There were few things Shen Wei wanted in life.
Wealth didn’t matter, status he already had (and often wished he didn’t), luxury goods were inconsequential (which wasn’t to say that he didn’t appreciate a well-tailored suit).
Family, though, was an entirely different matter.
He’d been powerless to save his parents when they died, but he vowed to take care of Ye Zun through whatever lay ahead of them. Then Ye Zun had been ripped away and Shen Wei was left alone, with nothing but fanciful dreams of an improbable reunion to comfort him.
The sudden arrival of Kunlun forced Shen Wei to adjust his fantasies of family life. He wanted Ye Zun back, of course, but he also wanted to build… something… with Kunlun, something he felt almost afraid to fully formulate even in his own mind.
But fate was fickle. Shen Wei found Ye Zun, bitter, seething, and hellbent on Shen Wei’s destruction, while the heavens opened to swallow Kunlun, leaving Shen Wei alone to sleep through the millennia, his mind filled with visions of the family he would likely never have.
When he found Kunlun in the modern world, Shen Wei considered himself extraordinarily lucky. When they managed to rescue an angry but rehabilitatable Ye Zun from the Heaven Pillar, Shen Wei knew he had pushed his good fortune about as far as it could go.
He should be happy with what fate had given him – there were parts of his dream still unrealized, but Shen Wei had the people most important to him back in his life. There was no reason to push the matter.
Except fate still had some work to do if it wanted to make up for all the hardship and suffering Shen Wei had endured. He’d sacrificed so much for the greater good, both in the past and in the modern world. Fate could try a little harder at giving Shen Wei more of what he’d dreamed of. It owed him, damn it.
Since fate seemed content with leaving Shen Wei living across the hall from Zhao Yunlan, the only thing left to do was give fate a kick. (A hard one if necessary.)
It began with Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan agreeing on something, which was practically unheard of.
“These apartments are too small,” Ye Zun said one night at dinner.
“They really are,” Zhao Yunlan agreed. “I don’t know how you and Shen Wei manage to share one. It’s bad enough living with Da Qing and he’s a cat.”
Then they started arguing over who should get the last of the noodles and the tentative peace was broken. Normally Shen Wei would break up their spat, but on that particular night, he was too busy thinking.
They were both correct – their apartments were too small. As happy as Shen Wei was to have his brother living with him, having more space would help when Ye Zun’s temper flared. Shen Wei knew Ye Zun didn’t mean it when he snapped at him, not really, not anymore. But things would be a lot less tense if they weren’t regularly tripping over each other. (And if Ye Zun had his own bedroom. The couch that came with the apartment hadn’t been designed with a comfortable night’s sleep in mind.)
While Shen Wei didn’t live with Zhao Yunlan, he was well familiar with the spatial limitations of the apartment across the hall. He spent enough time there to be aware - cooking, cleaning, catching up on work, and doing anything else he could think of that was plausible enough to convince Zhao Yunlan to let him stay for a few hours each night.
Zhao Yunlan’s home was cozy enough, though the warm feelings Shen Wei had each time he entered it came more from the fact that Zhao Yunlan had invited him than the layout of the apartment.
Having a larger home would make it easier to manage messes and share meals. Provided, of course, that they all shared that home.
And so, sitting at the cramped table where Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun had moved on to bickering over whose apartment was cleaner, each accusing the other of taking advantage of Shen Wei’s willingness to tidy up after both of them, Shen Wei began formulating a plan.
There were few upsides to maintaining a double identity. It might sound exciting in theory and make for intriguing fiction, but the reality of the matter was that it was a short road to annoyed exhaustion.
Shen Wei knew this firsthand. The complications of balancing the personas of Professor Shen and Hei Pao Shi proved draining on the best of days, absolutely maddening on the worst. But at least the experience had taught him the finer points of sneaking around.
Convincing lies should be plausible yet simple, something plucked from one’s regular routine and twisted ever so slightly.
