The text arrives at 9 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, while Wei Ying is in the middle of retouching the last weekend’s wedding shoot, and thinking absently about what he might wear for Nie Huaisang’s big NYE party.
didi, Zixuan and I have to fly to Toronto for a family emergency
This in itself is not a surprise; Wei Ying has received numerous texts like this from her over the last few years. The discovery of a number of Jin half-siblings after Jin Guangshan’s death has required deft handling, and Jin-furen has increasingly relied on her son and daughter-in-law to provide it. Wei Ying is grateful that his sister hasn’t given in and moved to Toronto yet, because then she would be five hours away instead of twenty minutes on the SkyTrain, and then he might have to move, because he needs to see his sister and nephew at least once a week. (Jin Zixuan could be five hours away—maybe even ten—and that would still be fine with Wei Ying, but the peacock does seem to come as a package with the other two.)
But then the next text arrives, and it is a surprise:
♥️ Yanli ♥️
Popo had a heart attack and fell down the stairs
she’s alive, but in bad shape
the doctors say they need to do surgery
oh no jiejie that’s terrible! let me know if there’s anything I can do?
♥️ Yanli ♥️
actually there is
I was wondering if you could take A-Ling while we’re gone
I know that’s a big ask, didi, and I know the timing’s not great
but we’re going to be at the hospital pretty much 24/7 for the week and it’s just not a good place for a 16 month old
and A-Cheng’s out of town this week
Wei Ying thinks of a million things he might say in response, mostly variants on “I don’t know anything about toddlers except how to get them to smile for pictures,” and even that’s questionable, during some shoots; sometimes all he gets are shots of kids sticking out their tongues and pulling down their pants. Of course, he’s hung out with Jin Ling plenty of times—he and Jiang Cheng have been gunning for the “favourite jiujiu” crown since the day the kid was born—but that’s not the same as looking after him for an extended period.
But this is his jiejie. Wei Ying can’t refuse her anything.
of course, jiejie! bring him by any time, I’ll be ready!
♥️ Yanli ♥️
thank you, didi, you’re a lifesaver
hopefully it’ll only be for a week
he’s looking forward to seeing his jiujiu!
I’ll drop him off around 3, okay?
Wei Ying closes out of his photo editing suite—he’s not due to hand over the wedding photos to the clients for another two weeks—and (after a sorry, I can’t make it tonight, emergency babysitting text to Huaisang) frantically brings up Google:
how to change a diaper
what do 16 month olds eat
spice tolerance of toddlers
when do toddlers go to bed
childproofing an apartment
An hour and a half later, loaded with the bags from a panicked shopping trip, Wei Ying jams a foot between the elevator doors and just manages to stop them from closing. When they lurch open, he finds the elevator occupied by his next-door neighbour, Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan’s four-year-old son, Lan Yuan.
“Oh, hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles. “Hi, Lan Yuan.”
In response, Lan Zhan just nods, a nod so fractional (an eighth of a nod—no, a sixteenth) that Wei Ying almost thinks he’s imagined it. He and Lan Zhan have been neighbours for almost four years; after all that time, Wei Ying knows exactly three things about Lan Zhan:
- Lan Zhan is hot. Scorchingly hot, so hot Wei Ying starts sweating whenever they’re in the same space, which makes elevator rides in general and this one in particular rather uncomfortable;
- Lan Zhan is a musician who teaches music lessons out of his apartment, and who plays the cello in a way that makes Wei Ying feel like his soul is leaving his body; and
- Lan Zhan hates him.
That Lan Zhan is hot, Wei Ying has known since the first time he met the man, in the hall the day he moved in. He’d come up to this door carrying a bag full of studio equipment and almost bumped into a tall, long-haired man, dressed in a soft silver crepe shirt that tied around his neck with a bow and accented his warm amber eyes. His hair was half-down, wavy, and his face had the sort of unearthly beauty that had Wei Ying longing to bring out his camera and begin snapping photos. Wei Ying had coughed out an introduction—“I am Lan Zhan,” was all the response he got, in a cool, low voice that made his pants feel too tight—and then immediately lost control over his tongue and started babbling about how maybe he could shoot some portraits with Lan Zhan sometime, until finally Lan Zhan had excused himself and left Wei Ying staring, shell-shocked, at his door.
