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a cinderella kind of moment

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There are a lot of things that movies and fairy tales get wrong about being a prince.

Sure, being a prince is a romantic - and financially appealing - fantasy, but at least for a modern-day prince, pretty much everything gets it wrong, in Hendery’s opinion. He would nearly run out of fingers if he tried to count all the unrealistic parts of the royalty-themed dramas he’s seen.

First of all: it’s the 21st century; there’s very little galavanting and adventuring to be had, as cool as dragon slaying and all that sounds. The closest Hendery’s come to being a prince in shining armor is learning to ride a horse, and it’s not an activity he’s keen on repeating anytime soon.

Well - and the time with the metallic silver suit that he wore to a benefit ball. The photos of it still make the rounds every once in a while, on listicles of Worst Dressed Royals. Hendery grins at the memory; yeah, it had been a little tacky, but it was definitely fun.

Anyway.

Secondly, even if there were dragons to be slayed, it’s not like he could run off, sword in hand. Being a royal means having capital-R Royal Responsibilities, most of which Hendery finds to be a pain in the ass. A royal pain in the ass.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. There are things he needs to know and things he needs to do, and a lot of them are important. But Hendery’s the fourth child, the younger brother to three older sisters. He’s far enough back in the line of succession that his responsibilities shouldn’t be so time-consuming or scrutinized.

At least, that’s what he’s been arguing for years, and it hasn’t worked yet.

So Hendery does appearances and PR strategy meetings and charity work - actually, he does really like the charity work - and all of the other things expected of him in his station. He knows he doesn’t have the typical lifestyle of the twenty-somethings he sees in dramas, with nights out on the town to drink or yoga classes or movie dates or instagram. Instead, whether he likes it or not, Hendery gets reminders about propriety and folders about the next delegation he’s expected to schmooze with over annoyingly perfect hors d’oeuvres.

There’s a whole lot of responsibilities that never get mentioned in the movies. Hendery gets it; responsibility isn’t sexy. It’s the royal uniforms and limousines and formal dancing that are sexy.

Hendery barely gets one of those things in a given week.

And thirdly - which is Hendery’s real problem, here - is the fact that there’s very little freedom that being a modern prince affords, even when you’re part of a royal family of figureheads like Hendery is.

His typical week is usually packed full with foreign language tutoring, sessions on the current geopolitical climate, lunches for the heads of various charities with at least one of his sisters, hand-shaking with ambassadors, maybe a visit to a children’s hospital or appearance at whatever ribbon-cutting is important enough to warrant a royal retinue. It’s exhausting, and it leaves Hendery very little time for anything he’d consider actually fun.

Honestly, it had been hard enough to insist that dance lessons - hip-hop dance lessons - were something he both wanted and could handle on top of his existing schedule.

There are weeks where he doesn’t even manage to keep up with his favorite anime.

It’s not just the free time - it’s the freedom. Most of Hendery’s schedule is decided for him, by some combination of secret committee and his royal retainers and his parents, or something. He doesn’t have it as bad as his sisters - especially Crystal, as the oldest. Being heir to the throne is no joke.

But still.

What he wouldn’t give to have even a single night to himself, where he could do whatever he wanted. No responsibility, no royal events - just whatever Hendery wants to do, for once, without the weight of expectations and someone watching over his shoulder.

An ideal night out, as a regular guy. There would be nothing special about being out in the city as Prince Kunhang; he does that all the time, and it means he can’t do anything normal. And that’s the kind of night Hendery really wants - one where he has the freedom to do something normal and fun. No responsibility, no title, no crown resting heavy on his head.

Hendery’s daydreams usually involve going to a club, maybe meeting some people, making friends. He doesn’t know a lot of other young guys - his closest friends are his sisters, especially since he’d finished private school - and it would be great to just… have fun. Have a good time without all the princely pressure. Dance, have a few drinks. Meet someone cute who likes Hendery for who he is and not because he’s a prince.

What if?

It’s a tempting thought, one that often worms its way into Hendery’s brain. In the spring it’s just a passing idea, as the weather gets nicer and the flowers around the royal residence start to bloom. But as the world outside Hendery’s windows keeps getting greener and greener, the temptation to get out and see it for himself only grows. The thought of a single night out becomes more than just an idle daydream.

By summer, it’s closer to an itch - an itch he can’t scratch. It’s getting harder and harder for Hendery to convince himself that he shouldn’t just throw on a hoodie and some beat-up sneakers and get out of the palace for a night. See what’s out there, have some fun.

Hendery pauses in his daydreaming, frowning up at the ceiling over his bed. What is stopping him from having one night of fun, from making his daydream a reality?

Oh, there would be hell to pay - if he gets caught. But maybe there’s a chance he can give his manager the slip, especially if it’s late enough into the evening. There’s some security at the royal residence to duck around, or maybe wheedle into looking the other way. But just for one night. He’d be careful.

Why not at least give it a try?

Hendery sits up in one motion, rubbing at his chin. It’s hard not to immediately throw all his hope behind the idea, but it doesn’t actually seem that far out of reach. What would he need to do to make it happen? It’s already too late tonight; he’ll need a little bit of time to come up with a plan. And he’ll need to come up with some way of making sure he’s not recognized while he’s out and about during his one night of freedom. Something like -

“A disguise,” Hendery murmurs, a grin working its way onto his face. “Yeah - a disguise.

It’s probably the theater kid in him that quickly latches on to the idea of coming up with a costume, something that will allow him to stay hidden in plain sight. He has some casual clothes that have never seen the light of day - or to the general public, at least - and he’s pretty sure there’s some hair dye left from Crystal’s latest makeover.

Yeah. Maybe it’s finally time to make this happen. Hendery feels excitement swelling in his chest at the thought, and he collapses backwards in bed, digging his phone out of his blankets.

It’s Tuesday night. If he wants to have his one night out soon, he’s still got a lot to figure out.

 

- 👟-

 

To ensure that his one night of freedom is a total success, Hendery has a plan. It’s a good plan. He makes a bulleted list in his notes app and everything.

Step One: The Disguise.

Hendery knows that the smart thing to do would be to ask his sisters for help - even just one of them, though as soon as one knows something, they all know about it - but he can’t bring himself to ask. This night is for him and him alone. Hendery wants to do it all by himself.

He knows that means he’s taking a risk, when he gathers the leftover dye supplies from Crystal’s vanity and dumps them on his own ensuite bathroom floor. Hendery’s only ever had royal stylists do his hair. He squints at the directions on the bottle of bleach; there are instructions for measuring it all out, if there are enough of the various supplies here.

Well, what the hell. How bad can it be? Hair grows back.

And what’s better than hiding in plain sight? Everybody knows that Prince Kunhang has beautiful, luxurious dark hair. No one’s expecting a blonde prince to be at a club, reveling in the city’s nightlife.

Hendery smiles as he snaps on a pair of gloves and shakes up the bottle. They do say that blondes have more fun.

It turns out to be pretty easy, so long as you pay attention to the directions - though it is hard to be patient as the bleach does its thing. Hendery can’t stop jiggling his leg, fiddling with his phone to check the timer. He’s ready to be out and about in the city already - out there. Having fun.

It’s worth the wait, though, when he emerges from the shower and wipes the layer of condensation from the mirror. He’s blonde. Very blonde. So blonde that his dark eyebrows stand out from his face - but that’s the look, right? Hendery towels his freshly-dyed hair, grinning at himself every time he catches sight of his hair in the mirror.

It’s the perfect disguise.

And as for his casual, regular, not-a-prince-Hendery outfit - Hendery has options.

He tries not to second-guess himself, but what do you wear for a night out where you’re trying to intentionally blend in, rather than make a statement? Maybe it says something about him that when Hendery gets the chance to dress himself, there’s a lot of bright colors and bold prints involved. Not to mention the fact that it’s now the height of summer - even once the sun is down, it gets pretty hot inside. And it’ll be warm in the club too, right?

Ugh. So maybe it’s a little harder to put together an outfit than Hendery first imagined. He pouts at his open closet, arms crossed. Maybe he should go find Cathy or Crystal and ask for some advice.

He can at least ask Google, before going to his sisters. Even if he feels a little dumb typing what do u wear to the club into the search field on his phone.

The pile of discarded clothes at Hendery’s feet gets bigger and bigger as he tries on different things - ripped jeans or acid wash? Silky button-up or denim jacket? But in the end, he pulls on a graphic tee with a band logo, cuffing the sleeves before throwing his favorite purple zip-up hoodie on top. With faded black skinny jeans he’s rockin’ the Totally Normal Twenty-Something look. Hopefully.

Hendery grins at himself in the mirror as he slides a little silver hoop into his left ear. The blonde’s growing on him - and he totally doesn’t look like himself. Mission accomplished.

Well - one more thing.

He nudges through the pile of clothes on the floor with one foot to reveal his favorite pair of Jordans. They’re not too flashy, right? Just a pair of off-white high tops with that classic Nike swoop. You can’t really tell that they’re the most expensive birthday gift Hendery has gotten from his sisters in years. It’ll be too dark in the club for anyone to pay much attention to his feet, anyway.

Yeah - this is perfect. Hendery runs a hand through his hair one more time, slipping his phone into his pocket before tugging the hood of his sweatshirt over his head.

Time for a taste of freedom.

 

- 👟-

 

Step Two: The Escape.

Hendery slips out exactly according to plan.

One of the few good things about living on such a regimented schedule is that the routine of the royal residence is more or less ingrained in Hendery’s brain. He probably couldn’t forget it if he wanted to - not that anyone would let him. Royal life is actually pretty predictable.

While it usually means that he would kill for a day where he can sleep in, tonight it works in Hendery’s favor. Because he knows that Cathy stays up late reading, but will keep her bedroom door closed no matter what commotion goes on in the hallway outside; Cecelia goes to bed the earliest, and Crystal plays music until she falls asleep. With their parents asleep in their own wing and the managers retired for the night, the royal residence is dark and quiet.

Hendery has the place to himself, more or less. It’s perfect for slipping out unnoticed.

It’s probably a security risk, actually, that he can slip so easily through the darkened hallways and out the back service entrance without encountering anybody. Sure, there are security cameras and whatever, but Hendery knows where those are, too.

Whatever. Maybe he’ll bring it up when he gets back. Or not - something in Hendery’s belly flutters to life at the idea that maybe if this works tonight, he’ll take a chance on going out again. He’s already set several alarms on his phone, staggered throughout the night so that he can keep track of time and make sure he gets back before anyone notices that he’s missing.

Hendery’s actually a little proud of himself that he’s so thoroughly planned all this.

But first things first: a night out involves getting out. Out there - out beyond the perfect walls and marble pillars and wrought-iron gates that stand between Hendery and the rest of the world.

He doesn’t encounter anyone as he ducks into the back part of the residence, through the service corridors that even the royal family doesn’t use much. Hendery knows his route, but he keeps alert just in case - his night will end right here, right now if he stumbles upon anyone that knows Hendery’s face, and that this isn’t where a prince should be.

But he makes it to the back service door without any trouble. There’s no keypad or card swipe lock on the door - well. Not on the inside. Typically security is worried about someone getting into the royal residence, not anyone getting out.

And just like that - he’s outside in the night air.

Hendery shuts the final gate with a quiet click and moves away from the residence, careful to keep his hood up and his face away from the cameras. He’s walking fast, but not because he’s afraid of getting caught - he can’t seem to control how light his feet feel, buoyed by the brightness flooding his chest. Hendery can’t stop grinning.

He did it.

He’s out - by himself. Unsupervised, unguarded. He’s a totally normal guy ready for a night on the town, on the way to the subway. Hell yes.

