Zhen Kaixin is in the middle of his 1998th shot of the day when he goes blind.
“Fuck you,” he yells half-heartedly in the general direction of the hoop, more reflex than actual frustration. “I didn’t even get to see that go in!”
He knows it did, anyway. Just like he knows that the lights on the basketball court at Meng-meng Park automatically switch off at 10pm every night. And he’s here every night, so he should really start setting an alarm and stop being shocked every time it happens.
Which is every night.
Kaixin sighs and heads towards his water bottle, downing half of it in one go. His body is still uncomfortably hot with adrenaline so, without thinking, he empties the other half over his head.
Oops, is the sheepish thought that hits him with the waterfall. He can’t go home like this. For one, he’ll probably catch a cold. And his mother—
Nope. Not even gonna go there.
This is why Shi Fen always says he’s simple. It’s one of those immutable facts of life: the Earth is round, the basketball court lights go off at 10pm, Zhen Kaixin doesn’t think before he acts.
He makes a face at the mini Shi Fen in his head and swats at the air ineffectually. What his best friend doesn’t realise (and what he himself has just remembered) is that Zhen Kaixin is also always well-prepared. Which means he definitely has an extra uniform set stashed in his gym bag.
He’s so proud of himself, he can barely keep from reaching around to pat himself on the back as he reaches in to— what the fuck, it’s not there. He rifles through the mess of papers and books frantically, already anticipating the scolding he’ll get back home. Shit, shit, shit…
Wait. He remembers now. He’d taken it out during competition period and left it under Shi Fen’s desk, just in case.
Kaixin huffs again. Why does he have to be such a goddamned good friend?
Well, a walk will dry his hair… and maybe he can get his last two shots in at the gym. He does have to finish up, anyway. Can’t do that at home.
Can’t do anything at home.
Besides, he loves being out on the streets at this time. Something about the transition between nightfall and the witching hour, something about the people in transit then—it always puts him in an oddly poetic mood.
Harried dads rush past him as if they’ll make it for the home-cooked dinner that was ready three hours ago. Two men share a bench with a dozen empty beer bottles and a stray dog curled up between them. He’s taking a walk to school because he doesn’t want to go home.
You can have a home and still be homeless.
Sometimes he envies Shi Fen. Not for the freedom he gets out of basically parenting himself—he winces when he remembers that fight now—but for his relationship with his sister. They’ll go to their graves before they admit it, yeah, but having each other is the only reason that either of them have a real home. And more than anything now, Kaixin wishes he had that.
But maybe he’d like a brother instead. Girls don’t play basketball.
Unless it’s Shi Miao, that is. She’d probably be great at it.
He's just beginning to regret his decision when the back gate comes into view. Fucking finally. He takes it at a running leap, clambering up the fence and landing on his feet in seven seconds flat. A new record, and he wasn’t even trying. He can just hear them now.
Zhen Kaixin! Zhen Kaixin!
Nodding triumphantly at his imaginary crowd of admirers, he flings his arms out dramatically and throws his chin up for good measure.
Then he freezes, because there’s a light on in the classroom block. It’s Class 1-4, he knows, because he’s standing right in front of Shi Fen’s junior year boost spot. Maybe they forgot to switch it off. Or maybe some kids from another school snuck in. Graffiti would be fun, he muses.
Or maybe… there’s someone secretly living in the school? Like at the military camp?
Suddenly excited, Kaixin runs in, taking the stairs two at a time. There’s a certain thrill in being the only one in this big old building, lit only by the moon and dim streetlight, quiet and mysterious (it seems the poetic mood hasn’t lifted). He should bring Shi Fen back to explore it one day.
“What’s that? Who’s crying?” an anxious female voice interrupts his thoughts, and the surprise makes him falter in his stride. Shi Miao?
He turns into the room, and immediately goes from curious to amused. It is her, and she’s sitting up ramrod straight, her entire body on alert as she calls out again. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” he announces, sauntering over to her desk. “Me, me, me!” She’s still straining to make out his features, but the furrow in her brow smoothens out at the sound of his voice.
“Kaixin-ge,” she breathes, tugging on the ends of her jacket as she stands to greet him. “What— what are you doing here?”
He opens his mouth to speak, then remembers that he didn’t even get his clothes. He dried off on the way over, it’s too long and uninteresting a story to bore her with, he’ll have to explain why he was shooting hoops in his uniform in the first place (he wasn’t planning to go straight to the court from school, but he didn’t want to go home, so), and he’s really not keen on talking about it.
The speed-thinking takes about four seconds, and he eventually settles on a lame excuse about all of his two friends being busy (it’s true, but it’s not like they would’ve played ball with him anyway). Honestly, that just makes him feel sorry for himself… until he finds out that she’s stuck here working on a school project because Miao-miao ditched her.
Half of his brain is annoyed on her behalf, half of it is wondering what could possibly have been bad enough to drive even Miao-miao away, and the last half is just frankly amazed that she has this much dedication to schoolwork.
Actually, that last one’s probably more than half. That’s the response he goes with (after the obligatory Miao-miao diss, of course), and it seems to be the right one, because she’s clearly stressing about this control freak business and in need of some affirmation. Making people happy is what Kaixin does best, after all.
