"This is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me," Lu Han croaks as he grips the bench, white-knuckled and tense. "The actual worst thing. Ever."
He tries not to look down at his leg. Instead, he takes calming breaths and focuses on the dirt under his fingernails and the swiftly drying sweat on his back. Yixing is humming the Chinese national anthem under his breath.
"You’re such a drama queen," Minseok replies. "Although I suppose this is more worthy of your drama-queen antics than last week’s overreaction." An accompanying eye-roll.
Lu Han had not overreacted. He just doesn’t like to be called pretty, especially by hot girls he would like to ask out because they are bomb-ass football players and also very hot. So maybe he had exaggerated a little about the magnitude of his broken heart.
At least Jinri hadn’t actually rejected him. Because he had never actually asked her out. Because she’d said you’re... very pretty? when he’d asked her what she thought of him. It had felt, at the time, a little like she’d ripped his heart out of his chest and ground it with her football cleats. He’d stuttered out an excuse to leave. He can still feel the shoeprint of her dismissal.
Coach prods his knee again with sharp fingers. Lu Han lets out an extremely masculine and stoic yelp.
"I’m going to be out for the whole season, Minseok!" Lu Han then bites his lip and holds back the moan of pain threatening to escape. He rests his head on Yixing’s shoulder as Minseok leans over their coach’s shoulder. There are tears pricking in the corners of his eyes from the pain. The locker room is too hot.
"No, you’re not." Minseok’s hair is curling with sweat over his ears. It makes his face even cuter. Lu Han wants to pinch his cheeks and squeeze until Minseok inevitably kicks him in the knee for touching him.
His fucked up knee. And ow! ow! ow! What is Coach even doing? Lu Han is grievously injured. Coach can’t just dig his hands into Lu Han’s leg like that. "Tell me the truth, Coach. I can take it. Are you going to have to cut it off?"
"Oh my god," Minseok says, like Lu Han is being insufferable. "You’re not going to be out the whole season and no one is going to amputate your leg. It’s probably just a sprain." He crosses his arms. "Don’t milk it."
"Do I look like I’m pretending to be hurt?" The truth is, Lu Han hides any minor injury that might keep him off the pitch. He has what is probably the lowest injury record on team file. This gives him an aura of invincibility, which he appreciates.
"You like attention." Minseok frowns. "I never know what to expect with you. You bitched for three days when that stylist in Apgujeong made your hair too blond, even though you knew it looked fine. How am I supposed to tell your real problems apart from your fake ones?"
"Yeah, I like attention," Lu Han says, and his leg might as well be on fire. If Coach doesn’t end up doing it, Lu Han might cut it off himself. "Positive attention. Admiration of my awesome. Enjoyment of my superior skills in football." Not for his face. Not for failing. Not for being too weak to get back up after taking a fall.
One minute, Lu Han had been running. The next, his cleats were slipping, and he had felt something tear. Then he had tripped down into the grass, unable to rise. A dead ball. Carried off the pitch like a baby. More embarrassingly, he’s positive Jinri had been on the sidelines.
"Actually," Coach Jung Yunho says, "he really will probably be out for the whole season." He delivers the news like this doesn’t mean terrible things for everyone, and especially terrible things for Lu Han.
"What?" Minseok’s eyes go wide. "Are you serious?" He is looking at Lu Han with new eyes. Lu Han would stick out his tongue in an I told you so if that were not both incredibly immature and beyond him at the moment.
"Wait, what?" Yixing suddenly tunes back into the conversation. "Lu Han’s actually hurt?"
Lu Han whimpers. This, Lu Han knows, is his recruiting year. This, Lu Han knows, is the year he is supposed to get noticed. Disappointment, anger, and pain mingle in a terrible cocktail of unmet expectations on the surface of his tongue. There are only so many chances to get recruited on the college circuit. Lu Han is a third year.
"I think he has torn a ligament in his knee. I need an expert opinion on it. We need to get him to the emergency room immediately."
"Coach," Lu Han says, dizzy with the pain now, "what am I supposed to do?"
"And what is the team supposed to do?" Minseok has his hands on his hips. "Yifan is going to have a fit."
"Maybe he’ll cry," Yixing says, sounding kind of hopeful. It is totally inappropriate when Lu Han’s world is crumbling. (Lu Han is a great friend, and doesn’t remind him that the last time Yifan cried, when they’d been handed the championship trophy, it was only because Yixing had been crying. A chain reaction of crying. Minseok and Lu Han hadn’t cried. Mostly. Lu Han had been suffering from allergies. Manly allergies.)
"We just went from being shoo-ins for champion to being extreme underdogs if Lu Han’s out."
"Sit tight," Coach Jung says. He kindly pats Lu Han’s good leg. Yixing runs a soothing hand up and down Lu Han’s back. Minseok, for the first time, looks legitimately concerned. "We still need an official prognosis."
An official prognosis turns out to be a rare surgery, eleven months of no football, and extensive rehab. Lu Han is out for the season. And maybe half of next season, too, if his luck doesn’t turn around.
"You won’t lose your scholarship or place here," Coach Jung informs him. "As long as you keep your grades up, you’re okay to miss this season but continue forward in your education. I’ll still expect you at practices."
Why bother? Lu Han wisely does not say this aloud. Instead, he limps his way on crutches to the library to meet his friends for a few minutes to tell them the news.
"My life is over," Lu Han whispers, throwing himself prostrate across the table in the library. "I might as well just lie down and go to sleep until next year."
"There, there," Yifan whispers back. "Think of this as your chance to get off academic probation."
"I don’t know what you’re talking about." There is nothing wrong with Lu Han’s grades. He likes to think of his grades as Pokemon, and he has to catch one of each letter. That makes it more of a game. Lu Han is good at games. Better at games than anything else. He is also good at Rubik’s Cubes and making friends while drunk at parties and still remembering their names through his hangover the next day. "I have an A in Korean."
"Would not have an 'A' in Korean, because they can’t speak it," Lu Han says. "They don’t even know what classes I’m taking." He keeps his voice hushed. It is mostly muffled by the table his face is currently mashed into. "Nothing matters but football. I am football. Football is me. We are one." He makes exaggerated hand gestures, and Minseok looks vaguely amused.
"Having a busted leg is not going to make Lu Han suddenly care about economics, either." Yixing’s voice carries across the library, and he blinks when everyone in the whole room turns to look at their table. "What did I say?"
"It is more how you said it." Yifan smiles at Yixing. "Loudly."
"You’re not just football, Lu Han," Minseok says. "You are also melodrama and terrible pop music and the continuous invasion of personal space and horrible laughs that make you look like you have a dislocated jaw and—"
"Thank you for your efforts, Minseok," Lu Han says. "I feel genuinely better about the emptiness of my entire existence right now than I did before you started speaking." He rubs at his jaw. There is stubble, and wow, Lu Han should shave immediately.
"Did I mention invasion of personal space?"
"Yes, I think you got that one," says Yifan, shaking his head. His hair gel appears to be completely solid. He is also wearing a cardigan. Lu Han has long since given up on him.
"The point is, I know you love football with your whole being, but maybe this is your chance to rediscover some other interests." Minseok’s tongue licks at his teeth. "Explore new depths of your personality."
"Rediscover?" Lu Han peels himself up from the table. It is almost noon. He has to pack. For his surgery. Which is today. "I have no other interests," he says. "I play football, I watch football, I think about football."
"Then think about something else. Get a girlfriend. Get into a television show. Take up pottery." Minseok is actually looking at Lu Han. That makes Lu Han all warm and fuzzy. Minseok is one of the few people on this earth immune to Lu Han’s numerous charms. "There’s a pottery class at the student center—"
Lu Han throws an arm around Minseok’s shoulders. Minseok frowns and scoots his chair away. So it is not entirely a new leaf.
Yifan coughs something that sounds a lot like personal space into his hand and Lu Han sighs and withdraws his arm.
"Pottery can be very soothing," Yixing says. "Jongdae and I are taking the intermediate class this semester and I’ve found it very relaxing. You’re very high-strung, lately, Lu Han."
"Am I?" This is stupid. Lu Han’s torn up knee is stupid and his friends are saying stupid things. "I wonder what could possibly be making me stressed." Stupid.
"Not that we don’t welcome your enthusiasm for football," Yifan says. "Because we need you on the team. We just don’t want you to be miserable while you’re waiting to play."
"Great," Lu Han says, grappling with his crutches. He cannot quite get the hang of them. "I have to go." He lifts himself up, refusing Yixing’s aid as he carefully swings his messenger bag so the weight of it hangs from his good side. "I can do it myself."
"Maybe this whole injury thing will teach you how to accept help, too," Yixing says, this time only loud enough for Lu Han to hear. He adjusts Lu Han’s bag. It does feel better. Lu Han grumbles out a ‘thanks’. "An assist, you know? It doesn’t make the goal count less toward your total."
"I don’t need help with anything," Lu Han replies. "I never have and I never will."
"Okay, okay." Yixing pats his cheek. Lu Han would bite him if he had the energy, but his leg hurts, and honestly? Nervousness about his surgery is eating him up inside. "Good luck this afternoon. We’ll come see you after the surgery."
"Thanks," Lu Han says. "But don’t visit me."
"Sure," Yixing shrugs, noncommittal. "Whatever you say."
"Let me go with you," Zitao says. He’s staring into the mirror. "I don’t want you to fall on the subway and get trampled."
"That’s rather grim."
"A young boy, lost under the hustling feet of shoppers—"
"But you look younger—"
"Just because I’m smaller than you, doesn’t mean I’m small," Lu Han says. "I am of a completely adequate size. I’m actually kind of tall by normal people standards. No one is going to trample me."
"I don’t think you’re small," Zitao says. "I think you have a torn ligament in your knee, and a compromised center of balance." Zitao, who teaches martial arts to ten-year-olds three times a week, probably knows what he’s talking about. Still. "And you look fifteen. Easy target."
"I wouldn’t want to waste your time," Lu Han says, as Zitao leans further in toward the mirror and combs through his already perfectly sculpted bangs. "I’m sure you have at least thirty more pictures of yourself to take today. You know, for your weibo profile."
"I have already changed my picture twice today," Zitao says. "I’m sure my followers can wait for me to go on a short trip."
"Why are you here?"
"I had this horrible feeling that you would turn down everyone who offered to take you to the clinic, and you can’t turn down my aegyo." He puts two fists up to his cheeks. "Buing buing."
"That is the worst thing Sehun ever taught you," Lu Han says. "It has ruined my life."
"I thought your injury had ruined your life."
"That too." Everything ruins Lu Han’s life. He thinks briefly about Minseok calling him melodramatic and frowns.
"So are we leaving?"
Lu Han hedges. "I’m not sure how long it will take to get to the clinic." Now Zitao is studying himself in profile. Lu Han is used to his friend’s eccentricities. Zitao is a total peacock, but he is infallibly kind, and Lu Han won’t take advantage of him. "I’ll just go alone."
"You do everything alone. You are the only person I’ve ever met that knows everyone and still does everything alone." Zitao sits on the edge of Lu Han’s bed and watches as Lu Han throws the last of his toiletries into his bag. "Stop being so stubborn."
"Stubborn is my middle name," Lu Han says. "Get off my bed."
"And here I thought your middle name was ‘Manchester United’."
Without pausing, Lu Han grabs his pillow with his right hand and throws it in Zitao’s direction. "That’s just a nickname." He zips his bag. "Do you have a romantic walk to go on? Why are you dressed up?"
Zitao frowns at him lightly, hands going up reflexively to fix his hair. "I do have a romantic walk coming up." Zitao pulls on a really dumb black fedora. "A romantic walk with my big brother to the clinic."
"I’m swooning," Lu Han says, taking one last longing look at his bed. His leg aches. He wants to go to sleep. Maybe when he wakes up, this will all be a terrible dream and Lu Han will be early for spring practice. He goes to grab his bag, but Zitao has already grabbed it. "You don’t have to."
"I want to. I’m your friend." Zitao puts a hand to Lu Han’s back. "Do you want me to carry you, princess? Bridal style?"
Lu Han gives Zitao a sharp look. "Who are you calling princess, asshole?" Lu Han scowls. He almost trips as he puts more weight on his crutch. "I’ll give you two black eyes and then you’ll be significantly less handsome."
"Aww," Zitao says. "Don’t worry, Xiao Lu, your surgery is going to go well. I’ll even pick you up tomorrow."
"I know I don’t have to," Zitao says. "I know."
"Lu Han! You made it."
"Despite how much I don’t want to be, here I am." Lu Han shifts on the bed. "Actually, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t really want to have surgery. I’m thinking I’ll just go home and sleep until—"
This all feels out of his control. A week ago, Lu Han had been getting ready to start his third season with the Goryeo-Dae team. He had vaguely started to wonder who Yifan was going to put on the team with him for the Korea-Yonsei Friendship Games.
He had never imagined getting injured before putting on his red and beige uniform to play his first game. It is scary if Lu Han thinks about it too hard. How easy it is to get hurt. How quickly all his dreams can go up in smoke.
Lu Han doesn’t want to have surgery. Lu Han wants to whine about how much his leg hurts to an unimpressed Minseok, take painkillers, and then have this all go away. That would be the ideal.
"If you don’t get this surgery, you can kiss your football career goodbye," the doctor says. Her nametag says Kim Taeyeon. She’s super hot. Lu Han has been able to distract himself with that for approximately twenty-five minutes, but those twenty-five minutes are up. Now it is back to the familiar aching fear of someone putting him to sleep and cutting his leg open in the hopes of restoring his chances at going pro. "I’m sure I’ve explained this already, but you’ve torn a lateral collateral ligament. You can’t, I’m afraid, sleep this one off."
"I know, I know," Lu Han says. "Wishful thinking." He wriggles again, his bare ass shifting on the low-grade clinic sheets. This whole ~surgery experience~ leaves so much to be desired.
"You don’t need to be afraid," Dr. Kim says. "I’ll take care of you, Lu Han."
"Am I really going to be able to play again?" This is a bigger fear than the surgery. What if they open up his knee and it is all worse than expected? What if Lu Han’s knee will never allow him to play professional football, ever?
He’s not sure how willing he is to go back to Beijing with his tail between his legs.
"Yes," Dr. Kim says. "This is not the first or the last time my team will perform this surgery for an athlete. You’re in good hands."
Lu Han’s hands and feet tingle. It’s the excitement and nerves he feels just before the start of a match.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Lu Han says, collapsing like a rag doll into his pillow. "Lights out or whatever."
"The anesthesiologist will be with you shortly. He will accompany you to the operating room." Dr. Kim makes a quick note on Lu Han’s chart before turning back toward the hall. "Don’t frown like that, Lu Han. You’ll get wrinkles."
Yifan says the same thing. Lu Han is pretty sure it’s a yellow card to make lewd gestures at his surgeon like he does at Yifan, though. "Yeah, yeah," he says to a closing door.
When he is alone again, the creeping discomfort of being in the hospital comes back with enough force to choke him. There are no fond memories to be found as Lu Han waits alone.
When Lu Han wakes up, it is to a familiar face. Yixing smiles at him. He lightly pokes Lu Han’s nose. "Oh good, you’re alive."
"Was there a doubt?" Lu Han feels like he’s talking through an entire ocean’s worth of water. His brain is drowning.
"Now you sound and look like a frog," Zitao says, and Yixing gives him a high-five.
"I’ve just gotten out of surgery and you’re already making fun of me."
"You’re going to be well soon enough," says Yixing. "We can’t get out of practice."
"Look, you got flowers from the girls’ team," Zitao says.
Lu Han tries to swim to shore in his own mind, but whatever they gave him to put him out was the good stuff. He usually only gets this far from lucid the week of exams. That is caused by sleep deprivation and an unholy cocktail of five-hour energy drinks, chocolate bars in the place of food, and the anxiety of knowing that he hasn’t studied the entire semester and it really is too late to be starting the week of exams. "Jinri?"
"It looks like Jinri did, indeed, sign the card," Yixing says. "It seems nice and detached. ‘Get well soon, Lu Han! ❀’ You even got a tiny flower." Lu Han tries to breathe. "Yifan and Minseok wanted to come, too, but they have this trivial belief that they should ‘respect your wishes not to have visitors’ or something." Yixing tosses his red hair back off his forehead.
"Yifan is a good kid," Lu Han says, glad Yifan isn’t around to hear it. "Minseok, on the other hand, would probably stand next to a rope and not reach for it as I slowly went down in quicksand."
"He likes you." Zitao pats Lu Han’s hand. Lu Han doesn’t feel it. His hands are numb. His face is numb. "You just came on a bit strong with your friendship mojo. It has taken him a few years to get over you getting into the shower with him to wash his back."
"I was just being friendly--You’re a first year, Zitao. How do you even know that story?" There are four Zitaos. All of them are looking at Yixing. "Yixing, you traitorous bastard."
"Close your eyes, Lu Han, they’re crossing." Yixing’s voice is soothing, even with the lacing of sarcasm and amusement through his words. "On the bright side, at least Jinri remembers your name."
"Of course she remembers my name," Lu Han says. He is already starting to fall back asleep. "I’m popular."
"And so very pretty," Yixing says. If Lu Han felt better, he would get his best friend for that. With best friends like Yixing, who needs enemies? Not Lu Han, that’s for sure. "Your surgery went well, Lu Han. Dr. Kim seemed very pleased."
"Yay." Lu Han cannot stay awake. "Now only a year stands between me and actual play." Slurred words. Head full of cotton. He can feel his knee now. It is not a good thing. The numbness was better.
"The year can start tomorrow." Zitao’s cute grin is the last thing Lu Han sees as the anesthesia pulls him back under. "Yixing collected all your assignments, so you can even get a head start on your academics."
"What an incentive to wake up," he mumbles.
"Lu Han, do you want me to call your parents?" he hears Yixing ask. "They must be worried."
"No," Lu Han says, as he drifts off. "Don’t bother."
"Don’t bother?" Yixing smoothes the hair back from Lu Han’s forehead. "They’re your parents."
Lu Han would shrug, but he’s already asleep.
"You missed my call," Lu Han’s father barks into the phone. "I said I would call at seven, not ‘sometime after seven’."
"I’m sorry," Lu Han says, curling his fingers around the phone. It is raining outside. Perfect. "It took me longer than expected to get back to my boarding house from the clinic."
Crutches, it turns out, are a hundred times more complicated when Lu Han is doped up on pain meds. Zitao had held him around the waist like he was Lu Han’s boyfriend or something when they were climbing in and out of the cab, which had been excruciatingly humiliating. Probably less humiliating than falling would have been, though, so Lu Han is pretty grateful, even if he’s shit at expressing it.
As much as he dreads his first rehab session on Tuesday, at least it will be the beginning step toward walking again. Then playing again. Which is everything that Lu Han wants.
"I don’t appreciate excuses." His father sighs. "When are you coming home?"
"What?" Lu Han mashes his cheek into the phone. "Why would I come home?"
"To see a Chinese doctor about your leg, of course." His father clears his throat. "Now that this football thing is out of the question, you can come back here and see a doctor of my choosing and enter university here."
"Football is not out of the question," Lu Han says. "I just have to take a short break—"
"I spoke to a specialist and these sorts of long term injuries don’t go away, Lu Han. Especially in your case, where it’s a re--"
"I didn’t know you cared. For your information, I had surgery yesterday," Lu Han says. "I’m entering a rehabilitation program. I’m hoping to start for my team again next season." His voice doesn’t waver. It used to, when he spoke to his dad. Nowadays Lu Han is used to disappointing him.
"I don’t approve—"
"I no longer want or need your approval," Lu Han says. "You’re not paying my tuition, and you will never understand—"
"Your duty is to your family," his father says. Lu Han can imagine his mother’s pensive expression as she stands in the kitchen, close to where the phone is mounted on the wall. She probably has one hand pressed to her mouth. She won’t say anything to help Lu Han. She just doesn’t like it when people yell. "And to your family’s business."
I can’t even pass economics, and you want me to run a business? "I’m going to be a famous football player," Lu Han says. "With or without your support." He takes a breath. "I’m expecting it to be without."
His father does not say goodbye when he hangs up the phone.
There is a knock on Lu Han’s door. "Yes?"
The ajumma of his boarding house peeks in. "Can I get you something to eat? You missed dinner."
"I was on the phone with my father." Lu Han starts to stand up.
"Was he worried about you, dear?" She smiles. Lu Han is glad she does not know his family. That his father had not asked even once if he was feeling okay. Lu Han does not care. He can take care of himself. He moves to stand. "Oh no, Lu Han, I can bring some up to you. We don’t want you to reinjure that leg of yours."
"I can go up and down the stairs," Lu Han says with a smile. It is time for more painkillers.
"Your friend Yixing told me you would say that." She wags her finger. "You have good friends. Lie down before you tear your stitches."
