To Wei Ying’s surprise, Lan Qiren is the first to agree to Lunar New Year in Lan Zhan and Wei Ying’s small third-floor apartment. Lan Zhan barely raises an eyebrow at the news, which surprises Wei Ying even more, in the end. He thought they were both in agreement that the Lan side of the family was the longshot.
But Lan Qiren phones on the rain-drenched day after they pitch the plan to both their families. He RSVPs for himself and for Lan Huan in a terse five-minute call. Lan Zhan hangs up, tucks Wei Ying closer to him under the throw blanket, and looks wholly unshocked. And Wei Ying presses into his shoulder and thinks, in some niggling wordless way, that he understands Lan Zhan’s family better now.
Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan sign on a week later, having successfully, diplomatically used Jiang Yanli’s pregnancy as an excuse to beg off the Jin banquet. Jiang Cheng, the real longshot in the end, leaves Wei Ying on read for two weeks. Wei Ying doesn’t realize how thoroughly he’s written him off until he wakes up to the buzz of a new message, reads does your weird husband still hate meat, and nearly knocks his phone off the bed.
It’s Wei Ying’s idea to invite the guests of honor last. The Wens had been forced to cancel their own Lunar New Year trip after Wen-popo broke her hip amidst two days of ice storms. And if she knew that Wei Ying and Lan Zhan had rearranged their plans and inconvenienced both their families on her account, she’d kill them with her bare hands.
(Wei Ying, at least, would let her. Wen-popo deserves everything she wants in life.)
But Wei Ying spins a surprisingly solid lie about hosting their first Lunar New Year as newlyweds. And when Wen-popo smiles so widely that her warm brown eyes crinkle, it’s worth it. Guilt be damned.
So just like that, the weeks of late winter vanish into a haze of menu planning. And Wei Ying, who has never been anxious about a party in his life, gets a fun new recurring dream. One in which he walks into the kitchen, the morning of the banquet, and finds it completely empty.
Wei Ying has a standing promise with Lan Zhan to tell him about any nightmares. But on the third night that he wakes up in a sheen of sweat that he’s groggily sure is cooking oil, Wei Ying decides that stress dreams don’t count. For one, Lan Zhan is surely stressed enough under his usual quiet equanimity. Wei Ying knows, intellectually, that their food is not going to vanish into some refrigerated ether. He doesn’t need to be comforted about it. And he doesn’t need Lan Zhan to worry.
But the morning of the dinner, when Wei Ying reports for duty with his bespoke KISS THE SOUS CHEF apron, Lan Zhan just takes both his hands.
“That was Wen-popo on the phone,” he says. His hair is neatly braided over one shoulder to keep it out of his face. He already smells like cornstarch and ginger. He’s so lovely. “She told A-Yuan last night that it was good luck to clean for the new year. He’s been dusting her tea sets all morning.”
Wei Ying pulls back to grin at him. “Good for her. She should tell him to clean her photo albums next.”
Wei Ying moves to step forward, deeper into the kitchen, but Lan Zhan just gently squeezes him still. “She says he wants to help us tidy for tonight,” he says. “You should bring him up. Keep him company.”
Wei Ying blinks, unmoored for a second. Lan Zhan says what he means. If Lan Zhan needed him out of the way—rare, but not impossible—he would say so. But they always cook together. “You don’t need help?”
Lan Zhan’s face, already soft, softens further as he kisses Wei Ying’s furrowed brow. “Help me later,” he says, untying the back of Wei Ying’s apron. “Rest first.”
Wei Ying should really know better than to try not to worry Lan Zhan. Even if Lan Zhan doesn’t know where it’s coming from, he always knows.
So reluctantly, Wei Ying takes his eyes off the ingredients laid out across the counter. And goes down to apartment #2F, carries A-Yuan two stairs at a time, and sets him and his dustpan and brush loose in their living room. And then he sits on their couch, lays his hands flat on his thighs, and tries to chill.
Results are mixed.
Wei Ying takes a deep breath. It tastes like the kitchen smells, sweet soy sauce cradled in Shaoxing wine. Lan Zhan, from what Wei Ying has gleaned from afar, is in the thick of it now: the stir-fried rice cakes have been prepped, nested in carrots and cabbage and wood ear mushrooms. The snow pea shoots sit neatly lined up next to them, on a paper towel. The ba bao fan, they prepared late last night, having significantly underestimated how long it would take. Is it still Friday, Lan Zhan had asked, as Wei Ying loaded it into the fridge. And then he’d stood, sleep-deprived and unimpressed, as Wei Ying curled onto the kitchen floor and nearly laughed himself sick.
Lan Zhan’s full attention is occupied, now, on the dish he won’t even taste. Does your sister like hong shao fish, Lan Zhan had asked him, the first morning they knew they were doing this. Obviously, Wei Ying had slurred, mostly asleep. Jiejie has perfect taste, unless it’s brothers or husbands.
