There’s a missed call on his phone when practice finally lets out and Jingyan gets a chance to check it. It’s from Lin Shu, who had a dinner date with some guy tonight. Jingyan hops in the shower quickly before calling him back, figuring that he’s going to want to talk about how the date had gone.
Instead, what he hears as soon as the call connects is Lin Shu demanding loudly, “Xiao Jingyan! Where are you? Don’t tell me practice ran over again.”
Jingyan looks around in bewilderment, like the locker room will hold answers to the question of why Lin Shu is mad at him. “Wha—I—yes, practice just ended. What’s going on?”
Lin Shu ignores his question to ask another. “Do you know how long I’ve been sitting here, waiting for you? I am starving. You better get your ass down here right now.” Then he hangs up.
Jingyan stares down at his phone. What was that about?
Meng Zhi’s hand landing on his shoulder shakes him out of his thoughts. “Forgot you had a date tonight?”
When he looks up, Meng Zhi’s wincing in shared sympathy. “No, that was Xiao Shu.”
“It’s okay,” Meng Zhi says. “Just buy him some flowers before you get there. He’ll forgive you.”
“I don’t even know where—oh,” he breaks off, remembering Lin Shu talking about his date earlier. He groans. “He’s at Miaoyin. I don’t even have the right clothes with me. They’re not going to let me in like this.”
Meng Zhi snorts. “You’re a Xiao. They’d let you in if you were naked.”
On the other side of the lockers, Lie Zhanying chokes. “Meng-dage! ” he says, sounding scandalized.
“What? It’s true,” Meng Zhi says blithely. “Anyway, you better get going before Xiao Shu gets even more upset.”
Jingyan curses at the reminder and hurries out to his car.
When he gets to the restaurant, the hostess takes him in—hair still damp from the shower, dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie with the university logo on the front—with an unimpressed look. Her eyes linger on the bouquet in his hands and her lips twitch just the minutest amount. Jingyan had picked out the largest, most colorful bouquet that the only flower shop still open in town had because even though they’re not dating, it can’t hurt to bring flowers.
The way Lin Shu’s eyes light up at the sight almost makes the whole confusing night worth it. “Oh, Jingyan, are those for me?”
Jingyan arches a brow at him and asks wryly, “Who else?”
Lin Shu flashes him a wicked grin and holds his hands out for the bouquet. “They’re gorgeous. You’re forgiven.”
Jingyan doesn’t even bother to ask what for. He gives Lin Shu the bouquet and then takes a seat. He’s thankful that they’re at a corner table near the back, at least, but he can feel the eyes of the other diners on him. He dreads what the headlines will be in the morning.
“I took the liberty of ordering for us already,” Lin Shu says, breathing in the scent of the flowers with a smile. “I got you your favorite.”
“Xiao Shu, what’s going on? What happened to your date?”
Lin Shu’s eyes narrow. “That bastard never showed up. I waited an hour for him and then he texted and said he changed his mind. He ‘couldn’t do it’.”
“What?!” Anger floods him. “I’ll kill him.” He starts to stand, the urge to go find Lin Shu’s date and break his nose nearly overwhelming.
Lin Shu’s hand on his stops him. “No, don’t. I’ll handle it.”
Jingyan stares at him, at the fire burning in his eyes, and sits back down. “Okay, fine. But if you need me to help—”
“I know,” Lin Shu says with a smile. “But for tonight, I was promised a dinner so I figured, why not? I should still get to have dinner, and if it’s with my best friend, all the better, right?”
Jingyan can’t help smiling back. “Yeah.” Then he frowns. “But did you have to be so dramatic about the whole thing? You know this is going to end up in the papers, don’t you?”
Lin Shu smirks. “Yeah. Can’t you just imagine the look on your father’s face when he sees it?”
Jingyan suddenly can. It’s going to be glorious.
Lin Shu looks smug when he sees that Jingyan’s caught on. “Good one, right?”
Jingyan chuckles. “Yeah, Xiao Shu. It’ll be one for the history books.”
“Jingyan!” Lin Shu says, plopping down on the couch next to him and snuggling into his side.
Jingyan obediently lifts an arm for Lin Shu to tuck himself under and hums questioningly, eyes still on the pages of his textbook.
