Wei Ying is stuck.
The contents of his closet are strewn across his bed, heaps of fabric in varying degrees of red discarded into haphazard, forlorn looking piles. It shouldn’t be this hard, he thinks, to choose something red to wear to dinner. Red is kind of his thing, after all, and it is only dinner at Jiang Yanli’s house. It’s not a formal affair; it’s just Chinese New Year in the midst of Covid, a small and intimate gathering of fewer than six people, as per the Provincial health regulations.
A small and intimate gathering that just happens to include Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan, who has been stranded in Vancouver by the pandemic, an ocean away from his family for this year’s festivities. Lan Zhan, who is quiet, and severe, and fastidious with his time. Lan Zhan, who listens to Wei Ying with such earnest intensity, even when Wei Ying is speaking nonsense.
Lan Zhan, who Wei Ying has been in love with for the last five years, if not longer.
Wei Ying sighs, allowing himself a brief moment of despair over his limited fashion choices. He couldn’t afford to buy himself something new this year; that treacherous space between graduating with your masters and finding gainful employment has not been kind to him or his wallet.
It’s not like Lan Zhan will care if he shows up in his favourite, slightly tattered red hoodie or his well-worn, trusty red flannel. Just because Lan Zhan always looks like he stepped off the pages of some avant-garde version of GQ doesn’t mean he expects the same from Wei Ying. Lan Zhan appears blissfully indifferent to what other people wear, or do, for the most part.
Which is why, Wei Ying supposes, he wants Lan Zhan to notice him so badly. He wants to be important. He wants Lan Zhan to care.
Wei Ying hazards a glance at his phone as it lights up with an incoming message.
Lan Zhan <3: ETA is 5 minutes. I will see you soon.
His pulse skips a beat as he types out his reply:
Wei Ying: See you soon! <3<3<3
The hearts are probably overkill, he thinks.
He tosses the phone to the side with a groan and makes an executive decision, opting for the fuzzy red cardigan Nie Huaisang had given him for his birthday last year. Jiang Cheng has derisively likened it to a flayed muppet pelt (Elmo’s, specifically), but it’s outrageously soft and slightly oversized, and Wei Ying decides that he can’t go wrong with sweater paws. Everyone appreciates sweater paws, right?
He slips the sweater over a plain black tank top and evaluates himself doubtfully in the mirror. Is it really a good idea to wear his favourite black skinny jeans to a reunion dinner? The whole purpose of the evening is to eat as much lucky food as you can possibly stomach, so perhaps something more forgiving would be wiser, but then his phone goes off with the notification of Lan Zhan’s arrival. Wei Ying is officially out of time to second-guess his wardrobe choices.
He scoops up his phone and his keys before slipping on his leather jacket, and he makes it halfway out the door before he realizes he’s forgotten the lovely bottle of pinot gris he’d selected for his sister and has to turn back. He darts back in to retrieve it, then narrowly avoids tripping over the threshold on his way back out. He takes a deep breath, attempting to soothe his jangled nerves and slow his racing heartbeat as he locks the door to his apartment with a slightly shaky hand.
He takes the stairs down two at a time and spills out the front door into the night. The air outside is crisp and cool and blessedly dry, one of those mild, pre-spring Vancouver days that hints at early cherry blossoms in the month to come. He spots Lan Zhan’s brilliant white Lexus across the street, gleaming slightly gold under the streetlamp in the rapidly darkening afternoon. Wei Ying waves a little as he jogs over to the passenger side, opening the door and sliding into the front seat. He’s greeted by a whiff of sandalwood as he settles into the warm leather, Lan Zhan having already turned on the heated seat.
“Hi!” Wei Ying exclaims, fumbling for his seatbelt while trying to balance the bottle of wine. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Lan Zhan.”
“I did not wait long,” Lan Zhan assures him, gently taking the bottle from Wei Ying’s hand so that he can get himself settled. “We will arrive in plenty of time.”
“I know, I just want to get there as early as possible. It’s a lot of work for Jiejie, so it’s nice if I can help her out. Plus, that’s half the fun! I love cooking with her,” Wei Ying enthuses.
“Do you?” Lan Zhan asks, sounding mildly amused.
“Of course!” Wei Ying avers. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“You do not cook very often on your own,” Lan Zhan points out. “At least,” he adds, that wry amusement back in his voice, “for a certain definition of cooking.”
“I suppose not,” Wei Ying admits, buckling his seatbelt before taking the wine back from Lan Zhan. Most of his culinary exploits involve different packages of pre-cooked ingredients cobbled together in a bowl and doused with outrageous amounts of Lao Gan Ma and Siracha sauce. “I like to think of myself as adventurous in the kitchen.”
“Oyster sauce on toast is certainly unconventional,” Lan Zhan allows, starting the engine and pulling out into the street.
“Hey now, don’t knock it,” Wei Ying says. “Especially in a world where Vegemite exists.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees. “Point taken. Your sister allows for your creative improvisations to her recipes, then?”
“Not exactly,” Wei Ying hedges. “The truth is, I’m banned from actually ‘making’ anything, insofar as that means portioning out and combining ingredients.”
“That would appear to eliminate a large part of the cooking process,” Lan Zhan says. “What exactly are you allowed to do?”
“I fold dumplings!” Wei Ying says proudly. “I’m an absolute pro at folding them into ingots. Also, I can chop things. And stir things. But mostly, I fold dumplings,” Wei Ying confesses. “It’s actually a very important job, you know.”
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan says, the hint of a smile in his voice. “It is very time consuming.”
“It’s a whole process,” Wei Ying confirms. “If I do it, it means she doesn’t have to make them all the day before, and she’s free to prepare the other gazillion dishes she likes to make. Just wait until you see the spread she has planned,” he gushes. “It’s better than any restaurant, I promise.”
“I am sure it will be lovely,” Lan Zhan says. “Thank you for inviting me,” he adds after a moment.
“Of course!” Wei Ying says, enthusiasm rushing forth in a giddy wave. “You can’t spend Chinese New Year by yourself. That’s just not right. Stupid Covid, preventing you from going home this year.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees. “It is unfortunate, but Uncle and Brother understand.”
“It may not be as grand as whatever you’re used to back in Shanghai, but I promise it’ll be fun,” Wei Ying offers, suddenly shy. “This is your first New Year’s away from your family, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Lan Zhan replies. “Uncle has always stressed the importance of observing the Spring Festival with family. I have already called to give them my best wishes.”
“Do you usually celebrate at home?” Wei Ying is curious to know.
“No,” Lan Zhan shakes his head minutely. “We always book a dinner at a restaurant.”
“So, you’ve never made New Year’s dumplings?” Wei Ying asks.
“Not specifically, no,” Lan Zhan confirms. “Although I have made jiaozi before.”
“Ah, right, of course. You like, cook-cook,” Wei Ying says, flushing a little.
“When I have the time,” Lan Zhan agrees, turning onto the highway, and they fall into a mostly comfortable silence.
Wei Ying is still feeling a bit jittery, so he busies himself by connecting his phone to the car’s Bluetooth system and scrolling through his Spotify. Despite the fact that the car is outfitted with the latest and greatest technology has to offer, Lan Zhan eschews it all in favour of listening to CBC radio. The channel is mostly set to CBC radio one, but he favours the classical programming on CBC radio two for longer drives, as if he was somebody’s grandmother. Wei Ying finds it endlessly endearing.
His finger hesitates over The One That You Love, by LP, but he decides against it as a little too on the nose and selects Tightrope instead. He settles more comfortably into the seat and hums along with the opening guitar chords, already second-guessing his choice. Should he have opted for some C-pop in line with the evening’s theme, instead? Lan Zhan is endlessly tolerant of Wei Ying’s eclectic taste in music, so it’s doubtful that Lan Zhan would mind either way, but Wei Ying cannot quell the low-simmering anxiety he has been feeling for most of the day.
He hazards a glance at Lan Zhan out of the corner of his eye, taking in Lan Zhan’s exquisite profile as Lan Zhan remains focused on the road, merging smoothly onto the bridge. He wonders if Lan Zhan will appreciate the relaxed, low-key kind of reunion dinner that Jiang Yanli has planned, or if all the simple, homey preparation and their casual attitude toward tradition will ultimately disappoint him. Wei Ying hopes not, and he knows that Lan Zhan is far too gracious to express any sort of disapproval, but Wei Ying cannot help but fear that he and his family might be found lacking.
Lan Zhan is a serious person. He takes his culture seriously, and the Lans are an old, rich, traditional family with deep roots in Shanghai. Lan Zhan himself has only been in Canada for the last seven years, six of them at university. He has never missed the Spring Festival, always making sure to take time off from his classes or his work and return to China for the holiday. This year, Covid has rendered that trip impossible, so Wei Ying had eagerly invited him to join Jiang Yanli and her family, instead.
Now, Wei Ying sits and wonders. Will Lan Zhan enjoy himself? Will it be enough?
Will Wei Ying be enough?
He immediately chastises himself for the thought. Lan Zhan has never once judged him for his background as a foster kid, for his broken, almost non-existent Mandarin, or his habit of drinking cold water at dim sum. These are his own deep-rooted insecurities, honed over years of criticism from Auntie Yu, from friends and classmates who laugh at his awkward pronunciation and his inability to count past ten.
No, he tells himself. Lan Zhan has always been patient and gracious with him. It was Lan Zhan who, since that first day of university, has not shied away from Wei Ying’s inexhaustible exuberance. Lan Zhan always answers people in English when Wei Ying is around, even while being addressed in Chinese. Lan Zhan always makes sure that Wei Ying is included. It was Lan Zhan who told him firmly one day that ‘authenticity’ was a trap.
“White people will demand you be ‘authentic’ so that they can consume you as an experience, the same way that they consume food,” Lan Zhan had said. “And Chinese people looking to gatekeep you from your own culture are not worth your time. You are who you are, Wei Ying.”
He’d said it with such certainty, such earnest warmth and conviction, that Wei Ying had teared up, ducking his face toward his steaming bowl of noodles so that he could blame his watery eyes on the fragrant, billowing steam.
It’s hard, sometimes, to feel connected to something you weren’t allowed to live in for more than half of your life. When you look like you belong somewhere, but the people who were supposed to claim you lost you or rejected you outright, have you ever really had a home? Wei Ying has spent most of his life without a stable place to live. Even when he had finally landed with the Jiangs, that space had often been tense and fraught under the sharp, resentful watch of Auntie Yu.
Now that he is on his own, forcefully isolated in the midst of a pandemic, Wei Ying has spent hours staring at the stark reality that while he has a place to sleep, he still wouldn’t call it a home. He has friends, of course, and a myriad of people from all manner of backgrounds whom he considers friendly acquaintances, but family? Family is different. Chosen or otherwise, those are the people to whom you really belong.
Wei Ying aches to be Lan Zhan’s family.
Lan Zhan sees him. Lan Zhan recognizes him. No one else aside from Jiang Yanli treats him as well or as kindly as Lan Zhan does, with such unquestioning acceptance and care.
And yet, Wei Ying wonders.
It’s been six years of knowing each other, but despite the fact they are impossibly close—intimate, even—there is that final gap they’ve yet to close. Wei Ying teeters on the brink, perpetually unsure of himself, unable to take that leap. Where could he possibly fit into Lan Zhan’s family? The Lans are so severe; even Lan Huan, with all his cordial friendliness, has a steely undertone to him that dictates a polite distance must be maintained. And as for Lan Qiren, Wei Ying can still feel his disapproving gaze from Lan Zhan’s graduation, evaluating Wei Ying as if he were a bug under a microscope, narrowing his eyes when Wei Ying could only stammer replies to him in English.
He wonders if Lan Zhan will return to Shanghai eventually, if he plans to leave his life in Vancouver after a few years working with the City. He could be successful anywhere, Wei Ying knows, building glass castles into any skyline in the world. Does he dream of endless skyscrapers, Wei Ying wonders? He could pick up at any time and disappear, back to an old country that would welcome the return of its son. Lan Zhan doesn’t have to be a perpetual foreigner.
Wei Ying doesn’t have that option. It gnaws at him at night, that he doesn’t belong where Lan Zhan belongs. There is a whole world that exists to Lan Zhan that rejects Wei Ying, even though it gave birth to him, and it eats a hole into Wei Ying’s heart where guilt and shame make their home.
If he thinks too much about what he has lost, he’ll lose sight of what he still has, and it has never been in Wei Ying’s nature to regret. But being with Lan Zhan, wanting to be with Lan Zhan, to be everything that Lan Zhan wants; it stokes his old insecurities into low burning embers, fuelling his self-doubt and holding him back. He is not enough. He could never be enough.
Not for Lan Zhan.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls softly, startling Wei Ying out of his reverie. “We’re here.”
“Right,” Wei Ying says, giving himself a shake and closing the music out on his phone. He unbuckles his seatbelt and pops the car door open. “Thank you for driving,” he adds as he exits the vehicle.
“Of course,” Lan Zhan says smoothly, stepping out of the car with effortless grace. Wei Ying watches him as Lan Zhan retrieves a couple of packages from the back of the car. There is a basket of mandarin oranges with the stems still attached, artfully arranged beneath a layer of cellophane, and a bag from Chinatown’s best tea shop. Knowing Lan Zhan, Wei Ying is guessing there is a Pu-erh tea cake inside worth at least a hundred dollars. He silently kicks himself for not picking up a bottle of red wine, as well. Gifts are supposed to come in pairs, right?
He knows his sister won’t care, but what if Lan Zhan notices? Will he think it’s rude? Will he think it’s bad luck? Should Wei Ying have brought something for Jin Ling, at least?
Lan Zhan must notice his sudden hesitation, because he pauses, gaze considering, before offering Wei Ying something from his pocket.
“What’s this?” Wei Ying says, reaching out to take the red envelope. “Lan Zhan, I know I’m childish, so if this you roasting me—?”
“For Jin Ling,” Lan Zhan clarifies. “Perhaps you’d like to give it to him?”
“I can’t give him your money!” Wei Ying protests.
“Why not?” Lan Zhan asks, as if this is totally normal behaviour.
“Because,” Wei Ying splutters. “I can’t just take your money and pretend it’s mine.”
Lan Zhan regards him for a long moment, unblinking.
“I could give it to you first, then,” Lan Zhan concludes.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying whines. “That’s not—that’s just—no fair!” he stammers.
“Would you like to give it to him together, then?” Lan Zhan suggests.
“Yes!” Wei Ying says immediately. “I mean, if you insist,” he adds, suddenly flushed at the implications of such a gesture. “I mean, I don’t have to give him anything at all, I can just be the shitty uncle, he likes Jiang Cheng best anyway—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says gently. “I would be happy to give him lucky money with you.”
“Okay,” Wei Ying practically squeaks.
They stand there awkwardly for another moment, Lan Zhan’s pristine white wool coat billowing slightly around his legs in the evening breeze. He cocks his head at Wei Ying and angles his body toward the house.
“Shall we?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying manages, striding briskly forward in order to take the lead and shoving the envelope deep into his back pocket. Lan Zhan falls into step just behind him, Wei Ying’s heart beating loudly in his ears.
It’s an agony of anticipation before Jiang Yanli opens the door, rosy cheeks reflecting her red apron while she balances Jing Ling on one hip.
“A-Ying!” she exclaims, all warmth and joy. “And Lan Zhan, welcome! Come in, you two,” she beckons, stepping aside to let them both through.
Wei Ying drops a kiss on her cheek as he enters, reaching out to pat Jin Ling on the head as he does so. Jin Ling scowls at him, turning his face into his mother’s shoulder, and Wei Ying laughs ruefully in response.
“What, not happy to see me?” Wei Ying teases, rubbing a soothing circle onto Jin Ling’s back.
“He’s just a little cranky, that’s all,” Jiang Yanli assures him. “He didn’t have his nap this afternoon, so I’m expecting him to pass out any minute now. And just in time, too. I’m going to need both my hands soon. Come in, come in, take your shoes off!”
Lan Zhan places the gifts carefully on the sideboard and obediently removes his impeccable semi-brogue oxfords. He slips out of his wool coat, revealing a baby blue cashmere sweater over a white button-down with pearlized buttons, the French cuffs folded neatly over the ends of his sweater sleeves. His pants are the palest beige, pleated in the front and cut with a wide leg, but the hem has been cinched in at the ankles and fastened with a button, creating a tapered silhouette.
Wei Ying does his best not to stare at him, concentrating on struggling out of his boots, instead.
“Let me take your coat,” Jiang Yanli is saying, extending her free hand to try and pull it out of Lan Zhan’s reluctant grip.
“Please, don’t trouble yourself,” Lan Zhan entreats her. “You have a baby,” he says, his tone so serious and grave and matter of fact that Jiang Yanli can’t help but laugh.
“Yes, I suppose I do. The closet is right there,” she relents, and Lan Zhan hangs his coat up, reaching out to take Wei Ying’s jacket from him, as well.
“We come bearing gifts,” Wei Ying announces, brandishing the bottle of wine as Lan Zhan retrieves his packages from the sideboard. “But don’t worry, we’ll carry them in. You have a baby,” he adds with a wink. “Where’s Jin Zixuan?” Wei Ying asks. “Can’t he take care of his own son while you slave away in the kitchen?”
“He’s still at work,” Jiang Yanli says as she moves down the hall, leading the two of them out of the foyer. “And he probably will be until dinner time, so it’s just the four of us for the next few hours.”
“Perfect,” Wei Ying grins, inhaling deeply as he enters the kitchen, reveling in the bombardment of comforting aromas. The sharp, familiar smell of freshly sliced ginger. The rich and nutty scent of sesame oil. The sweetly sour whiff of rice vinegar cut with the unmistakable zing of soy sauce.
Yes, Wei Ying thinks, the knot of anxiety in his gut uncoiling in the heat of the kitchen.
This is what love smells like.
“Where should I put these?” Lan Zhan asks.
“In the dining room, on the credenza,” Jiang Yanli replies, bouncing a fussing Jin Ling. “A-Ying, will you show him?”
“Yep!” Wei Ying declares. “Just let me stick this wine in the fridge first.” He pulls the door open and peers inside, looking for a spot to stick it. The door is brimming with dozens of condiments, and the shelves are chock full of fresh food in various stages of preparation. In pride of place on the bottom shelf sits an enormous yelloweye rockfish, happily marinating in its mixture of Shaoxing wine and soy.
“Hello, you!” Wei Ying greets the fish, slipping the wine into the door beside a jar of black bean sauce. “Get it?” he asks, turning to Lan Zhan. “Hello, yu?”
Lan Zhan remains stone-faced, but his eyes are soft.
Wei Ying just grins at him, grabbing Lan Zhan’s elbow and leading him into the dining room to drop off the gifts. Dried red dates and nuts, candied lotus seeds and winter melon, and a bowl of lucky candy are all on offer atop the credenza, and Wei Ying snags a lotus seed as Lan Zhan adds the tea and the oranges to the display. He’s just about to head back into the kitchen when Lan Zhan stops him with a gentle hand around his bicep.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan intones, voice low, and Wei Ying tries his best not to shiver. “Do not forget about the lucky money.”
“Right,” Wei Ying breathes, feeling a flush rising in his cheeks, and he fumbles with his free hand to extract the envelope from his back pocket. Lan Zhan gives his arm an encouraging squeeze before he lets go, and Wei Ying feels his heart skip a beat.
