The first time—the only time, to date, but Wei Ying tends to think of it as the first time because he hopes that there will be at least one more and can’t quite stomach the idea of more than that, just the two times, the first, and the last; the accidental, and the intentional—anyway the first time was in college.
It was junior year. It was winter and not quite the break. It was the night Nie Huaisang threw a housewarming party for Wei Ying’s new cramped studio apartment: the one he had gotten a second job to afford. The one Lan Zhan had helped him find during that harrowing week before midterm after he left Jiang Cheng’s apartment.
A week of studying, frantically checking listings, turning over his phone to check if his brother had called, traveling to and from showing appointments in Lan Zhan’s car, and trying not to wonder why Lan Zhan kept squeezing mentions of his spare room into their distracted conversations, like the last three books Wei Ying couldn’t find room for in any of his moving boxes.
It had been an awful week, made less awful by Lan Zhan’s steadying presence, his persistence in making sure Wei Ying was getting to bed at a reasonable hour, his careful unpacking of Wei Ying’s worn possessions. Made more awful by Nie Huaisang’s stupid fucking party. Made almost unbearable by the cold that crept over him like a clammy ghost, hugging him tight and fierce by the weekend.
He should have said no to the party. He should have taken the cold medicine Lan Zhan offered to bring him and climb into bed, fuck the outcome of his last midterm on Monday. He should not have gotten drunk halfway through the party and called his brother to invite him over. But he had, and that’s how he had ended up hunched over his new toilet, throwing up cold medicine and gin, knees aching, mouth sour.
Someone was holding his hair back. Big hands, one cupping his hair to the nape of his neck, one resting on his back, a small patch of sun.
“Lan Zhan,” he groaned. “Lan Zhan. That gin was awful. Don’t drink the gin, Lan Zhan.”
“Mn. Are you going to throw up more?”
Even then—before Wei Ying understood that when Lan Zhan brought him lunch and studied with him, drove him to the grocery store and went with him to parties, Lan Zhan was telling Wei Ying in the best way he could that he always wanted to be doing these things for Wei Ying—even then, when he had convinced himself he was just happy to have a friend, nothing more, there was a sense of coming home in Lan Zhan’s voice. A rightness. The thought slipped through him and made him laugh into the toilet bowl.
“Yeah,” he said, laughter already somehow gone. “I think so. Sorry.”
The sunbeam hands stayed with him, like Lan Zhan had stayed with him, left briefly and came back slightly cooled from clutching a glass of water, but not before securing Wei Ying’s hair with his own hair tie. Wei Ying drank the water, and then another. He let Lan Zhan give him more cold medicine, and even more water, so much that he felt heavy and quivering with it; he let Lan Zhan give him mouthwash to wipe away the landfill taste of gin and stomach acid and didn’t even try to swallow it as a joke; he let Lan Zhan take off his shoes, let himself giggle away the sudden, unexpected vulnerability that came with that, and then came his shirt, his jeans, the familiar worn second skin of his pajamas.
His eyelids scraped down and up and down again before he realized Lan Zhan had undressed and dressed him, and not in any way Wei Ying had been undressed before. Those big sun hands respected the hell out of him, he realized, as one then two pressed him down onto his mattress that felt like river rock under his back but still somehow comforted him. He had half a mind to be less respected, and then he sneezed so hard in Lan Zhan’s face, he partly bolted out of bed to do it.
“Sorry,” he croaked again, the shape of it familiar in his mouth. He had said it a lot that night, maybe hadn’t stopped saying it, and it makes sense now why Lan Zhan had been saying, “It’s fine, there’s no need,” over and over. “Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. You’re too good to me.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan said, wiping a hand across his face. “It is what you deserve. It’s not too good.”
“Is that—a cloth for my head?” And it was, damp and cool, pressed to his forehead, which was hot, how did he not realize how hot it was? “That is too good. You’re too good, you’re the best. Why are you even friends with me, you should be out there—with a million friends. All of them.”
