Shen Wei rested his heavy head against the car window. On the other side of the back seat, Ye Zun sat with his back against the door, absorbed in something on his phone. Their mother sat silently in the front passenger seat, staring out her own window. All Shen Wei could see of her was the back of her head. Behind the wheel as always, his father took a breath, no doubt preparing for another monologue about how he expected the twins to distinguish themselves from the other campers, to do better than anyone else and make their parents proud—as if they were heading to some sort of competitive academy and not a two-week-long science camp.
“I’m sure most of them are good kids, from good families,” his father mentioned for the fourth time in forty minutes. “They wouldn’t be attending this if they weren’t. But even the best teenagers are trouble. Don’t let them distract you from the task at hand. You must excel.”
Ye Zun’s toes dug under Shen Wei’s thigh as their father’s glance flicked back to Shen Wei in the rear view mirror.
“Yessir,” said Shen Wei, the syllables coming out as a single word, worn smooth from years of use.
His mother looked over her shoulder at the back seat.
“Remember to prioritize your brother.” She raised a finger, stern. “He’ll need your help.”
Shen Wei held her gaze as Ye Zun’s toes pressed harder. “Yes ma’am.”
She nodded and turned away, absently reaching back to lay a brief pat on the knee of her favored son. When she was fully engaged with the view outside her window again, Shen Wei let himself look at his brother. Ye Zun’s wry smile contrasted with the angry embarrassment in his eyes.
They weren’t quite mirrors. Ye Zun had a white streak in his hair, just above the center of his left eyebrow. The condition was genetic—their mother had one—and the doctor wasn’t too surprised that Shen Wei didn’t have the phenotype. It happened sometimes, he’d assured the family. Their mother seemed to delight in only the second-born twin inheriting her hair as well as her family name—the latter a family tradition of hers, from a long line of twins.
Of more concern, at least to Shen Wei, was Ye Zun’s weak constitution. Their father always made it clear to Ye Zun that his frailty wasn’t of great concern. Shen Wei was the elder, and therefore his favored son of whom he expected excellent grades and little else. Their mother always reminded Shen Wei that as the elder son, it was his duty to care for his brother. Shen Wei wondered what it felt like to be a son or brother instead of a parent.
Watching the silent conflict play over Ye Zun’s face, he wondered what it felt like to be a ghost.
They rolled up the dirt road slowly, his father fretting about chips on the Mercedes’s fenders. Surreptitiously, Shen Wei checked his phone for the time. The earlier his father arrived, the sooner he could leave. He pulled into the first open space available of the gravel lot, several yards from the gate that led to the main campgrounds. He glanced at the driver’s side rear wheel wells before opening the trunk with a pleased grunt.
With the usual cursory care shown Shen Wei, their mother petted Ye Zun as their father removed their suitcases. He sat them next to the car before motioning the boys to retrieve them.
“Let’s get you checked in,” he said brusquely, closing the trunk with a gentle hand.
“It’s not a hotel,” muttered Ye Zun as they headed toward a large cabin with small groups of people milling around it.
Their father whirled, dropping their mother’s arm and raising a threatening finger.
“If you and your brother would rather spend the summer studying at home,” he said, “we can certainly make that happen.”
Shen Wei couldn’t hold back his sharp inhale. Excelling in this program would help his chances at getting into a good university and out from under his parents and their money. At the very least he could develop relationships with instructors who could supply him with letters of recommendation. His heart hammered and tears stung his eyes. Nothing he could say would help, so he merely bowed his head and bit his lips closed. Sliding a hidden side glance to Ye Zun, he prayed for his twin to back down.
After agonizing moments, Ye Zun mumbled an apology. Heart in his throat, Shen Wei tried to calm his breath. He ached for intellectual experiences that went beyond the excellent grades demanded by his parents. Their father turned around with a grunt and they resumed walking up the rough drive, Shen Wei and Ye Zun each dragging their one allowed bag.
The grounds were a little more rustic than the website had shown. Shen Wei slid a worried glance at Ye Zun, who rarely left their suburban home.
Ye Zun hated the outdoors. As a reward for getting straight A’s their freshman year, they’d each gotten mountain bikes for their thirteenth birthdays, but Ye Zun’s had only seen use after Shen Wei’s fell apart from near-constant riding. By fifteen, Shen Wei had graduated to a motorized dirt bike—a gift from a family friend that had taken a shine to him. Almost every day after finishing his homework Shen Wei escaped the house, zipping around the forested paths near the river that ran a few miles from their house.
Sometimes Ye Zun joined him, perched on the back seat while Shen Wei stood on the pedals. After Shen Wei tired of the paths, Ye Zun stood watch at the end of a local undeveloped cul-de-sac while Shen Wei practiced track racing around the curves and turns of empty lots. As far as Shen Wei was aware, it was the only time his twin willingly left the house, and the only time he smiled.
The handle of Shen Wei’s suitcase slipped from his sweating hand. He used his stumble to meet Ye Zun’s surprisingly calm eyes. Ye Zun wrinkled his nose slightly in distaste, but merely shrugged and looked resigned as he turned his gaze back to the ground in front of him. Shen Wei breathed a sigh of relief as he wiped his palm on his thigh, grabbed the suitcase handle, and hurried to resume walking in pace with his brother.
