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August on campus is the same as it ever was: overheated and quiet.

 

Nie Mingjue didn't need to be in his office today: Columbia's freshman orientation doesn't start for another two weeks, and classes not for another three. But he likes getting a head start reviewing the syllabi for his engineering courses this year without anyone disturbing him and using air conditioning he doesn't pay for. This is the last week he can sit back, have the door open, enjoy the peace and silence of going through methodical motions of reviewing things step by step without interruption he'll have until the winter break. If he's honest, the more preparation work he can do to save him grief before hundreds of students coming rushing in asking about office hours and where to get second hand books, the better.

 

There's no sound, no paper, no movement out of his control here in his tiny office, until he hears the sound of footsteps and muffled voices. Odd, he thinks, no one else said they'd be in today.

 

"Down here are where most of the teacher's offices are, and the best exit on the opposite side of the building." the first voice became clear, "You may not need to come down here Professor Lan, but it's good to know just in case."

 

"I appreciate it." comes the second voice, presumably this Professor Lan. Nie Mingjue takes a second to think, he feels like he knows most of the professors here but he's never heard of a Professor Lan before.

 

"I'm glad, and as you can see the engineering halls really have some state of the art stuff-- oh!" and just like that, the peace of his small office was over, as two people stop in front of his doorway. he recognizes one of the men; he’s one of the dean's secretaries, Shang something. But the other man is someone he's never seen before. He's tall, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail with a thick white ribbon in an otherwise simple outfit, but what strikes Nie Mingjue most is his expression. His smile has a softness he doesn't know how to put in words, one that perfectly reaches his eyes that gives him the aura of peace he doesn't think he's ever seen on a person that serves to make him that much more handsome.

 

"Professor Lan, this is Professor Nie Mingjue. He's one of our esteemed mechanical engineering professors here, and should you ever need anything with the department he is an excellent resource."

 

Professor Lan only needs two steps to cross from the doorway to the desk, holding out his hand. "Lan Huan. I'm simply a guest professor for the Chinese art and literature department from Peking University. it's nice to meet you."

 

"Pleasure." Nie Mingjue is quick to collect himself and rise from his desk so he can reach out and shake Professor Lan's hand.

 

"It's all mine." Professor Lan replies, giving him a firm shake. He has a better grip than Nie Mingjue expected for someone who works in the humanities. "It's nice to meet a professor outside of my department."

 

"I'm sure you'll meet everyone in due time." He's about to continue about how there aren't many guest professors, and the Chinese language and arts department tends to be very enthusiastic about new blood, not to mention the other Chinese born members of the faculty, when a shrill ringing stops everyone in their tracks.

 

"Ah!" the secretary starts, pulling a loud ringing phone out of his pocket. His face pales instantly. "Professor Lan I am so, so sorry, I forgot all about this call I need to take-- Professor Nie, can you please take him through the rest of the building? Thank you!!"

 

He can't get a single word out edgewise before the man is gone, shooting down the hall toward the exit. Nie Mingjue sighs as Lan Huan blinks. He had work he wanted to finish, and now here he is left with finishing someone else's job.

 

"I don't mean to impose, I can wait in your office with you if that would be better?" there's a lit of a laugh in Lan Huan's voice as he turns and looks at Nie Mingjue. Yet despite his words, he looks almost hopeful that Nie Mingjue will do what the secretary asked.

 

Well, he thinks. It won't kill him to give a short tour.

 

"No, just give me a moment to lock up. I'll show you at least how to get out of here."

 

---

 

Lan Huan makes as good company as first impressions lead him to believe.

 

It's easy going, which is new, because most people tend to grate Nie Mingjue as he doesn't have the patience for pointless small talk and people who act like they want to butter him up for reasons he can't parse. That always gets compounded by the fact that people who meet Nie Mingjue seem more intimidated than relaxed since he's six three and wields the brick shithouse build you get from working out regularly since high school. But Lan Huan doesn't seem to have any reservations walking by his side, asking decent questions about the building and his work as they make their way outside. It's one of the easiest conversations he's had with someone he's just met in years, so much so that he completely loses track of the time. Hell, Lan Huan even keeps pleasant when Nie Mingjue there's no need to call him 'professor'.

 

"We're both professors." Nie Mingjue states, "It's weird to hear you address me like a student when you're not."

 

"I don't want to come off as rude." Lan Huan says, but nods anyway. "But if you insist, Nie Mingjue."

 

He says his name just right, which is nice when he knows he's going to have to brace himself for a bunch of students about to butcher it in a few short weeks. "Of course, Lan Huan."

 

Lan Huan's smile seems to tilt, as if Nie Mingjue saying his name was interesting. He doesn't say anything though, and they continue walking in the summer heat.

 

The moment passes before Lan Huan asks, "What were you doing in your office today? I haven't seen any other professors working."

 

"I like the head start before things get out of hand."

 

"Out of hand? How so?"

 

"Students at the start of term are very.... distracting." Annoying , he wants to say, but it probably comes off in his gruff tone of voice.

 

Lan Huan chuckles at that, "Ah, then I apologize for pulling you away from your work."

 

"It's fine." Not really, but Nie Mingjue knows he can make up the time another day. "It wasn't your fault anyway."

 

"Regardless, let me apologize. And thank you." Lan Huan smiles right at him, and Nie Mingjue is taken aback at the sincerity in it. "I appreciate you taking the time to walk with me."

 

"No need for that." Nie Mingjue clears his throat and shoves his hands in his pockets. "I can show you back to the dean's office if you need to meet up with your original tour guide or have anything else you need to do today."

 

"If it's not too much trouble--"

 

"It's not."

 

"Then I'll take you up on the offer." Lan Huan is still smiling at him, "You are far too kind, Nie Mingjue."

 

He blames the way his neck burns on the sun.

 

 

---

 

 

"Why the hell are you just standing there? Either get in here and make yourself useful or get out."

 

No matter what anyone says, Nie Mingjue really does try his best not to snap at his little brother. But if Nie Huaisang is going to stand there waffling in the kitchen doorway for five minutes looking like he's going to say something but not open his mouth, it's impossible for Nie Mingjue to hold back.

 

Nie Huaisang startles with a "Sorry!" and shuffles into the kitchen, getting started on helping prep for dinner by peeling carrots. Despite the heat, Nie Mingjue decided to make curry for dinner so there will be plenty of leftovers so Nie Huaisang doesn't blow their food budget on delivery. The kitchen isn't very big, so they're almost shoulder to shoulder as they get everything peeled and chopped, and it means that Nie Mingjue can't ignore the way his brother keeps shifting his weight, or looking between him and the carrot.

 

"If you have something to say, just spit it out." Nie Mingjue huffs. He's got no patience for this.

 

"Oh, it's nothing." Nie Huaisang does that nervous laugh he does when he can't decide on how to word something. "I was just wondering how your day was?"

 

"Normal."

 

There's a pause before, "You just... you look like you're in a good mood is all."

 

"What." Nie Mingjue gives him a look that would flatten lesser men.

 

"Like, was there a sale on meat at the market today or something? Or did you break one of your lifting records?" Nie Huaisang leans over, and ugh, there's his most annoying smirk. "Did you meet somebody?"

 

Unbidden, Lan Huan's smile, his easy going nature, the way he said Nie Mingjue's name all come to mind. It makes him stop for a second - they didn't even speak for that long, and parted ways with nothing special between them. It wasn't an average meeting, but Nie Mingjue is sure it wouldn't warrant him being in a better mood than normal.

 

Instead of answering Nie Mingjue holds up the knife in his hand, and Nie Huaisang shrieks.

 

 

---

 

 

There's plenty to do before the start of the semester that the college requires, then there are the things the department requires, and then there are the things that Nie Mingjue requires simply for himself so he doesn't rip the head off of the first student who asks him to repeat something he said twenty seconds earlier.

 

The ritual of double checking student lists with Jiang Cheng falls firmly in the final category. There's nothing to be done for the freshmen, but for all the upperclassmen he can look to see if he recognizes their names on either his own or Jiang Cheng's class listings.

 

Jiang Cheng is another engineering professor who specialized in electronic engineering, and more importantly the only person in the department he would willingly spend long periods of time with. He’s serious and hardworking, and didn't deal with bullshit or dawdle like some of the older professors. Working with him to learn about exactly what kind of students he's dealing with for the next three and a half months has been very helpful in keeping both of them sane.

 

Today is the day they finally have the student listings so they can really start going through it properly instead of trying to guess based on what courses they know they have to teach.

 

"God, why are there so many Sarahs." Jiang Cheng huffs, flipping through printed pages of Nie Mingjue's class list in his hand. "I know there are more girls names than this."

 

Nie Mingjue shrugs, "Just call them by their last name."

 

"You know that doesn't work." Jiang Cheng shakes his head before scribbling something on the paper. "I remember this Sarah though, thick rimmed glasses. She's quiet but does good work."

 

They continue like that for a while, an easy pattern of chatting idly about students and flipping papers. It's all business between them, and they keep working until a knock comes on Nie Mingjue's door. 

 

"It's open." Nie Mingjue doesn't look up as the door opens, caught up writing a note next to a sophomore student who was constantly falling asleep in his class last year.

 

"Oh, I'm sorry - is this a bad time?"

 

Jiang Cheng's chair swivels around the same time Nie Mingjue snaps his head up, staring at one Lan Huan in his doorway.

 

"If it is, I can come back later." Lan Huan smiles and Nie Mingjue is dumbstruck.

 

"What are you doing here?" The question comes out angrier than Nie Mingjue intended, but he cannot for the life of him figure out why Lan Huan would be back at his office door. Hell, he's surprised he remembered where it was.

 

"Well now that everyone seems to be back on campus I assumed this would be the best time to see if I could catch you. I wanted to thank you properly for showing me around the other week so--" Lan Huan holds up a bright paper bag in his hand, '' I wanted to give you this, it seemed like something you'd like."

 

Nie Mingjue feels his brain actually blank out, and Jiang Cheng turns toward him looking just as surprised as he feels. "You. didn't have to do that."

 

"I wanted to" he's about to pass the bag forward before Lan Huan stops, and extends a hand toward Jiang Cheng. "Excuse me, I don't think we've met? I'm Lan Huan, I'm a guest professor for the Chinese art and literature department."

 

Something shifts in Jiang Cheng's expression and suddenly Nie Mingjue feels far more nervous than he did a second ago. "Jiang Cheng, I teach electronic engineering." he stands and shakes Lan Huan's hand. "Nie Mingjue and i work together often."

 

"It's a pleasure to meet you." Lan Huan smile doesn't shift an inch, "I got these for Professor Nie but there should be enough to share - I hope it's all to your liking. But I'll take my leave, we will all be busy these next few weeks yes?"

 

"You're fine." Nie Mingjue clears his throat as he takes the bag from Lan Huan, not even thinking to correct him for calling him professor again. He peers inside - those are fresh pastries, and they smell heavenly. he wonders where Lan Huan even got these. "Thank you for this."

 

"Think nothing of it." he waves his hand, "But I really will go, it was nice to meet you Professor Jiang. Have a good rest of the day."

 

Lan Huan leaves, and is barely out of the door before Jiang Cheng turns toward Nie Mingjue faster than he's ever seen the man move before. "When in the hell did you meet Lan Huan?!"

 

"Do you know him?"

 

Jiang Cheng looks like he can't decide if he's going to scowl or laugh before he settles on the latter. "You haven't been paying attention to the group chat again."

 

"Why would I." There are many faculty group chats, but the group chat was the Mandarin chat. Started as a chat between the professors in the Chinese language department, but it quickly grew to encapsulate all of Columbia's professors who were literate enough to join. In some cases it would be useful to know when events were happening around campus, but most of the time it was full of faculty gossip and pointless chatter that Nie Mingjue had no interest in.

 

"Really? You didn't even think to check after meeting a brand new professor from out of town here?" Jiang Cheng pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through until he finds what he wants and turns it so Nie Mingjue can see. "Everyone's been going nuts over him."

 

Sure enough, the chat is just as much writing as it is emojis. He takes a moment to go through it, and apparently the whole chat was either impressed by Lan Huan’s credentials and his politeness, or enamored by his looks and charm. Nie Mingjue sighs, although he can't find himself to disagree with either analysis of Lan Huan. "Go figure."

 

"Yeah, go figure." Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, "I swear, if they find out you've somehow befriended him and are getting him to bring you food Mianmian is going to storm down here herself to scream at you."

 

"It's not that big of a deal. One of the dean's secretaries was showing him around and had to go so I took over." 

 

"And now he's bringing you-- what is it?" Nie Mingjue holds the bag open for Jiang Cheng to see, and he groans, "Holy shit, those look amazing. Maybe they're right, he is an angel."

 

Jiang Cheng’s about to shamelessly reach in and take one before Nie Mingjue pulls the bag away and takes the first pastry out for himself. "Who said I was sharing?"

 

"I, Nie Mingjue, are all our years of working together really worth nothing to y-- wait, what's that?"

 

"Hm?" Nie Mingjue looks where Jiang Cheng is pointing at the pastry in his hand and sees a piece of paper stuck to it. He peels it off and gives it a look over, twice, just to be sure he read it right.

 

"It's his business card."

 

"It's WHAT?"

 

---

 

Normally Nie Mingjue would never go through the effort of looking up a person online, but it seems all normal behavior is out the window for him now when it comes to Lan Huan.

 

Lan Huan, the eldest son in the esteemed Lan family that works in education, and helps fund and run many non-profits and humanitarian causes around the globe. He attended Peking University, earned his PhD in literature, and then began teaching at his alma mater. Along the way he's worked with more museums and historical archives than Nie Mingjue can count, with a focus on extending education and interest as well as preserving old work. It's the kind of pristine, impressive resume that every parent wants from their child and it almost makes him feel like he's done so much less with his life even though he's nearly two years older than Lan Huan.

 

He thumbs the corner of the business card, staring at simple black letters and numbers on simple white paper. No matter how many times he turns over possibilities in his head, he cannot fathom a good reason why in the world Lan Huan would give him his business card.

 

This is why I teach engineering and not psychology . Nie Mingjue thinks to himself, and puts the card away to deal with another time.

 

---

 

Classes start next monday, which means Nie Mingjue is spending this Friday night with the rest of the faculty and major donors for the big start of term event, listening to the president of the school and all the deans give stuffy speeches about their excitement on the upcoming year, the hopes for all professors to continue to do their best to uphold the high reputation of the university, blah blah blah. It was the same thing every year, and at this point Nie Mingjue is spending the time thinking about how he can get out of coming to this next year. The free food and free drinks weren't worth having to sit through the speeches and being forced to play nice with donors who are only interested in the state of the school to learn what building they can spend money on to get their name on it.

 

He scans the room as the dean makes her finishing remarks, wondering if there's anyone he should avoid, or more unlikely, anyone he should talk to tonight. Considering Nie Mingjue rarely speaks to anyone outside engineering, he doubts it, but.

 

His eyes settle on a man with his hair pulled back in a thick white ribbon sitting across the room, back toward him as he looks up at the speaker on stage. 

 

Of course Lan Huan is here. Nie Mingjue ignores the small excited flutter in his gut at confirming it.

 

The business card is still sitting in his wallet, unmoved, because Nie Mingjue had no idea how to start that conversation out of the blue. What would he say, ' hey i noticed you left your card with your sudden gift, how's it going? ' Impossible. However, this feels far easier - he doesn't have to broach the unknown if he doesn't want to. It wouldn't be strange for him to go over, thank him for the food, see how he's faring and then heading home without mentioning the business card at all.

 

A coward's move , says a little traitorous part of his brain, that Nie Mingjue steadfastly ignores.

 

It's not much longer that the speeches are done, the floor is open for mingling, and Nie Mingjue makes his way across the hall. 

 

"Lan Huan?"

 

This time it's Lan Huan who turns in surprise, "Ah, Professor Nie!"  he says, and instead of looking caught off guard, he keeps his poise and smile with ease. He's wearing a casual suit this time, and it looks like something tailored to fit his body. Not that he's looking. 

 

"I thought I told you, you really don't have to call me professor." It's odd, but Nie Mingjue feel his muscles relax - he didn't think he had been that tense sitting here.

 

"I know, I know, but it's a force of habit." Lan Huan replies, "And I don't know if the literature department here is as lax, they seem to go by professor even by each other."

 

"Hm, not surprising from a bunch of old men. They're not giving you a hard time over there are you?"

 

"Not in the slightest - everyone has been very kind to help me get acquainted with the ins and outs of everything here." His smile suddenly seems to tilt, "Professor Chan even showed me a good bakery for pastries and bread."

 

Nie Mingjue snorts, "Is that where you got them from then?"

 

"It was."

 

"Thank you." Nie Mingjue says, "For the pastries, I mean. They were very delicious. You'll have to give me the name of the place."

 

"Of course." Lan Huan gives him the address, and they slip into small talk - about how Lan Huan is getting ready for the rest of term, adjusting into a new, much smaller office and making sure his lesson plans all make sense compared to everyone else's. It's so easy to slip back into conversation with him, Nie Mingjue once again loses track of time, loses track of the sounds of the room around him, just focused on this moment. It's the calmest he's felt at one of these needless events in some time.

 

"Oh, Mingjue!"

 

A third voice cuts into the conversation from behind him. It’s a voice he knows like he knows what it feels like to take a punch in the jaw. It snaps Nie Mingjue's stance rigid and his blood turning to ice.

 

Of all the people to be here. Of course this asshole is here. He should've known that of all the people in all of New York City to be here, it would be the one person who would use his connections in his father's sketchy corporate law firm and pockets lined with ill-gotten cash to donate to the university so he could get invited to the events just to spite him. He almost doesn't even turn around, because it would mean having to look at the very last person Nie Mingjue ever wants to see. 

 

But it's too late, because Lan Huan is peering around his shoulder, and he can hear the step of a man in expensive shoes. Nie Mingjue closes his eyes, and takes a very, very deep breath. He's afraid if he doesn't, he's going to punch something.

 

When he feels a hand fall onto his elbow, he opens his eyes to see a man much shorter than him, wearing an expensive white suit with ostentatious gold and yellow accessories and the fakest smile a person could ever wear; he nearly punches him anyway.

 

Jin Guangyao would deserve it. "It's been so long, I should've known you'd be here!"

 

"Meng Yao." Nie Mingjue grits out, and takes a sick sense of satisfaction in the way he falters. "What do you want."

 

"It's Jin Guangyao, thank you very much." Jin Guangyao laughs, waving his other hand. "And honestly, is it so bad that I wanted to see an old friend?"

 

"We are not friends." Whatever they were once is long gone, and Nie Mingjue is not willing to deal with this.

 

However, his attitude does not deter Jin Guangyao in the slightest, who has turned his attention away from Nie Mingjue to Lan Huan.

 

"Excuse me for interrupting, I couldn't help myself. You're Professor Lan Huan, of Peking University yes?"

 

Nie Mingjue suddenly realizes what's happening. He feels his heart stop. 

 

"Yes, that's me-- ah, we've met before, haven't we?" Lan Huan says in the same, easy going, mild mannered way he says everything. "At an exhibition opening, maybe a year or so ago?"

 

"In London, yes! I'm honored you remember." Jin Guangyao extends his hands and they shake on it, and Nie Mingjue swears he sees red. This fucking snake.

 

Rationally, he knows that Lan Huan travels constantly, and so does Jin Guangyao, going to high society things that Nie Mingjue never was a part of, so it's likely they met by chance. That they chatted, out of politeness, and moved on. That it seems like they haven't been keeping in communication, so it's not like they know each other well. He knows that despite everything terrible about Jin Guangyao, his strongest trait is that perfect memory, and that Lan Huan isn't stupid either. This interaction should not bother him at all. It's not even like Nie Mingjue knows either man well either, no matter what Jin Guangyao would like to say to that. He has no right to be this angry, but for some reason, he can't help the rage in him bubble up his throat bile.

 

"I'll leave you two to catch up." Nie Mingjue says as calmly as he possibly can. He's not sure his voice sounds calm at all. “Excuse me."

 

He hears Lan Huan asking for him to wait, but he ignores it, ignores Jin Guangyao entirely, and walks straight out of the hall.

 

---

 

Every instinct tells him to ditch this worthless event and just go home. however, Nie Mingjue can't push down the thought that if he really ran that it would mean Jin Guangyao got the best of him, so he's left sitting on the outside steps with his chin in his hands and bouncing his knee. He feels like he has enough restless energy that he could run a mile.

 

This is stupid. he thinks to himself, Get over yourself Mingjue, there's no point in getting worked up about him.

 

Everything that happened between them is years old, and it's not like this is the first time he's seen Jin Guangyao in all those years or anything. Nie Mingjue has been able to handle himself before, but this time he was caught off guard. He didn't know he'd be here at all, although maybe Nie Mingjue should've. It's no secret that Jin Guangshan's law firm does business with the university, after all. Nie Mingjue just ended up making an ass of himself, or worse, made himself look weak, something he's sure Jin Guangyao can’t wait to exploit for whatever nasty idea is running through his head.

 

Separately, he makes a mental note to go find Lan Huan and apologize for his sudden departure. He's probably thinking Nie Mingjue as weak too, for leaving so quickly just because of Jin Guangyao. They were having a genuinely good conversation, and Nie Mingjue wants to be able to pick that back up, to be able to talk to Lan Huan again without worrying about him thinking less of him. It's been a long time since he's met someone he met someone he got along with so quickly, and to lose even that, as stupid as it might seem... 

 

Soft footsteps interrupt Nie Mingjue's thought process. He stands up to (hopefully) make it seem like he wasn't sitting there being lost in his own head, only to startle anyway when the person behind him calls out, "Nie Mingjue?"

 

"Lan Huan." The name rushes out of him in a breath, blinking once, twice, unbelieving of his own eyes and ears. Lan Huan stands several steps up, the light from the hall illuminating his silhouette giving him an air of grandeur that accents his attire. His expression seems concerned, but then eases into it's usual smile once he realizes Nie Mingjue isn't going to run. "I hope you didn't leave on my account."

 

"I did, actually." Lan Huan takes the steps in stride until they're standing on the same stair. "You left so quickly I thought something must be wrong."

 

Nie Mingjue winces internally at his own stupid behavior, and scowls externally. "Sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. I... just needed some air." He does not want to get into his past relationship with seedy lawyers right now.

 

"Are you feeling unwell?" The concern flashes back over Lan Huan's face.

 

"No, not really. I’m fine." Nie Mingjue grits out. he tries to smooth out his own expression, hoping that looking calm will help soothe Lan Huan’s worries.

 

"I see." A pause, a breath, and Lan Huan asks. "Is it because of Guangyao?"

 

Just like that Nie Mingjue's scowl returns to his face, twice as deep as before. Now that Lan Huan's said it out loud Nie Mingjue needs to face it, instead of pushing the issue aside, repressing it further and further like he normally does when it comes to Jin Guangyao. “It's complicated."

 

"I won't pry." Lan Huan says and puts a soft hand on his shoulder, "But I do want to make sure you're alright."

 

That gives Nie Mingjue pause. He turns and looks at Lan Huan to take him in properly. He might not be as good as reading people as his little brother, but Nie Mingjue likes to think with an extra moment he can tell from Lan Huan's body language ( open, looking him in the eye, ready to listen ), his expression ( smiling, handsome, lined with the same kind of hope from when they stood outside his office the first time they met ), and his voice ( deep, soothing, like how the ocean makes you relax ), he can tell that Lan Huan is being genuine and honest.

 

"Why?" comes out of his mouth anyway.

