WECHAT XIANGXIANG (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧ ✧ﾟ･: * 3:00 PM
… Xiao, are you there?
I’m very sorry to drop this on you at this time. You know, what with the New Year and all!
But I figured it’s better to tell you sooner rather than later
Better to have me do this than to have the Director break it to you
I went to him for my papers. I’m not coming back after the New Year.
I’m really sorry to do this
I know it’s been a long and difficult struggle for you to find a partner!
You’ve always worked so hard, and you’re always so nice with me.
I only made this decision because the tendonitis is not getting any better
So if we stay together, you’ll just be wasting another year with me.
I’m sure the Director can find you someone more talented than myself! I was never able to land all those jumps consistently anyway, ha ha. I always felt bad about that. No one wants to just see me double those jumps over and over...
Again, really sorry to drop this on you this time of year!! It just can’t be helped
Thank you for everything. Keep in touch? (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧ ✧ﾟ･: *
Right. I understand
There’s no need to apologize to me
Let me know if you need anything -
The restaurant is tucked in a small alley on the top floor of a recently renovated shopping mall complex. Compared to the vendors one needs to walk past to find it - a lifestyle & apparel shop selling the latest tops and small jewelry from Korea, and a coffee / boba place full of the latest viral bubble teas from the internet - it’s inconspicuous, its name and LED lettering simple and dull. The sound of a radio streams out of it, coarse and shamelessly old fashioned. The figure skater known as Xiao, having found his destination, pulls down his hood and inhales in a whole familiar mouthful of home cooking savory before striding through the door.
A cheery male voice rises above the background drone of the pingshu . “Ah, it’s our favorite young gentleman again. Welcome back, welcome back. Haven’t seen you in a while.”
Xiao merely casts his glance towards the back door. “Is Yanxiao in today?”
“Still one of precious few words, I see. Nah, Old Yan’s gone back home the day before yesterday. Snapped up the only train ticket the app was able to wrestle off of the site for him. Grumbled about missing a few days’ pay the whole time, but you know, gotta do what you gotta do. You not going back home this year? Cutting it awfully close to the Eve now, huh?”
Xiao tilts his head, does not answer. His gaze is falling meaningfully on the fridge by the side of the back door. The shop cat, having noticed a frequent customer, has sauntered forward. Out of pure force of habit, the skater falls, with a small degree of reluctance, to his knees, upon which point the cat rolls over on the floor and begins to purr.
“Pff, fine, fine, I shouldn’t have asked. I’m staying here with the wife and son myself this year. My old man finally passed away, you see. Not much of a home to return to anymore. Old Yan left your tofu on the top shelf. Said he made triple, in case you or anyone else wanted to do some last minute take out. Just take it and find the QR code on the table on your way out. I trust ya with the wechat scan.”
The cat, having received the attention it wanted, meows loudly before abruptly darting back off towards the kitchen. Sighing - that has been the closest he has ever gotten to the cat - Xiao gets back up, and finds the square pattern at the correct corner. The phone screen flickers with light as it scans and then registers the code. Dimly, Xiao can still remember a second screen from perhaps a year ago, a memory of someone explaining to him the idea of a tip, the practice of leaving a vendor a token of appreciation for great food or wonderful service. There’s no such thing in his home. But if he could leave something, or even -
He pays for the food and begins for the door. The kindly voice follows him out of it.
“Find a way to go home, young man! I know just how much you love your almond tofu, but that ain’t what one should be eating on New Year’s Eve!”
He’s not sure why he’s bought so much almond tofu on a cold winter day, really. Or why he got on the light rail Line 13, then subway 2, then subway 1, traversing through all the uncannily brightly lit stations as if possessed by a speedy demon. Usually, moments like these, he’d go right back to the gym, or perhaps hit the road for a quick run. This evening, however, all the gears in his bones have ground down to an unnatural standstill, and he thinks maybe he will just exist and walk the world, if only just for a little while.
The city, thankfully, has never particularly cared for how he chooses to act and live. Even though it’s noticeably wound down compared to even just a few weeks ago - Beijing is a migrant city that empties out at festivals, after all - the capital continues to roar on. As the central organ of a young, thriving, and ambitious nation, even in its reduced state, it’s still vibrating with color, sound and activity, proudly proclaiming itself to the world. Though he’s nowhere near the heart of town, cars with much-coveted license plates line the eight-lane streets, the hot exhaust filling up the cold evening air. All around him, skyscrapers are lit up with banners and LED displays, the content ranging from a sleek ad for the most recent domestic brand of smartphone to a somber display of China’s twelve core socialist values. Pedestrians and cyclists still fill the sidewalk and the side roads, still rushing, still always looking almost comically angry at red traffic lights - perhaps they’re afraid of being late to a meeting, a date, or food delivery. He’s seen plenty of all of those. It just gets an almost bored tense look out of him, now. He hopes he wouldn’t have to rush to pull anyone over if they inevitably run a light and nearly get run over.
Urgency and transience, huh.
The city won’t miss him. The National Team is always looking for younger and more talented bodies. The capital, either way, only ever takes those who will be able to provide value to the elite community, and it’s not like he’s done enough with himself to earn that badge of belonging, that coveted hukou proof of residency that says you’ve made it, you can stay here perpetually with the smog and fees .