He could only be grateful that their parents had already left when they got their cabin assignments. Ye Zun’s face went red, then murderous when the counselor reiterated that siblings were always assigned separate cabins and there were no exceptions. To encourage connections and new friendships, she explained, shooting a sympathetic look at Shen Wei.
“It’ll be okay,” he said, trying to sound reassuring instead of panicked as he carefully placed a hand on Ye Zun’s arm. Ye Zun’s temper, if fully unleashed, would absolutely result in a call to their parents and that would end with them driving back and Shen Wei never getting anything he asked for, ever again. He racked his brain for anything that might assuage his twin. “We’ll have meals together, and we’ll see each other in the evenings. It’s not like we share a bedroom at home. This won’t be any different than coming home from school at night, right?”
Ye Zun glowered at him but silently turned on his heel. He stalked to an empty picnic table, one of many arranged along both walls of the dining hall. The majority held happily-chattering kids, many obviously friends from previous years, or perhaps lucky enough to have school friends in attendance. Always frail, Ye Zun looked small and alone slumped on the light green plastic bench.
Shen Wei gave his best attempt at a smile to the counselor after glancing at her name tag. “I’ll talk to him, Ms. Hallstead,” he said, trying to look apologetic instead of nervous.
In turn, she glanced at Shen Wei’s camp badge with a frown. Shen Wei held back a sigh. Everyone was always curious, but nobody ever really wanted to know.
“Ah,” he said. “It’s a family tradition. We, ah, we have different surnames because—”
“Oh,” the woman interrupted absently, already distracted by a teenage girl approaching with a clipboard.
Without a glance at Shen Wei, the girl slid the board between him and the counselor. “Someone’s been stealing toilet paper from the junior staff bathroom,” she said. “Again. And Andy Voorhees says there’s a bat in cabin four.”
Ms. Hallstead didn’t look back at Shen Wei before turning away with a groan. She walked off with the clipboard, muttering something about Andy Voorhees probably being the one who put the bat there in the first place. Shen Wei slumped at recalling he was in cabin four. He hoped the bat would find its own way out soon.
How had things gone so wrong already? Maybe it was easier to go with what everyone else told him he should do. At least that wasn’t such a struggle against his parents, Ye Zun, and now…bats. Probably bears were next.
Sighing, he dragged his suitcase over to Ye Zun, who sat, looking sulky, at the table. Sulky usually meant scared though, not angry, and Shen Wei curled his shoulders, lowering his head a bit before sitting not too far, but not too close, either.
“Come on,” he said quietly, trying his best to sound optimistic—never his strong suit. “I’ll walk you to your cabin and help you get set up before orientation starts. This’ll be fine, you’ll see. If we do well enough to opt out of a science credit next year I’ll enroll in a photography class with you.”
Ye Zun glanced up briefly, eyes widened. After a moment, the childlike gaze shifted into a long, evaluative stare. “Yeah, okay,” he said as he rose from the bench. He headed out of the hall, leaving Shen Wei to drag both suitcases, stumbling in his attempt to catch up. He felt the eyes of several kids on their awkward exit, but thankfully nobody said a word.
One of the suitcases caught on the door frame as Shen Wei tried to exit the building. When he turned from freeing it, his breath was knocked out by someone making a hasty, inattentive entrance into the hall.
His assailant yelped as his hands steadied Shen Wei’s shoulders. “Oh, shit, man! Sorry! Hey, wow, are you okay?”
Shen Wei’s hand came away from re-aligning the glasses that had nearly flown from his face, revealing the most beautiful boy Shen Wei had ever seen in his entire life.
His eyes, despite being shocked-wide with surprise, were friendly and dark. Above them, his bangs were cut straight across his forehead in a style Shen Wei usually didn’t generally go for. On him, though, the severe style only highlighted the intensity of his gaze. A single split-second glimpse of his partially-open mouth did inappropriate things to Shen Wei’s imagination. Fortunately a ridiculous, sparse covering of dark, fine hair on his upper lip and chin offered some distraction from the full, pink lips.
Before Shen Wei could recover to speak, the boy glanced over his shoulder then back down to Shen Wei’s two suitcases. In a flash, he grabbed one of the suitcases—Shen Wei’s—and began walking away rapidly. Still struck numb, Shen Wei followed.
“I’m gonna assume you’re headed after that kid who looks just like you, right?” the boy asked. He jerked his head and as they rounded the corner of the building, Ye Zun came into view, several yards ahead.
“Yes, thank you,” Shen Wei finally managed. He sounded shamefully breathless and his ears warmed. For a moment, he envied his brother. Ye Zun never blushed. Shen Wei tried to reach for his suitcase. “You don’t have to take that. They assign siblings to different cabins, so you’d have to go to both.”
“Yeah,” the boy said. “The Chu's don’t mind so much anymore, but looks like maybe your brother’s not so thrilled with the cabin assignments?”
Shen Wei glanced at him but the boy’s face didn’t display any judgment at Ye Zun’s immaturity.
“He’s…shy,” Shen Wei said, utterly failing to tear his gaze away before it fell to the boy’s mouth again. It quirked in a brief smile, and Shen Wei’s heart thumped.
“I see,” the boy replied. He turned an outrageously flirtatious gaze on Shen Wei and ran his tongue behind his lower lip. “You shy, too?”
