“He’s been in there for nearly half an hour,” Yi Cheng says, somewhat unnecessarily, gesturing at the locked bathroom door. “I’ve tried knocking, but he won’t talk to me. Says that he’ll be out in a while, but Andy ge said we have to go soon, and I don’t want him to rush Sheng Yi if he isn’t ready.”
Jun Jie knows all this, of course — he has ears, after all, and Yi Cheng’s pleading has become increasingly frantic in the past few minutes — but he supposes it eases Yi Cheng’s worry a little if he can talk about the situation with somebody else. He’s just got off the phone with their manager himself and feels guilty about being the bearer of yet more unwanted bad news.
“The stylist can’t come in today. We’re going to have to do basic makeup ourselves and Andy ge will get a replacement to do our hair when we’re at the venue.”
Yi Cheng’s face falls further, if that were even possible. He closes his eyes and swallows once, and then a shudder goes through him. When he opens his eyes again, he looks calmer, more collected. Jun Jie marvels at the transformation and wonders how Yi Cheng seems the most serene of all three of them, despite being the youngest.
“Fine,” Yi Cheng mutters, sighing deeply. “Fine. I’ll do my damn makeup now, then. But you’re going to have to get my brother out of there. I haven’t seen him like this for years, not since some girl at school laughed at him because he asked her for her number. At least then all we had to do was buy him some chocolate milk.”
“All right,” Jun Jie says.
He was expecting this, of course. This is their first live performance as JPM. Hours of rehearsals and singing lessons and excruciating sessions with choreographers. All they have to do now is show up for an audience who might not even appreciate all their hard work. Goodness knows Sheng Yi’s been carrying around a huge amount of pressure, being so prominently featured in both their new music video and promotional group photographs, his beauty accentuated and enhanced by carefully applied makeup and shimmering, ethereal costumes. All that glamour, however, doesn’t help to ease the strain that all three of them have been working under for the past year and a half.
“Andy is coming around in an hour,” he tells Yi Cheng. “If I’m not out with Sheng Yi by then, you knock the door down and drag us out, OK? No way we’re missing this show.”
“You get forty-five minutes,” Yi Cheng retorts. “Don’t think I don’t know what you guys are going to get up to. Actually, I don’t care how you do it; just get him out of there so Andy doesn’t think my bro is having a nervous breakdown. This means too much to all of us.”
Throwing up his hands, he stalks back to his room, pointedly slamming the door and locking it.
Right, Jun Jie thinks, looking at the silent wooden door in front of him. Time to coax the tiger out of its den.
He raps on the door lightly.
There isn’t any response. So Jun Jie tries again.
“Sheng Yi, come on. Let me in, please?”
This time, Jun Jie thinks he hears a sniffle from inside.
“Yi Cheng’s gone back to his room. It’s only me. Come on, just let me in, OK? We can talk about this together.”
There is a soft curse from behind the door, and it finally unlocks. Jun Jie pushes the door open as gently as he can and steps inside. Blinks at the thick volume of steam that engulfs him as he does so.
“I had a bath,” Sheng Yi says sullenly, his voice coming from an indistinct point on Jun Jie’s right. A trait for stating the obvious must run in the Qiu family, Jun Jie thinks. Through the steam he can make out Sheng Yi sitting on the edge of the large bathtub that takes up most of the room. He’s clothed in an enormous robe that makes him seem smaller than he actually is.
Jun Jie remembers the fights they used to have about sharing the tub, back when it was just Sheng Yi and him living in the apartment. It was so big, Jun Jie used to argue, that the amount of hot water required took to fill it wouldn’t be justifiable unless there were two of them in the tub at the same time. Sheng Yi’s response had been to squeal and protest that he didn’t want to share Jun Jie’s dirty water. Jun Jie still blushes every time he recalls the way they resolved that particular disagreement, and how he made Sheng Yi agree to sharing the bath with him whenever he wanted the tub to be filled.
Of course, that had been when they were first heady with excitement about striking out on their own, away from Lollipop and all the politics and infighting being in the group had entailed. Back then, they thought they were really starting anew. And now? Now, they don’t bathe together as much as they used to (since Yi Cheng would have a fit if he knew what his big brother and Jun Jie got up to in the bathroom, and Sheng Yi finds it hard to keep himself quiet), and success seems a lot more daunting than it used to be.