"Good boy," she says, and Lu Han flushes. The way she grins at him, like she has emerged victorious versus his stubbornness, reminds him of how his mother used to smile at him.
She feeds him stew and tucks him in, and if it chokes Lu Han up, at least Yixing isn’t here to see it. It’s an extremely masculine sort of choked up, anyway.
Lu Han calls into work. Kim Jongin, his teammate and friend, answers the phone. "When are you coming back?" No preamble. "Please say ‘in thirty minutes’."
"Next week," Lu Han says. "I’d be useless for anything but desk duty until I lose the crutches anyway."
"I’ve been working double shifts with Chanyeol and I’m going to strangle him, I swear, hyung, I’m going to wrap my hands around his giraffe neck and squeeze until he turns blue."
"No, you’re not," Lu Han says. "Relax."
"He chortles, hyung. He actually chortles. People are not supposed to do that. It is not a sound humans are actually supposed to make. I can’t live like this."
"I’ll be back next Monday." Lu Han scratches at his head. "It’s a big building. I’m sure you can lose him."
"Are you telling me that no one would find the body?" Jongin sounds… stressed. "I don’t know how you do this four days a week."
Chanyeol can be overzealous. Lu Han can empathize, because he is pretty sure Chanyeol’s approach to Jongin is about the same as his own approach to Minseok. The results are about the same, too, save for the fact that Jongin is much more tightly wound than Minseok is. Lu Han wonders if they sit around after Wednesday practice and commiserate.
"No, I’m telling you to go into another part of the library and do something productive."
"Oh," says Jongin. "Of course." He coughs into the phone. "Are you… how’s your knee?"
Lu Han frowns, then remembers Jongin can’t see it. "It isn’t swollen too badly anymore."
"That is… good?" Tentative. "Yeah?"
"I can’t walk on it," Lu Han says. "There’s that."
"Are you going to come to practice tomorrow?"
"I have physical therapy tomorrow. First session." Jongin makes a tiny whine into the phone. "But I’ll be there the day after."
"Good," says Jongin. Lu Han can imagine him scuffing the toe of his sneakers on the floor. "I need to make sure you’re actually all right."
"I’m fine." Lu Han isn’t really fine. He is not doing well with limited mobility. With needing help to do even simple tasks. He feels trapped in his bedroom after only a couple of days.
"If you say so." There are muffled voices, followed by an impatient sigh. "I have to go, hyung. Chanyeol is buried in the non-fiction section."
"Buried?" If any guy could get himself into trouble that quickly, it’s Chanyeol.
"I don’t know," Jongin says. "I just don’t know." He clicks his nails against the phone. It echoes in Lu Han’s ear. "Feel better, hyung."
"I told you—"
"Yeah, I know, you’re fine." Jongin sighs again, like his life is hard or something. Lu Han wishes he could be at the library, digging Chanyeol out of his own ridiculousness. "See you at practice."
There is a lump in Lu Han’s throat. "See you there," he says.
It is a relatively new facility. Lu Han sits in a cold plastic chair and waits for someone to collect him.
"Excuse me, Lu Han-ssi?" The man in front of him is soft-spoken and small. "Are you ready to start?" He looks like Lu Han could break him in half if he wanted, not like he can put Lu Han back together.
"Are you my physical therapist?"
"Hmmm." The man pulls down on the sleeves of his sweatshirt. It hides his hands from view. "Sort of?" He is smiling too cheerfully for the situation.
"I feel like this should be a yes or no question…"
"I’m a volunteer here," the man says. There are bits of red in his hair. His dye-job is better than Lu Han’s. "I’m Joonmyun."
He holds out a hand for Lu Han to take and pulls him to his feet. Stronger than he looks. "Volun…teer?"
"I’m a third year student in university. Sports medicine. I get credit for working here." Still smiling. His eyes disappear into nothing but eyelashes and eyelids and happiness. Distantly, Lu Han wonders if Yifan would be worried about Joonmyun’s wrinkles. "I haven’t done an athlete rehabilitation before, even though it's my eventual career path."
"Which university?" Lu Han asks.
"Yours," Joonmyun says, and then he tugs at Lu Han’s hand. This serves to remind Lu Han that he hasn’t let go. He drops Joonmyun’s hand immediately. Lifted eyebrows are his earned response and Lu Han is on the verge of blushing. "Follow me please."
Lu Han fumbles with his crutches. He eventually settles his weight on them and hobbles after a now walking Joonmyun.
"Sorry," Lu Han says. "I pride myself on knowing a lot of people, but…" He pauses. "Ah, you wouldn’t happen to be Jongdae’s Joonmyun, would you?" Jongdae goes on and on about his friend in choir, who is smart and handsome and kind and apparently walks on water or some shit like that. "Kim Joonmyun?"
"Jongdae’s Joonmyun." He seems bemused. "That is one way of putting it, I suppose." He scratches the back of his neck. His movements are jerky. Except for Jongdae, all of Lu Han’s close friends are athletes who move easily in their own skin. Joonmyun seems unsure about what his limbs might do at any moment. "I do have choir with Jongdae."
"He mentions you a lot." Understatement. "I’m surprised we haven’t met before."
"I don’t play football." There is no judgment in his tone, but Lu Han does blush this time. "That’s pretty much your only interest."
"How would you know?" It is not defensive. Well, maybe it is. Perhaps because Minseok had said the same thing last week. And maybe Lu Han has admitted it a time or two, but not to strangers. Lu Han is just focused.
"Here we are," Joonmyun says, opening a set of double doors. Inside the room, there are two other pairs of people doing some kind of workout. "You will be working with me three times a week, and Donghae once a week."
"A more senior staff member." He speaks very patiently. Lu Han is often very impatient. "We are both trained to work with athletes, but he has much more experience. I hope it doesn’t bother you—" His brow furrows up, crinkling his forehead and pulling his lower lip out into a pout. Oh man, it isn’t even aegyo, but Lu Han is melting like ice cream in the summer.
This is uncalled for. Lu Han hasn’t wanted to touch someone’s face so badly since he met Minseok as a first year. His fingers itch with it. Joonmyun’s skin looks as soft and clear as Yifan’s.
"I like you," says Lu Han, interrupting Joonmyun. "You seem nice, and to be honest, I was scared, before. The fact that you’re my age and know one of my friends is great."
Joonmyun’s face is suffused in a relieved smile that seems to light up every corner of the gym. Lu Han wants to know how anyone can light up a gym, considering gyms are where happiness goes to die. "That is so good to hear, Lu Han-ssi."
"Just Lu Han." Joonmyun’s mouth curls down. "We are going to be spending a lot of time together, right? Might as well call me Lu Han."
"Then just Joonmyun for me." He reaches out to gently push Lu Han down onto a bench next to a small set of weight cuffs. He takes Lu Han’s crutches and leans them against the far wall. Then he kneels down to examine Lu Han’s brace. He prods the bruised skin that stretches down past the knee brace with the softest touch. It tickles, but it doesn’t hurt. "Are you ready to start?"
"I want to play football again." Lu Han is unsure if he is talking to Joonmyun or himself. Maybe both. Lu Han had a coach once who told him to visualize every goal before he took the shot. Perhaps that is what Lu Han is doing right now.
"We’ll get you there," Joonmyun says, calmly. He sounds very certain. His hands slide down Lu Han’s leg to grip his ankle. It is a comforting touch. Lu Han likes that.
"Then yeah," Lu Han says. "I’m ready to start." He gulps. "I think." This isn’t actually his first time in physical therapy, but it feels like it is.
"Don’t worry," says Joonmyun. His hand rests on Lu Han’s calf. It is warm and sure. Lu Han isn’t nervous, not anymore. There’s something steadying about Joonmyun. "You’ll be back on the pitch next season in your Tiger uniform. Yonsei won’t know what hit ‘em."
Lu Han hadn’t asked for, or needed, any reassurance. Especially not from a stranger. Lu Han had been a child who’d put Band-Aids on his own elbows. Iced his own bruises. Told himself that this time he’d run that three-minute kilometer. He doesn’t require someone to hold his hand. Still, "thank you" bubbles up unbidden, even as Joonmyun unfastens his brace.
"You’re welcome," Joonmyun says. "Now move your toes for me."
Lu Han had gotten into-- no, fallen into football when he was eight, when he saw a match on television and decided he wanted to learn all those tricks.
He had never looked back.
His parents had thought it would be a passing hobby, but it had quickly snowballed into obsession. Into after-school clubs and then neighborhood teams. Then Lu Han started for his high school team in his first year, practically unheard of, and his parents started to realize football was a major part of Lu Han’s life. "Football isn’t going to get you anywhere," his father had said. "Not like mathematics." His mother had just looked disappointed that her flower-faced son kept coming home with bruises and cuts.
When he’d gotten the scholarship from Goryeo, for football, everything paid for by the university, and only Lu Han’s living expenses at a boarding house left for him to earn via part-time job, it had seemed like providence. "You don’t speak Korean, though," his friend Li Yin had said.
"I can learn," Lu Han had replied. "To play football with a really good team? A language is nothing."
And now look at him.
"And now look at you." Yixing sits across from him in the small family-style restaurant. The kimchi and other side dishes are spread out between them as they wait for their food. "You are shaking like Yifan when his ~beauty routine~ gets interrupted." He laughs. "In other words, like a caffeine addict quitting cold turkey."
"I'm so bored," Lu Han confesses. Yixing smirks at him, dimpling, and Lu Han envies the sheen of sweat on his neck and arms from running around on the field. Lu Han had spent practice on the sidelines, hurling insults at Yifan's clumsy dribbling and making inappropriate comments about Minseok's ass. "I might lose the tentative hold I have on my sanity."
"How did your first week of physical therapy go?" Yixing absently stirs his chopsticks in the leftover juice from the pickled radishes, drawing patterns with it on the white ceramic dish. "You don’t look worse for wear."
Ah. Therapy. Well.
"My knee is useless." Lu Han looks down at it angrily. "It does almost nothing I tell it to and he just keeps smiling."
"Your knee keeps smiling?" Yixing leans back as the ajusshi sets their plates in front of them. "We might have to change 'might lose' to 'lost a while back' on the sanity front."
"No!" Lu Han blows his hair out of his face. "My physical therapist. He's so cheerful and optimistic." Lu Han’s knee brace itches. He’ll be able to take it off in a few days, according to Joonmyun.
"Isn't that... a good thing?"
"I guess," Lu Han says. "He's very..." Sweet. Even tempered. Good natured. He doesn't know what to do with Kim Joonmyun. He doesn't react right. Lu Han had spent the entirety of Thursday swearing at him and calling him awful names and Joonmyun had just carefully and steadily flexed his knee again. "Nice. To me, at least." Lu Han takes a big bite of his food. Something to occupy his mouth while he thinks. "I think he’s nice to everyone, though."
"How would you know that?" Yixing reaches over onto Lu Han's plate and steals a piece of ham. "Have you seen him with other patients?"
"No," Lu Han says. "But he's Joonmyun. The guy in Jongdae's choir."
"Oh," Yixing looks at Lu Han with wide eyes. "He's a student?"
"Yeah," says Lu Han. "He is. A third year, like me. I have another therapist too, apparently. Some guy named Donghae. I’m only going to have him once a week, though. The rest of the time I’ll have Joonmyun."
"I'm sure if you complained..." Yixing shrugs. "It is your call."
"He is really nice," says Lu Han again. "But not overbearing." Joonmyun does not baby Lu Han. He does not force Lu Han to accept help to go to the bathroom, or push Lu Han down when he struggles to stand up. He offers his hand but does not make Lu Han take it. For Lu Han, it is like Joonmyun understands his need to be independent more than the rest of his friends do. It's unbelievable to Lu Han that a stranger can read him so well. It is Joonmyun's job, though. "I like him."
"Do you?" Yixing says. "On a scale of one to football, how does Joonmyun rate?"
"A solid seven," Lu Han replies. Yixing laughs at him. It’s mocking, but Lu Han’s used to Yixing. "Higher than you, that’s for sure."
"Eat," he says. "Or you’ll be late to meet Sehun."
Getting anywhere takes longer than it’s worth. Lu Han hobbles to his economics tutoring session with a grim determination borne of a complete unwillingness to call Yifan, who had told Lu Han to "call if you need to go across campus. No, really, call."
"I don't know if this qualifies as 'taking it easy.'" Lu Han looks left to see Joonmyun, with a stack of papers clutched to his chest, smiling at Lu Han like they run into each other outside the clinic every day. Jongdae is standing next to him with his own stack of papers. Lu Han catches a glimpse of music bars. Something for choir?
"Lu Han-hyung, I know for a fact that Yifan-hyung does not have anything to do today except for homework." Jongdae looks put out. "I know you're not the brightest crayon in the box, but this is just ridiculous."
"No one asked for your opinion," Lu Han says. "Don't talk to your hyung like that."
"Then act like a hyung," Jongdae flippantly replies. Lu Han narrows his eyes at him, and Jongdae sticks out his tongue. "Careful, careful. I'm starting to notice your crow's feet."
"You're just jealous because you already look old--"
"I like his crow's feet," Joonmyun says, and both Lu Han and Jongdae remember he is standing there at the same time.
"Wait a minute," says Jongdae. "How do you two know each other?"
"Joonmyun is my physical therapist," Lu Han answers. "For my knee."
"Donghae-hyung is his physical therapist." Joonmyun's shoulders are tight. Lu Han has no doubt he would be waving his hands in a declamatory manner if his arms were not full of papers. "I'm just the assistant."
"I see him once a week and you three times a week." Lu Han is firm. "As far as I am concerned, he is the assistant."
"He has a lot more experience than I do--"
"Underselling yourself again?" Jongdae is smiling at Joonmyun and Lu Han feels a weird twist in his stomach. That doesn't make any sense, so he ignores it. Then Jongdae is looking at Lu Han. "I told you he was great."
"You were right, for once."
Jongdae smirks at him. "For once, huh? I'm always right."
Joonmyun is blushing. His eyes have curled up and disappeared again. Lu Han's arms ache standing here, but it’s worth it to see Joonmyun in a different setting. The way he always moves has suggested to Lu Han that Joonmyun is more awkward than graceful, but in the gym, Joonmyun is on his own turf. Here, they are on equal footing (even if Lu Han is only standing on one foot).
He's wearing jeans that are supposed to be tight and end up looking loose on his thin legs, and a collared shirt with buttons at the wings that keep the collar flat. Over it is this green cardigan that reminds Lu Han of spinach. And he is still blushing.
Lu Han's stomach is twisting again. And now his phone’s ringing. "That's probably Sehunnie."
"Are you meeting him in the student center?" Jongdae asks, and Joonmyun looks alarmed.
"That's very far," Joonmyun says. "Do you need company?" His voice is light but… Lu Han thinks he looks ready to drop his papers and walk Lu Han there.
"I can manage," Lu Han says. He's sweating, and he hopes it isn't noticeable. It’s not a hot day, but Lu Han has walked a good distance. His arms ache. "Not too much further."
"Figures," Jongdae says, looking at Joonmyun in exasperation. "I don't know how you work with him. Lu Han-hyung would attempt to juggle with one of his hands cut off and complain loudly that his hair was a mess as all the balls rolled away into the distance."
"I am beginning to see that." Joonmyun smiles at Lu Han again, still patient, still sweet. It is a very nice smile. It is even nicer when Joonmyun is not torturing him, fingers pushing on Lu Han's leg to bend his knee. Significantly nicer. "Jongdae, can you hold these for a second?"
Joonmyun hands the papers to Jongdae and digs into his pockets for his phone. He slides his thumb across the lock screen and looks up at Lu Han. "Give me your number."
After Lu Han reels off the numbers, Joonmyun calls it. It reminds Lu Han that Sehun is probably impatiently waiting for him, tapping his feet as he drinks chocolate-flavored bubble tea. "I have to go."
"Now you have my contact info," Joonmyun says. "I have a car. Call me if you want a ride."
"He won't call you," Jongdae says. "He is too stupid to call you."
Joonmyun reclaims his papers, shaking his hair out of his face. The spring wind blows it about. He looks like a cheerful mushroom. Maybe Lu Han is hungry. That would explain his stomach, surely.
"I am quite capable of getting around on my own." Lu Han is only on crutches for another week, anyway. Then it will be limping without conspicuous aids.
"Don't undo all of our hard work," Joonmyun says. "Or you’ll be stuck with me even longer."
As they leave, Lu Han beginning the last couple of blocks of his hobbling trek, he realizes that he doesn't think of that as much of a punishment.
"You’re late," says Sehun, when a sweaty and exhausted Lu Han collapses into the chair across from him in the student center. Sehun’s economics book is open in front of him and he has already completed a good chunk of their problem set. "Why did you not call Yifan-hyung to drive you?"
"I didn’t want to owe him for it." Lu Han’s hand trembles. Great. At least his boarding house is closer to this side of campus. He’d picked that particular hasukjib for its proximity to the student center.
"Yifan-hyung is your friend," Sehun says. "You wouldn’t owe him—"
"He has that politics exam—"
"Seriously, hyung. It is not like you’re weak if you ask for a ride because you blew out your knee."
Lu Han smiles at Sehun, who looks back at him unimpressed. "The moment you need someone else to hold you up," says Lu Han, "is the moment you fall down."
"Are you calling your friends unreliable?"
"I think that people are, by nature, unreliable." Lu Han grins. "Want to prove me wrong by doing my econ?"
"Do your own damn econ," Sehun says, scooting closer to Lu Han. "But let me know if you don’t understand something."
"Sure," Lu Han says. He doesn’t ask any questions.
Physical therapy is hard. "Is this, at some point, not going to be torture?" Sticky bangs and a sticky shirt and a forever smiling Kim Joonmyun. This seems to be Lu Han’s life, now.
It has only been two weeks. Lu Han has a year to look forward to.
Joonmyun makes it better.
He is endlessly optimistic. "You were able to hold this stretch longer than yesterday," he will tell Lu Han with that half moon eye smile. Or "you seemed to have more strength in that flex, Lu Han."
He is also resilient. Lu Han can hurl every awful word in his vocabulary, Chinese and Korean, at Joonmyun as he forces tears back from the sting of a pull. "You’re so lucky my mother wasn’t here to witness that kind of language," Joonmyun says, and Lu Han bites his own lips until they are swollen and red. "She might not know what all of them meant, but she would definitely have put her hands on her hips and informed you that ‘gentlemen don’t swear’." He laughs at the end, a hiccupping sound that is more like a giggle, and Lu Han wants to throttle him for being so cheerful when Lu Han is starting to wish Coach had amputated his leg after all.
He has these horrible little jokes he tells Lu Han when Lu Han is on the verge of giving up, and Lu Han ends up being so busy staring at him judgmentally that he forgets, just for a moment, that the pain is lingering.
"When you get better, it won’t be torture." Joonmyun pushes slowly on the ball of Lu Han’s foot. Today they’re doing these tense and release exercises that involve Lu Han stretching his leg out and Joonmyun making it terrible in fifty different ways. "Some people will never regain full mobility. Never be able to play. You aren’t one of those people."
"Fuck, that hurts." Joonmyun’s smile gets wider. "Or not hurts, but aches. You know, I Daum-searched this physical therapy thing. It recommended three to five minutes a day."
"That’s for joint replacement, Lu Han." Joonmyun relaxes his hold, and Lu Han gulps air. "Or people looking to regain limited mobility. You are an athlete. This is a whole different ballgame." Joonmyun laughs. "A different ballgame. Get it?"
"That was awful, Joonmyun." Lu Han wants to reach out and flick his forehead. "Is my pain funny? Are you secretly a sadist under that pleasant veneer?"
"Truthfully?" Joonmyun winks at him. "Maybe I am. But that’s not why I’m laughing." He forces his knee to straighten. "It just constantly amuses me to hear the dirty words that come out of your doll-like face."
"Doll-like?" Lu Han scrunches up his face in distaste. "I am not doll-like."
"You? No. But at first glance, your face certainly doesn’t match your personality."
"I get that a lot." Lu Han wipes sweat from his brow, and then looks up at the ceiling. "What do I look like I’m supposed to talk about? Dresses? Make-up?"
"No, no, no," Joonmyun says. "You do look innocent. But your diction leaves a lot to be desired in terms of innocence."
"My… diction." Lu Han lowers his gaze back to the man in front of him. "What does that even mean?"
"I forget, sometimes, that all the words you know are related to football." Joonmyun’s laugh this time is embarrassed. "I don’t know why I’m using literary terms you probably haven’t come across before."
"When you move to a new country with a new language, you learn the words you need to survive, not the weird words, you nerd." Lu Han determinedly points his toe. It burns like hell. But Lu Han just has to think about running again, with the wind in his hair. "What does it mean?"
