Aaron is in love. He’s trying to act cool about it, but it’s no use. She’s everything he’s ever dreamed of, everything he’s ever wanted. Will the Chinese New Year celebrations give him the perfect way to tell her how he feels?
I hate crowds. It’s not the people, but the sense of being trapped, of not being able to see the ground before me, or behind me. I hate losing the sky line, the loss of the horizon that comes with being in the city, and being in a crowd is that taken to the extreme.
So considering my loathing of busy places, I’m wondering why the hell I agreed to come into London for the Chinese New Year festivities. One glance sideways reminds me exactly why I’m here. Black hair, though not dyed, full lips, eyes that always look like they’re laughing. There are other details, things about her I’m only just unearthing, but anyone who says attraction isn’t based, at least on some level, on appearance is lying.
It’s not a date. She was very clear about that. I’m merely accompanying her here, so she’s got someone to talk to, someone to share the fun with. I’m not sure why that makes it different from a date, except, I suppose, she might be worried that I’ll be expecting to kiss her, and now I’m not. Hoping, perhaps, but not expecting. I’ve always been an optimist, especially when it comes to beautiful girls.
The crowd shifts, surges forwards, and we’re dragged along, feet stumbling over flyers and discarded paper cups, early victims. Trafalgar Square will be a mess by the end of the day, but since the sun is not yet over the yard arm, I’m not thinking about the end of anything.
‘Come on, let’s head up to Chinatown.’ She grins at me and it’s all I can do to keep my mouth shut and not simper like a school boy. I’m not altogether clear what simpering entails, but Jasmine makes me want to do it.
She grabs my hand which is, in my book, a sure sign this is becoming a date, and drags me through the people. We earn a few angry grunts, but everyone’s far too English to actually moan at us. Do the Chinese moan, or would it be the same if we were there?
We break free of the crowd and I gasp involuntarily, feeling the sweat already drying on my back. She’s oblivious to it, of course, far too wrapped up in the cacophony of drums and cymbals coming from the nearby stage. I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese music, though I can’t say I’ve heard a lot, but when it’s played in the street, and with such enthusiasm and passion, I can’t stop nodding in time, feeling my hips sway with it.
Jasmine’s doing the same and, despite my need to see where I’m going, I can’t help my eyes drifting to her hips, to the sway. She glances at me, sees what I’m looking at, and grins, shaking it a little harder. I groan, though luckily the drums drown me out. She stops but pulls on my arm, making me walk right into her. My arms wrap around her back and, just like that, we’re inches away.
She stands on tiptoes, tucks her head on my shoulder, and whispers in my ear. ‘This is a date.’
With a laugh, she breaks away and dances off, slipping through the narrow gaps between groups of people, islands in a river she navigates with ease. I’ve become the barge that bashes its clumsy way through, but I couldn’t care in the least.
It’s a date. I’m grinning. I know I’m grinning like a complete idiot, but she must like my smile, because I use it a lot when I’m with her, so why not put it on show?
She’s waiting at the entrance to Leicester Square and I can’t help noticing how her weight is over one hip, how the leg that supports her is shaped so perfectly in her leggings. I can’t help noticing the way her breasts push against her hoodie, adding curves that make my breath catch in my throat. I can’t help noticing her, despite everything around me, despite the noise and the lights and the smells, all I notice is her.
And this is a date.
My grin’s back, so full my cheeks are aching.
I catch her hand just as she turns and we dance together up the street that leads us to Chinatown. The cinema on our left promises A ‘Singalong Sound of Music’ and I bite my lip to keep from bursting into song. Her hair is caught by the wind, swirling around like a black halo, like a cloak revealing her neck and chin, every part of her perfect, even in the brief moments.
We stop as we reach the top, staring in both directions. Between the buildings, up on the second storeys, hundreds of red globe lanterns are strung across the street, glowing and lighting our way. The entire road is lit a burnt red, like the sky’s on fire. Beneath the lanterns, everyone’s clothes look the same colour, save the Chinese people who’ve dressed in gold trim that glimmers and sparkles.
At the end of the street, a group of drummers have stopped and are setting up their instruments. The next moment, a fierce drum beat sets my head nodding, accompanied by the ever present cymbals that seem to demand movement, accomplice to their rhythm. Jasmine stops and leans back against me. My arms slide around her waist like we’ve been going out for years, and she moves against me. It’s nothing dirty, nothing sexual, not if you’re a tree. As it is, I can barely breathe, let alone try to move in time with her.
But luckily, my body takes over and my brain gets out of the way, though not so much that it doesn’t stop my hands when they threaten to climb up her chest. We’re in public and I know her well enough to know that would be a step too far.
From around the corner comes a dragon, rolling and weaving, dancing from side to side. It’s borne by four young women, dressed in matching outfits of red and black. Their movements are lithe, practiced, and the dragon’s alive, responding to the beat just the same as Jasmine and I, taken over by the music.
We’re in a crowd again, but I’m not so bothered this time. Everyone’s stopped to watch the dragon, and I can tell from the gasps and murmurs of appreciation, they know as well as I that we’re seeing something special. I’ve seen other dragons today, but none have moved with the same grace as this one. The women controlling it are outstanding, moving in perfect concert, as though one person is controlling them all.
Jasmine mutters something and I rest my head beside hers, feeling the warmth of her cheek against mine. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’ I’m almost shouting to get myself heard, but when she replies, she’s muttering again. Somehow, though I hear her perfectly.
‘I said, Happy New Year.’
I squeeze her tighter as she wraps her hands around mine.
The dragon rears up, throwing his head to the sky. Why do I think it’s a he when it’s being controlled by four women? I don’t know, but I know it is a he. There’s an energy about his movements, a ferocity that only comes from men. I feel my cheeks heat up. That was about as sexist as it comes, not to mention complete rubbish. But it’s still a he.
