His date had long hair in his picture. Dark brown, and reaching past his shoulders, bestowing an air of elegance. It was one of the reasons Zhou Zishu even took a second glance at his profile. It was something different to break up the monotony of his feed. He thought it’d be fun to wrap his fingers in it. That it’d be soft, but not delicate. Something he could grab onto and pull. Even now the thought made his fingers twitch.
The fantasy didn’t matter. The hair was short now. He sported a clean cut look that didn’t lend itself well to tugging. It was job interview hair, and although it wasn’t ugly––he could imagine some people may even prefer a more traditional cut like that––it wasn’t what he expected. Disappointing.
The hair wasn’t a problem, and he didn’t think he was misled. Not really anyways. It wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t a misdirection. From his memory of scrolling through the six or so photos on his profile, he could remember catching a glimpse of one with New Year decorations in the background. Streamers and party hats peeking out from behind his figure as he grinned, clearly drunk, with long pretty locks that framed his face nicely. They were barely into February now, so not a lie. Just a profile he hadn’t bothered to update in the last few weeks.
Zhou Zishu had met liars in the handful of hookups he’d arranged on whichever stupid app he was sure to delete the next morning. They were simple lies. Non-important lies. Things like boasting being six feet tall even though they couldn’t reach Zhou Zishu’s––not tall, but not short––eye line. There were differences in weight (as if he gave a shit about that) or snapshots obviously taken at least ten years prior. Stupid shit like that, born from self-consciousness, but not ill-intent, although that didn’t make them any less of a lie.
“How are you doing, A-Xu,” the short-haired man said without looking in his direction. He drove carefully, with his eyes on the pitch black road cautious of the late winter slush.
Zhou Zishu was a liar, but to be fair, he had never pretended otherwise. He gave a short grunt that didn’t answer the question one way or the other. He thought about how it was a shame that he couldn’t remember the man’s name, and yet he himself had already been designated a nickname. One based on a fake name maybe, but one that was unusually affectionate nonetheless.
As far as memory went his wasn’t bad, in fact, he considered it a good one actually. The information he had a use for would stay stored in his mind with near perfect recall. The useless crap he didn’t care about simply did not.
The car jostled over a speed bump as they entered the hospital’s parking lot, and Zhou Zishu winced, a sharp hiss pressed through his teeth.
“Sorry,” the man apologized as he slowed down to a crawl, trying to make the second bump as smooth as possible. Zhou Zishu wanted to appreciate the effort, but his mind was briefly blocked out with white static, leaving him busy with keeping his breathing as even as possible.
Mercifully, the car came to a stop in front of the glowing doors that lead to the ER. It was well past normal hours of operation and the weather was shit. The type of soggy yet freezing cold that you only got in the second half of winter, and always left Zhou Zishu’s joints aching. Nobody was around other than a nurse lighting a cigarette at the very border of the non-smoking zone several dozen feet away.
The passenger’s side door opened, and Zhou Zishu blinked in surprise as the man who he swore was just sitting beside him offered his hand to help him out of the car.
He ignored him, going as far as swatting him away. Just so he could pull himself up to a standing position as excruciating pain flared up in his entire lower body.
The man shook his head at the display of unreasonable stubbornness before walking back around the car to the driver’s seat.
“I can’t keep my car here,” he explained as if it wasn't obvious by the half dozen NO PARKING/DROP OFF ONLY signs plastered all over.
“Thanks for the ride.”
The man smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling up, delighted to hear the small praise. “For you, A-Xu I’d do anything you please.” A flash of his teeth showing a smile that was near predatory.
That was enough conversation, and Zhou Zishu turned away to face the hospital. Shortly after, the sound of the man’s car leaving faded away. He hadn’t actually wanted the ride, and had been content paying the extra cash for a rideshare, but the man had insisted, and fuck could he be annoying. Why pretty men felt the need to talk so much he would never understand.
Successfully rid of him, he surveyed the distance to the automatic doors. It wasn’t far, but that meant little with how bad his lower back and leg were fucked up. Almost experimentally, he took a small step forward and immediately felt the muscles in his calf spasm painfully, feeling as if it were about to be ripped in two. A touch of anger colored his pained expression as he decided to blame his current predicament on his chatterbox hookup for bending him just the slightest bit too much.
Deep breaths. If there was one thing Zhou Zishu was an expert at outside of lying and drinking, it was his ability to endure pain. He took another minimal step forward, and this time his leg buckled under his weight, forcing him into a kneeling position.
Stupid , he sighed internally. He didn’t know whether he was demeaning his body, his decisions, or both. His eyes closed briefly as he recomposed himself ready to give it another try. He didn’t even like doctors, never mind hospitals, and would do all he could to avoid them, toughing out colds and aches on his own. Beiyuan had once joked that to get Zhou Zishu into a hospital he would either need to be on the brink of death or so physically incapitated that he couldn’t resist. Now, as he kneeled there with dirty water seeping into his pants, he considered his chances in making it home on his own.
“Sir, do you need assistance?” The nurse had finished her cigarette in the time it took him to walk a foot and a half.
Before he could politely wave her off, he was interrupted by a pair of large hands helping him to a standing position.
“I have him, but thank you, maam.”
Holy shit. Zhou Zishu couldn’t do more than stare incredulously as the date he had assumed he successfully ran off wrapped an arm around his waist, steadying him. With a small tug, his body was pushed against the warmth of the other, and on instinct he leaned into him.
“A-Xu, why didn’t you wait for me?” His scolding was a low murmur in his ear.
Zhou Zishu blinked, stunned into a brief silence before reason took over and annoyance began to simmer deep inside him. “Did anybody ask you to stay?”
The man laughed, treating it as a joke as he helped the other shuffle towards the ER properly. “Were you planning on crawling?”
“I’d prefer that,” Zhou Zishu answered bluntly.
The man clucked his tongue and shook his head. “As much as I’d love to see you on your hands and knees, that seems a bit excessive,” he said while leading them inside the brightly lit building.
He was led to the check-in kiosk, and before the man could stick around to watch over his shoulder, Zhou Zishu elbowed him in the ribs. Or at least tried to. His movements were slowed and stifled, and the man was able to block the blow with ease, although it did succeed in getting him to take a big step back.
He was more successful in his second attempt at shoving him away, and after cutting an glacial glare in his direction, Zhou Zishu steadied himself against the kiosk, allowing him to swipe through the intake questions.
“Don’t let me hold you up. I would hope you’d have more interesting things to do than follow a stranger to the ER,” Zhou Zishu said, his polite tone in stark contrast against the vicious way he jabbed at the screen to input his date of birth.
“You’re a Taurus?” The man stretched his neck to peer over his shoulder, not having learned a lesson from before, and straight up ignoring Zhou Zishu’s words.
“Please don’t look at my personal information,” Zhou Zishu said as he positioned himself to cover more of the kiosk.
“Do you happen to know your moon sign?”
The man leaned back on his heels, his hands in his pockets with a look of casualness that was hard to stomach. He walked over to the other side of the kiosk, staring across it with a grin that was supposed to be charming, but fell flat. “Someone told me the other day that I would have good compatibility with a Taurus. Let’s compare charts.”
Wen , Zhou Zishu remembered suddenly. His last name was Wen. He remembered taking note of it as a coincidence. The young doorman in his building was also Wen. An uninteresting fact that had nearly escaped his mind, but came into use now.
“Thank you for the ride here, Lao Wen, but you may take your much anticipated leave now.”
He perked up at the name, not bothering to address his rude attitude. “What type of gentleman would I be if I were to abandon you in the cold?”
“Are you a gentleman?” Zhou Zishu snorted, dubious of the claim. “I’m unconvinced.”
Lao Wen leaned forward from the opposite side of the kiosk, his grin turning sly and his gaze absolutely filthy. “You’re right, I’m not.”
There was no way in hell Zhou Zishu would be able to tolerate him for even a second longer.
He looked around the room, searching for some way to shake off the world’s clingiest chauffeur, and finding it devoid of any help. The front desk attendant flipped through a magazine without batting an eye, the security guard at the door had his cap pulled over his eyes as he napped in his chair, and any other fellow patients were staring blankly either at the television screen or the floor. The most emotive figure was a teenage boy near the back of the waiting room, his hand firmly grasping a miniature figurine as tears streamed down his face in a non-stop flow. "This is why I told you not to touch the gorilla glue, Chengling," an older man berated him, and Zhou Zishu realized for the first time that he wasn't holding the toy, but that it was stuck to him.
“Take me to a seat,” Zhou Zishu said with a resigned sigh, knowing that there was nobody here that could save him. “And then leave.”
Lao Wen beamed like he won a prize, and once again wrapped an arm around his waist so they could hobble towards the nearest chair.
Sitting felt no better than standing, if anything it seemed to make the pain in his back worse, cutting his breath short with a grunt. He hoped against all hope that the wait wouldn’t be too long, but was doubtful. Honestly, he was half expecting them to toss a handful of meds at him and remind him to try more yoga, rendering the trip a waste of time.
He considered just getting up and leaving, but as soon as he straightened his posture he quickly learned that was not going to be possible as pain flooded his body.
“So, come here often?” Lao Wen attempted to make small talk.
“I try not to.”
The sound of wood scraping against linoleum grated against his ears as Lao Wen scooched closer to him. “A-Xu, are you scared of the hospital? Don’t worry, I’m here, and if you need someone to hold your hand or distract you with alternative methods then–”
He was cut off with a small oomf as Zhou Zishu elbowed him in the gut. The movement jostled him as well, instantly sending screaming waves of agony down his body, but even as he groaned he felt that it was worth it.
“Who likes hospitals? It’s where people go to die,” he struggled to release the words on a clenched breath. “Can’t you behave yourself? This is all your fault anyways.”
“A-Xu,” the look on Lao Wen’s face was comically apologetic. “I really am sorry. I only meant to push your leg back a little so I could get a better angle in—”
“Shut up,” Zhou Zishu hissed at him. Embarrassment wasn’t something that came easily to him, but the complete lack of public shame Lao Wen displayed was tasteless even to him.
Zhou Zishu massaged his temples as he struggled for rationality. There was something about the way the fluorescents washed out the room, the buzz of the nearby vending machine, overlapping the droning infomercials that made this all feel entirely unreal. There was no way this could be happening. There was no way he could currently be sitting in the emergency room at 11:20pm on a Wednesday night because his fucking Grindr hookup tried to bend him like a pretzel, tearing some mysterious muscle in his body.
“Why are you here?” he asked, energy depleted and leaving behind only earnest confusion.
Lao Wen raised a hand to his chest. His eyebrows were pulled towards the middle with a pout to match as if he were insulted that his motives were being questioned. “I told you, as a gentleman –”
“Bullshit,” Zhou Zishu cut him off.
The faux hurt fell from his face as easy as windshield wipers discarding snow. Whimsy continued to curl the corner of his lips, but his eyes narrowed, only black pupils piercing through the slits. Conniving and clever, that’s what his expression communicated. The more it hinted at something hidden, the more Zhou Zishu found him closer to honesty.
“I have a suspicion that if I leave you here now then I may not ever see you again, and I would very much like to see you again, A-Xu.”
His deduction wasn’t inaccurate, Zhou Zishu was already planning on blocking his number as soon as he was out of sight.
He tried a different tactic. He forced a calmness over his body, sitting up slightly straighter with a dignified face.
“Lao Wen, you can’t force fate.” He spoke in the same tone as a teacher guiding a kindergartener through a tantrum. “If our paths are meant to once again entwine then I’m sure they will, and if not then who are we to question the universe’s intentions? We are only humans, afterall.”
