For Yixing, it started on the first day of his last year in high school. It was when Mondays dragged students down like a brick to the ankle, Tuesdays lulled the pupils into a state of post-apocalyptic zombie-dom, Wednesdays encapsulated everything that was insufferable about high school. Thursdays dulled to a pale grey under the brightness of the weekend and Friday burnt like a flaming limelight of hope. Zhang Yixing noted it all. He'd seen the progression from childish excitement over colouring in and cutting out shapes gradually mutate into crippling anxiety over titration processes and scathing analysis from underpaid teachers. Part of him itched to go back to the brighter times of learning how to count to a hundred and the rest of him willed the years preceding being self-sufficient and financially secure away. He often dreamed of falling asleep and waking up with both a degree and a job under his belt. He shouldn't have been wishing his life to skip years, willing for time to move faster to approach a goal he seemed to have fashioned his life around but that's the way things were unfolding for him.
Yixing knew all of this before beginning his final year of high school, the period where he'd find out if he would progress on to study at university and be able to make his parents proud of him. There was no ounce of doubt in his mind that his final year would tack more stress onto his brain and he'd have to hold himself together with strained fingertips. Though, he was the kind of person who benefitted from such an environment. Yixing thrived on stress, it spurred him onwards.
And yet, his stomach coiled up like a snake within him when he got his timetable on the morning of the first day. Like they were magnets, Yixing's eyes met his best friend's and there was a shared moment of internalised screeching on both sides. He slid across a few chairs of the students who had scurried off to find their first classes and lurched forward to grab the timetable out of Zhongda's hand.
"Oh, thank god," Yixing sighed, taking in the fact he shared most of his classes with his best friend. "I don't have to suffer through biology alone again this year."
"And I'll no longer be the stupidest person in that class," Zhongda's snipe was paired with a jab to Yixing's ribs, indicating that the younger was, in fact, referring to him.
"I averaged a B last year, you'll still be the idiot," was all Yixing snorted and the boy opposite him regarded him with a flat look.
"You only got that because you copied off the guy next to you a few times and got some freak A grades as a result. I maintained my C because of my own hard work."
Yixing ignored the other in favour of comparing the rest of their schedules, pouting when he saw that he was doing art class alone, as well as gym. Though he always did well in both of those subjects, so it wasn't so bad. Zhongda gave his running commentary of which of their subject he'd certainly hate given the assigned teachers. It wasn't until they came down to English class that the younger clapped his hands together in delight and pulled his naturally smiling mouth into a grin.
"You know that teacher I had last year in English that I told you about?" One of Zhongda's straight eyebrows arched interestingly and Yixing looked down at the paper grids in front of them. He nodded once, vaguely recollecting the other talking about something to do with the class he took in English. "It looks like we've got him this year."
"And he's good?" Yixing's fingers twitched, he had always liked learning English but his flagging C grade that often dipped into the realms of being a D or even an F, much to his parents' dismay.
"He grew up in Canada and he's really patient, I liked him."
"He's a foreigner?" Yixing couldn't remember seeing any foreign teachers the year before, no matter how hard the thought about it.
"No, he's Chinese but just lived in Canada," the younger explained. "I think he's actually a Canadian citizen or something like that, so he's born Chinese but Canadian in terms of the law. I don't know, he told us at the start of last year and I don't really remember."
"Oh, I think that makes sense."
"The girls in the class were a bit annoying," Zhongda pushed his body out until his chest was flat against the table and he committed to resting his chin on the shined wooden façade. "He's young and good-looking, so a few of the girls—and some of the boys—felt like they were in with a chance of something."
Yixing's lip curled upwards in distaste, "That's so—"
"Disrupting? Yeah. I guess he's used to it, though. Even some of the older teachers go all pink-faced and giggly whenever they come into the class to talk to him."
The more Zhongda talked the less Yixing wanted to attend his language class, no matter how intrigued he was by the description given by his friend. English teachers were often the ones Yixing found the least engaging given how rigidly they taught. He often wished his parents had forced him to learn a second language, like Zhongda's parents had done with his English, through his childhood rather than leaving it to the frayed technique of high school teachers that taught with such little enthusiasm that it pained him to the very core.
Zhongda moved his head closer to Yixing, his next words dripping out of his mouth as his grin morphed into a smirk and, to make it worse, he accented it with a quick wink at the end, "Still, he may be to your liking."
Yixing took up his schedule and hit it over his best friend's head three times, getting progressively harder with every blow. It did nothing to dampen the younger's laughter and Yixing ground his teeth in faux annoyance.
"Just because I like guys as well as girls, it doesn't mean that I'll like him in that way. Or, find him attractive," Yixing huffed, blowing out his cheeks as he spoke.
"I know you don't like every attractive guy you see, otherwise you would have fallen in love with me years ago," Zhongda teased. "I was actually kind of offended when you said you didn't have a crush on me."
"Thank god that I never will."
Instead of the room being arranged into stringent rows that sat eight students across, it was organised in a way that the tables curled around the desk at the front, creating a stage where the teacher would go. It was intriguing to Yixing, especially having had every other class taught in the usual format. Yixing had forgotten all about the discussion about his English teacher as the day went by, leaving him without the straining weight of curiosity until his last class, though he did wish he had remembered when he slid into a seat Zhongda at the beginning of the session.
Leaning down, Yixing pulled the blank notebook he'd bought especially for the class and placed his grey Uniball pen down on the desk. He was organising himself, making sure he had his English dictionary out on the table when the door opened and somebody entered with calm steps.
For the second time on the first day, Zhongda's elbow found a temporary home between two of Yixing's ribs and he jolted to the side with a sharp yelp that died out to a strangled noise as he lifted his head to face the front of the room.
Dressed in a plain white shirt that tucked itself neatly into the waist of some pressed trousers, a man that was nowhere near thirty stood at the desk at the front of the class. With the dull pain of being injured by his best friend, Yixing tilted his body to the side and felt his cheeks flame as he realised just how loudly he had yelled out. He had the attention of a snickering Zhongda, the people seated ready for the class to start and the teacher who Yixing could note was overwhelmingly attractive.
Yixing's face transitioned to a shade of red and his stomach clenched up as embarrassment set in. He kept his eyes forward, however, not being able to remove them from the man at the front, the one who was looking right back at him with a mildly amused expression.
There were ten seconds of complete silence before Zhongda's laughs began to break out freely, drawing all the attention that had been on Yixing to him and the younger had never been so thankful for the other's lacking ability to keep his voice in check. It also gave Yixing ample opportunity to fully take in his new English teacher.
He was like Zhongda had said, young and handsome. He had dyed blond hair messily styled with matte wax to keep the strands out of his face, his facial features were dark and defined, he was tall with legs that rose well up above the height of the desk and had a definitive presence within the room without even saying a word. Yixing was shocked that he had never seen the teacher around the school before but the student had to note that he didn't even know the names of some of the people in his class. Despite having studied with them since joining the school.
"Once Zhongda has calmed himself down," Yixing observed how the teacher's rather small but plump lips moved as he spoke, his voice deep and commanding whilst maintaining a soft edge, "we can begin."
Zhongda's laughter sobered up as it turned into a smug smile, obviously happy with himself for getting Yixing to seemingly shout out in the quiet class for no reason in particular. Yixing pouted, shooting his best friend as heavy of a glare as he was able to muster and Zhongda only chuckled quietly as the teacher turned towards the interactive whiteboard.
Using the digital pen, the dull noises of the plastic nib touching on the surface reaching Yixing's ears, the teacher wrote his name up on the board. The first row was scrawled out in fast Mandarin and the line below read an easily identifiable, Mr Wu.
Yixing scribbled into his book what was projected, making note of the teacher's name and he muttered it out loud along with the other students who hadn't ever been taught by that teacher before, familiarising themselves with it.
"As you can read from the board," Mr Wu began, "I'm your English teacher, this is my second year of teaching but my previous students, some of whom are here now, all averaged either a B or an A by the end of the last semester. Now, because this is an English class, please refer to me as Mr Wu. I'll be encouraging you to speak, and write, in as much English as you can to get you as proficient as I can within the next year."
The entire room was quiet as the teacher spoke, Yixing wasn't sure if everybody was as charmed as he was by the soft smile Mr Wu wore as he was or if they were listening as intently as they were capable of. He couldn't stop watching as the teacher shifted around some of the paper in front of him and brought his laptop to the centre of the desk. The perfectly indented Apple symbol glowed on the front of the device and the Smartboard's screen shifted to the electronic register.
"When I call your names, can you raise your hand and give a short yes or here in English, so I can start learning the names of those of you I don't know?"
Without even waiting for the class to respond, the teacher began to reel off the names that were displayed on the screen. He made sure to look up to find the person who had the name he'd called and repeated it with a smile, greeting each student individually. Yixing, strangely, found himself growing nervous as his name drew closer and cleared his throat a few times before he was sure his voice wouldn't crack.
When Mr Wu announced his name, Yixing lifted his right hand and gave a short, "Here," in response and his eyes met with his teacher's. As he drew his hand out of the air, Yixing felt his palms grow clammy and the heat that was already in his cheeks increase by a few degrees. He watched how his teacher mouthed his name, nodding his head as if to indicate that Yixing had been committed to his memory.
