Shen Wei is the Ghost King, born out of the unyielding chaos of entropy that had consumed the underworld before the creation of the wheel of reincarnation. He's the cosmic guardian of death and all her darlings, and the universe through the lens of his eye is rife with demons, hungry ghosts, and shadows creeping out of their places. He's lived for 5,000 years; he has lost his brother; he has loved and mourned and loved again a god.
So there is absolutely no way he is getting sick.
"There's really no reason to worry," he tells a wreath of doe-eyed grad students.
"Professor, you sound terrible," pleads Cui Liyang. Third-year, working on reproductive biologics. Once bared her teeth at a male undergrad when he hit on her and then hissed at him like a cat. She's Zhao Yunlan's favorite.
"You also look terrible," adds Li Wei. First-year, terrified of Shen Wei, Liyang, their lab manager, dogs, his own shadow. Beautiful handwriting. Will absolutely suffer a psychological collapse before achieving his doctorate. "And you never look terrible."
"That's kind but an overstatement," Shen Wei replies, and favoring both of them with what he hopes is a firm but affectionate expression, he says, "Now — please don't worry anymore and focus on your work this afternoon."
Usually, Shen Wei is utterly indifferent to temperate changes in their glossy, high spec new building, but today the lab is uncharacteristically freezing. He goes through four cups of tea before his head starts hurting from the air conditioning.
"It's not the air conditioning," says Han Jiayi. "You've got the flu."
"That's completely impossible," he tells her.
Jiayi was the eighth person he'd interviewed for the admin role when he'd signed on at the university, and she's old Shanghai through and through: West bank, thoroughly unimpressed by him, her name drew good karmic energy, and her family name had a reassuring proximity to Shen in the Hundred Names Book. She shrugs off all the little troubles and ghosts that tend to eddy in the corners of campus, feeding off of the river of unhappiness and upheavals from the 30,000 students having first loves and terrible undergraduate careers and posting angry flyers about the leadership of the anime club.
Jiayi narrows her eyes at him. She's 10, maybe 15 years older than him, and she says she practices her glaring on her son; Shen Wei assumes it's why she's so terrifying and effective. He once ripped the throat out of a vampire using his bare hands, and he still makes Yunlan look over messages he sends her on Sunday nights.
"You look even ghostlier than usual and you're wearing two sweaters," she informs him, and reaches over to put a hand on his forehead, scowling. "And you have a fever."
Jiayi's palm is gloriously cool, and she still carries the vapor traces of incense from the family memorial they keep in their front hall: warm and lingering with the good wishes of her grandmother and great aunts and uncles. He leans into her touch — he feels heavy, weighty, all over — and wishes he wasn't so tired; his afternoon biology lecture is going to be a nightmare.
"I don't get fevers," he says to Jiayi, because the idea is ridiculous on its face; Shen Wei can plunge everyday spaces into fathomless winter with just his presence.
Jiayi ignores him and plucks out her phone; she has a look on her face that means she's no longer interested in Shen Wei's opinion. It's an expression he has always been forced to respect, whether it came to administrative activities, student activities, his class load and schedule or, evidently, his personal life. He's thought sometimes about trying to draw some boundaries but he can't operate the university's online grade submission system and he's terrified she'll leave him.
"Hello?" she says into her phone, and from the other side, there's a tinny voice that — even distorted — is very familiar.
"Oh, no," Shen Wei says — to Jiayi, to the air, to no one.
"It's me," she goes on. "Sorry to interrupt you, but your you-know-who is sick here, has a fever and everything — can you take him home today?"
There's a din of tinny shouting from the phone — "Oh, no," Shen Wei repeats morosely — and a lot of Jiayi raising one eyebrow, then both eyebrows, then squinting and biting her lip. The progression is troubling to the extreme.
"He's in Beijing," Shen Wei tries, feeling more wretched by the second. "He's at a mandatory law enforcement conference. He's learning about modern Communism."
When Shen Wei had woken up that morning alone in their bed, he'd stared at their ceiling and felt very sorry for himself for almost 30 minutes before he'd dragged himself out of the blankets and gone to the bathroom. He'd brushed his teeth and read through the 209 separate WeChat messages Zhao Yunlan had sent between yesterday night at 11:34 p.m. and 6:30 that morning — at least 12 of which were admonitions on which plants to water and which plants he was explicitly not to water.
"Okay — we'll do it like that," Jiayi says into the phone, and hangs up. "Well. He's in Beijing and he said if he tries to leave his father will jump off a building for shame."
"See," Shen Wei says.
"However," she tells him, scowling, "it's been decided that you're staying in your office and resting until someone can come get you, and someone else can handle your 3 p.m."
Shen Wei gets a flash of his grad students' schedules. "Liyang has an experiment running — she can't do it this afternoon."
"Li Wei is here," Jiyang says, and starts pecking away at her phone. Shen Wei hears the 'ding' of a message sent, and from down the hall, Li Wei yells, "Professor Shen, no!" JIayi looks unmoved. "There."
"Jiayi, he'll die," Shen Wei pleads, clutching his class notes to his chest. "What will I say to his parents?"
"That he perished on the battlefield like a man," she retorts and claws them out of his hands. "Now — sit there, drink tea quietly, and just wait. Mrs. Police Man said someone would be along to fetch you within the hour."
Shen Wei's always had an unconventional relationship with time.
Minutes, hours he can manage, but when time starts to stretch out into longer and longer periods, they all begin to blend and blur together. What's a year to a creature whose age reaches back before the first dynasties? During the Tang Dynasty, he lost an entire decade, sleeping inside a monastery — finally stripped to the bone and too tired to wake — and had come awake groggy with his own mourning to find he'd been entombed inside a golden Buddha statue as a saint along with about 4 liters of honey.
