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Lan Sizhui has always been told (by his uncle, and his great-uncle, and a plethora of cousins, and most of his teachers, and the lady who owns the food stall down the street where he gets jianbing for breakfast on the weekends) that his father would do anything for him. 

He thinks that’s true; he genuinely can’t think of a single time he’s ever wanted for anything in his entire life. And he’s never had any reason to test this hypothesis, until the summer he turns thirteen.

It’s an evening after dinner, the windows open to let in the warm, sweet-scented air. They’re sitting at the piano together, a-die patiently correcting the placement of Sizhui’s hands on the keys, and Sizhui picking his way through a mediocre rendition of Mo Li Hua. 

He has vague memories, from when he was very small, of their house being filled with music. But now there is only piano when Sizhui asks to practice. A-die doesn’t play anymore. 

A-die says, “I won’t be able to go with you to New York this year.”

Sizhui yanks his head up to look at him, startled. The keys under his fingers make a jarring clang, and he lifts his hands away. 

“But,” Sizhui says, “we always go together.”

He doesn’t mean to make his father look guilty. 

“One of my colleagues had a family emergency, and asked me if I could take over her caseload for the time being. There is a lot to be done.”

Sizhui knows that he can’t begrudge his father for helping people, but—

“Bobo won’t be there either,” he says, sounding desperate to his own ears. “Since he’s still on tour. It would just be me and shugong?”

He sees a vision of what his summer is shaping up to look like and it looks miserable. Uncomfortable dinners, and pointed looks at father’s empty seat paired with thinly-veiled remarks about matchmakers and eligible friends, and so many rules that Sizhui spends most of his time in his elders’ company afraid to speak or even move too suddenly. 

All of that he has weathered before, every summer of his life to date, but he’s always had father and uncle to buffer the worst of it. He could maybe hide behind shugong this time, but the quickest way to start a fight is to make shugong feel the need to defend one of his nephews, and then it gets ugly fast. 

“Can I stay home with you?” Sizhui asks hopefully. 

Father pauses, seeming to think it over, and then nods. He touches Sizhui’s hair lightly, a glancing affection that means more than a hug from any one of Sizhui’s distant relatives ever could, and says, “I won’t make you go if you don’t want to. But I will be very busy.”

I don’t want you to be lonely goes unsaid, but Sizhui hears it clearly. Wracking his brain, he suddenly recalls a conversation he overheard between some of his classmates on the last day of school. They were eagerly discussing their summer plans, promising to email each other while they were away at—

“Summer camp,” he blurts. 

A-die blinks. His surprise is valid, considering Sizhui has never once shown any interest in camp of any kind, and thoroughly shot down the idea when bobo brought it up a few years ago. But he’s listening, because he always listens to Sizhui, even when he’s playing piano very badly, or coming up with wild schemes to avoid their horrible extended family. 

His father really would do anything for him. Sizhui hopes this doesn’t count as taking advantage of the fact.

 


 

The airport taxi drives him right up the mountain, and parks behind a row of bright yellow school buses. The driver gets out to help Sizhui with his bag, even though he only has the one, and even waits with him beside the car when Sizhui’s nerves completely fail him. There’s just—a lot of people bustling around, and it’s very noisy. And he isn’t sure where he’s supposed to go. 

But it’s only minutes before a clipboard-wielding camp counselor spots them, and the driver cheerfully waves goodbye when Sizhui is herded away.

Check-in goes by in a blur, and he’s assigned a campground, and then he’s standing by himself outside the welcome center. He feels as dazed as if he just jumped off a cliff. 

Maybe he ought to have just gone to New York for the summer, after all. At least it’s familiar

“Wo de tian,” someone says from beside him with a surprising amount of venom. 

Sizhui turns to find a boy his age standing at his shoulder, glaring at something in front of them. Sizhui, for lack of better thing to do, follows his gaze to a towering pile of luggage. At the very bottom of the heap is a battered, bright yellow duffel bag. 

“Guess which one’s mine,” the boy says with an air of great tragedy. 

As they watch, four more bags get tossed onto the pile. 

Sizhui sets his own suitcase aside. “It’s only going to get worse if we just stand here,” he says grimly. “On three.”

Together, they grab the only strap of the duffel bag that’s still visible, and heave with all their might. For a moment, it feels as though they’re trying to pull a fully grown oak tree out of the ground—nothing so much as budges. And then, just as Sizhui is about to suggest they pause and regroup, the pile shifts, something comes loose, and he goes sprawling backwards. 

The combined weight of the boy and his overstuffed duffel land solidly on top of him. They both groan, and the boy rolls off of him. 

“Great,” he wheezes. “We have our bags, now we can go back home.”

Sizhui can’t help it. He laughs. 

 


 

Sizhui and his father are a lot alike. Bobo says it all the time, with great affection. Shugong says it, too, but with a touch more ancient weariness. 

They’re both an introverted sort, and don’t tend to make friends easily. Sizhui is on good terms with all of his classmates, and never runs out of people to talk to casually at school, but he isn’t close enough to any of his peers that he would ever imagine inviting them into his home, or spending time with them on the weekends. 

So it’s kind of amazing, how quickly he and Jingyi become absolutely inseparable. 

The camp is divided into its different sections based on age. Sizhui and Jingyi’s age group is ferried up the mountain to a secluded cluster of cabins referred to as Cloud Recesses. The cabins comfortably sleep three each, except for a smaller one in the very back that only sleeps two, and Jingyi claims it soundly, by virtue of throwing his and Sizhui’s bags inside and then closing the door.

Their counselor looks like she’s exhausted by him already. Sizhui, for his part, is pleased to be included. 

Jingyi has a magnetic personality, and commands attention wherever he goes. He’s the type of person that Sizhui imagines is constantly in motion, a whirlwind of messy hair and long limbs he hasn’t grown into yet, but Jingyi doesn’t seem to mind sitting still, either. When Sizhui has to take a break from the crowds and the noise, his new friend follows agreeably along. 

“You can keep playing,” Sizhui said the first time, nodding back at a particularly rowdy game of capture the flag. “I’ll just sit and watch.”

“No, I’m bored,” Jingyi replied easily. He’d been enjoying himself all of two seconds earlier, but Sizhui doesn’t call him on the lie. 

He calls home at the end of the first week, borrowing one of the landlines in the dining hall because cell service is virtually non-existent this far up the mountain. A-die sounds tired, but glad to hear from him, and listens intently as Sizhui talks—probably a little too much—about all the fun he’s having and the friends that he’s made. 

“I’m glad to hear it,” a-die says fondly. 

“You didn’t get in trouble with our family, did you?” Sizhui asks right before he says goodbye. “For letting me come here instead?”

“No,” his father replies, so firmly that Sizhui is almost certain it’s a lie. 

A heavy, sinking feeling sticks with him after that phone call, and he ends up picking disinterestedly at his lunch. Jingyi glances at him sidelong a few times, before finally saying, “What’s wrong? Did someone say something to you?”

He turns to glare at the rest of their table without waiting for an answer. Knowing Jingyi wouldn’t hesitate to make enemies out of the entire camp if he thought he needed to, Sizhui hurries to say, “No, I’m just worried about my dad.”

Jingyi’s expression does something strange then, where his playful energy flickers and his worry becomes something real and palpable. 

“Is he okay?” 

“Oh, he’s fine,” Sizhui babbles, flustered. “He’s just—I’m sure he’s lonely. Normally we go see our family over the summer, but he had to stay home and work. So he’s there by himself while I’m here, and our relatives are probably annoyed with him, and—”

Mercifully, Jingyi cuts him off. “I get that! I worry about my dad, too. I know he isn’t lonely, because our house is a circus on a good day, but he gets sad sometimes. When he thinks no one is paying attention. So we try to pay attention, but,” Jingyi shrugs, and now he’s poking at his plate, too. 

Sizhui regrets the turn this conversation has taken, and tries to change the subject. “Do you have a big family?”

It works, at least a bit. Jingyi brightens. “Oh, yeah. There’s me and my brother, and baba of course, Aunt Qing and Uncle Ning, and granny—and my shushu lives just down the road.”

Sizhui is fascinated by the concept of such a sprawling, lively, loving family. Jingyi is clearly cared for, and speaks of his relatives with immense affection and exasperation. 

That conversation seems to open a door. While they weren’t exactly holding back before, now the two of them freely share stories about their childhoods, and by the time they’ve been friends for a little under a month, Sizhui feels impossibly close to Jingyi’s wild, fiercely loyal family. 

And then one lazy afternoon while they’re kept inside by driving rains, the two of them are laying on Jingyi’s bed, and Sizhui is swiping through his phone for pictures of his rabbits. 

“They’re very spoiled,” he’s saying, brightening when he finds a good one. It’s a picture of a-die sitting on the sofa with two very chubby, very pampered rabbits sprawled across his lap. Laughing quietly, he passes his friend the phone. “See? I think a-die loves them even more than I do.”

Jingyi, for perhaps the very first time since the moment they first met, doesn’t reply right away. He’s holding the phone quietly, and when Sizhui tilts his head to look at him, he’s surprised to find Jingyi’s brow is furrowed, and there’s a puzzled sort of frown on his face. 

