Pairing: Jongin/Lu Han, background Kris/Chanyeol, past Lu Han/Yixing, past Jongin/Sehun
Summary: Up top, Kim Jongin is one of K-ARTS' best young ballet dancers. One level down, Kim Jongin is one of EXO's best dreamcade fighters. And in between, Kim Jongin meets Lu Han.
Warnings: gratuitous violence, mimed death, brief mentions of violent sex
He speeds through the streets of Gangnam, liquid on his modified Suzuki Hayabusa. Up ahead, his opponent rounds the corner, swingarm flashing silver in the mid-afternoon light, so he slams his brakes, torques his bike sharply to the right, slides it at an almost 30-degree angle to the asphalt. He narrowly avoids crashing into the edge of a 12-meter media pole. The screens are alternating between gibberish headlines about the mayoral elections, the uniform and asinine faces of a new boy band hawking CDs, the words "10:37, 3 REMAINING" in large neon green letters. A warning from Tao, this week's gamekeeper: a little more than ten and a half minutes left in today's round, and only three players still in the game. Jongin likes his odds.
The roar of his opponent's acceleration is the only warning he gets before smoke consumes his line of sight. The acrid smell of burning tires even manages to sneak past his helmet shield, sharp and distinct like a slap to the face. Burnout, he realizes, amazed. But just as he swings his bike around to gawk, he sees a wink of chrome blue through the smoke veil, looping around to head in his direction—his opponent's Kawasaki Ninja, unharmed.
Strategic burnout, he amends in his head with a grin, as he spins and heads out, wheels squealing. All right, you smart fucker, bring it on.
The bike hums under his palms, the sound of the engine as intimate as his own breathing. It's comforting, almost alive. Truthfully, he's never ridden a motorcycle in his life. But down here, it's what you think you can do, not what you've actually done, that matters. And if there's one thing Kim Jongin has, it's confidence—which is why he's only two months in and already one of the deadliest players in the game.
Of course, he's worn his black motorcycle helmet since the first day, but that doesn't count for anything. Last week Jongin threw a man out of the windows of the 40th floor of D-Cube City's headquarters, and he had been wearing a Venetian carnival mask with a fake nose that curled out like a beak. Baekhyun likes to pretend the masks each player picks represents something about them ("Go on, guess what the beak means," he had joked when the glass settled). But Jongin picked his because it was easy to visualize, covered his whole face, and was the last thing he saw on the streets before stepping foot into the arena. So maybe it means he's lazy. He prefers to tell Baekhyun, it means I build from example.
He turns around. Blue Kawasaki is nowhere to be seen, and everything is eerily quiet. The light's changed too, something grey and industrial, like the half hour before rain. Ten-minute mark. Jongin's never liked Gangnam much. Seeing it in the half-light, devoid of people or life, makes it more interesting, but not any more likeable. Over his shoulder, an abandoned plastic bag turns cartwheels in the wake of Jongin's exhaust. Other than Jongin, it is the only thing moving on the streets.
"Eyes on the road, Black Rider," someone quips from a point preposterously close to Jongin's face. Jongin whips around, almost smacking his head into the stranger's mask: a lianpu mockup patterned in yellow and black, bright red accents for the eyebrows and mouth, and a white dot on the nose. The stranger leans back to avoid Jongin's head, in the process revealing how he got so close—he is crouched, actually crouched, like a cat waiting to pounce, on the handlebars of Jongin's motorcycle.
With a jerk, Jongin starts drifting, taking a left a little too close to the sidewalk for comfort. Peking Opera just laughs, twisting himself like a ball on one side of Jongin's bike, then unfurling again when Jongin rights them both.
"Fuck," Jongin hisses, full weight on the acceleration as the Suzuki speeds up, faster than Jongin's ever gone on wheels. Still the stranger doesn't budge from his perch. Nine and a half minutes, Jongin thinks. He'd still like to take out Blue Kawasaki, but you take your opponents as they come. For the moment, Peking Opera doesn't look like he's leaving without a little assistance.
Time to switch tactics. He knows he's coming up to a ramp for a highway that overlooks the river. Without much practice in grappling or wrestling, Jongin's gotten good at using infrastructure to his advantage. In this case, the highway is as good a place as any to throw Peking Opera off and redouble his energy on finding Blue Kawasaki.
"What do you do on flat arenas, then?" the stranger jokes, as if reading Jongin's mind.
Jongin grits his teeth and glares at the stranger from behind the smoky shield of his helmet. "You talk too much," he grunts, slightly spooked. He tries to think of all the other feeder ramps he knows, or if there's any other variation in the land. But what if Peking Opera knows about those, too? A thought comes to him like a sudden cold snap: could Peking Opera read his mind? But it's far more likely that the stranger must have somehow spent the last few rounds watching Jongin. Jongin isn't sure if Baekhyun lets people be in the arena without participating, but then again, as Black Rider, Jongin's known more for skillful execution than surprise. He could try just wrestling Peking Opera off, but he doesn't know if he could handle keeping the bike upright at the same time. Even down here, it's much harder multi-tasking things that are new. That's one of the first lessons Jongin learned, when he tried to blow out a circuit and aim a sniper rifle at the same time and ended up with a firestorm instead.
