Chapter 1: i hope someday
modern au, lwj and wwx are both pianists. hurt/comfort. feyburner and i once talked about exploring cql!wwx's death in a modern context; this is the result. this fic intends to explore mental health, suicidal ideation, and attempt recovery in chinese families, though it absolutely does not intend to represent all these experiences. i elaborate further in this tweet thread. there is a happy (and hopeful!) ending, however, please read and take all warnings seriously, take care of yourself first!
if you are interested in reading but would like to skip the scene of the attempt, you can ctrl+f to "Lan Huan is awake with a cup of tea when Lan Zhan leaves his room past ten."
content warnings: graphic onscreen suicide attempt via drug overdose, graphic aftermath of said suicide attempt, blood, mentions of vomiting, head injuries in flashback, implied cancer in flashback, parental death in flashback, hospitals, depression and anxiety, frank discussions of death, medication, dysfunctional family dynamics, narcissistic mothers, mental health stigmas
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first time Wei Ying tipped backwards out of an office chair—the kind that spun, with five-pronged starfish feet tipped in wheels—he hit his head on a bookcase and needed seven stitches to close the gash in his scalp. He was five.
If he looks hard enough, on the back of his head where his hair is thickest and darkest, he can still find the scar, faint and stiff as an old rubber band. Hair never relearned how to grow over the scar tissue. He can’t find it unless he’s looking, and he doesn’t, usually. Sometimes when he shampoos, he will, and he’ll lose himself in the hot water for ten minutes, running his fingers over the naked line of skin. Unable to ignore it with the same inexplicable, sticky urge to pick scabs before they’ve healed just see the raw pink skin beneath.
Most of that night is a blur, now: the rattling gasp that had come out of his own throat when his head glanced off the edge of the bookshelf, the thud of his little body, the dull throb of pain, the trickle of blood running in rivulets down his neck. A-jie’s quiet voice floated down the hallway like the candy-soft smell of niangao and jiuniang, calling “A-Ying? A-Ying, was that you?” until she found him and her voice jackknifed into a torn, horrified scream, “A-Ying!”
Yu Ayi had been disappointed. Not because of the mess, or even the trouble of taking him to the emergency room. “You could have saved us the trouble and just not woken up from it,” she’d sighed, with the same distaste one would peel gum or bits of crushed snail off the sole of her shoe. Her car had smelled like blackberry handsoap. Wei Ying hates blackberries.
He’d seen Jiang Shushu do it all the time without so much as wobbling. Most nights, he’d be up late on conference calls, long, long after Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli were supposed to be in bed. Sleep never came to Wei Ying like it did for Jiang Cheng, for as long as he’s remembered—in the beginning, he always worried this his parents would appear again in the night and he wouldn’t be there to greet them and hug them and say, “Finally, Baba, Mama, you’ve come back for me!”
The lamplight always streamed in soft, thick streaks through the crack between the floor and the door, goldening the hallway nearly to the kitchen. On some nights, the door would be ajar, Jiang Shushu bringing a cloud of his cigarette-smell in from the balcony, midway through a smoke when his boss needed him back on the phone. And Wei Ying wasn’t supposed to be awake, but he’d get up for water, for the bathroom, and see Jiang Shushu with his feet up on his desk, the corded phone pressed to his ear—plum purple from exhaustion—chair tipped back. Sometimes he’d be holding a ream of hospital-white paper filled with a march of numbers.
He finds it now, strangely, without even looking that hard, the scar and all its memories a little white sailboat against the black water. Rubs his thumb over it. His hair scritches as he does. The floor of the bathtub is halfway to damp and sticky with shower gel residue, seeping through the backs of his pants, and a long, coarse hair too thick to belong to A-jie—Jiang Cheng’s, probably—is plastered like a graffiti mark to the side of the tub. He puts his socked toe to it and it flutters onto the textured no-slip bathmat. A black strand of hair against aged, fleshy pink rubber.
The moment between the tip and the impact, though, that heady, breathless in-between that straddled the anatomic dead space where he knew there was no other way this could end—it’s the only part of the night he remembers with punishing clarity. It had only lasted for a split-second, less, even, but it stands out like a metal spike in the oily asphalt of that night.
Wei Ying doesn’t know how he got into this bathtub. He knows, but he doesn’t. The day had moved around him like cold, flavorless time-porridge, parting sluggishly where he went. Where there should have been the darting of thoughts, his head felt like a big black hole. He was scared to touch his own face for fear of his hand falling through: nothing there, nothing there but yawning black endlessness.
That’s what they get wrong, the pamphlets and posters. Always orange and teal panels, sometimes purple, almost garish and Halloween-y. It’s not that he’s ever thought about it, planned it like he plans out his schedule to make sure he doesn’t miss work, because no alarm seems to wake him up lately: I think I’ll die today. Once or twice as a student, he’d visited the health department on campus and left with a business card cheery and crisp as a spring leaf, jumping from his palm like a slice of grapefruit. Speak up if you’re feeling down, it told him. Did you know? After car accidents, the leading cause of death in adults aged 18 to 34 is—
No one sits down in their spinny chair and tips backwards out of it because they want to. Wei Ying didn’t and he still doesn’t. But once it does, you can’t stop. Your head is going to hit the bookcase, and it will bleed, and if you’re lucky someone will find you. (“If you want to die, then do it right. That’s what you wanted, didn’t you?” Blackberries, traffic smoke, head full of noise. “Ungrateful money-suck. A-Li, don’t let him bleed on the seats.”)
It isn’t. It’s a funny difference. He doesn’t want to die. It’s just that he doesn’t want to live.
The sun flares through the tempered glass windows and glints in flashes off the edges of the bathroom mirror, the medicine cabinet, settles in neat orange squares on the back of the door. Wei Ying watches it slide down the wood, turning it mahogany.
A door shuts quietly outside. “A-Ying, I’m going out now,” says Jiang Yanli, and the frosted glass paneling turns the outline of her into a soft, grainy smear of pastry icing on the other side of the door. She has a date with Jin Zixuan tonight. “I left sliced pork with garlic sauce in the fridge for you. A-Cheng said he was going to eat out with Xiao Sang tonight.”
“Thanks, A-jie,” he says. “You coming home tonight?”
“Kidding, I’m kidding!” His laughter rings in the tiny bathroom. “Make him order you the nice stuff, or I’ll be having words with him.”
“Okay, okay. Stopping, I promise.”
“Then I’ll leave n—”
“Aiya, I know,” she singsongs. Then, after a smart click of heels, the front door closes.
Wei Ying sits back again. Balanced on the rim of the tub are his dates for the evening, a motley row of bottles and containers, three of them, gathered in their own little support group—Ah, you’re here to help him sleep, too? He stares up at the pole holding the shower curtain in place, at the hangers that dangle from it. One of them is overbalanced to one side, the kind with twenty-four clips gathered on a circular frame, with the weight of what must be every single sock that Jiang Yanli owns.
And then he’s a black hole again. When he was five, woozily trying to remember how to walk after his stitches, he figured that dying was a loud, sad thing, that he’d be scared of it. Not sitting in a tub with his plastic tumbler in the cradle of his crossed legs, unboxing a fresh blister-pack of pills red and yellow. They blink up at him like miniature traffic lights: don’t! Don’t go! Stop! Stop! Stop!
(“Ma, don’t run a red—”
“If he dies in this car then it’s my problem, A-Li! How do you think it looks to drive a dead kid around? Huh?”)
His phone bleats at him.
jie said youre staying in do you want food
if you dont answer in five gonna take that as a no
Wei Ying pauses his aluminum blister-popping.
jie left pork slices!!
dont complain if youre hungry later.
were close to that place with that stinky tofu that you like
the one that i said smelled like socks
He follows this up with an animated sticker of a baby’s head crying at a cartoon dollop of poop.
probably i will just make some ramen if i get hungry
how is it that jie and i have shit to do tonight and you dont
your lan shuai ge busy or something?
Wei Ying’s thumbs pause.
It’s almost evening. Lan Zhan is probably already done with dinner and practicing piano—he owned one that he could connect his earphones to, so he could play in total silence and not disturb the neighbors. It was self-playing, too. One of the fancy Yamaha pianos, given to him from his brother who’d, like most oldest children, retired from piano for more lucrative, family-approved pursuits in business. Whenever Wei Ying visits, Lan Zhan would load his favorite song and let him watch the keys play themselves.
“It’s romantic,” said Wei Ying, once. “Like watching a ghost play their heartsong for me.”
Lan Zhan had smiled without even moving his mouth—that tiny, soft lip appearing beneath both his eyes, along his dark lower lashline—before he’d turned away.
His phone dims now, sleepy, and he touches his screen. Jiang Cheng’s message taps its foot in anticipation at him.
Oh, he hasn’t sent a sticker in too long—there. A cat with a snot bubble should do it. Jiang Cheng starts typing again, but Wei Ying simply sleeps his phone and puts it facedown on the rim of the tub. Goes back to emptying his prescription into his tumbler. Tonk. Tonk. The clatter of capsule skin to old plastic grounds him.
Then he’s out—three months worth of estazolam, three boxes of three blister packs each. Ninety should be enough. He holds the cup still between his thighs and unscrews the fresh bottle of baijiu, listening to the merry glug of liquor as it pours. The bottle is pretty, with a graceful swan’s neck and a label with gold foil on it. A dinner party centerpiece, one to be passed around and admired and recommended to tipsy, pink-cheeked friends, where there’s too much laughter in the kitchen, the TV is playing some bad, low-budget war drama that no one’s watching, “Stop cooking and come eat!” and the sound of a stove hood powering down after sucking away all the shrimp-smell and clam sauce stickiness: a wine for that kind of night.
Not this. Silent and overseen by a jury of socks.
He sloshes a bit of baijiu when he lifts his cup and stares down into his cocktail. The alcohol is so strong it smells as if its only legal use is to strip paint off an old car, and already the pills have begun to erode and bloom, color bleeding into the liquor. Trails of red and wasp-yellow crane for the surface. Tea for the end of things. It probably won’t taste as good.
It doesn’t. Wei Ying usually drinks huangjiu, mainly because he likes the sweet, but baijiu burns his throat as it goes down. The steeping of pills has warped the flavor, but they rush toward his mouth, tumble past his teeth, and he opens wider so they run down his throat. He drinks them in. It’s not so unlike hitting the bottom of a bag of green-onion chips and holding the crinkling plastic to his lips to shake the crumbs into his mouth. Dribbles of baijiu run down the corners of his mouth in rivulets, and he grimaces when his cup empties. The pills have stained the bottom, orange ooze dirty and pilled with floating bits of old toothpaste.
He sets his cup down and unscrews the bottle of antiemetic syrup that Jiang Cheng had bought for A-jie when she had a stomach bug. There’s more than half left. He takes a swig. It tastes like strawberry chalk and raw flour.
Above him, the tiny bathroom window is still propped open, and Wei Ying stares at the spidery network of dead mosquitos that had gotten stuck in the insect screens.
He doesn’t feel anything. In his belly, his stomach gurgles, a drooling, leachy creature with buzzing lightbulbs for eyes.
That’s just the thing, isn’t it? Wei Ying feels nothing. He doesn’t feel anything, and this emptiness should scare him. He knows he should be scared. He wants to be scared. He isn’t. Fear itself is never scary; fear is just a response. It means that your body wants you alive. It’s the absence of terror that scares him.
Well. Nothing’s happening, so he drinks another mouthful of the syrup that tastes like liquified sidewalk and grout, stands up, and starts washing his cup. There’s a round pink scrubby that A-jie keeps in the bathroom that she makes them use whenever they leave toothpaste residue in the sink. Wei Ying pours some handsoap into his cup and scrubs.
The water runs. His reflection stares back at him. Behind him, the washer and dryer gawk at him. One of them does, anyway—the washer door hangs open, slack-jawed, with the sweat of condensation beading its face. Wei Ying shivers, the alcohol buzzing low in his belly.
It’s cold. It’s almost summer, so it shouldn’t be, especially not in the muggy bathroom, but he shivers and shuts off the water. Does he leave the cup in the sink? Someone will have to clean it up later.
He nearly slips sitting back down on the edge of the bathtub. His feet fall in a slimy puddle left over from someone's shower this morning. Might have been his own, he can’t remember, but the sensation makes him colder. He leans down and peels his socks off, thin, veiny membranes coming away from his skin, but the world tilts and Wei Ying has to take the other sock off in the bathtub. His chest is hot and sour all at once, bright green phosphene splashes across his ribs.
The sock finally comes off. His hand is right by the shower knob, and he’s cold, he’s so fucking cold. Everything is cold. His hands shake. They’re shaking all the way up to his shoulders. In all the stories he’s heard, no one had ever told him that his fingertips would go before his vision did, because watching his own hand turn the hot water feels disconnected from his own body. Water spurts explosively from the lower nozzle, then the showerhead, as it always does, pipes clunking like ghosts in the walls.
Oh, Wei Ying’s head is heavy, like the sky had caved around it. When he presses his cheek to the rim of the tub, the porcelain is cold, too. The ceiling hangs so low. It’s drooped. He can reach up and touch it, but his stomach churns and he thinks he better not move, or everything will come back up.
His phone chimes. He’d left it on the rim of the tub.
He wonders who’s calling.
They’ll have to leave a voicemail.
The apartment is dark when Jiang Cheng gets home, which is a little disappointing. He’s so fucking good at SuperSmash when he’s on the edge of drunk. On a bad day, Wei Ying can beat him in a little less than ten minutes, and on a good day Jiang Cheng can hold out for twenty. There should be some kind of law stating that no one who uses a character as annoying as Pikachu should be allowed to win SuperSmash so easily, and yet.
It’s fine. He’s come second all his life, he’s gotten pretty good at it.
“I’m home,” Jiang Cheng announces to the foyer at large, switching the lights on and immediately almost tripping over a pair of Jiang Yanli’s strappy sandals. She never puts them back in the rack.
No answer. Wei Ying’s probably in one of his moods, one of the downswings. Jiang Cheng will have to check if he remembered to eat. He’d brought home some of that stinky tofu anyway, because it was unlike Wei Ying to reply so dully to a text about Lan Zhan, so he probably needed it. Nie Huaisang had wanted it too, so, in a way, it had simply been convenient for him to grab some.
The kitchen smells faintly of garlic and the sweet, ashy scent of a mosquito coil burnt down to its end, and the refrigerator unseals with a wet squelch that says summer is coming when Jiang Cheng opens it, looking for the leftover bottle of green tea he’d gotten from the hole-in-the-wall convenience store downstairs.
favorite thing about taking the subway home: pole bar flirting
tonight’s selection is someone with clam hands!
he was cute until That. why is it that they’re all always cute until i see their hands
you think being gay is hard? try telling people you vet them based on how pretty their hands are
Jiang Cheng tips his head back and drinks.
how’s that xiaozi?
he usually doesn’t turn down stinky tofu. hope he’s feeling okay?
A snotty, crying old man sticker.
i think hes in his room im gonna talk to him
tell him to keep his chin up!!!
his not-boyfriend has sexy hands!!! what’s there to be sad about!!!!!!!!!!!
He opens the fridge again, light casting a jaundiced glow over the sticky kitchen tiles, and just as Jiang Cheng moves to close it he sees the bowlful of garlic pork that Wei Ying had mentioned their sister left behind, under a wrinkled membrane of clingfilm. As he’d expected, untouched.
“Hey, Wei Ying, even if you’re not hungry, you should at least give A-jie some face,” he calls, pulling the meat and some leftover rice from the fridge. “You know how annoying this shit is to make, she spends ages chopping garlic! Also I got you horrible stinky tofu you like, Xiao Sang wanted to stop by the joint.” No answer. “Are you listening?”
The soft sound of the shower running filters down the dark hallway when Jiang Cheng pokes his head out of the kitchen. “Hey, Wei Ying,” he calls. “Why didn’t you eat?”
But only the quiet hush of water drones on. When someone showers, the soft pap-pap-pap of soapsuds and shampoo foam hitting the floor of the tub always punctuates the white noise of running water, and Jiang Cheng hears none. Wei Ying usually runs the bathroom fan when he showers, too, and he doesn’t hear it now.
“Wei Ying,” he calls. “Are you showering?” He flicks the hallway light on.
Water seeps through the crack at the bottom of the door, pooling onto the hardwood in the hallway. Jiang Cheng frowns. What—? “Hey, Wei Ying!” he shouts. “There’s water all over the hallway. What kind of shower are you taking? Hey, are you fucking listening to me? You’re flooding the hallway!”
When there’s still no answer, a ribbon of unease slips into Jiang Cheng’s throat.
“Wei Ying,” the water is soaking through his socks, “what the hell are you doing in there?”
He tries the knob. It’s locked. None of them ever lock the doors when they use the bathroom because it jams. Jiang Cheng jiggles it and the metallic sound of steel on brushed steel grinds its teeth. “Wei Ying!”
Cloudy tendrils and a slick, dark oil float along the surface of the water puddling around him. It doesn’t look like soapsuds, but he can’t figure out what it could possibly—
Jiang Cheng feels his body go cold.
“Open up!” he shouts into the crack between the door and its frame. “Wei Ying! Open the fuck up! What are you doing in there? If you don’t open up I’ll kick the door in!” The light isn’t even on, the frosted glass a dim swamp green, fogging up from the steam without the bathroom fan on. “Wei Ying!”
The kitchen is so far away. A dull buzz and a ringing roars in his ears. Jiang Cheng pulls his sleeve, fleece over knuckle, to cover his fist with shaking hands and, tucking his thumb hard over his knuckles, brings it into the glass. Pain explodes in light show from his knuckles and sprints in hard, barbed lines towards his shoulder. He barely registers it. “Wei Ying!” his mouth is shouting, but his brain is a blank, slippery armful of fear: What is he doing? What did he do? What has he done?
The glass finally cracks. A hairline fracture. Jiang Cheng swallows, knuckles stinging, and gathers more sleeve over his hand and connects his fist with it again—
—and it gives. His arm lurches through the hole, broken glass clawing at his sleeve, and Jiang Cheng nearly faceplants into the door. The air inside is sticky and metallic, and he casts out wildly looking for the knob on the other side. His fingers slip on the lock. Steam has gathered in sweaty droplets upon it. “Fuck, come on!” he shouts, when it refuses to turn.
Then it does, and he flicks on the light, and.
Jiang Cheng has seen a lot of horror movies, growing up. Such is the fate of he who calls himself family of someone like Wei Ying; before he turned eighteen, he’d already been traumatized within an inch of his life by all the Ju-on movies—the Japanese and the American versions—and half the Saw franchise, a bizarre short film about eating unborn fetuses, and some horrible ghost movie that Wei Ying could not stop laughing at but scared Jiang Cheng so shitless anyway that he couldn’t sleep for a week.
So: he thinks he’s seen it all.
There’s blood. There’s vomit and there’s something else, chalky white and pink, he doesn’t know what it is. The whole bathroom is wreathed in the heavy, nauseating scent of orange blossom shampoo over the sour of bile. Jiang Cheng thinks he’s screaming but he can’t hear himself, he slips trying to cross the bathroom and has to dig his fingers into the counter, there’s a cup in the sink, there’s soap in the sink, pill packets float past his ankles like little aluminum canoes, Wei Ying’s head rests on the side of the tub and water is spilling out from the lower edge of the rim, his phone is facedown and wet, keeps lighting up and gurgling as its chips and plates drown in the lukewarm water. The lockscreen is a picture of Wei Ying and that Lan Zhan, flickering like a dying sodium lamp.
He shuts the water off first. Almost yanks the knob out of the wall doing it, and in the light, bruises bloom in blue dimples on his knuckles. Some of them are bleeding. The sting of roughing against fleece dies at his wrist, his whole body is numb. The water around them heaves with the addition of another body, flooding over the rim with a warm splash as Jiang Cheng gathers Wei Ying in one arm to prop him upright. His mouth twists around words and these, he hears, “Wei Ying!” and “Oh my God, oh my fucking God,” and “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
Wei Ying’s hair floats in fine, spidery lines in the water, feathering softly where it breaks the surface. Now that the water is off, the bathroom is too silent. Empty glass thunks hollow against porcelain, like the pound of his heartbeat against his sternum. Jiang Cheng tries to think of something, anything, hell, something he’s seen from a movie, even—he prises Wei Ying’s jaw open and there’s no evidence of what he’s swallowed or how much of it is still in his body, everything smells like sick and alcohol and strawberry. He’s seen people stick their fingers down someone’s throat to make them vomit again. He’s too scared to do it. What if he forces something back down? Are you even supposed to do that? He doesn’t fucking know. “Wei Ying!” He shakes him by the face. His head only lolls.
He needs help. He wants his sister. They’re alone. He’s holding his brother but soon he’ll just be a body. He wants someone to tell him what to do. Wei Ying is usually the one who tells him how to talk, how to act, how to feel when Jiang Cheng doesn’t know which path to take. He has told Jiang Cheng to stop crying and then he has wiped his blotchy face. Jiang Cheng pretended to hate it. The idea of losing that all is unfathomable.
The water has dampened his phone in his pocket. His heart is a kick drum. Jiang Cheng shakes so hard that he can barely hold his phone up to his face to unlock it, and when he does he can’t even remember what number it was for an ambulance. 119. 110. No, 120, and his voice doesn’t sound like his own when it comes out of his mouth, exploding like he’d been holding a lit firework in his teeth.