(Usually Shen Wei excelled at this, but when he got it wrong, he got it very wrong. Such as one mortifying occasion, one Zhao Yunlan refused to let him live down, where he suggested that anyone could incapacitate an entire wedding party, provided that they spent enough time at the gym.)
A new drycleaner across town or extended office hours could ward off questions about Shen Wei arriving home later than usual.
“I needed to sort something related to a funds transfer,” Shen Wei explained when Ye Zun answered the call from the bank.
“Right,” Ye Zun said, his eyebrow raised in a manner that suggested he knew Shen Wei wasn’t being entirely honest. “And who are you transferring the funds to?”
“Bills,” Shen Wei managed. “You look hungry. Can I cook for you?”
Fortunately, the diversion worked and Ye Zun didn’t press the matter, but Shen Wei made sure to change his contact number with the bank to his office phone at the university.
“I’ve been forced to use the internet for research,” Shen Wei told Zhao Yunlan two days later when he tripped up, mentioning something he’d seen online in the middle of their conversation.
“And how did you learn to navigate the internet?”
“Jiajia taught me.” That much had been true.
“You know, you can always come to me, right? If there’s ever anything you need. Or want.”
Something in Zhao Yunlan’s tone combined with the almost hopeful expression on his face made Shen Wei wonder if perhaps he was talking about more than help with online searches. For a moment, Shen Wei considered spilling his plan. But talking about it meant Zhao Yunlan could shoot it down and besides, Da Qing was whining about dinner.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shen Wei said.
“See that you do.”
Then Shen Wei gave Zhao Yunlan a tiny smile and headed for the apartment’s tiny kitchen.
There were, Shen Wei soon realized, a good number of properties for sale in Dragon City, but not many that were in the right location, had adequate space for four people, and were within his budget.
“This one just needs love,” the estate agent told him when they toured the first house that came close to fitting some of his initial criteria.
What it needed, Shen Wei decided, was to be knocked down and rebuilt, but he didn’t say that and instead asked if she had any other properties that didn’t require quite so much love.
The next one proved that photographers could work magic with cameras.
“It looked different online,” Shen Wei said after they’d finished their walkthrough, his eyes aching from the garish pink and green interior that had looked far more beige in the online listing.
“But the real thing is better?” she beamed at him.
“I think this one might also need more love than I was planning for.” It wasn’t a lie. They would have to repaint the entire house, plus rip out the tile, cabinets, and counters to get rid of the eye-melting color scheme.
“No,” Shen Wei said when the estate agent parked her car at the next property on her list. The price was great, but Shen Wei had been there a few months earlier as part of a SID investigation of a very grizzly murder. He would not move his family into that house, even if someone paid him to take it.
“Did the previous owner happen to keep a cat?” he asked three days later when he was walking with the agent through yet another house, one that had come on the market that same afternoon.
“Twelve or thirteen,” the agent said. “Why?”
“No reason.” If the overwhelming stench of ammonia wasn’t bothering the agent, then Shen Wei wasn’t going to mention it. “But I’d like to find something with… um… a larger kitchen.”
The next house needed repairs to the foundation, the one after that a new roof. A very affordable option managed to be smaller than Shen Wei’s apartment, while another had an “open floor plan.” He wasn’t sure of what that meant until he discovered there were no walls separating the bathroom from the living area.
“We’ll need a bit more privacy,” he said, staring at the toilet sitting out in plain view.
Then, when it seemed that all hope was lost, the agent called again.
“I have an afternoon class,” Shen Wei said when she proposed a time to meet.
“Cancel it. This one won’t last long.”
Shen Wei could see why even before he stepped inside. The location was near the university, but far enough away to mute the rumble of traffic from the thoroughfare that ran by it. The large trees framing the house provided an extra layer of privacy.
“Now I know the exterior design is a bit dated,” the agent was saying, “but the roof and windows were replaced last year.”
As she led him inside, going on at length about the recent renovations, Shen Wei found himself tuning her out, too preoccupied with the interior to listen.
