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The Simplest Way Forward

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Wei Ying wakes up with a throbbing headache, a dry mouth, a sneaker wedged uncomfortably against his back on the couch, and a small child staring at him.

That last one makes him jerk upright—his head hates it—and he grabs his head with both hands because it feels like it might fall off or split in half. “What the fuck,” says Wei Ying. “Shit. I mean—Don’t repeat that. Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. Who are you?”

“Yuan,” says the kid, and he sticks his thumb in his mouth. He’s staring at Wei Ying with giant eyes and a pretty dubious expression.

“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying repeats back to him. He’s maybe three, maybe four, clearly Chinese but he pronounces his name like an American, and he obviously understands English. What the hell is a toddler—is three a toddler?—doing in Wei Ying’s apartment?

Yuan keeps staring at him. He’s just standing there in baby jeans and a baby hoodie and little baby sneakers, staring at Wei Ying like he thinks Wei Ying knows what’s going on.

“Where’s your…” Wei Ying can’t fucking remember what happened last night. “Dad? Mom? Uncle?”

Yuan shrugs again.

Did someone bring a baby to a rager and forget to bring him home again? Wei Ying definitely feels like he’d remember that. He doesn’t know why this kid isn’t crying, he doesn’t know who this kid belongs to, and it all feels very, very ominous.

Wei Ying staggers to his feet and scoops Yuan up in his arms, which Yuan doesn’t object to. “You must belong to someone,” says Wei Ying. “I’m Wei Ying. You don’t know where your mom is?”

Yuan shakes his head.

Wei Ying’s apartment is a fucking disaster, there’s stuff all over the floor: take-out containers, and clothes, and sneakers. The party wasn’t here, he remembers eventually. He was out drinking with friends, all the musicians, after the first big concert in the fall semester, and then he came home, and—and—

There’s a little Sponge Bob SquarePants knapsack by the door, with little legs and arms hanging off the bottom and sides. “Is that yours?” Wei Ying asks.

Yuan nods.

It turns out it’s really hard to hold a kid on your hip with one hand and lean down to pick up his bag without losing your balance, especially if you’re hung over as fuck, but Wei Ying manages. Barely. There’s a note safety-pinned to the front of the bag.

Hey cuz, what’s up! I stopped by last night but idk if you’ll remember. You said you were cool with keeping Yuan for a couple of days for me, I just gotta do some stuff. You’re the best! - MXY

“What the fuck,” says Wei Ying.

“What the fuck,” echoes Yuan, in his serious little voice.

“No, no, no, don’t say that,” Wei Ying says quickly. “You’re—You belong to my cousin? Is Mo Xuanyu your dad?”

Yuan shakes his head.

“Who’s your dad?” Wei Ying asks. He’s starting to worry. He definitely doesn’t remember Mo Xuanyu stopping by last night. He absolutely doesn’t remember agreeing to watch a baby for a couple of days. He has classes. He has rehearsals. What do babies eat? Do they need… medicine, or something?

“Dunno,” says Yuan, and sticks his thumb back in his mouth.

“You should be way more freaked out by this,” Wei Ying tells him. “You should be screaming and kicking and crying.”

Yuan looks at him with his giant brown eyes like he’s sizing Wei Ying up and is still pretty dubious about the whole thing.

“I… I don’t know what to do,” says Wei Ying. “You don’t have a phone on you, do you? Or a phone number?” Yuan just keeps staring, like maybe that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard. “No. You’re a baby. You don’t have a phone. Uh, how old are you? Three? This many?” Wei Ying holds up three fingers.

Yuan holds up four little fingers.

“Okay. Okay, well, that’s good. Hey, I’m gonna put you down and find my phone and see if I can track down Xuanyu and you—you—Hey, do you like Cheerios?”

Yuan nods.

Okay. Wei Ying can do this. He kicks all the notebooks and sheet music off a chair and puts the kid in it, finds a clean bowl—okay, he finds a bowl—and dumps some cereal in it, and then digs through last night’s skinny jeans and jacket until he finds his phone. The battery is almost dead.

He scrolls through his phone until he finds the last known phone number he has for his cousin. When he left to study music in the US everyone told him it would be fine, if he got stuck he could always call Xuanyu and get some help. He never did, because he never had to; the School of Music has good resources and his English has been good enough, and all he remembers about this distant cousin is that he’s a flake.

Now he wishes he’d kept better tabs on him.

There’s no answer when he calls. He sends a couple of texts—What the fuck????—in English and in Chinese, and then turns back to the very real problem sitting at his fold-out table in his little dorm apartment.

“Uh,” says Wei Ying. “So do you, like… go to school?”

Yuan shakes his head.

“Got any friends?” Wei Ying asks. “Or any idea where your mom and dad are? If Xuanyu’s not your dad, I mean—”

Yuan holds both hands up. Wei Ying blinks at him. Yuan sticks out his lower lip.

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “You want me to pick you up? That’s… okay. Sure. I can do that.” He picks up the kid again and settles him on his hip. His head is still throbbing. “What the fuck. I guess you’re gonna stay with me for a day or two,” he says. “Is that cool?”

“What the fuck,” repeats Yuan again. He puts his arms around Wei Ying’s neck and his head on Wei Ying’s shoulder.

“What the fuck is right,” Wei Ying says.

Wei Ying figures he can just skip class and rehearsal for one day—it’s not like he has anywhere to ditch the kid. He puts Yuan down in front of his laptop with some kind of cartoon on YouTube.

His first call should probably be to the cops, but he can’t imagine doing that to a nice kid like Yuan, who seems perfectly content with YouTube and Cheerios. So he calls his sister instead. She’s a couple of months away from having her own kid, so she probably has some idea of what to do with one. She’s in Chicago with her stupid husband or else he’d just hand the kid off to her, honestly.

“Hey, sis,” he says, “funny story!”

His sister doesn’t think it’s that funny. “Oh my god,” she says. “And now he’s in your tiny little apartment? That poor baby!”

“Hey,” says Wei Ying. “My apartment is okay. It’s not the palace you live in now—”

“A-Ying, stop,” she says. “What are you going to do with a baby?”

Wei Ying looks at Yuan, who seems basically fine. “I don’t know,” he says. “Wait a couple of days and then kick Xuanyu’s ass when he comes back? I can miss a couple of days of class.”

“You really think he’s coming back?” Yanli says.