When he’s several blocks away from the royal residence and its tall stone façade is hidden from sight, Hendery finally slows to a normal walk. He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes to savor it. It’s like he can finally breathe. The sweet smell of freedom - damp asphalt, the lingering, lush green smell of summer, the waft of far-away street food sizzling and greasy on a grill.

Freedom smells amazing.

Hendery digs the mask he’d brought out of his pocket and slips it on as he heads for the nearest subway stop, not even giving a backward glance in the direction of home. The mask only covers his nose and mouth, so he leaves his hood up, too. There’s no harm in being a little more careful on the street - at least until he gets to the club, where it’s dark and full of people and there's less of a risk of being recognized.

A thrill runs down Hendery’s spine at the thought of the night to come. A mixture of nerves and excitement fizzes pleasantly inside him, from his chest down to his fingertip and toes. If he wasn’t trying to keep a low profile he’d dance along the sidewalk - but that’s okay. Hendery can save his dancing for the club.

The club. Where he can dance and have a fruity drink and meet people who don’t care about who his parents are. Where he can be Hendery, just Hendery, rather than Prince Kunhang.

The hardest part’s done - Hendery has successfully dyed his hair and escaped the royal residence without arousing suspicion. Getting to the club should be as easy as pie.

 

- 👟-

 

Step Two-and-a-Half: Getting to the Club.

Hendery frowns down at the little touchscreen, finger extended but hovering cautiously over the bright-colored buttons. How much fare does he need for a round-trip ride through the city by subway? Is it safer to just put plenty of money on the card, or buy two single tickets? What if he misplaces his second ticket in the club?

He's never been on the subway before, but he didn't think it would be this confusing. It always looks so casual and fun in movies, to sit side-by-side with strangers you're never going to see again, wondering where they're going and what kind of lives they lead. Right now, Hendery will be lucky to make it through the turnstile before the outbound train comes.

Thankfully, there's no one behind him waiting to use the ticket machine - and in the end, he mashes a few buttons and puts more than enough money on a new card. Whatever. He'll just... hide it, when he gets home. So no one at the royal residence is suspicious as to why he has a public transit card when he only ever travels by private car.

No private car tonight for Just A Regular Guy Hendery. But that's fine - riding the subway is an adventure unto itself. And he's not ashamed to admit that he's actually been looking forward to this part of his plan.

Tapping through the turnstile is actually a pretty easy affair, now that he's got the card. It should maybe be anticlimactic, but a little thrill runs through Hendery nonetheless. His older sisters love to tease him that he'd never get anywhere on his own, since they're always driven everywhere they need to be. But he's doing just fine - he's gonna ride the subway, and get to the club. Take that, Cecelia.

If only he can find which platform to stand on.

Hendery makes it onto the right train by the skin of his teeth, daring inside just before the doors close behind him. Or, at least - he’s pretty sure it’s the right train. He may not know exactly how to get there, but he knows where he’s going.

He takes a seat, fiddling with the sleeves of his hoodie. The train isn’t too crowded, but there are a good number of people - groups of friends dressed for going out, couples with bags of groceries, a woman with a bouquet of flowers. All going somewhere, all with their own lives and dreams and people they love.

And they aren’t giving a second glance to Hendery with his blonde hair and jeans and high-tops. It’s awesome. If only it was this easy to get out and explore the city as a normal person all the time. Hendery grins behind his mask, taking out his phone to check the train route. This - riding the subway - has totally lived up to the hype.

Public transit. Who knew? This is infinitely better than getting gawked at in a private car, in Hendery’s opinion.

And faster, too - maybe it’s because he’s daydreaming and enjoying watching people coming and going at every stop, but before Hendery realizes it, he’s at his destination. He tumbles out of the train car and stands on the platform, watching as it pulls away - a streak of tail lights down the tunnel until it disappears from sight. The subway is some kind of magic, Hendery’s sure of it.

Now all that’s left to do is find the club itself.

When Hendery exits the station, he’s gratified to find that there are lots of young people out and about in this part of the city - couples with linked arms, groups of girls dressed in bright colors and sequins to go clubbing. He’s found his way to the right place, then - thank goodness. The street before him is all neon signs, for clubs and bars, tiny six-seat restaurants that are crammed between record stores and arcades. Everything seems so full of life, with music pouring out of open doorways and laughter ringing in the air.

Hendery had chosen this part of town for a reason, of course - if he’s going to go out, he wants to all out. He wants to be where the city comes alive at night, if he only gets to have this for one night. And he did his research - which is why he heads in the direction for the queer-friendly clubs once he gets his bearings. No one has paid him any attention or been suspicious of him yet - Hendery’s still hyper-aware of being a royal in disguise - but it seems like his disguise is working. This club and its regulars are supposed to be chill and discrete, though, which is exactly what Hendery wants.

Also, he really wants to dance with a boy tonight. Especially if it’s his one and only chance to do so as a normal dude.

But even all the careful research he’s done doesn’t prepare him for the nervous excitement of getting in line and having his ID checked. His stomach twists as he tugs his mask down under his chin and the bouncer squints down at his birthday and shitty photo. (Even as a literal prince, there’s no escaping the awkwardness of the ID photo booth. Which should be a crime, in Hendery’s opinion.) He gives the bouncer a winning smile as she glances between his face and the stamp-sized photo, hoping desperately that this works.

And that he’s not recognized. God, his name is right there. Maybe he should have -

“Nice haircut,” the bouncer says as she hands back his ID and waves him inside. Hendery takes it back with nervous fingers, laughing through a thanks! and trying not to grin like an idiot. It worked.

It worked, and Hendery can’t help but hold his breath as he reaches the door and pushes inside.

 

- 👟-

 

Step Three: The Club.

Hendery opens the door to find a wall of color and light and sound - and in the instant it takes for him to step inside, he knows he’s made the right choice. This is exactly what he has wanted, has been daydreaming about.

The club is a little narrow, but deep; round booths and low lounge tables surrounded by couches and wingback chairs line the walls on either side leading up to the bar. The lighting is dim, but in an intimate way - Hendery’s eyes catch on the bright flecks of light thrown by sequins and jewelry of the guests closest to the bright-colored underlighting. The dance floor is the exception, of course - the back of the club is a wash of color, and beams of light roam across the packed crowd that bounce and grind in time to the beat. It’s got a little bit of everything - nooks where groups of friends are catching up over drinks, laughing loudly against the backdrop of some vibrant pop song, as well as a lively dance floor to work up a sweat.

And a bar, of course. That’s Hendery’s first stop.

The floor is a little bit tacky underfoot as he approaches the bar, trying not to be too obvious in his wide-eyed ogling of everything around him. It’s bright, and loud, and Hendery keeps walking through clouds of cologne as he weaves through the crowd - but it’s perfect. He can feel the thud of the bass in his bones just a little; there’s no hesitation as girls brush past him, not giving him a second glance.

This is nothing like Hendery’s ever experienced, and he loves it already.

It’s a lot like he had hoped it would be, reading about this club online - but it’s different, finally being here in person. As much as the dance floor is already pretty packed and the drinks are flowing, it doesn’t feel rowdy - it’s just people out having fun, meeting up with friends to have a good time. And that’s exactly what Hendery wants.

Hope swells in his chest as he weaves through the crowd. Yeah, this is perfect. There are enough people here that he doesn’t particularly stand out, even with his bright blonde hair, and he’s managed to land somewhere in the middle of how people are dressed. Disguise: success.

Hendery manages to snag a barstool - two women head for the dance floor just as he gets to the bar, hand in hand - and he orders something bright and fruit. Why not? He’s here to have fun - people-watching a little, maybe get up and dance once he’s worked up a moderate buzz. There’s no way he can really go all out anyway, knowing he has a self-imposed curfew in order to get home safely and undiscovered.

But hey - a daiquiri or two won’t hurt, probably. And it does taste better than any of the beer on the menu.

And it’s bright pink. An easy choice, in Hendery’s book.

He swivels on his stool, watching the push and pull of the crowd around the bar and on the dance floor. It’s kind of amazing that no one has looked at him twice yet. Hendery is no stranger to people staring at him, and weirdly, this is kind of nice. Sure, various people coming up to the bar have given him a once-over, but Hendery knows what they want.

It’s better than having to be diplomatic over uncomfortable state lunches with foreign delegates who only know how to beat around the bush.

A hand lands on his shoulder, and Hendery turns to find a guy about his age, dressed in a floral button-down that’s unbuttoned… more than Hendery would have expected. Something twists in Hendery’s stomach as the guy’s eyes roam over his face and he squeezes closer, to stand next to Hendery’s seat at the bar.

Oh, god. Does he recognize Hendery, even with the dim lighting and the blonde hair? Maybe he should have put his face mask back on - but it would be super weird to wear a face mask in the club, right? At least he’d still be able to drink his daiquiri with a mask on, since it has a straw -

“Hey,” the guy says, leaning an elbow on the bartop that Hendery knows - from experience, in the last ten minutes - is a little bit stickier than is pleasant. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Hendery can’t help it; he laughs in relief. Thank God - he only just got here. It would suck to be recognized so soon and have to leave, just as he was getting comfortable and starting to have fun.

The guy blinks in surprise at Hendery’s outburst. His lips pull into a pout. “You know, you didn’t have to laugh - you would just say that you’re not interested.”

“Sorry,” Hendery gives him a placating smile, twisting his straw between his fingertips. “I just - um. I was worried you recognized me.”

Shit. Hendery probably shouldn’t have said that.

It earns him a confused look and a raised eyebrow. “Should I have recognized you from somewhere?”

I don’t know, Hendery thinks, have you looked at the royal tabloids lately?

Thankfully, his talent for thinking on his feet saves him. Or - well. Hendery says the first thing that comes to mind, more or less. He leans in closer, conspiratorially. “Would you believe it if I said I’m a model?”

His potential suitor gives him a very obvious once-over at that. “Maybe. You look a little short to be a model, though.”

Hendery tsks and stirs his drink with his straw, giving this guy a wry smile. “Models come in all sizes, dude, and that’s kinda rude. Thanks but no thanks on the drink, I think.” He pointedly sips at his still mostly-full daiquiri, and with a shrug, the guy wanders back through the crowd.

Phew. Maybe getting hit on isn’t a nice change of pace.

At least it’s still a little better compared to shaking hands with sharp-eyed politicians and the social elite who always look like they want to eat Hendery alive. When he’s being hit on in a club, Hendery doesn’t have to pretend to be interested for the sake of international peace.

He probably should be a little more careful about what he says - not that he plans to let anyone take him home tonight. The club is more than enough adventure for now.

Hendery shakes his head, pushing the interaction from his thoughts. All that aside - this is pretty awesome.

He’s only seen clubs in movies and on tv, so it’s still a rush to be in the middle of it all. He can feel the floor beneath his feet vibrate with the bass line of some dancey pop song that’s hard to hear over the noise of the crowd. People keep coming and going from the bar, a constant flurry of movement and sound and color.

Maybe it’s just the slight buzz from this one drink, the fizz of anticipation under his skin, but it feels like anything could happen.

Several more people push their way through the crowd to order drinks near Hendery’s spot at the bar as he continues to people-watch, so he doesn’t think anything of it when another guy about his age leans onto the bar next to him. He tries not to pay too much attention as the dude raises a hand to flag down a bartender, chewing on the end of his straw as he nears the bottom of his daiquiri.

That had gone kind of fast, huh. Well, it is pretty warm in the club, and apparently daiquiris are as drinkable as they are pink. Which is to say, very.

The crowd shifts and a cheer goes up as a new song comes on over at the dance floor, and the sudden movement pushes the guy into Hendery’s side with a grunt. His stool tips precariously onto two legs - and before he can think about it, Hendery reflexively grabs the guy by the arm to keep balance.

