A crackle. Scratchy audio, slightly out of sync with the image of a tan, confident boy on the screen, not quite on the cusp of adolescence, head too large for the rest of him. The boy cleared his throat, and spoke.
Good afternoon. My name is Wen Junhui, and I am ten years old, and I –
He glanced offscreen, and listened, jaw slack, before nodding and continuing.
I can play the piano, have done Wushu for five years, and have been in many commercials and some shows. Today I am auditioning to become an actor under your agency. All of my other skills will make me a very f – he stumbled on the word - flexible actor.
Nodding as he finished, he turned his back to the camera. Soon, he was turning back around, launching into a trite monologue about the importance of family and how he would do anything if his mother would never leave his side.
His small, high-pitched voice wavered at the right moments. Forgetting a line, the child nonetheless ad libbed fearlessly through it, building the tension in pitch until hitting the crux of the script: Mother! Don’t go!, he cried, and promptly burst into realistic sobbing, sorrow sounding unrehearsed and almost animal.
He climbed to his feet, no trace of any tears on his face, only a hopeful blankness. Tilting his head towards somebody out of frame, the same direction as previously, his features broke into a smile, shy and tentative.
Thank you very much for coming. We will inform you of your results by phone within the week.
He’d never seen a dance studio before. Upon entering the space Junhui dashed around like a child in a toy store, cooing at the mirrors stretching wall to wall, admiring the way the ceiling lights sparkled and reflected over and over, like he imagined stars might if he could see them in the city. The lacquered floor, smooth, gleamed with an impeccable shine, tempting him to kick off his shoes and go sliding across it.
Behind him, his mother was engaged in conversation with a man in a black shirt. When he tried to get her attention, all she spared him was a distracted smile, head bowed in conversation. So he rushed up to the mirror and placed both his palms on it instead, pressing his face as close as possible, nose to nose with his double.
“Don’t do that.” The man’s voice was sharp, directed at him. Junhui peeled himself hastily off the glass, chastised through a glare in the reflection. “It costs money to clean.” Cowed, he looked to his mother, who smiled uncertainly at him as he clumsily scrambled to her side. She pulled him close, hand resting around his shoulders.
“Sweetheart,” she said, holding him so he had to face the man, “The agency doesn’t have any more slots for actors, but they think you have potential to be an idol if you stay and train with them.” She squeezed his shoulder lightly. “Is that okay?”
It was, maybe, the biggest question he had been asked in his short life, bundled into three very small words. He shrugged, looking away from the stony face of the man in front of him, and said, looking up at her earnestly, “You decide, mum.”
She smiled, and Junhui felt relieved. If mum’s happy, I’m happy. The man nodded and led them to another room where she signed something, and later, she took him out for his favourite noodles and ice cream. It’s a great day, he told her between licks of his strawberry cone, the absolute best.
“You’re a genius,” Minghao is saying, matter of factly, picking through a salad when Junhui finds his friends lounging in the computer room at two in the morning.
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he coos in response, delighted as he pulls a chair up to watch Yanan sketch something in an image program on a tablet bought with his own money. When Minghao glances up from his phone to shoot him an irritated look, Junhui blows him a kiss, and receives a glare in return.
“I meant Yanan,” he says, disgruntled, even though he must know Junhui knows exactly what it is he’s doing. “There’s nothing he can’t do, you know. And he’s modest about it, too.” He pauses, and then adds, “Unlike somebody we all know.”
Junhui makes a sad face. “If the person you were dissing knew you were saying this,” he recites, features set into a textbook definition of a frown, “They would be so hurt that you thought that way of them. How could you, Haohao?”
Caught in the crossfire, Yanan snorts mid-control z, then rolls his chair back, stretching dramatically. “You guys are always so full of it,” he murmurs contentedly, glancing idly at Junhui for the first time since he’s sat down. “You fight like siblings.”
Junhui grabs at his chest like he’s been shot, kicking at the ground with his feet so his rolly chair spirals backwards and completes the dramatic picture. “Don’t you dare talk about Yangyang like that! He would never treat me like Haohao does!”
When Minghao rolls his eyes, he makes it look luxurious. If asked, he would say the technique was borne out of frequent practice, credits Wen Junhui. “Someone has to,” he drawls, but accents it with a small smile, tapping away at his phone. Junhui wheels himself over and watches Minghao flip through filters for his latest instagram picture, a shot of him in streetwear against the high concrete wall opposite their dorm.
“Just like that,” Yanan hums, and Junhui pedals all the way back to him, admiring the way a loose render of the Hwang river is taking shape.
“For once, I think Hao’s wrong about something,” he muses, eyes caught on the slow brushes of technique he can’t really comprehend. “If you were a genius, you’d have been born with it. But I don’t think that’s it. I think you’re dedicated and you put time into what you want to achieve, so that’s why you get where you are. And that’s really admirable.”
When he glances up at Yanan, the other boy jerks, a little bit, and a long, dark line of brown goes careening across the digital canvas. His mouth is open as he mumbles “Oh, fuck,” and busies himself with undoing the error before his eyes hesitantly meet Junhui’s, mouth shy.
“That was sudden,” he says, chewing slowly on his lip, “But thank you.”
Minghao very pointedly Looks at them, glances down at his salad, and then back at them, like there’s something he wants to say, but settles for a groan before stuffing a truckload of the leaves into his mouth, crunching away like only so many vaguely irritated cattle.
On the day they met, Junhui had been lying on his bed and idly thinking about how his feet were funny shaped, planting them flat on the slats of the bunk above him, body easily contorted into a sort of L shape.
Bored, he pushed, experimentally, seeing how long he could hold the position, straightening the line of his form until all his weight was resting between his shoulders. After a while he relaxed, and then did it again, idly playing Snake on his phone as he went.
Something shifted beneath his feet. “Um… excuse me?”
Junhui let out a squawk as he dropped his phone on his face. “Did you just speak? ” he asked the mattress, incredulous. “Mum… you didn’t warn me…”
Interrupting his dramatics, a scrawny arm appeared from the sky and dangled within his reach, piquing Junhui’s interest enough that he scooted over to poke his head out. Presently, another head appeared and made itself known, a mop of dark hair over a rather perplexed face. “This is my bed,” the face said, patiently.
“Oh.” He hadn’t considered that the upper bunk of a bunk bed intended for two people would also be a bed. “Sorry,” Junhui apologised, rubbing the side of his head. “Nice to meet you! I’m Junhui! But you can call me Jun!”
The boy’s face relaxed to reveal overwhelmingly friendly features. “That’s okay,” he said immediately. “I’m Yanan.” He smiled, shyly, teeth only barely peeking out. After a moment of hesitation, he asked, a notch below conversational volume, “How old are you? I’m ten.”
Thinking back, that may have been the turning point. Ten , to young Junhui, had meant Best friend material , had meant You will do everything with me now, instantly, and we will have fun, and absolutely nobody will stop me. Us. Whatever. Blanket permission, if you will, to socialise.