There were enough bedrooms to accommodate everyone, a kitchen with big windows and plenty of counter space, plus a proper dining room that could hold a larger table than the one shoved in Shen Wei’s apartment. The house was bright and fresh, free from the musty smells that plagued the apartment building no matter how much Shen Wei cleaned.
Shen Wei could easily envision where the coffee table would go, where they could place Zhao Yunlan’s couch and his own desk. There were built-in bookshelves, with room to add more, plus an overrun but salvageable garden in back, which Shen Wei found when he peered out the windows of the largest bedroom.
They could all congregate in the living room without bumping into one another. Da Qing could get the cat furniture he wanted and Ye Zun would finally have much-needed privacy.
“It’s perfect,” Shen Wei said when the agent finally paused to ask what he thought.
“Then we should talk about the next steps,” she said with obvious relief in her voice.
The next three days passed in what felt like one of the best dreams of Shen Wei’s life.
Ye Zun’s grumbling didn’t bother him – the tension would fade when they weren’t living in such crowded quarters. The chancellor’s meeting running late was nothing to worry about – soon enough Shen Wei’s commute would be shorter. If the Regent was being extra annoying, it was fine. It wouldn’t be long until Shen Wei had a comfortable home to portal back to when he was done.
There was, Shen Wei’s mind had decided, nothing he wouldn’t be able to face once he had his family moved to their new home.
(And if he allowed himself to indulge in fantasies of Zhao Yunlan hugging him from behind while he cooked, resting his head in Shen Wei’s lap while they relaxed on the couch, curling up in bed with him at night… well, it was only a daydream. No harm done.)
The problem with living in a dream, though, is that eventually one has to wake up.
“I’m sorry,” the agent said when Shen Wei answered his office phone. “There’s been a complication.”
Shen Wei had lived through a lot, facing immense heartache, crushing losses, and immeasurable threats. Through it all, he’d always been able to breathe. Until now.
It shouldn’t matter so much. He still had Zhao Yunlan as a friend and Ye Zun back in his life. Nothing had changed as far as they were concerned. They could keep dashing back and forth across the hall, bumping knees under a too-small table each night at dinner, making the best of the circumstances.
It would be fine.
It felt like the world was ending.
Shen Wei did not snap at the agent. There was nothing she could do about the fact that another buyer had submitted their paperwork a mere half hour before Shen Wei finished his.
She hadn’t betrayed him and neither had the seller. But fate had once again dashed his dreams and Shen Wei couldn’t help but be bitter about it.
And so that night Shen Wei went home on time. There were no new properties to look at and, if Shen Wei was being honest, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. There had been one perfect house in all of Dragon City. He hoped that whoever had managed to buy it would appreciate how much fate had smiled on them.
One week later, Shen Wei walked into Zhao Yunlan’s apartment to find takeout containers arranged on the bar.
“I thought you might want a night off from cooking. Here. Sit and eat before it gets cold.”
He didn’t feel like eating – he hadn’t since the agent had delivered her bad news – but Shen Wei reached for the bowl Zhao Yunlan pushed toward him and took a few bites.
“It’s good,” he said after a minute of silence had passed. “Thank you.”
He couldn’t actually taste the food in his current state, but Zhao Yunlan had been kind and didn’t deserve to spend dinner with someone lost in their brooding.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Zhao Yunlan said. “I might not be able to cook, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look after you once in a while.”
The warm affection in Zhao Yunlan’s voice cut through some of the numbness that had surrounded Shen Wei since the call from the agent.
“You look after me all the time,” Shen Wei countered.
It was true that they took care of each other in very different ways. Shen Wei might keep Zhao Yunlan eating eat better meals in a cleaner apartment, but Zhao Yunlan brought joy and laughter to Shen Wei’s life. Zhao Yunlan needed reminders to take his medicine, but Shen Wei needed to be pulled back before obligation and guilt pushed him to self-destruction.
