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𝄞 con moto

The thing with playing a completely different instrument to someone else is that it's difficult to compare who's better.

The thing about being Chinese is that this doesn't stop anyone from comparing anyway.

Wei Ying plays the flute, which is the least acceptable of the western classical instruments that are still socially acceptable. Let no one say to Yu Ziyuan's face that she doesn't do right by him. 

Jiang Cheng plays the violin, which is tied with the piano as the most acceptable.

Wei Ying is a child prodigy, which no one apart from his teacher knows because no one's paying for him to take the exams and he practises in the pool house, because Yu Ziyuan doesn't want to deal with the shrill squeaking of an out-of-tune flute in the house every day. 

Jiang Cheng is not a child prodigy, which unfortunately everyone does know, because Yu Ziyuan keeps trying to push him to get through his grades quicker, finish his exams, complete another recital, audition for another orchestra, join another string ensemble. His teacher gets fired, and so does the one after that, and the one after that, because none of them can make Jiang Cheng learn quicker than he already is. He finishes his Grade 8 at the very respectable age of 13 and gets his diploma at 15, which will be good enough to get him into music college, but is also basically a disappointment. 

Wei Ying takes flute lessons largely because it's convenient to drop him and Jiang Cheng off for activities at the same time. They're in the school orchestra together, until the school orchestra is deemed not good enough and they both audition for county, and then state, and then national, and Wei Ying always announces his results after Jiang Cheng finds out his. It's very coincidental that their results are always the same.

(Yu Ziyuan has never said thank you to his face, but sometimes she looks at him, and he knows she knows, and she knows that he knows that she knows. It's all right, because the only people it's okay to not say thank you to are family, and that means Wei Ying is part of the family.)

Jiang Cheng doesn't realise anything is amiss until he's like, 14. Part of it is that he's drowning under his own pressure, trying to feign an emotional and musical maturity that he just doesn't have yet for this fucking diploma. Part of it is that he has no idea what good flute sounds like. Does anyone?

But they're at this recital, when it happens. Technically they're not even at the same recital, it's just that it's the time of year for recitals so they're both at their respective recitals on the same day at the youth music centre. Jiang Yanli (piano, only reached grade 7 before she had a health scare and her hands have never been steady enough to play since; not considered the family disappointment only by virtue of being academically good enough to have skipped a school year) has planned out the day so that she and Jiang Fengmian can come watch all of their performances. 

(Yu Ziyuan is too busy doing actual work to come watch these, but that won't stop her from criticising the performances played off shaky phone cameras later.)

Wei Ying's solo category performance is up first, because there are only six flautists competing; Jiang Cheng's solo performance is later, because there are always about twenty violinists competing on a good day. Wei Ying has two duet pieces up with two different partners before lunch and then is done for the day, while Jiang Cheng's got a duet and string quartet that straggle into the afternoon. Jiang Yanli has become very good at sidling into the back of concert rooms unnoticed halfway through a competition stage through the years. (Jiang Fengmian is less good at it, but he tries.)

The audience at this sort of thing tends to be parents, siblings and music teachers. Well, realistically just parents and music teachers. The siblings might be physically there but they're rarely mentally there. 

So it's fairly unusual that there's this little old Chinese lady (approximate age anything between 55 and 102, in that way of little old Chinese ladies) who comes in accompanied by no one, and sits in the middle of the front row, right behind the judges. Sometimes it looks like she drifts off to sleep when she folds her arms and closes her eyes, which she does halfway through Wei Ying's first solo, but then she'll wrinkle her nose at a passage and it looks like she's just concentrating really hard. 

She watches his solo, and she's there when he leaves, and she's still there once he gets back from listening to Jiang Cheng's solo, and then she stays all the way up until the duets are done. 

Wei Ying is by himself at this point, because Jiang Fengmian and Yanli have stayed in the violin hall to see Jiang Cheng's results, but he's here to hear his. This thing where their recitals are at the same time, and they only come to watch him perform is really quite convenient, because it usually means that they're not physically here when the judges announce his first place, which means that he can gloss over it later. 

"You, kid," says the little old lady, pausing at the end of his row of seats. 

Wei Ying points at himself. In hindsight, unnecessary because it's a pretty big room and there's only a grand total of twenty-two people in here and none of them are sitting near him.  

"Yes, you. Who's your teacher?"

Wei Ying points up to near the front, where his teacher is sitting. His teacher teaches five out of the six students in this group, which has always felt a little bit like stacked odds for her winning at these recitals. 

The little old lady marches up to his teacher. They have some sort of conversation that Wei Ying is too far away to eavesdrop on. He stares at them unsubtly instead, so he knows that they look over at him every so often. He waves at them. 

"Where are your adults?" asks the little old lady when she's done conferring with his teacher and comes back to him.

"Uh," says Wei Ying. Like, technically he's fifteen, he doesn't really need adults around, but also he's supposed to stay here? He glances back at the judges.

"You're going to get first place," she says impatiently.

"I mean, I know," says Wei Ying awkwardly, because he's got first six years in a row already. "But I should still stick around to pick up the prize."

"They'll give it to your teacher if you're not here. Show me to your adult," she says, and Wei Ying has been taught to never say no to little old Chinese ladies, so he shows her down the hallway to the room where the violin recitals are being held. He checks the programme on the door and it looks like they're not even halfway through the performances. Jiang Cheng probably won't be on for another half hour. He ducks in when the current performance is done and grabs Jiang Fengmian.

Recitals are generally a really good place to get homework done. Everyone talks in vaguely hushed tones as if normal human chatter will shatter the illusion of class that classical music brings, and no one really cares about what everyone else is playing, unless they're playing the same piece. Wei Ying usually takes the time to polish off his math (portable, requires no computer or research) and then his Chinese writing practice. Except he has a feeling that he's not going to manage to get any of that done today.

Jiang Fengmian and the little old lady shuffle into a corner of the corridor to do the same thing as his teacher earlier, where they're clearly having a conversation about him, but he's not actually invited in to the conversation so he's standing far enough away that he can't hear them, but he can still see them and the way they look at him occasionally. It's incredibly annoying.

He ends up near the door for the room to the piano recitals, where it sounds like they're also still going through the solos. Wei Ying knows very little about pianos apart from every so often when he's told to practise with an accompanist, so mostly he ignores it apart from as background music as he tries in vain to lipread from too far away. Except then the door to the Jiang Cheng's violin recital opens and out walks Lan Zhan, who walks across the corridor to the piano recital hall.

Wei Ying has never actually spoken to Lan Zhan, but he's like a mini-celebrity in the Chinese circles so he knows all about him. Not least from Jiang Cheng, who gripes about how he's won first place in all of his recitals forever and he's obviously way too good to be slumming it with the rest of them when he's also off winning international competitions but he's still there competing, every time. He also knows that Lan Zhan plays both violin and piano, which is the Most Acceptable form of being Chinese, because Jiang Cheng also complains that he's too good at both, no one's allowed to be so good at multiple instruments.

On top of that, Lan Zhan's uncle is in the same social circle as Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, which means that he also hears occasional snippets about how Lan Zhan has won a poetry writing competition recently, or been invited to join Mensa, or is already testing out of college level classes, because Chinese people have a love-hate relationship with comparing everyone's kids and gossiping about them. It almost makes Wei Ying glad he doesn't have his own parents to participate in this.

Anyway, the point is that Lan Zhan must be doing the same thing where he's simultaneously competing in his violin and piano recitals on the same day, and shuttling between the two rooms depending on which performance is next. Wei Ying steps away from the door to let him through, and tries not to look like he's lurking in the corridor for no reason.

The little window through the door is large enough that Wei Ying can see Lan Zhan getting ready, which means that he's really cut it close between his two performances if he's due to play next on the piano. 

Wei Ying had always assumed that Jiang Cheng was exaggerating. Like, everyone around their age playing an instrument at roughly the same level is like... roughly the same level, right? That's the point of competitions sorted by grades, even if it does top out so everyone after Grade 8 is competing together. (Wei Ying's teacher just enters him for whichever grade she thinks is appropriate each year even though he doesn't take the exams because otherwise he would forever be stuck in the beginner's one, and they let her do that because she's one of only three flute teachers in the district.)

But then Lan Zhan starts playing and he is on some whole other level shit. Wei Ying knows nothing about piano music, and he's hearing it muffled through the door, and it doesn't even register to begin with because it's simple and sort of melancholy and at least Wei Ying recognises it as Mendelssohn, but then it slips into this musical complexity that Wei Ying can't even begin to fathom with his little nickel flute that only produces one note at a time. He turns around and presses his face to the window as if that will help him hear better. It's not flashy, but it's good. So good. 

Wei Ying watches him, a figure on the stage almost entirely still aside from his arms. 

He doesn't get to do it for long, because Jiang Fengmian approaches him soon after, when Lan Zhan is still playing, and tells him that he has a new flute teacher, and also to ask if he's interested in performing professionally, and also to let him know that apparently the little old lady is the now-retired Baoshan Sanren, former legendary flute soloist, what the fuck. 

 

(He goes on the youth music centre website, about a week later when he's finally got a moment to breathe between the hundred changes that are happening in his life, and finds out that Lan Zhan had won first place in all his piano recital entries. And all his violin entries. There's also a congratulations in his little bio where it says that this will be his last youth competition because he's going on an international tour soon.

Well, thinks Wei Ying, at least Jiang Cheng might get third next time.)

𝄁

 

-


Lan Zhan was a serious looking child who became a serious looking teenager who became a serious looking adult. He got his first suit at the age of five, which was odd in two ways. Firstly, it was tailored. Secondly, the seam allowances were enormous. That suit, tailored and retailored, and retailored, fit him until he was seven, by which point he owned three suits.

The tailoring helped his playing, was what he told people when asked; was what he had been told when he had asked. The tailoring made sure that his arms weren't restrained, that the shoulders of his suit didn't lift and bunch.

The fact that he was five and owned a suit that he wore on a semi-regular basis was not considered odd. That was when he debuted. He doesn't remember it, but there's a grainy video online of it. He does remember being eight and watching it back, and telling himself sternly that he had terrible musicality at the age of five, as if he was somehow disappointed in his tiny, former self.

The serious expression helped, though. Other kids always looked uncomfortable in their (off-the-rack) suits. Lan Zhan looked like a child prodigy.

He hadn't even looked too out of place when at twelve, his brother had asked if he wanted to join his string quartet when their second violinist left, even though he was the youngest by far. That hadn't lasted; he was good enough at the violin playing even if it wasn't his preferred instrument, but the other three of them, Lan Xichen, Nie Mingjue, Jin Guangyao, seemed to communicate with each other on a wavelength that Lan Zhan could never reach, no matter how hard he listened.