He scaled the ladder at lightning speed, grabbed Yanan’s hand, and tried to lead him down with him until Yanan made a sad yelping sound and said “I don’t want to die!”, at which he grudgingly let go, but stood at the bottom and gazed very expectantly at his new friend until he, too, had removed himself from the upper bunk.
“What are we doing,” Yanan queried slowly, as Junhui led him out by the wrist, twisting through this corridor and that.
“I’m giving you the tour,” Junhui replied, matter of fact, voice hoity-toity like he was an Adult, official and authoritative.
Yanan made a small noise of disapproval and confusion. He sounded like a confused puppy - it was delightful. “But it’s past dinner time,” he protested weakly. Junhui laughed, slipped their hands together, and tugged him along.
Junhui slid into the seat with very little ceremony, and stuck his hand out in greeting. “I saw you in dance class,” he chirped, and was met with a wall of stony silence. He blinked, withdrew his hand, and began to eat his noodles.
“You’re very good,” he tried again. And to no avail - there may have been a flicker of attention before the lack of a response persisted, a slow blink over a bowl of rice.
A hand clapped loosely at his back, a figure dropping into the seat next to him. “Jun. What’re you doing?”
“Haohao! I -”
“Don’t call me that.”
“- ‘m just trying to make friends with this kid! He’s kinda shy, though.” Junhui sniffled in what may have been mild offence, casting a surreptitious glance in the direction of the six-year-old, who persisted in not looking up from his meal. “And don’t be like that. You can call me Junjun if you want.”
“I don’t,” Minghao deadpanned, taking a moment to turn his bedazzled $WAG cap back-to-front so he could start eating his porridge without it in the way. “Maybe he’s just shy because you’re noisy.”
“Yanan would never call me noisy,” Junhui huffed into his noodles, slurping them up with great vigour. When he spoke again his words were nearly inaudible, all mixed up with the mush in his mouth. “Where is he, anyway – OH! HEY! YANAN! OVER HERE!”
Minghao sank lower into his chair, one bony hand coming up to cover his face. “Junhui,” he hissed, “for the love of god, stop making a scene in the canteen.”
There was no point in saying anything, ever. Junhui had attached himself to the newcomer like a dutiful koala, and was loudly proclaiming that the boy was Yanan, his bunkmate, even as he shoveled a load of noodles into his mouth, and dropped his chopsticks onto the table with a grand flourish.
Minghao delicately picked them up and neatly arranged them on the side of Junhui’s plate, even as he continued his rant. “He’s from Shanghai, he’s my age, and he’s, like, the best!”
“Last week you said I was the best,” Minghao said mildly, watching Junhui squirm. “That was the only reason I let you talk to me.”
Junhui flailed for a moment, long enough to release Yanan, who promptly walked around the table to take a seat opposite Minghao, setting his tray down. “Th, there can be more than one best! It’s not a comparison!”
“The word best necessarily implies a comparison, though.” Minghao retorted, even though his expression said he didn’t actually care. “Our friendship is built on lies.”
“I’ll be your friend,” Yanan offered politely from over his own noodles, if a bit hesitant. “I would never lie to you.”
Junhui gasped in horror, and pushed Minghao out of the way, seizing his spot. “No! ” he objected. “Yanan’s mine!”
Slightly cross, Minghao rubbed his shoulder and adjusted his cap. “I’ll just make friends with Zhennan, then,” he intoned, and shifted into the seat Junhui had just vacated. Suddenly gentle, he lowered his voice and addressed the youngest at their table. “Hey, Zhennan, I’m Minghao. Wanna be friends?”
Directly addressed, the boy looked up at Minghao from under his lashes for a few seconds before breaking into a gummy smile missing a tooth or two. “Okay,” he said softly, and let Minghao ruffle his hair as he chewed on some blanched vegetables.
“Great,” Minghao said approvingly, picking up Junhui’s chopsticks and eating his meal like he’d never been disturbed in the first place. “Is your specialty dance too? You’re in the class with us right?”
Junhui watched with undisguised envy as Minghao succeeded where he had failed, and turned to Yanan for attention instead. “How come the baby likes Haohao more?”
As he did so, he took an automatic bite out of Minghao’s bowl of porridge before, noticing what he’d done, he let out a small shriek and dropped the spoon into the bowl, swallowing only because he did, apparently, actually have some manners. “Hey, Haohao, give me my food back!”
At the sound of the hated nickname Minghao turned, slowly, smile sweet. Junhui watched in horror, the world passing in slow motion, as he twirled his chopsticks into the noodles, forming a massive ball of them that he hefted off the plate with considerable skill.
He made direct eye contact with Junhui, then, noodle-ball suspended in front of his tiny mouth, revenge an early dessert to be had with his meal.
“No,” he pronounced, very precisely, and inhaled the entire portion in one fluid motion. Stricken, Junhui let out an involuntary sob.
From beside him, a small voice piped up. “Um… there there. You can have mine.” Yanan pushed his plate over, exchanging it for what was Minghao’s bowl.
“Really?” Junhui quasi-sobbed, reaching for the plate with quivering hands. “Are you sure?” Eyes wide, he hesitated before digging in, unwilling to bestow the fate of porridge upon anyone. “Really? ”
Yanan tilted his head like Junhui was a particularly curious and vaguely cute insect, and spooned some gruel into his mouth. “Yeah, really,” he said, and there was a small smile on his face.
Junhui let out a squeal of gratitude. “I don’t deserve you,” he cried, now gathering his utensils and beginning to eat noisily.
Minghao cut in, then, if only because Junhui made antagonising himself so easy. “No”, he said, amused. “You really don’t.”
“Yanan, Yanan, Yanan Yanan Yanan.” Junhui ambushes him from behind, wrapping arms tightly around his waist. “I missed youuu.” He drags out the vowel, morphing it into a howl as he utilises the grip he has to wave Yanan around, dragging him gently side to side, feet skimming the ground.
Yanan hums, letting himself be waved around like a rag doll. “Yes,” he says patiently, unperturbed. Seven years of Junhui, it would appear, helps one build a tolerance. He cranes his head sideways, eyeing Junhui suspiciously. “What is it?”
“I missed you!” Junhui says again, punctuating this with one big huff as he lifts Yanan clean off the ground. It earns an incredibly undignified squawk and a mess of long arms waving around, and he laughs in delight before setting the other back down.
“Junhui! What the hell!” He stumbles an arms-width away, and Yanan’s usually composed visage is flushed, his voice climbing further into the stratosphere the more he talks. “I thought I was gonna die!”
“But you didn’t,” Junhui says cheekily. “Besides, I’d never drop you.” He crowds Yanan at this, bringing their faces close together in a clear intrusion of personal space. He puckers his lips exaggeratedly when he says, “Would you drop a precious Ming vase?” and, before Yanan can answer, he’s swooped in and placed a kiss low on his cheek, dangerously close to Yanan’s mouth.