"Look up," Peking Opera says, singsong as he taps the top of Jongin's helmet. "Highway overpass ahead."
"What?" snaps Jongin, thrown out of his thoughts for a second time. "We're already on the highw–"
Which is how he finds himself staring down a barrel of a gun as he flies off the bike, chin smarting from where Peking Opera caught it with a roundhouse kick.
"Hey, I'll see you around?" Peking Opera offers, smile exaggerated by the paint, and Jongin's head smashes against the asphalt before he gets a chance to spit out—
—fuck you," Jongin screams as he bolts upright, kicking himself out of the dream.
He's smacked in the face by the greasy smell of Baekhyun's spicy shrimp pizza, completely unlike the burning rubber and gasoline from seconds before. The curtains that surround his cot, separating him from the rest of the dreamers, ripple softly, as if trying to calm him down. Jongin rips them apart, almost tearing one of them off the rings. When he crashes through, he's embarrassed to find the dreamcade, as always, eerily still around him, the kind of silence that only comes with a room full of sleeping people. The adrenaline drains from him, taking with it the memory of tires squealing, a bullet hitting him in the chest, cracking his ribs in perfect, painful detail. He is back to his own body, his ratty zip-up hoodie and grey jazz pants, a pair of Kyungsoo's cast-off tennis shoes waiting, patiently askew, by the foot of the cot.
"You're thrown out early," Baekhyun calls out, slightly muffled. He is leaning over the PASIV station, fiddling with one of the hundred knobs as he blindly picks off all the shrimp from a slice of pizza. Jongin notes with amusement that the entire pizza box is balanced on the protruding feet of the customer sleeping next to the machine. "Bad day?"
"Got unlucky," Jongin says, trying for nonchalance. He itches to ask Baekhyun about Peking Opera, only it's one of the most prominent rules of EXO to never ask about the other dreamers. It's not like Jongin has much to lose, but, as Baekhyun keeps snidely reminding him, not everyone playing at EXO is a penniless dance student. People come here to escape who they are, Baekhyun had explained the first he walked Jongin around the brawl arena. Jongin, too, had been one of those.
"That'd be a first for you," Baekhyun quips, finally looking over his shoulder to raise an eyebrow at Jongin. "Not counting your luck with girls, of course."
"What you know about my sex life—" Jongin begins, but Baekhyun waves him off, scowling at a dosage marking on a bottle and, with robotic efficiency, reloading the sedative reserve in the PASIV.
"Save it. I was gamekeeper when we did Miari. You can't lie to me, you walking stereotype."
Jongin isn't one to blush, but he drops his head instinctually, feeling his cheeks burn. "I was distracted," he protests. "It wasn't a proper representation of, you know."
Baekhyun laughs. In one deft movement, he whisks the pizza box off its perch and shoves the dreamer back through the curtains, balancing the pizza box on his knees when he swivels in his chair to grin at Jongin. He thrusts the pizza at Jongin, who shakes his head. In general, Jongin's not susceptible to the nausea some of the other customers get after being forcibly kicked out of a dream. But eating after a session can still make him a little queasy, and anyway, he's never been a big fan of shrimp and cheese.
"Get out of here, Billy Elliot," Baekhyun tells him. "It's past your bedtime."
"See you tomorrow?"
"You know the rules," says Baekhyun, shaking his head.
"Just testing you." Jongin hums contentedly as he picks up his shoes, jamming them on his toes. "See you in three days."
It takes Jongin a little over an hour by public transit to get from the dreamcade in Sinchon to the K-ARTS studios at Seocho-dong. At nine o'clock at night, the practice rooms are comfortably occupied. Jongin checks the schedules and ends up sitting in with a make-up basic barre class, gliding noiselessly into the last slot at the barre. He lets his mind empty of everything but the combinations: lower right leg to tendu, développé, fifth position and grande battement to the side. The instructor doesn't comment when Jongin spins off into his own routines. By now most of the students have glimpsed Jongin's face, and, his identity established, leave him well enough alone. They lift their legs in monotonous repetition, their leg warmers different shades of cream and light pink, the occasional faded grey, rippling around Jongin like the dreamcade curtains.
Jongin's never confused the line between the arcade and reality. He isn't confused now. Awake, as he moves from ronde de jambe en l'air to pirouettes, he dreams of endless frappés and pliés surrounding him like the smoke of a burnout. It hides all trace of the others—the dance campus, Blue Kawasaki, Peking Opera. Jongin is the fire in the center, clear and constant and under control. He spins until he can't see anything, until his hand accidentally smacks the mirror and the entire class erupts into nervous giggles, turning away to spare him the embarrassment.
"Jongin-sshi," the instructor begins, amused.
"Sorry," he mutters. "I'll stop now."
When he gets home, Kyungsoo is waiting at the entrance, arms crossed and eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Where were you?" he asks, instinctively reaching for Jongin's gym bag to sort out the sweaty clothes and dirty socks.
"Practice," Jongin grunts, surrendering to Kyungsoo's fussing.
And in his own way, he is telling the truth.
