ying interjects. “Lan Zhan, I left to find you, I — I thought you might be at the office. I thought you were mad at me.

 

The furrow between Lan Zhan’s brow deepens. “Why would I be.”

 

“Because I —” Wei Ying says, and the sentence stops dead. Because any lesser person would be, with what Wei Ying has put him through recently. Any lesser person would be, when Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan’s feelings and would still request exclusivity without physicality. 

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. It sounds like a plea. “Whatever you said last night, I didn’t…”

 

“It wasn’t even important,” Wei Ying says with a stilted laugh. “We can just forget about —”

 

Lan Zhan takes a step closer to him, so quick that Wei Ying stumbles back and hits the door.

 

“Tell me everything I said,” Lan Zhan says in a low voice. “Please.”

 

Ah. Fuck. Shit. Wei Ying had really been hoping to avoid this. But it’s not like he can lie to Lan Zhan, right? Not about this. He deserves to know the details of a conversation he can’t remember.

 

Wei Ying breathes out slowly, steeling himself. “You didn’t say much, really, haha, um. It was just that when you were falling asleep, you said that you, maybe…that you...”

 

Lan Zhan’s eyes sear into his, a burn that stakes each of Wei Ying’s limbs into place.

 

“Liked me,” Wei Ying finishes, each word tailing up into its own question. His voice is almost a whisper, nearly inaudible. 

 

Lan Zhan’s face hardly shifts at the words, other than the tightening of his mouth. His eyes close in what looks like resignation, or defeat.

 

“But I mean, you were blackout drunk, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quickly, scrambling to fill in defenses that will make this okay, that will make Lan Zhan feel better. “Everyone says things they don’t mean when they’re —”

 

“I meant it,” says Lan Zhan. The three words are as clear as the cut of a knife.

 

Wei Ying is rapidly losing his foothold. He has no fucking clue how to approach this conversation sober. He’s known, for weeks now, that Lan Zhan likes him this way, so it should be a relief that it’s finally dragged into the open between them, but instead all he can feel is a wriggling, slow-mounting dread. He doesn’t want to lose Lan Zhan, he can’t lose him now —

 

“Lan Zhan,” is all Wei Ying can think to say. It comes out weak, a little strangled.

 

“I understand the nature of our relationship may change,” Lan Zhan says stiffly. His gaze is focused somewhere beyond Wei Ying, beyond his shoulder. Like he’s shutting down degree by degree. “But you deserve the truth if we continue to spend time together.”

 

At once, Wei Ying feels awful down to his marrow, like he can feel it leaking out of his pores. Here Lan Zhan is, baring his most vulnerable secrets and talking about truth, when Wei Ying is the liar of the two of them.

 

“I don’t deserve it,” Wei Ying whispers. 

 

The response seems to take Lan Zhan off-guard. He blinks at Wei Ying twice, his frown deepening into something perplexed.

 

Wei Ying rubs at his arm, unable to look Lan Zhan in the eye. He speaks quietly, unevenly. “Lan Zhan, you’re really the best. You deserve someone who can…”

 

Lan Zhan gives an impatient shake of his head. “Don’t want anyone else.”

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out. His heart races, races, races.

 

Lan Zhan moves toward him again, closer — more cautious, like he’s stepping out onto a trembling bridge. For once, Wei Ying doesn’t retreat; he holds his ground, letting Lan Zhan into his space even as his knees threaten to cave.

 

Wei Ying exhales, and the next words pour out of him in a rush, before he even knows what he’s saying.

 

“I can’t live up.” He swallows hard. “To whatever version of me you have in your head.”

 

Lan Zhan pauses at this, visibly digesting the words, before he says, slowly, “You are you.”

 

Wei Ying laughs once, clipped and humorless. “That’s kind of the problem, Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Zhan frowns again, clearly not understanding.

 

Wei Ying shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut. “I’ll let you down. I’ve already hurt you enough just by hanging around you. I’m just…”

 

It’s like the words are dragged from him. He doesn’t want to be saying it, doesn’t want to say anything that might make Lan Zhan like him less, that might reveal the truth about him, because he’s selfish. The version of himself that Lan Zhan sees...Wei Ying has greedily allowed himself to profit off of it, has allowed it to self-perpetuate as his own feelings developed. But honesty is the very least of what Lan Zhan deserves — all of it, thorny and ugly and bared.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says softly. His hand reaches out, and before Wei Ying can flinch away, he’s touching Wei Ying’s shoulder —

 

A memory settles over Wei Ying like a dropped shroud, a time-faded burst of color. After a couple of disorienting seconds, he realizes he can actually place the scene: an early autumn afternoon within their first few weeks at university. He and Lan Zhan had just barely met. They were certainly nowhere near friends; Lan Zhan had been well on his way to hating him, at that point, and with good reason. By that time, Wei Ying had picked up tormenting Lan Zhan as a fun sport, as a barometer for reactivity.

 

Wei Ying can remember this day exactly because it had been so beautiful outside and he’d finally had a day free of coursework. He had found Lan Zhan, the shiny new target of his attention span, meditating on a patch of green on campus. Prettier than anything in nature. 

 

Seeing it through Lan Zhan’s eyes is different. Wei Ying watches his own mischievous smile flickering like the bounce of a flashlight beam as he chatters at an obnoxious cadence. The late afternoon sun spills over both of them in a goldenrod burst. It lights Wei Ying from behind, fracturing over his head. He’s leaning into Lan Zhan’s space in the grass, his delight at being allowed near evident all over his conniving little face. His eyes are bright with warmth as he teases Lan Zhan, smiling with all of his teeth — has he always looked at Lan Zhan that way, Wei Ying wonders? Has it always been so obvious to everyone but him?

 

Through Lan Zhan’s eyes, Wei Ying sees himself warm and effusive and spilling over with joy, lit with sun.

 

Oh, Lan Zhan had thought then, with the sensation like the drop from a cliff, he’s beautiful —

 

Wei Ying snaps back to the present, the back of his head nearly colliding with the door as he gasps. Lan Zhan is watching him closely, so closely that Wei Ying can nearly see himself reflected in the wide dark of his pupils.

 

If I could kiss him, Lan Zhan is thinking now, the ache of it a plucked chord. If he would let me

 

The stormwall that Wei Ying had carefully constructed, brick by brick — it crumbles entirely, slides down and crashes into the sea. All that’s left in its wake is a wanting that’s startling in force. 

 

He doesn’t want to imagine it, he doesn’t want to live it through Lan Zhan’s imagination, he wants —

 

“Do it,” Wei Ying hears himself say. “Lan Zhan, please, just...”

 

Lan Zhan’s eyes, flickering over Wei Ying’s features, widen by a sliver. He falters a tiny step, a little shift of weight like he’s been unbalanced.

 

His voice, when it comes, is low, uneven. “Do not tease.”

