Chapter 1: act I
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
content warnings: epilepsy is the big one. if mentions of epilepsy, tonic-clonic seizures (and general disability-talk) bother you, maybe steer away from this story. there's also a scene where a decidedly underage binghe jerks it while thinking of shen yuan. it's not super long, but if reading about a minor going to town on his hog bothers you, i can't say i blame you.
as a fictionalized pre-pro dance academy, cang qiong isn't 100% accurate. for example, it'd be highly unusual for a pre-pro dance program to offer co-ed classes. but i love sha hualing, and i'd be devastated if i couldn't include her. i also tried my best to research epilepsy, but your mileage may still vary since i don't... actually have epilepsy myself...
special thanks to emi (@qijius) ... this fic would not be possible without her infinite kindness and wisdom. ;__;
>> FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @ FOXFLOWERING, I CRAVE THE CLOUT!!!!!! <<
Chapter 2: act II
First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you're very lucky and have said your prayers.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Between the months of August and December, Binghe sent Shen Yuan about thirty letters.
He’d gotten Shen Yuan’s new address from Yue Qingyuan after some brow-beating and crocodile tears — an apartment in Guangzhou which Shen Jiu had apparently chosen for him. Binghe scoped it out online. The building was nice and new and had the look of big-money development to it. It was conveniently located right across from the local hospital, which just so happened to be one of those enormous, city-sized super-hospitals. According to their website, they were internationally recognized for their contributions to the field of radiology.
Shen Yuan responded to each and every letter — at first. His letters were brief but kind, penned in an easygoing yet elegant script. How sweet of Binghe to remember his old teacher! Don’t you worry about me. Take your studies seriously, okay? Slowly, however, the responses dried up. Binghe would receive one letter back for every two. Then three. Then four, five. Binghe didn’t blame Shen Yuan. It was probably hard for Shen Yuan to keep up with the sheer volume of Binghe’s mail.
Binghe’s correspondence: Shen Laoshi, I miss you! Are you going to come back to teach at Cang Qiong?
Binghe’s correspondence: Shen Laoshi, I’ve been working on my relevé, just like you suggested. I’m trying for a high demi-pointe — do you have any tips?
Binghe, writing with a feverish hand: Shen Laoshi, I’m so much taller than Yingying now. I’m getting stronger, too. You should come back to see our class production of The Nutcracker. I’m the Nutcracker Prince. This goes without saying, but that’s the very best role.
Shen Yuan: I should hope you’re as dedicated to your studies as you are to this silly old teacher. Ha-ha. I’ve been thinking about going back to school and getting my degree. The local university has been looking for applicants for a future Dance Studies program… all theory, of course...
Binghe turned fifteen.
Shen Yuan did not come to see The Nutcracker.
Binghe went on dancing and went on growing. He grew taller than Ming Fan, taller than Yang Yixuan, joints extending, legs lengthening, bones aching, groaning their way through each and every growth spurt. He began to train with company auditions in mind, repeating and refining his evaluation solos until each motion and each musical cue was burned into both his body and mind.
He grew his hair out. He kept writing letters, hurtling towards sixteen with frightful speed.
Binghe’s correspondence: You know, if you do a web search on my name, you can see videos of my Student Gala performance. It’s the male variation from Paquita. Not to brag, Laoshi, but I actually placed first in the boy’s division. You should definitely check it out. I’d love to hear your thoughts? Like, what do you think I need to work on/improve? Is it my tendu? It might be my tendu, I don’t know. You’ve always had an eye for this stuff. I miss that. I miss you. When are you returning to Cang Qiong?
Binghe threw out the love letters crammed into his locker. He made the switch to online courses — as if he could be bothered to attend high school when the world of professional ballet was right around the corner. Rehearsals and auditions subsumed his life. He didn’t have as much time to pelt the largely radio-silent Shen Yuan with letters. He did, however, try to send at least one a month.
Binghe’s correspondence, hoping against hope: Yang Yixuan is aiming for Central Troupe, but then again, so am I. It’s possible they’ll accept us both, but let’s not delude ourselves — what are the odds? We’ve always been friendly, but there’s iron behind it now. There’s grit. I see him in the locker room, and I can tell we’re both thinking the same thing: “You’re my friend and my peer, but by God. If it’s between you and me, let it be me.”
Binghe’s correspondence: You better hurry up, Laoshi, or by the time you get back, I won’t even be a student anymore! Unless that’s the idea? You want to see me as a man?
Binghe’s correspondence: Hey, Laoshi, I’ve been wondering. Are you shy? Are... you embarrassed that I’ve seen you cry? It’s okay, Laoshi. You don’t need to think about that. You’ve seen me cry too. We are equal in this respect. Moving on, I’ve been taking lessons from a Vaganova-trained teacher. Still, I miss your lessons. Shen Laoshi is the superior tutor. When will I see you again?
Shen Yuan responded rarely, and when he did, it was just a few words scrawled on the back of a generic postcard.
Shen Yuan’s correspondence, printed in neat, passionless characters: Great work! Keep it up!
What else could Binghe do?
He kept it up. He turned sixteen. He churned through the painful process of growing up. Night classes, auditions, performances, rehearsals, nutritionists, trainers.
He was accepted into the National Ballet of China in the week before he turned seventeen. Junior soloist.
Shen Yuan’s last postcard: Central Troupe, huh? So you’ll be dancing with my brother. A blessing and a curse, right? Haha. Congratulations, Binghe. Keep moving forwards, Binghe! This is everything you’ve worked for!
Everything you worked for, Binghe thought, his heart gripped with emotion. He put the postcard up on his fridge.
The postcard was a print of one of Degas’ ballerina studies. This particular ballerina had red hair and was wearing a blue ribbon around her waist. She was wearing a big, downy French tutu. Very chic. She was looking down at her feet, hands resting on the small of her back. She looked pretty tired. Defeated.
Binghe, by then, hadn’t seen Shen Yuan in over two years. He didn’t think about him as often, but he didn’t fall in love again, either. In some crazed part of his heart, he’d already reached the conclusion that he would never, ever feel anything as meaningful as the love he’d felt as a child.
He turned eighteen. He fought for his flowers. He became famous enough to show up in the tabloids. He manufactured gossip, relationships, small-talk, whole sit-down interviews.
He watched his mom get sick in a little white room. He brought her flowers. He brought her sugared roses. Then, the very best doctors in China. Experts in ontology, pathology, gastroenterology, radiology.
He performed in Swan Lake . He performed in Giselle. He performed in Apollo. He sat down at his mother’s bedside, playing her taped performances on an ancient wheel-in TV. He watched her grow tired, grow weak; die pale and faded.
He wrote Shen Laoshi.
The years melted on like butter in a saucepan. He watched the blood and marrow of life run off the side of his cup...
He had the world in his hands.
He was truly, soundly alone.
Curtains up in twenty minutes. Costumes, makeup, last-minute stretches. Everyone darting this way and that — PAs, MUAs, producers with their austere suits and fat wallets. Girls from the corps de ballet slipping in and out of the bunker-like changing room, trading beat-up sneakers for ruby-red pointe shoes.
Twenty minutes, people!
A mousy little lady bustled up into Luo Binghe’s personal space. She was brandishing a little black clamshell of press powder.
“Just a touch up,” she said. “Just a touch, okay? Close your eyes.”
Luo Binghe, now twenty, closed his eyes.
All this primping and pampering and fussing. Always with the fussing. Well, not that he could blame them. It was an important night. The kind of night that warranted some fuss.
More specifically, it was the night of the National Ballet of China’s annual Summer Gala.
The Summer Gala, unlike Central Troupe’s other shows, was not open to the general public. It was an invitation-only affair — black-tie, highly exclusive. Invitations were, of course, distributed to only the National Ballet’s most affluent patrons and donors. As such, the Summer Gala was one of the most prestigious high-society events in China. Just managing to secure a ticket was a stratospheric show of wealth and power.
Instead of a single ballet, The Summer Gala was comprised of multiple showpieces pulled from other ballets. Usually, the performances were picked to follow some sort of loose overarching theme. The theme for this year’s gala was Red Velvet. The focus was on lavish, opulent dances — with each and every dancer costumed in some shade of brilliant red.
Shen Jiu was slated to perform a sinuous, technically-challenging number from Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Sha Hualing and Yang Yixuan were set to dance the Rubies pas de deux from Balanchine's Jewels. Liu Mingyan had something from Marguerite and Armand cooked up. Something involving a great, big billowing skirt that resembled the bloom of a red camellia. Daring stuff.
Luo Binghe would be performing an all-new solo — one created by Central Troupe’s in-house choreographer, Qi Qingqi. It was a pulse-pounding, acrobatic affair set to Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird .
It also happened to be brilliant. Luo Binghe was truly honoured to debut such an inventive new routine.
Performing it would also very likely net him a promotion.
I’ve been first soloist for over a year now. It’s only natural that I progress to principal. I’m the obvious candidate. My name brings the crowds in.
The makeup girl went off to bother someone else. Another girl came scurrying in. She had blonde highlights and purple acrylic nails. Tacky.
She helped Luo Binghe into his costume, treating its complex layers of interlocking fabric with appropriate reverence. It was a beautiful costume. Tasteful red and black — Luo Binghe’s signature colours — with a deep-cut neckline and wide, flowing sleeves. Somewhat evocative of traditional Chinese dress, really. In keeping with the theme, tights had been swapped out for a pair of close-cut pants.
“Um! Good luck today, Luo Binghe,” the costume girl said. “I’ll be cheering for you from backstage, okay? You’re — you’re seriously amazing, you know that? I saw your Swan Lake performance from last season online, and I just… I died, I absolutely died...”
She went on rambling as she tightened his sash. Binghe lifted a brow, bemused.
Ah. So, the new costumier was a fangirl. Or… what was it they were calling themselves online? His ‘harem?’ She was a harem member.
“Thank you. I’m truly touched.”
“Um, if you don’t mind — can we take a selfie? Just for my Weibo? But — but it’s totally okay if you don’t want to, no pressure, I’m not one of those stalker fans, haha.. um, I was just thinking —”
“I’d love to take a photo.”
The costume department girl went bright red.
“Oh! Okay, then! Here, let me just —”
She huddled in close, fumbling for her smartphone. Binghe put a peace sign up. The costume girl was all but vibrating with nerves. Binghe could smell the stale, clammy sweat beneath her vanilla bourbon perfume.
He was quietly repulsed.
The photo snapped soundlessly. Little miss vanilla bourbon clutched her phone to her chest. She thanked him profusely, then bustled off.
There was thirty minutes left until Luo Binghe's stage cue. That left Luo Binghe with some spare time to mill about alone backstage. So he did. Yang Yixuan was doing stretches on his own, his headphones in. Sha Hualing, all dolled up in jaunty red spandex, was tapping at her phone. Qi Qingqi, the choreographer, was grilling a chorus girl relentlessly. The chorus girl was near tears.
Luo Binghe practiced his battements until he got bored. That shaved off about two minutes overall. So he went hunting for some entertainment.
He didn't have to go far.
The door to Shen Jiu's dressing room had been left ajar, leaving Luo Binghe with an open sightline to the man inside.
Shen Jiu was sitting at a very tidy mirrored vanity. His long legs were crossed and demurely tucked beneath the glazed-wood table. There was a good deal of character in that vanity table. For one, Shen Jiu didn’t keep any photographs pinned to the mirror. He didn’t keep anything pinned to the mirror. No congratulatory cards, no hand-written love letters, no sycophantic fanmail, no ragged playbills. There wasn’t much of anything on that table, not even makeup. Why should I supply my own makeup? We have people for that. Professionals.
He did keep his perfume stored there, though. With a voyeur’s intensity, Luo Binghe watched as Shen Jiu lifted a black, geometrically-shaped bottle of scent. Shen Jiu’s touch was careful, even reverent as he undid the stopper, his fingers curling tentatively around the atomizing pump.
After a moment’s deliberation, Shen Jiu sprayed both wrists. Then his inner elbows. His neck. His hairline.
By now, Binghe was familiar with Shen Jiu’s signature scent: Nombre Noir by Shiseido. An out-of print vintage; Gothic and sexy, damasceneous. On a whim, Luo Binghe had once done a web search of the price. An unopened bottle of the parfum cost more than two months of his rent. That was really saying something, considering the fact that Luo Binghe’s apartment was actually quite nice.
… Luo Binghe didn’t hold a very high opinion of Shen Jiu. This was, after all, the very same man who’d slapped Binghe in the face as a boy. So, Luo Binghe wished he could believe that Shen Jiu — the evil seductress, the wicked Odile — had bought the perfume himself as some kind of ego-serving show of wealth. That said, Luo Binghe couldn’t actually believe that was the case. Shen Jiu used it much too sparingly, much too carefully. He actually treated the stuff with a kind of miserly prudence, as if each and every drop was inestimably precious.
That left a much more likely alternative: Nombre Noir had been a gift from Yue Qingyuan. Shen Jiu’s on-and-off-again paramour.
Luo Binghe stared at Shen Jiu through the partition for another ten, twenty seconds. Then he realized that he didn't have to stare, didn't have to play the voyeur. He could get as close as he damn well pleased.
So Luo Binghe went up to the dressing room door, opened it, and positioned himself in the center of the doorframe, cheerfully obstructing Shen Jiu's sole possible escape route.
"That's an interesting costume, Shen-qianbei," Luo Binghe said.
Shen Jiu's costume for the night was a candy-red qipao, though the qipao had been modified to make it more danceable. The fabric, for one, was not silk. Instead, the qipao was constructed out of a thin, form-fitting cotton/spandex blend. It stretched quite pleasingly over Shen Jiu's dance-honed body.
Shen Jiu remained silent. He kept his eyes trained on the mirror, fussing with his bobby-pinned hair. He seemed to be trying very hard not to react to Luo Binghe's presence. Not a bad strategy.
“I hear you’re performing with a dancer on loan from Hong Kong Ballet,” Luo Binghe went on, pleasant as a peach. “An intriguing partnership.”
Shen Jiu harrumphed, but he didn’t say anything.
Luo Binghe adjusted his strategy: “How’s your knee?”
“... I’m fine.”
A hit! Luo Binghe smiled, taking a relaxed, yawning stance against the door jamb.
“You sure about that, Shen-qianbei? I heard you suffered a nasty fall just last week. You were practicing toss-lifts, right? Those can certainly be perilous.”
“What are you trying to imply? That I'm in no condition to dance?”
“Not at all,” Luo Binghe said, who had been implying exactly that. “I’m just glad to see you’ve recovered.”
Shen Jiu tugged the vanity drawers open. He reached inside and pulled out a small box — it was small and thick, bible-sized. He opened it up with his cool, white hands. The inside of the box was black and velvety, marked by a wide, octagonal depression. The perfume’s casing, Luo Binghe realized. With great care, Shen Jiu tucked the bottle back inside. He closed the box, stashing it deep within his otherwise empty vanity.
“Hmph. I don’t break so easily.”
“Oh, of course not,” Luo Binghe deferred. “You’re ironclad, Shen-qianbei.”
“... Quit that.”
“Making that ridiculous face.”
“Ridiculous face? I’m smiling.”
“You’re grinning like a loon,” Shen Jiu snapped. He turned his face away from the mirror, confronting Binghe head-on. Luo Binghe met his eyes. Shen Jiu’s stage makeup sharpened his face into a small, shrill mask. His narrow eyes curved like hooks.
“So what?” Luo Binghe asked, his tone calculatedly bemused. “People smile when they’re happy, Shen-qianbei. I’m happy.”
“You’re unsightly, that’s what.”
“Cry about it,” Shen Jiu said, resting his elbow on the table. “And seriously, wipe that stupid grin off your face. It's nauseating, really. I mean, what do you have to be so smug about?”
“Oh, this and that.”
You’re bitch and a joke and a crumbling product. You think I don’t notice? You’re injured every other month. You rely on physio and acupuncture and specialty massages just to haul your broken body onstage. You weren’t careful with your body when you were still young, huh, Shen-qianbei? And yet you dared to look down on your poor brother. Hypocrite.
Luo Binghe’s eyes slid to the vanity table. He thought back to that little bottle of Nombre Noir, now safely tucked out of sight. That perfume was a token of affection from Shen Jiu's pathetic dog of a lover, right? A pricey token at that. Yue Qingyuan certainly made good money as the director and chairman of Cang Qiong, didn’t he?
Was Shen Jiu the type of whore that slept around for lavish gifts? It made a perverse kind of sense. The roles of dancer and courtesan were historically linked, after all.
Luo Binghe went on smiling.
Voice warmed by the sweet, buttery top-notes of schadenfreude, he said, “I have a good feeling about tonight’s gala. The orchestra played beautifully during rehearsals, don’t you think?”
“... I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Just then, Luo Binghe felt a tap on his shoulder. He frowned, shifting in the doorway to throw a glance behind. Another lady, this time in a black headset, was staring up with him. Her eyes were huge and bulging and liquid.
“You’re on in five. Positions, please.”
“Of course,” Luo Binghe said. He looked back to Shen Jiu, who was sitting about stiffly as an ice sculpture at that little vanity table of his. “Duty calls, right?”
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck, Shen-qianbei?”
“Just go before Qi Qingqi drags you out by the ear, you goddamn beast.”
“That’s theater banter for you,” Luo Binghe assured the woman in the headset. “Our Shen-qianbei is such a kidder. Such a clown. He’s great, right?”
The lady in the headset nodded uncertainly, then disappeared around the corner. Shen Jiu’s eyes narrowed.
“Will I see you at the afterparty, Shen Jiu?” Luo Binghe asked, bracing one hand against the doorframe. “I hear your little sweetheart’s gonna be there, dining and wining, greasing up the pockets of would-be patrons. He’s a real high society darling, right? He’s got — what’s the expression I’m thinking of? He’s got social graces.”
Shen Jiu clammed up. He turned back towards the mirror, his expression tight with anger.
“Yeah,” Luo Binghe said. “Yeah, I’ll see you there.”
Luo Binghe turned out the door, light on his heels. Fire-red sash twinkling dreamily beneath the hot, bare lights.
In the ballet world, Shen Jiu had a nickname. The snake among roses. The asp of Beijing.
The moniker was, on its surface, a reference to Shen Jiu’s signature style of dance. Shen Jiu’s style was slinky and fluid, sensuous, look-at-me-gorgeous, always flirting at the edge of risk. Serpentine.
That said, there was a second metaphor swimming just beneath the skin. One for the dedicated balletomanes. It was a reference to Gamzatti, the evil princess from La Bayadere. Gamzatti killed her love rival, the pure and spiritual Nikiya, by hiding a venomous snake in a basket of flowers.
A poison princess. Woefully spoilt, selfish in love. Throwing a tantrum.
Luo Binghe had a nickname too. He’d earned it in his first year as a soloist — racing up the ranks, devouring the competition.
The demon king.
Posed onstage, Luo Binghe heard the soft, shushing sound of the curtain rising off the stage floor. The music hovered, strings taut and quivering, shivering in the air, the anticipation so electric, so vertiginous, so delicious —
The music fell.
The crowd was so dark and so vast, Luo Binghe couldn’t make out a single face. Still, Binghe tried to focus on them. This strange, black mass… faces without features bobbing and swaying, packed like sardines in their velvet chaises… surrounded by paisleys and angels and elegant canapés...
These were rich folks, Binghe remembered with a start. Rich folks who didn’t even like ballet. Rich folks who just wanted to be seen at the all-exclusive Summer Gala, dressed to the nines in their finest frocks. Deliriously, stupidly, unconscionably rich folks.
Well, Luo Binghe thought. Let’s give them something to write home about, hm?
He felt the stretch in his legs. He felt the rising beneath his breastbone; the music filling him up. The strings squealed like a stuck animal. His cue! His point of attack!
He burst into motion, a beast for blood.
After Luo Binghe had taken his bows and collected his flowers, he instantly fled to the locker rooms to take a shower. He scrubbed himself down, removed his stage makeup. He wrapped a towel around his waist, making his way unashamedly to his dressing room.
He could hear Franz Liszt’s score rumbling throughout the backstage areas. The gala was on its third performance, then. Shen Jiu’s number.
Onstage, Shen Jiu was surely winding his way around that Hong Kong dancer. Batting his lashes, hooking his legs, preening like a peacock. Probably making Yue Qingyuan green with envy. Poor sucker.
Luo Binghe checked his phone while he towelled off his hair. He had sixteen missed texts, all from that idol girl he'd been playing around with. She missed him, reportedly. Loved him, wanted him, etc. She was begging to know when they'd see one another again.
Suckers all around, Binghe mused.
He went ahead and blocked her number.
He didn't feel too bad about it all. The news of their 'breakup' would give both of their careers a boost. She could even probably launch her next record off of the press.
Honestly, she should feel grateful that he even gave her the time of day.
Luo Binghe changed into a fresh outfit: a white oxford (Versace) and a pair of dark, woolen trousers (Valentino.) He filled a spare vase with tap water and dumped the roses inside. He looked at them, wet and red and smelling of their stems. He didn’t like roses very much. He wished he could just trash them.
That’s what Shen Jiu would do. He’d throw them right into the garbage, unapologetic, unafraid of retribution.
But Binghe didn’t want people to think he was like Shen Jiu.
Binghe wanted to be liked.
Luo Binghe stepped out of his dressing room, glancing about the backstage mess. Costumes flying about. Assistants and producers whispering frantically into headsets. Dancers darting this way and that. Men in black maneuvering props. Binghe wandered through, ducking down past the scaffolding and wires.
Someone in the wings whispered: “Did you see him dance?”
“His elevation is insane.”
“You didn’t hear this from me, but they’re definitely promoting him to principal.”
“Oh my God.”
“I hate him.”
Jealousy is a disease, Binghe thought, feeling rather cheerful about it.
As applause began to rumble through the backstage area, Luo Binghe made his way towards the exit. Shen Jiu’s number was the last before intermission — and intermission meant punch. Punch and fancy hors d’oeuvres and plenty of diamond-studded ladies to schmooze with.
The National Ballet of China’s main foyer was suitably grand. The marble flooring was faintly pearlescent; white nacre winking ever slightly beneath the light of the chandelier. Statuary decorated the far sides of the room, giving it an oh-so-necessary character of classical snobbery.