“That sounds exhausting,” Lan Zhan said, and Wei Ying laughed.
“You’re so! You’re so—Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying struggled up on one elbow, which Lan Zhan allowed. “Lan Zhan, I think I’m drunk. So. So maybe if—if I tell you that I think I want to marry you.” He wobbled on his elbow at this critical point, and Lan Zhan knocked it gently out from under him. He hit the bed and sighed. “If I tell you that, you’ll be okay with it. I really do, I’m sorry, I just wanna. I don’t know, you’re so nice to me. Marry me.”
He shouldn’t have remembered it. But maybe it was the horrible week, the awful party, maybe it was the first time Wei Ying realized that every time he was hurt and struggling, Lan Zhan was always there, shoring up his injured side. But he remembered, even when Lan Zhan never mentioned it, and he never mentioned it, even when he passed out after he heard Lan Zhan say, “Don’t you think we should move in together first?” in that dry, joking way of his.
He remembered it on their first anniversary. It was the first time he’d said those words. He wanted to ask Lan Zhan again: this time, for real.
Lan Zhan is packing the clothes. Technically, this had been on Wei Ying’s half of the to-do list, the half that Lan Zhan had judiciously divided evenly at Wei Ying’s insistence—(“‘Buy snacks’? Lan Zhan, am I a joke to you? Give me a real job.”)—but he got distracted when his sister video-called to show him her veil, and at first he had laughed and then he sat down hard and blinked away tears because his sister is getting married.
“Oh,” he said, feeling the floor spin in the best way. “Oh my god, you’re getting married!”
“I know!” Jiang Yanli said, laughing.
“Yeah!” She grinned, radiant and a little perplexed as his crying turned earnest. “A-Ying, why are you acting like you didn’t know about this for ten months?”
“Sorry—sorry,” he blubbered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Just. Jiejie, you’re—you’re going to be so happy. It’s what you deserve, I’m so—”
Mortifyingly, it got worse, and Wei Ying wasn’t even sure why, except that he was loud enough that Lan Zhan heard and came through the door looking alarmed.
“Wei Ying?” he asked at the same time his sister said, “Is that Lan Zhan? Is he with you?”
And Wei Ying, with the panic of someone whose sister didn’t yet know that he had been dating his best friend since college for almost as long as Jiang Yanli had been engaged—didn’t know, in fact, that Wei Ying would be interested or inclined, as Yu A-yi would say, in dating men at all—shouted, “DON’T WORRY I’M FINE I LOVE YOU SEE YOU TOMORROW,” and hung up.
Which was how he ends up starfished on the bed while Lan Zhan finishes the packing. Wei Ying watches him step into the closet and take a shirt down from the rack before reappearing. Lan Zhan has a particular way of folding things—in this case, Wei Ying’s best white shirt, the one Lan Zhan gave him as a graduation gift three weeks before they started dating. Lan Zhan lays the shirt down carefully, like a baby, performs some precise origami on the sleeves, folds the torso in quarters and then tucks it into a neat square, the perfect size for the vacant spot in Wei Ying’s suitcase.
I love you, Wei Ying thinks. And then remembers his question.
“So,” he says again, “question.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t look up from his folding. “Why do you always say that?”
“I was th—say what?”
“‘So, question,’” Lan Zhan parrots back to him seriously, lifting his eyes to meet Wei Ying’s. “You say it before you ask a question.”
Wei Ying laughs. “Because I’m going to ask you something! That’s what question means, Lan Zhan.”
“Funny.” Lan Zhan is folding Wei Ying’s socks now, and there’s something about that that plucks some vital string in Wei Ying like a piano being tuned. Lan Zhan has had fingers inside Wei Ying and more, but Wei Ying can’t think of a single person who has folded his socks for him, definitely not like this, rolling them into tiny little dumplings that Lan Zhan tucks into the edges of the suitcase. “Why not just ask the question.”
“Currently because you won’t let me,” Wei Ying says, and then when Lan Zhan gives him a look: “What if you don’t want me to? Ask you something I mean.”
