Ballet classes started again the first week of April.
In the boy’s locker room, Luo Binghe changed furtively. Crouched down on the cool, damp floor of an empty shower stall, he shed his awkwardly-cut school uniform.
There was an element of transformation in this. Like switching between two discrete selves. Off came the too-small academy blazer that didn’t button right, the white polo that was threadbare from one too many washes. He shoved them into his gym bag forcefully and without reverence, momentarily naked as he fumbled for his practice clothes. He changed as quickly as possible, yanking his athletic leggings up over his skinny legs with a force that bordered on desperation.
The thought of being seen naked by the other boys filled him with heart-pounding anxiety. He wasn’t really sure why.
Then again, he was fourteen and hormonal and a bit of a crybaby. There were a lot of things he didn’t understand about himself. Not yet, anyways.
Once fully dressed, he pushed the shower curtain open. A couple boys were milling about, shooting the shit as they fiddled with their gym bags. Binghe ignored them resolutely. He went towards the box of crushed rosin — an ambery-yellow mineral that vaguely I resembled rock salt. Lifting his leg over the bench, he grabbed a fistful of rosin and began to scrub at the soles of his flats. The elastic lining of his dance shoes hugged the circumference of his ankles rather snugly. The suede was soft and yielding. The rosin gave him some traction. Some grip.
With that small ritual complete, he felt he could finally relax.
The transformation from high school first-year to dancer wasn’t all-encompassing. Even in his flats and leggings, he was still a little too gawky, with big hands and feet that didn’t match his skinny body. Ungainly. Loose-limbed. But being in his practice gear and dance flats gave him the distinct feeling of being part of something important. A tradition that was ancient, prestigious, even a little sacred.
So he liked himself better.
After all, he was a student of The Cang Qiong Academy of Modern Ballet. The famous Cang Qiong! Not the best student at his level, sure, or even the best in this class, but a student all the same. And today, he’d be progressing to Level Four — Advanced Foundation. Pre-professional.
Some of his classmates already had their sights set on major ballet companies. Within the industry, Cang Qiong was informally regarded as a pipeline for fresh young talent, and it wasn’t too usual for established troupes to recruit student dancers as young as fifteen or sixteen.
Rumour had it that Liu Mingyuan already had her eyes on National Ballet auditions. Central Troupe. The big leagues. Binghe wasn’t surprised. Liu Mingyan was the younger sister of Liu Qingge, the hot-blooded war god of Chinese ballet. Ballet was in her blood, and it showed. Liu Mingyan was steely-boned and intense, brisk-eyed. She carried herself with an air of frigid maturity that was more than a little frightening. She was skilled and she knew it, too, already capable of nailing six consecutive fouettés in a row before sinking into a flawless, spine-melting cambré.
They called her the white swan of Cang Qiong — and for good reason. Like her brother before her, she’d be a star soon enough. Binghe was all but certain of it.
He trudged up the staircase, heading to the third floor. A herd of tittering girls flew past him, around him, moving with the coordinated celerity of birds in formation. They were Immediate Foundation girls, the nine-to-elevens, uniformly decked in pink tights and black leotards. Luo Binghe watched their feet pound against the burnished oak, the exterior of their rose-toned Capezios supple and unbroken at the toe.
Above the third floor landing, a strip of cold sunlight poured through the wood-panelled window. The light hit Binghe head-on. It filled his vision. Transfixed, his feet stalled over the landing. He marshalled himself into a perfect third position without even really thinking. It was nearly five o’clock, the sun slowly sinking down to the ground. Binghe peered through the window, down at the street below. A stack of waterlogged garbage bags were piled high on the sidewalk. Rainwater was pouring off the polyethylene in fat, dirty streams.
Then, a soft smack landed on his back. Luo Binghe stumbled in surprise. Oof.
He glanced about dopily. Ning Yingying was standing behind him with her hands on her hips, her pleasant little mouth pulled into a pout. Her black hair, smooth as a bolt of silk, had been pulled back into a pair of twisty braids. Her eyes were wide and excited; her sweet, heart-shaped face was very slightly flushed with acne. She was holding her pointe shoes with two fingers. Her small feet were covered only by her tights.
“A-Luo, your hair is a wreck,” Ning Yingying said. The way she said it, Binghe could tell she wasn’t trying to be rude. On the contrary, she sounded positively stricken. “Did — did you at least try to comb it?”
“You can’t comb curly hair, Ning-jie,” Binghe said dejectedly. Feeling a little defensive, he lifted one hand to pat it down. “It just… doesn’t work that way.”
"Combing it just makes it fluffier.”
Ning Yingying looked mystified.
“What, really? That seems counterintuitive.”
“Well, I — I suppose it is.”
“Sounds to me like he’s just making excuses,” this from Ming Fan, who was all of a sudden looming over Binghe’s left shoulder. His face had pinched up into an expression that wasn’t quite a sneer, but wasn’t too far off from one either. “Today’s our first class with Shen Laoshi, you know. Shen Laoshi. You should put a little more thought into the impression you’re leaving.”
Binghe wasn’t exactly sure who Shen Laoshi was, but he felt an immense wave of guilt all the same.
“I’m sorry!” Binghe said, more out of reflex than anything. He began flattening his hair with his hands desperately. “I brushed it out super carefully in the shower. I really thought it’d be okay.”
“You look,” Ming Fan said, “like a pomeranian.”
Ning Yingying smacked Ming Fan’s bicep.
"Oh, he does not."
"He does," Ming Fan said. He lifted his chin in Binghe's direction. "You do."
“I’m — sorry? I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t apologize,” Ning Yingying said. She pinched the bridge of her nose and harrumphed. It was a very contrite, very precocious little harrumph. “Ming Fan, you are so not helping.”
“But it’s true.”
Ning Yingying sighed. She reached forwards and began patting helplessly at Binghe’s curls. Her touch was soft, impactless, and reminded Binghe ever vaguely of a pawing kitten.
“If you want, I could borrow some of Sha Hualing’s styling gel? We could slick your hair back.”
“Slick it back?” Binghe repeated, his eyes growing large with horror. He pictured himself waltzing into class, his hair shiny and stiff like a low-rent Phantom of the Opera. “I, I don’t think…”
Ming Fan crossed his arms and scoffed.
“Yeah, no. Ning-jie, I know you’re just trying your best, but — no. Just no.”
Ning Yingying looked crestfallen.
“Alright,” she said. She gave Luo Binghe a final up-and-down glance, her sloe-eyes big and shiny and thoroughly dismayed. A silver thread of hope-against-hope in the etch of her childlike brow. “Don’t get me wrong, A-Luo. I love your fluffy hair. I mean it — I think it’s really, really cute! But, that being said, um… Shen Laoshi looks really strict, and I really don’t want you to get in trouble. Not on our first day, anyhow.”
Binghe felt his heart clench up, as if by way of an invisible fist. Just what kind of person was this Shen Laoshi?
Unwilling to let his nerves show, he entreated Ning Yingying to a smile.
“I’ll be okay, Ning-jie. Don’t worry about me.”
Ming Fan tapped Ning Yingying on the shoulder, looking terribly aggrieved.
“What about my hair, Ning-jie? Do you think my hair is cute?”
Ning Yingying batted him away with her shoes.
“Shush,” she said. Her eyes, so dewy and so soft, so filled with curious light, settled on Binghe’s face. They bounced up-down-up, searching him. “If — if it isn’t okay, I’ll make sure to bring my electric straightener to class tomorrow. Alright?”
Binghe couldn’t imagine he’d look much better with straightened hair — but, still. It’s the thought that counts, right?
“Thank you, Ning-jie.”
“You’re very welcome, A-Luo,” she smiled, spinning her toe shoes over her index finger. “Okay, okay — let’s put this conversation on pause. Class starts in five minutes, and I still haven’t rosined my shoes. See you in the studio?”
She turned on her heels and began trotting merrily away towards the girls’ locker room. Ming Fan followed closely behind, whining after her, “Ning-jie, what about my hair? I said, what about my hair?”
The poor boy.
Had Ming Fan asked him, Binghe would’ve told him that his hair looked quite nice. But Ming Fan hadn’t asked him.
Binghe headed towards the studio.
The boys were milling around by the barre, kicking about aimlessly. Yang Yixuan was presiding over a small session of group stretches. The girls were hunkered down in the corner, sitting cross-legged as they fussed with their pointe shoes. Sha Hualing was hacking at a brand new pair of ruby-red Capezios with a Stanley knife, taking a slice out of the interior insole. Qin Wanyue was darning the ends of her own shoes with a needle and thread. She was fully absorbed in the task, her face a stony mask of concentration as she readjusted the toe box. Repaired the slackened elastic. Repositioned a threadbare rosy ribbon.
There was a clock above the studio door. Four minutes to practice. Might as well take advantage and start stretching, too.
Luo Binghe lined up at the barre. He lifted one leg back up into a courtly arabesque, then held it. He held it until he felt the pleasant burn of exertion in his quadriceps.
Un, deux, trois.
He released the arabesque and sank down into a plié. Every good leap begins with a good plié. He’d read that in a magazine.
He pushed himself up off the ground, off the barre, and into a slow, rounded leap. The shape and form of the leap itself felt right, felt solid — the landing, however, was clumsy. The moment the balls of his feet fell back against the studio floor, he grimaced, knowing he’d settled into the incorrect position. Something to work on in the coming days.
If he worked hard, he’d nail it eventually.
Ning Yingying flew into the room, sidling up to the barre next to Luo Binghe. Ming Fan was close behind.
“Oh my God, we just made it,” she said, lifting herself up and down on the hardblock end of her pointe shoes. Relev é, pieds a terre. The instep of her foot, lengthened by the line of her shoe, was unbelievably dramatic. “I saw Shen Laoshi out in the hall. He’s almost here.”
Their new instructor. Binghe tensed up. Ning Yingying gave Binghe a little pat on the shoulder.
“Cheer up, A-Luo. He looked like he was in a pretty good mood.”
“Is my hair okay?”
“It’s —” Ning Yingying reached forwards and patted down the duckfluff. “It’s hair.”
“It’s a lot of hair,” Ming Fan said.
Ning Yingying nodded sagely, “It’s quite a lot of hair.”
“I hope we do more partnering this year,” Ming Fan said, checking his turnout in the panelled back mirror. “I want to improve my lifts.”
Ning Yingying smiled, rolled her eyes.
“You always pinch my ribs when you lift me.”
“I know,” Ming Fan sulked. “That’s why I wanna get better.”
Five on the dot now. The studio, which had previously been murmurous, fell silent. The dancers lined up against the barre, expectant, militant. Yang Yixuan’s throat bobbed nervously. Ning Yingying twisted her braids between her fingers. Even Liu Mingyan wasn’t fully composed. She clicked her jaw from left to right, her eyes narrow and dead set on the wood-panelled studio door. You could hear the slow percussion of footsteps out in the hall.
The handle turned. The door clicked open, hinges squealing noisily. A young man came through; dark hair, darker eyes. A bone-white hand gripping the lacquered handle of a paper folding-fan.
Binghe’s first impression of Shen Yuan was thus: He’s so young! Twenty-five at the very most, though twenty-two was a more likely estimate. Still stage-aged! That was crazy young for a Cang Qiong ballet instructor! Most of Binghe’s teachers were in their late thirties or forties — former pros who’d aged out of performing after years and years of intense physical strain.
He must be the youngest teacher I’ve ever had, Binghe thought. Then, his face growing hot at the thought, The most beautiful, too. No contest.
Shen Yuan’s skin was incredibly, mesmerizingly white. It was as if he was standing beneath some sort of silvery spotlight. As if he’d been carved from milky quartz, or agate. He seemed faintly luminescent. Lunar. He had the ethereal, effortless slightness of a crane: a tiny little waist, slender and fine-boned wrists. Only his ankles and calves were substantial.
Willowy and sinewy and fairylike.
Shen Yuan strode towards the center of the room, absentmindedly tapping the palm of his hand with the end of his fan. He was covered from throat to wrist in a pale green turtleneck. Over top, he wore a soft grayish shawl.
“Welcome to your first day in the Advanced division,” Shen Yuan said. He lifted his hand with liquid elegance and began to count heads. “ — Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Hm, and that’s… right, right. Fourteen girls, six boys. Ah, well. I suppose that ratio tracks.”
A few of the girls giggled. The boys mostly looked abashed.
Shen Yuan slid his fan open. He lifted it over his lips, observing his newest students from above its shaded, slatted brim.
“My name is Shen Yuan,” he said. “Formerly of The School of American Ballet in New York City — and now, of course, Cang Qiong Academy. I look forward to teaching you.”
A titter of excitement went through the room, with a few audible oohs and aahs. SAB! New York City! America! Did Shen Yuan speak English? Had he trained with the New York City Ballet? ABT? Had he worked on Broadway, like Jerome Robbins? Did he know any star dancers?
Sensing their wide-eyed awe, Shen Yuan flapped his fan and rolled his eyes.
“Settle down now,” he said. Still, his lips twitched with the hint of a bemused smile. “Before we dive into the lesson plan, I’d like to get to know you. Each and every one of you. Your strengths, your weaknesses. Your technical background. Your style. I’ve been made to understand this year’s class includes students from a diverse number of technical schools. Vaganova, Bournonville, American neoclassical — the usual suspects.”
Shen Yuan’s eyes passed over each and every one of them. His stare, while calm and impassive, had a remarkable clarity and acuity. It made Binghe feel inexplicably vulnerable.
“If you wouldn’t mind," he said, "take your place at the barre and proceed with your usual warm-ups. I’ll call you forwards one by one.”
Nobody moved. Shen Yuan rolled his eyes, snapping his fan shut.
“Go on, don't be shy. Positions, everyone! And don't neglect your calf stretches."
That time, they did.
Ning Yingying turned towards the barre and began to stretch. Ming Fan, looking quietly anxious, began to rotate his shoulders before segueing into a slow and thorough adagio routine.
One by one, Shen Yuan called his students up. From the corner of his eye, Binghe watched as Sha Hualing all but leapt towards him, all but glowing with excitement as Shen Yuan politely asked her to showcase her petit allegro. Sha Hualing threw herself into the variation with a vicious sense of attack. Her allegro was frenzied. Showy. Self-congratulatory. She looked famished, she looked rapacious — hungry, so hungry to prove herself. To prove her technique, to prove her style, her superiority. Her bourrés pattered excitedly across the studio floor as she segued from leap to leap, her ruby-red toe shoes punctuating the long, lean line of her body. There was Italian virtuosity in her foundation, cross-pollinated with the telltale kick of something Spanish.
Shen Yuan thanked her warmly and sent her back to the barre. He called up the next dancer.
One by one, Binghe watched them filter through. Yang Yixuan’s style was masculine and intense, all stage-spanning leaps and percussive tempo. He’d very clearly modeled himself after his hero, Liu Qingge, the living legend who’d built his fame on the back of hot-blooded roles like Spartacus and Solor. Gongyi Xiao’s style, by comparison, was plaintive. Plaintive and princely, in that Sleeping Beauty-esque kind of way.
Shen Yuan looked Ming Fan up-and-down with a look of curious assessment before asking him for an old-fashioned, earthbound step sequence. Ning Yingying was next. She rose to full-height to deliver a sprightly, playful pas de chat. There was something pleasantly sugary in her dancing; The Nutcracker and Cinderella and every other coquettish childrens’ ballet.
And then Liu Mingyan — the white swan! — strutted up to the center of the studio, putting the lot of them to shame with her trademark fouettés, her wrists held immobile over her head as she kicked and kicked through an unceasing, unflinching spiral of self-sustaining motion. Perfect turnout, perfect arches. Perfect extension. Perfect balance. Speedy, Balanchine precision. Her expression vacant, daydreaming. Bored or sleepy or both.
You could feel the way the other girls hated her. You could feel it like a prickle on your skin. You could feel it like lightning in the air.
Binghe was up next.
He nearly tripped over his own feet as he padded up towards Shen Laoshi. Shen Yuan politely pretended not to notice.
“Luo Binghe, was it?” he asked, tilted his head to the side as he sized Binghe up.
Binghe nodded very quickly.
“It’s a — a pleasure to meet you, Shen Laoshi!” he said. Belatedly, he ducked down into a hasty little bow. Shen Yuan offered him an encouraging smile.
“What a polite boy,” he said. He tapped his fan against his lips. “Hm. You’ve an interesting look about you, Binghe. Your hair especially. It’s, ah, very...”
Shen Yuan gesticulated vaguely. Binghe coloured, aghast.
“I’m so sorry!” he blurted out. “I, I know it’s a mess —”
“A mess?” Shen Yuan blinked. “You’ve got it all wrong, Binghe. Actually, I think your hair is very charming.”
Binghe shook his head, disbelieving.
“Shen Laoshi is — too kind.”
“Shen Laoshi is only being honest,” Shen Yuan parried. “Still, I understand your pain. Curly hair is difficult to manage, hm? Perhaps you should consider growing it out. Long hair weighs itself down. Helps to mitigate duckfluff.”
He reached out and patted Binghe on the head. He had what you might call a shepherding touch — so sweet, so placating. So gentle. His hand smelled of peppermint oil. Was that a strange thing to notice? Because Binghe noticed it.
“Now, that’s enough idle chatter,” Shen Yuan said. He pulled his hand away. “I called you up to dance, didn't I?"
