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The Simplest Way Forward

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Yuan wakes them up very, very early the morning they’re going to sign the official adoption papers.

“It’s time,” he says, tugging on Wei Ying’s arm. Wei Ying grumbles and rolls over, but Lan Zhan gets up.

“If your papa’s not up yet, then no one on this earth needs to be awake yet,” Wei Ying complains.

“I have been awake,” says Lan Zhan.

Yuan is almost six, and he has learned exactly how to handle this kind of thing. “But…” he says, eyes devastatingly big and sad as he looks at Wei Ying. “But dad.”

Wei Ying groans and puts his head under a pillow. It’s not fair. Who told this kid to be the cutest kid in the world? “Give me ten minutes, or I swear to god, I’m gonna cook the bunny.”

Yuan chirps a happy, “Okay!” and Wei Ying can hear him dash out of the room. He runs almost everywhere now, all the time. He also hasn’t been worried about Wei Ying’s vague bunny-related threats in forever. It’s almost like he doesn’t think Wei Ying is a stern, rule-enforcing dad.

A heavy, steady hand lands on Wei Ying’s back. “He is excited,” says Lan Zhan. “It is nice.”

Somewhere down the hall, Yuan shouts, “We’re having a party!”

“Who is he telling,” Wei Ying complains. “The bunny?” Wei Ying sits up and runs a hand through his hair. Lan Zhan is half-dressed, still shirtless, and Wei Ying holds his hands out, making little grabbing motions until Lan Zhan walks over and leans down to kiss him.

“I will make breakfast,” says Lan Zhan, straightening up. Wei Ying pouts a little, because there’s going to be family over all day, so he won’t be getting more kisses for hours. “My brother will arrive soon. Then your brother will arrive. It is best to be prepared before.”

“He’s not going to scream all day,” Wei Ying says. “He promised. Although if your uncle tells him to stand up straight again, I’m not responsible for what happens after.”

“My uncle is easily distracted by Yuan-er,” says Lan Zhan, with a tiny smile. “You must distract your brother.”

“My brother is easily distracted by giving him something to complain about,” says Wei Ying. “So I’ll just stand right next to him and make fun of how he will never, ever have a girlfriend, and—”

Lan Zhan clears his throat disapprovingly.

“Don’t you defend him. You don’t even like him.” Wei Ying climbs out of bed and stretches. He’s not going to change out of his sweats and hoodie until he has to. He’ll get up early for Yuan’s sake, but he’s not going to put on real clothes until they actually leave to go sign things with the lawyer.

“He is flying in from San Francisco,” says Lan Zhan. “That is good of him. Just…antagonize him gently.”

Wei Ying snorts a laugh. “Tell him to antagonize me gently!”

Lan Zhan gets that very sexy look in his eyes like he’ll beat up the whole world for bothering Wei Ying. “I will,” Lan Zhan says.

“No no no,” says Wei Ying, because he doesn’t want an actual fight today of all days. Today is supposed to be a straight-up celebration. They’ve been counting down to “sign the adoption papers” with Yuan and marking it with big Xs on the calendar. Yuan is over-the-moon excited, but so is Wei Ying; he just hides it better. “He won’t dare cause any trouble today, not with A-Li and the baby visiting, too. I thought he doted on A-Yuan until he met his other nephew. All he’s going to do today is ask if he can hold the baby and sulk when other people are holding him. I told everyone a thousand times they didn’t need to come over this morning. The party isn’t until after we sign all the papers, so why is your entire family and my entire family showing up to spend the entire day in our apartment driving me crazy—”

“Because they love us,” says Lan Zhan, with the gentle smile that’s become Wei Ying’s favorite.

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. It still doesn’t sound like it ought to be true, but Lan Zhan clearly believes it, and Wei Ying always believes Lan Zhan. “Yeah, of course. It’s going to be so much family, though. You and me should run away through the window.”

“We would have to take A-Yuan,” says Lan Zhan, buying into the joke so fast Wei Ying is surprised he doesn’t just pull out a rope ladder. “And he would be difficult to remove quietly. He is very excited.”

“If we told him it was a game, he might do it,” argues Wei Ying.

“And the bunny?”

“The bunny is just gonna have to fend for itself. My sister will look after it. Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines, “don’t you wanna run away with me? Today is going to be so long and boring.”

“I am never bored with Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan firmly, and kisses him again.

Wei Ying puts his hands on Lan Zhan’s hips, like maybe they have just a couple of minutes before Yuan comes running back in and family arrives, when he could show Lan Zhan just how much that kind of ridiculous statement means to him. But then the doorbell rings and there’s a happy shriek from Yuan. “Jiujiu’s here!” he hollers.