“Fuck,” Hendery swears under his breath. The air rushes out of him as the stool thuds to the floor again, the momentary jolt sending a rush of adrenaline through his system. Thank god he’s not holding his drink; that could have been much worse. “Uh.”

He should probably stop feeling up this guy’s biceps, though. Even if Hendery did legitimately need to grab onto him for balance, and even if it was kind of this dude’s fault for almost knocking him over in the first place, regardless of the crowd.

And even if it is a pretty nice bicep.

Hendery opens his mouth to apologize, but then the guy turns to face him - and maybe it’s just the way the colored lights flood over the bar, but for a second there it looks like his hair is -

“Wow,” Hendery feels his mouth drop open. It’s - his hair is pink. Like, really pink. Up close, it’s undeniable - no trick of the light. And that’s not to mention the rest of him - a well-shaped jaw framed by a few silver earrings and dark, undyed eyebrows that could probably beat up Hendery’s eyebrows in a fight. He’s - handsome, even more so for the soft pink of his hair.

The guy stares, eyebrows rising, and - oh. Had Hendery said that out loud?

“Sorry, sorry,” Hendery laughs, fingers spasming as he lets go of Hot Pink Guy’s arm. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud, I just - um. Your hair is really striking. Sorry for grabbing you like that.”

“It’s okay,” Hot Pink says - Hendery needs to come up with a better name in his head, even if it is apt. “Sorry for almost knocking you over. I swear, the crowd in this place - like the latest Ariana song is really that exciting…”

It actually kind of is, in Hendery’s opinion - but then again, he’s never been to a club to dance to the latest pop music before. He’d probably be out of his seat and shaking his ass on the dance floor, if he wasn’t suddenly having a conversation with an attractive stranger.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hendery says, grinning. “It gives me an excuse to ask you about your hair - I just bleached mine, but it didn’t even cross my mind to go pink! It’s my favorite color.”

“I, uh - I can see that,” the guy glances down to the pink liquid in Hendery’s glass. Huh, well - that probably does give it away. Also, strawberry is a superior flavor. When Hendery meets his gaze again, Hot Pink is giving him an amused look. “You went light enough to be able to dye it pretty much any color, if you decide to.”

“You think so?” Hendery grins, scratching behind his ear and resisting the urge to run his hand through his hair. “I’ve never done bleach before - I was a little paranoid I was going to singe it all off or something.”

The guy returns his smile, and he half-turns so that he’s facing more in Hendery’s direction than towards the bartenders. He brushes his own hair out of his face, eyebrow quirked. They are really powerful eyebrows. “It looks fine to me, but I get it. I didn’t go as pink as that this time, but you never quite know how it’s going to turn out.”

He waves at Hendery’s daiquiri - really, it is almost an alarming pink because of the booze - and on a whim, Hendery holds the glass up, squinting like he’s trying to compare the colors. Hot Pink works as a nickname because this guy is hot and his hair is pink, but the actual color is closer to cotton candy. Hendery knows his pinks.

He tilts his head, considering. “You know, I like yours as it is. It really suits you.”

It’s a little hard to tell with the dim lights and random flashes of color from the dance floor, but Hendery’s pretty sure that earns him a blush. It’s - cute, and nearly matches his hair.

“Thanks,” Hot Pink says, clearing his throat but unable to hide his smile, even when he ducks his head. He looks up at Hendery through his dark lashes. “I’m Xiaojun.”

“Hendery.”

Is it weird that it’s a little bit of a thrill, that he gets to introduce himself? That Xiaojun takes his hand to shake like it’s totally normal - that any gleam in his eye is from actual interest in Hendery as a person, rather than as a political asset?

Hendery wants to think so, at least. Xiaojun is as cute as he is friendly - both things that Hendery finds himself warming to.

They look at each other for a long moment, hands clasped to shake, before Xiaojun clears his throat and lets his hand fall away. “Um, I -”

“Were you getting something to drink?” Hendery asks, sipping at the dregs of his pink monstrosity. He stands on the barstool’s rungs to see over the heads of the other patrons at the bar, looking for the bartenders. “I dunno if it’s always this busy here, but the bar has been packed tonight.”

Xiaojun laughs easily. “Oh, it’s normal for a weekend - you’re not a regular?”

“First time,” Hendery admits, shrugging one shoulder with a smile - and waves for the bartender again. This time, one catches his eye, and Hendery motions to Xiaojun’s pink head next to him. “Just wanted to get away, try something new. What are you having?”

When the bartender reaches them, Xiaojun rattles off half a dozen orders - ah. Ordering for friends, then, rather than out alone. Hendery tries to ignore the way that the knowledge twists his stomach, playing with the garnish at the edge of his empty glass.

“I get it - wanting to go out, blow off a little steam,” Xiaojun picks up the thread of their conversation easily when the bartender moves away again to begin preparing his drinks. He lounges comfortably against the bar, hip cocked out a little and one long leg crossed behind the other at the ankle. Between his pose and the barstool Hendery’s commandeered, it puts Xiaojun half a head shorter than Hendery. “That’s why we usually come here to dance, on the weekends when we can get the whole crew together.”

“Ah - you’re here with friends,” Hendery says, more of a statement than a question. “I figured; I can’t imagine you would have had a good night if you got all of those drinks for yourself.”

Xiaojun chuckles, ducking his head again as he laughs. It’s - he’s really charming. Far more charming than Hendery, probably, and Hendery’s a prince.

Well, he’s not a prince tonight. He’s just Hendery. Still - something liquid and warm fills his belly, something that’s not just the buzz of alcohol in his veins talking. Xiaojun seems to like just Hendery so far.

“They made me get this round because I was the last to arrive,” Xiaojun explains, the corners of his lips quirked into a smile even as he rolls his eyes. Good friends, then. “Are you - you’re here by yourself?”

Hendery chuckles, rubbing at the back of his head. “Oh, yeah, I -” I’m a fugitive royal having a night out on the town and don’t have any friends besides my sisters, who are literal princesses, to hang out with anyway. “- I decided to go out a little short-notice, so it’s just me tonight.”

“Ah,” Xiaojun’s eyes dart away, and he bites his lip before meeting Hendery’s gaze again. “Would you want to - do you want to hang out with my and my friends tonight?”

That pretty blush is back. Hendery swallows, trying to fight down the excitement filling his chest. For all that he has years of practice being proper and princely, he’s never had to shove down this kind of feeling before. Maybe his sisters have a point when they tell Hendery that he has no chill. “I mean - if that’s okay?”

“We managed to grab a table in the back, so...” Xiaojun shrugs, but it still comes across as a little nervous. “Only if you want to.”

“Yeah,” Hendery says, “Yeah, I would really like that.”

They grin at each other, and before Xiaojun can reply, the bartender returns with his tray of drinks. Hendery can’t help but chuckle - it’s a pretty big variety in taste, from vivid-colored mixed drinks to beer to several shots of… something.

“Now I’m definitely curious to meet your friends,” he says, pushing his empty glass away and sliding off his stool.

Xiaojun snorts, but he looks mostly fond. “They’re ridiculous. Do you mind helping me carry?”

Drinks in hand, Xiaojun leads them in a careful path through the crowd, skirting the dance floor in favor of heading towards the back of the club. To Hendery’s surprise, it doesn’t get any quieter amongst the low, packed tables - if anything, it’s rowdier than the bar, with various groups laughing and yelling to be heard over the music.

And they’re definitely making a beeline for one of the louder groups.

“Drinks! Finally!” one of them shouts when he catches sight of Xiaojun, making grabby hands in their direction. “What took you so long, Xiaojun-ge?”

“Oh, I think I have an idea,” another says, dark eyes narrowed coyly from where he lounges on one of the low couches. “Xiaojun, you didn’t mention that boys were on the special menu tonight.”

“Shut up, Ten.” Xiaojun says, rolling his eyes. “Please try to be normal - all of you. This is Hendery. Hendery - this is Kun, Lucas, Yangyang, Ten, and Winwin.”

Xiaojun points to each of the guys in turn as they reach for their drinks, and there’s some scuffling as they make room for Xiaojun and Hendery to join them around the low table. Hendery leans back in his seat, fiddling with his straw, glad that he’s ended up next to Xiaojun. They all seem nice enough at least.

“Well, here’s to a night out,” Kun raises his bottle - the only one with a sensible-looking beer in the entire group - for them to do a quick toast. “God knows it’s hard enough to get us all together these days. And to new friends,” he adds, before they cheer and clink their glasses.

“Mmm,” the tall one - Lucas? - hums as he sips at his drink, eyes cutting to Hendery over the six olives speared on the toothpick in his glass. The martini looks laughably small in his large hands. “Hendery - did Xiaojun really pick you up at the bar and drag you back here?”

Xuxi,” Kun admonishes, over the immediate cackle from Yangyang to their right.

“What! He’s cute,” Lucas motions up and down at Hendery - and Hendery can only laugh as he flushes, scrubbing a hand through the hair at the back of his head. The curious honesty is refreshing, actually, when you only ever deal with passive-aggressive politicians. And it’s pretty flattering. “I didn’t think Xiaojun had that kind of courage before four drinks.”

“You’re the worst,” Xiaojun grumbles, shaking his head - but Hendery spots the small smile on his lips. “I can’t believe I paid for your booze.”

Lucas throws him finger-hearts, grinning broadly, and Xiaojun rolls his eyes.

“Besides, aren’t we here to hang out? Not every trip to the club has to be about hooking up, you know,” Xiaojun continues.

“Hasn’t stopped Ten from trying,” Winwin winks in Ten’s direction, though it looks a little bit more like a flinch than a wink. Lucas laughs, bright and loud, as Ten scrunches his nose and reaches over Yangyang to flick Winwin on the forehead.

“I’m taken now, Winwinnie,” Ten says, sipping demurely from his glass as he settles back against the sofa, though his eyes still glitter mischievously, “Even if he is back in Seoul. I won’t be dragging any boys over to hang out with us tonight.”

“Xiaojun didn’t drag me back here,” Hendery says, chuckling. “I came out by myself tonight, he offered to let me hang with you guys.”

That’s dangerous, knowing us,” Yangyang says, waggling his eyebrows - though it’s mostly obstructed by his long, silver bangs. “We’re a bad influence.”

“Yangyang, you’re barely old enough to drink. That cocktail you ordered is more sugar than booze. Speak for yourself,” Winwin says, sticking out a pinky as he downs a shot.

“Yeah - I’m the bad influence,” Ten smirks, and Xiaojun shakes his head as the rest of the table groans - apparently in agreement with Ten’s self-assessment.

“I’m sorry - I should have known there was no way they could control themselves or be normal around someone new,” Xiaojun sighs, swirling the drink in his hands. He does look apologetic - though Hendery doesn’t know what for. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have very many close guy friends, but Xiaojun’s group is great. It reminds Hendery of the occasional nights he and his sisters get the chance to relax and let loose, poking fun at each other and snarking back and forth.

And honestly, these guys have nothing on the teasing powers of the crown princess.

“It’s cool - I have siblings, I know what it’s like,” Hendery nudges Xiaojun’s shoulder with his own, warmth fizzing in his belly at the smile he gets in return. “You guys seem pretty close.”

“We all did a study-abroad program in university together,” Kun explains, taking the opportunity to scoot his chair closer to the couch where Hendery and Xiaojun are seated. “Forges the bonds of brotherhood, or whatever Lucas likes to call it.”

“For real though,” Lucas mumbles around the olive he’s sliding off the toothpick with his teeth, “After an experience like that? Bros for life. I’d still be lost in the Seoul subway if you and Xiaojun hadn’t come to find me.”

“Aw,” Hendery grins, glancing over at Xiaojun. “So you’re just saving people left and right, huh?”

