It was in the middle of the produce section while comparing bags of potatoes that Jack realized he had started a routine. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Jack was glad that he was comparing potatoes instead of boxes of eggs since he’d dropped them in shock.
In the morning, after his early run, Jack would pick up ingredients to make a lunchbox for Zhao Zi. During afternoon break, he’d drop it off, nice and warm. Zhao Zi would wait for Jack at the end of the day so they could do dinner together.
It was dangerous. As a mercenary, Jack knew a routine could get you killed. A routine meant you thought you were safe enough to have a pattern. A routine meant someone would know where you were at any one point in time.
Jack picked up his preferred bag of potatoes. Zhao Zi still hadn’t given him an answer yet anyway. He’d live, just like he promised. Even if someone knew this was his favorite grocery store. The cashiers always gave him a ridiculous discount on the total purchase after he smiled. You couldn’t beat a deal like that.
(But you could beat the idiot who thought he could mug you in the parking lot. Jack took a particular pleasure in it. After all, it was his civic duty to prevent crime. And the old ladies around here always had such helpful cooking tips. He’d hate for the mugger to think he could try again on one of them.)
When Jack sorted his laundry, he found a pair of Zhao Zi’s underwear.
Jack had long since forgotten what embarrassment was, but coloring of his ears reminded him that this was what it might have felt like. Jack quickly folded Zhao Zi’s trunk-cut underwear and put it to the side out of sight. He tried to tell himself not to imagine Zhao Zi wearing them, how the trunks would probably end just below his ass.
It took several more pairs of underwear, each with its own particular fantasy, and one of Zhao Zi’s silly t-shirts before Jack realized he’d mixed both their clothes together in the laundry that day.
Jack hadn’t even thought about it. Just picked up Zhao Zi’s laundry bag as he’d asked and dumped it all together into his larger washing machine to save time, soap, and water. It was after the fifth silly t-shirt that Jack remembered this wasn’t the first time he’d done this.
It was the third.
(It was also the third time in a month that someone had been punch drunk in Zhao Zi’s neighborhood in the middle of the day when Jack had gone to pick up the laundry. And really, what would Grandma Zhao have said if Jack let him meander about yelling at people or trying to shank them with his broken bottle? Throwing the man into a dumpster to sleep it off was the kindest thing to do. Jack considered it a plus that he didn’t even stab the man back a little. Or break any limbs. Did a finger count as a limb?)
While washing his hair, Jack caught a whiff of the foamy shampoo and immediately recoiled.
For as long as Jack could remember, his shampoo was unscented to prevent associations with smell. And yet today his shampoo smelled of ocean salt and the breeze off of cotton sheets.
It was Zhao Zi’s shampoo.
A moment of cognitive dissonance occurred over how Zhao Zi’s shampoo had gotten into his apartment when Jack realized he wasn’t in his apartment. He was showering in Zhao Zi’s because Zhao Zi had insisted on “helping” with the cooking tonight and instead spilled fish sauce all over Jack. Faced with the strong smell, Zhao Zi had insisted Jack clean up in his shower while he washed Jack’s clothes.
Dressed in a t-shirt that was only a hair too small and sweatpants a good couple inches too short, Jack also found himself invited to stay the night.
“It’s really no problem,” Zhao Zi said while waving his chopsticks around, but his eyes didn’t leave Jack’s chest, stuck on the way the fabric pulled across it. Jack was torn between pride and sulking since the only thing Zhao Zi seemed to have come to a decision about was appreciation of his muscles. “And I should have offered a while ago. It’s always so late when you leave after dinner. I’ve been a bad host.”
“It’s fine. It’s not that late.”
“Just think of it as a sleepover tonight!” Zhao Zi’s expression was so soft and bright that Jack found himself unable to say no.
“Alright. Sure. By the way, where are my things? Did you empty my pockets before throwing everything in the washer?”
“Of course I did!”
(Jack found his stuff in the guest bedroom after watching a few movies with Zhao Zi. “Grandma’s bedroom actually,” Zhao Zi had said as he opened the door. His phone, wallet, and keys were placed in a neat row on a dark wooden nightstand covered with a pale blue doily. His gun and butterfly knife were also placed neatly on the same nightstand. The sight of his weapons against such a charming nightstand and crocheted doily almost made Jack sick. The thought of Zhao Zi putting them there, sullying his hands with Jack’s dirty tools did the trick.