Even with his limited social interactions, Shen Wei recognized this for what it was. Ears burning, he faced forward, adjusting his glasses.
“Yes,” he said.
The boy laughed and ahead of them Ye Zun’s head cocked minutely. Surprising himself, Shen Wei looked away from Ye Zun to give the boy an embarrassed smile. The boy grinned back and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Well, my dad says I’m shameless enough for three, so that works out. My name’s Zhao Yunlan, by the way. Yours?”
“Good name! So your brother’s Shen…”
“Actually, it’s Ye. Ye Zun. It’s a family—” The boy waved him into silence and Shen Wei’s heart sank like a stone. He pressed his lips together and held back a sigh. Why was he even disappointed, anymore?
“Hang on a sec,” said Zhao Yunlan. “Hey, Ye Zun!”
Ye Zun froze before turning slowly to frown at Zhao Yunlan. His eyes flicked between Zhao Yunlan, Shen Wei, and the suitcase in Zhao Yunlan’s hand. Seemingly oblivious to Ye Zun’s hostility, Zhao Yunlan jerked his head in the direction Ye Zun had been heading.
“That’s the way to the girl’s cabins,” he called. “I respect your priorities, but you might wanna drop off your luggage first. Our cabins are that way.” He pointed with his thumb to the left-hand path.
Ye Zun’s eyes narrowed. “Thanks,” he said, turning around to head up the appropriate hill. “I’m in cabin eight,” he called over his shoulder.
“Oh my god,” Shen Wei muttered.
Did Ye Zun have to be like this around strangers? Shen Wei wanted to sink into the ground but Zhao Yunlan just grinned and shot him a wink.
“I like him,” he said. “Very direct.” He wagged a finger at Ye Zun’s back. “A guy like that, you know where you stand with him.”
“Sometimes,” Shen Wei muttered. At the moment, the ground beneath him felt anything but stable.
Zhao Yunlan bumped his shoulder at irregular intervals against Shen Wei’s as they followed Ye Zun up the path. The casual physical touch wasn’t anything Shen Wei had experienced outside of Ye Zun’s occasional, mercurial attentions. He liked it more than he cared to admit.
“I wanna hear about that family name thing later,” Zhao Yunlan said. “Sounds like something that has a good story behind it.” Shen Wei’s eyebrows went up as the boy continued. “Kinda interested in what’s up with your brother’s hair, too. That doesn’t look bleached, unless it’s a professional job. Maybe before orientation? We have a little time before that starts.”
Shen Wei hadn’t even had time to open his information packet, and they’d been some of the earliest to arrive. When had Zhao Yunlan studied the schedule? He shot another sidelong glance at the boy still enthusiastically tugging his suitcase.
“Have you been to this camp before?”
“Me?” Zhao Yunlan laughed again. “God, no. And hopefully never will again—unless you’re planning on it, that is.” He winked again and Shen Wei refocused on Ye Zun’s back, still several yards ahead, but closer now. “Nah, I just leafed through the itinerary on my way up to the cabins the first time. Good timing, too. I was on my way back when I ran into you. Literally. Oh!” He snapped and shook a finger. “Right, I was gonna tell someone I caught a bat in my cabin. Got it out okay, but those things can be dangerous. Someone should look for holes in the ceiling or something.”
Shen Wei’s heart leapt. Surely there couldn’t be two cabins with bat problems. He opened his mouth to confirm which cabin was Zhao Yunlan’s but then they were under the canopy of trees and his thoughts fled.
A life spent in the suburbs hadn’t prepared him for the silent majesty of an old forest. Walking into the shade was like entering another world. Tall trunks and sturdy limbs blocked more than just the sun. Even sounds carried differently, muffled and dim in a way that complimented the diffused light. It was as if the forest laid a soft, soothing blanket of calm over everything passing underneath. Despite never experiencing such a thing before, Shen Wei felt beautifully, magically, at home.
Zhao Yunlan seemed to sense his awe and they followed Ye Zun in silence to cabin eight. Once there, Ye Zun waved off any additional assistance. “I’m five minutes younger than you, not five years. I’ll be fine. Might as well get used to it.” He yanked the suitcase out of Shen Wei’s hand. His lips thinned briefly and he turned away, thumping his suitcase over the threshold. “I’ll meet up with you at orientation.”
Shocked but selfishly grateful, Shen Wei turned to Zhao Yunlan, who waited a couple yards away, still holding onto Shen Wei’s suitcase.
“I can take that, now,” Shen Wei said, reaching for it. “I’m still a few down. Cabin four.”
Zhao Yunlan’s face lit up. “Excellent! I’m in four, too! And nobody’s claimed the bunk underneath mine, yet. It’s choice—far corner from the door. Quick, before someone else grabs it!”
He hustled up the path on long legs that Shen Wei absolutely didn’t pay any attention to. No more than he noticed the slim curve of his waist, or how his shoulders flexed when he pulled the suitcase over a particularly large tree root. Shen Wei’s fingernails dug into his palm and he jogged to catch up.
When he reached the cabin, Zhao Yunlan hip-checked the door open and made a beeline to the far bunk. A sheet and too-large quilt that looked hand-made hung sloppily from the top, half-obscuring the bunk underneath. Before Shen Wei could protest, Zhao Yunlan popped his suitcase open then looked up blankly.
