They’ve known each other for two years by this point, winter break of their junior year of college. Song Lan suspects his therapist is trying to lead him into confessing something about his feelings for Xiao Xingchen, but really, he’s just glad they found each other. Their roommate situation is good, splitting a two-bedroom that’s closer to the woods than to campus. No one else at school gets Song Lan’s silences, or his dark moods, or the deep fulfillment he gets from D&D. No one else agrees to a midweek road trip to Haystack Rock either, so Song Lan and Xingchen are wandering up and down Cannon Beach on an overcast afternoon.
“Oh wow!” Xingchen smiles like a little kid, unselfconscious, as he squats over a pile of something dark and leathery in the rough sand. He didn’t grow up going to the seaside, but it figures that he’d find a mermaid’s purse. That’s just how life happens to him. “This must be really fresh, look.” He looks around for a stick; finding nothing, he pokes the mermaid’s purse with a finger and then flips it over. Xingchen glances back at Song Lan, over his shoulder. “Some sharks are born from these,” he says. “Mostly little ones.”
The mermaid’s purse looks like a seed pod, rectangular with ropy arms dangling from each corner. It’s the color of kelp, a baby-food brown with an iridescent sheen just visible on the inside. Song Lan wonders if Xingchen is wrong about something, because the thing is as long as his arm.
“We should put it on Reddit,” Xingchen muses.
“You think this is from a cryptid?” Song Lan retorts. “You want to make the front page so bad.”
“I don’t!” Xingchen laughs as he pulls his phone from his back pocket. “We need something for scale. Will you hold it?”
Song Lan wrinkles his nose. “Absolutely not.”
Xingchen chuckles. “All right, you take the picture. I’ll hold it.”
Song Lan takes four pictures, not because he needs to document the object, but because there’s something wonderful about Xingchen’s expression, his curiosity and fearlessness converging just so on the egg case.
The whole scene feels timeless, a vast and easy rhythm of tide and wind and footfalls. Song Lan can’t locate the off-beat noise at first. Something splashes nearby, frantic and desperate.
“What?” says Xingchen, trying to follow Song Lan’s attention. Song Lan hands back the phone and follows the irregular slap of water.
Tide pools strand all kinds of creatures when the ocean draws back. Behind a cluster of rocks and driftwood is a crab, maybe palm-sized, gripping a thrashing animal with implacable determination. The captive creature is about the size of a dachshund, long and muscular like an eel, with visible scales. It has four limbs and sharp little claws, with a strange mammalian head. It’s trying to kick off the crab with its hind legs, but the crab hangs tight onto its left forefoot.
Song Lan doesn’t consider not stepping in. He wades into the tide pool, although it’s cold and he’s only wearing sneakers. The battle goes on regardless, still mostly silent; the creature hisses and gurgles between splashes. Song Lan tries to snatch the writhing mass out of the water; he nabs the creature on the third try.
First comes peeling the crab off the creature’s foot, which is no easy task, but Song Lan is committed now. He’s not going to leave this job undone. When he succeeds, it happens so quickly. He tosses the crab back into the tide pool and looks up to find Xingchen staring at him, hands fallen by his side.
Song Lan huffs. “What, you didn’t get any of that?”
Xingchen looks like he wants to say something, but he swallows it. He presses the phone to his chest and picks his way over. “What is it?”
Song Lan hadn’t noticed himself cradle the creature in his arms, nor that it had pressed its face into the crook of his elbow. Its ribs rise and fall as it breathes hard, a little furnace soaking through Song Lan’s jacket. It’s hard to tell what color it is while it’s still wet, but olive and bronze sheens glisten on its dark body.
“It’s just a baby,” Song Lan says, somewhat stupidly.
Xingchen peers close, and behind his glasses, his eyes go huge. “Show me its head again.”
The creature goes stiff as Song Lan tries to turn it around. Its skull is long and vulpine, in spite of the scales, with trembling whiskers behind its nose. A small black frill quivers at the hinge of its jaws, while dorsal fins dig into Song Lan’s forearm. Brown eyes stare, glazed, into the middle distance. When they suddenly focus on Song Lan, there’s such intelligence there that he nearly drops the creature.
Already this is more than he signed up for. He’s never so much as rescued a kitten, much less a wild animal he can’t even identify. “We should bring it to somebody,” he says.
“Who?” Xingchen runs his finger over the creature’s spine. Neither of them speaks, although Song Lan is fairly certain this subplot didn’t end well on Stranger Things. Yet when Xingchen says, “I’ll go get the egg sack,” with a calm confidence Song Lan knows he doesn’t feel, he doesn’t argue. Somehow when Xingchen has these convictions, they work out.
The dragon has a scratchy, high-pitched vocalization, a ferret-noise, which it deploys for most of the ride back to the apartment complex. It nips at Xingchen as he holds it close to his chest in the back seat, until it falls asleep a few miles from home.
“Oh,” says Xingchen once they’re all inside, and he has a good look at the dragon under the kitchen lights. “The crab.” Song Lan cranes his neck to see what Xingchen means. He holds the dragon’s left front paw between thumb and forefinger, gently, to show the wound where its last claw used to be. It’s hardly big enough for a Band-Aid, but they try to clean it and wrap it up.
Xingchen combs Tor sites and dark web forums for hints, affinity groups and conspiracists with good ideas. Song Lan settles into the freecycled La-Z-Boy with the dragon in his arms. Its colors have deepened, like a fish finally put in a clean tank, though there’s still something pale and streaky underneath the greens and grays and gold.
Song Lan has inhaled cheesy fantasy doorstoppers since he was a boy, on pages and on screens. None of that knowledge tells him whether they’ll have to litter-train the dragon, or if it will eat kibble, or what it might do in the apartment that will void their security deposit. The dragon’s breathing has slowed, but it still glances up at Song Lan from time to time, undeniably anxious.
“You can relax,” Song Lan tells the dragon. “Go to sleep, you’ve had a big first day.” Tentatively, he rubs the back of the dragon’s skull with his fingertips. “They’re not all this stressful, believe me.”
The dragon curls tighter into itself. Its claws hook into Song Lan’s t-shirt, first just a prick, then tearing holes in the fabric. Song Lan hisses, about to extricate himself, when the dragon goes limp. It buries its face in Song Lan’s ribs. He can feel its hot breath against his stomach, and the nubs above its brow ridge. Something in his heart stutters.
“Hey,” he says softly, because this is too tender a moment for him. “Xingchen.” His roommate grunts without looking. Song Lan peers toward the desktop screen. “Anything in there about how to sex a dragon?”
Xingchen hums. “Check the cloaca, I guess.”
“So you don’t know.” Song Lan frowns down at the dragon. “That sounds embarrassing for both of us,” he murmurs. The dragon snores, punctuated with little high-pitched huffs and rumbles.
Xingchen twists in his seat and smiles at them both. “I guess you live there now.”
It’s true: Song Lan falls asleep like that in the chair, and he dreams of an ocean current, whipping him east with nothing to hold onto.
Song Lan wakes up around sunrise to razors raking his shoulder and ear. He shouts, alarmed, and the dragon finishes scrabbling up the back of the chair to perch behind his head. It screeches and crackles, like a radio between stations. Its claws hook into the nubbly fabric of the La-Z-Boy while its tail thrashes.
“Wow!” Song Lan yells softly, rather than several other expletives. “We have to learn not to do that!” He cups the side of his face, too sharply jolted from sleep into unreality. The dragon stares intently at him and opens its mouth wide. Its teeth are pristine, fully formed.