"Remember to smile when they take your picture," his brother used to say before hugging him and sending him onto the stage when the results were announced. He stopped saying that a fair few years back, when he was no longer able to attend each of Lan Zhan's competitions, his quartet travelling nationally and internationally to perform.

Lan Zhan has an excellent memory, but when he flips through the pictures of all his wins, gathered into a scrapbook, he doesn't see himself smiling in any of them. The scrapbook lives in his father's study, but he knows that it's his uncle who maintains it, keeps it updated with each win, each newspaper article, each magazine feature.

He's not sure his father has ever actually looked at it.

His father passes away just after he finishes recording his first album. It's a selection of Bach; revolutionary in his interpretation if not his choice of pieces and therefore attractive to classical music purists but accessible for the casual listener. His uncle's idea.

His father didn't have the chance to hear the full album when it's finished, but he must have heard bits of it, over and over. The piano room is next to his study, and Lan Zhan practices at least four hours a day. Lan Zhan hopes that he enjoyed what he heard.

"He liked Bach," says Lan Qiren, when the delivery from the record label arrives with the first CDs, covered in their crinkly shrink wrap, two days after the funeral.

Lan Zhan understands that this is the closest thing he is going to get to an acknowledgement from his father.

He smooths his fingers across the plastic so that the glare from the light disappears, to look at his name on the front. There's no photo of him, because they didn't want it to age terribly, so the piano is framed with the silhouette of his head instead.

"How do you feel about Rachmaninov?" He asks his uncle.

 

 

-

It's humid when Wei Ying gets home. He hasn't called this place home for so long, has barely been back for Chinese New Years or Christmasses or birthdays since he left for Europe. 

Jiang Cheng meets him at the airport, not to pick him up but because his flight lands in at around the same time. They greet each other with half-smiles, a pat on the back, the weary smile of two people who jumped on the first flights they could and haven't slept properly all night.

"You look awful," Wei Ying says, half a second behind Jiang Cheng who says the same thing. That makes the half-smile split into a proper one for just a moment.

They head towards the meeting point, where Jiang Yanli is waiting for them. She smiles, real enough amidst her grief, and gives them both a proper hug. Her husband is waiting for them at the pick-up spot, pretending not to hear the airport attendants who keep trying to send him into the paid parking area. They've both packed light – Wei Ying is used to a life on the road anyway, he's been touring for almost ten years at this point - and they head back to the Jiang family house.

Wei Ying was the first to leave, but realistically none of them have lived here for years. He'd taken off – or more realistically, been packed off – to Europe once it became clear that he had a music career ahead of him if he wanted one. Jiang Cheng had gone a more normal route – a partial scholarship into Berklee, endless auditions, bouncing around various orchestras for a few years before landing a gig in the National Symphony Orchestra, the disappointment of being perpetually second violin tempered by the prestige of the NSO. And Jiang Yanli the most normal of them all - a degree in music education, and then her teacher qualification, a job at a very nice private school, a husband and a child. 

 The house is smaller than Wei Ying remembers, or perhaps he's just bigger now. The stirrings of nostalgia, both sweet and bitter, cling to the air like musty perfume.

The entire funeral affair is like this. 

People float in and out of Wei Ying's periphery, people he recognises from his childhood older and slightly different now, like two photos overlaid. They murmur their condolences, light some incense, go to pay their respects. Wei Ying is both family and not family – he stands there next to Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli as they talk to aunties, uncles, family friends. Wei Ying nods and bows if he's spoken to, and is always the first to help sort something out if it takes him from the affair; he finds himself in the back with the caterers, talking to the funeral home, to the police when they follow up after the accident, to the insurance people. 

He stays for a whole month, longer than he's been since he left. He'd been coming up to the end of his tour anyway, so it made sense to cancel the last three dates and rearrange, and then he'd planned to take a break for a bit. He's tired even though he doesn't do anything, he's like a hollow shell of himself. He's sad, he thinks. Probably. At least a little bit. And some other stuff. It's complicated, he decides. 

He takes his flute and goes to the pool house – long since converted into extra storage – and practises until his throat muscles give out. Stupid. He knows he shouldn't. He literally makes a living off his throat. He hasn't done that in a while. And when he turns around, he sees Jiang Cheng leaning in the doorway, watching him. Listening to him. 

Jiang Cheng's never come to see Wei Ying perform – always busy, always studying or on his own performances or auditioning or travelling. But they both know that it's also because Jiang Cheng can't bear to see him perform. It's better for their relationship if they don't have to constantly acknowledge how much better than him Wei Ying is. 

They stare at each other blankly for a moment. 

"Yeah," says Jiang Cheng eventually. "I get that." 

Jiang Cheng sits down next to him, his back against Wei Ying's so that they don't have to actually look at each other. Wei Ying cries, he thinks. 

It's better, after that. Sort of. Weird, but better. They're still not talking about it, which is very Chinese, and they're fighting more, which is also very Chinese, but it's only about the small things that don't matter. 

𝄁

 

-

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying isn't expecting to see him here. Not in Paris, France, seven timezones away from where they grew up. He isn't even sure it's him at first, just the glimpse of a black-haired man from the back, but then he'd turned, and he'd recognise that brow profile anywhere. Even when he hasn't seen him in a few years.

"Good evening. Can I help you?" Lan Zhan turns to look at him, a neutral expression pasted on his face.

Wei Ying switches to English. "Oh! I guess you don't know me, even though I know you." He pauses. "Wait, you must get that a lot from fans, and - uh, actually I'm Jiang Cheng's brother. Foster brother. Erm. You used to play the violin? He competed against you at competitions a lot. Uh. Your uncle was friends with our – their parents? Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan?"

Wei Ying has run out of tenuous familial links to fall back on. 

"I remember you," says Lan Zhan, switching again to Chinese. "You played the... flute."

"Oh, wow. Yeah, that's me." Wei Ying jabs vaguely at the building in front of them: Conservatoire de Paris. "I still play, actually."

"I am also headed there," says Lan Zhan. 

They fall into step together, and Wei Ying laughs when they walk past a little noticeboard with a flyer prominently displaying Lan Zhan's face. Lan Zhan determinedly is not looking at it when Wei Ying looks sideways at him. His French is still awful, but he can guesstimate enough of the writing on it. "You're holding a class? Oh wait. A summer guest lecture series? Oh, very nice. I wish I could sit in on that."

"Do you also play the piano?"

"Not even a little bit," says Wei Ying cheerfully. "But I'm sure you'd have a lot of thoughts on musicality that would be relevant regardless."

"Oh," says Lan Zhan. He seems to be searching for something else to say. "I believe it is oversubscribed," he says finally. 

"As it should be," says Wei Ying, and does not tell him that he has all of Lan Zhan's albums downloaded onto his phone, listened to over and over when he's on a train, a plane, waiting for a taxi, has followed his career since he overheard half a Mendelssohn when they were fifteen.

They both reach the reception desk together, and get little visitor passes. Lan Zhan is told to wait for the piano course director to come and receive him, and then Wei Ying signs in and he's told to... also wait for the piano course director to come and receive him. 

"You'd think they'd have scheduled us for different arrival times," says Wei Ying in low tones as they perch politely on the edge of seats in the waiting area.

"You are here for pianists?" asks Lan Zhan, the minutest of frown lines crinkling in between his eyebrows. It's the first sign of human emotion Wei Ying has seen him display so far.

"Yeah, I'm holding accompanist auditions." He slides his backpack off his back and digs out the notes. There are, obviously, plenty of professional pianists in the world. Heck, he could probably put a call out on social media and have a dozen semi-serious offers within a few minutes. But it takes a certain kind of person to be an accompanist. It's a job that by name gives little credit, little limelight, and serves only to make the soloist shine. Sometimes, when he's guesting with an orchestra, they don't even get to play.

And then on top of that, Wei Ying loves touring so constant travel is required, sometimes five cities in four days. It leaves little room for someone to develop if they want to be a soloist or audition or settle down with a family or date or anything at all outside of music. 

Wei Ying has sort of solved the problem by offering it out to final year music students, coming in just after the end of the semester when they're desperate for a job in music, any job. He'll keep them on for a year or eighteen months until they inevitably find a better gig or realise that being a professional touring musician is too tiring to sustain, and then part ways with them having given them a good name and gig to put on their resume, and go through another round of auditions. 

This is his sixth set of auditions since stumbling on that tactic.

"Hm," says Lan Zhan. "Good luck."

Wei Ying has no idea if he's being sincere or not, but his way of dealing with that is to pretend that it is, and smile, and go back to the notes he's making. He's been sent resumes for all of them, but they're pretty much all the same.

Blah, blah, grade 8, diploma, music school, blah blah, orchestras, duets, blah blah, one off projects, various modules like conducting and music education and music production and composition, the sort of thing people start taking when they're cast into a room with thirty other people who have also been told that they are geniuses from a young age and suddenly realise that they are, in fact, not; and also that they will be competing with these thirty other people for jobs.

Wei Ying feels sorry for them, mostly. He's hyper aware that he ended up a successful soloist largely by accident. And flautists aren't even that popular compared to violinists and pianists. If he'd carried on the way he did with no intervention, he probably would have gone through exactly the same thing, except worse because he'd have had to pretend that the Royal Academy or Julliard rejected him because Jiang Cheng didn't get in, or whatever.

Anyway, the point is that he has all their resumes but they're not that useful. Hearing their playing and talking to them and having a realistic conversation about the limitations of the jobs is usually much more enlightening.

The piano director comes to pick them up at the same time, effusively welcoming them both. Wei Ying wishes he spoke French better. He's spent a couple of years here by now, on and off, but mostly to learn more about flute culture. There is no classical western flute culture in the mid-west USA, and definitely no classical western flute culture in the Chinese expat community. It's been nice, the last couple of years, to surround himself with other flautists, as many as he always saw violinists and pianists when he was younger. But on the other hand, it's a very international community; there are people here from all over the world doing the same thing, which means that mostly he speaks in English.

They're set up in two rooms on the opposite end of the same corridor, Lan Zhan in a lecture theatre hall with a baby grand, and Wei Ying in a smaller room. It can't be an actual practice room, because it's larger than a shoebox and there's actually space for an extra table where he can sit and make notes.

Wei Ying waves Lan Zhan goodbye when he's dropped off. "I'll come sit in on your classes if I have a break between auditions."

