The kiss is gentle. Xue Meng sinks into it. It's slow and soft, a cool slide of lips. He's never kissed anyone before, so he clumsily reciprocates. Hopes to make up for his skill with affection. Peppers little kisses all over that face, cheeks, jaw, eyelids, forehead. The warmth in his heart seems to spill over, and he makes a soft noise, shy and happy, and hears a groan in response. He's pulled down to that mouth again, and he goes without a murmur.
"You haven't done this before."
It isn't a question, so he doesn't bother replying, just pushes closer. He's lying down on the bed, covered by a warm weight, his head tipped so their mouths can slot together better. A tongue dances with his and he whines somewhere deep in his throat.
A voice whispers in his ear. "Fuck, you're so cute." Teeth seize his earlobe and he makes a surprised sound. "You're so cute, Ziming."
The ignoring gets to Xue Meng more than he'd like to admit.
He's fairly good-looking, is Xue Meng. Not as tall as his freak of a cousin but a good height. Has a nice face too, if he says so himself. At the very least, he doesn't possess any bad features, he dresses well, and he's polite and well-spoken, if a little haughty, to people he has no beef with. Growing up, he's had parents who praise him and a succession of teachers and classmates who, while they occasionally tease or oppose him, nonetheless treat him fairly well. Even his annoying cousin ribs him but has his back.
In short, Xue Meng likes attention, and does not question his entitlement to it.
So it's galling, really, to sit down across from Mei Hanxue from Statistics, who he'd politely exchanged names with not four hours ago, and be completely invisible. He seems to be wearing a different jacket, but it's the same face alright. Those curiously pale eyes are focused on the menu, not even bothering to look at him after the first bit of eye contact, and Xue Meng is...well, he's at a loss.
He goes to collect his order and returns to the table - he'd shift to a free one, but the evening crowd has occupied all the other tables. And besides - Xue Meng doesn't run away! He ignores the voice in his head (that sounds suspiciously like his cousin) wondering what there is to run away from. It's not like they're having any sort of conversation, and it's not like a brief exchange in the first class of the semester could be considered significant. But something about the way the other man sits at the table, as if he owns his space, as if he's entirely self-contained and needs nobody else, makes Xue Meng want to be acknowledged by him. That's it. Nothing else.
He sits down across Mei Hanxue again, and opens his mouth only for the other to get up and walk away to collect his order before Xue Meng can emit a sound.
When the guy comes back with his tray and raises an eyebrow at him, (okay, maybe Xue Meng shouldn't be tapping on the table with his fingernails and staring holes into him as he approaches) Xue Meng says, "Xuezhang, did you catch everything the Stats prof asked us to look up at the end of class?"
The guy puts down his tray, calmly arranges himself as he sits and then says expressionlessly, "Sorry?"
Xue Meng stares at him.
He'd sat next to him in class for the better part of an hour, and while he was rather flirty with everyone before the prof came in (and from what he heard, that was Mei Hanxue in general), he had been taking notes quite meticulously from what Xue Meng had seen.
"The Statistics class. That you just attended a couple of hours ago with me. I'm Xue Meng, second year Mechanical Engineering. I asked if you remembered everything the prof asked us to look up. You are Mei Hanxue-xuezhang, right?"
"Oh." Mei Hanxue says, his face still devoid of expression, and Xue Meng feels a little embarrassed.
"It's fine if you don't remember me, we just met today. But you seemed to be paying pretty close attention in the class, you're saying you don't remember?"
"Anyway, if you've got memory issues, that's nothing to be embarrassed about. Family member of mine's got some issues as well." Though you wouldn't dream of it if you met him .
"Thanks." Mei Hanxue stares at him impassively, then says "I have another class. Excuse me."
He's awfully quiet for a social butterfly, Xue Meng thinks.
Xue Meng is outside the library, warming up for his daily morning jog around the campus when he spots Mei Hanxue doing his own stretches a little further ahead. Before he can think twice, he's already gone over to say hi.
"Xuezhang! Good morning."
Mei Hanxue nods at him.
"I didn't know you jogged in the mornings."
"I was part of the track club until last semester, so I ran with them," Xue Meng informs him. "Now it's just me."
Mei Hanxue sets off, and Xue Meng matches his pace. He lets himself get lost in the rhythm of it, waiting for the sluggishness to wear off, the burn to replace it. Pushes through the burn and feels the adrenaline course through him as the wind hits his face.
Ahead of him, Mei Hanxue jogs with steady ease. Xue Meng gives it about ten minutes before he feels the urge to talk again - Mei Hanxue is so quiet.
"So you switched to the other Stats class they were offering?"
"Made more sense with my timetable."
Xue Meng nods. "I heard your ex was there too, that must have been awkward."
Mei Hanxue gives him a look of disbelief and slightly increased his pace. Xue Meng keeps up.
"Are you in a relationship, xuedi?" he asks abruptly, and Xue Meng scowls.
"No. What's it to you?"
"It's certainly not a surprise ."
Xue Meng protests, "I plan to change that. To get a girlfriend this year."
"Hey, I'm quite the catch, okay?"
"I have good grades, and I'm athletic! And I'm part of the student council!"
"But you're single."
"That's just bad luck," Xue Meng says loftily, "I haven't met the right person. Once I do, I'll sweep them off their feet."
"I don't care," Mei Hanxue says crisply.
Xue Meng takes an affronted breath but shuts up.
Mei Hanxue is the sort of ostentatiously handsome that makes people do double takes. Yet he's heard that it's not just his looks - the man is a consummate charmer. He's consistently bedded men and women since he entered college a year before Xue Meng, and broken some hearts. But most of his one-night-stands don't bear grudges for long. Mei Hanxue is the person to call if you want a good time, not a long time. And his flirting skills are very much part of that package.
If Xue Meng wants tips on how to charm people, there's nobody better suited to give them. He just needs to swallow his pride and ask.
Mei Hanxue senses his stare again.
"What is it?"
"Do you...you know. Have tips?"
"You're asking me to help you learn how to flirt."
"I know how to flirt. But I know you have experience, so--"
"That's what I thought," Xue Meng mutters, but he leaves it be.
After that, Xue Meng frequently sees Mei Hanxue on his morning jogs. Sometimes they're on different schedules and just greet each other. But sometimes they jog together, and when they do, they don't always talk; some days are quiet, some days they snark at each other. Mei Hanxue seems to enjoy insulting his intelligence; Xue Meng in turn likes to call him cold and rude. It's a grudging sort of kinship, at least from Xue Meng's end.
Okay fine, maybe he's a little curious. The Mei Hanxue he'd met that first day in class is light years away from the cool, taciturn man he's met since. He isn't sure whether Mei Hanxue is one of those fake cheerful people who can turn his charm on and off like a switch. He also isn't sure why Mei Hanxue has deemed him unworthy of that charm.
Or maybe, he thinks a little smugly, it's the opposite, and Mei Hanxue trusts him enough to show the surly parts of his personality. For his part, Xue Meng is surprised at how well he gets along with someone so prickly ; Mei Hanxue's ire seems to be directed at the universe in general, which makes it hard to take it personally. Most of the time.
Xue Meng doesn't bring up flirting again; he has too much pride for that. But he starts searching online for ways to flirt, to use his words and body language better. He avoids anything that seems too fake or too smarmy.
He doesn't have anyone he particularly likes. But Xue Meng has watched enough dramas where a well-spoken word or two has the listener blushing, and naturally if he were to like someone he would put an effort into making them feel special. What person wouldn't want to be considered charming and gracious? It's only human.
"Do you think the same person can be quiet around one person and very talkative around another?" Xue Meng asks Mo Ran out of the blue.
Mo Ran pauses on the other end of the line. "What?"
"If someone is free and talkative around one group of people but quiet and closed off with another, what does it mean?"
"They're probably more comfortable around the first group of people and know them better."
"They could also just be two different people," Mo Ran says, but Xue Meng is lost in thought and doesn't hear him.
He runs into Mei Hanxue outside the library, again. He's wearing glasses, which Xue Meng has never imagined on him but which look pretty good, and carrying a small book.
Mei Hanxue nods. Something about the glasses makes him look more compelling, authoritative.
"Borrowed something?" Xue Meng peers at it, but he moves it out of sight.
"What do you want?"
"Just curious. Let me see."
"I'd rather not."
"It would overwhelm your puny brain."
It's not the insult that gets to him - Mei Hanxue has said worse, harsher things. It's the fact that he looks-- cold . His gaze is derisive in a way it hasn't been before, as of he genuinely doesn't like what he sees and can't be bothered to hide it.
Xue Meng is abruptly hurt. "Never mind. You seem busy," he says shortly, and turns to leave.
"Xuedi." Mei Hanxue calls, and he stops. "What were you about to say? I apologize, I was distracted."
Xue Meng looks back at him. His usually frosty gaze might have thawed a little. Xue Meng has his pride, but he almost gives in. He silently scolds himself for being party to the whims of someone who's practically a stranger.
"I'll see you around, xuezhang." he says instead.
It's been a rotten week for Xue Meng. The group assignment for one of his classes was a pain to finish with how busy everyone was, so he's short on sleep. He argued with Mo Ran over some dumb issue and they haven't spoken for a couple of days. It's a Saturday, and Xue Meng just wanted to start his weekend off with some exercise to clear his head.
So naturally, he sits here on the pavement behind the administrative block, in an area shaded with trees and bushes, far away from any of the student dorms.
His knee is bleeding. It's bleeding because he scraped it when he fell. He fell because he twisted his ankle, and now it's hurting like a bitch.
He grits his teeth through the pain, pushes off the ground, careful to put his weight on his good ankle. It's still quite early, and he doesn't have his phone because he didn't feel like carrying it today. Xue Meng resigns himself to limping to the building and asking someone to call for help.
The voice makes him jump, and he slowly turns around to face Mei Hanxue.
Great. Just who he needed to see him in such an undignified situation.
"What does it look like." he grits out.
He expects Mei Hanxue to make a cutting remark or two, allude to his clumsiness or stupidity, but he just eyes his ankle as he approaches.
"That looks bad."
"Yeah." Xue Meng's trying not to think about it.
Mei Hanxue unexpectedly reaches for his arm and lifts it, sliding underneath so Xue Meng is supported by his shoulders, his arm going around Xue Meng's waist.
He turns to protest, and suddenly they're nose to nose.
This close for the first time, his scent hits Xue Meng, sandalwood and something slightly floral. And he doesn't miss the way Mei Hanxue's eyes drop to his mouth.
Also for the first time, Xue Meng understands what all those people were on the receiving end of, and thinks Oh.
What he says is, "I can walk by myself just fine."
"You're hurt. And you don't have to."
"What if I want to?"
Xue Meng forcefully untangles himself.
"Let me help you."
