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subtle lovers in the suburbs

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  “He’s staring again.”


  The voice from behind him shook Xie Lian from his reverie. He dropped the book he’d been holding and hastily bent down to pick it up.


  “I wasn’t staring!” he said, quickly returning from the glass window panel to where he was meant to be behind the counter. Feng Xin and Mu Qing had been standing in one of the aisles, putting books away and wrongfully spying on Xie Lian.


  “He definitely was,” Mu Qing said, rolling his eyes. Feng Xin laughed heartily and loaded new copies of a novel that had just arrived onto the wooden shelves.


  Xie Lian fiddled with a receipt that a customer had left behind on the table, making small tears in the paper. He attempted to change the subject. “What book is that?”


  Mu Qing leant over to where Feng Xin was to look at the title of the book, ignoring the latter as he scowled and tsked. “Well, it’s definitely not How To Hit Up The Dude You’ve Been Staring At .”


  Xie Lian went bright red. “I’m not trying to hit anyone up!”


  His gaze flickered over to a figure in red outside the bookshop they were in, and he quickly looked down.


  There was a dude, yes, but Xie Lian wasn’t trying to hit him up or anything. He was just… attractive. Not even in that sense. He just caught Xie Lian’s eye, so much so that every time he passed by the shop, Xie Lian just had to look out and adm— observe him. He was always dressed in some sort of red outfit, sometimes it was a crimson t-shirt under a leather jacket, and sometimes it was a maroon crop top with a fishnet undershirt. He had raven locks that were either done up in a large braid, or that were left loose and flowed down his back to his waist like a waterfall of darkness. The most notable points about his appearance were his pair of black lace-up boots, the laces a rainbow colour, and an ebony eyepatch that sat on his right eye. He had some sort of gay pirate aesthetic going on, and was just generally interesting for Xie Lian to look at. It certainly wasn’t like Xie Lian was infatuated with this guy or anything. He swore on it.


  Besides, this man that Xie Lian had seen had been passing by their bookshop, Puji , every single day for the last two months. Who wouldn’t notice the same person walking past on the daily?


  Sometimes, the man would even look into the shop, and wave at the employees. Employees meaning Xie Lian — the other two couldn’t bother to wave back anyway. They had exchanged smiles on several occasions, but the pirate man had never ever entered Puji . Xie Lian was also too much of a pussy to go out there and say hi. He’d probably start stuttering; from all the awkwardness of meeting someone new of course, and not because of anything else. Nevertheless, it never stopped Xie Lian from talking about the guy. He could go on and on speculating about his intriguing appearance and mysterious background.


  Feng Xin and Mu Qing always believed that Xie Lian had a crush, and since then they’d never let him hear the end of it.


  Today was really no different; the three of them worked in the bookshop together everyday, and they would organise shelves, make sales and set up the display windows, when Pirate Man would pass by and throw a grin Xie Lian’s way. Then Feng Xin and Mu Qing would tease him for his obliviousness, and say he’s in denial about liking this dude.


  Xie Lian would then say they were wrong, and pretend not to glance excessively at the guy in red who would sometimes enter the café on the street opposite Puji .


  Xie Lian convinced himself that he’d probably never get to talk to this guy, and he had already made peace with that.


  He was okay with it, and for two months, nothing had changed and nothing was going to change. 

  Nothing was going to change. That is, until an unstoppable force called Shi Qingxuan barged their way into Puji


  “Xie-xiong!” Shi Qingxuan had shrieked, rushing over to trap Xie Lian in a heart-crushing hug. Feng Xin groaned from the back room. 


  Shi Qingxuan was Xie Lian’s deskmate back in high school. They were the first person who Xie Lian knew wasn’t cishet, and they helped Xie Lian accept his homosexuality. Xie Lian and Shi Qingxuan had managed to keep in touch until university, but lost it after graduation when Xie Lian had gone off the radar, moved back to his tiny hometown of Xian Le and started his business. What a small world it was, to be able to meet Shi Qingxuan again.


  “I didn’t know you were working here in Xian Le! In your own bookshop no less!” Shi Qingxuan squealed, prancing around the bookshop like it was a playground. “Oh my Gods! Feng-xiong and Mu-xiong too?! You guys are three peas in a pod!”


  Shi Qingxuan came running back to the cashier counter where Xie Lian was, an exasperated Mu Qing following behind them. “Who let a draft of wind in?”


  Shi Qingxuan burst out laughing. “Mu-xiong! You’re so funny!”


  Mu Qing rolled his eyes as Feng Xin lightly punched his shoulder. Mu Qing stomped on Feng Xin’s foot, eliciting a howl from Feng Xin. Feng Xin grumbled as he hopped on his good foot all the way back to the back room, Mu Qing following him smugly.


  Xie Lian shook his head in mock disappointment.


  “But seriously though! This is such a coincidence,” Shi Qingxuan said. “I actually came to see the opening of my boyfriend’s café, just across the street.”


  Xie Lian perked up. The café across the street? 


  Shi Qingxuan’s boyfriend owned the café across the street? The one that the guy in red went into all the time?


  “Y-you have a boyfriend?” Xie Lian asked, cursing himself for stammering on the first word. Hopefully Shi Qingxuan wouldn’t notice.


  Shi Qingxuan beamed. “Yes! He Xuan is really cool, have you met him?”


  By now, Xie Lian was positive that He Xuan was the name of Pirate Man.


  A (definitely negligible) sense of dread had settled in Xie Lian’s stomach. Had he really just spent the last two months stari— watching someone else’s boyfriend?


  “Xie-xiong, you and Feng Xin and Mu Qing should come with me to the opening! I’ll ask He-xiong to give you guys free food to celebrate.”


  “Ah, no it’s okay.” Xie Lian began, not wanting to make things awkward, especially with the knowledge that Feng Xin and Mu Qing would mock him for his ‘crush’. “I have a lot of work—”


  Feng Xin shouted from the back room. “Yes, let’s go! I’m sure Xie Lian would love to meet your friends!”


  Xie Lian internally face-palmed. Mu Qing went to turn the sign on the door over to CLOSED.


  Shi Qingxuan’s face lit up. They grabbed Xie Lian’s hand and made for the double glass-door entrance. Xie Lian reached out at the last second to grab his wallet from behind the counter, stumbling as Shi Qingxuan flung the doors open. Feng Xin and Mu Qing were close behind, with Feng Xin locking the doors behind them.


