“What if we ran away?”
Hua Cheng’s got that lazy smile, the one that makes him look like he doesn’t care for anything in the world. He’s chewing on a cigarette that he’s not going to smoke. He stopped years ago, after Xie Lian revealed that it bothered him. It’s a fake one, with silver linings. It busies his hand, even though the craving’s long gone. There’s comfort to be found in old habits.
Xie Lian laughs. “Where would we go?”
Xie Lian slides off the bed onto Hua Cheng’s knees where he sits on the floor. Hua Cheng slides the cigarette into the chest pocket of his flannel. He rests his head on the top of Xie Lian’s, and his hair drapes over Xie Lian’s shoulders.
“Anywhere,” he says longingly.
Xie Lian hums. “What about your job?”
“Yin Yu’s got it handled,” Hua Cheng assures. “Him and his idiot boyfriend.”
“San Lang, that’s not a nice thing to say.”
Hua Cheng shrugs. His chin still rests atop Xie Lian’s head. “So, what do you think?”
“You’re actually serious?” Xie Lian ducks his head and turns around to take a good look at Hua Cheng. Despite his smirk, he does appear to be serious.
“Of course, gege. I’ll get my stuff and we can get going. What are we waiting for?”
Xie Lian grins. He feels a sudden wave of excitement, and he claps his hands together twice. “Alright. For how long?”
“However long we want.”
“Um,” Xie Lian taps his lower lip thoughtfully. “We do need a vague destination though.”
Xie Lian is teasing, but Hua Cheng is undeterred as he seems to think hard.
Hua Cheng’s eye lights up as he answers, “Let’s go to the sea.”
“The sea? San Lang, that’s very far.”
“I know.” Hua Cheng taps Xie Lian’s knee in rapid succession. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Me neither,” Xie Lian admits. He stands up to rummage through the stack of maps in the glove box.
“Really?” Hua Cheng sounds surprised. He gets up as well. He’s so tall that he has to bend in order to not hit his head on the roof. “You’ve been to so many places all these years, but you never went to the sea?”
“Mh mh, never.”
“All the more reason to go see it with you.”
Xie Lian flushes. “San Lang,” he admonishes, slapping Hua Cheng’s hand without force.
Xie Lian sits in the driver’s seat. His old van rattles to life as he turns the key. Over his shoulder, he beams at Hua Cheng before he grips the steering wheel and presses the accelerator.
He drives Hua Cheng back to his house.
While Hua Cheng goes up to retrieve whatever he needs for their impromptu trip, Xie Lian gazes out the window, head resting on his crossed arms over the wheel.
He waves when Hua Cheng stops and grins down at him from the balcony.
Xie Lian hides a laugh behind his hand when Hua Cheng returns with a travel bag, an annoyed expression, and his loudly meowing cat trotting behind him.
E’Ming is what one would call a clingy cat.
Xie Lian pspspsp’s at E’Ming who, upon noticing him, darts past Hua Cheng and jumps through the driver’s seat window, onto Xie Lian’s knees. Ruoye, Xie Lian’s pet snake, immediately comes out of hiding in his solar-powered terrarium to possessively wrap himself around Xie Lian’s neck.
“He’s not coming,” Hua Cheng warns.
“Who’s gonna take care of him?” Xie Lian doesn’t leave Hua Cheng any time to answer that ‘E’Ming can starve for all he cares.’ Empty words, anyway; just like Xie Lian, Yin Yu’s got a double of Hua Cheng’s keys, so there’s always someone to look after him. “Remember that time he snuck in and left with me?”
“Gege, how could I not remember—those were the best three months of my life.”
Xie Lian covers E’Ming ears. “San Lang. Don’t listen to him, E’Ming. We had a great time without him, didn’t we?”
Hua Cheng ‘tsks’ and throws his bag in the back next to Xie Lian’s handmade wooden chest, in which his clothes are stored, then slides in the passenger seat.
“Let’s stop at the supermarket,” he suggests, brandishing the payment app on his phone.
“Snacks!” Xie Lian exclaims, perhaps with a tad too much enthusiasm—E’Ming jumps off his knees to explore the van.
Hua Cheng’s eye is soft.
By the time they’ve reached the local supermarket, it’s started raining. Xie Lian grabs Hua Cheng’s hand before he can get his umbrella and drags him through the downpour. It’s so heavy that they’re drenched by the time they enter.
Hair still dripping, they fill a basket with all sorts of crackers, pastries, and candies; Xie Lian’s favourite steamed buns to put in his mini fridge and heat up over his portable stove. Cat food for E’Ming, and fresh fruits to make themselves feel better about all the junk passing through the check-out.
They face the rain again, but this time Hua Cheng holds Xie Lian back. He opens his umbrella and, arms hooked together, they walk out under the rain. Xie Lian holds the bags on his own, despite Hua Cheng’s attempts at helping.
“Gege, let me at least carry the heavy one. . .”
Xie Lian carries them both the rest of the way through the parking lot with his arm up to prove a point.
Hua Cheng shakes his head, but smiles.
They’ve not left town yet, but it feels like they’re already gone.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Xie Lian laughs. “I came back last week! I didn’t even say hi to Qingxuan. They’re going to make my phone blow up again.”
“Gege, they’ll understand.” Hua Cheng waves his hand vaguely. “You deserve a break.”
“It’s always a break when I come back to you.”
“Mh, a vacation, then.”
Hua Cheng’s not wrong, Xie Lian thinks. He’s seen so much of the country, but he can’t call it a vacation. He’s never been to the sea, what’s up with that! He guesses he was always in too much of a hurry to get back to Hua Cheng to take some time for himself; just him, Ruoye, his van, the road ahead, and someone to keep him company.
“My first vacation,” he murmurs wistfully, before realizing he doesn’t recall Hua Cheng ever mentioning going on holiday. “And yours, too!”
“Oh, that’s right.” Hua Cheng sends Xie Lian a full-toothed smile. “I was saving it to spend it with you.”
Xie Lian huffs, amused. “Why now?”
“I don’t know,” Hua Cheng says. He digs a coin from out his pocket, and flips it up and down. Seated between them on the glovebox, E’Ming follows the coin with piercing eyes. “Spur of the moment.”
“Well, I hope you won’t regret it,” Xie Lian replies. He reaches out to unfold a map and splay it on Hua Cheng’s knees. Distracted, Hua Cheng drops the coin flat on the surface, and it lands on the blue expanse of water on the right side of the map. “I’m used to this, you aren’t—can you look for the way, please?”
Hua Cheng’s pointer finger trails from their hometown, circled in bright yellow, all the way to the coin.
“What if you get bored?”
“You sound so sure!” Xie Lian says. “I do get bored at times. Ruoye’s not very talkative.”
As if he can understand, Ruoye flicks his tongue against Xie Lian’s neck, tickling him with indignation.
“With me around, gege won’t ever feel bored,” Hua Cheng swears solemnly.
Xie Lian believes him without a doubt.
An hour in, Xie Lian finds he keeps stealing glances Hua Cheng’s way. He’s been places with Hua Cheng before, but they’ve never gone very far together; not as far as the sea. Part of him wonders if the next time he looks at the passenger seat, it will be empty, as if it’s nothing but a dream.