“There’s beer in there, too, if you feel like it while you’re folding,” Jiang Yanli says, nodding at the fridge as they return to the kitchen. She is busy strapping Jin Ling into his carrier where it sits on the kitchen table. He’s started to nod off, just as she had predicted.
“You’re the best, Jiejie,” Wei Ying says, diving back into the fridge to retrieve a bottle of Four Winds Nectarous. “And I don’t even have to share with Jiang Cheng!” he sings.
“Yes, well, he sends his love to you, regardless,” Jiang Yanli says fondly.
“No he doesn’t,” Wei Ying retorts, incredulous at the very thought.
“Well,” she says again. “Not in so many words, no, but the sentiment was there. I just spoke with him before you got here. He and Wen Qing have an evening of takeout and Netflix with Wen Ning all mapped out.” She levels a serious look at him. “He says to tell you not to feel bad about it.”
Wei Ying avoids her gaze, ducking his head to take a sip of his beer. “I don’t,” he says.
It’s not entirely a lie. Although he feels a little guilty that Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to spend the New Year with his family while Wei Ying does, he also knows that Wen Qing is being ruthlessly strict with who she sees outside of the hospital. She had been adamant that she didn’t want to see Jin Ling after a day on the emergency ward, and Jiang Cheng had been just as adamant that he wasn’t going anywhere without her.
“Besides,” Jiang Cheng had said. “We can’t both bring a date. That’s more than six people. And what about Wen Ning? He works with the public, he can’t go home to Granny Wen. If he doesn’t come to celebrate with us, he won’t celebrate with anyone.”
“Lan Zhan’s not my date,” Wei Ying had groused. “Are you sure you’re okay with it?”
“Yes, fuck, it’s fine, Wei Ying. Listen. I’m good.” A pause on the other end as Wen Qing had called out to him. “I’m really good,” Jiang Cheng had said.
Wei Ying is drawn back to the present as Lan Zhan gives him a minuscule nudge, and Wei Ying’s eyes fall to the red envelope in his hand. He swallows nervously, then he moves toward his sister and extends the offering.
“What’s this?” Jiang Yanli exclaims. “A-Ying, you know that’s not necessary.”
“For Jin Ling,” Wei Ying says. “It’s from both of us,” he adds quickly.
“Really, you two,” Jiang Yanli laughs. “You shouldn’t have. Neither of you is married yet!”
“No,” Lan Zhan says, voice even and smooth. “Not yet.”
Wei Ying chokes on his beer.
Jiang Yanli smiles at Lan Zhan, soft and sweet. “I hope you don’t mind that we’re putting you to work?”
“Not at all,” Lan Zhan assures her. “I am happy to help.”
“Would you like some tea?” she offers. “Wei Ying tells me you don’t drink.”
“Tea would be lovely, thank you,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying struggles to collect himself as Lan Zhan selects the tea with Jiang Yanli. It doesn’t mean anything, he tells himself. So what if Lan Zhan is thinking about marriage? They’re at that age, as Auntie Yu never tires of telling him and Jiang Cheng. Wei Ying himself thinks about it often enough. Too often, perhaps, for someone who hasn’t even been on a date in the last five years.
Is it ever going to get easier, he wonders? This bone-deep ache for a place and a people to belong to has been the one constant in his life.
He watches as Jiang Yanli talks and Lan Zhan listens, that same serious look on his face as when Wei Ying is explaining something nonsensical to him. Everything Wei Ying says, Lan Zhan takes seriously, and he is clearly giving the same consideration to Jiang Yanli. Wei Ying’s heart swells to see it.
He smiles as he takes another sip of his beer, letting go of wants and worries. Wei Ying is content, happy and grateful to have his two favourite people in the world all to himself for a while.
“Xin nian kuai le!”
Wei Ying claps his hands and shrieks with glee as the firecrackers hiss and snap, sparks flying deliciously close to his shoes. The smoke curls up like a whisper, a promise of the year to come.
“Don’t get too close, A-Ying!” his mother chides, guiding him backward with a tug on his shirt, but there is no real reprimand in her voice. She is too happy, too full of smiles and good cheer to scold him.
It is the year of the dragon, and Wei Ying is four.
For the first New Year in their new apartment, the preparations have been meticulous. The door has been adorned with an upside-down Fu, and every nook and cranny has been scrubbed clean. The old floorboards are shining and the kitchen tile is gleaming. Most of their possessions are still packed, what little they carried over from China crammed into half a dozen nondescript boxes. Tonight, they will all sleep together in the big bedroom, sharing the brand-new mattress that just arrived this afternoon. Tomorrow, Wei Ying will get his own bed, in his own room, and he will be expected to go to sleep on time, but for tonight, there are firecrackers, and sparklers, and the sound of his mother’s irrepressible laughter.
They’ve ordered a modest feast of food, and Wei Ying takes greedy bites of savoury dumplings, the juices from the pork dribbling down his chin. His father tells him not to soak them so long in the vinegar, but Wei Ying loves the sharp tangy bite, the slight hint of caramel before his eyes start to water. His mother laughs at the faces he makes and pours him some more apple soda.
The spring rolls are not supposed to be dipped in the vinegar, but Wei Ying tries it anyway, much to the amusement of his parents.
“Here,” his father says, offering him the plum sauce instead. “If it’s too sweet, you can try some of your Mama’s chili sauce.”
“He’s too young for that,” his mother laughs, but she allows him to sample a small taste of it off her pinky finger.
Wei Ying’s eyes go wide, a little thrill zipping up his spine as his tongue begins to burn, his mouth suffused with the taste of something not unlike the smoke from the firecrackers.
“More!” he demands, tugging at his mother’s sleeve. She laughs, a sound as full and free as the wind.
As a compromise, they mix some chili into the plum sauce for him, and Wei Ying uses every drop, licking the dipping dish clean when his parents aren’t looking. Now he just has to finish his rice and yu choy before he can ask for dessert. The thick, glistening slices of nian gao are beckoning to him from their plate on the counter, and Wei Ying can’t wait to try it.
It’s sweet and stretchy and incredibly sticky, and Wei Ying absolutely loves it. His mother urges him to take small bites.
“Savour it, hai zi, and be careful you don’t choke.”
Wei Ying grins a sticky mouthful at her, and she dabs at his face with a napkin, licks her thumb to clean off the stubborn bits on his cheeks. Wei Ying wriggles, yelping in protest.
“Mama, no!” he squeals, unable to stop the giggling that escapes him. “No spit!”
“Come here, you sticky little monster,” his mother says, attacking his side with tickling fingers. “No more cake for you. Save some for the kitchen god.”
Wei Ying’s giggles morph into full-out laughter as his mother kisses the mess off his face.
“Nooooo!” he wails, clinging to her like a koala, shaking with his mirth.
The sound of firecrackers echoes through the neighbourhood.
Wei Ying almost makes it to midnight.
The first thing Wei Ying notices about Vancouver is how much longer it takes to get places when you’re not walking. The city is tiny; it’s so much smaller than Wuhan, so much shorter, but the buses run less frequently, and the Skytrain doesn’t move as fast as the sleek, highspeed trains back home. Nothing is really very far away unless you want to go to the mountains. You have to take a car and cross a bridge for that.
Wei Ying is five, and he is not allowed to cross bridges on his own.
He’s not allowed to go most places alone, but Wei Ying doesn’t mind. He likes to hold his mother’s hand when they cross the street to his elementary school. He likes that she is there every day to drop him off and pick him up, even if it is only a few blocks back to their apartment.
His father gets a job as a cargo train conductor with CN rail, which means he’s away from home a lot. Sometimes he will be gone for weeks at a time, but Wei Ying always knows when he’s due to come home. On those days, his mother will walk him to the bakery to pick up some steamed buns and apple tarts.
The first time he’d tried them, Wei Ying had been skeptical. They didn’t look anything like his favourite egg tarts, but they were called the same thing? English is confusing.
But the tarts themselves are a revelation. Perfect little domes of flaky pastry give way to warm and gooey apple filling. Not too sweet, his father would say as he devoured them one after another. Wei Ying begins to crave them when he is missing his father, and the trips to the bakery become the highlight of his month. The aunties behind the counter are getting to know him; he smiles his best smile as he hands them the money from his mother’s purse. He is learning to count change in school, and he diligently accepts all the coins in return.
Wei Ying is struggling with English, but his teacher assures his parents that it will come with time. His mother is fluent, so she starts to speak English to him when they are at home. Wei Ying doesn’t always like that. He likes the sound of Mandarin in her sonorous voice, the soft tones that vibrate off her tongue. English is stark and final; words do not linger and lilt the same way.
Food names are easiest, Wei Ying discovers, as his mother takes him through the dishes on the dinner table. Ji is chicken. Zhurou is pork. Tang is soup, and cha is tea. It’s different when you can taste a word. It’s different when you can chew it and swallow it.
New food begins to make its way into his vocabulary. Pizza and hamburgers. Hot dogs and spaghetti and grilled cheese sandwiches. So many sandwiches. Endless sandwiches. He discovers he likes ham and cheese, but he hates peanut butter and jam. Peanut butter and banana is somewhat tolerable, but it tastes less like lunch and more like dessert. Wei Ying still likes things that are salty and spicy the best.
Food at home is wide and varied, and his mother loads the table down with fresh ingredients and interesting new spices. Wei Ying is the opposite of a picky eater. He’ll try everything at least once. His mother beams at him, love and pride suffusing her features.
“My A-Ying is so brave,” she says, ruffling his hair. “My little culinary explorer.”
They are seated in a Vietnamese restaurant on a balmy Friday evening. At the end of every week, they go out for dinner. His mother calls it date night, and she always hands Wei Ying the money and lets him pay the bill at the end of the meal. They share everything, because Wei Ying gets to try more things that way. They have been here many times before, because Wei Ying is obsessed with their garlic chicken wings.
“Did you know you can get garlic frog’s legs instead?” his mother teases. “Is my A-Ying brave enough to try them?”
Wei Ying scrunches his nose up, but he considers the question seriously. “You’d eat a frog?” he asks her.
“I will if you will,” she replies, eyes twinkling.
Wei Ying wavers momentarily before deciding against it.
“Maybe next time,” he says, hoping she won’t see him as any less brave. “I really want chicken wings.”
“Okay, hu zi,” she says with a laugh. “Chicken wings it is.”
They demolish half the chicken wings and share a plate of Beef Luc Lac with an egg on rice. They always pack up what they can’t finish and eat the rest for lunch the next day. Wei Ying slips his hand into his mother’s and they begin the walk home, taking their time in the lingering evening light.
“Does Baba come home tomorrow?” Wei Ying wants to know.
“Yes,” his mother says. “Are you excited to see him?”
“Yeah!” Wei Ying cries, skipping a little and swinging their arms back and forth. “I want to play soccer with him!”
“I’m sure he’ll play with you,” she assures him, letting her arm sway, letting Wei Ying set the pace.
“Can we go to the bakery tomorrow?” Wei Ying asks hopefully.
“Of course!” his mother smiles. “We have to get your Baba his apple tarts.”
“Me too!” Wei Ying exclaims. “I get some, too!”
His mother laughs, unrestrained and joyful.
“Of course you do, hai zi. Of course you do.”
The next morning is clear and sunny, and Wei Ying wakes to the sound of someone coughing. He makes his way into his mother’s room to find her crouching over the toilet in the bathroom.
“Mama?” he tries, and she startles, turning her pale face to look at him.
“A-Ying, what is it?” she asks. “Did Mama wake you up?”
“Are you sick?” Wei Ying wants to know.
“Just a little, don’t worry. Do you need breakfast, hai zi?”
Wei Ying nods, a little uncertain. She does look very pale.
“There are some noodles from two nights ago, let Mama heat them up for you. Maybe with an egg?” she offers.
He nods again, trailing after her into the kitchen.
“Can I watch?” he asks, already moving a chair toward the stove.
“Of course you can,” she says with a smile, popping the noodles into the microwave before retrieving an egg from the fridge.
Wei Ying climbs up on the chair and watches as his mother cracks the egg into the oiled pan, watches as the egg white goes from transparent to opaque. The microwave dings just in time, before the egg yolk begins to set, and his mother scoops it up to place it on top of his noodles.
“Go sit at the table,” she urges him, and Wei Ying clambers eagerly into his seat, accepting the chopsticks his mother passes into his hands. He pokes the egg yolk and watches it run in brilliant yellow rivulets over the flat planes of the rice noodles.
“You’re a good boy, A-Ying,” his mother says, voice thick with affection. She strokes his hair back from his forehead as he eats. “My good boy.”
“Are we going to the bakery today?” Wei Ying asks, mouth full of noodles.
“Later,” she promises. “Mama has a really bad headache, so the bakery will have to wait a few hours. You’ll let Mama go back to bed for a while, won’t you, hai zi?”
“Mn!” Wei Ying affirms. “I can play by myself.”
“Thank you, A-Ying,” his mother smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners.
He finishes his breakfast then goes to get changed. His mother helps him put on his jacket, zipping him up and giving his nose a tweak.
“What are the rules?” she asks him.
“Don’t go beyond the fence. No playing on the sidewalk or the street,” he recites for her.
“Good boy,” his mother says, ruffling his hair one more time. “Go play. Mama will see you at lunch.”
He grabs his soccer ball and heads out the front door, exploding into the small outdoor space provided for the ground floor units. It’s not much, but it’s enough for a five-year-old to spend hours kicking a ball back and forth, and when he tires of that, there is a little patch of dirt that is Wei Ying’s ‘garden’ that needs tending to.
His mother has given him free rein of the space, saying he can plant anything that he wants. They have a small tomato garden, a mint bush, and a lavender plant that’s languishing for lack of sunlight. Wei Ying’s garden is constantly being dug up and remade. He plants everything from rocks (hoping that they’ll multiply), to sticks (hoping they will turn into trees), and the occasional toy soldier that he’ll dig up the next day and declare that he’s made a zombie.
He waters the rocks and digs up the soldier, only to rebury him some minutes later, deciding in the end that he’s not ready to be a zombie yet. He dusts his hands off as his stomach growls. It must be lunchtime, he reasons, suddenly hungry.
He gathers up his soccer ball and goes back inside, struggling out of his velcro shoes and heading straight to the bathroom to wash his hands. He moves his little stool in front of the sink and climbs up to turn on the tap, scrubbing his hands together under the steady stream of water. It’s so quiet, he thinks, turning off the tap, and then he pads down the hall toward his mother’s bedroom.
His mother is still in bed. She lies perfectly still, eyes closed and face slack, one arm stretched out toward the edge of the bed. Her palm faces upward, her fingers slightly curled, as if she is waiting for someone to hold her hand.
“Mama,” Wei Ying whispers. “Mama, it’s time for lunch.”
She does not stir.
Wei Ying hesitates, reluctant to wake her. She had looked so sick this morning. She needs her rest, he reasons. He is a big boy. He can take care of himself.
He makes his way into the kitchen and opens the fridge to take out the leftovers from last night. He cannot reach the microwave even with a chair, so he opts to eat it cold, instead. The chicken wings are just as good cold as hot, he decides, but cold, hard rice is not very good. He picks at the beef, carefully portioning everything in half. He eats only his share, making sure to leave the best pieces for his mother.
He sits and swings his legs back and forth, absently gnawing on a chicken bone, watching the play of sunlight on the leaves of their money plant where it sits on the coffee table near the window. He wonders when his father will be home.
Still, his mother does not come to lunch.
He heads back into her room and creeps around to her side of the bed.
She has not moved.
He listens, but there’s nothing to hear. He looks, but there’s no movement to see. He touches, but her hand is cold, so cold, not like it usually is, warm and soft and safely clasped around his fingers.
“Mama,” he whispers. “Mama. Wake up.”
She cannot answer him.
His lip quivers, but he bites it down. He’s a big boy, he tells himself. A good boy. His Mama’s good boy.
His father will be home soon. His father will know what to do.
Wei Ying curls up on the floor against his mother’s bed, beneath her outstretched hand.
And he waits.
“Let’s get you set up, shall we?”
Jiang Yanli clears away the last of the miscellaneous clutter and places a rolling pin, two baking sheets, and a couple of tea towels on the table.
“I’ve made two fillings this year,” she is saying. “The usual pork and chive, and a cabbage and mushroom mix, since Wei Ying tells me you don’t eat meat, Lan Zhan.”
“I eat it occasionally,” Lan Zhan assures her. “I am not truly vegetarian. It is merely a preference.”
“Oh, well, in that case, I’m still glad you’ll have the option,” Jiang Yanli smiles. “We’re rather carnivorous in this household, but there will be plenty of vegetables on hand for you to enjoy.”
“I am looking forward to it,” he tells her seriously. He means to try a little of everything tonight; Wei Ying has raised his expectations and piqued his curiosity.
“I hope Wei Ying hasn’t gotten you too excited,” Jiang Yanli says, as if she could read his mind. “It’s simple fare, just some old family recipes I’ve tweaked to make my own, but we get by every year.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Jiejie,” Wei Ying chides her, bringing over a bowl of water, a roll of paper towels, and two pairs of spoons that he drops on the table. “I’ve already told him you’re the best cook this side of the Pacific, so he’s in the know already.”
“Flatterer,” she says, swatting at his shoulder. “Get folding. I’ve got to drain the chicken and then prep all the mushrooms before I deal with the beef for the noodles.”
“Yes Ma’am!” Wei Ying chirps, taking a seat at the table and pulling Lan Zhan down into the chair next to him. “Lan Zhan, you can do the vegetable ones so that you don’t have to touch the raw meat.”
“I am not opposed to it,” Lan Zhan says. “But thank you for the consideration.”
“Oh, wait, let’s take care of the wrappers first,” Wei Ying says, jumping up and darting over to where a bowl covered with a damp cloth is sitting on the counter. “Can’t fold dumplings without wrappers, silly,” he chides himself.
Lan Zhan watches him, a familiar warmth suffusing his chest. Wei Ying is clearly excited, eager to share this experience with him, and Lan Zhan is deeply touched. Wei Ying is a bundle of barely contained energy tonight, vibrating with even more than his usual exuberance, but there is also something tentative about his movements, something new and timid in the way that Wei Ying glances at him from beneath his lowered lashes. It stokes something protective in Lan Zhan, a need to be soft and gentle that he feels with no one else.
Wei Ying sprinkles some flour across the table in front of Lan Zhan and hands him the rolling pin.
“Here,” Wei Ying is saying. “I’ll portion them out and you can roll them flat, okay?”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies, accepting the rolling pin. “How thin would you like them?”
“Pretty thin,” Wei Ying says, indicating a minuscule space between his thumb and forefinger. “You’ll know when they look right.”
“Will I?” Lan Zhan asks, slightly amused. “I am not the expert that you are.”
“Want me to do one first?” Wei Ying offers, that uncharacteristic shyness back in his voice.
“Please,” Lan Zhan replies, folding his hands in his lap in order to give Wei Ying his full attention. It’s not hard; Wei Ying always has his full attention.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, placing a small, tablespoon-sized disc of dough on the floured table.
Lan Zhan watches as he carefully rolls the dough out in one direction, then another, shaping it into a small, thin circle, not quite translucent.