Not even batting a lash, Lao Wen took his bullshitting in stride, answering in an equally obnoxious manner. “A-Xu, is it not childish to expect every great plan of divinity to fall into your lap without any effort expended? Do you think I’m so lazy that I would squander an opportunity as rare as this just because it may cause some mild inconvenience?”
“And what rare opportunity is this?”
“A chance encounter with a soulmate, of course.” Lao Wen’s eyes curved crescent with affection without a hint of teasing shining through brown irises.
Caught off guard, Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but bark a laugh in surprise. “Lao Wen, there must be some sort of misunderstanding here. I promise that I’m not a good enough fuck to warrant an accusation so heavy.”
“Respectfully, I disagree,” he refuted him with the same ease as if they were arguing over sports teams. “I seem to be drifting in space more and more these days. You look like a light in the dark, A-Xu.”
Then without warning, Lao Wen brushed aside a stray strand of hair that had fallen from Zhou Zishu’s messy ponytail and into his eyes. Reverent, he stroked the lock of hair between finger and thumb, examining it closely as he spoke in a quiet voice. “You have such pretty hair. I’d love to cut it one day.”
Zhou Zishu didn’t respond to the comment, only staring blankly at him for a period of time before snapping to attention and pulling his phone out from his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Lao Wen asked.
“Blocking you,” Zhou Zishu answered honestly, feeling grateful that he hadn’t arranged for them to fuck at his own place. As he opened his messages, he noticed a message from his roommate he sent out several hours ago asking if he would be home for dinner. Whoops . He considered replying, but decided “Sorry, I’m in the ER with my my obnoxious ass hookup who is *definitely* a murderer so don’t wait up” was more worry inducing than silence and elected to ignore him.
He kept good on his promise of blocking Lao Wen, even setting his contact name as a clear directive of “DO NOT ANSWER”. Then realizing his battery was sitting pretty at 3%, quickly shut it off to conserve power in case he needed to call the cops later on.
Lao Wen didn’t seem perturbed by the action. He waited patiently for Zhou Zishu to finish, before explaining calmly, “I’m a hairdresser. Your split ends are awful.”
He didn’t feel reassured. “Didn’t you just say it was pretty?”
“It is. It’s soft and healthy, it just needs a little maintenance.” Lao Wen reached out to touch it once again, but was quickly slapped away. “What conditioner do you use?”
This was officially the weirdest one night stand he ever had, and the competition for that title was nothing to sneeze at.
Lao Wen continued on his own talking about hair for a while. He described a range of products for Zhou Zishu to try, and gestured wildly as he attempted to visually display how he would style his hair. Apparently, he would get clients that reminded him of Zhou Zishu. Apparently, they were mostly mean old men who would bark at him in Mandarin about how he was doing everything wrong, but would always request him only, and occasionally try to push their nieces' and granddaughters’ numbers onto him.
Zhou Zishu had made some vague, dismissive sound while turning his head away, pretending not to hear.
This delighted Lao Wen who immediately exclaimed, “Yes! Like that exactly!”
It was mind numbing, but not the worst thing in the world. Lao Wen had a fascinating ability to keep himself entertained through his own voice, and little input was needed from Zhou Zishu. It was just the right amount of low effort engagement to distract him from his sore body.
He hadn’t let go of trying to figure out Zhou Zishu’s hair routine, however, and kept circling back to it.
“Head and Shoulders? Dove? You know, Dove have sulfates in their ingredients.” Considering other options, a look of pure agony crossed Lao Wen’s face. “A-Xu, please tell me you don’t use Axe shampoo. A-Xu, I–”
“I don’t use Axe,” he cut him off before he could spiral further. “It’s just hair, what does it matter as long as it’s clean? I just grab whatever the store brand bottle is.”
“Even your conditioner?” He was scandalized.
Zhou Zishu narrowed his eyes at him, a wickedness glinting off his dark brown irises. “It’s just one bottle with both,” he told him, taking immense pleasure in the pained noise Lao Wen made. “Two-in-one. It’s like three dollars and it’s convenient.”
The look of horror on Lao Wen’s face was nothing short of tragic, and miraculously, he was at last rendered speechless.
With a smile that was both sadistic and smug, Zhou Zishu felt true satisfaction for the first time that night. He ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, untangling the ends. It really was just hair, nothing special. It was too long in a way where it was annoying to keep it out of his face, but wasn’t visually appealing in a ponytail. He mostly just clipped it up, but thought that would have been inconvenient for getting railed, and actually combed and tied it back properly. Lot of good that did him.
Whatever fascination Lao Wen had with it was nonsensical. Its length wasn’t intentional, but something obviously born from him being too lazy to get a proper haircut, leaving him with split ends uneven in length. He had meant to get it cut months ago, but it was winter and he didn’t care for doing much during the winter. Maybe he should just shave it all off like Lao Wen.
There was a tinge of some emotion inside him. Not jealousy, per say, but maybe a shade of envy. His hair wasn’t like Lao Wen’s had been in his photos. Cared for with pride. Pretty to behold.
Zhou Zishu was weeds left to overgrow.
His thoughts were only able to drift for so long because, like all good things, Lao Wen’s silence didn’t last long. He clasped one of Zhou Zishu’s hands in between his own, pulling him close. His eyes were wide and begging, his lips pursed in a way where you could still see a tinge of abused red that Zhou Zishu’s teeth had left on them.
“A-Xu, I see that you have suffered to bring you to a low point like this, but I promise, there are things worth living for in this world. Please,” he pleaded with him. “A-Xu, please promise me that you’ll stop killing your hair. Life can be so much better.”
It was going to be a long night.
Lao Wen pouted from his chair, clearly still upset about Zhou Zishu’s lifestyle choices and the fact that he didn’t seem concerned about the health of his scalp. He was sitting in quiet protest, and yet he still managed to make silence loud. Tapping his fingers, jiggling his foot, or exhaling in depression. A true talent.
“Stop being so dramatic,” Zhou Zishu sighed. “It’s just hair.”
“Hair is important,” he argued. “It’s a part of your body. You need to care for it. We can move on, but we will need to circle back to this.” So confident he would get the chance.
“Move on then,” Zhou Zishu instructed him.
Lao Wen straightened his back and crossed his legs. “I told you my profession. What about you, A-Xu? What do you do to keep the bills paid?”
“A little of this. A bit of that,” he said with no intention of answering seriously. “Nothing exciting.”
His response wasn’t good enough, and Lao Wen leaned over in his chair with wide, interested eyes. “Nothing exciting? I find that doubtful.”
“In what way?” he asked with a scoff. “I’m a pretty boring guy.”
“It’s just a hunch,” he said while leaning in his seat. “You seem like someone who does a specific type of work.”
Zhou Zishu maintained a face of frosty neutrality, not allowing a single emotion to color his expression. “And what type of work is that?”
“The dangerous kind.” His grin cut across his face like a wound, sly and knowing as he let each syllable fall into place.
He didn’t react. Zhou Zishu was good at that. Hiding. “Lao Wen, you’re being a bit rude, aren’t you? What type of shady person do you take me for? It isn’t polite to pry.”
His chastising didn’t bother Lao Wen any. “Honesty is a virtue. It isn’t good to lie, it’ll sour your looks, and I quite like your looks.”
“How much honesty could I owe towards a pushy stranger with boundary issues?” He rolled his eyes. He didn’t understand this man. The way he’d joke and flirt one minute, only to switch to something more cunning and sharp the next. It reminded Zhou Zishu of himself, which was never a good thing. A dance he was more than familiar with. A step forward, a step back. Keep your distance, but never go far. A habit built up long ago.
“I’m an open book,” Lao Wen lied. “That’s why I don’t have any wrinkles or gray hair. Anything you want to know just ask.”
Excited that he was taking an interest in him, Lao Wen beamed as he affirmed, “Anything.”
Zhou Zishu observed him from the corner of his eye, watching carefully as he asked, “You said hair was important, so why did you cut yours, Lao Wen?”
The question must have been unexpected, it had nothing to do with their conversation after all. It probably came off as a non sequitur, but it was one he was curious about. He had a gut feeling that there was more to it than a need for change, and when Lao Wen froze, he knew he was right.
It stuttered the conversation, leaving Lao Wen without room to think of a quick witted response, and for a brief second Zhou Zishu saw a flash of some unreadable emotion in his eyes.
“Are you that interested in my looks? I can’t blame you, but please, control yourself, A-Xu.” Lao Wen composed himself fast, his face turning dull and almost sleepy, as if he found the topic excessively boring. As if he were a liar.
“Long hair suits you better,” he told him with stinging honesty. “Somehow this seems unnatural.”
“Really?” he asked, voice far off and drifting in thought. “It was short when I was younger. It was short for a while.”
He had obviously hit a nerve, but instead of feeling deterred, Zhou Zishu’s curiosity was only teased. It was a bad habit of his he hadn’t quite shook yet, the urge to pull secrets from the deepest recesses of others.
More questions formed in his mind as he held his gaze steady, refusing to break eye contact from Lao Wen’s own blank eyes.
Before he could ask any of them, a pair of doors swung open and a nurse with a clipboard called out, “Mr. Zhou? Is there a Mr. Zhou?”
“Over here!” Lao Wen raised his hand in the air as if he was grabbing a teacher’s attention.
“Ah,” the nurse scanned his clipboard with furrowed brows. “You can come back here for the intake exam.”
“Yes, thank you. Sorry, but is there a way we could get a wheelchair perhaps. Walking is a bit difficult for him at the moment,” he said while gesturing towards the less lively and still seated man next to him. “Not that I would mind carrying him.”
Embarrassed, the nurse stammered out an apology as he rushed over to help allocate Zhou Zishu to a wheelchair with some difficulty. Zhou Zishu managed to spot a name tag with DENG printed on it, a convenient piece of information to have so he could know who he should swear at whenever he was jostled too roughly.
“Sorry,” Nurse Deng said in sympathy as Zhou Zishu’s face went ashen from pain. “Please bear with it for now.”
Lao Wen stroked the top of his head in a soothing manner, and Zhou Zishu, too tired to dodge, resigned himself to the far too personal gesture.
He shut his eyes, letting his mind drift away from his surroundings as he was relocated to a new room. Attempting to focus on only the sensation of Lao Wen’s gentle petting instead of the flaring hurt in his lower back and leg. Nurse Deng asked a handful of standard questions, and with some effort he spit out a few answers on things such as his family history of heart disease or the last time he had gotten a flu shot (“A-Xu, staying up to date on your vaccinations is important.” Fucking asshole .)
“And what were you doing when you first started experiencing pain?” Nurse Deng asked.
There was a long pause as neither Zhou Zishu or Lao Wen seemed to have anticipated a question as basic as this, and hadn’t thought of an appropriate response. They stayed silent for a long while, each second marking another level of awkwardness within the room, making everyone uncomfortable.
“Exercising,” Zhou Zishu answered finally.
“Yes,” Lao Wen agreed. “And I was spotting him. Ow, A-Xu!” he rubbed his ribs from where Zhou Zishu elbowed him.
“Uh,” Nurse Deng grimaced as he tried to ignore the violence in the room. “And was there a specific way you moved or position when–”
“No,” Zhou Zishu said firmly, his eyes shut with no intention of continuing this conversation..
“Left knee bent to his chest,” Lao Wen helpfully supplied. “Or, at least that was the intention.”
Swiftly changing the topic, Zhou Zishu asked, “Who’s the doctor on call tonight?”
Nurse Deng looked confused. “There’s a lot of doctors on call. It’s a hospital.”
“Yes, I am aware that we are in a hospital,” he replied, exasperated.
Nurse Deng seemed to have realized he said something a bit dense, and turned his eyes away. “You’ll be seeing Dr. Johnson. She should be in soon.”