But Xie Lian looks, and looks, and Hua Cheng’s still there. The side of his forehead rests against the window, looking out at the recessing rain. When Hua Cheng catches Xie Lian, he grins. His smile has always been infectious; Xie Lian’s eyes form a crescent shape in return.
“It’s so strange.”
“What is, gege?”
“I’m out of town, and you’re still here.”
When Xie Lian yawns for the third time, Hua Cheng taps him on the shoulder carefully.
“Gege, it’s late, let’s rest.”
Xie Lian gives a small nod.
Some miles further, they park in a designated area.
It’s been a long time since they’ve done this. They change into pajamas, then open Xie Lian’s sofa bed. It takes up most of the space in the van, and E’Ming doesn’t waste a moment before jumping on it and nestling himself in his favourite corner.
Xie Lian slides under the sheets, and Hua Cheng follows. It’s far from the first time they’ve shared a bed. They know how it goes; they won’t fall asleep for another hour or two, unable to stop themselves from speaking the random thoughts that come to their minds with the night, trying to fill the empty spaces of the darkness.
Work, news, friends, shared memories from their childhood—anything’s good, as long as they get to listen to each other’s voice.
Each with their head on a pillow, no part of their bodies touching.
But in the morning, Xie Lian will wake up and, drowsy from sleep, he’ll snuggle up to Hua Cheng’s side, who will close his arm around Xie Lian’s shoulders until it goes numb, and not mind that it does.
Indeed, it goes like this.
Xie Lian awakens first. Dusty rays of sunlight drift in from the windows. E’Ming is rolled up in a ball, sleeping between Hua Cheng’s legs. As for Hua Cheng, his chest rises and falls steadily with the slow rhythm of his breathing. Strands of hair fall in front of his face. As always, he’s taken off his eyepatch before he’d drifted off. Xie Lian feels the familiar urge to push the hair out of the way and see him better, but resists and merely gazes at him.
Huddling as close as possible, Xie Lian buries his face against Hua Cheng’s arm. That it soon lifts up and comes to rest over his shoulders, bringing him closer, doesn’t come as a surprise. Xie Lian smiles, happy to serve as a body heater to Hua Cheng. He’s always been uncharacteristically cold.
“Slept well?” Xie Lian mumbles into the side of Hua Cheng’s chest.
“I will never understand how this old thing is more comfortable than my bed.”
“I found it on the side of the road.”
Hua Cheng groans. “I know.”
Xie Lian laughs, and E’Ming chooses that moment to stretch, and walk all the way up Hua Cheng’s body to his chest. Hua Cheng grumbles as the cat steps on inappropriate places, like he knows. Xie Lian laughs more, gaining a glare without heat from Hua Cheng.
E’Ming eventually settles on Hua Cheng’s sternum, unfazed as his owner’s glare turns murderous. Xie Lian raises a hand to pet him, always happy to appease where Hua Cheng only seems to scowl. It’s all an act, of course. Hua Cheng doesn’t have anyone fooled with his harsh words and indifference towards his cat.
There’s mutual love there, somewhere.
They remain like this for a while, until their stomachs growl and they begrudgingly rise. Ruoye slithers out of his hiding place to wrap himself around Xie Lian’s leg.
Like that, a new day begins.
Breakfast and soy milk, a quick face wash, a look at the map, and they’re back on the road. Xie Lian turns on the radio to one of the only channels his old stereo can play.
Hua Cheng sticks his head out the window. His long hair blows in the wind, and he looks up at the sky, chuckling when Xie Lian pulls him back in and encourages him to sing along. He doesn’t, because the song is ancient and it’s really unfortunate that Xie Lian knows the words, but also because he looks content to simply listen to Xie Lian enjoying himself.
They lose an hour after missing an exit. Hua Cheng apologizes for distracting Xie Lian with sightseeing, but all Xie Lian thinks about is how it’s another hour he gets to spend talking with Hua Cheng.
“Gege, how do you bathe?” Hua Cheng asks upon seeing the glistening of a lake on the horizon.
“I have my ways.”
Xie Lian doesn’t often look like what one would describe as smug. Hua Cheng doesn’t often look like what one would describe as worried.
Later that day, when the sun is high, Xie Lian parks in a recluse area. Hua Cheng stands to the side, staring doubtfully at the kiddie pool Xie Lian is inflating behind the van.
When he’s done, Xie Lian fills his showering tool with the water he’s warmed up.
“You go first,” he declares as he turns to face Hua Cheng, only to hold back another laugh at the complicated expression Hua Cheng sets on the whole creative device.
“Gege, take me home.” He’s not quite pleading, but Xie Lian guesses this is as close to it as he’ll ever get.
“But San Lang, it hasn’t even been a day?”
Xie Lian hops closer. Hua Cheng hasn’t stopped staring at the kiddie pool, as if it might grow a stomach and swallow him whole. Unwarranted, Xie Lian raises the showerhead, and activates it over Hua Cheng’s back. The water isn’t cold, but Hua Cheng jumps away nonetheless.
Xie Lian threatens him with the showerhead until Hua Cheng is sitting in his underwear in the middle of the kiddie pool, silently resigned to his fate, which will surely reoccur over the next several days.
Xie Lian bites his lip in an umpteenth attempt at not laughing as he holds the slow stream of water over Hua Cheng’s head.
He looks very much like a drowned cat. E’Ming has never been more amused, watching with rapt attention from the sidelines. Hua Cheng splashes water at him, and he runs to hide inside the van.
Distracted by their antics, Xie Lian suddenly shrieks as, in the next moment, Hua Cheng drags him into his arms and into the kiddie pool.
Later, Xie Lian sets up his pole string to hang his drenched clothes under the sun.
He sits in his underwear and a white t-shirt that has seen better days with a book on wild mushrooms. He knows himself to be too unlucky to take the risk of actually going mushroom picking, but he likes learning about them all the same.
Dark sunglasses on over his eyepatch and covered in a thick layer of sunscreen that Xie Lian helped apply on his back, Hua Cheng sits in a fold-out chair in vivid red boxers. He marks down their future stops on the map in green marker; spots to sleep and eat—spots to relax like they’ve got all the time in the world.
Excuses to make the trip longer.
His nose is getting a little too red, so Xie Lian approaches and, without warning, rubs it with another generous amount of sunscreen.
Hua Cheng takes the wheel for the afternoon. The map is splayed over Xie Lian’s knees, who uses a highlighter to trace the best road based on the spots Hua Cheng marked down earlier; not the fastest, but the one that will take them near mountains and paddy fields, lakes and rivers—places Hua Cheng has never seen.
While Hua Cheng drives, Xie Lian holds E’Ming’s head to the wind. Though E’Ming seems to enjoy himself, Hua Cheng jokes about him falling out and being left on the side of the road, assuming he survives. Xie Lian gasps in fake indignation.
E’Ming eventually settles over the map, while Ruoye finds his usual spot around Xie Lian’s neck. When Hua Cheng glances at him, his lips curl up—but not before telling E’Ming to scram. E’Ming blearily blinks and doesn’t bulge, like he knows that with Xie Lian there, he can do whatever he wants.
