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What was it like pretending to date Xie Lian? 

Okay, imagine this: you’re in a hamster wheel, and you’re a hamster. Being a hamster, you enjoy hamster wheels. It's a glorious life. Couldn't want anything else. Food and water and basic living priorities are distractions from this wonderful hamster wheel, but now, now, you get to run on your hamster wheel all the time. Even while you’re eating and drinking. What could be better than this? 

You’re running, constantly, faster than you could’ve ever believed. Sooner or later, the tracks start slipping underneath you, but that’s expected. You’re a hamster; fuck what the tracks think. 

Then you’re going too fast to keep up. You stumble, once, twice. A million fucking times, but hey, you’re a hamster, and you enjoy these things, and you don’t stop running. The speed hikes up. The sheer—trajectory, the acceleration, the velocity, whatever it is, it's so high that you're somehow still running even when you start spinning with the hamster wheel. Your little heart is going to burst out of your chest and the wheel is going so fast that you’re certain that it’ll compress your little hamster body into a pulp of miserable blood and flesh, splatter you all over the goddamn room in a gory mess, straight out of a King novel. 

But? Goddamn. What a way to go. You'll die so fucking happy. You're certain of it. Your little hamster brain. 

In this scenario, Hua Cheng is obviously the hamster. Xie Lian is the wheel that never stops giving. 

“You literally just held his fucking hand three times,” He Xuan says. 

“I held his hand,” Hua Cheng agrees, and thinks about the sweet release of death via Xie Lian’s perfect fingers, slotted right between his. "Three times."




It wasn’t Hua Cheng’s idea, contrary to popular belief. Well, he’s heard of one belief from He Xuan, and He Xuan is the Grinch whose Grinchiness is active every day of the year including Christmas, dutiful man that he is, so maybe it’s an unpopular opinion. 

Genuinely, though. Hua Cheng wouldn’t dare. For something like seventeen years since the ripe age of five, he was content to bask in Xie Lian’s presence like the sun. Might’ve not been the greatest start of the stories, but Hua Cheng was a disgusting five-year-old with sticky hands and a stickier heart, and Xie Lian was the amazing fifth-grader who came in every week to his classroom to read to him. That wasn’t all, but. 

Xie Lian just smiled at him and kept smiling at him. Xie Lian. Meet Hua Cheng’s hamster brain. 

So Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, and for maybe five years now, they’d settled into the close companionship that apparently came with Hua Cheng’s exit from the horror story that was puberty and his admission into Xie Lian’s alma mater. 

“Tell me if you want to ask any questions, San Lang,” Xie Lian said, when he settled all three boxes of heavy stationery and clothes on the floor of Hua Cheng’s dorm room with a deafening thump. Hua Cheng’s hamster brain thought, Is it possible that you’ll ever like me? Can I ask what it’d be like to hold your hand? Would it be okay if I stayed by your side forever? Et cetera, et cetera. 

“Always so kind, gege,” Hua Cheng said instead, like a normal person, and Xie Lian’s cheeks flushed the prettiest pink. Orchids in full bloom. 

That was then. And then: three weeks ago, he found Xie Lian sitting on the stone steps outside his and He Xuan’s apartment, stroking the petals of the lilies that Xie Lian cultivated in Hua Cheng’s home as his pet project to “make San Lang’s apartment pretty, because San Lan deserves nice things.” He was so, so beautiful. He was wearing a soft-knit beige sweater and acid-washed jeans, a vision in the gentle sunlight. This was important. All things involving Xie Lian were important. 

Hua Cheng took a second to breathe. He prayed to never get dementia, totally unrelated, and he said, “Gege. Why not use the key I gave you?”

Xie Lian’s head whipped up. “San Lang!” he said, and that was—”I wanted to wait for you to come back,” he said. “Would you like to get lunch with me? If you’re not busy?”

Hua Cheng ate not even twenty minutes ago, but that was okay. He’d grow a second stomach. “Of course, gege. What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion if I always want to get lunch with you,” Xie Lian said, smiling. God. One day Hua Cheng was going to have a heart attack and die, but he was absolutely going to come back, if only so he could see Xie Lian smile like that for the rest of his second life. Then the smile dipped, just a degree. “Ah, but… I need a favor, if that’s okay.”