When he pulls away, grinning smugly, Yanan’s gone completely rigid, blinking rapidly, arms still clutched to his chest where they were when he was being dragged around. Junhui feels a brief surge of concern. “Yanan?”
The other boy jolts out of his trance, running a hand through his hair. “You’re so clingy,” he groans, shaking his head even as he slings an easy arm over Junhui’s shoulder and pulls him to start walking. “I was only at camp for three days.”
Junhui nuzzles into the hold contentedly, slinging his own arm around Yanan’s waist. “Longest three days of my life,” he declares grandly. “I barely survived without you by my side.”
Something seems to strike Yanan at that, and he pulls away delicately, carefully untangling their limbs as they walk. “Why are you always so,” he starts, then it’s like his brain has caught up with his mouth and he shuts it, settling instead for a huff of air and a waved hand. “Never mind.”
Junhui turns guileless eyes on Yanan at this, arm left hanging at an awkward angle like he doesn’t know what to do with it now. “So… what?” he asks, stopping them both in their tracks and instinctively taking hold of Yanan’s hands, peering into his face. “Are you mad at me?”
Yanan laughs, not disguising the fondness in his voice, and pushes his face away lightly. “No,” he says, shoulders relaxing as he allows the hold. “It’s nothing, really.”
“He didn’t mean it,” Junhui said, breaking the silence. Nearby Zhennan was a small presence half curled around Minghao, who was sitting rigid against the mirrors, mouth drawn and taut. “It was just a bad day, after all.”
When no response was forthcoming, he continued talking, rocking to and fro, finger tracing patterns on the floorboards. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry I wasn’t focusing.”
It was just after a training session like any other, the boys having been shuttled back from school and straight to classes. Distracted, Junhui had missed too many steps and then lagged, almost a beat behind the others, until their instructor had blown up. In the aftermath of a furious early dismissal the three of them had folded into a corner of the room, Junhui first, Minghao second, Zhennan a quiet shadow.
“Oh, hey guys!” Yanan’s voice broke the silence, dancing towards them, then petered off quickly under the weight of the air, heavy like stone. “Um. Did something happen?”
Junhui looked up, sparing him an instant grin. “Hey Yanan! Is your class starting already?”
Yanan sat down cautiously on the periphery of their clump, positioning himself roughly adjacent to Junhui. “Not for another fifteen minutes, I’m just early.” And, unsettled by the silence of the other two boys and Junhui’s just-add-water-cheer, he ventured, “...Guys?”
Junhui cleared his throat. “I messed up and our instructor got mad.” Casting a nervous glance in Minghao’s direction, he added, “Hao tried to stand up for me. It got worse.”
“Oh.” Yanan placed an awkward hand on Junhui’s knee, pithy comfort in lieu of anything to say.
“But it’s okay!” Junhui started, again, optimistic. “He’s usually dreadfully patient with us, so it must’ve been a bad day, or something, and - and anyway, it was my mistake, after all, so I’ll just put in more work, or learn from the others, and it’ll be fine -”
“Shut up.” Minghao’s voice cut through his monologue, sudden and sharp. “Stop making excuses.”
Junhui flinched, as if burnt. “Look, Hao - Minghao, I’m sorry you were implicated. I didn’t mean it, promise I won’t do it again, I -”
“That’s not the point,” Minghao interrupted, again. “Just stop saying things like that.” In contrast to the edge in his words he drew his arms close to himself, rubbing up and down them, and looked very small.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Junhui pleaded.
In response, Minghao turned his head sharply away, remaining defiantly silent. The seconds strung out between them grew long, unwieldy. Yanan hesitantly cleared his throat, and the sound seemed disproportionately loud.
Then, like some invisible switch had been flipped, Minghao’s shoulders sagged suddenly, the tension visibly leaving him. “I meant,” he mumbled, “Don’t make excuses for others.” Eyebrows knit into a frown, his mouth worked a while before he could continue. “It’s annoying how you always act like everything’s okay, even if someone else was being unreasonable.”
At this, Junhui’s head, hung in apology, snapped up. “You’re not mad at me?” He croaked, hopeful, before crawling over rapidly to launch himself at Minghao, clinging to his smaller form with a fiery determination.
Minghao jerked in alarm, a split second too slow. “What are you doing,” he protested, trying very hard to maintain an even tone, “Junhui. Get off me.”
“No,” Junhui cooed, “Not until you accept my apology.”
Minghao scrunched up his face, likely about to unleash another scathing retort, but then his gaze landed on Yanan, smiling blankly at them. Shaking his shoulder, he forced Junhui to relinquish his hold. “Get off me for real,” he chided, “Yanan’s class is starting soon.”
Junhui did so reluctantly, mouth falling open into a small “o” when he noticed the time on the clock. Then he looked at Yanan, properly, and apologised. “Sorry we were like that… next time, okay? We’ll be fun next time!”
Yanan looked at him, but he seemed distracted as Minghao got up and led Zhennan out by the hand. Behind them, his sessionmates were already at their places, doing preparatory stretches. “It’s okay,” he said, patting Junhui on the hand, “But you should go.”
Junhui bounded up, cheerily walking backwards all the way to the door. “It’s a promise!” he called, and Yanan waved him off, smiling.
“We should have a sleepover,” Zhennan says, suddenly, one dance practice during a water break. Junhui turns to him, curious; though more talkative, now, the younger boy remains reticent at best.
“What brought this on?” he asks, choosing not to point out that living in the dorms basically constitutes a permanent sleepover.
Zhennan shrugs, chews on his lip like he does when he’s trying to catch particularly complicated footwork. “Dunno,” he says, faux nonchalance clear as day. “For fun.”
Thoroughly confused, Junhui goes along with it anyway. “Sure,” he says, “We can probably sneak into one of the smaller dance studios overnight.” He thinks for a while, and then adds, “Jiacheng- ge will probably lend us his laptop to watch videos on the projector! All we’ll need is some snacks…”
He looks at Zhennan for approval, but he doesn’t say any more besides offering Junhui a distracted nod. “Good, good,” he mumbles. And then, “This weekend?”
Their teacher claps twice, loudly, signalling the end of the break. Junhui glances up, then shrugs, jogging back to his spot. It’s short notice, but… “Can do,” he says, agreeably, already mentally calculating the logistics.
Jiacheng joined the company in Junhui’s fourth year of training. At sixteen, he was considerably older than the others, although rumour was that he had been scouted for devastating a slew of singing contests.
It didn’t matter to Junhui, who was more interested in inducting him into their little group because “we need balance and also I’m bored of being the big brother here”. So he set about doing so by tailing the older boy everywhere with a sturdy determination until he could safely call them friends.
On a day in late September, when the long, sticky summer was finally about to turn, Jiacheng sat with them in the outdoor portion of their cafeteria, idly sipping at an iced tea as the others heckled Junhui.
“Oh,” Minghao said drily, hair recently dyed pitch black and sporting two new piercings in his left ear. “Nice of you to join us at last.” Next to him, Zhennan, who was finally approaching five feet in height, nodded in quiet agreement.