“Here,” Wei Ying says, scooping up the finished wrapper. “Put out your hand.”
Lan Zhan obediently extends his hand, and Wei Ying drops the wrapper into his outstretched palm. Lan Zhan hefts it experimentally. It’s cool, and light, and silky soft to the touch.
“They should feel like that,” Wei Ying says, smiling sweetly at him. “Just a little thicker in the middle than the edges. Think you can handle that, Lan Zhan?” he teases.
“I believe I can manage,” Lan Zhan says, heart quickening at that smile.
“Good,” Wei Ying grins. “Just stack them over there when you’re done, underneath the wet paper towel.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan confirms, taking up the rolling pin and waiting expectantly for Wei Ying to hand him the next disc of dough.
They establish something of a rhythm, Wei Ying adding three new pieces to the pile for every wrapper Lan Zhan rolls out, Wei Ying chattering happily the whole time. Lan Zhan lets him talk, content to offer only confirmations that he is listening (because he is), intent on the task at hand.
“Jiang Cheng says I’m basic, but I really do love a simple pork and chive dumpling,” Wei Ying is saying, adding the last of the dough sections to the pile. “He likes chicken and mushrooms, or the pork and fish ones. What’s your favourite filling, Lan Zhan? You’re from Shanghai, which is like, the dumpling capital of the world, so I hope these ones pass muster,” he says.
“I prefer pork and ji cai,” Lan Zhan replies, smoothing out the edge of a wrapper. “Very much basic, as you say. My Uncle makes them heavier on the ji cai than the pork.”
“Your uncle makes dumplings?” Wei Ying asks, his brows raised in surprise.
“Not so much anymore,” Lan Zhan replies. “But when I was a child, he cooked for us quite often.”
“That must have been nice,” Wei Ying smiles. “Homecooked really is the best.”
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan agrees. “We always went out for New Year, but I enjoyed his cooking at home just as much, if not more, than the elevated cuisine on offer at the restaurants.” Lan Zhan adds the final wrapper to the finished pile and dusts his hands off. “I have missed family dinners,” he confesses. “Thank you again for inviting me.”
Wei Ying flushes a delightful pink, just a light dusting of colour across his nose and cheeks. Lan Zhan finds it perfectly charming.
“Of course,” Wei Ying says, averting his eyes momentarily. When he looks back up, he looks shy again, almost plaintive. “I really hope you like the food.”
“I am sure I will,” Lan Zhan says with conviction. Even just the smell of the prepared ingredients, the fresh aromatics, and the marinating sauces has triggered a powerful sense memory of meals gone past, and Lan Zhan is very much looking forward to sharing this reunion dinner with Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan would share everything with Wei Ying, if he could.
He quashes the thought as quickly as it comes to him, reminding himself for the millionth time that Wei Ying is not his for the taking, no matter how much Lan Zhan wishes to claim him. There’s something about Wei Ying that calls to him, that makes him feel possessive and protective. It’s almost territorial, this need to have Wei Ying close, to not lose sight of him, to reel him in and offer him the pieces of himself that Lan Zhan offers to no one else.
But Wei Ying always dances away from him, a perpetual tease. He is at once so open and honest that it hurts Lan Zhan to see him so exposed, and so elusive that six years of friendship has yet to scale the walls that Wei Ying puts up to protect himself. Lan Zhan has had glimpses of what lies beyond them, an excruciating exchange of trust that he cherishes more than his own life, but Lan Zhan wants more. He wants in. He wants all of it.
He wants to be the one Wei Ying trusts to keep it all safe.
He must be patient, Lan Zhan tells himself. He learned a long time ago that love cannot be forced or caged. Wei Ying will come to him freely, or he will not come at all. Lan Zhan will never push him.
“Here,” Wei Ying says, offering him a spoon. “For the filling,” he says.
Lan Zhan accepts the utensil, distracted by the streak of flour across Wei Ying’s cheek. Before he can stop himself, Lan Zhan reaches out to brush it away, his thumb ghosting over the delicate skin under Wei Ying’s left eye. Wei Ying freezes, his eyes going wide, crimson blossoming across his face. Lan Zhan lets his hand linger for one brief, self-indulgent moment before dropping it gently to the table.
“Will you show me how you fold them?” he asks softly.
Wei Ying blinks, slightly startled, before averting his eyes and stuttering out a response.
“Sure,” Wei Ying almost squeaks, and Lan Zhan’s heart clenches with a sharp pang of affection. It’s in these moments of discomposure, these small cracks in Wei Ying’s confident exterior, that Lan Zhan finds the most hope.
“How’s it going over there?” Jiang Yanli asks, peering across the counter to their makeshift workstation at the table. She’s finished with the chicken for now, its perfectly poached white skin glistening under the stove light where she’s placed it on a plate to drain.
“Great!” Wei Ying replies, perhaps a touch too loudly. “Just starting to fold now.”
Lan Zhan waits patiently for Wei Ying to get himself settled again, the flush from earlier not quite faded. He peels a couple of wrappers off the pile and drops one in front of Lan Zhan.
“Start like this,” Wei Ying says, dipping a finger into the bowl of water that sits between them. He draws a wet half-circle around the edge of the wrapper, just enough to get it damp. “Just a little,” he says. “You don’t want to get the filling wet, just make the wrapper sticky.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, more focused on Wei Ying’s face than his hands, distracted, not for the first time, by the mole just under Wei Ying’s lip. He drags his gaze down Wei Ying’s throat, watches his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows.
“Just a scoop of filling,” Wei Ying continues, spooning a small dab of the pork and chive mixture onto the wrapper in his hand.
Lan Zhan forces his eyes to focus on Wei Ying’s fingers.
“Fold it in half and press it together at the top, like this,” Wei Ying says, carefully pinching the edges of the wrapper together. “Then you just pleat it toward the middle, like this,” he continues, his fingers deftly working a fold into one side of the wrapper before pinching it into the opposite side. “Two on each side—or more, if you’re a pro like me,” he quips. “The more folds it has, the fancier it looks.”
Lan Zhan watches indulgently as Wei Ying completes the first dumpling and presents it to him with a flourish. It’s neat and tidy work, the dumpling perfectly curved like a half-moon where it rests in Wei Ying’s hand.
“I see,” Lan Zhan says gravely, carefully picking up the dumpling and not so absently noticing the small shiver that passes through Wei Ying as Lan Zhan’s fingertips graze his palm. He makes a show of inspecting the finished product before looking up to meet Wei Ying’s expectant stare.
“Very professional looking,” Lan Zhan declares, and Wei Ying rewards him with a brilliant smile and an easy, musical laugh.
“I’m glad you think so, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. “We’d better get moving, though. This recipe makes like 150 dumplings, and we have two batches of filling to get through!”
“I cut back a little on the proportions, don’t worry,” Jiang Yanli tells them from where she is chopping mushrooms at the counter. “I didn’t want you to be folding for the rest of your lives, you know.”
Wei Ying laughs again, and Lan Zhan relishes the sound. What he wouldn’t give to hear that laugh every day, he thinks.
“Would be worth it, if it meant more to take home at the end of the night,” Wei Ying says with a grin, picking up another wrapper and scooping in the filling. “Come on, Lan Zhan, I’ll race you!”
“Hey now,” Jiang Yanli warns. “Lan Zhan is a guest. Don’t pressure him.”
“Okay fine,” Wei Ying relents, but he winks at Lan Zhan as he places his second dumpling next to the first on one of the nearby baking sheets.
Lan Zhan watches him repeat the process one more time before taking up his own spoon and digging into the cabbage and mushroom mixture. The scent of sesame oil and white pepper wafts up to meet him as he places a careful teaspoon of filling in the middle of his wrapper.
“You can use a little more than that,” Wei Ying says, voice encouraging, and Lan Zhan dutifully adds a bit more filling to his dumpling.
Lan Zhan tries to be meticulous in everything that he does, and folding dumplings is no exception to this rule. He painstakingly pleats an equal number of folds into each side, taking care to squeeze them airtight. When he’s finished, he examines his work with a critical eye. It’s not quite as good as Wei Ying’s, he decides. He wonders how many dumplings Wei Ying has folded over the years. He imagines Wei Ying learning under the careful guidance of his sister, his fingers learning the feel and the weight of each ingredient.
He glances over at Wei Ying just in time to catch Wei Ying watching him, and Wei Ying smiles sheepishly as Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow at him. Lan Zhan extends his hand and offers Wei Ying the dumpling for inspection.
“Will it do?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Of course it will!” Wei Ying declares, taking it out of Lan Zhan’s hand and hefting it in his own. “Lan Zhan, it looks great! How come you’re so perfect at everything?” he teases.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan rebuffs him, but he is pleased by the praise, even if it is more a flirtation than anything.
“Well,” Wei Ying says as he reaches over to place it on the second baking sheet. “I think it’s perfect, in any case. You said you’ve made jiaozi before, right?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan confirms. “But we did not fold them like this.”
“How did you do it?” Wei Ying asks. “Show me!”
“It is very simple,” Lan Zhan explains, retrieving another wrapper and scooping in the filling. “You simply hold it here, with both hands like so,” he says, settling each side between his thumbs and index fingers. “Then you press it together and forward at the same time.” He squeezes both sides together while pushing the dough inward to meet at the centre. He offers Wei Ying the end result, a plump half-moon with a single pleat in the middle.
“I suspect Uncle found this method much faster, as he was often pressed for time,” Lan Zhan says as Wei Ying inspects his work. “It was also easier to teach us when we were young.”
“Do you want to fold the rest like that?” Wei Ying asks, his eyes huge and earnest.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “I am happy to do it your way, Wei Ying.”
“Are you sure?” Wei Ying presses. “Your way is much faster.”
“I am sure,” Lan Zhan avers. “I would rather take my time. With you,” he adds, gratified by Wei Ying’s slight flush. “It would not do to completely outpace you.”
Wei Ying laughs at that, swatting playfully at Lan Zhan with one flour-dusted hand.
“Who’s outpacing who?” Wei Ying scoffs. “I’ve got six to your one, Lan Zhan. Better get on with it!”
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan intones solemnly, and Wei Ying laughs again at his severity.
It really is the sweetest sound that Lan Zhan’s ever heard.
Divorce is not a word that Lan Zhan really understands. As it has been explained to him, it’s supposed to mean that your parents are no longer married. When you’re no longer married, you no longer live together. Lan Zhan no longer lives with his parents, but he is not divorced from them. Lan Zhan lives with his uncle, who is not married to anyone. Lan Zhan is five, and he hasn’t seen his father in months.
He hasn’t seen his mother in over a year.
That’s where they are going, his uncle tells him. To see his mother in a place called Vancouver. That’s where she lives now, his uncle says. Lan Zhan and his brother will spend the summer there. They are to be on their best behaviour. They are to mind what she says.
Uncle will not be staying with them.
Lan Zhan watches the clouds pass by outside the plane’s window, but he’s not really seeing them. He’s trying to remember her.
She’s elusive; he can’t quite picture her face or hear the sound of her voice. His brother says Lan Zhan had cried for weeks after she’d left, but now he cannot see her in his mind’s eye. Does she remember him, he wonders? Why does she suddenly want him now, when she did not want him a year ago? His father doesn’t want him, either. Not anymore. Had he ever been wanted? Lan Zhan doesn’t know.
Vancouver is grey and cloudy and slightly damp when they land. The air smells very different from Shanghai, a hint of green things growing. It’s not as hot, not as noisy, and Lan Zhan wonders at the way people don’t seem to hurry as much. His Uncle still hurries, though, manoeuvring Lan Zhan and his brother swiftly into the line of people waiting for a taxi. Lan Huan is holding his hand, and Lan Zhan flexes his fingers in his brother’s hold, earning a reassuring squeeze in return.
Lan Huan remembers her. He tells Lan Zhan not to worry.
“Mama is kind,” Lan Huan says. “She loves us, A-Zhan.” He says it with such certainty, but Lan Zhan is hesitant to believe him. He remembers his grandfather’s angry tirades, his father’s defeated face, broken and soulless. She’d left them all.
But Grandfather is gone now. Father has left. Uncle is the only one who stayed, steadfast and severe, a constant, reassuring presence in Lan Zhan’s life.
His uncle stands stiffly outside the taxi as the driver unloads their luggage in front of a nondescript apartment building. Lan Zhan sits inside the car, craning his neck to try and see past Lan Huan, but his brother is blocking most of the window. It’s another moment before his uncle opens the door for them, and Lan Zhan clambers out after his brother into the fresh, warm air. The rain has stopped, and the sun is trying its best to cut through the thick, grey layer of clouds.
A woman in a light blue dress is standing outside the large double doors to the building. Her hair is black, long and thick, cascading around her shoulders all the way down to her waist. Her eyes are wide and soft, large for her face, and they are shimmering with something like tears. Her mouth is stretched into a tentative smile, her lips quavering slightly with the effort. Her hands are clasped tightly together in front of her, almost as if she is praying, but she forces them apart as she approaches, her long, slender fingers uncurling in welcome.
Lan Zhan does not recognize her.
He grabs for his uncle’s hand, scooting behind his uncle’s legs as he does so. The woman falters in her approach, coming to a stop a few metres away. Lan Zhan eyes her warily, conscious of the way his brother is also hesitating on the other side of his uncle.
“Lan Qiren,” the woman says, her voice heavy, steady despite the tremor in her lips. “Thank you for bringing them to me.”
“Mn,” his uncle nods fractionally, offering nothing more.
She swallows thickly before continuing. “I know this must be difficult for you.”
“It is what is right,” his uncle says briskly. “You are their mother. They deserve to know you.”
“Thank you,” she says, her voice cracking slightly. “I’m beyond grateful, you know. I can’t possibly repay this kindness.”
“You can, and you will,” his uncle says, tone sharp. “You will be good and kind to them,” he stresses. “That will be enough.”
“I promise,” she breathes out. “I promise I will be.”
“I know,” his uncle says gravely, sounding tired for the first time in nearly 14 hours of travel. “You always were, you know.”
A single tear escapes, tracking down her cheek until she swipes it hastily away.
“You’re sure you won’t come in?” she asks, her voice lighter than before.
His uncle shakes his head, glancing briefly at his watch. “I should proceed to my hotel,” he says. “I will leave them with you. Boys,” his uncle calls in his unmistakable tone of authority, and Lan Zhan inches forward, reluctantly letting go of his uncle’s hand as he comes to stand in front of him, Lan Huan at his side. His uncle looks sternly down at them, his brow furrowed and his gaze severe.
“You will be good for your mother. You will listen to her and you will do what she says. Her word is the law. If I hear tell of any misbehaviour, you will be punished when we return home. Is that understood?” he asks.
“Yes, Uncle,” they both echo.
“Good,” he says, satisfied with their response. “Go with her now,” he prompts them.
Lan Huan dutifully wheels his small suitcase toward her, smiling shyly as he goes, but Lan Zhan hesitates, rooted to the spot and unwilling to move. He watches as she extends a hand to his brother, lightly settling it on his shoulder as he arrives at her side. Her gaze is wet, but her lips are no longer quivering; her smile is unshakeable.
“A-Zhan,” his uncle snaps. “Go to your mother.”
“A-Zhan,” his mother calls. “Come here, bao bao. It’s okay, I promise. It’s me, it’s Mama.”
“It’s okay, A-Zhan!” Lan Huan enthuses. “Come on, it’s Mama!”
Lan Zhan takes one tentative step, then another. He glances back at his uncle, but his uncle’s glare is final and unforgiving. He must move forward. He swallows down his trepidation and moves with his suitcase toward his brother, ducking his head away from his mother’s outstretched hand. He notes the way her eyes shimmer, the way her smile tilts a little to the side at his avoidance. Lan Huan darts forward to grab his hand, and Lan Zhan lets himself be led inside. He tries one more time to look back, but his uncle has already returned to the cab, and the only thing Lan Zhan sees is a glimpse of yellow as the car departs and the door falls shut behind them.
The first week is tense. Lan Zhan remains wary; he is surrounded by new sounds and smells, and adjusting is hard for him. Every day starts with unfamiliar breakfast food, and it’s a battle to get through the meal. His mother tries to ply him with all manner of fresh fruit, crispy toast with a generous smearing of butter, crunchy granola with yogurt and honey, but Lan Zhan remains implacable, refusing everything after a few minuscule bites. He recoils from cold cereal and shies away from bagels with cream cheese or jam.
His mother sighs, and Lan Huan tries his best to encourage her.
“It’s really good, Mama,” Lan Huan says, digging into his instant oatmeal with applesauce. Lan Zhan’s portion remains untouched, growing cold and pasty.
“What do you like, A-Zhan? What can Mama get for you?” she asks, smiling softly, wistfully. “What do you like to eat at home?”
The truth is, Lan Zhan is a horribly picky eater, especially in the mornings, when he mostly has no appetite. No matter what it is, breakfast makes him queasy, and it’s all his uncle can do to force a spoonful or two of watery congee down his throat to start the day. He is not being difficult on purpose; he tries so hard to be good, he wants to be a good boy, but his palate is overly sensitive, and his stomach is perpetually jumpy.
Lunch is easier, but it is still a struggle. Lan Zhan glares balefully at the selection of finger foods on offer today. Vegetables and fruit with almond butter for dipping; crackers and cheese and some pale-looking lunch meat. He pokes a finger into the almond butter and gingerly tries it out. It’s not terrible, he decides, but it’s not what he’s used to, and suddenly Lan Zhan misses his home and his uncle with such overwhelming force that he tears up.
“Oh, bao bao,” his mother sighs, her voice all patience and sympathy. “My poor bao bao. Let Mama get you something else.”
She opens the fridge and rummages around, retrieving some leftover rice and snagging an egg from the carton on the lower shelf. She puts the rice in the microwave on high for two minutes; it emerges rippling steam, the bowl too hot to touch, so she removes it with a towel and places it on the counter. She cracks the egg over the scalding hot rice and stirs it in with chopsticks, the yolk running thick and yellow in between the grains, cooking as she mixes. She adds a few drops of soy sauce on top, then carefully places the bowl in front of Lan Zhan.
“Careful,” she cautions him, offering him a spoon. “It’s very hot.”
Lan Zhan dutifully accepts the spoon and scoops up a smidgen of rice, blowing on it diligently for a few moments before placing it carefully in his mouth. He chews slowly, thoughtfully, pleased with the way it feels on his teeth and tongue. The taste is mild, just a touch salty, savoury and warm and familiar. Lan Zhan takes another bite, bigger this time, and when he swallows and looks up, his mother is beaming at him, her eyes shimmering in the afternoon sunlight.
“Is it okay?” she asks, voice hopeful, gentle.
“Mn,” he says, ducking his head and taking another bite. His stomach comes to life, growling for the first time in days, but Lan Zhan eats slowly, carefully, savouring each methodical mouthful. His stomach is still a little unsettled. His mother smiles, her hands clasped gently in front of her on the table, and Lan Zhan eats, quiet and uninterrupted under her warm, soft gaze.
He eats the same thing every day for a week. Sometimes he allows for a small drizzle of sesame oil, but he turns away a sprinkling of green onions. His mother never pushes him. She never makes him eat faster than he wants to, and she never insists that he finish all the meat and vegetables she fishes out of the takeout container for him at dinner. Her patience is inexhaustible, it seems, and Lan Zhan’s stomach cautiously starts to unwind.
