Three months. A quarter of a year. A sweet eternity is how long it's been since Zhou Shu Yi has moved out of the Zhou Residence, moved away from the witches' forest.
Here, in the middle of a concrete jungle, the view's quite different: neon lights instead of fireflies. Human after human instead of fairies and goblins, witches and giants.
This is not his tousan's place with its glass and circumstance, with its weave of magic and stone that stretches up and up, seemingly into the clouds. This is a mere two story house, unseen, unknown.
Shu Yi loves it. It's his, all his own. He can breathe here, be himself here. And it's not entirely devoid of greenery. If he looks out his bedroom window, he can see not one, not two, but three big Banyan trees so old they have woven together like friends reaching across the street to hold hands.
The best thing about his place? It's squeezed between bread and hotpot. The scents! The sizzles, pops, and beeps! Shu Yi rarely forgets to eat these days. He doesn't even remember the last time he had to make a potion for his stomachaches.
If he had to though, there's a supermarket across the street. It's gigantic. It houses so many other shops under its roof it may as well wear a trench coat. Shu Yi gets his groceries there, including the cat food. But more often than not, he sweeps past the bank of ATMs, past this old relic of a shoe repair shop, past the knickknacks, the snacks, the melons and ice creams, past even an avant-garde hair salon, to browse his favorite: Nainai's House of Herbs.
As its name implies, it's ancient. It smells just a little funny and feels infinitely warm. So far Shu Yi has found everything he needs for his spells here, from the rarest ginseng to myrrh to horehound.
Not that the shop itself is magic, of course. In fact, the only magical thing about Shu Yi's street is his house. Humans think it's an alleyway.
So why is his doorbell ringing now, at nine o'clock in the evening? Otousan has a key. His friends know better.
Shu Yi sits up tall in his bathtub and calls forth the peephole.
In its circle stands a young man about his age. Held in his hand is a smaller hand. His daughter? They're both looking intensely at his door, eyes large and expectant.
"Are you sure, Ashley?" The young man reaches over and adjusts her tiara, pushing on a hairpin to secure it.
"Yes!" Ashley bounces on her feet and swings her pumpkin-shaped basket, its contents sliding, making a rumbling noise. "This is the best house. I can smell the chocolates from here!"
"You do find the best houses." He boops her on her nose.
She beams, her blond curls a halo around her face.
A witch! She's a witch! Shu Yi realizes with a rush. Of course. Only witches are able to see his house. Still, there are etiquettes. Visits are to be scheduled. There's to be no landing on someone else's roof. (That's just rude.) But Ashley's young and likely foreign.
No excuses for her dad though.
Shu Yi dries off and shrugs on his bathrobe. One loop, two loops, bunny ears and pull. There, done. He checks his reflection in the mirror and flips his hair. Yes, this will work. Wrapped in all black, he looks just Morticia Addams enough to ward off anyone.
Swiftly, he heads down the stairs and yanks open the door to tell the dad off.
The duo is faster.
"Trick or treat!" Ashley courtesies.
Reflexively, Shu Yi bows back at her, which - what? What just happened?
Before he can process it, her dad smiles and says, "Hi, wan shang hao. Sorry to bother you this late. My little sister" -- oh, it's sister, not that it matters, of course -- "is visiting from America and it's Halloween today. She really wanted to go trick or treating. Do you have any candy? Chocolates perhaps?"
You already know! Dearly, Shu Yi would like to say no, just to see their expressions. More urgently, he needs to close the door. Humans are starting to stare.
"Eee!" Ashley's the one who lets out a squeal as they're spelled inside, the door closing at their backs. Instead of looking scared, she looks excited. "That was a trick! No one ever does a trick! Do you want to see a trick?"
She points her wand, and before her brother could tell her no, she has invoked a spell on him.
Shu Yi stares at the panda in his foyer. It's wearing pants and a bewildered expression.
"Ashley!" Shu Yi turns to her. "What is the first rule of witchery?"
"Do-" She blushes and bites her lip. "Do no harm."
Shu Yi spells the panda into his room just before its pants rip.
An hour later, everything has finally returned back to its place. Everything, even Gao Shi De. For that is his name, Ashley's brother. The one she spelled without consent. The one that Shu Yi had to whisk into his bedroom and spell back into human. The one that Shu Yi had lent his clothes to because panda waistlines ran wide.
"Don't be mad at Ashley!" was the first thing Gao Shi De said to him after turning back into a human. "She just got her wand last week. If you're going to punish anyone, punish me. Hi, I'm Gao Shi De. Do you need a pageboy? A driver? I'm good at a lot of things."
Shu Yi made the mistake of turning to look at him. Gao Shi De was no longer rolling on the floor as a panda but sitting on his bed as a naked human, all skin and long arms and legs crossed just so, like a tasteful sculpture.
Shu Yi gulped. It was a shock response. Because of course. Anyone would.
He ducked into his closet and flung an array of choices in the general direction of his bed. "Get dressed first. And I don't need a driver." Shu Yi has many modes of transportation available, thank you very much.
"What's your name?" Gao Shi De didn't take offense. Instead he took his time, looking carefully through Shu Yi's clothes.
Shu Yi wavered a moment, debating whether or not he should present his human name: Yang Yuteng. That was his default when dealing with humans. But Ashley was also a witch. Ashley would have access to the witches' directory. Ashley would be able to tell that there is no Yang Yuteng of the Taiwan witches.
Still, giving a human his witch name was as good as revealing himself to the human. Gao Shi De would be able to perceive him out in the world after, would be able to see his house from the outside without Ashley's help.
Shu Yi played a hand on instinct, throwing out a rock.