 

“I’m not,” Wei Ying says. His heart is thundering in his chest. “I wouldn’t. Lan Zhan, please, I — I’m asking you to — would you —”

 

Lan Zhan is suddenly in his space again, closer than before, pressing against every line of him, pushing him back against the door with a loud thud. Wei Ying’s body goes liquid into it, his thoughts emptying out into a pleasant hum. He suddenly feels quiet at being pinned in place, like Lan Zhan won’t let him slip away from himself, like he’s vapor held fast between two immovable objects —

 

Lan Zhan kisses him. Finally, finally. Wei Ying makes a sound into it, whiny and embarrassing. Lan Zhan’s mouth is warm, lush as fruit, begging to be bitten. Lan Zhan is kissing him. Wei Ying lets his mouth part under Lan Zhan’s on instinct, pushing back into the kiss. For once, everything has gone silent in his head, immersed in how Lan Zhan feels; the sweet, sticky sound of their mouths catching and releasing; the firm, solid warmth of him, his familiar scent.

 

The quiet peels back, Lan Zhan’s voice flooding in: Adore adore adore him

 

The intrusion of Lan Zhan’s voice, his thoughts, hits Wei Ying like a douse of cold water. 

 

He shouldn’t know this. Any of this. He never should have known — invading Lan Zhan’s privacy is the only reason he’s here at all, being kissed by the boy he likes. 

 

Before Wei Ying knows what he’s doing, he’s shoving Lan Zhan away, panicked at the thought of hearing anything else he shouldn’t. The thump of his hands against Lan Zhan’s chest is audible.

 

“Don’t touch me,” he says, quick and shrill and awful.

 

Lan Zhan stumbles two steps back; not because Wei Ying is particularly strong, but because he’s been disarmed. 

 

The silence after rings out like a slap, like something cruel. Lan Zhan stares at him with his mouth still parted and kiss-red, his expression as stunned and hurt as if Wei Ying had struck him. Wei Ying has gone frozen with horror, his hands suspended.

 

Lan Zhan takes another wide step back, putting more distance between them as his familiar guard slides up. His face smoothes over.

 

“Wait,” Wei Ying says weakly. He’s still breathing hard, his head spinning from the kiss. “L-Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean.”

 

Lan Zhan presses out a wrinkle in his shirt, dispassionate. Wei Ying can see that his hands are shaking.

 

“I understand,” Lan Zhan says quietly. He won’t look at Wei Ying.

 

“No, it’s just that I,” Wei Ying says. “I can’t.”

 

“Because you are straight,” Lan Zhan replies in an empty tone of voice. Still not looking at him.

 

“What?” Wei Ying protests. “No.” That revelation had been so yesterday evening. “No, it’s just that —”

 

“You don’t like me that way,” Lan Zhan finishes, with a curt nod, and — when the hell did Lan Zhan get in the habit of interrupting?

 

“No!” Wei Ying repeats, louder, feeling wilder by the second. “That’s not it at all, I just —” He rakes an agitated hand through his wet hair. “You — you wouldn’t want this, if you knew what I —”

 

He can hear the unraveling in his own voice, and he must look the part equally, because concern starts to creep into Lan Zhan’s expression, melting the mask of frost that had formed.

 

“Wei Ying,” he says, more gently. “Slow down. Explain.”

 

“I can’t,” Wei Ying whispers, his hands clenched tight by his sides. He can feel his shoulders are trembling. “I can’t —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan repeats. He steps toward him as if to touch him again. Wei Ying flinches, and Lan Zhan’s hand stills and retreats, and that’s enough to propel Wei Ying into finally talking.

 

“God, I’m going to sound insane,” Wei Ying says, burying his face in his hands. “You’re going to think I’m certifiably insane, but I swear I’m telling you the truth, okay?” He swallows and steadies himself, trying to line the words up correctly in his head. “Okay, there’s this — stupid urban legend that if you’re a thirty-year-old man, and you haven’t, ah — you’ve never...had sex with someone, then you…” He struggles. “Then you…”

 

“Are cursed,” Lan Zhan finishes, nodding along with Wei Ying.

 

“What the fuck,” Wei Ying says. Apparently everyone knows this is a thing. Whatever. “Yes, that. So of course I thought it was a bunch of bullshit, but then I woke up after I turned 30, the morning after my birthday party, and I could — I found out I could —”

 

There’s naked worry in Lan Zhan’s face now, like he thinks Wei Ying’s been hurt. God, if only. An injury would be so much easier.

 

“I can hear people’s thoughts,” Wei Ying says miserably. “When I touch them. I’ve been trying to keep my distance from you so I could — so I wouldn’t intrude on your privacy, but it got really hard to stay away, but I can’t, like, in good conscience do this with you if you don’t know, when I’ve been so dishonest with you, when the only reason I…”

 

Lan Zhan is just...staring at him. A little disbelievingly, like he thinks Wei Ying may be pulling some elaborate prank. But Wei Ying’s despair must seem genuine enough, because he sobers after another moment, fathomless as he watches Wei Ying.

 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying whispers, hunching his shoulders. “I never meant to — to know anything you thought about me, but then when I found out you didn’t hate me like I thought, I actually started to like you, and then I just wanted to hang out with you and be your friend, but — but then yesterday I realized that I don’t want to be friends, I want to be…”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts. He sounds unsteady. He sounds panicked, for Lan Zhan. “Do not say anything you do not mean. Please.” He inhales. The sound is tremulous. “I can’t…”

 

“I’m not messing with you,” Wei Ying scrambles to say; he practically lunges forward as he speaks, he’s so emphatic. He feels like he might start crying, which would be humiliating, but the words pour out of him before he can stop it. “I like you; I really, really like you, I think I might —”

 

Lan Zhan is in his space again so quickly that Wei Ying’s vision blurs, and he finds himself being crowded against the door and kissed again, Lan Zhan’s hands cupping his face. Wei Ying’s eyes flutter shut as he makes a tiny, hurt sound into Lan Zhan’s mouth, surrendering to the force of it — yes, this is what he needed, this is what he’d been missing before —

 

He’s been all over the place, he’s yanked them both around this way and that, but suddenly, with Lan Zhan before him — Lan Zhan, here, after he’d thought he lost him — Wei Ying has never been more certain of anything. His surety, the clear-cut shape it takes inside him, is startling, new. It hooks into him with teeth, it settles in for a long stay. Yes, Wei Ying thinks, this is it, it’s him, it’s him. He’s been waiting long months and months, years to become this person, to become someone who wants and is wanted. He’s taken his time, the scenic route and its detours, but he’s finally arrived at his destination; he’s stepped out into the sun, into this light of who he’s supposed to be. Loving Lan Zhan had brought him all this way.

 

When Lan Zhan finally pulls away, they’re both breathing loudly. Wei Ying is panting like a spent racehorse. 

 

Lan Zhan’s hand slides further up his cheek as he looks in his eyes and thinks, a little tentatively, Wei Ying. 

