The house was too quiet. Blaine had barely started at Dalton, but he was already used to it. The clatter in the morning as they descended to breakfast. The melodious harmonies of the Warblers in the afternoon. The tick-tock of a hundred clocks following him from dorm to class to rehearsal.
The clock above the mantle ticked.
“You want me to get married,” Blaine repeated. He tried to summon righteous indignation and only found emptiness instead. “I was only gone for a month.” He turned his head to stare at the mantle lined with photos from his and Cooper’s childhood. He couldn’t make out the details from where he sat, but he strained his eyes all the same. Anything to keep from looking at his mother and father.
His father said, “The Smythes are a respectable family.”
“I’m fifteen,” Blaine said, in his most reasonable tone of voice. He stared at the wall above his father’s head. “You told me two years ago that I wouldn’t have to go through it if I found somebody else.”
“It’s been arranged for over two years.”
“You said it wasn’t binding!”
He leaned forward, frowning. “Watch your tone.”
“You—” Blaine bit his lip. “Can’t you understand why I’m upset?”
His mother sighed, squeezing his knee. “You knew that this was a possibility,” she said.
He said, weakly, “I thought I would be able to date.” He didn’t say, I wanted to forget about this.
His father stood, stolid and implacable. “It was a precaution. I expected you to be more mature about this.”
Blaine’s breath rattled in his lungs. “What precaution could you possibly need?”
“And a good thing it was arranged,” his father continued as if he had never spoken.
Blaine slumped into the couch. Had it always been so unyielding? A month away from home had skewed his memory more than he had thought possible. “I’m fifteen,” he muttered, eyes clenched shut. “I’m too young to get married.”
He could hear his parents exchange a glance. “He’s your betrothed,” his mother said. “He’s been for years.”
“So what changed?” Blaine demanded. “You told me two years ago that it could wait.” He opened his eyes to properly look at his mother: distraught. Filial concern overwhelmed petulant hurt. He took her hand between his.
His mother slid her hands out to clasp at his. “Blaine, my son, your betrothed Sebastian died last week.” She squeezed, gently. “They’re asking for a spirit marriage.”
Each person was made of two parts. The first, the body. Flesh and bone and blood, a person’s body was mortal, and eventually it died and returned to the dust it had come from. The second, the soul. The soul was a precious thing, to be kept safe in its flesh body until eventually that expired, and then it returned to the spirit world where it lingered, alone, until summoned back to a new body.
But it was in the spirit world where problems arose. A soul grew used to the luxuries of the flesh, of the joys of freshly ripened fruit, the pleasures of a warm blanket on a cold day. But the spirit world was vast and empty, and until a soul was reborn, it languished alone.
Blaine had, like all other obedient sons, had maintained the family altar that delivered their offerings to their ancestors. He had lit incense and burned paper money every month as was tradition.
Blaine had not, like most fifteen-year-old boys, expected to marry his dead betrothed.
It had been done, before, and it would no doubt happen again, even if Blaine refused. He had grounds to refuse to go through this sham of a marriage, where the ceremony would be wedding and funeral both. He could refuse, and his mother would never say a word in disapproval but he would be able to read it in the lines of her mouth. He could refuse, and his father would say nothing but the silence would weigh even heavier than the silence now.
“They don’t have any other sons,” his mother said. “And you would have been their son.”
“I didn’t even know him,” Blaine said, weakly. “I didn’t know his parents either.”
His father said, “You would have met them.”
Blaine stared down at his hands. He had started at Dalton a month ago, and in that month he had almost managed to forget about the marriage his parents had arranged when he had come out. A parent’s happiness came from seeing their children successful and happy, sons with wives and daughters married into good families. His parents had taken the news of his homosexuality as pragmatically as they could. There would be no wife in his future, but they could find him a husband.
That had been two years ago. Ohio wasn’t the most liberal state, but more and more families were open about their children’s
proclivities sexualities. The Smythes were an old family, with only one son—gay, out of the closet, living in Paris with his mother’s family. His mother had leapt at the chance to guarantee her son a good marriage, and his father had taken grim satisfaction at their newfound connection to the Smythes.
Blaine, at thirteen, had tried very hard to ignore the fact that he was now engaged.
And now Sebastian Smythe was dead. Car accident, his mother had told him, holding his hand carefully as if Blaine would mourn the death of a boy he had never met. It was very quick, she said, as if offering a balm for a wound that had no reason to form.
Sebastian Smythe was dead, and Blaine would marry his ghost.
His mother said, “You don’t have to,” very slowly, as if the words were being wrenched out of her. “But they’ve already lost one son.”
Blaine returned to Dalton when the weekend was over. He went to his classes and auditioned for the Warblers and tried very hard to not think about his impending marriage to Sebastian Smythe, deceased.
His mother texted him pictures of his wedding outfit, pictures of the location of the ceremony, pictures of the effigy that would be burned upon conclusion of their sham of a wedding ceremony.
Blaine did not text back.
Cooper called, once, to ask him if he was sure he wanted to marry some dead dude. Blaine had snapped, “My betrothed has a name, you know,” and hung up the phone, wishing he had a landline in Dalton so he could slam the receiver satisfyingly down.
His father sent him exactly one email, with a link to a google calendar event. Wedding Ceremony—Sebastian and Blaine, it said, for November 8th.
Blaine clicked accept.
Spirit marriages were supposed to be hurried torrid affairs, conflating wedding with funeral; but the Smythes were an old family and the Anderson’s a wealthy family so in the end it had been postponed long enough to gather all the requisite materials. The effigy was constructed in traditional means and the suits were tailored and Blaine slid a ring onto his own finger before lighting paper copies of his recently assembled dowry on fire.
The betrothal paperwork had been signed two years ago, and Blaine briefly stamped the new paperwork that said he was Blaine Smythe and mentally made a note to ask if Dalton had already been informed. It would be weird hearing Mr. Smythe from his teachers, but he supposed he would have to get used to it.
His mother kissed his cheeks and cried. His father patted him on the shoulder and nodded. His brother hadn’t even deigned to come home.
Mr. Smythe shook his hand and thanked him. Mrs. Smythe drew him in and sobbed into his shoulder. He did his best to smile, tremulous as it was.
That night, in a room that had once been Sebastian’s, he laid in a large empty bed and wondered what he had just committed to.
Married life at Dalton was very much like being single in Dalton. He informed his teachers of his new surname, and they made the appropriate changes in their rosters. It was strange, going from being first in homeroom to sixteenth, but his teachers didn’t treat him any differently. Warbler practice was as exacting as always, and Brandon On The Council called him Anderson three times before remembering it was Smythe.
The days tripped over themselves as he shuffled from class to practice to his dorm and back to class. He volunteered for the on-campus Thanksgiving dinner, staying in the dorms while most of the freshmen left. Before long it was finals, where Blaine had to ask for a new test before he had even started because he had accidentally printed Blaine Anderson instead of Blaine Smythe, and then he was packing his bags and placing them into Mr. Smythe’s car.
Sebastian’s room was as alien as it had been the night of the wedding. Blaine laid in an unfamiliar bed and thought about his mother’s words: you would have been their son.
It was only three weeks, Blaine thought, unzipping his suitcase and staring at the laundry he had to do. Three weeks was practically nothing.
He made it exactly one day through winter break before he called his old medium.
“You aren’t supposed to be calling me anymore,” Tala said, yawning. “You’re married now, aren’t you?”
“Sorry,” he said. He checked his clock. It was 11 in the evening, which meant it was 11 in the morning in the Philippines, where Tala had moved after her marriage to a very nice young man with well-placed tattoos. “I thought you would be up by now.”
Tala clucked her tongue. “Late night. What can I do for you, baby cousin?”
Blaine stared at the unfamiliar ceiling. He had known, intellectually, that he would spend winter break with the Smythes and not with his family, but somehow he hadn’t thought about how lonely it would be, in the room of a dead boy he had never met. “You can talk to our ancestors, right?”
She agreed, “It’s what I’m trained for.”
“They don’t have to be ancestors right, as long as they’re dead? So you can—” He hesitated. “Never mind.”
She hummed in understanding. “Oh, Blaine. Did you want to talk to your husband?”
He groaned. “I know. I married into his family,” he muttered. “I should be finding the Smythe medium.”
Tala hummed sympathetically before yawning. “They can’t be that frightening.”
He muttered, “I just don’t know them at all.”
“But you’re trying, aren’t you?”
