Landing an investment banking job right out of uni afforded Hua Cheng several things he’d never dared imagine before: financial security, some degree of pride, and the chance to cohabit with the love of his life.
Because Xie Lian wasn’t doing too shabbily at his global consulting firm either, giving them a decent enough budget to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a nice building in a nice location, close to where they both worked. The apartment wasn’t large, but it was cosy. The front door opened on the right of a small open-plan kitchen, with a breakfast bar on the far side, and enough space for a little square dining table in front of that. On the far end was their living room, very standard, sofa and TV, set next to a window that overlooked the harbour. He and Xie Lian both worked gruelling hours, but they’d come home to each other, and they’d cuddle on the sofa and look out at the reflection of the city lights on the water, and for the first time in his life, Hua Cheng thought he knew what it felt like to come home.
Everything was perfect.
Except for the hair.
It was everywhere.
Xie Lian had had long hair since the day Hua Cheng had met him. It was so long it reached the swell of his ass. That was fine. More than fine. Hua Cheng liked it on him, loved it, even.
When it was on his head.
Not when it was all over the bathroom floor. Clogging up the shower drain. Tangled in their dry laundry. Floating in his bowl of Xie Lian’s lovingly-botched fuzzy melon pork mince soup.
The final straw came one night while he was on his knees, very enthusiastically fellating the love of his life, when he suddenly felt a very unpleasant tickling sensation across his tongue. He stopped. Pulled back. Plucked a long, straight, black hair out of his mouth.
“Sorry,” Xie Lian had said, blushing pink.
“That’s okay,” said Hua Cheng, and went back to blowing him.
The next morning, he had a plan.
More to the point, he had 14 Hirsute Hacks to Hinder Hair Loss.
1. Be selective about what shampoo you buy. Many shampoos on the market contain harsh ingredients that strip the scalp of its natural oils. Don’t be afraid to try something new!
Hua Cheng was on his laptop at the dining table, home from work but still kind of working, when Xie Lian popped his wet head out of the bathroom door.
“San Lang, do you know where the old shampoo’s gone?”
“I threw it out,” said Hua Cheng, looking up. “There’s new shampoo in there.”
“Yeah, I saw that.” His head ducked back into the bathroom, and a, “It looks expensive,” came wafting out, before Xie Lian’s head came back out again. “You didn’t like the way the old one smelled?”
“No!” Hua Cheng got up and went over to usher Xie Lian back into the warm shower. Also, to stop his hair dripping all over their hardwood floor. “I mean, I liked it. It was fine. But this is better for your hair. It’s sulphate and paraben-free. It’s got argan oil in it. It hydrates and softens.” What else had the lady in the shop said? “It’s good.”
Xie Lian stared at the bottle, nonplussed. “I didn’t know you cared so much about hair. I’ll use it today, but I’ll buy a normal one from the supermarket tomorrow. I don’t want to use up your expensive stuff.”
Hua Cheng pulled his most pitiful face. “Gege, I bought it for both of us to use. If you don’t like it, I’ll buy another one.”
“It just seems like a waste,” said Xie Lian, whom Hua Cheng had never seen checking the price of anything, ever. Hua Cheng was sure that if he asked Xie Lian how much he thought his old shampoo had cost, he’d be off by a factor of at least two - but God forbid Hua Cheng ever buy anything nice for him. “The cheap stuff always worked for me.”
“This will be better. Trust me. Here, look.” Hua Cheng took his elbow and guided him back into the shower, where he pushed him down into a crouch. He grabbed the shower head, turned it on, and waited until the water was warm.
“Close your eyes.”
“It’s okay San Lang, I can-”
“Close your eyes.”
Xie Lian blinked owlishly up at him, but eventually complied. Hua Cheng moved the shower head over Xie Lian’s hair, feeling a bit like he was watering a plant. When he deemed it wet enough, he tipped some of the new shampoo into his hand, and worked it into Xie Lian’s scalp. An expensive smell rose through the steam. Hua Cheng didn’t know what kind of smell it was, what flower or fragrance or whatnot, but he knew it was definitely an expensive smell. He’d paid for it. And gladly. Only the best, for Xie Lian.