That day, sitting in his office, it's waking up in the Buddha again: eyes sticky and his limbs slow. Shen Wei stares numbly at a faraway corner of his office listening to his phone chirping with alert after alert, wondering how much time has passed since Jiayi had pressed onto him a cup of steaming tie guanyin tea and deposited him at his desk.
Everything takes forever; he feels like he's swimming, and after two separate tries, he's finally able to grab his phone — there are 12 messages from Li Wei, all different WeChat sobbing emojis — to check the time.
Except before he can focus on the clock, he sees a message from Zhao Yunlan instead.
Ah-Lan: Shen Wei-ah! You're sick! I didn't think it was possible!
Ah-Lan: I'm sorry I can't get away to come take you home. :(
Ah-Lan: Don't worry, Mom said she'd come get you. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
"What," Shen Wei asks his phone, the same time there's a knock on his office door, followed immediately by Jiayi's incandescently happy face as she peeks in and then leans back to call over her shoulder:
"You're just in time, Madam Zhao. He's got that half-dead-not-alive look, and he's just frozen at his desk."
Shen Wei has no idea what face he pulls, but when Zhao Yunlan's mother steps into his office, she favors him with a look of transporting pity.
"Oh, Shen Wei," she says.
Shen Wei rushes to his feet — it sends a cascading wave of nausea through him, and his vision doubles for a beat — and it's with a shaky, odd voice he manages to say, "Madam Zhao — I'm — I'm so sorry for this, honestly, he shouldn't have — "
"Madam Zhao!" she cries, cheeks gone red. "Still calling me Madam Zhao!"
Zhao Yunlan, you life ruiner, Shen Wei thinks. "I-It would be inappropriate to—to call you — "
"And still," Madam Zhao exclaims, before waving off whatever else Shen Wei might say, preempting his protestations, and makes for his satchel, whipping it open and — with troubling accuracy — starts packing his work: papers to grade, outlines to review, administrative errata, a letter of recommendation he's only just started.
"Oh, please, I can do it," Shen Wei tries, to absolutely no avail, especially because Jiayi arrives like a targeted strike, holding up his winter wool coat and saying, "Here, here," before stuffing his numb arms into the sleeves, shrugging it over his shoulders.
"You know, I can't say anything else for that useless son of mine, but at least he knows when to ask his betters for help when he needs it," Madam Zhao is lecturing, and turns to Jiayi to add, "Jiayi-ah, we've really troubled you today — next time, we'll have to take you out for dinner. Xiao-Lan's treat."
"Madam Zhao," Shen Wei pleads, trying to take his satchel from her.
The look she pins on him is enough to freeze the hellish hoards.
"You, you do me a favor and behave until I get you home," she scolds, it's clear now where her son picked up his ability to transfigure moods like a face-changing dancer, because now Madam Zhao beams with a bodhisattva's kindness to Jiayi and concludes, "All right — we'll head out now, if anything comes up, feel free to just text me directly."
Shen Wei can think of no more horrifying nightmare scenario than his admin and his mother-in-law being in constant contact, and by the time he manages to rouse himself from the gut-churning awfulness of his current reality, he's being chivvied down the hallway — it seems like half the undergraduate biology population is staring; fantastic; Zhao Yunlan's next update from the university message boards will be epic — and swept into the bitter December cold toward a sleek black car.
Xiao-Ge, the Zhao family driver, is wearing white gloves and a black suit and tie, and as Madam Zhao drags Shen Wei by the elbow ever closer, Xiao-Ge pops open the back passenger door, saying, "Ai-ya — you really don't look good, Teach."
"Right? And he was still clinging to his desk when I found him," Madam Zhao sighs, surrendering Shen Wei to be jammed into the car, where he has one single second of muffled silence in the cabin, staring at the leather interior feeling dissociated and slightly crazy, before Xiao-Ge opens the other door and Madam Zhao shimmies in.
"I'm so sorry," Shen Wei hears himself saying.
He once spent a sleepless night staring into the inky blackness of a bedroom corner calculating what percentage of the words he said to Madam Zhao were 'I'm sorry.' The final ratio had been a demoralizing mess, exacerbated by how Zhao Yunlan had woken him up after Shen Wei had finally managed to fall asleep. His choice of alarm had the knock on effect of redoubling Shen Wei's commitment to apologizing to Yunlan's mom every time they saw each other.
Xiao-Ge glances into the rear-view mirror from his perch at the wheel and asks, "All right — to Young Master Zhao's?"
"No, no," Madam Zhao says. "To the house — Xiao-Lan is on a business trip this week."
Xiao-Ge slants Shen Wei a commiserating look. "Okay," he says.
"I couldn't possibly — it's too much," Shen Wei says, because he has to try.
"Ignore him," Madam Zhao says, casual, and picks up her phone to make a call as the car shifts into drive. "Go on, Xiao-Ge — oh, hello? Xiao-Lan? Mm — I picked him up." Pause. "Where was this tender human concern for any of the millions of people you — oh, stop yelling. He'll be fine. I'm taking him home now. Just focus on the conference — hey! Don't take that tone with me, you little shit, I sent you to the best schools so you could be a doctor — "
Shen Wei pushes up his glasses so he can press his fingertips into his eye sockets.
" — or a lawyer or a computer programmer, something where you don't run around like a day laborer yelling at people and dressing like a thug and you went and decided to be a cop — oh who cares about your father! Just stay there and don't shame our family name," she instructs. "He'll be just fine. Auntie Lu is making her chicken and mushroom stock as we speak. All right, all right, I'm annoyed talking with you — go pay attention to police things and leave it with me."
She hangs up, jams her phone into her Ferragamo bag and turns back to Shen Wei.
"That child really gives me a headache," she huffs.
