let ruin end here
let him find honey
where there was once a slaughter
let him enter the lion’s cage
& find a field of lilacs
let this be the healing
& if not let it be
— “little prayer” by Danez Smith
Hua Cheng is hiding in a toilet stall which is covered in phosphorescent graffiti. Music throbs through the floor. He shouldn’t, he thinks, his thumb hovering over Xie Lian’s number. It’s a bad idea for a thousand reasons. He’s drunk. He’s high. He’s somewhere he isn’t supposed to be. And yet, what else can he do? He Xuan fucking ditched him. Yin Yu isn’t picking up. The only responsible adult he knows, the only one who won’t fucking deck him or call the cops, is Xie Lian. Perfect Xie Lian who will be so disappointed in him. Who won’t say, “You know better than to take random pills He Xuan hands you,” but he’ll be thinking it.
He has no choice. He can’t go home. He can’t stay here. He calls Xie Lian.
“San Lang?” Xie Lian asks after two rings.
“Is something wrong?”
Hua Cheng runs a hand down his face. “I need help. I’m — yeah.” He doesn’t need to say it. Xie Lian knows. This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.
He can hear rustling on the other end, imagines Xie Lian already climbing out of bed, pulling on his pants. “Where are you? I’ll come get you.”
The room is spinning. The glowing graffiti pops off the walls and floats around, laughing at him. He rattles off what he thinks is the name of the club. They went to a few. Just an hour ago, he was grinding against some thin, pretty thing with chestnut hair.
“I’ll be there soon,” Xie Lian promises.
“Yes, San Lang?”
When Hua Cheng was ten, he moved in next door to Xie Lian, seventeen. Xie Lian was everything Hua Cheng wanted to be, and later, everything he wanted. He was the only one who noticed the bruises, which Hua Cheng tried hard to hide under his clothes and beneath his shaggy hair. But nothing could get past Xie Lian.
“When it gets bad,” Xie Lian said, handing Hua Cheng a key, “you can let yourself in. You’ll always be safe here.”
Hua Cheng’s parents barely noticed his absence. Xie Lian’s parents were rarely home, but the kitchen always had food. There was a TV to watch, video games to play, books to read. A quiet place to study and work on his homework. He was there more often than he wasn’t. Xie Lian was busy usually. Active social life. Ton of extracurriculars. Sports. But it was fine. The attention he could afford to give Hua Cheng was more than he deserved.
One night, it did get bad. Hua Cheng’s eye was swollen shut, side of his face throbbing. He couldn’t even remember what he’d done to piss his father off. He stumbled over to Xie Lian’s house and, as quietly as he could, let himself in. It was dark, but by then he knew the layout well, knew what floorboards to avoid. He hesitated outside Xie Lian’s bedroom door. The light was on beneath it. Up late studying, probably. He knocked lightly and a moment later Xie Lian opened the door.
“San Lang,” he said, squatting down, looking at Hua Cheng’s battered face in the light. “Does it hurt?”
Hua Cheng shook his head. Pain was pain. It didn’t matter.
“Come on, let’s get the swelling down.”
In the kitchen, he sat on the counter, a bag of frozen peas against his face while Xie Lian scooped a couple of ice cream sundaes. Hua Cheng hadn’t eaten dinner, so he ate his own and over half of Xie Lian’s, and by the time he was done, he was full and sleepy. Xie Lian invited Hua Cheng to stay the night, laid out some blankets on the floor beside his bed.
Hua Cheng will never forget that night — Xie Lian’s face peeking out over the side of the bed to check on him, long hair falling down, close enough to touch.
“Are you comfortable?” Xie Lian asked.
Hua Cheng nodded. He paused and asked, “Gege?”
“Yes, San Lang?”
“Will we be friends forever?”
Xie Lian reached down and took his hand. “Of course we will. I’ll always be here for you.”
A few months later, Xie Lian moved away to university. Hua Cheng met He Xuan. Good kid, bad circumstances. They didn’t even like each other, but there was no one else. No one who got him the way He Xuan got him.
In retrospect, he doesn’t remember if He Xuan dragged him into this life or if it was the other way around. The competitiveness between them, always looking for worse things to try. Ways to hurt themselves and each other. Waiting for consequences to catch up with them.
Four years later when Xie Lian came back, Hua Cheng was no longer the battered kid seeking a safe place. He wasn’t anyone. Xie Lian wasn’t the same either. He seemed smaller, took up less space. A heaviness hung around him, but Hua Cheng never had the courage to ask what happened, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know what to say.
Xie Lian’s parents noped off to another country, left him with the house. Hua Cheng doesn’t know why he stayed. He spends most of his time thrifting, fixing stuff, upselling it online. Seems like more of a hobby than a job, but it’s not like he needs the money.
They don’t hang out. They’re not friends. The only time they talk is nights like these when he has no one else to turn to. Nights he takes a sledgehammer to rock bottom.
Now, Xie Lian silently drives him home. Hua Cheng watches the streetlights pass, trails of light streaking lines across the sky.
