In Suzhou, there was a saying that the winter solstice was as important as the new year. Despite the atmosphere being all tense due to the impending examinations, Zhang Ganggang was still looking forward to drinking winter brewed wine in the evening.
Xie Meng too prepared two small jars of wines. He poured three cups, placing them in front of Zhang Xiujuan’s and his parents’ portraits. The smell of incense combined with the fragrance of the osmanthus wine, full bodied and dense.
Early next morning, Ji Qinyang came by to pick Xie Meng up for school. At the front of the bicycle hung a stalk of osmanthus, and Xie Meng laughed when he saw it.
Ji Qinyang cocked his brow. “BM Fragrant Car.”
Xie Meng shook his head, “How cultured.”
He climbed onto the seat at the back, holding the osmanthus stalk in his hand. Ji Qinyang rang the bell as he cycled through the old streets and alleys.
After the winter solstice, the sun rose later. At seven in the morning, it still felt like the gentle morning sun. The old lady selling sugar porridge1 was pushing her cart, and steam was wafting off her open pot.
“It feels like it’s going to snow.” Ji Qinyang warmed his hands with the bowl of sugar porridge. Seeing him, Xie Meng took his gloves off and passed it to him.
Ji Qinyang smiled, “One for each of us.”
Xie Meng was helpless against him. “There were originally yours. I’m not the one cycling, yet you insist on making me wear them.”
“Then you must hold me tightly when you sit behind me. Like this, you’ll be warm.”
Xie Meng glanced at him, remaining silent. After they finished their porridge, they continued on their way, and from behind, Xie Meng hugged Ji Qinyang tightly.
“My good little darling.” Ji Qinyang laughed. He looked in front of him without turning back. “Have you memorized all the ancient poems yet?”
“Aren’t you afraid of swallowing in the wind?” Amusement could be heard in Xie Meng’s force. “I’ve memorized them all.”
“Then I’ll test you?”
Xie Meng was a little surprised. “Now?”
“Yup.” Ji Qinyang thought for a moment, “Su Shi’s <Courtyard Full of Fragrance>. For fame as vain as a snail’s horn2, and the last line.”
Xie Meng recited it almost instantaneously. “The Southern shore is fine, with a thousand cups of wine, and the courtyard fragrant with song.3”
“But in the crowd once and again.”
“I look for her in vain. When all at once I turn my head, I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed.4”
Ji Qinyang laughed and continued, “Give me your hand I’ll hold.”
Xie Meng paused, before answering slowly, “And live with me till old.5”
“Mn.” Ji Qinyang turned his head, “We’ll agree on this then.”
Xie Meng looked at him, smiling and promised, “Ok.”
Ji Qinyang only had two days of examinations. On the last day, while waiting for Xie Meng, the first snow of winter fell in Suzhou.
White snow drifted from the heavy, grey sky. Walking out from the classroom, Xie Meng immediately saw the youth standing in the snow.
Ji Qinyang’s black hair was covered with snowflakes. He was not holding an umbrella, and his face was flawless, his smile gentle and bright.
Xie Meng ran to him. With arms wide open, Ji Qinyang embraced him as the snow fell.
Behind Xie Meng, Zhang Ganggang was cheering loudly, “The exams are over! It’s the New Year!”
Qi Fei threw his schoolbag at him in scorn. Zhuo Xiaoyuan stood in the corridor, looking at the two people who were still hugging each other from a distance.
“Hey.” Zhuo Xiaoyuan called out to Xie Meng.
The boy turned around.
With angled eyes, Zhuo Xiaoyuan smiled. “Let’s spend the New Year together.”
On New Year’s Eve, Ji Qinyang arrived at Xie Meng’s house early in the morning. The two of them went shopping for new year goodies, and Ji Qinyang had brought some dessert Mo Suyuan had prepared. There was a cake in the adorable shape of a bunny, and plenty of fruit tarts.
Ji Qinyang placed one in his mouth. He hooked onto Xie Meng’s neck, leaning over.
Xie Meng looked down, biting into the edge of the tart. Ji Qinyang ate half of it, and pushed the other half into Xie Meng’s mouth with his tongue.
“…” Xie Meng’s mouth was now full of a buttery fragrance.
Ji Qinyang licked his thumb. “Is it delicious?”
Xie Meng nodded, and Ji Qinyang kissed him on the cheek. “Bring them along, we can have some on the way.”
Xie Meng picked up one more and stuffed it into Ji Qinyang’s mouth. Packing the rest of them up, he held the package in his hand, and they left for the market near Shantang Street. As Xie Meng was selecting the vegetables, he asked Ji Qinyang what he would like to eat.
“Anything is fine,” Ji Qinyang said indifferently. “Don’t buy too much.”
Xie Meng laughed, “There’s no need to help save money for me.”