“You’re going to the gala this weekend at the museum, right?”
“You know I am,” Jingyan says absently.
“Take me as your date.”
It takes a second for that to sink in but when it does, he lowers the textbook with slackened fingers and glances down at Lin Shu’s messy head of hair with an arched brow. “Don’t you have your own ticket?”
Lin Shu tilts his head to look at him, eyes sparkling mischievously. “Of course. But I want the full experience. Picked up in a limo, wined and dined, photographed with a very handsome man on my arm. So, take me as your date.” He grins winningly. “Please?”
Which is how, days later, Jingyan finds himself picking Lin Shu up from his dorm to go to dinner and then the gala. He’d refused to book a limo, on principle. Lin Shu will just have to be satisfied with Jingyan’s Audi and a flower pin for his breast pocket.
Lin Shu’s eyes widen when he finally opens the door dressed sharply in a tux. Jingyan’s breath catches in his throat and he has to remind himself that this isn’t supposed to be a real date. “Jingyan! You brought me a flower. And you’re in a tux!”
“So are you,” Jingyan returns dryly, rolling his eyes. “It’s a black tie event.”
Lin Shu huffs out a laugh. “Must you always be so boring about everything? Come on, pin the flower on me.”
Jingyan stifles a long-suffering sigh and steps up to do so.
“Well? How do I look?” Lin Shu asks, striking a pose with a ridiculous expression.
Jingyan chuckles. “You look great, Xiao Shu. As usual.” He holds out a crooked arm, which Lin Shu accepts graciously.
“Thanks,” Lin Shu says, preening. “You do too. We make quite a pair, don’t we?”
“Yes, I suppose we do.”
Jingyan doesn’t remember many specifics of that night, besides that he’d spent all of it with Lin Shu plastered at his side and that he’d laughed more than he usually does at these types of events. Lin Shu has a way of making everything more fun.
“Jingyan, what are you doing tomorrow night?” Lin Shu asks, feeling a little anxious. He’d been planning this for a long time, planting little seeds very carefully here and there until they finally bloomed into glorious real life plot devices. There’s just one more step left, and even though some might say that Jingyan’s agreement is always a sure thing for Lin Shu, he can’t help feeling a little bit of nervous excitement every time it comes to this part.
Jingyan gives him an unimpressed look and says, “I suspect whatever it is that you’re about to rope me into.”
Lin Shu beams at his best friend. “My parents are coming to visit and they want to have dinner. You’ll come, right?”
“Of course, Xiao Shu,” Jingyan says easily. “You know I like your parents.”
“Great. As my boyfriend?” He throws it out casually, like it’s just another thing in a very long list of favors he’s asked of Jingyan over the years.
Jingyan doesn’t even miss a beat. “Sure.” Then he arches one brow at Lin Shu challengingly. “Why?”
Lin Shu laughs lightly, though his heart is pounding. Jingyan always says yes. No matter what task Lin Shu sets before him, he’s always taken it and run with it. Lin Shu is self-aware enough to know that that’s why they get into so much trouble together; they drive each other towards it, instead of pulling one another back. It’s one of the things he loves most about Jingyan.
He’d like to think that one day, when he finally asks Jingyan for something that his friend refuses to give him, he’ll be able to accept it good-naturedly and content himself with everything else he and Jingyan have done together. However, he suspects that when that day comes, he’ll actually be completely shattered and unmoored.
Luckily, that day is not today.
Today, Lin Shu grins and says, “Well, you know my parents have been talking about how I should start thinking about marriage soon since I’m a year away from finishing up college.” Jingyan had already graduated and is halfway through his Master’s degree in Business. He’d stayed on at their university for it, and Lin Shu is so grateful, because the two years he’d had to wait before he could finish high school and join Jingyan in college had been hell.
“And you’re not ready to settle down,” Jingyan says.
“Nowhere near ready.” Lin Shu shakes his head vehemently. “So I thought, if you pretend to be my boyfriend, then they’ll leave me alone because they’ll think that we’re going to settle down together one day.”
“And what do you plan to tell them later, when we’re still not married to each other?”
