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breathe for a while, as it is

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You know the feeling after a long day outside, with every grime on earth stuck on the skin of your face and your feet is soaked with sweat from endless kilometers of commuting, only to return home at the end of the day, straight to the bathroom and have cool, clean water wash away the filthy particles and words out of your sight, out of your mind, and you let out a relieved sigh? For the day has ended, and you did better than you think you would, and the exhaustive repetition of hard work makes the dream work feels more than words now that you have seen the smallest sign of fruit starting to bloom.

Ouyang Zizhen watches his distorted visage, the river reflecting a blinding white with every ripple turning to life and fading out, blending in with others, before they made it under his gaze. Does it matter, after all, for them to be distinguished for one time, before laws of nature wash them away from history?

people come and people go
like ripples swimming the stream
never ever to be caught
ten seconds and forgotten

That sounds about great, but he refuses to have a moment over ripples.

So, he looks up, taking in the sky.

Starlight pours, wind blows. If he lies flat on the road, he might be able to take in much more, so he does. Starlights pour, winds blow. That sounds incorrect, but remember how small our sun is compared to other stars? What is a language mistake in this stage of a universe?

He huffs at himself. He shall not have a moment at all.

His phone vibrates. He ignores it in place of finding the longest straight line he can make out of the stars.

It vibrates again.

And again.

It is definitely a call. He thinks he knows who it is from, so he slips it out of his pocket and sets it aside.

He manages to locate at least four outlines that shape four kites of varied sizes before the vibration returns, louder than ever. Apparently, asphalt does a horrible job at drowning the indicator.

Ouyang Zizhen closes his eyes. He reaches out his hand and peeks at his screen. True to his thoughts, Lan Sizhui’s profile picture a bright contrast with the dark surroundings. He squints, sliding the green button to the center of the screen before putting the call on speaker.

Zizhen,” his friend greets, voice tinged with his ever-present smile.

“Sizhui." He closes his eyes once more. "Is something wrong?” He doubts so, but it's been his default answer to picking up calls.

Actually.” Some shuffling, a whisper. Ouyang Zizhen raises a brow before letting it down. He is beat. He would sleep out here if it doesn’t come with the worrying prospect of getting run by a truck. “Shh, Jingyi. I’m talking to him. Actually, we just got back from the meeting!

Ouyang Zizhen remembers him mentioning the meeting. Jin Ling was a member of the student council, and sometime in the past couple of months, he has been running for president in a fit of rage over the complete lack of talent to organize an organization his president seemed to have. Almost none of the programs proposed went through, and the ones that did were all almost insignificant. (There was no need for a clean-up project when students at Cloud Recesses are notorious for their half-crazed obsession to keep every ground surface free from rubbish and waste. The janitors are ever-so-often patrolling the grounds in the spirit to find things to fix and clean that they have become a second set of hall-patrols.) (There was also absolutely no need for a cookie sale for funds when there is nothing to fund—where did the money go to? Jin Ling had Questions.)

“Why the school lets the president kept his position and other questions by a very unsatisfied council member” made it to the front page of the school newspaper. Interestingly (Ouyang Zizhen was only thinking about this. He would never say this aloud), the next day, the president still had his position, even though the whole school now knows his incompetence.

Jin Ling’s unsatisfaction level increased. “Why the school lets the president kept his position: a list of answers from issue #77 you should consider, curated by a very angry council member” made it to the front page of the school newspaper, and Jin Ling got a call.

It was from Lan Jingyi. He told Jin Ling he should run for President.

And run he did.

Ouyang Zizhen realizes the weight of Lan Sizhui’s word and snorts. He sees what’s coming, feels a slow thrill making their way up his spine before dispersing.

It’s been a long day. Good news is a great way to end it.

“Oh, mother. Of course you did. How did it go? Did Jin Ling nail it?” He probably nailed much more than Ouyang Zizhen dares to imagine. It does not hurt to ask, though. Asking gives him more information. “He won, didn’t he?” He obviously did. Somehow, Ouyang Zizhen could only picture Jin Ling calling him with news of defeat, not news of victory. Perhaps that is why he is talking to Lan Sizhui now, not Jin Ling. “That kid. And I wasn’t there!”