Xiaojun gives him a nonplussed look over the rim of his glass. “I wouldn’t call bringing you over here saving you, exactly. I’m surprised they haven’t scared you off yet.”

Rude,” Yangyang sticks out his tongue. It’s bright green now, from whatever it is he’s drinking. The color is actually pretty impressive. “We’re extremely entertaining, and Hendery hasn’t even seen us dance yet.”

“You saved me from boredom, then,” Hendery amends, and that manages to draw out Xiaojun’s smile. He pats Xiaojun’s thigh reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I’m having fun.”

And you know what? Hendery really is.

After that, it’s easy to get swept into the conversation as they work through their drinks. Buoyed by the buzz in his veins, Hendery finds himself laughing and joking with them like they’ve known each other a lot longer than half an hour’s worth of shouting at each other across a low table in a club. He quickly finds that he and Lucas have the same sense of goofy humor - a side of himself that Hendery rarely gets to share with others - and he has Lucas in stitches once he brings out the ridiculous voices. Yangyang, too - he’s the youngest of the group, and Hendery’s jokes about older siblings have Yangyang trading seats with Kun so that they can complain together.

Maybe it shouldn’t work, how easily the group seems to mesh around Hendery and bring him into the fold as one of their own. But somehow it just clicks. It probably helps that the rest of them are close friends, extroverted enough that they don’t mind another person in the mix - especially as they get further into their drinks.

At some point Winwin and Kun go to the bar for another round, and even though it gives them more room on the couch, Hendery and Xiaojun stay pressed together. Xiaojun has been a little quiet at Hendery’s side, drawn into conversation with Kun about music that Hendery had only half heard over Lucas’s boisterous laughter.

Also, with another drink in him, Xiaojun’s face is definitely getting as pink as his hair. Hendery tries not to stare too much, but it’s really attractive.

“It’s - it’s okay that I’m here, right?” Hendery finds himself asking, when Ten and Yangyang are distracting each other by comparing the color of their tongues and taking selfies, Lucas playing hype man. “I’m not interrupting your night too much?”

“No no, don’t worry,” Xiaojun takes the final sip of his drink, tipping his head back. Hendery’s eyes catch on the way his throat bobs, and has to drag his gaze back to Xiaojun’s face when he speaks again. Maybe the buzz is starting to get to him - then again, there’s nothing wrong with looking, right? Especially when he’s just Hendery. “This is what we’d be doing anyway - hanging out and catching up until we have enough drinks in us to give in to Ten.”

Hendery cocks an eyebrow. “Give in to Ten… for what?”

“Dancing,” Xiaojun says, lips pulled into a rueful smile. “Though it never takes very long when we have Yangyang or Winwin with us.”

“Do you not like to dance?” Hendery grins as he tilts his head, curious. “Or do you just come out to the club for the conversation?”

“Ha ha - I talked to you, didn’t I?” Xiaojun swats at his arm playfully, and Hendery laughs. “We all like to dance, it’s usually a matter of resisting Ten on principle. Well, and getting enough liquor in Kun for him to loosen up.”

“Did I hear Kun and liquor in the same sentence?” Ten leans over the table towards them, far more keen and sharp-eyed than Hendery would have expected from someone who has had as much baijiu as he’s seen Ten consume in the last half hour. “You know how Kun-ge is, we can always -”

“You can always what? Are you scheming to get me drunk again?” Kun and Winwin choose that moment to reappear with their next round, of course; Hendery giggles at how quickly Ten whips around, though the smirk doesn’t leave his face. “Yah, and I just bought you all drinks!”

“Sorry, Kun. That’s the curse of being the oldest one here,” Lucas shakes his head as he swipes his next martini off Kun’s tray, though he actually doesn’t look sorry at all.

“Besides, Ten, we can’t get Kun too drunk,” Yangyang flaps a hand in Kun’s direction, “You know how it is when you’re old, alcohol just makes you fall asleep.”

Liu Yangyang,” Kun scolds, and they all laugh - even Kun himself, eventually. “If you make jokes about my age, we’re allowed to make jokes about your age.”

“You already do that,” Yangyang grumbles, wrinkling his nose when he takes a big gulp of his drink. They do make the drinks pretty strong here - not that Hendery has much to compare to, really. The two or three he’s had has been plenty to keep him pleasantly warm and buzzed through the night so far - though maybe part of that is also how Xiaojun’s arm is still pressed against his, skin-to-skin. “Come on, aren’t we ready to dance yet?”

Hendery looks over his shoulder, out to the dance floor, and feels something in his stomach clench with excitement and anticipation. He’d come to the club to have a few drinks and people-watch - but not a small part of the attraction of the club was getting to dance.

He’s never really gotten a chance to dance like that.

Sure, he’s learned all the appropriate forms of ballroom and some hip hop, and he’s definitely done his fair share of shimmying and vibing in the privacy of his own bedroom - okay, and sometimes with his sisters - but it’s not the same as this. Hendery’s only ever seen it on a screen - the hot throng of bodies on the dance floor, moving as one to the beat. The press of people together, feeling the pounding bass like a second heartbeat inside them.

Hendery would be lying if just the thought didn’t make his pulse jump in the best of ways.

“Can we?” he asks, turning back to face the group and catching Xiaojun’s gaze. He can’t help but smile; Xiaojun’s watching him with a little bit of amusement and not a small amount of interest. It makes Hendery’s heartbeat quicken. “Go and dance, I mean.”

“Let’s do it!” Lucas says, carefully setting down his martini and jumping to his feet - which is pretty impressive, because wow. Standing, he’s even taller than Hendery thought. “Kun-ge, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve had to drink - we’re dragging you with us.”

Kun rolls his eyes, but takes a last sip of his beer and lets himself get pulled to his feet by an over-eager Ten and Lucas. “Well, when you put it like that.”

They leave their jackets draped over their seats and head for the dance floor, Kun bracketed by Ten and Lucas, Winwin tagging along behind. Hendery tries not to notice every time Xiaojun’s arm brushes his - and fails spectacularly, a shiver running down his to his fingertips. Is it normal, to react to someone this strongly when you first meet them?

And what does it mean that when Hendery glances at Xiaojun, he finds him looking back?

Yangyang slings an arm around Hendery’s neck. “Nice Jordans,” he says, glancing down to their feet - despite Yangyang’s long legs, they’re able to walk in stride. Hendery grins; so much for no one noticing his favorite shoes - though he’s a little impressed Yangyang can tell what they are in the bright-colored club lights. “You like basketball, or are you a sneakerhead?”

“Both! Though I don’t get to play very often,” Hendery smiles wryly. Biggest understatement of the year. “Team sports often don’t work with my schedule, even for pick-up games. But I’m taking lessons in hip-hop -”

“What!” Yangyang nearly shouts; Xiaojun laughs at Hendery’s resulting wince. This must be a relatively normal volume for Yangyang. “You didn’t say that you danced! Come on, man, what are we waiting for?!”

Hendery finds himself unceremoniously yanked towards the dance floor by the arm - and before Yangyang pulls him off his feet entirely, he manages to wrap his fingers around Xiaojun’s wrist and rope him along, too. Xiaojun raises his eyebrows, amused, but lets himself be tugged along in their wake.

The three of them stumble onto the dance floor laughing, joining the warm press of bodies just as a new song comes on. Thankfully Lucas leads the charge towards the middle of the dance floor - with his height and broad shoulders he’s easily able to forge a path through the crowd for the rest of them to follow. They knot together in a tight circle, shoulder-to-shoulder under the roaming red and blue and orange lights, giggling as they start to move.

Hendery’s almost reluctant to let go of Xiaojun’s wrist, but there’s really no way they can dance like that. At least it’s gratifying to know that under the pads of his fingers, he had felt Xiaojun’s pulse thumping just as fast as his own.

“Come on!” Ten shouts, barely audible over the music - he’s already dancing, moving his hips to the beat. “This is what we came here for!”

Oh, it is - and Hendery plans to make the most of it.

It’s easy to let the music swell in his chest and start to dance, feeling the beat and moving his body in time. They’re all pressed so close together like this, crowded on all sides by other dancers. But it’s a rush, the bright spots of color illuminating their moving arms and hair in the dim light, the thud of the bass reverberating through their shoes. It’s not long before Hendery feels himself working up a sweat, between the crush of bodies together and going all out in their dancing.

It’s awesome.

They shift and flow around each other as a group, pairing up and rearranging and coming together again, never very far from each other on the dance floor. From the outside Hendery could tell that they’re not shy about physical affection, as a group of friends, and that’s true while dancing, too. Winwin whines two or three times about Yangyang kicking him and Lucas pulls Winwin against his chest, laughing as he anchors his large hands on Winwin’s hips. Yangyang slips himself between Kun and Ten to grind between them, saying something about sandwiches in English that has Ten throwing his head back to laugh.

And Xiaojun -

Hendery turns, a joke on his lips about the antics of his - their? - friends, to find Xiaojun reaching for him. He slings both of his arms over Hendery’s shoulders, pulling him close enough to dance together, almost chest-to-chest.

“Is this okay?” Xiaojun pants, red-cheeked. It’s so warm on the dance floor that some of his pink bangs have stuck to his forehead, slick; Hendery wants to brush it back. Somehow, Xiaojun’s cheekbones look even better from this close.

“Yeah,” Hendery breathes, grinning. He settles his hands over Xiaojun’s hips, a little shyly, and then tucks his fingers through Xiaojun’s belt loops when he gets a brilliant smile in reply.

Someone behind them wolf-whistles - Hendery can’t see who, but Xiaojun rolls his eyes. “Ignore them.”

“I plan to,” Hendery says, meeting Xiaojun’s gaze - and this time he has a front row seat to Xiaojun’s blush.

They start to move - a little awkward at first, but easier as they flow with the movements of the crowd around them. Most of the music is hip-hop or pop, fast-paced and fun to dance to - and as Hendery and Xiaojun get more comfortable dancing together, they press closer.

Well, maybe it’s just how crowded the dance floor is. If he wasn’t so tall, Hendery would have trouble seeing Lucas over the heads of other dancers as their group shifts apart.

Song blurs into song - and maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise, but once Xiaojun gets into the groove, he’s good. The way he moves his body - Hendery hasn’t seen anyone do body rolls like that, and definitely not from this close.

Okay - so maybe Hendery shows off a little, too. From the smirk on Xiaojun’s face he can probably tell, but damn. This is really fun. And pretty hot, too - not just the temperature on the dance floor, but the way they move together. It’s not every day that Hendery gets to grind chest-to-chest with an attractive boy and feel the way his thighs flex as he dances.

And maybe the pink hair really does something for Hendery. So sue him.

When the song changes next - another bop, something with a catchy hook that’s an arabesque whistle - Xiaojun looks over Hendery’s shoulder and snorts. “You can’t see them, but - actually, be glad you can’t see them.” He has to lean close to be heard over the music; Hendery shivers at the sensation of Xiaojun’s breath over the sweat-damp skin of his neck.

“Which one?” Hendery quirks an eyebrow.

“All of them,” Xiaojun grumbles, and squeezes his hands on Hendery’s shoulders. “Honestly can’t take them anywhere.”

They manage to pivot a few steps so that Hendery can see - and when he does, he can’t help but laugh. Lucas is doing some weird dance move that he’s trying to teach Yangyang and Kun, despite there being literally no room on the dance floor for it. Ten and Winwin watch, hips moving in a grind that would be obscene if they were seriously into it - but they’re making absurd faces at each other and mostly watching the other three. They’re all laughing, bright-eyed and pink-cheeked from their dancing - and clearly having fun.

Hendery’s heart clenches a little. He’s having an amazing time, too - he really likes Xiaojun’s friends. He really likes Xiaojun.