Shen Wei spends less than a second torn between marital loyalty and the siren pull of someone who understands. "Yes," he agrees, and manages to refrain for all of half a moment before he says, "But he has a faithful, responsible heart at his core."
Madam Zhao stares at him a long minute before smiling, before she reaches over to cup his cheek with one warm, soft hand.
"Yes," she says. "I suppose he does."
The Zhao family is well-to-do and quiet about it — longtime city residents on the right side of the river with the right residence permit, an apartment in the right district, and all the right friends in all the right places.
Zhao Yunlan's father, Zhao Xinchi, is a well-respected old police comrade, with decades of favors owed and paid, and the little apartment that had been parceled out to him in the 1980s had gone on to sell for an exorbitant price as the housing wave had started to crest by the mid-90s. They'd moved from a tidy, third-floor walk-up in the Hongkou District into the bougie environs of Jing'An and an aggressively rococo-styled community with an overflowing underground parking lot, a number of Greek and Roman style plaster statues and a pergola, for some unknowable reason. They'd bought a fourth-floor apartment — "It was cheaper," Zhao Yunlan had explained, resigned — aggressively renovated the concrete block rooms, and settled in. Zhao Yunlan's mother had spent weeks agonizing over the wardrobe configuration and desk for his room, trying to construct some geomancy of furniture, lighting, and maternal force of will that would transfigure her good-for-nothing brat into a dutiful son and a scholar.
(He'd ended up scraping into Nankai University. It had been such a stunning achievement that she'd been too thrilled for something to brag about that wasn't the number of shitty wuxia novels her son could read that it'd taken nearly a semester before she realized Tianjin was 1,200 kilometers away — either by 2.5 hour flight or 6 hours on the train. He'd come home for New Years with a dirtbag mustache, a smoking habit, a hideous new accent, and able to drink his father under the table.)
And after school, Zhao Yunlan had staunchly refused to move back home, into the carefully appointed room with its carefully appointed wardrobe configuration. He'd lived in a half-condemned little garret room in an old shikumen lilong until his mother had come over, made a scene, and they'd fought until he'd ended up putting a down payment on the little apartment he'd called home for nearly a decade. At least it had a gate, and a security guard, someone to keep out the thieves — that Zhao Yunlan had pursued and thrived as career law enforcement appeared to have zero bearing on Madam Zhao's near-constant terror of his physical safety in places where there were vanishingly low rates of crime — and she'd outfitted it with nice, sturdy furniture, top of the line kitchen equipment, a number of auspicious plants.
Shen Wei saw all of this from a careful distance, saw Zhao Yunlan grow from a moody child to a handsome young man — secrets still gripped between his teeth — and it means he's spent a lifetime observing his mother, too.
Xu Jing is better known in the neighborhood, in good society, as Teacher Xu, and she'd terrorized two dozen classes at Fudan fuzhong, the university affiliated high school her own son hadn't managed to test into. She taught math and physics, and according to Zhao Yunlan — who likes to ramble in the twilight state post-lovemaking and before he drifts to sleep — parents used to go to temple to burn incense before fetching up to quarterly conferences with her. Then they'd made her principal.
("Imagine living with her," Zhao Yunlan had moaned, half hidden in the sheets.)
On the surface, she's a beautiful woman, timeless and a little ageless, her hair still jet black and pulled into a neat chignon at the nape of her neck. She's dressed in a smoke-gray cashmere coat and navy slacks, a soft sweater set with pearl buttons and tasteful, minimal jewelry. Like a lot of women of her generation, she doesn't wear a wedding ring.
But with his ying yang eyes, Shen Wei can see beyond and through — to the hundreds of red cords that bind her to her son, and he to her. They weave like the lattice wood carvings of old windows, radiating from her heart, her throat, her liver and her hands, stretching infinitely to wherever Zhao Yunlan is at any given time. Zhao Xinchi likes to tell their family friends, when he's telling everyone how terrible his son is as a delivery method for his poorly concealed pride, that in a past life, he and his wife must have owed Zhao Yunlan a life debt. In a past life, Zhao Yunlan had been a scruffy kitchen boy named Xiao-Ling, and he'd gone back into the smoking wrath of a uncontrolled fire to rescue a little girl and her newborn cousin. It's a life debt his parents have been paying ever since — a well-loved burden, a spell, a blessing, too intricate and old to ever untangle. It's saved Zhao Yunlan from all sorts of small and large misfortunes, the halo of Xu Jing's constancy, the rope of his father's worry, pulling him out of the way of bicycles and near-death for 32 years and counting.
Shen Wei has watched over Zhao Yunlan for all the years of his soul's progression, followed him from lifetime to lifetime. He's celebrated — aching — marriages and births, mourned dozens of unconnected lives, swept a hundred forgotten graves, still sees — sometimes — a boy or a girl with a particular foxfire in their eye who must be a descendant, and feels for them the tenderness of someone who has loved them from a very great distance. He knows what it is to love Zhao Yunlan's soul, and he knows that in Madam Zhao, he has a kindred heart.
Madam Zhao had coped with her son's frank refusal to move back home after university by initiating another complete renovation. She'd ripped out the mirrored doors and gaudy 2000's chandeliers, sold Zhao Xinchi's 60 gallon mid-life crisis exotic fishtank— all in favor of more trendy minimalism: blond wood and neutral colors, frosted glass on the kitchen door and a glossy new enclosure for the balcony, whisper quiet new AC units. Everything in the house is top of the line, from the water filter to the guest slippers.
"Here, here — take these," she instructs, and retrieves an even fancier pair of slippers out of a cupboard in the entryway, setting them down and watching Shen Wei like a hawk to make sure he changes into them.
"I really can't apologize enough for this," he says, wretched. Shen Wei feels like everything he's said to Madam Zhao so far has been wretched and the near future does not yield any positive indications for appreciable change.
