The only other bed Lan Zhan has ever shared was a deathbed.
A hospital bed is not made for two, and especially not for three. He doesn’t even know if it was a dream, or if it was real, but he remembers his mother on those last days, when her smiles were limp and wrought out of her like the last minty smears of toothpaste from a tube. No longer did she have the strength to lift him or Lan Huan into her bed, but she still insisted that their father place them in her arms anyway. They clambered against her sides—soft and giving once, but Lan Zhan remembers putting his button of a cheek against her shoulder and feeling only bone. Like sleeping against a casket.
“I should get them off of you,” his father had said. Lan Zhan dozed off, face mask nearly swallowing him up to his eyes. It was the one of the last things he ever heard his father say. “They’re going to mess up your tubes.”
“Let them,” said his mother. “How much longer will I be able to do this, anyway?”
Long enough for her to turn her face until her chapped lips could press into Lan Zhan’s forehead, rough as a cat’s tongue, and say in her rasping voice, You know Mama will always be with you, right?
Lan Zhan had woken to someone plucking him off the bed, his older brother already crying, shouting in Suzhou dialect as a doctor and her entourage of nurses spilled into the room, shouting for someone to get the kids out. Take the children away! they said, hands reaching for his mother, Lan Huan was shouting No! No! Mama! Mama you said, Mama you promised—
A long, windy gap breaks Lan Zhan’s memory between that afternoon and the last day he saw his father, holding his and Lan Huan’s hands on either side of him. The three of them faced a black-and-white framed portrait of their mother, wreathed in white lilies and chrysanthemums. Smiling, like she always had been, even in the end. He hadn’t cried. Maybe there was something wrong with him, but where Lan Huan was the leaky, ignored motel faucet of a son, Lan Zhan had nothing. Six years old, almost seven, the fog came and then—never left.
Even in their uncle’s apartment, he and Lan Huan slept on different couches when his father and uncle argued late into the night. Their voices would float in and out of focus like a fever, and Lan Zhan wouldn’t sleep at all, sitting up on the lumpy, bamboo-mat loveseat with a towel for a blanket and mosquitoes humming at his feet. What are you thinking, Lan Shenyong? Ge. Are you hearing yourself right now? Those kids need you. They need their father. What are you thinking? They already don’t have a mother. Have you lost your mind?
“They’re arguing again,” said Lan Huan. He was also sitting up, hair silver in the open window. “I can’t sleep either.”
“Baba is mad at us,” said Lan Zhan.
“At us? No, I think he’s sad that Mama is...gone.”
They stared at the glowing needle of light beneath the door to their uncle’s study, holding anxious twin vigils as the shouting crescendoed.
“Baba said,” Lan Zhan reported in his eerie, toneless voice, sensing his brother turning his head to him, “that all he sees when he looks at us is death.”
“Oh.” Lan Huan made a noise like a butchered animal. “I want Mama to come back. I want Mama. They didn’t even let us say bye. They just said to take us away. I want Mama. I want—”
Zhanzhan, are you okay recently?
Not so much.
What happened, my Zhanzhan?
I have a friend…
A friend who was going to join you.
Was he sick?
Yes. But not like you. He chose to. He wanted to.
It’s okay. He’s okay. He’s still here with me.
He makes you happy, doesn’t he, this friend? The one who plays the piano?
Then I’m happy too.
Lan Zhan opens his eyes to dove-blue morning, when the shadows of an apartment and all its furniture stop dancing in the dark. It’s earlier than he usually wakes, at five AM on the dot. He has a moment to wonder what woke him when he tries to move and he realizes that he can’t, and then—Wei Ying.
The night rushes back to him in sticky, uneven dollops. Coming out of the shower to find Wei Ying asleep on the couch with a true crime documentary playing on the TV. Texting Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng. His brother coming home, shock clearing the glaze of alcohol from his eyes when he saw Lan Zhan awake on the couch with Wei Ying’s feet in his lap. Going to sleep on the futon in the study, cushions stiff as a backache, only to have frenetic dreams of running after Wei Ying across a frozen river. Being woken up in the weariest hour of night, Wei Ying’s face lunar and fearful in the hallway. Wei Ying soddening the shoulder of his clothes, crying like Lan Zhan had never heard before, like all the chambers of his heart were emptying at once.
Wei Ying. His breaths are warm and soft against Lan Zhan’s neck, the rhythmic hush-hum of dawn. They’ve shifted in sleep, but not by much. Not away from each other—into each other, unseeing and unfeeling, and yet still needing. Wei Ying’s face is somewhere in Lan Zhan’s neck, but he worries, as sleep drains away from him, that it’s a bad angle. Wei Ying might wake up with a corkscrew kink in his neck. One of his arms is curled up in Lan Zhan’s shirt. His legs are asleep, and a numb weight rests on his thigh.
He will lie here forever.
It must almost be five, not quite, just shy. Lan Zhan’s phone charges every night on his nightstand; his alarm will go off soon. Birdsong, because he’s never great with being shaken out of sleep. He doesn’t want to wake Wei Ying, but it’s a risky stealth game to try and reach around him for it and not jostle him awake. Wei Ying is not a heavy sleeper, unless he’s drunk, and then the world would have to burn around him before he would wake at all.
Lan Zhan considers his options. He shifts minutely, feeling Wei Ying’s weight tip off of him with a slight complaint of mattress springs. Then he shifts some more, feeling brave, and then Wei Ying makes a noise of unthinking protest in his sleep—like the tiny, scared squawk of a rabbit whose nest had been stepped on—and Lan Zhan freezes.
Then Wei Ying’s breath evens out again, pooling in sweet dark mouthfuls in the dip of Lan Zhan’s clavicle. Lan Zhan’s body is starting to wake, the limbs that had fallen asleep hissing with thorny TV static as blood rushes through his prickling fingertips. He reaches over Wei Ying’s head, phone coming to life when he taps it. Calls will be silenced and notifications will appear in Notification Center until your wake up alarm at 5:00 AM.
He disables it at 4:58. Then, with a few more moments of heart-pounding effort, Lan Zhan extricates himself from Wei Ying’s arms, and watches him roll into Lan Zhan’s warm, empty space.
In the bathroom, Lan Zhan stares at himself in the mirror. His lower eyelids have a sickly shade to them, the purpling of skin halfway between a blush and a bruise that says he hadn’t slept enough. His hair is crimped on one side in a way it usually never is, where Wei Ying had slept on it. An inexplicable urge grips him to leave it that way. Evidence that he had shared a bed with someone. Evidence that Wei Ying had slept against him. Evidence that he shouldn’t feel happy about, because Wei Ying had sought him out in the middle of the night drowning in fog, and Lan Zhan went with him without question, but stupidly, his heart sings.
Lan Huan is already awake and nursing a cup of tea at the dining table, phone out and pants on, alarmingly put-together for someone who brought home a reek of huangjiu that lingered. He looks up when Lan Zhan sits down, face tingling from the wash, with his own cup of tea.
“A-Zhan. Did you sleep okay?”
“You were up quite a lot later than usual.”
Lan Huan sets his teacup and his phone down, which means he is fully invested in this conversation. Nothing has ever been too early for Lan Zhan, but for once, he understands Wei Ying when he whines It is too, too early for this. “I noticed the study was empty this morning.”
Lan Zhan levels his brother a look. “Hm.”
“As was the couch.”
“Wei Ying was uncomfortable sleeping alone.”
Lan Huan’s eyebrows rise enough to flirt with his hairline. “He shared your bed? With you in it?” He says the second part as if Lan Zhan had just confessed to eloping with a stranger. Ever pleasant, but he can hear the inflection in his brother’s voice. Lan Huan never inflects his questions; his usual habit is statements, and people naturally divulge information to him. Sometimes unprompted. It’s a valuable skill to have in business, one that Lan Zhan had never bothered with.
“If it meant making things easier for him, then I would do it.”
“I understand, A-Zhan, I’m just surprised,” says Lan Huan. “I know you’re very particular about your bedspace.”
Particular is a generous way to put it. Lan Zhan’s skin prickles with imagined sweat, even though the air conditioning is on, his skin remembering: late summer. The emergency-room glow of a mosquito lamp like a forgotten iron on his skin. Xiao Shushu’s snoring filling the room. Lan Huan beside their uncle, sleeping through it. Lan Zhan had been sequestered to the squeaky twin bed with a fraying bamboo mat, the plastic blue and red threads escaping from the hems, sitting up with his face in the window to count the lights still on in an apartment high-rise the next block over. They flickered off like eyes closing as the hours wore on. Thirty-two. Twenty-seven. Nineteen. Four.
Two of them would stay on all night, until the sky rubbed her sandy eyes in the sunrise, and Lan Zhan wondered what those people in the distance were sleepless for. Exams? Arguments? Fear that if they fell asleep, they might wake up and someone else they loved was dead? Maybe they just forgot to turn them off. Maybe someone thought it would be romantic.
His brother regards him now, that cold morning concern. A-Zhan, did you not sleep? Why didn’t you sleep?
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan, and he takes another sip of his tea. It leaves a trail of throaty warmth all the way into his belly.
“Then, did it help?”
“I hope he’s doing better, A-Zhan.”
“I hope so, too.”
Wei Ying wakes up the same way he falls asleep, like he’s trying to run from something.
He’s on his back, ears and eyes and mouth a drumset of tiny, angry hearts in his face. He could be one of those squids that have a bunch—or were those worms?—with how hard his head is pounding. Everything smells of sleep, but also of olive flower and tea and you’re okay, you’re okay. The duvet falls away from the half of his face that he always buries under covers, and then he remembers: Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan, with his soft voice and soft breaths, his warm shoulder, his arm a wicker basket handle cradling Wei Ying’s middle. The bed is empty, now, and even that emptiness throbs, like this bed isn’t meant to be slept in alone now that it’s known two bodies.
When he gets up and passes by the study on his way to the bathroom, he jumps at the sight of Lan Huan at the desk, window open, light on. The noise is enough to make him look up and turn, and a smile spreads across his face when he sees Wei Ying in the doorway.
“Wei Ying,” he says, pushing his chair away from his work. It’s the kind that spins. Wheels, five-pronged feet. Wei Ying finds himself fluttering his eyes shut and swallowing, the back of his head a glowing red tarmac light. “I hope you slept well. A-Zhan already left for work, but he told me you’re welcome to stay or go as you like.”
Lan Huan is wearing work clothes with, it seems, no intention of going out. “I did, thank you, I—I’m sorry to have imposed. It won’t happen again.”
“Nothing of the sort.” Lan Huan waves his airy hand. He has piano hands, like Lan Zhan, but not quite as expressive. “I should be the one apologizing. Lan Zhan informed me that you’d been waiting last night, since I said I wanted to see you and ask if you were well.” He pauses, like he expects Wei Ying to say something, and then adds, “I hope you are.”
“I’m...better, I guess.”
“That’s good,” says Lan Huan. “Better is good.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says lamely.
Lan Huan regards him with that unreadable smile of his, then crosses his legs. “Lan Zhan has told you many stories about our mother, I believe,” he says.
“Oh. Yes, he has,” says Wei Ying. Their mother had been beautiful. He’s seen pictures; Lan Zhan has a few in his phone, taken from old family photo albums. Lan Zhan looks like her. He supposes Lan Huan takes after their father.
“When she was sick—which was for most of our lives—A-Zhan used to think that drawing on her hands would make her better. Or more real, in some way, because it’s less scary when there’s a sun or a flower next to a needle. He’d ask her if she felt better because of it, and she would say, ‘Of course!’ And me, being who I am, I’d have to ask, ‘How much better?’ And she would pretend to think. She always told us to think before we spoke, so we wouldn’t have to live with regrets in our lives, and she’d say, ‘When you got here, my hurt was ten. And now, my hurt is nine.’”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “Oh, he’s told me a lot, but he hasn’t—hasn’t told me that.”
“It was earlier on. He might not remember the details of it anymore,” Lan Huan says, still smiling. “Anyway. I was always concerned about that. I would always say, nine is a lot. Nine is still a lot to hurt. But our mother, she would reply, ‘Nine is good. Nine is less than ten. One day it might be eight. One day it could even be seven, and maybe it will never be zero, but someday it will just be two or three.’ She told us to remember that. Even if you still have hurt, even if that change feels insignificant, less is good.”
Wei Ying hovers in the doorway like a ghost caught mid-haunt. “Thank you, Huan-ge,” he says finally, unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth. He’s not been a fan of unsolicited advice, recently, but with Lan Huan it feels less like advice and more like faith. “I’ll remember that, too.”
“I’m glad.” Behind him, his computer chirps with an alert, and he makes a gesture that he’ll have to get back to work.
“Why aren’t you at the office?”
“I can come and go as I need. Consultant’s privilege,” Lan Huan says, already facing his desk again.
Most mornings, Wei Ying’s headache starts when he’s brushing his teeth, rinsing and spitting and seeing himself in that mirror. Brain sloshing back and forth like a mummified embryo. Today, it runs in reverse. By the time he makes it to the sink his headache upon waking has started to fade, the damp scent of olive flowers staled by the city air coming through the window. Outside, plum rain season keeps the sky the color of sock lint. For the first morning in what seems like a miniature lifetime, Wei Ying’s temples are silent, and he reaches back for that scar, rubs it like he’s trying to make sure someone’s at home.
When he picks up his phone, a text from Lan Zhan covers their faces in his lockscreen.
there is food in the fridge if you are hungry
i don’t think we have any chili oil but we do have some lao gan ma
and garlic sauce.
lan zhan youre too good to me!!
im not gonna impose on you any further
sorry for last—
Wei Ying stands with toothpaste foam around his lips, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth like a child’s party horn. He backspaces, chewing on the bristles when it slips in his teeth.
thanks for last night
thanks for everything.
The apartment is an aching empty stomach when Wei Ying gets home. He can smell himself bringing in the scent of the outside, of Lan Zhan’s apartment on his clothes, and his phone chimes before he can get his shoes off. He tries to undo the laces with one hand, balance on one foot, and not trip over a pair of his sister’s ankle-strap wedges just inside the threshold. Halfway through he goes down, balance giving out, shoe rack digging into the small of his back when he lands on the doormat.
On the subway back, he’d dashed off a few replies to his students, to Lan Zhan to let him know he was leaving, to even Nie Huaisang who’d left him messages every few days asking if he’d seen some silly celebrity gossip.
Wei Ying appreciates it. That normalcy, the moving on of life around him, with him in it. He’s not sure he likes it yet, but he doesn’t mind it.
After being half-drowned, the touchscreen of his phone is numb in some parts around the sides, like nerves severed beneath the screen. He pauses with his foot balanced on his knee to unlock it first. He doesn’t believe in facial recognition.
“What if I get kidnapped, and my kidnappers want to unlock my phone for information, and all they need to do is hold it up to my face? At least if I still use a passcode, they’d have to beat me up to get it and then maybe give up when they realize I am nothing if not hardy and stubborn.”
Lan Zhan had stared at him for a two-step heartbeat, boba straw wet and glistening a breath away from his mouth. Wei Ying had wondered what Lan Zhan’s order tasted like; he’d later learn the answer was Tragically Like Homebrewed Tea. “Do you have a lot of classified information on your phone worth being kidnapped for?” he’d asked, frowning.
“No. Have you not considered this before?” said Wei Ying.
“Not before this conversation.”
“Lucky for you,” Wei Ying lamented. “I suppose you’ve never considered the dangers of fingerprint recognition either, then.”
“I am now.”
WE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
don’t ever leave us!!!!!!!!!!!!
lan laoshi is so scary!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(that’s me hugging you wei laoshi)
wei laoshi! seeing you back is wonderful!
we hope you’re feeling better!
jingyi and zizhen and i are practicing hard, promise
we are also hanging out right now
wei laoshi if you didn’t come back i was going to quit piano
zizhen is exaggerating
zizhen lan laoshi complimented your playing yesterday??
what if i just imagined it...
well at any rate we’re glad you’re back wei laoshi!
He laughs. It sputters out of him, like water rushing through dry limescale pipes, but it comes, olive flower pummeling up through him and his lungs smelling of bright blue peppermint, and Wei Ying sits on the floor of his apartment and laughs.
In the eleven years Wei Ying has known Lan Zhan, he’s only seen him drunk once.
My Best Friend’s Peach Tint Cheeks After One Sip Of Huangjiu.
It had been at some restaurant off Xiangyang South and Yongjia, standing on the corner like a watchful street sign clouded with barbecue smoke. Mianmian, who was at the conservatory for cello, had been working with Wei Ying for an accompaniment all week and asked if he wanted to grab dinner. When Lan Zhan slid into the elevator before they left, she’d said, “You too, Lan Zhan. Want to come?”
Neither of them had any idea. She’d poured all of them huangjiu, and Wei Ying had watched Lan Zhan hesitate into his cup for a moment before tossing it back the same way both of them had. Wei Ying did know that Lan Zhan didn’t eat meat, so they made sure to order enough veggies for him to roast next to their pork and chicken. Still, throughout dinner Lan Zhan grew so quiet and glazed that Wei Ying, half-tipsy but still with more than enough room to drink, had called it quits.
“I surrender,” he said, pushing his glass away. “You win, Mianmian. Tell your friends you won, too. Rematch later.”
“What? Already?” she said, huangjiu poised mid-pour over her own glass. Her mouth had fallen into a little o of surprise, face a pink smudge through the grill smoke. They’d long finished their actual food, and if Wei Ying’s eyes hadn’t deceived him, he thought he’d caught Lan Zhan literally sway in his seat. “Man, you talk big. My sister could out-drink you.”
“I don’t doubt it. Here, I’ll pay—”
“Like hell you are,” she said, snatching the check out from under his hand, fully ripping one corner off. Wei Ying still remembers staring at it, that soft-edged scrap of paper under his fingers as she practically threw her card at a passing waitress. “I made you be my accompaniment all week, I will not be owing you more.”
So Wei Ying had let it slide. They bid her off at the subway station, smelling of roast meat and charcoal with promises to see each other Monday, and then—
“—oh, you’re home,” says Jiang Cheng, and Wei Ying almost hits the ceiling with how hard he startles. “You’re practicing again.”
“I haven’t in weeks,” Wei Ying says. He checks the clock on top of his upright piano; he’s been at this for over two hours, and still his fingers are sleepy. When he’d sat down—headache already starting its urgent, metallic pulsing—he had to spend a good fifteen minutes waking his fingers, knuckles locked up and tight, playing scales in A minor and G major and up and down the keyboard. From Lan Zhan’s notes, his students are working on Mozart and Scriabin, so he’s pulled up some of the sheet music that they’d been working on and practiced that until his body felt like his again. “Feels good to be back.”
Jiang Cheng grunts. “Good to see you at a piano,” he says. “Go any longer and that thing would be out of tune. It looks lonely without you at it.”
It takes longer than a few weeks for a piano to be out of tune. “I know,” Wei Ying says, because he hears all the things his brother keeps on his tongue.
Jiang Cheng hovers in the foyer for another moment, his office badge still choking him. “I brought stinky tofu home.”
“Aiyah, you didn’t have to.”
“I know I didn’t. I did anyway, you need to eat more.”
“I’m eating fine. I’ll eat it later,” Wei Ying says. His temples are a searing orange jangle of keys. “You don’t need to worry.”
“You can share it with Lan Zhan later, if that’s what you mean.”
“What? No, I just—don’t have much of an appetite and do have a headache, okay? They’re a pretty regular thing, eating is just not the first thing on my mind when my head feels like a jackhammer.”
Jiang Cheng’s expression swoops from irritated to concerned and then to a sour mixture of both. “Are the meds not helping?”
“The meds are fine.” It’s because of meds. He’ll take the headaches.
“How come you have headaches, still? Maybe it’s something you need to get looked at. That’s not normal. Maybe you need to switch medications. I left a sleep aid when you were at Lan Zhan’s, I hope you took the damn thing. Maybe it’s another problem. You should—”
“It’s fine!” Wei Ying snaps. “So I have headaches! It’s not much of a surprise!”
The silence smells of blackberries. Thick and purple, like old blood.
“‘Not much of a surprise’?” Jiang Cheng repeats.
Wei Ying shrugs.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s not talk about it anymore, okay? Go shower, you look and smell exhausted. Go on, go.”
Jiang Cheng casts him another stinging, dubious glance, before he disappears down the hallway and Wei Ying can sink into his piano bench again. His movement knocks a sheaf of paper and books to the floor where he’d been reading and making annotations to experiment with phrasing. More staccatos. Starting trills earlier. Slurring all his legatos until they’re stentandos. His headache has returned in full force, throbbing behind his eyes like a sliced artery. In the hallway, the shower starts, a petulant hiss of water.
it looks like i will be running over today too
i’ll come to you late, i won’t be long
no need to cross the city again. i’ll come to you
dont trouble yourself for me!!!
Lan Zhan just sends him a sticker of a rabbit’s butt.
Dinner with Jiang Cheng is both of them skirting around their altercation some twenty minutes before, like two strangers trying not to make eye contact at a red light. They avoid it almost completely, except when a smothered, orangey silence blooms between them and Jiang Cheng says, “Things just aren’t the same,” without looking at Wei Ying. Promised change; a cruel constant. Between his bowl of rice and the takeout box of tofu meanders a little sparrow’s trail of sauce, shimmering in golden, oily dots upon the glass. “Not anymore.”
“No,” Wei Ying agrees. He thinks he’s okay with that, things not being the same. It means life moves forward.
When Wei Ying wakes, his stomach is a mouse trap, his tongue a butcher knife between his teeth. When he swallows, the iron burn of blood rushes through his nose and the simple movement of his mouth sets off the wired clamp of his belly—throwupthrowupthrowup. He doesn’t move and waits for the nausea to pass, pressing the curl of his tongue to the inside of his cheek. He’d shredded it from chewing in his sleep. Wildly, Wei Ying thinks, I want Lan Zhan, and doesn’t feel stupid in the next second for thinking it. So he thinks it again. I want Lan Zhan.
This is his own bed, narrow and nightmare-damp, blankets straitjacketing him. Jiang Cheng is sprawled on his stomach, asleep, facing away from him. The night is still at its darkest, when sunrise sounds like a fairytale. Wei Ying isn’t even sure why he’s awake. He’d inhaled his sleep aid before he’d gone to bed and, like every other night, blacked feverish and numb from it, room spinning if he tried to toss and turn too much.
His phone says it’s two in the morning. Lan Zhan’s face in the darkness, and then fading when the screen dims.
Wei Ying taps it against just to see him, like a child tapping on fishtank glass—come back, look at me—this silly photo that he’d taken with Lan Zhan at Huaihai Road two years ago, after another performance season ended for Wei Ying. It had been—Vivaldi? Chopin? He couldn’t remember anymore. Lan Zhan had taken him out for dinner, as he did, with Wei Ying’s then level sixes. He had plenty of posed photos from that evening, each progressively more and more glazed by the same he got to the last few with the orchestra, but Wen Yuan, sneakily, had somehow snagged a photo of Wei Ying laughing towards Lan Zhan, hugging his bouquet of roses and tiger lilies.
Lan Zhan had helped do his hair that night. All it was was some mousse and hairspray, held back neatly in Lan Zhan’s trademark half-ponytail. He’d added a butterfly pin with wings mounted on thin springs, so they would move with Wei Ying’s head. “So the light will catch all the lines of your body,” Lan Zhan had reasoned patiently when Wei Ying turned his head back and forth to see the flutter.
Throwupthrowupthrowup. His head has started its rockband routine again, uncaring for the hour. No one’s watching. Everyone’s asleep. You know where the meds are. No one’s watching. Everyone’s asleep. You can be, too.
Wei Ying pulls his blankets over his face, tries curling into himself like he can squeeze the life out of these thoughts if he constricts hard enough.
No one’s watching.
Nothing is stopping you.
No one would miss—
Lan Zhan would miss me. Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen would miss me, Wen Yuan would miss me. Jiejie would miss me, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t admit to it, but he would miss me, Wei Ying thinks fiercely, blood frothing in his skull, his head scar banging like a gavel in a courtroom. Lan Zhan would be sad. I don’t want him to be sad. I don’t care how I feel about myself. But I care about him. That’s what stops me.
And then his brain falls silent. The headache remains with its cold, sweaty feet propped up on his temples, but he’ll take it.
The lightning cable pulls taut when Wei Ying brings his phone close to his face, unearthing one hand from the cocoon of his blankets to key a message to Lan Zhan. His fingers are clumsy with sleep, fabric creases on his arms like bright pink street paint.
zhanzhan are you awake?
The obvious answer is no, but Lan Zhan sometimes wakes up in the night for the bathroom. Within minutes:
wei ying? what’s wrong?
no worries im fine!!!
well actually i just had a question
can you play for me?
yes of course
did something happen?
Wei Ying pictures Lan Zhan sitting up in bed, shrugging on his soft cardigan the color of warm ice cream, the shuffle of his slippers over hardwood. Lan Zhan can move around at night without being asked to report his intentions.
no not really
What could Wei Ying say, if he asked—the truth? I was thinking about you, Lan Zhan, it made me sad. Not bad-sad. Good-sad, you know? There’s a difference.
“What...is the difference?” Lan Zhan had asked, on the cusp of drunk, still smelling of barbecue.
“Good-sad is just when you’re so full of something you don’t have room for anything else, and that makes you sad. Like you just wish there was more of you to…” Wei Ying had raised his eyebrows, nodding at Lan Zhan’s cup of tea. “Drink your tea. You are going to have such a bad hangover in the morning, Lan Zhan. Virgin drinker like you.”
Lan Zhan obeyed. Drank. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, still elegant by anyone else’s standards, but so unlike Lan Zhan when he was sober that Wei Ying had to bite back laughter. “Full of what?”
“Good-sad is when you’re so full of something. you said. Full of what?”
“I don’t know. It’s warm,” said Wei Ying. “Warm and quiet and safe. You can hold it in your chest and it won’t burn you. Like, when you’re going home alone for the evening but you’re holding a box of fresh shengjian mantou, and you can feel the warm glow through the box. Wait, oh, you don’t eat those, probably. Hm. Well, like sitting in a dark practice room with you after hours. That’s good-sad.”
