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Learning the Language

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It occurred to Zhao Yunlan early on that he wasn’t exactly an expert at the whole committed relationship thing. In fact, he was mostly the opposite, having spent his entire adult life so far trying to avoid anything resembling a permanent entanglement. Or hell, catching feelings at all.

And then Shen Wei had come along and wham. Zero to a hundred and fifty in just a few weeks. He’d gone from instant attraction to intrigued to a bone-deep affection almost before he’d realized it, and then emotional attachment had slid into the deepest and most important friendship he’d ever had in his life.

The love part had almost felt like a conscious decision. He remembered looking at Shen Wei, standing in front of him, asking if he’d brought Zhao Yunlan trouble. He remembered the burn of anger and frustration, the almost searing ache of knowing Shen Wei was lying to him. But mostly he remembered the softness beneath it, the realization that he trusted Shen Wei to be doing this for the right reasons.

There’d been no going back after that, at least not for him. Not when he caught Shen Wei going behind his back to meet with his father, not when he realized Shen Wei had no intention of telling him about his suicidal plan to take down Ye Zun. Not when they’d fought or trod on each other’s feelings. Zhao Yunlan had never considered himself the kind of guy who fell in love. He’d certainly never thought there would ever be a relationship he couldn’t recover from.

Yet here he was. Wrapped up in Shen Wei until there was no pulling them apart. And with absolutely no idea how to proceed.

Relationships came with obligations, he knew that much. He wasn’t worried about monogamy or any of that, and they’d come to an agreement to tell each other the truth that he trusted Shen Wei to keep, so trust wasn’t an issue. Mostly they’d just been going on like normal for months now and it was... It was good. It was better than Zhao Yunlan and his commitment-phobic ass had ever thought a relationship like this could be. The problem was that he couldn’t shake the lingering fear that he was doing things wrong. There had to be something he was missing. It couldn’t be this easy.

Shen Wei would never tell him if he were a disappointment, Zhao Yunlan was as sure of that as he was the sun rising. Maybe more so. Shen Wei asked for so little from him, but he deserved everything Zhao Yunlan could give him.

Maybe that was the thing. He had never given Shen Wei anything, had he? No token of his affection or gratitude. The closest he’d ever come was that damn banner with the hidden camera.

Okay. Romantic gifts. Tokens of affection. Shen Wei deserved to be spoiled a little, and this was the least Zhao Yunlan could do.

There were only two problems with that, as it turned out, and one of them was that Zhao Yunlan was shit at gift-giving.

“Get him a car so he doesn’t have to ride around in the Jeep anymore. He clearly hates it.” Da Qing was in human form, but the way he was sprawled across the couch with his feet in Zhao Yunlan’s lap and his head hanging over the edge of the seat was all cat. “Anyway, it’s undignified for the Black Cloak Envoy to have to take the bus.”

“I don’t see him driving,” Zhao Yunlan said. He had his head tipped back against the back of the couch and he’d been staring at the same patch of ceiling for half an hour. “He’s had plenty of time in this day and age to get a license and a car if he wanted one, so he probably doesn’t. That’s an expensive misfire.”

“True.” Da Qing was gnawing gently on a piece of dried squid, and Zhao Yunlan was just waiting for him to choke on it. “Jewelry?”

“He doesn’t wear any.” Aside from the pendant, which had been lost in Dixing and which Shen Wei had made no effort to replace. “And don’t say a ring. I’m not ready for a ring.”

“Wasn’t going to,” Da Qing said cheerfully. “I wouldn’t do that to poor Professor Shen. Bad enough he’s going to be shackled to you for all eternity sooner than later, why speed it up?”

Zhao Yunlan shoved the cat’s feet off his lap and Da Qing yelped as he tumbled to the floor. “If you’re not going to help-”

“Oh, calm down.” Da Qing squirmed around on the floor until he was facing Zhao Yunlan and propped his feet up on the cushion. “What’s the big rush anyway? It’s not his birthday, is it?”

