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two idiots don't cancel each other out

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There are many problems that come with being friends with both Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, but He Xuan thinks number one on the list is this:

They’re both fucking stupid.

If they weren’t so stupid, He Xuan (probably) wouldn’t be in a hospital bed with a broken nose and a concussion right now. 

So how exactly did this happen?

Well.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

It starts when Xie Lian walks in through the door at half-past ten, his shoulders slumped and his eyelids drooping. He Xuan looks up, his brow raising delicately as he watches Xie Lian stomp over to his bed and plop down face-front. 

“I take it your date went well,” says He Xuan.

Xie Lian groans, one long, drawn-out syllable: “Hnnnnnnnnnngh.”

He Xuan nods at this, then lets his laptop slide off his lap and crosses his legs beneath him. He stares across the dorm at Xie Lian’s pathetic figure and heaves a sigh. “You know, Xie Lian,” he starts, “you could always just avoid all of this by saying no to the people who ask you out.”

“I can’t do that!” says Xie Lian, voice muffled through the thickness of his comforter. He turns his head, makeup smearing against the pearly white till he’s facing He Xuan. “Listen to me. This girl came up to me yesterday and told me about how I inspired her to push through the hardest course she was enrolled in. How was I supposed to say no when she asked me if I wanted to have dinner with her?”

“Her?” He Xuan says, squinting at him. “But I thought you’re…”

Another groan, this time shorter but with just as much oomf. “I know, okay? I know.”

Xie Lian is what most would call an it boy. Or whatever the hell that means. Everyone on campus is in love with him, which, well, okay. He Xuan can appreciate his friend’s attractiveness on an objective scale. Because Xie Lian is gorgeous. Like, drop-dead gorgeous. He Xuan literally hears these exact words every single day from Hua Cheng. 

And, because Xie Lian is so perfect and pretty, he gets asked out. 

A lot.

“Actually,” says He Xuan, reaching over for his computer and lifting the lid open. “I have a solution for you.”

Xie Lian immediately perks up. “Do you?”

He Xuan nods. “Yes, listen to me.” He refreshes the browser he’s currently on, spinning his screen around so that Xie Lian can look at it. “Behold, Archive of our Own.”

Xie Lian blinks. Then he leans forward with great interest and says, “What is it?”

“A collection of stories from small, online authors who post works about fictional or non-fictional characters,” says He Xuan without missing a beat. “Otherwise known as fanfiction.”

Xie Lian nods slowly, as if sinking this all in. “I see,” he says. Then his eyebrows furrow. “Your solution is...fanfiction?”

“Obviously not,” says He Xuan, “but perhaps you can learn a bit from it. Do you know what fake dating is?”

“Fake...dating?”

“Correct,” He Xuan nods. “It’s a popular trope. Two people agree to fake-date for some stupid reason, and then often end up falling in—”

“He Xuan,” Xie Lian interrupts, his eyes still carefully trained on the screen. His cheeks are dusted pink, which really should be the first sign of trouble. “Are you, um—are you reading, ah…”

“What?” He Xuan spins his laptop around and peers down at it. Their tongues battled for dominance, reads his screen, as they scrambled to peel each other’s clothes off and—

He slams it closed and coughs violently. 

“Anyways,” he says, and Xie Lian’s responding expression is enough for the unspoken agreement between them to never bring this up again. “My point is, you should just pretend to date someone to get people to stop asking you out.”

“Oh,” says Xie Lian, and then he falls silent for a few long seconds. He Xuan watches him, already prepared for what he’s about to be asked. 

It’s simple. Xie Lian will go, ‘But who should I fake-date?’ and He Xuan will pretend to think about it. Then he’ll say, ‘Maybe you could fake-date Hua Cheng,’ and once the two go through the whole fifty-thousand-word-slow-burn-friends-to-lovers thing, He Xuan will finally get some peace and fucking quiet. 

He Xuan first met Xie Lian two years ago, when the two had become roommates and were forced to spend every waking moment together. Naturally, they became friends. Close friends. Best friends, maybe, but He Xuan would never admit that out loud. And all was well. 

Until Xie Lian’s childhood friend and neighbor moved to the city to pursue an education.