  The town was small and somewhat empty, filled with retirees and old folks. Not many of them drove, so there was no traffic light at the road outside Puji. Shi Qingxuan dashed across the tarmac with Xie Lian and his friends in tow, coming to a stop only in front of the great establishment across the street. The outer walls were onyx, and miniature arowana skeletons had been painted around the front doors. A few alfresco tables complete with white umbrellas had been set up outside the café, and there were two flower stands with cards that spelled Congratulations on the opening of Heishui Café! in bold black letters settled in the midst of the contrasting flower arrangements, which consisted of blossoms red and yellow and orange. They looked out of place in front of the black-walled café, but they were for decoration and congratulations only, and would probably be removed soon so that the café could eventually fall into its true emo front.


  Before Xie Lian could smooth down the front of his shirt and think of something decent (that wasn’t weird or awkward or stupid) to say to this ’He Xuan’, Shi Qingxuan has already dragged him inside. He heard the jingle of the bell attach to the door’s handle, and next thing he knew he was soaking in the atmosphere of Heishui . It smelled surprisingly pleasant, a strong aroma of coffee lingering in the air, and if you had a sharp olfactory sense, you’d probably detect the faintest scent of burnt sugar. The interior of the café was relatively similar to its exterior, charcoal walls, ivory fish bones and the like. Each table sat under lampshades that had skeletons of fish carved into them, part of the aesthetic of the entire café in itself. 


  There was a man in a black bomber jacket and ripped jeans, his hair up in a high ponytail with a strip of hair dyed a dull gold hanging at the left side of his face. He was standing behind the counter, fumbling with something in the cash register. To his left, staring at his phone, was the man Xie Lian had seen passing his bookshop every day, the stranger in red who’d gifted him smiles and waves, the owner of the eyepatch who Xie Lian had wanted to meet. Today, he was clad in a loose white tee  and a red plaid flannel was tied around his waist. There was a pine green apron draped over his right shoulder. 


  “We’re closed,” the man in red said nonchalantly, eyes still glued to the screen in his hands.


  That must be He Xuan , Xie Lian thought. He felt Shi Qingxuan let go of his hand and make a beeline for the counter. 


  “He-xiong!” Shi Qingxuan said, their arms open wide for an embrace. This time, both of the men looked up, but only one of them maintained his gaze. The guy in black caught Shi Qingxuan and spun them around, smiling fondly at them. Shi Qingxuan laughed and they felt themselves being picked up, and secured their arms around the man’s neck.


  “What-” Xie Lian started, but before he could get any words in, Shi Qingxuan had come over with whoever she was hugging.


  “Xie-xiong! Meet my boyfriend and owner of Heishui café, He Xuan. He-xiong, this is Xie Lian, my best friend from high school.”


  The man in black — He Xuan? — nodded in greeting. He managed a hello before he was pulled away to meet Feng Xin and Mu Qing. Xie Lian’s watched his cheerful ex-deskmate and their boyfriend exchange awkward introductions. So this was Shi Qingxuan’s boyfriend. Then who’s the guy in red? Xie Lian wondered.


  As if on cue, Xie Lian’s thoughts were interrupted by a smooth, deep voice behind him.


  “Hello,” it said.


  Xie Lian spun around, to come face-to-face with Pirate Man. He was smirking, and it looked so natural to the extent that this could be his normal face. Up close, he was a sight — Xie Lian could see his raised cheekbones and twinkling uncovered eye, like he came out from a movie. Despite how pretty — handsome, no, good-looking in a normal way, Xie Lian reminded himself — he was, he had a slightly intimidating aura. The kind of aura that threw people off guard. It made Xie Lian a little jittery, as his mind fumbled for something to say. 


  When he’d finally found something that wasn’t “You’re beautiful,” or “Hi my Xie Lian is name,” he opened his mouth to speak. Like the embarrassment he was, he struggled to get the words out.


 “Hi, I-I thought you were him,” he gestured back to He Xuan, who was looking a little uncomfortable as Feng Xin and Mu Qing bickered over their pleasantries. “But you’re not. You’re you. That’s a good thing. I-”


  Pirate Man chuckled. “Me? He Xuan? I’d rather sell my soul to the devil.”


   Oh, he has a sense of humour.


  Xie Lian laughed nervously, not knowing how to meet Pirate Man’s eyes with his own. “I saw you, I see you a lot. Every day. You pass by my shop a lot. The one across the street. I-”


  Then he shut his mouth, because Pirate Man had placed a cool hand on his forearm. Xie Lian quickly looked up, glancing between Pirate Man’s face and the spot he’d touched. The spot he was still touching.


  “Is gege nervous? Please don’t be nervous,I know the eyepatch is scary but only serves its function and nothing else,” Pirate Man said gently. There was something about his tone that calmed Xie Lian’s heart, yet the word ‘gege’ set his mind racing again. It was such a casual, intimate word, but once again the way this guy said it put Xie Lian on edge. A good edge.


  Pirate Man continued. “I’m sorry I never came into the shop to say hi, but your friends are really scary.”


   Feng Xin and Mu Qing? They’ve met him before? Xie Lian wondered. “What happened?” he asked, curious to understand the situation.


  “Let’s just say that there was a parking problem a few months ago and they flipped me the bird. Man-bun swore loudly a lot and Silverhead rolled his eyes like eighteen times.”


  Yup, that was Feng Xin and Mu Qing alright.


  Xie Lian sheepishly apologised. “They’ve been like that all their lives, don’t worry about it. They’re just having fun and don’t mean any harm.”


  Pirate Man threw his head back and laughed. “Gege is so nice. I’m not scared of them gege, I was just afraid they’d make me look bad in front of someone as pretty as you.”


  Xie Lian’s face flushed the same shade as one of Pirate Man’s crop tops. 


  “Anyway, do you have a name, or can I call you mine?” Pirate Man said, and Xie Lian blushed brighter. He was clearly enjoying the reaction he was receiving. Xie Lian hadn’t had anything like this happen to him before, but he was pretty darn sure this was what his friends called Flirting.


  “Gege! It was a joke! Forgive me for my shamelessness. My name is San Lang.”


  Xie Lian gave him a wry smile. “Xie Lian. Nice to meet you San Lang.”