"It means your word choices, you jock. What I’m trying to say is all the words that come out of your mouth are dirty words. Dirty words and football terminology."
"Everything in life can be explained in terms of football," Lu Han says. "Life is a match and we are the players."
"Is football the only thing on your mind, twenty-four seven?"
Yes, but that’s because Lu Han doesn't want to dwell on the missed call from his mother or how his physical therapy bills are going to mean picking up another shift at work. He would rather dwell on how Jongin's goal kicks are all still angled too sharp, or about Yifan's atrocious footwork when he ventures out from the goal for team drills.
"Is there anything else worth thinking about? Worth doing?" He throws a hand dramatically across his forehead. Joonmyun chuckles to himself and pulls out on Lu Han’s leg.
"Yes, Lu Han. There is a whole world of other things to think about and do."
"My best friend Yixing thinks I should take up pottery. That free class once a week at the student center."
"Maybe he thinks you need something to distract you from your injury."
"I have plenty to do," says Lu Han, brushing his hair out of his eyes with trembling fingers. He needs to remember his hair-tie next time. "There's..." he trails off.
"Watching the football team practice while you angst in their general direction doesn't count."
"That's not what Jongdae says."
"Jongdae doesn't come to practice because he can't tell the difference between a football and a basketball! He roots for the wrong team at matches sometimes!" Lu Han has tried to teach Jongdae the rules, but they stick about as well as pick-up lines in Mandarin had. Perhaps Lu Han should see if JJ Lin has ever sung the rules of football somewhere, because then Jongdae would memorize them in a heartbeat. "I don't angst. I'm just..."
"Most people have more than one hobby, Lu Han. Broaden your horizons."
"Well, what are your hobbies, then?"
"I have choir, obviously. And I really like poker--"
"Poker?" Joonmyun, in a pair of sunglasses and a cigar hanging out the side of his mouth, leaning back in his chair and smirking in a denim button-up. Lu Han starts to smile at the image.
"Would you ever suspect me of bluffing?" Joonmyun has a positively wicked twinkle in his eye. "I can get away with murder over a card table."
"How many rounds before everyone realizes you are an absolute shark, though?"
"That depends," and Joonmyun’s hand is on Lu Han’s knee, thumb pressing just below the bruise around his stitches. Lu Han shivers. Not from pain, but something else. It makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, like when he feels the ball headed toward his head from his blind spot. "On how terribly I’m dressed, I think. I have noticed a correlation between how ugly my friend Baekhyun thinks my shirt is, and how long I can run the table."
Correlation. Right. "What else do you like to do?"
"I also like reading and cooking and watching golf," Joonmyun says. "I have a wide variety of interests."
"I like football." Lu Han winces at a particularly hard pull.
"Everyone who has ever met you knows that. Even the people who haven't met you know that." Joonmyun releases his leg. Lu Han sits up completely. He wriggles his toes.
"I also like girls and dancing at parties."
"Wow, you are a regular Da Vinci, aren't you?" Lu Han is beginning to notice that in the game of conversation with Joonmyun, he never has possession of the ball.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, nothing," Joonmyun says. "Is that why you're so miserable? Because you live and breathe football?"
"Yeah," Lu Han says, because obviously that is why he's so miserable. What Joonmyun doesn’t understand is that Lu Han has always had football. There were times, in high school, when Lu Han had been a constant disappointment in every way that counted to his parents, when Lu Han had only had football. It is Lu Han’s focus. It is Lu Han’s future hopes as well as his hobby. It is ~the thing Lu Han is good at~, even when the economic theorems and business models slip through his fingers like so much sand. "What else am I supposed to do now?"
Football has been Lu Han's way out. In the end, without it, he is as useless as his parents think he is.
"Find a new hobby? You could always do something artsy. Like--"
"If you say anything about pottery I won't be held responsible for my actions."
"Pottery can be very soothing, I've heard." Now Joonmyun is massaging Lu Han’s leg. This is something he does at the end of every session. Kind of like an apology to Lu Han’s knee. Sorry for making everything suck, Joonmyun’s fingers say to Lu Han’s lower thigh. My bad, bro. "Art is good for the soul."
"Then you do it," Lu Han says. Lu Han would be shit at pottery. He can see the mess of deformed clay in his head now. What a disaster. He will stick to things that aren’t destined to humiliate him. Like football. His knee gives a mournful pang.
"I would go with you, if you were nervous," Joonmyun says. He is still twinkling. And, oh no, Lu Han's stomach is doing that uncomfortable thing. Where it knots itself up because Joonmyun is looking at him.
"I don't need anyone to go with me," Lu Han says. "If I wanted to go, I'd go."
"Darn," Joonmyun says. "I was hoping you would let me use you as an excuse to try it." He is kneading Lu Han's thigh. "Since I've been meaning to for awhile." Lu Han bets Joonmyun would be good at pottery. Since he's so good with his hands.
"Am I?" Joonmyun is amused.
Oops, Lu Han is thinking aloud again. "I mean the massaging... And stuff. The physical therapy stuff." Lu Han looks at the ground. He doesn't have much to do on Tuesdays. He used to spend the extra time running or hitting up his teammates for no-rules matches in the park, but he clearly can't do that. "If you wanted to go, I would." He tries to make it sound grudging. He can already see Joonmyun beaming at him and telling him his hideous lump of clay is 'oh wow such a beautiful bunny rabbit'. Not that he would make something lame like a bunny rabbit. Not that he’s excited. That would be ridiculous. Because he sees enough of Joonmyun already. "Go, I mean."
"Pottery!" Lu Han says. "I would go with you to pottery." Joonmyun evaluates him. Lu Han grips his shirt, balling it up in his hands. "If you wanted." Why does he suddenly want to die?
An agonizing silence as Joonmyun stacks the ankle weights. "Sounds great," he says. His smile is so fucking bright. Lu Han should wear sunglasses to these torture sessions. "Give me your address, and I'll pick you up."
"I don’t need to be--"
"Don’t argue," Joonmyun says. "I’m not doing it for you, of course. I just don’t want to be late to my first pottery class." He doesn’t meet Lu Han’s eyes. Lu Han doesn’t believe him.
But for the first time in a long time, Lu Han doesn’t put up a fight about it. "All right," he says, and wipes his sweaty palms on his gym shorts.
"Do you want to go to the movies on Tuesday?" Yixing asks. "Since you’re broken. It’s not like we can guilt Minseok into pick-up games."
"I’m standing right here, guys." Minseok’s hair is going in every direction as he dries it with a towel.
"I have plans on Tuesday." Lu Han sounds really suave and not-suspicious. Maybe.
"What kind of plans?"
"Oh, you know…"
Yixing narrows his eyes. "If I knew, I wouldn’t have invited you to the movies." He lightly shoves at Lu Han. Lu Han clutches at his purple headphones as though they will save him.
"I'mgoingtoapotteryclasswithJoonmyun." As one word, it’s way less incriminating, right?
Yixing, who forgets what he is doing halfway through the process of tying his shoe on some days, chooses now to pay perfect attention. "Oh pottery is it?" He glimmers with wickedness. "With Joonmyun."
"Lu Han is going to pottery?" Yifan, panting and breathless, collapses onto the bench next to Yixing. "Really?"
"He's going with Joonmyun."
"Oh, I see," says Minseok with a grin, pouring water onto his face as Lu Han looks up at him accusingly. "So he wouldn't go with any of us, but he'll go with ~Joonmyun~."
"Shut up shut up shut up," Lu Han covers his ears with his hands. "He asked, okay?"
"I can't believe he willingly wants to spend more time with you," Minseok says. "What do you guys even talk about?"
"Stuff," Lu Han relies, vaguely.
The truth is, they don’t really talk about anything. Or maybe they talk about everything, so it’s hard to pinpoint.
Joonmyun tells Lu Han anecdotes about his friends, and about his older brother, who goes to Sogang University and is apparently ‘the smart one’. Joonmyun tells Lu Han about his friends in choir: Kyungsoo, who looks innocent and bags a ton of dates because of it, and Baekhyun, who has a speaking voice that grates but sings like an angel.
Lu Han tells Joonmyun about the acoustic songs Yixing still writes about this girl he dated when he was a first year, before he made the team. He also tells him about Zitao’s obsession with leopard print, and Yifan’s obsession with himself. Lu Han tells Joonmyun about his long-running feud with Jongin, who has appalling taste in football teams and is a Chelsea fan, and about how Chanyeol is determined to win Jongin’s friendship one way or another.
“Stuff” is a good answer. Lu Han pats himself on the back.
"Stuff. How thrilling." Minseok looks to Yixing for help in his mission to make even sitting on the sidelines raise Lu Han's blood pressure, but Yixing has his eyes fixed on the pitch, where Choi Minho is showing off for Cho Jinho.
"It’s so weird," Lu Han says. "Sometimes he just looks at me and I start talking. About anything."
"You know what?" Yifan takes one last sip of water, and then closes the bottle. "You act like you have a crush on him or something."
Lu Han’s stomach rolls. Usually the result of a bicycle kick, not words. "Don't say weird shit like that." He pours his own water on Yifan's lap. "That's fucking weird."
"Says the man who climbs into my shower," Minseok inserts.
"I didn't say you do have a crush on him," Yifan replies, blotting at the wet spot with his towel. "Just that you're acting like it."
"Fuck off." Lu Han looks at the ground. His knee hurts. "It’s not like that."
"Don't be so sensitive," Minseok says. "Why are you all scowl-y now?"
Yixing comes back to the conversation. "Lu Han is always sensitive," he coos. He reaches out like he’s going to grab Lu Han's cheek. Lu Han escapes by leaning back farther than Yixing's arms can reach.
"He can dish it out but he can’t take it,” says Minseok.
"That kind of thing isn't funny when you have a face like this," Lu Han says. He traces the scar on his cheek. "Especially in high school."
Lu Han had never been bullied. Not… not really, anyway. But there had been whispers, and propositions during that summer before college. There had been… other things, too. Lu Han’s throat is dry.
"I see." Yifan stands, towering. Minseok is looking at Lu Han with that surprised expression again. Yixing isn't looking at Lu Han at all. They have had this conversation before, when Yixing had asked point-blank if Lu Han had other reasons for climbing after Minseok into the shower.
Lu Han had dragged his thumb across his cheek and said no. Yixing hadn’t pushed it.
"We need to get back out there," Yifan says. He seems to be debating whether or not to touch Lu Han's shoulder in apology. Lu Han smiles at him. No harm done.
"First game of the year is next weekend," Lu Han says. "You losers need all the practice you can get."
"Whatever," Minseok says. "We'll win for you this year and then you can go back to your showboating again next season."
"Right," says Lu Han. He feels kind of sick.
"In the meantime, you'll have pottery~" Lu Han kicks out at Yixing with his good leg, but Yixing is crafty and coordinated when he wants to be. "Can you keep your eyes out for sloppy passes?"
"Yeah," Lu Han says, and wishes, more than anything, that he could join them.
Lu Han works in the humanities library. "I would love to work in a library," Jongdae says, as Lu Han absently tightens and loosens his calf. "All that knowledge…"
"Not my thing," says Lu Han. He does not like the quiet. It leaves him too much time with his thoughts.
Jongdae stops. He stares at Lu Han. "It is totally wasted on you, though. Do you even know how to read?" He leans closer to Lu Han. "Lu Han, do you know how books work? You have to open it, first. It’s a process kind of like bending--"
"How many players start on the pitch in a football match?" Lu Han counters. "You don’t even know, even after two years of being friends with the entire football team."
"Oh, you know," Jongdae says. "I had classes to get ‘A’s in."
"Oh, did you get an ‘A’ in Chinese, Jongdae?"
"No," Jongdae says. "You would think that spending all this time with four Chinese guys would have some kind of advantage, but ~no~, I didn’t even get an ‘A’ in Chinese."
"The point is, I’m not into books and you’re not into football, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong—" Considering, Lu Han tilts his head. "Well, actually, you’re wrong—"
"I would hit you if you weren’t already broken," Jongdae threatens, crossing his arms as Lu Han gets back to work.
Lu Han makes enough to pay for his hasukjib and keep enough cash in his wallet to treat Sehun to bubble tea on econ homework Saturdays, and that is all Lu Han really cares about.
He walks in on Monday to a thankful Jongin. "Thank you for coming back," Jongin says. "It felt like I would never see you again."
"I saw you on Friday?" Lu Han moves past Jongin to sign in to his computer. "I need to go and make sure non-fiction got re-shelved correctly."
"Are you doing scheduling? Because I want to work whenever Chanyeol is not working."
"You don’t look any worse for wear, Jonginnie." Lu Han pats his face. Jongin winces at the same time as he leans into the touch.
"That’s because you can’t see my soul." Jongin has a pen in a death grip. "Lu Han, are you sure you should be walking around on that leg?"
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "It’s fine." He leaves his phone and keys on the table. His knee is starting to lock up from the walk, but he minimizes the limp as he heads toward the shelves.
A quarter of the books are in the wrong places, so Lu Han shuffles them around, holding armfuls of them as he slides others across with the tips of his fingers. A copy of the biography of King Sejong slips from the top of the pile. It hits the ground, loud in the quiet library.
"I didn’t know you worked here." A pair of familiar hands pick up the book. Joonmyun’s smile is sweet and even. Lu Han feels exposed standing in front of it.
"My day job," Lu Han informs him. "Until I get my lucrative Manchester United contract."
"Your day job doesn’t suit you at all," Joonmyun says, and laughs. "Give me half of them."
"This is my work, Joonmyun," Lu Han says. "I can do it myself."
"And my work is helping you get back on a football pitch. So I refuse to let your job interfere with mine."
He grabs three more books and holds them as Lu Han puts the other five back where they belong.
Then Lu Han reclaims the ones Joonmyun holds, filing them back into place. "All done." He wipes his hands on his jeans and then pushes his bangs out of his face. "What brings you here?"
"Homework," Joonmyun says, smile turning wry. "You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find books about the Japanese tea ceremony, would you?"
"I would," Lu Han says. "If you want to take a very slow walk."
"Very slow walks are my favorite," Joonmyun answers. Lu Han can’t explain the way Joonmyun’s awkward shuffling gait is so charming. It just is. Lu Han likes people, generally, but he likes Joonmyun a lot. "As long as there aren’t any stairs involved."
It takes a good thirty minutes to find all the books Joonmyun needs. He pokes and prods Lu Han with partially remembered titles and call numbers he’d looked up at home, and Lu Han returns with snide comments about Joonmyun’s ‘nerd classes’ and who chooses Asian tea ceremonies for an independent study project, anyway?
When he finally makes it back to the desk, Joonmyun carrying seven books and Lu Han two, Jongin frowns.
"You were gone a while."
"Sorry," Lu Han says. "Let me check Joonmyun out, and then I’ll do some of the returns."
"I’m going out to pull a couple of books for reserve," says Jongin. "And by the way, someone called on your cell phone while you were out ~gallivanting~."
"Why do all your friends have a more interesting vocabulary than you?" Joonmyun teases.
"Fuck off," Lu Han says. He picks up his phone. One missed call. It’s from his father. Great. Lu Han will have to return the call. His knee is starting to ache.
"Was it important? I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time."
"It was no one that matters."
It is the careful, measuring look that Lu Han is coming to associate with Joonmyun not knowing what his boundaries are. He can tell Joonmyun wants to press. He… appreciates that he doesn’t. "All right," says Joonmyun.
Lu Han takes Joonmyun’s student ID. It’s a goofy photo. Joonmyun has red-tinted curly hair that makes him look like a show-dog. It is not a good look. It makes Lu Han chuckle.
"I know, I know," Joonmyun says. "It’s an awful photo." He’s pulling at his sleeves as he waits for Lu Han to hand back the ID. "My— a friend of mine convinced me to get a perm, and, well…"
Lu Han slides the books across the scanner one by one. When he’s finished, Joonmyun puts four of them into his backpack and carries the others. "You can leave a few here, if you want? I can put them behind the counter."
"I drove," Joonmyun says. "It’s not a big deal." He pauses. "Thanks for your help today. I’ll see you tomorrow."
"Not tonight?" Lu Han has physical therapy on Mondays.
"Donghae is back. You’ll have him tonight. Meanwhile, I’ll be perusing the history of tea leaves."
"I’m not sure which of us will be more pathetic," Lu Han says. "Then yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow." For pottery. The things Lu Han gets himself into.
Joonmyun waves and exits, and Lu Han watches him leave.
"Who was that?" Jongin asks, when he gets back to the front circulation desk. "You only get all excited like that for football."
"That’s Joonmyun," Lu Han says. "My physical therapist."
"And your friend, right?" Jongin taps something into the computer.
"Right," Lu Han says. And yeah, he has physical therapy with the mysterious Donghae tonight. He has to call his father back tonight. But he’s in a surprisingly good mood. He thinks, crazily, it is because of Joonmyun and his boring homework and his awful ID photo and his unfortunate shirt with sleeves that were slightly too long. "My friend."
"How was your session with hyung?"
Lu Han shrugs. "It was okay." He tilts his head toward Joonmyun’s. "Can I tell you a secret?"
"What?" Joonmyun’s teeth are too big, Lu Han thinks. When he smiles, they gleam.
"I like you better." Lu Han laughs as Joonmyun blushes a soft pink with pleasure even as he shakes his head, denial on the tip of his tongue.
"Let’s begin, guys," their teacher says.
Their teacher is an energetic second year by the name of Taemin, whose hair is so long it looks like it’s going to get caught in the wheel.
"We’re going straight to the confusing spinning device?" Lu Han looks at the contraption in front of him, with a pedal and buttons. There’s a bucket in front of him, too, filled with sponges, wooden knives and a thingy that looks like an oversized version of one of Yixing’s guitar picks. "Is that safe?"
"You aren’t going to hurt yourself on a potter’s wheel, Lu Han," Joonmyun says, seated next to him. He’s close enough that he can tap the side of Lu Han’s sneaker with the toe of his leather shoe. "Relax. Have fun."
Taemin teaches them how to turn the wheels on. It’s sort of like driving a car. Pressing the pedal harder makes the wheel spin fast enough to make Lu Han dizzy. "You will rarely need it to go that fast," Taemin tells the class, with a pointed eye at Lu Han. "These are pottery wheels, not go-carts."
Joonmyun laughs down at his own wheel and taps Lu Han with his ankle. So Lu Han taps him back, happy that his left leg, his good leg, is closest to Joonmyun. "Asshole," Lu Han says, which just makes Joonmyun laugh harder. Joonmyun has a hand over his mouth. It stifles the sound. Taemin continues his lecture.
They are each given a lump of clay, just large enough to fit in both hands comfortably. "Get to know the texture," Taemin says. "Feel the clay."
Joonmyun immediately presses his fingers into it. He is gentle, the same way that he is with Lu Han’s knee. Lu Han looks with trepidation at his own clay. "You look like a scared little kid," Joonmyun says. "The clay isn’t going to squeeze back. You have balls flying at you all day. What’s a ball of clay?"
"I play footie." Lu Han moves the lump from one palm to the other. It’s cool and a little slick. "It’s illegal to use your hands."
"You aren’t going to do it completely wrong," Joonmyun says. "That’s the joy of art. You can just say you meant it to look weird, and everyone will have to believe you."
Lu Han laughs and digs his fingers into the clay. It’s firm, but not too firm. He forms it back into a ball. "Well, football is pretty much the only thing I do right," he says. "I hope you are ready to believe."
They follow Taemin’s instructions, slapping the clay down onto the wheel-head hard enough to make it stick. "Now get your hands wet," Taemin says. "You’ll want them to be wet the whole time, to keep your pot from warping."
Joonmyun listens attentively, and when they start working the clay, Joonmyun is good with his hands. Lu Han, as expected, is less so. His pot is more… shapeless lump than pot. "How goes it?"
"Um." Lu Han dips his hands back in the water and sighs. "It could be worse?"
"It could be," Joonmyun says. He stops his wheel and stands up. He comes to stand behind Lu Han, letting himself lean into him. His chin digs into Lu Han’s shoulder. "When you first started to play football, were you immediately awesome at it?"
"No, of course not." Lu Han had been a mess. It had been him, a football, and a bunch of older kids in the neighborhood who wouldn’t let him play until he could kick at a person instead of at nothing.
"Throwing a pot is just like that." He puts his hands on Lu Han’s, pushing.
"Okay. Sure." Lu Han blows his bangs out of his face.
Joonmyun's hands are soft and wet with clay. They stick to the backs of Lu Han's hands. "Just enough pressure to shape it," he whispers into Lu Han's ear. Lu Han can feel Joonmyun's chest warm against his back.
"When did you become an expert?"
