Dawn was breaking, the darkness letting up, the moon fading into the background. The early morning sky was awash with black and blue and white, and he liked to think that it was a blank canvas (the sky), and the colours paint, freshly squeezed from a tube that came in twelve different colours, or at least how many colours there were in a rainbow.
To Kai, there were only four colours, none of them particularly cheery.
Black. Gray. White. And red.
It was under this foreign sky that he ran, broad shoulders weighed down by a seven kilo deadweight. It was mid July, time of the freezing winds and chilly air and white smoke billowing out from lips that were pale and chapped. The hairs on his skin stood, as straight as needles, and it was an unsettling feeling of awareness and alertness. He sucked in the icy cold air in small measured breaths, because there were only so many breaths he could take per day, per week, per month, per year. He didn't think that far, his mind only focused on today, right now, his memory living in moments, hours, minutes, seconds. Anything more and it would be like a computer hanging, frozen in time and space, because overload. He closed his eyes but it made no difference, maybe just that the world was one ounce lighter now, the shade of black a little less harsh than the bleak grey colour of the world around him. His feet took control, the bones and joints moving in sync with the flexing muscles, the impact of his landings cushioned by the rubber soles of his Nikes. The sounds of the early morning traffic passed him like a whisper, the honks and crunching of rubber tires scraping against gravel playing like a broken recorder in the background, disjointed tunes filled with unfiltered noise and the occasional break and bridge in between. He did not know exactly how long he had been running, how much energy he was using up, how many calories he was burning off, just how much of the flesh under his skin would disappear after this.
He thought he knew.
Once upon a time, maybe.
Because the more one tried to remember something, that something would become easier to forget.
The world was a bitch that way.
It was a competition, every morning, every day, every minute, every second and whatever else one used to count time. It started before the doors opened to the brightly lit studio and surrounded by mirrors. It continued after the door closed to the sound of retreating feet and coarse expletives. It was a never-ending competition called life.
It was a competition one could never win.
And the more one tried, the more one got cheated.
Because at the end, whether winner or loser, there lay the same prize, the same fate, the same door.
The only consolation was, who reached the door first.
Kai dropped his bag on the lacquered wooden flooring and stripped off his shoes, his jeans, his shirt. It was easy, getting easier everyday, all he needed to do was to give the fabrics a slight tug, a light shrug, and they would fall to the floor in a pool at his ankles. He stared at the reflective glass, at the last remaining layer that stuck on, clung on no matter how hard he pulled.
He wondered if the day would come, the day when he would give a little shimmy and it would fall right off, exposing the vision of red and white.
For now, he would have to be content with running his eyes over the proud protusions of the treasures that lay beneath, the pools of grey and black lying in the holes and crevices of his being.
He stooped to pull on the wrinkled black bodysuit over his long legs. It was like wearing a second skin, and he never tired of watching the black crawl over his skin like a colourful disease, taking over the expanse of leg and torso, stretching out and camouflaging him into whatever he couldn't be. Then the door opened and the others entered.
"Hey," the boy he knew to be Luhan said with a smile.
"Hey," he replied, smiling back.
Phase One began.
Eat or be eaten.
How ironic, Kai thought as he watched the brown-haired boy throw his guts out into the toilet bowl. They were in their bodysuits and it was easy to tell who had eaten what for breakfast or dinner the previous night, or even tea time.
Except that it was useless to look, because no one ate anything.
It was an unspoken rule, a golden command meant to be followed. That was the reason why the place had four toilet stalls, complete with toilet bowls. And the snack corner was stocked with bottles of water and boxes of white oval pills that made one feel like he was in the savannahs. It was easy, when one's stomach growled, he simply needed to gulp down the water, pop a pill and visit the toilet.
And when he emerged, he would be safe for a few hours before the hunger bug attacked again.
This was what made the competition so tough, so difficult, so thrilling. Because if his enemies succeeded, levelling up, he would have to jump ahead, using whatever means necessary.
Even if it meant leaving a part of himself back in the toilet.
The challenges came, full throttle and demanding, programmed to sift out the strong from the weak. It was a fight, an all-out battle, bony feet landing on the wooden floor with the slightest thump, muscles clenching, then taking off, high up into the weightless air. Dance was an art. Ballet was a war, in which the only weapons they had were themselves.
Sweat poured down his face, seeping into his eyes and stinging his eyeballs, the excess running down his chin like a river. His muscles were screaming, screaming to be fixed, the ripped parts sewn back. His bones were heavy and dead, the tight skin around it too flaccid to move. The air conditioning chilled the surface but his insides were blazing, an inferno of torture and strained muscles, the connective strings falling apart.