For the last few weeks, Jongin's been having trouble waking up. In his sleep, he wakes up over and over, traveling through an endless series of tunnels that never quite crests into reality. His dreams are thick and block out the sun streaming through the window, his alarm, Kyungsoo's shouts from the kitchen to get up, Jongin, right now, or else you'll be late.
By the time he's out of bed, Kyungsoo is long gone. There's a bowl of neatly arranged hardboiled eggs on the table, and two pieces of cold, hardened wheat toast; also, a scrawled note reminding him to not drink too much coffee. It stunts your growth, Kyungsoo likes to say, and the last time this came up, Jongin put his elbow on Kyungsoo's shoulder, pressing down. So how do you explain this? Jongin had said, an eyebrow raised, and Kyungsoo only snorted, swapping out Jongin's badly mixed instant coffee with a mug of herbal tea.
But this morning there's nothing between him and the tin of Dongsuh mixes, and Jongin gives into the craving. The caffeine won't help, he knows. The lethargy is probably a buildup of the dreamcade sedative in his system, and really, the only cure is to stop going. For the moment, though, the burnt, thin taste of the coffee on his tongue is perfect and shakes the last parts of him awake. He'll learn moderation with the dreamcade next week.
He doesn't touch the toast, but he does tuck a hardboiled egg into his jeans pocket. It'll make a good projectile during theory class, for when Kyungsoo pays a little too much attention to the lecture. And, if he's lucky, it might bounce off Kyungsoo and peg Junmyeon in the back of the head as well.
"That's it," Kyungsoo says as he pulls bits of egg white out of his hair in disgust, "I'm never cooking for you again."
"That's what you said last time," Jongin says with a smirk, "when I let the kimchi spaghetti mold in the fridge."
Kyungsoo shakes his head mournfully, pulling out his phone to look at his dimly lit reflection. "I wish I had listened to myself then," he complains. He flicks a piece of the eggshell at Jongin's face. Jongin dodges it playfully, plucking another piece from Kyungsoo's neck as he moves away.
"I'm not sorry," Jongin adds. "Junmyeon's face was priceless."
"Because who else would think of a solo food fight on the first day of theory class?"
"Junmyeon takes things too seriously."
"You should take things more seriously."
Jongin shrugs. He doesn't remind Kyungsoo that being one of the few young dancers on the fast track comes with its fair share of pitfalls. Jongin's given free reign over his curriculum, and no one minds when, like last night, he pokes his nose where it doesn't belong and does as he pleases, but when the school had put on a performance of Le Corsaire last session and Jongin didn't get the lead, he'd been called in personally to Lee Soo-Man's office to explain himself. I have plenty of time, he'd argued, and for the rest of the month, Yunho, their technique instructor, was told to work Jongin, and Jongin alone, to the bone, as punishment for mouthing off.
"Forget it," Jongin tells Kyungsoo. "I don't want to think about Junmyeon and his class rep act any more than I absolutely have to." He tugs at Kyungsoo, who gamely gives Jongin his elbow, letting Jongin pull him closer to his chest and away from a petite bass cellist trying to manhandle her instrument down the hallway. "Skip class with me. Let's—"
—go shopping or something, is what he means to say. Instead, Jongin ends up with his mouth pressed into the cotton front of someone's shirt, a strong arm tight around Jongin's neck as he jerks on Kyungsoo's elbow for balance. His first instinct is to flip his weight forward, throw his opponent off. It's a dreamcade reflex, one he's never had to use in the real world. He's unsure, in fact, if it'd even work in reality. Baekhyun had warned him about contamination, how spending too long in shared dreaming leaves some addicts imagining themselves with wings, telepathy, the capacity to breathe underwater, and always ends with them jumping off buildings, drowning, crushed to bits by an oncoming truck. It's why Jongin's so reluctant to mold his shared dreaming body into something stronger. But before he has a chance to test out his throw, he's spun around and put firmly back on two feet.
"Sorry," someone says gruffly. "Are you okay?"
The stranger standing in front of Jongin is taller than most of the dancers Jongin sees on a daily basis, with bleached, slightly fried hair that would never be allowed on stage and a hand held out, palm parallel to Jongin, as if he was afraid Jongin might at any time suddenly lose his footing and collapse back into him. His other hand is wrapped around the wrist of another boy, much shorter and slighter, who turns out to be the owner of the pressed cotton button-down Jongin accidentally tasted. Contrite, cotton button-down keeps glancing up at Jongin, lips drawn together in a tight, embarrassed smile. He nods to Jongin, then to Kyungsoo, before turning to whisper to his friend, who doesn't react, too intent on staring unnervingly at some point left of Jongin's shoulder.
These two, Jongin can tell, are dancers. The one staring is wearing a tight-fitting heather grey v-neck, washed so thin Jongin feels he could run his gaze right through it, and despite the clean ironed planes of the button-down shirt, both of them are wearing loose fitting sweatpants and junky trainers, a kind of unfashionable uniform for dancers away from the studio. Their hair is neatly pushed away from their foreheads, clipped at the back to show their necks.
Only the tallest is in jeans and a blazer jacket, which makes him look remarkably older. "You're not hurt?" he prompts. As if coaxing a child to say hi to distant relatives, he drags the second one out of hiding. "Lu Han," he says, and Lu Han nods again at Jongin, acknowledging the introduction, "never looks where he's going."