Wow, he's chatty today. "If you could call the campus first aid unit, that would help."
"You don't have your phone."
"I left it in the dorm today. Would you call already?"
Mei Hanxue obeys. While they're waiting for the ambulance, he says, "Give me your number."
"So I can check up on you later."
Xue Meng is getting exasperated. Why is he suddenly acting familiar? They didn't even part on cordial terms the last time they spoke. "I'll be fine."
"Or I could ride with you in the ambulance."
Xue Meng looks into his eyes. Mei Hanxue is not joking.
He rattles out the digits with bad grace.
What did they say?
It's fine, a minor twist. I'll have to ice it. Bed rest for a few days.
Emailed your professors?
Thanks for your help btw, Xue Meng types out grudgingly.
Don't mention it.
Xue Meng isn't ready to forgive him, though. Mei Hanxue did the bare minimum decent thing by calling for help. Xue Meng isn't going to start mooning over him for that. Not that he was ever mooning over him.
His ankle recovers, he attends his classes and writes tests. He goes to Mo Ran's place and they make up and play video games. He visits his parents' grave. The student council calls a meeting to help plan with the theatre club’s upcoming production; he’s relieved of some of his duties so he can start helping them plan the set design and props.
Xue Meng's sitting outside the veterinary clinic located near the college campus, huddled into his jacket to protect against the sudden storm that's been around for the past couple of hours. He's staring at the ground when a pair of shoes stand and stop in front of him.
"What're you doing."
As if in a bad dream, Xue Meng lifts his head and looks straight into Mei Hanxue's eyes.
"What does it look like?" he snipes through his chattering teeth. It's almost sunset, and the rain is getting chilly.
Mei Hanxue raises his eyes to the storefront. "Looks like they'll open soon."
"Yeah." This is the only veterinarian close enough to the campus grounds for Xue Meng to go seek out so late in the evening.
"What is it," Mei Hanxue asks again, and in reply Xue Meng unzips his jacket and shows him.
Cradled against the warmth of his chest is a kitten. She's about two months, maybe a little older, a brown-streaked ball of fur, and she peers up at them and mewls pitifully, almost soundlessly. One of her front paws has a gash around the elbow.
"Found her outside my department. Looks like she's been injured and wandering about in the rain by herself." Xue Meng shrugs. "I thought of treating the wound myself, but it's been exposed to dirty water, so I figured it was better to come here."
"Do they allow pets in the dorms?"
"No," Xue Meng sighs, "But I don't know where else to take her, at least for tonight. Can't get her to a shelter before morning."
"Didn't you see any other kittens about the same age around?"
"No. Our building is near the gate, she could have wandered in without being noticed." Xue Meng sighs again and scratches that forlorn-looking head.
"You like cats."
"My mom had one at home when I was little."
"So you're not that thoughtless after all."
The insult hangs in the air between; Xue Meng is too tired to respond to it. He just wants the kitten treated so he take her back to his dorm, have a hot shower, sleep. He wonders why Mei Hanxue is even still around. Sure, he might not like Xue Meng, but even he can't possibly take pleasure from a little kitten being injured and cold.
Mei Hanxue seems to have realized he might have gone too far, and doesn't attempt to talk any more.
The veterinarian and assisting staff who run the clinic turn up, and the kitten is soon examined, bandaged up and returned to Xue Meng's arms. He moves to tuck her into his jacket again, mentally preparing to sneak past the dorm supervisor, when Mei Hanxue stops him.
"You can leave her at my house."
Mei Hanxue shrugs. "We have cats at home. I know what to feed her. She can stay till the injury heals and we get her to a shelter."
"She'll dirty the place--"
"We can find a cardboard box for her litter for now. Besides, it's a Saturday tomorrow. I'll be home on the weekend to take care of her the whole time. She should be good to go by Monday."
Xue Meng processes all this. It's true that taking care of her in secret, in a dorm where all the students will be in their rooms over the next two days, is going to prove a challenge. He also trusts that Mei Hanxue is probably competent at taking care of animals. It's just--
"You can come drop her off," Mei Hanxue offers, "See for yourself. It's a pretty short drive."
Xue Meng peers at him. He looks…sincere, he supposes. At the very least, he decides, he can check up on the kitten over the weekend and smuggle her back if Mei Hanxue is even slightly careless about her wellbeing.
He knew Mei Hanxue was rich - everything about him screams rich. It's not groundbreaking news. But even then, he didn't expect it to be like this.
It's one of those extremely modern looking houses, all glass walls and sharp edges, the sort that make Xue Meng think of a very fancy fish tank. It sits among fairly large grounds, bang in the premium residential district near their college. The house itself is obscured from the main road by trees. The first floor has a large deck.
And Mei Hanxue seems to have it all to himself. It's obscene.
Xue Meng wanders in behind him, gaping at all this. Mei Hanxue leaves him standing in the living room holding the cat and disappears somewhere, comes back with a shoebox.
"I'll keep her in my bedroom," he says, and indicates upstairs. Xue Meng wonders at first if he should just hand her over at this point, but Mei Hanxue turns around and starts walking, so he follows.
Mei Hanxue opens the door to a large room. It's furnished in rich, warm tones and Xue Meng is taken back; he pictured the sort of minimalistic, monochrome, sterile white spaces he'd seen in his mother's home decor magazines. There are several bookshelves. Three guitars stand in a corner, shiny and expensive-looking. There's a desk with a high-end laptop sitting on it, and another study table piled with notebooks.
Among all these, the bed is curiously simple. It's large, with pale sheets, and neatly made. Somehow, it just doesn't give off the air of a bed belonging to--
"Done looking?" Mei Hanxue asks, startling him.
He places a cushion on the floor, and Xue Meng sets the kitten down on it. She immediately crawls back to his legs, making pitiful mewls and rubbing against him. He crouches to pet her again and she closes her eyes blissfully and nudges against his hand for more.
"Here you go." Mei Hanxue sets down two bowls, one holding water and the other holding kitten food they purchased at the vet. The food is moistened and the kitten is eventually coaxed into trying it. Xue Meng is suddenly struck by how absurd they must look, two grown men crouching on either side of a tiny kitten, anxiously watching her eat. He looks up to see Mei Hanxue staring at him.
"What?" he asks belligerently, but Mei Hanxue just huffs and looks away.
The kitten plays with them a little longer after she's done eating, but she's fast becoming sleepy. Xue Meng places her back on the cushion and pats her some more, and, drowsy from her adventures, she soon falls asleep.
He gets up and Mei Hanxue follows, and they head downstairs in unison. Xue Meng can't help sneak another peak around the place, slightly awed.
"Want to look around some more?"
"Shut up, this is just...vulgar."
"You missed the hot tub out on the deck," Mei Hanxue informs him. "And there's a pool in the back."
Xue Meng rolls his eyes, turning around to look for his bag. "Nice place to host all those sleepovers, I suppose."
"How many people does the hot tub fit?" Xue Meng snarks, feeling very witty.
"Seven," Mei Hanxue says, right by his ear.
Xue Meng jumps at how close he is suddenly, at his tone of voice. He turns around to glare at him, one hand covering his ear protectively. Mei Hanxue wears an openly smug expression.
"Cat got your tongue?"
Xue Meng suddenly, keenly feels like a small animal in the clutches of a snake that thinks it's an extremely tasty snack.
He doesn't dignify the question with a response, just turns around and storms out.
What the hell did he mean seven ?
Mei Hanxue texts him a photo of the kitten roaming about in his yard the next morning.
This is followed by a photo of her eating more kitten food.
Then playing with a ball of yarn.
Then falling asleep.
The message is clear: She's fine, you don't have to come check up on her.
Did you change her bandages he texts back instead, and gets a confirmation.
Don't feed her just the kitten food, he adds as an afterthought. And make sure she doesn't go near the pool.
He gets more pictures in the evening: more walking about in the yard, drinking water from her bowl, eating little bits of fish. The final picture is her cuddled up on her cushion again, eyes half closed.
She seems to be doing well, Xue Meng types out grudgingly.
High praise, Mei Hanxue replies.
I've decided to keep her.
Xue Meng feels a twinge of envy, but he's more relieved that the cat seems to be in good hands.
You'd better not go back on that decision.
What are you calling her.
Xue Meng snorts in spite of himself.
They don't talk more than before, but Mei Hanxue sends him pictures of Naicha at least every other day.
The following later he meets Mei Hanxue outside the library again. Xue Meng considers ignoring him, but he raises a hand and approaches of his own volition. He's wearing those glasses again.
"My next lecture got cancelled and I have an hour free. Do you want to go get some coffee?"
"Aren't you cordial."
"Have to be cordial to my cat's benefactor," comes the dry reply.
Xue Meng eyes him beadily.
"I took a video yesterday," Mei Hanxue says casually, "of Naicha falling asleep."
Xue Meng crosses his arms. He is not going to get bribed with cute cat videos.
Mei Hanxue pulls out his phone and plays it.
Naicha's eyelids are at half-mast as she peers at the camera. They slowly shut as her head dips, and then she jerks awake again. She yawns and licks her chops, gazing sleepily at the lens again. After a few more attempts, head dropping and jerking up again, she finally gives up and falls asleep.
It's fucking adorable. Xue Meng grins like a dope.
"Coffee?" Mei Hanxue solicitously asks again. "My treat."
When they get to the counter, Mei Hanxue goes first, and a little pop! sounds as the barista congratulates him. Apparently he's the 500th customer that week and gets one of their new drinks free of charge. He looks to Xue Meng, who shrugs - free coffee is free coffee - and orders a latte for himself. They split a sandwich at Mei Hanxue's suggestion.
They settle down at one of the corner tables. Xue Meng indicates the book with his chin. "That poetry?"
Mei Hanxue raises his eyebrows again. "Didn't take you for a poetry person."
He isn't, but that doesn't mean he can't appreciate a few lines. His mother used to read out poetry she liked, occasionally.
"Any nice lines in there?" he asks. "I don't really do poetry, but sometimes they say really nice stuff."
"Would you like to read?" Mei Hanxue offers.
"Nah. Just read out any lines you think are particularly nice. It's fine, isn't it?"
Mei Hanxue considers him for a moment before he turns to a random page and scans.
"No stranger are you among us, nor a guest, but our sun and our dearly beloved. Suffer not yet our eyes to hunger for your face."
His voice is mellow, his eyes dipping to look at the page. The sunshine catches on the gold of his lashes.
Xue Meng is struck by something in that moment, sitting opposite Mei Hanxue in a quiet coffee shop, listening to him read out poetry. He tries to identify what it is, hoping he can make it linger. Hoping it won't slip away.
Xue Meng nods at him. "That's nice."
"It sounds a little sad."
They're both quiet for a while.
