"Jingyu, is that you?" a deep voice asks from somewhere over the other side of the library borrowing counter.
"Nope!" Changsu calls up cheerfully from under the desk, where he’s wrestling with the tangled knot of cords growing out of the main computer, because the network cable has somehow managed to work its way free again.
He viciously stabs at the back of the machine with the plastic head until he finally hears a familiar click and then crawls back out.
"Sorry to disappoint," he drawls, heaving himself to his feet and finally facing the speaker. "But it's just me, his less-popular colleague. Are you one of his fans?"
The student standing ramrod straight before him can’t be far off his own age, and while he’s always been partial to a deep voice, Changsu notes appreciatively that the sharp jawline and the dark eyes that are unflinchingly holding his gaze carry a more-than-fair share of appeal in their own right.
"He has fans?" the student asks incredulously, wrinkling his brow in a way that hits Changsu right in the chest.
(He always did have a weakness for the earnest ones.)
"Did you think you were the only one?" Changsu inquires, tilting his head curiously. "Or are you–" he pauses, assuming a thoughtful expression, "hoping for something more?"
"What?" the man asks, looking taken aback.
"Because I don't know what he's told you,” Changsu says, shaking his head sadly, “but you would definitely be the other woman. He's got a girlfriend he's very serious about–"
Nihuang has always said that Changsu’s peacocking rituals tend a bit ("Sure," he can hear Nihuang say dryly. "In the same way that Yao Ming is 'a bit' tall.") towards the overly-provocative (or, in her words, "being an arsehole"), but hey, whatever works, right?
"What? No!" the man exclaims, hurriedly cutting Changsu off, and Changsu is pleased to note that he sounds disgusted at the prospect. He peeks at the name on the student card sitting on top of the man’s stack of library books, and oh, he thinks, Lin Jingyan. So this is the fabled baby brother.
"He's training one of the new staff members," Changsu says aloud, reaching over and pulling the books on – he tilts his head to peer at the spines – social welfare policy towards himself. "They'll probably be a while, yet. You were hoping to meet your brother for lunch, I take it?"
"Your best bet would be to wait for him at one of the study desks over there," Changsu says, indicating the section he's referring to. "Choose a seat along the aisle if you can. He's going to bring the newbie up to the front desk from the back room when they're done, so he won’t miss you if you sit here."
Changsu is just about to turn back to the book in his hand when his eye is caught by movement from somewhere over Jingyan's left shoulder.
"Don't look now," Changsu murmurs, leaning in and stifling a smirk at the sight of a small group of students a few tables away, who are watching Jingyan and whispering fervently to each other. "But I think you might have some fans of your own."
Jingyan, adorably, immediately turns around and looks, sending his admirers diving for their books. When he turns back to Changsu, his mouth is taut and his expression dark.
"You can hardly blame them," Changsu tells him reasonably, trying and failing to keep both the amusement out of his voice and the smile off his face. "You're a very good-looking man, after all."
Jingyan stares at him speechlessly, and a light flush begins to spread across his cheeks.
Hm, Changsu thinks to himself, after he passes the library books back over and Jingyan walks jerkily over to a vacant table (well away, Changsu notes, from the group that has gone back to casting him furtive glances).
He may be in a bit of trouble.
"So this brother of yours," Changsu begins conversationally over dinner at Nihuang and Dong-jie’s place later that week. "Did he end up finding you for your lunch date?"
Jingyu looks up suspiciously from his plate. Changsu immediately assumes his best innocent expression.
"No," Jingyu says suddenly and vehemently, pointing a dumpling in Changsu's direction. "Whatever you're thinking about – just stop thinking about it."
He jams the dumpling into his mouth and chews emphatically.
"What?!" Changsu exclaims, pressing a hand to his heart in theatrical injury. "All I did was ask–"
"My brother is off limits for your love games!" Jingyu insists. "He's a good, earnest boy–"
"Am I not also–" Changsu begins, but Jingyu cuts him off with a look.
"You had to spend your high school years abroad and change your name to Mei Changsu for university, because you gained worldwide notoriety 11 years ago for hacking into various databases and using your findings to blackmail politicians into resigning," he says flatly. “When you were ten.”
"They were abusing their power to embezzle funds, commit crimes and then cover them up!” Changsu protests.
“The head ministers of five major government departments!” Jingyu continues stridently. “As well as the High Commissioner of the police force! And then when they refused to comply with your demands, you mass-released all your findings on the internet–”
“Shu-ge’s got a point though,” Nihuang says reasonably, swallowing a bite of dumpling before coming to Changsu’s defence. “It wasn’t just excessive expenses claims they were hiding; the crimes those ministers were covering up were murders, extortion, the misappropriation of millions of dollars in taxes–”
“The person who helped hide him from the police for three weeks does not get to speak!” Jingyu tells her, waving an authoritative finger. “The only reason you don’t have a criminal record is because the public prosecutor decided that you were too young to really understand what ‘obstructing the course of justice’ meant and declined to press charges!”
“Well, there was also the overwhelming public support for our cause, don’t forget,” Nihuang says placidly, not even bothering to look up from dipping her dumpling into the dish of vinegar in front of her. “Since Shu-ge – or Shu-ge’s online handle, at least – became a national hero for fighting for actual justice, and all.”
“I’d also like to point out,” Changsu adds, around a mouthful of his own, “that an arrest warrant wasn’t the ministers’ initial reaction, either, and that I released the information because they tried to kill me–”
“I didn’t say they didn’t deserve it,” Jingyu says huffily.
“In any case, given that Jingyan isn’t a corrupt politician, what are you afraid of?” Changsu asks dismissively, reaching for another dumpling. “It’s not as if he’s hiding any dirty secrets I’m going to feel compelled to expose. Unless …?” he prompts, raising an eyebrow.
“Of course not!” Jingyu exclaims hotly, voice rising with vicarious indignation and making Nihuang snort into her glass of juice.
Jingyu’s notorious over-protectiveness when it comes to his little brother is pretty funny, Changsu will grant her, but he’s not sure that someone who goes into mama-bear mode as quickly as he’s seen Nihuang do when Qing-er’s involved really has any right to be laughing.
Judging from the dirty look he shoots her, Jingyu probably agrees.
“Look,” Jingyu says, sighing and turning back to Changsu, “I’m not saying that your heart’s not in the right place, but you can be pretty ruthless when it comes to getting what you want.”
“The ends justify the means,” Changsu says serenely and Nihuang snorts again.
“They really don’t,” she tells him, still shaking her head as she returns to her plate, and he sticks her tongue out at her.
“And it’s not just for great justice, or whatever,” Jingyu continues, pausing briefly to moisten his mouth with a quick mouthful of tea. “You’ve got a pretty well-proven track-record of manipulating people in your personal life, too. There was all that business with that Yu guy, for one–”
“He was trying to use me, too,” Changsu points out mildly around a mouthful of dumpling. “It’s not my fault that I was better at it than he was.”
“Yeah, he really did deserve it,” Nihuang agrees. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
“–not to mention what you did with,” Jingyu adds, ignoring their commentary. “ –What was his name? Xian or something?”
“Also not a good guy, though,” Changsu tells him, shrugging nonchalantly. Nihuang nods in agreement from beside him.
“–And Dean Xia Jiang, who, by the way, now hates you so much that he probably prays for your painful death every night–”
“That was masterful, by the way,” Nihuang says, giving Changsu an admiring clap on the shoulder. “The way you flawlessly predicted every single one of his actions–”
“Thank you,” Changsu replies modestly, patting her hand in thanks. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
“What I’m saying,” Jingyu cuts in, glaring sternly at the both of them, “is that you’re extremely ruthless, super manipulative and you’re not even sorry about it. Which is fine,” he acquiesces, “when you’re pitting yourself against someone who’s willingly playing the same game. But Jingyan isn’t like that; he deals with people straightforwardly and honestly. He’s also,” Jingyu admits, somewhat reluctantly, “a bit hot-headed, especially when it comes to things he cares deeply about, and he takes relationships very seriously. What he needs is to find a nice, honest young man–”
“So he is into men,” Changsu says brightly, and Jingyu shoots him a filthy look.
“If the two of you got involved,” he says, “you might be happy at the beginning, but–”
He cuts himself off and sighs, before beginning again.
“Look, I know that you do try to treat people well,” he concedes, expression softening. “Like Gong Yu, for example. I know that you’re a good guy. But you and I both also know that as soon as your interests diverged enough, you would absolutely lead Jingyan around by the nose. Not necessarily maliciously; maybe because you think your opinion is more legitimate, maybe because you think you know better than he does. The power imbalance between you would be on your side, and you would absolutely take advantage of that; you wouldn’t be able to help yourself.”
He sighs, and gives Changsu a regretful look. “And as Jingyan’s brother, I can’t just stand by and let that happen.”
"If that's what you think of me, why are we even friends?" Changsu mutters sulkily, feeling stung, perhaps because Jingyu’s words hit just a little too close to home.
"You saw my last name and declared that, since it was the same as yours, we were practically brothers," Jingyu says wryly, putting more dumplings into Changsu’s bowl by way of apology.
As if that’s going to work, Changsu thinks derisively, what does he think Changsu is?
“And I never made the connection between you and the famous Lin Shu because no one ever expected him to be a ten-year old,” Jingyan continues, “and by the time you admitted to it, it was too late; you’d already grown on me.” Jingyu smiles fondly. “Like a tumour. But also, you don’t care about who my family is; that’s nice.”
Changsu frowns. “Your family? Why would I care about your family?” He raises an eyebrow. “Are you a Kardashian or something?”
“Yes, Changsu,” Jingyu says seriously. “I’ve been hiding this from you all along: my name is actually Jingyu Kardashian, I’m the secret second Kardashian brother.”
“I knew it,” Changsu says, equally blandly, pointing an accusatory finger at Jingyu’s chest.
Then he sighs.
“Fine, fine,” he says, capitulating and sullenly shovelling a dumpling into his mouth. “I’m sure I’ll find a way to control myself, if it means that much to you. He wasn’t that cute.”
Jingyu’s mouth takes on a wry twist.
“I’m–” he starts to say, but is interrupted by the door opening and Dong-jie letting herself in.
“Evening, all! What are we talking about?” she asks, dumping her bag on the floor and sliding into the seat next to Jingyu.
“Apparently Shu-ge thinks that Jingyu’s brother is cute,” Nihuang says, pushing the bowl and set of chopsticks they’d set aside for her across the table. “I haven’t seen him yet, though, so I’m reserving judgment for now.”
“Oh, Jingyan?” Dong-jie asks, standing to serve herself from the communal dumpling platter. “He’s all right, I suppose,” she says thoughtfully. “Bit too clean-cut for my taste.”
“Just because your boyfriend has stopped shaving and turned into some sort of yeti in the lead-up to his thesis deadline, doesn’t mean you need to shit on other people’s interests,” Changsu says dryly, and is promptly forced to dodge a strike from Dong-jie’s chopsticks.
“What’s he studying these days, by the way?” Dong-jie asks Jingyu curiously, after giving Changsu one last menacing air-stab. “I see him around the Engineering building sometimes, but I don’t think that’s what you told me the last time it came up.”
“No, he’s not in Engineering,” Jingyu says, shaking his head. “He’s probably got classes there because he’s in Arts – they get shunted all over campus for their classes. Actually,” he says, expression brightening as he transitions smoothly into proud-older-brother mode, “he’s getting a degree in social work. He wants to work for an aid organisation; he’s pretty passionate about social justice. I don’t think he’s sure about what he wants to do specifically, yet, but it’ll most likely be something to do with long-term programmes to address structural inequality–”
“What?” Changsu says hoarsely, slamming his hands down on the table, leaning forward towards Jingyu with sharply-renewed interest.
“You forgot about Changsu’s boner for social responsibility, didn’t you?” Dong-jie comments after a moment of stunned silence, glancing at Jingyu from the corner of her eye.
Jingyu closes his eyes, looking pained.
“Yeah,” he sighs, sounding like he regrets everything. “Yeah, I did.”
“An elective you’re taking?” Changsu asks conversationally a few days later, when Jingyan turns up at the library desk again and pushes a stack of books on gender theory and contemporary transgender issues across the counter.
Jingyan shakes his head.
“I learned yesterday that one of the teenagers at the youth centre I volunteer at is transgender,” he explains, taking his student card from Changsu and slotting it back into his wallet. “I want to be able to be there for them if they want. It’s not that I have no idea about the issues involved, but,” he shrugs, “it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the risk of being unintentionally hurtful.”
Caught off-guard, Changsu can’t quite manage to stifle a whimper.
Jingyan’s gaze promptly sharpens.
“Are you all right?” he asks, eyebrows creasing together.
“Fine,” Changsu bites out hoarsely, waving off his concern and reaching out to pull the books towards himself. He focuses his attention on putting the loans through, then prints out the loan receipt and tucks it under the cover of the uppermost book before handing both back to Jingyan.
“Say,” he says, as Jingyan is putting them into his bag. “You’re on your lunch break, aren't you? Jingyu’s still training the newbie, but my shift ends right now. Did you want to–”
“Sorry,” Jingyan says, shaking his head and shifting his bag onto his shoulder. “I don’t date Young Conservatives.”
Mei Changsu frowns, genuinely taken aback.
“But … I’m not?” he says hesitantly.
Jingyan nods. “He said you’d say that.”
Changsu’s eyes narrow suspiciously.
“YOU TOLD HIM I WAS A YOUNG CONSERVATIVE?” Changsu screeches indignantly at Jingyu, when he flings open the door to the student lounge and finds the man in question sitting with Dong-jie and Nihuang.
Jingyu takes his fingers out of his ears and shrugs nonchalantly.
“I’m not proud,” he tells Changsu, shaking his head, “but I did what I had to do.”
From her nearby beanbag, Dong-jie sniggers. Changsu gives her the finger and flops down into an armchair, taking his lunch out of his bag while muttering grievances to himself.