The scenery rolls by the windows. Xie Lian knows it by heart; each patch of trees, each field, each hill, but in certain areas where traffic requires his attention, he rarely gets a chance to admire it. He lays his head against the window, listening to the uplifting music drifting through the speakers of Hua Cheng’s phone, which saved the day when the radio clunked out again.
When the road empties, Xie Lian sometimes catches Hua Cheng gazing silently at him. He doesn’t look away when Xie Lian looks back, only smiles before his eye shifts back ahead.
“What?” Xie Lian prods gently.
Hua Cheng’s smile doesn’t waver. “Nothing,” he says, though it’s clear to Xie Lian that it’s not. But, knowing whatever Hua Cheng is thinking about makes him smile is enough; Xie Lian doesn’t insist.
“No regrets yet?”
“How could I? Whatever’s new is fun. Especially if it’s with gege.”
Xie Lian raises an amused eyebrow. “Even washing in a kiddie pool?”
Hua Cheng purses his lips. “It’s fine.”
Xie Lian muffles a laugh; Hua Cheng’s drenched cat impression remains vivid in his mind. He pokes Hua Cheng’s shoulder.
“Alright, alright, maybe I don’t like it so much,” he admits. “But for you, I’ll get used to it.”
“Your effort is greatly appreciated.”
“Is gege laughing at me?”
“Maybe a little.” As Hua Cheng’s lips curl in a wolfish smile and one of his hands leaves the steering wheel to reach out towards him, Xie Lian hurries to push it away, adding, “No revenge! My house, my rules. Tickling isn’t allowed, you know this.”
Hua Cheng fakes a pout, laying his hand over his heart instead. “Gege is a bully. This San Lang should turn around and go back home right away.”
Xie Lian snorts. Like a trail of powder, Hua Cheng begins to laugh as well, making Xie Lian laugh harder and, seeing Hua Cheng can barely contain it, cry at him to pull over until the tears blurring their vision are all wiped away.
The next evening, the scenery isn’t much different. They had slept in, ending up spending the day in the same place and taking a long walk in the nearby woods, Xie Lian hooking his arm in Hua Cheng’s to show him rare trees and birds.
By the time they get back into the van, shoes and pants covered in dirt and hair wet from a summer rain dripping through the canopy of the trees, the sun is already on its way to warm up the other side of the earth.
“Let’s get dinner,” Hua Cheng suggests as the moon rises. They’ve almost run out their so-called groceries, and there’s no shop for another few li. Xie Lian suspects Hua Cheng is getting tired, but is both too proud to recognize it, and too prudent to take the risk of pushing himself past his limit.
“Only if we stop at the next restaurant we see,” Xie Lian says cheerfully. “Whatever it is!”
Hua Cheng makes a face; despite his audibly growling stomach, he doesn’t seem entirely enthusiastic at the idea.
“It’ll be fun!” Xie Lian insists cheerfully. “I do it all the time.”
“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel better,” Hua Cheng says, twisting his fake cigarette a few times before sliding it into the pocket of his brand name hoodie. “Gege, there has to be somewhere nice. Let’s look it up.”
Xie Lian pretends to ignore him, giving E’Ming his full attention instead. He gets fur all over his overalls, but for the helpless look on Hua Cheng’s face, it’s worth it.
An hour later, they sit down at an old, small side-of-the-road restaurant. It’s dimly lit, looks perhaps a bit dubious, but it’s clean. Xie Lian thinks his bowl of noodles is tastier than some of the questionable dishes he sometimes regretfully encountered in his travels.
If there’s one thing he’s learned over the years, it’s to never judge a book by its cover.
But while Xie Lian happily eats, Hua Cheng is still poking at this food, squinting at his bowl distrustfully.
“San Lang, what’s wrong?”
Hua Cheng grimaces. “I asked for no onion.”
“Well, you can just take it out,” Xie Lian says. He takes a sip of soy milk before extending his chopsticks to do just that.
“The soup’s all impregnated with it,” Hua Cheng complains. He sneers. “Disgusting.”
“Give it to me, then. I’ll eat it. Here, we can swap.”
But Hua Cheng turns his nose up at Xie Lian’s meal as well.
“There’s no meat. Why did you get vegetarian?”
With a sighed chuckle, Xie Lian takes Hua Cheng’s bowl from him, and stands up.
Xie Lian goes up to the counter, Hua Cheng trailing behind him. Xie Lian can easily picture him turning livid with mortification when he holds up the bowl and says, “Excuse me, he asked for no green onion.”
When Xie Lian turns around with a new bowl, Hua Cheng has the decency to thank him, looking a little sheepish. Xie Lian shakes his head fondly, before returning to their table. He sets the bowl in front of Hua Cheng and dives back into his own, uncaring that it’s now a bit colder for his trouble.
“So, now that the evil onion is out of the way, what do you think?” Xie Lian asks between two mouthfuls.
“It’s not too bad,” Hua Cheng concedes mildly, but a smirk tugs at his mouth, and Xie Lian knows that when Hua Cheng likes something, he eats slower than usual, as though savouring every bite.
“Here, taste mine. It’s good, I promise.”
Xie Lian holds up a spoon of broth with some veggies and tofu. Hua Cheng eyes the veggies suspiciously, but accepts the spoon. He hums appreciatively, before feeding Xie Lian one of his own. Xie Lian licks his lips, nodding as he takes out a notebook and writes down the restaurant’s name and location.
They buy some homemade nuomici to snack on on their way out, Xie Lian taking Hua Cheng’s hand, coconut flakes scattering over his clothes and on the wind, like early snow on the summer evening.
Xie Lian starts at the opening of the van door.
Hua Cheng pokes his head in to set two entire bags of groceries inside, then disappears for a moment before climbing in with two other bags.
Xie Lian sets down his book, gaping. “San Lang, did you buy the whole shop?” he blurts dumbfoundedly. “If I had known, I would’ve come with you?”
“Ah, gege was so engrossed in his book, I couldn’t possibly bother him.”
“What did you even get there?”
Xie Lian approaches, digging his hand into one of the bags. He rummages through instant noodle packs and fresh fruit, until—
Hua Cheng looks up from the bag he’s been emptying, various products falling out from how full it is—Xie Lian softens completely when he notices snacks Hua Cheng used to sneak out of school to get for him when they were kids amongst the other food and drinks. Xie Lian suspects he’s not at risk of starving for another few weeks.
“Ah, I noticed gege’s stereo was broken, so I got you a new one?”
“It isn’t broken,” Xie Lian protests weakly. He pokes it to prove his point; the play button drops away in a bid for freedom.
Hua Cheng gives him some face by pretending he didn’t see it happening, but points out, “It plays only two channels and turns off when you switch your headlights on.”
Xie Lian has to admit defeat. He turns the new stereo over in his hands, feeling a hint of enthusiasm despite himself. It somehow doesn’t look too out of place, and the prospect of getting to hear other styles of music on his travels is exciting.
“San Lang, this is too fancy. . . how much did it cost?”
“Does it matter?” Hua Cheng wonders. “Gege deserves to have nice things.”