Gao Shi De smiled, smug, hand splayed wide in paper. "Your surname?"
Goddammit. "Zhou," Shu Yi sighed.
"Witch Zhou," Gao Shi De held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Pleased-!" Shu Yi sighed with more feeling. "Please put on some clothes, Mr. Gao! There's a child in the house!"
"There's a child downstairs." Gao Shi De looked amused. "You gave her chocolates and a cat. She's not interested in us right now."
"Who gave her a cat?! Panda's just friendly!"
Shu Yi resisted the urge to dress Gao Shi De himself with magic. It wasn't appropriate. Only family and lovers did such things. Gao Shi De was neither.
At least now his bottom half was covered. Still, that left his arms and his chest unnecessarily bare.
"Why do you think you turned into a panda? Ashley saw his nametag and changed her spell midway. You're lucky I didn't name Panda 'Stinky Tofu' or 'Dumpling' instead."
"You don't think I would make a cute dumpling?" Gao Shi De twisted his hands above his head, tilting just so. And his bicep. His chest. His face. Whatever, it wasn't cute. Or hot. It wasn't.
Shu Yi squeezed his eyes shut. "Put on a shirt, Gao Shi De!"
Panda comes to him that night as he always does and turns his three turns before settling down in the curl of his arm.
"Can you help their mom?"
"What's wrong with their mom?"
Shu Yi turns to look at him. Panda blinks two slow blinks.
"But-" Gao Shi De didn't mention it. Most humans in the presence of a known witch would ask for favors like they're owed them. Gao Shi De didn't mention anything about a sick family member. "Did Ashley ask for our help?"
"She was trying a healing spell on the chocolate wrapper she tore. She called it mom."
"Did she succeed?"
"What do you think?"
Shu Yi thinks his familiar is way too sassy that's what he thinks. He sighs. "Which spell did she try?"
He's not trying to get involved, he tells himself. He's just... thinking about it, about mentoring a young witch. After all, no one needs another round of the Salem witch trials.
Gao Shi De comes to him first, finding his door like it's nothing. Knocks on it thrice then stands there polite, waiting, when Shu Yi doesn't open the door right away.
Ashley is not with him. In his hand dangles a paper bag.
My clothes. Shu Yi realizes.
"Hi!" Gao Shi De lights up as the door opens, his eyes crinkling brighter, almost as if he's magic.
Shu Yi knows better. Gao Shi De is human through and through. "Hi."
"Thank you again, Shu Yi." Gao Shi De hands over the bag, fingers needlessly lingering. Then his smile falters. "… Mr. Zhou."
So Ashley looked him up in the directory.
"Shu Yi is fine." He's known now. There are no take backs.
"Shu Yi." Gao Shi De finally retracts his hand only to wrap Shu Yi's name warm around his tongue. "Thank you for indulging my sister the other day, Shu Yi. Ashley couldn't stop talking about you. You're the best and I quote 'most talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular witch' she's ever met."
Shu Yi flushes hot from the praise. Even though he knows the meme, knows too that he is objectively one of the best witches of his generation -- he won his first Spelling Spree at six after all, and at the last Swim and Meet found the first merman -- most don't praise him to his face. At least not with this much sincerity or such intensity. Before he could formulate words, send Gao Shi De on his way, Panda slips past him and winds around Gao Shi De's legs like the little traitor that he is.
"Hi Panda!" Gao Shi De bends to pet his cat, scratches that little stinker under his chin.
Big hands. Warm. Panda blinks at him and lifts his tail high.
Why are you telling me that? I don't care. Shu Yi blinks back at him and looks away.
Are you sure? Panda projects the feeling of those hands over so that Shu Yi feels them palming at him, warm and big and-
They both jump, Shu Yi from their sudden proximity and Gao Shi De probably from his yelling.
"Since it's not you, I think Panda is dragging me into your house..."
"Panda!" Shu Yi hisses at his familiar, not that his familiar is paying him any mind.
"I don't mind!" Gao Shi De says quickly. "I actually have something to ask you."
Here we go, Shu Yi thinks. This is where Gao Shi De asks him to heal his mom.
"Say that again?" Shu Yi lets the teacup clink harsh against its dish.
"I can pay you."
"Not that. You want what?"
"I can't think of a better tutor for Ashley. Her birth mom was a witch, but-"
Why are you not asking for help for your mom, Shu Yi wants to yell. What is your deal?
"-no .edu equivalent domain for witchcraft," Gao Shi De is saying. "And books only tell you so much."
"You can enroll her in a witch school," Shu Yi offers reasonably despite how much he wants to dare Gao Shi De to say what's actually on his mind, what he really wants.
"We tried. There are no spots left."
"Other private tutors-"
Gao Shi De shakes his head. "She likes you. Ashley trusts you, Shu Yi. And so do I."
"Why?" Why must it be me? Because you think it'll be easier to ask for favors once you know me? Why?
Gao Shi De doesn't respond right away, appears to actually think about the question.
"You gave her your best chocolates," Gao Shi De finally says, smiling a little. "I had a truffle - Ashley gave me one - so I'm not just saying this. You changed me painlessly back into a human. If I understand, transformation spells can get ugly, pun fully intended. You lent me really nice clothes. I did wash them, by the way. You did all of this, Shu Yi, when you could have just kicked us out to fend for ourselves. You're the best witch I have ever met. I trust you to be a good teacher for Ashley, to be the best."
Shu Yi narrows his eyes. That can't be it. That's too easy. Life is never easy as a member of the prominent Zhou Witches. Everyone always wants something from him. And then something more. Always. "Are you sure there's nothing else you want?"
