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Yanjun doesn't sleep the first night.

 

He lies awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling, squished between two boys he didn't really know. It hadn't gone well when he tried to leave, and he couldn't get the image of his mother's tear-stained face out of his head. His declaration had been met with resistance, and it turned into a long drawn-out fight, one that picked at all the ugly sides of their relationship. And it wasn't until later that he regretted them, the words he had thrown, meant to hurt his parents in his fleeting anger. But he had felt trapped into doing so, neither one of them willing to budge. His mom, pleading, standing in between them as they yelled, and she cried. The memory makes the tears come, and it stings to remember. Yanjun digs his nails into his palms hard to hold back his sobs, not wanting to wake up the boys sleeping on either side of him. 

 

No, his father had not been happy with his decision. 

 

He had left the kitchen in anger, ignoring his mother who tried to reason with him, following up the stairs to his room. And it was all he could do to bite his tongue, not let any more words slip out, as he packed his bags, and his mother cried, still trying to beg him to stay. The regret wells up in his chest, threatening to overwhelm him, and it's regret for not looking back even as his mother tried running out the door to catch him. Not even once. Because he knew that if he did, all he would see was his father, standing stoically in the doorway, his arms crossed in disapproval as always. If you leave, you're not my son anymore. And don't even think about coming back. They were the last words his father said to him, tight-lipped and refusing to even say good-bye. 

 

He had gotten on the plane excitedly, passion undiminished. And it wasn't until he arrived in China that he realized how sad it was that everything left of his past life fit into one measly carry-on suitcase. That's it. This is my life. The wave of loneliness washed over him when he took a break and went to the bathroom. He had never been quite so aware that he had an accent until he was in a room with the rest of the trainees and noticed that no one spoke like him. It was made even worse when one of the boys looked at him funny as he pronounced a word wrong, embarrassment heating his face when he needed to repeat himself a few more times to be understood. 

 

So Yanjun stays awake, counting sheep until the light peeks into the room from the window, casting a pattern on the wall through their blinds. And then he gets up from bed to start his morning routine, hoping that the others just think he's an early riser. 

 

He had gotten all the way to Sheep #15,995.

 

Yanjun feels his eyes closing during vocal lessons in the morning, his eyelids feeling unbearably heavy. With a jolt, his eyes snap open again when the boy next to him nudges him sharply in the side. The vocal teacher had asked him to sing a few lines, thankfully not noticing him dozing off. He is grateful and wants to thank the shorter boy after the lesson is over but misses his chance as the other boy takes off immediately after they finish, too fast for Yanjun to catch up. He makes his way slowly to the cafeteria for lunch, unsure of exactly which direction to go in but arrives with some time to spare before afternoon lessons start. The boy that had nudged him is sitting in the corner, already with a tray and busily shoving mouthfuls of food down. He toys with the idea of introducing himself and sitting with him but hesitates when he sees another boy sit down at the table, talking animatedly. 

 

It is better to sit alone. 

 

He grabs some food and leaves the cafeteria, finding an empty practice room. Out of the way. Isolated. Yanjun hopes to god that no one comes in as he eats his lunch. But he doesn't have much of an appetite, and the uneaten food stares up at him accusingly. One bite of the sandwich, a few sips of the juice, a nibble at the apple. And he tries, he really tries to put more food in his mouth, but his stomach curls uncomfortably, and all of a sudden, he needs to vomit. He barely makes it to the toilet, but at least he can dump the rest of his food in the trashcan inside the bathroom. 

 

The boy-that-nudged-him looks up when he enters the room for dance practice, and he notices with a shock that it's one of the ones that slept next to him last night. He hadn't realized that morning, too busy spending his time trying to look everywhere but at the other boys' faces. They start the lesson, and Yanjun feels clumsy, his feet too upset at him for not sleeping last night, choosing to be sluggish and uncoordinated. His dancing looks stupid in the mirror, and he finally gives up, breaking off from the group to drink some water instead, the only thing his stomach isn't rejecting at the moment. 

 

"Hey, are you okay?" Yanjun turns, and it's the boy-that-nudged-him again, looking at him with a worried expression on his face. 

 

The word gets stuck in his throat, and he needs to clear it before he tries again. "Yes."

 

Apparently he sounds unconvincing though because the worried expression on the boy-that-nudged-him doesn't change. The words come slowly from the boy-that-nudged him. "I don't think you're okay. You look really tired right now." The boy-that-nudged-him pauses. "Actually, before that. I'm not sure we've formally met yet. My name is You Zhangjing."

 

The boy-that-nudged-him, no wait, Zhangjing, sticks out his hand for Yanjun to shake, and he does. 

 

Zhangjing's hand feels small in his, small, but soft, his skin smooth like the surface of a well-worn pebble. 

 

The other boy seems to be waiting for a response, and when he doesn't give it, Zhangjing asks tentatively. "And what's your name?"