"It's okay," Kyungsoo hurries to interject. "Jongin never does either."
Jongin licks his lips, trying to think of some way to protest. He gets the distinct impression that he and Lu Han are being treated like children, or even worse, like dogs that snarled at each other while passing in the street. It's not helped by Kyungsoo wrenching his elbow from Jongin's grasp and placing his hand on Jongin's arm instead.
"I'm Wu Fan," the stranger says. He grins at Kyungsoo, not without charm, and Jongin bristles involuntarily at not being addressed. "Everyone calls me Kris though." Having been released from Kris' grip, Lu Han immediately ducks behind his friend, who smiles vaguely at Jongin's shoulder and scoots closer to Kris. Jongin has seen magnetic pencil toppers like the two of them before—couple bears, he thinks, who smooch if you let them get close enough. And magnetic is a good word, he thinks drily, for Lu Han, who tucks his chin into the crook of his friend's shoulder, peering curiously at Jongin. He’d moved swiftly, like a swarm of birds, flecks of iron following a magnet, guiding his body effortlessly from Kris' arm to his friend's shoulder.
Jongin clears his throat. "I'm not hurt," he says, several beats too slow. "Don't worry."
Lu Han nods again. Jongin is about to snap at him, do you actually say words or do you just use semaphore?, when Lu Han opens his mouth. "We're looking for studio three," he ventures. His voice doesn't have the same clipped quality of Kris', but there's something different in the way he forms his vowels, something familiar in the lilt. Jongin squints, trying to place it and failing. "Do you know which direction we should be headed?"
"You're going the right way," Kyungsoo says eagerly. "Just a couple more doors, on your left. It'll be marked."
There's a brief silence during which Jongin sees Lu Han poke his friend in the stomach several times. Finally, his friend exhales and says, "Thanks," still not looking at anyone in particular. The whole exchange suddenly strikes Lu Han as very funny, and he buries his face in his friend's neck, laughing. Kris throws them both a look of consternation before turning to Kyungsoo and Jongin, hand out, palm down this time, as if asking for forgiveness. Jongin feels like he's been involuntarily thrown into a seungmu, everyone around him moving slowly and ritualistically and he alone unsure of the steps. He puts his arm on Kyungsoo's shoulder and pushes down for reassurance.
"Thanks," Kris echoes, urging the other two ahead with irritated pats on their backs. "I'm sorry, again, for the—" he gestures at Jongin. "For running into you," he finishes, awkwardly.
Kyungsoo and Jongin both nod, watching the three strangers move further away. As they walk, Kris whispers furiously to the other two. Lu Han's friend doesn't seem to react, just nods absently, while Lu Han, still clinging to his friend's shoulder, gazes up at Kris with the expression of a very studious but very disobedient child.
Right before they move out of earshot, Lu Han twists around, his eyes bright even at a distance as he calls out, "Hey, I'll see you around?"
"What a bunch of weirdos," Jongin mutters.
Kyungsoo glares and snatches his hand up so that they're both waving goodbye. "You don't know who they are?"
"Weirdos," Jongin repeats, as if to imply, obviously.
"They're the exchange students from Beijing Dance Academy," Kyungsoo snaps. "They're here for the entire fall session."
"I don't know how you know these things."
"I pay attention."
Jongin touches, almost subconsciously, the spot where Kris had restrained him. Not a dancer then, he thinks, but the three Chinese students had been too closely bonded for Kris to have not been involved in dance at all. Maybe a trainer, then, or even their chaperone?
"Anyway, who cares," Jongin concludes. "Skip class with me," he says as he nudges Kyungsoo's neck with his elbow. "Let's play video games."
"It's a wonder you haven't been thrown out of school," Kyungsoo tells him, shaking his head.
"Only because you've made it your life's work to ruin my fun," Jongin laughs.
They don't skip class. Kyungsoo leads Jongin gently but firmly to technique, where Yunho seems pleasantly surprised to see them both. Jongin does all the exercises intently and carefully, just to piss Yunho off. But as they work on Jongin's attitude devant, his left leg raised in an angle in front and bent in a Balanchine style, Jongin glances at his pose in the mirror and suddenly halts. His chin throbs. Lu Han's parting shot, just like Peking Opera's, hangs in the air, a double exposure echoed in the line of Jongin's leg. I'll see you around, he'd said, leg still raised in a kick. He hears wind rushing by, the crunch of metal, the sudden bark of a gunshot.
"Jongin?" Yunho asks, peering curiously at him. "Are you still with us?"
"Sorry, yes," Jongin says, finishing into a embôité and tour piqué combination across the floor. "I'm here," he says, meaning no.
Jongin and Kyungsoo are called out of theory class the next morning by an announcement over the PA system. Jongin raises his eyebrows when he and Kyungsoo silently close the door behind him, and Kyungsoo shrugs, eyes wide, baffled. Junmyeon, who had been mysteriously absent from class, turns out to be waiting for them in the hallway, chatting quietly with Greg, one of the open workshop instructors. They stop when Jongin and Kyungsoo join them. Junmyeon offers Jongin a hesitant smile.