“One-two-zero, what’s your emergency?”
Wake up, I don’t know how to exist in a world where I only have a sister.
“My brother’s tried to kill himself!”
Lan Huan is awake with a cup of tea when Lan Zhan leaves his room past ten. The lights are off but the TV is on, volume turned down low on a Scottish documentary about old castles. The glow from the screen turns his brother’s face into a blue ghost in the night. The shadows turn his face into a light show of sharp angles.
“You’re still awake,” he says, at Lan Zhan’s movement towards the kitchen. “There’s chrysanthemum tea if you need.”
“Is there something keeping you up?”
Not exactly. Lan Zhan had gotten into bed early because he had classes to teach in the morning on weekends, but he’d tossed restlessly for an hour without knowing why. Wei Ying hasn’t replied to his texts when he checked—he usually does, though it often takes him longer to, curled up tight in bed like a newborn fawn hidden in grass, nose tucked into his blanket like a prey animal. Lan Zhan had seen him fall asleep like that once on his couch, when he’d been playing Ludovico Einaudi, Nuvole Bianche. Wei Ying hadn’t moved when Lan Zhan stopped, and then hadn’t moved when he draped his blanket over him.
“Can’t sleep,” Lan Zhan says. His brother has left the kettle on the stovetop, the brushed steel glinting like a capsized ship in the dark. “I’m fine, but I have class in the morning.”
“Will it help to talk? Is Wei Ying still awake?”
“Most likely.” The teacup is warm in Lan Zhan’s palm, and the soft scent of chrysanthemum hovers over his lips as he drinks.
“He can’t talk right now?” Lan Huan guesses.
“Hmm.” Lan Huan gestures to their Yamaha. “I can play, then, if it’ll help.”
“No need, Ge.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. I’ll—”
Lan Zhan’s phone lights up. He hadn’t planned on bringing out into the kitchen with himself, but he’d checked the time right before rising and hadn’t put it down. A smile has already begun when he realizes that it’s not a text notification—it’s a call. No one calls him except for his brother, or his uncle, and Wei Ying doesn’t usually call first.
It’s Jiang Yanli.
Lan Zhan stares. He doesn’t have a contact photo set for her, the frosted film of an incoming call blurring his lockscreen. It’s a picture of Wei Ying, hands outstretched with a black butterfly in his palms. With its wings spread, it had winking sunspots dipped in lipstick on its tails. They’d been at a botanical garden. For a few months, they’d rarely finished teaching at the same hour because of their students’ piano exams, since Lan Zhan taught at an advanced level and Wei Ying worked with teenagers upon whom he spent time and energy and love. He’d said, “Teenagers are just people who need someone to believe in them.”
They’d met up outside the conservatory and Wei Ying had been a bright streak of gold in the sunset, and without thinking, Lan Zhan had invited him out for dinner. His chest had been a big, rainy, glowing thing that evening, like he’d swallowed a whole month’s worth of spring.
He answers, “Hello?”
At first there’s silence, and Lan Zhan is certain she must have called him on accident. Perhaps wiggled her phone where it had been sleeping in her pocket.
Then: “Lan Zhan?”
Her voice is every kind of wrong.
“Jiang Yanli?” he says, croaky, mouth forgetting how to form words. “Is everything okay?”
More silence. In his periphery, his brother sits up on the couch, and Lan Zhan turns his back so he faces the granite countertops. Blood is humming in his throat like he’s swallowed a hummingbird. Then, through the static, she whimpers.
“Li-jie,” he says, the name that she insisted he call her whenever she saw him. “What’s wrong?”
The hum turns to sweat. The sweat chills. Lan Zhan feels his knees sway like high-rises when earthquakes shake the land, all his hinges loosening, the curtains shivering like a child hiding and smothering their giggles behind them. All at once, his insides are metallic, a whole moving boxful of silvery and crockery shattering.
Lan Zhan would not describe himself as someone with an active imagination, but his thoughts explode nuclear and dusty on the insides of his skull.
Words lose their meaning somewhere between his belly and his mouth.
“Did something happen to him?”
“Is he dead?”
The couch whistles when his brother stands up behind him, and the creak of the floorboards is already a noise that belongs to a different reality. Lan Zhan is in freefall.
“No. I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli says, and this is what breaks her: the uncertainty. She sobs and her words melt together, in that horrible way they do when someone is crying but they’re still holding themselves up against the flood. The hot, sour smell of tears pressing down on the throat. Lan Zhan can’t understand her anymore, like trying to pick out separate petals in the slush of springtime rain, plum blossoms blending into a dark pink puree on the curbs and in the storm drains. “I don’t know. Lan Zhan, I don’t know. He’s not—he’s hanging on, but. I don’t—we don’t know if he’ll wake up. We don’t know how bad it is yet. They won’t tell me or A-Cheng anything, but it’s been an hour since I got here.”
Not dead. Somehow, it doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to mean alive. He’s not dead, says Jiang Yanli, as if that’s all there is left to say.
Weirdly, Lan Zhan hopes she’ll say it was an accident. A sick sort of comfort comes with accidents, because it’s part of being alive, part of being in a world full of moving pieces. Sometimes things bump into each other. When she doesn’t answer him right away, he knows. He just knows.
“A-Cheng found him,” she says, which isn’t an answer. “He found him in the bathroom. When he got back from dinner...he waited for us to leave. There were pills.”
Saying he tried to kill himself is too ugly, because the words and he might have succeeded dangle like a stillborn behind it, gooey and limp and unsaid.
“I’m too afraid to imagine if A-Cheng had gone home later.” Jiang Yanli breathes again, the noise tickling the shell of Lan Zhan’s ear. “The doctors are still trying to—to stabilize him.”
Lan Zhan’s head is rubble, shrapnel, bundles of open wire. The dust hasn’t settled. All of him is acid and high voltage. “Where are you now?”
“Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, in Huangpu,” she says. “But, Lan Zhan, it’s late—I just thought you should know. A-Cheng told me that he asked about you before it happened, that A-Ying sounded wrong when he answered, so I thought I would—” She takes a deep, evening breath, voice still watery, but steady, at least. “Lan Zhan. Come visit him?”
She sniffles, and suddenly, Lan Zhan feels like he’s on the phone with someone much younger than he is. A teenager. A child. A child who had walked in on the paint-spatter of head blood, skull blood, dark and sticky as forgotten blackberries left in pockets and puddling in an oblong across hardwood.
“I’ll be on my way.”
He hangs up and he’s untethered. The TV is on mute now, but still on, light strobing the kitchen red. Lan Huan is behind him, a steadying hand on his arm, like he knows Lan Zhan might wilt if he isn’t holding onto him.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“He’s in the hospital.”
“Let’s go,” says Lan Huan, without another word. He doesn’t even ask who; Lan Zhan doesn’t know what he looks like, but he’s glad that his face is doing the talking. “Which one?”
“Changzheng,” Lan Zhan says, and his vision swims. His brother has leapt into motion, opening the coat closet by the entrance and shrugging on a cardigan over his pajamas. “Ge.” Some faint, frayed part of him is thankful that his brother is moving so quickly, because Lan Zhan feels like all his bones have been replaced with mismatched wooden jigsaw pieces.
“I’m calling a Didi. Let’s go wait downstairs.”
“Let’s go, A-Zhan. You’ll feel better when you see him.”
The entire car ride to Changzheng—on the other side of the Huangpu River—is unbearable. Lan Zhan can’t breathe and at the same time feels so full of air that he could vomit. He’d read somewhere, once, that if too much air got inside your veins, it’d travel its way around your body, wiggle into your brain, and kill you. He imagines it with a grotesque sort of detail, body rocking with the traffic, cars sprinting down the highway on both sides with angry cat-eyes for tail lights, leering at them.
His phone lights up every time his arm is jostled, the lockscreen of Wei Ying and his butterfly blinking slowly in and out of existence. Here, gone. Here, gone. Here. Gone.
Lan Zhan unlocks his phone, thumbing over his WeChat app. Wei Ying is pinned at the top, along with his brother, and all his other group chats cascade in a chattery mess beneath them both. Notifications off. Neat unread buttons with messages numbering into the dozens glare up at him.
His last conversation with Wei Ying had been from this morning:
i got a double yolked egg today!!!
And a chicken sticker, doing a happy little dance.
you’ll be lucky today
you’re up so early?
you sent me a message at almost 4 AM...
ive got level 8 babies testing today
i want to stop by the conservatory and make sure theyre feeling okay
some of them arent ready but their parents have paid me to train them for level 8, you know how it goes lan zhan
if you don’t have class until evening today, we can get dinner if you want
last week you said there was a new restaurant on nanjing road that you wanted to try
but if you’re tired, it can wait
a little bit
i only have one class in the morning if you want me to bring food.
And then Wei Ying hadn’t replied again. Later that evening, just before dinner:
i’m sure your double egg yolk was with your students all the way today
get some sleep tonight!
if you want to hear me play nuvole bianche, call me whenever
i can play whatever else you like, too
Get some sleep tonight. Lan Zhan looks at his own message and the nausea steamrolls through him again. In the almost-summer, the air has turned yellow and humid, like a breath after dinner, so he forces himself to breathe in deep. Gulps down mouthfuls of the sickly, orange-scented air conditioning air, the smoky aftertaste of cigarettes lingering on the back of his tongue. He smelled it as soon as he fell into the Didi, the driver turning to them and asking if he was Lan Huan. It clings to the upholstery.
“Slower, A-Zhan. You’ll make your head spin.”
Good. If his head spins, at least it’s some semblance of motion or sensation. Lan Zhan can’t feel anything, like his body isn’t flying down the expressway, pushing one-twenty on the dash. He closes his eyes and lets the world around him be tactile.
He sent one text to Jiang Yanli: please let me know if anything changes.
Please let him know if he’s going to be too late.
Lan Zhan has not liked the hospital since he was six and had to watch his mother die in one, as all the machines around her, like a million cicadas, fell quiet at once.
Back then he couldn’t even see over the receptionist’s desk in the department of oncology—his father, and then his uncle, had to hold him up over the counter so he could get his visitor’s sticker. Once, one of the nicer ones had put it on his hand and told him to stay strong for his mama. He didn’t cry that day.
The receptionist at this hour is not bound to be particularly nice. Her hair is wiry with grey, and she peers over her bifocals and a beaky nose as Lan Zhan approaches with his brother.
Lan Zhan nods mutely.
“Name and relationship to patient?”
“Lan Zhan. I’m Wei Ying’s friend.”
She squints at her monitor, a fine layer of dust collecting on the top rim, as she looks him up in the directory. “Non-family visitation hours are closed. But I see,” she leans in, chain of her glasses swinging and catching the weak fluorescence, “that you’re an emergency contact. Write your name and sign here. You?” she barks at his brother.
“I’ll wait here,” says Lan Huan, ever pleasant.
He goes through the motions of medical bureaucracy—showing his ID, signing, getting his visitor’s pass printed. He pastes it to the soft front of his cardigan, suddenly aware of how underdressed he is. Like he’s brother, he’s just wearing a knit over his pajamas, hair down without even a pin to hold it back.
“I’ll be right here.” Lan Huan sits down and makes a show of looking comfortable in a slotted metal chair. “No rush, A-Zhan. Call me if anything changes.”
The intensive care unit is always crowded. Wei Ying is in room 17-B, three floors up, and Lan Zhan passes by rooms with six beds and drawn curtains, the quiet, hissing noise of oxygen like sleeping dragons down the hall. Room 17-B is almost at the end of the corridor, and his heart starts thumping wild and steely in his chest at the sight of it. He’s nauseous all over again. Get some sleep.
The door for 17-B is shut, with a narrow slice of window facing the aisle separating four beds, two on each side of the room. It’s smaller, and when he peers in he sees Jiang Cheng, who has his hands on his sister’s shoulders where she’s seated by a bed near the other end of the room. The curtain is drawn; Lan Zhan can only see the table at the end of the bed. There’s a paper cup knocked on its side.
Then Jiang Cheng catches sight of him in the window and shuffles woodenly towards the door.
“How is he?” Lan Zhan asks as soon as it’s open.
“Doctors said the first hour is most crucial. They pumped him and took his blood, now they’re analyzing how much got into his bloodstream.” Jiang Cheng had never been particularly nice to Lan Zhan, but he’s trembling so hard that Lan Zhan feels a bizarre urge to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. Jiang Yanli had said that Jiang Cheng was the one to find him. “But he’s better than he was before.”
Lan Zhan’s throat could be all needles. He swallows. “Can I see him?”
Jiang Cheng opens the door wider. “I should warn you, he doesn’t look...like he usually does.”
Such an ugly pause.
There are two other patients in this room, the bed beside Wei Ying’s empty. Jiang Yanli stands up when he comes in, and she’s dressed like she’d come to the hospital directly from a fancy dinner party. Her hair is still curled, but her lipstick has faded around her lips and two faint tire-streak tear tracks have stained her cheeks. She offers him a quiet smile.
“Zhanzhan,” she says, that pet name rolling off her tongue more easily than it does with anyone else in his own family. “Thanks for coming.” Then she leans over the bed, and before Lan Zhan rounds the curtain he can hear her soft voice: “A-Ying, look who came to visit. You should greet him, don’t you think?”
When his mother went, she’d been so pale and thin that every time Lan Zhan visited, he thought his hands would go right through her body. Even at the end she insisted on lifting him and Lan Huan into her bed, holding her two boys close and listening to them chatter about what they were learning in school, who won the art contest, who won piano regionals, if they’d visited anywhere fun. She would make them promise to bring her when she got better. His brother would always be the one who said Of course, mama! as Lan Zhan drew pictures on her palms and wrists with water-based markers. He thought they made her look more solid, like she wouldn’t simply vaporize into thin air like steamed milk, skin tight like the filmy surface of boiled cream.
Jiang Cheng pulls the curtain back slightly, just so Lan Zhan can fit himself against the side of the bed opposite Jiang Yanli, and then draws it again. The metal rings scrape overhead, shoonk.
A ventilator is taped to his face, tube tunnelling deep into his throat, blue medical adhesive stark against his skin. He’s so pale. Paler than Lan Zhan has ever seen him, almost blue. Wei Ying is always a little paler coming off the heels of winter, but all color comes in shocks off of him—the tape, the tubes, his hair a black storm pulled back in a messy ponytail away from his face. Red hairtie, the metal clasp catching the light, a bent nail hammered into his skull. Tubes sprout out of him like weeds. If Lan Zhan tried to hug him, he’d get an armful of plastic and metal.
“He’s doing better now than he was before. A-Cheng said he was turning grey, and then blue, before I got here,” Jiang Yanli says, sitting down again. Both of his arms have drips feeding into him, but she runs the back of her index finger back and forth against a free patch on Wei Ying’s wrist.
Jiang Cheng sits down heavily on one of the couches at the end of the room. The springs creak. The cushion beside him sags, with the remembered weight and pain left behind by other visitors to the ICU.
Lan Zhan stands rooted to the spot, unmoving.
“You can touch him,” Jiang Yanli prompts. “As long as you don’t jostle any tubes. The doctors said some touch is good.”
He’s been staring at Wei Ying’s hands, mostly, because it was easier to look at them without breaking. More anonymous. They could be anyone’s hands, and even that would still be a lie, because Lan Zhan would know Wei Ying’s hands in the dark with his eyes closed. He’s watched them blur at a piano, type at a phone, rest upon Lan Zhan’s chest, over his heart, loose in sleep.
Wei Ying’s eyelashes are still. When he’s asleep, his eyelashes always quiver, big sweeping dreams keeping his eyes busy. His lips are chapped and grey. The aforementioned blue. From here, Lan Zhan can see the network of electrodes snaking down the front of Wei Ying’s loose hospital gown, splayed in a web of frogs’ feet over his chest. It rises and falls so faintly that Lan Zhan has to fight down the urge to rest his palm over Wei Ying’s body just to feel it move.
“It’s moving,” Jiang Yanli murmurs. She’s noticed. “I had to—to see, too.”
Lan Zhan lifts his hand and settles it so gently at the crown of Wei Ying’s head that he can just barely feel the soft give of his hair. His mouth aches to lean forward and kiss him on the forehead, but he thinks it wouldn’t be appropriate in front of Jiang Yanli.
Wei Ying lies as still as ever, without any indication that he even knows there are people touching him, and Lan Zhan wants to cry.
The question comes up shredded and bloody when Lan Zhan opens his mouth, “How did it happen?”
Jiang Yanli glances in Jiang Cheng’s direction without looking all the way. He’s shuttered, staring at nothing with his weight unbalanced on the moldy couch. “A-Cheng found him in the bathroom when he got home,” she says. “You know A-Ying has prescription sleep aids, because he has so much trouble sleeping. He always has, since we were little kids.”
Lan Zhan nods mutely.
“He took three months’ worth with baijiu, and then took antiemetic syrup to force it down,” she whispers, words cracking in her mouth. “His body threw up some. Not enough. We’re just lucky A-Cheng got home early enough and moved fast.” Tears have pooled in her eyes again, but she stays steady, sniffling once as they run down her face again. She’s curled her fingers around a band of wrist without needles, running her thumb back and forth against his skin. “Jiejie is sorry. Jiejie is so, so sorry, A-Ying, I didn’t know. Jiejie is sorry. Jiejie is sorry.”
“You have to see if your level eights passed,” Lan Zhan says, because it’s the only thing he can say without joining Jiang Yanli and weeping. “Your level eights love you.” You still wanted to go to that restaurant at Nanjing Road. We were going to go to the botanical garden again. I’m so sorry. You had double-egg yolks, it had to count for something. I wish I could have been there to catch you. Wake up, please, I’ll play Nuvole Bianche for you again. I’ll play anything you want me to play. I’ll play for you forever if you wake up. Your level eights love you. Please don’t leave me. I love you. Please don’t leave me. “You have to be here to take everyone out for dinner, even if they didn’t pass.”
Jiang Yanli sniffles, swiping at her cheeks with her hands. She stands and the leather of her purse squeaks. “I’m sorry, Zhanzhan, I should’ve gotten you water—I’ll go—”
“No matter, Li-jie. I need to give my brother a call, I’ll go. Would you or Jiang Cheng like anything?”
“I’m fine,” she sniffles again, pasting on a smile, then nodding like she’s happy with how steady she can sound. “A-Cheng?”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head mutely.
Lan Zhan casts another glance over Wei Ying, then lets his hand fall. The hallway is dim for the evening, and the hospital, who never sleeps, could be breathing. He waits until he’s out of the corridor to call his brother.
“He’s not well, Ge.”
Lan Zhan swallows, eyes hot. “Suicide attempt.”
The kettle-hiss of static. Then, “A-Zhan, I’m so sorry. Is he okay now, at least?”
I don’t know, rings Jiang Yanli’s voice in his temples.
“He’s still here.”
“Are you okay? Are you going to stay for longer?”
“I want to.”
“That’s fine. Shall I take your classes tomorrow? If Shushu asks, I’ll tell him what happened. He won’t say anything. Are Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng here?”
“Let me know if they need anything. I’ll go home and come back in the morning with some things for you, if you want.” Silence that neither of them have learned how to fill. “Do you plan to stay until he wakes up, A-Zhan?”
“If he doesn’t?”
Lan Zhan shuts his eyes. “I cannot afford to think like that, Ge.”
“Of course, you’re right. I’m sorry. Will you be okay by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. Go home. If you need to find my lesson plans, call me.”
“I will. Hang in there, A-Zhan, it’ll be okay.”
And they hang up. The vending machines in Changzheng are outfitted with enough AI that his brother would joke that he doesn’t trust them. He can’t see where they keep their brains. The cooling mechanism hums to life, shaking the tile beneath his feet, a line of thumping steel hearts frosting the lobby glacial blue.
There’s water on the top shelf, a line of overpriced Nongfu Springs, and he swipes open his WeChat Pay code. A gentle chime, and then his payment processes.
The middle row is all snacks and crackers, a shiny plastic rainbow of grease laid out at eye level for children. Closest to Lan Zhan are two rows of Want Want snacks, the miniature honey bun variety, and senbei crackers. Wei Ying eats them like they’re his meal replacements. Green tea and Want Want honey buns. When Lan Zhan caught him with nothing else for lunch one day—multiple days—he started bringing extra food. Then started packing an extra lunch.
“Lan Zhan, you don’t have to! You really don’t. Aiya, you went to the trouble again?”
“For someone who doesn’t cook meat regularly, you’re really quite good at it,” Wei Ying always talked with his mouth full, no time to chew and swallow, “Zhanzhan, you’ll have to give me the recipe for this. Where’d you learn to make pork slices in garlic?”
“You plan on making it?” Lan Zhan asked, and Wei Ying laughed.
“No, I’ll just ask Jie to make it!” he said, and his laughter sung like a bell.
Lan Zhan presses the buttons in the pinpad for the honey buns. And the crackers. There’s a miniature box of salted duck egg biscuits, he gets those, too.
And here, where there is no one to watch or listen or care, Lan Zhan feels tears run down his face. The machine chimes in receipt again, but it sounds like she’s trying to console him, and when he bends down this time to retrieve the snacks from the chute his body gives and he sinks to the floor. It is not a picture of dignity. He crosses his legs on the dusty linoleum and sits there and cries. Around his face, his hair hangs in dark velveteen curtains, and he leans forward until he can feel his forehead press to the cool Plexiglass of the vending machine. The cooling hum vibrates against him, making his teeth chatter in place.