Zhou Zishu breathed a sigh of relief, and as he did so, Lao Wen narrowed his eyes in question. “Avoiding someone?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He waved his hand as if swatting away the question, and turned his attention back to the nurse. “Is there anything else?”
“Ah, no, not at the moment. I have all the basics for now.” Nurse Deng quickly scanned the information he had taken down before reviewing it. “Patient name: Zishu Zhou, male, date of birth April 26th, age 29, significant pain in–”
“Zishu?” Lao Wen cut him off. “I thought you said your name was Xu? You said it was Zhou Xu.”
“Ah, did I say that?” Zhou Zishu cringed as he gave a poor attempt at trying to avoid culpability.
“You lied to me about your name?” Lao Wen accused him, sounding all too similar to a child who had learned the truth of Santa Claus, and was confronting his mother about her deception.
“Is now the time to discuss this?” Zhou Zishu asked. With the same tact as a mother who had gotten caught red-handed in a lie, but was unwilling to claim responsibility, he sent a scalding glare in Nurse Deng’s direction, pushing the blame onto him.
Nurse Deng wasn’t sure how he could be at fault for a slip up like this, and shied away from the other’s fiery gaze as he mumbled through the remainder of the chart. He decided that this was good enough in terms of an intake interview, and with the assurance that someone should be seeing them soon, he rushed out with a distinct feeling of having been wronged.
And then the room was quiet. Zhou Zishu breathed a sigh of relief, closing his weary eyes, pretending to not notice Lao Wen burning stare.
Lao Wen was on protest once again. He still sat in the same armchair beside the hospital bed, but in a useless symbolic gesture of pettiness, had scooched it exactly two inches further away. He sat, silent and childish, for some reason believing that him shutting up for once was punishment.
If he was so angry then leave, Zhou Zishu thought.
“Don’t be so immature,” Zhou Zishu finally broke, exhausted and unable to bear with the sad sight next to him any longer. “Who gives out their full name nowadays? It’s hardly a lie.”
Lao Wen still sulked, and taking on a grand persona of virtue and elegance, asserted, “Personally, I would never lie to you, A-Xu.”
The confidence in his declaration made Zhou Zishu laugh bitterly, and Lao Wen only became all the more determined in response. “Seriously, A-Xu, I’m an open book. You know, lying excessively will sour your looks. My name, my birthday, address, or even my shoe size. All you have to do is ask and it’s yours to know.”
At this rate, the headache forming from Lao Wen’s bullshit was soon going to overtake the pain from his strained muscles. “Did I ask for that? Stop playing around.”
“Why do you think I’m joking?”
The false earnestness on his face was incredibly punchable. “Lao Wen–”
“Wen Kexing,” he interrupted. “It seems I’m a year younger than you. A Scorpio. You’ve already been to my place, so no need to repeat my address. Same with my occupation, although I do have a bachelor’s in literature, and no, it is not useful. Also, I’m a size 13.”
It was a lot of information for Zhou Zishu to process at once, making him a bit dizzy from trying to digest it all.
“Your profile didn’t say Kexing,” Zhou Zishu said, focusing on the bit that left him confused. He recognized the surname Wen, but he was sure that the name listed was something more generically Western. “I would have actually remembered it if it did.”
Lao Wen––No, Wen Kexing smiled, his eyes creasing at the corners. “Easier on the tongue for some. You can use Wen Kexing, although I am rather fond of Lao Wen. It’s charming.”
He committed the name to memory, automatically slotting it in as useful information. “Sure, whatever you say, Lao Wen.”
Zhou Zishu watched Wen Kexing laugh and lift a hand up to his ear, moving as if he was going to twirl his hair from habit before realizing that it was no longer there. Mild hesitation only stumbled on his face for a second, and he switched to running his fingers through his now cropped short hair with a nonchalant expression.
“How long ago did you cut it? You’re still not used to it?” Zhou Zishu asked.
Not as open a book as previously claimed, he complained. “Do you really hate it so much that it’s still on your mind?”
“Yes.” His reply was blunt and simple. He tilted his head, examining him. “This is fine. You look fine. But it feels out of place.”
Wen Kexing’s smile was distant. When he looked in his direction, his gaze went straight through him. Zhou Zishu often thought him to have a slight childish energy to him, his eyes often round and pleading, the shape of his face soft and almost moon-like. That wasn’t completely true though, at least not when he looked like this. Lost and mournful. There was no innocence here.
“You know, years ago someone had told me they liked my hair long, so I cut it all off,” Wen Kexing told him.
The statement was surprising. Not only that his words were odd, but the way it set Zhou Zishu’s teeth on edge, like he had bitten into something cold and bitter, setting off shocks of pain into his gums. There wasn’t time to focus on it, and Wen Kexing was already swiftly moving on, his previous tone replaced with something more flippant.
“Now as I was saying, I swear that I am–” A thought seemed to strike him mid-sentence, cutting him off from whatever he was going to say. The corners of his mouth tightened, small frown lines appearing in dissatisfaction. “A-Xu, did you just say that you couldn’t remember my name?”
Zhou Zishu blinked. Once. Twice.
“Ah, my back,” he cried out in complaint, his face screwed up in pain as he turned away from the indignant Wen Kexing. “Lao Wen, why don’t you call me a nurse and–”
“A-Xu!” His voice cracked over the name, actual dismay showing on his face that Zhou Zishu was wholly unprepared to deal with.
Actual guilt started to burn a trail from chest to neck until Zhou Zishu’s face was hot with embarrassment. He turned away, his lips pressed thin as he tried to appear unaffected. “There was a lot going on at the time,” he defended himself. He wasn’t sure why he felt as if he needed to explain himself, just because Wen Kexing had decided that they were some sort of fated love didn’t mean he needed to feed into the delusion, but despite knowing this he couldn’t help but feel the urge to smooth out the upset twisting the man’s face.
“Lao Wen…” Zhou Zishu said with a sigh, unsure of how to end his sentence.
Wen Kexing rolled his eyes. “Oh, did you forget it again? So soon?”
“Wen Kexing,” he stated his name plainly through gritted teeth. “Don’t be like that. A slip of the mind. Besides,” he said as he lowered his head, peering up at him through lashes with a small, yet cocky smile. “There were other things distracting me.”
Wen Kexing stared at him unblinking with an unreadable expression for a second. “...Okay, I know you’re flirting with me to manipulate me, but it is very much working.”
Something about the bluntness of his response was inexplicably funny, cracking right through Zhou Zishu’s signature “Plan B” move and causing laughter to burst from him. He was able to guffaw twice before the rest of his body caught up and he doubled over in pain.
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing panicked at the sight, moving closer to his side, but not daring to touch him lest he somehow make it worse. His eyes were blown wide, his hands hovering in the air with his too long fingers, unsure of how to help. It was a painfully funny sight to see.
“Ah, fuck,” Zhou Zishu groaned even as small snickers still managed to escape him. “Fuck fuck fuck!”
“Should I get a nurse or–” Wen Kexing asked, looking left to right like one was going to materialize in the corner next to the syringes.
Unable to tell if the tears stinging his eyes were from laughter, pain, or in mourning for Wen Kexing’s competency, he gasped out his name, “Lao Wen!”
Taking the hint, he ran out of the room with a quickly thrown promise to be right back in search for someone to make the pain stop.
Zhou Zishu squeezed his eyes shut, purposeful in his breathing as he waited for his heart rate to slow down from a hummingbird thrum and his giggling to die down. It wasn’t the worst pain he ever felt, but it was still not anything to sneeze at. Alone for the first time that night, the emptiness around him only accentuated it even more, taking up most of the space in his head.
An eternity passed in the span of a few minutes, and then there was the door being thrown open followed by Wen Kexing’s voice.
He had never thought he’d be so grateful to hear someone call A-Xu.
The person he brought back wasn’t Nurse Deng, but a pretty young girl instead, and while the previous medical care he received tonight hadn’t been bad, there was an obvious discrepancy in the two’s competency.
She worked fast, but wasn’t rushed, taking her time to scan through the patient notes and firing off a handful of relevant questions.
“I’m going to touch you. Can you tell me your current pain level from before versus now?” she asked as she placed a hand on his knee.
There wasn’t any immediate change, and Zhou Zishu looked at her in confusion. “Maybe a 6? Or a 6 and a half– SHIT! FUCKING CHRIST” he cried out as his leg was pushed back. She released him, and with a forced breath Zhou Zishu said, “Maybe a 6 and three quarters.”
“Alright,” she replied with a single brow lifted in doubt. Her name tag swayed as she maneuvered behind him, displaying Gao, Xiaolian Nurse Practitioner with a small teddy bear sticker next to her name.
“Don’t try to be brave and downplay it,” Wen Kexing clucked his tongue, as if this wasn’t all his fault in the first place.
“Ah,” Miss. Xiaolian seemed to remember something. “I’m not sure if Kuan asked previously, but is it alright to continue with your guest present?”
The brief period of time alone with no distracting annoyance to occupy his time had stung. He wasn’t eager to go back to that. So, instead of kicking him out, Zhou Zishu scoffed. “I’m not sure there’s even a way to get rid of him. He’s like a parasite.”
“Is that a yes or a no?” she asked for clarity.
“He can do whatever he wants,” he said, as close as he was going to get to a real answer. “It’s not like I care.”
Wen Kexing looked as pleased as a peacock with his passive approval.
“Please let me know if anything changes, Mr. Zhou. I’m going to do the same test for your back,” Miss. Xiaolian warned him.
Even after preparing himself for the worst, Zhou Zishu couldn’t help from crying out again, the pain in his back even more intense than his leg.
Wen Kexing patted his hand in a soothing manner. “Maybe we should’ve stretched beforehand,” he whispered in his ear.
Zhou Zishu glared at him, a slight sheen of sweat collecting on his brow, and out of breath. “Lao Wen, fuck you and your ancestors.”
He only laughed in response.
Miss. Xiaolian’s voice snapped them to attention as she looked quizzically at his back, her fingers prodding the bumps of his spine with gentle touches. “Your achilles tendon is definitely strained, although I don’t believe you’ve torn it. For your back it could be several things: pulled muscle, herniated disc, fractured vertebrae, there’s a lot of ways to cause injury. You’ll need some scans done.”
She frowned as she straightened her posture. “When did you start experiencing pain? I know you mentioned stretches, but it’s a bit late for exercising, isn’t it?” She directed the second question in Wen Kexing’s direction.
He coughed and turned his head away, striking a dignified pose. “Night time workouts aren’t bad. They’re quite pleasurable in my experience.”
Zhou Zishu groaned.
With sympathy in her eyes, Miss. Xiaolian changed the topic. “You shouldn’t be able to hurt yourself this badly from, uh…”
“Pilates,” Wen Kexing supplied. Zhou Zishu didn’t even know what a fucking pilate was.
“Sure,” she agreed. “Do you have previous injuries that may have been aggravated from the… pilates?”
Apparently they were sticking to this stupid excuse. Zhou Zishu shrugged his shoulders. “Not anything serious.”
“And what counts as not serious?” she asked, patiently.
“Dislocated knee, ruptured achilles tendon, fractured vertebrae, and I think one of the discs is still messed up,” he answered with a blank expression.
“Those are serious injuries,” she said with an equally neutral tone.
“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing, in comparison, looked aghast. He had gone pale in the face, lips parted in worry as he seemed to replay every physical interaction they had that night. “Why didn’t you tell me before? I would have been more gentle!”
He rolled his eyes at the question. “Does it matter? It was years ago.”
“Considering that we are currently in the hospital, yes, I think it may matter.” His eyebrows were pulled up in anxiety. His eyes reflected a slight shine.
