“You can say no.”
“I really can’t,” Jiang Cheng said. He shifted uncomfortably on the plush chair and eyed his therapist suspiciously. This back and forth was a familiar refrain, and he didn't trust where this was probably going.
“What would be the worst thing that would happen if you did?”
Yeah, that was where it was going. It’s not like his anxiety was a secret within these four, tastefully decorated walls - or even out of them. He knew the deliberate provocation was some sort of therapist technique, but he hated it. He could come up with too many options.
“I’d be fired. Shamed.” Jiang Cheng looked away, focusing on the postmodern lamp on the end table next to him. It was so ugly. Lamps should look like lamps, not an orb on a stick. “I’d need to move to a tiny town no one has ever heard of and restart my life under an assumed identity.” He was being only slightly hyperbolic, but his therapist understood that. He hadn’t changed that much in the past six years he’d been attending these sessions.
“And what would you do with your new life?”
Jiang Cheng frowned, turning his focus back and away from that ugly lamp. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me that’s unrealistic?”
“You’ve already done that for the both of us,” his therapist pointed out. “What would you do with your new life and new identity?”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure how to answer. He shifted again, twisting his knee slightly and trying to hide his wince.
“How would you keep busy? You don’t need a job in this scenario.”
“It’s okay to fantasize.”
“I would buy a big house on the ocean,” Jiang Cheng said slowly, letting himself imagine it. He tried not to fantasize, because that just led to him feeling even more unhappy and stuck in his life, but-
It had been years since he’d been to the ocean. The beginning of the summer humidity would be so much less intense there. Maybe it was time for him to go again.
He couldn't face the ocean. He couldn’t make himself face that loss.
His therapist nodded.
“It would be in need of fixing up,” Jiang Cheng continued. “I’d, uh, keep busy working on it. Cool off in the ocean after a long day, maybe.”
He wasn’t going to actually go to the ocean. To cool off in the ocean. To be anywhere near the coast. There would be no house to fix up. He knew this. His therapist knew this. This whole thing was some situational something-or-other they did sometimes. They both knew Jiang Cheng wasn’t ready to face that loss. But that didn’t mean he didn’t miss it fiercely.
“And once you’ve finished that project?”
Jiang Cheng shrugged.
“Would you sell it and move on to the next fixer-upper?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said, surprising himself. “I would open it as a bed and breakfast.”
“Oh? You’d want to be around that many people?” Of course his therapist knew about that anxiety as well. He was bad at hiding his expressions and other types of body language when he was overwhelmed… and in general, and his therapist had deliberately refrained from teaching him.
“Only a few guests at a time,” Jiang Cheng said, fully leaning into the fantasy. Thinking about the logistics he’d need to iron out: food distributors, professional laundry and cleaning services, and marketing. There would be white sand dunes. And children with smears of sunblock on their noses running around with plastic shovels and buckets, poking holes in the sand to look for buried treasure or crabs. There would be rainy days sipping tea in a comfortable living room, reading a good book. There would be fishermen coming in with their catches, gossiping and swearing up a storm, reminding Jiang Cheng of home.
That image of home was where the fantasy sunk its hooks into Jiang Cheng and didn’t let go.
He spent the next week thinking about it as he went about his grueling work days. He could be at the ocean right now, sitting on the front porch of a house he rebuilt, and watching the tide come in. He could almost feel the offshore breeze in the still air of his tiny apartment.
He could almost smell the brine.
Jiang Cheng blamed the alcohol. He was allowed to drink to excess every now and then, and it wasn’t like he was going out with friends. That would require knowing people other than his family. But it was Friday night, and he didn’t have to worry about being hungover at work. Not that he had been hungover since he was in his teens.
But how was he supposed to know there really was a website called beachhouse.com?
He balanced his laptop on his lap, feet up on the coffee table. His tumbler didn’t have any gin left in it, and he kept forgetting that. Whenever he tried to take another sip, he was always disappointed. The bottle next to the tumbler was empty as well.
It was just a fantasy. It didn’t hurt to look.
The website itself was a garish relic of web 1.0. He half expected it to have a frame. It was a wonder it still worked and the code didn’t break every time he clicked on a link.
He narrowed his search down to his specifications.
Everything was so expensive. He nearly closed the tab right then, but this was only a fantasy. He wasn’t really going to buy a beach house. He was just looking to see what was out there.
There was one that was less expensive than the others - by a lot. It was a former inn. Five bedrooms, steps from the water, with a large porch and barn - garage - thing, whatever. It had a sailboat in it. The house was completely gutted inside. A wall in one of the rooms didn’t even exist. It was just the frame. He could practically smell the mold through the computer.