“Anything for gege,” Hua Cheng said automatically. He understood that it was a less frightening answer than, I’d give you all my internal organs if you asked. 

“Ah, San Lang, don’t say that before you even know what the favor is. It’s a—” Xie Lian broke off, bit his lip. Hua Cheng inhaled. Keep it the fuck together, dude. “It’s. Kind of big? Lunch, maybe?”

“Of course,” Hua Cheng said. 

In hindsight, perhaps the internal organs would’ve been easier. 




“Tell me what your boundaries are,” said Xie Lian at the start of all this. 

They were sitting on the lumpy couch in Xie Lian’s apartment, criss-cross, facing each other as if this was a business transaction held in a meeting room rather than an apartment where Xie Lian’s sink might’ve been growing sentient mold not five feet away. Brown eyes like honey-steeped tea gazed at him, sweet and golden and warming him the entire way through. Xie Lian was wringing his hands. 

Hua Cheng, he was holding himself very carefully, so he wouldn’t tell the entire world that the sight of Xie Lian wringing his hands was the cutest thing ever. Also the hottest, because Xie Lian was a man of duality. 

“I mean it, okay? Anything you’re not comfortable with, I’m okay with that! We could just be, you know, a couple who doesn’t do PDA or any—”

“No boundaries,” Hua Cheng said. “Whatever gege wants, I’m okay with it.”

Xie Lian squinted at him. Hua Cheng was pretty certain it was his way of looking at him with deep suspicion, but on Xie Lian it was more of a near-sighted squint. “Holding hands?” Xie Lian asked. Hua Cheng nodded. “Hugging? Even kissing? Cheeks, mouth? Neck?”

JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, went Hua Cheng’s hamster brain. Externally, he said, “Whatever gege wants.”

“I,” said Xie Lian, flustered, “well, okay. But if you’re not comfortable with it, you have to let me know, okay?”

Like that would ever happen. 




“Today,” Hua Cheng announces, barging into He Xuan’s disaster of a room, really another realm fit for Eldritch monsters with the way his eyes refuse to focus entirely in the glow of He Xuan’s four million black-shaded lamps, “gege kissed me. On the cheeks. Both of them. Are you listening?”

He Xuan doesn’t move. He’s lying facedown on the bed, the only part of his room kept clean and spotless, emo blankets unrumpled beneath him. Again, Eldritch existence. 

“I could’ve been masturbating,” says He Xuan. 

“Your dick is small enough that I wouldn’t notice, I’m sure. Like jacking off a little peanut.” 


“Listen to me,” Hua Cheng cuts in. He tries to pace around the room, but there’s dark spots that are darker than the normal sea of black; he’s not sure if it’s piles of clothes, an empty space where a floorboard used to be, or a portal to an alternate dimension. He decides not to risk it and stays still. “Gege kissed me. Does your brain even comprehend how—the magnitude of this act? Gege? To me? Kissing?”

“I don’t know, but you’re going to tell me about it, aren’t you.”

“His lips were so soft,” Hua Cheng tells him. He Xuan mutters something that might be end my life. So standard rules of play. “I think I could’ve died. Check my pulse, will you?”

“Please die,” says He Xuan. 

“I have Shi Qingxuan’s number,” Hua Cheng says. “Just so you know.”

A beat of silence. Hua Cheng waits it out. Any conversation with He Xuan, he has the upper hand. He’s a little disappointed that He Xuan hasn’t figured this out by now after four years of… whatever this is. 

Finally: “Tell me more about Xie Lian’s mouth,” says He Xuan, gritting the words out. “Please. I am dying to know.”

“I’m glad we’ve reached an understanding,” says Hua Cheng, and spends the next three hours doing exactly that. 




The worst part of it is that no one really gives Hua Cheng the reactions he craves. He Xuan, he bothers because bothering He Xuan is like poking at a worm just to watch it squirm, but everyone else is just… 

“Cool,” says Pei Ming.

“Why are you talking to me?” says Ling Wen. “I don’t care. I have work to do. Goodbye.”

"The hell?" says Shi Wudu.