As Xie Lian parks, Hua Cheng looks at his own house, windows dark except for the basement light. His father, up late watching TV probably, asleep in his chair. Hua Cheng’s head is beginning to throb; his stomach twists. Whatever He Xuan gave him, he’s never taking it again.
Xie Lian hasn’t changed a single thing about the house. It’s all pastels and chrome like the mid-eighties when it was built. The only difference is that now it’s a mess, boxes and bins of junk, useless trash that Xie Lian sees and gets attached to, thinks might be worth something. You only need a little love, he used to tell Hua Cheng. A little love, and anything can be made whole.
He takes Hua Cheng to the guest room, what used to be his bedroom before he took the master. The room where Hua Cheng slept on the floor and held his hand. The room where Hua Cheng once felt loved.
“Do you need anything?” Xie Lian asks.
He shakes his head. If he opens his mouth, things will come out. Words he’s not allowed to say. He slouches onto the bed, looks down at his feet. There’s a hole in his sock. He tucks that foot behind the other.
“I’ll be across the hall if you need anything.” Xie Lian waits a long moment, and adds, “I don’t like that you do this to yourself, but I do like when you’re here. I like knowing you’re safe.” He hesitates just a beat longer, and leaves.
It gets worse before it gets better. He is curled on his side, dragging in breaths through his clenched teeth. A migraine pulses behind his eye. He vividly imagines plucking his eyeball out. He drowns in memories — open-handed smacks and close-fisted swings. Nights hungry, pulling up the floorboard in his bedroom to eat a candy bar he got at school three months before, that he saved for a foodless evening. His brothers and their torturous hands. Every fight he’s ever picked, all the ones he lost. Worse, the ones he won. This is how he spends his life: scraped knuckles, strung out and spitting blood.
Somehow he makes it to the bathroom, pukes up that shitty fruity drink some girl bought him. Tears stream down his face and he can feel his vocal cords vibrating. He thinks his brain is splitting in two — the happy and loving man he could have been, and whoever the fuck he is now, the thing inside him that makes him do stupid toxic shit. Distantly he can hear himself scream. The sound breaks like a dry twig and suddenly he is sobbing, head on his arm, crying pathetically into a toilet.
Eventually he pulls himself together, takes a few ragged breaths, spits, flushes. Collapses on the tile. He does not know how long he lies there, half conscious, but the next thing he knows, a cool wet cloth is being pressed to his forehead, his cheek, his neck.
“Gege,” he says, his throat raw. He tries to pull away, but Xie Lian keeps a hand on his arm. He is so much stronger than he looks.
“It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Hua Cheng doesn’t fight it, lets Xie Lian pull him to sitting, tip a glass of water to his lips. Every place Xie Lian touches him sends a shock of agonizing pleasure through him.
“Do you know what you took?”
“Little white pill,” he says. “Or blue.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Whole bottle of baijiu.”
Somehow without his noticing, Xie Lian has wrapped him in his embrace and has begun rocking him a little. Hua Cheng’s forehead is pressed into the crook of his shoulder, and he grips Xie Lian’s shirt tightly in his fist. He doesn’t deserve this.
Xie Lian runs his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair. “Hm?”
“If I tell you something,” he begins, his tongue heavy, unsure if he’s even making sense, “will you promise to pretend I didn’t say anything?”
“I can try.”
Hua Cheng listens to Xie Lian’s heart beat a little faster. “I miss you. And it’s stupid. I never had you. You were just — and I was —” He stops, forces himself to speak clearly. “I was a kid. And you were everything.” He tries to bite back the next words, but they spool out of his mouth anyway. “You still are.”
“San Lang —”
“I want to be good. For you. But I’m not. I’ll never be good.”
“Oh, San Lang.” Xie Lian presses a kiss to Hua Cheng’s forehead. “You are good. You are.”
Hua Cheng leaves before Xie Lian wakes up the next morning. He still feels sick. He spends the day in bed, crashing. His mother pounds on the door. Eat something, she says, before you get any thinner.
He showers. Dresses in clean-ish clothes. His hands are shaking. He flips on the kettle. All he can stomach is hot water. He glances out the window and sees Xie Lian in his kitchen, standing on a stool to put away a plate. As he steps down, he looks out the window. Hua Cheng isn’t fast enough. Their eyes meet across the short distance between their houses. Xie Lian smiles. Hua Cheng throws out the rest of his water and goes back to bed.
It is only a matter of time before his father picks a fight. Or maybe he picks a fight with his father. He never knows how they start, only how they end. His father is smaller than him now. Has been for a few years. Yet Hua Cheng has always frozen when met with his anger, always just stood there and took it. Covered his head with his arm, tried to protect himself as best he could. This time it’s different. This time, after his father gets in one good swing, he feels calm. You are good, he thinks. He feels a soft snapping sensation inside him, and before he knows what he is doing, he raises his hand and strikes his father down. His father crumples like a paper ball. His mother starts screaming. Hua Cheng shoves past her, to his bedroom, where he begins to pack his things.