“You look like a strong boy. Why don't you show me your batterie?"
He marshalled himself into the third position; ankle-to-ankle, one leg crossed over the other. He focused on the bearings of his body, the subtle inclinations of gravity; pressure on the back of his heel, on the balls of his feet. Pre-leap tension in his calves. He crouched at the knee, sinking down into a plié. Every good leap begins with a good plié. He liked that little tidbit. It was simple. Actionable.
Shen Yuan’s eyes were on Binghe. They were bottle-glass green, curiously flat with a look of analytic assessment. His oakdark hair was like water. Like silk against his shoulders. It stood out as alarmingly stark against the opiate whiteness of his skin.
Shen Laoshi really was a creature of ballet, wasn’t he? Pale and fragile, like an elegiac swan. Like a Wilis. Like a sylphide. Like a gauze-drecked shade — La Bayadère, Act 2. The embodied disembodied. It was such a supernatural prettiness. It made Binghe feel weird. Weird and hot and kinda happy, in a manic, squirmy kinda way.
Because this otherworldly creature was looking at him!
Binghe’s limbs flew up, his hands above his head, legs lifting into a mid-air combination. Leap, scissor, reposition, brace. Land. He felt a kind of warbling reverberation in his ankles when his feet hit the studio floor. Impact.
Oh, Binghe thought, staring down at his feet. Numb with disbelief. I actually stuck the landing!
Shen Yuan’s eyes went dinner-plate wide. His mouth fell open into a soft, plush little O. Had Binghe actually managed to impress him?
There was a beat. Then, Shen Yuan snapped his fan back open, throwing a papery screen up over his expression.
“That’s very interesting,” he said, his voice carefully inflectionless. “That’s — hm, well. That’s very interesting.” The fan swayed, left-right-left-right. “Binghe. Do you — do you have an allegro variation prepared? Any variation will do.”
Binghe’s chest swelled up with pride.
One, two. One, two. He’d studied this variation on his own time. It was something he’d discovered while perusing ballet DVDs with Ning Yingying — a fast-paced, Russian-tinged combination full of treacherous twists and turns. Hungry for Shen Yuan’s approval, he hurled himself into it. He threw his skinny little body across the studio with hurricane recklessness . One, two! One two! He snapped into an arabesque, held the extension until it ached — could Shen Yuan see his limbs were shaking? Did it dismay him? Intrigue him?
One, two! Binghe’s leg sliced through the air. The motion was so swift and so brisk that he could feel it like a cold burn in the ligaments of his hip. It was strange, dancing like this without so much as a backbeat. But it was exhilarating, too. Shen Yuan hadn’t set any music, but Binghe could feel a song in his body. In his bones. It was heart-bursting, percussive. Galvanizing.
“Yes,” Shen Yuan said. “Yes, Binghe. That’s — that’s very good. Yes.”
Binghe skidded to a halt, breathing hard. How long had he been dancing for? Had — had he performed the full variation? Uninterrupted? His face was burning hot, his pulse pounding in his ears. He braced his hands against his knees and swallowed hard, fighting hard to focus on the warm and wonderful timbre of Shen Laoshi’s voice.
Shen Yuan looked down at Binghe, his chin tucked against his chest. There was a quiet gleam in his eyes.
“How old were you when you took up ballet, Binghe?”
Binghe raked his damp curls out of his face.
“I was eight, Laoshi.”
“Then you’ve been dancing for — what, five years?”
“Six years, Laoshi.”
“How many days a week?”
“Every day but Wednesday and Sunday.”
“How do you like it?”
Binghe stared back, uncomprehending.
“I said, how do you like it?”
“I…” Binghe blinked hard. “I like it a lot.”
“What do you like about ballet?” Shen Yuan pressed.
Binghe stared down at the waxy studio floor, thinking hard. The mind-body mania of it. How to explain it?
“I like to move, I guess.”
Shen Yuan hummed, unconvinced.
“If that’s it, then you could’ve taken up… oh, I don’t know, gymnastics. Swimming. Volleyball. Badminton. Why pick ballet at all?”
“Well, I — I’ve always liked to dance, so...”
“Even then, why ballet? There’s contemporary dance, hip-hop, street dance, ballroom, classical Chinese dance — all of which are less expensive, less strenuous, or less dated.”
Binghe hunkered down and thought it through. He thought about his mother counting out nickels and dimes on the beechwood kitchen table. He thought about how she always seemed to physically cringe when the invoices from Cang Qiong came in the mail. He thought about the near-constant soreness in his knees. The way he had to soak his raw, calloused feet in a footbath every night like some kind of wretched old man.
Then, Luo Binghe pulled the ribbon back to when he was about six years old. Sitting on his mother’s lap, chewing on his own hair, completely engrossed in an old cassette tape of The Nutcracker. He’d begged his mother to rewind to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo over and over and over again, spellbound by the grainy, screen-fried image of her swirling chiffon skirts. Her pure line, her diamantine poise. Her legato magic.
She seemed to belong to another world. One that was precious and lush and full of impossible, wonderful mystery.
“I don’t know,” Binghe answered softly. He shuffled his feet, beat-up flats scuffing quietly against the burnished floor. “I just think ballet is really beautiful, Laoshi.”
He looked up. Shen Yuan’s eyes had the slightest smile to them, and in his manner, Binghe suddenly understood that he had answered correctly.
“Mn,” Shen Yuan said. “I see.” He flicked his fan towards the wall. “Return to the barre, Binghe. I have two more students to assess before we begin our group session. Focus on the carriage of your arms. Wrist placement, too.”
Binghe’s heart lightened.
Buoyant with happiness, he turned on his heels and headed back towards the barre. It was only then that he realized his classmates were staring at him. All of them. Some of them had even abandoned their warm-ups, hanging onto the barre dumbly as they stared and stared and stared.
There was a special cruelty in their eyes. One that was usually reserved for Liu Mingyan.
For the first time in his life, Binghe had been singled out for competition.
“You’ve been practicing at home,” Ning Yingying whispered into Binghe’s ear. Her tone was contrite, even a little accusatory. Ming Fan’s eyes flashed down to the floor angrily, resolutely avoiding eye contact.
“I — I try to. When I have the time,” he said. He lowered his tone of voice, meek. “I practice at the laundromat. While my clothes are in the machine.”
“Not at all.”
Binghe cast a glance back at Shen Yuan, who was fully absorbed in observing a pigtailed girl’s wobbly-legged technique. His fan was sailing idly through the air. His imperious chin was tilted up towards the ceiling; so proud, so lordly. He had the regal disposition of an aristocrat, though the corners of his eyes were crinkled up, smiling.
Binghe could see it again; the other world. The other side. Moonlit and pure.
He wondered if Shen Yuan could take him there.
Boop. Ning Yingying poked at Binghe’s cheek. She was pouting good-naturedly.
“Your développé was — like, intense, A-Luo. I was honestly shocked, I’ve never seen you… well. Hey, if you teach me how to kick like that, I can help you with your arm placement?”
“I’d really appreciate that, Ning-jie.”
“Hm,” was all Ming Fan said, his eyes still firmly focused on the whorls and grains in the floor below. His face was ruddy and red; his jaw was screwed-up tight. He looked a little distraught, like he had just had something taken from him, but Binghe couldn’t possibly imagine what.
Shen Laoshi was a good teacher. Stern, but fair. Uncompromising, but patient. And always ready with a kind word and a thorough explanation.
Binghe liked him a lot.
It was the third week of class; a warm, windy Saturday afternoon. Shen Yuan had set up his ancient record player in the far corner of the studio, filling the room with the airy, indefatigable sound of Massenet. They were practicing partnering lifts. Sha Hualing was paired with Binghe; Ning Yingying was paired with a very sweaty Ming Fan.
Binghe had already partnered several times before in his Intermediate classes. Even then, he felt a little awkward about being so close to a girl his own age. Up close, Sha Hualing’s face looked distorted — as if seen through a fish-eye lens. Her eyes were big and bright and impetuous, her forehead pale and wide. Binghe couldn’t help but blush as his hands found her waist.
Sha Hualing openly laughed at him for that.
“Jeez, you’re such a baby,” she said. She poked Binghe in the ribs. “Afraid you’re gonna pop a boner or something?”
Binghe gaped, aghast.
“Don’t be gross!”
“Ling-er, don’t be gross,” she mimicked, nasal and nasty. Then, her voice turning deadly serious, “If I feel anything poking me in the back while we’re partnering, you’re dead meat.”
“As — as if!”
From across the room, Shen Yuan’s eyes wandered towards them. Binghe and Sha Hualing shut up immediately. They snapped to focus; Binghe standing to soldierly attention with his back straight, Sha Hualing lifting her hands and dutifully placing them over Binghe’s shoulders.
“Just lift,” Sha Hualing hissed. She sank down into a plié. There was a sense of vicious snap to her plié — like a predator lying in wait, preparing to pounce. Her lips twisted into a crocodile’s stage smile.
Binghe’s hands gripped Sha Hualing’s waist tight, and Sha Hualing jumped — but either Binghe came in too early, or Sha Hualing came in too late. The force of Binghe’s hands rubbed up against her torso, probably painfully, scraping the length of her ribs. Their jump reached a feeble mid-height before puttering back down to the Earth, Sha Hualing’s red shoes meeting the floor very gently as she winced. Binghe released his grip.
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
“Shit,” Sha Hualing said. She was the only girl in their class that Binghe ever knew to swear. She coughed, then made a face. “I’m okay. Man, that sucked, though.”
Shen Yuan appeared at their side, his expression sharp.
“Hualing, don’t wait to feel him lift. If you do, you’ll be too late. You need to jump — and trust. Trust he’ll be there to lift you,” he said. His eyes snapped to Binghe. “Likewise, Binghe, you must wait for the jump. She will set the pace, not you. Are we clear?”
“Miss Sha, I didn’t hear you.”
Sha Hualing toed at the ground with her bright red shoe, sullen.
“... Yes, Laoshi,” she murmured.
“Good. Now, give it another go.”
They repeated the lift three, four times. Binghe focused on the timing, trying to find the pinpoint-perfect moment of Sha Hualing’s leap. With each consecutive lift, Sha Hualing rose with a little more force, a little more power than a typical jump should allow. Plié, leap, lift. Plié, leap, lift. Rinse and repeat. Study and refine.
By the fifth leap, they’d polished the lift into a single fluid maneuver — plié, leap, lift! Sha Hualing soared up into the air, shining like a ruby above the studio square. She lifted her hands into a coquettish fifth position, her wrists canted with a touch of devil-may-care.
“Much better, wouldn’t you say?” Shen Yuan said. “Excellent control, Binghe. That’s right. Let gravity be your guide.”
Leap, lift. Height and motion. Sha Hualing surged up, her poise iron-clad. Her arms were thrown up over her head, softly rounded. Then, Binghe lowered her back down, her little feet landing into a silky little third position. Shen Yuan smiled.
From across the room, Yang Yixuan gave Binghe a thumbs-up. Ning Yingying clapped. Liu Mingyan’s brow twitched.
“Well, there’s still room to fine-tune it,” Shen Yuan said, lifting the sleeve of his bluish-green shirt to reveal a shiny watch. “But that can wait until after the break. Get some lunch, everyone. Be back here in the studio for 12:45.”
Sha Hualing smiled, flushed with happiness. She looked extremely pleased to have been given an opportunity to show off to her classmates.
Binghe’s eyes rested on Shen Laoshi’s back as he exited the room. His shoulders were very lithe. His waist was very small. The backs of his thighs looked pretty firm.
That was probably a weird thing to notice.
“Did you see the look on Liu Mingyan’s face?” Sha Hualing said, nudging Binghe in the ribs. "Did you see how she looked at me when I was up in the air?"
“She was glaring something nasty,” Sha Hualing lifted her hand to her mouth and giggled. Her eyes hummed like oil behind glass. "She was makin' a face like she was sucking on a lemon."
"Was she really?"
"Yeah, big time," Sha Hualing grinned. "Oh, I’m positively tickled, Binghe — this is excellent.”
“... Being glared at? Is excellent?”
“Having a rival, dummy,” she said. Sha Hualing wiped at her brow with the back of her hand. “I’ve always wanted a rival.”
Binghe decided that he didn’t understand girls, and that was probably fine.
Sha Hualing tossed her hair, smiling grandly.
“Hey, you wanna hear something interesting?” she asked.
“Sure, I guess."
“Well, as it turns out, Liu Mingyan’s not the only one with a famous big brother. You ever heard of Shen Jiu? That primadonna soloist with the National Ballet? That’s Shen Laoshi’s twin.”
Binghe startled at that. Images flooded up in his mind — an angular, waspish face plastered over the front of Dance International.
“Wait, Shen Jiu? Shen Jiu? I’ve — I’ve heard of him! He was in Serenade last season!”
Sha Hualing’s eyes gleamed.
“Did you see it live?”
Ha! As if Binghe’s mother had the money for National Ballet tickets! Binghe wouldn't even dream of asking.
“No,” Binghe admitted. “But — I saw the videos online! His solo — ”
“He was intense! His — his plasticity? I could just die of jealousy,” Sha Hualing sighed. “I had to beg my daddy to take me, but there’s no beating box seats. He was amazing.”
“They’re both amazing,” Binghe said, thinking of Shen Yuan.
Sha Hualing stopped to think about it, then said, “Yeah, I guess they are.” She paused, her brows creasing in suspicion. “Hey, you don’t have any secret prodigy siblings I should be worried about, do you?”
“No, I’m an only child.”
“Me too,” Sha Hualing said. Then: “I read somewhere that only children tend not to get along, ‘cause we’re all selfish little brats who never learned to get interested in other people. But let’s try to be friends, Bing-mei.”
“You’d make a boring rival,” Sha Hualing said. She flicked his nose. “You’re softer than a marshmallow.
“A-Luo!” Ning Yingying trotted over, Ming Fan in tow. She’d already taken off her pointe shoes, her tight-covered feet slipping and sliding over the floor. “We’re gonna grab lunch at the convenience store down the block. Will you come?”
Binghe shook his head, his curls bouncing with the motion.
“No, I packed my own lunch today,” he said. “I’ll eat in the studio.”
Good, Ming Fan’s eyes seemed to say. Ning Yingying’s plush little mouth dropped into a pout.
“Aw, okay. We’ll see you in a few.”
Ning Yingying waved. She had a very controlled, modulated wave, like a princess waving from a theme park float. She slipped out the door, scurrying about in her tights. Ming Fan followed her as slavishly as a shadow. His expression was strangely dire, strangely desperate, like he simply couldn’t stand to be more than a pace away from her. Like he’d die.
Binghe went out into the hall, his path lit by the big, wall-sized window above the staircase. The late April sky was cornflower blue. The clouds looked as frothy and soft as whipped meringue. They might’ve made for a nice cake topping.
He went back down to the boy’s locker room, swapping his flats for a beat-up pair of sneakers. He always felt a little silly when he wore his dance shoes outside of the classroom. For good measure, he also threw a woolen cardigan over his rehearsal gear. The sweater swamped him. His mother had knitted it several sizes too large in the hopes that it would last him at least a few years. It was nice and warm and heavy, like a weighted blanket.
Binghe dug through his gym bag for a moment, then pulled out a yellow-tinted Tupperware of last night’s curry, settled on its side against a now-lukewarm icepack.
Battered white fish, a bed of rice, roasted cauliflower and seasoned potatoes… swimming in a luxurious heaping of turmeric-bright sauce. A nice little meal by anyone’s standards. Binghe had made it himself.
He turned the container right side up and lifted the lid, hit with the fragrant scent of spice. He took it out into the hallway, fully intending to eat in the rehearsal studio before getting a few extra stretches in — then he paused.
It would be a shame to eat such a tasty dish cold. A real shame!
Furtively, Binghe glanced down the hall to where the admin office would be. It felt a little awkward, but maybe they wouldn’t mind if he used their microwave?
He navigated his way past the central staircase, weaving behind the empty reception desk.
Is it really okay for me to be here? Binghe wondered. I mean… Ning Yingying comes back here all the time to brew tea, doesn’t she? Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s probably fine for me to do the same. Probably. I mean, I’ll only be here two minutes. Two minutes and no more. Yeah. Yeah, it’s probably fine.
Moving light-footedly, he came up towards the staff room. He peered through the glass-panelled door, spying a strip of counter space with a toaster, a kettle, and a microwave. The kitchenette looked empty, too. Even better! Binghe reached for the handle —
“How are you adjusting, A-Yuan?”
Binghe froze. That was Yue Qingyuan’s voice! Yue Qingyuan! The director! Binghe made himself scarce, stashing himself out of sight.
There was a responding hum. Noncommittal.
“Very well, thank you.”
Binghe knew that voice, too. Shen Laoshi.
“And your classes? You don’t find the workload too demanding, do you? Because we can always make adjustments, if need be.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Shen Yuan said. There was the sound of water running. “Twenty students is hardly a demanding workload. I could quite easily handle twice that. Or thrice that, even.”
“Ah.” There was a somewhat loaded pause. “Is that so?”
“Mn. Come to speak of it, I heard you’ve been looking for someone to take over the Junior Boys division.”
“Oh,” Yue Qingyuan said, an audible note of reservation in his tone. “I — I suppose that’s true.”