Blaine managed to put off finding the Smythe medium for another two days. Finally, three days into the most stressful winter holidays of his life, he knocked on Alexander Smythe’s study—his father-in-law, and wasn’t that a thought—and asked for the name of the family medium.
Alexander Smythe stared at him for a long time before writing out a phone number on a slip of paper. He didn’t say anything, didn’t ask if he was going to try to get in touch with Sebastian or if this was just a formality. Blaine didn’t know what he would say if he did ask, so he just took the paper and said thank you as politely as he could.
Unlike Tala, Albert (the Smythe medium) had a small office in Columbus, and Blaine convinced Wes to drive him there the fourth day of his winter break. In the well-lit room, Blaine sat with his fingers twisted in his lap and managed to recite the request he had spent an hour drafting last night.
Albert, who had helpfully cleared a two hour slot in his schedule just for this conversation, replied, “As his husband,” he blinked rapidly a few times, “you have every right to ask me to set up a meeting with Sebastian. But indulge me.” He leaned forward. “Why do you want to talk to him?”
Blaine blinked. In preparation, he had looked up exactly what his rights were as the husband to a boy who had been dead before they had been wed. He had learned that, as if they had been married before Sebastian had died, he would have had access to all of the Smythe resources, and as such he was entitled to call upon them even though his husband had been dead before they had married. As Sebastian’s husband, he was allowed to call upon his spirit (in grief) without rhyme or reason for the requisite three months of mourning. After three months, he was still allowed to request contact with Sebastian’s spirit, but it was frowned upon to disturb a spirit’s rest often, and contact would be at the family medium’s discretion.
It was just under three months since Sebastian had died, just over a month since they had wed, and Blaine didn’t know from which date he should be counting but either way he was within the time limit.
“You don’t have to answer,” Albert said, very gently. “But Sebastian was my cousin.”
Blaine looked down at his hands. He hadn’t been able to sing since winter break had started, small in a too-empty house. He couldn’t help but wonder if Sebastian would have helped fill the emptiness.
In the three months since he had agreed to marry Sebastian, he hadn’t been able to stop wondering about him. He had seen pictures, and Sebastian’s parents had both shared (contradicting) stories about their son. He hadn’t been able to help wondering if Sebastian would have harmonized with him, if Sebastian would have enjoyed being with the Warblers, what subjects he would have been good at, what his favorite movie was, what his favorite foods were, how he took his coffee, if he would have made the same grimace that Blaine couldn’t help when he saw that the cafeteria was serving quiches again.
He had married a ghost, and he had never even known the boy.
“He’s my husband,” he said, finally. “And I’ve never even talked to him.”
Albert stared at him before nodding, once. “I’ll set it up,” he said. “Go to bed early tonight.”
He was in Dalton. He knew he was in Dalton—he recognized the rooms, the marble floors and the high ceilings and the resonating hum of Warbler harmonies that had sunk into the stone after a hundred years of well-bred boys rehearsing.
He was in Dalton, and there was a boy standing in the Warbler common room. He knew there was a boy, even if he couldn’t see him. He was wearing the Dalton blazer, but when Blaine tried to focus on him, he slid out of view, insubstantial like smoke.
It was his husband.
“Blaine Anderson,” Sebastian said. “Sebastian Smythe.”
Blaine stared at the outstretched hand of his husband. Husband, he thought, again, jaw working as he tried to take in all of the details, but there weren’t details, just empty air; this was Sebastian’s spirit, and there was no flesh here to give him green eyes and freckles like constellations.
“Relax.” Sebastian chuckled, as if he wasn’t a ghost, as if they were betrothed and meeting at Dalton for the first time. “You’ve seen pictures of me, haven’t you? My mother must have run through at least one photo album with you already. Just relax—you know what I look like.”
Blaine blinked, rapidly, his mouth tensing; his voice was more distraught than he intended. “You don’t have a face.”
“I’m dead,” Sebastian retorted, a laugh in his throat. “Relax, Husband, I’m not going anywhere, I promise.” He slid his hands into his pockets, and then Blaine blinked and he was gone again. “I don’t have a body for you to see, but we’re in your dreams anyways.”
Blaine shook his head.
“Would I lie to you?”
He snorted. “I wouldn’t know,” he pointed out. Betrothed for two years, and they had never even talked. Blaine had always assumed that they would have more time. That he would have had time to meet other boys and date other boys and the agreement would be dissolved when they each found boyfriends. “We’ve never even talked until now.”
Sebastian tilted his head. “Alright,” he said amiably. “Then here’s this. From now until I die, I won’t lie to you.”
He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him. “A bit of a problem there,” he managed.
“I am already dead,” Sebastian agreed. “Makes the promise a bit moot, but you could be more considerate, Husband, and take it in the spirit your once intended had intended.”
He grinned back.
Blaine groaned, scrubbing at his face. “I can’t even unravel how many puns you’ve put into that statement.”
He rocked back on his heels. “Enjoy it, I’ve had a lot of time to think of that one.”
Guilt welled up. Sebastian had been dead for over two months now, and Blaine had been too preoccupied with class and the Warblers and his marriage to a boy he didn’t know to remember that his betrothed had been dead the entire time. He had been in the Smythe home a handful of times since his marriage, and for four days since fall semester had ended, and he hadn’t even asked about a family shrine, let alone if Sebastian had one of his own.
He asked, tentatively, “Are you okay, here?”
Sebastian’s gaze wandered off into the distance, out the windows of Dalton, surprisingly opaque. Blaine knew that there were trees outside the window, though he was suddenly unsure of the season. Was it winter in his dream?
After a beat too long to be completely natural, he drawled, “It’s gotten a lot better now that you’re here.”
Blaine flushed as Sebastian’s gaze raked up his body.
“Why so shy, Husband?”
He spluttered, “We’ve only just met!”
“We’ve been engaged for two years.” There was a strange tone in Sebastian’s voice, and without a body, Blaine couldn’t read what it meant. “And married for a month.”
He protested, “I’ve never even seen you!”
“You’re seeing me now, aren’t you?” He spread his arms out, and Blaine did not look at the way his shoulders filled out the Dalton blazer. “Like what you see, Husband?”
“Don’t—” he said, raising a hand.
“Don’t call me that.” Blaine took a deep breath, and it rattled down into his lungs. “Don’t. I didn’t marry you for you.”
Sebastian smirked. It was worse than if he had reeled back in hurt. “Oh, yes,” he agreed. “I remember that.”
“I’m dead,” he said, pleasantly. “And I died in September.”
Blaine’s brow furrowed. “Oh.” What was important about September? Attending Dalton had skewed all of sense he had of time, every day blurring into another day of classes and rehearsal and homework. “Oh,” he said in realization, eyes opening wide.
“Just at the end of it,” Sebastian said easily. “All of those slavering spirits newly appeased.”
Ghost month, Blaine thought. The month when the gates between the worlds opened and spirits could travel freely. Sebastian must have died at the very end of it this year, must have lingered long enough to hear Blaine agree to marry Sebastian.
But they’ve already lost one son.
He flushed. “I didn’t—”
“You’ll be waking up soon,” Sebastian interrupted, a little apologetically. He stood, “I can make an excuse about how I have to go. Lacrosse practice, perhaps?”
Blaine stayed sitting, staring blankly at him. He could see him now, long legs and swept back hair, a wry quirk to his mouth. He could see Sebastian grabbing a bag, rolling his blazer-clad shoulders back, grinning openly the longer Blaine gaped.
“But, could we meet again?” He looked at Blaine, as if seeing him as clearly as Blaine could see Sebastian. For once, he didn’t joke about the fact that Blaine had agreed to marry somebody he had never met. “I could really use your insight.”
Blaine nodded. “Yeah,” he managed. Two years and he had never tried to meet Sebastian, the least he could do was share his dreams. “Sure.”
He smiled, taking one step, and then a second step back.
Blaine watched him. “You’re wrong, you know,” he blurted out.
“About not going anywhere,” he said, “You’ve already left, haven’t you?”
The next morning, he asked Sebastian’s father where the family shrine was. Sebastian had a place of honor in the center, but there were photos of grandfathers and uncles stacked along the cabinet. Blaine found a box of Clorox wipes and spent a few minutes cleaning the cabinet top, the porcelain incense dish, and the framed photo of Sebastian before surveying his handiwork with a critical eye.
He would probably have to get a picture for his dorm when spring semester started again, but for now, the family shrine would do. There was an already opened box of incense in one of the many drawers of the cabinet, and Blaine fished out a fresh stick to light. He watched the smoke curl up, inhaling the agarwood scent deeply before settling on his knees.