He's partway through slurping up a mouthful of cold noodle when he's interrupted by Jingyu suddenly saying, "Oh hey, I almost forgot", and turning away from laughing at the photos on Nihuang’s phone of Mu Qing trying to ride a horse to address his comment to Changsu.
Changsu lowers his lunchbox and makes a questioning noise.
“I managed to find my old law notes yesterday,” Jingyu says. “Did you still want them?”
“Yeah,” Changsu says, nodding as he swallows, “Yeah, I do, that’d be great. Thanks.”
“Why don’t we stop by my place after you finish your lunch, then?” Jingyu offers. “I didn’t bring them with me – there are a lot of them, and I didn’t want to lug them all the way if it turned out you weren’t interested, so–”
“I’m definitely interested,” Changsu says, taking another bite. “But maybe tomorrow?” he asks, cheeks bulging around his current mouthful, which makes Nihuang pull a face at him in distaste.
He chews and swallows before continuing. “I signed up for a history elective on the Liang dynasty this semester and tutorials started this week. I’ve got class in about fifteen minutes.”
His explanation is met with silence, and he looks up to find Jingyu staring at him.
“What?” Changsu asks. “Was it something I said?”
Jingyu shakes his head slowly, seeming to recover from his blank moment. “No, it’s – wait, do you even need electives, with your double degree?” he asks, frowning. “Don’t the law and commerce subjects count as breadth electives for each other?”
“Ye–s,” Changsu says, drawing the syllable out while he continues to eye Jingyu suspiciously. “But I took a summer subject over the break, which means I had space in my timetable this semester. Thought I’d go and explore some of my other interests while I had the chance.”
“And you didn’t go with something in programming?” Jingyu asks, frowning.
“He was banned, remember?” Nihuang pipes up from her position curled up in a corner of the squashy old couch. “Not allowed to take anything IT systems or software-related unless he bonds himself to government service, which he’s still refusing to do.”
“Really?” Jingyu looks genuinely surprised.
“Yup,” Changsu says, nodding in easy agreement, scraping the inside of his lunch box clean before closing it and putting his lunch things away. “They monitor my internet usage as well. Which really just means that there are some government employees out there with a really comprehensive knowledge of A), what kind of porn I like, and B), all the hipster menu items I don’t recognise. Like dukkah,” he says.
“Mukimame,” Nihuang adds, looking up from her phone and grinning.
“They’re still watching you?” Jinyu demands, eyes wide.
“Well, they were last year, at least,” Changsu answers, shrugging and zipping his backpack up. “They have more people on me than you’d expect, after 11 – almost 12! – years.”
“How do you know?” Dong-jie asks curiously, tilting her head down the side of the beanbag to look at him.
“Oh,” Changsu says, shouldering his bag as he pushes himself up onto his feet. “I hacked in to see. It was a really big file – really detailed notes. Even I was surprised.”
“And this here,” Jingyu says wryly, sharing an exasperated look with Dong-jie, “this here is exactly why they have so many people still watching you.”
“Is my brother not here again?” Jingyan asks, dropping another stack of books in front of Changsu and peering around. “He told me he’d be free to meet me for lunch today, but he’s not answering my texts.”
“He got pulled into a meeting with some academics at the last minute, to provide an extra opinion,” Changsu says, pointing at a closed door with a tiny window at the top of it, through which Jingyu’s head is just visible. “If you’ve got afternoon classes, I’d give up on those lunch plans if I were you – it’s probably going to run over time. What’ve you got for me today?” he asks, picking the first book up off the pile. “Refugee advocacy? More general interest, then?”
Jingyan nods. “It's become a topical issue again, and I want to be able to properly defend my position when anti-refugee people ask me about it.”
This time, Changsu manages to control himself and keep any untoward sounds from escaping, but it’s a close call. He hastily asks Jingyan about the youth centre to distract him while he recovers.
Jingyan brightens and starts to talk about the children he works with and the programmes the centre is running, and Changsu finds himself not needing to pretend to be listening attentively when Jingyan expounds on the topic with an almost contagious enthusiasm.
He’s definitely in trouble.
“He’s just so good,” Changsu groans, slamming his thumb repeatedly down on the X button. “It’s terrible.”
“Mm hmm,” Nihuang agrees absently, not looking away from the television. On screen, her character locks her legs around his character’s neck, does some sort of flip and flings him into the dirt.
“Are you even listening to me?” Changsu demands, picking his character up and launching some sort of rip-off hadouken at hers.
“Lin Jingyan is so moral, he loves children and baby animals and the environment,” Nihuang lists off expressionlessly, bringing up the menu for item use. “His shoulders are so broad, his voice is so deep, his hands are so beautiful. He makes you warm in your heart and your crotch – have I missed anything?”
“No,” Changsu says sulkily, jumping out of the way as the item she’s flung at him onscreen explodes.
“Now watch carefully, Qing-er”, Nihuang says, and proceeds to do something that wipes out half his HP in one shot. Changsu gives a cry of dismay and consigns himself to some frantic button-mashing.
“Qing-er,” Dong-jie comes in and says over the yelling that follows, “in this case, you should take your sister and Su-gege as an example of what not to do, okay? I don’t want you growing up thinking that emotional sharing is something that should always be done against the background of violent video games.”
Changsu is saved from having to answer by Nihuang’s decisive victory, which means that he’s too busy burying his face in a nearby cushion while she’s dancing triumphantly around him to do anything else.
“Hallo all,” Nie Feng calls out cheerfully, wandering through the door in his girlfriend’s wake. “How’s it going?”
Changsu rolls over and passes his controller to Qing-er before standing up to stretch.
“Hey, Nie-dage,” he says, pulling his arms above his head and back to stretch out his muscles. “You want to play? You can take a turn after Qing-er at being destroyed by Nihuang.”
Nie-dage chuckles, but still makes his way over and sits down on the couch behind them. “Sure, why not?” he asks genially. “What are we playing this time?”
When Nihuang stops rubbing her win into Changsu’s face and sits back down, Nie-dage turns to her and says, “Oh, Nihuang, I almost forgot – Duo-er wants you to know that he’ll call you tonight. He’ll be done with work at seven, so by the time he gets home and has himself sorted – maybe expect him at 8:30?”
Changsu glances at Nihuang, who’s smiling softly to herself, and comments, “Oh yeah, that’s right. You’re dating Nie-dage’s brother now. Do you guys, like, double date?”
From the kitchen, Dong-jie snorts.
“No,” she says firmly, over the cluttering of dishes being dried and put away. “But it was a close thing. Duo-er was surprisingly keen on the idea.”
Changsu looks at Nie-dage, who shrugs.
“I think he’s watched too many movies,” Nie-dage offers by way of explanation. “He seems to think that it’s a thing. Part of the quintessential dating experience, or something. But Dong-er thinks it’s weird.”
“We spend so much time together already,” Dong-jie says, rolling her eyes. “Is it too much to ask that we spend a little bit of time apart? We’re only this far away from weird incestuous polyamory as it is.”
“Ah, the joys of housemates dating housemate-brothers,” Changsu nods, turning to grin at her. “You’re all so close, it’s so lovely.” He pauses for a moment. “But it’s a bit risky, too, isn’t it, with everyone so closely connected? What if–”
“You want to date Jingyu’s baby brother,” Dong-jie cuts in smoothly. “Even knowing about Jingyu’s militant protective streak. Isn’t that riskier?”
Changsu inclines his head in concession. It’s a fair point.
Changsu is in the back row of the slowly-filling lecture theatre, tapping his pen against his desk and waiting for his Liang dynasty professor to come in, when his phone vibrates.
Xiao Shu, are the student protestors currently
marching in the town centre your doing?
What? Why would you ask me that?
Xiao Shu. I have known you since you were five.
And I’ve also been a police officer in this university
town for the past ten years, which easily includes the
entire time you’ve been here. This has your name
written all over it.
While neither confirming nor denying my involvement,
I believe the numbers of students congregating are all
None of the groups should have exceeded
any limits that would require us to have notified
the authorities or obtained a permit.
While I’m sure that’s true, the problem is, as you well
know, that you somehow managed to strategically
place them across town in such a way that has GROUND
TRAFFIC DOWN TO A COMPLETE HALT.
And then you gave them instructions on SECONDARY
POSITIONS TO MOVE TO once police told them to
Do you know HOW LONG it took us to track them
all down and get traffic moving again????
Hahaha, so it worked, did it?
Look, I appreciate that you’re supporting causes that
are important to you.
Perhaps even objectively important.
But do you have to do it in ways that make my job
this hard D:
I know what a capable officer you are, Meng-dg.
Don’t want you getting bored.
I WOULD LOVE TO BE BORED.
PLEASE, LET ME BE BORED.
Anyway, you’ve found them all, right?
The problem’s been solved.
Yeah, but only after
There’s a completely different group of students
out there somewhere, doing something I’m going
to like even less right now, isn’t there.
Changsu looks up from his phone so he can check the front of the theatre for the lecturer again and instead finds Jingyan standing in the aisle, staring at him.
“Hey,” Changsu says, sliding his phone into his pocket and moving his bag off the chair beside him. “I didn’t know you were taking this class. Want a seat?”
Accepting his offer with a murmur of thanks, Jingyan drops his own bag on the floor in front of him before unzipping and rummaging through it.
“My brother said you were doing a double degree in Law and Commerce,” he says, pulling out a notepad and pen. “What are you doing in a history class?”
“I had space in my timetable because I took a summer subject,” Changsu explains, leaning his chin on his hand and turning to watch Jingyan. “I thought I should take the opportunity to get in touch with my roots. I take it this is one of your breadth subjects, too, then?”
“Yes,” Jingyan replies, sitting back up and flipping his notebook open to reveal lines of small, neat characters. “I’ve always been interested in history.”
Their conversation is interrupted by the professor, who has finally arrived, and both Changsu and Jingyan settle in to listen as she begins to speak.
The hour passes quickly; soon the lecture is over and students all around them are collecting their belongings and moving to leave.
“Lunch?” Changsu asks, standing and shrugging his backpack over one shoulder.
Jingyan looks up at him.
“I still don’t–”
“Just as friends,” Changsu says, holding his hands up. “A purely friendly lunch, no funny business at all. You can tell me about what you’ve been covering in your welfare policy unit – I’ve always meant to learn more about that.”
“I–” Jingyan begins, still looking unsure.
“What,” Changsu asks challengingly, quirking up an eyebrow, “you can’t be friends with Young Conservatives either?”
Jingyan looks at him for a moment, before his face breaks into a reluctant smile.
“No,” he says, picking his own bag up. “I think being friends would be all right. As long as you don’t pick any ideological fights.”
“Perish the thought,” Changsu says, and follows Jingyan into the aisle and towards the exit.
“So,” Jingyan says as they reach the doorway. “Does that mean you admit to being a Young Conservative, now?”
Changsu snorts derisively.
“Not a chance.”
“–so since the professor’s single now–“ Yujin says.
“Wait,” Shen Zhui interrupts him. “Didn’t you say that the biochemistry professor was dating that phD student?”
“Where’ve you been, Shen Zhui?” Yujin asks, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s old news.”
Shen Zhui looks at Changsu, who shrugs.
“It’s true,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “She left him for a visiting academic last semester.”
“Much more cutting-edge research,” Yujin explains sagely and Shen Zhui looks a little incredulous for a moment, before he seems to force himself accept the news and shrugs.
“Well, all right,” he says, waving Yujin on. “Please continue.”
“Right,” Yujin says with relish. “So he’s got this new master’s student taking one of his tutorials – very young, very attractive, it’s all hugely inappropriate, but–”
“Hey,” Cai Quan says over the top of him, walking in through the door and nodding to each of them. Jingyan steps in behind him and freezes, looking completely shocked to see Changsu present in the club meeting room.
“Oh yeah, Jingyan,” Yujin says, gesturing towards Changsu. “This is Mei Changsu, our treasurer – you won’t have seen him here before, he only makes it to maybe one meeting in three, and I don’t think he was at any of the meetings you’ve attended so far.”
“Yo,” Changsu says, giving Jingyan a little salute. “So we meet again. Careful, or I’m going to start thinking you’re following me – might give me the wrong idea, and we can’t have that.”
“The Treasurer?” Jingyan exclaims, with more shock than Changsu feels is really necessary, because honestly. “Of the Student Welfare Society?”
“I did tell you I wasn’t a Young Conservative,” Changsu says, amused. He pulls out the seat next to him and motions for Jingyan to sit. “You’re the one who wouldn’t believe me.”
“You thought he was a Young Conservative?” Yujin laughs. “Wow, that’s a good one. I mean, he’s only an officer in like, 90% of the left-wing, socially-progressive clubs on campus.”
“It’s not that many, Yujin,” Changsu drawls. And it isn’t. It’s more like 88%.
“And he consults for the other ten!” Yujin adds, ignoring him.
“It’s why I don’t make it to every meeting,” Changsu explains to a still slightly shell-shocked Jingyan. “I need to spread my time around.”
“And don’t let his official titles fool you either,” Yujin continues blithely, giving a lazy hand-wave that Changsu bats away when it comes too close to his face. “He sets the strategic plans for the activities of all of them, even if he doesn’t have time to be involved with the day-to-day management.”
Jingyan looks to him in a silent demand for confirmation.
“It’s both more effective and more efficient to co-ordinate our efforts,” Changsu offers, shrugging.
“And by co-ordinate,” Jingyan begins, glancing from one to the other, “you mean …?”
“You know,” Yujin says, “like making sure complementary club activities are run at the same time and can pool resources, or that if there’s a critical campaign for one club, no one else runs any distractions. He also tries to make sure that campaigns are run at times when we can get the most leverage for our causes – like making sure that the student article on the practical discriminatory effects of certain university policies on queer students was published during the Human Rights Commissioner’s official visit, or running the campaign for greener power sources on campus when the government was trying to win international brownie points at the Climate Summit last year.”
“He’s also very good at getting things to go viral,” Tong Lu calls from somewhere among the group of students clustered around the other end of the table.