But he does feel a bit off-kilter at first. They’ve never really hung out one-on-one, even though he’s always over at their place. Except for that one time she fetched him to school on her bike, which, now that he’s remembering it, might actually be one of the worst experiences of his young life.
He’s not sure why he still likes her company even after that, but maybe the good outweighs the bad. Not that there’s bad, necessarily, it’s just…
She can be a little terrifying.
It’s pretty amazing.
He thinks again that she’d be great at basketball. Just like her brother, but not. Kaixin adores Shi Fen, but the guy doesn’t really listen to him. Shi Miao, on the other hand, makes him feel like he’s the only other person in the room.
Well, he is, actually…
Okay, that could be it. But still. Was he saying something about awkwardness?
Nah, he’s digging it. Zhen Kaixin has never felt so appreciated.
She’s saying something now, about how he needs to fold this next bit over, and he snaps back to attention—quite literally, instinctively saluting her like she’s Commander Zhao. Surprised, she stops short in the middle of her sentence, then throws her head back and lets out a deep belly laugh, so full of mirth he finds himself smiling right back at her.
Spending time with Shi Miao is pretty nice.
She’s leaning across the table now, placing the last lucky star on the little dot of glue she’s just squeezed out, with as much care as if she were handling a newborn. Her brow is furrowed again, head tilted ever so slightly, tiny bit of tongue sticking out the side of her mouth in concentration.
Shi Miao has a very expressive face, he notes. And that face is barely twenty centimetres from his own right now, so he can say that with authority. He watches as she leans back to survey her work with narrowed eyes, then returns, nose wrinkling, to nudge the star a millimetre to the left.
He’s never seen her so focused, and he is in awe. To be so serious about a school project? Kaixin doesn’t understand the cause, but he does respect the commitment. She reminds him of himself.
A month ago, after they got into the finals and before his mother started the basketball ban, he devised a new training regime for his team. It was the product of many sleepless nights and countless hours of research, and it was his pride and joy. He couldn’t wait to show it off to Coach, whip his boys into shape.
Of course, that was when everything went to shit.
Yup, he’s still bitter.
He thinks of that huge sheet of paper now, rolled up and stuffed in a dusty corner of his room. He nearly threw it out, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d even used a ruler, for fuck’s sake. And different coloured markers!
“Kaixin-ge? What is it?”
Right. This isn’t the time.
But he can’t seem to snap out of it.
Then a small hand touches his forearm, and he’s looking straight into the worried eyes of his best friend’s sister. Have they always been this big? He’s trying to recall, but he can’t exactly concentrate. And he’s getting a little nervous. Isn’t this too intense? Is this what girls do? What now?
Shi Miao probably picks up on that, because she’s the first to clear her throat awkwardly and shift her eyes away. Now, for some unfathomable reason, he’s actually feeling bad. Glad for the loss of prolonged eye contact, but feeling bad that he’s glad. Does that even make sense?
“I know we don’t talk much,” she starts uncertainly, and his stomach drops even lower. “But if there’s something bothering you—”
Kaixin frowns. This is most decidedly not good.
Impulsively, he takes the hand in his lap and places it firmly over her own, still resting on his other arm. “Don’t worry about it, Shi Miao! It’s really nothing important, I was just thinking about basketball.”
There’s no acknowledgement, and his grin slowly stiffens. Oh, shit. All he wanted to do was put her at ease, but it looks like he’s only succeeded in making her even more uncomfortable. He’s never seen anyone blush so deeply before. And she’s still not moving.
“Uh… Shi Miao?” He gives her hand a light squeeze. “Did I— are you okay? Shi Miao?” He squeezes again, a few times in quick succession, and she jerks, turning her wide-eyed gaze back to him.
“Ah, basketball! Right!” Her voice is unnaturally high and squeaky. “You really like it, don’t you?”
Kaixin blinks at her. Sometimes Shi Miao can be quite odd.
Then it hits him, and he straightens up, eyes alight.
His grip on her hand tightens.
“Are you tired?”
He’s up before she’s even done shaking her head, chair clattering to the floor.
“Let’s go to the gym!”
By the time they reach the gym doors, he’s practically bouncing. Shi Miao isn’t quite as eager, but she’s not dragging her feet like Shi Fen always does, so he takes that as a good sign. He throws his bag down by the bench and digs his basketball out, going straight into a smooth dribble and lay-up. There’s a quiet “wah” behind him, and he turns to beckon her over.
Shi Miao smiles uneasily. “Kaixin-ge, I don’t know how to play basketball.”
He cocks his head. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Kaixin cuts her off with a shake of his head and jogs back over to stand in front of her. “Shi Miao, do you think I knew how to play basketball five years ago?” He looks up at the ceiling and scratches his head. “Okay, I did, but ten years ago— well, do you think I knew how to play basketball when I was born?”
Her lips twitch. He really isn’t the best with words.
“Well, uh, do you think your brother knew—”
She breaks into laughter and gets to her feet.
“Okay, Coach Zhen. What do I do?”