The description heavily implied that it had been partially renovated and was zoned as both a residence and a business. It was also implied that the last hurricane had made its way inside the establishment. Everything was ‘as is.’
The description also made a plea for someone to restore the old inn to its former glory.
He thought for a long moment about his family, about a paycheck, about the convenience of living in a city. None of which actually stopped him. His family could visit. He didn’t need a paycheck - he had his parents’ inheritance gathering interest in the bank as well as his own old sponsorships and championship winnings. There was also the payout from the lawsuit. He had always planned to retire early. He didn’t need to go to the 7-11 at 3am for the eggs he’d forgotten. He wouldn’t miss the crowded streets. He would need a car, but that meant no more dealing with over-packed trains during rush hour.
His therapist was always asking what stopped him from doing something. What was stopping him from doing this? Other than a fear of failure, because he was always going to have that.
He was insane for even considering it.
He put the laptop down on the coffee table and carefully lowered his legs to the floor, knee protesting the bend.
He tried to take another sip of gin from his glass and was again annoyed at it for being empty.
He called Wei Ying.
“What?” Wei Ying mumbled sleepily. How was he asleep this early on a Friday night? The one time Jiang Cheng needed him to be awake? “It’s almost midnight, Jiang Cheng. Are you dying?”
“You need to stop me from doing something incredibly stupid,” Jiang Cheng said.
“How stupid?” Wei Ying asked, sounding more awake.
“Are you drunk?” Wei Ying sounded a bit too gleeful for someone who had been asleep a few moments before.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “That’s why you need to stop me.”
“And you called me to stop you from doing something stupid or to invite me along?”
“I’ll be over in ten minutes.”
It wasn’t fast enough, because Jiang Cheng had already requested a realtor by the time Wei Ying arrived.
“What stupid thing are we doing?” Wei Ying asked, pushing his way into Jiang Cheng’s apartment. His hair stood on end, and his shirt was on backwards. He eyed Jiang Cheng’s pajama bottoms but didn’t say anything about it being too hot for pants like he usually did, as if Jiang Cheng was going to just get over everything his pajama bottoms hid...
Jiang Cheng pointed at his laptop, sitting on his coffee table, next to the empty tumbler that once held the last of Jiang Cheng’s gin.
Wei Ying raised his eyebrows and sat down on the couch in front of the computer. “You could easily afford this. Oh! Look! It’s right on the beach, and you have a cute little dock, like the one back - ”
“I don’t have anything,” Jiang Cheng said.
“What exactly am I stopping you from doing?” Wei Ying asked. He looked up at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng knew he had been issued another challenge.
Jiang Cheng waved a hand vaguely and made a distressed noise.
“It looks like you already contacted a realtor,” Wei Ying said. “Do you want me to go with you? You’re going to need to take the day off work. I’m not lifting a finger to renovate that - that will be all you. You know power tools and I don’t get along.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “I can’t buy an old inn.”
“Because why?” Wei Ying pressed.
Jiang Cheng huffed and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Is it because of those swells?” Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure why he expected Wei Ying to ignore the picture of the ocean. “There was even someone kiteboarding in one of those pictures.”
Jiang Cheng was embarrassed by the sound he made: it was too similar to a choked wail.
“You’re supposed to stop me,” Jiang Cheng pleaded.
“Would this make you happy?” Wei Ying asked.
“It’s really far away,” Jiang Cheng said.
“We’d visit,” Wei Ying said. “Would you be happy?”
“I don’t know!”
“Oh, hey! The realtor already replied,” Wei Ying said, looking down at the computer. “You have an appointment tomorrow afternoon. This afternoon? It’s after midnight. Officially Saturday. Guess you won’t need to take the day off work.”
Jiang Cheng made a strangled noise.
“Hm,” Wei Ying said. “Who do we know with a car? You’re going to need to buy a car when you buy this place.”
“I’m not buying it!” Jiang Cheng insisted.
“Lan Huan has a car,” Wei Ying said. “Let me ask Lan Zhan if we can borrow it.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m not road-tripping with you and two Lans.”
“Fair point,” Wei Ying said. “But how else are we going to get there? I suppose you could rent a car for the day.”
Wei Ying turned back to the computer and started typing, and Jiang Cheng’s brain took too long to process anything in time to stop him.
“There,” Wei Ying said. “I told her we’d be there tomorrow, and I’ve rented a car.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “What type of car?”
“Uh,” Wei Ying said.
“Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng ground out.
“German,” he said.
“What type of car?” Jiang Cheng repeated.