The music thing—he’d learned that over time, just from listening. The wall between their apartment isn’t the thickest.
The bit about Lan Zhan hating him, though, dates from the day, three months after Wei Ying had moved in, when he’d stumbled home from one of Nie Huaisang’s horrible themed bar nights and found Lan Zhan pacing the sidewalk outside the apartment building. Lan Zhan was leaning forward, his shoulders hunched as if against some imaginary wind.
“Lan Zhaaaan! What are you doing out here so late?” Wei Ying had said, loudly. (Maybe he’d yelled it. He’d probably yelled it.) It was only after he said it that he noticed the sleeping baby strapped to Lan Zhan’s chest, and by the time he’d noticed, the baby was no longer, in fact, sleeping, but had woken up with a startled cry. The baby had a cry like an ambulance siren.
“What does it look like I am doing,” Lan Zhan had hissed, and turned on his heel to walk in the other direction. Wei Ying had scuttled away, embarrassed. He had known Lan Zhan had recently adopted a baby! What had he been thinking?
The next day he’d knocked on Lan Zhan’s door with a bottle of wine as an apology. When Lan Zhan came to the door, Wei Ying could hear the baby crying in the background, and Lan Zhan—normally so immaculate—was wearing a t-shirt covered in … something? yellowish-white? and carrying a half-empty bottle in one hand.
“I’m so sorry about last night, Lan Zhan, and so I thought … I thought maybe you could use a little break, to sit down and relax?” He’d held out the wine bottle, something more expensive than he usually went for, because the stuff he usually went for wasn’t too easy on the guts.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan had said, and slammed the door in his face.
They haven’t really spoken, since then, even though their balconies sit cheek-to-cheek and they pass in the hallway regularly. Wei Ying nods politely and keeps his eyes down, and avoids going out to water his herb garden at times he thinks Lan Zhan might be on his balcony, too.
“Hello, Mr. Wei,” Lan Yuan says, brightly, as the elevator begins its lurching upward progress. Based on their infrequent interactions, Lan Yuan is the world’s politest four-year-old; Wei Ying sees enough of them in his portrait studio to know what he’s talking about. “Why do you have a bag full of diapers? Are you having a baby?”
“Sort of,” Wei Ying says, with a nervous laugh. “I’m going to be babysitting my nephew for a week! Or, uh, maybe a bit longer, I’m not exactly sure.”
“How old is he?”
Lan Yuan nods, considers. “Do you need any toys? I can give you some of the toys I don’t use anymore.”
“Oh, that’s super nice of you!” Wei Ying says, with a nervous glance at Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan is staring at the elevator doors as if willing them to open. “I’m fine, though, I’m sure I’ll get by, I’ve got a few toys that I use in the studio when I photograph kids —”
“We will collect the toys we have which are suitable for a sixteen-month-old and bring them to your apartment,” Lan Zhan says. “Later today.”
This is the longest sentence Wei Ying has ever heard him say. “Thanks,” he manages, weakly. “I, uh … thanks.”
Jiejie arrives an hour later, along with Jin Ling, six pages of type-written instructions, an unassembled pack-and-play—“this is for him to sleep in,” she says, and seems relieved when Wei Ying says, “I know”—a dozen stuffed animals, a set of plastic dishes, three bags filled with clothing, various child first aid supplies (she sighs happily when Wei Ying mentions he’s purchased outlet covers), plus a diaper change pad.
Jin Ling has toddled over to the couch, climbed onto it—“wait, he can do that?” Wei Ying asks, horrified— and is looking out the window at the street below. He seems to be giving some sort of commentary on the vehicles that pass by, yelling out nonsense syllables that vary in pitch and tone and bouncing excitedly.
“He’s a very good climber,” Yanli says, proud. “Now, don’t worry, everything’s in the instructions, and you can call me whenever you have a question. Oh, he had his nap on the car on the way here, but not for as long as usual so he might be tired a little early, okay? And remember: you can’t lose the tiger stuffy, he won’t sleep without it.”