‘Do you love me?’
My mouth opens and closes. It’s been two months. Lots of chats, lots of conversation, lots of guilty masturbation. At least on my part, I can’t speak for her. Can it be love after two months? I’m hesitating, waiting too long. She’ll know anything I say will be qualified, now.
‘I don’t know.’
She sighs. I hear that, too, despite the drums which are now drawing closer. The dragon is winding it’s way down the street, leaping and bounding. The women controlling it are whirlwinds, spraying beads of sweat across the darkened road, across the reddened crowds as they spin and twist and dance. Why did she have to ask me that?
‘I need you to love me.’
I could ask why. I could ask if someone else used to and she’s trying to replace him. I would never ask that, but it’s in my mind, sitting right at the front of my mind, begging to be asked. I can’t be a rebound, not with her. But I don’t ask any of those things. Because I’m stupid and because I can feel her, pressed against me, and I think if I say the right thing, I might feel more than that by the end of the night.
‘I can love you.’
She turns in my arms, stares up at me with those wonderful eyes. ‘Could you love me now?’
When I’m looking at her, there’s no hesitation whatsoever. I nod, not trusting myself to speak. The next moment her lips part and she presses them to mine. I feel something, the lightest spark, that makes my entire body tense and jolt before I succumb to the kiss. And if it wasn’t love before, it is now.
Someone screams. In the burst of silence that follows, I hear the unmistakable sound of flames, crackling and spitting. Jasmine pulls away from me until we’re joined only at the hands. She smiles and nods. ‘You truly love me. Happy New Year.’
For once, my eyes are dragged away from hers, to what lies behind. A person, a man as far as I can tell, is bathed in flames. They lick at his body, making him writhe and wail. The next moment, he topples to the ground. I wait for someone to rush in, to help him, but no one does a thing. Why aren’t they moving?
A burst of flame, like something out of a flame thrower, gushes across the street to lap against the wall. Two bystanders are caught by it and go up like… well, like Chinese lanterns. My stomach lurches as I cover my mouth, and now I see why no one is moving.
The dragon is no longer being controlled by the four women. In fact, they’re nowhere to be seen. But the dragon is and, though my world feels like it just dropped out from beneath me, there is one thing of which I’m sure. The dragon is real. I can see the flames flickering off the shiny scales of its belly. I can see its eyes, animal, sharp, hungry, flashing beneath the lanterns. I can see teeth that are longer than my arm, great tusks that thrust out from its jaws.
It turns towards me, but it’s not looking at me. It sees Jasmine and drops to the street. The impact makes the ground beneath me shake and drags more screams from the onlookers. There are three people burning to death in the street and not one person is going to help them. The dragon moves and what’s left of my reality dribbles away through the cracks in the pavement.
It’s like a snake, legs scuttling as it weaves its way towards us, faster than I can track. One moment it’s filling the street, the next it stops right before us. I stare into the darkness of its nostrils, feeling the hot pant of its breath. Its mouth opens and I brace, waiting for the flames.
‘Jasmine.’ Its voice is huge, rumbling up from its belly. That’s a stupid thought, its voice doesn’t come from there, but there’s no other way to imagine it. ‘You came back for me.’
‘I’ll always come back for you, my lord. I have one worthy tonight.’
Finally the creature looks my way and I fall to my knees.
‘He loves me, truly, and without condition.’
‘Is he so different to you, my lord?’
The dragon rears up, spitting flames from both nostrils. They catch the lanterns and they go off like firecrackers, ‘pop’ ‘pop’ ‘pop’ all the way across the street. Someone shouts ‘it’s a dragon’ and I swear I can hear everyone else in the street sigh and slap their foreheads.
The dragon swings its massive head closer, until I can see the individual scales, overlapped and glorious. He’s magnificent. Behind him, another of his victims topples to the pavement, the flames stripping the flesh from his bones. I groan, the second time tonight, though for a very different reason.
‘He will serve.’ The dragon rears up, launching itself off the ground and up into the air. It tears rows of lanterns off their moorings as it streaks up into the darkness above the buildings, trailing them behind him like rows of Christmas lights. Every neck in the street is craned backwards, but I, alone, take my eyes off him and look back at Jasmine.
She’s crying. I reach out and she takes my hand, then mouths ‘thank you’ at me. I don’t know what she’s thankful for, I’m only glad she’s touching me, that we’re not both in flames. Someone cries out and I glance upwards.
The dragon is coming back, hurtling towards the street. The lanterns, those still alight, trail out behind, blurring through the night sky. The dragon speeds up, mouth open, teeth bared as it plummets towards us. I want to run, to escape, but I’m in a crowd and I can’t go anywhere.
The dragon flashes between the buildings, filling the space, tearing down more lanterns. The next second I realise it’s coming straight at me. The second after that, it strikes me and the world goes dark.
I’m not dead. I feel like I’m dead, because I can’t feel anything. But I’m not, because I’m thinking. I’m aware. The dragon is gone, the street is quiet. Everyone is watching me. Jasmine still has my hands and now she leans in close to me, presses her lips against mine. My hands go around her, but I’m not moving them. I’m not moving anything.
‘Welcome back, my lord,’ she whispers and I try to respond, but someone else, with my voice, says. ‘Happy New Year, my lady. And thank you.’
I stare out of my eyes as Jasmine and the man who’s now in my body wander away from the smoking corpses on the ground. I’d like to scream, but I don’t have mouth or lungs to do it with. My body speaks again, the dragon using my tongue, my lungs. ‘He is still in me.’
‘That happens sometimes.’ Jasmine replies, patting his arm. It’s already his arm, no longer mine. ‘Don’t worry, he won’t last long.’
I scream now, though no one can hear me.