"I'm a fast learner," Joonmyun says, his fingers fitting between Lu Han's to glide along the clay as well. The wheel is spinning slower now. Lu Han had forgotten his foot was on the pedal. He pushes down enough to pick the speed back up. "See? Not so hard."
His lips tickle Lu Han's ear. Lu Han's heart quickens. This isn't soothing. Whoever said pottery is soothing was, is, a liar. Lu Han is going to spontaneously combust. "Easy for you to say." He squeaks. In a not-girly way. He hopes.
A soft chuckle. Joonmyun's fingers drag up Lu Han's arms, leaving gray-brown trails up his skin. "You’re doing well," Joonmyun says, retreating to his own wheel and re-wetting his hands. He squeezes some water from the sponge over the top of the clay, like Lu Han had noticed Taemin doing earlier. He looks comfortable hunched over the wheel.
"This isn’t really your first time doing pottery, is it?" Joonmyun looks over at Lu Han. There’s a stripe of clay on his right cheek, from his knuckle, maybe. Lu Han’s traitorous stomach flips and flops.
"No," Joonmyun says. "Are you mad?" Joonmyun suckers his poker buddies out of cash and Lu Han into pottery. He isn’t nearly as harmless as he looks.
Lu Han should be angered that Joonmyun lied to him to trick him into coming, but what did Joonmyun really gain from it except more of Lu Han’s time? And Lu Han had wanted more of Joonmyun’s time, too, only he never would have pushed for it.
So Lu Han isn’t upset. He can still feel Joonmyun’s hands on his own, and though this hasn’t been relaxing, it has been fun. "No," Lu Han says. "But you owe me."
"What do I owe you?" Joonmyun, his secret out of the bag, uses his index fingers to add a dramatic lip to his vase. His clay is smooth. Lu Han’s pot is lopsided, but better than before. Maybe there is hope for him after all.
"There’s a match, this weekend," Lu Han says. "I’ve never been a spectator before. Keep me company?" He isn’t exactly holding his breath. He tries to sound detached. He is not sure why the answer matters. Perhaps because Joonmyun is among the few people that make Lu Han feel comfortable, and seeing his team play without him is going to be… hard to watch. "I’ll explain the rules and—"
"I happen to be free on Saturday afternoon," Joonmyun says. "I think I could manage that."
Zitao curls up like a kitten in the middle of the duvet, long, thick limbs bending in weird directions as Lu Han studies him from the desk. "So I hear you really like Joonmyun."
"Who did you hear that from?" Lu Han draws doodles on Zitao’s Korean homework. Zitao uses glitter pens, and Lu Han can never resist.
"Everyone," Zitao says. "Even Minseok mentioned it, and he barely notices your existence unless you’re forcing him to." Zitao flops onto his back. His leopard print shirt makes his body blend in with his leopard print sheets like some horrible kind of camouflage. "Stop drawing on my homework."
"All the answers are wrong, anyway," Lu Han says. "I’m making corrections."
"You’re drawing pink sparkly penises, ge. I know you." Zitao smiles at him. "You didn’t answer my question."
"I like him a lot," Lu Han says. "He is a nice guy. And," an accusing stare at Zitao, "he is going to the game with me on Saturday, unlike some people I could mention."
"I have to teach my martial arts class," Zitao says. "Sorry!" He rolls up into a sitting position and pulls on Lu Han’s sweats. "Help me with my Korean homework. Yixing-ge is too busy with football practice to help me."
Lu Han used to be too busy, as well. It hurts like eating a handful of razorblades to be reminded of his exclusion, but he smiles anyway. "Come here, little peach, and let Lu Han teach you the mysteries of Korean grammar."
At least this is useful, Lu Han thinks. At least this is another hour he’s not at a loose end.
The worst part about being an athlete, Lu Han tells Joonmyun on Friday, is that you know the extreme things your body is capable of, and even regaining basic mobility gives no satisfaction. "I can walk," Lu Han says, "but I can’t run."
"You will be able to, though," Joonmyun says, doing squats along with Lu Han. His face is flushed pink from exertion. "Eventually."
"Eventually is not now." Lu Han straightens as his knee begins complaining. "I can’t even do twenty squats."
"But maybe next week you’ll be able to do twenty. And the week after that, thirty."
"I’ve never been patient," Lu Han says. He wants to play football now. He wants to climb Everest now. He wants to be free of his father’s angry voice and to throw perfect pots and for Minseok to actively want his friendship now.
"What a good time to learn, then." Joonmyun grabs Lu Han’s arm. "When the reward is getting back on the pitch with your team."
Yixing is waiting for him outside the center when Lu Han walks out. "I thought you were supposed to come out feeling better than when you went in." Yixing throws an arm around Lu Han’s shoulder. He smells like fresh-cut grass and mud.
"If I want to keep my full range of mobility, I have to keep things from tightening up. It hurts, but better pain now, right?" Lu Han elbows Yixing into dropping his arm. "Practice let out early?"
"Duizhang wants us to be rested for the match tomorrow, since we’re going into it without our star player." His eyes flicker down to Lu Han’s knee, and then he switches sides, coming around to Lu Han’s left and grabbing him in another casual embrace. This time, Lu Han lets his arm remain around his shoulders. "You know, I was doing some research online."
"Were you?" Lu Han leans his head against Yixing’s as they walk. They are not far from Lu Han’s favorite place to get kalguksu.
"Yup," Yixing says, pulling Lu Han tighter against him. "Did you know that the type of injury you have, that torn ligament, occurs most often when a knee is reinjured?"
Lu Han keeps his eyes forward, stopping Yixing from stepping out into traffic when they get to the crosswalk. "Oh?" He licks dry lips.
"And you’ve got that scar on your knee," Yixing says. "So I was wondering if maybe you’d injured it before?" He says it lightly, but his smile, when Lu Han sneaks a glance, is tight.
"Wouldn’t you have known, if I were playing injured?" His bag is getting heavy. He should switch it to his other arm, but he’s too entangled with Yixing.
"I thought so, but sometimes I’m not so sure." Yixing, usually playful, sounds unusually serious. "You’re not the most open person, not even with me. And I’m your best friend."
"You know more about me than anyone else," Lu Han says, moving forward as the crosswalk changes to read ‘40’.
"Which means I know a fraction more than nothing," is Yixing’s reply. Lu Han huffs, nudging Yixing with his elbow again, but softly this time.
"You know my favorite kalguksu restaurant, though." Yixing doesn’t seem amused. "And my favorite color. And my favorite songs." He sighs. "It was in high school."
Turning right, toward the restaurant, Yixing almost misses a step. "In high school?"
"When I injured my knee before," says Lu Han.
"Did you hurt it on the field, or…" Trailing off, he looks at Lu Han, who is purposefully not looking back.
"No," Lu Han answers. Yixing waits for more, but doesn’t get it. Lu Han thinks he’ll ask another question. Ask for more. He doesn’t. Instead, he takes a deep breath.
"You had better not waste my money by getting that spicy soup again."
"Whatever, dick," Lu Han says. "You know you’re the one who can’t handle any spice."
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Yixing says loftily. "I handle spice just fine." Eyebrows waggle seductively. "And you can ask Kim Hyoyeon about that."
Lu Han pushes Yixing through the door of the kalguksu restaurant, the tension in his back easing at Yixing’s swift subject change. "Gross," Lu Han says. "No one cares about your string of one night stands."
"She’s no one night stand," Yixing says, winking. "She’s my soulmate."
"That’s what you always say!" Lu Han shouts, as the ajumma shoots them both a good-natured glare. Lu Han offers her an apologetic smile. "You should buy me two bowls of kalguksu for making me listen to it again."
The afternoon of the match is warm. Joonmyun shows up in a red Goryeo sweatshirt with long beige sleeves and red cuffs. The tiger emblazoned on the front seems to be roaring its distaste at being worn on such a nice day.
"You know it’s like, twenty degrees outside, right?" Lu Han asks, in lieu of a greeting. "Is your blood thin?"
"I think you mean it’s only twenty degrees, Joonmyun. Where on Earth is your coat, right?" Joonmyun shrugs, and then steps forward. He trips over his own shoelace. Lu Han reaches out to catch him. "Besides, this is the only ‘school spirit’ gear I own."
"Really?" Lu Han is wearing his jersey. He might not be playing, but he’s still a member of the team. When he’d woken up this morning, it was like his knee had known how much he wants to play. It had ached so bad Lu Han had been tempted to put on the brace. Even now, he’s keeping his weight on his left leg. "I would have loaned you a shirt."
"I might have let you," Joonmyun says, "if you had let me pick you up this morning."
"It would have been out of your way," Lu Han says. "You would have had to drive past here to get to my hasukjib."
"Isn’t that my choice?" Joonmyun taps his chin. "I’m an adult, same as you are."
"I don’t need help," Lu Han says. "I got here, didn’t I?" He’d almost been late. His mother had called, and Lu Han had been sleepy enough to answer the phone without checking the caller first.
"Do you need money?" she’d asked him, and Lu Han had wanted to laugh.
"No," he had said. "I don’t need anything from you."
"It isn’t worth the price I would have to pay in exchange. What would he want? The new year has passed, so it can’t be a trip home."
"Lu Han, your father is—"
"I’m running late," Lu Han had interrupted sharply. "Thank you for calling, and don’t send me anything."
Joonmyun coughs lightly. He always does. Lu Han calls him a ‘frail cougher’ and Joonmyun says it’s because he’s a singer and he doesn’t want to mess up his vocal chords. "Should we find a seat?"
"We have the best seats out here already." Lu Han drags Joonmyun toward the lowest bleachers, stepping up into the third row, right behind the team. "Come on!"
"Is it okay for me to sit here?" Joonmyun asks. He is pulling his sleeves down again. Lu Han should count the seconds until he starts to fuss with his bangs. It is strange, for Lu Han, to see Joonmyun so uncomfortable. It is strange every time, because in the gym, Joonmyun is so confident and sure. "I’m not a member of the team, or anything."
"You’re with me," Lu Han says. Joonmyun’s eyes widen. "Sit down and I’ll explain the rules."
Joonmyun does sit down. The person next to Lu Han scoots to make room for his friend, pushing Lu Han into Joonmyun. Joonmyun loses his balance, but catches himself by grabbing Lu Han’s arm. He doesn’t let go. Lu Han shivers. Maybe it’s colder than he thought. "Who says I don’t know the rules?"
"When we first met…" Lu Han looks over at Joonmyun, who is twinkling at him again.
"I said I didn’t play football. Not that I didn’t have any interest."
"But—" Lu Han frowns. Joonmyun had always acted like he didn’t know anything about football, letting Lu Han explain maneuvers to him and condescend excessively. "You should have said something."
"You look so happy explaining it, though," Joonmyun says. "But since the pottery fib, I think I should be more honest with you."
"You’re very mysterious, Kim Joonmyun," Lu Han says, and Joonmyun laughs, loudly. Enough to garner stares from Minho, who is still lacing up his cleats, foot up on the first tier of the steel bleachers.
"Am I?" He falls into Lu Han when Lu Han shivers again. "All you have to do is ask," he says, the words pitched so only Lu Han can hear them. Lu Han’s stomach feels knotted up like temple ropes, in intricate webs of Joonmyun’s design.
"I’ll keep that in mind," says Lu Han. Then there’s the whistle.
As the game progresses, Lu Han does find joy in watching, even if he wishes he were out there. Joonmyun helps, asking questions about each player's specialties and cheering just as exuberantly as Lu Han when their team gets into position to shoot for a goal. Joonmyun burrows into his side during the stretches when the other team has possession, and Lu Han has no complaints because he is a little cold, sitting here on the sidelines. He’s not used to being cold on a football pitch. Usually he’s out running, the ball pushing against his insole as he takes it up the field, skirting defenders coming from the left and from the right.
Now all Lu Han can do is yell belligerently at Yifan to use those huge hands to stop goals, damnit from the sidelines and listen to Joonmyun laugh in his ear.
"Your team is really good." Eyes still on the players, Joonmyun steals some of Lu Han's attention. "When you're out there, you guys must be unstoppable."
"We are." Lu Han isn't being arrogant, but their team works well as a unit. Without Lu Han, there are gaps in their offense. A better team than the one they are playing today would take advantage of those holes, but Yixing and Jongin have always worked so well together that in the end, it is three to nothing in favor of the Tigers.
Lu Han wraps Joonmyun up in a hug. Joonmyun squeaks before he hugs Lu Han back, his sweatshirt warm and soft beneath Lu Han's arms and his hands pressing one atop the other to Lu Han's spine. It is... nice, and Lu Han is reluctant to let go.
The bleachers start to empty, and the team, after shaking hands with the opposition, returns triumphant to the sidelines. Jongin's shirt is plastered to him with sweat as he looks up at Lu Han. "Were we good, hyung?"
"Definitely," Lu Han says, and Jongin’s grin grows larger. Then his eyes turn curiously to Joonmyun. He’s distracted by Yixing coming up behind him, followed by Yifan and Minseok. "Do you want to meet my friends?"
"Sure," Joonmyun says. "It would be nice to put all these names with faces."
When Lu Han introduces Joonmyun, they all look at him curiously. Joonmyun smiles and waves, with some of that bashful confidence that Lu Han doesn't quite get because it is so contradictory, and Yixing leans closer.
"So you're the magical physical therapist."
"There's nothing magical about me," Joonmyun says. "I'm very boring."
"You can't be that boring," Yixing replies. "Lu Han's attention span is almost as short as mine, and he hasn't lost interest yet."
Lu Han reaches out hands as if to strangle Yixing, and Minseok sadly looks at them both before stage whispering 'sibling rivalry' to Joonmyun, making him chuckle.
"Oh look," says Yifan, interrupting the conversation. Jongin sees what Yifan is looking at and waves.
"Look, Lu Han, your true love is headed this way," Jongin says, and Lu Han turns to see Jinri walking toward them. She's wearing her own jersey, the big 'C' for Captain embossed above her heart. She's smiling broadly.
Yifan gets called over by the ref, leaving them to do captain stuff. Lu Han does not envy him the job. He’s still glad he turned it down.
"Lu Han," she says, when she’s almost reached them, heading for Yifan’s vacated spot in their circle. "You're alive!"
"Barely," he says, when she's close enough that he doesn't have to yell. Her hair sticks to her jaw, and her cheeks are pink from the wind. "I might as well just sleep until next season, though."
"Naw," she says. "It's a good chance to observe your team, pretty boy." Jongin stifles a laugh. "From an outside perspective. You'll be a more strategic player when you head back into the fray."
"That's a good way to look at it," Lu Han says, smiling brilliantly at her. She’s so cheerful and bright.
"That's the spirit," she says, and then she's moving away, toward Krystal and Amber, who are waiting by the turnstile exit to head out to the main campus.
Lu Han watches her go.
"Wow, good to see some things never change," Minseok says.
"Yeah," Yixing agrees, "like Jinri being totally out of Lu Han's league."
"You're cruising for a bruising," Lu Han says, shoving Yixing. He turns to look at Joonmyun, who is being uncustomarily quiet. "Everything okay?"
"You like her?" Joonmyun asks. He is smiling, but his voice is off. But then his eyes are crinkling up, and his voice sounds perfectly normal again. "She's totally your type. Football even in your girls, huh?"
"You know me," Lu Han says. "One track mind." He scratches at his head, mussing his hair. He’s starting to feel the chill again, because the sun keeps darting behind clouds and hiding its warmth. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"She is." Joonmyun is looking at her now, and Lu Han must have imagined the weirdness he heard earlier in Joonmyun's voice, because now Joonmyun looks amused. "So why isn't she your girlfriend, football star?"
"Because Lu Han doesn't have balls." Yixing dodges before Lu Han can even swing at him. His sweaty face is lit up with pleasure.
Jongin crosses his arms. "He couldn't get past her first rejection--"
"She didn't reject me." He digs his shoe into the soft ground.
"What happened again?" Minseok turns to Yifan, who has just jogged back over to join them again. He has a ball under his arm. The game ball. Lu Han envies him his casual gait, and his own knee twinges. He shifts his weight. He misses running. "Duizhang, do you remember? I don't think Lu Han told us about it enough times, it's slipping my memory."
Yifan pretends to think about it, pursing his already tiny mouth. "Something about... her thinking... he was..." Yifan slowly shakes his head. "I can't remember. I guess five hundred times wasn't enough to embed it permanently in my brain..."
Yixing is grinning like a fox, and Jongin is beaming wide enough to split his face.
"She thinks I'm pretty." Lu Han drops his eyes mournfully. "I asked her what she thought of me and she said 'you're pretty'."
"You're definitely much more than that," Joonmyun says. He slides his fingers along Lu Han’s forearm consolingly. "I have to go, Lu Han, but pursue your love!"
"Wait, why do you have to go?" He had gotten used to the way Joonmyun had fit into his side, with his cheerful enthusiasm for Lu Han's sport and just enough knowledge that Lu Han could share the fun of it with him without feeling like he was imposing.
"You won't miss me," Joonmyun says. "Your team is here now."
"Of course I'll miss you," Lu Han says, and Joonmyun's hands disappear completely into his sleeves. It’s endearing. Lu Han doesn't know why, but it is one of the things about Joonmyun that make his stomach burble. He almost asks Joonmyun to stay, but maybe Joonmyun has other things to do. Lu Han isn't going to try and keep him. Lu Han doesn't need him to stay, anyway, and he won't ask it of him. "Good luck with your work."
"Thanks," Joonmyun says. "The Chinese tea ceremony awaits."
After he leaves, Yixing stares at Lu Han. "That's interesting."
"You're so open with him." Yixing is still staring. "Should I be jealous?" He is teasing. If Lu Han thinks about it, though, it feels true.
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "You should feel super jealous. I'm probably going to replace you, Yixing. Your privileged days as my very best friend are at an end--"
"Why I oughta--"
And then they are wrestling, sort of, Yixing careful not to push Lu Han too hard and Lu Han having no such reservations because he is underhanded like that. And as they play, Lu Han definitely does not think about the way Joonmyun has crawled up under his defenses and found his own place in Lu Han's life.
That night, sleep is hard to come by. Lu Han keeps seeing the day’s game behind his eyelids. His team, winning without him. It feels good and terrible at the same time. Pride and misery all tangled up together in frustration. His knee aches but Lu Han is too lazy to get the brace or get a glass of water or do anything about it. It’s only when he thinks about last year’s championship match that he’s able to fall asleep.
The choir room is not hard to find, even for Lu Han, who is second only to Yixing in the art of getting really fucking lost.
"What are you doing here? No footballs came in through the window from outside…" Jongdae walks over, feigning concern. "Are you injured? Sick?" He presses his palm to Lu Han’s forehead, and Lu Han pushes him back.
"No." Lu Han looks around the choir room. "I’m here to collect Joonmyun."
"I’ll be ready in a minute," Joonmyun says. He’s in the back of the room with a wide-eyed guy, shuffling through papers. They’re talking urgently in hushed tones.
"Collect Joonmyun?" Another student Lu Han doesn’t know, in a backwards baseball cap, drapes himself over Jongdae and looks Lu Han up and down. "You must be Lu Han."
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "Baekhyun or Kyungsoo?"
"Baekhyun." He pulls on the lip of his cap. "At your service, football jock."
"Whatever," says Jongdae. "Like you aren’t a jock, too. Both of you have your heads filled more with sports than with any kind of studying."
"So what have you come to collect Joonmyun-hyung for, exactly?" Baekhyun smiles like a puppy. It should be very cute. The sparkle in his eyes is more dangerous than cute. Lu Han would put money on him being as much trouble as Yixing. He’s the kind of player who tricks you with good footwork when you’ve taken the ball up to midfield. "It must be hard, being that popular."
"I know, right?" Jongdae laughs. Lu Han burrows his hands into the deep pockets of his jacket. "Joonmyun-hyung must have no time for himself, between appointments, volunteer work, and his huge number of friends."
"Dinner plans." Lu Han looks over at Joonmyun. His mouth is drawn into a frown, and he has dark circles under his eyes. He looks really tired. When he looks up to see Lu Han watching him, he smiles. "Has he been really busy?"
"He’s always really busy, hyung," Jongdae says.
"I’m shocked he’s making time to eat today." Baekhyun is looking more intently at Lu Han, now. "Considering that he has a chunk of his independent project due tomorrow for his last humanities class."
"The tea ceremony thing?" Lu Han asks, and they both make noises of confirmation.
"All right, Lu Han," Joonmyun says, pulling on a jacket twice as thick as Lu Han’s, "I’m ready."
Jongdae and Baekhyun poke and prod and tease at Joonmyun as he packs up his bag. They are all so comfortable with each other. Joonmyun’s bright smile directed at someone else is strange for Lu Han to see. It would be selfish, probably, for Lu Han to want to keep it all for himself.
Outside, the April evening is chilly.