“I don’t know when his birthday is,” Zhao Yunlan realized. “I should know that, shouldn’t I?” He scrubbed both hands over his face while his stomach started to squeeze into a knot. “I’m not any good at this.”

Da Qing nudged his knee with his toe. “I know, but he likes you anyway. So stop freaking out about what you should or shouldn’t be doing and just do what you want to do.”

Zhao Yunlan dropped his hands and grinned. “They’d fire me eventually if I never got out of bed again.”

Da Qing stretched and plopped his feet right back in Zhao Yunlan’s lap. “Okay, maybe don’t go with your instincts here, you lech. Think of what he likes, and then get him something he needs that matches up. After all,” he added with a crooked grin, “he already knows you’re a screw up. If you get it wrong you can always try again.”

1) giving gifts

“A gift certificate?” Shen Wei asked. He pushed his glasses higher up on his nose, like he actually needed them to read the note, and set the magazine - scientific journal, actually, Zhao Yunlan was dating a guy who read scientific journals and wrote for scientific journals and was occasionally interviewed by scientific journals. Zhao Yunlan had subscriptions to three different bike magazines.

Zhao Yunlan stood in front of the couch and shoved his hands in his pockets. He bit his lip as he watched the way Shen Wei’s brow furrowed a little as he examined the little cardboard card the shop had given him in exchange for a decent chunk of that week’s paycheck. “Yeah.”

Shen Wei smiled and ran his thumb over the edge of the card. “It’s very generous, but you didn’t have to.”

“No, I know.” Zhao Yunlan rocked forward on the balls of his feet before he caught himself and made himself be still. His heart was pounding and he felt jittery, worked-up. He felt ridiculous, because he knew Shen Wei would probably like anything he gave him, but at the same time if this wasn’t something he actually liked then Zhao Yunlan was going to go lie down in the street. “I just - I know you’re still replacing all the stuff that got wrecked when your place got trashed. I wanted to help.”

It sounded boring when he put it like that. Not particularly romantic at all. He watched Shen Wei examine the card with a sinking feeling in his gut. He should have gone for jewelry. Jewelry was romantic.

“I appreciate it,” Shen Wei said. His smile made the corners of his eyes crinkle up. “I can be a bit indulgent where I wouldn’t have been before. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” That sounded good, like he really could use it. Maybe this wasn’t a total mistake. “Do you want a car?” Zhao Yunlan snapped his teeth shut an instant too late. Then he opened them again because he was an idiot. “I thought maybe you’d like to have more control over your schedule? Get to work and stuff and not have to wait for me all the time.”

“A car?” Shen Wei echoed. His fingers tightened on the card and went white around the nails. He lowered his head a little, his brows furrowing. “I apologize, of course driving me to the University and picking me up in the evenings is quite out of your way. If you need to stop I can certainly start taking the bus again. I didn’t intend to be an inconvenience-”

“Oh, hey, no, shit. No. No,” he added firmly. He sat down on the couch next to Shen Wei and took his hands, rubbing his thumb over the pads of Shen Wei’s fingers. “No. I just want to make sure you have everything you need.” He ducked his head until he could look into Shen Wei’s eyes. “I want to give you everything you need.”

Shen Wei smiled at him, the lines on his forehead smoothing out. “Zhao Yunlan,” he said, in a tone that was both fond and somewhat exasperated. “I have everything I need. I have you.”

“You deserve better than that,” Zhao Yunlan said, injecting a note of humor into his voice.

Shen Wei looked down at the gift card and rubbed his thumb over the part where Zhao Yunlan had signed his name. “You have already given me everything I could want. What brought this on?”

Zhao Yunlan leaned in and pressed a kiss to Shen Wei’s temple. “Just thinking,” he said. He tugged on Shen Wei’s hands, pulling him in closer until he could wrap an arm around Shen Wei’s shoulders and hold him against his chest. “Maybe I want to spoil you a little.”