“So,” Jun Jie starts, unsure of how to actually do this. “You want to tell me why you decided to scare the crap out of Yi Cheng this morning?”
Sheng Yi snorts, rolls his eyes. That’s a good sign, Jun Jie thinks. He perches next to Sheng Yi, his hands braced on either side of his body. Sheng Yi’s hands are folded in his lap, and Jun Jie resists the urge to reach out and touch them.
“As if Yi Cheng would ever be scared that easily; he’s probably more worried about the fact that he can’t come in here and use the magnifying mirror,” Sheng Yi scoffs. “Try harder.”
“What do you want me to say, then?” Jun Jie asks, not a bit put out. “You want me to tell you how important this performance is to all of us? Want me to remind you of all the money the record company’s invested in us? What about how Yi Cheng put his future on the line to join us because he was so convinced that the three of us together would be better than anything Golden Typhoon could offer him? You want to let all these people down? Is that what you need to hear, Sheng Yi? Because I can make a whole list of all the people who’ve invested all their time and money making sure we succeed today.”
Sheng Yi snorts, turns away, his hair falling into his eyes, hiding his expression. Jun Jie takes a breath and a moment to compose himself. His fingers grip the hard edge of the tub as he rehearses his next line of attack.
“Look, you’re old enough, and you and I both know we’ve been in the business too long not to be aware of everything that’s at stake here. So I’m not going to treat you like an idiot, Sheng Yi, because you’re not stupid, and I’m not that kind of asshole.”
“You’re not an asshole,” Sheng Yi says. His fingers brush against Jun Jie’s, and they link their hands together, clutching tight. “I couldn’t do any of this without you being so strong.”
Jun Jie laughs. The sound bounces off the wet tiles, muffled by the billowing steam. He should open a window in here, he thinks. But he’ll get to that later.
“What’s this about?” He asks, tugging his hand free only to reach out and cup Sheng Yi’s chin, turning it towards him. “Come on, man. Whatever it is, you know I’ll listen. Now, something’s got you spooked enough to make you risk missing our first gig, even though you know how important it is. You need to tell me why so that we can fix it. Together.”
Sheng Yi doesn’t say anything for the longest time. As the silence between them thickens, Jun Jie can hear the throb of music coming from Yi Cheng’s room. He wonders vaguely if that’s Yi Cheng’s way of telling them to hurry up, or whether he is simply rehearsing dance moves and going through choreography on his own while he waits.
Jun Jie waits too. He takes hold of Sheng Yi’s hand again, rubs his thumb against the knuckles, marvelling as he always does at the smoothness of Sheng Yi’s skin beneath his touch. He moves his hand lower, grasps Sheng Yi’s wrist, and brushes his thumb against the sensitive skin there. It’s an intimate gesture, one that he uses only when they’re alone, and usually only after they make love.
It seems to jerk Sheng Yi out of his trance. He shifts closer to Jun Jie, rests his head on Jun Jie’s shoulder. Mumbles something into Jun Jie’s t-shirt.
“What?” Jun Jie asks. He curls an arm around Sheng Yi, holds him close. Warmth flows between them. Combined with the steam, it makes him feel sleepy, as though this conversation is happening in some sort of alternate dream world. As if they were really on the moon. He wants to laugh, but chides himself for thinking of silly things at such an inappropriate moment.
“I said I’m scared,” Sheng Yi snaps, without any real venom. “I’m scared, OK? What if they hate us? I mean, you remember what happened when we left in the first place! They’re going to say that we’re not good enough, that we should have stayed with the rest. Shit, don’t you see? We could be making the biggest mistake of our lives! And all the people who thought we’d be this huge success — what if they’re wrong? What if we fail?”
“We won’t,” Jun Jie replies, almost automatically. He checks himself immediately, recognising the defensive tone of his voice. “No. What I mean to say is, please don’t think of these things now. You can’t start talking like this, Sheng Yi, otherwise we’ll never be able to do anything. That can’t happen. Not after everything we’ve been through together.”
