(Hop and step, may I have this dance? This is the world's end, shall we do the 'one, two’?)
(The world is collapsing but it won’t destroy itself today, is what the people say to assure themselves. Half-fact, half-fraud, everyone just wants to live as frantically as they can. Fear lingers in their hearts, fear is still in the air, but it grows until it blooms , until you get used to it.)
(That is not to say that certain people can’t indulge themselves. In fact, they are more than welcome to.)
An Zhe, unfortunately, for all his passion and wants, does not have a body that is meant for dancing. However, An Zhe, fortunately, for all his recklessness and inability to stop at where he pauses, also does not get hindered by this discovery. (Which came at the expense of stepping on Lu Feng’s toes more than thrice after someone unearthed a violin and some barely surviving music sheets from the very depths of some suspicious piece of land outside the caves and in the corners of the facility building. Luckily and surprisingly, music has not yet died, much to the relief of most people.)
So, when exactly did An Zhe’s little craze for waltzing begin?
There are sheets of music notes hidden in some corners of the facilities An Zhe sometimes strolls in, perhaps hidden by a person who was no longer there with them, perhaps hidden by a person who was there yet won’t come forward, out of fear or out of the sake of anonymity. He can’t read them as much as he tries to. There’s barely anyone who can read them, let alone play on the violin, even Lu Feng, who An Zhe once caught trying to play the violin only to wind up producing a screech-like sound that An Zhe was afraid the violin had broken right there, so most of the first few days of the violin’s discovery were quiet. No music played, and life continued as mundanely as it could.
“What does music sound like?” An Zhe asks, hands fiddling with Lu Feng’s fingers, though his eyes stray away to look at the decaying tree their vehicle parked next to. “How can things made from… decaying wood, even produce the pretty sound everyone says it does?”
What does music sound like? Lu Feng thinks of the muffled melodies of a somber lullaby, of the hymns sung by the people of divine faith, of the hums that he encounters from the strangers he passes by. Lu Feng thinks of the daughters of the rose, of the abandoned instrument he thinks is called a piano by the very side of the room he could barely remember.
Lu Feng thinks of An Zhe, whose harmony calmed the world in ways a human being can’t.
“Sometimes they just do.” He hooks his pinky finger with An Zhe’s, the coarse texture of the glove a contrast to the slightly calloused skin of the other. “It is a pretty sound. Just not one you encounter as often as you still could have in the past.”
“Has music always existed?”
“Mn. It has. You can make music yourself, too. Hum a slight tune, tap your hand on some surface for a certain rhythm,” Lu Feng’s eyes turn to him, “sing your little songs when you sit still and pretty on the bed.”
An Zhe pulls his hand away and looks at Lu Feng with a smug expression, much to the latter’s dismay. “I don’t think that counts as music.”
“Heard of the term music to my ears? I think it does.”
“That’s not music I can listen to! I want to hear… real music. Is there such a thing?”
When An Zhe looks at him with that gentle, pleading look, Lu Feng feels the irrational need to pick up the violin and kick it until it produces the real music An Zhe asks of.
So instead, he strokes An Zhe’s cheek and turns back to the driver’s seat.
“We’ll go back to the base, and we’ll find some real music for you.”
An Zhe’s eyes shine as the engine rumbles, and back on the track they go as their “quest” for An Zhe’s real music begins.
A young woman approaches him with a violin in her hand, a small notebook in the other.
(At Lu Feng’s small announcement, a woman decides to visit the ex-judge in the hopes of letting her sister display her, albeit not as fluid and smooth as she was before the disaster, skills in playing the instrument that the team had managed to recover after a thorough exploration of the western side of the forest.
She holds the violin close to her chest as Lu Feng hands her a small letter. He hopes she reads it and accepts his humble request.)
An Zhe tilts his head, wondering what she had to do with him until she smiles shyly and hands him the notebook.
You pick, she writes down on it. I will play.
? He writes down in reply. Are you not able to speak?
The woman nods. Then, she points to her left ear, and shakes her head.
When An Zhe picks out a random page, he watches in amazement as the woman scans through the notes, places the violin beneath her chin, and plays.