Gao Shi De drops his gaze to the floor.
Unexpectedly, it makes Shu Yi's heart drop too.
"Well?" Shu Yi waits for him to come clean, to tell him to cure his mother or else.
Gao Shi De gulps but says nothing.
This time Gao Shi De loses to him, paper to his scissors.
Shu Yi tilts his chin up. Fair is fair. "Tell me."
"Shu Yi," Gao Shi De croaks.
Shu Yi blinks at him. "Yes?"
"Don't tease me!"
"Who's teasing you? You're teasing me! Finish your sentence, Gao Shi De!"
Shu Yi plays the conversation back in his head. Gao Shi De wants… him? He points to himself. Surely that's not it. No one has ever chosen him except when it comes to friendship. And even then, there haven't been many who were sincere, who weren't after his prestige, what he can do for them. So, this near stranger, this human cannot mean-
"You're cute!" Gao Shi De blurts. "Your whole house is cute. Your cat is cute. Everything about you is cute. And you're kind. You let us stay Halloween night until we were calm again. You never rushed us although it was late and we interrupted your bath."
"Gao Shi De, you met me once. I could be a murderer!"
"See?" Gao Shi De barely tamps down a smile. "Cute."
Shu Yi sucks in a breath. This is a lot. Gao Shi De is looking at him from under his lashes. Gao Shi De just called him cute five times in a row.
"One day when I have something better to offer than just my body, my services..."
Shu Yi blushes furiously. What the heck is Gao Shi De even saying?
"I did volunteer to be your pageboy."
"But right now my mom is experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. I need to be there for her, help out with Ashley and with my stepdad's company." Gao Shi De looks apologetic and Shu Yi does not understand.
"But you know I'm a witch," he tries again.
Gao Shi De tilts his head. "Yes? That's why I asked you to be Ash-"
"That's not what I meant!" Shu Yi glares at him. Fine, he will spell it out. "Most people would demand that I heal their mom."
"My mom? Ma has a good team of doctors." Gao Shi De looks perplexed. "Besides, I've seen the movies and read the books. Magic like that could turn dark. I'm not sure I want to risk it. I only have one mom."
"Most people have only one mom, Gao Shi De! I have none." Shu Yi doesn't know why he volunteers this information. He never does.
In the silence that follows, he wishes reversing time was allowed. Or erasing memories. Alas.
But Gao Shi De doesn't let the silence drag, doesn't offer up empty apologies or cardboard comfort. Instead, he asks, voice too warm, "Are you okay? Was it recent?"
Mostly. And- no. Shu Yi shakes his head. "It's been so long I barely remember her face."
"Same with my birth father. He left when I was in elementary. All I remember is his back and his smell." Gao Shi De points two fingers like the barrel of a gun and brings it to the side of his mouth.
"Cigarettes. He smoked."
"Cigarettes? That's not cigarettes. Look- like this!" Shu Yi demonstrates, pursing his lips and blowing an imaginary smoke ring.
Gao Shi De stares at him, going a little pink. "Like this?" He tries again.
Shu Yi shakes off the errant thought. "Better," he says, managing a tone just this side of bored. "One of my best friends is a fairy. She's perfect but her brother smokes like a chimney. That's what he looks like." Shu Yi doesn't know why he's babbling. He doesn't need to explain himself. Yu Xin would be so proud of him.
Gao Shi De smiles though. "That's cool. I've never met a fairy. Is she pretty?"
"She's a fairy."
The truth is, Shu Yi had a crush on her for the longest time. Even though the three of them made the strangest picture - him a witch, her a fairy, and their other best friend Zheng Wen a giant - they were inseparable since they were kids. Shu Yi still remembers sneaking out to the city with them to buy spun candy and to play hide and seek. The fact that Yu Xin's heart was with Zheng Wen all this time... well, Shu Yi is fine now.
He's got his own place. He's got his own job. And there's a human in his house all but confessing to him right now.
Gao Shi De may not be a fairy but he looks... quite all right for a human. For a human, he smells quite fine too, nothing like cigarettes. If anything, he smells like the sky blue shirts he favors, like nature. Maybe a little like sweat too, but in a good way.
Shu Yi tries not to think about it as Gao Shi De pushes up the sleeves of his shirt a little higher on his arms. It's been two days and Shu Yi still cannot unsee all that skin.
"Can I ask, was your mom a witch too?"
"Hai!" Grateful for the distraction, Shu Yi answers a little fast, slipping into Japanese. He remembers a vague burst of light where mama's face must have been. She smelled like herbs, like hours of brewing and stirring, like healing. Closer up, she smelled of chocolate chip cookies, soft and gooey. They're still his favorite.
"Wait, did you say 'demand' earlier?" Gao Shi De frowns at him. "Why would I-" Then, understanding dawns. "God, sometimes people suck!"
Shu Yi gawps, his jaw slack.
"Some- sometimes," he finally manages. With effort, he gathers his wits and clears his throat. "When will you bring Ashley? I recommend at least two lessons a week."
Shu Yi watches, anxious, as Ashley points her wand at the candy wrapper. Just like sign language, there are variations to incantation. Shu Yi's clan practices a blend of Japanese and Chinese spells. Ashley speaks one word of Japanese (konnichiwa) and only a few handfuls more of Chinese. Meanwhile, Shu Yi knows enough English to get by but not enough to translate spells.
That task fell to Gao Shi De, who listened to the whole four verses before writing down a translation in his neat, neat handwriting. Five edits later, the spell is still somehow legible - a whole miracle in itself.
Now, the moment of truth. Will this work? Is the intention clear this time?