“Okay, okay, hang on,” Song Lan mumbles. He casts around for a list, anything to indicate that Xingchen found some answers about juvenile dragon diets last night, but all he sees is a smattering of fruit leather wrappers and the remains of a hot chocolate.
Song Lan stumbles toward the kitchen. Maybe the dragon eats fish, or raw meat, or crickets and mealworms, but he and Xingchen are two 20-year-olds in college. The fridge and freezer contain energy drinks, takeout containers, Marie Callender savory pies, a Costco-sized bag of tater tots and a notably off tub of pico de gallo. Dragons are so mighty and humbling, emperors borrowed their imagery for thousands of years. They control the rain and the thunder; they cause floods and rule over wild seas. They cannot be satisfied or debased with vegan hotdogs and breaded fish sticks.
This dragon whines and weaves between Song Lan’s ankles. It keeps up its ferret-noises, which Song Lan swears is commentary. When Xingchen finally emerges from his bedroom, Song Lan and the dragon are splitting a bag of teriyaki beef jerky. The dragon’s vocalizations are alternately greedy and blissful. It’s curled in Song Lan’s lap on the living room floor, but bounds toward Xingchen when it notices him.
Xingchen laughs and scoops the dragon into his arms. Song Lan’s chest does something odd again, that clenching thing he hurries to label friendship friendship friendship friendship. He scratches his nose to cover and asks, “Did you find anything?”
“No. But I don’t think we’ll need to.” Xingchen’s mouth curls as he scratches the dragon underneath its chin. The dragon looks unbearably smug. Song Lan can’t blame it.
“The egg case,” says Xingchen, definitively. “It did all its physiological maturing inside of it, so it should be pretty self-sufficient now. That’s how sharks and skates are born from them, anyway.”
Song Lan furrows his brow. “So you want to just — let it loose behind the apartment complex? Let it forage?”
“Oh no, we’ll take care of it. This is an amazing opportunity.” As Xingchen says it, the dragon lets out an insistent squeak. It clamors onto Xingchen’s shoulders and drapes itself there. A thin, pink tongue darts out through its teeth. With no shame whatsoever, Xingchen lifts the dragon’s tail and hindquarters to examine it. Song Lan makes direct eye contact with the dragon, but he seems to be the only one experiencing any embarrassment. “It’s a male,” Xingchen says easily. “He’ll need a good name.”
The dragon sinks his teeth into Xingchen’s shoulder, and Xingchen simply laughs.
By the end of the first week, Song Lan knows that the dragon will do anything for sweets, having ravaged an entire box of doughnuts and sacked out there, amid the crumbs and powdered sugar, with a distended belly and a defiant expression. The dragon loves the bathtub, and the mirror, and the light switch. He sleeps in the sunny windowsill where Xingchen had been attempting an herb garden; when they discover the pots smashed all over the floor, Xingchen can only chuckle. (“The basil will be fine. I needed to repot them all anyway.”)
The dragon insists utterly on trampling personal space, but gets furious if Song Lan tries to invade his. He develops a sound effects library of noises to communicate his moods, many of which relate to the state of his belly. Song Lan starts ordering extra entrees when they get takeout. The dragon devours bulgogi, shawarma, sashimi, pad thai in volume. They buy ground chuck in bulk to try and keep down costs, but the dragon grows bored with it and they have to keep innovating.
One morning, Song Lan finds the bathroom has flooded. Xingchen announces with delight that the dragon probably made it rain in there overnight. Song Lan despairs for their relationship with their landlord. (“You can’t do that,” he says sternly, crouching eye-to-eye with the dragon. “We’ll get in trouble and you won’t have any place to live.”) Another day, the dragon stares intently at the living room walls. Song Lan watches as he lunges toward the baseboards over and over again. He doesn’t think anything of it until that evening, when he comes home from his job at the athletic center. The dragon yanks his head back from the hole he’s punched and stares, making direct eye contact as he swallows a struggling mouse.
“I didn’t realize we had mice,” Xingchen confesses, scratching the back of his neck. He goes to record the incident — he’s been obsessively journaling the dragon’s daily development. Song Lan could absolutely murder them both. He piles old textbooks in front of the hole until YouTube can teach him how to repair drywall.
Still, the dragon still loves to cuddle. He trots after both of them as they move through the apartment, and Song Lan swears he tries to involve himself in their conversations. Whenever a cat drops in to explore the small balcony on the other side of the sliding doors, the dragon watches it obsessively, mirroring its movements and sounds.
They’ve taken to piling onto the couch, all three of them, to watch movies and binge TV shows. Song Lan doesn’t know why he and Xingchen were so insistent before on keeping to their own sides of the couch. Now they lounge against each arm, legs stretched into the middle, the dragon nestled between their shins. It’s one way to keep the dragon still, since he also loves launching himself off high places. He doesn’t have wings, but Song Lan doesn’t question his instinct to fly.
Close to the end of break, Xingchen bursts into Song Lan’s room. “Zichen, listen to this!” The dragon saunters after him. Xingchen squats and points to himself. “Who am I?”
The dragon blinks. “Xiao Xingchen,” he says, in a crackly but distinct voice, like a child’s croak.
Xingchen points. “And who is he?”
The dragon looks directly at Song Lan and says his name.
Xingchen grins and points to the dragon. “And who are you?”
The dragon flicks his tongue. “Xue Yang.”
Song Lan gapes. Xingchen beams. “He named himself! He just started talking just now! Zichen, he’s intelligent, he can talk!”
“Xue Yang,” the dragon says again. He opens his mouth to show off all his teeth. Belatedly, Song Lan realizes he’s trying to smile.
“Thank you for telling us your name,” Xingchen says, earnest.
“Xiao Xingchen,” the dragon says, his tail thrashing. “Xue Yang. Song Lan.”
Song Lan looks to Xingchen again. His eyes are the brightest he’s ever seen them. “Wow,” Song Lan says, and he means it.
The dragon chirps. “Wow. Wow wow wow. Xue Yang!” He rakes his left forepaw against Xingchen’s ankle. “Xue Yang wow.”
“That’s true,” Xingchen says, and looks right at Song Lan as he glows.
The semester has started up again, and Song Lan once again drives Xingchen to campus for their morning classes. With lots of careful explanations, gamification, treats and praise, Xue Yang does great with being alone on the first day. Xingchen did some trial runs beforehand, leaving him alone with PBS streaming on the flatscreen. Xue Yang has been chattering about Miss Frizzle and Yellowstone ever since.
“I should get a bike,” Xingchen sighs, cupping his matcha latte and staring into the gray drizzle outside. “It would put less pressure on you, plus it would be good for—”
“I’m already driving,” Song Lan says comfortably, on cue. “You coming with me makes this more fuel-efficient.”
“That’s not how that works,” Xingchen retorts with a smile. He glances at Song Lan from underneath his feathery hair. The hot drink has flushed his lips, which Song Lan does not think about.
The apartment is suspiciously quiet when they return. Usually Xue Yang launches himself off the back of the couch or the top of the fridge to greet them. Instead, they’re met by a cold, wet wind from the open door to the balcony.
The sliding door hasn’t been broken or forced. Instead, the mechanism has been carefully unlocked from the inside. It’s not a large balcony, just big enough for a birdfeeder and the last tenants’ grill. It overlooks the parking lot, not too far from the pine trees that rim the forest. Song Lan leans far over the railing, peering through the dim light. They live on the second floor, it’s not as far as it could be, Xue Yang is a dragon, surely this couldn’t hurt him—
“I’ve got the flashlight!” Xingchen calls. The door is already slamming behind him. Song Lan flies down the stairs and dashes outside. Xingchen calls Xue Yang’s name, his whole face pinched with anxiety.
