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the secret ingredient

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It’s a game changer when Wei Ying discovers the world of competitive baking shows.

“That doesn’t look very hard,” he muses from his spot sprawled over the sofa, watching a woman decorate a cupcake with single-minded focus. He nudges his brother with his foot. “Jiang Cheng, I could probably do that, huh?”

“You can’t even cook,” Jiang Cheng reminded him, finally looking up from his phone only to shove Wei Ying’s feet away from him in disgust. Wei Ying nudges him again, poking toes into his ribs.

“But cooking isn’t baking, brother of mine,” he points out obviously, undeterred. “It’s just chemistry, isn’t it? I’m really good at that. And then the decorations, but that doesn’t look like it’s the hardest part.”

Jiang Cheng looks toward the screen, where a young man is currently in near-hysterics over the state of a mirror glaze. He looks back at Wei Ying pointedly but he elects to ignore his brother, unbothered—if anything, it makes him even more determined to be good at it, if just to be contrary. To attempt the impossible.

Wei Ying turns his eyes back to the screen eagerly. “I think I can do it. This way, I can bring something to A-Jie’s house for our dinners instead of showing up with nothing. Maybe I’ll even be good at it and I can take it to class. If I tried hard enough, I could probably even convince Lan Zhan to try it. What do you think, Jiang Cheng?”

“I think you will get bored with it,” Jiang Cheng replies honestly, a little sullenly, but what else is new. He claims to hate these shows but his eyes are on the screen, too, paying a lot of attention as the clock counts down to the end of the contestants’ challenge. Wei Ying rolls his eyes with a confident grin.

“How hard can it be?” he demands.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It’s a little hard. Wei Ying fails a lot at the beginning, which honestly only makes him more determined to get it right. He burns his first two attempts at fudge brownies because he forgets to set the alarm, and then doesn’t hear the alarm over the music in his headphones for the third batch. He sets off the smoke alarms for the first batch of sugar cookies and nearly flings the baking sheet out of the window like a Frisbee, but manages to reign it in enough to produce some macadamia nut cookies that are only a little too overdone.

Jiang Cheng is forced to try all of the confections, especially the burnt ones. Wei Ying will sit his unsuspecting brother down across the table and watch his face carefully for his reactions—not that he’s ever really been subtle about those. When Jiang Cheng bit into one of the burnt brownies and nearly cracked a tooth, he chased Wei Ying around with a hammer for thirty minutes before Wei Ying managed to find the high ground on top of the refrigerator.

But if Wei Ying is anything, he is stubborn. It’s why he is so gifted in his degree program, why he is notorious for staying long nights in the lab trying different experiments and new angles until he can figure out the mystery or find the perfect balance. He learns the importance of knowing exactly when to take things out of the oven, learns what tastes good together from trial and error. He does so much baking in the span of a couple of weeks that the apartment he and Jiang Cheng shares begins to smell like confection sugar and vanilla, dishes piling up in the sink at an alarming rate.

Wei Ying isn’t sure when he became so hyper-fixated on his new hobby, but it becomes an art that he is determined to perfect. So on the third week, when he presents his brother with snickerdoodle bars with a vanilla glaze, he practically holds his breath as his brother chews.

“What do you think?” Wei Ying nags when his brother doesn’t say anything, simply raising his eyebrows as he looks down at the plate. Wei Ying’s leaning so far forward he’s no longer in his chair, practically draped on top of the table in an attempt to see Jiang Cheng’s every single micro-expression.

Jiang Cheng swallows. Takes another bite.

“Alright,” he admits through a mouthful, “this is actually pretty good.”

Wei Ying throws his hands up in celebration. “Ha! I told you!”

“There’s still way too much cinnamon,” Jiang Cheng snaps even as he takes a third bite, finishing off his bar. “And I can’t tell if these bits are supposed to be crunchy or not.”

Wei Ying makes a note of that on his recipe sheet. “But do you love it? Is it great? Tell me the truth, Jiang Cheng. I won’t tell another soul, even if it’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Jiang Cheng levels a spiteful glare across the table but still says through his teeth, “It’s alright.”

“Alright enough to give to Lan Zhan?”

“I thought you wanted to bake for A-Jie.”

“Her too.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow and Wei Ying knows as well as he knows his own name, deep in his bones, that he’s about to get yelled at. He hasn’t even gotten all the answers from his survey. “What is it with you and him?” his brother demands, sharp and cautious. “You talk about him all the time. You act like he’s some god instead of a crotchety old man in a mid-twenties body.”

“You put those slanderous words back right now, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying hollers, tugging the plate of cinnamon bars away from his brother in punishment. “He is not crotchety! Well, okay, maybe a little, but I like him! We’re friends!”

Jiang Cheng gives him a long-suffering look of disbelief. “Sure. Friends. Friends who stare longingly at each other across lecture halls and make everyone around them want to die at the repressed sexual tension.”

