show a little faith, there's magic in the night | tears of themis | lu jinghe
warning for spoilers for themes from ch. 1 of lu jinghe's story, use of bruce springsteen, and a very long conversation about Life that is purely conjecture about lu jinghe's past
"watch the sunset with me?" he asks.
you blink for a moment, at a loss.
"please?" he tries. then, with another grin, "jie jie?"
you sigh. you move to join him, anyway.
("an hour of your time, jie jie?" he says. "I'm willing to pay.")
"lu jinghe?" you ask.
he's facing away from you, leaning heavy on the riverside railing, his features turned silhouette by the light of the setting sun.
"why did you tell me to meet you here?"
he turns at the sound of your voice, and something like relief flickers brief across his face before he relaxes into a careless grin, beckoning you closer with one lazy hand's wave.
"an hour of your time, jie jie?" he says. "I'm willing to pay."
you scoff, and let your elbow knock hard against his as response. for once, he takes it without complaint.
"watch the sunset with me?" he asks instead.
you blink for a moment, at a loss.
"please?" he tries. then, with another grin, "jie jie?"
you sigh. you move to join him, anyway.
the two of you stand in silence as the shadows of the city length, stretch fingers long across the water in pursuit of the fading rays of light.
"if I tell you a story," he says, "will you promise to just listen?"
"what does that even mean," you start to say, playful, but you stop short when you catch sight of his expression: lost, uncertain.
you swallow the teasing back. lean closer, then nod.
he glances your direction, then away. takes a breath, then speaks.
"I almost ran away from home once, when I was eight," he says. you stiffen. you're about to open your mouth when you remember his initial words. you subside.
"it was after my father's assistant had taken me to a circus."
he smiles, self-deprecating, lost in memory.
"I was throwing a fit because my father wouldn't take me with him and my brother on his business trip. but then I was promised a day at the visiting circus that had set up tent along the water, blooming like a rare flower at the center of the CBD."
"I'd never been obedient in my life," he adds with a grin. "but that day, I shut up. did my homework and studying, and was on my best behavior until we left the mansion."
"at that circus, there were all types of performers— put on by people of all talents, no matter how strange."
"there were elephant riders," he says, eyes bright, fixed on a scene out of his distant past, a scene for him and his eight-year old self alone, "lion tamers. knife throwers. trapeze artists who soared so high I thought they'd grown wings, and without the tent's roof, away they'd fly."
he scoffs a little.
"I thought they were magic."
"aren't they?" you ask. "in a way."
he lifts a shoulder. lets it fall. smiles. brittle, mocking.
"then magic's not all it's cracked up to be."
you don't respond. after a moment's silence, he clears his throat, glances your way, then back out across the horizon.
"anyway," he says, "point isn't if they were magic or not. eight-year-old me wanted to paint them anyway. try and capture even a little of their energy with my brush."
then, almost too quietly for you to hear,
"I still do."
"but?" you prompt.
"but," he repeats. the word's flat. sounds hollow on the still evening air, falls too cold, too heavy, too real under the setting sun's warm, hazy glow.
"it was just the one summer's day. painting and art— that was already my one indulgence. as my father's second son I wasn't allowed much more."
he swallows. you take a long look at him, but his gaze never wavers from the sun, slipping low and golden below the city skyline's flickering lights.
"it was like a dream," he says, soft, wistful. "I could've stayed forever, memorizing every inch of it. the flying trapeze. the dancers. the music. the cheering crowds. the smell of caramel and spice."
"it was evening before I knew it, and my father's assistant was doing his best to convince me to leave the snake charmer alone."
"I was just about to bribe him with what was left of my pocket money—"
"of course you were, young master," you interject with a scoff. though his body's still tense, he throws you a smirk, then continues.
"but then, the tent lights dimmed. a hush fell over the crowd, even the animals, as if we were all holding a collective breath, waiting, waiting for something. we didn't know what, but I could feel it, y'know? that if I didn't stay, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. missing that moment."
"so I gave him the money. promised him double when we got home. and we stayed."