“Jingyi?” he prods. 

That’s your dad?” Jingyi asks slowly. 

“Yes?” Sizhui sits up a little, propped on his elbows. He feels wrong-footed, and glances back at the picture for some sort of hint as to what’s going on. “Why?”

Jingyi sits up, too, and hands the phone back. 

“Your dad is my dad’s ex-husband,” he says bluntly. “Come on. Get your jacket. We’ll need ice cream for this one.”

It’s a very strange way to have your life turned completely upside down, Sizhui thinks. 

 


 

Twenty minutes later, soaking wet and sitting on the back porch of the dining hall, while a few counselors give them the fish-eye for braving a torrential downpour for some snacks, they unpack what they know. 

It’s surprisingly little. 

“I’m adopted,” Jingyi says, “so all this happened before my time. But baba still has his—your dad’s picture. And he still—wears a ring. He wears it on a necklace.” He taps the butt of his spoon against the table, a quick, anxious tap-tap-tap. His ice cream is melting in its paper cup, untouched except for when he stirs it viciously. “Aunt Qing gives him shit for it, says he’ll never meet anyone new that way, and he always laughs, like there’s some big joke she’s not getting. She gets it though, we all do.” 

Sizhui followed through with the pretense of getting ice cream, too, but he hasn’t even unwrapped it. It’s just sitting there, a freezer pop slowly losing shape, condensation forming a puddle around the plastic package. 

“So does a-die,” he says quietly. “The ring, I mean. He doesn’t wear it, but he keeps it. It’s on his dresser in his room.”

Neither of them say anything. It’s just the sound of the rain, and distant conversation inside the dining room, and Jingyi’s anxious tapping.

Before they left their cabin, Jingyi showed Sizhui a picture of his dad. Sure enough, that smiling face was a perfect likeness to the one in the faded polaroid that a-die kept hidden away in his bedroom. Sizhui can’t stop thinking about it. 

“I was adopted, too,” he adds, for want of something to say. “I’m technically a—third or fourth cousin, or something, but my mother didn’t want me. I needed someplace to go, so a-die decided to adopt me.”

Sizhui realizes, now, that a-die hadn’t made that decision on his own. He had had a partner back then, a husband, by love if not by law, who had agreed that they should be the ones to give Sizhui a home. It had never occurred to Sizhui to wonder about that before. 

Now, sitting in silence with a boy who, in another life, could have been his brother, it’s all Sizhui has the mental capacity to wonder about. 

Sometimes, an aunt will bring it up in conversation and say something cruel, like, “That man was never your actual family, and we made sure he knew it.” He supposes it’s no secret why a-die ended up with sole custody of him. His other parent never had a fighting chance. 

“What happened?” Jingyi blurts. “No one at home will ever say. They don’t even talk about—your dad. Shushu gets furious when it even starts to come up, and baba just changes the subject.”

“I don’t know! My family doesn’t talk about it either.” 

“It’s weird, right?” Jingyi says. “That they’re—I mean—they still have the rings. Why would they—if they didn’t—”

Sizhui can follow that logic, as disjointed as it is. He’s thinking the same thing. It is weird. If they didn’t still have feelings for each other, they would have moved on by now.

“A-die’s never even been on a date before,” Sizhui says slowly. “Bobo tried to set him up with a friend once and a-die didn’t speak to him for three days.”

“Uncle Sang dragged baba to a mixer one time, but all that happened was they got blackout drunk and arrested for disturbing the peace. Aunt Qing and shushu had to go get them out of jail,” Jingyi recounts unremarkably. “Baba cried on shushu for the rest of the night. They agreed no more mixers after that.” He frowns. “Looking back on it, I think Uncle Sang probably planned it that way.”

“Do you think,” Sizhui says, parting with each syllable delicately, “that we should do something?”

“Like what?” Jingyi says. And then, eyes zeroing in on Sizhui’s with a kind of laser-like focus better suited a housecat let loose in a room full of birds, he says, “Wait, like what?”

Sizhui remembers a house full of music. He thinks of his a-die, home alone and working through his vacation, and how he doesn’t play the piano anymore. 

He glances at Jingyi, feeling a little helpless and a little limitless at the same time, because he doesn’t know what to do but there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to make his father happy the way he must have once been happy. 

“Camp is over next week,” Sizhui says at last. “Let’s see if we can come up with something by then.”

 


 

They come up with something, but Sizhui finds himself about to trip at the starting line.

Standing in the airport with Jingyi at his side, he lifts his cellphone to Facetime his father, and hesitates. 

“I don’t know if this is a good idea, actually,” he says. 

“Okay, first of all,” Jingyi says, taking both of Sizhui’s shoulders in a comforting grip, “it’s a great idea. Foolproof, even. Second of all, you already missed your flight, so there’s really no going back now.”

Taking a deep breath, Sizhui hits the call button and waits. 

It only takes a moment before his father’s face fills the screen. His brow is a little furrowed already. Sizhui should have boarded by now, and wouldn’t have called from the plane.

“Sizhui?”

“Hi, a-die,” Sizhui says. His voice limps out all guilty-sounding. This is not off to a good start. Jingyi squeezes his wrist in silent support. “Um, I—sorry, but I missed my flight.”

A-die’s expression clears with understanding, and not even a hint of reproach. “Ah. When is the next one?”

“Not until tomorrow night, and there are no seats left,” Sizhui says. They checked with the airport staff already, and looked online. He wilts when a-die frowns. “I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” his father says immediately, but he’s clearly troubled. His thirteen-year-old son is stranded on the opposite side of the country, of course he’s troubled! “I will make arrangements for a hotel room. Do not worry, Xiaozhui.”

Equally reassured by the nickname and a little self-conscious about it, given the way Jingyi’s eyes brighten with glee, Sizhui hurries to say, “Um, do you remember my friend that I told you about? He said that I could stay with him, since I’m sort of stuck here. His family lives here in California, and there’s room on his flight.” 

It’s a bit of a long-shot. A-die has never been an overbearing parent, but he is a protective one, and would hardly want his son spirited away with perfect strangers. Sizhui and Jingyi don’t actually have a plan for what they’ll do if this stage of their operation fails. 

“Sizhui...” a-die says, but Jingyi leans against Sizhui’s shoulder at that point, butting in earnestly. 

“Hi, uncle! I’m Jingyi! I met Xiaozhui at camp and we’re best friends now—” Sizhui elbows him hard in the side, and he yelps. A-die looks faintly amused by them as Jingyi rallies, “And it would really be no big deal if he came and stayed with us! I’d hate to leave him here by himself, you know? Airports are gross.”

“I’ll call as soon as I get there, and let you meet his family,” Sizhui says quickly.

“I won’t let anything happen to him! I’ll protect him, I promise!” Jingyi adds, and holds up three fingers, like a little kid making a pledge. 

Sizhui would never in his life have guessed that that would be the thing that convinced his father—but somehow, for a split-second, a-die’s eyes go soft.

“Let me talk to Xichen,” he says after a moment’s deliberation. “Do not get on a plane until I call you back.”

“Yes!” Sizhui says, hardly able to believe they’ve gotten this far. “Okay!”

When he hangs up, Jingyi says, “He seems really nice.” His tone is one of confusion, maybe dismay. When Sizhui nudges him, curious, he adds, “I’m just confused! Baba is really nice, too. You’d think... I don’t know. I wonder what happened.”

Sizhui wonders the same thing. “Well,” he says, hoping it sounds confident, “that’s what we’re going to find out.”

When his father calls back, it’s clear that bobo came through for Sizhui, and convinced a-die that he should be allowed to have a little adventure. The vacation to New York would have lasted another several weeks, after all. So Sizhui is given permission to go with Jingyi to his family’s house, and when they get there, a-die will discuss things with Jingyi’s parents and if that goes well, maybe Sizhui will be allowed to stay for a proper visit. 

“The stars are aligning,” Jingyi whispers, jittery with excitement as he waits in line with Sizhui to collect his new boarding pass. “This is like... cosmic stuff. We’re totally on the right track, here.”

Sizhui can’t help but feel optimistic about it, too. And in the back of his mind, sheltered and secret, he thinks that even if it were a truly terrible idea, and they were destined for failure, he would go through with it anyway. 

He remembers a house full of music. He wants to meet Wei Ying. 

 


 

The plane touches down early that same evening, and Jingyi leads the way through the terminal as quickly as he can without breaking into a run, clutching his duffel in one hand and Sizhui’s hand in the other. 

Suddenly, he drops both and launches himself forward with a shout.

“A-Yi!” A laughing voice rings out. “You’re never going back to camp ever again, I missed you too much! Aiyah, look at you, you’ve grown at least six inches!”

Sizhui hangs back a little bit, watching as his friend is embraced by a man who must be his father. It’s a rowdy reunion, but clearly affectionate, and after a moment Jingyi breaks away and waves Sizhui over.

“This is the friend I told you about, baba,” he says eagerly. “The one who’s going to stay with us.”