Wei Ying groans and flops back on the bed. “It’s so early,” he whines. He knows the school has done a unit of family names in Chinese, and he wonders how enthusiastically and earnestly Yuan explained all his various unbelievably complicated relationships to various uncles. It probably made his teacher, poor anxious Mr. Ning, make that big-eyed concerned face he makes all the time.

Wei Ying kind of likes arguing with Lan Zhan, actually. They usually end up taking their arguments to bed with them, and it’s fun because even when Wei Ying loses he’s still winning.

“My brother will help me with breakfast,” says Lan Zhan. He turns and finishes putting on his shirt. What a tragedy.

By the time Wei Ying gets out to the living room, Yuan is perched on Lan Huan’s lap. “There will be a lawyer there,” he’s saying. “I met her, and she’s short, and dad said she’s scary but in a good way, and we’ll sign all the papers. It’s like homework. Do you want to see my workbook? I know more than one hundred characters. I’ll show you!” He slides off Lan Huan’s lap and goes tearing into his bedroom.

Lan Huan twinkles happily at Wei Ying. “He’s excited,” he says.

Lan Zhan appears like a ghost, hands Wei Ying a coffee, and goes back to the kitchen. “I swear he talks so fast he forgets to breathe half the time. We’ve been trying to explain what adoption means, so he’ll get it,” says Wei Ying. “We want him to know what’s going on. In case he ever wonders, you know? He barely remembers last year, he probably won’t remember this, either, but he ought to know.”

“It’s a formal procedure!” says Yuan, dashing back in with his character practice book. “It’s a formal procedure that means I’m adopted. Like we adopted the bunny! We’ll keep him forever.”

“You’re even cuter than the bunny,” says Lan Huan. He pulls Yuan up on the couch, and Yuan opens up his practice book and begins pointing to characters he knows and explaining them in Chinese.

“Mr. Ning says he’s the best student in the class,” says Wei Ying, because whenever he gets the chance to brag about Yuan, he does. In Chinese he says, “You’re so smart, aren’t you?”

“Jingyi is smart, too,” answers Yuan in Chinese. “He’s my friend,” he explains to Lan Huan. “We caught four frogs.”

“They caught them in the park and smuggled them back to the apartment in their pockets,” Wei Ying says. “It took me and Lan Zhan all day to catch them again.”

“Mr. Ning is really nice,” Yuan says in English. “He always helps me. His sister is our lawyer! It’s a co-in-ci-dence. Papa taught me that word!”

Wei Ying switches back to English, too. “Don’t you need to go pack your toys for today?” he says. “You know it’s going to be a lot of boring hours of waiting.”

“I’m not bored,” says Yuan confidently. “I have homework, and I already packed it, and I’m ready! Are we going soon?”

“Oh my god,” says Wei Ying. He loves having the world’s smartest, cutest, most energetic almost-six-year-old, but it’s still so early for Wei Ying to be up and talking to people. “Did you have coffee? Calm down, kiddo.”

“I’m excited!” says Yuan. “I’m skipping school! I have so much work to make up!”

Wei Ying frowns. “Wait, what kind of homework do you have?”

“Chapter books!” says Yuan, jumping back off the couch. “I’ll show you!”

Wei Ying shrugs at Lan Huan. “He reads with Lan Zhan every night. I don’t think he actually has any homework. Your brother is making our kid a nerd, but that’s okay; I gave him permission.”

Lan Huan laughs. “You are also a nerd,” he says.

Wei Ying is very cool, actually, but Lan Huan is too nice to correct, so he doesn’t.

Yuan is so excited that he has trouble settling down for breakfast, even when Lan Zhan gives him a gently reproachful frown. “It’s okay,” says Lan Huan in Chinese. “It just means he’ll sleep very well tonight.”

“I’m not tired at all!” says Yuan loudly, and then, “Oops. No talking while we eat. I forgot. I’m not hungry. I’m done. Can I—” The doorbell rings. “Please?” says Yuan. “Please, can I get it?”

“You may,” says Lan Zhan, and Yuan disappears to run over to the door. “Auntie Yanli!” he shouts. “You’re here! You’re here!”

“Oh, it’s so nice to see you,” says Yanli. “Say hi to your cousin, A-Ling.”

“He’s a baby,” says Yuan dubiously. “He can’t talk. He just cries.”

They have to stop eating for everyone to say hello, and for everyone to hug, and for everyone to insist that everyone else hasn’t eaten yet, and have some food, you look so thin, please, eat! As always, the best thing in the world is a hug from Yanli, and it’s clear that Lan Zhan agrees with Wei Ying about that. Lan Zhan and Yanli exchange cooking emails, and every now and then Lan Zhan will say, “Your sister has reminded me I must tell you out loud: I love you,” which is usually followed by the kind of kiss that makes Wei Ying drag Lan Zhan to bed. Even Yanli’s stupid husband has made the trip, which Wei Ying will grudgingly admit he thinks is nice, although he’s not going to hug him or anything.