Xie Lian opens his door. “You have a key,” he says in response to Hua Cheng knocking. His eyes fall to the duffel bag. “Are you staying this time?”
“If I can,” Hua Cheng manages, but can’t lift his gaze high enough to meet Xie Lian’s.
“Of course you can.”
Xie Lian steps aside and Hua Cheng enters like he has a thousand times before, but this time, he does not feel the crushing dread of knowing he will have to leave again. Xie Lian takes him to the guest room, shows him the dresser drawers and the closet like Hua Cheng wasn’t here just a few days ago.
“I’ll put a grocery list on the fridge,” Xie Lian says, sounding more excited than Hua Cheng has heard him in a long time, “and you can write down anything you need.” He glances around as if he has just now noticed all the junk. The guest room has mostly been used for storage, filled with towering stacks of boxes, minimal room for, well, anything. “I’ll clear all this out for you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want you to be comfortable.” He pauses when he gets a good look at Hua Cheng’s face in the light. “Oh, San Lang.” He tips Hua Cheng’s chin up, brushes his hair away from his face to see the bruise, the split in his cheek. “I’m so sorry all this keeps happening. I'm sorry I left you.”
The words shock Hua Cheng, and he stands there frozen the way he usually does when his father screams at him. Xie Lian wraps his arms around his neck. For a brief moment, his body tenses. But it is just a hug. He drops his duffel and wraps his arms around Xie Lian.
“I’ll take good care of you,” Xie Lian says. “You’re safe now.”
Someone is shaking his shoulder. “San Lang? San Lang, wake up.”
Hua Cheng rolls over, away from the sound, bracing himself for the inevitable hangover pulsing in his temples when he decides to open his eyes.
By his ear, in a sing-song voice: “I made you pancaaaakes.”
Hua Cheng’s eyes shoot open. He sees a stack of boxes obscuring a window, dust and cobwebs over the sill. Outside, a thick blanket of snow covers the grass and trees. A hand is on his waist. He turns over and Xie Lian is smiling down at him.
“Good morning,” Xie Lian says. He is holding a spatula.
Hua Cheng sits up and runs a hand through his hair. No hangover. No pain. No feeling more tired than when he went to bed. His back does not have its usual twinge from sleeping on a bed too small for him. He could go outside and run a marathon, probably. He could lift a car. Is this how other people feel all the time? Glad to be awake?
“Pancakes,” he repeats, like a foreign word. He has not woken up to breakfast in — ever. If he’s lucky, he’ll throw together one big meal around four p.m. that will have to get him through until the following afternoon. Sometimes he goes days without eating at all.
“They’re probably not any good, but I tried.” Xie Lian is on the bed with him, on his knees, hair tied up loosely on his head. He is wearing a frumpy, frayed sweater three sizes too big, and cozy-looking pants that make Hua Cheng wonder if his day clothes and pajamas are one and the same. As someone who passes out in his jeans more often than not, Hua Cheng has no room to judge.
“I’m sure I’ll love anything gege makes.”
He did not think pancakes were meant to be the color and density of tar, but he eats them anyway. He can’t quite tell if they’re supposed to be sweet or savory, but they are somehow both, plus a little spicy. In all, they are surprisingly not bad. He has eaten worse, and he has gone hungry enough that he will never turn away food. Even food that does not at all resemble food.
Xie Lian waits at the edge of his seat, watching him eat, hands clasped together under his chin. Hua Cheng clears his plate and asks, “Is there more?”
He sleeps and sleeps. And when he is not sleeping, he feels feverish, nauseated, whole body aching. He does not know why it’s happening. He was never addicted to any one thing. He only ever took what was handed to him. And yet the process feels not unlike a metamorphosis, cocoons and butterflies and all that. Dissolving into goo to be remade into something better.
Xie Lian checks on him frequently. Feeds him. Refreshes his water. Constantly asks him if he’s warm enough. Gives updates on his online auctions. It seems like he buys far more than he sells. He leaves to mail packages multiple times a day. He cannot sit still.
At night, Xie Lian climbs into bed with him, props himself on some pillows, reads Hua Cheng stories like he used to when they were younger. Hua Cheng always told him he was too old to be read to, but Xie Lian ruffled his hair and did it anyway, and every time, his quiet, even voice lulled Hua Cheng to sleep.
Now, just as then, Hua Cheng slips into an easy sleep. He half-awakens to the feel of lips pressed against his forehead, Xie Lian saying, “I’m glad you’re here.”
As Hua Cheng stumbles into something resembling normalcy, Xie Lian attempts to create some kind of organizational system for all his junk. Unfortunately he is not an organized person, and so the system is doomed to fail. Hua Cheng gently offers his feedback, and eventually they set to work.