Sheng Yi starts picking at the belt of his robe, pulling at loose strands of thread.
“What if I’m right, though? What if we weren’t ever supposed to split from the rest of the guys. Maybe Andy ge’s wrong about how much support we’re going to get.”
The despair in his voice makes Jun Jie want to shout out loud in frustration. He kneels in front of Sheng Yi, clasping both Sheng Yi’s hands in his. They look at each other, and Jun Jie can see the naked fear in Sheng Yi’s eyes and the slight tremble of his lip. He wants to kiss the tremor away, but decides that will have to wait until after they’ve returned from the performance, and Yi Cheng is safely asleep.
“Jun Jie,” Sheng Yi whispers, looking heartbreakingly vulnerable, “what if we can’t get this right? I’ll have to explain to my parents why I let Yi Cheng follow us down this path, and how I’ve been such a disappointment to them and him. I… I’m really scared.”
Jun Jie thinks that makes two of them. He’s been nauseous with anticipation and anxiety for most of the night, and only managed to shut his eyes for about three hours despite meticulously setting two alarms the night before and going to bed an hour early. He feels like he’s wound so tightly he might snap at any second, but hopefully not before they finish the routine they’ve been practising for weeks onstage for the first time, in front of the fans who have waited for them so loyally.
He’s got to be the one that does this, Jun Jie knows; he’s got to be the one to step up and take over now. He doesn’t know how Hao Quan used to handle all six of them being nervous and frightened before a performance, but now he’s the oldest and the leader, so he’s got to be the one to set things right.
“Look at me,” he says, touching Sheng Yi’s chin with a finger. Their gazes shift, then lock. Jun Jie takes a deep breath. “Sheng Yi, I promised you that when we left, I’d take care of you, remember? I said I’d do anything for you. That includes looking after your ass and your brother’s as well.”
Sheng Yi gulps down a shuddering sigh, but nods.
“I won’t lie to you, because we both know you’d see through me in a minute. So, this is what we’re going to do: we are going to get up there anyway and try our hardest to show those fans what we’re made of. That’s all we can do, Sheng Yi. However the dice fall will be anyone’s guess, but we can show them how hard we’ve worked on this. How much we want to do well, not just for ourselves, but for everyone that’s helped us get to this point. That means giving the fans some love, yeah?”
Jun Jie allows himself a wide grin.
“And we can show them how incredibly fucking gorgeous you are. That might help us shift an extra few thousand copies of the album. Maybe we should let you get to the stage with only that bathrobe on.”
“Flatterer,” Sheng Yi sniggers, punching Jun Jie lightly on the shoulder. “My mother warned me about men like you.”
Jun Jie leans closer, smiles wolfishly. “I’ve already stolen your virtue, sweetheart. So don’t start acting so coy.”
He gets to his feet, ignoring the flush that steals across Sheng Yi’s face. As distracting a sight as it is, time is beginning to grow short. He doesn’t want a repeat of the time Yi Cheng burst in on them when they were in Sheng Yi’s bedroom. The subsequent screams and shouting were almost deafening.
As he looks at the scattered mess of skincare products and cosmetics on the damp bathroom counter, an idea springs to mind.
“I’m going to help you get ready.” Jun Jie announces, feeling inordinately proud of himself for thinking that up. He grabs moisturiser, a stick of foundation, and various other tubes and pots and carries them over to Sheng Yi. “The stylist cancelled on us. Says her kid has gastric flu or something. Since I’m done already, I’ll be your makeup lady today.”
“Are you sure you’re up to the job?” Sheng Yi teases, pulls on Jun Jie’s trousers. “I don’t know, you look like you have no idea what concealer is.”
“Cheeky,” Jun Jie says, batting Sheng Yi’s hand away. He hands Sheng Yi a clip to hold back his hair, then unscrews the cap from the bottle of moisturiser and dumps a bit on his palm. He puts the bottle back on the counter top and catches Sheng Yi watching him, a small smile on his lips. “Head back.”
Sheng Yi tips his head back and closes his eyes. Jun Jie smoothes the lotion on as carefully as he can manage. He knows every inch of Sheng Yi’s body by now, but there is something indescribably intimate about helping his lover prepare himself for the stage and the eyes of the public, who analyse their every move in minute detail.
