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So the thing about being a professional submissive, in Wei Ying’s opinion, is that it requires a lot more project management than most people think. Like, when he tells people about his job, they’re always like “oh but how do you take care of the bruises,” or “how do you store your elaborate harness get-ups” and sure, he has plans for all of that, but no one is asking the real questions, like “how do you remember everyone’s preferred forms of address and also all of their physical home addresses.”

He’s definitely going to have a whole chapter on database management and information storage in his thesis (Plan D: Precarious Labour and the Grey Economy, a comparative perspective).

Which is how he ends up going “Oh no, sir, not the clamps! I mean, shit, fuck, daddy, don’t.” He’s definitely not getting a tip today.

He’s still kind of in a bad mood when he heads out to his next appointment in the evening. He doesn’t normally stack them, but Su She only ever wants to watch him put on some lingerie and a silk stocking set under a suit and occasionally play footsie while he’s out with his friends, so it’s easy to slip him in whenever there’s a gap. The guy is an asshole in every other respect but Wei Ying appreciates this one thing about him.

Wei Ying isn’t a huge fan of playing in front of people who haven’t signed up for it, but Su She loves letting everyone know Wei Ying’s time is paid for. So that resolves that ethical dilemma. It’s some sort of conspicuous consumption thing that Wei Ying is also going to put into his thesis, but it’s particularly funny on a guy wearing a made-to-measure suit and knock-off Patek Philippe watch (Fatek Filippe clearly visible on the watch face).

Su She gets up to get drinks; he likes to watch Wei Ying drink, too. Wei Ying has his theories about what else Su She would like, but he’s not going to push him to have whatever awakening is going to come around the corner and clobber him in the face.

Wei Ying has just re-crossed his ankles, the whisper of silk stocking pronounced as it shifts and bunches against the slightly curled hair on his legs, when the shuffle of bodies around their booth puts Wei Ying next to the new guy, the one he hasn’t talked to before. Wei Ying looks for Su She, who is occupied at the bar. That is one man who struggles to get service. Ah. Well, Wei Ying is here for as long as Sue She wants, so he might as well talk to his neighbour.

“Hi! I’m Mo Xuanyu,” Wei Ying says.

The man looks at him briefly, eyes flicking down, before they come back to linger on Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying shakes his hair a little and smiles. The man doesn’t respond. Ok then. And yet, it’s hard for Wei Ying to look away. Everyone here spits when they laugh and slouches wrinkles into their poorly made poly-blends. This guy is different. He holds this moment of silence like a golden rope, stretched between the two of them. It pulls more tightly the longer it goes on and Wei Ying can’t look away.

“Lan Zhan,” the man says eventually, when the breath in Wei Ying’s lungs feels more constricted than the soft lace of the bralette he’s wearing should justify. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he adds, words polished and at odds with the mean way he made Wei Ying wait.

Wei Ying lets himself breathe, hand reaching around the table for a drink before he remembers that Su She went up to get them fresh ones.

“Here,” Lan Zhan says, and slides over a tall glass with a lime in it. “Soda with lime.”

Wei Ying does not take drinks from strangers, but he thinks he’ll die, turned into a dessicated husk from mouth dryness if he doesn’t drink something right now, so he reaches out his hand and takes it. He takes a long sip, lets the bubbles work themselves out against his soft palate.

“Good,” Lan Zhan says and Wei Ying chokes a little. So he’s finally found the real dom among Su She’s crowd of wannabe power seekers.

The praise pushes at Wei Ying, makes him want to push back, makes him want to watch Lan Zhan work for the reaction.

“You know,” Wei Ying says. “I don’t normally take drinks from strangers.” He manages to stop himself from leaning in to breathe the end of that sentence into Lan Zhan’s face.

Lan Zhan’s thumb twitches where it rests against the top of Wei Ying’s back -- and Wei Ying isn’t sure when it got there, when Lan Zhan stretched his arm along the top of the booth. “I’m not a stranger,” he says.

Wei Ying laughs. “I don’t know anything about you, how could you not be a stranger?” Lan Zhan’s jaw tightens. Wei Ying learns a few facts about Lan Zhan in the next few moments. He has an older brother, and he is the development director for the various academies that make up the Cloud Recesses, the best university and test prep trainers in the business. Not content to stick with getting rich kids into their top choice universities, they also provide significant tutoring for university students themselves. Probably due to degree inflation, Wei Ying thinks; it’s not enough for a scion to have a mediocre bachelor’s anymore, they need a mediocre MBA. But their standards are high. Most of the teachers are former university lecturers themselves.

“Not bad,” Wei Ying says, aiming for polite but landing somewhere closer to disdainful.

Lan Zhan’s eyes flash. “And what about you?” Wei Ying raises an eyebrow. Lan Zhan clarifies. “So we are no longer strangers.”

“Well,” Wei Ying says, leaning back. If he’d known what he was about to set off, he would have been more careful with his words. “I’m a sub,” he says, with great irony and an arched brow.

Before he can say anything else, Su She returns with the drinks and Wei Ying can have eyes for no one else, blinking and pouting cutely as he slips his foot out of his loafer to show Su She how much he appreciates his -- whiskey sour? -- with a cheeky brush of stocking-ed toe against ankle.

***

Lan Zhan prefers not to interact with Su She socially, or at all, but the job of development director for the preparatory academies comes with many unfortunate aspects. He also does not enjoy drinking, as much as he recognises that it is often unavoidable. However, at a bar like this, it is trivial to get something non-alcoholic in a tall glass. From experience, he also knows that as long as he keeps buying drinks, no one will complain about how he takes his toasts. Lan Zhan makes no pretence of engaging in the drinking culture. Lan Zhan is straightforward and that reputation precedes him. It is very useful. However, his candid and direct demeanour means that he can’t think of any subtle way to get the contact information of the man -- the date -- that Su She brought to drinks.

He can’t justify why he wants it so much either. It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to pursue a man who is so clearly devoted to another. Which Mo Xuanyu is. Nauseatingly so. But there was a moment...and there was something more to him, something Lan Zhan wants to work open and explore.

He dwells.

It is unlike him, but he doesn’t berate himself. It’ll pass.