Miss. Xiaolian continued on with gathering the patient information. “Did you have any surgeries related to these injuries? Physical therapy?”
He spoke as if it was a burden to draw up a mundane topic such as this. “A few. Mostly for the vertebrae. Around a year of physical therapy.”
“What caused the fracture in your vertebrae?”
“Ah,” Zhou Zishu scratched his chin, looking as if he had forgotten some small detail and was embarrassed about it. “A bullet?”
At his side, Wen Kexing made a sound that was either a choked up laugh or strangled cry. Probably both.
Meanwhile, Miss. Xiaolian simply nodded. “I’m going to order a CT. You most likely just pinched a nerve and need time to recuperate, but it’s good to always check when it comes to injuries involving the spine. As we wait for that, we can see about some pain medication. You’re dehydrated as well, so we’ll want to fix that with an IV.”
She talked as she worked, not losing any time as she entered notes in the computer from the corner of the room, and began gathering supplies necessary for an IV. Fast and efficient, they were traits that Zhou Zishu appreciated in someone, especially someone who was capable of maintaining that level of professional at one in the fucking morning.
Even as she hooked up the IV, tapping her fingers along his arm in search of a suitable vein, she explained each action she took. When she did insert the needle into his skin it only took one try. If he could tip her he would.
Reassuring the two that the doctor would be in soon, Miss. Xiaolian left the room.
Throughout the process, Wen Kexing had been uncharacteristically quiet. Zhou Zishu leaned back on the hospital bed, pointedly not paying attention as Wen Kexing sat down on the edge near him, studying his face.
“A bullet, huh?” he said, his voice reflecting the same timbre as a ghost’s as he once again played with a lock of Zhou Zishu’s hair.
Zhou Zishu didn’t push him away this time, too tired, too uncaring. “A work hazard,” he told him.
“Mmm,” Wen Kexing hummed in thought, his voice an echo, “A little of this. A little of that. Nothing exciting.”
“Exactly,” Zhou Zishu affirmed. “I’m a pretty boring guy.”
There wasn’t a response. His hair was released, and in its place Wen Kexing cupped his face, stroking his thumb on the edge of his brow and smoothing out the exhausted creases. It was a gesture of softness, not unlike how one would comfort a child, but instead of feeling annoyed, it only made Zhou Zishu sad. Without thinking, he leaned into the touch, unable to remember the last time someone had shown an act of small act of intimacy like this towards him. He didn’t know if anyone ever had really. The realization made him feel empty.
“It really wasn’t anything interesting,” Zhou Zishu finally relented. “I used to do some basic security work.”
“For who? The president?” Wen Kexing asked, doubtful, and Zhou Zishu laughed.
“No. Just some small time actor. You wouldn’t know him. It was only one bad incident. I’m retired now.” He smiled faintly. Whatever pain meds that had been mixed into his IV were beginning to take slow effect. “I wasn’t lying when I said my current work is boring. I do some consultation work here and there. Nothing fancy.”
Wen Kexing sighed. “I really would have been more gentle,” he insisted. “You should have said something.”
Zhou Zishu. “Like what? ‘Be careful while fucking me in case you aggravate my bullet wound?’ Is this first date conversation?”
“You could try ‘be careful while fucking me I have a bad back’ or something similar…” His voice faded away, not wanting to argue the point further. “I figured it out. The reason why you don’t like hospitals.”
With one eyebrow raised, Zhou Zishu asked, “And why is that?”
“Bleeding. Surgeries. Physical therapy. Uncertainty. It’s natural to be afraid of dying after trauma.” He said it all with sympathetic confidence. A slither of pride was evident as he pieced together parts of the puzzle.
It was annoying enough for Zhou Zishu to want to break it. “I’m not afraid of dying. If it’s fate then who am I to fight it? It’s a waste of energy. My apologies if I’ve disappointed you, but your answer requires some revision,” he told him bluntly.
Wen Kexing processed his words, confusion pulling between his brows, and then relaxing soon after it had appeared. “That’s alright. I have time. Let’s discuss something else.”
“Like what?” He was skeptical of his intentions.
“You said first date,” he reminded him with a smile blooming wide across his face. “So, there will be a second?”
“Who said that?” Zhou Zishu asked while scowling.
“You can’t fight fate,” Wen Kexing said with a confidence that was incomprehensibly steady.
Zhou Zishu observed him, looking for signs of something off, trying to justify Wen Kexing’s crazy concept of fate. Shockingly, his eyes were clear, not foggy with intoxication. There was no shaking in his hands, no nervous twitches or abnormal mannerisms. Zhou Zishu couldn’t say that Wen Kexing didn’t come off as insane, but it was not the type of crazy where he left the impression of being unaware of where he was or who he was talking to.
And yet, he was completely serious about believing them to be soulmates.
“What makes you think that?” Zhou Zishu asked, exhausted and trying to understand. “Why me?”
“You’re a beauty–”
“There are more attractive people in this world,” he cut him off.
Wen Kexing continued to dance around the question, gesturing with one hand as he spun intricate words that carried no depth. “The heart knows, A-Xu. These things are hard to define. It’s more of a feeling, a belief in something above and that the universe will come together to–”
“Lao Wen, are you hiding something from me?” he asked, his interest piqued. The other froze, and Zhou Zishu looked at him with lazy, half-hooded eyes like a cat waiting to pounce. Wen Kexing was so often full of shit with meaningless posturing, that it made him want to dig his nails in deep whenever he could catch the hint of something genuine and unsaid.
“Lao Wen, it isn’t good to keep secrets from your soulmate,” he chastised him. “How could our bond be so deep if you can’t trust me with something so small? Don’t you know that keeping secrets will sour your looks?”
Wen Kexing laughed, bitter awkwardness underlying his words. “It’s not a secret.”
If it wasn’t a secret, then that meant that it was something embarrassing. Zhou Zishu reached up, running his index finger down Wen Kexing’s jaw and pinching his chin gently.
“Tell me,” he demanded.
He shivered at the command, but didn’t move away. He closed his eyes, thinking maybe. Trying to escape Zhou Zishu’s sharp gaze, perhaps.
A moment of quiet. Only the drip of the IV, buzz of the overhead lights, tick of the clock filling the room. Wen Kexing bit his lip, a brightly colored bashfulness dusting his cheeks.
“My auntie’s psychic told me I was going to find my soulmate soon,” he admitted, taking a sharp left turn from anything Zhou Zishu could have expected, and crashing straight into loony.
“What?” he asked, jaw hanging open in disbelief.
Wen Kexing spoke quickly, as if he thought the faster he got the words out the quicker Zhou Zishu could comprehend. “She’s not my psychic––I don’t have a psychic––but Aunt Lou insisted and it is so hard to argue with her, so I just went along with it, but even if it’s kinda dumb there’s no reason to be pessimestic, and I figured might as give it a try.”
None of it was connecting in Zhou Zishu’s brain, and feeling as if he had gotten lost somewhere, he again asked, “ What?”
Wen Kexing sighed. “It’s not like I believe in this shit. I’m just, like, why not? I figured that it couldn’t hurt, and if I could find something with a bit of direction for me then that’s good enough.”
Zhou Zishu didn’t get it, but among the incomprehensible he was able to find something familiar, and focused in on that. “Why do you need direction?”
“Well, you see, A-Xu I am drifting, and I can’t seem to figure out whether I’ll sink or not. I know there has to be a surface somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. Maybe I don’t want to find it, but that’s rather sad to consider, and nobody likes to hear about the apathy of a drowning man.” Wen Kexing laughed, it didn’t sound natural.
“If someone wants to flash a light in the darkness, even if it’s strange and unbelievable, then I’m in no place to complain.” The same smile stayed in place on Wen Kexing’s face, but not quite. The corners of his lips upturned, but there was no happy, teasing glean in his eyes he had grown used to. He pulled his hand through his short hair, slow and heavy-handed, it wasn’t a comforting motion. “Do you understand?”
He did. Somehow he did. It was an intimate feeling that seemed to follow Zhou Zishu like an unshakeable shadow, chilling him to his very marrow. A sensation of drowning, but there was no fear. Apathy that spread like an infection, only a dull ache of something missing that reminded him that he should be worried.
Wen Kexing wasn’t searching for meaning, he wouldn’t want for something so far out of reach, but if he could find the desire to care then that was something. Even if it meant following after a ill-tempered and injured hookup to the emergency room for several hours.
“So, I could be anyone?” Zhou Zishu asked.
“No, not anyone,” Wen Kexing assured him. “There were some traits she specified, shallow ones mostly.”
“Go on,” Zhou Zishu said, curious.
“In the same generation, which is nice. I’d hate to fall in love with someone in their 80’s, although I can’t say I’m not curious about the experience.”
Zhou Zishu swatted his arm, snorting as he did so. “Stupid.”
“Perhaps,” he said, his grin more genuine now. “Attractive, shorter than me, a sense of humor, though it may be a bit hidden. Pretty hair and pair of beautiful shoulder blades.”
“Could be anyone.”
“Maybe. A Taurus. Apparently I need someone that has stability, but also a bit of possessiveness. That also meant he’d be stubborn. One to chase.” His eyebrows raised as he spoke, trying to elicit a response from him. It wasn’t an untrue assessment of his personality, but he kept quiet, refusing to confirm it. Undeterred, Wen Kexing moved on.
This time his voice was hushed, quiet enough that Zhou Zishu had to lean in to hear. “She said he’d have a mole. Here.” As he spoke he touched the spot below Zhou Zishu’s eye. Gentle, as if he were wiping away a tear. His hands were warm. Had they always been this warm? It was comforting, his touch at some point in the last few hours becoming something that he had grown used to like a tether tying him to his body, and reminding him that he was still here. Still himself.
Drugs. It was probably the drugs making him react like this. His eyes fluttered shut, and he took in a small, careful breath. “So specific?”
“Mhm,” he hummed. His fingers splayed out, allowing Zhou Zishu to lean his cheek into his palm. “People say it represents a life that knows sorrow.”
“This could be anyone.”
“That’s what I said! See? Soulmates truly think alike,” he exclaimed gleefully. “But A-Xu, there’s other things that can’t be condensed into words. The black of your eyes, the curve of your shoulder blades, the way you laugh. I feel as if I’m supposed to know you.”
“You feel like you should know me which is why you decided to break me?”
“It wasn’t on purpose!” Wen Kexing defended himself. He shifted his hand, brushing through Zhou Zishu’s hair and cupping the nape of his neck, holding him in place as he leaned forward. His lips pressed against the sharp angle of his jaw, pulled at the end of his ear, his breath the ghost of a whisper. “Can I be blamed for wanting to bend you over? You look like someone who deserves to be fucked–”
The door opened with a bang. “Mr. Zhou,” Nurse Deng said. “I–uh…”
In no rush, Wen Kexing straightened his back, slowly releasing his hold on Zhou Zishu’s neck and folding his hands on his lap. Zhou Zishu watched as, with great effort, he fixed expression into something more amicable before turning towards the poor kid.
“Go on,” Zhou Zishu instructed without even blinking an eye.
Nurse Deng cleared his throat, staring down at the ipad he held in his hands with no intention of looking up. “Sorry for the long wait. It’s been a busy night, and Dr. Johnson has been exceptionally tied up.”
Zhou Zishu frowned. It was close to 3am at this point. “Am I really going to be here all night?”
“We’re trying as much as we’re able,” Nurse Deng assured him. “For now, a different attending is picking up some of Dr. Johnson’s work. He’s really good and really attentive, so don’t worry.”
“Which doctor?” Zhou Zishu asked, scowling.
Wen Kexing raised his eyebrows at him. “Why? Are you avoiding someone?”
“It’s Dr. Wu,” Nurse Deng said.