Madam Zhao hustles him into the house, past the dining table with its overflowing arrangement of apples and oranges, and situates him on the sofa.
"If you keep being so formal with me, Xiao-Shen, I'll really get mad," she warns him. "Who are you to my Xiao-Lan, after all? And that means who are you to us?"
There's no possible response to that, Shen Wei thinks in despair. On most days, he can only barely believe he's so fortunate, that after millennia of sustaining himself with stolen glimpses, that he knows the yielding heat of Zhao Yunlan's body, the sharp and pleasing sting of his teeth, that they share a home and a hearth — that they have a pair of carved mandarin ducks and that the kitchen gods trade gossip with the mensheng, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong, who guard their doors. It's all more than Shen Wei's wrecked heart could have ever imagined.
"It's not on purpose," he admits finally, feeling terrible, as if he's cracked open his ribs and is offering her all the blackened truths of himself. "I've — I'm truly not used to having a family, that's all."
The expression on Madam Zhao's face is complicated, the frozen look of a woman who is left very rarely speechless or unsure of how to proceed. Shen Wei has wondered sometimes what of himself Zhao Yunlan's told his parents, if the fabulist in him had filled in all the gaps and questions, or if his parents had been forced to endure all this time knowing only that their precious son had thrown his lot in with a blank page of a man with only a little education, some passable manners, and no family at all. Even that thin description still made him seem like a better prospect than the truth.
"Yunlan said you were all alone from a very young age," she finally says to him, and there's a question hidden away in between the words he can't parse and doesn't know how to answer.
Shen Wei swallows hard. His throat hurts. He doesn't know if it's the memory of Ye Zun or the impossible flu. "It — at first it was me and my younger brother."
"What was he like?" Madam Zhao asks, because what happened to him? is already answered, suspended in the gray air around them.
He looks at his hands, at the knees of his trousers, to his sock feet in the plush guest slippers, in this house where he doesn't belong. So much of Ye Zun is just the gore of an open wound, the gleam of bone. Shen Wei misses him like people miss an imaginary place, their memory of a time that maybe never existed. But once long ago, Ye Zun was just his little brother: as savage and dear as anyone, the single familiar and loved thing in the maw of a seething underworld. He lives on as emotional shrapnel — always liable to break Shen Wei's heart.
"Um, dramatic," he says finally, and it's only when that brings a smile to his face that Shen Wei realizes it's true. "He was very dramatic."
Madam Zhao's smiling, when Shen Wei finally looks up again.
"And you were always the responsible one," she prompts.
"I guess you could say that." He goes back to staring at his feet, at the gleaming floors beneath his slippers, but he can still feel the weight of her gaze, warm on his cheek.
And when Madam Zhao finally speaks again, after the silence between them has softened into something with soft edges, it's to say, "Well — we've really imposed on you with our Zhao Yunlan, we know. That useless child is somehow both too smart and completely lazy — "
He's torn between instinctive loyalty and glum agreement.
" — but to you, he's truly sincere, so I'm afraid we'll have to continue to impose on you, Professor Shen," she concludes, so tenderly it makes Shen Wei feel bruised to hear it. "So what I mean is, this family — you better not think you can escape it."
Anything Shen Wei could possibly say dies in his throat, and he has to tighten his jaw and fist his hands to hold onto himself. He nods, tight, and then again, less tensely, and miracle of miracles, it's enough, she's heard him somehow, because Madam Zhao declares, "All right — enough of that. Let me steep some tea, and then we'll get you washed and into bed."
Shen Wei's head jerks up. "What?" he croaks.
Shen Wei has a rough sketch of the events that must have occurred to bring him from the sofa in the front room, fully dressed, to wearing Zhao Yunlan's old sleeping clothes, half asleep in Zhao Yunlan's old bed. He remembered being lulled into a haze by some extremely fine Taiwanese snow tea — the fragrant sweetness on the back of his tongue after the sharp bitterness of the nose — and then being fed a number of anonymous tablets, some sort of chicken extract for health, and sent to bed like a child. At least Shen Wei assumes like a child, as he's never truly been a child nor been sent to bed like one before. It's a very lowering experience, to be 34 and 5,000 years old and to be intimidated by a woman a foot shorter than him.
Disappointingly, the bed doesn't smell like Zhao Yunlan, and the room was repainted and re-appointed along with the rest of the apartment: new furniture and a built-in closets now, filled with off-season clothes and a stash of New Year's handouts from the high school and police headquarters. The best part of the room, Shen Wei decides, is a massive canvas print of Zhao Yunlan in formal uniform, clearly taken at his graduation from the police academy. He's very handsome in it, and Shen Wei has no doubt he hates that there's a three foot tall print of it hanging in his parents' house.
He falls asleep staring at it, at the carefully concealed impatience in Yunlan's face, in the version of him captured in the photograph. Shen Wei thinks he should ask Madam Zhao for a copy, to send him the digital file so he can have one printed for his own. He could keep a version in his study, a smaller one in his wallet. He thinks about keeping Zhao Yunlan's river-stone eyes and crooked grin tucked close to his heart, and it makes him warm in a way that the eternal winter of Hell can't touch.
Shen Wei's too exhausted now to feel anything but resigned to his circumstances. He keeps drifting into and out of sleep. One time, he thinks he hears Madam Zhao on the phone outside the bedroom door, saying, "…you're honestly like an old woman — of course he's fine…" before his attention fades out again. He can't tell how deeply or how long he sleeps, but the room grows darker and darker by degrees, cooler and cooler, the noises of the city outside the windows getting as muted as the day.
He wakes up sharply, finally, hungry — parched.
In that liminal moment, before he gathers enough of himself to remember that here, now, he's human, that he's left behind the savagery of his birth, Shen Wei has a searing, sudden need to sink his teeth into someone's throat, to eat them alive.
