It is, by Lan Zhan’s count, the fifth time he has worked with Wei Ying. Six months, a week, and a day since he first watched Wei Ying climb out of a Didi and pause a moment, his eyes on the darkened, silent house ahead. Wei Ying had squinted, his nose scrunching with his laugh. And when he turned to Lan Zhan, he said, Pretty loud in there.
Lan Zhan no longer shares his uncle’s blanket distaste for mediums. Clients tend to panic when faced with a haunting – they hire everyone they can, just to see what finally sticks. Since becoming a practicing exorcist, Lan Zhan has worked alongside psychics, channelers, diviners. So he felt comfortable enough with his doubts, looking at Wei Ying that first time. Professional mediums rarely feel the need to show off. And they know better than to work alone.
Lan Zhan does learn, over time, that Wei Ying’s constant, cheery narration of what Lan Zhan cannot see isn’t meant to impress him. He’s like the host of a chaotic party, introducing two groups of friends over the mounting noise, making sure everyone is having the same conversation.
But the working alone never changes. Even when Lan Zhan is there, Wei Ying cheerily eschews supervision.
I can’t watch over you and the clients, Lan Zhan told him once, early on.
Wei Ying had blinked and tilted his head to one side. His high ponytail bobbed to the side. -Then don’t? I’m fine over here, Lan Zhan.
And if something attaches itself to you? Lan Zhan had said.
Wei Ying’s smile is a full-bodied thing. He bounces a little with it. Then I’ll do what I always do. I’ll talk to them.
It has never quite been enough for Lan Zhan. This is where he and his uncle agree: when you let the dead in, they tend to stay.
But they kept crossing in and out of each other’s orbit nonetheless. And in those six months, Lan Zhan comes to realize just how many scraps of information he’s collected about Wei Ying. Scraps that he’s collected, he thinks, from the beginning, but have changed in shape and color the longer he holds them. The way Wei Ying’s tone brightens and gentles with children. The difference between his genuine smile and the one he means to reassure you. The way he looks when he’s just had a terrible idea.
This is how Lan Zhan finds himself in the bedroom of seven-year-old Zhao Yu, in the grip of a brutal possession at the hands of a poisoned widow. It’s how he looks across the bed to Wei Ying and finds him looking back. And it’s how, when Wei Ying smiles, Lan Zhan knows exactly what he’s about to do.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, evenly. “You’ve got me, right?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. “Don’t.”
Wei Ying takes both of the boy’s hands. And over the next five minutes, Lan Zhan comes to collect, against his will, several more scraps of Wei Ying. The way he looks when something takes hold of him. And the way he looks when it doesn’t let him go.
When you let the dead in, it takes a toll on you. There hasn’t been a single exception in history.
Lan Zhan tried to tell Wei Ying that, the first time he saw him channel. The first time, not coincidentally, he has to catch Wei Ying before he hits the floor.
Wei Ying stubbornly insists that the work isn’t hard as it looks. He’s often drained and dizzy afterward. But by the time Lan Zhan eases him to the ground, he’s always laughing. Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t mind me. You have residual energy to cleanse, don’t you? I’ll be fine here. This is a very comfortable floor. He has said that, Lan Zhan thinks, about every single floor.
And if the color never quite returns to Wei Ying’s face, he never calls attention to it. Lan Zhan always notices. But it’s not really his place to say anything about it.
When the widow’s spirit finally leaves Wei Ying, he drops into Lan Zhan’s arms like a ragdoll and doesn’t move again. By the time Lan Zhan has finished packing their collective equipment from the Zhao living room, he’s still unconscious.
Zhao Yu himself is fine, asleep under his parents’ careful watch. His grandparents seem to be coping with efficient, electrified helpfulness: they ferry Lan Zhan’s bags to his trunk, and finally double back to help Lan Zhan move Wei Ying’s dead weight from the couch to his arms.
It’s Zhao Yu’s grandmother who finally, wringing her hands and looking to Wei Ying’s pallid face, asks. “What will you two…”
What she means, Lan Zhan knows, is Shouldn’t we do something? It’s a good question.
Lan Zhan glances down to Wei Ying. His head is lolling back against Lan Zhan’s elbow, his chest rising and falling in shallow patters. Lan Zhan adjusts his grip, uselessly.
“I’ll take him home,” Lan Zhan says. So for lack of better options, that’s what he’s doing.
By the time Lan Zhan sets him in the passenger seat, Wei Ying still hasn’t so much as twitched. He slumps forward when Lan Zhan buckles him in, his forehead bumping Lan Zhan’s shoulder. His breaths hitch softly against Lan Zhan’s collar.
Lan Zhan reclines the seat to lay his head and neck straight, then tries his pulse again. It feels strong enough, if a little sluggish. He’s still cold, though. Lan Zhan shrugs off his jacket, smooths it across Wei Ying’s shoulders. And then carefully, he slides Wei Ying’s wallet from his pocket.
According to his ID, his apartment isn’t far. And it’s probably best if he rests at home – Lan Zhan isn’t sure a doctor would be any help. But even as he enters Wei Ying’s address into his GPS, he’s not sure he shouldn’t try.
The first ten minutes are quieter than any drive with Wei Ying has ever been or should be. It’s not until he’s merging onto the highway, when a streetlight sweeps across Wei Ying’s face, that he twitches away from it.
“Wei Ying?” It’s less a conscious question than the exhale after a punch. “Can you hear me?”
“Hm?” Wei Ying’s eyes flutter open, then shut again. He clumsily tries to sit up, his arms caught in Lan Zhan’s jacket. Lan Zhan, mid-lane change, can’t reach over to press him back to the seat. “We’re driving?”
“We are,” Lan Zhan confirms. And then, before he can stop himself: “I was considering taking you to the hospital.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying manages his usual sunlit smile. “I’m glad you didn’t. Tragically uncomfortable beds.”
Lan Zhan has barely turned to look at him when Wei Ying hurriedly moves on. “Zhao Yu is okay? Any after-effects?”
“He’s alright.” Lan Zhan does his best to deliver his next words neutrally. It’s an abject failure. “The spirit left him completely when it entered you.”
“Ah.” Wei Ying straightens. “You’re angry.”
“I’m not,” Lan Zhan says. Or at least, he’s trying to remind himself that he has no right to be. “I didn’t realize you could take on someone else’s possession.”
Wei Ying’s nose wrinkles. “It’s nothing that organized, Lan Zhan. I’m not like you, I can’t force them out. Just—invite them in.”
Lan Zhan adjusts his grip on the steering wheel. “Invite them in.”