“Whoa,” says Wei Ying. “What the fuck, yes! Who just… dumps a baby?”

“If I were one week less pregnant, I’d fly out there,” says Yanli. “What do you know about taking care of a baby?”

“I have one now and you don’t, yet,” says Wei Ying reasonably. “So more than you do.”

“Buy him some toys,” Yanli orders. “And don’t just give him spicy take-out. He’s a baby. And take him outside—he can’t just sit in your drab little dorm. I’m going to call mom.”

“Wait, why,” Wei Ying says, dropping immediately into a whine. He can’t help it. He’s been too far away to be the cause of every single problem in the Jiang family for a couple of years, and it feels great. He doesn’t especially want a blistering phone call about everything he’s done wrong.

“Because if anyone knows where Xuanyu is, or whose baby that is, it’s mom,” says Yanli. “She knows every out-of-wedlock pregnancy and family member who’s lost face. She keeps a running list.”

That sounds absolutely true. “Okay,” he says. “And don’t worry. I can keep a kid alive for forty-eight hours.”

“Hmmm,” says Yanli, and hangs up on him.

Wei Ying turns to his tiny guest, who's sitting on the couch, kicking his feet back and forth. “You wanna do something?” he asks.

“Do something?” Yuan asks. "Do what?"

“Uh…” says Wei Ying. “I don’t know. Do you have pajamas and stuff?”

“Dunno,” says Yuan, glued to YouTube.

Wei Ying sighs and starts digging through the SpongeBob bag. There’s a blue t-shirt, a couple of pairs of underwear, a pair of pajamas, and some papers rolled up and stuffed in the back. When Wei Ying takes them out and straightens them, he sees that Xuanyu has left him with an American birth certificate that says Yuan Wen, a mom’s name Wei Ying doesn’t recognize, and no father listed. There are a couple of other official looking documents.

Suddenly Wei Ying wonders if his cousin is actually planning to come back at all, or if Yanli is right and this is a dump-and-run situation.

“You don’t have, like, a winter coat,” says Wei Ying. “Is there another suitcase around somewhere?” Yuan doesn’t appear to know. Wei Ying looks around for a minute, but this appears to be everything that was left behind for Yuan. “You need more stuff than this,” Wei Ying says. “Hey, you wanna go shopping?”

“Cartoons,” says Yuan, pointing to the laptop.

“Yeah, cartoons will be here later,” says Wei Ying, and slams the computer shut. “Let’s go outside. I don’t know where you’re gonna sleep. You want a sleeping bag or something? Maybe a pillow?”

“I want cartoons,” says Yuan again, looking suspiciously like he might cry.

Wei Ying picks him up and swings him around a couple of times before he can get started on that. “Nah,” he says, “how about ice cream?”

“I eat ice cream for breakfast?” Yuan asks, hopeful but also dubious.

“It’s basically milk,” Wei Ying reasons, “and cereal is sugary anyway, so what’s the difference? Let’s go shopping. My sister says I need to buy you toys.”

“Toys!” says Yuan, perking up. “Toys and ice cream?”

“Why not?” says Wei Ying. “It’s not my credit card.”

The credit card belongs to his adopted dad, and it’s for emergencies, which arguably this is. Wei Ying grabs a Coke and another couple of Advil because his head is still throbbing, and then he takes Yuan on the subway downtown. He’s a pretty quiet kid, he just likes to cling like a koala. Could be worse, Wei Ying decides.

Ladies in shops say, “Oh, what a cute little boy! What a cute dad,” and when Wei Ying explains a little awkwardly that he needs basically everything for a kid for a couple of weeks—he’s revised how long he thinks he might be stuck with Yuan—they bring him coats and mittens and little hats, and a dizzying array of sweaters and t-shirts and jeans. Wei Ying shrugs and buys all of it, because Yuan doesn’t seem to have any preferences.

He does care when they get to a toy store—he wants puzzles and teddy bears and legos and a ray gun that lights up, and basically every other toy he can get his little hands on. “You don’t need all of this,” Wei Ying scolds him. “You can have one, so pick the one you want.”

There’s agony on Yuan’s face as he crouches over a bucket of blocks and a teddy bear, looking seriously from one to the other. Wei Ying remembers, suddenly, coming home with his new adopted dad for the first time, and seeing the mountains of toys his new brother and sister had. How strange it had felt, seeing what other kids thought was normal, and how badly he’d wanted something of his own.

He wonders who Yuan has been staying with, whether he’s been passed from “uncle” to “uncle” for a while, since he seems so absolutely calm and resigned to suddenly being with Wei Ying.

“Here,” says Wei Ying, abruptly grabbing the blocks and the teddy bear. “Just this once. Never again, okay? Don’t be greedy.”

“I won’t,” Yuan promises. He clutches the teddy bear in his arms, hugging it tightly.

Wei Ying swallows uncomfortably. He’s a busy person; he has school and an orchestra to perform in, and he can just barely take care of himself. He is not in the market to start having feelings about little kids who appear out of thin air, especially when they’re likely to vanish just as quickly.

“Well… Just this once, then,” Wei Ying says again. Who cares, right? He picks Yuan up and carries him and the blocks over to the counter.

He has to balance a thousand bags and a kid on the way back, and he maybe understands why people buy strollers. They stop on the way home for pancakes and then ice cream, and Yuan somehow gets sticky up to his elbows.

It’s barely after lunch and Wei Ying is fucking exhausted.

Yuan must be tired, too; he slumps in Wei Ying’s arms, head against his shoulder, teddy bear dangling from one sticky hand. “Hey, buddy,” says Wei Ying, dragging him and all their bags into the elevator in his building. “You wanna take a nap?”

“No,” says Yuan. “I’m a big kid, I’m not a baby.” He yawns.

“Okay, well…” Wei Ying still hasn’t solved the ‘I only have one bed’ issue. “You can lie down on the couch and if you happen to fall asleep, no big deal, right?”

“I’m a big kid,” Yuan insists, clinging to him. His eyes are mostly shut.

Wei Ying kicks all the bags of clothes out of the way to try and make room to get into his one-bedroom apartment, and almost as soon as he’s closed the door, someone knocks.

It is entirely possible, he realizes suddenly, that having a kid stay in the dorm with him is against some kind of lease. He didn’t look very carefully when he was signing papers.

