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like two drums in the grey

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Will you stay with me my love
For another day?
'Cause I don't want to be alone,
When I'm in this state
Will you stay with me my love?
'Til we're old and grey
'Cause I don't wanna be alone
When these bones decay

 

The alarm clock on the nightstand says 04:12 when Minghao stirs, blinking, awoken by a suspicious noise coming from the kitchen. He immediately reaches for the knife he keeps hidden between the headboard and the mattress, the one not even Jun knows is there. The gun in the second drawer, that Jun is aware of, but Minghao doesn’t want the consequences of a gunshot—the noise, the mess.

“Jun,” he whispers. “Babe?”

The left side of the bed is empty, the sheets cold. Minghao frowns. There’s another clang downstairs.

He gets up slowly, silently. The hardwood creaks under his footsteps, so he abandons his slippers and just tiptoes in his socks, almost soundless. Arm raised, grip tight around the handle, he reaches the kitchen door ready to throw the blade straight at the intruder’s forehead. Some reflexes are never lost, but this one is actually cultivated. There’s a wooden panel in the garage full of small incisions to prove it.

Instead of a stranger, he’s greeted with the sight of a shirtless Jun covered in flour, surrounded by a bunch of bowls and cooking utensils, looking absolutely dejected, staring angrily at the iPad on the kitchen counter.

“Babe?” Minghao repeats, slowly lowering his weapon.

Jun whips his head around to stare at him. “Is that a dagger? Minghao.”

“I thought someone had broken in,” Minghao protests, setting it down on the table. “What—what happened here?”

“I dropped the bag of flour.”

Minghao raises an eyebrow. “I can see that. My question was more, why are you handling flour at four in the morning?”

“I wanted cake,” Jun says, like it’s evident. “And you said you liked that chocolate thing we had at Alexandra’s last week, so I was trying to recreate it.”

That’s the exact moment Minghao thinks I’m going to marry him for the first time.

He thinks I’m going to marry him the same way he thought I’m going to fuck him the day Jun was assigned to him, and then I’m going to keep him and I’m in love with him, later. It hits him like a hurricane, not a realization but a certainty.

He has the presence of mind not to drop to one knee right there. “Four in the morning, Junnie,” he says instead.

Jun shrugs. “The cat woke me up.” There’s chocolate smudged on his cheek. Minghao closes the distance between them, wipes it with his thumb then licks his finger.

“You’re the one who insists on letting her sleep in our room,” he smiles.

Jun glares. “She gets lonely, okay.”

Minghao kisses him on the nose. Jun ducks to avoid him, but only half-heartedly. “Yes. She also loves walking on your face at undue hours, as demonstrated.”

“I’m not kicking her out of the room.”

“No,” Minghao nods, reaching for the closest bowl, “I wouldn’t ask you to.” Then, “Okay. What’s the plan?”

“The plan?” Jun blinks. It’s half dark in the kitchen. The only artificial source of lighting is the tiny LEDs under the exhaust hood, and then there’s the moonlight, bathing the room in soft blue hues. Jun dyed his hair blond a few weeks ago, and he looks ethereal like this, a little bit like a dream, a little bit out of reach. And yet so, so solid. So there.

“Yes, the plan. Do you have a recipe?”

And oh, that grin. Worth a thousand years of insomnia, Minghao thinks dazedly. Worth a kingdom, worth a throne.

 

***

 

The second time he seriously thinks about it is at the grocery store, of all places. The Whole Foods in their neighborhood is small, small enough that Minghao knows most cashiers by name, and they all recognize him. The lady at the bakery stand waves at him when he approaches her counter to browse through the frankly ridiculous selection of baked goods. He’s almost made a decision between pumpkin seed muffins and that one cheddar and roasted red pepper savory cake Jun likes when she asks, “Your partner isn’t with you today?”