“I think I’d be a good fit. I mean, if you look at my schedule, you’ll notice —”
“A-Yuan,” Yue Qingyuan said, more firmly now. Shockingly paternalistic. “Let’s not rush into things. You’re busy enough with your current roster, wouldn’t you say?”
The kettle whistled. Water boiling.
“Qingyuan. I am not an invalid.”
“Oh, A-Yuan. Of course you aren’t.”
“Your tone disagrees,” Shen Yuan said tersely, unmoved. “I’m more than capable of doing my fair share, you know. I won’t break. ”
“Of course, of course. A-Yuan is as strong as he is capable.”
“Then give me a second class.”
“I would love to,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Next semester. Provided your health holds up.”
“I admire your determination, A-Yuan, but you cannot brute force your way through recovery. These things simply take time.” A sigh. “I know you had another appointment last weekend. Now, I won’t pry for details, but I’d still like to ask… the new medication, is it —”
“Qi-ge,” Shen Yuan said, an uncharacteristic note of petulance in his tone. There was the familiar clink of dishes — a spoon being stirred into a cup of tea? “Look. I know you’re snooping on Jiu-ge’s behalf.”
Jiu-ge? Binghe’s mind filled in the blanks. Shen Jiu?
The ensuing silence was brief, albeit loaded. Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat.
“Why would —”
“It’s okay, you don’t need to hide it,” Shen Yuan said, resuming his usual tone of cool professionalism. “It’s fine. In fact, I understand completely.” Binghe could make out the sound of cabinets creaking open — Shen Yuan rustling about, perhaps searching for sugar. “Tell my dear Jiu-ge the following: I’m fine. My health is holding up fine . The new doctor is fine. The new medication is fine. I’m fine on money. And I enjoy my work very much, Qingyuan.”
“Look, I know you think he’s being unreasonable —”
“He is being unreasonable.”
“Shen Yuan. Please. Try to see things from his perspective,” Yue Qingyuan said. “You gave him quite the scare with your last — episode. Especially with you so far from home… you must believe me, he was inconsolable.”
I shouldn’t be hearing this, Binghe thought. He shut his eyes, overwhelmed with guilt. This isn’t any of my business. I shouldn’t be hearing this.
Yet he was terrified that if he moved, he’d be spotted.
“Well,” Shen Yuan said, then stopped short, stymied. He coughed daintily, then said it again, “Well.”
“Give it a couple months,” Yue Qingyuan plied him gently. “A few good months on the new medication, and I can put you back to work full time. Does that sound okay?”
“... Sure. Sure, Qingyuan.”
He heard footsteps — though not in his direction. Binghe frowned, his back pressed to the wall. Had Yue Qingyuan returned to his office?
Binghe stared down at his little plastic Tupperware of curry, his face hot with shame.
That wasn’t for me to hear.
Binghe pushed off the wall, chancing a glance at the door to the staff lounge. He could see Shen Yuan through the frosted glass. He was leaning against the counter, his legs crossed one over the other, a steaming mug of tea cupped between both hands. He was staring down into his drink, dark hair curtained over his shoulders.
Shen Yuan lifted his mug, blew softly over the piping hot surface, then took a slow pull. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. Binghe felt his mouth go dry.
Pretend you’ve only just arrived. Pretend you hadn’t heard a thing.
Binghe rapped on the door.
“Ah?” Shen Yuan startled upright, blinking in Binghe’s direction. “Oh, Binghe. Come in, come in.”
Binghe turned the handle. The door was very old and smelled strongly of dust, rattling and moaning as Binghe pushed it open.
“Hi, Laoshi,” Binghe smiled nervously, shuffling through. “I just — I wanted to know if I… could, um...”
Shen Yuan’s eyes roved down to the plastic container of curry.
“You wanted to warm your food up?” he asked dazedly. He ran a hand down over his face, his expression vague and faraway. “I see. Mn. Yes, that makes sense. Go right ahead.”
Binghe scurried towards the counter. He pulled the top off his container, pried the microwave open, and set it on the inner plate. He punched sixty seconds in. Bathed in a flat, yellowish light, the curry began to rotate.
Afraid to meet Shen Yuan’s eyes, Binghe stared at the microwave. So did Shen Yuan. They stood in silence, watching the microwave’s interior plate spin.
Then: “Binghe. Were you waiting outside the door just now? While I was talking to Yue Qingyuan?”
Binghe’s hands clenched into fists. His eyes began to sting.
“I thought I saw a fluffy little shadow,” Shen Yuan said, joking a little bit, trying to alleviate the tension. Binghe’s chin began to wobble.
“I…” Binghe swallowed hard, shutting his eyes tight. He was struck by the hair-trigger instinct to cry. He fought against it tooth and nail. “Laoshi, I am so sorry!”
“It’s alright, Binghe.”
“No, it isn’t!” Binghe shook his head fiercely. “Please believe me, Laoshi, I really didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I swear —”
Shen Yuan placed his hand on top of Binghe’s shoulder. It was a slender, cold hand. His nails were immaculate. They had a strange, pearlescent nacre to them — like oyster shells. Like cuttlebone.
“I know you didn’t,” he said. “You’ve always been a polite boy. You wouldn’t do that.”
Binghe felt a vertiginous swell of something for Shen Yuan. For the bird-boned, white hand on his shoulder. He glanced down at his sneakers. The wormy, limp laces had been muddied grey-brown with April rain and silt.
“I’m so, so sorry,” he said again. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Enough of that,” Shen Yuan said, giving Binghe’s shoulder a squeeze. There was a surprising force to it. “I’m the one who owes you an apology. That was probably a very uncomfortable situation for you.”
The microwave beeped. Binghe just went on staring down at his feet, so Shen Yuan set his tea down on the counter top and opened it for him. He hummed pleasantly, glancing between the microwave and Binghe.
“What’s that? Curry?”
“It looks good,” Shen Yuan said. “Mn. You were right to come, that’ll be much tastier eaten hot.”
Shen Yuan handed the container of curry to Luo Binghe. Binghe stared into it. Cauliflower, peas, sliced carrots. Speckles of seasoning on the steaming white rice. It did look good.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about what Yue Qingyuan had said.
Binghe lifted his chin, finding the strength to confront Shen Yuan directly.
“Laoshi, are you sick?”
Shen Yuan paused. A flit of some strong, hardened emotion passed over his features.
“No,” Shen Yuan said “Well. Not really. Here — let me show you.”
Shen Yuan pushed his sleeve up and began to unfasten his watch. Binghe frowned, failing to connect the dots.
Shen Yuan turned the watch over, beckoning Binghe to look upon it with a curl of his fingers. Binghe leaned in uncertainly. Shen Yuan’s watch was very nice. It had a shiny quartz face and a smooth, unmarked silver body. The gleaming green dial might’ve been carved from some precious gemstone. Shen Yuan tapped on the leather back strap with his fingernails, drawing Binghe’s attention to a white clip-on medical ID.
In bold, officious red characters, it read, MEDICAL ALERT: EPILEPSY (GENERALIZED EPILEPSY WITH PARTIAL AND TONIC-CLONIC SEIZURES). Beneath that, THIS IS NOT MY FIRST SEIZURE. DO NOT RESTRAIN. DIAL 120 IF SEIZURES LAST LONGER THAN 5 MINUTES.
There were two emergency contacts listed: his brother, Shen Jiu, and some person named ‘Shang Qinghua.’ At the very bottom, there was also a list of prescribed medications. They all had long and frighteningly chemical names. Binghe didn’t recognize any of them.
“It’s not really a big deal,” Shen Yuan, putting his watch back on. “I mean, epilepsy isn’t even all that uncommon. But my brother is very overprotective.”
“You had…” Binghe lowered his voice to a hushed whisper. “An episode?”
Shen Yuan hesitated, then nodded.
“Yes. I had a pretty bad seizure while I was in New York. Um — I experienced something called ‘convulsive status epilepticus.’ That’s doctor-talk for a seizure that lasts much longer than it should.”
“Well, I won’t go into it,” Shen Yuan said, transparently evasive. “But it put me straight into the ICU. They kept me in the hospital for about a week in total. My brother — didn’t take it well. At the time, he was in China and I was in America… I think the distance freaked him out more than anything. He dropped everything to fly cross-country and fuss over me. Ridiculous, right?”
“It sounds like he did the right thing.”
“Well… maybe,” Shen Yuan allowed, readjusting the strap of his watch. “At the time, I just felt he was being irresponsible. Bailing on everything, abandoning his work commitments without prior notice…"
“It was a family emergency!" Binghe protested.
Shen Yuan expression soured.
“You sound like Yue Qingyuan,” he muttered petulantly. He pouted — actually, visibly pouted. Binghe was a little amazed by that. It felt like an overwhelmingly rare privilege to witness this softer, more childish side of his immaculate Laoshi. “Jiu-ge is a dancer. He should know better. The show must go on — even if I’m, you know. Indisposed.”
There was nothing for Binghe there, so he let it drift with the current.
“Is Shen Laoshi doing better now?” Binghe asked. Shen Yuan nodded.
“Mn. Much better. Shortly after, ah… my New York episode, I switched to a different medication. It’s doing a much, much better job of controlling my seizures.” Shen Yuan forced a jovial smile. Binghe knew this smile. Every single adult he’d ever met had some version of it; painfully phony, cynically designed to placate pesky children. “Binghe doesn’t have to worry about anything scary happening during our classes, okay? This teacher is quite healthy.”
Binghe wasn’t exactly sure if he believed that.
“You should follow Director Yue’s advice,” he said quietly.
Shen Yuan’s smile stumbled, slipped, then began to freefall.
Binghe’s eyes slid back down towards his food. He recognized that he was speaking out of line, but he felt helpless to stop himself.
“You’re the nicest teacher I’ve ever had,” he murmured. “I’d hate it if anything happened to you… because you pushed yourself too hard…”
Binghe’s eyes began to sting, his vision swimming with unshed tears. Shen Yuan took notice immediately.
“Ah! Don’t cry! Please don’t cry!” he begged, his green eyes going large with panic of the purest sort. He grabbed Binghe by the shoulders, lowering himself to meet his eyes head-on. “Oh, Binghe! You sweet little lamb… I’ll take care of myself, I promise! Just — please don’t cry!”
Binghe sniffled. He scrubbed at his eyes with the back of one hand.
Shen Yuan nodded fervently, desperately.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I promise, so please don’t make such a sad face. You’re breaking your old Laoshi’s heart.”
“Alright,” Binghe said. He took one last shuddering breath, wrestling for some semblance of self-control. “Alright.”
Adults broke their promises all the time. Binghe knew that. He wasn’t a little kid. That being said, he made the executive decision to trust in Shen Yuan all the same. Because Shen Yuan wasn’t just another adult. He was — he was something else. Something more. Binghe didn’t know what, exactly. He felt he’d reached the limits of language.
Feeling a little overwhelmed, Binghe looked down at his food again. He was struck by a very mundane realization.
“Oh,” he said. “I forgot my chopsticks in my bag.”
Shen Yuan straightened up. There was a hint of relief in his smile.
“No worries. We have some extras lying about here, don’t worry.”
Shen Yuan turned around and began rummaging through a rack of cutlery. Binghe watched him. Binghe was always watching him; always this side of mesmerized. Tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear, Shen Yuan extended a set of disposable chopsticks in Binghe’s direction. Binghe accepted them gratefully, his eyes trained on the slope where Shen Yuan’s wrist met his thumb. Shen Yuan’s hands appeared to be the same size as Binghe’s, despite the ten-year difference between them. Would Binghe’s hands someday be larger?
“Where have your little friends gone?” Shen Yuan asked. “You should hurry along and find them.”
Binghe shook his head.
“They went to the convenience store. I was the only one who brought their own lunch.”
“Were you going to eat alone?” Shen Yuan tilted his head to the side and frowned. “Well, that won’t do. Why don’t you join me in my office?”
The chance to share a meal with Shen Laoshi? Binghe’s heart sped up.
“If… if Laoshi is willing to have me…”
“Then — yes. Yes, I’d like that,” Binghe blushed. “I actually had some questions about the sequence you were showing us yesterday? Um — posé arabesque, fondu.”
Shen Yuan had just rediscovered his tea and looked extraordinarily pleased to remember it existed. He took a pull from his mug, humming in delight when he found it was still warm.
“The Shade step,” he murmured, the bow of his lips pressed ever-light against the ceramic brim of his cup. His gaze wandered; his mind’s eye filled with visions or virtuosity: air, height, motion. “Walk with me, Binghe.”
Lunch with Shen Laoshi became a regular event.
They shared meals maybe two, three times a week. Always in Shen Yuan’s office — Shen Yuan sitting loose-limbed in his office chair, Binghe folded demurely into the seat opposite. Binghe got into the habit of cooking for the both of them. Shen Yuan was a vocal supporter of Binghe’s cooking. Binghe was a vocal supporter of Shen Yuan’s happiness.
Mealtimes followed a predictable pattern: a home-packed lunch, a cup of tea, dessert, and then dance-talk. Favourite ballets, tricks of the trade, secondhand rumours of the stages of Europe… and sometimes, if Luo Binghe was very lucky, an anecdote from Shen Yuan’s own past.
Shen Yuan dispensed them very rarely.
It was maddening. It was intoxicating. It gave Binghe the distinct feeling of unravelling a mystery.
Shen Yuan’s favourite ballets are Swan Lake, Manon, and Agon, Binghe wrote into his journal. I’d never heard of Agon until he mentioned it. I looked it up online; the choreography is very strange, very tense, full of angular motions. It seems to wax and wane. I’m not sure I like it, but I do want to know what Shen Laoshi sees in it.
The April days bled into May. Binghe’s schoolteachers swatted at his knuckles when he dozed off in class, reminding him that exams were right around the corner. Wildflowers began to lift their heads out of the warm, wet earth. Classes at Cang Qiong went on, never relenting. They learned how to perform interlaced leaps. They learned to marshall the line of their shoulders into a butter-smooth epaulement.
All the while, Shen Yuan continued to occupy Binghe’s mind. His whole existence was one big intrusive thought.
In the margins of his algebra notes, Binghe wrote, Shen Laoshi can’t stand The Nutcracker! He said, “Oh, Binghe, if you look beyond your own nostalgia, you’ll find it’s a tedious, tired fluff piece with no real thematic value. Pure trash, pure drivel. A pox on the industry.” I’d never seen him get so worked up over anything! It was like seeing a whole other side of him.
On the back of a faded receipt, Shen Laoshi taught us how to ‘Fred step’ today. He did an example up in front of the class. His poise is something else.
Binghe studied hard for his exams, knowing Shen Laoshi would scold him if he fell behind. He recited geometric formulae while he held his arabesques. He leaned over his kitchen table, his nose buried in his Biology textbook as his practiced battements.
Shen Laoshi likes windy days best.
Shen Laoshi collects calligraphy brushes, but very seldom uses them.
Classes after school. Classes on weekends. An endless parade of moving bodies: steel-bodied girls in skin-tight leotards, boys in plain tees with muscled calves.
Shen Laoshi’s Frederique Constant wristwatch was a birthday present from Shen Jiu.
Shen Laoshi is twenty-three years old. He was born in the morning, five minutes after his brother. The day was unseasonably cold, and he weighed practically nothing at all.
Exams in June. The heady scent of asphalt and tar baking in the sun. Beating rice into mochi at Shen Laoshi’s request.
Shen Laoshi doesn’t like to talk about his New York years. I don’t know why. There are things hidden from me. Things, I guess, he can’t tell his fourteen-year old student… I hate that. I wish I could know all of him. Is that so strange?
Shen Laoshi loves cake.
Every so often, when he thought he could get away with it, Binghe would take advantage of their lunch hours to solicit extra lessons.
He would slip into Shen Yuan’s office and dance right there, en relevé, his instep extended, which was very difficult on carpet. Shen Yuan would sit in his big, leathery office chair, his eyes trained solely on Binghe. Fingers templed, tea cakes forgotten. The look in his eyes was always so cool, so exacting. So intense.
“The turnout comes from the hip,” Shen Yuan would say, drawing an imaginary line from Binghe’s waist to his toe. “Not the knee. You turn with your whole body. You commit yourself to the motion; moving in full.”
It made Binghe resent the mere existence of his classmates.
If only all of his lessons could be like this — alone with Shen Yuan. Alone with his words. Alone with his alert, present stare. Alone with the beautiful pale-and-flat of him. His long, lithe body, glowing at the golden hour like a freshwater pearl.
Shen Yuan, Binghe wrote, a secret in the margins of some dilapidated English workbook, is very beautiful.
He’s so beautiful, I don’t know what to do with myself.
The electric fan whirred noisily atop Shen Yuan’s desk. Binghe stuck his face directly in front of it, the cool breeze a much-needed balm against the scorching July heat.
Binghe's hair was getting rather long. Longer than he typically allowed it to grow. He now had enough of it that he could successfully pull it back into a little ponytail, and the fan’s current of cool air felt like absolute bliss against the back of his neck.
Clearly feeling the heat, Shen Yuan’s cheeks were slightly pinked. He flapped his paper fan with an added vigour, discreetly directing a shallow breeze down the stuffy collar of his shirt.
“Liu Mingyan is aiming for Central Troupe,” Shen Yuan said. “Sha Hualing wants to perform abroad — France or Italy or America. Yang Yixuan has also been courting his options. Honestly, I think he’ll pick whichever apprenticeship gets him closer to his idol.”