Xie Lian made a soft noise when Hua Cheng’s fingertips dragged against his scalp. He did it again, when Hua Cheng worked through a tangle. Hua Cheng did his best to ignore those noises, and what they did to him.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian piped up again, while Hua Cheng was working up a nice lather. “Did you throw out my old hairbrush too?”
“The new one has natural fibre bristles.”
“Is that good?”
“…they told me it was.”
Xie Lian hummed. “San Lang is so good to me. What shall I buy for San Lang?”
“Nothing,” said Hua Cheng adoringly. His eye spotted a few strands of Xie Lian’s hair on the floor, new since he’d just cleaned this morning. That was fine. Soon, they wouldn’t be a problem at all. “Just seeing you happy is all I need.”
“Because I kind of had my eye on a Dyson. You know, one of those cordless vacuums? It’d make cleaning up around here easier, wouldn’t it?”
“…well, if that would make Gege happy, then by all means.”
5. Many dyes and chemical treatments can cause damage to your hair follicles. Be careful how you treat your hair!
“I like dark hair,” Hua Cheng declared one morning at the breakfast table, apropos of nothing.
Xie Lian paused mid-chew of his pineapple bun, and looked down at a lock of his own pitch-black hair tumbling over his shoulder. “Do you?”
“I do,” said Hua Cheng gravely. “Very much. I…” A thought occurred to him. “Do you?”
“I’ve never really thought about it.”
“That’s good,” Hua Cheng said quickly. “Don’t think about it. At all.”
He bent across the table, and kissed Xie Lian. Sweet. Xie Lian looked a little bemused, but went on eating his pineapple bun. Hua Cheng had picked it up from the bakery in their nearest subway station on his way home last night. That was right, he had someone to bring food home for, now. Just seeing Xie Lian bite into it made his heart warm.
“By the way,” said Xie Lian later, ducking out of their bedroom in a half-buttoned shirt while Hua Cheng was stuffing spinach and protein powder into the blender. “Chinese New Year’s coming up. I’ll probably go home, stay with my parents’ for a few days. What are your plans?”
“I’ll be here.” Blender on.
Xie Lian waited for the noise to die down. “You’re not going home?”
Hua Cheng shook his head as poured his shake into a glass. “This is my home.”
“You know what I mean. Your mother.”
“Gege, trust me, she doesn’t want me there either. There’s not a lot of space.” Not that that was the main reason.
Xie Lian opened his mouth to say something, ducked back into the bedroom without saying it, and came back out with his tie swinging around his neck. “So you’re just going to stay here?”
“I’ll be fine. I was thinking I’d clean behind the fridge.”
“You can move the fridge?!”
“…Gege, you just go relax at home, please.”
8. Scalp massage with essential oils is a great way to improve circulation to the scalp, which helps nourish your hair. It’s also very relaxing! Let the oil sit for ten minutes, or, even better, wrap a warm towel around the hair and let it sit for thirty minutes before washing it out.
Xie Lian liked to sit in front of the sofa. That was, on the floor in front of the sofa, instead of on the actual sofa, despite all the fluffy cushions and fancy throws Hua Cheng had bought to coax him on. Hua Cheng, despairing, had bought a rug one month into this, unable to bear the sight of Xie Lian’s plush ass on the hard floor.
But the floor would work well for tonight’s plan.
Well, it would have worked well for tonight’s plan, had Hua Cheng not gotten swamped with work and not been able to leave the office until much too late. He rushed home, and found Xie Lian half-asleep at his usual spot on the rug.
“Have you showered yet?” he asked, without much hope.
Hua Cheng shook his head. “Never mind.”
The next night, he made sure he got home at a decent hour. Not early, exactly, but it wasn’t as if Xie Lian’s office kept much saner hours that Hua Cheng’s - Xie Lian wasn’t home yet. Good. Hua Cheng got ready.
“Gege, don’t shower yet,” he said immediately when Xie Lian came through the door. “Come sit with me for a bit.”
“Okay,” said Xie Lian, bemused. “Let me just get out of my suit, I’m all gross from the subway.”
He disappeared into the bedroom, and came back out in his pyjamas, hair loose around his shoulders. Perfect. Hua Cheng looked expectantly at Xie Lian’s spot on the floor, all psyched up and ready to go - until Xie Lian, inexplicably, sat down on the sofa next to Hua Cheng. Snuggled up to Hua Cheng. Hugged one of the fluffy cushions Hua Cheng had bought for him.