“Sure,” Wei Ying says. And then, as if he can read something in Lan Zhan’s carefully blank face, he adds, “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you first. But it was really very low-risk.”
“I couldn’t wake you,” Lan Zhan says. This time, he knows he sounds angry.
“Aiya, sorry, sorry. I should have warned you that it looks—bad.” Wei Ying’s hand flutters, too frenetic to be soothing, in Lan Zhan’s direction. “But I’m fine! I have ways to protect myself. And I had the second heir of the Lan family with me! I wouldn’t have done it without you there, I promise.”
Lan Zhan breathes out, tries to breathe the frustration with it. Wei Ying isn’t wrong. False modesty, among other things, is prohibited in the Lan family. Lan Zhan has no trouble admitting that he’s never failed a single exorcism.
False bravado is prohibited, too. So Lan Zhan has even less trouble admitting that, once the widow moved into Wei Ying, everything happened very quickly. She had clung tight to Zhao Yu, like if she had to go, she intended to take some of him with her. Her hold on Wei Ying had been much looser. Like he wasn’t possessed so much as holding her down.
“If you trust my skills that much,” Lan Zhan says, “you should have trusted me to finish it.”
Wei Ying faces forward, his hands linked in his lap. He doesn’t look upset, or offended. He’s still smiling.
“I did,” he says. “I always do. But she was hurting him.”
The drive is quiet, after that. Wei Ying slides over a little in his seat to rest his cheek against the cool window. Lan Zhan doesn’t ask how he’s feeling. If Wei Ying felt at all okay, he’d be talking.
So Lan Zhan watches the road, and reminds himself that it isn’t his place to lecture. He made his position clear the first time he saw Wei Ying’s methods at work: that what he did was careless, risky, unnecessary. That if he was lucky, he would only hurt himself. Uncle would have agreed. Brother wouldn’t have said it, but he would have thought it.
But he thinks of the way Zhao Yu had gripped at the sheets. The tears that kept streaming down his face even as the widow raged at them. Wei Ying taking his hands. Careless. Risky.
Maybe not unnecessary.
You have reached your destination, the GPS says.
Wei Ying stirs slowly as Lan Zhan pulls up to the curb. “We’re here? Oh, we’re here.” He stretches, laughs when one of his long arms hits the roof of the sedan. He looks like ink on paper in the half-dark. Like you could reach the wrong way and smudge him. “Thanks for the ride, Lan Zhan. Until next time, I guess?”
Wei Ying meets his eyes. And Lan Zhan realizes he has known what he was going to do since he climbed into the car.
“You shouldn’t be alone tonight,” he says. “I’ll stay with you.”
Wei Ying doesn’t go without a fight, though Lan Zhan has the feeling that it’s not the most impressive fight he’s put up – even he seems to realize that he can’t argue he’s perfectly fine when he needs Lan Zhan’s hand on his elbow to steady him on the short walk from the parking spot. But he keeps trying, nonetheless.”
Eventually, Wei Ying switches to bargaining. “What if you just saw me to my apartment?” He hunches, burrowed into Lan Zhan’s coat, as he fishes out his keys. “You must be exhausted. This is more than I can ask.”
Lan Zhan shifts to give him access to the door, keeping his grip loose but steady on Wei Ying’s arm. “You didn’t ask. I insisted.”
Wei Ying doesn’t so much open the door as flop against it with all of his weight. Lan Zhan reaches over him with his free hand and pushes the door open the rest of the way. “I haven’t cleaned up for guests. If you were appalled by the state of my equipment bag, you’re going to love the state of my couch.”
Lan Zhan follows him into the lobby, shifts to his side as he checks his empty mailbox. The light is gray-orange against the concrete. One of the overhead fluorescents is broken halfway up the stairs, sending rapid pulses of black across the second-floor landing. “I will just have to live with the knowledge, then.”
Wei Ying turns to look at him fully. “Oh my God,” he says. “Are you mocking me? Like, just a little?”
His tone strives for mock-offense. But his wan smile has cracked open, nose scrunched, delight brimming through his laugh. Like Lan Zhan is the funniest person he’s ever met.
Without his conscious permission, Lan Zhan’s mouth parts.
The door next to him sails open, then crashes to a halt just as fast.
Lan Zhan jerks back, startled. The deadbolt is still on, looped into place at the top of the gap, but from where he’s standing, he can see where the chain is starting to pull free from the wall. It hangs a little slack on one side, just enough that a small pajama-clad figure slips through the opening.
Before Lan Zhan can intervene, the toddler flings himself at Wei Ying’s unsteady legs. But Wei Ying summons another reserve of energy from somewhere: he sweeps him off the floor and twirls him into his arms. “A-Yuan,” Wei Ying says, out of breath but still laughing. “You can’t come running to me every time you want to get out of brushing your teeth, you know.”
A-Yuan giggles a little like Wei Ying does – it spills out of him. “Wei-gege, I brushed already.”
“Did you?” Wei Ying narrows his eyes. “Let’s see it, then.”
A-Yuan patiently holds a giant gap-toothed grin as Wei Ying makes a show of squinting at his teeth. Finally, Wei Ying pulls back with a performatively solemn nod. “Very good. Passes inspection.”
As A-Yuan twists and laughs in Wei Ying’s arms, he finally, by chance, looks in Lan Zhan’s direction. He twitches back a little. But he doesn’t look away, or try to hide his face. He burrows a little deeper into Wei Ying’s arms, and then he watches Lan Zhan with wide eyes, like he’s studying him.
“Ah, where are gege’s manners?” Wei Ying hoists him a little higher. “This is Lan Zhan. He’s making sure I get home safe tonight. Do you want to say hi to him?”
A-Yuan stills, curiosity and suspicion warring on his face, and Wei Ying laughs again. “Sorry,” he says. “He’s not usually shy.”
All at once, Lan Zhan knows the feeling. “It’s alright,” he says. “He doesn’t have to.”
“Wei-ge?” There’s a slide-and-click from the apartment as someone unlocks the deadbolt, and a man with a round, pale face peers into the hallway. From where he’s standing, Lan Zhan can see someone watching him from behind the man: a young woman, her hair loose and her gaze quietly sharp.
“You’re right on time, Wen Ning.” Wei Ying bounces A-Yuan again, finally eliciting another giggle. “This one was trying to flee the tyranny of bedtime again.”
“I’m so sorry, Wei-ge.” Wen Ning’s attention flickers back and forth between them. The woman behind him, on the other hand, hasn’t looked away from Lan Zhan once. “I didn’t realize you had—company.”