“So then,” Jingyan says hesitantly, eyeing Changsu, “do you actually have anything to do with the Student Welfare Society’s funds?”
“Of course,” Changsu says, surprised. “I’m the Treasurer, aren’t I?”
“OH,” Yujin says, giving a sudden burst of laughter. “Do you remember the time he wanted to ‘invest’ in that online gambling thing?”
“God, I remember that,” Cai Quan mutters, looking like he very much wishes he didn’t.
“So,” Yujin chirps, turning to a wide-eyed and slightly scandalised-looking Jingyan, “Changsu figured out that with the moneyback guarantee this gambling website was running, if you hedged your bets in a certain way, you were basically getting free money. I think we were trying to set up a student crisis fund or something, and the starting pool, even after fundraising, was smaller than we were hoping for, so he wanted to try growing it through the website.”
Yujin scratches his chin and squints thoughtfully at Changsu, who raises an eyebrow at him.
“What happened in the end, again?” Yujin asks him, and proceeds to answer the question himself before Changsu has a chance to open his mouth. “I think you decided that getting around the student club regulations would be too difficult, was that it? Anyway,” he says, turning back to Jingyan, “he ended up investing some of his own money, grew it like, 600% and then donated it to the fund.”
“So,” Jingyan says incredulously, “is that still how–”
“No,” Changsu says, snorting and slouching down against the backrest of his chair. “It was too much trouble. It’s lot of work, deciding what to gamble on, you know. Took up more time than we could really justify.”
“All right,” Shen Zhui shouts at that moment, holding his hands up and raising his voice to be heard over the hubbub of chatter in the room. “We’ve wasted enough time – we should get down to club business. Changsu, if you wanted to–?”
“Right, thanks,” Changsu says, pushing his chair back and standing. “Nothing much from my end – the demonstration effort in the town centre, and its sister demonstration were great successes. So thanks to all of you who were involved – the execution was perfect.”
After providing a few more updates, he hands the floor to Tong Lu, who runs through a number of upcoming events.
“Oh,” Tong Lu says, at the end of his piece, “I almost forgot. The International Students’ Society has asked for our help with international students being exploited by employers. Again. It seems there’s been another spike in students being hired into jobs where they’re overworked and underpaid – we may need to organise another employee rights awareness campaign. My team and I will keep looking into it.”
“That ties in with what I wanted to say,” Shen Zhui says, standing after Tong Lu takes his seat again. “The Huifei Café – the one on the East side of campus that tries to take on at least two financial aid students on our recommendation every year – they’ve told us that they’ve run into a bit of a financial rough patch and may have to start looking into cutting staff.”
“Wasn’t business going well last semester?” Changsu asks, frowning and straightening in his seat. “What happened?”
“Someone opened a new franchise directly opposite,” Shen Zhui explains, and glances down at his notes. “Coffee-something. CoffeeFire? No, sorry, it was Coffeeworks. Anyway, they’re offering all sorts of discounts and promotions, not to mention that they’re shiny and new. I suspect,” he adds, lips thinning, “that they’re also involved with the wave of your exploited international student-workers, there.”
“Hm,” Changsu says, pulling the sheet of notes towards himself and looking over it thoughtfully.
“So you’re really not a Young Conservative,” Jingyan says, when they sit down with their trays of food in the campus food court after their next history lecture.
“Seems that way,” Changsu agrees, unwrapping his burger and pursuing his lips at the sad, squashed little bun he reveals.
“Then why Law and Commerce?” Jingyan asks, unwrapping his own burger and offering the similarly lopsided construction up for rueful comparison. “It seems like a very right-wing combination for someone whose other interests are so left-leaning.”
“Well,” Changsu says, casting a jaundiced eye over his wilted lettuce before going in for a bite anyway. “After I graduate, I’m planning to join an independent research institute that publishes various reports to raise public awareness and engender debate,” he explains, between large mouthfuls. “I’m studying commerce and law because I want to focus on issues in the corporate sector – tax avoidance, compliance with environmental laws, lobbying activities …” He takes a sip of soda and smiles. “There’s a lot of audit-related information, in particular, that the current reports aren’t managing to uncover to the extent that I would like.”
“And you feel that you’d do better?” Jingyan inquires, pausing with a chip halfway to his mouth to give Changsu a challenging look.
“And command more of the public’s attention,” Changsu agrees serenely.
Jingyan snorts and shakes his head.
“All right,” he says, “now that I’m getting to know you better, that does make a strange kind of sense.”
“So what about you?” Changsu asks from the side of his mouth, chewing on his last bit of burger and wiping his fingers on his napkin. “You’re clearly not new to the activist cause, why didn’t you join the SWS earlier?”
He shoves his clean hand into his bag and pulls out a cup of Yan Yan, peeling open the top and offering it to Jingyan.
“Well, my father wouldn’t allow it,” Jingyan says, taking a stick and dipping it into the chocolate, frowning adorably with concentration as he tries to scoop some out without breaking the biscuit. “He said it was too political.”
“Too political?” Changsu says, popping a chocolate-dipped stick into his own mouth and crunching down. “What does he think of your brother volunteering at legal aid, then?”
“Oh, he’s fine with supporting charitable causes,” Jingyan assures him. “He’s a patron of a number of charities himself, and legal representation is a citizen’s right. It’s just partisan politics that he takes issue with.”
“I … see,” Changsu says, although in reality he doesn’t see at all. “Well, what changed his mind?”
“Nothing,” Jingyan answers, shrugging. “I decided I was going to go and do it, anyway.” He clears his throat and mutters, “He’s not very happy with me, at the moment.”
“A rebel with a cause,” Changsu comments, wiggling his eyebrows at Jingyan as he stands up and pushes his chair back. “I like it.”
Jingyan shoots him an exasperated look and Changsu laughs, picking up both their trays and heading over to a nearby rubbish bin to empty them.
“Hey,” Jingyan says, when Changsu returns to their table to collect his bag. “My tutor mentioned that it might be worth forming private discussion groups to go over the weekly set questions before class. Did you want to study together? My brother’s got plans with his postgrad friends on Friday night,” he continues quickly, when Changsu just blinks at him in response. “So we’d have the apartment to ourselves if you wanted to come over.”
“Er,” Changsu says, still feeling slightly off-balance, but not unhappy about it. “Sure. Sounds like a great idea.”
“You hate studying with other people,” Nihuang says flatly over Bomberman that evening.
“That’s not true!” Changsu objects, dropping a bomb behind her and running for cover.
Nihuang physically turns to look at him.
“ –of all people–” Changsu amends hastily.
“You always say that other people hold you back,” Nihuang points out, and returns to exploding barriers onscreen, unmoved by his protests. “How many times have I heard you complain that group assessments are the work of the devil, as embodied by lazy markers–”
“This isn’t for anything that’s marked, though!” Changsu says, scrambling to collect some of the items that have appeared onscreen before Nihuang gets them all.
“You hate those even more!” Nihuang retorts, seemingly determined to stab ruthlessly at his weak pretences until they completely deflate. “You always say that they’re completely pointless, since there aren’t even marks at stake to make it worth listening to other people’s vacuous drivel!”
In an onscreen move that perfectly mirrors her real-life actions, Nihuang drops a diabolical line of bombs. Changsu swears, mashing frenetically on the arrow buttons to get out of strike range before they detonate.
“You’re exaggerating – I was never that harsh about it,” he says, once he’s safe again and fumbling to use some of his items on her before she destroys his chances. “More than once, anyway. Jingyan seems like an intelligent guy – maybe he’ll surprise me–”
When she doesn’t immediately respond, he glances sideways and finds Nihuang looking at him pityingly.
“You’ve really got it bad, huh?” she says.
Caught off-guard, Changsu accidentally presses the wrong button and launches a massive bomb that explodes and kills them both.
“… Yeah,” he admits.
“Here, take a seat,” Jingyan says, gesturing to a sitting-room suite that’s all grey fabric cushions on minimalistic wooden frames, and probably costs more than Changsu’s life. He’s been here before, though, visiting Jingyu, so he sits without much fuss and unpacks his books while Jingyan disappears into the kitchen.
He returns with a tray laden with tea and snacks, which he sets down on the low, glass coffee-table.
“For while we study,” he says, setting a steaming cup of tea and small selection of biscuits and cakes in front of Changsu. “My mother made them.”
Curiously, Changsu reaches out for one of the little cakes and pops it into his mouth. His eyes widen.
“These are really good!” he says, covering his mouth with a hand to keep crumbs from spraying everywhere.
Looking quietly pleased, Jingyan takes a pastry for himself before flipping open his textbook and starting them on the set questions.
Despite his (and Nihuang’s) initial misgivings, Changsu is surprised to find that he’s quite enjoying the rapid exchange of ideas between them.
(And not just because he’s hot for Jingyan, thanks Nihuang.)
An hour later, they’re not even halfway through the list when a bedroom door swings open and Jingyu walks distractedly out, trying to shrug on a jacket while still scrolling through his phone.
“Right, I’m heading out now, Jingyan, so you and your classmate can – Changsu!” he gasps out, stopping short and almost dropping the keys he’s just picked up off the kitchen counter.
“Yo,” Changsu says, lifting a hand in a lazy wave. It’s not like he didn’t see it coming, but the horrified expression on Jingyu’s face is still a little insulting. “You weren’t expecting me, I take it?”
“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition,” Jingyu mutters, flipping open his phone-cover and proceeding to engage his thumbs in some truly impressive speed-typing.
Changsu’s mouth twitches and he nods seriously. “Not while our chief weapons are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency,” he agrees.
“HA HA HA HA HA,” Jingyan guffaws theatrically, and shrugs when Changsu shoots him an appreciative look.
“I need to make a phone call,” Jingyu says abruptly, spinning on his heel and striding back into his room.
He emerges two minutes later, sans jacket, and plonks himself down on the couch between them.
“Weren’t you going out?” Jingyan asks, frowning as his brother helps himself to a biscuit, which he shoves into his mouth and chews on with unusual force.
“I have rearranged my plans,” Jingyu announces proudly, leaning back with the air of someone who fully intends to settle in for a good period of time. “So now I’m free to stay at home. With you.”
Changsu and Jingyan stare at him.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” Jingyu says, waving impatiently at the course materials strewn across the table. “Carry on studying, don’t mind me.”
“It’s not like this is new to me,” Changsu says to Jingyan after a further moment of being completely dumbfounded. “But your brother is–”
“Yeah,” Jingyan agrees wearily. “He is. Let’s go to your place next time.”
“I’ve made some enquiries,” Shen Zhui announces at the next SWS meeting. “And it turns out that the person who owns Coffeeworks – through a very interesting corporate arrangement – is your old friend, Changsu: one Mr Xian.”
“Good old Xianny,” Changsu says wryly. “Of course it is.”
“Apparently,” Shen Zhui tells the room after a quick glance at his notes, “he’s been reported to the Employment Ombudsman quite a number of times for failing to properly pay his staff – minimum wages, weekend and overtime Award rates, and he also sometimes withholds wages illegally.”
“But?” Cai Quan prompts, with a tight-lipped expression that suggests that he’s already bracing himself for more crushing disappointment in the regulatory system.
“But, he gets off with at most a small fine each time, because the officer who is always assigned his cases is Xu Anmo, who’s some sort of cousin of his, on his mother’s side.”
“WHAT?” Jingyan exclaims, the only surprised face amongst a sea of resignation. “That’s outrageous. How can that possibly–”
“What do you think, Changsu?” Shen Zhui asks, over Jingyan’s continuing outburst and the attempts of a few other members to placate him. “What’s the best course of action for us in this case?”
“What do I think?” Changsu muses, rubbing absently at the edge of his sleeve with this thumb and forefinger. “I think that if we want him properly investigated, we have to make sure that Xu Anmo is occupied with something else when the complaint is assigned. Even better if we could arrange it so that the general public sentiment at the time would effectively leave the Ombudsman’s office no choice but to make an example out of him.”
He pauses thoughtfully, still rubbing.
“Perhaps,” he suggests, “if we can manage to collect copies of each of the reports that have been submitted previously, as well as information on the outcomes of the investigations, and then compile and publish them–”
“There should be public records of at least some of those fines,” Cai Quan says, tapping a finger against his chin. “And Tong Lu, weren’t you helping some of his former staff members lodge complaints at some point?”
“I was,” Tong Lu affirms, uncapping his pen to make himself a quick note. “I should still have all their contact details. I’ll get in touch and see if they’ve still got copies of the evidence they submitted, as well as the complaints themselves – I’m sure they’d be happy to pass them over.”
“And we could get the rest through a Freedom of Information application, I’d say,” Cai Quan resumes, turning back to Changsu. “But if we want to avoid alerting Xu Anmo, the question is: how do we prevent the application from being linked back to us?”
“Qin Banruo is still in business around the University, isn’t she?” Changsu asks Shen Zhui. “Is she still Xian’s main competitor?”
“I believe so,” Shen Zhui answers, nodding cautiously.
“Tong Lu,” Changsu says, letting a corner of his mouth curl up into a crooked smile. “Why don’t you get in touch with her as well? I think, in this case, she might be willing to help us out. Between us, I’m sure we’ll be able to arrange a mutually satisfactory outcome.”
Changsu is slouched at his kitchen table, going through the lecture slides for one of his law units while Jingyan sits beside him, highlighting sections of the textbook in his lap, when Changsu’s phone suddenly vibrates, almost shaking its way off the table’s edge.
Changsu snatches it out of the air with a practised hand and pulls up the message screen.
Ey, Changsu, you still in for Sat? Feiliu’s been
bugging me nonstop about seeing you, the
“Ah,” Changsu says aloud.
Jingyan looks up from his textbook with a soft inquiring noise.
“My friend has a foster brother who comes up to stay for one weekend a month so their parents can have some time alone,” Changsu explains. “We agreed to take him to the amusement park tomorrow for a fun day out; I’d almost forgotten.”
“The amusement park?” Jingyan asks curiously.