Humanity… sometimes, they really astound me, he thinks, watching the deaf woman play a tune he feels as though it comes from a dream, a little song that invoked a particular emotion he did not know could make him feel so little yet so much.
It’s a little frightening, but to a mushroom like him, once he finds something he truly enjoys, he can bear with the small struggles that come with it.
(Lu Feng gets his reply from the woman in the form of An Zhe hugging his arm, telling him of the melody he hears, of the little stories he conjures as he listens, of the lingering traces of the musician’s thoughts and feelings in the notes that are played.)
At some point, Lu Feng is dragged by An Zhe to attend his “music sessions,” as he likes to call them. Having no urgent matters to deal with and, of course, wanting to spend more time with his lover, Lu Feng accepts (reluctantly, at first, because he doubts his presence will make the violin player feel any better) and walks to the courtyard where An Zhe has taken a liking to staying in while he listens to the music.
This time, he picks a slightly more complicated-looking piece. There are long notes in this one, notes that connect over the lines, new symbols that he doesn’t know what for or how they sound. He hopes it sounds as mesmerizing as it looks.
Some people sit on the grassy ground in the courtyard, intrigued as they watch a woman set a small stand up where she places her notebook. Some people are passing by and, seeing the performance that was about to occur, stop and lean back on the wall.
An Zhe holds his breath as the muffled chatters from the people surrounding them stop, and then, there is only silence.
Then, she plays.
An Zhe has seen human emotions at where they peak. He has seen horror-stricken faces, tears streaming down dirt-smudged cheeks, hands clutching tightly on whatever it could afford to hold on to when the world tilts. He has seen laughter while a group of people eats together, small chuckles at the jokes he didn’t understand, eyes that are dark with lust and want.
However, An Zhe can’t describe the expression on Lu Feng’s face, on the violinist’s face, on everyone else’s faces, right at this moment.
They look like they were mourning. Lu Feng, what are you mourning for?
He only notices how Lu Feng’s hand finds his beneath their coats, fingers intertwining as the violin’s captivating sound echoes in the courtyard. The song ascends and descends, it’s fast until it’s not, it’s bright until it isn’t. And so on the pattern continues, like bubbles, they surround the player, they form and disappear.
“You see,” Lu Feng whispers, as the music trickles out in the open space, “I think it has been a while since everyone has heard such a sound.”
“It’s a beautiful sound.”
“Indeed.” He tells him, the ghost of a smile present in his mouth, and he slowly lets go of An Zhe’s hand in favor of putting it around his shoulder. “But it breaks our hearts too.”
An Zhe turns his head to whisper back. “Why?”
Lu Feng wonders why, too. That home can only be felt in the form of sound, but nothing beyond that? That the fewest minutes are enough to make someone feel naked and vulnerable? That there’s a multitude of them inside this courtyard, inside this building, who has never heard music?
He settles with a small shrug. “Perhaps it breaks because it can no longer heal. I wouldn’t know, either way.”
An Zhe’s body moves on its own.
“You put your hands,” he says with, albeit too much, determination, “on my waist. Here. Stop trailing downwards, we are not doing that.”
“Very bold of you to make such indecent assumptions—“
“And I put my hands on your shoulders—“ he purposely pushes down on them hard, “—and you take your left hand away because you have to hold my right hand.”
“Are you sure that was what was written?” Lu Feng asks, peeking down at the old portfolio lying on the ground next to them. “Isn’t it my right hand with your left hand? Or whoever’s taking the lead?”
“I’m taking the lead on our upper bodies, you take the lead with our feet.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
An Zhe shoots him a glare. Lu Feng thinks it’s a cute glare. “I don’t suppose you also know how that works, too, hm?”
Fuck. He loved it when An Zhe was being snarky like this. He grins and pulls An Zhe’s body closer until he engulfs him in a hug.
“No. I don’t. Teach me, maybe?”