Unless, as it happens, he encounters the man again, this time at the University. Lan Zhan has concluded a meeting with the Dean about evaluation standards for the department. The meeting is important, and because it is with an external partner, falls under his remit. It’s their alignment with the university grading system that makes the Cloud Recesses’ students so successful in their chosen programs of study.

When Lan Zhan sees him, Mo Xuanyu is with Nie Huaisang and another student Lan Zhan doesn’t recognise. He moves to intercept, and it is only due to Mo Xuanyu’s’s quick reflexes that they do not collide. Mo Xuanyu stops quickly and puts out a hand to gentle Lan Zhan’s entry into his space.

Nie Huaisang continues for an extra step and then realises that Mo Xuanyu isn’t with him anymore. “Wei Ying?” he asks, eyes flicking between the two of them.

Mo Xuanyu’s -- Wei Ying’s? -- face flashes for a moment, an expression Lan Zhan does not recognise. Then he puts a smile on. “Lan Zhan! Fancy seeing you here,” he says, and without Lan Zhan understanding how, Wei Ying has moved them off of the main path onto the edge of the green.

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks.

“Different names for different situations,” he says and shrugs in such a way that Lan Zhan can almost hear the ‘you know how it is’ tacked on at the end. Lan Zhan does not know how it is, exactly, but he supposes that this could be the case.

“Which do you prefer?” Lan Zhan asks, and the other man straightens for a second.

“That is such a nice question,” he says. He bites his lip. It leaves a white indentation for a moment before it soothes back to pink. “For you, Wei Ying, I think.”

Lan Zhan nods. Then he pulls out his phone, index already on the fingerprint scanner on the back. He opens his contacts and holds his phone out.

Wei Ying shakes his head but takes it. He types in his information and returns it. “I better not get any weird messages from you, ok?” he says.

Lan Zhan nods, looks at the information. Ah. ‘Ying’ as in ‘baby.’

***

Lan Zhan’s messages are incredibly banal. Lan Zhan updates Wei Ying with pictures of food and grass. He asks Wei Ying about his day and Wei Ying answers in generalities. Every time his phone buzzes, Wei Ying can feel his abdomen contract, and the swoop of adrenaline when he sees yet another picture of a fern leaves him more wound up than before. He’s waiting for Lan Zhan to snap and send him a dick pic, basically.

But he doesn’t. So Wei Ying should calm down.

Instead, he lunges for his phone every time he feels it buzz. It’s embarrassing and there’s no reason for it. It’s not like Wei Ying doesn’t get messages! Boy does he ever. Client management is a big part of his job. Wei Ying doesn’t do a Boyfriend Experience but he still has to keep the channels open, and that means responding promptly and continuing the conversation. It takes so much time. He’d even toyed with getting a fleet of Mechanical Turkers to respond to his messages at one point, as half management strategy and half participatory research for his thesis. So it’s not -- he doesn’t need to be like this. He tries to tell himself that Lan Zhan’s messages are boring, but there’s something so stable about them. It doesn’t feel like he’s angling for anything or exaggerating for any sort of effect. He just says things as he sees them, and Wei Ying, who is a professional academic, is surrounded by people who posture as a default mode. When Lan Zhan seems interested in Wei Ying, Wei Ying believes it. When he doesn’t, then Wei Ying feels like he isn’t doing anything interesting.

Lan Zhan does break pattern eventually and asks if Wei Ying is interested in something more full-time and if so, what his areas of specialty are. Wei Ying, who was expecting something of the kind, says no clearly and does not elaborate. Wei Ying won’t sub for anyone who knows his friends.

Wei Ying expects Lan Zhan to drop out of his life after that, but he doesn’t. He continues the conversation like the exchange never happened.

Wei Ying was relieved to get the ‘no’ out in the open, and is somewhat bemused that they are still messaging. He thinks about cutting it off himself -- what is the point of dragging this out, really -- but. He doesn’t. He likes the messages. He wouldn’t mind getting more of them.

As positive reinforcement, Wei Ying gets a little more specific in his anecdotes. He complains about a professor assigning over two hundred pages of reading in a week. Lan Zhan asks about the topic (Religion and Commodification) and it comes to light that he did his undergraduate in Social Sciences before his MBA. Wei Ying might get a little too excited about that. It’s just that everyone is either a) in his program and therefore slowly getting ground into powder together, so they don’t need to dwell, or b) someone for whom Wei Ying needs to be his Best Self.

Lan Zhan is neither of those people and Wei Ying enjoys detailing the highs and lows of his coursework and his relationship with his supervisor to him. And he slowly begins to relax. It’s funny; their first meeting was so tense, but every interaction since then has slowly ratcheted it down. Now, when his phone pings, Wei Ying feels a warm hum instead of the shriek of a high wire.

Lan Zhan messages that he will be on campus soon. Wei Ying reads the invitation in it. When he gets the message, he puts down his phone for a long time. Does he want to see Lan Zhan again? It’s been nice having a person living inside his dopamine rectangle; does he need to change that relationship? Lan Zhan doesn’t seem like he’d push -- except for the way he did push when they first met. Wei Ying remembers it vividly. It’s a lot to think about and eventually Wei Ying does what he always does when faced with a tough decision, which is wait for three pressing things to be happening all at once and then fire off whatever first comes out of his fingers before he can think it through.

So in this instance he writes, sure, let’s get lunch.

They go off-campus, in the end, and find a corner of a plastic table to hunker down at for the serious business of eating. Wei Ying can’t resist poking at Lan Zhan, asking him questions right as he takes a bite. Lan Zhan is unphased, however, and then it’s Wei Ying who is chagrined, stuck waiting for Lan Zhan to finish swallowing before he offers bone dry answers. He has that edge to him that Wei Ying remembered, politeness used as malicious compliance, and it’s delightful. Especially when it isn’t pointed at Wei Ying. At one point he describes a screw-up one of his coworkers made using only dry business jargon. Somehow Lan Zhan makes it clear that the man deserves to be taken out back and shot. Wei Ying laughs so loud that the middle-aged businessman sitting next to them glares.

Lan Zhan dabs his mouth with his personal handkerchief, but Wei Ying can tell he’s pleased.

“Oh no, I hope I never do something that dreadfully. I can’t imagine what you’d do to me.” He’s teasing, but as soon as the words come out of his mouth he blushes.