Xue Meng thinks of his parents, the smiles on their faces every time he left home after visiting. He waits for the pain, for the sharpness that used to take his breath away, but it's more a dull throb.
He doesn't know what Mei Hanxue is thinking about.
Eventually, he notices Mei Hanxue's coffee is untouched. "What, you don't want that?"
Mei Hanxue looks down at his coffee, and his brow twitches. Then he looks at Xue Meng's sugar-free latte. Then he looks at Xue Meng.
Xue Meng does not know how such an icy-looking person manages to look imploring, but he does.
"Fine, let's switch," he sighs, exchanging their cups, "I took a sip, though."
Mei Hanxue shrugs, and Xue Meng is going to suggest getting a fresh straw, but he just wraps his lips around the straw Xue Meng used, and Xue Meng's mind goes blank for a second.
He shakes himself out of it and takes a cautious sip of his fancy drink. Then another. He's a little reluctant to admit it, but this chocolate syrup and marshmallows business isn't bad.
"What do you do?" Mei Hanxue asks, abruptly, "besides jogging and studying. And the student council."
Xue Meng frowns a little. "I paint?" he offers, "I've made some pretty neat props for the theatre club. And I sing."
Mei Hanxue's eyebrows shoot up at that.
"Don't give me that look," Xue Meng says, "I actually sing pretty nice."
"Fine." Xue Meng takes out his phone and scrolls through the camera feed, sends him a video.
"I covered this English song, Skinny Love. It's from a while back."
"You sang this."
"I did. Listen to it."
Mei Hanxue gives him a look, but takes out his earpods and plugs them in.
Xue Meng can tell the moment he hits play, because something shifts in his gaze. It makes him feel very, very smug. He waits for Mei Hanxue to listen to the entire thing.
Xue Meng can't explain why he has a sudden urge to look away when the light hits those eyes.
When he leaves the cafe (two minutes before his next class is due to start, on the other side of the campus) Xue Meng carries that odd feeling with him, though he's at a loss to explain what it is.
“Say that again.”
Mei Hanxue sighs. “I asked, would you like to cover I'm Yours with me?”
They’re sitting in a corner of the amphitheatre on campus. Classes are almost over for the day, and students gather in small groups, but they sit a little further away. Mei Hanxue has his acoustic guitar resting on his legs. He tests out the strings, tuning them as they talk.
“This is sudden.”
“I wasn’t aware you needed a heads-up,” Mei Hanxue says politely. “It's a fairly popular song, even if it is English. And you sing English songs, anyway.”
“What would you have done if I hadn't heard of it, or didn't know the lyrics?”
A shrug. “Hypotheticals don’t matter. You’re here and your voice is fine. Go on.”
He strums the guitar while Xue Meng clears his throat. They practice the whole song multiple times, getting into rhythm with each other, pausing and restarting for about half an hour.
Xue Meng can feel himself grinning as they sync up. He doesn’t play an instrument, but he does enjoy singing a lot, and he does love the song.
“I wouldn’t have pegged this as your sort of music,” he says absently.
“What did you think I’d lean towards?”
“Classical. Jazz. Classic rock.”
“I don’t really go by genre. It’s a nice song. Who cares.”
He opens up a recording app on his phone. “Let’s do this.”
They sync up spectacularly.
There's something about the quiet satisfaction on Mei Hanxue's face that spurs Xue Meng on, makes him put his heart and soul into his singing.
It's like the world has narrowed down to just the two of them, sitting in a quiet corner of the amphitheatre, two souls sharing the same wavelength for one brief moment.
Xue Meng's heart does this odd thing that he doesn't know how to describe.
When they’re done, he asks, “What’ll you use the recording for?”
“Hey, answer me.”
"I need it to audition for the play."
"The theatre club is setting up a play, are they not?"
"They're looking to have live music in some segments of the play. They asked members of the light music club to submit recordings and then audition live. This will be my submission."
"Why did you need my voice, then?" Xue Meng asks smugly. "To make your playing seem better?"
Mei Hanxue shrugs. "I just needed someone who wouldn't mess up the song."
"Hey. Admit it, you think my voice enhances your playing, right?”
“If anything, it’s the other way around.”
Xue Meng scowls, but Mei Hanxue has this amused glint in his eye, so he lets it go.
“You’re treating me to dinner for this.”
“Okay," says Mei Hanxue, and somehow he looks like he's won.
"It's been a year."
"I'm sorry. You must miss them every day."
Xue Meng hates the catch in his voice. "I do."
A hand comes to pat him on the head. It shatters something inside him. Such a simple gesture, a hand on the head. A second of kindness. Given without thought.
He feels the tears leak, and he's embarrassed. "Th-this is only 'cause I'm drunk."
The hand doesn't stop patting.
"That was my dad's favourite song."
"Yeah. He used to sing it to Mom." He gives a watery chuckle. "He didn't know many English songs, but she loved that one, so he learned the lyrics. He'd pretend the mop was a mic. While mopping the kitchen or something. He'd burst into song when he saw her."
"She must have loved it."
"They were old-fashioned that way. You know they gave me a courtesy name? Who does that nowadays? But they did. I never used it."
"Will you tell me?"
He asks out a second-year student from the literature department. Her name is Chen Beixi.
They go on a date to a neighbouring mall. They both try to keep the conversation flowing, but it peters out.
A couple of hours into it, Xue Meng knows it isn't going anywhere. He exchanges rueful smiles with her; she looks very pretty today, her long hair open and down around her shoulders. She smells great too.
But his mind keeps going back to an indirect kiss, golden hair, a voice whispering seven in his ear like a dirty secret.
So when they pass by the karaoke place there and Xue Meng spots a familiar blond head, he thinks he's seeing things.
But no, it's Mei Hanxue in the flesh. He looks straight like a popular prince character out of a romance novel, two girls on each side and laughing freely as they stride out. It's almost alien, seeing a smile on that face after weeks of almost no expression at all.
He catches Xue Meng looking, and slides him a curious, friendly smile. A smile that says "Hey, you look familiar but I'm not sure where we've met, sorry".
It is not the gaze of someone who looks at a person and thinks Oh that's the guy who rescued my cat and who I treated to coffee a few days ago.
As Xue Meng watches, he does a double take and then raises his hand, his smile going from wide to something subdued, as if he's hoping Xue Meng didn't notice him just behaving like an entirely different person.
"Oh, it's Mei-xuezhang." Chen Beixi comments absently. "Popular as usual. Do you know him, Xue Meng?"
Xue Meng is still looking at where Mei Hanxue is walking away with his group, an odd feeling dawning on him, and he says "Maybe. He looks familiar."
"Oh well, maybe you've seen his brother."
Xue Meng turns to look at her. "His brother?"
"Yes, they're twins." They start walking again as she continues. "They're both named Hanxue with different characters."
"Are you serious," Xue Meng manages to effect a casual laugh even as his mind reels, and she joins in.
"Yeah, the only reason I know at all is because his brother is our senior in the Literature department. He doesn't really stray from the building during class hours. And he's notorious for refusing to pay attention to women, so the girls don't really talk about him."
"Plus they live off campus so I guess it's easy to hide the fact that there's two people there. Most just...don't notice. But I wonder how he passes himself off as the same person at all, considering how different their personalities are."
He doesn't know if he has a right to be upset, really. Except for that one lie when he asked about switching classes, Mei Hanxue has always avoided responding to any references Xue Meng has made to his brother.
He keeps going back to Chen Beixi saying I wonder how he passes himself off as the same person at all . Xue Meng can answer that. It's because he doesn't talk to anyone else that Xue Meng has seen. It was probably why he was hesitant to talk that day at the library - maybe he was afraid of people seeing them together. Besides that one time, all the times they've met are in the early mornings whilst exercising, so there aren't many people around.
Either that or in the cafe near the Fine Arts building and the library - it's smaller and relatively remote, and whoever else goes there probably already knows about the Mei brothers. In some ways, Xue Meng feels like he's become friends with a ghost nobody else can see.
It's just...well, they knew each other, didn't they? It's not like Xue Meng would go blab about his existence to the entire world. He did think it was a little weird that Mei Hanxue was up so regularly in the mornings when he's known to roll around in the sheets for most of the night. But Xue Meng didn't see him often enough for it to really strike him.
Xue Meng likes to be left alone to mind his own business, so he tends to assume the same for everyone and doesn't gossip. Hell, he didn't even know about the rumours surrounding the younger Mei Hanxue until someone in that first Statistics class mentioned them.
And more than anything Xue Meng is just trusting. He wouldn't think to suspect Mei Hanxue of subterfuge because the latter gave him no reason to. He figured, well, the guy has a right to some privacy. Maybe he's cutting down on the sleeping around without anyone noticing.
It's an odd realization, that despite how they bicker, Xue Meng essentially trusts the man.
Maybe that's why there's this weird feeling in his chest. Yup, that's definitely it. He just feels a little let down at not being trusted in turn, Xue Meng tells himself. What else could it be?
He decides he's not going to talk about it.
It's mostly his pride speaking, really, but he also doesn't want to give Mei Hanxue the satisfaction of seeing his reaction. Xue Meng is going to calmly pretend that he figured out there were two of them a long time ago, not react if Mei Hanxue brings it up in the future, and not bring it up himself under any circumstances.
He runs into Mei Hanxue when he's out for his jog on the weekend. He's standing outside the library, and it almost looks like he's been waiting for Xue Meng. They do their stretches in silence. Xue Meng can tell Mei Hanxue is looking at him out of the corner of his eye but he can't be bothered to talk. It's almost two months into the semester and academic work is in full swing; he's not gotten as much sleep as he'd like lately.
"How was your date?" Mei Hanxue asks finally.
Xue Meng blinks at him. "Wow, news spreads fast huh, I thought we were discreet."
"...you saw me there."
"I thought you didn't see me," he says, playing along, "I didn't think you were the type for karaoke."
You'd have known that I saw you see me if you were actually there.
"Or do you just stay quiet and then compliment everybody else's singing?"
"--I got it."
"The opportunity to play the music. During the play."
"Thanks. About that--"
"Will you sing it?"
Xue Meng stops. Mei Hanxue turns around to look at him. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
"I thought you said my voice didn't do anything," Xue Meng huffs.
Mei Hanxue rolls his eyes. "We both know your voice is really good."
"Maybe you're just saying that."
"Xuedi, your voice is amazing. Please sing with us in the play." His tone is entirely deadpan, but Xue Meng generously ignores it.
"Well. What song is it?"
Mei Hanxue smirks.
"Will you drop me to the dorms?"
"You can't walk. You're drunk."
"You're drunk too. And I can if you hold my hand."
An amused huff. "Think you're cute?"
They trudge hand in hand. The hand holding his is warm, clasps his firmly. He doesn't know how long the walk to his dorm room takes.
"Huh. A scholarship student?"