He bowed over the shrine, tongue-tied. At home, he had always made requisite prayers for health and prosperity, but there was something strange about asking his husband to watch over him when they had just talked the night before. Finally, he settled for mumbling that he hoped Sebastian was doing well, before sticking the red tip of the incense down in the sand.
He wiped his hands off on his trousers as he tried to find his way to the kitchen. Next time, he decided, he was going to go to the kitchen first. He picked through the fruit bowl, setting aside an unbruised apple before contemplating the pears.
“Blaine?” His father-in-law stood in the doorway, watching him with a frown. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
He flushed. “Mr. Smythe,” he said, awkwardly.
“Alexander is fine,” he said, looking just as uncomfortable. He glanced at the fruit lined up in neat rows before him. “Is there something you were looking for?”
He stared at the fruit, biting the inside of his cheek. “What does Sebastian like?” he asked.
Sebastian’s father blinked rapidly, his shoulders tensing before he inhaled and exhaled deeply. “He was partial to a good pear,” he said, finally.
Blaine nodded, turning the pears over to search for imperfections. He finally settled on two: ripe, their skins dappled and green with the faintest flush of red curling up towards their stems. He cradled them in his arms, looking up to see Sebastian’s father still staring at him.
“Are you visiting Sebastian?”
Blaine nodded. “I, uh.” He swallowed, hard. “I lit a stick of incense for him earlier.”
He said, “Right.” He shifted, moving out of the way. He hesitated, again, before saying, “You’re a good kid, Blaine.”
He blurted, “Huh?” but Alexander Smythe was already gone, striding back down the hallway. From the kitchen, Blaine heard the click of a door opening, and then the second click of it shutting.
He wandered through the house until he found the family shrine again, setting the pears down. He turned them around and around, fiddling with the stems and trying to find the most aesthetically pleasing arrangement for two pears on an otherwise empty shrine. Finally, he managed to say, “I talked to your father. He said you like pears.” He looked up at the portrait: green eyes, wry smile, hair swept back to show sharp cheekbones. He looked everything and nothing like the boy in his dreams. He clasped his hands together, looking away from his deceased husband. “I hope you like these, Sebastian.”
The rest of the winter break, Blaine found himself settling into a routine. He maintained the family shrine, making sure to leave fresh pears for Sebastian each morning. In the afternoon, he met up with a few of his classmates from Dalton, and listened as they bickered over their winter break homework. Jeff and Nick took to reenacting every scene from Hamlet as they read through it, and there were only so many times he could watch Nick point dramatically and roar, “Get thee to a nunnery!” at inopportune moments.
At night, after a thoroughly awkward dinner with his father-in-law, Blaine retreated to what had once been Sebastian’s room and wiled away the time on his computer before retreating to bed.
In his dreams, he met Sebastian for coffee at the coffee shop just off campus; they sat with their ankles hooked together under the tables and Sebastian divulged, with a strange gleam in his eye, that he wouldn’t say no to a shot of his father’s good Courvoisier.
Blaine flushed and shook his head. “I’m not going to steal your father’s alcohol,” he protested. “And we’re underage.”
Sebastian grinned, leaning forward. “This bashful schoolboy thing you have going?” He quirked a brow, mouth twisting in amusement as Blaine flushed more. “Super hot.”
Blaine shook his head again, hiding the twitching of his lips behind his cup.
He dreamed of Sebastian every night without fail, as if to make up for the years he had neglected. In his dreams, Blaine found himself living an extra life, a night stretching for days as they spent hours in the summer sun, their fingers barely touching as they laid on a blanket, their picnic half-eaten and strewn throughout the grass; he spread sunscreen down the expanse of Sebastian’s bare back on the beach while Sebastian murmured innuendos, flushing bright enough to warrant a bystander’s half-empty tube of aloe; Sebastian held his fingers between broad hands after a snow fight and blew on them between breathless laughter. Sebastian left imprints in his memory, the days condensing themselves into a blur of Sebastian’s voice, Sebastian’s arm casually slung over his shoulder, Sebastian’s long legs pacing back and forth.
Blaine spent Christmas Eve with his parents and Christmas Day with the Smythes—meeting newly gained relatives and ignoring their politely baffled smiles that indicated that Sebastian had spent the past two years avoiding any discussion of their engagement. That night, Sebastian wore a green sweater that brought out the unapologetic gleam in his eyes.
Blaine, in return, left bruised crabapples on the shrine for the next six days.
He spent New Year’s Eve at a Warbler party. He nursed a single red cup of beer and couldn’t help remembering the way Sebastian grinned when he suggested Blaine offer cognac at the shrine. He ended up leaving right after the countdown, dumping his warm beer down the drain and convincing “I am not your chauffeur, I am a responsible adult” Wes to take him back to Sebastian’s room. “Missed out on a new year’s kiss, Husband,” Sebastian drawled when Blaine finally fell into a restless sleep.
Blaine retorted, “Are you always this forward with boys you’ve spoken to for less than a month?”
Sebastian sighed, exasperated. “You didn’t try to contact me either, Blaine.” It wasn’t an apology. “If I hadn’t died, would any of your classmates know about me?”
Blaine looked away.
Sebastian smirked. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
They were in Sebastian’s room, Sebastian in Dalton colors, sitting on the bed by Blaine’s feet, Blaine lying in bed in pajamas as if they had just returned from the Warbler party together. Blaine stared at Sebastian’s desk, taking in the details he hadn’t known well enough to dream about less than two weeks ago. “I’d like to wake up.”
“Blaine,” Sebastian said. His hand found Blaine’s ankle.
He shook his head.
“Your righteous anger would be more convincing if you didn’t do the exact same thing.”
“You can at least apologize for it,” Blaine said, trying for snippy.
Sebastian scoffed. “Apologize for what? For not talking about the boy my parents betrothed me to when I was thirteen to my cousins? For ignoring you?” He shook Blaine’s ankle. “I didn’t get any messages from you either.”
Blaine kicked his wrist off, twisting upright. “I married you!”
Sebastian breathed heavily, his eyes never leaving Blaine’s. “I didn’t ask you to.”
He felt, suddenly, very small.
Blaine whispered, “I married you, Sebastian.” He fisted his hands along the duvet. “I changed my life for you.”
His voice was cool. “You didn’t do it for me.”
Before Christmas, Blaine had looked up dorm rules on shrines. Dalton had a surprisingly large amount of trust in teenage boys, allowing incense in individual dorms. Paper offerings, however, had to be burnt outside, in metal pots that the RAs had on loan.
Blaine had been prepared to set a shrine for Sebastian in the corner of his room. He had found a box of incense in Sebastian’s closet, and feeling slightly guilty for going through his dead husband’s things, had tossed it into his suitcase. Then Christmas had happened, and then New Years, and then Blaine was thanking Mr. Smythe for the ride and hauling his bag up the staircase to his dorm.
Blaine stared at the incense, now spilling out of the box into his luggage. He tamped down the instinctive anxiety and set to fishing the unbroken sticks from his freshly laundered uniform and rumpled sweaters. He swept the broken pieces into his trashcan and had returned to staring at the box on the floor when he heard a knock at his door.
“Blaine?” Nick called. “I thought I saw you come in.”
Blaine jerked to his feet, opening the door. “Hey.”
Nick glanced at the box of incense alone in the middle of an otherwise floor. “I think you’re supposed to have a table and everything,” he said, unhelpfully.
“It’s not—” Blaine began, their argument fresh in his mind.
He continued, as if Blaine hadn’t interrupted him, “To be honest, I’m a little surprised that you didn’t have a private shrine set up already.”
Blaine blinked. “What?”
Nick snorted. “You married your dead fiancé,” he said, ignoring Blaine’s petulant betrothed. “That’s either love or commitment, and both of those call for a shrine.”
Blaine flushed. “It’s not,” he began, before giving up. “Sebastian’s an only child,” he finally said. He scooped up the box and set it on his desk. “I don’t even have a picture of him.”
“Seriously?” Nick asked. “Damn, don’t tell the Warblers that. I had money on true love.”
“You had bets?” Blaine squawked.
Nick nodded, pulling his phone out of his pocket. “The odds were pretty good for true love. Most people were betting on commitment. I guess you just come across as the noble virtuous type.”
“Noble,” Blaine echoed numbly, before he shook his head. “You had bets?”