Shen Wei laid his head on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. “If it pleases you, I certainly won’t object,” he said.

All right, so gift-giving wasn’t his strong suit. Zhao Yunlan curled a hand around the back of Shen Wei’s neck and started thinking up other ideas.

2) physical touch

Zhao Yunlan brushed his fingertips along Shen Wei’s cheekbone, then back to trace the shell of his ear. He lingered over the softness of his earlobe, then ran his fingers over the curve of Shen Wei’s jaw, stopping just under his chin.

Shen Wei’s eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks, and he woke with a soft, sleepy sigh. “Yunlan.”

“Baobei.” Zhao Yunlan rolled the world on his tongue, savoring it a little.

It was warm beneath the covers. Outside their bed the apartment was still and silent, just barely lit by the first hint of dawn. It was Saturday and they had nowhere to be and nothing to do.

Shen Wei stirred, but stilled when Zhao Yunlan pressed his fingertips to Shen Wei’s mouth. He could feel the way Shen Wei’s smile curved, small and soft, beneath them.

When he was sure Shen Wei wasn’t going to try to move, Zhao Yunlan drew his fingers down over his jaw again, traced the elegant line of his neck, paused briefly at the hollow of his throat. He stroked the delicate skin there for a moment, listening to Shen Wei’s quiet breathing. Then he ran his fingers down the center of Shen Wei’s chest and lower to the soft, firm flesh of his stomach.

Shen Wei sucked in a soft breath as Zhao Yunlan traced circles around his belly, then flattened his palm against Shen Wei’s abs and swept upward to cup a hand over his heart.

“Yunlan,” Shen Wei said again. He laid a hand on Zhao Yunlan’s waist and they lay there for several long heartbeats.

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan finally replied, and Shen Wei slid closer across the sheets.

3) quality time

“You don’t have to stay,” Shen Wei told him for the third time.

Zhao Yunlan kissed the tip of his nose, mostly because he knew it would make Shen Wei sigh exasperatedly. “I want to. I’ve never heard you give a big presentation like this. I want to see you in your element.”

Shen Wei arched one elegant eyebrow at him. It probably said more about Zhao Yunlan that he wanted it to that he found his boyfriend’s skepticism so sexy. “You have seen me teach.”

“And it was hot,” Zhao Yunlan said earnestly. He leaned forward into Shen Wei’s personal space a little, unreasonably pleased with Shen Wei didn’t pull back. “Seriously, I want to stay. I promise I won’t interrupt or ask any dumb questions, or embarrass you in front of your intellectual peers.”

“You’ve never asked a dumb question in your life,” Shen Wei said. “Unless it was by design.” He skimmed his fingers over the lapel of Zhao Yunlan’s jacket, then laid his hand flat against Zhao Yunlan’s chest. “Very well. But if you’re bored, I won’t be offended.”

“Looking at you will never be boring,” Zhao Yunlan assured him.

Shen Wei rolled his eyes but he was smiling, so Zhao Yunlan considered that a win.

He’d meant it when he said that he wouldn’t be bored - he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the idea of ever being bored by anything involving Shen Wei. Maybe in a few years or decades when things had settled down, but he didn’t think so. But definitely not now.

He’d always known Shen Wei was a good teacher. His students all seemed to love him, and his coworkers and fellow professors all treated him with respect. But seeing him in action was another thing entirely.

The conference hall was packed - Shen Wei was the leading authority on Dixingren and Yashou biology, after all, and the rest of the world was only beginning to scratch the surface of things Shen Wei had been studying for years. If Shen Wei felt nervous talking in front of a crowd he didn’t show it. He was vibrant and energetic as he addressed the room and Zhao Yunlan found himself listening to the lecture, following most of the science and finding himself drawn in. Shen Wei was clearly fascinated with the information he was giving them and it made him look bright and warm - He was enjoying himself here in a way that he didn’t as the Black Cloak Envoy, or as an SID Consultant.