“You know,” Changsu says, “the one that gets set up on the left bank of the river every autumn? The really tacky one with the dodgy rides that definitely don’t look like they comply with OH&S standards?” he adds, when Jingyan just gives him a blank look. “And the dirty food trucks selling ridiculously overpriced food?”
“And that’s … fun?” Jingyan asks dubiously, dark eyebrows creasing in a way that makes Changsu want to coo and pat his head.
“Yeah!” he says instead, possibly a bit too enthusiastically for someone over the age of twelve. “You’ve never been?”
Jingyan shakes his head mutely.
“Not even when you were – oh that’s right,” Changsu says, after he catches sight of the designer label on Jingyan’s discarded jacket and is washed over by a sudden wave of realisation. “I’d forgotten that you grew up rich. Guess you had better places to go in your spare time, huh? Where the food isn’t guaranteed to give you diarrhoea, and the rides are held together with more than duct tape and optimism. I’d venture a guess that the extortionate prices would be the same, though.”
“You’re really selling it, there,” he says, voice desert-dry.
“Hey, amusements parks are great,” Changsu protests laughingly. “The tackiness is part of the attraction.”
He hesitates, and then asks, “Did you want to come along? I’m sure my friend and his brother wouldn’t mind.”
Jingyan blinks at him in surprise. “I–”
“You should,” Changsu adds, doing his best to sound encouraging. “It’ll be a new experience; you can see how the other side lives.”
“By risking my life on a ten-dollar food truck hotdog?”Jingyan asks, smiling crookedly.
“Not your life,” Changsu corrects him, “just your underpants,” and then laughs at Jingyan’s completely emotionless expression.
“Don’t worry,” he says, still grinning, “you look like a strong lad; if a sedentary weakling like me can make it through repeated visits unscathed, you’ll be fine. Didn’t your brother say that you did a stint with the Army Reserves? Look, I won’t make you go on any rides you won’t live through,” Changsu promises, when Jingyan still looks hesitant. “And I’ll bring you a spare pair of underwear, just in case.”
At this, Jingyan reluctantly breaks into a smile.
“All right, fine,” he says, shaking his head and giving in. Changsu allows himself a small smile of quiet satisfaction. “Where and when should I meet you?”
“Here we are!” Changsu announces when he pulls up in the gravel car park, taking care to choose a space within easy walking distance of the park entrance. He unclips his seat belt and turns to check on Jingyan, who is, as it turns out, looking dubiously out of the window even as he opens the door to get out.
Stepping out of the vehicle himself, Changsu is immediately hit by a cold gust of wind that blows past and takes all his body heat with it, making him yelp and hunch deeper into his coat.
Jingyan turns immediately at the sound, but Changsu waves off his concern.
“Your brother’s probably already told you that I went to high school overseas,” he says, turning his collar up to protect his neck from the chill. “It was a lot warmer there, so even though it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been back, I still keep forgetting how cold it gets. It’s all right; I’ll be fine as soon as we get into the crowd.”
Jingyan doesn’t reply; only pulls off his scarf and wordlessly wraps it around Changsu’s neck.
“What? No, you don’t need to–” Changsu says, trying to stop him and make him take the scarf back. Jingyan makes a small noise of irritation and bats Changsu’s hands away, tugging at the scarf to make sure that it’s tied snugly before he smoothes Changsu’s lapel and steps back.
“My body temperature generally runs fairly high,” he says, already starting to walk towards the park entrance, so that Changsu is forced to follow. “And I’m used to the cold. Keep it.”
He cuts off Changsu’s second attempt at protest with a stern look, and Changsu is left with no choice but to reluctantly accept the scarf around his neck, warm with Jingyan’s body heat and smelling faintly of his cologne.
When they arrive at the gate, Lin Chen and Feiliu are already waiting for them, Lin Chen in his habitual long white coat, and Feiliu dressed (probably by Lin Chen) warmly in a puffy blue jacket, a knitted, grey bobble hat and matching mittens.
“Su-gege!” Feiliu cries happily when he spots them, and launches himself headfirst into Changsu’s arms.
“Ey, Changsu,” Lin Chen offers more sedately over Changsu’s fond laughter. “And this must be the famous Lin Jingyan.”
He takes advantage of Changsu’s momentary distraction by Feiliu to give Jingyan a critical once-over, before he seems to accept what he sees and extends a hand to introduce himself.
“Lin Chen, medical student,” he says, when Jingyan accepts the hand and shakes it firmly.
“Social work,” Jingyan offers in return, and raises an eyebrow questioningly when Lin Chen responds with a significant, “Ah,” and shoots Changsu a knowing look.
“Come on, let’s buy our tickets,” Changsu says loudly, leading the way towards the ticketing booth and elbowing Lin Chen sharply in the gut as soon as he comes within reach. Lin Chen doubles over and Changsu smiles brightly at Jingyan, ushering both him and Feiliu towards the queue in front of the window, while ignoring Lin Chen’s muttered, “You piece of shit.”
Tickets in hand, they wander in through the entrance and find themselves standing in front of a small board that is helpfully displaying a map of the park area.
“Right,” Lin Chen says, squinting thoughtfully at the boldly-labelled attractions. “What are we going to do first?”
A sudden burst of screaming catches Feiliu’s attention – he turns towards the source of the sound and his face promptly brightens.
“Ah!” he exclaims excitedly, grabbing Changsu’s sleeve and pointing excitedly.
Changsu hums questioningly, following Feiliu’s line of sight and then smiles at what he sees.
“You want to ride on the roller-coaster, Feiliu?” he asks indulgently.
“Su-gege!” Feiliu insists and Changsu immediately understands what he’s trying to say.
“Ah, you want me to go with you?” he asks, and is vindicated when Feiliu nods emphatically.
Changsu chuckles and ruffles his hair. “I think we can manage that,” he says, and Feiliu bounces over to Lin Chen, stopping in front of him and looking up expectantly.
“You may,” Lin Chen agrees, “but only if you ride the ghost train with me, first.”
Feiliu’s happy expression melts immediately into one of horror.
“Yup,” Lin Chen tells him, seemingly unaffected by the pitiful sight before him. “Those are your choices. What are you going to do?”
Feiliu looks apprehensively out towards the ghost train entrance, his small figure seeming to appear even more forlorn at the sight of the tortured-looking skeleton moving jerkily over the doorway.
“Stop teasing him,” Changsu tells Lin Chen exasperatedly, finally forced to intervene. “Don’t listen to him, Feiliu,” he says, turning to that pair of round, hopeful eyes. “You don’t have to go on any rides that you don’t want to, okay?”
He glances at Jingyan, who has been silent so far, and who looks just a little overwhelmed – very possibly from the relentless onslaught of tackiness coming at him from every direction.
Changsu turns back to Feiliu and sighs when he finds him sticking his tongue out at Lin Chen, the familiar first volley in what, sure enough, develops into another round of tussling.
“His side, Feiliu!” Changsu calls out helpfully to struggling Feiliu, who’s doing his best to fight his way out of a headlock while Lin Chen booms with laughter. “Go for his side!”
Obediently, Feiliu jabs wiry fingers into the soft flesh under Lin Chen’s ribs, making his older brother yelp, squirm away and finally release his head in a bid to escape the merciless tickling.
“Now his hair!” Changsu adds, gesturing encouragingly, and laughs when Lin Chen yells, “DON’T HELP HIM!” around his efforts to keep his precious locks out of Feiliu’s reach.
He turns away from the rough-housing to find himself being watched. When their eyes meet, Jingyan smiles.
“Okay, okay,” Changsu says, flashing him a quick return grin before wading into the mêlée and breaking up the fight. “Here’s the game plan: we’ll do the rides first, then move onto prize games, and then food. Feiliu,” he says, turning to address him directly. “You can go on as many rides as you like, today, but you’re only allowed three prize games this time, all right?”
He holds up three fingers to emphasise his point.
“Eh?!” Feiliu exclaims, protest written into every part of his face.
“What do you mean, ‘eh’?” Lin Chen demands severely. “You remember what happened last time.”
“Oh,” Feiliu says, looking crestfallen, and his whole body seems to droop with disappointment.
“How’s this,” Changsu offers, feeling a twinge in his chest at the pitiful sight. “I’ll buy you an ice-cream afterwards, and you can choose whatever flavour you want.”
Feiliu’s head jerks up at the mention of food.
“Three scoops?” he asks hopefully, and before Changsu can open his mouth, Lin Chen interrupts by clearing his throat meaningfully and glaring.
“Two scoops,” Changsu says, turning to Lin Chen and holding up both hands placatingly. “But you can have chocolate syrup, and sprinkles, and nuts.”
Feiliu takes a moment to consider the offer, before nodding happily.
“You shouldn’t spoil him like that,” Lin Chen grumbles, as Feiliu takes off in the direction of the roller-coaster line, leaving his three companions to follow at their own pace. “It’s not like we’re being unreasonable.”
“He’s young,” Changsu says indulgently, sticking his hands into his coat pockets to warm them. “Days out like this should be about being spoiled. Let him eat what he wants to eat – after all, it’s not his fault we have to limit the number of games he’s allowed to play.”
When he chances a sideways glance at Lin Chen, he finds his friend looking at him expressionlessly.
“All right,” Changsu concedes, holding his hands up once more. “It is his fault. But it’s not like he did anything wrong!”
Lin Chen just rolls his eyes and keeps walking.
“Why is he being limited to three?” Jingyan asks curiously, from Changsu’s other side, “if he’s allowed to go on as many rides as he wants? Does he get upset if he doesn’t win?”
Changsu and Lin Chen exchange looks, but say nothing.
“And then he went and chose the three games that offered the most prizes,” Lin Chen sighs, craning his neck to better see over the brightly-coloured boxes stacked against his chest. “Because of course he did.”
“He’s a smart kid,” Changsu says, following behind with packets upon packets of plastic novelty items in his arms and a rainbow-coloured feather boa draped around his neck. “He knows his own athletic abilities, and what he wants is toys, so it was the natural choice, really.”
Beside him, Jingyan, who is himself carrying a giant stuffed wolf that is almost as big as he is, chooses to say nothing.
Meanwhile, Feiliu, unburdened by anything more than the ice-cream cone he’s enthusiastically licking, has skipped on ahead to admire the stall fronts that line the way to the park exit.
“Just as well you brought your car, Lin Chen,” Changsu continues, adjusting his grip on his slippery armload. “And I borrowed Dong-jie’s. We’ll actually be able to get the prizes home this time.”
“I don’t know where we’re going to put it all when we get there,” Lin Chen groans, eyeing the box tucked under his chin and pressing his lips together, unimpressed. “And I also don’t understand why he always goes for the big stuffed toys.”
Feiliu, who has at some point finished his cone, chooses this moment to run back towards them.
“Ah!” Changsu says sharply when Feiliu gets within two feet of them, and Feiliu obediently slides to a halt. Dumping his toys onto the top of Lin Chen’s boxes (“Hey!”), Changsu reaches into his pocket for a paper napkin and uses it to wipe Feiliu’s mouth.
He takes a moment to critically inspect his work before nodding once, and Feiliu happily launches himself at the wolf in Jingyan’s arms.
Jingyan freezes. Head tilted back to accommodate the wolf head that’s now mashed into his cheek, he looks urgently at Changsu and Lin Chen, a silent plea for help in his terrified eyes.
Heartlessly, Changsu laughs.
Blissfully unaware of the goings-on around him, Feiliu continues to stand with his arms around the wolf’s soft belly, rubbing his face into its fur.
“So your first trip to an amusement park is over,” Changsu says, bringing the car to a stop outside Jingyan’s apartment building. “What did you think? Fun?”
“I think I’m mildly terrified of what Feiliu would be capable of winning without the three-game limit,” Jingyan says, shaking his head at the memory. “I have next to no experience, but I’m certain that it’s not supposed to be that easy.”
“He has excellent hand-eye co-ordination,” Changsu agrees. “He’s also very strong. He’s particularly good at the strongman hammer challenge, though he didn’t choose to do it today.”
Changsu pauses, considering. “Probably because that one’s directed at adults, and there were no good toy prizes.”
“A single-minded boy,” Jingyan comments, giving a low chuckle. “I can respect that. But yes, I did have a lot of fun. Thank you for inviting me along.”
“And thank you for the loan of your scarf,” Changsu returns, untying the scarf from around his neck and leaning forward to loop it around the back of Jingyan’s. The hand that clamps around his wrist to stop him moving back takes him by surprise, and his eyes fly up to Jingyan’s face.
Jingyan holds his gaze for a steady moment, and then, slowly, giving him plenty of time to move away, leans in to press their mouths together in a soft kiss.
“Good night,” he whispers, when he pulls back, one corner of his mouth quirking upwards before he turns and opens the car door.
“Ah!” Changsu exclaims, instinctively reaching out a hand to stop him.
One foot already on the ground outside, Jingyan turns back with a questioning look.
“Is that it?” Changsu asks, and Jingyan raises an eyebrow at him in response.
“What more do you want?” he asks.
“Another kiss?” Changsu tries and Jingyan snorts, but obligingly leans in once more.
“That’s enough, all right?” he says, when he pulls away this time. “I’m not that kind of boy.”
“Maybe I’m that kind of boy,” Changsu whines plaintively.
Jingyan laughs, bids him a firm good night, and goes inside.
Mei Changsu is speechless.
“You don’t like it?” Jingyan asks worriedly from behind him. “Jingyu said that you liked plum trees–”
“Oh, I like it,” Changsu assures him, still avidly taking in the pink-dusted branches lining the far edge of the pond they’re standing at. The light winter breeze sends ripples across the water, and makes the dark branches of the plum trees tremble, sending little showers of petals raining down onto the pond’s surface.
The sight takes his breath away.
“I like it very much,” he murmurs, finally turning to look at Jingyan, who smiles broadly at him, relieved.
“Good,” he says, leading the way towards the white, stone bridge that connects the path to the pavilion at the pond’s centre. “We can stay here as long as you like – I’ve brought a packed lunch, and no one else will be coming out here today.”