 

Lan Huan blinks, and then chuckles. "Is it so wrong to want to check in on you?"

 

"That's not what I meant." Nie Mingjue huffs, and he surprises himself with how it sounds fond. "I mean, we haven't known each other very long and there's no need for you to be going out of your way for me."

 

"Maybe so." Lan Huan smile seems to widen, "But allow me to be entirely honest -  I am far away from Beijing, and there isn’t anyone here I know well. The other professors are kind toward me and perfectly good people, but I find that it’s your company I enjoy the most so far. So if you don't mind, I'd like us to be friends."

 

"Friends." The word has an odd shape on his tongue, because he's never been much for them, and he's certain no one's ever asked to be his friend before. He spends time with his fellow professors as co-workers, all business. His usual routines with Jiang Cheng just happened naturally, and those are business too. There's no one from his days in college, let alone high school, he keeps in contact with. "Is that why you gave me your business card?"

 

"Ah. Yes. I was going to give it to you more formally but you and Professor Jiang seemed busy so I put it inside the bag instead."

 

For some reason, the image strikes him as hilarious. That someone as dignified looking as Lan Huan would go out of his way to grab him, of all people, baked goods, just for showing him around. that he would ask to keep in touch, but then changed his plans because of all people, Jiang Cheng, and that somehow, without either of them noticing in that tiny room, he dropped in a card with his contact information and just.... hoped for the best.

 

Now, Nie Mingjue doesn't want to be rude.

 

Nie Mingjue ends up laughing anyway, hard enough his shoulders quake with it.

 

"You can just say no." Lan Huan sighs, and Nie Mingjue shakes his head.

 

"No, no, I mean, yes, but-- really?"

 

"Is that so strange?" Amusement bleeds into the edges of Lan Huan's voice, "I wanted to speak with you more, so... oh dear, it does sound strange, doesn't it?" And just like that Lan Huan is laughing too. Their laughter fills the night air, intermingling, dying down, until Nie Mingjue snorts and Lan Huan starts laughing all over again.

 

It feels like something unknown has been torn down between them, giving way to the path to let them get to know each other better.

 

"Alright, what the hell." Nie Mingjue says when the two of them have calmed down and the night air is quiet again. "Friends it is."

 

 

---

 

 

The first week of class hits with all the bustle and annoyance that it does every year, but Nie Mingjue is practiced enough in dealing with it after so many semesters. He spends extra time at the gym in the evening to blow off steam when his classes are done for the day. He knows not to open up office hours for the 100-level courses until the second week to avoid making more trouble for himself, but he gave the 300-level course students office hours right away, knowing and even liking most of them. They've been working so hard to get this far and knowing they want to get everything organized for senior thesis now, and helping the ones who want to start early makes it easier to deal with the ones who put it all off to the last minute. like everything else, it's a routine structured exactly so to keep him sane.

 

The only difference this year is carving out time for (albeit very short) breaks to check his phone to see if he's gotten any messages from Lan Huan. they're few and far between - it seems the start of the year is more hectic than Lan Huan expected, but it's nice to know he hasn't been trampled over by an over-excited department and students wanting to butter him up or get him to come to different club activities. Nie Mingjue doesn't mind that they mostly talk about work, because frankly he's not sure what else to talk about with Lan Huan outside of that and to avoid the cafe on seventh avenue because their coffee tastes like it was brewed with trash water. But even so, everything about this feels easy. He even gets used to the fact that Lan Huan's texts often end up getting broken into two because they're so long, or that he seems to really love using weather emojis.

 

Nie Mingjue's texting him one evening after he's home and showered from his workout, ignoring whatever home improvement show Nie Huaisang has decided to put on tv.

 

A mistake, because it means he's not paying attention to his brother, who moved forward enough on the couch to try and peek at his phone screen. "Whatchya looking at?"

 

"Nothing." Nie Mingjue says too fast, closing the text even though Nie Huaisang was nowhere close to seeing anything. "Don't you have homework you should be doing?"

 

That's more than enough to make Nie Huaisang shift backwards, waving his hand in front of him. "Nothing that's due for a while yet, it's only the first week since classes started. Don't be so worried."

 

Nie Mingjue glares at him, making Nie Huaisang shift back even further. somehow, Nie Huaisang inherited absolutely no talent for school and a hatred for studying, which meant that it was up to him to push him into getting all of his work done so he wouldn't fail out of everything. He didn't really have the time to baby his brother through everything, but he remembers several late nights last spring making sure he got all of his essays done so he could at least complete his first year at college without incident. Nie Mingjue has no idea how he's going to make it another three if he keeps up his shitty work ethic if he doesn't intervene sometimes.

 

"I'll get it all done." Nie Huaisang shifts again, still looking uncomfortable under his gaze. "Promise."

 

"Hm." is his only reply, before he turns back to finish the text on his phone.

 

---

 

from: Lan Huan (8:01PM)

do you have any restaurant recommendations? every continues to tell me the city has the best food but when i try to search for myself it's quite overwhelming. there are so many options.

 

from: Nie Mingjue (8:03PM)

depends what kind of food do you like

 

from: Lan Huan (8:05PM)

I'm willing to try anything at least once. it seems like that would be in the best spirit of living somewhere new, yes?

 

from: Nie Mingjue (8:17PM)

v&t is good near campus if you want pizza

jin's ramen is good

xian's famous foods is good chinese nearby too

 

from: Lan Huan (8:21PM)

thank you! 

 

from: Nie Mingjue (8:22PM)

anytime. if you need more i'd ask the chat

 

from: Lan Huan (8:24PM)

noted ️

 

---

 

from: Lan Huan (10:11PM)

would you mind joining me for lunch on wednesday or friday at one of these restaurants? I don't have class from 11:30 until 2, and i always find it's better to share a meal with company. though if you have class or are busy we can meet some other time.

 

Nie Mingjue stares at the text, and wonders why Lan Huan's text feels different than normal, and why his heart has missed one of its normal beats.

 

Strange.

 

from: Nie Mingjue (10:13PM)

friday is better, I can meet you at v&t at noon

 

from: Lan Huan (10:15PM)

perfect, i'll see you then.

 

---

 

Getting lunch with Lan Huan is uneventful in the way Nie Mingjue wants lunch to be uneventful: the restaurant is as busy as expected but they still get to sit and eat in a reasonable time, there's minimal knocking of knees in a small space of their table, they get to catch up, and find that while Lan Huan eats vegetarian he at least has the good taste to enjoy mushrooms on pizza.

 

"I never ate much meat growing up, so there's nothing to miss."

 

Nie Mingjue shakes his head, "That's insane. How do you even manage?"

 

"Force of habit, perhaps." Lan Huan's laughter flitters at the edges of the words, "Our uncle was a strict man, and we spent most of our time with him growing up, and then that was that really."

 

"We?"

 

"Oh." Lan Huan blinks and brings up his phone, tapping a few times before he turns the screen toward Nie Mingjue. The screen shows a picture of Lan Huan, and another young man next to him. they look incredibly alike - he has the same eyes, the same dark smooth hair, but it's the expression on his face is that makes them look different. While Lan Huan looks delighted, the other looks almost pained. "My younger brother. I thought I had more pictures of him..."

 

Nie Mingjue snorts, "Does he always look so serious?"

 

"Mn." he pockets the phone, "He's always been the serious, quiet type, but I love him. what about you?"

 

"I think it'd be pretty forward of me to say I love your brother."

 

"No!" Lan Huan laughs in earnest, and Nie Mingjue takes it as a small victory. "I meant do you have any siblings."

 

"I have one younger brother." Nie Mingjue thinks of Huaisang, and hopes he remembered to eat lunch today. "He's obnoxious."

 

"Don't be mean." Lan Huan replies.

 

"It's true. He spends too much money, spends too much time lounging around, and puts off all his homework until the last minute. Sometimes he even waits until after the due date to turn things in. I feel like if I don't shove his own foot up his ass he would end up failing out of college." Nie Mingjue can feel his blood pressure spiking just thinking about it all.

 

Lan Huan tilts his head like he's considering something. "You sound more like his father when you talk about him like that."

 

"I'm not that old." Nie Mingjue grumbles, rubbing the back of his neck. "I just don't want to see him screwing himself over. He needs to know how to work hard if he wants to live like some kind of hyper elite fashionista."

 

"I'm sure he's doing his best." Lan Huan says, and has the grace to let Nie Mingjue glare at him like he's crazy. "And it sounds like you care for him deeply. Do you have a picture of him?"

 

"Probably." Nie Mingjue doesn’t say anything to that caring comment, and starts digging for a photo. He isn't one for photo taking, but he at least knows his brother's instagram account which is loaded with images. He hands his phone over to Lan Huan, who skims through them.

 

"He looks like a fun person."

 

"Please don't encourage him."

 

Lan Huan laughs again, and Nie Mingjue notices his shoulders slouch to their normal angle. He hadn’t noticed before that they were tense. Had he been stressed out about something?

 

He doesn't get to consider it further when their food shows up. Nie Mingjue learns that Lan Huan is definitely the picture taking type, snapping photos before eating with a fork and knife no less, which makes him look that much more prim and proper against a restaurant full of people eating pizza with their hands.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't remember the pizza here tasting this good, and wonders if he has to chalk it up to the company.

 

 

---

 

 

Jiang Cheng is face down on his desk, with a stack of papers on one side of his head and a binder on top of his computer on the other. He looks like he hasn't stepped outside the room in a week even though Nie Mingjue knows for a fact it isn't true.

 

"What the hell happened to you?"

 

"The wedding." Jiang Cheng replies, muffled from the desk.

 

Ah yes, how could he forget - Jiang Cheng's darling older sister is getting married at the end of the year to Jin Zixuan, of all people. Nie Mingjue's had the misfortune of meeting him a few times, and he's just as much of a gaudy, self absorbed bastard as his father and the rest of his family. It's a weird contrast to Jiang Yanli, whose more of the soft spoken, wallflower type, but somehow the two of them seemed to be truly happy together. 

 

And such a gaudy, rich family meant only one thing: that this wedding had to be the best. All out, no expense spared, everyone who's anyone is there type deal. Jiang Cheng had been helping his sister where he could, but he seemed like Jiang Cheng would have more fun eating glass.

 

"I need Wei Ying to hurry the fuck up and get over here already." Jiang Cheng grumbles, pushing his face up off the desk and fixing his bangs out of his eyes. "I can't keep doing this. If I have to be consulted on another menu item I'll break my own legs."

 

Wei Ying was Jiang Cheng's oldest friend - there was something about their fathers being old friends, and they grew up next door to one another, apparently close enough that he was practically considered family which is why he's helping to plan Jiang Yanli's wedding and be her MC. Nie Mingjue only met him a few times, and he always wondered how Jiang Cheng dealt with such a loud and obnoxious person all his life. "Didn't you say he'd be here at the start of the semester?"

 

"Typhoon season's being a real ripe asshole. His flight got cancelled again. at this rate I'll be surprised if he makes it out of Taiwan before November."

 

Ah. "Sucks."

 

"No shit." Jiang Cheng rubs his temples. "You're still good to come to the wedding right?"

 

Nie Mingjue frowns. It's true that until this wedding came up, he and Jiang Cheng spoke about virtually nothing besides work. However, once his sister got engaged and Jiang Cheng needed a place to rant about how useless Jin Zixuan and the entire Jin family was, he found a friendly ear in Nie Mingjue who would love to burn all of them to the ground. One of them, in particular.

 

Maybe that's why he was asking this stupid question yet again. "I already told you I'd go."

 

"Yeah, okay. Good. Thank you. I think if I had to go with just Wei Ying at my side and all those peacocks I'd really lose my shit."

 

"...You need to get some rest, Jiang Cheng."

 

"Trust me, I'm looking forward to slipping into a coma as soon as this shit is over."

 

---

 

"Can we order pizza for dinner?"

 

"No."

 

Nie Huaisang groans, throwing his head back over the couch armrest. "Aw come on, please? I want to eat something other than stir fry or pasta or whatever."

 

"Then you cook." Nie Mingjue says, knowing that Huaisang will just groan even louder and more dramatically. 

 

"Come onnnnn. Don't you miss pizza nights with your darling little brother? It's been forever since we got pizza!"

 

Mingue rolls his eyes, "No is no. I just had pizza anyway." He doesn't think anything about admitting that, but it seems to activate something in Nie Huaisang's brain because he goes from sprawled on the couch to sitting up ramrod straight.

 

"Oh, did you go out with someone?"

 

Goddammit. Nie Mingjue glares at his brother hoping he'll back down, but to no avail. If anything Huaisang is leaning in closer, like it'll get the answer into his ear faster. 

 

"It was leftovers from a department thing, it's not that big of a deal."

 

A lie, but there are enough things going on at the beginning of the year that he should be able to get away with it, even if he's put his teaching and meeting schedule on the fridge besides Nie Huaisang's work and school schedule so they always know where the other is.

 

"Uh-huh." Nie Huaisang squints at him, before slowly leaning back. "So it's not this person you've been texting with?"

 

"Excuse me?" Nie Mingjue feels his neck heat up, and now he's sitting up too.

 

"I'm not blind, you've been on your phone more the past two weeks than I think I've seen you in your whole life. Tell me!"

 

"It's none of your business."

 

"If you tell me, I won’t bug you anymore about pizza."

 

The two of them glare at each other, trying to get the other to back down first. They're both as stubborn as they come, and it takes a solid minute before Nie Mingjue decides, just this once, to stand down if it'll save him from getting annoyed over whatever stupid pizza order Huaisang wants to make. 

 

"There's a new teacher at the university." Nie Mingjue says through gritted teeth.

 

"Ooooo!" Nie Huaisang's entire face lights up, like he really didn't expect to get an answer. "Is she? He? Cute?? Are you going to go out again?"

 

"It's none of your business, Huaisang." finally Nie Mingjue gets up from the couch, making sure his phone is firmly in his pocket so Huaisang doesn't take it upon himself to do some snooping as he starts preparing dinner. He decides to make stir fry out of spite.

 

"You should send them a gym selfie!" Nie Huaisang calls out after him, "That'll catch their interest for sure!"

 

"You got a death wish?!"

 

 

---

 

 

The next time Nie Mingjue sees Lan Huan, they don't speak to each other at all.

 

He'll tell himself it's because he had to rush to get to the lab before senior seminar started, that he didn't have time to even stop and say hello when he saw Lan Huan sitting at one of the outdoor tables of the cafe. It’s not entirely a lie.

 

What is entirely the truth is that Nie Mingjue sees Lan Huan sitting across from Jin Guangyao, wearing a tailored suit and a smile and Nie Mingjue feels his chest twist into the worst knot because he hates himself for still being able to recognize the ghost of an old, honest smile on a face he couldn't trust if you paid him. The whole scene makes his hair stand on end, and he walks faster than necessary to get away from it.

 

He refuses to linger scars of old fights here and now.

 

---

 

Because Nie Mingjue is a grown ass man, he knows how to compartmentalize his feelings so he can operate like a normal person and keep Lan Huan from realizing that Nie Mingjue felt like he was going to have a conniption out of worry that Jin Guangyao would be up to something. He doesn't even attempt to broach the topic the next time they meet, two weeks later in his office. Lan Huan is sitting at the chair across from his desk as Nie Mingjue puts a hold on grading lab papers to talk.

 

"I actually came by because I need to see Professor Jiang." Lan Huan says, and Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow.

 

"Really?"

 

"I was invited to his sister's wedding reception, and I wanted to make sure it was actually alright." he seems nervous about something, but Nie Mingjue can't parse out what. "I know Jin Guangyao is one of the groom's brothers, and our families have done business together, but still..."

 

Jesus Christ, goddammit, can't this asshole leave me alone for one day? Nie Mingjue thinks, and tries to forget all about seeing the two of them in the cafe. He clenches and unclenches his jaw, letting the rage pass. "Considering the size of this wedding is big enough to make Jiang Cheng want to kill someone, I'm sure it won't be a big deal to add you in too."

 

Lan Huan gives a worried chuckle, "When you put it like that it makes me want to ask all the more."

 

"...Fair enough."

 

There's a beat of silence, before Lan Huan asks, "Are you going to be there?"

 

"At the wedding? Yeah."

 

"Oh good." the nervousness that's been lingering in Lan Huan's smooth voice fades away and his smile comes to bloom. "I was worried that I wouldn't have a familiar face there."

 

"Besides Jin Guangyao, you mean?" Nie Mingjue's tone comes out with much more bite than he intended it too, and he doesn't miss the sidelong look Lan Huan gives him.

 

"Besides him, yes. As I'm sure he'll be busy, since it's his family wedding and not mine."

 

"Hm." Nie Mingjue knows Lan Huan is right, but he doesn't want to keep going down that path. If he keeps thinking about or talking about Jin Guangyao, he can't promise what he'll do or say. It won't be anything nice, that's for sure, and right now he'd rather enjoy the time he gets here and now. Nie Mingjue reminds himself again that the past isn't worth dwelling on, no matter how much his bone marrow sings with how much he wants to tell Lan Huan to steer clear of that bastard and his scheming. He might seem like a good person at first, but then...

 

Nie Mingjue shoves the thoughts out of his head and lets the two of them slip into comfortable silence. Lan Huan seems to be as content as he is to let conversation end there as he checks something on his phone and Nie Mingjue goes back to grading lab reports. He has no problems letting Lan Huan stay until Jiang Cheng finishes his class, if anything, he welcomes it. As they've gotten to know each other, the more Nie Mingjue has grown to appreciate his presence not just as a soothing, easy to talk to a coworker, but as someone he genuinely likes. It's refreshing to have someone like that so close.

 

He’s pouring over the calculus formulas and machine diagrams in the twentieth or so lab report he has to grade before he notices a shadow across his desk. Nie Mingjue glances up, and sees that Lan Huan is now leaning over the desk, looking at his work.

 

"Your notes are so thorough." Lan Huan says when he notices Nie Mingjue's hands still, not looking from where he's staring at the lab reports. "Do you do this for all of them?"

 

"How else are they going to learn? They need to know there's no slacking off and that they're graded on their work and their work alone."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"That they actually have to do the work and not slack off like they can anywhere else. I'm not grading anything on a stupid curve ." Nie Mingjue spits out looking down at his handwriting in red ink, "If they want an a in my class they have to learn and earn it themselves, there's none of this 'oh as long as I score better than everyone else, even if it's a 50% I'll still get an A' or worrying that if you score low, that even if that low is an 85% you fail bullshit. That's not how it works in the real world, you're not seen as better just because you failed less than everyone, you need to actually do well to earn your accolades and your place in whatever work they end up doing. And if you do do well, it's still worth it's merit even if other people are succeeding too. I swear, so many professors here just want to keep it easy and have some kind of pass to fail ratio to make them seem scary, but it's just a load of absolute garbage. That's not teaching at all, and besides, who in the real world operates judging work on a curve?!"

 

Nie Mingjue lets out a long breath, trying to get some of his anger out with it. This is an old argument he's had so many times with the department to try to get them to change their ways, but in the end the best Nie Mingjue could ever get was being able to grade his own classes on his own terms, and open it up for anyone else to do the same. Not that most of them do. He looks up, about to continue but--

 

--Lan Huan looks at him with wide eyes, mouth slightly agape, and it hits Nie Mingjue that his face is so close that he can see cerulean sprinkled throughout the gray of his eyes, that he can see the two stray strands of hair from his ponytail coming down the side of his cheek, that if he leaned in any closer he could probably feel his breath, he could--

 

Nie Mingjue sucks in a breath so fast his heart trips over it.

 

"Sorry." he manages to say, sounding gruffer then it should, "I didn't mean to rant like that at you."

 

"No, no, please, don't apologize." Lan Huan blinks like he's coming back to himself. Neither of them have moved. "You are so passionate about it, I didn't want to stop you." and then he laughs, soft and clear and oh, "Your students are lucky to have a teacher like you."

 

Oh no.

 

Nie Mingjue has never been more grateful that he isn't one to blush, but he does feel the back of his neck burn. 

 

"You're too kind, Lan Huan."

 

 

---

 

 

Before they know it, early fall warmth gives way to the feeling of winter creeping just around the corner. The city doesn't get colder all at once, it slips in behind a lot of rain and strong winds and the occasional warm day that everyone tries to take advantage of on the green before all of the grass dies. It means they're drawing closer and closer to the end of term, which means all the students are in various states of panic and distress about getting everything done and studying up for the end of the semester.

 

Staying in his office means he'll be fielding questions until his head splits open, so Nie Mingjue takes all his work home to do that night. He settles with final exams and last minute handed in reports that night, working at it and working at it until he looks up and realizes it's nearly 2AM.

 

Nie Mingjue groans and rubs the bridge of his nose - no wonder he feels so tired. He's never been a night owl, and as much as he'd like to get more work done, he's not going to fall asleep at his desk if he keeps this up. 

 

Slowly he gets up to get ready for bed, but he stops in his tracks right outside his room. The apartment is pitch black except for the light coming from Nie Huaisang's door. It's too late for him to be awake, and Nie Mingjue knocks softly on the door to see if he fell asleep on his desk.

 

"Huaisang?" 

 

The door creaks open a hair and Mingjue can hear the sudden sounds of a chair scooting against the hardwood, papers falling to the floor, and Huaisang swearing a small storm.

 

"What, big brother, you're awake?? I mean, I'm fine, what's up?"

 

Yeah, alright. Like that's not suspicious at all. Nie Mingjue pushes the door the rest of the way and sees Nie Huaisang with his knees brought up to his chin, his wavy hair all over the place, looking up at him with wide, nervous eyes. He looks exhausted, more than Nie Mingjue can remember seeing him. How many late nights has he pulled recently without him noticing?

 

"...Are you working on homework?" he asks, a little disbelieving. He expected to catch him binging some tv show, but there are so many papers and books open in disarray on his desk that it's hard to imagine any other conclusion.

 

"Uh, yeah..." Huaisang shifts, "I got a big project I wanna get done so uh, yeah?"

 

Nie Mingjue blinks. Who knew Huaisang could actually get his shit together if he tried. It makes his heart go a little soft - maybe all his pushing to get him into a good work ethic have finally worked.

 

"You should go to sleep, it's late." Nie Mingjue says, "I know you have to be awake early tomorrow. c'mon."

 

He steps into the room but Nie Huaisang jolts up, standing in front of him. What? "D-Don't worry about me, I'm almost done, just let me get to a good stopping point okay? Promise."

 

"Uh, okay." Nie Mingjue steps back, because if he's actually working, well, who is Mingjue to stop him? It just seems so out of place for Huaisang that he's actually curious about it. But Nie Huaisang is standing firmly in his place, not letting Mingjue take another step inside. He even moves side to side when Mingjue does, like he's hiding something.

 

"What class is this for again?"

 

Huaisang balks for half a second, but recovers. "Art history."

 

If it wasn't so late, Mingjue would probably push more, but it is and he is so tired. With a heavy sigh, he ruffles Huaisang's hair, leaving it in even more disarray.

 

"Alright, alright. But if you're still at your desk when I wake up you're going to be in for it, you hear me?"

 

Huaisang snorts, and smiles. "Yeah yeah, whatever you say mom ."

 

 

---

 

 

from: Lan Huan (4:19PM)

can I ask you to look at something for me?

 

Nie Mingjue wipes the sweat off his neck as he checks his phone. He tries not to take too many breaks while he's at the gym so he can get showered and changed and home to make dinner, but when the notification popped up when he was getting water anyway, and well.

 

from: Nie Mingjue (4:20PM)

sure

 

from: Lan Huan (4:21PM)

does this look appropriate for the wedding?