“That doesn’t sound like sadness,” Lan Zhan had slurred, squinting.
“What does it sound like, then, Lan Zhan?”
Sadness. Wei Ying grew up in it, befriended it, learned how to read and laugh and grow in sadness. He fed it with scraps of himself and it stayed at bay, drinking out of his glasses until he had nothing but doll arms and lost moths. It has framed his life and everything he knows. Happy-sad, tired-sad, excited-sad, angry-sad. Bad-sad, something to make you feel like you didn’t exist. Not to die. Just not to be alive. Good-sad. So full of something you wish there was more of you to feel it.
“Hi, Zhanzhan,” he breathes, quiet enough so that Jiang Cheng won’t wake.
“No need to speak, Wei Ying. I know it’s late,” Lan Zhan’s voice murmurs over the line, tethering Wei Ying in the now. “Are you there?”
The line clacks when Lan Zhan props his phone against the sheet music board, followed by the muted sounds of him opening the lid and fallboard of his grand piano, and then, with one last, shimmering pause, he begins to play. Wei Ying listens, cradling his phone against his face beneath the covers, heart slowing its fish squirming, temples pausing just to hear. Good-sad. Thinking of Lan Zhan makes him glow. His chest rises over the skyline like a hot-air balloon as Nuvole Bianche thrums over the line.
Good-sad isn’t quite sadness at all.
Wei Ying pulls his covers over his head as Lan Zhan plays. Underneath the dark of his blankets, with nothing but the static fizzle of piano music, as if waiting to be reborn.
On the last night Lan Zhan teaches Wei Ying’s external program students, he comes to Lan Zhan’s apartment laden with braised pumpkin, cold-tossed cucumber and garlic salad, mouthwatering chicken swimming in seed-speckled sauce, and—
“Beer?” Lan Zhan says, emptying the bag in the kitchen with a twinge of surprise. It’s just one can of Tsingtao, kitchen light glinting off of it in sharp green flashes when he lifts it out of the takeout bag. “For...yourself?”
“There’s no way I’m finishing all of it myself, not these days,” Wei Ying says. He’s brought his backpack, so empty it’s a wrinkle of black fabric over his shoulder, to bring back all the work Lan Zhan took on in his absence. “We can share a little, if you like! It’s way less strong than huangjiu. I just wanted something cold and fizzy.”
“How were my kids?”
“Good. Wen Yuan picks up Mozart better than he does Scriabin, Zizhen is the other way around. Jingyi is a fan of neither.”
“I’ll have to side with Zizhen on that one.” Wei Ying takes care to line his shoes up neatly on the doormat next to Lan Zhan’s boots, nudging them with his toes until they fall into line. A disciplined little row of canvas and leather. “Too many feathery scales with Mozart for my taste, good heavens…”
Wei Ying plates. Lan Zhan putters about the kitchen in search of a glass that isn’t a mug or a teacup to pour the Tsingtao into, and finds one in the far corner of a cupboard stuffed with star anise and dried jujubes, sticky from disuse. He dunks it in the sink for a wash, and Wei Ying appears at his elbow, sticking his chopsticks under the running water to rinse off the mealy pumpkin residue, so quiet that he’s nothing but a warm draft. A kiss from a ghost. Lan Zhan jumps when there’s a touch to his shoulder.
Wei Ying murmurs, “Sorry,” and shakes the water off his chopsticks. Then he’s gone again.
“I don’t know if it’s advisable to take your medication with this,” Lan Zhan says when he pours it out into the glass and places it beside Wei Ying’s rice at the dinner table. It gleams at the table like sun through an autumn leaf, casting an amber glow in its shadow where the light hits. Alcohol is such an unfamiliar presence in his apartment that the air seems to part around it in confusion. Even from here, Lan Zhan can smell the sweet-bitter of its foam.
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. “I’ll take them after dinner. The psychiatrist said one drink max, and that’s one beer! So it’s fine.” Wei Ying fidgets, like he’s just realized what Lan Zhan is saying. “Ah, I don’t plan on being drunk, Lan Zhan, don’t worry. Not for a while. I won’t do anything stupid. I promise I won’t.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan murmurs.
“It’s only fun drinking with you,” Wei Ying says when they sit down, raising his drink to his face and tonguing the icy floe of bubbles from the surface. Lan Zhan makes himself look away. “I mean, when I drink, and you watch somewhat disapprovingly.”
“I do not disapprove.”
“No?” Wei Ying says. “The last time I was drunk—uhm, you know, what I mean—I fell asleep on the subway. If it weren’t for you, who knows where I would’ve ended up.”
Wei Ying had. He hadn’t let go of Lan Zhan when they meandered their way from Yi Zhang Hong on Nanjing Road West to the subway station that would take them home, arms looped together like cherry stems that had grown around each other, were picked together, would brown and wither together. In the station, which even at the hour was brimming with tourists and sweaty bodies, Wei Ying kept swaying into Lan Zhan’s side with his face buried in his bouquet. He always glowed when he drank past tipsy, his cheeks a pair of apple slices. Lan Zhan had looked down gently at him and wanted to kiss them. No one would have noticed. Wei Ying might have let him. But he didn’t.
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Ying when they’d crowded into the train cars. Lan Zhan had reached up to hold onto one of the support bars running overhead, and Wei Ying had been crushed up against his chest with his bouquet between them. He’d been so close, Lan Zhan could smell the warm sting of alcohol on his breath. “Ah, someone’s stepping on my foot. Don’t let me fall, I can’t reach any of the handles.”
“I won’t let you fall,” said Lan Zhan, even though Wei Ying couldn’t have if he tried. They were packed in with business-goers and tourists and students like trinkets in a time capsule, but Lan Zhan had wrapped an arm around Wei Ying’s waist and anchored him in place.
Then the train had started, and Wei Ying’s bouquet had crinkled when he stumbled into Lan Zhan’s chest with the momentum. It had only been for a moment, but Lan Zhan’s mouth had brushed across Wei Ying’s cheekbone, and his mouth had burned like he’d kissed a hot coal.
“Oh, sorry,” Wei Ying said, pulling back, not far enough, so that only a breath was separating their faces. “I stepped on your foot, too.”
And he’d laughed.
“You fell asleep here afterward,” Lan Zhan says, pushing Wei Ying’s plate of chicken closer to him. A trail of oil droplets dots the expanse between the dish and his bowl, a family of tiny Jupiters catching the light. On me, he does not add.
“It’s easy to fall asleep here,” Wei Ying says. “For starters, I have less of a headache in your apartment, Lan Zhan. Sometimes it feels like I can turn off my brain better here than anywhere else, which is silly, but it’s probably because of you.”
“You can stay, if you like.”
Wei Ying stills with his chopsticks halfway between the chicken and his bowl, the sauce dripping onto the table. All those little Jupiters start to run into each other, into one big red giant. “What?”
“If you want to, of course,” Lan Zhan says. “If it’s easier for you.”
“Stay here?” Wei Ying says. “As in, every day?” Lan Zhan nods. “Zhanzhan, I couldn’t possibly, don’t be ridiculous. The trouble.”
“I know, I know you say it’s never any trouble, but still. You live with your brother, you’ve got so much work on your plate, you like your space, you like silence at the end of the day. Who wouldn’t? We spend all our time listening to noise. Good noise, but you know.” He puts his chicken on his rice, sets down his chopsticks. Even as he’s talking, he wipes down the table with his napkin. It leaves behind a filmy, glistening comet streak on the wood. Wei Ying trains his eyes on the thin contrail of it. “I’ve done enough to mess up your life recently, Lan Zhan.”
“That you can be here in my life at all,” says Lan Zhan, “is more than I could ask for.”
Wei Ying flicks his gaze up.
“Whatever makes you feel best,” Lan Zhan says. Then, thinking Wei Ying might not ask, he adds, “If it matters, I like when you are here.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying protests weakly, but Lan Zhan simply brings a mouthful of rice and pumpkin to his lips and chews. “You are impossible.”
“I like being here, too,” Wei Ying says, in the kind of quiet that he gets when the words are leaving his mouth without his permission. “I like being around you best. It’s like I can think. It’s like I can breathe.”
Lan Zhan watches him. Wei Ying watches his dinner, chopsticks quiet as a rope bridge across his bowl. It really is soundless in their apartment; Lan Zhan never noticed the silence until it bothered Wei Ying, and now he presses his fingers against it to pin it back.
“Stay here and breathe,” Lan Zhan says.
Time slides away from them. Beads of glass sweat have started to run down the side of Wei Ying’s beer, and he dips his fingertips in the puddle it makes on the table.
“I still didn’t bring my pajamas,” he says, like it’s a real excuse.
“Hm,” says Lan Zhan. “I have shorter pants.”
He does. They don’t fit him. Lan Zhan had ordered them online some two years ago and they’d ride up his ankles more than he liked for pajama pants, but he’d kept them, balled up in a handful of watery satin at the back of his drawer. He keeps them the same way a child brings home a jar of shells and broken sea biscuits from sunburnt summer beaches and pushes it to the back of their closet: just to have something to forget about.
Lan Zhan sends him to the shower with them later, and Wei Ying comes out dewy and wet with steam, kicking his bare feet this time. “They fit!” he says, laughing, wiry tangles of his hair flying as he towels it off. “They fit just right, Lan Zhan.”
Like they’ve been waiting for him all this time.
Jiang Cheng never has dreams. Seems like a fitting thing for someone who grew up without any, but when he sleeps it’s all black, like sticking his head into the tunnel of a vanished subway train. The sensation of a dream—the wind. Never the image of it.
Lately, he’s been dreaming.
When they were twelve and thirteen, before all the subway stations installed guardrails, Wei Ying would stand right up against the edge of the platform where the pebbled yellow caution lines met linoleum. Jiang Cheng would always drag him back by the strap of his backpack, snarling that if he fell in, someone would have to scrape him off the rails. It happened to deer all the time in mountain regions, Jiang Cheng had seen pictures.
“It’s not like I’m going to jump in,” Wei Ying had protested, nylon school trainers shk-shking once Jiang Cheng felt they were appropriately far away enough from the edge. “I just like to feel the wind.”
“Even if you don’t plan on jumping in, what if someone pushes you? On accident? Or on purpose?”
“Who would want to do that?”
“I don’t know!”
But once, Jiang Cheng saw Wei Ying staring at the subway tracks. Not with determination, but with an emptiness that scared him. The way a cat stares into a fishbowl. He’d been so quiet that day, not even teasing Jiang Cheng when they’d passed their classmate that Jiang Cheng thought was pretty. The same emptiness had come over Wei Ying’s face when Jiang Cheng had asked him, If you knew the chair was going to tip, why would you lean back?
I don’t know. To see how far I could, maybe?
His mother had yelled at Wei Ying that same evening, and Jiang Cheng could not exhume the bones of that fight now if he tried. He only remembers it at all because it was the only time he didn’t hide when his mother started yelling at Wei Ying, trying to exist as colorlessly as possible to avoid her wrath. It made him sick, like he’d swallowed a fish whole, and it was living and dying inside him.
Don’t hit him, Ma. Don’t hit him. He’s just not feeling good, just a bad day. Don’t hit him anymore.
Bad day? What could he possibly be having a bad day for, huh? You two have a roof over your heads and food to eat and I ask nothing of any of you three. You teenagers—you have no idea. You have no idea what it’s like to have a bad day, what your father and I had to live through during the Cultural Revolution, how bad that really was, what real pain is, bad day my ass—get out of my face, I don’t want to see either of you.
I said get out of my face! I have my limits!
So, instead of the wind, Jiang Cheng dreams of that—the piano, the yelling, the bathroom, the sick thud of hand across cheek, bloody mallet over head, the imaginary scream of an animal that can’t make noise, and—
His alarm screeches. Morning stabs him.
Wei Ying’s bed across their room is empty. For a moment, Jiang Cheng stares at it, alarm going off like a distant ambulance rushing to attend an anonymous emergency. Somewhere, someone is having the worst morning of their lives.
He goes through the rote motions of getting ready—dressing, washing, checking the ten voice messages from his boss as he brushes his teeth in their uncomfortably pristine bathroom, at their operating table of a sink. When he spits, the foam trails with red streaks against the porcelain. His gums are still bleeding, and he’s still brushing too hard.
Jiang Yanli’s voice threads through the apartment when he finishes. She’s talking to someone. Jiang Cheng half expects it to be Jin Zixuan until he hears, “Jiejie, I promise I’m fine. Look, I’m even going back to the conservatory today.”
Wei Ying is by the piano, backpack slackjawed as he packs books inside its belly. He looks up when Jiang Cheng comes in, commiserating smile fading off his face. The balcony windows are open behind him, and being backlit throws Wei Ying into shadow; if Jiang Cheng pictures it hard enough, his brother could be a ghost.
Three people live here, but two of them are haunted.
“How was your stay at Lan Zhan’s?” he asks. He goes for robotic, it lands in derisive, blistering between them. Wrong wrong wrong. “Good to have you home for once.”
“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” says Wei Ying. “Don’t be like that.”
“I’m not being like anything,” he says, making for the kitchen.
Wrong wrong wrong.
“A-Cheng.” His sister has all her fingers of one hand clutched in the other, as if she’s trying to detach them at the knuckles, fingertips blueing in her fist. Five tiny little deaths in her palm. “A-Ying and I were talking just now. He said he wanted to talk to us about something?”
Jiang Cheng’s hand pauses on the handle of their fridge. “About what?”
Wei Ying takes his time zipping his backpack closed, the noise of it dragging through the silence. Makes a show of clearing nonexistent phlegm from his throat. “I was thinking that. I might stay with Lan Zhan on the weekdays, maybe,” he says, not meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes. “He’s closer to the conservatory, and there’s a lot I have to catch up on for work. I’d be getting home late every day. It would disturb you and A-jie.”
In the weak light of morning, with his face in shadow, Wei Ying’s face is a patch of black ice.
“Oh,” says Jiang Cheng, blurry and unconvinced, the way that people say oh when they know the other person is bullshitting them and both parties know it. “Like, you want to stop living here?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Then say what you mean,” Jiang Cheng says, crossing the room until he’s standing beside his sister, who’s still cutting off the circulation to her own fingers. “Because I feel like I haven’t spoken to my brother, my actual brother, for weeks now. I thought I’d get him back, but more and more it feels like I’m losing him.”
“A-Cheng,” says Jiang Yanli.
“No, let him talk,” says Wei Ying, not taking his eyes off Jiang Cheng’s face. Up this close, Jiang Cheng can smell him. Everyone has their own smell; he can recognize his brother’s like a bloodhound from a lifetime of sharing a room with him. It’s streaked with a soapscent he doesn’t recognize. “It doesn’t mean anything, Jiang Cheng. Just trying something new. That...that might be good for all of us.”
“What is it that’s not working?” Jiang Cheng says. “What’s not right? The meds? The visits? What is it? What can we not fix? What is so horrible that you can’t tell us?”
“Like hell there’s nothing!” Jiang Cheng’s stomach dips like he’s caught in a column of plane turbulence. “You never look at me when you talk anymore, we sit in silence at dinner like two strangers, I want to help and you’re not fucking letting me! How is that nothing? How do you expect me to just be okay with that? What kind of brother does that make me?”
“A-Ying just needs some space!” Jiang Yanli shouts, eyes trained on the floor. “Stop fighting! Don’t fight. We can’t be like this, we can’t be like—”
The ones that came before us.
Ma, don’t run a red light!
We grow up teaching ourselves the things we think would have saved our parents. Sometimes we still lose ourselves in their footprints.
“Space,” Jiang Cheng repeats.
“It would be good for everyone,” Wei Ying repeats, eyes trained on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “I really think it would be. For you and Jiejie, for me. The headaches. I know you weren’t pleased to hear about them, but I get them. A lot. I think...I think they’re better when I’m not home. When I don’t see the bathroom.”
The paramedics came in bright blue. When Jiang Cheng let them inside, his world had been swimming, and trying to focus on their faces enough to tell them what had happened felt like he’d tipped facefirst drunk into a summer pool and was floating faceup at the sky, imagining human features in the ripple of the surface. The bathroom, he’d said, shaking so hard his teeth sang. My brother, please. I found him in the bathroom.
He stood over them as they peeled all the blankets Jiang Cheng had piled on Wei Ying, his lips turning that sick sort of milky, poultry blue, taking his pulse. The fabric of all their bedding had stained dark and slow in the water, sucking all the blood and sick into their fibers. His head lolled when they lifted him. A loose thing. If someone twisted it, it’d come off, like a broken doll’s.
Jiang Cheng’s socks had been wet when he shoved them into the first pair of shoes at the door. He didn’t care if they were sneakers, if he was ruining the heels, didn’t even know if they were his shoes. It turned out they weren’t. They were Wei Ying’s, in the end.
Then Jiang Cheng came back, and the bathroom was spotless, like it never happened. The only proof was in the glass. The absence of it, a baby tooth bitten out of a soft, angry mouth. He has to climb into that bathtub with its rubber no-slip mat every day, he has to see that sink with the orange-mess of a cup in it every day, he has to remember the silver, and the glass against the tub, the humid sticky smell of a bathroom after a shower without the fan on.
“I’d come back on the weekends,” Wei Ying says, like this is supposed to mean anything. “I’m not moving out forever, I’m not moving out because of either of you, that’s not what this is.” He clutches the shoulder straps of his backpack, nylon crinkling. The sound of school trainers again. “This is me trying. To get better. It’s not permanent.”
“I didn’t realize getting better meant you had to leave home.”
“For now, it does,” says Wei Ying, and he looks Jiang Cheng in the face. “Just for now, it does.”
The clock ticks upon the piano. Jiang Yanli still hasn’t let go of her fingers, looking close to tears, and Jiang Cheng sighs through his nose.
“When are you leaving?”
“Tonight. Or tomorrow, maybe. I’ll come back and get some things.”
“Doesn’t Lan Zhan live with his brother?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying slings his backpack over his shoulders, tugs at the straps until they secure around him. “There’s space. They live in a bigger apartment than we do.”
“You’ll be a bother.”
“Not if I can help it.”
They share a three-way stalemate.
“I need to go,” says Wei Ying. “I’m going to be late, it’s my first day back. I’ll see you both later, I’m still coming back here, okay?”
Jiang Cheng watches him leave, Wei Ying’s backpack latched to him like a shield. Or a parasite. It changes, in the light.
His day is cigarette smoke and no lunch, hunger like an open pipe.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how he gets through it, but by the time evening falls and he blinks away from the yellowed flux of his screen, his coworker is standing up from her seat and slinging her purse over her shoulder. The usual film of condensation has fogged up the high-rise glass around them.
“You work too hard,” she says, draping herself like a stray memo over his cubicle divider. “You make the rest of us look bad, Jiang Cheng. Go home early for once, our boss is starting to use you as an exemplary work ethic.”
He’s been staring so long at a screen that Fang Yu’s face is a glowing canvas of numbers. “I’ve got a few more codes to run,” he says. “One of them hasn’t worked all day, I can’t leave until I know it works.”
“I know,” she says. “When you’re frustrated, you hook your legs over each other twice. Knee over knee over ankle.” Jiang Cheng realizes he’s still doing it and uncrosses the pretzel of his legs immediately, cheeks souring with a blush at being so easily read. “Do you need help?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“Try talking to your frog buddy,” says Fang Yu. “Haven’t heard you try at all today. It works, you know.”
“Yeah. Okay. See you tomorrow, Fang Yu.”
Jiang Cheng tries. He waits for her heels to stop echoing, the clicks making his ears itch, and faces his little desk buddy: a rubber frog figurine small enough to sit in his palm, with cartoonish eyes and a friendly faerie-hollow kind of face, pale as a gummy worm. It looks at him expectantly, dull in the evening light.
He starts at his first line of code and starts talking.
Somewhere between the thirtieth and fiftieth lines his mouth goes dry. He talks until he can’t hear himself anymore, like his voice doesn’t belong to him, echoing in this big space for a tiny person. His eyes burn, his knuckles throb with phantom bruises, and the pixels of his computer grow wet and dark as he scrolls.
He loses his spot. For a moment an anger rises in him and he thinks it might spill, he might scream, but then it’s gone. He’s lost and he doesn’t try to find his spot again, so he saves his useless work, closes his windows, and lets his computers sleep. Jiang Cheng is, by trade, a programmer, but when he puts his machines to sleep, he always wonders where they go. If they have electric dreams. If they have pictures, or if they’re all sound, like his.
On the way to the subway, he finds his phone in his pocket and thumbs his way to the WeChat app for Lan Zhan. Their last message had been about meds, weeks ago. It’s curious, this relationship he has with Lan Zhan, now. A strange, smeary handshake stained with orange and capsule dust.
stopping by hope thats okay
stuff i need to talk to you about wei ying and meds
you probably already know what im talking about just a heads up
see you in a bit.
The way to Lan Zhan’s apartment has become unwelcomely familiar. Jiang Cheng knows which kids are out at which hours, that the hunchbacked man that does slow tortoise laps around the courtyard will be at the steps to the next apartment building when he arrives. Never sure whether he should wave or not, Jiang Cheng always offers a half-flail of an arm and the old man will stare at him mulishly, like a little spirit annoyed to have been acknowledged.
Lan Zhan doesn’t even pick up now when Jiang Cheng buzzes his apartment phone. The rings go twice, then dead, and the door clangs when it unlocks. The gloom envelops him when Jiang Cheng steps into the lobby.
There aren’t as many neighborly effects to dodge in Lan Zhan’s apartment building. Not to say there aren’t any, with baskets and stools left out in the hallway like little home-markers, but this apartment isn’t built with screen doors in mind, no open windows into the hallway. Murmurs of life happen beyond these walls. When he gets to Lan Zhan’s apartment, he can hear a muffled symphony of piano notes. The bleat of the doorbell cuts it in a quick, irritated slash.
The door opens.
Lan Zhan inclines his head, then opens wider. He unscrews a bottle of sugary drink that Jiang Cheng has only ever seen Wei Ying drink, looks at Jiang Cheng expectantly. The weight of his gaze stings.
“I’m not going to bother you for long.” Jiang Cheng rummages through his work bag, listening for the rattle of pill bottles. He feels like his sister when she’s trying to check for keys—Jiang Yanli never reaches into her bag to feel for them, never bothers to grope through her things, just holds her purse up and shakes it to listen for the jingle. “But Wei Ying told me and my sister this morning that he’d start staying with you on weekdays.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says in neither confirmation or denial, as if Jiang Cheng had just come in and announced he was here to fix Lan Zhan’s water heater.
“Yeah. So, I figured I should leave these with you. Nothing about his dosage has changed, still one pill each every evening, one for sleep as needed. Which he’s needed, so. His headaches are terrible, so make him get more sleep, he’s always fidgeting late into the night even with sleep aids at home. Oh, and he won’t listen to me, but tell him to ask his psychiatrist about changing the dosages or his prescriptions. He still barely eats. Even a normal person losing so much weight from no food and no sleep would get sick. What else—oh yeah, and when he sleeps, he always comes in and out, so don’t use a nightlight. It’s shit for his sleep quality.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan says. He takes the pill bottles from Jiang Cheng and balances all three in one the long expanse of one palm, studying the labels so he doesn’t have to look Jiang Cheng in the face.
“How would you—?” Jiang Cheng frowns. “Whatever, I’m sure he tells you everything. That’s mostly it. Don’t let him skip his psychiatrist appointments, even if he doesn’t like them. Every time he’ll come back with a headache like a hot wire in his head, but make him go.”
“Okay, yeah,” Jiang Cheng finishes lamely. “Thanks.”
“No need to thank me. It’s what I should do.”
More silence. Recently, Jiang Cheng’s life has been defined by silences—ringing ones, sweet rotten ones. Long, angry tire burns stolen from someone else’s life.
“How do you do it?” Jiang Cheng asks, mouth betraying him. “How have you managed to make him listen to you?”
Jiang Cheng has always hated the expression Lan Zhan has now. Prickling. Acidic enough to prune. “I don’t.”
“You don’t what.”
“Make him do anything.” Lan Zhan pauses. “I let him be.”
“I do too! I don’t tell him he has to do anything, but he should if he wants to get better! I just worry. Don’t you? Aren’t I allowed to be worried for my own fucking brother, who I had to see dying in a tub? Do you know what that that’s like? I don’t ever want to see him like that again! I’m just there to suggest ways for him to be better!”
“You make him do things,” Lan Zhan studies the cap of his melon cream soda. Really, since when did Lan Zhan drink that crap? “For his benefit, or yours?”
Ma is just going to read here. You mind your business and practice your piano.
“I let him be, too,” Jiang Cheng repeats, but he doesn’t hear his own voice. It leaves his mouth like one of three speech options in a wind-up toy, and he’s picked the wrong one.
Lan Zhan arches his brow.
That night, alone, their room lopsided from his brother’s absence, Jiang Cheng dreams again. Still there are no images, nothing to anchor the sounds, just the disembodied, gothic float of voices around him.
Even if you don’t plan on jumping in, what if someone pushes you? On accident? Or on purpose?
Who would want to do that?
I don’t know!
Do I what?
Want to push me in?
He wakes up in a cold sweat, heart drowning in his own blood. No one is breathing except him.
Even after the subway car had started to shake loose all its passengers, Wei Ying had stayed pressed up against Lan Zhan’s body, swaying with the sprint of the train back into darkness.
Their chests were crushing his peonies, but Wei Ying paid them little mind. It was their own quiet dance, like they were learning a ballroom waltz and those flowers were there as a guide for how close you should hold your partner. Close. No, closer than that. Oh, too close. You shouldn’t be able to feel their heartbeat. You’re not lovers. You just tell the story of them.
Too close was not a concept for Wei Ying that night. Or, rather, it never was, not from the first day they met, but Wei Ying usually didn’t do this—lean in so close to Lan Zhan’s face, silently, quietly, saying nothing but to stare up at Lan Zhan’s face with glassy eyes and a mysterious storybook smile.
“What are you so happy about,” Lan Zhan murmured, trying to focus on a stitch on Wei Ying’s shoulder.