Wei Ying feels hot and cold at the same time—he wants to believe it, clings to the very idea as if digging his fingernails in as he dangles off a cliff, but knows in his brain it’s not true. Wei Ying is not the kind of person Lan Zhan would ever think of like that, not when most of their interactions have included Lan Zhan ignoring him like an Olympic sport. It tastes bitter in his mouth, washes away all hints of his accomplishment. He tries for humor. “Has anyone ever praised you for your vivid imagination, Jiang Cheng?”

His brother stares at him for a long moment. Two. And then he snaps, “You’re so dumb, Wei Ying.”

“But are the snickerdoodle bars good?”

“They’re fine, Wei Ying, this is—you don’t even know, do you? That’s not a real question, don’t answer it.”

Jiang Cheng is Wei Ying’s brother. They’ve been close since the first day Wei Ying was adopted, shared a room all through their formative years and then beyond into the beginnings of their lives in college. They no longer share a room but they still share an apartment, neither of them saying it but neither of them wanting to be too far from the other. Jiang Cheng shows his affection with aggression, his words sharp and his hits a little hard, but Wei Ying knows they aren’t meant to hurt and that his brother loves him very much. And it is because of that love, because of them being brothers, that Wei Ying notices the hint of worry in his brother’s impatience, sees the anxiety in the lines around his narrowed eyes.

His brother has not much liked Lan Zhan and Wei Ying knows it. Wei Ying grins across the table at him, pushes the tin of snickerdoodle bars back at Jiang Cheng in a peace offering.

“I know what I’m doing,” he tells his brother even though he rarely ever knows what he’s doing. Jiang Cheng snorts.

“Idiot,” his brother mutters, but he picks up another cookie bar.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Despite being in vastly different majors, Wei Ying still manages to share three of his classes with Lan Zhan. His favorite was their literature class that met three times a week, not only because it meant he got to see Lan Zhan every single day (excluding weekends) but also because the seat to Lan Zhan’s right was always, always empty. So Wei Ying always, always took it.

“Lan Zhan!” he sings happily as he bursts through the door, finds the man right where he expects him to be. Lan Zhan looks up from his notebook as Wei Ying thunders into the room, juggling the Tupperware in his hands and the backpack falling off of his shoulder into his elbow. He crashes into the free seat at Lan Zhan’s side with a bright smile, ignores Jiang Cheng in the back corner of the room as he rolls his eyes at him pointedly. “Lan Zhan! I’m here early, aren’t you proud of me?”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan hums, and Wei Ying thinks there’s a vague sense of amusement in it. His golden eyes trail down curiously to the Tupperware and Wei Ying practically jumps out of his seat in an effort to offer it to him.

“Lan Zhan! I started to bake! I didn’t tell you, I wanted it to be a surprise. Are you surprised, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying doesn’t wait for a response, pries open the lid of the container and offers it to Lan Zhan with a bright, hopeful smile. His heart pounds in his chest so hard he’s worried Lan Zhan might hear it. “They’re matcha green tea macarons! You’re always drinking green tea so I thought you might like them. What do you think?”

Lan Zhan stares at the macarons with a blank expression, and then looks up at Wei Ying. He can’t be sure, but it looks like Lan Zhan’s ears are turning pink even though his expression has very carefully not changed. “You made them for me?” Lan Zhan asks quietly. It sounds, suddenly, like he’s expecting it to be a joke. It stings, but Wei Ying simply smiles and shakes the macarons at him again.

“Of course!” Wei Ying says a little enthusiastically, ignores Lan Qiren pointedly clearing his throat from the front of the room. His whole body sings as Lan Zhan reaches out and picks up one of the macarons with two fingers, as if afraid it’s all a mirage destined to fall apart.

He looks at the macaron in his palm and his face suddenly softens, shoulders relaxing as if he let go of a breath he has been holding. Lan Zhan looks up at Wei Ying and he’s softer around the edges, so subtle someone else might not notice but Wei Ying does, has been paying attention to every single change in Lan Zhan’s face since they were in grade school and didn’t get along. Lan Zhan’s not smiling but it looks like he might, and the sight makes Wei Ying feel warm all over, like he’s swallowed the sun.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs.

It sounds reverential, benedictory. Wei Ying sputters under the gratitude, hopes he covers the burning blush at his cheeks with what he hopes is a charming smile. He hears Jiang Cheng snickering from the corner and has a feeling he doesn’t do a good job.

“Try it!” he cheers, brings his fists up to cover his mouth as Lan Zhan takes a dignified bite. Wei Ying’s eaten enough meals with Lan Zhan over the years that he knows to wait until he’s done for a comment, but the wait feels almost excruciating as he watches him chew. Lan Zhan doesn’t choke or gag or look like he’s about to vomit so Wei Ying takes it as a good sign.

Lan Zhan carefully eats every bite, never dropped so much as a crumb on his desk and orderly notebooks. He looks up; Wei Ying is fairly sure he can even hear his brother holding his breath.

“Fantastic,” Lan Zhan decides firmly. Wei Ying practically dissolves into the floor.

“Really?” he replies, slaps his hands to his cheeks to hide his blush. “Lan Zhan, you don’t need to lie, it’s okay.”