"Good luck finding an accompanist," says Lan Zhan. And Wei Ying thinks that's probably the last of it.

He's pleasantly surprised when it's not. 

Lan Zhan doesn't seek him out, quite. He seems the kind of person who's very comfortable being by himself; Wei Ying doesn't even catch a glimpse of his manager or his team or anything, even though he must have one. But they do end up at the Conservatoire at the same time for a few days in a row as Wei Ying finishes out his auditions and Lan Zhan runs his summer course.

And then Wei Ying is on holiday for the couple of weeks after that, a planned time for his newly hired accompanist to receive paperwork and sort out contracts and insurance and work visas and so on, and it's easy to stay in Paris so that they can practice for his next tour, so he's around, and he supposes that there aren't that many other Chinese people around, especially not Chinese by way of America, so they end up hanging out together. It's quite nice, Wei Ying imagines it would have been something like this if they'd both gone to music college in the end.

They hit up some small local Chinese restaurant Wei Ying has discovered, and talk about the various projects they've worked in the last few years – Paris and Vienna for extended periods and then European touring for Wei Ying, and US touring in between album releases for Lan Zhan.

All the dim sum come in portions of three, and Lan Zhan keeps pushing the third one towards Wei Ying. Wei Ying feels like a terrible parody of a Chinese person as he pushes it back to Lan Zhan, who nudges it back at him. He just wants to eat the damn dumpling.

"Will you think I'm really rude if I just take them?" asks Wei Ying bluntly.

Lan Zhan blinks. "We can order more if we want more."

Oh, well. That's true.

They reminisce about their childhood recitals – it turns out that Lan Zhan does remember who Jiang Cheng is, but only because he was incredibly diligent about respecting all of his various competitors even if he was going to wipe the floor with them.

"Good but not brilliant," says Lan Zhan of Jiang Cheng one afternoon. It's Lan Zhan's off day, which usually just means more practice time for musicians, but Wei Ying had griped about missing food from home, so here they are.

Wei Ying winces. "I mean. Well. You're the expert on violin music. But he's in the NSO now."

Lan Zhan nods, and repeats. "Good but not brilliant."

"Ouch."

 

 

-

It's strange, how a chance encounter can affect the course of a life. His life, specifically. Lan Zhan bids Wei Ying a farewell when he leaves Paris with his new accompanist, and feels his life become a little quieter. They had only met each other barely a month ago.

He finally runs an internet search on Wei Ying – something he was too embarrassed to do when he had the real thing messaging him, waving hello at him, sat opposite him ordering food. He had felt bad for assuming that Wei Ying was a fan at first meeting and then he turned out not to be, but then it seemed like he was actually? He knows a lot more about Lan Zhan than Lan Zhan knows about him, at any rate.

He scours mentions of Wei Ying online all the way back until there's a blog article talking about how Baoshan Sanren has come out of retirement to become a teacher, taking on only her fourth pupil ever. She'd entered him into the Kobe International Flute Competition the same year.

Wei Ying doesn't have trouble smiling in his photos, he notices.

He's both glad and jealous that Wei Ying seems to be effervescent regardless of whether Lan Zhan is there. Perhaps he had secretly hoped that only he brought out the carefree happiness in Wei Ying that was there every time they met up.

His fingers itch to message Wei Ying, as he has almost constantly in the last few weeks. He wonders if Wei Ying's number is the same, now he's not in France. He must have an international plan, right? He sends a message into the ether, hoping that it lands.

And then he finishes off his summer masterclasses, and goes home, and composes. Or at least, he tries to.

He's composed before, but his work is very heavily influenced by some of his favourite classical musicians. His third album, called Theme and Variation, featured his performance of a piece from one of his favourite composers – Rachmaninov, Prokovief, Tchaikovsky – followed by an original work following in that style. It was lauded as ground-breaking, masterful, a true understanding of some of the greatest composters. Et cetera, et cetera.

And it was.

And it is also the reason that he has not put out a new album in over two years. The problem with being ground-breaking, as such, is that he can never look backwards. He's never going to put out 'a selection of Bach' again.

He's got away with it so far by performing more, guesting with orchestras, taking on more of these masterclasses, judging competitions, but he knows that the expectation is for his next album to be breathtaking.

But meeting Wei Ying is like realising that he's been indoors for his whole life and now he is finally taking his first breath of fresh air. He didn't even know that fresh air smelled different.

He still works out of the piano room next to his father's old study. His father's things were packed away over a decade ago, but in a house so large there had never been any need for the room to have another purpose, and now it sits like a ghost room, an echo of what it used to be. It's his brother's house now, technically, by right of inheritance, but Lan Xichen keeps an apartment nearer the city for the convenience of travel. It's his uncle's home, really.

He's considered, over the years, upgrading the piano. But it's not like playing the violin, and being loaned a Strad or Guarneri that he would perform with. The piano room has always been here since before he can remember, and so has the piano within it, and so the Yamaha baby grand stays.

Lan Zhan has always considered it a privilege to have this space carved out for his creativity – as well as the piano, there's a bookshelf of music scores and music theory, a desk with a small recording set up hooked into a laptop so that he can listen back on himself. But it's the same set-up he's had since he was eight.

He tells his uncle that he wants to do some research for his next album, and books a flight to China.

It's not until the day of his flight out that he gets a return message from Wei Ying. Lan Zhan!! IM SO SORRY!! I forgot that I always change my number between europe and usa. I thought you ghosted me! I wouldn't blame you tho, three weeks of getting to know me is probs enough for you to not want any more. But here's my other number even if you don't want it!! It's followed by three kissy emoji faces. To say that Lan Zhan is getting mixed messages is an understatement.

He carefully writes the number down; the US international plans are always awful, and he knows that there'll be lots of limitations in China if he doesn't have a domestic number available, so he replies. I'm also using a different phone for a while, I'll let you know when I have another number.

After a moment, he adds, I would never ghost you.

 

 

-

"Is it me?" asks Wei Ying, of the ceiling. The ceiling does not reply.

He's sprawled across the armchair of a hotel room in Denver, in Mianmian's room.

"Probably," she says, but not like she means it. She gets to sit on the bed because it's her hotel room.

Wei Ying is still wearing his concert suit, untied tie draped over his neck. His accompanist had told him on the short walk back to the hotel that she was thinking of moving back to her family in Lyon. He had seen it coming, really. After the first three months of wide-eyed travelling, the reality of the touring life set in and some people loved it (like Wei Ying) and some people did not. He'd just told himself that maybe she would hang on for a bit longer, stick it through maybe a whole year.

"Americans are weird," she had followed it up with. "They don't know how to behave."

This is... a wild generalisation, at best. Even if, he admits, sometimes it still throws him when they get an audience who try and clap in between movements, not realising that the convention is to not to. But there's a reason for that; Wei Ying does a lot work attracting his audience. He always has his expected repertoire (he's currently into a lot of late-Romantic stuff), but he's also known for his improvisation segment at the end of all his concerts, based off audience suggestions. And so, accordingly, he attracts people who might not come to usual classical music concerts and who might not know the conventions of classical music performances.

He's had comments from people saying that they became interested in flute music and found him online after seeing Lizzo play the flute. He considers that a win.

It's not his accompanist's fault that his first tour with her was across the US, and so she's somehow assigned this behaviour trait to Americans. He doesn't bother telling her that it happens when he plays across Europe and Asia too. That's not really the point.

The point is that after the end of this tour, Wei Ying is going to be down an accompanist again, and it's only been four months since he hired the last one.

Mianmian leans over from the bed, and cracks open the mini-bar. She peruses the meagre selection, before holding up the beer (Budweiser) or the vodka (Smirnoff) questioningly.

"Urgh," says Wei Ying. "Both horrible choices."

She tosses him the vodka, as well as a can of coke, and cracks open the Budweiser herself. "It's on the house."

"I pay for our hotel rooms," he says grumpily, mixing his drink by virtue of taking a gulp of coke and chasing it down with a swig of vodka. Wow, that's terrible.

"It's on the house for me," Mianmian amends. "Do you want to head back to Paris?"

"No, I'm done with Paris," says Wei Ying sulkily, even though he loves Paris. The mini bottle of vodka contains a grand total of about two shots, which means that after two gulps, he's just drinking coke.

"Do you want to take a break? See if any orchestras need a soloist for a season? I have about nineteen standing offers for you to come do some guest teaching for a semester or two." Mianmian is not actually his manager, but for some reason, people seem to think that 'media enquiries' is interchangeable with 'all enquiries'.

Mianmian is Wei Ying's publicist, which is why she's travelling with him but also not needed at his actual performances. Somehow she makes it all work, her husband travelling alongside her – he'd been the one to answer the door actually, when Wei Ying had thumped his head against it despairingly in lieu of a knock – and taking care of their baby. Currently, both husband and baby are in the corridor at Wei Ying's whim, which he feels bad about, but not bad enough to fuck off back to his hotel room and wonder whether he's a shitty boss.

That probably makes him a shitty boss.

Mianmian is used to it though; she used to do reputation management for some shady politician before Wei Ying won her over, and thinks that classical music PR is twee and fun in comparison. ("It pays less though," she'd informed him once, and Wei Ying had looked at her, mortally insulted. "Well yeah, it's not like I'm out here committing war crimes with my flute.")

"No, I want an accompanist who will put up with me and love me and stay by my side forever and forever so I never have to do any fucking auditions ever again," moans Wei Ying, like, mostly as a joke? But depressingly also not a joke.

"Hm," says Mianmian. She's his employee, but also she's a friend, so Wei Ying very much appreciates that she's not poking too hard at that right now. "New York, maybe?"

They do not go to New York. What Wei Ying does do instead is text his woes to Lan Zhan, who cannot possibly understand his misery because he's a pianist and doesn't need an accompanist. But he is the only soloist friend that Wei Ying has, what with arriving on the child prodigy scene late and then not going through actual music school and instead traipsing around the world with a very sprightly old Chinese lady as his only company.

Lan Zhan says he's in China, so Wei Ying goes to China. 

Apparently Lan Zhan is doing some research there for his next album, and so Wei Ying asks if he knows of anyone who could set up accompanist auditions for him. A Chinese accompanist would be great actually, Wei Ying doesn't know why he hasn't thought of it before. He's got Asia tour dates coming up, and he won't have to worry about the visa thing. Well, technically, he pays Wen Qing to worry about that sort of thing for him. But he'll have someone to practise his steadily declining Mandarin with!

I can ask the programme director at the Central Conservatory.