“No, Gege,” said Hua Cheng, though it almost hurt to say it. He pointed to Xie Lian’s usual spot on the rug. “Sit there.”
Xie Lian blinked. “You want me to sit on the floor?”
“Gege likes that spot.”
“It’s okay, I can sit with you.”
“I want Gege to sit in his favourite spot.”
“…Can I take the cushion?”
Hua Cheng’s heart melted. “Of course you can take the cushion.”
In addition to the cushion, Hua Cheng thrust the Switch controller in Xie Lian’s hands, and turned on one of his monster-killing games on the TV. When Xie Lian was good and settled, Hua Cheng shifted across, so he was directly behind Xie Lian, with one leg on either side of his body. Xie Lian didn’t seem to mind. His character in-game roamed around a snowy world, swinging a sword. Hua Cheng reached for the bottle of diluted essential oil he’d hidden out of sight, and waited for Xie Lian to get in a boss fight. The moment it started, he set a ten-minute timer on his phone, tipped some oil into his hands, and ran his fingers through Xie Lian’s hair.
“Wha…” Xie Lian didn’t have the bandwidth to say much more, preoccupied with his boss fight. Just as Hua Cheng had planned.
Trying hard to remember the salesperson’s advice, Hua Cheng concentrated on moving his fingertips in small circles across Xie Lian’s scalp. Gently, but with firm pressure. At least, he hoped that was what he was doing.
“Oh,” Xie Lian breathed, his thumbs going slack on the controller. “San Lang, that feels so…”
He shut up, because he’d given the boss an opening to stab at him. Once he’d gotten in control of the situation again, he asked, “What’s that smell?”
“Cedarwood oil,” said Hua Cheng, massaging it in. “You like it?”
“It’s really nice.” There was a noise from the screen. Hua Cheng looked up. Xie Lian had died, but he didn’t seem to care much - the controller lay limp in his hands. “That feels so good.”
Hua Cheng crossed his legs across Xie Lian’s chest. “I can do this for Gege whenever he wants,” he murmured.
“That’s dangerous,” said Xie Lian, eyes closed. “I could sit here forever.”
Hua Cheng ground his fingers in a tiny bit harder, and was rewarded with a moan from Xie Lian. Lower down, near his neck, pressing against the soft flesh there - another moan.
“San Lang should come home with me,” Xie Lian said, in a sleepy, blissed-out sort of voice. “For New Year. Meet my parents.”
“New Year is a time you’re supposed to be with your family. They won’t want me hanging around.”
Xie Lian went quiet for a while. Hua Cheng wondered if he’d fallen asleep.
“But you won’t be with family,” said Xie Lian softly.
Hua Cheng pressed a kiss to the top of Xie Lian’s head. “I’ll be in our home. Waiting for you.”
Then, deciding that Xie Lian was much too capable of thought, Hua Cheng returned to his massage with renewed vigour, launching an attack right behind Xie Lian’s ears. Xie Lian gasped, shivered, and went boneless.
“San Lang,” he breathed. “San Lang, you’re going to make me…”
Hua Cheng knew very well what he was making Xie Lian. He may or may not have been rubbing his foot against a certain part of Xie Lian’s anatomy for the past minute or so.
“Relax,” he purred, bending low to kiss Xie Lian’s forehead again. “Let me take care of you.”
Xie Lian’s breath hitched. “San Lang…I…”
“I love you,” Hua Cheng whispered, low, into Xie Lian’s ear.
When the timer went off, it masked the sharp cry that came out of Xie Lian as he shuddered, and practically melted all the way down onto the rug. Hua Cheng reached for his phone, and turned the timer off.
“Okay, that’s ten minutes. We can wash the oil out n- Gege?”
Xie Lian had sprung to his feet, and sprinted for the bathroom. Hua Cheng reached the door just as the lock turned. Huh. He hadn’t known it could lock.
“Gege,” he called through. “Are you okay?”
Xie Lian’s rattled response came over the noise of the shower starting. “Don’t come in! I…I’m sorry, I don’t know why I…just don’t come in!”