Sizhui hurries forward, carrying both his bag and Jingyi’s now. He’s trying not to stare at Wei Ying, forcing his breathless anticipation down into a more serviceable, polite smile—but Wei Ying is staring a little bit, too. He looks as though he’s seen a ghost. 

“Ah, your eyes,” he says affably, “they reminded me of someone. Ahhh, oh no, I’m reminiscing. That’s the first sign of getting old! I don’t recommend it!”

Sizhui and Jingyi catch each other’s eye and pointedly look away again. Wei Ying throws an arm around each of their shoulders and steers them out the doors, where the sky is a rich and vivid red with dusk and an unfriendly-looking man is waiting by a car parked near the curb.

“We’re going to get a ticket if we waste any more time here,” he snaps. “There’s a fucking line waiting to pull up behind me.”

Sizhui is a little taken-aback, but Jingyi shifts his bag into his opposite hand so he can wave wildly with the other.

“I missed you, too, shushu! Sizhui, this is my uncle, Jiang Cheng.”

The man rolls his eyes, but he leans over to ruffle Jingyi’s hair, and greets Sizhui with a nod. He helps get the bags into the trunk, and waits until the boys are secured, and points Wei Ying vehemently into the passenger seat when he makes a move for the keys. Then, like a well-oiled machine, he and Wei Ying settle comfortably into a scathing argument that lasts the entire twenty-minute drive home. 

In the backseat, Sizhui keeps darting worried glances at Jingyi, who looks completely unconcerned.

“This is just how they are,” he says. “It’s okay. If they were really upset, they’d be quiet.”

Sizhui’s only experience with brothers is his a-die and bobo, and he genuinely cannot think of a single time either of them have ever raised their voices at anyone, let alone each other. But occasionally, Jiang Cheng will grin, or Wei Ying will tip his head back and bark with laughter, and Sizhui thinks he understands. 

Wei Ying twists around in his seat to smile back at them. “I wanna hear all about the trouble you two got into at camp. Should I be expecting an itemized bill in the mail?”

“Maybe,” Jingyi says. 

“No,” Sizhui says at the same time.

“Adorable,” Wei Ying says. “You know, Sizhui, you’re in luck! We got some very good news recently, and we were waiting for my firstborn child to get home to celebrate. Looks like you’ll get to celebrate with us.”

Jingyi sits forward, intrigued. 

“What news? What are we celebrating?”

“You think I’m going to let you in on the secret after you decided to abandon me for a month? Hah!” Wei Ying turns back around in his seat, tossing his ponytail. “May this be a lesson learned.”

Jiang Cheng huffs, but he looks amused. Jingyi launches into a passionate defense of himself immediately, leading with “I go to camp every summer,” and following that point with “you said you couldn’t wait to be rid of me! You said you were glad I was gonna be someone else’s headache for a change!” and Sizhui can see the edge of Wei Ying’s reflection in the little mirror of the visor he'd put down to block the sun. He’s smiling, pleased and content, as this certain proof of his noisy family fills the car. 

 


 

The rest of the family is waiting when they arrive at the house, and dinner is ready, and Sizhui is practically ushered from the car into a seat at the table. It’s immediately apparent that there are absolutely no rules about talking during meals here, and introductions are made over mala xiang guo that makes Sizhui’s eyes water and still manages to be the most delicious thing he’s eaten since he left home. 

He’s absorbed into the dynamic effortlessly. Wen Qing is actually as scary as Jiang Cheng probably wishes he was, but she smiles kindly when she refills Sizhui’s bowl. Her brother, Wen Ning, is about as menacing as one of Sizhui’s bunnies. Granny Wen is clearly the matriarch of the household, but she only rolls her eyes and waves it off when everyone effusively praises the meal. 

Aside from Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying, the last person at the table is Jingyi’s older brother, Mo Xuanyu. He grinned when Jingyi initially flung himself at him with a cry of “Gege!” the second he walked through the front door, and smiled at Sizhui when they traded greetings, but he doesn’t speak up very much at the table. 

Or he doesn’t, right up until the meal is winding to a finish, and Wei Ying says loudly, “Before we send the prodigal son off to bed, I have an announcement to make!” 

His smile, a bright, cheerful thing, takes a certain gentle edge when he aims it at Mo Xuanyu, as if Mo Xuanyu needs the gentleness more than the brightness. 

“The paperwork has finally gone through,” he says, somewhat softly, “and you’re here to stay.”

Sizhui blinks, confused for a moment, before the implication sets in and he realizes what Wei Ying must mean. Mo Xuanyu is in exactly the same boat, his eyes slowly widening and his mouth dropping open, glancing from Wei Ying to Granny to Jiang Cheng and back again, clearly as stunned as if someone had tried to hand him a personal check for one million dollars.

“What?” he says, and then, “Really?”

“Of course, really,” Wei Ying replies, teasing but not unkind. “If you’d like to keep your name, that’s up to you. Otherwise, you can be a Wei.”

Mo Xuanyu’s mouth trembles, and then he ducks his head and stares very hard at his plate, and mumbles, “I’m turning eighteen soon, so—it’s pointless to adopt, isn’t it? It’s just a waste of time.”

Something very cold comes and goes across the Wens’ and Jiang Cheng’s faces—a calculated anger at whoever it was who taught Mo Xuanyu that he was a waste of time—and Jingyi’s hand clenches in Sizhui’s sleeve anxiously, but Wei Ying doesn’t miss a beat. He leans forward on his elbows, tilting his head until he’s able to catch Mo Xuanyu’s reluctant eye.

“Excuse me, but I don’t care if you’re turning thirty,he says with severity. “You’re my kid! I gave birth to you!” Then, when Mo Xuanyu can’t pretend he isn’t crying anymore and his shoulders start to shake, Wei Ying goes on, “We’re very lucky to have you here, A-Yu. We want you to stay.”

Absolutely no one gets away from that conversation dry-eyed, Sizhui himself included. Granny and Wen Ning bring mung bean cakes to the table that they made special for the occasion, and Mo Xuanyu—who laughingly asserts that it’s most certainly going to be Wei Xuanyu, from now on—murmurs a shy, “Thank you.”

“Hey, none of that,” Wei Ying scolds at once. “You know the rules! Tell him, A-Cheng.”

“No thank yous,” Jiang Cheng says fiercely. “We’re family. You’re my nephew. Making it official is literally the least my brother could do.”

Xuanyu sniffs, rubbing at his puffy eyes with the edge of his sleeve, and says, “I meant thanks for the cake, shushu.”

“Brat!” 

Wei Ying leans back in his chair and laughs, unburdened and delighted, as the rest of the table erupts into certain and inevitable chaos. Watching him makes Sizhui’s heart do something heavy and painful in his chest. 

A-die, he thinks, what were you thinking? How did you ever let him go?

 


 

The sneakiest part of the entire plan is when Sizhui calls a-die and passes the phone to Granny instead of Wei Ying. She takes the call out onto the porch, because the rest of the family is being too noisy inside, which is exactly what the boys were counting on.

A-die is clearly reassured by Granny Wen, and relieved that Sizhui is having a good time, and even smiles a little bit when Granny praises him for raising such a polite, well-mannered boy. 

“Xiaozhui is such a good boy,” Jingyi pipes up from behind her, all wide, earnest eyes, and Sizhui says, “JINGYI,” and a-die exhales what, for anyone else, would have been a laugh. 

So they make arrangements for Sizhui to stay for the rest of the week and exchange contact information, and a-die extracts a promise that Sizhui will call him every morning and every night, even if just for a moment. 

Sizhui, who doesn’t want to admit to missing his dad, but who absolutely misses his dad, makes this promise easily. 

He’s only just pocketed his phone when Wei Ying’s voice calls, “A-Yi, it’s time for bed!”

“It’s summer, time isn’t real!” Jingyi yells back, and then ruins it immediately with a yawn. Granny raises her eyebrows at him and he admits defeat, reaching out blindly to snag Sizhui by the sleeve. 

When they pass through the dining room again, the grown-ups are sitting around the table with glasses of champagne. Xuanyu has a glass, too, and he looks quietly pleased about it. Wei Ying waves Jingyi over for a hug. 

“Missed you, little radish,” he says. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Stop trying to make me cry in front of my friend, it’s not going to work,” Jingyi replies, but he sinks into the embrace readily.

Letting him go, Wei Ying turns to Sizhui and says, “Thanks for putting up with us tonight. I promise the rest of your visit will be very boring and normal.”

“Hah!” Jiang Cheng says. “I’d pay to see you pull that off for two consecutive hours, let alone a week.”

“You wouldn’t know how to be boring or normal if your life depended on it,” Wen Qing adds. 

“Goodnight,” Wen Ning says pointedly, giving the boys an out. They take it gratefully. 

“There usually aren’t dramatic announcements at dinner,” Jingyi says, leading the way up two flights of stairs to his attic bedroom. “This was an outlier.” 

“It’s okay,” Sizhui hastens to reassure him. “It was nice! I’m really happy for your brother.” 

