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Little Spaces (In Which To Breathe)

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The night after the Beijing show, Henry dreams he’s back home in Canada, lazing the day away like he used to an ocean and four years ago. 

His head is buried under the pillow and he’s reveling in the comfy-ness of his mattress when he hears it – the ‘thwack-thwack-thwack’ like marbles bouncing across a hard surface. 

He pokes his head out from under the covers, confused.

Upon the floor, dark seams form like tracery as the cracking sounds get louder and louder, starting from the wall and travelling towards the center of the room where his bed is. 

Then the ground splits open right in front of him.

His eyes fly open in shock and he shoves aside whoever it is shaking his arm, almost tumbling off the bed in his haste to check that the floor is intact. 

Nothing but the dark-red-and-green floral pattern of the carpet greets him and he blearily shifts his gaze away to see Zhou Mi sitting back down on the other bed in the hotel room to resume folding his clothes with quick, precise movements.

“You should get up soon, Henry,” Zhou Mi says quietly.  “We’re leaving for the airport in an hour.”

He mumbles something into the sheets in response, but lays there for many minutes more, watching Zhou Mi silently pack the folded clothing, accessories, toiletries and then other miscellaneous items neatly into his bag. 

It’s strangely hypnotic, and he nearly dozes off again, until Zhou Mi prods him once more in the shoulder and he rolls off the mattress to stumble towards the bathroom, half the bedding dragged off and trailing behind him.

Zhou Mi knocks on the door to Henry’s room and asks whether Henry would mind going over the revised choreography for ‘Super Girl’ with him.  “I keep slipping back into the old formation when I’m doing it on my own,” Zhou Mi explains a little apologetically.

Henry doesn’t mind, even though it’s almost time for his violin practice – recently it’s been more reassuring having another person’s presence, he realises, as he lets the door catch and lock behind him, and he widens his strides to catch up with Zhou Mi’s tall figure along the corridor.

“Alright, can we go through it one more time?” 

Zhou Mi’s breathing is heavy and he gives Henry a tired half-smile as he turns from the full-length mirror to where Henry is slumped against the opposite wall.  

Henry nods and accepts Zhou Mi’s outstretched hand to pull himself up.  He moves into place and waits for Zhou Mi to reset the music on the player.

They’ve been in the dance studio for the past two hours, and it’s obvious that Zhou Mi’s energy is flagging – Henry suspects Zhou Mi’s eating even less than his normally miniscule intake these days.

He resolves to end the practice session after this final run-through but Zhou Mi pre-empts him by turning off the player himself.  He rummages in his bag for an extra bottle of water and tosses it to Henry.

“Thanks for practicing with me, Henry,” and in the back of Henry’s mind, he wonders why Zhou Mi can always smile so brilliantly and that he’s kind of missed seeing it.

They leave the building together but Zhou Mi turns from the direction of their dorm.

“Ah, Henry, I can’t go back with you,” Zhou Mi says distractedly as his phone starts ringing in his bag. 

Henry waves him on as Zhou Mi grins at him and hurries off.

“Hey, Heechul-hyung, I’m on my way,” he hears as Zhou Mi walks away, and resists the impulse to reach out and stop Zhou Mi.

Did you know? he wants to ask.  Did he ask you to take care of him, like before?

Henry watches Zhou Mi’s back as it retreats into the distance.

It’s enough to make the floor crack, Zhou Mi tells Henry on a blazingly hot day somewhere in the midst of their Bangkok stint during the early days after Super Junior M’s debut.  All Henry’s heat-befuddled brain can conjure are tortoise-shell patterns overlaying parched soil he once saw in a picture of his textbook during Geography class.

“Like in the ‘desert’?” he asks, substituting the English word when he’s unable to retrieve it in either Mandarin or Cantonese. 

Recently, he and Zhou Mi have taken to language practice while sitting together during the frequent lulls – their periods of waiting being longer than the original members’ – between interviews and photoshoots.  Zhou Mi wanted to learn some Cantonese for when they start promotions in Hong Kong and Henry uses Zhou Mi as his sentient Chinese dictionary in turn.

