The children are singing The Wheels On The Bus. They are singing it loudly. It is barely nine a.m. and Wei Ying is already starting to regret getting out of bed today.
Whoever decided it was a good idea to take twenty five-year-old children on a daytrip to the animal farm located an hour out of the city clearly has it out for him, he decides. And so does Nie Huaisang, who is currently twisted in his seat so that he can enthusiastically conduct the class, arms raised and voice bellowing out in chorus with their high-pitched, screeching little voices. He sends Wei Ying a shit-eating grin when he catches him glaring, which only cranks his headache from a nine to a twelve on the pain scale.
Now, here’s the thing. Wei Ying doesn’t mind kids – he works with them every day, after all. But the four walls of his kindergarten classroom are familiar, comfortable – predictable. Within them, the children are almost tame, having already grown used to spending time in the same space every day. But put the children on a bus with the promise of seeing live animals in an unfamiliar environment, and things can very quickly spiral out of his control. Like, for example, now.
The children pause their sixteenth rendition of The Wheels On The Bus to instead begin shouting the lyrics to Old McDonald Had A Farm, which has Wei Ying suppressing a groan. Beside him, Nie Huaisang cackles and quickly joins in, waving his arms over his head in time with the rhythm of the song.
“Mr. Wei, Mr. Wei,” one of the children calls, and the singing stops. He peers around the edge of his seat to find twenty pairs of eyes staring at him expectantly. “Why aren’t you singing with us?”
He bites back a sigh and forces a sunny smile. “Sorry, sorry. Shall we start over?”
The children nod and cheer, and Nie Huaisang snorts. Do it for the children, Wei Ying thinks, turning and raising his hands in the air in a similar fashion to Nie Huaisang.
“Old McDonald had a farm–”
They arrive at the farm only after repeating the song seven more times. Wei Ying is so relieved he thinks he could cry.
It takes almost half an hour to herd the children off of the bus and through the entrance gate, which in Wei Ying’s opinion is twenty minutes too long. Nie Huaisang hands over the cash collected from the children’s guardians to purchase tickets, then uses his own money to pay for himself and Wei Ying. The employee behind the counter hands over two maps before pressing an ink stamp to each of their hands as they enter. The children file through the gate one-by-one, a single line of tiny backpacks and sunhats, emerging on the other side with dark blue imprints of cartoon pigs on their skin. They giggle to themselves, comparing each other’s stamps and snorting loudly. A few other visitors to the farm watch the group with a combination of amusement and fear.
Wei Ying is the last through the gate, bringing up the rear of their little procession. He claps his hands together in the universal call for attention, and both the children and Nie Huaisang clap back to show that they’re listening.
“Alright, is everyone listening carefully?”
He receives an excited chorus of “Yes, Mr. Wei,” in response. He grins.
“Good. Now, before we go to see any of the animals, we need to go over some rules.” He glances very pointedly at Lan Jingyi, the little rascal, then begins to list each rule on his fingers, slowly so that everyone understands. “Firstly, you must not touch any of the animals unless an adult says it is okay. Secondly, you must stick together. If you need to use the restroom, or if you feel sick, tell me or Mr. Nie right away. Please do not go wandering off on your own.”
The children listen intently, nodding their heads with completely serious expressions. It’s kind of really fucking adorable, Wei Ying thinks.
“Alright, now we’re going to split you all into two groups, but first I need you to each choose a friend that you want to stay together with. Can you do that for me now?”
The children respond by immediately grappling each other, giggling and bickering until eventually each of them are satisfied enough with their chosen partners. They clutch onto one another tightly, as if afraid that they’ll be pulled apart. Nie Huaisang separates them into two groups of five pairs, then moves to stand with one of the groups while Wei Wuxian joins the other.
He glances quickly over his group, suppressing an exasperated yet fond sigh when he sees Lan Jingyi practically vibrating amongst them. Wei Ying loves the kid, he really does, but he’s a handful at the best of times. Beside him, though, is Wen Yuan, who Wei Wuxian knows is marvellously well-behaved and is often better at keeping the other children in check than Wei Ying himself is.
Also in his group is Ouyang Zizhen, the soft-spoken boy who joined Wei Ying’s class two weeks later than the other children and has since struggled to make friends, though Wei Ying is pleasantly surprised to see Jin Ling at his side. His nephew scowls down at the ground – a perfect imitation of his Uncle Jiang Cheng, which Wei Ying would usually laugh at in a more appropriate setting – but the red of his cheeks indicates that he’s secretly pleased for the opportunity to make a new friend. Wei Ying is equally pleased, and makes a mental note to reassure his sister later that Jin Ling is faring just fine amongst his new peers.