“You didn’t bring any of your own bedding?”
Confused, Shen Wei looked around at the already-made bunks, covered with what looked like army blankets. “Um. It’s not…supplied?”
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. “Wow, you’ve never been to any sort of camp before, have you? Their stuff is always awful. Super scratchy and thin and the pillows might as well be made from pine cones.” He shrugged, looking sympathetic. “Hope you’re not a light sleeper.”
Shen Wei shrugged, avoiding details of his unusually insular social life or his woeful sleep habits. “I’ll be fine.”
That earned a raised eyebrow, but Zhao Yunlan didn’t say anything. He grabbed a notebook lying on top of Shen Wei’s clothes and threw it on the mattress before zipping the suitcase closed and shoving it under the bed.
“Now people’ll know it’s taken. We’ve got about an hour. Let’s explore the grounds a little before orientation.”
Kids were rapidly arriving, and Zhao Yunlan called greetings to anyone he passed as if they were already great friends. In between salutations, he listened, seemingly rapt, to Shen Wei’s explanations of his family’s odd naming conventions and Ye Zun’s genetically-granted hairstyle. In exchange, he laid out the basic organization of the camp’s arrangements: Twelve people to a cabin, with each cabin split into two groups of six for working on the assigned project. Groups shared the use of the camp’s project lab for up to four hours a day with unlimited use of the machine shop as long as a supervisor was present.
“They assign who’s in which group, but they don’t care if people switch, as long as everyone in both groups agrees.” He shot a wink at Shen Wei. “We’ll make sure to get you on our team if you're not already. Last year they got to build a combustion engine, lucky bastards. The camp changes the big project every year though, so no chance of us getting that one.” He sighed, sounding disappointed.
As they headed to the main hall, Shen Wei screwed up the courage to mention his new friend’s outgoing nature. They sat opposite each other at an empty table while more kids trickled in.
“No offense, but you don’t seem like most of the science club kids at my school.”
Zhao Yunlan barked with laughter. “Yeah, well, that makes sense. I’m not much of a science guy.”
Shen Wei frowned, confused. “So if you don’t like science, why are you here?”
Zhao Yunlan grinned and leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head. “I needed to get one over on my old man, and this was the last thing he expected.” At Shen Wei’s frown, he leaned forward again with a shrug. “I pissed off the wrong group of kids at school and they came after me, said I was the one who picked the fight. They trashed my bike and said I wrecked it. My dad said it was the last straw, that he was pulling me out of public school. Unless I could prove to him this summer I could, uh,” he made finger quotes with a smirk, “Straighten up and fly right, I’d spend my last year of high school in some private academy with better discipline.” He grimaced before his face went blank and gray. “No offense, but I'll drop out and run away before that happens.” He blinked and the light in his eyes returned, if a little dimmer. “But hey, I figured this would be easy and effective. It certainly shocked him into agreeing. If I do well here, I can graduate from good old Mountainside High.”
Shen Wei blinked. “Easy? This is one of the most prestigious camps in the state.”
“Oh, yeah,” Zhao Yunlan said, lazily waving the hand not propping up his chin. He looked up at Shen Wei from under his bangs. “No problem. I’m really smart. Not just a pretty face.” He winked and pursed his lips in a quick kiss.
Shen Wei’s heart fluttered in a way he’d never experienced. Oh, this was bad.
Shen Wei had gratefully avoided this very situation ever since his first whispered confession of a childhood crush resulted in one of the worst tantrums Ye Zun had ever thrown. Shen Wei still mourned the loss of that jacket, not that it would fit him now anyway. But in a short hour this boy had effortlessly broken through every wall Shen Wei had ever built. He clenched his fist to keep from reaching up to touch his chest in an attempt to calm his pounding heart. This was very bad. He blinked rapidly, scrambling for a response and failing.
Before the silence got awkward, a kid dressed in black clapped Zhao Yunlan on the shoulder while throwing himself onto the bench beside him. Shen Wei startled at his sudden approach and descent but Zhao Yunlan just looked up and smiled.
“Hey dudes!” he said, slapping the kid’s back and pointing a finger gun to the identical boy that sat sedately next to his black-clad twin. Zhao Yunlan, his hand still on twin number one’s back, motioned at Shen Wei. “Guys, this is Shen Wei.” He patted the first twin’s back again before gesturing at him and then his brother. “This is Chu Shuzhi and Chu Nianzhi. The other twins I was telling you about. They go to Mountainside, too, but unlike me, they’re actual nerds.”
“Fuck off,” muttered Chu Shuzhi, but he didn’t move away from Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder bump.
“I’d rather be a nerd than a juvenile delinquent,” said Chu Nianzhi. His soft voice and quiet smile contrasted with the sharp words.
Before Shen Wei could determine if their aggressive banter was customary, Ye Zun startled him at his shoulder.
“Who’s a juvenile delinquent?” he asked, perching on the bench next to Shen Wei, half-turned to the group.
“Nobody,” said Shen Wei, sharply. Chu Shuzhi’s eyebrow shot up and Shen Wei vigorously ignored it. “This is my brother, Ye Zun.” He motioned across the table. “Zhao Yunlan, Chu Shuzhi, and Chu Nianzhi. They all go to Mountainside High.”