It’s big, sprawling family chaos, especially when Jiang Cheng shows up a few minutes later. Lan Zhan’s apartment has honestly never been so loud, not even when they host the occasional party. “I can’t believe they’re letting an idiot like you have a baby,” says Jiang Cheng, in lieu of a hug.

Wei Ying beams at him. “Me, neither!” he says.

“I’m not a baby!” Yuan says insistently. “A-Ling is a baby. I’m a big kid.”

Zixuan says loudly, “A-Ling took his first steps at the airport.”

Yanli pats his arm and shakes her head. “No one else saw it.”

“He did! I’m telling you, he’s gonna be a big strong kid just like his dad.”

Jiang Cheng almost shouts, “He’s going to be a big strong kid just like his uncle! Someone give me my nephew already!” He makes it sound like a personal affront that he wasn’t handed the baby immediately.

The morning gets slightly worse when Lan Zhan’s uncle shows up, because he scowls at Wei Ying, like he always does, but then it gets better again because Yuan shouts, “Grandpa!” and runs over and hugs him, and Qiren turns immediately into a pile of mushy grandpa goo. Yuan hasn’t met his grandparents in China yet, because they’ve been waiting for all the citizenship paperwork for Wei Ying and adoption paperwork for Yuan to be finalized. Then they can worry about passports. Lan Zhan has already started a binder. Wei Ying and Lan Zhan have been discussing maybe taking Yuan to China for the summer, although he still gets fretful and teary when they mention airports.

Yuan drags Qiren over to the fridge. They’ve let him put up anything he wants on the bottom half, which he can reach, so there’s a drawing of a rabbit and a dinosaur, and a picture of him and Jingyi with their perfect attendance certificates, and some workbook pages where the characters for different animals have been turned into animals to help kids remember what they mean, and math worksheets that got stickers and stars on them.

Wei Ying decorated the top of the fridge, so it’s covered in photographs: Yuan beaming on his first day of school, Yuan and Lan Zhan holding hands at the Museum of Natural History as Lan Zhan points up at the giant whale, Wei Ying and Yuan sledding in Central Park, Yuan’s first piano lesson. There’s also a selfie Wei Ying took when he and Lan Zhan got to the restaurant for their first attempted overnight hotel date, which was about three minutes before the babysitter called and said, “I’m so sorry. He won’t stop crying, can you come home?” Their second overnight date is still on hold.

Qiren is surprisingly patient as Yuan points to every picture and explains them all in great detail, exactly like he did the last time Qiren visited them. “And this summer, Jingyi and I will go to the Bronx Zoo summer camp!” Yuan finishes excitedly. “We signed up together!”

“That sounds very nice,” says Qiren.

“We had a sleepover, and he stayed here, and we played with the bunny,” says Yuan. “We had sleeping bags in the living room, and dad gave us flashlights. And we roasted marshmallows on the stove and we made cookies. Look, that’s a picture of us! And Jingyi ate too many cookies and threw up. It was great.”

Qiren looks mildly taken aback by this. “Oh,” he says. “And…that was a nice sleepover?”

“It was the best,” Yuan says.

Wei Ying, who has been hovering sort of nearby just in case Yuan needs him, says, “We’re hoping for a sleepover at Jingyi’s house next, but we’re still working up to it. The school counselors say we need to be patient and give him time, but we’re hopeful. Maybe by fifth grade?” He means it as a joke, and elbows Qiren a little bit, but only gets a thunderously disapproving glare in return. Qiren is absolutely no fun.

“I want to,” says Yuan. “But…” He trails off and glances up at Wei Ying, pulling his hands up inside his sleeves and shifting his weight uncomfortably.

Qiren is a terrible sort-of father-in-law, but a wonderful grandpa, and he changes the subject. “Will you play the piano for me?” Qiren asks. “I want to hear how you’ve improved.”

“I’m much better now,” says Yuan confidently, perking up again.

“A-Yuan,” says Yanli, crouching next to him, “Would you like to come to Chicago sometime? You could stay with me and A-Ling for a few days. I can teach you some recipes your daddy loves from when he was your age.”

“Yes,” says Yuan. “I’d like that.” He looks around for Wei Ying, edges a little closer and slips his hand into Wei Ying’s. Wei Ying gives his hand a reassuring squeeze. They aren’t going to leave him alone overnight before he’s ready, even if he’s never ready.

“Good try,” says Wei Ying in Chinese to his sister. Yuan understands Chinese pretty well now, but he only halfway understands what adults are talking about, so they’re still able to talk about him when they need to. Pretty soon they’re all going to need to learn French or something to talk about birthday presents, though.