In any case, they’re going to have plenty of food. It’s going to be delicious, because it’s Lan Zhan. And he is fully intellectually aware that it’s not going to vanish if he’s not looking at it. He just can’t shake the feeling that, even with their impeccably triple-checked grocery list, there’s something he’s missing.
He thinks about it hard enough that he doesn’t notice, for about five minutes, that A-Yuan has been studiously dusting the same spot.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying says. “You don’t have to be so diligent. We just want it to look a little nice when Popo and Ning-gege come upstairs.”
A-Yuan is still squinting at where he’s been trying to clear a patch of baked-in scuffs from the front window alcove. Wei Ying suspects he’s been trying to get a better look at the foam soundproof panels they’ve mounted along the street-facing wall, which have fascinated him since the day they were hung.
Lan Zhan has never seemed to regret his decision to move in with Wei Ying, rather than the other way around. Lan Zhan may hunger for Wei Ying’s attention in such a straightforward, unembarrassed way that it makes Wei Ying dizzy sometimes, but now that they’re together, he’s not often jealous for it. He likes watching Wei Ying talk to people here. He likes seeing him with the neighbors, the cashier at the convenience store, and the couple that owns the bakery two doors down. He says it makes him happy, seeing what Wei Ying has built here.
And Wei Ying suspects that Lan Zhan doesn’t miss that vast, lonely apartment across town where he used to live – but it was quiet, and Lan Zhan likes his quiet. Wei Ying’s still not sure if those panels actually help. But if what he has here is something he built, then he wants to keep building, until it belongs to both of them.
Finally, A-Yuan looks up and announces, “Qing-jiejie is coming, too.”
“Ahh, she was able to switch her shift? We’ll have to find a plate for her.” There will be a plate and then some for Wen Qing, of course – thanks to Wei Ying’s panic-buying, they have enough to feed a moderately-sized army. But Wei Ying puts on a mournful face and presses a hand to his forehead. “Never fear, A-Yuan. Your Wei-gege will go without so that Qing-jiejie can eat.”
“Noooo,” A-Yuan says, but he’s laughing as he says it. Much like Lan Zhan, it didn’t take him long to learn when Wei Ying’s talking nonsense. “Wei-gege has to eat too.”
“It can’t be helped, A-Yuan.” Wei Ying faux-swoons against the back of the couch. “Your poor Wei-gege. I’ll just have to find food somewhere else.”
“Mm.” A-Yuan considers this. “Can we go to KFC?”
“Aiyo.” Wei Ying flicks his broom in A-Yuan’s direction, spurring a fresh wave of giggles. “You little devil. Don’t let your Lan-gege hear you say that. You’ll like what he’s making, I promise.”
To this, A-Yuan just hums, like he’s humoring him but too polite to say so. Lately, when the painkillers make Wen-popo too nauseous to eat anything else, Lan Zhan’s family recipes are the only things she can stomach. Wei Ying’s grown helplessly fond of them, actually, as with all things Lan Zhan – even the blandness is endearing. But it’s definitely given A-Yuan the wrong idea about Lan Zhan’s culinary prowess.
Wei Ying sits back in the chair, watches A-Yuan sweep fruitlessly at a particularly stubborn scuff on the baseboard. “You know,” he finally says. The words are careful in his mouth, an empty eggshell held between both palms. He’s only said this out loud once, to Wen-popo. It felt like this then, too: like it would break with just a twitch of his hand. “My family is coming, too.”
A-Yuan glances up. “Oh,” he says. Not uninterested, just blithely unaware that Wei Ying is vibrating a little where he sits. “Are they nice?”
Wei Ying laughs, thinks of Jiang Cheng’s studiously terse texts over the past few weeks – Is there parking, Are your neighbors allergic to anything, and Wei Ying’s favorite, Do you have enough bowls, as if Wei Ying is still nineteen and eating exclusively out of takeout containers. Thinks of Jin Zixuan, who is not good enough for Jiang Yanli, but is right now driving her halfway across the country to be here. Of Jiang Yanli herself, smiling through her tears on their vidchat the morning Wei Ying married Lan Zhan. Yu-ayi was still alive then. Wei Ying wouldn’t let her risk coming. But she refused to be absent altogether.
“They’re really nice,” he says. “They’re going to love you.”
“Oh,” A-Yuan says again, perking up. It’s one of Wei Ying’s favorite things about this kid. He’s lovable and he knows it. “I was supposed to see my family today. Some of them are nice, but not all of them.”
Wei Ying hums sympathetically. He knew one of Wen Qing’s distant cousins in high school, Wen Chao. Wen Chao once told him he was bound to die in a gutter one day. So that sounds about right. “Is that so? That sounds rough.”
A-Yuan nods, dustpan and brush temporarily forgotten. “But last time Ning-gege told me if we kept eating we wouldn’t have to talk. So we ate a lot.”