“How about you?” Chu Nianzhi asked, head down but eyes focused keenly across the table. “Preps, right?”
Shen Wei stiffened as Ye Zun swung his legs around to sit properly at the table.
“Alliance Prep Academy,” replied Shen Wei before Ye Zun could fire off a remark about public school STEM programs.
“Fancy friends, Lao Zhao,” muttered a stone-faced Chu Shuzhi.
Zhao Yunlan laughed and elbowed him in the ribs.
“Nah, they’re just slumming,” he said with a wink across the table. “But with two sets of twins at my table, my social status has gotta be going up. Everyone’ll wanna sit with us, just watch.” He raised a cautioning finger. “We need to be vigilant. Only cool kids at this table.”
“Well, that’s bad news for you, Yunlan,” Chu Nianzhi said, still focused on the table. “Guess you’ll have to find someplace else to sit.” His quiet smile returned at Chu Shuzhi’s snort. Zhao Yunlan’s loud bark of laughter echoed across the hall.
“Zhao Yunlan?” called a girl’s voice across the room. “What are you doing here?”
Zhao Yunlan’s laughter stopped with a grimace and Chu Shuzhi shot to his feet, face shifting into something even surlier than before. He straddled the bench, poised for a fight. His narrow frame was surprisingly imposing.
“Nope,” he said to the girl. He jerked his thumb away from the table. “Get lost, Becks.”
Ye Zun practically vibrated with interest while Zhao Yunlan looked genuinely uneasy. Chu Nianzhi’s smile had fallen and he leaned forward a bit to watch Zhao Yunlan out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly a witness to a type of drama he’d never experienced in such close proximity, Shen Wei felt lost in a storm. His eyes flew from Chu Shuzhi’s fist, clenched by his side, to the girl’s blue eyes, narrowed and frowning under long, blonde bangs.
“Oh come on, seriously?” she snapped, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s been months. You’re still mad about that?” She looked at Zhao Yunlan. “Well whatever.” She flipped her hair over her shoulders. “It’s good to see you finally applying yourself, Yunlan.” Zhao Yunlan kept his eyes on the table and the girl met Chu Shuzhi’s cold stare with a curled lip. “Fine,” she said after a painfully long moment. “Be that way. See you around.” She stalked off with her two friends in tow.
“Ugh,” groaned Zhao Yunlan, covering his face with his hands. “I should have known she’d be here this year. Is she gone?” he asked from behind his palms when Chu Shuzhi finally sat down.
“You have terrible taste in women,” Chu Shuzhi answered.
“Shut up,” muttered Zhao Yunlan, still muffled by his hands. “I don’t need the reminder.”
When he finally settled his hands on the table, he didn’t look at Shen Wei.
Ye Zun’s eyes were drilling into the side of Shen Wei’s head, but all Shen Wei could focus on was the intimation that Zhao Yunlan had a very pretty, very blonde, very recent-seeming ex-girlfriend. Before Ye Zun could ask an inappropriate question, another group of kids filled the rest of the table. They seemed to be strangers to his new friends and Shen Wei was pleased there wasn’t a blue-eyed blonde among them.
They barely managed quick introductions before a counselor called the orientation meeting to order.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of a more formal tour than the one Zhao Yunlan had given. The cabin groups shuffled separately from building to building in groups of a dozen. Shen Wei stayed uncomfortably near the back with Zhao Yunlan, Chu Shuzhi following behind like a menacing rear guard. They didn’t pass Nianzhi’s group, but they passed Ye Zun’s twice and Shen Wei couldn’t catch his eyes either time. They regrouped at dinner and commandeered the same table, Ye Zun quietly taking his place at Shen Wei’s side. He didn’t lean away when Shen Wei pressed their shoulders together, and Shen Wei breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Becks and her blonde, white clones didn’t approach again, but Shen Wei wasn’t sure the flirty group that replaced them was an improvement. Now that he knew what sort of competition he had in Zhao Yunlan’s recent history, his chances didn’t seem as strong. But at Zhao Yunlan’s aggressively disinterested vibes, the girls focused on the Chu twins—Nianzhi especially, although one black-clad girl with a half-shaved head and snake earrings made the occasional caustic remark that earned what passed for a smile on Shuzhi’s face.
“So,” said Zhao Yunlan, vaguely waving a ketchup-dripped fry before shoving it in his mouth, “This egg-dropping thing. Anybody already done it?”
“Pretty sure you’re the only one who hasn’t,” said Chu Nianzhi with a snort. He leaned his head toward the chubby, dark-skinned girl seated next to him. “Delinquent,” he stage-whispered at her. She covered her mouth and widened her eyes in mock horror.
Olivia, Shen Wei reminded himself. Seeing as she’d already won most of Chu Nianzhi’s attention, it seemed likely she’d be a frequent companion at their meals. Best to remember her name. Olivia, like her olive-colored head scarf.
“I heard that,” Zhao Yunlan said, still chewing, and threw a fry at Nianzhi’s head.
Seated between them, Chu Shuzhi’s hand shot out to intercept. Eyes narrowed, he pointed it at Zhao Yunlan before tossing it in his mouth. “No more food fights,” he muttered.