 

Attached to the text is a single picture of Lan Huan in what looks like a changing room mirror, his face half obscured by his phone. but what sticks out is the well fitted, sleek black suit and a royal blue shirt with the topmost two buttons left undone. It's a new look on him - most of the time Lan Huan wears khakis or soft blues, whites, and grays, making black that much of a starker contrast with his pale skin pulled back hair. the long lines of his body look even sleeker, and the  undone buttons... it's really nothing in the grand scheme of things, Nie Mingjue leaves a top button or two undone all the time, but on Lan Huan it makes him look almost disheveled. Nie Mingjue takes another long drink of water.

 

He types out the start of a text, erases it, and types it again.

 

from: Nie Mingjue (4:24PM)

yeah. it looks good

 

There. That's a normal response, he thinks, and doesn't give away the fact Nie Mingjue is still looking at the photo, and taking in how different but handsome he looks in that damn suit.

 

from: Lan Huan (4:25PM)

oh good! I wasn't sure how different american weddings are to the ones back home... thank you!

I hope I didn't disturb you from doing anything important.

 

from: Nie Mingjue (4:25PM)

you're fine

 

More than fine, he thinks, but squashes that down quickly. Although for some reason, Nie Huaisang's voice rings in the back of his head beside that stupid thought - " Send him a gym selfie! that'll catch their interest for sure! "

 

He looks down at himself: he's sweaty, wearing compression pants and an old tank top that's now sticking to his body. It feels like it's not really the same appeal. But. Lan Huan did send him a picture so...

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't take much thought as he snaps a picture of himself in the closest wall mirror, spending only three extra seconds to make sure his whole body was in the shot. 

 

from: Nie Mingjue (4:27PM)

there's nothing that important going on at the gym 

 

He sends that and the picture before he can second guess himself, or before he can think too hard about why he would be nervous about his appearance or if he should send Lan Huan a picture at all.

 

from: Lan Huan (4:27PM)

f

 

from: Lan Huan (4:28PM)

apologies, my hand slipped!

it looks like you’re having a good work out and I don't want to interrupt you from it though

so I'll talk to you later!

 

...huh. Nie Mingjue stares at the texts for a little while, unsure of what to make of that reaction. maybe he shouldn’t have sent it?

 

 

---

 

 

The December air is biting, but Nie Mingjue welcomes the wind against his cheek as he heads across campus. Colder weather just suits him better.

 

There's nothing special about his walk across campus to get to the subway, but he does slow as he sees the familiar frame of Lan Huan, with his hair pulled back and hidden beneath his scarf and a long, gray coat that must be new.

 

"Lan Huan." he says, coming up to stand beside him.

 

Lan Huan starts, blinks, and looks straight at Nie Mingjue.

 

Nie Mingjue feels like his stomach falls out his ass.

 

This person does look like Lan Huan, the same color of hair, the same gray blue eyes, the same frame, and color scheme and simplicity of their clothes. But the expression is entirely different - instead of the easy, soothing warmth of Lan Huan that Nie Mingjue has come familiar with, this person has a far more serious expression, and one way, way more confused.

 

"You're. Not Lan Huan."

 

The not Lan Huan squints at him, his expression so grave that it feels weird just to say, and they're about to say something before--

 

"Oh, Lan Zhan, there you are!"

 

Both of them turn toward the voice as another man bounds up toward them in a bright red jacket. "I, I was afraid I missed you... ah, Professor Nie?"

 

Right. Nie Mingjue's brain starts working again and starts putting names to faces. the man who just bounded up is a phd biomed student, and little brother of one of the top doctors in the school's hospital, Wen Ning. And this one. The not Lan Huan... is Lan Zhan. He remembers, months ago, Lan Huan telling him he had a brother, even showing him a picture, but christ, he didn't realize they looked that alike.

 

Nie Mingjue clears his throat, and steps back. "Sorry. I mistook you for someone else. I'll be. leaving now."

 

And so he does.

 

---

 

from: Nie Mingjue (5:01PM)

are you and your brother actually twins?

 

from: Lan Huan (5:05PM)

no? what brought this up?

 

from: Lan Huan (6:43PM)

oh!

 

 

---

 

 

"You should knock me out and hide me supply closet. Spare me from having to watch Jin Zixuan make an idiot of himself again."

 

Nie Mingjue snorts. "Sorry, no can do."

 

Apparently, despite the already grand size the Jin-Jiang wedding is shaping up to be, there are somehow plenty of pre-wedding parties, family events and dress rehearsal events and meals that Nie Mingjue passes on despite Jiang Cheng's invitation. It's not that he means to be rude, he'd just rather attend one, oversized party, rather than numerous ones. Jiang Cheng seems to not only understand, but harbors some intense jealousy that Nie Mingjue is removed enough from all of it to not go and not have anyone care.

 

"Don't lie to me, I know you still practice MMA, if anyone can do it it's you." Jiang Cheng says, his tone teetering between joking and really meaning it. Nie Mingjue frowns - he doesn't want to punch Jiang Cheng in the face, even if he asks for it.

 

The point becomes moot though, when Wei Ying's voice comes bounding down the hall. "A-Chenggggg, hurry up, don't you dare make me go to this thing alone!"

 

Jiang Cheng starts, and then bolts out of the room.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't even finish a sigh before he hears Wei Ying's triumphant "ah-ha!", and the sound of two grown men hitting the floor.

 

---

 

Whether it was because of auspicious stars or available wedding reception spots, the enormously awaited Jin-Jiang wedding landed in December, two weeks before christmas.

 

The marriage tea ceremony itself is kept small, only close family and friends were invited. But it was the reception that was the grand party, the end all be all where everyone was invited to the Waldorf Astoria for what was bound to be the most over the top, exhausting party Nie Mingjue would ever go to. Anything that made him wear a suit and deal with hundreds of people would surely be nothing less.

 

He's fixing the cufflinks of his suit at the kitchen table when he hears Nie Huaisang finally come out of the bathroom after a full hour. He's wearing a suit jacket with enamel pins he stuck in for 'flair' that matched his ridiculously patterned shirt, and he's done something elaborate with his hair to make it swoop to the side just right. Nie Mingjue is pretty sure he put glitter in it somehow. No wonder he started getting ready so much earlier - the whole look is a stark contrast to Mingjue's own simple, black suit and hair swept back out of his face using some product that Huaisang insisted on him using.

 

"I look great, right?" Huaisang says with a flourishing pose, and Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes.

 

"Took you long enough, let's go."

 

"We're getting a cab, right?"

 

"Over my dead body."

 

"What, no, you want me to get onto the subway in this gorgeous outfit? You must be kidding, right? Big bro?? Mingjue????"

 

---

 

They arrive on time.

 

The guests from the ceremony itself are already inside, with plenty more who were invited to the reception filing in as well. Even though this is just the first part before the real party and dinner, the set up is grand - everything is decorated in reds and golds from the walls to the waiters, several who are carrying around plates of food despite the there's a long table across the back wall with even more finger food. Nie Mingjue's eye catches the fully stocked bar a second before Huaisang does, and he's about to run for it before Mingjue can grab him by the collar, take him to the bar with him, and let him have what he wants. Huaisang looks hesitant at first, like he doesn't believe Mingjue would actually let him drink. Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes.

 

"I'm not that stupid, Huaisang. I know you're drinking at those house parties you go to." Huaisang at least has the decency to look embarrassed and look away, before Mingjue continues as they both get a glass of red wine. Nie Mingjue sighs, "Just... be responsible, have a glass of water with each drink. and text me if you feel sick, or need to go home. okay? I'm not letting you stumble home by yourself."

 

He remembers how tired Huaisang looked this past month, that he actually worked really hard this semester at his final projects and essays. It almost seemed like he took on a fifth class behind his back, with how many essays he was writing and how many projects he was doing, even though Nie Mingjue knew that wasn’t the case. Really, he feels a little proud that his brother got his shit together, and so now the least he could do is reward him by letting him have fun.

 

Huaisang pauses for a long moment looking at his brother, and does that waffling thing where he shifts his weight like he wants to say something, but then it settles. He smiles instead, "Thanks, Mingjue."

 

---

 

It's not long afterwards that he finds Jiang Cheng to properly thank him for the invitation, to give his greetings to his parents, and to give his congratulations to the bride. Jiang Yanli would come around every so often to visit her brother, but she's never looked as stunning as she does now, smiling so hard it looks like her face with burst with it, her hair done up in elaborate braids and buns, wearing a long white and lilac dress that she must've changed into the ceremony so she could move with less weight and still look the spitting image of a perfect bride. She seems to light up even more when Jin Zixuan comes over, smiling just as bright and the two of them look like they're practically glowing with how happy they are. 

 

He and Jiang Cheng of them become wallflowers, ignored by the crowd who have all their focus on the newly married couple. Nie Mingjue welcomes it if only to get away from being harassed by any potential idiots he doesn't want to talk to, and Jiang Cheng seems to be using this conversation for the same excuse. He's in the middle of telling Nie Mingjue how the ceremony went when a woman in a sleek red dress comes up beside him holding a plate full of food. 

 

"You need to tell them to put out more oysters, those things are amazing." the woman says, and Nie Mingjue realizes he knows her, just didn't recognize her in all the makeup and jewelry. Doctor Wen Qing is someone he usually someone more likely seen wearing scrubs or whatever counts doctor's business casual when he sees her on the rare occasion she’s on campus.

 

"I can't tell the kitchen what to do any more than you can." Jiang Cheng replies, taking a piece of bread with meat on it off her plate. Nie Mingjue looks between the two of them, eyebrows furrowed.

 

Wen Qing seems to notice first. "We've met, right? You're Jiang Cheng's only work friend, Nie...?"

 

"Nie Mingjue." he supplies and nods. "I didn't realize you two were... close."

 

"Well, we're dating, so yeah." Wen Qing says casually, as if she doesn't care how Jiang Cheng turns as red as her dress. "We've been keeping it on the down low, but if there was a time to be public about it, it was now or never you know."

 

"No shit." Nie Mingjue snorts, looking at Jiang Cheng who is looking at the wall like his life depends on it. "Well, good for you two."

 

Jiang Cheng shifts uncomfortably. "I still think we could’ve kept it quiet for a little bit longer."

 

"Sorry." Wen Qing pops an olive into her mouth, sounding not sorry at all. "I told my brother."

 

Jiang Cheng groans, his head falling into his hand. "So Wei Ying and Yanli know now too."

 

"Yep." Wen Qing pats him on the back and gives him a kiss on the temple. "You knew it was going to happen."

 

Nie Mingjue didn't realize Wei Ying and Wen Ning were close, but apparently they were because it's not even two minutes later that the two of them are rushing over to where they are. Or more precisely, Wei Ying is holding Wen Ning's wrist, dragging him along behind him as he rushes forward to yell at Jiang Cheng something about keeping secrets, about how 'Finally, I never thought you would ever date anyone!!' . They quickly become so lost in arguing with Wen Ning hopelessly trying to calm both of them down that it's just Wen Qing and Nie Mingjue standing on the side, sipping their wine as it unfolds.

 

"Little siblings are something else."

 

"You're telling me.

 

---

 

When the Jiang party got entirely too big, he broke away with Nie Huaisang so both of them could avoid having their ears talked off by people they don’t know and so they could grab food. They get about a minute to themselves Nie Mingjue sees an unfortunately familiar figure bound up from over his brother's shoulder.

 

Well, go fucking figure. Nie Mingjue wonders if he's lucky that he hadn't run into him sooner, or unlucky that there's a chance he'll end up sticking to them all night, or do something much, much worse.

 

"Mingjue, Huaisang, hello! I'm so glad you're both here!" Jin Guangyao laughs as he approaches them, and gives Huaisang a hug, who willingly returns it. He seems to know better than not to even try with Mingjue. Good.

 

"Of course, How could I miss such a grand party!" Huaisang is still smiling, and Mingjue does some mental meditation so he doesn't feel his skin crawl at Jin Guangyao's presence so close to his own. He knows he just has to grin and bear it.

 

"Honestly, both of you, it's been far too long. How did your semester go?" Jin Guangyao turns his grin toward Mingjue, and Mingjue hates how it makes his heart feel clogged and clouded in his chest.

 

Push it back. "The same as every semester."

 

"University is so hard, it's a pain! It's only the second year, there's no need for all the teachers to pile on so much work!"

 

Huaisang, bless him, keeps the conversation going with Jin Guangyao so Mingjue doesn't have to speak except for the occasional short answer. He has no idea how his brother has kept on good terms with Guangyao after all these years, and frankly, he would rather not know the answer. He thinks if he knew how Huaisang could still talk to him in such genial terms, it would probably make his head explode.

 

He lets his mind wander instead as he scans the room - he should find Jiang Cheng to make sure he hasn't dropped dead, maybe talk to Wen Qing some more to learn more about her since she’s dating his one good work colleague, find Lan Huan to see if that suit looks as good on him in person as it does in that photo he sent. Not that he's been looking at it, well, maybe once or twice, but it wasn't a regular thing, after all--

 

"--with Lan Huan."

 

Nie Mingjue snaps back into the conversation in front of him, turning his head a little too quickly toward Jin Guangyao, who, naturally, seems to laugh at him when he notices.

 

"My, I should've brought up the potential exhibition of our family's works with him sooner if I knew that's what would get your attention."

 

It takes everything in Nie Mingjue not to snarl outright, so much so that he doesn't notice the curious look Huaisang gives him. Cheeky snake bastard, being so smug about it. "Very fucking funny." Nie Mingjue lets his anger slip, and finds he doesn't really care. 

 

"Oh come now, it's no secret you two have become good friends, don't look so strung up about it." If Jin Guangyao was trying to piss him off, it was working. He acts so nonchalant when pulling out his rage, as if it was all a fun game, about sharing business that wasn't his to share, and talking down to him in the same breath. Nie Mingjue twitches, and almost responds but Jin Guangyao keeps talking to Huaisang, "Lan Huan always has nice things to say about your brother, why, I'm almost jealous."

 

The back of Mingjue's neck flares with a blush, and Huaisang is now openly gawking at him.

 

"It is none of your business." Nie Mingjue manages to grit out. "And you definitely don't get to go gossiping about shit you don't know anything about."

 

Jin Guangyao rolls his eyes, and then leans forward with familiar ease, wrapping his arm through the crook of Mingjue's elbow. He does it so smoothly that Nie Mingjue's brain doesn't get the chance to catch up and make his body lean away from it instead of into it. "Mingjue, please, aren't we old friends? I think i know you well enough."

 

Nie Mingjue sees red.

 

This person is not his old friend. His old friend was someone who dropped into his life out of nowhere, hiding behind his mother's leg scared of the new city he lived in where he couldn't bring himself to speak to anyone, someone who didn't know anything about the father he was supposed to have in this city, someone who took so long to feel comfortable enough in Mingjue's presence that he finally would smile and laugh that it felt like a reward, someone who would hold his arm just like this except it was full of  easy, simple honesty. 

 

That is not Jin Guangyao. He is simply someone using others for his own gain, no one but a heartless, piece of--

 

--there's a shuffle, and then the red he sees is actually very literal, and all over Jin Guangyao's immaculate cream colored suit. He looks flabbergasted at the sight of himself.

 

"Oh my god, oh no, oh my god I'm so sorry!!" Huaisang wails, using his napkin to dab at the red wine stain bleeding through the fabric, "Someone bumped into me, I didn't mean to spill it on you, oh my god..."

 

"It's alright Huaisang." Jin Guangyao's voice is strained, obviously trying to seem calmer than he is about suddenly having red wine on his pants this early in the evening. "I'll go, try to clean it off before it gets stuck in there."

 

"I'll go with you to help, it's the least I could do, I'm so so so sorry!!!!" Huaisang is nearly crying, but before he commits to tears he looks up over Jin Guangyao and catches Nie Mingjue's eye and gives him the universal head shake sign for get the hell out of here while you still have the chance .

 

Realization of what just happened here rushes through Mingjue all at once, and before he takes his opportunity for escape he grabs the back of Huaisang's neck and kisses the top of his head.

 

He owes him big time.

 

---

 

It's strange, how anger works.

 

It was like kindling - one that once it had a spark, would not and could not be stopped without immense force to put out the flame. Anger was the thing that for so long gave him the energy to keep going when he was at his worst, and it took so much work, so many years, so much focused effort on himself for Nie Mingjue to divert that anger that used to fuel him and put it in check so it would not burn him alive. Now the anger was so subdued that most days, that Nie Mingjue forgets it's there, the only echoes of it reverberating in the sternness of his expression and his voice.

 

But he could never really sweep the kindling out of him, not when there's always one last spark that always seems to catch on it and set him blazing all over again, curling into his fingers and blistering his skin. It itches through Mingjue now, like an old partner in crime that just swung back into town.

 

"I think I know you well enough."

 

Nie Mingjue lets out a pained breath - no matter how hard he tries, the anger never lets him be rational, never lets him just move on even though Jin Guangyao isn't worth reducing himself into ash over. It all ends up boiling down to the gut feeling of it, that one spark that always, always gets him right where he's weakest, always setting him right back where he started as a cocky idiot who thought he could fight his way out of everything. He hates himself for it, which just fuels the anger even more, burning it brighter instead of cooling it down, which is not helpful right now.

 

His feet guide him out of the overcrowded, too loud room into the hallway, his face scary enough that no one stops him. Good. No one else around here is going to help him deal with this, Huaisang already did his best, now all Nie Mingjue needs to do is--

 

It's strange, how anger works. But the machinations of it are familiar.

 

So it's much stranger when it's put out, gone without a trace despite all the usual laws.

 

--all thoughts stall at the sight of Lan Huan.

 

It's definitely him this time. He'd know that smile anywhere, and now that he notices him he can even hear the calming tenor of his laugh through the din of the party.

 

His feet move before his brain, closing the short distance before he even registers properly that he's talking with other people - one who looks so much Lan Huan that it must be the gruffer Lan Zhan, with Wei Ying and Wen Ning hanging off each of his shoulders. It would be rude to interrupt them, and yet.

 

"Lan Huan." Nie Mingjue says, stepping up beside him, ignoring Wei Ying's loud greeting.

 

And Lan Huan turns, looking him over for a moment before meeting his gaze. The corner of his eyes crinkle with how wide he smiles and Nie Mingjue really wonders if Lan Huan has cultivated some kind of magic power in that grin.

 

"Nie Mingjue, there you are!" Lan Huan puts a hand on Nie Mingjue's shoulder, and somehow his skin lights up even through all his clothes. "I wanted to introduce you-- properly, to my brother."

 

"Oh." Nie Mingjue looks at Lan Zhan, who, to his credit, is trying to be polite with a nod even though Wei Ying is on him like an octopus. "Hello. Sorry about uh, last time."

 

"It is alright." Lan Zhan's voice would even sound like Lan Huan's if he didn't sound so serious. "I didn't realize you knew my brother."

 

"I cleared it up, so everything is fine now." Lan Huan smiles, "I was thinking about getting a drink, would you care to join me Nie Mingjue?"

 

"Yesssss go, go! You two enjoy yourselves!! We'll keep Lan Zhan here busy, right Wen Ning?" Wei Ying pats Lan Zhan's chest, grinning like he doesn't have a care in the world even though Lan Zhan looks desperately at his brother. Poor kid. Wen Ning nods, "Yes, of, of course."

 

"I'm entrusting him to you." Lan Huan waves and turns, giving Nie Mingjue a look over his shoulder, and Nie Mingjue's gut tells him it has to mean something . "Shall we?"

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't think he's felt this good all night.

 

"Lead the way."

 

---

 

It takes a considerable amount of effort not to gawk at Lan Huan in his black suit, at how it perfectly accents his waist and long legs. He almost steals a glance at one point but when he notices Lan Huan already looking at him, he has to look away. There's no reason for him to embarrass himself more so he makes sure not to stare any more than he already has.

 

They barely get their drink orders in (a scotch for himself and an iced tea for Lan Huan, because apparently he doesn't drink either, and Nie Mingjue really wonders about this stuck up uncle Lan Huan keeps mentioning) before one of the waitresses comes by and ushers them off to the next part of the reception. It's in another ballroom, far larger than the one they were in before - it's decorated the same way, in all luscious reds and gaudy golds, with a long table in the front, presumably for the bride and groom and their entourage, and the circular tables all around an open dance floor. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling and candles are on every table, giving a sense of opulence that truly lives up to the Jin family name. Nie Mingjue isn't surprised, but it still takes a minute to take it all in.

 

Each guest has their own assigned seats at assigned tables, and Nie Mingjue does not sigh when he realizes Lan Huan and Lan Zhan will be sitting at a different table than him and Huaisang. They're all in the same area in the back as family friends rather than family, so the extra table’s worth of separation shouldn’t bother him. He's not that lost on Lan Huan, and besides, Nie Mingjue needs to keep his eyes on Huaisang whose gawking at everything to the point he almost trips over a chair.

 

Everyone is seated and the food is brought out - three courses of immaculately cooked food and wine for everyone as the DJ has some kind of soft music playing already. With the number of guests, how delicious the food is, how the booze is freely flowing, not to mention the actual ceremony and other wedding parties... Nie Mingjue really doesn't want to think about how much this all must've cost. At least everyone is enjoying themselves - Nie Huaisang is practically crying beside him from the food and the spectacle of it all, and Jiang Yanli her husband are lost in their own little world happily feeding each other, not even noticing their parents or brothers seated at the same table.

 

Despite himself, Nie Mingjue finds himself stealing a glance over his shoulder at Lan Huan. He's talking to his brother and Wen Ning about something, and Nie Mingjue ends up wishing they were sitting together despite knowing how stupid that is.

 

The speeches are delivered, tears are shed, the toasts made, all with Wei Ying keeping the show running. It really is quite a show, though Nie Mingjue is really only paying attention when Jiang Cheng (and Wei Ying) give their speech that's full of thinly veiled death threats to the groom, followed by Jiang Yanli saying "My brother should know better that I can take care of myself - since after all I was the one who had to carry him and Wei Ying home when they would stay out late past curfew getting lost." It's a much better speech from her than from Jin Zixuan, who seems to be dead set on giving the most embarrassing, sappy speech of all time.

 

Jin Guangyao speaks too, but Nie Mingjue decides that's the perfect time to pay attention to literally anything else. He does notice that his suit is clean though, to which Huaisang informs him that apparently there was staff on hand for exactly that sort of clean up.

 

"A shame." Nie Mingjue said, looking to see if maybe, just maybe, he gotten any texts.

 

"You're telling me, I think a little color would've suited him." Nie Huaisang says with a sigh.

 

It's all said and done in a reasonable fashion, and that leaves everyone from then on out to their own devices. There's somehow still food for anyone who wants it, definitely still booze, and mostly the music is blasting for everyone to start really going to town.

 

Nie Mingjue knows exactly what he's going to do: he downs the last of his third glass of scotch, turns to get up, and then is interrupted as he is barreled into by a force he's never felt before.

 

"Nie Mingjue!!!!!!!" says the unstoppable force, and Nie Mingjue can't do anything but wrap his arms around it to make himself an immovable object lest he falls off his chair and into the table.

 

There's a breath, a pause as Nie Mingjue centers himself and looks down at a pair of arms wrapped around his waist, a black suit he's been looking at all night, and a smile he's been looking at for months. "Lan Huan?"

 

Lan Huan giggles of all things, and smiles without any reservations. "Yes! Hello! I was lonely at my table without you! If I had known I would've definitely asked if we could be sat together!!"

 

...What. There was so much in those few, excited words that Nie Mingjue wasn't sure how to process it, not when stared down by Lan Huan's enormous grin and pink cheeks.