“Gege, how could I come in, you’ve locked the door.” Hua Cheng had to fight to keep the smile off his face. If Xie Lian saw that, he’d never let Hua Cheng near his head again. “Gege, you don’t have to be embarrassed, it’s just me. I love you. Let me in.”
The shower water went on pounding the shower floor.
“…You don’t think I’m weird?”
Hua Cheng could have laughed. “Gege, if you hadn’t run off so fast, you would have seen I’m just as weird as you are. If you want me to leave you alone, I will. But if you want,” and here, he pitched his voice low with promise, “I can come in and help you wash your hair.”
For a second, nothing happened. Then the lock turned, and Hua Cheng let himself in to find Xie Lian red-faced, but crouched low in the shower, at the perfect height for Hua Cheng to tend to his hair.
Later, when Xie Lian’s hair had been blown dry, and Hua Cheng was brushing his hair out for him with his new natural fibre bristle brush, Xie Lian asked, tentatively, “San Lang…do you think…would you mind doing that again, sometime?”
Even facing Xie Lian’s back as he was, Hua Cheng could tell Xie Lian was blushing.
Hua Cheng put down the brush. He draped his arms around Xie Lian’s neck, and kissed the side of Xie Lian’s face until Xie Lian was laughing and squirming.
“Of course,” he purred, nosing the spot behind Xie Lian’s ear, the spot he’d liked so much before, and was rewarded with a punched out noise from Xie Lian. “Let’s say twice a week? And maybe sometimes you can wrap your head in a warm towel for thirty minutes after. Just for fun.”
10. Make sure to nourish your hair with a balanced diet. Iron, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids are all very important for healthy, well-fed hair!
“You made dinner?” Xie Lian said, surprised, when he came home one night to find Hua Cheng, apron-on, lowering a bowl of beaten eggs into the steamer.
Hua Cheng nodded. “We order in too much. Gege deserves a nice, healthy home-cooked meal.”
Xie Lian made ooh-ing sounds at the egg, opened the rice cooker to a faceful of steam, and peered at the salmon fillet marinating in the fridge. “You should have told me! I would have tried to come home early and help.”
Hua Cheng was suddenly very glad he had decided to surprise him. “Go shower and get changed. Everything will be ready soon.”
Xie Lian came out in his teddy bear pyjamas, with his hair twisted up in a towel. Hua Cheng caught a whiff of the expensive shampoo as he bent to lay out the plates. Good.
“This looks so good!” Xie Lian said, surveying the spread of steamed egg, pan-fried salmon, stir-fried spinach and abalone soup. “And healthy. Are you counting macros again?”
“No.” Hua Cheng reached across for Xie Lian’s bowl, and served him a good chunk of fish. “I just wanted to do something special for you. There’s dessert too.”
If Xie Lian had been a dog, his ears would have perked up. “Dessert?”
“Healthy dessert,” Hua Cheng stressed, reaching across the table again, this time to pile spinach in Xie Lian’s bowl.
Xie Lian rummaged through his soup with his spoon and scooped up a chunk of carrot. “Oh, this reminds me. I told my Grandma you’re coming to dinner on New Year’s. She said it was fine, she always cooks too much food anyway.”
Hua Cheng paused. “Are you sure?”
Xie Lian raised his eyebrows. “We’ve been going out for over two years. My family’s curious. Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal.”
It felt like a big deal. Hua Cheng was sure it was a big deal.
“What if they don’t like me?”
“Of course they’ll like you! Don’t be ridiculous. You’re perfect. And if they don’t, I’ll tell them they have to.”
“Or…” Xie Lian chewed thoughtfully. “Or, I won’t visit until they do.”
Hua Cheng very much doubted that that would help his case. “You can’t do that. They’re your family.”
Xie Lian quirked a smile at him. “You’re my San Lang.”
Hua Cheng broke the strawberries out while Xie Lian was lounging on his usual spot on the rug, planting vegetables on some game on his phone. The plates from dinner were piled high in the sink - Xie Lian had promised to do them later. As if Hua Cheng was going to let that happen.
Hua Cheng sank down on the sofa, his legs beside Xie Lian. He plucked a strawberry from the bowl, and lowered it to Xie Lian’s lips.
Xie Lian made a surprised sound, but opened his mouth to accept the strawberry without looking up from his game.