“That we realized we were better off as just friends. And that I’m not ready to try again yet. Because I’m so heartbroken over the ending of our relationship.” He gives an exaggerated pout and clenches his fist over his heart. When he hears Jingyan chuckle, he drops his hand and looks back up with a shrug. “It won’t last forever, of course, but it’ll buy me some time.” He doesn’t really know what he wants out of life just yet, but this isn’t about that in any case. This is about playing a trick on his parents with Jingyan.
Jingyan sighs and shakes his head with a small smile. “Alright, fine. But only because it’s you, Xiao Shu.”
Lin Shu pumps his fist in the air and throws his arms around Jingyan, hugging him tightly. “Yay, you’re the best, Jingyan!” He’s not going to lie to himself; the thrill of knowing that Jingyan is doing something for him that he would never do for anyone else is the best kind of high.
His parents really do love Jingyan, too. Neither of them seem surprised to see him snuggling up to Jingyan at dinner.
“We thought it was just a matter of time, really,” his mother says with a knowing look.
His father laughs loudly. “Yeah, we always said that there were only two people in this world who’d be able to keep up with you and your shenanigans for life.” Lin Shu doesn’t know whether or not he should be offended about this. “And once Nihuang met Xia Dong, we knew it had to be Jingyan.”
Jingyan just chuckles, cheeks flushed a little.
“Dad!” Lin Shu says, aghast. “You can’t say that like Jingyan’s second best. It was always going to be Jingyan.” He squeezes Jingyan’s hand tightly. This is all for show but it suddenly feels almost real.
His father tilts his head and looks at them thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose it was Jingyan all along,” he finally says, eyes lingering on where their hands are clasped together. “My apologies.”
“Thank you, dad. We accept your apology,” he says graciously.
The rest of the meal passes quickly. When the food arrives, he drops the act with Jingyan and just focuses on eating (and stealing bites of food from Jingyan’s plate). Conversation shifts to school, work, and plans for the upcoming holidays. His family and Jingyan’s have always been close, so they’ve had more dinners like this than he can count. If Jingyan’s mother hadn’t had to work a shift at the hospital that weekend, she would have come up with his parents to visit and then it really would have felt like one of their weekly dinners back when he and Jingyan were both still living at home.
“Can you believe my dad?” Lin Shu asks with a huff of irritation once they’ve dropped his parents off at their hotel. “Saying we’re only together because Nihuang fell in love with someone else.”
“Well, to be fair, at one point, it did look like the two of you might have started dating,” Jingyan says peaceably.
Lin Shu gapes at him and smacks him on the shoulder. “Are you kidding? That would never have worked out. Sure, she thought my jokes were funny and she tolerated my pranks, but she would never have gone along with all the schemes that you did.”
Jingyan nods seriously. “You’re right, she’s far too reasonable a person for you. Whereas I am more water buffalo than person.” His lip twitches with suppressed mirth.
Lin Shu squints at him. “Are you indulging me right now? You are, aren’t you?”
Jingyan’s lips curve up in a smile as he loses the war with himself. He throws one arm around Lin Shu’s shoulder and pulls him in against his side. “Of course, you know that we’ll have to do this again when my mother comes to visit? She and your mother are best friends. She’ll hear about this from your mother, and then she’ll call me to berate me for not telling her myself, and then I’ll have to make it up to her by treating her to dinner.”
Lin Shu’s eyes widen. “Oh! I love having dinner with your mom. Do you think she’ll bring us pastries?”
“I think it’ll depend on how upset she is with us for not telling her as soon as we started ‘dating’.” Jingyan actually does air quotes for the word with his other hand.
“It’s okay,” Lin Shu says confidently. “She can’t stay mad at me. I’ll get her to forgive us.”
“Okay, oh wise one. I’ll leave the strategizing to you.” Jingyan halts their walk to give him a mock bow.
“Good,” Lin Shu says with haughtily. “Because you don’t have any brains.” Then he takes off running with a laugh as Jingyan takes a swipe at him.
“Remind me again why we’re here?” Lin Shu murmurs at him as they’re sitting down at the banquet table reserved for family members of the groom.