"the tent was near pitch black, and everyone still and silent in this almost unnatural way, nearly scared, the feeling near sacred, when flames blossomed in the darkness, and the world of our tent came alive again, with the breath of fire, with the fire's light."
"fire breathing?" you ask. he nods.
"fire dancing," he says, makes the words reverential.
"I'd never seen anything like it before. And even while watching, barely blinking so I wouldn't miss even a single flame's briefest flicker, I knew I could spend my whole life trying to capture that scene on canvas, that energy, and still not manage a passable echo of it."
"that was real magic, jie jie," he says, and for once, his voice is earnest. full of childlike wonder. "I'll never see anything like it again."
"those performances that day, they were art. art everyone should see. art everyone should appreciate."
"I was planning on buying the circus company once I was old enough," he says. you'd scoff at a similar statement any other day, but his voice is dreamlike, worlds away,
"I wanted to preserve it. to capture that magic in the only way I knew how."
his eyelids stutter shut. he inhales, exhales, grip flexing hard against the railing.
what's wrong, you almost ask, but the words lodge hard and painful in your throat at his smile: warm, genuine. almost heartbreaking.
"today, I found out the company shut down ten years ago. the day I went was one of the troupe's last."
"and now?" you ask, voice soft. "is there no way of finding where all the performers are?"
he shrugs. glances sidelong at you. his eyes are lost. lonely as the final rays of sun sink into nothing.
"now I'm here," he says, a forced sort of flippant. it falls flat, and he abandons it, lets his voice falter. "I'm here in the same spot that tent was when I was young, and everything's gone. everything's changed. me, too."
you don't know how to respond. how best to comfort him. if there are any words of comfort that exist for moments like these at all.
at your silence, he sighs, shakes himself hard, then tries a smile.
"sorry," he says. "I shouldn't have said all that. it was selfish of me. just forget this, and tomorrow I'll be the lu jinghe you know again."
he turns to leave. on an impulse— don't let him leave, your nerves sing, your heart shouts, not like this— you grab his wrist, call his name, tell him to wait.
he does. he's still in your grasp, hardly breathing, though beneath your fingers, you feel his pulse racing.
"jie jie?" he asks, and it's hard to tell in the dusk half-light, but you think there's color creeping high across his cheeks. you flush in turn, but don't let go.
"wait," you repeat, and he does, and you sigh a little, relieved, take a breath, organize your thoughts, then speak.
"I—" you start, grasping for your usual lawyer's eloquence, "I used to visit this field every summer. it was behind my grandparent's house in the countryside. during the daytime, it wasn't much. just a patch of overgrown grass gone golden dry, any flowers that might've chosen to grow there in the spring baked under the summer sun."
"me and my childhood friend, we'd run through it until our cheeks were red with the burn of the sunlight, 'til we were exhausted, exhilarated, our hearts racing still long after we'd stopped."
"it was like tasting freedom," you say, your voice softening. "the golden field stretching wide in every direction. the never-ending blue sky up above."
if you close your eyes, you can still see it: xia yan's hair gleaming, just a few shades darker than the grass underfoot, his broad smile, your breathless laughter as you tried your best to keep up. your heart twists at the memory. since he's returned to the city, you don't think you've seen him as carefree as he was then, nor as bright.
some of it must show on your face— lu jinghe makes a vaguely comforting noise and bumps his shoulder against yours.
"during the daytime, though," he says. "then, I'm guessing it must've been something else at night."
you swallow and nod. blink a thanks in his direction, then respond.
"you're right," you say. "it was."
"at night," you say, "the grass was dark. the air was cool. if you looked up, you'd see more than a million stars. only, most nights we never bothered looking up, because it was like we were surrounded by all the stars of the sky, our own galaxy, blinking in, blinking out. little constellations all our own, those little fireflies and their lights."
"I could buy you a star," he says, tone forced light.
"lu jinghe," you scold.
"I could," he insists. "a galaxy, too."