“Is this garden open to the public?” Changsu asks, resting a hand on the top of the rail as he leans over it to peer at the lily pads dotting the water below. “And if so, why haven’t I been here before? I’m sure that if–”
“No,” Jingyan interrupts him, sounding somewhat embarrassed. “It’s a private estate. Actually,” he clarifies, clearing his throat sheepishly. “It’s one of the royal estates.”
“The royal estates?” Changsu can feel his eyebrows creeping up his forehead. “Your family must be older money than I thought, to have friends in the royal family. Like, full, fancy, leisure-hunting, polo-playing, horse-riding–”
“Horse-riding?” Jingyan asks, looking surprised. “You’ve never ridden?”
Changsu considers the question.
“I think I rode in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, once,” he says, finally.
Jingyan laughs. “Well, that’s close,” he offers, drawing Changsu onward to the pavilion’s entrance. “And although I don’t know about the others, I’m sure horse-riding’s not that exclusive.”
“But I notice you’re not denying the bit about your family,” Changsu comments archly, accepting a pork bun from the plastic container Jingyan produces from his bag and taking a large bite.
“You’re actually royal relatives, aren’t you?” he asks, more statement than question, around a mouthful of bread and spiced meat. “You don’t need to lie to me; if your lineage goes back that far, you’re definitely all cousins of some sort – probably many times over, on both sides.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” Jingyan asks, pausing with his own bun halfway to his mouth.
“Well,” Changsu says, holding a hand to his chin and putting on a deliberate show of thoughtfulness. “I am a republican. But, unlike you with your Young Conservatives, I am not a man of such rigid principles, so I’ll make an exception.”
He shoots Jingyan a sly look from the corner of one eye. “But only because you’re cute.”
“Thank you,” Jingyan says dryly, raising the bun the rest of the way and taking a bite, though Changsu notes with no small amount of satisfaction that his cheeks are conspicuously pinker than they were a moment ago. “That means a lot.”
In the end, they manage to spend a good two hours wandering the garden and admiring the views. When the sun starts to go down and the air grows colder, however, even Changsu, avid lover of plum blossoms that he is, is forced to admit defeat, so they pile into Changsu’s tiny two-door hybrid and drive back to Jingyan’s apartment.
“Do you want to come up?” Jingyan asks, when they arrive, climbing out of the car and then turning around to poke his head back inside. “It’s almost dinner time – we can order in, and you can eat before you go home.”
“Yeah, why not?” Changsu replies easily after a moment’s pause, unbuckling his seatbelt and pushing open his door. His leftovers will keep for another day. Probably.
The apartment is quiet when they get in, and Changsu unties his shoes while Jingyan heads into the kitchen to put the bun box into the sink. Hanging his coat up on one of the hooks by the door, Changsu is about to head towards the sofa when Jingyan gives him a little headshake and instead leads the way to his bedroom.
Like the rest of the apartment, Jingyan’s room is simply and sparsely furnished. His things are arranged with almost painstaking tidiness, with everything either shelved or stacked away, and the bed is made so neatly that Changsu is almost too afraid to sit on it.
He does anyway, and Jingyan sits down next to him, sliding in close before cupping one hand around the back of his neck and drawing him in for a kiss. Changsu goes readily, and when Jingyan runs a tongue along the seam of his lips, opens his mouth immediately.
Changsu slides his hands down Jingyan’s chest and lets them come to a stop on his hips, fiddling idly with Jingyan’s waistband as their mouths continue to move together. Jingyan’s hands find their way under the hem of his shirt and Changsu hums appreciatively when long fingers wander up his back, stroke down his sides and make their way around to his stomach.
Caught up in his own exploration of Jingyan’s chest, Changsu is therefore given the shock of his life when Jingyan’s hands land on the front of his jeans, pop open the button and slide the zip down.
“Wait!” he squeaks desperately, clapping his hand over the fingers that are about to slide under the waistband of his underpants. Jingyan stops immediately, and sits back to give him a questioning look.
“I’m obviously up for it, please make no mistake,” Changsu says, folding his fingers through Jingyan’s and holding them there when Jingyan makes to withdraw his hands. “But, I just want to ask first – are you sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure?” Jingyan frowns, looking taken aback by the question.
“I wouldn’t want you to jump into something you weren’t ready for,” Changsu explains gently. “So if I’ve inadvertently pressured you–”
“What?” Jingyan asks, squinting at him in confusion. “Where would you get the idea that I’m not ready?”
“Well,” Changsu begins haltingly. “Your, uh … brother said – and I’m sure he’s warned you about me, as well–”
Jingyan purses his lips and pulls his hands out of Changsu’s grip so that he can press his fingers to his temples in pained exasperation.
“I think you know fairly well by now how my brother gets when I’m involved,” he tells Changsu flatly, opening one eye at him before raising both to the ceiling. “Honestly,” he mutters, half to himself. “He’s really got to–”
He closes his eyes again and sighs deeply.
“So,” Changsu ventures tentatively, leaning forward slightly to peer up into Jingyan’s face. “You don’t think that I’m going to, like, use you for your body and then callously leave you once I’ve had my fun, either? Or emotionally blackmail you into doing whatever I want?”
“I think those are risks that I’m willing to take,” Jingyan answers dryly, meeting his gaze evenly before the corner of his mouth curls up and he gives a little snort of amusement. “Are those all of your concerns?”
“Well,” Changsu says, because now that Jingyan’s mentioned it, he may as well. “Your brother also said that you didn’t really do casual, and we’ve only been on – four? Five? Would you classify the amusement park day as a date? – so–”
Jingyan rolls his eyes.
“Despite what my brother may have told you,” he says, mouth twisting in a way that suggests that Jingyu is due to receive an earful when they next see each other, “I’m not waiting for marriage or anything. It’s fine.”
“Okay,” Changsu agrees, but then feels compelled to add, “but don’t feel like you shouldn’t wait, either, if that’s actually what you–”
“Shut up and get over here,” Jingyan orders.
“Yessir,” Changsu responds promptly, and obediently crawls into his lap.
They do eventually order dinner, and after they’ve eaten and cleaned up, settle down on the sofa in the living room. Changsu stretches himself out, his legs hooked over one armrest and his head resting in Jingyan’s lap, while Jingyan plays with his hair and watches the news on the sleek, flat-screen television mounted on the wall.
“So,” Changsu ventures carefully, when the screen cuts from the anchors to a commercial break. “Are we … dating, now?”
Jingyan looks down and him and Changsu forces himself to keep his expression smooth.
“Do you want to be dating?” Jingyan asks lightly, raising an eyebrow.
“I think it’s been clear from day one that I’ve wanted to be dating,” Changsu says, snorting and raising an eyebrow right back. “So the more relevant question is, do you want to be dating?”
Jingyan smiles and strokes his chin in feigned deliberation.
“I suppose I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” he remarks thoughtfully, after a moment. “Now that it turns out that you’re not a Young Conservative–”
“Is that the only criterion?” Changsu asks, successfully keeping the tremor of laughter out of his voice, but promptly failing to keep his lips from twitching.
“Well,” Jingyan says consideringly, lowering his eyes. “You also kiss reasonably well, I suppose.”
“A winning combination,” Changsu supplies wryly.
Jingyan’s mouth curls into a smile that lights up his entire face and Changsu feels his breath catch in his throat at the sight of it.
“I think so,” Jingyan says, and leans down to demonstrate the strength of his beliefs.
Startled, they break apart and both turn towards the entryway, where Jingyu is frozen, staring at them.
“Yo,” Changsu says, lifting a hand in greeting, but otherwise not making any effort to move from his position.
A series of complicated expressions flash rapidly across Jingyu’s face. Changsu thinks he can see, “Don’t you ‘yo’ me!”, “What are you doing do my baby brother?!” and “Be cool, Jingyu, be cool,” before Jingyu visibly collects himself, purses his lips and nods grimly.
“Fine,” he says, in a clipped, no-nonsense tone. “It’s not like I can do anything now that it’s already happened.” He looks from one to the other, before repeating himself. “Fine. But you,” he says sharply, turning now to Changsu. “Don’t make us all regret this.”
“What?” Changsu protests, in an injured tone. “Why only me?”
Jingyu just looks at him and Changsu falls silent, biting back any further protest he’d been planning to make. Throwing his keys into the bowl by the door with more force than Changsu thinks is probably necessary, Jingyu walks past them and heads for his room, muttering something about needing to call his girlfriend for emotional support.
“We were supposed to be friends,” Changsu tells Jingyan sadly. “I feel so attacked right now.”
Jingyan bends down to rest their foreheads together and laughs.
“Over here!” Nihuang calls from across the busy restaurant. Seeing her raised arm over the heads of the other diners, Changsu waves back and leads Jingyan across the floor, their joined hands swinging between them.
“Hi, everyone,” he says, ushering Jingyan into one of the two seats their friends have left for them, before sliding into the other. “This is Jingyan. Jingyan, this is everyone.”
One by one, the people seated around the table stand up to shake hands and introduce themselves.
Meng-dage and Dong-jie, who already know Jingyan through his brother, have thoughtfully seated themselves nearby to make sure that, in the worst case scenario where Jingyan and all of Changsu’s other friends hate each other, Jingyan will still have two guaranteed people to talk to.
Changsu offers them silent fistbumps of thanks.
“So,” Dong-jie tells him wryly, as Jingyan introduces himself to Nihuang. “You really did it. You really went and boned Jingyu’s precious baby brother.”
“Maybe Jingyu’s baby brother boned me,” Changsu responds primly, reaching for the water jug to pour Jingyan and himself a glass of water each. “Did you ever think of that?”
“I’m sure that distinction will make a world of difference to Jingyu when he goes on the rampage,” Dong-jie says agreeably, raising a hand to flag down a waiter. “Let me know how that defence works out for you.”
Maturely, Changsu sticks his tongue out at her.
When everyone is seated again and all their orders have been taken, Nie-dage leans back in his chair and says across the table, “Ey, Changsu, what’s this I hear about your latest scheme to protest government cuts to services?”
“Which one?” Changsu asks, and beside him, Meng-dage puts his head in his hands and groans pathetically. From Meng-dage’s other side, Jingrui reaches over to pat his shoulder sympathetically.
“I forgot that this was you we were talking about,” Nie-dage says, looking highly amused. “Of course there’s more than one.”
He glances at Meng-dage and snorts.
“I realise that you support many worthy causes, Changsu,” he resumes when he looks up again, eyes bright with suppressed laughter, “but maybe ease up a bit on the being cold and calculating every once in a while. I think Meng Zhi here is in sore need of a break.”
“Sorry, Meng-dage,” Changsu says, shrugging carelessly over a sip of water. “You know how it is; sacrifices have to be made.”
“Preferably by people who aren’t you?” Dong-jie inquires archly, while Meng-dage just sighs deeply in resignation to his fate.
“I think you’ll find that I’ve never actually said that,” Changsu feels the need to point out, for Jingyan’s benefit. “Although I have said that the ends justify the means. Many times.”
“You have,” Dong-jie agrees, visibly repressing a smile. “But that still doesn’t make it true.”
“And also that might is right,” Changsu continues serenely, “which, considering the way our democracy is going, I think you’ll find actually–”
He cuts himself off with a laugh as he’s forced to duck the napkin Dong-jie throws at him.
“I know you’re doing it on purpose to wind me up,” she tells him sternly. “We both know that you know you don’t have the moral high ground, here!”
“Don’t be jealous about me achieving my goals because, unlike you, I am not constrained by meaningless rules,” Changsu replies loftily. He laughs again and raises his arms to protect his head when Dong-jie threateningly brandishes a spoon.
“I would hardly classify laws as ‘meaningless’,” Nie-dage interjects mildly from her other side.
“I think you’ll find that I’ve technically never broken any laws,” Changsu points out delicately, and is met with complete silence. “Except for that one time,” he concedes, clearing his throat and turning away from the numerous pointed stares being cast in his direction. “In any case, if either you or Nie-dage had been more like me, Dong-jie, it wouldn’t have taken you, what was it, five years to get together?” He shakes his head sombrely. “That’s just sad, Dong-jie.”
“And what would you have done?” Nie Duo asks, draping an arm across the back of Nihuang’s chair and leaning back in his seat, looking highly amused. “If you’d been in their position.”
“How did the two of you meet again?” Changsu asks absently, not really looking for an answer. “By bumping into each other in the corridor on the way to class and dropping all your books, wasn’t it?”
He worries his napkin between his fingers, pondering the question.
“Well, then, Dong-jie ,” he tells her mock-seriously, after a moment’s thought, “if I’d been you and interested, I would have obviously hung around the same corridor after class had finished to see which room Nie-dage came out of and, therefore, which tutorial he’d been attending. Then I would’ve looked up the lecture schedule, crashed the lecture, and discovered that he was, in fact, a masters student teaching the tutorial. Then I’d hang around the café near the postgrad lounge, arrange to bump into him by accident–”
“–after which, accidentally-on-purpose ‘lose your way’ while going to class, and wander into his classroom by mistake?” Yujin asks from the opposite end of the table.
“Exactly!” Changsu exclaims, pointing at him in emphatic agreement. “And then go to visit Jingyu at the library desk, find out that Nie-dage is a frequent library visitor and actually from our hometown– ”
“Email Changsu to tell him all about it,” Yujin picks up seamlessly, grinning and wiggling his eyebrows in an expression of supreme enjoyment. “Discover that Nie Feng’s parents know Changsu’s parents who know your parents and use the parental grape vine to discover all his interests– ”
“–Learn that he’s an old-movie buff,” Changsu continues, grinning back, “and that the University film club holds classic movie screenings every Tuesday. Develop a sudden desire to watch black and white films–”
“–to which you arrive early, so you can coincidentally bump into him outside the entrance. Then make some sort of comment about luck or fate,” Yujin suggests. “Ask if he wants to sit together, spend the entire movie gazing at his face– ”
“–Find out that he doesn’t have a car,” Changsu adds. “Make sure to drive to the screening the next time the weather forecast says it will rain, and when it does, offer to drive him home– ”
“Get invited up for coffee– ”
“Stay for ‘coffee’– ”
“And you’re done!” Yujin finishes, clapping his hands together in satisfaction. “Makes sense to me.”