“He sure does worship that Liu Qingge,” Binghe said, his voice slightly warped from the spinning of the fan. “Do you think Liu Qingge would actually take him on as a student?”
Shen Yuan shrugged.
“I’ve met Liu Qingge once or twice,” he said. “He’s a good man, but not very personable. I doubt he’s interested in fostering a protegee."
"Bad news for Yang Yixuan."
"You'd think," Shen Yuan said. "But Yang Yixuan is very persistent. I doubt he'll take no for an answer."
"Oh?" Binghe tilted his head to the side, absorbing this thought. "Does Laoshi think he'll wear Liu Qingge down?"
"Mn. I think he'll try."
Despite the heat, he was in a very good mood. He had a cold glass of lemonade in front of him, his Laoshi’s undivided attention, and he was still riding high off of an excellent morning lesson. Before calling their lunch break, Shen Yuan had singled Binghe out for praise in front of the entire class. He’d even asked Binghe to demonstrate his grand jeté to the other boys as an example!
“Ning Yingying is interested in teaching childrens’ ballet,” Shen Yuan continued. He smiled. There was a very mysterious, adult quality to this smile. “Ming Fan is interested in being wherever Ning Yingying is.”
Shen Yuan reached for his lemonade and took a prim little sip. Binghe regarded him contentedly, slouched over the oakwood top of Shen Yuan's desk.
"They're best friends," he said. “Best friends stick together.”
Shen Yuan chuckled.
"Oh, you're adorable," he said. “Just adorable.”
Shen Yuan reached into his lemonade class with two fingers, fishing for an ice cube. He popped one into his mouth, suckled on it for a beat, then began to crunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Shen Yuan leaned back in his hair, his eyes crinkled up in pleasure. It was rare to see him so unguarded, so relaxed. The line of his body was fascinatingly fluid, long and slim and melodic as a tone poem.
The world beyond their window was dripping in fauvist gold, looking for all the world like a long-lost Klimt. The busses and buildings and signposts all shimmered with a heat-haze intensity. Pedestrian girls prowled past the Academy like long-legged servals traversing a great and terrible veldt.
Inside, the office was cool and dark and nice. Shen Yuan’s desk was littered with baubles, scattered documents, and framed photographs. There was one right next to do Binghe’s elbow. In the photograph, Shen Yuan was wearing a suit jacket and sitting on a red banquette, smiling for the camera. Next to him, there was a man who looked quite a bit like him — Shen Jiu, presumably. Shen Jiu was wearing a green halter top that exposed his strong, slender arms. He was deadpanning the camera, his expression flat and somewhat exasperated, like maybe the person on the other side of the camera was getting on his nerves.
Shen Yuan rested his chin against his fist, his idle expression turning contemplative.
“What would you like to do, Binghe?"
“Hm?” Binghe lifted his head. “You mean — career-wise?”
Shen Yuan nodded, crossing his legs one over the other. He was eyeing up his lemonade again, probably thinking he’d like some more ice.
“Most students of Cang Qiong go on to dance in some professional capacity. There are a number of ballet companies that rely on Cang Qiong as a recruitment pipeline — Central Troupe is the big one, of course. But most of the city-based ballets in mainland China also qualify. That being said, performing onstage isn’t your only option. There are plenty of exciting ways to apply a dance education to the workplace. For instance, some alums choose to teach. Others choreograph, or found dance companies of their own.”
Binghe frowned down into his glass. Teaching? He’d never been very good at explaining his methodology to other students. He typically relied on Shen Yuan for that. Choreography? As if! Binghe wasn’t a particularly creative person. His main competency was his ability to follow instructions.
Now, performing. Could Binghe perform? He tried to imagine it. The great big stage. The great big lights. The stars of the National Ballet in all their untroubled beauty, dancing at his side. What would it be like to be their peer?
To be a star himself?
But that felt like a child’s wish, and Binghe was not a child. Retaliating against the very thought, he shook his head very rapidly, the way a wet dog might shake itself dry.
“Dancing professionally sounds — really nice,” he said. “I just don’t think I’m good enough.”
Shen Yuan’s carefree smile faded.
“Not good enough?” he probed. “What makes you say that?”
Binghe shrugged, feigning ambivalence. Looking for something to do with his hands, reached for his lemonade glass. Evaporated sugar was beginning to crut and form a ring around the glass.
“My dancing isn’t anything special,” he said. “I mean — who would pay to see me dance?”
Shen Yuan blinked, “I would.”
“Y-You’re just saying that.”
“I am not,” Shen Yuan said. “Give yourself a little credit, Binghe. You are a student of one of China’s foremost ballet academies. Moreover, you’re consistently at the top of your class. Your ability is undeniable.”
“Well…” Binghe twiddled his thumbs, momentarily at a loss for words. “Even if I’m pretty good, this is a competitive industry. Pretty good isn’t enough.” He had a new thought. “I mean, The National Ballet of China only invites one or two new dancer a year, right? Those are terrible odds! There’s no way… no way I could ever…”
He trailed off, incapable of bringing voice to his thoughts. Shen Yuan’s features softened.
“Those are terrible odds,” he agreed. “You’re right about that much. But you shouldn’t write your candidacy off so quickly, Binghe. You have incredible potential. You’ve got an excellent technical foundation, excellent plasticity — and a truly fascinating musicality. The only thing you lack is confidence.”
“Then... how can I become more confident?”
Shen Yuan’s expression became very complicated.
“I… I don’t know,” he admitted. He coughed into his fist. “There are many things I can teach you, Binghe. I can teach you to hold an arabesque. I can teach you how to lift a girl above your neck. I can teach you how to dance fifty shows in eight weeks and come out a champion. But… when it comes to matters of the heart, your Laoshi is, um…”
Shen Yuan retreated behind his fan, uncharacteristically abashed.
“You may have to figure that out on your own,” he murmured, eyes darting above the slatted brim of the fan. “But — know this, Binghe. When you dance unselfconsciously, without fear and without reservation, you are truly dazzling.”
Binghe’s heart seized.
“Mn,” Shen Yuan nodded. There was a bead of warmth in his eyes. Pride, perhaps. He paused for a spell. The fan came down a few inches, exposing the pale breadth of Shen Yuan’s cheekbones. “You know, Binghe, even if the National Ballet passes you on your first audition...”
Shen Yuan trailed off unexpectedly. He took a slow, shuddering breath, then set his fan down on the desk. Binghe waited patiently, assuming Shen Yuan was pausing to gather his thoughts.
“Even if…” Shen Yuan tried again, then grimaced. He dropped his head into his hands, his shoulders quivering. His breathing now appeared oddly laboured. “I apologize, Binghe. Give me a moment.”
Luo Binghe was struck by a feeling of sudden and frightening wrongness.
“Laoshi?” he probed, his voice lowering an octave. “Are you okay?”
Binghe scooted a little closer, his heart prickling with anxiety. Shen Yuan’s skin, always so smooth and so white, was now pale bordering on deathly. It was scary. He was scared.
For a long moment, Shen Yuan didn’t move, which was the scariest part of all.
Then, his voice emerged on a long, fortifying breath, “Mn. Yes, I’m fine, it’s — I just began to feel a little strange, that’s all.”
Strange? Binghe’s traitorous eyes wandered down to Shen Yuan’s right wrist. Should he run for Yue Qingyuan? Yue Qingyuan would know what to do, right?
Swallowing hard, Binghe hazharded, “Is it —”
“No!” Shen Yuan cut him off abruptly. Then, abashed by his own sharpness, “No, just… just a touch of nausea. I didn’t sleep all that well last night, and... the heat simply disagrees with me. That’s all.” He lifted his face from his hands, forcing a smile. “Ha-ha. Oh, dear. This old Laoshi should really invest in some lighter clothes. I don’t know why I bother with all the turtlenecks and button-ups, it’s very silly of me, isn’t it?”
Binghe wasn’t buying it.
“... You look a little pale, Laoshi.”
“Unsurprising. I am pale.”
“Paler than usual, I mean!” Binghe twisted his fingers in his lap, distraught. “Um! Maybe you should lie down?”
Shen Yuan’s eyes narrowed.
“Nonsense,” he said, his tone unexpectedly clipped. The same glacial tone he’d used with Yue Qingyuan all those weeks ago. “I’m fine. I am fine. I’m very fine. And besides, class begins again in, what — five minutes?”
Binghe craned his neck to look at the clock on the wall. Shen Yuan was right. He hadn’t even realized.
“Are you sure you feel up to it?”
“Of course, Binghe,” Shen Yuan’s eyes flashed. “I’m not made of glass, you know. I thought you knew better than that.”
All of a sudden, Binghe very keenly felt the cost of staying in Shen Yuan’s good graces.
He could feel the correct response on the tip of his tongue: Of course. You’re right, Laoshi. That was the response Shen Yuan was looking for. That was the winning answer, the one that would earn Luo Binghe an approving smile and a double dose of praise.
But Binghe couldn’t bring himself to say it.
Shen Yuan placed both his hands flat on top of the desk, then pushed himself upright. It took a visible, painful effort for him to rise into a standing position, and Binghe was struck then by parallel fear of his Laoshi’s weakness and awe of his overwhelming strength. There was a steely look in his eyes. Binghe recognized this look. He had seen it in Liu Mingyan as she forced herself to complete fifteen consecutive pirouettes. He had seen it in Sha Hualing when she demanded they practice the same lifts over and over until she was red in the face and drenched in sweat.
It was the look of someone pushing hard against their own limits. The look of someone making perilous demands of their own body.
“You promised you wouldn’t push yourself,” Binghe said before he could really think.
Shen Yuan stalled by the door. There was an uneasy sway in his step, like a good breeze might knock him over.
“I’m not pushing myself,” he said.
Binghe held his breath. Now he was the one pushing it.
“I think… that you might be.”
Shen Yuan's hand curled around the doorknob. Still, he didn't turn it. He was looking at Binghe, staring long and hard with an inscrutable expression, his face still terribly pale.
“Binghe, don’t you trust me?”
Binghe’s heart tripped.
“O-Of course I do!”
“Then trust me to know my own limits,” he said. He ran a hand down over his face, then opened his office door. The bright light of the hallway opened up over his sinewy figure in the shape of a grin. “I can get through the day. I can do my job.”
Binghe’s gaze slid down to the carpet. He felt a twinge of shame. His Laoshi was right. Of course he was right — wasn’t he always? And how could Binghe presume to know better?
“Alright,” Binghe said. “You know better than I do.”
That answer seemed to please Shen Yuan.
“Naturally,” he said. He gestured down the hall very vaguely. “Now, run along and rosin your flats. I want to see you in the studio at 12:45 sharp, understand?”
Binghe shot up in his seat. Automatic.
Shen Yuan smiled.
“There’s a good boy. Go on.”
A good boy! Good! Binghe felt himself perk up, his unease momentarily forgotten. There were few things he relished more than Shen Yuan’s praise. If he had a tail, it’d be wagging a mile a minute.
Shen Yuan called him good! The thought alone erased all apprehensions.
Riding high, Binghe trotted past Shen Yuan and out into the hall, his stubby little ponytail bouncing with each step. He hurried down towards the locker room, his beat-up sneakers squeaking noisily against the machine-waxed floors.
As the elastic of his flats snapped into place against his ankles, Binghe began to feel a little abashed. His concern, though well-meaning, was a little misguided. Shen Yuan wasn’t an invalid. He wasn’t a fainting damsel. He wasn’t a swooning village girl, overcome by a weak heart or tuberculosis or Victorian vapours. He was Binghe’s Laoshi; an incisive scholar and a certifiable master of dance. Shen Yuan was the teacher — was the adult in this relationship — and Binghe was the student. What right did Binghe have to condescend him?
None. None whatsoever.
He went up to the studio and lined up at the barre. Ning Yingying lined up next to him, her pointe shoes newly darned, her ribbons drawn taut with a fresh bolt of elastic.
“Your hair’s getting so long,” she sighed, eyeing Binghe’s bushy little ponytail as it bobbed and swayed.
“That’s the idea, Ning-jie.”
Sha Hualing materialized by Binghe’s other side and jabbed him in the ribs.
“Any longer and I’ll be able to braid it,” she said. She leaned in close, her voice shifting to a conspiratorial whisper. “Had another clandestine lunch with our darling Laoshi, huh? What’d you make him today? A little homemade lunchy-lunch with heart-shaped rice balls?”
Binghe’s face reddened.
“... I brought sandwiches. Chicken and pesto on homemade sourdough.”
“Homemade sourdough? That sounds so good!” Ning Yingying pouted. “You never bring me sandwiches.”
Sha Hualing giggled, her catlike smile widening into an outright leer.
“Yeah, ‘cause he doesn’t have a big, fat crush on you.”
Binghe shoved Sha Hualing’s face away, aghast.
“Hey! I — I do not have a crush on Shen Laoshi!”
“Oh, suuure you don’t,” She Hualing rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Bingbing, you can’t fool me. You go red like a tomato every time he waltzes by.”
“Oh, Ling-er, don’t bully him,” Ning Yingying patted Binghe’s arm sympathetically.
“I’m not bullying him! I mean, like — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Actually, I think it’s super normal. Everyone’s crushed on a teacher once or twice, right?”
“I’ve never crushed on a teacher,” Ming Fan said, entering the conversation completely unprompted.
“Me neither,” Ning Yingying said.
“And neither have I!” Binghe retaliated. “Don’t make gross assumptions, okay?”
“What’s gross about it?” Sha Hualing scoffed. “The fact that you’re both guys? I mean… most ballet boys are gay, aren’t they?
“I’m not!” Ming Fan all but yelped. He turned to Ning Yingying, his expression laughably dire. “I’m not gay, you know.”
From the other side of the barre, Liu Mingyan appeared to be observing their conversation rather intensely.
“Would you guys just stop?” Binghe pleaded. “Look, Shen Yuan will be here any second! If he hears you guys going on about — about weird stuff, he’ll — ”
“Oh, yeah? He’ll what?”
Ning Yinging poked Sha Hualing’s cheek, her expression turning uncharacteristically stern.
“Ling-er, that’s enough. You’re making him uncomfortable.”
There was a beat. Sha Hualing’s jaw clicked back and forth, digesting this little aside. Then, she harrumphed.
“Fine, fine,” she muttered sourly. “Big baby.”
Sullen, she placed one hand upon the barre and began to stretch out her calves. Ning Yingying followed suit, grabbing her ankle with her right hand to stretch out her quadriceps.
Binghe stood with his back returned to the mirror, still a little hot in the cheeks. Beneath his embarrassment, he realized that he was actually a little angry. Not because Sha Hualing had insinuated that he liked men, not because she’d teased him in front of his friends, but because she’d trivialized the bond Binghe shared with Shen Yuan.
She’d written Binghe’s devotion off as a crush.
A crush was a petty thing. Sophomoric, shallow. A child’s word, a child’s emotion, a child’s concept. Binghe’s feelings for Shen Laoshi were mature. They were deep, important. Respect, admiration, awe. Gratitude. Fascination. The bone-deep hunger to learn from him, learn of him. The ecstatic pride of being his most beloved student.
Well, Sha Hualing would never understand. Binghe’s feelings for his teacher — they were sacred. Sha Hualing held nothing sacred. She was just that kind of girl. She could never, ever understand, and that was fine. She didn’t need to.
An ember of selfish pride began to glow in the pit of Binghe’s belly.
He was Shen Laoshi’s favourite.
The studio doors groaned open, and Shen Yuan came through. To Luo Binghe’s relief, he appeared to have regained a little colour — there was, at the very least, a very promising flush of pink on his upper cheekbones. Binghe wouldn’t describe him as healthy-looking, not exactly, but he no longer seemed on the verge of collapse.
Shen Yuan’s eyes scanned over the barre. His fan glided slowly through the hothouse air, breaking up the heat.
“Getting a head start on your stretches, I see,” he commented, his gaze slowing over the girls. He smiled at them — Binghe felt a sting of jealousy at that. “Excellent, excellent. Binghe, Yixuan, Wanyue — why not follow suit and limber up?”
Shen Yuan went to the record player at the edge of the room, setting the needle with utmost care. The introductory arpeggios of the Rose Adagio — that well-loved Tchaikovskian diamond — filled the room. Shen Yuan smiled to himself as the music started up. Humming along, he waved his fan in time with the music.
Suddenly, Binghe deeply resented his classmates. All of them — Sha Hualing, Yang Yixuan, Ming Fan, even lovely Ning Yingying.
Why should he share Shen Laoshi with any of them?
It just wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right.
Binghe grabbed the barre, full fist, full force, and lifted his leg into a taut and angry third arabesque.
Congee, toothpaste, hairpins, sneaker laces. A pair of matching lunches. One for Shen Yuan. One for Binghe. Mornings at the bus station. Binghe split at the waist, stretching his calves out on the wobbling public bench. Exhaust fumes. Pale skies. Flakes of rust on the filthy iron handrails. The stridulating music of cicadas.
Summertime meant no school, and no school meant that dance classes ran even longer — starting at 7 AM sharp.
An hour of technique. An hour of variations. An hour of adagio. Break. Partnering. Variations. Lunch. Variations. Music and theory. Technique. Character. For the girls, extra classes on pointe and pointe control. For the boys, weight training.
Men and women in nice suits would sometimes be sent in to watch their class and write notes. Recruiters, directors. Company folk. Their looks of assessment were slower and colder than Shen Yuan's, but they radiated power all the same. Power and possibility. Binghe danced harder for them, and Shen Yuan smiled.
