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afternoons steeped in tenderness

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It all starts with a teacup.

It’s swan-shaped, the neck of the bird curving elegantly, forming the handle. The wings are cradling the cup itself, like an actual swan would do with its young ones - cygnets, as Lan Zhan once had told him. The beak is painted in gold, and on the inside of the rim, there’s something written in beautiful cursive letters, spelling 'Pure Moment'.

It’s perfect.

Wei Ying stops dead in his tracks when he spots it in the window of the small tea shop downtown. He stares at it, the popsicle between his lips almost forgotten. Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli look at him quizzically, only a few steps ahead. It’s a nice spring day, one of the first ones warm enough to go out and actually enjoy a cuppa–or, in Wei Ying’s case, the aforementioned popsicle–outside, and the siblings have decided to spend it together, now that Yanli is in town to visit.

He jogs over to Jiang Cheng.

“Hold this,” he says, and pushes the dripping popsicle into his brother’s hand without waiting for a reply.
“I’ll be back in a sec.”

“HEY!” Jiang Cheng shouts after him, then turns to his sister. “A tea shop? Really? Jiejie, what’s wrong with him? He doesn’t even like tea that much!”

Yanli only smiles. “I don’t think he’s buying something for himself, A-Cheng.”

It takes Jiang Cheng about five seconds to catch up before he rolls his eyes. Yanli chuckles.

“Let him. He’s in love.”

“He’s disgusting."

“Maybe so, but he’s happy, and that’s enough for me.”

Wei Ying pops out from the tea shop, a carefully wrapped package between his hands. His breaks into a smile that would put every sunset to shame.

 

-----

 

It’s raining when Wei Ying and Lan Zhan meet for their next study session.

Lan Zhan and Wei Ying had first met back in high school, where Wei Ying had promptly declared them best friends, and Lan Zhan had been too overwhelmed to disagree. He had been annoyed by Wei Ying’s loud and in-your-face demeanour, but had valued his brilliance and quick wit, his compassion and dedication. Once they had learned to read each other, they had truly become friends.

While Lan Zhan is studying Music and Wei Ying is majoring in Engineering, they end up studying together at Lan Zhan’s place most of the time. Wei Ying rooms with Jiang Cheng, and Lan Zhan has his own small apartment off-campus, the one his brother had lived in during his studies. It’s not as stuffy as the library, and not as cluttered as Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng’s shared space, and yet it still feels like home. It’s also quieter, one of the main reasons why Wei Ying and Lan Zhan often study here, even if Wei Ying’s chatter and laughter frequently break the silence.

Lan Zhan can’t imagine his life anymore without Wei Ying’s windchime laughter in it.

There’s a ray of sunshine making its way through the clouds, dancing in patterns across the carpet on which Wei Ying is currently lying. He looks up from his array of books and notepads and highlighters, and his face splits into a smile.

“Lan Zhan look, the sun! And it’s still raining! Do you think there will be a rainbow?”

Lan Zhan looks up from his own book and gazes out of the window.

“Perhaps.”

“Did you know that rainbows are actually circular?” Wei Ying rambles on. “It’s true! We only see them as bows because we’re usually not high up enough to see every part of them. Have you ever seen a whole one, Lan Zhan?”

“I have,” Lan Zhan replies.The corners of his mouth curve upwards into one of his almost-smiles when he sees Wei Ying’s eyes becoming round as saucers.

“You did? When?! Where???"

“When I was younger. I was on a hike with my brother and my uncle in the Gusu mountains. It was…quite the spectacular sight.”

“Ah yes, there are mountains where you’re from,” Wei Ying muses. “We only have lakes and rivers and hills.”

“Those are lovely too,” Lan Zhan says, knowing well that this will propel Wei Ying into another speech.

At the beginning of their friendship, he had found himself a bit overwhelmed by Wei Ying's word deluges, but the sheer passion and imagination with which he adorned his retellings had Lan Zhan listening attentively, even craving for more. Now, there was nothing in the world he would rather be listening to.

“Oh, you’d love it! The way the sun sparkles on the water, and the pink of the lotus blooms between the green! The swans gracefully swimming alongside the riverbanks – Lan Zhan, you have to come and visit me one day in Yunmeng! I’ll show you everything! We could pick lotus seeds together, and water chestnuts, and watch the full moon – Lan Zhan, you like the moon, right? It’s so gorgeous when it’s reflected by the water.”

“I would love to visit your home one day,” Lan Zhan says. “I am sure it will be just as beautiful as Wei Ying describes it.”

Nothing could ever be as beautiful as you are, Lan Zhan does not say.

Wei Ying beams up at him again, his warm, toothy smile that turns his eyes into crescents. But then his eyes widen just a fraction, as if he’s remembering something.

“Uh, speaking of swans – could we take a short break, maybe? I…I have something to show you.”

Lan Zhan looks at him, curiosity piqued. He puts away his book and looks at Wei Ying expectantly, who gets up and crosses the room to rummage in his backpack. When he comes back, he is holding a small box, wrapped in powder blue paper. He sits down on the carpet again and folds his legs into a clumsy approximation of a lotus position.