“What do we tell people if someone sees him?” Song Lan climbs around the bear shields to flip open the dumpster lids. “What do we even ask people to look out for?”
“We’ll find him,” Xingchen says firmly. He sweeps the flashlight toward the berm, into the dark, damp pines. Even in the orange light of the street lamps, Song Lan can see Xingchen’s jaw is set.
They search for more than an hour, getting progressively colder, wetter and more despairing. “We have to shut the balcony door,” Song Lan finally says. “The rain is getting in.”
Xingchen scrubs his eyes, his thin shoulders hunched. “What if he comes back that way?”
“Don’t you think he’ll yell for us?” Song Lan says gently.
They trudge back to the apartment complex and into their unit. Xingchen slides the offending door shut, his neck bent. Song Lan would like nothing more than to dry off, or to take a long, hot shower. He heads for the bathroom, but stops in the hallway. He takes a tentative sniff.
It’s a distinctly dead odor. Song Lan looks down: muddy footprints, and the evidence of something being dragged.
When he throws open the bathroom door and flips the light on, Xue Yang startles in the tub. He had been lolling on his side, limbs loose. He’s surrounded by a partially dismantled opossum, topped off with one fluffy red squirrel tail. One is fresh, while the other is decidedly not.
“What the hell!” Song Lan yells, at the same instant Xue Yang yells, “Easy clean-up!”
Xingchen appears at Song Lan’s shoulder, his jaw dangling.
Xue Yang climbs onto the ledge of the tub and balances on his hind legs, a precarious position for someone so long and spindly. “It’s like Yellowstone!” he insists. “I like the woods! Wow!”
“Xue Yang!” Xingchen snaps. The temperature in the room drops. Even Song Lan stares at his roommate, surprised by the steel in his voice. Xingchen doesn’t seem to like it either. He takes a breath and perches on the edge of the toilet seat. “You scared us very badly. We thought you were lost.”
Xue Yang wilts, his eyes widening. “I wasn’t lost.”
Xingchen winces. “We thought you were gone. What if you’d been hurt?”
“I’m a dragon!” Xue Yang’s frill rattles behind his jaw. He’s trying to make himself big and impressive, but he loses his balances and slips down the side of the tub, into the possum carcass.
Before Xingchen can get himself more worked up, Song Lan jumps in. “The real problem here is we need better plans for outdoor time,” he says, more calmly than he feels. “We’ll figure out a system. We should have done that earlier. But you have to be good for us, A-Yang. We just want you to be safe.”
“I’m okay,” Xue Yang mumbles mulishly.
Song Lan wrinkles his nose. “I’m gonna get a garbage bag and a lot of bleach.” He nods at the dead animals. “Don’t scare us like that, okay?”
He meets Xingchen’s gaze for a moment and shakes his head. Xingchen raises one hand and brushes it, gently, against his arm as he slips past. It’s such a weirdly intimate gesture, one that needs no words at all. Xingchen’s color is back in the warmth of indoor heating. Song Lan tries not to translate that either.
Their apartment building is four stories high, with a flat asphalt roof accessible through a broken fire exit. Xingchen has been smoking weed up there on a camping chair every week since they moved in. Xue Yang is getting too big to hide in Song Lan’s jacket, but he curls up small against him anyway, giddy at the adventure of it and eager to play more outside.
It’s a mild afternoon, even for January in the Pacific Northwest. Xingchen is wearing sunglasses, despite the cloud cover, or maybe because of it. “Are we making it to D&D night this week?”
Song Lan sits propped against the low wall fencing in the roof. He rubs the bridge of his nose. “Where is it at? Brady’s?”
“Brady’s.” Xingchen exhales. “It’s been since before finals.”
Xue Yang isn’t paying attention, preferring to romp into the center of the roof and hop into the air. Song Lan cracks his knuckles, thinking. “We got lucky, over break,” he murmurs. “We’ve got to get some rules in place, though. What about deliveries? Or group projects?”
“Or friendly neighbors.” Xingchen lets his head drop backward, so he’s looking up at the sky. “I wish we could talk to someone. There has to be someone out in the world who knows what to do.”
“You don’t read Chinese well,” Song Lan says.
“I’ve got browser extensions to translate,” says Xingchen, a little stiffly.
“Hey, I don’t either.” Song Lan props his arms up on his knees. “It’s probably just not in English, if it’s out there.” He’s been thinking about this. All kinds of weird stuff washes up on the Pacific Coast: coconuts, shipping debris, entire redwoods, messages in bottles from East Asia. Xue Yang’s egg probably drifted a long time before it landed in Oregon. Song Lan glances over at their dragon. “Hey, what’re you doing there, bud?”
Xue Yang crouches, wiggles and pushes off against the roof. He doesn’t get very far. “Flying!”
Xingchen puffs on his joint, his dimples showing. “Since when can you fly?”
Xue Yang snorts. “I just think I can.” He turns his nose up. “Maybe if I had another dragon to show me…”
Song Lan laughs. “Are you sassing us? Come here!”
Xue Yang can’t resist being chased. Even Xingchen comes out of his mope to join in. When Xue Yang tackles him, he actually goes down, to everyone’s surprise. They’re all laughing. “That’s right, I got you,” Xue Yang says, puffing out his whiskers.
“You’re strong,” says Xingchen, giggling. Xue Yang presses up against him, delighted, refusing to allow an inch between them.
“Big deal,” says Song Lan. “You’re a string bean! Ow!” he adds, as Xingchen punches his ankle.
“Hey. Hey. Hey, Song Lan. I have a wow.”
Song Lan’s classes are going hard this semester already, and Xue Yang is sometimes less dragon than talkative second-grader with the overall instincts of a raccoon. “Hmm,” he grunts, not looking up from his spiral-bound notebook. He has until tomorrow afternoon to bang this lesson on public policy into his head, and something about the counterarguments against early childhood education funding just isn’t sticking for him.
“Hey. Hey, Zichen.”
A paw bats at his thigh — a soft paw, a cat’s paw. Song Lan blinks and looks down at his feet, where a large, skinny orange house cat is thrashing his tail and purring. “Look what I can do!” Xue Yang chirps, and butts his head against Song Lan’s shin.
It doesn’t make sense; there’s simply too much mass for Xue Yang to have gotten small. Song Lan tries to gesture with his pen. “You can… what?”
Xue Yang tilts his head, more doglike than feline. “It’s easier for you,” he says. “If I’m not a dragon.”
Something about Xue Yang rushing immediately to changing himself pricks at Song Lan, pierces deep and twists. His hand covers his mouth for a moment, before he slouches back in his chair.
“Hey.” He pats his chest. “Come up here.”
These intensive cuddles are the most bodily contact Song Lan gets with anybody. People seem to think he doesn’t want touch, when what he really wants is touch that means something. Xue Yang leaps lightly into his lap and settles on his haunches, beneath Song Lan’s collarbone.
“You don’t have to stop being a dragon,” he says. “You know that, right? You don’t have to be a cat all the time. You’re not too big for us.”
That’s not fully true; this two-bedroom apartment isn’t large by any stretch, and Xue Yang hasn’t stopped growing. But Song Lan, who is big himself, knows something about making essential parts of himself small so as not to be inconvenient. It’s starting to feel less and less feasible, and maybe not even necessary. He doesn’t want Xue Yang to internalize that, not when he’s so young, not ever.
Xue Yang can’t be expected to understand all that, so when he says, “But being a cat is fun,” Song Lan doesn’t correct him.
“Be a cat all you want, as long as it’s what you want to do, okay?”
“It’s wow,” the dragon says, flexing his retractable claws.
“It sure is wow,” Song Lan mumbles. He pets Xue Yang’s fur as he goes back to his studying.
