Lan Zhan stared down at the disarray in his sink. He was midway through washing the dishes from dinner, a couple of cups and bowls already stacked in the drying rack. Outside, the evening rain was whispering to itself, hushed against the paved streets, against the big square window in Lan Zhan’s kitchen. It tapped gently, as if asking to be let in to share its secrets with the kitchen tile. Lan Zhan watched rainwater streak the glass for a few moments before returning his attention to the sink.
He waited another minute, and then reached for one of the plates.
In the other room, Wei Ying was talking on the phone to Jiang Yanli. Lan Zhan was stalling with the dishes to give him some privacy. He was also trying to avoid eavesdropping, but not listening was harder than he expected. Wei Ying’s default volume tended to be a step above everyone else’s, and Lan Zhan could clearly hear the nervous pitch his voice had taken on when Jiang Yanli had answered his call. Even now there was an occasional scuffling sound as Wei Ying rocked back and forth on the couch. But slowly, slowly, the nervousness was unspooling from his voice. No one but Jiang Yanli could be so skilled at unraveling Wei Ying’s nerves.
“—no, I’m at Lan Zhan’s,” Wei Ying said. “Yes, he’s here. He’s—ah, he’s busy, he can’t talk right now.” A pause. “Jiejie! I am being perfectly honest, he’s very busy—yes, I’m eating well. I’m doing fine. I promise!”
To Lan Zhan’s knowledge, Jiang Yanli had called Wei Ying around eight times over the past two weeks. It felt strange, that only such a short time had passed since Lan Zhan and Wei Ying’s day by the river. Wei Ying had been over at Lan Zhan’s apartment almost every single day, even while Lan Zhan was at work, either fast asleep on Lan Zhan’s couch (unintentional, Wei Ying complained) or hunting for jobs (very intentional, and horribly boring). Each time Jiang Yanli called, Wei Ying clutched his phone and watched it buzz with an unreadable expression, until it went silent, and he reached for his laptop again. But today she’d called as they finished up dinner, while Wei Ying had been telling an energetic story. Wei Ying had answered without thinking.
This outcome, in Lan Zhan’s opinion, was probably for the best.
He scrubbed a bit harder at the plate in his hands, and then made himself slow down. The water in the sink had long since gone tepid. Lan Zhan did not know if there was an elegant way to pretend to do dishes, but he was sure that he was not inventing one.
“Yeah.” Wei Ying’s voice had gone so quiet that he was almost drowned out by the tentative rain outside. He sounded a little choked up. “I miss you too. I’ll—yes, you can call again. I’m free anytime. Haha. Love you too, bye.”
Silence punctuated his words. Hastily, Lan Zhan finished washing the remaining dishes and dried his hands.
When he finally entered the other room, Wei Ying was curled up against the sofa’s right arm, all tucked up under a plush gray blanket. He’d whined about the blanket, as Lan Zhan was first forcing it into his hands, but there hadn’t been any weight to his insistence that he didn’t need one. It’d been the third time Lan Zhan had come home to find Wei Ying asleep, laptop askew on his chest.
“Your body is telling you to rest,” Lan Zhan had said. “It would be wise to listen.”
Wei Ying had tried to argue more. His fingers clutched at the blanket. “I should be looking for a job, not lazing around on your couch.”
“You are looking for a job,” Lan Zhan said patiently. “You are also recovering from your last one. You will feel better with better sleep.” He’d paused, and then added quietly, “It would mean a lot to me, to be able to take care of you.” How freeing, he’d thought, that he could say things like that now, and not worry about how much of his heart Wei Ying would see.
Wei Ying had flushed a delicate meadowsweet pink. He had cleared his throat, opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again.
He had taken the blanket.
Lan Zhan was twice-over glad of it, standing in the doorway and looking at Wei Ying bundled up in comforting warmth. For a moment, Wei Ying didn’t notice him, preoccupied with absentmindedly fiddling with the soft fabric and staring off into nothing. Lan Zhan stepped farther into the room. Wei Ying jumped, and then offered him a crooked smile.
“Done with the dishes?” he asked, grinning. “Perfect timing, Lan Zhan.”