"only if you wanted," he says. though his demeanor's sulky, you can tell, the words are heartfelt. you smile. just a little.
"what i wanted to say," you continue, "is that the field's probably still there. the fireflies, too. or, not exactly the same fireflies as in my memory, not exactly the same grass, but even if I were to return, even if I were to be there with the same person, it wouldn't be the same as my memory. we wouldn't be the same people either."
he chuckles. you frown.
"paris was never to be the same again although it was always paris and you changed as it changed," he quotes, smirk still tugging the corners of his lips up. "you and that old man have the same taste in literature."
"if art can be a moveable feast," you counter, "then why not the circus, too? maybe you'll never see those same performers again. maybe you will. either way, it won't be the same. not because you've lost the magic or the circus has, but because you've already had that moment. it was something that'd happen only once, that was no less meaningful for its brevity, that you'll keep forever in your memory."
he shrugs. smirks devil-may-care again.
"memory is hunger," he quotes, then sobers, turns serious once more.
"maybe you're right," he says. "either way, it doesn't change the truth: it's gone. we move on. the world moves on. we have to."
"that's not what I meant," you say. "not really. because maybe it's gone, maybe the world asks us to move on, tells us that it was all in the past, there's no such thing as magic anymore. but you tell me, is that a life worth living— you're an artist, aren't you?"
"pax," he mutters. doesn't meet your eyes. then, louder:
"I have a responsibility to my father's company, miss attorney. ceos don't get to be artists, too."
"you see the beauty in the world," you counter. "the magic. you want to preserve it. not everyone can. not everyone has the power to. the money. the privilege. as ceo, why don't you?"
"isn't that what you told the director," you press. "that you'd defend other's dreams? doesn't it start here? by fighting first for your own? where you can. when you can."
"while you still can."
"maybe there will be a day in the not-so-distant future where you'll have to choose," you continue. "and maybe you already know the choice you'll make. the choice you will have to make. but until that day, why sacrifice it— the vision only you have?"
wind rolls nighttime heavy across the water, blows chill between you, spins your hair loose and ruffles his bangs into his eyes. he reaches to brush them aside, and you think, for a moment, you see his hand shake. his eyes shutter closed. in the quiet, the shadows play dark over the panes of his face, turning his expression to nothing but another piece of night.
"I don't know," he says. "maybe no one's ever told me I had that choice before."
he turns to face you completely, and there's a child's hope hovering fragile in his dark eyes.
"not until you, jie jie," he says. then, so softly, you're not quite sure you hear him right:
"there's no one like you."
"that's not true," you say, tipping your head to gaze back up at him. just above his head, the first stars wink into existence. he swallows. leans closer. and your heart's racing, it has been, since you're not sure when, it's been racing, been waiting for a moment, for this moment, this moment, that, like magic, won't ever come again,
"there's you," you say, then the words are lost to the rest of the world as he closes the space between your lips and his.
the stars are as bright as the city lights by the time you pull apart, breathless wonders, the two of you a constellation all your own.
"jie jie," he says with a sweet smile the antithesis of his customary smirk, then pulls you close.
"thank you for coming today when I called."
"aren't you paying me by the hour?"
he scoffs. you laugh, nestled warm against his chest.
"then," he says, and you can hear his smirk return, "i'll be asking for the rest of the night, too."
it's your turn to scoff, if only to cover your blush.
"is there anywhere you want to go?" he asks a beat later. "you must be cold."
you shrug. slip out of his arms to claim his hand in yours.
"anywhere," you say.
"then," he replies, boyish bright, "let's go find some more magic together."
you don't have to go far— before you can search, magic finds you.
as you start down the path away from the riverside, back to the roadside, back past the deserted playground, through an empty lot, light splits the night: a ball of flames, soaring like a meteor through the night sky, burning bright.
at your side, lu jinghe stops dead in his tracks.