“You two deserve a honeymoon,” says Yanli. “And he’s an angel, so we’re happy to take him. Maybe we’ll come stay here with him, instead of him coming to us. That would be less tough for him.”

“Yeah, but you have a baby—” Wei Ying starts. He loves his sister so much sometimes it’s painful.

Yuan tightens his grip on Wei Ying’s hand. “You won’t go away, though, right?” he says. “I’m not scared. I’m just…wondering.”

Wei Ying picks him up, which he can still do pretty easily. It is clearly time for hugs. “It’s okay to be scared.” He gives Yuan a sloppy kiss on the cheek, which makes him giggle. “But what’s today?” Wei Ying asks in English.

“We’re signing papers,” says Yuan, wiping his cheek off with his sleeve.

Lan Zhan, who always knows when Wei Ying needs him, appears out of the crowd of family, suddenly right behind Wei Ying. “What papers?” prompts Lan Zhan, putting his arms around Wei Ying’s waist.

Yuan smiles at him. “Adoption,” he recites. “It’s a formal legal procedure.”

“What does it mean?” Wei Ying asks.

Yuan gets just a little pink. It’s adorable. “You’re keeping me,” he says.

Wei Ying could melt into the floor, he feels so warm inside. He remembers Yanli telling him that he’s always loved recklessly, and he thinks it was all a rehearsal for this, for making sure Yuan and Lan Zhan know how loved they are. “Forever,” he says. “And ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and we’ll never ever ever go away.” He boops Yuan gently on the nose.

“Daaad,” Yuan complains. “I know. But… You and papa want to go away?”

Wei Ying glances over his shoulder at Lan Zhan’s perfect profile. It is hard, it turns out, to have as much sex as they want to have, as quietly as they need to have it, when Yuan is likely to wander into the bedroom after having a bad dream. “We want to go on a vacation,” he says. “For a few days, just me and papa. And we’ll FaceTime you every single day while we’re gone, and we’ll miss you so much we’ll cry every minute we’re away.”

“Don’t cry,” says Yuan, frowning. “Don’t worry; I want to keep you, too.” He puts his arms around Wei Ying’s neck and hugs him.

If Wei Ying didn’t have Lan Zhan standing literally behind him, he’d stagger and collapse. “Oh,” he says, blinking back tears. He clears his throat a couple of times. Bursting into sobs right now would send Yuan a weird message, so he’s not going to. “That’s good. That’s—Then we don’t have to worry.”

“You should have a vacation,” says Yuan. “I’ll stay with Auntie Yanli. I’ll teach the baby, too. He has to learn Chinese.”

Wei Ying can’t really figure out how his voice works, and if he tries he’s gonna cry for real, so it’s a good thing Lan Zhan says, “Then we will go on a vacation. And bring you back presents. You, and the bunny.”

“Good!” says Yuan, perking up again. “I like that.”

“I think I should take a picture,” says Yanli. Wei Ying hadn’t realized she was still right next to them, but she’s beaming at him with her special fond, proud smile. “Today is definitely a day to add to the fridge. Give me your phone, A-Ying.”

Lan Zhan fishes it out of Wei Ying’s pocket. “Wait,” Wei Ying says, “I’m still in my pajamas. We got A-Yuan a little suit with a tiny little tie. It’s gonna be the cutest thing in the world—”

“This is already the cutest thing in the world,” says Yanli firmly. She takes a step back. Behind her, Zixuan is shouting at Jiang Cheng that he has no idea how much work a baby is, and Jiang Cheng is shouting back that he could raise a baby on his own no problem, and Qiren is complaining just a little bit too loudly to Lan Huan that Wei Ying is a bad influence on everyone. “On the count of three, say ‘family,’” she says.

Wei Ying sniffles a couple of times, hoping he doesn’t look sad. He’s not sad, he’s probably the happiest he’s been in his entire life. It’s just overwhelming. “Okay,” he says. He glances up at Lan Zhan. “You hear that? We’re going to smile.”

“I am smiling,” says Lan Zhan, and it’s true; for him, his face is very soft and fond. Wei Ying squeezes Yuan a little tighter, and Lan Zhan holds on to Wei Ying a little tighter.

“One, two, three,” Wei Ying says.

“Family,” Yuan and Lan Zhan dutifully chorus together.

The pictures, when Wei Ying sees them later, are hilarious. Lan Zhan is so formal, standing with perfect posture. His face is blank, but his eyes are soft, and his mouth curls up at one edge. Yuan, in Wei Ying’s arms, is trying too hard to smile. In the second and third pictures he’s turned to Wei Ying, to ask with extreme patience if now he can get down and show his homework to Grandpa, please? Wei Ying is the only one beaming at the camera, eyes definitely sparkling with tears. This picture is going on the Christmas card next year, he thinks. It’s going on the fridge forever.

This is his family, and it is perfect.