The rinks, if they want anything to do with athlete safety, definitely shouldn’t miss him. Almost twenty years of work and he’s definitely generated over two thousand falls and collisions.
(He tries very hard to suppress the specific memories.)
How long has he lived and existed here? Seven years? Eight? He hasn’t been here nearly as long as Ganyu, and definitely not as long as Hu Tao, Ningguang, or the Director. He was only let in because the Director insisted on it, and only allowed to stay because he pulled something (he doesn’t really want to know exactly what ) with Hu Tao and her connections behind the scenes. He’s represented the country for six years, from the junior ranks to senior competitions, skating from the Junior Grand Prix to Worlds and Four Continents. He hasn’t attended every international competition in every year, partially due to the curse that means whoever skates with him will always be perpetually injured, but...
He’s been given enough opportunities.
It has been, of course, a gift. Skating has allowed him to step outside the mud gates and corn fields of his home village. Skating has allowed him to learn how to read, to listen to things like Coldplay and Tchaikovsky, and most importantly, to pay back small amounts to everyone who’s had a hand in raising him after the passing of his family. Though he’s never understood why anyone would like to watch him skate - he feels, himself, like a robot three hundred and sixty days out of every three hundred and sixty-five, just relying on muscle memory to get through the motions - from a purely selfish point of view, skating has given him everything. There’s really nothing to complain about, and even fewer things to lose.
If he’s never been world champion or made any kind of history, then it is simply not meant to be.
Night has fallen. He swallows a shiver as a chilly stream of wind blows past him, and finally looks up at the destination his feet have been subconsciously seeking. The Place™ in Chaoyang, Beijing - and it’s a massive LED screen hung in the sky like a canvas, its size and length more imposing than even the full size of an Olympic rink. He has first encountered the item as a part of a multinational tour for international skater-tourists, first marveled at the screen alongside some laughing Russian and American hockey teams. Though they weren’t able to watch anything interesting on the screen then - they had just been shown an IMAX Hollywood movie, if he can recall correctly - he’s remembered the promise by the screenmakers to regularly feature more skating programs closer to the Beijing Olympics, and if his memories have not completely broken, right now, right at this hour, if he waits -
He manages to find a chair just as it’s starting.
The rainbow kaleidoscope of ads give away seamlessly - as if in hushed respect - to a blank snowy canvas. Two boys step onto the rink, hand in hand, their faces radiant as they smile at each other with a soft trust and carefree grace. The boy with the dark braids is dressed in earthy tones of brown, his partner in pure moonlight white. Despite all the commotion and nervous energy in the crowd - the two are performing at home, to a sold-out arena at an Olympics - they lean comfortably into each other, their movements perfectly synchronized and suspending yearning between their breaths as they settle into their beginning positions.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
It’s a perfect partnership. Even though there are two people - two hearts, two souls - one beat and hope is sustained between every step, one story told between each extension and spiral. The music itself is relentlessly gentle, offering nothing in the ways of rhythm changes, rising and falling action, or anything to fight or resolve, but the two take it and thrive with it: they dance fluidly as if embracing that freedom, showing off only their joy, their youth, their desire to dream and sing. There’s never a moment when they’re far from each other; never a doubt that anyone would let go. And though nothing is blazing or fierce - there are no explosive jump combos, no theatrical twists, no choreographed element painting emotion like a brush across the entire surface - the brittleness of the ice gives away to the caress of the blades, and by the end of the program (as the moon is set into the sky with the final lift) they may well be floating on water. Kindred spirits, flawless interpretation of the music - or perhaps it’s even more than that, there’s just a beauty of life and art in it, an ode to yearning -
-How do you almost kiss the ice in a death spiral?
-How do you mimic the flight of the birds?
-How do you, with only spins and lifts alone, herald an era’s ending?
He has no answers of his own to all the questions the two Canadian skaters just seem to cut through like butter. But that’s okay; he’s been lucky enough to be able to admire them. Skated on the same ice as them, even. And even though that partnership has ended - even though that fairy tale, alas, did not quite have a real life fairy tale ending - he’s content to bring the feelings he’s felt over the art and the sport with him as he departs skating, locks his heart away. The memory, by itself, is beautiful enough to tide everything over for the rest of his life.
He’s sure the boy who once left him a bouquet of moonlight flowers feels similarly.
Once the figure skating program has ended - once he’s strained his neck, staring and gawking up, enough that he thinks he wouldn’t be able to go back to skating again, even if he wanted to - he sets off for the Century Star Rink. Though he still easily and swiftly weaves through crowds - though the whole trip takes next to no time at all - the phone with the wechat message is as if a sordid rock by his side, dragging down his spirit.
The man, as usual, has not made himself hard to find. Approaching him, as usual, is the recklessly backloaded side by side jump combo, completed usually only through sheer force of desperation.
Mr. Zhongli, the leader of the Chinese Fed and the head coach of the PRC Figure Skating National team, has always cut a striking figure. It's not just that he had been the first Worlds and Olympics medalist from China - the first double gold medalist, at that - or that he's coached many pairs to Worlds and Olympic glory since his retirement, despite his relative young age. There's just something with his placid but dignified air; the measured and considerate way in which he talks (in at least three languages, no less); and the way he can look imposing - but never cold or unfriendly - in anything from British Burberry to one of those exceedingly plain uniforms from the Chinese General Administration of Sport. This is a man that any skater in China would die to talk to and study under. This is a living legend that any skater outside of China would love a selfie with. This is -
Someone who's specifically waiting to talk to him.