"No projectiles today?" Junmyeon asks.
For a minute, Jongin can't even process what Junmyeon is asking. Then, snorting, he pats his pants, front and back, and holds his palms out to Junmyeon, showing off his empty hands. "Nothing," he says. "Kyungsoo-hyung said he was going to stop cooking for me." Junmyeon laughs nervously, and Jongin catches Kyungsoo rolling his eyes.
"Studio three," Greg reminds them, which, Jongin thinks later, should’ve been warning enough. Still, Jongin is surprised when he opens the door on Lu Han, balanced in a clumsy arabesque à la hauteur, supported by his silent friend who, kneeling, has his hands on Lu Han's waist. Kris is leaning against the barre, notation sheets in one hand, calling out the rhythm in what Jongin assumes is Chinese. Lu Han is laughing as he falls away from the position, shaking out the raised leg and grimacing. He stops when he sees his audience.
"I've never been good with those," Lu Han says, shyly crouching down to his friend's level. "Yixing was teaching me."
Yixing looks up as if realizing for the first time that he and Lu Han are no longer dancing. He smiles, brushing his knees off as he gets up and stretches into a tendu, then raises his back leg into a textbook perfect arabesque demi. "I've been dancing longer than Lu Han has, though," he says apologetically. "And I'm not very good either."
Jongin rushes forward. "Do it again," he orders Yixing. He flexes his toes, moves to stand almost hip to hip with Yixing, who, taken aback, glances at Kris for confirmation. When Kris nods back, Yixing switches legs, waits for Jongin to do the same, and raises his back leg again, this time slightly higher. Jongin follows along, lifting his leg in time. In the mirror, they are staggered but synchronized as they hold the position. Yixing is taller, but Jongin notes with pleasure that his own extension, cleaner and more Russian, gives the whole image a sense of balance.
He'd been right, of course, about them being dancers, but he hadn't expected them to be ballet dancers. He wishes Lu Han was in position on his other side, or that he hadn't worn jeans. The fabric chafes against his thighs, too tight. Yixing raises an eyebrow and, light and quick, switches into a chassee-cabriole-brisé combination. Jongin takes a breath before launching into the same and can't help grinning when he realizes Yixing is repeating the steps alongside him. They do the whole thing one more time, traversing into the opposite corner of the room, and Jongin is delighted when they end in mirror-imaged croisés.
"You should really say something," Kyungsoo says to Kris from the other side of the room. "If you let Jongin go, he'll keep showing off."
"I don't mind." Kris pushes himself away from the barre to inspect Yixing and Jongin, his stare moving like a spotlight, from their hands raised in perfect fifth to their toes pointed identically. Jongin tries to wipe the smirk from his face, to echo Yixing's flat, serene expression. "Yixing doesn't get a lot of chances to show off. You can't tell from his face, but he's enjoying it."
Jongin waits for Yixing to put his hands down first, then does the same, moving his weight from one foot to another to ease the burn of the jeans. "So competitive," Lu Han whispers from where he is stretching on the floor. It's true, so Jongin doesn't try to deny it. Kris' unbroken gaze on all three of them makes him feel over-dressed and ridiculous, and he whips off his hoodie, trying belatedly to not seem overeager.
"Well," Greg says, amused, "I guess we can dispense with the introductions. Except for Junmyeon," he adds, when Junmyeon appears at his side, offering his hand to Kris.
"Kim Junmyeon," he says. "I'm actually not a dancer. I'm a major in choreography."
"I know," Kris says, taking Junmyeon's hand. Yixing catches sight of Jongin's surprised expression and smiles. He wordlessly offers Jongin some water, which Jongin refuses, as Kris continues, "I'm also studying choreography. Greg told me we'd be working together during our stay here."
"Kris and Junmyeon are going to choreograph a dance," Greg explains, "for the four of you to perform at the arts festival. We thought it'd be more interesting this way, instead of a straightforward exchange program."
"I hope you don't mind that I've already done some planning," Kris says. He thrusts the notation sheets into Junmyeon's hands. From what Jongin can see, 'some planning' seems to translate to 'most of the work'; the pages are complete with computerized sheet music and most of the bars are already covered with marks designating the positions of the dancers' bodies. Kris stares down at Junmyeon with a smile that doesn't quite meet his eyes, as if daring Junmyeon to say something. "I just thought I'd save us some time," Kris continues, "since we'll only be here for a little over a month."
Lu Han suddenly appears at Jongin's side. He taps the back of Jongin's hand and, when Jongin looks at him, annoyed, whispers, "Dui–Kris is a bit of a show-off too. We all are."
"What's your party trick, then?" Jongin whispers back.
"Oh, I meant everyone besides me," Lu Han confesses, laughing. "I don't have any talent. They're the ones the academy actually sent over. I just tagged along."
His lips are almost pressed against Jongin's ear, so that his words come hot and slightly ticklish. Jongin tries to summon back Peking Opera, the way he had said, hey, I'll see you around? Maybe Jongin had just been imagining the tone, misled by the similarity in the words. He can't really remember Peking Opera's voice through the haze of pain and shock of the kick, and anyway, what are the chances? Lu Han's body is lean and athletic just like Peking Opera's, and probably better suited to dancing along the edge of a motorcycle handlebar, but so is Jongin's, and so, really, are hundreds of other thrill-seekers in Seoul.