“Ah San Lang—”
Before Xie Lian can say anything else, Hua Cheng takes out the old stereo, dumping it in the box of random findings Xie Lian keeps in the back of the van to fix and resell. He replaces it with the new one while Xie Lian puts the rest of the groceries away. When Hua Cheng presses play, for the first time in years, Xie Lian hears a new voice announcing the following program. It’s strangely thrilling.
They start up the van and head back on the road to a song Xie Lian has never heard.
Xie Lian skips to the edge of the river happily. It’s wide, and seems deep enough to swim in. The current is gentle, and fish dart away when Xie Lian’s toes dip into the water. It’s the perfect temperature; an invitation Xie Lian can’t resist.
He looks back to the van, hand-sized at the end of the battered path. Hua Cheng is leisurely walking away from it, carrying fold-out chairs and a portable cooler, a towel over his shoulder. He sets it all in a spot that’s clearly been used by other visitors before.
Seeing him take off his shirt, Xie Lian deflates as he remembers an unfortunate past event.
“Oh, no, San Lang.”
“We don’t have swimming clothes,” Xie Lian says regretfully, tugging at his pants like he wishes they could magically turn into a pair of board shorts. He’d really wanted to swim in the river, but—
“That’s fine. We’ll go in naked.”
“San Lang!” Xie Lian glares at him humorously. “What if—”
“Gege, no one’s here,” Hua Cheng soothes, but Xie Lian forcefully shakes his head.
“Last time I thought that, a group of elderly people—and quite a large one at that, I’ll have you know—on a hike walked in on me,” Xie Lian explains, and Hua Cheng oofs.
Still, he continues removing his clothes, stepping out of his pants.
Xie Lian huffs. If Hua Cheng is going in, there’s no way he’s letting him have all the fun alone. Even if he ends up with his underwear uncomfortably sticking to his skin.
“Alright, but I’m keeping my underwear.”
“Well, if gege doesn’t mind, I won’t.”
With that he rolls down his boxers and throws them on his chair. Xie Lian has seen him naked too many times over the years to be embarrassed, used as they are to walking around naked in Hua Cheng’s apartment, toothbrush and foam sticking out of their mouth as they hurry to the bedroom after forgetting a change of underwear.
Hua Cheng walks into the water until it reaches his waist. Then he turns back to Xie Lian, flashing him a grin.
“Come on gege, it’s amazing!”
Leaving his pants and shirt on the ground by the cooler, Xie Lian enters the river, careful not to slip on rocks and pebbles covered in moss that tickles, soft under his feet.
There’s a fresh current, but even further in, the water is indeed of a pleasant temperature.
By the time Xie Lian has water to his waist, Hua Cheng has retreated far enough that only the top of his shoulders and head are visible.
Xie Lian takes one more step towards him, and sinks.
He breaks the surface a moment later, pointing at Hua Cheng accusingly as he flails to tread water.
“I don’t have footing here! San Lang, you—!”
Hua Cheng laughs. “I guess gege will have to hold on to me.”
Xie Lian doesn’t have to be asked twice. He swims around Hua Cheng and grabs onto his back like a koala, arms around his neck and legs around his waist. Water drips from Xie Lian’s hair, sliding down onto Hua Cheng’s shoulders.
“Well San Lang,” Xie Lian decrees, “my safety depends on you now.”
It feels like they’re alone on the road. It’s too dark around to see what surrounds them, but the sky is clear. No matter how far they go, the stars remain in the same spots, like the van is driving in place.
Music plays on the new radio, and the air is temperate enough to keep the window rolled down; Hua Cheng’s chin lays atop his arm, propped up on the edge of the door. His hair sways to the light bursts of the wind. He’s looking up at the stars.
If Xie Lian didn’t need to keep his eyes on the road, he’s not sure he’d be able to look away.
They’ve been gone barely three days, with perhaps just as much still to travel, yet Xie Lian feels like it’s been weeks. He hasn’t spent this much time in a row with Hua Cheng in years—not since they were teenagers, still relying on their parents and guardians to have days-long sleepovers, spending every minute together.
Since Xie Lian took to the road seven years ago, Hua Cheng often sleeps one night in the van when he’s in the area, but always has to come home to feed E’Ming and go to work. And on top of reselling his recent findings, Xie Lian has more trash to salvage and other people to see, so he never stays for very long.
Spending day and night together—Xie Lian wishes they would do it more often, and he wonders. . . he wonders why he doesn’t stop leaving.
But he never stops coming back, either.
Running away from something, and running back to it.
“Have you ever been in love?” Xie Lian asks suddenly.
He hears the shift that indicates Hua Cheng has looked away from the stars, but Xie Lian doesn’t leave him time to actually answer.
“I think love is everywhere,” he adds solemnly. “It’s in how I feel about you, and about Qingxuan, and Ruoye. Maybe they’re different types of love, but they’re all still love, don’t you think?”
Hua Cheng gazes at him silently. Eventually, he says, “I think gege’s right.”
There’s something about his voice that makes Xie Lian glance at him; something that makes him feel like Hua Cheng has something else to say. But when their eyes meet, the expression he finds in it is still the same quiet adoration that Hua Cheng has never hidden from him since they met, ever growing with the years.
Xie Lian has never quite understood it, no matter that he regards Hua Cheng in a similar way; no matter the overwhelming sense of wonder that engulfs him without fail at the sight of him—too vast, easy to drown in.
“Why does gege ask?”
Xie Lian stammers, fingers gripping the wheel. “I—I don’t know.”
It’s true. He was simply thinking about Hua Cheng, and it came out on its own, as naturally—or craved?—as a breath held back too long.
“I don’t understand,” Xie Lian says, staring helplessly at the deflated tyre. “This has never happened before! I changed them last year!”
Hua Cheng, standing beside him, twirls his fake cigarette between his fingers as he slides his phone back in his black jeans’ pocket.
“It’s alright gege,” he says. “They said they’ll be here soon.”
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good—” He freezes. “T—two days?!”
Xie Lian lets himself fall back on his bottom in front of the useless front wheel, and runs his hands across his face.
Hua Cheng laughs, sitting down casually by his side.
“What’s the problem?” he teases. “We’ve got food. Tomorrow, when there’s light, we’ll see what it looks like all around, but according to the maps, there should be a lake nearby. When we finally keep going, you’ll regret we couldn’t stay longer, you’ll see.”
“Ah, I’m sorry, you’re right.” Xie Lian grips his fingers together. “It’s just, I ran out of fuel in a remote place like this once before, and it was just me for three days, having nothing to do.”
Xie Lian is used to being alone, but choosing to travel on his own and being forced to stay in one place by himself was not the same thing at all. He’d been in the outdoors, yet he’d felt like he was suffocating. At the time, he’d wished for nothing more than home. When oil had been brought over, he’d abandoned his scrap-picking plans and gone back to Hua Cheng at once.
“I’m here,” Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian blinks at him, returning to the present. Hua Cheng’s voice is impossibly fond and kind. There’s no resisting falling in the embrace he offers, the two of them sitting on the side of the road in the dry grass. “You’re not alone this time.”