Xiao swallows. His throat is dry. "Director."
Upon hearing the title that he prefers to go by among his favored skaters, the older man looks up considerately from his phone and turns his head. His eyes are piercing - yet still kind - as they look Xiao over, takes in the whole sight of the young man from his hood and sneakers to the bag of takeout in his hands. His eyebrows don't move. Xiao has been half expecting a puzzled look, or a frown. "You came immediately, I see."
Xiao tries to nod. His shoulders and neck are stiff. “I was already outdoors.”
“Come, have some tea with me. I believe the winter special at this location has been receiving some rave reviews.”
Zhongli’s entire body screams that he is tired. After having been around the man for more than seven years - having sat next to him on transcontinental flights, even shared a hotel room in the most unfortunate of occasions - Xiao knows the signs. He could ask - or at the very least, put in an inoffensive word of concern - but somehow, it feels wrong when he knows what he will say in the next five minutes will do nothing but make the man even more tired. Another situation to make him wish he was more gifted at socialization and feelings. He wishes, more than anything else, that this conversation doesn’t have to happen at this exact point in time. “Yes, Director.”
They put in orders for their tea. Zhongli speaks slowly as they find, and then settle, into their seats at the back. “Xiangxiang’s case - I believe she has informed you of it.”
It was kind of her. She didn’t owe me anything . “Yes.”
“She has already submitted the required documents and begun the process. I have already withdrawn the two of you from the upcoming competitions.”
As expected. That’s how it went the last three times as well . “Mm.”
“It is most fortunate that you were already planning on skipping Four Continents. The season has technically already concluded for the both of you.”
No one has said that loud before now, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less true. “Yes.”
“Have you given any thought to your next season?”
Ah - “... No.”
“You are, surely, also aware that our current depth in pairs partners is quite… lacking.”
Because you’ve literally already tried to pair me with every single eligible lady . “Yes.”
“The probability of finding you a suitable partner in the short term - by that, I mean in the next year or two - is quite low.”
Wait, but to speak of it that way implies - “Director -”
“- Unless you’re willing to look abroad.”
Ah, heavens .
He hopes the grimace on his face is not as visible as he feels like it is.
How do you try to convince a man to let you go? A man that you owe your entire life and career to, no less? Director Zhongli has long been infamous in the sport and with the Chinese General Administration for being obstinate about a number of things; keeping Xiao has, for better or worse, been one of his neuroses. Xiao wouldn’t say he’s completely failed the man’s expectations - he’s definitely managed to justify his own place on the National Team, and his partnerships have served as a solid #2 Chinese team for most of these past several years - but at some point, the man has to learn to look at the girls he’s been throwing at Xiao, really look at their ankles, their knees. He has always known that Xiao has a track record of breaking his partners. He has to know just how much painkillers they’ve been consuming just to step onto the ice with him. To keep insisting on any further partnerships for him at this point would be unfair and cruel, and he shudders even to think of the man in such a light, considering how much he has done for Qiqi. “... I don’t believe that’s ever been done in our Fed.”
The old man shrugs, too nonchalant for what he has just proposed. “Of course, official funding for such options would be quite limited. Not all skaters would be eligible - Keqing and Ningguang, for instance, will have zero chance of ever being released. I am merely stating an option that may turn out to be of interest. Surely, you too are aware of the German/French pairing that won gold at the last Olympics, and both you and I have encountered Russian skaters who have switched nationalities.”
There’s a sinking feeling in Xiao’s chest. “Director - ”
“I have already done some research on this. There currently exists an official matching platform on the ISU site. To apply, you need only to update your own current status. Any potential partners would reach out if they have any interest.”
It’s… like he has come to this meeting prepared as if it’s a General Administration-wide meeting. He knows what he wants. He’s done all his research. And even though I’m right, and he knows that I’m right, he’s still - “Director.”
The man’s gaze is too even and too direct. “Hm?”
“I’ve… already spoken with the club. They currently have open positions for part time staff.”
“Ah, the Century Star Club? I have just spoken to their board of directors earlier this morning. They informed me that a hiring freeze will be in effect there until at least after the New Year. If you hear nothing from the ISU and remain interested in working for the club, speak to them again when you are back. Speaking of.” The gaze’s become just ten percent sharper. “Tomorrow is the Eve. Have you not made any plans?”
Find a way to go home, young man!
Come home this year, Jinpeng! Uncle Li told me he wants to see you!
Can you show us some of those poses and costumes again? My girls adore the diamonds on that last outfit you wore to Europe!
“... If you have not been able to secure a ticket, perhaps you should consider a local celebration. Staying with me over at the General Administration side will mean having to listen to a lot of bureaucratic proceedings. At the same time, however - they will provide food and programming, and I can, at the very least, offer tea and company. It would upset me greatly to see you isolated or lonely.”
This needs to stop. Now. “- I have secured a ticket home for tomorrow evening.”
If Zhongli found his claim dubious, he has decided to not press it. “All right. Going home would allow you to give some thought to each of those choices. I have heard that there are a few famous skaters available right now in both Europe and Canada - perhaps someone among them would be a good option.”