“I was wooing Jiacheng-ge , it was important! ” At thirteen, Junhui’s vocal cords had a tendency to betray him at all the wrong instances. The stress cracked the word down the middle, its pieces ricocheting off a nearby pillar. He soldiered on, unaffected. “You guys wouldn’t understand.”
Jiacheng raised his hand, smile like sunshine. “I’m Jiacheng, specialising in vocals,” he offered. Then he added, “And I’m new here!” and giggled, a sound that invited the others to laugh along.
Minghao mouthed ge mockingly at Junhui, eyebrows raised. “I’m sorry for whatever he’s done to you,” he told Jiacheng, separately, earning a low chuckle and a high five from Zhennan. Junhui made a sad noise in protest.
“Welcome back,” Yanan said quietly, patting the seat next to him in invitation. “It’s been like, four weeks, since you joined us last.”
“Wow, you kept count. Did you miss me?” Junhui quipped, leaning into Yanan’s space and fluttering his lashes. For his effort he received an exasperated huff and a shove.
“No,” Yanan said, very quickly and a bit loudly. Then he changed the topic, leaning away from Junhui and towards Jiacheng. “You’re a vocalist? So am I! Oh, wait -” He hurriedly produced his hand, bowing his head just slightly. “I’m Yanan.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jiacheng replied, shaking the hand warmly, “Hey, I have a question -”
“Shoot,” Yanan smiled, “I’ll help however I can.”
Easily, the two segued into an excited conversation, replete with anecdotes and a quickly building rapport. Junhui watched dolefully for a point of entry, only to find none.
“Settle in the pit you dug,” Minghao snorted. “You look like a kicked puppy.”
Junhui turned to look at him, eyes wide and sad, mouth pulled downwards in a sorrowful approximation of a parenthesis. “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, he protested, without any conviction whatsoever.
Minghao rolled his eyes, but spared Junhui a pat on his head out of pity. “Sure,” he said, disbelieving. “Whatever you say.”
The weekend rolls around quickly, finding their crew of five crowded together in one of the smaller studios, a glorified closet with one mirrored wall and a projector screen for reviewing performances. Their sleeping bags are laid out haphazardly on the floor, and the lights are off, a generic wuxia film playing on the screen.
Against one wall, Junhui sits next to Yanan, clutching to their chests their pillows, pilfered from their dorm beds. Minghao and Jiacheng sit cross-legged on a pile of their sleeping bags in the middle of the room, Zhennan a small distance off. Onscreen, the female heroine leaps into the air, eyes blazing, aluminium sword glinting with reflected light.
“Who chose this,” Yanan mumbles amusedly, voice low in contrast to Jiacheng’s delighted hoots.
Junhui gives him a guilty look, one hand raised at his chest area. “Everybody loves wuxia films!” he says in defence. “Zhennan didn’t have any suggestions either, I don’t think the kid’s watched a movie in his life.”
Yanan hums in response. “Guess he didn’t have much of a childhood,” he remarks. His gaze drifts over to where the youngest of their group has scooted closer to the other two, and is pointing at the screen, presumably asking Minghao a question about the plot. He looks animated, for once, features dancing with genuine interest.
When he turns his head back, Junhui’s looking at him intently, profile limned in reflected light. “Yanan,” he says, smiling that odd smile of his, curled at the corners.
Something makes him lean closer. “Yeah?”
“Can I kiss you?” There’s nothing behind the statement, laid out plain and bare before him. Only a yes or no, and if he refused Junhui would probably shrug, grin casually, and lean back, one arm thrown around his shoulder.
He casts a glance back at the other three, backs turned to them, heads bowed in discussion. He turns back to Junhui, who’s watching him, expectantly. “Okay,” he says, leaning in.
It hits him, belatedly, that this is his first kiss, something he’d been given to imagine would be special, somehow different. Hadn’t considered would be with Junhui, lips sticky in a slightly musty dance studio, accompanied by the flickering of 90’s CGI and audio half a step too slow.
Junhui pulls away, after a few seconds, and helpless, he chases back, leaning into the breathy laugh of surprise like there’s something to be had from it. One hand drifts onto his shoulder, then neck, the other awkwardly resting on the floor between them – once, twice, thrice.
There’s a particularly loud clang, then, and Yanan extricates himself, leaning away just enough so he can still count Junhui’s eyelashes in the low light when his eyes flutter open, blinking startled at the interruption.
“Watch the movie, stupid,” he mumbles, turning Junhui’s head to face the screen, finger-to-chin. Junhui’s head falls onto his shoulder with a petulant whine, but he lets it stay there, where Junhui’s quiet noises stick in his chest.
Training picks up again immediately after. Junhui hardly has time for idle socialisation, but takes the chance to praise his junior on a job well done one practice, chirping a “Great job on the choreo suggestion, dude!” as he sinks his face into a towel to rid himself of the sweat. “You won rare praise from Mr. Wang!”
Zhennan glances at him perfunctorily, then looks away, picking up his water bottle and towel in one fell swoop as he heads towards the other end of the studio, catching the attention of one of the other trainees, closer to his age but much newer to the company. Junhui watches as the younger throws his head back, actually laughs, and heads out the door with a few others, not once looking back.
“What’s with him?” he asks Minghao, who’s mid-stretch, long limbs tangled into a pretzel.
Head upside down between his own legs, the other shrugs. It looks strange, inverted against gravity. “He seemed fine to me earlier. Asked me for dinner, actually.”
“Huh,” Junhui says, tying his shoelace. “Weird.”
Weird doesn’t begin to describe it, the way Zhennan drifts, mouth set in a tight line when he catches Junhui looking at him, sometimes. It rubs him the wrong way, chafing like shoes a size too small.
“Yanaaaaaaan,” he wails, draping himself sideways onto the aforementioned male. Yanan slouches generously to accommodate. “I don’t get it,” he announces, the sulk audible in his voice.
“Don’t get what?” asks Yanan, looking up from the lyric sheet he’s memorising. “The concept of personal space?” Despite saying this he’s playing with the hand dangling over his shoulder, paper forgotten, so Junhui lets it slide.
“No! Zhennan’s ignoring me, and I don’t know why!”
Yanan pretends to mull it over. “More than usual, you mean?”
The levity causes Junhui to bark out a laugh, and it makes people glance over at them, so he claps a hand over his own mouth, batting at Yanan in halfhearted annoyance. “I’m serious,” he says, “He’s just kind of. Given me weird looks, these past two weeks.”
Yanan leans back in his chair, considering. “Maybe he’s just in a bad mood?”
“No, see, that’s the thing – “ Junhui leans in, lowering his voice to a hushed whisper, prompting Yanan to do the same. “That’s what I thought, but I brought it up to Hao, and he’s still fine with him – friendly, even!”
Yanan pets him on the head, comforting. “I still think he’s just having a phase. Remember when we were his age and Minghao wouldn’t stop dabbing after every sentence he said?”
“Yeah, but that was a fun phase. Hao was actually nice to me during those few months.” Junhui scrunches up his nose in distaste, and Yanan laughs at his expression, lightly shoving him away.