The rest of the lesson was taken in a relaxed manner, playing simple games that tested vocabulary and Yixing could sense it was Mr Wu's way of assessing where the students were in learning the language without giving a test on the first day. To an extent, Yixing was glad to have Zhongda at his side, the other gave a security blanket but Yixing made out see the teasing fire in his best friend's eyes as they were monitored by the teacher during one of their games. Yixing tried his hardest to not stutter but often failed, which was rather strange for him. He did, however, feel redeemed when it came to writing, given that he was sure he hadn't spelt anything wrong as he scribed what others were saying.
Yixing rarely felt relief when a class was over as he knew he'd leave with a bag weighed down with homework and ever increasing expectation, so when he felt the releasing feeling of relief wash over him in the corridor as he made his way to the exit of the school, it was strange. His face slowly returned back to its natural colour when he finally reached outside and he finally looked over to his friend.
Zhongda's statement as they left the school's main building was short but told Yixing that his nervousness around their attractive English teacher hadn't gone unnoticed, "I said to you that he may be to your liking."
"For saying that, I'm not walking home with you."
As excruciating as the first lesson had been, Yixing found going to Mr Wu's classes easier than he thought once he could ignore how handsome the man was. Due to the size and intensity of the class, the teacher rarely had time to give one-on-one feedback and Yixing found himself being able to cope better with the lack of contact. Though, like Zhongda had predicted, there was a cluster of girls who huddled at the front of the room to coo over the teacher every time he did anything.
Yixing found it rather pathetic, along with some of the other students, because pining over a teacher who constantly remained professional seemed utterly fruitless. Mr Wu, the class found, was rather fond of badly told English jokes that Yixing didn't understand most of the time but the gaggle at the front giggled almost constantly as the teacher took delight in his own jokes.
As annoying as that was, Yixing found himself remembering the content far more easily than he thought he would and mimicking how Mr Wu spoke with his Canadian accent gave him a belief that his own accent didn't change how the words sounded. Whilst English wasn't a tonal language, like any kind of Chinese, Yixing struggled to pronounce words like gesture with a softer ge sound than he was used to, so being able to copy a clear example helped to settle a degree of his anxiety.
In his written work, like he expected, Yixing did far better. Whenever he was wrong, there was always an encouraging phrase like 'good effort' or 'nearly there' followed up with the correction and Yixing took praise from each of those statements whenever he saw them. Yixing, along with the rest of the class, appreciated that Mr Wu left a fifteen minute segment at the end of every class going over grammar and exceptions to rules within the English language, which allowed for Yixing to compile a small set of notes that outlined the rules he would have to learn to become proficient.
In actuality, Yixing was able to melt into the unknowns of the classroom, despite being sat next to the loudest student in the room. He went unnoticed by Mr Wu, for the most part, and was able to focus solely on learning the language without being blindsided by one of the teacher's overly endearing smiles.
Whilst Yixing was certain he didn't, Zhongda often teased him that he had a crush on Mr Wu, given that he still rehearsed how he would respond to his name being called out during the roll call. He denied any such things, merely stating that he could see how attractive their teacher was and he was merely blindsided by it in their first lesson, though that didn't stop Zhongda snorting with an accompanying eye-roll every time Yixing smiled at a mark he would get on his work.
English rapidly became one of Yixing's favourite subject, right beneath his music and art classes, purely because of how the lessons were taught. When Zhongda had described Mr Wu as patient, Yixing hadn't thought it would be to the point where he'd hold sessions over lunch periods to make sure every student was up to speed with the course content or that he would write such detailed feedback on their work. Yixing also appreciated how the teacher would e-mail the students a short list of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that would suit their level of English to help them improve on reading comprehension.
Yixing's parents were more than thrilled to shell out a little money for him to buy a book every so often, especially when they saw that it was likely to help his studies in the secondary language. Zhongda had also done the same, allowing them to exchange whatever they hadn't read with one another. Sometimes they would FaceTime as they read, helping each other with pronunciation and guiding the other when they got a little bit stuck. Zhongda's English had always been far better than Yixing's, given that his parents were international business people and he'd survived on English alone when he hadn't known Mandarin. Yixing was jealous, somewhat, he wanted to have the instinct that his best friend did with the language but his lacking knowledge worked against him.
As well as acting as a study partner, Yixing had managed to get Zhongda onboard to be the focus of his art project. Yixing needed to use somebody to sit for him so he could get his drawings of facial expressions in more detail to be able to build a portfolio of work for a project into portraiture. As a subject, Zhongda was always interesting to draw and Yixing found himself scratching impressions of his best friend's face whenever he was in sight and there was a plain piece of paper to hand.
He was able to recall Zhongda's from memory, his hands committed to instantly draw the younger's features like they were Yixing's own creation and that had freaked Zhongda out in the beginning. As much as he admired Yixing's skill with a pencil to set out the tones and contours, the detail was frighteningly accurate and could be unsettling. As time wore on, he could see the beauty in each one, how they displayed subtle differences and documented every slight change they grew through.
Though, it grew progressively boring for Yixing. The same subject was never quite the same as learning a new one. He'd tried sitting in coffee shops and scribbling out the people he saw coming and going. Still, those short studies were impersonal and nothing like what Yixing was wanting to portray in his small works. There had been a short joke made by Zhongda for Yixing to draw Mr Wu because he was constantly staring at him from his seat in the class, Yixing had shrugged the joke off as nothing until he caught sight of Mr Wu during one of the first tests they had.
The teacher was sat on his chair, one leg drawn up against his chest, the other was flat to the chair with his foot settled on the ground, Yixing guessed. He was leant against his thigh, hands holding a well-worn book just off the desk. However, it was not his posture that had caught Yixing's attention. Mr Wu's expression was one of consuming enthrallment. His brow was furrowed in concentration, his lip was curled up under his teeth and his nose scrunched up every so often. It was a soft display of absorption that shone with a slightly yellow glow under the strip lighting, Yixing's pen went to the desk as he finished his last question with fifteen minutes to spare. His fingers crawled like spiders across the veneered wood, his nails tapped gently against it until they nudged on the mechanical pencil.
With the implement grasped in his hand, he clicked the top a few times over to get a decent sized nib and flipped his test over to the blank page. Yixing began to etch lines out as his eyes focused in on the way his teacher concentrated on his book, how the lines around his eyes were accentuated that little bit more and how the edge of his mouth moved as if he was vaguely mouthing along with the words written on the pages.
It filled the time, the minutes moved by as swiftly as the graphite built up to get darker and bring a face out of the paper. It wasn't perfect, the final result, but it was easily recognisable and Yixing was certain that if Zhongda hadn't been sat a seat away from him, he would have received a suggestive raise of an eyebrow paired with a kittenish smirk.
Like a clock running behind time, Yixing only realised his biggest fault when Mr Wu placed his book down onto his desk and stood up with a slight stretch. He walked around to start collecting the papers and Yixing panicked, he didn't want his teacher to see the back of his paper. His somewhat rushed drawing of him but his eraser was too small to make any serious dent in the identity of his subject and resigned himself to tucking his chin down to his chest as he handed his paper up to the teacher.
He didn't look up again until it was time for the entire class to be released, Yixing linked his arm with Zhongda's as they walked down the hall and considered the fact that writing Mr Wu surrounded with pink hearts was possibly more subtle than what he'd scrawled on the back of his test. Mortification and unsettling embarrassment were the flavours he could taste as Zhongda pushed a celebratory 'thank god that test didn't make us cry' piece of butterscotch into Yixing's mouth.
Upon the return of Yixing's test, which he managed to get an 83% he was strangely proud of—and a note complimenting his drawing, leading to Yixing's cheeks burning like they had the capabilities to boil water—Zhongda also saw the sketch. His reaction was just as Yixing had anticipated and a hissed, "Go away," had been muttered from Yixing's mouth.
Being as committed to the role of making Yixing's like simultaneously amazing and a living hell, Zhongda did not let it go. At all. Almost every time Yixing went to his art classes that week, there was a snarky remark about how Yixing would sit there for the whole period thinking about Mr Wu. There was also every time they had an English class, the younger didn't even have to say anything most of the time, Yixing could just feel the judgement there and it made him wish he'd just thrown the test out and taken the fail.
When they studied together over FaceTime, Zhongda was sure to say Mr Wu with a dreamy sigh that made Yixing wish he had the power to hit his best friend through the screen with his pillow. If they stayed at one another's house, Yixing hid his head under the pillows and let out a muted screech as Zhongda cackled in his usual way.
It was playful, as usual, Zhongda liked testing how far he was able to push Yixing before he was on the receiving end of wholly unamused scowling that was never to be taken in jest. That was a rare occurrence, especially after having been friends for so long and they knew each other inside and out. Yixing knew every girl Zhongda had ever had a crush on, much like how Zhongda was the first person Yixing told that he was also attracted to men. They knew never to go too close to the bone with insecurities but pushed on those nerves with gentle nudges that made them feel weirdly secure with revealing that side to the other.
It was one thing for Zhongda to mess around when it came to how Yixing shone like a red beacon at any contact with Mr Wu. It was another thing for Zhongda to turn to Yixing as they played video games in Yixing's living room one Sunday when Yixing's parents were visiting his grandparents and say:
"Would you let Mr Wu fuck you if he asked?"
Yixing had spluttered, coughed and almost hacked up a lung as he tried to reel himself in from what his best friend had bluntly asked as they shot at animated enemy soldiers on the screen. At first, Yixing was going to let the question go unanswered because it was something he genuinely hadn't ever thought about. Despite how horny of a teenager Yixing had been, his teacher had not been involved in any of his fantasies and he wanted to shut those thoughts down instantly.