Well… He’ll burn that bridge when he comes to it, Wei Ying decides. He cracks the door open. “Yeah?”

Standing in the hallway, unexpectedly, is the first violin. Well, the guy who plays the first violin. He’s tall and ungodly handsome and almost always dressed in white like some kind of cult leader. He also seriously, seriously disapproves of Wei Ying and everything he does. He’s got this perma-frown on his otherwise icy cold face whenever he looks Wei Ying’s way—usually because Wei Ying is snickering, or causing trouble, or one time put bubbles in the tuba. It was for science.

“Uh,” says Wei Ying, shifting Yuan a little bit farther out of sight. “What’s up?”

“You missed rehearsal,” says the first violin.

“Yup,” says Wei Ying. “Sure did. Did you come by to give me some sheet music, or…?”

“Why did you miss rehearsal?”

Wei Ying waffles for a second, trying to come up with a good enough reason, even though he knows instinctively that nothing will be good enough because the first violin would never, ever miss anything. He can’t come up with one, so he lets the door open a little more.

First violin’s eyes go fractionally wider.

“Sorry,” says Wei Ying, “I had stuff to do for my little kiddo.”

Yuan takes this moment to yawn. He is sleepy and adorable. He has a teddy bear in one hand and his thumb in his mouth, although he takes it out long enough to mumble, “I’m a big kid.”

Wei Ying takes great satisfaction in the look of mingled horror and apology on the first vioin’s face, because up until now their interactions have been entirely Wei Ying trying to say something friendly and getting shut down absolutely cold.

“Your… child,” he says.

“Yup,” Wei Ying says. “This is A-Yuan. Isn’t he cute?”

“He’s staying with you?”

“He is for now,” Wei Ying says, which is true. “I’ll be at rehearsals and classes tomorrow. I’ll… drop him off at daycare, or something.” That sounds right. There’s probably a daycare around somewhere.

They stare at each other for a long minute. Wei Ying definitely learned the first violin’s name at some point; he thinks it’s Lan something. Something Lan, in English. He looks ever so slightly suspicious, and Wei Ying has this weird out-of-body moment where he thinks maybe this is a romcom and the first violin is the suspicious neighbor who’s always getting in the way, trying to bust him for having a fake kid.

Well, joke’s on him: the kid is real.

“I brought you the notes from today,” first violin says, holding out a stack of papers. “Don’t miss rehearsal again.” Then he turns on his heel and stalks away, silent and with perfect posture.

Wei Ying sticks his tongue out at him and kicks the door shut.

“Who was that?” Yuan yawns.

“No one,” says Wei Ying. “No one you need to worry about, at least.” He drops the papers on the floor and carries Yuan over to the couch.

The kid is little, he can sleep on a couch for a couple of nights. Actually, he’s little enough that he’d probably even fit in Wei Ying’s bed with him. Yuan curls up next to him, cuddling his teddy bear, and Wei Ying checks his texts in case Yanli has learned anything about Yuan’s mom from her mom. His phone battery is almost dead, so he has to plug it into his laptop.

“Cartoons?” Yuan says sleepily.

“Later,” Wei Ying lies. He has two texts from Yanli. The first one says, Mom says his mother is a good-for-nothing cousin who up and vanished to Miami, and who goes to Miami?? The second text says, Mom says she’ll track down Xuanyu but it could be a little while because she’s not on the same continent 😂 Be good, A-Ying! Send me pictures of my new nephew!

Wei Ying snorts at “new nephew” but he takes a couple of pictures of Yuan to text her anyway. And then, when Yuan is definitely totally asleep, he does just a little Google stalking.

First violin is Lan Zhan, of the Beijing Lans, some kind of famous child prodigy on the piano and violin. Wei Ying clicks through a couple of YouTube videos of him performing on giant stages, tiny and stiff, maybe eight years old, and holding himself with the exact same icy disdain he had this afternoon at the door. Born in San Francisco, apparently. Perfect at everything he does, apparently. Wei Ying can’t find a single clip of him talking, though. Just performing.

He’s so handsome, it’s really a shame that he’s so uptight, Wei Ying thinks with a sigh. Such a good face is wasted on him and that frosty stare. Imagine someone with that face who smiled.

For dinner, Wei Ying orders a pizza on the general assumption that every child in America loves pizza. He and Yuan eat pizza on the couch, looking dubiously at each other.

“I want my teddy bear,” Yuan says.

“You’ll get him all gross with pizza sauce,” says Wei Ying, and swoops in to wipe his face off with a napkin for the third time. “After you wash your hands.”

“I wash my hands,” says Yuan, and hops off the couch. He drops his pizza crust on the floor. It’s not like Wei Ying keeps the place nice, but he doesn’t leave chewed food on the floor.

“Hey!” he says. “God, don’t you have any manners?”

“What’s ‘manners’?” Yuan asks. He climbs up on a chair in the kitchen and then climbs up onto the counter, kneeling so he can reach to put his hands under the faucet.

“Manners means behaving yourself,” says Wei Ying. He picks the crust up off the floor. “Like, put your trash in the trash, not on the floor. Here. Put this in the trash.”

“I washed my hands,” Yuan says.

“Then you’re gonna wash ‘em again,” says Wei Ying. This is giving him a headache. He’s not good at enforcing rules. He barely follows them himself.

Yuan stares at him for a second, and then his eyes get really big and wet and his lower lip starts to tremble. “But—I—washed—my—haaaaands,” he wails. “You said! I did! It’s not faaaair.”

Wei Ying objects to this obvious emotional blackmail. For one thing, he’s not sure how to respond to it; Yuan is just sitting there on the kitchen counter in between the dirty dishes and the take-out containers, bawling his little eyes out.

This is not an apartment for a little kid to live in. Wei Ying is not the uncle this kid needs.

“Hey,” Wei Ying says. “Knock it off.” He picks Yuan up and lets him get his wet hands all over Wei Ying’s sweater. He’s all sniffly and snotty and gross. “Washing your hands is nothing to cry over,” Wei Ying scolds. “If I cried every time someone told me to do something when I was little—”

Of course, there hadn’t been any grownups to cry to for a couple of years there, and then suddenly he’d been with the Jiangs, who had all these rules and expectations and half the time it felt like he was an alien who’d been dropped on a planet where he didn’t know what anyone was saying. He’d figured it out. Wei Ying has always been adaptable, and Yanli had tried her best to help him figure out what was going on. Jiang Cheng eventually, too, once he’d gotten over the dog thing.

