On a scale of mildly inconvenienced to devastation, this is leaning heavily toward the latter. Xie Lian stares at the inferno engulfing his apartment building with the sort of helplessness he hasn’t felt in a long time. At least he was able to grab his bag which has all of his essentials, like his wallet and phone, as well as his laptop and an extra mask. But that’s all he managed to take with him before rushing to help his neighbors out and getting them to safety. Not that he possesses much in the way of value or that can’t be easily replaced, but he’s lived in his rundown apartment for almost five years and losing it all in one night still leaves a bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth.
The voice startles him from his thoughts and Xie Lian realizes that one of the firefighters is in his space, pushing him and the other bystanders back from the scene while others are working to put out the fire. Sirens and alarms are blaring, there are people yelling and someone is screaming, all of which are giving him a headache.
“Sir, are you injured anywhere?”
Xie Lian blinks and glances down at himself. He’s dressed in a thin shirt and his sleep pants, with only a worn pair of slippers on his feet. The mask over his face smells of smoke and makes it hard to breathe, but the only real sign he’s been affected by the fire is the soot streaked his front. “No.”
The firefighter gives him a pitying look behind the visor of her helmet before turning serious again. “It’s best if you leave the area until it’s safe again. Do you have somewhere to stay for the night?”
“Yes,” he says before really thinking it through. It’s only when she moves on to someone else that he realizes he should have responded differently. The person that came to mind when she asked that question was his first thought, which is why he answered with an affirmative, but Xie Lian doesn’t know for sure if he will take him in or if he’s even in town at the moment. San Lang travels a lot for his work and the thought of him seeing Xie Lian in such a sorry state is too terrible to imagine. But he doesn’t have anyone else to ask or anywhere he can go. Well, no one who wouldn’t be inconvenienced or consider it annoying of him for even reaching out.
He could just sleep in his car until he can find some other sort of housing, but just as he reaches into his bag for his keys, his phone begins to ring. Even with all the noise and confusion around him, it still makes him jump. He looks down at the screen and when he sees that familiar name, a sense of relief washes over him.
“Gege, I saw the fire on the news. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” says Xie Lian and it’s not even a lie. Just hearing San Lang’s makes him feel so much better.
There’s a long moment of silence and just as Xie Lian fears they lost connection, San Lang says, “Where are you? I’ll come pick you up.”
“You don’t have to. Really.” It’s a reflex to answer in such a way. To be as little of a burden as possible. “Anyway you’re on a business trip aren’t you?”
He hears the roar of an engine and worries if San Lang might be breaking a number of traffic laws to get here. Just as he’s about to tell him not to rush, that he doesn’t have to go out of his way, but San Lang cuts him off before he can. “Send me your location and I'll be there as soon as I can. Don’t hang up.”
“But you said—”
“Gege,” interrupts San Lang, firmly and leaving no room for argument. “I’m on my way. Don’t move.”
So Xie Lian clutches the phone in his hand and waits.
Xie Lian’s fingers play with the strap of his bag as San Lang unlocks the door to his apartment before ushering him inside. He hesitates in the entryway, painfully aware of how out of place his slippers look beside San Lang’s dress shoes, arranged neatly as they are. Not that he had time to grab anything nicer while running away from his burning apartment, but he feels that insecurity all the time.
Suddenly, the room starts to tilt slowly and he almost doesn’t realize he’s listing to one side until a hand grabs his elbow to steady him. He glances up and finds San Lang gazing down at him in concern with his good eye. The other is covered by an eyepatch, reminding Xie Lian of a time when he was young and ignorant. The sight of it used to make him uncomfortable, but now it’s just another part of the face he cherishes most.
“Gege, are you all right?”
Xie Lian smiles and feels reassured just by San Lang’s presence. The hand holding him up is strong and warm, despite the fact that San Lang runs colder than most people.
“I’m fine,” he says. It’s not even a lie. Everything doesn’t seem as daunting when San Lang is around.