 

"Are.... are you drunk?" Nie Mingjue asks with a sudden moment of clarity. There's no other way for him to parse out why Lan Huan is acting like this. He's a friendly person, but never this excitable or bubbly. His energy has always been something more peaceful and inviting, like the soft lap of ocean waves at sunset, not like a delighted child at a pool party. Not that Nie Mingjue can hate it, not when he's smiling like the sun right at him.

 

"Oh, maybe? Probably! But it's kind of confusing you know, I stuck to iced tea! here," and Lan Huan shifts until he's sitting on Nie Mingjue's lap, which is more than enough to make his brain short circuit before he's getting a tall, slim glass shoved in his face. "Here! Try it!! It's really good, this glass was definitely sweeter than my first one!"

 

For a moment he worries that Lan Huan could be drugged. but as Nie Mingjue sniffs the drink it suddenly hits him what this is. He even takes a sip to confirm it - and yep.

 

"You got a cocktail."

 

"No, no no, Mingjue! it's iced tea!"

 

"Have you heard of a long island iced tea?"

 

Lan Huan shakes his head. "Is it from long island?"

 

How are you so cute , Nie Mingjue thinks. "No, it's a cocktail. It's full of a bunch of liquor and coca cola, no wonder you're drunk."

 

"Oh! Wow!" Lan Huan takes the drink, and despite Nie Mingjue's best attempt to stop him. He's a lot stronger than he looks. "That would definitely be why I'm drunk. I get drunk very easily, that's why I don't drink!"

 

"No kidding." Nie Mingjue thinks he'd laugh if it weren't for how much Lan Huan was wiggling on him. It shouldn't be affecting him so much, they're just friends after all - but Nie Mingjue has to admit to at least himself that Lan Huan is beautiful, even more so with his face-splitting grin and pink spreading all over his cheeks and ears. And when he isn't drunk, he has the most refined, peaceful aura he’s ever had the pleasure of knowing. He's someone Nie Mingjue always wants to have more time with him. Every meeting they have is too short, every text makes him want more and more. Nie Mingjue doesn't know how he became so greedy for his time, or when the line from co-worker to friend to.... something else, blurred so thoroughly that Nie Mingjue is afraid of the shape of this desperate, hopeful emotion clawing in his chest. He's felt like this for big smiles and gorgeous friends before, and those ended as well as a train wreck. Hell, he's still carrying around those scars and burning on that rage. 

 

And yet...

 

Lan Huan always meets him where he is. Nie Mingjue swallows, and prays he's not misreading all those intentions.

 

"Hey!" Lan Huan says when Nie Mingjue goes quiet, "Wanna dance?"

 

Nie Mingjue should say no. should get Lan Huan some water, maybe even make sure he gets home safe. Should keep this relationship as it stands as friends and two professional adults with boundaries.

 

"Sure." Nie Mingjue says instead, and takes his hand.

 

---

 

Nie Huaisang sits there, watching his tough guy big brother, holding a man in his lap that he's never seen before. And before he can make heads or tails of what they're talking about, they run off to the dance floor. Huaisang's so taken aback he doesn't even notice the strawberry fall out of his mouth.

 

"Really? Right in front of my salad?"

 

---

 

Neither of them are good dancers as it turns out, but at least Lan Huan makes up for it in enthusiasm and Nie Mingjue gets away with it by making sure Lan Huan doesn't accidentally elbow anyone in the head. Objectively, he should worry more that his friend is this drunk, but Nie Mingjue has his own buzz going and he really isn't sure that he could stop Lan Huan even if he tried. He’s having a great time as a wild mess of rocking limbs and humming along to the music, in a way that almost makes Nie Mingjue jealous. He can't remember the last time his inhibitions were so far gone he could do anything like how Lan Huan is dancing right now.

 

The music is mostly pop, remixed stuff that Nie Mingjue never bothers to listen to, but that dies away not long after they've stepped onto the floor for something more classically rock and a slower beat. Nie Mingjue looks to Lan Huan, about to help him off the floor for a break, something, but instead Lan Huan has his hands on his arms. He's still got that big, happy drunk expression on his face, but it's oddly more subdued as he looks up at Nie Mingjue and tilts his head.

 

"Would you mind?" Lan Huan asks it so softly it punches the wind right out of Nie Mingjue.

 

"No, I mean, yeah. I said I'd dance with you, right?" he fumbles and very much wants to blame it on his own drinks.

 

Whatever was dimming down Lan Huan's expression clears out, and Nie Mingjue feels the rumble of his laugh as Lan Huan wraps his arms around his neck, and Nie Mingjue dares to wrap an arm around his back. They could be positioned better than two teenagers at a school dance, but Nie Mingjue doesn't care as he steps in time with Lan Huan's sway that keeps him just on beat. It's enchanting, the way Lan Huan has him, and how much it makes him want this, want more of this, anything that Lan Huan would give him but would never want to ask for. It's all he can think about as he stares at Lan Huan's face, so close to his own. it would be so easy to kiss him, and Lan Huan probably return it with glee.

 

Probably.

 

Nie Mingjue stares down at their feet instead. It's better this way to keep his head in order to keep himself from doing something he'll regret. But with his eyes off of Lan Huan he's too slow to realize what it means when Lan Huan’s hands shift from being around his neck to grab his hand, to wrapping around his waist. Maybe it wouldn't matter if he was looking, because Nie Mingjue's heart forgets to beat and Lan Huan could probably do anything to him and he would say thank you. for now, he takes a step to the side, guiding him, and then--

 

If you had asked Nie Mingjue how strong he thought Lan Huan was yesterday, he would've answered average, maybe a little less, considering his slim build and for how much time he must spend with books and students over working out.

 

But now with one arm wrapped around his waist holding him steady as Lan Huan dips him out on the dance floor, Nie Mingjue realizes just how wrong that assumption was.

 

Nie Mingjue is left with nothing but to look up into Lan Huan's eyes, to see them shining all shades of blue and gray, framed by black hair hanging over his shoulder, the weight of that gaze baring right down at him.

 

In that moment, Nie Mingjue knows with perfect certainty he wants to be nowhere else then right here.

 

---

 

Time disappears, lost in each other as they dance like idiots, uncaring of everyone around them. To be fair, everyone seems to be dancing like idiots. It must be the standard state of things this late at night.

 

However, they can't keep dancing forever. Nie Mingjue holds Lan Huan up when he wobbles, and he knows it's high time they take a break.

 

"Come on." Nie Mingjue says, "Let's get some water."

 

"Okayyyy." Lan Huan hums, leaning his weight against Nie Mingjue as they walk together toward the bar. Most people were up and about dancing or talking at other tables, but Nie Mingjue is still surprised to see the only people by the bar are Wen Qing, Jiang Yanli, and Jin Zixuan standing awkwardly at his wife's side. iI looks like the bride changed into a simpler dress, but Nie Mingjue has a sneaking suspicion it's still as rich and fancy as anything else anyone was wearing tonight.

 

Wen Qing is the one who notices them first, who waves them over. "Hey you two, what are you drinking?"

 

"Water." Nie Mingjue says to the bartender, who nods and goes to fetch it.

 

"Oh don't be boring, do some shots with us." Wen Qing holds up a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass grinning.

 

"You don't have to." Jiang Yanli smiles at the two of them, and it feels like she knows something as she looks over at Lan Huan against his side. "But it'd be fun if we had more people, I think I'm about to drink Wen Qing under the table."

 

"Hey!"

 

Nie Mingjue wants to turn her down but Lan Huan is apparently not only strong as hell when drunk, but also very fast. "Sure!!"

 

"Have you even done shots before?" Nie Mingjue asks in a very worried voice.

 

"Nope!"

 

"Oh my god." Wen Qing snorts, not bothering to hide more of her laughter.

 

"Don't worry, we'll make sure you don't get sick." Jiang Yanli adds, her smile as soft as ever as she gets two more glasses for them and fills them to the brim.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't know what he expected from tonight, but it certainly wasn't this.

 

She shoves shots into everyone's hand, and all four of them are useless to do anything but follow the bride's lead as she raises her glass and shouts "Cheers!"

 

The glasses clink together, and Nie Mingjue manages to grab Lan Huan's shot out of his hand. 

 

"Hey!" Lan Huan pouts as Nie Mingjue throws back both shots one after another. The liquor burns down his throat, but it's not nearly as bad as it could've been. For once he's actually glad at how over the top everything is, if it meant he was kept from drinking bottom shelf whiskey.

 

"You got this drunk from one drink, no. Have water."

 

"Wait, really?" Jin Zixuan blinks, "That's... you're a real lightweight?"

 

"You don't have to say it again!" Lan Huan huffs and gives a smack on Jin Zixuan's arm. It didn't look very hard but it did make him flinch on impact, so who knows. "Fine. I'm going to have water and then I will have a shot with you, Mrs. Jin."

 

Jiang Yanli giggles and pours another shot.

 

---

 

He watches Lan Huan throw his head back, expose the long line of his neck as he swallows down the whiskey. He watches him shudder, whole bodied, licking the last of it off his lips as his cheeks turn an even deeper shade of red.

 

Nie Mingjue knows everyone else knows he's staring entranced by the scene. He's not sure he cares anymore.

 

---

 

"And then I still have to make food all the time - if i didn't i swear A-Ning would've burned the building down. How did he end up so helpless in the kitchen?" Wen Qing groans.

 

"I know what you mean." Jiang Yanli leans back against her husband, "I used to feel like if I didn't cook A-Cheng and A-Ying would never eat. Or they'd only eat those spicy chips. At least now they're better." 

 

"That might be better than just ordering out all the time. I feel like if I leave Huaisang alone he's going to blow the entire food budget on takeout." Nie Mingjue adds, grumbling.

 

"How are any of our little brothers alive." Wen Qing shakes her head, "I mean, okay, the answer is us, but like, how?"

 

"Being the eldest is so hard." Lan Huan pouts from where he's resting his head on his arms on the bar top. "I know he's all grown up but... Zhanzhan is so quiet! he has such a hard time making friends! What if he's lonely?? I can't stop worrying about it!"

 

Jiang Yanli pats Lan Huan on the back. "You're right, they are all grown up. We should just be able to leave them be."

 

"Or at least leave them be until they pay us for our work." Wen Qing says, then wrinkles her nose. "No, I take that back. A-Ning doesn't have to pay me back, my parents do. Making me do all this shit. Don't I have rights?"

 

"Yes!" Nie Mingjue agrees with vigor. "God, yes, if I could make an itemized list of all the shit I had to put up with because they wouldn't do their fucking job that would be, they would owe me so much money."

 

Jin Zixuan shifts uncomfortably, like he wants to say something but realizes that as the only not-eldest sibling, he cannot.

 

"It's what we deserve." Lan Huan nods sagely, "But I dunno. Zhanzhan is such a good boy! Other than being so serious he doesn't need a lot of help..." he sits up slowly and scans the room, quiet until he's grinning and grabbing Nie Mingjue's arm. "Okay, there, do you want to see something very funny?"

 

"Yes." Wen Qing and Jiang Yanli answer in unison.

 

Lan Huan points to where he's looking, which is at a table at the opposite corner of them. Lan Zhan is sitting there with his usual stoic expression with Wei Ying and Wen Ning.

 

"Play Carly Rae Jepsen. any song will do."

 

"What?" Jiang Yanli laughs, and it's Jin Zixuan who nods with "Ok, I need to know." and gets up to tell the DJ.

 

"Trust me." Lan Huan whispers, "It's amazing."

 

There's a minute while they wait for the current song to wrap up, and then a saxophone begins to play the opening notes of the next song.

 

And Lan Zhan... turns his head. That's it.

 

Lan Huan starts howling with laughter, his whole body racked with it.

 

Wen Qing blinks, "Wait, what?" 

 

"That's, oh, oh my goodness." Lan Huan sounds like he can't even breath, let alone form a sentence. "He loves her so much!!"

 

"Oh my god." Nie Mingjue is dumbstruck. "Why."

 

"It's, it's so!" Lan Huan starts laughing again, until tears form in his eyes. all of them look at each other, and then slowly, surely, start laughing too. 

 

"Lan Huan, what the hell ."

 

---

 

It's well past one in the morning, and the bulk of the party is still going strong around them. But Nie Mingjue still sits at a back table with Lan Huan leaning against his arm, whose checking his phone to make sure that Lan Zhan was okay since they parted ways hours ago. Nie Mingjue does the same, to see where Huaisang is.

 

from: Nie Huaisang (1:11AM)

bro

dnw abt me go have fun w ur mystery mans

he is all over u

geT ITTTTT

 

Nie Mingjue frowns and is about to text Huaisang something about losing his limbs, but gets distracted when Lan Huan lets out a long breath.

 

"He's with Wen Ning and Wei Ying! He'll be okay. I hope." Lan Huan's voice still has an over-excited feel to it, even though he's clearly getting tired and more unsteady than ever. That shot was a mistake, but there's nothing Nie Mingjue now for Lan Huan but make sure he gets home safe.

 

"If you want to head out I can call you a cab."

 

Lan Huan shakes his head, "I'm fine, I'm fine! You worry too much, Mingjue."

 

"I think I'm allowed to worry when you're still drunk."

 

"So kind, this is why I like you!"

 

If Nie Mingjue had a dollar for every time he's been struck dumb by Lan Huan tonight, he could pay for this whole damn wedding. "What."

 

"Of course!" Lan Huan grins up at him, "Why else would I be right here?"

 

Oh, that is. Nie Mingjue finds his bones freezing in place and his blood going molten at the implications of it, at the sheer power Lan Huan's undivided attention on him as he says those few, simple words. It strikes him with the realization that they’ve been getting closer and closer since they moment they decided to be friends, closer still all night, drawing each other in like planets in orbit. It feels like they've found themselves at the edge of something. "Oh." he says very eloquently. 

 

"Mhmm." Lan Huan presses his face into his bicep and sighs like he's the one whose hit the jackpot. "I like your arms too."

 

Nie Mingjue's face is going to burn right off at this rate. "Hey, don't fall asleep here, at least let me take you home?"

 

"M'kay."

 

Thank god. Nie Mingjue lets out a small sigh and pulls up his phone. "What's your address?"

 

No answer.

 

He shakes his arm, and Lan Huan doesn't move an inch.

 

...Well shit.

 

---

 

After one more attempt to wake Lan Huan up, Nie Mingjue decides in his exhausted, still tipsy state that honestly? Fuck it. He calls the cab to pick them up and take them to his apartment, and figures he can at least make sure Lan Huan doesn't die from the booze this way instead. 

 

He learns when Lan Huan is asleep he is out - Nie Mingjue all but picks him up to carry before Lan Huan finally wakes up from being jostled, and this time just accepts that they're leaving for the night. Good. Nie Mingjue wouldn't have the heart to fight him on it anymore if he really protested. They make it out of the party and into the cab without any fanfare except for Nie Mingjue's thunderous heart. Any time Lan Huan leans heavily against him and starts getting that sleepy expression again, it's crashing against his ribcage anew. He's so stupidly beautiful and keeps giving that soft look toward Nie Mingjue every time he notices him watching. It's dangerous.

 

"I like you."

 

The words are on repeat in his brain, an unstoppable mantra fueled on by Lan Huan's warm body weight against him. Now that he thinks about it, they were hardly ever apart from the moment Lan Huan had liquor - he stuck to his side at every turn, and Nie Mingjue welcomed it without question. But was it just because he was drunk that he got so close he tangled right into Nie Mingjue's heartstrings? Did he actually mean it? Nie Mingjue could deal with it if Lan Huan was just a very affectionate drunk, but to not know for sure is killing him.

 

He's stuck thinking about it all the way to the apartment. He's stuck thinking about it as he manages to get Lan Huan awake enough to get him upstairs, and through the door. He could ask. He could know, right now, he thinks, as he gets out of his formal attire and heads into the kitchen grabbing them both water bottles to bring back to his room.

 

"You can use the bed I-- oh." the rest of the sentence crashes against the back of his teeth, because there's Lan Huan standing in his room, which is where he left him, but is standing in only his briefs as he places neatly folded clothes on top of his dresser. That is very, very new information. Nie Mingjue doesn't remember the last time he's felt so physically attracted to someone it stalled his higher functions this bad. "Sorry, uh. I'm. Do you need anything?"

 

"Mm." Lan Huan nods, pauses, and then says. "Pajamas?"

 

Right. "Yeah, hold on." Nie Mingjue steps into the room with stifled steps, steadfastly looking at his dresser rather than at Lan Huan, lest he turns to stone. He pulls out some old sweatpants and a t-shirt that definitely has holes in it, but it will do. Lan Huan takes them with a thank you and puts them on so orderly it's almost comical against the drunk, sleepy flush on his face and for how the clothes hang loose on his body.

 

"Now, it's far past bedtime." Lan Huan says in a drowsy tone of voice that makes Nie Mingjue unsure if he's totally awake. or at all awake. It’s confirmed when Lan Huan quite literally drags him to bed, and doesn't let go until they're both on it. 

 

"Hey, you can sleep here, I'll take the couch."

 

"No." which is the last thing Lan Huan says before he snuggles back to the spot at Nie Mingjue's side he's occupied all night, and falls right to sleep. He tries to move, but Lan Huan's hold is steel.

 

Nie Mingjue didn't think he'd die in this particular bed, but who knows? He's been wrong about a lot of things before.

 

---

 

Contrary to his own beliefs, he does not die.

 

It takes him a while to fall asleep - even with his heart pounding and his mind spinning, the warmth of Lan Huan against him and the exhaustion of the long wedding get the better of him.

 

Nie Mingjue wakes up now as the winter morning sun streams through the blinds, feeling comfortably warm, a little groggy, but all together better than expected. It's more or less a normal morning - he definitely slept in, so he'll have to go to the gym later than he usually does on the weekend. He debates getting up to make something to eat, and he rolls over and--

 

--there's Lan Huan.

 

He's still asleep, lips gently parted and hair mussed and framed around his face and shoulders, cheekbones illuminated by the stripes of sun against them to a pristine pale tone. He looks different than when he was falling asleep on him last night - the morning makes him more elegant, softer than the lighting in the reception ever did. The context of wearing Nie Mingjue's clothes and being in Nie Mingjue's bed only makes matters worse, because his brain is still tripping up over the concept that maybe Lan Huan just said I like you in a friend way, and not meaning anything more. That he just got so affectionate while drunk that it came tumbling out without him thinking about it or what it would do to Nie Mingjue.

 

His fingers twitch with how much he wants to run them across the line of Lan Huan's jaw, through his hair. He doesn't, because he shouldn't, but he wants.

 

A single stir. A rustle of sheets around curling legs. A light intake of breath. Eyes blinking open.

 

Lan Huan wakes up. Lan Huan looks straight at Nie Mingjue.

 

There's a moment where sleep still clouds his thoughts, where he still looks soft and sleepy before realization blows his eyes wide and Lan Huan freezes in place. He looks as shocked as Nie Mingjue feels, waking up face to face, so close in personal space that meant nothing in the night and means everything in the daylight. Nie Mingjue can feel the panic build in the air, the tense set of both of them so tight it is bound to snap. Lan Huan moves, like he wants to speak, but Nie Mingjue cant take it.

 

He blurts out; "Do you want tea?"

 

Again, Lan Huan stills. And then very slowly, he nods. "Yes, actually. Tea would be lovely."

 

"Yeah, sure. Stay here." and Nie Mingjue does not let his brain think as he volts himself out of bed and into the kitchen.

 

---

 

Two mugs sit next to the electric kettle, waiting for hot water, and Nie Mingjue uses the reprieve to get his thoughts in something that resembles order.

 

Maybe he could say nothing. He can just say they were both so tired last night that they fell asleep before Nie Mingjue could move to the couch. He could apologize, if Lan Huan felt uncomfortable. He can offer to give him directions to get home safe or whatever else he needed. They can keep things just as they were the day before this wedding in the days after it. It will be fine.

 

"I like you."

 

Nie Mingjue rests his forehead heavy against his hands. There's no way, there's not a chance in a hundred million years he can act like nothing has changed when he knows the way Lan Huan smiles when he dances, or how red his cheeks can get around a smile uninhibited in it's glee, or the slope of his neck when he throws it back for a shot, or the strength in his arms when he holds him up or the warm weight of his cheek on his shoulder all paired with the information he already knows about him, gathered over months over lunches and around their desks. He needs to know the truth. He needs his heart to settle so he knows the correct course of action. All he has to do is ask. 

 

The kettle begins to sing.

 

---

 

Two steaming mugs of green tea are in his hands as he returns to the bedroom.

 

Lan Huan is sitting up now, loosely brushing his hair into its usual smoothness with his fingers. He doesn't look nearly as nervous, like he's come to terms with... whatever this is now.

 

"Here." Nie Mingjue sits at the edge of the bed and hands a mug to Lan Huan, who takes it gingerly.

 

"Thank you." he replies, blowing away a line of steam before he takes the first sip. He doesn't look at Nie Mingjue, and he can't say he blames him. "I. I drank last night, correct?"

 

Nie Mingjue cocks his head. "Yes?"

 

Lan Huan frowns back. "I apologize if that's a strange question but I... it's hard for me to remember things clearly when I drink, it's part of why I don't. Along with, well..."

 

"Being a lightweight?"

 

His shoulders slump, his whole expression crumples with his hollow laugh. "That might be overstating my abilities, but yes. So, I have to ask." Lan Huan takes a deep breath, and looks up to meet Nie Mingjue's stare. "I didn't do anything that made you uncomfortable did I?"

 

Nie Mingjue's mouth goes dry, and he feels like he's off script. He didn't expect to be handed this kind of opportunity to avoid the topic entirely - he could say no and move on. Lan Huan might not even realize what he's done and then Nie Mingjue would never have to make him feel strange about a thing.

 

And yet, Nie Mingjue knows that would be far, far crueler than the truth, especially to someone like Lan Huan. He deserves better. he deserves to know everything.

 

"No, not at all." Nie Mingjue says, and Lan Huan sights with relief. "You said some interesting stuff though."

 

"Ah, I’m sure I did in that state."

 

"You asked me to dance with you. You said you liked my arms." Lan Huan freezes again, with that deer in the headlights expression. Nie Mingjue takes a deep breath as he thumbs the side of his mug. "You said you liked me."

 

Nie Mingjue looks right into Lan Huan's wide eyes, and asks: "Did you mean it like as friends, or as something else?"

 

 One question makes the tension in the air massive, every thought and shared moment between them compacted into it held over their heads by a few simple words. There's nothing Nie Mingjue can do now, but sit, wait, to see what answer comes out of Lan Huan. He waits for a second. For two. For five. 

 

Of course. Nie Mingjue closes his eyes, and realizes he should've known better.

 

"You don't have to--"

 

"I did mean it."

 

Nie Mingjue's eyes fly open.

 

Lan Huan's face looks pained, worried, as his whole body leans forward with the tight hold of a mug in his hands. "I do like you, as a friend, but also, more than that. I didn't want you to find out when I was in such a state, but, I suppose there's no taking it back now. So the question I have, is whether or not you feel the same."

 

That might be what he hoped for, but it isn't what he expected. He blinks, letting his brain process that twice over to make sure he actually got it right. That this isn't some kind of hangover fever dream.

 

"Yes." he says, a little breathless, mug now abandoned on the nightstand. "Yeah, I do."

 

"Oh." Lan Huan starts to smile, and Nie Mingjue can read the disbelief on him as clear as he can feel it in himself. "Really?"