The worst part of it all, was that it was still the most restful sleep Jack had had in an age.)
Jack looked around after sneezing for the fifth time. Every surface in his apartment was covered in a thin layer of dust. When Jack went to his bedroom to change into his more casual clothes to clean the house, he found several of his favorite jackets and shirts missing.
It was only after he had managed to wipe down the living room and start on the food that had gone bad in his fridge that Jack realized it had been more than a week since he’d actually been in his apartment for longer than an hour at a time. Or at least awake for more than an hour.
One sleepover at Zhao Zi’s had turned into several. To the point where Jack had left several sets of clothing behind. Even his exercise gear had moved over. All groceries bought on his morning runs were stashed into Zhao Zi’s fridge and kitchen instead of his own.
As Jack scrubbed his stove clean, muttering a litany of apologies to the kitchen god Zao Jun, he felt his heart stop when he said, “I’ll make an offering when I get home.”
Jack blinked. “Aren’t I home?”
Jack straightened his back and looked around. The apartment was sparsely furnished to begin with. Jack had never cared for keeping too many trinkets, too much stuff to take care of or move in a hurry. There were no photos or decorations on the walls unless they were hiding stashes. Jack’s bedroom was just as plain. All his clothes, he could fit in one large duffel bag.
Most of the room would be taken up by Jack’s emergency supplies anyway. Everything else could be abandoned if need be.
The apartment had never been home. It had been a place to sleep, to cook, to exist in between hours of the day. Even the word was foreign on Jack’s tongue. But when Jack whispered, “This is my home,” a different place came to mind, warm, cozy, and lively.
“Jack, is everything okay?” Zhao Zi put a gentle hand on Jack’s arm. To his credit, Zhao Zi didn’t even look at the lunch box. “You didn’t come by yesterday evening.”
“What are we, Zhao Zi?” Jack squeezed the handle of the lunch box with a grip so tight, his knuckles turned white. “What am I to you, Zhao Li An?”
Zhao Zi’s eyes went from concerned to troubled. “You’ve never called me by my name.”
Jack directed his pained eyes from the ground to Zhao Zi’s face. “Li An.”
“Don’t say it like that!” Zhao Zi waved his hand about as if dispelling a bad smell. “It sounds weird when you say it with such a painful face!”
“So how should I say it?”
“Well…” Zhao Zi broke eye contact with Jack and looked at the pillars of the police station.
“How about I make a deal with you?”
Zhao Zi’s gaze returned. “For the lunch box?”
“No, for your name.” Jack grabbed Zhao Zi’s wrist with his free hand, ensuring he couldn’t run away. “If you tell me your answer, I’ll say your name anyway you want. Even if it’s a negative answer. I just need… an answer.”
“Jack…” Zhao Zi kicked at the pavement and tried to pull his arm out of Jack’s hand. “I don’t know…”
Jack sighed. “Did you know that most of my clothes are at your house now?”
“Did you know that I’ve been doing your laundry and mixing our clothes together? Did you know that I’ve been buying groceries and putting them in your fridge instead of mine?” Zhao Zi gulped and Jack leaned in. “Did you know that I spend more time at your house instead of mine?” Jack let go of Zhao Zi’s arm. “Did you know that I’ve forgotten what it means to have a home?
“It’s been a long time since I called any place home. In my line of work, you can’t have a home.” Zhao Zi stayed quiet, but his eyes softened. “I don’t even remember my home with my family anymore. I just remember what my mother’s cooking tasted like. I remember the sunlight through the tree branches in our backyard. I remember the sounds of local dogs barking at night.
“But when I think about the word ‘home,’ I don’t think about my apartment or those memories.” Jack looked down at the ground. “I think about you. I think about your grandma’s house. I think about all her things you’ve saved, all the things you’ve collected, all the ways I’ve changed and fit into your life. And I think it’s the closest thing I have to a home now.”