If there were music sheets hidden in the corners of the laboratory and the rest of the facility, then it was only wise of them to assume that there were also picture books. Picture books of people, moving about with arrows pointing to their arms and feet, with descriptions beneath each line telling them how to hold their partner, how relaxed they must be, how many steps until it reaches arrow four. An Zhe wonders what mystifying being resided in the facility to have known and left such things that were rarely ever practiced anymore by people.
An Zhe’s hand lightly trails on Lu Feng’s arm, moving sidewards as they raise their arms together, fingertips tracing the bare skin of the taller man’s palm. They open slowly, almost reluctantly, and An Zhe holds his breath as he feels the hand on his waist tighten, along the fingers that fit through the small gaps of his hand. He closes his eyes and leans in closer, closer — until he is resting his body on Lu Feng’s own, humming a soft tune of the certain song he’s been listening to for days, swaying gently in the silent room, his little voice and the steady heartbeat of his lover the only things he hears at this moment.
Neither of them had known peace like this; peace that warms your heart.
Lu Feng moves his hand from An Zhe’s waist to the back of his head, pulling him in to rest his cheek by his neck, and he lets loose as he gently sways to the quiet tune that escapes An Zhe’s lips, trembling and smiling and being everything Lu Feng’s ever wanted.
It goes on for a few days. An Zhe hums the tunes he remembers, Lu Feng holds him close while they level up from their little swaying to actually moving around their arms and their feet, stepping on each other’s toes and almost tripping on the floor from the lack of experience.
Which leads them to their current predicament.
“How am I supposed to control you from falling down? You should balance yourself first, you can trust me that I won’t let go of your body.”
“I know that…” An Zhe mutters, groaning in pain as he rubs his backside. His ass hurts like hell from falling down. “How come my mycelium doesn’t provide me any flexibility at all for this…”
“You want me to dance with you in your mushroom form? It might make things easier.”
Lu Feng receives a judging glare from the other man. He tries to not laugh at it. “Okay, okay, I might have a little...idea, or let’s hope it’s something similar. You know those numbers written on the side of the page, here?”
He picks up the old book and points at the fraction-like numbers by the side of each drawn figure. An Zhe didn’t really pay any attention to them, figuring that they wouldn’t play much part to the dancing itself.
“Hm? What about them?”
“It’s not actually a fraction, it might be a…” Lu Feng scourges through his memories. “A time signature, I think. There’s a difference in the beats, like this ¾ thing here, and each beat corresponds to a step. It might make things easier for us if we stop basing our steps on your humming for the meantime.”
Beats? ¾? An Zhe’s eyes glint with a tinge of curiosity. “How do those beats work? Like a pattern?”
“Yes. It works like a pattern. Come, I’ll show you.” Lu Feng takes An Zhe’s hands in his and he flips the page to turn to the different dancing figures drawn, neatly arranged in one entire row, numbers and arrows with cursive text beneath them.
An Zhe lets himself be led by Lu Feng. One, two, three four, Lu Feng breathes out as he moves An Zhe around, a one for every step, a two for another one.
“Don’t fall on your ass this time around.” Lu Feng mutters into his ear, with An Zhe muffling his giggle and earnestly nodding his head, and when he says three An Zhe is falling backward, pulling Lu Feng’s gaze to his own, waist caught by the arms that are wrapped around them.
He’s brought back to stand straight, but Lu Feng is no longer counting. Instead, An Zhe is pulled closer, closer, until his lips meet with another.
An Zhe smiles, and he hopes Lu Feng feels it.
For the most part, when Lu Feng suggests the idea, it didn’t seem so tantalizing to An Zhe. He casually agrees to it, not really seeing what could go wrong.
He deeply regrets his past actions.
He feels hot from... what was it? Self-consciousness? Embarrassment? For himself or for Lu Feng? His face flushes when he realizes that the woman playing the violin could see their every move as they dance, that anyone could walk in and see these two darned lovebirds waltzing around in the courtyard, of all places. An Zhe hurriedly tugs on Lu Feng’s sleeve, fiercely shaking his head as he watches a curious audience increase in number by the entrance to the courtyard.
“When you said you wanted accompanying music, I didn’t mean,” An Zhe vaguely gestures at their surroundings, “here. In the courtyard. Isn’t it better dancing in a closed space?”