It was… not sad, not really. Zhao Yunlan loved his work but he wouldn’t say he got excited about it. That was for hobbies, and friends, and home. Police work could be satisfying when he got it right, but it was never really fun.

This though. This was Shen Wei having fun.

Zhao Yunlan had once thought Shen Wei only taught for his cover, but even if he hadn’t already realized he was wrong, this would have done it for him.

He wanted to see Shen Wei in a classroom after this. See him teach students instead of colleagues. Watch the excitement and enthusiasm light up his eyes. There was no way the kids wouldn’t hang on his every word.

He mingled, afterwards. Shen Wei’s presentation was the keynote of the conference, so there was a throng of people waiting for him afterward. Zhao Yunlan kept to himself at the back of the room, nursing a beer and letting himself get drawn into small talk with the occasional intellectual. He kept an eye on Shen Wei though, enjoying the opportunity to just watch him.

They met up by the buffet table much, much later, and Shen Wei surprised him by greeting him with a quick kiss. “Did you have a nice nap?”

“You were brilliant,” Zhao Yunlan told him. “If I had been one of your students, I would have changed my major right then and there.”

“If you had been one of my students I would have had to give my class to someone else,” Shen Wei said. “The conflict of interest would have been unforgivable.”

“That’s sweet.” Zhao Yunlan caught Shen Wei’s hand in his, tangled their fingers together. “Seriously though, if you’d been my professor I’d have done a lot better in school.”

“You graduated in the top ten percent of more than fifteen thousand students,” Shen Wei said. “I don’t know that I would have made much of an impact.”

“You made a hell of an impact,” Zhao Yunlan said. He caught Shen Wei’s gaze and let his smile drop a little. “Of course you did.”

Shen Wei blinked at him, then his face eased into a soft, happy smile. “No more so than you had on me, I can assure you.”

Zhao Yunlan resisted the urge to pull him closer, knowing Shen Wei was sensitive about public affection. “If you want, when we go home tonight I can make a couple of impacts on you.” He grinned and arched his eyebrows. “If you know what I mean.”

4) acts of service

Shen Wei was tired.

Zhao Yunlan hadn’t noticed at first. He’d been late at the station so Shen Wei had beaten him home. Shen Wei had been busy in the kitchen with what looked like a dozen different pots and pans and cutting boards, so Zhao Yunlan had kissed the top of his head and gone to clean up. But once he came back and they settled down at the counter to eat, it was obvious that Shen Wei was dragging.

Well, Zhao Yunlan reflected, as much as Shen Wei could be dragging. He still looked gorgeous and managed to prepare a nice dinner for them. But he was just a little paler than usual, and his movements just a hint more sluggish than normal. He would stop and blink every once in a while too, as if he were about to fall asleep.

He ate slowly, without any particular enthusiasm for the food, and though he cleaned his plate, Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but notice that he’d taken very little food to begin with. Even though spicy tofu was one of his favorites.

“Long day?” Zhao Yunlan asked.

Even Shen Wei’s smile looked tired. “I’m afraid it was. A student was caught selling copies of exams, including ones for several of my classes, as well as my backup exams. They’ll all have to be remade, but two of them were to be given tomorrow, so we were forced to create two new exams from scratch in between classes today.” He sighed and set his glass down. “And then there is the matter of how they got a hold of them in the first place. Since I don’t offer exams on the computer that means someone either broke into my office to steal and photocopy the master copies I had made, or that someone with access to my office supplied the exams to this individual.”

Zhao Yunlan frowned. “They don’t think Jiajia-”

“She’s a logical suspect,” Shen Wei said. The corners of his mouth turned down in a tiny frown. He hated when anyone he considered one of his own was in a position he couldn’t protect them from. “It does the culprit no good to lie, though. Unless he’s spiteful enough to take down an innocent student for no purpose at all, I don’t believe she’ll be implicated.”

Zhao Yunlan kept his opinion on that to himself. Pessimism wouldn’t make Shen Wei feel better. “What happens to the seller?”