“It’s not a lie,” Lan Zhan tells him with a frown, but there’s something at the edges of his eyes that looks like fondness. Wei Ying knows they are friends but it’s a little extra sweet to have Lan Zhan praising him shamelessly, especially when he always tells the truth.

Wei Ying feels a bit like he’s gonna burst into flames so he shoves the container toward Lan Zhan. “Here, if you want more, you can take as many as you want. Take the whole thing if you’d like. They’re for you. If you don’t want more, I know Jiang Cheng and I—”

Before he’s even finished speaking, Lan Zhan takes the container from him and fits it easily into his bag, zipping it up like he thought Wei Ying might try to take them back. He looks back up, stubborn pride and the best damn cheekbones Wei Ying has ever seen.

Wei Ying leans forward until his forehead rests on Lan Zhan’s desk face down, hidden in cold faux wood. “Lan Zhan! You’re embarrassing me. You can’t just do this to me, there are people here!”

He hears Jiang Cheng mutter something he can’t make out over Lan Zhan’s, “Wei Ying. Class.”

Wei Ying reluctantly sits back up and faces forward, ignoring Lan Qiren’s distasteful stare. He peaks at Lan Zhan through his fingers but he’s not even looking at him anymore, facing from and waiting for class to start. Not much shows on Lan Zhan’s face but it seems self-satisfied anyway, as if something very good has just happened in his favor.

The next day, when Lan Zhan bashfully returns the already-empty Tupperware, Wei Ying learns two things.

One—Lan Zhan has a sweet tooth.

And two—Wei Ying has absolutely fallen in love with him.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Their study sessions are new, borne out of this semester with a wild variety of subject matters spanning what each of them were strongest at. Wei Ying isn’t very good at studying but he likes listening to Lan Zhan explain mythology or literature, finds comfort in his easy nature of storytelling. Lan Zhan isn’t much for words but he is not as shy when it is like this, just the two of them shut into one of the dingy rooms of the school’s main library.

Of course, Wei Ying brings a new treat.

“I know you like spice as much as I do,” Wei Ying says as he presents his newest experiment—spiced hot chocolate cookies. “I mean, you order so much of it when we go to lunch together! So I figured I would try these. They have chili powder in them, and I put a little more than the recipe called for. I didn’t even let Jiang Cheng try them, I wanted you to get them first!”

Lan Zhan eyes the cookies before plucking the one at the bottom left-hand corner, eyeing it. He gives it a faint sniff and his eyes find Wei Ying’s, carefully unreadable. Wei Ying still can’t stand the scrutiny, covering his face with his hands and peaking out through his fingers as Lan Zhan takes a tentative bite.

Just like the last time, he waits until he is finished with the whole cookie before speaking. This takes him a little longer—the cookies are a little bigger, and Lan Zhan seems to be taking smaller, more controlled bites. Wei Ying practically vibrates off of his seat, teeth digging into his lip to keep himself from speaking.

Lan Zhan swallows the last bite and says, a little quiet, “Innovative.”

“Is that a good thing? Lan Zhan, did you like it?”

Lan Zhan nods. Wei Ying cries out happily, beaming.

“I knew you would! You were the only one who could eat that congee I brought to class last semester—even Jiang Cheng spit it out! Who would’ve thought you’d have my spice tolerance, huh, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies, quiet even for him. Wei Ying figures it’s all his imagination and helps himself to one of the cookies before passing the plate over to Lan Zhan’s custody.

Wei Ying takes a bite and groans happily, says through a mouthful, “Oh, yes.”

Lan Zhan stares at him with wide eyes, seemingly speechless. He seems to have also stopped breathing, though Wei Ying’s not sure why. Does Lan Zhan always sit so straight and tense? That can’t be good for his back.

Wei Ying finishes chewing and shoots him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean to speak with my mouth full. They’re really good! Maybe you’re right and I am good at baking.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and even that sounds strained. He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a water bottle with shaky hands, and then proceeds to chug half of it.

“Are you alright?” Wei Ying asks, concerned. Lan Zhan’s ears are red again, but this time so is his neck.

Lan Zhan nods, clears his throat. “Choked,” he says, and then closes his eyes for a moment like he cannot believe what he just admitted. Wei Ying giggles and nudges his foot against Lan Zhan’s ankle under the table, gives him a sunny smile when he looks up sharply.

“Be careful, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying teases, nudges him some more. “Chew before you swallow!”

Weakly, Lan Zhan nods. And then he turns his gaze down to their textbooks, pulls a notebook towards himself with single-minded focus and a clear signal that the conversation is over. Wei Ying thinks it is cute for Lan Zhan to be embarrassed, especially when it was just over choking, but he decides to let it go. He giggles to himself as he opens his books, tries not to notice his ankle is still pressed against Lan Zhan’s—and he hasn’t moved away.

“Want to start with chemistry?” Wei Ying asks, wonders if Lan Zhan can feel the unsteady beat of his heart from where their skin touches.