“Right. The tiger stuffy,” Wei Ying says, kind of dazed. Jin Ling wobbles and plops heavily onto his butt on the couch, then laughs with delight. He begins to bounce on the cushion, making a contented ahhhh sound.
“I’m sorry again about the timing, I’m sure you had exciting plans for New Year’s Eve.”
Wei Ying shrugs. “Just the same old party at Huaisang’s. It’ll be there next year.” The party has lost some of its charm, now that he’s in his late 20s, and last year he’d been so glum about having no-one to kiss at midnight that he’d kissed Huaisang. They’d stared at each other for a few seconds afterwards, before Huaisang shrugged and said, “Nope. Right?”
And Wei Ying had nodded, agreeing. “Yeah, that’s a no go. Good to know, though.”
“Okay, well, thank you. And you’ll be fine, didi! I wouldn’t leave him here if I didn’t believe that.”
“Right. Okay. I’ve got it,” Wei Ying says, more for himself than anything else, and then jiejie is hugging and kissing Jin Ling and promising to video chat every night, and hugging and kissing Wei Ying and promising him it’ll be alright, and then she’s gone, and Wei Ying is alone with a sixteen-month-old. He crosses to the couch and sits down beside Jin Ling, who immediately grabs onto his shoulder and climbs up for a better view out the window. An auspicious beginning, Wei Ying thinks. They’re going to cuddle and look out the window and go walk along the canal every morning, and maybe he can do some shoots with Jin Ling in the studio, spend a bit longer than he usually gets with toddlers. It could produce some good portfolio shots. How hard can it be?
“Hey, buddy,” Wei Ying says. “We’re going to have a great time, right? A very safe, uneventful time.” (This, again, is more for his own benefit than Jin Ling’s.)
Jin Ling climbs off his shoulder and bounces on the cushion again, thoughtfully.
“Mama?” he says, a question. He’s all cheeks and dimples and enormous eyes, and he puts one little hand on Wei Ying’s face and pats him. “Mama?”
“Ah, she had to go, bud. But you heard her! We’ll do video chat once she’s with your popo.”
He makes a scrunchy little pout, eyes somehow widening. “Baba!”
Uhoh, Wei Ying thinks. “No, he’s with your mama. It’s just you and me. Do you want to call me jiujiu? Can you say jiujiu?”
“Just on the video, okay?”
Jin Ling looks unconvinced, but slides off the couch and takes Wei Ying by the hand.
“Eat,” he says, in a commanding tone, and tugs Wei Ying over to the kitchen.
“Ah, definitely, definitely! Let me show you what we’ve got.” He digs around in the cupboard and pulls the bag of fish crackers out with a triumphant flourish. Wei Ying’s cupboards are usually a bit lean, but as part of his shopping trip he’d made sure to purchase the types of snacks he’d longed to eat as as child.
Jin Ling inspects the handful of fish crackers Wei Ying proffers and makes a discontented face. “No! Eat,” he says, and then does something with his hands that looks like he’s trying to make a shadow puppet of a bunny chewing on a rock.
“Uh,” Wei Ying says. “So that’s a no to the fish crackers?”
Jin Ling stomps and makes the hand sign—a walrus stabbing an iceberg?—again. Wei Ying knew his sister was teaching his nephew baby sign language, but somehow he hadn’t realized that might mean Jin Ling would actually try to use it to communicate with Wei Ying.
“Right, okay,” he says. He eats the fish crackers himself, and starts pulling out alternatives. “Dried mango? Apple slices? Cheese cube? I’ve got those little round cheeses …”
With each rejected option, Jin Ling does the sign of the sabre-tooth tiger leaping onto the mastodon, insistent. When this doesn’t produce results, he starts crying—“oh, no, A-Ling, it’s okay, your jiujiu will figure this out, okay? Just—just give me a minute”— and then, while Wei Ying is digging around frantically in the cupboards, he starts shrieking so loudly that they can probably hear it on the moon.
“I don’t know what you want, little tiger,” Wei Ying says, helpless. He slumps down against the wall and tries to gather Jin Ling into his lap, but this only results in hard, hiccuping sobs. How is this already a disaster? Because you’re a disaster, some part of him whispers. Why would you be able to look after a kid? You can barely look after yourself.