Lan Zhan’s eyes lock onto his and suddenly Wei Ying’s mouth feels very dry. Wei Ying wants to laugh again, break the tension, but the air keeps getting stuck in his throat every time he exhales.

It’s Lan Zhan who looks away first. Wei Ying rubs the back of his neck.

“And you?” Lan Zhan asks. “How’s subbing?”

He asks the question with no more interest than when he’d asked if Wei Ying wanted a beer with his lunch, but Wei Ying still tenses. That last moment was fraught, and Lan Zhan did proposition him before. He doesn’t want to give the wrong impression. But Lan Zhan never pressed him on it, and he could have done so in this conversation, made Wei Ying eat every last one of his words, so he’s torn. And then he thinks: fuck it. He’s either going to be braced the whole time he’s talking to Lan Zhan and then what is the point of meeting him for lunch, or he’s going to see where this conversation goes.

So he makes a noise of frustration and pinches his nose. “Ups and downs. I had to miss class last week for this one guy and he was so disorganised, it was a mess. It felt like it took forever to get anything going.”

Lan Zhan makes a sympathetic noise. “But I am sure you managed to create a positive outcome.”

Wei Ying allows himself a private smile. He had, rather. It took a lot of work to lead someone and act like it wasn’t what he was doing, but the gift of submission was that it was just that: a gift. By giving the signs of it, he could reward behaviours and create his own little Skinner box. And last week he’d left everyone pretty satisfied, especially himself; he’d been able to get the screens replaced on his laptop and his phone with the money.

At the end of their meal Wei Ying says, “We could do this again sometime.” He tells himself it doesn’t matter if Lan Zhan says yes or not.

Lan Zhan snaps his head up. “Next week?”

***

Lan Zhan doesn’t understand why Wei Ying is not looking for a more full-time teaching position. He needs to focus on his studies and the strain of juggling multiple teaching positions, his research agenda, and his coursework adds up. A little stability wouldn’t hurt him. It doesn’t make sense to him that Wei Ying wouldn’t even consider his offer. However, Lan Zhan enjoys the conversations they have currently and knows he would not enjoy any conversation he’d start about Wei Ying’s choices in life. Lan Zhan does think he could manage Wei Ying’s life better than Wei Ying is currently managing it -- for example he’d tell him to stop dating Su She. He thinks he could manage most people’s lives better than they do, though, and he has broken himself of the delusion that other people will recognise that truth and appreciate it. There are some who would be more than happy to cede total power to him, but that isn’t appealing to him.

So he waits and he takes every piece of advice he wants to give to Wei Ying and crushes it into a dense ball of fire deep in his chest.

It’s just that Wei Ying would be so good at teaching their preparatory classes, the ones designed to help high school students manage the transition to university. He’s adaptable, and a structural thinker. He knows how to manage difficult personalities, as demonstrated in his anecdotes about his supervisor, who is neglectful on her best days and vague on her worst.

All of his subbing experiences sound comically dysfunctional as well. Contradictory instructions and a story that Lan Zhan didn’t totally understand but involved Wei Ying getting tangled in some sort of hands-on exercise and having to cut himself out with scissors. Given these stories Lan Zhan is not surprised that responsible parents bring their children to Cloud Recesses Academy. If that is the standard of education elsewhere, then they clearly have no choice.

Lan Zhan would also like to bring Wei Ying to Cloud Recesses Academy. Bring him, and keep him there.

But it’s Wei Ying’s choice.

***

Lan Zhan keeps that conviction and keeps his distance right up until Wei Ying says he’ll have to miss lunch because he’s sick.

Lan Zhan sends the requisite condolences and Wei Ying replies, and the worst part is I’m too sick to make congee and I really want it

Could you not get it delivered? Lan Zhan sends.

What are you saying? Spend delivery fees on congee???!? And disgrace every ancestor I’ve ever had with the wastefulness?

Lan Zhan’s mouth quirks up at the left. There is a very simple solution to this problem. I could bring you some

The typing bubble appears and disappears several times over a very long minute before Wei Ying says ok and sends a location ping.

Lan Zhan reins in his overwhelming impulse to show up at Wei Ying’s with a feast complete with leftovers that can be frozen and spaced out. Wei Ying is scrupulous about paying for his own lunch, even when Lan Zhan says he can charge it back to Cloud Recesses. So Lan Zhan limits himself to two portions of congee from the market -- no way he’s waiting the amount of time it would take to make congee at home. He also picks out a few condiments because he’s not sure what Wei Ying has at home. He’s still expecting a suspicious eye.

But when he gets to the apartment Wei Ying only opens the door and then shuffles back to the couch on unsteady legs before collapsing down into it. He makes a valiant effort at pulling the blanket over himself but he struggles with it for a bit before leaving it in a triangular lump that only covers one shoulder and stops at the ankles. Wei Ying wheezes a little and his eyes fall shut.

Lan Zhan’s hands tighten on the plastic bag he’s holding. The couch shows signs of extended habitation. There’s a trashcan next to the couch with kleenex in it, a half eaten package of crackers on the table, a water bottle and three abandoned mugs. No one has been taking care of Wei Ying and Lan Zhan spares a dark thought for Su She, who is presumably lacking as a boyfriend. Lan Zhan puts the bag down on the coffee table and reaches forward, all in one movement, and pulls the blanket up and smooths it so it covers Wei Ying from the collar of his university branded sweatshirt to the tips of his white tube socks.

He’s not even sure that Wei Ying is awake until he hears a raspy, “Thanks,” the first thing Wei Ying has said to him since he came inside. It sounds like the word went through a grinder before it came out of his mouth and Lan Zhan can only imagine how sore his throat is.

Lan Zhan goes to the wall of the room that counts as the kitchen and opens drawers until he finds a spoon. He brings it back and cracks open the container. Wei Ying is too sick for any condiments; he will have to eat the congee plain.

Lan Zhan puts some on a spoon and pauses. “Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying blinks, dragging each eyelid open individually.