“You should be here!” Lan Sizhui says, and Ouyang Zizhen does not let his reluctance be heard. He sounds something that should sound like regret. “We’re throwing a celebration! It’s a win. Senior Wei says—”

—something hilariously touching, probably. The absolute mix of teasing and praising that will leave every kid in the vicinity feels thankful over his presence and prays for his wellbeing while answering back with their own round of playful remarks and pranking with hints of tears threatening to spill with one right word.

Ouyang Zizhen opens his eyes. He is tired. He is having a crisis. His entire future is at risk. He is feeling Things and is now in the need to go back because if he does not, he probably never will.

(Unlikely. He has the tendency to think of things he does not mean. Perhaps that is why he understands Jin Ling so much: kid has the tendency to say things he does not mean. Perhaps that is why he feels at ease around Lan Jingyi: kid has the tendency to say things he does mean. Perhaps that is why he sticks around Lan Sizhui: kid has the tendency to say things people did not know they need to hear. Ouyang Zizhen is people. Thinking back, the first premise has nothing to do with any other, or maybe only with certain others, but stating them in his mind feels nice.)

“—we’ll see you later?” Lan Sizhui’s voice comes through. Ouyang Zizhen blinks. Tries to remember what they were talking about. Looks at the wristwatch hugging his left wrist.

“Perhaps you will,” Ouyang Zizhen replies. A final tease and inside joke are exchanged before he hangs up first.

Okay, he thinks, attempts to sit up, fails. The kids are waiting for me. I should get moving. He looks up at the sky, then at the seemingly endless road, before it hits him like a truck.

He has no idea where he is.

---

A pair of warm headlights, as striking as they are. Ouyang Zizhen is hugging his arms as the car stops before him, and the window slides down.

Lan Jingyi is grinning at him. “Need a ride?”

“I actually prefer walking,” Ouyang Zizhen says, but enters the passenger seat, nonetheless. He is tired, and Lan Jingyi is most likely tired as well, and he stil has to drive 15 km to where Ouyang Zizhen lives because he decides to be an irresponsible man of the wrong century. “Too much sitting will kill you.”

“It’s past midnight, for duck’s sake.” Ouyang Zizhen whirls to check if the sound is not him hallucinating. Jin Ling looks up from his phone and raises a brow.

"Aren't you supposed," Ouyang Zizhen starts. Pauses. Starts again. "Aren't you supposed to be on your party? Or something?"

Jin Ling lets out a bark of a laugh. "I ain't hanging around with beasts who only know how to destroy a house they're crashing into. Jiujiu can take care of them."

"Right. Leave everything to your uncle and we don't even have to worry about the apocalypse." Ouyang Zizhen yawns. "Grape apocalypse."

Jin Ling stares. “Yah, Ouyang Zizhen. You’re drunk.”

“I’m drunk,” Ouyang Zizhen agrees. “In feelings. You can’t see a lot of stars back in the city. They have so much to say. I actually found three ducks, I think? Same sizes, so they're either three friends or three ducklings left behind.”

Lan Jingyi makes a quote on the air. “’The ungodly hour.’” He snickers after quoting Ouyang Zizhen himself and makes a U-turn on the empty road. “Why would you walk 15 kilometers from your house in the middle of the night, huh? That doesn’t sound like you.”

Ouyang Zizhen simply shrugs. He doesn’t have any reason other than he wanted to (and maybe because he didn’t have enough money to get a bus, and he knew he could borrow just enough from literally anyone, but the sun was dim and the clouds were the right thickness and he hadn’t stretched his feet for a long time and duedates for designs and contents and reports and timelines are approaching with finals and oh he just wants to sleep, so of course its the one thing he won’t get), but Lan Jingyi won’t accept it as an answer. He puts his head by the crook of the seat and closes his eyes. The warm asphalt against the cold wind were somehow much more comfortable. Probably because it was steady, firm, the grains fitting just right on his back.