“Chemistry,” Lan Zhan echoes, strained, and they get to work.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Lan Xichen opens the door, which really shouldn’t surprise Wei Ying as much as it does, since the brothers have always lived under the same roof. Lan Xichen smiles when he sees Wei Ying, even as his eyebrows rise in surprise. “Wei Ying,” he greets, and then presses his lips together like he may laugh. He glances down at the opaque lidded cake tray carefully cradled in Wei Ying’s hands, eyebrows going up even higher. “What a surprise.”

“Lan Xichen,” Wei Ying greets, peaking behind him. “Is Lan Zhan in?”

“He is.” He steps back and gestures for Wei Ying to enter. “You came all this way to deliver more baked goods? It must be something special.”

Wei Ying gapes at Lan Xichen, unused to hearing his own shamelessness come out of a face that looks so much like Lan Zhan’s. He doesn’t get the chance to reply before there’s a handful of footsteps, and then a surprised, “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying grins instantly, whirls around to face Lan Zhan, who stands in the doorway of the common area as if he’s forgotten how to take steps forward. “Lan Zhan! I’m sorry for stopping by without notice but it’ll be quick, I promise!”

Lan Zhan nervously glances toward his brother as if to apologize. Lan Xichen holds a hand over his mouth and turns amused bronze eyes on Wei Ying, lines around his eyes betraying his grin.

“By all means,” Lan Xichen invites, and Wei Ying wastes little time in setting the cake tray down on their kitchen counter, suddenly feeling bashful. He hesitates on his big reveal, fingers hesitating on the edges of the lid.

Wei Ying is not the kind of person to get embarrassed easily, or even really at all. He’s spent most of his life letting things slide off his back without sticking, shrugging off the constant scolding of his adopted mother for doing things that weren’t wrong, ignoring those who have bad things to say about his personality or actions. Wei Ying doesn’t mind being a target as long as it means others will not be, doesn’t mind being the center of attention if it means distracting from the ones who didn’t want to be, but suddenly he is standing in the middle of the Lan’s kitchen with a cake tin and no prior notice of his arrival and he unexpectedly feels a little silly.

He smiles in apology, eyes on Lan Zhan. “You mentioned the other day how busy you are with midterms,” Wei Ying says, and then laughs. “I know I have the same classes and I should be busy too, but you know me, Lan Zhan. Can’t keep still. So I made you this to help you get through studying.”

He removes the lid, steps back to reveal it with a sweeping gesture with his hands. “Ta da!”

Lan Zhan’s eyes go wide. Lan Xichen’s jaw drops, and then he lets out a delighted peal of laughter that fills the room like sunshine. Wei Ying wonders fleetingly if Lan Zhan’s laugh sounds similar, suspects it sounds even sweeter and tastes like sugar and vanilla.

“Oh, that is incredible!” Lan Xichen praises excitedly, turning to grin at Lan Zhan. “Don’t you agree, little brother?”

Lan Zhan hasn’t said a word. His eyes are on the cake, his face slack in surprise. Wei Ying feels a sudden bolt of anxiety and does what he knows best—he fills the silence.

“I remember when we were younger, we took a class trip to a petting zoo,” Wei Ying babbles, practically frozen in anxious fear that he has done something wrong, panicking at the unreadable look on Lan Zhan’s face. “It must have been the first year we met, when I was brought to live with the Jiang family. Anyway, I remember there was a pen of rabbits full of tiny white bunnies, and you must have spent the whole trip petting them. So, I made you a bunny cake.”

It had been a bigger challenge than some of the other things—Wei Ying watched more tutorials of people failed spectacularly than those who succeeded, which was both hilarious and terrifying. It took a few tries but eventually he got it close enough to what he wanted, not quite perfect but definitely quirky.

Lan Zhan still doesn’t speak, barely even blinks. Wei Ying feels like he might take off running at any moment, but instead he keeps talking. “It’s, uh… one giant cake that I cut into three different triangles to make the head, the body, and the tail. It’s carrot cake on the inside—I thought it was funny—with coconut outside for the fur. I didn’t know if you like coconut, I really should have asked—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs, and it sounds like amazement. His eyes are soft around the edges, and he’s... smiling.

Lan Zhan is smiling.

Wei Ying feels his jaw drop, feels like he might skitter out of his skin as Lan Zhan takes a step forward. It is a surprisingly rare thing to see Lan Zhan smile, his emotions usually reflected in the subtle, little things, and Wei Ying can’t look away. It brings softness to his face, a softness that isn’t vulnerability, softness that is earned and sweet, heavenly. Wei Ying forgets to breathe, hopes Lan Zhan doesn’t notice the shutter of his next desperate breath in. He’s close enough now that he could reach out and touch him—he’s close enough that Wei Ying wonders if Lan Zhan will close that distance and…

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs, gratitude traced into every line of his face, molded into the space between them. It was just a cake but Lan Zhan smiles at him like it is precious. Wei Ying burns warm, thinks about how much he wishes Lan Zhan would look at him like that all the time.