 

Oh right.

 

"Lin Yanjun, my name is Lin Yanjun."

 

"Nice to meet you, Lin Yanjun."

 


 

He's dreading it again.

 

Going to sleep. Or rather trying to go to sleep.

 

The anxiety is keeping him awake again, and he's just replaying that day over and over in his head, but the ending never changes and neither do his thoughts. The self-loathing threatens to choke him, and all he can do is dig his nails deeper into his palms, the shooting stabs of pain a welcome relief from being trapped inside his head. But tonight is different, his body having used too much energy keeping him awake for too long. He's entirely spent. And he can feel his eyelids finally closing, letting his body finally rest. 

 

Yanjun is grateful for the respite.

 

He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming.

 

His shirt is drenched with sweat, his heart pounding far too quickly, thumping loud enough that he can hear it, and he can feel the blood rushing to his head, making him feel dizzy. Yanjun can't remember what he was dreaming about, and he wonders if it would help even if he knew. Or if it would make it worse. There it is again. He's awake, and the anxiety crawls back into his mind, a persistent mistress, latching on to his thoughts and refusing to let go. He bites at the inside of his cheek, wincing as he feels the pain. He spent too much of the day biting down at the same spot, and now it feels raw and tender. At least I don't taste blood.

 

"Yanjun?" The voice hovers at his right, the sound feeling disjointed from the body, though Yanjun sees the shadow of the boy rising into a sitting position. "Are you okay?"

 

The voice is familiar, kind. 

 

He can't remember the last time someone had cared enough to ask.

 

No, that's not true.

 

Plenty of people have asked, but he's always lied through his teeth.

 

"I'm fine." His voice comes out more curt than he would have liked, and he tries again, softening his tone. "I'm fine, really."

 

"No you're not."

 

Yanjun finally recognizes the voice, it's the boy-that-nudged-him, and the boy's name escapes him, being pushed out of his head by the anxiety that takes up too much space in his mind, staking a claim to him as if it's built a home in his head, satisfied enough to take up permanent residence. And the protests feel heavy in his mouth, ready to spill out like stones that weigh him down until he is too tired to lift himself up. But the lies don't get a chance to mock him for the boy-that-nudged-him cuts him off. "You're not okay, come here."

 

And he's still so tired, too tired to resist, as the other boy pulls him closer into a hug.

 

He feels awkward, not knowing what to do with his arms as this other boy wraps around him. 

 

"You had a nightmare." It's a statement, not a question, and Yanjun is relieved that he doesn't have to explain himself, doesn't have to try to pretend.

 

"Here, go back to sleep." And he obediently follows instructions, lying back down into the bed.

 

"No, no. Come closer." Yanjun lets himself be dragged closer, his head now on the pillow of the boy-that-nudged-him.

 

The boy-that-nudged-him is stroking his hair now, and Yanjun can see the outline of the other boy in the dark, half propped up on the other arm that isn't petting his head, peering down at him. It is quiet, the boy-that-nudged-him not saying a word, just continuing to stroke his hair, sweeping it off his forehead. The rhythmic motion feels good, and the weight of the other boy's hand grounds him, keeping him tethered and preventing him from floating back into the dark recesses of his mind where the anxiety lives, clawing at the edges. And the stroking lulls him to sleep, makes him drift off into the darkness. 

 

Yanjun wakes up hours later, the sun again streaming through their window. 

 

He's the only one left in the room, the boy-that-nudged-him nowhere to be found.

 

It's the first time in a long time that he's slept through the night.

 


 

The other boy finds him in the practice room. Today is their off-day, free time for them to practice everything they had learned thus far, and Yanjun is finding out that what he has learned so far is apparently not much. He turns back towards the mirror and starts the dance over again when he catches sight of the boy-that-nudged-him, his reflection in the mirror. He turns and waits for the other boy to speak first, curious about why the boy-that-nudged-him is here. 

 

"Hi Yanjun! I thought maybe we could practice together!" The shorter boy is far too excited at the prospect, and Yanjun wonders if this is some sort of prank or joke, but the boy-that-nudged-him is still standing there, looking totally earnest. Oh, he's not kidding. He is at a loss for words though because he doesn't understand why the other boy would want to practice with him at all. He thought yesterday's lesson had made it clear that he was the trainee that was the most behind out of everyone. But he nods anyway, and the other boy takes that has permission to stay, chattering on about something or another, topics that don't quite stick in his head. 

 

"...but I miss home a lot too." The boy's voice is wistful, longing. And for the first time, Yanjun realizes that the boy-that-nudged-him has an accent too, though he can't pinpoint where it's from exactly.

 

It's the first time he feels like continuing a conversation in a while. "...where's home?"

 

The boy-that-nudged him looks up, startled, apparently not expecting Yanjun to respond as he hasn't said a single word for the last hour. "Malaysia." A pause. "How about you?"