The only person who manages reasonably is Shi Qingxuan, and even he’s a little weird about it, all, “Oh, you’re so cute together.” Cue squeal, and five rapid blinks that could be a wink. “I mean, I saw it coming, million miles away, but ah, it’s so nice to see. Just remember that no one is surprised.”

Hua Cheng just wants someone to understand. Like, You’re dating the most perfect person in the universe! What the hell did you do! Who did you kill! 

Unfortunately, he does get that kind of reaction. Kind of.

“You’re dating the most perfect person in the universe,” Feng Xin, Number 1 Dumbass, Tweedle-Dee seethes, while Mu Qing, Number 2 Dumbass, Tweedle-Dum behind him does his best impression at a furious wall. They’ve trapped him in the corner of the empty dining hall, not that Hua Cheng cares, because he has a bowl of toxic linguini in hand, just ready to fucking fly. “Why are you dating Xie Lian? You don’t deserve him. What did you do?”

“Who did you kill,” Tweedle-Dum adds. Eyes narrowing in suspicion. Oh wow. Hua Cheng is so scared. “I’m going to find out. You can’t control Xie Lian forever.”

“What are you talking about,” says Hua Cheng. “He controls me in bed all the time. Goodbye, Tweedle-Dee, Tweedle-Dum. Nice talk.”

Enraged shouts follow the wake of flying linguini. Hua Cheng takes it back. It’s nice to get reactions. 




Touching Xie Lian is addicting. It’s fucking gambling, like rolling straight jackpots one after another, all the lucky sevens flashing neon bright on the screen that is Xie Lian’s entire existence, telling Hua Cheng: You’re lucky! You’re lucky! You’re lucky! You’re never going to be this lucky again, you son of a bitch!

Hua Cheng’s aware. At first Xie Lian initiated all the contact, but after a couple days of Xie Lian’s dissatisfaction with the way Hua Cheng oozed I am in literal heaven, Xie Lian confronted him in a distinctly non-confrontational way that only Xie Lian could manage. All quiet voice, sad eyes that tried not to be sad, hands squeezing the blood circulation out of Hua Cheng’s own fingers. 

“Do you feel uncomfortable with touching me?” Xie Lian asked. 

Hua Cheng choked. A little. It was a dignified choke. They were in the library, holding hands even though they were pressed together on the same side of the table. For the past thirty minutes, he was flipping through books he didn’t bother to understand while Xie Lian chipping through his graduate research for solving climate change, taking down oil companies, all the good stuff. It was nice, and Hua Cheng was trying not to die a slow death from all the touching. 

This was the thing about Xie Lian, see. He was so kind, but absolutely ruthless in his efficiency. 

“That’s not the problem,” Hua Cheng eventually managed to say, after a moment. 

“So you are uncomfortable?”

In my pants, Hua Cheng thought, on the verge of hysterics. “I’m okay, gege,” he said, because he was a filthy liar. “Why do you ask?”

“You don’t touch me,” Xie Lian said. He was always so earnest. So sincere. Sincerity dripped off him like sweat on naked skin, and it was so sexy, god, Hua Cheng wanted to die. “I would like it if you touched me, San Lang.”

Then he blushed, like that was the most outrageous thing he’d said or done, never mind that two hours ago he kissed a little line from the underside of Hua Cheng’s jaw down to the collarbone right against the brick walls outside the library, and Hua Cheng—

Well, Hua Cheng started touching him more. How could he deny Xie Lian of anything he wanted?

Little touches, at first. Holding hands, normal stuff. Snuggling in seats clearly meant for one person. Xie Lian never said anything, so Hua Cheng stepped it up; kisses to the crown of his head, the forehead, the closed lids of his pretty eyes, his nose, his pink cheeks. Never the smiling mouth. Above all else Hua Cheng was an opportunistic man. He watched carefully for signs of Xie Lian’s discomfort, but there was only a sort of sparkling delight and contentment in his face every time Hua Cheng touched him, so it was a wild card in Uno. Fucking invincible. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng croons now, sneaking his arms around Xie Lian’s firm waist. “I missed you.”