It’s some time during their second week in Vancouver that Lan Zhan’s mother takes them out for the day.
“Let’s go on an adventure,” she says, adjusting a ball cap on Lan Zhan’s head as Lan Huan proudly ties his own shoelaces. “Let’s go into Chinatown for something that isn’t your English school, shall we?”
The boys are taking English lessons at the behest of their uncle. Their mother tells them that is part of the agreement, that they must attend classes while they live with her. English is strange and heavy on Lan Zhan’s tongue, flat and toneless to his ears, but he does his best, and he learns quickly. He will be good at this, at least.
It’s a few buses to get into Chinatown from where their mother lives, and Lan Zhan dutifully holds his brother’s hand while Lan Huan holds on to their mother’s. Chinatown is not as packed with people as Shanghai, not as loud and fast, but the shops smell familiar, and Lan Zhan catches snippets of Mandarin peppered in amongst the powerful, sing-song tones of Cantonese. He holds tight to Lan Huan as they make their way through the markets, taking two steps to his brother’s one.
They spend the better part of the day at the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, and Lan Zhan flourishes in the quiet shadow of the willow trees, swaying with the towering stalks of bamboo. He chases the water skeeters across the surface of the koi pond with his eyes, and he watches the flash of fish as they swim by under the brilliant white blooms of the lotus flowers.
His mother points out the fan-shaped leaves on the Gingko trees, telling him how they will turn a bright, golden yellow in the fall.
“Can I see it?” he asks.
“You’ll be gone back home by then,” she says. “But Mama will send you a picture, I promise.”
Lan Zhan frowns, not completely satisfied, but his mother just laughs and directs him on to the scavenger hunt. He has to find and list all the animals in the garden; there are live ones, like the koi, and symbolic ones, like the bats on the door handles, or the giant standing stone that looks like a horse’s head. His mother tells him that the roof of the pavilion looks like a phoenix, with a beautiful blooming tail sweeping up to the heavens, and that the stones lining the path are fashioned after turtle shells. He will have a long life if he steps on them.
When it’s mid-afternoon, their mother takes them to New Town Bakery, ushering them past the counter service baked goods and into the restaurant at the back. They are seated in a booth, and Lan Zhan’s legs dangle off the bench next to his brother as his mother peruses the menu. The noise in the café is a low hum, and the aromas from the bakery are deliciously enticing, but Lan Zhan’s stomach twists in anticipation. What if everything is too spicy?
His mother orders for the table. There are massive zhaliang, the crispy golden youtiao surrounded by sticky rice noodles and dusted with pork floss. There is pan-fried lo bak go, a seafood and tofu noodle soup, and a plate of gai lan sautéed with garlic. His mother carefully portions out bits of the soup for him, making sure to give him all the best pieces of seafood, and Lan Huan kindly trades out his scallop for Lan Zhan’s squid (too rubbery). Lan Zhan nibbles at everything, content with the mild soup and the delightfully chewy zhaliang.
When the leftovers are stored away and the plates are cleared, their mother places one last order for apple tarts and milk tea. The three mugs are dropped unceremoniously on the table, close to overflowing, and Lan Zhan’s mother carefully ladles two small teaspoons of sugar into each of them. She lets them stir their own cups, cautioning them to wait a bit before sipping.
“It’s hot, loves,” she says, blowing on her own tea to demonstrate. “Give it a moment for it to cool off.”
Lan Zhan waits patiently, and Lan Huan copies their mother, blowing gently across the top of the cup, just enough to make the surface of the malt-brown liquid ripple.
“Mama loves this tea,” she says, taking a delicate sip. “Did you know, A-Zhan, when you were very little, you used to try and drink Mama’s tea?”
Lan Zhan blinks at her, shaking his head. He remembers no such thing.
“I used to give you little tiny sips once it got cold,” she says, her voice impossibly fond. “You just slurped it right up!”
Lan Zhan frowns at her. Slurping is rude.
“How did you like today?” she asks them, eyes bright and hopeful. “Did you enjoy the garden?”
“Mn!” Lan Huan enthuses. “I liked the fish!”
“And what about you, A-Zhan? What did you like?”
“The water skeeters,” Lan Zhan says quietly. He likes the way they move, zipping and skipping across the surface of the water, there one second and gone the next.
His mother smiles at his answer, and it’s like the sunlight over the koi pond.
“Of course,” she says sweetly, eyes twinkling. “Skittish little things, aren’t they? Did you know,” she says conspiratorially, “how they manage to walk on water?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head.
“They have tiny little hairs all over their legs,” she says. “And each hair is shaped like a tent, so it traps the air and keeps the strider afloat, even in a rainstorm.”
“Do they have to learn how to float?” Lan Huan asks. “Or are they born already knowing?”
“Hmm,” their mother muses, thoughtfully tapping the side of her cup. “I think they probably know, but some skeeters are braver than others. It’s scary out there on the water. Except with they have their Mama with them,” she winks at Lan Zhan. “Because Mamas will make sure they don’t sink. You can always trust your Mama.”
Lan Huan nods sagely. Lan Zhan looks dubiously at his tea.
Just then, the apple tarts arrive at the table, and their mother carefully places one in front of each of them. They are unexceptional looking, round little domes of puff pastry with a lightly sugared crust.
“These are my favourite,” she tells them, breaking hers in half so they can look at the golden apple filling inside. “I hope you boys like them, too.”
“Can I eat the whole thing?” Lan Huan asks excitedly.
“Of course you can,” their mother says indulgently. “Did you like the food today?”
“Mmhm!” Lan Huan hums in affirmation, his mouth full of apple tart.
Lan Zhan allows himself a small nod. It’s the most he’s eaten in days.
“I’m so glad,” his mother sighs, relief evident in the slope of her shoulders. “I know that Mama is not the best cook, and I’m sorry we can’t eat like this every day, but what if we go out a couple of times per week? Would you boys like that?”
“Yes please!” Lan Huan crows, bouncing excitedly in his seat.
She looks at Lan Zhan expectantly.
“Okay,” Lan Zhan agrees after a moment.
His mother makes an aborted movement across the table, stopping herself and drawing back instead of touching him. To his own surprise, Lan Zhan feels a touch of disappointment.
“Okay,” his mother agrees. “You can pick the restaurant if you want, bao bao.”
“I don’t know any restaurants,” Lan Zhan tells her. He pauses, then corrects himself. “Just this one.”
“Well, that’s a good start, isn’t it?” she asks. “Why don’t you try your apple tart? Here, let Mama help,” she says, and she reaches across to cut the pastry into quarters.
“There,” she says. “Try a little bit. If you don’t like it, you can wash away the taste with your tea.”
“I’ll eat it if you don’t want it, A-Zhan,” his brother offers magnanimously.
That’s enough to make Lan Zhan suspicious, so he pops the nearest slice of apple tart into his mouth.
The pastry is light and flaky, with a faint crunch of sugar, and it gives way like a whisper between his teeth. The filling is warm and tender and not too sweet, no sickly trail of syrup escaping onto his tongue. He can feel his eyes go wide in surprise. It might be the best thing he’s ever tasted.
His mother laughs at his startled expression, reaching out with a napkin to dab at the side of his mouth where a hint of apple has escaped.
“Is it good?” she asks.
“Mn,” he confirms, swallowing his mouthful and reaching for a second piece. It’s just as delicious as the first bite, and Lan Zhan savours it, chewing slowly. His brother sighs and slumps down in his seat. Clearly, he is not getting Lan Zhan’s share.
When he’s finally finished, his mother dabs his face again and urges him to drink his tea.
“It’s cool enough now, don’t worry,” she tells him.
Lan Zhan takes a tentative sip, holding the liquid in his mouth distrustfully for a moment before swallowing. It’s lukewarm by now, which means it’s safe to drink, so he takes a bigger sip this time, intrigued by the rich, malted flavour. It’s familiar somehow, this velvety slide of creamy liquid over his tongue. There’s a hint of something smoky there, some long-lost secret, and for a moment, Lan Zhan thinks he can hear his mother laughing, even as she sits silently across from him. Suddenly, he can smell her perfume as if he is cradled in the crook of her neck.
All at once, Lan Zhan feels a burst of heat blossoming in his chest. It travels down his arms and makes his fingers tingle. His face feels flushed with warmth, and he blinks back the sudden moisture in his eyes. For a moment, he’d felt almost suspended. For a moment, he’d felt safe.
It’s gone as quickly as it came, and Lan Zhan finds himself sitting in the bustling café, staring into his tea. His brother is laughing at something his mother said, chattering on about the flowers in the garden.
“What is it, bao bao?” his mother is saying. “Do you not like the tea? You don’t have to finish it if you don’t like it.”
“No!” Lan Zhan says defensively, draining the last of his cup in three greedy gulps, just in case someone is going to take it away from him. “I like it,” he declares.
“Okay, bao bao,” his mother laughs, and this time, she does reach out and pinch his cheek.
Lan Zhan lets her.
They pack up to go, collecting any leftovers, going to the washroom, retying shoelaces, and re-donning hats. They make it out the door and onto the sidewalk before their mother takes Lan Huan by the hand.
“Hang on to your brother, A-Huan,” she says.
But Lan Zhan refuses, scuttling around to his mother’s other side and slipping his hand into hers. They stand there for a moment, neither of them moving, locked in eye contact as Lan Huan glances curiously between them.
Lan Zhan will always remember his mother’s face at that moment. He’s never seen anyone cry happily before. It’s just a single tear, and her smile is so small, but somehow, it’s brighter than all her laughter ever has been.
“Come on,” she says softly. “Let’s go home.”
Summers in Vancouver are warm and wonderous and never long enough. Lan Zhan counts the days in trips to the beach and bike rides on the seawall; swimming at outdoor pools and feeding squirrels in the park. They make visits to the art gallery, to Science World, and Granville Island. Grouse Mountain and Lighthouse Park are favourite day trips, the boys never tiring of the lighthouse or the gondola. Their mother is an inexhaustible source of enthusiasm, encouraging them to roam and explore.
English lessons for Lan Zhan become easy and relaxed, the words taking shape in his heart and his mind, always ready to impress his mother. She showers him with praise and then switches back to Mandarin, pinching his cheek and calling him her serious little scholar. Lan Zhan is seven, and he is still very serious.
Food is no longer a struggle. The kitchen table is no longer a battlefield. Lan Zhan will never like spicy food, but his culinary horizons have broadened extensively, thanks in part to his mother’s lack of skill in the kitchen. Delivery and takeout are regular occurrences, and a sit-down meal at a restaurant happens at least twice a week, if not more.
The three of them explore the city, one meal at a time. Taiwanese noodle houses and Hong Kong Cafes on Cambie. Pho joints and vegetarian cuisine on Main. Ramen in the west end and ice cream in Kitsilano. Indian, Greek, Italian, and French. The options are endless, and Lan Zhan gets braver by the day, but he still likes simple flavours best.
His favourite meal of all, the one that he craves on long winter days back in Shanghai, is the meal he always eats at home. His mother is right; she is not a good cook. Her repertoire of anything not instant or ready-made doesn’t extend much farther than the egg rice she had tempted him with during their first weeks together. But her struggle to find something that Lan Zhan will eat for breakfast has yielded results, and now Lan Zhan starts off every day with a slice of melted cheese toast and a mug of Ovaltine.
It’s not much. It’s barely anything at all. A mix of cheddar and mozzarella melted over a thick slice of white, toasted bread. A large mug of Ovaltine made with milk, not water, stirred to perfection without any lumps. It doesn’t matter if the day is hot and getting hotter; Lan Zhan will always opt for the homey, warming breakfast.
In the evenings, they sit on the balcony in the dwindling evening light, feasting on lychees and talking about nothing until Lan Zhan starts to nod off in his seat. His mother carries him to bed, only to have him wake up three hours later, stunned and disoriented. On nights like this, she takes him into the kitchen and makes him cinnamon toast, the soft white bread slathered with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. They sit together at the kitchen table, Lan Zhan eating silently, the two of them ensconced together in the stillness of midnight. It’s like a secret for just the two of them, and Lan Zhan goes back to bed warm from the inside out.
They still go to New Town at least once a week, since it is so close to their English school. No matter what they have for lunch, Lan Zhan always gets milk tea and an apple tart for dessert. Lan Huan is more adventurous, willing to sample all the different pastries on offer at the bakery, but Lan Zhan cannot be persuaded to change his order. He likes what he likes, and his mother extols his steadiness of character.
One day, Lan Zhan is waiting by the door for his mother and his brother to return from the bathroom when a boy around his age gets called up to the counter. The boy hands in his paper number and places an order for apple tarts. But when it comes time to pay, the boy goes pale, rummaging around in his pockets for money that obviously isn’t there.
“I’m so sorry, Auntie, just give me a minute,” the boy is saying, groping around in his backpack. “I had it, I swear, it was just right here…”
“Oh dear,” says the lady behind the counter. “Are you sure you didn’t lose it?”
“I didn’t!” the boy cries, desperately upending his bag. A few textbooks fall out, but still no money. “I couldn’t have, I—” his face crumples, his search in vain. “I saved it so carefully.”
Silently Lan Zhan steps up to the counter and offers the lady a trio of five-dollar bills. It’s his allowance for the last three weeks; his mother allows them five dollars each week to spend or to save as they see fit, and Lan Zhan has been saving his. His mother lauds his thriftiness, promising to start him a bank account next summer.
The boy’s eyes are wide with surprise. He stands stock still, staring at Lan Zhan like he’s never seen another boy before, and Lan Zhan stares back, wondering at his own impulses, already second-guessing if he has done the right thing. But the boy comes back to life all in a rush, a flurry of waving hands and stammering protests.
“Oh, no, I can’t, I mean—l mean, I—I can’t take your money! I don’t know you!”
“It’s okay,” Lan Zhan assures him. “You can have it.”
“But that’s not fair!” the boy wails. “I have money, I just can’t find it!”
“It’s okay,” Lan Zhan says again. “I want to help.”
“Why?” the boy asks, genuinely stumped.
“I don’t know,” Lan Zhan admits. “I just want to.”
The boy stares at him again, blinking his big wide owl eyes and worrying his bottom lip between his teeth.
“Do you like apple tarts?” he suddenly asks.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “Do you?”
“I do!” says the boy. “They’re mine and my Baba’s favourite.”
“Mine too,” offers Lan Zhan. “I already had one today, so now you can have one too.”
The boy flushes crimson, and he twists his hands around the straps of his backpack.
“You’re sure?” he presses. “You’re really sure?”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. His Mama is always telling him it is good to do things for other people.
The smile the boy gives him causes something to flutter in Lan Zhan’s chest, like the beating of a moth’s wings, delicate and tremulous.
“I’ll pay you back,” the boy is saying. “I promise.”
“It’s okay,” Lan Zhan says again. He’ll probably never see this boy again, and that’s okay, he tells himself.
“Here is your change, young man,” the lady behind the counter says, passing Lan Zhan a handful of coins. “And here are your apple tarts, young master,” she says, presenting the boy with a carefully tied-up box. “See that you don’t eat them all before your father gets home.”
“I won’t!” vows the boy, turning toward Lan Zhan with that sweet, brilliant smile. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much!”
“You’re welcome,” Lan Zhan says, suddenly feeling flushed.
“What are you doing over there, bao bao?” his mother calls from the door, and Lan Zhan turns to see her and Lan Huan poised to exit the shop. “Time to go.”
“Yes, Mama,” Lan Zhan calls. “Goodbye,” he says gravely to the boy, and then he turns and walks to the door, taking his mother’s hand as they spill out onto the sidewalk.
“Who was that?” his mother asks.
“I don’t know,” Lan Zhan admits.
He hadn’t thought to ask.
“Okay, I think that’s it!” Jiang Yanli declares, dropping the last of the dishes onto the table and surveying her work.
“You’re amazing, Jiejie,” Wei Ying says, coming up behind her with the bottle of wine and a corkscrew. “You’re having a glass of wine with me, right?”
“I certainly am,” she says, untying her apron and heading over to hang it by the stove. “Just let me wash my hands and I’ll be right there. Do you need a hand, dear?” she calls to Jin Zixuan.
“No, no, I’ve got it,” Jin Zixuan replies, wrestling a squirming Jin Ling into his high chair. “Come on, little man,” he says. “Just cooperate with Baba for a minute here, then you get to eat all the delicious things.”
“Is it his first New Year?” Lan Zhan asks.
“It is,” Jin Zixuan confirms. “And thank goodness he’s just had a nap, so he won’t be impossibly cranky all through dinner.”
“Is he eating solid foods?” Lan Zhan wants to know.
“Oh, ages ago,” Jin Zixuan says. “He’s what, 8 months now?”
“Almost nine,” Jiang Yanli says, arriving back at the table, hands freshly washed.
“Babies can start teething at only four months,” Wei Ying offers while uncorking the wine. “So he’s full of sharp little teeth by now.”
“You make him sound like a shark,” Jiang Yanli chides, sliding into the chair next to Jin Ling and fastening his bib.
“Isn’t he?” Wei Ying laughs. “I should know. He spent months teething on my fingers. Lan Zhan, come here,” Wei Ying beckons. “Sit here,” he says, pulling out a chair opposite the baby and ushering Lan Zhan into it.
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says, endlessly polite.
“So, what do you think?” Wei Ying prompts as he fills his sister’s glass with wine. “Impressive, right?”
“Very,” Lan Zhan agrees, even as Jiang Yanli protests.
“A-Ying, really,” she says. “Hurry up and take your pictures instead of flattering me.”
“This is not flattery,” Lan Zhan says, deeply serious. “You have truly outdone yourself. I was not expecting anything half so lavish.”
“It’s nothing, really,” Jiang Yanli demurs, a delicate flush suffusing her cheeks. “We do this every year.”
“You do this every year, you mean,” Wei Ying says, dutifully snapping photos of the spread.
The round table is weighed down by massive amounts of piping hot food. There is a whole white cut chicken, poached to perfection, its pristine skin glistening under the dining room chandelier. Steam rises from a platter of lucky mushrooms where the round, sleek shiitake are mixed with cloud ear fungus, oyster mushrooms, and yellow bean curd sticks. A stack of lettuce is piled high on a plate, the pieces ready to be stuffed full of duck filling and drizzled with a chili-hoisin sauce. Long, uncut noodles with strips of tender beef are set to be devoured, and the giant yelloweye rockfish has been delicately steamed with slivers of ginger and dressed with a scattering of freshly sliced green onions.
The dumplings are heaped onto three different platters in deference to how they were cooked. Wei Ying has never been able to tell his sister which method is his favourite, so she insists on using all of them. The first batch is steamed, the skins left glossy and translucent. The second batch is pan-fried, the bottoms golden and caramelized. The dumplings on the third platter have been deep-fried, a true indulgence, the skins made bubbly and crispy and chewy all at once.
Lan Zhan had helped to cook them, much to Wei Ying’s delight. While he himself is banned from doing much else beyond stirring and scooping, Lan Zhan had been given free run of the stove, and he’d cooked two pans full to perfection before Jiang Yanli had shooed them both away, demanding the space so she could finish the last of the sauces. Wei Ying now has a picture of Lan Zhan in a pale pink apron, which Lan Zhan had patiently let him take, and Wei Ying is going to treasure it forever.