 

Nie Mingjue has never been strong with words. He can write a paper if he has to, but it's never anything fancy. It's actions where Nie Mingjue flourishes, so it feels so much more natural to answer by bringing his hand to Lan Huan's cheek, to feel his hair against his fingers, to take that mug out of Lan Huan's nervous hands and put it beside his, and rest their foreheads together. "Yeah, really.", and then he closes that last inch of distance and finally, finally, gets to kiss that calming smile. It feels like the summer sun on his skin after submerging in the water, warm and refreshing in all the best ways. They kiss, and kiss, Lan Huan's hands anchoring on the back of Nie Mingjue's neck and Nie Mingjue tangling his hands in Lan Huan's long hair. They kiss until the smile that started on Lan Huan infects Nie Mingjue, until both of them are smiling so hard at each other their faces hurt, until they can't help but laugh at the situation, equal parts ridiculous and unexpected and perfect.

 

"Hey." Nie Mingjue says between stifled laughs, "If you don't mind, I think we should be dating."

 

Lan Huan’s laughter starts anew. "Alright. Dating it is."

 

---

 

To give without reservation is easy.

 

Nie Mingjue tosses away his shirt, left somewhere on the floor. Lan Huan surrenders his lips and neck without a second thought.

 

Both of them are used to giving, a constant action they've had to do in order to make sure they people they cared about are cared for in the way they deserve.

 

But to take at all is different.

 

Lan Huan's hands are hesitant as they trace lines of muscle from elbow to stomach. Nie Mingjue kisses slowly, each one a question as he looks up for permission to keep going.

 

It's new territory for them, and they are more than happy to allow responsibilities for the day to fall to the wayside as they learn what it's like simply to want for nothing.

 

---

 

They stand side by side in the small kitchen, as Nie Mingjue cooks omelettes.

 

Lan Huan takes a sip of reheated tea from his mug. "Thank you."

 

"You don't have to thank me for cooking. It's the least I could do."

 

"Such a gentleman." Lan Huan teases, and Nie Mingjue can feel the back of his neck go hot. It doesn't go unnoticed, because he feels deft fingers trace the edge of the blush.

 

"You're a menace." Nie Mingjue mumbles, and cuts off any more teasing remarks with a kiss. Partially just because he can, the novelty of it is still so fresh, and partially because he loves feeling the way Lan Huan smiles against him before kissing him back, thumb running against the sensitive skin on his neck. It's so easy like this he could--

 

"You're making eggs?"

 

Nie Mingjue nearly hurls the spatula out of his hand, as both of them jolt out of the kiss and turn around and see one very sleepy looking Nie Huaisang.

 

"Please tell me you got enough for me." he continues on, but there's this disarming smile on his face makes Nie Mingjue's blood pressure spike. Nie Huaisang doesn't seem to notice in the least, and turns to Lan Huan instead. "I didn't catch your name last night, after you ran off with my big brother here."

 

"Ah, it's Lan Huan. My apologies for not saying last night, I wasn't quite being myself." to his credit, Lan Huan nods politely and offers to shake Huaisang's hand without looking too frazzled.

 

"No worries. And I'm Nie Huaisang, if Mingjue hasn't talked about me before." and Huaisang's smile shifts, like he's turning on that charm before he does something like-- "I was gonna ask if you two fucked yet, but since I didn't hear anything last night I guess not."

 

"HUAISANG!!"

 

At least the idiot has the smarts to run, even if he's laughing the whole way.

 

---

 

The rest of the world can only be ignored for so long, and the afternoon ends with Lan Huan leaving his apartment still wearing his t-shirt, and a promise for dinner later that week.

 

Nie Mingjue can't wait.

 

"So... are you gonna like, tell me about it or--"

 

"One more word out of you and I'll break every bone in your body."

 

---

 

Monday still comes, and he still has to go to work.

 

It's a little surreal, because everything is the same: the bustle of rush hour traffic, the subway route, the campus, the students. The world spins on as normal despite Nie Mingjue's axis getting completely altered. But it's better like this, no one else needs to know what was said in the small space of his bed.

 

His office is the same too, but what's different is Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing standing by his door, talking with paper coffee cups in hand.

 

"What are you two doing?" Nie Mingjue asks, and both of them give each other a look before turning back to him.

 

"So, you and Lan Huan huh?" Wen Qing asks outright, "Did you guys hook up?"

 

Nie Mingjue scowls - it's true she was there with the shots and Jiang Yanli but still-- "That is none of your business." So much for no one else knowing.

 

Jiang Cheng gently nudges his girlfriend and gives Nie Mingjue a tired look, "It's not but Wei Ying is a fat mouthed idiot." He pulls out his phone and hands it over to him, showing him a few select photos. He takes it, and takes in the photos, blinking because he can't quite believe what he's seeing. "He’s not gonna share them around or post any of them on Instagram but uh..."

 

He can tell why Jiang Cheng trails off. There are four photos of himself and Lan Huan dancing - most of them are innocent enough, they might look stupid but they don't look any different from any other group of people dancing in any of the other photos. But the one that stops him is one where Lan Huan is dipping him, his arm firm around Nie Mingjue's waist. He sees Lan Huan's face from a distance instead of from how close they were that night, smiling wide and cheeks bright, his whole body leaning forward desperately trying to be closer to Nie Mingjue. And Nie Mingjue, folded back, is staring up at Lan Huan like he hung the stars in the sky.

 

Seeing the scene from the outside looking in feels strange, and then invasive, like he never wanted to see it like this when it's much better as a breathless memory.

 

"He better delete them." Nie Mingjue says a little distantly, using Jiang Cheng's phone to send himself the photo. Maybe one photo more. And then, "Does Lan Huan know?"

 

"Maybe, if Wei Ying told Lan Zhan then I imagine his big brother would know." Jiang Cheng shrugs.

 

"You know, you two would make a good couple." Wen Qing suddenly says, sipping her coffee. "If you didn't hook up already."

 

Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng pull a pained face, and Wen Qing just laughs.

 

---

 

The semester ends without fanfare. the only thing special is Nie Mingjue takes Lan Huan out to celebrate over dinner, and Lan Huan takes him to his pristine, one bedroom apartment on the Upper East side.

 

Before Nie Mingjue can ask, Lan Huan is already answering the only question on his mind. "Lan Zhan is staying over with friends tonight, so it's just us." 

 

they have a very, very good evening together.

 

---

 

Nie Mingjue was in the habit of waking up early, but he's never really been a morning person, not in the way Lan Huan is. He wakes up early without an alarm, showers, gets distracted when Nie Mingjue joins him and has to wash off again, and makes them tea.

 

"It's always been a rule at home, to wake up early." Lan Huan explains later, when they're curled on the couch together and he has his head on Nie Mingjue's chest. "So now it's habit."

 

"Next time at least stay in bed until the sun is actually up." Nie Mingjue wants to be angry about it, but he can't when he can kiss the crown of Lan Huan's head and hear him laugh and acquiesce to his request. That's just how the morning is, quiet and easy as they talk about the upcoming semester, about food, about little brothers, about everything in between and nothing at all. Lan Huan goes off on a tangent about how he's always wanted to do a full course on the history and origin of wuxia novels, particularly some of the newer ones that incorporate more queer romances and ideas of modern day tech via magical means. Nie Mingjue hangs off of every word - even if romantic wuxia novels are more Huaisang's speed, watching the way Lan Huan lights up with excitement over the idea of teaching the curriculum makes it sound riveting.

 

"You could probably teach it if you wanted, Columbia's always looking for more new and interesting classes to make themselves stand out."

 

Lan Huan gives him a wistful look, but before Nie Mingjue can parse it it is gone. "Maybe another time, I don’t know if I could get it so soon."

 

"Hm." the trail into silence for a moment, letting the conversation come to its natural end. Nie Mingjue feels like he should go, even if he really, really doesn't want to. but surely Lan Zhan will be back soon, and he doesn't want to encroach if Lan Huan has other chores that need to get done.

 

"You know, my schedule is pretty open for the next few weeks, I got a break from work." Nie Mingjue says, and he can feel Lan Huan laugh at him. "We could do this again on monday."

 

"I'm busy on monday. Tuesday?"

 

"Sure." he shrugs. Fair enough. "Are you doing something with Lan Zhan?"

 

"No, I'm meeting ... someone else. And I think Zhanzhan’s going to be doing something else as well, why?"

 

Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow, and Lan Huan doesn't give anything except a simple smile. It's a little odd, but he wants to trust Lan Huan, so he does. “Just wondering. You don't have to tell me if you don’t want to."

 

For some reason the answer makes Lan Huan falter for a split second, but he's recomposed and kissing Nie Mingjue before he can question it.

 

 

---

 

 

The break doesn't mean he's completely free from his professor duties - he has to go in a few times a week to make sure none of the masters or PhD students aren't overworking themselves in the lab, he has to make sure all his materials are in order, simple things.

 

This time he's back in his office with Jiang Cheng, both of them with rosters of students for their upcoming classes and highlighters in hand. They don't say anything as they go through the list, rushing a little bit more than they would in the past, and both of them know there's nothing to say about it.

 

After all, Nie Mingjue sees the way Jiang Cheng's gingerly takes the seat across from him, and Jiang Cheng definitely can see the numerous love bites on Nie Mingjue's neck.

 

They make record time with their notes and head off in opposite directions.

 

---

 

He comes back home to his apartment, quiet except for the sound of Huaisang talking. He doesn't want to eavesdrop, but it sounds like Huaisang is completely engrossed in whoever he's facetiming with on his phone.

 

"I know, I know, but what if it doesn't work out? Then no one has to know and there's no harm done right?"

 

"Yeah, but like, what if he finds out anyway? You shouldn't be so worried if it's what you want." the second voice says from the old phone speakers. It's a voice Mingjue doesn't recognize, but the contents of this conversation makes him frown. He feels like he's missing something, or shouldn't be listening in, but this is his brother, so he does want to know.

 

"Who finds out what?" he finally steps into the room to ask and Huaisang jumps, dropping his phone straight into his lap.

 

"Big brother! You're, you're home early! What's up, I didn't hear you come in!" Huaisang laughs, and scoops up his phone at light speed. "I was talking to a Xuanyu here, about uh..."

 

Xuanyu, apparently, takes the opportunity to wave through the tiny phone screen. "Hello, nice to meet you! Hey, Sangsang, you didn't tell me your brother was a bear!"

 

"I'm a what?"

 

"NO. no, I'm not having this conversation, you're the worst!" Huaisang yells at his phone, and his face looks like it can't decide if he's going to blush to the roots or drain all color from his skin as he storms out of the main room into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Mingjue is sure he can hear him swearing even through the door.

 

....

 

What the hell was that?

 

 

---

 

 

Lan Huan's constant presence is what takes the normally quiet winter break and makes it something warm and lovely. If he thought harder about it, it would be scary how easily Lan Huan seems to slip into Nie Mingjue's life. He carves out a special place in his schedule and his attention unlike anyone else, and it fits in a way he didn't even realize another person could fit at this point in his life. He didn't realize he could let anyone get so close, to be this open around another person and let him see his weaknesses, knowing how easily they could destroy him.

 

And yet.

 

All it takes is a smile, a hand in his own, and Nie Mingjue can't find it in himself to do anything but trust that Lan Huan will be there to catch him if he falls. 

 

---

 

from: Nie Mingjue (7:01PM)

I'm have to be on campus tomorrow afternoon, do you wanna get lunch?

 

from: Lan Huan (7:03PM)

sorry, I have plans then  

 

from: Lan Huan (7:12PM)

I'm meeting Jin Guangyao actually, it seems his family is serious about doing some sort of exhibit

they want my help in organizing it right

 

draft: Nie Mingjue (7:12PM)

 you should be careful around him

he's not trustworthy

 

draft: Nie Mingjue (7:15PM)

 don't let him suck up too much of your time 

 

draft: Nie Mingjue (7:16PM)

 can you deal with anyone else in that damn firm

 

from: Nie Mingjue (7:25PM)

    good luck

 

 

---

 

 

"Why the hell are you keeping your office so cold?"

 

"I promise it's not by choice." Lan Huan shuts the door behind him and pulls his cardigan tighter around himself, and Nie Mingjue doesn't bother taking off his jacket. The room is freezing, even when they move to stand next to the space heater Lan Huan has behind his desk. They're deep into January now, the spring semester now moving right along. Still, Nie Mingjue makes time to visit his office when he can to surprise Lan Huan with tea or snacks when he can. "There's been an issue with the heater, they promised it'll be fixed by the end of the week."

 

"Well, let me know if you want to use my office instead of this icebox."

 

"Thank you." Lan Huan smiles, but he looks drained, a little more distant. it's been a few days since they saw each other, but Nie Mingjue wonders if he should've come by sooner to check in on him.

 

Without thinking about it, he cups Lan Huan's face, thumb brushing against his cheekbone. Lan Huan shivers at the contact, but is quick to relax and leans into his palm.

 

"Students giving you a hard time?" Nie Mingjue asks.

 

"No, no." he sighs, placing his hand over Nie Mingjue's. It's so cold. "I'm alright."

 

Nie Mingjue frowns. "You can tell me if something is troubling you."

 

"It's nothing, really."

 

"A-Huan." his voice is so low that only his partner is close enough to hear. Lan Huan responds with a shudder, as he looks up and holds Nie Mingjue's eye contact. There's a long moment of nothing before Lan Huan sighs, lips twitching into a half smile.

 

"You know Zhanzhan went back home last week?" Nie Mingjue nods, so Lan Huan keeps going. "He was here for so long that it's strange being alone in the apartment now. I didn't realize how much I would miss him when he left."

 

"Do you want me to come over tonight?"

 

"I said I'm alright." Lan Huan tilts up and kisses him, soft and light. "Homesickness always comes to pass."

 

"...You know how to find me if you change your mind."

 

"I can't be bringing you home every night now Mingjue." Lan Huan's voice is light with teasing. "What would Huaisang do then?"

 

"He'll live." Nie Mingjue grumbles, trying to ignore the blush on his neck at the idea. They've only been together what, a month and change? Isn't even thinking about spending every night together moving too fast?

 

He can't tell if Lan Huan picks up on his nerves, but even if he did, he doesn't say anything on the matter. Instead he smiles despite the pensive look in his eyes, like there's still something bothering him. The look doesn't suit Lan Huan, but Nie Mingjue doesn't want to push too hard. He trusts Lan Huan to tell him things at his own pace. He has before, and there's no reason for it to change now.

 

They're standing by the desk for almost a minute, holding one another’s hands before Lan Huan finally speaks again. "Say, Mingjue?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"What are you doing for New Years?"

 

Not the question he expected. "I go back to Mom's with Huaisang. We eat, see everyone, see what festivities are going on, the usual things. Why?"

 

"I was simply curious. It sounds nice."

 

"What are you doing?"

 

As soon as the question is out of his mouth, it hits him - Lan Huan is by himself here, far away from home and family, and it doesn't seem like he's going back for the holidays considering it's less than two weeks away. No wonder he looked distant and hit with homesickness. He’s probably trying to figure out something to do for the holiday, or worse, will decide on doing nothing and stay home.

 

"Ah, well, I'm--"

 

"Do you want to spend it with us?"

 

He asks before Lan Huan can finish the sentence. He doesn't want Lan Huan to spend new years alone. Besides, it's probably bad luck, or something.

 

"No, wait, I don't want to impose." Lan Huan squeezes his hand tight as soon as he recovers from the momentary surprise. "It sounds like it is just you and your family, I wouldn't want to intrude."

 

"You won't be." Nie Mingjue assures him. "We don't even have to spend all day with them, hey, I could even show you around the neighborhood. We can make a date out of it, if you want."

 

Lan Huan blinks, and Nie Mingjue knows he's blushing again, much to his mortification. "Are you sure?"

 

"Of course." 

 

The quiet is deafening.

 

Lan Huan's blooming smile makes him forget why he was worried about asking in the first place.

 

"I would be honored, Mingjue."

 

"Then it's a date." he replies, and seals it with a kiss.

 

---

 

draft: Lan Huan (8:54PM)

 you know you can tell me your troubles too, right?

 

---

 

"I am not nervous, stop spewing stupid shit."

 

Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes like he was unaffected by his brother's sharp tone, but he doesn't step any closer to him either. "Okay okay, you're not nervous. Then stop tugging at your buttons, they're going to rip! Then what?"

 

With a scowl Nie Mingjue pulls his hands away and shoves them in his pockets. He's not planning on ripping his new black shirt thank you very much, not just because it's new, but also because Lan Huan is due at the front door of his apartment any minute so they could take the subway down to Sunset Park together. It's fine. He's just taking his partner to the neighborhood he grew up in, planned out a whole day of showing him around all the spots that made up his childhood, then taking him through the Saturday festivities of Chinese New Year outside of the main craziness in Manhattan, and then would take him to meet his and Huaisang's mother. What was there to be nervous about?

 

The room feels too hot, and Nie Mingjue makes a mental note to call the landlord later about the radiators overworking.

 

"What are you doing before going to mom's?" Nie Mingjue asks in a bid to get his mind off of Lan Huan, and also to get Huaisang to stop being annoying.

 

"Oh, I dunno, probably sleep for a little while longer before going out? Nothing special..." Nie Huaisang trailed off with a nervous laugh. But it's enough to catch Nie Mingjue's attention and makes him raise an eyebrow.

 

"Going out where?"

 

"Huh, oh, uh, really, don't worry about it!"

 

"Huaisang--"

 

The buzzer rings.

 

"You better give me an answer." Mingjue says, pointing a finger at Huaisang but even he knows the threat is mostly empty when he's rushing to get the building door unlocked for Lan Huan.

 

"Worry about your own date!"

 

"I swear to god Huaisang, do you want to start the new year with no legs?"

 

"Why are you so mean!?"

 

"Why are you acting like you're hiding some horrible secret? How am I supposed to not worry about you when you're like this?" 

 

At least that gets him to shut up for a second, to scowl and look properly embarrassed about his behavior. "It's... I'm meeting up with Xuanyu, okay?"

 

"That's it? Why was that so hard to tell me?"

 

"Yes?? I don't know!!"

 

There's a knock on the apartment door.

 

"Just don't do anything stupid! And make sure you get to Mom’s on time!" Mingjue shouts over his shoulder, and swings open the door.

 

Lan Huan smiles up at him, winter jacket buttoned up tight and red scarf around his neck. "Good morning."

 

"Hey." the word comes out with all of his tension. "Come in, I'll get my jacket and we can go."

 

"Of course." Lan Huan gives Nie Mingjue a peck on the lips, quick but it still makes Mingjue pause before he turns to grab said jacket. In that moment, Mingjue misses the way his brother's expression goes from sleepy, to razor sharp on Lan Huan, and back to pleasant again. Lan Huan doesn't. "Hello Huaisang."

 

Huaisang waves, "Have fun you two. I'm going back to bed."

 

Nie Mingjue huffs, but let's him go as he does the last button on his jacket. "Let's get going."

 

---

 

The bite of the freezing winter day is offset by the sun shining bright overhead as the two of them make their way to the actual park. Lan Huan said he would be fine walking, so Nie Mingjue has them get off a stop early so they can go down fifth avenue first toward the park. Nie Mingjue took the time to point out the things that he thought were interesting, or things that were important to him - the bowling alley with the famous bartender, the spot by the parking lot where the taco truck sets up shop, the diner he would go to at 3am. He even took Lan Huan into one of his favorite Mexican bakeries, that has the best pastries and coffee Huaisang said he'd kill a man for. Lan Huan didn't recognize any of the varieties of sugar-coated bread and fruit-filled pastries, so they ended up with more than they needed before they actually got into Sunset Park. Lan Huan tries to eat a pastry filled with guava and cheese as refined as he can, but the way his eyes sparkle gives way to how much he loves it.

 

Lan Huan's sweet tooth is just another one of those things Nie Mingjue finds so endearing it could make him melt.

 

The park itself is quiet, mostly empty, as even on such a sunny day since no one wants to be out in the cold. He leads them up to a part of the pathway where you can see through an opening of the scattered trees.

 

"The park's supposed to be the highest natural point in Brooklyn." Nie Mingjue explains as he steps beside Lan Huan, close enough their shoulders touch as he points out the different spots of the city skyline. "You can see the empire state building there, all the way to the Statue of Liberty."

 

"It's beautiful." Lan Huan follows Nie Mingjue's hand, taking in the scenery. "Who knew this view was out here?"

 

"Most don't." it's easy to forget how breathtaking the city can be when you grow up in it, a monolith of steel and glass that's filled with multitudes that so many people envy. "It's better that way. Then it's just ours."

 

Lan Huan hums, and leans his head against Nie Mingjue's shoulder. "Thank you for showing me."

 

"I told you, you don't have to thank me for everything."

 

"And I told you you should know I appreciate these things, regardless. You didn't have to do all this, for me."

 

"...I wanted to."

 

"i know. that's why it means so much to me." Lan Huan smiles, softer, smaller than normal, but still so full of warmth and regard toward Nie Mingjue that it makes him forget how to speak. All he can think is how much Lan Huan means to him, and how easily he went and turned Nie Mingjue’s world on it’s head.

 

"Come on." he finally says, when his words come back to him and his heart doesn't feel so overwhelmed. "Let's keep walking."

 

"Mn."

 

---

 

The festivities are in full swing by the time they get there that they have to go back down the block the block they came up from and up again be able to make it onto the street at all.

 

Instead of cars, eighth avenue is full of street stalls selling everything from chestnuts to charms to paper popper tubes, more people than Nie Mingjue could hope to count, and children running amok screeching in delight. The sights and sounds would be overwhelming if it wasn't like this every year since he could remember. The biggest difference now is Lan Huan at his side, taking photos on his phone and grinning. Whatever worries he had before about Lan Huan not enjoying himself, or thinking it's too simple or not that interesting fade away as they walk through the crowds and take in the sights.

 

"Let's take one together." he says, tugging Nie Mingjue's arm so they're standing at the same height. Lan Huan takes several photos, some that are just their faces and some that have the festivities and blue sky wide behind them too. Nie Mingjue isn't the type to photograph well since he can never hold a good expression, but for Lan Huan's sake he tries to at least seem pleasant. He's so focused on it that he doesn't notice Lan Huan turning to kiss his cheek, which sends his attempt straight into the toilet.

 

"Perfect." Lan Huan finally loosens his grip to go back into the pictures, holding them in the cover of their shadows so they can better see the phone screen. To Nie Mingjue all the photos look good - Lan Huan looks delighted in every picture to the point where it doesn't matter that Nie Mingjue's expression looks pinched in half the photos. He even looks happy pressing a kiss to Nie Mingjue's cheek, smiling and his ears pink. Nie Mingjue on the other hand just looks like... well, a man who didn't expect a kiss like that. 

 

To his mortification, that's the photo Lan Huan sets as his lock screen. 

 

"Oi." Nie Mingjue frowns, embarrassed as he sees his own dumb bright on Lan Huan's phone.

 

"Yes?" Lan Huan smiles like he doesn't know exactly what he does to Nie Mingjue.

 

He wants to say something about picking a different photo, or take a better one, or to use literally any other photo that isn't him looking like a dumbass, but it doesn't come out. Even if he doesn't like the photo, it's so clear that Lan Huan likes it that he can't take it away from him. He could never do that.

 

"You're gonna be the death of me." Nie Mingjue huffs, and instead decides to go for soft revenge. he doesn't give Lan Huan a warning before he wraps an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close so when he kisses Lan Huan's temple, no one knows but them.

 

---

 

The next stop is hotpot.