The hospital vending machine bears witness to more honest fear and grief than some funerals do.
He’s quiet, mostly. He’s quiet but he sobs, takes drowning, gulping breaths with a lapful of bottled water and crackling snack bags.
Hurt throbs behind his face like molten metal, sterling silver and steel red hot as more tears spill down his face. Between his apartment and the hospital, the breathless trip in between, Lan Zhan hadn’t been able to cry. It had congealed in one cold, solid block that he could feel pressing on the backs of his eyes, but now the tears spill out all at once, and he cries like he hasn’t in years. At what? He doesn’t know. One thing, everything: that Wei Ying was hurting enough that he didn’t feel like there was another way out, that he might wake up and be a different person, that he might not wake up at all, that Lan Zhan didn’t know. He knew about the pain; he has it, too. They talk to each other about their pain. He didn’t know how close to the edge Wei Ying had been. How could he not have known?
How do you love a person and not see the ravine behind them?
Thankfully, no one comes by. He sits until his tears dry into a sour thrumming in his sinuses, and then he peels himself off the ground with his snacks and water and returns to room 17-B. Part of him sinks when he sees that nothing has changed, stupidly hoping that all of this is a vivid, waking nightmare, but Jiang Yanli is still seated in her chair beside Wei Ying’s bed. Jiang Cheng is still curled up on the couch, bending all his long limbs in on himself like a dead spider.
“You didn’t have to, Zhanzhan,” Jiang Yanli says reproachfully when he hands her a water and sets down the snack bags. “Is your brother still here?”
“I told him to go.”
“We can bring you back with us when we leave,” Jiang Yanli says. “Zixuan drove me here. There’s space for another.”
Jin Zixuan had dropped off Jiang Yanli. Oh, God. No wonder she’s dressed so nicely—she’d been on a date. She’d come right to the hospital, freesia perfume a sharp, rogue edge in the stale antiseptic.
“I’ll stay with him for a while, if that’s okay.”
“Are you sure? You have students to teach, don’t you?”
“We just had a round of exams, so not as many as usual.” Lan Zhan pulls up another chair, plastic rattling across the tile. “My brother will take them on, at least, for tomorrow.”
“At the conservatory?”
“No, not those. External students training to enter the conservatory.”
“Oh, you teach a wide range, then,” she says, and passes a bottle of water to her brother. He takes it gently, but leaves it beside him on the couch. It rolls into the crevice between the two cushions.
“I’ll stay a little longer, then A-Cheng and I will go home for a bit. We’ve told our parents, they’re going to come up by train tomorrow. We’re going to meet them and come back.”
Lan Zhan is of the opinion that it is not a good idea to let Yu Ziyuan visit Wei Ying the way he is now, but he nods. His elbows rest on the siderails of the hospital bed, and both his hands are curled around a free square of Wei Ying’s right arm; he has a particularly thick, imposing tube taped to his hand on this side. Lan Zhan wants to gather him, his little city of tubes and subway tracks, into his arms. Wonders foolishly if Wei Ying would wake up faster and more whole that way.
The seconds pass in static. The minutes, then the hours, slip by in silence. To be so close to Wei Ying for so long and not hear his voice for any of it is unfamiliar and scary—even when he’s not talking, music leaves him in firework bursts. In the middle of something, anything, a melody for a composition will fall into his head and he’ll hum it until he can reach paper. He’ll play it when he can reach a piano. Lan Zhan will murmur, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one,” and Wei Ying will chuckle and say, “I thought of it just now.”
His voice flattened in the soundproofing of a conservatory practice room when Lan Zhan asked, once.
“What’s it called?” Lan Zhan asked.
And Wei Ying said, “I don’t know. The thing it was inspired by, I guess.”
“‘Watching my best friend pick at a hangnail,’” he said, and Lan Zhan rolled his eyes and sucked on the raw, stinging strip of skin just below his fingernail. “What! You don’t like your hangnail song?”
I do, I love it because you wrote it for me, Lan Zhan didn’t say, and now hates himself for it.
Lan Zhan has his gaze trained on Wei Ying so long that he only notices Jiang Yanli starting to fall asleep when Jiang Cheng appears behind her, his hands on her shoulders jolting her out of her doze.
“Jie, let’s go home. Zixuan’s on his way.” He looks to Lan Zhan, like he’d just remembered he was there. “He can bring you back. Are you sure you want to stay?”
“I’ll stay and let you know right away if anything changes.”
Jiang Yanli’s eyes are shiny and scared as she stands, still clutching gently at Wei Ying’s arm. “Jiejie will come back soon, okay?” she says. “Don’t go anywhere. Jiang Cheng and I will come back soon. Be nice to Lan Zhan. It’s very late for him.”
“Let’s go wait for Zixuan downstairs, Jie.”
“Okay. Okay. We need to clean the house before Baba and Mama come tomorrow. How bad is it, Jiang Cheng?”
Lan Zhan closes his eyes and doesn’t listen. Around him, the machines click on, these cold metal bodies keeping Wei Ying warm.
“Xiansheng. Excuse me, Xiansheng.”
Lan Zhan wakes up and, for a few dizzy seconds, has no recollection of what had happened, where he is, why he’s waking with a tight cramp like a coiled spring in his neck. A sting flares sharply up the line of his spine when he sits up, and a grey shadow falls into his eyes to block out the light from the window. It’s light out. He’d overslept.
Then his vision focuses, the beeping filters back into his brain, and he remembers where he is. His heart starts beating in his throat when he looks down at Wei Ying, who hasn’t budged a muscle since Lan Zhan had fallen asleep last night. He runs his hand across his face, feeling sleep-smeared and unpresentable. A mark of corrugated tube plastic has been stamped into his cheekbone in red welts.
“Xiansheng, we have to run some tests on the patient. Are you his family?” The nurse has a kind face, older, with a tight perm and big, owlish glasses.
“I—no, I’m not. He’s my friend.”
“Then I’m sorry, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Lan Zhan stands up, swaying. He curls his fingers around the bed rail to steady himself. The nurse has busied herself reading Wei Ying’s machine, taking down notes onto her clipboard. Tiny numbers march in an unfeeling army across these screens and Lan Zhan’s skin flashes hot the way it does when he’s gone too long without sleep, prickly sweat starting at the back of his neck, and that’s what he blames it on—the sleep deprivation—when he leans down by Wei Ying’s face, sweeps a stray lock of hair from his forehead and presses his lips to his skin.
The nurse says nothing. She’s not even looking.
“I’ll come back later,” Lan Zhan murmurs. Wei Ying is still pale, but at least in a humanlike way this morning. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, or a trick of the light. “I promise I’ll be back later. Your sister, your family,” he says, because somehow, Jiang Yanli stands out from the rest of them, “they’ll come visit you soon.”
“Xiansheng, your phone,” the nurse calls after him as he gets up to leave. She picks it up from where it’s cocooned itself into Wei Ying’s blankets. It lights up when she lifts it, and the picture of Wei Ying blinks back into existence. The battery is so low that it’s a single hair of a pixel in the powerbank icon. “Don’t lose it.”
“Thank you,” he says. Behind her, Jiang Cheng’s water bottle is still wedged between the couch cushions.
Lan Zhan goes downstairs, out of the lobby without seeing anything, and calls a Didi. The driver offers him a cigarette, “because you look like you need one, young man.”
He declines. Halfway home, his phone runs out of battery. When he lifts it he gets no picture of Wei Ying at all.
Lan Zhan met Wei Ying when they were eighteen, and suddenly, music meant something.
Not that it didn’t before, but it had always meant—discipline. Pride. Perseverance. Mark of good morals, mark of a good student, mark of a filial son, and then a filial nephew. It had meant Hanon scales for warmups and Czerny measures for technique, and when his eyes crossed from the Sonatinas his treat was to work on something “worth showing,” as in, something that would get him into a good music school. If he was going to do it, then he better be the best, or else what did you waste my time and money for?
So he got into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He didn’t even know if he was proud of it, of himself, because it was still only enough. “Because you aren’t the material to get into the Beijing Conservatory, like Lang Lang, but I guess I didn’t expect you to be,” said his uncle, and Lan Zhan had put his head down and said nothing.
And then Wei Ying had walked into his life. Or rather, Lan Zhan had walked into his. He’d been looking for a practice room, only to pick one already occupied by Wei Ying, bent over a wrinkled book of sheet music with a frown wide enough to split his face. The sound of the door opening made him look up, gold bobby pin flashing where it held his hair out of his eyes.
“Oh,” said Lan Zhan, balking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“No worries! I’m almost done for today, anyway, I’m getting sick of looking at this. You want the piano, right?”
Lan Zhan nodded. He felt, very suddenly, aware of every cell in his body, like they’d all woken up at once. His insides squirmed in a good way, if there was one.
“Your name is Lan Zhan, right?” Wei Ying asked. “I’ve seen you in my classes. I’m Wei Ying! Usually I just practice on the uprights, but everyone always rants and raves about the baby grands so I thought I’d be a little selfish today and hog one.”
Lan Zhan shifted his music books from one arm to the other. He needed to do something with his hands. “What were you practicing?”
“Want me to play for you?”
He stepped closer, letting his eyes fall to the keys so he wouldn’t have to keep looking at Wei Ying. His cheeks felt hot and stupid, and he nodded again. “Sure.”
So Wei Ying had put his hands to the keys, made a grand show of readying himself—
—and played ten seconds of Chopsticks, completely seriously, even using his damper pedal.
Lan Zhan stared when he finished. Wei Ying laughed at the expression on his face, packing up his music books into his backpack. “Don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan, wow. I wouldn’t keep you here for six minutes because I like the sound of my own playing. Practice hard! Study well, ascend every day,” and he waved as he glided, cheerful as a sailboat, out the door.
And so: that day, Lan Zhan began to consider that music was a funny thing, a fun thing, a silly secret to be kept and shared between two people.
His apartment is hollow and echoey when he returns, like the inside of himself. Where his lesson plans are usually stacked beside the piano is vacant—he’s glad, at least, that his brother had brought the right material. On the counter is a note from Lan Huan: A-Zhan, I know you probably have no appetite, but try to eat something before going back to the hospital, it says. He’d written it on Lan Zhan’s post-it notes, blue with little white clouds drifting across the paper. Wei Ying had bought them for him from some hole-in-the-wall that sold everything and anything—batteries, cigarettes, Hi-Chews, ice cream, cramped and un-airconditioned.
Maybe this is what it’s like to lose someone, or have to confront a reality where you might lose them. You see them in everything.
Lan Zhan checks under the mosquito netting. Lan Huan had left him rice and soy-braised kao fu, and even through his dry red haze of sleep deprivation he feels his stomach rumble.
For a total of ten seconds, the hot spray of the shower makes him feel better, and Jiang Yanli’s voice turns the stream of water into needles: A-Cheng found him in the bathroom when he got home. Gooseflesh erupts down Lan Zhan’s arms as he pictures it. You know A-Ying has prescription sleep aids, because he has so much trouble sleeping. He always has, since we were little kids. Jiang Cheng is not someone who inspires much sympathy, least of all from Lan Zhan, but the thought of walking into a bathroom and seeing—seeing—
He stares at the dark drain towards which all the water rushes.
After he gets out of the shower, wet hair feathering as it dries, he considers getting some shuteye on the couch before going back to the hospital, but he can’t. Lan Zhan looks at his phone and—there’s still nothing, a piece of cold, silent metal, and his heart squirms like a sick kitten in his chest. Jiang Yanli should be back in the hospital now, probably with her parents in tow. Lan Zhan trusts that Jiang Fengmian will be worried, maybe even scared, but he knows Yu Ziyuan.
Lan Zhan stands at the counter, floor moving like water under his feet, and eats his food cold. Goes through the motions of changing into something presentable to go out in, something powder blue that feels good on his skin, and dries his hair before pinning it back in a loose half-up ponytail at the back of his head.
He’s back out of the door just past noon.
On the way to the subway station, Lan Zhan passes by an old woman selling wares out of the back of her pulley cart—sparkling beaded animals, bagua bracelets like caramel in the noon sun. A basket full of magnolia mounted on little pins, so aromatic that a cloud of sweet pungence hangs around her, and when she watches Lan Zhan pause her aged, leathery face splits in a smile.
“Young man, would you like something?”
“Popo, how much for the magnolia pins?”
“I’ll have one.”
“One is enough, thank you.”
She holds up her little scanner with shaking hands, frowning when his payment doesn’t read, and a child no older than ten scampers out of the convenience store outside which she sits and rights the screen for her again. He’s wearing a holey t-shirt and mismatched white and red plastic slippers with abominations of Mickey and Minnie mouse on the straps. “Here, gege,” he says, holding up the scanner again, and Lan Zhan finds it in himself to smile as his payment goes through. “Go slowly!”
He doesn’t go slowly, but it feels like he does—like he’s running in a dream, paddling through a thick river of hot soup, and drowning. When he steps onto the subway he doesn’t remember to even check that it’s the right one before it starts moving, sandwiched between a girl whose roots have grown back into her platinum-bleached hair and a harried businessman shouting into his cell phone. His voice kicks at Lan Zhan’s back, thunk, thunk, child’s feet against the dizzy airplane seat of his skull. Like his head is disconnected from his body, floating somewhere.
Wei Ying had thrust one of these on him, once. The petals had been bruised and sweaty, as if he’d been running with them crunched in his fist like a pair of scissors. “Lan Zhan,” he said, when he’d caught him just outside the exam hall. “Here! For luck!”
“For my exam?”
“For your exam. For everything. Keep it in your pocket. I know you’re perfect at everything you do, but who knows when you’ll need a little bit of luck, right?” Wei Ying had curled his fingers around it and pushed Lan Zhan’s hand to his chest. “It’s from me. That’s how you know it’s lucky.”
The magnolias sit in Lan Zhan’s palm, smooth slices of green-stemmed soap, and he curls his fingers around them again.
The hospital is significantly less beautiful in the daytime, a slab of glass and stone imposing against the white-noise pollution of the city. People filter in and out of the entrance—families, children, older people helped only by their equally old relatives, and Lan Zhan pauses to hold out his hand and lead them down the stairway to the street. One old man grasps his wrist.
“Young man, thank you,” he says, mottled skin dark against Lan Zhan’s arm. “Young people won’t even help us now.”
“Mm. No trouble.”
He’s let in by a chipper young woman this time, who seems to have trouble taking in his face all at once when she looks up. In other circumstances, Lan Zhan would have to confront the mortifying ordeal of being perceived as Handsome, but he’s running on several hours of cramped sleep and cold food, so he simply waits in silence as she processes his pass. She nods at his magnolia pin. “Visiting your girlfriend?” she asks.
And out of Lan Zhan’s mouth comes, “Yes.”
“I hope she’s okay,” she says, like it’s supposed to be a question.
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan, already untangling himself from her gaze, and heading for the third floor.
This time, he does not have the privilege of Jiang Yanli’s fond, fearful tears, or Jiang Cheng’s shaken silence. Now that it’s daytime, the doors of several wards are open, visitors trotting in and out like bees, nurses hurrying back and forth in blue scrubs. Lan Zhan dodges a tearful child being carried away by their grandparents, faces drawn, and he forces himself not to look into the room that they came out of.
Lan Zhan can hear Yu Ziyuan before he sees her.
“If he wants to die, that’s his choice. Why do we have to waste the time and money keeping him alive if that’s not even what he wants?”
“Ma!” Jiang Cheng. “That’s enough.”
Lan Zhan slows to a stop outside of room 17-B, the nausea that he’d willed away in the shower building inside him again.
“Am I wrong?” A scoff out of Yu Ziyuan’s mouth, no matter how quiet, is always pinching—not the affectionate kind, either, fingers nipping a cheek. Always hard, like she was trying to twist off a piece of flesh. “A-Li, stop crying for him. It’s not your job to. Stop crying, you look so ugly.”
“If I don’t cry for him, who will?” Jiang Yanli says, voice smeared around her tears. “I don’t see you doing it!”
“Jiejie,” says Jiang Cheng, pleading. “Stop talking.”
“Let her talk,” says Yu Ziyuan. “I, for one, did not raise a daughter to cry for someone so selfish.”
The hallway turns red around the fringes of Lan Zhan’s periphery, and he steps into the doorway. Jiang Yanli sees him and stands up immediately, and Jiang Cheng—if Lan Zhan can believe it—looks relieved. He immediately hooks his arm in his sister’s, and puts the other around Yu Ziyuan’s shoulders. “Let’s go,” he says, clipped. “Lan Zhan said he would visit.”
“I want to talk about the cost of this stay,” Yu Ziyuan says, even as he corrals her towards the door. “I won’t be paying for it.”
I don’t need you to. I will if I have to. It doesn’t matter if that makes your stomach turn, Lan Zhan thinks viciously, but he arranges his face into one of respectful calm as they pass him. Jiang Yanli reaches for his arm, says, “Zhanzhan,” in a weak voice, and it’s all she can manage before Jiang Cheng leads her away.
Jiang Fengmian brings up the rear, and he fixes Lan Zhan with a solemn gaze, nodding once before clasping a large, cigarette-smokey hand on his shoulder and squeezing. “Sorry to trouble you,” he says.
“Not a trouble,” says Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying is unchanged. Someone has smoothed his hair down, probably Jiang Yanli, but still he is a network of tubes, still a ventilator buzzes deep in his mouth. Lan Zhan sits down in the chair that Jiang Yanli had just vacated, the cushion uncomfortably warm under him. He’s sitting in a spot that he probably doesn’t belong in.
Across the aisle, one of the patient’s curtains has been drawn back. A woman with her head wrapped in bandages. She doesn’t have any visitors.
Lan Zhan reaches into his pocket for the flowers and sees that Jiang Yanli had texted him a few minutes ago, the text banner stretching over the screen just to cover the bottom of Wei Ying’s face.
i’m sorry for earlier zhanzhan. would it be better or worse if i said i knew this would happen?
i wanted to update you but didn’t get a chance. doctors have said he has stable progress. we should consider ourselves lucky.
A thin bruise runs along the veins of Lan Zhan’s magnolias, and he places them on the foldout table at the end of Wei Ying’s bed. The snack bags are still there. Most of them, anyway; the salted egg crackers are gone.
thank you li-jie
hope you are okay
and your brother. please get some rest if you can!
i understand. you look very tired too zhanzhan, we’ll come back tonight, and you can get some sleep! your brother told us that you stayed the night here. you’ve suffered
for wei ying it’s not suffering.
you should talk to him! doctors said he might be able to hear us and come around more quickly...i hope he didn’t hear any of that just now :(
He puts his phone down. If Lan Zhan had a choice, he would find a piano to play for Wei Ying. It’s easier for him to sit down and play Nuvole Bianche and see Wei Ying’s smile appear on his face even when he was feeling quiet or mean or empty. Some days, it wouldn’t reach a smile, but he’d turn his head to the sound of the music—never entirely looking at Lan Zhan, but he knew Wei Ying was listening. The next best thing is his phone, but there are so many tubes and so much tape crisscrossing Wei Ying’s face that Lan Zhan won’t try to put anything in his ears.
So he sits there, finding an empty strip of skin on Wei Ying’s arm to stroke, and opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again.
“Once you told me,” he says, throat cottony, “that magnolias on a pin would be lucky because they were from you. For my exam, for anything. It was seven years ago. I was testing for a practical exam, and you ran from the subway station just to give it to me. Remember?”
Clicking and beeping.
“I hadn’t thought about it for a while. I don’t think I told you. I kept those magnolias. I forgot about them, first—left them in my pocket and found them withering, my sweater smelling of luck. I saw them outside my apartment today and I brought some, because.” His insides tug hot and sharp as he thinks about it. “I still need you here.” Not because of luck. Because of love. I should’ve told you that earlier. I should’ve told you years ago. I don’t know if it would’ve changed anything. Please let it be enough.
Wei Ying doesn’t look like he’s sleeping. Just a waxy thing being kept alive, like the cloudy puddle of candle-melt after its flame has been put out, hardening in the cold.
Lan Zhan hadn’t meant to fall asleep again, and he doesn’t, not at all the way. He props his head on his fist, elbow notched against the raised frame of Wei Ying’s mattress, and strange images flash in and out behind his eyes like the lockscreen of his phone, blinking every time it darkens.
Yu Ziyuan’s poison. His brother, coming home with his back turned to Lan Zhan, and turning around and having his uncle’s face instead. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, always Wei Ying, bright and leaping from the backs of his eyelids like he doesn’t belong in the phosphene dark. He doesn’t. In some instances he’s lying upside-down on his own bed, head hanging off the end of his mattress and blood rushing to his face with a bag of chips. Other times, he’s playing the piano, something soft and gentle turning discordant and monstrous. Sometimes he’s just talking, and Lan Zhan can’t hear him at all, his mouth opening and closing without words.
He jolts awake when his elbow slips, and Lan Zhan rights himself in his seat. The sun has moved into the window, a prickly square of light inching across his shoe and baking his foot. He shifts, and—
Wei Ying’s eyes are open.
Lan Zhan’s heart shoots into his throat, splatters against the roof of his mouth. He rises from his seat.