Jingyi smiles crookedly at nothing in particular, humming in agreement. He’s not quite as performative at home as he was at camp, as though he knows he doesn’t have to put on any airs. Not so much quieter, and certainly not lesser, but more gathered, in a way. Like his center of gravity is here. 

Sizhui unpacks clean pajamas and is directed into the little closet of an ensuite bathroom in the attic to use the shower there, while Jingyi tragically drags himself back downstairs to the one on the second floor. Sizhui dozes off under the hot water more than once, and he’s half-asleep by the time he manages to get dressed and towel his hair dry. 

When his teeth are brushed and his face is scrubbed, Sizhui emerges to find Jingyi already sprawled in bed. His pajama shirt and pants don’t match, and he only seemed to find one sock. There’s a calico cat tucked into the crook of his shoulder, squinting up at Sizhui with disinterested green eyes. 

After sharing space at camp, in a tiny cabin that was not very much bigger than this attic room, Sizhui doesn’t have to second-guess himself. He just climbs in next to him, and tugs a corner of the blanket free. 

“Night,” Jingyi mumbles. 

“Goodnight,” Sizhui whispers back. 

 


 

Sizhui wakes up the next morning to find the cat tucked into an inconvenient loaf on his stomach and the bed empty beside him. He shuffles through the clutter on the nightstand to find his phone and blanches when he sees how late he slept in. Disengaging the cat is a battle of opposing wills, and then he flies through his morning routine and gets dressed quickly, calling a-die like he promised before hurrying downstairs.

Jingyi is sitting at the breakfast bar, dressed for the day but significantly rumpled, looking half-asleep as he works his way through a bowl of noodles. 

“Good morning,” a cheerful voice says, drawing Sizhui’s eyes to the woman working in the kitchen. She’s small in stature, about Wen Qing’s height, and very pretty. Beneath the faded apron she’s wearing, her clothes look expensive, but she moves around all the cookery equipment with expertise. 

“This is my guma, Jiang Yanli,” Jingyi says. “She’s my favorite.”

“She’s everyone’s favorite,” Jiang Cheng says without lifting his head off the table. He’s still in the chair he was drinking in last night. Sizhui suspects he never left it. 

“Ignore them,” Jiang Yanli insists, and beckons Sizhui over to a chair. “Come and sit, have some breakfast! I’m excited to meet A-Yi’s new friend!”

She has a very disarming nature, as calm and soothing as a still lake, while her siblings are more like rapid rivers and summer squalls. She reminds Sizhui of his bobo. 

Jiang Yanli wants to hear all about their time at camp, and she asks Sizhui about himself and his hobbies, and when Sizhui admits that he’s trying to learn piano, bright interest darts through her eyes like minnows. 

“Is that so? A-Ying could teach you,” she says. “He’s quite the musician.”

Jingyi looks up from his bowl, and even Jiang Cheng lifts his head. Jiang Yanli taps her fingers against the counter, lips pressed together. Sizhui thinks of his father’s piano, tucked away in an empty room except for when Sizhui asks to play it, and understands the minefield they all just inadvertently wandered into. 

He hurries to say, “That’s okay! Really! I like learning from a-die.”

The whole room seems to breathe a quiet sigh of relief. Jiang Yanli smiles at him a little ruefully. “Alright, then. Eat your food.”

She leaves not long after, having only come by in the first place just to deliver her own congratulations and warm affirmations of love and affection to Xuanyu. She hugs him very snugly and calls him zhizi, and Xuanyu soaks it up like a flower unfolding in the sun. 

“Give Yingying my love,” Jiang Yanli says. “I’d hate to wake him if he’s actually sleeping for a change—in a bed and everything!”

“Don’t give him too much credit,” Jiang Cheng replies without ire, “I had to carry him upstairs.”

Sizhui glances at Jingyi. Jingyi shrugs. “Baba doesn’t sleep well. Aunt Qing says he has the circadian rhythm of a raccoon.”

The calico makes an appearance, jumping up into Jiang Cheng’s lap. Sizhui finishes his breakfast and puts his bowl in the sink, with only a second to feel guilty about not washing it before Jingyi is tugging him out the kitchen door. 

A few steps brings them down into an airy conservatory, where lush herbs and vegetables are growing, but Jingyi leads the way through the little garden and then outside into the yard. They follow the edge of a broad pond until they reach a dock, and that’s where Jingyi finally sits, feet dangling over the side. 

Sizhui sits next to him, cross-legged. There are little water striders and damselflies keeping busy by the reeds, and above the constant hum of insect activity comes the occasional throaty chirp of a frog. It’s warm and sunny, and the air smells faintly of smoke, as if a neighbor is burning leaves somewhere. It's nice. 

“I’m gonna ask him today,” Jingyi says with determination. “About your dad.”

Sizhui’s hands clench on his knees. “I don’t want you to—to hurt his feelings. Just to satisfy my curiosity.”

Our curiosity,” his friend says pointedly. “And I don’t think it will. We don’t talk about it because he doesn’t like to talk about it, but he’s never not answered my questions. Nothing is off-limits, you know? He would rather I ask something outright than go around in circles over it.”

Sizhui nods. A-die is the same way. 

“If we just wait around for it to come up in conversation casually, we’ll still be waiting when we’re forty,” Jingyi goes on. He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as he is trying to convince Sizhui. “It’s been like, ten years, right? It’s probably fine.”

“Probably,” Sizhui agrees uncertainly. 

“People talk about their exes! It’s totally normal! Right?”

“Right.”

“Right,” Jingyi says firmly, and then they sit there for long enough that Wen Ning comes outside to make sure they didn’t fall in. 

“Jiejie doesn’t want you swimming in the pond,” he recites helpfully. “She says that’s just asking for an infection. That’s why we have a pool.”

“Ugh,” Jingyi mutters under his breath. “There’s no place to scheme around here.”

But he sounds as relieved as Sizhui feels to have an excuse to stop talking about it. 

 


 

Wei Ying and Wen Qing run a free health clinic, one that the entire family helps with. Even Granny will head into town if they need a hand with the phones or the filing. In the time it takes Sizhui and Jingyi to wander back into the house, all the adults have left for the day aside from Wen Ning, the assigned babysitter, and Jiang Cheng, who was supposed to have the day off.

They watch Jiang Cheng drag himself out the front door with the biggest travel mug of coffee that Sizhui has ever seen, because his meeting with the NACHC about hopefully obtaining a new grant for the clinic got bumped up with barely an hour’s notice.

“Don’t grow up to be a lawyer,” he says by way of goodbye. 

“He loves his job,” Jingyi confides in Sizhui. “He gets paid to argue with powerful government entities about how great and deserving his family is. It’s basically what he was born to do.”

“What made your family decide to start a clinic?” Sizhui asks with interest. 

Xuanyu, from his sleepy shrimp-like curl in the armchair, says, “‘Cause there wasn’t one around here for like forty miles. There’s just the hospital and a couple of private practices. No one can afford that.”

“Most of the people in our neighborhood are working class,” Wen Ning says. He came in from weeding the flower garden to re-calibrate the Wii remote for Jingyi, sitting patiently in his grass-stained clothes on the living room rug as though it would never occur to him to mind being interrupted in the middle of a task by a whiney nephew. “Some are offered insurance benefits through work, others aren’t, and in some cases, the insurance payments are too expensive themselves. There was a real need for a better option.”

“And the thing about baba is that he can’t stand to see a need and not do something about it,” Jingyi says with immense satisfaction. “He got the idea just as Aunt Qing was finishing medical school. Shushu left his fancy firm to come and run the legal team. Guma knows a ton about fundraising—it all just came together. You know, cosmic stuff.”

Wen Ning laughs. “It was a lot more work than that. And Ying-ge really needed something to keep himself busy. Here, A-Yi,” he adds, handing over the remote. “Let me know when you get hungry and I’ll make lunch.”

“Thanks, Uncle Ning,” the three of them chorus. 

They entertain themselves right up until Xuanyu leaves to go to a friend’s house, and then Jingyi tosses the Wii remote aside—no wonder it needs re-calibrated so often—and says, “Okay, let’s go snoop.”

“Jingyi, maybe we shouldn’t,” Sizhui starts, following his friend back upstairs. “I think we should just ask.”

“A little sneaking around never killed anyone,” Jingyi says, which Sizhui thinks is almost completely historically incorrect, and brazenly pushes open his dad’s bedroom door. Then it’s either follow him inside or linger by himself in the hallway, so Sizhui follows him inside. 

It’s a big room dressed in rich, warm colors, cluttered and a bit messy in a way that makes it look lived-in and comfortable. The bed is made, but the duvet looks crumpled and the pillows are crooked, like someone had napped briefly there without bothering to get comfortable. Jingyi is headed over to the stuffed bookshelf, humming as he peers sideways at the titles on the spines. 

Sizhui, feeling very out of place, hovers at his friend’s shoulder and tries not to look around too much. 

“Here!” Jingyi says triumphantly, and pulls down a huge photo album. 

It’s made of weathered, vintage leather and there’s a little buckle on the front that holds its heaving bulk together. He sits down on the floor and lets the album fall open in his lap. Sizhui sinks down next to him, and they shift through several pages of baby photos, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli and Wei Ying as children together, first day of school pictures, old polaroids of faraway places. 