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispers, and Lan Zhan’s eyes widen.

 

You can really hear me?

 

Wei Ying nods.

 

Lan Zhan goes quiet even in his head, his thoughts an indecipherable hum. Then he thinks, more clearly, You have heard all of it?

 

“Only when we touched,” Wei Ying says quietly. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. I never meant for it to go this far, and I understand if you don’t —”

 

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice, spoken aloud now, is sudden. His eyes are dark, intent. “Do you want this?”

 

Wei Ying’s mouth hangs open, then snaps shut. Opens again.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “Fuck, I really do. But I totally understand if you —”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t let him finish. Wei Ying claws frantically at Lan Zhan’s shoulders under the force of the next kiss, the nice fabric of Lan Zhan’s shirt bunching under his fingertips.

 

I adore you, Lan Zhan’s voice rings out in his head, the words as clear as the peal of a bell, and Wei Ying sucks in a breath, almost choking — he’s never been addressed like this directly, never been spoken to like this, never —

 

Wei Ying, I adore you, Lan Zhan thinks to him, louder and surer, even as his mouth is otherwise occupied, prying open Wei Ying’s with his tongue.

 

Wei Ying slides his hands up the nape of Lan Zhan’s neck, overwhelmed. He feels like he might break down in tears, which would be. Absolutely mortifying.

 

Then, like the flip of a switch, Lan Zhan is dragging him by the front of his hoodie, bullying Wei Ying through the open door of his bedroom. Wei Ying stumbles a few times as he’s pulled, unwilling to disconnect their mouths even with the sideways jagging of their steps. They keep going blindly until the back of Lan Zhan’s knees hit the mattress and he’s sinking to the edge of the bed, tugging Wei Ying so that he straddles his lap.

 

Wei Ying has never been on a lap before. Not as an adult — or if he has, it’s been in jest and probably not while sober. A shiver works through him at how it feels, inarticulate. It makes him feel small. Held. He’s on Lan Zhan’s lap and kissing him with better leverage now, his knees sunken into the bed on either side of Lan Zhan’s thighs, Lan Zhan’s large hands anchored on his hips. 

 

It’s so good that he loses time. When Wei Ying has made out with people in the past, with women, he’s always at least semi-aware of the artifice of it, the objective awkwardness of it — conscious of the movement of his mouth and his hands and his breathing and the taste of the other person’s spit. Top lip, then bottom lip, then top lip again. Making out, up until this point, has always been something generally enjoyable but entirely mechanical.

 

There’s nothing about making out with Lan Zhan that’s governed, or controlled. His body is like its own animal, his greedy hands roaming with a will of their own, his tongue halfway into Lan Zhan’s mouth before he can think it through. The sounds bitten out of him are equally involuntary. He suddenly needs him everywhere, rapacious and impatient, his mouth insufficient to cover the surface area he wants. He can hear the background hum of Lan Zhan’s thoughts, desire and sensation mirrored back at him, through him.

 

When Wei Ying finally pulls back for air, he’s breathing so hard that he’s lightheaded. One of Lan Zhan’s ungentlemanly hands is cupped on his ass, his teeth to Wei Ying’s neck. Fuck.

 

“What you said before,” Lan Zhan murmurs, low against his throat. Wei Ying’s breath is shallow, so loud, almost whistling as he gasps for breath.

 

“What I said when I,” Wei Ying says unintelligibly. “What?”

 

“About the curse,” Lan Zhan says, then pulls back to survey him closely. “You have this magic because you…”

 

“Yes, I’m a virgin,” Wei Ying says, pelting out the words quickly in his embarrassment. He glares at Lan Zhan’s shoulder so he won’t have to look him in the eye, and squares his jaw. Then he shuts his eyes. “I know given how irresistible and sexy I am that this must come as a shock. But yes, I have never felt the tender touch of a woman, or whatever, you can make fun of me for it if you want.”

 

The expected teasing never comes. Wei Ying cracks an eye open to peek a look at Lan Zhan’s face. Lan Zhan is watching him silently, and there’s a strange light to his features. His eyes are very dark. Wolfish. 

 

“You have never...” Lan Zhan says, his voice three shades huskier than before.

 

“Yes! That has been! So firmly established by now!” Wei Ying wriggles on Lan Zhan’s lap as if he can curl up and away from view. He feels excruciatingly self-conscious to have his inexperience suddenly under a spotlight. “I mean, okay, fine, I tried, a girl gave me a handjob once and it was fine — like, technique-wise — it was just that I didn’t…” He trails off, his face suddenly too hot.

 

Lan Zhan nods slowly, as though contemplative. “You did not finish.”

 

Wei Ying makes an undignified sound, scandalized. “Lan Zhan! You can’t — you can’t say it like that.”

 

“Why not?” Lan Zhan asks. The question could be directed at any number of things, so Wei Ying takes a guess at which one he thinks Lan Zhan means.

 

“I wasn’t really sure if I was — if I was able to,” Wei Ying says. He can’t believe he’s having this conversation with Lan Zhan. Regardless of the events of the last fifteen minutes. “With...another person.”

 

Lan Zhan nods thoughtfully again. “I see.” Then he reaches out, with one hand, to grind the heel of his palm against the bulge in Wei Ying’s jeans, straining against the crotch of his jeans zipper.

 

Wei Ying makes a high-pitched sound and squirms again, even as his hips rock up into the pressure, seeking friction.

 

“Mean,” he whines. “Lan Zhan, you’re so —”

 

You like mean, Lan Zhan observes, his voice suddenly everywhere in Wei Ying’s head, and Wei Ying truly feels something melt and give way in his brain, a crack of heat that splits through him, white-hot. Okay, so it had taken Lan Zhan approximately three seconds to start using this newfound ability for evil.

 

“I don’t,” he protests, even as he hardens further against the circular rhythm of Lan Zhan’s hand. He hears himself whine, some wounded animal sound. Everything below the waist feels alarmingly sticky; he wonders for a slightly unhinged moment if Lan Zhan can feel the wetness of him even through two layers, through denim and cotton. He takes another fleeting second to reflect on whether it’s possible to die from sexual humiliation, and then another to conclude that if so, it’s probably one of the better ways to go, all things considered.

 

Lan Zhan is watching him like he wants to eat him alive — through his lashes, the ring of color in his eyes thinned to black. His lips are slightly parted. Wei Ying watches him back, his own mouth open around his panting, his face so warm that he can feel his pulse in his cheeks.

 

Fuck, he could get off like this. From almost nothing at all, from sitting fully clothed on Lan Zhan’s lap and rubbing against his hand. The realization of it is a little unmooring; in a split second, Wei Ying realizes he’s not the person he thought he was at all, impotent and tense and awkward in bed. He is a thing that wants, that runs hot, that comes easy under the right touch.