“Porsche,” Wei Ying admitted.
Jiang Cheng huffed. Of course. He didn’t know why he had expected anything different. “You pay for it. I drive it.”
Wei Ying pouted. “Fine,” he said. “As long as you’re not hungover in the morning. Drink some water.”
They arrived early, so they stopped at the only coffee house in town. The coffee was burnt, their sandwiches were soggy, and the woman behind the counter kept snapping her gum at them. He and Wei Ying ate in silence, which was, in and of itself, suspicious. Wei Ying was never silent unless he had a plan that Jiang Cheng was not going to like.
They had spent the last half hour of the drive in silence as well, meandering through cow pastures. There were so many cow pastures. Then they went over the rise of a hill, and entered the small seaside town sprawled below.
And there was the ocean. So much ocean, stretching out to the horizon, slate gray, calm, with fishermen’s boats returning with their morning catch. It was... welcoming. Inviting. It was right where it always was: on the coast, waiting for him to return. Jiang Cheng felt its innate everpresence like a punch to the gut, and he tightened his hands around the steering wheel, hoping Wei Ying wouldn’t comment on his white knuckles.
The town had one main road, lined with various practical shops: coffee house, restaurant, hardware and feed store, butcher, general store, barber, post office inside of the town hall and library, and pawn shop.
There were rows of houses behind the main street, and they had passed by the real estate in question. It was on a spit of land away from the main town, but not too far, directly across the inlet from the marina. It looked worse in person than in the photographs on the website.
As is, indeed.
Jiang Cheng reminded himself that he wasn’t buying anything. This was just a trip to the ocean, a distraction from city life. As if he had been to the ocean at any point in the last six years. As if the salt air hadn’t been a slap in the face as soon as he stepped out of the car. He probably should have called Jiang Yanli instead of Wei Ying.
They were finishing up when a car passed and continued down the road to the spit of land away from town. That had to be the realtor.
Jiang Cheng’s stomach flipped. They were really doing this. This was so fucking stupid.
Wei Ying frowned at him, that calculated expression meant he was determining how close Jiang Cheng was to a breaking point. Jiang Cheng hated that look. But Wei Ying took their trash to the bin without saying anything.
They left the Porsche in front of the coffee shop and walked out to the house. They didn’t want to give the realtor unrealistic expectations as to how deep Jiang Cheng’s pockets were, even if they were significantly deeper than the average office worker nearing thirty.
The walk was just far enough for Jiang Cheng to feel his knee start to stiffen.
The realtor watched them approach from the porch. She had a fake smile pasted on her face that faltered when they looked at the barn as they walked up the driveway. That smile was insincere, and Jiang Cheng was immediately on guard, shoulders tensing, wondering if she was about to strong-arm him into a bad deal.
There was a dirty, white board tucked under the porch, hidden from view of the road, so Jiang Cheng missed it when they passed earlier. He rounded the porch for a better look while Wei Ying charmed the realtor. It was a stand-up paddleboard, and the SUP’s paddle was there, too. He looked out to the ocean: the waves were tame. Maybe he could use a SUP. It was for calm waters only.
He could possibly use a SUP if he could figure out how to mount it without bending his knees. He hadn’t been on any board in six years, and he had no way of balancing - his knee would probably - He wouldn’t know until he tried and probably failed.
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Ying called, pulling Jiang Cheng out of his thoughts. He was already inside the house.
Jiang Cheng tore his eyes away from the water and hurried to catch up with them in the kitchen. It was large, with gaping holes where the appliances should have been. Including the kitchen sink. However, the floors were nice. They looked like marble? Granite? He didn’t know stones. They were something expensive-looking, which was a jarring juxtaposition to the rest of the kitchen.
Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, and Jiang Cheng had been right: he could smell the mold.
“So,” the realtor drawled. Jiang Cheng didn’t like that tone. It was the tone of polite indifference. “Are you two business partners? Looking to restore the inn?”
“Brothers,” Wei Ying said before Jiang Cheng could react.
The realtor looked like she was going to say something else, but then Wei Ying whipped out his phone and started recording. Jiang Cheng usually hated that habit, but in this case, it finally worked in his favor.
“Tell us about the history of this place,” Wei Ying said, grinning and aiming his camera at the realtor.
Jiang Cheng tuned it out as they went through the rest of the rooms. If he was interested, he’d watch the video later.
He was struck by the massive series of bay windows in the living room. It looked out over the open ocean, a breakwater jutting out into the water next to the beach, the small marsh behind the house, and the boardwalk down to the water. It would be a nice view to wake up to, much better than his single window. The house was higher up than advertised, but there was a staircase from the boardwalk to a dock below. Nothing like an extra obstacle to keep him from the water. Going down stairs was the worst. Not that he was going to buy this place.
