Zhao Zi has no expectations of what he’ll find the morning of his sixteenth birthday, the day that most people usually find a name written over their sternum. The name of their soulmate.
Zhao Zi does not ponder Fang Liangdian’s gender. He also does not wonder if they will also like food. If they love computers. If they think his acrobatic tricks will be weird. Or if they will love his grandmother as much as he does.
Instead Zhao Zi wonders if he’d be able to spot them on the street, if their first meeting will be as magical as movies and books make it out to seem. Zhao Zi wonders if he’ll be the one swept off his feet or the one sweeping someone off their feet. He also wonders if the name on his chest will burn, if his heart will flutter, if butterflies will suddenly tickle his stomach.
For the next several years, none of the above happen.
And unlike many of his peers, Zhao Zi does not mind. Instead, Zhao Zi assures himself that he’ll just know one day. It is, as they say, the way things go.
In retrospect, Zhao Zi realizes that truth is often stranger than fiction.
Much, much, stranger.
It feels strange, Zhao Zi belatedly realizes, as Jack throws him over his shoulder and then onto a couch in a dark room in Tang Yi’s house. Because despite all the menace in the glint of Jack’s smile, Zhao Zi finds himself unable to be afraid.
Some part of him, a part that Zhao Zi wonders if he should call an idiot or naive, instead feels safe being cornered by the red-haired mercenary.
Zhao Zi leans into it anyway, plays up the energy he feels bubbling up inside his chest, and somehow, Jack doesn’t resist. Zhao Zi begs, wheedles, complains, and jabs. Jack, despite his threats, seems to inevitably relent. And cooks all of Zhao Zi’s requests himself no less.
“Go on, eat,” Jack says with a confidence Zhao Zi has only seen from the famous chefs that he and Meng Shaofei have taken great pains to visit.
After the first bite, Zhao Zi isn’t sure if it’s his hunger or his palette that’s saying Jack deserves the confidence. After the next few bites, Zhao Zi is sure it’s his palette.
(But Zhao Zi hopes it’s just indigestion lurking just under his solar plexus after he gets released from his “captivity” and not anything more. Jack is, after all, a gangster.)
During their next meeting, Zhao Zi sneaks a not so subtle peak at Jack’s chest through his wet t-shirt after they fall into the pool. The chilling cold of the water seeping into his bones distracts him from the faint disappointment that Jack’s chest has no name written on it. The view of his impressive muscles helps as well.
For the third meeting, Zhao Zi hopes it’s indigestion again when Jack pokes his way around the small house Zhao Zi had shared with his grandmother. Even if it feels more like effervescent bubbles than gas or stomach rumbling.
In the fourth meeting, Zhao Zi tries not to think too hard about how easily Jack had predicted all the things he wanted to eat at the hospital. But the feeling is different again. It feels like warm hands cradling his heart. Like resting his head on grandma’s knee as she teases him while poking his nose. Like holding hands so neither person strays too far.
The fifth meeting, after Jack kisses him after his cheesy pick up line, feels like a lightning strike to his soul and Zhao Zi flees for his life. And in his fear, Zhao Zi does not remember the sensation of the kiss, nor the horrid way Jack delivered his line. Instead, Zhao Zi remembers the rapid beating of his heart, so fast it could burst into a thousand pieces in his chest and each piece would still be beating in unison.
The sixth, with the lunch box, feels sad and Zhao Zi tastes something else in Jack’s carefully prepared lunch box other than his expert touch with seasoning. Zhao Zi tastes conflict and sorrow and just a touch of pride and greed, all under something as loving as Yu Qi says should exist. For it is a happy blessing, when someone washes their hands and goes into the kitchen to cook for you. And that is a taste that cannot be hidden through the sour poison of a conflicted soul.
Meeting number seven ends with Zhao Zi feeling paralyzed, his lungs frozen in his chest as Jack tells him he might be leaving. Zhao Zi puts his head between his legs and tries to breathe deep, long after Jack has already stopped standing in front of his door. The breaths never get any easier.
The eighth meeting starts out tasting of salt from tears and sour beer. The pain in Zhao Zi’s chest won’t leave. The pressure pressing down on his sternum, on the name he’s carried for years over his heart, refuses to let up no matter what he does. Is Fang Liangdian gone?