Lan Zhan frowns, this time with Wei Ying’s briefs in hand. “Why would I not want you to ask a question?”
“I don’t know…” Wei Ying rolls over onto his side, pillowing his head on his folded elbow. “Maybe you’re exhausted or annoyed, or I’ve been asking too many, or you just don’t want to answer. Or you’re focusing so hard on fitting my clothes into that case like it’s a puzzle that you can’t do any extracurricular thinking, I don’t know.”
Lan Zhan’s look turns quietly fond. He stops folding Wei Ying’s underwear into triangles to deliver this fondness with such strength that Wei Ying aches with it.
“Wei Ying,” he says, “I would never not want to answer your questions.”
This isn’t what Wei Ying was hunting for. Not what—what was it again? He had been thinking about his sister, his lovely, happy sister getting married in two days to the love of her life. He had been thinking about hanging up on his sister before she could see Lan Zhan in his house, folding his clothes because he and Lan Zhan hadn’t talked about telling their families. That’s what he had meant to ask—but now there’s this.
“You don’t know that,” Wei Ying says. “I know you’ve forgotten because you’re hopelessly in love with me, but I can be really obnoxious sometimes. What if you come home after a long day and I say, ‘so, question,’ and you say, ‘so, answer, Wei Ying,’ all patient and good and in love and whatnot—and I ask, ‘would you rather have an unshaveable tuft of hair on your nose or one on your tongue?’ What then, huh??”
This wasn’t where this was supposed to go, but Wei Ying is laughing the nerves away anyway.
Lan Zhan blinks at him four times and sets down the tie he has been rolling into a swirl—lavender, Jiang Yanli’s favorite color on him. And then: “I would say….my nose. Tongue would be unpleasant.”
Wei Ying shrieks a laugh. “OH MY GOD, Lan Zhan, noooo, you’re too pretty! You’d let that hair insult your perfect face?? Just keep your mouth closed.”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, snorting a small laugh through his nose. “Would you say tongue? What about kissing.”
“In this hypothetical, there is no one to kiss me.”
Wei Ying springs to his knees and hobbles to the edge of the bed to seize Lan Zhan’s shoulders. “No, don’t be sad!! We can both have hairy noses and kiss all we like, how about that?”
“Better,” Lan Zhan says, and kisses him. When he pulls back, he does it with a quick, sharp bite to Wei Ying’s lower lip. “Wei Ying. You can always ask me anything.”
“Okay, Lan Zhan, okay.”
Wei Ying could ask one of two questions. Maybe both. One is terrifying. It involves—telling his sister, his brother, Jiang-shushu and Yu A-yi. It involves being measured up by Lan Zhan’s uncle and brother, weighed and judged. And the other—the other Wei Ying has asked before, but he would have to mean it this time.
“What would you say,” he tries, and stops. “I mean. It’s my sister’s wedding, right? And you’re coming with me. As my date. Right?”
Lan Zhan looks down at Wei Ying’s suitcase, sitting next to Lan Zhan’s. “Mn,” he says.
“I just—I mean that we’ll have to do some explaining, probably,” he says, which isn’t a question so he’s doing this wrong. “I mean, if you want to? Or we don’t have to say anything. But my family will be there.”
“Gege, too,” Lan Zhan reminds him, and oh yeah, he forgot Wen Qing invited Lan Huan.
“Right, exactly,” Wei Ying says, feeling like he’s climbing a staircase that will never end. “So would—if we were to tell them, would that be too much? Is what I’m asking. I mean, it’s my sister’s wedding, so I shouldn’t steal any thunder. But for you—would it be too much?”
Lan Zhan smiles one of his tilted-line smiles and kisses him again, no bite this time. Soft, lingering, patient. Lan Zhan is always patient.
“If Wei Ying wants,” Lan Zhan says and pulls away to go back into the closet.