He tries not to be too obvious, but he can’t stop the broad smile that splits his face as he shrugs his jacket off and motions for her to do the same. She stumbles a little at that—he’s not sure why, they’re on flat ground—but he grabs her arm to stop her from falling anyway. He smiles down at her and waits for her to regain her balance before going back to pick the ball up.
“Don’t worry, Shi Miao,” he hollers from the net. “We’ll start with the basics. I have faith in you!” He lobs the ball over and she catches it easily. Just like he knew she would, and Kaixin feels the pride surge through his entire body. He’s getting lightheaded. This is it. This is his dream come true. Shi Miao is the younger brother he’s never had.
And she’s pretty, too. Is he really not dreaming?
He pinches himself, just to make sure, and yelps. He’s smiling so hard now that his face hurts.
This is the best day of his life.
Kaixin presses down on the brakes lightly, sticking his feet out to skid along the tarmac and exhaling shakily as they come to a stop. He did manage to convince Shi Miao to let him on the pedals this time, but he’s still a little traumatised by his last memory with this particular bike.
He feels her weight shift behind him and keeps his feet flat on the ground so she can hop off. She comes around the front to smile at him, and he beams before sliding off too. They’re just outside her estate, it’s 2am, and he’s still buzzing.
“I’ll send you some really cool videos,” he gushes as they grab a handlebar each and start wheeling. “I found this Kobe compilation the other day, it’s so good.”
He’s still talking when she stops so abruptly that he almost trips over his own feet. What— oh.
She’s staring at the windows of the Shi household. They’re pitch black.
“Shi Fen’s not back yet…” he hears her mumble to herself, and all of a sudden the high fades. In its place comes a sharp pang of guilt.
She’s whirling around in surprise before he’s even done saying her name, like she’s forgotten that he’s even there.
“Oh— it’s nothing!” She gives him a weak smile, but her fists are tightening around the handlebar, and she’s not meeting his eyes. “I just thought he would be home by now… yeah.”
The guilt intensifies. He was so excited about having a new sibling, he forgot she had a real sibling she was worried about. And he forgot to check in with Shi Fen. Fuck, he's a terrible friend.
“Shi Miao.” He kicks the stand into place so he can reach for her, but she looks so distant that he drops his hands to the seat between them instead. “I am so sorry. I— You—”
And absolute shit at words to boot.
“God,” he sighs, eyes downcast. “I’m such a jerk. You’ve been worried about your brother all night, and I’ve just been going on and on about all this dumb sh— crap.”
He can feel her eyes on him, but she doesn’t say anything. He wrings his hands in despair, not daring to look up.
“I’m really sorry,” he says quietly.
Kaixin doesn’t quite know what to do with silence. Seriously, how does one respond to it? He only knows how to use it in defence.
Ah, fuck. Now he’s thinking of his mother again. Mouth scrunched up tight, he shakes his head and nudges the kickstand back up.
“Come on, let’s get you home.”
He waits for Shi Miao to move first, falling into step on the other side. They walk wordlessly to the flat, Kaixin hanging back timidly while she parks the bike and unlocks the door. Eyes still trained on the ground, he hears the click of the switch before he sees the semicircle of light descend, just five centimetres from the tips of his shoes.
How fitting, he thinks mournfully, that he’s still left in the dark. He knew this night was too good to be true.
Just like autumn leaves… the high school championship… his mother’s approval… everything else in his life…
That’s when the tips of her shoes enter his field of vision, and he hears her call out to him softly.
“Thank you for sending me home. And, Kaixin-ge…”
Bravely, he ventures a quick glance upward. She still looks troubled, but not in a lost-in-thought way. Her attention is solely focused on him. He doesn’t know if that’s good or bad.
“Please don’t be sorry. I had a lot of fun tonight.”
At that, he looks up fully. “Did you really? I know I might have gotten a bit carried away…”
“Really. You were right. Basketball really is great.”
“Well, uh,” he scratches the back of his head bashfully. “If you like it, we can always do it again… if you want, that is, if—”
She’s smiling for real now, the corners of her eyes crinkling up. His eyes instinctively go to her hands, and he’s relieved to see her knuckles are no longer white. Maybe she really did have fun. He returns the smile sheepishly, and for a second they’re just standing there, smiling at each other. She breaks first.
"Any— anyway, I'm not worried about that idiot! He can die outside for all I care!"
Both of them know she's not fooling anyone, but it comes just in time, because that’s about all the sustained eye contact Kaixin can take. Gently, he turns her around by the shoulders, ushers her in, and makes a mental note to scold Shi Fen tomorrow (he won't). Then, like Batman, he disappears back into the night.
Or rather, lingers on the street pretending to be Batman for another half hour before he decides to suck it up and drag himself home because the whole neighbourhood is asleep and nobody’s calling for help and that kind of interferes with the whole hero thing. Same thing.
The house is dark when he finally gets back, and he makes it to his room by the light of his phone torch, washing up as quietly as possible. He’ll probably get it tomorrow, but he’s too tired to care.
What a night, man, is all he can think as he drifts off.
What a fucking night.