“—oh.” Some color washes back into Wei Ying’s back. “Ah, Wen Ning, that’s—we’re actually—”
“He’s bringing Wei-gege home,” A-Yuan announces. He’s smiling again, too wide for his little face, so he seems to have come to a decision about Lan Zhan. “Wei-gege is wearing his jacket!”
Wei Ying jolts, looks down at himself. Lan Zhan wonders if he’d forgotten the jacket wasn’t his. But as always, he recovers quickly. “Ah ha, you don’t know that,” he says. “Maybe gege wants to change his look.”
A-Yuan shakes his head vehemently. “That gege is wearing all blue. It matches!”
Wei Ying laughs a little too loud. “Kids,” he says. “Make them a few too many paper dolls and suddenly they’re Alexander McQueen.”
The woman ducks under Wen Ning’s arm to step into the hallway. When her eyes land on Wei Ying, they narrow. “You look terrible.”
“Wen Qing.” Wei Ying clutches his chest as best he can with an armful of A-Yuan. “Don’t talk about Lan Zhan’s jacket like that.”
Her mouth thins, and Wei Ying dances back a fraction, like he’s ready to be hit. She seems content to study him, though. And she doesn’t look pleased with whatever silent conclusion she comes to.
It occurs to Lan Zhan, with a twist he’s not quite sure what to do with, that this is an old conversation repeating itself. Wei Ying must know them well.
“I’m really okay,” Wei Ying says. His smile narrows to a wisp. “Long night.”
At length, Wen Qing slants her head in Lan Zhan’s direction. “You’re staying with him?”
“Very kindly and unnecessarily,” Wei Ying says, at the same time Lan Zhan simply says “Yes.”
Lan Zhan finds himself, very briefly, under the full force of Wen Qing’s considering stare. But like A-Yuan, she seems to come to a decision.
“Good.” She eases the toddler out of Wei Ying’s arms – he whines a little, but his eyes have already started to droop shut. “Get some rest,” she says, back to Wei Ying. “If I see you working tomorrow—”
“You’ll never catch me,” Wei Ying says. “My legs are as long as your entire body.”
“You’ll never see me coming, asshole,” To Lan Zhan again, she says, “If you need anything, our number is on the fridge.”
“Qing-jie, stop scaring him.” Wei Ying flaps his now-free hands at them. “You all go to bed too. Aren’t you embarrassed, having a child up this late? A-Ning should have been asleep hours ago.”
A-Yuan giggles into Wen Qing’s shoulder. Wen Ning’s own smile is tolerant but warm. “Say goodnight to Wei-ge and his friend, A-Yuan.”
“Goodnight, Wei-gege,” A-Yuan mumbles. His voice is muffled by the fabric of Wen Qing’s sweater. “Goodnight, Wei-gege’s friend.”
Wen Ning eases the door shut. And before they disappear into the apartment, Lan Zhan catches Wen Qing watching them go.
Wei Ying waves them off until the door shuts, then smiles, stretches until his shoulders pop, and takes a step toward the stairs. And then he crumples.
Even as close as he is, it takes Lan Zhan by surprise – he has to scramble to catch Wei Ying around the waist. Wei Ying’s eyelids flutter, then open fully, his eyes still a little rolled-back. He paws at Lan Zhan’s forearms like he’s feeling around in the dark.
“Haha.” Wei Ying shifts, trying to take his own weight. His eyes are starting to clear. Lan Zhan keeps his own grip steady. “Wow, sorry. Do you ever just blank out for a second?”
Lan Zhan swallows his first response. And then the next three. “You need rest. Which apartment is yours?”
“406,” Wei Ying says.
“We’ll take the elevator,” Lan Zhan says.
“It’s a walk-up, sadly,” Wei Ying says. “Have you ever noticed that ‘walk-up’ sounds really charming until you’re on the third floor and your calves are on fire? That was some impressive brandi—hey, hey, Lan Zhan, no.” He tightens his hold on Lan Zhan’s arms as he moves to lift Wei Ying off the ground.
“It’s no trouble,” Lan Zhan says. “I carried you earlier, to the car.”
“Trouble.” Wei Ying laughs like a slide-whistle. “The ‘trouble’ isn’t really the…” His eyes dart between them, mumbling something too quiet to hear. And then he gently pats at where Lan Zhan is still holding his waist, and slings his own arm across Lan Zhan’s shoulders. “There. We can hold onto each other the entire way. I’ll be completely steady like this, promise.”
Lan Zhan wavers. Wei Ying does feel steady, his arm sunlight-warm against Lan Zhan’s neck. His fingers twitch a little against the fabric of Lan Zhan’s shirt, as if even standing here, he can’t be totally still.
“If you start to feel ill…” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying has to crane his neck a little to smile at him from this position. “I’ll tell you.”
So they walk.
It’s slow going. Despite Wei Ying’s assurances, he moves across the steady concrete like a balance beam, one careful foot after the other. He’s a little out of breath by the time they reach the second-floor landing, which skitters in and out of darkness with every flicker of the overhead light. Lan Zhan tries to slow his own pace without Wei Ying noticing.
He doesn’t say anything, at first. Now that the logistics of the climb are out of the way, it’s difficult to think of anything to say. Even before that third night they worked a case together, a residual haunting in which halfway through Lan Zhan found himself standing under the full force of Wei Ying’s smile and thought, in quick succession, Oh and then Wait and then Well then—even before that, Wei Ying has always had a way of moving his center of gravity. Here, exhaustion-blurred and squinting into the fluorescents, his tongue feels as clumsy as Wei Ying’s feet.
“What did your neighbor mean?” Lan Zhan finally asks. “That I should call if I need her?”
“Oh, that,” Wei Ying says. “She’s a doctor, so.” When Lan Zhan pauses mid-step, Wei Ying adds, “It’s fine, it’s fine, I don’t need one. She just worries.”
“I wonder why,” Lan Zhan says dryly.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying huffs, both a laugh and a sigh. “I swear I am nothing near stoic. Last week I cried a little pulling off a band-aid. When I say it’s not usually that bad, I’m not trying to sound tough.”
Lan Zhan adjusts his grip to take more of Wei Ying’s weight. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Wei Ying. Just that he doesn’t trust Wei Ying’s metric of ‘bad.’
He carefully keeps his voice neutral. “What is it usually like, then?”
Wei Ying tries to shrug. It’s not easy, from his position – he jostles them both. “A little dizziness, sometimes. Some headaches. My nose bleeds if the energy is particularly strong. That one’s inconvenient. Ruined three job interviews and counting.”
Lan Zhan hums, considering. “Is this the first time it’s been this bad?”