The drive out to the lake is long and lonely, a peaceful trip on an empty March weekend. There’s no one in the parking lot when they pull into a spot far from the road. Xue Yang explodes out of the back seat as soon as the door is opened. He hasn’t been near this much water since the day they found him. He’s much bigger now: With the tip of his tail at Song Lan’s middle finger, Xue Yang’s nose can fit into Song Lan’s opposite elbow.
Xingchen laughs freely as Xue Yang rushes into the shallows, biting at the water and raising waves with his tail. All three of them chase each other up and down the artificial beach, until Xue Yang gets more confident and starts exploring further out.
Song Lan huddles into his jacket, fists pressed deep in his pockets, watching him undulate just beneath the lake’s surface. “We found a cryptid,” he says dryly to Xingchen, who chuckles. Xue Yang is enthralled with his own abilities, rolling like an otter, diving and sputtering and admiring his own strength. The longer it goes on and the farther out Xue Yang swims, the more Song Lan finds himself looking at Xingchen.
He hasn’t had a haircut in almost five months, and he enjoys nutritional yeast and seitan and kale of his own free will. He’s a registered Green and he’s saving up for a pair of Vibram barefoot running shoes and he’s majoring in philosophy and ecology, with no solid plans for using either degree. He almost didn’t go to college at all — he’s still on the fence about the institution of it.
Song Lan was a varsity track and field star in high school, lost his virginity at prom, has declared his major as economics but has his private doubts. His parents live 45 minutes away, in his childhood home. He’s been in therapy, on antidepressants, since middle school. He loves steak and fried food at fairs, and he wants to ride an elephant someday.
He reaches for Xingchen’s hand.
Xingchen looks down at their hands, and for a moment, Song Lan thinks about dropping it, about chalking it up to a mistake or just a friendly bump. But then Xingchen meets his eyes and he smiles, his whole face smooth and relaxed.
“Oh, good,” he says softly, and kisses Song Lan — a chaste kiss, an easy press of the lips. Song Lan doesn’t even have to bend or twist his neck.
Out on the lake, Xue Yang crashes against the water. He’s churning faster and faster along its surface, his long, sleek body so close to launching into the air.
Dinner comes from one of their favorite Nepalese spots; Xue Yang wolfs down half a dozen momos and an entire tub of thukpa. When he eyes the couch, which he’s taken to hogging, Xingchen says, with perfect equanimity, “Why don’t you sleep on my bed tonight, A-Yang?”
Xue Yang is too pleased to be suspicious. “Zichen and I have to talk some things through in his room tonight,” Xingchen continues. “We’ll catch up in the morning, okay?”
The dragon curls his front paws around a plush panda doll he’s attached to. “Is it about me? Are you talking about me?”
“We’re not,” says Xingchen. “Except sometimes we talk about how great you are.”
Xue Yang preens. “I am great. Did you see me flying today?”
“You almost flew,” Song Lan points out.
“You were too far to see it,” Xue Yang insists. “I flew a couple inches. It’s easier on the water. I think the water helps me do it.”
Xingchen walks with Xue Yang into his bedroom, and Song Lan drifts into his own across the hall. He can hear the two of them chatting, Xue Yang bouncing on the full-sized bed, wheedling for Xingchen to read him a book. Song Lan hastily makes up the sheets and blankets on his queen — not that he thinks Xingchen will care, but he will. When Xingchen appears a moment later, with a pair of pajama bottoms in hand, he tosses them onto Song Lan’s laundry chair and shuts the door behind him.
“I need to tell you something,” he says. “Will it make you uncomfortable?”
Song Lan doesn’t get up from the edge of the mattress, his hands planted on his knees. “You need to tell me first.”
Xingchen comes closer. He stands right in front of Song Lan, and reaches for his jaw with one callused and precise hand; Song Lan lets himself think it, I would do anything for you. “I’ve been thinking about you when I jerk off for at least a year now,” Xingchen says, his tone authoritative and calm in a way he never is elsewhere.
“Fuck.” Song Lan exhales against Xingchen’s wrist. The thought goes straight to his dick: Xingchen, just a few feet away, all that time, staying quiet, staying calm. Song Lan bites his lip. “Rude.”
Xingchen hums and strokes the hair at Song Lan’s temple. “I know.”
“I’ve never done this with a guy before,” Song Lan blurts, feeling his body already betraying him.
Xingchen cups his chin and tilts Song Lan’s head up, so they’re communicating directly, so Xingchen can know Song Lan has surrendered to this. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” he says, his mouth curling.
Their second kiss is a lot less tender or precise.
So they’re a couple now.
Half their friends thought they were already together, while the rest are obnoxiously supportive. Very little changes, aside from the sex and the easy touches. Xue Yang keeps growing, not just in length and bulk. The nubs on his forehead have sprung into blunt horns, sloping back along his skull. The crest behind his ears lengthens, while his whiskers grow wilder and his dorsal fins taller. His coloration matures into something lusher and more complex, each scale almost prismatic. Song Lan fends off complaints from their downstairs neighbor and says he’s been working out more, really sorry about the thumping.
The weather warms up. Xue Yang increasingly slips out (with loud pronouncements so no one will worry) to hunt for himself. After he brings home half a deer skull, rasped clean but still malodorous, Song Lan no longer asks what it is he eats when he comes home sated and smug.
Xingchen hardly seems to notice when he and Xue Yang wrestle that the dragon is now nearly as long as he is. Song Lan tries to find good TV and film representation for Xue Yang, but Viki is no more helpful than Netflix or any other streaming service. When he proudly and eagerly gathers everyone for a YouTube stream of Flight of Dragons, a cartoon he’d loved as a kid, Xue Yang and Xingchen watch the first few minutes with identical expressions of disbelief.
“Is that supposed to be me?” Xue Yang snorts.
“They’re, um.” Song Lan swallows. “They’re… white dragons.”
Xingchen puts a hand on his arm. “Zichen,” he says quietly. “I do not have the time or the energy to introduce Xue Yang to the entire concept of race in America tonight.” They switch to Spirited Away instead.
One morning, while they’re all loafing in the living room, Xue Yang announces that he wants an iPad.
“I want to know more,” he says.
“About what?” Song Lan frowns. “We can tell you more.”
Xue Yang tosses his head. “You get annoyed when I ask you things.”
“Too many questions!” Xue Yang huffs. “So I’ll get answers myself. It’s only until I can turn into a person.”
Song Lan blinks. “Come again?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know where other dragons are, so I’ll have to be a person sometimes if I’m going to get any answers about anything.”
Xingchen’s brow is furrowed, but lightly. “What kind of answers, A-Yang?”
Where is China. Why do people cook meat. What do crabs taste like. What is skin made of. Where is the ocean. Where do rivers come from. Why do trees smell like that. Why can’t I fly yet. What happens to prey when I eat them. Do dragons reincarnate. Who is Billie Eilish. What are the oldest mountains in the world. Where is the sun. How did people figure out how to drink tea. Should I be able to breathe fire. How far is Yellowstone. What are the noises coming from—
“That’s just sex,” Xingchen interrupts. “It’s part of being in love.”
“Well — uh — not always,” Song Lan stammers.
“It is in this case.” Xingchen says it so easily, so factually. Song Lan can barely focus enough to hear what he says next. “Can you read?”
Xue Yang throws back his shoulders. The tip of his tail twitches. “It can’t be that hard.”