Hugging Xie Lian around the waist, as it turns out, is remarkably like drowning in a water park. Or so Hua Cheng presumes. He’s never been to a water park. But he’s certain that the water park experience would make the drowning much more enjoyable. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian complains, but he’s laughing with those adorable flushed cheeks, so Hua Cheng doesn’t put too much stock into it. Xie Lian turns around in his grip until they’re facing each other, and wow, they’re much closer than before. Hua Cheng might be going cross-eyed trying to look at all of Xie Lian’s face, his dimples creasing in his smile. “Hi. You got out of class early?”

“Came just to see you,” Hua Cheng promises. There’s an earthquake happening right now, he’s sure of it.  “Couldn’t miss our date.”

“You’re ten minutes early.”

“And gege was already waiting for me, so it’s a good thing I rushed over, hm? How do I look, gege?”

Xie Lian’s eyes dart down to his chest, where the low dip of his red, very slutty V-neck exposes the skin. Down further, to the ripped black jeans tight around his thighs and combat boots, laces tucked into the boots. A slow glide up to the black choker he blatantly stole from He Xuan, not that he would notice. Hua Cheng tries not to preen too much at the attention. 

“You’re fishing again, aren’t you,” Xie Lian says finally. 

“Is it so bad if I want to hear nice things from the most perfect man in the world?” 

He expects Xie Lian to flush or splutter at the last part, but instead Xie Lian’s expression just goes soft and gentle, and that’s—

Xie Lian cradles Hua Cheng’s cheek with a warm hand. “San Lang is always handsome to me,” he says. 

Hua Cheng makes a sound. He's not sure what it is. An ostrich giving birth, perhaps. “Gege.”

“Come on,” Xie Lian says, stepping out of Hua Cheng’s embrace with a tug of his hand. “Let’s go eat, hm?”




What is it? 

Seventeen years, ages sticky five to grown twenty-two, seeing Xie Lian again after years of passing by that hollow mansion down the street. After six years, Xie Lian like a fucking revelation. None of his silken blouses, or ruby earrings, silver rings. Armani, Gucci, Balenciaga, none of it, but just Xie Lian soft and gentle just as the first time they met, curled up in his oversized hoodie on the park bench in the glowing sunset. The sheepish smile, a little laugh, sorry, I can't believe I dozed off here.

Xie Lian, after: two deaths, one funeral, all the sleeplessness and guilt and fury coiled up in his pale skin, bruised eyes, hurt radiating like a goddamn furnace. If you're not going to help me, leave. Leave. Leave. Like Hua Cheng would.

And Xie Lian, after: thank you. I'm sorry. San Lang, you're too good to me. What had Hua Cheng done for him, even? Compared to all that Xie Lian gave him—the first touch of laughter meant for him, a gentle hand, a patient voice, all the reasons to live wrapped up in Xie Lian’s unconditional kindness, what had Hua Cheng done?

Xie Lian, after, after: I need to pretend to date someone. The embarrassed flush, like it was such a crime to be wanted. Pei Ming—he suggested the idea. If it’s you, San Lang, I think I can do it. But only if you’re okay with it?

And Xie Lian, here, this, a fucking miracle. The shape of his gorgeous hands, the slim fingers, rounded nails, palm rough with callouses but always so gentle on him. Those hands over his own, or his arm, curled around the nape of his neck, stroking through his hair, tucking wayward strands behind his ear, pulling him close. Come on, San Lang, it’s late, you should sleep. Tight hugs, and voice sleep-hoarse, a smile. 

It’s late. Do you want to stay over? 

And Xie Lian, here: pulling out the mattress. Tugging him into the sheets. Forehead warm against his, body curling against his own, so easy to tuck into his side. 

I want to kiss you, says Xie Lian, like a quiet confession in the night. Would that be bad? 

No. Of course not, gege. 

Xie Lian. This is Xie Lian: pink mouth. Soft lips. Warm and sweet like spun sugar, like if Hua Cheng holds him too tightly, he’ll vanish, but there’s Xie Lian pressing him into the mattress, straddling him under all his weight, whispering, I’m not going anywhere. Right here, San Lang, right here. 

Love. Four letters. As if any word can encompass what Hua Cheng feels for Xie Lian. 




Of course, because Hua Cheng is Hua Cheng, he fucks it up by month two. 