"fire dancing," he breathes, eyes alight. the flames fly further, and he follows.
a small crowd's gathered at the other end of the lot to watch, and you join them. there's a child crying, the group of teenagers in front of you are clearly drunk, and above their chatter, you can barely hear the music from the performer's battered speaker (talk about a dream, bruce springsteen growls, try to make it real), but lu jinghe has eyes for the fire and the fire alone, the fire and the old man who dances with it, his movements graceful, his wrinkled face creased into a broad smile.
the flames make another arc, sweep higher than the half-risen moon then come crashing back down, scorching the heavens and pavement alike, the man snaps his wrist, it returns to him, then with another tug, it soars back out into the darkness, blazing a trail of light into the night, carving temporary constellations, curling close around him, closer than a lover's caress, then flying proud, flying free— his passion, his life burning bright for the world to see.
and lu jinghe's fingers are closed tight around yours, and you hardly dare breathe, you don't think you breathe at all, you don't think you blink or move, and you want this moment to last forever, you want this magic to stay, because you don't think you'll ever see anything like it ever again: a person's soul become art, become a living, breathing thing, become light and flame,
(because maybe we spend our lives chasing the light, in love with it, the way it dances— always proud, fierce, always bright— but we hardly ever live it. breathe it. make it our own. hardly ever become it, the thing we love most.)
but the fire burns low, burns lower, burns out, and it's over with a smattering of applause, with a passing car's blasted pop song drowning out the fading crunch of 70s guitar, and you can breathe again, you blink and the world kicks back into motion around you, the crowd dispersing, though some are like you, like lu jinghe: they linger, still lost in the dream, lost to the light.
beside you, lu jinghe shakes himself, as if rousing himself. you turn to him, about to say something, anything, words that'll pale in comparison to what you've just shared, but he pulls away, strides to where the old man's taking a drink of water.
you blink again. shake yourself in turn. flex your fingers where they'd grown numb and sweaty intertwined with his. in his absence, one of the teenagers who'd stayed sidles up next to you.
"your boyfriend looks happy," she says with a grin and a shoulder nudge. you follow her pointed finger with your gaze to where lu jinghe's talking animatedly with the old man, his arms sweeping dramatically through the air, his shadow as excited as he is.
you're about to correct her, but then they both laugh, the old man gestures, and lu jinghe's head lifts, his gaze seeks out yours, meets it mid-laugh,
and you're suddenly struck painful breathless, your heart in your mouth, because this is yours, and only yours, and it's lightning magic, a match lit in the dark, blossoming bright in the dead of the night, it is enough, more than enough, everything you'd never dreamed of, never hoped for, never knew you wanted, never knew you needed: this firecracker charmer of a boy, carefree careless with an artist's heart that cares nevertheless. this boy who shines only for you, shines bright as the flames he's mesmerized by,
and the girl speaks again, but his eyes are still on yours, and she fades back into the night with her friends, leaving only a wink and a laugh— he's grinning broader, happier than you've ever seen him, and he's making his way back over to you, lit torch in hand.
"why are you looking at me like that, jie jie?" he asks, and you know he's barely your junior, but he sounds impossibly young in this moment, the firelight dancing in his eyes, turning the edges of his hair bright, burnished gold, and words could never quite describe what you're feeling— if it were bottled, you're sure it'd be sparkling strange, a living thing, a breathing thing, like fire, like this night, like you and him— but you smile, you reach for his hand before he can react, wind your fingers warm around his where they're gripping the torch's handle.
"you look happy," you say.
"happy?" he asks, but doesn't shrug off your hand. "happy, and not handsome?"
a heartbeat passes. the flames flicker. then his grin widens.
"I'll take it. a compliment from jie jie? I'll treasure it."
"yeah?" you say, eyes still on his.
"yeah," he replies, staring steady back at you. "I will, always."
he's trying to learn to twirl the flames when you call his name soft, a question only your heart and his has the answer for, and when he turns to look back at you, his eyes reflecting golden glorious in the torchlight's glow, you want to call this magic, too.
"watch the sunrise with me?" you ask.
"another hour of your time?"
"for free, this time."
"then," he says, grinning bright, grinning broad, "we'll have to make it magic, too.")