“Food,” Lan Zhan says. The blanket rustles as Wei Ying struggles, in vain, to free an arm. Lan Zhan is torn. He has been so careful, since he came inside, to focus on the tasks at hand, on the things that Wei Ying has given him permission for. That permission only extended to bringing congee. He hasn’t even looked around at the studio apartment Wei Ying calls home. Well, aside from casually noticing the water damage on the walls, the way there are two burnt-out bulbs in the ceiling light and the fact that the drawers were improperly set and do not roll out smoothly. But perhaps, Lan Zhan reasons to himself, he could extend that to ensuring Wei Ying consumes the congee. “Let me,” Lan Zhan says, and brings the spoon up to his mouth. Wei Ying opens his mouth, pliant and easy. Lan Zhan spoons the congee inside and Wei Ying swallows it without prompting.

“Good,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying makes a small noise.

His mouth drops open again. Lan Zhan feeds him more. “Very good,” Lan Zhan says.

***

When Wei Ying’s higher brain functioning returns it feels like he’s returned from the dead rather than a cold. Everything feels different. Which is because things are different. He can see the top of his coffee table, for one. And also there’s a staggeringly handsome man in a blue cashmere sweater sitting on one of the two squeaky white plastic chairs he owns.

Wei Ying squints at him. “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan comes over. If Wei Ying startled him, he doesn’t show it. “How are you feeling?”

“Uh,” Wei Ying says and thinks about it. He feels gross, sweat stale, and his head is pounding. He picks up the glass of water on the table and chugs it. Then he looks at it. Something comes back to him. “Did you feed me?”

Lan Zhan’s eyes go shifty. Busted.

“Wow,” he says. He looks around. “And you tidied?”

“Only a little. In the visible areas.” Lan Zhan is sitting painfully upright. Only the skew in his collar betrays how long he’s been here. Which is -- Wei Ying squints at the microwave, fumbles for his phone to check his messages -- three hours. Oho. Wei Ying opens his mouth to tease him, but Lan Zhan speaks first. “I was concerned,” he says, and his throat clicks. “Your breathing was… distressed, and you struggled to finish your food.”

He does seem concerned, genuinely. And when Wei Ying thinks about the tidying, about the staying, it speaks to that. Wei Ying can’t remember if anyone has ever cared about his wellbeing that much. His throat feels tight and he takes another sip of water. He suddenly doesn’t feel like teasing Lan Zhan. “I’m sorry I worried you.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “There is no need to apologise.” Lan Zhan’s hands are tight in his lap. “Thank you for letting me take care of you.”

A traitorous blush rises up on Wei Ying’s neck. The way Lan Zhan says ‘take care’... “There’s no need for thanks, either,” Wei Ying says.

***

After that it’s like some switch gets flipped in Wei Ying’s head, and far from presenting his best self, he goes to the other end. Lan Zhan has already seen him snotty and gross and literally unable to hold his head up. Wei Ying half expected him to ghost at that point, but he didn’t. It makes Wei Ying itchy to think that Lan Zhan saw Wei Ying like that, like he got away with something. Haha, his brain says, you stole that attention and didn’t even make it worth his time. Nice. The thrill is familiar. Wei Ying loves getting away with something.

But his rational brain kicks in even as he thinks that. He knows that feeling is an illusion. It’s not possible to get away with anything, not really. Everything has its price, and getting taken care of like that? It must be steep. Lan Zhan can’t give that away.

Waiting for Lan Zhan to stop pretending and just tell Wei Ying what he’s owed is agony though. Like he said, it itches. And when something itches, he scratches.

He messages Lan Zhan pictures of his lunch, four identical pictures of fried chicken with different filters applied. Lan Zhan says it’s good to know that he’s eating. Wei Ying snaps pictures of his increasingly angry notes in the margins of papers he’s reading when he’s too angry to write out exactly why, putting all of his frustration on display. This one is at least practical -- he needs to be able to articulate exactly what is bothering him so he can bring it up in class. Some students come to class with vague “I dunnos” and “felt off” comments, which Wei Ying scorns. The thought process that it takes him to get there is messy and Wei Ying shoves it in Lan Zhan’s face anyway. Lan Zhan often has something to say. He doesn’t follow all of the arguments, but he knows how to dissect a paper like no one Wei Ying has ever met.

He just keeps being helpful. There has to be a limit at some point, right? Wei Ying won’t feel comfortable until he knows where it is. He has to keep picking at it until he can feel out the edges of it.

At one point Lan Zhan waits for Wei Ying to finish tapping out a rant before he writes back: That sounds very frustrating. Have you eaten today? Wei Ying’s thumb hovers over the call button to give Lan Zhan a piece of his mind, but then he thinks about it and he hasn’t, so he decides to eat a dry package of instant noodles first. He feels better. So, fair play, Lan Zhan.

He doesn’t know if he wants to tell Lan Zhan that and swell his head, like Lan Zhan thinks it’s so easy to manage Wei Ying. Because it isn’t and if Lan Zhan thinks that it is then he has another thought coming. But he isn’t a child, even if he is a brat, and he can acknowledge helpful advice. Sometimes.

I guess I did need to have a snack, he manages to write, with what he thinks is very good grace.

Lan Zhan sends back a sticker of a smiling sun and Wei Ying keysmashes. His phone, in a hopeless bid to be helpful, translates it into a string of nonsense characters. 伏牛山考察了饭喝咖啡哗啦哗啦. Rude.

***

Lan Zhan is observant. He can tell that Wei Ying is baiting him. He is unclear what, exactly, he hopes to achieve by sending Lan Zhan twenty messages in rapid succession. Lan Zhan knows what he wants to do about it, which is to give Wei Ying the attention he is so clearly demanding. That attention might take a form that Wei Ying does not expect; he needs it, nonetheless. But Lan Zhan won’t be baited and won’t be cornered. Wei Ying will either offer himself up and then Lan Zhan will decide what to do, or Wei Ying will wait. It’s Wei Ying’s choice.

It is.

No matter how tempting it is to tell Wei Ying to get the blandest fried tofu when Wei Ying whines about how hard it is to figure out what to eat for lunch and if Lan Zhan was really a friend he would help him. Instead Lan Zhan takes the cold comfort of watching Wei Ying work himself fruitlessly against the wall of Lan Zhan’s implacable tolerance.