Xingchen actually finds an old laptop on Freecycle, along with a wireless mouse. Song Lan works with Xue Yang on both reading and media literacy. (“Nobody in this household is getting redpilled,” he tells Xingchen darkly.) He knew Xue Yang was smart, but the dragon grasps the concepts with startling speed. He bounces from room to room, reading posters and book spines and cereal box ingredients and ad copy out loud, outrageously pleased with himself. It’s the coolest thing Song Lan has ever seen.
Xue Yang keeps getting bigger.
He fights with Song Lan about telepathically flooding the kitchen sink again, which led to a backup, which led to the management company sending a maintenance guy and then a call from the landlord asking pointed questions about ceiling noise and “a pet smell.”
He fights with Xingchen about when he can come and go (at night only). “I have to make myself so small to make things work for you!” he shouts. “You don’t even know how big I should be, and how little you are!”
He fights with both of them when they try to empathize. “I don’t even know if I’m being a dragon right,” he wails. “I don’t have anyone to show me! I’m all alone with this stuff!”
“We have no way to discipline him,” Xingchen says that night, huddled against Song Lan’s chest in bed. “We can only threaten him in ways I can’t back up.”
Xue Yang could knock down any flimsy rental door he wanted; he could destroy a wall without much effort. He could savage a muzzle or smash through a window or muscle out of anything holding him down, even without shapeshifting. All they have with the dragon is their relationship, and how little they’re willing to weaponize that.
“He’s just a kid,” Song Lan murmurs, his arms wrapped close around Xingchen. Every kid needs time to be a nightmare while they’re figuring stuff out, infuriating as that might be. Xue Yang isn’t a wild animal — he’s basically a person, and there’s no way he’d really hurt either of them on purpose.
All of it just keeps getting bigger.
“Hey,” says Mianmian as they’re taking stock of the volleyballs. “Did you see that TikTok from Nie Huaisang, about the lake monster?”
Song Lan chuckles. “What makes you think I spend any time on TikTok?”
She lifts an eyebrow. “So even you know about Huaisang?”
He shrugs and tosses another ball into the netted bin. Everybody knows about Huaisang, even if nobody is really sure what he does with his time. Some weird and magnificent pop-up art will appear outside the student union one morning, and he’ll tweet coy denials, but it’ll be intricate and subtle and sly and deeply, deeply erudite, if you spend enough time with it. Of course, Huaisang also parties like a legend, deals half the hard drugs on campus, and posts experimental art videos and homebrew vaporwave mixes all over YouTube. He’s hardly a reliable narrator of anything.
Still, Song Lan gets a knot in his stomach the more Mianmian talks about this found footage. She shows him eagerly: just a few dim, blurry seconds, but it’s definitely a large, serpentine shape dragging a deer carcass into a thatch of cattails. The video cuts out as a low rumble escalates into a roar, and the videographer screams and starts running for his life.
“Can you text me that?” Song Lan keeps up his guileless smile. “Xingchen will love it, he’s really into that stuff.”
Xingchen is bad about checking his phone regularly, so Song Lan waits until they’re belted up in the car before he shows him the video on his own device. Behind his glasses, Xingchen’s face is tight, not quite impassive. After a moment, he says, “You know, in Florida, they have a huge problem with pythons in the Everglades. They’re not native to the area, but they’ve gotten into the swamp and they get enormous and eat—”
“I know what that shows,” he says calmly, too calmly. “I’m sure Nie Huaisang isn’t versed enough in science to understand it, if it’s not staged or animated.”
They drive in silence for a while, until Song Lan says, gripping the wheel, “What should we do?”
Xingchen exhales. “Maybe there’s a house we can rent,” he says. “Freestanding, really way out, with a lot of land around it. My aunt’s family—”
“That’s not the problem we’re solving right now,” Song Lan says, sharply.
They don’t fight, but they don’t talk the rest of the way home either.
The apartment is full of noise when they let themselves in. The microwave door hangs wide open, beeping insistently. The TV has been abandoned on MSNBC, and Song Lan is pretty certain he can hear a radio playing in the bathroom. He stalks toward Xingchen’s room and pushes open the door.
It’s a little Boschian, seeing Xue Yang sprawled diagonally on his back across the mattress. All of him is dragon, except for his forelegs, which have transformed into a pair of pale, human arms. He grins when he spots the two of them. “Look what I managed!”
When he sits up more fully, the effect goes full Trogdor. The arms Xue Yang has conjured are skinny, with almost comically large hands. Olive and hints of gold mottle the surface, but overall, they look — real. Like they could be attached to a real person, if not for the fact that they end in Xue Yang’s scaly shoulders.
Xue Yang wiggles each finger proudly. “But it’s hard. And weird. I haven’t gotten very far, and I’ll need to practice holding it together. People are harder than cats and dogs. How do you guys manage it?” He looks from Song Lan’s face to Xingchen’s in the doorway. His expression clouds over. “Aren’t you guys proud of me?”
“Yes,” says Song Lan quietly. His throat is tight.
Xingchen’s glare is hard, disappointed. “Did you eat a deer at the lake recently?”
Xue Yang’s frill expands, just slightly. “Rude,” he says, with the hint of a giggle beneath it.
“Someone filmed you.”
“I know.” Xue Yang shows all his teeth. “I made him leave. It’s fine.”
“A-Yang, it’s not fine.” Xingchen crosses his arms. “It’s dangerous for you to be seen. If people think there’s something weird around here—”
“There is. I’m a dragon!” Now his tail is lashing. “Wow,” he adds, still smiling, but with a touch of venom. His human arms seem to shimmer and melt; in an instant, they’re regular dragon limbs again, with their own claws and opposable thumbs. Xue Yang narrows his eyes. “I don’t want you in my room anymore,” he announces. “Go away.”
“This isn’t your room,” Xingchen says tightly.
“What do you care?” he snarls. “You’re in his room all the time anyway! I don’t have my own space. Why can’t I have my own space?”
“You don’t pay rent!” Song Lan retorts. He’s only being a little facetious. It doesn’t go over well; Xue Yang shows all his teeth, growling, and surges out of the bedroom. He knocks hard against both their knees as he passes. The sliding door onto the balcony slams against its frame.
Xingchen’s eyes go wide. “Is he on the roof?”
“Hey.” Song Lan takes him by the shoulder. “Give him a little bit.”
“Oh, I’m not talking to him.” Xingchen glares toward the living room, where Xue Yang disappeared. “I’m going for a walk, phone off. I don’t want company.”
After ten minutes of monologuing and pleas for level heads, Xue Yang stamps one foot, his tail thrashing. “I wish I could be easier to live with! But I don’t want to be easy. It’s so hard! I just want to be me!”
He turns his back on Song Lan, dramatically, at the same time Song Lan gets to his feet to come closer. That long, black tail whips at his shins. Song Lan feels feels his center of gravity pitch and fight to stay where it should be. He sees his feet go up over his head; he barely makes a sound as he topples back into thin air.
He doesn’t remember the fall.
The agonized sounds he hears, after, aren’t coming from him.
He sees a serpentine shape heave itself into the air, with no wings beating. It flows through the air at great speed away from him, lost in the wink of sun and cloud cover.
Oh, Song Lan thinks. Miyazaki got that right.
Half of Song Lan’s body is held together with steel pins now. He’s in and out of the hospital for most of the summer; he might be in physical therapy the rest of his life. Sometimes whole portions of his body go numb. Sometimes he loses time, sometimes vision — the concussion was bad, and lingers. Xingchen found him plastered on the asphalt, and is far more likely to wake up shaking and sweating in the middle of the night.
Xue Yang doesn’t come back.
Quickly and totally, the apartment changes, rearranged to accommodate Song Lan’s parents, who stay to take care of him, and then a rotating cast of visitors, rehab professionals and friends who want to help. Soon enough, there’s no sign that anyone but Xingchen and Song Lan have ever lived in that unit. Even the holes in the drywall have been fixed.