"He's lying," Yixing cuts in. "Lu Han's the only one of us who can speak Korean."
"You're not so bad," Jongin points out.
"Of course," Yixing says, nudging Lu Han in the shoulder. "Lu Han's been tutoring both of us since we found out we were going to Korea. He made us come here a week before the start date, so that we could practice conversational Korean with street vendors."
"How else are you going to fend off all your admirers?" Lu Han jokes. "Oppa," he croons in a high falsetto, grabbing Yixing's hands as he jumps up and down in a series of changements, "dance with me."
Jongin shakes his head. Lu Han and Yixing continue ribbing on each other in fluent Chinese, and Jongin, unable to follow along, loses interest. A little ways off, Kris is explaining the notation sheets to Junmyeon, who nods hurriedly at everything. Jongin will bet five thousand won that Junmyeon is lost, but he'll also bet five thousand won that Junmyeon will come back the next day with dark circles under his eyes and all the music and directions memorized. Kyungsoo and Greg are chatting idly, but on occasion Greg will tap Kyungsoo on the arm, and Kyungsoo will lean down and join Junmyeon and Kris's conversation.
If he could freeze this moment, Jongin thinks, it would be the sum of his life now, all eighteen years. Dancers to one side, passing him like ships in the night; instructors, choreographers, teachers glancing at him, planning his future for him without consultation. The mirrors reflecting him in an endless loop, magnifying each imperfection and highlighting each perfect turnout. Himself in the center, waiting for a stage he can't envision and an audience he can't see. His world is made of endless variations of this studio, this scene, these people. Baekhyun had first found him in the EXO free play levels, constructing empty studios to practice his routines. You've made this same room about ten times now. Don't you want to try something else? Baekhyun had asked, with a thousand-watt smile and a portal to the arena opening up behind him like a wormhole, and Jongin had asked, without a hint of irony, what else is there?
But this is reality. There is no wormhole. Jongin's life is a program with no acts, no intermissions; every break is merely a rehearsal. Yixing's Korean is easy to understand, and his pronunciation, modeled off Lu Han's, is incredibly accurate. But Jongin understands people best through dance. He itches now to throw off all his clothes, get back to that soaring cabriole, Yixing's legs beating in time with his. He watches Lu Han as he laughs at one of Yixing's incomprehensible jokes, and thinks of that arabesque: clumsy, unfinished, but drawn out in a line so strong Jongin thinks of magnets. Lu Han's body stretched out between two poles, hovering, waiting for Jongin to meet it.
"It's a ballet about wanting to dance," Kris explains to them later that afternoon as they gather in a smaller practice room, photocopies of his notation sheets, now adorned with neat numbering and annotations by Junmyeon, spread out between them. "I know that's conventional, but I figured for my first try at choreography I should try something easy."
"Imagination is not duizhang's strongest point," Lu Han elaborates in a stage whisper to Jongin. Kris glares at him, and Lu Han adopts the same childish expression Jongin had seen earlier, when they’d first met in the hallway.
"The first act is a pas de deux, the second a pas de trois with a walk-in appearance by the fourth dancer, and finally, a quartet that ends in a solo bravura variation," Kris continues. "It's a lot of different formations for a relatively short piece, so maybe I should explain the plot first?" From across the table, Junmyeon nods. Kris examines the notation sheets, then gestures at Junmyeon with an awkward smile on his face. "Actually, maybe you should."
Lu Han and Yixing exchange amused glances. Confused, Jongin looks to Kyungsoo for an explanation, but Kyungsoo is intently flipping through his copy of the notation sheet, occasionally adding to them with quick, neat strokes of his mechanical pencil. Jongin reluctantly moves his copy closer to him, thumbing through the pages as he slumps in his chair. The lines and blobs fly by like an abstract picture book, and he doesn't catch anything of interest.
"Jongin will be the main character," Junmyeon begins, glancing every so often at Kris, who nods absently, spinning a mechanical pencil in one large hand. "In the first scene, he encounters Lu Han, who is dance personified. The scene ends with Jongin trying to follow Lu Han, who runs off stage. The second act is a pas de trois with Kyungsoo and Yixing, who symbolize Jongin's anchors to reality. Lu Han will appear and weave his way through the other dancers. Jongin is the only one who sees him. Kyungsoo and Yixing will—"
"Question," Jongin blurts out. He regrets it immediately when Kris actually turns to look at him, eyes unreadable, the pencil still pirouetting from middle finger to thumb, and over and over again. Jongin draws himself up and turns to a random page in his photocopy, pretending to examine it closely before speaking. "Why did you put Lu Han in the muse role?"
"It's not a muse," Kris interjects. "He's more of a spirit. Like the Wilis in Giselle."
"Only Lu Han's not going to dance Jongin's character to death," Junmyeon adds.
"Well," Kris snorts, the pencil falling from his hands lazily, "we don't know that for sure yet."
An awkward silence follows as Junmyeon and Kris stare at each other, communicating in little eyebrow twitches and aborted hand movements. Junmyeon is the first to break eye contact. "The ending is still being written," he says slowly. "Kris and I are discussing it."