The gentry were slowly milling out of the theater and into the foyer. Waiters roamed the room carrying caviar, quail eggs and martinis. Binghe flagged one down, taking a drink. The gin was smooth and almost devoid of bitterness. Lemon bitters gave the cocktail a mouth-smacking hint of tartness. Lovely.
Luo Binghe wandered towards the bar, waiting to be noticed. It didn’t take long. Soon, a swarm of enormous evening dresses was descending upon him. Some of them even contained women.
“Good God, you were amazing out there —”
“I could never move that way, not in a hundred years.”
“I was in awe, Luo Binghe, I was in absolute awe.”
“You’re too kind, ladies,” Luo Binghe said, affecting a sheepish smile. “I’m just glad Central Troupe was willing to give me a chance.”
“You’re too modest! You know, my youngest daughter is obsessed with you. Seriously, there are posters of your face tacked up all over her bedroom walls. She threw such a fit when I told her she couldn’t come tonight — but you must understand, such events aren’t meant for disruptive little children.”
“And your physique, wo de tian…”
“... Mn. I shall be following your career with great interest, Mr. Luo.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes slowed over the last woman. She was sharp-eyed, almost stifling in her air of businesslike rigeur. Blue dress, black eyes. Binghe recognized her all but instantly. She was the recently-appointed editor-in-chief of Vogue China.
Well, well. A most intriguing turn of events. What could Luo Binghe accomplish with such a connection?
“And I yours, Ms. Chen.”
“Familiar with my work?”
“I try to keep up,” Binghe said, setting his drink down by the lip of a nearby fountain.
“How novel,” she said. Her voice was dry, even a little droll, but she was smiling.
Luo Binghe took the editor’s hand in his own. She was wearing an immaculate set of midnight blue opera gloves; her wedding ring lay just overtop, a cluster of lucent rubies and diamonds. Binghe leaned down to kiss her ring, eyes up —
From the corner of his eye, Luo Binghe caught the ripple of black hair.
… Shen Jiu?
Luo Binghe straightened up abruptly, eyes flashing over the crowd. That…
That had been Shen Jiu, right? It had certainly looked like Shen Jiu. But… that didn’t make any sense. Shen Jiu had just taken his curtain call. He was almost certainly showering — or, at the very least, extricating himself from that absurd qipao.
“Luo Binghe?” Ms. Chen waved a hand over Binghe’s eyes. “Is something the matter?”
Was something the matter?
“It’s nothing,” Luo Binghe reassured her, hastily hitching up a smile. “I’ve just seen a friend, that’s all. If you’d just excuse me for a moment — we’ll, ah, we’ll speak later tonight."
"Oh, but Mr. Luo —"
Luo Binghe ignored her.
Something had lodged itself at the back of his mind; some kernel of hope, of budding awareness. Binghe shouldered through the crowd. Someone shouted his name. He tuned it out. Another worthless sycophant, no doubt.
Where was it that he’d seen Shen Jiu? Near the fountain? The champagne? Luo Binghe glanced about the room, frenzied. Black dress, red dress. Blue suit, grey suit. Where was he?
The air smelled noxiously of fifty intermingling perfumes: vanilla bean, bergamot, anemone, leatherwood, sugared canelé, peppermint. But where was the sting of damask?
Chasing a Shen-shaped shadow, Binghe turned towards the dessert table. Passionberry cheesecakes, croque-en-bouche, tres leches topped with delirious swirls of whipped cream and honeyglaze —
There! Several feet ahead, separated from Luo Binghe by a human ocean of theatergoers, there was a slim-shouldered back. Green blazer. Liquid black hair done up in an elegant twist. A pale, swanlike neck.
“Shen Jiu?” Luo Binghe called out. Then, with a jolt of intense feeling that could only be described as mania, “Shen Laoshi? Shen — Shen Yuan?”
The figure startled, stirred.
Shen Yuan turned around. And yes, it was Shen Yuan, not Shen Jiu. The difference was subtle, yet so obvious to the well-trained eye. There was a softness to his mouth. A fullness to his eyes.
Binghe's heart woke to the sight of him.
The years had not touched Shen Yuan. They had not marred him. He stood there, a face amongst the crowd. Brows furrowed, maybe a little vexed. Probably wondering who was calling his name.
Like a horse bucking free of its paddock, Binghe began to stumble forward.
“Shen Yuan!” Binghe shouted over the crowd. “It’s me — it’s Binghe!”
Shen Yuan’s eyes rounded, focus snapping to Binghe.
“... Luo Binghe?”
Binghe scrambled through the crowd, jostling husbands and wives and waiters.
For a long moment, Shen Yuan just stood there, looking for all the world like a deer in the headlights. Frozen. Transfixed. Then, very slowly, he began to move towards Binghe. Poured towards him, really. That's how gracefully he moved.
A living tone poem.
They reached one another: two fools in a crowded room. Binghe, thunderstruck with awe and longing. Shen Yuan, his expression unreadable.
For a long moment, they just looked at one another. Binghe realized that he actually had to look down at Shen Yuan now — he was a whole head taller now.
“You recognize me?” Shen Yuan asked.
“Of course I do!” he rushed to say. “Shen Yuan, I can’t believe it’s you!”
“... Time flies, Luo Binghe.”
"God, does it ever," Binghe said. "But you haven't aged a day, Laoshi!"
"I wish I could say the same for you," Shen Yuan sighed. His eyes roved up and down Binghe's body, his expression nothing short of aghast. "When did you get so… so...”
“So handsome? So grown-up?”
Binghe laughed out loud, giddy with delight.
"Six — six-two? That’s too tall. That’s far too tall,” Shen Yuan said. His hand began to creep towards his blazer pocket — and then, snap! He withdrew a beautiful hand fan, fluttering it before his face. “Oh, God. What's become of my little white lamb?"
"He's still right here, Laoshi!"
“... Is he? Is he really?”
“He is,” Binghe said, empathic, urgent. "It's so, so good to see you! I've missed you terribly — we all have. God, just wait until you see Sha Hualing and Yang Yixuan, they'll lose their heads —"
Shen Yuan's smile was highly tentative.
"... Please don't make a fuss."
"You're worth the fuss," Binghe said. "Shen Laoshi, what are you doing here? In Beijing? I — I thought you were in Guangzhou!”
Shen Yuan began to flap his fan a little harder.
“Er — Huan Hua University needed an extra pair of hands in the Dance department. I thought it’d be a good opportunity?"
“You’re still teaching?”
“Well, yes. But only in the classroom,” Shen Yuan said. “Dance history, dance theory. That sort of thing.”
Not teaching in the studio, then. That certainly warranted some future investigation.
“What about tonight?" Binghe pressed him. "Did Shen Jiu invite you?”
“Oh. Not quite,” Shen Yuan said. “Yue Qingyuan invited me. I was curious as to how well the orchestra would perform that Stravinsky number — he had a spare ticket.”
"And how did they perform?"
“Well enough, though the brass section may wish to shuffle their seats. That said, I was sincerely impressed with the violinist in first chair.”
Luo Binghe didn’t give a shit about the violinist in first chair. He didn’t give a shit about the brass section. The woodwinds, the percussion. The violas. He didn’t give a shit about the orchestra. The orchestra could hang themselves. What did they matter? What did any of it matter?
That impeccable posture! That milky-quartz complexion!
Shen Laoshi was in front of him! After so many years!
All of a sudden, Binghe felt like he was coming alive again — like his body was waking up from some long, dreamless slumber. His boyhood love began to rouse its sleepy head. Like it’d been waiting, waiting all this time.
Five years, Binghe thought. Five long years, and I haven’t moved on at all, have I?
The situation was, objectively, quite pathetic. A textbook case of arrested development.
Still, Binghe was happy. He was so happy, he could’ve screamed.
He felt restless, feverish. His ears were ringing. His brain began to fog. Shen Yuan’s lips were moving; the rich tone of his voice bouncing around in Binghe’s ears. He was moving towards the hors d’oeuvres, fan gliding through the crowd. Binghe went with him. He was staring at Shen Yuan’s legs as they walked (as much as he could without crawling beside him on the ground — a thought that crossed his mind). Shen Yuan’s legs were every bit as sweet and slender as Binghe had ever remembered. He wished he could get down on all fours and kiss them, ankle to thigh.
Shen Yuan took one of the little aperitif dishes. He eyed the available spread: duck confit, stuffed mushrooms, black caviar, shrimp canapes. He ended up carving off a tiny slice of terrine.
"You know, you really don't have to hang around me all evening," Shen Yuan said. His tone of voice was neither cold nor warm. "I'm sure there are a bevy of guests desperate for your attention."
"Let them be desperate. It’s Laoshi I wish to speak with," Binghe insisted. Then, with a jolt of excitement, "What did you think about the performances?"
“The performances..?” Shen Yuan paused, gathering his thoughts. “I — well. For one, that Pei Ming has a very curious physicality. He’s surprisingly slinky for his size. Sleazy, even. He’s on loan from the Hong Kong ballet, yes?”
“Yes, Laoshi,” Binghe said. Then: “Was it embarrassing? Watching your brother perform such a suggestive pas de deux?”
“A little? I don’t know. I try not to be too prudish about it. He’s a professional; he’s just doing his job up there. Yue Qingyuan reacted very strangely, however…”
“Is that so.”
“He was sitting there with his arms crossed, face all red… I’m not sure why. Maybe he was embarrassed. He’s such a proper gentleman, I wouldn’t be surprised. I feel like he’s the sort of person to fast-forward through sex scenes in movies… oh, dear. Don’t tell him I said that.”
Shen Yuan cut a sliver off from his terrine, lifting it to his mouth for a taste. His lips were soft and pink; his coughdrop-coloured tongue was wet and dark and inviting.
Luo Binghe wanted to throw him down onto the floor and eat him alive.
“What about me, Laoshi?” Binghe asked. Shen Yuan swallowed, his eyes huge.
“You saw me dance. Surely you had thoughts.”
“I…” Shen Yuan looked down at his plate. “I thought you were frightening.”
“Frightening?” Binghe echoed. He digested that for a moment, then said, “Frighteningly skilled, you mean?”
“... Of course.”
At this scant morsel of praise, Binghe beamed.
“I take pride in my technique. I learned from the very best, after all,” Binghe said. Then, brightening, “However, if Shen Laoshi wishes to scold me and correct my form, I’d be more than happy to —”
“No, no!” Shen Yuan shook his head. “I’m not your teacher anymore. I don’t have any such right.”
“Shen Laoshi is Shen Laoshi,” Binghe argued. “Your guidance is forever welcome.”
Shen Yuan was beginning to look uneasy. He set his little dish back down onto the table, his slice of terrine mostly uneaten. His eyes began to trip over Binghe’s shoulder, scanning over the velvet-clad crowd. Even Binghe could tell that he was looking for a point of egress; an escape back into the throng.
“Perhaps we can save the scolding for later tonight," Binghe said, laying the charm on thick. "Over a glass of wine. At my place.”
“I have a loft near the theater. I think you’ll like it, Laoshi — I’ve been compiling a private library. A good place for a long conversation, don’t you think?”
“What? A long conversation?”
“As long as you’ll permit,” Binghe said earnestly. He blocked Shen Yuan’s body with his own, reaching out to seize Shen Yuan’s hands. Shen Yuan’s hands were anemically pale, almost white. His fingernails were a soft and lustrous shade of pink. They reminded Binghe of the pearly insides of freshwater clams — an observation he found strangely moving, strangely breathtaking. “Shen Laoshi, there’s so much I want to tell you. The years have been so long, so alienating —”
"No, wait, back up. Why are we going to your place?”
" — and I feel like I'm losing my mind. Like everything I've ever done has led me to this moment, here with you."
Shen Yuan gently pried his hands out of Binghe’s grip.
"Binghe, you were always a dramatic child… but this goes beyond the pale, don't you think?"
“I’m not being dramatic.”
“Yes, you are. And people are staring.”
“Let them stare,” Binghe said.
Shen Yuan began to shift away, “Look, maybe I should get going —”
“We should both get going,” Binghe said rather rapturously. “Together. What do you think? Let’s get out of here, Laoshi. We can slip out now, call a cab, head back to my place —”
“A cab?” Shen Yuan echoed, a little incredulous. “Binghe, I think it’s very sweet that you want to catch up, but this is unreasonable. I can’t just leave! Neither can you, for that matter! Intermission ends in five minutes. You’ll be expected for curtain calls —”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Shen Yuan bonked Binghe over the head with his fan. It didn’t hurt, but it was kind of surprising.
“Of course it matters! These tickets aren’t easy to come by, you know! I’d very much like to see the performances through. I haven’t even seen the Balanchine number, not to mention the latest Wei Wuxian short —”
“But…” Binghe touched the crown of his head, right where Shen Yuan’s fan had landed. “I just… I just don’t want to lose you again…”
Shen Yuan’s stern expression faltered, then softened.
“... If you say it like that, someone might get the wrong idea.”
“So long as Laoshi understands, I don’t care.”
“I'm not your Laoshi anymore,” Shen Yuan reminded him. At Binghe’s crestfallen expression, however, he began to panic. “Ah — don’t cry, don’t cry! You’ll see me again, alright?”
“Yes, I promise,” Shen Yuan said.
Shen Yuan laughed very gently.
“I think I’ll head home after the gala,” he said. “But… I don’t know if this works for you, but Yue Qingyuan is hosting a dinner party in a few days. He told me I could bring a plus one.”
“A dinner party?” Binghe frowned.
“It’s just a little get-together, really. Cheese and wine, that sort of thing. You like cheese?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Yue Qingyuan makes a mean baked brie.”
“Does he really?”
“He pairs it with crushed pecans and apricot jam.”
“That sounds delicious.”
For you, I’d eat cardboard.
“It is,” Shen Yuan said. “Here, hand me your phone. I’ll punch the details into your calendar. I mean, provided that you’re interested?”
“If it means seeing you, I am,” Binghe said. He reached into his pocket for his smartphone, handing it over to Shen Yuan dutifully. Shen Yuan wasted no time in pulling up his calendar app, fingers flying to jot down the time and place.
“Jiu-ge will probably kill me for this,” Shen Yuan admitted. “Still, I’d love to see you there. I attend these things out of politeness, but I never have anyone to talk to. It’s usually just a bunch of Yue Qingyuan’s industry friends… committee staff, producers, financiers. You could probably do some networking, if you wanted.”
“I only wish to spend an evening in Shen Laoshi’s presence.”
Shen Yuan laughed.
“What a corny line.”
“I’m being sincere.”
“I’m sure you are,” Shen Yuan said. He began throwing backward glances towards the theater door. The crowd was slowly but steadily milling back towards their seats, abandoning their gin and truffles.
“Should I bring a dish?” Binghe asked. “To the party, I mean.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But I can?”
“If you like,” Shen Yuan demurred.
“I’ll make one of your old favourites.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to remember them.”
“But I do,” Binghe said. “You like your congee plain and fluffy — just a little salt, a little vinegar, some pan-seared tofu and fresh greens. You like your noodles undercooked. You like your curry extra mild. You avoid garlic, coconut, cayenne pepper and chili oil. You love cake of all kinds, but your favourites are —”
“That’s enough!” Shen Yuan threw his fan up over his expression, his eyes wide, mortified. “You seriously remember all that?”
“How could I forget?”
“Well, that’s…” Shen Yuan lingered in place, clearly rifling for words. His eyes pinged back and forth between Luo Binghe and the theater door. Inside, the lights were beginning to dim.
“I think I’ll head back into the theater,” Shen Yuan said, apropos of nothing. “Yue Qingyuan will be missing me.”
“Ah,” Binghe said. He masked his disappointment with a camera-ready smile. “I’ll be missing you too.”
“You know, your silver tongue is wasted on an old man like me.”
“Shen Laoshi isn’t an old man.”
“Shen Laoshi feels like an old man,” Shen Yuan smiled, but it was a strange and painful sort of smile. “All banged-up.”
“You don’t look banged-up.”
“How do I look?”
“Beautiful,” Binghe said, and he meant it.
Binghe waited for Shen Yuan to respond. He did not. Instead, Shen Yuan slowly slid his fan shut. His expression was a little remote, a little distant. A little mysterious, too — like he was trapped in some impenetrable maze of thought. It was a complicated expression. To Binghe, it also just so happened to be irresistible.
Shen Yuan looked at Binghe. He looked at Binghe for a long, long time. Binghe looked back. He was doing the hard, busy work of interpreting Shen Yuan’s uninterpretable mien: hesitation, loneliness, wistfulness, regret… and then, for the first time that night, he noticed that Shen Yuan hadn’t escaped the past five years completely unscathed. The changes were subtle — but they were there, hiding beneath the yellow-wash lamplight. There was a slight downwards tug to his lips. His thighs were a little softer, less athletic. Beneath his green eyes, there were a number of pale, spidery lines.
There wasn’t anything special about these lines. They weren’t ugly, or scary, or even very pronounced. They were just ordinary wrinkles. The wrinkles of someone who was quickly approaching thirty.
Proof of time. Of age.
“If it’s beauty you want,” Shen Yuan finally burred, his voice dulcimer-soft. “Go find my brother, not me.” He inclined his head, lashes low. “Goodnight, Luo Binghe.”
“... Shen Laoshi?”
Shen Yuan pulled away. He slipped back into the crowd. Binghe stood there, still as a statue, completely helpless as he watched Shen Yuan’s green blazer sift further and further into the human ocean — before disappearing entirely into the cold, dark theater.
Binghe stood there until all the guests were gone. He braced both hands against the nearest table, mind reeling. From deep within the theater, he could hear the orchestra resuming. They were playing that Ludwig Minkus moderato Binghe loved so much. First, that lovely, plucking harp; then, the full swell of strings.
Binge closed his eyes.
Five years, and he was the same needy child clinging to his teacher’s coat.
I love him, he thought. Five years, and I still love him.
By Luo Binghe’s count, there were about four performances left. Then, speeches from Qi Qingqi, Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji. Curtain calls. Final bows. Then, all those trust-fund dipshits would head back out into the vestibule and get drunk out of their minds. Probably.
Luo Binghe went back the way he came, spiralling up the staircase until he reached the backstage entrance. Everyone was still running around like a bunch of headless chickens, but Binghe didn’t even slightly feel their urgency. He actually felt pretty tired. His post-performance high had worn off, along with the adrenaline rush of seeing Shen Yuan again. His muscles were aching. He was also becoming increasingly aware of his empty belly. He felt a keen desire for a hot meal, a bath, and a good night’s sleep.
Emotionally, he mostly felt overwhelmed. He kept turning over the evening’s events in his mind: Shen Yuan’s sad smile, his little half-hearted bites of forcemeat terrine, his invitation. I thought you were frightening. Frightening. That was praise, right? Right?
After all, how could Binghe be frightening? He was Shen Yuan’s little white lamb, wasn’t he?
Backstage, Shen Jiu was sitting at his vanity again. He was carefully wringing his wet hair out, twisting it around his wrist in order to squeeze out the excess water. Makeup-free, he looked both older and lovelier. He was wearing a deep green halter top, a pair of cigarette pants, and a pair of tasteful kitten heels that gave him an androgynous allure.
Luo Binghe stood outside the door. It was amazing how much Shen Jiu looked like his brother — and how much he didn’t. Shen Jiu’s nose was very straight. Shen Yuan’s was a little upturned, almost elfin. Shen Jiu’s brows were sharp and angular. Shen Yuan’s were soft and rounded.
… Did Shen Jiu even know that Shen Yuan was in the crowd tonight? Shen Yuan’s ticket had come from Yue Qingyuan, not Shen Jiu. Shen Yuan hadn’t expressed any interest in heading backstage, either. Could it be that Shen Yuan’s attendance wasn’t Jiu-ge sanctioned? Why not? If Luo Binghe had any siblings to speak of, he’d definitely want them to see his dances.
Shen Jiu turned his head, clearly annoyed by Luo Binghe’s staring.
“Just gonna stand there all night?” he asked.
“No,” Binghe said. He couldn’t think of a witty repartee. He could only tell the truth. “... I was just thinking about the day we met, Shen-qianbei. In that bookstore. Do you remember that?”
“I don’t,” Shen Jiu said, reaching for his hairbrush.
A predictable response.
“You were wearing your high-heeled boots and reading a magazine,” Luo Binghe said. “You weren’t very kind to me, but you helped me pick out a gift. You really don’t remember?”
“Why should I remember such an unimportant occasion?”
“It was important to me,” Luo Binghe said.
“That’s none of my concern.”
“You were wearing a fancy shirt with a surplice neckline,” Luo Binghe recalled. “Come to think of it, why were you dressed like that at a bookstore? Were you waiting for a date?”
“A date? Preposterous,” Shen Jiu said. He turned back towards the mirror and began brushing out his long, black hair. “Don’t waste your time thinking about such stupid things.”
Luo Binghe drifted on.
His own dressing room, in contrast to Shen Jiu’s, was full of stuff. Fanmail, cards, flowers, haircare products, eyeliner, magazines, good luck charms. Stuff. There was a photograph of Luo Binghe, Ming Fan and Ning Yingying tacked to a central pinboard. They were at the ice rink together. Ning Yingying was beaming over a cup of hot chocolate, her cheeks rich and rosy. Ming Fan was making crossed-fingers bunny ears over Luo Binghe’s unsuspecting head.
The two of them were well on their way to completing university: Ning Yingying in early childhood education, Ming Fan in business. It seemed they wanted to open their own little dance school together.
Good for them.
Luo Binghe flipped the photograph up to reveal the one pinned just beneath — Shen Yuan’s final postcard. Edgar Degas’ study of a dancer. The print wasn’t quite as shiny as it had once been, and the edges were a little torn here-and-there. But Shen Yuan’s handwritten missive remained.
Keep moving forwards!
That’s the one thing I can’t do, Binghe mused.
“Luo Binghe! Luo Binghe!”
Luo Binghe frowned, turning towards the door. A producer in a headset was calling his name, red in the face. Luo Binghe groaned internally. He’d already performed his damned solo. What else did they want from him? There was no way it was already time for his final bow.
“Qi Qingqi is requesting you,” she blurted out. “She’s onstage! Come with me —”
Qi Qingqi? The choreographer?
Luo Binghe allowed himself to be steered back onstage.
The lights were hot and white and heavy. It felt a little strange, being up in front of a live audience with no costume, no dance shoes. No plan, either.