Wow. Talk about friends in high places. Despite being one of the most prominent young flautists of the day, Wei Ying has distressingly few contacts. Jiang Cheng probably has more than he does.

You're the best, types Wei Ying, beaming at his phone.

When he arrives at the address in Beijing Lan Zhan sent him, Wei Ying is expecting Lan Zhan to be eyeball deep in piano practice or music theory papers or recording samples or... something. Instead, he's dressed in a hanfu, steadily picking at the strings of a guqin.

"Oh wow," says Wei Ying, delighted if confused. "I have no idea what's going on but I'm digging it."

"Shh," says Lan Zhan serenely, and tilts his head at a cushion in a corner where Wei Ying parks himself down, and carries on with his guqin lesson, because apparently that's a thing he's doing now.

Wei Ying discreetly takes a photo, or five, in the same way that doting parents 'discreetly' take pictures of their kid at recitals.

It's not until afterwards, when the teacher has left, looking very bemused at Wei Ying's presence, that Lan Zhan gets up.

"Oh, you look great," says Wei Ying, and takes another photo. He sends them all to Lan Zhan, punctuated with little heart and sparkle emojis. "What's the occasion?"

"It makes me feel peaceful," says Lan Zhan, which is an answer that tells Wei Ying nothing at all. Amazing.

"And the guqin? Don't tell me you're switching instruments."

"Part of my research," says Lan Zhan. "I'll tell you over dinner."

"Perfect, I'm starving."

Lan Zhan changes out of the hanfu before they leave, which is a shame, but they end up at a small noodle place, tucked into the corner, where Lan Zhan tells him about his research on fusing Chinese classical music and Western classical music, and how he wants to incorporate Chinese instruments into his next album but the musical notation is completely different, so of course he's ended up learning the guqin in order to comprehensively understand it.

"I'd forgotten that you'd need to compose... the rest of it," says Wei Ying. "That it's not just your piano solo, but the whole rest of the orchestra as well. I'm glad I don't compose."

Lan Zhan looks at him oddly. "You do improvisation though."

"That's different. That's just whatever I'm feeling in the moment, and sometimes if it sounds bad, it sounds bad and no one's going to say anything because they know it's improvisation."

"Same core skills," insists Lan Zhan. "You could compose."

"Hmm," says Wei Ying sceptically, which is his attempt at closing off the conversation noncommittally.

Lan Zhan doesn't seem to get the hint. "I've seen some of your improvisations. I don't see why they wouldn't work as full pieces."

"Urgh. You're going to make me admit that it feels like a lot of complicated work and research and I've just never been bothered to do it."

"Record what you want it to sound like. You can pay someone to transcribe it for you."

Wei Ying leans back. "Huh. I've never thought about that. And I didn't expect that from you, considering you still do all of your compositions in pencil on manuscript paper. I thought you were a traditionalist."

"I am," says Lan Zhan. "Because it works for me."

Wei Ying pulls a face. Okay, this is getting too close to having a whole emotion. He's not equipped for that, Lan Zhan has to wait until he's at least over the jet lag.

He totally means to get his own place – he can afford it, after all – but he ends up bringing his luggage into Lan Zhan's xiaozhu apartment and there's a spare bedroom because there weren't that many choices for apartments with pianos in, and then there's no discussion of him going anywhere else at all.

Lan Zhan takes him to the Central Conservatory of Music, Wei Ying just about recognising enough jianti to know that he's heading in the right direction. They arrive at a rectangular block, with stripes of blue tinted windows, where Lan Zhan consults the person at the front desk for directions.

A terrible realisation is dawning upon Wei Ying, as they traipse across to a different campus building. "Do you not know where this is?"

"The receptionist said it was this way."

"No, I mean. Before."

Lan Zhan blinks at him. "No, I've never been here before."

Wei Ying has to stop in the middle of the pathway. Luckily, they're between classes or whatever, because there's no one around. "Lan Zhan! How did you set up auditions for me if you've never been here before!"

"I asked the programme director for piano students."

The thing is, Wei Ying does not doubt that he is telling the truth. But it is possible that Wei Ying has just not been asking the right questions. "Did you know the programme director before this?"

"No, his email was on their faculty website."

Oh, god. "Oh. Okay. Well, thank you," says Wei Ying, too flustered to explain to Lan Zhan right now that actually he was hoping that Lan Zhan would lean on some former friend or acquaintance to casually set up a thing, which was hopefully low effort and super chill, instead of having to do Wei Ying's fucking job for him.

And Lan Zhan's not stupid, he can tell that Wei Ying is having a bit of a wobble in the middle of the corridor, but Wei Ying's not using his words to tell him why, so mostly he just stands there looks slightly concerned. This is the worst. Not Lan Zhan; Lan Zhan is still the best.

"I think it's over there," says Lan Zhan eventually.

Lan Zhan actually sits in on the auditions, which Wei Ying was also not expecting (but is certainly not complaining about). A fair few of the pianists ignore him at first, assuming he's maybe a manager or an admin person employed by Wei Ying, and then do a double take when they look properly and realise who he is.

"You can ask for an autograph if you'd like," says Wei Ying, amused every time.

He's never had a second person in his auditions before, mostly because no one else really cares. As in, MianMian and Wen Qing care about him, but they don't have an opinion on who he chooses. Lan Zhan has Opinions.

 "She doesn't listen enough," says Lan Zhan. "And you take liberties with your time signature."

Or,

"He doesn't like your preferred repertoire."

Or,

"Poor synergy."

Or,

"She would require extensive practice to be ready for your tour dates."

He has something critical to say about all of them, and half of the comments are things that Wei Ying would not have picked up, not being a pianist and all.

"You're so strict, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says as they pack up for the day.

"You should set high standards for yourself," Lan Zhan informs him. "Even though accompaniment is not necessarily difficult, that just means it is all the more evident when someone is mediocre at it." 

"Oh? Have you been an accompanist before?"

"A few times. For my brother, mostly."

Wei Ying remembers Lan Xichen only vaguely. He had already begun travelling nationally and internationally for competitions by the time Wei Ying was really aware of the competitive scene, but he remembers that he plays the cello. "How is he these days?"

"In a string quartet in New York."

"He's not a soloist?" Wei Ying thinks about how much strain it put on his and Jiang Cheng's relationship, how they're only just mending it now with memes and pictures of food, but Lan Zhan doesn't seem to have any of that when he mentions his brother.

"He prefers to play with other people."

Wei Ying nods. "Sometimes I think about that. Like maybe packing up the solo life and joining an orchestra or something. At least then I'd have built-in friends and coworkers. But then I thought about how I'd probably have to end up playing John Williams or In The Hall of the Mountain King fifty times a year. I'd love to have been a percussionist instead. Get paid to not even be in half the pieces and sit in the back and then do a dramatic drum roll 8 bars from the end."

When Lan Zhan looks at him, it's with amusement. "No, you wouldn't."

Wei Ying thinks about it. Thinks about being sixteen and getting to zoom around the world and dazzle people with a tiny stick of metal – not even his own, Baoshan Sanren had lent him one of her flutes until he got enough attention for people to buy himself a better one – and not have to worry about whether Yu Ziyuan would approve for the first time in his life. "No," he agrees. "I wouldn't."

 

 

-

They get food delivered – Wei Ying's treat, for helping him with his auditions all day, even though Lan Zhan was only glad to be of use somehow – and then tuck themselves up next to the piano in the apartment as Lan Zhan tries to demonstrate what he was talking about.

"It would be easier to show you if we played at the same time, although that would make it harder for you to listen," he says, trying out a passage from one of the pieces Wei Ying is using to audition.

Wei Ying hops down to grab his flute. Lan Zhan has an advantage, he thinks, from having seen and heard Wei Ying practice this in snatches, between here and Paris, and knowing him outside of his music. He knows that people have called his breathing 'unrefined in a way that evokes rawness', he knows the way his eyes light up when he's getting to a part he really enjoys. He watches – and he has permission to watch now, because that's what an accompanist does – and tempers his fingers, and melds his music into Wei Ying's.

"Oh wow," says Wei Ying when they're done. "You really like Fauré too, huh?"

 

 

-

Lan Zhan books some studio time. It is, ostensibly, for himself. His research is going very well, and he should start recording some samples before going out to find an orchestra who will record with him. But he has a whole afternoon blocked out two days before Wei Ying is flying to Singapore to start the Asia leg of his world tour, and he's feeling selfish.

Wei Ying's new accompanist is probably squirreled away trying to learn a whole repertoire of music in under two weeks. She's not as good at Lan Zhan is, obviously, but Lan Zhan had recommended her application eventually based on the very fact that she could probably pick it up quickly – and so Wei Ying will probably not need to rehearse with her for more than the morning.

"I don't really know what a jam session is," says Wei Ying when Lan Zhan proposes it, the words 'jam session' sounding particularly Midwest and long amidst his Mandarin. "But it sounds fun. I never get to do anything like that."

The tragic thing is that if Wei Ying ever wanted to, he absolutely could. There are people all over who would drop what they were doing to come do a jam session with him. But it's that he doesn't know what these things are. Lan Zhan doesn't know the whole story, but he gathers that there's something there to do with Jiang Cheng and maybe their (his?) mother, but sometimes he finds unsuspecting gaps in Wei Ying's knowledge of the music world.

He's never had the constant overexposure to the music world in the same way that Lan Zhan has, so he's never considered that he could just... start his own wind quartet or join a concert band, play for weddings and Chinese New Year's and any other family event that involves more than three people; or sit in a studio and just mess around with no agenda other than to just enjoy music with other people.

"We play things we want to play. Or bits of things we want to play. Or improvise."

"Do you want to record it?"

"The session?" Lan Zhan's first instinct is to say no. It's just meant to be spending time together, recording it would... formalise it somehow. But then he thinks about how he doesn't know when he'll be able to see Wei Ying again. "We could. I have recording equipment."

The camera isn't anything fancy – a GoPro – since he rarely needs to record himself to see anything other than posture, but it hooks up to sync easily enough to the studio's recording equipment. He tries to ignore it once it's been set up.

"How do you start a jamming session?" asks Wei Ying, as he waves hello to the camera.

"Play something."

"What do I play?"

"Anything." Lan Zhan spreads his fingers across the keyboard, stretching them out before sinking his hands into a chord, transitioning into a bit of the Beethoven he's been learning on the side. "Or I'll play something. And you can improvise over the top of it."

"You want me to improvise over Beethoven?" Wei Ying looks absolutely delighted at this sacrilege.