"It's part of the collaboration," Kris says, deadpan. On the other side of him, Yixing snickers. There's a thud under the table and Yixing's expression slides back to neutral. Jongin wonders if it'd been Lu Han or Kris who trod on Yixing's toes under the table. Probably Lu Han—Kris doesn't seem the type to use subterfuge.
"What's a general sense of the third act, at least?" asks Kyungsoo. Jongin peers at the page Kyungsoo's reading and tries to emulate. But with all the pages covered in identical chicken scratch (Kris' writing) and margin notes (Junmyeon's and, in Kyungsoo's case, Kyungsoo's own) he can't tell where Kyungsoo is looking. Finally giving up, he throws his photocopy down on the table. He's always been the kind to learn from doing, anyway.
"It's kind of three different pas de deux. Jongin and Kyungsoo, Jongin and Yixing, Jongin and Lu Han. Then Jongin does a variation in which he decides whether to follow Kyungsoo and Yixing back into the real world or to follow Lu Han into the world of illusion." Junmyeon chews his lip. "Do you think it's too much dancing for Jongin?"
Jongin sighs, shoving the notation sheet as far away from him as possible and glaring at Junmyeon from across the table. Junmyeon had been one of the first students at K-ARTS that Jongin had encountered when, separated from the other prospective fast-track students, he'd wandered into a small group session where Junmyeon and a few other students were working on a rewrite of the grand pas de six in Act III of Swan Lake. Jongin had wanted to stay for the discussion, which bandied Graeme Murphy's production against Matthew Bourne's and ran through each revival with a fanatic's eye for detail, but Junmyeon, ever the good boy, had only been interested in getting Jongin back to his tour group. Since then, that's how they'd related to each other: Junmyeon looking out for Jongin's own good despite Jongin, and Jongin resisting resentfully the whole way. I feel invested in your success, Junmyeon had told him last session, when he'd tracked Jongin all the way back to his apartment to tell him not to spend summer vacation ensconced in a studio instead of at home with his parents, and most days, Jongin would find it touching, if he didn't find Junmyeon immensely creepy.
"Well, I think it sounds great," Kyungsoo tries, tentatively smiling at Kris and Junmyeon in turn, like a spectator at a tennis match. "I'm really excited to get started," he continues, which seems, oddly, to end the conversation, much to everyone's relief.
As they leave the practice room, Lu Han snags Jongin's shirt, tugging gently to make Jongin fall back. Two dogs restraining each other, Jongin thinks, but he separates from Kyungsoo anyway, curious. Yixing, ever Lu Han's silent other half, seems to not mind being shooed off, and Jongin watches him slip between Kris and Junmyeon to find Kyungsoo, striking up what Jongin can only assume, with Yixing's limited experience with small talk, to be arguments about the price of second-hand cell phone parts.
"I don't want you to get the wrong idea," Lu Han says. He still has Jongin's shirttail in his hand, and Jongin finds himself wondering if Lu Han is, after all, older than him. Beijing, like the rest of China, was still developing their ballet program. It's different in Seoul—you could be a young dancer recruited to join a professional troupe. You could have people like Jongin. But good dancers—young dancers—in China didn't do ballet.
"Kris has thought deeply about it the whole project," Lu Han is saying. "He may come off a little curt—"
"I don't mind," Jongin cuts in. Lu Han starts, and then stares at him. Lu as in deer, Kyungsoo had explained over lunch, writing out tight, compact characters, and Jongin imagines Lu Han on a glissade, melting away into the woods like Nijinsky in rose petals. But it passes in a blink, and Lu Han is suddenly normal, prosaic, just another mildly good-looking young man, a little thinner than usual, with a nose almost too small for his face.
"Okay," Lu Han says. He lets Jongin's shirt go, distant now that the conversation is over.
"Okay?" Jongin asks.
"Is copying others your thing?" Lu Han jokes. It comes off a little grouchy, like the other students telling Jongin, I've never seen a combination like that before, as they exit the studio with him. He decides Lu Han must be older, someone used to getting their way, not through playing cute but by merely being. But it's hard to say, he thinks. Yixing has the poise of a dancer who has trained for years, and Kris is undoubtedly older, or at least undoubtedly more fed up with the world. Lu Han wavered, like his body in the arabesque.
"You don't really seem the type," Jongin remarks.
"The type to explain your friends. I thought you'd be more…" Jongin shrugs helplessly, at a loss for words. Careless, is what he means to say, but it feels too unkind for the moment, too judgmental. More like me, he means, but years of casual competition and the small, disconcerting betrayals that come with a life of a prospective professional ballet dancer have made Jongin unwilling to give himself away so soon. He looks around impatiently, as if a word might materialize, and when nothing seems suitable, he settles for glaring at Lu Han. "I thought you'd be different," he finishes.
Lu Han laughs, shyly dipping his head as he surges ahead to where, as expected, Yixing is already waiting for him. "You're right," he calls over his shoulder at Jongin. "I should have asked Kris to make Yixing your partner. Who wants to deal with a brat like you?"