“It’s been kind of a weird day for you, huh Yuan-er?” Wei Ying says. “Nobody ever tells you what’s going on.”

“I want my bear,” Yuan says tearfully. He sounds exhausted.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying sighs. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” He carries the kid back into the living room and hands him the teddy bear. “Listen, I know this is weird, but you’re gonna stay with me for a couple of days, okay? Until we figure out where you belong.”

“Where I belong?” Yuan echoes.

“Yeah, there has to be someone… Uh, some cousin, or… I don’t know, okay, kid? Someone who has space and time for a kid. And then it’ll all be better and make more sense. But for the next couple of days, you and me are gonna just do our best. Okay?”

“I guess,” says Yuan.

He doesn’t sound especially hopeful, which seems fair. Wei Ying isn’t feeling especially hopeful about this, either.

Yuan sleeps in Wei Ying’s bed and Wei Ying sleeps on the couch, and it’s fine but he wakes up with a sore neck and a headache again. Yuan doesn’t want to get out of bed, he’s sleepy and grumpy, and dragging him into a bath and then getting him to wear clothes turns out to be a huge pain in the ass. He shouts, “I don’t wanna!” about four hundred times.

“If I had behaved like this when I was your age—” Wei Ying starts. Yuan sits on the rug clutching his bear and staring up at him with murderous intent. “Listen,” Wei Ying tries, crouching next to him. “You have to wear pants. Everyone has to wear pants. It’s just—it’s the law.”

“Girls don’t has to wear pants,” Yuan says.

“...Yeah, okay, fair, if you wanna wear a dress I’ll go get you a dress, but you have to wear something. And you don’t have a dress, so you have to wear pants. Do you want the police to come?”

“Pants is the law?” Yuan repeats, suspicious.

“Yes,” Wei Ying lies with great certainty. “Pants are the law.”

Yuan huffs angrily at that but allows Wei Ying to wrestle him into a pair of tiny jeans.

Wei Ying loads up all his sheet music and notebooks and music theory and his flute, and then wrestles Yuan into a winter coat, which he only agrees to when Wei Ying zips the teddy bear up inside it. He has a vague idea that there’s a daycare at the end of the block, but when he knocks on the door the woman look at him like he’s crazy.

“There’s a waiting list,” she says, horrified. “And…it’s really expensive.”

Childcare is expensive everywhere, he expected that. America is fucked up, Wei Ying decides, and apparently Yuan is about to learn some music theory.

He carries Yuan in through security and the security guards fuss over him but don’t seem to think it’s especially weird. It’s not until he gets to the classroom, where everyone’s sitting around a big table with their books out, ready to discuss diatonic chords in natural and melodic minors, that he gets some stares.

Mostly from the first violin, who is sitting where he always sits, next to the professor’s chair, with his back ramrod straight and his notes in perfectly organized pages with little colored tabs on them.

It’s not a big room; most of it is taken up by the table and the chairs around it, but there are a few single-student desks at the back of the room, and Wei Ying puts Yuan in one of those. “You just sit here, and… Uh…” There is nothing for a four-year-old to do. “Take a nap?” Wei Ying suggests.

“No,” says Yuan firmly, wiggling out of his coat.

“Okay, well, you can have a piece of notebook paper to write on. Do you know how to write?”

“No,” Yuan says again, giving him a look like he thinks Wei Ying might be a little stupid.

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. “Well, maybe today is the day you learn!”

“You should have an activity for your son,” says the first violin—Lan Zhan—disapprovingly, from across the room.

“I didn’t know he was gonna be here with me today, did I?” says Wei Ying, turning to him. “Don’t you judge me. Unless you have a bag full of toddler toys.” Honestly, the nerve of that guy. Wei Ying thinks he’s doing pretty well for his second day of fatherhood. He turns back to Yuan. “If you’re good and quiet, I’ll get you snacks later.”

“I have snacks now?” asks Yuan hopefully.

“No,” says Wei Ying, because it never occurred to him that you have to feed kids all day, like a little pet or something. “After class we’ll go downstairs to the coffee shop. Do you like croissants?”

Yuan wrinkles up his nose. “What’s that? I don’t like them,” he says.

There is a sudden movement at Wei Ying’s elbow, and then Lan Zhan is standing there. “Here,” he says. He holds out a notebook and a pack of highlighters in a rainbow of colors. “He can draw.”

“I know how to take care of my own kid.” Wei Ying scowls, but he takes the highlighters and hands them to Yuan anyway. “I mean. Thanks.”

“Here.” Lan Zhan is also holding out an apple.

Wei Ying stares at him for a minute. “Wow,” he says. “You’re really prepared, huh? Thanks, but I’ll get him a cookie later—”

“It is too early for cookies,” says Lan Zhan, with a disapproving wrinkle on his forehead.

“Cookie!” shouts Yuan happily. “Where are cookies?”

“No cookies,” says Wei Ying. There are other students trickling in, now, and they sure are curious about the little kid sitting at the back of the room. “If you’re good and you’re quiet, maybe cookies later. Maybe.”

Yuan uncaps the pink highlighter. “I’m gonna draw cookies,” he says.

Lan Zhan is still holding the apple. Wei Ying takes it delicately from him and puts it on the desk. “Apple first, then cookies,” he says. Yuan snorts. “He’s having a rough week,” Wei Ying says apologetically to Lan Zhan. “Thanks for giving him something to draw with, though. That was really nice of you.” He tries a smile. His smile has been rated pretty good in the past by plenty of people.

Lan Zhan turns away. “He must not disrupt class,” he says, and walks back to his seat.

What a freaking pain in the ass he is, Wei Ying thinks, and scowls. See if Wei Ying ever tries to be nice again.

He stomps over to the chair at the table closest to where Yuan is sitting and fishes his books out of his bag just as the professor comes into the room. He’s an older white guy who mostly just lectures, so Wei Ying figures as long as Yuan is quiet it won’t be too much trouble. The professor blinks a couple of times, says, “Oh my, what a small visitor,” and adjusts his glasses.

Things are basically okay for twenty, maybe thirty minutes. The class is pretty boring, and Wei Ying would be dozing off as usual if he weren’t low-key worried about how Yuan is doing the whole time. He’s coloring and seems perfectly content, but then he drops one of his highlighters. “Uh-oh!” he says, and the professor stops, frowns, and clears his throat a couple of times.