Wei Ying sits back on his heels on the mattress. Lan Zhan always wants what Wei Ying wants. Lan Zhan has always been like this. He has always, since they got together and before that, when it was just them skimming the surface of their feelings like pondskaters. It was Wei Ying who asked Lan Zhan out, who asked Lan Zhan to move in, who asked Lan Zhan to come with him to his sister’s wedding. Lan Zhan would never do something Wei Ying wouldn’t want—but would he do something Lan Zhan wouldn’t want?
“Do you want to bring your cufflinks?” Lan Zhan calls, and it spears through Wei Ying like he’d stuck his finger in an outlet. He scrambles off the bed and into the walk-in, clipping his shoulder on the doorframe.
“I’ve got it, Lan Zhan—ouch—” He’s made it to the drawer, thrown his body in front of it. He strikes a pose, pulls a face. “Aiya, Lan Zhan, this is my job, remember? My half of the list. Go finish your half!”
Lan Zhan snorts another soft laugh and leaves, blissfully, and Wei Ying can tamp down on the rabbit-foot beat of his heart. In the drawer are his cufflinks, given to him by Jiang Fengmian when he left for college and not worn since he graduated, and nestled next to their box is one in deep blue velvet. That box was a fourth of Wei Ying’s savings at the time he bought it one month ago, and it has stayed here, next to his cufflinks and under his unfolded socks, for all that time, waiting on a question.
Wei Ying packs the cufflinks—and then, an afterthought, the blue box.
Lan Zhan cries during his sister’s wedding, and Wei Ying has never been more in love.
No one else would know—maybe Lan Huan on Lan Zhan’s left side, who has probably seem Lan Zhan cry before, but he seems caught up in the ceremony and his own husband sitting next to him: Huaisang’s scary older brother, who has only ever interacted with Wei Ying once, when Nie Mingjue picked him up from the airport as a favor. Lan Huan makes soft eyes at Nie Mingjue and holds his hand, his ring hand, and Wei Ying is watching partially because if he watches his sister walk down the aisle—if he looks at her face or catches her eye, he’s going to burst into tears in front of everyone, and that’s Yanli’s job.
“Get it together,” Wen Qing hisses to him from where she stands, resplendent in red, next to the officiant. But her voice is watery too, and Wei Ying hadn’t imagined that brief, brilliant look she had given him when he and Wen Ning had arranged themselves behind her, like she both couldn’t believe she was here and had always known she would end up here.
“I’ve got it together,” he whispers back, watching his sister’s feet, Lan Huan’s hands, Jiang-shushu’s crooked elbow, Lan Zhan’s partially turned head in the audience following their progress up the aisle, his sister’s stardust smile turned on him.
“Don’t fucking cry,” Jiang Cheng growls behind him in the lineup. “This isn’t about you, remember?”
On Wei Ying’s other side, Wen Ning weeps openly, smiling, and he continues to weep during the ceremony, when their sisters face each other, clasping hands, and make their vows to each other. Wei Ying feels half-blinded, unsteady on a bed of champagne bubbles, teetering on the edge of laughter or tears. And then he looks back at Lan Zhan—steady, stay steady—he sees the wet light in Lan Zhan’s eyes, looking at him, an anchor, a lighthouse.
“Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape,” says Wen Qing through a cloud. Again and again the two of us walk out together, his sister says in her turn. Again and again. He delivers the rings. He watches his sister laugh and kiss and get married, hears his brother sniffle behind him. Looks to Lan Zhan, who mouths, “You did well.”
Wei Ying, of course, cries. His sister and sister-in-law embrace him, Wen Ning, Jiang Cheng. Wei Ying is made of love. Wei Ying has so much love in his arms, it is spilling over; he is stooping to catch it, keep it, never let it go.
“You cried!” Wei Ying crows at Lan Zhan after two flutes of champagne. “I love you! You’re so—I just do, okay?”
“Okay,” said Lan Zhan, finding Wei Ying’s fingers on the back on his neck—not to remove them, but just to hold them.