Jingyan sighs. “I’m here because my father’s turned this into a business networking event. You’re here because...well, I don’t know why you’re here, to be honest. You could have spared yourself the trouble and skipped this one.”
“I think I was expecting more fireworks,” Lin Shu says. He looks to where the groom—Jingyan’s older brother Jinghuan—and the bride are sitting, and his expression sours. “But it’s just kind of disgustingly sappy. Something I would never have expected from Qin Banrou.”
Jingyan shrugs. “Love can change a person.”
Lin Shu scoffs. “Not like that, it—” He breaks off with a hiss and clamps a hand around Jingyan’s arm. “He’s here. How could she invite him? But of course she would invite him, he’s her friend and she’s just as nasty a person as he is.”
“Huh? Who? What?” Jingyan looks around, bewildered. Then his eyes zero in on a man sitting at a table on the bride’s side of the banquet hall. His eyes narrow. “Xia Jiang. How dare he show his face.” He clenches his hands into fists and grits his teeth. “I’ll kill him.”
“No, don’t. I have a better idea,” Lin Shu says, eyes glittering. “Let’s ruin her wedding.”
Jingyan arches his brows but settles back in his seat, willing and ready to watch the show. “I will watch the master at work, then.”
Lin Shu grins sharply. He waits until an announcement for toasts is made in between course changes and then stands.
Both the bride and the groom look nervous, as well they should.
“I’ve known Jinghuan-ge for just about my whole life,” Lin Shu starts, “but this toast isn’t about him. It’s about his wife, Mrs. Qin Banrou, who I first met a few years ago when she was dating my best friend and, in my admittedly biased opinion, the better Xiao brother, Jingyan.”
Jinghuan’s eyes narrow. A few of the wedding guests titter.
“Mrs. Qin, as everyone can see, is exquisitely beautiful and she always has been,” Lin Shu continues blithely. “But I have to say that I was quite unfair to her when she was dating Jingyan, because I was terribly jealous. I think it worked out very well for everyone, though, when Jingyan broke up with her—for reasons that I won’t go into here—since that led to her falling in love with her husband, Jinghuan-ge. And also, Jingyan and I are very happy now, and we’re moving in together!”
They had actually just signed a lease on an apartment together but Jingyan hadn’t planned on announcing that to his family. He gives a mental sigh and shrug. Things are never boring when Lin Shu’s around.
Jingyan’s father breaks out into a coughing fit at Lin Shu’s words. Qin Banrou looks like she wants to stab Lin Shu through the eye. Jingyan’s second oldest brother, Jingxuan, leans over with a gleeful smile and murmurs something to his mother who looks like a bag of gold just dropped into her lap from the heavens. Jingyan can’t blame her; this will be all over the tabloids in the morning.
“So, I’d like to give a toast to Mrs. Qin for having greater compatibility with Jinghuan-ge than she did with Jingyan. I hope the two of you are as happy together as Jingyan and I are.” Lin Shu smiles widely and raises his glass to the couple. The other wedding guests hesitantly follow suit.
Jingyan is quite sure that Lin Shu will be vehemently disinvited from all future events involving the Xiao family. He can’t help but admire him for that.
He has his own role to play in Lin Shu’s plan, apparently, but it’s not until they finish up the fifteen course dinner that he learns about it. Lin Shu’s dragged him over to the crowded bar for more drinks and they’re waiting for the bartender to take their orders when they spot Xia Jiang sitting next to Yan Yujin.
A squeeze of his hand is the only warning that Jingyan gets from Lin Shu before he gasps and says loudly, “Jingyan, Xia Jiang’s doing the same thing to Yujin that he did to me two years ago! He just slipped something in his drink!”
Jingyan doesn’t have to fake his anger at that. “What?” he demands. Around them, the crowd starts to look around and murmur until they land on a surprised Xia Jiang and a bewildered Yan Yujin. Jingyan stalks forward and closes a fist in the folds of Xia Jiang’s suit jacket. He forcibly pulls Xia Jiang off of his stool and shoves him away from Yujin. “Is that true? Did you just try to drug Yujin?”
Xia Jiang blinks at him and scoffs. “Of course not. Your boyfriend’s a liar. When have I ever drugged anyone’s drink?”