Wei Ying is surprised to see that A-Qing has paired up with Xue Yang, though neither of them appear to be very pleased about the arrangement. He’s had to act as a mediator between the two of them on more than one occasion in the classroom, and he can’t help but dread the next few hours knowing that they’ve decided (against better judgement) to stick together.
Mo Xuanyu is the youngest of their group, pairing up with his cousin Mo Ziyuan. The two of them are polar opposites; while Mo Xuanyu is shy and keeps his head down much of the time, Mo Ziyuan is brazen and loud. Wei Ying is constantly forced to put the kid on time-out. Finally, standing behind the two of them are the final pair in the group, consisting of Meng Yao, the polite boy with an affinity for hats, and his stepsister Qin Su.
They perform one last headcount of the two groups, before finally moving off into the farm. Nie Huaisang leads his ten children in the direction of the larger farm animals first, so Wei Ying herds his group towards the small animal petting area and nursery instead. The two groups will swap over after they reunite for lunch in a few hours, to make the trip fair and to ensure that nobody misses out on anything.
Following the route dictated to him by the map in his hands, Wei Ying leads the children along a muddied path to a large one-level structure with a high wooden roof. It appears to be more like an open shed than an actual building, with tall wooden doors at either end which make the whole thing feel open and spacious. From outside, he can already see multiple wooden dividers set up to create small enclosures on each side of the building’s elongated singular room.
He stops and claps once more for attention. The children repeat the action before waiting eagerly for further instructions.
“This building here is the nursery,” he explains, pointing behind him. “Can anyone tell me what that means?”
A-Qing raises her hand, waiting to be called on. When Wei Ying nods at her, she announces, “A nursery is where babies sleep!”
“Very good,” Wei Ying says, smiling as A-Qing preens at the praise and Xue Yang scoffs beside her. “This one is a special kind of nursery. This is where all the baby animals live if they’re feeling a bit sick and need to be taken extra care of. They stay here until they’re better, and then they can grow big and strong by themselves.”
Jingyi raises his hand but negates the gesture by shouting his question out at the same time anyway. “Does that mean that those babies don’t live with their mummies and daddies?”
Wei Ying nods. “Instead of their mummies and daddies taking care of them, the adults who work here at the farm look after them. But as soon as they’re not sick anymore, they go back home to their parents.”
The children make quiet noises of understanding. Wei Ying clears his throat to stop himself from audibly cooing at them all.
“Right, now before we go inside, who can tell me what rules we need to follow around the baby animals?”
Multiple hands shoot into the air at once, and he glances over them all before settling his gaze on Mo Xuanyu. He nods at him to answer, and the child mutters quietly, “We shouldn’t touch unless an adult says it’s okay. We shouldn’t run off by ourselves.”
Wei Ying shoots him a thumbs up. “Very good, A-Yu. You remembered the rules well! Now there’s one last rule that we need to remember to follow around the baby animals, and that’s to make sure we’re quiet as mice. Small animals can get scared very easily, so we shouldn’t make too much loud noise around them, okay?”
The children nod and, in unison, whisper very dramatically, “Yes, Mr. Wei.”
Seriously, he adores these kids.
He leads them all inside the building, and they immediately flock to the first enclosure, peering over the edge of the wooden walls and excitedly whispering to each other. On the other side of the wooden wall, dozens of baby chicks dash about under the warm orange glow of spotlights. The children point and giggle amongst themselves, following the movement of the chicks back and forth. Wei Ying thinks that the group resembles chicks too, with their yellow hats and backpacks and the way they chirp quietly to each other. He covers his mouth with his hand to hide a laugh at the thought.
A few moments later, the group loses interest in the chicks and moves onto the next enclosure. This one contains a few piglets, prompting the children to hold up their hands excitedly as they compare the stamps on their skin to the small animals in front of them.
As the children continue to observe the animals, Wei Ying detects motion from the corner of his eye and watches through his peripherals with mild curiosity as another man enters the building. Much like the other employees they’ve seen around the farm, the newcomer sports a blue polo shirt and dark jeans. In his arms are two buckets filled with what Wei Ying presumes to be food for the animals.
Conspiratorially, he leans in closer to the children and cups his hands over his mouth, whispering. “I think the animals are about to be given their lunch. Shall we watch?”
He watches on with amusement as ten pairs of eyes widen, and the children nod at him. He grins and leads them over to the other end of the room, where the employee has placed the buckets on the floor and is now turned towards one of the enclosures. Wei Ying clears his throat, and the man turns.