“Wei Ying?” He leans over him in bed. “Wei Ying, can you hear me?”
Wei Ying follows Lan Zhan’s movements just ever so slightly, eyelids rippling as if they hadn’t planned on being open again. He stares up into Lan Zhan’s face, unmoving save for his slitted eyes, and Lan Zhan runs his hand down Wei Ying’s arm until he can fit it into the clammy curve of Wei Ying’s palm. He squeezes two of his fingers gently. “I’m going to get a doctor.”
Wei Ying doesn’t squeeze back. He just stares, as if Lan Zhan isn’t even there.
- 总有一天 translates to "someday/there will be one day," based on the lyrics "oh i hope someday, i'll make it out of here" from lovely by billie eilish ft. khalid, which is where the english part of the title comes from—"need a place to hide, but i can't find one near"
- this is the piece nuvole bianche, which translates to white clouds in italian. just for fun, wwx was practicing rachmaninoff prelude in g minor when lwj walked in on him.
- nanjing road is one of the most well-known roads in china and one of the busiest roads in the world, with approximately one million visitors per day. today it is home to hotels, commerce, restaurants, high-end businesses, malls, and international trading.
- kao fu is a regional vegetarian shanghainese appetizer.
Chapter 2: i'll make it out of here
hello and welcome to part 2 of—3, i know i said 2, but then this part ended up being 21k and i thought "this is just silly. it has to be three parts!" it just happened. once again, although this fic explores mental health, suicidal ideation, and attempt recovery in chinese families, it is not intended to be an all-encompassing representation of these experiences. please be sure to review the content warnings as some are the same and some are new, take care!
content warnings: suicide attempt recovery, intrusive thoughts, nausea, dysfunctional family dynamics, mental health stigmas, trauma, parental death in flashback, hospitals/psychiatric visits, depression and anxiety, frank discussions of death, medication, narcissistic mothers, toxic masculinity
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The only thing that Wei Ying’s parents left behind for him was a name: Happy Boy.
Don’t be sad, you’re our happy boy. You have to smile for us, happy boy, his father would say when they left for work, and now when Wei Ying closes his eyes to try and remember the timbre and resonance of his father’s voice, he finds that he can’t. He can only remember their faces from a thin handful of photos, developed in the era when film still came in little capsules and cameras were bulky, clumsy things. Shiny and frozen. Unlike Jiang Shushu, Wei Ying’s father actually smiled in photos.
If he’s going to be technical, it was his daycare teacher that gave him the name. “You’ll have to watch your son,” she told his parents, and it’s one of the only stories about his childhood that he can still recall—milky and blue, like opening his eyes underwater in a green, green lake to look for fish—“he’s not scared of strangers, and he doesn’t cry when he’s hungry or sick. Always smiling. Just a happy boy, your son.”
“That’s good,” said his mother, who always insisted on carrying him even when he got too heavy, “babies are closer to the netherworld than we are, so if he has nothing to cry for, then neither do we!”
So he was Happy Boy, and then when his parents left, he was Forgotten Boy, and with the Jiangs he was both Middle Boy and Shut-Up-Boy at once. So he decided to become—Piano Boy, Funny Boy, Worth-Your-Time-Boy, and he filled all those roles up to the brims. He filled and refilled, like all of him fit into one bloody jug and he was running back and forth between three glasses with holes in their bodies, draining him away. And on days when he chanced a look inside himself he saw nothing. Traces of things, perhaps. Morning-wet bathtubs, fingers catching on stray hair. Socks on a line, toothpaste in the sink. Orange candy melts in a cup. For years he ran on that nothing and did not wonder why he would lie in bed at night, waiting for sleep to come, waiting for it to last longer than one night.
And then he met Lan Zhan. Eighteen, books under one arm and every word a blush in his mouth, asking Wei Ying what he was practicing. For the first time, Wei Ying didn’t have to be anything. With Lan Zhan, he could just be A Boy.
It was the most peace he’d ever known in his life. Lan Zhan knew, in a different way, the race between the glasses that were never full. He called it the fog. Wei Ying would ask, on days when he was particularly quiet, “The sun’s not out today, is it?” and if Lan Zhan shook his head he’d say, “Want me to play Nuvole Bianche for you?” It had worked the first time he’d ever heard Lan Zhan sad.
Other days Lan Zhan would ask if the glasses were empty. Sometimes, his answer was yes.
The night Wei Ying had sat alone in his bathtub, he’d looked inside himself and saw nothing. Not the glasses. Not even the traces of things. Just dark silence, like the inside of an abandoned car, rusty weeds growing through the windows.
There’s a hand in his throat.
Wei Ying becomes aware, uncomfortably so, that there are things around him. There are things all over him, in him—hand in his throat, teeth in his wrists, sticky tongues on his cheeks, like he’s being eaten alive by a machine whose mouth is made of knives and ambulance sirens.
Alive. Hot, sour hatred surges up in his belly, blackens everything he can feel. Alive. What a dirty word. He’s still alive. He’s aware because he’s woken up, and everything is a haze—that fog—but he wakes up, body betraying him, the pills and the alcohol betraying him, the empty glasses betraying him. He wakes up and thinks, I can’t even die right, and the first thing to greet him is lights.
Someone moves close by. Wei Ying wants to close his eyes and play dead, so the universe will grant him this simple indulgence if he wills it hard enough. But then he figures that playing dead is what things do to stay alive, so he keeps his eyes open.
“Wei Ying?” The sound of his name comes to him from far away, abovewater. “Wei Ying, can you hear me?”
God, no, not Lan Zhan, anyone but Lan Zhan.
There’s a ghost of a sensation in his hands, around two of his fingers. Lan Zhan hangs in dark shadow over him, and there’s still something in Wei Ying’s throat, but when he breathes in he thinks he can catch the soft tinge of Lan Zhan’s scent. Blue fabric, olive flowers, and for some reason a thick sweep of magnolia. “I’m going to get a doctor.”
No, don’t, Wei Ying wants to say, watching Lan Zhan leave. No, don’t, they’re going to come in here and ask me how I’m feeling, what I remember. They’re going to come in here and tell me to live.
He wonders who told Lan Zhan. How many days has it been? He doesn’t know. The machines go on chewing at him, blowing air into him. The tube in his throat is grossly intimate in this place where people learn to lose people, but when he tries to move his arms he’s not sure where they are. He entertains the idea that they’ve hardened into plastic. Or that they’ve been twisted off of him, that the rest of him is just purpled, soggy flesh that has grown around metal and beeping.
When he’d first arrived at the Jiang household, he would play airplane chess and jianzi with Jiang Cheng in the longtang downstairs, sticky in the August heat, wearing some hand-me-down tank top and his sister’s old shorts. They’d always have to play by the squat shack of trash cans, always overflowing, always stinking in the summer like a rotting carcass. The older kids ruled the nicer stretches of the longtang, lanky and mean as wild coyotes, and when Wei Ying had tried to make them share the spaces he’d gotten shoved and kicked. Jiang Cheng had pulled him back with fearful hands—it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it, just leave it, he begged. Yu Ayi hadn’t started hitting him yet, back then, but he could tell in her face that she wanted to. The hard, shiny flash, car and motorbike headlights in the street when you’re standing too close to the curb.
One summer there’d been a broken doll facedown on the ground of the garbage shack. It was there all summer, and Wei Ying only noticed because it reminded him of the ones he’d see in American movies—fat limbs, soft marshmallow body, blue eyes that closed when you laid it down. One side of its head had been stepped on, so one eye was always half-closed and the other wide open, staring, refusing to sleep. It was missing both arms.
Then came an evening when Wei Ying had to take out the trash and he’d found one of them in the back of the shack. It looked like a scrap of meat with freezerburn, chewed on and regurgitated by a mangy dog.
That limbless, forgotten doll watched him all summer when he was seven. By fall it was gone. He lies here now, feeling stared at and stupid and pitied, waiting for the goneness of fall to come.
“Wei Ying,” comes an unfamiliar voice. “Good to see you awake. You certainly gave your family a scare there, how could you do that to them?”
The doctor is an aging man, with five or six hairs combed over a shiny expanse of balding, age-freckled scalp. Wei Ying tries to give him the dirtiest look he can muster.
“I know you mustn’t be feeling good.”
Where’s Lan Zhan?
“I’ve just got a few questions for you. You can answer yes or no. One blink for yes, two for no. Is that okay?”
He wants his sister.
“Do you remember what happened before you came here?”
Yes. No. He doesn’t know. He wants his sister. He wants to throw up. Who found him? He wonders if his parents had seen him coming and tossed him back into the world of the living: don’t follow us, promise, Wei Ying?
He stares up at the ceiling and doesn’t blink at all.
“I just knew that one day he would become a problem for us. That day has finally come, and now what? He’s our problem. I don’t know what I was thinking, letting him stay at our place when his hooligan, good-for-nothing parents—”
“Ma!” Jiang Cheng says. “Are you not done?”
“I’ve held this in for twenty-five years! I deserve to talk. What, he’s allowed to die but I can’t even speak my mind?”
“Laopo,” Jiang Fengmian says. “Let’s not talk about it here.”
“If not here then where? You think this problem is just going to magically disappear if we go home? Like it or not, that boy is our problem. One that you—”
Jiang Yanli can tell when Jin Zixuan arrives just by looking at her mom’s face. In one moment, she’s still turning on Jiang Yanli, no doubt with something else to say—and in the next her expression is smoothing, warming, falling into a smile that looks like someone had tucked barbed fishhooks into the corners of her mouth and pulled. Dance for me, says Saving Face. “A-Xuan!”
He holds his arm out for Jiang Yanli and finds her waist. She feels half-warmed, a forgotten patch microwaved roadkill, and he gathers her into his side before nodding at her mother. “Yu Ayi,” he greets. “Good to see you.”
“A-Xuan, what are you doing here? Are you visiting someone?”
Her mother’s voice is a knotted hose, words traveling through tangled rubber to dribble out of her mouth.
“A-Li told me about what happened. I wanted to come help.”
“It’s no trouble, A-Xuan, just some foolish family business,” she says, fluttering at him as one would swat at a fly to knock it off their food. “You needn’t see this.”
“A-Li was upset, so I want to see her,” he says staunchly. Jiang Yanli tries not to, but she sags against him. She hadn’t slept at all the night before, curled up against Jin Zixuan’s side tight as spun thread, but only now does she let herself loosen. “Is everything okay? How’s Wei Ying?”
“Aiya, he just wanted attention. You know how he’s like, you needn’t worry about him,” says her mother. “Have you eaten?”
“I have. It’s okay, Ayi, it’s no trouble.”
“A-Xuan,” says Jiang Yanli, “let’s go see him?”
“Of course. Yeah, of course, let’s go. It was good seeing you, Yu Ayi,” he says, and takes her hand to lead her away. She shoots Jiang Cheng an apologetic look for leaving him alone with their parents, but he offers her a fractured smile.
In the elevator, Jin Zixuan says, “I went to your apartment earlier to clean up.”
Jiang Yanli stares at him. “You did?”
“I brought you and Jiang Cheng to my place last night because I didn’t want you to see anything. I don’t want either of you to have to worry about that right now.” He doesn’t say any of this like he expects her to thank him. “It wasn’t a problem. I had a younger cousin who used to fake illness all the time when we were kids, except he would go the, ah, extreme physical lengths to convince us.” Jin Zixuan gives her hand a gentle squeeze, a flash of warmth. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.’
“Was it really bad? How much—”
“A-Li,” says Jin Zixuan, “it’s okay. Not much. Nothing a bit of mopping couldn’t fix, okay?”
She looks at her feet. Jiang Cheng had said something about a bathtub and finding him because the hallway was wet, but he was crying into the phone in a way he hadn’t since he was a kid and watched their brother get shoved by older kids in the longtang downstairs. That was Jiang Cheng—say nothing when Wei Ying got hurt, then run to his sister crying that he got hurt.
“It’s nothing. It’s what I should’ve done.”
She nods. Wants to say something about how it’s not just thanks for cleaning up, but thanking him for not saying anything rude about her brother, thanking him for pulling her out of that conversation, thanking him for not asking questions, but she opens her mouth and a sob comes out.
“Hey, hey,” he says. “Hey. Oh, A-Li.”
“What if he doesn’t wake up?” she sobs. The elevator comes to a halting stop, giving one last, sinewy shudder before the doors rattle open. They sidestep an older couple and Jiang Yanli allows him to tug her towards the bathrooms, where there’s less foot traffic. “What then? How could I not know? He was in there before I left, before I came to see you. He was already in the bathroom! I stopped outside the door!” She can feel her voice rising, heart shrilling in her ears, her body a rocket. Jin Zixuan puts his thumbs to her cheeks and catches the tears, doesn’t tell her to be quiet. “I should have known. I should have insisted he come out and eat dinner. I should have done more, I should—”
“A-Li,” he says, “there’s nothing you could have done.”
“But what if—”
“It’s not your fault. No matter what happens,” pause, “it won’t be your fault, it won’t be Jiang Cheng’s fault, it won’t even be Wei Ying’s fault. I know he and I don’t see eye to eye on—anything, but don’t convince yourself that it was your fault. You couldn’t have known. And, I think if you did, I don’t think you could have stopped him. Okay? What matters now is that you’re strong for him, because he’ll need you to be.”
She sniffles unattractively, but he gives her a half-moon smile and a “Hm?” sound, coaxing her to agree.
“Sorry I’m so ugly when I cry.”
“You’re pretty no matter what your face is doing,” Jin Zixuan says, frowning.
This startles a rueful laugh out of her. Tears from last night and this morning have made her skin mask-tight around her cheeks, even smiling hurts. “I look gross and sad.” She hadn’t put her contacts on this morning and inside of her shirt scrapes uncomfortably at her chest. She’d put it on inside out.
“I spoke wrong. You’re pretty no matter what you’re doing, or what you’re wearing.”
“How are you so good at this?”
“I have a lot of cousins who have struggled.”
“The same one that would fake illness?”
“No, an even younger one,” says Jin Zixuan.
“I’ll have to meet them all someday,” says Jiang Yanli.
He grimaces like she’d opened a jug of bleach under his nose. “They’re not that pleasant.”
“The youngest one is fine. Ah, let’s not talk about them now. Are you feeling okay? Do you want to go see him now, or—?”
Jiang Yanli’s phone chirps from her pocket, and she grabs for it. It’s a text from Lan Zhan.
i don’t know how he’s doing yet
but he’s awake.
The next time Lan Zhan is allowed to see Wei Ying, he’s sitting up.
Without a ventilator, he looks more like a human and less like a lab experiment. He sits with his gaze trained on his knees, arms still spread on either side of him riddled with tubes and needles like a king in his throne, if a king was a survivor and his throne a hospital bed on wheels. When Lan Zhan sinks down into the chair beside him, he slides his gaze over, and it’s still just as empty.
“Wei Ying,” he tries, gently, and reaches for Wei Ying’s hand. He takes it and Wei Ying looks at that, too, their bundled hands, without seeing them. Lan Zhan wonders if this is how he’d been when his sister had sat with him just now, if he’d said anything, if he’d stared at her with this listless grey expression that was like looking into a dirty mirror and seeing only the outline of a person. “How are you feeling right now?”
There’s a needle taped to the back of Wei Ying’s hand, but Lan Zhan rubs his thumb back and forth in the creased valley of skin between Wei Ying’s thumb and forefinger.
“Who told you?”
Wei Ying’s voice rasps, like he’s been strangled.
He says nothing.
“Wei Ying, you’re here now. I,” why is Lan Zhan so bad at finding his words now that Wei Ying is awake? He’d almost lost him, he cannot afford to swallow anything. “I was scared for you.”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Wei Ying turns his face away, all the way until he’s facing the empty bed beside his. “You shouldn’t see this,” he says, nearly to himself. “You shouldn’t have to see this. It’s disgusting and embarrassing.”
“I want to.”
“Well, I don’t want you to.”
Lan Zhan presses his teeth into the soft inside of his cheek. “You’re my best friend. I want to.” Wei Ying doesn’t pull his hand away, but Lan Zhan suspects only because he doesn’t have the strength to. “I’ll always want to. We promised, Wei Ying. We’d follow each other out of the dark.”
“Just leave me alone.”
Lan Zhan never refuses him so bluntly. It’s enough to make Wei Ying turn his face again, and Lan Zhan hopes for something—anything—to change in his expression. He’ll even take anger, but there’s nothing. There’s something terrifying about it. Wei Ying has always been bright red, leaping, the drunken throb of a club muted through glass even when he was asleep. Now, he’s a dark, breathing hallway of a person.
“I won’t leave you,” he says, just to see if it will rattle something out of Wei Ying. Anything—lint, loose change, a gum wrapper, a safety pin. Lan Zhan knows that Wei Ying hides things everywhere, forgotten memories in his rib-pockets, in his palm lines. He’ll go looking for something to tell Lan Zhan and say something else that he doesn’t even register, but leaves Lan Zhan reeling for hours. What did you say, about that scar on your head? What did you say, about studying abroad? Juilliard? Why didn’t you? Yu Ayi said what to you?
Once it had happened when he’d been eating a mung bean popsicle, stick balanced between his teeth as he tried to shoot off a text to his sister. Lan Zhan had reached out to take it from him, wood gummy and wet with melted cream and sugar.
“Sorry for what?” Wei Ying asked.
“I thought you told me you were adopted.”
This had finally made Wei Ying’s thumbs pause on his phone. Under the screaming cicada heat of August, he’d bundled all his hair up into a bun, but he never used a hairtie—just depended on the length of his own hair to knot itself in place, so big wisps had escaped to flutter in streamers around his face. “Oh, I am,” he said, when his words finally caught up with him. “You know that already, Lan Zhan, keep up. I told you that two days after we met.”
“I do. You did not tell me that it was because you were abandoned.”
“Abandoned is a strong word. That’s like driving into the middle of the mountains and dumping a dog there. You can have some of that, you know,” he said, nodding at his rapidly melting popsicle. “I don’t understand how you’re okay with a single bottle of lukewarm green tea.”
“What word would you use, then?” Lan Zhan asked.
Wei Ying shrugged. Then, when Lan Zhan met him with dubious silence, he sighed and said, “My parents were both investigative journalists. They were traveling, it was an accident. They didn’t like the mundanity of an office, but my dad and Jiang Shushu were best friends, so they’d leave me at the Jiangs’ whenever they had to travel for work.” He shrugged again, like he was simply recounting the odd scar on his shin (“Ah, Lan Zhan, that’s when I was shoved into a chain link fence. I bet you were never bullied in the longtangs when you were a kid, right?”). “One day, I asked Jiang Shushu why my mom and dad hadn’t come back yet, and he told me that they’d be gone for a little longer, so I’d have to stay a little longer. A little longer became a lot longer.”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“He didn’t think I was ready to hear it.” Wei Ying finally fired his text off into the cyberspacial void, put his phone back into his pocket. “I don’t know if I blame him, exactly. But kids will make up their own stories about why they were left behind. Death is usually not the first reason they pick.”
“When did you find out?”
“Felt like I was the last to know. The older children in our neighborhood called me Forgotten Boy. I think I was seven, maybe? It didn’t take me that long to put it together.”
Lan Zhan stared at him.
“It doesn’t matter now, don’t worry. Anyway, if you’re not going to eat that,” Wei Ying leaned in, and without taking his popsicle back, simply bit off a chunk from the stick where Lan Zhan was still holding it. “You can hold onto it for me. Thanks, Lan Zhan!”
So, that day, underneath a sweaty, dusty bus stop, Lan Zhan had told himself: I am never going to leave him. He’d have to leave me first.
Now, he thinks: He’d almost left me first.
Wei Ying is looking at their hands again, eyes moving in slow lines between his own arm and Lan Zhan’s fingers in his, like he’s never seen his own body.
On her last days, Lan Zhan’s mother didn’t have the energy to speak much, if at all, and Lan Zhan and Lan Huan were only allowed to see her with masks on, not allowed to sit in her bed anymore. She’d wait for the nurse to leave and gather them to her anyway. She didn’t care. Even at the end, he’d only said, Mama, please don’t die. Mama, Gege said you’re going to be okay. Mama, if you die, what’s going to happen to us?
Wei Ying, if you died, what would happen to me?
“You don’t have to tell me—anything, if you don’t want to. Wei Ying, you’re my best friend. I’m not leaving you.”
“You deserve a better best friend.”
“No. I want this one.”
Wei Ying’s eyes flicker to his face. A wisp of smoke. Lan Zhan hurries to block the wind.
“I need all of you here,” he says. “Even your hurt. Even your hate.”
“I’m nothing but a burden.”
“One that I will always want to carry.”
“I don’t want you to carry them,” Wei Ying says, and it’s gone, that smoke, a passing spirit. “I want you to be happy and carefree and have normal, happy friends who are normal, happy people who like normal things and have normal families.”
“I am happy and carefree when I have you.”
And then—with the whipcrack of a tree giving in winter, sagging under the weight of all the ice that has frozen, Wei Ying’s face warps like plastic under flame. He looks like he wants to throw something at Lan Zhan’s head. “Why won’t you listen to me?” he snaps, croaky from being ventilated for so long. His eyes are glassy and bloodshot. Tears start to well and worm in wet lines down his cheeks, splotchy as color returns to him in threadbare patches. “You are so stubborn! I’m just a mess, I’ve always been a mess! Always! Why are you even here, sitting in a hospital with me? You have students who need you. I don’t want you to see this. It’s ugly and stupid and embarrassing and now I have to sit here and face the fact that I made you upset, how can I fucking face you? Go away! A best friend doesn’t make their best friends cry! Why are you sitting here being sad for me? Why don’t you get it? I’m not even sad for me!”