Zhongda, however, being Zhongda would not let the question go. He paused the game and turned to Yixing with a tilted head.
"Well, would you?"
Yixing sucked in a breath, "You can't just ask me stuff like that."
"I think you'll find that I did just ask you that," the other teenager rebutted, snorting. "So, answer."
To the risk of his own sanity, Yixing let himself think about it a little. Nevertheless, a little was too much because once the dam had been opened, the water flooded out. Instead of imagining the people from the porn Yixing watched on his phone with earphones plugged in every almost every night, he imagined himself and his teacher.
The response was instant, his cheeks flushed to pink and his forehead began to bead with sweat a little too much for him to be thinking of innocent things. Especially since no fever other than lust would ever set in that fast.
Yixing didn't even need to give a verbal response to Zhongda before he was snickering, the gameplay echoing in the background as Yixing tried to push images of Mr Wu shirtless and on his bed. He was horrified, and shamefully hard, at the visions his brain was creating and scurried up and out of the room with rapid pace until he could lock himself in the bathroom. Instead of giving in to teenage hormones, Yixing let the cold tap run until it was at its lowest temperature and washed his face with the startling water.
When he returned to the living room after having calmed down a little more, Zhongda was smirking and leaning back on the sofa pillows.
"Have fun with Mr Wu in there?"
"Don't be so gross, Da," Yixing shook his head and took up his controller again. "You know I didn't do anything like that. I'd never even thought about that kind of thing."
"Really?" Zhongda paused the game again and Yixing wanted to die ever so slightly. "You've never thought about what Mr Wu would be like in bed? What kind of crush do you even have?"
"A totally innocent one up until like ten minutes ago," Yixing bit back, pushing his lips out into a pout. "I really hate you sometimes, why do you ruin everything nice that I have?"
"Because I'm me and I wouldn't be me if I didn't do those things."
Yixing hated how right his best friend was with what he'd said as he started the space themed war game up again, it wouldn't be like Zhongda if he didn't pick apart things that made Yixing happy until they both snorted with laughter over it. He was sure he could let those thoughts go and let his crush revert back to a normal one, he didn't want Zhongda to taint the last childish crush Yixing would probably have.
Yet, when Yixing was laying in his body with heat and arousal all over his body, he knew more than anything that Zhongda had opened up a labyrinth of unknown desires for Yixing. Especially when his hand crept down his body as if it was insect to go into his underwear, all whilst praise echoed in English and accented with blond hair swirled in his head.
Zhongda really had ruined the good thing Yixing had and he shamefully submitted himself to it.
After the dreaded revelation, Zhongda laid off Yixing a little with his jested remarks and left him with short bouts of laughter instead. Part of Yixing, that tiny ever optimistic segment of his brain, told him that it was because Zhongda could move on from his obsession. The rest of him was less positive in its outlook, Yixing knew he would return back to normal once Yixing had adjusted to the new way he thought of their English teacher.
Seeing Mr Wu was earth shaking for the student, the teacher was always so well-groomed and looked incredibly handsome with how young he appeared. His shirts were always pressed perfectly, his trousers sat on his hips and made his legs look even longer, his physique was a wonder to Yixing.
The more Yixing looked, the more he found himself drawing, the more he noticed. That wasn't aided by the fact that everything he did find, he adored. He knew he was blinded by superficial attraction, there was no way everything about a person could be perfect and yet, he couldn't lose sight of the fact that he did react emotionally to each thing.
Had Yixing been six-years-old, he would label it puppy love. That infatuation drove him to see his teacher glowing in gold or rose but his heart clenched in his almost eighteen-year-old chest. It was lighter when Mr Wu wasn't in sight and smothering when he was, he was sure everybody could notice it.
And still, when he found himself drawing on his English work, he would smile whenever his teacher would comment on them. They wouldn't be detailed or anything, a handful of English phrases where Mr Wu expressed his amazement at the skill Yixing showed, how he appeared to admire the small alterations Yixing would make sometimes; Yixing's drawing of Mr Wu as a woodland Elf had the best reaction.
It soothed him to know that his teacher wasn't creeped out by the studies, it meant he kept every worksheet and post-it note he was given for purposes other than studying. When Yixing's art teacher had been a little too critical, he would pull out what he had been given by Mr Wu in regards to his 'talent' and that was a boost he needed.
They rarely spoke face-to-face and that was a relief for the student, he wasn't sure how he could handle having verbalised praise from his teacher.
Yixing discovered that he gradually learnt about Mr Wu's face in a way that he only knew Zhongda's, he could pluck the ability to draw it out of his brain with a snap of his fingers. He found himself cross-hatching out the shape of his teacher's eyes on napkins and rubbing the shape of his lips into the condensation on the window of his mother's car.
Knowing a person's face, Yixing found, meant knowing how their emotions presented themselves physically. Within five classes of drawing his teacher when he'd finished his work, he could see the slight changes in how Mr Wu reacted to smaller things, from spilling his coffee over the edge of his mug or how he frowned slightly whenever his shoes scuffed on the floor. It was detailed and overwhelmingly intimate despite the room being filled with other teenagers.
It was palpable for Yixing in his one-sided stares, he could feel his heart hammering and within two weeks he was certain he was experiencing that irrational form of love that came from non-verbal admiration. He didn't let it slip, even slightly, to Zhongda. He would never hear the end of the teasing.
For Yifan, it all began in a late evening of October. The school was open far later than usual to have it's early academic year spate of parent-teacher conferences, his own evening had been full of discussions with the parents of his homeroom students with reviews of their subjects in order to make goals for the rest of the evening. His throat was dry and scratchy from use, his lips had begun to crack slightly and he was in dire need for a drink of any kind.
With the last of his interviews done, he made his way towards the gymnasium where he knew there were vending machines for the student who hadn't taken their own drink. As he walked closer, he could feel his want for an overly sugary isotonic drink grow with every step and he praised himself for loading his pockets with spare change after buying a packet of fresh mint gum from a convenience store with a large bill that morning.
He pushed the coins into the slot, listening to them rattle as they were sorted within the machine and pressed the button for the orange flavoured drink his throat was crying out for. With the thunderous descent of the bottle filling the hallway, Yifan heard feet shuffling on the other side of one of the locker room doors. With the knowledge that nobody should have been in them, he pushed open the door and saw a student stood awkwardly in the entry.
It took a few moments for him to take note of the redness around the student's eyes, the damp areas on the wrists of his sleeves and how haphazardly the student was dressed. As the seconds passed, he registered that it was on of his students. Zhang Yixing.
"Are you okay?" Yifan's voice was cautious and as unthreatening as he could make it, the student looked positively distraught with his expression so downcast.
Yixing didn't verbally respond but nodded slowly, his face morphed to a deeper shade of pink and Yifan concluded that it was probably the embarrassment of being caught crying in the school changing rooms by a teacher.
The student fidgeted on his feet, a clear display of his discomfort and Yifan took pity on the teenager. He put his hand in his pocket and felt around for more change, as small smile breaking on his face when he felt more there.
"Would you like a drink?" He offered.
Yixing frowned at first, Yifan was sure the boy was thinking until he nodded once more. Yifan stepped back into the corridor and the student followed behind him, both of them standing in front of the vending machine as Yifan put more money into it. He motioned at the limited menu and Yixing pressed the button of the strawberry flavoured version of the bottle Yifan had bought for himself.
They were quiet as the drink fell and Yifan was the one to reach down and get it from the tray to hand to Yixing.
"You don't have to tell me why you're here but I need to let you know that the gym is out of bounds for students this evening," Yifan looked down at Yixing as he gulped down the sports drink he'd been given. "You shouldn't be in here without the supervision of the teacher, especially when parents are around."
Yixing, again, nodded. Yifan could deduce that he was shy, he knew as much from the fact that he never spoke in class to anybody but Zhongda. Not even to answer questions. He put a little more space between them and began edging towards the door, thankful that Yixing caught the subtle suggestion to follow him out of the gym's main doors.
"Are you not with your parents?" Yifan probed, not entirely sure where to take Yixing and the student opened his mouth before closing it again, only growing redder as he lowered his head. "Do you know where you need to go? The school will be closing soon and you'll need to go home."
"Yeah," Yixing finally spoke. "My parents are with my homeroom teacher having their conference."
"And you aren't in there with them?" The question was stupid but Yifan hoped to pry more out of the teenager to make sure he was okay without upsetting him further. However, it gave Yifan a direction to head in. He knew who Yixing and Zhongda's homeroom teacher was a where to find them in the school.
"Uh," Yixing's hair that curled on his forehead covered his eyes as he looked down, "I didn't really want to be in there anymore."
To try and make light, Yifan chuckled out a gentle, "That bad, huh?" Cringing when he realised it probably wasn't the right thing to say. Although, he was still learning how to handle students outside of the classroom and he guessed from Yixing's lack of fresh tears that he was doing okay.
"Probably worse than you think," Yixing frowned, the curvature of his lips making a shallow dimple appear in his cheek. He knew from watching the student interact with Zhongda that it was deeper when he smiled.
"You're doing well in my class, so it can't all be awful."