He’s still not used to English. He is, in the sense that he has forced himself to practice daily, speak to Jun in the language everywhere except in bed, almost doesn't have an accent anymore; but he’s not used to how hollow it sounds sometimes—meaningless. Everything he says always sounds like a translation, not his original thoughts. He finds the expressions lacking, the words small.

This, however, he likes the sound of. Partner. It has implications. It reminds him of—of before, in a way that doesn’t hurt.

“No,” Minghao tells her, a small smile tugging at his lips, “He’s working.”

“He mentioned something about steamed buns, last time,” she says cheerfully. She rearranges her green cap. “I wanted to tell him we added them to our rotating menu. There’s some in the hot food aisle, if you want to take some home.”

He does end up buying six of them. The cardboard box is pleasantly warm against his palms, and it smells amazing. He knows it won’t taste like home, but there’s something reassuring about knowing their go-to place for a quick lunch even has that option. He knows why Jun asked. Minghao sees him, sometimes, eyes a little glassy, gaping at the shelves, at the myriad of products, unconsciously looking for brands no one sells here—not even the outrageously expensive Asian convenience store downtown.

He’s paying when the thought hits him, as he puts down his credit card in his wallet. The name on it is fake—familiar enough now, but only in the way one wears a coat. Minghao takes Adam Wong off the moment he crosses the threshold of their small house. He never brings him inside.

He could take my name, here. It wouldn’t be Xu, but it doesn’t matter. Jun had been a Xu anyway, back home, in all the ways that count. And Minghao… Minghao wishes he could still be Minghao everywhere, but Xu is his father’s name. Shedding it wasn’t a prowess. It’s maybe the one thing he doesn’t miss.

Wong means nothing. But it is—it is Minghao’s, just his, tying him to no one. And giving it to Jun, it would tie him to the only person he’s ever wanted to be bound to.

He can’t stop thinking about it, as he walks to their car, as he puts the paper bags in the trunk, as he drives home. He thinks about it while he puts the groceries away, he thinks about it in his studio—it won’t leave him, and it won’t let him paint. He keeps zoning out, brush in hand.

The front door slams shut, and he hears Jun dropping his keys on the floor, swearing softly. I’m home, cheerily, and then Xiaxue meowing happily, blatant favoritism. She never welcomes Minghao like that—on the best days he’s allowed to pet her without her trying to bite his hand off.

“Hey,” Jun greets him, head poking in, the cat in his arms and purring blissfully. He’s still in his work gear, black cargo pants and soft grey hoodie with the shooting range’s logo printed across his chest, hair matted with sweat.

“Come here,” Minghao beckons, setting down his palette.

“Nah, I smell.”

“Come here,” he insists. Jun rolls his eyes but complies, walks to him and bends down for the kiss he knows Minghao wants. Minghao grunts against his mouth, lips parting easily, hand sliding in Jun’s hair by rote. Stuck between them, Xiaxue makes a displeased sound, and Jun breaks the kiss, chuckling.

“Not in front of the kid, honey,” he jokes, but something about the way he says it destabilizes Minghao, throws him off orbit. When Jun leaves to take a shower, Minghao is still thinking about it, and at this point he doesn’t believe it’s going to stop anytime soon.

 

***

 

He plays with the idea in his head. Turns it around, weighs it. Pros and cons, risk and reward. Objectively any sort of paper trail that can be avoided should be avoided.

Subjectively Minghao wants to get married.

These are not the type of problems he ever thought he would be having. Marriage to a man was so unattainable when Minghao thought he would live the rest of his life in China, he had never really stopped to think about it. Even when he had realized he wanted Jun in a permanent, exclusive type of way, his mind still hadn’t gone there. It just wasn’t a logical conclusion, and Minghao is a rational being first and foremost. He dreams big, but always within reach.

Now that he could, technically, it still feels sort of fake, accessible in a weird, immaterial way. They went to a barbeque not so long ago organized by a lesbian couple, he knows people like them get married. It’s still—it still tastes like false hopes, and wistful thinking.