Dread isn’t an unfamiliar feeling to Hua Cheng. Truthfully speaking he’s been shackled with it for so long in his life that it’s practically water weight, just sloshing around uncomfortably in his stomach when he’s made aware of it. There’s just some things in the world that have to be balanced. Like, okay; he can wake up to Xie Lian sleep-rumpled beside him in Xie Lian’s tiny mattress that has no bed frame in the morning, but in exchange his back will hurt like a bitch. It’ll be the asscrack of dawn, and his eyes will hurt from looking at the sun streaming in through the dusty window. His arm might have to undergo amputation with the lack of blood circulation. Xie Lian might also be drooling on his shirt sleeve. 

But Xie Lian’s making these little snuffling noises, burying his face into Hua Cheng’s chest with a quiet whine, tucking himself away from the sunlight and into Hua Cheng’s body. Compared to this, Hua Cheng can stand to lose an arm. Hell, take all the limbs. 

The dread rising in his gut tells him that this is in no way equal. One day or another, something’s gotta give. 

He’s just gotta rip off the bandaid. Surely he can’t keep—taking advantage of Xie Lian like this. Two months was long enough already. 

He gazes down at Xie Lian, who’s fisted the worn blue blankets in his hands in his sleep, the other clutching at Hua Cheng’s shirt. Xie Lian. Everything good in the world, wrapped up in this little space, right here. Hua Cheng holds him a little tighter and thinks: today. It’ll be today. 

The morning passes, and around the time that the sunlight starts soaking sweat into Hua Cheng’s skin, noon heat, Xie Lian wakes up. Two slow blinks, like a cat. The world’s tiniest little yawn. 

“You’re up,” Xie Lian murmurs, and gives him a smile that knocks the air clean out of his lungs. “Good morning, San Lang.”

It’s way past noon by now, but Xie Lian is saying good morning. “Good morning, gege,” Hua Cheng says, and allows himself one kiss to Xie Lian’s forehead. 

A few hours later, they’re curled up on Xie Lian’s lumpy grey couch, watching some C-drama on the TV. Hua Cheng’s not particularly fond of them, but Xie Lian is, and that’s also the reason why Hua Cheng finds himself in Xie Lian’s apartment most days. His place is bigger, sure, but this apartment smells like Xie Lian, like earth after a rainy day and the scent of autumn right as the leaves change color. It’s something specific to Xie Lian. 

Xie Lian, who doesn’t know. 

Hua Cheng waits until commercial break, feeling the water in his lungs. Now this is the drowning. 

“Gege,” he says.

“What is it?” says Xie Lian, when Hua Cheng doesn’t continue. Another second passes. Hua Cheng’s throat refuses to unstick, and that’s Xie Lian turning to him, concern all over his face. “San Lang?”

Rip off the bandaid. It’s supposed to hurt. That’s what dread is. 

“I would like it,” Hua Cheng says, picking out the words carefully, “if gege prepares me.”

“Prepare you? For what?”

“The break-up,” Hua Cheng says, and against his side he feels Xie Lian’s whole body stiffen. With a sigh that feels pried from his ribcage, Hua Cheng lets him go, scoots back a few inches just to put some space between them. He can’t bring himself to look at Xie Lian’s eyes. Call him a coward. “I know it can’t go on forever, so I would appreciate it if you—” He inhales. “—If you’d tell me when.”

In their silence, the C-drama goes on. The characters on the screen are arguing, Hua Cheng’s pretty sure. The raised tones of it, the fury. He just can’t discern the words suddenly.

“Is it not working for you?” Xie Lian asks. His voice is wounded, run raw. Hua Cheng exhales, tries not to flinch. “If I did anything—”

“It’s not.” What a classic break-up line. They’re not even fucking breaking up, because this was fake. “Gege, it’s just that I’m too invested in this.” In you. “If you want to continue, that’s okay, but I think you should know before it goes too far.” 

“San Lang—”

“I would be taking advantage otherwise,” Hua Cheng says, but that’s not entirely the truth, so he swallows and amends, ”I have been taking advantage, actually.” Another inhale. “Pray gege can forgive me.” 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says again, and this time Hua Cheng shuts up. “San Lang, I need to tell you something.”

Hua Cheng breathes in. Brace yourself. The storm will pass. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You had it coming. 