 

"Taiwan." And the other boy looks curious, bursting at the seams to ask more, but Yanjun can tell he's holding back, already walking on eggshells in front of him. People learned to do that quickly when they talked to him.

 

The shorter boy bites his lower lip. "Yeah, I just miss Malaysia a lot, especially my parents."

 

He can't breathe.

 

The room is closing in on him, and he's shrinking, shrinking, shrinking into a nothingness. And everything hurts, the pounding in this head, the thumping of his heart going far too fast. And he's gasping for air, trying desperately to breathe, but he's halfway crying already, the tears stinging the back of his eyes, his throat closed with silent sobs. He puts his head down, trying to calm the dizziness, tucking his legs in close to his chest, and with horror, he realizes that he's shaking, fingers trembling too hard to get a good grip around his knees. 

 

He vaguely hears the other boy yelling, and he tries to concentrate on the words through his haze. "Yanjun? Are you okay? I'm going to get some help."

 

"NO, DON'T!" He's not sure if the words come out as loudly as they do in his head, but his hand reacts automatically, grabbing the other boy's wrists, tightly trying to stop him from leaving. 

 

He doesn't want anyone to see him like this, already embarrassed enough that the other boy is here.

 

The boy-that-nudged-him gently pries his hand off, and sits down in front of him, mirroring his position. And Yanjun works on calming himself down, works on slowing his racing heart, concentrating on trying to breathe. He looks up and the boy-that-nudged-him is staring at him, silent and nonjudgmental. So he grabs at the image of the other boy in his mind like a lifeline, trying to stop himself from falling in deeper to the hole. He doesn't know how long they're sitting there for, the small pockets of air finally making their way into his chest, letting him slowly regain his sanity. 

 

His throat feels dry, his voice cracked when he finally speaks. "Thank you."

 

The boy-that-nudged-him shakes his head. "No problem. Do you want to talk about it?"

 

"No."

 


 

The other boy is trying to calm him, holding his arms tightly together in his hands, trying to prevent Yanjun from thrashing. He can't remember what he was dreaming about again, just left with the feeling terror and loneliness. A pit of darkness. It takes him a few minutes to calm down enough to realize the boy-that-nudged-him only wants to help. He wonders how the last boy in the room could have possibly slept through it all. And the other boy is just repeating soothing words at him, words that he's heard before, words that never seem to help save him from himself. 

 

Then a cry of surprise. 

 

And the shorter boy is pulling him out of the room now, dragging him down the hall to the bathroom. The bright light hurts his eyes, and he blinks rapidly to bring the scene into focus. "Yanjun, what happened?" The boy-that-nudged-him is worried, that much he can tell. Much more worried than he should have been considering Yanjun doesn't even know his name. He doesn't know what the other boy is talking about, and he just stares back questioningly. 

 

"Your palms." 

 

Oh.

 

His coping mechanism. 

 

His really shitty coping mechanism.

 

The half-moons from his nails are angry and red against his skin, slightly raised and bumpy. It's only then that he notices the smear of blood covering his palms, still wet, clearly recent. He's pressed too hard, and he has broken skin. Yanjun doesn't remember doing it, but it's not the first time he's drawn blood, usually covertly making sure his palms are out of sight. So no one can see. He supposes it must have happened while he was sleeping, his nails and fingers automatically assuming their familiar positions.

 

"Here, keep your hands open." The boy-that-nudged him rummages around in the cabinet behind the bathroom mirror, looking for something and makes a noise of satisfaction when he finds it. "It needs to be disinfected."

 

The shorter boy is holding the iodine and grabs some Q-tips, and then he cradles Yanjun's hands in his own, looking up at him questioning. "May I? This might sting a bit." 

 

He nods his consent, choosing to concentrate instead on how small the hands of the boy-that-nudged him are, deliberate and careful in holding his own.

 

Yanjun cries out in pain as the iodine goes on, stinging harshly against his still open wounds. "Shhh, shhh. Just bear with it for a tiny bit longer."

 

The other boy's voice is calming even though the words don't help, and Yanjun loses himself in that thought. 

 

He shakes his head when the boy-that-nudged-him reaches out for the bandaids. "No."

 

Yanjun hesitates for a split second before confessing.

 

"Then people will see."

 

The shorter boy has a look of disapproval on his face, but he doesn't object. They turn off the lights, stumbling down the darkened hallway holding hands, reaching out to find their way back to the room. Yanjun climbs back in bed, and he almost yanks away when he feels the shorter boy come closer, hugging him from behind. A gesture of comfort. And normally, he would be irritated and push the other boy away, but he feels sorry for waking him up, guilty for needing to be coddled. So he lets the other boy stay next to him.

 

He can't fall asleep again, and instead, he stays up and listens to the sound of the other boy breathing evenly into his back.