Jack looked back into Zhao Zi’s eyes. “So please, tell me what we are.” Jack took Zhao Zi’s hands, ignoring how they were just a little bit cold. “Tell me there’s a place in your life for me. Tell me that I can share your home with you.”
“Jack…” Zhao Zi’s hands trembled. “This is too much… You can’t just… dump all these things on me! This is just like when you kissed me!”
“You… I don’t…” Zhao Zi removed his hands from Jack’s and pulled at his hair. “What am I supposed to say now? How can I say anything now?”
Zhao Zi ran back into the police station.
Even after Jack waited another ten minutes, Zhao Zi did not come back out. Not even to snatch the lunch box from Jack.
Zhao Zi returned home that night without waiting for Jack. He did, however, leave fifteen minutes later than usual.
Jack wasn’t there waiting for him anyway.
Nor was he at Zhao Zi’s house.
The lights were all off. There was no piping hot dinner waiting for Zhao Zi. The whir of the washing machine was absent. Where everything had once felt warm and happy, Zhao Zi was annoyed to find it cold and unwelcoming.
Even his grandma’s picture seemed judging instead of happy and welcoming.
Zhao Zi turned on all the lights he could without deeming it a waste. Then lit all his grandma’s scented candles that he could find without making a fire hazard. Lastly, he turned on the TV to any channel as long as it provided noise. It did nothing to help the unease in Zhao Zi’s stomach.
“I’m just hungry,” Zhao Zi muttered to himself before investigating the kitchen.
Jack had thrown away all of Zhao Zi’s microwave meals. Instead, Zhao Zi found all their leftovers neatly packed and labeled with several boxes of rice all portioned out already. The grumbling of his stomach made Zhao Zi reconsider slamming the fridge door shut in a fit of pique.
It was all for naught anyway. The unease didn’t dissipate, even after a healthy serving of Jack’s fish curry, pickled vegetables, and jasmine rice.
Zhao Zi shut off everything, blew out all the candles, and went to bed early. He pointedly ignored his overflowing laundry basket, and threw himself into bed.
Even with the comfort of his dinosaur plushie, Zhao Zi tossed and turned all night.
“You look like death, even upside down,” Jun Wei said as he watched Zhao Zi perform a handstand. “What’s got you so twisted?” Zhao Zi opened his mouth. “No, that’s not an invitation to do your crab walk either.”
“My brain hurts.”
“And making blood rush to it will help how?”
“Maybe if I have all my blood there, I’ll stop thinking and it’ll stop hurting.”
“To stop thinking, you’d have to start first,” Shao Fei called out from behind his computer.
“Senior! You shouldn’t be so callous!” Yu Qi’s voice rang out from the coffee station.
Zhao Zi slapped the floor. It hurt more than he had expected. “Are all of you going to shout my business to the entire department?”
“Everyone already knows your business.” Jun Wei crouched down to look Zhao Zi in the eye. Zhao Zi scrunched up his face in protest more than effort. “Anyone with half a brain knows it’s because Jack hasn’t come to see you all week.”
“Bullshit!” Zhao Zi turned to Shao Fei. “Ah Fei, tell Jun Wei it’s not true!”
Shao Fei gave Zhao Zi his most deadpan stare. “It’s totally true.”
“Even Tang Yi says Jack is moping.”
“Did you two have an argument?” Yu Qi put a mug of something down by Zhao Zi’s computer before sitting down at her own. Zhao Zi smiled at her in thanks. “I didn’t think anything made you two argue. You’ve been dating for months now without incident.”
“We have not!”
“What? You’ve been painfully obvious!” Jun Wei threw his hands up in exasperation. “He brings you lunch every day and takes you home every night for dinner. You smile every time he texts you and when you open your damn lunchbox.” Jun Wei made a face. “And ever since that night you said he slept over-”
“You’ve still been over the moon.” Jun Wei poked Zhao Zi’s forehead which finally made him fall onto his stomach with a whine. “So what could you two possibly have fought over?”
“It’s not that simple!”
“So explain it,” Shao Fei said as he helped Zhao Zi stand up. “Start at the beginning.”