“Expulsion, very likely. There will be a review board, but I can’t imagine a different outcome given the situation.” Shen Wei straightened up a little and made a brief gesture with his hand, as if to push it all away. “But this can’t be terribly interesting to you. How was your day?”

“Not as long as yours,” Zhao Yunlan said. He popped the last piece of tofu in his mouth and stood. “Here, let me.” He took Shen Wei’s empty plate as well as his own and reached behind him to deposit them in the sink.

Shen Wei had stood as well and was beginning to gather the leftovers. Zhao Yunlan took the dishes from him and firmly set them back on the counter. “Not tonight,” he said. He took Shen Wei by the wrist and tugged him over to the couch. Shen Wei only made a token protest, allowing Zhao Yunlan to lead him across the room and down onto the couch.

“Sit,” Zhao Yunlan said. He snagged the quilt off the back of the couch and spread it out, bundling it around Shen Wei and tucking it in so it wouldn’t slip. “You’re exhausted and stressed out. Let me take care of you for a change, all right?”

Shen Wei caught one of his hands and pressed a kiss against his knuckles. “I enjoy taking care of you,” Shen Wei said. “I’ll never be too tired for that.”

“How about we take turns, then?” Zhao Yunlan squeezed Shen Wei’s hand, then let go. “I’m gonna need some practice before I’m as good at this as you, though.”

Shen Wei leaned back against the couch. “You’re too hard on yourself.”

Zhao Yunlan snorted. “You’re too easy on me.” He filled the electric kettle, then popped over to the bed to grab the book Shen Wei had been reading before bed the night before - not a biology text, for once, but a book on the pre-history of Dragon City. Zhao Yunlan had been meaning to ask Shen Wei if the book mentioned either of them. He brought Shen Wei his book and a pillow from the bed, then, while the water heated up, he started putting away the leftovers. He didn’t toss it all in the trash, or throw it all in the same bowl and cover it with cling wrap, the way he would have when it was just him and Da Qing. Instead he packed the individual dishes in their own containers, the way Shen Wei always did, and stacked them up in the fridge.

He could feel Shen Wei’s eyes on him while he cleaned. If he’d thought about it he might have thought it would feel like being judged. Instead it just felt nice. Knowing Shen Wei was able to relax because at some point Zhao Yunlan had grown up enough to do this shit on his own.

Okay, and maybe he was a decade or so behind the curb on basic household chores, but whatever. Progress was progress.

He measured out the tea leaves into the strainer, then poured the water into the cup and let it steep for exactly four minutes while he started filling the sink. He added a half a spoonful of honey - Shen Wei usually didn’t sweeten his tea, but Zhao Yunlan had noticed that he would when he was tired, or had a heavy workload ahead of him. He delivered the tea to Shen Wei along with a kiss.

Shen Wei didn’t crack open the book, seeming content to sit there and sip his tea while he watched Zhao Yunlan be domestic. Every now and then he’d ask about Zhao Yunlan’s day, or inquire after one of the SID team. Zhao Yunlan tossed a few questions back, avoiding the test scandal as best he could, and convinced Shen Wei to tell him about his latest paper, which was apparently about the evolutionary divergence between Dixingren and the original Yashou tribes.

Somewhere around the time Shen Wei segued off into a complaint about how his draft had been returned from peer submission with a stern note not to plagiarize from himself - “It’s very flattering, of course,” Shen Wei said in a tone that indicated no such thing - Zhao Yunlan gave the counter a final wipe down and then dried his hands on the dish towel. The kitchen looked almost spotless, the dishes were stacked up to dry on the rack, and he’d even refilled the electric kettle so it would be ready for the morning.

When he turned around, Shen Wei was watching him, the corners of his mouth turned up in a soft, content smile. The tightness around his eyes was gone, and he looked more sleepy tired, than the stressed exhaustion he’d demonstrated earlier.