He’s just decided that it wouldn’t be admitting defeat to call jiejie for help this soon when there’s a knock at the door. Lan Zhan and Lan Yuan are standing on the other side, with Lan Zhan looking … well, Wei Ying’s not an expert in the variations in his stony expressions, but perturbed probably covers it.
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan! You weren’t trying to give a lesson, were you? I promise I’ll get him to quiet down, really, I just … I can’t figure out what he wants to eat, he just keeps doing this”—Wei Ying does the toothy hand sign, too—
“That’s the sign for potato,” Lan Yuan says, smiling. “Maybe he wants a sweet potato. Do you have any?”
Wei Ying’s jaw drops, and hangs there for a solid thirty seconds. “Oh. Yes. I … uh … thank you?”
He scrambles through the fridge for the paper bag of roasted sweet potatoes he’d picked up at the Korean market in the morning. Wei Ying would never once considered these a possible target of a child’s obsession, but when he hands it over, Jin Ling immediately stops crying and gives him another sign in return. (“That means thank you,” Wei Ying’s toddler translator says.)
“We have brought the toys,” Lan Zhan says into the sudden silence. He is holding a very large box. “Would you like us to bring them in?”
“Right! Yes. Uh.” Wei Ying’s vocabulary has apparently diminished in the last thirty minutes, to the point that he’s now less verbal than Jin Ling. “Please, that would be … um. Put it … put it over there, maybe? I still have to put away all his stuff, so I guess anywhere’s fine …”
Lan Zhan nods, slips off his shoes, and carries the box into the living room. Wei Ying immediately wishes he’d cleaned up a little more—it’s not terrible, he had put things away so that Jin Ling wouldn’t get into them, but he can’t imagine that Lan Zhan doesn’t keep his apartment pristine, dust-free. He can see his own apartment through Lan Zhan’s eyes, suddenly, the walls filled with his own photography and the furniture a mismatched bunch that he’s picked up here and there and dragged around over the years.
Lan Zhan pauses, for a moment, and looks up at one of the pictures on the wall: it’s an enormous portrait of Yanli and Jiang Cheng, floating on Lake Okanagan, surrounded by lilypads in full bloom. They’re lying head-to-toe, both of them with their eyes closed, a picture of serenity and peace. “Did you take this?”
“Yeah. All of the pictures are mine.”
“It is very well done,” Lan Zhan says, in a stiff way that makes it sound like someone is prompting him to give Wei Ying a compliment. “How did you manage the angle?”
“I hung a hammock between two tree branches so I could suspend myself above them with the camera.” He’d almost fallen in, actually, which would have been a nightmare for his DSLR, but he doesn’t say that.
Lan Zhan nods, another infinitesimal little acknowledgment, and begins to unload the box. When Wei Ying turns back to the kids, he finds that Jin Ling has eaten three small bites of the sweet potato and abandoned it on the floor in favour of staring at Lan Yuan.
“Ah?” he says, pointing at the other boy.
“Uh. Jin Ling, this is Lan Yuan,” Wei Ying says. “He’s my neighbour. Lan Yuan, this is A-Ling.”
“You can call me A-Yuan. Would you like to play?” Lan Yuan says, and takes Jin Ling back into the living room by one hand. Wei Ying picks up the sweet potato, dusts it off, and bites into it himself. He deserves it. Also, he feels like he deserves to sit down for an hour and just stare off into space.
“We have given you some toys that are somewhat noisy,” Lan Zhan says, reappearing beside him. Wei Ying startles and almost drops the sweet potato. Lan Zhan apparently has the ability to move in total silence. “I hope that is not a bother.”
“Oh, no, sure, the only people that might be bothered are you guys,” Wei Ying says, shrugging. He can’t quite figure out why Lan Zhan is being so nice. Maybe he misses having a toddler in his life? But he’s not going to complain that Lan Zhan’s usual frosty attitude has been replaced by one that qualifies as lukewarm. “And if you gave him the toys, I guess you don’t mind.”