And then Sizhui’s breath catches, because on the fifth page, he sees a familiar face.

“Oh,” he says aloud, involuntary. “It’s a-die.”

It’s a picture of his father, about Sizhui’s age, standing next to a yellow school bus. He’s dressed smartly, and his arms are folded, and his expression is— bitchy, if Sizhui could pick any word without consequences. There’s a scattering of instrument cases around him, and the blurry figures of other kids caught mid-motion in the background, but most notably is the person standing right beside him. It’s Wei Ying in ripped jeans and a T-shirt, a flannel tied around his waist and his arm flung around a-die’s shoulders. He’s mugging for the camera, clearly having a blast. 

At the bottom of the photo someone wrote Wei Ying & Lan Wangji, grade 9, first day of band camp. 

“Woah,” Jingyi whispers. 

They’re only at the very beginning, and Sizhui’s heart is already an uncomfortable weight in his throat. 

It’s so strange, he thinks, to see his father at fourteen, and sixteen, and twenty years old. Stranger still to see the Wens and the Jiangs in pictures right alongside Sizhui’s bobo and Uncle Mingjue and Uncle Huaisang. All of them young and bright and belonging together, growing up together, and in the middle of it all—reoccurring, inevitable—are Wei Ying and Lan Wangji. 

Wei Ying & Lan Wangji, senior prom; Wei Ying & Lan Wangji, first day in new apartment; Wei Ying & Lan Wangji, one year anniversary. 

Jingyi is very quiet beside him, eyes glued to a picture of his baba with his head thrown back in laughter. The context is missing, with no note left to give them a clue, and no one who knows the story here to fill them in, but the joy is so clear. 

“He never laughs like that anymore,” Jingyi says. 

Sizhui, who has seen Wei Ying throw his whole body into laughter at least six separate times in the last twenty-four hours, is inclined to believe him. 

Something slips from the back of the book, a few loose pages that Jingyi tugs free. 

It’s manuscript paper, the kind with the blank staff lines that people print out to write their own sheet music on. They’re looking at an original composition, written by at least two people. The first few pages are worn and faded, but the last two pages are slightly newer. The ink looks comparatively fresher. The handwriting isn’t a-die’s, so it must be Wei Ying’s. 

Sizhui and Jingyi glance at each other. Then Jingyi looks across the room, at a keyboard that has been shoved into the farthest corner. 

“I don’t even know if it works,” Jingyi says. “He only still has it because guma and shushu won’t let him throw it away.”

As if it’s something happening to someone else, Sizhui helps Jingyi tug the keyboard out and find the power cord. He tests some of the notes, nowhere close to an expert, but familiar enough to think that it sounds about right. Jingyi sets the sheet music up on the rack. Sizhui lets his hands hover uncertainly above the keys for a moment, and then they sink down, and a very tentative rendition of a song he hasn’t heard since he was a child comes creeping through the room. 

It’s wistful, and hopeful, very clearly a love song even without the lyrics. Sizhui fumbles his way through a few bars before he snatches his hands away. 

“I don’t think,” he starts, and Jingyi says, “It’s not for us,” and they scramble to put the keyboard away and return the sheet music to its hiding place and tuck the photo album back into the bookshelf where it lives in secret. 

They run upstairs to hide in Jingyi’s room. Sizhui puts his head in his hands and Jingyi wakes up his napping cat to transfer it to his lap, petting it anxiously.

“Okay,” he says. “Alright. Okay. Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“Please don’t ask him anything,” Sizhui replies, thinking along the exact same lines. “Don’t bring it up at all.”

When Wei Ying comes home, he’s deep in discussion with Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng. He looks tired, a faded rendition of that bright, vibrant boy from the photos. Now that Sizhui has seen the difference, he can tell why Jingyi and his relatives all worry about him. 

Someone who didn’t know a-die wouldn’t think to worry about him, either, but Sizhui knows as well as bobo and shugong both do that a-die is often sad. 

 


 

The very next day, as Sizhui and Jingyi are washing up in the kitchen before dinner because no one remembered to do the dishes after lunch, they hear the front door open. 

A familiar voice calls out, “Honey, I’m home!” and Sizhui almost drops a handful of clean silverware in his complete shock. 

“Uncle Sang!” Jingyi says, throwing the bowl he’s washing back into the sink and darting through the kitchen door. 

His heart pounding, Sizhui follows at a slower pace. Nie Huaisang has an arm around Jingyi’s shoulders and the other one around Xuanyu’s, and he’s smiling warmly at them as they all talk over each other. There’s a familiar canvas bag at his feet that Sizhui recognizes from all the times Nie Huaisang has visited him, always bringing gifts or souvenirs from whatever corner of the world he spirited himself off to that particular week.  

He looks up and catches sight of Sizhui, where Sizhui is frozen in the doorway like a deer in headlights. His smile fades, only a little bit, before it comes back again, a little more crooked than before. 

“Aiyah, you rude little beasts, introduce me to your friend,” he chides his honorary nephews. 

He’s playing along. Somehow, even though he just got here, Nie Huaisang already knows more than anyone has told him. Sizhui lets go of a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, and pretends to meet his bobo’s brother-in-law for the first time. 

“Sangsang, is that you?” Wei Ying calls. He comes around the corner at breakneck speed, and Xuanyu and Jingyi peel away just in time to avoid getting crushed when Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang collide with each other. “Finally! I can’t believe you stayed away this long, you asshole!”

“I’m in high demand, you know that,” Nie Huaisang says cheerfully. “But I was on my way up to Washington, and I thought, since I’m in the area, why not stop in and see my absolute favorite person and his formidably large, incredibly annoying family?”

Wei Ying steps back, holding Nie Huaisang out as if he needs to soak in the sight of him for a moment. Their hands linger on each other’s arms, utterly familiar. 

Sizhui’s stomach does a neat, unhappy little twist. 

“You’ll stay for dinner?” Wei Ying asks. 

“Ah, Ying-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says, with an affection that Sizhui can tell is real, by virtue of having heard it before, “I’ll stay for as long as you want.”

Sizhui reaches out and grabs Jingyi by the sleeve, as Jingyi is prone to do, and hauls him out onto the porch. 

That’s your Uncle Sang?” Sizhui says, halfway to properly hysterical. 

“Yes?” Jingyi says carefully. 

“Your Uncle Sang is my Uncle Huaisang,” Sizhui explains with great deliberation. “Uncle Huaisang’s big brother is married to my bobo .”

Jingyi is a very clever person, and once the surprise fades, it takes him about two seconds to put the pieces together. And then his face goes a very satisfying, very worrisome shade of ‘oh, shit.’

“He didn’t say anything, though,” Jingyi babbles. “Maybe we can beg him not to, or—bribe him? Blackmail? Do you have anything on him?”

“What blackmail would I possibly have on my uncle?” Sizhui says shrilly. 

“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Nie Huaisang says from behind them. “You can get blackmail on anyone.”

They both spin around so sharply that Jingyi almost falls backwards down the steps into the flower garden. Sizhui catches him by the arm just in time, and then they just stand there clutching each other’s sleeves, staring up at their uncle, who is staring right back at them with an unreadable look on his face. 

“Er-ge told me about Wangji sending my nephew to summer camp,” Nie Huaisang says, in a storyteller sort of voice. “The same summer camp that my other nephew has gone to every single year since he was ten. A strange little coincidence, if you believe in those. And then I hear from A-Ning that Jingyi has brought a friend home from camp to visit. Oh, really? That’s a first, I said to him. Who is this friend, I asked. What’s his name? Sizhui ah? Very odd! How many thirteen year old Sizhuis could possibly have been at that summer camp in California?”

Sizhui’s heart is sinking with every passing moment, until it feels like a stone in the bottom of his stomach. Jingyi is shifting back-and-forth, that anxious rocking he does when he’s about to panic. Neither of them speak up. Sizhui, for his part, would have absolutely no idea what to say. Where would he even begin defending himself?

He jumps when a soft hand settles on the crown of his head. 

“Such scared faces,” Nie Huaisang says gently. “It’s alright. I’m done scolding you.”

Jingyi sniffs, giving away how close he’d come to tears, and Nie Huaisang adds, “Ahh, A-Yi, none of that! I really am done, I promise. I’m not going to yell. I’m not da-ge.

“But,” Sizhui barely manages to force out, “we lied.” 

“Uncle privileges means I don’t have to be a good parent and say the right thing about moral responsibility,” Nie Huaisang says plainly. He takes a seat on the steps, and pats the spaces on either side of himself, until Sizhui and Jingyi sit down next to him. “I’d probably choke on the hypocrisy of it all, really, given the things that your fathers and I did when we were your age. We were much more trouble than you are!”

His presence is a comfort. Sizhui sinks against his shoulder, inexplicably homesick. 

“Uncle Sang,” Jingyi says, “do you know why our dads broke up?”

Nie Huaisang considers that for a moment, tapping his fingers against his knee. He’s looking out across the yard, at the lazy waltz of the fireflies, the poppies in the garden that are closing up for the night. 