“Here you are, Lan Zhan,” Jiang Yanli says, passing over a bowl of ma lan tou and a plate of stir-fried pea tips with garlic sauce. “I made sure there were a few extra vegetable options on hand this year.”
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan says gravely, accepting the dishes just as Jin Zixuan drops off his bowl of rice.
Wei Ying can’t help snapping a couple of stealthy photos of Lan Zhan in between shots of the table, capturing a whole range of subtle emotions. Lan Zhan’s face is only unexpressive if you don’t know what to look for, and Wei Ying has made a careful study of Lan Zhan’s micro-expressions for the last six years. Right now, Lan Zhan is relaxed but engaged, reserved but curious, and Wei Ying can’t wait to see him actually eat something.
“The food tastes even better than it looks,” Wei Ying promises, putting his phone away in the pocket of his cardigan. “I really hope you like it.”
“I will,” Lan Zhan assures him, and Wei Ying smiles, trusting in Lan Zhan’s severe sincerity.
“Cheers,” Jin ZIxuan says, raising his beer. “Xin nian kuai le. And thank you for coming, Lan Zhan. A-Li really does thrive when she has more mouths to feed.”
“Thank you for having me,” Lan Zhan intones, acknowledging Jin ZIxuan with a deep nod.
“We’re sorry you can’t be with your own family, but we’re very happy you’re here,” Jiang Yanli tells him, and Wei Ying cannot help the sharp twinge that strikes in his chest at the words.
If only, he thinks.
“I am happy to be here,” Lan Zhan assures her. “This is far more extravagant than anything I would be served back home.”
Jiang Yanli laughs, clear like a silver bell. “I doubt that,” she says. “But thank you for saying so.”
“Shall we get started?” Jin Zixuan asks, and Wei Ying gently nudges Lan Zhan under the table with his foot.
Lan Zhan looks at him, a question in his eyes, and Wei Ying smiles at him, gesturing to the yelloweye where it sits on the table in front of him. He has seated Lan Zhan at the head of the fish.
Understanding quickly dawns, and Lan Zhan takes up his chopsticks. He carefully separates a section of fish from the bone and places it atop his rice. Jin Zixuan hums with approval before digging in himself, allocating a large piece to Jiang Yanli before picking out his own. For his part, Wei Ying scoops out the cheek meat and places it on Lan Zhan’s rice, smiling shyly as he does so. Lan Zhan holds his gaze for so long that Wei Ying thinks he might combust.
“I can’t wait to try these,” Jiang Yanli says, selecting a few of the pan-fried dumplings. “You two did such a good job!”
“You technically still made them all,” Wei Ying points out, piling one of each onto his plate. “So you already know they’re going to be good.”
“Don’t devalue your labour,” Jiang Yanli winks. “It’s an absolute lifesaver having you do all the assembly, and you know it. Dumplings are a team effort.”
“They really are,” Jin Zixuan agrees. “Sorry I wasn’t around to help you this year.”
“It’s alright, dear, I know work is busy,” Jiang Yanli says, snipping a steamed dumpling in half with her chopsticks and offering one side to Jin Ling.
The baby takes it with one chubby fist and begins to mouth at the filling. Wei Ying watches him fondly, expectantly, waiting to see how he’ll react to the flavour. Jin Ling’s brow is furrowed in concentration, licking the dumpling experimentally before taking a baby-sized chomp, his nose scrunched up with the effort.
“You like that, big guy?” Wei Ying asks. Jin Ling’s big dark eyes dart briefly over to Wei Ying, but soon he is preoccupied with his food again, mashing the inside of the dumpling into his mouth.
“He certainly likes the insides,” Jiang Yanli says, picking up the discarded dumpling skin. “You don’t want the wrapper?” she asks him, offering it up on her fingers.
Jin Ling considers the offering before leaning forward to slurp it into his mouth. He accepts the other half of the dumpling from his mother and proceeds to eat just the insides again, dropping the empty wrapper on his tray and reaching for his sippy cup.
“He appears to like them deconstructed,” Lan Zhan says in that deadly serious way of his, and Wei Ying laughs in agreement.
“Let him try the veggie ones, too,” Wei Ying prompts, eager to gauge Jin Ling’s reaction. “See if he’s as much of a carnivore as I am.”
“Did you not eat vegetables as a child?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Oh, no, I definitely ate them. Even if it was mostly to be rewarded with dessert,” Wei Ying winks. “I did go off of them for a few years, though. Wouldn’t eat anything green unless I absolutely had to.”
“Oh?” Jin Zixuan asks. “What prompted that? Just being a difficult kid?”
“I wasn’t difficult,” Wei Ying says, fighting back the sting of defensiveness. “They were just really badly cooked. There’s nothing more disgusting than over-steamed broccoli.”
“Nothing? Really?” Jin Zixuan presses. “Broccoli can’t be that bad.” It sounds like a challenge, and Wei Ying kind of wants to kick him.
“It is when it’s so overcooked it looks grey,” Wei Ying retorts. “But maybe mashed turnips and carrots are worse. I hated those, too. Oh, and lima beans. I had nightmares about lima beans,” Wei Ying shudders. “Mushy, pasty, tasteless things.”
“Sounds awful,” Jin Zixuan finally agrees. “Can’t say I have ever been forced to try those.”
“Be thankful, then,” Wei Ying says, suddenly annoyed. “Trust me, it’s no fun being force-fed.”
“Jin Ling loves his veggies, doesn’t he?” Jiang Yanli smoothly interjects, gesturing to where the baby is fishing the cabbage and mushroom filling out of another dumpling, and Wei Ying’s annoyance instantly dissolves. “Pass me the pea tips, won’t you dear?”
“Hm? Oh, of course,” says Jin Zixuan, handing over the plate of vegetables. Jiang Yanli puts a small clump of them on Jin Ling’s tray, and he immediately makes a grab for them.
“What a good boy,” Jiang Yanli dotes, stroking the crown of Jin Ling’s head. “Mama’s good boy.”
Wei Ying feels his heart constrict, overwhelmed by wistful fondness.
He startles a little as Lan Zhan reaches over to place a choice piece of chicken on the top of his rice. They make eye contact, and Wei Ying flushes at the piercing way Lan Zhan is looking at him. He ducks his head and smears the chicken with a dollop of ginger scallion sauce before popping it into his mouth, feeling strangely exposed.
“What did you like to eat when you were young?” Lan Zhan asks quietly.
“Oh, you know,” Wei Ying says, picking out an especially large wood ear fungus from his lucky mushrooms and depositing it in on Lan Zhan’s plate. “The usual. Spring rolls, dumplings of course, anything deep-fried—especially chicken wings. Honestly, I’d eat anything, especially if it was covered in Lao Gan Ma. What about you?” Wei Ying is curious to know. “Did you have a favourite food? I bet you were the perfect child,” he teases.
“Actually, I was very picky,” Lan Zhan says. “I would hardly eat anything. It was very hard on my mother.”
“Really?” Wei Ying asks, honestly surprised. Lan Zhan certainly has strong preferences, but he has never struck Wei Ying as picky.
“I would not eat anything but egg rice,” Lan Zhan says, adding a spoonful of ma lan tou to his rice. “Everything else upset my stomach.”
“Children can be so sensitive,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice sympathetic. “We’ve been lucky that Jin Ling is so hardy.”
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan nods. “I was fortunate enough to outgrow most of my sensitivities.”
“I’m sure that was a relief to your mother,” Jiang Yanli smiles. “It can be a real challenge, feeding a family.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan agrees. “My brother was much easier, thankfully.”
“Was she a good cook?” Jiang Yanli asks.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “She did not cook often. Not much at all, really.”
Wei Ying leans forward, his curiosity overflowing. Lan Zhan never speaks about his mother. He’s spoken somewhat sparingly about his life in Shanghai, but Wei Ying only ever hears about his brother and his uncle.
“We mostly ate out,” Lan Zhan continues. “It was easier for her that way.”
“Doesn’t that get expensive in Shanghai?” Jin Zixuan asks.
Lan Zhan shakes his head again. “She did not live in Shanghai. I spent my summers with her here in Vancouver.”
“Really?” Wei Ying exclaims. “I never knew that!” He is at once delighted at this new information and a little hurt. Why hasn’t Lan Zhan ever spoken about it before?
“I have never mentioned it,” Lan Zhan says, and it sounds almost like an apology. Wei Ying immediately feels contrite. It’s not as if he doesn’t have things he’s never spoken about, especially in regards to his childhood. “It is what prompted me to return to the city for university. I liked it here,” Lan Zhan adds.
“Well, I think that’s lovely!” Jiang Yanli enthuses. “I may be biased since I’ve lived my whole life here, but it’s a beautiful city. Do you still like it here? Do you plan to stay?”
Wei Ying holds his breath for Lan Zhan’s answer.
“For now,” Lan Zhan allows, and Wei Ying feels his heart constrict again, this time with apprehension. “I am happy with my job at the City.”
“You should put in a word for Wei Ying,” Jian Zixuan pipes up, and Wei Ying resists the urge to groan, tamping down on the sudden surge of hostility rising against his brother-in-law. “There must be something available at the City for green engineering. Isn’t that what you insist on doing?” he asks.
“You mean instead of selling out to a major oil company?” Wei Ying retorts. “Yes, that’s what I insist on doing. And I told you already, the City isn’t hiring right now.”
“It’s worth a try,” Jin Zixuan insists, oblivious to Wei Ying’s mounting ire. “It’s all about who you know, Wei Ying, not your university scores.”
Before Wei Ying can say something especially scathing about nepotism babies, Lan Zhan interjects.
“Wei Ying will be the first to hear about any openings,” Lan Zhan says. “I will make sure of it.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Jiang Yanli says as Wei Ying flushes scarlet. “Would you like some more pea tips, Lan Zhan? Do you have enough to eat?”
“I have more than enough, thank you,” Lan Zhan says, ever the gracious guest.
“I hope you’ve saved room for dessert, then,” Jiang Yanli smiles.
“Dessert?” Lan Zhan asks, voice laced with interest.
“Homemade tangyuan,” Jin Zixuan says proudly, and Wei Ying gives him a look. As if he had anything to do with it, Wei Ying thinks.
“I cannot wait to try them,” Lan Zhan says. “I confess, I have something of a sweet tooth.”
“What?” Wei Ying can’t help but exclaim, surprised for the third time of the night. “I never see you eat sweets!”
“I am very strict with myself,” Lan Zhan explains.
“I’ll say, Mr. plain unsweetened tea with no pearls,” Wei Ying teases. “I can’t believe you’ve been holding out on me all this time. And you always used to bring baked goods to our study sessions and never eat any of them!”
“I was trying to fatten you up,” Lan Zhan deadpans.
Wei Ying flushes as Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan burst out laughing.
“Good luck with that,” Jiang Yanli says. “I’ve been trying for years.”
“Jiejie!” Wei Ying splutters. “So mean! What, do you want me to get fat?”
“Of course not, sweetie,” Jiang Yanli giggles. “I’m just always worried you’re not eating enough.”
“I eat plenty, Jiejie! Like, so much. Lan Zhan, tell her!”
“It is true,” Lan Zhan confirms. “It is not unlike feeding a small army of piranhas.”
“Hey!” Wei Ying exclaims, equal parts embarrassed and delighted.
“You feed him often?” Jin Zixuan asks, eyes sharp.
“Not as often as I would like,” Lan Zhan replies.
Wei Ying’s stomach does a backflip.
“Then you and I have something in common, Lan Zhan,” Jiang Yanli says, eyes twinkling.
Lan Zhan inclines his head in agreement, and Wei Ying can feel himself flushing from head to toe. He must be perfectly scarlet, he thinks. He ducks his head and shoves some noodles in his mouth, his heart hammering in his chest. When he hazards a glance back at Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan is watching him with just the shadow of a smile at the edge of his lips. He takes a sip of tea and lets his eyes slip away from Wei Ying, giving his full attention to back to Jiang Yanli and her inquiries about his work.
Wei Ying swallows heavily, chasing the noodles with a large sip of his wine. Across the table from him, Jin Ling is cheerfully masticating a stick of bean curd, happily gurgling away. Wei Ying makes a silly face at him, and Jin Ling scowls back, causing Wei Ying to burst out laughing in response.
“I love my nephew,” he announces to the table.
“He loves you, too,” Jiang Yanli smiles, and Wei Ying grins back, happy and secure in knowing it’s true.
Wei Ying shuts the door to the tiny apartment and stands on his tip-toes to turn the key in the lock. He shoulders his backpack and heads down the hall to the stairwell. He takes the stairs down two at a time and skips out the front door. He slept late again today; he will have to hurry if he wants to make breakfast at the restaurant. If he’s lucky, Auntie Yan will have a baozi he can take with him on his way to school so that he doesn’t have to come in and sit down. Auntie Yan can be strict about that.
“Here you are, young man,” Auntie Yan says, handing him his packed lunch and a lukewarm steamed bun. “Get up earlier next time and come have a proper meal.”
“Yes, Auntie Yan,” Wei Ying sings, accepting the food and jogging off in the direction of his school.
Wei Ying is eight, and he is all grown up now.
Things are different without Mama. They live in a much smaller apartment in a much bigger building. It’s a longer walk to school now, but he is allowed to do it on his own. His father still works on the trains, which means Wei Ying has to be a big boy when his father is not home, like now.
“What are the rules?” his father quizzes him every time before he leaves.
“Don’t be late for school. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t open the door to strangers. Don’t use the stove or the oven, only the microwave. Listen to Auntie Yan and Uncle Lee.”
“Good boy,” his father says.
He will be gone for three weeks at a time, sometimes more.
Wei Ying gets his breakfast at Auntie Yan’s restaurant every day, and then he takes himself to school. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he has Chinese school in the afternoon, and often it’s a struggle to stay awake. Dinner is at Auntie Yan’s again, and sometimes she gives him leftovers to take home. The meals are simple and homey, mostly stir-fries and noodle dishes. On Fridays, Wei Ying is allowed to order from the menu and get whatever he wants. His favourite is the fried rice with chicken and salted fish.
Once a week, Uncle Lee comes over to do his laundry. He chides Wei Ying for the messy apartment, and sometimes he threatens to hit him with the feather duster if he doesn’t clean up, but he never does. Before he goes, he always gives Wei Ying a single preserved plum. Wei Ying loves the salty-sweet tang, the hint of bitter orange peel, and the pungent scent of anise. He spends hours after it’s finished rolling the seed around in his mouth.
On days when it’s not raining and he doesn’t have Chinese school, Wei Ying plays soccer outside until it gets dark. Sometimes there are other kids to play with, but mostly he practices by himself, trying out the tricks he’s learned from his father. On weekends, he’ll watch the teenaged teams play full games against each other. He loves how fast they move, how skilled they are with their feet.
One day, he thinks, he will play on a team like that.
When his father comes home, Wei Ying greets him with a hug and a smile. Wei Ying is always thrilled to see him, even when his father is tired and cross about how messy the apartment is. His father will feel better after eating, so they go to Auntie Yan’s and have dinner. His father pays her for Wei Ying’s meals, and then they walk home together, side by side.
Uncle Lee comes over the next week to collect his payment for the laundry, and Wei Ying’s father invites him in for tea. They sit together in the kitchen while Wei Ying does his homework, chatting about Uncle Lee’s health. His hip is bothering him again, and he complains of the extra stress that favouring it puts on his knee.
“I’m not young like you anymore,” Uncle Lee says. “I couldn’t do a job like yours.” He levels a meaningful look at his father. “How much longer do you intend to keep doing it?”
His father averts his gaze, flexing his fingers around his teacup. “I’m looking for something else. The market’s not so good right now, and I’m still not licensed to practice in Canada. The money is better than I’d get for unskilled labour,” his father says. “I wish I could afford to quit, but I can’t right now.”
“You’ve been saying that for years, Changze,” Uncle Lee sighs. “Can’t your friend help you out? Didn’t you say you knew that lawyer on the North Shore? The one on all the billboards.”
“I can’t ask him for help,” his father says. “I tried contacting him years ago, but his wife wouldn’t let him see me.”
“That’s just not right,” Uncle Lee laments. “You won’t try again? For the boy’s sake?”
“What can he do for me, anyway?” his father protests. “I’m not a lawyer. It’s not like I could work for him.”
“But he might know people,” Uncle Lee presses. “People who could help.”
His father shakes his head. “I just can’t quit right now,” he says.
Wei Ying hazards a glance at his father’s face, taking in the frown lines on his forehead, the bags under his eyes. Uncle Lee has this conversation with his father more often these days, and his father always says the same thing. Wei Ying thinks he must like his job, but he hears what Auntie Yan says. She says his father has never stopped moving since his mother died, just like the trains. If he quits, he’ll have to stop moving. Staying in one place is painful for some people, she says.
Wei Ying isn’t sure what that means. He wonders what it would be like if his father stayed home for longer than a handful of days at a time. He thinks that would be wonderful.
When his father is home, they don’t have to eat at the restaurant. His father takes him grocery shopping at the markets in Chinatown. Wei Ying loves the noise and clutter, the smell of all the produce, soil-fresh and ripe. He is morbidly fascinated by the butcher shop, staring at the carcasses hanging in the window. Dry goods stores are always an adventure, like fishy-smelling treasure troves. He is never allowed to touch anything, but his father will always answer his incessant questions about what is what. His father stocks up on dried shrimp, bean curd, lily flowers, and shiitake.
Meals at home are simple and delicious. Wei Ying’s favourites are the whole salted chicken that his father makes in the rice cooker, and the yook baeng with lop cheong and salted duck egg. His father loads it up with slivered ginger and steams it to perfection, the rich aroma of fatty pork wafting through the kitchen. Wei Ying spoons the juices from the bottom of the dish over his rice and shovels it into his mouth in big, greedy bites.
Each time before he leaves for work, his father makes a batch of chili oil for Wei Ying to use while he is away. Wei Ying stands on a chair at the counter, watching his father mince the garlic and then grind the fresh chilies together with salt using a mortar and pestle. Into the hot oil it all goes, and Wei Ying has to be careful not to breathe in too deeply, lest he start coughing. His father adds a heaping portion of chili flakes and a pinch of sugar. After a healthy splash of soy, he removes it from the heat and lets it cool before sealing it away in a jar.
Wei Ying puts it on everything, dousing Auntie Yan’s leftovers with heaping teaspoons of oil, sopping up the excess with his rice. He loves the whisper of firecracker smoke in his mouth, the nutty aroma, the numbing sting on the tip of his tongue. The jar never lasts the full three weeks, standing empty long before his father comes home again.
Summer stretches long and hot, and Wei Ying’s father is preparing for another work trip. Wei Ying watches as his father puts away the last load of groceries before he leaves. There is plenty of packaged snack food in case Wei Ying is hungry after school before dinner at Auntie Yan’s. His father puts a flat of Apple Sidra in the fridge for the hot summer afternoons. He tells Wei Ying not to have more than one can per day.
Wei Ying walks him to the door, and his father hugs him goodbye. He smells of smoked chilies and garlic, of warm and dusty sunshine.
“Be a good boy,” his father tells him. “Next time I’m back, we’ll go for apple tarts. Okay?”
“Mn!” Wei Ying enthuses.