“It’s good,” he said, sounding surprised.
“They’re Japanese,” Hua Cheng said. They’d cost a small fortune. He’d had to go to the fancy supermarket, the one with all the imported foods. Hua Cheng didn’t mind. Only the best, for Xie Lian. “They’re full of antioxidants.”
Xie Lian made a humming noise, and accepted another strawberry from Hua Cheng’s fingers. And another. And another. Hua Cheng watched the bulge in Xie Lian’s cheek carefully, timing each swallow and the next strawberry. Towards the end of the bowl, something occurred to Xie Lian - he looked up.
“Have you had any?” he asked suspiciously.
Hua Cheng tried to look earnest. “Of course. They’re delicious.”
He shoved the last one towards Xie Lian’s mouth before he could ask any more questions. Xie Lian took it in his teeth, put his phone aside, and rose to straddle Hua Cheng’s lap. Without thinking, Hua Cheng tipped his head back for a kiss, only to feel a strawberry being pushed firmly between his lips.
Xie Lian drew back and looked at him expectantly. “Chew.”
Hua Cheng did. Xie Lian was right. “It’s good.”
Xie Lian laughed, and bent to kiss him properly, his hair falling like a curtain around them.
When Xie Lian pulled away, Hua Cheng discreetly spat a couple strands of hair from his mouth, and rose to take Xie Lian to bed.
14. A good night’s sleep is essential for regulating the hormones that stimulate hair growth. Make sure you’re getting at least seven hours every night!
Seven hours every night. Funny. In his and Xie Lian’s line of work, that was never going to happen - but he could make sure whatever sleep he got was good sleep.
Hua Cheng came out of the shower, wafting expensive-shampoo-smell in his wake, and found Xie Lian going through the motions of his usual bedtime routine - lying on his foam roller on the rug like a starfish, while casting cat videos on the TV.
One hand still towelling his hair, Hua Cheng picked up the remote, and turned off the TV. Xie Lian made a questioning noise, and sat up half-heartedly to look at him.
“We’re improving our sleep hygiene,” Hua Cheng explained. “No screens after brushing our teeth.”
Xie Lian blinked. “But that video wasn’t done.”
“The blue light keeps you awake.”
“But I want to see what the cat does when it sees the cucumber.”
Hua Cheng turned the TV back on. He wasn’t a tyrant. But the mild sense of failure made him look upon Xie Lian’s starfish with a newly critical eye.
“Okay, but Gege, if you’re going to foam roll, you need to do it properly.”
“This is how you’re supposed to- ah!” Xie Lian’s hands scrabbled across the floor as Hua Cheng pulled him. “Not the hips! I don’t - San Lang!”
The next night, Hua Cheng made sure there was no video to interrupt. Xie Lian showered, brushed his teeth, did his foam rolling while listening to a podcast, and got obediently into bed straight after. He stared as Hua Cheng turned off their new Hue light bulbs with his phone. The new bulbs let him make the lighting warm at night. That was apparently also good for sleep hygiene.
Hua Cheng plugged his phone in to charge, and turned around to snuggle up to Xie Lian, who nuzzled right back. Their limbs arranged themselves in a familiar tangle. Hua Cheng buried his face in Xie Lian’s shirt, took one, two, three deep breaths of that perfect, familiar, comforting smell, that wasn’t so much a smell as it was a feeling, the feeling of home - and flipped over away from Xie Lian, with an, “Okay, we have to sleep now.”
“What, right now?”
“I’m not sure I can.”
“Close your eyes. Take deep breaths. Think about cats.”
“Oh yeah, I was thinking about cats.” Rustle. “What do you think about getting one?”
“Gege, shh. Lie down. We’ll discuss in the morning.” Hua Cheng knew how that discussion was going to go.
“A guy at work has a Bengal cat. It looks like a tiger. Wait, let me get my phone, I’ll show you.”
He started to turn away to reach for it, and Hua Cheng had no choice but to take action. He rose up on his side, wrapped one arm tight around Xie Lian, trapping his hands, and yoinked him back to the middle of the bed.
“Gege,” he murmured into his ear. “No screens. Please?”
Xie Lian huffed, but stilled in his arms. “Okay. Okay. I’ll sleep.”