“Wei Ying and I have been friends our whole lives,” he finally says, “but there are some things he won’t even tell me. I don’t know if he’s told anyone. Ying-xiong was hurting so badly back then that we were all afraid to push too hard. Same with Wangji,” he adds. 

The disappointment is an almost physical, visceral feeling, like a heavy weight bearing down on Sizhui’s shoulders. 

“Does Uncle Wangji hate baba?” Jingyi asks in a small voice. 

“No one hates your baba,” Nie Huaisang says at once. “They wouldn’t survive his siblings if they did. No, don’t even think it, either of you. Hate is not the issue here, I promise.”

But Sizhui thinks that that must mean that love is actually the real problem, and he isn’t sure how that is any better. He thinks of that photo album upstairs and its secret history, of the beautiful song hiding where no one would ever think to look for a song, of two houses without music and two people who have been hurting without each other for so long that it just became second nature to hurt. 

“Are you and Uncle Ying in love?” he asks before he can think better of it.

Nie Huaisang glances down at him with a startled expression. Jingyi leans forward to see around Nie Huaisang and gives Sizhui a very similar look. 

“Sizhui, Wei Ying is my best friend and I would bring the world to its knees for him in a heartbeat,  but I would not fucking survive the ordeal of dating him,” he says, very frank.

“Hey,” Jingyi says sourly. 

“Could you imagine?” Nie Huaisang goes on, more to himself than either of his nephews. “Wo de tian na. No. Nope. God.

“Okay!” Jingyi yells. “You think my dad is the worst, we get it!”

Sizhui lets them argue, leaning back on his elbows and watching the sky get darker. Behind him, the house is full and lively, everyone home for the night. The spicy smell of dinner is wafting out the open kitchen window. A few cars go by up the street, headlights shining through the swift curtain of twilight; other people on the way to other houses, hopefully where their own families and dinners are waiting. 

Wei Ying calls them inside to eat, his voice carrying easily over the rest of the noise. 

Sizhui lingers for just a moment. He closes his eyes and imagines how it might have been. And then he pushes himself to his feet and leaves that moment behind, because everyone is waiting for him. 

 


 

Nie Huaisang leaves in the morning. Sizhui gives him a quick hug goodbye, and tries to swallow the guilty thought that he’d put his uncle in a difficult position, sticking him in the middle of this scheme between his best friend and his nephews. 

It’s very strange to think that this whole time, these two worlds were not as separate as they’d seemed. This whole time, Uncle Huaisang has been in both places. He talks to bobo and Uncle Ning in the same day. He comes to dinner at a-die and Sizhui’s house and never once slips up and mentions Wei Ying’s name. 

A-die must know that he and Wei Ying are still friends. A-die must wonder, right? If Wei Ying is well? It must be painful not to ask. Sizhui has no idea how any of them have managed to live that way for more than ten years. For him, it hasn’t even been a month, and he’s already close to crying when he thinks about things for too long. 

“Do you regret it?” Jingyi asks one night. 

They climbed from the attic window up onto the roof, something Jingyi had assured Sizhui that he and Xuanyu did all the time. It was tricky getting up there without losing the mango lassi Aunt Yanli made them, or dropping their assortment of snacks, but they manage. 

Sizhui leans back against the slope of the roof, and lets the condensation of his smoothie smear across his hands as he turns the glass around aimlessly. 

He says, “I think this was the best summer of my life.”

Jingyi blinks at him. His eyes look a little too bright. There’s hardly any light pollution out here, and Sizhui didn’t even know the moon could look like this. The night is warm, and still, and everything is beautiful. 

“Really?” Jingyi asks. He sounds hopeful and disbelieving. “Even though everything we found out was kind of depressing? And we didn’t do anything to help our dads? And it was all kind of for nothing?”

“It wasn’t for nothing,” Sizhui argues. “I got to see Uncle Ying again, even if he doesn’t know me. And I got to spend all this extra time with my best friend. I got to meet you.”

Jingyi breathes in sharply, mumbles something that sounds like agreement, and then makes a show of opening up the shrimp chips and shoving the bag at Sizhui without looking him in the eye. 

And then, because he’s kind of the worst, he waits until Sizhui starts eating to blurt out, “You’re my brother, too. Practically. Even if—you aren’t really—you are. You’re family. We have the same uncle. So don’t think otherwise.”

Sizhui can’t answer right away because he’s chewing and it would be impolite, and Jingyi was counting on his manners to spare him the mortifying ordeal of Talking About Feelings. Absolutely the worst. By the time Sizhui swallows, he’s glaring, and Jingyi is grinning, and they’re back on solid ground. 

“What in god’s name are you two doing up there?” Wen Qing’s voice yells suddenly. They both startle, and scramble to look over the ridge of the roof down into the backyard, where the grown-ups are sitting around the patio furniture drinking wine. 

“Jingyi said we could!” Sizhui calls back immediately. If he’s learned anything about siblings, it’s that self-preservation is key. 

Jingyi makes a wounded noise. His family seems to think this turnabout is both fair-play and hilarious. Wen Qing is, as always, hugely unimpressed. 

“And if your friend told you to jump off a bridge?” she asks rhetorically. 

“I would consider it,” Sizhui says meekly, half-hoping his voice doesn’t carry. 

Given the way that Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng immediately howl with laughter, his voice definitely carries. 

“Aiyah, Qing-jie, leave them be,” Wei Ying says. “Rooftops are a staple part of any friendship! This really takes me back.” 

It’s hard to tell from far away, in the cover of the dark, but it’s safe to guess that he’s smiling. He’s always smiling. You have to look elsewhere if you want to figure out how he’s really feeling, Sizhui has learned by now, but he doesn’t know Uncle Ying well enough to know where on earth to start looking.

“I should get paid to deal with all of you,” Wen Qing snaps, but she seems to have given up on them collectively, as a unit, if the way she pours out more wine for herself is any indication. 

“Safe,” Jingyi whispers, and laughs.

Sizhui is going to miss him. 

 


 

They sleep in the next morning. A knock on the attic door wakes them a little after nine, according to the blinking alarm clock next to Jingyi’s bed. Sizhui sits up, feeling ruffled and half-aware, and says, “Please come in.”

Jiang Yanli sticks her head in the door and smiles at him. “I’ll never get used to how polite you are! My Ling-er is never so well spoken first thing in the morning.”

“Good morning, Auntie,” Sizhui says, feeling shyly pleased that she’s pleased with him. 

Jingyi groans at their noise and rolls over to bury his head underneath his pillow. 

“Ah, poor boys. I didn’t mean to wake you, but I wanted to let you know that Granny just got off the phone with your father, A-Zhui,” Jiang Yanli says blithely. “He finished with his work early, and decided to fly out to meet you! He’ll be here this afternoon.”

Sizhui stares at her. He thinks maybe he didn’t hear that right. But Jingyi has gone as still as stone next to him in that way that means he’s holding his breath and Sizhui realizes they both heard the same thing. 

Jiang Yanli blinks, and then smiles. “You’re still half-asleep! I’ll leave you to wake up. Make sure your things are packed, okay?”

The door closes behind her, and her light footsteps recede down the stairs, and Sizhui feels so dizzy he thinks he might be sick. He thinks this sturdy old house must be swaying underneath him, about to collapse.

“Jingyi,” he whispers. “Jingyi, Jingyi—”

“Okay,” his friend says very faintly. “This is happening. Okay. It’s fine. Okay. Let’s just—let’s just breathe, first of all.” Sizhui realizes he isn’t doing that, and gasps. He scrambles blindly until he finds one of Jingyi’s hands and then clutches it as hard as he can. “It’s okay,” he says, for the hundredth time. “Call your dad, and have him meet you in town instead. We’ll have gege drop us off at like the Waffle House or something, and your dad can pick you up from there!”

That’s a good plan. Jingyi is a genius. Sizhui grabs his phone, and Jingyi crawls over him and all but falls off the bed, flinging himself out the door. Sizhui has time to call his father and listen to the call ring through to voicemail with a mounting sense of dread three times before Jingyi reappears, hauling Xuanyu behind him. His brother looks from Jingyi’s breathless panic to Sizhui’s obvious despair, and closes the bedroom door behind himself firmly.

“What is going on?” Xuanyu says in Wen Qing’s no-nonsense tone of voice. 

“Just don’t yell at us,” Jingyi pleads. 

Sizhui gets up and pulls some clothes at random out of his suitcase and crosses into the bathroom in a daze to get changed. He just stands there in front of the mirror, listening to the rising and falling cadence of the tense conversation happening on the other side of the bathroom door. He tries to call a-die one more time. 

He steps out into the bedroom again and sits down on the edge of the bed. Xuanyu isn’t yelling, but he looks properly furious.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Jingyi?” he hisses. He, of all people, has particular reason to be protective of the man who took him in. “You don’t ever think.”