As luck would have it, Zhennan and Minghao walk by at that exact moment. Junhui knows he doesn’t imagine the scornful glance thrown their way, the tightening of Zhennan’s hand in Minghao’s shirtsleeve even as the latter waves briefly in their direction.
“You see? ” Jun cries. “Did you see that? You saw that, right?”
Yanan lets Jun shake him as he talks, stunned by such open hostility. “Yeah,” he concedes, “That is weird.”
There was a point in time, maybe in his sixth or so year of training, where Junhui was running on an hour or two of sleep daily, waking early to go to school and stealing time after practice to revise schoolwork, complete projects, memorise difficult choreography. Somebody had made a comment about his weight, too, something about how he was too skinny, and he didn’t know what to make about that, so he did nothing, really, let himself hollow out as he worked to the bone, shut everybody out, and prided himself on the fact that he was still going.
He felt fine. Great, even, and on this particular day he had slept three entire hours. He was feeling great. So there was no excuse, really, for the way his feet were fumbling over each other, simple footwork suddenly confusing. He pretended not to notice Zhennan pretending not to notice his slew of mistakes, and soldiered on.
But Minghao cornered him after practice, pointedly blocking off any avenue of escape. He tried to find a way around him, because he had to study, but when the younger tsked his name, his tone brooked no disagreement. “Come with me.”
“Where - Uh, we shouldn’t leave the building.” Junhui’s token protestations were duly ignored, and soon he found himself dragged out by the sleeve onto the streets of Beijing, coat and scarf thrown over his slightly dingy dance clothing.
He hadn’t been out in a while. He got to see the streets in passing when ferried by company vans to and from classes, but that was basically it; although not strictly barred from leaving, as obligations picked up any tiny excursions had basically become a moot point. So he felt adrift amongst Beijing’s bustle - he could get lost, out here. Unconsciously, he reached for Minghao’s wrist, a raft in the sea.
“We’re not going far,” Minghao said, casting him a sideways glance. Junhui watched in awe as warm, ambient red lit upon his cheekbones when he gently slid his wrist out of Junhui’s grip and replaced it with his hand, a loose, comforting grasp. “Come on.”
“Haohao,” Junhui starts, leaving a space before his next sentence for the inevitable –
“Don’t call me that,” Minghao says automatically, eyes not leaving the panel on the treadmill. “What do you want?”
Junhui bites his lip, perching cautiously on top of the control panel and peering over. “It’s about Zhennan,” he says, “Thought you might know why he’s ignoring me.”
A flicker of annoyance crosses Minghao’s face and he sighs, tapping away briefly at the buttons so he’s slowed to a brisk walk. “Is that why you’re finally talking to me?” he snipes, then sighs. “No, never mind. Scratch that.”
Junhui remains silent, eyes trained on the rhythmic motion of Minghao’s shoes slipping onto the track and back off, only to return again. For once, he decides against replying.
“He hasn’t said anything about you to me,” Minghao tells him, eventually, somewhere in between the fifty fifth and sixtieth step-cycle. “Though he’s been a bit clingier since my birthday weekend, I guess.”
“Your birthday weeke – Oh.” He can’t believe he’d forgotten. “The sleepover,” Junhui mutters with sudden clarity, moreso for his own benefit than Minghao’s. He looks up, immediately guilty. “Hao, I’m so sorry I forgot your – “
Minghao waves him off, keying the speed up again. “It’s fine,” he says, shortly, and like that the conversation is over.
When he finds Zhennan, the younger is curled up in a corner of the common lounge, poring over some historical novel or the other. He looks his age for once, knees drawn up to his chest, book perched on top of them. Something about the image gives Junhui pause, like drawing too close would mar it, this rare peace.
His hesitation, it appears, is palpable. The younger boy looks up, suddenly, folding the tome shut, then draws into a sitting position, expression flat. “Yes?”
Junhui takes a few steps closer, but is careful to leave a healthy metre or so of distance between them. “Zhennan, I,” he starts, quickly realising he doesn’t know how to continue. There’s a few heavy seconds of silence as their gazes lock – it feels like there’s a battle, and Junhui’s losing. “Did I do something to offend you?”
Zhennan’s face is impassive as he replies. “You should be asking Minghao, not me.”
“I – I did,” Junhui says, “But I’m asking about you, now.”
Junhui would believe Zhennan cared as little as his expression would divulge, if not for the insistent way his left hand is picking at a stray piece of the book cover. He watches as the paperboard flakes, bit by bit, fabric cover fraying under the attention. An urgent need arises, to break the silence – Junhui swallows it, the sound echoing loud around his skull.
“You two,” Zhennan starts, sudden. His delicate brows knit together. “You always…”
“Wait, hold on,” Junhui interjects, trying to follow. “Me and who?”
Zhennan looks up at him in an irritation that quickly melts into a softer disbelief when he sees Junhui’s expression. They stare at each other for a while before he looks away, and says, “You and Yanan.”
“Oh.” Junhui doesn’t know what to make of that, but can’t stop the instinctive curling of his fingers into the material of his sweatpants. “What about?”
The smaller boy lets out a noise of anguish, like he’s sick of this line of questioning. “You’re always just.” One hand comes up to gesture wildly midair, a frenzied accompaniment to the words spilling out from his mouth. “Just falling over each other, and so eager to please, chasing left-right-centre, and then you. You forget other people who should matter to you, or care about you, and then you leave them behind.”
“And you just have your own space, only come to them on your own terms, and it’s not fair that you can do that and still expect people to be waiting for you when you’re running everywhere all the time!” Agitated, he jerks forward at this last part, involuntarily sending the novel thunking to the floor.
The sound seems to knock him back to his senses, and he shrinks, suddenly small again. He meets Junhui’s gaze, uncomfortably, then bends over to retrieve the book, hands quivering. His next words are spoken more to the floor. “That’s all.”
“Oh,” Junhui says again. And then, “Is this about Minghao?” And further, “I’m…I’m sorry I made you all feel that way.”
Zhennan hugs the book to his chest, looking down. “Go away,” he says quietly, but there is no malice or heat in it, just the resignation of somebody emotionally drained. As he takes his leave, Junhui thinks that that might be worse.
So he’d followed, obediently, feet clumsy on concrete, as Minghao wove them through the crowd, making the odd shortcut through alleys. It was November, and the cold made the lights brighter, haloing buildings and people. He breathed in, and out, and the city stayed the same.
“Here,” Minghao said, tugging him up a small flight of steps and past some sliding doors. Inside the temperature jumped drastically; Junhui scrambled to unwrap his scarf from around his neck, tucking it clumsily into his coat pocket. “Complete this.” A strip of paper covered in Minghao’s elegant, calligraphy-like scrawl was shoved at him. Instinctively, he grabbed at it, without knowing what it was. “What?”