  Just then, Shi Qingxuan and the others came over. They were still clinging onto He Xuan like a koala, and He Xuan sighed as he whispered something into San Lang’s ear.


  San Lang let go of Xie Lian’s arm, prompting him to realise that they’d been in contact for the last five minutes. San Lang put on his apron, olive green hem flowing to his knees as he fastened the ribbon at his lower back. Shi Qingxuan released their hold on He Xuan, and He Xuan grabbed his own apron from the countertop.


  “Why don’t you all take a seat? I’ll be back with some food,” he said, gesturing to a nearby four-seater booth that was already set. 


  With that, San Lang retreated into the kitchen, with He Xuan following behind him. 


  Xie Lian sat himself down, and Shi Qingxuan squeezed in beside him. 


  “So, you got the hots for Hua Cheng, huh?”


  Xie Lian was confused. Now just who was Hua Cheng?


  “The guy with the eyepatch who was flirting with you! Seriously, did you not exchange names?” 


  Xie Lian’s mind whirred as he tried to put the pieces together. “But he said his name was San Lang.”


  Shi Qingxuan gasped dramatically. “Damn, Hua Cheng told you his childhood nickname? Literally only He-xiong and I know of that! Must mean you’re special, Xie-xiong!”


  Xie Lian shrugged. It was probably just a nickname. He shouldn’t dig too much into it.


  Ten minutes later, San Lang and He Xuan returned, trays in hand as they whisked around the table setting plates of pasta and glasses of iced coffee in front of their patrons. Feng Xin and Mu Qing fought over the salt shaker as San Lang pulled a chair over to Xie Lian’s side. He Xuan stole a meatball from Shi Qingxuan’s plate, and Shi Qingxuan proceeded to stuff more food into their boyfriend’s mouth.


  Xie Lian’s eyes wandered over to San Lang’s nametag, where sure enough, the name Hua Cheng was written in gold marker. San Lang seemed to have sensed this, and he quickly explained.


  “I hope gege doesn’t mind calling me San Lang. Hua Cheng is my real name, but I prefer if you’d call me San Lang.”


  “Yeah, he just means that he likes you,” He Xuan scoffed, earning a glare from Hua Cheng. “Good ol’ Hua Cheng, beating about the bush trying to get into someone’s pa—”


  Hua Cheng kicked He Xuan on the shin under the table. “Seriously dude, shut up. You still owe me money, don’t forget about that.”


  He Xuan rubbed his shin, scowling at Hua Cheng and opening his mouth to receive more food from Shi Qingxuan.


  Hua Cheng turned back to Xie Lian. “Ignore him. I just like the name San Lang better.”


  Xie Lian was a little confused, but he nodded. He could respect that.


  The ambience in the café, despite being dark and ominous, was a good place to have a meal. The café’s operating hours stretched from nine to nine, and the gang had arrived before they opened for real, thanks to Shi Qingxuan’s connection with He Xuan. It was quiet, save for faint music playing in the background and the occasional laugh shared between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. Feng Xin had taken to swiping food from off Mu Qing’s plate when he wasn’t looking, or supposedly wasn’t looking, because Mu Qing was side-eyeing his plate as it was being robbed but decided not to address it. 


  The café welcomed its first new legitimate customers, and He Xuan and Hua Cheng stood up to man the kitchen and counter.


  Hua Cheng bowed before Xie Lian like a magician would before his audience. “I’m afraid I’ll have to make my leave here, my good man.”


  Xie Lian nodded, giggling at his mock formality. “Then I hope your journey is a safe one, o’ noble one.”


  They burst out laughing, and Mu Qing’s eyes went on a roll. Hua Cheng smoothed out his apron, and retreated into the kitchen. The others were almost done with their meals, and Feng Xin and Mu Qing told Xie Lian that they were going to head back and open up shop first. Xie Lian carried on eating, but chewed slower and slower, not wanting to give up his seat so that he could stay and watch Hua Cheng go about. Shi Qingxuan stayed to help He Xuan show his customers to some seats, trying to alleviate the café’s shortage of manpower. In spite of only being open for less than two hours, the café was filling up with a decent number of patrons, mostly old people from around who were curious to check the place out. 


  Xie Lian observed Hua Cheng flying in and out of the kitchen, new dishes and empty plates in hand as he ran around. It seemed that he was both the cook and waiter, which was a heavy burden to handle for one person, but a necessary one, since the café had a current staff or two and a half. Xie Lian asked Hua Cheng if he could help, but the latter just assured him that everything would be fine, and whisked his polished plates away. 


  “Gege should go back to Puji . Come back to Heishui later or tomorrow, I’ll cook you something nice, on the house,” Hua Cheng said, wiping the table down with a cloth that he had in his apron’s pocket.


  “San Lang, would that be okay? I mean, it is a business. I should pay for the meal.”


  Hua Cheng laughed, picking up a napkin from a vacant table and using it to wipe the side of Xie Lian’s mouth. Xie Lian felt his hands gently rub his face, and warmth bloomed on his cheeks.


  “Positive,” Hua Cheng replied, pressing the napkin into Xie Lian’s hands. Xie Lian stuffed the napkin into the pocket of his jeans. “Go, gege, I’ll be here.”


  Hua Cheng showed Xie Lian to the door, waving as he crossed the barren road to Puji


  Feng Xin and Mu Qing snickered as Xie Lian entered the bookshop, teasing him about his encounter with Hua Cheng. “Come to think of it, he did look familiar,” Mu Qing noted. “Gods, I think he was the parking lot guy!” Feng Xin suddenly said, snapping his fingers. “Xie Lian has a thing for the parking lot guy!”


  Xie Lian hid his face in his hands. “Guys! We’re just friends, okay? San Lang is really nice, you guys are being mean just because you met him under not-so-good circumstances.”


  “Yeah, because friends wipe your mouth for you, isn’t that right Mu Qing?”


  “For once, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I have to agree with this moron,” Mu Qing said.


  “Oh, fuck off won’t you!” Feng Xin exclaimed, earning a “make me” from Mu Qing. They continued to debate about who was more idiotic, and Xie Lian couldn’t help but smile at their banter.


  He took the napkin out from his pocket, wanting to toss it into the trash bin.


  A scrawl on the white paper caught his eye.