“It’s not his fault, it was my idea,” Sizhui says. At least, he’s pretty sure it was. The particulars blur together. He and Jingyi are usually on the exact same page. He wrings his hands in his lap, and does his best to make eye-contact through the staggering sense of shame. “I just... I wanted to see him. Uncle Ying. I didn’t really remember him, but I—I missed him. And I think a-die misses him. I thought we could help.”

Jingyi shuffles over as though ready to jump in front of Sizhui if Xuanyu starts yelling, but that doesn’t happen. Xuanyu just closes his eyes and breathes slowly. He must have plenty of practice at keeping himself together in high stress situations, because when he opens his eyes again he’s remarkably calm.

“Sizhui, were you able to get a hold of your dad?”

“No, he didn’t pick up.”

“Okay, then he’s probably still on the flight.” Xuanyu’s tone is brisk, and Jingyi seems to go slack with relief, like a puppet with its strings cut, now that his older brother is taking charge of the situation. Sizhui understands that sentiment completely, because he’s relieved, too. “Get your things together. We’re leaving in two minutes.

He sweeps out of the room like a storm. Jingyi and Sizhui run around shoving things into Sizhui’s suitcase, and Jingyi gets dressed in the bathroom in less than ten seconds, and they go spilling down the stairs with all the grace of a many-legged baby giraffe. 

“Woah, where’s the fire?” Wei Ying asks, nursing a cup of coffee like his life depends on it. 

“Sizhui’s dad is gonna pick him up in town instead,” Jingyi says in a rush, his words tumbling over themselves as he shoves Sizhui through the dining room and into the foyer. 

“That’s not what he said on the phone,” Granny says with a frown. 

“We just called him,” Jingyi says. “Um, he’s in a hurry, so—gege?”

Xuanyu appears on the stairs, dressed and with keys in hand, and Sizhui, who is extremely new to this level of sibling-grade strategy but is also an extremely fast learner, realizes that the play is just to keep moving and get out the door and do it fast enough that no one has time to stop them before they’re already in the car and driving away. 

“Text us if you want something from town,” Xuanyu says without missing a beat. He manages to sound both casual and harried, herding the younger kids through the door ahead of him, every inch a teenager who wants to get this annoying errand over with already.

They close the door with a normal amount of urgency and then break into a dead sprint down the steps of the veranda and around the front of the house toward the garage. 

“We’re gonna be in such deep shit for this,” Xuanyu says darkly. Jingyi gulps, then fixes a grimly determined look on his face.

“It’s worth it for baba!”

The front door opens again, and Xuanyu fumbles with the key fob to get the truck unlocked, and someone says, “Sizhui.” 

No, not someone. Sizhui knows exactly who that is before he even turns around. It’s his a-die, who is standing in the long gravel drive next to a rental car, who didn’t pick up the phone because he never uses the phone while he’s driving, who is here early to surprise Sizhui because he has no idea that Sizhui has been lying and sneaking around for the last week, who has no idea who this house belongs to and who Jingyi’s father is.

Someone crosses the veranda, the old wood groaning wearily beneath their feet, and a-die glances that way just as a cheerful voice calls, “Where are my cute children off to in such a rush this morning? You’d think the world was coming to an—”

He breaks off. The silence that follows is the loudest thing Sizhui has ever heard. He thinks that maybe getting stabbed in the stomach would hurt less than this. 

He isn’t brave enough to look at anyone so he stares down at his feet. Jingyi’s hand is trembling around a fistful of Sizhui’s sleeve. The sky is overcast, which seems wildly appropriate. 

“Wei Ying,” a-die says, in a horrible sort of voice. Sizhui has literally never heard his words splinter like they do around Uncle Ying’s name and he never wants to hear it ever again.

“Lan Zhan.” 

No one calls a-die that. No one has ever called a-die that, but Wei Ying says it like it’s a familiar shape in his mouth. His voice limps around the syllables in the way of someone mincing around the raw edge of a fresh wound, trying not to touch the exposed nerves, or smear the blood off on their clothes. 

That’s—this is really happening, right now. This is actually, literally the worst day of Sizhui’s life. 

Clearing his throat, Wei Ying interjects a staggering amount of false cheer into his voice, and says, “Ah, so sudden! I never would have guessed I’d see you today. Why are you—what are you doing here?”

Jingyi makes a hurt-sounding noise in the back of his throat. 

“Sizhui,” a-die says very quietly. 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. And then, again, “Oh. This is—is he—A-Yuan?”

“Mm.”

There’s a moment, then, when Wei Ying seems to swallow pain. Then he smiles very widely, and comes down the steps to join the boys and a-die in the yard. 

“Aiyah, I thought those eyes were familiar,” Wei Ying says. “I should have known. You Lans are so stuffy and traditional, giving out courtesy names like it’s still the eighteenth century. All this time, and little A-Yuan was right under my nose!” 

A-die drifts closer, as if pulled by a string. His eyes, when Sizhui risks a glance at him, are anchored onto Wei Ying’s face, as though desperate to commit it to memory. There are only a few steps between them now, and the tension in the air is so thick that it’s almost a physical weight, almost a real presence. Thunder rumbles in the distance, the only sound in the whole world. 

“He’s a good boy, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Ying says quietly. “I knew you’d be wonderful with him.”

A-die’s step falters, and his eyes close briefly, like he just absorbed a blow.  Sizhui twists his wrist until Jingyi’s grip slides down his arm and he can hold onto Jingyi’s hand. 

“Baba, I’m sorry,” Jingyi blurts, as though he can’t keep quiet for a second longer. “It’s my fault. We met at camp, and—we thought we might be able to—you’re just so sad, and you miss him so much—or you miss somebody—and we just wanted to help.”

“Me, too,” Sizhui says through numb lips. He has to keep blinking to keep his eyes from stinging too much. “It wasn’t just Jingyi, it was both of us. I lied to a-die,” he admits, feeling one inch tall, “so I could come here and meet you again. I’m really sorry.”

A-die and Uncle Ying glance at each other for a moment. They seem to have a conversation without speaking at all. Whatever decision they reach, Sizhui misses it entirely. A-die’s mouth goes hard. Wei Ying turns away. 

“Well, this morning sure has been something!” he says brightly. “Glad I got out of bed for this one!”

He sounds for all the world as though this is any other day, but both of his sons look more and more worried by the second. Sizhui is getting more worried by the second. But when Wei Ying holds out his hands, Sizhui drops everything and hurries that single step forward to take them. 

Wei Ying swings their joined hands back and forth a bit playfully. His expression is very warm, the way it is when he looks at anyone else in his family. He’s smiling again. He looks like he’s in an extraordinary amount of pain. 

“A-Yuan—Sizhui ah—I’m very glad you came to visit. Thank you for taking care of A-Yi. Boys, say goodbye, okay? Sizhui’s dad must be eager to take him home!”

And just like that, he turns and leaves, disappearing back into the house. The door closes behind him. Xuanyu shifts his weight, car keys clutched tight enough in his fist that his knuckles are white. They’re all very aware of The Thing That Isn’t Being Said. 

Horrified, Jingyi whispers, “Still don’t regret it?” 

Sizhui honestly feels like someone took a melon baller to his insides. He’s staring at the door, willing it to open again, but of course it stays closed. 

“No, I don’t think so,” he says. He finally tugs his eyes away to look at his friend. “I definitely don’t regret you.”

“Cool,” Jingyi says, and starts crying. 

Xuanyu sighs without a sound, and gives Sizhui’s arm a friendly nudge goodbye, and a-die a cautious, uncertain look, before making his own way back into the house. 

Sizhui, for his part, pulls Jingyi into a hug, and holds on until the very last second. And then a drop of wetness hits his cheek, and the sky starts to open up with the warm, gentle sort of rain that only comes in August. A-die touches Sizhui’s shoulder, very gently, and that’s when Sizhui knows it’s time to let go. 

Jingyi sits on the porch steps, knees tucked up to his chest, and watches their car retreat down the driveway. Sizhui watches, too, as that colorful old house shrinks steadily the farther away they get. A-die backs carefully onto the road, and shifts out of reverse, and drives them both away. 

“I’m not angry with you,” a-die says. 

“I wish you were,” Sizhui replies miserably. “I hurt you and Uncle Ying and I even managed to hurt Jingyi in the end and no one will even yell at me about it.”

“No one will yell at you,” his father says firmly. “You had good intentions. That is the point.”

It doesn’t feel like the point. It feels like Sizhui should have just kept his wishes and thoughts to himself and spared all these people a lot of unnecessary pain. 

“I am sorry.” 

Sizhui looks at him so quickly he hurts his neck. “What?”

A-die’s eyes are focused on the road. He says, “I didn’t realize you remembered him. I would have talked about Wei Ying, if I had known you wanted to hear about him.”

Swallowing against the urge to wail like a child half his age, Sizhui says, “I didn’t remember him, really. Not—his face, or his voice, or anything. But I remember that the two of you played music together. There was always music in our house. That’s why I wanted to learn piano. I thought maybe... maybe you’d play more, if you had someone to play with again.”

The stoplight ahead turns red, and when the car has stopped, a-die closes his eyes. He looks exhausted, and brittle. He looks like someone being pulled in two different directions so hard that it threatens to tear him all the way apart. 