If fleeing or outright refusal is not going to be an option - “I will update it tonight.”
“But if I do not hear anything over the New Year... ” He starts, and then trails off. The gaze upon him has turned into a penetrating stare, filling him from the inside out with guilt and shame. Would retirement actually mean failing his country and coach? Failing his home village and hometown, which have taken his competitive career as a point of pride? He could just continue to skate on like a robot, accept any and everyone who’s assigned to him, collect his paycheque, perhaps not even need to fly out and compete since the pairing just won’t work out. It would be easy. But it also would wear on his conscience. It’s already worn him down so much that he doesn’t even know how he didn’t say no the last few times this has happened. He recalls Mahler and the sight of the Canadians dancing in the sky. There’s a burst of courage. “... I have already seen and experienced everything. I would like to retire.”
Zhongli, for his part, has stopped staring. A moment of silence seems to nearly stretch into an eternity as the director wordlessly sips from his cup, and then lowers the small porcelain vessel, placing it back upon the table as if it’s the most precious thing he’s held in ages. The look in his eyes when their lines of sight meet again is one of scrutiny; Xiao wonders if Zhongli is trying to read his mind, or if he can (since Xiao will not pretend he is anything more than an open book at the best of times, to those who know him), what he is seeing. The final question turns out to be one that’s surprisingly impersonal. “You have suffered neither a grievous injury nor a visible loss of form. Would you say you have lost your passion for the sport?”
Did I ever have any in the first place?
He recalls the dim street lights under which he had learned his first edges, the pain, the suffering. He thinks about the radiance of the Canadians, the glee on Tartaglia’s face, or Ayaka’s grace as she leans back in her impossibly long-held Ina Bauer over the whole wide canvas.
Their light, though resplendent, is too bright.
They are the children of joy and beauty, the beloveds of the world deserving of all flowers, plushies and applause, while I -
Isn’t it true? The voice in his head asks. Your blades have just always been a weapon.
“... No. I have simply come to believe...” Xiao’s hands tighten, white knuckled, around his teacup. “... that there are some things. That should no longer be allowed to continue.”
He buys a standing seat on one of the slower-speed green-colored trains, and finds it a little hard to breathe.
Of course, he has not been expecting any less. Any train leaving Beijing on the day of Chinese New Year Eve would always be at capacity. It has been a bit of a struggle even getting onto the train - the crowd in front of the gate has been a bit of a stampede waiting to happen - but now at least he’s “comfortably” pressed between two middle-aged guys with giant sacks of miscellaneous gifts and fresh produce.
It’s all a little surreal.
“Young man, shouldn’t you have been on one of those high-speed Harmony units that left earlier this morning? This luggage, these foreign language stickers, you’ve been places. How did ya end up with us?”
There are implications and unsaid things about such banter, of course - that this train is for the poor, the migrants, those who can afford to go home for only one night on the New Year, if they are lucky. He should have been better than this - and the other travelers say it easily, freely, often not even with any signs of jealousy or malice. Young people should enjoy better and more comfortable things. Young privileged kids should not have to deal with the cramped space, the excessive noise of the engine, or the pervasive smell of sweat in these carriages. He definitely cannot imagine someone like the Canadian boys or even Ayaka standing in this space. But -
“Elder uncle, are you from these parts? My family is from the central mountains; we used to have some small fields of peanuts and some apple trees.”
He knows he doesn’t have to say much. Just enough to establish familiarity, to let that accent betray his own heritage, so they’d recognize him as one of their own and start telling their own stories, marveling that anyone might be interested to listen. He does listen. He can’t say he’s empathetic enough to be able to offer much in the way of useful commentary - can’t say anything will come out of these conversations once they all arrive at their destinations - but he listens to this story as well as all the others being told on the train.
Their faces and voices will fade, soon. In another few days, all that will remain of the memory will be a collective feeling, a sense of wanting, impossibly hard work coalesced into a wish.
He wonders if he or anyone else would ever be able to do anything with it.
Aunt Guo is the first to recognize him.
“Xiaopeng! Ahh, we didn’t know you were coming back this year! No competitions this year? Come in, come in! We don’t really have much, but there’s some popped corn on the stove bed, and I can make something if you haven’t eaten. I’ll call - ”
“Aunt Guo,” he calls out, softly, and she smiles at him, squeezing his hand tightly. He thinks she looks very much the same - with a few more strands of white hair, perhaps. That is good. The village chat was discussing a possible diagnosis of some ovarian cysts. If she still is her same energetic self, then that couldn’t have been too bad. And -
“Ah! Jinpeng gege ! Jinpeng gege is here! -”
-Well, if her grandchildren also sound just the same, then there can only be good news.
“I take it as Uncle and the couple are still not coming back this year?” He asks as he settles on the stove-bed, peeling little Chang and her younger brother gently off of him. She’s pouting; he thinks she’s still mad at how he hasn’t smiled at her. “Work wouldn’t allow it?”
“Yeah, the boss informed them of it when he enlisted them for this most recent gig. No breaks, not even for the New Year, Laborer’s Day, or National Day. Sucks, but there weren’t any gigs coming, and they felt like they just had to take whatever they could get. Pay’s not optimal either, but you know how it goes, it waxes and wanes. We still got enough to put the kids through school, so that’s something.”