They went upstairs. Wei Ying kept asking rapid-fire questions, and Jiang Cheng continued ignoring him. The bathrooms were as unfinished as the kitchen, most of them lacking even tiles, and it was one of the bedrooms that was missing a wall.
Then they went into the basement. It was a murder basement. Dirt floor. Field stone walls leaking water. He hoped it was water. There were probably at least three corpses in the ground under his feet. There was also dried seaweed, and the smell of mold was overwhelming.
Wei Ying was delighted. He clapped his hands together and shouted gleefully. Then he knocked shoulders with Jiang Cheng, who pushed him away. Of course Wei Ying was excited by the prospect of sordid history or gothic horror or whatever the basement was to him.
The realtor led them back outside, and Wei Ying said they’d think about it and get back to her.
She shook his hand, gave him her business card and a packet of information about the house, and left them standing on the porch. They never even got a chance to open the barn-shed garage thing.
“That was fun!” Wei Ying said, turning to smile at Jiang Cheng. “We’ve never done that before. Want to see what’s in the garage? Carriage house? She really did a good job of trying to keep us out of there.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “Not if it’s anything like the murder basement.”
“Just a peek,” Wei Ying said, already bounding off, and Jiang Cheng sighed.
He was prying open the door when Jiang Cheng caught up with him.
There was a sailboat inside, in as much disrepair as the rest of the property. It was not seaworthy. There were cracks in the fiberglass hull.
There were other items as well, things one might expect to find in a garage: shovels - both garden and snow, various hand tools, old paint cans, a rusted push mower, garbage bins, and a broken bodyboard.
He stared at the broken board. He’d never had a metaphor seize him by the throat before, and it took him a moment to recover.
“That’s neat - you’ll get a sailboat with the house,” Wei Ying said.
“I’m not buying the house,” Jiang Cheng said firmly.
Wei Ying shrugged. “Let’s go down to the water. We can’t go back without at least stepping in the ocean. Plus, you’re probably dying in those jeans.”
Jiang Cheng was dying in his jeans. It was a hot day, and the sea breeze did help, but there was still sweat rolling down his back.
He hadn’t set foot in the ocean in so long.
He thought of the SUP tucked under the porch and the broken bodyboard in the barn.
“Come on!” Wei Ying called, already at the boardwalk.
Jiang Cheng followed.
“Wait,” Wei Ying said. He pulled out his phone again. “Selfies!”
Wei Ying threw an arm around Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and Jiang Cheng automatically curled his hand into a shaka and forced a smile.
“I went to the beach,” Jiang Cheng told his therapist. “And in the water.”
His therapist raised her eyebrows in surprise. “How did it go?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng said. “I got drunk Friday night, and Wei Ying and I ended up looking at an old inn that needs renovations. It’s right on the ocean.”
His therapist looked at him expectantly. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say.
“How did you feel about it?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng said again, looking down at his hands. “It was… a lot, I guess. There was a SUP and a bodyboard on the property. Those made me feel - sick, I think. Queasy, because the bodyboard was broken. But the SUP. I can... I think I might still be able to use a SUP.”
He could hear the pen scratching on paper but refused to look up from his lap.
“Wei Ying is still under the impression that I’m going to buy and renovate it.”
“Why is he under that impression?”
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “He thinks that all ideas need follow-through,” he said slowly. “He doesn’t think of all the problems that could come after.”
“Did you go into the inn?”
“A realtor showed us around. I wasn’t paying much attention,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Why weren’t you paying attention?”
“I - uh…” Jiang Cheng trailed off. Because he didn’t want to attach himself to the idea that he could renovate it. It would take money, but he had money. But it would take him away from his family, and he didn’t want that.
When the silence had stretched and became uncomfortable, his therapist asked, “Why did you decide to take an office job?”
Jiang Cheng looked up at his therapist, not seeing the connection.
“It seemed… stable,” Jiang Cheng said. “I needed stability and structure in my life then, and very few places would accept someone without a college degree. It gave me a challenge.”
“Do you still need something stable? Are you still challenged?”
Jiang Cheng didn’t answer. He didn’t have an answer. “I need to think about it.”
“Take your time.”
Jiang Cheng nodded.
“One more question before our time is up: how did it feel when you stepped into the ocean?”
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
He had expected anger - blind rage and resentment, but he hadn’t felt any of that when the surf curled around his bare feet.
It had felt like coming home.