  He smoothed the paper over, scanning the scribble, trying to make out the characters. The words were messy, and were those… numbers? Still, Xie Lian made an effort to decipher whatever code was written down on the napkin, and when his brain finally clicked the symbols into place, Xie Lian’s heart began to pick up speed.


  He grabbed for his phone behind the counter, scrambling to open his contacts app. He placed the napkin on the counter, glancing between it and the technicolour screen, punching in a series on numbers.


On the napkin was written:


Call me! 037-177-241 -SL

  “Gege! You saved my number!” Hua Cheng’s cheery voice rang from the other end of the line. Xie Lian smiled as Hua Cheng rambled about how happy he was that Xie Lian had contacted him.


  “San Lang, I was wondering if you’d like to come over to Puji today?” Xie Lian asked, toeing the ground with the tip of his right sneaker. He was waiting at the bus stop outside his apartment, and the sun was on the verge of awakeness. Street lamps down the road were still on, casting gentle glows on the pavement. Xie Lian had actually texted Hua Cheng last night, and he’d received a reply and a request to call him this morning. 


  Since Heishui only opened at nine, he wasn’t sure why Hua Cheng was awake that early. He checked his watch again, making out the analog numerals to be 06:47. Oh well, it didn’t matter. It was nice to talk to someone to start your day. Especially if the someone in question is the hot guy who worked across the street. 


  “Of course gege! You open at eight, am I right?”


  Xie Lian said, “Yes.” He paused for a moment, then added, “If San Lang could come before operating hours, then I have something to show you.”


  San Lang chuckled. “No problem gege. I’m already in Heishui , I can even get you a coffee before you start work.”


  Now that was early.


  “San Lang is an early bird I see. No need for that, thank you. I feel like I’m imposing. Besides I never liked coffee.”


  “I’ll prepare a cup of tea then,” San Lang said, insisting when Xie Lian tried to reject him. “I’ll see you soon.”


  “See you, San Lang,” Xie Lian replied, tapping the End Call icon on his screen.


  The ride to Puji wasn’t very long. At least, It wasn’t very long for Xie Lian. It was quite the opposite for Feng Xin and Mu Qing, who lived together in an apartment that was an hour’s drive away. When the three of them first set Puji up, they’d offered to pick Xie Lian up in the morning so that they could grab some breakfast together before opening up shop. Xie Lian, however, had other plans in mind — he enjoyed the solitary mornings in his musty establishment, watching old people pass by on their morning run, and listening to music on the radio as he unpacked shipments of novels and magazines that had arrived. Also, Feng Xin and Mu Qing probably wanted their own alone time too, to argue about what kind of egg is better or whatever.


  There was a digital clock on the wall of Puji that was visible from the front glass doors. It was 7.15am, and Xie Lian could see movement from the dark insides of Heishui. He unlocked the doors to Puji and tossed his bag inside, then crossed the street to knock on the glass panels of Heishui.


  Hua Cheng was there, a pair of Airpods in his ears as he flipped some switches on the coffee machine. A nice red mug labelled ‘HC’ on the side sat steaming with freshly-brewed green tea. There was a plate beside the mug, with two unfamiliar little colourful biscuit sandwiches on it. Upon hearing the noise from the knocking on the windows, Hua Cheng looked up and grinned at Xie Lian. He plucked the Airpods from his ears and swooped up the plate and mug in two swift actions, making his way to the entrance.


  “Gege! I’m assuming you haven’t had breakfast?” Hua Cheng said, passing the plate to Xie Lian. Xie Lian received it with surprise and delight.


  “San Lang! Tea is already enough. I can’t eat these… What are these?”


  Hua Cheng said nothing, but picked up the yellow biscuit, and brought it to Xie Lian’s mouth. It was gold-dusted, and left sparkles on Hua Cheng’s fingers. Xie Lian chewed on the biscuit, thinking about how there was probably gold on his lips too.


  “Does gege like it? They’re macarons,” Hua Cheng explained, putting the red mug in Xie Lian’s hands. It was warm and welcoming, and Xie Lian realised just how cold his own hands were from the lower morning temperature. Xie Lian exclaimed, “Of course I like it! Did San Lang make it?”


  Hua Cheng winked (was it possible for a one-eyed man to wink?) before taking the other macaron and holding it to Xie Lian’s lips.


  Xie Lian took it from him, then pressed the macaron to Hua Cheng’s mouth instead. For a brief moment, he realised how awkward their situation was. Was this appropriate for two people who’d met only recently?


  “San Lang should get to share some too,” he blurted out, trying to hide his embarrassment. He was scared that Hua Cheng might be weirded out, but Hua Cheng happily opened his mouth and let Xie Lian feed him.


  “It tastes even better coming from gege’s hands,” Hua Cheng said, flashing Xie Lian a smile. Xie Lian felt his face heat up.


  He tugged on Hua Cheng’s sleeve, pulling him across the street. The sun had just risen, and the light illuminated the pair of them as they entered Puji . Xie Lian led Hua Cheng past the counter and the shelves to the back door of the bookshop, swiftly unlocking the door with his key. Xie Lian grabbed something from the storage shelf beside the back door, and headed out. Hua Cheng followed him, partly amused and partly confused.


  “Gege, what is it you wanted to show me?” Hua Cheng asked, watching as Xie Lian opened the bag to take out… A can of cat food?


  “Just wait and see,” Xie Lian said, prying the can open and setting it on the sidewalk.


  Xie Lian sat on the concrete ground, seeming to anticipate something. Hua Cheng followed suit. 


  A moment later, the petite silhouette of a feline came down the street, padding its soft white paws on the tarmac. It approached the pair of them, seeming to nod at Xie Lian for a sense of approval before coming closer. Hua Cheng could see it clearly now.


  The cat was majestic, of a breed that was sleek and stealthy. It had a long tail that flicked about in the air as it walked, and a pair of deep grey eyes. Its coat was pretty fluffy, the kind of coat that belonged to cats that lived in posh mansions and castles, and not a street stray.


  The cat sniffed at the food that Xie Lian had set out, slowly burying its snout in the mushy contents of the metal can. Xie Lian cooed, running a hand along the cat’s back. From his peripheral vision, Xie Lian could see Hua Cheng’s features soften.


