The first sign that Zhao Yunlan is chewing on some new mystery is him turning up in Shen Wei’s little home office, propping up his arms on the tabletop and turning on the wide-eyed puppy look that usually means ‘I want something from you and you’re not going to like it’.
Shen Wei continues writing out a reminder to please not veer off into a different topic mid-paragraph in the margin of the lab report on top of his grading pile.
Zhao Yunlan, as usual, breaks first. “So, if I’d arrived at the right time to witness a birthday celebration during the war, what would it have looked like?”
“No one celebrated their birthday during the war,” Shen Wei says, not looking up from the paper.
This particular student has apparently never heard of grammar, making for irritating reading. He knows that some of the students complain that science majors don’t need the ability to write, but Shen Wei happens to think that studying a science doesn’t excuse one from being able to put together a decent sentence. Suffice to say, grading isn’t his favourite part of the job, for all that the system makes it necessary.
“Right, right, I suppose I was there long enough to have seen some otherwise.” Zhao Yunlan scratches at his beard. “But if, hypothetically, there had been time and resources enough to throw a party?”
Shen Wei huffs a little sigh. Ten thousand years ago, if anyone had managed to remember anyone else’s birthday, they’d as likely as not just get a wish to make it through to see the next one.
“Birthday celebrations are more of a Haixingren thing,” he finally says. “Our longevity makes celebrating every year a little… much.”
He looks up just in time to see Zhao Yunlan’s whole face scrunch as if he’s bitten into something bitter.
“Are you telling me Dixingren never celebrate their birthdays? Not even when they’re kids?”
Shen Wei hears the underlying ‘have you never celebrated your birthday’ and sets his papers and brush aside. It doesn’t look like he’ll get any more grading done anytime soon.
“Most don’t,” he says frankly. “It depends on the family, but generally speaking, there are different milestones we commemorate.”
Zhao Yunlan’s eyes light up in curiosity. Shen Wei doesn’t think he’ll ever get tired of that expression, the sun shining so brightly from a face so beloved.
Shen Wei casts his mind back. He’s, admittedly, not as familiar with contemporary practices, but when he was young…
“The First Flowering was usually celebrated, when a young Dixingren came into their power.” His gaze grows distant, recalling vague impressions of lit up houses, flowers decorating the windows and doors. He hasn’t thought about his brief childhood before the meteor in a long time. “The date remains special to those whose power is active.”
Zhao Yunlan tilts his head, hair ruffling against his crossed forearms. “What about those without powers?”
“The day our name is bestowed is also a marked occasion,” Shen Wei says. “Around the tenth year, once a child’s character has started to develop. The one being named chooses the time and date for it. I believe nameday celebrations are still common even now, when the First Flowering often goes unacknowledged.”
Shen Wei’s own powers had not yet bloomed when the meteor hit, taking with it peace and most of his family. His nameday, too, had only been imminent, their family tending towards late namings – striking out into the world with the makeshift name of his childhood had seemed only another small grief to bear at the time.
Until Kunlun crashed into his life and bestowed another, far more treasured name.
“What does a nameday celebration look like then?” Zhao Yunlan asks, insatiable as always when it comes to learning even the most bafflingly inconsequential detail about Shen Wei’s life.
“Every celebration is different, it depends on the named’s tastes.”
Zhao Yunlan still looks expectant, and Shen Wei doesn’t fight the sudden urge to have a little fun.
“I recall one time the celebration ended in a contest determining who could draw the most complete star map in the dust. Another event consisted solely of watching flower petals float in water basins and calculating the patterns. Powers tag is also very popular, and lava hopping.”
Zhao Yunlan blinks, opens his mouth. Closes it again.
“Wait a minute.” Zhao Yunlan pauses, squinting suspiciously. “You’re pulling my leg again.”
Shen Wei keeps his face blank. Zhao Yunlan huffs and shakes a finger at him
“Don’t give me that look, you lost all credibility when you tried to convince me youchu claw marks were made by a bear. I’m wise to you.”
Shen Wei blinks slowly, deliberately, and doesn’t even pretend not to enjoy the way Zhao Yunlan stifles a noise with his forearm.
Of course Zhao Yunlan doesn’t drop the matter. Though he himself doesn’t understand it, Shen Wei has been living in Haixing long enough now that he hasn’t failed to notice that birthdays seem rather important to most people living under the sun – he usually gets several well-wishes on the day his university file specifies as his birthday – and Zhao Yunlan is nothing if not persistent.
Two days later, Jiajia shows up to their grading meeting with the kind of befuddled expression Shen Wei often witnesses in Zhao Yunlan’s wake.
“Professor Shen, why did Chief Zhao corner me earlier to ask about your birthdate? Doesn’t he know that already?” She crosses her arms in front of her chest. “I know he requested your file back when his division was investigating Ruomei’s death.”