“Nothing bad with putting on a little show, is there?”
An Zhe doesn’t want to reply to that question. He tries to think from an outsider’s perspective. Lu Feng, a judge — an ex-judge, rather — waltzing around a mushroom, a heterogeneous, mumbling a one, two, three, four as a romantic violin in the background plays. He tries to think about the things he’ll lose when he takes Lu Feng up on this idea. (There are none.)
When he turns his head around, he sees a child peeking from behind his parent’s body, looking at the two with an eager and honest expression. He sees the violinist turn the pages of her notebook, mouth curled in what looks like a smile as she picks out a song to play according to Lu Feng’s request (something with this time signature, something peaceful). He sees a family of three, he sees a woman who seems more interested in her book than anything else, he sees children on their devices yelling in hushed voices to quickly find the recording function if there was one.
“No. I suppose not.”
A judge and his heterogeneous, a pair of lovers waltzing about, what was there to look out for?
When a familiar tune plays, An Zhe remembers purple skies and the cold press of a judge’s gun in his backpack. An Zhe feels Lu Feng’s gloved hands on his, the one to four countings whispered to his ear, his feet that move about on the floor to the choreography he remembers.
However, there is something unfamiliar, too. The small spin that they never practiced, for one. The way he doesn’t move out of rhythm when he realizes Lu Feng is no longer counting, for two. An Zhe proceeds to hum, and it feels right, knowing that the song is finally one with their every movement.
He wonders if Lu Feng knew that when the violin plays, he hears love, and when he hears love, his mind doesn’t play a melodic song. Instead, it plays banters, the breathy one, two, three, four’s mumbled into his ears. It plays flashes of a rare grin, calloused hands on his palms. It plays Lu Feng, like a love song he’s created, his touch light as a feather, his eyes even lighter, his heart the lightest.
Lu Feng whispers, “Look.”
An Zhe glances to look at a shy boy earnestly holding his mother’s hand, a determined look in his eyes as he tries to approach the violinist to ask her to play another song if she can. An Zhe sees a young girl dancing around, with unique steps of her own, even when the song comes to an end and even without an audience of her own. He wonders if this was what a melting heart felt like, hands clasped with his person, eyes greeted with a view more powerful than anything he’s ever seen, and he can’t help but smile helplessly at it all.
“I feel a little tired,” he tells Lu Feng. “Take me back. I want to eat something. The violinist can play more songs if she wants.”
Lu Feng holds him close and nods.
Dancing certainly isn’t a mushroom or a judge’s forte, but each time the strings of a violin are played and the familiar music that they’ve been listening to for the past few days trickles out like honey in the courtyard, a part of An Zhe is unable to resist taking Lu Feng’s hands into his, bringing him to some auspicious corner where the grasses don’t reach and the music isn’t as loud as it is when you stand in the center, or to the middle of the open space, standing right by the violinist who An Zhe had grown fond of, gently swaying to the tune, or maybe learning how to do double-steps and consecutive spins.
A child hands him something, one day – small, not much beyond the age of 12, almond eyes and a very meager personality. It’s a small device, with a blinking light on one side and a speaker on the other.
“It’s a recorder that I picked up a few years ago.” He proudly explains, like a collector with his divine artifacts, and An Zhe is rather intrigued. “It still works really well, but since I don’t really have any use for it, perhaps you can use it, big brother.”
“Ah? Thank you… What does it do?” An Zhe asks, carefully observing the device that the boy had placed in his hands. It seemed to have a few buttons placed on the top of its surface.
“There’s three buttons over here. One is for play, one is for record, and one is for next.” He grins when he reveals the magic trick up his sleeve, determined to please his elders. “I’ve recorded the violin songs for the past few days. There are currently five recordings in there. That way, you can listen to music without having to ask for the violinist.”
(Lu Feng, once again, is greeted by An Zhe’s excited self, hands grasping a black device in his hand as he stumbles over his words, trying to explain what they could now do in the confines of their own personal space. He watches what looks like a near-human curiosity etch itself on An Zhe’s face, the way An Zhe’s constant indifference gradually turns into a constant feeling of something, may it be excitement or embarrassment, happiness or giddiness, love or fondness.