And wow, okay. The last time Wei Ying checked, angels were meant to work in heaven, not on farms. Wei Ying thinks there’s a high chance he just might be staring at the face of the most beautiful man that’s ever existed, all sharp cheekbones and smooth skin and eyes of molten gold. He falters for a moment, ensnared by the perfect slant of the man’s nose and the way his eyebrows pinch together in what could either be worry or annoyance. Probably both, Wei Ying thinks as he closes his gaping mouth.
“Hi there,” he says, adopting his teacher-voice and pretending like he didn’t just maybe fall in love a little bit in full view of his class of kindergartners. “We couldn’t help but notice that you might be about to feed the animals. Is it alright if we watch?”
The man seems to notice the children for the first time, gaze flicking over to their expectant faces. He hums, nodding in quiet acceptance. The children grin and bounce on their feet in excitement. Wei Ying sends them a wink, as if to say, see? I've got it all handled.
They step closer to the enclosure as the angel/employee hoists himself over the side in one swift motion that would have Wei Ying swooning if he had any less self-control. He helpfully picks up one of the buckets and hands it off to the man, who nods his gratitude and carries it over to where another group of chicks huddle together on the floor. These ones are evidently a little older than the first group they'd seen, bigger and sporting differently coloured feathers. They swarm the man’s feet as he approaches, chirping noisily as he very gently grabs a handful of seeds from the bucket and leans down with his palm open for them to eat from.
The children watch on with amazement, eyes wide and mouths open. Wei Ying shares that sentiment, though not for any of the baby chickens.
He feels a sudden tug at the hem of his shirt, and he glances down to see Qin Su looking up at him with worry. “Mr. Wei,” she warbles, “didn’t you say the animals in here are sick? Are the chicks going to be okay?”
Slowly, he kneels in front of her so that they are eye-to-eye, and nods. “Yes, A-Su, they’re going to be fine. Some of the animals in here are sick, but they take lots of medicine every day so that they can get better. And other animals, like these chicks, simply come here because it’s hard for them to grow strong by themselves. They need a lot of help and love, so the adults here have to take extra special care of them. So they’ll be alright.”
Qin Su considers this for a few moments, then finally nods and smiles. Wei Ying breathes a quiet sigh of relief. It’s difficult, with kids, to explain certain things. One false move, and he could be dealing with ten snotty noses and just as many pairs of teary eyes. He pats Qin Su’s head, partly in reassurance and partly in gratitude for not bursting into tears in front of the very attractive man whom Wei Ying would quite like to impress without simultaneously needing to deal with crying children.
When he stands, his eyes meet the other man’s briefly. He is staring back at him, golden eyes assessing the situation as the chicks peck at the food in his hand. When he glances away again only a moment later, Wei Ying notices that the tips of his ears are glowing pink. Interesting.
The man pours more of the seeds from the bucket into a long dish set out on the floor, and the chicks crowd around it to get their fill. Then he stands, facing Wei Ying.
“Would…” he starts to say, then hesitates. He glances over at the children, then back to Wei Ying. “Would the children like to hold one?”
The effect is instantaneous. All ten heads whirl around to face Wei Ying, eyes pleading. He presses his mouth into a thin line to stop himself from immediately smiling like an idiot, then pretends to think about it for a moment, dramatically stroking his chin and humming to himself. Just as the children start growing impatient, he grins and nods.
“Of course, but only if they are very gentle and listen to all of your instructions,” he says, raising a brow at the children that they all know is only half-stern. They nod eagerly in response, and the employee steps closer.
“We will have to lift them over,” he says, “to ensure that the chicks do not escape.”
Wei Ying nods, then says to the children, “Right then, everyone get into a line!”
They comply immediately – ah, the wonderful effects of using small animals as an incentive to obey commands, Wei Ying thinks – and soon enough each of them have been lifted over the wall of the enclosure, their backpacks left in a haphazard pile outside. Wei Ying watches with something akin to pride as they hover in a line, clearly holding themselves back from diving forward in favour of waiting for instructions.
The employee clears his throat and bows his head to them politely. “My name is Lan Zhan. You can call me Mr. Lan, if you’d like.”
Finally, a name to match the face, Wei Ying thinks smugly. And an equally cute one, too.
Lan Zhan continues, settling onto his knees on the ground. “I’d like you all to sit down very slowly and carefully, with your legs straight out in front of you. Then, I’m going to place a chick in each of your laps, and you can hold them very gently.” He picks up the chick nearest to his right knee, holding it up for everyone to see. “Like this. Do you all understand?”
The children nod and do as he has told them to, sitting and waiting patiently. One by one, Lan Zhan places a chick on each of their laps and tells them how to adjust their hands so as not to hurt the animals in any way. Wei Ying watches from the sidelines as the children take note and follow the instructions given to them, until all ten children are sitting quietly and holding a chick.