 

He could come like this, Lan Zhan observes at the same time, and Wei Ying says “hnnghhh” or something else to the same effect and tries to still the mindless motion of his hips.

 

“You’re,” Wei Ying tries to stammer out. “I’m not, I don’t usually —” 

 

Lan Zhan lifts him by the back of the thighs — effortlessly, it should be noted — and Wei Ying makes another unintelligible sound as he clings tight with his elbows and knees. Lan Zhan moves to deposit him on the bed, and Wei Ying bounces once at the rough landing before he’s pinned down again, his hands pressed above his head into the mattress and Lan Zhan’s mouth under his jaw. His head goes floaty and pleasant again, just from being held down like this. Sounds smooth out, even as his own ragged breathing fills his ears. 

 

Then Lan Zhan is working at the hem of his damp hoodie, and they struggle together to peel it off, the world going briefly dark as it’s yanked over Wei Ying’s head. Then it’s gone, thrown somewhere else in the room, and Lan Zhan’s mouth is back, kissing down the column of his neck to his chest.

 

“Yes,” Wei Ying hears himself saying, “yes, yes, yeah, yes —”

 

Yes, yes, Lan Zhan’s thinking, nearly just as mindless, I want him everywhere 

 

Wei Ying needs his pants off, now. The pressure of the fabric has gone from restrictive to downright painful, and he wriggles his hips against Lan Zhan to let him know what he wants. Lan Zhan doesn’t hesitate; he pops the button with a twist of his knuckle, then hooks his thumbs into both waistbands to yank Wei Ying’s jeans and boxers down his thighs. Wei Ying makes a small nghhh sound in his throat again as his cock bobs against his belly, already fully hard. Lan Zhan slows his motions, lets his gaze hover, runs a thumb through the smear of precome that glistens around his navel.

 

So wet, just from this, Lan Zhan muses. The color in his eyes has gone dark, nearly red at the corners.

 

Wei Ying makes a hitched, embarrassed sound and covers his blazing face with his hands. “Lan Zhan.

 

“How do you want it, Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan murmurs. His breath ghosts over Wei Ying’s cock as Wei Ying’s face burns and burns — Lan Zhan’s mouth is so close, he really shouldn’t —

 

Lan Zhan presses a kiss to his belly, just above the head of his dick; a tease, not quite touching him where he’s aching for it. Wei Ying’s cock jerks, a blurt of precome that Lan Zhan laps up with his tongue.

 

The temperature of Wei Ying’s face could rival the surface of the sun’s. He practically squeaks. “Lan Zhan, don’t, you can’t —

 

“Can’t what?” Lan Zhan says in a low voice, then dips lower to tongue the head of his cock, the barest kitten-lick. Wei Ying’s back arches, his fingers frantically clawing into the sheets as he moans.

 

Tell me what you want, Lan Zhan says in his head.

 

Wei Ying wants everything, anything, but he’s gasping too hard to put any request into words. The thought of asking for it, begging for that, kills his voice in his throat. It’s too much, too much, he can’t—

 

Lan Zhan pinches his bare hip, a small sting of pain that recenters his focus. Wei Ying jolts and yelps, hardening further against Lan Zhan’s lips.

 

“You,” he wheezes, a little incredulous. He never expected Lan Zhan could be like this, who could have known Lan Zhan would be like this? “I can’t —”

 

Tell me, Lan Zhan says, in a voice that cannot be refused, and along Wei Ying’s cock, he drags his tongue from root to tip.

 

“Ffffffuck,” Wei Ying babbles as hips tilt up again, chasing Lan Zhan’s mouth, “your hands, your fingers, your mouth, please, anything, I don’t care, just — Lan Zhan —

 

Anything? Lan Zhan asks, and all at once, a barrage of images crashes through Wei Ying’s head — Wei Ying on his knees, deep-throating Lan Zhan’s cock with tears in his eyes; Lan Zhan’s tongue licking open the deepest parts of him, messy and wet, while Wei Ying buries his face in his forearms and falls apart with loud keens; Wei Ying tied to a bedpost and blindfolded, and then —

 

Before Wei Ying can even catch his breath, Lan Zhan’s moving away, his large hands gripping Wei Ying’s hips to flip him over onto his knees. Wei Ying lets himself be guided into a new placement, a little dazed, a little anxious, so hard that the pain of it has narrowed into a pointed throb. He’s hobbled by the rain-damp jeans still halfway down his thighs, unable to spread his knees for balance, which leaves him face-first in the mattress, his head whirling.

 

There’s something especially vulnerable about this position, where he can’t see Lan Zhan or anything he’s doing, but then Lan Zhan touches him again and suddenly, Wei Ying can see himself through Lan Zhan’s eyes. He watches as well as feels it when Lan Zhan grips one of his cheeks and squeezes it, massages the muscle of it in his palm.

 

Perfect, Lan Zhan thinks, and Wei Ying hides his face in the sheets and smarts with heat, with his own embarrassment and the breathless, unfamiliar burn of this kind of desire.

 

Lan Zhan strips off Wei Ying’s pants and underwear the rest of the way, rolling them down the back of his thighs until they’re gone. Wei Ying lets himself be shifted this way and that, obediently following Lan Zhan’s lead even as a sudden uncertainty hollows out at the center of him, a drop in his stomach.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice embarrassingly small.

 

I’m here, Lan Zhan thinks immediately, and brushes a kiss against the arch of his shoulder, and just like that, the knot of fear in his chest loosens. Lan Zhan wouldn’t hurt him, not in any real way, not in a way he doesn’t want.

 

“Is this okay?” Lan Zhan asks aloud, clearly sensing Wei Ying’s trepidation.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispers, shifting so that he sinks deeper into his hip flexors, an unfamiliar stretch. “Just — nervous.”

 

“I will make it good,” Lan Zhan promises, the gentleness in his voice so at odds with his curt commands just a moment ago. Wei Ying shifts, breathes deep into his belly; he feels so exposed like this, the cool air of the room brushing against the deepest parts of himself. He’s never been naked like this in front of another person, let alone in such a position, waiting for — for — 

 

Sounds are heightened when he’s unable to see Lan Zhan — there’s the crinkle of a packet in Lan Zhan’s hands, his own cock dripping onto the sheets with an audible tap, tap, tap like rain on a sill. They haven’t even done anything yet.

 

Wei Ying starts a little when Lan Zhan’s hand cups his backside again. Wei Ying tries to tune into his thoughts, but they’re incoherent flashes of images now, an underwater-sort of distant. Wei Ying jerks harder and makes an unintelligible noise when the pad of Lan Zhan’s finger, wet with an unknown substance, circles his entrance. The sensation is as strange as it is electrifying. Wei Ying has fingered himself before on rare occasions when he’d been feeling adventurous, but the oddity of watching himself through Lan Zhan’s eyes while the actual sensation courses through him produces an odd sense of vertigo.