"Don't I look like it?" Xue Meng scowls, and a hand ruffles his hair.
"Don't read too much into it."
His door is opened, and Xue Meng is gently pushed inside. "Go on, I'll get you some water before I leave."
Xue Meng makes a disappointed noise. "Must you?"
Another huff. "I can't stay."
"Why not? Keep me company."
A sigh. "How?"
Xue Meng racks his already overtaxed brain. "I could sing to you?"
"That's actually not a bad idea." He's handed a glass of water. "Go ahead, sing."
So he sings, whatever he can remember.
The hand pats his head gently after he's done. "Very admirable. Now I should--"
Xue Meng presses that palm against his own cheek and looks up with wide eyes. "Will you sing for me again?"
There's a helplessness to the voice when it says "Okay."
"You wrote this."
They're sitting in the students' cafeteria. It's still early for a weekend, so the breakfast crowd hasn't come in yet. Xue Meng and Mei Hanxue have a table to themselves. Mei Hanxue is showing him the song he's written for the play.
The song is called Broken. Xue Meng goes through the lyrics again, mentally sets them to the melody Mei Hanxue has hummed to demonstrate. It seems to go well.
The lyrics themselves are...well, they're quite touching.
"It's set during the part where the male lead finds out about the female lead's actions away from everyone's eyes and he's just watching her from afar."
"Kind of creepy when you say it like that."
"The lyrics aren't." He's right, they're not. They're just the right balance between respectful and ardent. "It gets reprised in a ballad version during the climax where he confesses."
"Guess the lyrics fit the storyline."
"You're not a fan of the script?"
Xue Meng shrugs. "He could have just told her from the beginning and avoided a lot of confusion."
"If he did, who said she'd have given him a chance?"
He looks unusually serious. Xue Meng pauses to consider. "I guess," he says finally, "but start off as you mean to go on, I suppose."
"I'll sing it."
"Broken. I'll sing it."
Xue Meng scowls. "Because you asked me to?"
"Is that the only reason?"
Xue Meng is ready to throw hands. "Yes? You asked me, it's a good song, why not?
Xue Meng glares at him, but Mei Hanxue's face reveals nothing.
“How was that?”
“How about we go over the first verse again. ”
They go once, twice, till Mei Hanxue nods in satisfaction.
They’re practising in a little room off from the main college auditorium, where the actors are practicing on stage. The keyboard player’s name is Li Wei, and he’s from the light music club too. Between him and Mei Hanxue, they’ve made some tweaks to the melody which sound like an improvement to Xue Meng’s untrained ears.
"Oh, Xue Meng."
A man stands at the door, his arresting features creased in a smile.
"Bo-ge," Xue Meng greets cordially.
"Didn't expect to see you here."
"I got roped into singing during the live music part."
"Oh? Then you'll be singing for my character." Gu Bolin enters their little practice room, seeming to take up the whole space. He isn't actually all that tall, which is why it always throws Xue Meng off that he seems to occupy so much space. "I'll be relying on you to do a good job."
"Mind if I stayed and listened?"
"Aren't you supposed to be practising onstage?" Mei Hanxue interrupts coolly.
Gu Bolin glances at him. "I'm taking a break while some of the other cast practice."
Shit, Xue Meng does not want Mei Hanxue's blunt mouth creating any bad blood. He hurries to say "Bo-ge, you can listen--"
"When it's finished," Mei Hanxue says crisply, "We'll be practising together soon enough."
"Ah, sure." Gu Bolin's expression is carefully blank. Xue Meng smiles at him in reassurance. "How have you been, otherwise?"
"Ah, you know, same old. We should catch up sometime."
"We should. Let's get breakfast together tomorrow, if you like?"
Xue Meng accepts and they make small talk for a few more minutes before Gu Bolin leaves.
Li Wei diplomatically excuses himself to go to the bathroom, leaving them alone.
"Why were you rude to him?" Xue Meng huffs. "He's the lead in the play, and one of the nicest people in the club."
"Why did he have to come talk to you in the middle of practice?"
"Because we're friends. What's it to you, anyway?"
"They've got a lot riding on this play. He should be more serious about practice."
"You haven't seen enough of him to judge his work ethic."
Mei Hanxue's eyebrows rise. "And you have?"
"We worked together quite closely on last year's production. It was a huge success, and he was a key participant. So yes."
"A huge success?"
"Yeah. There was even a celebration party the outgoing seniors threw for us. It was--" a huge hit, he's about to say, but something feels odd. Xue Meng pauses, tries to examine the niggling feeling. Like something wedged into a tight space somewhere is coming loose.
"It was what?"
"Nothing," Xue Meng mutters, still distracted.
Mei Hanxue's eyes seem to bore into him. "Tell me."
"I--I said it was nothing!"
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"You should see your face right now. It's not the face of someone who's thinking about nothing. "
Thankfully, Li Wei comes back at that time, and any further conversation is stalled.
Mei Hanxue sends him a video of Naicha meowing along to something he's playing on the guitar. Xue Meng accepts the peace offering.
Gu Bolin texts him asking if he wants to go for breakfast the next morning, and Xue Meng accepts.
They head to the street food vendors located just outside their campus and return with their haul of steamed buns, congee and soymilk. They talk for a while about lessons, mutual friends, professors. Xue Meng likes him; he's the unselfconscious type, chattering about in an animated tone, jumping from topic to topic.
Finally he runs out of steam and they're quiet for a moment.
"Didn't know you were friends with Mei Hanxue." Gu Bolin says suddenly.
"It's a recent development."
Gu Bolin makes a noncommittal noise. "He usually just pretends he's his brother, doesn't really bother to make friends."
"Yeah. I guess it just happened."
"How's the music going?"
"He wrote the song. I think it's pretty good, it seems to be coming together." Gu Bolin seems to be looking at him expectantly. "What is it, Bo-ge?"
A cough. "You guys are…"
"You're just friends?"
Gu Bolin searches his eyes, and Xue Meng is genuinely confused. "What else would we be?"
"I thought...never mind. You're single, right, Xue Meng?"
The sudden change of topic confuses him. "Yes?"
"I don't know if you're open to dating men."
This is sudden. "I'm not disagreeable to it. But it hasn't happened."
"Good to hear. It's a little bit too late for me, unfortunately."
"Xue Meng," Gu Bolin laughs, "I had a crush on you last year. Were you really not aware?"
Xue Meng's jaw drops, and this makes Gu Bolin laugh even harder.
"I thought everyone knew," he manages to squeeze out. "I never got around to asking you though. Until now."
Xue Meng sits there, his face incredibly warm. Yes, he and Gu Bolin did get along quite well during last year's production. He'd had a minor role in the play itself but he enjoyed working on the set and the props a lot, and they'd talked quite a bit, and also helped with the lights and backstage the day of. But he'd never even thought that--
"Don't worry, I'm over it." Gu Bolin smiles at him warmly. "I think we missed our window. But you really are quite innocent, Xue Meng."
Gu Bolin looks at him thoughtfully. "You're not opposed to dating men, is that right?"
"Yes." Xue Meng suddenly feels very young and unworldly under that kind gaze.
"Things will get interesting in the next few weeks, I think."
Xue Meng doesn't know what else to do, so he sips his soymilk in silence.
The next morning, Mei Hanxue is quiet during their jog. Xue Meng leaves him to it. He's been moody lately, and Xue Meng isn't his mother.
They've almost finished covering their usual area when Mei Hanxue says "How was your meeting with Gu Bolin?"
Xue Meng blinks at him. Why does he even remember ? "It was fine, we had breakfast yesterday."
"He didn't make a move on you?"
Xue Meng stops. "How did you know?"
"So he did." Mei Hanxue snorts. "It was pretty obvious."
"It wasn't to me!" Xue Meng protests hotly.
"What did you say?"
"Huh? He didn't ask me out, just said he had a crush on me last year."
"...you seem to be taking it in your stride."
Xue Meng shrugs. "I'm not opposed to dating guys."
"What is it?"
"How many people have you actually dated?"
"I'm curious because you seem to have zero idea how any of this works."
"Any of what?"
"Dating. Flirting." He pauses. "Relationships."
Sullen silence. "Okay, fine, I've never seriously dated anyone."
"Do you want to?"
"I can teach you."
"You asked me, didn't you? About giving you tips on flirting. I'm saying I'll go ahead and do you one better, and teach you how to date."
Xue Meng's mind goes blank.
Hold on. He asked Mei Hanxue when he thought he was the young er Mei Hanxue. He's known for quite some time that this is the older Mei Hanxue. The one who's notoriously frigid with women. The one who hasn't dated anyone since he entered college. The one who doesn't so much as cast a second glance at anyone, man or woman.
So what on earth is he playing at?
He stares at Mei Hanxue's impassive expression, trying to figure it out. Does Mei Hanxue not know that Xue Meng knows there's two of them? Is this his idea of playing some sort of prank on Xue Meng? Does he want to string Xue Meng along and make fun of him when he finds out the truth? But what would he gain from that?
Besides a good laugh. But he has those at Xue Meng's expense all the time, anyway. Xue Meng can't figure out what he stands to gain from this. But at the same time, he doesn't want to call Mei Hanxue out on it and ask him.
Why? The reason is very simple. Xue Meng is curious. He wants to know what Mei Hanxue's endgame is. He wants to know why, after all these days where they haven't mentioned the fact that Mei Hanxue has a twin, he suddenly wants to go back to pretending to be his brother. And Xue Meng will do this by catching out his lies, one by one, until he's cornered. Ha!
"You'll...give me tips on dating."
Mei Hanxue shrugs, as if this is no big deal, as if he doesn't actually want to give advice despite lying to present himself as an authority on the subject. "If you still want them, yes."
"Okay, go ahead."
"I need some background first. What went wrong on the date with that girl?"
"Nothing specific. She was nice but it was kind of boring talking to her. And I think she felt it too."
He adds as an afterthought, "She kissed me when we were parting. As a last-ditch attempt to see if there was some spark, I guess. It was weird."
"Well, yeah. It was only a peck on the mouth. I don't really have much experience with that sort of stuff."
They both fall silent. Mei Hanxue seems to be stewing on something. "Let's get coffee after we finish the jog. Then we'll talk."
Xue Meng accepts.
They sit down with their coffees and a plate of pastries, and Xue Meng indicates Mei Hanxue's backpack.
"Wanted to return my library book after the jog. It should open by the time we finish up here."
"Is it the same book as last time?"
"No." Mei Hanxue pulls it out, and Xue Meng frowns at the title.
"You read a lot of foreign books."
"It's for my World Literature class."
"Oh, do you Bioengineering students have different humanities electives from ours?" Xue Meng asks faux casually.
"Maybe they changed it from my batch to yours."
Not even a pause. He's so practised.
"How are we going about this?"