She still sounds vaguely scandalised, as if the mere thought of a police investigator suspecting Shen Wei of anything is beyond acceptability. If he remembers correctly, half the campus had shared her opinion – the other half had immediately surmised that a torrid love affair was happening right under everyone’s noses.
At any rate, Zhao Yunlan is likely already aware that the birthday listed in Shen Wei’s employment file is unrelated to any important dates Shen Wei could theoretically be keeping close to his chest. The truth is simply that there… aren’t any. Haixingren traditions don’t apply to him and none of the Dixingren milestones really do either – at least not in the way they’re intended to be taken. There’s nothing he can tell Zhao Yunlan. Or at least nothing that wouldn’t lead to entirely unwarranted sad looks.
That Zhao Yunlan is trying at all is proof of his investment in their relationship, even if it’s not the way Shen Wei would’ve chosen to go about showing it. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t mean that Shen Wei knows how to react to it.
Not that Jiajia needs to know any of this.
“He’s just being thorough,” he murmurs, which doesn’t clear up Jiajia’s confused expression, but does make her drop the topic in favour of going over the grading rubric for the intro class she’s TAing for him.
He could just tell Zhao Yunlan that he has no answers for him that will satisfy. But he’s curious as to his love’s next avenue of inquiry, and besides, work has been slow at the SID for a few weeks and Zhao Yunlan clearly needs the distraction. So he resolves to keep an eye out for signs that Zhao Yunlan’s curiosity and interest might be changing into disappointment or frustration, but otherwise remains purposefully noncommittal in response to oblique questions.
(He will also admit, in the privacy of his mind, that he quite enjoys it when Zhao Yunlan is actively on the hunt for answers unrelated to violent crime. It overwrites some of the less pleasant moments during their early acquaintance in this time, and Zhao Yunlan comes alive when he’s investigating.)
Eventually, Zhao Yunlan resorts to scribbling on bits of paper that he leaves strategically around the house for Shen Wei to find. So far, questions have ranged from ‘does that mean you don’t do birthday candles?’ to ‘what kind of nameday celebration would you throw Chu Shuzhi?’ and ‘what are Dixingren birthday-related symbols?’. Shen Wei pens a reply to the latter question on a sticky note taped to Zhao Yunlan’s lunch box.
Bear iconography is customary as they symbolise happy longevity.
Da Qing reports later that Zhao Yunlan’s thwarted snort of laughter upon finding the sticky note was a thing to behold.
A week in, Da Qing jumps onto the sofa and sticks a cold nose against Shen Wei’s thigh.
“Lao Zhao is driving everyone nuts trying to figure out your birthday. Or nameday. Whichever. Has it occurred to him to outright ask you yet?”
Shen Wei would be comfortable guaranteeing that the thought had occurred to Zhao Yunlan, but he has clearly decided not to, for reasons Shen Wei can only make an educated guess at.
Zhao Yunlan probably will ask, eventually, when he tires of the chase and the puzzle.
“I believe he’s under the impression I wouldn’t answer him.”
Da Qing’s ears twitch, paws kneading the sofa cushion. “So you’re just letting him dangle? I can respect that.”
Shen Wei scritches just behind his ears, earning himself an approving purr. “We’ll resolve it. I didn’t quite realise it’s this important to him.”
“Kid’s always liked celebrating everyone’s birthdays but his own,” Da Qing says, offhand, as if Zhao Yunlan’s childhood isn’t an area still largely shadowed to Shen Wei. They both have things they don’t like to talk about.
“Hmm,” he says.
Shen Wei does know when Zhao Yunlan’s birthday is. Perhaps it’s time to start planning.
Chu Shuzhi’s puppet drops off a note later the same day.
Please put us all out of our misery and tell Chief Zhao what he wants to know. If he asks me about Dixingren nameday customs one more time I’m going to ram that lollipop down his throat.
Shen Wei’s lips twitch as he sets the note aside. He may not have the answers Zhao Yunlan seeks, but it seems the time has come to make that clear rather than keep indulging in their teasing back-and-forth.
He mentally clears his evening.
Lying face to face in the comfortable darkness of their bedroom, Shen Wei murmurs, “Are you going to ask, then? Your team is getting desperate.”
Zhao Yunlan’s teeth flash white as he grins. “Ran to you to complain, did they?”
“You do have a talent for being uniquely irritating,” Shen Wei says, voice drier than the ash wastes of Dixing.
Zhao Yunlan gasps in mock affront, reaching out a lazy hand to poke Shen Wei’s chest. “Betrayed! By my own beloved!”
Shen Wei reaches down to capture the hand, bringing it up to place a small, reverent kiss just above the knuckles. “You know I don’t mind answering you, I just don’t believe you’ll be happy to hear my responses.”
“Says Mr ‘more secrets than there are stars in the sky’,” Zhao Yunlan grumbles, but there’s no bite in his voice. They’ve long since made peace with that early period filled with Shen Wei’s desperate lies. Zhao Yunlan’s tone gentles into something soft. “I’ll always listen to anything you have to say. I know I’ve been a bit pushy about this, but I just… I don’t like the idea of you never getting to celebrate anything about yourself, be it your birth, your name, or your powers.”