It’s really too bad that he’s only just Hendery for one night.

Xiaojun’s grinning when Hendery looks back at him, and he runs a hand down Hendery’s arm to tangle their fingers.

“Come on,” he half-shouts over the music. “Let’s make sure they don’t hurt themselves - and show them how it’s done.”

Hendery lets Xiaojun pull him through the mass of dancers separating them from their friends - how had they gotten so far away, just the two of them? - and tries to ignore how good it feels to have Xiaojun’s sweaty fingers slotted between his own.

A cheer goes up when they emerge from the crowd to join their group again, and Hendery finds himself immediately pulled into Yangyang and Lucas’s orbit.

“Hendery!” Lucas shouts - probably a result of the booze and less that he’s trying to be heard over the music, Hendery suspects. Or maybe both. “Yangyang said you dance! Show us your moves!”

Hendery shoots a glance over his shoulder to Xiaojun - he’s been thoroughly wrapped in Ten, who seems to be doing a good job of whispering into Xiaojun’s ear to make him blush even harder. So Hendery makes a show of rolling up his sleeves for Yangyang and Lucas, like he’s getting serious. They hoot and holler at that, laughing, and when Hendery starts to dance they can’t help but join in.

After that, Hendery gets lost in the music - in the pounding bass and heat and moving colors of the dance floor. At some point he teaches Yangyang how to do the latest dance from TikTok; Lucas dips Hendery when they put on a show for the rest of the group, even though there’s no way to make a dip work with hip-hop. And it turns out that Xiaojun is as good of a singer as he is a dancer. Hendery hears him perfectly hit note after note, singing away with Yangyang and Ten to what’s clearly one of their favorite songs.

Xiaojun catches him watching, at some point, and gives Hendery a smile, shy but bright. As much as the music and dance blur together, Hendery knows this is a night he’ll never forget.

Of course, that’s when the first of Hendery’s alarms goes off - at midnight.

Lucas laughs when Hendery’s back pocket starts to vibrate, groping him a little as he paws at Hendery’s jeans, trying to help him fish it out of his pocket. The brightness of the screen makes Hendery wince - even with the pink and green and white lights drawing patterns over the crowd, it’s still dim in the club. How is it midnight already? Time flies when you’re having fun, but -

“Everything okay?” Xiaojun asks, glancing between Hendery and his phone.

He turns off the alarm. It’s just the first one, anyway. He’s still got time.

“Yeah,” Hendery says, shooting Xiaojun a grin. His stomach flips at the easy smile he gets in return.

“I think we need a water break,” Kun says, slinging an arm over Xiaojun’s shoulders. He hikes a thumb to the side - to where Ten is feeling Yangyang’s forehead and Yangyang is, predictably, pouting and whining about it. “C’mon, it’s too hot over here anyway.”

“I’m fine,” Yangyang says as they squeeze through the crowd, heading away from the dance floor and back towards the cool dark of the bar and their table. “I just tripped because it’s so crowded! Ten-ge, Kun-ge, come on! I’m an adult and I can take care of myself!”

“You’ll always be our baby,” Ten coos, petting at Yangyang’s hair as he grumbles. He has an arm around Yangyang’s waist as he guides them towards the bar. “Just accept it.”

Winwin laughs. “Also, only one of those things is true, didi.”

“What! You know I can take care of myself,” Yangyang whines. “I see all of you, like, once a week. What do you think I do the other six days?”

“Do you eat anything besides noodles and dry cereal when I don’t cook for you?”

Yangyang sticks his tongue out at Kun. It’s still pretty bright green, and Hendery laughs. It sets Lucas off giggling so hard he almost trips into Winwin. Thankfully they’ve made it through the throng of people and are closer to the bar, where the crowd is now much thinner and they can catch their breaths, take a break.

Ten wraps both his arms around Yangyang from behind, rocking them back and forth as Kun waves down a bartender. “Yangyang is my son and he’s never done anything wrong in his life.”

Xiaojun rolls his eyes. “That is absolutely not true. I was there last week when he forgot to put water in his microwave ramen and the whole thing started smoking.”

“Like you’re any better at cooking, Mr. Lao-Gan-Ma-on-everything,” Lucas grins, and Xiaojun wrinkles his nose and bats at him - but Xiaojun doesn’t deny it.

“Aiyah, can’t any of you behave?” Kun sighs as he leans back against the bar, crossing his legs at the ankle. “Hendery, I promise they’re like this all the time. Run while you still can.”

“Ah, Kun-ge, I promise I’m just as annoying,” Hendery laughs, brushing his sweat-damp bangs away from his face and giving them a self-deprecating smile. “You just don’t know me that well yet.”

Xiaojun knocks their shoulders together, and Hendery finds himself smiling for real as something warm fills his chest again.

Kun makes them all drink water - from the amused expression on Xiaojun’s face and how quickly he complies with Kun’s parental chiding, this is a regular occurrence. Hendery hadn’t realized how parched - and, ugh, how sweaty - he is until they’re away from the dance floor and out of the crush of people; it’s like all the water in his body has decided to be on the outside. As sweat.

Lucas laughs loudly when Hendery tells him this. “Bro, you are so funny. I can’t believe you were hanging out by yourself before Xiaojun found you!”

Yangyang tilts his head, looking at Hendery from his seat on a barstool that Winwin had commandeered for him. Despite his complaining, his cup of water is already mostly empty. “You know, Hendery, your face looks really familiar. Like, I feel like I’ve seen your face before. Are you a model or something?”

Hendery nearly chokes on his water. Oh god. “A model?”

“I just feel like I’ve seen your face in a book or a magazine,” Yangyang continues, sipping at the last of his water.

“Since when do you read books, Yangyang?” Lucas nudges Yangyang gently in the ribs with his elbow, quirking an eyebrow.

Winwin snorts. “Since when do you have books?”

Thankfully - for Hendery, at least - their argument devolves into a short-lived tussle, and by the time Lucas has Yangyang in a casual headlock and Winwin has ducked behind Ten, giggling, they’ve mostly lost the thread of the conversation. Or so he hopes.

“You do look sort of familiar, though, Yangyang’s right,” Kun says, swirling the last of the water in his cup. “Do you come to this club often?”

“No - um, I just have that kind of face, I guess.” Hendery shrugs, trying to school his expression into something that’s far more normal and chill than he feels. His heart feels rabbit-fast in his chest again, at the idea of being found out. Hendery plasters on a smile. “Besides - I just dyed my hair blonde. I would’ve had black hair if you’ve seen me before.”

Fuck. So much for trying not to say too much.

“Hmmmm,” Ten says, squinting at him in the dim light. Hendery feels the back of his neck heat. He feels like he can trust his new friends - he wants to be able to trust his new friends. But - well. It doesn’t hurt to be careful.

“Is anyone else hungry?” Winwin asks, once Yangyang and Lucas have been separated.

“Yes!” Lucas reacts immediately, gesturing with his cup - thankfully empty enough that it doesn’t splash.

“Uh, yes,” Yangyang says.

“Yah, you’re always ready to eat,” Xiaojun swats at Yangyang playfully.

Yangyang pouts. It’s clearly his default reaction to the teasing he gets as the youngest - Hendery can relate. It’s a good strategy. “I’m a growing boy. Also, it’s not my fault that Kun mentioned noodles.

“We can get siu yeh?” Xiaojun suggests, and Hendery feels himself brighten. It hadn’t been in his plan for tonight - Hendery didn’t think he would realistically get to everything he wanted to do out in the world by himself in one night - but the thought of getting to indulge in some hot, fresh street food or a night market makes some of his energy return.

Also - huh. The idea of food does make Hendery realize he’s worked up an appetite dancing.

“Yeah!” Hendery says, grinning. “Yeah, can we?”

“Nothing too sweet,” Lucas adds.

“And I don’t want to sit down to eat,” Ten crosses his arms. “We should just get a snack, then go to a different club - I wanna keep dancing.”

“Street food it is, then,” Kun claps, signaling that they’ve come to an agreement. He pauses, chuckling to himself. “I think that’s the fastest we’ve ever agreed to something together. Miracles do happen.”

“It’s because we have a seventh now,” Winwin tilts his head in Hendery’s direction - and it’s a small thing, but Hendery’s helpless to the broad smile that takes over his face.

“Aren’t there a few good carts on the way to that other club, Ten-ge?” Lucas asks.

Yangyang nearly bounces off his stool. “The one with the cheung fun?

“Yes, baby Yangyang, the one with the cheung fun,” Ten laughs. At Hendery’s raised eyebrows, he explains, “Didi always ends up choosing what we eat when we go out together. It’s ‘cause no one can resist this face.”

Ten cups Yangyang’s chin - Yangyang smiles angelically, before pretending to nip at Ten’s fingers when Ten squeezes his cheeks.

“More like because he’s spoiled,” Xiaojun snorts, watching as Ten and Yangyang paw at each other, giggling.

“You’re just jealous that you’re the middle child,” Winwin says, eyes knowing but amused. “You get all of the teasing and none of the perks of being the youngest.”

“Don’t remind me,” Xiaojun grumbles, to a chorus of laughter.

God, they’re just - they’re so much fun. Hendery’s cheeks hurt from how much he has been smiling and laughing all night. He’s not imagining it, right? How effortlessly and seamlessly they have welcomed him, how he fits into their group like he has known them for a lot longer than a couple of hours and a couple of drinks?

Hendery can’t get the thought out of his head as they return to their table to grab their jackets. They head out of the club, knocking into each other as they empty out onto the street, joking and laughing and tangling together. Xiaojun shoots him a raised-eyebrow look of concern - probably at how quiet Hendery is, or he’s picking up on Hendery’s mood - and Hendery just shakes his head, smiling.

He should just focus on enjoying this one night - right here, right now - and not think about the future, or the fact that this is his only chance he’ll probably have to savor this feeling. His one night of being normal, going out with a group of friends to dance and argue loudly on the street about the best flavor of ice cream (“Mint chocolate!” - “Ugh, no way.”) as they trip over each other, laughing.

Yeah. For now, he’ll just do his best to enjoy every minute.

“The walk to the next club isn’t far,” Ten tells them, leading the charge with his arm linked through Winwin’s. The rest of them follow behind - Kun keeping the peace between Lucas and Yangyang, who seem physically unable to stop play-fighting - with Xiaojun and Hendery last. “The food carts are along the way - you can’t miss ‘em.”

Hendery’s stomach gurgles - loud enough, apparently, for Xiaojun to hear.

“Wow, that hungry?” he teases, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket. It’s barely cool enough to need it - it’s still pretty warm on summer nights - and Hendery had privately mourned the loss of getting to ogle at Xiaojun’s arms. “What’re you going to get?”

Hendery shrugs; at this point, anything sounds good. And, well. He can count the number of times he’s had street food on one hand, probably. “I dunno - depends what there is! What about you?”

"Cheung fun does sound good," Xiaojun says, scratching through his hair as he thinks. In the soft light of the streetlamps and neon signs they pass, it's a lovely bubblegum pink. Hendery would be jealous, but it's a really good look on Xiaojun.

The royal advisors wouldn’t let him go pink… would they? Hmm. Something to think about if he survives getting home undiscovered.

"He’ll get anything with strong flavors," Lucas adds over his shoulder, waggling his eyebrows nonsensically. "Xiaojun always goes for the strong stuff."

"Or spicy," Kun says. “He hogs the chili oil.”

"Ah - I like spicy, but it mostly makes me cry," Hendery chuckles.

"Don't worry, we'll get a bunch of things to share," Ten waves a hand - and then scrunches his nose. "As long as it's not fruit."