“Niannian has a good point, though,” said Olivia.
Niannian? Shen Wei almost choked on his water and Ye Zun’s head shot up to look down the table for the first time during the entire meal. Zhao Yunlan just sighed and shook his head while Chu Shuzhi seemed to ignore the entire exchange.
“We’ve all—well, most of us anyway—have done the egg experiment,” Olivia continued, apparently oblivious to the boys’ reactions at the nickname. “It’s obvious the preliminary project is just a means of getting teams to work together before we start on the big project. We should share ideas so we can move to the real one sooner.”
“Oh no. No, no, no,” interjected Zhao Yunlan, holding his burger in his right hand and gesturing down the table with his left index finger, raised in caution. “No way. You think we’re gonna help your cabin win this thing?”
Shen Wei couldn’t help his huff of laughter and Zhao Yunlan looked at him, betrayed.
“It’s not a competition,” Shen Wei said. “As long as the team meets the goals of the exercise, it passes.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Zhao Yunlan said, gesturing at Shen Wei with the burger, his finger still pointed down the table toward Olivia. “You want stuff that sets you apart when it comes time for letters of recommendation. If you’re not the only group with that little extra, you don’t look so special, do you? No. No, you do not.” He put down his burger to address the rest of the table. “Gotta look at the long game, kiddos. Long game.” He pointed to the table with both hands. “So no shop talk at meals. Agreed?”
Nods and mutters spread down the table. After a few awkward moments Chu Nianzhi cleared his throat. “Good try, though, ‘Livia,” he muttered, so quiet Shen Wei could barely hear. “Sneaky. I like it.”
Looking pleased, Olivia tossed her head dramatically and Chu Shuzhi let out a long, beleaguered-sounding sigh. Shen Wei met Zhao Yunlan’s wink with an uncertain smile. Movies—not to mention the other kids at the table—made this sort of flirty interaction look easy. It was definitely not. For five hard, heavy heartbeats Shen Wei stared frozen in Zhao Yunlan’s steady, smiling gaze before the boy leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Also, I don’t want to listen to a bunch of nerd talk while I’m eating,” he murmured. With a laugh and shrug, he returned his attention to his burger.
Blushing, Shen Wei gratefully returned his attention to his meal.
After they dropped their plastic trays at the end of the dining hall, Chu Nianzhi grabbed Shen Wei’s elbow.
“Hang on a sec,” he muttered in his usual low voice. It was softer now, sounding strangely kind.
Ye Zun kept walking as if he hadn’t noticed Shen Wei’s absence at his side. Nervous at the sudden attention from someone he didn’t yet know very well, Shen Wei pushed up his glasses, trying to keep his brother in sight.
“So Yunlan,” Chu Nianzhi continued, heading toward the door when Shen Wei’s eyes followed Ye Zun out of the hall. His hand remained on Shen Wei’s elbow, like he was guiding him. “He’s a good guy. A really good guy. And he likes you, I can tell. You don’t seem like a total dick, so if you like him back, go for it. We’re only here for two weeks. Have some fun together while you can. Just don’t fuck him over. Okay?” Without waiting for a reply, the boy dropped Shen Wei’s arm and glided quickly into the small group of kids where Olivia waited.
Stunned, Shen Wei stood frozen in the hall as kids passed him to exit. No teen movie or television drama had prepared him for a revelation like that. By the time he’d recovered, his entire group had left the hall. He shook his head and hurried out the door. Nodding an apology to Zhao Yunlan as he passed him outside the building, Shen Wei broke into a jog to catch up with Ye Zun, several yards ahead.
“Ye—” he started.
“You and Zhao Yunlan sure seem to be hitting it off,” interrupted Ye Zun, sneering around the syllables of the name like an insult.
Fighting the instinct to glance back over his shoulder, Shen Wei focused on matching Ye Zun’s increased pace. He pushed resentment down with anxiety. He’d paid very little attention to Ye Zun during the meal. His heart sank under the imagined glare of his mother, silently chiding him for failing to prioritize his brother.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just…I want to make some friends while we’re here.”
Ye Zun snorted. “Looks like you want to make a little more than that.”
Unable to defend himself against Ye Zun’s accurate barb, Shen Wei repeated his apology. Ye Zun shrugged it off and finally glanced at Shen Wei.
“Whatever,” he said. His eyes narrowed briefly. “Have fun with that.”
Shen Wei had no idea how to respond, so he didn’t. They walked the rest of the way into the trees in silence. When they reached cabin eight, Ye Zun peeled away without a word. Feeling immensely awkward, Shen Wei maintained his pace to reach their cabin a good minute and a half before Zhao Yunlan and Chu Shuzhi arrived.
He hauled his suitcase from under the bunk to dig out a sweatshirt. The sun had started to sink behind the tops of the trees as he’d made his way from the dining hall and a humid chill already hung in the air. As he started to zip the case closed, Zhao Yunlan flung himself onto the lower bunk, further messing the sheets Shen Wei hadn’t had time to properly arrange.
“Everything okay?” he asked, propped on his elbow next to Shen Wei’s pillow.
Shen Wei glanced over his shoulder at Chu Shuzhi. The boy sprawled on the bottom half of the neighboring bunk, already involved in a graphic novel—the latest compilation of The Walking Dead. Shen Wei turned back to carefully zip his suitcase.