Twice now Wei Ying has worked himself up so much in text conversations that he’s called Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan has been treated to the sound of Wei Ying moving through crowded streets while laughing his way through indignation at Lan Zhan’s non-responses. When his phone rings, Lan Zhan picks it up immediately, saving his work one-handed as he does it. His desk is at the edge of the teacher prep area; he can see everyone else’s desks. Half of them are full, with instructors diligently grading or preparing for class. Lan Zhan does not teach but it wasn’t until Wei Ying that he was tempted by his Uncle’s offer of a private office. Private offices encourage phone calls and in most circumstances Lan Zhan thinks an email suffices. “You think it’s fine that Apple put U2 albums on everyone’s phones?” Wei Ying says, instead of hello.

“Hello, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and listens to the background noise of cars going by.

“Hi, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says and Lan Zhan takes a breath in through his mouth to taste the words better. The laughter lingers in the back of his mouth.

“I merely questioned why this is something you have any strong feelings about, considering how long it has been.”

“You! So we should stop caring about injustice simply because time has gone by?”

“Injustice?” Lan Zhan asks mildly, and walks towards the break room to put on the kettle. He’s wearing a blue cashmere sweater over his shirt but his desk is next to the window and it does feel chilly sometimes. A cup of tea would be very warming.

“Well, at the very least it’s a representation of the erosion of ownership and the intrusion of corporations into our personal spaces, oof --” The sound gets muffled and Lan Zhan hears “shit, sorry.”

Lan Zhan waits, listens to the phone while the kettle clicks and he starts to spoon tea leaves out.

“Back!” Wei Ying says.

“Did you run into someone?” He pours hot water into the pot, watches the leaves dance with Brownian motion.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying admits. “Oops.”

Lan Zhan nods, even though Wei Ying can’t see it. “Intrusion into the autonomy of another. I wonder if they, too, will think of this years from now.”

The burst of outraged laughter is so loud Lan Zhan pulls his phone away from his ear, slightly. “Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says, shocked, delighted.

***

Wei Ying seems more relaxed at their lunches. Lan Zhan hadn’t known he was tense, before, but there’s a looseness to his features now. Wei Ying moves with sharp edges and clear cut lines, but sometimes he’ll laugh at something Lan Zhan says and his spine will dip and curve before he returns to his upright posture. Lan Zhan tracks the movement with satisfaction.

Lan Zhan heroically waits for two lunches before casually asking if Wei Ying is still seeing Su She. And if so, why did he leave you to suffer, alone, in your terrible apartment? He doesn’t say that second part, but he has been thinking about it. He had to sit down with Su She for a ‘cooperation’ meeting earlier in the week and could not manage to say a single word to the man.

Wei Ying looks at him out of the corner of his eye, coiled tight again. “Sometimes, off and on.”

Lan Zhan exhales carefully. Off and on implies casual, which means that it could be said that Wei Ying is available. That is a powerful thought. Lan Zhan needs more space to consider it, space he cannot take while Wei Ying is watching him carefully and waiting for his reaction.

He feels grateful that he met Wei Ying now, instead of when he was younger. He would have been so tempted, given any opening, to assert and demand. Don’t see him anymore, see me. Work with me, and see me, let me have all of you. It wouldn’t have gone over well.

Lan Zhan knows that the right thing to do would be to ask and -- to negotiate, if that’s what Wei Ying wanted. He knows this. But for all that Wei Ying is expressive in pleasure, he is reticent about everything else. Being close to him has been like walking into a kaleidoscope, bright colours and shifting ground. Lan Zhan knows the trick is done with mirrors but that doesn’t make it any easier to see through. It made asking feel dangerous, like he could shatter something fundamental without meaning to.

Instead, Lan Zhan has been trying to get away with as much as he can.

Lan Zhan nods and suggests that Wei Ying should take his extra char sui.

***

Sometimes Wei Ying does not text him. This does not trouble Lan Zhan unduly; Wei Ying has a very full schedule. But sometimes there is a gap and then Wei Ying’s texts read as diminished, somehow. The writing itself gets less assertive, more hesitant. Lan Zhan always holds his phone too tightly when those texts come in.

Remember when you fed me? Wei Ying writes.

Lan Zhan, sitting on his couch at home in his soft blue cotton lounge clothes, preparing to watch a documentary about deep sea creatures, nearly fumbles his glass of water. Lan Zhan thought they didn’t talk about this. Wei Ying had hesitated the first time they went out for lunch after, almost like he was waiting for Lan Zhan to pay, but then he’d hitched his smile up and everything had been like it usually was.

Yes, Lan Zhan writes back, ready to see where this goes.

That was funny, wasn’t it.

Was it? Lan Zhan relaxes his finger’s grip on his knee.

No, Wei Ying says. Nevermind.

Something in Lan Zhan plucks, like a pulled string. The force of it reverberates through him and pushes him to his feet. He keeps one eye on his phone screen where he’s thrown it down on the bed as he changes into outside clothes. The soft cotton is replaced by stiffer fabrics, jeans and pullover.

Lan Zhan thinks about what he knows about Wei Ying. Does he prefer sweet or savoury snacks? What’s your favourite flavour of shrimp chip?

Haha

Lan Zhan tucks his phone away while he navigates getting to, and then onto, the bus. It’s crowded and cramped and Lan Zhan doesn’t feel a particularly pressing need to find out the meaning behind the frequent vibrations in the breast pocket of his greatcoat.

He pulls his phone out when he’s standing in the convenience store on Wei Ying’s block, basket filled to the brim with flavoured almonds, potato chips, pocky, pork floss, white rabbit candy -- for the nostalgia -- and so many different types of lychee-flavoured gummies and gels.

Lan Zhan

Why are you asking?

Lan Zhan??

Don’t ignore me

You have to tell me why you’re asking otherwise it’s entrapment

The messages go on in that vein, each timestamp several minutes apart, and then, most recently,

Are you doing what I think you’re doing?

Lan Zhan replies: Yes

Then he pays and walks two buildings over. Wei Ying doesn’t say anything when Lan Zhan presses the buzzer, only presses the key to let him up.

“You’re ridiculous,” Wei Ying says, first thing, stepping back from the door to let Lan Zhan pass by.

Wei Ying is clearly settling in for the evening. Lan Zhan can see the signs. He’s not so freshly home that he’d be damp from his shower, but not so long that his moisturiser is fully soaked in; Lan Zhan can see a hint of yellow at the edge of his jaw where a clump of moisturiser wasn’t fully patted in. He’s changed into an oversized sweater with a torn out neck.

***

Wei Ying lets Lan Zhan in.