Qi Qingqi was standing center-stage with a microphone in her hands. Delivering the gala’s-end speech, presumably. Luo Binghe went to her side. Shoulder to shoulder, they were nearly the same height. Qi Qingqi was a tall, imposing woman — 5’8 without her Louboutins. Her face was flushed with pride, exhilaration, and probably also scotch, which she drank straight and with impressive speed and vigour.
"Before the night is over, I’d like to make one last announcement," Qi Qingqi said into the microphone. Her rich, bawdy voice boomed all throughout the auditorium. “You may recognize our star soloist, Luo Binghe, from his incredible performance earlier tonight as The Firebird.”
There was a healthy smattering of applause. A whistle. Disinterested, Binghe’s eyes bounced over the crowd. Shen Yuan was out there, right? But where? Binghe searched for his face, but the theater was so, so dark.
“Luo Binghe,” Qi Qingqi said, patting Luo Binghe on the shoulder. “On account of your unprecedented record, The National Ballet of China would like to offer you a permanent position… as a principal dancer.”
Oh, Binghe thought. Right. That.
The room burst into applause.
Wei Wuxian came tottering onstage with an enormous bouquet of flowers. He dumped them into Binghe’s arms. The smell was overwhelmingly powerful. Binghe did his best to angle the most noxious of the roses away from his face. All the while, Qi Qingqi was pushing her damned microphone into Binghe’s slack, unprepared hands.
The applause was so loud. So raucous. There was cheering. There was whooping. Seriously! Whooping at the ballet! How unseemly. What were they, drunk?
Luo Binghe lifted the microphone to his lips.
… He'd been waiting for this moment all this life. He'd practiced for it many, many times.
So why couldn't he seem to say a word?
“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.”
“Go on,” Qi Qingqi whispered into his little ear. “Say something.”
“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.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes roved up and down the aisles, still searching, searching for the love of his stupid fucking life. Was Shen Yuan smiling, clapping? Was he happy? Was he proud?
“Shen Yuan, on your side. Please. Please.”
“I just want to go back, I just want to go back to before — ”
Luo Binghe’s breath puffed over the microphone’s tessellated head. The sound of it reverberated all over the room, harsh, somewhat distorted.
Keep moving forwards, Binghe! This is everything you’ve worked for!
Wait, Luo Binghe thought. What was I working for again?
Was it this? Was it really this?
No, Luo Binghe realized with a start. It was the plan.
Back when Binghe had been a naïve little student, he'd cooked up a plan. A childish, stupid, wonderful plan. It went something like this: Grow up. Become a man worthy of Shen Yuan’s esteem. Reach the heights of balletic ascendency. Propose to Shen Yuan. Get married. Live happily ever after.
After Shen Yuan had disappeared from Binghe’s life, that plan had pretty much gone up in smoke.
Instead, Binghe had contented himself with his work. His image. His newfound power and influence. His revenge against all the piece-of-shit kids who’d treated him like garbage for being small and poor and a dancer.
He was able to find some meaning in demolishing his competition. He’d substituted his mother and teacher’s warmth with the blind adoration of an entire harem. He’d even made peace with the idea that he’d never properly fall in love again. He had relinquished the very idea of intimacy; of being truly known, truly accepted.
Maybe it wasn’t too late to return to Plan A.
A fairytale wedding. True love.
Maybe he could really go back to before… and be Laoshi's precious lamb again.
Against all odds, Binghe’s eyes found their intended target — a paper hand fan swaying up in the private boxes! He addressed his next words directly to that beautiful fan, his voice ever so slightly warped by the boom of the microphone.
Luo Binghe said, “I accept.”
The address Shen Yuan had punched into Luo Binghe’s phone was for a fancy little condo development. It wasn’t very close to the theater, but it was only a ten-minute drive away from Cang Qiong. Presumably, this was Yue Qingyuan’s place.
Luo Binghe stood in his kitchen, weighing his options. He was thumbing through the latest issue of Food and Wine, perusing the month’s featured recipes.
Honey-orange tuiles. Crostini with aged gouda. Blue crab beignets. They all sounded appropriately lavish, but Luo Binghe had promised Shen Yuan an old favourite. That meant tapping back into his high school self’s repertoire.
He decided to go with cakes. As a student, he’d often tottered into Shen Yuan’s office with a platter of sweets, and Shen Yuan had never once turned them down. Shen Yuan especially liked little tea cakes, which could be broken in half and dunked into coffee or breakfast tea.
Luo Binghe selected a recipe for chestnut pound cakes: subtly sweet and slightly savoury, with a fine, light crumb. The perfect companion for an after-dinner drink. He tossed his apron on and went to work beating the chestnut paste with chilled butter, eggs, Madagascar vanilla and rum.
His mind began to wander as he whisked the flour in. Would Shen Yuan’s eyes crinkle up in pleasure as he bit into his cake? Would he hum in delight? Would he go for a second serving? Would he compliment Luo Binghe with a soft, accommodating smile?
Luo Binghe’s heart skipped a beat.
Everything had to be perfect.
For Laoshi, everything had to be one hundred percent perfect. Luo Binghe would not tolerate even the most ambiguous of failures.
While the cakes cooled, Luo Binghe went ahead and dressed himself for the dinner party. He went with a wine red dress shirt with an eyelet collar, bespoke slacks, and a pair of calfskin oxfords. He knew he looked good in this particular get-up — the shirt had been tailored to the specifications of his body, hugging his pectorals and a biceps in a manner that was very nearly outrageous. He hoped that Shen Yuan would notice. At the very least, he hoped that Shen Yuan would notice other people noticing and maybe feel a prickle of jealousy. The thought of Shen Laoshi getting possessive made Luo Binghe blush like a maiden.
He prepared the crème fraiche. He sprinkled powdered sugar over the cakes. He topped each one with a candied chestnut. Shen Yuan hadn’t asked him to bring a wine, but Luo Binghe picked one out anyhow. It was a sweet, structured dessert wine that would pair nicely with the chestnuts. Carpineto Farnito Vinsanto del Chianti.
As he carefully packed the cakes into a travel box, a weird feeling came over him. He started to think about that horrible, horrible time in his life — when his mother had died and Shen Yuan had stopped answering his letters. When he’d felt so alone and so abandoned that he could drown in it. He felt a flash of anger at the memory —
That was absurd. That was stupid.
Binghe shoved it down, tying a red ribbon around the box of mini-cakes. Shen Yuan was going to love them.
He was going to love them so, so much.
Binghe braided his hair, packed up his car, then twisted his keys into the ignition. He flipped the radio to the classical station. He’d timed it so that he would arrive at Yue Qingyuan’s ten minutes early. Worst case scenario, Luo Binghe would make awkward small-talk and help set up. Best case scenario, he’d get to see Shen Laoshi a little early, and maybe share a private moment with him.
Yue Qingyuan’s condo rental was in a nice neighbourhood. It had a pleasant enough exterior, too. The development, while crowded, looked very recent, and had the look of gentrifier money behind it. There was a cute little flowerbox in the window. Luo Binghe gave it a peek. Rather than flowers, it seemed Yue Qingyuan was growing fresh herbs. Basil, mint, oregano. Luo Binghe approved.
He rang the doorbell.
Luo Binghe waited patiently on the stoop. He could hear some hustle and bustle behind the door. Things being shuffled, footsteps moving this way and that way.
After a spell, the door swung open.
Yue Qingyuan, stern and sober in his black clothes, appeared in the doorway.
Yue Qingyuan was an interesting character. Luo Binghe felt as though they were constantly bumping into one another, though they’d never really interacted beyond surface-level pleasantries. He was, of course, the current director of Cang Qiong Academy. That was how Binghe had first come to know him. Beyond that, however, he was also a key member of The National Ballet of China’s artistic committee. He was highly influential within the sphere of Chinese ballet — greatly in demand as a mentor, a consultant, and an administrator.
He was also Shen Jiu’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, if you believed the rumours. Which Binghe did. He’d seen Yue Qingyuan backstage more than once, always skulking pathetically around Shen Jiu’s dressing room.
Not that Luo Binghe could relate.
“Oh! You’re —”
“Shen Yuan asked me to come,” Luo Binghe explained. He held out his box of tea cakes. “I brought dessert?”
Yue Qingyuan’s face went on an emotional journey: recognition, realization, apprehension, dread, forced cheer.
Luo Binghe could very easily imagine what he was thinking: Shen Jiu won’t like this.
He won’t, Luo Binghe agreed mentally, feeling quite good about it.
“Ah, I see,” Yue Qingyuan said. He bent over, staring through the transparent window on top of Binghe’s cake box. “What charming little cakes. They look absolutely picturesque. Are those candied chestnuts?”
“Yes. The glaze is homemade.”
“They certainly look wonderful,” Yue Qingyuan said. He paused for a beat, visibly weighing his options.
Luo Binghe could tell that Yue Qingyuan was thinking of sending him away. But he wouldn’t. Yue Qingyuan was terminally, uncontrollably polite.
The moment passed. Yue Qingyuan opened the door a little wider, his smile turning a little waffly.
“Come in, come in. A-Yuan invited you, yes? I’m sure he’ll want to see you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“No need to be formal,” Yue Qingyuan said as Binghe made his way through the threshold. “We’ll be dining together tonight, right?”
“That’s better,” Yue Qingyuan said cheerfully, though Luo Binghe could tell he didn’t really want to be Yue-qianbei either.
Yue Qingyuan’s condo was actually pretty charming. Inside, it looked like it belonged in an upscale furniture catalogue. The interior decor was all very grown-up, Binghe thought. The furniture had a look of oaken antiquery, like maybe Yue Qingyuan had thrifted and restored each individual piece. The first floor was also very thoroughly decorated, which Luo Binghe considered an impulse of the well and truly mature. There were framed photographs here and there, decorative throws, artfully-arranged stacks of books… The living room, which was visible from the front door, was arranged around a large, old-fashioned record player. The record player was quietly spinning some old piano jazz.
“A-Yuan?” Yue Qingyuan called out.
Shen Yuan came around the corner. He was wearing a cream-coloured apron over his clothes. He must have been helping out in the kitchen.
It was a really, really cute detail.
Binghe’s palms began to sweat. He started to feel a little nervous — something that almost never happened, not even before performing on live TV.
Shen Yuan looked so wonderful. So sweet.
… Binghe wanted to impress him so badly.
“Ah,” Shen Yuan said, dusting his hands off on his apron. “Binghe is early!”
“Just a little,” Binghe said. “I hope I’m not imposing!”
“Of course you aren’t,” Shen Yuan said. “This teacher was simply surprised.”
Yue Qingyuan’s brow twitched.
“A-Yuan,” he said pleasantly. “I didn’t realize you’d invited guests of your own!”
“Just the one,” Shen Yuan said. “You told me I could bring a plus one, remember.”
“... I said that, didn’t I?”
“You did, yes. Luo Binghe is my former pupil, as I’m sure you recall. We ran into one another the other night — he was quite adamant that we catch up over a glass of wine. I thought this would be a good opportunity.”
A third voice — Shen Jiu’s — rang out from deeper inside the house.
“Qi-ge? Who is that? Mu Qingfang?”
“Not quite,” Yue Qingyuan called back.
His smile was serene, implacable. His eyes said: This is a fucking nightmare.
Shen Jiu came around the same way Shen Yuan had — probably leaving the kitchen. He was wearing a frilly apron and carrying a big ceramic dish of guacamole. He looked like Qi-ge’s little wifey. He looked docile, house-trained. His usual countenance of despotic elegance had all but vanished: this was Shen Jiu at his most relaxed, surrounded by the people he trusted.
Oops, Binghe thought, knowing he was about to ruin all that.
Shen Jiu’s face contorted in anger the moment he laid eyes on Luo Binghe.
“You!” he snapped. “What are you doing here?”
Here we go.
“Good evening, Shen-qianbei,” Luo Binghe said in return.
Shen Yuan sighed.
“Jiu-ge, don’t be rude. I invited him.”
“You invited him?” Shen Jiu whirled on Shen Yuan. “You invited him? When? Where? Why?”
“That’s not important,” Shen Yuan said patiently. “What’s important is that he is my guest. So please, don’t make a scene.”
Shen Jiu’s eyes flashed to Yue Qingyuan.
“Did you know about this?”
“Not at all,” Yue Qingyuan answered very quickly.
“I brought cakes,” Luo Binghe said, holding his cake box up for Shen Yuan’s inspection. “And wine.”
Shen Yuan's eyes rounded.
“They’re tea-sized. Take a look.”
Shen Yuan tottered over, peeking into the cake box.
“... You really do remember my favourites, don’t you?”
“En. Every single one of them, Laoshi.”
Shen Jiu went into the living room and slammed the guacamole down onto the coffee table. Yue Qingyuan watched him anxiously.
“Are we really going to let this boar eat with us?" Shen Jiu asked, hands on his hips. "Are we, Qi-ge?”
“Xiao Jiu, please.”
“Don’t look so helpless. This is your home, is it not? If you wanted to, you could send him away.”
“Xiao Jiu, let’s not do this now.”
“You know how I feel about that man, Qi-ge. But you still won’t send him away?”
Yue Qingyuan glanced about the room. Shen Yuan met his gaze with a solid, meaningful look. Luo Binghe did his best to look wide-eyed and innocent.
Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat, “I don’t think it’d be, you know, very fair if…”
Shen Jiu’s expression closed off. He recognized a shutdown when he heard one.
“Figures,” he said, his voice turning cool and remote. “I suppose I should’ve known better than to expect Qi-ge to take my side.”
"Xiao Jiu, hold on —"
Shen Jiu stormed off into the kitchen. Yue Qingyuan trailed after him, fraught with worry.
Shen Yuan coughed lightly into his hand.
“Well,” he said. “That was awkward. I apologize, Binghe. I suppose I should’ve anticipated that reaction.”
Luo Binghe gave Shen Yuan his biggest, saddest cow eyes.
“Unfortunately, Shen Jiu has never seemed to approve of me…”
It worked like a charm. Shen Yuan’s expression went all mushy with pity. He reached out and patted Luo Binghe on the arm, his touch gentle and rather flowerlike.
“Don’t take it personally, Binghe,” Shen Yuan said. “Jiu-ge approves of very few people — plus, between you and me… well. Jiu-ge isn’t very fond of young talent.”
Good to know, Binghe thought.
“... I don’t want to make things uncomfortable, Laoshi," Binghe demurred, lowering his lashes. "Do you think I should go?”
“Of course not! Jiu-ge is the one being unreasonable.”
“Really? You think so?”
“I know so,” Shen Yuan said. “Enough of this. Please, come in. Did you want a bottle opener? I can pop the cork on that wine, if you like.”
“It’s a dessert wine, Laoshi,” he said. “Let’s save it for the cakes.”
“A glass of sparkling water, then? Or lemonade?”
“Laoshi, you really don’t have to fuss over me. If anything, I should be fussing over you!”
“Nonsense,” Shen Yuan said. “You’re my guest, aren’t you? Sit. I’ll bring you a drink.”
Shen Yuan lifted the cakes and wine out of Luo Binghe’s hands, then promptly bustled off towards the dining room table. Luo Binghe resisted the urge to stare at his ass as he went. Instead, he toed out of his shoes. He tucked his oxfords into Yue Qingyuan’s kitschy little shoe rack and headed towards the living room.
It felt weird, padding through Yue Qingyuan’s gorgeous condo in only a pair of checkered socks. Weird and transgressive.
The central coffee table had already been prepped with a complete charcuterie board. It looked positively mouthwatering. Gorgonzola, smoked gouda, bocconcini, pepper jelly and blackberries…
Luo Binghe sat down on the loveseat. After a spell, Shen Yuan came to join him. He set their drinks down on the table, then sank into the armchair across from Binghe. He crossed his long, raffish legs one over the other. They were, objectively speaking, wonderful legs. Binghe couldn’t get enough of them. He could stare at them for hours. Days, even.
“This looks incredible,” Binghe said, gesturing towards the spread. “Did you make all this?”
“Me?” Shen Yuan blinked, taken aback. “Oh, no, no. Not at all. I’m a terri— ahem. I’m a rather lacklustre chef, truth be told. Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu are the real masterminds behind all this. I just, you know… helped them chop vegetables. Peel potatoes. Run errands. That sort of thing.”
“You were their sous-chef, then.”
“I was their lackey.”
“Ah," Binghe said, lips curling into a smile. "Is Shen Jiu a despot in the kitchen?”
“And Yue Qingyuan?”
“... I see."
“Don't feel sorry for him. He likes it."
Yue Qingyuan exited the kitchen. He was wearing a pair of pink oven mitts and carrying a heat-safe serving dish. Shen Jiu was close in tow, beautiful and mutinous in his silky little slip.
“Xiao Jiu has something he’d like to say,” Yue Qingyuan said pleasantly, striding towards the coffee table.
Shen Jiu’s jaw tightened. He didn’t look like he wanted to say anything at all. He looked like he wanted to smother Binghe with the nearest throw pillow and bury him in the backyard.
“... I’m going to ignore you for the rest of the evening,” Shen Jiu said, not quite meeting Binghe’s eye. “Starting now.”
Oh, wow. How magnanimous.
“As you wish, Shen-qianbei,” Binghe said.
Shen Yuan sighed, “Jiu-ge, seriously?”
“... Don’t complain. I’m already compromising,” Shen Jiu sniffed. He turned tail and stomped back towards the kitchen.
Yue Qingyuan’s expression was one of deep resignation. Carefully, he set the heated dish down onto the coffee table. Luo Binghe leaned over the peek into its contents. It was Yue Qingyuan’s much-touted baked brie — hot, melty cheese encased in a white crust, peppered with diced apricots and pecans. The smell was incredible.
“I apologize for Shen Jiu’s standoffishness,” Yue Qingyuan said.
Binghe shook his head.
“We’re colleagues. I’m used to it.”
“Ah. I suppose you would be.”
“Jiu-ge is an incredible dancer, but he’s never been very sociable,” Shen Yuan lamented. He pulled his apron off over his head, sighing once again as he folded it over his lap. “He’s even worse when it comes to other dancers. I suppose that’s his competitive streak. Still, I was hoping he’d at least be civil with you, Binghe. I didn’t think he’d react so strongly. It’s very odd.”
“I don’t presume to understand each and every one of Xiao Jiu’s moods,” Yue Qingyuan admitted. He paused, then added, “Regardless of Xiao Jiu’s decision, I see no reason to fret. I really do believe that this is the best outcome we could’ve hoped for. Like this, we can all coexist — and share a wonderful, peaceful meal with friends.”
“Yue-qianbei is right,” Luo Binghe said, and he meant it. This was the best possible outcome. While he’d been deeply amused by Shen Jiu’s sour reception, he wasn’t particularly interested in spending the evening catfighting and dodging petty barbs. Luo Binghe was even less interested in defending himself from Shen Jiu’s accusations.
Some of those accusations would probably be true, after all.
Luo Binghe was a good actor. Still, he didn’t want to lie to Shen Yuan’s face.
You weren’t supposed to lie to your special someone.
The doorbell rang. Yue Qingyuan went to answer it. Shen Yuan turned his gaze to the charcuterie board in front of them. His hungry eyes were eyeing up a fat hunk of aged cheddar. Cute.
One by one, Yue Qingyuan’s guests began to file in. Yue Qingyuan was gracious enough to offer Luo Binghe introductions. There was Wen Qing, a genius physiotherapist with deep ties to the dance community. Xiao Xingchen, a professional aerialist with a background in classical ballet. Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen’s partner and agent. Jun Wu, the CEO of a major entertainment company. Ling Wen, his quiet, intelligent accountant.
The last to arrive was Mu Qingfang — a medical doctor and friend to the Shen family. He had a good, honest face. Luo Binghe liked him straightaway.
As Mu Qingfang went to hang up his overcoat, he beckoned Shen Yuan with a gesture. Shen Yuan floated to his side uncertainly.
Luo Binghe was able to catch a snippet of their whispered conversation:
“So, what am I in for? Are they on again? Off again?”
“... On, I think.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“Well… I try not to pry. They were getting pretty cozy in the kitchen, though.”
Shen Yuan went back to the coffee table, snacking on cheese and crackers and jelly. He looked so adorable while daintily nibbling on a flaxseed crisp. Elegant, sure. Beautiful, yes. But so, so fucking adorable.
An instant KO of cuteness.
Binghe prepared himself his own little plate: Yue Qingyuan’s brie, a little smoked salami, some of Shen Jiu’s guacamole on a crostini… the food was pretty good, overall. Not as good as Binghe’s own homemade charcuterie, sure. But still pretty good.
Not that the food really mattered.
The real prize of the evening? Simple conversation with Shen Yuan.
“Laoshi, you’re teaching Dance Studies now?”
“Right,” Shen Yuan said, spreading goat cheese over his cracker.
“Is that any different from what you taught at Cang Qiong?”
“It’s very different. My university classes are purely academic, for one. No dancing, no technical instruction. Just lecturing and studying. I teach critical theory and dance history.”
Shen Yuan nodded serenely.
“Ballet’s history is extremely Western. Here in China, we often miss out on the historical context that lead to its development.”
“Ballet’s development?” Binghe asked innocently. “Come to think of it, I don’t know too much about ballet’s origins. Ballet is French, isn’t it?”
“En. Scholars typically point to the pageantry of 17th Century French ballets d’entrées as the defining moment for classical ballet. That said, one could easily argue that ballet’s heritage is just as richly and quintessentially Italian.”
“Italy is better known as a producer of great opera, but balletic technique is greatly influenced by Italian mime and virtuoso.”
“Ah, hm, very interesting.”
“Oh, but that’s not to neglect the Russians, who imported the fashion from France —”
“Mn, mn, yes, of course,” Binghe agreed.
“ — with a particular focus on precision, lyricism, and the conveyance of Imperial values. Ah, well, at least until the Russian Revolution shook Russian state identity to its very core.”
Binghe bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from grinning. Ah, Shen Laoshi was much too cute when he was rambling! So passionate, yet so pristine! The spitting image of a delicate, elegant scholar!
“That’s so interesting, Laoshi. Tell me more?”
“Well, for starters…”
Shen Yuan embarked on an entire lecture’s worth of information about twentieth century dance. Luo Binghe hung on to his every single word, rapt. Shen Yuan’s tone of voice was cool and lofty, but his eyes —
They were so animated. So lively.