“We already did.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to do it more than once?”
“I’m not good at it,” is Lan Zhan’s explanation, matter-of-fact.
“Then you need practice! I’m sure that’s one of your uncle’s rules about—perseverance in the face of adversity or something.”
“I’m vain,” Lan Zhan says, and it’s so cute that Wei Ying swings in for a kiss just as Jiang Cheng comes up, tie undone. He pauses, for Jiang Cheng’s benefit, since he’s clearly here to deliver some sort of message.
“A-jie is looking for you,” he says, his eyes on Lan Zhan.
“What for?” Wei Ying slings his arm around Lan Zhan’s neck—that could be taken any sort of way, right? He’d told his siblings he was bringing Lan Zhan with him but not in any particular context. And, well, he has always been a little handsy with Lan Zhan and Lan Zhan with him.
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Why are you standing like that?”
“Like you’re fraternity brothers or something. Like—” Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “You know what? Nevermind.” He walks away, and apparently Wei Ying is meant to follow, so he does, keeping hold of Lan Zhan’s fingers until the last possible moment, and then all he has in the big ballroom is Jiang Cheng’s cold annoyance, bulldozing through the crowd.
“I thought we called a truce,” Wei Ying says. “Is that not what we did? I flew all the way home in the summer and the impression I got when I was there—”
“What is this, a turf war? I said I forgave you,” Jiang Cheng snaps.
“Okay.” Wei Ying slows down on purpose, mostly to keep Jiang Cheng from knocking into aunties like a bowling ball into pins but also—this is a wedding party. Nothing is this urgent after the wedding. “Okay, then why—look if this is about me blubbing during the ceremony, you were the only one who actually gave a shit about not crying. Everyone else cried—”
“Including your boyfriend,” says Jiang Cheng, and Wei Ying stops completely this time. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re the one being dramatic trying to keep it a secret.”
“I’m not! Why would I—I’m not.” He’s not. He still touches Lan Zhan, kisses him (when his siblings aren’t around), calls him baby (again, out of earshot). “I’m not ashamed if that’s what you’re saying.”
“Of him or of us? Or of yourself?” Jiang Cheng looks at him, face all pinched together in some sort of effort. “Look. I’m saying you don’t have to. Hide it, I mean.”
“I,” Wei Ying says, feeling tilted, unbalanced. “I know I haven’t—said anything about—like, guys or anything—”
“God, as if you needed to, the way you look at Lan Zhan,” Jiang Cheng says distastefully, but he has enough sense to rephrase. “That’s your thing, or whatever. You get to do that. Just—he’s your date. Get over it, I’m over it.”
Wei Ying laughs. “Are you? Is this your way of saying you’re fine if I make out with my boyfriend in front of you? Let me go get Lan Zhan, we can—”
“Shut,” says Jiang Cheng, walking away, “up.”
Jiang Yanli is whispering to her wife, whispering probably for the specific intimate pleasure of being close enough to breathe each other’s words, since the music is loud enough to blanket regular words. Wen Qing sees him, presses a kiss to Jiang Yanli’s cheek, and stands. She cuts through the well-wishers around them and makes her way to the band, but not before pressing a hand to his shoulder in a way that has come to substitute as Wen Qing’s thank you.
His sister holds her hands out to him. He takes them, her palms soft like lotus petals.
“Hey, guess what,” he says.
“What.” She smiles.
“Yeah,” she says, her smile devastatingly soft. “I have a wife.”
“You’ll be saying that a lot, probably,” he says, and he doesn’t blame her. How many times has he tested husband in his mouth just to feel the stab of hope and fear that came with it? How many times has he wondered if he has a right to that word, if it’s meant for him, if Lan Zhan could call him that back.
“Oh you bet. Hey, did you and A-Cheng make up?”
“Turns out we weren’t even fighting? Crazy. I thought he was mad—maybe he was but—”
There’s a hole in the music that makes them turn, and the piano starts, slow and deep, and Wen Qing is waiting on the dance floor.