Lan Zhan tries not to smile with his whole heart. He's not sure how subtle he manages to be about it, so instead he ducks his head and plays 16 bars of Beethoven, repeating it until Wei Ying gets the hang of it. Except, it's Beethoven and Wei Ying has a pretty good grasp of what Beethoven sounds like, of course, and he has the innate music knowledge to pick up the time and style and mood, and oh, there he goes.

It takes a couple of rounds before Wei Ying loses that look in his eyes like he knows he's blaspheming, and really gets into the swing of it. Wei Ying finds the sheet music for some pieces he's played before, and Lan Zhan sightreads the accompaniment. Lan Zhan flicks through his iPad for some old violin pieces they played and they duet ("I should be able to play anything written for violin on here, as long as there aren't any pesky double-stops.")

They play one of Lan Zhan's pieces with Wei Ying taking the piano right hand on flute and Lan Zhan playing only the left hand. They sightread a Sibelius violin piece neither of them have played before, to disastrous effect. They improvise together, Wei Ying trying to trick Lan Zhan into sounding terrible by springing key changes on him with no warning, the flute petering out eventually as he giggle-snorts into his flute, his side warm and shaking and pressed to Lan Zhan's as they share the piano stool.

Lan Zhan has played with hundreds of people in his professional life by now; orchestras, string ensembles, duets, trios, acclaimed soloists and renowned conductors. It has never been so effortless to play with someone before.

 

 

-

The jetlag is so bad that Wei Ying's pretty sure he's circled back around to a regular sleep schedule again. The flight out of London is at 6am, which means getting to the airport for 4am, which leaving the AirBnB at 3am, which means that he hasn't slept yet and is planning to just collapse as soon as he gets on the plane. He's vaguely regretting not doing what MianMian did, going to bed at 8pm so she could get back up at 2am.

He's just about coherent when they all separate at JFK on to their respective cities. Wei Ying doesn't actually have a permanent residence in the US; he spends too much time on the road for renting or buying somewhere to be worth it. He's not ruled it out – he's not an idiot – but for now, his lifestyle doesn't require it.

It takes him another half a day to fight his way out of JFK, get into New York, get back out of New York, and finally arrive in Washington DC, where Jiang Yanli is waiting for him. She squeezes him so tightly one of his vertebrae clicks, even though he probably smells of stale airport sweat and grime by now, and he squeezes her back.

"Aiya, a-jie!"

"Welcome home!"

It's probably been over a year since he's been back here, so calling it 'home' is a bit of a stretch but all of the stuff he'd normally keep in storage resides in one of her spare bedrooms. Well, she calls it his bedroom.

"You look so thin!" She tells him sadly, pressing his face between her tiny hands.

"I've been eating really well!" protests Wei Ying. "You know I love to eat."

"We'll pick up Jin Ling on the way home, and then you have enough time to clean up and get settled in before A-Xuan gets back for dinner." It's just them today. Jiang Cheng is playing tonight, so they have plans to have a family dinner tomorrow, but it's nice to get a rare few hours with just Yanli.

Wei Ying does feel like a whole new person after cleaning himself under the unbearably fancy shower they have. Even the jet lag is staved off for a little while.

"So then, I was thinking I should try some original composition?" says Wei Ying as he scrubs his hair dry. He's always like this around Jiang Yanli, their conversations flowing and ebbing like the tide, never quite gone, always continuing straight on from the last thing they said to each other no matter how long ago it was.

"What's stopping you?" she calls from the kitchen.

Wei Ying follows the sound of her voice there. "Well, you know I never took any of the music theory lessons everyone else did so I can't do anything orchestral. What even is bass clef? But then Lan Zhan told me something that blew my mind, he said 'just record it and get someone to transcribe it for you' and I can't believe I've never thought of that before. So that's what I've been doing now."

Jiang Yanli turns the fire down and puts the lid on whatever it is she's steaming. Fish, probably, from the smell of seawater and ginger. "You already have an innate understanding of musical theory from your playing. If you wanted to learn…"

"I would of course ask you first. But nah, we're past that now." Wei Ying waves a hand as if to brush the topic away. It wasn't meant to be, like, him bringing up past trauma or anything. "Besides, if popo didn't insist on it, it couldn't have been that important."

Baoshan Sanren would either kick his ass or cackle loudly and claim him as her grandson at Wei Ying calling her popo and he's never been able to figure out which, which is exactly why he's never done it to her face.

"Do you have anything finished yet?"

"Hmm, not yet. But there is one that I got inspired by this jam session I did with Lan Zhan last year. Different key, but same vibe." He pulls out his phone, which promptly tells him that he's out of memory and should delete some apps. He ignores it, because the reason he's out of memory is because of the videos of this jam session that he's keeping on here.

He clicks on the fourth of the six videos; he's already played them all enough times that he knows what happens in each of the parts, and he fiddles with the slider to get to the part he wants to show Jiang Yanli.

"You did a jam session with Lan Zhan?"

"Yeah, a few months ago." Wei Ying counts, properly. "Uh, six. Six months ago. Huh, that was longer than I thought it was."

He holds the phone out and she just tsks, and pulls him onto one of the kitchen stools and brings Jin Ling's high chair closer, so that so that they can all watch it at the same time. Halfway through, she reaches out, finger brushing his face on the screen so that the play options slide up.

"You look so happy," she says softly, and squeezes him a little bit.

Wei Ying is like a baby with no sense of object permanence sometimes; he forgets what it's like to bask directly under the force of Jiang Yanli's sweetness until he's here again, soaking it up.

"Yeah," he says when the little segment is over, pausing it as they fumble around trying to decide what to play next. "Yeah, it was really good."

"I'm glad you found it inspiring. Composition is a great skill to have under your belt." She turns to check on her food. "Have you thought about uploading the video?"

"Like, online?"

"Yeah. YouTube or something."

Wei Ying looks down at his phone. "Why? It's just a silly little thing where we hung out and played together."

"A silly little four hour session where two of the world's virtuosos hung out and created some spectacular sounding music on a whim?" she asks pointedly.

"Ahahaha," says Wei Ying, in a terrible mockery of laughter. He shifts in his seat. "We're not – I mean, Lan Zhan is, obviously, was a child prodigy and all that, but I'm not – it's not like that."

Jiang Yanli hums. It's not even like, a particularly negative or ominous hum or anything, just a nice dolce hum, but he still feels bad for disagreeing with her.

"I've been listening to you play since you were a child," she reminds him. "Dinner's almost ready, go wash your hands."

Wei Ying goes to wash his hands.

She doesn't bring it up again – Jin Zixuan gets home soon after that and then he gets to witness Jin Ling in full transition of liquids to solids and deciding that he does not like pureed carrot – but the seed is planted, probably as she knew it would be.

Wei Ying likes to play over the bit where he bullied Lan Zhan into playing the Mendolssohn again so that he could finally hear the end, the one he'd played the first time Wei Ying had ever heard him when he gets into bed at night. ("I have not practised this in years," Lan Zhan had warned him, but the muscle memory had kicked in. Lan Zhan had been looking at the sheet music at the time and so he hadn't seen it on the day, but Wei Ying spends the whole seven minutes draped across the corner of the piano, watching him with a softness in his face that it makes him a little bit giddy to watch back even on a six inch screen.)

When it finishes, he swipes over to his message history with Lan Zhan. Have a safe flight was the last message. Wei Ying sends him three pictures of Jin Ling, a perfect time lapse of mushy carrot going into his mouth and then dribbling straight back out. He's such a chonky baby types Wei Ying. A-jie said we should upload our video onto YT or something.

 

 

-

This is a form of procrastination. Lan Zhan is aware of this. He massages his hands, the newly tender parts of his fingers. He doesn't have the time to gain more than a basic proficiency at the guqin, not when he's a professional pianist, but he finds himself sinking more and more time into it. The pain in his fingers is new and in different points from the pain he got from the violin and piano. If he's still learning guqin, then he can stay in China and compose.

His album is ready. His research was finished months ago. He's extended his xiaozhu rental four times. He should be prepping for what comes after an album release – his next tour. He's not ready to let this go yet.

His uncle has asked with increasing frequency when he's planning to come home again. His brother has sent a single nonchalant text: How's the album going?

 

 

-

The last time Wei Ying was here was the funeral. There's nothing here for him now. Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan are with their families in China; the house was sold years ago when it became evident that Jiang Cheng intended to base himself permanently out of DC.

He goes straight to the Lan family home. It's strange, because he's never been here before, he was never friends with Lan Zhan during this time of his life even though they grew up so nearby each other.

He's aware that this is not what a normal friend does. Sometimes not even family. If he said he wasn't doing well, Jiang Yanli would call and text and arrange to come to wherever in the world he was as soon as she could, but this? Dropping everything and heading back to their hometown on whimsy? Because Lan Zhan's last few texts sounded off? Yeah, that's not what people who are just buddies do.

There's something simmering just below the surface but Wei Ying doesn't lift the lid on himself and poke at it yet. Maybe after he's scrubbed the plane air off and he's had a good night of sleep. After he sees Lan Zhan with his own eyes and makes sure that he's okay.

An older man answers the door, looks at him blankly. This must be his uncle.

Wei Ying tries in Chinese first. "I'm looking for Lan Zhan."

"I'm afraid he's not here," says Lan Qiren.

"Oh. Um. I'm Wei Ying. Do you know when he'll be back?"

Lan Qiren looks at him, for a long time. "He is not staying here," he says. "At the moment."

Wei Ying frowns, and aborts a glance down at his phone. He's sure that Lan Zhan had told him that he was going home for a little bit. Perhaps he's already moved on? But no, that's the entire point of Wei Ying coming to visit him now, because he gave no indication of leaving any time soon.

"I'm sorry to have bothered you," he says when the silence becomes too long. "I thought he said he was here."

He's about to leave – where to, he's not sure – when Lan Qiren steps back, and inclines his head ever so slightly. "Come in."

The house is big, as Wei Ying knew it would be from the exterior, with high ceilings and tasteful decor. His luggage wheels rattle across the polished floor until he can push it to one side. The floor is so smooth that it drifts from where he's shown to leave it, and he tries in vain to push it back obtrusively against the wall, and then his guest slippers clatter across the floor too as he catches up. This house is too quiet for the likes of him.

He's taken not through the first door, nor the second door in the hall. The entry hall is a whole room by itself, decorated with tall vases in each corner and floor to ceiling painting scrolls.

When he's shown into a room, it's not the living room he's expecting, but rather a room with a piano in. The room with a piano in, he guesses, even though it's covered over at the moment. Lan Qiren points him to an armchair in the corner of the room, and watches Wei Ying ease himself into it.