And then he remembers where they are, remembers Lan Xichen is hovering at the edges of their little moment with lips pursed into a controlled line as his eyes dance with mirth. Wei Ying wonders, horrified, if his thoughts are that easy to read on his face, if his intentions are carved into the lines of his every smile.

“Anyway!” Wei Ying says a little too loudly, startling away that beautiful smile. He laughs because he’s good at those and it’s easy, starts to migrate to the front door. “You’ve got studying to do, I’ll stop bothering you now! I’ll see you later, Lan Zhan. Lan Xichen.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Xichen acknowledges him in farewell even as Lan Zhan says nothing, gaze burning on Wei Ying’s back as he all but flees out the front door.

He thinks he hears Lan Xichen say, “So that’s how it is”, thinks he hears Lan Zhan reply, “Brother”, but he can’t be fully sure as he puts space between himself and the Lan brother’s apartment, doesn’t stop retreating until he’s two floors down and tucked against the wall of the stairwell, his head in his hands.

Wei Ying has always prided himself in being a bit of a flirt. Lan Zhan used to call him shameless when they were teenagers, would shake his head at Wei Ying’s valiantly pointless attempts at flirting with him. Lan Zhan has always made him want to be bold and ridiculous—Wei Ying has always done whatever it takes to have Lan Zhan’s eyes linger on him, to covet his attention all for himself.

Wei Ying slaps his hands over his face with a strained groan, wonders when he went from being charming to being awkward and desperate. If he were at all shy, he might consider avoiding Lan Zhan for the rest of his life after that spectacular failure.

But he wasn’t. He couldn’t avoid Lan Zhan even if he tried, wouldn’t want to lose the rush of having the other’s boys eyes on him when he could be looking at everything else. Lan Zhan always looks at him, and Wei Ying does not give up without a fight.

He will have to keep trying harder, find new ways to coax that smile from Lan Zhan. To keep those eyes on him, just for a little while longer.

“I’m so doomed,” Wei Ying groans miserably into the loneliness of the hallway.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Wei Ying wants to make something for Lan Zhan that is show stopping, something that can top the bunny cake and bring that smile back to the surface. He has watched enough baking shows to know that there are plenty of cakes and possibilities that could yield such results, but every time he has tried to settle into one, it seems like too much. There’s impressive and then there is ostentatious, and if Lan Zhan is anything it is not loud.

So it takes a week, bogged down by midterms and papers that seem to come at them from all sides. Lan Zhan is quiet and steady as he always is but Wei Ying wonders if he is imagining the way his eyes follow him across a room, if he’s projecting the idea that Lan Zhan’s eyes relax at the corners when he looks at him.

Lan Zhan looks at him fond, soft. Wei Ying wants to reach out, wants to know if his skin will feel like the finest silk.

Lan Zhan always looked like a god, untouchable and dignified and righteous. So Wei Ying makes him a cloud.

It wasn’t a complicated recipe—he found out they were called pull-apart cupcake cakes, a bunch of cupcakes put together and iced over as one unit to make it seem, outwardly, like a cake. It wasn’t the cake part that was the most complicated but the design where Wei Ying had really been able to have fun.

He used to want to be an artist and he remembers days past where Lan Zhan had dutifully showed up at his high school art shows, gifting him gentle praise and allowing Wei Ying to sweep him through the rest of the exhibits. Lan Zhan had never missed a single one and although he hasn’t said a single word about Wei Ying’s lessening art projects over the years, Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan has always quietly enjoyed his paintings.

What is baking if not chemistry, and what is decoration if not art?

So when he reveals his creation to Lan Zhan, it’s not about the taste.

Wei Ying spent a little too much time on the intricacies.

Lan Zhan once again falls silent as he stares down at the design, as if he wants to take it all in before he comments. Wei Ying watches his eyes follow the precise swirls of the clouds, the twists of pinks and oranges and blues like the clouds are caught in a perpetual sunrise, the beginning of a new day. Wei Ying has carefully layered the colors in the icing, shading them seamlessly and using toothpicks like pencils for the fine lines. He wanted it to be heavenly and new, something simple and deeply beautiful—something that reminded him of Lan Zhan. He holds his breath as Lan Zhan takes it all in, only lets out a breath when he sees the twitch of the corner of his lips turning up into a small, secret smile.

“I had a bit of fun with it,” Wei Ying admits a little breathlessly. He isn’t sure if his chest aches from holding his breath or something more, something that squeezes at the dusting of a smile on Lan Zhan’s face like morning light against clean sheets.

“Stunning,” Lan Zhan murmurs back, says it because he means it. Wei Ying slaps his hands to his cheeks.

“Lan Zhan,” he whines, glad his palms hide the smile threatening to take over his face. It’s their usual ritual now, becoming steadily familiar like a habit and never failing to make Wei Ying feel warm all over. He’s on the same side of the table as Lan Zhan this time so he nudges his elbow gently. “Go on, try it.”

Lan Zhan looks vaguely unhappy to have to pull part of the cloud away, to disturb the pretty picture Wei Ying drew in icing and food coloring—after a moment he manages to pluck out one of the plainer cupcakes at the very edge. It’s heaped in white icing and Lan Zhan doesn’t bother as much with manners as he takes a bite, a little inelegant but very charming, unselfconscious of Wei Ying watching him.