It could have been way more frustrating, but Zhou Mi always has some new topic to expound on, and Henry gradually gets used to the patois of Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean (and very-occasional English) he uses more or less exclusively with Zhou Mi.  Once in a while, Zhou Mi atrociously butchers some hapless English phrase he claims he learned from school, and Henry magnanimously refrains from lambasting China’s English language syllabus.

“No, like in our apartments,” Zhou Mi clarifies with a laugh.  It practically never happens in Wuhan, but further down south where it’s warmer, during one scorching summer, Zhou Mi’s cousin woke up in the early morning to the floor tiles popping and shattering, thinking there had been an earthquake.

“Usually it’s because the tiles weren’t laid properly, so there isn’t enough space for them to ‘breathe’,” Zhou Mi explains, hands gesturing to demonstrate what he was saying.  “So when it gets really really hot, and stays like that for a long time, a lot of pressure from the heat builds up, until one day—”

“Zhou Mi, Henry, it’s your turn now!”  Their manager’s call distracts them and they quickly get up to join the other members, conversation forgotten.

Sometimes Henry feels the tug of nostalgia for the days when he and Zhou Mi shared a room, before Kyuhyun got even more possessively close to Zhou Mi, and Henry learned how to connect deeper with Ryeowook over their shared love of music.

Zhou Mi would be exclaiming, horrified, over the trash heap that littered the mattress whenever he flung off the covers on Henry’s bed, while automatically reaching forward to pick out the junk food and candy bar wrappers, separating leftover crisps from magazines, and dusting crumbs off loose sheets of staff paper where Henry’s scribbled the latest tune that popped into his head.

In the mornings, Zhou Mi would have to literally drag Henry by the arm into the shower, lamenting how he was turning into an old, nagging woman.  Henry would mumble yes, you’ve got about half of that right, which would lead to Zhou Mi pouting, and it was just wrong for a grown man, three years older and three inches taller, to have such an adorable expression.

They’ve run through Heechul’s new solo for the tenth time and Heechul’s getting antsy because his attention span is short and they decide to call it a day.  Hyukjae leaves first because there are more dance routines he has to review with Shindong and the choreographers, and Ryeowook shoos them (nicely) out of the studio because he wants to practice some more in peace.

Still, Henry has half a mind to stay (Ryeowook wouldn’t really be bothered) but Heechul’s already hooked an arm over Henry’s shoulder, steering them both out of the room.  He chatters about various things – food, his drama, how he’s tired of doing ‘Gee’ and Ryeowookie being his secret weapon – and Henry nods along, not really bothering to absorb the actual details, because his Korean may be passable now, but not when Heechul is being wildly tangential.

Then Heechul’s arm tightens suddenly around his neck, half-choking Henry as he lowers his voice and brusquely tells Henry to make sure Zhou Mi eats more – even Baengsin could knock him over these days. 

Henry stares after Heechul’s skinny frame as he stalks away and thinks Heechul’s a fine one to be saying that.

There’s dim light seeping through the edges of the door frame when Henry returns to his bedroom after a rare late-night shower, and he turns the doorknob with a slightly forboding feeling of déjà vu, uneasy flashbacks to infrequent nights of strained smiles unravelling at the edges, frayed to breaking, and Henry is it okay if I just hang out here for a while I just need a little time-out (from Han Geng-ge, from the other members, from ‘no, I won’t let them and their words get to me’, from the porcelain mask of strengthconfidencecheer that gets chipped at everyday).

He’s not exactly surprised to find the back of a familiar head peeking over the far side of his bed when he enters the room. 

Closing the door quickly, Henry clambers over the mattress to peer around at Zhou Mi’s face, taking in the somber expression and the slightly reddened eyes.  Zhou Mi never cries (at least, not in front of Henry, for which Henry is guiltily thankful for – he wasn’t raised to be comfortable with manly tears), never screams or shouts like how Henry does, never rages about the unfairness of anything.  All he ever does is sit quietly, eyes closed and unnervingly silent, and Henry’s not convinced yet that it’s the healthiest way of coping.