 


 

They're practicing together again, and Yanjun doesn't know why.

 

But the other boy had persistently found him wherever he went the past two weeks, clearly insistent on hunting him down. So Yanjun lets him stay for his efforts. The past few nights, he's fallen into an uneasy sleep, at least finding a few hours here and there even if he did wake up far too often. And the other boy spent each night curled up close to him after that first mishap with the bleeding. Yanjun wonders if his ability to sleep slightly more recently has anything to do with the boy-that-nudged-him, but thinking about it exhausts him, and he pushes it to the back of his mind.

 

The end of the song nears, and other boy collapses in a heap dramatically on the ground as they finish. Yanjun is pleased today, his limbs finally moving in a way that looks correct, the dance coming together nicely. He no longer feels as clumsy as he did before, and a few times in the past week, he's found himself almost impressed with how far he's come, smiling to himself in the mirror. The action makes his cheeks hurt though, his mouth corners not used to turning up. "Oh my god, that wasn't bad. Maybe we'll actually make it past evals."

 

The boy-that-nudged-him is smiling in glee, happy. 

 

And Yanjun yearns to feel as happy as the other boy looks, his smile bursting out easily, mouth open so wide that his gums are showing, flashing cute bunny front teeth. 

 

Yes, he would love to know how to be as happy as the boy-that-nudged-him.

 

Speaking of.

 

He clears his throat stupidly, unclear of how he should phrase his question. And his voice comes out small, embarrassed. "Uhh, actually, could you remind me what your name is?" Yanjun imagines the flush that is crawling up his neck at the moment, but thankfully, the other boy doesn't find the question odd, or if he does, he is good at hiding it. "You Zhangjing, my name is You Zhangjing."

 

But now Zhangjing has a curious look on his face. "What have you been using to refer to me in your head these past few weeks then?"

 

The truth comes out in a tumble, bashful. "The-boy-that-nudged-me."

 

Zhangjing's face splits into a wide grin. "The-boy-that-nudged-me? Oh my god, like he-who-must-not-be-named?" The other boy is cackling now with full blown laughter. "Like, from Harry Potter? Oh my god, I love it."

 

And for the next hour, it's the first time he's had a real conversation with Zhangjing, dishing their favorite book recommendations back and forth. It makes Yanjun miss it, miss reading. I used to read for fun. Key word, used to. He doesn't anymore, and he wonders if he would be able to read for fun now or whether it would be too difficult to get back into old habits. It makes him remember, and remembering is painful. "Excuse me, I need to make a call."

 

He leaves the room quickly, bringing just the cell phone. The phone feels foreign in his hand because it is. After arriving in China, he had discovered that his cell phone didn't work anymore. Puzzled, he had called the phone company from a public phone and was met with the news that his number was no longer in service, no longer connected. He had gotten into an argument with the representative, insisting that it was impossible. It wasn't until later that night that he connected the dots. His father had truly decided to cut him off, and Yanjun became aware of just how little of his savings were left, not enough to last him even through the month. 

 

A year ago was when it all started.

 

He had declared that he wanted to be an idol. 

 

What ensued was one of the worst days of his life.

 

And it didn't stop.

 

The screaming, arguing each time he brought it up.

 

He was insistent, needing to make his parents understand. 

 

His mom had supported him almost immediately, saying that all she wanted was to see Yanjun happy. 

 

It was his dad that was the wall, unyielding.

 

And Yanjun really thought he could change that.

 

But as he failed over and over again, the anxiety started. It kept him awake at night, clawing at the recesses of his mind. And so his bed became a prison, trapping him in his thoughts, the ones that never seemed to go away. It got worse as time went on, the feeling of not living up to his father's expectations settling into his bones, the guilt at making his mother choose sides, the harsh words from his father saying he would never make it, never realize his dream. 

 

The first panic attack came in the mall, and he thought he was going to die, die right on the shiny white floor, cleaned to a sparkle.

 

But now he is used to them.

 

They are a part of him now.

 

His hand shakes as he dials the number, the cell phone temporarily given by the company when they realized he had no phone. He had been grateful to get it, but then a few days later, he realized that he had no one to call anyway. But the pad of his thumb presses a few buttons, and he finds his way to his list of recent calls. The whole list is the same number, one that he has dialed periodically after receiving the phone. But no one ever picks up, and he wonders if maybe it's not even the right number anymore. 

 

Call.

 

The phone rings, and he listens as the sound continues in his ear. I guess no one is going to pick up today again. And just as he's about to hit 'end', the voice wavers out from the other end, all the way from Taiwan. "Yanjun? Yanjun, is that you?"

 

His mother's voice.

 

And he's so shocked that there is a response that he accidentally hits 'end' anyway. He didn't expect that to happen, didn't think anyone would pick up, just like all the other times he's called. And Yanjun can feel himself breathing heavily now, can feel the panic setting in. Oh no. And he's about to lose it, really, truly lose it, when the grip on his forearm snaps him out of his spiraling. "Are you okay?"