The first and most insidious challenge is that Xie Lian seems to love every single object he possesses. They don’t make much progress, but Hua Cheng enjoys the hours they spend together, Xie Lian picking up some random thing, a rusty spoon or a filthy jacket or a half-used pad of paper, and telling him a story about it. Where he found it, what he once used it for. It is difficult for him to put anything in the “give away” pile, either because he acquired it hoping to sell it, or because he wants to be certain it will find a good home. He cannot bear the thought of one of his precious objects gathering dust at a thrift store, or worse, being thrown away. Sometimes, Hua Cheng gets rid of things he thinks are trash — broken pens, plastic cutlery, those little table things that keep pizza boxes from crushing the pizza — but Xie Lian digs them back out, brushes them off, and puts them back. Hua Cheng does not know how anyone can hold so much love.
Hua Cheng is an irritable person. He has a short and volatile temper. He’s critical, judgmental, dislikes nearly everyone he meets. His entire life, he assumed that anyone who would ever try to love him would give up on him the moment they saw how ugly and awful he really was. Or the opposite, he would find anyone who got close enough to him utterly intolerable, and leave. He keeps waiting for the pop, the moment Xie Lian’s eccentricities start to feel like sandpaper. He fears his own snapping moment where he will shout or scream or throw something. Where he will storm out of the house, find He Xuan, and drink himself into nothingness. He has had Xie Lian on a pedestal so long, surely, he thinks, surely he will fall from it, and Hua Cheng will feel stupid for ever having loved him.
That does not happen. Xie Lian flosses and cuts his toenails while watching TV. He wipes his nose with his wrist. He snorts when he laughs, and he laughs at things that aren’t even funny. He says “um” too much. He has two friends and they’re both assholes. He types with three fingers and his off-brand laptop is held together by duct tape. His lips and hands are dry and he does not notice or do anything about it. He chews on his hair. He has two little moles on his throat. When the sunlight hits his eyes just right, they turn amber. He goes on walks and brings Hua Cheng things he finds — flowers, rocks, feathers, an empty robin’s egg. He covers Hua Cheng’s bare feet with his many, many afghans, insisting they must be cold when they really are not. He asks every day how Hua Cheng is doing, and compliments him, and hugs him.
They are watching television. Hua Cheng’s head is in Xie Lian’s lap, and Xie Lian idly strokes his hair. When the show ends, Hua Cheng rolls onto his back. Xie Lian smiles down at him. A lock of hair slips out from its place behind his ear and graces his cheek. That’s when it happens. The pop. Except instead of angrily storming out of the house, Hua Cheng feels an easy calm settle over him. It all feels so inevitable now. He is going to be okay.
A new and unexpected problem arises. Hua Cheng is helping Xie Lian reorganize the kitchen cabinets. He reaches up to put what looks like a very old teapot away, and when he goes for another ancient kitchen relic, he finds Xie Lian staring at his ass. Rather, he finds Xie Lian immediately looking away from staring at his ass, busying himself with some dishes in the sink while his ears turn bright red.
When Hua Cheng was a kid, his crush was a simple one: he found Xie Lian beautiful and kind, and wanted to be around him as much as possible. As he grew older, he began to have certain kinds of dreams and thoughts, and as much as he tried not to, couldn’t help but imagine Xie Lian while he touched himself. And then much later, when he began to fuck anyone who would let him, he always, always closed his eyes and imagined it was Xie Lian beneath his hands. Xie Lian panting and moaning and begging for his mercy.
Never once did he consider that Xie Lian might reciprocate that attraction. Xie Lian seems above such base desires. Hua Cheng can’t imagine him actually having sex — in part because he seems too pure and chaste, but also because the thought of him with anyone else sends Hua Cheng into a state of anger so acute that it feels as if his body cannot contain it.
He picks up a chipped teacup. He tells himself he imagined it, that Xie Lian could never see him the way he sees Xie Lian. He puts the cup away.
The next time it happens, Hua Cheng is coming out of the shower, a towel around his hips, and finds Xie Lian putting some of his clothes away. He has begun doing Hua Cheng’s laundry, at first a couple items because he needed a full load, and now he just does all of it, despite Hua Cheng’s protests.
Xie Lian glances up at him, words in his mouth that never make it out. His eyes fall to Hua Cheng’s chest, his hips, and downward. His lips part slightly. He looks away. “Sorry, I just thought I would — before you —”
Hua Cheng steps closer. Xie Lian’s hair is down, and Hua Cheng swipes it away from his shoulder, keeps his fingers there, brushing against Xie Lian’s neck. He can see Xie Lian’s pulse fluttering in his throat. He resists the urge to put his mouth there, suck a mark to his pretty skin. Xie Lian has to know. Has to know Hua Cheng would spend every second of every day in worship, kneeling at his feet.
Xie Lian shuts the dresser drawer and backs away. He will not meet Hua Cheng’s eyes. “I’ll be, I, I’m going to make some tea.” Then he slips away, closing the door firmly behind him.