  “San Lang, meet Ruoye. She’s been living on this street ever since I opened Puji ,” Xie Lian said, as Ruoye nuzzled Xie Lian’s hand, having finished her breakfast. She and Xie Lian were clearly close, as close as a human and a street cat can get.


  Hua Cheng stretched out his hand hesitantly, then quickly withdrew it. It didn’t go unnoticed by Xie Lian however. He took Hua Cheng by the arm, and guided him to place a palm in front of Ruoye. She looked skeptical at first, but felt comfortable enough to approach and allow Hua Cheng to stroke her back. She curled into a ball under his touch, falling into a cat nap on the pavement. Hua Cheng looked like he didn’t want to remove his hand.


  “How come gege hasn’t adopted Ruoye. She’s obviously warmed up to you,” Hua Cheng asked. Xie Lian sighed. “I wanted to. Ruoye has tried to follow me home several times too, but my landlord doesn’t like pets, let alone allow them. The last time this girl from several floors up brought a dog home, he called the police on her. The dog was taken to the pound and wasn’t heard about since.” His eyes flickered over to the snoozing cat. “I don’t think I could ever risk that happening to Ruoye. Maybe when I find the money, I could get a proper house…”


  There was something sorrowful and earnest about the way Xie Lian told Hua Cheng about his situation. It made Hua Cheng’s fingers itch. He wanted to do something. He had to do something. But what?


  They sat on the sidewalk in silence for a while more, when Xie Lian asked Hua Cheng why he was allowed to come into Heishui so early.


  “Trust me gege. Heishui is more mine than He Xuan’s, even though the place is under his name,” Hua Cheng said. 


  “In what way?” Xie Lian asked, puzzled.


  “Let’s just say I own this humble business called Xueyu, and I rent out the shop spaces along He Xuan’s street to unsuspecting entrepreneurs.”


  Xie Lian gasped. “Really? San Lang, you must be rich! Then, why bother working in Heishui?”


  “Gege, I’d rather be on my feet than sitting in an air-conditioned office all day. He Xuan’s an old friend anyway, so it’s a win-win situation. Besides, we wouldn’t have met if I didn’t come down to work at Heishui.”


  Xie Lian was impressed. “San Lang is so hardworking.”


  Hua Cheng waved away his praise. “I prefer ‘opportunistic’.”


  They heard sounds coming in from inside the shop; Feng Xin and Mu Qing were probably here. 


  “I’d better get inside before my friends think I was kidnapped,” Xie Lian said with a chortle, standing up and stretching out a hand to pull Hua Cheng up. They retreated in through the back door. At the counter sat a disgruntled Mu Qing, and in another corner of the shop, Feng Xin was pacing while making a phone call, shouting curses into his phone.


  Before Xie Lian could ask what happened, Mu Qing explained. “Dumbass over there couldn’t start the car. I told him it was because he didn’t fill the tank, but he insisted the engine was broken. We had the car towed and took the bus, then the bus broke down. It’s a wonder we got here in time. He’s been complaining to Pei Ming for the past hour.”


  As if on cue, Feng Xin stormed to the counter from his corner, and slammed his phone down on the counter. Xie Lian flinched, hoping the screen didn’t crack from the force. 


  “I told Pei Ming about everything and all he did was to fucking laugh. What an asshole,” Feng Xin said. Mu Qing rolled his eyes. “As if he was gonna fix the car for us. You think too highly of him.”


  “I don’t!” Feng Xin retorted. “The last time we called, he spent an entire afternoon talking about how Shi Wudu had accidentally eaten all of his Cheetos. He said I could call him if I ever needed to rant. Some friend he is.”


  Hua Cheng was still standing behind Xie Lian. He looked bored.


  “Why is he here?” Feng Xin asked, suddenly taking notice of Xie Lian’s companion.


  “Gege invited me,” Hua Cheng said, smirking as the other two turned to Xie Lian in mock horror. Xie Lian just shrugged. “I wanted to introduce him to Ruoye.”


  “What? Holy shit, Xie Lian you took fucking months to show us Ruoye! Now you’re showing her to a random dude you just met?” 


  Xie Lian waved his arms. “It’s not that! I just…” He trailed off, looking a little sheepish.


  Mu Qing sneered. The bookshop was silent for a long minute.


  Hua Cheng could tell he wasn’t wanted, and while he really wanted to stay and irritate the two asses Xie Lian called friends, he didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. 


  “Gege, Heishui is opening soon. I think I’ll make my leave.”


  Xie Lian looked sorry to see him go. “Oh. Alright then. See you soon San Lang.”


  Hua Cheng smiled wryly, then pushed open the double glass doors, inhaling the fresh morning air. As the door closed slowly behind him, he could hear Feng Xin and Mu Qing laughing and poking fun at Xie Lian, shedding their annoyance to tease him. 


  Hua Cheng imagined Xie Lian’s blushing face, and crossed the street.

  There was something cooking in the kitchen.


  It smelled like tomatoes, and… some kind of herb? Hua Cheng wouldn’t know; his sense of smell wasn’t the keenest, ranked his second-most horrible sense, after his sense of sight. Not that he needed two eyes anyway.


  Despite it being five minutes to the café’s opening hour, He Xuan was still sitting at the cashier, feet up on the cashier as he lazily tapped away on his phone. Hua Cheng wanted to slap him.


  For a second, Hua Cheng felt worried about the fact that there was activity in the kitchen, when the only people who worked here were him and He Xuan. He thought Shi Qingxuan might be round to help out again, but then remembered that they were taking classes today. A moment’s realisation had him running to the kitchen, and truly, he was right.


  “Yin Yu! Thank the Gods you’re here!” Hua Cheng said, with the enthusiasm that most employers didn’t have for their subordinates. His and Yin Yu’s relationship was different though, although they were boss and employee, they understood each other, and helped each other out on many occasions. Hua Cheng knew Yin Yu needed money, and Yin Yu could do basically everything, so he became very useful at Xueyu and wherever he went as long as he was paid his due worth. Whenever they weren’t being professional, Hua Cheng and Yin Yu could be as casual as they wanted. For an employer, Hua Cheng wasn’t the most particular.


  Yin Yu, in all his glory, turned around, glasses clouded by steam.


  “And you as well, Hua Cheng. Can’t understand why He Xuan would open a food-and-beverage place if he knows jackshit about cooking.”