He definitely knew what Lan Zhan had been doing. Lan Zhan frowned, embarrassed, and then bravely ignored Wei Ying’s gentle laughter. He glanced towards the far end of the couch. As expected, Bichen was curled up into a perfectly round black disk on top of it, ever Wei Ying’s silent guardian. Since Wei Ying had started spending his days in Lan Zhan’s apartment, she had all but forgotten her usual perch on the cat tree.
Wei Ying followed Lan Zhan’s gaze. “Oh! Yup, she’s still keeping an eye on me. Making sure I don’t get too comfortable, and all that. I know, I know,” he cooed in her direction. “This is your couch, I’m just borrowing it for a while.”
Lan Zhan sighed. It was a good thing that Bichen would never know how often she was slighted in her own household. Lan Zhan was grateful that she’d kept Wei Ying company. Wei Ying had avoided talking with Jiang Yanli for so long; the conversation must have been stressful, even if it seemed to end well. It was comforting to know that even without the blanket, Wei Ying would’ve still had a nonjudgemental companion. Lan Zhan headed over to give Bichen his silent thanks. She made a little trilling sound as his hand brushed her fur, arching into a sideways stretch, flexing her toes and sharp claws. She roused herself only long enough to fix her teeth around his finger, gnaw gently, and then lick him twice. Lan Zhan bore this treatment with the dignity it required.
Wei Ying watched them both fondly. Once Bichen had settled back to sleep, he shoved his laptop to the side and gestured Lan Zhan closer. “Come sit with me, Lan Zhan?”
Obediently, Lan Zhan moved towards him. Then—
There was....a lot of room on the sofa. As Wei Ying’s friend, Lan Zhan knew exactly where he would sit, how much distance would be appropriate. Lan Zhan kept getting caught off-guard when faced with the old boundaries he had drawn; he had traced them so carefully that the old lines muddled the new ones. What would Wei Ying be expecting from him, at this moment? For Lan Zhan to lean into their friendship, or into the unspoken depth of feeling between them?
Wei Ying had picked up on his hesitation, and paused as well, but he recovered more quickly. He broke into a smile and reached for Lan Zhan’s arm.
“This is so weird,” he said, sounding delighted about it. He tugged until Lan Zhan sat next to him, and then flung his blanket over both of their laps, tucking Lan Zhan in with him. “Lan Zhan, let’s make a deal. Let’s not overthink it, okay? If you do something I don’t like, I’ll tell you right away, and if I do something you don’t like, same thing. Sounds good?”
Relieved, Lan Zhan dutifully replied, “Yes.”
Mapping out new boundaries would be easier with time. Conversations about their shared feelings came in waves, following their own sort of tidal pull—nighttime, each of them in their own homes and beds, was the swell that carried the most tender honesty with it. Lan Zhan held those quiet phone conversations close to his heart.
Every day he found something new to treasure about Wei Ying. They had kissed for the first time only just the day before. Wei Ying had cornered him in the kitchen, and straightforwardly asked if Lan Zhan would kiss him. Lan Zhan had been in the middle of putting some dishes away. Before he could process the question, Wei Ying had been rushing to explain, hands gesturing nervously, “I don’t want to make our first kiss into this whole big thing. You know how I build everything up in my head until it explodes, Lan Zhan! I just want to kiss you, no explosions necessary.”
But it had felt like a big thing anyway, even to simply brush his mouth to Wei Ying’s and feel how soft it was. In response, Wei Ying had smiled too widely, and Lan Zhan had readjusted their positioning, and—
They’d ended up pressed close together against the kitchen counter, unable to resist trading more of those soft kisses, Wei Ying laughing slightly into the space between their mouths. Wei Ying had smiled and smiled, until they’d stumbled upon the angle that felt best, and then he went quiet and focused in a way he rarely was. He’d draped his arms over Lan Zhan’s shoulders, holding him close. Lan Zhan had understood his urgency perfectly. When Lan Zhan had dared to put his hands on Wei Ying’s waist, Wei Ying had made a quiet little sound in the back of his throat. He’d been warm even through his clothes, his sides rising and falling with slow, even breaths, and Lan Zhan had shivered with how real and present in his own body he felt.
Lan Zhan and Wei Ying talked of the past often, all the moments that they’d wanted to reach for each other but hadn’t. They talked of the present, marveling at the fact that they didn’t have to hold back anymore.
The only thing they didn’t speak of was the future.