Wei Ying’s quiet, for a minute. Concentrating on his footing, or his answer. “Not the first, no.” Lan Zhan swallows. That’s enough, apparently, to get Wei Ying batting at his shoulder. “I’m really fine, I’m just tired. Get me horizontal for a bit and I promise I’ll be much more fun.”
Lan Zhan keeps his eyes determinedly on the third-floor landing up ahead. Wei Ying, brain apparently catching up to his mouth, clears his throat loudly. “That is to say,” he says. He fidgets, his hair brushing Lan Zhan’s throat. “Sleep. Will help. Anyway, should we, stairs?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, a little too loud. And as they ascend the final flight to the fourth floor, he very carefully thinks of nothing at all. That’s another thing he’s learned about Wei Ying these six months: he flirts like breathing. It’s not malicious. But it doesn’t mean anything.
Wei Ying is a heavy weight around his shoulders by the time they reach #406. Lan Zhan expects to sense wards. But even locked up and still, the apartment doesn’t feel guarded. Even before Wei Ying finally fumbles his way to the right key, it feels as if the door is already open.
Wei Ying reaches into the dark to flick the wall switch.
His apartment stretches to life like a cat. The light starts low, then builds as the bulbs warm up. Lan Zhan’s first impression is of a small space. But it’s wider, on closer inspection, than it looks – it’s just dark. The wallpaper is a forest green, the furniture a muddy brown. It blurs the corners, draws the room into a fist.
It doesn’t suit Wei Ying. But Lan Zhan suspects Wei Ying isn’t the decorating type. Maybe, he thinks, nonsensically, that they know each other well enough now that he can offer to paint. Help find some art, or some furniture covers. Give Wei Ying a little space to breathe.
But there are traces of Wei Ying here. The living room is organized chaos: the coffee table is an overflow bookshelf, there’s a book lying open and face-down on the couch, nestled in a fuzzy throw. Little hand-drawn cards dot several shelves. Wei Ying laughs and laces his fingers together as Lan Zhan picks one up.
“That one’s from A-Yuan,” he says. “That shelf over there has some cards from clients – I work with a lot of kids – and as soon as A-Yuan saw that, I had three by the next week. Sweet kid, but surprisingly cutthroat. He will not be outdone.”
Lan Zhan holds it just long enough to make out the drawing – Wei Ying and A-Yuan exploring a graveyard, flashlights in hand – before he looks back to Wei Ying. He’s fidgeting with the sleeves of Lan Zhan’s jacket, which fall to his fingertips. “So,” Wei Ying says. “I really can’t talk you out of staying, huh?”
Lan Zhan watches Wei Ying’s face slide into uncharacteristic hesitance. And he wonders, embarrassingly late, if he’s forced his way into Wei Ying’s home. “You shouldn’t be alone tonight,” he says. “But if you’d prefer I get Dr. Wen—”
Wei Ying ducks his head with a low laugh, his ponytail bobbing against the side of his neck. “Ah, no, I didn’t—you’re welcome here, Lan Zhan. Always. I just wanted to warn you: my pajamas are not going to be your usual aesthetic.”
The words process molasses-slow. Then, at all at once, extremely quickly. “No,” he says, just too-loud enough that Wei Ying blinks. “It’s alright,” he adds. He’s fairly sure he sounds too measured now, but any sort of normal speech pattern seems beyond him. “I’ll sleep in my clothes.”
“And leave my guest un-cozy? Absolutely not,” Wei Ying says. “Just give me a second. I need to find the least-offensive thing in my closet.”
“Do you need help?” Lan Zhan says as he retreats.
Wei Ying holds up a thumbs-up as he rounds the corner into the bedroom. He’s still paler than Lan Zhan would like. But he at least seems steadier on his feet.
The couch doesn’t sink under Lan Zhan so much as take a bite of him, the faux-leather worn and slightly chilled with the hours Wei Ying has been away. He presses his hands to his cheeks once, hard, then sets them on his lap. Maybe he is tired. It’s not usually quite this hard to keep a straight face in Wei Ying’s presence.
He doesn’t think Wei Ying would mind his interest that much. He’s seen the way people fall into Wei Ying’s pull, like it’s inevitable. He must have to let people down all the time. He’d do it gently, Lan Zhan thinks. Would certainly do it gently to Lan Zhan, if he knew.
But Wei Ying has just had someone else in his mind and body. He’s exhausted, he’s unwell. And Lan Zhan is, he hopes, Wei Ying’s friend by now. Lan Zhan’s only job, until he leaves this apartment, is to make Wei Ying as comfortable as possible.
So he tries not to look too closely at the apartment, the ways Wei Ying’s life is on display. He allows himself one glance at the open book next to him, a comparative text on modern burial practices worldwide, and sets it carefully aside before Wei Ying walks back into the room.
He’s changed into his own pajamas, an oversized, safety-orange set with a white ghost pattern. There’s a faint enough green haze around the ghosts in the low light that Lan Zhan suspects they glow in the dark. There’s a pile of blankets and a folded heap of red plaid balanced on one arm, and Lan Zhan’s jacket is carefully folded in the crook of the other.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, laying everything out on the ottoman. “We can make up that couch with these – it has absolutely no structure anymore so sorry in advance to your back, but hey, it’s comfortable – and these should fit you. I think we’re the same size, right? You’re just, you know, shoulders. But they’re a little big on me, so…”
Wei Ying finally looks up. His ponytail is drooping a little, falling out of his elastic, and the hairs framing his cheeks are wet, like he splashed water on his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Lan Zhan stands, needlessly.
“Okay.” Wei Ying smiles, warm and slow and questioning. “You were making a face.”
Lan Zhan almost reaches up to touch his traitorous face, as if that would tell him what exactly it was doing without his permission. “Nothing’s wrong,” he manages. “Tired, I think.”
“Oh, shit, of course you are,” Wei Ying says. “God, wait, I should take the couch. You’re the one who’s doing me a favor.”
“I’m not recovering from a possession,” Lan Zhan says. “You should sleep in your bed, Wei Ying.”
“You were the one who had to—” Wei Ying pauses, grimacing. “Wait, can we have this fight after I brush my teeth? I don’t know what it is about vengeful spirits, but they leave kind of a—” he gestures broadly to his mouth. “—taste.”
“Take your time,” Lan Zhan says as Wei Ying disappears back down the hall, the ghosts on his pajamas glowing as he steps out of the direct light. He’ll take the opportunity to make up the couch. And then he’ll climb under the covers and refuse to budge until Wei Ying gives up and sleeps in his own bed.
Not the most elegant way to win an argument. But if it worked on family vacations with Lan Huan when they were young, it’ll work now.