Wei Ying responded to Jiang Cheng’s request for the recording almost instantaneously. It was followed by a nonsensical string of emojis. Jiang Cheng didn’t even know what half of them were.
He watched the video twice before calling his sister.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said softly. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, A-Jie,” he returned, feeling himself unwind slightly just by hearing her voice.
“Is this about the pictures A-Ying posted?” she asked.
“What?!” So much for unwinding. He had to consciously relax his shoulders.
“He’s under the impression that you’re buying a seaside inn to renovate,” Jiang Yanli said. “I figured I’d wait to hear the truth from you.”
“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng said. “Where did he post it?”
“Everywhere,” Jiang Yanli said cautiously.
“No, I mean… which account did he use?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Oh, his own personal accounts,” Jiang Yanli said, and Jiang Cheng breathed a sigh of relief. “You looked happy.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the ocean,” Jiang Cheng said quietly. He ran a hand over the back of his neck, fingers brushing against the short hairs of his cropped cut.
“How about this,” Jiang Yanli said. “You come over to tell me all about it after you’ve seen those photos.”
“I - I suppose,” Jiang Cheng said. “It is a long story.”
Jiang Yanli had tea and snacks ready for him when he arrived, which was after Jiang Cheng had gone through all of Wei Ying’s social media accounts. Jiang Cheng was going to have words with him later, but the images had been up too long for Jiang Cheng to demand they be taken down. He did notice that while he personally had not been tagged, his professional accounts - which should not exist anymore! - had been. Wei Ying had always been in charge of managing those, but Jiang Cheng was not a professional anything anymore.
Jiang Yanli took one look at his haggard appearance and enveloped him in a tight hug. Jiang Cheng returned it.
“I just put A-Ling down for his nap, so we need to be quiet,” she said. “Nap negotiations are becoming longer and longer.”
Jiang Cheng snorted and sat down at her kitchen table. She had lotus seeds: she knew to pull out all the stops. They were his favorites - the chili flavored ones - from when he competed and needed a quick burst of energy. The ones from the shop around the corner, where all the aunties adored Jin Ling. The tea was simple green tea. The Tell Me Your Troubles tea.
“Did you see the photos?” she asked as she poured.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. The one that stuck in his mind was the one where he was looking out the bay windows in the living room, staring reverently out at the water. He liked those windows. He liked that view. But he didn’t want to think about it, and he had no idea how Wei Ying had taken that photo without him knowing.
Jiang Cheng accepted the cup he was offered. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
“How did this all start?” Jiang Yanli asked.
Jiang Cheng told her, not touching his tea until he finished.
“Will you show me the video?” Jiang Yanli asked. She was asking him like she thought he would run from the room. He hadn’t realized he looked so… skittish.
Jiang Cheng hesitated before pulling out his phone and sliding it across the table.
She watched in silence, occasionally popping a lotus seed into her mouth. When the video ended, she said, “That property needs a lot of love and care from someone who loves the ocean.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything as he pocketed his phone.
“You said you spoke with your therapist about it,” Jiang Yanli said. She reached out and put a hand on his.
“I did,” Jiang Cheng said.
“And?” she prompted.
“I was given things to think about,” Jiang Cheng muttered, hoping she would let it go. She wouldn't let it go. She’d become even more tenacious since Jin Ling had become a toddler with opinions.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli admonished.
“A-Jie!” he pleaded, drawing his eyebrows together. He may have also bounced a little in the chair. He didn’t have an answer. He wanted the ocean, but he didn’t want things to change again. He didn’t know if he could deal with such a big shift and be so far from his family.
“We’d visit you,” she said, as if she already thought it was a done deal and everyone knew but him.
“I know,” Jiang Cheng said in something close to a whine. “I know. It’s just…”
Jiang Yanli waited patiently, sipping at her tea.
“I’d need to find a new doctor,” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t know if I could go through finding a doctor again.”
Jiang Yanli smiled sadly. “Which would you rather do tomorrow: step into the ocean or step into the office?”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. They both knew the answer.
“Would that be worth finding a new doctor?” she asked.
Jiang Cheng felt the tears coming, prickling in his nose, clogging his throat.
“Would it be another regret?” she asked. “You don’t want more of those.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng croaked. “I don’t want more regrets.”
Jiang Yanli rounded the table and crouched next to him, reaching up to brush the tears away.
“It needs so much work,” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t know if I could start that and then something would happen and I won’t be able to finish. I’ve never renovated anything in my life. I don’t know how to do it.”
“I have faith in you,” she said. “You’re too stubborn to give up.”
“It smells really bad, too,” he added petulantly.