"You play the flute?" asks Lan Qiren, and oh, Wei Ying didn't know that Lan Qiren would also know who he was.

"I – yes."

"Excuse me a moment." The man leaves the room, leaves Wei Ying by himself. He looks around. This is the room that Lan Zhan practically grew up in. He wants to explore, wants to poke around and see all the hidden things, forgotten music and remnants of his past that made Lan Zhan the man he is today. But it feels wrong to be here without Lan Zhan. He'd hoped that the first time he saw this room, it would be Lan Zhan showing him in, answering Wei Ying's questions and talking him through all the little curiosities. Without him, the room is just a room. Wei Ying sits on his hands, and waits.

He can very faintly hear Lan Qiren talking to someone through the open door – one sided, so a phone call perhaps?

When he returns, he looks thoughtful. "Here."

He's holding a slip of paper, an address written on it in neat cursive. It's... near the city centre? That's all he can really tell.

"Are you going there now?"

Wei Ying wants to ask if Lan Zhan got his sparse communication style from his family. "If Lan Zhan is there, yes."

Lan Qiren nods. "Wait another moment, please."

Wei Ying waits again, staring into the middle distance so as to not accidentally catch his eye on anything. It's silly, perhaps, but he's going to wait until Lan Zhan wants to show him this room. Until then, it's off limits in his mind.

When Lan Qiren comes back, he's holding a mostly full canvas bag. "Is this too heavy?" he asks.

Wei Ying hefts it. It's substantial, but he puts it on top of his luggage, tying it down by the handles. "No problem."

Lan Qiren shows him out of the house again. "Are you driving?"

"I came in an Uber, I don't have a car here." That, and he hasn't driven since he passed his test twelve years ago. Most of the places Wei Ying travels to are big enough that they have reliable public transport or rideshare options.

"I will call you one," says Lan Qiren. "Ask him if he's eating enough." And then he leaves Wei Ying on the doorstep and shuts the door without giving him a chance to say thank you or goodbye.

It takes just about long enough for an Uber to arrive that Wei Ying had started to wonder if he'd heard wrong, if Lan Qiren had perhaps said instead 'Do call one' or something else instead. He's debating ringing the bell again, when it arrives.

"Oh, cool! Okay, hi," says Wei Ying, switching to relieved English.

The apartment block they pull up to is indeed near the city centre. It's on the sixth floor, overlooking the station on one side and a row of shops on the other; it teems with so much more life than that mansion in suburbia that Wei Ying didn't even realise that he was tense until he releases it out.

It's a swanky apartment block, with a concierge desk and everything. He takes the lift up to 6A, and by the time he's wrestled his luggage – and the canvas bag – out of the lift, Lan Zhan is waiting for him by the open door of the right apartment, his slippered feet up against the threshold of the apartment.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying exhales. "You're here!"

He's not sure why he's surprised. Maybe it was the mini-scavenger hunt halfway across the city. Maybe it was because he didn't know what state he was going to find Lan Zhan in.

"You're here," says Lan Zhan in return, as Wei Ying makes his way in.

"Ah. Yes. It was meant to be a surprise."

"I was surprised," agrees Lan Zhan. The apartment is roomy; he sees the open kitchen and dining space as he shuffles past it, and then a separate living room. There's a music corner near the balcony, a music stand and shelf with sheet music on.

"I'm sorry to have disturbed your uncle. I didn't realise you kept a separate apartment in the city."

Lan Zhan shakes his head. He's wearing an oversized, thick-knit cardigan, pulled over an off-white t-shirt and matching sweats. He looks like one of those home catalogues where all the models are in loungewear, except they make it look stylish at the same time. This entire apartment looks like a home catalogue, in fact. "This is my brother's place."

"Oh! Is he –"

"Austria, I think. Possibly Germany."

Wei Ying nods, like that answers anything. "I thought they might take a break, after –"

"They're a string trio now."

See, it's different with Lan Zhan. Even though it's the same sparse sentences as his uncle, this is more like being able to read each others' minds, anticipate what they were asking.

"You don't have anywhere, right?" asks Lan Zhan, showing Wei Ying to one of the bedrooms. This bedroom also has a music corner, this one with a chair and a lowered music stand. Wei Ying frowns. There's something off, and he can't figure out what it is, until Lan Zhan starts picking up things – his things – and stacking them into a pile.

"Wait, were you sleeping in here? I can't kick you out of your room," says Wei Ying. "Stop that."

Lan Zhan ignores him, and side steps around Wei Ying's outreached arms. "He only has one spare bedroom. Don't worry about it. The couch is very comfortable. I would sleep in the master bedroom, but –" His ears pink up slightly. "It's their room."

"Lan Zhan, no, it's fine. I – their room?" Wei Ying puts together the two separate music corners, evidently for two different instruments. "Oh. Oh."

The split moment it took for his brain to go down that route, Lan Zhan siezed as a successful diversion, and moves his things out into the living room.

"I can get a hotel or an AirBnB, Lan Zhan, really," says Wei Ying, shelving away the hundred questions about his brother's string trio that have sprouted into his head and jumping back out after Lan Zhan. "Stop trying to look after me."

"I shall not."

Wei Ying splutters. "I came all the way over here to look after you!"

Lan Zhan softens, setting his water glass and night-time reading on the coffee table before sitting down on the couch. Wei Ying sits on the other end, and then decides that's silly, and shuffles into the centre instead, pressing his side against Lan Zhan's.

"You didn't have to come," says Lan Zhan. "I'm fine."

Wei Ying does not point out that he's apparently moved out of his house – his uncle's house, whatever, his home. He does not point out that in the - what is it? Wow, is it only three years? It feels much longer. In the three years that he's got to know Lan Zhan, he has never seen him in sweatpants. He does not point out that even though Lan Zhan's new album was widely acclaimed and people have been clamouring for a tour, he has been putting it off and putting it off for months now, to the point where it's not really a new album anymore.

He does not point out that this apartment does not have a piano.

"Your uncle asked if you've been eating okay," he says instead.

Lan Zhan smiles thinly. Such is the way of affection among Chinese people. He wants Lan Zhan to know that people care about him. "I'll let him know."

 

 

-

This strange domestic life is never one that Wei Ying thought for himself. Having a home in one place was never something that he really thought about. He doesn't miss it, nor does he find himself craving it, but it feels a little like living someone else's life, at least for a little bit.

They get up, Wei Ying from the spare bedroom, Lan Zhan from the sofa – which he is at least gratified to find out is a pull-out bed and indeed very comfortable – and they make breakfast. They go for a run. Wei Ying practises his flute, and Lan Zhan does – something from the desk in the master bedroom. Wei Ying doesn't want to push on what it is. They'll order food in for lunch because a life on the road meant neither of them really learned how to cook and also because both of them have their hands insured for almost $1 million so, uh, yeah, they order in. Wei Ying usually takes the afternoon to try new pieces or work on some of the composition he's been trying out. Lan Zhan does – something.

Somewhere around mid-afternoon, Wei Ying will wander out to stretch and they end up doing some gentle yoga in the living room, and then they putter around, and head out somewhere for dinner. 

In the evening, they talk. About anything, everything. Tours, anecdotes, orchestras both terrible and great they've worked with. The way the segmented videos of their jam session have been really popular, with lots of people talking about how they've been inspired in the comments. How Wen Qing has been working on youth music programmes on Wei Ying's behalf, helping other kids with musical talent or interest who might have been undiscovered like him. How Wei Ying is putting together an improv masterclass, to be uploaded virtually so anyone can access it. What Lan Xichen's string trio is doing, both in terms of repertoire and, uh, socially. 

The thing is, Lan Zhan does seem fine.

This is both reassuring and even more concerning, because Wei Ying had expected to come find him burnt out. It's common, so common amongst classical musicians. Jiang Cheng's told him before that one of the most common reason for turnover is because someone burns out. He might not know what to do if Lan Zhan was experiencing pain in his limbs, or if he was struggling to get out of bed and do things each day, or he couldn't even look at music, but at least he'd know that he'd need to do something. But Lan Zhan isn't experiencing any of that. He's just not practising.

"What happened to Diamond?" asks Lan Zhan. Diamond is the accompanist he helped pick out.

"Nothing, her contract ran until the end of this tour. She's gone back to her family in Tianjin."

"Was she good?"

"Yeah. I said I'd give her a reference if she needed one."

Lan Zhan nods approvingly as he picks out some of the straw mushrooms and sticks them into Wei Ying's rice. Lan Zhan loves the straw mushrooms; it's usually his way of making sure Wei Ying gets some before he eats them all. "Will you call on her again when you need an accompanist again?"

Wei Ying hums. "Yeah, but it'll probably be long enough that she's got something else by then. I haven't got any solo dates lined up for the rest of the year."

"Will you accept some of those orchestra guest spots?"

It's the first time Lan Zhan has asked about what Wei Ying is doing next. Oh, Wei Ying has certainly volunteered the information before, vague plans here and there, nothing long-term, but it's the first time Lan Zhan is the one to broach the subject and, and. And he doesn't like it. He doesn't know why, but it feels a bit like when one of his knuckles needs clicking out, and it just won't go even when he keeps pushing at it.

"Maybe? I don't know yet. I've been thinking about what you said, with the composition. But I don't know if I'm there yet."

"Show me?"

"Sure, when we're done," says Wei Ying, and stuffs some of the straw mushrooms back into Lan Zhan's bowl.

It's not exactly at performance level. "Okay so you have to imagine the flute bit I just played," says Wei Ying, and quickly trills through the motif of it again, "and then this is the piano." He plays out the melody line on his flute, which is all he can do since he doesn't play the piano. "And I have chromatic chords under that, which you're just going to have to imagine."

There's a blank look on Lan Zhan's face as he listens, and Wei Ying's enthusiasm peters out a little. "It sounds a lot cooler in my head," he says defensively.

Lan Zhan makes a wounded noise. "I need to show you something."

He pulls Wei Ying towards the master bedroom, where he spends most of his time when Wei Ying is practising. All Wei Ying knows is that Lan Zhan uses it for the desk in there. It feels invasive, being in Xichen-ge's bedroom when he's not here. Oh, there's a third music corner in this room. Wei Ying averts his eyes hurriedly.

The desk is stacked with clear folders. When Lan Zhan flicks through them, they slide against each other, the entire stack gliding sideways. They're each filled with sheet music, Wei Ying notices.

"Can you hear a score?" asks Lan Zhan, pulling out the one he's looking for.