“With what?” he asked.
“With Ye Zun.”
Shen Wei couldn’t stop the tiny, bitter huff. “Things are rarely okay with Ye Zun.” Immediately regretting the betrayal, he snapped his lips shut and shoved the bag back under the bed. He pushed up his glasses before looking up at Zhao Yunlan. “I mean, he’s just… adjusting. It’s fine.”
Zhao Yunlan nodded. “Okay, well, we’ve got about an hour before the next scheduled activity.” He grimaced and pretended to shudder. “Some sort of mixer activity.” His eyes flicked to Chu Shuzhi. “You, uh, wanna go for another walk or something?”
Shen Wei looked at Chu Shuzhi, uncertain if this was a group event. The dead stare Chu Shuzhi directed back at him over the cover of the book seemed to indicate the invitation was probably for a party of two. Shen Wei opened his mouth to accept but paused at the recollection of Ye Zun’s slumped, lonely shoulders. At his hesitation, Zhao Yunlan’s face fell and the memory was replaced by Ye Zun’s arrogant sulk.
“I would,” Shen Wei said before he could change his mind again. “Yeah.”
He pulled the Alliance Prep sweatshirt over his head, ducking to hide his blush and catching his glasses in the collar. Before he could fix them, Zhao Yunlan’s hand shot up and set the frames steady over his nose. It stopped Shen Wei’s breath and even Zhao Yunlan looked surprised at himself.
Eyes wide, Zhao Yunlan hastily pulled his hand back and stood, brushing his hands down the ratty thighs of his torn jeans. He stuck his hands in his pockets and tilted his head toward the door.
“Cool,” he said, his voice sounding dry.
They walked in silence past the two remaining cabins on the path. Zhao Yunlan didn’t hesitate at the thickening forest beyond, so Shen Wei followed his lead. He tried to mask the shiver that didn’t have anything to do with the cooling air and shoved his hands into the front pocket of the hoodie.
Zhao Yunlan glanced down at Shen Wei’s bare legs. “You know what poison ivy looks like?” he asked.
Shen Wei’s shins prickled. “I’ve seen pictures,” he replied, now regretting his choice to wear shorts. Danger now seemed to lurk under the mix of leaves, needles, and undergrowth.
Zhao Yunlan snorted and shook his head. “Hmm. Do those socks pull up?”
Feeling foolish, Shen We tugged his calf-high socks as high as they’d go. “I look like a grandpa,” he complained, trying to laugh away the embarrassment.
Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. “Grandpas wish,” he said, and resumed his slow meandering down a path apparently visible only to him.
Glancing back at the diminishing view of cabins behind them, Shen Wei cleared his throat, nervous. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Nah,” answered Zhao Yunlan with a shrug. “But I’ve got a good sense of direction. Don’t worry, I won’t get us lost. I just wanted to be away from people for a little while.”
Shen Wei’s stomach fluttered at the implication that he didn’t fall into the category of people that Zhao Yunlan wanted to avoid. They walked in silence, Zhao Yunlan’s hands in his jeans pockets, Shen Wei’s clenched in the hoodie. Shen Wei shot quick, surreptitious glances at Zhao Yunlan’s calm profile, but the boy didn’t look back.
Chu Nianzhi’s advice played on a loop in his head. He’s a good guy. He likes you a lot. Have some fun while you can. Shen Wei swallowed. He was mature enough to realize—and admit—that he wasn’t very good at having fun. Zhao Yunlan seemed like somebody who could have fun in any situation. What could he possibly see in Shen Wei? Shen Wei with his strict parents and demanding twin. Shen Wei with his social awkwardness. Shen Wei who’d never allowed himself to like someone else, not like this, much less do anything else with them. Have fun with that, Ye Zun had said.
Have fun. Right.
“Hmm?” Zhao Yunlan asked, finally turning to look at him.
“You, uh… snorted.”
Shen Wei’s ears burned and he was grateful for the heavy shade this far into the trees.
“Oh. I was just…” His mouth twisted. “Thinking about something Ye Zun said.”
“Mm,” Zhao Yunlan responded, non-committal. He didn’t ask for details, and Shen Wei breathed a silent sigh of relief.
They walked in silence, and now Shen Wei could feel Zhao Yunlan’s occasional side-glances like a brand on his cheek. After several minutes of their shuffling footsteps accompanying the occasional evening birdsong, Zhao Yunlan’s hands slipped from his pockets to hang loose at his sides.
All Shen Wei had to do was take his hands out of his hoodie. Maybe accidentally brush the back of Zhao Yunlan’s hand with his knuckles. Shen Wei’s palms began to sweat inside the pocket and his heart beat hard at the idea of lacing Zhao Yunlan’s fingers with his. Would Zhao Yunlan’s hands be cool? Soft? Strong? Sure?
Distracted, he tripped over a root half-hidden under thick leaves. With his hands caught in the sweatshirt, he couldn’t regain his balance and was halfway to the ground when Zhao Yunlan, shockingly strong and thankfully sure, gripped his upper arms. Shen Wei let out a gasp. He could count on one hand the number of people other than his family who had touched him—all doctors, nurses, or dentists—and Zhao Yunlan’s hands had been on him twice now just today. Zhao Yunlan held onto him like it was the most normal, natural thing in the world. Like he touched people all the time.