“Five-to-one odds for true love,” Nick bemoaned, not looking up from his phone. “And I put in fifty bucks too.”
“You bet fifty dollars on my relationship with Sebastian?”
His head jerked up, practically pavlovian. “Oh? It’s a relationship is it?”
Blaine opened and closed his mouth helplessly.
“What is it, Blaine Smythe?” Nick stepped forward into Blaine’s space, peering into his eyes. “Do you love your husband?”
He stammered, “I don’t see how it matters.” He took a step back. “Didn’t you already lose the bet?”
Nick looked down at his phone. “Oh, look at the time!” he exclaimed brightly. “Jeff just texted me; I have to help him move back in.” He was out the door and down the hallway before Blaine could do much more than blink.
“Those two excuses don’t even go with each other!” he shouted at Nick’s rapidly departing back. He turned back to the incense on his desk before picking up his phone and texting his RA for the key to the furniture storeroom.
Brandon On The Council said haughtily, “Of course we don’t condone betting on Warbler’s personal lives.”
Blaine said, weakly, “Okay, but Nick said…”
“What Warblers do in their free time is not the concern of the Council.” Formal tone dropped, he added, “I hope you married him out of commitment, because the Dalton Warblers take responsibility seriously, especially if you’re hoping for a competition solo.”
“He put in a hundred dollars on commitment,” Daniel, senior, not on the council, added.
Blaine made a noise that sounded vaguely like a pitchy gibber.
Daniel continued, “I, on the other hand, have twenty bucks on true love. And while I’m not on the Warbler council, I’ve been on the honor roll my entire Dalton career and would gladly offer free tutoring to underclassmen, especially ones plagued by despair over the death of their childhood sweetheart.”
He couldn’t help the whimper. He really couldn’t.
Wes patted his shoulder. “Ignore them,” he said. “We have rehearsal now,” he added, stern and unamused.
Blaine’s grateful smile faded as another senior chimed in. “Don’t act all sanctimonious, Wesley Montgomery,” Vincent: senior, bass, wagged a finger. “I know for a fact that you have fifty dollars on commitment.”
Blaine buried his face in his hands and made a vaguely desolate noise. Distantly, he decided that Sebastian probably would have found the entire situation amusing. Well, if this had happened in the days between winter break starting and Christmas, then Sebastian probably would have. Now, he probably was still finding it amusing, but only because he was deriving sadistic pleasure from Blaine’s misery.
He managed to croak from between his fingers, “Can we please stop betting on my relationship with Sebastian?”
“There’s over a thousand dollars in the pool!” David protested. “We’re invested.”
Blaine protested, “I just don’t think my marriage is anybody’s business.”
Brandon On The Council narrowed his eyes.
Blaine was thankfully saved by his RA, Richard, sticking his head in the doorway to the senior commons. “Blaine Smythe? I got your text for a key to the furniture storage?”
“Yes,” he breathed in relief. He practically leapt to his feet. “Let me just…” He waved to the Warblers as he edged out of the room, ignoring them as they eyed him with curiosity and, in Thad’s case, grim suspicion. “I’ll – I’ll be back before rehearsal officially starts.”
He made it to the first Warbler rehearsal of the semester, but only barely. It took over twenty minutes of both him and Richard lugging the surprisingly heavy and extremely dusty cabinet to get it back to his room. He found an incense holder in one of the drawers, wrapped in bubble-wrap, and filled it halfway with sand from the dorm’s stock. He hesitated before putting the box of incense in one of the drawers, Nick saying “noble virtuous type,” and Sebastian’s you didn’t do it for me playing in his head like a canon on repeat.
The Warblers were, mercifully, focused on Regionals and not the Why Did Blaine Marry His Husband betting pool. Blaine lost himself to the cycle of inhale and sing, inhale and sing. Like meditation, his mind was pleasantly blank when rehearsal ended.
Jeff cleared his throat.
“Hi Jeff,” he said hurriedly, stuffing his sheet music in his bag and trying his best to look very busy. “Great rehearsal, right? I really have got to go…”
He said, “I won’t ask you why you got married.”
Blaine sagged into his heels. “Oh thank god,” he muttered fervently. He glanced at Jeff, who stared awkwardly at the walls while the rest of the Warblers shuffled out with suspicious glances at the two of them.
Once everybody was gone—Wes last, giving them a grim stare and a warning to turn off the lights when they left, Jeff said quickly, “I’m sure you’ve got one already, but I have a spare picture frame, if you want.”
“You’re setting up a shrine for your husband, aren’t you?” He shrugged, a little uncomfortably. Blaine very determinedly did not speculate on how Jeff had bet in the Warbler betting pool. “A picture’s probably the least of your worries, but—”
“Thanks,” he blurted out. “Sure.”
Jeff said, “So you want it?” sounding a little bewildered.
“Yeah,” Blaine said. “Yeah.”
He had left the portrait of Sebastian on the Smythe family shrine, and he had never had a photo of Sebastian. He still didn’t know how he was going to finish setting up the shrine in the corner of his dorm room. He grimaced at the thought of calling Mr. Smythe and asking for a photo.
At least now he wouldn’t have to buy a frame.
That night, he set the empty frame, facedown, on the shrine before curling in his bed. Despite being smaller than Sebastian’s, it felt vaster and emptier. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift.
He didn’t dream of Sebastian.
A week of classes and rehearsal passed.
Blaine didn’t dream of Sebastian; in his dreams, he walked alone, through forests and down to the beach where the sand was warm and the water was cold. He wormed his toes into the sand; the sand and salt rubbed at the callouses of his feet and when he finally retreated, away from the beach and up to smooth concrete, it was as if a layer of him had been scrubbed away. He walked from the beach through the streets of the city, alone in a sea of bodies that jostled him this way and that until he woke up, his hands clenched tight around empty air.
He didn’t set up the shrine.
A week without Sebastian, after dreaming of him every day, left Blaine off-kilter. He found himself sifting for pears in the fruit baskets in the cafeteria before remembering that he was angry at his husband. He spent his classes wondering if Sebastian would have struggled on the same subjects, or if he would have found trigonometry: troublesome, biology: boring, literature: lovely.
He shook the sand in the incense holder, stirring it with a finger before setting it back down on the cabinet. He didn’t empty it either.
A week after classes had started, Wes cornered him after practice, notepad in hand. “We’re taking song nominations for the Spring Concert.” When Blaine just shook his head, still too rattled from the knowledge that the Warblers had placed over a thousand dollars worth of bets on his relationship, he made a disbelieving noise in the back of his throat and then flipped his notepad closed. “Alright. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk.”
Blaine shook his head, “I’m not going to explain why I married Sebastian.”
He ignored Blaine. “I haven’t seen you at the dorm shrine recently. I know you must be overwhelmed, having just returned from vacation. Dalton’s curriculum is rigorous and our rehearsal schedule doesn’t leave you with much free time, but prayer should always be a priority, especially given your relationship with your husband.”
He gaped. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” he attempted.
Wes continued, as if ticking off another item from his list, “Andrew’s grandfather died on the 10th, and since he won’t be going home, we’ll be burning spirit money with him outside Eaton tomorrow—not your dorm, I know. I expect to see you there with the rest of the Warblers.”
Blaine said, “What.”
“And you’re having a little trouble on the syncopated rhythm, so make sure you practice that in your free time.”
Blaine managed a vague, “Okay.”
“Thanks for your time,” he said, patting Blaine on the shoulder before sliding his notepad in his bag and leaving. “Let any of us know if you need help with any of your classes.”
Blaine gaped at Wes’ retreating back. He felt the vague beginnings of something that was likely guilt—a week into the year, and he still hadn’t finished setting up his personal shrine. He hadn’t even gone to the dorm shrine (and Wes had noticed). He was married, he had committed, and—
He didn’t even have a photo of Sebastian.
He dreamed of a field of flowers, and he stood alone, in the middle of them, as they bloomed bright and gold and then died under the sun. Blaine cupped his hand over the blooms, as if doing so would keep the sun from scorching the delicate petals, but they withered in the shade just the same. He could feel his cheeks dampen with tears, but they clung to his lashes no matter how hard he tried to swipe them away.
He spent most of his classes the next day distracted, wondering if he would be stuck asking Mr. Smythe for a photo of Sebastian. He didn’t think that Alexander Smythe would say no; he doubted that Sebastian’s father would be opposed to his son’s husband asking for a photo, but the thought of disappointing his father-in-law nagged in the back of his head and he struggled to focus on his genetics quiz and French presentation.