His voice keeps rising, cracking when the words catch, and Lan Zhan is on his feet by the end of it, and he can feel the woman in the bed across the aisle awake and staring, and the noise has probably alerted a nurse already, but one moment Lan Zhan is still holding Wei Ying’s hand, and then he’s stepping forward, curling his fingers around the back of his head, and—
Wei Ying chokes when his face meets Lan Zhan’s chest.
Lan Zhan stands there as Wei Ying gasps wetly against the front of his shirt, body heaving around breaths rough as asphalt, and then he sobs. The angle cramps Lan Zhan’s waist, but he doesn’t care; he stands over Wei Ying as he weeps, the sheets rustling as his legs curl, all the tubes and machines jumping as he reaches up to cling to Lan Zhan’s clothes, and he sobs.
And Lan Zhan puts his cheek to Wei Ying’s tangled, stormy hair, closes his eyes, and says nothing.
we got home and our parents just left
thanks for sitting with him so long
When they were kids, just four and five, Jiang Cheng remembers sharing the bathtub with his brother.
It saved water, and in the cold winter months when hot water was divided across the grid for some five hundred tenants, it was never in abundance. It felt like the building never had enough of anything—just enough for everyone to live on. Never did it feel like a sacrifice, though. They’d sit in there until his mom yelled at them, playing warships and shark attacks on the high seas, until their fingers and toes pruned. The water would be cold by the time they leapt out, toweling off and dashing for their room before she could catch them and yell some more.
That was before the windfall, before they could afford a better apartment in a good neighborhood. His mom hadn’t seemed happy about it, even then, face pinched when he and Wei Ying cheered about getting their own room, not having to share with their sister anymore.
Jiang Cheng stands in the doorway of their bathroom now, glass panel still broken. The shattered green grit that had dotted the flooded bathroom, pricking the soles of Jiang Cheng’s feet like flotsam on seafoam, is gone. Just another bathroom, with its sink, with its mirror, with its toilet and towels. The mess of family in it. A march of toothbrushes. The bristles of Jiang Cheng’s are always splayed apart.
The bathtub looks the same as it had before all of this. Jin Zixuan mentioned in passing that he’d come by to clean up, and he hadn’t skimped—in fact, the bathroom is spotless, the mirror gleaming and free of toothpaste flecks, everything smelling new and slightly overwrought. Artificial. A pearly jar of air freshening beads in lavender vanilla sits on the toilet tank.
Jiang Cheng makes a note to send Jin Zixuan some good wine for it.
He stands in the doorway, where this bathroom is perfectly in order, without a hair or a fingernail out of place, and tries not to think about: dragging Wei Ying out of the tub by his armpits and his torso, sobbing too hard to see, falling backwards into the cloudy puddle in the hall so that the seat of his pants was wet for hours afterward, trying to warm his brother up when he started turning grey with blankets from their own beds. They’re folded up on the couch in the living room. Jin Zixuan must have run those through the wash, too.
He makes a note to send good wine and also a fruit basket.
it was nothing.
if anything comes up tell me, please.
do you all have food?
Food. Lan Zhan is asking if they have food. Jiang Cheng stares at the message so long that his phone dims. It’s not that he and Lan Zhan are on bad terms, exactly, especially in comparison with how prickly Wei Ying is with their sister’s boyfriend, but Lan Zhan has never asked if they needed food.
yeah i know
no need i can cook
“Who was that?” Jiang Yanli asks when he goes to the kitchen to check that the fridge has food that he can cook. The pork slices are still on the counter where he’d left them days ago, no doubt rancid in the summer heat now. Their clay pot is on the stove—when Jiang Cheng checks, he finds soup. His sister has raked all her hair up into a ponytail, wearing her glasses instead of her contacts, lenses thick as the bottoms of wine bottles. Between the three of them, Jiang Yanli is the one who never shows fear or pain, but she’s so jumpy that Jiang Cheng thinks he could touch her and she’d clang like dropped silverware. “Was it Ma?”
“No, just Lan Zhan.”
“Is he okay?”
“Probably. Do you want something to eat, Jie? I can make something.” The takeout box of stinky tofu is still sitting on their dining table, cold and spongy. That night feels so far away, like a day in someone else’s life. He can barely remember what Nie Huaisang had been saying when they’d gone to the foodstall.
“No, no, I’m fine,” she says. “I was going to cook. A-Ying said—” She blinks, peering around Jiang Cheng. “Where’s A-Ying?”
“Oh. I saw him in our room just now? He said he was going to—”
“A-Ying?” Jiang Yanli calls, pushing past him, heading for the hallway. “A-Ying! A-Ying—”
“Jie, he’s fine!”
Jiang Yanli comes to a shaking halt in front of the bathroom, where Jiang Cheng had just been, and he comes down the hallway to see that Wei Ying is in the bathroom with a change of clothes and his comb. He hasn’t taken off his hospital bracelet yet, a wrinkled white flag against his wrist.
“What…” says Jiang Yanli, “what are you doing?”
“I’m taking a shower?” Wei Ying says slowly. “I’m all gross from the hospital, A-jie.”
“Are you sure?”
Wei Ying shutters closed when he understands. It’s unsettling to watch, the hiss of a TV switching off in a power outage. “I’m fine, Jiejie. It’s just a shower. Just. Just any old shower.”
“Please don’t lock the door.”
“I won’t lock the door,” says Wei Ying tonelessly.
“Sorry,” she says, when he stands there unmoving, mouth a razor wound. She wrings her hands until they tangle. “Sorry, I’ll just. I’ll go warm up some food.”
Jiang Cheng lets her brush past him. He stares at Wei Ying, who turns away with the pinched expression of someone passing by some roadkill.
“Go easy on her,” he says. “Do you have any idea how much she—?”
No. Jiang Cheng bites his tongue. He knows they’re not the right words, but they clamor and squawk in the inside of his mouth. If he swallows them he imagines them exploding inside of him, ricocheting off the high ceilings of his chest. That firework that he’d been holding from the night he came home has burnt down to its wick.
Wei Ying ignores him. He bends over the trash can, picking hairs out of his brush before undoing his matted ponytail. They’ve woven themselves into black, lacy sheets in the bristles, and come away in layers as he claws through them.
“How could you do that to us?” he says, which is still wrong. It still isn’t any better.
Wei Ying hits a knot at the ends of his hair.
“If you were angry with me, then fine, I could understand. I can understand how you might hate me your entire life. But how could you do that to Jie? Did you not stop to think how it would destroy her? What if she got home first? What if she was the one to find you? How do you live with yourself knowing that?”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The firework in his teeth has started to explode.
Still, Wei Ying says nothing, like Jiang Cheng isn’t even there. When he drags his brush through his hair there’s a ripping noise.
“What hurt do you have that you can’t tell us about? Fine, you can’t tell us. What couldn’t you even tell Lan Zhan about? He came to the hospital looking like a ghost. What the fuck would I have told him if you had died?”
Ripping noise, tearing noise, Wei Ying keeps brushing.
“You know exactly what it’s like for family to leave you without ever saying goodbye!” Jiang Cheng shouts, so close that he can see his own breath puff against Wei Ying’s hair. “How could you do that to us?”
The brush yanks a lock of matted hair out of Wei Ying’s scalp and he stops. Long, wiry strands of it have descended upon the gleaming tile underfoot, just mopped.
“Are you done?” Wei Ying says, still facing his own reflection in the mirror.
“I’m going to shower now.”
He sets his brush down with a rubbery clatter and regards Jiang Cheng so colorlessly, expression like used dishwater, that Jiang Cheng backs out of the doorway. He closes it. The shower turns on, and then the scrape of the shower curtain being pulled closed filters through the broken panel in the door, right by the knob. Their sister must have heard everything. Jiang Cheng should go check if she needs help.
Behind him, the bathroom fan whirs on.
Jiang Cheng began playing the piano when he was four, when Wei Ying was five, when their sister was almost eight.
He was the one who got the better teacher. Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli, who only played for a year before she picked up ballet, learned from someone two floors below in their apartment building when they moved neighborhoods. His father would take Jiang Cheng by bus across the city into a neighborhood that had gates, an expat’s apartment. He still remembers her—her pale osprey eyes, mouth severe as a tutor’s red ballpoint pen, the angry, silent disappointment when he hit the wrong notes. Once she said something to his father in her broken Chinese and Jiang Cheng pretended not to hear it: He has neither the ear nor the temperament for music.
Not that his mother would accept that for an answer. Jiang Cheng always practiced last, late into the evening. Jiang Yanli first, then Wei Ying, for an hour and two hours respectively, and then after dinner and homework Jiang Cheng would sit at the piano and bang away at the keys, angrier and angrier at himself for every wrong note for more than three hours.
His mother would be on the couch, without fail, legs crossed with a book open and not watching him. She would say she was only reading and then, for three hours, she wouldn’t flip a single page. He wasn’t allowed to leave the bench if he played a piece with the wrong notes too many times.
The dinner parties were the worst. He dreaded them—if his friends liked them, he never understood why. Dinner parties meant that he and Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli were paraded in front of all their parents’ friends and made to play whatever flowery, technical piece they had mastered, like a little troupe of show dogs groomed and trimmed then run out in front of an audience, through tubes and around cones for the amusement of strangers. He’d never play his piece perfectly. Wei Ying was the one who played better, and his mother hated them both for it.
The thing was, Wei Ying wasn’t even allowed to play what he really knew. His mother didn’t allow it, because Jiang Cheng will be the pianist in this family, not you. Don’t get it twisted. So he’d always sit down and play something easy and boring—Für Elise, Rondo Alla Turca, The Fountain—when the truth was that he was learning Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff long before Jiang Cheng’s teacher even believed he was ready for it. And then Jiang Cheng would take the sibling-warmed seat last and poorly play Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 4, and hit no less than ten notes wrong.
“Hey, it doesn’t matter,” Wei Ying would say later that night, sitting up in his bed across the room, a silhouette in the darkness. Jiang Cheng preferred to sleep with a nightlight, but Wei Ying couldn’t sleep unless it was pitch black, so his Lego-patterned eyemask sat on the crown of his head like a spill of crayon wax in his hair. “It’s not like you’re actually going to become a pianist, right?”
“I have to.”
“You don’t want to, though, right?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.” Then, because he’d felt safe in the night, he asked, “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you want to become a pianist?”
“I don’t know either. I like piano, I’m good at it. I don’t think Yu Ayi likes that I like it.”
Jiang Cheng stared at the ceiling. “You’re better than I am.”
“Aiya. It doesn’t matter who’s better than who, I only play as a hobby. Where could I possibly get with piano, anyway?”
The Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He’d get waitlisted for the Beijing Conservatory of Music. Juilliard, fucking Juilliard. To Yu Ziyuan’s fury, Jiang Cheng would not make it into any art schools, but Wei Ying secretly got into an overseas university so prestigious that it sounded like a fairytale, a legend that other families’ kids would achieve, but never him. Never Jiang Cheng.
Other families’ kids. Sometimes Jiang Cheng felt like a stranger in his own home.
“How did you do it? The TOEFL, the interview, the audition…”
“I took the TOEFL last year. I didn’t tell you? I must’ve forgotten. I sent my audition portfolio in video files and then did a live audition over video call. It doesn’t matter, it’s not like I can go. I just wanted to know if I could get in.”
So Wei Ying went to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he’d meet Lan Zhan, someone that Jiang Cheng always felt vaguely threatened by. He couldn’t say why—Lan Zhan knew his brother in ways that Jiang Cheng was never privy to. It was like meeting a stranger and finally recognizing who you’d been seeing in your sibling’s eyes.
Last month, Wei Ying guested with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Beethoven for their season repertoire. It was his fifth season with them. That’s where he’d get.
Jiang Cheng sets down the paper bag full of prescriptions that the hospital had sent them home with. It’s a delicate cocktail of different sleep aids and antidepressants that won’t react with each other. The psychiatric evaluation had taken four excruciating days, but they said that Wei Ying had given them very promising answers, whatever that was supposed to mean, and decided that they didn’t need to hold him in the hospital for any longer. That he wasn’t an immediate danger to himself. The psychiatrist did, however, prescribe him three different medications and set him up to come in every week for a month, then every two weeks for six months.
They’d go from there.
Some part of him suspects that his mother might have said something. He hates that this thought is a possibility at all.
“A-Ying,” his sister’s voice is funeral-home soft. “A-Ying, why don’t you eat something with me? I made pork rib soup. You don’t have to eat anything in it, just have some soup. And rice. You need to eat.”
“Please? I’m hungry, too. I don’t want to eat alone.”
“Okay. Okay, Jie, I’ll eat.”
“A-Cheng,” calls Jiang Yanli, “come eat?”
He glances towards the bedroom door, then reaches into Wei Ying’s bag of prescriptions and reads the labels. Take once a day orally. Take once a day orally. Take nightly as needed. Do not operate heavy machinery. Do not use with opioids such as codeine, morphine, or oxycodone. Do not take with alcohol. Carefully, he screws the tops off of two bottles and shakes out the right dosage for both, and then stashes the bag under his own bed in a sock drawer.
Wei Ying and his sister are seated at the dining table, half-covered with odds and ends, knickknacks, and some twenty books of sheet music that Wei Ying insists that he’ll get to cleaning any day now. The chair scrapes when he pulls it out and tosses the pills onto the table in front of Wei Ying’s bowl.
“You’ll need to take them,” he says, not meeting Wei Ying’s eyes. “Every day.”
They eat in morgue silence.
Later, Jiang Cheng hands Wei Ying his new sleep aid before he crawls into bed. It’s an unassuming thing, a neat rounded square like a stray soapsud. He takes it without even asking Jiang Cheng what it is. “That’s for you to sleep,” he says when Wei Ying swallows it dry, no water. “Tell me if anything feels off.”
“Yeah,” he says. Wei Ying pauses, stares at his freshly laundered blankets folded at the foot of his bed when they’re usually strewn, rhymeless like the mess of a cracked egg, over his bed.
“If you start to feel sick because of it, tell me.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying repeats.
His brother always sleeps curled up like a snail, or a crab, armored against the world even at his most vulnerable. Jiang Cheng lies awake, exhausted as sleep eludes him, guilt and anger and worry tingling at the top of his head. His temples blink like broken Christmas lights. In the room next to theirs, Jiang Yanli is on the phone, her soft, pillowtalk words about ugly, difficult things waltzing through the apartment on tulle and pointe shoes.
What feels like sleepless hours later, Jiang Cheng gets out of bed for the bathroom. He stands over Wei Ying’s bed, reaches down where his brother’s back is, and settles a hand against his spine. He doesn’t know what he’s checking for—the fall and the rise, perhaps. The steady heartbeat. A life murmuring, murmuring, murmuring.
“Lan Laoshi, is everything okay with Wei Laoshi? It’s not like him to miss class so suddenly. Did something happen?”
One of Wei Ying’s star students, he says, is Lan Jingyi.
“Because he’s like me,” he’d told Lan Zhan, laughing over a scallion pancake wrapped in a bag, the fine plastic waving in the wind like a fistful of cobwebs. Wei Ying always rolled up his scallion pancakes into tight cigars and ate them like youtiao, lips sweet with pancake oil. “You know. All mouth, all noise, all talent, no manners. Didn’t you say he’s some distant relative of yours, Lan Zhan? Your family must be hard-bred to be musicians.”
“He’s taken a short break,” says Lan Zhan. “Health reasons. He will return soon.”
“I hope so,” says Jingyi. “I told him I passed my level eights in our groupchat. He even stopped by the morning of the exam and gave us advice, told us it would be okay, to update him later and tell him how it went! Xiao Yuan and I wanted to brag about how well we did in our practicals over dinner to him, but he never responded.”
Lan Zhan thinks of that night, the gurgling warble of Wei Ying’s WeChat in the lukewarm water.
“I will tell him everything. You needn’t worry.”
“He’s okay, right?”
“He’s on the way to it.”
Jingyi slouches at the piano bench. “It’s just that all our seniors have told us, ‘Wei Laoshi won’t be mad at you if you fail or do badly. He’ll take you out to dinner and even if you bombed your exam, he wouldn’t yell at you.’ He’s strict, but he never makes us feel like we’re stupid. I guess we were all just excited to go. It’s weird not seeing him for so long, he always knows what to say when we feel like fuckups. Oops, sorry, potty mouth. I know Zizhen was kind of feeling shitty about it. Oh, shit, potty mouth again, sorry Lan Laoshi.”
Lan Zhan rests his hand across the sheet music that he’d been annotating for Jingyi, the mouth of a crescendo half-mawed where he’d been drawing it over a measure of staccato notes. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry if I spoke out of line. Wei Laoshi cares so much, what kind of piano teacher has his students on WeChat, right? So it’s strange for him to...be so quiet, I guess.”
“Wei Laoshi is,” Lan Zhan gathers Jingyi’s scattered sheet music, straightens it on the books in his lap. “Not doing as well as he’d like. You’ll have to understand that for now. He cares, very much so. He has a big heart. But sometimes he doesn’t always have room.”
Jingyi nods. “It burns you,” he says reasonably.
Lan Zhan stares at him.
“Having a big heart,” Jingyi elaborates. “It burns you, sometimes.”
“It does,” Lan Zhan says.
They don’t talk about it again.
After he takes on Jingyi, he has Zizhen to teach, and then he has an afternoon at the conservatory for a post-exam meeting with the other classical professors. Then a late afternoon class. The day heaves itself around him, retching, tight as a migraine, and only when time turns the evening sky slush-grey does Lan Zhan finally end his day.
The subway in the direction of Wei Ying’s apartment is just as packed as the one Lan Zhan takes back home, perhaps even moreso, jigsawing his body in the aisle until he can feel someone’s hot, sweaty breath on his neck like his skin is a window they’re fogging up to polish, and he shakes his hair back over his shoulder until the sensation dulls. It’s so crowded that he could let go of his handrail and not even budge when the subway picks up again, motors one long, haunting note in the tunnels as they pull out of the station.
He wedges his hand into his pocket like he’s digging for clams.
did you eat yet?
i will bring food even if you did.
if you’re not hungry, li-jie or jiang cheng can have it, or you can save it for when you are
i hope you’re feeling better
no need lan zhan youre so busy
i want to.
i have not eaten yet
He scrolls through his two pages of WeChat stickers, most of which are customs that Wei Ying made himself, and sends one of a rabbit asleep with its face in a soup bowl.
By the time he gets to the station closest to Wei Ying’s apartment, the lights of the evening have begun to flicker on—not the same neon that bathed everything in a toothy, splintered glow the way it did around Lan Zhan’s apartment, but naked bulbs yellow as library books, turning the sidewalks into shadows and alleys into mirrors. Moths flutter around them, landing on the hot glass for as long as they can stand.
There’s a little restaurant outside the apartment complex that Wei Ying lives, the kind that always insists that they have the air conditioning on but never has the cold air to prove it. Suzhou Noodle Stall, it used to be called, until the owners up and vanished overnight and their next-in-lines rebranded it Lianhua Noodle Stall but never bothered to replace the sign outside. Zhou Noodle Stall, it says at night, the same way it had been the first time Wei Ying invited him here. The Su part of the name sputters like a pearl of oil in a hot skillet.
The smell of hand-pulled noodles and frying pork tugs Lan Zhan inside by the wrists. Dinner rush means he has to shout over the roar of tasseled fans aimed into the dining area, smeared with gossip and half-empty boxes of Shuangxi cigarettes. He orders two takeaways of fengzhen noodles, one with extra meat and one without meat at all.
“More meat, more money,” they bark at him.
“Yes, I know.”
Lan Zhan is sweating by the time he gets his receipt. Patrons waiting for takeout have spilled outside—though it’s not much better, not when plum rain season has descended in earnest and settled her wet haunches upon every corner of the city. He watches the moths. Once Wei Ying had read somewhere, aloud to Lan Zhan when they were still students, that moths used the light of the sun and moon to find their way home. Then humans planted lights like trees on every empty spit of dirt in the world, and to the hapless moth there were suddenly suns and moons on every street corner. They’d never get home, Wei Ying figured, “but at least it’s always daytime on the next block, huh?”
He stares at the light outside the noodle stall until his eyes burn.
More of them have settled around the lamps by the time Lan Zhan gets his orders and escapes from the soupy heat of the noodle stall, and soon the sidewalks give way to imitation brick. The apartment complex that Wei Ying and the Jiang siblings live in is considerably closer to busy roads than his building is, and in the evenings the senior residents of the complex are scattered among the calisthenics fixtures in courtyards. The paint of the pulleys and suspended walkers are faded, and he nods at them as he passes.
The light in the lobby of Wei Ying’s building has been broken for half a year now. Lan Zhan punches their apartment number into the pinpad, buttons tacky as daycare toys. The hoarse noise of a ringing phone filters through the speaker.
The rings stretch out in the dusky settle of evening. Lan Zhan stares out over the courtyard, at the empty benches, children dotted with healing mosquito stings. His noodle soup sloshes like overfull stomachs in his takeout bags.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. “I’m downstairs.”