His father regards him critically for a moment, brow furrowed in thought.
“You’ve grown again,” his father says. “Your shoes are worn out, and they won’t fit soon, anyway. We’ll get you a new pair when I come home, okay?”
“Okay!” Wei Ying says. He loves new shoes.
“What’s the most important rule?” his father asks.
“Don’t open the door to strangers,” Wei Ying recites, and his father nods approvingly.
“Good boy,” he says. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
“Bye, Baba!” Wei Ying says.
He misses his father already.
The days start to bleed together, long and hot and lazy. Wei Ying skips Chinese school to play outside, making the best of the extra daylight. Regular school ended three weeks ago, and Wei Ying is blissfully free of commitments. He takes long, meandering walks through Chinatown, ducking in and out of his favourite shops. Sometimes, if he’s lucky, the Aunties at New Town will give him an egg tart from yesterday’s batch, or a fortune cookie, or some other treat.
There are never any leftover apple tarts, unfortunately.
One week turns into two, two weeks into three, and yet, his father does not come home. Wei Ying has lost track of the days; he doesn’t remember exactly when his father left, but surely, he should have been back by now. Auntie Yan continues to feed him, and Uncle Lee still visits every week, but he seems worried somehow, frowning each time he arrives, concerned at finding Wei Ying still alone. The phone rings incessantly, but Wei Ying does not answer it.
He is a good boy.
It’s sometime in August when the woman starts coming. Every day, she knocks on the door, and every day, Wei Ying ignores her, staying perfectly still and quiet until she leaves. Sometimes, he’ll see her approaching the building with scary-looking men in uniforms, and Wei Ying hides under his bed while she knocks incessantly. He never answers, and she always leaves.
But she is back every day. Wei Ying has seen her outside his Chinese school, so he always runs away. Sometimes, she hangs around his building late at night, and he hides in the hedges until she leaves. He doesn’t know who she is, and he doesn’t want to know.
It’s a clear, muggy evening when Uncle Lee comes knocking at his door. Wei Ying is not expecting him; he just did the laundry two days ago.
“Wei Ying,” Uncle Lee calls. “Open the door, child. It’s me, Uncle Lee.”
But it is not only Uncle Lee on the other side of the door. The woman is there, as are the policemen, and Wei Ying freezes, eyes wide and betrayed.
“Ying?” the woman asks.
Wei Ying doesn’t answer her.
“My name is Nora,” she says, voice low and gentle. “I’m a social worker. I’m here to talk to you about your father.”
“Baba isn’t home yet,” Wei Ying says, eyes darting between the woman and the policemen. “He works on the trains.”
Something in the woman’s face seems to shift. Her eyes are shining with something familiar; it’s something he’s seen in his father’s eyes, sad and haunted whenever Wei Ying dares to talk about his mother.
“I’m so sorry, Ying,” the woman says. “But your father won’t be coming home.”
“Yes he will,” Wei Ying insists. “We’re going to get apple tarts.”
“I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” she says. “Ying, your father was in an accident. I’m sorry, Ying, but he won’t be coming home. You’ll have to come with us now, okay?”
“No!” Wei Ying says, suddenly fierce. “I’m not supposed to go with strangers.”
“Uncle Lee is not a stranger,” the woman points out, and Uncle Lee nods, his eyes shimmering with tears.
“Be a good boy, Wei Ying,” Uncle Lee says. “Come with the nice lady and the policemen. They will take good care of you.”
“I don’t want to,” Wei Ying protests, stubborn to the last. “Why should I?”
“Because your father says so,” Uncle Lee declares, his voice breaking. “Your father wants you to go where it’s safe. Be a good boy, Wei Ying,” he entreats him one more time. “Be a good boy for your father.”
Wei Ying hesitates, but one of the policemen steps forward, and then, Wei Ying panics.
He shoulders past the woman and barrels down the hallway, heading for the stairwell as fast as he can. He heaves the door open and dashes down the stairs, his heartbeat ringing in his ears. He can hear footsteps close behind him, but Wei Ying bursts through the front doors and runs into the night. He’ll run all the way to the train station, he thinks. He’ll find his father. He’ll bring him home.
Wei Ying runs, until he cannot run any farther.
“Really, Lan Zhan, you don’t have to clean up,” Jiang Yanli protests. “You’re our guest.”
“I wish to help,” Lan Zhan says, placing the stack of empty plates on the counter. “To show my appreciation for your hospitality.”
“That’s completely unnecessary, you know,” Jiang Yanli says, filling the sink with sudsy water. “What would my mother say if she found out I let a guest do dishes in my house?”
“Probably the same thing she said when she found out you use the dishwasher the way God intended,” Wei Ying quips, dropping a set of empty teacups on the counter beside the plates. “Which is to say, not as just a dish rack.”
Jiang Yanli laughs, swatting at Wei Ying with a dishtowel. “Cheeky,” she says.
“She was shocked, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying continues. “Absolutely shocked.”
“Does she also use the oven as storage?” Lan Zhan inquires, voice deadpan, and Wei Ying bursts out laughing.
“How did you know?” Wei Ying asks.
“Just a guess,” Lan Zhan replies, giving Wei Ying the ghost of a smile, gratified at how Wei Ying’s eyes are shining with mirth.
“Honestly, you two,” Jiang Yanli chides. “Such disrespect. Although I must admit, I can’t imagine not using the dishwasher now that we have Jin Ling. I just don’t have the time to handwash everything. Some of this can’t go in the dishwasher, of course,” she says. “I try to clean as I go, and I’ve already put one load through, but it’ll be full again in no time.”
“Why not leave it for tomorrow?” Jin Zixuan calls from the dining room. “Just come and relax, A-Li.”
“You know I can’t do that, dear,” Jiang Yanli says with infinite patience. “It’s not like Jin Ling is going to make time in his schedule tomorrow for me to clean up. And we have to go visit your parents in the park, remember? I’d rather not have to deal with this mess tomorrow.”
“All the more reason to allow me to help,” Lan Zhan says smoothly. “Please, I insist.”
Jiang Yanli purses her lips, but eventually, she relents.
“All right,” she allows. “I suppose, just this once.”
“I can help, too,” Wei Ying volunteers, hovering at Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“There’s only room for two of us at the sink,” Jiang Yanli says, frowning slightly. “You’re sure you won’t just relax in the living room, Lan Zhan? I’d rather put A-Ying to work than you.”
“I would rather help,” Lan Zhan insists. He is itching to be useful.
Jiang Yanli looks thoughtful, considering the two of them with her hands on her hips.
“Tell you what,” she says after a moment. “A-Ying, do you mind taking Jin Ling to the living room and playing with him while we take care of all this? I need A-Xuan to put the clean dishes away and store the food in containers for the fridge, so it would really help to have someone watch the baby.”
“Like that’s even work, Jiejie,” Wei Ying grins. “You’re letting me off easy. What’s the catch?”
“No catch,” she says sweetly. “Consider it my New Year’s gift to you, A-Ying.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Wei Ying says. He refills his wine glass with the last of the pinot gris and toasts his sister with it. “I’ll just be in the living room then, teaching Jin Ling how to say ‘Da-Jiu’.”
“You do that,” Jiang Yanli says with a laugh, and Wei Ying leaves the kitchen, humming some nonsense tune as he goes.
“Let’s start by unloading, shall we?” Jiang Yanli says, popping open the dishwasher and waving away the billowing steam. “Careful,” she cautions him. “It’s still very hot. Here, use the dishtowel to take everything out.”
Lan Zhan accepts the cloth and dutifully begins to unload the dishes, stacking them neatly on the end of the counter where they are easily accessible for Jin Zixuan to put away. Once the dishwasher is empty, he begins to load in the dirty plates, then the teacups and the glasses. Most of the platters are not going to fit, but the majority of the cooking utensils will, and Lan Zhan methodically uses every inch of space available.
“Thank you, Lan Zhan,” Jiang Yanli says before pulling on her rubber gloves and adding the platters to the sink. “If you want, you can grab that dishtowel again and help dry? There’s not enough space in the rack for everything, so you can just dry them as I finish washing and put them back on the counter for A-Xuan.”
Lan Zhan nods, taking up the towel and moving to the other side of the sink.
“My mother really would be ashamed of me,” Jiang Yanli is saying, shaking her head as she swipes away the oil from the non-stick frying pan.
“I will not tell her if you won’t,” Lan Zhan offers, and Jiang Yanli laughs lightly in response. “Thank you for letting me help.”
“It’s highly unusual, and don’t expect it to ever happen again, but I confess. I have an ulterior motive,” she winks.
“Oh?” Lan Zhan asks, curiosity piqued.
“I wanted the chance to talk to you alone,” she admits, rinsing the pan and passing it to him.
“Is there something you’d like to know?” he asks. He finds that he is not at all wary of her; he’d be happy to answer her questions.
“Well, yes, actually,” she replies, blowing a strand of stray hair away from her face before continuing. “How is A-Ying really, Lan Zhan?”
“How do you mean?” Lan Zhan wants to know. It’s a question he wasn’t expecting.
“I mean, how is he doing? Really doing? He never tells me much these days,” she muses. “It’s not that he doesn’t talk,” she rushes to add. “He calls me every week. But he never tells me all the important things, like how he’s feeling, or if anything is bothering him. I worry about him.”
“I believe he is doing quite well,” Lan Zhan says carefully. “He has not indicated otherwise to me.”
“But does he talk to you?” Jiang Yanli presses. “I mean, really talk to you. Serious business discussions, if you know what I mean.”
Lan Zhan considers his reply, wanting to strike a balance between being candid and not betraying Wei Ying’s trust. Wei Ying does talk to him, sometimes at great length, but he doesn’t always let himself be vulnerable. On the rare occasion that happens, Wei Ying is quick to retreat, and sometimes Lan Zhan won’t hear from him for days afterward.
“He is a little stressed about his finances,” Lan Zhan allows, deciding to be cautious. “It’s been a struggle to find steady employment during the pandemic. He did not graduate at an auspicious time.”
“No, I suppose he didn’t,” Jiang Yanli frowns, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn stain. “He won’t accept our help, even though we’ve offered.”
“That does not surprise me,” Lan Zhan replies. “He does not easily accept help. Nor will he ask for it.”
“I know, and that is part of what worries me,” Jiang Yanli sighs. “Whenever things are hard for him, he just laughs and smiles and won’t let anyone in. I can always tell there’s trouble if he won’t give me any details. He doesn’t tell me much about his life these days.”
“Hmm,” Lan Zhan hums, unsure what else to say.
“But he does talk about you,” Jiang Yanli says, her tone suddenly pointed. “In fact, you’re practically all he talks about anymore. I don’t think we’ve had a single conversation in the last three months that wasn’t all about you.”
Lan Zhan blinks at her, utterly stumped. He doesn’t know how to react to that.
“You two spend a lot of time together, don’t you?” she prompts.
“We do,” Lan Zhan allows.
“What do you do together?” she probes.
He pauses to consider his answer.
“We often have lunch or dinner. We enjoy hiking together. We have coffee or tea. On occasion we get boba. Activities are somewhat limited these days,” he adds. “And we talk,” he says simply.
She holds his gaze for a long time, eyes searching. Lan Zhan isn’t sure what she is looking for.
“You’re very important to him,” Jiang Yanli says at last, and Lan Zhan feels his heart constrict with longing.
How important? He desperately wants to ask, but he quashes the urge even as it arises. That wouldn’t be fair to Wei Ying, he tells himself. Jiang Yanli is the most treasured person in Wei Ying’s life. It wouldn’t be right to interrogate her.
She turns back to the sink and resumes washing, her eyes on the soapy water.
“Wei Ying is very special,” she says, her voice thick with something not unlike tears. “He’s the brightest one of all of us, because he has darkest shadows to chase away. He has the biggest heart, but that just means he has the most to carry. He’s the most resilient person I know, but sometimes, I just wish the world would treat him more gently.”
She places the final platter in the rack and turns to face him once more.
“He needs taking care of, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan stares at her, his heart aching.
“Can you do that, Lan Zhan? Can you take care of him?”
Lan Zhan swallows past the lump in his throat, fighting the sudden wave of yearning that threatens to pull him under.
“I would like to try,” he manages, voice low but steady.
She nods slowly at him, then turns to drain the sink, rinsing it clear of soap before blasting the hot water and reaching for the dirty wok.
“Then try,” she says, her voice traveling gently over the running water.
“He may not let me,” Lan Zhan says.
“Then try again,” she says firmly, scalding away the remnants of oil and soy. “Please, Lan Zhan. I’m asking you to try.”
He swallows again, conscious of his racing heart. He’s been so resigned to waiting all these years. He’s let Wei Ying set the parameters of their relationship, never pushing him one way or the other, never asking for more than he is allowed, no matter how desperately he wants it. But what if he’s not just being patient?
What if he’s just being a coward?
Jiang Yanli puts the damp wok on the stove and cranks the heat up to high. Lan Zhan watches the water evaporate, painfully aware of her eyes on him. Jin Zixuan saunters in from the dining room, blissfully unaware, and begins to put away the clean dishes.
“Go join A-Ying in the living room until it’s time for dessert,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice suddenly light and easy. “All that’s left to clean up is the deep fry oil, and I’ll take care of that.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees, carefully folding his dish towel and hanging it on the door to the oven. He makes to leave, but he turns back at the entrance to the dining room.
“Thank you,” he tells her.
She smiles at him, all warmth and softness again.
“Go on,” she says.
Lan Zhan goes.
Summer in Vancouver is different this year. This year, their uncle has come with them. He is staying with them in their mother’s apartment, and he is much stricter than she is. There will be no late nights on the balcony. The boys are in bed by 9:00pm sharp, and they are up again at 5:00am the next morning. Their uncle makes them eat breakfast (rice, fish, vegetable soup) before drilling them on mathematics and classical Chinese poetry. Their minds are freshest in the morning, he says. By the time they are done, it is 8:00am, and it’s time to go to the hospital.
Lan Zhan is nine, and his mother is dying.
Gone are the days of carefree restaurant meals and long, meandering walks through the neighbourhood. They’d look at all the old houses and play ‘What If?’. What if they lived in one of them together? Would the boys buy a house for their Mama? Lan Zhan is adamant that one day, he will build her one. It will have high ceilings and huge windows and a balcony overlooking a garden. She can grow whatever she wants, he says.
“Promise?” she asks, eyes twinkling.
“Mn,” he replies, deadly serious.
She laughs and pinches his cheek and calls him her little architect.
But now, she doesn’t even live at home with them. Their mother is a permanent resident in the cancer ward at VGH. Cancer is a word that Lan Zhan wishes he didn’t understand. He wishes he didn’t know about symptoms, and stages, and five-year survival rates. He wishes he didn’t know what metastasized means.
Before they’d left Vancouver for Shanghai last summer, their mother had cut off all her hair. She’d said she didn’t want them to be shocked when they came back next year, so best to get rid of it now, while they could see her do it.
“Don’t be sad,” she tells them. “This is Mama’s choice.”
She donates all of her beautiful black hair to the cancer society. She hopes it goes to a sick little girl, she tells them. She kisses them goodbye and says ‘See you next summer!’. She tells them she loves them. She tells them to be brave. But being brave is the hardest when your mother is suffering. How do you protect your protector?
Lan Zhan doesn’t know.
His mother is grey-skinned and pale, impossibly thin under her hospital gown, but she smiles her wide, warm smile when they arrive, opening her arms to her boys in welcome.
“My darlings!” she exclaims with joy. “Come give Mama a kiss. I’m so happy to see you! What did you bring today?”
“We thought you might like a story,” Lan Huan says, hefting the book of folktales. “Would you like us to read to you, Mama?”
“I would love that, my darlings. Will you take turns so that I can hear you both?”
“Yes, Mama!” Lan Huan says. “A-Zhan, do you want to go first?”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies, taking the chair closest to their mother and opening up the book.
Lan Zhan reads aloud, his voice clear and steady. He reads about the Jade Emperor disguising himself as a poor old man, starving for food and begging for a meal. When he begs from the monkey, the monkey gathers fruit from the trees. When he begs from the otter, the otter catches fish from the river. When he begs from the jackal, the jackal steals a lizard and a pot of milk curds. But when he begs from the rabbit, the poor rabbit can only gather grass.
The rabbit is very sorry. He knows that humans cannot eat grass. And so, the rabbit offers the man his body instead. He throws himself into the cooking fire, but miraculously, the rabbit does not burn. The Jade Emperor reveals himself. He is so touched by the rabbit’s sacrifice that he sends the rabbit to the moon, where it becomes the immortal Jade Rabbit.
The Jade Rabbit is a faithful companion to the moon goddess, Chang’e. He spends his days diligently mixing the elixir of life for her with his mortar and pestle, and he grows wise in the ways of healing and medicine. The Jade Rabbit is a symbol of selflessness and piety. When people look to the moon, they are looking up at his righteousness and self-sacrifice.
His mother pinches his cheek and praises his diction.
“You read so well, bao bao,” she smiles. “Will you read me another?”
“It’s Gege’s turn,” Lan Zhan says. It’s only fair that Lan Huan read the next one.
“Oh, yes, of course it is,” his mother says, and Lan Zhan passes the book to his brother.
They take turns reading stories until lunch. Today, their uncle has packed them an assortment of sandwiches. There is pork cutlet, cucumber and cheese, and omelette with pork floss. He doesn’t cut the crusts off like their mother does, but he cuts each one into quarters so that they can all be shared. Lan Zhan nibbles at the edge of the omelette and picks out the cucumber. His jumpy stomach is back.
Their uncle comes to collect them after lunch, and they go to their English school. Lan Zhan throws himself into his work, eager to exhaust his brain and distract himself. It’s easy. They don’t have to learn about words like chemotherapy and carcinomas here.
Some days, his mother is too sick to see them. On those days, the boys are free to entertain themselves in the morning until they have to go to class. Sometimes, their uncle takes them to Chinatown an hour or two early, and they pass the time in the little souvenir shops and the general stores while their uncle picks up groceries. Their mother insists they should still get their allowance, so they have some cash to spend if they choose. Between this summer and the last, Lan Zhan has saved up fifty dollars.
Lan Zhan follows his brother into the next store. He wanders idly while his brother examines the selection of hand-painted fans on offer. It gets hot in the hospital, and Lan Huan wants his mother to have one. Lan Zhan wanders into the back, past the dishes and the bamboo furniture, peering at the clearance shelves where all manner of ornaments and figurines are scattered about, stickered with bright orange discount tags.
The rabbit figurine is small. It stands only an inch and a half tall, and it fits easily into the palm of his hand. It’s real jade, but it’s damaged; one of the rabbit’s ears has been broken off halfway down its length, giving it a lopsided appearance. Lan Zhan hefts it in his hand, enjoying the cool weight of it.
It is forty dollars on sale.
“You’re sure you want this?” the lady behind the counter asks him. “We have ones up front that aren’t broken.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “It’s fine,” he says.
He can’t afford the unbroken one. He remembers what his mother once told him, that broken things could still be useful, even if they couldn’t be fixed.
“Broken things just have more personality,” she’d said.
He buys the rabbit.
“Oh, bao bao, it’s beautiful,” his mother exclaims, cradling the rabbit in her hand. “It looks expensive. You shouldn’t have!”