The lecture goes on, but Yuan wiggles out of his chair and chases the highlighter around on the floor. “Hey,” Wei Ying hisses. “Get back in your chair!” Yuan looks at him, obviously chooses to ignore him, and crawls under the table.

Wei Ying attempts to grab him, but Yuan has vanished wherever dropped paper clips and pens go. Wei Ying sits there fuming—if he’s gonna get kicked out of class, he’d like it to at least be his own fault. One of the women in the class giggles and gives him a sympathetic look, which is nice at least. Eventually, Wei Ying reasons, the kid will have to come out from under the table, and then he can grab him.

Except when Yuan pops up, he’s at the head of the table, between Lan Zhan and the teacher. He looks around, sees Wei Ying gesturing furiously for him to come back, and sticks his lower lip out. Yuan bangs on the table a couple of times experimentally. Then he looks up at Lan Zhan.

Well, this is going to be a disaster. Wei Ying grimaces, already starting his apology—“Sorry, I didn’t realize he—” and leaning across the table, when Lan Zhan, still studiously taking notes, simply leans down and swings Yuan up into his lap. He hands the child a pen and a piece of paper, and continues taking his own notes in his immaculate notebook.

What the hell?

“A-Yuan! Come here!” Wei Ying whispers.

“He is fine,” says Lan Zhan, not turning to look at him. Yuan looks up at Lan Zhan, and then at the pen he’s been given, and then at Wei Ying, and shrugs.

Wei Ying feels, like, a bunch of things at once. First of all, he tried flirting at least a dozen times, and never got so much as a raised eyebrow from Lan Zhan, but apparently a four-year-old can just help himself to his lap. That doesn’t seem fair; Wei Ying is also very cute. Second, he’s surprisingly grateful to Lan Zhan for being cool about this, and not a dick like he had expected. Third, he’s irritated that Yuan seems perfectly content over there.

It’s too many feelings to feel all at once, and he realizes belatedly he’s missed several minutes of notes because he’s been staring into space.

Yuan just sits there, drawing, until the end of class, when the professor clears his throat again and says, “And did our little visitor learn anything today?”

“It has five whole-steps. It has two half-steps,” says Yuan, mostly to himself. He’s scribbled all over the page.

“That is correct,” says Lan Zhan. He says, “Thank you,” stiffly to the professor, who looks astonished, then picks Yuan up and holds him out at arm’s length to Wei Ying. “You should bring him toys next time.”

“Yeah,” says Wei Ying, taking Yuan, who seems perfectly happy to be handed back and forth like a football. “I’ll plan better next time. Hey, I gotta say thanks—”

Lan Zhan has already gathered his things and stalked out of the room.

“That guy is such a dick,” Wei Ying grumbles.

“Such a dick,” Yuan echoes. One of the other people in the class gives him a horrified look. “I drew a scale,” he says, holding up his paper. It is covered in indecipherable scribbles.

“Nice work,” says Wei Ying. “Okay, I promised you a cookie, right? And then we’ll pick you up something to play with, and then you’re gonna hear an orchestra rehearse. You excited?”

“I’m excited,” Yuan agrees. “What’s orchestra?”

“It’s a bunch of different instruments,” Wei Ying explains. He puts Yuan down, but the kid clings to his hand. “It’s going to be loud, but it’s good music.”

“Okay,” says Yuan. He pushes his hair out of his face with one hand. He looks pretty resigned to doing whatever weird thing Wei Ying is dragging him off to do. Wei Ying retrieves his winter coat, and his teddy bear, and the highlighters Lan Zhan loaned him, and by the time he’s gathered all the little-kid stuff everyone else has left the classroom.

“Just okay?” Wei Ying teases. “Don’t tell me you have a hot date to go to instead?”

“No,” says Yuan.

“Something you’d rather be doing?”

Yuan shrugs.

This was weird to Wei Ying yesterday, too—a little kid should throw a fit, maybe scream and cry about going home, or wanting his mommy. Yuan hasn’t done that, and it’s strange. Wei Ying drops to a crouch, eye-level with Yuan.

“Hey,” he says. “Are you okay? You wanna go home?”

“Home?” Yuan echoes, tilting his head.

“Your home,” Wei Ying prompts. “With people you know. Can you tell me where that is?”

Yuan stares at him, then shrugs.

“My cousin brought you to my apartment, but wherever you were before that,” Wei Ying says. His heart feels like it’s stuck in his throat. A kid ought to think of somewhere as home.

“Dunno,” says Yuan. “Lots of places. I see a train. You said cookies.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, swallowing hard. “Were you with Xuanyu for long?”

Yuan shrugs. “Lots of uncles,” he says vaguely. “And cousins. Can I have two cookies?”

“No,” says Wei Ying, because he’s a sucker but he’s not an idiot. “Hey, listen. You’re gonna stay with me for a little while, okay? Did I tell you that? And we’re gonna figure out where you belong. I’m not gonna just hand you off to someone else.”

He wants to say I’m gonna find you a home, or I’m gonna find you a family, but he remembers too vividly the empty feeling of being moved around from place to place, handed off and told repeatedly, “this is where you live now,” only to be moved a few weeks later. He hadn’t particularly believed Jiang Fengmian when he’d said, “You live here now,” not for a long time. And he doesn’t know what he’ll do—give Yuan back to Xuanyu? Demand Xuanyu find his actual parents? Track down his parents himself and ask them what the hell is wrong with them? Give Yuan to the correct American authorities?

It feels lousy. All of it feels just…absolutely awful.

“I get a cookie,” says Yuan, considering, “And teddy bear also gets a cookie?”

Wei Ying waves a finger at him. “You’re pretty clever, huh? We’ll see how much trouble your teddy bear causes during rehearsal.” At least the kid doesn’t seem horribly traumatized. He takes Yuan’s hand, and shoulders all his own stuff and all the kid stuff on the other side. “Okay?”

Yuan sighs loudly, in a way that suggests there is no justice in the universe if there are no cookies forthcoming. “Okay.”

Rehearsal turns out to be a lot easier than Wei Ying was expecting, because the flute section—all of them but Wei Ying are women—adopts Yuan immediately, and then the drummers give him a drumstick and let him hit the timpani for a while, and he’s the happiest kid anyone has ever seen.