 

Tight, Lan Zhan notes. Assured, nearly clinical. But not enough that he can’t take me. He will be easy for it.

 

Wei Ying splutters in indignation — the degradation of it all, of the implication that he’s, he’s — that he’s like some slut for this, or something —

 

“Lan Zhan,” he whines, petulant even as his cock hardens with a sharp throb.

 

“Do I lie,” Lan Zhan returns in a low voice.

 

With surprising confidence, Lan Zhan works the first finger inside him, up to the top knuckle. Wei Ying tenses, clenching down around it as Lan Zhan slides it in and out, spreading the wetness inside him. 

 

It feels — weird. Uncomfortable, a little arousing, but mostly just weird.

 

“L-Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying tries. He can feel he’s red from his forehead to his chest. “Are you — are you sure that’s really right?”

 

Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything in response. His thoughts have become some horny tangle that Wei Ying can’t unpick, intensifying when Lan Zhan works a second finger inside him. The stretch is suddenly a little terrifying, too much at once in its foreignness. 

 

Wei Ying squirms around the intrusion, his breaths hitching and deepening. “Lan Zhan, I’m not sure that you — it feels a little —”

 

Then Lan Zhan crooks his fingers and Wei Ying comes, just like that, all over himself and the sheets. 

 

It takes a handful of hazy, faraway seconds to realize what’s happened. His mind is still floaty and blank even in the moments after, dandelion-soft. 

 

Lan Zhan freezes behind him, the fingers inside Wei Ying going still.

 

“Did you just,” Lan Zhan says, then reaches around him to get his other hand on Wei Ying’s cock, which is rapidly softening between his legs. Wei Ying bats his hand away, mortification stinging through him from his head to his toes, so overpowering he can’t even speak. He buries his hot face into the sheets, still panting and reeling.

 

“I —” Wei Ying says nonsensically, too dazed to defend himself. “I didn’t —”

 

Lan Zhan leans forward, his fingers still buried inside Wei Ying up to the second knuckle, to bite kisses along the column of Wei Ying’s spine, along his shoulders and the nape of his neck. 

 

As he rearranges his cognitive abilities, it takes a couple additional moments of these touches for Wei Ying to realize Lan Zhan’s silence is too resolute, while he’s touching him skin-to-skin like this. That all of a sudden, he can’t —

 

Wei Ying jolts up in a panic, the back of his head almost crashing into Lan Zhan. “Lan Zhan — my magic, it’s —”

 

Gone. It’s gone. That orgasm must have counted, by the magic’s standards, as lost virginity. 

 

How is he supposed to know what Lan Zhan’s thinking now? What if he doesn’t — what if he changes his mind, and Wei Ying will have no way of knowing —

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan shushes him. “With or without magic, I will stay.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Ying chokes out. “I — okay.”

 

Lan Zhan hesitates, then his fingers slip out of him completely. Wei Ying almost whines at the loss, wriggling his hips — it feels weirder without them now, too empty.

 

“Is this still something you want?” Lan Zhan asks him, and Wei Ying twists, presses his cheek into the mattress to look at him sideways. Lan Zhan is still fully dressed, his clothes rumpled and his cheeks and ears flushed. He’s so gorgeous that Wei Ying’s breath catches in his throat. It should feel stranger than it does, that Wei Ying is sprawled out beneath him totally naked, having just come all over himself, but it’s — it’s not, somehow.

 

“Without the magic,” Lan Zhan clarifies, watching Wei Ying’s face closely.

 

Wei Ying nods. He’s sure about this, at least. “You’ll just have to — to talk me through it. Okay, gege?”

 

Lan Zhan visibly softens at the pet name.

 

Then his fingers slide inside Wei Ying again, the texture of them different from having already been inside him for so long. That’s — embarrassing. It’s all systems go now, though; Wei Ying exhales as Lan Zhan opens him up, his head ducked against his forearms. He breathes through the strangeness and the occasional discomfort, and the unexpected spikes of pleasure that make him seize up, still twitchy with oversensitivity.

 

After a few more minutes, Wei Ying hears a rustle of fabric, the metallic shing of Lan Zhan’s zipper splaying open, although Lan Zhan’s fingers remain inside him. He peeks a look through the gap under his arm. Lan Zhan’s seen all of the most private parts of him now, so it’s only fair that Wei Ying can finally see what his dick looks like, after years of secret wondering, after having felt the shape of it through his pants.

 

Lan Zhan’s apparently not wearing any underwear, which — he knew it, but part of Wei Ying fizzles out anyway, at the hotness of that. But when Lan Zhan reaches into his pants and pulls out his cock, all other thoughts fly out of his head.

 

Wei Ying had always known he would be big — simply something about Lan Zhan’s energy had lent him that idea — but he hadn’t expected. 

 

Well. 

 

Monstrous. 

 

“Fuck,” Wei Ying hears himself say, and Lan Zhan locks eyes with him, his mouth parting slightly.

 

Wei Ying feels a semi-hysterical laugh bubbling up in his throat, mostly because. What the fuck. “Are you sure that’s going to — uh. Fit?”

 

“It will fit,” Lan Zhan replies, the confidence in his voice so assured that Wei Ying’s dick gives a responding twitch.

 

“That’s going to break me,” Wei Ying says, blood thumping in his face. He doesn’t miss the way Lan Zhan’s eyes flash at this, and — oh. “Lan Zhan, have you ever considered doing porn?”

 

He sees Lan Zhan’s mouth twitch, but Wei Ying’s focus hasn’t wavered from his cock. The way Lan Zhan absently strokes himself with a large hand, from the base all the way to the flushed head. Wei Ying’s mouth waters; he wants to get his mouth on it. The thought of sucking dick has always seemed vaguely repulsive to him, in the abstract way in which all sex was, but with Lan Zhan, it’s...different. Presented with the real prospect, Wei Ying’s stance wavers. It definitely won’t taste great, but it would probably feel good if Lan Zhan just — used him that way, fucked his mouth open until he couldn’t breathe or swallow, until he was gagging around it —

 

“No,” Lan Zhan says in answer to his question.

 

“Well, you should consider it,” Wei Ying says. He’s babbling now to distract himself. Maybe he could offer to suck Lan Zhan’s cock to distract him from wanting to put it inside him. It would probably work, even. “You’d make a killing at it. Not all of us are so naturally endowed, hahaha —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, a line forming between his eyebrows. “Breathe.”

 

He should do that, shouldn’t he. Wei Ying takes a deep breath, lets it settle into his lungs and each of his limbs. This will only hurt more if he doesn’t relax. Regardless of the inevitable pain, he does still want it. It surprises him, how much he wants it. 

 

Lan Zhan’s hand rests on his bare hip, and Wei Ying flinches a bit, squeezes his eyes shut and bites his lip.

 

“If you ever need me to stop,” Lan Zhan says. “Say so.”

 

Wei Ying nods twice in quick succession, and holds his breath.