“It is good for children to express themselves with sensory play.”
In the living room, Lan Yuan is showing Jin Ling a small wooden piano, painted in rainbow stripes. He demonstrates it by playing something that sounds suspiciously like Bach. Jin Ling, enthused, immediately smashes at the keys with both hands, a decent approximation of thrash metal.
“Oh my god, look at them,” Wei Ying says, awed by the sight. The two children together might be the cutest thing he’s ever seen: they alternate turns at the piano, Lan Yuan playing a passage of music and Jin Ling responding with a series of atonal chords and high-pitched giggle shrieks. Yanli, of course, has her son dressed like a perfect little prep, purple sweater over a white collared shirt and fake baby jeans in that stretchy faux-denim, diaper puffing out the butt; Lan Yuan is also dressed in a white polo shirt and matching white shorts. If Wei Ying hadn’t just seen the sweet potato meltdown, he’s pretty sure he’d be overwhelmed by a desire for a baby of his own right about now.
“Is there anything else you might like assistance with?” Lan Zhan says, after a moment. Wei Ying turns back to him and notices that Lan Zhan, too, is beautifully dressed, in a watercolour silk tunic and turquoise leggings, his long hair pulled up into a loose bun. Beside him, Wei Ying is an embarrassing mess, in a red t-shirt with a large wine stain and a pair of black yoga pants that are really too worn to wear in public. At least they make his ass look good, he comforts himself.
“Probably,” he admits. “But you’ve already done so much, Lan Zhan, I really couldn’t impose. And it’s New Year’s Eve, you have other things to do, I’m sure.”
Lan Zhan shrugs, gracefully. “I do not enjoy parties. I will be staying home with A-Yuan, tonight. And it is not a bother. I noticed that you still need to assemble the pack-and-play—”
“Mr. Wei?” Lan Yuan says. He scrunches up his nose. “I think xiao-Ling needs a diaper change.”
After he gets A-Ling on the change pad and undoes the diaper flaps, Wei Ying glances over and finds both father and son watching him with matching expressions of judgment. He has the hysterical thought that he’s about to be silently being ranked out of 10 on his performance, and that it’s unlikely to be above a 3.
“Uh,” he says, and waves the hand that isn’t on Jin Ling’s tummy at the situation. “I’ve never done this before. On my own, I mean, without my jiejie there.”
Lan Zhan must see something miserable on his face, because he comes over and rescues him. “You need to slide a fresh diaper underneath,” he says, “and then you will use the dirty diaper to …” and then Wei Ying isn’t really listening anymore because Lan Zhan has put his hand on Wei Ying’s to guide him.
“Uh,” he says again. His extremely hot neighbour, who hates him, is touching his hand to help him change a diaper. Lan Zhan pulls his hand back, but stays close to Wei Ying, murmuring instructions. Somehow, after a minute, Jin Ling seems to be clean and changed. “Thanks?”
“It becomes easier with practice,” Lan Zhan says, stepping back. A-Ling giggles as Wei Ying lifts him down from the change pad. There are going to be all sorts of things like this that he doesn’t know quite how to do and wouldn’t it be nice, he thinks, if Lan Zhan could help him out, just a little bit, with the other ones?
“Right. Yeah. Uh, I don’t know if you’re doing anything for dinner? Probably you have plans. But if you wanted, you could—well—I’m just doing a tofu and noodles thing, jiejie said not to do anything too spicy, and so maybe …”
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says, unfazed by Wei Ying’s word-slobber. “We do not have any plans. We would be pleased to join you.”
While Wei Ying reads the Jin Ling instructions—it turns out that the sweet potato thing is in there, because of course it is—Lan Zhan sets up the pack-and-play, and A-Yuan unpacks Jin Ling’s other things, and leads Jin Ling in and out of the bedroom, suggesting that he “put these up here, A-Ling. That’s right, right there!” And then while Wei Ying starts to prepare dinner, Lan Zhan sits down in the living room with both boys and throws the entire weight of his not-inconsiderable focus into playing. First Lan Zhan shows Jin Ling a little hand bell toy, and then makes it disappear and reappear, as if by magic, which makes Jin Ling giggle and bat at Lan Zhan’s hands. Then A-Yuan suggests that they play the “Lil’ Apple” game and Lan Zhan pretends to be a donkey and gives the children rides on his back, bouncing and making hilariously accurate donkey sounds, and oh no, it’s not the children that are the cutest thing Wei Ying has ever seen.