It’s a competitive program and a super competitive orchestra to get into, but everyone’s happy for a reason to goof around for a while. Except Lan Zhan, of course, who sweeps in wearing his floor-length winter coat and sits down alone to start tuning his violin. He carries a little island of silence with him.

Wei Ying balls up a piece of scrap paper and throws it at his head. It misses, but Lan Zhan turns and gives him the side-eye to end all side-eyes.

“You didn’t let me say thank you earlier,” says Wei Ying, cheerfully determined. “You didn’t have to let him crawl all over you. I brought your highlighters, too. Here.” He holds them out. When Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything, he prompts, “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Lan Zhan takes the highlighters, drops them in his bag, and turns back to his violin.

This is why Wei Ying gave up on trying to flirt—or even be nice to him. It’s impossible to have a conversation. Wei Ying huffs a little. “Do you have a lot of babysitting experience?” he asks, mostly as a joke.

“No,” says Lan Zhan.

“Me, neither,” Wei Ying says, determined to at least try to turn this into a conversation. “I guess I’m gonna get really good at it really fast! I do need to figure out something to do with him all day, though, he can’t just sit in my classes. There’s no pile of legos to cover that, right?”

Lan Zhan turns to look at him again, and he’s either being super judgmental, or he’s concerned, or maybe he’s thoughtful, or maybe—

Maybe Wei Ying just lacks the context to guess what the hell that expression could mean.

“You have no plans,” Lan Zhan says, not a question. Behind Wei Ying, Yuan is learning about quarter notes and eighth notes from an enthusiastic trumpet player and the percussion section.

“I didn’t know I needed any,” Wei Ying says ruefully. “I figured… I don’t know, people do something with kids all day, right? I’ll figure it out,” he adds. “Don’t worry about it. He’s a good kid, anyway. God, I wish my sister wasn’t in Chicago. She’d love to babysit. Probably.”

“He is staying with you?”

That is a question. Oh my god, Wei Ying thinks, they’re almost having an actual human conversation! “For a while, yeah,” he says, wondering where Xuanyu is right now. Has Mrs. Yu tracked him down? Is he really planning to come back in the next day or two? Somehow, Wei Ying doubts it. You don’t leave a kid with his birth certificate in a bag normally, right?

“He should be enrolled in school.” Lan Zhan turns back to his music, effectively ending the conversation again.

“He’s a baby,” Wei Ying says, but then the conductor comes in and everyone starts warming up in earnest. The guy who plays bells and one of the women who plays flute bring Yuan back to Wei Ying.

“I’m playing music,” Yuan says. “You heard me?”

“Yup,” says Wei Ying. “What do you think, are you going to be a drummer when you grow up?”

Yuan makes a face and shrugs. Maybe piano lessons, Wei Ying thinks. He’s old enough to start learning scales and middle C and stuff.

The conductor looks meaningfully at Wei Ying. “Sooooo sorry,” he says, scooping Yuan up. “I didn’t want to miss class again, but my babysitter—” doesn’t exist “—didn’t show up again.”

The conductor’s face softens and he nods. “It’s tough, huh?” he says. “Have you looked into the daycare at the college? They do a discount for students and teachers.”

Wei Ying had no idea such a thing existed, but he agrees immediately. “Yeah, totally, that’s my first stop tomorrow morning. I really didn’t think he’d have to come with me today, sorry.”

“It’s nice to see a father stuck with a kid for once,” says one of the flutes loudly. There is general agreement from the entire wind section.

The conductor sighs. “Why don’t you go see if the daycare is still open? Maybe you can get him set up for tomorrow. Go on. Your friend can bring you all the notes, and I’ll expect to see you in the rehearsal rooms a lot this week, okay?”

“My friend,” Wei Ying repeats, baffled.

“Zhan,” says the conductor, turning to the strings. “You don’t mind, right?”

“No, that’s okay—”

“I do not,” says Lan Zhan, not looking up from his sheet music.

Wei Ying starts to say Do you think all Chinese people are friends, but bites his tongue at the last second because taking Yuan to the daycare is good, and getting kicked out of the orchestra program is bad. “Ha ha, friends,” he says instead. “Okay, thanks, I’ll see you later, then,” and he looks at Lan Zhan like maybe this time Lan Zhan will say something, but he doesn’t.

Whatever. Wei Ying grabs Yuan and all of Yuan’s stuff and hustles them out just as everyone in the orchestra starts tuning up.

“That’s loud,” says Yuan. “I can bang on things?”

“Only drums,” Wei Ying says. “Come on. Ugh, we’re gonna have to say thank you to that stuck-up guy later. Be extra cute, okay?”

Yuan pretends like he’s thinking about that, which is extra cute. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll try.”

There’s a daycare in a building that Wei Ying has never gone into, and the woman running it seems extremely dubious but takes all of Yuan’s information down. “Tomorrow bring in his immunization records, proof of address, your proof of enrollment, and his birth certificate or his passport,” she says. “If he’s four he should really be in Pre-K.”

“I’ll bring in whatever I can,” Wei Ying says. He wonders which of those documents Xuanyu left in the SpongeBob backpack. Hopefully he won’t have Yuan long enough to worry about Pre-K.

“No immunizations, no daycare,” she says firmly. “Everything else we can work around, but he can’t give anyone chickenpox or measles.”

“Cool, cool,” says Wei Ying, doing some mental calculus. He may not get any practice time in this week at all.

“You should have all those forms,” she says. “If you can’t find them, call your pediatrician. Or his mom will know.”

Well, maybe she does, but where and who is she? Wei Ying grimaces. “I’ll work on that,” he says. “So I can drop him off tomorrow?”

“As long as you have the documentation.”

He carries Yuan out of the building. It’s freaking cold outside. He hopes the reason Yuan didn’t have a winter coat before was that Xuanyu was somewhere warm.

“You’re a lot of trouble, you know that?” Wei Ying says to him.

“I’m extra-cute,” Yuan replies.

Hard to argue with that. “More pizza for dinner?” Wei Ying asks.

Yuan looks around. “Where’s my teddy bear?”

Wei Ying stops dead in the middle of the sidewalk. “Shit,” he says. “I thought you had him. Did you leave him at the daycare?”

“No,” says Yuan. “I don’t know.”

“We can get him tomorrow?” Wei Ying offers hopefully, but he knows before it happens that Yuan’s about to burst into tears.