"Why not just start off like normal? Meet and go for coffee. If you feel like I should give you directions at any point, feel free to ask."
"Sounds fine to me." Actually, it doesn't sound all that different to Xue Meng from what they already do. Only, he supposes, there will be definite escalation of the...er, situation after a few dates.
Mei Hanxue apparently thinks along the same lines. takes a sip of his coffee, gives him a thoughtful look. "Compliment me."
"We're already meeting for coffee, so why waste time now? Give me a compliment. It's the basics, isn't it?"
Xue Meng decides to play along, clears his throat. "You have nice eyes."
"That's not specific enough."
"Give me an example then. Go on." Xue Meng folds his arms. "Well?"
"Can't think of anything."
He does not squawk, but it's close.
"Sorry," Mei Hanxue murmurs, but his smirk is telling. He clears his throat.
"Your eyes are bright and honest."
Xue Meng blinks, feels the flush rise in his face. Against his will, his heart stutters a little. Where did that come from ?
Xue Meng frowns at him for a while.
"Can't choose," he says before he thinks it through.
"Oh? That was smooth. Creative."
"Heh." Xue Meng doesn't know how to tell him it was unintentional. "Let me try again. Ahem...your hair is like spun gold."
Mei Hanxue sputters, and then chuckles .
"That was too old-fashioned."
"Shut up," Xue Meng huffs, "you said it has to be specific."
"Yes, but I didn't mean you had to sound like that. Haven't you complimented a person normally in your life?"
Like you would know. "Of course I have!" Xue Meng huffs, "I've told girls their hair looks nice, their smile is cute, stuff like that."
"Oh, why don't you try something like that on me?"
Mei Hanxue smiles.
It's not a little smile, or a smirk, or a grin. It's a proper smile, one that conveys attention, and attraction, and affection. It's the sort of smile you give someone you really like.
Xue Meng is dumbfounded.
Mei Hanxue drops the smile. "Wasn't that cute?"
Xue Meng rallies. "Don't do that again. That was creepy."
Mei Hanxue takes a very smug bite of pastry.
He's cleaning his room when he finds an odd, flat piece of plastic wedged behind his desk drawer. It doesn't look anything like what he'd purchase, so he's puzzled. It's flat, vaguely triangular. It shows a picture of a pale pink flower.
Xue Meng stares at it. Something tries to shift in his mind, a memory waiting to be unlocked. The gentle, tense struggle of a butterfly trying to emerge from its cocoon.
He waits, but it fades away again.
They're both busy, but they manage to make time for their practice dates. They're not always planned - sometimes Mei Hanxue surprises him after classes and they go eat street food. Sometimes Xue Meng texts him, or they agree to go after play practice. He gives Xue Meng pointers - what sort of words to use, how to time them, what sort of tone to adopt, how to recognise an opening in the conversation. Maybe Xue Meng is just inexperienced at this, but they seem to make sense.
Maybe he's secretly consulting his brother.
He compliments a classmate a couple of days later and successfully flusters her, something which he narrates to Mei Hanxue with great pride.
"She blushed so hard !"
"I can see why you like doing this to women," Xue Meng adds smartly, "it's fun when they react like that."
"Don't get cocky," Mei Hanxue says mildly. "Doing it consistently is key."
How would you know?
"How do you do that?" Xue Meng keeps his tone innocent.
Mei Hanxue pulls two out of his backpack. Xue Meng accepts one. It's got just the right amount of crunch, he decides.
"How do I consistently compliment someone?"
"I'd say don't think too much about it, but I'm afraid you already don't think enough."
"Hey! " Xue Meng elbows him, but his outrage is mostly for show.
"Try complimenting me again."
Xue Meng looks him up and down. "I like your shirt, it makes your shoulders look nice."
"Hmmm. Too lukewarm."
Xue Meng drops the apple core into a trash can. "The source material is lacking."
"Oh? " There's an edge to Mei Hanxue's voice. He steps a little closer, deliberately, into Xue Meng's space. "You seem to have more of a natural proclivity for insults. It's admirable, in a way."
Xue Meng turns to meet his gaze. "Do you want to go get bubble tea?"
"Now? Wasn't the apple sweet enough?"
Xue Meng looks him in the eye and takes one daring step close himself.
"It was," he purrs, "but I could show you something sweeter."
When Mei Hanxue stares at him, he lets out the most obnoxious belly-laugh.
"I still can't believe you did that," Mei Hanxue says, shaking his head.
"It's been days," Xue Meng informs him loftily, "I think it's time we progressed with our dating lessons."
It's Sunday. They're in the outdoor seating area of a popular bubble tea cafe. Xue Meng is sipping on some fantastic milk tea, and he can't resist smiling.
Mei Hanxue doesn’t look away from him for a second. There's also other things."
"Oh yeah, I did look that up."
"Body language does more work than actual compliments."
"There's one challenge though."
"Can't practice body language properly without another person."
"You can practice your body language," Mei Hanxue says, "with me."
"You said it yourself, you can't practice alone."
"Yes, but--" Why is on the tip of his tongue, but Xue Meng isn't ready to ask that yet. He wants to up the ante.
"--it won't feel the same if we just use our imaginations." he blurts.
He can see the amusement in Mei Hanxue's eyes. "A method actor?"
Xue Meng raises his chin. "Call it what you like."
If Mei Hanxue wants to have his fun, Xue Meng is going to make him work for it, dammit.
"So you want us to practice dating."
"And practice complimenting each other and using the correct body language."
"Fine." Mei Hanxue says peaceably.
"Fine." Xue Meng responds, defiant.
Whoever blinks first loses.
"Where do we start?"
Mei Hanxue holds out his hand. Xue Meng stares at it.
"It won't hurt."
"I know that!" but somehow, he feels an odd tension as he reaches out to touch it. Mei Hanxue's large, warm hand encapsulates his, and Xue Meng feels warmth rise in his cheeks. His fingers are rough, heavily callused, and Xue Meng's own hand feels almost dainty by comparison. Mei Hanxue's thumb moves back and forth across his knuckles.
When Xue Meng meets his gaze again, Mei Hanxue's expression gives away nothing.
Xue Meng extracts his hand after a minute and clears his throat. "Well, that was easy."
"Your face looks like a tomato."
"Here's another example." Mei Hanxue leans forward with his elbows on the table. He's not a small guy, Xue Meng suddenly realizes. This close, the breadth of his shoulders seems to block out the rest of the patrons, makes their little table seem a lot more private. His eyes are steady on Xue Meng's. Then they drop to his mouth.
Xue Meng suddenly can't breathe. It's like he can tell exactly what Mei Hanxue's thinking.
"Leaning forward like this can make even a public location feel more intimate. It also conveys the extent of your interest in the other person."
"Are you done?"
Mei Hanxue gestures to his milk tea.
"Then let's head out."
"What do you want to do?"
Mei Hanxue's hand gently rests on the small of his back, steering him. Xue Meng blinks at him.
They're at a mall, but it's not one close to their college, so nobody they know will see them here. Still, the way Mei Hanxue is so tactile is...well, it's odd, if comforting.
Mei Hanxue catches his expression and says "It's a good idea to do something like this, especially in a crowd. It can make the other person feel comfortable and attended to. Only after you've known them for a while, though."
He drops his hand, and Xue Meng feels an inexplicable sense of loss.
They head to the arcade. Xue Meng doesn't play games much, but he's competitive and picks things up quickly. They're pretty much evenly matched, though Mei Hanxue has a definite edge when it comes to the racing ones.
When they're heading out they spot a claw machine with stuffed animals, and Xue Meng can't help himself from looking. There's one toy in particular that catches his eye. It's deep blue, with a bright green circular tail attached to its back, a little red tuft on its head. It takes him a moment to realize it's a peacock.
"Cute." Says Mei Hanxue from next to him, "How about you win that for me?"
Xue Meng looks at him, and he shrugs. "Impress me with your skills. Aren't we on a date? Isn't this a good opportunity?"
Xue Meng has never backed off from a challenge.
He goes to pay for the tokens, and gets to work.
"Well?" he asks as they head out fifteen minutes and ten tries later, Mei Hanxue now the proud owner of a little stuffed peacock. He clasps it gently in both hands, like it's precious, and it makes Xue Meng feel some sort of way that he doesn't want to examine too closely.
"Thank you," Mei Hanxue says, and maybe Xue Meng is imagining it, but he can't detect any mockery in his tone at all.
Mei Hanxue sends him a picture of Naicha sleeping, curled up next to the stuffed peacock. It's captioned She made a new friend.
In silent unison, their once-periodic jogging meetups become a regular occurrence. They eat lunch together practically every day. If they both happen to have a class free, they either practice together or just hang out and talk. Sometimes they do homework together in the library, and Xue Meng pretends not to notice that Mei Hanxue does not even glance at the Engineering reference section.
They begin practising with the actors and director on how the song will sync with what's going on onstage. The music is set to a sort of montage of the male lead falling in love with the female lead as he sees her actions in a new light. There's a sequence with a slower, more tender version of the song towards the end, just before the male lead confesses. The director and music director are thrilled with both Xue Meng's voice and the lyrics, and they can't stop thanking Mei Hanxue for putting it together.
The play is on the following Saturday, so they have a little over a week. The crew is going through full rehearsals at this point - it's a ninety-minute-long play after all, and Mei Hanxue and Li Wei have also worked with the music director on arrangements to be played at other points. When Xue Meng isn't singing, he's helping to paint the last of the props that have to be made and left over the weekend so they can dry. He and Mei Hanxue barely see each other for the better part of a week.
Come 8PM on Friday, and Xue Meng is woozy. He'd woken up early the past couple of days to study for a test in one of his classes, then spent the whole day either in class or in the auditorium. He's ready to drop dead.
"You're weaving." Mei Hanxue observes as they head out of the auditorium together. His dorm is all the way at the other end of the campus, and Xue Meng doesn't whine, but it's a close thing. "Need coffee."
They decide to skip sitting in the nearest cafe, which is crowded, and instead get coffee and food to go.
"You should eat in the cafeteria. Have a proper meal."
"Shut up." Xue Meng says, but there's no heat to it.
The night is a little cool. They sit down on a bench near the football ground, which is deserted except for some stray players. Xue Meng takes a sip of his coffee and sighs.
"You look exhausted."
"No thanks to you."
Mei Hanxue slides an arm along the back of the bench, behind Xue Meng's head. Xue Meng eyes this development beadily.
"More body language practice?"
Mei Hanxue's face is impassive. Xue Meng shrugs and leans back, pillows his head against Mei Hanxue's bicep. It's the boldest move he's made yet.
"That sleepy, huh?"
"Shut up. You placed it there and you smell nice. This is your fault."
His hand starts sliding through Xue Meng's hair, and it feels so good he closes his eyes and almost groans.