Dinner is a quiet affair. “We do not talk while eating,” Lan Zhan explains, a rule which Wei Ying expects Jin Ling will be incapable of following, but he seems worn out by the escapades of the afternoon and eats little bits of tofu in the soft silence.
“Would you like some assistance with bedtime?” Lan Zhan asks, when they are done. Wei Ying nods gratefully.
“Please.” Wei Ying contributes some boisterous songs to the bedtime routine, bouncing Jin Ling on one knee and then piggybacking A-Yuan around the room, and then once Jin Ling is in the pack and play, zipped into his sleep sack, Lan Zhan and A-Yuan sing him a lullaby together. It’s beautiful. Wei Ying, who can remember jiejie singing to him when he was older, but nothing before, feels tears prickle in his eyes.
“That was very nice,” he murmurs, when A-Yuan and Lan Zhan tiptoe out of the darkened room. “Exactly the sort of thing I would find helpful when I’m struggling with getting to sleep.”
“That’s the song that Baba used to sing to me when I was little,” A-Yuan whispers, as they tiptoe out of the darkened room. “If you ever have trouble sleeping, maybe you can just ask Baba to sing it for you.”
Wei Ying flushes bright red and almost chokes on his own tongue. “Oh, uh, that’s a very nice offer, A-Yuan, but your dad is, uh …Well. He doesn’t need to help with my insomnia.”
Lan Zhan seems to disagree with this, for some reason. “I am always happy to help.”
He can’t figure out how to respond to that. Lan Zhan doesn’t like him. He’s certain Lan Zhan doesn’t like him. “Okay! Okay, well you two were both so helpful today, so thank you for that. I don’t know if you’re going to be up at midnight—do you like to go to sleep early? I think you might be an early sleeper, Lan Zhan, I never hear any noise from your apartment after nine—umm, I was just going to say that if you were, maybe we could celebrate on the balcony. I might drink a glass of champagne at midnight? Our balconies are right beside each other, I don’t know if you know that. I mean, of course you know that, Lan Zhan …” Why is he incapable of talking in a normal way around Lan Zhan, Wei Ying wonders. Why does he keep babbling nonsensically whenever he’s faced with the gentle upward quirk of Lan Zhan’s lips?
Lan Zhan takes pity on him again. “Mn. That would be nice.”
Wei Ying spends the next four hours watching Jin Ling breathing on the infrared video monitor jiejie provided, ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of distress. (The instructions had said if he wakes up give him a few minutes to see if he can go back to sleep, but if Jin Ling cries Wei Ying knows he’s going to burst through the door, armed to the teeth to fight whatever night phantoms have come to plague his nephew.)
At twenty minutes to midnight, he slides out onto the chilly balcony and finds Lan Zhan already sitting in a chair beside the low shared railing, a cup of something steaming in his hand. From the apricot scent, Wei Ying thinks it might be osmanthus tea.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, looking after a kid is so tiring,” he says, sitting down in the cracked white plastic lawn chair he keeps on the balcony. Lan Zhan’s chair, of course, is a lovely handmade wooden thing, painted in soothing tones of blue that shine even in the dim light coming through the glass sliding door. “I don’t know how you managed it by yourself when A-Yuan was younger.”
“Sometimes I do not know, either. I have learned that raising a child is an ongoing opportunity to question every decision you make.”
Wei Ying laughs. “I can see that.” He pours out a glass of champagne, regretting that he’d popped the cork yesterday, on the assumption that he’d be drinking at Huaisang’s tonight anyhow. “Champagne? It’s flat, sorry.”
“No, thank you. I do not drink.”