 

Lan Zhan knee-walks forward on the mattress. His large hand slides further up Wei Ying’s thigh, tugging him backward along the sheets with ease, like Wei Ying is putty in his hands. Shit. Maybe he is, maybe he really is. Lan Zhan could snap him in half without even trying.

 

There’s the rustling sound of Lan Zhan adjusting, and then Lan Zhan taps the head of his cock to Wei Ying’s hole. Wei Ying full-body jerks at the sensation with a wheezy sound. He can hear Lan Zhan’s breathing has staggered, can feel his gaze on him like a paperweight, a smooth and rounded pressure pinning him in place. Lan Zhan’s hand finds his hip, big enough to splay over the entire width of it. Then he pushes in.

 

It hurts. It would hurt in any scenario, but Lan Zhan’s size makes it impossible that it wouldn’t. Wei Ying had never imagined in his life, ever, that he would be taken by a man this way, and the reality of it, of a cock inside him, is suddenly as surreal as the fact that Lan Zhan is the owner of it. Wei Ying pants into the hollow of his arms as Lan Zhan sinks into him in painfully slow increments. His fingers clench and unclench in the sheets around the onslaught of sensation; the slide is still a little too dry in spite of the lube, and Wei Ying clenches his teeth around it. He feels completely split open, speared straight through to his spine.

 

Lan Zhan pauses when Wei Ying’s breath goes shallow, too high and loud in his throat. He runs a soothing hand up Wei Ying’s side, tracing along his hip and outer thigh.

 

“Is it in yet?” Wei Ying asks. He barely recognizes his own voice. It’s reedy, nasal, a little hysterical.

 

“Halfway,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying whines, shudders in disbelief. That’s half? How can he possibly be expected to take more? 

 

“Should I pull out?” Lan Zhan asks, oh-so-kindly despite the strained note in his voice, and Wei Ying gives a quick, emphatic shake of his head. As much as he can’t imagine taking the rest of it, the idea of being suddenly empty is somehow far worse. Besides, Wei Ying’s no fucking quitter.

 

“I’m good,” he says, keeping his tone as light as he can. “You can keep going.”

 

Lan Zhan hesitates. His breathing cadence has shifted, steepened from before. So it’s not just Wei Ying — he’s having an effect on Lan Zhan, after all. Wei Ying suddenly wishes he could see him, the red tips of his ears and the expressions he’d make, maybe the way his mouth would fall open and his eyes would scrunch shut with his pleasure. He wants to watch Lan Zhan come undone in front of him, because of him.

 

Next time, Wei Ying thinks, with a rush of conviction. They have time to try everything, in all of the ways.

 

Lan Zhan shifts, inching in deeper — he has so much restraint, taking him so slowly when surely the feeling of being inside him is maddening.

 

“You can,” Wei Ying mumbles, feeling magnanimous and grandly sympathetic. “Take what you need from me, Lan Zhan, you don’t have to hold back, I can take it — take you —”

 

Wei Ying clenches as he speaks, so tight that Lan Zhan makes a muffled, moaned sound. Then he slides the rest of the way in, and Wei Ying knows it’s the end of it because he can feel, with an absurd shock of heat, the scratchy fabric of his bunched slacks against the backs of his thighs.

 

There. He’d done it, he’d taken all of it. Wei Ying is at once crisply aware of every sensation in his body, each vying for his attention; the sweat quickly cooling in the dip of his back, the twinge of his hips and thighs stretched in this unfamiliar position, the arch of his bowed spine aching. Lan Zhan, pressed against every nerve ending inside of him, a push-pull of pleasure-pain. There’s something indescribably heady about his body’s ability to open for Lan Zhan this way, like maybe he was made for this, made for him —

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, an uneven hitch in his voice. He sounds discomposed for the first time, halfway to wrecked. A tremor works through them both, and Wei Ying can’t tell if it’s his own muscles shaking at the strain of holding his position, or if it’s Lan Zhan trembling against him.

 

Wei Ying reaches back, blindly fumbling, to squeeze Lan Zhan’s thigh, to say I’m good, to anchor himself. Lan Zhan wraps one hand around Wei Ying’s and squeezes, the other still fitted along the crease between his hipbone and upper thigh.

 

Lan Zhan keeps their hands joined as he rocks forward, a shallow grind. It hurts until it doesn’t, until the pain smoothes out into a sensation that’s sparky and molten, a heavy simmer in the deepest parts of him. Different from the pleasure of when he’d come on Lan Zhan’s fingers, or from when he touches himself. Wei Ying realizes, somewhat distantly, that at some point during this he’s gotten hard again, a pointed ache between his legs.

 

Okay, Wei Ying thinks, this isn’t so bad. It’s starting to feel good, even —

 

And then Lan Zhan starts to properly fuck him. Those first few minutes, Wei Ying now understands, had been experimental, gentle, considerately letting Wei Ying get adjusted to the feeling of him. At the first real thrust, Wei Ying’s mind whites out, empties itself. And then it just — doesn’t stop, this inescapable fullness. It’s sort of like the drop off a roller coaster, the zero-to-hundred sensation, and all he can do is ride it all the way through, until the end —

 

Somewhere through the daze of incoherence, he realizes, not quite in full words, that he enjoys it. He likes being used this way, to feel good at doing it, to feel wanted and desired and claimed. The physical pain of it is secondary to that deep-space sensation. 

 

“Harder,” he hears himself say, even as he wheezes for breath, even as his limbs shake and shake. “L-Lan Zhan, more, please, harder —”

 

Lan Zhan seals one hand to the back of his neck and pushes so that Wei Ying’s face is pressed tight into the sheets. It makes it nearly impossible to breathe, his windpipe sealing tight. His thoughts space again at the sensation, rolling away from him like marbles on glass. His breaths rattle, through the mindlessness of pleasure like this, as Lan Zhan heeds his request. Wei Ying can hear the noises he’s making, the harsh wheeze of his breathing whistling through his teeth, his mouth open around his gasps; he can feel spit trailing down his cheek, but he’s too far gone to close his mouth, too gone to do anything except take what he’s given, to try to process sensation. He’s got his fingers bunched in the sheets, a mindless flexing and loosening.

 

This would usually be an exchange where Wei Ying talks, where he teases and taunts and shoots his mouth off to fill space, but it’s like his motor functions have frazzled straight through. He can't utter a single thing, other than some of the inhuman noises he's making. Lan Zhan is still mostly silent, other than his own frayed breathing and the rhythmic smack of his hips against the back of Wei Ying’s thighs. Too quiet, quiet for the first time in days, Wei Ying needs to...

 

It takes him a few attempts to form words. They come out slurred, a little mangled.

 

“L-Lh — Lan Zha’,” he tries, and Lan Zhan slows his pace, maybe concerned that Wei Ying’s hurt. “Can you — t-tell me? What you, you’re thinking?”