“I wannnnnnnt it,” he says, eyes filling up with tears. “I want it, I want it!”

“Okay, god, calm down,” says Wei Ying, picking him up. “We’ll go back and check, okay, don’t cry.”

“He’s lost,” Yuan sobs, “he’s gone, he’s lost, he’s gone.” He kicks his feet a little, like carrying him and two people’s worth of stuff isn’t hard enough already.

“Stop crying,” says Wei Ying, but he doesn’t think it’ll work, and it doesn’t.

The teddy bear isn’t at the daycare. Yuan has a full-on meltdown, head tossed back, sobbing so hard Wei Ying can’t really understand what he’s trying to say. “We’ll get you a new one,” Wei Ying tries, but that sets off another round of scream-crying for some reason.

If the teddy bear was left at rehearsal or even in the first classroom, there’s a pretty good chance they can find it tomorrow, but by tomorrow Yuan might have cried himself into a puddle of goo. And the other parents at the daycare are looking at them both, some with sympathy and some with judgment.

What happens, Wei Ying wonders suddenly, if one of them calls some kind of American authority about Wei Ying’s shitty parenting? He doesn’t have any actual legal right to take care of this kid, and he doesn’t know what would happen to Yuan.

He hugs Yuan just a little bit tighter. This would be easier in China, where the Jiangs could pay the right people to handle the right things. Not that Mrs. Yu would necessarily help him, she’d call him an idiot and tell him that bringing home a random child was making the family lose face. But she’d have the right connections.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Wei Ying says, bouncing Yuan a little, trying to get him to calm down. “We’ll find him, he’s not lost.”

“He’s go—oo—one,” Yuan hiccups. He cries into Wei Ying’s shoulder. “I miss him.”

God, can Wei Ying call the toy store and get a teddy bear delivered tonight, maybe? “I’ll fix it,” he promises, “I’ll find him, I’ll fix it.”

“You fix it?” Yuan says, staring at him, tears still streaming down his face.

“Yes,” says Wei Ying. “We’ll go home, and I’ll fix it, just calm down.”

Yuan sniffles miserably and hides his face in Wei Ying’s neck. It’s gonna be all gross, Wei Ying thinks, trying not to grimace. He definitely needs to give this child a bath, and he doesn’t know if cheap knock-off Axe body wash is suitable for children. Or if he’s big enough to take a bath on his own. Probably not, right?

Yuan sniffles quietly the whole way home, clearly miserable. He even sings a little song to himself as they trudge to the elevator back up to Wei Ying’s apartment. The lyrics are something like, “He’s gone, all gone, he’s gone,” and it’s the most depressing thing Wei Ying has ever heard. Yuan should start a recording career.

Wei Ying is just realizing how hard it’s going to be to juggle his keys, his bags, and Yuan while opening the door when he steps out of the elevator and Lan Zhan is standing in front of his apartment. He is absolutely pristine, like somehow the general wintery grime of the city can’t touch him. He doesn’t deign to get sweaty or tired or step in puddles that soak through his shoes. He probably floats a centimeter above the sidewalk.

“Hi,” says Wei Ying, perking up. “Perfect, awesome, so glad you’re here.” He hands Yuan to Lan Zhan with a bright smile and starts digging for his keys.

He wouldn’t have been surprised if Lan Zhan had held the kid out at arm's length like a cartoon character, but Lan Zhan takes Yuan and holds him on his hip like a normal human being. “He is crying,” says Lan Zhan.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “We lost his teddy bear today; it’s been a whole thing.”

“Gooooooooooone,” Yuan wails, tipping his head back.

“He is not gone,” says Lan Zhan. “You may stop crying.” As Wei Ying finally gets the door open, Lan Zhan reaches into his bag and pulls out—

“Holy shit!” says Wei Ying. “You absolute fucking hero!”

“My bear!” shouts Yuan. He clutches it in both hands. “My bear!”

Wei Ying holds the door open and Lan Zhan carries Yuan in. “I can’t believe how clutch you are,” says Wei Ying. “Wow. Thank you. I take back my comments earlier. We are now officially best friends.”

Lan Zhan gives him a look that would turn a glass of water instantly to ice.

“Too late!” says Wei Ying, refusing to be intimidated. “You saved the day. We’re friends. You’re gonna have to deal with it. I owe you.”

“You do not,” says Lan Zhan. He puts Yuan down, and Yuan promptly wraps himself around Lan Zhan’s leg.

“Say ‘thank you,’” Wei Ying prompts.

“Thank you,” says Yuan, muffled. He looks up at Lan Zhan and beams.

Lan Zhan is looking around the apartment. “This is a dorm,” he says.

“Yeah, campus housing,” Wei Ying says. “So, do you want a beer or something?”

“It is not suitable for a child.”

Wei Ying grimaces. He drops his jacket and all their bags by the door, kicking it all out of the way, but it’s not like the rest of the place is picked up, either. There’s a small mountain of recycling all over the living room, and his bedroom floor is covered in clothes and books and notebooks. The couch still has last night’s pizza box on it. “Uh,” says Wei Ying. “Well, no, it’s not ideal, I guess.”

Lan Zhan is nearly frowning. “He can choke. Or break things. Or fall.”

“He’s not gonna do that, are you buddy?” says Wei Ying. He pries Yuan off of Lan Zhan’s leg. “You wanna watch some more cartoons? I’ll set up the laptop.”

“My bear likes SpongeBob,” says Yuan, climbing onto the couch. It’s a full-body workout for him.

“Everyone likes SpongeBob,” says Wei Ying, setting up the laptop. “Right, Lan Zhan?”

“What is ‘SpongeBob’?”

Wei Ying recoils. “Seriously? Come on, it’s even on in China! You must know SpongeBob.”

“I don’t watch television,” says Lan Zhan. That is somehow extremely predictable. “It’s a cartoon? For children?”

“SpongeBob is for everyone,” says Wei Ying. “He lives in a pineapple under the sea. He’s a sea sponge. And his pants are square.” He likes the slightly baffled look on Lan Zhan’s face. He’s sure Lan Zhan is smarter and more studious and more knowledgeable than he is, but he doesn’t know anything about cartoons.

“Hmmm,” says Lan Zhan.

There is a world of judgment in that noise. “I really didn’t know he was coming to stay with me,” says Wei Ying, which is the absolute truth. “And I don’t know how long he’ll be staying, either.”