They smell the food stalls before they see them, the heady scent of roasting meat and sauce and grease in the air as they turn the corner. True to Ten's word, there's a brightly-lit cluster of food stalls, fast-moving lines of fellow clubbers getting late-night snacks to soak up the alcohol. It’s a good thing that there’s not much of a wait; as soon as the smell wafts over them, Hendery’s stomach does a valiant attempt to try and gnaw at itself.

Who knew that dancing made you work up such an appetite?

Kun orders for all of them, in an attempt to keep the chaos at minimum and since they’re all going to be sharing anyway - which goes just about as well as expected, with Lucas and Ten and Yangyang chiming in with last-minute additions and interrupting him half the time. Xiaojun drags Hendery off to the side, away from their friends’ antics unfolding on the sidewalk like a comedy routine.

“I did warn you,” Xiaojun says, when they’re comfortably out of the flow of traffic, but close enough to still hear Winwin and Yangyang arguing about… sauce, or something.

“And I’ll say it again,” Hendery laughs, “Really, I don’t mind. I’m having a lot of fun. This is...not exactly how I expected my night to go, but…”

Hendery turns to look at them all; Winwin collapses into Lucas’s side with laughter, watching as Kun attempts - pretends? - to throttle Yangyang for all his interruptions.

“But?” Xiaojun prompts, and when Hendery glances back to meet his gaze, he finds Xiaojun’s eyes sparkling with amusement.

“But it’s even better,” Hendery says, unable to keep the smile off his face. He flushes a little at his own honesty; he’s rewarded, though, with Xiaojun’s ducked head and a bashful smile.

He really likes being able to make Xiaojun smile like that.

Hendery likes it even more when he feels Xiaojun’s hand against his own, their pinkies brushing together. It’s - it’s probably nothing, just an accidental glance of skin-on-skin since they’re standing so close together. But a little shiver of something runs down his spine and settles, warm, in his belly anyway.

The food comes quickly - which is a good thing, as far as Hendery is concerned - and they cluster together to share, as out of the way as they can be on the busy sidewalk. It’s amazing how many people are still out and about, club-hopping like they are or grabbing a midnight snack out with friends. And it’s amazing to think that this happens all the time, even when Hendery isn’t here to see it - there’s so much life to be had beyond the walls of the royal residence.

Hendery knew that, of course. But it’s another thing to really see it - and experience it for himself.

He shakes his head, trying to clear away the bittersweet thoughts. The night isn’t over yet.

And the food? It’s fucking delicious.

“Slow down, Xuxi,” Xiaojun elbows Lucas in the side - though because of the height difference, it’s more like Lucas’s hip. “Leave some for the rest of us to try.”

“Sorry,” Lucas giggles, sauce smeared by his lower lip. “You know drinking makes me munchy.”

They knock shoulders as they pass containers around, greasy noodles fried with beef and fresh steamed rolls of cheung fun dripping with dark sauce. Thank god Kun had the foresight to grab as many napkins as he did. It’s a little messy and a lot fun, and absolutely delicious. Hendery probably shouldn’t let himself eat as much as he does, if they’re going to keep dancing. But YOLO, and all that.

He’s really glad that he’s able to try a little bit of everything. Not just the food, though that too - but a true taste of what life is like for just Hendery, the life of a regular guy not pinned down by royal expectations. It’s been pretty awesome, to check so many things off his bucket list in one night, so to speak. He couldn’t have daydreamed a better night out.

Hendery glances at Xiaojun, who is being teasingly fussed over by Ten, and his face heats.

Well, there are still some bucket list items he wants to do.

“Did you like it?” Xiaojun asks, when they’ve started to walk again.

“Ahh, it was so, so good,” Hendery says, patting his belly. “I’m not sure how I’m going to dance with such a full stomach.”

“Amateur,” Winwinw smirks.

“Don’t listen to him, the between-club snack is very important,” Lucas says, throwing a long arm over Hendery’s shoulders as they walk side-by-side. “Just avoid jumping up and down too much.”

Ten rolls his eyes, though he’s already grinning. “Seriously, don’t. Xuxi’s speaking from experience.”

The second club is a lot like the first - though thankfully they don’t have to wait in the line very long before they’re ushered inside. It’s all thumping bass and moving bodies - the dance floor here is bigger, at least, but just as packed to Hendery’s unfamiliar eyes.

It’s also definitely a gay club. Hendery’s no stranger to what people get up to on the dance floor - they’ve just come from one club, after all - but damn. His cheeks heat a little just watching the dancers grind and writhe to the beat.

Hendery had seen how Ten danced at the last club; it’s maybe not a surprise that he likes this place. It looks… fun, but maybe the dangerous kind of fun. Still - now or never, right?

When he looks at Xiaojun, he spots a matching blush high on his godly cheekbones. “We don’t have to dance,” he tells Hendery, quiet enough not to attract the attention of their friends - though Ten and Winwin have already started to drag a faux-protesting Kun onto the dance floor.

And - well. Spending the rest of his night with Xiaojun is really what Hendery wants to do. He would be stupid not to take this one last chance being handed to him.

Hendery gives Xiaojun a smile. “No - I want to. With you. C’mon.”

They weave their way onto the packed dance floor; Xiaojun grabs his wrist so they can’t get separated, seeing as they have already lost the rest of their group to the crowd. Briefly, Hendery thinks he sees Ten and Yangyang - or maybe Winwin? - but with the vivid lights and moving bodies it’s really hard to tell. He almost trips when another dancer steps on his shoelaces, but Xiaojun’s there - tugging him back, laughing as they crash and stumble into each other.

And maybe it’s the touch of Xiaojun’s hand at his shoulder, or his cute giggle in Hendery’s ear, but Hendery finds himself turning in Xiaojun’s grip and settling his hands on Xiaojun’s hips again. Because he wants to, and maybe they don’t need to find their friends, as fun as their antics can be. It’s selfish, but with the amount of time he probably has left - well.

Hendery wants Xiaojun all to himself.

They seem to be on the same page; whatever he sees on Hendery’s face has Xiaojun giving him a shy, closed-lip smile, and he puts his arms around Hendery’s neck again. Yeah - just like that. Hendery takes a step closer as they start to move, fitting them together.

They’ve barely started dancing and Hendery’s heart has already kicked up its tempo under his ribs at the feel of Xiaojun’s narrow hips under his hands, the bashful smile he tries to hide by ducking his head. The way his eyes flutter in amusement when he meets Hendery’s gaze again. God.

And then the song changes, and they really start to move.

Hendery’s glad for the half-darkness and bright-colored stage lights that move over the crowd - because if he wasn’t blushing before, he sure is now. Something about the sensuous music, or the way everyone here seems to be dancing with - with intent has his blood thrumming. Even though they start at a reasonable distance, it’s barely one song before Xiaojun is pressed against him and they’re breathing each other’s air.Hendery can feel Xiaojun’s chest rise and fall against his, the tang of sweat in the air over the dance floor. It feels like they’re moving towards - something, a precipice Hendery can’t exactly name.

Dancing like Xiaojun definitely wasn’t like this before - but Hendery likes it.

His breath catches in his throat when Xiaojun looks up at him through his eyelashes, eyes dark and skin starting to gleam with sweat. Hendery wasn’t prepared for this; it wasn’t part of the plan. He’d planned for a night of dancing and meeting drunken strangers and fun; he didn’t plan for -

Even in his daydreams, he didn’t consider that he’d meet someone like Xiaojun. He’s never tripped so fast into a crush, but it sure feels like the ground is rushing up to meet him.

“Why me?” he asks, face heating. Thank fuck the music is loud enough that the words stay trapped between the two of them, for Xiaojun’s ears only. “Why did you - you would have smiled at anyone at the bar, and they would have followed you anywhere.”

Maybe it’s a little too honest, but Xiaojun smiles at him anyway. “But I didn’t. I was pushed into you, remember? Maybe it was fate.”

Hendery’s heart jumps to his throat and he opens his mouth. Closes it.

Fate.

“I… just like you. I could tell I would like you when you first met, when you made me laugh,” Xiaojun says. He tilts his head, his stupidly beautiful eyebrows furrowed. “Is that so hard to believe? That I just like you?”

Fuck, there’s more there than Hendery has the time to untangle - not in the least of which is that Xiaojun likes him, Hendery, just Hendery and not Hendery-the-prince. Maybe it is a little hard to believe, because Hendery certainly never thought he’d make friends on his one night out, let alone… whatever this is, or might be, with Xiaojun. Just getting to be himself for one night should have been enough - it was all he thought he was going to have. One night as just Hendery.

But the truth is that he is a prince, even if that’s not why Xiaojun likes him, and -

The whole thing is making his head spin a little. And Xiaojun’s still waiting for an answer. Maybe his brain is still short-circuiting from hearing the words I like you coming out of Xiaojun’s mouth.

We only just met, is the first response his brain supplies. And it’s not a lie - but Hendery can’t deny that for some inexplicable reason, he’s drawn to Xiaojun, too. It just feels like - like gravity.

“I like you too,” he says, when he manages to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It’s the right thing to say, from the smile that blooms across Xiaojun’s face.

“Well, then why don’t we…” Xiaojun uses his grip around Hendery’s neck to tug him even closer, closing the distance between them - when Hender didn’t think was very much, but oh. Xiaojun’s carding his fingers into the short blonde hairs at the nape of Hendery’s neck and slipping his thigh between Hendery’s as they dance, and - fuck. Well. Heat ripples down Hendery’s spine and his fingers flex unconsciously on Xiaojun’s waist.

“Let’s dance,” Xiaojun murmurs, his smile shifting into a smirk, and starts to grind.

Fuck, this is - this is more than Hendery would have asked for. Xiaojun’s thigh is muscular between his, corded in a way he can feel as they move, even through their jeans. And he’s warm, so warm everywhere they’re touching.

And oh, are they touching. Hendery slips his fingertips up the back of Xiaojun’s tee when his shirt starts to ride up, against the sweat-damp skin of his lower back. They had danced together at the first club, sure - but not just the two of them, not like this.

God, they must look like any other couple on the dance floor, moving in a grind that’s on its way to dirty. The bass thumps and some boy band croons gimme that, gimme that, gimme that over the speakers, seeming to speak directly into Hendery’s ears.

Even in a world where he was always a normal dude, Hendery thinks he wouldn’t be one to take someone home from a club - not unless he was serious about what he felt. But Xiaojun - with his pink hair and the sensual rock of his hips and his sense of humor and dark eyebrows and plump lips - Xiaojun would certainly make him think twice about it.

Hell, Hendery’s thinking about it right now. He glances down to Xiaojun’s mouth just as he licks his lips, and Hendery’s helpless to tracking the path of Xiaojun’s tongue. There’s no way Xiaojun doesn’t see it, too - they’re so close Hendery is almost cross-eyed looking at him. But when he meets Xiaojun’s gaze again he’s smiling, flushed pretty.

It’s not fair - no one should look this good, sweating in a club. And Hendery had watched Xiaojun down three jiaozi in a row not even half an hour ago; no one should still be this hot once you’ve eaten messy street food with them after midnight. But here Hendery is, unable to tear his gaze away from the handsome curve of Xiaojun’s cheekbones, the cupid’s bow of his upper lip.

Xiaojun grins. There’s no reason for him to lean closer so that he can talk directly into Hendery’s ear, but he does. Can he somehow tell that it makes Hendery’s stomach fill with butterflies? “Stop thinking so hard and just have fun.”

“I am,” Hendery chuckles, a little breathless. He shifts his hands on Xiaojun’s hips, skating his fingers up Xiaojun’s rubs and then down again, along his bare skin. He doesn’t miss the way Xiaojun shudders, with how close they’re pressed together; he can feel it. “Really, I am.”