 

Since they were only going to his mom's for dinner, it meant that Nie Mingjue could take Lan Huan to lunch at one of his favorite spots, tucked away behind a warm brown storefront, hiding the smell of delicious broth, sauces and meats of every kind, walls filled to the brim with old memorabilia and artwork, and old Chinese karaoke songs playing throughout the restaurant. 

 

They got one of the smaller tables inside, and Nie Mingjue took care to order a split pot of mushroom (for Lan Huan) and pork bone (for himself) broth, and they ordered all the vegetables and tofu they could want for both of them and some meat for Nie Mingjue. Even with everything going on outside the restaurant isn't all that crowded, so they can grab sauce without a line and the waiter brings their broth and food in a matter of minutes. 

 

"No wonder you like this place." Lan Huan snaps a photo of all the food laid out before the two of them begin putting food in each other's half of the boiling pot. "This looks amazing."

 

"Try the food, then tell me what you think." Nie Mingjue chuckles as he starts piling up the first set of vegetables and soft tofu onto Lan Huan's plate, waiting to see his reaction. Lan Huan eyes him for a moment, before he starts eating. His expression shifts, from curiosity to surprise to full on bliss.

 

"It is amazing." Lan Huan sighs, and starts piling vegetables and meat onto Nie Mingjue's plate in return. 

 

"I told you."

 

Lan Huan hums, and then they continue eating in relative silence, filling the pot and each other's plates as they eat. Nie Mingjue can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon than like this, with good food and better company.

 

"So," Lan Huan starts while they wait for another order of enoki mushrooms, "Is there anything I should know before we go to your mother's home?"

 

Oh, right. Earlier Lan Huan had been nervous about coming, and he wasn't sure how to entirely describe the situation with his family -  Nie Mingjue told him that it was his mother's home that they were visiting, but none of the other details. He's glad Lan Huan brought it up. "It's technically Huaisang's mother's home." Lan Huan blinks in surprise, but Nie Mingjue keeps going. "We're half brothers - dad divorced my mom when I was pretty young, then remarried, had Huaisang, and now she still lives where we grew up."

 

"Oh." Lan Huan's voice is stilted with worry, "Are, your mother, is she...?"

 

"She'll be there." Nie Mingjue assures him, "She hasn't lived in the city in years, but somehow our moms ended up becoming friends so I always see her at holidays."

 

"I see." Lan Huan visibly relaxes. “Is that odd, with your father?"

 

"Uh." Nie Mingjue realizes there's not going to be any kind way of saying this so, "Well, he's dead, so no."

 

"Oh, oh!" Lan Huan starts again, suddenly looking guilty, "I'm so sorry."

 

"It's fine, you didn't know." Nie Mingjue picks some taro out of the boiling broth to put onto Lan Huan's plate. "It was a long time ago anyway."

 

They slip back into silence for a while, but it's not as easy as before. there's something somber in Lan Huan's expression that leaves Nie Mingjue on edge. There's no need for him to look that way, his family has been stable for years and there's nothing to be done about the past now. 

 

gently, he nudges Lan Huan under the table with his foot. "Hey, really, it's fine."

 

Lan Huan's eyes go wide in surprise, and then shakes his head. "No, it's... I guess I'm merely surprised. Every time i think we already have many things in common, there's always one more thing."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"My parents were also..." Lan Huan pulls his lips in a tight line, considering his words. "I want to believe they loved each other, they did love me and Zhanzhan, and yet they might as well have been divorced. I can only think of a handful of times I ever saw them in the same room. and then father died and…  it’s hard to explain, with everything." Lan Huan gives an awkward, short laugh, but then he clears his throat and squares his shoulders back into his usual steady posture. "Maybe it's not the same, actually."

 

Nie Mingjue lets out a long breath. He didn’t know any of that. "No, I think that sounds pretty similar." he adds more mushrooms to his pot. "Is that how you and Lan Zhan got so close?"

 

"Are you asking me if I was the one looking out for him?" Lan Huan gives a wry smile, "I was, in a way. Uncle was good about it but Zhanzhan is so serious. I wanted him to try and be just a boy for once. Mother always tried but since she was busy with work, well. Here I am."

 

"Maybe that's where we're the most different." Nie Mingjue snorts, "You want Lan Zhan to live a little, and I want Huaisang to have some responsibility for once in his life."

 

Lan Huan laughs, and this time it's a real one.

 

"Maybe we should've told them to spend time together, to learn from one another while they were both here."

 

"Yeah, why do I get the feeling they would never get along?"

 

Lan Huan gives the most undignified snort he’s never heard, and Nie Mingjue laughs far too hard.

 

---

 

The waitress shakes her head, "I'm sorry sir, the check has already been taken care of."

 

Lan Huan looks at Nie Mingjue in something that borders offended. Nie Mingjue makes a pointed look at the wall as he finishes his water.

 

"Mingjue--"

 

"No."

 

"This is unacceptable, you're already bringing me to your home, buying lunch is the least I could do!"

 

"Not a chance in hell. Today is my treat."

 

"At least allow me to pay you back for half! Let me see the bill."

 

"Let me get your coat, we can head out."

 

"Mingjue!!"

 

---

 

One small argument later they leave the restaurant, turning back toward the street fair to explore. The road is still brimming with people and filled with music, so there's plenty to see as they keep walking towards the end of the blocked off street before they loop around. Nie Mingjue points out anything he thinks Lan Huan would find interesting, and Lan Huan pulls Nie Mingjue into a couple bookstores and a bright colored stationary shop, interested to see if there were any hidden treasures in their shelves. Otherwise, they walk in silence. There was no need to fill the space between them with unneeded speech, and Nie Mingjue was grateful that Lan Huan felt the same.

 

They leave once the sun begins to set, as Nie Mingjue turns them away from the hustle and bustle to a quiet street lined with bare trees and brick houses standing tall behind their potted plants that wait for spring. They don't have to walk far before the crowd becomes nothing more than a faint memory, all the noise and paper nothing more than a whisper. They make their way almost down to the next corner before Mingjue stops in front of his old childhood home. He reaches over the gate to unhook the latch, and takes a deep breath before he rings the doorbell.

 

A short woman with a round face and a messy bun opens the door, and bursts into a grin, "A-Jue, there you are! Come here!"

 

"Hey ma." Nie Mingjue leans down into her hug, "Happy new year."

 

"Yes, yes, go inside, your mother is in the kitchen and A-Sang will be here soon." Huaisang's mother, Nie Di, all but shoves him further into the house and steps up to Lan Huan to give him a hug too. "And you must be Lan Huan! My, A-Jue told us you were coming but he didn't say how handsome you were! Goodness me, If i was a few years younger..."

 

"Ma!"

 

"You flatter me." Lan Huan remains as polite as always, returning her hug as well. "Thank you for letting me join you tonight, I hope I'm not imposing."

 

"Nonsense! It'll be nice to have another face at the table, especially such a cute one. Come in, Come in."

 

The entranceway of the house hasn't changed a bit. It's still narrow, lined with old photos and older wallpaper, before it opens up to the living room and kitchen. The dining room table already has dishes of vegetables and snacks spread across it, but Nie Mingjue rounds into the kitchen instead to his own mother, who looks up from where she's been chopping up scallions. 

 

"There's my grumpy son." Nie Baxia is almost as tall as he is, and plenty strong as she gives him a tight hug. 

 

"Hi to you too Niang." Mingjue can't help but smile and she snorts against his ear. "You look like you're doing well."

 

"When am I not? Now come, show me this boyfriend of yours."

 

" Niang. "

 

---

 

Despite Nie Mingjue's best efforts, both women keep cooing over Lan Huan's handsome face and asking Lan Huan question after question about himself, about how he's enjoying living in the states, and if Nie Mingjue is treating him right. That last bit actually gets under Nie Mingjue's skin - how dare they imply he would ever be rude toward Lan Huan, but they just pat his head and assure him they know he means well, he's just always been the blunt and rough child. It doesn't make him feel better, but Lan Huan assuring him with a soft kiss on the knuckles certainly does.

 

They only get free from questioning when Huaisang finally shows up half an hour later.

 

"Sorry." Nie Mingjue groans, threading his fingers between Lan Huan's own. "I know they're a lot."

 

"It's alright, I was expecting something like that." Lan Huan squeezes his hand back, and it helps settles his own nerves.

 

"If you want to bolt, just let me know. I'll cover the exit so you can get a head start."

 

Lan Huan hums.

 

"I believe I'd rather stay with you than run by myself."

 

---

 

Dinner is a colorful affair. There's way too much food for five people, dishes piled high with vegetables, dumplings, ribs, and rice, but it all smells so good that everyone ends up overeating. The leftovers get put into tupperware that their mothers insist they take home, no ifs or buts about it. Nie Mingjue thinks there's extra tupperwares of food stuffed in there that weren't from tonight too. It's enough food to feed Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang for a week.

 

Nie Di takes Lan Huan and Nie Huaisang, and Mingjue hangs back with his mother to help her finish drying the dishes.

 

"You know," she starts softly, "I always thought Huaisang would be bringing home his future husband first, not you."

 

"What." Nie Mingjue hates that his neck betrays him by blushing red hot, "He's not, no. Don't say stupid stuff like that."

 

"I'm joking, goodness." the sigh, the sidelong glance, Nie Mingjue can feel her looking right into his soul. "You're always serious like this A-Jue, but you know, I think this is the first time in a long time I've seen you so... calm. If he brings out that in you then I think you make a good pair."

 

Nie Mingjue looks up from the sink to where Lan Huan stands next to Huaisang and his mother, going through her record collection. He's wearing his usual small smile on his face, but Nie Mingjue can spot the wonder in his eyes and the light hum of excitement as he pulls out a specific record to look at closer. Lan Huan looks like he fits there, standing in the living room he spent doing homework in for years. It's all such a simple thing. It shouldn't make Mingjue's breath catch.

 

“Don't get your hopes up." he says, and his mother chuckles beside him. 

 

---

 

No matter how much Mingjue, Huaisang, and even Lan Huan insist there's no need for more food, fruit and cookies are still put on the table with coffee and whiskey. 

 

"It's new years." Nie Baxia says, pouring drinks as Di talks about her new almond cookie recipe she got from Mrs. Kirsten next door, "The calories don't count. And you two need them, A-Jue is the only one with meat on his bones." And that ends the fight then and there.

 

At least no one forces Lan Huan to drink after Nie Mingjue puts his foot down and Huaisang takes the whiskey for Lan Huan with a little too much glee.

 

They don't intend to stay long - Nie Mingjue wants to make sure Lan Huan gets home safe, and he knows that there's not enough beds for the two of them to stay over with his mom and Huaisang spending the night anyway. But they do stay for some time, as Di and Baxia talk about the neighborhood, their work, reminiscing on old stories and trying to embarrass their sons in front of Lan Huan who seems delighted to hear all of it. Di starts getting on about how Mingjue started teaching, when she would drag him to the volunteer work she did with women and children fresh off the boat moving into the city at the organization she still works at to this day.

 

"Ah, don't look so sour, you were good at it!" Di laughs, "There was even that one boy you made friends with, what was his name, Meng Yao right?"

 

Nie Mingjue chokes.

 

"You remember him right A-Sang?" Huaisang shifts uncomfortably in his chair, but nods, with a “Who could forget him.” and that's enough to encourage his mother to keep going. "Of course you do, you two were close, but not like him and A-Jue here. He was around so often because you two were inseparable. His mother was a sweet woman, but so frail, you could knock her over with a pail of water."

 

Slow realization creeps onto Lan Huan's expression, and Nie Mingjue can practically see the moment where all the pieces snap into place in his head before he softly says "Oh."

 

"Shame he turned out to be more like his father." Baxia shakes her head and leans over to pour her son more whiskey. "Big shot lawyer with fake-ass empathy."

 

this time Lan Huan is the one who chokes.

 

"Well, yes. That whole family's always been a bit of a mess - though, didn't you go to the wedding they had? To that nice Jiang girl?"

 

"Yeah, it was. Nice." not that he really remembers a lot about the wedding or the married couple when he was so focused on Lan Huan most of the night. out of the corner of his eye he sees Lan Huan's smile quirk upwards, like he's thinking the same thing.

 

"Nice? Really? When that's when you and your boyfriend over here hooked up?"

 

"Shut up Huaisang!" Mingjue hisses at him, but it's too late. The blood is in the water and their mothers lean into it like sharks.

 

"You what!?"

 

"Tell us, tell us, why are you two being so stingy!"

 

Huaisang leans back with a self satisfied smile sipping his whiskey, and Mingjue throws an orange slice at his face.

 

---

 

By the time they say their goodbyes and leave for the night Nie Mingjue is exhausted. He can't remember the last time he spent any holiday getting grilled this hard, and he wonders if Lan Huan feels the same. He doesn't look tired, but it's hard to tell sometimes.

 

"I hope that wasn't too much." he huffs, "They're always a lot."

 

Lan Huan doesn't answer, he keeps walking while looking at his feet.

 

"...Lan Huan?"

 

This time his shoulders jump, head snapping up toward Nie Mingjue. "Hm, yes?"

 

That's... not like him. He's usually much more attentive. "Are you okay?"

 

"Yes, apologies. I was thinking."

 

"About what?"

 

Steps slow, then stop, as they make it to the corner and wait on passing traffic. Lan Huan is looking back down again, brow furrowed, and it sets Nie Mingjue on edge. After all, he did just take him home to meet his moms who were over enthusiastic about asking him about everything under the sun, not to mention Huaisang needling both of them just as much. Maybe it was too much, too fast, maybe he shouldn't have asked him to come, had done anything else instead.

 

Dread begins to bleed through his skin, colder than the wind.

 

"If niang or ma said anything that made you uncomfortable, don't let it, they're not being serious. They really seem to like you."

 

"What? No, no. Yours and Huaisang's mother are lovely. I enjoyed tonight." Lan Huan shakes his head, the serious expression melting away for his usual serene one. He reaches over and reassures Nie Mingjue by cupping his cheek with a gloved hand. "I enjoyed all of today, truly. Thank you."

 

"Oh." Nie Mingjue lets out a breath of relief, the dread falling away as quickly as it came. "Good. I'm glad you came."

 

Lan Huan nods, moving his arm to loop it through Mingjue's. They keep walking, and for a moment it's all quiet as they make their way back toward the subway stop.

 

"What happened between you and Jin Guangyao?"

 

Nie Mingjue freezes so quickly he almost trips over his own feet.

 

"What?"

 

Lan Huan's mouth is pulled in a tight line, shoulders squared, as he pins his gaze on Nie Mingjue as tight as the arm around his own. There's no running, but Lan Huan doesn't look angry or scared as much as he looks concerned.

 

"Every time he comes up or you see him you freeze up, just like this. And he... Jin Guangyao won't let me broach the topic with him when I see him. But your mother said you two were close, and I can't help but wonder what could've happened."

 

Nie Mingjue isn't sure he's breathing. He can't even formulate a response before Lan Huan lets out a heavy sigh. "Maybe I'm merely stuck on it because both of you have been nothing but kind to me, and yet I still can't understand this part of you. I won't force you to tell me, it is your business. but... A-Jue, I want you to be able to trust me. I want you to know I'm here for you."

 

It's a strange situation to be unfolding on the old streets of his childhood under bright street lights. He never expected to see Lan Huan looking resigned to not ever knowing what he wants to know but still so fired up about making sure that Nie Mingjue knows that he'll always be there to listen, about anything, not just this. He never expected Lan Huan to even care this much about things long gone, but Lan Huan has made it clear he cares, not to be nosy, but to get to know him better. To help him, maybe, if he could. It tugs on a dusty heartstring, a part of him that long forgotten what it's like to have someone watch your back without expecting anything in return. He's not used to it, and it makes firmly built walls in his heart start to crumble under that warm touch Lan Huan wields in everything he does.

 

"It's not a fun story." Nie Mingjue finally replies, so quietly it's almost lost with the steam of his breath. "Or a short one."

 

He hears Lan Huan's breath catch. "That's alright. I have all night."

 

"...okay." he slips his hand into Lan Huan's and squeezes it tight. "Okay."

 

---

 

"Do I have to do this?"

 

"We've been over this Mingjue." Nie Di sighs, "You want to get into the National Honors Society and to have all the proper things on your college applications don't you? This volunteer work will do you good. Besides, you're already used to helping teach the new kids on the rugby team, how difficult can it be to teach English?"

 

Nie Mingjue hates it when Stepmom Di is right. He does need this, because even though he's only 15 he knows he has to do all the things a good first son should do, like being social and study hard and get into a good school so he can make something of himself. But summer just started, and he'd rather be doing his summer reading or literally anything else than driving all the way to her charity organization in Flushing. There's one near the house, but no, they had to be going to the one that takes far too long to get to to be worth going, as far as he's concerned.

 

The facility is in an old community building behind one of the local churches. It's showing some wear and tear, but the place is well cared for by everyone who volunteers here. When they get inside, Stepmom Di takes him to one of the back offices to meet a young woman and a small boy clinging to his mother's skirt - he looks about as big as Huaisang, but he looks older, somehow. Something about his eyes. Nie Mingjue decides he must be tired.

 

"Hello Mrs. Nie. It's nice to finally meet you, and your son." the woman bows, and then pats the boy on his back. "Tell them your name baby."

 

"...Meng Yao." the boy says without looking up at them.

 

"It's nice to meet you A-Yao." Stepmom Di crouches down to his height, smiling all the while. "This is my son, Mingjue. He's going to be helping you with your English speaking today, alright?"

 

Meng Yao spares Nie Mingjue a look this time, but then looks right back down at the ground. It pisses Nie Mingjue off - he's not that scary.

 

"Baby, I need to talk with Mrs. Nie, so why don't you two get to know each other alright?" Mrs. Meng pats her son’s head, and Stepmom Di tells Nie Mingjue to be friendly, and the two of them headed off to do other things.

 

It leaves the two of them standing there. Nie Mingjue wants nothing more than to get this over with, and Meng Yao looks like he's about to curl in on himself just to get out of the situation.

 

"How old are you?" Nie Mingjue asks, unsurprised but still annoyed at how Meng Yao starts.

 

"T-thirteen."

 

"Oh. You're really small for thirteen."

 

Somehow, he seems to shrink down even more, looking away from him. He doesn't answer.

 

Nie Mingjue groans. Dealing with this is going to be painful - and it is, at first.

 

Nie Mingjue learns quickly that when it comes to reading and writing, Meng Yao is already excellent. The books the organization gets for teaching are hardly a challenge, getting filled up within a week with all the right answers, which is probably why he doesn't need a formal tutor. But as soon as Meng Yao has to open his mouth he's tripping over himself, trying not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It takes Nie Mingjue two weeks to get him to calm down and to just speak what's on his mind, to not worry about mistakes around him so he can get better.

 

"It....I, have to do it. Just right." Meng Yao tells him one day, 

 

"You don't have to." Nie Mingjue replies, rolling his eyes. "No one gets it right all the time. and besides, how am I supposed to teach you if you're not messing up?! That's the whole point!"

 

"But..."

 

"It's just you and me." Nie Mingjue elbows him in the side, but softly, because Meng Yao is so fragile. "Mess up all you want. I got you."

 

There's a pause, and then slowly, surely, Meng Yao loosens up. If he were a more poetic kid, he'd say it was like watching the petals of a the first flower unfurling when the warmth of spring starts. He looks up at Nie Mingjue with a wide, open expression that seems to sparkle.

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah, really. Trust me."

 

Meng Yao smiled, and finally, finally Nie Mingjue knew he had gotten through to him. From then on Meng Yao became more and more comfortable chatting, making mistakes, and really growing. Nie Mingjue liked helping him, and Meng Yao liked learning, and both of them found it surprisingly easy to get along once the initial awkwardness was out of the way. Meng Yao was an only child, he just moved to the city from Chengdu a few months ago with his mom, who said she was trying to get a better life here and with any luck, get him to be with his birth father who lived in the city. He was smart, and surprisingly funny even when he didn't mean to be. Stepmom Di even invited the Mengs over a few times, and Nie Mingjue would take Meng Yao all across Sunset Park, showing him the best places to play, and they’d run around until they were so hot and sweaty that Nie Mingjue would spend his allowance treating him (and sometimes Huaisang, if he decided to join them) to ice cream. By the time the summer was over, Meng Yao was calling him on days where they wouldn't see each other in person, if only for a little bit. Nie Mingjue looked forward to those calls more than he was willing to admit at the time.

 

In fact, Nie Mingjue looked forward to just... being with Meng Yao. His presence was comforting, and even though he was younger they got along like a house on fire. He's known a lot of people but rarely did he feel like he actually saw eye to eye with anyone, so having Meng Yao around was something new and exciting. He was one of the few people Nie Mingjue felt like he could open up to - about his mom and dad's divorce, about Huaisang being so weak but also so cute, about how weird it was having a new mom when his real one didn't live nearby anymore. In turn Meng Yao was open to him about how much he wanted to meet his birth father, who was apparently a well known lawyer in the city who could make all sorts of things happen once he recognized him and his mom. It's the kind of stuff that neither of them talked about and felt better when they did. And if he's honest, it was one of the best summers of his childhood.

 

Once school started they saw each other only once a week - they went to different schools and were in totally different grades. but it was still fun to be together. Meng Yao had some problems but otherwise seemed to be getting along fine, and well, Nie Mingjue was used to his school life by now. Still, he looked forward to next summer, when they could see each other more often than a lesson every other week and the rare time they could see each other during school breaks.

 

But when next summer rolled around, Stepmom Di told him he wasn't going to be tutoring Meng Yao anymore.

 

"He's going to prestigious private school next year. He got a scholarship and everything!" Stepmom Di speaks with excitement in her voice, like Nie Mingjue's chest isn't tightening in a way he doesn't understand. "And he's doing some summer school it sounds like to catch up, so he'll be busy. But I'm sure you boys can still find some time to hang out."

 

That night, Nie Mingjue calls Meng Yao to find out. 

 

"I don't think so." Meng Yao says, when Nie Mingjue asks if they can hang out this week. "I have a lot of summer homework - I don't know how you ever did all of yours and tutor me! But I can let you know if I’m free?"

 

"Okay." Nie Mingjue can't stop pacing his room, feeling strangely nervous. "I'd like to see you, y'know? You're my friend."

 

"Thanks Mingjue. Have a good night!"

 

"Yeah. Night."

 

They end up only seeing each other once that summer - when Stepmom Di threw an end of summer barbeque for the charity. It had been almost four months since they saw each other then, and Nie Mingjue remembers Meng Yao hit his growth spurt during those months, because while he was still short he definitely was taller than before, and he had finally filled out a figure so he didn't look nearly as frail. The two of them slipped back into conversations like nothing had changed, talking about anything that came to mind, and Nie Mingjue finally felt at ease again. He had been afraid he lost his best friend, but it seems like everything would be alright. But it couldn't last forever, and Meng Yao had to rush home before his mother came back from work, taking extra food home for the both of them. 

 

Nie Mingjue knew they wouldn't get to see each other a lot, but he didn't see Meng Yao at all that year. Or the year after that.

 

It's not for lack of trying. Nie Mingjue had Meng Yao's email address from his mother, and he would send notes on his birthday or holidays, and he would get back the occasional note here or there in reply. They were never anything long or fancy, but Nie Mingjue still clung to them as something - maybe it was scraps, maybe it was just something from the past that made him feel better, but he really thought they could make time to hang out, or do something. It didn't have to be like that one summer, it could be anything where they were spending time together, where Nie Mingjue can enjoy Meng Yao's ever sharpening wit. But it never worked out. The gap grew and grew, feeling even more apparent when Mrs. Meng would come over to the house, talking about how Meng Yao was turning into a fine young man, but Meng Yao was nowhere in sight. 