  Hua Cheng said, “That’s probably a good thing since you’re gonna get paid for doing his dirty work.”


  Yin Yu shrugged. Hua Cheng stepped closer to the stove where Yin Yu was working, and breathed in the aroma wafting out from the pan. It was a pasta sauce, some kind of bologna. Yin Yu handed Hua Cheng a spoon to taste.


  The sauce was homely and wholesome, and tasted a little tangy on the tongue.


  “Just a little something new for the menu. I told He Xuan I’ll be in charge of the kitchen from now on, so you guys can do all the frontline stuff.”


  “Thanks Yin Yu. We owe you one.”


  “You’re literally my boss,” Yin Yu said, with a hint of amusement. He flexed his fingers and removed his glasses, wiping them on his shirt.


  “We’re pretty much past that. Lunch hour’s at two so grab a bite before the customers roll in, hm?”


  Hua Cheng got out of the kitchen, and almost ran into He Xuan who finally decided that the smell of sauce was enticing for him to get out of his chair. The café’s main room was empty now, and Hua Cheng sank into the chair at the counter. He could see Xie Lian’s moronic friends throwing books at each other from inside the shop, and Xie Lian himself was frantically trying to stop them. He thought about Ruoye and Xie Lian was so fond of the cat, yet he couldn’t give Ruoye a home just because of some stupid landlord.


  Something clicked on his brain.


  He Xuan came back with a small bow filled with some sauce and pasta. “This is the shit,” he said, taking a huge whiff of the dish. 


  “Xuan, I have a favour to ask.”


  “Duhd, I owe yuh moneh,” He Xuan said, mouth full of food. Tiny red droplets if sauce flew out of his mouth onto the counter, and He Xuan used his sleeve to wipe them away. Hua Cheng shook his head. He really couldn’t get more disgusting than this.


  “I’ll nullify some of your debt if you help me ask Qingxuan for something.”


  He Xuan’s head shot up. “Don’t bring them into this.”


 “I swear it’s nothing big. I just want to know when ge- Xie Lian’s birthday is,” Hua Cheng said. He Xuan raises an eyebrow.


  “Wait, you mean the guy from that bookshop Puji ?” He Xuan asked. “Wait a second, do you have a thing for him?”


  Hua Cheng pushed He Xuan, and He Xuan yelped, balancing his bowl and trying to keep its contents from spilling. “I don’t have a ‘thing’ for him,” Hua Cheng hissed, punctuating the word ‘thing’ with finger-quotation-marks. “I just… know something about him and thought it’d be nice to do something for him.”


  He Xuan smirked. “The great Hua Cheng, C.E.O. of Xueyu & Co., flustered over a man?”


  “Fuck off Xuan, before I make sure you’ll pay your debt with your life,” Hua Cheng said, dragging a finger across his neck. “Do it, or I’ll shut Heishui down.”


  He Xuan put down his bowl and held up both hands. “Fine, fine. Just to be sure, you mean both threats right? Or can I choose because I think my life sounds much more worth than—”


  “Fuck. Off.”


  He Xuan slunk off into the kitchen, and the bell on the door rang, a greeting from their first patron of the day.

  A sudden ring in the silence of the morning startled Hua Cheng from his slumber. It was 4am, a ridiculous time for someone to be calling him. With a groan, he snatched the phone from his bedside table, pulled out the cord and hit the speaker button.


  “Hua Cheng!” came a shrill voice from the other end. Hua Cheng winced at having his eardrums destroyed.


  “Shi Qingxuan. Pleasure to return your phone call this early in the morning.”


  There was some fumbling from the other side, and Shi Qingxuan finally said, “Sorry. I was studying when I saw He-xiong’s text. I forget that not many people are awake at this hour.”


  “Yeah, I wonder why.”


  “Don’t be like that, Hua-xiong!” Shi Qingxuan said. “I heard you want to know Xie-xiong’s birthday.”


  The mention of Xie Lian made Hua Cheng wake up a little. “Mhm. Do you mind sharing it?”


  Shi Qingxuan paused to ponder something. “I’ll tell you, but only if you tell me why you want it. I mean, must be something big if you can’t ask him yourself, hm?”


  “I have a plan,” was all Hua Cheng replied. 


  Shi Qingxuan tsked. “Hua-xiong, you’re being too vague! I need details! How did you guys meet, what’s going on between you too? I noticed you’re getting very close to Xie-xiong.” When Hua Cheng didn’t say anything, Shi Qingxuan went on. “He-xiong said you have a crush on Xie-xiong.”


  “I do not!” Hua Cheng said defensively. “Gege is too perfect to even date someone like me. I’ve gotten rid of the prospect altogether—”


  “Ha!” Shi Qingxuan sounded triumphant. “So you do have a thing for Xie-xiong.”


  “I just need his birthday so that I can get him something without having to find another reason. He seems like the kind of person who won’t accept things spontaneously, and I really want to do something nice for him.”


  Shi Qingxuan said, “Hm, I guess I’m convinced. You’re right, Xie-xiong doesn’t like taking favours or anything. Any chance you’d share what you’re going to do?”




  “Hm, I guess that’s fine by me. I’ve gotten all the info I wanted. His birthday is — and you’re in luck — exactly three weeks from now! Fifteenth of July, to be precise.”


  Hua Cheng shook his head, eyes about to snap shut. “Thanks. Qingxuan. You know you’re really weird right?”


  “Of course I do. I take pride in it.”


  Hua Cheng rolled his eyes, and pressed the End Call button on the screen without saying goodbye.

  A few weeks later, Hua Cheng found himself in front of Puji, a bag of food clutched in his hand. 


  “Gege! Good morning,” Hua Cheng said from the doorway of Puji . Xie Lian put down the book he was reading and waved at him. Hua Cheng walked over and placed the plastic bag on the counter. 


  “I got you some breakfast. Steamed buns — I recall you saying you liked them — and a box of teabags for you to put in the pantry. Also, food for Ruoye.”


  Xie Lian received the items gingerly, but gratefully. The bag was opened and a heavenly warm smell of freshly-baked buns wafted out.