“Oh. Okay,” he says, then hangs up. Then the metal door unlocks with a metallic clang, echoing through the drafty first floor that always smells of onion skins and street exhaust, and Lan Zhan lets himself in.
Wei Ying lives on the eighth floor of their building. One of their neighbors is always drying chili in their window, brooms and washbasins and a rickety stool hunched over like a tired scholar in their doorway that Lan Zhan makes sure to step around whenever he visits. Some apartments have their screen doors closed and their main doors open to let drafts in; on both sides the sounds of stir-fry and evening TV trickle into the corridor.
Both doors are closed for Wei Ying’s apartment. A single, upside-down fu character winks dully back at Lan Zhan. He can hear the doorbell through the wood—I’m here! Let me in!
A TV in a neighboring apartment reports on a bus accident in Harbin. No one died. Just three injuries.
Someone practices the flute.
Down the hall, wet vegetables land in hot oil and the sear is a red line of salt and smoke.
Then the door opens like a jaw being wrenched from its sockets, and Lan Zhan turns to see Wei Ying through the screen door. The mesh of the screen splits him into dozens of diamond pieces, crisscrossing over his skin in black iron lines. His hair is wet and ropey around his shoulders.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, reaching for the lock in the screen door and letting Lan Zhan step out of the way before he pushes it outward. “You really didn’t have to.”
“Mm.” He steps inside and pulls the screen door closed behind him. The air conditioning is running, but just barely, and Wei Ying is dressed in his pajamas. A nest of recently vacated blankets is puddled on the end of the couch. “I wanted to. I have not had fengzhen noodles in a while.” He does not ask Wei Ying how he’s feeling, he knows that Wei Ying can’t and won’t answer such a trite question, so he says, “And I missed you.”
The laugh Wei Ying gives him is soft and deflated. “You don’t have to miss me, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I’m right here.”
You almost weren’t.
“Are Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng home?” He suddenly realizes that he only bought enough for himself and Wei Ying.
“Jiejie’s still at the studio. Jiang Cheng had to work overtime, poor xiaozi. He missed work already because of—he’s been out, so his boss has been on his ass. You know what software companies are like.”
Lan Zhan in fact does not, and is thankful for it. “Mm,” he says anyway, taking off his shoes and lining them up by the rack beside Jiang Yanli’s loose heels. “I hope they are doing well.”
“They are how they are,” says Wei Ying, trailing Lan Zhan into the kitchen. “Here, I’ll help.”
“I know where all the dishes are, Wei Ying.”
“Yes, but,” Wei Ying says. He does not explain but what, pulling soup dishes out of cupboards. None of them match. Lan Zhan gets one with pink and green lotuses painted on the side, Wei Ying keeps one with flecked white ceramic and blue dragons painted in the deep well of the bowl. Lan Zhan hands him the takeout box where they’d packed his extra pork.
They sit down at the dining table. It’s glass, so Lan Zhan can see right through it, reminders of coffee mugs and glasses in stale rings upon the surface. He can see Wei Ying’s bare feet, crossed around each other like cherry stems, before Wei Ying pulls one knee up and rests his foot upon his seat and tucks the other behind the rail of the chair. When he leans forward to blow on his soup, the smell of orange blossom shampoo tumbles across the space between them.
“Jingyi misses you, too,” Lan Zhan says, stirring the bundled skein of his noodles apart in his soup. “All your students do, in fact. Zizhen especially.”
“Ah,” Wei Ying says. “Ah, right, I haven’t replied to them. I need to do that.”
“You don’t. I told them that you were taking a brief leave of absence, and they understand.”
“Do they?” Wei Ying leans around his own knee and takes a delicate bite of his noodles. “God. God, I fucking messed up, huh? Wow, I really...god. They were testing, I was supposed to—how did they do? Did they all pass?”
“You didn’t, Wei Ying. And no, not all of them. Most did.” A smile flirts with the edge of Lan Zhan’s mouth. “Zizhen was beside himself with worry.”
“About failing?” Wei Ying says. “But I never yell at my students for doing badly, only if they’re obviously not pulling their own weight, but no one like that gets into the cram program.”
“No, about you.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. The paling of his voice is audible. There’s no light behind his eyes, still. It unseats something deep and rooted in Lan Zhan’s chest, like looking into a mirror and seeing no reflection. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“They worry because they’re good people,” Lan Zhan says. “They truly are students of your tutelage, Wei Ying.”
“Is that so?”
“Zizhen has very little hesitation to make jokes with me.”
Wei Ying actually laughs, it isn’t perfect—still hollow, the bang of shutters against the windowpanes when a storm is passing—but he laughs, and Lan Zhan would bottle it if he could, not that he ever would. Every shard of Wei Ying should be loved in the way it’s born to be: free.
“That’s what I like to hear,” says Wei Ying, and when he eats again the ghost of a smile still lingers on his lips. “How about Jingyi, that xiaozi? How’s he?”
“Good. Excellent, in fact. He had his exam results in his bag, most likely to show you.”
“I owe that punk a dinner, don’t I?” Wei Ying says, pinching the pork until a slice of fat slides off and capsizes into the broth of his soup. “All of them.”
“In due time.”
“I owe you one too, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and he’s sat back in his chair. He hasn’t put his chopsticks down—a good sign—but he holds them over his soup, whiskey-golden broth dripping from the end of it seemingly with no intention to eat more. A bad sign. “At Nanjing Road.”
“I owe you a lot of things.”
The air conditioning heaves a sigh in the living room beside them.
“You do not.” Lan Zhan shakes his head, leans forward until he can smell Wei Ying’s orange blossom again. “Not before, not now, not ever.” Keep talking. Keep talking, leave behind no regrets. “I want to stay by your side as you are.”
This makes Wei Ying flick his gaze up, and finally, again, there’s a spark behind his face. “What if I’m boring?”
“You never are, to me.”
“What if I’m annoying?”
“You got that out of the way when we were eighteen.”
Wei Ying chuckles again, not quite as loud this time, but the spark flares into an ember. He sinks his chopsticks back into his noodles. “Still don’t like my hangnail song, I take it.”
“I loved your hangnail song.”
Wei Ying meets his eyes across the table.
“I loved your hangnail song, and your piece about popsicles at bus stops, and the piece about butterflies and where they go on rainy days.”
“How about the one titled ‘My Best Friend’s Clickity Clackity Boots In A Quiet Museum’?” asks Wei Ying.
“That one especially.”
“You said you didn’t like that one because I was teasing you.”
“I was,” says Wei Ying solemnly, and then laughs again. “Still want to stay by my side?”
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan.
The screen door rattles outside, and then the sound of a key biting into the doorknob breaks the soft silence of the apartment. Jiang Cheng lets himself in, little more than a tired pile of laundry that has been left to grow too long, and when he looks up and meets Lan Zhan’s gaze from across the foyer his eyebrows stitch together. Only for a moment. Long enough for a wrinkle of an expression to pass over his face like a papercut.
“Oh,” he says, “I didn’t know you were coming over.” He places a takeout box on the top of the shoe rack, styrofoam balanced precariously between one of their sister’s boots and Wei Ying’s beat-up old sneakers, flattened in the heels where he slipped them on without care to actually put them on—it stressed Lan Zhan out constantly. “You got him to eat.”
“No trouble. I wanted to.”
Jiang Cheng looks back up, frowns in earnest this time, at Wei Ying. “Did you shower?” he asks. “Your hair.”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying, and the ember in his expression has gone out. Lan Zhan turns back and forth between them, catalogs the sour expression descending on Jiang Cheng’s face, the darkened one that tucks all of Wei Ying’s emotions away. “It was fine. I’m fine, Jiang Cheng.”
“Don’t you remember that Jie and I asked you not to—” and here, Jiang Cheng slips into Wuhan dialect, words curving into syllables that Lan Zhan can’t understand. He picks up a phrase here and a word there that register, but most of them flash past him in angry, frantic stripes of argument. Not again, scared, you should know better.
“If Wei Ying wants to shower on his own time, then he can,” Lan Zhan interjects, unable to sit there the longer it goes on. “It should not matter who is at home when he does.”
“Lan Zhan, just leave it,” Wei Ying mutters, having sunk so low in his chair that he’s a faint crumple of used tissue across the table. In the last several minutes he’s picked up his chopsticks and nudged at floating bits of green onion before he simply began poking the edges of the oil bubbles, connecting them all together. Little conquests on the surface of his soup. Silent and greasy.
Jiang Cheng sighs like he’s trying to Heimlich a trapped bite of food out of his own lung, and then reaches into his bag. He fumbles, the telltale rattle of pill bottles punctuating the bleeding silence around them, and he tosses two pills onto Wei Ying’s placemat.
“Thanks for making him eat,” Jiang Cheng says, turning to leave, his own takeout forgotten.
“I’ve no interest in making Wei Ying do anything,” Lan Zhan replies, and it’s sharp enough to make Jiang Cheng pause. “So. No need to thank me.”
For a moment, Lan Zhan thinks Jiang Cheng might hit him. He’s never spoken so rudely to anyone, perhaps ever, at least not in recent memory, so Lan Zhan has all of that moment to be surprised by himself, but only a cord twitches in Jiang Cheng’s jaw. Then he’s gone, striding down the hallway towards his room, an angry graphite-smudge of a shadow.
The air is so much colder.
Wei Ying pops the pills—a green and white capsule, and an orange one cheerful as a gumdrop—between his teeth, and downs them dry. Wordlessly, Lan Zhan stands up and goes to the kitchen, brings him back water in a mug from the water and tea boiler beside the microwave. He sets it down by Wei Ying’s bowl and tries not to notice when it goes ignored.
“Your brother keeps your pills?”
“They don’t trust me to be alone with them.”
Lan Zhan blinks. “They?”
“My sister said she would feel better if they held onto them for me.”
“But,” Lan Zhan doesn’t feel particularly hungry anymore, “do you feel better? About that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t feel.”
“Do you want to talk to them about it?” Lan Zhan fidgets, which is to say, he laces his fingers together, and then he unlaces them to clasp his hands together instead. “If it doesn’t feel right to you, while you’re recovering, maybe you can talk to them about it.”
“Talk about what, Lan Zhan?” says Wei Ying. “I’ve made it hard enough on them. The last thing I want to do is scare them more, upset them more, give them another reason to be angry or scared of me. If they want to be the dealers of my little brain candies because it makes them feel better, then they can.”
“Wei Ying. After what has happened, it should be about what makes you feel better. Not what makes everyone around you feel better.”
Wei Ying levels him a tired, pale look. Lan Zhan had seen that exhaustion, last in the hospital, draped around Wei Ying like a damp sweater.
“Just sit with me and eat, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs. “I’m still hungry.”
The sound of the shower running trickles down the hallway. Wei Ying leans forward to eat again, and when a long, tangled string of his hair falls forward, Lan Zhan reaches out and holds it out of his soup. It makes Wei Ying laugh around his noodles, a silly wet noise like boots in spring puddles, and for a heartbeat Lan Zhan can see it. The smoke flare.
i passed my level eights
sorry that was xiao yuan
i didn’t even fuck up during my practical examination!!!
A little panda with double thumbs up.
i didn’t pass written
wei laoshi don’t yell at me…
wei laoshi never yells at people
unless you’re lazy
and then he just talks very quietly
and delivers you a “i’m not mad, i’m just disappointed.”
Animated crying baby.
guys wei laoshi wouldn’t tell you he was disappointed
he would simply look at you
and you would crave the sweet embrace of the grave
thanks xiao yuan i feel stellar about that
but then he would ask you how he could help!
it’s okay! just tell him what happened at dinner zizhen
wei laoshi i heard you got sick?
lan laoshi’s brother told us you wouldn’t be able to do dinner with us
wei laoshi, lan laoshi’s brother said you got really sick
are you okay?
lan laoshi isn’t here either
i hope you both are okay
we miss you!!!!
Wei Ying’s phone is a rectangle of white heat in his dark bedroom. Sleep still hasn’t come, but he’s ignored the little brown niblet of a sleeping pill that Jiang Cheng had dispensed for him tonight, leaving it on his nightstand like a cat treat. It’s a stupid way to think, because Wei Ying knows his siblings are only worried for him, but it’s an insulting attentiveness. Not quite pity. Heavier than guilt. A mix of the two, throaty and burning every time he’s reminded of it: we don’t trust you with your own life. You should let us keep it safe.
Jiang Cheng had fallen asleep at least an hour ago, but Wei Ying lies in the cocoon of his blankets and listens to the duet of his sister’s voice on the phone with Yu Ayi. If he concentrates, he can make out full words, strung high and raw like meat curing on a line. It’s like listening to an audio translation of a cat and mouse chase. The soft lilt of his sister. The violin screech of Yu Ayi. Soft, violin, soft, violin, the danger music of a horror movie but never set to the right tune.
He sees Lan Zhan’s name at the top of his WeChat when he exits the chatroom with his level eights. Since that first evening when he arrived in Wei Ying’s apartment with fengzhen noodles he has come again each night—not always with dinner, but always with something, even if it was two oranges or a milk tea the way Wei Ying likes it. Extra pearls, extra sugar, damp in the heat from the ice.
It’s only been three nights since, but time has lost form, thick and sweaty and meaningless.
He gets up. He wants something cold. The air conditioning is on, but his brain feels hot and prickly and he wants something that will hurt his temples.
This high up, at night, the city becomes inky breaths and car horns. Distantly Wei Ying can hear the last strains of traffic starting to fade, little beeps like distant Morse-code blinks, as he stands in the muggy kitchen and drinks cold orange juice until the roof of his mouth stings.
He jumps, nearly chokes, feels the sour burn of orange juice at the top of his windpipe. “A-jie?” he says. “I thought you were in your room.”
“I thought you were in yours.”
Jiang Yanli is a paper doll in the gloom.
“Well,” says Wei Ying, capping his half-empty bottle of juice, “looks like we’re both night owls tonight, then.”
“Did you need something?”
“Just wanted something to drink.”
Stalemate. Jiang Yanli’s face is slick and shiny as a peeled apricot, her hair twisted up in a bun and held out of her face with a thick chenille bath headband. Bunny ear knot. He knows she usually does her skincare regimen late at night, but this is late even for him.
“You should sleep, A-jie,” he says, putting his orange juice back in the fridge. It rumbles when he closes the door, cooling system jumpstarting and putting some sound to their silence. He’s grateful for it. Tense silence with his sister is a new and foreign thing. “I know your season for Butterfly Lovers is starting soon, you really shouldn’t tire yourself out.”
“I don’t need to worry about ballet,” says Jiang Yanli.
(Ballet. He knows they weren’t talking about ballet, but Yu Ayi’s face flashes through him fast as a database swipe. If only Wei Ying hadn’t started learning a piano piece transcribed from The Red Detachment of Women, if only Jiang Yanli hadn’t looked into it and picked up ballet, she’d still be playing piano. Now she’s neither principal dancer nor a concert pianist, guess whose fault that is?
But she’s happy.
Happy being average?)
“A-jie, you don’t need to worry about me either. Promise.”
“Are you sleeping soon, then?”
“Trying to, I promise.”
She doesn’t step out of the kitchen doorway. Wei Ying is at least a head taller than his sister, and could probably knock her over if he breathed a little too hard beside her—sure, she’s a ballet dancer, all glissando lines and blisters, and she could probably put a hole through the plaster wall with her bare heel if she wanted to—but he feels cornered.
Then, “Sorry, A-Ying, I didn’t mean to make you—I’m sorry. Jiejie is sorry. Jiejie is really sorry.” She shuffles out of his way. “Whenever I hear you in the hallway, I just.”
When she’s anxious, Jiang Yanli squeezes all the fingers of one hand in the other, a spindly purple bouquet of fingertips that look like they might burst if pricked. She’s doing it now. “I just imagine things.”
“It’s okay. You don’t need to be sorry, A-jie. None of this was your fault,” says Wei Ying. He can’t hear any sincerity in his own voice, not because he doesn’t mean it. His chest just isn’t behind it, like he’s humming in his head voice, diaphragm given out. “I’m going to sleep. You sleep soon too, okay?”
Then he goes, leaving his sister by the kitchen counter. It’s too cold in his air conditioned room, even under his blankets, and he tells himself it’s the cold that keeps him up. Not the guilt.
The psychiatrist visits are unbearable.
When Wei Ying returns from his second one, a headache has bloomed weedy and full of pollen in his temples, stretching down to his neck so deeply rooted that if he moves too fast his thoughts will drift out of his ears like dandelion seeds. Thankfully, his siblings are both still at work, so the apartment is his. It usually is, these days. He collapses facedown into the sofa, cushions hissing as his weight settles; he’s too long to fit and his feet sprout off the edge of the armest.
The visit itself had been uncomfortable enough. (“Wei Ying, is it?” “Yes.” They established that the first time. “Ying as in baby? Interesting.” “Huh.” My parents named me something quiet and safe, like they hoped the gods wouldn’t notice me if I had a simple name. “Are we feeling better, Wei Ying?” “I don’t know.” I guess I feel something, but it’s nameless. “How are your siblings?” “I don’t know.” Bad, probably. “How are you?” “I don’t know.” Bad, definitely. “How is that medication working out for you so far?” “I don’t know.” Didn’t you tell me to wait four weeks, at least, to see results? It’s only been two. Three? You tell me.) It wasn’t until he’d stepped back into the apartment that the headache started.
The scar on the back of his head clangs like an empty swing.
He needs to pee, but every time Wei Ying goes into the bathroom—it’s not nausea, exactly, but he sees himself in the mirror afterwards, when he’s washing his hands, with the washer and dryer behind him, and the world swims. Their bathroom is a bizarre liminal space now, a little secret back-alley of reality where Wei Ying feels like he both does and doesn’t exist at the same time. Every time he’s at that sink, his toothbrush cup mocks him. Back again. Back again. Do it right this time, Coward Boy. Burden Boy. Unneeded Boy.
So he stays on the couch, wondering how hard it is to smother oneself in a pillow if he stays facedown long enough. He won’t, but he wonders. A few years ago—he wasn’t looking for the information—he remembers reading somewhere that the worst common ways to die were to drown and to be set on fire. Not instantaneous. Being smothered by a pillow would be pretty bad, but he thinks he’d prefer it over either of those two options. Especially if it were a nice pillow, satin-embroidered, a rich heiress kind of death. Tassels. Everything's better with tassels.
His phone chitters at him like an angry squirrel.
lessons are running over
i might not be able to come at that usual time today
teaching advanced and cram programs in one day has been more time consuming than i thought. your students are...very talkative.
do you need anything? i can still come by, just late
no im fine
i love them! tell them i miss them and to be good to you
or else wei laoshi will know and punish them with extra ravel
Lan Zhan has taken in his cram students. Wei Ying has made no less than a dozen calls with the conservatory, which has let him know that there are assistant professors who can cover his classes, but the cram students would need someone to teach them. That would make Lan Zhan’s roster of seven students to train externally, on top of the classes. He says he enjoys it, but it’s a lot of socializing for someone who prefers to spend his time in companionable silence. God, Wei Ying owes him dinner at Nanjing Road, but he owes Lan Zhan dinner, period. How much food has Lan Zhan brought in the last two—three?— weeks alone?
He’s lost track.
He plays it.
“Wei Laoshi! Don’t you think that’s too cruel?” Jingyi hates Ravel. “I have been nothing but good to Lan Laoshi! I would never embarrass you in front of him.”
“Jingyi is working hard,” Lan Zhan says in support, as a faint Hear that? Lan Laoshi said so! echoes behind him.
its good to hear him again
are you at home?
do you want to come over?
Wei Ying pauses. Right now? His headache ripples in his chest, annoyed by his inattention.
if you can, you’re welcome to
but don’t push yourself if you’re tired, i can visit when i’m done
you said yesterday you wanted some help getting your lessons together, right?
He stretches on the couch until he can crane his neck and see the clock sitting upon his own upright, balanced haphazardly atop of a tower of sheet music precarious as a house of cards. Almost six. If Wei Ying gets off his couch and makes it to the bathroom, he can be out the door between the quarter-hour mark, and buy some dinner on the way to Lan Zhan’s place.
don’t go anywhere!
Like a bathroom, every subway station is a liminal space.
The same goes for airports and empty bus stops; everything is just close enough to be real without being real. Places where impermanence makes itself at home. Hundreds of thousands of bodies flood through these places every day, but no one ever stays. Everyone is always only leaving. There is room for every story and any story, beginnings and ends, even if the story is as insignificant as putting your umbrella down for a moment just to find your phone, and looking around in the next moment to find it gone.
Last month, Wei Ying fell asleep on this subway. Metro line 3, if he recalls correctly, even if the details have frayed around an evening of one too many glasses of huangjiu. He’d been tipsy, yes, but he hadn’t been as tipsy as he’d let Lan Zhan believe, if only for an excuse to walk closer to Lan Zhan with his arm hooked in his elbow. The simple warmth of spring was already starting to give way to the wet press of summer, and it wasn’t entirely comfortable to be slung off another warm body, but the huangjiu had shaken loose his restraint. Wei Ying had narrowly missed a crooked sidewalk brick, its nose peeking up over the level edge, and Lan Zhan had steadied him, and then he’d just—not let go.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” said Wei Ying, tugging on his arm to stop, but he didn’t even have to, really. As soon as Wei Ying’s steps slowed, so had Lan Zhan’s. “Wait. I don’t remember this restaurant being here last time.”
