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sun and soil

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When he loses most of his tomatoes to thieving birds (and, he suspects, to thieving members of the SID), Zhao Yunlan sighs and props his hands on his hips and looks at the barren vines with disappointment. “I read so many books for you,” he tells the disordered patch that isn’t set in anything that can still be called rows. “And this is how you repay me?”

(He ignores, conveniently, that Shen Wei read most of those books. Shen Wei’s voice can make even the driest text palatable to him, especially when paired with Shen Wei’s lap as a pillow and Shen Wei’s hands resting on him and gently squeezing to ensure he stays awake and listens.)

Shen Wei crouches down next to the vines, incongruous in his well-ironed professorial outfit. “They grew well,” he says, as if he’s been the one tending to the patch all along. He hasn’t been; Zhao Yunlan has batted away his hands every time he tries to touch the plants, saying that this is going to be his gift, that Shen Wei can only touch the vegetables when it’s time to turn them into delicious meals.

“They did.” Zhao Yunlan plops down next to Shen Wei and slings an arm across his shoulders. His attempt to tug Shen Wei into something more of a sprawling cuddle is ineffectual, but it doesn’t dissuade Zhao Yunlan from instead changing his tactic to playing with Shen Wei’s hair. “But they were supposed to go into my belly.”

Shen Wei looks at him, a slight smile on his face. “You could urge the fruit back.”

“Cheater,” Zhao Yunlan scolds. He’s thought about it, of course, but it would ruin the point of this exercise. He has all this power now—he could make a tree grow a hundred years in a second if he chose—and instead he uses his hands like the mortal he no longer is.

He never had wanted to grow things like this before. But now, with memories stretching back thousands of years and the knowledge that he could live thousands more—

Zhao Yunlan uses his hands, and sinks into the slow rhythm of an ordinary year.

Plants grow at their own pace, when no power is used to encourage them. The world spins and circles the sun, the rain falls (or doesn’t), and seeds turn to sprouts and then to mature plants. Zhao Yunlan paces himself by their growth, even as the rest of the SID teases him for his obsession and whines about how he didn’t pick their favorite plants to add to the garden. It is a reminder of mortality.

The stolen tomatoes, too, are a reminder of how he can’t control everything.

The way he blocks Shen Wei from bringing them back is a reminder that he shouldn’t control everything, even if he could.

Zhao Yunlan ruffles Shen Wei’s hair one more time and lies down, cushioning his head on his arms. He’ll have dirt under his fingernails again after this, even though he isn’t doing any digging today. The dirt always finds its way there, and then he’ll try—and fail—to scrub it out to Shen Wei’s standards, and then Shen Wei will be forced to help. Shen Wei’s graceful hands and focused attention on his fingers sometimes distract them both from dinner, when Zhao Yunlan finds his hunger is for his husband’s lips more than his cooking.

“Are you going to do anything about the missing tomatoes?” Shen Wei asks, and Zhao Yunlan looks up through hooded eyes to see him combing his hair back into place. It’s a shame; he looks good with those human blemishes on his attempted perfection.

“Wasn’t there something in one of those books?” Zhao Yunlan asks, letting his gaze turn up to the sky and the clouds scudding across it. “You can remind me.”

Shen Wei sighs, and goes to fetch the chair that lives, neatly-folded, alongside Zhao Yunlan’s messily-organized gardening supplies. “Your memory is just as good as mine,” he points out as he returns and sits on the clean plastic surface. His shoes nudge against Zhao Yunlan’s side ever so gently, and Zhao Yunlan internally bemoans that he can’t get Shen Wei to take those off and slide his bare toes into the soil beneath Zhao Yunlan’s body.

“Is it?” Zhao Yunlan stretches. He can feel the way Shen Wei’s attention locks onto the movement of his body, the slice of skin bared as his shirt slides up. They won’t do anything about it here, but he likes knowing how deeply he affects Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan settles again, cheerful in the knowledge that he’ll be covered with dust and dirt that Shen Wei will want to personally remove from him, and leaves his shirt rucked up. “You know I was half-asleep for most of those books.”

There’s a pause—either Shen Wei recollecting himself or recalling the texts—and then Shen Wei starts reciting a passage about preventative measures. Mesh nets and chicken wire fencing interlace with commentary on arrays and talismans that Shen Wei couldn’t have gotten from any university book. Zhao Yunlan laughs, and smiles up at his husband, and basks in the autumn sun.

He’s content like this.

Perhaps this day can stretch on forever.