Jingyan snarls and slams him into the bar, toppling over one of the stools. “I think you’re forgetting that I was there when you tried this with Xiao Shu. And thank the heavens that I was, or else who knows what kind of dishonorable acts you would have done to him when he was in that state.”
Xia Jiang sneers. “I didn’t have to drug anything of his. He was drinking so much he put himself in that state!”
Jingyan starts to see red. He wishes he could wrap his hands around Xia Jiang’s neck instead.
“Well, if you didn’t drug Yujin’s drink,” Lin Shu’s voice says behind them, “then you’ll be happy to drink it for him, won’t you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Xia Jiang says. “Haven’t you caused enough of a scene here?”
“What’s the matter? Don’t want to be subjected to the very drug you give to unsuspecting victims?” Lin Shu steps up into Jingyan’s field of vision holding out what must be Yujin’s shot glass.
“What’s going on here?” Jinghuan demands angrily, cutting through the crowd.
Jingyan’s oldest brother, Jingyu, follows closely behind. He looks between Jingyan, Lin Shu, Xia Jiang, and the glass in Lin Shu’s hand with a furrowed brow. Jingyan addresses him directly, “Dage, Xiao Shu caught this man trying to drug Yujin. He did this a few years ago to Xiao Shu while we were all at a club together. It was only lucky that I was there then and Xiao Shu was able to get to me in time.”
“Ai, it’s just Lin Shu causing trouble again,” Jinghuan says with an angry huff. “Ruining my wedding day—”
“Drink it,” Jingyan’s oldest brother says, ignoring Jinghuan entirely.
Xia Jiang splutters.
“Dage!” Jinghuan protests. “You can’t—” He breaks off at Jingyu’s sharp look.
“This may be your wedding, Jinghuan, but I’m still the oldest and when father’s not around, I’m responsible for taking care of this family. Xia Jiang, you can either drink the drink and prove your innocence or leave and never show your face around here again.”
Xia Jiang pushes Jingyan away and straightens his clothes. “This is an abominable way to treat your guests, Xiao Jingyu, and you can be sure that your father will hear about it.” Then he stalks off.
The crowd disperses quickly, sensing that the excitement had ended for the night. Jingrui, who must have made his way over some time during the confrontation, lingers behind, hovering protectively around Yujin.
Lin Shu sets the glass back on the counter. “Well, I’m glad that’s all settled,” he says brightly. “Ready to go, Jingyan?”
“Sure,” Jingyan says. “Thanks for your help, dage. Congratulations on your wedding, gege.”
“Jingyan, that was exhausting. This wedding wasn’t any fun at all,” Lin Shu says loudly, linking his arm with Jingyan’s.
Jingyan pats his hand comfortingly. He can feel Jinghuan’s eyes on them as they leave and he imagines that they’re filled with indignant outrage. “I’m sorry, Xiao Shu. I’ll treat you to a weekend at that couples-only resort you’ve been wanting to check out.”
Lin Shu brightens. “The one in the mountains with the hot springs? You’re the best.”
“Jingyan, I can’t believe you’re leaving me!” Lin Shu wails as they’re walking through the lobby of their building. He seems to ignore the curious looks from the concierge, the door man, and even Gong Yu, one of their neighbors, who’s waiting for the elevator. “And our dog too! How will I ever explain it to Foya?”
Jingyan glances down at Foya, who’s looking between the two of them with wide eyes and a wagging tail. He groans. He’s already feeling guilty about this. Damn Xiao Shu for making him feel worse.
“Mr. Xiao, you’re not breaking up with Mr. Lin, are you?” Gong Yu asks worriedly. “Whatever’s going on between you two, you can talk it out. Maybe try couples counseling?”
Jingyan’s brow furrows. “We’re not—”
“—having any relationship problems, Gong Yu,” Lin Shu inserts smoothly. “Right, Jingyan?” He gives Jingyan a pointed look.
Jingyan schools his face into a neutral expression, which he’s found to be the safest one to use whenever he’s drawn into an impromptu scheme of Lin Shu’s. “Right,” he says. “Everything’s fine.”
Gong Yu doesn’t look convinced.