"I could have met you at the bunsik place." Joonmyun is humming something. Maybe one of the songs he had been practicing in choir. "You didn’t have to walk all the way here."
"My knee’s good for it." Lu Han examines Joonmyun’s exhausted shuffle out of the corner of his eye. "If you were tired," Lu Han says roughly, "you could have said no. To dinner."
"What?" Joonmyun reaches out and lightly touches his hand.
"Jongdae says you’ve been really busy. And that your project is due tomorrow."
"Only a part of it," Joonmyun says. "I’m almost finished." He starts humming again for a moment, and then purposefully bumps into Lu Han. "Hey, don’t worry about it. I can afford to get dinner with you."
"I didn’t want you to think it was something—" Lu Han wonders if he had sounded needy on the phone. If Joonmyun had thought he couldn’t say no, or something. "Something you had to do." It makes Lu Han feel gross.
Lu Han’s thigh is cramping up. He needs to stop favoring his left leg, because there is nothing wrong with his right, at least for walking.
"No." Joonmyun is still walking too close to Lu Han. They might trip over each other if they keep walking like this. Joonmyun’s coordination is suspect sometimes, and Lu Han has a longer stride than the smaller man. "I wanted to have dinner with you." For the first time, Lu Han sees Joonmyun stumbling over his words. It echoes in his body, and Lu Han grabs the back of his jacket to keep him from tripping. Joonmyun’s gaze is on the cracks in the sidewalk. "It isn’t some sacrifice I’m making, here, so that you wouldn’t have to face the horrors of eating alone."
If his stomach keeps up with this nonsense, Lu Han will not be able to eat dinner.
"Good." Lu Han lets go of Joonmyun and puts enough space between them to slow his heart rate. "Because eating alone isn’t something I’m afraid of."
It isn’t. Lu Han has the spectacular ability to feel lonely in a crowd of people who all know him. He got used to feeling lonely a long time ago, and just because people like Yixing and Joonmyun make that feeling go away, it doesn’t mean he has forgotten how to deal with it.
"I know," says Joonmyun. "Me either." He laughs. "But that doesn’t mean we can’t eat together tonight."
A tiny bell chimes as he pushes open the door, and light streams out of the tiny restaurant and into the street. It lights Joonmyun from behind. He glows. Lu Han is dizzy. Like he just made a diving header, and all the breath has been knocked out of his body by the ground and the angle on the hit has left a few stars in his eyes.
"If you call ‘picking at your food like a bird’ eating." Lu Han blinks twice and the world straightens on its axis. Joonmyun is looking at him with exasperation.
"Not all of us eat like starving wolves." He nods into the restaurant. "Are you going to just stand in the doorway all day?"
"No," Lu Han says. "I’m coming."
As they eat, Joonmyun talks about a choir performance next month at the hospital for Children’s Day ("That’s in June, in China," Lu Han says. "Not May.") and about his tea ceremony research ("The most complicated one is the Japanese one."), and about exhausting midterms in his sports medicine classes.
"So all in all, I’ll probably keel over by the end of April." Grains of rice stick to Joonmyun’s lips. "There’s nothing I would give up, though."
Lu Han reaches across the table and smoothes the rice from Joonmyun’s mouth. They cling to his thumb, and a few grains fall onto Joonmyun’s navy colored shirt. "You’re lucky."
Lu Han brings his hand back over to his side of the table and picks up his spoon. Joonmyun’s lips are parted, and his eyes bright. "There are so many things that matter to you. You make a difference in so many ways." Lu Han’s mouth is moving without his permission.
"For me, there’s just football. I’m good at football, and that’s it." Lu Han stirs absently at his stew. "And right now, I can’t even do that."
It is every fear Lu Han has had the past few months. It is every practice he watches and every phone call from his parents that he doesn’t answer.
"Well," Joonmyun says, "we’ll have to figure out what else you’re good at in the meantime, won’t we?" He reaches up and combs fingers through his bangs and the hair in front of his ears. Then he pushes his leg between Lu Han’s, tangling their right ankles. It is a comforting touch that Lu Han finds easier to accept because he can’t see it. He thinks Joonmyun knows that, somehow.
"I’m older than you," Lu Han says. "Why do you always feel like my big brother?"
"Am I like a brother to you?" Joonmyun taps his stainless steel chopsticks on the edge of his plastic dish.
Something in Lu Han’s chest whispers no even as he curls his fingers tighter around the spoon. "I don’t have any brothers," he replies. His soup is starting to get cold.
Lu Han’s father calls four times that night. Lu Han will answer next time, because it is not like his parents’ disappointment even matters anymore.
At practice, Minseok collapses next to him on the bench. "You’re looking good this season,” Lu Han says. “You’ve gotten faster."
"I sort of miss you," Minseok says. "On the pitch."
"Only sort of?" Lu Han grabs Minseok’s cheeks and pulls before he can worm back far enough.
"There’s no one on my left," Minseok says. "You were always on my left."
Lu Han leans into Minseok’s space, pressing himself into Minseok’s sweaty side. "Aww, I knew you loved me."
"I said on the pitch," Minseok replies. "Not you as a person. Personal space, Lu Han." His lips quirk at the corners. Lu Han feels a jolt of triumph that combats the longing to feel the burn in his own muscles.
"You keep telling yourself that, Minseokie." Giving Lu Han a look that says you are incorrigible more than I hope you burn alive, Minseok heads back out onto the field, accepting a pass from Jongin and dribbling it jokingly up toward Yifan’s goal. "I won’t tell anyone your secret."
He watches as the team works together. The holes Lu Han had noticed in that first game are starting to close. Lu Han’s place is being filled, slowly, by Jongin and Yixing picking up the slack, Choi Minho falling back into Minseok’s sweet spot in the midfield. Jaehyo, Jinki, Kibeom, Yesung… all capable of stepping in and stepping up. Even Jonghyun, back squabbling with Yifan near the goal, can play offense if they need him to.
There is, Lu Han thinks, a gap on Minseok’s left, where Lu Han always used to take the ball from Minseok to continue up the field.
It is not a very big gap. It is smaller than Lu Han.
"You all right?" Yixing asks, as they pack up to head their separate ways.
"I’m all right," Lu Han says. Yixing frowns at him, and then shakes his head, like he’s disappointed or something.
"If you say so," says Yixing, and Lu Han clenches his hands into fists.
Lu Han's second attempt at pottery, a taller vase, is slightly better than the first. One side still sags, but it is smoother, and probably won't crack in the kiln like the last one had. Joonmyun's vase is perfect.
"I don't think pottery has any chance of being my next expertise," Lu Han says.
Joonmyun curls his muddy hand around Lu Han's wrist. His thumb sits along the vein.
"You don't strike me as the type that gives up," he says. "One more set of leg presses, Joonmyun, I can take it."
"Being able to endure is very different from being determined."
"I'm not so sure about that." He frees Lu Han's arm and uses both hands to cup Lu Han's vase. "After all, what is endurance but determination to survive?"
In May, Donghae announces that Lu Han can start running again. "In fact," he says, kindly, "I would recommend it."
"Are you saying I look out of shape?" Lu Han grins to show he’s joking.
"I’m only recommending what I think is best for your continued athletic success," Donghae says. "Plus, my neighbor in my apartment complex went to Yonsei and he has to buy drinks every time they lose to Goryeo. So I’ve got a lot riding on your recovery."
"I’ll do my best." Lu Han scrubs at his face with a towel. "Was there anything else?"
"I think it would be safe to cut down your sessions, now." He pulls out his phone and scrolls down the schedule. "Wednesdays and Saturdays?"
"Once with Joonmyun and once with you?" It is a good thing. It means he is recovering. It will also lower the financial strain. The lack of effort Lu Han is putting into his studies this year is award-winning, but he should probably try to pass at least half of his classes. Cutting back on hours at the library will take away Lu Han’s excuses not to do any of his homework. Still, he’s inexplicably anxious. "Is twice a week enough?"
"The other two days, you can go running." Donghae says. "Surely you don’t need Joonmyun to hold your hand for that, Mr. Athlete."
"No," Lu Han says. "I don’t."
Yixing sips at his beer carefully. His glass is overfull. So is Lu Han’s, but Lu Han doesn’t give a fuck if it sloshes on him or not. He spills it on the front of his shirt.
"You’re disgusting," Yixing says.
"I’m too pretty to be disgusting," Lu Han says sweetly, and Yixing snorts.
"I don’t think you’re pretty," Yixing says, flicking his forehead. "I think you’re obnoxious and emotionally distant."
"What are you, my girlfriend?" Lu Han takes a giant gulp of beer, letting the foam form a temporary mustache on his upper lip. "I’m not emotionally distant."
"You’ve never had a girlfriend," Yixing says, and Lu Han realizes he is tipsy. "Probably because you say so many words and none of them mean anything."
"I resent that." Lu Han has always been able to hold his alcohol better than Yixing. "Manchester United scores are incredibly important and definitely mean something."
"You talk about those things so no one will ask you any real questions." Yixing pushes his beer toward the center of the table. It is his fourth one. Lu Han should have stopped him two rounds ago, probably, but they’d been having so much fun. It’s been a while since they’ve been out, just the two of them. Yixing is still dating Kim Hyoyeon, somehow.
"Okay," Lu Han says. "Ask me some real questions."
"Did you ever want to do anything besides play football?"
"I’ve always wanted to play football. Since I was really little. It’s the only thing people like about me, anyway, right?" Lu Han tries to remember. "I think I wanted to be a pop star, when I was a teenager." Pop stars are supposed to look like Lu Han. To have long eyelashes that curl and lips that look painted after a run. "I can’t remember why."
"A pop star, huh?" Yixing hiccups. "I wanted to be a comedian."
"That would have been easy for you, since you’re such a joke." Yixing picks up one of the bar snack pretzels and aims for Lu Han’s face. He gets his shoulder instead. "Yeah, a pop star. I… sort of like to sing." Yixing looks surprised, but then determined. Like Lu Han is one of those Rubik’s Cubes that Lu Han always has in his bag and around his room.
Lu Han is nothing like a Rubik’s Cube.
"How did you injure your knee, the first time?" Yixing rests his head on his hand. Lu Han remembers the school roof. The wind in his hair and a choking fear. Lu Han has never liked heights. And his beer is empty, so he takes Yixing’s. "Hey!"
"I got into a fight," Lu Han says. Lu Han has never been bullied. That doesn’t mean no one has ever tried. "You weren’t going to drink it."
"How do you know?" Yixing’s dimple catches the dim light in the bar. This… is okay. This doesn’t feel lonely.
"One more question." Lu Han drags his finger in the beer spilled on the table. He forms a smiley face.
"Why have you never had a girlfriend?" Yixing leans forward. "I remember being surprised that time you disappeared with Song Qian at the Chinese New Year party last spring. None of us even knew you liked her, and you guys were locked in Zhou Mi’s bedroom for over an hour." Yixing is smirking, now. "Then you didn’t date her, so…"
Oh. That. Song Qian had been moments from breaking a handle over Henry’s head, so he had pulled her into a room to calm down. He had ended up listening to her rant about how Henry was leading Amber on for forty minutes and then apologize profusely for dumping it all on him. When they had emerged, Jongdae had wolf-whistled, and the rumor had started then and there.
"That wasn’t…" Lu Han sighs. "We really were just talking. I know you don’t believe me, but it is the truth."
"Seriously?" Yixing shakes his head. "And then there is this thing with Jinri. You keep making excuses not to ask her out. It doesn’t make sense."
"I’m picky," Lu Han says. He doesn’t want to mess up with Jinri. "Jinri is perfect. Cheerful and interested in football and pretty. She always has something nice to say, and she’s supportive to all her friends. She’s kind to a fault and her hair is really soft and she has capable looking hands."
"Sounds like Joonmyun, too," Yixing says. Lu Han can feel the beer heavy in his belly. "Lu Han, are you sure that—" Yixing stops. He scratches at his hair and grimaces. "Never mind. It’s nothing." He smiles at Lu Han. "Thank you for humoring me in my game of questions."
"No problem," Lu Han says. "I have to go to the—"
"That’s what you get for drinking four beers," Yixing says. "Don’t get lost."
"I’m not you." He stands. "I can at least not get turned around on my way to the bathroom."
"Are you sure?" Yixing rests his head on the table.
Lu Han nods. "I’m sure."
In the bathroom, Lu Han takes a piss and then washes his hands in the sink. He looks up and sees himself in the mirror. The scar on his cheek stands out under the fluorescent lights.
"Sounds like Joonmyun." It kind of does.
Lu Han has excellent taste in friends, that’s all.
He rejoins Yixing at the table, and they both drink water until Yixing is steady enough to walk home. As they walk, Yixing drapes an arm around him. "Lu Han," he says, completely serious. "I would like you even if you sucked at football."
There is a lump of emotion in Lu Han’s throat. An extremely macho lump of emotion. "I don’t know if I would like you," he says, instead of saying ‘thank you’ like he wants to.
Yixing laughs, loud enough to garner the attention of other pedestrians on the street, and Lu Han isn’t embarrassed at all to laugh along with him.
The running is going well. Lu Han gets up and goes to the football pitch early in the morning, before the world wakes up. He plays loud music on his iPhone, and runs until his chest cramps. He doesn’t know if he should be relieved or dismayed that his lungs give out before his knee.
The calmness of the early morning is relaxing. Somehow, though, it just makes Lu Han sad. He couldn’t tell anyone why, but there’s something about being the only person he can see in his line of vision that reminds him of the nightmares he used to have when he was in high school, of looking left and looking right and finding no one to help as the fear suffocated him.
When he can no longer run, his lungs burning, he lies down in the middle of the pitch, eyes closed. One of his headphones falls out of his ear. The grass tickles his neck.
"So you are here," Joonmyun says. Lu Han opens his eyes. He’s standing over Lu Han, blocking the sun. It gives him a golden outline. "Jongdae said this is where you used to run."
"Yeah." Lu Han is still out of breath. "You found me." He reaches up and pulls Joonmyun down, until Joonmyun is lying beside him in the grass.
"Would you mind if I come running with you?" Joonmyun asks. "Running inside is so stifling."
"I agree," Lu Han says. "Especially in the spring and early summer." He lolls his head to the side. "Are you sure you have time for that?"
"You’re one to talk," Joonmyun says. "Don’t you have a million parties to attend after finals?"
He does. Large ones. Filled with people Lu Han kinda sorta knows and would introduce as ‘my friend blah blah’ without actually knowing anything about them beyond their preference for hard liquor or beer. "Do you think it is possible," Lu Han starts, "to feel lonely in a room full of people?"
"Probably just as easy as it is to feel lonely on a big empty football pitch," Joonmyun says, and he smiles at Lu Han, the slight unevenness of his teeth more obvious out here under the sun. "Do you think you could manage another lap?"
"Yeah, I could," Lu Han says. "I’ll go slow, just for you."
Joonmyun stands up and offers him a hand. Lu Han considers, for a moment, and then reaches out and takes it. "I don’t need you to," Joonmyun says. "I can keep up with you. I just can’t do too many."
They run three laps around the field, clinging to the touchlines and cutting no corners. At the end, both of them panting and holding onto their thighs, Lu Han thinks it’s the best run he’s ever had out here. "Would you like to get breakfast?"
"I’d love to," Joonmyun says.
The nightmare, the one where Lu Han is completely and utterly abandoned, had started when Lu Han was sixteen. He had woken up screaming, still wearing a cast, and his father had asked him to keep the noise down. "Real men don't scream like little girls from a bad dream," he had said, and Lu Han had committed that to memory.
Lu Han's nails had torn the skin of his palms in his sleep and closing his eyes again had felt terrifying.
The dreams had stopped when he had come to Korea, everything that mattered to him crammed in two suitcases, with no intention of ever returning to Beijing.
"Why haven’t you been answering my calls?" His father is irate. Brusque. Demanding. Same old, same old. Lu Han has had his reasons for not answering.
"Because nothing I have to say to you will be anything you want to hear. And nothing you say to me is anything I want to hear."
"You need to come home." No diatribes, no lectures. It catches Lu Han off guard.
Lu Han doesn’t want to go home. Lu Han has a new home, here, with a kind ajumma that looks after him when he’s sick and Yixing and Zitao and the team and Jongdae. With Joonmyun, now, too.
"I’m not coming back," Lu Han says. "Not to take over your company or anything else. I’m sorry you had me instead of some other, more filial, son." He speaks as formally as he can, because he wants it to be final.
Yixing sends his mother and grandmother roses on Valentine’s day. Zitao calls home once a week. Minseok’s dad comes to every game, and Yifan’s mother thinks he is perfect. Lu Han will never have any of that. He is tired of wanting it.
"You can feel relieved of your responsibility to me from now forward. You can pretend I don’t exist. Whatever you would like." He hangs up the phone. He goes to the bathroom and bends over the toilet bowl, but it is nothing but dry heaves.
"Are you okay, dear? Would you like some soup for your stomach?" His hasukjib ajumma looks at him with concern.
"Nothing's wrong," Lu Han says. "Don't worry." Nothing is wrong that hasn't been wrong for a long time already. "I'm going to skip dinner."
"Growing boys need to eat."
"I'm not growing anymore, ma'am," Lu Han says, smiling at her. His lips crack.
"You might not be growing outside," she says, "but everyone is growing inside, all the time. All that maturing takes energy." Startled, Lu Han laughs. "Have some soup."
"No, thank you," Lu Han says, and for a brief second of weakness, he wishes it were his own mother setting the bowl in front of him. Then he swallows that wishing down, a heavy stone, and leaves it sitting in the pit of his stomach as he goes back into his room.
It is not a busy day in the library.
"Stop moping, Jonginnie."
Lu Han pulls Joonmyun's books out of his backpack. He had taken them from Joonmyun yesterday and volunteered to bring them back.
"It’s not like I have to go out of my way, nerd," he’d said, and Joonmyun had handed them over with a stern look.
"So it’s okay for you to do insignificant favors for other people, but not for other people to do them for you?" Lu Han had scowled. "Like me picking you up, for example. That makes you uncomfortable." Joonmyun pushed his fingers into Lu Han's shin to increase the stretch. Lu Han gritted his teeth.
"It’s not the same thing." Lu Han is used to doing things on his own.
"It‘s exactly the same thing," Joonmyun had said. "Am I too much work as a friend because I'm busy and letting you take my books back to the library?"
"Of course not."
"Then why would you be too much work if I carried your bag because you're on crutches?" He’d been hiding his hands in his jacket sleeves again. "Think of being out on the pitch. You have two defenders on you, but your teammate is open. Do you go for the goal?"
"No," Lu Han says.
"Sometimes it’s okay to rely on your teammates."
Lu Han hadn't been sure what to say, so Joonmyun had asked him about Messi's status on the quest for three-hundred goals, and Lu Han had grasped the subject change like a lifeline.
"I'm not moping," Jongin says, pulling Lu Han back to now. He holds the last of Joonmyun's books, 'An Introduction to the Japanese Tea Ceremony' in his hands. "I am brooding. Like Mr. Darcy."
"And someday Krystal Jung will notice you?" Lu Han sets the book aside after checking it in. The rest he puts on the cart to be filed back on the shelves. "You should ask her out before Sehun works up the nerve."
Jongin pouts at him. "You cannot seriously be giving me relationship advice. You have been pining over Jinri for how long now? Two years?"
"Fuck you, she thinks I'm pretty. As far as I know, Krystal Jung thinks you're hot and would love to date you."
"And not Sehun? He's taller than me now, that little asshole."
"Sehun doesn't even like her, he's just messing with you."
"What? I will strangle him--"
"Good to see you both so hard at work," Minseok says, putting both hands flat on the counter and leaning forward. Zitao is behind him, thumbs hooked through his belt loops. "My university tuition dollars allocated to a great cause."
"What can I help you with, dumpling?" Lu Han bats his eyelashes, and Minseok rolls his eyes.
"Zitao needs a book on King Sejong," says Minseok.
"Oh good, that helps. There are about a thousand of them toward the back. Do you have any more specific information?"
"Inventions," Zitao says. "It's for my year long research project."
"Are you in Joonmyun's class?" Lu Han looks over to the tea ceremony book he set aside.
"I only realized that the guy I sit next to in class was your physical therapist two days ago." Zitao shakes his hair out of his eyes. "Small world. He's very sweet. He loans me pens all the time."
"It is not a small world," Jongin says. "It is a university campus. We’re all bound to run into each other somehow."
Zitao and Minseok disappear deeper into the library with a notecard full of call numbers Lu Han has looked up, and Lu Han sighs at the three carts of books that need to be reshelved. He’d overdone it running today, and his legs hurt. He is so out of condition it worries him. On top of that, he can feel tiny tingles of pain in his knee.
"Why don't I take the books this time?" Jongin says, eyes carefully on the computer and not on Lu Han.