“Your eyelashes are really long,” Wei Ying said, sweet gold breath warming Lan Zhan’s mouth. “It’s a little infuriating, Lan Zhan, you’re too perfect.”
“They are fairly average eyelashes, Wei Ying.”
“No, they’re nice, they’re like—like,” he shifted against Lan Zhan’s body, freeing an arm to scratch the bridge of his nose. “Like a cow’s.”
“A cow’s,” Lan Zhan repeated drily.
“Don’t sound like that. Cow lashes are very pretty, like, yours curl a little at the ends naturally. My sister has this horrible-looking contraption she uses to curl her lashes, and yours are just like that without even trying.” Wei Ying laughed. “Pretty. Pretty and perfect and beautiful.”
Lan Zhan’s ears had blushed so ferociously he could feel his earlobes pinking. “Hm,” he said, in lieu of a better reply. “Me or the cow?”
“You, obviously. I have moved on from the theoretical cow.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said. “Are you certain you don’t want to go home?”
“What? Yes, I’m sure. We said we’d watch Weathering With You when it was over, you promised. Or—oh. If you want me to go home, Lan Zhan, that’s no problem, I’ll just change trains at the next station—”
Wei Ying had begun to retract from Lan Zhan’s arms, expression shuttering, but Lan Zhan shook his head and held on. Their chests swallowed his flowers. “I want you to come,” said Lan Zhan. “But not if you’re too tired.”
“I’m never too tired for you,” said Wei Ying.
This would turn out to be a lie. Not an intentional one. Lan Zhan’s apartment had been quiet and damp with oncoming summer, suspended in afternoon with the curtains still open and the hot water still off. Lan Huan had still been out. He moved methodically, turning on the lights, the air conditioning, the hot water, nudging Wei Ying’s shined oxfords out of the way in the foyer.
“Do you want tea?” Lan Zhan asked. Wei Ying was stretched out upon his couch, eyes closed, holding his smashed bouquet of peonies to his chest like a saint. Or a body. Half of his face was buried in the blooms, a flood of rubies down his chin.
“I want,” Wei Ying said hazily, “the room to stop spinning.”
“Then yes,” Lan Zhan answered.
He made the tea. Wei Ying’s serving went into a cup with a lid, and when Lan Zhan sat down on the couch, Wei Ying had wiggled until he could put his head in Lan Zhan’s lap. It hadn’t been the first time he did it, but also, they weren’t in college anymore, and it’d been years since the weight of Wei Ying’s head had rolled against the curve of Lan Zhan’s thigh. His hair was a dropped bowl of ink across the front of Lan Zhan’s pants and he immediately looked away, away, anywhere but at Wei Ying—
“How do you plan to watch the movie like that,” Lan Zhan asked faintly.
Wei Ying stretched his body off the couch to drink from his teacup like a cat.
“I am planning to watch it,” sniffed Wei Ying, “from my favorite place in the world. Have some respect, Zhanzhan.”
“Your favorite place.”
“Uh-huh,” Wei Ying said. In his crumpled suit, dim light flashing off the alcohol-sheen of his eyes, he’d been a smear of rural sky. “Your lap.”
Lan Zhan blinks, and then he’s back where he is: pen over paper, legs crossed at his piano, left hand resting on the keys with a rainy cadence fading into silence. Wei Ying stares at him across the propped lid, looking mostly amused, a twinge of concern. Lan Zhan wants to put his thumb to his tongue and rub away the worry lines between his eyebrows.
“Sorry,” he says.
“You were a long ways from here,” Wei Ying says. “What were you thinking about?”
You. “Nothing.” Always you.
“I asked if you wanted more tea,” says Wei Ying. “Yes, no?”
“Yeah. I think I have to turn in for the night, Lan Zhan, my focus is shot.” Wei Ying rubs his eyes so hard they squeak. His lidded teacup clinks hollow when he checks it, but he only sits back with a hiss of cushions. “I thought it’d get better, I need it to get better, but it hasn’t.”
“Your headaches?” Lan Zhan asks.
“No. I mean, yeah, the headaches are part of it, but the focus especially.” Wei Ying stares at the black TV screen, voice papery in his exhaustion. He’d been at the conservatory for almost twice as long as he usually was, and then sat through two lessons for Jingyi and Zizhen. Wen Yuan had gotten sick, as if by divine intervention, and by the time Lan Zhan found him again in the evening, Wei Ying had been ash and fog. Empty glasses. “I’ve rewritten this program three times and I still couldn’t tell you what I planned.”
Lan Zhan puts his pen down, sets aside the theory book he’s annotating for his class for next week. His writing has gotten more and more distracted all evening, loops too big, characters outfitted in lace and Peter Pan collars. Wordlessly, he stands, taking Wei Ying’s cup to the kitchen with him, and comes back with tea. The leaves are tired and diluted after an evening of refills, and when Lan Zhan sits down beside him, Wei Ying drops his head onto his shoulder.
“It’s the meds.”
“Mmm,” Wei Ying hums. “Yeah. It’s been like this for a while now. Getting better, but it’s…” His fingers tap out a tune on his lap, and even this imaginary song that Lan Zhan can’t hear seems to bother Wei Ying. He tangles his hands together. “Frustrating. Turns off bad thoughts. The meds do what they’re supposed to, but they turn off everything. The bad thoughts. But also the ones I still needed. Most things don’t feel real. My head feels like it’s full of borderline sentient cotton. And when the fibers rub together, they generate a thought.”
The tea rises in white columns over the cup, a cloud wondering if it should scatter a storm.
“What feels real?”
Wei Ying doesn’t answer for so long that Lan Zhan thinks he might have fallen asleep, but his breaths aren’t slow enough. The surface of him is still shiny, shellacked, awake, even where he rests against him.
“When you fall asleep at night before I do,” Wei Ying says. “And all is quiet except for you. That. That feels real.”
It means something.
If Lan Zhan is honest with himself, which he grudgingly is, it’s always meant something. Maybe not in the first moment, not that first day, not even the first month, but after that night Wei Ying had played Nuvole Bianche over the phone for him, all of this has meant something. Before Wei Ying, Lan Zhan had been flying in the dark with two lit windows in the distance for navigation, chasing a life he didn’t know if he even wanted to live simply because that was what family expected of him, and then there was Wei Ying. On the street corner of a noodle stall, glowing.
What Wei Ying needs is what Lan Zhan wants. He’s acutely aware of it every night when the time to sleep comes and Wei Ying crawls in feetfirst with him, toes always cold, his back pressed against Lan Zhan’s shoulder as he hunches to block the light from his phone. They go to sleep together, wake up tangled in each other, trade off the bathroom after Lan Huan is done with it, and take the same subway to the conservatory together. One afternoon, when it’s hot enough for the sun to hurt, Lan Zhan buys a double-sticked red bean popsicle on their way to the bus station from a convenience store crammed up to the ceiling with old fashioned water heaters and footstools painted with blue-yellow cartoon characters. Wei Ying laughs, gathers his thick curtain of hair into a twist so it stays out of his face, and watches as Lan Zhan tries to break the popsicle in half.
“Ah,” he says, one ending breaking off unevenly, chunky popsicle overhang on one shortening the other. He hands Wei Ying the bigger half. “Here.”
“That’s too much! Lan Zhan, you take that one.”
“I don’t like sweets.”
“I extremely think you’re lying.”
“Do you ever see me eating sweets?” Lan Zhan is still holding out the larger half, the heat frosting the surface so it sparkles like a perfume bottle in the sun. “It’s melting, Wei Ying.”
“Yes. Once I caught you snacking on almond brittle and you ate the whole bag.”
“That was New Year’s Eve.”
“Does not disprove my Lan Zhan Sweet Tooth Theory,” Wei Ying says.
It means something. Never has it not meant something, but Lan Zhan doesn’t think he can tell Wei Ying. Not now. He didn’t plan to, ever, really, but especially not now. June melts into July and once or twice, maybe three times, Lan Zhan considers turning his face into the back of Wei Ying’s neck when they lie in bed together, feel the knobs of his spine against his mouth, and tell him.
At the end of July, sleep carries him into darkness, walking him into a dream of a florist’s boutique, so heady is the smell of lily and chrysanthemum that it can’t be anywhere else—but when Lan Zhan puts his feet down, when he looks up, he sees that funeral pyre and the flowered casket that his mother lay in. The portrait is still black and white. This time, it isn’t his mother, but Wei Ying, laughing, his mouth a dark halo.
All the seats are empty. Why is no one here to see him? Wei Ying is loved in life. Lan Zhan’s feet carry him forward, and everything below his waist feels wrong, like gurney wheels have been sutured in place where his legs are supposed to be.
Wei Ying lies inside the casket holding a bouquet of crushed peonies. They rest upon him in a messy splatter of raw meat.
Then he opens his eyes, looks right into Lan Zhan’s face, and says, “My song. You’re not playing the song. I asked you to play it when I die: My Best Friend Who Doesn’t Have A Best Friend Anymore.”
Lan Zhan wakes up in a cold sweat—hangover in a bathroom, vomit in your hair kind of sweat—but in blue midnight he’s cocooned in his bed, heartclogged and shaky. The bed shifts, and night turns into body.
“Lan Zhan?” comes Wei Ying’s soft voice. “Are you okay?”
His throat is so dry it clicks when Lan Zhan swallows. “Nightmare,” he says.
“I thought so. You’re all damp. I was worried you were running a fever.” Wei Ying’s palm settles upon Lan Zhan’s forehead. The cool weight of it presses Lan Zhan’s head into his pillow, gently, and he almost shudders from the relief. “Nope. What scared you so bad, huh, Lan Zhan?”
He shakes his head. Wei Ying leaves his hand on Lan Zhan’s forehead for a while longer, then slides it towards his hairline to brush the sweaty baby hairs back.
“It’s okay. I’m right here. I’m not scared of any monsters.”
He lies down close with his face tucked into the curve of Lan Zhan’s neck, rabbit breaths under Lan Zhan’s ear. This time all his dreams are touch, and he’s lying on a bamboo mat alone with a dying butterfly on his throat.
Wei Ying needs two hands to count how many weeks since he’d last seen his brother, but he balances three drinks in one and is looking for the iron tangle of his keys with the other. If he has to guess, it’s been six, but it’s almost August, which would make this week the seventh. Next will be the lucky eighth. He and luck are not friends. They had a falling out when he was five.
Jiang Cheng has talked to him, yes, through truncated text messages and conversations that lead nowhere, like sidewalks half-laid until the building company realized there was rot underneath the earth. But he hasn’t seen his brother since the day he packed his toiletries and changes of clothes into a duffel and took the subway across the city to Lan Zhan’s apartment in the neon lightning-bug glow of the evening, and today isn’t any different.
“It’s me, Jie,” he answers, closing the door behind him, almost faceplanting when he trips over his sister’s kitten heels. He’s been spoiled by Lan Zhan’s spotless foyer where he and his brother have two pairs of shoes each, guarding the doormat. “Is Jiang Cheng home?”
“He’s not home,” she says, not meeting his gaze when she says it. She’s still wearing her studio clothes, bright flashes of color jumping off her underneath her windbreaker. “Aiya, A-Ying, I thought I told you I can’t have sugary stuff during performance season, it’ll make my face bloat—”
“It’s just one!” Wei Ying insists, hands a bottle of cream soda out to his sister, pinning the other to his chest as he attempts to shuck his shoes off. He kicks them onto the pile by the half-empty rack, Mount Jiang, shoelaces limp where they land. “You don’t have to drink it now, I just wanted to bring something for you. And uhm, Jiang Cheng if he wants one.”
“He’ll want one,” Jiang Yanli says. She cradles them in the crook of her elbow and then she looks up into Wei Ying’s face, eyes searching. Her hair’s been pulled up in a tight bun for practice and class; it means he can read every thought on his sister’s face. “A-Ying,” she asks. “How are you?”
“I’m good, A-jie,” he says. “I really think I am. I’m not perfect, but I’m...I’m good.”
Coward Boy. Piano Boy. Okay Boy.
“Have you been sleeping? How about eating? Are you hungry?”
“I’ve been sleeping,” says Wei Ying, and he means it. “I don’t wake up in the night as much as I used to, either. I still do. I don’t know if that’ll go away, but I’ve been sleeping.”
“Your complexion looks better. Zhanzhan is vegetarian, right?”
“Yes, but he cooks great, A-jie, don’t worry. He made me all those lunches before.”
“Has he…” Jiang Yanli fixes him with an unfathomable expression, and Wei Ying nearly expects her to grasp her fingers in her hand again. She does it so often now and he wishes it weren’t because of him. “Never mind. Did you eat yet? We made sure to set aside food from dinner last night for you.”
Wei Ying isn’t hungry, but he says “I want to eat,” just to see his sister smile, and follows her into the kitchen. He stops by every weekend, but the fridge always looks a little different every time he’s there. That’s how you know you don’t live somewhere—you don’t remember what the inside of the refrigerator looks like, and every time you open it things are new and things are gone. He always tucks juice into one of the shelves by the door that’s meant for eggs. Jiang Cheng always has tea. Lately, there are neither.
“A-Cheng eats out with his coworkers most days,” she says, when Wei Ying peeks inside and gets naked, foggy shelves. A pack of five-spice dry tofu and some shriveled ginger. A jar of bamboo in chili oil. A raw bundle of jumbo pea shoots. Yellowing leaves. “ I’m not eating as much because of the performance season. It’s okay.”
“Jie, you need to eat to stay healthy.”
“I know! I am,” she insists. Into the microwave goes a plateful of hongshao red snapper, a filet of it. Belly. The best portion, bones still on. “Don’t worry about me.”
Wei Ying elects not to point out that he, too, is allowed to worry about her, but doesn’t. He serves himself night-old rice from the rice cooker, warms it up after the fish comes out of the microwave, and sets it all down on the dining table. In his absence it’s gotten, if possible, even messier. He sits down in the chair he always sits in, Jiang Yanli in the chair she always sits in, and it’s almost normal.
“Is it good?” Jiang Yanli asks, watching him eat. Wei Ying nods, puts his back into it. “Oh, I’m glad.”
“Whatever A-jie makes is always good.” She and Jiang Cheng always sit on one side of the dining table, and his chair is glaringly empty beside her. “Say, Jie. Jiang Cheng’s not avoiding me, is he? He must be.”
He passes it off as a joke, but the skin around Jiang Yanli’s eyes tightens. It’s not funny. Both of them know it’s not, but Wei Ying swallows and a fish bone is stuck in his throat.
“He’s a little busy recently, it’s nothing you did, A-Ying. He wouldn’t avoid you.”
“Yeah.” He’s still choking on fish bone, so he steamshovels rice into his mouth to pummel it down. “Yeah, he wouldn’t.”
“Good news, though!” she says, forcing cheer into her voice. “Well, it’s just an invitation. The Jin’s subsidiary and A-Cheng’s company partnered in an acquisition to another cloud computing company, and—I didn’t catch all the details, it was a lot of that business jargon that you and I don’t care for.”
“Oh. That’s great?” Wei Ying rests the end of his chopsticks inside the rim of his bowl. “What invitation?”
“It’s good! He’s getting shares. He’s been working really hard because of audits, but anyway, Zixuan’s family invited us to dinner at Suzhe Hui because of it. He said we should all come along, you included. It’s next weekend. You can bring Zhanzhan, too. Only if you want!” Jiang Yanli has laced her own fingers together, squeezing. Better. “And Zixuan said he wants to see you. He’s been asking how you’re doing.”
“Ah.” Jin Zixuan. From what Wei Ying has learned, he owes him a drink or twenty. “What did you tell him?”
“That you’ve been doing better.” She rests her chin on the knobs of her knuckles, white cobblestones worried raw.
Wei Ying takes his time to eat another mouthful, abruptly grateful for something to stall conversation. Then, “Are Jiang Shushu and Yu Ayi coming?”
His sister looks down at his fish, torn apart and soaking in soy sauce in his bowl. “Yeah.”
“There’ll be a lot of people, though, I think. Zhanzhan’s brother was involved as a consultant for some of the processes, so he’s coming along too! He might be bringing a friend himself. Me and A-Cheng and Zixuan. His cousins and some of his aunts on...not sure which side. But there’ll be a lot of people. Zixuan said his parents want everyone there. Ma will be too distracted.” She crosses her ankles beneath the table. Her toes are still taped. “We miss seeing you at dinner.”
Wei Ying’s throat is clear this time, but the phantom sensation of a bone lingers when he swallows again. “Okay,” he says. Regret is fish and soy sauce and hardened overnight rice warmed up again. “I’ll come.”
“Really?” She smiles so dazzlingly, she must have been expecting him to say no. “Can I tell Zixuan you said yes? And Zhanzhan? For the reservation.”
“I’m so glad! Don’t worry, A-Ying. Ma won’t say anything to you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jie.”
“She won’t, I know she won’t. Not in front of all those people.”
you know wine right?
i know wine like i know my men
better than most
what kind of wine do you get someone you owe
for a favor?
what kind of favor
‘thanks for putting in a good word for me with your boss’ favor?
‘thank you for helping my family’ favor
what’s your budget?
Lan Zhan is wearing something periwinkle and floaty to the dinner, a veil snatched off the head of a bride in summer evening. His closet is blue and cream with occasional snatches of black, for concert evenings, and one tuxedo, for performances. Not that Wei Ying has studied his wardrobe, and Lan Zhan doesn’t leave his closet doors open—but one day Wei Ying had rolled out of bed, forgotten he wasn’t in his own apartment, and pulled open the closet doors to attempt to find something to wear for work. Lan Zhan had come in and asked, “Did you...want to wear something of mine today?”
Sleep had almost made Wei Ying say yes.
He’s in the bathroom, now, trying to wrestle his hair into some semblance of presentability. Wei Ying had showered for this dinner. Jiang Yanli can say as much as she likes that her mother won’t antagonize Wei Ying in front of so many people, and she’s probably right, but he’s not going to give her extra reasons to look at him with that face. Oh. Are you still sick? It’s a lose-lose situation, really. She’ll see him now, looking alive, and roll her eyes. You look fine. What the hell was all the commotion about?
So here he is, in Lan Zhan’s bathroom, wearing a nice pair of slacks and a red satin button-up that he usually only ever wears for concerts, running his brush through the frizzy ends of his hair so they’ll lie flat. The humidity of summer always turns them into a bottle-brush when he sweeps it up with a hairtie.
Lan Zhan appears in the doorway. He looks like someone that turns people’s heads, the kind of person you’d hug and then say, “Oh, you smell nice,” and then spend the rest of the evening wondering if that was too intimate a thing to say. He watches Wei Ying brush his hair.
“This is why I just wear it up every day,” Wei Ying says defensively.
“I can do it for you.”
“Like I always do for performance nights.”
“That’s too much work, Lan Zhan.”
“I do it every morning.” Lan Zhan brushes past him and reaches for the cabinets under the sink. “Did you want it to lie flat?”
“Do you want me to pin it out of the way?”
“Uhm, just with bobby pins is fine, you don’t need to do anything fancy with a ribbon or a clip or anything.”
“Every morning, Lan Zhan, really?” Wei Ying asks as Lan Zhan unrolls the cord of his flat iron and plugs it into the outlet. The voltage sparks, a violet flare, when the plug meets wall. Then he sprays something over Wei Ying’s hair, the mist settling in fine, sticky droplets around them. Hairspray? No—heat protectant, the label says. This is so complicated. “Is that why you get up at five AM? Good heavens. Here I was, thinking you rolled out of bed effortlessly beautiful every day.”
Lan Zhan is silent for a long moment. “It’s calming.” His hands are gentle and cool against the nape of Wei Ying’s neck; he has to fight down a full-body shiver when Lan Zhan parts and ties up all his hair save for a thin sheet at the back of his head. “The silence of morning and getting ready.”
Lan Zhan holds his fingers between the hot plates of his flat iron to check for heat, and then gathers a stripe of Wei Ying’s hair and lets it fall, clacks the iron shut. A ghost of a burn against his scalp, then a soft, heady tug.
Wei Ying shivers again. This time, it has nothing to do with how gentle Lan Zhan’s hands are.
He works methodically. Before every pass of the iron, Lan Zhan runs Wei Ying’s brush through a lock of hair, then holds it with the brush as he straightens. Then he unties the unworked portion of Wei Ying’s hair balanced like a pile of melting sesame ice cream upon the crown of his head, frees another layer, and repeats.
Halfway up Wei Ying’s head, Lan Zhan’s fingers brush the scar. One hard, throbbing ache runs through him, and Lan Zhan freezes. “Did I burn you?”
“No, no. Nothing of the sort, Lan Zhan, no worries.”
He puts his hands back on Wei Ying’s head so tenderly that the scar throbs again. It’s waiting for the pain to come, no one else touches it like this. “Are you worried about this evening?” asks Lan Zhan.
“Jiejie said there’ll be a lot of people.” A non-answer. One that he knows Lan Zhan will let him get away with, because Lan Zhan will understand.
“I’ll go get drinks with you if it helps. We don’t have to sit at the table the entire night.”
Wei Ying laughs in the tiny bathroom, so suddenly that the sound of it startles himself. “You’ll get drinks with me? Really?”
“You’ll get a drink, I’ll get milk tea.”
“Let’s do that, just because it’ll be so cute to watch. I want to see you ask the bartender for a milk tea.”
“The Suzhe Hui bar does milk tea.”
“Ugh. Of course you knew that already.”
“Ge has a lot of his business dinners there.”
“Is Huan-ge bringing a friend?”
“I suppose so. Possibly Mingjue-ge.”
“I seem to recall that Mingjue-ge thinks the Jins are tarts.” Wei Ying had been at a Little New Year’s Eve party one year where Mingjue-ge had been tipsy and not hid it, wine-glow an angry fever across his cheekbones. Wei Ying had to go find Lan Zhan and report the gossip immediately, only to find Lan Zhan eating directly out of a jumbo bag of almond brittle, and that was infinitely more interesting than whatever Mingjue-ge had to say about the Jins. “Though he’s like that about businesspeople in general.”
“You would be right,” Lan Zhan says. “And I would not necessarily disagree with him.”
“Zhanzhan!” Wei Ying says with disbelief, and laughs again. “Really?”
“Jin Zixuan is fine.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Yeah, he’s alright.”
Lan Zhan finishes with all of Wei Ying's hair. Now it falls in thick, glossy curtains around his face, still warm from the iron, and Lan Zhan brushes it out one more time before he works open a bobby pin with his teeth and slips it into Wei Ying’s hair, pinning back a piece of hair that frames his face. He does it again, tongue pink against the black pin, and Wei Ying does not think about the pin in his hair that’s been in Lan Zhan’s mouth.
“Is it okay?” Lan Zhan asks.
“It’s amazing. Much better than anything I could do, certainly,” says Wei Ying. “Thank you.”
Lan Zhan smiles his soft eyesmile, and Wei Ying almost turns around to kiss him.
But he doesn’t.
“Do you have your gift bag?”
“I’ve got it.”
Suzhe Hui is nestled around high rises and glowing high-end shopping, jutting into the street like a great celadon bowl framed in bamboo and fountains. It’s far enough of a walk from the subway station that a sweat starts to itch at the back of Wei Ying’s neck. He’s not sure it’s all because of the heat. Inside his belly, his stomach churns, a bag full of broken things. Maybe Wei Ying shouldn’t have taken his meds on an empty stomach, but he sure as hell isn’t going to do it at the dinner table. Lan Zhan had offered him a Tupperware of watermelon chunks that Lan Huan had sliced up the day before and Wei Ying had turned it down.
He should have eaten the damn watermelon.
“Welcome to Suzhe Hui,” the greeters at the door titter, and the air conditioning rushes in a thick gale against them as they enter. The draft rustles the tissue paper Wei Ying had packed into his gift bag. A man-made pond full of koi sprawls across the lobby, reception positioned in front of it so that the woman at the desk looks permanently framed in nature, like a news anchor. A patterned scarf tied in bunny ears at her neck. She could be a flight attendant.
“Jin Zixuan,” Wei Ying says.
“Thank you,” she says, running her finger down the guest book. “Third floor, room seven.”
When the elevator doors close, the headache starts. It’s been long enough that Wei Ying has forgotten the telltale signs of it—the ache that starts behind his eyes, the throb of his brain like a ruthless god in his skull, every breath a distant train bell. Lan Zhan seems to sense it, even without needing to ask. A warmth appears in the center of Wei Ying’s back. It’s not rotten, like something his own body would give him, but steadying and sure.
“Headache,” Wei Ying says. “I’ll just drink some tea when we sit down.”
“Tell me if it gets worse?”
The headache doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. His brain could be thousands of tubes and he’s listening to all his thoughts scramble through them at once, angry, rabid beetles trying to outrun each other. Even the click of Lan Zhan’s boots on the black tile hurts. Like something chewing.
“Lan Zhan, Wei Ying!” Jin Zixuan is closest to the door when they knock and open it, and he turns with a glass of bubbling rose gold champagne to greet them. “I’m glad you could make it, you’re right on time.”
“Thank you for having me,” says Lan Zhan.
“Ai, don’t thank me, what kind of thanks are needed? Without your brother this merger would’ve never happened, it’s only right. Wei Ying,” he says, nodding. “You look good.”
“Thank you,” Wei Ying says, and then presses the gift bag into Jin Zixuan’s free hand. “Here, have this.”
“What—Wei Ying, what is this?”
“It’s just a thank you for what you did,” he pauses, unsure if he should elaborate, “that night. And the days after.”
“What thanks are needed for something like that? I did it for you and for A-Li and Jiang Cheng, it wasn’t even a big deal. I’ve done that sort of thing before for my cousins, I know what it’s like. Don’t be like this, Wei Ying.”
“No, please, take it.”
“Good heavens, is this Tianzhilan Baijiu? Wei Ying, you really can’t do this—”
“Please, on account of my sister,” says Wei Ying, and he knows he’s won this one. “Please take it.”
“Okay.” Jin Zixuan nods, closes the mouth of the gift bag and deposits it in his seat. “Listen. I really am glad to see you doing better.”