To say the atmosphere between them was awkward was an understatement, it was evident how rigid they were with one another and Yifan tried to loosen up, scolding himself for seeming so insensitive when a student was evidently upset.
"It's not my grades," Yixing whispered. "I want to go to art school but my parents aren't big fans of that."
Yifan, whilst not being the most intuitive of teachers, knew that what the student had uttered to him was the issue at hand. He could remember something his mother had said about people wanting to downplay their issues when they think they wouldn't be taken seriously. He chewed on his lip, weighing up his answers. A part of him wanted to reassure Yixing that he was talented in the arts, though he could assume that the student knew that with the fact he wanted to go to art school and feeding him a line about obeying his parents' wishes.
When a more diplomatic response came, Yifan let it out:
"I've seen how great your drawings are," he began, catching the attention of the student when he eventually looked up from where he was staring at the concrete beneath their feet. "You have a skill and talent which could amaze anybody, but I think your parents are likely to be concerned about the future you can create for yourself. Be sure to listen to what they have to say becau—"
"Yixing, there you are," a womanly voice called from the main doors to the central building of the school. "We've been waiting for you and you've been galavanting off with your friends to buy those drinks that rot your teeth."
"Uh, mama," Yixing's voice wasn't small as he spoke to the woman, taking Yifan aback slightly, "this is Mr Wu, my English teacher."
"Oh," the woman's head cocked to the side and Yifan began to see a resemblance between her and his student. She bowed slightly and Yifan returned it politely. "Nice to meet you."
"You too," Yifan gave her a short smile before she tugged her son towards a man stood a little further down the pathway.
Yixing looked over his shoulder at Yifan and took his turn to bow slightly, a quick sign of gratitude and Yifan was sure to smile at the student, hoping it would make him feel a little better.
It was nigh on impossible for Yifan to not notice Yixing in his next lesson, despite how quietly and studiously he worked while Zhongda chattered in his ear. Yifan found himself glazing over with relief when he saw Yixing smile from his seat, a joke his best friend had told clearly struck a positive cord within him that was enough to have his dimple indenting in his cheek. It was a complete reversal to the hopeless frown and reddened mask of sorrow around his eyes Yifan had witnessed there on the interview evening.
Yixing's hair curled over the collar of his shirt, his jacket was slightly too long for his arms and his face was in that stage before rounded cheeks became slightly hollowed out. It was, however, his eyes that Yifan could note determination under a glossy sheen that made his brown eyes glint as he smiled over at his friend. He was, by all definitions, the beholder of boyish tenacity that was buoyed by a willingness to apply himself.
It was an admirable set of traits Yifan saw in students every so often. Zhongda, too, exhibited such things and Yifan could remember how, in the year previous, the Korean boy had asked for English songs to learn for his vocal lessons. That had equated to an offer for an invite to the student's performance that he politely declined to keep things professional.
Zhongda had taken the polite dismissal well, blabbering about how his best friend would be there in full support. Yifan could vaguely remember Zhongda saying something about t-shirts being made to wear under formal jackets, which had Yifan smiling in his seat at the front of the room. The friendship between the two students appeared like a strong pillar for them both, a blind person could see it and Yifan had almost perfect sight.
In the last moments of the class, Yifan watched Yixing finish up his work and flip over his sheet. The realisation was sudden for the teacher, he knew the student would begin his drawing sequence and, as much as he wanted to observe the level of certitude he was confident would be there.
Yifan enjoyed determination, he found they were always the people who worked the hardest and wanted to do the best in what they turned their hands to. Even in university, he was enthralled to watch his peers work hard towards their goals. It was probably why Yifan's last girlfriend had been an aspiring doctor with a want to practice psychiatry, which had also been the downfall of their relationship. Yifan wasn't a fan of constantly being a subject of such invasive study, one where a person tried to know him inside as well as outside.
His emotions were his own, he wanted to keep them hidden when he wanted and he didn't want somebody else to know how to read every small change about him. That idea was enough to spook him away from a person, especially when they'd bring up such a thing on an idle morning in his dormitory when he felt at his most vulnerable.
To occupy himself, the teacher set about marking the homework of one of his younger classes, smiling whenever a student made a small, but still honest, mistake in their spelling or phrasing. Before he knew it, the volume of the class rose and he knew that was his cue to bring the lesson to a close.
Standing from where he was sat, pen still in hand, Yifan smiled and looked at nobody in particular, "Okay, I think that's it for today. Please hand your workbooks and study sheets in before you leave."
The class clambered to stand, shoving pens and pencils into their bags to ready themselves to leave and Yifan walked to the edge of the first desk. The pupils handed their work in, some ensuring to say goodbye to Yifan and others too absorbed in their conversations to spare him a glance. It never bothered him, he didn't see it as them being rude and rather enjoyed how animated people could be when they discussed things they adored, like a pleasant hum of laughter and audible smiling floating all around his head. He could never find that kind of youthful joy as rudeness.
Quickly, the number of teenagers dwindled to nearly nothing until only the last remained. Zhang Yixing's face was pink with nothing but nervousness in place of the smile he'd shown his best friend and his reticence could be seen a mile off.
He handed his book, then his sheet but didn't walk off. Instead, his hand delved into his pocket and he pulled out a few coins before offering it towards Yifan.
"What's this for?" Yifan queried, concerned as to why he was being handed money by one of his students and he knew his brows had furrowed automatically above his eyes.
"It's me repaying you," Yixing explained, his tongue catching between his teeth momentarily, "for the drink you got me the other day."
Yifan instantly understood and placed the study materials onto the table. "You really didn't have to pay me back, Yixing. I offered to do it without the intention of asking for anything back."
"I know, but this makes me feel better."
"You really don't have to pay me back," Yifan leant against the desk, hoping to ease some of Yixing's nerves that didn't give the impression that they were fading. "Though, I'd like to ask if you are okay now because you did seem thoroughly upset in the locker room."
"Oh," Yixing's mouth rounded out.
"So, are you?"
Yixing bit his lip, covering his hands with his jacket, serving to create a look of anxious innocence as he stood in the walkway.
"Uh, I'm not going to art school," Yixing frowned. It was genuine, like a heartbreak between a couple who had vowed forever to one another. "My parents have decided that I'm going to a more academic subject to be more employable."
The answer came out like Yixing was still trying to convince himself that it was still happening and that he wouldn't get his opportunity to attend a school he really wanted to.
"Have you had any thoughts about what you want to do?" Yifan's arms crossed on his chest, allowing him to relax slightly but Yixing remained rigid in the middle of the room. The teacher wished, in part, that he had invited the student to sit down in order to make him feel more comfortable. He was sure it was slightly too late for that.
"Not exactly," Yixing lifted his hand to scratch at the back of his neck. "Baba wants to look at my grades before we decide."
Yifan nodded, he knew how such things went, having gone through it wth his mother when he was in high school.
"If you need to talk to somebody within the school then let me know and I'll find a contact," Yifan wanted to be reassuring, especially when Yixing was so red in the face and simultaneously timid to the point where Yifan was sure he would have been shaking anywhere else. "Otherwise, I'll always be in here, if you need anybody to discuss academic options with. I know I probably seem pretty old to you but I'm only twenty-four; I was in your position six years ago, too."
"I'll keep that in mind, Mr Wu," Yixing didn't stammer but the frailty to his voice was there and Yifan wondered how he could boost the teenager's confidence around him.
"Not to plug my own subject, but, if you choose English then I'll be willing to set up some tutoring sessions for you," Yifan hoped to crack a smile on the student's face. He only achieved the opposite as Yixing's eyes widened and his hands clasped together in front of his body. His head, however, didn't bow down. It stayed poised in his shock and Yifan took that as a small victory before continuing. "You can invite Zhongda along if you want, to would make you comfortable. Or, I can get an ex-student to come in and go through anything you want. Anything to help you find what you want to do with your parents' approval."
"Thank you so much," Yixing closed his mouth and smiled slightly, his cheek denting inwards where his dimple was. "I'll be sure to let my parents know."
As if the effect was instant, Yifan smiled and Yixing's chin dipped his head down, presenting his bashfulness completely. The student scurried out of the classroom and Yifan observed how his demeanour changed in its entirety when he met with Zhongda. That had Yifan turning gradually gloomier, he didn't want his students to be so hesitant around him. He felt out of touch and there was a lot about it that didn't sit right with him.
As cliché as it was, Yifan met his best friend in the establishment between their apartments every week for a few drinks and to talk through their week. Most often, Yifan griped on about how his weekend would be full of marking papers and writing lesson plans that were even slightly interesting to the groups he would be teaching. Lu Han, on the other hand, complained about how his parents constantly pestered him about finding a 'real' job, not one as a barista at the coffee shop he'd been employed by during his university years.
That Friday, however, Yifan had an agenda. He needed to know if he was intimidating enough to make a teenager recoil in anxiety that he couldn't place, he didn't know what he was doing to let that nervousness thrive.
The moment Lu Han was sat across from Yifan in the booth, he leant forward onto his elbows and retained eye contact.
"Shit," Lu Han took a quick swig of the beer he'd approached with, "what's happened now?"
"Am I frightening?"
Lu Han choked on his drink, the bubbles erupting from his mouth and he spluttered, wiped them away with the back of his hand then released the chuckle that had been trapped in his throat as he spluttered.
"You?" Lu Han laughed around the single word question, letting it evolve as he went on to speak more. "The man who cried when we watched Never Let Me Go at the cinema?"