The wrapper lifts, hovering in midair, and for a moment nothing happens. No one even breathes.
Then it flutters and flutters again, and the tear seals with a flash of light.
Shu Yi laughs in excitement -- she's jumping, her joy contagious -- and high-fives and hugs everyone. After all, it was a group effort. Even Panda provided purring service, calming Ashley enough to try again and again.
It's not until Shu Yi is in Gao Shi De's arms that he remembers himself. Tutor. Decorum. Personal space.
Ugh, why is he so warm?
Shu Yi takes them to Nainai's the second weekend. Ashley can identify the basic edibles -- basil, mint, sage, and thyme -- but she hasn't yet learned the more potent herbs. Shu Yi takes her down the aisles, going shelf by shelf so she can take photos and make notes.
By the time they make it halfway through the shop, all of their stomachs are grumbling.
"Let's stop here for today," Shu Yi suggests.
Ashley's already reaching up to pet Panda in what has become a part of her ritual. It's always Panda first and then him. He gets the neat courtesies every time, even though she's no longer dolled up in her powder blue princess dress nor her tiara from Halloween.
"Lunch? My treat."
"Gao Shi De, I won't accept payment!" Really, how many times does he need to say it? Gao Shi De keeps bringing things, like a whole container of (admittedly delicious) fried rice last time, with the weak excuse that there was too much left over. But Shu Yi knows what's going on, even if Panda won't stop gobbling up all the treats that Gao Shi De brings him.
"It's not payment, it's food." Gao Shi De says as if that makes sense.
"Can we have ice cream?"
"We can come back for ice cream, but real food first, Ashley."
I want vanilla- no, mango- no, both flavors! Panda blinks at him.
The three of them walk out, Ashley petitioning passionately for three scoops as she goes.
If she gets three, I get three. Panda jumps up onto Gao Shi De.
Shu Yi cannot believe this betrayal. Panda is his familiar. They were raised from birth together, him a baby and Panda a kitten. But now that traitor is sprawled all over Gao Shi De like a- like a-
Shu Yi shuts off his perceptors. He does not need to know what it feels like to be straddling Gao Shi De's shoulders.
Heart beating too fast -- because he's annoyed, okay? -- Shu Yi grabs two fistfuls of herbs and takes his time checking out.
He's almost calm by the time he makes it to the escalator where the trio is waiting for him.
"Valerian!" Ashley points. "And witch's hazel!"
Just like that, all his residual tension melts. "Good job," Shu Yi can't help but smile. Ashley is really such a natural.
The hotpot is split half and half into mild and spicy. Shu Yi stirs the spicy half again, impatient for his food to cook.
"Here," Gao Shi De places a perfectly peeled shrimp on his plate. "Are you sure you don't need more vegetables? Is your stomach okay?"
No one has asked about his stomach (about him) in a long time. Shu Yi shrugs. "There's a potion for that."
Gao Shi De slides him a look, unimpressed. "Is that the witchy version of there's an app for that?"
What do you think? Shu Yi arches his eyebrows.
"Actually, is there an app for that? For Ashley to look up what spells to use? Is there a translation service? Is there a mentor-mentee matching app? Is there any app at all?"
Shu Yi stares at him. There is the witches' directory. There are tomes of spell books in all manners of languages. There are networks like the witches' forest where a young witch has access to all sorts of mentors. But no, actually, there isn't an app for any of that. Slowly, he shakes his head. "Why? Are you going to write one?"
"Will you help me?"
Shu Yi has a full time job. And it's not this. It's not brainstorming with Gao Shi De into the wee hours of the morning as Panda curls up beside them. It's not.
And yet, here they are.
"What- what are you doing?" Shu Yi leans back, away from Gao Shi De's outstretched hand. Possibly he needs a bigger sofa. Possibly he needed it yesterday.
"Hold still. You have a-" Gao Shi De points his chin at him, clarifying nothing.
Shu Yi holds still anyway, eyes wide as he watches Gao Shi De approach, leaning closer and closer. Then Gao Shi De's fingers land on him, on his mole under his right eye.
Shu Yi's eyes flutter closed. In the darkness, he holds his breath. Is it an eyelash? Is Gao Shi De still watching him? He gulps. How long does it take to pick up a stray lash?
Surely not this long.
He snaps his eyes open and- shit, this is a mistake. Having Gao Shi De in his house, in his space, talking with that deep voice of his and working with that big brain of his -- all of this is a mistake.
It's a mistake because Gao Shi De is currently two knuckles away and staring. At his lips.
"Gao Shi De." Shu Yi's voice doesn't tremble, of course not.
Gao Shi De drags his eyes up, slow, slow, slow, the movement like a physical touch. "Got it."
Shu Yi has no idea what 'it' is. Gao Shi De has already retreated, hands back on his keyboard, already typing again.
"For authorization - how about a variation on CAPTCHA? CATCWA? Instead of proving the user is a human, they would have to prove they're a witch. Maybe you can come up with a few dozen quizzes and we can test them on Ashley, Panda, and me. What do you think?"
Think. Think. Shu Yi taps on Panda's paws, letting the soft familiar warmth calm him. "You do realize you're volunteering to fail?"
Gao Shi De smirks at him. "Only if your quizzes work, Zhou Shu Yi."
Shu Yi has never lost any challenge in his life and he doesn't intend to start now. He smirks back. "Oh, they will, Gao Shi De."
"Want to bet?"
"Bet?" Shu Yi is not a betting witch. "What do you want if you win?"
"Let me cook for you."
"You don't eat enough vegetables."
"Hot peppers are vegetables!"
Gao Shi De rolls his eyes. "What do you want if you win?"