When he opens them again, Mei Hanxue is looking at him, and in the light of the nearby streetlamp, his gaze is indulgent. Xue Meng feels an inexplicable urge to curl up against that broad chest.
"Want to go on an actual practice date tomorrow?"
"Just come by my place a little early."
"We'll pack a picnic and go to a park. There's a large one a little far away."
"Are you serious."
"Do you want to practice dating or not."
It's no longer practice, Xue Meng almost says. He knows. Knows that Mei Hanxue offers excuses to get close to him. Knows that he goes along with it because he doesn't mind.
"Fine. How early is early?"
"Come by 9, and you might get to see this."
He holds up his phone; a photo of a wide-eyed Naicha with a milk moustache.
"Goddammit," Xue Meng mutters in defeat.
Mei Hanxue is already dressed when he opens the door, and very nicely at that. Xue Meng refuses to follow this train of thought any further because he's sure it's not going to end up anywhere good.
There's an awkward moment where they stand at the front door, but Naicha chooses that moment to mewl from inside.
Xue Meng doesn't know what expression he gets on his face, but Mei Hanxue rolls his eyes and ushers him in.
She's a lot bigger now. When he kneels and extends a hand to her, she sniffs it and gives a couple of licks before climbing onto his lap. He picks her up and cuddles her against his chest, scratches her head, utterly charmed by the way she closes her eyes in ecstasy.
"Breakfast?" Mei Hanxue asks, and Xue Meng looks to see him standing at the kitchen counter.
"Nah, I ate."
"Juice? Coffee? Tea?"
He carries the cat to the dining table. She's already been fed (Xue Meng is a little upset about missing the milk moustache), and happy to lie in the crook of Xue Meng's elbow as he accepts some coffee and a slice of toast.
Mei Hanxue sits across from him with his own cup. "We'll drive to the park."
Naicha tucks her head into the crook of his neck and meows, and God can Xue Meng just take her with him?
"We're not taking the cat along."
Xue Meng gives a disappointed sigh, but doesn't forget to needle him about his twin subterfuge. "Who'll look after her if you leave her all alone here?"
There's a pause. "Our housekeeper lives on the grounds, she'll take Naicha with her."
Nice save, Xue Meng thinks drily.
After breakfast, Mei Hanxue brings around his hatchback. He's had his housekeeper pack them an actual picnic basket.
Xue Meng is just belting himself in when the first raindrop hits the windshield. Followed by the next. And the dozens after that.
They're sitting in a car parked in the driveway of Mei Hanxue's house, and it's raining cats and dogs.
They're both silent.
Xue Meng snickers.
"Shut up," Mei Hanxue says, which opens the floodgates; Xue Meng bursts out laughing. Mei Hanxue rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling a little, too.
If Xue Meng were asked later what precisely he found so funny in this moment, he'd be at a loss to explain, but somehow, he feels it in his bones that Mei Hanxue and he are both feeling the exact same exasperation and relief.
When the laughter eventually dies down, Xue Meng sighs. "This is what we get for not taking Naicha along."
The interior of the car is warm, and smells like leather and pine. The windows are fogging up. Raindrops patter against the glass in a soothing rhythm. Despite the recent cup of coffee, he's had an early start, and he's ready to fall asleep.
"Don't snooze on our date," Mei Hanxue says mildly, "this is the opposite of flirting."
Xue Meng tips his head to look at him, and he knows exactly what to say. "Find a way to wake me up, then."
Mei Hanxue looks at him for a second, then undoes his own seatbelt. There's a deliberate, almost predatory grace to his movements that makes Xue Meng's pulse thud in anticipation.
He expects Mei Hanxue to maybe touch him. Maybe grasp his hand. Or put his arm on the back of Xue Meng's seat.
What he doesn't expect for Mei Hanxue to lean right into him so their noses almost touch, his arm reaching across Xue Meng's body.
He can see the individual lashes framing Mei Hanxue's eyes, the way his lips are parted. Those eyes dip down to focus on Xue Meng's own lips, which suddenly feel dry. When he licks them involuntarily, Mei Hanxue's eyes shoot back up, pupils blown, his fine nostrils flaring.
He moves his hand, and Xue Meng's seatbelt slithers back into its holder with a clink.
Mei Hanxue pulls back and says "Awake? Let's head back inside."
Xue Meng is going to scream.
Mei Hanxue's room has a sofa, because when you have a big room you can put things in there other than your actual bed. Xue Meng sits down, places the basket on the coffee table and begins to unpack their food. He looks at the giant TV screen they're facing. Tries not to notice that the peacock toy is on the bedside table.
"So this is going to be a movie date after all?"
"You sound disappointed. What would you rather do?"
Xue Meng gives him a suggestive look, and he snorts. "Walked right into that. Well done."
"Isn't it fine to just sit and talk?"
"Talk about what?"
"Anything. I won't care if I can listen to your voice."
Mei Hanxue's voice is amused. "Laying it on a little thick, aren't you?"
Xue Meng shrugs. "It's practice," he says pointedly, "isn't it?"
Xue Meng is suddenly fed up with his coolness, his high-handedness, the way his gaze is warm but his words are detached. The way he passes everything off as pretend.
Xue Meng has been on tenterhooks around him for days, and here they are right in the man's house and he still won't give an inch.
Xue Meng is craving some acknowledgement, any acknowledgement, that he isn't alone in whatever this is. Because despite their insults and constant back and forth, he's never had anyone fit into his life the way Mei Hanxue has.
Xue Meng likes him.
Xue Meng decides to make his move.
“I told you I wasn’t very practiced at kissing.”
"Well then." Xue Meng grasps his shoulders and smoothly straddles him on the sofa.
Mei Hanxue goes very, very still. His eyes move down to where Xue Meng's thighs bracket his own. His hand moves to Xue Meng's knee, up the outer side of his thigh to his hip.
"This is moving pretty fast."
"Is that a problem? If I don't finish learning from you, how will I get into a real relationship?" He knows it's a barb; he doesn't care.
Sure enough, Mei Hanxue's eyes narrow and his hand involuntarily squeezes at Xue Meng's hip. "A real relationship, huh?"
Yes, yes, be mad, be angry. Xue Meng feels the rush of power flood his veins. Let's see who's cool and detached now .
"That's right," he says crisply, "I'm going to learn from you, and then I'm going to find a cute girl, and ask her out, unleash my skills--"
Mei Hanxue pulls his head down before he can finish.
His lips are soft and cool. The kiss is gentle despite his suddenness, just the press of lips against each other. Xue Meng angles his head to push closer. He's read up on how to kiss, but he mostly moves on instinct. He doesn't know when his eyes close.
He frames Mei Hanxue's top lip between his own, lightly sucks on it. Then he switches to his bottom lip, swipes his tongue along it. Mei Hanxue seems content to let him do as he pleases, and it makes him bold. He seizes that soft lower lip again and nibbles.
Mei Hanxue rumbles, moving the hand in Xue Meng's hair down to his nape and caressing there, and Xue Meng is lost.
He gives in and lets his eagerness show; lips sucking hard enough to bruise, teeth sinking in almost painfully. He deliriously kisses the corner of Mei Hanxue's mouth, and Mei Hanxue finally greets Xue Meng's tongue with his own.
The hand on his nape becomes insistent, angles his head so Mei Hanxue can slide his tongue into Xue Meng's mouth. Xue Meng gives an involuntary moan, slides his arms around Mei Hanxue's neck.
Shit, this was the best idea ever . He should have provoked Mei Hanxue ages ago.
He tangles with that tongue greedily, shudders when it slides against his teeth, feels Mei Hanxue shudder in turn.
That hand moves from his nape to the small of his back and pulls him even closer.
And Xue Meng freezes.
Mei Hanxue pulls back with a frown. Xue Meng stares at him.
Mei Hanxue looks utterly wrecked; hair a mess, lips red and bitten, colour high on his cheekbones, eyes hazy.
Xue Meng did that.
Mei Hanxue pushes off him suddenly, moves away backwards till he's on the other end of the couch. They stare at each other.
Naicha is lying on her cushion in the corner, watching them through drowsy eyes.
"That’s enough,” Mei Hanxue sits back against the couch and coolly nods. "I think our dates end here."
“Are you serious?”
"There's nothing more we can practise. Unless you'd like to--"
“It hasn’t been practice for a long time, and you know it.”
Mei Hanxue looks at him calmly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Weren't you pretending to be your brother all this time just to do this with me?"
Mei Hanxue rolls his eyes. "You came to know I'm not him a long time ago. How does it matter?"
Xue Meng freezes. “You knew that I knew?”
“You thought I’d genuinely string you along claiming to be my brother?"
Xue Meng moves to his feet. “Actually, I don’t know what to think,” he bites out, “because I can’t understand the point of your entire charade.”
“Didn’t you go along with it?”
“The point of my charade,” Mei Hanxue says patiently, “is that you’d see through my obvious lie, but you’d go along with it.”
“That’s so fucking convoluted. What are you trying to say?”
Mei Hanxue sighs. “If I didn’t come up with that ploy to get your attention, you wouldn’t have taken me seriously.”
"You first spoke to me because you thought I was my brother and wanted tips."
"Then when I pretended to be him, you played along because you were curious, and because you wanted to gain the upper hand over me somehow. Right?”
“Well?” Mei Hanxue tips his chin.
“What makes you think that I wouldn’t have paid attention to you otherwise?”
Xue Meng puts that aside for now. "What was your endgame once you got my attention?"
Mei Hanxue shrugs. "Exactly what happened now."
"Which is what? We had our weird fake dates, we made out, now what?"
"If they were weird, why did you go along with it?"
Xue Meng freezes.
"I'll tell you why," Mei Hanxue continues. "Because you liked it. The flirting. The hand-holding. The kissing."
"The only reason you're this mad is because this means something to you." Mei Hanxue's eyes are coldly triumphant. "You like me."
“And what if I do like you?” Xue Meng laughs hysterically, “Did you just want to make me look like an idiot?”
“I just wanted your attention, and I got it.” Mei Hanxue retorts, “You made yourself look like an idiot all on your lonesome.”
It occurs to Xue Meng that he might have read this situation terribly, horribly wrong.
Maybe Mei Hanxue actually doesn't like him. Maybe he's spent weeks reading too much into things that didn't mean anything. Maybe all this time that he's been feeling increasingly comfortable, and secure, and reassured, Mei Hanxue has been looking at him with that clinical gaze and watching Xue Meng become more and more wrapped up in him.
Maybe he's held Xue Meng's hand not because he likes it, but because it's fun to get that kind of reaction when you have no intent of reciprocating. Maybe while Xue Meng has been fighting with himself to believe that Mei Hanxue might actually like what he sees, Mei Hanxue has watched him struggle and secretly smiled to himself.