“Really, it is,” Lin Shu says with a sincere-looking smile. The elevator arrives with a chime and they pile in. “It’s just that Jingyan’s going away on a trip with his family for a month and he’s leaving me and Foya behind. Isn’t that terribly rude?”
“Oh,” Gong Yu says with some relief. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear that it’s a temporary separation.” From the way she’s looking at Lin Shu, though, Jingyan gets the sense that she had actually been hoping for the opposite. She’s been giving Lin Shu lingering looks since they moved in; Lin Shu hasn’t said anything and Jingyan’s not planning on bringing it up.
Gong Yu gets off on her floor and Jingyan turns to Lin Shu. “What was that about? It’s been months since my brother’s wedding, I don’t think we need to keep telling people we’re in a relationship.”
Lin Shu widens his eyes at him. “But Jingyan, what if your family members decide to drop by for a surprise visit one day?”
Jingyan stares at him flatly.
“Okay, fine. But you’ve seen the way Gong Yu looks at me! I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“So you told her that you weren’t available because you’re already in a relationship with me instead of telling her that you weren’t interested.”
“Exactly!” Lin Shu beams at him. Then the elevator doors open onto their floor and Foya charges out, pulling a laughing Lin Shu with her.
Jingyan just shakes his head with a smile before following them. He can’t help feeling happy that Lin Shu isn’t in a hurry to change their status quo.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me for a whole month,” Lin Shu says with a pout while Jingyan opens the door.
Jingyan rolls his eyes. “Xiao Shu, you’ve known about this trip for months. I have to go. It’s for my father’s birthday. And you’re not allowed to go, because you’ve been banned from going to any of his birthday celebrations after that fiasco a few years ago.”
Lin Shu only pouts harder. “I can’t believe he’s still holding a grudge.”
“I’m only going to the Eastern Sea. It’s not like I’ll be out of contact range. We can call and text as usual.”
“I guess.” He lets the matter drop until they’re in the kitchen making dinner later. “Jingyan, I was thinking—since you’re leaving me for so long, you should bring something back for me.”
“Of course,” Jingyan says. “Don’t I always?”
Lin Shu grins at him, and it’s one of his softer, more sincere smiles that he only gives to Jingyan and Nihuang. “Yes, you do, and I treasure everything you bring back.” His grin turns mischievous. “This, though, will be a real treasure. The Eastern Sea is known for its pearls. I want you to bring me one.”
“Ah ah,” Lin Shu says, holding a finger up admonishingly. “Would I give you such a simple task?”
“Of course not. So, Xiao Shu, what’s your challenge for me this time?”
“Your challenge, Xiao Jingyan—should you choose to accept it—is to bring me back the biggest natural pearl you can find.” He curls his index finger and his thumb together to make a circle. “I want one that’s at least this big.”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way one exists in that size,” Jingyan scoffs.
Lin Shu cocks his head at him. “So are you forfeiting the challenge? Have I finally found something that Xiao Jingyan cannot do?”
“Never. I’ll get you your fantasy pearl, just you watch.”
“But, what will my prize be?”
Lin Shu looks affronted at the question and Jingyan has to stifle the urge to laugh. “My undying love and affection, of course.”
Jingyan waves his hand dismissively. “I’ve already got that from all the other challenges I’ve completed. Something like this requires a more special prize.”
Lin Shu purses his lips. His eyes dart around their apartment. His fingers play with the edges of his sleeve, rubbing at the fabric as he thinks.
Jingyan turns away to hide his smile. He busies himself with finishing up dinner preparations while he waits to see what outrageous thing Lin Shu is going to come up with.
“Oh, I’ve got it!” Lin Shu announces with a snap of his fingers. Jingyan looks at him expectantly and Lin Shu flashes him a brilliant smile. “I’ll give you my hand in marriage.”
“What?” Jingyan nearly drops the two bowls of rice in his hands.
There’s a sparkle in Lin Shu’s eyes and this, Jingyan is sure, is another challenge. They’ve been doing this for years; it’s almost like a game where they keep upping the ante to see if the other will keep up.
I’m all in, Lin Shu’s eyes say daringly. Are you?
“Yes, okay,” Jingyan says, because he is. He always has been. He’s going to scour the Eastern Sea for that impossible pearl.