“I saw this in a shop recently, and it made me think of you, so… I got it for you,” he says, suddenly shy, while holding the package out to Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan takes it, eyes it curiously. Wei Ying thinks of him? Sees things that remind Wei Ying of him? He’s nervous all of a sudden and looks up to Wei Ying, as if seeking confirmation that he’s allowed to open it.

“I – it isn’t my birthday.”

“Why, can’t I get a gift for my best friend to show him how much I appreciate him? Now come, come, open it!”

Lan Zhan swallows. Best friend. His fingers do shake a bit when he tries to unpack the box without ripping the paper–there are small rabbits and clouds and stars printed on it so delicately that the pattern is barely visible. His heart constricts at the fact that Wei Ying would pick something that is so not Wei Ying, but so undoubtedly Lan Zhan.

Once the paper has been removed, folded, and tucked away, Lan Zhan opens the box and retrieves the swan-shaped cup. He holds it carefully between his hands and looks at it, marvelling at the details.

"For you, Lan Zhan - I know it's not a bunny, but it reminded me of you nonetheless,” Wei Ying begins quietly.
"Swans are graceful and highly protective of the ones they love. Just like you!"

Then, even quieter, not looking at Lan Zhan, fingers fidgeting with each other, "They also mate for life, and - Lan Zhan, you strike me as someone who would be that steadfast and loving, once you give your heart to someone else.”

(If Wei Ying wishes he was ‘someone else’ in that particular scenario- well, no one needs to know.)

Then, he reaches for the cup and points at the writing on the inner rim.

“Do you remember when we were younger and I kept on talking while you were having your tea and you told me to shut up because I was apparently ruining your ‘pure moment of peace’?” he laughs. “I thought it was so fitting.”

Lan Zhan does remember.

“I was foolish back then,” he says. “I apologise. I shouldn’t have been so rude.”

Wei Ying dismisses him with a wave of his hand. “Pfffft, no need to apologise, we were both pretty stupid back then. Well, you were more pretty than stupid, and I-I was just being myself. But anyways, what do you say? Do you like it?”

Lan Zhan examines the cup again, tracing the pattern of the wings with his index finger so carefully as if touching it too hard could actually shatter it.

He looks up, lips slightly parted, eyes shining.

"Wei Ying–it is beautiful. Thank you."

Wei Ying stares at him for a second as if he’d just hung the moon–then he smiles again.

Lan Zhan loves him so much.

They hold each other’s gaze for a moment that feels like hours. Then, Lan Zhan gets up and takes the cup with him into his small kitchen.

“Wei Ying…would you like to stay for dinner?”

“Aiyah Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying splutters, “you’re already indulging me so much. I can’t possibly!”

“I–I would like for you to stay tonight. If you want to. Please.”

Wei Ying, still sitting on the carpet, looks at where Lan Zhan is standing in the doorway, swan cup still in hand, and blinks up at him with sparkling eyes. The smile he gives Lan Zhan is smaller, a fragile and delicate thing, but it’s so honest, so open. Wei Ying has stayed over at Lan Zhan’s countless times, but this time–it’s special.

“Okay,” he says. “Cook for me.”

 

-----

 

Wei Ying doesn’t get back to his dorm room that night. He wakes up, hours later, on Lan Zhan’s couch, a fuzzy blanket pulled over both of them. Lan Zhan’s hand is gliding through his hair so tenderly it makes his heart ache. It’s still dark outside, but he can clearly see that Lan Zhan is watching him.

“Go back to sleep,” he whispers, and presses a kiss to the crown of his head.

Wei Ying smiles sleepily and cuddles closer to Lan Zhan, nuzzling into the soft spot where Lan Zhan’s neck meets his shoulder. He can smell soap and sandalwood and Lan Zhan and feels – home.

Wei Ying loves him so much.

 

-----

Later in the morning, Lan Zhan walks Wei Ying to class, even though his own classes only start in the afternoon. They do not talk much; their intertwined fingers speak enough for themselves for once. They promise to meet each other in the evening.

At home, Lan Zhan looks at the swan cup again. He briefly considers potting a few of his mother's gentians into the cup—the blue would look stunning with the white and gold—but then decides to actually use it as a teacup. That way, each time he drinks from it, he presses a kiss to the place where Wei Ying's fingers had held the porcelain so delicately.

 

-----

 

Years later, the gold on the swan cup has faded from all the washing. It’s not being used as an actual cup anymore, but does hold a small pot with a few gentians. Next to it sits another swan mug–this one has its wings painted on and a playful expression on its face. A red ribbon from their wedding bouquet is tied around its neck, and it holds a pot of blood red miniature roses.

Just in front of the cup and the mug there's a tiny porcelain figurine of a duckling–not quite a cygnet, but still close enough. They spot it at a flea market the day they receive the call that A-Yuan’s adoption has been green-lit. They’re on their way to the restaurant, a spontaneous fancy meal to celebrate the growth of their family. It sits there on the vendor table between a stack of old records and a dirty candleholder.

Both look at it, think of their swan cup and mug, and know that it’s perfect.