He leaned against the wall, his eyes closed, too tired to care about his shivering legs. Break time was the only exception, just that five minutes, that 300 seconds where the game stopped, paused, and all the players closed their eyes and tuned in to their own silent suffering. And when the door slammed and the distinct clap pressed the RESUME button, they picked up their battered weapons once again, this time covering them with a new coat of paint.
They looked new again.
It was time to go. They turned off battle mode and switched to self mode. Kai didn't know which was more brutal, being killed by others or being killed by yourself.
Such a sadistic world they lived in.
They walked out of the studio, out of the building, hands shoved deep in their pockets, looking as if they were having fun, laughing and chatting.
It was toned down, but still there.
Kai could see it in Sehun's eyes. The envy, the swirling winds of grey turning black as the boy raked his eyes over his bony wrists. He could see the motors whirring, the numbers appearing.
And he knew that the boy was going to spend an hour with his head chucked down the toilet bowl when he got home.
He also knew that the merry cheer in Luhan's eyes was nothing but self-beration and heat for him, for not executing the jete as well as he did. He knew that the older boy was thinking of what the teacher had said, that Kai is the one that shines out of the lot of you.
And that Luhan would spend the night practising infront of his mirror until he could shine brighter than the stars in the sky.
They would spend the night taking perfection to the next level. Tomorrow, perfection would be one more rung up the ladder he had to scale.
They parted ways at the end of the street, and when he was sure they were too far to see him, he turned and retraced his steps to the studio.
The door was unlocked, hanging slightly open. Immediately, a warning bell tolled in his mind.
Who was it? Who was staying back to practise?
He peeked in, and in the soft glow of the moonlight he could make out a small figure moving about in the mirrored room. The boy was small-framed, and he was wearing a singlet that clung to his skinny but somewhat curvy figure and a pair of track pants rolled up to the knees. He was dancing, twirling, jumping, spinning, watching his reflection dance around the room like a shadow. There was no music, no pianist playing the piano, and yet he was dancing to a million tunes that floated through the deafening silence.
On his face was something that glittered like a polished diamond, something rare and precious and stunning.
It was his smile.
And Kai thought that if perfection was a person, it would be him.
He wasn't one of them.
He wasn't a competitor in the harsh game of life.
He was too innocent, too pure, too happy to be.
Because if he ever joined in the battle of professional ballet, where there could only be one victor and twenty other losers, one star and twenty other adornments, one principal dancer and twenty other ballet dancers, his smile would be a mask, a convincing lie and not real.
He pushed open the door and walked into the dark studio.
"Who are you?" he asked softly.
The boy stopped dancing and looked at him. The silence hung in the air, thick and stifling.
"I am nobody," he said finally, his voice a melodious tune tinged with a slight metallic rust. "I'm just Baekhyun, the pianist."
Kai vaguely remembered the figure sitting by the piano at the far corner of the room. He had no impression of the pianist, never paid attention to anything other than the movements of his limbs and the movements of the other dancers.
"I'm Kai," he said, dropping his bag with the newly refilled bottles of water to the floor.
"I know. I've watched you dance."
The boy's eyes were filled with an undecipherable emotion. It made Kai feel less than perfect. He let his clothes fall to the floor, and clad in his bodysuit, he danced. He danced with grace, he let his lithe limbs sweep across the air like falling leaves, he jumped, all languid and giving the illusion of flight. He twirled, he danced like never before.
I am the best.
I am perfect.
I have to be.
Baekhyun clapped, the sound hollow and yet full.
"You dance beautifully," he said with a smile that made his eyes twinkle.
"But your smile...you look so sad when you're dancing."
Kai wondered if he was bewitched. Trapped in a trance or spell. Because something had to have happened to him. There was no valid reason for him to stay back in the studio every night and dance.
He wondered if he was losing his hold. He no longer spent his time eyeing bodies and calculating how many calories they lost. Instead, he listened to the music, to the gentle crystal clear notes rolling off the piano, and let it soak into his skin, run in his blood, until he moved as one with the music.
Feeling, his teacher said. Kai is dancing with feeling.
It was an indescribable 'feeling', one felt deep in the marrow, too complex to be translated into words.
Kai ignored the waves of jealousy radiating from the other dancers, instead his eyes travelled to the boy behind the cover of the piano, smiling at him.
He smiled back, a tiny quirk to the side of his lip, so small and insignificant that if one blinked, it would be as if nothing had happened.
It was an addiction, his nightly dances with Baekhyun, the boy who danced with his feelings. It controlled his mind like an obsession, so much that he forgot about life for a moment and called TIMEOUT, throwing down his armour and baring his soul to the one person that mattered.
"Do you like dancing?" Baekhyun asked one day as they lay side by side on the smooth wood flooring.
Kai opened, his mouth, but nothing came out. He didn't know, he didn't know if he liked dancing, he didn't even know why he was dancing.