 

Zhangjing.

 

Yanjun shakes his head. 

 

This time he reaches up and wraps his arms around the shorter boy's waist as Zhangjing hugs him.

 

And tonight, instead of counting sleep, he repeats Zhangjing's name to himself over and over again so that he won't forget again.

 


 

They both pass evals.

 

Zhangjing is ecstatic, bouncing off the walls with excitement, thoughts flowing out of his mouth in a torrent of positive feelings, happiness. "...and we should all go out and celebrate together!" The shorter boy is bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet excitedly, waving his arms in the air. "You should come with us!"

 

Us.

 

He's seen Zhangjing talking to a few of the other boys before, and Yanjun has always tried to keep his distance. And even just Zhangjing himself is overwhelming sometimes, and the other boy seems to understand this, not pushing him to do anything that would make him uncomfortable. Yanjun is used to the other boy now, the constant by his side during individual practice time and the warmth that wrapped around him while he slept. Whenever the other boy breaks off to talk to someone else during group lessons, it makes Yanjun feel alone, keenly feeling the empty space beside him. And he notices that the shadows under his eyes have gotten less dark, making him look slightly less intimidating. He still wakes up in a cold sweat during the night sometimes, but there is no more screaming, no more thrashing around during nightmares. Instead of terror, he only feels dread, and Yanjun wonders whether he will continue to keep replacing one negative emotion for another, never quite able to rid himself of them completely.

 

But the shorter boy looks so happy, and Yanjun can't bear to be the one that wipes the smile off his face. 

 

So he swallows nervously and replies. "Yes, let's all go out and celebrate."

 

Zhangjing's eyes are wide as saucers, wide with disbelief. "Really?"

 

"Really."

 

And he can see that the other boy is deliberating, picking carefully in his mind. "Okay, how about we just go together with only Chaoze and Dinghao tonight?" Zhangjing pauses. "Two people."

 

The unspoken question hangs in the air between them.

 

Yanjun nods and responds firmly. "Yes, two people."

 

They go out to hotpot together, and Yanjun is nervous. But Zhangjing walks beside him the whole time on the way to the restaurant, his hand squeezing Yanjun's reassuringly. The four of them grab a table, and oh my god, Dinghao and Chaoze are loud, a lot louder than he is used to, loud in a different way than Zhangjing, who always seems to know when Yanjun needs him to tone it down. He lets the conversation wash over him, keeping quiet after initial introductions. It is hard for him to keep up with what everyone is saying, unaccustomed to following a conversation with more than one other person besides himself. After a while, he realizes that the other two boys are harmless, and they are people that he would have considered to be fun once upon a time. Yanjun feels himself beginning to smile here and there whenever Dinghao says something funny, and he even laughs once or twice. 

 

This feels nice. 

 

He even musters up the courage to contribute a few sentences to the conversation, Zhangjing's hand squeezing his lightly under the table as encouragement. And the other boy doesn't let go the entire dinner, a comforting presence. Yanjun isn't sure whether it's because the food is good or because of the company, but he eats more than he has in months, feeling almost bloated after dinner.

 

He feels full on the inside, instead of empty today.

 

Zhangjing whispers to him in the dark before falling asleep. 

 

"You did great."

 

The simple compliment makes him happier than he thought it would.

 

And the sleep comes earlier tonight.

 


 

Yanjun doesn't know if he wants to dial.

 

His finger is hovering over the number, still deciding whether it wants to press down. Press down and seal his fate. He feels like a coward. Just do it. He closes his eyes and presses the number. The rings seem to go on forever, and he feels a sigh of relief when the rings stop, no one answering. But he startles when the phone starts to vibrate in his hand, the familiar number flashing on the screen. The green accept button glares at him, and he's panicking, not enough time to make a decision. And he stupidly closes his eyes again as he stabs an option on the screen, holding his breath.

 

"Yanjun?"

 

He forces the words out, and they feel thick and almost get stuck in his throat. "Hi Mom."

 

And he can tell his mother is crying on the other end, but he doesn't know what to say, doesn't know the right words. "Yanjun, honey? I miss you so much. I didn't know this was your new number so I didn't pick up before, but I thought it might be that other time because I noticed it was the same number calling me every time. And I'm so sorry for not calling back because I thought you didn't want to talk to us...." Her voice breaks into louder sobs. "..and I'm so sorry, Yanjun. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

 

He is crying too now, and neither of them are making sense, but it doesn't matter. When they both finally stop crying long enough to form coherent sentences, his mother asks him about the company, how he's doing, whether he's made friends. And Yanjun feels like he's a child again, one that is being taken care of by his parent. He is happy, the feeling bursting out of his chest, and he knows he's grinning, smiling for no reason while talking. And he doesn't even care that they're avoiding the topic because he's talking to his mother. The love is spilling out of him quickly, urgently trying to make its way back home, seemingly too far out of reach.