“Fuck,” Zhou Zishu replied.
Appearing delighted at finding out who the mysterious staff member was, Wen Kexing prodded him. “Who’s Dr. Wu?”
“Nobody,” Zhou Zishu bit out before turning to Nurse Deng. “Thank you for the update.”
He didn’t sound very thankful, and confused but unwilling to argue, Nurse Deng once again left the room.
Vibrating like a child, Wen Kexing continued to bother him, trying to play with Zhou Zishu’s loose hair, and being slapped away in the process. “A-Xu, who’s Dr. Wu?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know?” he said with his eyebrows furrowed in annoyance. He looked away, striking a dignified and uninterested pose. “There are a million Dr. Wu’s. Do you know how common the last name Wu is?”
“Sure,” Wen Kexing agreed. “But how many Dr. Wu’x are there in this hospital?”
Before Zhou Zishu could give him an answer, one that was definitely going to be profanity-laced and unhelpful, another voice cut through.
“Four,” someone said as he pushed the door open with his foot, swiping through a tablet as he pulled up the patient information. “Is there a reason you’re asking?”
Zhou Zishu didn’t reply. He buried his face in his hands, curling as much into a ball as his back would allow him, hoping to merge into the hospital bed and become no more.
“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing stared at him in confusion. “What are you doing? Does your back hurt again?”
He received an incoherent gurgle in response.
Wen Kexing looked over towards the doctor for help, and saw him squinted at the decrepit form on the bed in confusion. “Zishu?”
“Zishu, what are you doing here?” He sounded both tired and bewildered. “Beiyuan’s panicking about you missing.”
Zhou Zishu finally looked up at him, his eyes full of murderous shame that seemed to have no impact on the other. “It’s nothing, Wu Xi. Tell Beiyuan to stop being so dramatic.”
“This is Dr. Wu?” Wen Kexing asked, struggling to keep up. He was promptly ignored.
“Are you hurt? How long have you been here?”
“It’s fine. Not long. Why don’t you go back to your patients and–”
“Do you think I’m here for fun?” Wu Xi asked, exhausted. “You are my patient.”
Zhou Zishu massaged his temples, staring up at the ceiling in search of direction. “I think… I think I’m just going to kill myself?”
Wu Xi scoffed, walking over to examine himself. “Don’t say that. I’ll have to put you on a 72 hour hold for observation.” He looked at Wen Kexing for the first time. “Who is he?”
Wen Kexing stuck his hand out to shake, smiling politely as he said, “Hi, I’m–”
“Nobody,” Zhou Zishu interrupted.
“A-Xu! After all we’ve been through and you’re still like this?” he complained with a childish whine.
Wu Xi had already moved on, uninterested in engaging with Zhou Zishu’s personal affairs. He hadn’t had time to even read the patient’s name before entering, and was still reviewing the notes left by the previous nurses. “I know you don’t like hospitals. Are you very hurt? This says you aggravated your old injuries while… exercising?”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Yup. Pilates are a real pain in the ass.”
Wu Xi stared at him with unamused black eyes. “Zishu, do you know what pilates are?”
“It’s okay to have an active sex life. You shouldn’t lie to doctors,” Wu Xi scolded. “You need to give as much accurate information as possible to receive the most appropriate treatment.”
Zhou Zishu laughed without humor. “I’m going to–”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m going to… reflect? Is that acceptable? Have I passed the hospital’s standard of mental wellness?”
“Yes, it is acceptable as an answer. As far as mental wellness…” He frowned, pondering the second half of his question. “I think you should start seeing a therapist. There are many talented ones that help with grief and depression. I can give recommendations.”
“I’m going to kill myself,” Zhou Zishu reiterated while leaning back in his hospital bed.
Unhappy with the lack of attention, Wen Kexing poked him in the shoulder and whispered, ‘A-Xu, who is this?”
“He’s my roommate’s boyfriend,” he answered with an unpleasant expression.
“Do you not like him?” he asked.
“Huh?” Zhou Zishu looked at him shocked. “Why would I not like him?”
Wen Kexing nodded. “Oh, so you’re just like this with everyone.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
There weren’t many people Zhou Zishu could claim to be friends with, but somehow Wu Xi had ended up on that short list. Partially because he had been dating his roommate for the last two years, partially because he (usually) found his presence relaxing.
Wu Xi began to examine him, efficient and without unnecessary conversation. “I don’t think you ruptured your achilles. It’s just strained. You’ll need to stay off it for a bit.” He lifted his shirt to peer at his back, prodding along the ridges of his spine.
He instructed him to lay back, and lifted Zhou Zishu’s leg into a straight line who winced in response. “I think some of the pain in your leg is coming from a herniated disc in your lower back. It would cause sharp pain and some numbness. Gao Xiaolian is correct though. You need a CT.”
“Can’t you just give me some Advil and send me home?” he asked, even though he knew it was useless.
“Pain medication doesn’t fix it. You need to take better care of your body. Regular exercise, a healthier diet, less alcohol. ” He glared as he emphasized the last point. “Your pain is getting worse because you don’t do these things.”
“Funny,” Zhou Zishu said in response. The interaction was tiring him out, and he closed his eyes.
Wu Xi pursed his lips. “Have you considered a cane? It would help alleviate the pressure from your spine as you walk. Sitting is more painful for lower back pain. Standing more helps.”
“For fuck’s sake, I’m not an old man, Wu Xi,” he complained.
None of this was a new conversation. They had already hit each talking point before. Still, Wu Xi sighed and tried to reason with him. “It’s a mobility device, Zishu. It’s a useful thing. A good thing. Not a coffin.”
Zhou Zishu kept his eyes closed, unwilling to argue further.
Next to him, Wu Xi sighed once again. When he spoke, there wasn’t any emotion in his voice, neither pity or superiority. He was straight forward, unhesitant and confident in the facts. “This is chronic pain. It doesn’t go away. You could try more surgery, but any positive effects are minimal and the possibility of negative impacts high. Right now, the focus is pain management , not complete recovery or going back to before.” When he mentioned a before , the stoicness had chipped away, cracks of sympathy showing through. His voice softened into something more personal and quiet, no longer the words of a doctor, but a friend instead. “I know you miss him, but–”
“Stop. Wu Xi, don’t.” Tiredness had turned into a plea. “I’m fine. I don’t need to hear this. I just want to go home.”
Wu Xi obliged, cutting short the lecture. The professionalism was back, his face blank as he finished the examination and asked a few more questions about his pain levels. He listened to his pulse, writing it down and confirming a few other vitals before deciding that was enough care needed for right now. As he checked his IV, he called in Nurse Deng to see if he could bump his place up in the waitlist for the CT.
“You’re not kind to yourself, Zishu,” Wu Xi told him as he adjusted a pillow under his lower back.
Zhou Zishu waited, expecting another lecture, but none came.
Wu Xi was blunt and honest, but he didn’t press. Not when he didn’t think there was a point to it. Zhou Zishu liked this about him. It was comfortable, but somehow, it made him feel a bit sad.
His reminiscing was cut short, however, when Wu Xi asked, “Is this your boyfriend?”
Wen Kexing jolted to attention, surprised to be brought back into the conversation after playing the role of a lamp for so long. “Yes,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” Zhou Zishu hissed.
“Beiyuan wants to know how long you’ve been dating,” Wu Xi told him while holding up his cellphone, presumably ready to send back his response.
“Why are you texting Beiyuan!” Zhou Zishu yelled.
“I think it’s about to be our six hour anniversary,” Wen Kexing told him with pride. Apparently, he had gotten lonely while being ignored, and had come back to the conversation prepared to be twice as obnoxious.
“What happened to HIPAA?” Zhou Zishu complained as he watched Wu Xi pass on the information.
Wu Xi shrugged. “You said to tell him to not worry, so I told him.”
“Does that necessitate this much information?”
“Did you want me to say ‘it’s okay he’s in the hospital’ instead?” he asked. He wrinkled his nose and admitted. “I tried that. It made him worry more.”
“Well, as long as you made an attempt,” he let the sarcasm roll off his tongue in thick drops.
“Thank you,” Wu Xi either didn’t pick up on it or decided to ignore it. “It’s good for you to date people. You get lonely.”
“I’m not dating and I’m not lonely,” Zhou Zishu insisted. “Are you done now?”
Wu Xi nodded, before turning to Wen Kexing with his cellphone raised. “Is it okay for me to photograph you?”
“Sure, go ahead.” Wen Kexing seemed surprised by the question, but didn’t hesitate to pose.
“HIPAA,” Zhou Zishu reminded him.
“He’s not the patient,” Wu Xi reminded him as he snapped a quick shot. “I’ll crop you out, or put a sticker on your face,” he assured him.
“I’m going to throw all of Beiyuan’s shit out of the window as soon as I get home,” Zhou Zishu threatened him.
“I’m sure Beiyuan will live. He has too much stuff.” He didn’t express much concern.
“Hey, A-Xu?” Wen Kexing called for his attention. He looked deep in thought, like he was completing a series of complex mathematical problems in his head. “When you say your roommate is Beiyuan, you don’t mean Jing Beiyuan, do you? Like, the actor Jing Beiyuan?” When no one answered, he laughed. “Sorry, that’d be ridiculous.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Zhou Zishu tried to brush it off as nothing important. “It’s not that big of a deal. He’s just some guy.”
Wu Xi hummed in agreement, although he sounded much more fond.
“Jing Beiyuan?” Wen Kexing asked again. “Like that Jing Beiyuan?”
He shrugged again. “I did some security work. It’s not anything interesting.”
Wen Kexing laughed, the late hour finally getting to him as he struggled to process. “He was in La La Land... And Degrassi…” His eyes went wide, mouth hanging open. “Fucking Camp Rock?”
Zhou Zishu snorted.
Wu Xi listened vaguely, but was never interested in these types of conversations. He had only moved to the states during med school, and as a result, hadn’t watched American television as a child. From what Zhou Zishu heard, he struggled to tolerate most of Jing Beiyuan’s earlier projects without the rose tinted glasses of childhood nostalgia, and didn’t really understand the hype. He suspected that part of Beiyuan’s draw towards him was the complete and utter lack of interest Wu Xi had when it came to pop culture, and that he never once asked if he was friends with Drake.
Done with discussing his boyfriend’s career, Wu Xi advised that he should be able to go down for scans soon before slipping away.
At some point, Wen Kexing’s shock had turned into horror and then despair as he draped himself across Zhou Zishu’s lap from his place in a nearby chair. “Does this mean my competition is a famous actor?” he lamented.
Zhou Zishu swatted his head. “You literally just met his boyfriend.”
“But you’re so much cuter,” Wen Kexing insisted. “And you live together! If I lived with you I don’t know how I would ever be able to resist crawling into your bed at night.”
He scowled. “Don’t say that. If you make Wu Xi think Beiyuan’s going after me then he’ll come back and poison my IV.”
“Very funny,” Wen Kexing said with a roll of his eyes.
“I really am not joking.” He patted his head, as if he were reassuring a pet dog that he was here for him. “I’ve known Beiyuan for more than ten years. There are no two people less willing to date each other than us.” The thought of it made him want to crawl out of his skin and beat the leftover flesh of himself to death.
It was a small reassurance, but Wen Kexing relaxed a bit at it. “When you were shot…?”
“I was keeping him safe,” Zhou Zishu finished for him.
“What about keeping yourself safe?” he asked.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” he pointed out. “It really wasn’t very exciting. I was his personal bodyguard for years. There weren’t many incidents. A few more stalker fans than the average actor, but nothing serious. Just a handful of bad ones and one really bad one.”
“And now you’re roommates?”
He nodded. “I retired and so did he. I think he hated being famous.”