Unsurprisingly, Minghao didn’t deign to reply, only waving dismissively as he disappeared into the aisles, prompting Junhui to peer closer at the list. Peppercorn, scallions, bean paste, mushrooms - it went on in this manner for quite a while.
“I didn’t know you cooked,” Junhui vocalised aloud, on the off chance Minghao could still hear him from whatever dimension he’d fled into. The aisles of produce under buzzing fluorescent light stayed silent, so, shrugging, he headed towards the vegetables, grabbing a basket along the way.
Half an hour later, Minghao materialised with a basket of his own, seized Junhui’s, and sailed to checkout, thrusting one of two plastic bags at Junhui after.
The walk back seemed half the length of the one there. Minghao detoured briefly to fetch a rectangular, metal appliance from a box under his bed, and then to the cafeteria, for some cutlery and rice, before finally settling them both down into a small rest area, a table and four chairs tucked into an odd corner on the fifth floor.
Junhui watched, pieces slowly coming together, as Minghao plugged in the metal device and set it on the table top, revealing its identity as an induction cooker. A pot was produced and filled with water, and then Minghao set about dispensing ingredients into it in an order that appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be an arcane art. He sat patiently, hands together, like a child waiting for the go-ahead at dinnertime.
Minghao stayed quiet as he worked, the broth slowly taking shape under his hands. Eventually he wiggled his fingers at Junhui in a gesture that meant give me your bowl , and ladled some soup in. When he set it down in front of Junhui it was fragrant and richly red; involuntarily, Junhui’s mouth watered.
“Eat,” Minghao ordered, simply. So he did, pot bubbling away between them. The soup was spicy the way he liked it, biting at his tongue and lips until tears ran freely down his cheeks, his nose leaking unapologetically. Sniffling, Junhui closed his eyes, and it felt a little bit like home.
“Thanks,” he said, hating the way he sounded so subdued, wondering if it might be mistaken for disingenuity. Minghao regarded him evenly, eyebrows raised, and got him another serving.
There’s still something in the air, a tension lingering nearly wherever he goes, so Junhui tries to fix it. Maybe that thing, a miasma hovering around him, is guilt, ugly and bold.
Zhennan still won’t look him in the eye, but Minghao allows his presence, if begrudgingly at first. It is something he’d always appreciated, the younger’s inability to hold a grudge. And it is a stabilising force, Minghao’s wry humour and cutting wit, only facially at odds with the way he saves Junhui a seat, or a plate of his favourite noodles when he’s running late to lunch.
Evaluations occur, and he is for once grateful for the sleepless nights, relieved by how there is no time to talk anymore. As it turns out, Junhui is put into a small unit with Minghao and Jiacheng, slated for debut in maybe a year or two. He bounds out of the room excitedly, paper clutched in his hands, and nearly collides into Yanan, lanky form wandering down the hallway, a similar letter in his.
“Oh! Yanan!” It’s a pleasant surprise, and he beams wholeheartedly, arms automatically flying open in the prelude to an embrace. “Who’d you get put with? I got Haohao and Jiacheng- ge!”
Yanan’s form, when he hugs him, is almost wooden. “Zhennan and two guys I don’t really know.” He shrugs. “We have a while more to go, I guess.” He doesn’t seem to be all that concerned.
Junhui coos, reaching up to clap Yanan’s soft cheeks between his hands. “You’re so good though, you guys are gonna be amazing! Oh, yeah –” Bringing their faces closer together, he grins, satisfied, lips peeling open almost feline. “Can you teach me how to sing? Please, please, please?” The last few words are accented by gentle pats in time, one, two, three. “We’re gonna have to record, I’m a little nervous about it.”
Yanan clears his throat, and gently removes Junhui’s hands, pulling them apart and placing them back within Junhui’s bubble of space. His hands don’t linger, gaze far away when he replies. “Hey, uh. Jiacheng and I have stuff to do. Vocalist stuff, but … maybe he can teach you when he’s free?” A few rapid blinks, and Yanan’s back to earth, peering steadily back at him.
“I’m really sorry about it, but.” His eyebrows tilt, revealing plain remorse perhaps a touch too heavy for the subject matter at hand. “I gotta go now, okay? Can’t be late.”
“Okay,” Junhui echoes, somehow unable to shake the feeling of having been left behind.
“Jun – what the fuck – what are you doing.” Minghao grumbles in exasperation, letting his Quick Guide to Impressionism fall flat on the couch beside him. “You’re heavy, what the fuck.”
Junhui doesn’t answer, busy trying to find the best way to sit on somebody and hug them at the same time. He shifts around for a moment before settling for a foot-numbing position involving one leg curled on Minghao’s lap and the other hanging out at an awkward angle, his shoulder buried somewhere in Minghao’s torso. His free arm wraps around himself to claw at the younger’s shirt, and he hums tunelessly, screwing his eyes shut as he tries very, very hard to become as small as possible.
There’s a moment of hesitation, and then a long, bendy arm comes around him, resting gently on his elbow. “You really eat too much,” Minghao tries, a desperate attempt to rally some kind of laugh out of him.
Junhui lets out a small noise in response, and tries to dig his nose into Minghao’s collarbone. He receives a gentle swat for his efforts. “That itches,” he complains, halfheartedly. But he allows it for a while, until the feeling in his legs is dangerously close to leaving, and then he gently shoves Junhui off but lets him lean into his shoulder, patting him rhythmically on the side like one would a child.
“Hao, I wanted to ask you about – Oh.”
Junhui ducks lower at the sound of Zhennan’s voice. He doesn’t look, but can tell there’s some kind of nonverbal conversation happening over his head, gestures and words mouthed. Resolutely, he keeps his head bowed even when the footsteps pad away, although he does twitch when they come back, some while later.
A tentative presence settles into his side, close enough for warmth but just shy of touching. Minghao lets out a huff of amusement, voice low like he’s trying not to wake him. “ Romance of the Three Kingdoms? Really?”
Zhennan’s voice comes from his other side, jokingly petulant. “Just read your bougie books and leave me alone!” Happiness is a nice sound on him, Junhui thinks dully, and feels an ache sink deeper in his bones for the fact that it took him eight years to find out.
“Junnie, look, I think we need to talk about – ”
He turns at a voice he hasn’t heard in a week. “Yanan,” Junhui mumbles, and reaches. Criss-crossing their fingers, hands interlocked, Junhui presses in and upwards, towards the taller boy. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Yanan breathes back automatically, and it carries all of the maybe-three inches between them. His lashes are long, sweeping low against his cheek, and they take Junhui’s gaze along when he flickers out of proximity, takes a step back to distance them. Somehow, he leaves the hands. “Jun. Listen, I don’t think –“
Already he dreads hearing any more. The world is quickly, quickly spiralling out of control, tumbling off kilter. Junhui is standing on maybe one foot, axis forty-five degrees, when he says, “Please.” Could be adjacent to earth, seeing the world at cross-angles, when he pleads “Don’t,” is definitively being fooled by gravity when he repeats, again, “Please.”