The roundtable is big enough to accommodate at least twenty people, and a few chairs are occupied by purses, but most are filled—Jin Zixuan and his slew of promised cousins, Lan Huan and Mingjue-ge embroiled deep in a conversation with Jin Zixuan’s father, a portly man Wei Ying remembers not being particularly pleasant to be around. Jiang Cheng, who meets Wei Ying’s gaze across the room, and gives him something that’s neither smile nor grimace. His sister. Their parents. Yu Ayi is fully turned to Jin Zixuan’s mother, legs crossed and champagne flute in hand, chandelier glinting off her shoes. The red-purple of blackberry.
Scar: red blare of car horns in an intersection.
Lan Zhan sits down beside her, in the only empty seats left. Wei Ying takes the one between Lan Zhan and his sister. She turns to him and smiles. Her hair’s been curled; she has lipstick on. He won’t rush her out of dinner tonight with an emergency call.
“A-Ying, what did you bring for Zixuan?”
“Just a thank you,” he says.
“I’m glad you came.” She leans in. “And A-Cheng doesn’t look it, but he’s glad, too. He kept asking if you’d be here tonight. Didn’t believe me when I told him you’d said you’d come. You know how he is.”
Oh, does Wei Ying know.
“Tea,” Lan Zhan murmurs, serving Wei Ying from the communal pot that goes around on the turntable. “For your head.”
“Thanks, Zhanzhan,” he says, and drinks. Jiang Shushu also catches his eye two seats away, gives Wei Ying a stiff nod like his head is attached to springtrap. “I’m okay. I’ll feel better with some food.” He’s hoping, anyway. With Lan Zhan and his sister on either side of him, he thinks this dinner might actually be okay. Yu Ayi hasn’t even acknowledged him, a mercy that he will take any day.
The last to show up is one of Jin Zixuan’s cousins, Mo Xuanyu—related on his mother’s side, Wei Ying guesses—and then the food is ordered. Ten minutes in, a waitress comes by to listen to them shout suggestions across the table, leaning against Jin Zixuan’s chair with a notepad as she makes recommendations based on their table.
“You have two vegetarians?” she asks. “Then you should get the stir-fried garlic sigua or the eggplant and mushroom tofu claypot. Do you eat spicy?”
“They don’t eat spicy.”
“You don’t eat meat and don’t eat spicy? My goodness. You guys must be Shanghainese people?”
“Our zuzong is Suzhounese, yes.”
“Wait, what’s the spicy suggestion?” asks Jin Zixuan. “We have people who do like spicy.”
“I want to hear the meat suggestions,” Nie Mingjue declares. “What do you suggest for beef?”
“There are so many beef dishes. Are you looking for soup or hot dishes? For cold dishes we have tongue.”
By the time the order is placed, hunger has settled in earnest, tingling behind Wei Ying’s ears. Lan Zhan pours him more tea when he finishes it, and then asks, “Did you want to get a drink now?”
“No, I think I’ll hold off. Thanks, Zhanzhan. We can go get that milk tea, though.”
“It’s okay. I’ll get it if you get a drink.”
Food fills the table. The cold dishes plate first—duck tongue arranged in a fan, goose neck, beef tongue, liangpi, cold-tossed spinach, marinated cucumbers, braised sweet pumpkin, drunken chicken in huangjiu the color of rich amber. Then pearly stir-fried shrimp served with a miniature dish of rice vinegar and a pink iris flower, hongshao sliced eel, and soft niangao fried with cabbage and tender bamboo shoots, just a touch red with chili oil. Roast quail. Lion’s Head meatball soup with shredded blue softshell crab and sharp cilantro. Pickled mustard green and fish soup in a clay pot, the broth a brilliant gold-green. Lan Zhan quietly picks the fish out of his own bowl, placing them into Wei Ying’s until the soup almost spills over.
“Lan Zhan, I have enough,” he insists. “Just try to scoop around the fish.”
“I am,” Lan Zhan says, and then dunks the ladle back into the clay pot without so much as even trying to avoid the fish filets.
My Best, Silly, Stubborn Friend.
“You’re not,” Wei Ying says, and even under restaurant lighting, Lan Zhan’s eyes glitter.
My Best Friend.
My Best Friend That I Love.
“It’s spilling,” Lan Zhan points out, and Wei Ying snatches some fish out of his soup bowl into his plate. The tablecloth has dampened beneath it.
Lan Zhan. Quiet, silly, stubborn Lan Zhan, who holds his hair out of the way carefully when he eats. Wei Ying thinks he’s staring, knows he’s staring, and pulls his own eyes away to eat his dinner. His heart thuds in his throat. There’s something he wants to tell him. It’s been too long.
Maybe he’ll tell him. Maybe later tonight.
The plates begin to clear as dinner goes on. Wei Ying is finishing his last serving of niangao—Lan Zhan doesn’t usually make it with chili oil, and Wei Ying has been mixing his own Lao Gan Ma into it—when the sensation of being watched chills him. He sits up, wiping his napkin over his mouth, and there it is: Yu Ayi’s white-headlight look, and Wei Ying is in the backseat again, staring at the dark ceiling of a car, blood buzzing in his lips.
She looks away, almost as quickly as they’d met eyes.
“Lan Zhan,” says Yu Ziyuan, chin propped up on a dainty wrist. Silver chain bracelet with two flower pendants for her children. “I hear you’re still working at the Shanghai Conservatory, how is that going for you?”
“Good,” Lan Zhan says, in the decrescendo of dinner, plates clinking as the waitresses take them away. The glass turntable is frosted with cloudy plate rings. Wei Ying helpfully leans out of the way as one of them reaches over his shoulder, her body close enough to brush his cheekbone, as she balances the plates along the length of her arm. Then she pulls away, tiny ponds of sauce and broth swaying in their empty dishes. “I work with advanced students and external program students. They’re hard workers. It’s rewarding.”
“You never thought about doing business, like your brother?”
“Ah, no.” Wei Ying watches as Lan Zhan hands the waitress one last empty plate, wiping his fingers on his napkin. “He is an excellent businessman, but it has never been my area of interest.”
“No one does it for interest, right?” Yu Ziyuan says. She pours herself more tea, the green of it radioactive in her hand. Wei Ying reaches out and flicks the turntable enough for the teapot to come to him, pours himself his own cup. The leaves settle in a black scorch mark at the bottom. “It makes good money.”
“I suppose it does.”
The tea burns his tongue.
“I heard from A-Li that Wei Ying is staying with you recently.”
“Isn’t that a bother for you and Lan Huan?”
“It’s not a bother. Wei Ying and I are best friends,” says Lan Zhan, “and we have been since we were teenagers. We work at the Conservatory together. Having him stay is never trouble.”
“But you must be dating someone,” Yu Ziyuan says, her eyebrows cutting her face when she raises them. “Aren’t you A-Cheng’s age, almost thirty? Time passes so fast, I remember when you were just a child—you ought to get married soon. What do you plan to do then? You young people nowadays, writing off marriage, it’s really such a shame. I keep telling my A-Li that by the time I was her and A-Xuan’s age, I was already pregnant with her.”
Lan Zhan trains his gaze on the tablecloth, the fabric spotted with droplets of a dinner well-eaten. “I’m not seeing anyone, Yu Ayi,” he says.
The tea turns to candied battery acid and pink glue in Wei Ying’s mouth.
“You should. I have this friend, her daughter—”
“I’m going to the bar downstairs,” says Wei Ying, standing up. His napkin peels off his lap and flutters to the ground. “Did you want me to get you your milk tea, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan blinks at him. Yu Ziyuan swings her attention away from them, unfazed, like she’s embarrassed to acknowledge that she knows Wei Ying at all. “No, it’s okay—Wei Ying, what’s wrong?” he asks.
“Nothing, just. I’ll be right back, okay?”
“Okay,” Lan Zhan says, mouth a rosebud of concern. “Wei Ying, are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” He can hear his own liar voice, threaded with cracks. “I’m fine. I’ll be back up soon.”
“A-Ying?” his sister asks after him as he steps around the tangle of table legs, dodging waitresses with empty plates and full, steaming ones, sidestepping a waiter holding a sparkling bouquet of drinks. Three waters, two Cokes, one orange soda. Orange. Orange. Wei Ying thinks he might heave. “A-Ying, where are you going?”
“He says downstairs.”
The sound of other patrons in Suzhe Hui firecracker up and down the reserved rooms, the dining hall below a symphonic ruckus of conversation. It’s late enough in the evening that drunken arguments near the bathrooms and in hallways half-hidden by the elevators have begun. Wei Ying tells himself he doesn’t eavesdrop on any of them, and if he does, none of them stay with him.
He steps into an elevator with two tipsy girls his age, dresses winking under sungold elevator lighting. They bum cigarettes off each other, bitching about their boyfriends or siblings or mothers or something that Wei Ying doesn’t catch. After all, he’s not eavesdropping.
The bar is on the second floor. The doors open, and the girls leave, and he’s rooted to the spot until the elevator dings softly and closes again, holding him in its steel and glass mouth. Like a mint.
Then Wei Ying hits the button for the ground floor. With a swoop the elevator car dips again, and finally comes to a stop in the lobby. The doors slide back open and stay open, the ground floor air rushing in and smelling of the outside—cigarettes, recycled water, exhaust, skin, floor. The lobby is more busy now that the evening has drawn over the city in earnest. Two receptionists work the front desk. The man made koi pond is buttoned on each side with children leaning over the edge with their hands in the water, fingers pruning as their parents gossip with one eye on them.
Please do not feed the fish. Do not throw coins in the water, says a sign hanging over the pebbled edges. When Wei Ying looks in, the bottom of the pond glitters with a smattering of unlawful coins, a constellation half-built. Lazy koi as big as his legs drift past. Most of them keep to the center, away from groping fingers, mottled heads blurring under the splash of miniature waterfalls.
Here, where there’s nothing for the fish to do but eat and swim in circles until they die, they get big and fat and happy. Like little orange whales. No one is here to grab them by their gills and haul them out of the water.
He stares into the pond as Suzhe Hui thunders on around him. But you must be dating someone.
One of the children, a toddler, squeals when his older cousin pretends to shove him into the pond.
I’m not seeing anyone, Yu Ayi.
Swampy green nausea rises in his ears. Wei Ying closes his eyes and swallows. It’s not that he’s ever kid himself into thinking that Lan Zhan couldn’t like someone else. They’re just best friends. That’s all they are. But Yu Ayi had looked at him, said, You should, in that voice that meant, I know you won’t and that’ll be Wei Ying’s fault. The same face and voice she’d used when Jiang Yanli quit piano for ballet. Why, A-Li? You think you’ll be better at ballet? The same face and voice she’d used when Jiang Cheng had quit piano, period, and the apartment had been trench warfare for weeks. You disappoint me so much, A-Cheng. That’s all you’re good at doing. Is it because you think you’re second-rate?
I know I’m second-rate, Ma!
I was doing better. I’m supposed to be doing better.
Lan Zhan stands a tripping distance away. He’s never been disheveled, not once in his life. Maybe windswept, at best, even though they’re inside a restaurant, and Lan Zhan never runs, only walks with purpose. Wei Ying stares at him over his own shoulder.
“You weren’t at the bar,” Lan Zhan says by way of question, and Wei Ying gives him a sickly, gas-leak laugh.
“Sorry. I’m sorry I worried you, Lan Zhan. I didn’t feel like drinking anything, after all.” He gestures at the pond, because Lan Zhan is searching his face with an unfathomable expression, the kind that feels like no light but all touch, a warm hand on his cheek. “Why’d you come down? I said I’d be back soon.”
“We don’t have to go back up if you don’t want to.” Lan Zhan’s phone is in his hand, screen flyered with a shower of notifications. “I told your sister you might not be feeling well. We can leave if you want to.”
“That will look so bad, Lan Zhan. It’ll make you look so bad. Next time I see Yu Ayi, I’ll never hear the end of it, or she’ll hold it over my head,” or she’ll tell me I’m holding you back, just like I did to my siblings, because that’s what I do. That’s what I’m good at. That’s why taking myself out of this world seemed like such an easy choice. That’s what you do for people you love, right? “And Jiang Cheng—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts, “what would make you feel best?”
I was supposed to be doing better.
“I don’t know.”
Lan Zhan regards him for a moment longer, wordless, before stepping up to the pond beside Wei Ying and just barely dodging a traffic jam of toddlers running past. One of the boys, clearly the oldest and roughest of his family with a Band-Aid hanging off his chin like a streak of melted candy, balks when he sees Lan Zhan. Comically cranes his head up to look at him, like he doesn’t expect there to be a head on a body so tall. Wei Ying wishes he could laugh. Something near his bellybutton ripples, the echo of laughter he’s swallowed, clamoring in his guts.
Then they stand at the pond together, watching the koi.
They’ve been here before—not Suzhe Hui, but like this. Standing side by side, looking at something, not touching, not talking, but together, strangely. Stars and their moons and their planets and little bits of space dust, or something, tied together with centripetal forces. Wei Ying had done his time studying science, liked it enough, was quite good at it, even—it fascinated him that the universe was held together as it spun, and if anything was cut things would fall apart. He stares at Lan Zhan, Wei Ying and his two-mooned gaze, Lan Zhan feeling it upon him and saying something so Wei Ying would know that he sensed his attention on him, too.
They’ve been here. First at a piano, always at a piano, watching Lan Zhan pick at a hangnail. Then in a museum, Lan Zhan’s shoes echoing like cathedral bells. In a butterfly exhibit, with Lan Zhan’s hair so long it spilled over the edge of the handrail when he leaned on it, upsetting a greenstem branch enough for a velveteen butterfly to land on Wei Ying’s knuckles.
In any capacity, they’d always be here, Wei Ying knew. If not with the both of them standing, then Lan Zhan alone, and Wei Ying, well, cold and uncaring that he stood so close.
It’s been too long.
“Let’s go get almond brittle.”
Wei Ying blinks down into the pond, thinking for a dizzy moment that one of the fish had said it, demanding to be fed. Then he turns to Lan Zhan.
“We can get those green onion chips you like, too.”
“Yes. I want almond brittle.”
“But,” Wei Ying says wildly, “you don’t like sweet things?”
“Of course I do,” Lan Zhan says matter-of-factly. “Don’t you remember I ate a whole bag of it on Little New Year’s Eve?”
For the record, Wei Ying knew three kinds of drunks. Mianmian didn’t get drunk, period. His sister: giggly, pleasant, a little blurred until she drank too much and veered into weepy. Nie Huaisang was the same. His brother Jiang Cheng was a motormouth of a drunk—not loud, there was a difference. He got red in the cheeks, the gene for alcohol tolerance skipping blithely past him. He’d get drunk and be a little wobbly, a broken minute hand on a clock face, and then he’d open his mouth and say something that he was always thinking when he was sober, but would never say aloud unless alcohol wrenched it out of him. Don’t you hate me? Don’t you wish we weren’t brothers, sometimes? I know I do.
He wouldn’t remember it, and Wei Ying would pretend he hadn’t heard it at all.
But Lan Zhan.
“Your brother is going to be home soon.”
“Has he ever seen you like this?”
Lan Zhan said nothing. He was facedown on the couch after drinking two cups of tea, and Wei Ying sits on the edge now with Lan Zhan’s hip jutting into his back.
“I thought not. You’re so proper and put together, Zhanzhan, sorry I didn’t realize. I wouldn’t have let Mianmian pour you so much if I’d known.”
“I think she assumed, like me, that you could hold your alcohol. You’re so tall,” said Wei Ying, picking up the empty teacup. One last mouthful sloshes at the bottom with all its leaves, a brackish pond disturbed, and Wei Ying swills it so the tea catches all the leaves tracked up the sides of the mug. Lan Zhan didn’t answer. “Ah, well. I hope you had fun even if we accidentally got you plastered. We’ll make it up to you at some point!”
The couch hissed when Wei Ying moved to stand. More tea was in order; Lan Zhan was clearly still lost to the ether. He’d barely gotten to his feet when pressure came to circle his waist and pull him back into the cushions, and Wei Ying almost sat right on Lan Zhan’s ribcage as he tripped back.
“Lan Zhan! What—?”
Lan Zhan hugged him, face in Wei Ying’s back, in his hair. The angle was strange—Lan Zhan was half-sitting up, legs still stretched out along the sofa, clinging to Wei Ying without any intention of letting go. He still smelled like roast.
“I’m getting you tea,” Wei Ying said, patting Lan Zhan’s hands where they were clasped right above Wei Ying’s navel. It made his stomach blush to look at. Lan Zhan’s hands were pretty. “Let go, Zhanzhan.”
“Do I have to? Yes. Look at you right now. You’re not going to believe a word of this when I recite it back to you in the morning, are you?”
Lan Zhan breathed against him, face framed by the sloping crests of Wei Ying’s shoulder blades. His hair probably smelled like garlic pork. Then, “Do you like her?”
The back of Wei Ying’s head pulsed.
“Who, Mianmian?” No answer. “Mianmian is great. I should hope I like someone I have to spend that many hours practicing music with. Last semester I had to accompany that insufferable violinist—”
“Not that way.”
“In what way, then, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asked, throat knotted.
“In a way that makes you...sad.”
The tea leaves floated like little bits of shipwreck when Wei Ying stared down into the cup. “Are you sad when you like someone, Lan Zhan?” he asked. “You shouldn’t like someone who makes you sad. I don’t think they’d deserve you very much.” No answer again. Lan Zhan still hadn’t let go. “No, by the way. I don’t.”
When Wei Ying turned around again, Lan Zhan had fallen asleep. Come morning, he didn’t remember a thing.
Good-sad. It was never about sadness.
Lan Zhan sleeps with one of his hands by his head, face turned toward it, always ready to reach into the space next to him.
He falls asleep with his hands folded over his chest, facing the ceiling. Unlike Wei Ying, he never tosses or turns, but he does move. He turns his face towards Wei Ying, on the nights Wei Ying tries to go without a sleep aid, and he’s awake deep into the most pixelated hours of the night. Usually, if he’s lucky, he can catch a few threadbare hours of sleep before morning comes. Sometimes Wei Ying falls asleep minutes before Lan Zhan’s alarm goes off, and he’d feel the bed shifting underneath him as Lan Zhan got up to use the bathroom first.
Tonight he lies on his side of the bed feeling rickety and broken, a drawerful of knives all sliding into each other and clanging. If he moves, his insides could cut him. Instead Wei Ying lies still, stomach doing its sick, meaty churn, and watches Lan Zhan’s face in the dark. The quiet hush of the air conditioner matches up with Lan Zhan’s breaths every third or fourth inhale. Lan Zhan doesn’t snore, not quite, but his breaths slow and deepen into a deep tidal push-pull that, on better nights, Wei Ying could fall asleep to.
These breaths don’t belong to him. They’re borrowed out of someone else’s life, someone nameless. You should. Wei Ying lives with Lan Zhan now, but a day will come when he can’t, and he’ll probably be better then. So it’ll be okay, mostly. He’ll have to be better then, because he doesn’t have a choice but to be better. People expect him to be, so he will be. And he’ll move back in with his sister and his brother, or maybe just Jiang Cheng if Jiang Yanli is married, too, by then. Which she should be. I have this friend, her daughter.
The air conditioner rumbles, blowing out icy air again as if to tell him to shut up. He wishes he could. He’s taking three different medications to shut up.
It doesn’t matter. Yu Ayi has this friend, who has a daughter. Lan Huan undoubtedly has this coworker, who has a brother. Someone will know someone will know someone. One day Lan Zhan will love that someone and if Wei Ying has a say in it he wouldn’t pick himself, no matter how much he wishes for it, because he wants Lan Zhan to love someone who doesn’t want to vomit at the sight of socks in a tub or pink rubber or the color orange.
You make people sad. You hold people back. That’s what you do. That’s what you’re good at. You’re fine at piano, you’re okay at making your friends laugh. Making them sad is what you’re really good at.
As a kid he’d wondered if his family was cursed. There was something wrong with them, all of them, in their blood. He didn’t know if he had cousins, his parents didn’t have siblings on either side, not that he knew of. Maybe things would look different if he’d gone to live with family, but then maybe he never would have played piano or met Lan Zhan. Or maybe they were all like him, like his parents. Something bad in their blood. Born to die. Maybe it was for the best they all never met.
Four AM. Wei Ying knows, because there are neighbors on the floor above that get up even earlier than Lan Zhan. An old couple, he believes, he’s seen them in the elevators before. Whitehaired and wilted, but dignified, like little gingko trees. The old man always gets up at four on the dot, brews pangdahai and goji berry tea for his aging wife, old water jugs thunking where he’d lug them off the kitchen floors. The shuffle of his slippers scurries like the drag of a rat’s full belly across waxed hardwood.
He was doing better.
Around now, Lan Zhan’s sleep gets sheer and see-through; he’s a light sleeper as it is, but moving without waking him an hour before five is almost impossible. Wei Ying lifts his head from the pillow, letting the shift in weight settle, and listens for the shortening of Lan Zhan’s breath. When it doesn’t come, he peels the covers away from himself and eases his body backwards until he can slip out of bed.
Wei Ying waits. Lan Zhan sleeps on.
Lan Zhan’s room opens to the hallway. For a moment he has to stand in the door, letting the cold and warm air mix over the threshold like milk pooling over crackling ice. The apartment is dark, Lan Huan’s door closed, but Wei Ying is slammed with the image of light shining through glass panes, Jiang Shushu with his feet up on the desk, midnight lamps turning the hallway into a yellow plank jutting out into dark, angry sea. He blinks. Forgotten Boy Middle Boy Shut Up Boy. Then he breathes, taking in the olive flower jasmine smell of Lan Zhan’s room that still clings to him.
The kitchen is grey at night. Wei Ying runs his hand along the wall, searching for the light switch. It clicks, then light floods the apartment. He has to squint around the bright pierce of it scraping his corneas. Lan Zhan put his pill sorter on the top shelf of the dishware cupboard, so Wei Ying knows where it is, knows he can grab it if he wants, but just out of the way enough that it’s annoying to reach for more than once a day. It rattles as it comes down, a collection of baby teeth.
His sleep aid rattles back and forth under the curved umbrella S of Saturday. The snick of plastic opening breaks the quiet around him, and Wei Ying reaches for the first cup on the counter that he sees—it doesn’t belong to him, one that he’s unofficially adopted in his time here. A calico blob of a cat is sprawled across the ceramic. He drinks. His stomach rumbles, pissed for being woken at this hour.
The light goes off and Wei Ying pads quietly towards Lan Zhan’s room again, pauses in front of the door he left almost all the way shut. He stands outside, feet warming the wood beneath him, until his gaze slides to the empty study with its futon and jungle of sheet music.
Without thinking, Wei Ying pulls the door closed to Lan Zhan’s room so no more of the cool air escapes, quietly enough that Lan Zhan won’t wake. Then he slides into the study, letting down the backrest of the futon, and shuts the door behind him. He doesn’t have a blanket, so he doesn’t turn on the air conditioning in here, curling up like a little pill bug under a rotting log.
He could cry. He wants to cry, but he can’t, emotion pressing like a brick on the back of his face. There’s nothing to cry about. Wei Ying has always been good at confronting ugly realities, listing them out to himself. He needs to get used to this. Lan Zhan is just a kind and perfect person. He’s good at being alone, he’s not scared of silence. Lan Zhan is just his best friend. This is as far as they get and this is as far as he’ll let Lan Zhan go. Hey Lan Zhan, when you fall in love with someone, don’t go too far, okay? It’s pathetic, head-over-toilet, bile and tears kind of pathetic. Eating alone while crying pathetic. When, not if, because Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan’s yawning heart has more than enough room for someone. It shouldn’t be him. He wouldn’t pick him.
You should. I have this friend—
Wei Ying shuts his eyes and watches the absurd light show on the backs of his eyelids until sleep drowns him.
Lan Zhan is at the piano by the time Wei Ying wakes and shoots off the futon like a flipped coin. Sleep has made him sweaty, the backs of his ears feeling like bar soap melting in a wet dish. The windows are red with daylight. Time bloats around him. How long has Wei Ying been asleep?
A blanket falls off of him between the door and the hallway, tangling underfoot. Further down, soft strains of Lan Huan’s voice filter from his room. It’s a Sunday, but work never stops for a consultant, and from the living room he can hear the quiet taps of Lan Zhan’s piano as he plays with earbuds plugged in.
“You’re awake,” says Lan Zhan, pulling them out of his ears.
“What time is it?” Wei Ying asks. He doesn’t really care or need to care what time it is on a Sunday, but it’s the first question he can think of.
“In the afternoon?”
“Oh my God,” he says, disoriented. Why had he woken up in the study? He vaguely recalls drifting into it last night. “That’s so late. What the—I slept too long. Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You needed the sleep.”
“I’m fine. It’s fine, I only need three hours a night to function.”
Lan Zhan watches him over the piano lid. His reflection is an oil spill across the ebony. Wei Ying expects him to ask where he went last night, why he slept in the study, if he’s feeling okay, why he’s so agitated. He doesn’t know. Lan Zhan must have found him and turned the air conditioning on, put a blanket over him. Then he stands up, setting aside a packet of Scriabin, and says, “Are you hungry?”
“Hungry?” Wei Ying repeats, like he’s never heard the word.
“Ge cooked and made too much. It looks like he has an emergency at work that he has to attend to later, so he’s not eating with us.” Lan Zhan redoes the pin that holds one side of his hair back above his ear as he waits for Wei Ying to say something. “You probably will not love most of what he made. But there’s more for us, if you’re hungry.”
Something in Wei Ying’s belly makes a noise. He’s not so sure it’s hunger; ever since he’d started on his meds he hasn’t really known hunger like he used to—all-consuming and ravenous, like it would eat him first before he could eat anything else. Now it’s there, he knows it’s there, but it exists outside of himself. A handheld inconvenience.
“I’ll go brush my teeth.”
By the time Wei Ying finishes, Lan Huan has been freed from his call, and his voice floats from the kitchen down the hall as Wei Ying heads back to Lan Zhan’s room to grab a change of clothes.
“—was wondering, because I heard someone moving around last night and assumed it probably wasn’t you. You don’t turn the lights on at night.”