After a while, it becomes somewhat unbearable. The collarbones that peek out of Xie Lian’s frumpy sweaters. The way his tongue pokes out when he’s thinking. His deft, quick hands that never seem to stop moving, because he is always touching things, picking them up, inspecting them, breaking them, putting them back together. His cheeks eclipsing his eyes when he smiles.
Hua Cheng’s sexual thoughts have always been somewhat gentle, even innocent compared to some of the things he’s done, but now they have taken on a life of their own. He cannot look at Xie Lian without imagining bending him over and fucking him right on the spot. Bringing tears to his eyes, a choked sob in his throat. Hua Cheng wants to fall to his knees and suck Xie Lian’s cock for eternity. At night, he imagines Xie Lian tangled in his sheets, wrists bound and legs spread while Hua Cheng lovingly fucks him into a coma.
To say he feels guilty for these thoughts is an understatement. Some days, he cannot look Xie Lian in the eyes. He convinces himself that what he sees as signs of interest are actually just in his head. Xie Lian is probably not interested in men, and if he is, he would never want someone as ugly as Hua Cheng, with his punched-out eyes and skin littered with scars.
He decides he just needs to get it out of his system. A quick lay with the first person he can find, and he’ll come back and everything will go back to normal. His thoughts about Xie Lian will return to their usual easy but distant longing.
He looks at his phone for the first time in days. He Xuan has messaged him dozens of times, all of them irritated and none of them worried. Most of them are about how he scored some drug from some dude that he wants to try out. There is one picture of Yin Yu trying to roll a joint. The last message is an invitation to go to a club where He Xuan “knows a guy.” To what nefarious end, Hua Cheng does not know. He replies, Sure.
“I’m going out,” Hua Cheng says.
Xie Lian looks up from his shitty laptop and stares dazedly at Hua Cheng like he forgot what planet he was on. He is holding a cup of tea that Hua Cheng is sure has gone cold.
“Do you want company?”
“No,” Hua Cheng says quickly. “Don’t wait up for me, okay?”
The way Xie Lian’s face falls is enough to make Hua Cheng want to stab himself in the chest.
Hua Cheng moves to leave before he changes his mind. Xie Lian says, “Wait.” He gets up and plucks a scarf from the back of a chair, wraps it around Hua Cheng’s neck. “It’s cold.” It’s not that cold.
“I’ll have my phone on if you need anything.” His hands are still on the scarf. “Did you eat something?”
“I’ll eat later.”
“Are you sure? I can put something together for you.”
Hua Cheng will not bring a packed lunch to a seedy club where he intends to hook up with the first stranger who makes eye contact with him. “I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Xie Lian tightens the scarf a little, smooths it down. His hands work their way up to Hua Cheng’s face, cup it in his palms. “Please be safe.”
“Do you promise?”
Hua Cheng puts his hand on top of Xie Lian’s, and as much as it pains him to do so, pulls it away from his face. “I promise.”
He orders a drink. He doesn’t drink it. He Xuan has brought with him an array of opiates. Hua Cheng declines. A drunk girl comes over and starts talking to him. She is pretty in that soft, curvy way he usually likes. She is the combination of confident and coy that often seals the deal for him. Yet he cannot bring himself to play the game she wants to play. Eventually she gives up. He looks at his phone. It has only been an hour. Xie Lian has not messaged him. Of course he wouldn’t. Hua Cheng made it clear he wanted space tonight. But he wants the opposite of space. He wants to be so close to Xie Lian that he is not sure where his own body ends and Xie Lian’s begins.
Yin Yu, trying to be helpful, introduces Hua Cheng to some pretty boy as if in offering. In the dark, the pretty boy is a decent enough Xie Lian lookalike. Long hair, firm body. He is openly eager, would probably be more than happy to go outside and get fucked against the side of the building. Quick and dirty, the way Hua Cheng tells himself he enjoys.
Hua Cheng places his still-full beer back on the bar and tells Yin Yu he’s leaving. He Xuan is nowhere to be found, probably on the dance floor where he’s happiest — amid a sea of people, chasing his weekend high. Hua Cheng feels sorry for him. He does not bother to say goodbye.
When he arrives home, he glances over to his parents’ house. Dark. His brother’s car is parked on the street. He does not feel anything about it. That is not his home, was never his home. Will never again be a place he returns to at the end of long, lonely nights.
Inside Xie Lian’s house, he finds him curled up on the couch, asleep, the TV on and muted. Hua Cheng kneels down, swipes a lock of hair off Xie Lian’s face. Xie Lian stirs, opens his eyes, smiles.
“Did you have fun?”
Xie Lian’s smile widens. “Good.”
Hua Cheng kisses him. For a second, Xie Lian kisses back, a shocked, quiet sound in his throat. Then he turns away.
“It’s not —” Xie Lian begins. “It’s just. I watched you grow up, we can’t —”
“I don’t care. I want you. I only want you.”
“You’re just saying that. I know I look at you like — I know you know.”
No, until this moment, Hua Cheng did not know.
“You don’t have to repay me for helping you,” Xie Lian adds. “This isn’t a transaction.”