“I know,” Xie Lian sighs, but his chest is inexplicably light as he leans into Hua Cheng’s arms. “I’m sorry for forgetting.”
“Why does gege keep apologizing?”
“Well, you came along to have fun, and now you’re stuck in bumfuck nowhere with me.”
Hua Cheng tilts his head and stares at Xie Lian in confusion, laughter lines at the corner of his eye. He doesn’t let Xie Lian any time to explain his strange choice of words.
“Gege—I would love nothing more than to be stuck in. . . bumfuck nowhere with you,” Hua Cheng says, tapping Xie Lian’s nose when it scrunches up in embarrassment. “Now, we get to spend even more time together. What is there to complain about?”
Xie Lian smiles, huddling closer. “You’re right,” he repeats, feeling the steady beat of Hua Cheng’s heart against his temple; grounding, comforting. “Where else would I rather be?”
Turns out, Hua Cheng truly was right; there is indeed a lake, no more than half an hour’s walk from the van.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, so Xie Lian leaves a note under the windshield wiper saying they’ll be back, in the unexpected case someone passes by and checks the van out. He isn’t worried; no one is going to steal an old, broken down van in the middle of nowhere with any kind of urgency. Apart from memories, there’s nothing of value in there.
Wrapping Ruoye around his neck and E’Ming trotting on ahead, the four of them take a winding, forgotten path to the lake.
Xie Lian sets up the tent while Hua Cheng gathers the materials for a fire on the fringes of a copse of trees. When he finds a particularly long, sturdy stick, he decides to try his luck in catching dinner, sharpening the end of the stick with his pocket knife. Xie Lian only shakes his head at him, preemptively taking out two packets of instant noodles from his bag.
However, after he finishes unpacking and sits down on his fold-out chair, Xie Lian gapes as Hua Cheng returns from the edge of the lake and holds up not one, but two fresh fish.
E’Ming meows loudly at his feet, going on his hind legs in an attempt to sniff out the goods. Hua Cheng kicks him away with little force, before slipping the day’s catch into the cooler and slamming it closed on the poor cat’s nose.
“Gege, want to swim?”
Xie Lian doubts a herd of elderly hikers will show up here, so he gets entirely naked and goes in first, yelping when he steps forward a little too fast; it’s much colder than the river from two days ago, but it’s eventually pleasantly refreshing in the late afternoon heat.
Hua Cheng joins him, and they end up talking the time away as they float on their back, sometimes bumping into each other, the echo of their voices permeating the air.
Later, when the sun solely caresses and doesn’t burn, Hua Cheng starts the fire in one try, leaving Xie Lian to wonder if he’s terribly unlucky, or if Hua Cheng was born under a lucky star.
Xie Lian toasts his feet to the flickering flame, wiggling his toes.
They roast the fish to a perfect crisp. Despite Hua Cheng’s protest, Xie Lian lets E’Ming have a taste while Ruoye, having apparently found his share of food himself, slithers to the tent for a nap. Xie Lian will have to carry him in the large chest pocket of his overalls tomorrow.
As night falls, the fire highlights Xie Lian’s face, glowing but not blinding. Hua Cheng is looking up at him, lazy but soft-eyed, looking distinguished like he wasn’t picking between his teeth with a fish bone a minute before.
There’s no song, no music other than the croaking tune of the lake frogs and the hooting of a faraway owl. The steady beating of his own heart.
Xie Lian stands and, not stopping to wonder why, holds out his hand to Hua Cheng.
“Dance with me.”
Xie Lian sees the hesitation dangling from Hua Cheng’s partially-opened mouth, but it doesn’t come out. So, he takes Hua Cheng by the hands, dragging him up. Hua Cheng crashes into him as Xie Lian’s arms loop around his neck.
Hua Cheng’s hands on his waist are so light he barely feels them; but, he feels Hua Cheng’s heartbeat against his wrist, fast but steady. Xie Lian’s eyes wrinkle with a smile.
“San Lang, are you nervous?”
Hua Cheng humpfs, just a puff of breath. Yet, he says, “Yes.”
“I wouldn’t want to step on gege’s toes.”
Xie Lian begins to sway. “I don’t mind.”
It starts slow; no more than a gentle swaying to the sound of the crackling of the fire. At another hoot of the owl, Xie Lian twirls around, hand sliding down Hua Cheng’s arm until his fingers brush his palm. Hua Cheng follows the movement effortlessly, like it isn’t the first time they’ve done this.
He draws Xie Lian back to him, then sends him swirling again. Xie Lian’s laugh forms a tender grin on Hua Cheng’s face. His eye shimmers in the light with something indescribable.
They dance to the silent song, uncaring of whether it looks silly or clumsy. There’s a grace to Hua Cheng’s movements that mesmerize Xie Lian and, for a moment, he forgets where they are.
The two of them, and the fire in the dark, like moths dancing around a flame.
But, Xie Lian doesn’t believe that flame will burn them. He’s grazed it before—touched it and caressed it—and it’s only ever melted away all the ice of his worries and insecurities. It’s only ever made him feel safe.
Hua Cheng catches him in his arms again. Xie Lian looks at his reflection in Hua Cheng’s eye, dazzling but distorted.
‘Where would I rather be?’ he’d asked earlier.
Nowhere, he thinks. Anywhere Hua Cheng isn’t is somewhere the sun is a little less higher, the moon a little less brighter. Somewhere the rain feels too cold, and the night is too dark; somewhere he doesn’t want to be.
At dawn, Hua Cheng’s eyepatch dangles a bit under his eye, and Xie Lian retains a smile at the endearing sight before he carefully unties it and puts it away, revealing the long healed injury.
He met Hua Cheng not long after he lost his eye in an accident, when it was still covered by a mess of bandages that the other kids made fun of him for. It’d taken months before Hua Cheng had let Xie Lian see it. Even as a curious child, Xie Lian never wanted to make Hua Cheng feel like he had to be vulnerable around him if he didn’t want to.
Xie Lian’s childhood had not been without trials either, and Hua Cheng had told him the same; one can’t force a flower to bloom, but it should still be given water and care.
The owl’s hoots sound nearer, like it’s warning the world that it’s going to sleep, marking the end of the night. The lake’s water ripples with bobbing fish, and a calm breeze shifts through the tall grass.
E’Ming snores lightly between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian, Ruoye dozing off atop him in a rare moment of mutual peace among the two animals.
Xie Lian snuggles closer, nuzzling his face into Hua Cheng’s neck. He plays idly with a lock of his hair, silky and smooth; fresh from being washed in the lake yesterday.
Hua Cheng is always so cold, but when they lie side by side, they can both be warm.
There’s a shift in Hua Cheng’s breath that hints he’s awake. Yet, it takes a moment before his arm closes around Xie Lian’s frame.
A pause, then Hua Cheng’s drowsy voice. “Gege?”
“Can we do this more often? You, coming with me?” Xie Lian feels a pause in the rise and fall of Hua Cheng’s chest. He can’t help adding, a little desperate in a way he can’t quite explain to himself, “I don’t like waking up alone.”
Hua Cheng’s embrace tightens. “Alright,” he says. “I don’t like it either.”