“Mm, it was Wei Ying.”
“Is he okay? You said you found him asleep in the study this morning.”
“I don’t know. I won’t ask. If he wants to tell me, then he will.”
“Doesn’t that worry you?”
“It worries me. Of course it does. But it isn’t about me, Ge. You know that.”
“...I worry about you, too, A-Zhan.”
Lan Huan makes a conciliatory noise. “I’ll be back tonight, but I’m not sure when. Don’t wait up for me. Call me if anything comes up.”
“I will. Go safely, Ge.”
Lan Zhan is setting out full dishes of food when Wei Ying rounds the corner, still in his pajamas. So much of the day has bled past that he isn’t sure if it makes any sense to go through his usual routine; there must be some unspoken time limit to when a person can change into their day clothes.
“Come and eat,” Lan Zhan says.
“What meal is this supposed to be?” Wei Ying jokes. “Lunch? Dinner?” The clock flirts with four-fifteen. His nerves are brambles. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. If this is dinner, you’re eating so early. Really, we don’t have to eat now.”
“Dinner now is fine. This is when I ate when I had night classes.”
Wei Ying takes the offered chopsticks. “When do you have night classes?”
“When I was substituting for Jingyi and Wen Yuan and Zizhen,” Lan Zhan says. Across the table he plaits his hair with swift fingers to get it out of the way, his hands white keys against the sharps and flats of his black hair. Wei Ying could reach across the food and touch him. “Since I’m not free in the mornings, I taught them in the evenings. It was easier for all of us.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying looks at his rice. Picks it up and starts to eat it without tasting anything. Right. Lan Zhan substituted for his students because he was selfish, too selfish to remember that people depended on him. “Right.”
Lan Zhan pauses. Then he stands up, like someone that had realized he’d walked into the wrong room, sat down with the wrong person, who said the wrong words. His chopsticks roll along the table and Wei Ying watches them almost go off the edge—then they stop before clattering to the kitchen tile.
He places the pill sorter in front of Wei Ying. Red, because Wei Ying likes red, clashing with the granite and brushed greys of the kitchen. It’s a streak of head blood across the wood. It should pool, sweet and gory. It doesn’t.
“Mm.” His chopsticks clink as he serves himself youmianjin with cabbage and shiitake. In the pale broth, the wheat gluten rounds are swollen sacks of flesh.
Isn’t that a bother for you and Lan Huan?
Lan Zhan chews.
Lan Zhan, why are you here?
Chopstick. Bowl. Clink-clink. Over the edge. Back again.
I’m not even sad for me.
“I don’t think I should live with you anymore.”
The silence is spinebreaking.
Lan Zhan swallows.
“Oh.” Then, “Did something happen?”
“No, no. Nothing happened. It was nothing you did, Lan Zhan, I promise. Things are alright with my siblings, too, I just think. I just.” Wei Ying reaches for his pill sorter, and it rattles with the tremor in his hand. How long has it been there? A while. It stops when he’s playing the piano. He only exists in music. “It would be for the best.”
“Would you go back home?”
Home. Back into the deer trap. A rabbit with a bad leg. That horrible safety in sadness.
“I guess I would. Yeah, I should.”
Lan Zhan stares at him, like Wei Ying’s face has rearranged itself. He’s gone all abstract, a cubist thing to be perceived rather than understood. “Wei Ying.”
“It’s just—this is too much, Lan Zhan.” His arm shakes. In the hospital he’d wanted to throw something and the urge rises in him like bile again. “This is too much. You shouldn’t have to do this. You’re not—we’re just best friends. You don’t have to take care of any of this, and at some point there’ll be someone else, and you should live your life without needing to set aside so much brain space and energy for me. I can take care of myself. I can do just fine. This—living together—is fine now, but it’ll be burdensome later when you get married, or—”
“When I get married,” Lan Zhan repeats.
“Or when you date. You know. You already live with your brother, and now there’s me, and it—it would be crowded and inefficient. They’d move in with you, and it just doesn’t make sense for me to be here.”
I have this friend.
“I’m…” Lan Zhan sets his chopsticks down. This time, they don’t roll at all. “Afraid I’m not following.”
“Zhanzhan,” Wei Ying says, desperately, because how is this not obvious? He curls his hand around his pill sorter. This stupid pill sorter, a reminder of everything he can’t be without help. “Lan Zhan. You shouldn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t. You have no responsibility to me. I said it before. I’m just a mess. You need a better person to spend your time with. You do too much, because you’re perfect and you want to leave everything better than how it was when you found it, but—you can’t do this. I can’t do this, I can’t let you just spend the rest of forever doing this.”
“Taking care of me. Doing any of this for me.” He wrenches the sorter off the table like yanking a needle out of an artery. “This.”
“All I do is bring it to the table.”
“You bought it. For a while you dispensed all of my meds, too. You wake up in the middle of the night whenever I move around too much, which is every night. And then I’ll be used to it, and then when you meet someone you’ll—what, spread yourself thin between them and me? I can’t do that. Maybe you can, but I can’t.”
Forgotten Burden, Middle Burden, Shut-Up Burden.
Lan Zhan focuses on the food between them. “Wei Ying,” he says, finally. “What is this ‘meeting someone else’ that you speak of?”
“Did you…” he says, dissecting the wheat gluten with his eyes, “meet someone?”
“What?” The thought. “No. No, not me. You. When you do.”
“When I meet someone.”
“Yeah. Because this isn’t supposed to be forever, right? Us, this. It was so A-jie and Jiang Cheng and I could learn how to be people again after what happened. We needed space, but we can’t have space forever. We’re family whether we like it or not. You won’t say it, but you’ll get tired of me. I would get tired of me. Lan Zhan, I’ve been tired of me.”
Lan Zhan appears on his side of the table, noiselessly. Chairs don’t scrape when Lan Zhan pushes them back, like they hurry to oil themselves before he does. He sinks into a deep crouch, then pillows himself on his knees, balancing his weight on his heels.
“Wei Ying,” he says, laying a hand on one of Wei Ying’s knees. “If something happened, please tell me.”
“Nothing happened,” Wei Ying whispers. His hands are so close to Lan Zhan’s. “Just. Talk.”
A deep shadow eclipses Lan Zhan’s face. “Wei Ying,” he says, voice even now, and Wei Ying knows he’s been read, like a book, or an embarrassing medical record. “It does not matter what others say. I have no regard for what talk there is, and there won’t—I am not interested in meeting anyone with any purpose but for work or for acquaintance. I will not be tired of you. Not now, not in a while.”
“You can’t know that.”
Lan Zhan looks up at him, and now he does take Wei Ying’s hand, one in both of his. “Because you are...my best friend,” he says. “Because, more than that, you are someone whose life informs mine. I am me, because you are you. I will not get tired of you. I cannot.”
Wei Ying looks down at Lan Zhan’s open, earnest face, tender enough that it would bruise if you bumped it. You are my best friend that I love.
It’s been too long.
“Eat what you can,” Lan Zhan says. “And I will play you whatever you want to hear later.”
Nuvole Bianche. White clouds.
Wei Ying found it when he was eighteen and sick, sicker than a dog, and he’d told no one. His sister would have doted on him, and his brother would have put up a fuss about being more careful with his health, you careless idiot, but being sick meant being in trouble, so Wei Ying let the notes of his Rachmaninoff practice hammer the inside of his skull until it was unbearable. And.
It had been on an online repository of sheet music. He noticed it because it had so many hits and comments, so he opened it. And.
The next day he met Lan Zhan, in a practice room with a grand piano rising between them like a mountain that Lan Zhan was slip-sliding down the edge of in his surprise to meet him. It didn’t, objectively, scientifically, but to Wei Ying, this simple, quiet song—he imagines that it brought Lan Zhan to him. Reached up into the blue-smeared sky, the rare patch you see when Shanghai smog clears enough to give you an annual glimpse, and brought him its best corner of universe. Packed into one Lan Zhan.
“Mm,” he says, when Wei Ying requests it. “I was going to, unless you wanted something else.”
“I always want the way you play Nuvole Bianche,” Wei Ying murmurs. He takes care to sit closer to the edge of the piano bench so Lan Zhan has plenty of space towards the center. “It’s like...our heartsong.”
Lan Zhan smiles. He plays.
He doesn’t, but Wei Ying can fall asleep to it. The warmth of Lan Zhan’s body beside him, the quiet thunks of his damper pedal, the creak of the piano bench when he stretches between octaves—he could stay like this forever, with Lan Zhan, in the evening.
The last time he’d thought about it was a month before everything fell apart, the night of his last Beethoven performance. The peony night, face in Lan Zhan’s lap. He remembered seeing the blue and green of the movie, and then he was waking up in an unknown world with a body beneath him.
He’d looked up, into Lan Zhan’s face. His eyes were closed, but Lan Zhan had been awake, and turned to gaze down at him where they were tangled on the couch. “You fell asleep,” he said, in case Wei Ying wasn’t sure. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Thank you.” He smeared the words into Lan Zhan’s chest. “Sorry.”
“No need to be.”
Wei Ying, close enough for Lan Zhan to dust his face with his cool breath, had thought, I want to be like this forever.
That’s love, maybe. It doesn’t have to be, but that’s what it is for Wei Ying. When he’s with Lan Zhan, he doesn’t need to Be Someone, doesn’t need to Be Anyone, he only needs to Be, and somehow that’s enough; for others, perhaps, love is fireworks at dusk, the flash of cars outside an airport at midnight, the mend and the break of a heart. For him it was meeting Lan Zhan and, against the creamy backdrop of piano keys, finally seeing the rest of his life begin.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, when he knows a crescendo is coming so his words will have arpeggios and bell chords to hide behind, “my Lan Zhan. I love you.”
I almost left this world without telling you.
Lan Zhan’s fingers falter. The notes drag, a drip of ballpoint ink streaking across their page.
My best friend that I love. Nothing will be the same anymore, will it?
Neither of them move.
What were you practicing?
For the day I’d meet you.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “I…”
“You don’t have to say it back to me,” Wei Ying says. “You don’t even have to—nothing has to change. I just need you to know. I’m sorry I never told you. I’m sorry I almost left without telling you. It’s the worst thing I’ll ever do.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan repeats, and he’s taking his hands off the keys now, his foot off the pedal, the music vanishing. His voice is brittle. “Wei Ying.”
“I don’t know if you—in fact, if you feel the same way, I don’t think I could take it.” The bleachy smell of tears pools in his nose. “Because I’ve put you through the worst things a person could put their best friend through. But, no matter—no matter what, I just want you to know. I love you, Zhanzhan, I love you. So much that it hurts. Good-sad.” He doesn’t feel any sobs come to his throat, just the tears worming out of his eyes. They could be tears. It could be blood. “I think I have for a long time, I just never. I just. Didn’t think my life would get to a point where it’d make sense for me to tell you. I’m sorry I never did. I’m sorry. You’re the most important person to me in my life, I’m sorry.”
Lan Zhan holds his face in both hands, trying to catch all the tears with his thumbs. Every hair on Wei Ying’s head seems to be tingling, vertigo shaking him, and he grips Lan Zhan’s wrists. Tells himself to push Lan Zhan away. Wants to pull him closer.
So Lan Zhan hugs him. Side by side like this, it’s hard—both of them have to twist so their chests will meet, but Wei Ying will tie himself into deadknots for Lan Zhan, and shifts until he can hug Lan Zhan back.
“I’m sorry if I ever made you think I could leave you,” Wei Ying chokes. “It was never about you. But—you know now, you know. I love you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan turns his face into Wei Ying’s blotchy cheek. “Wei Ying. I know. Breathe.”
He hiccups. Then Lan Zhan presses his mouth to his cheekbone, so deliberate it can’t be anything but a kiss, and then—
“I love you.”
“I have loved you, Wei Ying,” he says into the wisped baby hairs at Wei Ying’s temple, “and I would have loved you even if you left this world.”
“No,” Wei Ying protests, but doesn’t have any room left for words in his mouth. It’s either silence or bawling, now, so he shuts up. Quiet, traitorous sobs escape him anyway. His chest is one big, stupid universe—eating itself and exploding both at once, until one day he’ll cave upon himself, but until then he is loved and huge and known. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to.”
“But I would have,” Lan Zhan says. He unwinds Wei Ying’s arms from around him, but doesn’t let go, only leans back enough so that he can put a hand to Wei Ying’s cheek. “Wei Ying. There is no one else. There has never been anyone else. I walked into that practice room, lost, one day—and that was it.”
Wei Ying looks between Lan Zhan’s eyes and feels his face crumple, body catching up with the memo that he’s crying.
“I want to be someone that deserves your love,” he says.
“You already are,” says Lan Zhan.
“I want to be someone that grows in your love.”
Wei Ying’s cheek smarts when Lan Zhan catches escaped tears with his shirt sleeve. “Then I will love you,” he murmurs, “until you do.”
Whenever Lan Zhan holds him like this—intensely, with his hands to his face, Wei Ying has to grab onto Lan Zhan’s wrists. They’re so close, but he could fall backwards, fight rushing out of his body.
For once he doesn’t want to.
“Is this the part where we kiss?”
Lan Zhan’s lower lashline creases with his soft, ghostly smile, and he asks, “If you want to?”
“I…” Have thought about it for years. I’ve dreamt about it. I don’t remember dreams, but in all the ones I do, I’m kissing you. “I want to. But I’m all wet and salty and—”
Lan Zhan kisses him.
It’s clumsy. It’s what a first kiss is—unpoetic and sincere and searching. Wei Ying tastes the runoff of his own tears, dripping into the reservoir of his mouth before he passes it to Lan Zhan.
Then he slants his head, just enough, and the kiss deepens so much that Wei Ying startles back.
“Sorry,” he exhales. “Ah. Lan Zhan, sorry. I must look like a goddamn disaster right now.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head, once. When he reaches out he catches a stray lock of Wei Ying’s hair and tucks it behind his ear. “You always look beautiful.”
“Do you want to try that again?”
“Okay, close your eyes.”
Ouyang Zizhen falls down a flight of stairs and sprains his ankle. That’s the story that Wei Ying gets, at least, from Jingyi, who’s interrupted by Wen Yuan, and by the time he makes it to their rescheduled lesson his leg is wrapped up in a boot that looks like a limb off a Bionicle.
“At least it’s not your pedal foot,” Wei Ying says when Ouyang Zizhen sits down with a wince. “How did it even happen?”
“I was trying to show Jingyi how I can stick my tongue into my nostril,” he says miserably.
“Did it work?”
“Right,” Wei Ying says, reaching for his bag of sheet music to save Zizhen the shift in weight. “Seeing as your arms are fine, I hope you know this means I expect you to continue practicing.”
“Yes, Wei Laoshi.”
Wei Ying pauses. “I’m kidding, a bit, you know that—right? If you’re on some kind of painkiller or something, or if you have physical therapy for it, you have to tell me. We can work around it.”
“No painkillers except ibuprofen,” Zizhen says. “But I’ll tell you, Wei Laoshi.”
So Wei Ying gets home late—between him and Lan Zhan, it’s usually him who’s the one to get home later, even with conservatory faculty flagging Lan Zhan down to discuss department operations and programs. Wei Ying, who has returned to full work, has much to catch up with the Philharmonic Orchestra that their conservatory is partnered with, on top of getting back up to speed with his external program students.
Wei Ying wiggles onto the subway back towards Lan Zhan’s apartment. It’s crowded, still, because of course it is; it feels earlier than it is. Wei Ying hooks his arm around a bar so he can text Lan Zhan with both hands. im coming back!
Outside Lan Zhan’s apartment building is an old man taking his evening walk. His mouth is always set in an ancient, shriveled frown, the telltale slap of his slippers carrying over the last pockets of summer. Wei Ying waves to him, as he always does when he sees him. And, as he always does, he receives a dry, angry glare in response.
As things should be.
“Zhanzhan!” he singsongs when the apartment buzzer goes through.
Lan Zhan says nothing, and hangs up to unlock the gate.
“Sorry I’m back so late,” Wei Ying says when he finally spills into Lan Zhan’s apartment. He drops his backpack to the floor. Walking into Lan Zhan’s home always makes Wei Ying aware of how much coppery smog he’s bringing in on his clothes. Someday he’ll have to use it as an excuse to drop all his clothes in the foyer—on a day they’re sure Lan Huan won’t be home, perhaps. “You must be getting ready for bed, aren’t you, Lan Zhan?”
“Not so soon,” Lan Zhan says, but his hair is down and he’s changed into his home clothes—a step between outside clothes and pajamas, hair loose around his face. “You’re back.”
“I’m back!” Wei Ying says, and before he can kick his shoes off, Lan Zhan steps close to him, settles his palm around Wei Ying’s neck, and kisses him. Wei Ying thinks it’s going to be a peck. It’s not.
Lan Zhan cushions his back with his hand so Wei Ying doesn’t thunk against the door, whines when Lan Zhan kisses his upper lip, then his lower lip, licks into his mouth, then pulls away with a nip. Only the kitchen light is on, throwing the angles of Lan Zhan’s face into sharp, smug relief. Wei Ying is still smeared up against the door, knees knocking together.
“You horrible man,” he manages, weakly, and Lan Zhan breathes a soft puff of laughter. “How can you do that to me, unaware?”
“I missed you,” Lan Zhan says.
“We saw each other this morning,” Wei Ying says, righting himself. His hands are shaking when he reaches down to untie his shoes. It’s a little embarrassing, how easily he’s undone, but then he sees that Lan Zhan’s ears are so pink they could illuminate the entire living room on their own, in the middle of night, and he cannot help but smile.
“And I missed you all the time in between.” Lan Zhan tilts his head towards the kitchen. “We saved you dinner. Do you want to shower first, or eat first?”
“Shower, I had to walk so far for the subway today. I’m all sweaty.”
Lan Huan’s door is shut, so Wei Ying doesn’t have a chance to wave when he passes. The door to Lan Zhan’s room stands ajar, windows propped open for air. When he switches the light on, he has to pause.
“You moved all your furniture.”
“Oh,” Lan Zhan appears in the corridor, coming to stand in the doorway. He nods. “I did.”
“It was up against two walls all this time,” he explains. “Which meant that you either had to climb over me to get in at night, if you slept on the inside, or I’d have to climb over you when I got up in the morning, if you slept on the outside.” He gestures to his bed that’s in the middle of the room now, free on both sides. He’s moved his desk into the corner. Lan Zhan has less furniture and more space than Wei Ying’s shared room does in his own apartment, so it still looks designed for a home decorating magazine. There’s a new plant in his window, something with twisting green leaves like antlers splattered in yellow. “This way, neither of us have to worry about waking the other up.”
“You really didn’t have to, Lan Zhan.”
My Boyfriend Leaning Against the Bedroom Door, Looking Like He Wants to Laugh.
“I wanted to.”
Wei Ying is sprawled out on the couch, peeling pistachios—one for him, one for Lan Zhan—with a horror movie turned down low when Lan Zhan leans over and kisses him.
They don’t usually kiss in the living room, or in the kitchen. Their weekdays are busy enough that they don’t spend time in the kitchen together, and if one of them is in the living room it’s to practice piano, and Lan Huan is always in and out—but Lan Huan had shrugged on a shirt this evening, looking tired but satisfied, and said he was going out to celebrate with Mingjue-ge and this A-Yao that Wei Ying vaguely thinks he met at the dinner weeks ago.
“We closed all the contract loopholes,” he said as he was putting his shoes on. “And I am going to go drink.”
“Be safe,” Lan Zhan said, without looking up from the bag of pistachios he was wrestling open as Wei Ying scrolled through their horror movie options. Lan Zhan isn’t scared of horror movies, not much—not like Jiang Cheng—but he did mention that he prefers ghosts over gore.
Wei Ying could marry him.
He’d been leaning against Lan Zhan’s side, legs stretched out before him on the rest of the couch. They were alternating between pistachios and huamei plums, salty against sour-sweet. When he cracked open a pistachio for Lan Zhan he’d hold it up, and Lan Zhan would eat right out of his hand. Every time, his lips would brush the tips of Wei Ying’s fingers, and he’d lick the salt and the taste of Lan Zhan off his fingertips before cracking another.
And then Lan Zhan, whose arm had been slung over Wei Ying’s chest to hold him close, had turned his face and kissed him.
They stare at each other. Mutedly, someone screams onscreen.
“Are you only going to kiss me once?” Wei Ying says, wetting his lip with his tongue. Pistachio salt. Plum sugar. Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan. He sits up, turning so that they’re facing each other properly. “Zhanzhan, how much more obvious do I have to be?”
Then Lan Zhan kisses him again, deeper this time, enough for the warmth to trail from the corners of Wei Ying’s mouth along the swells of his cheeks to his ears, down his neck. He knew when they sat down that there was no way this movie night was going to end with the both of them going unkissed, but he also didn’t think it would be like this: Lan Zhan’s hand finding the back of his head, cradling it in the span of his palm like blown glass, tilting Wei Ying’s head so their mouths fit together. He’s dizzy with this kiss. Not high rise dizzy, not liminal space, dark bathtub dizzy, but a dizziness that glows around the edges. His heart pulses like a railway.
He tries to breathe through his nose, but even then he has to pull away, lip a soft, wet noise when Lan Zhan catches it between his teeth, sucking before he lets go. Wei Ying’s mouth tingles when he meets Lan Zhan’s hot dark gaze, almost midnight in the watery glow of the TV, and then his mouth is on Wei Ying’s neck. First lips. Then teeth. A whimper teeters on the edge of his lips and then falls, sliding in a shimmering line down Lan Zhan’s shoulder, and he has to reach up and anchor his own arms around Lan Zhan’s neck so he doesn’t fall back. Strangely, he thinks he’d be okay if he does, right now, even into the unknown space where his head could hit anything. Somehow he doesn’t expect to bleed.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps, voice catching up with him. It comes wrecked, rasped from deep underground. “Lan Zhan, oh God, don’t stop. Don’t stop.”
Lan Zhan makes some kind of noise. “Mm,” or “Hm,” or “Yes, Wei Ying,” all of them mean the same things. His hands have fallen to Wei Ying’s back, his waist, the curves of his thighs, but they could be everywhere; every bit of Wei Ying’s body that he’s touched smolders. All Lan Zhan has done is run his hands over his clothes, without even much pressure, and yet, oh, Wei Ying feels.
“I want,” Wei Ying says into the room around them, voice muted. “Lan Zhan…” He grasps for words, which is considerably harder when Lan Zhan is kissing at the column of his throat—not soft, chaste kisses, either, which would be easier to think around, but wet, open-mouthed ones, taking care to drag his mouth as he works over Wei Ying’s skin.
“What do you want?”
“I...want to kiss more,” he says, then laughs at how silly and plaintive he sounds.
“I am kissing you.”
“I want your mouth on mine, I want your tongue in my mouth,” Wei Ying says, brave when he can’t see Lan Zhan’s face, and then Lan Zhan is lifting his head to look at him. There’s this way that Lan Zhan looks at him that’s different from everything else, deep but see-through all at once, like trying to read the sky on rare August days when the haze was clear enough to see blue. Then he kisses him again, like Wei Ying asked, soft tongue slipping into his mouth. They kiss, hot, wet, just on the edge of frantic, but still slow. Lan Zhan always tastes of tea, sweet-bitter-floral because he drinks jasmine and oolong and instead of black. The city is quiet. The air-conditioning does not rumble. Even the room, somehow, is quiet, with nothing but the soft noises of mouths meeting and separating. Meeting. Separating. Breathing. Spit-slick exhale. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says hoarsely when Lan Zhan pulls away. He’d inhaled a little more ragged than he meant to, and Lan Zhan is letting him breathe, but Wei Ying follows him until his weight shifts in full to Lan Zhan’s lap. “Where are you going,” he insists, not really asking, trying very hard not to whine. His body is a pillar between the light from the TV when he straddles Lan Zhan like this, half-clumsily, and Lan Zhan’s face is a mountain range of shadows beneath him. Like this, Wei Ying has some height on Lan Zhan, who tips his head back just so he can see all of Wei Ying’s face at once.
“Nowhere,” Lan Zhan says, anchoring his grip around Wei Ying’s waist, then reaching up. He catches a ribbon of Wei Ying’s hair between two fingers, brushes it back from Wei Ying’s face—and cups his palm to Wei Ying’s cheek. “Nowhere without you.”
Wei Ying dips his face until they can kiss again, Lan Zhan steadying him with that arm around his waist. It’s so warm. He kisses Lan Zhan still a little sticky, lapping at his mouth to catch the huamei sugar that he left in smears around Lan Zhan’s lips. He likes that, the mess. The cleaning of it, too.
“Mm, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, tries to say. He talks with his mouth still on Lan Zhan’s, so it comes out run-together and syrupy, softened in the heat. MmLanZhan. “I could kiss you forever. I cannot believe I have not been kissing you forever. I’ve wanted to.”
It’s enough to make Lan Zhan pull away, and Wei Ying’s brain catches up with his mouth a delayed beat afterwards, like a badly dubbed American Western. The TV is still flickering behind them, shapes dancing on the walls like shadow puppets. “You’ve wanted to?” Lan Zhan’s voice is all cream and smoke.
Wei Ying is glad for the dark. “Well—yeah!” he says. “I thought I was so obvious about it in the last, like two years. Like, embarrassingly obvious about it, I was starting to tell myself I needed to. Tone it down, probably, I might have been making you uncomfortable. I felt really bad about it that night, after the Beethoven finale. You know, the subway, and then.”
Lan Zhan is staring at him as if Wei Ying has sprouted another head or three. “You were…” He blinks. “Two years?”
“Two years of just being obvious.” Wei Ying feels weirdly naked, even though he’s as clothed as ever, Lan Zhan’s hands embering through his jacket. “Possibly three.” Probably more.
“How many…” Lan Zhan’s throat ripples when he swallows and Wei Ying wants to lean down and kiss that, too. Lan Zhan is a roadmap of blue; he could get lost trying to take him all in. Like trying to swallow the whole sky, the dayglow and the nightsmudge of it. “How many years before that?”
“How many years have I liked you?” says Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan nods.