 

He butchers the question, but Lan Zhan seems to understand his intent, his pace picking up again with a sharp drive of his hips.

 

“I’m thinking,” Lan Zhan huffs, each breath punctuated by another thrust, “that Wei Ying is as good as I imagined.” He grinds his cock deeper into him, the deepest thrust yet. Stars pop in Wei Ying’s vision, and he cries out, wordless and wild. “That you’re beautiful.” Lan Zhan leans across Wei Ying’s back, the angle pressing different and strange inside him, to bite the back of Wei Ying’s neck. “That you’re mine.”

 

Wei Ying’s second orgasm hits with the next thrust; he shakes silently through it, open-mouthed around a soundless cry, tears from oversensitivity spilling from the corners of his eyes as Lan Zhan fucks him through it. He can feel Lan Zhan when follows him just seconds later with a grunt, gripping Wei Ying’s hips tight enough to bruise as a burst of wet heat pulses inside him.

 

For a moment, they breathe together, Lan Zhan slowly going half-soft inside him — Wei Ying can feel he’s still coming, just a little bit — Wei Ying trembling so hard that it feels like his bones are rattling. They're suspended, shaking. 

 

And then Lan Zhan slides out of him. Wei Ying makes a sound of protest, squirming at the sudden hollowness, at the uncomfortable trickle of wet that seeps out of him. It trails down his perineum and the insides of his thighs. Lan Zhan’s thumb spreads him open, as though surveying his handiwork, and Wei Ying’s too hazy to react with the appropriate shame that he should, that he usually would. Lan Zhan can do whatever he wants to him, so long as Wei Ying can float in this pool of white-edged silence, each of his thoughts blissfully quiet and distant for the first time he can remember.

 

Wei Ying stays quiet as Lan Zhan lies down to pull him tight against his chest, showering kisses along his sweat-damp hair and the back of his neck and his ears. The material of Lan Zhan’s work-clothes is kind of scratchy against Wei Ying’s flushed skin. Every sensation feels heightened, in this state,  but it’s soothing, anchoring to be held so tightly, to be kissed and coddled and caressed with such care. He feels wine-drunk, or like a cat stretched out in the sun. 

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says after another breathless moment. His voice is low, a little choked. “Thank you.”

 

This finally prompts Wei Ying to move, to muster up the last dregs of his energy. He twists in Lan Zhan’s arms so that they’re level with each other, so that Wei Ying can finally see his face. He’s still flushed, aglow, his eyes bright like he’s been illuminated from within. Lan Zhan’s eyes skim over his features in turn, flickering to take in each detail.

 

“Was it as good as your fantasies?” Wei Ying asks, a little apprehensive. He thinks he knows the answer, but the performance pressure had been high, after all.

 

“Better,” Lan Zhan assures him, and kisses him between the eyebrows. “Far better.”

 

Wei Ying nods once in satisfaction, smug to have that over his imaginary self, and burrows deeper into Lan Zhan’s chest with a sigh. Lan Zhan’s heart is still thrumming quickly, rabbiting against his cheek.

 

“Here, can you,” Wei Ying mumbles. His words are all soupy. “Can you take this off?” Between his finger and thumb, he twists one of the small resin buttons digging into his cheek.

 

Lan Zhan makes an assenting sound in his throat before he sits up and slides out of his shirt, then he kicks off his pants the rest of the way. He lies back down again, and they’re skin to skin for the first time, Lan Zhan’s hand stroking along Wei Ying’s back with an intimacy that feels so oddly familiar already. Wei Ying drowses into it as he catches his breath, endorphins still singing through him.

 

“I can finally touch you without feeling guilty about it,” Wei Ying admits a moment later. He presses his cheek against Lan Zhan’s chest. He feels strangely shy in a way he’s never experienced before.

 

“Guilty?” Lan Zhan asks.

 

“The magic,” Wei Ying says. “It felt wrong to know what you were thinking all the time, especially when it was...I tried to not intrude where I could.” He pauses to think for a moment, although he keeps getting distracted by the lull of Lan Zhan’s fingers along his skin, a soothing rhythm. “You took that really well, by the way. The whole mind-reading thing, I mean. Most people would have called me a nutcase and kicked me out the door.”

 

“You would not lie,” Lan Zhan says simply. “And stranger things have happened.”

 

Given their choice in career, that’s a true statement.

 

“Still,” Wei Ying says. “Are you sure, you’re...okay about all of it? I know it’s a lot to take in.”

 

“I have nothing to hide from you,” Lan Zhan replies. He hesitates, then continues, more haltingly, “I am not skilled with words, on subjects like this. Perhaps it was fortunate.”

 

Wei Ying keeps his face hidden in Lan Zhan’s chest, his voice muffled. “Would you have ever told me?”

 

Lan Zhan pauses again, then admits, “I don’t know.”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Wei Ying hurries to say. “The hypotheticals of what would have happened. I’m just really glad it did.”

 

“Mn,” Lan Zhan murmurs, then presses his lips to the top of Wei Ying’s head. Wei Ying closes his eyes, drifting again for a moment. He can already feel a deep soreness settling in, both in unspeakable places and in muscles he didn’t know he had.

 

“You’ll have to carry me around tomorrow, gege,” he says, sniffing for dramatic effect. “I won’t be able to walk.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, in a tone that demonstrates zero penitence.

 

Wei Ying thinks hard for another moment, Lan Zhan’s chest rising and falling beneath him. It’s difficult to herd coherent thoughts when all he wants to do is sleep, but the belated shock of the last hour’s events is still primary. His first time. His first...everything, really. He’d always expected that losing his virginity would be perfunctory, an uncomfortable but necessary rite of passage. He had certainly never imagined, at least consciously, losing it to Lan Zhan. To have enjoyed it so much comes as something of a small shock. It’s becoming more and more evident that he might be a person who actually enjoys sex. All of its inherent discomforts and intimacies and messiness.

 

“I can’t believe we really did that,” Wei Ying murmurs, and Lan Zhan tenses ever so slightly, so he’s quick to add, “I’m happy we did. It’s just — I never would have thought.”

 

“Nor I,” Lan Zhan says softly.

 

“I have plenty of evidence to the contrary on that one,” Wei Ying teases him.

 

Lan Zhan huffs into his hair but gives a small shake of his head. “But I — I never thought you would really…that we could…”

 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying murmurs. “For putting you through hell over this. For taking so long.”

 

“No apologies,” Lan Zhan says softly, and strokes a hand through his drying hair. “I did not mind the wait. It meant knowing you more.”

 

Wei Ying turns his face into Lan Zhan’s chest and stays buried there for a couple moments.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles, when he’s halfway recovered. “I really like you too much. I can’t believe it took thinking you wanted to fuck Su She for me to come around.”

 

Lan Zhan makes a dark, revolted sound in his throat. “I do not want to owe him anything.”