“Stalkers will do that,” he mused.
“Being in the industry since you were three will do that,” he clarified. “Whatever. I think we were just so used to each other it’d be weird not to see each other every day. Maybe he felt guilty about me getting shot too. So, roommates.” He really didn’t think it was a very interesting story, and he made a face. “He wasn’t even good at feeling guilty. He’d insist on coming to my physical therapy appointments just to ditch me and hit on the doctor two floors down. Fucking asshole. He owes me for getting him laid.”
“If it were me, I’d go to your appointments just to hit on you,” he boasted as if his own stalker-like qualities were something to be proud of.
“Lucky me,” Zhou Zishu deadpanned. He didn’t push him away though. He seemed to accept the lapdog as an accessory.
“You know,” Wen Kexing said, looking up towards him with the edges of his eyes crinkled with affection. The frivolous tone was gone, leaving behind earnest interest. “I’m still working on it. Figuring you out.”
Zhou Zishu sighed. “It’s not very complicated. I’m a fairly boring guy.”
Wen Kexing shook his head in disagreement, but didn’t argue against it. “You lost someone.” It was a statement, not a question.
Zhou Zishu gave him a wane smile in reply.
He had turned to petting his head now, absentminded in his touch, drawing sleep to Wen Kexing like static.
“It still hurts?” Wen Kexing asked with heavy lids.
Zhou Zishu wanted to refute it, but couldn’t work up the energy to do so. “Yeah. Yeah, it still hurts.”
“I can see why your people would worry,” he commented. Your people was an accurate term. Your people. The ones that worry about you when you’re not able.
“When I saw my auntie’s psychic, she didn’t only tell me about my love life. She gave me a whole list of changes. Told me to wake up at this specific time in the morning and to do these specific exercises. That I should stop drinking cold water and get a kettle. Eat less red meat and try being sober for a change. She gave me this tea,” he said, his brows furrowed and mouth twisted in distaste. “It has dry mushrooms in it that I’m supposed to brew every night before bed. To open up my meridians and balance my mental state. It’s disgusting.”
“And you do it?” he asked, incredulous.
He laughed. “For the most part, it isn’t bad advice. Eat healthy. Exercise more. Drink shitty tea. The alcohol’s a stretch, I’m not sure about that one, but I told you, A-Xu, I’m looking for any light I can find.”
“You know, this is how people get tricked into joining cults? Cults love people in search of direction,” he sounded dead serious in his warning.
“Oh, cults would hate me,” Wen Kexing said with confidence. “My personality is too obnoxious. Who would want me to join their club?”
“That’s true. I would never invite you to my sex cult,” he told him with a bland expression.
“So now it’s a sex cult?”
“Naturally.” Even Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but break a smile. He traced his hairline, dragging his fingers against his scalp and down the nape of his neck. Soft, like the fuzz of a peach. “Lao Wen, why did you cut your hair?”
Wen Kexing closed his eyes, long enough that for a moment Zhou Zishu had thought he had fallen asleep, but then his lips parted. Quiet words formed on their pink edges. “When I was younger, someone told me they liked it long. So, I cut it all off.”
“It grew back,” Zhou Zishu reminded him.
He peeked at him through one cracked eye, the echo of a smile on his face. “I’m not sure it did.”
He didn’t have a response. They sat there together for a long while, not speaking.
Eventually, someone came to fetch Zhou Zishu to complete his scans and he was whisked away, leaving Wen Kexing behind.
The CT was shockingly fast with little of note outside of the person administering the scan. He was abnormally pale, his lips near white with the smallest of smiles attached to a head full of intricate braids. He told him his name was Xie Wang, but that he could call him Scorpion. His nails were black, but they looked like they were colored in with a sharpie instead of painted.
“Oh,” Zhou Zishu said simply. “I’m not going to do that.”
He didn’t think he liked him very much. The scans were taken and sent to whoever to read through. From here on out it was more waiting.
After the scan, Zhou Zishu barely had time to doze off before he was being rolled back to his room.
He expected to find Wen Kexing asleep by the time he returned, instead he was alert and eager, genuine excitement on his face that he was back.
“A-Xu! Look what I got!” A child’s glee at having discovered something to show teacher. He held up a small snack bag.
“What is it?” he asked as he was once more adjusted into his bed.
“Roasted walnuts. I found them in the vending machine.”
Zhou Zishu wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I hate walnuts.”
Wen Kexing pouted in response. He dangled the already opened and half eaten bag in front of him. “It’s a snack. Aren’t you hungry?”
“I’m not,” he lied. He waited an appropriate amount of time before asking, “Weren’t there any other choices? It’s a whole vending machine. Why would you pick fucking walnuts?”
He shrugged. “I like walnuts. They’re healthy.”
“Well, why don’t you go get me something less healthy,” he said as if he were commanding a servant.
“Ah,” Wen Kexing chuckled nervously as he scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, I only had the one dollar, and the machine doesn’t take card.”
“Are you shitting me?” he asked in disbelief. “How do you only have a dollar?”
He crossed his arms in front of his chest, petulant. “I have a bank account. Who carries cash anymore? Where’s your wallet?”
Grimacing, Zhou Zishu nodded to his jacket hanging from the back of the chair. Instead of handing it straight to him, Wen Kexing peeked inside and laughed. With a grand gesture he displayed the empty pocket.
“Change?” Zhou Zishu suggested.
And with that, two grown men emptied their pockets, combining their wealth to a total of two quarters, both of which were supplied by Wen Kexing.
“Whatever,” Zhou Zishu mumbled. “It’s not like I’ll starve.”
“D’you think pizza delivers to hospitals at 4am?” Zhou Zishu asked an hour later, gripping his stomach.
“I wouldn’t hold out hope,” he gave him a sympathetic look. “How about this? If we get out of here by morning, I’ll find you breakfast,” Wen Kexing offered.
“The last thing I want to do after this is go sit down for a meal.”
Wen Kexing smiled as he tried to coax him into it. “Something quick. You can eat it in the car while I drive you home.”
“I can take an Uber,” Zhou Zishu assured him. “You can head home. Hell, you can head home right now. Don’t let me keep you.”
Wen Kexing’s laugh was tired as he shook his head. “Do you honestly think that I’m going to make you hitchhike home after all of this?”
“No, but one can hope.” There was no bite to his words. The sharp edges of his tongue had been worn down through sleep deprivation and a haze of painkillers. Maybe because of Wen Kexing too.
“I’ve noticed something about you,” Wen Kexing told him as he popped the last of the walnuts into his mouth with a pleased expression. “You like to make things harder for yourself. Usually to your detriment.”
It isn’t an interesting or a unique observation. “So I’ve been told.”
Wen Kexing leaned forward with his head cocked, eyebrows raised as he purred out, “It’s incredibly sexy.”
He was without shame, ignoring Zhou Zishu’s frustration, and tossing the now empty bag into the trash with an exaggerated flourish. Zhou Zishu watched as he did so. The casualness in his actions, long limbs fluid and relaxed, like he was just as much at home in the hospital’s chair as he’d be on his own couch.
This fucking guy.
When the tick of the clock became unbearably monotone, Zhou Zishu asked the same question from before: “Lao Wen, why are you here?”
He received a knowing smile in return. Wen Kexing’s eyes would narrow into slits when he looked like this, the boy-ish roundness of his face fading away, and the hint of something darker sneaking through.
“You looked like light, so I followed it.” Simple. Nondescript. Not a lie, but not the truth either.
“That’s reckless,” Zhou Zishu said, but it sounded more like that’s insane.
“A bit of intuition,” Wen Kexing assured him. “I would have left long ago if I started to think you weren’t worth it.”
His actions were reckless, impulsive, but Zhou Zishu didn’t get the impression that he was cautionless. Quite the opposite really.
There were traits of his that were familiar. Small actions easy for others to brush away, but Zhou Zishu could recognize at a glance.
Whenever he looked his way, Wen Kexing was facing the door. Rarely did anyone’s entrance take him off-guard, like he kept one ear open for the sound of incoming footsteps. He forever seemed aware of where each person was, shifting his position the slightest amount as others moved, like a magnet repelled from another, he maintained distance while appearing careless. At any point in time, there was always ––always–– a clear line of exit in sight.
It was the same way Zhou Zishu moved throughout a room. When he had been someone protecting Jing Beiyuan, he wasn’t hire muscle for show. There were no black suits and sunglasses standing ominously in the behind him, warding off fans more so than threats. He was just a person. Easy to forget, faded in the background, the blurred edges of his unmemorable form only becoming apparent when he was needed.
Hypervigilance was a trait that could be learned through a trade, but it wasn’t ingrained in the same, inseparable manner as the type born of a vulnerable person’s self-preservation.
There were pieces of Wen Kexing he wanted to figure out as well.
The clock ticked, and without instruction, Wen Kexing threw the thin blanket on the back of his seat to cover Zhou Zishu’s legs.
Zhou Zishu had been shivering without realizing.
He blinked in surprise, grabbing the edge of the blanket and pulling it tighter around him.
Wen Kexing went back to sitting, staring off in the corner with his back turned, humming some unknown tune.
“Why don’t you sleep?” Zhou Zishu asked.
“Who would take care of you then?”
Zhou Zishu stared at his back. Its vulnerability.
You don’t like to sleep in front of others, he thought.
He wanted to peel back the shell encasing Wen Kexing. Hard and impenetrable, it shouldn’t be possible to open him wide, but for some reason there were cracks left in his defenses. Ones just wide enough for Zhou Zishu to grab hold of and pull.
They were on purpose. They were sensitive areas exposed for Zhou Zishu to poke and prod at, but it wasn’t free.
Wen Kexing could sit with his back turned to Zhou Zishu. With his head placed in his lap. He could tell him about the desperation necessary that would drive him to see a psychic. He could smile sadly when asked for more.
And Wen Kexing could give him more. Would give him more, if that was what was asked of him, but like a box of puppies left in the rain, it didn’t come without responsibility.
Ask me more. Pry me open and gawk at all the soft flesh left exposed. But it will be yours to deal with. It will be yours to live with.
Burdening himself on a stranger, Wen Kexing was insane.
But Zhou Zishu hadn’t run away. He could have, maybe not literally, but he had let him stay by his side for the entire night. He had let him mend himself to Zhou Zishu’s side. He was not without liability.
Wen Kexing stifled another yawn, shaking his head like a dog to keep from falling asleep.
“Lao Wen, come here,” he called for him, not turning his way already sure that he would come. He heard the sound weight shifting to the end of the chair. He felt the slight dip of the mattress as Wen Kexing leaned his elbows onto it. The heat of his breath on his forearm waiting for direction.
Zhou Zishu didn’t speak. He was tired of it. Wasting his breath on words he felt others should simply understand without being told. He rested his hand on his shoulder, using the other to pull at his arm and drag him closer until his torso was draped over Zhou Zishu’s legs. He twisted the hair at the back of his neck, his ticklish motion moving downwards until he was rubbing soft circles between his shoulder blades.
“Sleep,” he told him, and at the instruction felt the other stiffen in his arms. He waited and felt his breath stutter before slowing. It wasn’t a fast process for Wen Kexing to relax, he was rock eroding to a polished sheen under Zhou Zishu’s patient touch.
Exhaustion settled over the two, and although his own eyes felt like they were soon going to buckle under the weight of too many hours awake, he resisted the temptation to fall asleep himself, choosing to observe the undoing of Wen Kexing instead.
Eventually, Wu Xi returned, scans in hand. Zhou Zishu suspected that the wait time was most likely cut in half by some strings pulled by the other.
I know you don’t like hospitals. Yeah, no shit.
Gratitude burned in his chest.