“Jiejie,” he says before he lets his sister go. “How would you feel if I proposed to Lan Zhan at your wedding? I’m dating him, by the way.”
If his sister was brightly lit and burning before, she’s a bonfire now, walking backwards with a hand outstretched, knowing her wife will take it and hold her.
“A-Ying, that would make me so happy!”
He grins. “Me too.”
Jiang Yanli dances with her wife, and when that song is over, Wei Ying dances with her, and then with Wen Qing, and he sees Lan Zhan take Jiang Yanli’s hand and walk onto the dance floor. He dances, as he does everything, beautifully.
Wen Qing and Jiang Yanli depart at sunset. Two hours later, Wei Ying stands on the beach, his best pants rolled up to his knees, feet losing feeling in frigid seawater. Lan Zhan has kept his shoes on, pants unrolled, but he sits in the sand like he was made to wait, carved from patience like a castle from sand. He’s looking at Wei Ying, and with the sun behind him, Wei Ying wonders how much of him Lan Zhan can see.
Wei Ying can picture it. This is what he will do: he will step from the sea and onto the dry sand and let it cling to his wet feet as he steps toward Lan Zhan and, inevitably, kneels. He will draw out the small blue velvet box that has lived in his pocket since they came here. He will open it, and open his mouth, and he will say, again and again, and he will propose, and Lan Zhan will say yes.
“Lan Zhan,” he says.
Lan Zhan blinks up at him. He must be tired; it’s late, and their hotel room is half a beach and four floors away. “Wei Ying,” he says.
Marry me, he should say. Ask.
He takes a step. He doesn’t kneel. He sits in the sand next to Lan Zhan and rests his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“I told my siblings about you,” he tells Lan Zhan. “Well. Jiang Cheng already knew because—he could just tell. And jiejie probably knew too, if I’m being honest. But they know. They know we’re dating and that you’re—” Mine.
Lan Zhan makes a small, warm sound and shifts his cheek against Wei Ying’s hair. “Ge already knows too. He knew a long time ago.”
“Really? How long?” Wei Ying raises his head a little. “When we started dating?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “Before.”
“In college?” And he’s thinking about that horrible night when Lan Zhan had tucked him into bed and he had said, Marry me, and Lan Zhan had said, Shouldn’t we move in together first? And months later they had.
Lan Zhan kisses his forehead, his cheek, and Wei Ying steals kisses of his own, from Lan Zhan’s jaw, his temple, until they kiss with the black sky between them and Wei Ying has that same feeling he had at the wedding, like he’s clutching so much love to his chest that he can’t contain it all and shreds fall away like loose pieces of laundry. This would have been such a good moment to propose, he thinks, but it’s still a good moment like this. The best.
Lan Zhan pulls back. “So, question.”
Wei Ying sputters into laughter. “I swear if you ask about tufts of hair—"
“Why haven’t you given me that ring,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying is close enough to whisper over the waves. “At first, because I wasn’t sure you’d want it. And then because I knew if I wanted it, then you might just—no, don’t, it’s okay. I know.” He laughs to himself, a little at himself. “And then it was because I was waiting for a better moment. Do you remember that night I was sick and drunk and you stayed with me? Any moment is better than that, but you deserve the best, because you are the best. You always have been.”
He draws out the velvet box. Then: “Wait—how did you know about this?”
Lan Zhan levels a look at him. “We keep our cufflinks in the same place.”
It’s a good time to tuck his face into Lan Zhan’s neck, as he shivers with laughter—or maybe he’s just shivering; the wind off the sea is cold, and he clings tighter to Lan Zhan—“Right,” he says, still shaking, “of course. I knew that. I planned it. It was my plan all along for you to see—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, his voice rumbling against Wei Ying’s face. He’s almost sure Lan Zhan is smiling.
“Are you going to ask me a question?”
He pulls back and thumbs at Lan Zhan’s curved lips. “Yeah,” he says. “I think I am.”