“Aunt, you know you could always - ”
“Aiya, Xiaopeng, please. You are a good child. But your Aunt Guo hasn’t fallen so low that she’ll need handouts from you. Isn’t the cost of living in Beijing also going way up nowadays? Aren’t you still single, too? Save up your money! Find a girlfriend and get married! You don’t know how worried your Uncle and I have been to hear about you breaking up with more girls again the past few years. A two-person skating partnership is the best way to find yourself a girl, haven’t you seen the history -”
He ducks his head. “My partnerships were not relationships.”
“Yes, yes, technically of course, but you could always develop the romance parts on the side! When you’re always with someone like that day in and day out, and we’ve seen your competitions, how you have to handle and touch the girl’s body, it’s just kind of inappropriate if you aren’t even at least comfortable with one another, and if there’s that, there can be - ”
“Okay, okay, our Jinpeng’s got high standards. Just don’t forget to look. Your current partner isn’t much of a looker, and she looks a bit young even for you - did she get her age changed like the others? - but if you ever get someone else - ”
“Well, Xiaopeng, on another topic, Aunt Guo wants you to grow a pair and to be able to say no. I know most of the village’s got enough common decency to not trouble you with their affairs, bless the bodhisattva, but that’s no excuse for that blasted Ping’An to just ask you to run all around Beijing for his errands. You are an international athlete. He’s a nobody. You don’t owe him anything.”
“I had the time -”
“Doesn’t matter. I know you feel bad about how he’s fallen into hard times - you were always like that, even as a child, wanting to help and protect the less fortunate - but if you don’t watch it, you’ll be taken advantage of. Just because you could spend all your non-training time helping others doesn’t mean that’s a good way to live.”
“I turned down the brothers.”
“Because they were such obvious scammers! Ah, Xiaopeng. What is Aunt going to do with you. It’s a good thing you have the Director up there with you. He is a very good man. I will always trust him to take care of you. If Aunt is not around, you listen to him, you hear?”
He sighs, a little forlorn. “Aunt, I saw that you had filled the side-house in the yard with corn and firewood. Do you know if there’s anywhere where I can s-”
“Ah, go to Old Ma’s house at the back. Go find his son outside the convenience shop for the keys. He’s also not coming back this year, and he’s said any young’uns could stay there, use his kitchen if they wish. Why don’t you come back to Aunt’s later tonight though, for the dinner on the Eve? A few of the other Aunts and elders will be coming over, and your dage Minu left some pork when he came over, so -”
He’s already stood up. “I’ll be back, Aunt. Call me on the phone if you need me. I’ll see if anyone in the village needs any help.”
The village of Xiao’s birth is tucked inconspicuously between a mountain and some rolling hills. In the old days, you would perhaps say it’s a blessed place - there are streams irrigating the land, ample sunlight all year long, and while wild mushrooms and game could be found plentifully on the mountain, the hills produced apples, apricots, dates, corn, millet, soybean and peanut. By the time that Aunt Guo’s generation had become young adults, farming was no longer profitable, and young people left in droves to toil in nearby mines, using their bare hands to produce coal, petroleum, and steel. The work was productive - it paid well, and many were able to build new houses or transition to a higher socioeconomic class - yet it also left Xiao’s parents in early graves, and others with lifelong scars and coughs. Twenty years later, the mines have been replaced by manufacturing factories, construction industries, and large corporations in the country’s West and South - the work is quite the same, but perhaps now one could die from being crushed by a robotic arm rather than black lung.
Xiao’s people have shouldered it all with much stoicism. All things are impermanent, and to exist is to suffer. Xiao’s been taken to burn paper currency and incense at his parents’ graves since he was very young. He does not miss them. One cannot yearn after that which they’ve never had.
He feels guilt, however. Guilt at how he was picked out at six years old, running and chasing after the other boys on the frozen ice of the village pond. How the coach took him away from the village, slapped some knives on his feet, and spared him from a life of chemical vapors or robotic arms. How even now he can take the time to come back and gift the children leftover rhinestones while Fushe is in the military on the Himalayas, Yingda is building bridges in the desert, and -
He runs into Fa’Nan on the edge of the hill.
“Ah, Jinpeng. Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Xiao approaches cautiously, taking care to not step too close to the donkey dung heap or fall into the well. The second oldest of what the village elders used to call the yaksha boys is smoking a cigarette under the new moon, and from the cigarette butts on the ground all around him, he’s been doing this for a while. “ Erge . It’s been some years. Are you well?”
“Could be worse.” The smell of shitty cigarette smoke is almost suffocating. Xiao wonders how many the man has taken to smoke, if he’s now comfortably going through a whole pack in a day, if his lungs could even still handle that on top of all the vapors. Or perhaps there are things worse for him than even all the smoke . “I’m not dead.”
“ - ” And that’s always an impossible thing to continue a conversation off of, and Xiao wonders for a second if his very presence at all is unwelcome, until he sees the moonlight on that lined face and a revelation washes through him. The weight of the knowledge tears through his heart, makes him sick. “Who. Who was it?”
“Yingda. I heard from his father a few days back. They were only able to send back his latest paycheque and a bottle of his ashes. It was already more than kind, considering. Amazing that they even managed to find a crematorium and a post office in those parts at all, considering how often they’re working completely off the grid.”
Yingda and Jinpeng were born only months apart. He shakes his head, trying to make the news make sense to his mind even though he knows his heart has already accepted them. “Do we even know what happened?”