Hendery’s got a beautiful boy in his arms and nothing to do but dance the night away; of course he’s enjoying himself.

So he does: they dance. He lets himself get lost in the music, in the many sensations of Xiaojun against him. Hendery wants to memorize it, all the little pieces: laughing when they’re almost knocked off-balance by another drunken couple, Xiaojun’s fingers against the bare skin at his nape. How their eyes meet when a song changes and they seamlessly adjust to the beat, no need for words.

Is this what people mean when they talk about chemistry? There’s an undeniable tug in Hendery’s belly, somewhere deep behind his navel, and it’s pointing him straight to the man in his arms.

Like he would let go of Xiaojun before he has to, anyway.

The music shifts through half a dozen songs, then more than Hendery keeps track of; what matters is Xiaojun, and dancing together. Xiaojun’s laugh tickles his ears when they spot Lucas and Ten, dancing with Ten as the smallest big spoon they’ve ever seen. And the way Xiaojun moves against him, and sings when the DJ puts on a song he knows by heart.

It’s only because there’s a lull between songs that Hendery hears it: something like a pulsing vibration, and a trilling of something that sounds like -

Xiaojun’s eyebrows quirk up. “Is that your phone again?”

Oh, fuck.

Fuck, fuck - what time is it? Surely he still has a little time at least; Hendery set three alarms just in case, to give himself plenty of time to get home safely -

It sucks having to unwind from Xiaojun’s embrace, but Hendery has to in order to get his phone out of his pocket. When he does, it’s like a bucket of water has been dumped over his head, his heart plummeting in his chest. He can’t help swearing aloud.

Because fuck, it’s not the second alarm that’s going off, it’s the third. Hendery never even heard - or felt - the second one, it must have been so loud in the club and he was so distracted by dancing. Shit, he - he has to go.

 

The anxious curling in his belly only gets worse when he looks up from his phone, into Xiaojun’s concerned face. God, this isn’t how he wanted this night to end - he never wanted this night to end, not if it means never seeing Xiaojun again.

Hendery knew this was going to be only one night, it was only ever going to be one night out. It just - it isn’t fair that he only gets a taste of being normal. But more than that - it isn’t fair for fate to put Xiaojun in his arms when there’s no chance of even -

No. He can’t even bring himself to think about it. It’s safer than letting himself go down the rabbit hole of what if.

“I have to go,” Hendery says, throat closing as he tries to get the words out. “I’m sorry, I - Xiaojun, this has been amazing. Really, you have no idea -”

“Oh,” Xiaojun’s concern melts into a small, wistful smile. “I - okay. Let me walk you out at least, it’s too loud on the dance floor to talk -”

“You don’t have to,” Hendery says, unable to keep his hands still, unsure if he wants to pull Xiaojun closer for another brief moment or keep him away, knowing how much he really doesn’t want to let go. “I really just - I have to go.”

Xiaojun grabs his wrist as Hendery turns, pushing blindly through the crowd of dancers in his mounting panic. God, how had he not noticed how late it was getting? Hendery knows the answer, of course. It’s trailing behind him, warm fingers around Hendery’s narrow wrist.

They tumble out onto the sidewalk and Hendery runs a hand through his hair, swallowing thickly as he looks up and down the street. He mostly remembers the way they walked here from the other club, right? He’s pretty sure he knows how to get back, but - but fuck. He has to go.

“Xiaojun, I -” There’s really no way to say it, no way to explain the tangle of emotions under his ribs or - or anything. Hendery tries to smile anyway. “Thank you for tonight. You have no idea what it means to me, to have fun and - and meet you.”

Fuck, Xiaojun’s hair is so, so pink under the neon lights, it’s unreal. He’s - beautiful, even with his eyebrows drawing down in confusion.

“I - I had a great time too. I’m glad I got pushed into you,” Xiaojun says, giving him a smile. He takes a hesitant step in Hendery’s direction. “But don’t talk like this is so final. We can meet up again, if -”

Hendery covers his face with his hands. “I can’t,” he exhales, fighting down the roiling emotions in his stomach. “I’m sorry, I can’t explain - and I’m sorry I can’t explain, I just -”

“Just what?” Xiaojun asks, softly. He reaches up and gently tugs Hendery’s hands away from his face.

I didn’t plan for this, Hendery thinks, meeting Xiaojun’s gaze. I didn’t plan for someone like you. Thinking and planning got him this far, but - but he’s at the end of his carefully crafted steps, and he doesn’t want to go, and he doesn’t want to say goodbye.

So Hendery lets himself act on instinct, for once.

He leans in, taking a half-step closer as he cups Xiaojun’s cheek with one hand. God, his skin is as soft as it looks, the smooth arch of Xiaojun’s cheekbone underneath Hendery’s thumb -

But that’s isn’t what Hendery focuses on, not with how Xiaojun gasps sweetly when their lips meet.

It’s tentative - a brush of lips that lingers when Xiaojun doesn’t immediately pull away, as Hendery feared. Xiaojun’s lips are plush, and Hendery feels the feather-soft flutter of Xiaojun’s eyelashes as his eyes close, too. He’s so warm - and he’s kissing back, mouth moving against Hendery’s, slow but tender and somehow very, very Xiaojun.

“Hendery,” Xiaojun murmurs, when they part with a soft sound. He’s flushed prettily - Hendery’s pretty sure they’re both blushing - but his eyes dart down to Hendery’s lips again, and then they’re both leaning in again, coming together.

It’s less hesitant this time, like a dam that’s been breached; Xiaojun’s hands lock on Hendery’s arms and Hendery sinks his fingers into Xiaojun’s pink hair, licking at the seam of his lower lip. Xiaojun tastes a little like beer but Hendery doesn’t care, not when his tongue is so hot curling against his own. It’s hot, and sweet, and perfect, and Hendery feels his heart cracking in his chest.

He doesn’t want this to stop. He doesn’t want to have to walk away. Hendery would draw this moment out forever, if he could.

But he’s out of time. He leaves one last, parting kiss on Xiaojun’s lips, stepping away before he can do anything even more stupid.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out, one more time - unable to look at Xiajoun’s face, afraid of what he’ll find there. So Hendery does the last thing that he actually wants to do: he runs.

And because life likes to play little tricks and the emotional turmoil isn’t enough, Hendery gets about twenty steps before he trips on his own shoelaces, barely keeping his feet underneath him. He’d laugh, under different circumstances; as it is, his left shoe has completely popped off his foot, and with panic clawing at his throat Hendery doesn’t feel much like laughing.

He thinks he hears Xiaojun calling his name, maybe, but he doesn’t want to find out. He doesn’t have the time to turn around and see the look on Xiaojun’s face. Hendery gets his balance again, wincing at the sensation of running in only one shoe, and keeps moving. He pushes every other though from his mind and focuses on putting one foot in front of the other.

He has to get home.

 

- 👟-

 

Getting back to the royal residence is mostly a blur.

Hendery runs until his lungs burn, until he’s put the club far behind him and he has to slow to a walk, panting. He barely sees the city street around him, wide-eyed and trying not to panic or check the time on his phone again. He’ll make it back. He has to make it back.

It’s a small miracle that he makes it back to the same subway stop, that a train pulls into the station just as he pushes through the turnstile. Hendery’s shirt sticks to his back with sweat, and he can feel it at his temples, skin damp. Still: no one looks at him twice as he collapses into a seat, putting his face in his hands as the train starts to move.

Thank god for that, at least. Not that Hendery wants to be alone with his thoughts - but the last thing he needs now is to be recognized.

He closes his eyes, trying to focus on the good things from tonight: strawberry daiquiris, meeting new friends, Lucas’s infectious laughter. Yangyang’s jokes and Xiaojun’s pink hair and greasy midnight snacks. Xiaojun’s biceps, and god-tier eyebrows. Xiaojun’s smile - Xiaojun’s lips, against his.

Xiaojun, Xiaojun, Xiaojun.

Well, Hendery got what he wanted, sort of: a night he’s never going to forget.

His thoughts are a whirlwind as he gets off the subway and half-jogs through the empty city streets, until the polished white stone of the royal residence comes into view. Between the late hour and the rush to get home he’s been running on pure adrenaline.

Maybe it’s not a surprise, then, that when he pushes open his bedroom door and collapses face-first into bed, the biggest thing he feels is a bone-deep exhaustion. He did it - he snuck out, had one night of fun, got home safe. Probably had a little too much to drink - definitely did more than enough dancing.

This is probably an adrenaline crash, Hendery thinks to himself blearily; he can’t even summon the energy to toe off his single shoe, or shuck his sweat-tacky sweatshirt. It’s not a surprise, given the emotional crash-course he’s been through tonight - not to mention rushing back home. And as much as a sizable chunk of Hendery’s brain wants to hyper-fixate on the events of the night, fighting against his exhaustion is like fighting gravity.

Hendery’s asleep within minutes.

 

- 👟-

 

Hendery’s not sure what pulls him out of his deep sleep, at first, but when he next wakes it’s light out, and there’s a gentle hand combing through his hair.

Oh.

Hendery grunts as he turns - fuck, had he slept fully-clothed last night? And in his shoes?

He wiggles his toes. Scratch that - single shoe. His other Jordan must be somewhere on the street, half a city away. Is that better or worse than the film coating the inside of his mouth, or the pounding headache behind his eyes?

Ugh.

A soft chuckle comes from his side, and when Hendery turns his head, he finds his eldest sister looking down at him, a small smile on her elegant features.

She quirks an eyebrow, and scratches her fingers gently through his hair again. “Blonde, huh?”

Well, fuck.

“Um,” Hendery says intelligently, trying to fight through the fog of hangover enough to come up with some sort of excuse - explanation? - for his hair. And current state of dress. He’d been so worried about getting back to the royal residence and sneaking inside that he hadn’t remembered to even change last night, apparently. Oops. “I, uh… wanted to try something different?”

“It’s different all right,” Crystal says, eyes sparkling with amusement. She has no room to talk - her hair is currently a deep ruby red, but it had been lavender before that. Would she believe that Hendery’s just following in her makeover footsteps, maybe? “And what about the outfit? Is there a new trend I don’t know about where you wear a club outfit to bed?”

Hendery’s eyes widen, and he purses his lips. “Would you, uh, believe it was for TikTok?”

“Not on your life,” Crystal laughs, and ruffles Hendery’s hair until it’s even more of a bird’s nest falling into his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell on you. As long as you were careful?”

“Duh, of course,” Hendery says, pouting. “I dyed my hair before I went out, you know, that was the point.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” Crystal gives him an indulgent smile. “Foolproof disguise. And... hangover aside, you had fun?”

Ugh, how is it that she can see right through him? It must be an older sister power. But…

“Yeah,” Hendery sighs, pushing into her hand again so that she’ll keep petting through his hair. Hey - he’s tired, and it feels nice. “Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”

And it’s true, even if it’s a major simplification of how Hendery’s night went. It wasn’t just fun, it was - amazing. Entirely unforgettable, and entirely heartbreaking. Because Hendery’s had a taste now, of what he’s always wanted and what he knows he can’t have. It’s not just the freedom to let loose and have fun, but the idea of a normal life where people don’t care what he does in a club, or who he dances with. Friends that like Hendery for him, rather than his crown.

From Crystal’s wry smile, it looks like she has some idea of what that’s like. Of course she does - she’s the crown princess, after all.

“Ah, didi,” Crystal murmurs, nudging him over so that she can swing her legs over and lay down next to him. He doesn’t hesitate to press his face into her neck, when her arms wrap around him, and he lets out a deep sigh. “You know you can tell me about it, right? There’s no getting around the fact that everyone’s going to know pretty soon that you’ve gone blonde, but you can tell me about the rest of it. It can be our secret.”