Lu Han runs a hand through his hair. "It’s my turn."
"I don't mind," Jongin says. He is so earnest.
Lu Han frowns. In his head, life has never been a team sport.
"Okay," he says. Jongin looks up in surprise.
"We'll, if you don't want to--"
"No!" Jongin grins at him. "You never say yes, is all. When someone offers to do something for you." Jongin scratches at his stomach. "Makes everyone feel kind of useless sometimes."
"I'm sorry?" For what, Lu Han is unsure.
Dropping a few more books on the first cart, Jongin is still smiling. "We all like you anyway." He looks past Lu Han. "Can you pass me that book next to you?"
"No, I'm keeping it."
"Reading now, too? You must be getting delirious in your football withdrawal. Like I don't even know you anymore."
"Change looks good on you, hyung."
Lu Han points behind Jongin. "It's Krystal!"
Jongin spins as quickly as he ever has on the pitch. There is no one in the entranceway to the library.
"You're still an ass, though," he says. "I guess some things never change."
Sehun draws a giant red ‘x’ on Lu Han’s paper. "I would be worried about you if you weren’t good at football, hyung. This is embarrassing."
"I am really good at football, though," says Lu Han. "I don’t need to be good at anything else."
"What are you going to do when you’re too old to play?"
Sehun nods. "Speaking of football, do you want to kick the ball around when we’re finished? Nothing strenuous, but I thought it might be fun to not have you run circles around me for once."
Lu Han has not ‘kicked the ball around’ in four months. "I’m busy," he says.
"Too busy to goof off? Who are you?" Sehun squints at Lu Han. "Are you mad at me for using red marker all over your homework?"
"Furious," Lu Han says. "I may never speak to you again." He feels weird. Like he had when Yixing had tried to wheedle him on to a roller coaster at Everland. The beginnings of fear.
Which is stupid, because Lu Han isn’t afraid of football. Lu Han loves football. Maybe he knows that if he plays with Sehun, he will realize just how much he misses it for real and all the progress he has made in not wanting to bury his face in his pillow and sleep until next season will be lost. That must be it. There is no other explanation.
"Do these problems over again," Sehun says. "But correctly, this time. Do you remember how to calculate GDP?"
"No." Lu Han laughs at Sehun’s unimpressed face. "But I wrote it down right here so I will figure it out."
Lu Han focuses on the problems in front of him, and sets the discomfort aside for now.
Why Lu Han thinks it will be a good idea to bring Joonmyun with him to football practice, no one knows. Certainly Lu Han doesn’t know. He is especially baffled with his own logic when Jongdae shows up toward the end of practice, when they’re reviewing notes, like he does sometimes, as Joonmyun is leaning into Lu Han’s side and asking interestedly about all the jargon they use to refer to plays and movement patterns.
Jongdae corners Lu Han, and asks for the five-hundredth time why Minseok doesn’t just take the ball all the way up the field. This is bad, because it means that while Lu Han is explaining to Jongdae the concept of ~strategy~, Yixing is able to corner Joonmyun for a one-on-one chat.
"But you said there is no rule that demands that defensive players stay behind the center line of the pitch." Heaven knows what they’re talking about, over there. Yixing has dragged Joonmyun away, so Lu Han can’t listen.
"There is no rule that demands that I don’t go into the living room at my hasukjib when Jinki has his girlfriend visiting, either." Lu Han wipes his hands on his shorts. "It‘s something I do because it makes things easier. It’s like…" he searches for the right phrasing, "a contract, between the players, that they’ll stay on their part of the pitch, for order."
"You know that it isn’t possible for you to overhear Joonmyun-hyung’s conversation, whether I’m talking or not, right?" Jongdae is smirking at him, the little bastard.
"I don’t trust Yixing."
"Yes, you do," says Jongdae. "More than you trust anyone else, anyway. Besides, what’s the worst thing he could say to Joonmyun? Lu Han talks about you all the time, he never shuts up about how great you are."
"You aren’t one to talk," Lu Han says. His stomach is clenching. He’d skipped lunch, he’s probably just hungry.
"Joonmyun-hyung wouldn’t believe it." Jongdae sighs. "He’s so humble."
"Careful," says Lu Han, "I wouldn’t want you to drown in your own admiration-tears." He takes a breath. The air smells like fresh cut grass. Lu Han loves summer. "I don’t know why Yixing has been so eager to talk to Joonmyun."
"You don’t?" Jongdae pats Lu Han’s thigh. "You never open up to people the way you did to Joonmyun. He went from stranger to person you let talk you into pottery classes in less than a month. We’re all a bit shocked, you know?"
"I don’t know why," Lu Han says. "There’s just…"
"Something about him," Jongdae says. "I know. At first, you think he’s just normal and boring and reserved, but then the more time you spend around him, the more you like him, because he’s actually weird and interesting and funny." Jongdae stands up and stretches. "I know that, but Yixing doesn’t know that. All he knows is that his best friend goes running three times a week with this guy he doesn’t know very well, and that you’re secretly reading a book on the Japanese tea ceremony for no reason."
"How do you—"
"You did not seriously think Jongin didn’t tell everyone about that via email the moment he got home, did you?" He rubs his butt. "These bleachers are so uncomfortable. Everything about you football boys’ lives is uncomfortable."
"All your friends are football boys," Lu Han replies. "You’re almost one of us, except the complete lack of coordination and stamina."
"Only about half my friends are football boys. Here comes one that isn’t, though!" Joonmyun slides back down next to Lu Han on the bleacher, as Jongdae laughs at Lu Han’s straightening posture. "I have to go," Jongdae says. "Meeting Zitao for dinner. I’ll see you in choir tomorrow, Joonmyun-hyung."
"Bye, Jongdae," he says.
Yixing comes and sits down on the other side of Lu Han, hooking his arm around Lu Han’s neck.
"What were you guys talking about?"
"My turn to keep some secrets," Yixing says, messing with Lu Han’s hair. Lu Han swats his hands away and fixes it.
"You’re all sweaty and gross," Lu Han says, and Joonmyun chuckles. Lu Han looks at him. He’s staring down at his shoes, but he’s smiling. "So what are you two doing for dinner?"
"Eating with you, silly," Yixing says, and Joonmyun laughs louder this time. Maybe at their antics. Lu Han doesn’t know, but the sound curls up inside him and makes him feel heavy.
"If that’s all right with you, of course," Joonmyun adds. "If you’d rather it just be you and Yixing—"
"No," Lu Han says quickly. "I would… rather you came, too."
Uneven teeth and crinkly eyes and one skipped heartbeat. Lu Han must be catching a cold. Allergies. Something.
"Then dinner it is," Joonmyun says.
In high school, Lu Han always ate dinner alone. Loneliness was not like a jacket that Lu Han took off when it got hot or like socks that he left pushed into his shoes at the door. It was more like Lu Han’s skin, with him everywhere he went.
Sitting with Yixing and Joonmyun in front of a big pot of shabu shabu, Lu Han is warm and happy and not lonely at all. "You’re awfully quiet," Joonmyun says, while Yixing converses with the waitress, ordering more meat for their pot. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything’s great," Lu Han says, and he impulsively reaches for Joonmyun’s hand and squeezes it once before quickly letting go. Joonmyun flushes. When Lu Han looks back over at Yixing, he is staring at Lu Han speculatively.
"What?" Lu Han snaps, and Yixing shakes his head.
"You didn’t eat any mushrooms, Xiao Lu."
"I’m not even small compared to you—" And then they’re off again, Joonmyun laughing as Lu Han and Yixing playfully snipe at each other. Joonmyun’s weird chuckle sticks to Lu Han’s ribs and slides down them, and Lu Han wishes it didn’t feel like he could get used to being this happy.
Someone calls from a Beijing number twice. Lu Han doesn’t worry about it.
"Your knee looks great. Your x-rays came back clean." Dr. Kim Taeyeon says, smiling at Lu Han. "You’ve been keeping up with your physical therapy, I see. I worried about you."
"Why?" Her lab coat fits as nice as it had back in March. Lu Han taps his fingers impatiently on the arms of his chair.
"You were very hesitant about the whole process. Those are usually the patients we have the most trouble with. I knew giving you to Joonmyun was the right call."
"Wait, what?" Lu Han frowns. "I thought I was his first athlete."
"Definitely," Dr. Kim says. "But not his first patient. He has a lot of patience, so we usually put him with old ladies. But he really wants to go into sports medicine, and I was pretty sure his temperament would suit you. And with Donghae overseeing, it wasn’t a matter of experience so much as getting you fully invested in your own recovery."
"I love playing football more than anything. Why would I not be invested in my recovery?"
"Patients like you… It’s frustrating, when you can’t get right up off the operating table and get right back out on the field. It can be discouraging, especially when you aren’t willing to accept help."
"How do you even—"
"Your friend," she says. "Zhang Yixing-ssi? Said you were stubborn when I was considering physical therapists for you. He showed up here about an hour after your surgery. I probed him for information."
Lu Han feels dissected. But, well… "Joonmyun was, is, great."
"I know," Kim Taeyeon says. "It’s too bad he won’t believe it. A lot of people with his sort of background have issues with that."
His sort of background?
"Anyway," she says. "You are cleared to start training again, but carefully. Slowly amp back into it. No matches until next season, do you hear me?"
"Good luck, Lu Han-ssi. I hope you get tapped for a tryout."
"Me too," Lu Han says. "I don’t exactly have a fall back plan."
Joonmyun calls on a Thursday afternoon and asks if Lu Han is home. Asks if it’s okay to stop by. "Yeah, sure," says Lu Han, and Joonmyun tells him he'll be there in twenty minutes.
Lu Han waits for him outside. He wishes he still smoked, sometimes. It occupies you when you’re waiting. He’s hungover from a party last night. He doesn’t remember much of it, except that Jongdae had thrown up into a potted plant and Yifan had spent the whole time looking faintly disapproving.
Jinri had been there. She had looked lovely in her summer dress. Lu Han had talked to her for five minutes about her team’s excellent season so far, before his duty to stop Yixing from drinking another shot of soju had called him back into the kitchen of Minho’s apartment.
Stepping out of the car, Joonmyun walks around to the passenger side to get a handled paper bag.
"What’s up?" Lu Han asks. Joonmyun is dressed inappropriately for the weather. It’s hot enough that Lu Han is wearing a shirt with no sleeves, but Joonmyun is wearing heavy knit.
He reaches into his bag. "I have something for you," he says. "I picked it up from the student center today." He hands Lu Han a lopsided vase. "I hope you don’t mind that I glazed it for you." It’s blue. Lu Han likes blue.
"Your vase," Joonmyun says. "From our second pottery class." He slips his hands into his pockets. "Usually the pots just get left on display, but I got permission from Taemin to glaze it, because I thought you might like it?"
"I am so untalented," Lu Han says gravely, and Joonmyun’s laughter is surprised out of him. "This is like Jongdae with a football levels of bad."
"I thought it might be a nice reminder of where you started," Joonmyun says. "In more ways than one." He grins. "Your vases aren’t crooked anymore."
Lu Han does not believe in perfect people, but sometimes he thinks Joonmyun comes pretty close. "You’re…"
"I’m sorry," Joonmyun says. "I know I shouldn’t have glazed it without your permission, but I wanted to surprise you! Then I got busy and—"
"Wonderful," Lu Han finishes, and Joonmyun gapes at him for a moment before his whole face goes red. The tips of his ears are dark with it. "Really wonderful."
"I’m glad you like it," Joonmyun says. "I have to go. I just wanted to drop it off."
"I would hug you," Lu Han says, "but I don’t want to drop my vase."
"Right," Joonmyun says, flush starting to cool. "Right.
Lu Han sets it on his desk. It’s more clearly lopsided like this. Joonmyun has glazed it very nicely. If Lu Han turns it to a certain angle, it looks flawless. In that way, it’s kind of like Lu Han. One pretty side, with a lot of rough edges obscured by the power of a good angle. Football Lu Han, and then the rest of Lu Han.
Lu Han doesn’t understand how Joonmyun gets him so easily. How Joonmyun knows exactly what Lu Han needs and delivers it like it is nothing. He doesn’t understand, but he is thankful.
"Do you never answer your phone?"
"Li Yin?" Lu Han hasn’t heard from her in over a year. The last time had been when she’d called to tell him she was getting married. Lu Han had sincerely congratulated her, and they’d talked for a few hours, about the Tigers’ prospects for the championship and about a few of their friends from high school. "I’m sorry. I’ve gotten into the habit of ignoring calls from Beijing."
"I know," she says. "But you should probably answer the ones from your mother. She called me because she couldn’t reach you."
"Is it an emergency?"
Li Yin is quiet. "Well," she says, "do you want to hear it from me, or would you rather talk to your mother?"
"You," Lu Han says. It is not really a question.
"Your father has a brain tumor." Li Yin pauses. "Apparently he tried to tell you last time he called but—"
"He never got around to it," Lu Han says hollowly. "Is that all?"
"I have to go," Lu Han says. "I have physical therapy in a half an hour, and it takes twenty minutes to get there so I should change."
"If you want to talk later…"
"I’ll call you." He doesn’t mean it. They both know that. He and Li Yin have not been close for a long time.
"I’m sorry, Lu Han."
"Okay," he says, and then he hangs up.
He is quiet in session. Joonmyun doesn’t push. Lu Han appreciates that, because at this point, he’s not sure what will spill out if anyone does.
He calls Yixing that afternoon. He doesn't know why, but maybe he does need to talk to someone. Maybe Yixing is a person Lu Han knows won't judge him for the uglier parts of himself.
But when he answers, there is husky feminine laughter. "Lu Han, now isn't a good time. Can I call you back later?"
Later, Lu Han will have thought better of having called anyone at all. Later, Lu Han will wish he hadn't reached out at all. "Ah, don't worry about it," he says. He shouldn't dump his problems on Yixing, anyway.
"Hey, is everything okay?" The laughter stops. "If it is important, Lu Han, I can--"
"No, everything is fine. Sorry to bother you." He ends the call before Yixing can ask him anything more.
He puts on a clean shirt before he leaves the hasukjib. It is only three blocks to the nearest bar. He sits down at the counter and orders his own bottle of soju and a huge plate of potatoes.
When Lu Han was four, his father had shown him how to tie his shoes. When Lu Han was nine, he had taught him how to balance a checkbook. When Lu Han was fourteen, he had taught him how to drive. When Lu Han was sixteen, leg in a cast and a bandage over his cheek, he had told Lu Han he would never amount to anything.
He will need more than one bottle of soju. His phone rings. "Hello?"
"Are you drunk?" It’s Joonmyun.
"Not drunk enough," Lu Han says.
"I was going to ask if you wanted to go see this Italian film, but I guess the better question is are you by yourself?"
"Of course I am," Lu Han says.
"Where are you?"
"I don't need you to come and get me. I don't need to be taken care of." He refills his shot glass. The green bottle is almost empty. The brand is Cheom Cheoreom. ‘Like the first time’. Lu Han had started drinking when he was seventeen. Maybe his father had taught him how to do that, too, in a roundabout way.
"What if I want to come and drink with you?" says Joonmyun and Lu Han considers. That sounds all right.
Lu Han gives him the location, and Joonmyun shows up thirty minutes later in his Tigers sweatshirt with its too-long sleeves. "It’s the middle of summer, Kim Joonmyun."
"It’s the middle of the afternoon, Lu Han." He sits down next to Lu Han at the bar. He smells like summer. It is Lu Han's favorite season.
"Fair enough," Lu Han says. Joonmyun takes Lu Han's second soju bottle and pours himself a shot. He throws it back easier than Lu Han would have expected. "Did you have a bad day?"
"My schedule next week is so packed that I'm pencilling in sleep," Joonmyun says. "One of my professors has lost sight of the fact that we have more than his class, and choir is a mess. I'm picking up an extra shift at the gym to help yet another old man with a hip replacement, and my ongoing project on tea ceremonies is nowhere near completion." Lu Han refills Joonmyun's glass. "How about you?"
Scratching at his cheek, Lu Han can feel a hint of stubble. "I'm not a good person," he says. "That's why, in the end, getting attached to anyone is a bad idea."
"Is that why you feel lonely in a room full of people?"
"I have football," Lu Han says. "People like you if you play football. I'm really good at it too. Better than other people. Irreplaceable at something."
"Lu Han, you're not just football."
"I wish I was." He gestures for another bottle. It doesn't burn anymore. That is how Lu Han knows he is on his way to being well and truly drunk. "Never mind."
"Did something happen?" Joonmyun's hand on his back. He has thick knuckles.
"My father has a brain tumor." His mouth is moving without permission.
"I'm sorry. With surgery and treatment, might he..." Joonmyun's words fail him. "I'm sorry." He drinks directly from the bottle.
Lu Han laughs. "See, that's the thing." He snags the bottle from Joonmyun, ignoring the way Joonmyun's eyes fall on him so heavy. "I'm supposed to be sad, or worried." Lu Han's nose is numb.
Joonmyun's fingers dig into Lu Han's back. His lips are very pink. "And you aren't?"
"I don't know," Lu Han says. "Maybe I hate him too much to worry about him."
Joonmyun's hand falls from Lu Han's back. He takes the bottle, gingerly peeling Lu Han's fingers free of the neck. "You've probably had enough to drink for one afternoon."
"I don't need anyone to take care of me." Great, his words are slurring. He feels hot, and in the air-conditioned bar, he can't blame it on Seoul's heady summer heat. "I'll still be this horrible person when I'm sober."
"You're not a horrible person." Joonmyun's voice is calm and soothing. "And I know you don't need to be taken care of. You can do anything by yourself." His hair is damp with sweat, too. Like he’d walked here in a hurry in the July humidity. "But if you ever want someone, you can call me." Joonmyun's knee bumps his own. "I love to take care of people."
"I'm used to being alone," Lu Han says. "Life, unfortunately, isn't anything like football."
"I thought everything in life could be explained with a football metaphor?" Joonmyun teases. Lu Han laughs. His eyes burn. He won't cry. His father has always wanted him to be more manly. He can at least do that for a dying man.
"There is no one waiting to take possession of the ball if I trip and fall. There is no one waiting up ahead, and there is no one behind. No one on defense." Lu Han studies his empty glass. "There is no team. Just me. Alone."
"Even in a room full of people?"
"Yeah, even then." Lu Han thinks about the way clay feels between his fingers. How Joonmyun can fill a whole football pitch with his laugh. "But not with you. I don't know why. I don't even know you, not really."
"Do you want to?" Joonmyun leans into Lu Han's space. "I am substantially less interesting than Arsenal stats."
"I do want to. Know you, I mean," says Lu Han, and Joonmyun's smile might be even better than Jinri's. Better than anyone's, because it’s just for Lu Han. His vision is swimming. "And who says Arsenal stats are interesting?"
"Can I walk you home?"
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "You can."
When they stop at the door of Lu Han's hasukjib, Lu Han has a clearer head. He should be embarrassed, about the things he said. Things he has never said out loud to anyone. It’s like he told Zitao. He sees Joonmyun and the words pour out. But he isn't embarrassed, after all, because Joonmyun is still here, with his soft voice and softer hands and crinkled up eyes and dorky smile.
"You're wrong, you know," says Joonmyun. "You do have a team. A great one. You've got Yixing and Zitao. Jongdae, Yifan, Minseok, and Jongin. You've got me, too." Joonmyun takes a step back. "Teams are more effective if you aren't a ball hog, Lu Han." Lu Han swallows. He can hear the buzz of the mosquitoes and the early evening traffic. "Good night."
"'Night," Lu Han echoes, and his stomach curls in on itself as his heart tries to expand beyond the confines of his ribs.
It’s a strange feeling. Lu Han will blame it on the drink. "By the way, do you want to catch that film tomorrow? The Italian one?"
"I don't speak Italian."
"There will be subtitles," Joonmyun says, laughing at him. "Broaden your horizons, Lu Han!"
"All right," Lu Han says, and then he walks inside.
Lu Han finds he enjoys Italian art house films. The one they watch at the foreign film club that next night, with Baekhyun and Kyungsoo, and the three they watch the next weekend at Joonmyun's apartment, after Lu Han finishes his econ problem set.
He checks out a couple on his own from the library, which has Chanyeol giving him questioning looks. "I never took the time to watch movies, before."
"This 'not playing football' thing is like the way rich kids go on Euro-trips before college, for you, isn't it?" Chanyeol laughs, too loud for the library. "Jongin thinks you've been possessed by aliens."
"When did he say that?"
"When we were talking on the phone the other day," Chanyeol says, and Lu Han grins. Some victories, he thinks, are harder won than others.
If Chanyeol can manage it, so can he. He pulls out his phone and texts Minseok. How do you feel about Italian art house films?