“Honestly, the two of you,” Jingrui says, laughing and shaking his head at them helplessly. “Just because the film industry wants you to believe it will work, doesn’t mean it actually will! Dong-jie isn’t Robert Benigni, Changsu!”
“Who?” Changsu asks blankly, not recognising the name at all.
Groans erupt from all around the table.
“Changsu’s celebrity knowledge is complete rubbish,” Yujin explains to Jingyan. “Pop culture, he’s good at, as well as politicians and scientists and things, but other famous people–”
“Hey!” Changsu protests. “I know the Kardashians!”
“Yeah,” Dong-jie agrees, shaking her head at him, “and only the Kardashians.”
“Do you even know who the royal family is, Changsu?” Nihuang asks curiously.
Beside him, Changsu notices Jingyan stiffening. A bit too close to home, no doubt, he thinks, giving Jingyan’s shoulder a companionable nudge.
“Of course I do,” he says to Nihuang. “Like, the King, right?”
Dong-jie raises her eyebrows.
“And,” Changsu continues, already floundering, “the … Queen …”
“Who is named …?” Nihuang prompts him apprehensively, not looking like she’s really expecting much from Changsu’s answer.
“… Her Majesty?” Changsu tries hopefully. A round of exasperated laughter breaks out.
He shrugs unconcernedly.
“What?” he asks Nie Duo, who’s shaking his head in amused disbelief. “I went to high school in a republic. They don’t have a monarchy, and this one’s not really of much interest to them.”
“Aren’t you really into egalitarianism, though?” Nie Duo asks. “Doesn’t the existence of a royal family run contrary to that?”
“Yeah,” Changsu agrees noncommittally, before giving a small shrug. “But they’re like other rich celebrities, right? I mean, they receive public funds, but they also provide interested people with entertainment. Like … the …”
“Like the …?” Dong-jie asks pointedly.
“Like the Kardashians,” Changsu says defiantly, making a face at her before turning back to Nie Duo. “There are worse rich people to worry about, and the royal family patronises causes and stuff, doesn’t it? Which makes it better than Steve Jobs, at least.”
Next to him, Jingyan snorts, and the whole table turns to look at him.
“I’ve never heard it laid out quite like that,” Jingyan explains, shrugging. “But it makes a strange kind of sense.”
“Do you want to come and meet my great-grandmother?” Jingyan asks out of nowhere one morning, during a weekend study session.
Changsu closes his textbook and sets it down, so he can focus his attention on properly turning and staring at him.
“Like, now?” he asks, before adding, “That’s a bit … sudden.” He keeps his tone light, though, to let Jingyan know that it’s not actually a big deal. “Isn’t it traditionally parents that one’s significant other meets when things get serious? But also,” he says, widening his eyes dramatically and placing a hand above his heart. “Jingyan! We’ve only been dating a month!”
Jingyan rolls his eyes and gives Changsu’s shoulder a small, reproachful shove.
“Do you want to, or not?” he asks impatiently, and although he doesn’t sound like it’s an important issue to him either, Changsu notices that his fingers are gripping the covers of his book a little tighter than the situation would normally merit.
“Well, I don’t have anything better to do,” Changsu says slowly. What harm could it do, after all?
The tenseness in Jingyan’s shoulders noticeably eases.
“Is she coming here?” Changsu asks, beginning to pack his things away, because it’s not like anything else is going to get done now.
As it turns out, she isn’t – Jingyan is meeting his great-grandmother at a teahouse at the more upmarket end of town.
“Seriously though,” Changsu says, when they’re walking down the street towards it. “Which is it? Is this a great mark of respect, because I’m meeting someone a full two generations up from your parents, or is it a slight on my honour? Am I being fobbed off with a distant parental substitute?”
“Do you even have any honour left to slight?” Jingyan asks dryly, placing one hand at the small of Changu’s back and using it to steer him towards what looks like a very fancy teahouse indeed.
“Ouch!” Changsu cries, staggering backwards against Jingyan with exaggerated injury. “A hit!”
Jingyan presses his lips together to suppress a smile and, after waiting a moment for Changsu to right himself, takes his hand and leads him towards the teahouse door. The young man standing in front of it visibly brightens when he sees Jingyan.
More family? Changsu wonders idly, before the sharp black suit the man is wearing registers. Changsu looks down at his own attire and hopes that the dress code isn’t “suits”.
It shouldn’t be, he thinks to himself after a glance at Jingyan, who is also not wearing a suit.
“Zhanying,” Jingyan says in greeting, smiling when they reach the doorstep. “It’s good to see you. Changsu,” he says, turning to make the introduction, “this is Zhanying – Zhanying, Changsu. I told you about him when we last spoke.”
Zhanying turns to Changsu with a small bow before extending a hand, which Changsu accepts and grasps in a firm shake.
“Sir,” Zhangying says next, turning to Jingyan. “The– ”
“Sir?” Changsu interrupts curiously. “Why are you calling him sir?”
He looks at Jingyan, who turns to Zhanying as well.
“Yeah, Zhanying,” he says pointedly, raising an eyebrow. “Why are you calling me sir?”
In lieu of an answer, Zhanying stares at him expressionlessly, somehow still giving off the impression of being supremely unimpressed.
“I’ve never seen you at the apartment,” Changsu says thoughtfully, when it seems like no answer is forthcoming. “But you’re quite formally dressed, so …” He turns to direct his next question to Jingyan. “Does your father have business enemies all over the city, who are waiting to ambush you when you leave the campus grounds? Is that why – is this some sort of bodyguard arrangement I haven’t been aware of until now?”
“Sir’s bo–?” Zhanying utters, looking surprised, before continuing loyally, “sir would never need–”
“No,” Jingyan confirms, shaking his head, “Zhanying is my great-grandmother’s–”
He pauses, frowning to himself, before turning to Zhanying and asking, “What exactly are you, Zhanying? A secretary? Assistant? Bodyguard? All three?”
Zhanying shrugs noncommittally and answers, “The job description is not exhaustive, sir. In any case, please go inside. She’s waiting for you.”
He opens the door and gestures for them to enter, effectively cutting off any further questions.
Left with no choice but to step inside, Changsu is slightly relieved to find that the dress code is not, in fact, suits, although people do seem to be dressed a lot more nicely than he’s used to. He spares a moment to be glad that he’s still in the “impress the boyfriend” stage of their relationship, and therefore dressed relatively nicely in a collared shirt, knitted jumper and even a pair of grey slacks instead of his usual jeans.
That said, he’s probably dressed only just nicely enough for the atmosphere of the teahouse, which is very definitely boutique. It isn’t surprising, Changsu supposes, considering that Jingyan and Jingyu are old money, and that this is their great-grandmother. If he were an extremely rich old lady, he’d also eat at places like this. He just hopes she’s–
Changsu’s train of thought is derailed when a little old lady waves excitedly at them from where she’s seated, at a window-side table in a quiet corner of the room. She’s neatly and elegantly dressed, in clothing that is simple but undeniably expensive, especially if the size of the jewel on the top of her hairpin is anything to go by.
Something about her is oddly familiar. Changsu frowns. Well, she is old money - maybe he’s seen her on the front of a magazine cover in passing while out shopping or in the library or something. He makes a mental note to ask Tong Lu about it when they next see each other.
She doesn’t look at all snooty, however, which he’d half been afraid of. Far from it, she’s looking perfectly lovely, waving enthusiastically at them and beaming.
“Great-Grandmother,” Jingyan says, taking the hands she extends to him in his own when they reach her table. “It’s good to see you. This is Changsu – I told you about him the last time we spoke.”
Changsu offers her a smile and ducks his head respectfully from behind Jingyan’s shoulder.
“Great-Grandmother,” he says politely.
“What a nice young man,” Great-Grandmother declares approvingly, before beckoning impatiently at the both of them, saying, “Now sit, sit, both of you, sit!”
“Now,” she says to Jingyan when they’re seated in front of her and she’s had a chance to cast a critical eye over the both of them. “You have done well for yourself, haven’t you? You didn’t tell me your boyfriend was so handsome!”
Jingyan’s cheeks flush slightly. Changsu, on the other hand, is absolutely delighted.
“He didn’t?” Changsu asks, leaning forward with feigned surprise. He casts a sly glance in Jingyan’s direction before taking one of Great-Grandmother’s hands in both of his. “I always suspected that he didn’t really appreciate me,” he tells her confidingly. “Perhaps he’s just humouring me because he couldn’t find a polite way to reject my advances? I fear,” he continues, shaking his head sadly, “that I may find myself unceremoniously dumped before long. But at least, Great-Grandmother,” he adds, clasping her hand more firmly, “I will have been able to meet you, so it will all have been worth it.”
Great-Grandmother smiles broadly.
“And such a sweet tongue, too,” she says, giving his hands a reciprocal squeeze and looking utterly charmed.
“He didn’t tell you about that either?” Changsu sighs deeply. “Perhaps that’s another area in which I’m not to his taste. Sometimes, Great-Grandmother, I wonder why he agreed to date me at all–”
“Maybe he just doesn’t want your head to get any bigger than it already is,” Jingyan mutters, pouring himself a cup of tea.
“You see?” Changsu tells Great-Grandmother plaintively. “Does he even like me?”
“If I didn’t like you,” Jingyan tells him sternly, reaching over his arm to retrieve Changsu’s empty teacup, “I wouldn’t have kept going to the library desk counter to borrow books. I do know how to use the self-checkout, you know.”
“I –!” Changsu exclaims, placing one hand against his cheek. “Why, Jingyan, I don’t know what to say!”
He ostentatiously fans himself with his other hand to cover up the fact that he is, actually, feeling slightly flustered.
“Hold onto this one,” she tells her grandson, and raises a hand to signal to a waiter who immediately heads towards the table and respectfully asks what madam would like to order. “He’s delightful.”
“Yeah, Jingyan,” Changsu echoes, grinning widely over the rim of his raised teacup. “You should listen to your–”
Jingyan responds by elbowing him in the side.
“How unfilial!” Changsu exclaims in outrage, setting his cup down so he can clutch at his torso protectively.
Great-Grandmother laughs again and proceeds to order a quantity of food that seems better-suited to six people than three, and which she begins to press on them as soon as it arrives, filling up their plates with sandwiches and pastries alike.
“Here, Jingyan,” she says, turning the cake stand towards him. “They have your favourite hazelnut cookies here – come, eat up, eat up. Great-Grandmother knows how much you love these. Changsu, here, you take some too–”
“Oh no thank you,” Changsu says, flashing her a polite smile of demurral. “I’m, uh – ah, I’m actually allergic.”
“Allergic?” Great-Grandmother asks, looking surprised. “To hazelnuts?”
“Yes,” Changsu answers, with an affirming nod. “I go straight into anaphylactic shock. I usually carry an Epipen with me, but I didn’t expect to be going out to eat, today.”
He smiles sheepishly.
“What?” Jingyan demands, whirling around to face him, sounding alarmed. “You don’t have–”
“Hey, it’s all right,” Changsu says, placing a hand on Jingyan’s arm and patting it reassuringly. “I’m used to be careful about my food, and the cookies are even on a separate plate and everything. I’ll be fine.”
Jingyan looks at the table, and then looks at Changsu, frowning deeply. He reaches for the plate and lifts it up, looking like he’s about to signal for a waiter.
“Hey,” Changsu says, gently taking the cookies from him and setting them back onto the stand. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. I’m only in trouble if I eat them, not if I look at them or smell them. Keep eating, it’s fine.”
Jingyan looks at him with misgiving, but eventually gives an acquiescent nod and settles back in his seat.
“Just don’t like, be overcome with desire and suddenly kiss me after we eat,” Changsu is unable to stop himself from adding.
Jingyan responds with a withering look. Changsu and Great-Grandmother both laugh, and the mood lightens once more.
“What do you boys think about taking a little walk?” Great-Grandmother asks as they’re leaving the teahouse after their meal. “My old bones have been sitting still for too long; it’d be good to stretch my legs, and the weather looks nice enough.”
“Why don’t we visit the Langya gardens, then?” Changsu suggests, shading his eyes against the glare of the clear winter sky. “They used to be part of the private pleasure gardens of a wealthy landowner, but they’re open to the public now. They’re famous for their plum trees – I think most people agree that if they’re not the prettiest in town, they’re very close to it.”
“That sounds like a splendid idea,” Great-Grandmother declares, and so, after signalling to Zhanying to bring the car around, that’s where they go.
Upon their arrival, Jingyan and Changsu each take one of Great-Grandmother’s arms, and together they head down one of the popular walkways, Changsu dragging up knowledge gained from that time he got bored at the library desk (and read through three books on the town’s history in one sitting) to point out features of interest.
When they circle around an elevated walkway to a balcony overlooking the man-made lake, Changsu pokes Jingyan in the shoulder and says conversationally, “Look, Jingyan, it’s your favourite thing.”
Jingyan looks out at the lake and then back to Changsu, confused, and Changsu smirks, saying dryly, “Do you think I haven’t noticed how much water you drink? He serves me tea whenever I visit,” he tells Great-Grandmother, “but his cup is always filled with plain water. He has this one-litre mug on his desk at home–” Changsu adds, leaning in conspiratorially. “He always hides it when he knows I’ll be visiting, but I saw it once when he wasn’t there.”
“He’s always been like that with water,” Great-Grandmother says, smiling fondly in remembrance. “Loves the stuff. Always preferred drinking it to anything else.”
“You can’t drink this water, though,” Changsu tells Jingyan cheekily over his shoulder, without turning his eyes from the far side of the lake. “Does that make you love it less?”
Jingyan doesn’t answer, but Changsu hears footsteps approach and suddenly a scarf is being wrapped around his neck from behind. He spins around, hand going up to his neck in surprise.
“You looked cold,” Jingyan offers by way of explanation, tucking the scarf into Changsu’s coat before stepping back.