“We could always use our tablets though?”
“It’s different. The tablets can be disturbed and they don’t last very long. This one does.”
“Should we test it out now?”
An Zhe eagerly nods, and he takes the hand that is offered to him and dances the night away.)
There’s a soft tune, one that reminds An Zhe of the cold calm of the forest’s innermost caves, one that houses the mushrooms like him, and one that is far away from all the bloodshed and violence the outer and middle parts of the forest.
It’s his favorite, for a variety of reasons.
Lu Feng quietly presses his lips to An Zhe’s cheek, not hard enough to be a kiss, but intimate enough that An Zhe tilts his head to lean on the brief contact, hand in hand with him as they sway to the violin. There are no hard steps, no spins, no complicated countings to follow. He can close his eyes and not worry about stepping on Lu Feng’s feet or falling on his ass on the ground.
There’s another tune, one that is frantic and exciting and fast, one that reminds him of an over-dramatic rendition of war at its peak, one that reminds him of cries and groans and a bed too warm for the cold night.
It’s not his favorite, because Lu Feng keeps getting carried away by the end of the song.
Perhaps it’s the adrenaline. Lu Feng’s spontaneous spinning of An Zhe’s body almost makes him dizzy, but he holds him tight to regain his balance. He lets him lean backward, almost falling, almost at the ground; he sometimes lifts him up, carrying him to the tune of the song as they spin around in circles and An Zhe’s slapping the arm of his lover, who’s either too busy laughing or trying to find a way to land themselves comfortably on the bed.
There is one tune, however, that An Zhe can’t get the hang of. One tune that doesn’t evoke anything out of him. The same tune that was first played in the courtyard, one that made everything look like a cathartic death parade.
“Why does it bother you so much?” An Zhe asks once he’s run out of ideas about the possible hidden implications in that certain tune. “Is it… supposed to be like that?”
Lu Feng thinks about it.
“Maybe it is. I don’t really remember hearing it elsewhere. It’s the one song that makes you feel things you can’t explicitly describe.”
An Zhe tilts his head. “Then describe it to me in the vaguest way you can.”
He doesn’t expect the question. Neither does he shy away from it.
Lu Feng tells him of the lullabies that slowly become distorted as years go by, lullabies from when he was barely conscious, from when he was a young child. He tells him of burnt storybooks, of emergency drills that alerted mothers and young children, of pianos that he can no longer recognize the sound of.
He tells him of the life he doesn’t remember having, of how the violin makes him want to take a trip down that memory lane, of how it makes him have the need to remember. To reminisce what was once lost, to yearn for a return, a renaissance.
An Zhe listens, as he always does. He has always been a spectator, and nothing more, in subjects like these.
(He is no spectator, however, not when Lu Feng owes him, and wants to give him, a lifetime’s worth of constant care, not when everyone is, in some way, more than grateful for his existence. He was a spectator, at least, not until he walked into that cage like an angel sacrificed to calm the hellfire, burning away because he saw how they suffered and decided to make it his business. No, to Lu Feng, he was never a spectator.
The moment he stepped through the gates and faced him with his honest eyes, with no tinted glasses that told him stories of a ruthless monster, Lu Feng already felt something.)
But Lu Feng suddenly stops, and he buries his head into An Zhe’s neck, nipping the light skin as he brings them down to lie on the bed.
“For making me talk too much. It’s just a sad song, everyone’s interpretations are different. It doesn’t have to have a deep and lengthy meaning for it to be pleasant to listen to.”
An Zhe doesn’t disagree, so he nips Lu Feng’s neck back after a few seconds of silence. “Stop biting. I won’t let you touch me anymore.”
Unfortunately, for him, it only served as an invitation for the other man to bite more, so bite more he does.
(A few changes somehow occur after the recorder is given.