“San Lang is a wonderful person,” Xie Lian had told him a few days before Hua Cheng’s arrival, “the two of us grew up together! He was, ah, a little upset when I told him I’m already living with someone, but he’s got a dorm to himself on-campus so it isn’t too bad.”

This is what He Xuan had been expecting:

Someone nice. Someone small, probably. Someone who matched Xie Lian’s energy: cute, quirky, unnecessarily kind. Someone who was probably not very attractive, because He Xuan has never in his life witnessed two good-looking best friends. But, you know, a nice guy overall. Someone He Xuan could potentially befriend himself.

This is what He Xuan ended up getting:

A whiny, disgustingly-in-love pain in the ass. 

The moment He Xuan set his eyes on Hua Cheng for the first time, he immediately felt a headache coming. Call it fate, destiny, whatever bullshit you want, but the only thing that ran through He Xuan’s mind in that moment was this: run. Run as fast as you fucking can. Get out of there. Do you see the way he’s looking at Xie Lian? Do you see the way he’s hanging off of him like some kind of fucking chimpanzee? His legs look like they belong to a chimpanzee. Save yourself.

And, since the universe hates him, Xie Lian was absolutely not any better at all. 

Cue an entire year of third-wheeling, being forced to pay for group dinners, cringing internally at the blatant fucking flirting the two would do right in front of He Xuan’s poor, innocent little eyes, etcetera etcetera etcetera. 

And, fuck it. He Xuan reads fanfiction. Sue him. Fanfiction isn’t real life his ass. Xie Lian and Hua Cheng are the tropiest idiots-to-lovers he’s ever seen in his life. If fake dating can push them in the right direction, He Xuan is all for it. He is sick and fucking tired of having to deal with the two of them and their stupid antics. Did he promise to never involve himself in their relationship? Maybe. Is Hua Cheng the biggest coward on the planet who won’t confess to a man who would take fourteen-and-a-half bullets for him? Definitely. 

And so.

“But who should I fake-date?” says Xie Lian now, and when He Xuan looks up at him, he finds his friend deeply in thought, as if running through a mental list of every single person he knows. 

Bingo. He Xuan really does know him too well. 

Here comes the part where he suggests Hua Cheng. “Maybe you should fake-date—”

“Oh!” Xie Lian says, practically jumping up from his spot on the bed and turning to face He Xuan. His eyes are wide and excited, like he’s just had the greatest epiphany of a lifetime. “I know!”

Oh. Good, then. Maybe Xie Lian does have a functioning brain after all. 

“Yes,” He Xuan nods. “I was thinking the same.”

“You!” Xie Lian exclaims, and He Xuan freezes right in his tracks. “I should fake-date you!”

Silence.

“What?”

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“Please, He Xuan?”

“No.”

“But He Xuan—”

“No.”

“Please, Xuanxuan? A-Xuan? Xuan-didi?”

“Oh, fuck no. Absolutely not.”

He Xuan whips around, so fast that Xie Lian ends up barging right into him in the middle of the sidewalk. After recovering, Xie Lian doesn’t move away, instead looking right up into He Xuan’s eyes and pouting. 

He Xuan deadpans him a stare. “Don’t even try. I’m not Hua Cheng.”

Immediately, Xie Lian’s face relaxes, and he takes a step back. “But this was your idea! Besides, who else would I fake-date?”

“Hua Cheng,” says He Xuan immediately. 

Xie Lian’s brows furrow atop his forehead. “San Lang? Why would I fake-date San Lang?”

“You think he won’t agree?” He Xuan snaps, taking a step forward and looking down at Xie Lian. Xie Lian blinks, confusion painted into his delicate features. “I’ll tell you right now he will agree in a heartbeat. You won’t even have to argue with him to get what you want, like you have to do with me.”

“So you’re saying you will end up agreeing, basically,” says Xie Lian.

He Xuan clicks his tongue and reaches out to flick Xie Lian’s nose. “Is that the only thing you got from all of that? Really?”

“Hmm,” says Xie Lian. He jumps closer and grabs onto He Xuan’s shoulders, whirling him around and pushing him to walk straight ahead. “Why don’t we eat out for dinner today? My treat. You can order anything you want, no budget.”

And. Well. 

“Fine,” says He Xuan. “Only if we go to that new noodle place down the street.”