He was just following the track of his life, the one-way route provided on the map.
He shrugged. "I don't know."
"Well, I do. I love watching people dance. It's like listening to their heart songs. That's why I play the piano for dance companies, to be able to be the music that makes them dance, makes them express themselves."
Kai laughed, a dry laugh that sounded harsh and ridged with reality.
"That's not what professional ballet is. We don't dance to the music. We're just puppets, hung on tight strings, made to see who can be the first to tighten the strings until he rises above all."
"That's...not what ballet is supposed to be," Baekhyun said, his voice a mere whisper.
"That's not ballet. That's perfection. Because we're all screwed up people who need to be perfect in order to feel like we're alive, you know? Ballet is just an excuse for us to die."
Baekhyun did not answer. Kai turned to face him and saw that one tear leak out of the side of the boy's glistening eyes, falling with a splash on the lacquered wood below.
He was crying.
Kai glared at the cube of chocolate on the boy's hand.
"Come on, Kai, you haven't eaten all day," Baekhyun pushed his hand closer, waving the offending piece of high calorie food infront of Kai's face.
"Yeah, but I didn't puke either."
It had been days since he'd last stuck his fingers down his throat. Now the fingers wouldn't fit anymore.
"I really don't understand it. Why do you guys have to do that? You're all beautiful enough——"
"You wouldn't understand. You don't know the feeling of gorging on food, seeing them look at you with disgust and think——that's disgusting. You don't know how it feels to have to watch and be watched, to be always frightened of someone overtaking you, pushing you off the ladder, of someone becoming more perfect than you——"
"It's just ballet, Kai. It isn't supposed to make you——"
"It's not 'just ballet', Baekhyun. It's a fucking battlefield."
"Then that's not ballet anymore. That's suicide."
They didn't speak after that. Kai spent an hour in the toilet, stuffing fingers down his sealed throat.
He'd kill himself before he'd let anyone kill him.
"Stop it," Baekhyun said, his voice a mess of tears and emotion as he watched Kai tear himself apart. He pulled the boy out of the black hole that was sucking him in, hugged him, tears spilling down his shirt. They stayed like that, him stroking the younger boy's bony back, all the way until the boy stopped trying.
The last thing Kai remembered was a spot of red, a deep crimson red splattered on the white tile of the washroom.
Baekhyun didn't come the next day. Or the next. Or the next.
Kai stopped waiting.
He settled back into the routine, carrying four two litres of water now, running to and from the studio. He spent the morning in the cubicle between Luhan and Sehun, competing to see who could throw up the most. He emerged from the toilet, lips slick with acid that no longer burned, stronger and a little more perfect.
His heart still hurt, but if he made other parts of his body hurt too, maybe it wouldn't be so painful.
Baekhyun returned two weeks later, paler and thinner than before. His eyes were glazed and he would occasionally miss his notes, his bony fingers not as agile as before. Kai ignored him, instead, he put his all into it, dancing perfectly.
"Kai, that's good too, but you've lost your feeling."
The teacher's words lashed at him like a whip, the silent snickers of glee from his rivals the salt that bit into his wound. He clenched his teeth.
He didn't know what came after him, but he was at the studio after hours, waiting. Baekhyun came in, wrapped up in a long sleeved woollen shirt and baggy jeans.
"Hey," he said, walking over slowly.
They danced, Baekhyun's movements slow and graceful, his own sharp and technical. The two styles were vastly different, but somehow melded together to form a single dancing shadow under the light of the full moon.
Until Baekhyun fell.
He lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, wincing. Kai rushed over and flipped him on his side.
"It's your back, isn't it," he said, pulling up the boy's shirt.
They were of a colour he didn't quite recognize. Patches of an inky blue-black colour lined the boy's spine, stark and striking against the snow white skin stretched taut over jutting bones.
The newest one was quickly becoming as big as the others, like a drop of paint spreading out over white canvas.
"Don't look," Baekhyun pleaded, his voice small and fragile.
Kai leaned down and pressed his lips to the dark splotches of colour, running his tongue along the boy's spine, smiling as he felt the boy shiver.
"They're beautiful," he said huskily into Baekhyun's back. "Just like you."
Baekhyun turned to face him, eyes shining like black pearls in the moonlight. Kai kissed him, sucking on the pale white lips that tasted strangely bitter. He ran his fingers through the boy's hair. Something came away in his palm.
Baekhyun didn't come again for a long time.
Kai was frustrated. Ballet had no deep meaning for him without the smiling boy at the piano, and he spent the time not really there, not really dancing.
The teacher praised Luhan that day, but he didn't give a fuck.