Hua Cheng’s brain grinds to a halt. He did not consider that Xie Lian would see this as taking advantage of him. Taking advantage of Hua Cheng, who is eighteen, significantly larger than Xie Lian, and for once, presently of sound fucking mind.
“It’s not a transaction,” Hua Cheng says. “I’ve been in love with you my whole life.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Do you want me to lie? I would do anything for you. I would die for you.”
“I don’t want you to die for me. I want you to live with me.”
“I am. I will. As long as you’ll let me.”
Hua Cheng cannot help himself. He kisses Xie Lian again. This time, Xie Lian yields. Hua Cheng tries to restrain himself, keep it soft and gentle, but Xie Lian is gripping his hair, pulling him closer, licking into his mouth. Hua Cheng imagines picking him up, taking him to his bedroom, undressing him. Fucking him slow and easy for hours on end.
Xie Lian pulls away. “We can’t. We really can’t.”
“We can.” Hua Cheng chases after his mouth, but Xie Lian sits up and brings his knees to his chest.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Xie Lian says, his eyes downcast. “In college I had an affair with one of my professors and it —” He stops, works his jaw a couple times, like it is painful just to admit. “He wasn’t very nice to me.”
Hua Cheng’s hands curl into fists. “What did he do?”
“Nothing like that,” Xie Lian says quickly, although Hua Cheng doesn’t know what that is. “When he got angry he liked to break my things. And he never punished me with grades or anything, but he could have. He could have done a lot worse to me than he did, and even though he didn’t, I was always aware of it, of all the ways he could have hurt me. I don’t want to have that kind of power over you.”
It makes sense now. Why Xie Lian went off to college as one person and returned as another. Why he obsesses over the things he owns, patiently fixes everything broken, refuses to throw anything away.
Calmly, Hua Cheng asks, “What is his name?”
Xie Lian gives him a long look. “I’m not telling you. This isn’t about him.”
“I think it is.”
“You think I don’t dream about burning your parents’ house down? People hurt us. It’s just something we have to live with.”
Xie Lian is right. Hua Cheng knows he’s right. He wraps his hand around Xie Lian’s ankle, just to be touching him, to make this conversation seem real. On one hand, he never thought he’d be having it. On the other, he wonders how he can continue living his life knowing there is a man still walking this earth who has hurt Xie Lian.
“Just tell me what I have to do. To have you.”
Xie Lian stares at a point at the far end of the couch. “I want you to be able to support yourself. So you can leave if you need to. So I know you’re not just doing this because you feel beholden to me.”
“I can support myself.” In high school, rich kids used to pay him to beat people up. He made some side income delivering dime bags. It’s not noble work, but it’s fast and lucrative, and he’s good at it.
Xie Lian gives him a sharp look. “Legally.”
A job. Hua Cheng has never considered it. He never thought he’d live long enough to get one.
“Don’t you want to have a life outside of me?” Xie Lian asks.
“There is no life outside of you.”
A dark look comes over Xie Lian. He swallows heavily. His hands clutch the ugly blanket over his lap. Hua Cheng wants to cut himself open, bleed himself dry for Xie Lian. He wants to debase himself at Xie Lian’s feet.
“If you’re as serious about this as you say you are,” Xie Lian says, “then you should be willing to be patient.”
Patience is not a virtue Hua Cheng possesses. He makes things happen, and he makes them happen immediately. Yet he would also do anything Xie Lian asked of him.
“Fine,” he says. “I’ll find a job.”
Filling out applications on his shattered phone proves to be a monumental task. He did not graduate high school. He cannot put “punched people for money” and “sold drugs” as work experience. The personality questionnaires make him think he might be a sociopath.
Every time he is within two meters of Xie Lian, the air feels thick and heavy, and he has to grip the nearest steady surface to keep himself at bay. Xie Lian pretends everything is fine and normal, except the rare occasion Hua Cheng catches him staring, looking as parched and overwhelmed as Hua Cheng feels.
Eating meals together, watching television together, packing and unpacking boxes together — all of it becomes agonizing. Once, Xie Lian’s hand brushes Hua Cheng’s, and Hua Cheng gets an erection. In the hour that follows, he has applied to ten more jobs.
Xie Lian lends him money to buy a suit. Before leaving for his first interview, he asks Xie Lian how he looks. Xie Lian drops the folder of shipping papers he was holding.
Hua Cheng is not a pleasant person. He is not good at interviews. He talks to everyone like they are stupid, because they are. He knows being a rude, condescending asshole will not get him a job, and yet he would rather commit murder than be nice. He decides to begin pretending the interviewer is Xie Lian. It worked for sex, why not this?
It is only marginally better. During sex, he mostly only saw the back of his partners’ heads. In interviews, he has to stare down middle-aged, bulbous-nosed buffoons. Yin Yu sets him up with Quan Yizhen who, despite only being a few years older than Hua Cheng, owns a huge company. Even after reading a stack of paperwork on it, Hua Cheng has no idea what the company is or does. Quan Yizhen is one of the few people Hua Cheng has met who is as much of an asshole as he is, and seems to value assholery in others. It’s just a warehouse job, third shift, but the pay is decent and the work is steady.