So they go to the new noodle place down the street, and He Xuan orders four appetizers and three bowls of lo mein. Xie Lian orders a bowl for himself, but his is considerably smaller and he eats much more slowly. He Xuan doesn’t pay much mind to him, slurping away and licking his chopsticks clean after every bite. 

“What if,” Xie Lian starts after swallowing a mouthful of fried egg, “I treat you to dinner once a week.”

He Xuan glances up at him. “Continue.”

Xie Lian purses his lips, eyes narrowing. “Twice a week.”

“Three times and you have a deal.”

“Three times with a budget on two of them.”

“One.”

Xie Lian slumps over the table, and He Xuan knows he’s won. 

“After all,” he says matter-of-factly, pointing his red-stained chopsticks up at Xie Lian’s face, “this isn’t just any typical favor you’re asking of me. You’re asking me to fake-date you. In front of Hua Cheng.”

“What’s wrong with San Lang?” Xie Lian asks, twisting his lips into a frown. 

Everything, He Xuan thinks. Everything is wrong with San Lang. He almost wants to scoff, but he stops himself. “Nothing. Nothing is wrong with San Lang. San Lang is the most perfect human being on the planet. Whatever.”

“Oh,” says Xie Lian, “speaking of San Lang, you can’t tell him.”

A pause. “Excuse me?”

“I’m serious!” says Xie Lian. He leans over the table, eyes glinting under the dim lighting of the restaurant. “You can’t tell him.”

“And why the hell not?”

“Because,” says Xie Lian, and then he stops. His face does a...thing. A weird thing. It twists and scrunches up and his ears burn red. He Xuan watches, completely unamused, and waits. “Okay. Well. I’m going to tell you a secret.”

“Go on.”

“I’m trying,” says Xie Lian. He takes a breath. And then another. And then another. “Um. So like. It’s like this, um—”

“Spit it out, Xie Lian.”

“I think I like San Lang,” Xie Lian blurts out. “Like. Like as more than a friend. Like that kind of like.”

He Xuan stares at him. 

“You can’t tell anyone!” Xie Lian quickly goes on. He throws his hands in front of his chest and rapidly shakes them. “And you absolutely cannot tell San Lang! I know that the two of you are really close, but I’m begging you, He Xuan, A-Xuan, Xuan-didi—”

“Hold on,” says He Xuan, raising his hand, palm faced toward Xie Lian. “I’m confused. You said you were going to tell me a secret. What’s the secret?”

Xie Lian blinks. “What? I—”

“First of all,” says He Xuan, voice not wavering in the slightest, “I don’t know what gave you the impression that Hua Cheng and I are close, but we’re not.” He closes his eyes and heaves a sigh, wondering belatedly why they didn’t bother ordering any alcohol. “Secondly, stop calling me those names.”

Xie Lian frowns. “But I thought they were cute.”

“Thirdly,” says He Xuan, ignoring this, “I think it’s really funny how you think I didn’t know that you’re in love with Hua Cheng.”

Xie Lian’s cheeks burn the color of blood. “In love with—I’m not—He Xuan—”

“Also,” says He Xuan, “I still don’t get it. How does this have anything to do with us not telling Hua Cheng?”

“Can you please at least pretend like you’re surprised,” Xie Lian groans, burying his flushed face into his hands and rapidly shaking his head. “This is humiliating for me. Do you realize how hard it was for me to tell you that?”

“Was it?” He Xuan drawls. “That’s cute. Why can’t we tell Hua Cheng?”

“Because I like him!” Xie Lian exclaims. “And he doesn’t. Like me. Like that.”

Oh fucking hell. 

“I need a drink,” He Xuan mutters. “Stop talking. You’re not allowed to say anything more on this subject till I get a drink. You’re paying, right? Excellent. I’m getting two. No, don’t look at me like that. You don’t get one. The last time you got drunk I ended up with your puke all over my jeans.”

After He Xuan successfully gets his drinks, he swirls the tip of his finger over the rim of one of the glasses and gestures for Xie Lian to continue. 

Xie Lian breaks his longing stare-off with the beer and says, “As I was saying, San Lang doesn’t have romantic feelings for me. All of this can be, um, practice.”

“Practice,” He Xuan repeats. “You know, this is why I told you to just fake-date Hua Cheng. You’re in love with him. Give yourself a taste of the forbidden fruit.”