Lan Zhan looks meaningfully at the couch and Wei Ying sits down on it. Why not, Wei Ying thinks. Then Lan Zhan puts out some snacks. It feels oddly like he’s laying out some potential paths and seeing which one Wei Ying will set for his future. Ah yes, Wei Ying thinks, reaching for the honey corn chips. Auspicious.

Lan Zhan watches him tear the bag open, hovering. Wei Ying looks at him balefully and pats the couch and Lan Zhan settles on it, gently. Wei Ying wants to tell him the couch doesn’t have teeth, but, well, he’s tired and he has corn chips to occupy his attention.

Crunching fills the air. Wei Ying doesn’t own a TV. He’d been planning to watch Kpop dance routines on his phone but it feels exclusionary now that Lan Zhan is here. None of the activities he’d planned make sense anymore, actually. His entire list had consisted of: bundle up in every blanket and sweater he owns, and pull all of them over his head to create a cave of sorts for him to hunker into, with just enough space to hold the phone ten centimetres from his face.

Doesn’t quite seem like the thing to do now. So he crunches in silence and watches Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan looks like a fastidious cat, sitting on Wei Ying’s couch like he’s trying to decide whether the texture of the cheap fire retardant fabric is acceptable on his paws. It brings a small smile to Wei Ying’s face, a warmth that shifts the cold knot in his heart.

Wei Ying doesn’t drop, not really. He figures that to drop you have to actually sub -- it’s in the name -- and he doesn’t do that. He performs it, he does the actions. The closest he gets to any sort of thrill is a brattish satisfaction in circumventing his client’s dominance. But some days life just does its best to drag him down and the last little dregs of energy that he pulls out to smile winningly and show up for work leave him scraped out and echoing on the inside.

Is the oil drum empty, or is it full of fumes?

He eats a few more handfuls and then hums. Before he says anything, Lan Zhan presses some lychee jellies into his hand. Lan Zhan’s fingers are soft and warm where they press against Wei Ying’s palm. Lan Zhan is so soft, Wei Ying thinks, lump moving from his chest to his throat. He doesn’t look it, not at first, but from his ridiculously fancy sweaters to the careful way he sits on Wei Ying’s sofa, there’s a deliberateness that bleeds with tenderness.

Wei Ying turns to Lan Zhan, half smiling and ready to talk even though he has nothing to say.

Lan Zhan is looking down at his hands. Well, both of them can’t be down at the same time. Wei Ying shuffles along the couch until he can nudge Lan Zhan with his shoulder. Lan Zhan only stares. So serious.

“Don’t be sad, it’s my turn,” Wei Ying chides.

“Why?” Lan Zhan asks. One of his socks has rolled down a little. It is the least put-together Wei Ying has ever seen him.

“Cause I was sad first.” Wei Ying can’t believe that Lan Zhan needs the basic rules explained to him.

“No,” Lan Zhan clarifies. “Why are you sad?”

Wei Ying freezes. He walked right into that one. He attempts to think of a deflection but his brain feels suddenly empty. Instead, something that could easily layer on top of the truth, like lace, slips out.

“Oh, you know, work,” Wei Ying says. “Sometimes it’s hard to be who you need to be.” He shrugs. Sometimes you want to feel like you’re more than you’re allowed to be.

Lan Zhan looks at him. The moment spins out, horrible. Silence is the enemy. Silence means something is brewing. But then Lan Zhan merely nods and reaches for a package of rice crackers.

***

Wei Ying meets up with Nie Huaisang whenever he can. No one else can drink like he can and Wei Ying values that in a friend. He does always demand that they drink in the darkest corner of the darkest bar because he tends to go pink all over and “cannot be seen by people without at least three filters applied.”

From this, Wei Ying determines that in Huaisang’s calculus he doesn’t count as people.

A bonus of Wei Ying’s demotion to lichen -- or however Huaisang thinks of him -- is that Huaisang doesn’t pretend to be stupid with him. Well, usually it’s a bonus. Right now it is annoying.

“Oh this is too much,” he says.

“Stop making such a big thing of this, Sangsang.” Wei Ying hopes the nickname will enrage and so distract him, but no dice.

Lan Zhan has been coming over to your apartment to give you regular snacktercare and you want me to roll with it.”

Wei Ying pouts. “Why are you saying his name like that?”

“If you’d gone to Chinese school with him for ten years you would also say his name like that. The guy is --” Huaisang makes an airplane propeller noise. Wei Ying chooses not to parse that.

“Well, if you’re going to be like that then I’ll --” he stands up in the booth. Huaisang snags the elbow of his jean jacket and pulls him back down, hard.

“No, no,” Huaisang says. “You have to tell me everything. How long have you been doing this? What’s it like. And, like, be very specific. No, you don’t know how to tell a story right, I’ll guide you. What is he wearing when he comes over? I need to picture this.”

“About three weeks,” Wei Ying says. He desperately wants to talk about this with someone and is willing to overlook a lot for the chance. “And, I don’t know? Normal clothes? The last few times he’s worn a Stanford sweater and some stretchy black pants, not quite leggings. They look like maybe something from Uniqlo, comfortable.” He imagines Lan Zhan the last time he came over, his hair freed of the product needed to keep it smoothed back. One lock had kept falling over his brow and Lan Zhan was too cultured to fiddle with it so it just sat there, dancing a little when the cross-breeze that afflicted his apartment picked up.

Huaisang stares at him. One of his eyebrows is raised so high the skin below it stretches thin. Wei Ying can see the veins there. He thinks about telling Huaisang how blue they are, how much they stand out against his skin.

“What?” Wei Ying huffs instead.

“Unbelievable,” Huaisang says. “Tell me more.”

“He’s just so...ugh, all the time.” Wei Ying explains how no matter how annoying he is, Lan Zhan doesn’t react at all. “Do you think he’s a serial killer? Is that what it is? He hasn’t yelled at me even a little.”

The other eyebrow has lifted to join the second one. “Oh my god,” Huaisang says, and puts a hand over his mouth.

***

Lan Zhan has been able to narrow Wei Ying’s list of preferred snacks, while at the same time broadening it. With a little bit of preparation time he can go to other stores to find the less widespread varieties. Things he does know: Wei Ying likes the cinnamon jelly beans, the hot chili ‘goldfish crackers,’ putting chili flakes and melted chocolate chips onto popcorn, and anything lychee.