Fear was not exactly the right word. Worry was always applicable, in Lan Zhan’s case—he didn’t know how to not worry about something. The path ahead was uncharted, and its newness alone was enough to slow Lan Zhan’s pace as he and Wei Ying set off on it. It was easier, much easier, to talk of things they already knew for certain, if only for now.
Lan Zhan wasn’t shying away from commitment. He’d been in love with Wei Ying for years. He wanted to be with Wei Ying, in whatever capacity that Wei Ying wanted to be with him. It was more that he was...cautious, perhaps, of their changing relationship. It felt like he was holding something precious and fragile in his hands, made of delicately spun glass, and he was acclimating himself to its weight and shape so that he could learn how best to carry it.
For his part, Wei Ying was focused on job-hunting, and sorting out his life. Now that there was no question as to how Lan Zhan felt about him, he seemed perfectly happy to go with the flow. Once, as a teenager, Lan Zhan had thought of Wei Ying’s often-languid approach to life as a flaw; as an adult, he was dearly grateful for it.
“Hmmm,” Wei Ying said suddenly, jolting Lan Zhan out of his thoughts.
He tilted his head to rest on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. The gesture wasn’t so different from how Lan Zhan had seen him act with his other friends. He was a comforting weight against Lan Zhan’s side, his dark hair brushing Lan Zhan’s throat. Lan Zhan resolved himself to not moving for the foreseeable future, but then Wei Ying wriggled around to grab Lan Zhan’s arm again. He pulled it over his shoulders, making Lan Zhan hold him, which was. Very different. And nice.
“Okay!” Wei Ying said. “Much better.”
Lan Zhan’s whole self ached with tenderness. “Mn,” he agreed.
Wei Ying flashed him a smile. "So, you probably heard everything, right?” Without waiting for Lan Zhan to confirm, he continued, “She’s not mad. Like, at all. I thought...well, to be honest, I thought her husband—Jin Zixuan? I don’t know if you’ve met him yet—that he might have tried to talk her into thinking that I...” There was a thoughtful pause, before Wei Ying said hesitantly, “His dad was...ah, pretty involved in what happened. But I guess he’s taking my side? He needs to stop making me think I could like him.” This last bit was said as a little petulant aside.
Lan Zhan listened quietly, stroking Wei Ying’s arm where he could reach. Likely, he would never learn the full story, but he was honored that Wei Ying trusted him with even a few details.
“The thing is,” Wei Ying said. “The thing is, she didn’t mention Jiang Cheng. Not even once. I think he’s probably really angry with me and she didn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
He sounded resigned. Wei Ying was strong-willed and stubborn, but he bore the consequences of his own actions without question or complaint, whether they were deserved or not.
“He will make his own decisions,” Lan Zhan said softly. “You acted as you saw best.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying said, just as soft. After a moment, he turned his head and kissed Lan Zhan’s shoulder through his shirt. “Hey, can you take a look at this email I’m writing? I met this guy at a conference once, so I reached out to see if the place he works for has an opening, but it’s becoming really clear that he remembers me much better than I remember him.”
They took a look at the email together, and then at some of the job listings Wei Ying had applied for or was considering, and then discussed Wei Ying’s impeccable resume. It began to feel like Wei Ying was taking the long way around to what he really wanted Lan Zhan to look at.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan finally said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, exactly,” Wei Ying said. He hemmed and hawed for a bit before giving up. “I’ve been looking at a couple other options too. Tell me if you think this is silly? But I’ve been thinking about the skills I have, and what I like to do, and I think a good combination might be educational technology. Like, specifically for classroom settings, creating tools to help kids learn in ways that are more engaging and fun, all that.”
Lan Zhan could see that type of job suiting Wei Ying. Working with educational technology was both something Wei Ying could be passionate about, and something that would pose enough of a challenge to keep his interest.
When he said as much, Wei Ying grinned. “Right? I think it’s worth trying out, at least. The only downsides I can think of would be, like...there’s the danger of working a ton of extra hours again, because tech, and it might be harder if I want to find a job connected to cultivation. Fewer of those out there.” Wei Ying grimaced. “Also, do you think I’d have to go back to school?”
It was highly likely that he would, but Lan Zhan didn’t want to be the one to break the news. “Perhaps.”