This is the teacher I remember! Binghe thought. So wise, yet so warm! So beautiful! To think that after all these years, I’d receive his instruction once more...
I could die happy. Right here, right now.
Shen Yuan began breaking down the role of Russian defectors in the evolution of post-war American ballet. He was making exaggerated gestures with his hands, drawing invisible maps in the air.
Luo Binghe shoved a fistful of prosciutto into his mouth. He chewed happily, all aglow.
Our wedding colours could be white and gold — no! White and green! But will that clash with the wedding reds? Should we opt for a standard palette of red and gold? Wait. Should it be a Western-style wedding, or a Chinese-style wedding? Shen Laoshi would look so refined in a well-cut suit… but Shen Laoshi in a red veil would be so, so...
“Binghe? Luo Binghe?” Shen Yuan waved a hand over Luo Binghe’s eyes, sending him from his reverie. “Are you listening?”
Luo Binghe blinked, “Mn?”
Shen Yuan’s expression fell.
“Ah,” he said, looking rather abashed. “I apologize. That little rant was… rather boring, wasn’t it? I can hardly blame you for spacing out. You didn’t come here for a lecture.”
“No!” Luo Binghe rushed to say. “I’m the one at fault, Laoshi! Ballet’s history is truly, truly fascinating, I was just — I was distracted!”
“Distracted?” Shen Yuan tilted his head to the side. Suddenly, his expression showed some clarity. “Ah, I see. Were you perhaps looking at Ms. Wen Qing?”
“No need to be shy,” Shen Yuan said. “She’s a lovely lady, it’s true! But that’s not her only valuable trait. She’s also tough-minded, loyal, and very intelligent.”
“I… I’m sure she is, Laoshi, but I really wasn’t looking at her!”
“Methinks the Binghe doth protest too much.”
“I’m being serious!”
Shen Yuan laughed softly.
“Ah, nevermind. I won’t tease you. Have you tried pairing the goat cheese with a little mango? It’s heavenly.”
On the other side of the room, Yue Qingyuan and Jun Wu were engrossed in some conversation about dealing with difficult investors. Pretty dry stuff. Conversely, Xiao Xingchen was charming Wen Qing and Mu Qingfang with a dramatic, long-winded story about his artistic residence in Montreal. Song Lan was smiling. He had a serene, economical smile. It played well on his stoic face.
Shen Jiu was mostly silent. He drank his wine. He munched on some celery with little rabbit-like chews. Occasionally, he tugged at Yue Qingyuan’s sleeve and whispered a little aside into his ear. Yue Qingyuan’s response was identical each time. He would turn to Shen Jiu, indulge him with a smile or a laugh, and then lovingly refill his cup.
With each glass of wine, Shen Jiu inched a little further across the couch towards Yue Qingyuan. By seven o’clock, he was pink in the face and practically sitting in Yue Qingyuan’s lap.
“That parmigiano is trash, Qi-ge,” he said.
“Is it?” Yue Qingyuan asked.
Shen Jiu hummed, slinging his legs over Yue Qingyuan’s thighs.
“It is. The taste is so bland. So cheap.”
“... It’s a mild cheese, yes. But doesn’t it pair nicely with a drizzle of dark honey?”
“Your taste buds have been deadened, Qi-ge. Perhaps from years of drinking burnt coffee. You always burn your coffee.”
“It isn’t burnt, Xiao Jiu. It’s dark roast.”
“Whatever. Don’t change the subject. We won’t be buying that trash parmigiano again, will we?”
“I suppose not.”
“Mn. And next time, we’re doing hotpot.”
"Hotpot in the summer?"
"Hotpot in the summer."
Yue Qingyuan chuckled, “Alright, Xiao Jiu. As you wish."
Yue Qingyuan looked… so fond. So dopey. He reached over to pat Shen Jiu’s head, and Shen Jiu preened beneath his touch. He nuzzled into Yue Qingyuan’s hand, flushed with happiness. With adoration.
Luo Binghe felt a little strange about it.
It just… didn’t make any sense. Shen Jiu was a pit viper. A slut. A stuck-up bitch. The kind of heartless shrew who would slap an innocent kid in the face. So what was he doing, cozying up to his boyfriend on the couch? Acting all cute and pouty, nuzzling up into Yue Qingyuan’s hand?
It didn’t make any sense at all.
Shen Yuan gave Luo Binghe a gentle nudge.
“They’re gross, aren’t they?” he said, his voice pitched conspiratorially low.
"I've never seen Shen Jiu look so, so…"
“What, so clingy? He’s always like this when he’s drunk. I don’t think Qi-ge minds, though. He’s kind of clingy himself.”
“They seem to really love one another,” Binghe said doubtfully. He leaned in, careful not to broadcast his next words to the rest of the group. “It’s almost hard to believe… that their relationship could be so volatile.”
“Well…” Guilt flickered across Shen Yuan’s features. “You’re not wrong. They are volatile. They argue, they break up, Yue Qingyuan grovels, Shen Jiu melts like butter, they get back together. Rinse and repeat.”
“Yue Qingyuan doesn’t really seem like the argumentative type.”
“Oh, he isn’t,” Shen Yuan said. “It’s just that, y’know… Jiu-ge can get really…”
“... Insecure,” Shen Yuan finished. His face flamed up. “I really shouldn’t go into it. It’s their personal business, you know? I don't want to be dragged into it.”
"Of course, Laoshi."
Luo Binghe glanced back to Shen Jiu. He was playing with the glossy sheath of his hair, twisting a lock between his forefinger and thumb. He whispered into Yue Qingyuan's ear, lips upturned. Yue Qingyuan chuckled.
Shen Jiu, insecure? Shen Jiu? The snake among roses?
Manipulative, more likely.
As the night wore on, the cheeses and smoked meats were gradually whisked back into the kitchen and sneakily replaced with sweets. The tastes on display were both decadent and highly varied. Earl grey pie, bourbon-glazed gingerbread, Mu Qingfang’s pineapple cake — Jun Wu procured a box of lavish truffles, which Shen Jiu was happy to wash down with his wine.
Shen Yuan’s eyes widened as Luo Binghe’s chestnut cakes found their way towards the table. Shen Jiu glared at the offending pastries over his Moscato, lips curled into a lukewarm sneer.
“Laoshi, would you like a glass of wine? The chianti pairs so nicely with the marrons glacés.”
“Oh, well…” Shen Yuan twiddled his thumbs uncertainly as Luo Binghe popped the cork. “Maybe just a touch. My capacity for alcohol is, ah…”
Limited? Binghe nodded. He’d done his homework. Apparently, people with epilepsy were at a high risk of seizures after drinking multiple alcoholic beverages.
“Is half a glass okay?”
Shen Yuan’s smile was highly tentative.
“Mn. That sounds good.”
Luo Binghe gave them both a healthy pour. He was quite proud of his selection for the evening. The Carpineto Farnito was an excellent dessert wine — fruity and jammy, perfect for a nutty cake.
Shen Yuan alternated between sips of wine and bites of Binghe’s cake. He seemed to be savouring the both of them deeply. Likewise, Binghe was savouring the moment. Shen Yuan’s hand fanned over his mouth as he chewed, his eyes crinkled up in satisfaction.
Binghe watched his soft little mouth work, his tongue darting over the brim of his glass. His throat bobbing to swallow. The dreamy, blissed-out look on his face. Shen Yuan licked a stray blot of chestnut cream from his perfect lips.
Binghe stared, stared, stared.
I used to perv on Laoshi just like this, didn’t I? When I was young.
I’d bring him little treats, plums and wife cakes and lemon bars. I’d wait for him to lower his guard. Then, I’d perv on him.
That thought came with a wash of ugly nostalgia.
“Are the cakes any good, Laoshi?” Binghe pressed, eyes wide. “Is the rum too strong? Is the texture okay?”
“... Is Binghe fishing for compliments?”
“Me? Never. I just want to hear your thoughts, Laoshi — good or bad.”
Shen Yuan took another bite of his cake. He didn’t roll his eyes, not really, but he looked like he wanted to.
“They’re delicious, Binghe,” he said, chasing his cake with a sip of wine. “Of course they are. How could they not be?”
Binghe suppressed a smile.
“Do you think my cooking has improved?”
“Your cooking was incredibly good to begin with.”
“But is it better?”
“Your tastes have certainly become more refined.”
“Is that good?”
“Mn. I think so. After all, my tastes skew in that very same direction.”
“Then I’m happy,” Luo Binghe said.
Shen Yuan drained his glass.
“So am I,” he said.
Shen Yuan tilted his empty glass up towards Binghe. He was smiling. It was a puzzlebox smile; a locked-key mystery smile. Secretive, shadowy, schismatic. Binghe wanted to solve it. He wanted to put his lips against Shen Yuan’s. He wanted to smile against Shen Yuan’s smile.
But that would be too much, too fast. Binghe needed to win Shen Yuan’s heart. To show him he was a man now.
Binghe refilled his cup. Shen Yuan beamed.
“I’m usually very fussy when it comes to wine,” Shen Yuan said. “But this one is so sweet.”
“Shen Laoshi has always loved sweet things,” Binghe recalled. “Candies, chocolatines, coffee with heavy cream and three sugars…”
“Everyone likes sweet things,” Shen Yuan said. “Why should I be any different?”
He took another bite of Binghe’s cake, relishing each mouthful. Binghe felt a stab of pride.
“What should I make for you next time, Laoshi? Pavlova, maybe?"
“Er, maybe?” Shen Yuan blinked. Something in his mannerisms shifted. “Wait, next time? Next time? When is next time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Whenever you want,” Binghe said. He had a new thought. “I’ll show up at your university and bombard you with meringues.”
“... Please don’t cause a scene.”
“Oh, but I’d really like to see Shen Laoshi at work! I can even talk to your students, if you want. I bet they’d like to hear from a real dancer!”
“If you show up in my classroom, you’ll definitely, definitely cause a scene.”
“What makes you say that?” Binghe asked, crestfallen.
"Is that a serious question?"
"Of course it is."
Shen Yuan drained his wine.
“... Did you know you’re famous enough to be in the tabloids, Binghe?”
Binghe decided to play dumb.
“Me? In the tabloids?”
“Mn. I saw your face on the cover of Zhongguo Beat while I was in the checkout line. Apparently, you broke some pop idol’s heart?”
“... Just rumours, Laoshi."
"There were pictures of you and her together."
"She said she'd been used and dusted."
"Rumours, Laoshi, rumours — all of it. I would never do anything so cruel.”
“I see,” Shen Yuan said, but Luo Binghe could hear the doubt in his tone.
Luo Binghe set his wine glass back down. He looked Shen Yuan in the eye. Shen Yuan’s green eyes were swirling with some strange, mistrustful emotion.
“Laoshi, do you think I’m lying?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, what are you saying?”
Shen Yuan tore his eyes away from Luo Binghe’s. He reached across the table to pour himself a third glass of wine.
“I keep telling you, I’m the same Binghe I’ve always been,” Luo Binghe said. He felt it again — a jolt of strange, misplaced anger. It was brewing like a storm. Like dark, dark coffee. “Who do you think I am? The demon king of dance? You think that’s me, Laoshi?”
Shen Yuan filled his cup with cool, pétillant wine. He was silent.
Luo Binghe would not be.
“Laoshi,” Luo Binghe demanded, grabbing Shen Yuan by the wrist, leaning into his personal bubble. “Just what kind of person do you think I am?”
“I don’t know,” Shen Yuan said.
Ling Wen reached into her purse and pulled out her trembling cell phone. She stared into its tiny screen, then darted up into the hallway to answer it. Mu Qingfang was laughing at something Yue Qingyuan had said. Xiao Xingchen was leaning up against Song Lan’s shoulder, his knees tucked up into the couch. The couch surrounded him cozily, tenderly.
Nobody had noticed the two of them arguing. Not yet.
“You don’t know? What does that mean?”
“It’s just… so much has changed, Binghe, you’ve grown up —”
“I’ve grown up, yes, but I’m still your Binghe!”
“You aren’t,” Shen Yuan said. Then — he flushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Jun Wu drank his wine like a sophisticate. Unbeknownst to Yue Qingyuan, he was staring at Shen Jiu’s legs. Shen Jiu was staring up at the ceiling fan. He was drunk. His lips were moving. He was talking to Mu Qingfang, saying something droll and self-righteous.
Luo Binghe released Shen Yuan’s wrist.
“I’m… not your Binghe?”
“You are,” Shen Yuan responded reflexively. “It’s just — you’ve changed. More than you realize.”
Luo Binghe stared.
"Changed?" he echoed — lost, and feeling stupid for it.
“I never meant to change,” Luo Binghe said.
“I know,” Shen Yuan whispered.
Yue Qingyuan reached forwards and rapped his fork against his port; tingtingting.
“I have an announcement,” Yue Qingyuan said. “A small announcement, admittedly — but, still. I’ve been rather excited to share it.”
Shen Jiu pushed himself upright. His expression was foggy, confused. He wasn’t in on this little announcement, then. Neither was Shen Yuan. Shen Yuan regarded Yue Qingyuan blankly, brows lifted.
“Qi-ge?” Shen Jiu frowned.
Yue Qingyuan smiled. There was a touch of nervousness to this smile. A culpability. His straight, white teeth stood against his lips like stones on a ledge. His brows were knit together, furrowed at the fulcrum.
He said, “I bought a house!”
With every dinner party, there’s an eventual shift downwards. The table is cleared. The kitchen holds no more surprises; no more hidden sweets, no more surprise trifles, no more exotic liqueurs. Someone gets a little too drunk. Someone gets a little too nostalgic about high school. The introverted sorts are drained, depleted — and suddenly, they aren’t any fun to talk to.
Mu Qingfang — the last to arrive — was the first to leave. Then Wen Qing. Then Jun Wu and Ling Wen. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan were the last ones to go. They spoke in hushed, intimate tones as they pulled their shoes on. Yue Qingyuan piled their arms with leftovers: a plastic container full of smoked salmon, half a gingerbread, the offending Parmigiano.
The sky outside was a dowdy shade of violet. Shen Jiu stumbled over to the back porch for a little air. Shen Yuan was lying on the couch, back turned to Binghe. His breathing was shallow and queasy. He was obviously regretting his third glass of wine.
“Yue-qianbei,” Luo Binghe said, tapping Yue Qingyuan on the shoulder. “Shen Yuan doesn’t drive, right?”
“No, he doesn’t,” he said rather distractedly. He kept throwing backward glances towards the porch.
“I see,” Luo Binghe said. “I’ll give him a lift home. You see, he’s had a little bit too much to drink… I wouldn't feel right pushing him into a cab.”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes pinged back towards Luo Binghe.
“I can drive him.”
"That's quite alright, qianbei. Let me handle this."
"I should drive him," Yue Qingyuan said.
“Nonsense,” Luo Binghe argued a little more firmly. “You should stay here and look after Shen Jiu.”
For an insufferable wife guy like Yue Qingyuan, this was the obvious money play. Yue Qingyuan’s eyes slid guiltily towards the porch.
“Well…” he demurred. “Alright. Alright. Get him home safely, okay?”
“And… please don’t tell Shen Jiu you took him home?”
Luo Binghe smiled, “It’ll be our little secret!"
“I suppose,” Yue Qingyuan said. He didn’t sound very keen on sharing secrets with Luo Binghe. “You have a good night, Luo Binghe.”
“You too, qianbei,” Luo Binghe said. “And congratulations on the move!”
Yue Qingyuan smiled joylessly. He tread over the carpet and towards the back door, which had been left artfully ajar and was letting out the warm, mysterious scent of summer moonlight.
Shen Jiu was, in all likelihood, lying slumped against the awning of Yue Qingyuan's back patio. He was probably, possibly, dizzily conjuring up ammunition to gaslight and manipulate Yue Qingyuan with. He probably looked very beautiful, too. Dark and sulky, prone in the velvet night, illuminated only by a strategically-placed beam of lunar light…
Like a cataclysmic asteroid preparing to plow into the crust of the earth...
Luo Binghe walked over to the couch and put a big hand on Shen Yuan's shoulder.
“Laoshi," he said, the tenor of his tone very carefully controlled. "Let’s head out to the car. I’ll take you back to your place.”
Shen Yuan tensed.
“I can call a cab.”
“Don't be silly."
“I won’t trouble Luo Binghe any further.”
“Laoshi," Binghe said. "It’d be my pleasure.”
There was a long pause. Then, Shen Yuan rolled over. His face was a little peachy, a little splotchy. But he was still perfect.
“Fine," he said. "Okay.”
Luo Binghe offered his hand. Shen Yuan took it without a word.
They went out to Luo Binghe's car. Shen Yuan slipped into the passenger seat, buckling himself in very slowly and carefully. Luo Binghe took the front seat. He twisted his keys into the ignition, the car coming to life. Shen Yuan set his head against the window, looking glum and vaguely ill.
Luo Binghe asked for his address. Shen Yuan gave it. Luo Binghe punched it into his phone, then took off down the street, headlights blaring, wheels grinding menacingly against the asphalt.
Normally, Luo Binghe would’ve been thrilled by the prospect of having Shen Yuan in his passenger’s seat. The atmosphere between them, however, had turned strangely sour. Shen Yuan was huddled up against the car door, arms folded, eyeline directed obstinately out the window.
Luo Binghe tried to strike up conversation a couple of times —
"Shen Laoshi, how are you feeling."
"Shen Laoshi, what was the best thing you got to try all night?"
"Shen Laoshi, what did you think of Ling Wen's shoes?"
"I didn't notice them."
— but it was shutdown after shutdown.
The silence was oppressive. Deafening, deadening. Luo Binghe yanked at the car's front console, thumbing the radio on. The cramped space was flooded with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3. Luo Binghe relaxed minutely as a familiar wall of string pizzicatos reached his ears.
He’d always loved Tchaikovsky. His opulence, his antiquiety, his romantic tremolos. Luo Binghe gripped the wheel, letting the music wash over his nerves. Andante elegiaco, D Major. Woodwinds, the polonaise, Imperial dazzlement, Balanchine’s Jewels, the first full-length plotless ballet —
History, beauty. Prestige.
From the corner of his eye, Luo Binghe could see that Shen Yuan’s fingers were drumming against the window. He knew this movement by heart, evidently.
Luo Binghe opened his mouth to ask another banal, softball question. Shen Laoshi, do you prefer chestnuts or hazelnuts? Shen Laoshi, aren’t we having great weather? Shen Laoshi, what’s your favourite ballet movie?
This is what left his mouth:
“Shen Laoshi, have I done something wrong?”
Shen Yuan lifted his head.
For a long moment, he was silent. So silent that Binghe was sure he wasn’t going to answer at all. Then, the traffic light turned from red to green. Tchaikovsky’s symphony entered its first string coda.
“No,” Shen Yuan sighed. “Oh course you haven’t. I apologize. I should’t have brought up that stupid tabloid. I — I’ve had too much to drink.”
“Laoshi, it’s okay,” Luo Binghe said, merging onto the highway.
“It’s not okay.”
"No, it is," Luo Binghe said. Then, feeling inexplicably compelled to be honest, “Laoshi was right to be skeptical. Truth be told, I’ve done things I’m not proud of on my way to the top. I shouldn’t lie about that. Not to you.”
“I have changed,” Luo Binghe said, eyes on the road. “I can try to run from it, but that’s the truth. I’m not the same innocent little kid I used to be.” He paused, grip tightening around the wheel. “But the thing is… I wish I was still that kid. It sounds lame, I know, but that was seriously the happiest time of my life. I was so happy. Learning from you during the day, heading back home to my mom every night…”
Luo Binghe felt the warm touch of Shen Yuan’s hand on his shoulder.
“Binghe,” Shen Yuan said. “I heard about your mother. I’m so sorry.”
“If you heard,” Binghe snapped, “why didn’t you write me back? I was alone.”
Shen Yuan released Luo Binghe’s shoulder. Luo Binghe gritted his teeth, feeling a wash of self-loathing roll over him.
“I’m sorry,” Luo Binghe said, slowing the car to a halt before the next red light. “I didn’t mean…"
He trailed off, stymied. He didn't know what to say, how to cover himself. He had meant it. That was the problem.
That anger, those feelings of abandonment, of resentment…
They were really his.
The Tchaikovsky suite faded out. The station's next track kicked in: Khachaturian’s famous adagio from Spartacus.
"That was uncalled for," Binghe finally said. "I apologize."
They drove in silence for another two minutes or so.
When Shen Yuan came around to speaking again, his voice was very, very soft.
"You said you were happy as my student?"
Luo Binghe nodded.
"En. Very happy."
“Is Binghe happy now?”
“I don’t know,” Luo Binghe said, which was true. “Is Laoshi happy?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I am. In pockets," Shen Yuan said. "I have a good enough life. It isn't the life I dreamed of, but it's good enough."
Luo Binghe thought he could relate.
"Laoshi," he said, pulling up towards the curb outside of Shen Yuan’s building. "I don’t want to end the night on this note. I… I don’t want things to be awkward between us.”
Shen Yuan unbuckled his seatbelt, but he didn’t move to exit the vehicle.
“Binghe is right,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t be good to leave things like this.”
There was a pause. Luo Binghe settled his big palm over his face, rubbing at the crease between his eyes.
"Look,” Luo Binghe said. “I’m sorry, Laoshi. I really, genuinely am. I've been going about things the wrong way. Acting like everything is the same, like nothing ever happened… I mean... something very clearly did happen, right?"
Shen Yuan didn't say anything, so Binghe kept on talking. It felt good to talk. The interior of Binghe’s car was warm and dark, like a confessional, or a private booth at the Tianqiao Theater.
"You were my teacher," Binghe said, his fingers closing around the inert steering wheel. "I was your student. You taught me well, and I adored you. We ate together almost every single day; coffee and curry, sandwiches and cakes. Then, I watched you seize up in front of me. You yelled and cried — you were sick. It scared me. God, Laoshi, I was so damn scared. I held your hand as we drove to the hospital. Your hand was bone white. That was the last time I ever saw you, you know. Staggering through the hospital parking lot, lurching into the fucking ER. After that, you disappeared from my life. I had to grow up without you. I became a different person without you. And now? We’re strangers.”
Shen Yuan’s gaze slid towards the ground.