Yanan’s features, once so familiar, look so foreign without their fondness. “You know what I’m going to say, then,” he says, voice low. “Jun…the movie night. It’s nothing, not with debut looming.” The twin circles being rubbed softly into his hands are pithy comfort. “For both of us.”
To be rejected by somebody you weren’t even with. “Yanan,” Junhui says, numbly, and then again. “Yanan.” The name is anchoring, and he gathers the courage to speak.
“Is. Is that why you’ve been so distant recently?” Is this your idea of being kind?
An expression of genuine surprise graces his face. “I didn’t think you’d noticed,” Yanan says, frankly, and it hurts all the more because Junhui knows he isn’t lying. He’d let their hands go, sometime during the exchange, but Junhui only notices this now, wondering how his hands could be so cold. “You have Minghao, Jiacheng. Even Zhennan.”
Interchangeability. Junhui tries to think around the lump in his throat, the cotton that has taken residence inside his skull. “This is you being nice , isn’t it,” he bites out, without meaning to, because things are rearranging themselves in perspective, and it’s almost dizzying, the speed with which his paradigm is being taken apart and stitched back together.
Yanan has the decency to look stricken. “Jun, it’s just that we really can’t afford – “
“The time, yeah. I got that memo.” He doesn’t mean to sound so cruel. A small vicious voice at the back of his head coos that it’s deserved, but he can’t bear to look at Yanan’s face, thinking of the hurt he might see reflected there. When he speaks his voice is scratchy. “I’m. I’m sorry. You’re right. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
Yanan looks so unsure, so dreadfully small. “I’ll go now,” he quasi-asks, the end of the sentence tipped up in question. Turned away, desperately drawing in upon himself, Junhui doesn’t answer.
“Minghao,” Junhui starts, “I fucked up and Yanan hates me.”
His head is in his junior’s lap, and for the while Minghao elects not to respond immediately, combing idle fingers through his hair. He hums, carefully, encouraging the other to continue.
Junhui exhales loudly, as if he could physically force out all his indecision and longing. He’s at least half joking when he says, “Why couldn’t I fall for you instead?”
The hand in his hair falters for the briefest fraction of a second before it resumes. “Because I can’t stand you,” Minghao offers lightly, in stark juxtaposition to the way his fingers are still tracing lines on Junhui’s scalp, slow and soothing.
It’s the wrong thing to say, anyway. Junhui lets out a choke, a sob – something gives way in his chest, and then he’s sitting upright and outright bawling, heaving ugly, loud cries into his forearm. “N-nobody can,” he chokes out, “Not, not e-even Yanan.”
“Fuck.” A hand tightens urgently around Junhui’s wrist, tangles their fingers together. “Hey. Hey Jun. Shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. Look at me. Please?” Minghao jogs the hand he’s holding lightly, willing him to look up. “Please?”
Junhui, stubborn, doesn’t. It’s still something of a win that he doesn’t break the hold – Minghao talks, anyway, knowing he’s listening. “You know I don’t think of you as a burden. Please tell me you know that.”
A silence, broken only by a gasped sob. Junhui shakes his head imperceptibly, the tiniest movement almost disguised by the quivering of his shoulders. “You should,” he manages, throat hoarse, voice dry.
“How… how I think of you is for me to decide,” Minghao says, very evenly. “And you’re my friend. One I care about. And I was mad at you for a while, but that was a temporary thing, okay? That happens. People disagree.”
He pauses, and huffs a laugh. “If I really hated you I wouldn’t be here, you know that.”
Junhui hiccups a watery giggle at that. “Like when you skipped compulsory ballroom training until they just wrote you a special exemption.”
Minghao reciprocates the smile, his own stretching long and thin, slight cheeks plumping. “Yep. Just like that. Look, you rank above ballroom dancing.”
“ Everything ranks above ballroom dancing to you,” Junhui counters. It is, at least, a good sign that he can muster up the energy for petulance.
“Might be.” Minghao spares him a grin. “But anyway.” He absently draws a pattern on Junhui’s hand, a figure eight looping in upon itself into infinity. “Yanan doesn’t either. I think you know that. You know how he treats you, always has.”
The reply isn’t immediate, Junhui chewing on his lower lip as he thinks about it. Eventually, he sighs, “I ...know what you’re saying. But that still doesn’t really explain what he said.”
Minghao sighs, rubbing Junhui’s back with some exasperation. “I can’t answer all your questions for you, Jun. I think – “ he purses his lips, as if giving the matter thought – “I think there are things you need to stop running away from.”
No response, except Junhui dropping down backwards onto the mattress and rolling inwards. “Okay?”
A muffled voice is the only reply. “Can I sleep here tonight?”
He has his face in Minghao’s pillow, arms squeezed tight around his beloved stuffed frog. Has pencil-rolled in to the deepest part of the bed, lined up against the wall, blending in so well Minghao would miss him if he didn’t know he was there. “Wen Junhui,” Minghao chastises. “You are nearly six feet tall, and this bed is very small.”
“That rhymes,” the small voice says, thrashing about to get under his blanket. “You should be a rapper.”
It’s quickly evident that ‘no’ was never an option. “What do I do with you,” Minghao mumbles, but climbs into bed, and lets Junhui keep the plushie when he turns out the light.
The thing about being on strange terms with the person who sleeps in the bed above yours is that it’s curiously easy to avoid them, despite sharing a close to identical space. When they’re not actively trying to find time to see each other their schedules clash magnificently, and Junhui only occasionally catches a glimpse of Yanan’s now-blond head, wispy against his pillow.
He realises he perhaps isn’t quite as subtle with his emotions as he’d thought when Zhennan stalks over to him, one practice, and demands, voice distinctly lower than it has been seasons past, for Junhui to work through the dance break with him, claiming he needs help with hitting the accents and perfecting the flow. Junhui stares dumbly at him, one finger resting against his own sternum in a wordless, disbelieving me?
Zhennan tsks in irritation. “Are there any other Junhuis here?” he asks, quirked eyebrow disappearing into his bangs.
Junhui opens his mouth, starts to say “But you’re better than me,” but thinks better of it mid-clause, cutting himself off with a nervous laugh. “Really?”
Zhennan, already in the starting position, merely looks at him in their shared reflection in the mirror.
They practice in moderate silence for two hours. Zhennan is a quick learner, and asks targeted questions. When he breaks their workable quiet, it is to say, apropos of nothing, “I think you needed to let that out.”
Halfway through a popping sequence, Jun freezes, then manually relaxes all of his muscles. “Huh?”
The younger walks up to stand next to him in the mirror, regarding his taller form critically through the glass. “You feel better now.” Characteristically, it is more of a statement than the question it perhaps should be.
Junhui takes a moment to process it, anyway, twisting his arms together as he forces himself to meet his own gaze. He tips from side to side, weight on his left foot, then right, then back. “I guess.” He wonders when he became so transparent.
Zhennan smiles, a stretchy, slightly lopsided expression. “Good. Stop making our agency look bad.”