  “San Lang, recently I’ve been reading a lot, and I thought I’d recommend you a book. It’s about this world where people know when they die, and—”


  Hua Cheng let Xie Lian ramble on as he grabbed a mug from the pantry and made Xie Lian a cup of tea. The first time they’d met had been almost two weeks ago, and they’d taken to each other like moths to a streetlamp. They’d been spending a lot of time together recently, with Hua Cheng indulging a slightly-reluctant Xie Lian in goodies and treats, and Xie Lian telling Hua Cheng about books that he might be interested in. Hua Cheng was never an avid reader, but to show that he actually cared about what Xie Lian said, he’d decided to take up the recommendations and do some light reading. Some of the books were honestly pretty interesting, and he was surprised to find how refreshing the process was, especially when he was motivated by the idea of a happy Xie Lian.


  He gave the mug to Xie Lian, and watched him drink the contents. A drop of tea rolled out the side of his mouth, leaving a trail on his lower cheek, and Hua Cheng wiped it away out of habit. Could he call it a habit? Or was it more of a reflex?


  Xie Lian seemed to lean into Hua Cheng’s hand as his fingers touched his face, almost like he welcomed the touch. Hua Cheng had no idea when they’d become so comfortable with each other like this, but it was a lovely feeling all the same.


  “Gege,” Hua Cheng began. “If you had the chance to adopt Ruoye, you would, right?”


  Xie Lian nodded. “Sure. Maybe when I’m richer, haha.”


  Hua Cheng smiled. “I can just bribe gege’s landlord if he wants.” Xie Lian laughed.


  “No, it’s alright. I can wait if Ruoye can wait.”


  Hua Cheng said, “What if I said that gege wouldn’t have to wait much longer?”


  Xie Lian raised a questioning eyebrow. “What do you mean, San Lang?”


  Hua Cheng waved a hand in the air. “Nothing, gege. Just… said it for fun.” Xie Lian scrunched his lips together, then laughed it off.


  “Okay San Lang.”


  When Hua Cheng finally stood up to leave the bookshop, he felt a wave of determination wash over him. 


  Xie Lian’s birthday was a week from then, and he had a plan. He had to get this right. He had to make it happen.


  It was all coming together.

  “Xie-xiong, you can’t open your eyes until I say so!”


  Xie Lian, who was stumbling across the sidewalk, nodded helplessly. Shi Qingxuan’s hands were over his eyes and he had absolutely no sense of bearing or direction as they led him across the road.


  “Qingxuan, where are we going?”


  “You’ll see.”


  There was the jingle of a bell, and Xie Lian could smell the familiar scent of Heishui’s ambience.


  “Okay, you can open your eyes now.”


  The hands were removed, and Xie Lian blinked his eyes open, trying to accustom his sense of sight. They were in Heishui , and in front of him were three tables pushed together. They were covered by a pretty white-laced tablecloth, and a myriad of dishes lay atop the pristine surface. 


  Feng Xin and Mu Qing were the first to speak. “Happy birthday, Xie Lian!” they said in unison, looking disgusted with themselves shortly after for having said the same thing at the same time. He Xuan shook Xie Lian’s hand and Xie Lian smiled gratefully. 


  “Thanks guys,” he said, slowly scanning the feast laid out for him. There was a huge plate of steamed buns, and a bowl of punch. On the side, a platter of fresh watermelon sat, cut into cubes with little toothpicks sticking out like spears on a red battlefield. The aroma of fried fritters permeated the air, and from the corner of his eye, Xie Lian could see He Xuan controlling his need to dive right in. “No need for formalities, everyone. Let’s enjoy the food!”


  Everyone indulged in the food, patting Xie Lian on the back and wishing him well, then stuffing more and more food into his hands. There was this new guy, Yin Yu, who Xie Lian had just met. Apparently he was Hua Cheng’s employee, and had been asked by Shi Qingxuan to be in charge of food at this small birthday gathering. He’d done it without qualms, after hearing from Hua Cheng about his amazing gege .


  “Haha, you must be mistaken, San Lang wouldn’t say that.”


  Yin Yu shook his head and pushed his glasses up in his nose bridge. “It’s true. Hua Cheng called me several days ago and told me that I had to make the food absolutely perfect for ‘my lovely, brilliant gege’s birthday’. He truly adores you, you know.”


  Xie Lian’s heart did a flip.


  “Speaking of San Lang, where is he?”


  At that exact moment, Xie Lian’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He had a notification from Hua Cheng, and it was just a text saying meet me behind Puji. the ruoye spot.


  Xie Lian took advantage of Shi Qingxuan showing everyone a funny video to slip out of the café and head for the spot where he and Hua Cheng had met Ruoye.


  It was still early, and the sun was still lazily climbing up on the horizon. 


  Xie Lian ran through the bookshop and pushed the back door open. Hua Cheng was there, sitting on the pavement, with some papers in his hand.


  Upon seeing Xie Lian, his face lit up, and he gestured for Xie Lian to come closer.


  “Happy birthday gege,” Hua Cheng said softly, like the wish was a secret. He put his arms around Xie Lian, giving him a hug. Xie Lian sank into his touch.


  “Thank you, San Lang. Why didn’t you come to the party?”


  “I had to settle gege’s gift. Pray he isn’t mad at me for my absence.”


  “Nonsense, I could never be mad at you,” Xie Lian reassured him. He saw a familiar silhouette make its appearance on the street, tail raised high and it joined the pair on the sidewalk.


  “Gege, Ruoye came to wish you a happy birthday too,” Hua Cheng said, watching fondly as Xie Lian scratched behind Ruoye’s ears. Xie Lian picked the feline up, and Ruoye curled up in his arms, comfy and cosy in Xie Lian’s embrace.


  They appreciated the silence of the morning and each other’s company for a minute, before Hua Cheng placed a hand on Xie Lian’s and asked him a question.


  “Gege, are you ready for my gift?”


  Xie Lian’s lips parted in surprise. “San Lang got me something?”




  “I hope you didn’t get anything expensive.”


  “Trust me gege. I promise it’s good.”


  Hua Cheng took Xie Lian’s right hand in his left, and fished something out of his pocket. It was small and wrapped in red tissue. Xie Lian frowned as he tried to make it out.


  “Open it gege,” Hua Cheng said. Xie Lian unwrapped the paper.


  It was a key.


  “W-What? San Lang, what is this?”


  Hua Cheng grinned, taking the documents he was holding earlier, and smoothing it out on the sidewalk for Xie Lian to see. “I suppose gege wants an explanation. You see, gege looks really intent and adopting Ruoye, but he can’t because of his asshole landlord. I decided that I’d buy gege an apartment that’s his to keep, one that allows pets.”