"But, still...” Binghe continued, his voice unsteady. “If… if Laoshi can accept the fact that I’m a little different now, a little harder, a little less innocent, a little more grown-up... I’d still like to be close to you. I’d like to know you, Shen Yuan. I'd like to be your student again.”
Shen Yuan lifted his chin. He turned towards Binghe — in the darkness of Binghe's car, his glass-green eyes were very nearly black.
“My student?” Shen Yuan repeated slowly, tasting the shape of each word.
"You want to be my student? Er, again?"
“You’re a professional, Binghe. You’re one of Central Troupe’s lead performers. There’s nothing left I can teach you.”
“I don’t believe that,” Binghe said, a little rough, a little raw.
“Binghe, be objective —”
"You will always have something to teach me," Binghe interrupted, a brittle edge to his tone. "And I will always have something to learn."
Shen Yuan reached up towards Binghe. Binghe jolted minutely, expecting a smack on the head. But the smack never came. Instead, Shen Yuan placed his hand on top of Binghe’s curls. With extreme gentility and tenderness, he began to pat Binghe’s head.
Binghe realized then, belatedly, that he was close to tears.
“Don’t cry, Binghe,” Shen Yuan said. “Don’t cry, please. Alright? Okay? I’ll be your teacher again, okay? Just don’t cry, please. I never know how to act when people cry.”
Binghe laughed. It was an ugly, wet little laugh.
Shen Yuan sighed, cupping Binghe’s cheek with one hand.
"Aiya, all this talk about how hard and tough you've become, and what's this? Such a sensitive flower. Perhaps my little lotus isn't completely lost to me after all?"
“Perhaps,” Binghe said, tearfully, joyfully.
Life went on as usual.
The National Ballet of China kicked into overdrive for their bill of Fall performances: Romeo and Juliet with Luo Binghe and Sha Hualing, The Rite of Spring with Shen Jiu, and an opulent, full-cast production of The Sleeping Beauty . In others words, an endless grind of rehearsals, fittings, and physical training. Busywork.
Now, Luo Binghe was no stranger to busywork. On the contrary, he embraced it.
He’d always like rehearsals. He liked learning new steps. He liked demonstrating his mastery, his aerial superiority before his peers. He liked the strain in his lungs, the stretch in his limbs. He liked working with Sha Hualing, too — his Juliet Capulet for this particular production. Sha Hualing was a hard worker, but she was also exceedingly fun to work with. She was the sort of girl who liked to mix work and play, always giggling and taunting, always quick to toss a quirky little inflection into MacMillan’s ravishing dances.
Luo Binghe loved Romeo and Juliet. Who didn’t love a classic love story? The choreography was passionate, the music was sumptuous, and the male roles were spectacularly dynamic, wrought with short-tempers and raging machismo — rapiers flying from their scabbards in the hot flush of youthful rage —
Also, Liu Qingge made a surprisingly electrifying Mercutio.
On the whole, things were going pretty well for Luo Binghe. He was thriving in his new promotion. His popularity was at an all-time high. His work was gratifying; his coworkers were hugely talented.
Still, Luo Binghe found himself rushing through the days.
Just wait until Friday, he told himself, maneuvering Sha Hualing over his shoulders. Sha Hualing’s long, legwarmer-clad leg unfurled, toes pointed skywards. Just wait until Friday. You can make it.
Life went on as usual —
Save for one key adjustment.
Friday nights meant private lessons with Shen Yuan.
After Friday rehearsals, Luo Binghe threw himself into the Central Troupe locker room with reckless speed. He yanked his clothes off, then shoved his big body into the nearest available shower cubicle. He scrubbed the sweat from his body, anticipation singing in his blood.
Will Shen Laoshi praise me today? Will he pat my head? Or will he scold me and smack me with his fan? Either way, what bliss.
He switched into a fresh pair of clothes — compression leggings and a tee — then sprinted out to his car, cramming a protein bar into his mouth as he pulled out of the parking lot.
Their lessons took place at Shen Yuan’s workplace, Huan Hua University. All things considered, Huan Hua’s dance department was pretty well-equipped. The lecture hall was adjoined to an annex of dedicated practice studios, which students and faculty alike were welcome to book out for their own personal use.
On this particular Friday, Shen Yuan had booked them a two-hour timeslot in Studio C. Luo Binghe moved furtively through the annex, making a concerted effort not to draw any attention to himself. He didn't want to cause a fuss. Shen Yuan disliked fuss.
The annex’s hallways were dusty and sparse. The ceiling fans whirred. The yellow overheads hummed and blinked and peered, gaslamp-bright and desperately in need of a wash. The studio annex was spacious and accommodating, yes, but it was also very obviously old. They’d built the annex in the 70s, and it was pretty clear that the building had never been given any further upgrades more substantial than a fresh coat of paint. The studios themselves were likewise archaic, even reductivist: the floors were wooden, the windows rattled, and the rafters were strewn with old bits of rope.
Objectively, they looked nothing like the state-of-the-art facilities provided by The National Ballet of China. Still, Binghe liked them. They were warm and quiet and kind of mysterious. Like old stage sets.
Luo Binghe entered Studio C. Shen Yuan was already warming up. He was doing some light stretches off the barre: standing turnout, a rotation into a parallel extension…
The years had wearied him, but he could still dance. He still understood movement.
And he seemed to have kept practicing, if only by himself.
"Laoshi," Binghe said, smiling wide. He dropped his bag against the wall, then kneeled down to change into his dance shoes. "Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes."
“Good evening, Binghe. Are you well?”
“Not too tired?”
“No, I’m raring to go!”
"Alright," Shen Yuan said. He straightened up, producing an embroidered fan from the sleeve of his cashmere sweater. "Don't push yourself, alright? I know you've already had a full day of professional rehearsals —"
"Laoshi," Binghe interrupted, hand over his heart. "Please don't underestimate me. My stamina is boundless."
"No one is truly boundless."
"I am! If you asked it of me, Laoshi, I could dance all night.”
“... I’m not asking that.”
“I could run a marathon, Laoshi. I could do forty fouettés without even breaking a sweat. I could do laps around the building! Should I do laps around the building?"
“Binghe, please don’t."
Binghe laughed, boyish and giddy. Shen Yuan turned around, huffing softly. His fan wafted through the air. It was a beautiful fan; red as a New Year’s packet, patterned with upright spider lilies. It was rare to see him with a red fan. In a moment of pure conspiratorial speculation, Binghe wondered if that might mean something.
"The exuberance of youth," Shen Yuan sighed, "is so frightening."
“You’re not so old.”
“I’m not so young, either.”
"You're a beauty in the bloom of youth, Laoshi!" Binghe grinned.
"What beauty? What youth? I'm like one of those ancient Galapagos turtles, hobbling around, licking up moss."
"Laoshi isn't a turtle. Laoshi is… a stalk of bamboo, swaying in the breeze! A classic beauty!"
"Save those lines for your harem girls, demon lord," Shen Yuan said. He pointed to the center of the room. “Come now. Show me what you’ve been working on.”
Luo Binghe rolled his eyes, but strode dutifully into the center of the room nonetheless.
The sky was gaslamp yellow. The light coming through the window was rich and dark. Orange-tinted, umbral. The sun was beginning to go down. It was shimmering against the university’s edifice, a fire-red half-disc — not too dissimilar from Shen Yuan’s folding fan.
Luo Binghe marshalled himself. He dragged one foot over the floor, relishing the subtle scrape of his canvas shoes against the tongue-and-groove floor.
Foot against foot, aligned at the heel. Arms rounded.
Shen Yuan’s green eyes glowed as they passed over Luo Binghe’s body. The black of his pupils were so big, so melty, so molasses-dark... Luo Binghe wanted to tear them out, full-fist, and eat them like St. Catherine’s Day taffy. But he’d never say that out loud.
Shen Yuan would look at him funny.
Luo Binghe’s body began to move, instantaneously recalling the choreography he had drilled with Wei Wuxian and Qi Qingqi earlier that day. It was Romeo’s variation — a late-act declaration of passion.
Promenade, arms outstretched, port de bras! Binghe moved slowly and precisely, soft-shoeing here and there. Shen Yuan’s voice floated over his ears as he moved. It was a cool and patient voice. It carried through the studio with tremendous gravitas.
“Don’t drop your elbows, Binghe. Lift them. Your arms are too heavy, too rigid. You are Romeo, are you not? You’re ecstatic with love. Let love lift you.”
Binghe adjusted, straightening the line of his arms.
“Precisely, Binghe, precisely. Excellent rond de jamb. Now, let the hands carry the motion of the wrist — nice and light, nice and airy. Don’t let your fingers freeze up. Now, plié. Deeper, please. Feel it in your knees. There’s really no need to mask your plié, Binghe! Feel it, and let the audience feel it with you — a moment’s tension before the leap. Mn. I must have it from the top, Binghe. Back to first, if you’d please.”
Over and over, Binghe performed — backtracking, repeating, refining, absorbing Shen Yuan’s critiques into his work.
The experience was nothing short of revelatory. Pure synergy. His heart sang every time Shen Yuan reached out to reposition his arm or demonstrate a gesture — “Follow the line of contact, Binghe.”
It reminded Binghe of his younger days, back before the tabloids and the rose stems and the obsessive fansites. It reminded him of dancing for Shen Yuan inside his dusty little Cang Qiong office; awkward, clumsy feet en relevé on Shen Yuan’s scratchy carpet.
Dancing, Binghe recalled, was harder back then. But walking, talking, smiling, laughing, they were all easier.
“The way you place your fingers,” Shen Yuan noted, “is very different from what I taught you back at Cang Qiong.”
“Ah,” Binghe said, bent over at the waist, catching his breath. “Yes, that.”
“It isn’t technically wrong,” Shen Yuan said. “But it is most certainly a stylistic divergence. Where did you pick that up?”
“It’s Qi Qingqi’s preference,” Luo Binghe said, readjusting his ponytail. “She prefers more exaggerated hand shapes — and a jazzy, bent wrist.”
“That’s a very American affectation.”
“Absolutely,” Shen Yuan said. “It’s very much the prevalent style in New York — very dramatic, claw-like hands.”
Shen Yuan mimed the motion with one hand. Binghe frowned.
"You lived in New York, huh?"
“I did, yes.”
"I’d forgotten about that. How long did you live there?”
“Three years?” Binghe repeated. Just then, it occurred to him that he didn’t know very much about Shen Yuan’s personal history. The thought was a little disquieting. “That’s a long time. Wait, so you speak English?”
“And you're fluent? Fully fluent?"
“Don’t sound so incredulous,” Shen Yuan rolled his eyes, a little Shen Jiu-like. “I was doing some tutoring with the School of American Ballet. Mostly with the younger groups… you know, the 8-to-10s. Informally, I was also something of an in-house interpreter. Within the last few years, there’s been a pretty steep rise in East-West artistic exchanges. For powerhouse institutes like SAB, it’s just good business to have a roster of multilingual instructors on-board.”
“Do you speak any other languages?”
Shen Yuan began to speak some mish-mash European language. Binghe gaped.
“That was a little Russian,” Shen Yuan said. “One of the old ladies at the Russian Tea Room was sweet on me, so she would teach me this-and-that.”
“What does it mean?”
Shen Yuan smiled, “That’s a secret.”
This was the most delicious possible response he could have possibly provided. Binghe braced his hands against his knees, completely overwhelmed by the potent combination of love, fascination, and mystery — a mystery that could only serve to seduce and delight him so long as it remained a mystery.
“You are a polyglot,” Binghe announced. “A world traveller, a Renaissance man.”
Shen Yuan’s smile shifted. It turned a little sad. Wistful, even.
“At any rate, my New York years are long gone.”
“Did you like it there, Laoshi?”
Shen Yuan began to fiddle with his fan.
“Yes and no,” he said. “The New York City Ballet is an extraordinary company, and SAB is an unparalleled institute. But I don’t think on that time in my life very fondly. The work was invigorating, sure, but I was far from home. And… and my health troubles were many.”
“Health troubles?” Binghe struggled to dredge through his memories. “You… had an episode, right? Convulsive status epilepticus.”
“Yes,” Shen Yuan said.
“It put you into the ICU,” Binghe recalled.
“Yes,” Shen Yuan said, rather uncomfortably. There was a replete pause. Then, Shen Yuan cleared his throat, his voice resuming its usual erudite tenor. “Let’s not get into all that. Why don’t we circle back around to our training, do some contact exercises?”
Recognizing an obvious deflection, Binghe’s frown deepened.
“I’m not a kid anymore,” he pointed out. “You can tell me what happened. I won’t get upset.”
Shen Yuan hesitated visibly.
“It’s a downer story.”
“I don’t mind.”
“No, I’m serious. It’s kind of depressing.”
“And I told you, I don’t mind,” Binghe says. “I said it before, didn’t it? I want to get to know you.”
Shen Yuan opened his fan, then shut it again. Deliberation played across his features — Should I? Must I? Can I? An awkward, unhappy silence began to swirl between them. The folding fan flipped open, starkly red against Shen Yuan’s chilly white fingers. Then the fan snapped shut again. Flip, fold. Flip, fold.
Ah, Binghe thought, stomach churning with guilt. I’m making him uncomfortable.
“Sorry,” Luo Binghe said. “I don’t want to pressure you into talking about something painful, Laoshi. I was just...”
“It’s okay,” Shen Yuan said. “I’m, like — ahem. This teacher has never been very good at talking about himself. Perhaps another time.”
Sensing the subtle shift in Shen Yuan’s tone, Binghe decided to let it go.
“Shen Yuan,” Luo Binghe said, straightening back up into the first position. “You are truly an enigma.”
The forlornness between them dissolved.
Shen Yuan chuckled softly.
“Using my given name…” he shook his head. “How very out of character.”
“Oh, don't get me wrong. Shen Laoshi is still Shen Laoshi first and foremost. But I’m growing to like Shen Yuan as well. It trips off the tongue so sweetly.”
“Such bold flattery is wasted on this old turtle,” Shen Yuan said.
“Not a turtle.”
“Definitely a turtle.”
“A very lovely and refined turtle, then,” Luo Binghe argued.
“Like a turtle in a three-piece suit.”
“Er — if you like.”
"A turtle in a three-piece suit, drinking barrel-aged bourbon and smoking a pipe."
“... You aren’t very good at taking compliments, Laoshi.”
“You're right. I'm not,” Shen Yuan said. He rapped his fan against the top of Binghe’s head. It landed soundlessly and painlessly against Binghe’s fluffy hair. “From the top, Binghe. Promenade into port de bras.”
“Mind the elbows.”
“As you say, Laoshi.”
“Lightness, Binghe. You must move very lightly.”
Weekdays in rehearsals.
Friday nights with Shen Yuan.
Saturdays in torment, in ecstasy.
Sundays in the kitchen.
Luo Binghe prepared his instruments, his ingredients, his measurements. A cup of sugar, two large eggs. Two tablespoons of newly-grated lemon zest. (The zests were as fiercely yellow as the absentee sun. They clung to the grater in slick little spirals, curling like a white girl’s prom hair.) Three-quarter cups of lemon squeezings. Three ounces unsalted butter. An eight-inch pie shell, fine-crumbed and flaky — baked and set two hours earlier. Mixed citrus segments, patted dry. A little mascarpone. Raspberry coulis.
He whisked the sugar, the whites, the yolks, the zest. Each constituent part, once so fabulously distinct, began to break down and homogenize. They bled and blended together into one happy yellow slush. Luo Binghe swirled the saucepan over a low heat, dreaming of the days ahead of him.
Will Shen Laoshi like it? Will he smile, touch his lips?
He stirred the butter in one tablespoon at a time.
Will he feed me a bite off his own fork?
He poured the thickened curd through a strainer, watched it settle thickly in its shell: jelly-like, jewel-toned. He tried to busy himself with fantasies: What would it be like to kiss Shen Yuan? Would he be bashful or enthusiastic? Would he be surprised? Would he melt in relief?
… But newer, less seductive questions, began to invade his mind.
Where was Shen Yuan born? Where were his parents? Where did he learn to dance? Why did he move to New York? Luo Binghe piped the mascarpone, stomach churning with a frustration that was half anger.
The more Luo Binghe learned about Shen Yuan, the more he realized he didn’t know.
And had never known.
Was Shen Yuan even single? He seemed to be. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. He’d never mentioned a partner.
Even so, there was no way he’d been living like a monk this whole time. A guy like Shen Yuan probably had an extensive romantic history. After all, he was gorgeous. And intelligent. And gorgeous. And fit. And kind. Also, gorgeous.
But he’d never mentioned any exes, either.
Luo Binghe shoved the completed curd tart into the fridge.
What was Shen Yuan’s relationship to Yue Qingyuan? Who was Shang Qinghua, the second contact on his emergency medical ID? If he only taught in the classroom, how was his body still ballet-ready? Did he have a home studio?
Did Shen Yuan go on dates? Did he watch movies? Did he take on lovers? Did he like to be held? Did he like to be kissed?
And today? If Luo Binghe kissed him today, would he be rejected? Almost certainly, Luo Binghe thought. But would it be a remorseful rejection, or a harsh and angry one? Would he say, “Oh, Binghe, let’s pretend that never happened and just stay friends.” Or would he ghost out of Luo Binghe’s life — this time for good?
Does he still read trashy novels?
Luo Binghe wanted to know.
Autumn marched on. The days greyed and then blackened. The weather turned cold, then colder. The studio annex, which relied on an old-fashioned boiler system, wasn’t particularly well-heated. This didn’t both Luo Binghe, who ran almost preternaturally hot, but it did bother Shen Yuan. He came in wearing large woolen cardigans, swathed in scarves, coffee cup in hand.
Someday, Binghe thought, feeling the deep give of the plié in his knees. I’d like to warm him with my kisses. With my body.
Is that such a fantastical idea? It could happen, right?
Not today, obviously. But maybe someday.
“Shen Laoshi,” Binghe said, watching carefully as Shen Yuan took a swig of his Starbucks. “Have you ever been in love before?”
Boom. Instant spit-take. Shen Yuan choked loudly, spraying coffee all over the studio floor. Luo Binghe waited affectionately as Shen Yuan coughed and wheezed, nose red, eyes watering.
“In — in love?” Shen Yuan wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, clearly struggling to regain his composure. “Why… do you ask?”
Such a thin face! Binghe resisted the urge to grin.
“Well, I’ve been stewing on the nature of love. All for role-related reasons, naturally!"
If this was transparently horseshit, Shen Yuan didn't call him out in it.
“I-Is that so?”
“Most ballets in the classical canon are, in some shape of form, love stories. But Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the purest, most quintessential distillation of romance in dance. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Shen Yuan’s pale face began to pink. He slammed his coffee cup down against the windowsill and started groping through his pockets for his fan.
“Yes, that’s… ahem, likely true…”
He snapped his fan open, lifting it up to conceal his blush.
Too cute! Too cute for words!
“So, have you ever been in love?” Luo Binghe pressed. “Yes or no?”
“Er… I… I don’t think so,” Shen Yuan said. Then, balking at his own response, “That’s a very challenging question. Also, very personal, so...”
“What is Shen Laoshi’s ideal person like?”
“My ideal person?” Shen Yuan blinked above the edge of his fan.
“Your ideal lover.”
“Wh — I don’t know!”
“How would Shen Laoshi like to be loved?"
“E-Enough of this! This is — very inappropriate!”
“You’re blushing, Laoshi.”
“Don’t tease me! I’ll smack you!”
"Go ahead, Laoshi. Smack me to your heart’s content.”
Shen Yuan followed through on his threat. Luo Binghe held his hands up over his face, laughing softly as Shen Yuan’s fan swiped his shoulder, his belly. Thwap, thwap! Shen Yuan’s blows were kitten-light, petulant.
Ah, such a maiden.
… Still, he really did wish Shen Yuan would just answer the question. It wasn’t even a dirty question. Luo Binghe was saving those for later.
“Shameless, shameless, shameless child —”
“I’m only curious!” Luo Binghe countered, defending himself from Shen Yuan’s barrage. “You hardly ever talk about yourself.”
Shen Yuan balked, “Well, I… I told you before — ”
“ — You aren’t good at talking about yourself, I know. But Laoshi, please, I’m dying out here. Give me something,” Luo Binghe pleaded, flashing Shen Yuan his biggest, saddest cow eyes. “Something to whet my appetite. Are you seeing anybody? Do you date?”
Are you in the market for a husband? Maybe one that’s tall, dark, and contextually famous?
Shen Yuan hesitated.
“I… date,” he said. Then, looking rather abashed, he amended himself. “Actually, it’d probably be accurate to say I’ve dated. Past tense.”
“No present tense?”
“I’ve given up on romance,” Shen Yuan said. Then, with a tone of forced joviality, “Love is a young man’s game. I’m an old, sickly turtle, remember?”
“You aren’t even thirty.”
“I will be soon.”
“That still isn’t old.”
“I guess not,” Shen Yuan demurred. “But, still. I’m… I’m not…”
“Very good. At relationships,” he said.
“I’m bad at opening up.”
“You don’t say.”
Shen Yuan gave him a fresh smack for that. Luo Binghe took it amicably.
“At any rate, there’s your answer,” Shen Yuan said, recomposing himself. “No. No, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the grand, supernal love embodied by MacMillan’s dances. Or Shakespeare’s poetry, for that matter.”
“That’s a shame, Laoshi.”
“I suppose,” Shen Yuan said doubtfully. He tapped his fan against the palm of his opposite hand. “Has Binghe… has Binghe ever..?”
The ensuing silence was potent.
Luo Binghe rocked back and forth on his heels, deliberating. A confession lay heavy at the tip of his tongue. Should I? Should I tell him?
It was too soon.
Shen Yuan would definitely, definitely reject him.
“Ah, Laoshi!” Luo Binghe forced a grin. He tipped his head back and began to laugh. This, too, was forced. But Luo Binghe’s dramatic chops were second to none. “Who’s the shameless one now?”
Shen Yuan’s face went red.
“Enough! Forget I asked! Get into first position!”
“No more questions! We’re doing drills!”
Luo Binghe rolled his eyes, but did as he was asked. He backed into the center of the studio, assuming a balletic stance, ready for Shen Yuan’s orders to come raining down.
He couldn’t complain too much. He was just happy to see Shen Laoshi looking so lively, so hale. There was colour in his cheeks. Celerity and swiftness in the beat of his fan. He looked healthier now than he did five years ago.