Changsu’s fingers tighten around the soft wool, still warm from Jingyan’s body heat.
“But what about you?” he asks belatedly, glancing concernedly at Jingyan’s bare neck.
“I told you,” he says gently, “my temperature runs high, and I’m used to the cold. You need the scarf more than I do.”
He wanders away to take a better look at the view from the other side of the balcony, and Changsu, who is watching him leave, finds himself being joined by Jingyan’s great-grandmother.
“He’s always been such a serious, reserved boy,” she murmurs, as Jingyan leans his arms over the rail and gazes across the water, towards the trees on the far shore. “I’m glad to see that he’s able to be himself around other people. You’re good for him,” she says, looking up at a startled Changsu and smiling softly. “I meant it when I said the two of you should stay together.”
Worrying a stick of pocky between his teeth, Mei Changsu turns wearily towards the lecture slides, holding his head up with one hand and taking half-hearted notes with the other.
Changsu hates revision lectures.
He always goes, of course, on the odd chance that something new will crop up, but nothing ever does. Their lecture theatre for this class doesn’t even have power-points, so he never brings his laptop, which means that he can’t even surf the internet.
Changsu sighs internally. At least he brought food this time.
He nibbles absently at the flavoured coating covering the end of the stick, doodling on his notepad while the professor drones on and on. After an extended moment of doing that, he places the stick between his lips and amuses himself by jiggling it up and down.
He’s bored, so bored.
When the lecture is finally over, he waits for Jingyan to finish packing up his things and then they’re walking out together, finally free.
Now that he’s escaped the tedium of the past hour, Changsu is in a good mood, whistling lightly as they make their way across the courtyard and towards the eateries on the other side. Jingyan, on the other hand, seems particularly uncommunicative today, prompting Changsu into casting frequent glances in his direction in an attempt to determine the reason.
He’s occupied with running over their pre-lecture conversation, trying to remember whether or not he may have misspoken, when he suddenly finds himself being thrown against a wall and kissed hard, his cry of surprise muffled by Jingyan’s mouth.
Insistent fingers reach underneath the various layers of Changsu’s winter clothing before finding skin and sliding up, wandering possessively up his back while Jingyan’s tongue makes its way into his mouth.
“Didn’t your parents,” Jingyan grits out between sucking kisses, “teach you not to – play with your food? – And for the entire lecture,” he hisses, pressing his mouth to Changsu’s neck and scraping his teeth against it. “How do you – expect me – to be able to – concentrate?”
He doesn’t give Changsu the opportunity to answer; just seals their mouths back together and crowds in further, using his body to pin Changsu in place.
Changsu moans and slides his own hands into the back pockets of Jingyan’s jeans, using them to pull his hips in.
He must remember to eat in lectures more often.
“Are you free next weekend?” Changsu asks Jingyan over an idle game of chess started after they’d both finished their studying for the night. “We’re having a little get-together for Nie Duo’s birthday.”
“We can’t,” Jingyu says apologetically from the armchair in which he’s reading the paper. “We’ve got to be at the Palace for the Winter Solstice festival.”
“Oh right,” Changsu says, peering lazily at the board. “Because you’re royal relatives and all; I’d forgotten. That’s fine, then, don’t worry about it.”
He looks up in the silence that follows to find Jingyan and Jingyu exchanging glances.
“Unless you’ve also got titles in your own right?” Changsu hazards, not sure what he’s said. “Barons or something? … Lords?” he tries, after more silence.
“Nooo,” Jingyan says haltingly. “I mean–”
“Earls?” Changsu asks. “Dukes?”
“We’re princes, Changsu,” Jingyan tells him. “Prince Jing and Prince Qi. Our surname is actually Xiao, not Lin.”
“Huh,” he says after a flabbergasted moment, squinting at the both of them, half-expecting someone to shout “GOTCHA!” at any morment. “And when you say ‘princes’, you mean …?”
“Our father is the King,” Jingyan supplies. “Neither of our mothers is the Queen, but since her son died in infancy, we were legitimised. Jingyu’s the Crown Prince.”
“Huh,” Changsu says, mostly to himself. No “GOTCHA!” forthcoming, then. “I guess there are a lot of things that make sense now, in the light of that.”
“You’re saying,” Jingyan says, somewhat incredulously, “that after all this time, and after meeting Great-Grandmother, you … still didn’t have any ideas?”
“As I’ve said before,” Changsu shrugs, “I’m a republican. I didn’t know any of your names. I didn’t know what any of you looked like.”
Jingyan gives a small, helpless laugh.
“But damn, Jingyu,” Changsu says, turning towards the armchair. “So that means that your fans are, what, royalists? Hopeful future queens? And hopeful prince-consorts?”
“Something like that,” Jingyu agrees wryly. “And you thought they were …?”
“Attracted to your natural charm and noble bearing, obviously,” Changsu replies, shrugging and slouching back down.
“I suppose I can live with that,” Jingyu decides, raising his arms and disappearing once more behind his open newspaper.
“Did you think I had natural charm and noble bearing, too?” Jingyan inquires dryly, capturing one of Changsu’s pieces and removing it from the board.
“That’s right, you have fans as well, don’t you?” Changsu comments, witnessing the loss of his piece with an equanimity that makes Jingyan frown and visibly reconsider his choice. “And the answer is yes, of course,” he continues, lowering his eyelids and fixing Jingyan with a look that brings a pleasing pink tinge to his cheeks. “I wouldn’t be dating you if I didn’t see the attraction.”
“Wait,” Changsu says suddenly, jerking up partway through considering his next move. “I understand that you’re using your mothers’ maiden names and not your father’s surname for general convenience in your day-to-day lives, but that still doesn’t explain why your mothers’ maiden names seem to be the same.”
“You don’t know that, either?” Jingyan asks, looking up from the board in surprise.
“Should I?” Changsu asks.
“Well,” Jingyan says, sounding slightly embarrassed, “it’s just that it was on the news.”
“What, when you enrolled at university?” Changsu asks. “Because–”
“No,” Jingyan corrects him, “like last month. It’s a bit of a periodic thing – every couple of years, someone will mention it again.”
“I’ve been pretty busy lately,” Changsu says, shrugging. “I suppose I must’ve missed it.”
“It’s because our mothers are actually sisters,” Jingyu explains over the top of the newspaper. “When Father had an affair with my mother, Auntie Jing was overseas with Doctors without Borders in some tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Mother didn’t really tell her much about Father – didn’t want to waste the letter space, apparently, and they broke up before Auntie Jing came home. And then Father visited the village she was in on some sort of PR trip a few years later, and – well.”
Changsu stares at him.
“So,” he says, when he recovers his powers of speech, “you’re …”
Absently, he notes that Jingyan seems to be, for some reason, bracing himself for a fall out.
“–BROTHER-COUSINS?” Changsu can’t stop himself from blurting out, and is furthermore too gleefully horrified to moderate his tone.
Jingyan takes his turn to stare.
“Look, I know that it was no one’s fault, and that no incest actually occurred,” Changsu continues, aware that his voice is taking on a slightly manic edge, but unable to do anything about it. “But BROTHER-COUSINS! No wonder it’s always on TV! – I mean, of course it’s harsh, and really tacky of the journalists and all, but I do sort of understand it. BROTHER-COUSINS!”
“Can you … please stop saying that?” Jingyu asks.
Changsu is just leaving the law building when his phone rings.
“Changsu,” Tong Lu says when he picks up. “You’ve got to come over quickly; there’s been an outbreak of seriously bad food poisoning at Coffeeworks – people are being taken away in ambulances as we speak. News teams from all the major television channels are here covering it.”
Changsu hangs up on Tong Lu and tears across campus towards the café, outside which, just as Tong Lu had informed him, a crowd has already formed, growing bigger by the minute.
Nihuang and Jingyan are there as well, watching the goings on from their position in front of Huifei’s Café, on the opposite side of the road.
“We were buying coffee here when the first ambulance arrived,” Nihuang explains when Changsu jogs over. “You know how it is with student cafés – people stay to discuss coursework for hours, and just constantly order more coffee and food. So when people got sick, they were still on the premises – apparently there was vomiting and diarrhoea and everything.”
“Shen Zhui was literally just about to submit his report to the Employment Ombudsman,” Jingyan says, gritting his teeth in helpless frustration. “He said that he was going to send it off tomorrow.” Jingyan suddenly turns and thumps a fist against the wall behind them. “Damnit! One day earlier, and we could’ve prevented all of this!”
Changsu keeps his eyes fixed on the paramedics rushing people out of the café and into the ambulances, and feels his own fingers curl into his palms.
“We knew that their hygiene standards were bad,” he says, forcing himself to stay calm, “but they weren’t bad enough to have caused this.”
“You’re saying it was sabotage?” Nihuang asks sharply, eyes flying up to his face, and Changsu nods.
“Now that this has happened, the ensuing inspection is going to be excruciatingly thorough, and they’ll be investigating all of Xian’s other businesses, too. There’ll be no sweeping this under the carpet – they’ll have no choice but to throw the book at him.”
He turns and, to his surprise, finds Jingyan staring at him, a mix of incredulity and fury in his face.
“This,” Jingyan bites out, voice curt with anger as he demands, “Is this what you meant by ‘managing something?”
Thrown off-balance by the accusation, Changsu takes an uncertain step back.
“What?” he asks faintly, too disconcerted to properly react, because surely Jingyan can’t be accusing him of–
“What are you–”
“This was your big idea?” Jingyan growls, gesturing toward the opposite side of the road. “I know you’re into your strategising and planning for greatest effect, but this isn’t a game, Changsu! I can’t believe you; people could have died, and you–”
Changsu is still too stunned to find the words to defend himself, but Nihuang is not; she whirls on Jingyan, face pale and eyes blazing with anger.
“Excuse me?” she demands sharply. “What the actual fuck? Do you even hear yourself, Lin Jingyan?”
“You know what he’s like,” Jingyan insists furiously. “He–”
“No, Jingyan,” Nihuang replies, tight-lipped. “In fact, I don’t.”
“Nihuang–” Changsu begins.
“So why don’t you tell me?” Nihuang continues, voice icy and chin tilted up challengingly. “On what grounds, exactly–”
“Nihuang,” Changsu says, putting a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Just leave it; don’t waste your breath. He clearly doesn’t want to believe us.”
Nihuang spins around and looks up at him in disbelief.
“Do you hear what bullshit he’s just accused you of?” she demands. “Aren’t you angry?”
Of course Changsu is angry; he’s furious that Jingyan believes that this is the kind of thing he’d do, that this is the kind of person he is, after all this time. He knows that he talks about the ends justifying the means all the time, but he’s only ever been ruthless with people who deserved it – he’s never harmed innocent people in order to achieve his goals.
In what universe would punishing someone for underpaying staff, no matter how badly, be worth permanently damaging people’s health?
Changsu takes a deep, shuddering breath and tries to force his hands to unclench, but finds himself shaking too much to manage it.
“What?” Jingyan spits scornfully. “You’re denying it?”
“You know what,” Changsu says, tone reaching the level of over-pleasantness that only appears when he’s truly angry. “Fuck you. You don’t have to believe me, and to be honest, I don’t give a flying fuck if you do, anymore – but maybe you should just take a second away from being angry at the closest available target to think about who benefits the most from Xian’s negative publicity, from all his businesses being investigated and closed, and from the University contracts and student money being up for grabs. Think about who we contacted for help with reporting on Xian at the beginning of this mess. Who would have had access to all the information we had about Xian’s track record with the Employment Ombudsman? Who else knew that Shen Zhui was going to submit the report tomorrow? The punitive measures following on from that report and our coverage of it in the student newsletter would’ve been effective enough for our purposes, now that Xu Anmo is out of the way, but who do you think might not consider the results enough for them?”
“Qin Banruo,” Jingyan says quietly, through gritted teeth.
“Right,” Changsu says, smiling humourlessly. “Qin Banruo. Not Mei Changsu.”
Now that the wave of rage-fuelled adrenaline has run its course, he feels sad and tired and sick. Because this isn’t just anyone who believed that he’d stoop to something this warped, this is his–
Yeah, well, Changsu thinks bitterly to himself. Not anymore. He’s done with this farce of a relationship.
“What?” Nihuang demands of Jingyan. “You’re not even going to apologise, after making your baseless – and quite frankly, insulting – accusations?”
“I–” Jingyan begins awkwardly.
“Are these the kind of manners that we can expect from the royal family?” Nihuang sneers derisively. “Because if so–”
“Just leave it, Nihuang,” Changsu mutters, taking her arm and pulling her away. “Even if he apologises for being wrong in this case, he’s made what he thinks of me pretty clear.”
Jingyan’s face is suddenly chalk-white, and he stumbles forward.
“Changsu–” he says hoarsely, reaching a hand out towards them.
Changsu knocks it aside.
“Save it,” he says carelessly, too angry to accommodate Jingyan’s regret. “I’m really not interested in hearing what you have to say. I guess you really did believe what your brother said about me.”
He flashes Jingyan a sharp, cold smile and then turns back to Nihuang.
“Come on, Nihuang,” he tells her softly, jerking his head in the direction of the SWS office. “Let’s stop wasting our time here – we have more important things to do.”
“Now,” Tong Lu says, after he’s shared everything he’s managed to discover with the officers they’ve called to the emergency SWS meeting. “I’ve heard that Dean Xia Jiang, who still hates us for that last run-in, is planning to call Changsu up for a hearing before the University Disciplinary Board. He’s going to try to pin responsibility for everything that’s happened on him, and try to get him expelled. What should we do about this?”
“We’re not going to do anything,” Changsu says, cutting through the suggestions that Shen Zhui and Cai Quan are already beginning to offer, and shocking everyone into silence.
“What?” Tong Lu says, uncertainly. “Are you – are you sure, Changsu? What–”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Changsu says firmly, and Tong Lu subsides into silence. “We’ll let him make his accusations. Tell everyone to ‘no-comment’ everything they’re asked for now. My innocence is the easiest to prove, and Xia Jiang targeting me is better than him trying to target anyone else – which we all know he’ll do, as soon as he thinks the case against me will fail.”