It’s not predictable when Wei Ying will message. Wei Ying doesn’t ask for Lan Zhan to come over, after the first time. He technically did not ask the first time, but it was...implied. Now Wei Ying will simply send one of his quiet messages and Lan Zhan will pack up his kit and come over. The only commonality is that it is usually late in the evening. Later than Lan Zhan would usually stay up. He uses that as his excuse for why he chooses to wear lounge clothes when he visits.

Today Wei Ying is eating tteokbokki-flavoured almonds. He licks his fingers after he eats each one, which only ensures that more dust will stick to his fingers when he picks up the next one.

“There’s just so many shifting expectations,” Wei Ying says. “Every day is different and there’s just no way to get used to anything. I don’t know, I always thought the flexibility would be good, but there’s something about the way the work is contingent… it’s more tiring than something regular would be.”

Wei Ying knows he could get something more permanent if he wanted. He said no. Back then Lan Zhan couldn’t ask why, but now, in his apartment, each of them under their own lap blanket and watching Super-Vocal on Lan Zhan’s 17” Macbook Pro, Lan Zhan thinks he can take the chance.

“Why don’t you look for a more regular contract?” he asks Wei Ying. He can imagine Wei Ying at the front of a class, how much he would engage with the students, how hard it must be to leave them over and over.

Wei Ying’s smile stays on his face, but his whole expression feels paused, somehow. “No, I think -- it’s best to have someone like me do the short-term thing because I’m not going to get lost in it. I can usually stay apart.” Lan Zhan aches, imagining Wei Ying holding himself back. He’s not a man meant to restrain himself. “Besides, I’m a lot, can you imagine getting stuck with me? This way people can send me home at the end of the day and it doesn’t matter what happens after.” Lan Zhan can imagine. He tries not to, but he does imagine getting stuck with Wei Ying. It’s just an academy that he works for, but he imagines having Wei Ying stay back after hours with him. Lan Zhan could double check his spreadsheets while Wei Ying organises his supplies. Maybe Lan Zhan could make them a cup of tea and they could look over the exercise books together… it sounds nice. And that’s not to mention the other type of sticking around. Lan Zhan wants, more than anything, to take Wei Ying apart methodically. If he ever got the chance, he would care very deeply about what happened after.

***

When Lan Zhan arrives to pick Wei Ying up on campus for lunch, Nie Huaisang is there. Lan Zhan gives Wei Ying a quizzical look. Wei Ying is in what Lan Zhan privately thinks of as his graduate school battle outfit. Black jeans with no rips in them and a red cardigan with actual buttons. Lan Zhan can see the connections between what he wears out here and what he wears at home, the weathering process that turns this into the ripped up sweaters and joggers with holes in them that Wei Ying wears for comfort. With the battle armor comes a certain amount of increased inscrutability though, and Wei Ying simply avoids Lan Zhan’s gaze instead of answering his unspoken question. Lan Zhan wants to know what lies under it.

“I thought I’d sit in on your lunch date,” Nie Huaisang says, and then tucks his face into the oversized neck of his bright green windbreaker.

“It’s not a date,” Wei Ying says. Wei Ying shoots pleading looks at Lan Zhan while he says it. The look, coupled with the oversized cardigan and poorly tied shoes, is one that Lan Zhan finds hard to resist. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what Wei Ying wants in order to give it to him. Nie Huaisang gives him no chance to guess.

“Great! Thanks for letting me tag along,” Nie Huaisang says and his windbreaker whistles past in a rustle of rayon.

“Wait --” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan sees that Nie Huaisang continues to be a force of nature.

Nie Huaisang leads them to a place they haven’t been to before. It’s not quite what Lan Zhan would have expected from him. If pressed, Lan Zhan would have guessed that Nie Huaisang would prefer a place that does novelty crepes shaped like animals -- something pleasing to photograph. This place is not like that. It has a board above the counter that lists two sandwiches, and there’s a cooler to the left of the counter where various non-alcoholic drinks are chilling.

They order their sandwiches and settle in at one of the only two tables inside. When Wei Ying takes a bite, he lets out a surprised noise and tries to mumble around the food in his mouth.

The sandwich is thick and Wei Ying had forced his jaw wide, lips straining, to bite it. His mouth is stuffed. Words struggle to fit themselves inside, no space left for anything else. “Focus on your food,” Lan Zhan says, out of habit.

“So you haven’t been replaced by a realistic robot clone,” Nie Huaisang says. Lan Zhan blinks at him, unimpressed. “It’s just the way Wei Ying talks about you,” Nie Huaisang clarifies, “didn’t sound like you at all.”

Wei Ying talks about me? Something in Lan Zhan likes the sound of that.

Wei Ying has managed to consume his bite of sandwich. “Don’t make me take back my compliments about this sandwich,” Wei Ying hisses, leaning into Nie Huaisang’s space.

“You haven’t given me any compliments,” Nie Huaisang says, prim.

Lan Zhan takes a bite. The bread is sharp, almost sour, but the meat is rich and thick cut. There is sauce on it, but only as a compliment to the flavours and not as an overwhelming feature of the food. It is a fine sandwich. The boys are still squabbling when he swallows, so he waits for a pause and then observes, “It is very good.”

Nie Huaisang preens, growing a full five centimetres as he straightens out of what appears to be a habitual slouch. Lan Zhan cannot remember if he used to slouch so egregiously. “Isn’t it just? Of course, with my family, I have very high standards for the meat I put in my mouth.”

Wei Ying chokes, his decision to chew mistimed. Nie Huaisang smirks and tucks his face again and Lan Zhan revises his assessment. It was perfectly timed, but not in Wei Ying’s favour.

Lan Zhan rubs a hand along Wei Ying’s back and raises his eyebrows in reproof.

Nie Huaisang watches them hungrily, eyes darting between Wei Ying’s red face and Lan Zhan’s elbow as it works back and forth.

“Wow, ok,” Nie Huaisang says. Lan Zhan is beginning to be annoyed by Nie Huaisang’s apparent inability to elucidate any of his thoughts. If there’s something to say, some comment he wants to make, he should make it. The topic shifts, Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang beginning to discuss some sort of campus contretemps between the graduate student association and the Dean of Arts’ office. Lan Zhan is content to listen and to take his own advice about focusing on his food.