“Nope. Doubt there was any foul play, though. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was just an accident. You know their work’s nothing to scoff at.” Fa’Nan laughs, a gruff, husky sound. Though he is still only in his early thirties, the lines have permanently etched themselves into his face, and they are deep, so deep, and so dark, bronzed by torrential rains and harsh sun. It's the same shade as the earth surrounding them, as dirt from the mines. Even though Xiao's grown up with these kinds of faces - grown up with Fa’Nan as a brother and a friend - something about the scarring of life on that face still makes him shiver out in the open. “And you? Don’t tell me that you have no injuries. You did also go through that whole provincial program in your youth, after all, and I hear the National Team’s getting injured left and right. How are your legs? Back? Waist? Groin?”
“I have been lucky.” And he has been. He has no intentions of revealing all of his own traumas, however; this is no place for a suffering competition, and even if he was to come clean about everything, he doubts his horrors would match up to Fa’Nan’s. “I’ll also be retiring soon.”
“Oho? But don’t most pairs skaters go on until their thirties? Didn’t even Director Zhongli skate until his thirties?”
“No. The Director’s just got a body and soul made out of rock and steel. I am just your small younger bro.” He tries a smile then, to elicit some kind of reaction from Fa’Nan; he’s grateful to see the latter crack a small smile back. “It’s my turn to go to the factories and frontiers. Maybe I’ll finally make something of myself.”
“Now that’s just a terrible idea. With a body like yours? Haven’t you spent far more time with dancers and makeup teams than construction workers?”
“I may be short, erge . But I can and will throw you across this field.”
“Pff. Well, suit yourself.” Fa’Nan sighs deeply, before reaching out and placing a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Xiao shivers at the touch under the suffocating air. “Yingda… feels like it was just yesterday when we were still children, setting off and watching fireworks together on these fields. Gone so soon. Gone too soon. I won’t even be able to help take him to his final rest.”
Xiao’s pulse quickens. “He - he still hasn’t been buried? There’s just - the bottle?? It’s still at home with his father?”
“The whole thing only arrived a few days ago. The old man went to the post office, hoping for something from his son. Could you imagine? Praying for some kind of letter or present, only to get your son’s ashes. He couldn’t make it back to the village. Someone called me the moment I got home, because I’m the only one around with a car. I took the old man to a clinic, picked up some heart meds for him at the town fair, and drove him back. It’s a whole mess. You know the old man’s problem with his legs - he’s not going to be able to do anything for his son. This time of year, too, you’re not going to find anyone else to help out. I would, but I have to head back first thing tomorrow morning. If you could, Jinpeng - for old times’ sake - please put Yingda to rest. Somewhere where he can see the village and the pond, perhaps. Maybe make him face the direction of everything he’s spent his whole life building. Just a little something from all of us, so he wouldn’t be alone.” Fa’Nan tosses one last cigarette onto the ground, before stamping on it with a morose look of irony.
“Maybe you could play some music for him? You know all the rest of us blockheads have no sense of taste for what’s artistic or holy.”
If he has to tell the story to others, he’d probably call Yingda the cheeriest of them all. Even as a child, it was impossible to catch him without a smile, a good word, or just some element of optimism and contentment. Xiao always had a kind of sullenness about his own character - he always thought too much, worried too much, had a tendency to build himself a cage in his own head - but few adults could resist Yingda, and even among the boys, everyone loved to play or hang out with him. Yingda had been the last person to see him off when he left the village at the age of six, the last person from the yaksha band to message him before even the news of his own death - Xiao seldom responded to any of the messages if they did not request anything from him, feeling himself below his brothers, but perhaps -
Yingda had been the perfect young man. Yingda had tried his best in school, tried his best at work, and always sent all his earnings home. Yingda had always told his old man that all he ever wanted was for his father to get a real prosthetic leg, maybe refurbish the house a bit, get some good liquor, enjoy some peace and cheer. On Wechat, he was always posting self-improvement quotes and pictures of the frontiers, talking about how he felt good about doing his part as a young man, contributing to the building of infrastructure and alleviating poverty where it mattered most. He was the embodiment of the Chinese Dream. He refused to let the era of progress leave him behind. And -
And Old Li hasn’t even spent any of that money his son had sent home. When Xiao found him asleep on the stove bed, he could plainly see all the telltale edges of pink just underneath the old man’s pillow.
All Xiao could do is to write a note and leave it on the forgotten dinner table.
(He comes back, five minutes later, if just to clean up all the empty liquor bottles and to leave a small pack of heart meds on the table next to the note.)
Dinner at Aunt Guo’s is simple but filling. Pork dumplings, fresh vegetables, a chicken that the Aunt has been raising for the occasion (cooked with mushrooms that her grandchildren have picked from the mountains) - it’s not almond tofu, but it’s the best from the place he still calls home. Director Zhongli would probably frown at the oil and salt content of every dish on the table, and tell him that he needs to cut down on his intake once he’s back in Beijing. He knows the food served in the dorms and cafeterias of factories is only going to be worse.
Of course, the conversation at the table deteriorates as the night goes on. It would seem that everyone believes that he would be able to grow another foot and jump a quint as long as he’ll eat another bowl of pork dumplings.