Lan Zhan finishes his last bite, looks toward Wei Ying with a pleasant curl to his eyes to tell him what he thinks, the next step to their new little ritual. Lan Zhan has wiped his mouth with a napkin but there’s still a little bit of frosting on his bottom lip, and Wei Ying realizes he’s stopped breathing.

Lan Zhan is so beautiful like this.

He doesn’t know where his boldness comes from, doesn’t know what spurs him to lean forward in his seat and reach for him. Lan Zhan doesn’t blink as Wei Ying presses his thumb against his bottom lip, brushing the frosting away. Lan Zhan’s lips part just slightly, just enough that Wei Ying feels his breath on his fingertips.

He is beautiful and Wei Ying loves him, wants to—

Wei Ying leans forward to kiss him, feels the butterflies in his stomach and the heat surging under his skin, his heart beating out of his chest as he sees what he wants more than anything, reaches for it with shaky fingers and a soft, hopeful smile.

And Lan Zhan—flinches away.

Wei Ying goes cold. So, so cold, all the way from the crown his head to his toes. He feels a lurch like he’s on the bow of a ship, feels suddenly like he might be sick as he jerks back, retracts his hand like he’s been burned.

Oh. Oh.

He’s on his feet before he can think, realizes he’s shaking when he barely manages to choke out, “I’m so, so sorry.”

Wei Ying grabs his bag, his ears ringing, his stomach dropping down past the center of the earth and out through the other side. He can’t bear to look at Lan Zhan, doesn’t want to know what expression is on his face, truly doesn’t know if he would survive it. Shame crawls over every inch of his body—he presumed too much, took too much without asking. He hasn’t felt the rejection yet, doesn’t think he even deserves to mourn for the possibility of something he had just tried to steal.

Lan Zhan whispers, “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying doesn’t know that tone in Lan Zhan’s voice. His own breaths are so loud in his ears, he barely notices he’s spoken at all—he sees Lan Zhan reach for him out of the corner of his eye and stumbles away, mortified.

“I’m sorry,” he stammers, hates the devastation he can taste clawing its way up the back of his throat. “Lan Zhan, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

He thinks he hears Lan Zhan say his name again in that same odd tone but doesn’t stick around long enough to be sure, sprinting from the room with his head down. His chest feels like it’s cracking into pieces; the world is just a rush of light and noise as he turns in the direction of home and runs.

He should have known better. He should have—

Well. He supposes it’s a little too late for that.

So he runs for home, runs and runs and doesn’t think about how his entire world is going to change, doesn’t think about what he’s about to lose when the world stops spinning, doesn’t consider what he’s already lost in those fleeting seconds of one bad decision—and if Jiang Cheng comes home to find him crying his heart out, curled up in a ball in the middle of the kitchen, that’s for just them to know.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Wei Ying isn’t pouting. He’s not.

People are allowed to have emotions, and he just has them. It’s not more complicated than that. It doesn’t mean anything that Lan Zhan wasn’t in class yesterday, especially when he’s never missed a day before as long as he’s known him. It doesn’t matter that it’s the second day since he gave him the cupcake cloud, since he stepped out of line, and he still hasn’t even heard from Lan Zhan. It doesn’t matter that it’s his birthday and Lan Zhan hasn’t even so much as texted him a well wish, because why should he?

This is not what Wei Ying pictured for his birthday.

He’s not pouting. He’s not. Pouting would mean that he’s upset he didn’t get his way, which is not what’s happened. Pouting adds something bratty to it. So, no—no matter how much Jiang Cheng tells him he’s pouting, he’s not. He’s sad, not pouting.

He made the wrong call. Wei Ying has made plenty of those, but he had somehow not thought it would happen this time. Some part of his brain had looked at gorgeous, unattainable Lan Zhan and thought it would be a hell of an idea to risk thirteen years of knowing each other on a crush.

“It’s not just a crush,” Wei Ying mutters petulantly into the couch cushions. Jiang Cheng swings a kick at him and misses—he feels the rush of air as it goes by.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” his brother snaps, eyes still on the baking show he had put on in an attempt to lure Wei Ying into the world of the living. “I’m sure there’s a reason Lan Zhan’s ghosting you.”

“And if there isn’t?”

“I’ll kill him with my bare hands, and then you’ll never have to worry about him again.”

Wei Ying wiggles out of his blanket cocoon and slithers toward his brother on the other side of the couch, wrapping his arms around him. Jiang Cheng mutters unhappily and tries half-heartedly to escape but relents quickly, wrapping his arms tight around Wei Ying’s shoulders and squeezing. Wei Ying buries his head in his brother’s shoulder, takes a deep breath.

“I really like him, Jiang Cheng,” he murmurs after a moment, words scraping out of his throat like tears. “Like, a lot. Too much.”

Jiang Cheng sighs. “Yeah, well, he’s really an idiot if he doesn’t love you back.”