Judging by the expression on his face, Xie Lian’s words aren’t convincing, but thankfully lets it slide. San lang invites him inside and directs him to the bathroom with towels and an extra set of clothes, promising to hold onto his bag for him. He leaves his dirty laundry in the hamper and takes a shower, washing his long hair and body multiple times to get the smell of smoke off him. He dries himself with the towels —white and fluffy things instead of the ratty things he uses at home— and pulls on the clothes San Lang gave him. The white henley and dark grey joggers are long on him, but he’s clean and the material is soft, so he can’t complain. He’s only been to San Lang’s apartment once before, when he caught a cold and was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed. (He had tried to hide it from Xie Lian, but he rushed over as soon as he found out.) Other than that one time, he always came over to his place and would say he prefers it to his own.
Xie Lian would never say it to his face, but secretly he can believe it. Even though his apartment is bigger and more stylishly decorated, it looks barely lived in. There aren’t any picture frames on the walls, or mix matched trinkets scattered about like his apartment. When it was still there anyway. Fortunately, he had the foresight to scan and save all his family’s photos on his laptop, but it still hurts losing the original copies.
If he hadn’t just used the shower and couldn’t hear the sounds of San Lang making dinner, he would believe it to be staged. But instead he makes his way to the kitchen and stands in the doorway to watch him. San Lang has always been an attractive man, but he had looked especially beautiful in the light of the fire and emergency vehicle lights when he arrived to pick him up. Dressed in a black suit over a red turtleneck, his black hair shining against the flames, he was a beacon of light amidst the chaos. He looks beautiful now, suit jacket draped over a chair and the sleeves of his turtleneck rolled up to his elbows.
Maybe he made a noise or maybe San Lang knew he was standing there watching him from the beginning, but he startles when San Lang says without turning around, “I’m just about done. You can sit down if you like.”
“There’s no rush,” he says, not really in the mood to eat.
Apparently San Lang doesn’t believe him, because he turns to offer Xie Lian a glass of water and refuses to move until he takes it. Accepting it with a smile, he sips it slowly and looks up to find a dark look in San Lang’s eye. He follows his gaze to his hands, shocked when he notices the state of them. There are burn marks —red and angry— from when he pulled his neighbors out from the fire before the rescuers came. The sight of them make him feel nauseous.
Before he can say a word, San Lang shuts off the stove and tells him to sit at the kitchen table before disappearing into the bathroom. Just as he takes a seat, he returns with a first aid kit and sits down next to him to treat the burns and bandaging his hands. Xie Lian watches him work, his heart beating a little faster at the sure but gentle motion of those long fingers, and hates the pinched expression on that handsome face.
“I’m okay,” he tries to say, but San Lang’s frown only deepens and he wishes he hadn’t opened his mouth.
Dinner is a tense affair and Xie Lian eats more as an excuse to prevent himself from putting his foot further into his mouth, rather than his appetite. The food is delicious of course, because San Lang is always talented at whatever he does, but he barely tastes it. The other man has been very quiet and even if he doesn’t look at Xie Lian while he fumbles his utensils with the bandages in the way. If one of them ends up speaking, he knows San Lang will offer to feed him and the mere thought of that happening turns his stomach. Poor and homeless as he is now, he still has some bit of pride left.
After dinner, the tv is left on for him while he waits in the living room so San Lang can take a shower. His bag is beside him on the couch and he considers getting out his laptop, but he doubts he can do much when his hands are essentially useless. Instead he leans his head back and closes his eyes, exhausted by the day’s events. Every day is a long day, since he spends the mornings and afternoons teaching at the local college and in the evenings cleaning the very classrooms he teaches his students in.
Last he checked, it was almost eleven when he got home and took a quick shower before his apartment caught on fire. What time is it now? He debates whether or not to dig for his phone in his bag to check, or at least email the department head and let him know he won’t be able to make his classes for the time being, but he’s so tired. He’s been tired for years.