“I see you’ve been in Jingyan-ge’s room,” Nihuang says evenly.
Lin Shu splutters. “I—what? No. It was Foya!” The dog perks up at the mention of her name, head lifting from where she’d been laying on the ground next to their table at the teahouse in the gardens. “She’s been missing Jingyan—” Foya whines as if she understands and agrees with what he’s saying “—see? It’s so sad. She’s been pining for him. So she’s been sleeping in his bed and of course, I can’t just leave her in his room unattended.”
“Of course not,” Nihuang murmurs knowingly.
“She’s just a puppy, what if she has an accident or chews on things?” Lin Shu continues determinedly. “So of course, I’ve had to sleep there too, just to watch over her.”
“Don’t judge me.”
“I was actually referring to the fact that you’re wearing one of Jingyan-ge’s sweaters, and that you must have gone into his room to get it.” At his look of consternation, Nihuang bursts out laughing. “You’re hopeless, Lin Shu-gege.”
“I just really like this sweater,” Lin Shu mutters into his tea. “JIngyan knows that. If he didn’t want me to wear it, he wouldn’t have left it behind.”
“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t have,” Nihuang says. “Well, he’ll be back tomorrow.”
Lin Shu perks up. “I know. Finally. I’m going to pick him up at the airport and you and Dong-jie will meet us at the restaurant, right? I think Jingyu-ge and Jingning will also be coming.” Jingyan had said that after a month of being forced into close quarters with people in his family he couldn’t stand, he needed a night out with people he actually liked so Lin Shu had organized a welcome home dinner for him.
“Yes, we’ll be there. We wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Nihuang smirks.
Lin Shu squints at her. “Do you know something I don’t know?”
“Probably,” she says with a light shrug. “I get updates from both Jingyan-ge and Jingning.”
“That is so not fair. Jingyan just keeps sending me pictures of the tiniest pearls with the sad face emoji and telling me that’s all he can find. What’s he said to you?”
“I am sworn to secrecy. I know nothing.”
Lin Shu groans and slumps back in his seat.
“It’s okay, Lin Shu-gege. Tomorrow will come soon enough.”
And luckily, it does. Jingning’s the first Xiao he sees, skipping out of the airport doors to where Lin Shu and his driver, Li Gang, are waiting in the passenger pick-up zone. She’s Jingyan’s only sister and the youngest of all the Xiao children by far.
“Shu-gege!” Jingning gives him a bright smile and throws her arms around him in a tight hug. “It’s been forever. How have you been?”
“I’m good, meimei. How was the trip?” He spots Jingyu and Jingyan exiting the airport with a trolley piled high with suitcases. Li Gang hurries over to help them.
“It was fun! Gege dragged me all over the Eastern Sea looking at pearls.” Her eyes sparkle at him.
“Did I drag you?” Jingyan asks dryly behind her. “Or did you stick to me like a burr and insist that I bring you with me everywhere? Xiao Shu’s been a bad influence on you.”
Lin Shu gasps. “Jingyan, I’m hurt that you would say such a thing.”
Jingning just smiles slyly at both of them. “But gege, isn’t Shu-gege your favorite person in the world? Why wouldn’t I try to be more like him?”
Jingyan shakes his head at them both. “Come on, let’s just get in the car so we can go eat.”
“Yes,” Jingyu chimes in. “Let’s go before I feel any more left out of this lovefest.”
Jingyan groans. “Not you too, dage.”
“What? Can’t I want to be your favorite too?” Jingyu asks with a small smirk.
“Okay, okay. Dage, you’re my favorite brother. Jingning, you’re my favorite sibling. Xiao Shu, the jury’s still out.”
Lin Shu squawks. The others laugh, even Li Gang, the traitor. Lin Shu narrows his eyes at his driver while he ushers everyone into the SUV.
The restaurant is on the other side of the city so they have plenty of time in the car to catch up; the three Xiao siblings refuse to tell him anything at all about the pearl he’d asked Jingyan for, not even whether or not Jingyan had bought one. Lin Shu is dying of curiosity and anticipation. He’s determined to wear Jingyan down about this but he hadn’t given Jingyan the nickname of ‘water buffalo’ for nothing.