Jiang Yanli laughed. “That is something you hire professionals for.” She wiped at his tears again. “Do you want this, A-Cheng? Would it make you happy?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He wanted someone to make the decision for him.
She hugged him. “You’ll figure it out.”
The decision was made for him. At his morning team meeting, his supervisor announced that there would be layoffs coming, because last year’s profits weren’t great. He also assigned Jiang Cheng a massive project to be done by the end of the week, once again taking advantage of the fact that Jiang Cheng never said no.
He said no.
Everyone at the meeting turned to stare at him, and Jiang Cheng felt his cheeks burn. However, the thought of never again needing to attend another boring meeting, never again needing to suck up to his useless boss, never again needing to stay late to finish up a project someone else should have done, never again needing to put on a fucking tie solidified his resolve. This was his way out of this trapped life.
“No,” he repeated. Adrenaline surged through him as he stood. He balled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “I’m done. I quit. That will save someone else from being laid off.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and left the conference room to clean out his desk. He was going to steal all the pens - the good ones, the fine-point felt-tipped ones.
He was still shaking when he called Wei Ying from his apartment, standing in the middle of his living room, unsure what to do with himself.
“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying whined. “It’s not even 9am, why are you calling? I need my beauty sleep.”
“I quit,” Jiang Cheng said.
“I quit my job,” Jiang Cheng said and began pacing to relieve some of his restlessness. “There were layoffs coming, and my supervisor wanted me to do this huge project that he’d end up taking credit for, and I quit.”
“I - wow, Jiang Cheng! That’s… wow...”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Do you have that realtor’s information?”
“You’re going to do it?” Wei Ying asked incredulously.
“I don’t want to regret not doing it,” Jiang Cheng said. He stopped pacing to look out of the only window in his apartment. It framed the city skyline - he thought the skyscrapers looked a bit like jagged teeth.
He turned away from the window and began pacing again.
“My brain didn’t follow that,” Wei Ying said. “Too many negatives.”
“I want to do an inspection first,” Jiang Cheng said. “To see if it’s even worth putting all that money into it.”
“Uh-huh,” Wei Ying said.
“Do you have Lan Huan’s work number?” Jiang Cheng asked. “He handles real estate law, right?”
“You’re asking me to do too much thinking too early in the morning,” Wei Ying said. “Hold on.”
Jiang Cheng heard a small crash over the line.
“I’m okay!” Wei Ying said quickly.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” Wei Ying said eventually. “I have Lan Huan’s work number, and I have the information packet about the house. Want me to drop them off?”
Once properly caffeinated, he and Wei Ying developed a game plan while lounging on Jiang Cheng’s couch.
Because the house was a foreclosure, there were extra steps to take, but the packet outlined everything nicely.
It detailed all the important things that Jiang Cheng hadn’t cared about on the walk-through. Things like how it had oil heating, a septic tank, well water, and that it wasn’t on a postal route - everything would need to be done through a PO Box - as well as a hundred other little things.
It also listed things that were not functioning… like the electrical lines. There was also no internet line anywhere near the house.
These were all things that needed to be taken care of, and Jiang Cheng’s head swam as the enormity of it all hit him.
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng said in sudden realization, and Wei Ying looked up from his phone. “Is there a doctor in town?”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said. “Yeah, that’s important.” He tapped his phone some more. “Yeah, it looks like there is one doctor in town. Oh, huh. No, there are two doctors with the same surname - wait. No. One is a people doctor and one is a vet.”
“So, there is a doctor?” Jiang Cheng asked. “What kind?” That was important. All this planning would stop if there was no one in town who understood his situation - physically and probably mentally, too.
“Uh? Human?” Wei Ying waved a hand vaguely.
“The website just gives a phone number and her degrees and affiliated hospital,” Wei Ying said. “Let me call.”
Before Jiang Cheng could stop him, Wei Ying had his phone to his ear.
“Ah, yes, hello!” Wei Ying said into the phone. “What type of medicine do you practice?” He paused. “And are you seeing new patients? I see. This is a bit of a complicated case. Yes, I can call back later.”
Jiang Cheng buried his face in his hands.
“Orthopedics,” Wei Ying announced. “Well, GP, but she has a background in orthopedics. What a coincidence!”
“Yes, a coincidence,” Jiang Cheng said, feeling like he was being set up. “You checked before, didn’t you?”
“Not me,” Wei Ying said, which meant Jiang Yanli had.
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and glared.
“Okay,” Wei Ying said. “I think it’s time to contact a realtor. Do you want the same one as before? I think Lan Huan might have suggestions if you don’t.”