 

He wanted to believe her. Meng Yao was his friend after all.

 

The next time he saw Meng Yao it wasn't during the summer, it wasn't surrounded by food or family or any familiar faces. It was winter, when he was just shy of eighteen, by himself on his way home after meeting his niang in Soho.

 

The particular block he was walking down wasn't busy, or large, so when a group of boys walked down the opposite side of the street Nie Mingjue couldn't help but notice them, specifically the boy strutting in front of the others face filled out with a smile wearing a pristine school uniform of crimson and white, matching scarf looped around his neck - Meng Yao. Even after all this time, even in these other clothes, Nie Mingjue knows he'd recognize him anywhere. He looked good, better than good, actually, because Nie Mingjue doesn't think he'd ever seen him wear that much confidence. But he doesn't think too hard about any of that and crosses the street.

 

"Meng Yao? Meng Yao!"

 

Meng Yao turns toward him with a snap, eyes wide with shock and mouth slightly agape. Nie Mingjue smiles and--

 

"Who the hell is this loser?"

 

--comes to a complete stop. The one who spoke hangs off of Meng Yao's shoulder and sneers, and another steps up and gives Nie Mingjue a critical once over. "Woww, yeah, yeesh, do you actually know this guy Yao?"

 

"He looks like a gym rat." says a third, and Mingjue feels his vision going red. He doesn't take any notice to their sharp tailored jackets or the way they look put together in a specific way that people born and raised in money always do, instead turns to Meng Yao. He certainly won't stand for these people talking like this to him, right? 

 

"Ah... no, not really." Meng Yao chuckles, waving his hand. "We only met briefly when we were younger. I'm surprised he even remembers me."

 

Nie Mingjue feels like the pavement opened up beneath his feet and swallowed him whole. Meng Yao's still smiling, it's the same smile, and yet there's no warmth in it for him. 

 

"It was nice to see you but we do have to go. Have a good night" and Meng Yao just keeps walking.

 

Nie Mingjue stands there, staring at him as he walks, so shocked and gutted he can barely formulate a response. That couldn't have been Meng Yao right? Not his Meng Yao. That was some imposter, right?

 

One of the boys, the one who called him a loser, looks back over his shoulder and flips him the finger.

 

It breaks Nie Mingjue out of his shock and sends him straight into all-consuming rage. Without thinking, Nie Mingjue bum rushes the group, fist flying through the air at the boy's jaw and sends him staggering away from him, but Nie Mingjue doesn't care. His heart is pounding, the muscle too sharp at every edge threatening to rip him apart from the inside out.

 

"Fuck you, all of you!" Nie Mingjue roars, ignoring the way the other boys scream at him, "Especially you!" he points at Meng Yao, whose expression is doing something complicated.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't care. he runs. He runs all the way to the subway station, all the way to the end of the track where no one can see him shaking. He's gotten into fights, but MMA lessons at the local gym are something else than punching a kid out on the street. Fuck. That was really bad, but he couldn't stop himself, not when it felt like Meng Yao had just... taken everything Nie Mingjue held dear and threw it down a sewer drain.

 

He went straight home. He went straight to his room.

 

He didn't come out until the next afternoon when soft knocking came through his door, and Huaisang said, "Big brother! Big brother! Yao-gege is here!"

 

Well, fuck.

 

Nie Mingjue steeled himself as he stepped out of his room, but felt it waver when he saw Meng Yao standing in the living room. He wasn't in his school uniform today, instead wearing jeans and an oversized sweater talking to Huaisang. It reminded him of the past, when they used to see each other constantly, when they used to talk, when Nie Mingjue felt like everything could be easy. 

 

"Let's go outside." Nie Mingjue finally says after a moment, and Meng Yao follows him out where no one can bother him.

 

"What was all that about?" Meng Yao finally says as soon as they're on the other side of the house gate. "You can't just punch people like that! You're lucky he didn't really get hurt except for a bruise, I had to cover for you--"

 

"Excuse me!?" anything Nie Mingjue was going to say was gone, lost in the kindling for his anger, "You were the one acting like you didn't even know me! What, you agree with them?"

 

"No, of course I don't." Meng Yao responds softly, but his expression remains firm, "But Mingjue, they're from the Wen family, they're all really powerful and have connections all over the city. It makes things complicated."

 

"Does it? Does it really? ‘Cause last I checked you're supposed to stand up for friends, not just act like they don't exist!" Nie Mingjue sneers, "Or just because they're a good family it makes it okay?"

 

"No, listen to me, you're not getting it! They're powerful so I need them to make things work for me, so I don't need you punching them out!"

 

"No, I don't get it, because you don't fucking talk to me!" Nie Mingjue is yelling now, throwing his hands up. "I haven't even seen you in what, two years?! You don't even try, any time I say we should spend time together you just ignore me! Like all that, all that time we spent together didn't mean shit to you!"

 

"I am grateful that you tutored me and I appreciate your company when I was getting used to living in the city, I mean it. But we were children. It was different."

 

"Excuse me? It wasn't even that long ago, what the hell are you talking about?"

 

"That now I'm working toward my future, Mingjue, that I need to get everything in order, or did you forget that I'm trying to get my father to recognize me? My mother? I can't go around lingering on old things!"

 

Every single thing, from the wind to the cars to Nie Mingjue's own heart goes absolutely silent.

 

"So you'll just throw them away." 

 

"I'm... I'm doing whatever it takes." Meng Yao's hands ball into fists, and bites his lip. He looks at the ground, before he looks up with that determined expression that Nie Mingjue admires. "Please understand. I need this."

 

Admired.

 

All of the heat from all of his anger that lingered throughout his body coalesces into a single mass in his throat, and explodes .

 

"If that's the bullshit that's so important to you then get the fuck out of my face! Get the fuck out of my neighborhood, get the fuck away from Huaisang and do whatever stupid fucking shit you want, you, you snake! I don't ever want to see you again, do you hear me!"

 

"Mingjue--"

 

"No!" he's screaming so much that it hurts, but he can't stop. everything is burning, burning, burning. He takes the step forward to grab Meng Yao by his collar, pull him an inch off the ground and shake him, "You don't want to know me, then you don't, because I sure as fuck don't know you!"

 

Nie Mingjue shoves him backwards, ignoring the pained look on Meng Yao's face. It's not his problem to deal with strangers. He has to keep his own family running, has to worry about his own college applications and his own future, He can't be worrying about someone who does such abhorrent things.

 

He heads back into the house without looking back, throwing off his shoes before he storms into his room, slams the door as hard as he can, and breaks down sobbing.

---

 

A sharp inhale interrupts Nie Mingjue from his story.

 

"You loved him." Lan Huan murmurs.

 

Three simple words crush Nie Mingjue under their weight, causing his shoulders to curl inward as if they'd hide him. Never, ever, had he said those words out loud, not even to alone to himself, when he realized the shape of his feelings in that tangled mess of his heart. He never wanted to breathe life into the truth of it, never wanted it to be real because everything was bitter enough, there was no need to go and make it worse. No one else ever said it either, even though he was sure Huaisang knew. He was the one who heard Mingjue crying, he was the one who braved his way into Mingjue's room to try and comfort him, and then he was the one to forgive him when he punched the wall right next to his chubby eleven year old face.

 

He wasn't proud of himself back then.

 

"It doesn't matter." Nie Mingjue runs a hand over his face, and realizes that he must look like he's somewhere between crying and committing murder. "It was a long time ago."

 

"It matters." Lan Huan squeezes his hand and leans his weight against him. "Even if it was a long time ago, it's still weighing on you."

 

"It probably wouldn't be if that was the end of it."

 

---

 

Being at college, far away from everything back home, was a saving grace right up until it wasn't.

 

"You know Meng Yao is studying pre-law at Columbia now! You might run into him on campus!" 

 

Of course he was. Of course he didn't go to Yale or Harvard or whatever the fuck other ivy league he got into because he wanted to stay close to his mother since she was getting ill all the time. But thankfully, Nie Mingjue's engineering degree kept him firmly stuck in labs and the science halls, far and away from anything Meng Yao would be doing in pre-law. He finished out everything and graduated without having to see him, and he knew it was for the best. Even when he thought about trying to find him, his pride wouldn't allow it. Nie Mingjue wouldn't go crawling back to him.

 

Sometimes he wondered though. What if maybe, maybe, Meng Yao would get over himself. That he'd go through college and get his shit together and realize he'd been an asshole and grow into a better person. Maybe he'd even apologize and they could start over. Nie Mingjue hated himself for thinking it, but there was never really anyone else he felt as close to. He had friends in his classes and guys at the gym he regularly worked out with but it wasn't quite the same. 

 

None of that happened. As he heard from mom, Meng Yao started working at the Wen's massive, mysterious corporation for summer internships, then through that connection started working at his Jin Guangshan's law firm instead as soon as he could. There are rumors that Meng Yao made himself well liked at the Wen's corporation that he gained all sorts of intel and he was feeding to Jin Guangshan in order to get a leg up on other junior lawyers and sneak his way into his father's favor. It's how they say he got the blessing to change his name to Jin Guangyao, to be brought in as a 'distant relative' of the family. Mom didn't believe what they said about Jin Guangyao, but Nie Mingjue did. He knew exactly what he was capable of.

 

It was proven true the worst way when Jin Guangyao was sitting in the courtroom, across from Nie Mingjue and his entire family, defending the man who hit his dad with his car while drunk driving. All because he was someone with wealth who didn't want to face any real consequences and had the money to pay him to say anything he wanted.

 

It made sure that  Nie Mingjue and the rest of them knew Meng Yao was long, long gone, and never coming back.

 

---

 

"He did what?"

 

Lan Huan's shock is obvious in the raised tone of his voice, and Nie Mingjue sighs, not having the energy to be as angry as he could be. "Yeah. the Jin law firm and the Wen corporation have always done business with each other, and when we found that it was some Wen executive who hit him well... it was over before it started. It could've been any lawyer from that fucking firm, and the results would've been the same."

 

"I'm so sorry." 

 

"Don't be. what's done is done."

 

"Mingjue." the street block they've made it to is completely empty at this hour, except for the two of them and the moonlight. "Please do not act like this is nothing, these are your feelings. It's what you lived through. It's very much something."

 

He doesn't know what to say to that. Nie Mingjue never told this story, not all at once like this. Most people know bits and pieces here or there, or just assume there was a fight somewhere down the line and leave it at that. He's so used to that reaction that. But to explain everything to Lan Huan has left him tired. Even though he trusts Lan Huan, it still takes a lot of him to think about all of this again, to lay himself bare in ways he avoids because he doesn't need anyone seeing the weakest parts of himself.

 

When he says nothing, Lan Huan takes matters into his own hands and pulls Nie Mingjue into a tight hug. He doesn't move, not until Nie Mingjue wraps his arms around him in return, burying his face in his shoulder and taking a deep, shaking breath. Lan Huan smells like coffee and winter wind.

 

"Thank you for telling me." Lan Huan kisses his temple. "It means everything to me, that you can be open with me."

 

"Don't go telling other people." Nie Mingjue grumbles, "I don't do this just for anyone."

 

"I won’t." Lan Huan hugs him tighter, and for once it feels okay to let himself… just be held.  "Your secrets are safe with me, Mingjue."

 

Nie Mingjue believes him.

 

---

 

Later, when they've made it back to Nie Mingjue's apartment, later, when they've put the leftovers away, later, when they've changed into pajamas, later, when they've curled under the sheets, Lan Huan's strong arms wrap around Nie Mingjue's shoulders, his deft fingers run through short hair, running little patterns through his undercut.

 

The apartment is silent. It's been silent for a while.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't mind. He's lulled by the warmth of Lan Huan all around him, of the smell of his skin against the smell of his old band shirt on Lan Huan’s chest. His breath and thoughts even out with every touch and passing moment.

 

"A-Jue?"

 

"A-Huan."

 

Fingers still at the back of his head. "What would you do if... if he changed? If he became better, in your eyes?"

 

It takes him a second to connect the dots that he's talking about Jin Guangyao. It sounds like a stupid question, but Lan Huan's voice was full of hesitance. Without picking up his head from it's spot against his shoulder, Nie Mingjue can see the worry in the slant of his eyebrows and the downward curve of his mouth in his head. He lets out a low, guttural sigh from the back of his throat. 

 

"Nothing."

 

"But, if you wanted to be friends with him again, or to make up, then..."

 

"A-Huan." with great effort Nie Mingjue pushes himself up so he can look Lan Huan in the eye. He was right - his face is full of worry, and a special kind of tension Lan Huan holds in his figure when he wants things to work out and they don't. "It's been years. I can't just forgive or forget, no matter what."

 

Lan Huan looks away toward the pillows. "I know, but-"

 

"No buts." Nie Mingjue cups his face, tries to get him to look at him again. "You shouldn't let it bother you"

 

"It's too late for that."

 

True. "Why is it bothering you then?"

 

Lan Huan's gaze flicks all over the room, everywhere but Nie Mingjue's face. It settles, downcast and he sighs, "I think of Jin Guangyao as a friend. but when you don't for good reasons then... I don't know. I don't want to stop speaking with him but I don't want to make you uncomfortable either. It's strange. I have never had to work with something like this."

 

"Listen, if you want to spend time with him for work or whatever other reason I can't stop you. You can do whatever you need to." it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he'll hate it every time, but Nie Mingjue isn't about to tell his boyfriend what to do or who he can hang out with. he can tug him closer though, kissing his brow and hoping to keep him safe. "Just, be careful."

 

"Oh A-Jue." Lan Huan's expression finally smoothed out into something something warm, something peaceful as it should be. Lan Huan presses a kiss to his jaw. "You're a good man."

 

---

 

If Nie Mingjue worried that Lan Huan knowing his messed up relationship with Jin Guangyao would put some sort of strain on their relationship, or make things awkward, the worry proved pointless. Lan Huan likes him all the same, rough edges and past stupid teenage feelings and all. He wakes up the next morning with morning breath kisses peppering his face and the reassuring routine they've more or less fallen into after spending most of the past two months together, with tea and breakfast and Nie Mingjue giving Lan Huan space when he calls his family.

 

If anything, Nie Mingjue feels steadier. As if talking about the parts of themselves they don't want to share was the sorely needed thing to push away their worries around the still new thing that is them .

 

When they say their goodbyes, Nie Mingjue tries to kiss Lan Huan just right so he feels it too.

 

Considering how tight Lan Huan hugs him, he thinks he succeeded.

 

From there, Lan Huan still spends time with Jin Guangyao over lunch and other little meetings. but it no longer makes Nie Mingjue's blood boil - it still leaves him feeling conflicted, sure, but not angry.

 

It's a new feeling, to not be so angry so often. But Nie Mingjue is happy to adjust.

 

 

---

 

 

Considering how much happened in the past few months of his life Nie Mingjue almost expects things to go off the rails sometime soon after new years.

 

What he doesn't expect is that this round doesn't involve him and Lan Huan.

 

Well, it sort of involves Lan Huan.

 

"If your brother and your stupid friend have done anything to my brother i'm going to kill both of you." Wen Qing hisses from where she's sitting on Jiang Cheng's desk, pointing at Jiang Cheng whose sitting in his chair and Lan Huan whose sitting across from him. Nie Mingjue has decided to stand against the wall, observing but not at all getting involved. He's just here for emotional support because somehow there's some relationship drama between Lan Zhan, Wen Ning, and Wei Ying that Nie Mingjue cannot even begin to act like he understands.

 

"Zhanzhan would never--!"

 

"Please kill Wei Ying. Just put all of us out of our misery."

 

"Trust me, i've been looking up flights to Taipei, I could do it." Wen Qing grumbles, "Seriously, if A-Ning doesn't stop making those sad puppy eyes at his phone i'm going to lose it."

 

"There has to be something more reasonable we can do, that seems quite extreme."

 

"You mean like let them figure this out themselves because they're three grown men who should be able to figure it out themselves?"

 

"Jiang Cheng. You stupid beautiful idiot."

 

 

---

 

 

Spring never shows up during spring break, but weeks later when the sun finally shines past six. Nie Mingjue isn't thrilled with the prospect of warmer weather, nor the idea that Lan Huan seems to be incredibly busy in the spring. He's working late more and more, and Nie Mingjue has had to drag him out of the office if only for the few minutes it takes to walk to grab lunch a few too many times for Nie Mingjue's liking.

 

Today seems to be calmer, thankfully. They're sitting together in Lan Huan's office eating sandwiches and talking about going to a pop-up art exhibit downtown before it disappears at the end of the month when Professor Luo Qingyung shows up, a stack of papers in hand. "Hello, Lan Huan?"

 

"Ah, Mianmian, come in. Do you have the finals work?"

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't miss the look she shoots him before she turns toward Lan Huan. "Yeah, thanks for helping me edit it. I don't know what we're going to do without you."

 

Wait, what?

 

He thinks he sees Lan Huan's face flinch, but it's gone as quickly as it came. "It's only been a year, I'm sure everything will resume as it was."

 

"Ugh, still! I'm jealous, maybe I should get a guest position in Peking, then we can work together again!"

 

Oh.

 

Nie Mingjue doesn't hear anything else from their conversation, drowned out as the world crashes down around his ears.

 

It's... it's not that he didn't know. Lan Huan told him, months and months ago, that he was only here for the year, teaching somewhere new to gain a new perspective and bring home more knowledge to his students back in Beijing. He knew that his whole family was back in Beijing too. That's where his museum work mainly was too. He knew that. And he wasn't like he forgot, it was more like... he didn't want to remember. Wrapped up in comforting arms, taking and giving constant affection, feeling himself soothed to his very core, why would he want to remember that it was all temporary? That come a few short months everything he's rearranged his life for would be on the other side of the earth?

 

"--gjue?"

 

Lan Huan's concerned voice starts him out of his train of thought. Nie Mingjue blinks and realizes Mianmian left, that it's just Lan Huan who's looking at him like he expects him to fall over.

 

"Yeah, sorry. What is it?"

 

"Are you alright?" Lan Huan sweeps stray hair behind his ear, lingering fingers against his cheek. "It is not like you to get so distant."

 

"I'm fine." a lie, a lie, a lie. "Hey, are you free tonight?"

 

Lan Huan gives him a puzzled look at the change of topic. "I'm not sure. I have a lot to do."

 

"Can it wait?" Nie Mingjue's voice sounds small, weak, and he hates it, but he'll take hating himself for a little bit to find out if he can get more of that precious time. "...Please?"

 

"Mingjue, what's wrong?" Lan Huan looks as upset as he sounds, hand holding Nie Mingjue's cheek properly now so he can't turn away.

 

Fuck. Nie Mingjue presses his lips into a tight line, and looks down at the old, scuffed wooden floor. Not for the first time, he wishes he had a poker face more like his brother, and wore less of his heart on his sleeve, so he could hide the overwhelming emotion he's feeling. From his partner. Who is leaving.

 

Fuck.

 

"When do you fly home?"

 

Lan Huan chokes on nothing, and his grip goes slack. Nie Mingjue wonders how long he's been trying to avoid this conversation.

 

"The end of June." 

 

Less then two months.

 

Shock and fear all cord around his throat and lungs, pulling too tight for him to breath. He didn't want this. Why didn't he know this? Shouldn't they have talked about this sooner? Was Lan Huan hiding it from him? Is it because he doesn't want to be with--

 

The next thing Nie Mingjue knows his rage is burning through him so fast and everything in his vision is blood red.

 

"Why the hell didn't you tell me?!" Nie Mingjue snaps out. He sees Lan Huan reel back and thinks good .

 

"I, I wanted to, but it's, there wasn't a good time to bring it up. We can still about it now, I know you're angry at me but if we talk about this calmly then..." Lan Huan reaches out, and Nie Mingjue moves away. 

 

"Calm down!? You're leaving!" he doesn't need Lan Huan telling him what to do, to calm down, like he'll be there. He groans, low, running a hand through his hair and he realizes if he doesn't leave now he's going to explode.

 

"Forget it. Fucking, forget it." Nie Mingjue gets up and leaves, paying no mind to Lan Huan calling after him.

 

---

 

draft: Lan Huan (12:44PM)

Mingjue

I

 

draft: Lan Huan (12:45PM)

let me explain

I did not mean

come back

 

from: Lan Huan (1:03PM)

I am free tonight if you still want to come to my apartment

we can talk about it

 

from: Lan Huan (4:38PM)

please?

 

---

 

Nie Mingjue does not go back to Lan Huan's office. He does not go to Lan Huan's apartment that night either.

 

What he does do is spend so much time beating on punching bags at the gym until his knuckles are red, so red that he's sure they'll be purple in the morning. He gets home late, a storm raging through him loud enough that Huaisang shuts his mouth before he says anything and stays quiet the whole night.

 

Sleep evades him, and to the point where Nie Mingjue gets up for a 2AM run.

 

He's going to be exhausted tomorrow - he decides that's actually for the best. He can just teach his classes, cancel his office hours, and then go straight home, no interruptions.

 

It works too - none of his students bother him about office hours, and the ones who try to linger too long when lecture ends asking him questions get flattened under his unwavering stare and flee. Jiang Cheng tries to swing by to ask him how he's doing and even he goes when Nie Mingjue tells him to leave him the hell alone.

 

He goes home earlier than he usually would, taking his work with him. he doesn't need anyone else disturbing him.

 

---

 

It's been three days but Nie Mingjue's already adjusted well enough to grading lab reports from his desk at home rather than the one in his office. It's different, but it's fine. It's quieter at home, less chance of distraction or anyone bothering him so he can throw himself into his work. Nie Huaisang doesn't usually get home until almost dinnertime anyway so he has at least two hours to himself. and besides, what could throw him off in his own apartment?

 

The answer apparently was the mailbox. Or more precisely, one thick eight by eleven envelope that was in the mailbox. Addressed to one Nie Huaisang, from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

 

Nie Mingjue gets caught standing in the small entranceway of the apartment building in front of his mailbox for a solid minute, staring at the package over and over, wondering if there's some kind of mistake. He even mentally reviews everything he and Huaisang have talked about regarding school in the past year - he's been going to a close by college, seems to actually be doing well in his second year, getting his grades in order and making friends.

 

He doesn't remember anything about this.

 

Already simmering, this one more thing is more than enough to set him off into a boiling rage all over again. He storms up the stairs and nearly throws the apartment door open when he unlocks it, and slams the envelope on the kitchen table. Huaisang was in class and wouldn't be for hours, and it's taking everything in him not to call him up anyway to ask what in the fuck is going on.

 

There's a chance it's nothing. It could just be spam or some stupid magazine that he can just throw away. But as mad as Nie Mingjue is he still has his gut feeling that it's not just nothing. He knows his brother and knows his interest in art and fashion and studying shit that could get him nowhere, knows that he tried to get into an art school and got rejected.

 

Goddammit. Huaisang better not drag his feet getting home.

 

---

 

He could just... open the envelope. Find out what's inside.

 

 

It's very tempting, especially when Nie Mingjue is stalled in the middle of his third lab report, tapping his red pen against the table as he stares holes into the stupid thing. It would probably save him a few white hairs down the line.

 

 

But there's a voice in his head, softer and calmer and better than his own has ever been, that urges him to wait. He should give his brother at least one chance to explain himself before ripping his head off.

 

 

One chance is all he's getting, Nie Mingjue thinks, before he focuses back on his work.

 

 

 

---

 

The door clicks open followed by the sound of keys clacking down into the bowl on top of the shoe rack.