When one doctor asks if they’ll move to a building with an elevator, Song Lan panics. “He won’t know,” he slurs to Xingchen during the consultation. “He won’t know where to find us.”
They renew the lease for their senior year. A gang of friends pool together to buy Song Lan a lovingly carved handcrafted cane. “This is the nerdiest shit I’ve ever seen,” he announces when he examines it, tears in his eyes. His D&D group insists he names it, so he does. Fuxue rarely leaves his side.
By the end of school, Xue Yang has been out of their life twice as long as he was in it. The mermaid’s purse has gone brittle; it’s shrunk considerably, and it always smells of the ocean, no matter how long it’s lived in the back of the closet. They’re moving: Xingchen has been accepted to a science journalism master’s program in Arizona. Song Lan is thinking about an online certificate in education policy, just to test the waters.
“Do you want him to find us?” Xingchen asks one day, as they’re playing Tetris with books in liquor store boxes.
Song Lan asks his anger, and nothing else.
They stay in Arizona for three years. After that, Xingchen spends a year in Boston for an MIT fellowship. Song Lan goes for a master’s in St. Louis, then another in Minneapolis. They get 18 months together in Cleveland, then a D.C.-based magazine hires Xingchen. Song Lan gets his first job as an elementary school principal in suburban Denver. They can deal with the distance. They’re each doing important work, and they make it count when they’re together. That’s as fantastical as life gets.
Song Lan is somehow in his thirties now — well into them, in fact. He’s found one or two gray hairs; Xingchen has more, which he laughs about. Apparently it runs in his family. One year when they’re trading paperwork to file taxes, Song Lan just proposes, without thinking. Xingchen prefers not to deal with institutions at all, and he’s barely got the patience for anything as organized as a local DSA, but he assents. They have a courthouse ceremony. He and Xingchen don’t exchange rings, but they do commission art for their home — traditional landscapes, mythic elements woven throughout.
Ten years have passed, and then several more.
Coffin, North Carolina, is a small town for people who think Asheville has sold out. It’s practically Tennessee, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, a dizzy collage of steep slopes and river valleys, as lush as a jungle in the warmer months. The nearest mall is an hour away, the nearest airport two. Anyone who makes it there has to work to seek it out.
Xingchen came one year to report a feature about hellbenders (“They’re also called snot otters, can you believe it, Zichen?”). “It’s a place for learning by doing,” he told Song Lan when he came back, instantly taken with its apiaries and the anarchist bookstore and the spray of stars visible at night.
Xingchen can write from anywhere. They’d bought a house within six months.
It’s summer, and an actual lull in Song Lan’s work at that. He loves the reason he’s here, to head up the experimental district that’s as close to unschooling as an education system can get and still receive state funding. Still, he’s relishing his time at the local coffee shop, with its basil lemonade and rhubarb scones. A rainstorm sweeps through that wasn’t on the forecast this morning, but weather is sometimes funny that way in the mountains.
It’s a nice backdrop for his book. He’s reading an actual novel for once, a subversion of the swords-and-wizards fantasies he’d loved growing up. The author clearly loved them too; Song Lan can chuckle as she skewers the genre and builds it up better. The rain has brought down the temperature, enough that he’s craving a hot drink now. He pushes himself to his feet, setting the paperback pages down on the table.
The bell above the door clangs. A man in a yellow hoodie strolls in, tall enough and blade-thin. Song Lan doesn’t get a good look before the man beats him to the front of the line, but that’s fine — Song Lan isn’t in a hurry.
He hasn’t seen the man around before. His hair falls nearly to his elbows, black as water at night. Song Lan half-listens as the man orders something disgustingly sweet, a really vile concoction, from the sound of it. He must not have kept his opinion off his face, because the man turns, smirks and drawls, “Hey, if you don’t like it, more for me.”
Song Lan offers up a small smile. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude.”
The stranger wags his eyebrows, which are gigantic and expressive. He’s got a high, sharp nose, set against razor-wire cheekbones and a twisting mouth. “Oh, I’m not offended. I just know what I like.” His gaze seems to bore into Song Lan’s as he steps aside to wait by the counter. Song Lan finds himself unable to look away. The man’s eyes are a deep brown, focusing on him with an almost harrowing intensity. When the barista asks for the next order, Song Lan stumbles over his words for a moment.
The stranger lounges at the counter, slouching bonelessly with both hands balled in the hoodie’s pockets. His age is hard to judge: he could be young 20s or Song Lan’s own age, with his smooth skin and easy grace. Song Lan crosses his arms over his chest to wait nearby. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” he says. Age and practice have eroded his shyness.
“You haven’t.” The man smiles, another sharp thing that he carries. His canines gleam under the Edison bulbs. “I just got here a few days ago. I’m renting a place out on Peach Ridge for a while.”
Song Lan puts on his interested face. “Where’d you get here from?” Live in Coffin long enough and the dialect rubs off on even the blandest West Coast native.
The man shrugs. “Everywhere. Santa Fe, Shanghai, Boston, Milwaukee…”
Song Lan grunts. “I lived in Boston for a little while,” he says, declining to be impressed. “My husband was doing a fellowship at MIT.”
“Husband?” The stranger smiles, such that Song Lan can’t entirely read it. “Poor me.”
The barista interrupts. “Ice chai vanilla with whipped cream, extra pump of caramel?”
“Wow,” the man says, and accepts the beverage. He lifts it in a toast. “See you around, Song Lan.” He punctuates it with a wink and strolls out of the coffee shop. It’s stopped raining; the sun finds red in the stranger’s hair as he jaywalks across the street. Song Lan finds himself chewing his lower lip, frowning after him. He hadn’t introduced himself.
“Oh,” says Xingchen, doing his best to chop today’s vegetables. “Yes, I met him too.”
Song Lan’s eyebrows go up. “Did you get his name?” He doesn’t interfere with the cooking; better to lean against the kitchen island and encourage Xingchen to practice a skill, even if Song Lan knows he can do it better.
Xingchen nods. “Chengmei. He started talking to me at the bulk foods aisle at Herman’s.”
“And did he know your name already?”
“He didn’t,” says Xingchen calmly. “Maybe he heard you tell the barista.”
Song Lan shakes his head. He worries about his memory in general, thanks to the accident. He’s spent years working extra hard to pay attention to everything around him. “What did he say to you?”
Xingchen examines the mess he’s made of a perfectly nice yellow squash. “I think he was trying to hit on me. Right there next to the lentils.”
That provokes a laugh, and it loosens something in Song Lan’s chest. “Does this mean we should start wearing rings, at last?”
Xingchen glances up through the wispy fringe he never remembers to trim, his mouth twisting. “I was going to suggest we both take him up on it.”
Song Lan presses an open palm at the small of Xingchen’s back. “I’m sorry, am I boring you?”
“You’re very boring,” Xingchen agrees, and Song Lan smiles as he kisses him. Xingchen smirks through it. “What’s gotten into you?” He says it with self-mockery, at the ridiculous chance of it all. They’re just two 20-year-old boys who said yes to each other. Song Lan has no idea how he got to love someone this much. He kisses Xingchen again, deeper. Xingchen’s hands find their way to Song Lan’s stomach, tugging at his shirt.
“Why don’t I feed us tonight,” Song Lan says. “Put that knife down, you’ve done enough here.”
“I like knives,” Xingchen replies, because he’s incredibly corny, and because he’s already unbuttoning Song Lan’s pants.