He’d eaten his lemon tart with gusto.
… Maybe Shen Laoshi really was better-suited to the life of an academic, cloistered in a little office, grading papers.
That’s what Shen Jiu would say, right?
Four Fridays passed.
Each Friday was more gorgeous than the last. Sure, the days were growing colder and uglier — the grass turned sick and yellow, the ground froze into dusty concrete. But the love inside of Binghe was glowing. Like the embers off an old-fashioned hearth, or the smouldering bud of a newly-lit cigarette.
Luo Binghe, of course, didn’t smoke. But Sha Hualing did sometimes, and Binghe liked the smell of it. A cottony, controlled burn. A rasp on the throat. It was nasty, but sweet.
On the fifth Friday, Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan arrived at the Huan Hua studio annex at the exact same time. The exact same moment, even. They converged on the front steps, bundled in their coats and their scarves. Luo Binghe’s scarf was Burberry. Shen Yuan’s was thick and monstrously large. Fully unspooled, it would have reached his ankles.
Above their heads, the soft black Beijing sky was completely starless. The rain was spitting at them disinterestedly, half-heartedly; cold, but not hard. Shen Yuan blew on his fingertips to warm them. Luo Binghe smiled at him. He opened the door for Shen Yuan, and the two went inside together.
Romeo and Juliet would be premiering next week.
Next would be Rite of Spring. Then, The Sleeping Beauty. Then, they'd grind their way through Nutcracker season.
What would spring bring? Swan Lake, perhaps?
They shuffled into the studio Shen Yuan had booked out.
“Laoshi, you look like you’re in a good mood,” Luo Binghe said.
“Hm. You think?” Shen Yuan unwound his scarf, which was patchy and dark with rainwater.
“Smiling? Am I really?”
“You didn’t realize?”
“... This teacher was simply daydreaming. Pay him no mind.”
Slowly, Shen Yuan began to wring out his scarf, letting the excess water drip down to the hardwood floor.
“Laoshi, there’s one last thing I’d like to practice,” Luo Binghe said, letting his coat fall to the floor.
“The balcony scene.”
Shen Yuan bent down against the wall. He set his scarf against the studio’s single radiator to dry, then shucked his boots. He reached into his bag and pulled out a crumpled pair of canvas flats. They were well-worn, black at the bottom.
“That’s a pas de deux,” he said. His tone was cool, metered. “A duet.”
“I’d love to give you my thoughts, but we’d obviously need a third person in the studio. A ballerina.”
“It’s a duet. You can’t dance a duet with thin air.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Luo Binghe said sadly. He pretended to think about it. “Maybe... you could dance it with me?”
Shen Yuan blinked, “Me?”
“Yes! Does Laoshi know the choreography?”
“Well…” Shen Yuan hesitated. “I do, but...”
“Then let’s dance!”
Shen Yuan shook his head.
“Juliet is a fairly complex role,” he countered. “I wouldn’t be a good partner.”
“I think you’d be a wonderful partner.”
Shen Yuan just kept shaking his head harder and harder.
“Juliet is traditionally danced on pointe —”
“There’s no need to fuss.”
“And I’d most certainly need to hear the music —”
“I can play the score on my phone!”
“I’m very rusty,” Shen Yuan said. “I haven’t danced with another human being… in…”
His voice died out as he struggled for words. Stymied, his eyes slid towards the floor. He seemed to be badly missing his fan, which was lost somewhere in the damp bundle of his overcoat.
Oh, Laoshi! Luo Binghe’s heart melted.
“That’s okay,” he said, as gentle as could be. “It’s just you and me today, Laoshi. No one will be judging you. All you need to do is judge me, my lifts, my movements.”
“I don’t know…”
“Please, Laoshi? Just this once?”
Shen Yuan glanced at the floor.
“Fine,” he finally acquiesced. “Fine. But you aren’t allowed to laugh at me!”
“Laoshi, I would never!”
“Even if I trip and fall —”
“Laoshi,” Luo Binghe said. “Don’t be silly. I would catch you.”
Luo Binghe streamed Prokofiev’s score from his phone. It was a little tinny, a little echoey, but it would do. The sound of strings filled their cold, leaky little studio. Romeo and Juliet, Op.64. The lovers meet on the balcony.
Luo Binghe really adored this score. The shivering, tense viola d’amore , the Italianate instruments, the aesthetic forays into commedia dell’arte . It made him think of Quattrocento architecture; of meeting with a lover at a fountain’s lip, or in a deserted piazza… or, more aptly, the marbled shade of a bedroom balcony.
There was playfulness here, yes. Playfulness and passion. The giddy discovery of love — matched with euphoric, spine-tingling dips and lifts.
It'd be the first duet Luo Binghe ever performed with the man he loved.
Hopefully, it wouldn't be the last.
Shen Yuan approached Binghe with a dancer's fluid, accented stride. There was some shyness there. Poise. Timidity, curiosity, a deerlike hesitation. He lifted himself on the tips of his toes in imitation of a ballerina’s en pointe posture. He took slow, skating steps into Luo Binghe’s arms, following the rhythm of Prokofiev’s score.
He was soft and beautiful.
He smelled of peppermint.
“You look like you’re about to eat me alive,” Shen Yuan said, tilting into an arabesque. “Is this — part of the performance? A character choice? Or is that just you?”
“Who can say?”
Binghe supported Shen Yuan by the waist, bringing him around for a twist, a dip — legs extended, wrists accented. Shen Yuan closed his eyes as Binghe maneuvered him up into an over-the-shoulder lift. He let himself melt into the line of Binghe’s body. Feeling the height, motion, the open air below. Flowing and releasing.
With a birdlike lightness, Shen Yuan landed back on his feet.
He laid his spine flat against Luo Binghe’s.
“Laoshi,” Luo Binghe murmured, awed. “You are incredible.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true. You are.”
Shen Yuan turned and spiraled up, still in the grip of the motion, and then he was facing Luo Binghe. His face was quite red, and he was breathing hard.
“You’re the one who’s amazing,” Shen Yuan said.
“You think so?”
“When you dance, it’s so — intense. It commands the room. Like a spell or a geas or something.”
“I wish I was,” Shen Yuan said. “I remember watching you at the gala… tearing up the stage as The Firebird. The way you threw yourself into that performance, the look in your eyes, so hungry and so wild — it was, it was almost grotesque. Like watching someone succumb to madness.”
“You called me frightening.”
“I did,” Shen Yuan said. “And I meant it.”
“Do I still frighten you?”
“Yes,” Shen Yuan said. “Yes, you terrify me.”
And he kissed Luo Binghe boldly.
Was it a good kiss? Probably not. Shen Yuan’s kiss was rushed, clumsy. Sloppy, even. But there was an earnestness, a desperation to it that was kindling to Luo Binghe’s flame. Luo Binghe surged into the kiss. Shen Yuan’s lips were soft and warm, quite warm, like he was running a fever.
Something deep down inside of Luo Binghe snapped. Some thread of civility.
Luo Binghe grabbed Shen Yuan by the shoulders, shoving him back up against the studio wall. The kiss grew manic, frenzied. Luo Binghe shoved his tongue into Shen Yuan’s mouth, kissing him with a blind, animal force; conquering, rapacious. He licked into Shen Yuan’s mouth, his tongue slick and greedy. He clawed at Shen Yuan through his sweater, shoved his thigh between Shen Yuan’s parted legs —
Shen Yuan’s body felt amazing against his own. So tight and lean. God.
Luo Binghe wanted to tear Shen Yuan apart. He wanted to get at the very cells that formed him. He wanted to strip Shen Yuan down then and there. He wanted to pin Shen Yuan down against the studio floor and fuck him till he cried, till he bled, till he begged for mercy...
And then Luo Binghe realized that Shen Yuan’s legs were spasming. Both of them.
His right arm, too, was skittering strangely over Luo Binghe’s shoulder.
Luo Binghe was slapped with a sense of sudden, staggering horror. Panicked, he reared back. He could see that Shen Yuan could barely stand under his own power. Shen Yuan’s neck, so lovely and so kissable, was twitching, bent at an odd angle, and something seemed to have frozen in his face. The look in his eyes — it was true fear, true terror, true hopelessness.
He was having a clonic seizure.
Luo Binghe did the only thing he could do.
He pulled Shen Yuan into his arms, guiding him down slowly onto his side.
Shen Yuan was conscious, eyes wide open. There were tears in his eyes, but Binghe didn’t know what he was crying about. Maybe frustration, maybe despair, maybe hatred. Maybe he was crying out of yearning for the things disability had taken from him. Maybe he was crying because, somewhere in his seizing, electrified brain, some random synapse had fired off an arbitrary command to his tear glands. But maybe he was crying out of fear.
… Luo Binghe was vaguely reminded of another incident, long ago, back in his boyhood. Holding Shen Yuan just like this while Shen Yuan jerked and moaned; the both of them crying, united in misery.
Hot tears began to prickle at his Luo Binghe. He was overwhelmed with self-loathing. He felt truly, truly ashamed — unworthy of touching Shen Yuan is a moment of such deep vulnerability.
Taking advantage of Shen Yuan… when Shen Yuan wasn’t in his right mind...
It was unforgivable.
Still, he cradled Shen Yuan’s head carefully as his body thrashed. He twitched and jerked, face wet with tears, lips bitten and bruised. He looked… small. Small and weak. Like a prey animal.
Luo Binghe began to think of his own body, which was big and strong and healthy. He had broad shoulders, a muscled torso, thick thighs, big hands, a good back. With his ballet body, honed to deliver at the peak of human performance, he would never feel weak. He would never feel old or ugly or malformed.
He would never really understand what Shen Yuan was feeling.
He could only guess.
Luo Binghe watched the dial tick away on Shen Yuan’s wristwatch. About a minute passed. Then, the shaking stopped. After another minute, Shen Yuan began stirring weakly. He tried to speak, too — but it was word-slurry nonsense. Word salad; like a temporary aphasia. Where, gege, I am, I am, wait, understand, Romeo, don’t, gone. A focal seizure?
Luo Binghe realized he was very much out of his depth. He reached around and eased Shen Yuan’s watch off of his wrist, turning it over to squint down at the medical ID. The bright red text winked up at him cheerfully.
MEDICAL ALERT: EPILEPSY (GENERALIZED EPILEPSY WITH PARTIAL AND TONIC-CLONIC SEIZURES)
THIS IS NOT MY FIRST SEIZURE. DO NOT RESTRAIN. DIAL 120 IF SEIZURES LAST LONGER THAN 5 MINUTES.
Just below, there were a pair of emergency numbers. Shang Qinghua and Shen Jiu.
Luo Binghe reached for his own cellphone. He punched Shen Jiu’s number into the keypad, then lifted it up to his ear, letting the dial tone chirp and trill.
Shen Yuan pawed at Luo Binghe blearily.
“... Where? Why? Don’t, I don’t understand…”
Me neither, Binghe thought, his stomach sinking with dread.
The line clicked through.
The rest of the night went like this:
Shen Jiu picked Shen Yuan up from the university, glaring daggers. Shen Yuan slouched off into his car, looking equal parts unhappy and unfocused. Neither of them said anything to Binghe.
Which was fine, probably.
Binghe picked his coat up off the floor. He shoved his dance shoes back into his bag, carried it out to his car, crammed it into the passenger seat. He buckled in. He drove home, radio off, wheels groaning and grinding over the nightmare-black asphalt. He parked his car, locked it, climbed up to his fancy fucking apartment, shoved his shit into the closet… his bag, his coat, everything else.
Luo Binghe stood there in the threshold, hands braced against the closet door. A little wild-eyed, he threw his gaze all over the apartment, eyes pinging back and forth from object to object. He looked at the boutique appliances in the kitchen, the wine cooler full of cabernet sauvignon, the impressive titles of his cedar bookshelf, the blackout curtains he’d matched to the sofa. He looked at it all, taking everything in — and he realized that, on some level, he had chosen all of it with Shen Yuan in mind.
All of it. The throw pillows, the antique dresser near the door, the carpet. The overpriced candles. When he’d picked the sofa out, he had fantasized about curling up on it with Shen Yuan. When he’d purchased the wine fridge, he’d daydreamed about breaking into a vintage pinot grigio with Shen Yuan. When he’d bought those books, he hadn’t been genuinely interested in reading them: he’d only wanted to show off his good taste and good manners, to be showered in awe and lavish praise. Binghe, you’ve read Proust? Ah, my student has studied well.
Even Luo Binghe’s bedsheets, which were a dark, fruity red, had been chosen with Shen Yuan in mind. As he fitted them onto the mattress, he’d contemplated just how beautifully Shen Yuan’s pale skin would stand in contrast… how fetching he’d be, lying naked and wanting in Luo Binghe’s bed...
Luo Binghe could’ve smacked himself in the face.
You self-delusional piece of shit.
He kept thinking about the kiss.
Shen Yuan’s lips. His scent. His body, pinned between Luo Binghe’s bulk and the studio wall. It had been so easy to overpower him, to dominate him. So simple.
… Ravishing a man in the middle of a seizure…
He was seriously the lowest of the low.
There must have been warning signs, right? Early-onset symptoms? Shen Yuan’s bouts of daydreaming, his flushed face. His bizarre mood.
As if Shen Yuan would ever kiss Luo Binghe in his right mind! Ha! What a joke. God. He really was delusional.
Would Shen Yuan ever want to see him again? It was unlikely. By now, he’d probably made a full assessment of what kind of man Luo Binghe had become: a pervert and a brute, lacking in both common decency and self-control.
Luo Binghe dropped into the kitchen chair, head in his hands.
“What do you like about ballet, little Binghe?”
“I like to move, I guess.”
“If that’s all there is to 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.”
“I don’t know.”
The week dragged on.
Shen Yuan stopped answering Luo Binghe’s calls.
What do you like about ballet, little Binghe?
What do you like about ballet, little Binghe?
What do you like about ballet, little Binghe?
What do you like about ballet, little Binghe?
Premiere night arrived.
The Tianqiao theater was full of hivelike activity. Assistants, makeup artists, costumiers. Corps de ballet girls with Venetian blue ribbons.
Luo Binghe staggered through the wreck, woozy with emotion. Someone had wrangled him into his costume — dark trousers stitched from an athletic material, a flowy white shirt, a fitted coat. Every now and then, a girl flitted by and patted foundation and powder into his cheeks. It was a different girl every time. He didn’t recognize a single one of their faces, though they all seemed to know his.
“Good luck, Luo Binghe!”
"Luo Binghe, your harem is rooting for you!"
"Luo Binghe, break a leg out there!"
Luo Binghe wanted to puke.
Backstage, Sha Hualing was showing off some fouettés for the stagehands, who oohed and aahed as her diaphanous white dress fanned out all around her. Liu Qingge was having what looked like a very serious exchange with the prop director, who appeared to be sweating buckets. Shen Jiu was shut up in his dressing room, contemplating the mirror.
Qi Qingqi clicked through, her Louboutins striking the floor with a resonant echo.
"Our first week of performances is fully booked," Qi Qingqi boasted, giving Luo Binghe a light shove on the shoulder. "Apparently, Jin Guangshan reserved a private booth for opening night."
“Luo Binghe, please. Don’t you pay any attention to politics?”
"Is he… a Minister, or…."
“Ugh, you are incorrigible,” Qi Qingqi sighed. She began fussing with the front lapel of Luo Binghe’s costume. “You look pasty. You aren’t nervous, are you? You’re sleeping alright, aren’t you? Is it just the makeup? Hmph. It’s the makeup, isn’t it? Well, regardless — sit down, have a sip of water. You’ve still got forty-five minutes before you’ve got to take the stage. Get comfortable. But not too comfortable. You understand?”
“Of course,” Luo Binghe said, though he hadn’t been listening at all.
She clicked off into the wings.
Luo Binghe began to wander.
He padded through the crossover, winding up towards the backstage green room. An assistant producer was whispering furiously into his mic. Two violinists were entrenched in a heated argument. Ballet girls, the chorus girls and coryphees, huddled in front of a shared dressing room, examining their eyebrows in front of one long and greasy mirror. The mirror was trumpeted with Christmas-size light bulbs, and Luo Binghe hated looking at it.
A few of the ballet girls cast bug-eyed glances back at Binghe. They whispered his name in awe. They batted their eyelashes. Catching Luo Binghe’s eye, they knew, would put them on the career fast-track. Luo Binghe could shower them with gifts and privileges, lift them out of obscurity, secure them global renown.
As a whole, they were very pretty. Some of them were probably even beautiful.
Luo Binghe drifted on.
There was a man tinkering away in the fly section, making micro-readjustments to the rope pulleys. Prop directors were drinking in the workshop, laughing boisterously, preemptively celebrating their success. Liu Mingyan was curled up by the dimmer room, reading a paperback book in her gauzy costume.
Luo Binghe wandered on, and on, until he ended up outside Shen Jiu’s dressing room.
Because of course he did.
Outside Shen Jiu’s dressing room.
Luo Binghe stared in through the semi-open door. Like always, Shen Jiu was folded up at the vanity, examining his painted face in the mirror. He was wearing a dark red overcoat, embroidered here-and-there with black and gold detailing. His silky hair was plaited neatly over his shoulder. His scabbard — Tybalt’s scabbard — was hanging menacingly off the wall nearby. He looked like a little Medici lordling.
Beautiful and bored.
Luo Binghe’s heart panged with a deep, yawning longing.
Shen Jiu looked so much like Shen Yuan. Sharper, perhaps. Thornier, edgier. But still — so close. Close enough to hurt.
“Good evening, Shen Jiu,” Luo Binghe called out. He couldn’t resist.
Shen Jiu glanced at Luo Binghe. Then, he glanced back towards the mirror, unimpressed. He didn’t say anything at all.
Luo Binghe moved into Shen Jiu’s dressing room. He shut the door behind him, cutting the two of them off from the rest of the theater.
“Your costume is incredible,” Luo Binghe said brightly. “I never knew you could look so good in red!”
“Get lost,” Shen Jiu said.
“You’re going to be brilliant tonight, I’m sure of it.”
“Just get lost.”
“Tybalt is a great role. Hey, no hard feelings when I murder you onstage, right?”
“Binghe, I’m seriously not in the mood for this. Get the fuck out of my dressing room.”
“You know, I bet if you died for real out there, nobody in the audience would even notice at first. They’d just assume it was part of the show. They’d clap and cheer while someone hauled your bleeding body offstage. Hey, will Shen Yuan be watching tonight? Where is he? Is he okay?”
Shen Jiu turned around in his seat, “God, what is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” Luo Binghe said suddenly. “Sorry. I really don’t know.”
Shen Jiu hugged the back of his chair, studying Luo Binghe intensely.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re a fucking mess.”
Luo Binghe accepted this assessment silently. Shen Jiu turned back around and started dabbing at his makeup.
“You and me both,” Shen Jiu went on, a touch quieter. He reached into the dresser drawer for his perfume. “If you must know, didi is fine. He took a few days off to recover, but he’s already back in the classroom — no doubt boring his students to tears with talk of Vaganova and Karsavina. His health is fragile, sure, but that’s nothing new. Emotionally? Well, he’s pretty clearly upset, though he does a good job of hiding it. I have no idea what happened between the two of you that night at the studio. I can only assume you did something to offend him.”
Luo Binghe’s face burned with shame.
“I’ll take your silence as confirmation,” Shen Jiu went on, turning his perfume over in his hands. “Of course, it comes as no surprise to me that you’d fuck things up with my brother. I always knew you were a brute.”
“I don’t want to be a brute," Luo Binghe said.
“I don’t believe you have a choice in the matter. There’s no overwriting nature.”
“... Hey. Is Yue-qianbei still going through with that move?"
There was a pause. Shen Jiu toyed with Nombre Noir's atomizer.
“He is,” Shen Jiu said.
“Yes,” Shen Jiu said. Then, somewhat abruptly, "He asked me to move in with him, you know. To join him in his fancy new house."
"Mn. He was cloyingly sincere."
"What did you tell him?"
“I declined,” Shen Jiu said. “Naturally.”
“You declined? Why?"
Shen Jiu bowed his head. His expression was strange; tight with something akin to hurt.
“Because I get what he’s trying to do,” he said. “Qi-ge wants to put an end to the instability in his life. He wants to — to settle down. He wants a big house with a backyard, a garden, a mortgage, two kids and a dog. He wants job security. He wants to put down roots. He wants to walk in the park and feed the pigeons. He wants to get married. But I don’t think that could ever be me. I don't think I could ever be… whatever it is he's looking for.”
Shen Jiu sprayed both wrists. The scent of damask roses wafted up towards Binghe.
“So, I guess I’m commiserating,” Shen Jiu said. “We’re the same, in the end. We’re pathetic wrecks. We’re loathsome scum. We’re miserable. Miserable, miserable people. But you know what? Despite all that, we’re both going to get onstage tonight and dance our stupid hearts out. We’re going to deliver at the highest capacity of human performance, we’re going to move the crowd to tears, and we’re going to bring the whole fucking house down. Because we are professionals. And that’s just what we do.”
Shen Jiu stood up, rounded on Binghe, and kissed him softly on the lips.
It didn’t feel like much at all, but it was still surprising.
"What was that for?" Luo Binghe asked.
Shen Jiu shrugged. He lifted his leg up onto the chair and started readjusting the straps on his dance shoes, tugging the elastic a little tighter over his ankles.
“No reason at all,” he said curtly. “Now, seriously. Get out the hell of my fucking dressing room.”
Luo Binghe backed up towards the door.
He touched his fingers to his lips, processing what had been discussed. Shen Jiu’s heartache, Shen Yuan’s health. His own dull, thudding pain; his guilt, his shame. Then he thought about the Tianqiao Theater’s 1600 seats. He thought about the adoring crowds that would very soon be filing into the theater, eager to get their fill of world-class ballet.
They deserved a good show.
Luo Binghe opened the door, shouldering his way through the threshold. He glanced back at Shen Jiu, who was still fiddling uselessly with his custom-sized Capezios. His dark, silky plait swayed against his narrow back with the hypnotic swish of a cat’s tail.
“Shen-qianbei,” he said. “You’ve got it all wrong. You’re already what Yue Qingyuan is looking for.”
Positions, people! Five minutes!