The days were long and so full of pain. His knees hurt. His ankles hurt. His shoulders were sore, overburdened. His heart hurt. It hurt all the time, for no real reason. It ached and it panged and yowled like an unfed cat.
Technique. Variations. Paquita, Raymonda, Giselle, Apollo. Adagio. Eloquence of gesture, purity of line. Partnering. Trust, then jump! Music, character, ballroom, nutrition, Pilates conditioning, weight training.
Some days were easier. Some days were harder.
The same went for Shen Laoshi.
Some days, he was so flush with energy that he all but threw himself into demonstrations — setting the needle to a rousing vivace before launching into a complex series of huge, billowy leaps while his students whooped and cheered.
Some days, he could barely stand.
True to Shen Yuan's promise, Binghe never actually witnessed any seizure. But every so often, he'd get a phone call telling him class had been cancelled. The very next day, Shen Yuan would arrive looking utterly drained.
Sha Hualing was quick to shoulder up to Binghe, to spread her dreadful whispers.
I heard he collapsed on the train! I heard he couldn't even get out of bed. I heard he had a seizure out in the Cang Qiong parking lot and Yue Laoshi had to drive him home. Ah, poor Shen Laoshi. Our frail and sickly maiden. I heard he seized up in the city square and smacked his head against the asphalt.
But Binghe was a good child. A filial pupil. Filial pupils didn’t heed nasty rumours — least of all when they concerned their beloved teachers. He kept quiet. He drowned her out. Even when her rumours hewed somewhat true, he drowned her out. Even when Shen Yuan came in with a big, white bandage stuck to his left temple.
Don’t give me that look, Shen Yuan said to him, his cool hands rushing to smooth back Binghe’s hair. Your old teacher’s right as rain. It’s the heat that disagrees with me, that’s all. Now, chin up. Give me a smile.
Once or twice, Binghe thought he'd seen his Laoshi's leg spasm, but it was hard to say. Shen Yuan was usually half-hidden by his desk — and he always managed to laugh it off. Like he’d done it on purpose.
Like he’d made some wonderful joke, and Binghe had just missed the punchline.
Right as rain.
Binghe was hurtling towards fifteen.
Likewise, Shen Yuan was well on his way to twenty-four.
Shen Yuan’s birthday was August 21st. Binghe had figured that out by googling Shen Jiu’s birthday; the pair were twins, after all, and as a famous dancer, Shen Jiu had a conveniently large online presence. Also, a Wikipedia page. And a Twitter account. And a Weibo fanpage — which was incidentally full of fascinating behind-the-scenes clips. While researching, Binghe had fallen deep down the rabbithole of taped rehearsals. Shen Jiu’s Albrecht was taut and aloof; his Nikiya was transcendental. Ice cold balances. Razor-sharp footwork. And his rendition of The Dying of the Swan? Absolutely gutting. Haunting, really.
But... that was all besides the point.
Shen Yuan’s upcoming birthday. That was the point!
After rehearsal, Binghe left the studio very quickly. Normally, he’d take an immediate left off Cang Qiong Academy and make a beeline for the train station. On that particular day, he took a hard right instead, heading deeper into the city.
He was in search of the perfect gift.
The shopping district, with its handsome facades and chic, moneyed tourists, made Binghe incredibly nervous. He didn’t like crowded places. He didn’t like fancy stores, either. The salespeople always seemed to wrinkle their noses at him. Perhaps he had the reek of poverty about him.
He stalled in front of a high-end dance boutique. The front display caught his eyes — silken ribbons, bolts of shoe-repair felt, heaps of pale, near-translucent tulle, home-use barres of all makes and sizes… and shoes. Row upon row of shoes. Canvas flats, leather flats, pointe shoes with their dramatic, vertical instep…
All out of his budget.
Binghe sighed, glancing up the street uncertainly.
Dance gear was certainly out of the question, but that didn’t mean he was out of options. Maybe he could get Shen Yuan a new fan? Binghe chewed on the idea for a moment, then rejected it. Shen Yuan’s fans seemed pretty fancy. Binghe had the distinct impression that they’d been hand-crafted — possibly even commissioned. Binghe’s meager allowance didn’t exactly leave room for that kind of luxury. In any case, he didn’t want to foist a cheap, shoddy fan off on Shen Yuan.
A sweater, then? It didn’t seem like a terrible idea, but it did feel a little lame. The days were still long and hot, after all — so it could hardly be called a practical gift.
A book, then! Shen Laoshi liked books . The bookcases in his office were well-stocked, and he always had a dog-eared paperback close at hand. Binghe frowned, trying to recall what exactly Shen Laoshi liked to read. Novels? Non-fiction? Binghe had never really stopped to read the spines.
Come to think of it, Shen Yuan always seemed to evade the topic of his recent reading. There was probably a sensible explanation for that. Maybe the books he read were too complex for Binghe to understand? Like… highly academic, jargon-heavy treatises on balletic history.
Yeah. That sounded about right.
There was a bookstore down the street — one of those cozy, hipstery ones with an in-house cafe. Hopefully, Binghe would be able to find something nice there. He scurried across the busy sidewalk, dodging and weaving around the swinging of shopping bags.
The bookstore's exterior signage read, as follows: PUJI THRIFT | RARE BOOKS | COMICS | BRIC-BRAC | CAFÉ. A hand-scrawled flyer beneath read, Part-timers wanted!
A part-time job, huh. Binghe entertained the thought for all of three thoughts before discarding it. It'd be nice if he could earn a little extra money, but there was no way he could juggle a job and dance lessons and school all at once.
Binghe shouldered his way through the front door, a bell chiming above his head. Puji Thrift smelled of roasted black tea, naphthalene, and yellowed paper. Musty, dense, truly ancient, even a little Gothic.
He threw a glance over the store floor, taking inventory. The lights above were yellowish and gave the room a warm glow. In the cafe section, a writer had fallen asleep in front of his laptop. His face was smushed against his arm and he seemed to be drooling. Behind the counter, the fresh-faced barista was carefully stirring syrup into a ceramic mug. The far wall of the room was inscribed with some unfamiliar litany — searing red print over a desert vista. I will not fear. Fear is the mindkiller.
The rest of the room was subsumed by books.
A sea of books. A deluge of books. Trade paperbacks, threadbare softcovers, glossy hardbacks with freshly-minted edges. Books in every corner, jam-packed on every shelf — overflowing to the floor in tottering, wall-climbing stacks. Jumbled like pennycandy in worn-out cardboard boxes. One box was labeled AMERICAN DETECTIVE PULP (1929~1959). Others: STALLION NOVELS. POETRY. TEARJERKERS (AS CONFIRMED BY THE OWNER!!!). BIOGRAPHIES. RATHER DUBIOUS MONSTER EROTICA. SCI-FI. FANTASY.
Binghe reminded himself not to get distracted. He was here for Shen Yuan! Slowly, he began poking his nose through the stacks, looking for something that Shen Yuan might appreciate. Every bookstore had a ‘Performing Arts’ section tucked away somewhere. They were usually populated by the vanity memoirs of has-been actresses, but sometimes, a tome on dance history could be found.
It took a few minutes of hunting, but Binghe did eventually turn up a modestly sized Dance section. His attention eventually landed on a weighty, portentous looking hardcover.
Dance Notation: Method and Methodology.
It looked… pretty boring. But it was a smart person book. And Shen Yuan was smart. Obviously, this was the kind of thing he’d like. Something mature, something scholarly, something sophisticated.
Binghe nosed around through his change purse. Maybe he’d have enough to get something for himself too. Like… a shiny new copy of Dance International.
Binghe turned towards the window, his eyes drawn towards a wide rack of magazines. A man was standing in front of the magazine rack, thumbing through a copy of Vogue China. Dark hair, a willowy frame, pale skin —
Binghe’s heart seized up.
Except... that didn’t make sense. Binghe had left Cang Qiong immediately after class. He was pretty sure Shen Yuan hadn’t even left the building. So how could Shen Yuan have arrived here first?
Binghe squinted. The resemblance was close, but no, this wasn’t his Laoshi. The droop of this stranger’s mouth was sulkier, his eyes more sharply upturned. His hair was also much longer, a sheath of black artfully draped over one shoulder. Their facial features, however, were strikingly similar. Uncanny, really.
A lightbulb went off in Binghe’s head. This was Shen Jiu. Shen Jiu of Central Troupe. The black swan; the snake among roses. The prima assoluta, the artist.
Shen Jiu looked up from his magazine. He raised a brow at Binghe, his expression full of contempt. Binghe realized that he’d been gawking.
"I don't do autographs," Shen Jiu said.
"I said I don't do autographs,” Shen Jiu said again. “So scram."
And he went back to his magazine.
Unphased, Binghe crept a little closer. Shen Jiu was wearing a dark, velvety shirt with a deep surplice neckline. The back was loosely held together by criss-crossed laces, exposing his sinewy, well-honed back and shoulders. He had painted nails and wore a pair of high-heeled boots, which was something Shen Yuan would never wear.
"You really are Shen Jiu," Binghe said, awestruck. “I loved you in Serenade! And Marguerite and Armand! Oh, and The Firebird! You’re an inspiration, really!”
This time, Shen Jiu didn’t even look up from his magazine.
“I said scram, kid. I’m not in the mood to cater to fans.”
“Oh, I’m not just a fan!” Binghe shook his head. "I'm in your brother's class at Cang Qiong! Shen Yuan’s class!"
There was a beat. Shen Jiu glanced up from his magazine. Binghe beamed.
“My name is Luo Binghe! Maybe you’ve heard him mention me?”
“I haven’t,” Shen Jiu said.
“Oh,” Binghe said. He digested that, then said, “It’s okay if you don’t remember, but I’m sure he would’ve mentioned me. You see, I really don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m kind of his favourite student.”
Shen Jiu laughed dryly.
“Right. Right. Of course you are.”
There was something a little nasty in that. Binghe elected to ignore it.
“He’s a really good teacher. He’s really nice, and he’s an amazing dancer, and so good at explaining things to us. Sometimes, we even eat lunch together! I try to bring him treats whenever I can. Shen Yuan always compliments my homemade treats.”
“Yeah! Just today, I brought in a pan of lemon bars! He seemed to really like them. He ate two — and took a bunch of them home with him.”
“Huh,” Shen Jiu said, turning the page of his magazine. “He’s not meant to be eating that shit, you know. He’s supposed to be doing low-carb dietary therapy.”
Binghe’s smile froze over.
Shen Jiu rolled his eyes.
“All that sugar. It’s bad for his epilepsy.”
“Oh, I —” Binghe stop-started, colouring with shame. “I didn’t know.”
“Little beast,” Shen Jiu said. He shut the magazine and placed it back on the rack. “Of course you didn't."
Shen Jiu reached out, selected a copy of Bazaar from amongst the stacks, and flipped it open. Binghe studied him closely.
“Say, little beast,” Shen Jiu said, at long lost. “Are you any good?"
“Don’t look so slack-jawed,” Shen Jiu said, and the timbre of unrepentant nastiness in his tone was actually faintly reminiscent of Sha Hualing. “Are you any good at dancing?”
Binghe laughed breathlessly, “Compared to you?”
“There is no comparing to me,” Shen Jiu said bluntly. There was the slick sound of a page turning. “Do you have a chance at the stage?”
Binghe considered his words very carefully.
“Shen Laoshi says I do.”
“Then you should take it. For his sake.”
Shen Jiu’s eyeline didn’t lift an inch.
“Shen Yuan used to dream of being a professional dancer. Travelling, touring. Opulent galas, velveteen theaters. He put in long, gruelling hours at the studio. Learned the classics top-to-bottom. It was a little embarrassing, the way he’d wear himself out. A little desperate. Of course, those were different times.” Once more, Shen Jiu turned the page. He didn’t appear to be reading very closely. “He was about fifteen when his epilepsy first developed. He was already being considered for the National Ballet.”
Binghe’s stomach lurched.
“I… I never knew.”
“It seems you're learning a lot today,” Shen Jiu said, a little snide. There was a replete pause. Shen Jiu’s eyes flashed up from his magazine, locking with Binghe’s for a moment. His eyes were startlingly pale. "Hard work will take you halfway. But the rest is all luck, you know.”
Binghe swallowed hard. Shen Jiu’s eyes narrowed.
“If you’ve any luck at all,” he continued, a touch of danger in his low, velvety voice, “I’d advise you not to squander it.”
There was a beat. Shen Jiu returned to his copy of Bazaar. Binghe began the slow, arduous process of digesting this information.
If he’d simply extrapolated from what he already knew, he probably would have arrived at this conclusion much earlier. But he didn’t. He hadn’t. He tried picturing Shen Yuan at his own age — fourteen, fifteen, ballet-bodied and strong. Fresh-faced. Milky and flat. He pictured this smaller, younger Shen Yuan balancing precariously at the barre. Practicing battements, jetés. Partnering.
Ten years ago, he’d been flesh and blood. Today, he was a mirage.
For the first time in his life, Binghe very keenly felt the rote cruelty of time.
“You really do love your brother, don’t you?”
Shen Jiu’s lip curled in distaste.
“Was that in doubt?”
“No,” Binghe said. “I… I think it’s really beautiful, though.” That line of dialogue didn’t seem to particularly interest Shen Jiu, who went on reading his magazine. Binghe let it drift with the current. “Maybe… you can help me out. I’m actually here to pick out a birthday gift for Shen Yuan.”
“Is that so.”
“Yes,” Binghe said, his ears going warm. “He’s given me — so much. I want to give him something, too.”
Binghe held up his copy of Dance Notation: Method and Methodology.
“Do you think he’d like this?”
Shen Jiu gave it a once-over.
“Really?” Binghe lowered the book, crestfallen. “Why not?”
“It looks dull,” Shen Jiu said. “Painfully dull.”
Shen Jiu barked out a laugh.
“Oh, God. You don’t know my brother at all, huh.”
Binghe bristled, “I do so!”
“Spare me,” Shen Jiu said, baring his teeth in vicious satisfaction. “You know nothing. Less than nothing.”
“I — I may not know everything about him, but —”
“You don’t even know what he likes to read.”
Binghe slammed Dance Notation down on a nearby table, jaw clenched.
“Okay, okay. Fine,” he gritted out, glaring up at Shen Jiu. “I get it. I’m stupid. A stupid, clueless little boy who doesn’t know the first thing about anything . I get it. Now, would you please tell me what Shen Yuan likes to read?”
Shen Jiu’s lips curved into a soft, serpentine smile. There was a wicked gleam of humour in his eyes.
But Binghe didn’t see what was so funny.
“Come,” he said. “It’ll be easier if I show you.”
Shen Jiu tossed his hair. He smelled intoxicatingly of Damascus roses; acid and sweet.All benzoin tears, all Gothic intrigue.
It occurred to Binghe then that Shen Jiu was the Odile to Shen Yuan’s Odette. The perverse, sensuous reflection of a pure thing.
Seductive. Repellent. Worldly. Grasping.
Shen Jiu stalked off towards the shelves. He moved with an exhibitionistic slinkiness. With sinuous, dangerous grace — you could see the lifelong influence of dance in the way he walked. His steps were perfectly modulated; icy, brisk. Malignity and self-assertion thrillingly entwined.
The snake among roses.
Binghe followed him.
That’s how Binghe ended up with a shiny new copy of The Demon Conqueror’s Ninety-Ninth Bride.
At home, Binghe stared at his new purchase doubtfully. On the front cover, the disgustingly ripped hero was brooding over his sword. The heroine, presumably the titular bride, swooned at his side. She had a teeny-tiny waist, an improbable outfit, and a prodigious bust. Her watermelon-sized breasts heaved up in miraculous defiance of both gravity and common decency.
Binghe flipped through it. The prose was passable at best. The story was, charitably, kinda bad. The papapa was just plain mystifying. What on Earth was a ‘honey-soaked mystic flower?’ Binghe refused to Google it.
Was this really what Shen Yuan liked to read? Really?
Had Shen Jiu played some kind of mean trick on him? It was definitely possible, but in the moment, he’d seemed completely sincere — if a little droll.
Maybe Binghe just didn’t… get it? Maybe there was some kind of complex, multilayered geopolitical message beneath all those jiggling breasts and blood geysers?
Maybe it was, like, a metaphor. For, uh. Racism. Or death. Or postmodernism. Something big and important like that.
It was that dim, tenuous hope that carried Binghe through the process of gift-wrapping the offending novel.
“This is for you,” Binghe said, pushing the wrapped book across Shen Yuan’s desk.
Shen Yuan tilted his head to the side.
Binghe nodded rapidly. He pulled his hands away shyly and began fussing with his ponytail.
“I know your birthday isn’t until next week,” he hedged, “but — still, I just...”
“Oh, Binghe!” Shen Yuan sighed, placing a hand over his heart. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I know,” Binghe said, his face turning red. “But I wanted to. For everything you’ve done for me.”
“Silly Binghe. Being your teacher is reward enough.”
Shen Yuan reached for the gift, held it in his hands. The wrapping paper was light blue and dotted with a repeating pattern of black-necked swans. With brisk, excited movements, he began to tear the paper off.
Binghe’s stomach lurched, remembering the busty babe emblazoned on the front cover of the novel. Oh God, oh God, he’d made a terrible mistake. A mortifying mistake. Shen Yuan was going to think he was some kind of lecherous weirdo. He should’ve just gone for a sweater. He should’ve just gone for a sweater.