Lan Zhan sits back on his heels and looks up to where Wei Ying stands. “Would you like to hold one, Mr. Wei?”
Wei Ying masks his responding shiver with a smile and nods. “Yes, please. And call me Wei Ying.”
Inexplicably, Lan Zhan’s ears flush red as he nods. He stands and carefully steps over to the edge of the enclosure to help Wei Ying clamber over, his hand curling over Wei Ying’s elbow for support. Even through the layers of his shirt and coat, Wei Ying’s skin burns at the contact. It would be a little humiliating, if Wei Ying had any shame.
He settles on the ground in much the same fashion as the children, ending up squeezed between Xue Yang and Jin Ling. The former stares very intently at the chick in his lap, almost glaring at the small creature as it shuffles around in his loose grip. Wei Ying chuckles before turning to Jin Ling and pulling his phone from his back pocket.
“A-Ling,” he whispers, holding up his phone. “Let me take a photo to send to your mother, hm?”
He sees Lan Zhan freeze momentarily out of the corner of his eye, as Jin Ling whines and shakes his head. In a small voice, he complains, “Uncle Wei, you’re so embarrassing.” For some reason, this response makes Lan Zhan relax again.
Wei Ying sniggers and snaps a photo of Jin Ling anyway, pocketing his phone again and ignoring his nephew’s glare – really, he should not be taking after Jiang Cheng so much at such a young age – in favour of receiving the chick that Lan Zhan now holds towards him.
He carefully adjusts his hands to hold the chick in the way he’d seen Lan Zhan demonstrate before, fingertips brushing warm skin amidst soft feathers. He hears a sharp intake of breath, and immediately glances up expecting the worst – working with five-year-olds does that to you – but is instead met with a pretty blush on soft cheeks.
Oh, he thinks, feeling rather pleased with himself. Well.
Lan Zhan moves away, clearing his throat and focusing his attention on the chicks. Around them, the children begin to chatter quietly amongst themselves. Jingyi and Jin Ling argue over who has the superior chick, while Zizhen insists that they’re both more or less the same and Wen Yuan attempts to persuade them that the matter isn’t a competition. Xue Yang and A-Qing, intriguingly, have started role-playing with their chicks, going back and forth in conversation in an act of camaraderie unlike anything Wei Ying has seen from the two of them before. Meanwhile, Qin Su makes kissy noises at her chick and Meng Yao speaks quietly to his under his breath. Mo Xuanyu is the only one to have already released his chick, content to watch it skitter back to the rest of the group. Beside him, Mo Ziyuan is uncharacteristically silent, completely captivated by the tiny creature settled in his lap. Wei Ying decides there and then that it might be a good idea for the kindergarten to invest in class pets.
Finally, when the group has been sitting in the enclosure for around ten minutes, Wei Ying gently places his chick back onto the floor and quietly taps his palms together in a more subdued version of his usual call for attention. The children raise their hands, then think better of clapping and lower them again as their chicks leap from their laps.
“It’s time for us to see some of the other animals now,” Wei Ying announces to the children, who nod in varying degrees of acquiescence. “Everyone, I want you to say thank you to Mr. Lan for letting us hold these chicks.”
Obediently, the children face Lan Zhan and collectively whisper, “Thank you, Mr. Lan.”
Lan Zhan’s lips quirk up in the faintest hint of a smile. “You’re welcome,” he says.
It takes a moment for Wei Ying to realise that the children are waiting on his next instructions, because he’s too busy trying to breathe again. Seriously, what the fuck? How does one man look so beautiful when simply smiling?
Laughing awkwardly, he climbs to his feet and instructs the children to carefully do the same. In no time at all, he’s lifted all ten of them back over the enclosure wall and is hoisting himself over in their wake. The children collect their bags and wait in a huddle for Wei Ying to lead them to their next destination.
He hesitates, glancing once more at Lan Zhan, who stares right back as if he, too, has something more he’d like to say or do. Wei Ying shakes that thought away and bows. “Thank you so much again for letting them all hold the chicks. You’re much too kind.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head and says, “Not at all. It was my pleasure.”
Wei Ying lingers for a moment more before smiling and shooting Lan Zhan a stiff wave. “Well, we might see you around. Goodbye for now, Mr. Lan.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Lan,” the children chorus. Wei Ying huffs a laugh before steering them all over to the hand sanitising station at the end of the room. They scrub their hands clean, racing each other to see who can finish the fastest, and then finally they’re ready to leave. Wei Ying only glances back once more, seeing Lan Zhan frowning at something by his feet, before leaving the building with the children in tow.