From beyond the curtain, Luo Binghe could hear the low murmur of a sold-out crowd. He could hear the musicians settling into place, flipping through their sheet music and clicking their instrument cases open. He could hear the soft thudding of feet travelling up and down the aisles; ushers, security guards, disoriented theatergoers searching for their seats.
Backstage, the ballet girls were shoving last-minute bobby pins into stiff, gelled-back hair. Qi Qingqi’s heels clicked this way and that way. Sha Hualing, standing en relevé in her pearl-white pointe shoes, bent over and hocked a piece of lime green gum out into a tissue.
Luo Binghe went across the stage, finding his starting position. He brought one foot up against the other, aligned at the heel. Arms rounded. Spine ramrod.
The stage was dark, cordoned by the oppressive velvet curtain. Beyond that blockade — the crowds were beginning to hush. The anticipation was building.
Then the music began to swell. Violas, cellos, horns, percussion. A lone harpist, plucking at her strings with lonesome whimsy. Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona...
It occurred to Luo Binghe that Shen Yuan could be out in the crowd tonight. Just maybe. Yue Qingyuan could’ve invited him again. Yue Qingyuan was never one to deny a Shen his pleasures.
Because Shen Yuan loved this ballet. He loved it. He loved MacMillan’s choreography. He loved Prokofiev’s score. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Qi Qingqi’s directorial work. He loved Central Troupe’s bold, glamorous sets.
Maybe he would come.
Just for the show.
The curtain rose. The stage lights illuminated Luo Binghe, giving him an iridescent glow. A halo. His eyes flew over the rows and rows of rapt audience members. Out in the dark, they all seemed to blur into an indistinguishable mass.
Laoshi, Binghe thought. It’s okay if you hate me. It’s okay if you never want to see me again. It’s okay if you think I’m gross or weird or scary. But if you’re out there, I want you to know...
Tonight, I’m dancing for you.
Prokofiev’s strings warbled, and Luo Binghe leapt with blind force. He yanked his Juliet over his shoulder for a reckless, hungry lift. Sha Hualing’s eyes gleamed with wicked interest. She saw his fire. His desperation. She took it in hand, and she matched it; her body taut as an elastic, ready to snap. Luo Binghe surged across the stage, attacking each step with renewed energy. He danced wildly, danced madly, letting wordless, nameless emotion conquer and control his body — lovefearhatredlustenvytenderness —
He kissed his Juliet as if smothering a bird.
It was, in Shen Yuan’s own words, probably grotesque. It was probably scary. It was probably a little disconcerting, a little hard to watch.
But Luo Binghe had never danced harder in his life.
True to Shen Jiu’s promise, they brought the house down.
The cheering and stamping and whistling hurt Luo Binghe’s ears. Up on their feet, the audience begged and hollered for an encore. You’d never heard such an awful din. Sha Hualing giggled delightedly as she ran up to take her bows; exhausted, yet full of zeal. She was grinning and bowing, cradling an armful of flowers, yelling hoarsely over the crowd.
Luo Binghe was yelling too: “Thank you so much! Thank you for everything, Beijing! Thank you for everything, Yue Qingyuan! Thank you for everything Ning Yingying! Thank you for everything, Ming Fan! Thank you or everything, Sha Hualing! Thank you for everything, Shen Jiu! Thank you for everything, Shen Yuan! I love you!”
But the theater was too loud.
Nobody could hear him.
Luo Binghe exited stage right, winding through the wings. Theater staffers clapped him on the back as he went — Bravo! Bravo! A couple of the makeup girls were still crying. The finale had, apparently, broken them.
A couple staffers tried to offer Luo Binghe champagne. Qi Qingqi tried to invite him to some kind of VIP after-party. Luo Binghe wasn’t even remotely in the mood. He wanted a hot bath, a bowl of rice, and a good night’s sleep.
Luo Binghe strode past the green room, past the catwalk, and pushed his way into his dressing room.
Shen Yuan was waiting inside. He was tall and pale and warmly-dressed, like a vision of all future Novembers. He was wearing a very beautiful, very downy coat trimmed with fur. In one arm, he was carrying a a thick bundle of small white flowers — baby’s breath, maybe. He was standing slightly stooped over, examining Luo Binghe’s corkboard. His fingers were framing the edges of the Degas postcard he’d sent so many years ago. His expression was indescribable. Wholly indescribable.
Luo Binghe hesitated in the doorway.
What could he possibly say?
Should he grovel on all fours? Should he make polite conversation? Should he pretend nothing had ever happened?
The kiss. Shen Yuan’s seizure. Should he laugh it off?
“Yue Qingyuan let me backstage,” Shen Yuan said, turning to face Luo Binghe. He held the bouquet out in illustration. “I just thought I’d drop this off.”
“I…” Luo Binghe stared at the bouquet, uncomprehending. “You got me flowers?”
Luo Binghe went on staring at those flowers.
“Why?” he asked.
It was a stupid question, but an earnest one. Shen Yuan coughed delicately, perhaps trying to save face. He had such a thin face.
“You worked very hard, and… you performed very well tonight,” he said
“You think I did well?” Luo Binghe repeated, stunned. He took an uncertain step closer, eyeing the flowers. The theater’s in-house florist didn’t sell baby’s breath. They sold roses.
“You heard that crowd, didn’t you?”
Of course he did.
… But it actually meant something, coming from Shen Yuan.
Shen Yuan cleared his throat. He turned away from the corkboard and set the flowers down against Luo Binghe’s dresser table. They made a dry rustling sound.
“Well, I won’t trouble you any further,” he said. “But before I go, I wanted to apologize properly.”
Luo Binghe blinked, lost.
“For forcing myself on you,” Shen Yuan said. He words were carefully metered. Rehearsed? “I was in an unbecoming state, and I made an error of judgement. I hope you can forgive me. It was never my intention to make you uncomfortable.”
“I kissed you,” Shen Yuan said. Quite plainly. “It was inappropriate of me. I regret it.”
Luo Binghe’s stomach churned. Of course Laoshi regretted it. Of course he did.
“Laoshi, you were sick,” Luo Binghe said softly. “You were having a seizure. I — I’m the one who was at fault! I assure you, I am — appalled by my own actions, I am overwhelmed with regret —”
Shen Yuan’s expression flashed with some strange emotion. Hurt?
“I — I know you didn’t mean anything by it!” Luo Binghe added quickly, desperate to somehow dig himself out of this hole. “I mean, for me, there’s no way you actually… actually feel...”
There was a beat. The silence was deafening.
Shen Yuan coughed again. His face was beginning to turn somewhat red.
“If I’ve offended you beyond all reasonable repair, I completely understand,” he said. “I only hope we can part ways with our mutual dignity intact.”
“I’ve taken enough of your time,” Shen Yuan said, sidestepping Luo Binghe. He nodded cordially. “Have a pleasant evening, Luo Binghe.”
Shen Yuan just brushed past Luo Binghe, heading for the door. Luo Binghe was rooted in place, paralyzed. The scent of peppermint oil clouded his mind.
Shen Yuan had always favoured the scent of peppermint, which was a natural salve for headaches and joint pain. Shen Yuan applied it to his wrists and shoulders, and the scent followed him wherever he went. Sometimes, the smell was fiery in its coolness; pure and sharp as leaves, super concentrated, super invigorating. Sometimes — and today, this was the case — it ceded softly to other smells: the downy, musty scent of winter wools, the salty-sweetness of Shen Yuan’s skin, the creamy aftershock of white baby’s breath...
Luo Binghe turned around, eyes firmly trained on the small of Shen Yuan’s back.
“Laoshi,” he said, staring at the small of Shen Yuan’s back. “You know I have feelings for you, right?”
Shen Yuan froze. His hand hovered above the door handle, but he didn’t move to turn it.
The moment hung between then, suspended in amber. Then, Luo Binghe took a step closer. His canvas shoes rasped against the dressing room floor. His heart felt — tight, tight and strangely painful.
“Laoshi,” Binghe said, torn open, “I love you. I’ve loved you since I was a little boy.”
Shen Yuan was very, very still.
Luo Binghe ventured another step closer, closing the gap pace by pace.
“Laoshi, if you don’t feel the same, I perfectly understand — but — but I want you to know — I need to you to know —”
Shen Yuan turned around sharply.
“You’re making fun of me,” Shen Yuan said. He tossed his head angrily, and the rich colour of it glistened beneath the dressing room’s yellow lights.
“You are,” Shen Yuan snapped. He shook his head slowly, pressing his hand to his lips. “I — I don’t appreciate this, Binghe. At least allow an old teacher — a moment’s self-respect —”
“Shen Laoshi, I love you.”
“You can’t!” Shen Yuan said, his voice rising somewhat abruptly. His expression morphed, turning strangely aghast. “You’re — you’re the demon king of Central Troupe! You could have your pick of girls —”
“I’d rather have you.”
Shen Yuan just kept shaking his head.
“Why — why would you say… something like that…”
“Because it’s true,” Luo Binghe said. “Shen Yuan. I love you. I’ve always loved you. I probably always will — I just don’t know how to stop. I’m sorry.”
He reached forwards, tentative, and cupped Shen Yuan’s cheek with one hand.
“Is it okay for me to love you?” he asked.
Shen Yuan closed his eyes, turning his cheek into Binghe’s palm, “Binghe…”
“If you don’t feel the same — that’s okay. I understand. But if there’s a chance, even a chance…”
“I feel —” Shen Yuan’s face went rosy-red. “I…”
A bated breath.
Then, perhaps predictably, Shen Yuan reached out and smacked Binghe on the shoulder, open-palmed.
“I’m not!” Smack. “Good!” Smack. “At talking about my feelings!”
Binghe fended his blows joyfully, “But you have them? Feelings? For me?”
“ — Of course I do! How could I not? How could anyone not? Look at you! With your ridiculous muscles! Ridiculous, ridiculous Binghe —”
Binghe thought his heart might explode.
“I want to kiss you again," he blurted out, surging up against Shen Yuan eagerly. "Properly.”
“You don’t have to declare it,” Shen Yuan said.
“But I want your permission,” Binghe said. He framed Shen Yuan’s face between his hands, backing Shen Yuan up slowly against the doorframe. “Shen Yuan. Is it okay if I kiss you?"
Shen Yuan’s eyes fluttered shut.
Luo Binghe leaned down, savouring the heavy, expectant pause preceding the kiss. He kept his eyes wide open, trained on Shen Yuan’s face. Shen Yuan’s eyelids were flickering ever slightly, like mothwings. Like he was dreaming. His lashes were mothball-soft, gossamer-like, coal-coloured… he seemed to be holding his breath.
Luo Binghe leaned down.
It was a chaste kiss. At first, anyone. Luo Binghe’s lips slanted against Shen Yuan’s, soft and dry. Inquisitive. Then, Shen Yuan’s arms slid up, winding around Luo Binghe’s shoulders, urging him nearer. Deeper. Shen Yuan parted his lips, and Binghe eagerly took the dive. He kissed Shen Yuan breathless, his tongue sliding up against Shen Yuan’s. In Luo Binghe’s big, silent dressing room, the wet sounds of kissing was magnified tenfold.
It all sounded so — so naughty.
Shen Yuan ducked out of the kiss, panting. His face was flushed.
“You reek of sweat,” he said, gripping Luo Binghe’s thick hair.
Luo Binghe smiled like a dope.
“I just danced a full ballet and three encores.”
“... You still reek,” Shen Yuan said. There was a glint of light in his dark green eyes. “But you can still take me home. If you like.”
Take me home.
A shiver raced its way down Luo Binghe’s spine. Ecstatic, he leaned back down to kiss the corner of Shen Yuan’s mouth.
“I do,” he said.
A little anecdotal anthropology for you.
About ten years ago, there was this American neuroscientist who’d experienced a massive stroke. A blood vessel erupted somewhere in the left side of her brain, causing the language center of her brain to completely shut down. Consequently, for a period of about three hours, she lost all concept of language.
Words lost all meaning. Her thoughts lost structure, preordained shape. She lost all relation to herself and the external, physical world.
What remained — was pure emotion. The raw, instinctive responses of the right-side brain, untethered to language, to contextual meaning.
In later interviews, she described this state as one of pure joy.
I found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before ... pure silence ... you know that little voice that says, "Ah, man, the sun is shining"? Imagine you don't hear that little voice ... you just experience the sun and the shining.
Now, Luo Binghe had never experienced a massive stroke.
But he felt he could relate.
Because that was dance, wasn’t it? Danced lived and breathed at the limits of language. A good, well-performed dance flirted with the death of language — tapping into something primitive, something raw and sensual and deeply animal. Pure id.
Where words fail, the body speaks.
… Sex wasn’t so different.
“Binghe! You’re too — too big —”
Luo Binghe preened, poised above Shen Yuan’s body.
“But Laoshi, look,” Binghe said, hand trailing down to the intersection between their bodies. He rubbed his thumb over Shen Yuan’s abused rim, stretched obscenely over the head of Binghe’s shaft. “You’re taking me so well. Your hole just keeps sucking me in. Ah, Laoshi, I could just melt...”
“D-Don’t call me — Laoshi when we’re like this!” Shen Yuan cried, but he tightened up nonetheless. The sensation was overwhelmingly delicious, so Binghe rocked his hips a little more enthusiastically, forcing the blunt head of his cock a little deeper inside. “B-Binghe! H-Hahhh, that’s, that’s too...”
“No, no, it’s just — it’s too —”
“Too good?” Binghe probed. He smiled wickedly. “Is Laoshi feeling good?”
Shen Yuan shook his head, no, but his legs gripped Binghe’s waist a little tighter. Unwilling to be parted.
“You’re — gonna split me open!” Shen Yuan sobbed, turning his face against the sheets. “I’m gonna break, I’m gonna… a-hahh….”
Luo Binghe leaned down to kiss Shen Yuan’s forehead.
“You’re alright, Laoshi,” he coaxed. “Just breathe.”
Shen Yuan nodded, looking terribly bullied. Tears tracked out from the corners of his eyes. He sniffled softly.
Ah, poor darling. Such a sweet thing. So delicate, so pitiable, lying flat on his back — splayed against Luo Binghe’s bedsheets, legs trembling around Luo Binghe’s hips. Poor, poor thing. Already so overwhelmed.
And Luo Binghe was only sheathed halfway inside.
My oh my.
Luo Binghe thrust in another two inches. Shen Yuan keened, tossing his voice into the open air, his pretty little cock bouncing with the motion of Binghe’s hips — so slick and so shiny, already leaking pre —
“Can you endure it, Laoshi?” Binghe asked, bracing one hand against the mattress. His chest was heaving excitedly, breaths coming quick. “Can I keep going? Can I fuck you harder, fuck you deeper? Can I kiss you more? Can I bite you? Can I turn you over, fuck you on all fours? Can I put you on top, bounce you on my dick? Can I make you come? Can I make you beg? Ah, Laoshi. Everything and anything I can think of — I want to do it to you. I want to do it all. I want my body to remember yours. I want your body to remember mine. Is that okay, Laoshi? Do you think you can endure it? Is it really, really okay?”
Luo Binghe withdrew — then bucked in again, savouring the tight, wet heat of Shen Yuan’s body.
Shen Yuan covered his face with his hands, overcome. He was crying, phoenix eyes rimmed red — and he was shaking like a leaf. You’d think he was frightened, or in pain, but his mouth was saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” Yes you can, yes you can. I will, I will, I will. Such an ecstatic, Joycean refrain. Luo Binghe kissed his mouth relentlessly, swallowing the shape of each word. Yes, yes, yes. There was such — such power in that word, that resounding yes, such awe, such desperation, such wild relief.
Like Shen Yuan had been waiting his whole life to be asked the question.
Like he’d been waiting his whole life to give the answer.
First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you're very lucky and have said your prayers.
They lay in bed together, felled like trees. Shen Yuan’s leg was slung comfortably over Luo Binghe’s. Luo Binghe’s left arm was circled around his shoulders, holding him to his chest very loosely.
“Aiya,” Shen Yuan sighed, turning to kiss Luo Binghe’s bare shoulder. “New York is terrible. It reeks of piss and lunchmeat. People try to hand you religious propaganda wherever you go. The Phantom of the Opera is still running. It costs a ridiculous amount to make regular calls to Mainland China. The proliferation of rideshare apps has made the city unlivable — and white boys are always blowing vape fog in your face — and they don’t even have those cool Virgin Megastores anymore. They tore the last one down and put a clothing store up.”
“Ah,” Binghe said. “Tragic.”
“Also, they kicked Beetlejuice: The Musical out of the Wintergarden Theater. That was a criminal offense. I loved that stupid show.”
“... Was it good?”
“Good? Good is irrelevant. It was my trash,” Shen Yuan sniffed.
In his mind’s eye, he was picturing the steps he would dance tomorrow night; grand jetés, swinging toss-lifts, the jabbing steps of stage combat.
He was thinking about Prokofiev’s music. Shen Jiu’s red coat, his onstage death. The great billowing hurrahs of Sha Hualing’s white gown.
Slowly, he began to stroke Shen Yuan’s hair. Shen Yuan hummed in response. He seemed to like it.
“New York is a terrible, savage place,” Shen Yuan said, “full of expensive restaurants and celebrity ego. But, you know… I didn’t hate it there.” He rolled onto his stomach, his chin tilted up against Binghe’s pectorals. The arch of his naked back was nothing short of exquisite. “The city didn’t poison my stay. Neither did the ballet. We put on such beautiful shows at The New York City Ballet.”
Luo Binghe carded Shen Yuan’s hair away from his face.
“What poisoned it, then?”
“Medicine,” Shen Yuan said. He paused, then added, “The irony of it all.”
Binghe waited for him to continue. He went on touching Shen Yuan’s hair, letting it slip through his finger’s like spider silk
Shen Yuan said, “The anticonvulsants I was taking were extremely effective in controlling my seizures. I very rarely had fits — and when I did, they were never drop-seizures. A jerky leg. A daydreaming spell. Little things. Superficially, I was in extraordinarily good heath. I was able to go completely stealth at work. It was — kind of exhilarating, being able to pretend there was nothing wrong with me. But…”
Shen Yuan tucked his hands beneath his chin.
“One of the side effects of that medication was depression,” he said. “I could dance all I wanted, play the role of a healthy man — but I wanted to die.”
Luo Binghe shifted upright to look at Shen Yuan.
“I thought I could manage it, if it meant living my dream. I was teaching and dancing with the world’s most hallowed institution of modern ballet,” Shen Yuan said. He closed his eyes. “But I scared myself. I wanted to hurt myself. I didn’t know what to do — so I went cold turkey. I quit my meds.”
“... And you relapsed.”
“I seizured for about forty-five minutes. I could’ve gone braindead. I mean — it happens sometimes. People go down, and they don’t get back up.”
“But you did,” Luo Binghe said. He ran the flat of his thumb down Shen Yuan’s cheekbone, following the slope of it.
“I survived,” “Shen Yuan said. “But I had to find a new dream. I… I’m still looking for it, truth be told.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“Maybe,” Shen Yuan said. His eyes were bright with surprise. “I… I wouldn’t mind that. If Binghe is willing to put up with this old fool.”
“Not old,” Luo Binghe said. “Not a fool.”
Shen Yuan curled up against Luo Binghe’s body, breathing in deep. Like this, sated and sleepy and vulnerable, he seemed younger. Like Luo Binghe was stealing a glimpse of some faraway time; some faraway version of the man he loved.
"I love you," Luo Binghe said.
"So you keep saying."
"I mean it."
Shen Yuan sighed, which Luo Binghe interpreted to mean: Someday, I'll believe you. But not today.
"We should rehearse hip placements tomorrow," he murmured instead. "Before you go back onstage."
"An epsom bath with ginger oil would do nicely, too. Now is hardly the time to develop tendonitis."
"Ah, and there's this musical phrase in Act One... Binghe? Binghe, are you listening?"
"... Turn the lights out. Shut the curtains. But... but come back to bed quickly, alright? I think..."
"Tonight, I think I'd like to be held."
there's a lot i could say about this fic -- little triumphs and failures, details about the ballets i chose to spotlight -- but it's inconsequential, in the end.
thank you so much for reading this far! it means a lot to me!
special thanks to emi (@qijius on twitter) for beta'ing, editing, and being a strong shoulder to lean on.
i plan on eventually posting an epilogue -- and, if time permits, a side story focusing on wayfarer-verse qijiu.
i'm available on twitter @ foxflowering. please follow me so i can mine FANDOM CLOUT!!!!!!!
Luo Binghe liked looking at Shen Yuan.
This, of course, was by no means an extraordinary condition. Lots of people liked looking at Shen Yuan. In fact, most people probably didn’t. And why shouldn’t they? Shen Yuan was beautiful. People liked looking at beautiful things.
It was only sensible to stare.
As far as Luo Binghe could tell, the pursuit of aesthetic beauty was something of a biological imperative. It was a self-issued urge hardcoded into the basic fabric human DNA, like reproduction. Looking at beautiful things — be they sunsets, paintings, or sinewy ballet teachers with interesting smiles — provoked a primal response in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, that lean slice of brain situated directly behind the eyes. When stimulated with beautiful images, the orbitofrontal cortex’s pleasure centers lit up like a birthday party, releasing a dopamine reward. A physiological incentive.
That was probably part of the reason people liked ballet in the first place.
Even if they didn’t understand ballet on a technical or intellectual level, or even value it as a method of storytelling — most people did not — people still craved to go to the ballet. Just to absorb a little beauty. To have the aesthetic centers of their brain pinged at a very singular and specific frequency that was difficult to replicate elsewhere.
The swans rush out. The arm lifts, the back arches. A perfect cambré. The frontal lobe inflames, a chemical fever; the eye dilates. Ping.
When Luo Binghe looked at Shen Yuan, he felt it — like a knock on his brain. The cudgel of beauty coming down on him, turning him to putty. He liked looking at Shen Yuan. He liked it, loved it, craved it. He liked Shen Yuan’s mouth. He liked Shen Yuan’s nose. He liked Shen Yuan’s eyes — those eyes were like jade in so many respects. Sometimes, they were glassy and lacquerlike — kiln-fired, glazed. Sometimes, they were rock-edged and very sharp. Something dug out of the hard, dry earth.
