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giant mancala

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After Jin Zixuan had been trapped in his father’s wine cellar with his future brothers in law for twenty minutes with no sign of reprieve, he started hunting the shelves for a bottle of wine that didn’t have a cork. There wasn’t really much else he could do; Jiang Cheng had already done the most practical thing possible by sitting down on the steps by the entrance, ten minutes after they realized they were locked in. “If someone comes by,” he had said, crossing his arms, “I can yell for help.”

“No one’s going to come by,” Wei Ying had said, crossing his arms back. 

“You don’t know that,” Jiang Cheng had said. They had been arguing about something inane when they’d come down into the cellar, and were ready to jump right back into it. Jin Zixuan only remembers hearing the words “boyfriend” (scathingly, from Jiang Cheng) and “stupid” (somewhere between exasperated and fond, from Wei Ying) before he’d sprung up from his position playing games on his phone against the cold cellar wall and stared at them, and the door clicked shut. 

“Oh, fuck,” Jin Zixuan had said, “I don’t have the key.”

Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng had instantly forgotten their argument to glare at him, and he had sent a silent call out to A-Li, in case she had developed telepathy sometime in the past few hours, and could come save him. There had been no luck with that so far. 

“If you get one with a cork,” Wei Ying said, now, noticing what he was doing, “I can get it out. I have a lighter.”

“Oh my god,” Jiang Cheng said.

“What! It works! I’ve done it before!” Wei Ying protested, his eyebrows flying up his forehead.

“Do you want to burn the whole house down, genius?” Jiang Cheng said. “Here.”

To Jin Zixuan’s surprise, he dug in his pocket and pulled out a Swiss army knife, and unwound the corkscrew attachment. Then turned it and handed it to Jin Zixuan.

“Uh,” Jin Zixuan said, and grabbed the first bottle of wine he saw. It was—he squinted at it. From his parent’s wedding. Ugh. “Wait, not this one.”

“What’s wrong with it? I’ll drink it,” Wei Ying said breezily. “Open it, give it here.” 

“It’s from—never mind,” Jin Zixuan said, and put it back, shoving it to the back of the shelf. “It’s gross. Let me get—uh, something better.”

“We don’t need fancy wine,” Jiang Cheng said, as if the entire idea was abhorrent. Then, suspiciously, “Why are you even here?”

“I was avoiding my father,” Jin Zixuan said wearily, “he never comes down here, he always sends one of us to get the wine for him if he wants some,” which shut them up, even if it had the added effect of making them look at him with a weird, communicative pity. He didn’t know what to do with that look, so he uncorked the bottle, looked at it, and took a drink. A long one. Then he shoved it into Wei Ying’s hands, because Wei Ying was closest.

“Jiejie’s going to kill us,” Jiang Cheng said, darkly. 

“I have a good hangover cure?” Wei Ying offered, and took a very long drink himself, swallowing three times around the bottle, and then wiping his mouth. 

“Was that half the bottle?” Jin Zixuan said, faintly. 

Wei Ying beamed at him. Then he pressed the bottle into his brother’s hands. “Drink up.”

 


 

“My hands,” Jin Zixuan says, “feel like they’re all, they’ve got ants on them.” He flicked half-heartedly at the bare skin on the back of his hand, under his knuckles. Frowned, and flicked again. “It’s not going away.”

Wei Ying caught his hand and looked very closely at it. “Freckle,” he pronounced, letting go, and drinking some more. “No ants here! Just us uncles.” He laughed uproariously at his own joke. It wasn’t a very good one, but Jin Zixuan laughed too. He was marrying into this family tomorrow, so he wanted them to like him. Jiang Cheng squinted at him. 

“You have,” he said, “a look.” His teeth were a little red from the wine. When Wei Ying grinned absently at them, still snickering, his were red, too.

“A what?” Jin Zixuan said. 

“It’s gone now,” Jiang Cheng said, which answered nothing. “What were you thinking about?”

“I’m getting married tomorrow,” Jin Zixuan said, faintly. It all seemed to him like some wonderful scheme he had pulled off. He remembered being sixteen and seeing Jiang Yanli’s sweet round face, her pretty eyes and snub nose, across from him at a dinner table and not being able to open his mouth, even to eat. That he had somehow been able to speak to her, eventually, was nothing short of a miracle. That they were getting married, that they had shared apartments, clothes, a life—he shook his head. “Did you know,” he said, with the preciseness unique to very drunk people, “that we’re looking at houses?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “When did you start doing that?”

“Do you have pictures?” Wei Ying said.