“Has he left me too?” Zhao Zi asks himself as he looks up at the sky. “On top of everyone else…” Zhao Zi clenches a fist in his shirt over his sternum, “Are you gone now too?”
“Who’s left you, Shorty?” Zhao Zi doesn’t even startle as Jack sits down next to him. “Why are you out here at this hour?” Gentle thumbs wipe away the moisture under Zhao Zi’s eyes and Zhao Zi feels his eyelids flutter shut. “What’s got you so upset?”
It comes out in a rushing tumble, one that reminds Zhao Zi of the first time he’d tried to do a cartwheel down an incline and ended up as a flailing mass of limbs, sprawled out on foam mats. All the pain, all the sorrow, all the ways Zhao Zi feels he’s been abandoned by the people he’s looked up to, by the people he’s loved. Somehow, Zhao Zi’s words about being abandoned by someone he’s never even met fail to make it past his lips.
But the nausea sets in with Jack’s words.
“I’m leaving soon, Shorty.”
“Why?! Why are you leaving me too?”
“Are you saying I should stay?” Jack puts his arm around Zhao Zi and warmth and comfort overwhelm him immediately. “Are you saying I should drop everything for you?”
Zhao Zi’s hands cling to Jack’s shirt like a lifeline. “Please.”
Jack pauses for a second before leaning in. “I’m going to ask you one last time. Are you sure you want me to stay?”
And this time, despite how Jack’s name is definitely not Fang Liangdian, despite how Zhao Li’an is not written on Jack’s chest, despite how strange his lips feel from beer and the cold, Zhao Zi kisses Jack anyway.
Somewhere, under pain and hurt and anxiety, it feels like his chest lightens up again. And for the first time all day, Zhao Zi feels as if his lungs have taken in a full breath despite how Jack sucks the air right out of them again.
It’s only after Jack moves himself into Zhao Zi’s house and the two begin preparing dinner together that Zhao Zi asks the appropriate question.
Or at least, Zhao Zi hopes it’s appropriate.
“Jack…” Zhao Zi starts. Jack only hums in reply and doesn’t look up from the cutting board. “Is… is my name on your chest?” Jack’s body stiffens. The chopping finally stops and Zhao Zi feels his own body locking up.
Jack keeps his head down as he replies, “Does that matter, Shorty?”
“I…” Zhao Zi bites his lip. Jack does not resume his chopping. Zhao Zi exhales and inhales again. “Your name isn’t on my chest. It… it doesn’t say Jack.”
Jack’s body loosens by a fraction. But only just. “I had the name on my chest removed a long time ago, Shorty.” The chopping resumes, but it is not the fluid motion that Zhao Zi has become accustomed to. It’s mechanical in it’s staccato, more reminiscent of a factory line than a home chef. “I’ve long forgotten what it was.” The rhythm of the chops slowly regains its fluid stride. “So if you were expecting that-”
“I’ve never had expectations,” Zhao Zi says in a rush, trying to ignore the disappointment welling up in his chest. Trying to remember that you don’t have to fall in love with your soulmate, that it’s fine to fall in love with someone else. That some people go lifetimes perhaps, without ever meeting their soulmate. “I think… I feel…” Zhao Zi presses a hand over his sternum. “I think they’re gone now anyway, the person with this name.”
“So?” Jack’s motions stop again, but this time, he turns to face Zhao Zi with a small smile on his face. “Shall we two foolish and broken souls build something else together?”
Zhao Zi takes in the lightness of Jack’s tone and how the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Yeah, we’re our own family now anyway, right?” Zhao Zi walks over to nudge Jack with his hip. “So who cares if we’re not…”
“Whether we are or are not,” Jack says quietly, as if gently correcting. “Whether we are or are not soulmates, it feels right in here.” And Jack carefully pokes Zhao Zi’s chest with the handle of grandma’s chef knife. “And that’s what should matter.”
“Yeah…” And Zhao Zi, instead of poking Jack’s chest, cups his left pectoral instead and squeezes. “What we feel right here.”