“A taste of the— no,” says Xie Lian. “I don’t think that euphemism works in this particular context.”

“That’s a big word. Proud of you.”

“Thank you,” says Xie Lian. “But, anyways, my point is that you can’t tell San Lang about this. Who knows what he’ll say if he finds out?”

Well, it doesn’t really matter to He Xuan whether or not Hua Cheng finds out. He, after all, loses in both cases. If Hua Cheng doesn’t know, He Xuan will die on an account of dating Xie Lian. If Hua Cheng does know, He Xuan will still die on an account of dating Xie Lian. Hua Cheng will murder him either way, so. It doesn’t really matter.

“Whatever,” he says, watching as Xie Lian’s face sparks with a mixture of joy and relief. “Whatever. Fine. I won’t tell your San Lang. Promise.”

And then He Xuan grabs his drink and chugs it in one go. Fucking hell.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

The vibrant rays of the sun make He Xuan squint when he steps out of the dingy lecture hall building, holding an arm up to shield his eyes. Transitioning from the industrialized coolness of the air conditioning to the naturally blistering heat has him spinning on his heel to retreat back inside. Guess he’ll have to take the long way back to the dorms and risk bumping into someone who’d make his pounding headache even worse. 

It seems he’s not the only one trying to escape the heat, since the hallways are so crowded that every two steps someone knocks into his shoulder. 

Only a few people stutter apologies when he glares at them. 

Typical.

“He Xuan!” a voice calls from behind him.

He pauses, glancing over his shoulder. It’s Xie Lian, because who the fuck else would He Xuan stop for, and he’s jogging toward him with his hand raised in a wave and a smile gracing his lips. The crowd practically parts for him like he’s a god bathed in divine light.

Again, typical.

When he’s finally caught up with He Xuan, he nudges his arm affectionately. “Heading back to the dorms? I’ll come with you.”

He Xuan only grunts and keeps walking. 

“Class was that bad, huh?” Xie Lian laughs, light and pleasant, making those within hearing distance blush a bright red. He Xuan’s head throbs. “Need pain medicine? I have some in my bag.”

“Please.” 

They stop again as Xie Lian shuffles through his bottomless pit of a bag, seemingly capable of holding nearly anything one desired. Seriously. That isn’t even an exaggeration. One time he pulled out a whole pencil sharpener—an electric one that needed to be plugged into a socket and everything.

“I know it’s in here,” Xie Lian murmurs, practically sticking his head in the bag. He Xuan crosses his arms and glances boredly around them.

That’s when he spots him.

A boy is standing at the end of the hallway, holding a pink box covered in hearts and an envelope perched on top. He’s clearly headed their way, cheeks all rosey and a determined set in his eyebrows. 

It’s a sight more revolting than Hua Cheng’s face. 

Snatching Xie Lian by the wrist, He Xuan darts around the corner despite the other’s confused protests. He hears the hurried pattering of footsteps follow behind them, so he yanks open the nearest door and shoves the both of them inside, slamming it shut before turning around.

As luck may have it, the other side does not have the classroom he’d been hoping for, but instead a very tightly packed janitor’s closet. He Xuan has to balance his hands on both sides of Xie Lian’s head to keep a least a few centimeters of distance between them, their bodies pressing against each other in more places than either of them will ever be comfortable with. 

“Uh, He Xuan? Why are we in here?” Xie Lian asks, slightly breathless from their hasty escape. 

“Another one of your admirers was coming,” He Xuan huffs back. And I didn’t want to see you have to fake a smile again. 

“Ah.” Xie Lian’s voice softens, “Thank you.”

He Xuan rolls his eyes. “No problem. Do you feel a light switch anywhere?” 

Xie Lian raises his hands, accidentally brushing against He Xuan’s sides. He flinches.

“Sorry!” Xie Lian whispers, “I know you’re ticklish there.”

He Xuan scoffs. “I’m not ticklish.” 

“I have evidence to prove otherwise.” Xie Lian pokes again, and He Xuan squeaks . Like a mouse. What the fuck.

“If I kill you right now they’d never find your body.”

“Yes they would,” says Xie Lian. “It’s not like we’re a hundred feet underground, or like, underwater. Plus, they’d know it was you.”

“Not if I use an icicle,” says He Xuan immediately. “If I use an icicle it would just melt. And then there would be no evidence of a murder weapon.”