“Okay,” Hua Cheng says. 

“I lied,” Xie Lian says, and that’s—Hua Cheng’s head snaps up, startled, but now it’s Xie Lian who’s refusing to look at him, curled up at the far end of his side of the couch. “Pei Ming didn’t—well, he suggested the idea, but not for the reasons you think, and—I mean, it is true that I was tired of the, the confessions, but more importantly I was tired of not being with you.”

Hua Cheng stops breathing. 

Obviously you’re not the one taking advantage,” Xie Lian says, “San Lang, I was. It was so unfair and rude and, and unkind of me to take advantage of you like that and use you when you didn’t know what you were getting into, but I still just wanted to know, and it didn’t help, Pei Ming lied, and now it’s worse.” 


“I don’t know what you mean by invested, but that doesn’t matter, I just can’t believe you didn’t know. I must’ve been so obvious. I mean, I asked you to kiss me yesterday, San Lang. That was my idea. Maybe you agreed because we were both tired, but I wasn’t, I just wanted you to kiss me so fucking bad—”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, startled.

“—but I’m so in love with you, I went to Pei Ming for advice, and Pei Ming, you know Pei Ming,” Xie Lian says, and yes, Hua Cheng does know Pei Ming, what the hell, “and—god, I’m telling all this out of order, but Shi Qingxuan knew, and she was telling me that this was all the wrong way to do it, but if I could just, you know, maybe ease you into the idea so that dating me wouldn’t be so repulsive—”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, hamster brain reeling, “what are you saying?”

“I’m trying to tell you I want to date you for real!” Xie Lian cries, and then claps a hand over his mouth.

Hua Cheng processes all of it like he’s underwater. Sounds blurred, movement even slower. Xie Lian looks equal parts horrified and embarrassed and that doesn’t make sense. Nothing Xie Lian has said for the past five minutes has made sense. 

“You…” Hua Cheng tries. Does his voice break? He doesn’t know. What the hell. “Me?”

No reply. 

Slowly, Hua Cheng reaches for Xie Lian across the couch, and when Xie Lian doesn’t move, he tugs Xie Lian’s hand away from his mouth. He cups Xie Lian’s face in his hands, nudges his gaze back up to meet Hua Cheng’s. 

“Gege?” Hua Cheng asks quietly.

Xie Lian still isn’t looking at him. His cheeks are—god, they're so red. “San Lang,” he says, in this tiny, small voice, “don’t make fun of me.”

“When have I ever made fun of you, gege?”

“You’d be right to! You’re”—a flailing gesture at Hua Cheng’s body, which, what— ”you, and I’m”—a gesture at Xie Lian himself, which, again, what— ”me! So I—I want to date you, but if you don’t, I’d get it. San Lang has always been so good to me, but especially for the past few months, and I’m sorry I let it go on for so long when you don’t. Don’t.” There’s a bob of his throat as Xie Lian swallows. Hua Cheng tracks the movement, ravenous. Somehow his voice dips even quieter. “When you don’t like me back. God, this sounds so stupid.”

“Nothing you say is stupid,” Hua Cheng says automatically. 

Xie Lian’s smile is strained. “Now you’re just saying that.”

If Hua Cheng’s being completely honest, he’s been ‘just saying things’ for the last minute because he physically can’t process any of what Xie Lian said. Like: I want to date you for real. Like: you’re you, and I’m me. Like: I’m sorry I let it go on for so long when you don’t like me back. 

None of this makes any goddamn sense. His hamster wheel is turning but it’s going, like, in reverse. Newton’s laws not fucking applicable. He’s a hamster floating in space still running, that’s what he’s doing. What the fuck. 

“You want to date me for real,” Hua Cheng says after a few seconds, because he’s still trying to understand this. Xie Lian nods. “But—gege, why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you want to?”

Now that’s all horror. Maybe a bit of exasperation. “San Lang, are you kidding? Look at you.”

“Look at you,” Hua Cheng counters. 