Hua Cheng pressed a kiss to the back of his neck, and let his head fall back onto his pillow, with his arm still around Xie Lian. Closed his eyes. Took deep breaths.
Pointedly ignored Xie Lian’s ass grinding back against his crotch.
Took some more deep breaths.
Ignored the whimper-y noises coming out of Xie Lian’s mouth.
More deep breaths.
Another deep breath.
Then he yanked Xie Lian onto his back, and crushed his mouth to his.
They did not get seven hours of sleep that night.
The next night, Hua Cheng built a wall. In the middle of the bed. With pillows.
Xie Lian peered over the top of it. “You know, if you don’t want sex, you just have to say so.”
“Gege is too good. I always want sex with you.” But not tonight, Hua Cheng thought grimly. Even if he had to flee to the sofa, he was going to make sure Xie Lian got seven hours of high-quality, restful sleep.
“You’re really serious about this sleep hygiene thing.”
“Gege, I want you to get your rest. You’ve been working so hard lately. Just a couple more weeks of this, and then you can go home and relax with your family for the New Year.”
Xie Lian’s head popped back over the pillow wall again. “Should we go see your family? Like on the second day or something. We don’t have to see your mother, but don’t you have other family you want to see?”
“Don’t worry about it, Gege. I’m not like you. I have no family.”
Hua Cheng pressed a kiss to Xie Lian’s lips, and pushed him down firmly on his side of the pillow wall before turning off the lights.
Deep breaths. Cats. Or, as Hua Cheng preferred, the absence of cats.
Half an hour later, Xie Lian whispered into the darkness, “San Lang?”
Hua Cheng was awake, but said nothing. He’d learnt his lesson yesterday about talking.
“San Lang, are you asleep?”
Silence. Rustle from Xie Lian’s side.
“San Lang,” just a whisper.
“San Lang, I love you~” with a muffled laugh.
Then, Hua Cheng felt his pillow wall being dismantled. Not good. If Xie Lian went for his figurative belt again, he was going to have to do something about it.
Just as he was wondering what exactly he would do about it, he felt Xie Lian’s head nestle into his shoulder with a contented sigh.
“San Lang,” this time barely an exhale. Xie Lian’s head turned a fraction, just enough so he could press his lips to Hua Cheng’s shoulder. “You’ll always have me. I’ll be your family.”
On the whole, the improve-Xie-Lian’s-hair-health plan seemed to be going very well, if Hua Cheng did say so himself. Yes, sometimes the shower drain still got clogged, and sometimes he’d still have to fish the odd strand of hair out of their dry laundry, but apart from that, he barely noticed any hairs around the apartment at all. It was a miracle.
It could also have been that new vacuum cleaner Xie Lian had bought. Hua Cheng loved that thing. It was like zooming around with a magic wand - everything in its path just disappeared.
There were only a few days left before New Year now, and if Hua Cheng didn’t have a calendar, or had been blind to the air of general jubilation around the city, he would have known by the mountain of turnip cakes, taro cakes and sticky rice cakes stacked high in the fridge, courtesy of Xie Lian’s seemingly infinite number of doting relatives.
“Turnip cake for breakfast again?” yawned Xie Lian as he rolled out of the bedroom on Saturday morning. He peered over Hua Cheng’s shoulder into the frying pan. “Oh, this is the vegetarian one from my aunt. It’s good.”
“We’re going to have it for lunch and dinner too,” said Hua Cheng, flipping the slices over. “The others will start to go bad, otherwise. You’re lucky I don’t have anyone to give us cake.”
“Hey, you brought home that.” Xie Lian pointed to the sad, mostly-empty fruit basket in the corner. Hua Cheng had gotten it from a particularly festive client. He’d had to split it with the other rookie analysts on his team.
The washing machine beeped, signalling the end of its cycle. Xie Lian pottered off to set up the airing rack, and started hanging things up.
“Oh, here’s my hoodie,” said Xie Lian with a laugh. “I was looking for it just now. Thanks for washing it.”
“It’s your favourite,” said Hua Cheng, as he plated up the turnip cake. “I wanted you to have it clean to take home with you.” Unless he had other hoodies at home. Hua Cheng hadn’t thought about that. It seemed stupid that he hadn’t, now.