"Hey, that's a really sad film, okay?" Yifan pouted slightly, gripping his hand around the whisky he had half drunk on the table. "And anyway, there's nothing wrong with crying at sad things."
"But you blubbered like a baby."
"There's still nothing wrong with that, don't push your masculine ideals onto me." Yifan huffed a sigh out, he knew Lu Han was teasing him but still hated it nonetheless. "You cried, too, if you remember?"
"I know but at least I still look good when I cry. You looked like a melting waxwork in a fire at Madame Tussauds." Lu Han took another sip of his beer. "Seeing you is what made me cry."
Yifan rolled his eyes as he kicked Lu Han under the table, following the actions of the other and taking a long sip of his whisky.
"We are getting off topic here," Yifan regained a little composure and he knew that he had his best friend's attention. "If you were a seventeen, or eighteen, year-old, would I scare you?"
The noise that came from Lu Han's mouth as he considered the question was nasal and grating, though Yifan suffered through it in favour of getting a decent response. Lu Han was quick with one-liners but slow when he was being genuine, it was a small trait Yifan had known since the first month of meeting the other in university.
Yifan wasted time by swishing the lone piece of ice that sat in the golden fluid of his glass, the clinking noise it made was barely audible over the classic hum of the bar but it distracted him enough to not feel the strain of his friend's contemplation.
"I think if you didn't smile, then yes." Lu Han paused once more, "I guess if you're the one who can give a student the pass or fail that they need to graduate, then I think I'd be pretty anxious around you."
"But what if I've been nothing but supportive?" Yifan could feel the bubblings of self-doubt within him. Had he been supportive? Was he imposing needlessly onto the life of one of his students? Was his student uncomfortable with him impeding on his personal life?
"Then maybe they're just shy? Teenagers don't trust people instantly," Lu Han's reasoning came over the voice in Yifan's head, silencing it to take in what was being said. "Those years are awkward; you're deciding your entire life, you're constantly changing and you grow up a lot in a short timespan. Give whoever you're worried about a bit of space, let them open up to you."
"How do I do that?" Yifan's hand gripped his glass once more. "I don't know what else to do to make them comfortable."
"Patience and small things. Don't talk to them about the big issues straight away, confront smaller things and learn about them." It wasn't often that it happened, but Lu Han was making sense to Yifan. "Find common ground and build something from there, you don't tell a complete stranger about yourself. You need a connection first."
"Connection," Yifan repeated. "Got it."
"Now I've helped you with your issues, I need you to help me get some girls over here so I can go home with somebody," Lu Han took a long drag of the liquid of his beer, the condensation dribbling down his hand.
"God, my parents are a nightmare," Lu Han turned away from the booth and looked out across the bar to pinpoint whoever he found attractive. "Why don't they realise that being a barista is my dream job?"
"Uh, maybe because you actually wanted to be a barrister before your coffee addiction sank in?" Yifan pointed out and Lu Han waved his hand.
"Less thinking like that and more concentration on getting girls back over here, please."
Yifan gazed across the room with a bored expression, noting anybody who looked like Lu Han's type and he shuddered when he heard his best friend slam his bottle down. He'd found somebody.
"What's the plan this time?" Yifan mumbled, already hating himself for being involved in whatever was likely to unfold. However, he felt indebted to the other after his short advice session, leaving Yifan at the other's mercy.
"The classic one where you act like a jerk and they take pity on me, the friend who is embarrassed by your antics," Lu Han was smiling, that was always his favourite. He loved to torment Yifan with it and he knew that the taller wouldn't say no to the suggestion. He was, after all, owing something to his best friend. "It works like a charm."
Yifan lifted the rest of his drink and downed it, the familiar heat of the alcohol burning leaving a trail down his throat that he cleared with a cough.
"Let's get this over a done with then."
Yifan looked through Yixing's file, not to snoop but to grasp a general idea of what the student was like and where his interests were invested. The teacher decided against talking to the teenager about art given that it was clearly a touchy subject. He did take note of the subjects Yixing excelled in and which clubs he belonged to. It was a nice surprise to see dancing, creative writing and music based classes on the teenager's agenda.
Of all the students in the school, Yixing appeared to fall wonderfully into the Humanities departments where his STEM classes were left with almost everything to be desired. Zhang Yixing failed half his classes all while excelling in the others. His report card was a disarray of Fs and Ds sprinkled through As and Bs, Yifan smiled as he checked over them in conjunction with the reviews his teachers gave him.
It was in nearly every single report that Yixing was described as hardworking and zealous about learning, yet sometimes didn't see the rewards when he was likely to deserve it. Yifan thought it somewhat cute. Yixing tried his best, often didn't succeed but he knew the teenager wouldn't give up on anything either. Much like Yifan had thought before, Yixing was an admirable student.
He consistently tried his best and it was a little damaging to Yifan's own heart that Yixing often didn't get any reward for that.
The teacher had his pen in hand and tapped it on the small pile of post-it notes he'd placed on top of his desk, he chewed on his cheek as he thought through his options.
Direction, while limitless and wide-ranging, was where Yifan struggled. If he wanted to connect with his student then he'd have to go about it creatively, it wouldn't be nearly as simplistic as helping Zhongda with English song choices; nor as straightforward as when Yifan had helped to coach the basketball team the previous year.
He made a small list of three, a small selection to choose his preference from amongst the many that swirled around his head. One was something he had already offered to the student, set time for tutoring in English—though, he considered opening that up to other subjects. Another was starting an English book club for students who were interested in the literature and the last was looking into Yixing's hobbies to learn about them until he was comfortable enough to talk about them.
Yifan sat there, just staring at the lineup. His pen was poised, his cheek was still between his teeth and his foot began to fidget like he had trapped a nerve. Frustration swirled up like a small storm in his stomach. He knew pursuing the last option was too much of a personal approach, likely showing a preference, one that wasn't really there, towards one of his students.
The first two were easier, they could be opened up to other students and yet, Yifan struggled to favour them. His issue was not in the whole class, it was in the wellbeing of a student who he had seen close to being distraught over the prospect of his future.
As his first class filed into the room, Yifan put his pen down and rubbed his eyes like that would help to nurture some satisfactory ideas out of his brain. With his focus needing to shift to the twenty-five students in front of him, the post-it notes were pushed to the side of his desk and he stood up from his chair.
Relaxing was easy when he was greeted by his group of first years, they each of them were free of the stresses of his older students and Yifan could sink back into teaching them about simple spoken sentences. He could push the memory of a crying Zhang Yixing to the back of his mind as the smaller smiles of fifteen-year-olds welcomed him back into the present.
Yifan wasn't religious, not by a longshot, but he would have kissed the ground any deity walked—or floated—over when he came back from making himself a caffeine-packed but dire cup of instant coffee in the staff room to see Zhang Yixing stood outside of his classroom. The student was peering in through the window, checking to see if Yifan was there and his shoulders sagged down slightly when he registered the teacher's absence. It made Yifan stretch his stride out and quicken his pace, calling out the teenager's name.
Yixing jolted slightly, taking a fright from the sudden shout of his name and Yifan grimaced at the reaction. Nonetheless, Yixing turned to look at him and smiled. He actually smiled. It was as if Yifan had a moment of breakthrough with the student that happened without his knowledge, given how strangely relaxed Yixing appeared to be.
"Were you looking for me?" Yifan didn't sound hopeful, he couldn't as he drew to a stop and spoke his words into the cooling liquid in his mug.
The student appeared dazed for a minute prior to blinking himself out of it. He fumbled with something in his bag and brought out a book. It was paperback, the corners were worn but the pages were pale enough for it to be an eagerly read new purchase. It was eventually noted that it was the last book Yifan had recommended to the class.
It was fiction, a book Yifan had read during his much younger years when at school in Canada. He could remember being enthralled with it, the entwining of fantasy with what could be real life had him clawing the pages across to finish the book faster, to write his report longer and talk about it in class louder.
Skellig, written by David Almond, had been a personal favourite. From the way Yixing was holding the book in his hands, like it was delicate yet needed to be clenched into the chest, Yifan could see a slight similarity. He'd not wanted to pass over the book, he hadn't wanted to let it out of his sight when he was eleven or twelve years old and finally getting a more cohesive grasp of English.
Yixing didn't answer Yifan's question, he bypassed it to roll onto the balls of his feet and bite on his lip. The grip between the student's flesh and the student's teeth waned, he opened his mouth up and Yifan could see his dimple creep inwards.
"Is this book part of a series? I tried to search it for myself but I didn't understand all the English that came up."
The teenager was bubbling, practically frothing, as he spoke and Yifan could not contain his smile. He leant around Yixing and opened up the door to the classroom with a gentle push.
"Sadly not," Yifan had to inform Yixing, his heart aching when he saw Yixing's smile lessen and the twinkling in his eyes dwindle to almost nothing at all. "Do you like fantasy books, though?"
Yifan sidestepped Yixing to turn an invite him into the classroom, holding the door open with one hand and he closed it when Yixing stepped past the threshold. They naturally took seats on the end table, the book placed between them, but still in Yixing's hands. The student appeared delighted. Yifan could almost note an indication of smugness to him and Yifan rested his elbows on the table.
"How difficult did you find reading this book, Yixing?"
The student fiddled with the pages, a few of the touch darkened corners fluttering soundlessly before he began to speak. "It was pretty easy, I had to check words every so often, or sound them out, but other than that...it was easy."