Saturday is a medium pain day. Song Lan wakes into it, the black sharpness creeping through his body, deep-rooted. Xingchen makes a fresh pot of coffee, and he drives them into town for the farmer’s market. With his cane, Song Lan can focus on the fresh air, the sunshine, the bundles of wildflowers for sale and the bright produce on display.
Even late in the morning, the Coffin farmer’s market bustles. It’s where the town socializes most. Song Lan likes seeing his kids out in the wild and chatting with their parents. Xingchen does not consider himself a gossip, but somehow during their strolls, he picks up on every bit of news around the county. This week, Wei Wuxian is repeating with great shock the persistent rumor that Su She fertilizes his overpriced wares with the farm’s own waste, until Wen Qing smacks him and reminds him that he’s not himself so well-reputed. Song Lan lets it rolls over him, mostly. Xingchen is far more amused, even as Wei Wuxian asks him to use his investigative skills and uncover the truth.
The Burial Mounds stall is right next to the organic meat vendors’, which sells everything from soup bones to goat haunches to whole birds, depending on the season. Song Lan, who is tall enough to people-watch anywhere he goes, notices Chengmei first, pointing to different cuts of pork while sucking on a honey stick. He’s clearly accomplished quite a haul, from the state of the bag dangling off his shoulder. Twisting eggplants and thick bundles of chard poke from the top.
Chengmei seems to feel Song Lan’s eyes on him. As soon as he turns, he grins and lifts his chin. “I’ll be right back,” he tells the girl he’s been flirting with, and strolls over with a pointed glance around.
“This is the place to be, huh.” The light seems to impart something wicked in his eyes.
“Yeah,” says Song Lan, dumbly, as Chengmei pulls the honey stick from his lips, sucked dry. “How — how are you?”
“Enjoying myself.” Chengmei glances at Song Lan’s cane. One eyebrow crooks up. “What’s that for?”
Song Lan — smiles, at the bluntness. “College accident,” he says. “Fell off a roof.”
Chengmei considers this. “You didn’t have it before.”
“No.” Song Lan twists to tug at Xingchen’s sleeve; he’s still chatting with Wei Wuxian, something about human rights abuses and corporate profit motives. “This is the husband I mentioned.”
Xingchen turns and brightens. “Ah, my new friend! Have you met Wei Wuxian? He’s the most interesting farmer I’ve ever met.”
Chengmei laughs; his teeth flash, bright and precise somehow. “What a welcoming committee.”
Wei Wuxian leans on his forearms, curious as ever. “What brings you to Coffin?”
“It’s personal,” Chengmei says, with no change in tone. “Just something I’ve got to do.” He tucks a loose strand of hair behind his ear. It’s a careless gesture, as self-conscious as it is. Song Lan spots it as he lets the hand fall back to his side.
Nine fingers, four on the left hand. Both hands almost disproportionately large.
Song Lan feels his whole body go cold.
It’s too wild to even put into words — outlandish, improbable, fantastical. But Chengmei’s quick brown eyes meet Song Lan’s again, and somewhere in his head, distant from both memory and imagination, something undulates. Black scales, an olive sheen, a gold shimmer. Little claws pricking though his t-shirt.
“Well, I hope you get what you need.” Xingchen directs his smile more generally at the market. “Coffin’s a nice place, despite the name.”
“I like what I see so far.” Chengmei nods, almost to himself. “Lots of space, not too crowded.”
“Yes, very remote.” Xingchen laughs. The way Chengmei looks at him seems almost winsome now, almost longing. It fills Song Lan with a kind of panic.
“Hey. Why don’t you give us your number?” He says it before he fully thinks it through. It’s just an instinct, to keep your trouble close. He digs around in his pockets until he finds his phone. “I’m the school principal around here, I know a lot about connecting people with what they need.”
Chengmei’s prodigious eyebrows lift up. “The principal? Huh.” His mouth curls; it’s not unfriendly. Chengmei calls Song Lan’s phone to create the contact. Song Lan’s mouth is full of marbles and salt. He steps back to let Chengmei and Wei Wuxian bounce off each other, each growing more and more interested and impressed.
“I have to go sit down,” he murmurs to Xingchen, and makes their escape quick.
Song Lan is already having a panic attack by the time they get in the car. “Please just go,” he whispers when Xingchen tries to coax out what’s wrong. It’s a 20-minute drive, through empty, winding ridge roads. Song Lan breathes through it as best he can. He hurtles through the house and into bed as soon as they get home, but he can’t tip into sleep, not even with Xingchen lying at his back, his arms around him.
He should have died. He fell almost fifty feet and landed in a concrete parking lot. He has neurological damage, skeletal damage, scar tissue, an elevated lifetime risk of a million other complications. His body feels almost thrice his age most days, and he pushes through it. The many therapies he’s pursued have eaten up so much of his time and his life. Xue Yang was a kid; he threw a tantrum; there were consequences — just not for him.
Song Lan wonders what he could possibly want with them again.
Xingchen brings him a hot washcloth. The heat and the moisture on his forehead help. After a while, he says quietly, “I need you to believe me.”
Xingchen squeezes his hand. “Yes.”
“I think Chengmei is Xue Yang.”
Song Lan can’t bear to look up. “His hands.”
Xingchen doesn’t move.
“Do you believe me?”
“I’m thinking,” says Xingchen. He must feel Song Lan flinch, because he brushes aside the hair at Song Lan’s temple. “Hey. Trust but verify. What would you want to do about it?”
Song Lan goes quiet for a while, and Xingchen stays with him.
When moves took them apart from each other, it was always Xingchen who carried the journals with him. They’re nothing special on the outside, a couple of 99-cent composition notebooks with monochrome marbled covers and fraying cloth-tape spines. Song Lan hasn’t spent much time with them since the accident, though he’s always been aware of where they’ve been placed in each home that they share. In Coffin, they’re nestled into the bottom row of a bookshelf in the spare bedroom, next to an unmarked cardboard box.
They seem to loom larger in Song Lan’s sense of his living space. For days, turning into a fortnight, he hasn’t brought up Xue Yang again. Sometimes Xingchen tries to pry a conversation out of him, and even his therapist notices something different is up, but Song Lan won’t budge. He’s thinking.
On one good pain day, he pads over the handmade rugs to the bookcase in the corner. It takes a minute to settle onto the floor, but soon he’s got the notebooks in a spread between his outstretched legs. Xingchen’s handwriting is precise on the outside, but Song Lan knows it’ll get more chaotic on the page.
He flips one of the covers to a random page; it’s dated April 18th of that year. Xingchen was deep in his naturalist period, so the wide-ruled sheets are covered in brief observations, sketches, cartoons and blocks of text. Song Lan bends closer to examine Xingchen’s rendering of Xue Yang’s frill. He’s using colored pencil to show off the subtle coloration that was developing, bits of poppy-red peeking through the black. Secondary sexual characteristics??? Xingchen had scrawled.
Song Lan flips to another page, all prose.
I’m still not good at Weibo or WhatsApp, but it feels more and more like the people who know about dragons are in Shanghai at least. People keep mentioning a place called Gusu. I wonder if it’s the same as Cloud Recesses, which I’ve found in some older texts. Xue Yang has no differentiated memories from before he hatched, but given the structure of the egg sack, it should have anchored itself in a seaweed forest or similar. Xue Yang always knew he was moving when he was inside the egg. It must have been like being in a spaceship, hurtling somewhere without windows.
There are so many different ways and times he should have died. He’d have been lost at sea, utterly anonymous, even among those who know about dragons. Today he dumped an entire family-sized carton of Goldfish crackers on the rug. I think he was laughing?? It was like those videos of cats with toilet paper. He’s essentially a toddler, with the vocabulary to match. (Note to self: Get HumDev syllabus to catch up, he’s growing fast.)