“He… He said he likes me and I haven’t responded yet.” Zhao Zi twiddled his thumbs to avoid everyone’s stares. Even Chief Shi gave him a weird look from his office door. “I’m not leading him on!”
“Except you are.” Shao Fei slapped the back of Zhao Zi’s head. “Your grandma is rolling over in her grave at your bad manners.”
“How long ago did he say?” Yu Qi pressed Zhao Zi’s mug into his hands. Zhao Zi smiled at her.
“Uh… a few months ago?”
“A few months ago? Like when he started bringing you lunch every day?!” Jun Wei slapped his forehead. “Zhao Zi, it’s been five months!” Zhao Zi continued to pout. “You really have to talk to him!”
“But I don’t know what to say!”
“Just tell him how you feel. Be honest,” said Shao Fei. “Be honest with him and yourself.”
Zhao Zi grumbled and stalked off. No one followed.
When they were packing up for the end of the day, Zhao Zi returned and tugged on Shao Fei’s sleeve.
“Is Jack still at Tang Yi’s house?”
Shao Fei tapped his phone a few times. “Yes.”
Zhao Zi took a deep breath. “Can you take me there with you?”
Jack stared into the depths of Tang Yi’s pool. Had it been so long since he had fallen in when trying to catch Zhao Zi? So long since he was sure it could be a sure thing between them? Clearly there had been some manner of physical attraction, even if Zhao Zi wasn’t entirely sexually attracted.
Jack glanced at Tang Yi out of the corner of his eye. Tang Yi had come out to join him, but stayed silent. After his phone beeped a few times, he sighed and got up.
“Your moping is throwing off the feng shui of the house.” Jack glared at Tang Yi who only shrugged. “Go mope elsewhere. Someone is here to take you somewhere else,” Tang Yi said before walking off.
“I’m sorry my mood is upsetting your love nest with Officer Meng!” Tang Yi only waved him off.
“Jack.” Jack twitched. How long had it been since someone had snuck up behind him. “Jack, I want to-”
“I thought you gave me your answer.”
Zhao Zi shook his head furiously. “That wasn’t an answer!”
“Seemed pretty final to me.”
“You’re so quick to dismiss me?”
“ You dismissed me .”
Zhao Zi sighed. “It was a lot to take in, Jack.” Zhao Zi sat next to Jack and leaned against Jack’s back. Jack did not shake him off. “I’ve never thought about that sort of thing. What if you were in my shoes? Could you be so decisive?”
“With my experiences and lack thereof.”
“And when both times, it was sprung on you as a surprise.”
“Okay, you have me there.”
Zhao Zi let himself relax a little more against Jack’s back. “So I’m not sorry it took me so long to reply to you. Will you let me?”
“I don’t think I can say no, even if I wanted to.” Jack turned to look at Zhao Zi over his shoulder. “I’m listening.”
Zhao Zi turned and hugged himself against Jack’s back. “Everything has felt wrong since you left. And I think… Everything changed so slowly I hadn’t realized it until you were gone.” Zhao Zi clung tighter. “I go home and now that you’re not there, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.
“Grandma used to say home isn’t always a place. Sometimes we find our home in people.” Zhao Zi clasped one of Jack’s hands in his. “Maybe we’ve found a home in each other now.”
“I think I like you, Jack.” Zhao Zi rested his head in the crook of Jack’s neck. “I think I’ve liked you for a while now.”
“Of course you did.” Jack shakes his head. Zhao Zi tries not to giggle at the way Jack’s hair brushes his face. “You were the bright one who thought I’d live forever if you didn’t answer. You wouldn’t think it if you didn’t like me.”
“But here we are anyway.”
“Here we are anyway.”
Zhao Zi stood up and extended his hand. Jack stared at it. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
Jack’s smile was small, but soft. “Yeah. Let’s go home.” Jack took Zhao Zi’s hand, but pulled him down. “Can I kiss you?”
Zhao Zi smiled. “Okay.” But as Jack’s lips drew closer, Zhao Zi pressed a finger to them. “But I want braised beef noodles for dinner tonight.”
“Deal.” Jack pushed Zhao Zi’s hand out of the way, savoring the feel of the lips that had haunted his memory ever since.
The feel of kissing through smiles was a new one though.