Shu Yi would like some space, some measure of his sanity back. What he says is: "Can I meet your mom?"
Gao Shi De's eyes widen.
"I can't picture her!" Shu Yi hurries to explain. "You and Ashley always talk about her and I don't have a face to go with the person. You can show me a picture too."
"I can show you a picture now, Shu Yi. You don't have to waste a bet on that."
Well then. There goes the stealth recon plan. Shu Yi exchanges a look with Panda before taking the phone from Gao Shi De. So that's his mom. She looks happy in the wedding photo, Gao Shi De and Ashley flanking her and a blond who must be Ashley's father.
"Think about what you want, Shu Yi." Gao Shi De says, sounding so near.
Shu Yi looks up, and for the second time that night, laments the fact that his sofa's two sizes too small. Why, oh, why is it only three cushions wide?
Shu Yi doesn't get a new sofa but it's a near thing. He does get more cushions, to build sufficient boundaries for the late nights he spends working with Gao Shi De. (There is simply so much they can do - WitchLingo, Witchopedia, Ashley (an Alexa alternative for witches) - and so many ways in which to do them.)
The cushions help. They are helping, surrounding him like a moat.
What isn't helping is Panda. Shu Yi should have known the moment his familiar started rolling towards Gao Shi De one night. But when Panda settles into Gao Shi De's lap without transmitting anything, Shu Yi lets down his guard. Panda gets cold easily, after all, and likes to cuddle when he sleeps. It's nothing new.
However, the fact that Panda would not budge when Gao Shi De shuts down his laptop for the night. The fact that his familiar blatantly misuses the weighted spell to anchor himself to Gao Shi De's thighs like a giant burr. Well, Shu Yi is at his wit's end.
"I can't move," Gao Shi De whispers to him. "Cat."
Giant traitor, more like. Shu Yi glares at the ball of fur and invokes a levitation spell. Unlucky for him, his familiar is a sneaky little bugger and has cast both sticky and glue. Shu Yi's jaw drops as he watches both Gao Shi De and Panda rise up from the sofa.
"You-!" Shu Yi has no choice but to spell them back down.
"Is it okay if I stay?" Gao Shi De whispers, blinking at him as Panda's whiskers twitch.
What can Shu Yi do but get him a blanket. And a pillow. And firmly close his bedroom door.
Gao Shi De is in his kitchen. Gao Shi De is in his apron. Gao Shi De is cutting up a pile of green onions - and is that carrots?! - into tiny shreds.
Shu Yi blinks against the stream of sunlight. The last thing he remembers is sending Gao Shi De his list of CAPTWA questions last night.
"What happened?" He rubs at his eyes. "Were you able to solve them?"
Gao Shi De looks up before moving to crack an egg into a bowl. "What do you think?"
Shu Yi stares at the pile of shredded veggies. Those are definitely carrots. "How?"
"I've been coming to Ashley's lessons." Gao Shi De blinks. "But even so I wasn't able to get them correct within the time limit."
"Why are you punishing me?"
Gao Shi De stops his movements, leaving the tornado of eggs spinning unattended in the bowl. "Shu Yi, this is not a punishment. It's breakfast."
"Then…" Shu Yi grabs the cutting board and nudges the pile of carrots to the side. "There. Add a hot pepper instead." He opens his fridge and snatches one out to twirl under Gao Shi De's nose.
It's only then that he realizes how close they are standing and how unwashed his face is.
He throws down the pepper and steps back. "Fixed it!"
Breakfast is spicy down to the last bite. Shu Yi's sweating by the end and grinning. It's good. It's so good to have something other than bread for once.
It put him in such a good mood that he lost his mind for a minute and volunteered to fly Gao Shi De. Now on his broom, Panda straddling both of their shoulders, Shu Yi has regrets.
"Ready?" Shu Yi tries to ignore the heat of Gao Shi De's hands at his sides.
Shu Yi takes off from his roof and Gao Shi De promptly gasps in his ear, clutching him tight around his waist.
"Gao Shi De, I'm a fantastic flyer. You're not going to die!"
"Not if I hold onto you."
You don't have to hold on this tight, Shu Yi wants to say, but fear is an irrational thing, he knows. Even Zheng Wen was like this the first time he offered his giant friend a ride on his broomstick. The only one who was fearless, who loved it from the get go was Yu Xin. Then again she has wings.
A single drop of sweat slides down the back of his neck and Shu Yi speeds up. He just needs to get to Ashley. It will be better once they pick her up for her lesson. She will be a buffer in between them. There will be space in between them, unlike now where there is none.
For a moment Shu Yi wished his specialty was weather. Then he could chill the air further. This paltry autumn snap simply isn't cold enough. But, like his mom, Shu Yi's specialty is healing. He can heal almost anyone except himself.
It's the reason he wants to meet Gao Shi De's mom and assess her situation. He knows he can probably help. And he knows that Ashley, whip smart though she is, definitely cannot. Ashley's not a healer; she's an empath witch. She can read emotions and tell a lie from the truth, unlike Shu Yi. No wonder Gao Shi De thought he had no choice but to tell him about his crush. Shu Yi wonders now if that's a blessing or a curse - the knowing.
He doesn't have much time to contemplate it though because they land at Gao Shi De's sooner than Shu Yi had planned due to the speed.
All right, due to the speeding.
It's loud as soon as they enter the house.
"Hey bud, there you are! I was just about to call." Ashley's father hands off a towel to Gao Shi De then struggles on a tie. "I've gotta head into the office. Ashley's running a fever and I don't want your mom anywhere near it. Can you-"
"'course, go. I got it."
Ashley's father manages to sort his tie out. Then he catches sight of Shu Yi and Panda.