It also seems that some migrant workers have been cheating on their wives again, and there have been a few new disputes about whether daughters-in-law should act completely subserviently to their husbands’ families.
When he’s sure that the dinner table would have no more use for him - when the mahjong tables have been set, and the men have drunk enough liquor that they are no longer coherent - he thanks Aunt Guo and gives her the red packets for the children. Little Chang clings to his jacket, seemingly wanting him to play pirates with her. He offers a plush from one of his final international competitions (“it’s from America!”) and a small bag of candy.
In the end, even though he’s come home to the village, he still enjoys time alone more than anything.
Though most are still up at 11 pm on Chinese New Year Eve - the gala and the mahjong tables are still on, and most of the kids are staying up for the hour - the village roads are abandoned. He wonders about going to Old Ma’s place and just crashing, but then stops. From where he stands, he can see the pond, and the ice has frozen over.
He puts on his headphones and makes an impulsive run for it.
There are a few problems with what he had planned.
One: the ice is covered by snow and terribly uneven. He will fall on his face immediately if he tries to skate on it. Heck, even while walking on sneakers and using the light from his phone, he’s still nearly falling.
Two: there is a lot of garbage all around the pond. The water’s probably toxic and could make him ill, if he was wading through it.
Three: it’s fantastically dark over here. He can barely see the village.
Four: why the heck is this even happening. The only reason for him to return here is sentimentality.
He acknowledges all of these issues. He also is just enjoying feeling like a child again, trying to run on this ice, trying to jump on it, lying sprawled out right on top of it. If Yingda can’t return to this place again - if Fa’Nan won’t return to this again - isn’t it up to him to try to reclaim this memory, to take on the burden of the living? His arms and legs and lungs still work. Shouldn’t he savor this joy while he still can, to remember the taste of snow in his mouth again, these joyful feelings with the fireworks and the lanterns?
Five: he can’t stay here long. He’ll have to bury Yingda’s ashes on the morrow, then return to Beijing to pack his bags, because there is absolutely no chance that anyone from outside of China would be interested in working with him. He’ll find some work at the skating club, and when they inevitably fire him for being terrible with kids and safety, a contract with a factory or delivery service. And if he gets fired even there, well -
Construction sites. Janitorial duties. The military.
He’ll find something to do.
The stars are always bright from here, the milky way a silky web. He can count all the stars of the big dipper from here, the yuheng , the tianquan , the big bear, the small bear. When he was young and jumping on ice just for fun, he had once dreamed of catching them with a butterfly net, holding them in his hands like small crystal cores of sparkling light. He’s obviously older now, less dreamy, more sane, but he thinks he still admires those who can still make children believe in those myths and moments - those who, even in their own adulthoods, could recall those fantasies of star-catching, of touching the sky, or just floating, freely and almost-winged, above the peerless ice.
(It’s all a bit much. He’ll never admit having these thoughts to Zhongli, even if the latter is grilling him on all the ways to imagine and enact artistry.)
(It’s not like Zhongli has ever needed the stars and the sky to be artistic in his own way, anyway. That’s really what he should have been trying to emulate, versus a spirit and feeling that he can never call his own.)
The fireworks go off at the promised time, a shower of light and heat across the dark sky. The trails as the cinders fall look a bit like the skate marks on the ice as they practice their step sequences and spiral entries. He tries a single lutz, on the flattest and most promising part of ice he can see. He falls and then laughs at himself for trying.
- The laugh chokes in his breath a bit, a bird that wants to see and believe in peace, to hold between its beak an olive branch, a seed, a sapling. He swallows it and refuses to let it become any different kind of feeling. He’ll hold onto it, even if it’ll turn into tears, into sadness, or -
Old Ma’s stove bed is cold as a rock because that’s what it is. Without a lit hearth to spread the warmth under the cover, it’s just - a surface.
He doesn’t mind it. With nobody home, he has all the excuses to fall asleep to the arrival of the birds.
He wonders if he’ll dream of failed lutzes, reverse lasso lifts, or the light of the moon all draped on one ethereal being -
Notifications from the skating group chat wake him up the next morning.
Of course, Keqing and Ningguang are ever-punctual, with classy and well-meaning messages all sent at exactly 8 am Beijing time. Ganyu is slower, responding at 8:15, her message sounding a lot more like it came from herself rather than some online celebratory message machine. Hu Tao and the Director have not been heard from yet at all. Knowing Hu Tao, she’ll probably send something late at night, and Zhongli probably has over 100 groups that he has to attend to first…
He puts in a quick four words, just in his own words, wishing everyone a happy new year. He really doesn’t know what else he can or is supposed to say.
He sees nothing new in his email inbox, from the ISU or otherwise.
Suddenly in an action mood, he rolls out of bed and sets off for the dreaded house.
“Jinpeng gege ! Jinpeng gege !” A high, shrill voice interrupts his reverie before he’s even walked past the third house on the road.
“Jinpeng gege ! Thank you for the red packet and the plushie! I was so overwhelmed yesterday, I didn’t thank you before...”
Or your grandmother reminded you to thank me? He hides a smile and drops down to his knees so he can look at her at eye level. “Did you like it?”
“I do! My brother loves it too!”
“Did you make any good wishes for the New Year?”
“I… I think I did! I said I wanted grandpa and mommy and daddy to come back home.” Her brows are knitted together in concentration. “I want Jinpeng gege to win!”