He stacks the throw pillows onto the armchair and spreads the fitted sheet over the couch cushions. As he unfolds the top sheet, he looks up by chance. And then slowly, he sets it down.
The soft orange glow of Wei Ying’s apartment, which had seemed to spread from wall-to-wall just a minute ago, now stops short at the edge of the living room.
Lan Zhan straightens, conscious of the creak of the floor as he shifts his weight. Beyond the edge of the carpet, he can see a hint of the kitchen tile, the outline of a refrigerator. But past that, only yawning dark.
That light could have been off the entire time. It’s not impossible that Lan Zhan, from this position, is only noticing this now. But he had stood in the doorway, noted the way that the apartment curled in on itself. And now it looks undeniably smaller.
He doesn’t have to wonder long what is or is not his imagination. He looks from the doorway to the narrow serving hatch, just next to Wei Ying’s desk. And through the gap, he sees the outline of a head and shoulders. Blacker than black, like a hole punched in the world.
Lan Zhan goes rigid. He doesn’t have Wei Ying’s sense of the dead, their movements. But even he knows, instinctively, that they’ve just locked eyes.
His fingers curl around strings that aren’t there. His guqin, the rest of his tools, are sitting in the trunk of the car. He’d stupidly thought he wouldn’t need it in the home of someone he knew. Foolish. He knows Wei Ying. He draws everything in. Alive or dead.
“Knock that off,” comes Wei Ying’s voice from behind him. Firm, tired. But thoroughly unsurprised. “He’s a guest.”
Instinctively, Lan Zhan’s head flicks to Wei Ying. By the time he faces forward again, the kitchen is lit once more.
Wei Ying lets out a low, rueful sound. Lan Zhan half-pivots, unwilling to turn his back on the kitchen. “Ooh,” Wei Ying says. He stands in the gap of the hallway, leaning against the wall. “That’s going to be a problem, huh.”
“Wei Ying?” It feels embarrassingly shaky in his mouth. He should be long past the point of letting spirits startle him.
“I know, sorry,” Wei Ying says, like Lan Zhan was scolding him. “He’s usually so quiet, I completely forgot. But I guess he’s like this with my brother, too…” He hums, rubs the back of his neck. And seemingly doesn’t notice that in all his long nights with Lan Zhan, this is the first time he’s mentioned a brother.
But that’s a question for later. “I can banish him from the apartment. Or if you’d prefer,” he adds, at Wei Ying’s frown, “I can help you set up wards.”
“No,” Wei Ying says. “It’s complicated, but – this is as much his place as mine, if that makes sense…” He hovers for a minute, fiddling with the end of his still-slipping ponytail. Then, gathering up the pile of pajamas he left for Lan Zhan in one smooth motion, he says, “I guess we should talk about this in private.”
As he ushers Lan Zhan down the hall, Wei Ying’s eyes flick over his shoulder. When Lan Zhan turns back, he doesn’t see anything in the lit kitchen. But Wei Ying doesn’t look at it like an empty room.
Wei Ying’s bedroom is nearly all bed. The room isn’t large to begin with, and the frame is one of the biggest Lan Zhan has ever seen. At the look on his face, Wei Ying laughs. “Yeah, I know. But my friend was getting rid of his old bed, and I thought, when else am I going to sleep on a California King? Turns out hubris is always punished. I had to take it apart and reassemble it in the room.”
He eases the door shut behind them, briefly pausing at the door. Whatever he hears – or doesn’t – seems to satisfy him. “Okay, so. I know he didn’t make the best impression, but that spirit isn’t particularly dangerous. He’s lived here almost as long as I have, and as long as I let him stay here, he doesn’t bother anyone else in the building. I’d rather not go scorched earth on a spirit who keeps to himself. But the thing is—there’s one thing that stirs him up. He really doesn’t seem to like exorcists.”
Lan Zhan is silent for a beat. Wei Ying meets his stare easily, like he doesn’t think he’s said anything worthy of follow-up questions. Lan Zhan shouldn’t ask now, anyway, not when Wei Ying is swaying on his feet. But something in his mind catches on Wei Ying’s phrasing – that this spirit has been trouble for someone in the building. Or at least, has threatened to be.
“Anyway,” Wei Ying says. “I don’t think he’d hurt you. Hah, not that he could, he wouldn’t be much of a match, but – he wouldn’t let you get much sleep.” His hand flutters at his tremendous bed. “But if we both sleep here…”
Lan Zhan takes in a slow breath. The oxygen keeps his brain, narrowly, from descending into hot white noise. “Here?”
“I know it’s awkward,” Wei Ying says. “But I don’t think he’ll bother you if you’re with me. And, you know, this bed is the size of a continent. Pretty sure each of us could starfish on this mattress and barely touch each other.”
That may be an exaggeration, but not much of one. It’d be easy for him to share this bed with Wei Ying without getting into the other’s space. Though there are things, Lan Zhan thinks, you would feel no matter how far away you are. The rustle of blankets. The mattress dipping with the other person’s weight.
“I can sleep on the floor,” Lan Zhan says.
“With what space?” Wei Ying says wryly. Unfortunately, he’s right: the bed takes up enough of the room that it’d be difficult for any adult person to stretch across the carpet, let alone put down any sort of bedding.
After watching him for a moment, Wei Ying grimaces. “Right, you don’t like to be touched, do you. I’ll sleep on the floor! I’m like a cat, I can fit anywhere.”
Lan Zhan cuts their respective spirals short with a shake of his head. It’s late, and this is getting them nowhere. He’s kept it professional with Wei Ying thus far. This is no different.
“No need,” he says. “It’s fine. The—bed, is fine. For both of us.”
Wei Ying spends the next ten minutes digging for spare towels, that one disposable toothbrush he got from the dentist and thankfully kept. Lan Zhan finally sends him away when he tries to hover on the other side of the bathroom door. If the shadow figure reappears, Lan Zhan tells him, he’ll let him know.
The pajamas, stretched and worn soft with years of age, fit perfectly. The collar smells faintly of soap. One of the sleeves is a little creased, like Wei Ying has a habit of fidgeting with it.
Lan Zhan runs the water ice-cold before splashing it on his face.
As he reaches for the knob, there’s a stir of breath in the hall, the sound of feet on carpet. Wei Ying. Lan Zhan eases the door open so it doesn’t hit him. “Wei Ying,” he says, “I’m perfectly capable of—”
The door swings open, without resistance, to an empty hall. So if Lan Zhan walks a little quicker to the bedroom than he’d like to admit, there’s no one living to see it.