Wes snagged him by the elbow after dinner, the threat of bodily dragging him out to the courtyard clear in his vice-like grip. Blaine trotted obediently beside him as he swung by Timothy the Eaton RA’s room to pick up a pot (Blaine carried it), and then to Wes’ room to pick up a box of paper offerings (Blaine also carried that), and then down to the courtyard that all of the dorms shared with incense and lighter in hand. The rest of the Warblers were already gathered, some of them holding fresh fruit from the cafeteria; Brandon On The Council was polishing two apples on his blazer sleeve while looking bemused at Blaine’s attempts to juggle bulky items while being dragged by the arm.
Wes cleared his throat. “You can put those down now,” he said to Blaine, who was still trying to balance a large metal pot and a heavy box of paper money.
Blaine did, gratefully.
“Dude,” Nick whispered as Blaine attempted to fade into the crowd of his blazer-clad classmates. “Did you get pneumonia or something to get Wes annoyed at you?”
“No,” Blaine hissed back. “I would be a lot more cough-y if I had pneumonia.”
Nick shrugged. “I’m not in bio,” he whispered back, as if knowing the symptoms of pneumonia was a part of the AP Biology curriculum.
“I didn’t show up at the dorm shrine last week,” he explained in a low murmur. “I guess Wes takes that as a personal offence.”
“You are married,” Thad hissed from Blaine’s other side. “And newlywed too.”
“If you boys are done?” Wes called. “This is better done at temple, but we don’t have the time to go off-campus with rehearsals. So, Andrew, if you’d like to do the honors?”
Blaine bowed his head with the other Warblers as Andrew built a small pyre in the pot and recited the ritual prayers. Andrew tossed the spirit money in in large handfuls, staring grimly at the flames. When his stack was exhausted, Wes took up the large box that Blaine had carried down and offered it to the rest of them.
Thad gave Blaine a narrow-eyed glare before taking his turn by the pot. Nick patted him on the back and whispered, “I’ll pray that you don’t catch pneumonia,” as he pushed forward through the crowd. Daniel, who thought Blaine’s grades were low because he was mourning the love of his life, made faces that Blaine suspected might have been intended to be kissing and love-struck expressions, but really looked like he had caught a bought of food poisoning.
Finally, it was just Blaine, his hands empty. He balled his hands behind his back, trying to look inconspicuous.
Over the quiet crackle of the pyre, Jeff said, loudly, “I’m sure Blaine must want some privacy if he’s going to burn offerings for his husband.”
Sebastian’s finger trailing down Blaine’s spine. Sebastian murmuring, “When I lived in Paris,” against Blaine’s neck. Sebastian shaking Blaine’s ankle. “You didn’t do it for me.”
“No,” he said. He stepped forward and took a stack of paper from Wes. “No, I’m not ashamed.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
I married you, he thought.
He dropped the paper into the flame and watched it burn, the smoke twisting up into the air, the money drifting into another realm, the tiny ache of resentment flickering away, leaving only the ashes of guilt.
He called his parents.
“I don’t know,” his mother said slowly. “I don’t think we have any photos of Sebastian, but I can look. Maybe they sent one in an email.”
His father didn’t mention that Blaine had been betrothed for two years.
His mother said, “Couldn’t you look on The Facebook?”
“It’s just Facebook, Mom.” Blaine sighed. “Not The Facebook.”
“I’m sure Alexander has one,” his mother continued over the whir of the desktop starting up. “You can always ask him. He is your family now.”
Blaine muttered, “I didn’t want to bother Mr. Smythe.”
His mother made a vaguely understanding noise. Blaine listened to the rhythmic taps of the keyboard typing, and then the mouse clicking. “I’ve got an old one,” she said at last. “From when we signed the betrothal papers.”
He straightened. “You have a picture of Sebastian.”
“It’s two years old,” she said, humming thoughtfully. “He’s really matured a lot.”
“Can you send it to me?” Blaine switched to speakerphone and tapped the mail app, swiping impatiently down.
She hummed in agreement. “What’s this about, Blaine?”
Blaine stared at the photo as it loaded. He could recognize Sebastian, but he looked different at thirteen as he did in his dreams. Younger, less like the boy he married, and more like a boy. He closed the app with a sigh. “Nothing,” he said. “I didn’t want to ask him for a photo of my husband.”
“Why do you need a recent photo—Blaine.”
“He’s your husband,” she said, her voice steady in a way that meant she was truly disappointed in him. “You should have asked for a picture months ago.”
“I know.” He closed his eyes. His parents’ disappointment wasn’t a new thing, but he hated it all the same. Despite marrying into a new family, the disapproval in his mother’s voice stung the same as it had when he had been a child.
His mother hummed, again.
Blaine didn’t need his mother to tell him that he had made a mistake. He wasn’t a child anymore: sitting on the bed while his mother told him to think about what he did wrong, Cooper making triumphant faces from the doorway.
Blaine said, “I’ll call Mr. Smythe. Thanks anyways, Mom.”
His mother said, softly, “Blaine.”
Blaine said, “Bye.”
Blaine didn’t call on Thursday. He didn’t call on Friday either. On Saturday, he stared at his phone before calling Albert Smythe.
“Blaine,” the medium said, sounding surprised.
“Hi,” he said. Before he lost his nerve, he blurted out, “Do you have a picture of Sebastian?”
There was a long silence, before he replied, “I have a copy of the one on the family shrine.”
Blaine let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Oh.”
“I can text you a copy,” he said. “Or I can print it for you on the office printer, and you can pick it up this weekend. We have photo paper in the office.”
He clutched at the phone. “That… that would be great.”
“So, I’ll see you later today,” he said, decisively. “I’m free this afternoon, at, say, 1? We’ll get a late lunch.”
Wes, “Still not your chauffeur,” drove him into Columbus, a determinedly responsible expression on his face. Blaine, unsure how long lunch would take, offered to take the bus back out to Westerville.
“Text me,” Wes said, the same expression on his face as he let Blaine out of his car. “I’ll wait. I have plenty to do in Columbus.”
Albert shook his hand briskly and waved him into a seat opposite his desk. “I do have lunch,” he said, “But I thought I’d offer you a séance with Sebastian.”
He smiled, a wry upturn of the lip that reminded Blaine of Sebastian’s expressions. “You made an impression at Christmas. You don’t have to agree,” he added, reading something in Blaine’s expression. “But I thought I’d offer—”
Blaine interrupted, “Sebastian doesn’t want to talk to me.”
Albert stopped and stared.
He said, “We had a fight.” He closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands. “And he’s stopped visiting my dreams.”
Albert said, slowly, “He’s been visiting your dreams?”
Blaine said, “Every night since I met you. Until New Years.” Until their fight.
Blaine could recognize when he made a mistake, but he had married Sebastian. Wasn’t that enough? He had moved into a stranger’s room, changed his name, married Sebastian, and wasn’t that enough to warrant his respect, his consideration? Wasn’t that—
I didn’t ask you to.
Albert asked, again, “Sebastian’s been visiting your dreams?”
Blaine looked up. “Yes,” he said. “For most of winter break.”
Albert sat back. “And you’ve never met him before.”
“I’ve met him,” Blaine corrected. He had three weeks of dreams to draw from: Sebastian’s arm around his shoulders, Sebastian’s laugh in his ear, Sebastian’s thigh pressed against his. “Just not… here.”
Albert looked at him for a moment longer, before reaching into his desk and sliding over a manila envelope. It had a photo of Sebastian, smiling politely into the camera. It didn’t look much like the Sebastian in his dreams. Blaine placed it into his bag.
He said, “The offer is still on the table.”
Blaine shook his head.
“Thank you,” he said, instead.
They made the drive back to Dalton in silence; Wes put on Top 20 radio, but Blaine was too off-balance to sing along. Even when I Kissed a Girl came on the radio, Blaine found his tongue heavy in his mouth.
Finally, as they were pulling into the Dalton parking lot, Blaine blurted, “I went to pick up a photo of Sebastian.”
Wes turned off the radio.
“I hadn’t met him.” He stared at his hands. “I still haven’t, really. The first time I saw a picture of him was at my wedding—his funeral.”
Sebastian had been smiling in the photo, something mischievous in the back of his eye. Blaine had been charmed by the smile, by the way it made his eyes look alive. He hadn’t known, back then, the other ways his face would shift when he smiled.