The last time they’d been to Nanjing Road had been four months ago, at least, but Lan Zhan had kindly not pointed that out.
“Yi Zhang Hong,” Lan Zhan read aloud from the shop sign.
“I wonder what food they serve,” Wei Ying peeked through the glass, pressed his hands up against it, surface grit-sticky under his palm. “Ah, Chongqing food? Looks like Chongqing food. Dry chili chicken, mala chicken, pickled vegetable fish soup...wow, I miss food from there.”
“Let’s come back and try this place.”
“Chongqing food is really spicy, Zhanzhan,” said Wei Ying. Lan Zhan had blinked in the night at the sound of that name, spiraling into the bustle of evening. “Zhanzhan,” Wei Ying had said again, just because it felt good. “The flavor palate is a little intense for you.”
“But you said you miss it.”
“Missing is missing, eating is eating,” said Wei Ying, coming down the steps to join Lan Zhan on the sidewalk again. It felt like they’d been walking forever for the subway station, Lan Zhan with his shoulder bag, Wei Ying with his wilting bouquet of peonies that Lan Zhan had given him after his last concert performance of the season. The flowers had started to sweat, their breaths fogging up the cellophane wrap, and there was an oil stain on the blue ribbon that tied it all in place, but Wei Ying clutched it to his chest. “I don’t believe in eating to suffer, Lan Zhan, I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“But I want to do it for you.”
Wei Ying could walk forever with Lan Zhan; he would walk forever.
It had gotten harder, and harder, and harder in those past weeks, but he told himself that he would.
“Then next month?” Wei Ying singsonged, as the subway stop finally came into view, bright lights hurting his eyes and almost blue against the light-soaked evening, like a dentist’s office nestled in a shopping mall. “After your advanced kids at the conservatory finish midterms, and my baby eights take their exams. Let’s come back here then.”
“Mm. We will.”
“You can’t back out of this, Lan Zhan.”
“I do not plan to.”
It hadn’t been until they had descended into the subway station, warm gusts of trains rushing in and out of existence did Wei Ying let himself think, I want it to be a date, by the way, Lan Zhan. I know we eat out together all the time, I know we’ve done everything together all these years, just us two, but it’s never been, well. It’s just. Lan Zhan, I—
—forgot about our not-date to Yi Zhang Hong, didn’t I? Wei Ying thinks now, standing in a subway station for Metro line 7 and swaying with the wind of an approaching train.
A four-note tune and a cool voice tells them to watch their step and for all passengers to ensure they still have their subway tickets. Wei Ying steps onto the subway car and wiggles himself between two strangers facing away from each other, with him facing outward towards the window. An unwelcome sandwich filling, holding a takeout bag full of shredded vegetable and tofu skins salad and braised bok choy with shiitake (Lan Zhan) and sauteed eel (himself).
It’s five stations and a short walk to Lan Zhan’s apartment. It gives Wei Ying more than enough time to text his brother before he leaves his workplace.
going to lan zhans place!
can you drop off my meds there?
i can take them actually im fine to keep an eye on them myself
yes to the first question
jiang cheng come on its just easier that way
for like everyone
Another headache takes root at the base of his skull again, so Wei Ying just sighs and slides his phone back into his pocket. Stepping out of his apartment and away from the gleam of their bathroom helps him stop feeling like his skin has been stitched together with scrap metal and copper wire, so he’s not too keen on giving that headache room to return.
Night has fallen in earnest by the time Wei Ying arrives at Lan Zhan’s apartment complex, sweat dotting his hairline, the baby hairs at his temples tickling his face where they stick. His residence is farther from busy streets than Wei Ying’s apartment is, with a koi pond in the courtyard downstairs, surface a deep velveteen green in the summer breeze.
He calls Lan Zhan’s apartment number from the gate to his building downstairs, waiting for him to pick up.
“It’s me,” says Wei Ying, raising his bags of takeout so that Lan Zhan might hear the rustle of plastic promising dinner. “I’m here!”
“Oh,” says Lan Zhan, sounding oddly relieved. “Good. Come up.”
He hangs up, and the door clangs when it unlocks. The lobby of Lan Zhan’s apartment always smells faintly of stale floor cleaner, sometimes of floating bubbles of cooking smells whenever it’s time for dinner. In his own building, Wei Ying’s headache would start pounding here, before he even gets in the elevators, but the pain remains quiet. He decides to count it as a win. A small one, but it counts for something.
“You didn’t have to,” Lan Zhan says, when Wei Ying appears in his apartment doorway. “Wei Ying, we could have ordered in.”
“I wanted to,” he says, the simple, matter-of-fact way that Lan Zhan always does whenever he does something for Wei Ying. “We used to go to Jiajia Restaurant every damn weekend, remember?”
Lan Zhan is still wearing his work clothes, hair pinned back over his ear and curled in waves at the ends. He’s tired in his Lan Zhan way—a ribbon of hair escaping over the pin to frame his cheek, the last notes of his perfume watery, his shoulders sagging, just slightly but enough for Wei Ying to tell. It’s such a dignified species of exhaustion; Wei Ying in comparison has the look of someone coming off an international flight every time he’s tired. He’s been tired a long time, wandering around in his liminal airport maze, looking for an exit.
“Did Jingyi just leave?”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “A while ago, actually. Your...your brother stopped by.”
“Already?” When Wei Ying said it would be easier for everyone, he’d meant it—Jiang Cheng’s workplace is closer to Lan Zhan’s apartment than their own, just one breezy sprint of a subway stop from his office, but Wei Ying had never gotten a text confirming. From, well, either of them. Lan Zhan he can understand, because Wei Ying was on the way to his apartment anyway, and he’d simply ask him when he arrived, but.
Well. He understands Jiang Cheng too, if he thinks about it.
“He said that you were going to be here tonight.” Lan Zhan unloads their takeout carefully into his own dishes, gaze focused on the bowl so as not to spill any sauce on the counter. Everything about him is measured, certain, unhurried. Wei Ying’s fingers jitter, and for the first time in what seems like ages, a tune clatters urgent as beaded bracelets at his wrists: My Best Friend Arranging Travel-Mussed Takeout In A Bowl, they chime. My Best Friend After A Long Day, Smelling of Jasmine and Eel Sauce. My Best Friend. My—My...
“Yeah, I figured he might not do too well if I disappeared from our apartment without forewarning. They never used to care before, obviously, but after I—”
The words curdle in his mouth. Lan Zhan’s chopsticks slow where he arranges the sauteed eel in its bowl. He’d picked one just too small and it’s all he can do to make sure none of it spills out of the sides.
“They like knowing where I am,” Wei Ying finishes in a mutter. He can see the pills on Lan Zhan’s dinner table, mocking him in a chorus of green-white-orange-brown. Not quite stoplights, just imitations of earth. “Sorry. I hope Jiang Cheng didn’t give you any trouble. He’s...sorry.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. Wei Ying insists on helping him get bowls and chopsticks for them to eat with, spreading out placemats on the table so the heat doesn’t singe the wood. They sit down, and Wei Ying watches as Lan Zhan starts eating, without pushing the pills at him and telling him to take them.
“Jingyi will be sad he missed you by half an hour,” Lan Zhan says by way of conversation. “He might have accidentally learned that you were coming over, but his parents wanted him home.”
“I’m sad to have missed him,” Wei Ying says, and finds that he means it. He misses his students, their banter, their wrong notes, their shitty excuses for why they hadn’t practiced enough. “How are Zizhen and Xiao Yuan?”
“Zizhen is doing better after not passing his exam. His playing lacked spirit for a few days afterwards, but he has heart.”
“He really does. How’s his technique?”
“I’m sure it is, to you,” Wei Ying laughs, and gets a quiet smile from Lan Zhan. “Still has a problem with banging on notes when he first starts a piece, doesn’t he?”
“He and Jingyi have a habit of reading all notation except, it seems, the music dynamics,” Lan Zhan says with a hint of a sigh in his voice, and Wei Ying can only laugh again.
He takes his meds. He does it and Lan Zhan doesn’t watch him do it, it’s just another part of dinner. Wei Ying asks him more questions—about how Lan Huan is (fine, he’s out with a friend, Mingjue Ge probably), about how his uncle is (also fine, at an uncomfortable dinner party, probably), about what the conservatory has been saying about him (nothing, just well-wishes and worry). Asks about what pieces he’s been working on, if any of them are fun. If he has any new recipes lately. If Lan Zhan has seen that their favorite demon king and fallen god webtoon had updated. He has, but he’s saving it for bedtime.
Lan Zhan tells him about a new webtoon he found. It’s a sad one, but he thinks it’s hopeful. He found a cute new trend on Douyin where pet owners have their pets try to navigate a forest of nail polish and mascara tubes and glossy lipstick compacts without knocking anything over, he’ll send Wei Ying a few. There’s a new final trailer for a movie coming out that Wei Ying would like, something from the same guy who directed Inception. Lan Zhan isn’t the type to watch a whole lot of movies on his own time, especially not American movies, but Wei Ying loves them, so his movie knowledge in the last ten years has proliferated so much that sometimes he’ll catch Wei Ying off guard with a reference from Ready Player One.
He doesn’t ask Wei Ying how he’s feeling, if he wants To Talk, words heavy with meaning, how his psychiatrist visit went. He doesn’t nod pitifully at him, doesn’t search Wei Ying’s face like he thinks Wei Ying is hiding something behind it.
“Did you want to catch up with lesson plans for your students?” Lan Zhan says after they clear the dishes away. Lan Zhan washes and Wei Ying dries. “No need if you don’t, but in case you do, we can.”
Wei Ying doesn’t teach nearly as many students at the conservatory. Between his time with the Shanghai Philharmonic, he works more with teens in the external programs, which are easier to get back up to speed with, and Lan Zhan has edged away from tired into exhausted. He shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. I can do it on my own time, you need to stop working so much, Lan Zhan.”
It’s not like he asked for it. You were the one who—
“It’s not working when it’s with you,” Lan Zhan says. “But I understand.”
“Hey,” says Wei Ying, nudging him with his elbow. “How about I’ll play Nuvole Bianche for you. My treat.”
Lan Zhan glances sidelong at him.
“What,” Wei Ying says, pretending to be offended. “It’s been ages since I’ve played it for you, come on. Last time you saw me honestly at a piano was last month at that concert, and I don’t even remember what I played.”
“Moonlight Sonata. Four movements.”
“Ah, that shit,” Wei Ying says. “Okay, fair enough. But still. Let me play for you.”
“Okay,” Lan Zhan says, and smiles his mouthless smile, the one that crinkles his eyes.
Wei Ying props open the lid of Lan Zhan’s baby grand piano—he closes it every night after he’s done, opens it every day when he practices. It’s a kind of discipline that Wei Ying could never bother with but comes second nature to Lan Zhan, and he steps around Wei Ying to switch on the floor lamp by the piano bench until the light washes the keys warm ivory. He hasn’t played Nuvole Bianche in so long that Wei Ying worries that he’s forgotten it, but then he puts his fingers on the keys, and.
They were students the first time Wei Ying had played it for him. Such an unassuming piece, one that’d probably be scoffed at in the conservatory. Lan Zhan had been awake late, much later than Wei Ying ever remembered, and it had taken twenty full minutes of wheedling to figure out that he’d had an argument with his uncle. Lan Zhan wouldn’t tell him about what, but even in texts his voice sounded funny. Wei Ying asked if he wanted to hear something.
it’s so late…
zhanzhan its ten thirty
my brother and i are playing brawl
and my sister is...probably watching a kdrama
great okay! pick up
“Lan Zhan, I’m going to play something just for you, so you better listen well!” Wei Ying said as soon as he heard the line click and Lan Zhan’s cloudy-day breathing. “It’s a slow piece, so don’t fall asleep on me.”
And then, with the SuperSmash Bros. Brawl menu music humming in the background, Jiang Cheng in the kitchen pawing through the fridge for something cold, Wei Ying played Nuvole Bianche for Lan Zhan. About halfway through he forgot he was playing for someone—it was hard to remember when there weren’t any eyes on him, just the dark of his phone propped up against the sheet music shelf, rattling slightly whenever Wei Ying played the bass notes.
It drew his sister out of her room, in her bathrobe and gingham bunny slippers, and Jiang Cheng waited for Wei Ying to finish before asking, “Why are you playing so late at night?” as their sister applauded like the flawless audience she always was.
“Shh,” Wei Ying hissed as he picked his phone up. “Lan Zhan! How was that? I made some mistakes and it’s nothing fancy, but I love it.”
Lan Zhan had been silent over the line. Wei Ying frowned.
“Ah, did I make it worse?” he asked. “Sorry. Sorry, maybe I should have played something from my homework. I can play you something else, Lan Zhan. Something cheerful?”
“No,” Lan Zhan said. “No, it was good, Wei Ying. Thank you. It was good.”
“Oh, I’m glad!”
“Why don’t you always play like that around our classmates?”
Jiang Cheng had been in the hallway, talking to his sister, so Wei Ying shrugged and told the truth. It was easier when Lan Zhan wasn’t in front of him, gaze a palpable weight on Wei Ying’s skin.
“Eh. No one likes a showoff.”
“It’s not showing off if someone wants to hear it.”
“You want to hear me play, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying teased.
But Lan Zhan had replied, “Yes, I do.”
So Wei Ying played, and he plays, now, Lan Zhan sitting close enough for their sides to be brushing, leaning away just enough so that he isn’t in the way of Wei Ying’s elbows, and all at once they could be nineteen and just-twenty again, sitting in a practice room after hours. Winter, always freezing, snow like a black sesame slush in the streets. They weren’t supposed to be practicing in the conservatory past ten, but sometimes they’d stay late, Lan Zhan promising he wasn’t tired as they played each other their original compositions.
“I’m impressed, Lan Zhan,” he says, speaking over his playing, “I always play this for you when you can’t sleep, how are you staying—”
When he turns, Lan Zhan’s eyes are closed next to him. His back is still streetlamp-straight, he isn’t even tilting to the side, but he’s dozed off, and Wei Ying lets the notes upon which his fingers have landed trail away before lifting his foot from the damper pedal. The notes quiver into the silence of the apartment.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, placing his hand on Lan Zhan’s leg, and it jolts him awake. He doesn’t startle as much as Wei Ying does when he’s touched halfway into sleep, but he sucks a breath in through his nose and blinks. “Hey. I’ll go. You should go to sleep.”
“You’re falling asleep at the piano, Zhanzhan.”
“Ge wanted to see you,” Lan Zhan says. “When he heard you were stopping by tonight, he said he’d come back early enough to see you.”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “Really? There’s no trouble. I’m fine, see?”
Lan Zhan looks at him for a while, and nods.
“Did he...want to see me?”
“He said it was the right thing to do, as he didn’t have a chance to visit you before you were discharged.”
“I guess I mustn’t elude him any longer then, huh?” Wei Ying says. “It would be impolite otherwise.”
“If you wish to leave, Ge will understand, of course. He would not want you to stay if it inconveniences you.”
Wei Ying thinks on it. Lan Huan had brought Lan Zhan to the hospital that night, he heard from his sister. He didn’t come up, but he’d be awake when she called them, and when Lan Zhan was in the hospital it was Lan Huan who picked up the external program students. Guilt chews at his ankles. He owes Lan Huan some gratitude.
“I’ll stay,” he says. “You go shower and get ready for bed, I’ll wait up for him. Your brother’s not the type to be a huggy drunk, by the way, is he? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your brother actually drunk.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says. “Thankfully, we do not share genes in that department.”
“Okay, go shower.” Wei Ying gets up and closes the fallboard and lid of Lan Zhan’s piano, nudging him in the direction of the bathroom. He parks himself on the couch, where he always does whenever he comes to Lan Zhan’s apartment, and reaches for the remote. “I’ll just wait for him, I’ll tell him you went to bed.”
Wei Ying means to wait. He does, actually, but in one moment he’s making himself comfortable on Lan Zhan’s couch, trying to find his usual position on it—he always curls up against one of the cushions that has a lump positioned like a miniature beer belly for his back to curve around—and in the next he feels all awareness swimming around him like muffled, nighttime poolwater. Heavy, well-lit, but still dark.
The humid smell of olive flower and white tea wreathes around him. Someone is talking.
“—jue Ge invited A-Yao, so it would’ve been rude to leave so quickly. I didn’t realize he was waiting, I’m sorry.”
“You should let him sleep here if he wants.”
No, Wei Ying needs to get up and take his sleep aid, or else he’ll float in and out of angry, cage-rattling sleep all night.
When Wei Ying comes to, Lan Huan is gone, and Lan Zhan is at the end of the couch with Wei Ying’s socked feet in his lap, face a marbled surface of skin and shadow from the light of his phone. The TV is off, and a blanket is laid over Wei Ying’s chest where he’d—ended up on his back, a crooked line of sleep with an arm trailing to the floor.
“Shit,” he says, sitting up, mouth woolen. “What time is it?”
“Almost midnight? Oh my God, Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry, what the fuck. Fuck, Jiang Cheng—my sister—” Wei Ying tries to stand, almost gouges his eye out on the coffee table when he half-rolls off the couch. No doubt there are fifty missed calls from both of them by now, asking where he is, God, he is such a—
“I texted them already,” Lan Zhan says. “I let them know you were still here and that you fell asleep.”
Wei Ying is still hanging halfway off the couch, feet anchored in Lan Zhan’s lap. He is untethered, and then when Lan Zhan sets his phone down, weightless in the dark. “You can stay for the night,” he says. “Your sister mentioned that it’s unlike you to fall asleep without taking a sleep aid.”
“I always fall asleep on your couch, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “I think I’ve done that every time I’ve been here.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says. “Yes.”
A little tugboat of a thought passes through Wei Ying’s head. He does fall asleep more easily in Lan Zhan’s apartment, when Lan Zhan is there.
“I’m not going to trouble you, it’s so late,” says Wei Ying, peeling himself off the floor and sitting up on the couch. He draws his knees to his chest. “I’ll just go. I can go, Lan Zhan. Ah fuck, I probably won’t make the last subway. I’ll call a Didi, I guess. It’s really too much trouble, you have work. God, I’ve already kept you up so late.”
“It’s never any trouble, Wei Ying.”
“I kept you up for no reason.”
Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow. It does a lot of work for him, but he still says, “You are reason enough.”
“I wouldn’t have a place to sleep,” Wei Ying points out, knowing Lan Zhan will call his bullshit instantly.
“You can take my bed. There’s a futon in the study.”
“Oh, absolutely not,” Wei Ying says, propelling himself to his feet. “Don’t be silly, Lan Zhan, this is all so unnecessary.”
“No, I mean, not like that. Not you, never you. I’ve just massively overstayed my welcome, you always leave politely at eight whenever you’re at mine, and you have work at the crack of dawn tomorrow.”
“Nine AM is not dawn,” Lan Zhan says mildly.
“Close enough,” says Wei Ying. “It’s fine. My siblings will worry, and you know what their worry looks like.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan pauses, and then stands, too. “What would make you feel best?”
They’re two chess pieces in the dark. A rook and his castle.
Wei Ying opens his mouth and he knows what he should say: I’ll feel better when I go home. Home, that’s where you ought to always feel best, isn’t that right? Except all he thinks is, I should feel better when I’m home, but I don’t. Every time I make it inside the building a headache starts behind my eyes like I’ve stuck my finger into an electrical socket and the pain mainlines to my brain. I think it’s trying to finish what I started. Every time I see my bathroom I want to throw up. Every time I step into that shower, my brain can’t stop, and it doesn’t stop until I knock myself out with a prescription sleep aid that could probably tranquilize a water buffalo. I love my sister, and I love Jiang Cheng, and I know they love me, too, but I feel like a rabbit caged in with wild deer. We’re all prey, in our family. I’m just the easiest kill.
Out of his mouth comes, “I…”
“I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to, Wei Ying.”
“I know, Lan Zhan.”
“If you would like to go, I’ll see you off. If you want to stay, my bed is always here for you.”
Coward Boy. Burden Boy. Needed Boy.
“Maybe I’ll,” Wei Ying says, barely making it above a whisper, “maybe I’ll shower here.”
“Okay,” says Lan Zhan, and doesn’t ask him another question. “You remember the knobs and dials, right?”
“I can bring you pajamas.”
Wei Ying should say no. No, I’m fine, I’ll just put my dirty clothes back on and haul my damp hair across the district back home, it’s really just the shower, it’s fine.
So Lan Zhan goes. He comes back with pajamas, folded nicely and smelling of him, as Wei Ying stands in the Lans’ bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror. Their bathroom is about the same size as the one he has at his own apartment, but the sink mirror faces the shower, which is all sliding door glass, no bathtub. Two loofahs and a miniature army of bottles lined up in the windowsill. They have a cool light installed over the sink and it bathes everything in a blue instead of an orange glow. This mirror doesn’t have toothpaste flecks on it. Once Wei Ying had asked, “Do you wipe down the sink edges every time you use it?” when he’d seen Lan Zhan do it, and he’d just been met with, “It takes less than ten seconds.”