Xie Lian can’t tell if what Hua Cheng means is that he doesn’t like it himself—or that he doesn’t like knowing Xie Lian has to wake up alone.
“Let’s stay like this for a little while then,” Xie Lian suggests. It comes easy; as easy as asking for his hand to hold, or his shoulder to cry on.
Hua Cheng shuffles, adjusting his position to accommodate Xie Lian better. E’Ming slides off the nest he’s made, taking Ruoye with him, tangling in the sheets.
Xie Lian has always noticed that Hua Cheng rarely initiates anything. He’s happy to have Xie Lian sit on his knees, comb his hair, and embrace him in the morning, or whatever else Xie Lian might be in the mood for—but he’ll never demand for more than what Xie Lian gives.
Like there’s a thin paper window between them, and he won’t break through unless Xie Lian is the one to extend his hand through first.
“San Lang, look, I got you a souvenir!”
As he makes to hand Hua Cheng the postcard he purchased when he replenished their stock of fresh water, Xie Lian realizes that Hua Cheng is right there; he doesn’t need to give him a postcard. He’d only bought it out of habit, so used to sending them from all the places he visits, as if to pretend Hua Cheng was there too.
He’s not even written anything on it yet! Flushing, Xie Lian quickly hides it behind his back.
“Ah, just this.”
Feigning innocence, he shows Hua Cheng the keychain he bought with it; a tassel, accompanied by a silver butterfly pendant—this town’s emblem.
Had Hua Cheng not been there, Xie Lian would’ve sent it along with the postcard, or given it to him when they saw each other next.
But this time Hua Cheng’s here; they’ve spent the whole day together, finding the town charming and deciding to take a day to visit. They drove all around, drawing inquisitive eyes to the old van.
However, Hua Cheng doesn’t take the pendant right away; he points to where Xie Lian’s other hand has disappeared behind his back.
“Gege, what’s that? A postcard?” Hua Cheng tugs at Xie Lian’s sleeve. “Can I have it?”
“I didn’t. . .” Xie Lian begins to protest, but he gives in to Hua Cheng’s demand, unable to resist his cheeky grin.
“That’s alright. Gege doesn’t have to write anything on it. I’ll add it to my collection anyway.”
Xie Lian starts. “Your—your collection?”
Hua Cheng smiles sheepishly. “I keep all your postcards. Hearing about your travels is all I have to look forward to while you’re away.” He looks down at the card, tracing the place where Xie Lian has already stuck an upside-down stamp. “And when I don’t get one for a while, I know it means you’re on your way back.”
“Oh.” His hair being tied in a bun today, Xie Lian’s free hand worries at the hem of his shirt instead. “Well, um, I got you this as well. Or, if you don’t like it, I can keep it. But it made me think of you! Of us.”
Xie Lian bites at his lower lip, offering Hua Cheng the pendant in the hope it’ll distract him from both his love-struck smile, and his inability to find anything else to say.
Thankfully, Hua Cheng indeed takes it, beaming.
“Why is it pink?” he asks, turning it between his fingers. He sounds more intrigued than displeased. E’Ming climbs on the driver’s seat to sniff at it, getting his paw smacked away when it tries to catch the dangling tassel.
Xie Lian blushes a bit, but admits promptly, “It’s silly, really, but—your colour is red, and mine is white.” He smiles, lowering his eyes. “Mixed together, it makes pink.”
“Three steamed buns that he’s going to take her to bed,” Hua Cheng deadpans, rolling his eye at the laptop screen propped up on his stomach. He chews irritably on his fake cigarette, rolling the tassel in his hand at the same time. “Now, of all times.”
“Why should I bet these delicious steamed buns if I think the same?” Xie Lian counters, biting into one; he savours the sweet and salty flavor of the filling, sighing happily. “Should you bet that the murderer is going to show up while they’re at it, so this poor gege doesn’t have anything good left to eat?”
“I could also bet that it’s going to happen in the basement.”
Xie Lian frowns. “Why would they have sex in the basement?”
“People fuck in weird places gege.”
“But not possibly in a creepy basement?” Xie Lian insists. He refuses, absolutely refuses to believe it.
Hua Cheng tears his eye away from the screen to raise both eyebrows at him.
“So.” He smirks. “Is gege betting? Three steamed buns.”
Xie Lian narrows his eyes at him. “One.”
Feeling pretty confident with himself, Xie Lian settles back, nestling against Hua Cheng’s side.
Later, as the male lead gruesomely gets impaled on a suspiciously misplaced stick before getting his head chopped off—indeed, in the basement, but with all his clothes on—Hua Cheng, as utterly unfazed by the gory display as Xie Lian is, sighs mournfully. He hands Xie Lian the last two remaining steamed buns.
“See?” Xie Lian says, gladly taking them. “I might not care much about these things, but I do know people do not have sex in creepy basements.” He offers one back to Hua Cheng for having been right on the basement, at the very least. “Unless you’ve got unexpected experience in that area, in which case I don’t know if I want to ask.”
Hua Cheng smirks. “No, no experience in that area.” Then, he adds in a humorous tone, “Gege should know my style better than anyone.”
“That’s true,” Xie Lian concedes. “I apologize for doubting your sense of survival. Thank you for not sleeping with me in your parents’ basement.”
They'd been seventeen, and curious. Xie Lian had wondered what all the fuss was about, and asked Hua Cheng if he wanted to try it.
It was the only time Xie Lian had ever seen Hua Cheng blush, but he'd said yes.
It'd been a mess, but not bad. Hua Cheng had taken it so seriously, even sticking out his tongue in concentration at times, that it'd made Xie Lian laugh. He'd bought the fanciest products he could afford at the time. He'd put on music, and flowery incense. There'd be a warmth in Xie Lian's heart back then, telling him, not for the first time, how lucky he was to have someone like Hua Cheng in his life.
Still, it'd never happened again; Xie Lian had decreed that, while it was enjoyable, he could do without. Perhaps he'd think about it if he was in a relationship—if that ever were to happen. But, until then, there was no point bothering himself with matters he barely ever thought about.
Xie Lian nibbles on the bun, checking the hour at the bottom right of the screen. It’ll be midnight soon, but he doesn’t feel tired at all. Turning to face Hua Cheng, he’s about to suggest they start another movie, but Hua Cheng’s eye is closed, his chest falling and rising evenly.
Xie Lian gazes at him for a moment. He reaches out to tuck hair away from his face and take off his eyepatch before closing the laptop and setting it by the pillow. Curling up by Hua Cheng’s side, he adjusts the blanket over them both, and falls asleep.
Xie Lian’s hair flutters in the wind streaming through the open window as he sings along to the song playing on the radio. Though he turns a crescent eye Xie Lian’s way every now and then, Hua Cheng’s focus is fixed ahead, the smell of the sea growing heavier with each passing li.
The music is so loud it’s deafening. Xie Lian rarely gets to do this; not only sing to his heart’s content, but also dance along in his seat, not having to worry about driving.
Captivated, E’Ming watches from where he’s lying on the dashboard.
“Gege, forgive me for interrupting you, but how far do you think we are?” Hua Cheng asks as the song ends and the radio host gives the artist’s name and song title.