“Ughhh,” Wei Ying groaned. He listed farther into Lan Zhan’s side. “Forget all this. Lan Zhan, what do you think about me becoming your kept man?”
He is joking, Lan Zhan told himself. That was a joke. Out loud, he said, “You will have to get better at cleaning.”
Wei Ying made an indignant sound, sitting up so fast he almost clocked Lan Zhan in the jaw. A few minutes were given to squabbling good-naturedly. Afterwards, Wei Ying turned himself sideways, sitting cross-legged and leaning back against the couch’s armrest. He watched Lan Zhan with a faint smile.
“Lan Zhan, I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said. “Are you volunteering at Golden Path this year?”
The program would begin in less than a month. “Yes,” Lan Zhan replied. “I would like to go every year, if I can.”
Wei Ying’s smile became a little sad. “I thought so,” he said. “I was really looking forward to it, you know. Going together this year. I had this whole image of us meeting at your place, and eating together, beforehand.” He sighed. “Now I don’t even know if I’ll have a job in time, let alone a job involving cultivation.”
“You could still come with me,” Lan Zhan said. What he truly meant was, I want you to come with me.
Wei Ying looked at him affectionately. “I guess you’re right. It was always going to be different from how I imagined, anyway.” There was a hint of teasing wickedness to his voice when he added, “Though it will be difficult to convince the counselors that being your kept man has anything to do with cultivation.”
Lan Zhan sighed, but it was more out of helpless amusement than it was exasperation. “You, out of anyone, could find a way.”
They lapsed into comfortable silence. Without conversation, Lan Zhan finally realized that the mild rain outside had subsided, its whispering story told. He always felt lonely after the rain finished. But behind him was Bichen, sleeping soundly with Lan Zhan and Wei Ying both near, and somewhere in the city, his brother and uncle had also been listening to the rain. In front of him was Wei Ying, breathing the same air, lingering in the stillness alongside him. This loneliness was gentle. It felt like the silence during their phone calls, in between those tides of conversation, when they simply breathed together and enjoyed being connected on the same line.
Wei Ying caught his attention again by leaning forward.
“Tell me what you’re thinking about, Zhanzhan?” he asked, shy, sounding softer and sweeter than Lan Zhan had ever heard him. It was deeply embarrassing and desperately thrilling to be spoken to that way. Lan Zhan fought the equal urges to hide his face and to beg Wei Ying to speak again.
“The rain,” he said honestly, and then in a rush of impulse, “And if you would stay over tonight.”
“You want me to stay the night?” Wei Ying asked, surprised.
Lan Zhan wanted Wei Ying to stay always, but Wei Ying was already halfway there, so it seemed redundant to ask. “I have an extra toothbrush,” he began, prepared to make his case. He paused as Wei Ying started laughing.
“Hmm, an extra toothbrush,” he said. “That’ll do. Will you also make me breakfast in the morning? If the answer’s yes, then I’ll stay.”
Perfectly aware that he was being made fun of, Lan Zhan said, “Stay, and I’ll say yes.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying laughed harder. “You can’t do that, I clearly have all the bargaining power here. You have to give me what I want.”
“Good boy,” Wei Ying said, dipping forward to press a quick kiss to his mouth. It sent a giddy jolt through Lan Zhan’s stomach. He valiantly bore it as Wei Ying bestowed first one, and then another kiss upon him. “You are gonna be such a good boyfriend,” Wei Ying sighed, and then froze.
It was the first time either of them had spoken of the future aloud, of the destination they were walking towards. Lan Zhan wanted more than anything to be Wei Ying’s boyfriend. But they hadn’t said it yet. There was a level of depth to that word, boyfriend, and all that it entailed. He would be Wei Ying’s partner in life, at an active level that he had not been allowed before. Lan Zhan felt apprehension as a weight in his gut. He took a deep breath, and investigated it, and discovered that its weight had settled into something he could carry.
He took Wei Ying’s face in his hands, and leaned forward to bestow his own kiss. Wei Ying shivered under his touch as if he were as delicate as the surface of a lake. You are gonna be such a good boyfriend. Lan Zhan’s kiss was a mirror to reflect Wei Ying’s own words back at him.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said, when they parted. His tone was firm and decisive. “Yes. I will be.”