“This isn’t fair,” Wei Ying says. “You should say something embarrassing, too. I’ve been doing all the confessing.”
“Ask me,” says Lan Zhan. An open invite. It’s so heady, like Lan Zhan is closing his eyes and waiting with his mouth a little parted.
Lan Zhan runs his hands down the curves of Wei Ying’s thighs, leaving paths of fading sunlight in their wake.
“Since I was eighteen. You were nineteen. The second day of November, two days after your birthday.”
“Nineteen?” Wei Ying says. “I.” He’s twenty-nine now. Numbers. A march of numbers on hospital-white reams. Ten years. “Lan Zhan. You...second of November? What happened that day?”
He can’t think about the numbers.
“I had an argument with my uncle,” says Lan Zhan, quiet and papery. “And you called me, and.”
“Nuvole Bianche,” Lan Zhan murmurs. “The first time you played it for me.”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying, chest heavy like he’s being buried alive. “Oh, Lan Zhan, that’s. That’s so many years, oh my God. Lan Zhan. Since then, are you sure?” he asks, without really needing the answer. If Wei Ying has to think about it, it had been that same winter, when the snow had turned black, and they stayed in the conservatory after-hours like two kids in the back of a little pawnshop. He’d looked at Lan Zhan, at his raw hangnail, and music toppled like wineglasses off a shelf into his head. All sharp plinks. That winter.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, because he doesn’t know what else he can say without crying. Lan Zhan relieves him of the need for it, sitting up, tipping his face back, and brings Wei Ying’s mouth back to his. His mouth is so soft, always warm, and he kisses Wei Ying like he’s trying to breathe him into the deepest parts of him. The corner of his mouth. The seam of lips, the wet part of them, the dollike swell of Wei Ying’s lower lip where it’s kiss swollen. Without thinking, Wei Ying rocks himself up against Lan Zhan’s belly, the solid, certain expanse of it, whimpers into their kiss. He’s never been so close to Lan Zhan and still so empty.
“Lan Zhan, I want,” he manages, when he breaks away again to breathe. He wonders how long Lan Zhan can kiss without ever needing air, head resting against Lan Zhan’s shoulder. His hair pulls at his scalp slightly where Lan Zhan shifts his face into it, nosing at the fine baby hairs wisping at Wei Ying’s temples. “Zhanzhan…”
“Your room,” Wei Ying says. Sure, perhaps Lan Huan won’t be back for hours, but it’s still far too open in the living room. He is not thinking living-room-appropriate thoughts. “Can we?”
Lan Zhan nods, reaching around Wei Ying to switch the TV off—always thoughtful, never skimping Lan Zhan—and shifts Wei Ying from his lap until they both can rise. A little unsteady, like two fawns at sunrise, teetering against each other. Then Wei Ying tightens his fingers in Lan Zhan’s hand and says, “Let’s go.”
Wei Ying’s body is alive. Such a strange thing to be aware of, but he and Lan Zhan nearly trip over each other in their imperfect journey to his room, and—alive, perhaps, is not the word. Awake, like he is more than someone who simply exists. The scent of Lan Zhan’s room rushes into his face when they open his door, warm and muggy, and there’s a give of air around him. Then the beep of an air-conditioner turning on, a tiny green eye flickering on by the power.
“Can I sit on your bed?”
Lan Zhan turns, and in the dusk he’s a glowing silhouette of a person—someone new, someone Wei Ying hasn’t known like this before. A corner of a galaxy.
“You can do whatever you want.”
“I’m in my outside clothes,” Wei Ying says, even as he sits down and scoots up the length of Lan Zhan’s bed. He takes care, at least to keep himself on top of the covers.
Lan Zhan follows him, too, in his outside clothes. “Do you want to stay in them?” he asks.
Oh. Well, if he’s asking. “No?” Wei Ying says.
“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” Lan Zhan says, and kisses him again.
Kissing in Lan Zhan’s bed isn’t entirely new. This is not the first time they’re doing it, but they do it at night, when both of them are draped in pajamas and curled in for the long nap, skin still tingling from the spray of the hot shower. Lan Zhan is usually tired enough to begin dropping into sleep mid-kiss, mouth softening as his breath slowed, until their kisses were just little touches of mouth to sleepy mouth.
Wei Ying finds one of Lan Zhan’s hands, sliding up the dipped groove of his back, and brings it between them. Takes a moment to admire them. Lan Zhan doesn’t stop kissing him, on his cheekbone and his forehead and the bridge of his nose. Lan Zhan has a hangnail, ring finger, a tiny flag of pink skin. It makes him so human. Wei Ying runs his thumbs over the backs of Lan Zhan’s knuckles, his piano fingers, wiry and graceful all at once. Hands that tell stories.
Then Wei Ying spreads Lan Zhan’s palm open and brings it to his belly, pressing it flat there. Lan Zhan finds Wei Ying’s face in the darkness, their eyes adjusting to the candling glow of city lights from his open window, as he guides Lan Zhan’s hand lower, lower, slow enough for Lan Zhan to stop and pull away.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says in a broken whisper. “Touch me.”
It shouldn’t feel like this—so intense, so grounding, so visceral that Wei Ying chokes on his own gasp when Lan Zhan runs his hand down between his thighs. He still has all his clothes and pants on, it’s embarrassing how he shakes. Oh, how he shakes. The ceiling has drooped again, but it isn’t suffocating, just that the world has narrowed to the flat of Lan Zhan’s hand against him.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, that’s…”
“Okay?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Okay,” Wei Ying repeats. “Good, so good. Don’t stop—ah…”
He rocks into Lan Zhan’s touch, shirt riding up around the violin bow of his waist where their bodies meet. He’s hard enough for his mouth to be dry, but Lan Zhan kisses him, soft, searching, licking into Wei Ying’s mouth with the tip of his tongue. At one point Wei Ying gasps on a laugh, and Lan Zhan kisses his teeth, and even that aches.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, running his hand over the stretch of abdomen above the waist of Wei Ying’s pants, fingertips brushing the soft feathering of hair that extends from his bellybutton down into the waistband. “Would you like me to?”
Lan Zhan does not ask him, can I, may I, but do you want me?
“Yes, Lan Zhan, yes—here, let me—”
Wei Ying rolls onto his back and feels the stiff tendon edge of the bed against his shoulder as he undoes his belt, metal clinking quietly in the deepwater silence of Lan Zhan’s room. He shimmies until he can slip the waistband down his thighs, to his knees, unhooking his ankles. Lan Zhan sits up as he does, watching him. His hair pools in thick soft inkstains around his shoulders. The outline of his body is half-formed.
Then, inelegantly, Wei Ying kicks the rough knot of his jeans towards the end of the bed until it lands with a metallic thud on the hardwood, barely hears it because Lan Zhan’s hands are on his bare thighs. Not even really touching, just resting on them, tracing up Wei Ying’s sides until they find his hips. “Yes, more of that,” he says, syllables stumbling. Like his mouth has forgotten how to form words, only knowing the shapes of kisses, how to open up to Lan Zhan’s tongue. “Lan Zhan,” it still knows how to say. “More kisses?”
Wei Ying breathes in and Lan Zhan kisses him on the exhale. Two sunspots on the crests of his hips—Lan Zhan’s thumbs. He sweeps them back and forth on Wei Ying’s skin. Twin arcs. Then Wei Ying’s hands find the hem of his sweater, already riding up Lan Zhan’s back, slides them beneath the fabric. The muscles in Lan Zhan’s back shift under his skin, and their kiss shivers like a cloudy breath in snow, but it doesn’t break. Just something shy. Lan Zhan pulls away to kiss at his throat as Wei Ying runs his hands across skin, finding Lan Zhan’s shoulder blades, his ribs, the river-groove of his spine. He could play the piano against every notch of vertebrae.
He tugs on the sweater, gently enough that Lan Zhan could stop him, but he doesn’t. Instead he lifts his arms over his head, his body unfolding over Wei Ying like a paper fan, until Wei Ying pulls it over his head, down his arms, over his wrists.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, tongue cottony in his mouth. He feels drunk. His brain buzzes, but it’s pleasant, not the headnumbing hum of fluorescence. “Ah. Come here.”
The texture of Lan Zhan’s pants roughs against Wei Ying’s bare thighs as he obeys. God, he’s sensitive there—not that Wei Ying has ever had a reason to know, and he shivers again when he finally gets his mouth on Lan Zhan’s shoulder, his neck, the soft swell at the junction of both. There’s so much of Lan Zhan he wants to kiss. If they lie here doing nothing more than this, touching and kissing and trying to make out each other’s bodies in the dark, then he will still be—be—
Every part of Lan Zhan is warm. Like his whole body is a sunrise.
“Wei Ying,” he murmurs against the shell of Wei Ying’s ear. “Do you want me to touch you?”
“Please, please touch me,” he says. He sounds winded, all from kissing. “Lan Zhan, you’re lying between my legs and you’re still not touching me enough.”
He does. The span of Lan Zhan’s palm is wide and smooth and when he fits the curve of his hand between Wei Ying’s legs, against his cock, Wei Ying’s hips jump, coming off the bed to chase heat. A noise leaves his mouth and he wants it to mean please, please, Lan Zhan, but Lan Zhan kisses him. Wei Ying presses the noises against Lan Zhan’s tongue, hot in his own mouth, the red of dawn.
Lan Zhan slips his hand underneath the waistband, the elastic giving around his knuckles, to take Wei Ying’s cock in his fingers. Finally, finally. Wei Ying gasps hard enough to pull away, breath somersaulting through him.
“Oh,” he pants, chest heaving. The grain of his voice is hoarse from kissing. He turns his face into the pearl swell of Lan Zhan’s cheek. It’s warm there, too, pink with blush and concentration. He kisses Lan Zhan’s cheekbone and then, “Ah, ah—oh my God, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”
“Good?” asks Lan Zhan. Precome has made Wei Ying wet and messy, and Lan Zhan uses his fingers to spread it down his cock. Wei Ying nods, hair wild around his face.
Lan Zhan’s breaths are deep and uneven, like this is doing something for him, too, just lying here with his body over Wei Ying his hand down Wei Ying’s underwear; even when Wei Ying had his room to himself for a fleeting moment, or when he was in the shower, jacking off was such a functional, almost detached thing he did. I guess I’ll jack off. Like it was something that happened to him, rather than something he did because he wanted to. He’d flip through his repertoire of Things That Got Him Off, because getting off meant his brain would be quiet even just for an hour. He didn’t feel anything. At least coming felt like something. Even the hollow of coming down felt like something.
But this—this is everything at once. Wei Ying doesn’t take himself for someone who’d cry during sex but he might, he doesn’t take himself for someone who’d laugh during sex but he will. He doesn’t know where to put his hands or his arms so he wraps them around Lan Zhan’s neck, his heart the thump of migrational wingbeats, life coming home, and kisses Lan Zhan until his mouth hurts.
He’s breathless by the time Lan Zhan pulls back, and even as he pants around his breaths, Lan Zhan kisses him again, like he’s making sure Wei Ying remembers the touch of his mouth, the dip of his tongue. Then he draws his hand out of Wei Ying’s underwear, lifts his fingers to his own lips. There’s a soft, wet noise when Lan Zhan sticks two of them, sticky with Wei Ying’s precome, into his mouth, sucking the taste of Wei Ying from his fingers like he’d dipped them in syrup.
“Lan Zhan,” he says weakly.
“You taste good,” Lan Zhan replies, eyes pinpricks of light. “Wei Ying. Can I?”
Oh, God. “Can you what?”
“Can I use my mouth?”
“I—do you want to?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying makes some sort of noise—a whimper, maybe, he wants it to mean yes, but Lan Zhan doesn’t move, stroking his hand down the side of Wei Ying’s bare ribs. His fingers are still a little wet from his own mouth, catching on skin. With anyone else Wei Ying might think it was gross, having their spit dragged along his body, but the touch sparks with Lan Zhan.
“Yes, please, please,” he says, when he realizes Lan Zhan is waiting. On the second please he tips his head up, trying to mean please kiss me again, and Lan Zhan knows him even in the dark. They kiss open-mouthed and hot, a little messy, and Wei Ying loves it. The lack of choreography. Lan Zhan’s tongue is in his mouth and he sucks on it, once, before they separate. Their mouths make a gentle noise when they do.
Lan Zhan slides down the length of Wei Ying’s body—slow, slowly, so slowly that Wei Ying thinks his brain might be melting out of his ears. Now that Lan Zhan’s mouth isn’t on his, he becomes so aware of the ache between his legs that his head pounds. A good pound, not one behind the eyes. Lan Zhan kisses him over his heart as he goes—warm, round, lingering, and then once more on Wei Ying’s lower belly, nosing where he’s ticklish.
Then he’s between Wei Ying’s legs, slipping his underwear down from his hips, over his thighs and knees, working for a moment when they get caught around Wei Ying’s ankle. He doesn’t yank, instead holds the heel of Wei Ying’s foot in the cradle of his palm so his leg is still and slips it off. It’s unbearably gentle, and Wei Ying almost hides his face in his hands, but then Lan Zhan is shimmying down until he can spread out on his belly—like a pleased cat smelling cream—and takes Wei Ying’s cock in his hand. He rests the other on the bridge of Wei Ying’s thigh where it meets his body, sinewy tendon standing taut, and bends forward to kiss it. So close to Wei Ying’s cock that his cheek brushes against the sticky wet of the shaft, but nothing more, and Wei Ying moans.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, pushing himself up onto his elbows. He wants to watch, but it’s almost too intense—an experience to be known by touch only. “Lan Zhan…”
“Mm.” Not much of a real reply. Just a noise that says Lan Zhan hears him. He opens his mouth and fits his teeth to the curve of Wei Ying’s thigh, bites down, sucks, as he strokes Wei Ying’s cock just enough that there’s friction but no pleasure. The skin there will purple, tasting of mouth. Wei Ying’s vision goes cloudy, he’s so aroused his tongue is stupid. “Wei Ying.”
“Please, Lan Zhan, ah, please, if you’re going to use your mouth then don’t tease me like this. I’ll—I can’t take it, please—oh god, oh—”
Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying into his mouth. He does it without fanfare, without even so much as hesitating, sucking the head of Wei Ying’s cock into the tight, slick heat of his mouth, humming like he loves it. He doesn’t go down far, but Wei Ying is almost glad for it. His head might come clean off his body if Lan Zhan sinks any lower too fast. Wei Ying’s arms tremble, still holding himself up on his elbows; his head has dropped back, chest heaving as he tries not to come too fast.
It’s never been like this. A bedraggled gasp of laughter leaves him. It’s never been like this, and he doesn’t have anything to compare this to, but he never thought it could be this, and then Lan Zhan hums again, around him. “Nn,” it’s nothing but a soft ragged exhale, almost a whimper. Wei Ying didn’t think Lan Zhan could even make that noise. Then he does sink deeper, sucks Wei Ying’s cock into his mouth and bobs his head. Once, then twice, almost shy, stroking the ring of his hand along the base of Wei Ying’s cock.
“Lan Zhan, please, oh my God,” Wei Ying’s temples are damp with sweat and pulsing. “You’re so good—how are you so good?” Lan Zhan’s eyes are shut, closed in single-minded concentration, but the rest of his face is relaxed, like he could lie between Wei Ying’s legs forever, holding his cock in his mouth and sucking, keeping Wei Ying’s hips from bucking off the bed.
Dark, sticky heat pools deep in Wei Ying’s belly, spreading down to the legs, and he shakes, elbows almost giving out. Even with Lan Zhan’s hand on the crests of his hips, holding him down, his body comes in little jerks off the mattress. “Oh, God, ahh, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan hold on—Lan Zhan, wait, wait—”
Lan Zhan pulls back, excruciatingly, sucking as he goes. It’s lewd and surreal. For a moment, Wei Ying forgets every spoken language he knows. Color doesn’t translate in the dark, but Lan Zhan’s mouth is swollen and shining, city light glinting off his lips. He doesn’t look at Wei Ying, holding his cock in his hand and leaning forward to tongue at it.
“Lan Zhan, I’ll—”
“You taste good,” Lan Zhan repeats, gives his cock another sucking kiss. “Wei Ying. Did you want to stop?”
“No! I mean—no, I don’t want to stop. Possibly ever. But I’m going to come, and I haven’t even—you haven’t—”
“You first,” Lan Zhan says. Lan Zhan is so close Wei Ying can feel the hot puffs of his breath on his cock, and Wei Ying so close that alone nearly makes him come, but he doesn’t want to get it in Lan Zhan’s eyes.
“Oh God,” Wei Ying gasps when Lan Zhan holds his hips down and still again, curling one of his solid arms beneath Wei Ying’s thigh to anchor him in place. He drops onto his back now, head surrounded by the scent of Lan Zhan’s pillow, and he reaches for Lan Zhan. Without even pausing to look, Lan Zhan finds Wei Ying’s hand in the dark, laces their fingers tight, Wei Ying’s other hand coming to rest on Lan Zhan’s head. He doesn’t shove Lan Zhan lower on his cock, in fact kind of hates it when he sees that in porn—it’s so impersonal and cold—but the weight of his touch makes Lan Zhan shudder and moan and then he swallows as he bobs around Wei Ying’s cock, and finally, finally, white heat washes through Wei Ying so hard his body locks, back curving off Lan Zhan’s bed as he turns his face into the pillows—“oh God, Lan Zhan, Lan—ahh—”
It’s the kind of full-body orgasm that shivers through him, one that he feels in every part of his body, tingles behind his ears and the backs of his knees all the way down to his toes. The kind that renders him boneless, a body of quivers. Wei Ying’s thighs are shaking and trying to close, knees weakly attempting to come together even with Lan Zhan’s body between them, even as Lan Zhan keeps sucking through the aftershocks. He’s not stopping, he doesn’t stop, swallowing Wei Ying’s come and sighing through his nose like he’s disappointed there isn’t more. They’re still holding hands.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying manages. Lan Zhan sucks gently at the head of his cock and his body sparks and twitches, he’s so overstimulated he can’t even come down. All of Wei Ying’s synapses are firing out of sync. “Zhanzhan, please. Ahh—it’s too much, come here, come here.”
He does. The shadow of Lan Zhan’s body looms over him, and Wei Ying traces his hands up his silhouette until he finds Lan Zhan’s face and tugs him down for kisses. Lan Zhan’s mouth is hot and salty with the taste of him, and Wei Ying is still trembling so much that he can barely kiss, really, just mouths clumsily at Lan Zhan’s lips. It gets spit and come all over, it’s sloppy, it’s all tongue and teeth. Wei Ying luxuriates in it. Lan Zhan had been shy, earlier, with his tongue, but he isn’t now, giving it when Wei Ying sucks, fucking into his mouth. He’s not done. Oh God, he’s not done. Of course he isn’t. He isn’t lying on top of Wei Ying, too careful to crush him, but his cock is so full and heavy that Wei Ying can feel it through his pants. Lan Zhan’s not even all the way undressed.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying tries to say around Lan Zhan’s mouth. “Lan Zhan, let me get you off.”
He makes to sit up, still feeling unbound and gelatinous when he does, and maneuvers them until Lan Zhan understands and lies down in the divot where Wei Ying usually tucks his body against the wall. His face is so open, he nearly looks younger, and his breath rushes in and out between them. Wei Ying stretches until he’s lined up against Lan Zhan’s side and thumbs open the fastenings of Lan Zhan’s pants—they’re not the usual fly and button that Wei Ying is used to, instead something fancy with a ribbon tie and double-button sets.
“These pants,” he says, hands still shaking. “Are so you, Lan Zhan, but my goodness.”
“No, I love them.” Wei Ying finally pops the last of the buttons open and starts to peel them off Lan Zhan’s legs. “Ah—you’re—”
Lan Zhan’s cock is so flushed and hard that it bounces when Wei Ying pulls the waistband of Lan Zhan’s underwear down to his thighs, hard when he wraps his fingers around him. God, Lan Zhan is so, so wet, almost like he’s already come—has he? he’s too hard to have come already, but he’s so wet—precome slicking Wei Ying’s palm. He strokes. The noise is obscene, and Lan Zhan gasps—“Oh,” is all it is, not nearly as loud or raspy as Wei Ying had been, but it’s the most he’s ever seen Lan Zhan unravel.
“I like it when you make noise,” Wei Ying says, in case Lan Zhan finds the silence too oppressive. He pumps harder, tightening his fist, letting more of Lan Zhan’s precome gather in his palm. Lan Zhan’s hips buck up into his grip, just slightly. He doesn’t think he’s strong enough to hold Lan Zhan down like he had for Wei Ying. “Lan Zhan, your cock is pretty. They’re not usually pretty, but yours is. I never imagined noises like this leaving your mouth...or—I don’t know, that’s not entirely true. But the real thing—”
Lan Zhan exhales, the shudder of water, and turns his face so that it’s buried in Wei Ying’s neck. “You…?” he asks, low and helpless.
“Are you close?” Wei Ying asks, and Lan Zhan’s cock pulses in his hand. “Oh, you are—come, Zhanzhan, I want you to come.”
Lan Zhan’s breaths quicken, beating against the column of Wei Ying’s throat until he shifts and looks into Lan Zhan’s face. Lan Zhan isn’t one to moan, or cry out, but Wei Ying kisses him and he does whimper, body trembling into a still, quiet orgasm that’s no less intense than Wei Ying’s was, one of his hands tightening around Wei Ying’s arm. His come spills down Wei Ying’s hand and onto his belly, so much of it that Wei Ying actually pulls away to watch—Lan Zhan comes for so long, and so hard. Wei Ying’s mouth is dry all over again, and he’s too tired to go again so soon, but his own chest prickles hot and breathless.
He strokes until Lan Zhan’s orgasm fades, and keeps stroking until Lan Zhan moans for him. Wei Ying lets go, and lets himself relax into the pillows beside Lan Zhan, stroking his sticky palm up the length of Lan Zhan’s bare chest. The come glistens in a slick trail on Lan Zhan’s skin, and Wei Ying will grab tissues for him in a second, but for now he lies here, and.
Lan Zhan turns his face on the pillow and finds Wei Ying’s mouth, and they kiss. It’s his turn for his lips to be uncoordinated, still forming around gasps. His skin is warm, damp with a thin sheen of sweat, and Wei Ying curls closer as they kiss because it’s cold in Lan Zhan’s room. The chill of air conditioning is cold now that his blood isn’t thundering through every fine vessel in his body.
For a long, mindless tumble of time, the only sound between them is mouths meeting and separating and the quiet shift of bare skin.
When Wei Ying rests his cheek in the pillows to breathe, dizzy from kissing, Lan Zhan’s eyes are closed. “Are you going to fall asleep?” he asks.
“No,” Lan Zhan says. “Are you?”
“No. I’m committing this to memory.”
Lan Zhan opens his eyes and they lie like this—Wei Ying on his side, arms curled around Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan on his back, head turned to him—and stare at each other.
“Me too,” Lan Zhan says softly.
“We should do that again. Many times.”
“Mm.” Then, “What did you mean, earlier?”
“What?” Wei Ying traces a faint figure eight over and over underneath Lan Zhan’s clavicle.
“You said it would be a lie,” Lan Zhan hesitates, “if you said you hadn’t imagined this.”
“Ai,” Wei Ying says, suddenly embarrassed. He shoves his mouth, bitten and wet, into Lan Zhan’s shoulder so he isn’t in direct line of Lan Zhan’s gaze. It’s one he could drown in. Lan Zhan weaves his fingers into Wei Ying’s hair at the back of his head, catches immediately on snarls. “Zhanzhan. I already said earlier. Two years of just being obvious. And then, before that, since. Since that bus stop, when I told you about my family, and you gave me this...unfathomable look. I don’t know—it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure what it was. But something changed.”
“I remember that day.”
“Yeah. We were practically kids, and now here we are. Ten years.” He snuggles into Lan Zhan’s shoulder in earnest, burying himself his olive scent of his skin, tinged with the sweet muddy smell of sex. “If you told me ten years ago we would be here, I would’ve laughed.”
Lan Zhan pauses. “Laughed?”
“Not in a mean way. You know how I said, I just took days as they came?”
“Yeah. I just didn’t imagine existing in ten years, even then. Not in a sad way, and not that I ever planned to do—anything. Just that I couldn’t picture a future. Time ended at the close of every day. Life only went so far as the next month, I never imagined myself in ten years. Never mind us.”
“I just imagined you happy,” Wei Ying says, brave in the nightstudded dark. He drags his fingertip from Lan Zhan’s clavicle to his nipple. “And sometimes I let myself daydream that it was because of me, but that always made me feel guilty and bad, so I’d just imagine someone else.”
“So this is a little surreal,” he says. He’s been naked for what seems like hours but only now does he actually feel bare, flayed-open bare and vulnerable. “Lying here and kissing you, and touching you, and—being with you—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan interrupts. He’s stopped stroking his hair. “Be with me.”
“I want to,” Wei Ying says, as Lan Zhan cradles his face and tilts Wei Ying’s head so he can look at him. He’d laughed, earlier, like he thought he would, and now his throat tightens. The tears are closer to the surface than he would have thought. “I want to stay with you, Zhanzhan. Stay here and be with you.”
“I want you to stay. I want you to be.”
Jin Qian Bao is big enough to get lost in. Wei Ying had come here once with Lan Zhan at the end of a school year, and for some reason he remembers telling Lan Zhan the evening before to dress up. He even remembers, strangely, the little cabbage sticker he’d sent, the memory standing out yellow and proud as a buttercup. Lan Zhan had arrived in one of his nicest blouses—the kind with gently bubbled sleeves and gathered wrists, a bow at his neck.
“It seems strange to dress up for a buffet,” Lan Zhan had commented mildly when they waited in line to be let in. “Is there any occasion?”
“Do you need an occasion to look pretty?”
“No, but you usually do.”
“You are cruel, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying moped. “Must you arrest a man for wanting to look nice every now and then? Don’t I look nice?”
There was a shimmer to Lan Zhan’s eyes that had nothing to do with the gold lighting, amber like the pelt of the jaguar it was so named after. “No,” he replied. “And you look so handsome, Wei Ying.”
“—dating Lan Laoshi?”