  Xie Lian’s eyes grew wider as Hua Cheng spoke. His grip on the key tightened. “Does this mean… I can…”


  “Yes gege. If you move into the new place, you can adopt Ruoye. It’s not very far from Puji , and all expenses are fully paid, courtesy of Xueyu & Co.


  Xie Lian seemed to be comprehending the situation. Hua Cheng anticipated his reaction with bated breath. He suddenly felt a little guilty for imposing on Xie Lian. Was the gift too out-of-this-world? He knew newly-made friends didn’t buy each other houses but this was an opportunity to make Xie Lian happy, so he took it. He bowed his head.


  “I’m sorry if I overstepped, gege. I can get you something else if—”


  “No, San Lang,” Xie Lian finally spoke up. Hua Cheng raised his head a little, not wanting to make eye contact. “I think it’s perfect.”


  Delicate fingers appeared under Hua Cheng’s chin, and Xie Lian used them to guide Hua Cheng’s line of sight towards him. There was a sparkle in his eyes, one that signified his gratitude and jubilance, even if he didn’t seem all that excited. Hua Cheng felt overwhelmed.


  “Thank you San Lang. You’re really too kind.”


  The corners of Hua Cheng’s lips lifted a little. Xie Lian sniffed.


  “Is gege crying?”


  Xie Lian said nothing, letting tears fall off his cheeks like pearls. He pressed his face into Hua Cheng‘s shoulder, and his tears created a damp patch on the red fabric of Hua Cheng’s shirt. 


  “I’m so touched, San Lang,” he said between sniffs. “Thank you so so so much.”


  “Hey, we’re friends right,” Hua Cheng said, rubbing Xie Lian on the back as he nuzzled his face into Xie Lian’s neck.


  “I don’t think so. Because if we’re friends, then I wouldn’t feel like kissing you, right now.”


  Before Hua Cheng could understand what was happening, Xie Lian pressed his lips into Hua Cheng’s, the warmth of their mouths blending together. Hua Cheng could taste the punch that Xie Lian had drunk, and he breathed in the familiar smell of old books and chamomile on Xie Lian. Xie Lian deepened their kiss, and Hua Cheng indulged in the feeling.


  When they finally broke apart, Xie Lian buried his burning face in his hands.


  “San Lang, I— I should’ve asked.”


  But Hua Cheng was beaming. “Gege, you’ve had no idea how much I’ve wanted to do that since we first met.”


  “Really? I thought—”


  Hua Cheng chuckled. “Gege, I always hoped we’d be more than friends.”


  For a moment, it was just the two of them in the entire universe. The cool morning had evolved into something marvellous and heartwarming, and the world felt timeless. 


  Xie Lian reached out and took Hua Cheng’s hand in his.


  “What I mean is, thank you San Lang. You know what would make this birthday even better?”




  Xie Lian’s blush grew brighter as he said, “Be my boyfriend. I want to pamper you the way you pamper me.”


  Hua Cheng’s heart melted. “I’d love nothing more.”


  Xie Lian took Hua Cheng into his arms again, embracing him like it was the end of the world.


  Hua Cheng kissed the top of his head. “Happy birthday gege.”

  “Gege! I’m home,” Hua Cheng hollered, using his leg to close the door behind him. A sleek white feline sat on the dining table, watching as Hua Cheng set a few bags of groceries aside. Hua Cheng walked over to pet Ruoye as Xie Lian emerged from the room.


  “San Lang!” he said, running over to his boyfriend. Hua Cheng caught Xie Lian as he jumped into his arms. “I’m so glad you’re home!”


  Hua Cheng pressed a kiss to Xie Lian neck, grinning as Xie Lian shivered from the tickle. “I missed you, gege. You and Ruoye both.”


  “San Lang, I saw you this morning. I woke up next to you.”


  “I know gege. Point is, we were separated, doesn’t matter how long we were.”


  Xie Lian laughed, nuzzling his head into Hua Cheng’s chest.


  It had been almost two years since they’d moved in together, and three since they’d become an item. Puji was the same, quaint old bookshop that people rarely visited that was somehow surviving, and Heishui saw some hundreds of customers each day. Today was the opening of Shi Qingxuan’s new fan shop, Fengshi. Shi Qingxuan had first coined the idea when they’d heard some old folks grumbling about the rising global temperature. “Those boomers cause their own problems, then expect us kids to solve them. Never mind, more cash for me!” Shi Qingxuan has said. It would be a good way to appease them, and also a perfect business opportunity.


  “Gege, we got to be at the opening in 20 minutes.”


  “Alright San Lang, I'll go get changed.”


  Extricating himself from Hua Cheng’s embrace, Xie Lian turned to Ruoye, scratching her chin. Ruoye meowed in response, content and comfortable.


  A few minutes later, Xie Lian came out, all dressed up and ready to go. Hua Cheng linked arms with his boyfriend, and grabbed a set of keys from a bowl on the shelf before leading Xie Lian out of the door.


  Xie Lian kissed Hua Cheng’s cheek as he bent down to tie his shoelaces, and Hua Cheng stood up and kissed his lips, fingers intertwined in his gege’s.


  “Shall we, my love?” Hua Cheng said, gesturing down the corridor.


  “Of course, my dear San Lang.”


  As they exited the building and made their way to Hua Cheng’s car, Xie Lian thought about how fortunate he was. 


  He had a bookshop, and friends who were fun. He had a comfortable house, and a lovely cat waiting at home. But most of all, he had his San Lang, a man so thoughtful and loving that it was almost impossible to reciprocate the same level of love.


  “Is gege thinking about something?”


  “Mhm. Just thinking how lucky I am to have so many good things in life.”


  “I’m glad that gege is happy,” Hua Cheng said, inserting the key into the ignition. “You know what else there is gege?”


  “What is it, San Lang?”


  “Gege has made me very lucky too. I’m very happy to be loving you.”


  That sentence itself made Xie Lian’s heart melt in a puddle of gold.


  They shared a kiss, and Xie Lian ran a hand through Hua Cheng’s hair.


  “I love you San Lang. I hope you know.”


  “Of course I do gege, because I love you too.”


  With that, they drove down the road into the dawn.