“Jingyan! Why won’t you tell me anything?” he complains when they’re pulling up to the restaurant.
“I’ll tell you when the time is right,” Jingyan says implacably, as he’s been saying the whole car ride.
“And when will that be? Will it be during dinner?”
Lin Shu buries his face in Jingyan’s shoulder to muffle his scream. Then he gathers himself enough to exit the car with dignity. “Thanks, Li Gang. We’ll call you when we finish eating.”
“Enjoy your meal,” Li Gang says placidly. He glances over at Jingyan and Lin Shu wonders a little resentfully if even he knows more than Lin Shu does.
Lin Shu resolutely puts it out of his mind and goes into the restaurant, determined to enjoy dinner at least. This is the best restaurant in Jinling and it normally takes months to get a reservation, unless one can throw around the name of Xiao, which Lin Shu had definitely done. They’d even been able to get a private room for their group.
He ends up fidgeting next to Jingyan throughout dinner. Jingyan serves him all the best cuts of the dishes and Lin Shu lets him, because if he’s going to keep Lin Shu in suspense like this then he should at least treat him with food. Lin Shu does eventually manage to forget about the pearl enough to focus on the conversation at the table and listen to Xia Dong tell stories from the police academy where she’s teaching.
When the waitstaff bring out bowls of red bean soup at the end of the meal, Jingyan stands and clears his throat. The others fall silent, most of them watching him with anticipation. Lin Shu can barely contain his excitement. This has to be it.
“I think I’ve kept Xiao Shu waiting long enough,” Jingyan says simply. He pulls out a rectangular red box from the inside pocket of his blazer and turns to Lin Shu. Then he kneels down on one knee and holds the box out to Lin Shu with both hands. “Xiao Shu, a month ago, you said that if I got you this pearl, you would give me your hand in marriage. So now, I present to you this pearl.”
Jingyan flips open the box to reveal the largest pearl Lin Shu has ever seen. It’s an iridescent white and nearly perfectly round. His jaw drops. “Holy shit,” he breathes out. He hadn’t actually thought it was possible for one to be this big. He’d been prepared to accept any sized pearl from Jingyan. This must have cost him a fortune.
“Will you marry me, Xiao Shu?”
Someone muffles a shriek of delight.
It takes a second for the question to register, and then Lin Shu meets Jingyan’s eyes and the quip he’d been about to make dies at the sincerity in them. “Wait, are you asking me for real?” he asks hoarsely.
“Xiao Shu, I have never not been completely real and sincere with you,” Jingyan says.
“Wait.” Lin Shu presses two fingers to his temple, feeling suddenly lightheaded. “Wait, wait, wait, wait.” The years flash by in his head—every time he’s ever asked Jingyan for something, no matter how big or small, how serious or ridiculous, and Jingyan would look at him with the same look he’s got now and do it; every time Jingyan had needed something but wouldn’t ask for it and Lin Shu would always know or figure it out and bend over backwards to give it to him. They’d gone as each other’s dates to big events—both public and private—and they’d taken trips together; they’d moved in together and adopted a dog. Some of those things had been preceded by Lin Shu asking Jingyan to pretend to be his boyfriend but nothing about the way they’d behaved with each other had been faked. Lin Shu’s eyes widen. “Oh my god, have we been dating for real this whole time?”
“Duh,” Nihuang breaks in. Lin Shu glares at her for ruining the moment.
“That’s what I’ve recently realized as well,” Jingyan says and Lin Shu’s relieved that he hasn’t been the only oblivious one in this relationship.
“It’s a good thing one of you figured it out before you went and adopted a kid together or something,” Xia Dong comments.
Lin Shu gasps at the suggestion. “Jingyan! We should adopt a kid. We’ll be great parents.”
Jingyan smiles at him. “Okay. But first, you have to answer my question.”
“Oh! Oh, of course I’ll marry you, you silly water buffalo. You didn’t even have to go through this whole production.” Lin Shu ignores the Look Jingyan gives him at that, which is fair, because Lin Shu loves the production and Jingyan knows that best of all.
Jingyan knows him best of all.
They’re going to be Da Liang’s newest power couple.