Now that’s a whole list of impossibilities if I’ve ever heard any. “You shouldn’t say out loud just everything you wished for. Keep some to yourself - it’s having the wish that matters. Don’t you want them to become true?”
Now those brows are rising in confusion. “But - but I want Jinpeng gege to know that I want him to win!”
He pats her and laughs internally at the thought of his own retirement. It’ll be a chore to break it to the village, for sure. More of a chore to make them come to terms with his future plans, but it’s what he has to do even if it means becoming a disappointment. I’ve lived with this skating dream for long enough. It will not be mine anymore, and I am at peace with it. “But what if Jinpeng gege won’t be competing anymore?”
“Then - then I want Jinpeng gege to be happy and smile at me!”
He could. It’s a pure accident that he hasn’t smiled at her - he’s long gotten acquainted with smiling for the cameras, so if it’s just “a smile” that she wants, he could easily grant it. But if the meme has gone on for so long - if, perhaps, she could tell when he really means his smiles, and when he doesn’t - then perhaps he shouldn’t just give her one that she won’t really want. Meant happiness from himself, though… he’ll add that as another thing to her list of impossibilities. “Gege will… try. If you ever need anything, just ask grandma to give gege a call, alright?”
Old Li, Yingda’s father, is not home when he visits. The man can’t have gotten far - there’s only so far a man with a bad prosthetic leg can go - but Xiao knows better than to look for him. All he needed was the response note on the dinner table, and the small urn next to it. He finds both… and a familiar stack of pink with large imprinted numbers.
He puts the money back under Old Li’s pillow. The urn and note he takes with him alongside the shovel and other materials he’s borrowed from Fa’Nan.
The trek up the hill is a slow one. It’s a sunny day, and he feels almost warm in his winter jacket. Haven’t they played on this hill before as well, when they were kids? He remembers the smell of earth, the raw excitement at the small blobs on the fruit trees. Everything’s become tinged with nostalgia and worn hazy by the passage of time.
(Maybe he didn’t really know Yingda at all. Maybe Yingda was actually a sensitive, melancholic person, and all the wechat messages were just a facade masking the true person beneath.)
Carrying an urn in a pocket is not the same as carrying a living, spinning partner on one’s back. But somehow, it feels harder. Heavier.
He lets the urn down with the same kind of care that he gives to a partner exiting a lift.
Most of the actual physical work is easy. It’s almost therapeutic, to have something to dig into, something to take out one’s loss on. He’s spent too many hours in the gym and the rink to be bothered by the hardness of the soil in this bleak winter. Old Li and Fa’Nan have both told him where to go, and although it’s not a part of the main village cemetery (he’s not qualified to be buried in it, just like Fa’Nan and Xiao won’t qualify either, having spent most of their lives working in the cities instead of with the village and the earth), it’s still on Yingda’s own family’s lands, just under a small grove of fruit trees, overlooking the village and the stream. Xiao will dig the grave and Fa’Nan will bring a gravestone, and if Minu and Fushe can contribute to the tomb-sweeping at Qingming Festival and taking care of Old Li, then it should be good between the five Yaksha brothers -
He wipes the sweat from his brow.
How good can anything be when someone is gone?
Progress. Peace. He thinks of remote village roads and street lights, of beautiful aerial shots of new cities that have been built, of the richness and cosmopolitan quality of the capital that he’s lived in. Surely Yingda’s work has brought light to the faraway mountains, brought medicines and seeds and good tidings. Even if Yingda won’t live to see it, other children like Little Chang from the area will, and Xiao himself has definitely benefited from everyone who’s ever worked on the infrastructure of Beijing. Everyone dies; if one can die having contributed something positive to the world, isn’t that worth it?
He makes a conscious effort to balance all the bricks at exactly the right angles. When done well, it looks as if a small altar, a little temporary bright-colored spot to mark the place from all the leafless trees and dirt brown. It comforts nobody but himself, but he hopes it'll mean something to these mountains and the air. Yingda’s soul, maybe, if it still lingers.
It's midday when he completes the whole structure. Standing back up and ignoring the sharp burst of pain, he thinks he should bow, perhaps, or burn some incense. It's a little bit stressful to feel at a complete loss as to how to grieve or say goodbye to a friend. He’s had such a wave of feelings, last night at the pond - so isn’t it shameful to feel strangely detached now, to only have this hollow sense of loss, as if while his own pain makes sense, nobody else’s can even so much as make a scratch?
What would Yingda have wanted, and why don’t I know anything about it?
He bites his lip. Fa’Nan’s offerings have been placed on the little altar. What is the last thing that he has been instructed to do? He pulls out the note again, squints at the hastily scribbled words. Burn some paper currency . He can do that. He drops the thick bundle of actual fake pink paper into a porcelain bowl and sets it all on fire. The smoke stinks. He coughs, unable to help himself, but then adjusts the bowl and leans even closer to the plume. It’s the last thing he can do.
While the youths of the world mourn and grieve, the sun and the winds are still the same. The stream flows, uninterrupted, and underneath these hills, the crimson lanterns on the village walls sway.
WECHAT NOTIFICATIONS 5:00 PM
Director Zhongli: You’ve got a direct inquiry from Venti (CA) through the ISU database.
Director Zhongli: Perhaps of interest.