Wei Ying scrunches his face up. "Technically. Full orchestral is a bit fuzzy." It's a skill that largely people are born with or without, so it's difficult to describe to people who don't have it. Wei Ying can read a flute and accompaniment piece off a piece of paper and accurately hear what it is supposed to sound like in his head, but when more instruments are added, his brain sort of… ad-libs a bit. He tries not to rely on it too often.

"It's a duo," says Lan Zhan. His hand shakes when he hands it to Wei Ying, and both of it stare at it in surprise. He's a pianist, he doesn't have shaky hands. Lan Zhan presses it flat against his hip. "Read the music."

It's a flute and piano duo. It's – it's in the same key as Wei Ying's piece. And time signature. And.

"Oh," says Wei Ying. His eyes flick from the sheet music he's holding to the stack on the desk. "Are they all –"

"Of a sort."

Wei Ying reaches out, his hand hovering over the clear files until Lan Zhan inclines his head. He slides them towards him across the desk, reading the first page through the transparent front of the folder. Piano and flute duo. Piano and flute duo. Piano and flute duo.

His fingers itch for his flute. To hear these not just in his head.

"Can you play?"

"The piano?" Lan Zhan looks surprised. "Yes, but –" There isn't one here.

"I thought you were avoiding it," says Wei Ying. "Since you weren't practising."

"The piano will always wait for me," says Lan Zhan with the absolute confidence of someone with a god-given, generational talent. Fuck, it's so arrogant. If he'd said this aloud in front of anyone else… well, most musicians spend their lives stewing in anxiety about their ability to play slipping.

Wei Ying grins at him so hard, the dry skin on his lips cracks. He gets it. He gets it. "Me too. The flute, obviously."

"I know."

"Show me." Wei Ying shakes the folder.

Lan Zhan fishes around in his pocket, and pulls out his car keys. Wei Ying grapples the entire slippery stack of folders into his arms as they dart out of the apartment. He feels light headed – Lan Zhan is the one who doubles back and remembers to actually grab his flute – and they stare at each other while waiting for the lift, and then while they're in the lift, and then when they get into the car, all the way until Wei Ying flaps a hand at Lan Zhan.

"Drive," he urges, and Lan Zhan finally tears his gaze away to start the car.

They stop at a red light and Lan Zhan looks over at him and Wei Ying is already looking at him. He laughs, like the release of fizzy bubbles up through his mouth. Lan Zhan's face is all soft. He reaches out to poke one relaxed cheek, and Lan Zhan lets him. It squishes under his finger. Whatever was simmering under the surface is bubbling over.

The car behind them honks continuously for seven seconds.

(The light turns orange as they pull away, and is red again by the time the car behind them gets to the light.)

The second time Wei Ying arrives at the Lan house feels so different from the first. This time, Lan Zhan shows him in and looks through the shoe cabinet until he finds a pair of soft slippers for Wei Ying. House slippers, not guest slippers.

"Uncle," calls Lan Zhan softly when he hears a door click open from upstairs. "I'm back."

There's a shuffle of footsteps from above – not quite running, but certainly hastened. "You are," says his uncle, looking down from the landing above. He looks him over, takes in the oversized cardigan and soft sweats, turns his gaze to Wei Ying, sharp and considering. "Have you eaten?"

It's 8pm. Lan Zhan smiles, slightly. "Yes, uncle. We've eaten."

Lan Qiren harrumphs. "Good. There's soup in the kitchen if you get hungry." He turns, and heads back up the second flight of stairs.

Lan Zhan listens him go, waits until there's a faint click of a door from the third floor, and then ushers Wei Ying towards what he now knows is the piano room.

"Your uncle showed me in here when I turned up the first time," says Wei Ying, and it feels like a confession of sorts. "I didn't look at anything though."

"It's just a piano room," Lan Zhan says as he flicks the light on. He grabs the corners of the piano cover and hoists it off before Wei Ying can hurry forward to help.

"I didn't know that," says Wei Ying as he unloads his armful of folders over the desk at the side. "You've talked about your piano room in interviews, but there aren't any photos of it online. I'd know. What if you kept proprietary secret compositions in here?"

Lan Zhan looks at him, bemused, possibly because Wei Ying has been sleeping in the room next to an entire stack of his proprietary secrets for a month now.

"Here," says Wei Ying, finding the right one – for now – and passing the music to Lan Zhan. They each have their own routines for getting ready, and Wei Ying certainly knows he rushes through his. Flute out, twist it together, tuning. It's not at ideal temperature for playing yet, but eh, what's the point of being a musical prodigy if he can't adjust for that.

Lan Zhan is sat on one end of the piano stool, space pointedly left for Wei Ying as he slides into it. This is a duo, not a piece with accompaniment, so they start the piece at the same time; Wei Ying does take a moment then, to breathe, to let himself settle into the same air as Lan Zhan, watch his hands rest on the keys. An inhale.

They play.

This is exactly what Wei Ying has been trying to compose. Something reminiscent of their time together in China, but more solid. It's no longer an improvisation, but a deliberate melody that swoops and soars; a true duet where they alternate the melody line, each picking up from each other and carrying it on.

Technically, Wei Ying is sightreading this. But it feels familiar already; he feels like he knows what's coming up, what patterns, what motifs, not because the music is repetitive or boring but because he knows Lan Zhan.

They play through the whole thing in one go.  As the last strains of Lan Zhan's final chord fades away, silence settles over them.

Wei Ying has never experienced this before. He knows it happens – it happens at his own performances, in fact. Even better than applause after a piece is a moment of stunned silence, where the audience doesn't want to break the spell. He's never been the one in the audience.

He looks sideways at Lan Zhan, who looks back at him. Lan Zhan is always quiet, and Wei Ying has learnt that what he has to say is couched in the subtle lines of his face, and the depth of his eyes. This is not what a man burned out by music looks like. This is what a man consumed by inspiration looks like.

 

 

-

Lan Zhan has played a concert with a fever before. He remembers almost nothing of it, apart from the glaring bright lights a blur in his vision, the nausea ebbing and flowing, his muscle memory and hours of practise carrying him through the pieces. This moment of Wei Ying reminds him of that. Not the nausea, but the way time slips past him no matter how much he tries to cling to every single moment and imprint it in his mind.

Somewhere around 10pm, Wei Ying asks if they need to be quiet for his uncle. They're playing through the whole of Lan Zhan's composed repertoire, Wei Ying picking out each new piece with renewed delight each time.

"My father had this room soundproofed when I was four." He remembers being 22, and finding out, and realising that his father had never heard him play, but that, too, slips through his fingers as Wei Ying finds a new piece for them to play.

"You haven't given me a single place to breathe in this one!" Wei Ying says as he scans through the first few lines.

"You'll figure it out."

And he does.

They're going to record an album. They realised that perhaps halfway through the second piece, Wei Ying breathlessly asking Lan Zhan if he wanted to? Lan Zhan nodding before he even managed to get it out. Now they're just auditioning the rest of the pieces for it.

Currently, the yes pile has eleven pieces and the maybe pile has three. The no pile is yet to be populated.

"This is too many," says Lan Zhan, the words tumbling miserly out of his mouth as they add the latest piece onto the yes pile. He's trying to be sensible about it, but that doesn't mean he has any suggestions for which ones should move to the no pile. "We can't fit all of this onto one album."

Wei Ying shrugs, as if that is of no import to him. "Then we'll do a volume two."

"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan hoarsely. He doesn't know if he can take much more of this. His heart is so full, as it has been for – over a year now. It feels engorged, like it's going to burst like an overripe tomato and splatter all over the inside of his chest. It's grown so much it's like it's taken over his whole ribcage, crushing his lungs and suffocating him.

He catches Wei Ying's hands in his own, stops him rifling through the music scores, and holds them. He's aware that this is... not a normal thing to do. But he's not in his right mind at the moment. Has not been since he was given the insight as to what his life was missing. Or perhaps he is, and this is what his mind was meant to be all along.

"Lan Zhan, what's wrong?" Wei Ying's voice cuts through the fog of his mind. Wei Ying's hands grip him back.

"What if – what if there's too many for two volumes?" asks Lan Zhan dumbly. He doesn't know how to make the words come out of his mouth. What if I don't want to stop playing with you. When will you tire of me? How much of you will you let me have?

Wei Ying brings his hands – their hands, still intertwined – up to Lan Zhan's face and cradles it. Lan Zhan finds himself swaying into it. "Then we'll just have to keep going," says Wei Ying. "We can do three or four volumes if you want. Do a live studio session. A tour. Maybe three, if you're not sick of me by then."

"No more accompanist auditions," says Lan Zhan, surprising himself with how strongly it comes out.

"No more accompanist auditions," agrees Wei Ying. His face is so close.

They stay like that for a moment, waiting, eyes searching. They're each waiting for the other to say no, Lan Zhan thinks. He's not going to say no. Wei Ying exhales shakily, and Lan Zhan hears it.

It's a semi-breve of rest, before the softest of crescendos as Lan Zhan finally closes those spare few inches between them, and presses his lips to Wei Ying's.

Wei Ying is already as close to him as he can be, the lines of their body pressed together from hip to knee on the piano stool, their hands layered over each other, but Wei Ying leans into Lan Zhan like he would meld their bodies together if he could. Lan Zhan disentangles their fingers so that he can wrap his arms around Wei Ying's waist and pull him in so that his leg slides over Lan Zhan's.

The piano clangs a chord out as Wei Ying's elbow smacks onto the keys, and then some more as Lan Zhan bears down and Wei Ying's back slides into the keyboard. Alright, that's probably a bad idea. Too distracting. He stands and closes the fallboard over the keys before grabbing Wei Ying's ass, and lifting him onto the lid instead. That's better, it's a much bigger surface area. Half a dozen clear folders go sliding across the top of the piano and onto the floor. There, everything is in the yes pile now.

"Lan Zhan," gasps Wei Ying. "Lan Zhan, this is a grand piano!"

"It's only a baby grand," Lan Zhan informs him as he shuffles in close, sliding himself between Wei Ying's legs as he leans up for another kiss. This is much better, now all of them can be touching each other.

Wei Ying wraps his legs around Lan Zhan's waist and his arms around Lan Zhan's shoulders, reeling him in. "Only!"

"And it's old."

The laughter that comes from Wei Ying is all for him. It has always been, Lan Zhan now suspects, but he's only just allowing himself to think it in the privacy of his own mind. Wei Ying's chest is warm as it shakes against Lan Zhan's, and his skin is soft across his jaw, softer still under his ear, Lan Zhan cataloguing each new piece of information he is allowed to know about Wei Ying as he takes his time to explore it.