 

“Fine,” Wei Ying concedes with a laugh. “I liked you earlier than that, okay? I’ve always really actually liked you, you know. Even when we were supposed to hate each other.”

 

“I never hated you,” Lan Zhan protests.

 

Wei Ying taps his nose in admonishment, a gentle bop. “Not true. Remember that day you found out I was messing around with alternate cultivation? God, I thought you were going to wring my neck. I literally saw my life flash before my eyes.”

 

“I worried for you,” Lan Zhan says, and a breath presses slowly out of him, a heavy sound. “You weren’t eating or sleeping. I could see the toll it was taking. I did not know how to voice it, then.”

 

Wei Ying blinks, then says blankly, “Oh.”

 

“I never hated you,” Lan Zhan repeats, quieter than before.

 

Wei Ying goes quiet for another moment, digesting this, before he says, “So if we both never really hated each other, I guess that means we’ve both always...kind of liked each other? Actually?”

 

Lan Zhan’s silence speaks volumes. It feels a little long-suffering.

 

Wei Ying reflects on this for another moment, turning through some of their earlier days with this new perspective. It also means that...more recently...

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs, distracted by the memory. “That time when you, ah. When you.” How can he possibly still blush, after everything they just did to each other? His skin feels like a lit stovetop. “When you thought about gagging me, and tying me up.”

 

“Which time,” Lan Zhan says, completely serious.

 

“The — you —” Wei Ying mouth flops open, then shut as he flusters more by the second. “The time in the — in the break room, the day after my birthday, when I was on your nerves and you —”

 

“Hmmm,” Lan Zhan says in a comprehending tone, as though pulling that mental file from the archives.

 

“At the time, I freaked out,” Wei Ying admits. “I didn’t really know what it meant. But now that I...that we’ve…” He swallows. Just say it, Wei Ying, you idiot, just say it. “I think I…”

 

He goes quiet, struggling with how to voice this foreign thing, this new shape of want. 

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan prompts, a low murmur. He sounds intrigued.

 

“I think I might like it,” Wei Ying says finally, unable to look Lan Zhan in the eye. “If we tried that. I think it would...be good.”

 

There. He’d said it. His skin is so warm. He feels like he’s just confessed to something he doesn’t know the full gravity of.

 

Lan Zhan shifts against him, pulling Wei Ying tighter to his chest.

 

“Then we will try it,” Lan Zhan says. 

 

We. We will try it. We will. Wei Ying turns over the implicit comfort of the words, that built-in structure of promise. 

 

“I’d like that,” Wei Ying says, relaxing at Lan Zhan’s assurance. “I think. I don’t know.”

 

“Neither of us have to know,” Lan Zhan says reasonably. “We have time.”

 

Time. Yeah, they do. There’s the promise of so much time with Lan Zhan, now. The thought fills Wei Ying with a bubbly, soda-water feeling, buoyant and exhilarating. 

 

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and shifts with a wince. God, he’s sore everywhere. And he could really use a cleanup. But he’s too tired to even lift a finger; he can only move his mouth and mumble out nonsense. “I hope you know that I’m not going to leave you alone now. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, and the sound is strangely choked. He pauses a moment, then says, softer, “Good.”

 

“Good,” Wei Ying murmurs. He’s listing toward a nap, or maybe some deeper sleep, and then he’s slipping.

 

His last words are a whisper. “It’s really good.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

 

So. Some notable things have changed. 

 

Wei Ying is two months past thirty. He’s no longer a virgin, at least fifteen (and a half) times over. 

 

He’s also no longer a heterosexual. Both status changes had developed surprisingly quickly, but he’s not complaining about either of them.

 

Nor the other one. 

 

Which is the fact that he has a boyfriend.

 

A boyfriend who’s extremely evil and unexpectedly misbehaved, who has him against an alcove wall — in their place of business — that’s not nearly as hidden as it should be for what he’s doing to Wei Ying. They’ve already been threatened with a restraining order by Jiang Cheng for such acts of public indecency. Huaisang would probably just gloat, even more than he’s already been doing. Mianmian might send a fruit basket.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says breathlessly, as Lan Zhan lightly sucks a linear trail of hickies down his collarbone, just beneath his shirt. “Lan Zhaaan.”

 

Lan Zhan pulls back, his ears flushed and his mouth dark, and waits.

 

Wei Ying flutters a look at him from under his eyelashes. “Lan Zhan. Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”

 

The question has become sort of an ongoing joke between them, one that Lan Zhan usually indulges unless he’s feeling especially mean. As miserable as the magic had often made him, Wei Ying does miss it, sometimes — hearing what Lan Zhan’s thinking under the mask. But he enjoys the challenge of having to guess at Lan Zhan’s silences now, which he’s getting better and better at decrypting.

 

“Why does Wei Ying ask what he already knows?” Lan Zhan wonders.

 

Wei Ying’s eyes widen in mock affront. “I don’t know anything at all. I’ve never had a single thought, in fact.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says. He leans in again, his large hand sliding into Wei Ying’s back pocket to reel him in closer, then answers Wei Ying’s question, low in his ear. “Like you.”

 

It’s his bedroom voice. Unquestionably. Wei Ying’s toes curl in his shoes, blood rushing helplessly to his face.

 

“That’s,” he says faintly. Lan Zhan brushes his lips over the frantically pounding pulse on Wei Ying’s neck, the barest kiss. “Th-that’s cheating.”

 

Lan Zhan tracks his reaction with thinly veiled amusement, eyeing his blush. “You already knew.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s different when you say it out loud, ” Wei Ying whines, and claps a feeble hand to Lan Zhan’s chest. “Lan Zhan, I’m feeling very faint all of a sudden. Would you catch me if I swooned right here?”

 

Lan Zhan’s hand tightens in Wei Ying’s back pocket, a firm squeeze as he trails his mouth up Wei Ying’s neck. “Like you,” he murmurs, then with a nip to his jaw, repeats, “Like you.”

 

Just from the two words, Wei Ying feels a giddy bolt of satisfaction. He’s been had several times by now, in several and continuously evolving ways, but, like. Lan Zhan has a crush on him. The rush of it hasn’t worn off yet, to like someone so much and be liked back.

 

“And what is Wei Ying thinking?” Lan Zhan asks. His eyes are strangely soft, honeyed. Under the full brunt of that gaze, Wei Ying has to wonder, again, how he’d missed it, all of those times before. Lan Zhan has never been as loud as this.

 

“You know what I think of you,” Wei Ying teases, and tiptoes into Lan Zhan’s space so he can hook his arms around his neck. “Are you so insatiable that you’ll make me say it out loud, er-gege?”

 

Lan Zhan catches him around the waist, his voice dropping to a hum. “Mn.”

 

Wei Ying could fill a book with what he thinks of Lan Zhan. Several books. Maybe one day, he will. For now, it’s enough just to tell him. 

 

Wei Ying opens his mouth, and he begins.