“We’ll be there tomorrow by midday!” Xie Lian assures over the wind, having stuck his head back outside. His voice still carries the singing tones of the song.
A few minutes later, he pokes his head back in, his hair a mess. Seeing himself in the rearview mirror, he laughs. E’Ming jumps on his knees, asking for pets which Xie Lian happily indulges him in.
Xie Lian looks at Hua Cheng then; the relaxed lines of his face, the gentle spark in his eye whenever he glances at him. Each time, he smiles a little wider.
How much Xie Lian wants to see this everyday.
He suddenly feels sad. Reaching their destination, it also means getting close to having to go back. Go back, drop Hua Cheng home, and leave again.
For the first time, Xie Lian doesn’t want to. When he goes to visit Hua Cheng, he never thinks about leaving until the time comes, because it’s too painful. Having had Hua Cheng around these past few days, he finds he cannot imagine going back on the road, looking to the passenger seat, and only finding a memory of his presence there.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing.” Xie Lian smiles. He tip-taps the door handle, blowing away a thin lock of hair obstructing his line of sight. “I’m just excited to see the sea. San Lang, are you excited too?”
“Very much so,” Hua Cheng replies, twirling the pink pendant around his finger. Xie Lian has fondly observed how, these past days, it’s replaced the fake cigarette. “I’m glad I get to see it with gege.”
Xie Lian hums. Despite his building anxiety, his chest is enthusiastically bubbling. One reminder of Hua Cheng’s happiness to be here with him, and his sadness subsides. What’s the point of being sad now, when he can enjoy their time together to its fullest instead?
Cheering up, Xie Lian claps. He points to a small stand by the road next to a large playground full of laughing children, where a few people are already lined up. “San Lang, look! Let’s get ice-cream!”
They take a break with the setting of the sun, somewhere in the verdant hills. There are few habitations around, and the sky is so clear one might get dizzy looking at it too long.
Xie Lian climbs on top of the van with snacks and drinks from their latest town stop. From here, he swears he can hear the waves crashing on the cliffs, carried over on the wind. The sea’s not far. They’re almost there.
Hua Cheng settles next to him, handing him a thermal flask filled with freshly brewed tea and opening a bag of rice cakes, which he offers to Xie Lian as well without a word.
When Xie Lian takes a rice cake, he feels—he feels immensely happy. The two of them, it’s always been like this; simple and easy, moving around each other like they’ve never spent a moment of their lives apart.
They lie there, looking up at the sky, hoping for shooting stars. Xie Lian’s happiness turns into a quiet, nostalgic joy.
“Why did you never ask to come with me?” he asks offhandedly.
Hua Cheng doesn’t reply right away. He plays with the tassel in his hand.
“I liked missing you.”
Xie Lian’s brows furrow in confusion. “How do you mean?”
“I liked missing you,” Hua Cheng repeats earnestly. “For the feeling of seeing your van pull up again. Seeing you coming out, looking happy to see me.”
Xie Lian doesn’t say anything. It’s always been so easy to talk to Hua Cheng, but—he’s not sure what he’s hearing now is real.
Hua Cheng is silent for a moment, until he asks, in that same even, surprisingly vulnerable tone, “Gege, why do you come back?”
“You’re not going to ask why I leave?”
Hua Cheng shakes his head. “Why does it matter, if I know you’ll always come back? I still don’t know why, though.”
Xie Lian can’t bring himself to answer truthfully, so he brings his first question to the forefront again, hoping Hua Cheng will be sufficiently distracted by it. For some reason, he still isn’t ready to say why.
“San Lang, the other day you said we’d do this again,” he says gently, but firmly. “Do you promise?”
Xie Lian turns his head at the sound of Hua Cheng shifting in place.
The reply comes like a balm to Xie Lian’s heart. “I promise,” he says. “Gege, if you wanted me to, I’d go wherever you ask me to.”
Xie Lian looks at him for a long time, gaping like a dumb fish.
“You—you would?” he asks. “Anywhere?”
“Anywhere,” Hua Cheng repeats. His eye remains fixed on Xie Lian’s, so sincere it makes Xie Lian barely retain a choked gulp. “Gege, I don’t want you to wake up alone.”
Xie Lian smiles, but he doesn’t say anything; he moves so close to Hua Cheng that their arms touch, fingers brushing the back of his hand. His turn to be silent seems to stretch on long enough that they can see the moon travel across the inky canopy.
With Hua Cheng’s words echoing and the vastness of the night sky above, Xie Lian feels very small; but, not in an overwhelming way. Not in the way he did once, when the grey clouds over his head were suffocating, and the immensity of the world made him feel alone and vulnerable.
There’s movement overhead; a brilliant flash in the sky.
“Shooting star, shooting star!” he exclaims, pointing up to where the star just disappeared; leaving neither of them time to make a wish.
They fall into comfortable silence, waiting, hoping with bated breath to see another one, the conversation moving to the back of their mind; briefly forgetting everything but themselves.
At some point Hua Cheng moves a bit, and instrumental music drifts from his phone. The sound isn’t perfect, not smooth enough. Perhaps it’s even a bit cliché, but the melody is beautiful; it seems to flow with the air, carrying each muted exhale up to the sky.
Xie Lian doesn’t feel overwhelmed; he feels only wonder.
Xie Lian’s eyes widen suddenly; the biggest, brightest shooting star he’s ever seen crosses the twinkling sky in a brief stream of light. Xie Lian gapes in a breathless gasp.
The magnitude of his wonder turns into a silent laugh, a grin that stretches his lips so wide his cheeks hurt. His hand reaches for Hua Cheng’s, grasping it tightly as he makes his wish.
When an instant later another large shooting star follows, followed by another, Hua Cheng squeezes back.
Xie Lian isn’t sure why his eyes sting. Sometimes there is no way to express a feeling; only the lump in his throat and the net that seems to be holding it back, the devastating need to say it—grasping at it but never managing to catch it.
It’s strange, how there’s something familiar about it.
At this moment, Xie Lian doesn’t know how to express the sea of emotions that crashes in waves in his heart. There’s only a word to hang on to, and the hope that it’ll carry his feelings for him.
“San Lang—did you see that?” Xie Lian asks in an excited whisper, like he’s afraid it’ll break the spell of the moment. The song still plays, but there are no more shooting stars.
“Gege, did you make a wish?” Hua Cheng murmurs back.
Xie Lian nods. “Did you?”
“I did,” he says. His voice is uncharacteristically rough around the edges, but teasing. “Does gege want to hear it?”
Xie Lian tuts, carrying Hua Cheng’s hand over to his chest to give it a weak tap. “If you say it, it won’t come true.”
“It cannot come true if I don’t tell you about it.”
“Oh.” Xie Lian wipes at his eyes, still inexplicably wet. “Tell me, then.”
Hua Cheng says nothing for a while, but he subconsciously rubs slow circles on the pad of Xie Lian’s hand.
Then, as a small, final shooting star ignites the sky, he says solemnly, “I wished that gege would let me help make his own wish come true.”
Xie Lian freezes, his breath catching in his throat.