Maybe this was his endgame all along: get Xue Meng to have feelings for him, and watch him stand here, on the verge of tears, when he discovers that Mei Hanxue was lying.
Where does that leave Xue Meng?
Exactly as he was before, and has been for a long time now: a heartbroken idiot, completely alone.
The shadows that always lurk at the back of his mind suddenly seem to burst forth, flooding it with pictures of his lonely past and his lonely future as if to say this is all you'll ever carry with you.
Xue Meng does the only thing that comes to mind. He turns and flees.
He races blindly down the stairs, into the living room.
The younger Mei Hanxue looks like a deer in headlights where he’s sitting there reading a magazine.
“Hey, uh, hi there--”
“Spare me,” he barks, and heads out the door.
Behind him, he hears the clatter of Mei Hanxue following him, and without hesitating, he breaks into a run as he heads for the gate.
He thinks he hears a voice saying “Wait!”, but his legs speed up.
He blocks Mei Hanxue everywhere. His phone, all social media, all apps. He shuts himself in his room for the rest of the weekend, only emerging once on Sunday to get a bite to eat. He ignores Mo Ran's phone calls, sends him an excuse over text.
On Monday morning, Xue Meng wakes up to a text from Li Wei.
We have practice at 6.
Xue Meng is a lot of things, but inconsiderate is not one of them.
I'll be there.
Xue Meng carefully looks through Mei Hanxue. It's hard - he'd never realized, before, just how much he was drawn to him, how natural it was to get close to him when he was around, to stand and chat and tease and get teased in turn.
It doesn't help that Mei Hanxue's stare seems to bore holes through him. Oh, he plays just fine, almost absentmindedly. But his gaze does not stray from Xue Meng's face. He gives instructions in clipped tones, sticking to the point. Xue Meng follows everything he says.
The only time he speaks to Mei Hanxue is when they wrap up practice. He walks outside, ready to go back to his dorm. He doesn't know how he held it together, but he needs to be alone again soon, or he'll break.
He hears the familiar footsteps behind him.
The footsteps stop. They don't start up again as Xue Meng heads out into the dim of twilight.
Xue Meng never realized how lonely he is before.
Sure, it strikes him in the odd hours of the day, when people talk about parents and siblings calling or texting. Sure, he speaks to Mo Ran, but Mo Ran is somewhere else now, has his own life to live. And, well, it isn't the same thing.
Of course he has friends. He has friends in multiple courses, multiple clubs, people who he waves hi to, people he goes out for a drink with. But he doesn't really have anyone he sits on a bench and shares steamed buns with and talks into the night with. He doesn't have anyone who randomly sends him pictures of their cat. Who puts their arm against a park bench for him to pillow his head against.
How did he deal with it earlier? He wasn't content by himself, but he had a very clear sense that he alone was responsible for himself.
Nobody would immediately come to his aid if he hurt himself.
Nobody would help him take care of a kitten he'd found injured.
Nobody would stand outside his department when his classes were over, holding takeout since he'd skipped lunch.
And so Xue Meng passed his days, filled them with anticipation about events and things, instead of warmth and emotion and time spent together. And it worked fine.
So why is he here, crying himself to sleep?
"You're falling asleep."
He nuzzles his cheek against a shoulder. "'M not. Keep playing."
"What do you like about my playing so much?"
"It's peaceful. It makes me happy. I liked that last song."
"I wrote it."
"You should write more."
A soft huff.
His voice grows smaller. "It makes me feel less lonely. When you play."
"Like someone is sitting next to me, holding my hand. And you smell nice."
The guitar is set aside, and his hand is grasped. Lips press against his palm.
"You're bent on being the death of me, aren't you."
They practise thrice more during the week. Friday is a day off for everyone because the performance is on Saturday evening. Xue Meng wraps up his classes and is heading back to his hostel when he runs into Gu Bolin.
He isn't really interested in talking, but something in Gu Bolin's gaze makes him stop and nod. "Bo-ge."
"There's been an issue with the instruments we need from the music club tomorrow."
"Could you ask Mei Hanxue to clarify it with the club?"
"Sure, but wouldn't there be a music club liaison who--"
Gu Bolin gives him a strange look. "Why would there be anyone else if Mei Hanxue is present already?"
"The secretary of the light music club? It's Mei Hanxue, isn't it?"
Gu Bolin stares at him. "Aren't you friends with him, and also in the student council? How did you not know this?"
"I usually handle the sports club requests. But why would he need a fresh audition for the song then? He must've auditioned before?"
Gu Bolin laughs. "Mei Hanxue, audition for the song? The director's been dying to get him to produce music for one of his plays since he enrolled. He just offered to do it and it went to him."
Gu Bolin looks at him kindly. "I guess I should contact him myself, huh?"
Xue Meng walks towards his dorm in a daze.
When he spots a familiar blond head near the dorm entrance, he nearly turns on his heel and walks back the way he came. But he's been spotted.
"Xue Meng!" A pleasant voice calls, "You're Xue Meng, right?"
Now that they meet, he realizes he's spoken to the younger Mei Hanxue once, briefly, a few months ago. Then they basically didn't talk until the previous weekend, when Xue Meng burst into Mei Hanxue's living room, yelled at him and then ran out his front door.
Mei Hanxue suddenly grins. "Hey, do me a favour? Please talk to my brother."
Straight to the point. "No."
Mei Hanxue gives a low, pleasant laugh. "Don't be so cruel, Mengmeng. Can I call you Mengmeng?"
"But I feel like we already know each other." He's smiling, but those eyes are cool and calculating as he looks Xue Meng up and down. "Won't you reconsider?"
They're not talking about the nickname. "Why should I?"
Mei Hanxue hums. "My brother is a bit of a blunt instrument, but his heart is in the right place. As you well know."
"He passed himself off as you."
"Yes. And you found out that day we saw each other in the mall. And still you forgave him, and hung out with him, and--"
Xue Meng is exhausted, and lonely, and miserable, and tomorrow he has to sit next to Mei Hanxue and sing a love song that Mei Hanxue wrote in front of hundreds of people. While knowing he's in love with Mei Hanxue, and that love isn't reciprocated. He doesn't have in him to deal with any of this right now.
Mei Hanxue looks at him sympathetically. "You really like him, huh. It wouldn't hurt this much otherwise."
Was that intended to comfort him?
"I need to go."
His phone chimes with a text at 1.03am. Xue Meng is still awake, because he tried to sleep and can't.
Hey, this is Mei Hanxue again!
Xue Meng groans. What now.
I realized I never asked something. You know my brother is in love with you, right?
So he didn't tell you.
He didn't tell me because he doesn't.
Does this look like a lie? [Video attached]
Xue Meng opens it despite himself.
Mei Hanxue is on the couch in his room. His head is resting on the arm in a posture guaranteed to cause a crick in his neck. He's sound asleep. Xue Meng is jealous for the single second it takes him to recognise the stuffed peacock toy Mei Hanxue's holding in one hand. The other is loosely wrapped around his phone. And from the phone blares a familiar tune.
Before the cool done run out
I'll be giving it my bestest
And nothing's gonna stop me but divine intervention
I reckon it's again my turn
To win some or learn some
It's his voice, singing I'm Yours while Mei Hanxue played the guitar. The recording he needed for an audition that never happened, because Mei Hanxue had already agreed to work on the music for the play at that point.
Mei Hanxue sends another text. He's been playing it on loop for days. He fell asleep listening to it. Believe me now?
He doesn't reply.
The party is held at the house of one of their theatre club seniors. He's the scion of a rich family, and he's going to go into the family business, so he's been treating his final year of college as one last chance to let loose. The alcohol flows like water.
Everyone from the theatre club is there; members from other clubs show up as well, even alumni. Xue Meng barely recognizes any of them. Someone's volunteered to DJ and the music is thumping. He stands in a corner, watching the faces flash past. He quite likes this alcohol, even though he's not sure what it is. But it's delicious, so he keeps drinking. Gu Bolin comes to check on him a couple of times, quite solicitous, and seems amused when Xue Meng insists he's okay. He eventually stops paying attention to him.
The thumping music eventually gives way to something slower as the evening draws on. People from the music club brought their instruments, and everyone takes turns dancing and singing, or plugging in their playlists. The crowd's gotten to the point where anything goes.
A man Xue Meng has never seen before is persuaded to come on stage, and happens to play an English song he dearly loves - Jason Mraz's I'm Yours.
His voice is deep, mellow, like whiskey and honey, the soothing timbre of it enough to put him in a trance.
Xue Meng feels too warm and yet has the urge to shiver. He feels the sort of safety and security he hasn't sensed in over a year.
Like someone gently wrapped a scarf around him to keep away the cold.
Like someone put an arm around his shoulders and told him he did a good job.
Like someone saw him upset and promised to cook his favourite food.
He nearly keels over at the intensity of it.
He's aware that he's staring; the man departs after the song, to claps and whistles, and Xue Meng's gaze follows him nonstop.
When he heads out into the garden, Xue Meng follows without a thought. He sees the blond head round a corner and follows after, only to bump into a warm, broad chest.
"Does xuedi need something from me?"
Xue Meng rubs his poor nose as he looks up into cool green eyes. Suddenly, he feels tongue-tied.
"In that case, perhaps you're lost. The party is that way."
He turns to leave, then pauses. He pauses because Xue Meng has grabbed his sleeve.
"Xuezhang, will you sing that song again for me?"
The man turns around and looks at him, mildly confused.
"Sorry, I don't know your name, but your voice is really nice."
The eyebrows rise, but he must see something in Xue Meng's gaze, because he says "Why not?"
Mei Hanxue's face gives nothing away, but his voice is gentle. "You're not sober enough for this."
Xue Meng insistently pulls him down for another kiss, and he goes, sighs softly into it.
"What is it?" he asks finally, when Xue Meng continues to stare up at him.
"Is this a dream?"
Mei Hanxue laughs ruefully. "That's a fair question."
His hand comes to touch Xue Meng's cheek, and his breath catches when Xue Meng nuzzles into it.
"Okay, how about this."
He takes something small out of his pocket. It's vaguely triangular, with a depiction of a pink flower.
It's his guitar pick.
"If you look at this tomorrow, you'll know this isn't a dream."
Mei Hanxue carefully puts it inside Xue Meng's desk drawer. "Wow, this is stuffed. How do you find anything?"
Xue Meng giggles, and he sees an edge of a smile.
"I'm going now."
"I'll come find you. Tomorrow." Xue Meng promises, and hears a chuckle.
"I look forward to it."
The next morning, Xue Meng woke up from a strange, beautiful dream of a faceless stranger, in his room which had a desk with a guitar pick wedged behind the drawer. Half-hungover, he frantically searched for it - it had seemed so real, the fragments he remembered - but couldn't find it.