Wei Ying is sitting up in bed, the covers drawn over his torso. Without anything left to fuss over, he’s blinking slowly, like his eyelids are weighted down. “Come on in,” he says. “You must be exhausted. How’s the pillow situation? Okay?”
Wei Ying has helpfully stacked two fluffy pillows on the opposite end of the bed. Wei Ying’s single pillow looks flat by comparison. The Lan family rules prohibit lying, but – “I only sleep with one,” he says. “You can take this one.”
“Ah?” Wei Ying says. “If you insist.”
Lan Zhan slips under the covers, and once Wei Ying has settled, he reaches up and flicks the light switch. It takes a long minute for Lan Zhan’s eyes to adjust to the dark.
Wei Ying is looking at him when they do, curled on his side. The ghost pattern on his pajamas emits a soft green glow. “Do you have enough space?”
Lan Zhan does. Lan Zhan feels as if he has more space here than in his own home. There’s a vast expanse of mattress between him and Wei Ying, who looks, on closer inspection, like he’s lying on the very edge. “Wei Ying,” he says. “Come further in. You’re going to fall.”
Wei Ying laughs sheepishly. “I just didn’t want to crowd you.”
It has been a long time since Lan Zhan has spoken without meaning to. But for a moment, he almost tells Wei Ying that he could stand to crowd him a little more.
His throat bobs with an aborted half-breath. “You’re tired,” he says. “You should be comfortable.”
“Ai, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs. “I’m really fine, you know.” But despite his protests, he shimmies a little further onto the mattress.
There’s a click in the walls, the atonal hum of pipes. Wei Ying is still watching him with wide, owlish eyes. “I’m sorry.” He says it quietly, as if trying not to disturb the room. “I went back on my promise, didn’t I?”
“What promise?” Lan Zhan asks.
“You know,” Wei Ying says. “The first time we worked together. You told me that amateur mediums make more work for you. And I told you I wasn’t an amateur. Probably didn’t seem that way tonight, did it?”
Lan Zhan takes a breath. He’d said that, hadn’t he. It was what he’d always been taught, after all. What he thought, after too many nights exorcising those who’d carelessly let the dead in, to be true without exception. But that doesn’t mean he should have said it. Not to Wei Ying, who he didn’t even know.
“It’s okay,” Wei Ying says. As if he can read the shifts of Lan Zhan’s face even in the dark. “You’re not the first exorcist who’s said as much.”
Lan Zhan falters. But eventually, he asks. “Your brother?”
Wei Ying’s laugh is a wince. “You caught that, huh?”
“You said the spirit didn’t like him, either,” Lan Zhan says. He has been quietly thinking, since the pieces clicked. He knows all of the exorcists currently working in Shanghai, knows some of the major families beyond it by name if not by face. He doesn’t know any named Wei.
“Yeah, well, in that case the feeling is mutual.” Wei Ying rolls onto his back. “But what I’m saying is—I understand. I’ve watched you work a while now, Lan Zhan. I know you spend all that time teaching people how to put up walls. And here’s me, without any. I wouldn’t trust me, either.”
Lan Zhan turns his head, watches him watch the ceiling. It should be easier here, without Wei Ying’s eyes on him, to explain what he knows to be true now. That he knows, finally, that Wei Ying isn’t careless or showing off. That the problem isn’t what Wei Ying lets in, living or dead or in-between. The problem is that Wei Ying has an exorcist for a brother, and neighbors who care for him, and shelves full of cards from his clients, and here he is, walking through the dark alone.
But the enormity of that doesn’t break neatly into sentences. So instead, he asks, “What happened earlier?”
Wei Ying makes a questioning little noise in his throat. Lan Zhan elaborates. “When you took on Zhao Yu’s possession. It didn’t feel as if the spirit had you fully. How did you hold her back?”
“Ohh.” Wei Ying finally loses the battle against his drooping eyelids. “That. It’s really nothing all that impressive, Lan Zhan.”
“Then what is it?” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying smiles. “Lan Zhan, I told you before. It’s all just talking.”
Lan Zhan rolls onto his side, watches him. His lashes twitch as he struggles to open his eyes again. “Rest,” Lan Zhan says, barely audible.
It doesn’t take long after that. Wei Ying’s arm, draped across his stomach, slips to his side. His breathing eases, deepens. Even when Lan Zhan carefully shifts his weight, he doesn’t stir. He’s deeply, fully asleep.
It takes a long, long time for Lan Zhan to follow him.
There’s a picture that used to sit in the hallway of Lan Zhan’s family home. Lan Zhan’s mother, seated and smiling with closed lips. A seven-year-old Lan Huan at one shoulder and a four-year-old Lan Zhan at the other.
The background of the photo is dark. Lan Zhan knows, intellectually, that this must have been a screen, or a backdrop. But when he tries to think of that day now, he can’t remember a studio. Just an empty building, painted black.
In his dreams that night, Lan Zhan stands in a room. Maybe not that one. But just as endless.
Someone is holding his hand. Lan Zhan tugs once, experimentally, and it moves with him. The sleeve is light blue, bracelet length. He has to crane his neck to see the rest of the person attached: a dress with a boat neck and pleated skirt, a low loose bun, a face so high-up that it’s hidden from him. Even in the haze of sleep, Lan Zhan knows he’s not four-years-old anymore. But this is the only way he’s ever looked at her.
“Mother,” he says. His voice echoes. “Where are we?”
She turns, looks down. The oval of her face, framed by loose hairs slipping from her bun, is empty. A paper-white, featureless blank.
Lan Zhan’s breath catches. But he forces it out. She is his mother, no matter how she looks. She has only ever wanted one thing for him.
“Is there something you’d like me to know?” he asks.
Though her face is still, Lan Zhan gets the pale impression of a smile. Then she raises her head.
Lan Zhan follows her empty gaze. And between one movement of his head and the next, he’s back in the concrete lobby of Wei Ying’s building. The door in front of him is #103. The door at which he met the Wens.
The doorknob feels warm under Lan Zhan’s palm. And without resistance, it opens.
The Wens’ apartment, save for a shifted layout, is nearly identical to Wei Ying’s: dark green walls, dark brown furniture. Lan Zhan can see where they’ve added a few of their own touches, tried to open things up with paintings and A-Yuan’s craft projects. But right now, the lights are off. The Wens’ themselves are huddled on the couch by the blue-white glow of the muted TV. There’s an elderly woman on one end, a sleeping A-Yuan on her lap. Wen Qing and Wen Ning sit on the other side, their eyes fixed ahead. Wen Qing’s hand rests on top of Wen Ning’s. Even when he crosses in front of them, they don’t look up at him once.