After Quan Yizhen calls to offer him the job, Hua Cheng rushes down the stairs and finds Xie Lian humming a song and stirring a pot of something that smells like burnt grass. He means to say he got a job, but instead he pushes Xie Lian against a wall and kisses him.
“Let me suck your cock,” Hua Cheng says.
“San Lang, no.”
“But I got a job.”
“You have to actually start the job.”
Hua Cheng makes a frustrated sound through his teeth. “Do you at least believe now that I want you?” The next words rip from his throat without thought. “That I love you?”
“Oh, San Lang.”
“Yes, but —”
“You’re so young. You have your whole life to find someone better.”
“Even if there is someone better, I’m not interested.”
“You’ll get bored with me after a while. You’ll grow out of me and move on.”
Grow out of him. Like Xie Lian is a pot holding Hua Cheng’s roots. No, Xie Lian is the whole fucking planet, the very earth beneath their feet. He is too immense to be grown out of. “Since I was ten years old, not a day has passed that I have not thought of you. I will never grow out of you.”
“You say that now, but —”
“No,” Hua Cheng says. “I’ll never stop loving you. I’ll never leave you.”
Xie Lian’s lips are parted, eyes wide. Then just as rapidly, his expression clouds over. “You can’t mean that.”
“I’ll prove it to you.”
Xie Lian will not let Hua Cheng kiss him or do anything else to him until he has a bank account and enough money to live on his own for three months. Hua Cheng tells him he will literally die if he is unable to kiss him. Xie Lian tells him he can have one kiss per day.
Hua Cheng makes his one kiss count. He likes to take Xie Lian by surprise — while he’s turning the laundry around, fixing an old radio, refreshing an auction page repeatedly. He makes them last — five minutes, fifteen. Once, nearly an hour. He gets Xie Lian worked up, trembling and panting, his cock hard against Hua Cheng’s hip.
Hua Cheng is worthless in all aspects of life, but he excels at two things: sex and violence. He knows how to make someone want him, or fear him. Once, instead of kissing his lips, he lifts Xie Lian’s shirt and begins sucking at a nipple. “What are you — ah!” Xie Lian says as Hua Cheng bites down. He works one over with his mouth and the other with his fingers. Xie Lian never specified that his one daily kiss had to be on the mouth. He is as sensitive as he always hoped, writhing beneath him, fingers in his hair, telling him they shouldn’t do this, this isn’t what he meant. Hua Cheng works him over for so long that Xie Lian comes in his pants, completely untouched.
The next day, Hua Cheng kneels between Xie Lian’s legs and mouths his soft cock over his thin cotton briefs. It takes no time at all to get him hard, and only a few swipes of his tongue over the head of his clothed cock to make him come.
And the next day, as he is leaving for his first day of work, he gives Xie Lian a brief peck goodbye. When he pulls away, Xie Lian’s eyes are still closed, waiting for more. He opens them and frowns. “That’s it?”
“Rules are rules,” Hua Cheng says, “one kiss per day,” and heads to work.
Training for the job involves sitting alone in a room and watching a two-hour safety video that looks like it was filmed in the eighties. Hua Cheng sleeps through it. The job is pulling boxes from one side of the warehouse and carting them to the other. There is ample down time, and the one other guy on duty has no interest in speaking to him at all. It’s perfect.
Every morning, he arrives home as the sun is rising. Every morning, he tells himself he’ll go to his room and go to sleep. Every morning, he goes to Xie Lian’s room instead, undresses, climbs into bed with him. He presses his cold feet to Xie Lian’s calves. “You’re so cold,” Xie Lian says sleepily, and takes his hands between his own, presses them to his chest, warms them.
Hua Cheng gets his first paycheck. He opens a bank account. His mom calls him and he thinks about ignoring the call but picks up. She asks if he is staying with that “nice family next door” and he says he is, and he is happy and safe. She asks if he is ever planning to come home. He says no and she says nothing, and he knows she will miss him but can see it is for the best. They do not talk about his father.
After only a month, Hua Cheng is promoted to shift leader, which comes with a raise. One more paycheck, and he will have the amount Xie Lian told him he had to save. It took longer than anticipated because Xie Lian made him buy new shoes, clothes, a functional phone. To celebrate his promotion, Xie Lian bakes him a cake, and later, Hua Cheng rims him out for an entire hour. Xie Lian comes twice.