Sizhui twists the strap of his bookbag between his hands. Jingyi gave it to him. It’s full of all the random things he’s picked up during his stay at the Wei/Wen house. He’s glad to have it, as proof that the good things happened, too.

“I found the song that you wrote together,” he says. “There was sheet music. I played a little bit of it. It was nice.”

“Mm.” A-die looks down at his hands on the steering wheel, and then back up at the road. “We never finished it.”

“No, it was finished,” Sizhui says. “There were a couple of new pages.”

The light turns green, but the car doesn’t move. Sizhui realizes his father is staring at him. 

“New pages?” a-die says. 

“Yeah,” Sizhui says. “I saw them.”

The car waiting behind them honks, and it seems to jolt a-die into motion. Only instead of pulling ahead and continuing to responsibly and safely drive them away, he swings the rental car into a wide, highly-illegal U-turn. 

Sizhui only doesn’t yelp because he’s been in the car while Jiang Cheng drove, and nothing is as scary as that, but he feels his eyes get very wide. They eat up the road at five, ten, then fifteen over the speed limit, and Sizhui stares when Uncle Ying’s house comes back into view, and stares even more when a-die drives up into the yard. 

Jingyi, who is still sitting on the porch, scrambles up to his feet. A-die gets out of the car and leaves the engine running, and the keys in the ignition, and the door hanging open. Sizhui gets out, too, but he closes his door. 

“What is happening,” Jingyi says when Sizhui hurries up the porch steps after his father. 

“I have absolutely no idea,” he replies. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“Is it unlocked?” a-die asks calmly. 

“Um, yes, go on in,” Jingyi says. 

A-die needs no further invitation. 

Everyone is sitting in the living room and they all look up when the door opens loudly. Wei Ying’s face is pale and wet with tears. A-die inhales sharply and then moves directly towards him, with a single-minded determination better suited to a bomb disposal technician than a mild-mannered actuary. 

Wei Ying extracts himself from the sofa, saying, “Lan Zhan, what are you—”

“Our song,” he says. “You finished it.”

Wrong-footed, Wei Ying glances around for some clue as to what is happening right now and comes up empty. “What are you talking about?” 

“You finished it,” a-die insists, his voice like iron. “Tell me why.”

Sizhui is aware of the rest of the family unobtrusively shifting out of the room. Someone touches his shoulder, and he looks up at Wen Ning, and shakes his head. He’s staying. He’ll be quiet, he won’t interrupt, but he’s—

Honestly, he doesn’t have very much faith that his dads aren’t going to mess this up again. Neither of them seem to be very good at the talking thing.

Wen Ning isn’t willing to fight him about it, or doesn’t think he needs to, because he leaves Sizhui alone. 

“What does it matter?” Wei Ying is saying. “How did you even know about—ah, Jingyi. That boy will be the death of me.”

“Wei Ying.”

“Look, just... if you want the sheet music, you can have it. It’s yours. I didn’t mean to—I didn’t know it would offend you so much that you would feel like you needed to—”

Sizhui watches, eyes wide, as a-die crosses the room to him. Wei Ying goes very still, like one of Sizhui’s rabbits when they get scared, but then a-die touches his cheek, rubbing away the tacky tear-track there with the pad of his thumb, and Wei Ying’s whole body seems to sigh. 

“I don’t know what’s happening,” he mutters, looking anywhere but at a-die. “I don’t know why you’re here.”

“You do,” a-die says. 

Wei Ying’s expression does something painful. “This isn’t fair. I meant to leave you alone, like you wanted. I was doing so well.”

A-die’s other hand joins the first, framing Wei Ying’s tired face the way some people frame priceless works of art, smoothing the hair away from his eyes. It’s that quiet, glancing affection that Sizhui knows so well, from every single morning at the breakfast table when a-die would reach over and brush his bed-head out of his face. 

Here, now, it seems like enough to undo Wei Ying completely. He sways a little, as though his legs aren’t strong enough to hold him up anymore. 

“I have never wanted that,” a-die says. 

“You did,” Wei Ying argues stubbornly. “You did. That night we fought, you watched me pack. You let me go. I took a cab to the airport, and waited there all night for the next flight to California, and got on my first 747, and you didn’t come after me.”

Sizhui can’t see his father’s face from where he’s standing, but it must be horrible, because it makes Wei Ying a little frantic.

“Oh, no, Lan Zhan, no, don’t cry, please don’t cry, I can’t handle that, I’ll disintegrate, I swear I will—”

“Wei Ying,” a-die says, and he is crying, his voice thick and soft and broken, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to come after you. I thought that you wanted to go.” 

“Sweetheart, hush, it doesn’t matter now.”

“I hoped that you would change your mind. I waited for you to call.”

“Lan Zhan ah,” Wei Ying says, “I waited for you, too.”

“Tell me why you finished the song.”

“Because it’s a love song,” Wei Ying says wearily, “and I’m in love with you. I’ve literally always been in love with you.”

As different as their lives are now, and as much as they’ve changed from those bright-eyed, indestructible children that they were in the photo album upstairs, they are still fundamentally the same. They’ve gone through the last ten years carrying around an empty space beside them, and filling that space is as simple as sitting down at the table. If someone took a picture of this moment, there would be a place at the bottom for another Wei Ying & Lan Wangji. 

There’s no need for a transformation. It’s not anything remarkable. They saved each other a seat.

“So, now what,” Wei Ying goes on doggedly, as a-die wraps an arm around his waist, and crowds him gently back towards the wall. “I fall into your arms and cry hysterically, and we just pick up where we left off? Make a marriage work from opposite sides of the country? Raise our kids together, and grow old together, and live happily ever after?”

“Yes,” a-die says. “To all of it. Except you don’t have to cry hysterically.”

Wei Ying’s face crumples, and he sobs, “Yes, I do.”

A-die tips baba’s head back and kisses him. 

Okay, Sizhui thinks, and runs for the door. He fumbles it open, and then closes it carefully behind him so hopefully he doesn’t interrupt their whole thing, and turns to find the entire household staring at him. Granny and Aunt Yanli are clutching hands anxiously, and Jiang Cheng is pacing. Wen Ning looks more worried about the rental car that’s still parked in the front yard than the state of affairs in the living room. 

“Well?” Xuanyu demands. “What happened?”

“They talked,” Sizhui reports dutifully. “Now they’re kissing.”

“Of course they are,” Jiang Cheng says. “Nothing fucking changes, does it? Ten years apart and it still only takes them five minutes in the same room to start climbing each other.”

“A-Cheng, be nice,” Aunt Yanli says, but her heart isn’t in it. Her face is vivid with joy.

The whole house feels lighter. It’s still gray and dull and wet outside, but that just makes the room that Sizhui is in, and the people that he’s with, even better for the contrast.  

Jingyi tugs on Sizhui’s sleeve and says, “What did I tell you? Our plan was foolproof.”

 


 

Almost two years later, Sizhui will wake up in the attic bedroom he shares with his brother. It will be early enough that the sun isn't quite out, so he won’t bother trying to wake Jingyi. He will follow the smell of coffee downstairs. 

Baba will be wide awake despite the hour, bouncing a fussy fifteen-month-old in his arms and singing a familiar song under his breath to soothe her. A-die will be up with him, cooking soft scrambled eggs and congee. They’ll both be wearing their wedding rings on their hands. They’ll both be tired and happy.

Wei Ying & Lan Wangji, this picture would say, for the rest of their lives. 

Mengmeng will brighten when she sees Sizhui in the doorway, and reach for him with her chubby hands. Sizhui will cross the room to take her and baba will shake out his arms dramatically, even though he could have gone on holding her for hours without ever complaining.

Wei Meng was their latest foster, and is now their newest permanent addition. The Meng in her name is written with the character for dream. She is singularly adored by everyone under this roof, but when shugong visits, it’s pretty clear that he is her complete favorite. This is a point of contention for shushu. 

Uncle Huaisang will come by to look in on them soon. He’ll bring gifts, and he’ll probably bring Uncle Mingjue and bobo, too. Their two separate families connect so easily that Sizhui realized they weren’t so much separate as they were halved, and they aren’t so much connecting as they are reconnecting, and there’s already room for them at the table. There is always enough room for everyone here. 

Sizhui will wonder, sometimes, how much his uncles had to do with that summer two years ago, between bobo suggesting that particular camp, and Uncle Huaisang knowing things and showing up places. 

He’ll ask them one day.

Now that his hands are free, baba will slink up behind a-die, and wrap both arms around his middle, and press a lingering kiss to his nape. It won’t make cooking any easier, but it will make a-die smile. 

The smell of breakfast will entice the rest of his family downstairs soon. In a manner of minutes, Sizhui will have to surrender his sister to Uncle Ning, or shushu, or Granny, but that’s okay. It’s even a comfort.

There will always be someone who wants to hold her. There will always be someone she can run to. Her family will know the value of communication. They will know how important it is to talk and to listen. They will make sure she never second-guesses that she’s loved.

It won’t be perfect, but it will be wonderful. 

She’ll grow up in a house full of music.