Lan Zhan traces their twinned stares to the hall entrance. Where a little ways in, just beyond the rising and falling light of the TV, Lan Zhan can hear the lilt of Wei Ying’s voice.
So he follows it. He has been powerless, for a while now, to do anything else.
Wei Ying’s words swim into recognizable shapes just before his silhouette does, halfway down the hall. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with his back to Lan Zhan, his shoulders low and relaxed. “So scaring them wasn’t your intention,” he’s saying. “But I’m going to hazard a guess that you didn’t dislike it that much.”
The air at the end of the hall shifts. And Lan Zhan sees, for the first time, that someone is standing there. Towering over Wei Ying’s seated form. Blacker than black.
Lan Zhan forgets that this is a dream, lifts his foot. But Wei Ying just laughs, like he’s been answered. “Charming. It’s not going to do you any good, you know? The people who hurt you are long gone. They didn’t stay here, like you. And no amount of making that kid cry is going to change that.”
Wei Ying goes quiet for a moment. Lan Zhan has seen him work enough times now to know that silence, even without seeing his face. Wei Ying is listening.
“No,” Wei Ying says. “If you don’t want to, that’s none of my business. But you can’t stay here, either.” There’s enough of a pause that Lan Zhan thinks Wei Ying is listening again. But then he adds, “I have a third option. If you’re interested.”
The silence this time is a long one. All Lan Zhan hears is the hum of the air conditioning unit. And if he strains hard, maybe, the barest curl of a whisper.
“The apartments in this building all look the same,” Wei Ying says. The curve of his lips is audible. “Mine has a pretty stunning view of a parking lot. And last week my kitchen timer dinged a little too loud and I dropped a whole pan of tomato-egg. If you want someone to scare, I’m available.”
Wei Ying leaves the appropriate pause. This time, there’s a fullness to it. Like standing in a house and knowing, in your bones, that it’s not empty.
Then Wei Ying straightens. And he turns, craned fully around, and looks Lan Zhan dead in the eye.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You should probably—”
Lan Zhan wakes up.
He blinks rapidly, gathers his shallow breaths into one deep exhale. Both hands are fisted into sheets that are too coarse, that aren’t his. The fabric of his pajamas brushes his wrists. Soft flannel, worn with age. Wei Ying’s pajamas. Wei Ying’s bed. Wei Ying’s soft breaths, just a foot or so away.
He presses his eyes shut again, tight this time, to clear them. Out of the corner of his eye he can see a streetlight gleaming through the thin blinds. But his eyes haven’t fully adjusted yet. He can’t make out the ceiling fan, or the water stain he fell asleep looking at. It looks like the photo studio of his memory. Black paint.
Then he feels a stir of air against his cheek. And he understands, all at once, what’s above him. Not black paint. A face, bent inches from his own.
Awareness floods with adrenaline: he can see the curve of the figure’s neck, the unnatural bent shape of its body, the wisps of long unbound hair. With even being touched, Lan Zhan is pinned.
Instinctively, Lan Zhan presses toward the headboard. Some faint part of his brain remembers some show he had on in the background once, talking about cats cornering themselves in their fear. There is no safety to be had here, nothing but a rapidly shrinking away.
Then the mattress dips. Lan Zhan flinches up, thinking it's climbed onto the bed. But the voice that finally, finally breaks the tableau is to his left.
“Xuanyu,” it says. “I told you that he was a guest.”
It’s Wei Ying's voice. It is, but—if Lan Zhan heard it in a crowd, he would think he was hearing a stranger.
Lan Zhan shifts. He doesn’t dare look away fully, but from this position, he can see the solid line of Wei Ying’s side. He’s sitting stock straight. His hands rest loosely on the covers. When he speaks again, it’s in that flat, empty tone.
“You think you don’t like exorcists?” he says. “If you’re still in this room when I count to three, you’re not going to like me too much, either. One.”
Another light breath ghosts Lan Zhan’s forehead. It doesn’t move. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
“It’s alright, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Two.”
The figure still hasn’t moved. But it draws inward, somehow. Not intimidated. Considering.
Wei Ying draws breath to speak. And in the space of a blink, the figure is gone.
Lan Zhan sits bolt upright. Next to him, Wei Ying is sitting up straight, his hair loose around his shoulders and obscuring most of his face. And from his position now, by the bare light through the blinds, he can see that Wei Ying is facing dead ahead. And his eyes are closed.
They flutter open, blink gently. And he turns to Lan Zhan and squints. “Are we out of rice?”
Lan Zhan raises a hand to touch his arms. It hovers, unwilling to break the spell. “Wei Ying, what—”
“I’m tired,” Wei Ying says. And then he tips forward.
Lan Zhan hurriedly takes him by the shoulders, eases him downward onto his back. Wei Ying’s lips curve as he sighs, nearly trapping Lan Zhan’s hand as he nuzzles into the pillow.
Lan Zhan gently extracts his arm, lays a hand on Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Wei Ying,” he says again, quieter. “Are you still asleep?”
Wei Ying smiles. “Yes, jiejie,” he slurs. And after only seconds, his mouth falls slack.
He’s fast asleep. He was, in all likelihood, never completely awake.
Lan Zhan exhales. It comes out as a quiet laugh.
He lifts the covers and smooths them over Wei Ying’s chest, drawing another quiet sigh from him. Then slowly, he resettles himself onto his own pillow and lets the remainder of the adrenaline spin itself still.
His eyes have fully adjusted now, enough that every corner of the room is visible. He doesn’t see anything anymore, just as Wei Ying asked. But the feeling of fullness hasn’t gone away.
Lan Zhan is too tired to be scared, maybe. But not quite too tired to think of everything he’s learned tonight, every scrap he’s added to the growing portrait of Wei Ying. Wei Ying bringing the spirit here. Wei Ying refusing to let Lan Zhan banish him. Wei Ying telling him, It’s all just talking.
“I allowed harm to come to him tonight,” Lan Zhan says. Barely more than a whisper. “I don’t make mistakes twice. He’s safe with me. I promise you that.”
It’s disconcerting, not to see someone and know somehow what it is they’re feeling. Lan Zhan wonders, as he feels the long, thoughtful hesitance in the room, if Wei Ying feels like this all the time.
And then, maybe for the first time tonight, the apartment is completely still.
Lan Zhan thinks, as he closes his eyes, that he can’t imagine going back to sleep. But that is the last thing he remembers thinking.
Lan Zhan wakes up to sunlight and the sound of the front door.