“It was on sale,” Lan Zhan assures her. “I wanted you to have it.”
“Thank you, bao bao,” she smiles at him. “My own jade rabbit to keep me company, just like Chang’e.”
“He’ll make you the elixir of life,” Lan Zhan says.
You’ll get better, he hopes.
Make her better, he prays.
His mother’s eyes are filled with tears, but she keeps on smiling, pinching his cheek before looping her arm around him and pulling him in close.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she says, her breath ghosting across his temple. “But you can’t tell anyone else. Promise?”
“I promise,” he swears.
“You’re my favourite,” she whispers, her tears falling at last.
“Mn,” he says, hugging her back.
He never tells another soul.
The summer drags on, hot and unmerciful. When they’re not at the hospital, their uncle takes them to the beach on the weekends. The ocean in Vancouver is always cold, no matter how hot the day is, but that doesn’t deter Lan Zhan. He swims out as far as the lifeguard will allow, then he floats on his back and lets the waves push him gently back in. Sometimes, he’ll dive beneath the surface and sit on the ocean floor for as long as he can hold his breath. He likes the way the ocean drowns out everything but its own voice, a gentle roar in his ears.
Lan Zhan reads more stories and Lan Huan fans their mother. The jade rabbit sits on her windowsill, faithfully keeping watch, and their uncle lets them stay longer every day.
It’s a scorching day in the middle of August when she calls the boys to her side and tells them she wants to speak to them each alone. Lan Huan goes first, and Lan Zhan waits outside with his uncle until his brother emerges, solemn and silent. He says nothing; he just sits down beside their uncle and folds his hands in his lap, head lowered and face shuttered.
“Go on,” his uncle urges him, and Lan Zhan enters his mother’s room, closing the door behind himself and padding softly to the side of her bed.
“Come closer, bao bao,” his mother says. She’s so pale, and so thin, but her smile is as warm as always, and her eyes are soft and wet. “Give me your hand.”
Lan Zhan extends his hand, and she cradles it between her own. There’s something cool and solid between their fingers, and when she draws back, the jade rabbit is resting in his palm.
“I want you to have him,” she says. “He’s been a good, faithful servant, but I don’t need him anymore.”
“Why?” Lan Zhan asks. “He has to keep you company. He has to make you the elixir of life.”
“Oh, bao bao,” she says, eyes shimmering. “He already did. That’s why I have to go. Mama can’t stay here if she drinks it.”
“That can’t be true,” he protests. “It’s supposed to make you better.”
“It will,” she assures him. “But do you remember the story? When Chang’e drinks the elixir, she must leave earth and become an immortal. She can’t stay, and neither can I.”
“I don’t want you to go,” he says, panic rising in his throat. This is not what he’d prayed for. This is not what he wants.
“I know, bao bao. I know. And Mama loves you so much, she doesn’t want to make you sad. But sometimes, love is about letting go. You have to let me go now, bao bao. It’s time for me to go.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head, furiously swiping at the tears he can feel gathering at the corners of his eyes.
“The Jade Rabbit is about sacrifice,” his mother says. “I want him to remind you that the greatest gift you can give someone is yourself. Be righteous and selfless, just like him, and you will live a good life.”
“Mama,” Lan Zhan pleads. “I don’t want you to go. I want to stay with you.”
“Come up here, bao bao,” she beckons. “Let Mama hold you.”
Lan Zhan clambers onto the bed, and she folds him into her arms, his head tucked under her chin as if he was a baby again. Slowly, she lies back until he is lying half on top of her, and he clings to her as she strokes his hair and kisses the top of his head. He’s shivering despite the oppressive heat, and she draws soothing circles on his back, humming softly, a nameless tune that resurfaces from the depths of his earliest waking memory.
“Go to sleep, my love,” she whispers. “My dear, sweet boy.”
Lan Zhan screws his eyes shut and buries his face in her chest, shuddering in her bird-like embrace.
“You’re my favourite,” she whispers.
This time, he cannot hold back the onslaught of tears.
He cries silently, desperately, until he passes from despair into exhaustion. When there is nothing left inside of him, no more tears to give, he closes his eyes and follows her heartbeat down into oblivion.
When he wakes up, she is gone.
His shirt is stiff and scratchy at the collar, far too new to be comfortable. It’s too hot to be wearing so many layers, but Lan Zhan doesn’t bother to take off his suit jacket. He doesn’t want to accidentally lose it on the bus. The Jade Rabbit sits heavily in his pocket.
He’s not supposed to be here. He’s supposed to be back at the apartment with his brother and his uncle. The reception isn’t over yet, but Lan Zhan has snuck away, down the stairs and out into the street, away from all the strangers laying claim to the pieces of his mother that Lan Zhan doesn’t recognize, because none of them are important.
He’s not really paying attention to where he is going, but his footsteps take him back to Chinatown, and before he knows it, he’s standing across the street from New Town. He’s not hungry. The thought of eating anything right now is nauseating. He hasn’t eaten anything but egg rice all week.
There’s a boy sitting on the sidewalk outside of the bakery, his knees drawn up to his chest. His shoes are in tatters, and he looks a little worse for wear. He is vaguely familiar, but Lan Zhan cannot place him.
Suddenly the boy looks up, and they make eye contact. The boy’s face lights up, and all at once, Lan Zhan remembers. A brilliant smile and a box of apple tarts. Another day, another summer. A lifetime ago, his mother’s hand warm in his own.
The boy gets up and crosses the street in a hurry, arriving in front of Lan Zhan with a triumphant grin.
“Hi!” he says, eyes sparkling. “Do you remember me?”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies with a nod.
“How come you’re all dressed up?” the boy asks. “Did you come with your Mama again?”
“My mother is dead,” Lan Zhan says flatly. The words feel heavy on his tongue.
“Oh!” the boy says, his eyes going wide with remorse. “I’m sorry,” he says. “My Mama’s dead, too.”
Lan Zhan blinks in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting that.
“My Baba isn’t home right now, but he’ll be back soon,” the boy continues. “Do you have a Baba?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says. “I have an Uncle. And a brother,” he adds.
“That’s nice,” the boy enthuses. “I wish I had a brother.”
They stare at each other for a moment, the silence stretching out between them. Lan Zhan isn’t sure what to say. He doesn’t even know why he’s here.
“Oh!” the boy suddenly exclaims. “I still owe you for the apple tarts!”
Lan Zhan blinks at him again.
“But I don’t have any money today,” the boy quickly deflates. “I ran out a week ago.”
“Ran out?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Yeah, ran out,” the boy replies. “My Baba leaves me some money when he goes away, but I’ve spent it all.”
“Then why are you here?” Lan Zhan asks. He knows it might sound rude. Lan Zhan has no reason to be here either, but he’s suddenly curious.
“Sometimes they give me free things,” the boy grins. “Besides, I can’t go home right now. That woman is waiting for me.”
“What woman?” Lan Zhan wants to know.
“The woman,” the boy says, as if that explains everything. “She knocks on my door every day and hangs around the building. I’m not allowed to open the door to strangers. She just keeps coming. I have to wait until she leaves before I can go home.”
Lan Zhan frowns. That doesn’t sound very safe. He looks at the boy more critically. His clothes look a little threadbare, and his shoes are a disgrace. His hair is too long; it gets in his eyes, and it looks downright shaggy. His uncle would be horrified if Lan Zhan ever looked like that.
“When my dad gets back, I’ll ask him for more money,” the boy is saying. “I could meet you here?”
“I don’t live here,” Lan Zhan says, and it hurts his heart, because it is true now.
“Oh,” the boy says, his face falling. “How can I pay you back?”
“You don’t have to,” Lan Zhan says. “It’s fine.”
“But what if I want to?” asks the boy.
“It’s fine,” Lan Zhan repeats. He doesn’t want to argue right now.
The boy hesitates, his eyes big and serious.
“You said your Baba isn’t home,” Lan Zhan says.
“No,” the boy replies.
“And you have no money,” Lan Zhan says.
“No,” says the boy, flushing with shame.
“Are you going to be okay?” Lan Zhan asks. He is genuinely concerned for this boy he doesn’t know.
“I don’t know,” the boy confesses. “As long as my dad comes home…” he says, voice trailing off into a heavy silence.
Lan Zhan reaches into his pockets, but there is no money there. There is only the Jade Rabbit, cool and heavy against his palm.
“Here,” Lan Zhan says, seized by a sudden urge. “Take this,” he says, offering up the Jade Rabbit.
“What is it?” the boy asks, extending his hand, and Lan Zhan drops the rabbit into his outstretched palm.
“The Jade Rabbit,” Lan Zhan says. “He’ll keep you company.”
“Why?” the boy asks, clearly confused.
“It’s his job,” Lan Zhan explains. “He’s a companion. He’ll protect you.”
The boy examines the rabbit, turning it over in his hands.
“Don’t you want it?” the boy asks, looking curious.
“I don’t need him,” Lan Zhan declares. “I have an Uncle and a Brother. I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?” the boy asks, wide-eyed and earnest.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. “I want you to have him.”
The boy watches him for a moment longer before his face splits into that brilliant smile, and Lan Zhan can feel that tremulous fluttering, gossamer wings beating in his heart.
“Okay,” the boy says. “Thank you! But now I owe you twice?”
“No, you don’t,” Lan Zhan says. “This one is free.”
Freely given, as all sacrifices must be.
“If you say so,” the boy laughs. “Thank you. That’s nice. You’re really nice to me.”
Lan Zhan can feel himself flushing.
“It’s nothing,” Lan Zhan says. “I have to go now,” he realizes. His uncle will have noticed his absence by now.
“Okay,” says the boy. “But I’ll pay you back one day. That’s a promise!”
Lan Zhan just nods and ducks away, heading back toward the bus stop.
It’s nonsense, he tells himself. He is too old to believe in fairy tales. His mother is gone. He will be leaving Vancouver within the week. It’s time to put away childish things, he thinks. He will sacrifice this innocence, this childhood naiveté. He will be selfless and righteous. He will protect what he loves. He will build glass castles in his mother’s honour, and he will not give himself away to anyone who cannot love him just as much as she had.
Lan Zhan forgoes the bus and walks all the way back to the apartment. It takes the better part of an hour. His uncle doesn’t ask, and Lan Zhan doesn’t tell.
Lan Zhan boards the plane back to Shanghai, eyes forward and back straight.
He leaves a part of his heart behind.
“It’s like this,” Wei Ying says. “It’s just that I really, really like him. I like him so much. But I don’t think he likes me. He’s really nice to me, don’t get me wrong, but he’s never—He doesn’t want me like that.”
Jin Ling puts a block in his mouth and gnaws at the corner, watching Wei Ying with a disapproving scowl.
“Didn’t you get enough at dinner?” Wei Ying teases, waving a rattle in the baby’s face. Jin Ling slaps it away in disgust.
Wei Ying sighs, setting the rattle aside in favour of a stuffed donkey.
“He had a boyfriend once,” Wei Ying says. “It didn’t last very long, but he had one. So I know he likes guys. That’s not the problem.”
Jin Ling regards him critically.
“It’s me,” Wei Ying sighs. “I’m the problem. Clearly. I mean, the guy even kind of looked like me. His boyfriend, I mean. Mo Xuanyu.” He trots the donkey across the floor in front of Jin Ling. “I guess I should be happy there’s been no one since—and I am! It’s just that, it really feels like he’s not interested.”
Jin Ling just glares at him.
“But sometimes, he just looks at me,” Wei Ying continues. “Like, really looks at me. I feel like he can see right through me, and it’s so scary but… But I kind of like it. If he ever looked at someone else like that, I think I’d shrivel up and die, because that for sure would mean he liked them, wouldn’t it?”
Jin Ling eyes the donkey as it approaches, Wei Ying walking it closer.
“He probably wants someone more… I don’t know. Traditional? Someone he can take home to Shanghai,” Wei Ying says, voice wistful. “Someone he can speak Chinese with.”
“Bah!” says Jing Ling.
“I know, right?” Wei Ying says, trotting the donkey up Jin Lin’s arm.
Jin Ling makes a grab for it, and Wei Ying taps it to his nose.
“Donkey kisses!” he crows, nuzzling the toy’s muzzle into Jin Ling’s cheek.
“Gah!” Jin Ling protests.
Wei Ying pushes the donkey gently into Jin Ling’s stomach, letting the baby take it at last.
“I’ve gotten too attached,” Wei Ying sighs again. “What happens when he goes back to Shanghai and decides to stay there? That’s his home.”
Jin Ling squeezes the donkey, ignoring him completely.
“I don’t know what I’d do if he left,” Wei Ying says quietly. “I don’t know how I’d cope.”
Jin Ling begins chewing on the donkey’s tail, giving Wei Ying another critical look.
“That’s life though, right? Everyone leaves eventually.” He picks at a string in the carpet. “You’ll stay with me, won’t you, kiddo?”
Jin Ling blows a raspberry at him.
Wei Ying laughs, shaking off his self-indulgent melancholy. Now is not the time to think about when Lan Zhan inevitably leaves him. Not tonight. Not when it’s been such a nice evening. He has so much to be thankful for, and Wei Ying leans into that. He’s happy, for now.
“You’ve got the right attitude about life, young master,” Wei Ying says, reaching out to stroke the soft hair on Jin Ling’s head. “I’m going to follow your lead, okay?”
“Dah!” Jing Ling says, swatting at Wei Ying’s hand.
Wei Ying laughs again, full to bursting with love.
“You’re so right, baby,” Wei Ying says. “You’re so right.”
Foster care for Wei Ying is a series of not-homes, a never-ending cycle of arrivals and departures. He moves from place to place, never staying for more than two years at a time. It’s never the right fit; he’s too old for one home, too young for another. The parents in one home are frustrated by his broken English, and they decide that it’s too hard to keep him. The biological kids of the next family don’t get along with him, and Wei Ying is bullied for months before they move him again.
He has very little to call his own. A smattering of clothes he keeps outgrowing. A pair of shoes that constantly needs to be replaced. A worn-out backpack and a beat-up jacket. Eventually, he gets his first pair of soccer cleats. He plays on his first team. It’s the best part of his week. But every time he moves, he has to start all over again. A new set of parents, a new group of children, and, if he’s lucky, a welcoming new soccer team.
The only constant is the jade rabbit.
The night he’d tried to run, they’d brought him back to the apartment to collect some of his things. The officer had taken his key, and Nora had helped him select some clothes to put into his backpack. The rabbit was still at the bottom of his bag; he’d been carrying it ever since the day he’d received it from the beautiful, serious boy. He likes it. He likes the weight of it, cool and reassuring in the palm of his hand as he strokes its broken ear. He wonders if that’s why the boy hadn’t wanted it anymore. People don’t want broken things, but Wei Ying likes them.
At night, he whispers to the rabbit, telling it all the things he cannot say to anyone else. Nora says he can tell her anything, but Wei Ying knows that’s not true. He doesn’t know how to say the things he needs to say in English, and Nora does not speak Mandarin.
Gradually, painfully, neither does Wei Ying.
He loses his words, one after the other. Syllables dissolve and blur together like static on the radio. The beautiful tones don’t roll off his tongue anymore; his muscle memory reshapes itself around flat, English words instead. His listening comprehension slips away bit by bit, eroding a little more every day, until he has finally unlearned the sounds of his childhood.
Wei Ying is fourteen, and he is starting at another new school.
North Vancouver is very different from actual Vancouver. It’s a sleepy suburb. Things are so quiet, and the buses only seem to run when they feel like it. Wei Ying’s new high school is right at the foot of Grouse Mountain, and he has to walk for half an hour to get there from his foster home, but he doesn’t mind. At least the walk home at the end of the day is all downhill, and his foster parents will drive him in the morning if it’s raining.
“I’m glad you’re settling in,” says Nora. “The Buyers are a good family, and I think you’ll really like it here.”
They are seated at a table in a Szechuan restaurant just off of Lonsdale. Once a month, Nora takes Wei Ying to lunch. They always go for Chinese food, because Nora says it is important that Wei Ying stay connected to his culture. Wei Ying isn’t sure that cheap chow mein is really doing much to help with that, but he appreciates the gesture. It’s a nice change of pace from the perpetual western food he gets at home. The Buyers are not adventurous cooks. Every meal is protein, vegetable, starch, all neatly separated and mostly under-seasoned.
Nora is nice. She has been his social worker for the last six years, ever since his apprehension, and she’s done an admirable job of advocating for him. It hasn’t always been easy. Wei Ying tries not to be difficult, but he’s a lot to handle, and he knows it. Most people like him, but no one can manage to take care of him.
“These next few years are going to be very important for you,” Nora is saying. “You’re a smart boy, Ying. A very smart boy. It won’t be easy, but I really want you to go to university.”
Wei Ying chews on a piece of ginger beef and nods easily. Nora is always stressing how much potential he has. He’s a bright star, she tells him. He’s going to make something of himself. He just has to work hard and stay focused. Wei Ying isn’t worried. He knows there are scholarships to be won, but he’ll think about that later. Right now, he’s more excited about learning to drive in the next couple of years.
“You’re at one of the best high schools in the city now,” Nora says. “This is a great opportunity for you.”
“Don’t screw it up, right?” Wei Ying quips.
Nora gives him a look. Wei Ying just grins at her.
“Finish up,” she tells him. “I have to be back in the office by three today, so we need to get going.”
Wei Ying cheerfully scrapes the last of his plate clean.
They always leave a generous tip.
School is fine, for the most part. Classes are easy, if a little boring, and Wei Ying is popular, friendly, and outgoing. He is an accomplished athlete. In addition to his soccer league, Wei Ying plays on the high school basketball team, and he’s a sprinter in track and field. Sports are easy and exhilarating, and they are by far the best way to make friends. Wei Ying is great at making friends. He’s even managed to win over his harshest critic, Jiang Cheng.
“Bet you can’t beat my time on the HAT run next Friday,” Wei Ying teases, pinching off a piece of his granola bar and popping it into his mouth.
“Stop picking at it like a squirrel and just eat it,” Jiang Cheng says. “Also, you’re on.”
Wei Ying ignores him and pries an almond free. “I’m going to finish in under 8 minutes,” he declares.
“Sure you are,” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Don’t strain yourself. We’ve got the first cup game on Saturday.”
“Aw, don’t worry, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying grins. “I promise not to strain myself kicking your ass.”
“Who’s worried?” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I just don’t want you wiped out for a cup game. You’re our best striker, and I hate the Renegades. No way I want to lose to them.”
“We won’t,” Wei Ying says. “Are you nervous or something?”
Jiang Cheng shifts uncomfortably, dropping his eyes to his lunch. “My parents are coming to watch,” he admits.
“Oh!” Wei Ying exclaims. He peers at Jiang Cheng’s scowling face. “Is that a bad thing?”
“It’s whatever,” Jiang Cheng grouses. “Just means there’s pressure, that’s all.”
“Is your sister coming, too?” Wei Ying asks hopefully.
“Why are you so obsessed with my sister?” Jiang Cheng asks, eyes narrowed.
“I’m not obsessed,” Wei Ying laughs, completely unbothered. “I just like her. She seems nice.”
“You just want the food she brings me,” Jiang Cheng counters. “You’re like a shark for it.”
“Hey man, whatever she puts in those turkey sandwich wraps is like crack. I can’t help it, I’m addicted now!”