"Hi cutie," he pets Panda absentmindedly. "Shi De's friend. Come in, come in. Sorry I can't stay. Good to meet you-" He holds out his hand for a handshake.
"Zhou Shu Yi."
"Zhou Shu Yi! The famed tutor himself!" He squeezes firmly. "Welcome, welcome. I'm Brandon. Thanks for taking care of my kids. Ashkin hasn't stopped raving about you, and I think this one quite likes you too."
Shu Yi flushes. Honestly, what is it with this family and their ability to disarm him? "It's my pleasure. Ashley's a talented witch."
"That's my girl." Brandon sounds pleased, proud. Then his phone goes off and he rushes out the door.
Heart still pounding, Shu Yi follows Gao Shi De through a narrow hallway to Ashley's room. She's tucked into bed, looking the palest Shu Yi has ever seen her.
Gao Shi De lays the towel on her forehead. "Hey kiddo, look who's here."
"Sensei Zhou! Panda! I thought I wouldn't see you today! I'm sick!"
Panda pushes a med-shield around her as she tries to reach out for him. "Get well first."
"Does this - achoo! - make me better?"
"No, it shields the rest of us from getting sick." Panda jumps up to her desk and swishes his tail.
"Shu Yi, can you watch her? I'll just check on my mom and start the congee."
Shu Yi follows Gao Shi De out and catches his sleeve. "Panda will watch her. Can I meet your mom?"
"I want meatballs!" Ashley yells from her room.
"All right, princess!" Gao Shi De yells back. Then softer, "Come meet my mom." He tugs on Shu Yi's wrist.
Auntie is reading in bed, propped up by a sea of pillows. She looks almost as white as the wall behind her and her belly looks maxed out. Still, her smile is the same brilliant one from the photograph.
"Xiao Yi," she calls him affectionately. "Can I call you Xiao Yi? Come here and let me take a look at you."
"Hello Auntie," he bows politely.
"My husband and daughter are so loud, right? I heard them from here and wanted to kick myself for not being able to get up to look at you. I'm glad Shi De brought you to meet me." She pats at his hand.
Before Shu Yi can reply, Gao Shi De butts in. "He's been wanting to meet you, ma. It's the second time he's asked."
Shu Yi blushes. Has he been that obvious?
But Auntie laughs, happy. "You're the only one, Xiao Yi. No one wants to meet this watermelon."
"That's not true, ayi. Panda wants to meet you too."
"Panda, your cat, right?" Auntie's eyes light up.
"Yes, my familiar. He's a cat but he can live as long as witches and humans. Panda's already twenty-three."
"He talks too, ma. Sometimes in your head. Don't be alarmed."
Shu Yi swivels to look at him. "What?"
Gao Shi De blinks at him. "He told me it's normal? He talks to Ashley the same way sometimes."
Familiars can only talk to family. Shu Yi blinks at him. Oh god, when had Panda adopted Gao Shi De and Ashley?
Don't even try to act innocent! Why would you adopt them without consulting me?
They love you.
They love us.
Panda flops belly up and looks adoringly at Auntie who's scratching him under his chin.
I'm adopting her too.
"Gao Shi De, how many rooms are in my house?"
Gao Shi De shifts behind him, still clutching too hard for a gentle broom-ride. "Is that a trick question?"
"How many rooms, Gao Shi De?"
"Mmm.... kitchen. Three bathrooms, one each for you and Panda and one for guests. Living room. Dining room. Your bedroom and the spare one I use sometimes. The utility room off the balcony. The garage. Ten?"
Gao Shi De goes quiet and Shu Yi can imagine the gears turning in his head as he tries to work out which room he missed. The truth is, Shu Yi has a basement. It's his workroom. It's cavernous and hidden. For good reason. There are a lot of potions stored there, so many he could open a pharmacy.
He hasn't brought anyone here except his tousan. And that was only because otousan refused to leave until he safety-proofed every room in the house. That's his specialty - defense magic.
Gao Shi De looks much more impressed than tousan was. His eyes sweep the storage walls and the rows upon rows of shelves. Though his eyes linger, returning again and again to the central bubble, the only place in the basement that gives off a faint glow.
"Shu Yi, what is this place?" His voice sounds hushed.
Shu Yi turns to prank him, to tell him he was warned about the murdering business. But Gao Shi De isn't trembling in fear. He's… awed.
"Gao Shi De!" Shu Yi sighs in exasperation.
"I'm here, Shu Yi." Gao Shi De reaches out for him as if Shu Yi cannot see him or something, the dork.
"Gao Shi De!" Shu Yi shrugs him off.
"This is who I am." At Gao Shi De's face, he rushes to say, "a healer" just as Gao Shi De says, "... a witch?"
"Dr. Witch. Impressive."
"Gao Shi De! I'm trying to tell you something!"
"Is it about my mom?"
So he does know. Shu Yi nods. "I can help, but only if you and Auntie want me to."
"How? Why? What can you do that her doctors can't?"
"Smart medicine. Instead of Auntie having to take a steady supply of drugs whether or not her body needs it, the potion will monitor her blood pressure and dispense as needed."
"Why?" Gao Shi De takes two big steps forward, and Shu Yi backs up, only to hit the wall. "Big Pharma's out there ripping people off for pills that are not half as good. Why would you give this away for free?"
I like you, the thought comes unbidden. "F-friends?"
"Zhou Shu Yi," Gao Shi De takes another step forward. "You know how I feel about you, how I've felt about you since day one. Why are you trying to give me the wrong idea?"
Shu Yi thinks he's gone mad. He must have because he says: "And what if I'm trying to give you the right idea?"