Wei Ying throws his head back and laughs. “Your Ning-gege is smarter than he knows. Bet the food wasn’t as good as Popo’s, though.” A-Yuan’s little shoulders fall, just a little. Wei Ying leans forward to tilt his chin up. “Hey, now. What’s that face for?”
“Popo can’t cook now,” A-Yuan says. His lip wobbles a little. “It makes her hip hurt.”
With a little sigh, Wei Ying folds from the chair to the floor, until he and A-Yuan are nearly at eye level. It’s funny that he’d thought of Wen Chao today. Wei Ying doesn’t make a habit of thinking of Wen Chao, who he will never see again if the universe is as kind as it seems these days. But that first winter after he left the Jiang house and would never again go back in, he came to this apartment, worn around the edges and barely affordable on his budget. Not a home so much as a mattress amidst bare walls and a bare floor.
Not a gutter. That had been a cute little literary flourish on Wen Chao’s part. But he’d spent his whole life in comfort. When someone like him said gutter, that was probably what he meant: an unfurnished room, too-bright overhead lights, a dead phone. He celebrated Lunar New Year unaware that Jiang Yanli had filled his voicemail box, unaware that Lan Zhan was looking for him, eating cold takeout and thinking that Wen Chao was probably right about one thing. This was better than what Wei Ying had started with. He was in no reasonable place to complain.
The next day, he went downstairs to get his electric bill. And the old woman with the mailbox next to his looked him up and down, just once, and asked, Are you hungry?
Wei Ying smiles. Like so much of his happiness these days, it’s reflexive as yawning, as the growl of a stomach. It was silly, probably, thinking he wouldn’t have enough today. His plate has been full since he walked into apartment #2F. It gets fuller every year. He can load up everyone else’s all he wants, and still there’s more.
He swings A-Yuan up into his arms. It’s not the smoothest ascent – Wei Ying can feel the long night of fussing over the ba bao fan in his back, his lower legs. Since when was he so old, he wonders.
“Popo misses cooking for you, too,” he says. “But until she can, we’ll cook for both of you anytime. Okay?”
A-Yuan makes a dubious sound in his throat, and Wei Ying laughs so hard he tips both of them back. He loves this kid so much that sometimes he can hardly hold it all in. “Let’s go bother your Lan-gege. He’s really very good at cooking, I promise.”
Here, A-Yuan finally perks up. He may be suspicious of Lan Zhan’s cooking, but he is utterly fascinated with just about everything Lan Zhan does. Wei Ying can relate.
So Wei Ying holds on tight and sweeps the two of them into the kitchen.
Lan Zhan has clearly heard them coming. He’s not looking at them, his full attention on the pan of rice cakes he’s folding into a golden-brown sauce, but his body is angled toward the door, listening.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan won’t be able to see him smiling, but Wei Ying likes to think he can hear it. “We’re ready to help you now.”
Lan Zhan reduces the heat, and only then does he turn. His face is a little flushed from the heat of the stove, his apron dusted with cornstarch. There’s a little wrinkle in his brow. But when he meets Wei Ying’s eyes, it starts to smooth.
“Then,” he says. “Will you test the rice cakes?”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Wei Ying jostles A-Yuan a little in his arms. “You too, kiddo. Open up.”
A-Yuan fidgets a little as Wei Ying dips him closer to the stove. But his Lan Zhan adoration wins out over any lingering memory of the Lan family cookbook. He watches Wei Ying bite into the rice cake Lan Zhan offers him. And with a steeling breath that Wei Ying can feel, he tries it.
Wei Ying closes his eyes, plays up pretending to judge the tender give of the rice cake and the deep backbone of savory sauce. When he opens them again, A-Yuan is looking at Lan Zhan in open shock.
“Gege,” he says, “can I have another one?”
Wei Ying cackles as he sets him down. Well. He doesn’t expect to hear the specter of KFC invoked again in this household. “Hey hey hey. We have to save some for your family, you know.”
Lan Zhan’s face softens. Though Wei Ying can’t help but notice that the wrinkle hasn’t fully left his forehead. “It’s alright?” he says. “It doesn’t need anything else?”
His eyes dart a little down the counter as he speaks, to the plate where the hong shao fish waits, brilliant red, draped in a thick, syrupy sauce. And Wei Ying smiles, thinks of that night he was half-asleep and Lan Zhan asked if Jiang Yanli would like it. Wei Ying is such a fool, sometimes. Of course he wasn’t the only one worrying.
She’ll love it, of course. But in just a few hours, Lan Zhan will see, face to face, that she hasn’t needed convincing for a long time.
Wei Ying can’t wait.
Wei Ying slings his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders, rolls onto the balls of his feet to kiss Lan Zhan’s cheek. “Lan Zhan, ah,” he says. “All it needs is people to eat it.”