This doesn’t even faze Xie Lian for a second. It’s like he’s got a speech cued up, imaginary Powerpoint slides. In this state, nothing will faze him short of a semi barrelling toward him at ninety miles an hour on the freeway, and even that’s a toss up. This is Determined Xie Lian. This is All Business Xie Lian, I’m Going To Motherfucking Take You Down Three Pegs Until You Wish You Were Never Born Xie Lian. Fucking Look At Me And Listen Xie Lian. 

Shit. It’s unbearably hot. 

“If anyone should be asking that, it should be me,” Xie Lian tells him. Hua Cheng opens his mouth to protest, but Xie Lian gives him this— look, and all the blood just rushes out of his head, period. “San Lang has always been so kind to me, even when I didn’t deserve it, and I know I didn’t, back when—you know. Last year of pre-law, it was hard and I pushed everyone away, but even when I argued with you, you never said anything. You just took care of me. 

“And you supported me until I cleaned up my act, and you helped me manage tuition, scholarships, everything when you were busy with your own work, and you were a lifesaver. But it’s not just that. It’s not just gratitude. You’re so— good, San Lang. So kind and sweet. Every time I look at you—” Xie Lian falters, and he averts his gaze, instead cradling Hua Cheng’s palm against his cheek, melting into the touch. “What you do to me,” Xie Lian tells him softly. “Some days I couldn’t believe you didn’t know.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng chokes out. He’s died and somehow, above all odds, he’s made it into the good place, he’s sure of it, there’s no way this can be happening in real life. “Gege, are you serious?”

Xie Lian rolls his eyes, actually. It’s affectionate and fond, the way he does everything, and then he takes Hua Cheng’s face into his hands, the touch barely registering, like leaves on lakewater. Now they’re both holding each other’s faces, the pair of them.

“San Lang,” he says. “I asked Pei Ming what I should do about my feelings for you. He said I should pretend to date you to get it out of my system, and around the second day I wanted you to never ask me why we were even pretending to date, because I realized I never wanted to stop. I never wanted to get you out of my system.”

Innuendo, strike three, Hua Cheng thinks.

“Of course I want to date you,” Xie Lian continues. He’s smiling now, eyes creasing with it like the rumpled blankets tangled around their legs from when they woke up together this morning, warm and sleepy and good. “San Lang. Are you going to make me say it again?”

“I don’t think I heard it the first time, gege,” says Hua Cheng, hoarse. “You might need to say it again. Just in case.”

“Fishing,” Xie Lian chides. 

“But I,” Hua Cheng starts, and then Xie Lian cuts him off with a firm kiss, chaste and sweet. His mouth is so soft. Hua Cheng tugs him close, closer, until he’s sitting in Hua Cheng’s lap, legs wrapped around his waist. Xie Lian lets out a noise, some sound that sends sparks of desire lighting up and down Hua Cheng’s spine, goosebumps, the nine fucking yards, and Hua Cheng groans, forces himself to pull back if only he can bury his face into Xie Lian’s neck and whine, “Gege.”

Xie Lian laughs. Musical, windchimes in summer. Jesus. “Too much?”

“Not enough,” Hua Cheng says reverently. “I think you’ll need to tell me again. And again. And one more time, just to be safe. You know me, always so distracted.”

This time the laugh shakes Xie Lian, full-bodied. “Since when have you been prone to distraction?”

“Since you,” Hua Cheng says honestly, and pulls back so he can look at Xie Lian properly, in all his flushed, kissed-mouth glory. “It’s really only ever been you. Don’t you know, gege?”

“Well,” Xie Lian says, eyes averting, clearing his throat, a little ahem-hem, “me too. I want you. No one but you.” His gaze flickers back up. His moods are thunderstorms sometimes. Receding, and then ozone. Bold defiance in his eyes. “You should know that.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng breathes, and smiling, Xie Lian leans in, close, closer.

Does Hua Cheng deserve it? Definitely not. But Hua Cheng’s been lucky for his whole goddamn life; meeting Xie Lian, again and again, and now, this, knowing how soft and yielding Xie Lian’s lips are under his. He figures, what the hell. Take the lucky sevens. Lined up all in a gorgeous row, held in Xie Lian’s hands wandering over his skin, mouth hot and feverish against his, his breathless laughter taking root on Hua Cheng’s tongue and his lungs and growing, a bloom of unfurling happiness, right there, right here: jackpot. 

Nothing better than this.