“You won’t tell Cathy or Cecelia?” Hendery mumbles into her hair, too tired to be skeptical.

“Not if you don’t want me to,” Crystal says kindly. Hendery whines until she puts a hand back in his hair, chuckling. “So. Boy problems, huh?”

At that, Hendery pulls back to frown at her, face heating. “I - how can you tell?”

“I’m the oldest sister,” Crystal rolls her eyes, grinning. “Call it intuition. Now, do you wanna tell me about it?”

And honestly? Hendery kind of does. Because telling someone about the night out and Xiaojun’s smile and his lost shoe is better than keeping it all trapped in his chest, aching so much it almost hurts to breathe.

So he squirms closer, swallows around the tightness in his throat, and starts to talk.

 

- 👟-

 

Hendery keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. But maybe… just maybe, he’s actually gotten away with it.

It’s hard not to suspect the crown princess in that regard - but true to her word, Crystal doesn’t say anything to their other sisters or their parents about Hendery’s escapades. One day passes, and then two - and Hendery starts to think that the plan really worked.

Oh, he gets an earful about the blonde hair, all right - not that it’s a big deal given that Crystal hair has gone through many a color transformation; apparently, no one wants Hendery playing with bleach. But aside from having an actual stylist give him a once-over and making sure his pre-planned outfits still work with blonde hair, that’s it.

So far, there’s been no news, no tabloid candids of Hendery at the club over the weekend, so his disguise seems to have actually worked. Hendery knows he’s lucky, and that blonde hair is a ploy that will only work once - at least as far as sneaking out goes.

Maybe he can dye his hair pink in a few weeks, once the magazines are over the sudden switch to blonde, so that’s something to look forward to - even if it makes his stomach twist uncomfortably. Pink reminds him of Xiaojun.

The public still hasn’t seen that he’s blonde; what will happen once the press publishes photos? Will Xiaojun recognize him? Will the rest of the guys?

Ugh. It doesn’t matter - Hendery can’t see them again, or get the chance to explain. Better to just put it out of his mind entirely.

And just because he ostensibly got away with his adventure doesn’t mean that Cathy and Cecelia aren’t immediately suspicious, especially when Crystal comes to Hendery’s defense. So he’s moping a little, even once he’s hydrated and over the worst of the hangover. He’s mourning a life he doesn’t have, or whatever. What would have been.

And he’s getting over a crush. Hendery’s allowed a day or two of pajamas and ice cream when he’s not sitting in meetings about foreign affairs and royal event planning.

So that’s what he’s doing three days later, sitting cross-legged on the sitting room couch in a kind-of ratty combo of old joggers and a pink sweatshirt, practically mummified in blankets and eating ice cream from the carton. It’s four in the afternoon and he’s finished for the day, thank god - what better excuse to change into something comfortable and put on anime? And consume his weight in dairy?

There’s a soft knock at the door, and when Hendery mumbles come in through a mouthful of mint-chocolate chip, Cathy’s face appears.

“Uh,” she says, taking in the scene before her: the ice cream, the blanket nest, the anime. She quirks an eyebrow. “You haven’t checked your phone, have you?”

A drip of melted ice cream lands on Hendery’s knuckles, and he licks it off. “No,” he says, casting about the blankets surrounding him. His phone must be on silent. “It’s around here somewhere, though. Why?”

“Just walked by your manager and she asked me to tell you, since you’re not replying - there’s someone here to see you?” Cathy says, giving him an obvious once-over. “Though I’m not sure you’re in any state to accept guests.”

“Well, who is it?” Hendery asks, trying - maybe in vain - to flatten down his hair.

“Dunno,” Cathy leans against the open doorway and sighs, examining her nails. “Some dude your age with pink hair and a single shoe? Does that sound familiar? I’m not sure how he even convinced security that he needed to see you -”

The spoon clatters to the floor with a bright noise as Hendery freezes. It can’t be.

“Oh, so you do know him,” Cathy smirks. Goddamnit. “Is there something you want to tell me, didi?”

“Absolutely not,” Hendery says, rolling up his sleeves and finding his phone so that he can use the front-facing camera as a mirror. Does he look as frumpy as he feels? Is it even possible that it could really be who Hendery hopes it is? Something fluttery and delicate has taken up residence in Hendery’s chest, and he’s having trouble reining it in. “Do I look, uh, okay? Do I have time to change?”

Cathy shrugs with one shoulder, still grinning like a cat. “You look fine. And nope - no time to change, because here he is!”

She pushes the door fully open and stands to the side, making a sweeping gesture to - to usher Xiaojun inside, fuck, it’s really him. He’s wearing glasses and a hoodie rather than his clubbing outfit, and he’s clutching Hendery’s lost Air Jordan like a lifeline as he looks around with wide eyes. But it’s Xiaojun, pink hair and all, here in the royal residence.

Oh my god.

“Oh my god,” Hendery says faintly, barely noticing the look of unrestrained glee on Cathy’s face as she gives Xiaojun a nudge further into the room and closes the door behind him with a quiet click. “Uh.”

It takes a second for Xiaojun to absorb the scene before him, and Hendery doesn’t blame him - he’d probably be just as shocked into silence if he didn’t actually live here. The sitting room is all wood paneling and warm colors and priceless wall hangings, even if the couch is a more modern addition. It’s not Hendery’s favorite room, but at least it isn’t as ostentatiously Rococo as some of the other rooms in the royal residence.

And, well - sitting in the center of the fancy sitting room is Hendery, swaddled in four pastel-colored fleece blankets with a half-melted tub of ice cream. Not exactly, uh. A princely impression.

But when Xiaojun meets his gaze, finally, none of that seems to matter. At least, Hendery doesn’t super care what he looks like, not when Xiaojun looks so casual and cute.

“Hi,” Xiaojun says faintly, fiddling with the untied laces of Hendery’s shoe. “Um. Prince Kunhang. Your highness.”

“Please don’t,” Hender scrubs a hand through his hair, hoping that his laugh doesn’t come out as hysterical as he feels. Xiaojun is here. Xiaojun knows who he is. “Don’t, uh, don’t do the your highness thing, please? It’s just me. Just Hendery.”

For some reason, that’s what makes Xiaojun look at him - really look at him. Hendery can feel the assessment in his gaze, like Xiaojun’s trying to match the scrubby, ice-cream-hogging Hendery on the couch with the Hendery he’d met over the weekend at the club, and comparing both of those with the formal headshots they print of the royal family every year in magazines.

“It really is you,” Xiaojun says softly, taking a few steps closer to perch, uncertain, on the couch next to Hendery. He tilts his head. “I wasn’t sure I believed it, you know. When we figured it out. That the blonde guy who kissed me was Prince Kunhang.”

Hendery flushes, heat rushing to his cheeks, and he giggles. “Um, surprise, I guess? I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you all the truth - I know it was lying by omission, but I, uh. I didn’t exactly have permission to go out? And it was nice not to be recognized as a prince for one night, and hang out with you guys as a normal dude. There was just… no way I could explain it, you know?”

“Yeah,” Xiaojun’s shoulders unwind as Hendery explains, and his gaze softens. Wow, does he look good with glasses. “Yeah, it makes sense. That’s what Kun and Ten suspected, once we figured out who you were for real.”

“How did you figure it out?” Hendery asks, unable to help his own curiosity.

Xiaojun grins and rolls his eyes. “Dumb luck, kind of. Yangyang recognized your Jordans and was able to look them up - and Lucas had seen a fashion tabloid thing about Prince Ku- your shoes for that charity soccer match a few weeks ago.”

“Ahh,” Hendery can’t help but laugh, “undone by my own shoe. Of course.”

“It got me here,” Xiaojun shrugs, and bites his lip - and after another moment of hesitation, holds out said sneaker for Hendery to take. “I can’t believe you left a thousand dollar shoe on the sidewalk, by the way.”

Hendery snorts, carefully taking back his shoe. “Would you believe I was panicking? I was so worried about getting back here, about not getting caught. Sneaking out went entirely according to plan, but then - ”

“...Then?” Xiaojun prompts, when Hendery goes quiet.

He looks up at Xiaojun through his bangs, playing with the aglets on his Jordans. “Well, then I met you. I wasn’t - I wasn’t expecting to really make friends, or have so much fun, or meet someone like you. I wasn’t lying when I said I had an amazing night. It sucked having to leave, and it sucked even more knowing I couldn’t tell you the truth, and I might not ever see you again.”

Just like before, Xiaojun’s slow-blossoming smile is like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. “Well, I’m here now.”

“Yeah,” Hendery swallows as his throat goes tight. There it is again - this strange magnetism, the fizzy feeling in his veins when their eyes meet. “Yeah, I’m - I’m really glad I lost my shoe, if it meant that you could find me again.”

“Me too,” Xiaojun murmurs. Behind his glasses, his eyes are warm and dark, half-lidded as he leans a little closer, into Hendery’s space. Hendery’s gaze flickers from Xiaojun’s eyes down to his pink mouth. His heart trips over itself in his chest when Xiaojun catches him and smirks.

God, is this really real? Is this really happening, and not some new daydream that Hendery’s cooked up since that night? It has to be real - Hendery can feel Xiaojun’s quiet exhale flutter over his skin as he leans closer, and -

“Kiss him!” A stage whisper-shout hisses from the mostly-closed doorway - and when Hendery’s head whips around, he spies all three of his sisters peeking through the gap, Crystal with her hand cupped around her mouth. “Kiss him already!”

“Oh my god,” he mutters - if Hendery wasn’t flushed already, he certainly is now. He resists the urge to put his face in his hands. Sisters.

“Is that… the crown princess?” Xiaojun says, sounding a little faint.

“Ignore them,” Hendery says, shooting a glare in the direction of the giggles coming from the doorway, and focusing on Xiaojun again. Because he doesn’t need his sisters to tell him what to do when he was already going to kiss Xiaojun, anyway.

So he does.

And this time - without the anxious rush of nerves in his stomach telling him to run home, or the aching feeling in his chest at the thought of getting to kiss Xiaojun only once - this time, Hendery melts.

His eyes flutter shut as Xiaojun sighs into the kiss, a soft sound that makes warmth curl in Hendery’s belly. Xiaojun’s lips are just as soft as he remembered, plush and giving as they move together. It’s so good and perfect and - and Hendery never wants to move, if it means being cuddled in a blanket nest and kissing Xiaojun. Even with Xiaojun’s glasses mashing against his cheek.

Third time’s the charm, right?

When they part again they’re alone - Crystal must have herded Cathy and Cecelia away to give them some privacy - and Xiaojun presses his face into Hendery’s neck, cheeks as pink as his hair.

“I can’t believe I just did that,” he mumbles into the folds of Hendery’s hoodie. “I kissed the prince.

“You kissed him before,” Hendery grins, cupping a hand around the nape of Xiaojun’s neck. “Twice. And he kissed you back.”

Xiaojun pulls away to frown at him for the teasing, but he can’t seem to stop the smile from taking over, either. Hendery gets it - there’s nothing compared to the lightness Hendery’s feeling right now, after days of thinking this could never happen.

“You know my friends - our friends - are going to give us shit about this, too,” Xiaojun says, and honestly? Just hearing the words our friends makes warmth spread through Hendery’s chest. If that’s what he has to live with to have Xiaojun smiling in his arms, it’s a price worth paying ten times over. “Don’t think that just because you’re a prince that they’re going to go easy on you.”

“Oh, of course not,” Hendery laughs. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

In fact - Hendery smiles down at Xiaojun, combing through his pink hair with reverent fingers. When Xiaojun pushes into the touch and chuckles, Hendery can feel it in his chest, where they’re pressed together.

Hendery doesn’t need to daydream, anymore. For the first time, everything he wants is right here.