Wu Xi paused when he opened the door, taking in the sight of the pair and their intimate proximity. A complicated look that may have been guilt crossed his face, as if he had disturbed something private, and wondered if he should leave again. He only hesitated for a second, realizing that he was being silly, and Zhou Zishu watched as he closed the door behind him with a quiet click.
“Am I dying?” Zhou Zishu asked in a hushed whisper as he comforted the one in his lap who had begun to stir.
“No,” Wu Xi matched his subdued tone. “You’re fine. Kinda. You’re good enough.”
Zhou Zishu scoffed. “Glad to hear.”
“You can get discharged now. I’ll give you some papers with instructions for helping your back. Zishu,” Black eyes bored into his as Wu Xi spoke clearly. “You need to follow them or else you will permanently hurt yourself.”
He began reading off a list of do’s and don'ts, and Zhou Zishu nodded along, only half paying attention to the lifestyle changes out of politeness.
Wu Xi stopped mid-way with a sigh. “You’re tired and you aren’t listening. That’s okay, it’s late. We can talk later. I’ll ask Deng Kuan to print out the information and bring it to you.”
With some guilt, Zhou Zishu tried to put on a more attentive face. He trusted Wu Xi to have his best interest at heart and to care for his body. When it came to Zhou Zishu taking care of himself though, his own confidence was limited.
“Thank you,” he said earnestly. “Are you almost done with your shift? How long have you been here?”
“7 to 7. It’s a short one, don’t worry. Ah, when you’re home tell Beiyuan I might still be sleeping when he comes over. I’ll forget.”
Zhou Zishu blanched at the thought of a twelve hour shift here, suddenly grateful that he had never had an interest in medicine even once. Whatever fatigue he was feeling was multiplied ten times over on the other’s face.
“Sorry for the trouble,” he apologized.
“You should have told me you were here earlier,” Wu Xi said, shaking his head. “I know you don’t like hospitals. I could have helped.”
“What’s there to like about hospitals?” Zhou Zishu grumbled.
“It’s a place where people are healed.” The corners of his mouth were upturned. It was odd to be reminded that Wu Xi actually liked medicine. He liked being here. Insanity.
Small talk was of little interest to either of them on a good day, and it wasn’t long until the room was once again empty of hospital staff.
He wasn’t surprised to look down and see Wen Kexing staring up at him. “He doesn’t live with you?”
Zhou Zishu shook his head. “No. He might as well though. I think he and Beiyuan are waiting for me to get a life and move out.” He frowned as he said it, although he wasn’t upset about it. There wasn’t any stated rush, but he guessed that within the next six months it would start becoming awkward.
Wen Kexing laughed nonetheless, and Zhou Zishu contemplated suffocating him in his lap. Laughter died down, and quiet once again began to soften the room.
“Are you going to be a good boy and follow doctor’s orders?” He framed the question like a joke, but the real intent was hidden underneath the teasing words.
Are you going to make it worse?
“I’ll see what I can do.” He tried to brush him away, but Wen Kexing grabbed hold of his hand, forcing him to press his palm to his cheek. Zhou Zishu didn’t struggle and relaxed in his grasp.
“Do you know why I went to a psychic?” Wen Kexing asked.
Unsure if it was a trick question or something, he answered with slight hesitation. “Your aunt made you, right?”
“Do you want to know how she forced me?” he asked.
Zhou Zishu wasn’t fond of playing games, but his curiosity was no small thing. He nodded.
“I did a real shit job of cutting my hair,” Wen Kexing answered with a dry chuckle. “It could have been worse, of course. I’m a talented hairdresser, but there’s a reason stylists see other stylists, and I was drunk. Basically, my Aunt Lou said she wouldn’t fix it unless I agreed to see Qianqiao.”
“Ah. It does look good. I guess,” he said as he ran his hand over the short length, still upset about the loss.
“Thank you. She owns the salon I work at. She taught me how to cut hair.” He smiled, a clear fondness towards the woman in the glean of his eyes. “I don’t believe in psychics, but she does. I mean she really does, Qianqiao is her best friend. She was at both my graduations. Still, it probably didn’t matter who I saw or what I did. As long as I tried something to try and make myself better. I think she just wanted me to at least try to care for myself.”
“Are you drawing an analogy here?” Zhou Zishu asked. Annoyance was shockingly absent from his tone, he was content to listen.
“I don’t know, are you a fuck up like me?” He grinned at him as if he already knew the answer. “It’s so much work. Caring. It’s easy to care about others and people and things. But for myself, the effort doesn’t seem worth it.”
“Why’d you cut your hair, Lao Wen.” They circled the same topics, drawing in closer and closer to an elusive truth.
“I’ll give you an answer if you give me one too.”
A fair trade. He nodded, and felt Wen Kexing’s cheek dimple beneath his palm.
“My former foster dad died a few days ago. It made me feel empty.”
His answer was a blunt instrument.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Zhou Zishu mumbled. He wasn’t ever good at condolences. They made his skin itch.
Wen Kexing hummed, not speaking more on the topic. Zhou Zishu prepared himself for the coming question. In his mind already trying to sort through explanations of hospitals and people and death.
When Wen Kexing did ask him, it wasn’t what he expected. “Why don’t you take care of yourself?”
It caught him off guard. He felt as if he had encountered variations of the sentiment before, but the question had never been presented to him so plainly. He had never been put on the spot to think of an answer.
“I… I don’t see the point in doing so.”
He spoke with the intention of being honest, but even to his own ears it sounded as if there was a piece missing.
There was a falsficity in the air, an unnatural taste that coated the tip of his tongue like the flavor of a processed pastry. Not bad. Not a lie. There was some untruth, however, that was difficult to place, gnashed between his teeth.
Nurse Deng entered the room, a tired grin on his face. “Guess who gets to go home!” he exclaimed, probably just as happy, if not more so, to see the two out. He handed him a stack of papers held together by a paper clip and began explaining them. “Dr. Wu probably reviewed most of this, but it’s important to pay close attention to these instructions, especially for the next two weeks. Unless you wanna come back here and visit again.”
Zhou Zishu groaned. “Please, just get me the fuck out of here.”
“On it,” he agreed as he worked on removing the IV from his arm. “There’s a prescription for some pain medication that you can pick up at your preferred pharmacy. It should help. Try ice packs for the first two days and heat compresses or hot baths after. You’ll want to rest for a bit, but laying around too much can cause stiffness. Some low stress exercises are…”
He continued on and on like this.
And then, he was quiet.
“Is that it?” Zhou Zishu asked, doubtful.
Nurse Deng nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. Do you need a chair out to the entrance?”
He shook his head, surprised and unsure of what to do with his sudden freedom. “So, I can just go?”
“Yeah,” Nurse Deng nodded. “Crazy, huh? I think Dr. Wu really helped with making it a bit faster. I’m surprised you didn’t ask for him as soon as you came. I mean, it’s not allowed, per say, but I’m pretty sure you would’ve been out of here in less than three hours.”
Wen Kexing laughed, none of the humor showing in his eyes. “Yeah, what a silly thing to forget. Right, A-Xu?”
Zhou Zishu mumbled something unintelligible, before sitting up straight and slowly swinging his legs over the side of the hospital bed. “Take me home.”
“Of course, darling.” Wen Kexing obliged while holding a hand out for him to grasp on.
The walk out of the hospital was a stark contrast to them first arriving. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky showed gray intention of it, a faint shimmer in the distant horizon. People arriving. People leaving. People simply being. There was never a point in the night where the building had felt empty, but its inhabitance had been sluggish, and within it more personal as the halls filled with nurses’ gossip and bad tv. Now the air of professionalism was back. The phones ringing, papers rustling, doctors clipping off quick orders to terrified interns who were unsure of what to do with their hands.
Zhou Zishu hadn’t realized at the time, but a bubble had formed, separating himself and Wen Kexing from the rest of society, and incubating them within an isolated space unfettered by the laws of outside. Now that they were leaving, a strange anxiety grasped at Zhou Zishu’s neck. That whatever artificially created sense of recognition they had discovered in the other would be undone as soon as they breached the comfort of the liminal and stepped into the sun.
The walk was drawn out, each step taken with care to be conscientious of Zhou Zishu’s pain and careful of black ice. Too careful really. The pain medication has long ago set in and reduced his back from an unbearable agony to more of a dull hurt. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t as incapacitating as it had been hours before.
Melachony plagued Zhou Zishu, and with bitter astonishment he realized that he was sad to go. He was a child prolonging the departure from an amusement park. Dragging time out, spreading it so thin light could move through it, and he still having the audacity to ask for it not to break.
The door unlocked with a chime, and Zhou Zishu didn’t push away the hands helping him into his seat. Wen Kexing soon followed, settling into the car.
“All set?” Wen Kexing asked as he inserted his key without turning the car’s engine over.
“It’s cold,” Zhou Zishu said. “I want to warm up.”
The heat was turned on, first cool air blowing that made him shiver more, but quickly turning warm.
They waited, watching snow defrost from the windshield and condensation form in its place. They waited until the car was thoroughly heated and their ears had turned pink. They waited until the sky fractured at its edges, revealing hazy orange leaking upwards.
Anxiety tingled through his body, and Zhou Zishu leaned back in his seat his eyes closed.
“A-Xu?” He sounded worried.
Zhou Zishu didn’t look at him as he spoke. Feeling pathetic he reminded him, “You said you would get me breakfast.” Although his voice was nearly swept away in the noise of the heater, a slight crack was still audible as he pronounced you.
The car was switched out of park, and the engine rumbled to life. Wen Kexing backed out of the space, turned the wheel with practiced ease, and told him, “Of course, I’m going to buy you breakfast.”
Zhou Zishu didn’t ask where they were going, he allowed himself to be driven in silence, content to let Wen Kexing take him wherever he saw fit.
“Coffee?” Wen Kexing asked as he pulled into the parking lot of an outlet mall.
“Just tea. Herbal,” he replied. As the car was parked, he peeked at their surroundings and scoffed. “If you buy me breakfast from Walgreens I’ll walk home.”
“Do you really have so little faith in me?” he asked with the same teasing flamboyance as always.
“Are you surprised?”
Wen Kexing placed a hand over his heart, exaggerated mocking hurt. “After all this time, you still won’t acknowledge me as the fine gentleman I am? Is this how you see me?”
“Wen Kexing, I barely know you."
His reply was a slap in the face, the stinging sound still reverberating throughout the car’s interior.
Wen Kexing sat, not responding. Zhou Zishu looked away, licking his teeth. His words tasted bitter on his own tongue, the acrid flavor of a lie.
The casualness of the two was gone, and Zhou Zishu reflexively curled in tighter in on himself, staring straight out the windshield.
“You really think so?” Wen Kexing’s voice floated away from him, the same disinterested tone one may use to comment on whether it’ll rain in the evening.
Zhou Zishu was so used to him brushing off any brutish remark or disinterested gesture, that it was odd to see his expression remain unchanging, unwilling to turn this into a joke. Exhaustion, desperation, a growing impatience, Zhou Zishu couldn’t figure out what exactly was coloring the shadow of upset that clouded Wen Kexing’s eyes.
The sun rises, and the day goes on in shades of late winter grays, as reasonability awakens from its slumber. Maybe whatever good natured humor Wen Kexing had paid towards him had been spent completely. Maybe Zhou Zishu had sucked him dry of it. Reality was as unavoidable as the dark bruising under the pairs’ eyes.
“I want you to know me, A-Xu,” he stated as a simple fact.
“But why?” Zhou Zishu asked for what felt like the thousandth time. “Not because of your aunt's psychic. Not my moles, or astrology sign, or fuck, I don’t know. Whatever other stupid bullshit you can come up with. There are better people in this world, Wen Kexing. I could be anyone, so why me?”