Nobody held his hand as they walked back to his hostel. Nobody asked about his parents, about why the song reminded him of them. Nobody held him like he was something precious and kissed him like they couldn't get enough.
Xue Meng knew it was too good to be true.
He sings incredibly.
He can tell that his voice is especially good tonight. He sings from the chest, closes his eyes and shuts out the world. Sinks into the lyrics that Mei Hanxue wrote, the soft entreaty in the chorus, lost and melancholy.
When he opens his eyes to thunderous applause, Mei Hanxue is staring right at him.
Xue Meng doesn't look away this time.
They don't say anything till after the performance. The audience has exited, the performers are out of makeup and costume. Everyone is laughing, riding off the high of a job well done. It's already dark; they're heading towards the campus gate with the understanding that they'll have a party. One of the fourth-years invites everyone to his house, and almost everyone is preparing to go.
Mei Hanxue stops. His face is stony.
"We're going to your place."
Xue Meng shrugs. "Your place or mine. You pick."
Mei Hanxue surveys him for a minute. Xue Meng doesn't look away.
"Let's go to mine." Mei Hanxue says finally, and turns on his heel.
Xue Meng follows.
They headed straight for his room when they got here; now Xue Meng sits on the couch where they made out a week ago. Mei Hanxue stands at the window, looking outside. His arms are crossed, his back to Xue Meng.
"My brother has her."
Xue Meng takes a deep breath.
"I'm sorry. For forgetting."
"I'm sorry. For not remembering who you were the next morning. For not remembering fully until yesterday, actually."
"It doesn't matter."
"It does to me."
"How can it matter when you don't remember it?"
"I did remember it. I just thought it was a dream, all this time."
"I thought it was a dream," Xue Meng snaps, "because it seemed too good to be true."
Mei Hanxue finally spins around. " That's why I gave you--"
He stops when he sees Xue Meng hold it up.
"This? It was wedged at the back of the drawer. I found it only a few days ago."
"I knew that damn thing was stuffed full," Mei Hanxue mutters.
And suddenly, Xue Meng is laughing.
Mei Hanxue looks at him askance, but he can't stop laughing.
He's not sure what he's laughing at: the fact that Mei Hanxue was right, the fact that he even remembered, the fact that whatever was between them that evening was so good, so genuine and pure and sudden, that he woke up the next morning thinking it couldn't be real.
The fact that the only thing that could have convinced him it was real was hidden away where he couldn't see.
The fact that he was so sure it wasn't real that he never sought anyone out, never sought to match that vague silhouette or voice to anyone around him for the following weeks or months.
The fact that when he encountered Mei Hanxue again, he didn't know, but some part of him knew, felt settled, felt warmed again. Made him want to get close. Made him trust. Made him hurt when they fought.
Made him fall in love.
"You're crying." Mei Hanxue says into the quiet.
Mei Hanxue hands him a box of tissues. When Xue Meng ignores it and continues to weep, he takes one out and begins wiping his face.
"So you wanted to come back to my place to cry?"
Despite the tone, his hands are gentle. It makes Xue Meng cry even harder.
He doesn't know how to explain.
He had his parents, and they disappeared. He had a home, and it stands empty.
He had someone he poured his heart out to, and kissed, and held, and chose to forget because it felt too good to be true. Then he met that same person and got close to him, and fell in love with him all over again. And now he's kneeling in front of Xue Meng, wiping his face with a tissue, and he doesn't want anything to do with him anymore.
And Xue Meng has to go back, to that empty dorm room, and study and eat and sleep and breathe and hope against hope that in the coming years, the abyss of emptiness inside him will somehow fill up. He'll go to an empty house every year for Christmas and New Year and call his cousin who'll be living God knows where. He'll walk through his neighbourhood knowing that everyone from his childhood has either died or moved away.
He'll have to move away from that house one day, sell it off, and then nobody will know that Xue Ziming ran through the gardens and streets as a child, just like nobody in the dorms will know that Xue Ziming lived there, cried there, once kissed the love of his life there, just like nobody in the countless apartments he'll rent will ever look upon them and know that Xue Ziming once lived there, trying to fill the hole in his heart that seems to have no bottom.
He so tired of not being able to leave a mark on anything or anyone, no matter how hard he tries.
Who is Xue Ziming if nobody remembers him?
"I knew," he mutters, "I knew it was too good to be true. I knew. "
"I should have just stayed put. Not gone to the party. Not spoken to you. Not spoken to you again --" his voice breaks, "--should have known, nobody, nobody ever stays --"
"Hush." Mei Hanxue pulls him close, and he goes, buries his face in his neck and the familiar scent only brings forth a fresh wave of tears.
"I was so lonely," he blubbers, "I thought it was a dream, you were a dream, but I didn't try to remember it much because it made me so lonely--"
"And then when I met you again it hurt less, so I wanted to stay close, but I just hurt you even more --"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry--"
"It's fine, it's fine, I forgive you--"
Xue Meng doesn't know how long he cries. Mei Hanxue doesn't loosen his hold him, not even for a second.
"Hear me out." he finally says, when Xue Meng is cried out.
"You didn't hurt me. Not intentionally," he adds when Xue Meng sits back and opens his mouth. "I don't blame you for that anymore. I did, because I thought you were just that sort of thoughtless person who makes promises and doesn't keep them."
Xue Meng doesn't have anything to say in his defense, so he keeps quiet.
"I came face to face with you a few times after that night, in the following weeks. You showed no signs of recognition. So I decided that if you truly forgot, it meant you didn't care enough. And then you suddenly spoke to me thinking I was my brother."
"If I hadn't spoken to you that day, would you have gone on pretending it never happened?"
"Probably. I was going to write it off as a drunken mistake on our parts. But I realized, after you rescued Naicha, that I was probably wrong."
"It was raining, it was already late. It would have been easy to ignore her, saying you couldn't make the effort. But you tried your best. I realized you're a lot of things, but unkind isn't one of them." He sighs. "You're just a good-hearted simpleton."
Xue Meng gives him a baleful glance. He continues unperturbed.
"So I knew, then, that you had probably just forgotten. But then you went out on dates."
"I went out on one date."
"You kissed her."
"She kissed me!"
"The point," says Mei Hanxue deliberately, "is that I was jealous."
"Yes. I'd decided to just be friends with you at that point - we were already working on Broken together - but that irked me. And then Gu Bolin asked you out for breakfast right under my nose--"
"He spent the whole time hinting that you liked me."
"--regardless, I was jealous. I just wanted your attention solely on me."
"And I thought that was fine. But then it became clear that you liked me--"
Mei Hanxue just looks at him.
"Okay, so I was that obvious."
"I was happy, but I also resented you for not being aware of what happened."
"I already apologized."
"You did, and I accept. But back then, I wanted you to maybe get embarrassed and angry and confess to me properly."
"I thought you didn't like me."
"I thought I made it pretty clear that I did. I do." Mei Hanxue runs a warm hand up and down his back, and Xue Meng shivers. "I don't kiss people I don't like, practice date or not. I don't comfort them when they cry."
"Back then, you made it look like I didn't mean anything to you."
"You're right. I got carried away and wanted to give you a taste of your own medicine."
"You kissed me, said I was special, forgot about me, met me again, became friends with me, talked about dates in front of me--"
"I didn't want to be friends with you for a while. Before we rescued Naicha. You sought me out."
Mei Hanxue nods. "I thought I'd be happy to not have you around, reminding me of what happened. But you not wanting me around was somehow worse."
"You're so fickle," Xue Meng grumbles, and he can feel Mei Hanxue's chest shake when he chuckles.
"That holds no weight coming from you. When have you ever done anything I expected you to?"
"The first time we met, I expected to make a friend, and we nearly had sex. The second time we met, I thought you finally recognised me, and you thought I was my brother."
"When I wanted to dislike you, you showed kindness. When I wanted to help you, you tried to handle everything by yourself. When I wanted to be just friends with you, you made me jealous. When I wanted to extract a confession out of you, you freaked out and ran."
"When I was preparing myself to possibly never speak to you again," Mei Hanxue says quietly, "you came to my house of your own volition, and cried."
Xue Meng can't look away from his eyes. They're so tender. He feels his face warm. "You wanted me to confess back then, right?"
"Yes, but what I'd really like right now--"
"I love you," Xue Meng blurts.
Mei Hanxue blinks at him. Xue Meng grasps his hand and brings it to his own cheek. "I'm saying it now. I love you."
"It's not just when you sing, or your voice. You make me peaceful and happy. Even when you're annoying me, or making fun of me. Nothing feels as good as having you around."
Mei Hanxue actually laughs. "I was going to say that you should think it through first, and tell me how you feel."
It's captivating, the warmth in his deep voice, the way his chest shakes beneath Xue Meng's palms. He brings their joined hands to his mouth and smacks a kiss there.
"You always surprise me, Ziming."
Xue Meng gives him a brief, blinding smile before he's tackled to the floor.
He doesn't come up for air until several minutes afterward.
They move to the bed, eventually. Mei Hanxue's hand is drawing circles on the small of his back. It's over his clothes, but it still makes Xue Meng squirm pleasantly. They're lying on their sides, facing each other, and Xue Meng knows he looks embarrassed, but damn if it isn't the best he's felt in a long time. Mei Hanxue seems content to just watch his face.
"You finally confessed," he says eventually.
"And what about you?" Xue Meng prompts.
"What do you think? After all this?"
"The words. Say the words."
"Fine. I like you."
"Really? You just like me? You made me record a song with you for an audition you didn't need, just so you could listen to it."
Mei Hanxue huffs.
"You fall asleep with the stuffed toy I won for you."
"You walked me back to my dorm on the first day we met."
"You kissed me first!"
"Couldn't you have forgotten that bit." But Mei Hanxue is smiling, just a little bit.
"You provoked me the second time."
"I did," Xue Meng admits shamelessly, "But you still have to say it."
Mei Hanxue sighs like he's put upon, but still presses a kiss to his forehead. "I love you, Xue Ziming. You make me peaceful and happy, too."
Xue Meng makes a happy noise into his neck.
Oh, he knows he'll find this embarrassing eventually, once the high of it has faded. Tomorrow, they'll wake up, and the awkwardness will rush back in, and they'll find things to bicker about, argue about, grumble about. They'll hurt each other again, eventually. Xue Meng is naive, and Mei Hanxue is blunt, and they're both proud to a fault, afraid to trust people.
But they have this moment together, where Mei Hanxue is kissing his mouth and murmuring his name in contentment. They'll have more moments like this, where they find things in common, savour the warmth of each other, lie on soft sheets and exchange softer glances.
They'll find a way to handle whatever is thrown at them, Xue Meng decides drowsily as he falls asleep in Mei Hanxue's arms.
After all, they're together. For now, that alone is enough.