He had done that, Zhao Yunlan realized. Or at least he’d helped. It felt… good. No wonder Shen Wei liked taking care of people so much.

“Come on,” he said, holding out a hand for Shen Wei to take. “I’m gonna draw you a bath and if you’re real good I’ll let you fall asleep on me.”

5) words of affirmation


It was early afternoon on the weekend when Zhao Yunlan had an epiphany.

Not a real one, or at least… well. It probably shouldn’t have been an epiphany. He could never, ever call it that because literally every person who knew him would just roll their eyes. But it felt like an epiphany.

He sat up on the bed, the springs creaking at the sudden movement and his magazine falling closed to his side. Across the apartment, Shen Wei looked up from the counter, where he was grading papers.

Zhao Yunlan stared at him for a long moment, eyes lingering on his face as if seeing it for the first time. His heart was pounding in his chest, his breath was coming in deep and quick as if he’d just run a mile, or had a scare.

Or a realization.

He rolled off the bed and crossed the room. Shen Wei sat up a little straighter on the stool, watching him with eyes that were starting to narrow in concern. Zhao Yunlan took his face in his hands, stroked his thumbs over the curve of his jaw for a moment, then leaned in to press his mouth against Shen Wei’s in a slow, gentle kiss.

When they parted, he pressed his forehead to Shen Wei’s and stood there for a long minute, letting his heartbeat calm in his chest, letting the nerves settle in his stomach.

“For the last couple of months, I’ve been worried,” he said finally. He kept his eyes shut, lowered his hands so he could wrap his arms around Shen Wei’s neck and hold him. “I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had a boyfriend or a partner I intended to keep. And I was worried because I didn’t know how to show you how much you meant to me.”

He could feel Shen Wei wanting to object, so he shook his head a little and pulled back. He opened his eyes and let himself just look for a moment, drinking in the details of his expression - the little pinch between his brows, the sharpness in his eyes as he gave Zhao Yunlan his full concentration, the way his lips were pressed together just a bit. Everything about him was radiating worry and love and a need to fix whatever was wrong, and for a second Zhao Yunlan could barely breathe with the weight of how much he loved this man.

“Because I’m an idiot,” he said, and the nerves in his stomach bubbled up into laughter. He took another kiss, laughing against Shen Wei’s mouth. “Shen Wei. Sweetheart. I love you.”

The words were - not alien. But not familiar either. He didn’t think he’d said them to another person since he was a child. Since his mother died, probably. But they felt right. As if he’d been saving them for this.

“I love you so much,” he whispered against Shen Wei’s mouth. “And I’ve never told you. I’m so sorry.”

“Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei’s voice was little more than an exhale. His arms slid around Zhao Yunlan’s waist and he turned a little so he could pull Zhao Yunlan in between his knees and hold him there, knees pressed tight against Zhao Yunlan’s thighs as if afraid he was going to run. “You’ve told me. Many times, in many ways. Don’t doubt it.”

“You deserve the words, though.” Shen Wei liked the words. Zhao Yunlan should have seen it sooner. He was supposed to be a detective but this had been right in front of his face. The way Shen Wei would go so soft when Zhao Yunlan said something sweet or romantic, the way he leaned into Zhao Yunlan’s touch when he whispered affection to him. He should have seen it sooner.

He should have been braver. He should have trusted Shen Wei as much as he said he did.

“I love you,” he said as Shen Wei yanked him down into a hard kiss. He said it again and again every time they drew apart for breath.

“Yunlan,” Shen Wei said, voice hoarse and eyes too bright in the cheap kitchen lights. “Zhao Yunlan. I have loved you since the world was new. And I will love you even when there is nothing left but stardust and ash. I don’t need anything but you.” His eyes fluttered shut as Zhao Yunlan kissed him again, and he drew in a deep, shuddering breath when they parted. “But say it again.”

Zhao Yunlan did, whispering the words against his mouth and into his skin as he pulled Shen Wei to his feet and toward the bed.