In a different book, lists of questions Xue Yang asked about the outside world. Elsewhere, a comic about Xue Yang meeting Pete’s Dragon at some kind of playdate. In the bottom right corner of one page, a sketch in ballpoint pen: Song Lan asleep in the La-Z-Boy, Xue Yang asleep in his arms.
Song Lan feels his face getting heavy, the way it does before tears come. He scrubs at his eyes and squeezes them shut. He takes a few deep breaths, the ones that usually work.
The cardboard box contains only a small bundle, cloth wrapped around a Ziploc bag. Song Lan fishes out the mermaid’s purse. It’s cracked and shrunk in on itself, the dried strands of rope in pieces, the insides still shimmering and unreal as abalone. It’s so little.
Song Lan sits with the silence for a long time, before he says, to his hands, “How should we solve the problem that’s in front of us right now?”
Chengmei dithers after he accepts their invitation to dinner. He even vanishes for a few days, not responding to phone calls or texts, and no one in town can recall spotting him around. Xingchen finds him at the post office by chance. He nails him down for that evening. Song Lan hears about it when Xingchen calls to ask what they need at the grocery store.
Song Lan takes a well-timed gummy before it all begins. He keeps to the kitchen, losing himself in the work of chopping and marinating and baking. By the time Chengmei arrives with a bottle of whiskey and a homemade Funfetti sheet cake, Song Lan has produced crusty bread, a savory vegetable pie, an appetizer of bleu cheese, bacon and dates, a lush salad and an expertly grilled steak already finely sliced. When Chengmei takes in the spread, set up on the patio table out back by the garden, he scratches the back of his neck and laughs.
“I thought we were doing burgers or something. I just brought kids’ stuff.”
“I think they go together beautifully.” Xingchen smiles, all the way up into his eyes. Song Lan lets him guide the conversation. It doesn’t feel like an interview, but Song Lan can sense Xingchen’s professionalism: not stepping over the ends of sentences, asking open-ended, emotionally relevant questions.
Chengmei loves to talk about himself. Like any world traveler, he wants everyone to know about all the places he’s been and misadventures he’s had. Xingchen howls at his descriptions of shipping docks in Seattle and how he stowed away on a cargo trawler; Song Lan makes a show of skepticism, which Chengmei sidesteps by bragging how quickly he picked up Mandarin.
His stories about China sound like legends — wandering from town to town, taking work where he could get it, asking after certain sages and experts. Chengmei talks about the enemies he made there like they’re badges of honor, not least an uptight, self-righteous, gatekeeping asshole named Lan Wangji. All of Chengmei’s efforts to ingratiate himself with this person seemed to end in misunderstandings and fights. Not only that, but Lan Wangji seemed to hound him even after he cut out of Gusu—
Dinner is over, dessert half-devoured. Xingchen takes a sip of his IPA. “And is Lan Wangji also a dragon?”
Chengmei goes quiet and utterly still. He looks, startled, from Xingchen to Song Lan, who knows his face is giving him nothing. “Is that slang for something?” Chengmei giggles nervously.
Song Lan settles back in his chair. “Xue Yang.”
Their guest seems to shrink in on himself. His eyes go wide in his pale, sharp face. He worries at one palm with his thumb. “I don’t know what you’re implying here—”
“Xue Yang.” Song Lan reaches for Fuxue. He pushes himself onto his feet. Xingchen sets his beer bottle aside.
Xue Yang bolts. He’s up and out of his chair like a sprinter, his hair streaming behind him. Xingchen dashes after him with a shout; Song Lan grips Fuxue, steadies himself and explodes out of his resting position.
He was a track and field star in high school, after all. He tackles Xue Yang out in the grassy back edge of the garden, just within the glow of their outdoor lights.
Xue Yang tries to fight him off, but as a man, he only comes up to Song Lan’s nose. He could have chosen to be bigger, but he’s shorter than both of them. Song Lan easily pulls him close; Xue Yang is a narrow man too. Song Lan feels the hard ridge of his cheekbone and jaw pressing into his chest.
“I hurt you,” Xue Yang whispers, raggedly. “You shouldn’t be welcoming me. I tricked you into that.”
Xingchen throws himself onto the ground, behind Xue Yang so he’s now pressed between them. Song Lan squeezes his eyes closed as he pants. “We’ve been worried about you.”
“Shut up,” Xue Yang snarls. “You can’t say that about me.”
“You shut up,” Xingchen snaps back. “You don’t get to tell us you’re not important to us.”
A ragged noise slashes at Song Lan’s chest. Xue Yang rolls onto his back, but otherwise he doesn’t try to escape. His face twists, as red and blotchy as any human’s. He seems to have had a lot of practice being a person.
He says, with overbright eyes, “You could have died.”
Song Lan watches Xue Yang’s face. “I should have. It was four stories.”
Xue Yang’s knobbly Adam’s apple bobs. “Three.”
“You were so young,” Xingchen starts. “You’re misremembering—”
“I’m not.” Xue Yang takes a shuddering breath. “I caught you. I dove after and I caught you.”
Song Lan can’t remember the fall itself. That’s a rare kindness. He remembers lying supine on the concrete, his whole body cold and fractured, too shocked for pain yet. He remembers the bright blue sky, and the black ribbon that flew up into it. He can’t pull up anything else, but.
But the doctors said his survival was unlikely and shocking.
“I couldn’t hold you up,” Xue Yang says, his voice thick. “You slipped. I couldn’t move you, there was so much blood. I couldn’t stay, I was so fucking scared, I didn’t think—”
“A-Yang,” Xingchen says softly. He reaches to wipe away the wetness on Xue Yang’s cheek. He strokes his hair.
Song Lan lies there, staring. Xue Yang meets his gaze, those brown eyes locked on his and utterly unguarded.
Xingchen pushes himself upright. He looks to Song Lan, for understanding, for permission. Song Lan knits his brow.
Xingchen takes it for what it is. He leans close and presses a kiss to Xue Yang’s temple. A breath gushes out from Xue Yang’s chest. Song Lan can feel him trembling, shaking without mercy for himself.
Song Lan reaches for his jaw. Xue Yang doesn’t look away from him. “We can’t take it back,” Song Lan says. “Please stop hurting yourself with it.”
He presses a kiss to Xue Yang’s forehead.
They lie there, listening to the crickets and the night frogs and the sound of each other breathing.
“Do you guys want any more of that cake?” Xue Yang asks.
Song Lan bursts out laughing. “The horrible things we have seen you eat!”
“What!” Xue Yang sits up, indignant. “What have you seen that’s so bad? I ate your food!”
“Opossums!” Xingchen shouts. “The deer! The mice in our walls!”
Xue Yang snorts. “I bet you two never ate embarrassing things when you were human children.”
Song Lan props himself on one elbow. “What’s the worst thing you’ve eaten as a dragon? Now it’s time for all our questions.”
“Oh, if you want me to show you something…” Xue Yang smirks, his sharp teeth just visible. With palpable grace and ease, he hops to his feet and vanishes into the dim field beyond the butterfly bushes. A breeze ripples over them, a displacement of air that carries a faint scent of petrichor.
A long, vulpine head with sweeping horns and elegant whiskers emerges under the lamp light. Xue Yang’s body follows after it, huge and scaly and rich, shimmering black. It keeps coming and coming, a torso and tail as long as a bus, as a yard, as a house.
Song Lan has to crane his neck. He can appreciate choosing to be big. “Wow,” he murmurs, his whole chest full.
Xingchen is enthralled. This is how things can work out for them; he takes Song Lan’s hand and he laughs.