But then the years come, the memories come, and he gets caught up in a disoriented rush of grief before his heart slows and he realizes where and when he is. The whiplash from mourning Kun Lun to realizing he's clutching a mobile phone where Zhao Yunlan's just on the other end, that they're separated not by fate or the slow-moving wheel of reincarnation but an overnight train to Beijing and a series of lectures on how to perform enthusiasm about China's police state — it leaves Shen Wei dizzy.
He's dialed before he realizes what he's done.
"How are you?" is how Zhao Yunlan answers, midway through the first ring.
Shen Wei blinks into the darkness, the sudden light from the phone screen making his eyes hurt. He sometimes wonders how many of the weaknesses of the human body he encounters while inhabiting the role of quiet university professor Shen Wei are psychosomatic, or if he somehow transfigures on instinct into something more mortal, something accessible and capable of warmth. These are questions that plague him, and that Zhao Yunlan says are irrelevant, that he kisses away.
"Hello? Are you there?" Yunlan demands, his lassitude cracking away.
"I'm here," Shen Wei whispers, in deference to the dark of the room and surely the late hour. "Sorry — I don't know what's going on with me."
Yunlan puffs. "What's — you're sick, you idiot. Thank the heavens and the earth that Jiayi has more sense than you, and called when she did, or else I bet you'd be collapsed under your desk and some janitor would have a fucking heart attack when they found your vomit-covered corpse."
"Don't be ridiculous. What am I, after all?" Shen Wei asks, rolling onto his side and starting to sweat under the oppressive heat of the covers. "I can't be ill."
"Oh, well, if you say so then surely it's true," Zhao Yunlan allows, with the generosity of a spouse who knows he's right and knows their partner knows he's right, too. "So, great Ghost Executioner, please tell this unworthy one what it is that's struck you?"
Shen Wei scowls into the pillow. "Maybe it's a curse," he proposes.
"Who is cursing you?" Zhao Yunlan asks impatiently. "Honestly: who and what is going to go around, of sound mind and spirit, and decide to curse you with you being you and even more importantly, me being me?"
When they'd moved into their little house with their little garden, down an old shikumen alley, all the sweet neighborhood spirits had shivered and hidden away, terrified. It had been months before Zhao Yunlan had managed to convince them he had no quarrel, and that Shen Wei wasn't there to drag them off — either to hell or to the wheel of reincarnation before they were ready. Their living neighbors had found the entire episode baffling: a sudden, explicable spate of terrible luck that had arrived with their fancy gay neighbors — a hundred little inconveniences — before ceasing just as quickly.
Shen Wei realizes he's making a noise that's beneath his dignity and age, but he feels ridiculously, inappropriately safe behaving in ways that are beneath his dignity and age with Zhao Yunlan, so he doesn't bother to muffle himself.
"Poor baby," Zhao Yunlan coos. "Mom called. She said you went straight to bed."
"They put me in your old room," Shen Wei reports. He twists around to stare at the police academy portrait again. "She dressed me in your old clothes."
"Can't decide if that's sexy or gross since my mother's so intimately involved in this discussion," Yunlan says philosophically. "Are you feeling better? Did you eat yet?"
Shen Wei blinks into the darkness again. "I think I must have slept through dinner."
"You're definitely sick," Zhao Yunlan sighs. "It's only 7:30 — Zhao family dinner never starts until 8, although if you'd woken up earlier you could have skipped the unpleasantness."
"Unpleasantness?" Shen Wei asks, the same time the door to the bedroom cracks open and he sees Madam Zhao framed in the hallway light.
"Stop whispering with my son and get up," she instructs him. "Zhao Yunlan's father's home and dinner is ready."
"I'm so sorry," Zhao Yunlan says over the phone. "If you try to leave me over this, I won't accept it, but at least know that I'm sorry."
Zhao Yunlan's relationship with his father is tense at best, best when it's distant.
Shen Wei has no basis for personal comparison, of course. He'd sprung from nothing into chaos; Zhao Yunlan had been born to a mother who loves but doesn't understand him, a father who seems continuously, relentlessly disappointed by his son. Shen Wei suspects it's something different and deeper, an angry anxiety borne of fear, but it doesn't change the way it makes Zhao Yunlan tense before relaxing into carefully performed nonchalance.
And then, of course, there's the fact that Shen Wei is sitting there in Zhao Yunlan's clothes and a massive sweater that Shen Wei is more convinced Madam Zhao had produced from her husband's closet with every passing second of glaring.
With these auspices, there was never much chance of dinner being anything but an exercise in the exquisitely awkward.
Auntie Lu, the longtime Zhao family housekeeper, has outdone herself, and dishes and tureens are overflowing the table. There's water spinach with preserved tofu sauce, there's homestyle tofu, green peppers and beef, celery and pressed spiced tofu, tomato and egg, a massive pot of mushroom and chicken soup.
"It's all blander food," Madam Zhao says, half explanation half apology. "Just bear with it this time, Xiao-Shen, it's probably better for your stomach right now, but next time, we'll actually make something delicious for you."
"Please, don't trouble yourself, this is all too much just for me," Shen Wei says, desperate and earnest. "I'm so sorry about all of this."
"Still so polite," Madam Zhao scolds.
Zhao Yunlan's father's unabated glower twitches for a single beat, and he says, "Someone in the next generation had to have some manners — it wasn't going to be our son."
Madam Zhao ignores him completely to start depositing pieces of beef and green pepper into Shen Wei's bowl. "Come on — eat. Xiao-Lan already told us this is your favorite."
So Shen Wei goes mute and eats the beef and pepper. It's very good: crisp from the wok sear. All of it's very good, from the creaminess of the eggs to the crispness of the celery, the pleasing chew of the wood ear mushrooms in the homestyle tofu and the deep xian of the mushroom and chicken broth, a beautiful golden color in his blue and white ceramic bowl.