Wei Ying squeezes him so hard he practically cracks one of Jiang Cheng’s ribs. His brother yelps. “Aw, Jiang Cheng, you do love me!”

“Sometimes,” his brother mutters, but he turns his head away and Wei Ying knows it’s to hide his embarrassment. “I love you a lot less when you decide to be lame on Halloween night. Do you really not want to go out?”

Wei Ying deflates. “No. I don’t.”

“Okay, then we won’t.” Jiang Cheng turns back to the television and doesn’t even shove Wei Ying back to his side of the sofa, letting him cling helplessly to his arm like a toddler. Jiang Cheng looks like the conversation of leaving is over, like he’s willing to stay with Wei Ying if that means that will make him feel better, and Wei Ying feels his throat thicken with tears. He buries his head in his little brother’s shoulder, sniffling.

“You’re my favorite brother,” Wei Ying mutters into his brother’s shirt. Jiang Cheng scoffs.

“I’m your only brother,” he reminds him, but still pats him patiently on the head. It’s rare enough for Jiang Cheng to treat him so indulgently that Wei Ying knows with a flash of guilt that he must really be worrying him. He wishes he had the energy to pretend things were going to be okay, like he didn’t feel like he was dangling over the edge of something that felt a little too dark and sad to be talked about while watching Great British Bake Off.

The doorbell rings. Wei Ying groans at the noise, scrunches up his nose. “Not trick-or-treaters,” he whines, tightening his hold on Jiang Cheng when his brother shifts to get up. “No, don’t answer, I’m in mourning.”

“Oh, shut up,” Jiang Cheng replies, ripping his arm out of Wei Ying’s hold. Wei Ying whines wordlessly as the doorbell rings again. Jiang Cheng turns his scowl to the door. “Can’t they tell the light’s off?”

“Jiang Cheng,” he whines but his brother ignores him, heading out of the living room and toward the front door. Wei Ying sighs and curls up in a ball, holding his blanket tighter as he puts his gaze on the screen again.

He thinks he hears his brother open the door, say something that sounds angry, impatient. Wei Ying curls up a little tighter, tries not to let his thoughts roam as he watches a contestant agonize over the rise of their bread dough.

Wei Ying doesn’t want to think of what his life will look like without Lan Zhan in it. He can’t even fathom it, so he doesn’t. He watches another contestant overwork their dough, hears firm footsteps approaching the room.

“It’s gonna be flat,” he tells his brother when the footsteps enter the room. “A flat and sad piece of bread.”

A pause, and then an unexpected voice murmurs, “Wei Ying.”

Lightning runs up his skin. Wei Ying moves in a sudden flail of limbs, blanket going flying as he scrambles to look even slightly dignified, practically rolling off the couch and onto his feet in pure desperation. He feels wild, feral as he stares incredulously at Lan Zhan, who should not be standing in his living room right now.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out and then, in a horrifically embarrassing reflex, moves to flatten his hair. “What—what are you doing here?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, and it sounds choked. Lan Zhan twitches as if he’s uncomfortable—Wei Ying uses the hesitation to look at him, at his rumpled white button-up and sad eyes, at the uncertainty written into the lines of his face and the way he seems to be hiding something behind his back. He clears his throat, face seemingly impassive but Wei Ying can see distress, hates with his whole body that he was the one to make Lan Zhan so uncomfortable. “I wanted to… wish you happy birthday.”

Wei Ying almost laughs, almost lets the sound rip out of him like a scream, but he swallows it back at the last second. It was enough he ruined their friendship—he didn’t need to laugh at Lan Zhan’s kindness at well, even if it made him feel like he was going to cough up blood.

Lan Zhan has always been such a good person. He should have known he would want to wish Wei Ying happy birthday despite it all. Wei Ying wants to find a deep hole and bury himself in it.

“You didn’t have to come here,” Wei Ying tells him quietly instead of saying thank you, hates the taste of it in his mouth. “You could’ve texted.”

Lan Zhan is shaking his head before Wei Ying’s finished speaking. “Wanted to,” he says, and Wei Ying might cry. He looks down at his feet, stares at his dumb fluffy socks as he desperately tries to swallow back a broken heart he doesn’t deserve to have.

“Thank you, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, really means it. He looks up, wants to ask if he is okay or if he hates him, but he can’t bear to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes so he just looks back down, hoping the earth will open up and swallow him whole.

He hears Lan Zhan shuffle forward a couple steps, braces himself to keep from flinching away. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says and it’s just like all the times he’s said it before, soft and special like it’s more than just a name, as if he’s the only one in the world who knows just the right way to say it. “I made you something.”

Wei Ying finally looks up, sees what Lan Zhan is extending toward him with hopeful eyes—

And it’s a cupcake.

It’s lopsided, leaning slightly too much to the left while still ultimately staying upright. It’s in part because of the great mound of icing on top, red and blacks for a swirly base with thin white piping that looks like it’s supposed to be ghosts. Wei Ying can still see the food coloring dye staining Lan Zhan’s fingers, under his fingernails.