Xie Lian stares up at him, amused. “You’ve thought about this.”

“Of course I’ve thought about this,” He Xuan scoffs. “I hang around with Hua Cheng.”

This makes Xie Lian smile, a soft little thing. It’s disgusting, actually, and it happens every single time He Xuan even so much as mentions the fire hydrant. 

“Do you think they’re gone?” Xie Lian whispers a few moments later. 

He Xuan grunts. “Yeah, probably. Lemme check.”

He peeks outside, and after making sure the coast is clear, he kicks backwards to open the door, once again having his vision impaired by the dramatic switch from darkness to light. It’s because of this that he doesn’t notice the broom laying on the floor near his foot, the very same broom that causes him to be sent tripping backwards right onto the floor, Xie Lian tumbling right on top of him. 

“Oof!” Xie Lian winces, placing a hand on He Xuan’s chest to steady himself. Meanwhile, He Xuan thinks he might’ve cracked his skull open from the sheer force in which his head hits the tile. 

Ah, death at last. Please free him from his fleshy prison. 

“Gege?” 

Oh, did he go straight to hell? Cause Satan seems to sound a lot like—

“San Lang?” 

Yeah. Him. The devil incarnate. 

Hua Cheng seems to have frozen only a few feet away from them, face deathly pale and eyebrows raised so high they disappear into his hairline. He looks like he just barged in on his lover having an affair. And. Well.

Oh fuck. This looks bad, doesn't it? Like, he knows he agreed to fake date Xie Lian and everything, and he also knows that by doing so he’s risking Hua Cheng buying a voodoo doll to torment him with some weird witchcraft shit because of it, but to actually see the heartbreak in real time? 

He might have bit off a little more than he can chew. And He Xuan can chew anything

“Gege? What’s going on?”

Xie Lian has gone bright red, his eyes flickering back and forth between He Xuan, who he’s still laying on, and Hua Cheng, who might have gone into actual shock.

“San Lang! We’re, we...uh, this is—”

He Xuan takes a deep breath, sends a prayer to the dead hermit crab he had when he was twelve, and says, “Xie Lian and I are dating.” 

The results are absolutely marvelous.

He Xuan has never in his life managed to make Hua Cheng speechless, but if this is what it’s like, he might have to try harder next time. Hua Cheng’s jaw drops. Like it actually fucking drops. And he stares somewhere above He Xuan’s face—probably at Xie Lian—before looking down and snapping his mouth shut. 

“Sorry,” he starts, another word that He Xuan has never heard come out of his mouth, “did I hear that correctly?”

“Yeah,” says He Xuan, because he’s basically already resigned to his death at this point. So it doesn’t really matter what he says now. “Xie Lian and I are dating.”

The silence that follows is a palpable thing. Hua Cheng turns to Xie Lian. “Gege?”

“Ah,” Xie Lian rubs the back of his head, finally having the decency to sit up. Though it might be worse, considering how he’s now practically straddling He Xuan’s lap. “It’s as you see.” 

The silence that stretches out around them is deafening. He Xuan’s eyebrow ticks when he feels Xie Lian move on top of him, his knee coming to jam right into his thigh. He shoots him a dirty look, which Xie Lian returns with an apologetic smile. 

“Sorry,” he says, “um. I’ll get up.”

“You do that,” He Xuan grunts, gingerly accepting the hand being held out to him. Xie Lian pulls him up, and the two stand side by side as they dust off the seats of their trousers. He Xuan coughs before he looks up, right into Hua Cheng’s eye—the eye that is currently trained directly back on him.

Then Hua Cheng marches straight up to He Xuan and catches onto the front of his shirt. He pulls him up through the single centimeter of distance between them. “You,” he says in a tone that is obviously kinder than it should be. He Xuan silently thanks Xie Lian’s presence for that. “Come with me.” He looks to Xie Lian and smiles sickly sweet, “Sorry, gege, I’ll be stealing him for a moment.”

Xie Lian lets his shoulders drop, defeated. “Go ahead, San Lang,” he says, because he hates He Xuan. Despises him, actually. Fuck. Fuck. 

Three minutes later, Hua Cheng has He Xuan backed against a wall around a nearby bend. Not in a sexy way, of course, thank the fucking lord for that.