"I see," Yifan lifted his hands up, he rested his chin upon them and licked his lips once in a clean swoop of his tongue. "Do you want to try something a bit more advanced?"
"Like stuff that isn't on the list?"
"If you tell me what you like in a book, I can tailor your own list for you," Yifan smiled, Yixing returned it with his cheeks red all over, as usual. There was one difference, Yixing was looking straight into his eyes. Yifan didn't look away, he wanted to keep Yixing engaged. "That's only if you want it, though."
"Of course I do," Yixing was still smiling, it was so wide that Yifan could sense himself wishing he could break away from the teenager's eyes to see the scene reversal from when he had maintained his first full conversation with his student.
"We've established that you like fantasy," Yifan continued, tilting his head at a soft angle whilst Yixing nodded. "Any other genres?"
"Anything with vivid imagery, I guess," the student was enthusiastic, Yifan's sense of accomplishment skyrocketed. "I love being able to paint mental images with the words I'm reading, I love being able to visualise every small detail about a scene and that's what makes me happiest to read."
"I see." Yifan briefly thought over his options. Yixing could either be given a list and have to fork out for the books, or Yifan could browse through his own personal collection and see if he kept anything from his childhood. "I'll be sure to think about it and e-mail you with suggestions."
"Is there anything I can read in the meantime? With Zhongda's English skills and some of my own capabilities, we've managed to sift through the lists you've given out."
"The only thing I can recommend at this moment is to go through the next chapter of the English textbook you have and start on the writing exercise, then if you finish it early I can take a look at it and help you refine it that little bit more."
"Thank you, Mr Wu," Yixing brought his book back towards his chest, he edged back on his chair and Yifan took the cue. The break was almost over and Yixing needed to get to his next lesson. "I'll keep that in mind. I appreciate you helping me."
Part of Yifan couldn't get his head around the fact that Yixing was talking to him so confidently, his eyes remained focused upon Yifan and there was not even a waver in the words he spoke. He could see part of the person that Zhongda saw. Their common ground was there, the foundation was set for Yifan to be able to support Yixing in his studies, especially English and he couldn't have been much happier.
It was a teacher's biggest achievement to be able to connect with a student that was diligent and willing, Yifan couldn't contain himself from smiling as Yixing left with a respectful bow and an even redder face.
Yifan felt relief, he felt pride and he didn't want to lose that feeling by any means.
After a short flurry of e-mails exchanged between both teacher and student, a time set for a Thursday lunch period was coined for them to meet in the school's library. Yifan was armed with a few books he'd found in the bottom of a box labelled 'Childhood Things From Canada' and a short list he and Yixing would scour the English section in search for, then the tally of books could also act as a guide for Yixing to buy cheaply from the internet.
It had taken Yifan most of the Wednesday night previous to collate everything he needed and had them set out neatly across the table, his coffee sat in a pale greyish brown shade and his pen was held between his right thumb and forefinger. He stared at his coffee, watching the stirring-induce bubbles pop at the edge of the cup and his sight glazed over to only focus on them disappear one by one. The meeting time Yifan had suggested was halfway through the break, giving them both time to eat and sort themselves out before their short meeting that would be the starting point of Yifan's guidance of Yixing through the confusing world of learning English.
The teacher looked up from where he was fixated on his coffee when the red chair on the opposite side of the table was pulled back with a muted thud on the thin carpet on the ground, Yixing took a seat and threw Yifan a bashful smile.
All that confidence that had come with Yixing's urgency to talk to Yifan in their last convergence had dwindled and he was placed halfway between his overly shy attitude and that literature curious student. It felt more natural, the leap from one to the other had been so vast that it had shocked Yifan, the dulled down version made more sense. It was like an instinctual progression, not an artificially cajoled façade that had been abstract from what Yifan knew.
"Hello, Mr Wu," Yixing dipped his head politely and Yifan returned the gesture before nudging the books piled in the middle of the table towards Yixing.
"I brought these from when I was back in Canada," he opened, giving a brief explanation. "They're a bit more advanced than what Skellig was, both in plot and language. However, I think you could get through them with a bit of hard work."
"What are they?" Yixing's eyes fixed on the books and Yifan knew some of the words were probably unfamiliar from the outset. Some of the words of the titles didn't even exist outside of the world created within the books, Yifan could assume it would be confusing to even some young native English speakers.
"These books are actually all in the same series," Yifan touched his left hand to the first in the series, he placed his pen down from his right and felt for the handle of his coffee mug instead. "If you look, they're all by the same writer."
Yixing moved closer, he looked at the text under the titles and tried the name out on his tongue. He had it correct the first time, causing Yifan to nod before taking a sip of his drink, it was warm and inviting on his tongue, despite the less than perfect taste, and he gulped it down quickly to continue speaking to Yixing.
"It's a fantasy series called Inheritance Cycle, it will push your abilities a great distance," Yifan licked his lips, getting all traces of coffee from them. "I do think you'll be able to read them if you have a dictionary to hand and I'll be able to answer any questions you have as you're reading. It's a bit complex, as there's also fictional languages that could confuse you but I've written the meanings of those out in both English and Mandarin on a sheet that's tucked into the first book."
"Oh," Yixing's eyes lit up and he reached out for the book Yifan had his hand on. "And they're about dragons?"
"Yes," Yifan tapped the cover once. "They're western dragons, though. So they're not quite like the dragons we know in our culture. Though, I'm sure you've seen western films that have dragons in, if you like fantasy."
"I have, they're the ones that are scaly and breathe fire, right?"
"You've got it," Yifan smiled. "I think you'll be able to read all of these in a few months but we can meet like this whenever you get stuck with passages or if you don't like the books. The point of this is to help you learn, it's not to stress you out. So don't feel like you have to read them if you begin to grow frustrated or strained, send me a message and I'll get back to you with meanings."
Yixing fell quiet, he shuffled on his seat and Yifan pushed the books so that they were on the student's side of the table rather than his own. He could tell Yixing wanted to say something, his mouth kept opening slightly then closing as he thought over his question a little bit more. Then, as always, Yixing's cheeks began to turn from a dusted pink colour to a deeper tone of red, indicating that he was about to speak in a way that wasn't exactly a direct response to something said previously.
"Is there anything we can do for my verbal pronunciation?" Yixing stumbled over his tongue like it was too big for his mouth but Yifan shut his mouth to smiled patiently. "I want to keep my speech up to standard too, as it's good knowing what the words look like but being able to say them would be what would make me feel most accomplished."
Yifan's closed mouth opened up to a grin and he picked up his pen once more, he dragged over the notepad he'd set out and began to scribble down the times he was available during his working week.
"This is my timetable for when I am free but still in school," his pen made slight scratching sounds as the nib moved over the paper. Yixing watched him write and Yifan made sure to make his handwriting decipherable. "If you're free at any of these times as well, we can meet and work on your speech. Especially if there are words you see or read that you don't know what they sound like."
Yifan tore the page out and handed it across to his student.
"Oh, thank you."
"It's okay," Yifan smiled across to him. "You can involve any of your friends in with this too, so you wouldn't have to be doing any of this alone and you could ask them for help if you think they'd know it. Just e-mail me the times that are best for you from there and I'll try to keep myself free."
Yixing folded the paper up, he was beaming like he'd received the best final grade he could possibly have with the rounded parts of his cheeks redder than an apple and he packed away all of the things Yifan had given to Yixing.
"Do you not want to look around for books or go through the list?" Yifan and Yixing stilled in his seat.
"I wasn't sure if you'd want those books, so I wrote a selection of book titles down for us to look for here or for you to try to find at the public library or something."
Yixing looked to the floor, his shyness betraying him as he began to pink at the ears too, "I'd like that."
Yifan began to stand from his chair, he walked around to the shelf that Yixing was stood next to and handed him the list of names to search for. The student took it and kept his eyes down as he looked over it. The teacher began on his own, having the titles memorised and he used his finger to keep track of where he was on the shelf. Yixing joined him not too long after, he was, however, stood at the opposite end of the rack and didn't look over to Yifan once as he browsed the names that were organised by author name.
With the two of them working quietly to look for what was familiar, they soon began to meet in the middle as they got to the centre of the first shelf. The teenager was so adamant at staying focused on the books and the list that he barely noticed that Yifan was a single step away from him. The teacher moved a second too late and Yixing stumbled, fumbling on the rack for some purchase and a few books scattered down to the floor in the momentary lapse of balance that Yixing had. The noise Yixing's hands had made on the metal holder was a sharp slapping one, it echoed around the quiet space and Yifan cringed.
"Are you okay?"
The student, despite his evident mortification, nodded and rubbed his hands on the soft material of his trousers. Yifan knew the palms and fingers of Yixing's hands would tingle for a good few minutes with the impact they'd faced. Yixing remained in his embarrassed state of shock for a good while, it made the words 'well, at least it wasn't your face,' tried to find their way onto his tongue but he bit them back.
"Do you want to continue or should I look and give them to you in our next class?" Yifan offered and Yixing shook his head, the teacher didn't know which part of the question the action responded to, and that left him waiting for a little more explanation.
"It's okay, we can keep looking," Yixing sounded slightly breathless and shocked, as Yifan would expect. He still didn't look up at Yifan and the teacher felt his teeth worrying at his own lip, he wasn't quite sure how to make Yixing feel better.