Shen Wei breathes through the almost violent stab of warmth running through him. He had assumed that Zhao Yunlan was invested in the topic because of his feelings about special celebratory days – the principle of the thing. Perhaps he should’ve expected that it’s more about Shen Wei himself; Zhao Yunlan is startlingly generous so often.
Shen Wei has never felt a need for such celebration; his life is what it is. That Zhao Yunlan cares about this – despite Shen Wei’s own clear indifference – is its own reward.
“I don’t know my birthdate, Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says quietly, feeling Zhao Yunlan’s fingers twitch in his grip, as if reflexively wanting to reach for him. “Before the meteor, Dixing used a different calendar than those dwelling on the surface. They don’t match up well.”
Not to mention that he doesn’t actually recall the precise date even in Dixing reckoning. He only knows he was born in the quarter of the Five-Star Arc – one of the few constellations that had remained visible throughout the Dixingren’s journey to Haixing. Or so the tales said. Shen Wei had been born on Haixing, many generations past his ancestors’ arrival on the planet. He has never known a different sky.
The tightening of Zhao Yunlan’s grip on his hand compels him to add, “I had neither a nameday nor a First Flowering before the meteor hit, and I have not marked them since. And, in any case, the day of my birth is not something I care to recall. If you must celebrate something, choose a different occasion.”
Chagrin flashes across Zhao Yunlan’s expression, but Shen Wei doesn’t begrudge him. Ye Zun remains a sore topic in many different ways, and not something they talk about.
“All right, Xiao Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says, dropping a quick kiss on Shen Wei’s lips. “I promise I’ll drop the matter. But don’t expect that gets you out of a celebration just for you. The team has already volunteered to help set it up.”
“I’d never dream of it,” Shen Wei replies honestly. If Zhao Yunlan wants a small celebration among friends, Shen Wei is happy to indulge him – whether he finds the cause relevant or not. After all, he already has a page of notes on possible things to do on Zhao Yunlan’s next birthday and he tries to avoid being a hypocrite.
Zhao Yunlan calling him in his office isn’t unusual. Nor is Zhao Yunlan asking him to come by the SID once he’s done with work. What is out of the ordinary is the explicit directive not to bring any food. It seems Zhao Yunlan has finally settled on what kind of celebration he wants to have in Shen Wei’s name.
Perhaps he should’ve expected to be greeted by a banner proclaiming ‘We’re glad you exist Shen Wei’ upon entering the SID. Someone had scribbled Professor Shen as an alternative underneath his name, and a third hand had added Heipaoshi-daren in spiky hanzi. The big conference table is groaning under a range of foods, not even all of which are the kind of unhealthy options that Shen Wei usually frowns at Zhao Yunlan for coveting. There’s also, Shen Wei notes, not a bottle of alcohol in sight.
Even so, a little frown tugs at his brow as he studies the banner. The banner fails to yield any more clues. He looks toward Zhao Yunlan, who seems to be all but bouncing in place with repressed glee.
“Why today?” he asks.
Zhao Yunlan grins, ignoring Chu Shuzhi’s prominent eyeroll. “Guess!”
Shen Wei narrows his eyes at him. The most obvious connection is that it’s the time of the year that Zhao Yunlan had spent in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily narrow it down. Zhao Yunlan would want the date to be meaningful for Shen Wei in some way, that’s beyond doubt. Or rather, particularly meaningful. He knows Shen Wei well enough by now to realise that despite the war, and the pain that followed, every minute spent with Kunlun had been meaningful to him.
So what would Zhao Yunlan think important enough –
Zhao Yunlan hadn’t known about naming days, hadn’t had the context to realise just what it had meant to be dubbed 巍 by the man rapidly shouldering his way into Shen Wei’s heart.
Shen Wei doesn’t realise that his expression must’ve started doing something inappropriate, until Zhao Yunlan’s gaze heats and Da Qing starts throwing popcorn at his master, while Lin Jing moans, “Not again, we don’t need to witness this.”
Shen Wei blinks, trying to will away the reflexive flush at having bared such private emotions in public.
Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes, swiping a kernel of popcorn out of the air. “Oh pipe down, you lot. You’re all used to it by now, or I’m not doing my job right.”
“Your job is to do some of the paperwork that keeps piling up,” Da Qing mutters, as if Shen Wei hasn’t seen him literally chewing on paperwork Zhao Yunlan tried to fob off on him.
“No job is as important as keeping my husband happy,” Zhao Yunlan sing-songs, throwing his arm around Shen Wei’s shoulders as soon as he’s in range.
Among the chorus of groans, Shen Wei smiles. Leans into Zhao Yunlan’s hold and lets himself feel the warmth that always radiates from Zhao Yunlan.
He doesn’t need a day to celebrate himself – but if it makes Zhao Yunlan this happy, then he’ll accept the gift as intended.