Xie Lian must have fallen asleep at some point, because when he opens his eyes the living room is dark. There’s a blanket covering him, a heavy weight wrapped around his middle, and his cheek is pressed against something solid and warm. He blinks, realizing it must be San Lang’s shoulder and his arm holding his waist. He’d like nothing more than to stay like this, but he doesn’t want San Lang to wake up with a sore neck either.
“San Lang,” he whispers, patting the easiest place to reach in this position —which happens to be his chest.
Good thing it’s dark so he can hide his blush when a hand catches his fingers and presses them closer, like San Lang means to fuse them right against his heart. It hurts a little, his burned hands still sensitive, but he doesn’t mind.
A low hum is his only response, the sound resonating through his own body. His cheeks heat up even more when San Lang turns his head and rests his cheek against Xie Lian’s hair.
Finally he stirs and stiffens when he realizes what kind of position they’re in because he immediately pulls away. Xie Lian misses the warmth of his body, even if he’d never admit it.
“Gege, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he answers honestly. “But I think you’d be more comfortable in your own bed. I can sleep out here.”
San Lang huffs, like he meant it to be a laugh but when it sounds more like a sigh. “I have a guest room too, you know.” Then, mischievously he adds, “Unless you want me to join me tonight.”
Xie Lian nearly chokes on air. He can’t see San Lang in the darkness, but he can imagine the playful smirk on his face and the devious sparkle in his eye, obviously testing him. His heart pounds against his chest at the invitation, even though he knows it was said as a joke. But a recklessness he hasn’t felt since he was a teenager washes over him and it’s the only reason he responds the way he does.
San Lan stills at that. “What?”
“I said sure. Let’s sleep together.”
It’s not until they are standing in San Lang’s bedroom that Xie Lian starts to feel nervous. The room is nice and spacious with big open windows and a wide bed, but it’s one thing to joke about sleeping together and quite another another to actually do it.
San Lang lent him a toothbrush to use and was nice enough to send emails for him to the school and the janitorial service he works for, letting them know he would have to take time off while he washed up. The loss of hours is going to be a heavy blow later on, but he’s trying not to think about it too deeply.
“I left it charging for you,” San Lang says and he feels overwhelmed with gratitude.
He’s going out of his way to help him, and he doesn’t have any way of paying him back. He wants to know why San Lang is being so nice to him. What he did to earn his trust so implicitly. But it’s late and he already feels guilty about waking him once already and keeping him awake during the early morning just after getting back from his trip. But there’s no irritation and annoyance on his face as he turns out the lights.
Xie Lian let him choose the side of the bed he wanted to sleep on and quickly climbed onto the other side before he lost his nerve. But he misjudges the distance and half falls on his arm. He quickly scoots back to keep an appropriate distance with an apology on his lips.
Before he can get it out, San Lang’s voice —low and deep— says, “Goodnight, gege.”
“Goodnight,” he replies.
The truth is Xie Lian knows they have a history together, but he can’t remember it. Apparently they met as children but he has no idea how or when. There are large chunks of his memory that are missing and his first meeting with San Lang is a part of that.
Thankfully, he remembers the second one. Three years ago, Xie Lian was drifting through life and just going through the motions until one rainy day, when he was heading to his car after treating himself to an overpriced cup of coffee from his favorite cafe. And then a young man was ducking under his umbrella, wrapping his arm around his shoulders and grabbing the handle as well, raising the umbrella so it covered both their heads with a smile like quicksilver, a current of electricity to course through his body. He angled their bodies as two angry rough looking men stormed right past.
Xie Lian watched the men disappear around the corner and turned his attention back to the young man when he laughed. It was a rich and pleasing sound, so infectious it made him smile in return.
Then he glanced down at Xie Lian and his eyes widened with recognition for the briefest moment, before it melted into a warm and friendly smile. He’s never seen a man more handsome.
And that was the beginning of everything.