For one, An Zhe and Lu Feng began to occupy the courtyard less. It doesn’t stop the violinist from playing, the people from gathering, the dancers and watchers from dancing and watching. Life continues as mundanely as it can, except there is now an added hue to the canvas of their everyday lives, like a streak in the shade of blue amidst the smudged and patterned black and white lines.
For two, An Zhe and Lu Feng began to occupy their rooms more. An Zhe had wanted to dance in the wilderness, for the sake of trying out something new, but Lu Feng disagrees.
“Do you want to attract a huge carnivorous insect by accidentally performing a mating dance?”
“Insects don’t mate, I’m a mushroom, and how is waltzing a mating dance!”
For three, Lu Feng thinks An Zhe’s body is adapting to the regular dancing he’s put himself up to. Not just that, whenever he moves, it’s in a more refined and elegant manner, something Lu Feng recognizes as someone who’s observed and seen the differences between thousands of people and heterogeneous. He is… almost there, not to the extent of being graceful, but tethering somewhere on the edge of it. There is still the clumsiness that makes Lu Feng’s heart turn to mush, the mushroom-like motions of his body, like how his body sometimes just relaxes too much and he shrinks to that of a small mushroom the size of your fist whenever he’s tired. But there is an added allure to it, something that’s dangerous and tempting for Lu Feng.
He decides that it’s a change that is for the better.
“You’re just whipped,” Dr. Ji tells him.
The colonel ignores him, of course, like he always does, but he can’t deny that there is some truth in his words.)
(Lu Feng wakes up to an empty bed. He doesn’t pay much attention to it. There are occasions where An Zhe wakes up earlier than him, where he takes a few morning strolls along the corridors, or where he searches for something new to eat and try out and he doesn’t want to let Lu Feng know because there’s a high chance he’ll get scolded if it gives him inconvenient aftereffects.
Having washed his face and changed his rumpled clothes, he was about to head out of their room when he hears a familiar upbeat violin play in the empty room next to theirs.
An Zhe’s never danced this early in the morning, and he rarely dances alone. Lu Feng couldn’t help but hesitate to open the door, but his worries win over his assurances and he quietly opens the door, not even letting a single breath out.
An Zhe was in his mushroom form. Standing on the table. More precisely, he was dancing on the table. A pocket-sized mushroom An Zhe swaying to the joyous music in the background. This… this was bad for Lu Feng’s heart, especially this early in the morning.
It’s a miracle he managed to hold in the teasing words he had been ready to fire the moment he stepped into the room. It was just too adorable. When Lu Feng asked him to try turning into his mushroom form to dance more comfortably, this was exactly what had been on his mind, and every being out there knows how blessed Lu Feng feels right at this very fucking moment.
Dr. Ji’s eyes almost popped out of his sockets when Lu Feng approached him, asking for the videographer camera he knew the other doctor had, almost on the verge of begging. He gave it to him, like the nicest friend he was, but the colonel seemed to be in a major hurry because the moment he received it he nearly sprinted out of his room. He can’t even chase him anymore even if he wanted to interrogate him, what the hell.
Nevertheless, it was a fine day for Lu Feng and Dr. Ji.
Lu Feng shows the video later once An Zhe was done vibing in the empty room. He tries to hit his boyfriend’s head, because what is so amusing about a tiny mushroom doing a little dance! Reluctantly, Lu Feng tries to persuade him to shrink back and do a little performance so he could “get big ounces of serotonin and become the happiest human on the planet,” to which An Zhe replies with a blep and proceeds to delete the video off the camera.
However, Dr. Ji is a resourceful person. Later, he reveals to the couple about the back-up software installed in it and that every video taken is saved in the external memory card inside the camera. They disassemble it and they watch An Zhe’s mushroom performance, much to Lu Feng’s delight and Dr. Ji’s constant sobs of “How the fuck is he so adorable!”
An Zhe comes to a little truce with his lover: the video stays, but the camera is and will always be in An Zhe’s possession. Lu Feng, obviously ready to give up face anytime and anywhere for such a deal, agrees.
He rewatches the video sometimes, though. An Zhe thinks that the mushrooms back in the cave would love to learn about his dancing shenanigans.)