“When I came out,” Blaine said, “my parents arranged a betrothal.” He didn’t have to look up to know Wes’ expression; betrothals were common enough, especially if you had enough money to pay the matchmaker fee. “We found the Smythes, and our family mediums found us compatible enough…”
Wes pulled into his parking space.
Blaine continued, the words drawn out of him like a song he had started to sing. “It wasn’t a binding agreement; we could break it at any time. And I was thirteen, and Sebastian lived in Paris with his mother, and—”
Wes let the engine idle.
“I had never met him. I didn’t want to meet him.”
He had wanted the romances that stories wrote about.
He had taken a boy to a dance and been met with furious voices and heavy fists.
His parents had pulled him out of public school. He spent the rest of the year home-schooled when he wasn’t undergoing physical therapy, and when the summer ended, had started at Dalton.
“And then Sebastian died.”
He laid it all out, starting from the phone call just one month after he had started at Dalton, starting his freshman year for the second time. His parents had picked him up in this very parking lot; his mother in the passenger seat, his father driving. They had arrived home and Blaine had barely put his bag down before his mother was taking his hand in hers and asking if he remembered Sebastian.
“I didn’t want to marry him,” Blaine admitted. “I had never even met him.”
But if he had. If they’d had the time to meet—in Paris, along the beach, in the parks of Westerville. If they’d had a summer of warm sunshine and sweet promises. If he’d had the chance to meet Sebastian, maybe that would have changed things.
“But his parents,” Blaine said. “His parents had lost their only son.”
Blaine was a second son, and gay at that. He wasn’t going to continue his family line anyways, so what did it matter if he slipped sideways from Anderson into the Smythe family registry? It was what his parents hoped for, what the Smythes wanted, and Sebastian had only been fifteen.
Blaine said, “I agreed to marry him.” He touched the envelope in the bag. “I agreed.”
Wes turned off the engine.
Blaine said, “You can tell the Warblers if you want.” He rolled his shoulders back. “I married Sebastian out of duty.”
That night, Blaine dreamed of Sebastian.
It wasn’t a new dream. He recognized this beach, recognized the way Sebastian stretched, lounging on the sand; the way he grinned, bright in the sun.
In the dream, Blaine had burrowed his toes in the sand and pressed his fingers along the muscles of Sebastian’s back as he spread sunscreen in a flimsy excuse to touch a handsome boy’s skin. He had flushed, bright red, when Sebastian had called him out on it, reading his touch easily.
Watching it, Blaine flushed again. It had been a good dream.
He felt a touch on his elbow, like a breath of wind, and when he turned into it, found himself looking up at Sebastian, his fingers barely touching Blaine’s arm.
“Sebastian,” he breathed.
He didn’t look down, his gaze distant on the two of them lying on the sand. “Blaine,” he said.
“I didn’t think you would talk to me again.”
He said, steadily, “You didn’t invite me back.”
Blaine’s fingers clenched.
He must have felt the tension in Blaine’s elbow, because Sebastian said, “I didn’t come to fight.”
Blaine said, “Oh?”
“What are we doing, Blaine?” He finally looked down.
Blaine remembered: the dream had been warm, the breeze cool, the sound of the waves lulling his breaths into a steady rhythm of inhale and exhale, even as Sebastian teased laughter out of him. Sebastian had turned, at some point, twisting his fingers between Blaine’s and they had held hands in the summer sun until Blaine had felt dizzy from the heat.
Blaine watched as Sebastian on the beach turned to tangle their fingers together.
“I don’t know,” he said, relaxing his hands. Not quite shaking off Sebastian’s touch, but not quite taking his hand either. “Sebastian—”
He didn’t let go, his fingers gentle against Blaine’s skin. The tide ebbed and flowed, and Sebastian’s touch remained, keeping him afloat and drifting. “No chance of Courvoisier from you, Husband, but I wouldn’t say no to a cup of coffee.”
His days passed in a haze of studying, his afternoons filled with drilling harmonies and choreography into his head and feet, his nights filled with Sebastian.
Blaine finished setting up the shrine in his room. He lit incense in the morning, stopping back at his dorm after breakfast to leave a cup of coffee. He shook his head every time he did, recalling Sebastian’s teasing attempts to have Blaine raid his father’s liquor cabinet.
The days tripped over themselves until January was more than halfway over and Wes was asking, “Do you need a ride or will your father-in-law be picking you up?”
Blaine hadn’t even realized the date. He looked up and was faintly relieved to realize that while a few doors had couplets up along their frames already, most were still unadorned. His room was one of them.
Wes eyed his door with only a little bit of parental disapproval. “We’re coordinating rides among the upperclassmen,” he elaborated. “Not everybody’s family celebrates the advent.”
His breath left him a relieved whoosh. He hadn’t missed the lunar new year, then. It was only the advent. He had never celebrated it before but now he would be following whatever traditions the Smythes kept. If that meant porridge and cured meats, less than a month before the lunar new year, then so be it.
He said, weakly, “I don’t know.”
Wes nodded. “We’re also coordinating rides for the new year,” he added. “Though most of our parents will be picking us up for that.”
“Let me know if you need a ride.”
He hesitated over calling his father-in-law. Instead, Albert confirmed that they didn’t celebrate the advent, but that Alexander Smythe would be happy to pick Blaine up before the new year. Blaine spent the scant free time he had cleaning the shrine in his room, along with the rest of his room. The communal vacuum cleaner, usually gathering dust in the storage room, was impossible to find as everybody struggled to fit the traditional spring cleaning within their schedules.
Blaine bundled his trash into tightly bound bundles and set them aside.
Sebastian, over fragrant coffee, laughed. “You take this seriously, don’t you?”
He looked up from where he was sprinkling cinnamon into his own coffee. “You don’t?”
He shrugged, something lingering between fondness and amusement playing through his expressions. “I did my part,” he said. “I certainly didn’t clean my room as thoroughly as you just did.”
Something flickered over Sebastian’s face. “An ass like that?” he finally said, leaning back in his chair and stretching his legs. “You bet I did.”
Blaine shook his head. “I didn’t know you could see me.”
“You have a shrine for me,” he pointed out. “If you wanted to avoid me, you shouldn’t have set up a shrine in your room. Also, lighting incense every day? And the coffee? If you didn’t want me to watch, then you’re sending the wrong message there.”
He smiled. “It’s obligatory. I’m your husband.”
He looked at Blaine, before grinning back. “Is that so, Husband?”
Feeling daring, he pressed his calf against Sebastian’s. He sipped his coffee and smiled up through his eyelashes. “Did you think it was anything else?”
When February finally came around, he—after a stilted phone conversation with his father-in-law—negotiated a ride with Wes. Wes didn’t mention the Warbler betting pool (which, to Blaine’s knowledge, had not resolved the question of Blaine’s motivations despite both Nick and Wes knowing), or even Sebastian at all. Instead, they practiced their vocal parts for sectionals, Wes drilling Blaine on some tricky harmonies. Blaine arrived back at the Smythes with enough time to light incense and leave an offering on the family shrine before getting ready for Reunion dinner.
Sebastian’s father was there, as was Sebastian’s mother, along with a gaggle of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. Albert took the time to ask about his classes, and Blaine didn’t thank him for printing a photo of Sebastian that Saturday in January.
He sat where Sebastian would have. He bowed and wished his new aunts and uncles and grandparents a happy new year, and they pressed red envelopes into his hand. He took them, set them in his pocket, and tried not to feel like he was stealing from Sebastian.
After everybody had left, and the grandparents were ensconced in the guest bedroom, it was just Blaine and his parents-in-law; Alexander Smythe gestured to a chair and waited.
“Blaine,” he said. “We—” he gestured at Sebastian’s mother. “We wanted to thank you.”
She sank into the couch beside him and cradled his hands in hers, as though he needed the comfort more than she. “When we betrothed Sebastian to you, we couldn’t have known what a son we would have gotten.”
Blaine squeezed her fingers back, smiling weakly as he tried to form protestations.
Sebastian’s father said, “You’ve been a good son.”
Sebastian’s voice whispered, you didn’t do it for me.
Blaine did his best to smile through the responsibility crashing over him. “I just did what I was supposed to.”
“I just wanted the best for my son,” Sebastian’s mother said. “I thought that was Paris. I thought that was to let him see the world. Alexander,” she glanced at Sebastian’s father, “thought it was a betrothal. And I said—”
“You don’t need to explain it,” Blaine whispered. He suddenly wanted to be in Sebastian’s room, curled in his bed, waiting for Sebastian to come with his smirk and his jokes about Blaine’s ass. It was easier with Sebastian, without the weight of their parents’ expectations.