"Only if you're sure."
Yixing continued to browse the shelves with his eyes constantly watching both of their feet to gauge their distance as they started on the second row. Yifan bent down to pick the fallen books up, slipping them in their rightful places before checking for any of the ones on his list. He'd found none at that point, driving disappointment into his chest and he was sure Yixing would have to go to the library himself to search them out.
By the time they had finished up, there was only one of the six books noted down on the paper in the school's English books section. Yifan sighed out and placed his hands on his hips, he looked over at Yixing and there was a momentary meeting of their eyes before Yixing's eyes slipped down to the floor again.
"I don't think they're going to be here," Yifan stated the obvious but he didn't want Yixing to feel as uncomfortable as he appeared. The only way he knew how to fix that was to fill the silence with speech, a defence mechanism of sorts. "I think the public library might have them, though. Their English section is pretty extensive and rather good."
"Really?" Yixing didn't look up.
"It would be beneficial to search there," the teacher felt like he'd reverted back to square one, that edge of confidence that had been there in the beginning of their meeting had melted away like snow beside a fire. He didn't have any idea what he could do to bring it back.
"When should we go?"
Yifan opened his mouth to say that it would be best for Yixing to go on his own but the teenager had lifted his gaze, it was still shy and the degree of circumspection in Yifan's mind fizzled out. He didn't want Yixing to revert back to how he had been.
His stomach twisted slightly before he realised that he could easily pick things up for the rest of the class and he could run his ideas past Yixing. He had been meaning to go to the library to search for newer materials as support for the next few chapters of the workbook that were left at the winter break.
"Send me an e-mail and we'll sort something out."
Yixing smiled for the rest of the time before they left the school's library to head their separate ways. Yifan was sure that a trip to the public library would be more than allowed if it was for academic reasons, he noted that it would be best to get Yixing's parents' permission beforehand and scribbled that reminder down on a post-it note to stick to the edge of his laptop screen. As long as it was an open and school sanctioned thing, he was sure it could be counted as a curricular activity.
He sent a message to the faculty head, asking if a public library trip would be appropriate to take students on and the response he got was one of encouragement, helping to calm him in his seat and he began to download the permission slip to get Yixing's parents to sign as soon as he could. He printed it out and placed it to the side of his laptop to send it out before he went home to his apartment.
The library, for a Sunday, was relatively bare. It wasn't quite the time for the end of module exams, nor were there any events being hosted by the staff. It was likely to be only those who diligently attended the establishment. Yifan arrived slightly late to the meeting time, having ensured that Yixing's parents had returned the permission form to the school. It had been processed and Yifan's head of department was fully aware of Yifan's Sunday plans.
Yixing was already at one of the tables by the window, he'd put the list out on the desk and had his English workbook placed beside it. He was looking over his shoulder every so often, his hands fidgeted like he was fraying with his nerves and Yifan could picture Yixing muttering to himself under his breath as he approached.
"Sorry, I'm late," Yifan greeted, making Yixing jump in his seat a little and the student leapt up from his seat to stand. He scrambled to grab the list and held it so tightly in his hand that it began to crumple.
"It's okay," Yixing smiled, his eyes downcast but his face directed towards Yifan. "I thought we could look first and maybe make a game of it, if that's okay with you?"
"Aren't I supposed to be the teacher here?"
Yixing laughed, it was nervous but in no way forced. He needed to relax, Yifan wanted Yixing to be more comfortable. No student studied well if they were anxious or focused on other things, Yifan had learnt that much during his training. It led to him removing his jacket, showing a more casual set of clothes than what he wore to work. Yixing, too, was out of his uniform and dressed in a loose t-shirt and jeans that placed somewhere between fitted and baggy.
"Well, I had the idea that if we looked through the titles then you could teach me how to pronounce things I don't understand," Yixing was, once more, displaying that bashful confidence where he spoke quickly as his cheeks deepened in colour but he remained animated as he spoke. "So that's reading, speech and understanding bound into one activity that fulfils our purpose of being here."
Yifan processed what Yixing said before nodding, he was about to respond verbally to Yixing's request but the student was dashing off to one of the shelves to wait for Yifan to approach him and begin their activity. Not as quickly, Yifan followed the younger to his spot and they began browsing the more extensive selection of books that the high school had.
Within the first handful of books, Yixing pointed out that he didn't know what the word spirit meant and Yifan began his translation, as well as running through the pronunciation until Yixing was repeating it correctly. Yifan focused on getting Yixing to get his harder R perfect, explaining that his tongue needed to move more than when uttering Mandarin. Yixing spent a few minutes imitating how Yifan's mouth moved until his soft Chinese spoken R gradually turned into the harsher English version.
They moved around the racks with ease, Yifan often testing Yixing on words they'd previously run through. There were sounds that were completely foreign to Yixing and elements that confused him, like how the Gs in genetics was completely different to that in geyser with almost no way of knowing for sure which way it was spoken unless you'd heard it before.
Yifan had to explain that it was because English was a language formulated from separate language families, indicating to the Celtic, Greek and Latin histories of words. That, however, was almost of no use to Yixing unless he knew the etymology of a word. Though, Yifan could tell him things, such as the fact that almost all Gl words would be said aloud with a harder G.
Time moved quickly and Yixing had a bundle of books in his arms, some of them spilling out into Yifan's and they returned to the table once the student was fully satisfied with his findings. Despite Yifan's list being almost voided by the fact that Yixing grew excited at every book that looked remotely interesting once they'd run through the summary on the back or on the inner sleeve. Yifan, however, had to be the bearer of bad news whenever there was something that would be a little too advanced for Yixing.
The teacher had to witness his student pout as he slid thick books back into their places amongst the hundreds of others. He resisted when his mind labelled his student as cute, instead, he turned away and searched for more books to shove the image of Yixing pouting out of his mind with a sharp push.
A pile of books, far too large for Yixing to carry around in his bag with him, lay in a jumble between them and Yixing began to sift through them to pick out which ones he'd enjoy reading more than others. He recited the titles back to Yifan, repeating it whenever he was corrected and Yifan could see how his student relaxed. He was focused on getting everything perfect rather than on whatever had his nerves erupting in blushes on his face.
It was barely two o'clock in the afternoon when they were finished, Yifan's throat was scratching and he knew that Yixing was no better with how hoarse his voice had grown as he spoke. They had packed away and Yifan let Yixing lead the way to the exit, Yifan checked his watch and looked across the road.
"We've been working a lot, are you hungry or anything?"
Yixing's lips verged upon looking like they were going to crack, Yifan didn't pay it much heed as Yixing's tongue poked out to apply moisture to the drying flesh and Yixing took a step in the direction of the small coffee shop that sat adjacent to the library.
"I'm a bit thirsty, so I think I'll head over and pick something up for myself," Yixing gestured vaguely to the small business and began to make his way over.
"Don't worry about it, I'll get you something," Yifan's long strides filled the distance between and he was at Yixing's side again within three steps. "I was the one who suggested coming here."
Yifan knew the school had a policy where they'd supply lunches and drinks for their students when on trips, as packed lunches weren't an option for many and he guessed he could claim back the money he spent when he went to work the next day.
The student, however, looked at him with bright eyes and Yifan was so glad to have broken that barrier of apprehension between the two of them. He'd managed to accomplish what Lu Han had suggested, he had formulated a connection and built upon it with his student to the point where he was relaxed and rested on the threshold of being jovial. It was relieving that he could do so much within the space of a few weeks, he assumed it was reflected in the ever-changing personalities of teenagers.
When they entered the store, a rush of warm air hit them like an enticing gust on their cheeks and they approached the counter in tandem to one another. Yifan let Yixing order for himself and didn't even mind when Yixing asked to eat in, rather than take his items to go. As a result, Yifan did the same and took a seat, one which sat athwart to Yixing's. The student opened up his drink with a twist of his wrist, he took a long gulp of his drink and Yifan thought of topics other than English to bring up as he waited for his coffee to be made at the counter.
Once Yixing had loosely laid the cap back on top of his bottle, Yifan shifted his legs to get comfortable and decided to probe at the subject Yixing had issues with when they had first properly convened in the gym hallway.
"How's your art project going?" It was a prodding question, one to test the waters under the pleasant hum of the coffee shop's atmosphere.
Yixing cleared his throat, something catching there but Yifan waited, he wanted to hear what the other had to say about his favoured subject.
"It's going pretty well. I've got a submission to make before the winter break so I can move onto the next project when classes resume." Yixing twisted the cap of his drink up more firmly, he let it go and moved his hands under the table, likely to twine his fingers together. "I'm really loving this year so far, there's so much more freedom in the projects that I've never had before."
"And that freedom drives you?"
"We've usually had these rigid boundaries, everybody would be doing the same things and ideas would be almost copied and pasted from one student to the other. It was a bit suffocating and made criticising each other's work becomes really difficult." Yixing took a moment, he'd looked down at the table before starting up again. "I've found this new drive, though. I want to create images that I'm proud of, I want to document in detail and not just in broad statements.
"My projects are me seeing what's to be seen when you look harder, not at a glance. I think that's the freedom that I'm enjoying. Instead of being given a topic, we were able to choose our own from a list and develop it how we want to, so I've been working hard at getting all this refinement perfect so my final piece can come together."