“Tell me if you need anything,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying showers. His mind goes nowhere when he does, and that in and of itself is remarkable; he waits for his brain to mock him, and it does, but only once. If you really wanted to, if you weren’t a coward, you could still drown yourself. You’re in a bathroom.
And some newer, stranger voice says, But that would make Lan Zhan sad.
Embarrassing of you to live for someone else.
Maybe. One day I won’t need to, but until that day—it would make Lan Zhan sad.
He holds onto this bizarre little thought. Wei Ying can’t be sure if he’s awed by it, or scared by it, but it feels like he’s been treading water all this time and he’s found a buoy to cling to. He’s still at sea, he could still freeze, but he’s not drowning. Not quite. It catches against him in a clump of oceanic garbage and fishing line, but he’d seen in a nature documentary—Lan Zhan’s favorite docuseries subgenre—that a single overturned piece of plastic could mean the difference between marine activity and miles of deadzone water.
Wei Ying’s hair smells like Lan Zhan’s when he leaves the bathroom in a cloud of steam, mouth tingling from using a new toothbrush and peppermint instead of spearmint toothpaste. Olive flower, white tea, something that just smells like powder blue. He sniffs it and realizes how long he’s been smelling orange blossom on himself, how much it would set off his nausea, why orange blossom. Lan Zhan emerges from the study with an armful of blankets, and nods when he sees Wei Ying in his pajamas.
“Pants a little big,” he says.
“The waistband is fine, which I have no complaints about,” says Wei Ying, but he kicks his feet out separately where the hems pool around his ankles in round ponds of satin. “Lan Zhan, even your pajamas are proper.”
“Are these enough?” Lan Zhan asks. He’s split his share of blankets between the study and his own bed. “I know you don’t sleep with many covers, but the air conditioning tends to be colder in my room.”
“It’s enough, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Agh. This is so—you should just take your own covers, I can sleep with any old blanket you have. Hell, I can sleep with a towel as a blanket.”
“No need,” says Lan Zhan. “Wei Ying…”
They’re in the doorway of Lan Zhan’s room, almost shoulder to shoulder, and Wei Ying realizes they have no closing act for this time of day. They’ve never needed one. It was always goodbye at the door, never goodnight, at least not like this. Even on class trips or vacations, it wasn’t like this.
“Well, good night, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, feeling like he needs to—what, thank Lan Zhan again? Hug him? Lean in for a goodnight kiss?
“Your sleep aid is on the bedside table,” Lan Zhan says. “I’ll just be down the hall.”
“Okay. Lan Zhan, uhm. Thank you.”
Lan Zhan closes the door behind him. Wei Ying finds the sleep aid in the dark, popping it in his mouth dry, and faces Lan Zhan’s bed—he’s sat on this countless times, always making sure he was at the foot of Lan Zhan’s bed and on top of the covers, because he know Lan Zhan isn’t keen on people touching his sheets wearing their outside clothes—but he’s never crawled into it like this, and never in Lan Zhan’s soft pajamas.
It’s oddly lonely. He pulls Lan Zhan’s covers up to his chin and rolls onto his side, body curving like a shrimp around the fabric, and buries his nose into one corner of the duvet.
Then, save for the hush of air conditioning, the apartment is silent.
He waits for sleep to come. Having Lan Zhan’s smell so close means that his brain keeps thinking of things he wants to tell Lan Zhan, pinballing in his skull until he remembers he’s alone. It’s so quiet. Lan Huan is usually one to stay up late, according to Lan Zhan, but he must’ve been tired from the evening. Maybe Wei Ying should play something on his phone, just for noise. Instead he listens to his heart, thudding painfully against the inside of his sternum like a live, squirming fish. Wishes he could beat it with a mallet until it stopped, the way they did it at the fisheries, when Jiang Shushu used to bring him and Jiang Cheng as kids. Jiang Cheng cried too easily, he said, but TV shows were too unpredictable. Seeing fishmongers might fix his papier-mâché heart.
Wei Ying always tagged along. He felt excited just to be included in this little family outing, even if being included meant that he’d watch fishmongers grab carp and catfish out of their tanks with their bare hands and then beat them over the heads with mallets until they stopped moving. He still remembers the wet, bloody thud. If fish could make noise, he pictured them squealing before they were gutted.
But they were always quiet. Never made noise. Easy kills.
Jiang Cheng was the one who cried for them anyway.
Stop crying! A man shouldn’t cry about this. I won’t raise a weak son. You think you’re your sister? Not even your sister cries!
His stomach churns and he shuts his eyes; he’s undoing the effects of his sleep aid.
Jiang Cheng has gotten up, every night since they returned from the hospital, and put his hand in the center of Wei Ying’s back. For some of those nights he’s awake to feel the touch, and the first few times he hadn’t understood what Jiang Cheng was doing, and then realized he wouldn’t let his hand fall away until Wei Ying took a breath.
It’s so quiet.
Squealing fish heart.
It’s too quiet.
When Wei Ying sits up the room tilts and goes grainy, blood trying to keep up with his body, rushing sluggishly for his head. The scar on his scalp blinks like a signal light. His heart is beating in his throat, if he moves too quickly he might throw up. It’s too quiet. His phone is facedown in the darkness and he paws for the empty space by Lan Zhan’s pillow. Hours have passed. It’s cold when he picks it up and Lan Zhan’s face appears, half-smiling in his lockscreen. He’s there. Then he’s not. He’s not here at all. It’s too quiet. He needs noise. If he settles, the white soapy hush of a running shower and a ceiling too low starts to rearrange him again, unspooling his brain. He’s been doing better. He’s been doing better.
Without thinking he stands up, stumbling on the loose pant legs of Lan Zhan’s pajamas. A grey-blue strip of light buzzes in the crack between the bottom of the door and the hardwood, and Wei Ying ignores the dull throb of pain when the corner of the wood scrapes against his toes when he opens it.
The study is just across the hall, closed like a downturned playing card. Lan Huan has gone to bed, the living room dark with the curtains drawn, all the furniture sleeping things that go bump in the night. The TV raises its one sleepy black eye to him: You’ve been seen. You’re up. Why are you up?
Wei Ying regrets knocking as soon as his knuckles land on the wood. Three sharp raps, and then immediately he wants to flee. What is he doing? He doesn’t know. His body is moving without his authorization, like it’s decided what he wants before he can reconcile any of it. His heart pounds at the back of his neck and behind his eyes like two fists, churning as if a tube sits in his throat again, and just as he steels his resolve to walk back to Lan Zhan’s room and tumble back onto the bed that smells like Lan Zhan, the door opens.
In the night, Lan Zhan glows.
Maybe he always has, Wei Ying doesn’t know, but he wouldn’t be surprised. The blinds in the study don’t close all the way, slatted light filtering through in slices of light and shadow. It leaves a pattern of piano keys across the desk, broken by the swan neck of a lamp.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan is smudged with sleep, “what’s wrong?”
“It’s too quiet,” says Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan blinks the sleep away from his eyes like a baby bird waking up. “Too quiet?” he asks.
“Yeah. Too quiet, I can—I can hear myself thinking. I can hear my body doing body things, I was just lying in your bed and listening to my stomach wiggle around, listening to my own heartbeat—rubatosis, or something. Unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.” Lan Zhan is still gazing at him, waiting for him to finish, framed in the mouthway of his door. One long, smooth lock of his hair has found its way to the wrong side of his part and Wei Ying is seized with a full-chested urge to reach out and brush it back. “I’m sorry, this is so stupid. There’s always been another person in my room when I go to sleep all my life, or there’s always a clock ticking, or someone talking, or the TV on, or someone cooking. Can I sit with you for a while? Just to listen to you breathe. Or, actually, why don’t you just get back in your own bed and I’ll just sleep here, this room is closer to the street. City noise is good.”
Lan Zhan searches his face. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I want you in my space, Wei Ying thinks wildly, but he stands there mute, hardwood floors lukewarm under his feet in the un-airconditioned hallway. “I, uhm.”
“Would you like me to play you Nuvole Bianche? You can rest on the couch.”
“No, no, Lan Zhan, oh my God. No need. You’ll wake up your brother.”
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, quietly. “I have always played for you when you needed it, my brother is used to hearing the piano at night. Would it help?”
He considers it. It might, but.
“Never mind,” says Wei Ying, embarrassment like a rash in his temples. His heartbeat has turned from fists behind his eyes to elbows in his sinuses; his entire face throbs. At least in the past when he’s called Lan Zhan, he’d managed to squeeze a joke in before he asked to hear Lan Zhan’s playing without crumbling like a pastry left out too long. “I’m sorry I woke you, Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. Go back to sleep.”
“You said you wanted to listen to my breathing, right?”
“I’ll come,” says Lan Zhan, takes Wei Ying’s hand in his, fingers wrapped sleep-warm and secure around Wei Ying’s knuckles. “Don’t apologize, Wei Ying, I’ll come.”
Lan Zhan, detailed, careful Lan Zhan, has the presence of mind even in the deepest, bluest part of the night to pause and turn off the air conditioning in the study and gather his pillow before he leads Wei Ying back towards his room. Through the static buzz of Wei Ying’s thoughts blooms a tiny, shy crocus of a thought: I wish we were holding hands on the way to Lan Zhan’s room for any other reason but this.
Then Lan Zhan is pushing open the door that Wei Ying had left ajar, plunging them into soft-spun darkness again. Lan Zhan’s room smells like him, which isn’t new information for Wei Ying, but he could curl up in the scent of him. Fall asleep in it.
“Did you take your sleep aid yet?”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. “I feel tired, Lan Zhan, but the thoughts wouldn’t stop.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t realize. You can take the bed.” Lan Zhan navigates his way in the dark deftly, opening his closets in search of something. “I’ll be on the floor, you can hear me breathe.”
“No, just take the bed, Lan Zhan. I just. I’ll sit.”
In the dim light, Lan Zhan’s silhouette pauses. He should look like a nightmare—long black hair, white pajamas, tall and quiet, but he doesn’t. No part of Lan Zhan has ever made Wei Ying feel anything but safe. “You’ll sleep sitting up?” he asks dubiously.
“Yeah, I’m good at that.”
“Hm.” Lan Zhan doesn’t sound convinced, but Wei Ying does not inspire a lot of trust lately, he knows. “If that helps. But, Wei Ying, if anything bothers you—”
“—I know, I know, the piano’s right outside.”
“...please wake me up,” Lan Zhan finishes.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, and when Lan Zhan crosses the room he almost wants to grab him and hug him, say try to say something that tries to amount to a thank you, but Lan Zhan is lifting aside the tangled blankets and sliding into bed. He holds them open, waiting for Wei Ying to climb in.
“Are you sure?” Wei Ying asks.
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan, tossing the body-warmed comforter over Wei Ying’s legs, tucking them securely around his waist. His jaw is a feather touch against Wei Ying’s belly as he leans over him and smooths the covers down. “Quite.”
Then Lan Zhan turns onto his back, proper as a new book being slid into its space on a shelf, and falls silent.
Wei Ying’s phone digs into his back, and he thinks about mindlessly watching Douyins until his brain tires, but he knows Lan Zhan is like him and prefers to sleep in pitch black. He sets it on the nightstand, the lockscreen lighting up to their picture together. This time, Lan Zhan is here. He’s here even when the screen darkens.
“Zhanzhan,” he says, shy as a slumber party secret.
For waking you up. For being a shitty best friend. For making you sad. For worrying you. For scaring you. For being such a burden. For that day you walked in and had to meet me and not someone funnier and nicer and happier, but me. For needing you.
“You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I just wanted you to know,” says Wei Ying, and if he hadn’t felt anything before the sudden warmth of Lan Zhan’s body next to his makes him feel swollen and sticky. “That. That if I never came back that day, it wouldn’t have been your fault.”
“It wouldn’t have been,” he repeats. His nose hurts, his eyes burn, and he tries to tell himself that it’s because he’s been awake too long. “You saw my nuclear winter. You saw it and you said you would go find the firewood, and. If you came back and I was gone it wouldn’t have been on you. You were perfect.” Wei Ying has never liked his own tears. They’re always slimy and unwelcome. He doesn’t know what he has to cry for, either, because he certainly didn’t feel sad in the hospital and doesn’t feel sad now, but.
The image of Lan Zhan alone—moving through life without any reason to play Nuvole Bianche, having seven students instead of four, standing in a butterfly refuge taking photos of a chrysalis on a leaf instead of a butterfly in Wei Ying’s palms, making lunch for someone who will never eat it again—that’s what breaks him. Maybe there would be someone else, he’d want there to be someone else, but he can’t bear the idea of that either.
(For being selfish, add that too.)
The bed shifts, and then: arms.
Lan Zhan hugs him.
His hair is in Wei Ying’s mouth, like he’d walked into a spiderweb. He’s sat up now, too, and Wei Ying’s arms hang like broken windchimes at his sides as Lan Zhan tightens his embrace. The press of his heart against Wei Ying’s, their rhythms out of sync, makes it feel like both of them have heart murmurs.
“I’m sorry,” he sobs, and doesn’t know for what. Everything, he’d meant that, but it was such a threadbare word. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. I’m really sorry. I’m sorry.” Embarrassing of you. “It wouldn’t have been your fault, Lan Zhan. I just, you have to know that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you sad. It wasn’t your fault. I’m sorry I yelled at you that day and told you to go away in the hospital, please don’t, I don’t want you to go anywhere. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m like this. I’m sorry I’m so needy. I’m sorry you don’t have a better best friend. It’s not your fault, I’m sorry.”
When Lan Zhan doesn’t let go, Wei Ying lets his face tip into Lan Zhan’s shoulder as he wraps his arms around Lan Zhan’s ribcage, and they sit like that, sideways in bed, holding each other until the earth stands still.
The only thing left shaking is Wei Ying as the cries leave him. God, he has not cried like this in years, he is not a crier, and he doesn’t think he would have cried if he could see Lan Zhan’s face, but the dark jumbles his brain. So does the quiet. He hiccups where his face is still buried in Lan Zhan’s shoulder, the sour aftertaste of tears still stinging in his nose. Lan Zhan still hasn’t let him go, rocking him quietly, just barely, his thumb stroking over a half-moon Wei Ying’s bare skin where the shirt collar had slid down to hang off his shoulder.
He should let Lan Zhan go. He knows he should, and is just about to when Lan Zhan dips him gentle as a ballroom dancer to—pluck a tissue from the nightstand. He hands it to Wei Ying without letting him go.
“Thank you,” says Wei Ying thickly.
“Do you feel a little better?”
“I think so,” Wei Ying says, sounding like he has a head cold. Lan Zhan extricates himself slowly from Wei Ying’s arms, even when Wei Ying drops his hands like he’s been stung, and then his breath hitches when Lan Zhan’s thumb brushes the salt-raw skin of his cheeks.
“Wei Ying,” he says, “you never have to be sorry to me.”
“Are you still sleepy?”
Wei Ying does get sleepy, the foamy wash of sleep coming in high tides. He’s grateful for the darkness when he pulls away, because he doesn’t know if he can face Lan Zhan after this, but Lan doesn’t let him go—not all the way, just enough so Wei Ying can breathe, leaving his touch on Wei Ying’s waist like a kite and his line. They wriggle until they’re lying down. Wei Ying wriggles, at least. Beside him, Lan Zhan folds like a tulip in evening.
“Sorry,” Wei Ying says again, wiping his sleeve across his eyes and sniffling. The skin of his eyelids is raw.
“For what?” Lan Zhan repeats. He props himself up on his elbow, stretching his body across Wei Ying’s in bed, and Lan Zhan’s weight—even just the trembling hover of it—grounds him. He gets him another tissue.
“Crying like a little baby,” Wei Ying says, blowing his nose. “I promise I’ll stop and let you sleep.”
“Crying is good.” Lan Zhan’s voice is round and soft. Wei Ying could put his cheek against it, the rabbit quiver of it. “It means you feel.”
Wei Ying shifts until the thick sweep of his hair is out of the way, spread out across the pillow behind him so it won’t tangle with Lan Zhan’s. He does feel, and lies in still wonder at the thought; he feels, and doesn’t remember when he had started again. Not a black hole, anymore, sucking everything into it and crushing it under his own gravitational force. Maybe just a moonless night. Maybe just a street whose lamps have gone out. There are new glasses and they’re so small they’re more like teacups, but at least they don’t have leaks in them. He doesn’t know what roles they are yet. He has a new jug to hold himself in. It’s heavy. There’s something in it.
Lan Zhan is on his back, and Wei Ying shifts until he can rest his cheek against Lan Zhan’s shoulder. It’s not really resting, not exactly, and he hears Lan Zhan’s breath hitch once before it evens out again. “Thank you,” says Wei Ying, words muffled into the fabric of Lan Zhan’s pajama shirt. “Is this okay?”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan turns his head on his pillow, and Wei Ying can see the tiny pinpricks of light where his eyes are. “You can...you’re very close to the edge of the bed, Wei Ying.”
“You can lie closer so you don’t fall out of bed.”
Lan Zhan is asking him to lie closer. There isn’t anywhere to lie, unless Lan Zhan melds himself into the wall that his bed is against, and his shoulder is already pressed up against it, but Wei Ying swallows and shimmies himself close—closer, closer, until he’s pressed up against the long, elegant line of Lan Zhan’s body, face almost in his neck. Lan Zhan stretches his arm out and gathers him still closer, until Wei Ying’s head is cradled against his chest.
Wei Ying doesn’t have anywhere to put his own arms, he realizes. One is crushed up against his chest but the other has no other position, naturally, but to rest across Lan Zhan’s torso. This isn’t sleeping side-by-side anymore, this is. Well, this is.
He settles it there gently, as though Lan Zhan is already asleep and he’s trying not to wake him.
“Is it still okay?” Wei Ying whispers, afraid that speaking any louder will shatter this.
“It’s okay,” Lan Zhan hums. “It is good.”
Wei Ying had asked to just listen to Lan Zhan breathe, but now he lies here, feeling it with every part of his body. His cheek on the rise and fall of Lan Zhan’s chest. The cool rush of his exhales on the crown of Wei Ying’s head.
He falls asleep. He thinks he does, anyway, head bobbing above and below the surface of slumber as his dreams squabble with each other noisy as street gossip. Some of them are just to the left of strange: his students, eating dinner, but for some reason the dinner is only stinky tofu and orange soda, and when he looks down there’s nothing but a raw, bloody fish head in his bowl. Then his sister, knocking on the bathroom door when he’s brushing his teeth, still wearing her full leotard and tutu for performance, cheekbones sparkling like stained glass with makeup: A-Ying, did you need anything?
A warm, soft touch like a breath against his forehead, and then.
In one dream, there’s just Lan Zhan.
He’s eating a mung bean popsicle at a bus stop alone in white fog, so thick the sidewalk vanishes at their feet. It could be a bus station among the clouds—a short step and a long, long fall. Even with sugar and ice in his teeth, Lan Zhan’s mouth is warm when he catches Wei Ying watching him. Without a word, he offers the popsicle to him, and waits for Wei Ying to take it.
“Why are you here?” asks Wei Ying, voice resonating around them.
Lan Zhan simply looks at him, a lonely magnolia blooming in the sky.
“Wei Ying,” he says, “why would I leave?”
- mentioned piano pieces: chopin etude op. 10 no. 4, the fountain, rondo alla turca, all 4 movements of moonlight sonata, 快乐的女战士 from the red detachment of women
- longtangs are streets and corridors between apartment buildings in shanghai, where kids in the surrounding apartments tend to play most
- some households will hang an upside-down 福 fu character (luck, blessings, good fortune) on their front doors as the word for upside-down, 倒 dào, sounds like the word for arrive, 到 dào. hence "upside-down fu" 倒福 invites luck, blessings, and good fortune to arrive.
- part 3 is forthcoming!! working on it right now, fingers crossed it's not 20k again ^^;;;
Chapter 3: even if it takes all night or a thousand years
we’re here! part 3 of 3, the finale, which ended up being over 40k—imagine if i hadn’t broken up parts two and three, it’d be a 60k+ part 2. my god!!!!!!!!!!!
as always, please keep in mind that this fic explores mental health, suicidal ideation, and attempt recovery in chinese families, but it is not at all intended to be an all-encompassing representation of these experiences. please be sure to take a moment to review the content warnings. take care!!
content warnings: depression and anxiety, depressive episodes, dysfunctional family dynamics, narcissistic mothers, medication and its side effects, nightmares, suicide attempt recovery, intrusive thoughts, nausea, mental health stigmas, trauma, mentions of blood, parental death in flashback, psychiatric visits, frank discussions of death
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
- hummel’s concerto no. 2 in a minor
- 苏浙汇 suzhe hui or jade garden is a restaurant chain specializing in jiangsu cuisine; 金钱豹 jin qian bao or gold jaguar is an ayce buffet chain with global cuisine. 口水鸡 mouthwatering chicken or literally "saliva chicken" is a sichuan dish of chicken in chili oil and peppercorns; 油面筋塞肉 wheat gluten stuffed with meat is a dish that can be substituted with mushroom filling and cooked with cabbage/shiitake; 清炒丝瓜 stir-fried sigua is a vegetable dish of made of sponge gourd/luffa; 话梅 huamei are salty dried plums eaten as a table snack
- thank you feyburner for cheering this on, mme_anxious for the nightly flourishing, wenwen for the art, and the friends who believed in this!
- thank YOU for reading!!!!!!!!!!!!! ♡ please take care!