 

They finally run out of things to talk about, and Yanjun tells her that he needs to return to practicing. He pauses as his mom gives him a cheerful good-bye, and he doesn't want to ask, but he needs to know. "Mom, does Dad want to talk to me at all?"

 

The silence stretches on forever.

 

And he knows the answer already, knows what the silence means, but she hasn't said no yet, and Yanjun can't help the hope that is blooming in his chest.

 

He holds his breathing, hoping.

 

"I'm sorry, honey."

 

There's nothing else that she can say.

 

Yanjun hangs up, feeling numb. And his skin is crawling, prickling all over, and he wants make it stop, make it stop now. His feet find their way to the bathroom, not knowing where else to go for privacy, not willing to take him back to the practice room where Zhangjing is waiting for him. But the feeling doesn't stop and worse, he can feel the crawling, the prickling, burrowing into his skin, and he imagines that it's like a virus, spreading throughout his body, waiting in the shadows to infect him. The instant he enters the bathroom, his stomach reacts, and he's upset that his lunch is wasted. 

 

He closes his eyes and digs his nails into his palms, the familiar sharpness, a welcome friend.

 

But his eyes flutter open quickly when he hears the other boy. "Yanjun? Are you coming back to practice?" Zhangjing bursts into the bathroom, a tumble of energy as always, and the other boy takes one look at his face and understands. Zhangjing pries his hands apart quickly, staring down at his palms, concerned. "Yanjun, they just healed. Let's figure out something else." 

 

And with a shock, Yanjun realizes that the other boy is right. The ever-present little half moons on his palms are no longer a shade of red, the skin healing over, still slightly raised from being new scars. It had been so long, that he had forgotten how his hands looked without the red marks. I guess I haven't been pressing down as much lately. He shivers at Zhangjing's touch, the other boy running his thumbs over the raised ridges, gentle and comforting. It is an unexpected action, and Yanjun's first instinct is to yank away, but he keeps still, letting Zhangjing in closer than anyone else before. It's a lot of effort though, and he can see his hands are beginning to tremble slightly, the urge to be alone, to not be touched too strong. 

 

After what seems like forever, Zhangjing looks up at him. "Here, let's stop practicing for today, and we'll distract you instead."

 

He wants to protest, wants to argue. Because he knows that every minute, every hour of practice time is important, and the guilt rises up for making the other boy miss even a second. But Zhangjing's mouth is set in a hard line, and Yanjun knows he's being very, very serious. He doesn't have enough energy to argue anyway, so he follows the other boy out of the restroom, heading back to their dorm. 

 

"Squeeze."

 

Yanjun looks at the other boy questioningly. "What?"

 

Zhangjing shakes his head slightly in exasperation. "You need to stop digging your nails in and hurting yourself. For right now, squeeze." He pauses. "My hand, I mean."

 

He takes the other boy's hand, their fingers intertwining, and he squeezes half-heartedly. "You can squeeze as hard as you want. Yanjun, you're not going to hurt me."

 

The younger boy's laugh makes his heart skip.

 

Happiness.

 

Zhangjing is pure happiness.

 

So he squeezes harder, as hard as he possibly can, and he feels the hurt and anxiety start to flow out of his body. Yanjun imagines all of it flowing down his arm, into his hand, across his fingertips, and into the other boy. But Zhangjing is smiling back at him as he drags Yanjun along, walking slightly faster, and Yanjun is glad that the shorter boy isn't hurting because of his own hurt. Because he could never forgive himself if it did.

 

They sit in bed and watch movies together, with the other boy stroking his fingers lightly over Yanjun's scars the whole time.

 


 

Zhangjing bounds up to him, smiling widely. "Yaaaaanjun..." The other boy stretches out his name, and it brings the smile to his face too, the one that naturally settles now when he sees Zhangjing. "Yes? What is it?"

 

The other boy lowers his tone conspiratorially. "I got you a present. Well, sort of."

 

"Remember how I said you need to stop digging your nails into your palms?"

 

Zhangjing holds up the bag triumphantly, full of different colors, reds, blues, greens, purples. "So I looked up different ways we could deal with that, and I found the solution." He pauses for dramatic effect. "Rubber bands." Yanjun can tell the other boy is excited as he grabs a few out of the bag and slides them on to his wrist. "So you're supposed to just keep them around your wrist, and when you feel crappy, instead of digging your nails in, you can snap one against your wrist instead. Zhangjing demonstrates, and Yanjun gasps in surprise at the small shock of pain. 

 

The shorter boy looks at him nervously, chewing his lower lip. "I thought this might help. At least this way, you won't end up bleeding, and I don't think anyone will notice much. I went out and bought some colored ones so they sort of look like you could be wearing them as bracelets or something. But if you don't think it's a good idea..." Zhangjing looks unsure, but Yanjun is still struggling to find the right words. A lump forms in his throat.