He liked Shen Yuan’s hips. He liked Shen Yuan’s small feet. He liked Shen Yuan’s pronounced philtrum. His desires contorted readily around the shape of Shen Yuan’s throat. His appetites gaped into a great big yawn when presented with Shen Yuan’s legs, the jaws of need widening for Shen Yuan’s calves… the flame igniting at Shen Yuan’s bone-white ankle… emerging softly and shyly from his dusty house slippers, blue veins raised against semi-translucent skin… love, desire, giddiness, drunkenness, what-else-ya-got intoxication... ticking like a bomb...
Beauty in the brain, burning like a bushfire. Erupting like Mount St. Helens.
Dopamine and oxytocin and vasopressin.
He could stare forever.
Luo Binghe liked spending his mornings with Shen Yuan.
Of course, he liked all the time he spent with Shen Yuan! Afternoons, evenings. He didn’t discriminate! He liked slipping into bed with Shen Yuan after a late supper and sending him off to sleep with a foot massage. He liked waking up in the dead of night and feeling Shen Yuan at his side, snoring softly. He liked feeling the soft scramble of Shen Yuan’s sleeping heart.
But mornings were still very special.
Case in point:
It was 8:30 in the morning, and Shen Yuan was sitting upright in Luo Binghe’s bed. He was fussing a little with his hair, trying and failing to flatten his bedhead with his fingers. He wasn’t exactly naked — he was wearing Binghe’s fluffy house robe, the white belt wrapped tight around his waist — but he was close enough.
My boyfriend, Luo Binghe thought dazedly. This is my boyfriend. My boyfriend of six whole months. My God. When did I get so lucky? It was too good to be true, right?
“You know,” Shen Yuan said, still attempting to pat down his hair, “I can feel your eyes boring into me.”
“Is that so?” Luo Binghe grinned, stretching out a little.
Shen Yuan wasn’t naked, but Luo Binghe absolutely was. He was lying on his back — lounging, really — with his bedsheet wrapped lazily around his hips. This wasn’t out of any sense of modesty or propriety, of course. God forbid. Luo Binghe was completely unselfconscious about his naked body. But he knew that if he left his cock out, Shen Yuan would be too embarrassed to look his way at all, daunted by the naked weight of Luo Binghe’s shaft lying lax against his thigh. So he kept it covered.
“Uh-huh,” Shen Yuan said. He turned his head to shoot Luo Binghe a look that was half fondness and half judgement. “It’s like a tangible pressure against the back of my skull.”
“My stare is? Really?”
“It’s a heavy stare.”
“Ah. Many apologies, Laoshi. I was feeling somewhat spellbound.”
“Mm-hmm. You know. Entranced.”
“Entranced by what? My bedhead?”
“Your hair is beautiful, Laoshi.”
Shen Yuan flushed.
“You’re so corny.”
“And you’re so lovely, Laoshi. So perfect. I can’t get enough.”
“Perfect? Are you for real? You’re the one who…” Shen Yuan stop-started, then looked away. He went on fussing with the ends of his hair. “I still need a comb.”
One of Shen Yuan’s legs unfolded, slipping off the bed to touch the carpet. He was making as if to stand, to leave their bed. Well, that just wouldn’t do. Luo Binghe pushed himself upright with one arm, leaning towards Shen Yuan. He blasted Shen Yuan with his best set of puppy dog eyes; a look of deep and doleful deprivation.
“Before you get up, give me a kiss,” Luo Binghe said. “Just one, please?”
Shen Yuan’s flush deepened.
“Haven’t you had your fair share?”
“I haven’t. Not even close.”
“I mean, last night…"
“Last night wasn’t enough,” Binghe interrupted, petulant.
Shen Yuan shuffled a little closer across the bed. His face was red, but he didn’t seem angry. Just bashful, and maybe a little intrigued.
“Such a greedy boy.”
“For you?” Luo Binghe reached out to frame Shen Yuan’s face with one hand. “Always. I’m always greedy for more of you, Laoshi.”
Shen Yuan leaned into Luo Binghe’s touch.
“Someone’s in a mood today,” he noted.
“An amorous mood.”
“Hard to avoid,” Luo Binghe said. “For many, many years — I cherished the rash dream of getting you into bed. And now that it’s finally happened, Laoshi, I feel… a joy you wouldn’t believe. An amorous joy. This huge, crazy nimbus of love.”
Shen Yuan looked very unimpressed.
“Don’t wax poetic,” he said sternly.
“Ah? Why not?
“Because it’s embarrassing.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Binghe protested.
“Of course you aren’t. But I’m embarrassed for you.”
“Are you now?” Luo Binghe heaved a theatrical sigh. “Aiya, it must be so burdensome. Dating an embarrassing, greedy, amorous boy like me…”
“It is,” Shen Yuan said flatly. His dark hair had the smell of sleep on it; his eyelashes, though crusted with a slight rheuminess, were feathery and beautiful.
“Can you ever forgive me, Laoshi?”
“... I’ll think about it.”
“Will I still get my kiss?”
“Maybe,” Shen Yuan said, his expression turning a little shy. “Close your eyes, okay?”
Luo Binghe closed his eyes devotedly.
Shen Yuan pressed a kiss to Binghe’s lips. It was a child’s kiss: quick, chaste and uncertain. Binghe felt his heart seize up on contact. Shen Yuan was, of course, every inch the mature beauty — but in the realm of love, he could be shockingly innocent. The lamb to Binghe’s wolf. Binghe parted his lips, nudging his nose against Shen Yuan’s encouragingly.
Emboldened, Shen Yuan pressed a little closer, snuggling his body up against Luo Binghe’s. They kissed lavishly now, breathing hard from their noses. Shen Yuan wrapped his arms around Luo Binghe’s shoulders, drawing him closer, so much closer, so that their bodies would be vertically aligned at each and every possible plane.
Suddenly, Luo Binghe was on top of Shen Yuan, naked and hungry, pinning Shen Yuan against the mattress, sucking deep into his mouth — sucking the tip of his tongue, then, overwhelmed by greed, he began laying bites and kisses against Shen Yuan’s throat.
“Just one kiss,” Shen Yuan gasped, voice landing on a note of dim exasperation. “Just one, you said!”
“Should I stop?”
Shen Yuan said nothing. He just pulled Binghe closer, firmly gripping Binghe’s mane of black hair. Binghe smiled against the curve of Shen Yuan’s neck.
“Can I get you off with my mouth, Laoshi?” Binghe murmured. He tugged lightly at the belt of Shen Yuan’s robe. Shen Yuan’s face flamed up.
“Shameless boy — you — you have rehearsals today!”
“We have time,” Binghe said.
“We don’t!” Shen Yuan protested weakly, but he tilted his chin further up, allowing Binghe increased access to the column of his throat. Binghe rewarded him with a nip — then, at the center of the bite, a hot and reverent kiss. “You need to be in the studio — before ten — or Qi Qingqi will scold you again—!”
“Shh. We have time,” Luo Binghe murmured, voice dropping to a lower register. He rubbed his hand over the curve of Shen Yuan’s hip. “Don’t you wanna come, Laoshi? Don’t you wanna come on this Binghe’s face?”
Shen Yuan squeezed his eyes shut, avoiding making direct eye contact with Binghe’s dick — which was now pressing up against him interestedly through the cottony material of his robe.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Luo Binghe coaxed him. “Just show me where to touch you, baby. I’ll make you feel so, so good...”
Shen Yuan sighed. He lay back against the sheet, eyes still shut, expression strangely contemplative. Then, very quietly, he began to ease his robe open.
Luo Binghe took in each inch of flesh with rapt, rapacious eyes. Shen Yuan’s sloping shoulder, his chest, his pinked niiples, the twitching slate of his stomach… his skin itself was lit up with a faintly incandescent, feverish blush. Feeling self-satisfied, Luo Binghe leaned down and rewarded Shen Yuan’s honesty with a kiss on the chest. Then another, right on top of his belly. Shen Yuan squirmed a little. Ticklish, maybe.
“There’s a good baby,” Luo Binghe said, kissing down to Shen Yuan’s hipbone.
Shen Yuan let out a breathy little huff.
“We have to be fast, okay? If Qi Qingqi finds out I’m the reason rehearsals started a half hour late, she’ll — mnn!”
Luo Binghe wrapped his hand around Shen Yuan’s slender cock, giving it a firm stroke.
“I don’t really want to hear Qi Qingqi’s name while I’m in bed with you,” Luo Binghe said pointedly. “Or anyone else’s name, for that matter.”
To punctuate his point, he leaned down and pressed a wet kiss to the head of Shen Yuan’s cock. It jerked ever slightly against the touch of his tongue, twitchy and sensitive, hardening rapidly. Cute.
Luo Binghe loved Shen Yuan’s cock. It was as slender and pretty as the rest of him, but also so lewd. So naughty, so needy, so slutty. Luo Binghe loved how rosy it was, how beautifully it pinked. He loved the way it bounced against Shen Yuan’s belly when he rode Luo Binghe’s cock. He loved the way it got so wet. When Shen Yuan was turned on, the head of his little cock positively dripped with pre… he was like a slutty little girl, getting all wet for her man...
Like a wife.
A deeply satisfying thought.
Humming joyfully, Luo Binghe slid Shen Yuan’s cock into his mouth. It was warm and heavy on his tongue; the taste was muted, at first — but the familiar flavour of salt and musk began to intensify as Shen Yuan began to leak. Naughty baby. Getting all excited in my mouth. Luo Binghe relaxed his throat, willing himself to take Shen Yuan even deeper into his throat.
Now that was more like it.
Wild with eagerness, Luo Binghe bobbed up and down and length off Shen Yuan’s cock. The sound of his slurping was positively obscene, but he was completely and utterly unashamed. How long had he dreamt of this? Yearned for this? Burned for this — the privilege to touch him, to taste him?
Far, far too long.
Luo Binghe pulled off for a breath, refocusing his attentions on the side of Shen Yuan’s shaft — sucking hot, sloppy kisses down the side, his hands sliding down to gently cup the swell of Shen Yuan’s balls. Shen Yuan’s hips were shaking. Ah, so cute. So precious.
“You don’t have to hold back,” Luo Binghe murmured. He licked a wet stripe up the side of Shen Yuan’s cock, from the base to the tip. The taste of pre was heavy on his tongue. “You can move your hips if you want to.”
Shen Yuan’s grip on Luo Binghe’s hair tightened.
“Hahh... d-don’t be… so —!”
“So shameless?” Binghe guessed. He drew back ever slightly, allowing a fat string of saliva to connect himself to the tip of Shen Yuan’s cock. “So lewd?”
“So — smug!”
Luo Binghe laughed out loud.
“I’m not trying to be smug,” he said. He leaned down, nuzzling his cheek against Shen Yuan’s cock affectionately. “I just want to make my gorgeous boyfriend feel good.”
He mouthed around the tip of Shen Yuan’s cock, then sank back down to swallow him. Shen Yuan’s hips rocked forwards tentatively, pitching his cock slightly deeper into the warm, wet heat of Binghe’s mouth.
“Binghe, ahnn…” Shen Yuan reached up, covering his face with his hands. “Binghe always makes me feel good…”
This, of course, was excellent news. Buoyed, Luo Binghe blew Shen Yuan with renewed enthusiasm, fucking his face on Shen Yuan’s pretty little cock. Shen Yuan moaned, the sound of it poorly muffled by the fan of his fingers.
He wanted to make Shen Yuan feel good.
He wanted to make Shen Yuan come.
Shen Yuan’s hips bucked up a little, chasing the heat of Luo Binghe’s mouth. His breaths were harsh, laboured.
“Binghe,” he begged. “I, I’m gonna —-”
Feeling quite determined, Luo Binghe hummed around the length of Shen Yuan’s cock. In response, Shen Yuan keened. Loudly.
“Binghe! Pull off — Binghe, pull offff,” Shen Yuan cried out burying his face in his hands. “If you don’t, I’m gonna — I’m gonna make a mess , please, please, I don’t, hahhh…. I don’t want to make a mess — ”
But I do, Binghe thought, rapturous. I want to make a mess. I want to be a mess.
Binghe leaned up to mouth at the head of Shen Yuan’s cock, lathing his tongue over the tip. Eager to finish Shen Yuan off, he reached around to stroke the shaft, his fingers gliding easily across Shen Yuan’s spit-slick skin. Shen Yuan’s cock pulsed against his tongue. He was hot, dripping. The taste of pre was so heavy. So thick.
“No, nooo, I’m gonna — uhhn!”
Shen Yuan began to come.
Luo Binghe closed his eyes reflexively as thick, warm ropes of Shen Yuan’s spend hit his face. Shen Yuan always came so much. Luo Binghe could feel it streaking his lips, his cheeks, and even the bridge of his nose. Very carefully, he lifted his hand to delicately wipe some from his eyelashes
When he opened his eyes, he was confronted with the image of Shen Yuan in all his post-orgasmic glory: chest heavy, face flushed, eyes glassy.
“Binghe… you…” Shen Yuan blinked hard, dizzied.
Luo Binghe smiled, undaunted.
“... You’re maddening.”
“I have many faults, Laoshi.”
“Aiya,” Shen Yuan sighed in deep satisfaction. He ran his hands up and down over his bare stomach. "What am I meant to do with you?"
"Just bear with me?" Luo Binghe suggested.
Shen Yuan smiled ruefully.
“... Please wash your face before that dries."
"Not yet," Binghe said. He reached up and touched his own cheek, feeling the wet on his fingers. "I like it."
"Binghe! It's dirty…"
"It's proof of Laoshi's pleasure," he said. "I like it."
Shen Yuan blinked, then lowered his eyes. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again — before giving up entirely. At a loss for words, perhaps. He was pretty clearly embarrassed. That said, he didn’t exactly seem displeased. If anything, he looked the opposite. He looked happy. Flummoxed, but happy.
Luo Binghe grinned.
By this point in their relationship, he felt that he had a pretty solid handle on Shen Yuan’s moods. He knew Shen Yuan’s likes, his dislikes, his reservations, his desires.
One thing that he’d come to notice was that Shen Yuan could never, ever really bring himself to endorse Luo Binghe’s shamelessness. His sense of propriety ran much too deep.
That said, Shen Yuan didn’t hate it when Luo Binghe got a little sappy, or a little dirty, or a little starry-eyed. In fact, he seemed to really like it. He kicked up a fuss, sure — Luo Binghe was constantly scolded for his lack of modesty. That said, he squirmed so beautifully when Luo Binghe cranked up the shamelessness… eyes shining with a look of deep gratification even as he huffed and puffed and called Luo Binghe a wicked child...
Still lying supine against the sheets, Yuan pulled his knees up towards himself. He tucked them up against his stomach — exposing the soft, pale undersides of his thighs.
Something in that gesture was sort of… coquettish? Was that the right word?
Luo Binghe lifted his body up, hands braced against the mattress. Half-kneeling, he studied Shen Yuan intently.
— No. Not coquettish.
The word was erotic.
It was really, really erotic.
Suddenly, Luo Binghe became increasingly aware of his own cock, which was still throbbing with unabated arousal. Shen Yuan also seemed to take notice. His eyes tripped down the length of Luo Binghe’s broad, dance-honed body, his scandalized blush intensifying as his gaze landed between Luo Binghe’s eyes.
"Binghe — should also get to feel good," Shen Yuan said, somewhat haltingly.
"Ah, you think?"
Shen Yuan nodded. With one hand, he beckoned Luo Binghe closer — eyes blown-out black, the disc of his pupils eclipsing his irises in a sort of sensuous, secretive darkness.
"Come over here,” he said. “This teacher — can help."
Luo Binghe liked his morning drive.
His loft was a fifteen minute drive away from the Tianqiao Theater, so it wasn’t a long drive by any stretch of the imagination. Still, he relished it. He liked sipping his coffee when the light turned red. He liked bearing down on the pedal when it switched back to green. He liked listening to the windshield wipers slap unhelpfully against the front of his car, smearing dirty rainwater against the treated glass. He liked being flipped off by cyclists. He liked the traffic, the smell of exhaust fumes, the cracked and uneven asphalt.
Red light. Luo Binghe took a slurp from his thermos. The roast itself was of excellent quality — Luo Binghe rarely skimped on quality — but it blended hideously with the residual echo of his spearmint toothpaste.
A consequence of rushing himself out the door.
Completely worth it, though.
Green light. Luo Binghe set his coffee down, accelerating down the rain-slicked road. WIth one hand, he reached to flip the radio on. The classical station sputtered to life, the strings slightly tinny as a result of the subpar frequency. They were playing an orchestral piece from Coppélia. Now, in Luo Binghe’s opinion, Coppélia’s score was incredibly subpar — boring, unmemorable, outdated, not particularly fun to dance to.
Still, in that particular moment, Luo Binghe liked it a lot. He tapped his fingers against the wheel, humming along cheerfully as the ballade plodded along, dull and hookless and dumb.
He was alive and in love, still coming down from his morning roll with Shen Yuan.
There was nothing he didn’t like.
All in all, by the time his ballet shoes were rosined and he was in the studio, he was two minutes late to warm-ups. Qi Qingqi, who was absorbed in conversation with Wei Wuxian, didn’t even notice.
Shen Jiu did, however, notice.
Of course he did.
“You’re late,” Shen Jiu hissed as Luo Binghe lined up at the barre. He was dressed all in black; black bodysuit, black athletic pants, black Capezios. His expression oozed contempt.
Shen Jiu harrumphed, extending himself into a long, fluid fourth arabesque.
“I don’t care if you’re thirty seconds or thirty minutes late, brat. Late is late. It’s unprofessional.”
Luo Binghe couldn’t help but smile.
“Many apologies, Shen-qianbei,” he said, gripping the sanded barre with one hand. “I was — occupied with other activities this morning.”
Shen Jiu frowned, but he took the bait all the same. “Other activities?”
“Mn,” Luo Binghe nodded. “Energetic, vigorous activities. Ask your brother about it.”
Shen Jiu dropped out of his arabesque, his face twisting up with rage.
“You — disgusting! Lecherous pig! Filthy beast!”
“Yep, that’s me,” Luo Binghe agreed.
“Why would you even — ugh! So shameless!”
“I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”
Nonplussed, Luo Binghe initiated his regular barre warm-up — taking his time to slowly and thoroughly stretching out his calves. Shen Jiu shook his head.
“This is why you’ll never be a great dancer, you know,” he said heatedly, nostrils flaring nastily. “Despite your training and your pedigree, you’ve not one whit of good taste.”
“Not an iota. You’re absolutely right, qianbei.”
“You do a disservice to the craft, really, the way you blunder about with that insufferably smug expression. I have no idea what my brother sees in you.”
“Ah,” Luo Binghe said. “And you never will.”
Shen Jiu whirled back towards the barre, lifting himself back into the accented pose of his arabesque.
Luo Binghe glanced across the room. The studio was littered with abandoned cups of coffee. Qi Qingqi strode across the room, speaking passionately with Wei Wuxian — her long, sparkly earrings bouncing with each step. Sha Hualing was hunkered down on her knees, attacking her bloodred pointe shoes with an exacto, driving the knife along the edge of the toebox. She was surrounded by a sea of darning tools: thread, jet glue, shanks, bolts of elastic.
Facing the mirror, Liu Qingge extended his taut, muscular body into an extreme développé. His sister watched, then imitated his movements — unfolding her skinny leg at the knee, wavering minutely as she struggled to match his angle.
Luo Binghe leaned over, smiling at Shen Jiu.
“Hey, how’s Yue Qingyuan holding up?”
“Don’t talk to me so casually.”
“I heard you two adopted a dog.”
Shen Jiu looked surprised, then annoyed.
“Did A-Yuan tell you that?”
“Yes. He showed me pictures, too,” Luo Binghe said. They were beautiful photos: Shen Jiu, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his newly-renovated kitchen, smiling wryly as a leggy little puppy sprawled over his lap. That photographed smile was an endless source of novelty and mystery to Luo Binghe. The Shen Jiu he knew never, ever smiled. “I love dogs, you know. I’ve always loved dogs. Maybe A-Yuan and I should adopt one too.”
Shen Jiu scoffed, “A-Yuan already has one mongrel to look after. Why burden him with another?”
“Shen-qianbei, you should be nicer to me.”
“But I could be your brother-in-law someday.”
“You? My brother-in-law? Don't be ridiculous,” Shen Jiu said waspishly. He shoved at Luo Binghe’s shoulder. “Stop bothering me. Go do your warm-ups somewhere else.”
Luo Binghe tripped off the barre, grinning. He stumbled off into the center of the room, eyes roving over the studio — this place of mirrors, of rustling papers, of beauty, of brassy hairpins and torn stockings, of cell phones sitting dormant next to fancy water bottles.
The company pianist was settling in at the glossy black Steinway. He swayed over the bench drowsily, drinking mouthful after mouthful of coffee as he pored through the day's sheet music. Luo Binghe glanced over his shoulder, clefs and trebles swimming in his eyes as he peeked at the passages they'd be rehearsing: the valse des cygnes, Siegfriend’s lament, Odile’s variation... the final pas de deux.
There'd be sweat, arguments, shouted directions, aching muscles. The blunt repetition of rehearals. Then, Luo Binghe would get back in his car, drive home, shower, and make dinner for the man he loved. They could do minced pork and ginger. A side of fried greens. A half-glass of wine, no more. They could put one of Shen Yuan's terrible dramas on while they ate, curling up like cats on the couch. Luo Binghe always savoured the delicious monotony of their evening conversations: How was your day, my dear?
What Luo Binghe really liked was the little rituals: the smalltalk, the trading of anecdotes, the washing of dishes. He liked all the little mundane conversations about car payments and dentist appointments. He liked brushing his teeth, shoulder-to-shoulder with Shen Yuan. He liked climbing into bed with Shen Yuan, just the simple act of it, even on the nights where Shen Yuan was too sick to have sex. He liked turning the lights out: he liked lying in the dark with Shen Yuan. He liked holding Shen Yuan's soft little body. It filled him with a feeling of immense awe, immense privelege.
He liked it. He liked all of it.
Every last bit of it.
Sha Hualing perked up, waving at Luo Binghe. She was lacing up her freshly-darned pointe shoes, fire in her eyes.
“Hey, loverman! How’s Shen Laoshi?”
Luo Binghe smiled.
“He’s good,” he said. Then, revising his statement in the interest of accuracy, “We’re good. We're really, really good."
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