“Not as much as you look after me. But while we’re talking about that…” Zhao Yunlan got up from his stool to rummage through a kitchen drawer before quickly returning. “I got you this.”
He shoved a small box across the bar to Shen Wei.
“What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
After carefully wiping his hands on a napkin, Shen Wei reached for the bow tying the box shut. Glancing up, he caught Zhao Yunlan chewing his bottom lip, eyes locked on Shen Wei’s hands.
Zhao Yunlan’s apprehension seemed contagious, and Shen Wei had to fight to keep his fingers from shaking as he untied the ribbon and lifted the lid.
“But I already have a key to your apartment,” Shen Wei said as he stared at the contents of the box. Zhao Yunlan had given it to him ages ago, when they started spending more evenings together than not. Shen Wei hadn’t needed it, of course. Dark energy could get him in the apartment without a key – but he’d wanted it. Because the key hinted at… not quite permanence… but something building toward it.
Rubbing a hand along the back of his neck, Zhao Yunlan gave Shen Wei an embarrassed smile. “It’s, um, not an apartment key.”
“Then what is it?”
“A housekey.” Shen Wei watched him fumble in his pockets for his phone. “I’d been searching for a while and I know I should have talked to you first, but everything’s been so busy, then the perfect place came along and there was someone else interested in it, so I had to act fast.”
Shen Wei knew he should say something as Zhao Yunlan held out the phone to show him the listing, but he could barely breathe.
“And I was still planning on talking to you about it, but you’ve been so sad all week and I thought it might cheer you up. Anyway, if you don’t like the house, or if it’s not what you want, the agent says the other person will probably buy it. And… if you do like it, but you’d rather it just be you and Ye Zun, that’s ok, too. I’d hoped that we could… but what’s important is that you’re happy.”
There were conversations they needed to have, ones that Shen Wei had put off for far too long. But those could wait. Because Zhao Yunlan’s smile didn’t reach his worried eyes and something had to be done about that.
“Kissing you would make me happy.” That hadn’t been what Shen Wei had meant to say but the words tumbled out before he could catch himself. They were apparently the right ones, because Zhao Yunlan’s entire face lit up.
“I want to make you happy, Shen Wei, I swear. But just so we’re clear, does that mean you want to live with me?”
“Yes. We could…” Shen Wei took a deep breath and kept going, “we could share the bedroom facing the garden.”
“Oh, Shen Wei, that would… Wait. How do you know about the garden?” Zhao Yunlan glanced at his phone where the browser still showed only the photo of the entrance.
“I might have looked at the same house,” Shen Wei confessed. “I was in the process of making an offer when someone else bought it out from under me earlier this week.”
“What a jerk!” Zhao Yunlan scoffed. “No wonder you’ve been so low. But look, I’m sure that whoever it was is very, very sorry he made you sad. Maybe there’s a way he can make it up to you?”
“I can think of some ways,” Shen Wei said, heat rushing to his face.
“Good. I want to hear all of them and I have a few ideas of my own.” Zhao Yunlan licked his lips and Shen Wei found himself gripping the edge of the counter. “But maybe first we should go tell Ye Zun and Da Qing the good news?”
Shen Wei did not want to leave the apartment, but Zhao Yunlan had a point. There had already been too many secrets and misunderstandings.
“I suppose,” he agreed.
“And,” Zhao Yunlan continued, “while we’re over there, maybe you could grab a change of clothes for tomorrow? I was thinking… if we’re going to share a bed when we move, maybe we could start now?”
“We should go,” Shen Wei said, standing up from his stool and grabbing Zhao Yunlan by the hand. “We need to hurry before they make an offer on a house, too.”
“Good thinking,” Zhao Yunlan laughed. “Plus the sooner we go, the sooner we can come back and you can kiss me. Among other things.”
If Shen Wei used a portal to get across the hall, well, that was only because he wanted to prevent any further property acquisitions. It had nothing to do with the fact that the dream he’d held closest to his heart was finally coming true.