Jun Jie follows the moisturiser with a simple primer, and is rewarded with Sheng Yi’s chuckle of approval.
“You do know your way around a makeup case,” he remarks, as Jun Jie massages the gel into his skin.
“Shut up,” Jun Jie replies, grinning all the while.
Layer by layer, Jun Jie helps Sheng Yi become more and more perfect. Colder. Impervious to hurt and derision by those who would seek to tear him down for their own twisted agendas. Sheng Yi the joker, who can never finish his jokes because he is laughing too much to even get to the punch-line, disappears. Gone is the warm, friendly boy who Jun Jie fell in love with, for whom he would give up anything to make happy. Sheng Yi’s demeanour becomes haughtier. His chin lifts and Jun Jie thinks yes; he looks like a prince who could take on the expectations thrust upon him by the world and reject them utterly, laughing at the foolishness of his enemies.
Perhaps, Jun Jie thinks wryly, he imagines too much. He lines Sheng Yi’s eyes as carefully as he can, not wanting his hand to shake and smudge the smooth line of kohl. That would mar Sheng Yi’s beauty. It would be like a chink in his armour. Jun Jie wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if Sheng Yi was not properly outfitted for this battle. Between his nerves and the unforgiving scrutiny of the fans, Sheng Yi needs to believe he is untouchable.
If Jun Jie cannot guarantee Sheng Yi anything else, he will make sure his beloved looks perfect and beautiful. This, at least, he has control over. In the sanctuary that this little bathroom provides, he can provide Sheng Yi with the comfort and support to get him through the day. All leaders are expected to console and encourage the people under their care, and Jun Jie cares for Sheng Yi with a ferocity that scares even him sometimes. But it holds them together; when Jun Jie is strong for Sheng Yi, Sheng Yi is strong for Yi Cheng. If all three of them believe in their abilities and talent, then the group stays united, small as it is.
Unscrewing a pot of lip gloss, Jun Jie dabs at Sheng Yi’s lips, hisses in surprises as Sheng Yi’s teeth take hold of his finger and his tongue flicks against the tip.
“Sheng Yi,” he groans, acutely aware of how little time they have left, but already too entranced by the way Sheng Yi’s cheeks hollow out as he sucks on Jun Jie’s finger to care. Sheng Yi tugs on Jun Jie’s trouser leg again, pulls him down for a kiss. It’s hot and messy, and Jun Jie knows that Sheng Yi’s lips will need re-glossing, but the way Sheng Yi melts against him, bare skin so warm and far too close for comfort, is intoxicating. Jun Jie loses himself in the moment. He wants to kiss away all the fear and doubt that he saw lingering in Sheng Yi’s eyes, to tell Sheng Yi that everything will be fine, to please don’t worry like this. But Jun Jie doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. Not anymore. So they kiss instead, sharing warmth and comfort.
Eventually, Sheng Yi pulls away. His lips are wet and red. Jun Jie can’t help himself, runs his thumb along Sheng Yi’s full lower lip.
“Incorrigible,” Sheng Yi sniffs. He pushes Jun Jie away gently and walks to the sink. Wipes the condensation off the mirror, and finishes the rest of his makeup. Jun Jie watches, basking in a rare moment of mellow contentment. This is the calm before the storm, of course, but he’ll take whatever brief respite from the world outside he can find. Jun Jie closes his eyes and empties his mind, purposefully letting all thoughts of dance routines and lyrics and schedules slip away. He can hear Sheng Yi dressing, unscrewing bottletops, and notes the sound of water running.
He wonders what it would be like to just run away from all of this. What would happen if they were given back their normal, mundane lives. What if they were never famous at all?
“I’m ready,” Sheng Yi says, breaking Jun Jie’s train of thought.
Jun Jie opens his eyes. Wang Zi stares back at him, beautiful and strong. He smiles, offers a hand.
“Come on,” he says. Walks to the door and opens it, letting a gust of cool air into the room. They can hear Andy opening the door to the apartment and the sound of his rapid chattering over his mobile.
Time is up. The stage awaits.
Xiao Jie stands, and follows Wang Zi out.