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng says. “Why don’t you just come over for dinner after the game? Eat something else besides your squirrel food.”
“Can I?” Wei Ying perks up.
“I’ll ask,” Jiang Cheng says. “Make sure you get permission from your foster mom.”
“Oh, she won’t mind,” Wei Ying says, waving a hand dismissively. “She’ll probably be happy she doesn’t have to feed me for a day. She says I’m going to eat her out of house and home.”
“You’re a twig,” Jiang Cheng points out. “Where does it all go?”
“I have a big fat brain,” Wei Ying grins.
“Right,” Jiang Cheng snorts. “How could I forget.”
“Are you gonna eat that?” Wei Ying asks, gesturing to Jiang Cheng’s half-eaten sandwich.
Jiang Cheng shoves it in his face.
Saturday arrives, grey and wet, and the soccer game goes exactly how Wei Ying had hoped it would. They trounce the Renegades 6-1, and Wei Ying scores 4 goals. Jiang Cheng is instrumental in setting him up for each one, and they celebrate loudly, whooping and high-fiving each other in glee. Wei Ying can’t help but notice how Jiang Cheng seems to have one eye on the stands, glancing up now and again to where his parents and his sister are sitting at the top of the bleachers. Wei Ying is happy for him; Jiang Cheng has played well.
At the end of the game, it’s started to rain, and the stands become a sea of umbrellas. Jiang Cheng makes his way to the bottom of the stairs just as his family is descending, dragging Wei Ying with him.
“Mom, Dad, this is Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng says. “He’s the friend I’m bringing over for dinner.”
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Jiang!” Wei Ying says, giving them his best smile.
The effect is immediate, but it’s the last thing Wei Ying is expecting.
Jiang Cheng’s mother goes white as a sheet, and his father’s face collapses in shock, eyes wide and haunted.
“Wei Ying?” Jiang Cheng’s father breathes. “It can’t be. Wei Ying?” he asks, his voice breaking like dry tinder.
“Cangse’s boy,” Jiang Cheng’s mother whispers. She looks like she’s staring at a ghost.
“Ma?” Jiang Cheng asks, brow furrowed in worry. “Ma, are you okay?”
Wei Ying blinks in confusion, feeling awkward.
What on earth is going on?
“Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng’s father says again. “Are you Wei Changze’s son? Was that your father’s name?”
“Yes,” Wei Ying replies. He’s starting to get nervous.
Jiang Cheng’s mother flares to life, firing off a rapid string of Mandarin at her husband. It’s like he doesn’t hear her, his eyes remaining fixed on Wei Ying. She calls his name, getting more insistent until finally he snaps out of it and silences her with a sharp, vicious gesture of the hand. Jiang Cheng’s mother goes scarlet before turning on her heel and storming off toward the parking lot.
Wei Ying looks at Jiang Cheng, who looks at Jiang Yanli, who offers them both a helpless shrug.
“Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng’s father calls again, and Wei Ying snaps to attention. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to alarm you. But I knew your father. A long time ago, I knew him very well.”
“You did?” Wei Ying asks, excited and curious despite the awkward scene of a few moments ago.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng’s father says. “We were… very good friends. I only heard about him passing two years ago. I didn’t even know he’d been living in Vancouver. If I’d known, I would have—”
He stops speaking, taking a deep breath and recomposing himself.
“Would you still like to come for dinner?” he asks.
“Um, I mean,” Wei Ying starts. “Sure? But, uh, what about your wife?”
“I’ll deal with her,” he says. “Please join us for dinner, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying looks between the three of them, unsure of himself. It’s Jiang Yanli who nods at him, who gives him an encouraging smile.
“I made soup,” she says. “Does pork and lotus root soup sound good to you?”
“It sounds delicious,” Wei Ying replies, stomach already growling.
“Come over, Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng’s father entreats him.
“Okay,” Wei Ying agrees, giving them a tentative smile.
Jiang Cheng’s father seems to relax, the tension leaving his shoulders, and he looks at Wei Ying with warm, compassionate eyes.
“We have a lot to talk about.”
Life with the Jiangs is good, but complicated. Wei Ying is acutely aware that Auntie Yu does not like him. She makes no secret of it, and Wei Ying tries his best to stay out of her way. When that’s not possible, he shuts his mouth and endures her tirades. She rails on him for his lack of Mandarin, chastises him for what she calls his constant disrespect, and berates him for not being thankful enough. She refuses to speak English at her own dinner table, demanding her children answer her in Mandarin, and Wei Ying eats quietly, hoping never to hear her say his name.
Jiang Yanli is a steadfast pillar of support for him, soothing the sting of Auntie Yu’s words with soup and tea. She tries her best to be a buffer between Wei Ying and her mother. Wei Ying feels guilty for putting her in that position, but she hushes him and brushes off his concern.
“Mother has always been difficult,” Jiang Yanli tells him. “She’s no harder on me now than she was before, don’t worry.”
“I’m still sorry,” Wei Ying offers, voice morose. “You shouldn’t have to stand up for me all the time.”
“Why not?” she counters. “You’re my Didi, A-Ying. I’ll always stand up for you.”
Wei Ying drops his head, hiding his flush and the sudden sting of tears behind his teacup.
“Now,” she says, smiling sweetly. “What would you like for dinner?”
Wei Ying laughs, feeling warm, and happy, and raw. “You know I’ll eat anything, Jiejie.”
“Black bean spareribs it is, then,” she declares, hauling out two giant pots. “I’ll make two batches, one regular, and one extra spicy,” she says. “Just for you, A-Ying.”
He watches her adoringly as she browns the ribs and smashes the garlic, and he inhales deeply as the ginger and the scallions hit the smoking hot oil. Next is the black bean sauce, sharp and pungent and oh so salty. A handful of chilies and a dollop of sambal is added to the pot, and then lastly, the homemade chicken stock washes it all together. It’ll be at least forty minutes until they eat, but Wei Ying can’t wait. He washes the rice for her as she chops up mushrooms and green peppers, and he chatters at her happily until the spareribs are ready to serve.
The sauce for the ribs is thick and rich, and Wei Ying ladles it greedily over his rice, savouring every fragment of the black beans as he pushes them against the roof of his mouth, a burst of tangy, powerful salt. The meat is silky and tender, falling off the bone. The green pepper snaps between his teeth, expertly cooked, and the mushrooms burst with flavour, seared to perfection by the heat of the wok.
Jiang Yanli places an especially meaty sparerib on his rice. Jiang Cheng recounts their latest exploits on the soccer field while Uncle Jiang listens attentively. Auntie Yu eats in silence, her mood having improved exponentially with a glass or two of wine.
Wei Ying smiles and shovels his rice into his mouth.
It tastes something like home.
Lan Zhan stands stock still just outside the entrance to the living room, his heart in his throat.
He hadn’t meant to lurk, or eavesdrop, but the sound of Wei Ying’s voice had carried out into the hallway, and Lan Zhan couldn’t help but overhear the tail end of his musings.
Wei Ying thinks he is going back to Shanghai, and Wei Ying doesn’t want him to go.
Wei Ying doesn’t know what he’d do without Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan is stunned, and not entirely sure what he’s feeling. He should be happy. He should be elated. But his heart is aching with the realization that Wei Ying believes Lan Zhan would leave him, that he could pack up his life and leave Vancouver without a backward glance. Lan Zhan is choked by remorse. How could Wei Ying think that? Has he been so cold or distant that Wei Ying has no idea how much Lan Zhan wants to stay with him? How much Lan Zhan wants to keep him?
Everybody leaves eventually, Wei Ying had said.
Lan Zhan is not going anywhere. Not without Wei Ying. But Wei Ying doesn’t know this, and Lan Zhan has no one to blame but himself. He mustn’t dwell here, he tells himself. He has to move.
Hope flares, a flash of heat in his chest, hot and insistent.
Wei Ying needs him.
But does Wei Ying want him? Lan Zhan hardly knows, but he is determined to find out.
“Lan Zhan?” Jin Zixuan says, coming up behind him. “Everything all right?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan replies, collecting himself and shuttering his expression.
“After you,” Jin Zixuan says.
Lan Zhan nods and makes his way into the living room. Wei Ying looks up and smiles at him as he enters, and Lan Zhan’s racing heart skips a beat. What wouldn’t he do to protect that smile?
“How’s he doing?” Jin Zixuan asks, crouching down in front of Jin Ling.
“He’s doing great!” Wei Ying enthuses. “Although he’s getting a little cranky. I think he’s had enough of me.”
“He’s probably getting tired again,” Jiang Yanli says from where she has appeared in the doorway. “Would you like to put him to bed, A-Ying?”
“Can I?” Wei Wuxian says, smile widening and eyes shining.
“Of course,” Jiang Yanli smiles back. “It’d really help me out while I cook the tangyuan. By the time he goes down, they should be ready to eat.”
“Okay!” Wei Ying says, getting to his feet and scooping up the baby. “Lan Zhan, want to help?”
Lan Zhan blinks in surprise. “Would that be all right?”
“Of course,” Jiang Yanli says. “He’s usually a little wary of strangers, but you’ve been around him all night and he’s been very comfortable with it. I don’t think it will hurt.”
“All right,” Lan Zhan says. He’s touched to be asked and to be trusted.
He follows Wei Ying upstairs, Jin Ling watching him over Wei Ying’s shoulder with curious, sleepy eyes.
Jin Ling’s room is pale yellow with white furnishings, impossibly pristine for a baby’s room. A mobile of paper cranes hangs over the top of the crib, the birds floating gently in the slight draft from the window. Wei Ying shoulders the baby and dims the main lights until the room is mostly dark, then he switches on the small lamp on the dresser, casting soft golden light into the corners.
“Do you mind clearing the crib?” Wei Ying asks. “Just take all the toys and the blankets out.”
Lan Zhan moves to comply, picking up a teddy bear and a wooden toy sword from inside the crib and placing them on a side table. He takes the crocheted blanket out and folds it over the side railing, leaving the mattress clean and smooth.
“Thanks,” Wei Ying smiles, gently rocking the baby back and forth. “I can feel him drooping. Are his eyes closed yet?”
Lan Zhan circles around to check. Jin Ling’s eyelids are heavy, fluttering with the effort of trying to stay awake.
“Almost,” Lan Zhan replies.
“Good,” says Wei Ying. “Let’s put him down.”
Lan Zhan watches as Wei Ying lowers Jin Ling into the crib, heart swelling with fondness. Wei Ying is so quiet, so careful with the baby, radiating care and affection. He is soft and open in a way he usually isn’t, and it cracks Lan Zhan’s heart open to see it.
“There you go, big guy,” Wei Ying is murmuring, rubbing soothing circles over Jin Ling’s tummy. The baby fusses sleepily, his feet twitching as he gurgles out a small protest at being put down. Gradually, he quiets, hands curling sweetly as his eyes droop and his tiny body relaxes.
“I love babies,” Wei Ying sighs. “Especially this one, obviously,” he chuckles.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan hums, watching Wei Ying’s face, aching with longing.
“Can you close the window?” Wei Ying asks, voice soft. “I don’t want him to get chilled.”
“Of course,” Lan Zhan replies, moving to the end of the crib and reaching out to slide the window shut.
Suddenly, he freezes.
On the windowsill.
The jade rabbit stares up at him, green and gleaming in the low lamplight. The edges of its broken ear look softer somehow, but the vitreous sheen of its body has not been dulled by time. Lan Zhan stares, his heart pounding, the rush of blood in his ears.
It can’t be.
Slowly, as if through water, he reaches out a hand, just barely grazing his fingertips over the broken ear.
“It’s cute, right?” Wei Ying says, startling Lan Zhan out of his reverie. “It’s my good luck charm.”
“Your good luck charm?” Lan Zhan rasps, throat constricted.
“Well, I suppose it’s Jin Ling’s now, since I gave it to him,” Wei Ying replies. “But it used to be mine. It’s the only thing I’ve had since before I went into foster care.”
Lan Zhan’s head is spinning, his world tipped off its axis.
“I carried it with me everywhere for years,” Wei Ying continues. “Usually I kept it in my backpack, but I’d take it out and talk to it at night. Silly, right?”
“How?” Lan Zhan breathes. It’s not the question Wei Ying thinks it is.
“Oh, you know, whispering secrets to it. Unloading my worries. Kid stuff,” he says. He is quiet for a moment, his eyes far away. “I spoke Mandarin to it, while I still could. When I couldn’t remember anymore, I stopped speaking to it.”
Lan Zhan’s heart breaks wide open, joy and agony overflowing, an excruciating bloodletting.
“It’s such a small thing, but it meant so much. It means so much,” Wei Ying amends. “It’s tiny, and it’s broken, but that’s okay. I like broken things,” he confesses. “They just have more personality.”
Lan Zhan stops breathing entirely. He thinks he might cry.
“You won’t believe how I got it,” Wei Ying says.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan croaks out, and Wei Ying turns to look at him fully, his eyes going wide with surprise and concern.
“Lan Zhan?” he tries. “Lan Zhan, are you all right?”
“You were just a small boy,” Lan Zhan says. “You were wearing worn-out shoes.”
“What?” Wei Ying says, taken aback.
“Your mother was dead. Your father was gone. You had no money. You were all alone,” Lan Zhan says, voice thick with emotion.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying tries again. “Lan Zhan, what—?”
“I didn’t even ask for your name,” Lan Zhan whispers.
Wei Ying’s eyes go wide with shock as realization strikes, his mouth parting on a sudden intake of breath.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes. “You…”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan gasps. “Wei Ying.”
“It was you,” Wei Ying says, voice just above a whisper. “Lan Zhan. It was always you—”
Lan Zhan moves before he can stop himself, stepping around the crib and pulling Wei Ying sharply into his arms, crushing their bodies together in a desperate embrace. Wei Ying gasps, his arms flying up to grasp at Lan Zhan’s shoulders, and Lan Zhan tightens his hold on Wei Ying’s waist, slips a hand up his spine to cradle the back of his head. His pulse is racing, and he can feel Wei Ying’s answering heartbeat where their chests are pressed together.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out, voice wet.
Lan Zhan kisses him.
It’s fierce and desperate, and Wei Ying whimpers into his mouth as Lan Zhan tilts his head and deepens the kiss, tongue sweeping past Wei Ying’s teeth. Wei Ying clings to him, fingers digging into his shoulders, kissing him back just as desperately. Lan Zhan pulls him impossibly closer, his hand tangled in Wei Ying’s hair. He thinks he might be crying.
When they finally part, they don’t go far, foreheads touching, breath mingling. Lan Zhan frames Wei Ying’s face with his hands and gently kisses his lips, a soothing touch after such a fierce onslaught, loving how Wei Ying’s eyelashes flutter against his cheeks.
“Wei Ying,” he whispers. “Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying gets out. He is definitely crying. “Lan Zhan, I can’t believe it’s you. You. You’ve been with me this whole time.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan breathes, his heart aching. It’s agony, and joy, and love.
“I like you so much,” Wei Ying sobs. “I can’t believe that you—that you—”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan soothes, dropping a kiss onto Wei Ying’s forehead. “I want you. I’ve always wanted you. I chose you a long time ago, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying laughs, waterlogged but giddy. “I didn’t know,” he says. “I never would have known. What are the chances? Talk about a ‘reunion’ dinner,” he smiles.
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan says, smiling faintly. The desperation has receded, and in its place is a wondrous calm, a new sense of rightness, and a little bit of awe. “Thank you for inviting me.”
Wei Ying laughs again, this time a little too loudly, and Jin Ling stirs in his crib. The two of them freeze, but the baby quiets again, and Wei Ying breathes a sigh of relief.
“Thank you for coming,” Wei Ying whispers. “Best Chinese New Year ever.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees, and he kisses him again, slowly this time, lips softly probing. Wei Ying opens to him like a flower to the sun, and Lan Zhan’s heart soars. He knows with absolute certainty that this is what he wants, that this is what Wei Ying wants. And now that they’ve found each other, Lan Zhan is never letting go.
The tangyuan are sweet, sticky and perfect. Jiang Yanli makes sure everyone gets one of each flavour; sesame, red bean, and peanut. Wei Ying loves the soft, silky texture of the dough, the smooth warmth of the filling. It’s the perfect finish to a perfect dinner, and Wei Ying has never been happier.
He’s grinning like an idiot, but he couldn’t care less, vibrating with a whole new world of excitement. Lan Zhan likes him. Lan Zhan wants him. Lan Zhan has wanted him for years. It’s more than Wei Ying had wished for, more than he had ever expected, and Wei Ying is so grateful and awestruck that he thinks he might explode with it.
They say goodbye a little after eleven, and they head back to the car, the night air cool and crisp on their faces. Lan Zhan opens the door for him and guides him inside with a hand on Wei Ying’s lower back, and Wei Ying flushes, giddy with happiness. The drive back to Wei Ying’s apartment is mostly silent. Lan Zhan keeps one hand on the steering wheel and reaches out with the other, taking Wei Ying’s hand and lacing their fingers together over the console. He gives Wei Ying a reassuring squeeze, and Wei Ying melts into the warm leather seat, overwhelmed with affection.
All too soon, they’ve arrived in front of Wei Ying’s building. Lan Zhan parks the car and gets out, insisting on walking Wei Ying to his door. Wei Ying gladly lets him, Lan Zhan’s hand resting warmly on the small of his back.
“Thanks again for driving,” Wei Ying says, smiling softly.
“Of course,” Lan Zhan murmurs, hovering a little closer than usual.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and suddenly, they are kissing again, Lan Zhan’s fingers tangled in his hair, mouth insistent. Wei Ying arches into him, wrapping his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck and giving himself up to the kiss. It’s hot, and breathless, and Wei Ying never wants it to stop.
Lan Zhan draws back to look at him, his pupils blown wide, lips wet and kiss-bitten. There’s such a raw look of hunger there, such an open expression of desire, that Wei Ying goes a little weak at the knees.
“Will you come up with me?” Wei Ying breathes, and Lan Zhan’s eyes grow impossibly darker.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan replies, voice low and rough. He cradles Wei Ying’s face in his hands and strokes his thumbs across Wei Ying’s cheeks. “I would go anywhere with you, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying can feel himself tearing up.
“I’ve built many things,” Lan Zhan continues. “But what I’ve always wanted to build is a home. Will you let me do that for you, Wei Ying?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out.
“Will you let me be your home?”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says, voice cracking and eyes spilling over. “Please, yes.”
“I’m going to take care of you,” Lan Zhan says, deadly serious, utterly sincere.
Wei Ying adores him.
“I can’t wait,” Wei Ying smiles.
“They say you must start the New Year as you mean to continue,” Lan Zhan says, stepping closer and pulling Wei Ying flush against him. “It is almost midnight,” he breathes across his lips. “Shall we get started?”
Wei Ying lets out a breathless little laugh.
“Okay,” he murmurs, and Lan Zhan kisses him again, deep and wet.
“There’s just one thing,” Wei Ying gasps as they part.
“What is it?” Lan Zhan asks.
“You have to let me take you to Chinatown tomorrow,” Wei Ying says.
“Oh?” Lan Zhan asks, eyebrow raised.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, his heart overflowing.
He laces their fingers together and smiles his best smile.
“I owe you an apple tart.”