Then the conversation switches to discussing Wei Ying’s job and all of Lan Zhan’s focus is pulled to that.

“-- he smelled so bad that I almost hit the panic button right there in the cafe. You can’t imagine what it was like.”

“Panic button?” The question is asked quietly, but it feels loud inside of his mind.

Wei Ying pats his arm. “Of course, I wouldn’t sub without it, don’t worry.”

Lan Zhan throws a look at Nie Huaisang, whose expression is inscrutable. Nie Huaisang says, “Wei Ying, you said you met Lan Zhan while you were working?”

“Hm?” Wei Ying says, not paying much attention as he fiddles with the label on his Coke bottle. “Yeah, at that terrible bar with the watered-down drinks.”

Wei Ying was working? But Wei Ying is a sub, that’s what he said then. That’s what he’s saying now. Lan Zhan presses his palm onto his thigh. “You’re a sub,” Lan Zhan says, inanely. It’s wasteful to restate what is already known. Even if it feels like something he is learning for the first time.

Now both Huaisang and Wei Ying are watching him carefully. Wei Ying speaks slowly. “Yes, I’m a part-time professional submissive.” Lan Zhan’s hand clenches into a fist. “You tried to hire me, remember?”

Lan Zhan did, but he’d meant it differently. But Wei Ying thought…

So much is falling into alignment inside Lan Zhan’s mind. What seemed arbitrary and random before, a chaotic display of colour, now resolves itself into a clear picture. The shifting working hours, the way he interacted with Su She -- the fact Wei Ying interacted with Su She at all. More than that, Wei Ying’s hesitance, his insistence on paying for lunch, the way he leaned in and then away from Lan Zhan, like he was catching himself from falling.

“Look at the time,” Huaisang says, and is out the door.

“You turned me down,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying’s spine forms a question mark -- shoulders high, face down. “I know,” he says.

“Would you still? If I asked again.” His chest is full of feathers. It’s hard to breathe around the flutter of wings, the possibilities beating inside of him. There’s space for Lan Zhan, in Wei Ying’s life. He could pay for it, if that was more appropriate.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, voice twisted like his spine, and Lan Zhan knows he’s going to say no. Why, why can’t Wei Ying let himself be taken care of? Why can’t Lan Zhan be the one to do it? He likes it, Lan Zhan knows he does. He knows the secret way Wei Ying smiles when he makes Lan Zhan blink. Lan Zhan has seen the way Wei Ying curls towards him when they sit together on the couch. Lan Zhan could be something Wei Ying needs.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again. “I… I don’t want it to be about obligation, between us.”

The rushing inside of him is like a hurricane. He dares to dream a little bigger. “Wei Ying,” he says, urgent, “I am not obliged. I have never been.”

Wei Ying continues to chew his lip, vicious twists of teeth. “Then what do you want?”

“I want to be something Wei Ying wants,” Lan Zhan says. It is the easiest thing in the world to say. Wei Ying’s eyes are wide and his lips are soft and parted. Lan Zhan wants to soothe the bruised edges of them. “But only if Wei Ying wants.”

Then he waits, and wonders. He wonders what Wei Ying wants. With Wei Ying it has always been hard to detangle. Lan Zhan has wondered for so long. The question has spent so long beneath his skin that it’s become a part of him. He breathes, and he wonders.

***

Wei Ying’s breath rattles in his chest, something firm trying to get out.

Lan Zhan is so steady, so strong and Wei Ying wants to crack him open, wants to see what Lan Zhan would do to him if given the chance. He wants to push and something clicks --

“I’ve been trying to get you to dom me,” he says. Lan Zhan blinks at him like an owl for a moment before he realises what Wei Ying is saying. Which means he realises it at the same time as Wei Ying, whose words rebound on him like a curse. Sometimes Wei Ying’s mouth has a more direct line to his brain than his own consciousness, and this is one of those times. Wow. It’s true, though. He does want Lan Zhan to dom him, he really does.

“Ah,” Lan Zhan says, “I can see that. That makes sense.” He tilts his head and Wei Ying can almost see the pieces clicking into place. All of those times when he was being annoying on purpose, every time he let Lan Zhan pick out the snacks… he can feel his face flush. He owes Nie Huaisang so many drinks for resisting the urge to point out what was going on. How obvious it must have been to him, who knows Wei Ying so well. “I am not opposed.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Wei Ying says, water in his voice, feeling hysterical.

“Is that all you want?” Lan Zhan asks carefully, because he’s always so careful with Wei Ying. Wei Ying knows that he could ask him for platonic, casual domming and Lan Zhan wouldn’t push him for more. He could get a little, maybe enough, and be safe like this, always. To be open is to risk the drop. The rattling thing inside of him is shaking harder. Lan Zhan is really the worst. How dare he do this to Wei Ying? How dare he work his way inside, vine tendrils growing over crevices, until Wei Ying is left open and wanting and shaking with it?

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, water in his voice, “I--fuck it,” he mutters. “That first night, I wanted to sleep with you, and when you fed me congee I didn’t even remember it, and I feel robbed, cheated -- it’s -- with you I want everything.” He laughs, high and wild. “And you keep giving it to me! What the fuck.”

Lan Zhan, who wants to give Wei Ying more, has nothing to say to that. But he doesn’t have to.

Wei Ying reaches over and grabs two big handfuls of Lan Zhan’s shirt and kisses him and kisses him.

** One month later **

Wei Ying chews his lip. “You didn’t know I was a sub, did you.” It’s not quite a question.

“No,” Lan Zhan says.

“So you…”

“I wanted to hire you as an instructor at Cloud Recesses.”

Red has been creeping up slowly along Wei Ying’s neck.

“I still would,” Lan Zhan adds. It feels important that Wei Ying knows.

“God, that’s -- this is so embarrassing.”

Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow and Wei Ying flushes faster. Perhaps he has forgotten that he’s fully draped over Lan Zhan’s lap, the natural consequence of attempting to steal the tamarind candy from Lan Zhan’s mouth.

“Stopppp,” Wei Ying says, falling forward to bury his face into Lan Zhan’s neck.

“No,” Lan Zhan muses, “I don’t think I will.”