It warms him from the inside out, like some soft magic, and Madam Zhao keeps up a bright patter at the table he answers as easily like a chorus-repeat. How is the university these days? Excellent, your school recently graduated another promising class into our freshman year. If they cause you any trouble, just give me a call, I'll come right over. And in the midst of this, Zhao Xinchi quietly plows his way through two massive bowls of rice, appropriates a chicken thigh, and doesn't say a word.
"Honestly, Shen Wei, I really didn't want to have to lecture you," Madam Zhao lectures, choosing a vulnerable moment when Shen Wei has a giant shitake in his mouth and can't defend himself. "But you're a grown man with people who rely on you — if you're sick, you have to go to the doctor."
Shen Wei makes a noise — it could mean anything or nothing. He has no appropriate rubric for behavior in this circumstance; any otherwise appropriate deflection he could use at this juncture would be frowned upon as being too polite.
"Not saying anything else, you know that useless son of mine would be a wreck if we let anything happen to you," Madam Zhao goes on. "You know, of course, how he always seems so careless, and how when it comes to his favorite things, he's so protective."
Zhao Xinchi sighs, and Shen Wei feels a deep kinship with him.
He starts, "Of course, Mad — "
She narrows her eyes at him. "If you 'Madam Zhao' me one more time, I'm going to show you my fighting colors, Professor Shen," she warns.
"Auntie Xu?" he tries.
"Shen Wei! Is my horrible son still in your affections or not?" she asks.
Shen Wei is stricken, frozen, and he thinks back to long ago, the first time he'd been forced into Xu Jing's beautiful home having defiled her son and with only some fruit to show for it. He'd meant to ask Zhao Yunlan then what he should call her, but his entire mind had gone into a blank whitewash of fiery panic, and he'd passed through the entire episode as a man experiencing untold tortures, unknowing of how he'd come through to the other side, his brain a deliberate, protective blank.
"Professor Shen, if you don't call her 'Mom' sometime soon, it'll be all we hear about," says Zhao Xinchi, sudden and utterly resigned. "You might get to leave soon, but I have to live with her, so if you have any mercy in your heart, spare me the grief."
Shen Wei's lived to see the rise and fall of countless dynasties and empires. During those revolutions, he's subsisted as a vagrant, a traveling doctor, a scholar, a tutor, a ghost. In the lifetimes where he's intersected with reincarnations of Kun Lun, he's fabricated some human identity so he could be near, at least, to catch glimpses of him in the flush of blooming youth, weathered with responsibility, falling in love, making a home. All that time, his own ties to the human world were vanishingly rare and as fleeting as summer storms. Shen Wei blinked and families expanded or withered, grand houses were built and left to decay. There were suddenly paved roads and Europeans everywhere, neon lights, night clubs, wars. And it had gotten harder, as the years has dripped from the 1960s into the 1970s to be simply an anonymous face in a sea of them, so he'd become Shen Wei, from Wujiaochang, and eventually Professor Shen, Teacher Shen, who was woefully unmarried and the only person in the biology department foolish enough to get conned into picking up an Chinese Lit 10 section to help with managing the tide of incoming freshmen.
Before, he'd had students and colleagues and correspondents, belonged to departments and universities and academic councils, peer review boards — he'd been something to all of these people, but never someone.
And then Zhao Yunlan had arrived, with his grin and his wandering hands and nonstop teasing, so effusively, hugely alive that he filled up the infinite space and breadth of time. Zhao Yunlan is a good fisherman, and Shen Wei had found himself hooked at the end of their red thread: singular, staggering, seemingly eternal. Suddenly Shen Wei had accumulated a dizzying number of responsibilities, some named and some elusive: he was Zhao Yunlan's friend, his keeper, a maker of promises, someone to tell a secret, his nanny, his cook. To their neighbors and Yunlan's colleagues, unsuspecting passers by and people who touch Shen Wei's hand at the grocery store, Zhao Yunlan's declared that Shen Wei is his boyfriend, his partner, his wife, his imperial consort, in an escalating series of absurdities that meant that they could never go back to that Carrefour again, no matter how good the sales. From Zhao Yunlan's mouth — warm and living and lush — Shen Wei's been called his treasure, his beloved. In gasps, in whispers, in gritted-teeth pleas, Yunlan's called him a bastard, a tease, the bane of his existence, Xiao-Wei.
There's some old magic, older than Nuwa's sky and earth, older than the wind and water, from before the first gods — that to give something a name, to accept one, is to have power over a person. From the first to the last, everything Zhao Yunlan calls him ties them a little closer together; every time Shen Wei answers, he feels the silk thread pull taut.
So it feels heavy, it feels selfish, to sit here at this beautiful table and to stare into Xu Jing's lovely face, and to claim any part of her for himself — but she's asked so politely, Shen Wei thinks, fretful with hope, it's been given so freely. Shen Wei thinks to that cold night long ago, when Zhao Yunlan had produced the deed to the house and dismissed it, reduced himself to the leavings of his sincerity — if Shen Wei hadn't wanted it, well, there was nothing else he could offer. Zhao Yunlan was always a fool.
"I-I'm sorry, M-Mom," he says, finally, and it feels like the tumbler of a lock clicking into place, some rush of green spring chasing through him: warm and verdant and alive. "I promise I'll try harder."
Madam Zhao — Mom looks both pleased and devastated, wet-eyed. "Oh," she says.
"Look, are you happy now?" Zhao Xinchi asks her, and as she's still dabbing at her eyes, he reaches over with his chopsticks to put the other chicken thigh in Shen Wei's dish. "There — eat. I'll go get some xian soy sauce," he says, gruff, and pushes away from the table for the safety of the kitchen.