Xie Lian shifts, moving onto his side, propped up on one arm above Hua Cheng. His hand still holds Hua Cheng’s, over his heart. Looking down at him, Xie Lian finds him gazing up with that quiet, everlasting devotion. An edge of fragile apprehension, too.
Suddenly, Xie Lian knows what was so familiar about this sense of wonder. It’s the same that he feels around Hua Cheng; when he watches Hua Cheng sleep, catches him smiling his way from the corner of his eyes, or listens to him talk like there’s nothing Xie Lian could say that he wouldn’t want to hear.
This feeling of being so small, faced with something so wide and beautiful it feels overwhelming, out of reach despite being right there. Wonderful.
Hua Cheng smiles. “What is gege doing?” he teases. Then he seems to notice something, and his brow furrows with worry, all teasing gone. “Xie Lian—”
Xie Lian leans forward as he beams. His hair falls in a curtain around Hua Cheng’s face. He appears to be holding his breath, and his hand squeezes tight. If it wasn’t for the shine of the moon, Xie Lian wouldn’t see anything; but there’s this sliver of light, making Hua Cheng’s eye glisten. They’re so close their noses brush, and Hua Cheng hasn’t moved.
He’s staring hopefully, wide-eyed. He almost seems a little scared.
Xie Lian allows himself to be engulfed in that ages old sense of wonder, knowing he can’t drown from loving too much. Not when he should’ve known all along that Hua Cheng wouldn’t let him.
Xie Lian reaches through the paper window; closes his eyes, and kisses him.
He’s not sure why he does it; only that he’s been observing Hua Cheng talk, listening to the emotion in his voice as he spoke, recognizing himself in his careful apprehension.
Hearing his own wish, spoken back to him.
They walk along the sea in the early hours of the morning. They’ve only slept a few hours, but Xie Lian woke before dawn, entangled in the sheet as they always are, and dragged Hua Cheng out. He drove the remaining distance until the wide expanse of the sea welcomed them.
It’s like last night’s shooting stars have found a home in their eyes, their glassy surface sparkling at the sight of the ocean; something new that they get to discover together.
The water licks at their feet, beckoning them closer.
Ruoye is wrapped around Xie Lian’s neck, flicking his tongue at his chin, a delicate tickle. E’Ming trails behind them, avoiding the waves and jumping whenever his paws get too wet.
Xie Lian skips absentmindedly, firmly holding onto Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng’s other hand is busy playing with the pink tassel. Looking at it, Xie Lian’s smile is unrestrained; apart from the silver butterfly, it doesn’t go at all with Hua Cheng’s style; yet Hua Cheng can’t keep his fingers off it, like it’s the most precious gift in the world.
Not as delicately, however, as the way he kissed Xie Lian last night; like nothing could be as precious a treasure as Xie Lian himself.
Xie Lian bends down to pick up a small crab digging itself into the sand and show it to Hua Cheng. He enters the water until it reaches his knees and sends it back on its way before it misses the tide.
He jogs back to Hua Cheng, not wasting a second to take hold of his hand again.
“How long have you wanted to kiss me?” Xie Lian asks playfully, in the tone of casual conversation.
Hua Cheng gazes at him affectionately. “Gege, I've wanted to kiss you for a long time.” He shakes his head with a smile, like berating himself for how long it took him to say it. “But you know I’ve always loved you.”
Xie Lian grins. He brings Hua Cheng’s cold hand to his lips, blows hot air on it, and kisses it.
“I—” He pauses. Is he in love? Perhaps he’s been for so long that it’s become second nature. Is that how he ought to call the warmth he’s been keeping close to his heart for so long?
But does it matter? He’s always known he loved Hua Cheng, too. He’s told him, many times before. He adores how apart from kissing him, nothing’s changed.
He wouldn’t want anything to be different.
Xie Lian gets lost in his memories for a while, starting from the beginning. With no small amount of fondness, he recalls their unfortunate meeting, noticing Hua Cheng following after him, growing closer until they could never part, from children to teenagers to adults, and the many experiences of life—then, Xie Lian stammers in his steps.
“Wait, that time when we—were you already—” Xie Lian blurts. Hua Cheng looks a bit sheepish, and Xie Lian flushes. “San Lang, I'm sorry, if I'd known—”
“Gege, it's alright.” Hua Cheng laughs, looks at him with no resentment; only affection. “I was as clueless and curious as you were back then. I was happy to do it for you. And, though I was surprised, it'd be a lie if I said I wasn't glad you asked.”
Xie Lian doesn’t know why he laughs back. It’s so silly.
“So long,” he murmurs. “It’s been so long. . .”
So long, yet he doesn’t feel like they’ve wasted time, and his heart is fuller for it.
“If gege wanted to try again, I wouldn’t mind either,” Hua Cheng quips, and Xie Lian glares humorously, letting go to swat at him weightlessly.
Hua Cheng fights back, tickling Xie Lian’s sides until Xie Lian lets himself fall to the ground in his escape, taking Hua Cheng down with him. They’re not in the van anymore; there’s no rule stopping Hua Cheng from shamelessly taking advantage of his weaknesses.
They lie there, clothes and hair covered in wet sand. E’Ming peers worryingly at them from where he’s perched himself somewhere dry.
“I’ll think about it,” Xie Lian says smugly but, still breathless, raises his head to give Hua Cheng a kiss for his trouble.
He then pushes Hua Cheng off, sitting up facing the sea. When Hua Cheng sits up as well, Xie Lian lays his head on his shoulder, letting out a contented sigh. Ruoye readjusts his hold, having been shaken around, and E’Ming approaches to settle in Xie Lian’s lap.
“How do you like the sea?”
Hua Cheng hums pensively. He gazes at the horizon—a fisherman’s boat coming home after a hard night of work, the creamy orange of dawn caressing the scattered clouds—then behind them; they’ve returned to where they started, and Xie Lian’s old van seems to be watching over them.
Finally, Hua Cheng’s eye settles on Xie Lian.
Xie Lian wonders for an instant if he’s only talking of the sea.
“But I liked the journey more,” Hua Cheng continues. Before he interlocks their fingers over his knee, he leans forward to press his lips to Xie Lian’s temple, filling Xie Lian with quiet joy. Then, Hua Cheng whispers in his ear, “What would gege think of a travel companion?”
Xie Lian blinks slowly at him. His face, which had already been lit up by a smile, turns radiant; happy wrinkles gather at the corner of his eyes.
His answer is a kiss, cupping Hua Cheng’s face before turning it into a clumsy embrace.
Hua Cheng reluctantly parts them. “Gege, one condition.”
Xie Lian sits up at attention, straightening his back.
Hua Cheng gets so close their noses are brushing, then says sternly, “No more kiddie pool.”
The wind blows his hair in his face, but he doesn’t bulge. Xie Lian stares, before bursting into laughter, almost scaring E’Ming away.
Xie Lian isn’t willing to make a promise he can’t keep. So he rests his head on Hua Cheng’s shoulder once more, while Hua Cheng’s lays atop his.
Xie Lian wonders if, besides visiting his friends, there’s any point in going home. Running back to a piece of myself. Why, when home is right here, coming with me?
Here, basking in the kind rays of the rising sun, salt water splashing their feet.
Basking in each other’s steady love.