She said, “I’ve never been more glad to be wrong.”
Blaine whispered, again, “I just did what I was supposed to.”
Sebastian’s father said, “That’s all we could have asked of you.”
He smiled, weakly.
Sebastian’s father said, “Happy new year.” He took the red envelope from his pocket, and Blaine slid his hands from Sebastian’s mother’s grip to take it with both hands.
“Happy new year,” Blaine said, bowing over the envelope as Sebastian’s father released it.
“Good night,” he said. “Son.”
Sebastian stood at the foot of the bed. “So what’s the haul?” he drawled.
Blaine spluttered. “What?”
He rolled his eyes. “Happy new year to you, too, Husband.” He beckoned with an empty hand. “Now, how much money did my relatives cough up?”
“I didn’t check yet!” He shook his head, unable to help the smile that crept across his face at Sebastian’s brazen rudeness. “I went straight to sleep,” he admitted. “It was overwhelming.” He didn’t mention his father-in-law calling him son, the title leaving him drowning in guilt.
He made a disgruntled sound back. “Yeah, my relatives can be something, alright,” he admitted. Blaine curled a little tighter under the duvet, and Sebastian twitched it up to settle down next to him, back against the headboard, legs stretched under the covers.
Blaine uncurled and tilted his head to stare up at him.
“They’ve always been generous with their gifts,” he added, grinning down at Blaine. “Buy me something nice with the money.”
“You’re dead,” Blaine protested, guilt ebbing at Sebastian’s brazen attitude. “I’d have to burn it to get it to you.”
He rolled his eyes. “You won’t steal cognac from my father and you won’t buy me something with my relatives’ money. What type of husband are you?”
Blaine didn’t flinch. “A responsible one.”
“Responsibility’s overrated.” He poked Blaine in the nose teasingly. “Live a little, Husband.”
Blaine scrunched his nose. “Somebody has to be responsible for the both of us.”
He said. “One day, I’ll get you to let go.” He tilted his head back and said, “I didn’t think that I would miss it.”
“Courvoisier,” Sebastian retorted, smirking down at him. “You’re killing me here, Husband, you and your responsibility.”
“You’re already dead.” Blaine laughed. He sat up, nudging his shoulder against Sebastian’s. “And I’d be worried if you missed it that much. You’re too young to be addicted.”
“And a bit too dead as well,” he said. The smirk slipped off his face, leaving him somber and thoughtful as he contemplated Blaine.
Blaine laughed, uncertainly. “What?”
Sebastian laughed, shaking his head. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”
Blaine flushed, nudging Sebastian with his shoulder, sitting pressed, arm to arm in Sebastian’s bed next to his husband. “Don’t,” he said. “You can tell me what’s on your mind.”
Sebastian studied him. Sebastian had always stared at him, gaze unerringly focused on Blaine as if he was the only thing interesting in the dream. He did so now, studying Blaine with piercing focus.
“You always want to do the right thing,” Sebastian said, finally, “instead of doing the right thing because you want to.”
Blaine stared back.
Sebastian’s hand was fleeting, barely there over the duvet. “Even if it means marrying me.”
Blaine drifted through the first day of the new year, watching the children scream in delight over the firecrackers. He slept badly, waking with only the memory of a hand on his shoulder, the pressure of somebody with their back to his.
The second day, his mother picked him up from the Smythe’s and they drove home, her face set in a cheerful rictus of determination.
Blaine answered his mother’s questions about Dalton: his classes, the Warblers, the food in the cafeteria. She didn’t ask him if he had gotten a picture of Sebastian, and he didn’t tell her about dreaming of Sebastian.
“I’m glad you’re back,” his mother said. “You’re staying for dinner, of course. We made your favorites.”
Blaine nodded. The house was a bustle of noise—he recognized Tala’s voice reading aloud to children in the family room, and he meandered through the familiar rooms and halls until he found his father.
“Blaine,” his father said, looking pleasantly surprised. “Did you eat?”
He nodded. “Hi, Dad.” He glanced around, greeting his uncles in turn before stopping before his grandfather. “Grandpa.”
“You’re married now,” his grandfather said, peering at him thoughtfully.
Blaine nodded. “His name’s Sebastian. Sebastian Smythe.”
“They’re a good family,” his grandfather agreed. “They’ll treat you right.”
Blaine kept nodding, not knowing what to say.
His father, after a beat of silence, asked, “How are your classes?”
He told his father the same thing he had told his mother: the classes were difficult, but he was managing; the Warblers were keeping him busy, but they said he had potential to have a competition solo in the next year; the food in the cafeteria was fine, but not as good as his mother’s cooking.
He had never known how to talk to his father, and somehow, being married didn’t make it any easier. Blaine found himself retreating away from his father to play with his cousins, helping Tala babysit the children and awkwardly fielding questions from his aunts as they stopped by.
Finally, when all of his relatives had gotten their fill of him, Tala drew him aside, handing him a mug of tea and sitting before him. Softly, she asked, “Have you talked to your husband?”
“Good,” she said, reading something in his expression. Her hand was gentle as she touched his knuckles. “I’m glad.”
“I like him,” Blaine admitted, thinking of Sebastian’s smile, the way he looked at Blaine, the warmth of his back as he lay on the sand, the heat of his breath against Blaine’s frozen fingers. “I wish I’d had a chance to meet him before.”
She said, “You’re meeting him now.”
He was. He didn’t tell her about all of the dreams, but under her gentle questioning, he found himself talking about Sebastian: the conversations they had, the coffee he had taken to leaving on the altar in his dorm room, the Courvoisier in Alexander Smythe’s liquor cabinet that he wasn’t going to steal.
She laughed at the end. “Marriage is a joyous thing,” she said, squeezing his hands. “You’re allowed to enjoy it.”
Blaine found himself smiling back.
Talking to Tala, the afternoon whiled away until dinner. He sat next to his parents in an eerie parallel of Reunion dinner, and his mother heaped his plate with his favorites. He found himself smiling until his relatives asked about the Smythes, and then Blaine found himself tongue-tied, only able to think of stilted meals with the relatives and languid dreams with Sebastian.
His mother laughed, too loudly, and said, “Blaine’s been too busy at Dalton to get to know them. Did I tell you that he’s in their show choir?”
Blaine stared down at his plate before managing a smile. “The Dalton Academy Warblers,” he managed. “We’re performing at Regionals soon.”
He picked at his food for the rest of dinner.
Blaine had thought—with part dread and part relief—that he would return to the Smythes after dinner, but his mother corrected him with a hand on his elbow, steering him through the hallways. “You can sleep here,” she said, opening his old room. Blaine stared at it, the bedspread unfamiliar, the furniture different from his memory. “I’ll drive you back in the morning.”
“Blaine,” she said, and her hand was cool on his cheek. “I want you to know. Your father and I—You didn’t need to marry Sebastian. We would have been happy if you didn’t.”
Blaine blinked, rapidly.
“We only wanted the best for you,” she said. “I want you to know that. Your father and I—we only wanted the best for you.” She drew him into a careful hug before retreating.
Blaine touched his bookshelf, lined with the books he had read growing up. It had only been three months, and already Blaine was forgetting what his childhood bedroom looked like. For a long time, he simply sat in bed, before changing and lying down.
The mattress was too soft, he thought before he fell asleep.
He was in Sebastian’s room, lying in Sebastian’s bed, when he felt the mattress dip under a familiar weight.
“Hey,” Sebastian said.
“Hey,” Blaine replied, turning to face Sebastian.
“What’s with that face?” he asked. He cupped Blaine’s cheek and Blaine thought of his mother’s cool hands. “Husband.”
He flinched away.
“Blaine,” Sebastian said, sounding frustrated.
You didn’t need to marry Sebastian.
“Would you have married me if I had died?” Blaine interrupted.
Sebastian stared. “What brought this on?”
Blaine inhaled, shakily. “If I had died, instead of you—”
“But you didn’t,” Sebastian interrupted. “Blaine, what brought this on?”
“Would you have?”
We would have been happy if you didn’t.
“Just answer the question!”
“Damnit, no, of course not!” Sebastian snapped. “No, I wouldn’t have married you.”
Blaine closed his eyes. “Okay.”
“Blaine.” Sebastian touched his ankle under the duvet. He had always unerringly found Blaine, even when he was curled under thick covers. Blaine hadn’t realized how much he found that comforting until this moment. “Listen to me.”