But he’s learned over time to ignore the futility gnawing at him at times like these, and carefully nudges Zhou Mi’s shoulder instead, asking how are you in the spare language of gestures that had slowly developed between them. 

The edge of Zhou Mi’s mouth curves up slightly in a wobbly smile and he gives a tiny shake of his head which actually means a little better, looking over to the desk where Henry’s violin is resting.

Henry gets off the bed and locks the door before opening his violin case and taking out the instrument.  It’s 12.27 in the morning and it’s very likely someone’s going to come banging on the door to stop the noise, but for now, Zhou Mi’s curled up at the head of the bed, watching him as he slides his bow across the strings, and the strains of ‘只要你快乐(1)’ fill the silence of the room.

Amidst the rush of the ongoing performances, no one really notices how long Zhou Mi is taking in the shower after Super Junior M comes off the stage.  Henry’s washed and out hanging around near the backstage monitors for nearly half an hour when he realises Zhou Mi is still nowhere to be seen.  Going back to the shower area, he finds Zhou Mi locked in one of the cubicles, movement muffled by the sound of running water.

Henry waits outside, hoping Zhou Mi would emerge soon.  The shouts for Han Geng when they sang ‘到了明天(2)’ were especially rampant tonight, reaching an unbearable crescendo during Zhou Mi’s solo parts. 

Henry remembers glancing over at Zhou Mi, the surge of emotion, the want that rose from within to just march over and grab Zhou Mi and pull the both of them offstage, away from the jeers and screams and mindless rejection that had crashed over them like an unending wave.  But Zhou Mi’s eyes were closed as his voice hit the climax of the song and later when his gaze settled over the audience, it was focused always at some distant point, calm, determinedly unruffled.

Now that it’s all over, though, Zhou Mi is holed up in the shower and not coming out and Henry is getting a little worried.  Heechul catches him loitering around as the rest of the members sweep through for a costume change and when Henry tells him where Zhou Mi is, Heechul goes right in and bangs the door of the cubicle until Zhou Mi unlocks it.

Henry and Zhou Mi sit together watching the monitors as the concert stretches towards its end, and suddenly the stage manager is ushering them to the edge of the main stage and Heechul appears in front of them, arm going around Zhou Mi’s waist to draw him close, Kyuhyun hovering at their side.  Then someone pushes Henry forward too and the shouts and jeers are deafening and he tells himself that there’s still someone cheering for him within that vast hall but he can’t hear he really can’t until Siwon’s voice cuts through everything, shouting ‘安静!(3)’

Things are a blur after that, though Henry remembers the burning helplessness as he watches Zhou Mi finally break down in Heechul’s arms after they get off the stage.  He wants to do something, but Siwon and Kyuhyun have already stepped forward as well and he’s left behind, an awkward observer at the edges.  Ryeowook tugs him around for a hug and passes him on to Sungmin, but Henry can still see the curve of Zhou Mi’s neck as Zhou Mi hid his face against Heechul’s shoulder.  It seemed almost like defeat.

4.19 am, and Henry’s tossing and turning, the residual resentment and anger tinged with despair bubbling within him.  Zhou Mi is a quiet mound under the covers on the other bed – he’s always quiet after their performances in China now – and suddenly something snaps, like a violin string strung too taut.  He tosses his blankets back and digs out his laptop.

The weight of roiling emotions presses upon his chest, closes around his throat, suffocating. 

Henry stares at Zhou Mi’s face, pale and strained during slumber in a way he never reveals while awake, and draws in a long, painful breath. 

The words flow easily, like water gushing from a cracked dam, and Henry’s fingers fly over the keyboard.


- (1): 'As Long As You're Happy' - Zhou Mi's solo song for the SJ-M Taiwan fan meet and SS2 in Manila.
- (2): Mandarin version of 'Blue Tomorrow'.
- (3): 'Quiet!', essentially Siwon's way of saying STFU.