I don't know, Minseok writes back. But I am willing to find out.
"We have to be careful," Yixing warns. "Joonmyun told me not to let you show off."
"Since when are you two all buddy-buddy?"
"Since he stole my best friend," Yixing taps the ball with the toe of his cleat. It rolls through the grass toward Lu Han, who catches it easily, trapping it and then getting his foot under it so he can get it into the air. "Pretty sure doing tricks isn't the best way to ease back in."
"Just making sure I'm still a lady-killer with my mad skills."
"That would imply you’d 'killed' a lady before," Yixing says. "How are things going with Jinri, by the way?"
"What?" Honestly, Lu Han hasn't thought about her in a while. In between pottery classes and work and therapy and everything else, Jinri hadn't seemed so...important. "Oh. Maybe next year. When I am back on the team and at a hundred percent swag."
"You will never be at a hundred percent swag, Xiao Lu." Lu Han knees the ball higher, and then hits it right at Yixing with his head. Whatever anxiety had been lingering disappears with how easily the ball obeys him. "With or without football, you’re still just a hundred percent lame."
Using his instep, Yixing sends the ball back. Lu Han tries to get more aggressive, but Yixing just slows them down. "You're no fun."
"I refuse to see you reinjured." Yixing's hair is so red in the August sun. "Reinjured again."
Lu Han misses Yixing's next kick. The ball rolls past him. The heat rolls over them both in waves. "It’ll be fine." Lu Han licks at dry lips. "I refuse to favor it."
Yixing jogs past him, after the ball. He picks it up. "Lu Han..." Hesitation, and then determination. "Tell me how you injured your knee the first time."
Aiming for a breeziness he has always been able to pull off before, Lu Han shrugs. "It isn't an interesting story. Boys will be boys."
"I’d like to hear it anyway," Yixing says. They are alone out here. "All your stories are boring. I'm used to it." He kicks the ball to Lu Han again.
Lu Han dribbles it down the field, Yixing running behind him. He kicks at the defenderless goal. The ball swooshes into the neck. "At least my stories have a point. You forget the point of your stories halfway through the telling." He isn't out of breath. "Because you get too distracted."
"I'm not distracted now." Yixing grabs a handful of Lu Han's shirt. "So tell me."
"When I was sixteen," Lu Han says, "I was smaller." Lu Han pulls free of Yixing's grasp. "But I already had this face."
"Were you popular with girls?"
"The other boys on the team didn't like me very much, though. Called me 'queer'."
"But you’re not afraid to slap Minseok’s ass. Anybody’s ass."
"It doesn’t matter, here. It’s more… It’s just friendship, here. You know it is. I’m touchy. I like to touch people, because…" He frowns. "It’s not the same thing."
"Is that why you don't like us to tease you about stuff like that?" Lu Han can't see Yixing's face. But he sounds confused. "I think it’s you who’s lost track of the story, this time."
"One day, the captain of the team confessed to me. Told me he had always liked me." Lu Han remembers his face so clearly. "I didn't know what I wanted. What I liked. I told him I didn't return his interest, because the last thing I wanted was for everyone to be right about me. It wasn't about my feelings, not really. I didn't even ever really consider that."
"But the funny thing was, he told all his friends that I had… That I had come onto him. That he had turned me down and I really was a queer." Lu Han's breath is coming too quickly, like he’s halfway through the second half of the match and he has been running for a long time. It feels almost like a panic attack. "They cornered me after practice one day."
Yixing catches him in a hug from behind. His chin digs into Lu Han's shoulder. "Who cornered you?"
"Some of the team. The captain’s friends. Guys I…" Guys Lu Han had admired. Respected. Guys who hadn’t cared that Lu Han was pretty, or that Lu Han was better. The best. Only then, they had cared, because being a queer was a bigger sin than…
Lu Han remembers yelling "no, it’s not like that, that’s not what happened," but in the end, it hadn’t really mattered.
Lu Han hadn’t been bullied. He’d been reprimanded.
"They cut my face," Lu Han says. He is not going to throw up. He is not going to break down. "It didn't even have the grace to heal ugly." He laughs. Maybe he chokes. "And I couldn't play again for the rest of the season. By the time I could come back, the captain had graduated. He didn't ever have to look at me again." Lu Han had been afraid. Lu Han had pushed all his confusing thoughts down and buried them under that fear, and it had made things easier.
Focusing on football was better. Focusing on football was safer. Still is safer, even if sometimes he thinks about what it might be like to take Jinri on a date and feel her soft hand in his. Jinri might be safe, too. Pretty and smart and feminine and into footie, just like Lu Han.
"I don't know what to say," Yixing says, and Lu Han pulls free from his embrace to fetch the ball from the goal. His hands are shaking.
"You don't have to say anything." Lu Han tosses the ball out of the goal. Yixing receives it, rolling it down his shin easy, like a pro. "You asked and I told you."
"I feel like this one wasn't in the best friend handbook." Yixing is doing something complicated with his feet. He and Jongin have always been the best at tricks. "I'm supposed to say something wise and profound here. Something inspirational."
"I'm not expecting miracles," Lu Han says, hands on his hips. His shoulders feel lighter? Like maybe this ugly, horrible thing had been clawing at his guts and now that it is in the air between them, it’s still ugly and horrible but at least Lu Han isn't the only one who can see it.
"Oh," Yixing’s expression goes thoughtful, kind of blank, "I thought of something." He kicks the ball at Lu Han one last time.
"Shoot," Lu Han says.
"But you have the ball?" Lu Han sticks up his middle finger at Yixing who laughs at him. Yixing has serious eyes, but he isn't looking at Lu Han any differently. Like Lu Han is less than he was when they had first walked onto this pitch an hour ago. "No but seriously." Yixing stops running, so Lu Han stops too. They both gasp for air, sticky skin and wide open eyes. "Here it is. Lu Han, I don't care how pretty you are or who you want to fuck. You will just be my best friend Lu Han, no matter what."
Lu Han has a great team, Joonmyun had said. Lu Han shouldn't be surprised that Joonmyun is right. Joonmyun is right more than Lu Han would like, but exactly as much as Lu Han needs. He wonders how Joonmyun’s hand-- "And I'm the lame one?"
He picks up the football, holding it firmly in his hands. "Absolutely," Yixing says. "I'm the cool, understanding friend who likes you despite your obvious flaws."
"Wow," Lu Han says. "Such a charmer. Hyoyeon is so lucky."
Yixing chases him off the field, both of them laughing, and Lu Han is light enough to fly.
"I meant it, you know. I mean it. So if you..."
"If I what?" Lu Han asks. His phone rings. It is Joonmyun. They have plans later. Joonmyun wants Lu Han to watch his favorite Korean drama. Lu Han thinks they are all too melodramatic. Joonmyun thinks that’s ironic. "It’s Joonmyun," Lu Han says. "I'll call him back in a few. What were you saying?"
"It isn't important," Yixing says. "I think, as usual, I might be ahead of you."
"Whatever," Lu Han says, with a ~gentle~ shove. "If I'm dumb, you're dumb right along with me."
"Dumb together always," Yixing says, and Lu Han, even if he knows better, wants to believe him. Wants to think he can put so much of that loneliness behind him. "Go us."
Lu Han still doesn't like Korean dramas. He has enough ‘makjang’ in his real life that he doesn't need to watch it on television. But he does like how enthralled Joonmyun gets in the plot, hands fluttering up to hide his face during fights and clutching at his heart during resolutions.
"You're so mushy," Lu Han says, reaching over and tugging lightly on a piece of Joonmyun's soft bouncy hair.
"Do you mind?"
"No," Lu Han says. He doesn't mind anything about Joonmyun. "It was worth it."
Joonmyun turns completely toward him, catching his eyes. "What was?"
"This injury. All the surgery and therapy." His stomach does that thing, that he associates with Joonmyun's smile. "Because without it, I wouldn't have met you."
"You are, though." Lu Han tries to be honest. To let down his guard. It’s difficult. "I'm happy to have you on my team."
"I'm happy to be on it." Joonmyun breaks away. His cheeks are faintly dusted pink. "You're missing the good part."
"I never really thought you were sad until lately," Zitao says. He’s sitting against the outer wall of the econ building, smoking a cigarette. They’re both waiting for Sehun, who had stayed to talk to the professor. "Now that I know what you look like when you’re not sad, I wonder how I could have missed it."
"I wasn’t sad." Lu Han steals Zitao’s cigarette, taking a long drag of it before handing it back. "Not really."
"Sad might be the wrong word." Zitao’s lips curl down. "Maybe just lonely."
Carefully, carefully. "Maybe," Lu Han says.
"You don’t have a nice family, do you?" Zitao’s eyes are wide and anxious. Lu Han rubs his arm soothingly. "You never talk about home."
"I have a great family," says Lu Han. "I have you, and Yixing, and—" Zitao looks five seconds away from trapping him in a bear hug that would have him sitting out next season with crushed bones, so he stops. "Everything’s fine."
"It’s better now," Zitao says, "that you’re letting each of us take a little of the weight."
It’s like how he’s lost his football conditioning. Lu Han’s gotten used to running shorter distances, and the longer ones that he had managed easily before seem far more difficult. He’s not sure he wants that to happen in his life. He’s not sure he would be able to bear all that weight again, if anyone decides to hand it back. "Is it?"
"If we haven’t run from you yet—" Zitao drops his cigarette as Lu Han tackles him. Sehun comes outside and leans against the wall, watching them.
"Children, please, are we going to have lunch or not?"
"Shut up, maknae," Lu Han says, ruffling an indignant Sehun’s hair. "Of course we’re going to have lunch."
"Can’t be sad around food," Sehun says, straightening his bangs and scowling.
"Can’t be sad around family," Zitao sappily adds, and Lu Han is torn between mortification and pleasure and decides on laughter.
Sometimes, though, Lu Han still curls up in the living room of his hasukjib and watches professional matches on television, hand rubbing at his knee and Manchester jersey sticking to his skin in the heat.
Jinki often comes to join him, deriding Lu Han’s choice of team ("Real footie fans like Real Madrid") and cheering whenever the opposing team scores a goal, and Lu Han dreams about what it would be like to be out there, playing in a televised match in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators worldwide.
"If you ever play for Man U," Jinki tells him, "then, and only then, will I buy a jersey."
"It’s a deal," replies Lu Han, heart in his throat as he longs for the smell of grass and sweat and hard-earned victory.
He longs for it all the time and the only time he thinks about anything else is when he’s sitting across from Joonmyun, talking about something Joonmyun loves, and that… That is a dependence that scares Lu Han far more than anything else.
"But there’s no deal if you end up playing for Chelsea. There are depths to which I won’t sink."
"I won’t tell Jonginnie," Lu Han promises, and turns his eyes back to the screen, thumb caressing the scar on his knee with steady, comforting motions.
Lu Han is checking his book, ‘An Introduction to the Japanese Tea Ceremony’, back in when the girl he just checked out makes an excited noise across the counter. "Is that your book?"
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "It took me awhile to read, but it was interesting."
"Are you into tea ceremonies?"
"I…" Lu Han rubs his neck. "I’m not not into them. A friend of mine is doing a project on them so I…"
"Have you heard about the special event going on in Gimpo?" She looks excited to have found a fellow enthusiast, even if Lu Han isn’t exactly enthusiastic. "The tea etiquette museum, down in Gyeongi-do, is doing a big formal tea Korean tea ceremony next Saturday, along with a comparison of the tea ceremonies from Japan and China." She sighs. "I wish I could go."
Joonmyun would love that. "Do I buy tickets online, or…" He probably has enough in his account to cover it, as long as it isn’t too expensive.
"Tickets sold out a long time ago," the girl informs him. Lu Han frowns. "But the reason I had asked if you had heard about it is because my sister is supposed to have her baby this weekend, so we can’t go. I had bought them months ago…"
"So you want to sell me your tickets?" Lu Han takes all the checked-in books and stacks them on the cart.
"Actually, since you are a fellow enthusiast, and I don’t want them to go to waste, I’ll just give you them."
"Really?" Lu Han asks. She smiles at him, pulling out her wallet and producing two tickets. "Thank you." Kindness from strangers is weird. There’s a cost for everything, but Lu Han can’t find the cost in this, and it makes him nervous. "Are you sure?"
"I would hate for the tickets to go to waste," she says. Lu Han hesitates, then takes the tickets from her with unsteady hands. "Have a great time, yeah?"
"Thank you," Lu Han says again, with more feeling, and she smiles. Lu Han knows Joonmyun will love this, and that makes the tickets easier to accept. Joonmyun’s magic powers, Lu Han decides, are effective even when Joonmyun isn’t even around.
That is how they end up on the bus toward Ganghwa, Joonmyun leaning his head sleepily on Lu Han’s shoulder as they ride out of Seoul and into Gyeonggi-do. "Where are we going, Lu Han?"
"It’s a surprise." Lu Han leans his cheek on Joonmyun’s hair. It’s so soft. "If I told you, it would be way less fun to see your face when you figure it out."
"You tease." Joonmyun plays with the cuff of Lu Han’s jacket, possibly because his own cuffs don’t have enough elastic. Joonmyun has all sorts of nervous habits like that. Lu Han doesn’t think he even notices them. "We left Seoul. The Ganghwa bound bus goes out into Gyeonggi Province. So what’s in Gyeonggi Province?"
"Something for you," Lu Han replies, and Yixing would have hit him by now but Joonmyun just reclines back in his seat, his fingers now tickling Lu Han’s wrist as he plays with the fabric around them.
"Okay," he says. "I give up. I’ll be patient."
"You’re always patient," Lu Han says. "Always."
"Sometimes I’m not," Joonmyun says, looking out the window. "But I try not to let people see that side of me."
When they get off the bus at Gunha-ri, Lu Han hails a taxi. Joonmyun hesitates before he gets in. Lu Han puts it in the back of his mind. "Gimpo Dado Museum," Lu Han tells the driver, and Joonmyun freezes.
"How could you possibly…" Joonmyun is looking at Lu Han like he’s just seen a ghost. "Do you know how impossible it is to get tickets to this event? How did you…" Joonmyun is at a loss for words. For once, it is Lu Han with possession of the ball, and Joonmyun standing on the pitch looking like he doesn’t know what just happened.
As they are guided through the most traditional versions of the Korean tea ceremony, Joonmyun whispers obscure facts and tidbits into Lu Han’s ear. He’s squirming in his seat like an excited child, and something… bursts in Lu Han’s chest.
"Are you okay?" Joonmyun asks, and Lu Han nods ‘yes’ but he thinks he means ‘no’. Yellow card, yellow card, yellow card. "You look pale."
"You always look pale." Lu Han nudges Joonmyun with his arm. He’s warm.
"Lu Han, this is amazing," Joonmyun says. "Thank you for thinking of me."
I’m always thinking of you is on the tip of his tongue, but instead he says "you’re welcome."
On the way home, Joonmyun squeezes his hand and Lu Han squeezes back and this, he thinks, is the opposite of loneliness.
It shouldn’t mean something, that Lu Han can’t think of another way he would rather have spent his day. It shouldn’t mean something that holding Joonmyun’s hand sends sparks like fire up his arm that well up in his chest, a full torch flame.
It shouldn’t, because Lu Han’s life is football and thinking about the future and putting things like this away, so that he doesn’t feel like he’s at the edge of the roof again, with too much wind in his hair and too much blood on his cheek.
Still, he doesn’t let go until they arrive at their bus stop, and when he does, his palm is cold.
"Do you ever…" Lu Han sighs. "Forget it."
"Do I ever what?" Jongin stacks the books carefully, titles and call numbers out, so they’ll be easier to reshelve.
"Feel things that make you confused?"
Jongin stops and looks over at Lu Han incredulously. "Only every day of my life?" He shrugs. "I thought that’s what it was supposed to be like." He narrows his gaze. "You always tell me I’m more confused than most, though."
"Yeah, that’s true," says Lu Han. "You’re constantly walking into the goal posts of life."
"Naw, that’s more Chanyeol," Jongin says, and the tiniest of fond smiles is sneaking up his lips.
"Careful, careful," Lu Han says. "I might start to think you like him."
"He’s not so bad," Jongin says. "Not once you get used to all the noise." He sets the last book on the cart. "But anyway, hyung, if you’re confused about feelings then you should take your time and figure them out?"
"Take… my time?"
"You can’t rush a scoring play," Jongin says, and Lu Han wonders if all his friends really think he can’t handle life advice if it isn’t couched in football terminology. He wonders if they’re right. "But I think you should just ask Jinri out. It’s been ages."
"Jinri?" Right. Lu Han likes Jinri, and it’s Jinri’s smile that should be giving him sleepless nights. Right. Jinri. Right.
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "I’m really going to go for it. Soon."
"Sure thing, hyung," Jongin says, and Lu Han’s metaphorical cleats are catching in the earth as he pulls his stride.
Lu Han's father calls at seven in the evening during the weekend before Chuseok. He calls then because it’s twenty minutes after he has gotten home. He’s probably still wearing his work suit at this time of night, but has lost his tie. Lu Han’s mother is probably cooking.
"I heard about your tumor from Li Yin." Distant. Polite. "I’m sorry to hear about your health difficulties."
"Now you understand why you must come home. Your time for rebellion and playing around is over." Football is not a game, for Lu Han. He’s finished trying to explain how good he is. How it’s a career choice, not a hobby. He’s done explaining anything at all to his father.
"Do you remember," Lu Han says, "when six boys, six eighteen year old boys, beat the shit out me? When they cracked my ribs and tore two ligaments in my knee? When those six boys dragged me by my hair to the edge of the roof and held me there, one of them with his hand around my throat and another stepping on my belly to hold me down?"
"Lu Han." His father sounds old. He doesn't sound like someone who can hurt Lu Han anymore. Lu Han knows better than to think that means he cannot.
"Do you remember what you said, when I woke up in the hospital?" Lu Han pretends that Joonmyun is sitting next to him, a hand on his back. "Let me remind you." He can still see his father’s face. "You said 'this wouldn't have happened if you were a real man'. Like it was my fault. Like I wasn't just a sixteen year old boy whose only crimes were being born with my face like this and not being interested in the exact future you wanted for me."
He can hear pots clanging in the background. The iron one his mother still uses to fry fish because it heats evenly on the electric stove she had gotten right before Lu Han had left.
"So I'm going to be just as unfair to you," Lu Han says. "Maybe, if you were a real man, you wouldn't have gotten a brain tumor."
"It is not the same thing, you ungrateful--"
"You're right," Lu Han says. "Here’s a better one. Maybe if you were a real father, you would have a son who would come home to see you through your illness." He chokes on his anger. On all the time he had spent alone in the hospital. Alone at school. Alone in his own home. "Maybe you would have a son who cared that you might die."
There’s nothing to say to that but silence, is there? Maybe he won’t call back.
Right now, Lu Han feels strangely fragile. He wants to be taken care of.
Do you have time? I need a drink.
Give me half an hour Joonmyun replies, and Lu Han lies back on his bed. He stares at the ceiling and touches the scar on his cheek.
They don't go out for drinks. They end up sitting on the floor of Lu Han's bedroom doing the puzzles that Joonmyun had brought over with him. They sip at soju until Joonmyun, with dark circles like plum colored bruises underneath his eyes, falls asleep in Lu Han's lap, and the furious, tangled emotions in Lu Han's chest and throat ease enough for him to lean back against the foot of the bed and fall asleep with him.
"Why is it so easy for you to know exactly what I need?" Lu Han asks when they wake up four hours later, cricks in both their necks.
"I don't know," Joonmyun says. "I pay a lot of attention to you, I guess."
He doesn’t look at Lu Han as he speaks. Lu Han doesn’t think about it beforehand. He just pulls Joonmyun into a hug. Joonmyun is warm in his arms. There is the bursting feeling again. Lu Han is helpless and strong at the same time.
Lu Han's first, automatic response is good, which is scarier than he would like to admit. "I pay a lot of attention to you, too." He’d been asked, before, where Joonmyun rated on a scale of one to football. Lu Han wonders if, thanks to Joonmyun, he needs to make a new scale.
Lu Han watches the last match of the year, the championship, still a spectator. Joonmyun had driven him here, across Seoul to see the game. "You survived a season on the bench," Joonmyun says. "Next year I’ll have to sit up here alone, or drag Jongdae out here."
He feels content. It is not that he doesn’t crave the wind in his hair or the thrill of the goal chase anymore. It is more that he knows, in four months, he will be back out there. His knee is good. The fear has receded. "You can watch me get tapped for a famous club," Lu Han says. "F.C. Seoul, hopefully."
"They’re known for developing players and sending them to Europe," Joonmyun says. Lu Han nods. He won’t ask how Joonmyun knows that. Joonmyun seems to know something about everything.