“You don’t have to open it now!” Binghe rushed to say, waving his arms frantically. “You can, um, wait until later. Like… maybe when I’m not here? It’s, it’s just a little embarrassing — ”
“Don’t be silly!” Shen Yuan rebutted, tossing a scrap of wrapping paper onto his desk. “This old teacher much too impatient for that. Now, let’s see — what do we have here...”
Bingh’s grip on his ponytail tightened. The last of the wrapping paper landed on Shen Yuan’s desktop. He stared down at the book in his hands. His expression was horrifyingly blank.
There was a beat of silence.
Endless, agonizing silence.
I want to die, Binghe thought. Then: Oh, God. Let me die. Just let me die.
Shen Yuan rose to his feet. Binghe flinched. He squeezed his eyes shut, his panic swirling into a red-hot cloud of anger. That Shen Jiu! That — that fucking Shen Jiu! Binghe should’ve trusted his instincts. There was no way, no way that —
Shen Yuan dragged Binghe up into his arms. Binghe’s anger dissipated instantly, as quickly as it had risen. So did the fear. Shen Yuan was warm and frail and smelled of peppermint oil. His arms wound about Binghe’s shoulders, holding him close, holding fiercely. He was shaking. Wait. No. Not shaking — he was laughing.
He was hugging Binghe, and he was laughing.
“Oh my God,” Shen Yuan laughed, the tail end of his words catching on an honest-to-God giggle. “Oh my God. This is wretched. Who told you?”
Binghe could have wept with relief.
“Shen Jiu!” he blurted out. "It was all Shen Jiu's idea."
Shen Yuan started laughing all the harder.
“My — my brother?” he choked out. He shook his head, and the fall of his dark hair whispered against Binghe’s shoulder. “Oh my God, he is the worst. The worst!”
Binghe started to giggle too. Shen Yuan's clear, high laugh was somewhat infectious.
"I-Isn't he just?"
"Decidedly, yes!" Shen Yuan said. He squeezed Binghe a little tighter. “But you, Luo Binghe — you are marvelous."
Binghe buried his face in the crook of Shen Yuan’s neck, buoyant with happiness. Shen Yuan kept laughing. Binghe felt his peals of laughter rather than heard them, like little joyful tremors.
It felt wonderful to be held by him, to laugh with him. It gave Binghe an immense sense of privilege.
Shen Yuan pulled away, his hands still braced on Binghe’s shoulders. Binghe was smiling hard enough to hurt.
“Shizun, do you actually read those books?”
“No! No! Certainly not!" Shen Yuan said. Then, visibly biting his cheek, “Sorry, that was automatic. The truth, ah… is that I do. But not because I like them! I mean — they’re terrible. Oh, God, are they ever terrible.”
Shen Yuan’s expression turned contemplative.
“These bland, by-the-numbers stallion novels come a dime a dozen,” he said. “And for the most part, they’re terrible. Completely, irredeemably, offensively terrible. But... that’s also what makes them interesting.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
Shen Yuan’s smile showed some understanding.
“Let me explain,” he said. He reached for his copy of The Demon Conqueror's Ninety-Ninth Bride and began paging through it. “This rag right here? It’s trite, it’s boring, it’s uninspired, it’s forgettable. It’s a failure in every regard. A failure of vision, a failure of craft, a failure of intent. It’s a failure across the board. But failure can be instructive, I think. Failure offers an opportunity for dissection. For critical thinking. I’m very keen on learning from failure.”
Shen Yuan set the book back down against the desk.
“It’s also, you know, a lot of fun to tear these stupid books to shreds,” he concluded.
Binghe laughed into his hands.
“I never knew you had such a savage streak,” he said, teasing faintly. Shen Yuan indulged him with a smile.
“It’s a Shen family trait.”
“I believe you,” Binghe said, thinking of Shen Jiu.
Shen Yuan’s smile turned a little secretive. Binghe loved that smile.
“Aren’t you a sweet boy, thinking of your old teacher on his birthday.”
“Laoshi isn’t old,” Binghe said rather contritely.
“Laoshi is ancient. Crumbling.”
“Laoshi, you’re turning twenty-four!”
“Mn, yes. Positively wizened.”
“Laoshi!” Binghe protested, and then he was laughing all over again.
Shen Yuan leaned back against his desk, pleased as a plum. He seemed to think he was being extraordinarily funny. He reached for his fan, took it in hand, and snapped it open in one fluid, self-satisfied gesture. The fan was a deep peacock blue. The guard had the look of polished woodgrain. Shen Yuan's vivid green eyes peered over the brim. Even hidden behind his fan, he could not fully mask his smile.
“Twenty-four already,” Shen Yuan heaved a sigh. “The years fly by — quick, and then quicker. I can’t help but feel that thirty is just around the corner. Thirty! By then, some dancers toy with thoughts of retirement.” The smile faded from his eyes. “Though I suppose I can’t really call myself… a... ”
Shen Yuan trailed off unexpectedly. Even so, his words knocked a memory loose in Binghe.
He was about fifteen when his epilepsy first developed. He was already being considered for the National Ballet.
“You are a dancer,” Binghe said.
Shen Yuan gave Binghe a look, somewhere between sad and reproachful.
“I’m a teacher.”
“You’re a dancer,” Binghe insisted.
Shen Yuan laughed, sotto voce. His laugh was very slightly muffled by the slatted ribs of his fan.
“You can’t really compare a teacher and a real dancer. If it’s a real dancer you’re after, look no further than my brother.”
Binghe dug his heels in, his voice turning mulish, "You're a dancer, Laoshi. You're a real dancer. The most wonderful dancer I know of."
Shen Yuan flapped his fan, tilted his head. His dark hair spilled over his shoulder, exposing the column of his neck. You could see the lyricism of dance in his neck. It was corded yet slender, luminously white, pure as bone china. Unmarked. It seemed to demand kisses. The effect, while purely unintentional, was somewhat…
“Binghe shouldn't spout such silly things,” Shen Yuan said at last, still posed against the desk. "Sweet as they may be, he really shouldn't…"
Again, he stop-started. His beautiful body — the mechanism of so much heartache, so much unfairness — was stiff with hesitation. Shen Yuan’s fan flicked back and forth. The cracks in his taut, adult self-sufficiency were beginning to show, and Binghe could plainly see the wounded need in him.
There was a beat. Shen Yuan recollected himself with a slow, fortifying breath. He slid his fan shut. His expression was cool and somewhat remote. No trace of weakness remained.
“Didn’t you want to go over your glissades?” he asked.
Shen Yuan bonked Binghe over the head with his fan. Thwap.
“Yes, your glissades,” he said. “Silly Binghe. You’ve been pestering me about them all week, haven’t you?”
Binghe didn’t remember making any such request.
“Right," Binghe said "Yes, of course.”
“We’ve still got some time before class reconvenes. Get into third position. Go on, before I change my mind.”
Shen Yuan went behind his desk, putting some distance between them. Their moment of intimacy was over, Binghe realized with a sad start. But that was okay. There would be other touches. Other embraces.
Maybe someday, Shen Yuan wouldn’t feel the need to hide from him. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Wouldn’t that be right and lovely?
The carpet in Shen Yuan’s office was grey-blue and decorated with a Persian toranj. It had a thick weft. It wasn’t very good for dancing on.
Not that Binghe cared.
Binghe summoned up a little Massenet in his mind. Les Érinnyes: Élegie. There was ecstasy in those strings. Sorrow, too. He crossed his legs one over the over, his front foot’s heel aligned with the back foot’s instep. The line of his body was high and pure; skyward-reaching. His gaze was downcast. He looked down at the carpet, down at his own ratty shoes.
“Port de bras, Binghe. Yes. Punctuate with your hands. We dance with the whole body, not only our feet.”
Binghe’s canvas flats rasped against the carpet.
“Be patient, Binghe, be patient. Maintain your current tempo. If I want you to pick it up, I’ll let you know.”
Mid-air, Binghe lifted his eyes. Shen Yuan was there, head in his hands, slumped over his desk. He was tapping against the front cover of The Demon Conqueror’s Ninety-Ninth Bride with the blunt end of his nails. Tap, tap, tap. His expression was contemplative. There was a curious jut to his soft, pink lips.
Binghe felt so much for him.
Too much, perhaps.
They returned to the studio.
Shen Yuan set the needle on the record. The studio was filled with the sweet strings of Edward Elgar. A concerto for cello and pianoforte. E minor.
On Shen Yuan’s cue, the boys all moved into the center. The first combination was an allegro — a series of glissades, a pas de bourree, changement. Then, adagio. A repeating step sequence. Pose arabesque, fondu.
The girls lined up before the boys. Yang Yixuan before Liu Mingyan, Ning Yingying before Ming Fan. Sha Hualing balanced before Luo Binghe, poised on the pilled bottom of her pointe shoe.
With a hypnotic sense of synchronicity, the girls lifted their legs in time with the sting of the orchestra. Sha Hualing’s dark eyes glowed with the hot embers of pride as she moved. Her attitude extended into an arabesque; her body unfurling as a bud might unfurl into a flower. If she was a flower, she was certainly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s rose: tempestuous, capricious, woefully spoilt. Wayward, yet eminently lovable.
Binghe lunged towards her, his hands on her waist. Sha Hualing spun into him. Her dance was coruscant, undulating. Living fire. Trust and jump! Binghe lifted her, and up she went. She turned her heart-shaped face up towards the light, the straight band of her teeth gleaming under its white-hot glare. Her hands were canted at the wrist, her palms splayed. Self-venerating; triumphant.
Binghe had a thought, then: It wouldn’t be unreasonable of me to fall in love with this girl.
As he lowered Sha Hualing to the ground, he searched himself for some stitch of tender emotion. He couldn’t find any. Only a professional respect. A scholastic appreciation for her form and vigour. Camaraderie, maybe.
Sha Hualing landed in the third position.
I see, Binghe thought.
I’m strange in more ways than one.
The thought was not panic-inducing. In fact, it filled Binghe with a sense of incredible calm and serenity. Like maybe this was something he’d already known for a long, long time, deep down.
Searching for confirmation, Binghe glanced to the side. His eyes found Shen Yuan.
Shen Yuan was nodding along to the musical score, following each movement with a well-trained eye. There was a proprietary intensity to his expression. His pride in his students was plain to see.
At the sight of him, Binghe’s heart woke. It began screaming sweetness; a delirious, bottomless sweetness no girl could inspire in him. Not Liu Mingyan with her pale blue ribbons. Not Ning Yingying with her green leotard and beatific smile. Not Sha Hualing with her strawberry lipgloss and her promises of mischief.
In Binghe’s eyes, there was only Shen Yuan.
I see, Binghe thought. This is —
A crush, as Sha Hualing had suggested? No. No way.
This is love. I think.
Binghe grabbed at Sha Hualing’s waist. She jumped, and he lifted: catapulting her up over his shoulder into a fierce, skyward arabesque. Her arm was extended, beckoning.
I love Shen Yuan, Binghe thought, mesmerized. I love him. I love him!
Being in love with Shen Yuan just made so much sense. Emotions that had once mystified Binghe now seemed so easy to name — jealousy, possessiveness, devotion, desire. Yearning. Affection. Attraction.
How long had it been this way? How long had this love been building at the back of his mind? Since the moment they’d first met? It hardly mattered. The gates had been crashed, and Binghe was subsumed by the tidal wave of ardent, unschooled want.
Binghe loved Shen Yuan. Loved his patience, his indulgence. His maturity. His implacable calm. His stubbornness. His unwitting eroticism. His otherworldly, lunar beauty. His awful taste in novels. His secret pain. He loved Shen Yuan. He needed Shen Yuan.
He wanted Shen Yuan.
Romantically, obviously. But there was… a sexual component to that want, too.
Look. Binghe wasn’t a little kid. He was almost fifteen, for God’s sake. He knew it was normal to think about sex. Sure, the sex education at his school had been limited, but it wasn’t non-existent . He’d endured his fair share of lectures about his ‘changing body’ and ‘new thoughts and urges.’ Plus, the other boys talked. In the locker room, in the hallways. They talked. Always in crass, joking tones, but still. They all talked.
He had a pretty good idea of what the other boys were thinking about: girls, namely. Idols, models, actresses. Of course, Binghe wasn’t thinking about girls.
The star of his sexual awakening, instead, was Shen Yuan.
“Laoshi — a-ah, Laoshi — ”
Binghe lay on his side, his coverlet pulled up in his head. He felt hot all over. Hot with arousal. Hot with excitement, with shame. His hand worked clumsily over his cock, his fist ringed around his length.
It was gross, what he was doing — touching himself while thinking of his teacher. He knew it was gross. Still, he couldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t banish the thought of Shen Yuan. The scent of him. The look of him. His pale neck, his pale wrists. His eyes, indecipherable, glowing dark with some intoxicatingly adult emotion. He had such a wonderful body. Binghe could tell, even when Shen Yuan was covered from throat to ankle. He was lean and tall and flexible. Delicate, in that unearthly, sylphlike way that dancers were so wont to be. He’d been so thin, so frail in the vise of Binghe’s arms.
Binghe was nearly as tall as his Laoshi now, and his shoulders were growing broad. Perhaps — perhaps, someday, he’d be able to hold his Laoshi properly.
The Shen Yuan in his mind was lying on the carpeted floor of his office, paperwork strewn around him. His skinny chest was heaving up, his back arched. His shirt was rucked up to his chin, exposing the twitching slate of his belly. His nipples were shiny and pink and luridly, deliciously indecent.
Binghe pictured himself older, stronger. Strong enough to hold Shen Yuan down, Shen Yuan’s wrists held above his head. Shen Yuan was teary-eyed. Defenseless. Flushed with desire.
“Binghe,” the illusory Shen Yuan said. He was sniffling like he’d been badly bullied, “Binghe, not too rough…”
This is disgusting, Binghe thought. Luo Binghe, you are disgusting. Perverting the object of your affections. Demeaning him with dirty thoughts.
He was leaking all over his own hand.
So, so wet.
Binghe sped through his fantasy. Heated kisses. A hot, wet tongue. Shen Yuan’s naked body, shining with an otherworldly lustre. Shen Yuan’s bare cock drooling all over his stomach. Binghe imagined wedging Shen Yuan’s pale, trembling thighs apart. He imagined… spearing Shen Yuan on his cock.
And Shen Yuan would twine their fingers together, like lovers.
The world of ballet was so full of lovers.
Odile taking a running jump and sliding down Siegfried’s back. Mary Vetsera winding her body around Prince Rudolf’s like a viper, ruttishly unhinged. Manon falling up into her lover’s arms, fecklessly adoring.
Lovers, lovers, lovers.
Binghe grabbed his pillow and shove his face into it. With a desperation that bordered on savagery, he bit down, muffling his groans. The pillow made it hard to breathe — but this, in turn, intensified the pulsating sensation in building in his dick. What if Shen Laoshi choked me? Would it feel like this? Binghe rutted up into his hand, panting like a dog against his bed linens. Cock twitching. Mildly oxygen-deprived. Feverish with want, so much want.
He felt good.
He was so gross.
He felt really, really good.
The Shen Yuan in his mind had his long, raffish legs wrapped around Binghe’s waist. His face was flushed with exhilaration. His kiss-pinked lips were parted. His breathing was laboured, erotic. His tongue was lolling. Fucked silly.
“Yes! Yes! Oh, Binghe! Yesyesyesyes, good boy, perfect boy, I love you, I love you, you make me feel so good. Give it to me, give your Laoshi all of it —”
Binghe’s fantasies were all so fucking corny. Corny dialogue, corny scenarios. Corny imagery. Cornier than any B-list stallion novel. Shen Yuan would laugh himself sick, wouldn’t he?
Fuck. Shen Jiu had been right on the money. Binghe really was a little beast.
A stupid, slavering, lovesick beast.
Binghe came with a muffled whine, his Laoshi’s name trapped on his tongue. His heart was beating a tattoo against his ribcage. His spend was hot and slick between his fingers. Disgusting. Slowly, he pulled the coverlet off. The window had been left open by a hair’s breadth, filling the room with cool, fresh air. Binghe took in a lungful. He could taste ozone and rain on the wet September wind. Earthy, elemental. There was a kind of dawn-of-time intensity to it all.
Binghe turned his face to the moonlight.
He didn’t know how to cope with this new desire.
This unchecked flame.
I love him. I’m in love with him.
I want him, I need him, I adore him, I love, love, I love.
Binghe warmed up at the barre, waking his body up to the music.
I won’t tell him. I’m not stupid. He’s a grown man. Grown men don’t go out with fourteen year-old boys. But...
I won’t be fourteen forever.
Shen Yuan directed them through an adagio routine. Rounded arms, slow-moving limbs. The trick was to move according to routine… without making your steps look planned. To behave as though the dance were naturally occuring, unchoreographed, organic. As if you were simply sleepwalking into each spin and each pose.
The line between good ballet and total somnambulism was so slim.
Shen Laoshi had said it himself, hadn’t he? The years fly by quick, then quicker. I’ll be fifteen soon enough — then, sixteen, seventeen. Eighteen. I’ll grow strong. Like Erik Bruhn. Like Carlos Acosta. My torso will lengthen, my fingers will roughen. My shoulders and back will broaden under the strain of my training. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be firmly entrenched in the industry of Shen Yuan’s dreams.