On the way back, Xie Meng also bought some candies. When they were nearly home, they saw Zhuo Xiaoyuan holding onto Zhuo Jinjin from afar. He was waiting there with an impatient look on his face.
“Why did you guys take so long?” Zhuo Xiaoyuan complained. Seeing Xie Meng, Zhuo Jinjin immediately turned shy, her expression saying, “Adonis, I love you.”
Ji Qinyang responded unhappily, “Why did you come so early?”
Xie Meng gave Zhuo Jinjin a candy, then opened the door and welcomed the guests in.
“I’m here to help.” Zhuo Xiaoyuan took over the bags from Ji Qinyang’s hands. “I don’t sponge off people.”
The three boys busied themselves in the kitchen, and only Zhuo Jinjin was left watching TV alone in the living room. Xie Meng glanced outside, then patted Zhuo Xiaoyuan on his arm. “Go out and accompany your sister, Ji Qinyang and I can handle things here.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan finished washing the vegetables, and wiped the water from his hands. “Another 10 minutes and the perch should be done.”
Xie Meng nodded, “I know.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan was not assured. “Cook properly, don’t keep flirting with each other.”
Xie Meng, “…”
When the dishes were ready, the little girl came over, wanting to help. Tip-toeing, she carefully carried the plate from the counter. As Xie Meng was cutting fruits, he heard a knocking on the door.
“Who else did you invite?” Ji Qinyang stuffed a slice of apple in Xie Meng’s mouth.
“I don’t know…” Xie Meng mumbled. “I’ll go take a look.”
Wrapped like a ball, Zhang Ganggang was standing outside the courtyard. Grinning like a fool, he shouted, “Surprise!”
Xie Meng, “…”
“Let me in, let me in! I brought a lot of good food! Quick, quick help me carry some!”
Xie Meng looked down to see him carry two big lunch boxes. Ji Qinyang followed him out, and he raised his brow when he saw Zhang Ganggang. “What are you doing here? You’re not spending the New Year at home?”
After putting his things down, Zhang Ganggang removed his clothes one by one. “I’ve talked to my mother about it already. Look! These were all made by her!”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan opened the lunch boxes and was nearly blinded. In it were all sorts of food, encapsulating items from land, air and sea. Zhuo Jinjin grabbed onto the edge of the table, wanting to take a look as well, and was carried up by Zhang Ganggang.
“Alright,” Zhuo Xiaoyuan spoke, resigned. “We’ve cooked in vain.”
Xie Meng hesitated. “Shall I invite a few more people over?”
Ji Qinyang laughed, “It’s the New Year. Who would come?”
In the end, just as he finished speaking, the courtyard gate that had not been closed properly was once again pushed open from outside.
Carrying flowers and wine, Han Dong was taken aback when he entered the house. “There’s so many people here?”
Ji Qinyang, “…”
Xie Meng looked at him and could not help laughing. “Shall we call Qi Fei over too?”
By the time Qi Fei arrived, the five people had already started eating. The flowers Han Dong brought was placed in front of Zhang Xiujuan’s portrait. They did not plan on finishing the wine, but shared a bottle of juice.
Zhuo Jinjin was very happy to see Qi Fei. The two of them played a clapping game at the dinner table. Zhuo Xiaoyuan watched his sister, occasionally placing food in her bowl.
Zhang Ganggang asked him, “Where are you planning to study?”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan replied, “Shanghai, probably. It’s nearby, and I can take care of my sister.”
Qi Fei interrupted, “Staying in Suzhou is more convenient.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan shook his head. “There’s not good medical school in Suzhou… Next year, my mom can come back and take care of Jinjin. I’ll go to Shanghai to study, and I can come home during the weekends.”
Han Dong eyed Zhang Ganggang. “Where will you be going?”
Mustering his courage, Zhang Ganggang gave him a side-eye. “Why should I tell you?!”
Han Dong narrowed his eyes. Before he could speak, Ji Qinyang answered for Zhang Ganggang. “He wants to get into the Communication University of Beijing. So, our future little reporter?”
“My dream isn’t that simple!” Zhang Ganggang spoke proudly. “I want to be a famous reporter, and become China’s number one photographer!”
Xie Meng was encouraging. “Then you have to work hard. Did you bring your camera?”
Just last year, Zhang Ganggang had finally saved enough money to buy a DSLR, and wished that he could carry it along with him everyday just like it was a treasure.
“If you didn’t mention it, I’d have nearly forgotten.” Zhang Ganggang happily took out his camera kit. Adjusting the lens, he pointed it at Ji Qinyang and Xie Meng. “Come, take a photo.”
Ji Qinyang smoothly put his arm around Xie Meng’s shoulders. The two put their heads close together for Zhang Ganggang to take a shot.