Jun’s eyebrows skyrocket into his hairline. “Awww, do you like me?” Rushing over, he digs his hands into Zhennan’s armpits and lifts him, making noises like he’s a small animal to be placated. “You care!”
Zhennan sighs, sagging into the hold, legs dangling sadly above the ground. “Is this the thanks I get,” he intones, dully. “Truly, kindness has no reward.”
Obligations pile up, and debut draws nearer. Junhui isn’t sure he knows anything besides the sheer rote muscle memory of their debut track, which finds him marking the moves in the shower, in the corridors, even when he’s lying in bed, glancing up at the slats separating him and Yanan because he can’t sleep.
He, Jiacheng and Minghao are an instant hit - the agency holds a debut party in their honour. Unsure what to do with alcohol, he’s unfortunately very sober when Yanan accosts him at the side of the room, soft features set into something unreadable.
“Y-Yanan. Hey.” A year of barely talking, even though their group still sat together sometimes, with other commitments as the excuse. Even now, Junhui feels like this conversation could have been further delayed. “Having fun?”
Yanan sighs, unimpressed by his obvious deflection tactics. “Come outside with me,” he mumbles, so Junhui follows reluctantly, casting a doleful gaze back into the room as he leaves it. Zhennan catches his eye; the slight, stoic teen offers him a comforting smile and a tiny fist pump, then turns back to where Jiacheng is systematically destroying every song on the portable karaoke system.
They’re on the balcony when Yanan speaks again. “Jun,” he sighs, pulling out his phone, “What is this?”
On-screen is a sizeable text message spanning several scrolls, a letter Jun had written to Yanan. Faced with it, he’s forced to scan it again, and feels his mouth dry somewhere between Do you remember when we met and You’ve always been there, I’m sorry I wasn’t. He remembers hitting send only because of a burst of adrenaline. “A text?” He tries, mouth tugging into a weak approximation of a grin.
“You sent this right before you went on debut broadcast!”
“Your point being?”
Yanan looks caught between expressions, and his gaze flickers between the phone and Junhui a few times before he switches the screen off, sliding the device back into his pocket. He runs his hand through his hair once, twice, before he settles, flatly, for a “I don’t know what you want.”
His mouth is set in a straight line, uncharacteristically severe, and he’s looking at Junhui like he’s trying very hard to see through him. Distantly, Junhui wonders when he became like this, whether any of it was his fault. “I don’t know what you want,” he counters. He thinks it’s fair. The proof of Yanan having read the message was right there.
Yanan breaks eye contact and looks away, regarding the city behind them with an expression closely related to unhappiness. “You don’t need attention from me,” he says, carefully. His fingers dance on the banister, beating out a tattoo that goes straight to Junhui’s chest. “Congratulations on debut, by the way.”
“Um, yes I do,” Junhui snipes back, suddenly emboldened by the realisation that he has already laid himself bare. “Did you even read what I sent?”
The hand draws away from the railing, weaves itself into the fold of his other elbow as Yanan hugs himself around the waist. It makes his tall, lean form look small. “Yes. Several times, but.”
Jun starts, confused. “Then you should know what I -” The realisation hits him. You have Minghao, Jiacheng. Even Zhennan. “Wait. Did you think I kissed you for fun?”
Yanan’s mouth opens to object, but nothing comes out. He closes it, and pointedly looks back towards the party. Minghao can be heard rapping furiously into the system, and Junhui smiles, instinctively. It softens what he says next. “You did, didn’t you.”
“You chase after everyone,” Yanan points out, tired. He takes a step back. “How was I supposed to know?”
Guilt chases through his veins. “...You’re right,” Junhui concedes, softly. “I’m sorry. But if you tell me it’s not reciprocated, I’ll go.”
Yanan glances up, too quickly, at this. His voice is very small when he says, at last, “I don’t know how to be unkind to you.”
That, at least, is something. Junhui takes it. “We can start small,” he offers, “We can stop ignoring each other. Okay?”
The answering smile is watery, but genuine. “Okay.”
Junhui shuffles nervously and pulls the black mask over his mouth, ball cap tugged low over his head. Yanan smiles at him like he’s said something funny as they step into the diner, a small mom-and-pop store with porcelain wall tiles and fold out tables.
“Their fish porridge is great,” he says, to break the silence, gesturing vaguely at the signages pasted onto the walls. Next to them, a large poster of an agency senior loudly advertises Pepsi.
“Let’s have that, then.” Yanan waves the owner over and orders quickly, earning a fond chuckle from her because he’s such a handsome young man. He pinks imperceptibly at the praise. “So. How’s idol life?”
Jun’s eyes widen comically as he glances around them, but the only other patrons are disgruntled retirees who probably don’t care for the difference between an idol and an elephant. When he realises this he relaxes, and then huffs childishly at Yanan’s expression of amusement. “Tiring,” he pouts, “This is the first break I’ve had in twenty years.”
“And you’re spending it with me,” Yanan coos. “I’m honoured.”
Briefly, they are interrupted by the lady bringing a tray over. As she sets down the bowls she catches a glance of Jun’s face as he thanks her, mask removed, and she lets out a sound of approval.
“Two handsome young men,” she clucks, pleased. They smile, faces frozen in identical rictuses of polite gratitude, until an old man gruffly raises his voice to get her attention. When she leaves they both relax, sharing a small laugh.
The silence that ensues is personable, the kind that only exists in shared camaraderie over a bowl of good food. Even then, amidst the scattered small talk, Junhui can’t stop looking at Yanan, who still looks distant under flickering fluorescent light, blond hair faintly haloing.
When they’re done, Junhui pays and they end up walking the streets, bundled up against the cold and treading carefully on ice-slick roads. Yanan stops to buy a stick of caramelised fruits from a street vendor, crunching away cheerfully as Junhui comments idly on this street sign or that, their feet taking them to the nearest local park.
“Ah,” Yanan mumbles, sadly. Junhui turns to find him staring at his ungloved hands, sticky with honey that must be rapidly solidifying in the frosty night. “Help.”
Junhui snorts at his misery, knowing the discomfort of the sensation, but pats about in his parka for a packet of wet wipes anyway. “Sometimes I wonder how you’re the same age as me,” he chides, but takes the other’s hands in his, wiping off the residue.
“You’re one to talk,” Yanan starts, but is hushed by a fresh wet wipe to the face, accompanied by Junhui’s hushed tsks.
“Say that when I’m not cleaning up after your ill advised snack choices,” Junhui jokes in response, balling up the used tissues and throwing them into a nearby bin.
The taller hums in dissatisfaction but allows the point, linking his now-clean hand with Junhui’s and swinging them lightly as they continue walking. “Want a bite?”
Junhui snorts, but pulls his scarf loose so it won’t get in the way, and leans over so he can be fed. “Okay.”
The park is quiet, mostly devoid of activity at the late hour. Without their speech, the only sound is the scuffing of their boots on paved road, accompanied by the occasional rustle of the trees and the distant sound of somebody playing the erhu. Above them, in a light-polluted sky, there is the steady winking of a satellite.