 

"I'm home!"

 

Finally. 

 

Nie Mingjue waits until Huaisang steps into the living room before he tosses the envelope at him. Huaisang barely catches it with a panicked squawk, confused until he looks down at what's in his hands. Just like that his eyes go wide, practically sparkling with excitement as he tears open the envelope.

 

And then the blood drains from his face and Huaisang freezes in place.

 

"Well? What's inside?" Nie Mingjue isn't yelling, not yet, but there's no room for confusion about how pissed off he is in the way he stands and crosses his arms.

 

"Um." Nie Huaisang mumbles, looking away as he peeks inside the envelope, turning his whole body away from Nie Mingjue. He looks meeker than he's seen in a long time, but Nie Mingjue doesn't say anything yet. He'll stand there and stare and wait until Huaisang spits it out.

 

Several long, painful seconds pass before Huaisang clears his throat and holds the envelope behind his back.

 

"So. Brother. Mingjue, you know, I don't really like uh, where I’m at. at all."

 

Silence.

 

"And that I really wanted to go to art school, cause, y’know."

 

More silence.

 

"Um. Right, so. I applied for a transfer to FIT, since that'swhatireallywanttodoandigotin?" the words come out in a ten-car pile up of a rush, but Nie Mingjue still catches all of it.

 

"Because you can just apply for a transfer on a whim and get an answer, Huasaing!" Nie Mingjue yells now. Getting Nie Huaisang to turn everything in on time when he was applying to college the first time was a challenge enough, and now this, all done behind his back, like Huaisang doesn't even trust him, didn't even care about his opinion is so-- "What the hell were you thinking!?"

 

"I told you! it's where I wanted to go, I can study what I want! and I got in, so I'm going!" Nie Huaisang's voice pitches high in his panic, a sharp contrast to his squared shoulders.

 

"Who do you think is helping you pay for all this? When were you going to tell me, huh, next year when the fucking bill showed up!?" 

 

"I got the scholarships and I applied for financial aid, if you let me look I bet it's pretty good--"

 

"And what about mom huh, where you just going to avoid telling her too?"

 

Huaisang goes silent, taking half a step back. It's all the answer Mingjue needs, who suddenly feels like he's been punched in the stomach hard enough to make him want to vomit.

 

"You told mom and you didn't tell me." it's not a question, a statement of fact, and the shock grips him hard enough so he says it calmly. Something must be in the water these days - everyone's decided he's not worth telling the important things, that he can just be told whenever it's convenient for their sake, thrown to the side and not given any trust or leg to stand on when things are shoved into his lap.

 

"I--"

 

Huaisang's voice is so quiet, his expression almost terrified, and any part of Mingjue that never wants to see his baby brother look like that is nowhere to be found when he feels all of his rage and fury hit the roof. This is too much, too soon.

 

"How dare you, Huaisang!" he's sure he's being too loud for yelling like this inches away from Huaisang but he doesn't care, "You live in my apartment, I help you through school and all your shit, and this is how you wanna repay me? Going behind my fucking back!?"

 

For a moment it looks like Huaisang will buckle under his fear. But then something comes over his expression, hardening his features so he can yell back in Mingjue's face with his own anger. "Because I knew you would get angry at me! You'd tell me no and talk me out of even trying! And if you knew and then I didn't get in I'd never live it down! You've already made it clear you think studying fashion is stupid and that I'll die some penniless artist or some shit but you know what? I don't care! It's what I want!"

 

It is, unfortunately, all true. Mingjue definitely said that, and definitely still thinks that. "You thought I would be less angry finding out now?!"

 

"I don't know, maybe?! Every time you caught me doing schoolwork you would get all concerned and you actually looked like you might, for once, be--" Huaisang sucks in a shaking breath before settling back into yelling again, "And you, you've been way nice since you started dating Lan Huan! so--"

 

"Do NOT bring him up! This is about you!"

 

Huaisang pauses, his expression shifting out of anger to confusion, mouth slightly open and squinting up at him. and then it settles, his mouth falling open in realization, "Did you two have a fight? Is that why you've been so pissy!?"

 

"You--" Mingjue reels back, mind racing with how to get this back on track. "That's not the point! The point is you thinking it's fine to just change schools and act like it's not my business!"

 

"Why should it be? You're not the one going to some shitty school or living my life! It's my choice! Can't-- can't you just be proud of me for once in your fucking life!?" 

 

He's never been struck by lightning, but Nie Mingjue imagines it would feel similar to how he feels when Huaisang slaps that in his face.

 

"I never worked this hard in my life! I even worked extra hard to make sure I got into a school so good no one could use it against me! I had to stay up late so many times, picking up extra shifts to get the money for materials, hiding my stuff at Xuanyu's, shit, I even sucked up to Jin Guangyao for help and it sucked! It all sucked but I knew if I didn't try I'd regret it forever! and now I'm here and you're not taking it from me!"

 

The only sound in the apartment is Huaisang's labored breathing, and he's still standing firm as he glares up at Mingjue, who, frankly, doesn't know where to start with all of this. So much of this information is brand new, threatening to totally overwhelm him. How did his little brother get so sneaky, planning all of this while keeping Mingjue in the dark? Hell, when did he get so determined to put together a grand plan just to transfer schools? He knew Huaisang was dramatic but this was something else, even for him. The betrayal from being kept out of the loop is weirdly twisted with how impressed Mingjue is that Huaisang was able to pull this off at all.

 

He starts at what sticks on him the worst and he knows he has to say to Huaisang. "Of course I'm proud of you."

 

Huaisang sways on his feet. "You're just saying that."

 

"No I'm not. I'm always proud of you." Huaisang makes a choked off sound that makes Mingjue snort. "You're lazy and annoying, but you really can do a lot if you actually put your mind to it, apparently."

 

"Rude."

 

"It's true." and Mingjue sighs, feeling the last of whatever rage was left in him flicker out to leave embers under his skin. He feels worn out, but in a strangely good way. Like instead of burning himself down he burned off a weight he didn't need anymore so he could be a little lighter, start over and grow out of the embers. He looks down at Huaisang, whose wavering like he wants to say something, eyes wide and glossy. It reminds him of when they were so much younger, when Huaisang was round with baby fat and clinging to his sleeve because he was scared of the big kids on the playground. He wonders where that little kid who needed his big brother's protection went when he wasn't looking.

 

In what might be a fit of lunacy, he pinches his brother's cheek like he used to all those years ago. "You've grown up, Huaisang."

 

"Hey!" the pinch wakes Huaisang up and out of whatever trace he got stuck in as he slaps Mingjue's hand away. "Obviously, I’m almost 21 now."

 

"Well then. You better keep it up, because if you quit working hard just because you got into your fancy fashion school and don't graduate I’m gonna rip your legs off." 

 

"That's-- Wait. Really?"

 

"You better take some business courses, or something useful so you have something to fall back on. I'm not letting you freeload off me when you end up some wasting away artist."

 

Huaisang sounds like he's wobbling between laughing or crying, but his eyes are wet enough to betray him. "Have some faith in me, I'll get this done."

 

"Rich, since you spent what, all year not telling me you were planning this?"

 

"...I'm sorry." a few tears spill over, but Huaisang is quick to wipe them away, "But to be fair, I was right, you did get mad at me."

 

"I'm not mad about the transfer, I'm mad about you lying." a beat, "Is that what you were getting Jin Guangyao's help on? scheming?"

 

"Ugh ew, no." Huaisang wrinkles his nose, "I needed him because the guy has connections everywhere. He knows people at all sorts of colleges in the city, and all I had to do was sit with him at lunch and play nice and boom. Suddenly I'm getting special tours and people are way nicer doing interviews with me, y'know?"

 

He doesn't have any reason to doubt him, but Mingjue feels wary regardless. "Really?"

 

"Yeah? You know I hate him as much as you do. For not just dad but... what he did to you." He makes a wide hand motion and looks away, like he doesn't want to see the confused expression Mingjue is making right now. "Like, seriously, I think he owes us for all that shit. I'm just getting the reparations."

 

Somehow, when Huaisang puts it like that Mingjue goes from doubtful to barely holding in a laugh. "And now what are you gonna do with him?"

 

"I mean, his connections are so good that I can't toss him yet." Huaisang huffs, "But if I had it my way, I think I'd just, I dunno. Bury him alive or something."

 

"Mm, let me know when you do, I'll help." 

 

---

 

An entire pepperoni pizza, a bowl of vodka sauce spaghetti, six garlic knots, and four beers later later Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang are near comatose on their couch watching an episode of This Old House Mingjue is pretty sure they've seen at least three times, but neither of them care enough to move or change the channel. Mingjue feels calmer than he has all week, lulled by a full stomach, familiar comforts and the fact the two of them somehow came out of their fight with a weight off their shoulders.

 

Or. He was feeling calmer, but Huaisang keeps fidgeting, giving him looks during the commercials.

 

Mingjue scowls when Huaisang gives him that pathetic look for the umpteenth time. "Spit it out. What is it?"

 

"Well, I mean, I don't know, but... did something happen between you and Lan Huan?"

 

Feeling nice and peaceful was good while it lasted. Mingjue scowls, and Huaisang curls up into a ball and moves away.

 

"You don't have to tell me!" Huaisang is quick to amend, but Mingjue feels like he should. They just spent a whole fight biting each other's heads off about talking about important stuff, and he doesn't want Huaisang to think that Mingjue doesn't trust him for any reason. It's just, man. He didn't want to talk about this, not now, not ever.

 

He takes a deep breath. no running, he tells himself. "He's going back home in June."

 

"Oh. That's it?"

 

"He lives in Beijing, Huaisang. It's where he works too, he was just here for a year."

 

"Oh. Oh! What?" Huaisang sits up in a panic, "Wait, when is he coming back?"

 

"He isn't." Mingjue frowns, trying not to sigh or start feeling stupidly emotional about this all over again. "I don't think he is. He was only set to work at Columbia for a year."

 

"He WHAT!?"

 

Mingjue just scowls, and Huaisang nearly rips out some of his hair.

 

"When the hell did this all happen!???"

 

"He's always been here for a short term contract. I knew but I didn't realize..." Mingjue huffs, chewing the inside of his cheek. "It was stupid of me not to think about it when this all started but what's done is done."

 

"Well, okay, but now he's got you. So like, is he gonna come back anyway?"

 

"I don't know. Probably not."

 

"You don't know? Didn't you talk about it?"

 

A pang of guilt hits Mingjue, and he finds himself firmly looking straight at the television. They didn't talk about it, which... they should've, but he became furious he couldn't even think about the reasonable thing to do and left without letting the conversation happen. And now it's been days, and Mingjue still feels like he could snap at the thought of Lan Huan leaving him behind. He can't even fathom what Lan Huan would try to say to make it better. That they could do long distance? Yeah right, that would never work. Lan Huan could stay but would that really work? His family, his work, his whole life is back in Beijing and Nie Mingjue could never ask him to leave all of those important things just for him, no matter how much he wants Lan Huan at his side. He's not worth that much.

 

A delirious part of him wonders if he should be the one to move to Beijing, but just thinking of the logistics of moving there, of leaving behind his post in the engineering department, leaving behind his mother and Huaisang, not to mention dealing with a country he’s never lived in - he crushes the idea fast.

 

"Are you stupid? You didn't talk about it?!"

 

"I don’t want to hear it from you, it's none of your business."

 

"My ass it's not! Look, I'm serious, you've been miserable, just call him or something." Huaisang reaches for Mingjue's phone and Mingjue pulls it far away from his range, "Bro, c'mon. At least break up with him if you're not going to talk to him again."

 

"No!" now Mingjue is the one sounding panicked, and Huaisang just raises a knowing eyebrow. Stupid perceptive brat. 

 

"Then go over there, talk to him, do something. I don't know. anything has to be better than his."

 

A hint of guilt and a whole lot of fear curl in Mingjue's chest. "I don't want to fight with him."

 

"You fight with everyone though."

 

"You know what I mean." Mingjue says softly, tapping his leg. "Whenever I fight things just... blow up and then it's over. I don't want that with him."

 

"But when we fight things are fine in the end. like, I mean, now for instance." Huaisang motions between them and all the food sitting on their table. "And besides, isn't it like a no lose situation with him?"

 

Mingjue frowns. "What the hell are you talking about?"

 

"Think about it. Either you work things out, and he comes back, or you fuck up, and then he's on the other side of the earth and you never have to deal with it or see him again. Isn't that like, a win-win?"

 

"...That's not what I want."

 

Huaisang rolls his eyes, "Then work things out, jeez."

 

"You say it like it's easy."

 

"Fighting worked out between us."

 

"That's different." Mingjue sighs, "You already know what i'm like."

 

"And the guy you're fucking doesn't??"

 

"Jesus Christ Huaisang, do you have a death wish?" Mingjue punches his arm, and hard.

 

"Ow! Jerk! You're the worst!" Huaisang reels away from any further hits before he starts talking again. "But I'm serious, you gotta talk to him Mingjue, otherwise he's gonna be gone forever and you won’t know what could’ve been.”

 

...

 

Nie Mingjue really, really hates it when Nie Huaisang is right.

 

---

 

The more Nie Mingjue thinks about it the more he knows that he has to reach out to Lan Huan somehow. As much as he would love to imagine that Lan Huan would make some grand gesture by coming to his apartment, apologizing for not saying anything, asking Nie Mingjue to forgive him, he knows it won't happen. It's not deserved and frankly, if either of them should be doing grand gestures it's him. He's the one who ran, to angry ( afraid ) to confront the fact that he let himself get this far in their relationship before realizing it was going to be so hard for it to last, and the reality of ... well, what was going to happen to their relationship now.

 

He thinks about it for the rest of the night, it consumes him until he falls into a fitful sleep, and he can't even avoid thinking about it as soon as he wakes up in the morning. Even when Mingjue runs, it's never fast enough to outrun how nervous he feels about confronting Lan Huan and learning why he didn't trust to tell him about leaving. Was because Lan Huan didn't want to confront it either? Is it because he didn't think it was that important to remind him? Did he think Nie Mingjue would just know that this was ending? Any of it confirms all his fears that this beautiful thing he's gotten to know is going to die before it can grow any more, or worse, that Lan Huan was using him for something temporary, without any intention of growing it further.

 

The last thought doesn't sound like Lan Huan, Nie Mingjue knows that. And yet he's thought that about a lot of people and gotten his ass thoroughly and truly handed to him, so he can't just write it off.

 

He finishes his run, panting for breath in front of his building and dripping with sweat from the exertion, and shaking for a totally different reason.

 

He doesn't want to know the answer, but he can't keep running either.

 

 

---

 

Changed into normal clothes, check. Phone, check. Pacing around the apartment debating when he should go uptown before giving up and walking to the subway even though it's barely ten in the morning, check. Keys and metrocard, check.

 

Stopping his hands from shaking... he's still working on that.

 

---

 

from: Nie Mingjue (10:49AM)

are you home?

 

---

 

If Nie Mingjue didn't look like a crazy person when he got here, he must look like one now, standing outside a high end apartment building bouncing his leg and repeatedly checking his phone for the past ten minutes.

 

Part of him wants to shoot inside, go up to Lan Huan's door and knock until he opens up. Part of him wants to leave, go straight home and giving his fraying sanity a break. He's never felt this indecisive and it only serves to make him feel that much more angry and riled up. And really, ten minutes isn't that long in the grand scheme of things but it feels like an eon when he's standing out here all by himself under a sun shining way too bright for his tangled up heart.

 

Fuck it, he thinks, he might as well just go up, if he's not home then he can just leave, say nevermind and---

 

His phone begins to vibrate in his hand, too long for a single text, and Nie Mingjue realizes in a mix of horror and hope that it's a phone call.

 

[ call incoming: Lan Huan ]

[ answer ]        [ hang up ]

 

Hands steady, he answers.

 

"Huan?"

 

There's a rush of breath through the speaker and, "Mingjue."

 

Shit; it's only been a handful of days and Nie Mingjue feels like his ribs just cracked open to let his heart out at the sound of Lan Huan's voice. He takes a deep breath, forcing the evenness in his voice. "Hey."

 

"Where are you?"

 

"Outside your building." though not for long. Nie Mingjue walks inside, taking the familiar path from the front door to the elevators behind the lines of mailboxes. "I can be upstairs in a minute."

 

"Oh. Alright." the apprehension is clear, clenching his heart but Nie Mingjue really can't hold it against him.

 

"If you don't want me to come up I won't." an out, because if Lan Huan turns him down now they don't need to talk about this ever again.

 

"No, no. I'll see you soon."

 

"Okay."

 

Neither of them hang up.

 

---

 

Nie Mingjue only has to knock once before Lan Huan opens the door.

 

Again, he gets stuck taking in Lan Huan - his ponytail over his shoulder, his dark jeans, his plain white shirt, save for the flat line of his mouth and tired lines around his piercing gray blue eyes, he looks exactly the same as he always has, too good and too beautiful. Nie Mingjue had been so wrapped up in his anger that he didn't let himself miss him, to know how much better he feels with him around, and now all he feels is overwhelmed with how much he wants and how easy it will be to lose him.

 

"Can I come in?" he asks, and Lan Huan nods, moving aside so he can step into the apartment. They move to the kitchen counter, sitting at the chairs they used to use when they would have dinner in before tucking away into the living room or bed for the rest of the night. It's the same, compounding all his feelings another twofold in his chest. 

 

"What brings you here?" Lan Huan's words are polite, but guarded, so much so that Nie Mingjue can't tell what he's thinking. It’s terrifying - usually with Lan Huan he feels like he can parse his thoughts or emotions and knows where he's stepping. Now everything is dark, leaving him to blindly move forward and hoping the inevitable fall won't kill him.

 

"Can we talk?"

 

Lan Huan finally smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "We can. What do you want to talk about?"

 

The way he says it leaves an ominous feeling in his chest, yet Nie Mingjue barrels forward regardless, "About you, about us. and..." he inhales, working past the ever growing lump in his throat that makes his voice thick with everything that's been building and collapsing and rebuilding in him since the day Lan Huan showed up a stranger at his office door. "I'm sorry that I ran. You don't deserve that."

 

For a single moment Lan Huan's face opens up - his eyes go wide with disbelief and worry, but when Nie Mingjue blinks it's gone, all of his emotions closed up and nowhere to be seen on his jade-smooth. "May I ask you something?"

 

"Yeah, anything."

 

"Do you want me to stay?"

 

The question is so direct it would've whipped Nie Mingjue's legs out from under him if he wasn't sitting. "Don't ask me that." he says, barely above a whisper.

 

A new emotion crosses Lan Huan's face, clenching his jaw and accompanied by tense shoulders and his whole body leaning forward. Nie Mingjue can't believe it takes him a beat to recognize anger . "Don't-- don't ask you? Mingjue, we are-- were together, maybe, but I never thought, of all people, I didn't think you would be so cruel as to not be direct about whether or not you want me to stay."

 

"What!?" he did not expect this sort of turn, making Nie Mingjue panic, "Of course I want you to!"

 

"Then why--!"

 

"Because your whole life is back there! Your family, your brother, your work, it's where you grew up! And you want me to ask you to leave that behind because of me ?" his voice is as raw and ripped open as he feels, every too-honest thought suddenly spilling out of him for Lan Huan to see. It is awful, but he can't stop it. "I can't do that. Not to you."

 

Lan Huan's gaze searches his face, "Why not?"

 

"Why--" Nie Mingjue buries his face in his hands but it doesn't stop his curt, wild laugh. "No matter how I feel, you should be where you're happy Lan Huan. And if that's not here then go. I'm not gonna hold you back from that."

 

For a moment, Nie Mingjue thinks this is it. It's going to be all over. Lan Huan will realize he’s better off leaving, and that’ll be the end of them. He'll go home and spend the rest of the day putting himself back into the routines and schedules he had before. He'll have to move on. The world will keep turning after all, and there's so much left to be done.

 

And then fierce, strong hands shove his hands away so they grab his face tight.

 

"Nie Mingjue, how dare you act like you don't make me happy."

 

Lan Huan's eyes are glossy, threatening to spill tears down his flushed cheeks, and Nie Mingjue forgets how to breath. 

 

"I don't think I've ever been happy with anyone like I'm happy with you. I'm not even sure you realize how good you are to me, how you good you are . And when you left so angry I really thought I'd lost you." Lan Huan's voice goes quiet and shaky, "I don't want to lose you."

 

"A-Huan..."

 

"I'm sorry we didn't talk about this sooner. If I had known you would've been this upset, I wouldn't have done it." he sighs, steadying himself, "But I poured myself into working to have my contract renewed and extended and having my visa put in order. I thought I could get all of those things organized first and then when tell you, and it wouldn't have been this messy. but I underestimated how long it would take, all the delays, and well..."

 

"You've, what?" hope blooms unbidden in the cracks in his chest, and Nie Mingjue is terrified at how fast it's growing.

 

"Do you want me to stay, Mingjue?"

 

The question isn't carefully guarded this time. It's open, hopeful, and scared.

 

"Yes." the answer comes out in a desperate rush, thinking please, don't leave my side , "As long as you want to."

 

Lan Huan releases a broken sound dangerously close to a sob, "As long as I want to. As if I wouldn't give you anything you asked for."

 

Nie Mingjue can't take it, can't deal with the thought that he made the man whose changed his life cry. He throws his arms around him before he has to see it, pulling him tight against his body, feeling how warm he is and how he shakes against his chest. Lan Huan wraps his arms around him in return, just as tight and even tighter, until it feels like both of them are trying to burrow deep under each other's skin and bone so they're never apart again.

 

"You don't have to work so hard. I'll take whatever you're willing to give." Nie Mingjue murmurs against his neck, feeling something in him finally go quiet.

 

It feels like coming home.

 

"Whatever I'm willing, hm?" Lan Huan chuckles, still a little wet. "Then let's see if I can catch the stars for you."

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

August on campus is the same as it ever was: overheated and quiet.

 

Nie Mingjue is in his office earlier than he thought, but he doesn't mind. He's using the extra time to his advantage to get a head start for the next semester and enjoying air conditioning he doesn't pay for before new students come rushing in and classes begin in two weeks. He's methodical, but slow, because Nie Mingjue keeps peeking over toward the his open door. No one else should be coming to the engineering building to disturb him, but he's still expecting someone to put the peace back in his office.

 

It's not much longer before he hears soft footsteps from the stairs, making their way down the hall toward his door. Nie Mingjue smiles to himself, turning when the footsteps stop in the doorway.

 

"You're late, A-Huan."

 

"Apologies." Lan Huan smiles with the softness that comes from a heart that cares to bursting, bright and warm that fills him with a peace he's had the absolute honor of learning the exact shape of in his chest. "I got caught up on my call with Zhanzhan."

 

"I see." Lan Huan needs only two steps to cross the room to his desk, and a third to lean over and kiss him like the pleasure of it isn't all Mingjue's.

 

"Now, I hope you don't mind if I impose." It would be a question if Nie Mingjue hadn't invited him here to work with him, except he did. They had spent most of the summer apart - Lan Huan had to return home for eight weeks to have everything finalized with his old job, his new one, moving his things and all the work that comes with it. Those weeks had been agonizing, scheduling calls at weird hours and trying to keep their respective tempers and worries in check, but somehow it had worked out, and now that Lan Huan is here and back Nie Mingjue would be damned if he's not going to monopolize all the time from him that he can. Lan Huan must feel the same, which is why he's shooting him that cheeky grin that no one else gets to see as he pulls a chair right by his side.

 

"Never." Nie Mingjue replies, and means it.