“But Changsu,” Tong Lu protests. “The rumours that are going to circulate–”
“–Don’t bother me,” Changsu says simply. “Everyone who matters knows I wouldn’t do anything like that. And everyone who believes it– ”
He huffs a humourless laugh.
“– Doesn’t matter, I suppose. In any case, if a hearing is what Xia Jiang wants, then a hearing is what he’ll get.”
In the lead-up to the hearing, Jingyan uses every chance he gets to try to speak to Changsu, and Changsu responds by resolutely using all available resources to avoid him.
He stops going to their history lectures, and just streams the recordings. When he’s at work, he makes sure he never has to man the library desk when Jingyan has free periods, and instead hides himself on the quietest levels and in the most deserted corners, re-shelving books and straightening displays.
Jingyan starts to wait for him outside the lecture theatres of the classes they don’t share, but Changsu thankfully has friends who are willing to warn him ahead of time, and help to hustle him out in the middle of a group that is resolved not to let Lin Jingyan through.
And if Jingyan starts to look increasingly desperate – well, Changsu is still too angry (and too hurt) to care.
Most surprisingly, rather than going on the rampage everyone had been expecting, Jingyu just looks at him sadly whenever they see each other, keeping his distance and not saying a word.
Changsu doesn’t say anything either.
He guesses Jingyu was right about Changsu hurting his brother, after all.
“As the panel can see here,” Xia Jiang says, with an air of smug satisfaction that sets Changsu’s teeth on edge. “I have in my possession video footage of a man of extremely similar appearance to Mei Changsu – I have identified the many striking points of physical resemblance in the diagram to the left – walking into Coffeeworks, ordering the daily promotional special, eating it, and then, in the guise of visiting the restroom, sneaking into the kitchen where he can be clearly seen interfering with the food supplies and equipment.”
He pauses the video and brings up a selection of stills.
“We can see here, here and here that the man knows exactly where all the video cameras are, including the ones that were kept secret from the staff, and hides his face whenever he walks past one. This man is definitely Mei Changsu – he is the only one with both the ability and motive to successfully carry such a plan out.”
“Mei Changsu,” one of the panel members says, after jotting down a few lines of notes. “How do you respond to this evidence?”
“Not even getting into Dean Xia Jiang’s spurious ‘motive’ claim,” Changsu says calmly, “I’d like to request that he elaborate on his statement about my having the ability to carry this plan out.”
“I’ve looked up your enrolment records,” Xia Jiang says triumphantly. “You think you can hide your past with a name change, but you don’t fool me, Mei Changsu – or, should I say, Lin Shu. Your family’s move overseas coincides exactly with the conclusion of the hacking scandal investigation. With Lin Shu’s hacking abilities, getting information on Coffeeworks’ secret security cameras would present no challenge at all–”
“So that was it,” Changsu says, not giving Xia Jiang any chance to comment further. He looks up and turns towards the waiting panel. “Firstly, I’d like to prove definitively that the man in the security footage could not have been me. As Dean Xia Jiang has already explained, the footage shows the man ordering the daily special and eating it. Now, the special on the day of the food poisoning outbreak was a chocolate hazelnut cake, as you can see from this flyer,” Changsu explains, producing a copy from the folder in front of him and handing it to the central panel-member. “Copies of which were distributed all over campus. My medical records,” he continues, producing those documents and passing them over as well, “a copy of which have been held at the campus medical clinic since I first began attending the University, show that I suffer from an extreme hazelnut allergy. Even a single mouthful of that cake would have induced anaphylactic shock – the man in the video clearly ate a whole slice without issue. Therefore, it could not possibly have been me.”
“If it wasn’t you,” Xia Jiang says sharply, “then it was one of your friends from the Student Welfare Society, following your instructions–”
“Ah, I see,” Changsu says, looking up at the ceiling in sudden understanding. “So it isn’t that you had conclusive proof to lay the blame at my feet – it’s that you were determined to lay the blame at my feet, using whatever evidence you found. The problem is, even if that man were an SWS member, and we did have the ability to obtain a floor plan and determine the locations of Coffeeworks’ secret cameras, in order to execute such a plan as effortlessly as the man there clearly did, we would’ve had to send someone in to physically find the location of those secret security cameras – and the café’s surveillance tapes will show that not a single SWS member ever set one foot inside the door.”
He turns back to the panel.
“Which brings me to this Lin Shu accusation – I will freely admit that yes, Lin Shu is my birth name, which I have changed for, I think, understandable reasons, given the coincidental association that Xia Jiang has indeed identified. My first response to his claim is that, although ‘Lin Shu’ is the name that the government documents were released under, what kind of hacker would be stupid enough to use their real name as their internet handle when carrying out such an action?
“More importantly, however,” he continues, “as you can see from my date of birth there on my medical records, when the infamous Lin Shu did his work, I was ten years old. Not that I’m not flattered by your faith in me, Dean Xia, but are you seriously suggesting that … ?”
He notices the panel members leaning in to each other and murmuring quietly, after which they look up and turn to Xia Jiang. The central panelist’s lips thin.
Changsu hides a smile.
“Well?” Nihuang demands, looking up from her anxious pacing and striding over to him as soon as he steps out from the room. Tong Lu, Cai Quan, Shen Zhui, Yujin and Jingrui follow closely behind her, together with a few other people he knows from his other clubs, including Li Gang, Zhen Ping and Gong Yu. “How did it go?”
Changsu grins, giving them a double thumbs-up, and smiles of relief break out all around. He’s immediately swamped by happy well-wishers shaking his hand and thumping him on the back and being carried down the hall amid loud calls of “Time to celebrate!” and “To the pub!”
They’re just about to head out through the door when he notices Jingyan standing on the far end of the hall, watching and waiting.
“He’s been there the whole time,” Nihuang leans in to whisper, after following the line of his gaze and identifying the object of his attention. “I know you’re still angry – and you have every right to be, of course … but maybe you should talk to him.”
“Tell everyone to go on ahead,” he says, eyes still on the other side of the hall. “I’ll catch up.”
He slips out from between a number of loudly confused friends, leaving Nihuang to make his explanations, and walks up to Jingyan, who looks both relieved and surprised to see him.
“Jingyan,” Changsu states in greeting.
“Changsu,” Jingyan breathes, offering a tentative smile that fades when Changsu only flashes him a perfunctory one in return.
They subside into silence.
“Well, if that’s all,” Changsu says after a wordless moment, turning to go when Jingyan fails to say anything further.
“No wait!” Jingyan blurts out, reaching out an arm as if to grab onto Changsu’s sleeve and stopping himself at the last minute.
Changsu lifts an eyebrow, pettily determined not to do anything that might make this encounter easier for him.
But Jingyan straightens, standing tall with resolve, and launches directly into an apology.
“I’m sorry,” he says straightforwardly, looking Changsu directly in the eye. “You were completely right – you never gave me any reason to believe you’d do anything like what I accused you of. I had neither reason nor right to say what I did. I was angry and frustrated at the situation, but that was no excuse for blaming you just because I could. It was insulting and – and I–”, he says, suddenly faltering and looking down, before determinedly lifting his eyes back up again, “and I hurt you. I keep seeing the look on your face when I–”
Jingyan cuts himself off and takes a deep breath.
“I know I don’t deserve it,” he continues quietly, eyes on his feet, “but will you forgive me?”
Changsu allows himself a heartfelt sigh, and feels all of the pent-up anger drain out of his body with it.
If he’s honest with himself, after the two weeks that have passed, and especially now that the hearing is over, he’s tired of being angry. It really is time for him to let it go.
“I forgive you,” he says quietly.
Jingyan lifts his chin, his face lighting up, and steps forward.
“Ah,” Changsu says sharply, stopping him in his tracks. “What are you doing?”
“You,” Jingyan says, sounding confused. “You said that you–”
“Yes,” Changsu allows, “I did say that I forgave you. But that doesn’t mean that we should get back together.”
Jingyan’s face falls.
“What?” he whispers hoarsely, after a choked moment.
“The situation showed me the complete lack of trust that existed on your end,” Changsu explains simply. “Which, to be quite honest, I’m a little disappointed in myself for not noticing earlier. In any case, you can’t build a relationship on that.”
“No,” Jingyan protests urgently, “but I do trust you, I do–”
“You might think that you do,” Changsu corrects him, sliding his hands into his pockets, “but it’s not that easy. Weigh the last two weeks of you ‘trusting’ me – mostly, I think, because you regret hurting me, than because of any real change in how you see me – against all those months of our relationship where, it turns out, you didn’t trust me at all. Given that, I think it’s understandable that I’m having a bit of trouble believing you.”
“But I–” Jingyan begins. “Please, Changsu, I swear that I–”
“Maybe,” Changsu says gently, interrupting him, “I’m the one who doesn’t trust you anymore.”
“Oh,” he croaks softly, looking – actually, Changsu is surprised to discover that Jingyan looks like he might be about to cry.
It’s still not enough to convince Changsu to take him back, however.
Instead, Changsu offers him a real smile this time, albeit a sad one.
“You’re a good man, Jingyan,” he says. “I’d like to stay friends. Maybe give me a couple of weeks to lick my wounds first, but don’t be a stranger, okay?”
He gives Jingyan a friendly clap on the shoulder before stepping back out of reach.
Jingyan looks too shellshocked to respond.
“Take care of yourself,” Changsu tells him, and then turns and jogs back down the hall and out through the door.
It’s only when he gets outside that he allows himself a moment to rest his forehead against the wall, close his eyes and take a deep, shuddering breath. He stays there until his breathing evens out and his chest stops feeling so tight, and then forces himself to straighten and smooth out his expression before jogging out to catch up with his waiting friends.
Changsu shuffles out of the bathroom, rubbing at his damp hair with a towel, his hot shower having finally managed to circulate warmth into his fingers and toes after a day spent almost freezing them off in the sudden downturn the weather has taken.
Given how cold it’s been for the past few days, it comes as absolutely no surprise when Changsu looks out the window and finds that it’s snowing.
Hair as dry as it’s going to get, he steps back into the bathroom to hang up his towel and is heading towards the kitchen to make a pot of tea when he’s startled by a tap against his window.
Perhaps a bird? he thinks idly. But what kind of bird would be out in this weather?
There’s another rap.
Puzzled, Changsu pads over and peers outside – apart from the snow against the glass, he can’t see shit. He sighs at himself. He doesn’t know what he’d been expecting.
Another rap sounds right in front of his nose, and it takes a stunned moment before he realises that the sound was caused by a small rock hitting the glass. Someone is throwing rocks at his window.
Pursing his lips, Changsu flicks up the latch and flings the window open. Sticking his head out and intending to give whoever it is a piece of his mind, he opens his mouth, looks down and stops short at the sight of Jingyan standing in the snow, gazing up at him.
“I WAS WRONG,” Jingyan shouts up when their eyes meet. “FORGIVE ME!”
“I’ve already forgiven you,” Changsu shouts back. “Go home.”
“I WANT YOU BACK,” Jingyan insists obstinately. “I DON’T WANT TO JUST BE FRIENDS.”
“We’ve already been through this,” Changsu groans, running a hand through his hair in frustration. “Go home, Jingyan!”
“I CAN’T JUST LET THIS END HERE,” Jingyan shouts. “PLEASE. CHANGSU, GIVE ME ANOTHER CHANCE. LET ME EARN YOUR TRUST.”
Changsu closes his eyes for a moment, feeling his traitorous heart twinge, and shouts down, “I have it on good authority that movie moves are not supposed to work in real life.”
Jingyan’s lips curl into a hopeful smile.
“Is it working anyway?” he asks.
Changsu looks down at Jingyan’s sincere expression and sighs.
He always did have a thing for the earnest ones.
“You better come up,” he says wearily. “I hear you’re some sort of national treasure. With my track record, if you catch cold and die on my watch, who knows what they’ll do to me.”
(EIGHT YEARS LATER)
The atmosphere around the Nie-dage and Dong-jie’s dining table is cheerful and boisterous, the loud chatter filling up the small room. Friends, who get together less often than Changsu would like these days, due to work and other commitments, are shouting excitedly over each other and catching up on any developments that have occurred since they last met.
“So,” Yujin says, raising his voice to make himself heard, “you’re engaged, then.”
“Yup,” Changsu says, nodding in agreement.
“And who proposed?” Nie-dage asks, leaning over Dong-jie to listen in as well.
“Jingyan,” Changsu says, shooting his fiancé a sly sideways glance. “His great-grandmother wasn’t happy with us living in sin anymore, so she told him to put a ring on it. And so, out of filial piety, I guess, he–” he cuts his sentence off with a gusty sigh. “Romance is dead.”
“Excuse me,” Jingyan says, looking affronted. “More like, I was proposing to you for years, and you kept refusing until Great-Grandmother played the ‘one wish before I die’ card, and then you were like, ‘eh, maybe we should after all.’ So who was the one who killed the romance?!”
Changsu grins at him and Jingyan manages to maintain his indignation for approximately two seconds before his mouth curls into an answering smile.
“Wait,” Lin Chen says suddenly, looking up from wiping Feiliu’s mouth. “Changsu. Does that make you a princess, then?”
“Of course it doesn’t–” Jingyan begins exasperatedly, at the same time as Changsu exclaims, “Oh, hey! I guess it does! Do you think they’d agree to make it my official style? Princess Changsu–”
“Oh hell,” Jingyu says, laughing as joking suggestions about other princess-y things Changsu needs to do begin to fly back and forth. “What have we done? Our ancestors are rolling in their graves, I’m sure of it. Jingyan, you’re not married yet – quick, take it back, before it’s too late. I’m sure we can still get a refund on the ring–”
“Hey!” Changsu laughs, half-rising from his seat in protest.
But beside him, Jingyan just ducks his head and laces their hands together, smiling softly at the ring on Changsu’s finger and not looking like he wants to take anything back at all.