He snaps to awareness so fast he’s a little dizzy with it. He’s unmoored for a moment – it feels unforgivably late – but the sun is angled low through the blinds, the light pink-gold against the white sheets. But Wei Ying is a self-professed late sleeper. And the cocoon of blankets on his side of the bed looks long-empty.
Lan Zhan unfolds from the bed, and follows the sound of crinkling bags and the smell of fried dough to the little dining table by the kitchen.
“Oh!” Wei Ying looks up from the spread he’s laying out. Lan Zhan sees youtiao, da bing, and two takeout containers that might be congee. “I’m so sorry – did I wake you?”
“I slept later than I intended,” Lan Zhan says, neatly sidestepping the question as he nears the table. Despite the amount of food already laid out, Wei Ying is still going: he takes a bag speckled with delicate blooms of oil stains and shakes a few jianbing guozi onto a white plastic plate. “What is all this?”
“Yeah, I could feel myself going overboard.” Wei Ying grins, his cheeks bright and windblown from the fall air. He does, as promised, look markedly better. “Isn’t it weird how the competitive spirit overtakes you when you have to line up at opening for something? I almost got in a fistfight with a sweet old grandma for the da bing, and then I remembered that I’m not a monster. I just really wanted to find something that said Sorry! You Met My Shadow Figure.”
At Lan Zhan’s blink, Wei Ying ushers him over to the table. “Here, sit, sit. Whatever we don’t eat you can save for later. Don’t worry, the congee’s vegetarian, I checked.”
Lan Zhan lets himself be ushered into a seat, and he pops the lid off the takeout container. Century egg congee, with an extra century egg. True to Wei Ying’s word, there’s no pork – and Lan Zhan smooths his nonexistent bedhead so that his hair covers his prickling-hot ears. “I didn’t think you’d remember last night,” he says.
“Honestly, I thought I was dreaming it.” Wei Ying rubs at the back of his neck. “Until I got up to pee and found Mo Xuanyu—you know, my would-be roommate— sulking on the other side of the apartment. He says he’s sorry, by the way. Or he would if he had any manners.”
Lan Zhan smiles as he passes his spoon slowly through the rice. “It was not so bad,” he says, as Wei Ying loads up a plate and presses it toward him. “I think we understand each other.”
Wei Ying blinks, sliding into his own seat. “How so?”
Lan Zhan pauses to take a bite of the congee, the egg rich on his tongue. Wei Ying watches him, quietly impatient for his answer. “As you told me,” he finally says. “It’s all just talking.”
Wei Ying watches him for a beat. His cheeks are still pink from the cold. “If you say so.”
They pick through their respective breakfasts, Lan Zhan finishing about half of the congee while Wei Ying demolishes an impressive amount of his plate. He eats like he’s starving. After how hard he worked yesterday, he must be.
“So,” Wei Ying finally says, on the heels of a huge bite of youtiao. “I guess we should—I mean, how do you want to do this, going forward? Maybe you could tell me which jobs you’re working and I’ll turn down what I need to? No, that’s a lot of work for you. How about this: I’ll tell you what jobs I’m working and you can tell me if you need to stay away. Is that okay?”
Lan Zhan sets his spoon down. Wei Ying’s giving him that look again, like he hasn’t said anything unusual. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, “what are you talking about?”
Wei Ying examines his plate, gives his remaining congee a few firm whisks. “You were really clear from the start about what you weren’t going to tolerate. I said I was going to respect that. And now I made you exorcise me. And spend the night in my haunted apartment. If you want to keep your distance from now on, I completely understand. I won’t be offended.”
“Wei Ying.” For a moment, there’s more horror than he can pick past: that Wei Ying would think this, that Lan Zhan made him think this, that he can’t seem to think of anything to say except for Wei Ying’s name. “I’m sorry.”
Wei Ying’s face softens. “Lan Zhan, you have nothing to apologize for.”
“No.” He catches Wei Ying’s downturned eyes, holds his stare. He waits until Wei Ying raises his chin enough to fully look back. “You are good at what you do. You’re kind, thoughtful. You care deeply for your clients. I made assumptions that were unfounded. And you didn’t deserve them.”
“Lan Zhan.” Slowly, Wei Ying sets his utensils down. His eyes are wide. Lan Zhan hates that they’re so wide for so little. “I wasn’t—I mean—thank you. But you don’t have to—”
“I do,” Lan Zhan says. “And it’s true, whether I have to or not.”
“Ah.” Wei Ying’s shoulders slowly unknit as he smiles. There’s a stray sesame seed on his cheek, glinting in the kitchen light. “That’s—that’s good, then. I like running into you.”
Lan Zhan takes another bite of the congee, carefully plans his next words. In the end, it doesn’t take much planning at all. He has known, since last night, what he wants to ask. He just had to get there.
“I still don’t like that you work alone,” he says.
“Ai, well,” Wei Ying laughs. “Maybe now you can guess that it’s less by choice than—”
“You wouldn’t work alone if you worked with me,” he says. Blurts out, really. It’s not how he wanted to say this: too fast, too desperate, falling inelegantly from his mouth. Wei Ying doesn’t seem to notice.
“Sorry,” he says. “What?”
“I,” Lan Zhan says. He pauses there, lays his words out in the correct order. “I do not know everything.” Wei Ying laughs softly, as if skeptical. “And I have learned from you, these past six months. I would like to keep learning. If you’ll have me.”
Wei Ying watches his hands where they knead together against the table. It is as lost for words as Lan Zhan has ever seen him. And until the moment he looks up, Lan Zhan is sure that’s a bad thing.
“Lan Zhan.” He catches a flash of Wei Ying’s smile before Wei Ying pitches forward, burying his face in his hands. The visible edges of his cheeks are red. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. You can’t just go around saying things like that, you’ll regret it.”
Lan Zhan isn’t like Wei Ying. He’s not quick to smile, not bright. Even when you’re looking at it, you don’t always see it. But when Wei Ying finally looks up at him, his eyes crinkle with delight. Like he sees it just fine.
“I won’t regret it,” Lan Zhan says.
“Really?” Wei Ying leans far enough forward that the back legs of his chair lift off the ground. “Well, I guess you can’t say for sure right now. If you’ll regret it, you’ll tell me?”
“I’ll tell you,” Lan Zhan says. He won’t regret it. He has never been surer of anything.
The pink-gold light of Wei Ying’s east-facing windows shifts, unfurls the closed fist of Wei Ying’s apartment into blazing orange. And with a glittering laugh, Wei Ying bounces to his feet to reload their plates.
“Okay, then,” he says. “Okay, Lan Zhan. Finish your breakfast. And we’ll get started.”