Wei Ying blinks, comes back to himself, a sliver of octopus sashimi halfway between his wasabi dish and his mouth. “Who?”
“Dude!” Jingyi hisses. “You can’t just ask if he’s dating Lan Laoshi.”
“You wanted to ask, too!” Ouyang Zizhen says.
Wen Yuan wisely continues eating his scallops without a word.
“What Zizhen means to say,” Jingyi says, turning to Wei Ying. Beside him, Zizhen begins shoveling steamed oysters into his mouth. “Is that we’re glad that Lan Laoshi seems to be a lot less worried about your health lately.”
Wei Ying raises his eyebrows.
Zizhen glares at Jingyi, like he cannot believe Jingyi would accuse him of being so poor at wheedling information out of people.
“Wen Yuan, what was your version of the story?” asks Wei Ying.
“I didn’t wonder.”
“Bullshit!” Zizhen says, the same time Jingyi says, “You were the one who said that Lan Laoshi never picks up during lessons and picked up for Wei Laoshi!”
“He did?” Wei Ying asks. “That can’t be right. I always make sure to call when he’s not in class. When was this?”
“So you are?” Three pairs of eyes flash to him, like Wei Ying had lit a New Year’s sparkler in front of three ragdoll kittens.
“Am I...am I what?”
“Dating Lan Laoshi!”
“Oh.” Wei Ying puts the sashimi in his mouth, nearly expects them to take notes. Chews. It’s octopus, so he has a lot of that to do. Then he shrugs. “Why do you ask?”
“I told you he wouldn’t admit to it.”
“Wei Laoshi, come on!”
Groaning from Zizhen.
“He draws a little rabbit on your lunch.”
Wen Yuan and Zizhen turn to Jingyi, who begins the laborious process of putting away a spring roll, dipping it primly in peanut sauce. “Like, on the sticky-note. Blue with white clouds, that’s Lan Laoshi to a T, so I know he wrote it,” he continues, with a grin like he’s just found the damning evidence in a murder investigation. “And I know it’s your lunch because it has your name on it.”
“How could you keep that from us?” Wen Yuan says.
“Wei Laoshi, just put us out of our misery.”
He rests the jut of his chin in his hand, elbow propped on the table. “Hmm. Yeah.”
“Yes!” cheers Jingyi, holding his hands out to Wen Yuan and Zizhen. “Alright, pay up—”
“Wait, what?” Wei Ying says. “Did you—you guys bet? On your piano teachers? You’ve got some guts. Wen Yuan, Zizhen, you bet against us? That’s so harsh!”
“No, they bet that we would accidentally catch you guys holding hands,” Jingyi crows as Zizhen and Wen Yuan rifle through their wallets. “I bet that you would confess to it.”
“We were so sure we would!” Zizhen wails. “I was so sure of it. You guys are really discreet, Wei Laoshi.”
Wei Ying vividly remembers, from just this morning, kissing Lan Zhan in his apartment elevator for so long as it descended that they barely sprang apart when it stopped on the third floor for a puffy-eyed pair of cram students stepping on. High schoolers. Wei Ying spent the rest of the way to the subway station trying to redo his ponytail, while Lan Zhan, unrepentant, had just smiled and helped him do his bobby pins.
“Discreet,” Wei Ying repeats.
“And cute,” Jingyi says, counting his money. Blood money. “Lan Laoshi mentioned once that you’ve known each other for ten years.”
“He—” Wei Ying frowns. Lan Zhan is not really a conversationalist kind of teacher, to his knowledge. How had any of this come up? “He did?”
“Yeah. You were sick then, and we were going to his place for lessons, and I asked him what happened, because he was out too for a day. His brother is cool, it was just unexpected? Lan Laoshi told us that a friend of his had gotten sick and he needed to visit.”
“I asked him too!” Zizhen says. “He didn’t tell me anything, but I guessed it was you, Wei Laoshi, and he was so tired, he didn’t even say anything when I knew I had shitty phrasing that day. I asked if you were okay and he was surprised I knew, but Jingyi had texted me, and then he almost looked like—like he was going to cry when I mentioned you, so I—”
“We’re just glad you’re okay, Wei Laoshi,” Wen Yuan interrupts. “Really, we are. And we’re glad that Lan Laoshi seems better, and that you both are happy. The both of you make us believe in the art of piano when our families are very focused on prestige, and we can enjoy it because of you. We’re glad to have you!”
Wei Ying stares at them, these students of his, who have come to know him more than he would have chosen. He has been so, so lucky for it.
“You know I’m not going to grade any of you easier because of this, right?”
“As if you’d ever.”
“Is it too late to request I change over to Lan Laoshi permanently? He’s so much more lenient—I’m kidding!” Zizhen says, dodging a swat from Wei Ying’s silk napkin. “He likes Mozart too much, I’d never!”
By the time Wei Ying is aware of it, Lan Zhan has stopped.
Lan Zhan has a lamp by his bed, now, one that used to be positioned by his desk—but he’d moved it when he’d rearranged his room, all the furniture shuffling their feet like sleepy woodland creatures into their new positions. It means they can read and lie in bed at the same time. Lan Zhan from his book, and Wei Ying from his phone. Sometimes Wei Ying catches up with his work in bed, which Lan Zhan says is bad for his sleep pattern, but he just doesn’t have the time every day. He’s only done it a few times, and has fallen asleep every time. One moment he was still annotating Scriabin, then he was waking up, Lan Zhan’s soft breaths turning the darkness of his room into a warm, rounded midnight sky.
This is them: night. Lan Zhan leaning against the headboard, pillows arranged so that his back doesn’t have to rest on naked wood, legs spread with Wei Ying between them. Wei Ying against his chest, absorbing a bizarre article about The Hum, Lan Zhan’s heart thrumming against his back. He could be kissing him on his spine, over and over again.
Wei Ying had been all melted and tingly, and then, suddenly, he hadn’t been. It takes him a moment to figure out why, and then.
“Why did you stop?”
“Hm?” asks Lan Zhan. “What did I stop?”
Lan Zhan looks away from his book. “What was I doing?”
It’s impossible to tell whether Lan Zhan is playing dumb to tease him or if he really isn’t aware. Wei Ying’s cheeks are heated stones. “Your hand on my leg,” he says. “You stopped stroking it.”
Lan Zhan’s hand is still on his thigh, resting upon it like a five-fingered hug. His thumb had been stroking absently back and forth as he read, sweeping a narrow crescent on the inside of Wei Ying’s thigh. His expression is blank for the moment it takes for him to understand, and then he lowers his book. “I’m sorry,” he says. Then, “Do you like it?”
Casual, unthinking touch isn’t something that has ever come to Lan Zhan naturally, at least not in the same way it does for Wei Ying. In the past he has always touched Wei Ying on his fringes—his wrists when Wei Ying complained of long practice days, his ankles when he was shifting Wei Ying’s feet out of his lap, his hair when he styled it for concert evenings. Nothing that came close to the core of him, as if Lan Zhan didn’t think he’d be allowed so close; a moth that followed the streetlamp instead of the sun.
“I like it,” Wei Ying says, not looking away from Lan Zhan’s face. Folded together like this, their mouths are so close. Lan Zhan’s gaze flicks down to his lips, tracking the movement. “You should keep doing it.”
Lan Zhan kisses him.
In weeks past, Wei Ying has learned that Lan Zhan does not kiss like he walks, or speaks, or looks—even and measured, like a thread pulled out of a dream, half make-believe and half impossible. His kisses ground. They’re solid and rough and blooming. Wei Ying can picture it—all the blood in his body bright and sparking where Lan Zhan kisses him, starting at his lips, spreading until his veins smell of dawn.
They kiss in the silence of Lan Zhan’s room, the TV warbling its nighttime rhapsody down the hall. A quiet rustle of paper between them when Lan Zhan’s book falls shut. Wei Ying tips his head back against Lan Zhan’s shoulder so the angle is easier for him to kiss, then shakes when Lan Zhan’s hand slides up farther along the inside of his bare thigh and his other arm comes to hold him against his waist, tugging Wei Ying flush against his body.
“Oh,” Wei Ying breathes, mouths separating with the soft sound of a kiss that wasn’t ready to end. There is a hard, pulsing heat against Wei Ying’s tailbone where he’s nestled right up between Lan Zhan’s legs. “Wow, Lan Zhan, how long have you been sitting here? This hard? How were you even concentrating on your book?”
“I was thinking about you,” Lan Zhan says plainly.
“Zhanzhan, oh my God.”
“You did not notice that I hadn’t flipped the page in at least a quarter of an hour?”
“No? I was reading about The Hum!”
“I was reading the same paragraph over and over.”
Laughter bubbles from Wei Ying’s throat, unexpected and welcome. Lan Zhan’s hand is so close to his own cock, thumb slipping inside the slouch of Wei Ying’s pajama shorts. “Well, that won’t do,” Wei Ying says, kissing Lan Zhan’s cheek before relaxing against him and grinding back into Lan Zhan’s body, once, just to see Lan Zhan’s lips part. “Why don’t you—?”
Without waiting, Lan Zhan finds the hem of his shorts and underwear and slips his hand into them, curling his fingers around Wei Ying’s cock. It’s already flushing hot with arousal, and in Lan Zhan’s hand he grows so hard his head spins. “Oh, Lan Zhan, you’re so impatient,” he gasps. “And here I was offering to get you off first.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan rumbles, dipping his head and tugging Wei Ying’s sleep shirt down his shoulder so he can mouth at the bare skin of his neck. “I enjoy making you feel good first.”
“Fuck—okay, okay,” Wei Ying says, kicking Lan Zhan’s blankets down his bed and shimmying his shorts off his legs with shaking hands. The sight of Lan Zhan’s hands around his cock, precome already pearling at the head, means he has to turn his face into Lan Zhan’s cheek, hiding his blush in his cheekbone. He braces his hands on Lan Zhan’s thighs on both sides of him, spreads his legs, pushes his hips up into the hot heat of Lan Zhan’s palm.
Lan Zhan sucks a hickey into Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Watch.”
“Oh, God,” Wei Ying moans, weakly, but does as Lan Zhan says. Watches Lan Zhan jerk him off, slow, first, thumb gathering the beads of precome to wet his palm, then faster Wei Ying’s breath quickens. He wants to squirm, but Lan Zhan is holding him upright against his chest, his own arousal a distant hint of heat against Wei Ying’s back. Lan Zhan’s hand is pale and warm around him, and—a cock in hand always looks a little silly, but Lan Zhan jerks him off and it’s reverent, artful, even when he’s still learning what makes Wei Ying gasp the hardest, moan the loudest. Wei Ying is starting to figure that Lan Zhan could do anything to him—jerk him off, bend him over, suck him down, take him on a floor or a table or a chair—and he’d be good at it, that Wei Ying would come so easily from it.
He digs his nails into Lan Zhan’s legs and pulls a shuddering gasp into his throat. “Lan Zhan, please, oh—I’m going to come, I’ll come like this—”
“Mm,” then, “come, Wei Ying.”
The orgasm floods him. Wei Ying shakes, then falls apart, come pooling on the slant of his belly where he’d slid down against Lan Zhan’s body. Lan Zhan doesn’t stop, stroking him through the orgasm, letting the come collect on his hand to slick the aftershocks—then slows when Wei Ying starts to tremble with overstimulation, swiping up the streaks of come that he’s missed so they don’t drip onto his sheets.
“Sorry,” Wei Ying pants into Lan Zhan’s throat. His hands are still braced on Lan Zhan’s thighs. “It’s all you, Lan Zhan. I used to never be so messy when I came.”
“I like it,” Lan Zhan says, voice thick and smokey. “I like you messy.”
“It was never like this.” It’s just a handjob. Wei Ying’s chest feels too big for him to breathe around. “Not until I was with you.”
Lan Zhan noses at Wei Ying’s ear, then the hair above it, loose and unpinned. Kisses him there. “Same for me.”
“I love you.”
Pause. “I love you, Wei Ying.”
“You should let me go now, so I can put my mouth on you.”
“Hm.” Lan Zhan lets him go, Wei Ying’s softening cock lying against his abdomen, and lifts his stained fingers to his lips and sucks on them. “I like the way you taste,” he says, as Wei Ying stares, openmouthed and speechless. He can’t go again, not this soon, but Lan Zhan is so filthy, licking Wei Ying’s come off his long piano fingers. “The way you taste when I touch you.”
“If you keep talking,” Wei Ying laughs breathlessly, head falling back against Lan Zhan’s shoulder, “you’ll get me all hot and sweaty again and we won’t get to bed on time for you, Zhanzhan.”
“I can make an exception.”
Wei Ying twists in his arms, and this time Lan Zhan lets him go. He settles into the space between Lan Zhan’s legs, tugging him close by the hips, curling his fingers in the waistband of Lan Zhan’s pants. He’s so hard that the jut of his cock strains against the satin.
Wei Ying puts his palm to it, listens to Lan Zhan’s answering gasp. His, his, his.
It’s the seeds in peppers, not the flesh or skins, that burn. Lan Zhan learns this the hard way when he discovers a stray seed hiding in the webbing of his fingers, tucked away like a pale spot of cloud between trees, and licks it off without thinking twice.
Wei Ying gets home like that, with the stir fry still crackling on the stove where Lan Zhan had shut it off, and he was on his third glass of water, tongue a fiery slice of heat. His lip is numb where the seed had touched it, sharp prickles spreading out across the expanse of his mouth, and all Wei Ying can do is laugh. “Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, holding Lan Zhan’s face in both hands as he breathes openmouthed. Even the rush of warm kitchen air makes it hurt. “Oh, my xiao shagua. You know those are bird’s eye chilis? They’re from Thailand. Even I get a little teary eating them.”
“It was just one seed,” Lan Zhan protests. His lip feels like it’s been stung by a wasp.
“One seed is enough,” Wei Ying says. He leans in and kisses it. The tingles sing in Lan Zhan’s mouth.
“How was home?” asks Lan Zhan when they separate, Wei Ying looping his arms around his neck. Chili and chicken smell wreathes around them. “Did it make your head hurt again?”
“Mmm,” Wei Ying hums. He pillows his cheek against Lan Zhan’s shoulder, hair smelling metallic with the outside, all cigarettes and wind. “Yeah. A little bit. I think I’ll talk to my psychiatrist about it next week. It’s not all the way gone, but it’s better.”
Lan Zhan laces his fingers together at the small of Wei Ying’s back. Slow dancing in the kitchen is for evenings and not noon, not with food half raw on the stove, the sun trumpeting through the windows, but they hold each other and stand in place. A secret dance without steps. Close. Closer than that. No, not close enough. You should be able to feel their heartbeat. You’re lovers now.
“Do you want to take a nap?”
“A nap.” Wei Ying hadn’t fallen asleep until three AM this morning, and Lan Zhan only knew because he’d woken around two thirty to Wei Ying sliding back into bed, his voice too clear to belong to someone who’d just woken up from sleep.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan had murmured.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Zhanzhan. Sorry. I went to go take my sleep aid.”
“It’s okay. Is something bothering you?”
“Just can’t sleep. Shh, go back to sleep. I’ll be out soon, too.”
“No, no need,” Wei Ying whispered. “But. Can you…?”
“Just hold me?”
“Mm,” said Lan Zhan, his chest warm with this bundled beloved of his.
Wei Ying slides back now to look into Lan Zhan’s face, searches his expression. “I didn’t realize we were in the business of naps now. I have programs to practice.”
“The day is young,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying laughs as he lets Lan Zhan lead him down the hall to his room. “The day certainly is young, but never did I think a day would come where you would say that,” he says as Lan Zhan turns the air conditioning on in his room, draws the curtains until everything is bathed in dark amber. He’d pulled them wide to give his bed some sun. “What if I can’t sleep tonight?”
“You can keep me company when I clean out the study.”
“You’re cleaning out the study?” asks Wei Ying as Lan Zhan dials the air conditioning down low; being in his room in the afternoon is like sludging through hot pudding.
“Mm. There’s a lot of music that can be donated, things I don’t need taking up space.” Lan Zhan turns. Wei Ying is a smudge of peach pit in the red gloom. “More room for you and I to work, here.”
“That’s not—you don’t need to—”
“I’ve been meaning to for a while now,” Lan Zhan says before Wei Ying can protest. “Is the air conditioning too cold?”
Wei Ying doesn’t answer right away, and then, holding his hand beneath the oscillating blades, “No.” And, “I haven’t showered from the outside yet, Lan Zhan.”
“No matter. Just change your clothes,” says Lan Zhan, and hands Wei Ying his pajamas. Wei Ying hesitates before he takes them, then stands in the center of Lan Zhan’s room, unmoving. “What is it?”
“You really…” Wei Ying focuses on the wrinkled cotton in his hands. “Do too much for me, Lan Zhan.”
“I do all the things I ought to do for someone I love,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying flicks his gaze up to him, and Lan Zhan bends forward to kiss him. Just once, a zing of warmth, and then kisses him on the forehead, upon the crease between Wei Ying’s eyebrows. “Just sleep until the headache goes away.”
“If I don’t wake up by four, wake me?” Wei Ying asks.
Lan Zhan stays until Wei Ying is changed and curled into his blankets. When he sleeps alone, Wei Ying always tucks his nose into the duvet the way a fox will cover its snout with its bottlebrush tail. He blinks up at Lan Zhan sleepily and says, “Good night, Zhanzhan.”
“Good night, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying falls asleep like you let a lover go at the airport gates. Slowly.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, kissing the words into his temple, sticky with sleep. Like the dreams had seeped out of his head and gathered on his skin. “It’s four.”
“I just closed my eyes.”
Wei Ying rolls over, body curling like a shrimp’s around Lan Zhan’s on the edge of the mattress. “Are you sure it’s four?”
“It’s four fifteen, in fact. Did you want to sleep longer?”
“No, I need to get up. Just.” Wei Ying takes Lan Zhan’s hand and hugs it to himself, breathes in and lets go of a chesty sigh. “Feels good with you here.”
“I had dreams. Daytime dreams are different from nighttime ones.”
“I don’t really remember,” Wei Ying says. “Just that they’re not as uncomfortable to wake up from.”
“Then that’s good.”
“Mhm.” A pillow mark creases Wei Ying’s cheek, a folded edge of blush. They sit in quiet, air-conditioned silence, Lan Zhan stroking his thumb back and forth the ridged tendons of Wei Ying’s hand where he’s holding him. Then, “My brother…”
Lan Zhan puts forth a valiant attempt not to stiffen. “Yes.”
“My brother finally started seeing someone.”
An unexpected direction of conversation. Lan Zhan nods. “That’s...good to hear.”
“I thought so too.”
“I hope his partner has a complementary personality.”
Wei Ying blinks at him, then throws his head back as a hoarse laugh snapcrackles out of his mouth. “Oh, wait, Lan Zhan, no! No, sorry, I mean—he’s started seeing someone, as in a psychiatrist. A therapist, actually. Jie told me.” He gathers Lan Zhan’s arm more tightly to himself, rubbing his cheek against the back of Lan Zhan’s hand. “I asked why he never seemed to be home when I went to go see them. Maybe he was avoiding me? I suppose he must’ve told her not to say anything, but she caved.”
“You do always only go back on Saturdays.” Lan Zhan raises his eyebrows. “He can’t be out all day?”
“He’s only at the clinic in the mornings. I figure he goes out with Xiao Sang afterwards. He’s probably the type who does better if he isn’t alone right after a session.” Lan Zhan had pulled one side of his curtains open so that it’d be easier to wake Wei Ying without shocking him out of sleep, and a yellow spill of light drips in a smash of egg yolk down the curve of his headboard, pooling on the crown of Wei Ying’s head. “I’m glad. He needed it. None of us walked away from that night the same.”
“I know that it was—it was no one’s fault,” he says. “But it’s true.”
When prey animals are hurt, or sick, or dying, you won’t know it. They won’t show it. From fish to a rabbit to a deer, to show weakness is to be eaten.
“I’m glad, too,” Lan Zhan murmurs. He turns his hand over until he can fit his palm to Wei Ying’s cheek.
There were shadows in the fog.
“Do you want to eat now?”
“If you’re hungry.”
The fog is clearing. It will be back. But that’s what fog does.
Wei Ying hums. “I’m hungry.”
Lan Zhan thought he’d lost this photo during a move years ago, after he and his brother left his uncle’s cramped apartment in Yangpu Qu to be closer to work.
It’s not a special one. It’s not even, really, a good one—his mother holding Lan Huan’s hand in front of spherical fountains, spouts rising like iron gates from the concrete. Lan Zhan was balanced in her other arm, and she was laughing, hair caught in her mouth, balled up in his pudgy baby fists, floral skirt a ribbon in the wind. It had been tucked in a Burgmuller technique book that Lan Zhan hadn’t opened since high school.
Zhanzhan, when you find someone you love, you tell them. You tell them so they’ll know, no matter what happens.
What would happen, Mama?
Life happens, Baobao.
“Zhanzhan, I’m calling it quits for the night. Are you coming to bed?”
Wei Ying rubs his eyes and yawns from the doorway, His eyelids fold unevenly when he’s tired, one of them triple-folded over itself. He’s wearing one of Lan Zhan’s sleep shirts over his shorts. In the lamplight he is softened candle wax.
The convenience store downstairs has a crooked sign suspended on steel cables, has been crooked as long as Lan Zhan remembers, hanging in one of the outward facing windows. They change the banner out depending on the season—happy mid-autumn festival, fresh mooncakes! Back to school probiotic yogurt. Dilireba smiling over a bottle of Sprite, dancing lemons surrounding her. Whatever it is, it always peers into the street at a lazy-eyed angle.
The melon cream soda begins to bead with condensation as soon as he removes it from the fridge, cold billowing in icy clouds around him when the door shuts with a snap of rubber. Lan Zhan pauses—this shop has a mango flavor today. Does Wei Ying like mango? He’s not sure. He doesn’t like mango pudding but he does like the syrup-soaked mango cakes from the bakery. Whatever. Cold air hits him like fallen brick when he opens the door again, plucking a mango cream soda off the shelf to go with the melon.
The store bulges with the rush of people buying last-minute snacks before dusk turns to twilight. The line to pay snakes into the first aid aisle, and Lan Zhan lines up behind someone with a pink tote bag and an armory of silver earrings in their ears, texting so furiously their nails click.
The line snails forward. Lan Zhan’s company goes from boxed Band-Aids to athletic tape to hygiene products. Then lube, and condoms.
His cream sodas sweat in his hands.
Last night, Wei Ying had been on top of him—in Lan Zhan’s lap, soft and naked and dimpled with goosebumps in the air conditioned chill. He’d pulled back, mouth leaving Lan Zhan’s with a wet click, and asked, “Do you have…”
No. The horrible, embarrassing answer was no, because Lan Zhan didn’t want to be presumptuous, and until Wei Ying asked he wouldn’t put condoms and lube in plain view lest Wei Ying take it as some kind of push. He didn’t ever have a reason to keep the stuff on hand before, but now—
This is the reason he’d sidled into the convenience store at all. If Wei Ying asks again, Lan Zhan shall not be caught dead unprepared. The sodas are a bonus.
“You’re back,” Lan Huan says without looking up from his laptop at the couch. TV on, as usual. Lan Zhan pops his heel to unzip the fastenings of his boots. “How was work?”
“Remedial tutoring today,” Lan Zhan says. “You?”
“I’ve been in meetings since just after you left until about twenty minutes ago. Parent company is already starting to try to find loopholes in the acquisition contract, so it’s been wonderful,” Lan Huan says, smiling, then drags a hand down his face. “Ah, I could go for a drink.”
“On a trip with his brother to go fishing.”
If Lan Zhan recalls correctly, Wei Ying had said that Nie Huaisang had once screamed at the sight of a live worm, so he can only imagine how well that’s going.
“I might call A-Yao,” Lan Huan says thoughtfully. “Did you eat yet?”
“Wei Ying and I were going to order in. Did he get back already?”
“Mm. In fact, he’s helping organize the study.”
Lan Huan’s smile is flickering lamplight. “He looks good, A-Zhan.”
“I know. I hope so.”
Lan Zhan finds him, as promised, in the study, swallowed in a jungle of books. He’s sitting on the floor, chair vacant by the desk—he’s a floor sitter when he can afford to be one, with an armful of books spread open around him as he hums disjointedly.
“Oh, Zhanzhan! I didn’t hear you come back,” Wei Ying says, turning to look at the clock on the desk, forgets it’s not working, frozen forever at four forty-five. A frowning time, hands downturned. “Welcome home.”
“You didn’t order yet, right?”
“Oh—oh, God, wait, what time is it?” Wei Ying says, smile sliding like old soap off his face. He scrambles to his feet, music book still in hand, gropes for his phone. “Ah, fuck. Fuck, I’m sorry, I opened the restaurant menu to order and then got a call from the conservatory, then hung up and forgot. I’ll order right now, I’m sorry, it’ll be here soon—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, putting down his grocery bag. He’d stashed the lube and condoms at the bottom of the bag. “It’s okay.”
“I forgot, you must be so hungry. I forgot because I wasn’t, and then I was distracted because I was worried. Agh, agh. I picked up almond brittle from an ayi’s stall next to the subway station, fresh made, though! I thought you’d like it. Are you hungry?”
“I got us cream sodas,” Lan Zhan says, and takes Wei Ying’s hands in his so he can hold still. His eyes seem to be humming in their sockets, like Wei Ying’s trying to see a ghost over Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Wei Ying. It is okay, it’s okay. What were you worried about?”
Wei Ying focuses on him. His phone dims, then blackens between them.
“You said you were worried. What about?”
“Is everything okay?”
“It’s, uhm. It’s. Remember—the past weekend my psych changed my dosages to see if it would help the headaches and insomnia? Because I mentioned the side effects were bothering me?”
“It’s different for different people.” Wei Ying runs his fingernail back and forth over a crumpled dog-ear corner of sheet music. “You know. Not everyone reacts to the same medicines the same way.”
“He raised one and lowered the other to see if they’d have an effect on the headaches—the frequency, at least, if not the severity. It’s been a little better. I think the insomnia is a little better, I’m still having dreams. I think the dreams got worse. Not scary, but more vivid.”