Jiang Cheng shrugged. He hadn’t cared for the one who had shown them the inn in the first place, but it didn’t matter if he liked her or not. It mattered if she could do her job well.
“A realtor is a realtor. We just need access to the house before the sale for the appraisal and inspection. I want to make sure the place is worth what they’re asking - and how much more money it will cost to fix it up.”
“Lan Huan will definitely be able to help with that,” Wei Ying said. “I think. Let me ask Lan Zhan.”
He sent a text, and the response was immediate.
“He says don’t do anything he wouldn’t,” Wei Ying said with a roll of his eyes. “Like that’s ever stopped me before.”
His phone chimed again.
“Oh, uh... huh,” Wei Ying said.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. He was not going to ask. He wasn’t going to play that game.
“He said he’s coming over,” Wei Ying said. “I told him to bring lunch.”
“I didn’t realize this was a group effort,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Of course,” Wei Ying said, frowning. “We need a team to make this work.”
Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow sarcastically.
Wei Ying stuck out his tongue. “We’re going to make this work for you.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Wei Ying grabbed Jiang Cheng in a headlock.
“While we’re at it, why did you link those photos to my professional account?” Jiang Cheng grunted, yanking free. “Why do I still have a professional account?”
He should have asked that years ago, but he had been on painkillers at first, then trying to put his life back together after. He had made the incorrect assumption that Wei Ying would have deleted his professional accounts once Jiang Cheng was no longer a professional. He should have known better.
“About that,” Wei Ying said and didn’t continue.
“Just delete it,” Jiang Cheng said tightly.
“It would be great marketing to chronicle your progress renovating,” Wei Ying said.
“It should have been deleted years ago,” Jiang Cheng said darkly. “What else have you been using it for?”
Wei Ying didn’t respond.
“Why don’t you just check for yourself?” he asked. He sounded far away, and Jiang Cheng was suspicious. Wei Ying used that voice when...
Jiang Cheng sneered at him but pulled out his phone. He barely remembered the password to his professional accounts - that had been Wei Ying’s job.
He felt Wei Ying watching him as he pulled up the first account.
The top image was the one of him looking out of those bay windows at the ocean. He scrutinized the look on his face in the picture. He looked enraptured.
The comments were filled with concerned fans - some hoping he was doing okay, others thirsting over his measurements. There was even speculation and arguments over if this meant he was returning to the circuit, before it devolved into typical social media wank.
He scrolled back. Wei Ying had been posting old pictures of him in the water or near the water. He was always holding one of his boards. Then he reached far enough into the past that he found pictures of himself in a hospital bed, face bloody and bruised.
He threw down his phone in disgust. And embarrassed rage. And overwhelming frustration.
“Why?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“They’re concerned about you,” Wei Ying said.
“They don’t know me,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “They’re strangers on the internet.”
“Some of them do know you,” Wei Ying protested. “It’s not like you use your personal social media accounts.”
“That’s your excuse?!” Jiang Cheng shouted.
Someone knocked on the door to his apartment, and Wei Ying scrambled to answer it.
Jiang Cheng had seen that picture of himself before - in news articles about his retirement, but he hadn’t realized Wei Ying had taken it. It was a violation, but it had happened so long ago, bringing it up wouldn’t do any good. The world had seen him at his worst, and he hated it.
He forced himself to unclench his jaw.
Lan Zhan entered the living room with three bento boxes, Wei Ying trailing behind him, using Lan Zhan’s shoulders as a blockade - like a fucking coward. Lan Zhan presented Wei Ying with the top bento box, put the middle box in front of Jiang Cheng on the coffee table, and kept possession of the third.
Jiang Cheng eyed Wei Ying distrustfully as Wei Ying dug into his food.
“I’ve consulted with my paralegal,” Lan Zhan announced, and Jiang Cheng trusted that less. “I have a recommendation for a realtor, appraiser, inspector, and cleaning team. They include quotes.”
He removed a packet of papers from his messenger bag and placed it next to Jiang Cheng’s bento box.
“You’re the best, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said with his mouth full.
“Is this something you want to move forward with?” Lan Zhan asked.
“He’s just cranky because he found out I’ve been posting to his social media pages,” Wei Ying said.
“I thought he knew about that,” Lan Zhan said, giving Wei Ying a disapproving look.
“Uh…” Wei Ying looked down and busied himself with his food again.
“If you do move forward, my brother can act as your lawyer for the transaction,” Lan Zhan said.
Jiang Cheng nodded slowly. It was refreshing to deal with someone as straightforward as Lan Zhan in this context.
Lan Zhan nodded in return and opened his bento box.