Lan Zhan kisses him across his face, neck, down to his collarbones, every inch of skin he can reach above the neckline of Wei Ying's hoodie, and then back up to his lips. Wei Ying's lips are also insured, he knows, along with his throat and hands.

"You taste like a million dollars," he says, because he can't help himself.

Wei Ying laughs so hard he nearly bites his own tongue. "Oh – oh fuck, Lan Zhan. I nearly took myself out there. I can't believe you –" He collapses against Lan Zhan's shoulder. Lan Zhan is preening unbearably as he holds Wei Ying and tucks his hair up behind his ears when it keeps falling over his face.

The laughter fades eventually into little giggle hiccups that Lan Zhan can't help but kiss out of his mouth. Wei Ying sighs into his mouth, and Lan Zhan can feel the way a bit more tension seeps out of his body. "I can't believe – it took us this long, you know?"

It does seem awful, in hindsight, that he could have been kissing Wei Ying for all this time, could have had Wei Ying nibbling at his lips, playing with the tufty hair at the nape of his neck. But Lan Zhan is not one to lie to himself. In truth, it couldn't have been before this. They both chose the musician lifestyles for themselves, and Lan Zhan always knew that as a soloist – a musical prodigy soloist, no less – his career was going to be spent largely alone. He had acknowledged that long ago.

He just hadn't expected to be met with his match.

"I'm here now," he says instead, because he knows Wei Ying doesn't regret it either, that Wei Ying has always loved the touring and performing and the competitions, and this is just the next stage.

They make out slowly, figuring out what they each like. Lan Zhan likes tongue, he decides. Wei Ying's tongue, sloppy but enthusiastic. He likes the way Wei Ying clings to him like a limpet, keeping him in so close that he can feel the line of the piano digging in across the front of his hips, the way one of Wei Ying's slippers has fallen off and he's running his socked foot up and down the line of Lan Zhan's back. He likes the way that Wei Ying kisses until he's out of breath – and he's a flautist, so it's about a minute after Lan Zhan is already out of breath, feeling like he's inhaling Wei Ying rather than oxygen.

Wei Ying groans appreciatively when Lan Zhan hikes his t-shirt up so he can press his hands to the warm, sensitive skin there. Lan Zhan has seen him in various states of undress before – it's unavoidable when they've been living together in a small apartment for a month – but he has never allowed himself to linger. He lingers now, tracing his fingers up the lines of Wei Ying's back, pressing the entirety of his palms against Wei Ying's ribcage and dragging his hands down his stomach, feeling the wiry brush of hair leading down into his sweatpants.

"How soundproof did you say this room was?" asks Wei Ying with a shaky huff.

"Completely," Lan Zhan reassures him, fingers teasing at the edge of the sweats.

Wei Ying swallows; his Adam's apple bobs against Lan Zhan's lips. "Cool."

He slides his hands down Wei Ying's sweats. He can feel his own cock pressing against the piano so he's not surprised to feel Wei Ying hard and jutting out from his stomach. Wei Ying's cock is shorter than his and he wraps his hand around it, sliding his hand up and down experimentally. It fits so comfortably into his palm that Lan Zhan could almost believe that it was made for him.

"Yeah, show me your fingerwork, Lan Zhan," says Wei Ying.

Lan Zhan nearly sticks Wei Ying back into his sweats.

Wei Ying dissolves into giggles again. "No?"

Lan Zhan closes his eyes and presses his forehead against Wei Ying's shoulder. "...Yes," he says, pained.

"Yes?" Wei Ying sounds delighted. Oh, this is going to be terrible. Lan Zhan has forever doomed himself to a lifetime of terrible music related sex puns and he's... he's into it. He's looking forward to it.

"Oh, you're so grumpy," says Wei Ying. "Don't be grumpy, I can't stand it, aiyo you look so cute." He peppers Lan Zhan's face with kisses until Lan Zhan returns them.

Wei Ying is still hard in his hand. He runs his thumb over the head of Wei Ying's cock, feeling the foreskin move against his skin. "Yeah, see, that's better," says Wei Ying, digging his heel into Lan Zhan's butt encouragingly.  

Lan Zhan feels a grunt of air escape him.

"Oh?" asks Wei Ying. "You like that?" He hitches the other leg up too, the sound of the other slipper slapping against the floor as he kicks it off, sliding the arch of his foot against Lan Zhan's back.

"You like to spread your legs," says Lan Zhan, the remnants of grumpiness making him mean. He twists his hand around the head of Wei Ying's cock.

"Only when the most handsome man in the world wants to fuck me on a grand piano," says Wei Ying against his lips. "Oh, sorry. Baby grand."

Wei Ying is like – Wei Ying is his muse. Lan Zhan already knew that. But Wei Ying also brings out this bizarre competitiveness in him. Like right now. Lan Zhan gets one knee up on the fallboard, climbs up onto the piano himself. He backs Wei Ying up and shoves him until he's on his back on the piano lid, gasping in surprise.

Lan Zhan has a perfectly good sofa in the corner of the room. He knows this. He doesn't care.

The tip of Wei Ying's cock is peeking out over the top of his sweats and Lan Zhan hooks his fingers into the pockets and yanks both the sweats and his underwear down off his hips, Wei Ying's cock springing free.

"Let's see how long you can make jokes for," he says, already ripping the sweats off the rest of Wei Ying's legs. As an afterthought, he gets rid of the socks too. There is nothing sexy about still wearing socks with no pants.

"Oh shit," says Wei Ying breathlessly, leaning up on his elbows as Lan Zhan grabs his legs under his knees and pulls them up, spreading them so that he drag his face along the soft skin of Wei Ying's inner leg, mouth open so that it leaves a damp trail all the way down.

He switches to open mouthed kisses at the juncture where Wei Ying's leg meets hip, and up the length of his cock. Lan Zhan has never done this before, but he firmly believes in both having an innate talent in everything he tries, and lots of practise. Besides, he has done lots of visualisation on this.

"You're looking at me like you're going to eat me," says Wei Ying faintly. from somewhere above Lan Zhan's head.

Lan Zhan rolls his eyes up to make eye contact as he gets his mouth over Wei Ying's cock, feels Wei Ying helping to keep his hair out of the way as he watches Lan Zhan with wide, over-blown eyes. Wei Ying is warm in his mouth and heavier than he would have thought, and slightly salty. His foreskin is soft against Lan Zhan's tongue and, judging from the way Wei Ying is slowly hissing like a deflating balloon, very sensitive. He can work with that.

He bobs his head up and down, changing the angle until Wei Ying makes a little 'mmrph!' noise and sticks with it. He hooks Wei Ying's legs over his shoulders so he can get one hand down his own sweatpants and his other hand around the base of Wei Ying's cock and matches his own rhythm.

Wei Ying's orgasm catches him by surprise – catches them both by surprise if Wei Ying's grunt is anything to go by, followed by the way his hips jerk on the piano. Liquid hits the back of Lan Zhan's mouth; he coughs, swallows in time to catch the rest of it.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying moans before he stills on the piano. His legs, sliding down Lan Zhan's biceps, are shaking slightly.

Lan Zhan wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and kneels up. He pulls the waistband of his own sweatpants down until Wei Ying can see him, still hard, can watch him jerk himself off, fast and rough.

"Come on, Lan Zhan. Come on me," says Wei Ying, and something about the way he says it, the way he bats his eyelashes at Lan Zhan, the way his legs are still spread so Lan Zhan can see Wei Ying's cock softening against his hip, the way he can still taste Wei Ying on his tongue, thick; Lan Zhan comes over him.

He comes so hard he nearly falls forward, catching himself on one arm before he collapses onto Wei Ying; come spurts in lines across Wei Ying, across his t-shirt, rucked up slightly, across the smoothness of his belly, and the sparse hair under his bellybutton, marking Wei Ying as his.

He swallows at the rush of possessiveness that overtakes him, heady and overwhelming, until he sees Wei Ying, also looking down at it open-mouthed, breathing heavily, like he likes it, like it does something for him too.

Lan Zhan crushes their faces together in a bruising kiss.

He kisses Wei Ying until his jaw aches, until his arm trembles with the strain of holding his body up. He lets himself go, finally, sliding onto the piano beside Wei Ying. It's not really big enough for two grown men to lie side by side. He'll have to get a full-sized grand piano if he wants to do that.

"Six albums," he says hoarsely.

"Hmm?" asks Wei Ying from where he's busy tucking himself in against Lan Zhan's side, not caring about smearing Lan Zhan's come everywhere.

"I wrote enough for six albums."

"That sounds like a good start," says Wei Ying agreeably.

 

 

Coda

The Philharmonie de Paris is packed, and Wei Ying can hear it. There's the sound of school groups kicking at their seats in the upper sections, Conservatoire students filling out the back, the anticipatory sound of people shushing each other when they know it's about to start, the way the sound fades into a low hum as the ushers start closing the doors and shepherding the final arrivals to their seats.

In the front row, there is a little old Chinese lady, approximate age anything between 55 and 102, in that way of little old Chinese ladies, sitting with her arms crossed.

Wei Ying is in his concert suit (although he very nearly wasn't after Lan Zhan caught sight of him in it) with the bow tie draped loose around his neck.

Lan Zhan has his suit jacket swapped for a waistcoat and his shirt sleeves rolled back to the elbow. Frankly, Wei Ying thinks that this is obscene.

It's an acknowledgement, a concession, to the trappings of the world that raised the both of them without staying bound to it.

"How're you feeling?" asks Wei Ying.

They peer out from the wings together at the audience, waiting for the last few bursts of flash to disappear as people, press and audience alike, finish taking their photos.

"Nervous," says Lan Zhan, and that answer surprises Wei Ying enough that he looks away from the stage. He doesn't look nervous at least – not the way Wei Ying has seen other people be. His hand in Wei Ying's isn't particularly clammy.

"Lan Zhan! Why? You never get nervous before concerts." It's true, Wei Ying remembers Lan Zhan telling him this once.

"Because I want it to go well."

Wei Ying presses himself against Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan easily making space for him so that he can fold himself against Lan Zhan's chest. There, he can feel the thump of Lan Zhan's chest, elevated higher than usual. "You silly melon," he murmurs. "We're gonna be spectacular."

They thought that starting off their world tour in the city that started it all off was only right.  Paris claps a welcome – polite enough, but Wei Ying knows that he can raise their enthusiasm through the night.

The lights dim. They walk onto the stage together, hold hands, and bow. This is just the beginning.