He watched as Wen Kexing contemplated the question. Watched as he thought through it, actually searching for an answer, and not another excuse.
“I am… drifting,” Wen Kexing repeated himself from before, but without the flippancy. “I am drifting in a sea of blackness, and I am too tired to search for which way is surface. You looked like a light in that darkness.”
When Zhou Zishu replied, he chose each word with precision, trying to not sound as if he was mocking him, but unsure of what earnestness looked like coming from himself. “I promise that if it's a savior that you need, I could not be a worse choice if I tried.”
Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t, either way it made Wen Kexing chuckle, dispelling a fraction of the uncomfortable energy between them.
“A-Xu,” he said his name––this false name he had lied about from the very beginning––with flooding affection spilling from it. With a fondness that came as a torrential rainshower, he stroked Zhou Zishu’s hair, as cautious as if he were touching spiderwebs weaved from gold. “I don’t want a savior. I want someone who looks at me when I say I’m drifting, and doesn’t swim away.”
Zhou Zishu didn’t breathe, but didn’t look away either as he burned under the fond scrutiny that was Wen Kexing’s gaze.
“You look like light. You look familiar.” Wen Kexing’s sleep bruised eyes crinkled at the corners.
“You think you solved it?” Zhou Zishu asked, and although his words weren’t pretty, there wasn’t harshness within them either. “That you figured me out?”
Another soft chuckle from Wen Kexing, and Zhou Zishu tilted his head to fit within the heat of his hand, allowing himself to be cradled. His thumb brushed across his cheek, touch ghosting along the mark below his eye, gentle as wiping a tear.
“I don’t want to figure you out, A-Xu, I want you to tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Why don’t you want to take care of yourself, A-Xu?”
Zhou Zishu’s turn. That was fair. That was how the game worked. Of knowing each other.
Inhale. Exhale. Zhou Zishu was grounded by his touch.
“I… am not drifting,” he searched for the language. It felt clumsy on his tongue, and became a whisper as he spoke. “I’m here. Physically, I’m here. Painfully, I’m here. But I don’t want to be.” Inhale. “And it hurts.” Exhale. “Everything hurts.”
He struggled to pull the words from his chest. They had grown used to their dormancy, hidden away and becoming a congested lump in his throat, and now that he wanted to rouse them they clung on with claws extended.
“It’s supposed to hurt,” he spit out, tasting blood that wasn’t there.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing said his name like it mattered. He brushed the same spot under his eye. Over and over until it became slick.
“There isn’t anything wrong with me or my body,” he said with a laugh. “It’s supposed to hurt. I’m supposed to hurt. Why would I stop that?”
In a flurry of motion, Wen Kexing cupped his face in both hands, tilting their foreheads to touch. The suddenness shocked Zhou Zishu, who could only stare wide-eyed as Wen Kexing murmured something that was incomprehensible to the ear. And then he was kissing his cheeks that were shockingly wet. He was kissing his nose, kissing his chin, his forehead, the corners of his mouth and temples of his head. The stream of mumbling gradually became clear, although it made Zhou Zishu’s head spin no less.
(“A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu”)
An unknown amount of time passed before Zhou Zishu felt that he could breathe again, and for Wen Kexing to cease his relentless attack on his face, settling for running his fingers through his hair instead.
“Lao Wen.” There was a thickness in his throat Zhou Zishu had to clear away. “Are you sure you’re not going to feed me Walgreens?”
Wen Kexing’s howling laughter shook the car.
(“Tell me a story, A-Xu, and I’ll tell you one too.”)
Wen Kexing did not feed him Walgreens. Zhou Zishu watched as he half-jogged through the slush of February’s half-melted snow to a small storefront with coffee beans spray painted on the windows. It was still ass early in the morning with none of the buildings around them open for the day, and yet, he didn’t think twice before knocking on the glass door.
It didn’t take long for a young man to appear. Wen Kexing waved at him with an exaggerated motion, and unsure, the kid waved back. His face was soft with baby fat, and judging by the confused expression, he didn’t give off an energy that reflected intelligence.
Either way, the door was quickly opened, and the two exchanged words. It was mainly Wen Kexing speaking really, with the kid nodding often in a way that was too often and bordered on bowing. He gave one final bowing nod before dashing back into the store.
(“I don’t have any interesting stories, Lao Wen. I’m a pretty boring guy, not much of note.”
“I want to hear them anyway.”
“…I had a younger cousin once. Liang Jiuxiao. He was the only one that liked to hear me tell stories. He’d cling to me like I was the most fascinating thing in the world. I started working basic security for some actor, and Jiuxiao thought I was James Bond or some shit. A superhero. He always wanted to be around, but I was always busy. Whenever I came back though, he was happy.
“And one day Jiuxiao got sick, and he stayed sick. It made me feel like I was useless. I was useless. I couldn’t do anything, so I stayed away, waiting for him to get better. He didn’t. And then I stayed away too long, and he died.”
“I’m sorry. I assumed it was something to do with the shooting not… This.”
“Real life is boring. Sometimes kids die just because. That shooting incident came months after. It really was just some crazy fan. The shooting wasn’t about me, but it felt like punishment. Since I fucked up and let Jiuxiao die, I would too. But I didn’t die. That’s punishment. I’m here, and it hurts. That’s punishment.”)
Wen Kexing re-entered the car soon after, rubbing his arms and frowning. “It’s so cold out there. A-Xu, why don’t you hold me?”
Zhou Zishu chose not to acknowledge the request. “What’s up with that?” he asked, pointing towards the store with his chin.
“Oh, that’s just some cafe. Haven’t you ever been to one?”
“I know that,” he glared at him, not appreciative of the teasing. “Who’s the kid? Are you extorting him for money?”
“A-Xu! What do you think of me?” He gasped. “I’m extorting him for coffee and paninis. Please, try to slander my character less.”
Zhou Zishu reached across the seat and pinched his cheek. Hard.
“Ah, ah, ah! Okay!” He gave in and Zhou Zishu withdrew his hand. Pouting and rubbing his cheek, Wen Kexing explained. “He’s dating my younger sister, which means he’s terrified of me, which means I get free pastries and lattes.” He pointed towards the red mark on his face and whine. “Were you a torturer in your past life?”
“Maybe.” Zhou Zishu cupped his cheek, feeling a bit guilty, but unwilling to admit it. “You have a sister?”
“I do, she’s terrible. Somewhere along the way I fucked up and raised her improperly, so now she’s a menace.” Even as he lamented his voice was full of pride and care. “Same foster home. She’s ten years younger than me, so I brought her with me when I left.”
“To live with your foster dad?”
“Away from my foster dad. When Aunt Lou took me. Aunt Lou’s a bit pushy and believes in the occult, but otherwise fine. Even now we still go to dinner at her place every Saturday.” He said it all casually, and while doing so played with the ends of Zhou Zishu’s hair.
“This length,” he told him suddenly, marking a point just below Zhou Zishu’s chin. “I’d cut it this length. It’d show your face more clearly and accent your cheekbones.”
“You still want to cut my hair?” he asked, surprised.
“Of course, A-Xu. You’re beautiful, and I like to play with beautiful things.” He ran his knuckles down the side of his neck, making Zhou Zishu shiver as Wen Kexing grinned.
He didn’t know if he was going to kiss him or throttle him. Before Zhou Zishu had to make a decision, and it was not leaning in Wen Kexing’s favor, there was a knock on the car window. Food was here.
(“Once upon a time, there was a young orphan boy who was whisked away to a distant castle known as state run foster care. This boy was a special boy. He had the magical ability of being the funniest, the smartest, and the prettiest. Or so he was told by the Lord of the House. In reality, it was a mere curse of availability and convenience.”
“He had a secret though! The young orphan boy liked to comb his long hair. He liked the look and he liked the feel and he liked how much it reminded him of home. But one day, the Lord of the House had touched him on the head. He told him that he liked his long hair too. So, the young orphan boy cut it all away! And with it all gone he made a shocking discovery: he wasn't a young boy after all. He was a dragon, ugly and mean, so he cut the Lord too!”
“And then the young orphan boy, who was a dragon all along, was taken away. He had only injured the Lord, he hadn’t killed him. He wasn’t strong enough for that. And the boy grew and so did his hair, but in the back of his mind he knew the Lord was still out there. And he thought there must be a purpose to all this. That one day he’d go and vanquish the Lord. Maybe he would just prove that he was the funniest and smartest and most charming without the Lord telling him so. Or maybe he would expose the Lord and everyone would see him for what he was! A monster just like him! Maybe he would just kill him. He mostly wanted to kill him.”
“And then the Lord died?”
“And then the Lord died. Normally. Happily. Fully human with his scales hidden away, leaving the boy with no purpose or goal to pursue. He could do something though. Do you know what?”
“What could he do?”
“He could cut his hair.”)
Wen Kexing thanked the kid as he handed them a bag of pastries and two thermal cups. Shocked at the praise, the kid promptly nodded his head three times too many, each one lower than the other, and smacked his forehead against the car.
“Don’t brain yourself,” Wen Kexing said, exasperated. “You don’t have much to spare.”
“Sorry, sir!” he said in a panic, once again bowing his head. “I’ll try harder.”
Deciding it was a lost cause, he dismissed him. “You’ll be over for dinner on Saturday?”
“If that’s okay with you, sir.”
“Well, I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“Thank you, sir!”
The window was rolled up, cutting off his appreciation, and after hesitating for a minute confused on why he wasn’t driving away, he eventually ran back to the cafe to finish his morning chores before it opened in the next few minutes.
“Dumb kid, good tea,” Zhou Zishu said in approval upon sipping his drink.
“An absolute moron who makes a surprisingly competent cappuccino,’ Wen Kexing agreed. “I think I’ll crash this car and kill us both if I don’t put any caffeine into my body.”
Zhou Zishu chuckled into his cup. “Be safe, Lao Wen. Take your time.”
(“I’m kinda a fuck up, Lao Wen.”
“That’s okay. I am too.” )
It was no longer possible to prolong their departure from the other. Following Zhou Zishu’s directions, Wen Kexing drove through the narrow streets at a slow pace, well aware of his own inebriated state from lack of sleep, and choosing to avoid death by black ice. The radio was switched on, music interspersed between the conversation of talk show hosts, playing nothing he knew. It was fully morning now, with children waiting for the school bus at the crosswalk, businessmen groggily entering cars, and hungover college students slouching their way through public transportation.
Nothing elegant. Nothing ethereal. The reality around them was one Zhou Zishu recognized, the only difference being that Wen Kexing hadn’t vanished into air at the sight of the sun, and sat fully human and present at his side.
The pain medication from the hospital was beginning to wear off, and what had been subdued to a dull ache before began to burn in his lower back once again. He remembered the prescription Wu Xi had written for him, thought about how much work it would be to pick it up, and considered forgoing it all together.
Stupid. That would be stupid, and he made a note to himself to ask Beiyuan to get it for him instead.
It wasn’t until Wen Kexing adjusted the heat in the car that Zhou Zishu realized he was beginning to feel chilled. He looked over at him, and saw the other turn his head the slightest bit away from the road so he could crinkle his eyes into a smile at him.
Zhou Zishu looked away, the corner of his lips upturned. “The road, Lao Wen.”
Faint laughter. The buzz of the engine. The radio unwinding a soft tune that was unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. He looked out the window, and as he did Wen Kexing began to hum. They were noises and sounds grounding Zhou Zishu to the present. This feeling of comfort was something new. It was unfamiliar. It wasn’t unpleasant.
("I have a question."
"Yes, A-Xu? I'm an open book, you know this."
"Yes, Lao Wen, I know. So, how do I schedule an appointment with you?")