Shen Wei stares at the chicken, looks back up at — at Mom.
She's still smiling at him, watery.
"Hurry up and finish your rice, and I'll ladle you some hot soup," she tells him.
"Okay," he promises, and picks up his bowl. "Thank you, Ma."
He gets sent back to bed after he manages to drink two bowls of steaming hot soup, and he lies under the covers overfull from dinner and his own thoughts and stares at Zhao Yunlan's portrait on the wall.
"This is your fault, you know," he whispers, and falls asleep.
Ah-Lan: I've been gone less than 72 hours.
Ah-Lan: This disaster is on you, just to be clear.
Ah-Lan: I have 32 messages from my mother about you.
Ah-Lan: The last time I had this many messages was the last time she forced me to go do New Year's shopping.
Ah-Lan: You're really something, Shen Wei-ah.
Ah-Lan: Really catnip to middle aged women.
Ah-Lan: Actually most women. And a lot of guys.
Ah-Lan: You know exactly no one from your 8 a.m. Chinese Lit 10 class cares about Chinese literature, right?
Ah-Lan: She just forwarded me six links to How-To Surrogacy guides.
Ah-Lan: So you know, just make sure you're prepared for the onslaught.
Ah-Lan: Are you feeling any better? Auntie Lu's soup always helps.
Ah-Lan: I hope you're not answering me because you're asleep.
Ah-Lan: I'm so tired, Shen Wei.
Ah-Lan: I turned on the TV for some noise last night, but the satellite channel was showing a marathon of something called 'Loser Diaries.'
Ah-Lan: Someone lost their brown chrysanthemum in a club bathroom.
Ah-Lan: You would have disapproved. It was very tawdry.
Ah-Lan: This is also your fault.
Ah-Lan: I used to sleep great without you.
Ah-Lan: Okay. I'll stop bothering you. Have a good dream.
Ah-Lan: I'll see you soon.
Shen Wei wakes up with cool winter sun, cutting across the room, and to the sound of noises somewhere else in the apartment. There's the quiet muffle of TV music and voices from the massive flat screen in the living room, and then there's slippered feet shuffling across meticulously cleaned floors. He hears a woman's voice, a man's rumble, and then all of it louder and louder until he hears Zhao Yunlan yell, "I can't believe you're giving me shit about this, neither of you are at work either!"
Shen Wei bolts up in bed.
The scene, when he rushes out into the living room, is one of Zhao family brand chaos.
Zhao Yunlan looks like he was dragged backward through a hedge — hair wild and eyes crazed — holding forth a staggering number of packages given that he's been gone all of three days. His father has his hands tucked into his waist, frowning, and Xu Jing is trying to take the plastic bags off of Zhao Yunlan's arms the same time Auntie Lu is trying to take all the boxes out of his hands. Disaster is imminent.
"I'm not at work because I've earned my flexibility," Zhao Xinchi lectures.
"Can you save it, please?" his son retorts. "The guy on the plane snored the entire trip."
"No one told you to come back," his mother scolds. "We were all fine here! How can you hope to keep advancing your career if you don't take these things seriously?"
"It's birth control: if I stay broke, no one will let us have children," Zhao Yunlan tells her seriously.
She raises a hand goes straight for his head. "Zhao Yunlan, you little — "
"Ma!" Shen Wei hears. It takes a beat before he realizes it's come from him, and the little tableau playing out in the front hall comes to an utter, screeching halt.
The entire Zhao family and Auntie all turn to stare at him.
Shen Wei feels all the blood in his body rushing his face, blushing so hard his ears and his cheeks are hot with it. He looks down, to his bare feet on the heated floors, so he doesn't have to look at everyone looking at him as he mumbles, "Don't be angry, M-Ma, he's probably just cranky from traveling all night."
And he must have, to be here now. Shen Wei's heart aches with pleasure.
"Oh, you — Xiao-Shen, he's really not worth your speaking on his behalf," Xu Jing says, but her voice is also suddenly softer, so Shen Wei hazards a look up once more.
It's a tactical error, because Zhao Yunlan looks incandescently smug.
"Wow, Madam Zhao, what a moving development happened in my absence," he coos at his mother, teasing, and it makes her go pink and angry.
"I'm disowning you," she informs him. "I have a new son now. He's a professor, has culture, and good domestic education — nothing like you."
Zhao Yunlan grins, and it still makes something in Shei Wei's chest flutter. "Ma — now you're being unreasonable: if I have bad domestic education, then who's fault is that?"
She glares at him. "Your father."
Shen Wei slants a look over to Zhao Xinchi. He sighs, says to Shen Wei, "We really can't apologize enough, Professor Shen," and heads off for his study.
Just like that, the spell's broken: Zhao Yunlan's mother's hand concludes its progress to slap her son upside the head, Auntie Lu finishes wrenching away all his packages, and Shen Wei rushes up and puts himself in between Zhao Yunlan and his mother's annoyance.
"Don't protect him," she says, while Zhao Yunlan clutches at the back of Shen Wei's shirt and says, "Hubby, don't let her hurt my beautiful face."
"You stop talking," Shen Wei snaps, and says to his mother-in-law, "Ma, just ignore him — don't let this raise your blood pressure, it's not healthy."
Xu Jing ignores him long enough to glower at Zhao Yunlan, promising, "Just wait and see how I clean your clock later," before her expression melts away into one of the boundless charity when facing Shen Wei. "What a good child you are — all right all right! Go wash up, I'll go heat up some breakfast for you."
"This is too much!" Zhao Yunlan complains at her retreating figure. "I know I've brought you a beautiful daughter-in-law who's smarter than I am and actually has good manners, but I'm your only son! You didn't even offer me slippers when I came in!"