The dance is easy, but practice is hard. They start the next day on the second act, the only one written with all four dancers. Junmyeon does show up with a swollen face and bags under his eyes ("I've streamlined some of the footwork," he says with a tired smile) and sets about furiously polishing the first act as Kris watches Kyungsoo, Yixing and Jongin run through the opening steps.
"It's weird to do this without an instructor watching," Kyungsoo mutters after he lands the first grand jeté that marks the end of their entrée. "It almost feels too free."
Greg had bid them goodbye yesterday with a cheerful wave and the instruction, simply, to not slack off. It'll be what you make of it, he'd said, eying Kris with something nearing appreciation. And also why we chose Kyungsoo, to keep you guys on track, he'd joked. But Yixing seems to grimace when he processes Kyungsoo's words. He tests his demi-pointe and does a little pas de chat around Jongin, so that he's further away from Kris when he whispers, "Duizhang is very strict. In Beijing, everyone is afraid of him."
Three hours later, soaked in sweat, frustration, and what feels like ink dust from the notation sheet photocopies, Jongin wishes Yixing had said something sooner, maybe when Jongin could still back out with a semblance of good grace. Kris works them over like a diamond cutter, forcing symmetry and sharper lines, never satisfied. Impatient and rough, he's the worst instructor Jongin has ever had to work with, and that includes Jaejoong, who once slapped Jongin across the face when he mistook an entrechat trois for an entrachet cinq. Every misstep or unpointed foot makes Kris groan with a sound that seems torn out of him.
"The whole idea is to communicate with only your bodies," Kris explains, over and over. "You need tension, tightness. The whole act is about the tension between the dancers and how it binds them together." The brunt of Kris' comments falls on Jongin. "Put yourself in the role," he commands. "Connect with the others, pull away. I want to feel your confusion. You've found something only you can see. Would you just treat it like another casual acquaintance?"
All of this is true, but Jongin still finds himself fighting the urge to kick Kris in the face. Acting has never been Jongin's strong point. It surprised him, when he first started formally appearing in performances, how much of dancing was about acting. It wasn't enough to simply do the steps, to show the body in motion, moving from phrase to leap. "What is the motivation?" Siwon, the lead director for Jongin's first performance, used to yell. "What is the desire? You have to tell yourself, before you go on stage and tell others."
It doesn't help that Yixing moves like a knife thrown in the air, precise and always hitting just the right note. Even Kyungsoo, who has always been one of the more accurate dancers, can't keep up. Jongin chalks it up to Yixing having been with the piece for longer, but even the last-minute changes in the choreography show up in Yixing perfectly, like gold emerging from the mud of his body. Maybe Yixing understands Kris better as a whole, but Jongin knows that's just sour grapes.
By the end of the afternoon, they are still only through the adagio. Lu Han has been diligently memorizing his steps in the mirror to one side, occasionally smiling at Junmyeon, who has fallen asleep with his headphones in, still blaring the music Kris chose as accompaniment. Kris glances over with a grimace Jongin can't categorize as disgust or amusement, and calls a break. Finally off his feet for the first time in hours, Jongin collapses with his back against the mirror, reaching for a bottle of water. He flinches when Lu Han presses a freezing cold bottle, fresh out of the vending machine, against Jongin's cheek.
"You look like you're enjoying yourself," Jongin bites out.
"It's my role," Lu Han tells him mildly, "to be nice to you before Kris dances you to death."
"You'll be sorry when I die before we go on stage."
"That's okay," Lu Han says, handing Jongin the bottle and patting the condensation away on his tights. "After all, it's not my reputation here that's at stake."
Jongin bites down his lip, hard, to keep from snapping at Lu Han. At the same time, Kris claps his hands and shouts, "Okay, one more time, from the entrée." Jongin has never been very religious, but today he looks at the ceiling and sends up a little prayer. It's going to be a long month and a half. Lu Han grins, curving his back in a barre stretch, like a diver priming for a back flip. His arm accidentally brushes against Jongin's, cool and dry against Jongin's overheated skin. Kris's voice echoes in Jongin's head, does he worry that if he throws the illusion away, he'll lose something special?
Jongin wants to scream at him, how would I know? He has yet to see Lu Han dance in his role, and the whole afternoon feels like an exercise in expressing emotion to a void. He thinks of the first act, of the fouettés en tournant he's expected to execute in perfect time with Lu Han, the fish dive in the unfinished third act, circled in Kris' messy hand with three question marks penned in ink next to it. He wants to pin Kris down, throw the notations in his face, and demand he explain Lu Han. Some sulky part of him wishes he could ask Kris to change Yixing and Lu Han's roles. Yixing, at least, dances with a straightforwardness that Jongin can understand. Lu Han is a black box that spits out bad jokes, fluent affectionate Chinese to Yixing, and the occasional passing glance at Jongin's reflection in the mirror. If Jongin could pare him down, trim away the inconsistencies, only then would Lu Han be something Jongin can dance towards.
Jongin grits his teeth, flexes his feet and, in a show of self-flagellating temper, extends into an arabesque and leans down, even further, to touch the ground. With his conditioning and natural balance, nothing shakes, and each movement is smooth, fluid, controlled.
When he looks up, Lu Han has already turned away and is over by Junmyeon, shaking him awake.