From the looks of it, there’s no one else around and—nope, no security cameras either. Lovely. He won’t ask why Hua Cheng had this location so readily prepared. 

They stare at each other—Hua Cheng’s gaze somehow even more menacing with a single eye than if he had two. He Xuan keeps the neutral, bored expression he’s perfected down to a tee, even while he’s mentally writing his will in which he leaves nothing behind on an account of the fact that he fucking hates everyone.

Hua Cheng puts a hand on his shoulder. “You have ten seconds to explain yourself.”

“What else is there to explain?” says He Xuan, and Hua Cheng squeezes so hard he thinks he hears something crack. 

A deep breath. Okay then. No playing dumb.

Hua Cheng’s eye narrows on him. “Nine.”

“Me and Xie Lian started dating—”

“Eight.”

“—a few days ago.” 

He thinks the responding grip dislocates his shoulder. “Seven.”

“Four days ago! It was four.”

“Six.”

“I’ve liked him for two months now.” 

“Five.”

He Xuan inwardly cringes. “And he said he likes me too?”

God, Xie Lian. I’m putting my life on the line for you here, do you understand? Do you see the monster you’ve created?

Hua Cheng ceases his countdown to ask, “Gege really said that?” 

“Is there a reason for me to lie?” he responds, omitting the fact that there very much is a reason to lie, and that reason is that Xie Lian is really fucking stupid. 

Hua Cheng’s whole body seems to droop, his face twisting in an expression that almost has He Xuan feeling something as outrageous as pity. 

“But I thought…” Hua Cheng shakes his head. Any visible weakness is gone as soon as it comes. He jabs his finger into He Xuan’s chest. “You know I love him, have loved him for eight years now. You’ve got a lot of fucking nerve.” 

“It’s not like we’re friends,” He Xuan quips. “So why should I care?” 

Hua Cheng’s expression twists, and then he’s laughing maniacally. He laughs so hard he bends over and clutches his side, gasping for breath. It’s disturbing and strikes more fear into He Xuan’s heart than if Hua Cheng had threatened to tear off his limbs and beat him bloody with them.

“You’re right,” he snorts, finally pulling himself upright again. There’s a lazy smirk on his face, but his eye is blown wide open, pupil dilated. The contrast is so startling that He Xuan briefly considers calling the nearest psych ward, because holy shit Hua Cheng has finally snapped. All it took was Xie Lian getting hitched. “We aren’t friends. We never have been, and we never will be. I don’t give a rat’s ass about you at all, so why should you care either? My mistake.” 

Then he steps back and twists on his heel, stupid boots jingling as he saunters away.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“We need, like, boundaries.”

Xie Lian looks over from where he’s currently bent over himself on the floor, his legs pointed over and behind his head.

He Xuan squints at him. “What are you doing?”

“The plow pose,” Xie Lian wheezes out. 

“You’re literally bent in half.”

“That’s the point,” says Xie Lian, and then he gracefully kicks his legs up till he’s lying with his chest facing the ceiling. “I recently got into yoga. You should give it a try.”

“I am not doing whatever the hell that was,” says He Xuan. “Never in a million years. You can’t make me.”

“You don’t have to start with the plow,” says Xie Lian, hoisting himself up to his feet and walking over to where He Xuan is sitting. He grabs his hand and pulls him up. “We can start simple. Have you ever heard of the tree?”

“Of course I’ve heard of a tree,” says He Xuan. “It’s how we get oxygen and shit. Do you think I’m stupid enough to fail freshman year biology?”

“Not that kind of tree,” says Xie Lian, shaking his head. There’s a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Just follow what I do, okay? And what boundaries are you talking about?”

He Xuan eyes Xie Lian’s figure, lining up next to him and sticking his foot up to rest on his inner thigh like some stupid-looking flamingo. “We’re pretending to date. We should be setting some boundaries. Like how far we have to go with each other in public.” He shudders. “God. I can’t believe I just said that.”

“Why?” Xie Lian chirps. “Do the people in the fanfictions you read say that too?”

“Yeah,” He Xuan says. “They do, actually.”

“It makes sense,” says Xie Lian, perfectly balanced on his one foot. He Xuan is much less successful, wobbling over and catching onto the backrest of a nearby chair to stop himself from tumbling onto the floor. “So what kinds of boundaries? Do you think we should kiss?”