Jiang Cheng sighed. He might as well enjoy the free meal. He was looking at a very expensive few weeks, and then there would be the very expensive renovations.
He needed to go out there twice more before it was officially his: once for the appraisal and once for the inspection. He tried to schedule them on the same day, but because it was so far from anything else, that was nearly impossible.
Neither the appraiser nor the inspector ran away screaming, so Jiang Cheng assumed everything was salvageable.
Then it was his. He owned a house on the beach. It was uninhabitable at the moment, but it was his.
He needed to go out one more time to oversee the cleaning crew. Everything needed to be cleaned, mold needed to be remediated, and the basement needed to be finished. If those corpses that were probably buried in the basement were going to rise up in the zombie apocalypse, Jiang Cheng wanted them to need to break through a thick layer of cement first. It also didn’t hurt to waterproof things and to have a sump pump installed to keep the basement from flooding again.
It took a month and a lot of money.
He went out there again to make sure the house was hooked up to the electrical grid as well as the internet.
That was the last thing to do.
Next thing he knew, he was packing his life into boxes.
And this was it. This was happening.
He sat down heavily on the floor and stared at the boxes.
What the fuck was he doing? He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t just pack up his life and move away from his family, from his life here.
That was where Wei Ying found Jiang Cheng an undetermined amount of time later, stewing in his anxiety on the floor of his boxed-up apartment.
“Jiang Cheng?” he asked. Jiang Cheng barely heard him.
Jiang Cheng grunted, staring off into the middle distance.
Wei Ying sat down in front of him, blocking Jiang Cheng’s view of nothing.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng grunted again.
“We’re supposed to go car shopping,” Wei Ying said.
“The fuck am I doing?” Jiang Cheng asked, finally focusing on Wei Ying. He kicked at the box in front of him.
“Starting an adventure,” Wei Ying offered. “C’mon, we need to get you a car and try out all the cool models.”
“You have a list, don’t you?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I did, but I lost the list,” Wei Ying said with a shrug. “I want to drive a Maserati.”
“We’re not test driving a Maserati,” Jiang Cheng grumbled.
“We already tried the Porsche,” Wei Ying said. “How about a Corvette?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng frowned. “I need something I can dirty up.”
Wei Ying smirked and waggled his eyebrows.
Jiang Cheng scoffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “We agreed on something practical. Something that can hold all these fucking boxes.”
“That’s what the movers are for,” Wei Ying said.
“Something with all-wheel drive and the best crash rating,” Jiang Cheng said firmly, and Wei Ying tried to hide a wince.
“A compromise,” Wei Ying said. “But we won’t know until we try them out.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Jiang Cheng told his therapist.
“Why can’t you believe it?”
“It’s so impulsive,” Jiang Cheng said. “That’s usually Wei Ying’s thing.”
“You’ve spent six weeks meticulously planning every detail,” his therapist said. “Where is the impulsivity?”
Jiang Cheng huffed in annoyance, shifting in his seat.
“It’s okay to be anxious about something new,” his therapist said. “The first time you surfed, were you anxious about it?”
“I’m anxious about everything,” Jiang Cheng mumbled.
“But once you were able to do it well, were you still anxious?” his therapist asked.
Jiang Cheng shrugged, a quick abortive movement. While he would always be anxious, he occasionally knew what he was doing.
“It’s not going to be easy,” his therapist said. “I expect you to keep our weekly appointments virtually. I’ll email you the video link once you’ve moved.”
“It’s just - ” Jiang Cheng cut himself off.
“Being that close to something I can’t have...” Jiang Cheng said. That was so stupid - to do that to himself, to constantly tempt himself with what he couldn’t have.
“You’re going to be so busy with the renovations that you won’t be able to think of much else,” his therapist said.
“And when the renovations are done?” he asked.
“Then we’ll talk about it,” his therapist said. “Let’s worry about now before worrying about later.”
The night before the move, Wei Ying threw him a party. It was just family, the six of them, small and intimate. Everyone cried. Except Lan Zhan, because that would clearly be too much emotion to express in front of people who were not Wei Ying. And Jin Zixuan, because, well, he was him.
Jiang Yanli and Wei Ying clung to him well into the night, and then it was time to go home to his apartment one last time, and there were more tears. Happy tears from Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli.
Jiang Cheng didn’t sleep that night, not that he was expecting to. He even tried to sleep but spent most of the night tossing and turning.
The movers showed up half an hour late, and then they were gone, taking Jiang Cheng’s entire life with them.
Jiang Cheng put his shortboards into the back of his newly acquired SUV and followed.