Ah, Wei Ying thinks. The bottle of wine. He’d tried to apologize by giving Lan Zhan something he had absolutely no use for. “Probably for the best, this was the cheapest thing I could get at the BCL and it’s, uh, not very good. Even when it wasn’t flat.” There’s a pause, for a moment, both of them drinking in silence. “Lan Zhan … thank you again for today. I know you don’t like me, but—”
Lan Zhan interrupts him. (Lan Zhan interrupts him?) “Why would you think that?”
“Um. Because you … uh … it’s obvious?” It’s hard to see Lan Zhan’s face, limned as it is by the dried-mango depths of the distant streetlights. As far as Wei Ying can see, he doesn’t react to this. “I mean, there was that time—with the wine— after I, uh, well, you know. Not that I blame you for that, Lan Zhan, I was being super-rude and clearly you didn’t have to sit down with your noisy neighbour and drink wine while you were caring for an infant, and of course I didn’t know you didn’t drink. I just don’t … I just don’t think sometimes, you know?”’
“I have never disliked you, Wei Ying. I am sorry that I reacted that way—I was overwhelmed, at the time. It is no excuse, however, for rudeness. I have been … awkward, perhaps, ever since, because I did not know how to apologize.”
Wei Ying feels his jaw drop, and pushes it closed with the lip of his champagne flute. “Yeah, uh, you don’t need to apologize to me, Lan Zhan. I’m … I’m glad you don’t hate me.”
Lan Zhan inclines his head, gently, and they go a few more minutes in silence. Winter’s damp chill flirts with the edge of Wei Ying’s exposed ankles, not uncomfortable enough for him to do anything about it. He and Lan Zhan are separated by no more than the thin metal struts of the balcony, but Wei Ying wishes they were gone, that he could press his knee against Lan Zhan’s. He thinks that would feel right.
“So, music—” Wei Ying says, just as Lan Zhan says, “What drew you to photography?” and Wei Ying laughs and thinks that maybe, just maybe, Lan Zhan does too.
“You first, Lan Zhan.”
“When my parents died, I found solace in music,” he says. “It was an escape, and then it was somewhere that felt like it had a place for me. There were … not many other things that felt that way, when I was younger. When it turned out that I had some talent, it seemed like a natural thing to turn it into a career.” He pauses for a sip of the tea, the summery scent contrasting with the winter air. “And you? Why photography?”
“Same, kind of. I … I don’t have any photographs of my parents. They died when I was young, too. And so I didn’t want that for other people. Plus I like documenting people’s relationships and special events, it feels nice to be a part of those things, even if it’s just at the edges.”
“Hmm. I can understand that. I have the same feeling when my students have recitals, I think.”
Wei Ying laughs. “Why haven’t we been doing this for ages, Lan Zhan? Talking out here on the balcony, I mean.”
“I did not think you would be interested in doing such a thing.”
“I guess we’ve both misread the other person, then.”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan puts one of his hands—it’s so big, Wei Ying thinks, which must help when he’s playing piano—up on the railing between them. “I suppose so.”
This time, the comfortable silence is broken by shouting and cheering from an apartment two floors up. “One minute to the New Year!” someone yells, out the open balcony door.
“Oh shit, is it that time already?” Wei Ying says, startling to his feet. “Oh, uh, no, I hope the noise doesn’t wake A-Ling up …”
“Once A-Yuan is asleep, he can sleep through anything,” Lan Zhan says, also standing. “Perhaps Jin Ling is the same. Wei Ying … would you … would you like …” he gestures at himself, and then up towards the source of the noise, and Wei Ying is lost.
“I would like to kiss you,” Lan Zhan says, “at midnight.”
“Yes please,” Wei Ying says, breathless, and as the horns and klaxons fire off above, Lan Zhan leans over the railing, and their lips are pressing together, soft at first, and then something deeper. Lan Zhan’s hand crosses over onto Wei Ying’s balcony and presses into the small of his back, pulling them closer. They will need to get rid of the railing, Wei Ying thinks. They really can’t have this railing between them, in the future.
“Yeah. Right?” he says, when they pull gently away. It’s a callback Lan Zhan would never understand, but he seems to get the sentiment.
“Mn,” he murmurs, into Wei Ying’s hair. “Very right.”
“Happy New Year, Lan Zhan. I think it might be a very good one.”