"Right," he says. Minseok comes up through the midfield and passes the ball to Jongin. It is a mismatch. Jongin’s defender can barely keep up with him, let alone block.
"Do you want to go to Europe?" Joonmyun has his eyes on Yixing, who is now in possession and well within striking distance. "You should start learning English."
"I should," Lu Han says. "Studying, though."
"Yifan can help." Joonmyun’s voice sounds strange. "I would miss you, if you went to Europe."
"That won’t be for a while yet." Yixing scores. The benches erupt into noise and Lu Han is louder than any of them. Joonmyun beside him is cheering goofily, two red inflatable boom sticks in his hands and the chill of autumn in his cheeks. "First things first."
The noise dies down as play resumes. "You're right," Joonmyun says, leaning into Lu Han. He is probably cold. Lu Han wraps an arm around his shoulders and pulls him in with an oomph. "First things first." His lips brush Lu Han's cheek. It sends a shiver down his spine.
The Goryeo Tigers win the championship, defeating Yonsei 2-0. Afterwards, Lu Han runs out onto the pitch and hugs his teammates, slapping Minseok's ass and telling him he is lucky that his sloppy passes didn't get picked off. Yixing's hand around his waist and Yifan's big grin. Jongin's boyish smile consuming his face and Minho looking smug and self assured. Lu Han's team. He looks up to the bleachers and Joonmyun is standing there, looking small and thin and cold. He is also still beaming, watching Lu Han.
There is suddenly a new type of fear that crawls up Lu Han's spine. "Just think about how much more handily we'll win when you're out here with us." Yifan claps him on the shoulder with a massive hand.
"Obviously," Lu Han says. He is still looking at Joonmyun.
Yixing rides back with them to campus. Joonmyun lets them both off in front of the student center, halfway between their homes, on Lu Han's insistence. Joonmyun pats Lu Han's thigh to wake him up when they get there. Lu Han had not realized he was dozing off.
Joonmyun drives away, leaving a sweaty Yixing and a sleepy Lu Han standing in the student square. Yixing hums, a thoughtful sound. "He really cares about you."
"He wouldn't even let me draw on your face."
Lu Han shakes his fist threateningly at a laughing Yixing. "You were in the back seat. The angle to do that probably would have been dangerous. He was probably trying to, you know, not get stopped by the police."
"Remember what I said, Lu Han." Yixing narrows his eyes in the direction Joonmyun drove off. "Okay?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Lu Han replies. "Go take a shower and see your girlfriend."
"I thought I was your girlfriend."
"My standards are too high for that," Lu Han says. "Go away."
"Lu Han," Yixing yells, as Lu Han walks away, "Don't be stupider than usual."
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Joonmyun is wearing a thick winter coat. Jongin is laughing. "Hyung, please. We're going to be running."
"It’s too cold to be outside." Joonmyun's nose is red. He looks like Rudolph. "I don't know how Lu Han talked me into this."
"Hopefully it isn't the way he talks me into things," Minseok says. "With excessive badgering, clinginess and butt-touching."
"Ah, no, he just whined until I agreed," says Joonmyun. Jongin laughs as Lu Han looks at Joonmyun, betrayed.
"Then let's play," says Jongin as he kicks the ball at Lu Han's face. Lu Han catches it with his chest and then send it over to Minseok with a short toe kick.
He expects they will have to have to go easy on Joonmyun. He is wrong. Joonmyun is more than capable with the ball, crossing over like he’s done it a million times. Maybe he has.
"You're pretty good," Jongin says, surprised. Lu Han is surprised too. "Not a novice player."
"I was on a team in high school." Joonmyun shrugs. "I can't really play anymore, though."
"Oh?" Lu Han passes him the ball, and Joonmyun passes it to Minseok.
"I have physical limitations." Joonmyun's whole face is red from the cold and from exertion. "Can't make it through a whole match." He shrugs, and the furry collar of his coat messes up his hair. Some strands stick up, staticky. "That's why I’m going into sports medicine. So I can make sure other people get to play. Does that make sense?"
"Perfect sense," Minseok says. Lu Han has more questions, but he doesn't ask them. Joonmyun's smile is a little frayed around the edges.
"I think we've played enough for today." Lu Han picks up the football. "Let's go get hot chocolate or something."
"You're buying, right?" Jongin's thin sweatshirt is pushed up to his elbows.
"Sure," Lu Han says. By the time they're sitting in the Paris Croissant, Lu Han has thought of a million questions for Joonmyun. Things he doesn't know about him that he wants to know. He wants to know everything.
"What's wrong?" Joonmyun whispers to him, as Minseok lectures Jongin for sticking his finger into Minseok's cocoa to steal some whipped cream.
"I have so many things I want to know about you." Lu Han blows his bangs out of his eyes. They’re getting annoying. "Not right this second, but later."
"I told you," Joonmyun says. His smile, familiar and comforting, stretches across his face. "All you have to do is ask."
Hundreds of questions distill into one. Why are you so important to me?
"It seems like a dumb idea to have a pre-finals party," Joonmyun says.
"Some of us could probably afford to care more about our grades." Lu Han fixes the neck of his sweater and looks over at Joonmyun. "You don't have to come."
"In your famous words, I can take care of myself." Joonmyun's hair is slicked back from his face. He looks wholly different. It’s not a bad different. "Even if I find your jock rituals to be foolish at best."
"Yeah, yeah." Lu Han smiles. "You've never done something like this, have you?" He takes Joonmyun's hand and pulls him up the stairs to the Hongdae bar where the men's and women's soccer teams are meeting. "Stayed out all night before finals week."
"Because I'm usually smart," Joonmyun replies. "You must be rubbing off on me."
"Broaden your horizons," Lu Han says, letting go of Joonmyun's hand and pushing open the glass door.
Both teams and friends are there, filling the place, and it is obnoxiously loud. Sehun is sitting in Yifan's lap, obviously wasted already, letting Zitao feed him potatoes one by one as Yifan tries to beat Jongdae at ABCD, wincing at every violent penalty as Jongdae tricks him again and again. Jongin has brought Chanyeol along, who trails after him like a hopeless puppy as Jongin does his best to flirt with Krystal Jung. It’s tragic, but Yixing, with Hyoyeon on his lap, seems to be having fun watching.
Joonmyun sticks close to him at first, ordering one drink to Lu Han's every three and laughing as Lu Han tries to shove spicy-flavored ddeok into his mouth. But then Jinri joins their table, and Joonmyun wanders off.
He talks to Jinri for a long time. He loses track of the minutes, lost in a discussion about Joonmyun's favorite drama, of all things. Jinri sparkles when she laughs. Soon, though, Lu Han finds himself scanning the room, looking for Joonmyun's red-tinted hair and missing Joonmyun's thin, warm arm pressing into his own.
He finds him, draped across a table playing cards with Minho, Jongdae next to him. Lu Han turns back to Jinri, and she seems... Less vibrant in comparison. "Excuse me," he says.
When he stands up, he wobbles. Still, he walks toward Joonmyun, slumping into the vacant seat on Joonmyun's right. "You left," Lu Han says.
"I’m here." Joonmyun smiles. Lu Han is too drunk to lie to himself about the way his heart leaps.
He rests his cheek against Joonmyun's, and looks at his cards. "You're a shark," Lu Han whispers, and Joonmyun puts his finger to his lips.
"Shhh, everyone at this table is going to owe me a drink," he murmurs.
Jongdae looks at Lu Han, then back to Joonmyun. Lu Han can't see Joonmyun's face, but it feels cool to his drink-flushed ones.
Two rounds later, Lu Han has his head in his arms, and Joonmyun pokes him in the side. "I'm going to the restroom."
"Don't leave me," Lu Han says, grabbing Joonmyun's wrist. "Don't."
"I'll be right back," Joonmyun says, but Lu Han won't let go. "We need to get you home."
Lu Han is not sure how they get back to his boarding house. He thinks they take a taxi. Joonmyun hates taxis, though.
He comes to when they are both taking off their shoes at the door, and he trips. Joonmyun catches him, and takes him to his room, guiding him from behind with his hands on Lu Han's shoulders.
"You're a mess," Joonmyun says. "A total mess."
"We finished my physical therapy two months ago." Lu Han sits down on the edge of his bed. "But you're still here."
"We’re friends, now, right?" Joonmyun is looking around Lu Han's room. He has never been in here before. Lu Han doesn't know why. Maybe because there's more space at the apartment Joonmyun shares with Kyungsoo, even if there are music sheets all over the place and Lu Han is forced to use coasters for his drinks.
"I had a best friend in high school," Lu Han says. "Her name is Li Yin."
"Are you still in touch with her?" Joonmyun is running his fingers across all the football stat sheets Lu Han has pinned to his walls. His gaze drops to Lu Han's vase, and he laughs. "You need flowers for this."
"It is December," Lu Han says. "What flowers?" He takes a deep breath. The alcohol is threatening to come back up. "She called to tell me my father was ill."
"She’s still in touch with your parents?"
"When they need something from me, they ask her. They know I can't write her off as completely as I did them."
Joonmyun makes a sound of acknowledgement, coming over to Lu Han. His knees bump Lu Han's shins. Lu Han looks up at him.
"She visited me in the hospital, you know. Back then."
"What were you in the hospital for?"
"She's married one of those boys. She doesn't know it, but she has."
"What boys?" Joonmyun is combing his hand through Lu Han's hair. "You aren't making sense."
"I thought she would be my best friend forever." Sticky mouth, sticky teeth, and a tongue that is swollen in his mouth. "But now there’s Yixing. And you?"
"And me?" His hand slows. Lu Han's brain cannot catch up to his mouth.
"And you. You're the most dangerous." The kind of danger that has Lu Han's stomach aching and his heart trembling and his breath catching in unexpected moments.
"What makes me dangerous?"
The room is spinning. Lu Han pushes his face into the cradle of his shaking hands. "I have never had someone I wanted to stay so much," he says. "I hate that. Because in the end, you won't."
"How do you know that?" Joonmyun asks. Lu Han looks up from his hands. His gut lurches. "You don't. I want to stay. I like you, Lu Han. More than I should." He says it in a rush. "More than I should."
"I should keep away from you anyway," Lu Han says. "I don't want them to have been right about me."
"Who is 'them'?" Joonmyun asks. Lu Han shrugs. His head feels heavy, like it’s full of all the liquor he drank. Joonmyun's mouth is pink and his eyes are steady. He is... Oh, great. Lu Han's stomach, his heart, his everything is all mushing and congealing together and if the room would stop spinning that would be...
"What would you do if..." Thoughts, tumbling over each other. Half-formed realizations and things that Lu Han has pushed aside.
"If what?" Joonmyun's voice is too high.
"What would you do if I kissed you?" No, he isn't supposed to say that. He isn't even supposed to think it. Lu Han isn't... There isn't...
Joonmyun backs up, retreats, bumping into Lu Han's desk. Lu Han's vase, glazed blue and only pretty on one side, falls. Falls and shatters. "Who told you?" The sound still rings through the room. Echoes in his head.
"Told me what?" Lu Han doesn't think the words are clear, but Joonmyun takes a shaky breath.
"Go to sleep, Lu Han." He comes closer again, the same hands that pushed Lu Han through physical therapy for six months now pushing his shoulders, making him lie down. His covers are pulled up to his chin. "You're too drunk. You don't know what you're talking about. Go to sleep." His kisses Lu Han's forehead.
"Don't go," he tries to say as sleep pulls him down. Joonmyun's voice is not steady as he whispers "goodnight".
Lu Han wakes up a few hours later, head pounding. "Joonmyun?" No answer. "Joonmyun?" He sits up. His vase, all the pieces of it, are gone. That proves to Lu Han that it wasn't some horrible dream.
It is no surprise, least of all to Lu Han, that he has woken up alone.
That’s how many days it’s been since Lu Han has seen Joonmyun. It takes three days before he wants to see him, and another two before he’s come up with a hundred, a thousand excuses and explanations for what he said. And maybe he owes Joonmyun a whole story. Maybe he doesn’t, but he thinks he wants to tell Joonmyun anyway.
About the high school football captain who had actually been Lu Han’s first crush after all, and about Li Yin, who had been his second. About feeling ostracized in his own home for even the suspicion of being different and how feeling this way about Joonmyun is so terrifying that Lu Han cannot breathe around the fear.
After that, it’s another four days of unreturned calls and nagging anxiety. Of Lu Han thinking he sees Joonmyun out of the corner of his eye and turning his head to disappointment.
"Is everything okay?" Yixing asks. He hesitates. "You haven’t talked about Joonmyun, lately."
"I haven’t seen him, lately."
"Did you have a fight?"
"No," Lu Han says. "Not exactly."
"Did you shut him out?" Yixing taps his own nose thoughtfully. "That can be frustrating, when you do that."
"I let him in," Lu Han says. "Too close. Scared him away."
"Joonmyun is made of sterner stuff than that. There must be information you’re missing." Yixing shoves his kimchi at Lu Han. "Which, let us be honest, would not be a surprise."
"I think I…" He can’t even say it to Yixing. How is he supposed to say it to Joonmyun? Maybe he shouldn’t say it to anyone. Maybe this is something else that Lu Han should keep hidden inside of him. Something dark and ugly like the apathy he feels toward his father’s encroaching sickness. "I think I—"
"I told you, didn’t I?" Yixing looks out the window, at the street, small plastic cup of water raised to his lips. He takes a sip and leans back in his chair. "It’s okay if you’re a pretty boy who wants a boyfriend."
Hearing Yixing say it makes him want to vomit.
It isn’t okay. It’s something Lu Han learned wasn’t okay when he was far younger than sixteen, and hearing other boys get called horrible names in the boys’ restrooms. "Don’t—"
"Wait," Yixing says. "Is that why you guys are fighting?"
"We’re not fighting." Lu Han gulps. "I don’t know."
"Well, don’t sit here and mope about it. Go find out!" Yixing looks at his phone. "It’s half past six. Choir lets out at seven. It only takes twenty-five minutes to get there with two good knees."
"I still think Jinri is super hot," Lu Han says. Is he procrastinating? Nothing seems clear.
"Lu Han, I can’t speak for the world, but speaking for myself, I don’t care."
"It’s not that simple?" The way Li Yin had looked at him. The way those boys had looked at him. The way, maybe, Joonmyun had looked at him. It’s all something horrible that Lu Han had kept hidden behind how much he likes Jinri’s smile. "It’s not. I just want my friend back."
"The clock is ticking, Lu Han."
He gets to the choir room at five minutes to seven. He looks inside, and there is only Jongdae, sitting beside the piano and checking his key as he rehearses.
"Where did everyone else go?"
"It’s finals, Lu Han," Jongdae says. "We always let out a half an hour early during exam periods."
"Fuck," Lu Han says, and Jongdae sets down his papers, carefully stacking them on top of the piano before turning to Lu Han.
"Were you, by any chance, hoping to catch Joonmyun-hyung?" Jongdae continues staring at Lu Han. "He’s been kind of out of it this week. More than he usually is during finals. Tired, worn. He looks like he hasn’t slept."
Lu Han knows the look. The dark circles and the thin smiles. "I was. Hoping to catch him, I mean."
"You could just call him?"
"He isn’t answering my calls."
Jongdae’s eyebrows do a slow creep upward. "We have rehearsal tomorrow at noon. Joonmyun-hyung always comes early."
"Thanks," Lu Han says. He hopes his courage doesn’t fail him by tomorrow. Not that he knows what he’s going to say. But he has to say something, because Joonmyun has to stay. Lu Han will shove everything down and ask Jinri on a date and maybe even visit his dad if Joonmyun will stay.
The thing is, maybe Lu Han is a little bit in love with Joonmyun. He thinks it’s impossible not to be, with the way everything about Joonmyun is a contradiction of awkward and attractive and sweet but not too sweet.
Joonmyun is some kind of magic, and Lu Han might hate that he likes boys sometimes but he doesn’t hate that he likes Joonmyun. He never really stood a chance, in the end, against that overeager smile and infinite patience.
But saying that, to anyone, let alone Joonmyun, seems as impossible as going back onto the pitch had felt his third year of high school. Feeling it is already bad enough.
Lu Han just wants his friend. He doesn’t want to have messed it all up by being exactly what people assumed he was, back then. He fingers his scar.
He gets ready for bed early. He wants to wake up at three in the morning, and maybe go for a run to clear his head. If it’s dark, he won’t miss Joonmyun in his three sweatshirts, huffing and puffing alongside him.
He’s not expecting Joonmyun at his door, standing there in not one coat but two. He’s holding a box and his face is red from more than the cold. "Jongdae called and said you came by the choir room looking for me today."
"I wanted to see you," Lu Han says. "It was like you disappeared."
"I already said I wasn’t leaving you." Joonmyun hands Lu Han the box, and then takes off one of his coats, hanging it on the back of Lu Han’s desk chair. Lu Han swallows. Joonmyun is planning to stay long enough that he is taking off his coat. "Your ajumma is really kind. She let me in despite the hour."
"What’s this?" Lu Han lifts the box.
Joonmyun unzips his second coat. He takes it off and throws it over the first one, then faces Lu Han directly. "I brought it back."
"Brought what back?"
"Your vase." Lu Han opens the box. Joonmyun has put his broken vase back together. The smooth side now has jagged edges, filled with thick ceramic glue. "It looks more like a mosaic now. But I felt bad for breaking it."
"I should explain," Lu Han says. "I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable around me, or to—" There are no shots to take. Defenders on both sides. Lu Han is trapped. "I never meant for you to know that I—"
"I should answer your question." Joonmyun looks petrified. His eyes are wide and his hands are tucked up into his sleeves. He looks exhausted, and the corners of his lips pull down. He also looks resolute.
"You asked me…" Lu Han walks past Joonmyun, to set his vase back on the desk. He still likes it. It’s even more interesting, now. There is no good side, but that’s all right. "You asked me what I would do if you kissed me."
"I don’t want to lose you," Lu Han says. It is an admission of weakness, and Lu Han avoids those. It’s an admission of fear. "We can forget about it, if you want. I’m sorry. I never should have—"
"If you’d kissed me," continues Joonmyun, "and if you’d meant it…" He stops. Lu Han waits. He waits, and the world waits with him. "If that had happened, I would’ve kissed you back."
One beat. Two. The ball swishes into the net and Lu Han, who can’t, won’t, think about what he’s doing, grabs Joonmyun, one hand cupping his neck and the other touching his soft, soft cheek. He can feel Joonmyun’s racing heart and Lu Han doesn’t know if he has ever been more terrified.
This is proving those boys right, isn’t it? This is the football vice-captain’s hand around his throat and his father’s grim disapproval and Lu Han being all wrong.
And yet, Joonmyun’s the closest thing to perfect that Lu Han has ever known and Lu Han wants to keep him, no matter what.
"Okay," Lu Han says, and then he presses their mouths together.
On a scale of one to football, Lu Han thinks the smooth slip of Joonmyun’s lips beneath his own ranks up there with scoring the winning goal in a championship match, right at the end of overtime, in front of all your friends. He thinks it ranks running again for the first time on his newly repaired knee and seeing his first Italian art house film. He thinks it ranks seeing Joonmyun beam at him from across a low wooden table as he smells the burning of incense and the bitter scent of tea.
He thinks it ranks higher than all that, because all those things are tangled up in the man in front of him, whose mouth opens when Lu Han’s asks.
The room is spinning again, but this time it is a good thing, as Joonmyun’s hands clench in his sweatshirt and he exhales into Lu Han’s mouth. "I’m scared," Lu Han whispers against Joonmyun’s lips, and Joonmyun shivers.
"Me too." Joonmyun tilts his head back, finding Lu Han’s lips again. He kisses him, and kisses him again, and Lu Han feels like he’s on that roof again, only this time, Joonmyun is holding on to his hand. "We can be scared together."
Lu Han does not like to think of himself as fragile. Maybe he’s just like the vase that Joonmyun has put back together, cemented with glue and filled with holes, some too small to see and others gaping wide. But just like that vase, Joonmyun has helped put Lu Han back together, too.
Maybe Joonmyun likes him, holes and all.
And that is the best and the worst and everything in between.
"Okay," Lu Han says. He glides his lips across Joonmyun’s cheeks and chin. "Okay."
"I’m here." Joonmyun yanks on Lu Han’s sweatshirt. "I’m here."
"This is so bad," Lu Han says, even as he clutches Joonmyun closer. "This is really fucking wrong."
"I know," Joonmyun says, catching Lu Han’s lower lip between his own and biting lightly. "But let’s pretend it isn’t, just for now."
"Okay," Lu Han says, and he pushes the terror down deep and wants Joonmyun to stay. So he pulls him down onto the bed and they kiss and touch until three am is long past and Lu Han can do nothing but fall asleep in Joonmyun’s warm embrace.
end of first half