One afternoon, Hua Cheng wakes up and finds Xie Lian washing the dishes, comes up behind him and holds him. Xie Lian tells him something about an estate sale. Hua Cheng’s hands wander beneath his shirt, up to his chest. He is hard already, cock pressed against Xie Lian’s ass. He trails down to Xie Lian’s hips, fingers dipping beneath the waistband. “Want to touch you,” he says, “please.” Xie Lian hesitates briefly and nods. Hua Cheng slips his hand into Xie Lian’s briefs and strokes his cock, glances over Xie Lian’s shoulder and looks at it in his hand — pulsing, hard, wet at the tip. His cock is as perfect as the rest of him. Hua Cheng pinches and twists a nipple with his other hand. Xie Lian braces himself on the sink and pushes back against him. He knows it will count as his one kiss but he can’t help it — he kisses Xie Lian’s neck, bites at the sweet curve of his shoulder, sucks his earlobe.
“San Lang, oh, San Lang —” Xie Lian says, and comes over Hua Cheng’s fist, the sink. He reaches back and cradles the back of Hua Cheng’s neck, continues grinding against him, and Hua Cheng comes too, feeling more strung out than he ever did on He Xuan’s pills.
Hua Cheng gets his direct deposit on Friday and shows Xie Lian the balance of his account.
Xie Lian hugs him. “I’m so proud of you, San Lang.”
No one has ever been proud of him.
“Are you hungry?" Xie Lian asks. "Should I cook you something?”
“I want to fuck you for twelve hours straight.”
“Oh thank goodness.” Xie Lian drags him upstairs, into his bedroom where they undress so fast that a button pops off Hua Cheng’s shirt.
When Hua Cheng goes to work him open, Xie Lian looks up and away and says, “I’m ready already.”
Hua Cheng reaches between his legs and he slips two fingers inside. “Fuck.” He imagines Xie Lian working himself open in the shower and nearly comes from the thought alone.
Just as he is admiring Xie Lian’s body while he slicks himself up, he notices that Xie Lian is staring wide-eyed at his cock. “Maybe not that ready.”
“Do you want me to —”
“No. Fuck me now, please.”
Hua Cheng does not have to be told twice. He lines himself up and slides in, watches Xie Lian’s head tip back, eyes closed and mouth open. The most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He starts slow and shallow, lets Xie Lian adjust to him, but soon Xie Lian has his ankles wrapped behind Hua Cheng’s back and is urging him faster and harder. He whispers praises — how good Hua Cheng is, how much he loves him.
Xie Lian rides him for a while and it is a spiritual experience. Hua Cheng finds it hard to lie still, ends up gripping Xie Lian’s hips and fucking up into him. He puts Xie Lian on his hands and knees, and Xie Lian says, “Come in me. Need you to come in me,” and thank god, because Hua Cheng has been on the brink so long he can feel it in his teeth. He reaches around and fists Xie Lian’s cock, and just the weight of it in his hand tips him over the edge. He comes, Xie Lian clenching around him as he comes too, just as hard. After Hua Cheng pulls out and collapses onto the bed, he already knows it will take a long, long time before he is satisfied.
As if reading his mind, Xie Lian says brightly, “You owe me eleven more hours.”
In late spring, he sees a For Sale sign in his parents’ yard. He approaches the house and peeks in the windows. It’s empty. He wonders how he missed the moving vans, why his mother didn’t tell him. Maybe for his own safety. Or maybe she just didn’t think of it.
He tells himself he doesn’t care. He has gone back to hanging out with He Xuan, who has a girlfriend now who doesn’t let him do drugs or drink anything with a higher alcohol content than wine. He Xuan, unable to obliterate his own massive mind anymore, has turned to the absolute last resort of intellectual stimulation: college. Now, instead of daring each other into increasingly stupid things, they play video games. And talk. When He Xuan is not being a dick, he is a moderately tolerable person.
One day, when Hua Cheng is more mature, maybe he will apologize to He Xuan for spending so many years in a mutually toxic friendship. For egging each other into dangerous situations. For feeding each other’s self-hatred. And maybe He Xuan will apologize too.
Quan Yizhen, despite Hua Cheng’s efforts to be the worst employee possible, continues to promote Hua Cheng, and now he works in an office processing accounts receivables. During the day. Wearing a tie. He answers emails. He tells Xie Lian he hates it. Xie Lian knows he doesn’t.
The guest room is now the “stuff room,” and Xie Lian’s things are for the most part organized. He has found a consignment shop owned by a woman, Yushi Huang, who has a deep respect for Xie Lian’s tastes and will buy almost anything off him. He has been able to get rid of a great many things knowing the consignment shop will be a good and loving home for them. He still cannot throw anything away, but he has become an avid recycler.
Later that night, while washing dishes and pretending not to stare out the window at his parents’ former house, Xie Lian asks, “What’s wrong? You’ve been spacey all day.”
Xie Lian frowns in that way that makes Hua Cheng tell him anything.
“My parents moved.”
“No, I’m okay with it. Not having anything to do with them.”
Xie Lian smiles proudly up at him. Hua Cheng bends down and kisses him.
Sometimes it still strikes him — he will never starve. He will probably never swing another punch. He has a savings account, sleeps eight hours a night, eats breakfast and preps all his lunches on Sundays. And even though he has always felt so much older than he is, every day he feels a little younger, a little more alive.