But the will, the want is there. He opened that door and now he cannot close it, no matter how much he pushes; like water flooding in, impossible to contain. And the danger, the danger is real, and it would be so ironically stupid, if what jeopardized their escape was this. Cosmic justice, he can hear Mingyu cackle, clear as day.

And it’s that, too. For a long time, Minghao did think about marriage. To a woman that would please his parents, a good match, someone he’d learn to respect and cherish, if not love. He’d pictured it many times—Mingyu in a navy blue suit, next to him, the only way to get through the ceremony without breaking down, most likely.

Minghao thinks of the empty spot beside him and his stomach tightens and his breath shortens and the ache is so vicious, so acid. He always thought—Mingyu would be there, somehow, Mingyu would be the one to fix his lapel, tell him to breathe, tell him it would be okay. And Jeonghan had joked, once or twice, about keeping the rings for him so he wouldn’t lose them, and—

And his mother. That thought stings particularly, bitterly. He doesn’t want her there, but he wishes he would, and curiously it just makes it worse.

He knows his father is in prison. That, Jun did manage to secure, even if he botched everything else.

Minghao thinks he would risk it all, to send him a message. A picture, maybe. Their hands linked, wedding bands visible.

That, he tells himself, is why he isn’t ready.

 

***

 

But it follows him, it haunts him. He can’t look at Jun without it looming over him, hovering too close. They’re eating dinner and Jun laughs loudly at one of his own corny jokes, head thrown back, exposing the perfect arch of his throat, and Minghao thinks he’s mine and I want the world to know and I want to die by his side and frankly, it’s getting ridiculous. He needs to get a fucking grip.

 

***

 

He walks into the tattoo parlor on impulse. The artist is a woman in her twenties, hair cotton candy pink and teeth blindingly white, stark contrast with her black lipstick. She nods carefully as he explains his idea to her. He gets a whiff of her perfume when she leans down to look at the photo on his phone, something floral and sweet, a reassuring, gentle sort of smell. It’s at odds with the way she dresses, spikes and leather and dark tones. He likes her.

It hurts, but it’s a good hurt. The needle is a rhythmic reminder, like a metronome, only the tempo is counted in blood.

It hurts like it hurt to look Jun in the eye and admit weakness, admit need. It hurts like it hurt to leave. Sacrifice, a small piece of him currency to buy mortal eternity. Sacrifice, teeth gritted for an hour and metal digging into skin for a permanent scar.

 

***

 

Jun notices the bandage immediately, obviously. It would be hard not to when they share a bedroom—when they share a life.

“I don’t want you to see it before it’s healed,” Minghao tells him, and Jun just says “Okay” and kisses his shoulder, and then they go to sleep.

It stops looking red and puffy and generally painful by the second week. Jun gasps softly when he sees his chest, reaches out with hesitant fingers. Minghao meets him halfway, guides him by the wrist until he’s touching the ink above Minghao’s heart.

“Minghao,” he says, and his voice sounds raw and fragile.

“It’s for you,” Minghao says, hand still wrapped around Jun’s wrist, and ah, he too sounds weird—young, almost. He feels himself blush.

Jun traces the elegant lines of the cat forever etched on Minghao’s skin reverently. “It—it looks like Xiaxue, kinda,” he laughs quietly, disbelieving.

“I showed the girl who drew it a picture of her,” Minghao says.

Taking Xiaxue in, they had not planned it. Minghao was against the mere concept of pets, at first, just in case they had to cut and run. But Jun had found a small, lost kitten on the side of the street, and well. Minghao loves him. Loves her, too, now, even though he’s unsure his affections are returned. He likes to believe they are. He’s just not the cool dad.

The point is, Xiaxue was unplanned, a surprise, a fact of life. Completely theirs, and without meaning, and entirely too meaningful at the same time. Something that they didn’t do for appearances or safety or by fear. Something they just did. Something that made Jun happy. And Jun, Minghao likes to joke, truly is a cat; a human-sized sun-seeking predator, a tender-hearted but easily spooked animal, a menace and a thief and a warm place to hide in. Is loyal like a cat, too. Always ready to kill, even when he’s purring.