Outside, he claps for attention and performs a headcount. It’s just for show, really – he knows nobody has been left behind, but the children have fun shouting out their numbers as loud as they can and clapping again at the end. When the count is complete, they begin to walk in the direction of the farm's actual petting area, only to be stopped by the sound of footsteps hurriedly approaching them from behind.
Wei Ying turns to find Lan Zhan slowing to a stop before their group, the buckets he’d arrived with earlier having been left behind. He clears his throat and asks, “Will you be visiting the petting area next?”
Before Wei Ying can respond, Jingyi exclaims, “Uh huh, we’re gonna see rabbits!”
Wei Ying snorts. “Among other things, yes, we are going to see rabbits,” he says.
Lan Zhan shifts his weight from foot to foot and nods, pointing in the direction of the petting area. “I am going that way, too.”
His ears glow red again, and Wei Ying quietly delights in the sight as a grin spreads over his face. “Oh? Are you offering to guide us there, Mr. Lan?”
A brief pause, and then Lan Zhan is nodding. The children seem just as excited as Wei Ying feels at this new turn of events, so without further ado Wei Ying nods and turns on his feet to begin leading them to their next stop.
“Well, come on, then,” he says. “We have a lot of rabbits to see before lunch!”
“You’re oddly chipper now,” Nie Huaisang tells him over lunch, one eyebrow raised in both accusation and question. “After the bus ride here this morning, I didn’t expect to see you not looking dead inside at any given point today.”
Spread out across three picnic benches, the children happily munch on their packed lunches and swap stories about what they’ve seen so far on their trip to the farm. Wei Ying smiles softly as he watches them all, feeling warm despite the autumn chill in the air.
“The petting area was much more fun than I’d expected it to be,” he answers vaguely.
Fun doesn’t entirely encompass how he feels about that little visit, of course. Fun would likely be the children’s way of describing the experience, but Wei Ying would prefer to use the words absolutely fucking life-changing, if only because the sight of Lan Zhan touching noses with a rabbit has quickly topped his list of the most adorable things he’s ever seen. Which is really saying something, considering he knew Jin Ling as a baby.
Beside him, Nie Huaisang huffs. “Right. I don’t suppose that had anything to do with Mr. Tall, Stern, and Handsome coming over here now, huh?”
His gaze flickers to a point over Wei Ying’s shoulder, and he turns in time to see Lan Zhan come to a stop beside him with a to-go coffee cup in each of his hands. He glances briefly at Nie Huaisang before handing one of the cups to Wei Ying.
“A coffee,” he says as Wei Ying takes the cup. “You seemed tired this morning.”
Nie Huaisang smirks and inclines his head towards the picnic tables, eyes glinting with amusement. “I’ll go chat with the kids for a while,” he says, and then he’s gone, leaving Lan Zhan and Wei Ying relatively alone.
It’s silent for a beat before Lan Zhan says, “Sorry if that was a little forward of me. If you don’t want the coffee–”
“No, no,” Wei Ying says, shaking his head with a smile. “I’ll take it. Thank you.” He punctuates this with a long sip of the hot liquid, grateful for the familiar shock to the senses it provides.
Lan Zhan nods before glancing away and taking a sip of his own drink. Wei Ying pointedly does not look at the way his throat moves when he swallows.
“So,” he says, “will you be resuming your role as our personal tour guide after lunch?”
Pink settles prettily over Lan Zhan’s cheeks, and he nods. “If you would like me to, then I am more than willing to comply.”
God, Wei Ying thinks, clutching his cup so tight he thinks it might burst under the pressure, how is it possible for him to be so endearing? Is this what it is to fall in love after only the first meeting?
Biting back the giddy beam that threatens to burst over his face, he nods. “I would definitely like you to.” Then, throwing caution to the wind, he takes a deep breath and says, “I’d also like you to give me your number. If that’s something you’re comfortable with, of course.”
To his delight, he sees the corners of Lan Zhan’s mouth lift upwards, and he nods.
Later, after they’ve spent another two hours traversing the farm, Wei Ying tells Nie Huaisang all about holding chicks and feeding rabbits and watching pink spread over dainty ears. He sends Jiang Yanli the photos he’d secretly taken of Jin Ling when his nephew wasn’t looking, and then she sends them to Jin Zixuan and Jiang Cheng for good measure.
And later, with the pleasant weight of Lan Zhan’s number in his phone signifying the promise of something new and altogether thrilling, Wei Ying is more than happy to take part in all fifty renditions of The Wheels On The Bus on their way home.