If I can wait until then, if I play my cards right...
Shen Laoshi added another movement phrase to the combination, transforming their simple step sequence into a complex, serpentine routine. It was an interesting sort of routine. There was no posing, no punctuation. Just an endless string of combinations, the transitions between smooth as silk.
A few Binghe’s classmates were clearly struggling with this new adagio. Yang Yixuan, uninclined to this softer, free-flowing style of dance, was a half-beat behind. Sha Hualing’s expression was a mask of grim determination, her grimace comically at odds with her light and feathery movements. Only Luo Binghe and Liu Mingyan were following along with ease.
Binghe was beginning to understand Liu Mingyan’s cool indifference, her air of waiting.
Outside the classroom, he was beset by hateful stares. Envious whispers. They called him Shen Yuan’s pet. Little Binghe the lapdog. He found his shoes stuffed with cigarette butts. His school uniform was dumped into the locker room sink with the water left running.
It didn’t matter. He was at the top of the class. They were not. He was Shen Yuan’s favourite. They were not. Why burden himself with their envy? They would fade away at the bottom ranks of some third-rate ballet. Meanwhile, Binghe would take the center stage.
For the first time in his life, Binghe felt a measure of ambition.
He’d be a principal dancer with The National Ballet of China. Top billing. He’d dance Albrecht, Romeo, Siegfried, Apollo, Solor. He’d command the crowds of Covent Garden, hypnotize the Russian masters — he’d toss pint-sized Japanese ballerinas over his shoulder with the careless strength of a newborn god.
He would become a man worthy of Shen Yuan. A man that could proudly stand at Shen Yuan’s side — no longer a student, no longer a child, but an equal. A peer.
And then, once Binghe had reached the heights of balletic ascendency, he would confess.
They would be wed.
“Let’s take a quick break,” Shen Yuan said, somewhat suddenly. He strode up to the record player, tugging the needle away. The music sputtered into silence. They students puttered to a halt mid-movement, confused.
“We haven’t even been going for thirty minutes, Shen Laoshi,” Ming Fan said, furrowing his brow. Yang Yixuan leaned over at the waist, hands braced against his thighs.
“I can keep going,” he huffed.
“I know,” Shen Yuan said. “I know.”
Shen Yuan pushed his hair out of his face, his expression somewhat disconcerted. He was visibly modulating his breathing, and his pale face was shining with a light sheen of sweat. Ah. Was today a bad day? Binghe felt a pang of sympathy. Poor Laoshi! Hopefully, he’d feel better in the afternoon. Binghe had packed them both butternut squash soup.
“I just need to step out for a moment,” Shen Yuan said. “I just, um… I have something to do. Do some group stretches. You…” Shen Yuan gestured vaguely over the group. His finger landed on Ming Fan, seemingly at random. “You. Ming Fan, you’re in charge. We’ll reconvene in, ah… five. Five minutes.”
Ming Fan’s eyes lit up.
Shen Yuan slipped out the door.
“I guess he needed to use the restroom,” Ning Yingying said.
“Yeah, probably,” Qin Wanyue said. She kneeled over and began fussing with her buttercup-yellow legwarmers.
Ming Fan was already bullying the boys into group exercises: “Up to the barre! Up to the barre, everyone! Look, Shen Laoshi said that I’m in charge, so you guys have to listen to — Gongyi Xiao! Gongyi Xiao, don’t you dare put your AirPods in!”
Binghe felt a nudging at his shoulder. He glanced sideways. It was Liu Mingyan. She was staring up at him with her big, calm eyes.
“Hey,” she said, all but whispering. “Is Shen Laoshi alright?”
Binghe glanced between the studio door and Liu Mingyan.
“You noticed too, huh?”
“I notice everything,” she said meaningfully. She tugged at Binghe’s shirt. This little gesture read as surprisingly childish, especially coming from such a girl who was otherwise so mature. “Is he okay?”
“I don’t know,” Binghe said. “He doesn’t like talking about his health. Not even with me. He doesn’t… he doesn’t like looking weak in front of his students, I think.” He thought about it, then added, “He has good days and bad days. I guess today is a bad day.”
Liu Mingyan nodded sagely.
“I guess,” she said. “Maybe he went to lie down for a bit.”
“Maybe,” Binghe said. He glanced over the studio. Ning Yingying was showing off a little Broadway cha-cha to the girls. Yang Yixuan was stretching out his calves, acquiescing to Ming Fan’s clumsy dictatorship out of pity. The sky was a pale and peevish gray. The air tasted dustily of morning.
Sha Hualing pitched herself upwards, balancing with expert precision on her pointe shoes’ toebox.
“Maybe he went to fool around with Yue Laoshi,” she teased.
Binghe snapped to attention.
Sha Hualing’s lips curled up into a catlike smirk.
“I have it on good authority that they’ve got a little something-something going on.”
“No way,” Binghe said, a knee-jerk response. “That’s unbelievable. I don’t believe it.”
“Wanyue saw the two of them having a veeery cozy dinner together! Isn’t that right?”
Qin Wanyue flushed, aghast, “Ling-er! I told you that in confidence!”
Binghe whirled on her, stricken.
“Is that true? You saw them together?”
“I… I thought I did,” she said. Then, directing her next words to the floor, “The restaurant was pretty dark… but it definitely looked like them… and they were… um...”
Qin Wanyue blushed beet red. There was something about that blush — so coquettish, so sweet. Binghe’s heart tightened, smothered by the hot grips of panic.
“What? They were doing what?” Binghe pressed her, taking a forceful step towards her.
Qin Wanyue glanced towards the door, her reedy voice pleading, “Oh my God, guys, we can’t talk about this stuff, he could be back at any moment —”
“Shen Yuan was shoving his tongue down Yue Qingyuan’s throat,” Sha Hualing said.. “That’s what she told me.”
“Ling-er, don’t phrase it like that!”
Binghe’s eyes went wide.
“Is that — is that true?” he asked, his gaze solely trained on Qin Wanyue. She tucked a strand of wispy black hair behind one hair, her eyes roving back down to the floor. Her yellow-toned pointe shoes were exceptionally narrow and very likely bespoke. “I mean… Shen Laoshi, he — he would never…”
Binghe struggled for words.
Shen Yuan and Yue Qingyuan. Together. Kissing. The very idea was absurd. Unthinkable.
It was just… just… it was too unexpected! In all their hours of conversation, Shen Yuan had never once expressed any interest in Yue Qingyuan. At least — not that kind of interest! Binghe’s blood began to roil. How dare he. How dare Yue Qingyuan. That big, stupid man with his wideset brows and tepid smiles and his lecherous fucking paws.
Binghe was going to grow up and marry Shen Yuan. No doubt about it.
Yue Qingyuan? Yue Qingyuan didn’t factor into any of it.
He was irrelevant. He was nothing. An interloper. A gnat.
Qin Wanyue shrugged uneasily.
“... It definitely looked like them,” she murmured again, helpless.
“Binghe,” Liu Mingyan said, her voice very small. She tugged at his sleeve. “... Shen Jiu...”
“What?” Binghe snapped, shooting her a glare.
Liu Mingyan remained unmoved. Her cool, somewhat stony expression showed a bare sliver of sympathy.
“Binghe. She probably saw Shen Jiu, not Shen Yuan.”
Binghe snapped to attention. Qin Wanyue lifted her head, eyes bright.
“Shen Jiu?” she echoed. “From Central Troupe?”
Sha Hualing fanned her hand in front of her open mouth, apparently scandalized.
“Wait, wait, you think Shen Jiu was sucking face with Yue Qingyuan?”
Liu Mingyan nodded solemnly.
“I’ve been backstage at the Tianqiao Theater,” she said slowly, “where Central Troupe dances. My brother often invites me to sit in on dress rehearsals.” There was an unusual intensity in her blue eyes. “I’ve seen Yue Qingyuan there on multiple occasions, skulking in the wings. He thinks he’s being discreet, but I see him. He brings little gifts to Shen Jiu’s dressing room. Boxes of candy, tins of tea, armfuls of flowers… roses and camellias and white hydrangeas... diamonds and pearls…”
Liu Mingyan’s ordinarily placid face flushed pink.
“I’ve long suspected… that they harbour a more intimate relationship,” she concluded breathily.
Binghe was struck with a wave of relief so intense that it nearly knocked him over.
So… Shen Yuan really hadn’t…
Sha Hualing wolf-whistled, “Huh. Mystery solved, I guess?”
“I guess!” Qin Wanyue said, relaxing visibly.
Binghe released a sigh. He glanced over his shoulder. Ning Yingying was entertaining a group of students with a wobbly penguin-walk, her arms ramrod straight at her side. They were giggling, trying to recreate her playful little dance. Ming Fan had been successfully distracted from his little drill sergeant routine and was staring at her with unmasked longing.
Then, he looked at the door. It remained still and silent. Not a sound from the hallway.
“Laoshi still isn’t back yet,” he said.
Sha Hualing followed his sightlines, drawing her own eyes towards the door.
“I bet he’s getting a soda. The vending machine on the fourth floor is ornery as shit — I’ve wasted so much time trying to wrangle it into submission.”
“Oh, yeah,” Yang Yixuan said, stepping very blithely into their conversation. “It keeps eating my coins.”
“Same. But it’s the only vending machine that sells aloe water.”
Binghe glanced back to the door, willing it to swing open. A new worry began to prickle at the back of his mind. He twisted his fingers together anxiously. Shen Yuan’s absence weighed on him with a terrible, claustrophobic pressure.
Shen Yuan had promised him that nothing scary would ever happen at school. But — everyone broke their promises sometimes, right? Even adults, right?
Even the people you love.
Luo Binghe’s mother had promised him a new pair of shoes for Christmas. Split-soled leather Capezios, butter-smooth and light as air, just like all the other boys at Cang Qiong wore. Then, December came. The heating bill came, and so did the rent, and the money just wasn’t there. Her promise slipped further and further out of sight. Binghe’s new shoes never materialized.
There was no malice in that.
Liu Mingyan regarded Binghe carefully.
“Maybe you should go find him,” she said, voice so quiet that it seemed to burr.
Binghe glanced at her desperately.
“Mn,” she inclined her chin. “It can’t hurt. Perhaps… perhaps Shen Laoshi has simply lost track of the time.”
There was a special meaning in the white swan’s eyes. Binghe licked at his lips, eyes darting.
“Maybe,” he said. Then: “Yeah. Yeah. I think I will.”
Liu Mingyan nodded.
“Don’t be gone long.”
Liu Mingyan turned back towards the barre and began to stretch. Her long legs twitched as she warmed up. They were straight as stilts and frighteningly thin. There wasn’t even an ounce of fat left to round them out at the thigh.
That was probably the longest conversation they’d ever held.
Binghe went towards the door and slipped out into the hallway.
The third floor was completely deserted. Class was in session; everybody was shut up in the studio rooms. Only Binghe was out wandering.
Binghe padded down the hall towards the bathroom. The cream-coloured walls were decorated with wide vertical stripes. The big window above the stairwell was full of doom-and-gloom clouds. It wasn’t raining, but Binghe thought it maybe would. Soon.
Moving briskly, Binghe poked his head into the mens’ bathroom. Not a soul in sight. The stall doors were ajar, empty. One of the faucets was drip-drip-dripping. Where did you go, Shen Yuan?
Binghe left the bathroom, staring pondering up the hall. Binghe could hear music coming from the occupied studio rooms; Stravinsky from C-2, Prokofiev from C-3. C-4 had its own pianoforte, and somebody was plunking at the ivories rather poorly. A traditional Chinese qin warbled on and on from C-5.
The vending machine was on the fourth floor. So was the auditorium. The admin hall was on the first, right across from the reception desk. There was a small infirmary with two sickbeds on the second floor. That second option felt most feasible. Maybe he’d gone to lie down, like Liu Mingyan said.
Binghe headed down the staircase. The pinewood creaked and groaned beneath his weight, unreasonably loud in the unbroken quiet.
“Shen Yuan?” he called out tentatively. Then, remembering himself, “Shen Laoshi?”
Binghe’s canvas flats rasped against the hardwood. Cautiously, he stepped off at the second floor. He pushed his way through the vestibule, venturing out into the hallway.
Binghe had guessed correctly. Shen Yuan was there.
Luo Binghe froze, a deer in the headlights.
His Shen Yuan. His wonderful, beautiful, impossible Shen Yuan. The moon of his life.
Shen Yuan was on the ground. His body was locked up tight, his muscles tense. He was jerking spasmodically at the joints, convulsions pulsating at a nearly rhythmic clip. Like internal explosions. His head was knocking up against the floor in what looked like a painful fashion. There was spittle frothing at the corner of his mouth. It was pinkish with blood. He’d bitten his cheek.
A weird wave of calm washed over Luo Binghe.
On some level, he had always known this scenario was a possibility — an inevitability, even. And now, here it was. Shen Yuan’s leg kicked out at nothing. His arm thrashed against the floor, bent at a terrible angle.
Here it was.
Binghe rushed to Shen Yuan’s side, collapsing to his knees. Fear began to close in on him. How long had Shen Yuan been — in this state? Had he only just passed out? Had he already been seizing for five minutes?
Binghe scrambled to remember everything he knew about seizure response. The — recovery position? Right? He had to get Shen Yuan onto his side. Very gently, he grabbed at Shen Yuan’s shoulder and upper thigh, rotating him into a three-quarters prone position. He guided Shen Yuan’s head onto his own lap to cushion it.
Shen Yuan’s face was a little dusky, like maybe he was having a hard time breathing. That was scary. Really scary. Binghe fumbled with the front collar of Shen Yuan’s shirt, releasing the topmost buttons. Under different circumstances, that little liberty might’ve been exciting. At present, it wasn’t. Shen Yuan’s body was jittering uncontrollably and his eyes were zoned-out.
Binghe glanced up and down the hallway worriedly. These were the Beginner classrooms; empty at this time of week. Who could he run to for help? Should he scream? Someone on the floor below might hear him. Suddenly, Binghe felt deeply penitent for his mental harague against Yue Qingyuan. Now, he badly wished that Yue Qingyuan would appear. He knew about Shen Yuan’s condition; he would know what to do.
Binghe eased Shen Yuan’s watch off of his wrist, watching the dial tick. Ninety-three seconds passed. Shen Yuan began to relax. He stirred weakly against Binghe’s thigh, as if rousing from a troubled sleep.
“I’m…” Shen Yuan hummed. He frowned, turning his head against’s Binghe’s thigh. “Hmn. I don’t…”
Binghe thumbed over Shen Yuan’s forehead, framing his face.
“It’s alright, Laoshi,” Binghe said. “I-It’s alright. You’re alright. You’re… you’re right as rain, Laoshi.”
Binghe had read that it was common for people to lose control of their bladder during a grand mal seizure. Shen Yuan’s clothes were clean and neat, however, and Binghe couldn’t smell any urine. That was good. He didn’t want Shen Yuan to have any reason to feel embarrassed about this.
Visibly dazed, Shen Yuan blinked up at Binghe. His eyes were half-mast.
“Where ‘m...?” Shen Yuan slurred. Binghe could fill in the blinks.
"You're at work. Cang Qiong Academy."
Shen Yuan’s expression showed no comprehension.
"I don’... I don’t know where…”
"At work. Cang Qiong Academy," Binghe said again, patient as can be. "You had a seizure."
Shen Yuan closed his eyes.
"I don't understand," he murmured. "I don't know where I am, I don't…"
This seemed to be a sticking point for Shen Yuan.
"You're at work. This is Cang Qiong Academy. We're out in the hallway. You had a seizure."
"But… I don't know where I am," Shen Yuan said, insistent. He seemed to have a new thought. “Where is Jiu-ge?”
Ah. Shen Jiu, he meant.
“He’ll be here soon, Laoshi,” Binghe ad-libbed, carding lovingly through his teacher’s hair.
“Is he coming?”
“Yes. He’ll be here very soon, Laoshi.”
“Hm,” Shen Yuan said. He seemed to be dozing off. Binghe didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing. Shen Yuan seemed to be very happy to have his hair played with, so Binghe kept doing that. It was unbelievably soft, like a bolt of mulberry silk.
Like a black satin bedcover.
Binghe kind of wanted to cry. He could feel the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes, unbidden and unwelcome. He fought to keep them at bay.
A minute passed. Then, Shen Yuan’s eyes fluttered open. His thick, pale lashes beat against his cheekbones with mothwing delicacy. Sleeping Beauty, Binghe thought. He looks like Sleeping Beauty. Roseate, auroral, flushed with fairy-like loveliness. Does that make me the prince?
"Binghe?” Shen Yuan’s eyes settled on Binghe’s face.
“Your Binghe is here, Laoshi.”
“Oh," Shen Yuan said. He seemed to be returning to himself. "Oh. How long —"
“I’m not sure. I’ve been here maybe three minutes.”
Silence from Shen Yuan.
Then: “I’m okay. Help me up, Binghe.”
Binghe shook his head, no.
"I’'m sorry, Laoshi. I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Binghe. I feel fine.”
“I’m sure you do,” Binghe lied. “Still, Laoshi. Humour your Binghe. Would you mind staying here for a minute? I'm going to get Yue Laoshi."