Yifan couldn't help his smile as he saw the earnestness of passion draw Yixing's face into something of a sharper focus, almost like he could zone in on something materialising right before his eyes. The teacher could feel the wonder of the world around then and absorb it. Yixing gave off an energy when he talked about art, it was as if he couldn't revolve around anything else and Yifan was in awe.
As immature as an eighteen-year-old boy could be, Yixing had a degree of understanding surrounding art that Yifan was certain no other fascination could replace.
And as soon as art had been brought up, getting Yixing to stop talking was almost impossible. Yifan was engaged; Yifan made eye contact, he asked questions that were acute to Yixing's sentiments and the student lapped it up.
It didn't matter that Yifan's coffee was brought over, that Yifan had drunk it in slow sips until the dregs were colder than the wind outside because Yixing's hands had moved out from under the table. He was expressive, his face contorted into so many different emotions in one instance and Yifan didn't want it to end.
He wanted to have that very moment with each of his students, that opening of that box that hid a labyrinth of personal delights that people wanted others to be interested in.
Yixing's bottle was empty, their food had been eaten and people moved through the coffee shop like rivers meandering their way through a slow Sunday. It was raw delight. It had Yifan completely enraptured.
Their meetings emerged at the odd lunchtime, the two of them sat in the library as Yixing chipped his way through books at a steady rate. His reading was clumsy, his speech was even more so but Yifan could help him, encouraging him to evolve his own style of learning the language so he could attempt it on his own when Yifan wasn't available to help him.
They met in the public library, drifting over to the coffee shop for Yixing to be able to run ideas past Yifan, often looking to the artistically challenged teacher for advice and Yifan would only stumble. They walked down the street to the international bookstore, Yifan often shepherding Yixing in the right direction whenever he was too focused on his phone to watch out for other people. Yixing sometimes flinched when Yifan's hand touched his lower back or shoulder, though that passed when they would walk through thicker crowds.
Yifan could note the change in Yixing's academic work, his sentences evolved that little bit and Yifan's pop quizzes were edging up by a percent or two whenever they happened. Zhongda supported Yixing, the younger student's grasp of the language, at least the reading and writing, was far more advanced than Yifan could teach in a high school setting. It was a blessing that somebody, as linguistically determined as Yixing, had Zhongda at his side, nitpicking the work and reassuring Yixing that he was improving.
As a teacher, Yifan felt pride in his students working together to strive for better was a pleasure for Yifan bear witness to. It wasn't even those two students, it was the whole class. Yifan could hear them talking and communicating about the work, critiquing speech and congratulating each other when they got a grade higher or those few marks more. It had been almost three months since Yifan had begun to teach them and there had been an increase in the class.
There was more confidence in the air, there was more and more for each student to latch onto and Yifan had never felt more satisfied than he did when he compared their first set of assignments to the later ones. He believed that he was succeeding as a teacher, that he was guiding his students towards something better.
It felt like he was almost fixing himself and he constantly bragged to Lu Han that he was finally having that visible impact on a set of students that were in their most crucial year of their compulsory education. Whether it was on the phone or face-to-face on their Friday meetings, Yifan couldn't help but let his small triumphs appear in his smiles, his words and his gestures. Even Lu Han, the barista who didn't deal well with any kind of academic fulfilment, congratulated him. Sometimes it was with a knowing nod, other times it was with a honey coloured whisky sat on a bar table.
And yet, Yifan couldn't take anything other than Yixing's smile, with his dimple gauging in his cheek, and his delighted eyes as his biggest moment of exultance. Yixing still scribbled Yifan down on the back of his tests, small studies that were done in details that Yifan hadn't noticed before. Yixing seemed to be the missing piece in edging out those droplets of anxiety Yifan had as a teacher.
Still, Yifan was the one who missed the detail. He was blind to the moments Yixing would stare when he wasn't looking, he didn't see the way Yixing bit his lip whenever Yifan's hand settled anywhere near him and he never noted how Yixing always wanted to be closer.
If he had seen, he would have known.
Yixing couldn’t contain himself when his teacher smiled at him, it was their last session before the winter break and there was no part of Yixing that wasn’t fluttering as he sat next to his teacher. He was certain he was in love. There was no other way to think of the feelings that had swelled up within him until they inflamed his heart to twice its normal size. Even under all of the residue of nerves, he could feel that bolshy confidence that went hand-in-hand with accomplishment.
He’d been thinking about it for weeks, he’d practised the English and the words swirled around his head like a storm that had been harbouring rain for days upon days.
In his mind, nothing could fail.
He was certain.
Everything was planned.
Each element was rehearsed to perfection.
Still, his resolution was there. He’d been boosted, if not warily, by Zhongda and all of his advice in how to approach their teacher. He felt unbreakable. His fingers didn’t shake, his tongue didn’t twist and his heart was warm, not stuttering.
All that was left was to execute his plan. He felt ready, he felt like nothing could go wrong and he felt like all he needed was that moment that couldn’t be pinpointed without it occurring.
His teacher was there, his t-shirt on his body beneath his denim jacket, his long legs clad in ripped jeans and Yixing could feel their knees pressing under the table. They were close. The steam from Mr Wu’s coffee could be felt on Yixing’s chin as they leant over his essay to ensure that everything he’d written was perfect. Mr Wu had his pen in his hand, ready over the paper to scribble things in the margins and Yixing couldn’t take his eyes off the handsome man in front of him. They were so close that Yixing could only bring into focus his teacher’s eyelashes as they moved in steady motions.
It took his teacher looking up at him with a smile to know that was the moment he had been waiting for. He was certain he could see affection—a fondness—in the other’s eyes that had his heart steeling himself to be ready for his next actions. Everything was perfect. There was no other moment that had passed between them that had ever felt like it fit as flawlessly as it did.
Yixing held his breath, he moved forward that inch or two more and Mr Wu didn’t flinch away. That sealed those seconds in time when he didn’t stop moving until he could feel his teacher’s lips on his own, warm and tasting of milky coffee.
It could have been perfect.
It would have been perfect.
Everything had gone as planned.
Everything other than the sharp shove to his shoulders and a chair grazing harshly across the floor until it fell with a clattering sound against the shined wooden panels under their feet. Yixing had to blink a few times before he realised that he’d been pushed away. In all his scenarios, he’d never been rejected.
“Yifan,” he let his teacher’s given name roll off his tongue, almost like a lover begging for another chance.
“I am your teacher, Yixing,” the teacher clarified. As if Yixing didn’t know that.
“I am your teacher,” Yifan’s expression contorted to one of impenetrable seriousness. “Whatever that just was, it was the most inappropriate thing you could have done.”
“No, Yixing,” Yifan’s tone was harsh and so commanding that Yixing’s confidence shattered all around him. “Why would you be so stupid?”
Yixing’s body felt completely sapped of life, there was no way he could stop his quivering mouth from forming the confession he had been so happily vying to make moments prior. Instead, he looked up to his teacher, eyes glassed up with tears and throat strangled by emotions he couldn’t get out. The English words were at the tip of his tongue until they slipped off and into the air.
“I love you.”
Much like being shot by a bullet, Yifan was unaffected by the words until he was crumpling, his face draining blood and his legs weakening enough for him to hold onto the table. Through it all, Yixing felt humiliation in each part of his body. He wanted to curl up into himself, his tears spilt over the edges of his eyes and his heart broke as Yifan stepped forward to him.
“Oh, Yixing,” the teacher sighed. The chair was pulled back up from the ground and a body was sat on it. “You don’t love me. You think you do, but you really don’t, you really, really don’t.”
“How could you say that? You don’t know how I feel.”
“I do,” Mr Wu was smiling, though, it wasn’t one filled to the brim with affection. It was sympathetic and Yixing hated it with every part of his being. “You get butterflies, you feel like your head is spinning and your body shakes with anticipation at every moment.”
The teacher lifted a napkin from the table, he handed it over to Yixing and the student took it, catching a few of the straying tears with it. Mr Wu rubbed Yixing’s arm gently, he was trying to comfort him and there was nothing Yixing wanted more than to forget the entire thing had ever happened.
“That’s not love. It feels like it at first but those feelings burn out, they fade away to nothing and what would be left in its place? A lot of regret and misplaced resentment. I know this hurts but, Yixing, what just happened should never have occurred. It wasn’t right and nothing can come from it. You’re one of my students, you’re eighteen.”
“But I love you,” Yixing was, once again, concrete in his resolution of at least that in the middle of his hysteria. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I want to be with you and I want you to want me back.”
“One day, you’ll look back on all of this and know that’s not true. All that would be left would be a lot more than you ever bargained for because, Yixing, this can’t happen. No matter how much you want it to, no matter how much you feel and no matter how much you convince yourself that you love me, there will never be anything in this.”
Yixing’s head hung heavily, he pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes and the rubbing on his hand faded to nothingness. The words were like fingernails digging into his heart and brain, even though they were spoken with what Yixing could understand was softness and good intention.
Yixing wanted it to be over. His heart, his entire world, appeared to split apart like pack ice in spring. He was drifting away and he wanted nothing more than to be curled up in his shower, sobbing the pain out of his heart and down the drain. He stood up, his legs numbed with the weight of the world as he stumbled away from his teacher, ignoring the voice that was calling his name and telling him that he shouldn’t try to travel on his own when he was so distraught.
The teenager couldn’t hear anything other than the blood sloshing around his ears, he felt like such a birdbrain. He’d never been so mortified, so hurt or so heartbroken.