“Maybe,” Jin Zixuan said, vaguely. He took another drink. His head was foggy. “I’m going to have a house with her. We’re going to have—a garden, and babies.” He blinked up at them. They were a little taller than him, sitting, though they were all the same height when they stood. Longer torsos, or something. Maybe his children would inherit that. He suddenly felt very weepy at the idea of sitting down next to his child, someday, and finding that they were taller than he was. “Isn’t that,” he said, “nuts?”

“Little babies,” Wei Ying said dreamily. 

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“Now you’ve done it,” Jiang Cheng said, though he didn’t look upset. 

“I’ve got a secret,” Wei Ying said.

“A secret you already told everyone in this house,” Jiang Cheng said.

Jin Zixuan choked on a little wine, by accident. “You told my dad?” 

“What? No,” Wei Ying said. “But Lan Zhan told Huan-ge and he probably told Meng Yao and so he probably told your dad, so maybe your dad knows anyway. It wasn’t my fault. Huan-ge’s so great. He can’t keep his mouth shut though. You know he told me Lan Zhan was gonna propose to me? By accident. Lan Zhan was sooooo mad. It was so cute. Huan-ge called, like, three times to apologize and Lan Zhan made me pick up.” He cackled at this. 

Jin Zixuan lilted over to pat Wei Ying on the shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, earnestly. 

“Nah, don’t be,” Wei Ying said. “It kinda took the pressure off, knowing he was gonna propose to me. I was on the edge of my seat for the next two months, though, like, waiting and stuff. Of course he waited for me to stop thinking about it all the time before he actually did it. Sneaky.” He beamed into the air. “Where was I?”

“Your secret,” Jiang Cheng said, with the tone of someone who had experienced this kind of behavior before. 

“Oh, right!” Wei Ying said. “Thanks, A-Cheng, thank you . . . the secret is that Lan Zhan and I are gonna have some babies, too.”

“Like,” Jin Zixuan said, “right now?”

“Soon,” Wei Ying said dreamily, the same way he’d said little babies. “After we get married. So our kids,” he gestured in the space between him and Jin Zixuan, “will be cousins, and they can be friends.” 

Jin Zixuan smiled. He felt it pulling at the side of his face, unquestioned, just there. “I wanted—when I was little,” he said, “I wanted a brother or sister so bad. Now I have too many of them, and most of them are,” he gestured in the air. Meng Yao sometimes looked at him like he wanted him to eat glass. The others were mostly just suspicious of his motives. They had families of their own already. “I want my kids to have something like what you two and A-Li have,” he added. “Something like—you get mad but that doesn’t mean it’s over, you know? There’s still a chance.” He scraped at a smudge on his shoe. 

When he looked back, Wei Ying was nodding enthusiastically, and Jiang Cheng was looking at him with drunken confusion and, maybe, some warmth. “Cousins’ll be good,” Jiang Cheng said. Then, “wanna play tic tac toe in the dust?” 

“Huh,” Jin Zixuan said. That did seem more fun than talking.

“I play winner,” Wei Ying said, putting a finger on his nose. 

“I get to be X,” Jiang Cheng said, doing the same.

Jin Zixuan didn’t understand why they were doing it, but he put his finger on his nose, too, and tried to smile at them. “Okay,” he said agreeably. It didn’t seem like they were mocking him, when they laughed. 

 


 

They played about ten games of tic tac toe in the dust, and then started trying to figure out how to play ‘giant mancala,’ a game of Wei Ying’s invention, using wine bottles taken off the shelves instead of stones (Jin Zixuan had suggested they use the leftover decorative rocks from the garden, which had also found their way down to the wine cellar, and had been rejected on account of the rocks being “too boring”). Mid-way through this game, there was a click at the lock, and Jiang Yanli’s lovely voice was calling down, “A-Xuan?”

“Holy shit,” Jin Zixuan said. “My telepathy worked.” He dropped a bottle in shock, and Jiang Cheng dove for it with a cry, catching it before it hit the ground. 

“Sweetheart, what was—” she said, descending the stairs and carefully keeping the door open, because she, of course, was brilliant, and knew that it locked. “What are you—oh? A-Cheng? A-Xian?” She looked them all over, and then her dimples unfolded beautifully in her cheeks as she laughed. “Are you all going to be hungover for our wedding?”

“No, jiejie, never!” Wei Ying said. 

“I’m not even that drunk,” Jiang Cheng said, from his place on the floor, cradling the bottle Jin Zixuan had dropped like it was a baby.

“Of course you aren’t,” Jiang Yanli said. She patted his head, and took Jin Zixuan’s hand, linking their fingers together. Neither of her brothers scowled, as had been the general tradition before. 

I’m drunk,” Jin Zixuan informed her, in the interest of being honest. She giggled, and squeezed his hand reassuringly. 

“Well, good news,” Wei Ying said brightly, “I’ve got a great hangover cure.”