Like most teachers, Xu Jing is studied in the art of selective deafness, and so Zhao Yunlan is left to appeal his case to Shen Wei directly.
"Xiao-Wei, look, can you see how she mistreats me?" he says, his face a study of suffering even as he's tucking his arms around Shen Wei, pulling him close. "In this whole world, only you're good to me — " Zhao Yunlan grins, and Shen Wei feels a cataclysmic love for all of him, from his awful hair to his wonderful dimples " — aren't I lucky that I snapped you up before anyone else?"
There's nothing to do but to cup Zhao Yunlan's face in his hands, to lean in until their foreheads are touching, and Shen Wei can whisper, too honest and too close, "Idiot — there was never anyone but you, there never could be."
Zhao Yunlan kisses him — finally — a sweet, quick press of his chapped lips, the scratch of his whiskers. "Did you sleep all okay?" he asks, sotto voce, turns his cheek so he can press their temples close, and Shen Wei lets himself get knitted in against Zhao Yunlan's chest, lets himself reach up and curl a fist into his hair. "Are you feeling any better?"
"Yes," Shen Wei says, feels it float out of him, through him. "Yes, I'm fine now."
Late breakfast is paofan with leftover rice from last night, half a dozen types of vegetable pickles, pork floss, thousand year eggs dressed with sesame oil and soy sauce and a silky bowl of steamed eggs. Shen Wei spends most of it watching Xu Jing pretend as if she's not going to let Zhao Yunlan eat anything at all, tell him to go change out of the nice house slippers because she has some old ones for him in another room, fuss about the state of his beard, all the while refilling his bowl three times and bringing him a dish of red pickled tofu preserves, sprinkled with a heavy hand of sugar.
"We should have gotten a dog instead of you," she sighs, tenderly finger-combing her son's bird nest hair.
Zhao Yunlan beams at her. "Don't worry, I'm living like a dog," he promises, and it sets them off again, bickering happily.
They yell at each other while Zhao Yunlan helps her clear the table, as they run into each other in the kitchen doing the dishes after Auntie Lu escapes to the market. They yell at each other while Zhao Yunlan unpacks all the gifts he brought back from Beijing — food, random stationary items he stole from the police convention, fancy hotel soap — and they yell at each other as the afternoon deepens and Zhao Yunlan says to her, "Oh — we should go, you have your weekly meeting in an hour, right?"
Shen Wei takes the cue to change out of the sweatpants and Zhao Yunlan's old Gundam Wing t-shirt, and he emerges from the bedroom in time to catch Zhao Xinchi trying to give Zhao Yunlan a wad of cash in the study.
"Are you kidding me right now?" Yunlan says.
Zhao Xinchi scowls. "Just take it."
"Did you get a bad diagnosis?" Zhao Yunlan demands. "Do I need to go talk to Mom?"
"It's not just you anymore, don't be so stubborn," his dad says, and whatever else comes after Shen Wei deliberately misses, tiptoes past the study into the living room, where Xu Jing's changed into another beautifully composed outfit. She's sorting papers, a pair of expensive glasses perched on her nose, and she glances up when he comes in, says:
"Oh, it's you — I thought maybe they were done fighting about money already."
Shen Wei's smile is mostly a grimace. "Not yet."
"Don't worry. They're like goats, they just have to have a few kicks at each other," she says, in what she probably thinks is a reassuring way, before shuffling a folder into her briefcase and peering at Shen Wei over the top of her glasses. "You seem much better."
"Much better," he agrees, and he hesitates — he can hear Zhao Yunlan ranting in the next room now, over the sound of his father's lower gravel — but it's probably now or never, Shen Wei figures, and he asks:
"Ma, about that picture."
Shen Wei is right about a couple of things: he wasn't sick, because no flu has a 24 hour recovery arc, no matter how much Yunlan rolls his eyes; going one round with his afternoon biology course has left Li Wei the sundered shadow of a human, ready to abandon his career in academia wholesale; and that while the massive print of Zhao Yunlan is a very handsome addition to Shen Wei's study, Zhao Yunlan himself is less fond of it.
"It's creepy," Zhao Yunlan says sometime later, in the warm darkness of their bedroom, the moon a silvery disc outside their window, "I live here — why do you need that picture?"
Shen Wei looks up from his careful survey of Zhao Yunlan's chest. "It's a nice picture."
"Is this because I look so young in it," Yunlan asks. In every lifetime, he's had the same eyes: coal black and gleaming, the entire night sky in his gaze. "Professor Shen, are you harboring unsavory intentions toward that young man in the picture?"
"Maybe," Shen Wei says, and it comes out huskier and more honest than intended. "Do you think he'd welcome unsavory attentions from me?"
There's a beat where Zhao Yunlan looks lost in his own thoughts, traveled somewhere far away from their bed and this conversation, before he blinks and comes back, soft-edged. "That guy? Yeah, he's a sucker for a pretty face," he says, quiet, and because Shen Wei's not the only one more honest than intended tonight, he adds, "But Professor Shen, you should know, eventually when he grows up a little, he'll get greedy, he won't want to share with anyone — he'll just want a home with you."
Shen Wei still struggles, sometimes, to distinguish whether it is his dreams of being alone or his waking hours of breathless gratitude that are real. For someone like him, it feels beyond the realm of miracle that he should be allowed to do these things: to press Zhao Yunlan into a bed they share, to worry over the petty dramas of his grad students, to call someone mother, to hang a picture of a man he loves on the sunny wall of his study, to live in a house overflowing with green and living things, to have — finally — after so long, received his domestic education.
"I'll take it," he says, hoarse and so happy he can feel it bursting outward. "Whatever you're willing to offer."
"Then take everything, take all of me," Zhao Yunlan promises, and into the seal of a kiss, he vows, "It's yours."