When he came again, he was even skinnier, his eyes bloodshot, the skin on his face seeming too heavy to be supported, sagging downwards. He wore a beanie, one that covered his entire head. After class was over, Kai stalked over and confronted him.
"What is the meaning of this?" he pointed to the beanie, not really meaning it. His mind was an angry mess of questions on the boy's disappearances, and he couldn't think straight.
"It means we're over," Baekhyun said quietly.
"You can't just say it's over. Do you know how long I've waited? How——"
"I can't stay forever, Kai."
The boy smiled. Kai cursed, and in one swift movement he all but ripped the beanie off his head.
A sea of white, that's all it was.
The boy's smile broke, crumbling into sharp pieces that cut him all over.
But the place that hurt most was his heart.
Baekhyun did not dance anymore. He just sat in the dark, silently watching him dance.
"I like to watch you dance," he said with a small smile.
And so Kai danced. For him, and for him alone.
"We're having a recital three months from now, and it's going to be The Nutcracker," the teacher announced, "I'll choose the lead from three dancers, Luhan, Sehun and Kai."
Luhan and Sehun beamed, whereas Kai clenched his fist.
He didn't care that he had not been immediately casted as the lead, but he was determined to clinch the position as the lead.
He wanted to be the one shining under the spotlight.
So that Baekhyun could see him dancing, no matter how far away he was.
He trained harder than ever, coming in earlier, only drinking water and staying late to practise alone in the studio. Some nights he would visit Baekhyun, dance for him in the small white space that reeked of disinfectant and death. The boy would sing for him, his voice soft and weak but still moving, and he would dance to it, trying to put whatever he couldn't bring himself to say into his movements.
He danced with feeling.
That particular night was cold and dark. Kai took off his coat and wrapped the around the smothered boy on the wheelchair. They didn't speak, just stared into the depths of each other's eyes and smiled. Kai danced for Baekhyun, slicing through the air, his arms spread out like he was flying, soaring through the night sky.
Baekhyun took a long twig and traced their names in the sand. It read BAEKHYUN and KAI. Kai used his toe and struck out Kai. He traced out JONGIN, then surrounded the names in a roughly drawn heart.
"Jongin," he murmured, "that's a beautiful name."
The stars sparkled brightly in the black sky, illuminating the two figures, molded together in a perfect joining of cold lips and icy fingers.
The wind blew and the waves crashed against the shore, scattering the sand.
Kai licked his lips, taking deep, unmeasured breaths. Because who cared if he used up all the air he would have in his life, now was the time that mattered. Luhan, the dancer playing the female counterpart, smiled nervously at him.
There was no malice there, no rivalry, just the nervous beating of sincere hearts.
They entered the stage to wild applause. Kai's eyes scanned the crowd, a smile on his face. He found what he was looking for, and his smile shone big and true and genuine, for the first time in many years.
The last act ended, and the curtain fell. It was over. He threw off his performance outfit and changed into casual clothing, off to find him when he was stormed by a wave of people enthusiastically clapping him on the back. He mumbled his thanks, battling his way out, and there he was, smiling happily with glistening eyes.
"You were perfect," Baekhyun said, and Kai——no, Jongin believed him.
Because he became perfect. For him.
They sat on the stage after all the glitter had been swept away, the audience gone. They looked out at the vast number of red velvet cushioned seats, places which had been filled by people earlier that night.
"Jongin, will you dance for me please?" Baekhyun whispered.
Jongin nodded and started to stand when the boy tugged at his shirt.
"Put this on, I've got a surprise for you."
His voice was broken with hints of tears.
Jongin nodded, biting his lips to stop them from quivering as he let the boy tie a cloth around his eyes.
He was engulfed in a sea of black, with no sense of direction whatsoever.
Baekhyun's voice was melodious and fragile, as if the littlest of winds could break it into pieces. It sounded faintly like the sweet tinkling of a music box, the kind with the ballerina turning in the centre. Jongin danced, he leaped, he jumped, he twirled, he soared, moving along to the soft happy tune.
"You must keep dancing, okay?"
He didn't trust himself to answer, just pirouetted, spinning round and round.
There was a long pause.
"I love you, Jongin."
Jongin clamped his lips tightly shut, trying to stifle the sobs that threatened to burst forth.
"I love you too."
He carried on spinning until he could not tell where he was in the pitch black abyss. His eyes burned, and the cloth around his eyes was hot and wet.
The music had stopped a long time ago.
He took off the blindfold and let the tears fall freely, splashing down onto the wood flooring like raindrops.
Baekhyun sat on the wheelchair, head drooped sideways, a contented smile on his face.
He was utterly beautiful.
They stayed there the entire night, Jongin holding the sleeping boy in his arms, wiping away the teardrops that rained down on the boy's snowy cheeks.
Love is watching someone die. —— Death Cab for Cutie