“That’s good,” Lan Zhan says, but he knows there’s more, so he waits with a stack of Ravel in his lap in cottony silence. Sometimes, Wei Ying does better if Lan Zhan isn’t focused on his face, so he opens the book of sheet music on top of the pile just so their silence is punctuated by the rustle of old paper. “Fog?”
“Yeah. Some fog.” Wei Ying draws his lower lip into his mouth, releases it. “Zhanzhan. What if I.”
“What is it?”
“What if the dosage changes make me not want to have sex? And not just for a little while, but I mean. For ages?”
Lan Zhan blinks. “Oh,” he says, and even as Wei Ying is flushing cheek to ear, a red burn in the amber of afternoon, relief trickles through him. “That’s okay.”
“How is that okay?” Wei Ying asks.
“Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“Because!” Wei Ying insists, and his expression is wild now, like he’s worried that Lan Zhan hadn’t heard him right the first time. “Because we’re—we’re dating now, right! We’re. We do that sort of thing. Or, we wanted to, we were going to, and now I’m foggy, and when it lifts, what if all I want to do is kiss a little and go to sleep? I want to—we both want to, I think. I want to have real sex with you. I promise we will.”
“What we’ve been doing,” says Lan Zhan, “is real sex.” There is so much that Wei Ying said that Lan Zhan needs to untangle. He’s surpassed pink and descended into scarlet, so Lan Zhan reaches out and takes Wei Ying’s clammy hands into his own. “But on the days when all you want to do is kiss a little and go to sleep, then that’s what we’ll do.”
“But if it takes months?”
Lan Zhan levels him his most rational, even gaze. “Then we will just kiss a little and go to sleep for those months.”
“Why are you so okay with this?” The last time Wei Ying’s voice had risen like this he’d been a maze of needles and tubes, voice hoarse from having air forced down his throat. “Lan Zhan. Zhanzhan.”
“Because when you love someone,” says Lan Zhan, “it stops being about you. You don’t know when it does. All that matters is that they’re happy, with or without you, because or not because of you, whether or not their happiness gives you anything in return.”
A muscle jumps in Wei Ying’s jaw when he clenches it, eyes hard and glassy. “Zhanzhan…” he says, and his voice breaks. “I’m happiest with you.”
“No,” Wei Ying says, swiping at his eyes. “Good-happy.”
Quiet Boy. Fog Boy. Good-Happy Boy.
Lan Zhan sees it on his face before Wei Ying asks.
He’s not looking—when he’s sucking Wei Ying off, he usually closes his eyes and loses himself in the slick weight in his mouth, dipping his head, gathering Wei Ying’s taste on his tongue. Wei Ying likes spit, it’s a thing he likes a lot, as far as Lan Zhan has learned. He came all over Lan Zhan’s mouth and chin one evening when Lan Zhan had pulled off and a glistening thread of saliva had quivered between the swell of his lower lip and the head of Wei Ying’s cock. He’d looked up through his eyelashes, breathing out, and Wei Ying had just come, whimpering almost like he was crying.
But he’s not looking, not right now. Lan Zhan’s eyes are closed, and two of his fingers are slicked and pressed inside of Wei Ying, bound by heat, wet, tight. Lan Zhan pumps them in time with his sucks, spit trailing down from his mouth, down Wei Ying’s cock, on his fingers. There’ll be a damp patch on the towel; lately, they’ve taken to laying them down so they can toss it into the laundry without needing to strip the entire mattress. Wei Ying’s sleep is poor enough as it is. Lan Zhan refuses to keep him up longer than it takes to wipe him clean.
Wei Ying’s breaths shudder, then quiet, the bed making its soft groaning noise when he shifts. He’s propped himself up, and then, there it is: the warmth of his gaze, turning the backs of Lan Zhan’s eyelids a red, rivered pink. He slows to open his eyes and watch Wei Ying, the roll of his chest as his breath rushes in ragged gasps in and out of him. Lan Zhan puts a hand to his belly, the soft give of it. It’s steadying. “Wei Ying.”
“Zhanzhan,” he says, almost slurred. “Lan Zhan…”
“Mm. I’m here.”
Lan Zhan’s mouth pulses.
“I want you to fuck me,” Wei Ying murmurs. On his elbows, with his hair undone and sheeting onto Lan Zhan’s bed, he’s open and raw, the soft velveteen edge of a paper that’s been torn out of a book along its spine. Lan Zhan could run his fingers over him and get the same shiver. “I want you to…”
“I am fucking you.”
Wei Ying’s cheeks brighten. “Lan Zhan!” he protests.
“Hmm.” Lan Zhan’s fingers are still curled in him, and he curves them now to hear Wei Ying’s gasp. “I’m listening, Wei Ying.”
“Your cock, please. Lan Zhan, I want you. I want you in every way.”
Lan Zhan stretches his body over Wei Ying’s until they can kiss. They get lost in it again, Lan Zhan’s arm flexing slightly where it extends down Wei Ying’s body, still fingering him, his own cock a heavy, obscene jut into Wei Ying’s hip. Wei Ying holds Lan Zhan’s head still with both hands, kissing him and kissing him, sucking Lan Zhan’s tongue into his mouth and then moaning when Lan Zhan presses it in deep. This is what I want you to do to me.
So he does. Wei Ying snakes his hand into the nightstand drawer at the head of their bed and pulls open the pack of condoms, sitting up, shaking in every limb. His hands are clumsy with want, and Lan Zhan sucks another violet hickey into his throat before leaning back and taking the box from him, the plasticky snap loud between them. Wei Ying’s abdomen is shiny all the way up to his bellybutton with precome and stray lube and spit.
Lan Zhan sits on his knees between Wei Ying’s thighs, trying to breathe around the sensation of Wei Ying’s hands resting on his hips. Holding him there, steady, watching with a dark, liquid intensity as Lan Zhan fits the condom over himself. Wei Ying is close enough that it bobs near his face, and his lips are parted. A red spot blooms on his lip where Lan Zhan had nipped him.
“Do you want to be lying down or on top?” Lan Zhan asks. He needs to get his own hands off his cock or else he’ll come, and then he might never be able to face Wei Ying again. “Or,” the words are filthy before they even leave Lan Zhan’s mouth, “on your hands and knees for me?”
“Mm,” Wei Ying lets himself drop onto his back in the pillows. “Lying down. But Zhanzhan, we have to try the hands and knees thing next. I bet it would be really good. Like, you holding me up with my face down—”
“Tomorrow night.” Wei Ying is half-supported by the headboard, hands in loose fists near his face, so salaciously that Lan Zhan almost asks if he’s sure he doesn’t want that now.
Lan Zhan lets himself stay curved, body a long, lazy thought hanging over Wei Ying, hair spilling down over one shoulder, and kisses him. “Whatever you want, tomorrow night.”
Even if you want nothing.
The push is excruciating. Wei Ying whimpers when the head of his cock slips inside, and Lan Zhan waits until the tension in his shoulders eases before moving more, pushing in deeper. Wei Ying has slung his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck, and here he digs his blunt nails into the skin of Lan Zhan’s shoulder blades. There will be twin marks like sets of teeth in Lan Zhan’s skin, and he shivers.
He holds himself still.
Wei Ying muffles a single broken moan into Lan Zhan’s skin.
“Are you okay?”
“Please,” says Wei Ying. “Please move, Zhanzhan, or I’ll come—”
Lan Zhan moves. He fucks Wei Ying on his back in his bed, nestled in his pillows, listening to the wet noise of their hips meeting. Wei Ying cries into his hand, then into Lan Zhan’s cheek, breath puffing damp and soft on his skin. With Wei Ying under him, he can feel every tiny movement and twitch of his body, holding him down when his hips writhe and buck off the bed. Wei Ying holds Lan Zhan’s hair out of the way to kiss him, and then Lan Zhan sinks lower, lays his teeth to Wei Ying’s neck, hickeys him again there in the soft valley of his jaw.
Wei Ying hikes his thighs over Lan Zhan’s hips—and Lan Zhan knows that Wei Ying asked to be on his back, but he slides his hands beneath him, pausing to see if Wei Ying would ask what he was doing. He can still feel Wei Ying’s ribs through his skin, here.
Then Wei Ying tightens the loop of his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck, shimmying closer, and Lan Zhan lifts him upright until Wei Ying is sitting in his lap, hitched a little higher than Lan Zhan. He sighs hoarsely, putting sticky hands to Lan Zhan’s cheeks and kissing him hard as he rocks down onto Lan Zhan’s cock, pressing himself into the plane of Lan Zhan’s belly over and over.
Like this, it doesn’t take much longer. Like this, Lan Zhan can watch, Wei Ying’s face dropping away from heat and pain to rising pleasure, eyes shadows in his face, fluttering shut.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, “ah—ah, Zhanzhan, I’m going to—”
“Come, you can come, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying falls apart. Lan Zhan holds him, keeps fucking him as he does, his orgasm so intense that his little whimper cuts off in a throaty, silent gasp like he’s been choked. When Lan Zhan moves, just a little, Wei Ying’s entire body spasms with the aftershock, and he holds him tighter for it.
“Don’t pull out,” Wei Ying breathes. “Do it. Finish in me, Zhanzhan.”
That alone is enough—Lan Zhan thrusts up once, twice more, and comes, listening to Wei Ying’s wet little murmurs in his ear, trembling just as hard. Wei Ying lets his weight sag, tugging them backwards. Lan Zhan goes with him, with enough care even in the brilliant haze of his orgasm to balance himself so he doesn’t bodily crush Wei Ying. Then he settles—Wei Ying likes to be pressed into the mattress after his orgasms; he’s said the blanket of Lan Zhan’s body makes him feel safe.
“We’re definitely doing this again tomorrow night,” Wei Ying mumbles. He traces his foot up and down the backside of Lan Zhan’s calf, runs his fingers through Lan Zhan’s sweaty hair, plays with it like they hadn’t just fucked so obscenely Lan Zhan will be dreaming about it. “Oh, Lan Zhan. Your face when you come in me...I could look at you forever.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says weakly.
“What, you can do all of that, but you can’t hear me vocalize it?” Wei Ying pinches his cheeks, wrinkles his own nose when Lan Zhan winces through it. “Tomorrow. Promise!”
“I promise,” says Lan Zhan, “to do whatever it is that you want, when tomorrow comes.”
Wei Ying releases his cheeks to tuck Lan Zhan’s hair behind his ears. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “You know I trust you, with all my skin and sweat and soul, right?”
“I know you. Not until recently did I know you like this, but. I know you wouldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want.” Wei Ying cranes forward and kisses him, just a feather of lips. “I know you, Zhanzhan, I love you. I would follow you out of the dark.”
im going to stop by my apartment after xiao yuans lesson tonight
i know you probably didnt forget, but dont wait for me for dinner!!!
no worries, i remember
ge actually mentioned that the dinner table is too quiet without you now
to address this he invited mingjue ge over…
did you bring your meds?
hahaha well i love mingjue ge
say hi to him for me!!
and yes i did. no worries (≧ω≦)
uhmm wish me luck!
you’ll be okay! i know it.
He’s not sure why he expects his apartment to change on different days, as if Fridays it would be jovial, windows open in a hundreds of toothy laughs, and on Saturdays it would be slouched and hungover, or on Sundays it’d be spiky and annoyed, hip jutting out, building face freckled with drying laundry. There it rises, stone and smudged white, and for once in Wei Ying’s life he doesn’t feel like it’s watching him.
The elevator creaks its usual creaks, clunks like an old mineshaft. The doors open to the smells of neighboring dinners: frying garlic oil, green onions, cleavers meeting chopping boards with dull thwacks as TVs chatter between themselves. The weather will be cooler next week. A school for the disabled just received an unprecedented grant for new books. A new fleet of electric buses has been deployed in the city. They’re quiet and clean.
Wei Ying hopscotches over a washbasin in the hallway.
Saturdays mean that his sister is home before her evening class, or before a show, and Jiang Cheng won’t be there—since the dinner at Suzhe Hui, and his unreadable eyes from across the table, Wei Ying hasn’t spoken to his brother at all. He’s not sure what he’ll say, if Jiang Cheng is home at all. It’s a Friday. Sometimes he goes out drinking with his coworkers at the end of the week. Maybe he’s—
The door swings open into sweet, air-conditioned air. Jiang Cheng is on the couch by himself.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says, stepping into the foyer, a last wheeze of humid late-summer air sneaking in behind him. He promptly trips over a pair of wedges. His brother doesn’t look away from the TV, and then he hears it as he catches himself before he goes sprawling—the metallic chirps and clangs of a video game. SuperSmash Bros.
Wei Ying toes his shoes off, kicks them onto Mount Jiang, and crosses the living room to stand by the couch and watch his brother play.
Neither of them speak.
Jiang Cheng is playing the same character he always plays, solo mode. He’s losing.
Wei Ying watches as his brother dies onscreen, Ike being pushed off the platform and pink light streaking across the screen as he loses his last life. GAME emblazons the playing field, then returns him to the main menu. Just as Wei Ying turns to go, maybe Jiang Yanli is free, Jiang Cheng selects Group mode.
“Remote’s under the TV stand,” he says without looking away from the screen. He selects the big BRAWL button, and then the character menu comes up. A blue hand taps in anticipation under Player 2, waiting.
Wei Ying pulls his backpack from his shoulders and lets it fall to the floor, hunkering down by the TV stand and getting on his hands and knees to dig for his dusty controller. It comes up cobwebbed with dust, and he wipes his fingers on the seat of his pants before dropping down onto the couch beside Jiang Cheng.
“I’m begging you to not play Pikachu for once.”
“If you don’t play Ike, then I won’t play Pikachu.”
“Fine.” Jiang Cheng moves his Player 1 hand over the character menu again. For a second Wei Ying expects him to choose Marth or Snake, and he’s about to roll his eyes, but then Jiang Cheng picks Peach.
Wei Ying chooses Kirby.
They sit one cushion apart and play. It takes Jiang Cheng less than a minute to fall off the edge, then Wei Ying gets distracted, mind wandering when he ponders the change in his brother’s demeanor, and Jiang Cheng punts him off the platform without even needing to try.
Jiang Cheng has always been a sudden person. A shout in a cold, empty room, a storm that tapers without warning, your windshield wipers still going as fast as they can, squeaking over damp glass. If Wei Ying had to choose, his brother was lots of Beethoven. A baseball bat to glass kind of person.
It’s not that he isn’t, now, Peach turning into a pink streak as he plays her. Even in sleep Jiang Cheng reminded Wei Ying of those mice that had to run across live wires for food, as part of some psychological experiment. But something about him has begun to settle.
Wei Ying loses. In his defense, he never plays Kirby.
“Oh,” says Jiang Cheng, when the winner’s screen shows up and Kirby is standing behind Peach, waving its gumdrop arms in applause. “You let me have that one.”
“I actually did not. I don’t know how to play this little pink guy at all.”
Jiang Cheng stares at him. Wei Ying shrugs. Something teeters on the cusp of Jiang Cheng’s mouth. It might be an argument. It could be an apology. For what, Wei Ying doesn’t know. The former option seems like the more likely route. Somewhere in his neck, a bubble of a headache forms.
Then, “I’m hungry. Want to go get food?”
“You mean, go out?”
“What about Jie?”
“I dunno. Go ask if she wants to come.”
“What are we gonna eat?” asks Wei Ying.
“Well, what do you want?” says Jiang Cheng, yawning and reaching for his phone, already uninvested in the conversation. He does not seem to register how strange all of this is. Wei Ying can’t recall the last time Jiang Cheng asked what he wanted to eat, he just gets him food and shoves it at him without preamble.
“Yeah, you. If you don’t pick in the next five, we’re getting Mongolian barbecue.”
He actually would not mind Mongolian barbecue. Lan Zhan is an amazing cook, but Wei Ying hasn’t really dug into barbecue for a while. “I—okay, wait. Let me go...tell Jie.”
Jiang Yanli looks up when he knocks and then peeks his head in. Her room is even messier than Wei Ying remembers it last, her dresser a miniature city of perfume, lotion bottles, hairpins and scrunchies, makeup brushes, a little dancing Doraemon clock, and a desk calendar of some Korean actor that Wei Ying has seen all over his social media every other month. There are little Xs over each day that she has a show. The square for today is blank.
“Hey, A-Ying,” she says, feet pulled up onto her chair. A red welt the size of a plum blooms over her knee where she’d been resting her chin. “I didn’t hear you—wait,” she says, sitting up. “It’s Friday. What are you doing home?”
“What, can’t I come see my sister?” He sticks his lower lip out where he leans on the doorframe. “So unhappy to see me.”
“That’s not true!” She pulls her earbuds out of her ears, looking panicked. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” says Wei Ying. “Going to go out to eat. Want to come?”
“I already took my makeup off. And my hair down. I’d have to—”
“Aiya, Jie, you look fine as you are,” Jiang Cheng drawls as he appears in the doorway beside Wei Ying. “It’ll just be your two didis, so if you’re worried, it’s not like there’ll be anyone coming that you’re trying to impress. And if Zixuan’s not impressed with you without makeup then I’ll kick his ass.”
“No, he never—” Jiang Yanli pauses, blinks from Wei Ying to Jiang Cheng. “The three of us?”
“Yeah, this one wants Mongolian barbecue,” Jiang Cheng says, jabbing his thumb at Wei Ying.
“Hey, those were your words! You were the one who said if I didn’t pick in five minutes—”
“Well, I didn’t hear you disagree, did I?”
Wei Ying rolls his eyes.
“So we’re getting Mongolian—”
Jiang Yanli crosses her room in two strides, almost leaping, as a ballet dancer does, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t have a chance to finish before she yanks them both down into a hug. Their heads knock together like two marbles before they settle on her shoulders.
“Jie, what are you—”
“I was scared!” she sobs, and Wei Ying has to hunch for their sister to hug him around the neck like this. “I was scared we would never have this again! And it would just have to be fine, and it was, it just wasn’t right. No matter where we go, or who we become, or how far we end up from home, I never want us to be fighting. At least not like this! Not about stuff that matters. I was scared, but I didn’t want to tell anyone, so I didn’t, and even Zixuan noticed, but he only has cousins so he doesn’t understand, but—”
“Jie,” Jiang Cheng protests, but it’s halfhearted at best. He sounds close to tears himself. “It’s okay, hey, you don’t need to—you can let go.”
She does not let them go. “We’ll do better, okay? We’re going to be okay.”
“We’ll be okay,” says Wei Ying, wriggling until he can hug Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng around their middles with both his arms, cheek still crushed up against the side of his sister’s head. “It doesn’t go fast, but you’re right. A-jie. We’re gonna be just fine.”
Jiang Cheng sniffles, tries to disguise it as a scoff, his tears betraying him. Then he, too, hugs Wei Ying around his waist, loops his arm around their sister’s shoulders. It’s a tight squeeze, a little closer than Wei Ying has ever been with his two siblings. He waits for a headache that never comes.
In her doorway, they’re a loose handful of flowers veined in purple, relearning how to grow.
i’ll be back saturday morning!
i owe jiang cheng a rematch in brawl
okay, don’t sleep too late.
do you need me to bring your sleep meds?
i think i’ll be okay without them tonight
i love you!!!!!! good NIGHT
i love you too
“Why are you making that face at your phone.”
The voice message, Wei Ying discovers later when he’s curled up in his own bed, is a quiet lilt of piano. It goes on for a full thirty seconds, reminds him of ozone pungence and spring mud, the glitter of nighttime right before the sun turns the horizon red.
what song is that? i don’t recognize it
oh jeez sorry i woke you up
what’s it called?
answer me in the morning sleepyhead
‘my boyfriend saying good night’
Wei Ying doesn’t fall asleep until four AM.
Here is how life moves on: with or without you, because or not because of you, whether or not your happiness gives time anything in return. Mercilessly, unforgivingly, uncaringly.
Here is how life moves on: better because you are in it.
hey, wei ying
how are you recently?
working as usual!!
Life is precious because it ends.
Life is precious because of how many others your own touches. Like a sun in a window: not even knowing that the flower in a vase on the gingham tablecloth grows because of it.
got a favor to ask
depends on the favor
good thing i wasn’t asking, i was telling
you got me there
fine ill bite
so...i’ve been dating your sister for a while
and it just feels like the right time.
there’s something i want to ask her
can you help me plan it?
“Oh my God, Zhanzhan. I think. I think my sister’s gonna be engaged. My sister’s gonna be engaged! Hold on. Hold on, I need to call Jin Zixuan. God, what a weird thing to say—”
This is where it ends.
Someday you’ll make it out of here.
When someone touches death with their bare hands, the first hour of survival is so crucial it gets its own, shiny name: golden hour.
A phrase not just reserved for the honeydrip light of late afternoon, when the sun hits the windows of every high rise and every squat shack and turns them into something living. That’s what afternoon sun does—it falls, raw yolk sliding down the great underside of a copper pan, and everything snaps to attention.
Wei Ying watches its slow descent outside the conservatory, shading his eyes in its light show, a biting chill on the back of city grease smoke that says: autumn is coming. He can wear his backpack without sweating, and his hair no longer sticks to the back of his neck when he leaves it down, spilling in dark skeins over zipper closes of his bag. A jacket probably would have been a good idea.
Lan Zhan had texted earlier, be right there, so Wei Ying waits for him.
“Wei Laoshi, have a good weekend!”
“See you next week, Wei Laoshi!”
A few of his students breeze past from behind, turning to wave. A pair of girls, linked arm in arm, matching Pusheen keychains swinging from their backpacks. One of them has chef Pusheen, the other an angel Pusheen. He waves back, arm windmilling after a day of teaching and lecture. He means to say, “Good night!” but the words come to his lips too late and they’ve already crossed the street, disappearing in a throng of bodies and bikes.
A cat sticker with a rotund belly, surrounded by fish bones.
someone flagged me down to talk about the end of month conference
did you decide where we want to eat?
lets go to yi zhang hong
and both of us can eat as much of whatever we want
“Yi Zhang Hong?” comes Lan Zhan’s voice from behind him, after another few minutes. The sun splashes over him in patches, turning sections of Lan Zhan’s hair into spun thread when he comes to a stop in front of Wei Ying. “On Nanjing Road?”
“Yes!” Wei Ying says, laughing, but then his eyes scrunch up too much and he can’t look at Lan Zhan properly, so he settles on a smile. “But I know it’ll be really spicy, so we can take our pick of restaurants when we get there. We don’t have to go to Yi Zhang Hong—there’s so much food to choose for you and for me both. There’s that restaurant with the roasted garlic eggplant and mustard green tofu soups for you. Remember that? They had that water wheel in the front. Or sashimi! And dongbei tanzi meat for me! And ice cream shops, for after. Or boba. We can go wherever, Lan Zhan.”
I’ll go wherever you are.
“If you want to go to Yi Zhang Hong, then let’s go,” Lan Zhan says, smiling his soft eye-smile. Around them, the campus is a big, warm sundial, and Wei Ying steps in and kisses Lan Zhan right in the courtyard. Soft, brief.
The past few months have felt like one long, endless golden hour.
“My treat, by the way,” Wei Ying says, when he pulls back and reaches for Lan Zhan’s hand. “Guess who the Philharmonic asked to guest next season again?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes glitter. “Of course.”
Golden hour is ending.
“They’re still between choosing Tchaikovsky or Hummel,” says Wei Ying. “They might pick Tchaikovsky. I hope they pick Hummel.”
“Yeah. If they pick Hummel, I’m going to suggest Concerto No. 2. I love that one.” He pulls a face. “I’ve got my practice cut out for me. You’re going to be sick to death by the time concert season comes around of hearing whatever it is I practice, Lan Zhan. Jiang Cheng has a Pavlovian gag reflex trained to the sound of Moonlight Sonata, and I don’t blame him.”
“I would not have pursued a career in piano study and performance if I got sick of hearing it,” Lan Zhan points out, “but if it worries you, my piano has an audio jack.”
“Oh right! Yes, your heartsong piano. Wow, I’m used to practicing on an upright that the entire building can hear—that’s going to be convenient, Lan Zhan.”
The noise of the city grows indiscriminately loud until they make it to the subway station that runs toward Nanjing Road. At the end of a workday, on a Friday, the station is busy and alive, the wind of rushing trains lifting Wei Ying’s baby hairs away from his face.
They’ve been here before.
As always they jigsaw themselves into a subway train with dozens of other bodies, packed so tightly that in the end Lan Zhan is the one to reach overhead and grab a handrail. Wei Ying is pressed into his chest, this time without any peonies to separate them. He turns his face into Lan Zhan’s neck because he can, meets warm olive flower and jasmine. Lan Zhan wraps an arm around him, keeping his hands in his pocket, so that Wei Ying is half-folded into his jacket.
They ride in silence. Wei Ying could almost fall asleep.
“Just a little bit, Zhanzhan.”
“How are you feeling?”
Stations later—ins and outs and new bodies and new voices later—Lan Zhan still has him folded into his jacket, powder blue, cradling Wei Ying like a wide ribbon of summer sky. Cold watermelon August sky, not typhoon June sky. Standing like this means Wei Ying’s face is squished into Lan Zhan’s scarf, the cashmere tickling his cheeks. Tired butterflies against his skin. The inside of Lan Zhan’s coat is lined with satin and fleece, trapping all his warmth in. Wei Ying feels surrounded and for once by something safe—not blackberries, not dark, humid waters, not plastic.
There’s only one more stop left before their station, and soon they’ll have to let go of each other. He can’t wait for tomorrow to burrow into Lan Zhan’s body again with his jacket like a heron’s wing around him.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is hazy but tomorrow has: Lan Zhan, it’ll have Nuvole Bianche and the sticky neon of evening. It will have long walks and short walks, it will have students hitting all the wrong notes, sticking out like rogue thumbs. Tomorrow he’s going to go through Lan Zhan’s sheet music repository and help him donate books that he won’t need anymore; they’ve already found a music school that needs more resources, and both of them have more than enough to spare.
A big, quiet thing for A Boy to be happy for, tomorrow.
“I’m feeling okay.”
And that’s more than good enough.