He turned around to take the plate to the table, and found Xie Lian still standing by the washing machine, staring at the hoodie in his hands.
“I’m not going to my parents’ for New Year,” Xie Lian blurted out. He turned to face Hua Cheng. “I mean, I’ll see them, for dinner, and stuff. The night before, and the night of. Both sets of grandparents, at some point. But otherwise, I’ll be here. With you.”
Hua Cheng put the plate down. “Gege, you don’t have to do that for me. I’ll be fine. You’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. Go.”
Xie Lian shook his head. He shoved the hoodie back in the washing machine, walked up to Hua Cheng and put his hands on his shoulders.
“I’m not doing it for you,” he said firmly. “I’m doing it for me. For us. I want to be here with you. Like you said, New Year is a time for family, and…and…”
Hua Cheng waited, heart thudding; wondering if Xie Lian was going to say those things he’d said in bed.
Xie Lian’s face went bright red.
“I just…I just want to spend the New Year with San Lang. Because I love you. And…and…”
Hua Cheng wrapped his hands around Xie Lian’s wrists, and leaned forward to kiss him.
“I know, Gege,” he said, bumping their foreheads together. “I want to spend New Year’s with you too. If you’re sure. I love you.”
Xie Lian sagged against Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng watched his eyelashes flutter against his cheek, and for a moment, he was so in love he couldn’t breathe.
“Gege, the food’s getting cold.”
Xie Lian made a grumbly sort of noise. He lifted his chin for one more kiss, and went to sit at the table.
“This doesn’t mean you’re getting out of dinner at my Grandma’s, though,” Xie Lian declared, as he picked up his chopsticks.
Hua Cheng sighed. “Is everyone going to be there?”
“Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” said Xie Lian cheerfully. “Don’t worry, they’ll love you.”
New Year finally did roll around. Their apartment building management stuffed the lobby full of little orange trees. All the malls dripped with lurid decorations. Everyone at the office acted like they were seeing the sun for the first time after a long imprisonment, as if they’d forgotten that they’d all be right back at their desks again in a few days.
Hua Cheng dealt with the anxiety over the whole meeting-the-in-laws situation mostly by not thinking about it. This worked right up until he found himself next to Xie Lian on his Grandma’s doormat, and a maid was opening the door, releasing a wonderful medley of mouth-watering smells into the hall: boiling soup, fried garlic, and steaming soy sauce.
“Granny!” Xie Lian cried, flinging his arms around the old woman sitting in a nearby armchair without stopping to take off his shoes. Hua Cheng followed him inside gingerly. It looked like they were the first ones here. “Happy New Year! May you forever have the spirit of a dragon and the vigour of a horse!”
“Ah, Lianlian, finally you think to visit your poor old Granny. Let me see your face, it’s been so long.”
“Wait, Granny, there’s someone I want to introduce.” He beckoned Hua Cheng over, and put a hand on his shoulder proudly. “Granny, this is my boyfriend, San Lang.”
“San Lang?” The old woman peered at him. Hua Cheng held still, and tried to look stoic. His eyes fell on the scarf tied around her wrinkled neck. He’d passed the flagship store on his way to work enough times to know it was Hermes. The box of chocolates he’d brought suddenly seemed woefully inadequate.
“Happy New Year, Granny,” said Hua Cheng gravely. “Thank you for inviting me.”
Granny looked at Xie Lian. “He’s handsome. You didn’t tell us he was so handsome.”
Xie Lian blushed. “Granny…”
“Come here, San Lang.” Hua Cheng took a careful step closer, until his shins were almost touching Granny’s. She leaned conspiratorially towards him, and said, “I can tell I’m going to like you. You know how I can tell?”
Hua Cheng looked at Xie Lian. Xie Lian shrugged helplessly. “How?”
“Because he,” with a jab in Xie Lian’s direction, “looks the best I’ve ever seen him.”
“You think so, Granny?” broke in Xie Lian, flattered. “I think it’s-”
“You should have seen him, his first few years in university. Haggard. Worn. Pale. He looked ready to keel over any second.” Xie Lian made a wounded sound. “But now he has you, and look at him. Happy as a clam. Doesn’t he look positively giddy? Look at him. Look at that smile.”