“I married you.” Blaine ignored Sebastian in favor of curling around the hurt in his chest. “My parents arranged the betrothal, your parents had lost a son, and what else was I supposed to do?”
Sebastian said, “Blaine.”
“I married you,” he said, as if repeating it would change things. As if it would make everything—his parents, Sebastian’s parents, Sebastian—more clear. “I changed my life for you.”
“I didn’t know you,” Sebastian snapped. He sighed, and he shook his head. “I didn’t know you, Blaine. We’re fifteen. We’re too young to get married, let alone for one of us to get married to a ghost.”
Blaine shook his head.
He continued, each measured word like a needle puncturing his skin, “Do you even know what these marriages entail? You pledge yourself to chastity, because you’re promised to a ghost. You’ll live alone, but you’ll never be truly alone, because you’ll be haunted by a memory. You’ll adopt a child and it’ll never be yours, it’ll be your dead husband’s cousin’s child that you’re fostering, but they’ll call you father and you’ll have to pretend that you don’t resent what your life’s become, raising a stranger’s kid as your own.”
Blaine breathed, in through his nose and out through his mouth, in long, measured, breaths.
“I was fifteen when I died. I was living in Paris. I had never met you, and I had no intention of meeting you. I had the rest of my life ahead of me. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. My mother wanted me to be happy, as long as it meant doing something responsible and stable. I had a dozen options lined up for me, and then there was you. A boy I had never met, living in a place I had never wanted to return to.”
Blaine closed his eyes.
“I didn’t want to marry you. If you had died, I wouldn’t have wanted to marry you. I wouldn’t have married you.”
“I get it,” Blaine whispered. He curled his legs in, nursing the hurt in his chest. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing.
“Blaine.” Sebastian’s hand moved, from his ankle to touch Blaine’s shoulder, so tentative and cautious. “It would have been a mistake,” he said.
Blaine opened his eyes, confused and unwilling to dislodge Sebastian’s careful touch.
“I didn’t know you,” he said, looking down. “But if I did…” He squeezed, never looking away.
“If you did?” he prompted, smiling shyly.
Sebastian drew him in, slow and steadfast. “I’d like to get to know you.” Blaine easily went with him, resting his cheek against Sebastian’s chest. There was no heartbeat, but Blaine could feel the thrum of his own heart, pounding loud enough for the both of them. Like the steady prick of a needle and thread, stitching them together. “Husband,” Sebastian murmured, and Blaine smiled.
When classes started again, Blaine returned to Dalton, to his small private shrine to Sebastian, and, most importantly, to the Warblers. Brandon On The Council cleared his throat, and Blaine took his position in the center of the room. He looked down at the ring he had been wearing for three months now, and before he could lose his nerve, said, “I heard there’s been a bet about me.”
He found Wes with the council. Wes nodded, encouragingly.
“I thought you should know,” he said. “I don’t appreciate you betting on my private life, and I don’t want you to do it anymore.”
Nick looked guiltily at Jeff.
“But, to settle the matter, I think I should be open and honest about my relationship with Sebastian.” He took a deep breath, suddenly nervous. “So we can distribute the money accordingly,” he added, unable to stop his wry smile.
Wes grinned back at him.
“I married Sebastian because I thought it was the right thing to do.” He took another steadying breath. “It wasn’t, but I don’t regret it.”
Wes met his eyes and nodded.
“We were betrothed when we were thirteen,” he explained. “Sebastian was living in Paris, and our parents arranged it without consulting us. It was a non-binding arrangement—we were allowed to break it any time, as long as it was mutual. I didn’t think anything of it; I figured I would find a boyfriend and Sebastian would find one of his own and we’d split without ever having met.”
Jeff grimaced at him sympathetically.
“In September, my parents called me home. Sebastian had died in a car accident. We hadn’t met yet; Sebastian’s parents asked if I would consider a spirit marriage, and I agreed.”
The Warblers, more Warblers than Blaine would have liked to think, nudged each other in self-satisfaction. He was vaguely relieved to note that out of the freshmen, only Thad had bet on commitment.
“But,” he continued, loudly over the furtive whispers. “I couldn’t be married to somebody I didn’t know.” The Warblers quieted at Wes’ furious shush. “So, I talked to a medium, and we arranged a meeting. I’ve been dreaming of Sebastian since winter break.”
Daniel, who had offered free tutoring, elbowed Brandon On The Council triumphantly.
“We’ve been talking,” Blaine concluded. “And I can’t say I love him now, but I think I could learn.” He took another deep breath, glancing around. “That’s it. I didn’t marry Sebastian out of love, but I wish I did. I wish I had taken the time to know him. I wish I could have fallen in love with him.”
He met Nick’s gaze. Nick, who had bet on true love—fifty dollars, at five-to-one odds. Rolling his shoulders back in his stiff blazer, he said over the low susurrus of sound: “I want—”
The Warblers quieted.
“I want to start over. I want to build a life with Sebastian.”
He was standing on the shore as the waves rolled in and swept the sand from under him. He was drifting out to sea; his parents’, Sebastian’s parents’ expectations heavy like a noose around his neck, and Sebastian—
“I don’t know what that means for the bet.”
Wes stood, touching Blaine on the shoulder as he walked forward. “Thank you, Blaine Warbler, for your honesty.” He turned to address the group. “In the interest of honoring Blaine’s feelings, I move to suspend the bet. Everybody will receive the amount they put in. All in favor?”
Blaine watched a sea of blazer-clad raise in harmonious approval. He swallowed around the lump in his throat. He hadn’t thought—
“Motion passed.” Wes declared, with a bang of a gavel.
Blaine wasn’t supposed to drive without an adult, but he snuck out regardless, driving the twenty minutes to the cemetery in pre-dawn silence. Even the radio was somber, everything muted for Tomb Sweeping Day. Blaine tried putting on some Top 20, before turning it off and making the rest of the drive in careful silence.
He would be back later, with Sebastian’s father and Sebastian’s recently returned from Paris mother. They would sweep the tomb and Sebastian’s father light incense and lead them in prayers. They would join the other families in the temple adjoining the cemetery and ask for blessings from their ancestors. Later, Blaine would do his spousal duty beside his father-in-law and mother-in-law. But first, he wanted to do this—alone.
Sebastian’s grave was clean, but Blaine had brought a rag anyways, wiping it down and pulling the few weeds that had grown through the stone tiles. He took the incense pot and emptied it, throwing away the butts of incense and the sand—more ash than sand, at this point.
Filling it with fresh sand, he sifted the grains through his fingers, watching them gleam black in the dawn light. He let the sand trickle through the cracks in his hand before patting it down flat.
Blaine picked a torch and lit it with the holy fire burning in the temple up the hill, walking down with his hand cupping it against the breeze beginning to pick up. He set it in the holder, smoldering weakly against the April breeze, and lit a fresh stick of incense from it, letting the agarwood fill his lungs. He didn’t say anything, just focused on the sweet smell and the chill of morning, fleeting, like a kiss against his cheek.
“Good morning, Sebastian,” he murmured.
The leaves rustled.
He shivered, setting the incense down in the sand. It stood, straight and tall. Blaine looked at it for a very long time.
“I brought you coffee,” he said, the words sweet in his mouth. He couldn’t help smiling as he poured the coffee into a delicate ceramic cup he had bought with his new year’s money, setting it before Sebastian’s grave. “Just the way you like it, with a shot of your father’s Courvoisier.”
He tilted his head up, letting the rising sun splash over his face. He was lying in the park, Sebastian’s fingers tangled with his. He was in bed, the curtains drawn to let the sun dapple Sebastian’s chest with gold.
He was standing on the beach, Sebastian anchoring him against the shifting sand.
“I stole it from his liquor cabinet,” he admitted, feeling something mischievous bubble up within him. “I hope you appreciate the lengths I went for you.”
He closed his eyes. Later, Blaine would come with his family, to sweep his husband’s tome and pray over his soul for peace. He would ask for blessings and burn offerings with the rest of the Smythes. Later, Blaine would be a Smythe.
This morning, he was just Blaine.
“I would have,” he admitted, finally, as the sun rose. He turned to the East, toward the sun, toward Sebastian. “If I had known you the way I do now.”
He inhaled—agarwood, coffee, and a touch of cognac. Spring was starting, and the trees were beginning to bud. It felt a little like new beginnings.
“I would marry you.”