“You do not communicate with his mother?”

“Never,” says Wei Ying. “He was dropped off by a cousin with a vague note, and now here we are.” It’s amazing, he thinks with satisfaction, how easy it is to tell the truth and let someone hear a lie.

Lan Zhan’s frown deepens. “You don’t have custody?”

Wei Ying laughs. “No, no way. I’m not—I mean, hell, I’m here on a student visa. I don’t even know if I could get—If I’d want to get—Oh my god, no.”

Two days with Yuan have been exhausting. He has no idea what would be involved in even thinking about maybe getting custody, let alone how tiring—and expensive—that would be. Surely someone wants this kid. Surely someone is more qualified and knows what they’re doing with a four-year-old.

What if no one wants him, though? a tiny nagging voice wonders at the back of Wei Ying’s mind. He remembers being unwanted, not in actual conversations, but the feeling of being shuffled from room to room, told to wait, the scratchy feeling of government building rugs and staticky plastic waiting room chairs. Strangers talking about you, not to you, and sheets that always smell like soap.

Lan Zhan is looking at him, but his expression is totally mysterious. “No,” says Wei Ying. “I wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what to do or how to do it.”

“It could be figured out,” says Lan Zhan.

“No, no, no, this is just—If this becomes a thing I have to deal with, then I’ll have way bigger problems. Hey, do you want a beer? We can watch some SpongeBob. I can order food. I owe you, remember?”

“No, thank you.” Lan Zhan goes through his bag and takes out the papers from the orchestra.

For a minute, Lan Zhan hesitates. The papers in his hand hover over Wei Ying’s hand, and he looks poised to say something.

“Yeah?” Wei Ying says. “What? What’s up?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “You do not need to thank me,” he says. “You do not ‘owe me.’ I have not been inconvenienced.” And then he takes his bag and sweeps out of the apartment.

“You’re welcome!” Wei Ying shouts after him, just to be a dick about it. If Lan Zhan hears him, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

Dinner is cold pizza, which Yuan refuses to eat. He nibbles the edges and makes faces and kicks his feet. Probably kids aren’t supposed to live on pizza and cookies, but it’s not like Wei Ying has a fridge full of vegetables. He tries to give Yuan a bath, but Yuan has another meltdown when he can’t bring his teddy bear, and Wei Ying eventually has to compromise; it’s enough that the kid got wet and had some soap near him at some point, probably. They’ll try again tomorrow.

He’s so tired by the time he gets Yuan to bed that he only belatedly realizes he hasn’t looked at the music from yesterday, let alone from today; he’s done no practicing, and he didn’t pay attention to anything in class. He tells himself it’ll be better tomorrow if he can drop Yuan off at daycare, which reminds him that he has to check and see what documentation Xuanyu left with him.

His phone buzzes as he’s trying to find the papers. “Yeah?” he says, then switches to Chinese when he realizes it’s Yanli. “Please tell me you have good news.”


“Go ahead, tell me,” Wei Ying sighs.

“Mom says that no one knows where Mo Xuanyu is. He might have changed his number and dropped off the face of the earth? He can’t be found, at least. None of the cousins or aunties know where he is or who he’s staying with, so he’s probably not coming right back for A-Yuan.”

“I kind of guessed that.” Wei Ying finds the birth certificate, carefully folded up with some other papers. One of them is a little immunization booklet, thank god.

“Mom also says that it’s pretty clear-cut that he’s an orphan in everything but documentation. She talked for a pretty long time about what a shame everything in America is, you know, no extended family, no sense of family face, no morals. She really wants us to move back before I have the baby.”

“No chance,” says Wei Ying. “You like Chicago.”

“I do,” she says. “It’s so cold in the winter, though.”

“Make your rich model husband buy you a better coat,” Wei Ying suggests.

“He’s a doctor,” says Yanli.

“A plastic surgeon is not a doctor,” Wei Ying sneers. He can’t help it.

Yanli sighs and waits.

“Fine, fine, he’s a great man, he loves you very much, he’s the world’s greatest plastic surgeon,” says Wei Ying, rolling his eyes. “I’m very happy for you both, and I’m definitely not worried your baby will get all of his shitty genes instead of your awesome ones.”


“I’m just saying! Don’t let him turn my nephew into a total dick. I’m gonna have to visit a lot.”

Her voice goes soft and gentle. “How are you coping? You must be very tired. Children are a lot of work, even if you expect them.”

“Yeah, he’s a fucking handful,” says Wei Ying. “I don’t know. I got him signed up for daycare, that should make the rest of the week easier.”

There is a long pause.

“What are your…plans?” Yanli asks.

“Don’t have any,” says Wei Ying honestly. “I figure I’ll play it by ear. Maybe Xuanyu’ll come back, maybe his parents will show up, maybe a rich uncle will suddenly want to adopt him. I’m gonna give it a little while.”

“What about your studies?”

“I’ll make it work,” says Wei Ying. He sounds certain, at least.

Yanli pauses again. “He’s not your responsibility,” she says. “I’m sure it’s tough for you to think about, but he’s probably better off with people who are prepared for these situations.”

“No,” says Wei Ying flatly.

She’s still being so delicate. “He’s not a kitten. You can’t just keep him.”

Wei Ying closes his eyes and tilts his head back, grimacing at the ceiling. She means well, he reminds himself, and she’s the best and kindest person he knows. She’s trying to help.

If she’d hung out with Yuan in real life she wouldn’t be saying that, though. If she knew how it felt to be passed around and not wanted anywhere, she wouldn’t be saying that. He’s glad she doesn’t know. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel that.

He especially doesn’t want Yuan to feel that, and he’s pretty sure he already does.

“I’ll FaceTime you tomorrow,” says Wei Ying. “You’ll see how cute he is.”

“I’m sure he’s adorable,” Yanli says. “I guess… If you’re sure…?”

“I’m sure that I’m not doing anything about it tonight,” says Wei Ying, with some forced levity. “It’s later here than in Chicago, remember? Love you. Tell my nephew I love him, too.”

“He’s kicking. I think he knows.”

He hangs up. He’s sitting on the floor in the hallway of his dorm apartment, which is, as Lan Zhan pointed out, no place for a kid. He just can’t help but feel like government custody is no place for a kid, either.

He ends up sitting there in the dark, holding the SpongeBob bag, for a long, long time.