“Shorty, you should at least have dinner with me first!” And suddenly the emotional haze is broken and Jack laughs, bright and clear.
Zhao Zi forgets about Fang Liangdian and whatever name Jack might have had on his chest for the next few months as he and Jack settle in, as Tang Yi’s court case moves forward, and as Meng Shaofei’s energy crests and wanes with every other hearing. But Zhao Zi knows in his heart Shaofei will be fine, knows that the pair of ridiculously lucky soulmates will make it through Tang Yi’s incarceration as strong as ever and meet on the other end with open arms.
(However, if Zhao Zi has anything else to say, it’s that it’s one fucked up courtship to drive each other mad through police investigations over the death of one’s mentor and the other’s apparent birth mother until the sexual tension builds up amid life-or-death crises.)
But the night that he and Jack have decided will be their first time, Zhao Zi cannot help but stare at the slightly off-color strip of skin over Jack’s sternum, the place where someone’s name was once written. At the same time, Zhao Zi presses a hand over his own, where Fang Liangdian’s name still lives, even if he perhaps does not.
And Zhao Zi means perhaps. There is no emptiness under his chest, slowly fading away with time, as many people who have lost their soulmate have described. There is only the feeling of a bright light seen through sunglasses. Or water trickling through a hole in a dam.
Either way, Jack pulls the comforter over both of them as he slides into bed and even in the dim light, Zhao Zi’s hands find their way to Jack’s chest. Zhao Zi’s fingertips trace patterns that he’ll deny are his name into the strip of scar tissue and Jack says nothing but reaches for Zhao Zi’s shirt hems. Immediately after Zhao Zi’s shirt is cast aside outside of their cocoon away from the outside world, things continue for a total of thirty very pleasurable seconds, until Jack kisses his way down Zhao Zi’s neck to his chest.
And finds the three characters written in black on Zhao Zi’s sternum.
“Jack?” Zhao Zi raises his head up from his pillow in concern. “Is something wrong?”
Calloused fingers gently trace soft skin. “The name here…”
“Fang Liangdian.” Zhao Zi reaches for one of Jack’s hands and grasps it. “You said… you said it doesn’t matter.”
“It shouldn’t, but…” A ghost of a smile is pressed against the first character. “I thought everyone had forgotten this name. I’m surprised to see it here.”
Zhao Zi sits up properly this time. “Jack? What are you-”
“It looks like, we’re a little more meant to be than I thought, Shorty.” Jack presses a hand over the characters as he kisses Zhao Zi’s forehead. Both touches feel like a brand somehow. “Fang Liangdian is not dead, Shorty.” Another kiss, pressed over each eyelid. “He’s someone who lost his way, gave up everything, and still ended up with a great treasure.” The final kiss to Fang Liangdian’s name feels like dynamite blowing up the dam in Zhao Zi’s chest. “He’s right here in front of you Zhao Li’an.”
Zhao Zi feels his jaw drop in indignation despite happiness flowing through him. “You… You’re…”
“Fang Liangdian was my birth name.” Jack rolls off of Zhao Zi to lie beside him instead. “It’s been a long time since anyone called me that.”
“But what about-”
“It feels right, when you write your name over my heart, Shorty.” Jack smiles up at Zhao Zi.”It feels like it should be there.”
“Should be doesn’t mean it was!”
“Well…” And this time Jack’s smile turns infuriatingly smug. “What if I told you I sent out a request for something from one of my very, very old overseas lockboxes? And what if I told you that what’s in that lockbox is something I got removed a long time ago.”
Jack is still smiling and laughing as Zhao Zi attempts to smother him with his pillow, yelling all manner of curses and names. But Zhao Zi can’t deny the feeling flowing through him now that the dam has been torn down. Now that he knows Jack’s birth name. Now that he knows maybe, just maybe, his name was once on Jack’s chest as well.
Because now he feels the radiance in his heart, in his soul, of loving his soulmate, of loving the person whose name he’d carried for years through highs and lows.
And it feels as good as people described.
(Of course, Zhao Zi takes every moment he can to rub it into Shaofei’s face, especially after any disparaging comments Shaofei makes the day after he finds out about Zhao Zi’s lost virginity.)