Gao Shi De chokes on a breath. "Shu Yi."
And then Gao Shi De's hands, Gao Shi De's mouth is on him, and Shu Yi has never been kissed, nevermind like this. Like he's held from all angles, protected and ravished by turn.
Minutes later - at least it feels like minutes - Shu Yi is out of breath. His face is hot from being cupped by Gao Shi De's warm, large hands. His neck is hot for the same reason. His back. The back of his head. But mostly - his face. His lips are probably swollen. They're wet and taste like the mint Gao Shi De had earlier. His tongue is all mint.
And all stupid apparently. Because he blurts, apropos of nothing, "You're adopted!"
"By Panda!" Shu Yi hurries to clarify. "You and Ashley. Auntie too. You're his. You're-" Shu Yi takes a deep breath. "-mine."
Gao Shi De's eyes darken. "You're mine too." He pulls Shu Yi back for another kiss, this one even more heated.
They don't make it out of the basement for quite some time.
I saw you.
You saw nothing.
Go to sleep, Panda!
Guess what else I saw?
Shu Yi turns to face away from him.
Yup. Somebody slid his scarf around Gao Shi De's neck with magic. Somebody's in loooove.
Shu Yi closes his eyes, shuts out Panda's teasing as best he can. When Gao Shi De's pretty eyes and pretty smile come into focus in his mind's eyes, Shu Yi doesn't fight it. Doesn't fight the smile at the corner of his mouth either. Yeah, he's in love and what about it?
Shu Yi thinks perhaps he's been blessed. For a long time, he didn't think he was. But then Gao Shi De and Ashley knocked on his door and asked for candy.
Now, on their groom-stick, with bells and tassels ringing in the wind, Shu Yi grins into the kiss with Gao Shi De, his husband. Everyone is here to celebrate them - Panda, tousan, his besties Yu Xin and Zheng Wen, his newer besties at their new software company Bing Wei and Zhe Yu, all of the Gao-Smiths, even little Oscar who has his sister's freckles and his brother's eyes.
Then Pei Shou Yi, Gao Shi De's broody cousin, calls out, "Duck! Bird!"
Shu Yi ducks them as Gao Shi De clutches at him for dear life.
"That was not a duck," Pei Shou Yi's boyfriend remarks.
"Duck!" Ashley points her wand at a bird on the sidewalk.
Oscar claps, making baby (or perhaps baby seal) sounds.
And it's chaos. It's beautiful chaos.
Shu Yi stares at Gao Shi De and quirks an eyebrow. Let's get out of here.
Gao Shi De nods, holding on tighter as Shu Yi takes off, going up high, high, and higher. So many wished them luck today, but Shu Yi knows he doesn't lack for luck. Because his luck? His luck is right here beside him.
Other title candidates: Dr. Zhou Shu Witch, Zhou Shu Yi of the Taiwan Witches (And the Panda in His Foyer), Walk Witch Way, CAPTCWA If You Can.
- wan shang hao = good evening
- nainai = (paternal) grandma
- ayi = auntie
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 2: before and after (the power of a name)
It was never about the tanghulu. Not solely.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
No brooms, no flying, no full sizing. (Zheng Wen unfolded was nearly as tall as a basketball player.) Those were their rules for playing hide and seek out in the city.
Shu Yi ducked into an alcove of trees and then ducked again down a staircase.
That was when he saw him -- the child, the human child crying into the crook of his elbow.
Don't engage. That was rule number one for their city sneak-aways.
Shu Yi hesitated, feet heavy, anchoring him to the spot. He could -- he could do a lot now. He got his wand the week before and he'd been reading his mom's potion books, learning the curves of her characters, the knowledge in between.
No magic. That was their rule number two. Not amongst the humans. Not if they could help it.
Shu Yi wiped his hands on his jeans and fished out his handkerchief. It was just an object. It was neither magic nor like, his heart or anything, so it was fine. Probably.
"Here, wipe your face."
The boy peered at him and went back to crying.
"Why are you crying?" Shu Yi sat down close and pushed the handkerchief into his palm.
"My dad threw away my mom and I." He sounded like the world was ending and Shu Yi wished he hadn't eaten all of his tanghulu from before. He would have totally shared.
"At least you still have your mom," he patted the little human and told him all about angels and the Other Realm. "Anyway, I can share my dad with you."
Shu Yi had always wanted a brother. He figured if he had one, then his dad wouldn't be so fixated on his scores, or on his whereabouts, especially at night when he wanted to visit the fairy pond and hang out with his best friends.
"Who shares their dad like this?" The little human looked appalled. His eyes were huge and his eyelashes long.
Somehow his face made Shu Yi laugh. "You're right." It was so hard to get a brother. Honestly. Just so hard. "Then I give myself to you," he said magnanimously, throwing an arm around the boy's back. "If you need someone to make you smile, come find me. I'm Zhou Shu Yi."
The boy blinked at him and finally smiled. "Okay. Nice to meet you, Zhou Shu Yi. I'm Gao Shi De."
But Shu Yi didn't remember any of this, not for a long time, because his dad showed up then. And invoked the Memory Seal.
Gao Shi De stared at the name in the witches' directory: Zhou Shu Yi. It sounded familiar. He was sure he had heard it before somewhere.
Surely it wasn't--
After he'd gone back to his room, away from Ashley's babble of excitement, Gao Shi De opened up his diary from third grade, unfolded the handkerchief. Embroidered on the edge, clear as day: Zhou Shu Yi.
His heart gave a heavy thud.
It was real then. It wasn't a dream. Zhou Shu Yi- Zhou Shu Yi was here. Real. A witch.