When they fuck that night Jun presses the gentlest kisses to the black there, careful because the skin is still tender. Minghao cards his fingers through his hair and breathes shakily, Jun inside him, Jun inked over his beating heart.

And this is good. This is forever. This should suffice.

 

***

 

It does not.


***

 

Jun is the one who asks. Minghao should have seen it coming, really. Jun always has him beat at this game. Jun loves and says it. Jun loves and shows it. Even when his very existence was built on lies, Jun wore his heart on his sleeve.

“Miss Fletcher asked me when we were planning on getting married,” he says like it’s no big deal, chopping carrots expertly, not even looking down while his hand moves at full speed on the cutting board. Clack clack clack. Minghao’s blood pumps in his veins just as fast, frantic.

“Oh,” he says, voice miraculously steady. Light, even. “And what did you tell our favorite nosy neighbor?”

Jun stops massacring the vegetables to look at him. He’s smiling, but there is a heaviness to his gaze. But no doubt.

“That I was waiting for you to propose,” he says calmly.

“Oh,” Minghao says again. “If people around think that makes sense, then it—for our cover,” he stutters.

Jun tilts his head to the side. “For our cover,” he repeats, eyebrows raised.

“And,” Minghao continues, “Well, taxes, and insurance. And Heaven forbid, if something were to happen—visitation, I know hospitals here only let in family, and—”

“Minghao,” Jun interrupts him, “Ask me to marry you.” Then he frowns, because Minghao is frozen. “I mean, if you want to. I thought—I was certain I read that right.”

Oh, Minghao thinks, but this time it doesn’t spill from his mouth. Oh, I’m going to marry him, but the intonation is different this time, nothing subjunctive about it. “Jun,” he says instead, grabbing whatever he finds first—Jun’s shirt collar.

The kiss is messy, uncoordinated. They haven’t kissed like that in a long, long while; they know each other’s bodies too well for asynchronies. But this is like a first kiss, quivering and objectively bad until it’s good, until it’s familiar again and Minghao feels a little bit more like himself, like he’s back at the helm.

“I crossed an ocean for you,” he says, nose pressed into Jun’s cheek, uncomfortable and yet not close enough. “I carved you on my skin, I sleep beside you with both eyes closed. You already have me in every way that counts.”

They’ve exchanged vows countless times before, he realizes. You’re mine and I’m yours, said for the first time in what now seems like a different lifetime, in an office Minghao can’t even really picture anymore.

You can’t die, you belong to me. And like Echo to Narcissus, always giving back, I’m not leaving you. I promised.

“Does that mean yes?” Jun asks, out of breath, panting. “Does that mean yes?”

 

***

 

It’s a small affair, a quiet affair. They sign the certificate. The old Miss Fletcher is their witness, and their only guest. She dabs her eyes with her embroidered handkerchief and keeps swearing she’s not crying. Minghao can’t stop staring at Jun in his rental crème tux.

When it’s done, he keeps reaching for Jun’s hand, intertwining their fingers, just to feel the white gold rings knock together.

When it’s done, under the covers, Jun calls him husband, and kisses the tattoo, and leaves thirteen other marks on Minghao’s body.

 

***

 

It doesn’t feel different. The skies don’t open, the sea doesn’t part.

Minghao wakes before Jun sometimes, and observes him as he inhales and exhales in his sleep, face devoid of tension and trouble.

Then he takes his hand, presses his lips to the inside of Jun’s wrist, where his pulse is, and then to his knuckles, and then to the ring.

Good morning, my love, he never says, because he’s never been one for words, not like that.

Jun’s eyes twinkle. Minghao thinks he hears it anyway.

 

***

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

 

— e. e. cummings