Wei Ying looks up at his face, speechless. It nearly knocks him backward off of his feet when he sees Lan Zhan’s ears burning red, his face contorted in childlike embarrassment. He’s staring at his cupcake with acute disappointment, as if it is a disgrace to its kind.

“Baking is harder than you make it seem,” Lan Zhan mutters with the disgruntled nature of a child who cannot get their way, and Wei Ying gapes at him for another long moment before he can’t help it—he bursts into helpless peals of laughter, throwing his head back and gripping his sides against the hysteria and fondness fizzing in his chest.

“Lan Zhan,” he giggles, cheeks aching with the pull of his grin. “Oh, Lan Zhan, you really are so good. The best person in the whole world. How many times did you fail, to look so bitter?”

Lan Zhan looks away, clearly embarrassed. A new wave of laughter rips through Wei Ying.

“Don’t tell me,” he gasps, “this is why you missed class.” Lan Zhan still won’t look at him, and Wei Ying can’t bear it, all the love for this man burning a hole straight through his chest, so charmed and humbled that new giggles bubble out of him, fond and sweet. “Oh, Lan Zhan, you’re really too amazing.”

The red is spreading down Lan Zhan’s neck, up into his pretty cheekbones. He holds the cupcake out expectantly, awkwardly, and Wei Ying takes it, careful that their fingers don’t touch. He holds the plate like it’s a treasure, feels tears creep back up from where they’ve hidden themselves deep in his chest. He swallows hard and looks up to smile at Lan Zhan, hopes it doesn’t look as sad as it feels. Hopes Lan Zhan doesn’t see how much he yearns, how this moment is perfect but he knows how much it will hurt later for not being exactly what he’s wanted for so long. But this moment is fragile and temporary, and he will not ruin it for wanting something he could never have.

“I love it,” Wei Ying tells him, carefully does not get choked up on the word love. He smiles. “Thank you, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan nods just once, leans back on his heels like he’s considering leaving the room. He must hate him so much, a little piece of Wei Ying’s mind whispers, if he can no longer stand to be in a room with him.

But after a moment, Lan Zhan doesn’t move. In fact, he stands a little steadier, squares his shoulders as if he is walking into battle. His gaze meets Wei Ying’s without a hint of hesitation, the uncertainty clearing off of him like rainclouds blown away by a heavy breeze, and it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking even when he says, “You should try it.”

Wei Ying is so at a loss he doesn’t know what else to do but nod. He picks the cupcake up carefully and tries not to squirm under the unexpected weight of Lan Zhan’s scrutiny. He takes a bite and feels icing on his nose, the cake a little dry and crumbly but he doesn’t even notice as he leans back, covering his mouth to chew—

And sees, baked into the cupcake, a bright red heart made of cake.

Wei Ying stares at it, mind going blank. He manages to choke down his bite and turn his wide eyes up to Lan Zhan, sure his face is a mess with icing and crumbs but unable to keep his eyes away for another moment, not when it feels like his whole heart is going to beat out of his chest. Lan Zhan is watching him incredibly carefully, sees something on Wei Ying’s face that makes his face relax into a hint of a smile.

Lan Zhan’s voice is sweetly mischievous when he murmurs, “You left before I could kiss you back.”

Wei Ying carefully sets down the cupcake before he launches himself at him.

Lan Zhan catches him, holds him close as Wei Ying presses their lips together, hands on either side of his face, fingers drifting into his hair. It’s not a very elegant kiss—Wei Ying tastes of icing and Lan Zhan chases it with his tongue, bites softly at his bottom lip when they pull away. Wei Ying curls his fingers in his hair just a little tighter, smiles bright and warm as Lan Zhan leans their foreheads together and closes his eyes.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying teases and those eyes open again, warm and pleased and crinkled happily in the corners. He nuzzles their noses together, breathes a laugh when Lan Zhan’s hands tighten on his waist. “Lan Zhan, how long have you been waiting to kiss me?”

“Too long,” Lan Zhan replies, then kisses him on the forehead. “Happy birthday, Wei Ying.”

It’s simple, and it’s good. It’s more than Wei Ying ever dreamed it would be, sweet and uncomplicated. Lan Zhan’s hands are warm and his smile is soft and Wei Ying wants more, wants this to be every day for the rest of their lives. He wants to bake for Lan Zhan and taste the sugar on his lips, chase the sweetness on his tongue; he wants to make up for all of the years they missed, wants to show Lan Zhan all the things in the world that make him happy and wants Lan Zhan to do the same until they know every single piece of each other.

He wants kiss him until they run out of breath. Realizes with a thrill up his spine that he can, that it is allowed, that Lan Zhan is right in front of him and he doesn’t hate him, he far from hates him—eyes joyful, thumbs soft as they brush over his cheekbones. Lan Zhan made him a cupcake with a heart in it and Wei Ying is so, so in love with him.

Wei Ying didn’t even have to blow out any birthday candles to get exactly what he would’ve wished for.

“Best birthday ever,” Wei Ying whispers in quiet adoration, leaning in for another sugary sweet kiss.