 

He said 'we'. 

 

And Yanjun doesn't feel so alone anymore, with the other boy by his side, helping him through everything. Together. And as he looks down at his wrist, the bright colors pop out at him, and all of a sudden, he feels like crying. Crying because he feels so goddamn happy, and it's like his body forgot that tears can be for happy occasions too because the tears refuse to come out, his shoulders shaking. But they finally do when Zhangjing hugs him, and his arms move to wrap around the other boy automatically, now knowing the perfect spot to settle. He feels slightly guilty that he's soaking the other boy in tears, but he can't stop them. 

 

He can tell Zhangjing is surprised that night as they climb into bed, and it's Yanjun that's the one seeking out the other boy, hugging the smaller boy tightly in his arms. Zhangjing tenses at first, but then relaxes as Yanjun doesn't let go. And he listens to the sound of the other boy breathing, his cheek pressed up tightly against Zhangjing's back, and tries to breathe in and out at the same time. The effort of trying makes him sleepy, and Yanjun feels himself drifting off to sleep, not even one thought of sheep in his head.

 

He dreams in color that night.

 


 

There is no way around it. 

 

Yanjun watches as the other trainees leave the building one by one, everyone excitedly hugging goodbye, their belongings packed in a suitcase, with the suitcases taking up every inch of floor space in the lobby. The whole room is filled with happiness, and he yearns to be able to feel it too, would even settle for touching it as if happiness is some form of concrete object that he can get close to and poke but can never really quite have. But instead, he stands alone on the edge, avoiding the mass of trainees. Yanjun is surprised when Chaoze and Dinghao come up to him. They have formed a sort of hesitant friendship through Zhangjing, with Yanjun working on taking down some of the walls he has built so high that he can barely see an out. He's progressed to easy smiles and sometimes-hugs-but-with-difficulty status around them, and they both automatically go in for a hug good-bye with Yanjun still having trouble deciding what to do with his arms. "We'll see you when we come back, Yanjun?"

 

Before he can respond to the question, Zhangjing comes barreling out of nowhere, a flash of color that zips past him to hug the other two boys. "Have fun for the holiday. We're going to miss you guys. Bring us back home-cooked food." Zhangjing begs. "It's been so long since we've had anything other than cafeteria food here."

 

Chaoze laughs at the pitiful expression on the other boy's face. "Of course."

 

Finally, the entire room clears out, leaving just Zhangjing and Yanjun alone. The shorter boy is staring forlornly at the door, a sad look on his face. "Did you not want to go home for the holiday?" Zhangjing turns around to look at him and shake his head. "No, it's just too short and not convenient to go all the way home and come back in a few days." 

 

"You?"

 

Yanjun swallows, nervous. "I don't have anywhere to go back to really."

 

"Shit." Zhangjing takes his hand, squeezing. "I forgot, I'm sorry."

 

He takes his hand from the other boy and snaps the yellow rubber band against his other wrist. The motion calms him and slows the rising anxiety in his chest at the thought of home, at the thought of his parents. And he doesn't know whether he wants to call or not, not knowing if he can bear to hear his mother say 'no' again to the every-present question burning a hole in his heart, in his mind. Because he always asks even though the already tiny sliver of hope he had becomes smaller and smaller every time. He asks because not asking would mean having to think about the answer more at nighttime, the anxiety running circles in his head, tracking paths in the mud of his thoughts that weigh him down.

 

Any answer is better than no answer.

 

"Why don't you call?" Zhangjing's voice is soft, a lingering afterthought that reminds Yanjun he is not alone. 

 

No, he hasn't been alone for a few weeks now.

 

Zhangjing grabs his hand again, his thumb resting familiarly to press at the middle of his palm, where the scars are. But they are almost entirely gone now, too many weeks without reapplication, and there's no more raised bumps, just the shadow of a thin line where his mind used to reside. Pretty soon, even the reminder will be gone, and the urge to make the marks come back swells in his chest. He isn't sure whether he's ready to not have them yet, the red such a pretty color against his skin. Yanjun goes back to snapping his rubber bands, the small shock of pain forming a red spot against his wrist, and he stares, fascinated.

 

"Go call your Mom, I'll wait in the room."

 

Yanjun is left alone in the lobby.

 

His thumb moves automatically, and the phone rings, echoing in his ear. They spend the entire call dancing around the subject, and he imagines them in a ballroom, dancing to the beat of a waltz. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. And around and around they go, spinning and turning in circles that never end, that always bring him back to the same spot in the room after they do another round. But they never touch the part in the middle. It's off-limits, and they might brush by it, but never directly touch on the subject, too afraid that the music will stop, and it'll all fall apart. He needs to know. The music is getting faster and faster now, and he can picture the dance moving quicker, their feet struggling to keep up with the cacophony of noise that is pouring out. And he is trying to go so fast that he is spinning, his arms desperate to grab at something, anything. The conversation is coming to a close, and he can feel it coming, can feel the music coming to an end.