“Awesome!” Zhang Ganggang showed them the photo, exclaiming, “You guys are really too good-looking. You guys look perfect together.”
“…” Despite knowing that he was just complimenting them innocently, Xie Meng was still a little embarrassed.
In contrast, Ji Qinyang was cheekier. He touched Xie Meng’s ear stud and agreed, “I think so too.”
The expression on the other three boys could be identified as cursing him for putting his love on display for the single people around. Only Zhang Ganggang was foolishly happy after being praised.
“Help us take a photo too.” Zhuo Xiaoyuan was hugging Zhuo Jinjin. The little girl smiled sweetly, giving a “V” sign, and the boy lowered his head, kissing his sister’s face.
Zhang Ganggang captured this image.
“The man of iron is actually tender huh.” Qi Fei ridiculed him as he looked at the photo. Zhuo Xiaoyuan shot him a look, laughingly asking him to scram.
Xie Meng took out the fireworks Zhuo Xiaoyuan had brought. Placing the big ones in the courtyard, he lit them, while letting Zhuo Jinjin hold onto the small ones. Zhang Ganggang raised his camera, snapping away. Qi Fei wanted a jump shot, and only succeeded after a few tries with the resplendent fireworks in the background.
Xie Meng and Zhuo Jinjin both held onto sparklers. Ji Qinyang stood by the side, looking at him tenderly.
“Do you want to play too?” Xie Meng looked up, asking him. Ji Qinyang could not resist, and bent over to kiss the boy on his forehead.
Xie Meng, “… Jinjin is still around.”
The little girl’s eyes almost disappeared with her smile. Wrinkling her nose and sticking her tongue out, she said, “Qinyang-gege is shameful~”
Ji Qinyang raised his brow. Lifting Zhuo Jinjin up, he placed her on his neck. The little girl cheered, waving the sparkler in her hand.
In the distance, Zhuo Xiaoyuan lit the biggest fireworks.
Han Dong looked up at the explosion in the sky. The bright colours reflected on his well-defined face. Unconsciously, Zhang Ganggang picked his camera up and took a shot.
Han Dong turned around, and the boy’s lens was still pointed towards him.
“Um…” Zhang Ganggang stuck his head out from behind the camera, suggesting, “Want to try smiling?”
Han Dong did not speak. A moment later, he smiled at Zhang Ganggang’s camera.
Zhang Ganggang, “…”
Smiling, Han Dong asked, “Are you going to take the photo?”
“Oh!” Zhang Ganggang quickly adjusted the focal length. He hesitated a little before pressing the shutter. Han Dong waited for him to finish taking the shot before turning his head back to the fireworks, and Zhang Ganggang sneakily went back to the photo he took just now.
In the photo, Han Dong’s smile glowed gently with the reflection from the brilliant fireworks. His eyes seemed to pierce through the lens, looking straight into Zhang Ganggang’s eyes.
There were too many fireworks. The six of them played for an entire two hours before they finished them. After cleaning up the courtyard, with the lights from the house, they carried a square table out to play mahjong.
After 8pm, Zhuo Jinjin started feeling sleepy. The little girl’s head was already nodding away, but she refused to go to bed. Zhuo Xiaoyuan carried her inside, and Xie Meng prepared a hot water bottle and handed it to him.
“Go and play,” Zhuo Xiaoyuan carried his sister and whispered. “I’ll accompany her.”
Xie Meng smiled, “It’s fine, Zhang Ganggang is there.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan was amused. Xie Meng took a new quilt, making a bed for the siblings. Hugging her brother’s neck, Zhuo Jinjin mumbled something. Zhuo Xiaoyuan carried her and lay down, pressing their foreheads together and spoke gently, “Happy New Year.”
Xie Meng motioned that he was going to go out. Zhuo Xiaoyuan nodded, and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Xie Meng closed the door for Zhuo Xiaoyuan. When he went out, he saw Ji Qinyang waiting for him in the living room.
“Why aren’t you playing mahjong?” Xie Meng asked curiously.
Ji Qinyang shrugged, “I asked them to go play cards.”
Xie Meng, “…”
He laughed and shook his head, “You…”
Ji Qinyang hugged him from the back. “Let’s watch the Spring Festival Gala.”
Xie Meng agreed. He took another quilt out, and the two of them covered themselves on the couch, watching TV. Chatting and laughing together, midnight slowly approached. From the courtyard, Zhang Ganggang could be heard shouting loudly, “Zha!”
Following the countdown of the Spring Festival Gala, exploding firecrackers could be heard from outside the courtyard.
Ji Qinyang hooked his arm around Xie Meng’s neck. The two of them exchanged a kiss, leaning their foreheads against each other.
“Happy New Year.” Xie Meng smiled, speaking softly.
“Happy New Year.” Ji Qinyang kissed his lips again. “I love you.”