Driving on them, however, seems to emphasize their horrible sorting. His eyes persist to stay open. It's very frustrating. He thinks about yelling at Lan Jingyi to drive slower, then thinks to tell Lan Jingyi to not drive at all, but in the end he says none of it as he shifts his position on the chair.

“Oh, he’s falling asleep,” Lan Jingyi says. “The night just started, Ouyang Zizhen. Wake up. If I don’t get sleep then so shan’t you. Jin Ling, give him that blanket. You’re under enough pullovers already.”

“No pullovers will ever be enough inside your car,” Jin Ling shots back, shoving the blanket to the dashboard before returning to his phone. “I have no idea where'd you get that extraordinary resistance to cold, but it's terrifying. Oh, see. I’m texting Sizhui." Jin Ling laughs for a bit after reading something on his screen. "That son of a biscuit sneaks his phone inside his room. Unsurprising. Here. He says we, quote, ‘definitely should ban Zizhen’s phone from him for at least a day, probably.’ End quote. Which one is it? Definitely or probably?”

“Definitely ‘definitely,’” Ouyang Zizhen says. See, things people didn’t know they need to hear. “I hate technology. It is a mockery for the fine and proper means of traditional communication methods.” And a pain for his eyes, too, but that’s only his problem.

Lan Jingyi makes a pfft sound. “You kept on repeating the three syllables of ‘technology’ with different notes and pitches because you were awed at—I don’t even remember what.”

“You’re taking more work than you could manage again, bet,” Jin Ling says. He locks his phone and reaches out his hand. Shoves it, really, to Ouyang Zizhen’s face. “Phone. Now. We’re taking a phone-free vacation for 24 hours. Sizhui's orders. Irresistible even to storm and fire.”

Ouyang Zizhen frowns. “How could you get to keep yours when I won’t be having mine?”

“Bold of you to assume I would betray you like that.” A press to the lock key, but the screen is not lighting up. Jin Ling then shows his battery, and his face is way too smug for something like this. It returns to his resting face after a while. “One day. You get to stop seeing notifications break through your DND, I get to stop getting calls from questionable teachers, Jingyi gets to stop reading fanfiction—”

“—They’re literature, you disrespectful, little—”

“—and Sizhui gets to, well, stop getting calls from questionable teachers as well?”

“Huh.” Ouyang Zizhen is reminded over the earlier call with Lan Sizhui. “Right. You get elected as president. Good night.”

“I’ll take that as a congratulation. Thank you, Zizhen. How nice of you. Now, I get to reform the absolute wastehole that is our school and perhaps bring an infinitesimal fraction of probably insignificant satisfaction that something is done right to our beloved Teacher Lan.” Jin Ling stops. “And others. Right. Snap. I have a school to take care of.”

They stay silent for a while, the regular thunders of wheels against pebbles a soothing tune for their tired minds. As Ouyang Zizhen opens his eyes after his 7th attempt at sleep, he sees the familiar dark green door of his home and closes his eyes again.

“Can’t we like have a sleepover on Jin Ling’s or something,” he mutters, words melting together in drowsiness.

Lan Jingyi is probably rising his brow. Ouyang Zizhen is too tired to peek. “We’re at your home already, though?”

“Jingyi, you insensitive duck,” Jin Ling exclaims.

“Goodness, stop calling everything duck—"

“—Ouyang Zizhen is tired and he is already comfortable in the confines of his car chair,” Jin Ling declares. “Also, I don’t trust Jingyi to drive anymore in that state. I propose we’re sleeping here, tonight.”

“Tomorning?” Ouyang Zizhen offers, voice barely audible.

“Yeah, whatever.” Jin Ling reaches to the side of their chairs and pull at the lever, sending them lower than before. “Nobody talks. It’s bedtime.”

“You’re probably saying that because we snitched your sleep, aren’t you,” Jingyi grins. “Right. Fine. Go to sleep, children. I’m going to wake you so early in the morning you’d wish you were in your bed instead.”

It takes Ouyang Zizhen couple more shuffling before he finds a position that is most comfortable in the small space. A snore can be heard from the back seat, and beside him, Lan Jingyi a still statue of crossed arms and steady breaths.

This will do, for now.