“Whoop!” he laughed, steadying Shen Wei with a grin. “You okay?”
No, Shen Wei wanted to answer. I’m not.
“Yeah,” he said, somewhat choked.
He cleared his throat and stepped away from Zhao Yunlan and the stupid tree root. His ankle burned with a familiar sensation once the surprise of the moment passed. Peeling the moss-covered sock away from his leg, he was unsurprised at the scuffed, lightly bleeding skin underneath. “Well,” he said with a slight laugh. “Mostly.”
“Oh, shit,” said Zhao Yunlan, sounding more concerned than the injury warranted. “Shit, I’m sorry!”
Shen Wei stood with a smile and a shrug. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m used to it. This isn’t any worse than road rash from a turn gone wrong on my bike.”
A brilliant smile replaced the worry on Zhao Yunlan’s face. “You race?” he asked excitedly. “Bikes?”
“Um,” Shen Wei hedged, wishing he could give an unqualified yes. “Not against anyone. And it’s just a dirt bike. I want a road bike, but that probably won’t happen until I can afford to buy one myself.” He turned a grimace into a half-smile. “A partner at my dad’s firm bought me the one I have in thanks for some stuff I helped with last summer. My dad doesn’t mind as long as I keep my GPA.”
Zhao Yunlan grunted in sympathy. “Sounds like our dads would get along.”
Shen Wei nodded morosely and they started to resume their walk. At the first step on his scraped ankle, though, he flinched with a hiss, surprised. It must have bruised, as well, and he cursed his negligent clumsiness. To his embarrassment and guilty delight, Zhao Yunlan’s hands were immediately on him again.
“Oh man.” All flirtatiousness was gone, now, replaced by genuine concern. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” Shen Wei assured him. “It’s not sprained or anything. Probably just bruised. We can keep going.”
Zhao Yunlan looked skeptical and glanced at his phone. “Well, we should probably head back, anyway. Have that cleaned and maybe get a Band-Aid before we gotta go to the thing.”
“Sorry,” said Shen Wei, feeling stupid for ruining their walk. Why was this boy even interested in him? Could Chu Nianzhi’s observation possibly be right?
“No, it’s fine, whatever,” Zhao Yunlan said. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Mostly.” His cheeky grin came back and he mimed carrying someone piggyback. “I can give you a ride?” He waggled his eyebrows.
For a ridiculous moment Shen Wei was overwhelmed by the vivid sense image of being on Zhao Yunlan’s back, his arms around Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders and the boy’s hands solid under Shen Wei’s knees. He managed a shaky laugh while he bent to unnecessarily re-adjust his sock and brush at a knee that hadn’t come anywhere near the ground.
“Best to walk it off,” he said as he stood, a little more breathless than intended. “I don’t want anything to get stiff.”
Looking like he was about to choke, Zhao Yunlan bit his lips, his eyes dancing. Shen Wei stared, confused, until his words registered. He flushed, horrified, and wished the stupid root would leap from the ground and strangle him to death.
“I—I mean…” he trailed off, mind blanking.
Zhao Yunlan lost his battle against laughter and broke into delighted peals that rang against the trees. Shen Wei couldn’t help smiling back, despite his burning face. Zhao Yunlan clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed before returning his hands to his pockets. He winked and bumped their shoulders together.
“Come on,” he said, still smiling. “I’ll walk with you to the first-aid cabin. If you make it out to be a little worse than it is maybe we can skip the mixer.”
Late that night, Shen Wei rolled to his side on the thin mattress, moving slowly so as not to disturb Zhao Yunlan—hopefully sound asleep above him. Zhao Yunlan had been correct about the rough sheets. They dragged unpleasantly against Shen Wei’s legs and the stiff blanket didn’t offer much comfort. Or warmth.
The nurse had declared Shen Wei fine to attend the evening event. It could have been worse, and despite his earlier objections, Zhao Yunlan seemed to be in his element. Shen Wei pushed down any ridiculous feelings of jealousy at the memory of the boy working his way through the groups of people, showing an impressive propensity for remembering people’s names. Except for Olivia, Shen Wei had already forgotten the names of the other girls at their table.
Meanwhile, Ye Zun had clung to Shen Wei like a child. His brother acted unnervingly appreciative, as if their few hours apart had reversed his earlier mood. Shen Wei was grateful for it in the moment, but couldn’t shake the concern over what might be coming. Ye Zun’s moods were mercurial and unreliable.
They’d dispersed to their cabins soon after the activities were over, Shen Wei surprised at how tired he was. Even in the dark of the late hour, though, he couldn’t follow his cabin mates into slumber. At least he was used to restless nights. Even under the best conditions he’d never been a good sleeper. His frequent wakefulness had prompted Ye Zun to demand a separate bedroom when they were six.
He folded the edge of the small pillow under itself to better support his head. In the bunk next to him, Chu Shuzhi’s dim silhouette lay still as a stone. Shen Wei stared at him, wondering what it was like to have the easy relationship he and Chu Nianzhi seemed to share. At times they seemed like two halves of a whole.
Shen Wei sighed quietly to himself. If he and Ye Zun were two halves of the same person, Shen Wei didn’t think he’d like him very much.