 

"Can I talk to Dad?"

 

A rest.

 

A stop in the music, in their dance.

 

And Yanjun wishes desperately that it is just a pause.

 

"I'm sorry, honey."

 

But as always it's a full stop.

 


 

Zhangjing is smiling when he gets back to the room, still feeling numb. Maybe it's better to feel this way. Maybe what he feels now is acceptance, the weight pressing down on him, the darkness that makes his throat tighten and the tears come held at bay. It's still there in the back of his mind, lying in wait as a predator that stalks his thoughts, waiting to pounce. But lately, it feels more like a lazy guard than a watchful eye, and Yanjun is grateful for the relief, this loosening that is better than the tightness, better than his body coiled up so tightly that even the slightest touch can set off an avalanche. 

 

"Guess what? Guess what? Guess what?" The shorter boy's excitement distracts him from his thoughts. "....I ordered food." 

 

Zhangjing smiles slyly at him, but his bottom lip quickly settles into a pout when Yanjun has no reaction. "We're not supposed to order take-out, remember? But I decided that since it's the holidays, and we're the only two left in this god-forsaken building, that we deserve this and can afford to break the rules just this once."

 

Yanjun feels giddy seeing how happy the other boy is, even just the simple things making him smile.

 

The shorter boy looks at him, almost embarrassed, a light pink dusting his cheeks. "But, uhhh, I may have ordered too much."

 

Yanjun's eyes widen when he sees the spread of food laid out on the table.

 

"Zhangjing..." He starts slowly. "...You ordered enough for like 10 people."

 

A bemused smile crosses his face when he sees that his words haven't even penetrated the other boy's consciousness, with Zhangjing already digging into the food, a mouthful making his cheeks puff out like a squirrel. "Hmmm..." The jumble of words that come out make no sense, just a collection of sounds. "Swallow your food first." Yanjun laughs when Zhangjing glares daggers at him before complying. "I said, what did you say?"

 

The words come out before he can stop them. "I think I'm happy right now."

 

Happy.

 

It feels foreign, to be happy. Like it was something he had once had, but it had gotten locked up in a box inside him and misplaced, lost in the clutter that his anxiety created in his mind, lost among the mess of bad memories. And even when he found the box, he had been at a loss, not knowing how to open it back up again. So he tried to pry it open forcefully, tried to claw at the outside to open it and let the happiness back in. But the box had refused to budge, mocking him.

 

Until Zhangjing came along with the key.

 

And it's a slow process, opening up the lid and taking out some happiness, piece by piece, a little at a time. Because happiness isn't like the bad thoughts. It isn't endless, and Yanjun is afraid of running out, afraid that he'll take too much and reach the bottom to find that there's nothing left, that he's left empty again. So he works slowly, trying to keep some of it safe and hidden away for a bad day. He takes a deep breath, between bites of delicious food, of happiness residing next to Zhangjing. "I want to talk about it."

 

"Talk about what?"

 

"Everything."

 

Yanjun lets it all flow out of him, lets the scars he's been hiding out into the open. And he knows that Zhangjing has seen the angry, red marks on his hands before, but that's only a small part of it, a single corner piece of the puzzle that that comes to him never quite finished at any one moment in time. He doesn't want to look up, tells his story looking down, knowing that Zhangjing must be staring at him in that silent way he does that makes Yanjun want to bare his soul. But even that scares him. It scares him that he wants to tell the other boy everything, scares him to share something he thought no one else would ever see.

 

It takes a long time, from beginning to end.

 

But Zhangjing is patient, knows that Yanjun just needs him to sit and listen.

 

Not speak.

 

And he ends with his box, his box of happiness that he's afraid will run out and leave him alone with nothing.

 

Yanjun finally looks up at the end, and Zhangjing's gaze is focused on him, focused on really seeing him.

 

"If it runs out, then we'll just have to fill it up again, won't we?"

 


 

They fit together comfortably now, Yanjun no longer wanting to push the other boy away at night. And Yanjun likes to be the one holding the other boy, his arms locked tight, not willing to let go. He wants to keep it safe, his happiness, wants to keep it close. Zhangjing's breathing keeps him sane, and he imagines the puffs of air blowing away all the thoughts that linger on the edge. But tonight, tonight feels different, feels like something more. Zhangjing feels like the family he wants to hold on to, a place to which he can always return. And he doesn't have to hide anymore, nothing left to bury away from the other boy. Because Zhangjing knows it all now, and Yanjun feels light, buoyed by this knowledge.

 

Zhangjing feels like home.

 

Sleep.

 

It comes easily now, accompanied by thoughts of the other boy floating in his dreams.