Binghe shifted. making to kneel upright. Shen Yuan stopped him with a gesture. There was a look of wild panic in his eyes — his pupils dilated, his irises blown-out black.
"No!" he said, a wounded yelp. “No. Don't. Don't."
Shen Yuan pitched himself up onto all fours. He braced his hands against the polished floor, his arms visibly quivering beneath the strain.
"I can work,” he grit out. Blood in his teeth. “I’m alright now. I can go back.”
"Laoshi, you —” Binghe’s voice slipped on a wet spot in his throat. He steadied it back into words. “You need to go home for the rest of the day, at the very least."
"I can work!"
Shen Yuan draped his arm over his face, his expression buried by his sleeve.
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Shen Yuan said. “I want to work. I want to dance.”
“Of course, Laoshi. But your health comes first!”
Shen Yuan laughed quietly, deliriously. This laugh struck Binghe cold with fear.
“Your health comes first. How many times have I heard…” Shen Yuan shook his head. “If I… if I minded my health like a good little consumptive... I’d never dance again, huh? I — I bet you’d all like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Laoshi, that’s not true!” Binghe’s voice cracked.
“Then help me up!” Shen Yuan bit back angrily. “Help me up, Binghe! I can work. I’m okay, I’m…” He lowered his arm, exposing a cold, flinty expression. “You think I’m willing to wait and wallow on the bare floor? Has this teacher not earned even the barest trace of dignity?”
“... I can take you to the sickroom. We’re nearby.”
“No. I’m returning to the studio. To my students.”
“You can try,” Binghe said. “But I’m still going to get Yue Qingyuan.”
Shen Yuan’s eyes flashed with postictal fury.
“Binghe,” Shen Yuan said. He appeared to be pleading, but there was an unfocused rage in his eyes. It was scary. It was all so, so scary. “Little Binghe. You don’t need to do that. Trust me. Trust your Laoshi. You trust me, don’t you?”
There were tears in Shen Yuan’s eyes. There were tears in Binghe’s eyes, too.
Here they were, kneeling in the middle of a brightly-lit hallway. Face to face, crying like fools. Yet the gulf between them seemed wider than ever. Adult and child, teacher and student. Sick and healthy.
And that made Binghe a little angry.
“You can stay here while I run for Yue Qingyuan,” he said, wiping at his cheeks with the back of his hand, “or I can start screaming until he finds us. Your choice, Laoshi.”
Binghe realized that he’d never spoken to his Laoshi like this. He didn’t like it. He felt cruel, he felt terrible. Like the worst kind of person. Like pure garbage, like human scum.
“Binghe, no,” Shen Yuan said. His breaths came fast, then faster. “No, no, I just want to go back to class, I want to go back to my students…”
Shen Yuan’s eyes went terribly wide. Binghe reared forwards to assess the look there. They were panicked, horror-struck. Binghe was struck with a terrible sense of understanding; he knew what would come next.
“Shen Yuan, please, lie back down.”
“No!’ Shen Yuan moaned. “No, no, I just want to go back, just take me back… I just want to go back...”
“Shen Yuan, on your side. Please. Please.”
“I just want to go back, I just want to go back to before — ”
A cry tore its way out of his lungs; wounded, confused. Shen Yuan crashed back down against the floor, his white face wet with tears, his limbs spasming uncontrollably. Binghe scooped Shen Yuan up against him, Shen Yuan’s chin jerking against his chest.
Binghe was crying, crying like the dumb little kid he was. He was crying as if Shen Yuan were dying, though he very clearly wasn’t. Epilepsy isn’t even that uncommon. That’s what Shen Yuan had told him, hunkered over the staff kitchenette with a hot mug of tea.
It wasn’t uncommon, but it was scary. Real-world scary. Binghe cried hard — bawling, he supposed — his face screwed-up, his nose snotty and full. His whole face ached with it, and he felt unbearably ugly. He felt like he had a lot to cry over. Shen Yuan’s anger, Shen Yuan’s pain. Shen Yuan’s loss. Binghe’s gain.
There was nothing else to do, nowhere to run, nowhere he could take Shen Yuan. He’d met a dead end.
He began to shout.
Yue Qingyuan hoisted Shen Yuan up into his arms, and Shen Yuan slept. His lips were slack and slumbery and twitched every so often, like maybe he was dreaming.
“I’m going to take him to the ER,” Yue Qingyuan explained to Binghe, supporting Shen Yuan’s head very carefully. “Normally, I wouldn’t have to… but if he’s had more than one in a short period, then that’s something the doctors need to check out.”
He carried Shen Yuan down towards the first floor foyer. Binghe followed him tentatively. He wondered if he could’ve lifted Shen Yuan himself. He lifted ballerinas just about every day — and Shen Yuan could hardly be heavier than one.
Hearing the commotion, Binghe’s classmates began to trickle down towards the front entrance. Ning Yingying was crying softly. Ming Fan patted her shoulders very gently, murmuring nice things. Liu Mingyan looked straight at Binghe, seeking him with a special intent.
“Can I come with you?” Binghe asked.
“To the hospital?”
“Yeah,” Binghe said. “I won’t be trouble, I promise.” Then, when Yue Qingyuan appeared unconvinced, “I’ll look after him. In the back seat, while you’re driving.”
Yue Qingyuan looked down at Shen Yuan, his thick brows furrowed. Then, he glanced up at Binghe.
“You’ll have to be very quiet in the car. I need to call Shen Jiu. Shen Yuan's doctor, too.”
“There won’t be anything for you to do at the hospital. You’ll probably just be waiting around, terribly bored.”
“Shen Jiu probably won’t even let you see him. He’s particular like that.”
Yue Qingyuan sighed.
“Alright,” he said. “If you could support his head, that would be a big help.”
Binghe didn’t know much about cars, but he knew enough to tell that Yue Qingyuan had a nice once. The exterior was sleek and silvery; the interior was black leather. It seemed to have been cleaned quite recently. There was a satiny green scarf on the front console. It didn’t look much like something Yue Qingyuan would wear, but it did remind Binghe of someone else. Someone a little more serpentine, vespertine.
Binghe sat down in the back seat and left his seatbelt unbuckled. Yue Qingyuan laid Shen Yuan down on his back, his head once again cushioned by Binghe’s lap.
Binghe and Yue Qingyuan maneuvered him together, mostly in silence. They didn't have too much to say to one another. Luo Binghe wasn’t particularly interested in Yue Qingyuan, and he suspected that Yue Qingyuan felt much the same. Shen Yuan was their sole vector of communication. A tether.
“Let me know if I need to slow down or stop the car, or...” Yue Qingyuan scratched the back of his neck. “Well, just let me know if you need anything.”
“And if he wakes up?”
“Tell him the truth: we’re on our way to the hospital.”
“I don’t think he’ll like that.”
“No, probably not. But there’s not much he can do about it now.”
Binghe looked out the front windshield, watching the way shadows and sun curtained the road ahead of them. He looked back to Shen Yuan. He was snuffling quietly, adorably in his sleep. Like this, he looked staggeringly young. He looked closer to Binghe’s age than Yue Qingyuan's.
Binghe patted ineffectually at Shen Yuan's hair. If Yue Qingyuan found this little gesture to be at all strange or suspect, he didn’t comment.
“Will Shen Yuan be okay?” Binghe asked.
“Yes,” Yue Qingyuan said, cranking the gearshift. “He’s always okay. It’s, you know...”
Yue Qingyuan coughed a little awkwardly, turning the wheel.
“It’s a very manageable condition,” he said. “He’s just had bad luck with medication. And, you know… even when he finds a treatment plan that actually works for him, it’s hard to get him to stick to it. Because, ah… he starts thinking he’s not really sick after all, you know? Ha-ha..”
Yue Qingyuan ran a hand over his face. He probably wasn’t even thirty, but something about his strong, tired face made him look older.
“They’re a funny family, those Shens,” he said. “They keep me busy.”
The way he said it, you’d think he was joking, but Binghe could sense a deadly honesty beneath those words.
Yue Qingyuan began to plunk at his car’s Bluetooth system, trying to get a hold of Shen Jiu. Shen Yuan, still asleep, turned his cheek against Binghe's thigh. Binghe combed his fringe out of his face.
By the time Yue Qingyuan was pulling into the parking lot, Shen Yuan was more or less awake. He blinked up at the roof of Yue Qingyuan’s car, his face showing some recognition.
“Binghe,” Shen Yuan said.
“Laoshi,” Binghe said.
There was a pause. Shen Yuan’s eyes slid away.
“We’re almost at the hospital,” Binghe supplied.
Shen Yuan closed his eyes again.
“Oh, I see,” he said, transparently ersatz, like he’d already known.
Like Binghe had confirmed some terrible, long-held premonition.
Yue Qingyuan bought Binghe a milk tea and big oatmeal cookie from the hospital cafe. He sat Binghe down in the waiting room, whisking Shen Yuan away with him to consult with some Dr. Mu.
Binghe wasn’t very hungry at all, but he didn’t see the sense in refusing this very obvious olive branch. He took the cookie and ate it. The plastic wrapper crinkled in his fists. The cookie itself was unpleasantly chewy and tasted highly processed. But it was food, so Binghe wolfed the whole thing down.
Across from Binghe, a sweet-looking lady was poring through a cookbook with a look of forced interest. An eyepatched gentleman was rapping his painted nails against his smartphone, impatient. A little boy with a cast was swaying his legs to-and-fro. His cast was heavily signed and decorated with colorful, loose-handed sketches of monsters and goblins and heroes, and Binghe had the distinct impression that this little boy was deeply, deeply loved.
The flatly-lit waiting room seemed to exist outside of time . There were no windows; no obvious means of determining the passage of the hours. The overhead lights were bright and sterile, slanting uncomfortably over Binghe’s eyes. Every so often, a nurse in scrubs would wander up, reading a name out from their clipboard. Someone would get up from their seat, disappear into the hospital. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they didn’t.
After maybe thirty minutes of twiddling his thumbs and pretending to read an abandoned copy of Beijing Review, Binghe got up and started doing some stretches against the back of his seat. Calf stretches. Turnout. A quick barre: attitude, battement, plié. Every good leap begins with a good plié. He lifted himself up into a quick arabesque, knowing he was attracting stares, not caring at all.
Shen Jiu found him there.
He was wearing a long, dark coat that may have very well been mink. It made him look like Wanda von Dunajew; like Venus in Furs, cold and despotic.
Shen Jiu stared at Binghe as Binghe held his extension.
“Hm,” Shen Jiu said. “I’ve seen you before. The little beast from the bookstore.”
Binghe lowered himself back into first position.
“Good afternoon, Shen-shifu,” he said, because that was the polite thing to say.
Shen Jiu’s eyes flashed in annoyance. Waspishly, he said, “It’s very nearly evening.”
“Oh,” Binghe said. “Have you seen Dr. Mu yet? What did he say?”
“That’s none of your business,” Shen Jiu said. “This is a family matter. Go home.”
Binghe looked down to the ground.
“I’m waiting for Laoshi,” he said.
“He’s resting. Go home.”
“No. Not without seeing Shen Laoshi.”
Shen Jiu bristled with anger.
“Stupid kid,” he said. “You’re not gonna see him.”
“Because I said so. Now, scram.”
Binghe latched onto Shen Jiu’s sleeve, his fingers curling into fabric tightly, “Is he awake? Is he okay?”
“He’d be much better,” Shen Jiu hissed, throwing Binghe off with a jerk of his arm, “without stupid kids like you nipping at his heels. Get lost.”
“How can you be so heartless?” Binghe cried. “I’m worried about him too!”
“I don’t care!” Shen Jiu all but snarled. “I don’t care about any of you bleeding-heart brats — can’t you see, he shouldn’t...”
Shen Jiu’s jaw worked minutely, fuming in silence. Binghe watched, repulsed, as his simmering fury frosted into a lofty, icy indifference. Shen Jiu straightened his spine, flicking his wrist away from Binghe’s needy hands. He stood tall and proud, his back ramrod-straight, Fonteyn-like. Without his heels, though, he seemed surprisingly small. He wasn’t even that much taller than Binghe, and Binghe had only just started his growth spurt. By this time next year, Binghe would probably be eye-to-eye with him, if not taller.
“I love him,” Binghe said. His first time admitting it to anyone but himself. He said it again, his tone urgent; “I love him.”
“I love Shen Laoshi. With all my heart. He’s my — my important person.”
There was a replete pause.
“I don’t care,” Shen Jiu said.
“Why?” Shen Jiu said. “Why should I give a damn about the selfish, immature feelings of some snot-nosed little kid? You have no idea what love is.”
“And you do?” Then, in a rare moment of pettiness, Binghe said, “Is there anybody out there who loves you, Shen Jiu? Is there anybody out there who could?”
There was a flash of white as Shen Jiu’s hand darted out. Binghe flinched as it connected with his cheek — an open-palmed slap. It wasn’t a very hard slap, but it was a loud one. It landed with a sound like a whip crack. The men and women in the waiting room all turned to stare in the direction of the sound, their eyes landing on Shen Jiu — his hand mid-air, wrist exposed, eyes aflame.
Immediately following the slap, Shen Jiu’s pale face showed a trace of horror. Like maybe he actually had the self-awareness to know it wasn’t okay to go around slapping fourteen year-olds in the face, least of all in public. But then his usual look of ice-cold contempt shuttered up over his features, pitched like a mask.
Shen Jiu looked at Binghe. Binghe looked at him, his cheek stinging.
Just then — if only for a moment — he felt a profound sense of illumination. That same feeling was reflected in Shen Jiu’s pale eyes; celerity and clarity. Understanding.
They were both seeing one another for who they really were.
A stupid, selfish boy. A cruel and damaged man — who’d probably once been a stupid, selfish boy as well.
Shen Jiu wrenched his gaze away. He stormed off, turning out into the hallway, his big brown coat whipping behind him as he went. Binghe watched his long hair shift and sway against his back. From behind, he looked so much like Shen Yuan.
Binghe sat back down. He touched his cheek, tracing the outline of Shen Jiu’s open-palm slap. The flesh beneath his fingers was hot to the touch.
Not two minutes later, Yue Qingyuan entered the waiting room. Shen Jiu’s doing, probably. Yue Qingyuan smiled at Binghe. Binghe had never seen a smile so transparently phony, and that was saying something. Beneath that stupid smile, the director of Cang Qiong Academy looked exhausted, harried. Desperate, even.
Binghe felt a rush of uncomfortable pity. Poor Yue Qingyuan was balancing the needs of two Shens — and now, some random student.
“Heya Binghe,” Yue Qingyuan said, faux-jovial. He was swinging his car keys on his index finger. “How about I give you a ride home? We wouldn’t want your mom to be worried, huh?”
Binghe lowered his hands, angling his chin up to face Yue Qingyuan a little more directly. If Yue Qingyuan noticed anything unusual about the redness of Binghe’s cheek, he failed to comment on it.
“Now, don’t look so glum,” Yue Qingyuan said, jangling his keys. “Hey, do you want a milkshake? We can get McDonalds on the way back. My treat.”
Binghe could sense how tired Yue Qingyuan was of being responsible for him. He was sorely tempted to laugh about it. Instead, he decided to show a little mercy.
“Okay,” he agreed, rising to his feet. Yue Qingyuan’s shoulders drooped in visible relief. His smile showed a band of pearly white teeth.
“Wonderful,” he said. He closed his hand into a fist, trapping the silvery keys at the center. “Let’s be off, then.”
The ride back home was long and silent. Yue Qingyuan seemed deeply lost in thought, his expression strangely blank as he merged back onto the highway.
Binghe set his head against the window.
He thought about Shen Yuan. Of course he thought about Shen Yuan. It would’ve been stranger if he hadn’t thought about him. He thought about Shen Yuan standing posed at the center of the studio before sinking back into a sensuous cambré. He thought about Shen Yuan’s love of trash novels, buttered tea cakes, music and movement. He thought about the tears on Shen Yuan’s cheeks, like water flowing off of marble.
He wanted to believe that Shen Yuan would be back in the studio tomorrow — but he wasn’t sure. He was afraid that Shen Jiu, like a wicked step-mother in a fairytale, was going to lock Shen Yuan up in a tower and leave him there forevermore.
Shen Jiu seemed to have decided that Shen Yuan was unfit to survive.
Binghe still hadn’t made his mind up. Not yet.
Yue Qingyuan dropped Binghe off with his little McDonalds milkshake. Binghe buzzed his way into the building, rode the lift up eight floors — then pushed his way through the unlocked door.
The apartment was dark. His mother had fallen asleep on the couch, dirty dishes stacked on the table before her. The TV was buzzing bright, surrounding by an iridescent halo of electricity. She’d been watching a corny historical drama; ladies with towering hairpieces, men in glossy wigs with stiff hairlines.
Binghe closed his eyes.
The dark of a two-bedroom apartment was unlike the dark of a jam-packed theatre, but he could dream. He imagined that Shen Yuan was sitting up in box three, glowing with pride and desire; that Shen Jiu was dancing at his side, vicious in his exactness, undeniable in his talent. He pictured himself beneath the big lights: that he was the one everyone loved, the one everyone wanted, the one who could protect the things he loved without much anguish or much effort.
He felt the impossibility of it like a physical ache in his chest.
Or maybe that was just the love. Or the exhaustion. Or something else. Call it a coming of age.
He toed out of his dance shoes, left them scrunched up by the door, and headed deeper into the darkness.