Gao Shi De pressed his face to the crook of his elbow, to the fabric of Shu Yi's shirt. It smelled like softener and felt like clouds, soft. So soft. Gao Shi De hid a smile there. And then another one.
Shu Yi. He'd found Shu Yi again.
Gao Shi De.
Gao Shi De blinked. He knew he was tired. They'd been working on the app several nights in a row now. He'd barely slept. But really? He was hearing voices now? Seriously?
Do you hear me? Look to your left.
Gao Shi De looked over slowly. It felt like he was in a horror film. This was how they started, right? With an ominous feeling.
But all he saw to his left was Panda. Panda, who was sitting with one leg up in the air, slowly cleaning himself.
Gao Shi De shook his head. "I'm going crazy."
Shu Yi, who had fallen asleep a while ago, dropped his head on his shoulder. Gao Shi De barely breathed, not wanting to disturb him.
Oh god. His hair is so soft. He smells so good.
Don't be gross.
Gao Shi De gasped. What was that? That- that wasn't Shu Yi, was it?
Your left, not your right, Gao Shi De.
Gao Shi De looked again, made eye contact with Shu Yi's familiar this time.
Oh good, you're not Deaf. We can talk like this. At least until Shu Yi kicks you out again.
Gao Shi De's heart thumped fast in his chest. He could talk to Panda in his head. Panda could read his thoughts. He had to moderate his thoughts now. He gulped.
Do you want to leave?
What? No! Of course not. I want to- I want to stay.
Gao Shi De could have sworn Panda smiled then.
He didn't find out why until the next evening, the first evening he got to stay.
In the morning, he got tongue-tied at Shu Yi's face. The blotchy pinkness of it. The sleep of it. The unguardedness, how Shu Yi yawned and shuffled past him to the kitchen for some coffee.
Shu Yi was always his focal point, but that morning Gao Shi De couldn't look away if he tried. Not with the way Shu Yi pursed his lips into a pout at how long the coffee took to brew, not with the way the sunlight spilled atop his hair like a crown, not anything.
On their second anniversary, Shu Yi took Gao Shi De to Shilin's Night Market and brought him tanghulu.
"What's this for?"
Shu Yi took a bite and grinned to himself. "Because."
Gao Shi De bit the next globe of candy off the stick and licked, got his lips all red.
Shu Yi choked. Coughed.
"Are you okay?"
Shu Yi waved him away and they walked on, pushing through the pulse of the night, the bodies and food carts, the occasional dog on a leash.
"Is this because I showed you my handkerchief?"
"My handkerchief." Shu Yi huffed, still miffed that Gao Shi De kept it to himself for this long. "It has my name on it."
Shu Yi punched him in the arm.
"Ow." Gao Shi De made a face, which meant he wasn't hurt at all but wanted Shu Yi to kiss it better nonetheless.
Shu Yi flushed as red as the candy. His husband was utterly shameless. With his hands. With his words. With his-
"I didn't know if it was a bad memory for you," Gao Shi De squeezed his hand. "Otousan looked really mad when he showed up."
"Gao Shi De." Shu Yi supposed otousan must have been furious. He wasn't supposed to give his name to humans. It was as basic a rule for witches as it was for humans not to take candy from strangers. He knew otousan was protecting him with the Memory Seal. Still. It felt like a theft.
A theft he had to rectify.
"I wanted to give you tanghulu back then when you were ugly crying, but I'd eaten all of mine."
Gao Shi De huffed out a laugh. An ah. A ha.
When Gao Shi De dragged him into a dark alley and pressed him up against the wall, Shu Yi gasped and barely closed his mouth around the kiss before he was kissed again, deeper.
"Who knew tanghulu would get you-"
Gao Shi De kissed him again, soft. "Tanghulu has nothing to do with this. This is all because of you, Shu Yi."
Shu Yi blinked at him, at how Gao Shi De was threading his fingers in his hair now, petting and combing it the way he liked to do.
"You were the one who calmed me down that day. You were the one who made me smile again. And you were cute as hell. You're still cute as hell, Shu Yi."
"Just cute?" Shu Yi stuck out his lower lip, his hips and Gao Shi De buried his face in his neck, hissed.
"Tell me you brought your broom."
Shu Yi blushed. He wished, but. He shook his head. "No broom."
They breathed together for a moment, forehead to forehead. Then-
"Bet you I win the ring toss."
Gao Shi De pulled back and stared at him. "In your dreams!"
a little after 'after after'
In between them, they were laden down with at least twenty plush animals. Tomorrow they will distribute/gift.
But right now, Shu Yi flung all the ones he had, including the gray seal he won from balloon pop, somewhere into the living room. Gao Shi De let go of his too, the last of which was a pink pig he won at ring toss.
And then he was tugging Shu Yi up the stairs, their lips connecting every two steps. They were uncoordinated and giddy from their rounds at the arcade, giddy from the sugar high of the tanghulu, giddy from the unsealed memory, but mostly: each other. They were giddy from each other.
"Husband." Gao Shi De kissed his nose.
Shu Yi sucked in a breath. It'd been two years but the way Gao Shi De said it, like I'm yours. You're mine. We're an us. It still felt like such a rush.
"Husband," he kissed the word into Gao Shi De's cheek.
They both jolted at Panda's voice. And then laughed.
Locked! We brought you fish. Go share it with your 'friend'.
They took their time then, relearning each other, hand in hand, heart in heart, their first memory together sweet between them as they made new ones.
There were still a few scenes floating in my head for this 'verse so I thought I'd get them out. Also, yes, you read that right. Panda is seeing someone. =^.^=