“Look at his hair. Vivid. Radiant. Lustrous.” She reached out, and clasped Hua Cheng’s hand in her wizened fingers. “Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing an excellent job, young man. Come, sit down. Do you like melon seeds?”
The spinning candy box came out, stuffed to overflowing with melon seeds, candied lotus root, coconut candy, White Rabbit candy, and more. Hua Cheng helped himself politely to a few melon seeds while Granny grilled him about his job, his parents, his education. Xie Lian took fistfuls of chocolate coins to stuff in his backpack.
“She would have given them to me at the end of the night, anyway,” Xie Lian explained guiltily, when Hua Cheng gave him a look. Granny had disappeared into the kitchen to supervise the staff, giving Hua Cheng a brief reprieve. “I think you’re good, now that she likes you. No one else is going to say a word against Granny.”
“When are the rest going to start arriving?”
“Soon.” Xie Lian gave his hand a squeeze. “Don’t worry.”
Hua Cheng swallowed. “It’s your family. I want to fit in.”
Xie Lian’s eyes searched his face. He glanced over his shoulder, towards the kitchen - confirmed Granny was still nowhere in sight, and darted across to kiss Hua Cheng firmly on the mouth.
“You fit in because I say so. Because I love you. They all know I love you. They know I chose to spend the New Year with you. At home. Our home. Where we share expensive shampoo, and take turns vacuuming, and cook, sometimes.” Xie Lian leaned forward, and cupped Hua Cheng’s face in his hands. “Do you know what you call the person you choose to do those things with?”
Hua Cheng shook his head, silently.
“Family,” said Xie Lian. His cheeks flushed pink. “We’re family. You’re my family, and I’m yours. I mean…” His cheeks went even redder. “If you want me to be.”
For a moment, Hua Cheng didn’t say anything. He couldn’t.
Landing an investment banking job right out of uni had afforded Hua Cheng several things he’d never experienced before: financial security, some degree of pride, and the chance to cohabit with the love of his life.
Loving Xie Lian opened up worlds to him that he’d never dared to imagine: a home, a family, a place to belong.
Hua Cheng reached up, laced his fingers with Xie Lian’s against his own cheeks, and closed the space between them to pour all the hope and longing he’d never given voice to into a kiss that left them both breathless.
“Careful, Gege,” he murmured, resting his forehead against Xie Lian’s. “You can’t get rid of family.”
Xie Lian’s eyes welled with tears.
“Good,” he whispered, and grabbed Hua Cheng to kiss him again.
Somehow, and Hua Cheng didn’t really know how, they managed to get each other looking relatively composed by the time the rest of the family arrived. It wasn’t nearly as bad as Hua Cheng as feared, especially after Granny’s repeated exclamations about how happy Xie Lian looked. Xie Lian’s dad offered to introduce him to all his banking friends at the country club. Xie Lian’s mom asked for advice on her stock portfolio. Some random cousin came up to him and told him he looked like an asshole.
Towards the end of the night, when everyone was full and lolling around on the sofas picking at a platter of fruit, Xie Lian threw himself down next to Hua Cheng with a baffled look on his face.
“Everyone keeps asking me what my haircare routine is these days,” he said. “Do you think it looks different? I’m not doing anything new, except maybe the new shampoo. Oh yeah, and the cedarwood oil. I haven’t noticed it looking any different, but I guess it’s because I see it every day. What do you think?”
Xie Lian pulled his ponytail over his shoulder, and gave it a hard look, as if that would help him see what everyone else was seeing. Hua Cheng repressed the urge to push him down on the sofa and mess up his hair thoroughly. Instead, he reached out, and twined a lock around his fingers.
“It’s always looked beautiful to me. But Gege, I won’t be able to tell you if it’s changed, either. Remember? I see it every day too.” He pulled the lock towards him, kissed it, and let it go. “At home.”
Xie Lian stared at Hua Cheng. Then, a smile broke out over his face, with all the radiance he’d coloured Hua Cheng’s drab, grey existence with, and all the brilliance he never could seem to see in himself. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess you do.”
“San Lang, what does ‘hirsute’ mean?”
“My phone’s out of battery, so I picked yours up to Google how big Maine Coons get, and look, you’ve got this open: 14 Hirsute Hacks to- San Lang? Hey, what are you- No, give it back! San Lang, let me see!”