“No,” says He Xuan immediately. “Absolutely not.”

Xie Lian hums. “Oh, good,” he says. “I didn’t really want to do that with you. No offense, Xuanxuan.”

“None taken. And don’t call me that.”

“Okay, Xuanxuan. What about holding hands?”

He Xuan thinks about this; considers this. “Yeah okay,” he says. “That’s tame enough. You already hold my hand way too fucking much, anyways.”

“Are you uncomfortable with it?” Xie Lian asks, turning over to look at him while still somehow retaining that perfect posture of his. “I can stop if you’d like me to.”

“Do whatever you want,” He Xuan mutters, and Xie Lian smiles. 

“We’ll have to go on dates,” he says. “I’ll post pictures to my Instagram.”

He Xuan nods. “That’s smart,” he says. “That way, people will know you’re taken. Literally every single person in this school is following you, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Hmm,” says Xie Lian. “I don’t really understand that.”

“Understand what?”

“Why everyone likes me so much.” 

If those words came out of literally anyone else’s mouth (see: Hua Cheng,) they would sound incredibly narcissistic and egotistical. But this is Xie Lian, and if He Xuan knows anything about Xie Lian, it’s that he’s never cared for the opinions of others, it’s just that everyone seems to regard him in an extremely positive light, and there’s nothing he can do about it. 

“I don’t understand it either,” says He Xuan mildly. “They’re brainwashed. All of them.”

Xie Lian playfully swats his shoulder. 

“He Xuan,” he says, “would you like to go on a date with me?”

He Xuan pretends to think about it. Then, “I guess I’ll have to settle for you, so sure.”

Xie Lian laughs. He Xuan begins a countdown for his inevitable murder. Death by Hua Cheng, baby.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“So,” says Hua Cheng, lounging back in his seat and making a big show of scrolling through his phone. “You guys had fun yesterday.”

He turns his phone around to display the screen, Xie Lian’s Instagram page open at the ready. There’s a selfie positioned front and center: Xie Lian is holding the camera up to his face in front of a shark tank, and He Xuan is busy peering through the glass. The caption reads Of all the fish in the sea, I’m glad you swam to me, with twelve red heart emojis following directly after. 

(The quote was the result of a quick ten minute Pinterest deep-dive, but no one has to know that.)

“Oh!” says Xie Lian, looking over from where he’s sat next to He Xuan at the booth. It’s largely unsettling, considering how usually it’s Xie Lian and Hua Cheng who share a side with He Xuan alone across from them.  “Yes,” Xie Lian continues, “um, He Xuan and I went on a…”

He looks to He Xuan for help, and honestly? Fuck him. Fuck him to the moon and back.

“On a date,” He Xuan finishes for him, not an ounce of emotion in his voice. 

“To the aquarium!” Xie Lian continues quickly. “San Lang, you know how much He Xuan loves fish.”

This conversation could definitely do without the unnecessary clarification, He Xuan thinks, but Hua Cheng is going to look murderous either way, so whatever. 

“I see,” says Hua Cheng, turning his phone off with a sharp click. That should be enough of a cue for Xie Lian to change the subject, but instead he picks the shovel back up and continues digging He Xuan’s grave. 

“We actually alternate choosing the places, the aquarium was He Xuan’s pick. I’m having a bit of trouble deciding where we should go next,” Xie Lian ponders, holding his chin. Then his face lights up and he taps his fist into his palm. “Oh! San Lang, do you have any suggestions for our next date?” 

Hua Cheng looks like he wants to suggest taking He Xuan to the highest building and pushing him off, but of course his beloved gege asked for his help, so his answer must at least appear innocent. “Why not a cat café?” 

Xie Lian furrows his brow. “I thought He Xuan is allergic to cats?”

“No he’s not.”

Xie Lian turns to look at him, head tilted inquisitively. From behind him, Hua Cheng holds up his thumb and slowly drags it across his neck.

“I’m not,” says He Xuan, even though he very much is . But somehow his face puffing up and throat swelling so much he can’t breathe seems a lot more appealing than whatever Hua Cheng has in mind if he were to disagree.

“A cat café it is, then!” Xie Lian smiles, clapping his hands together. “Thank you, San Lang!”

“No problem, gege,” he hums, his lips twitching up at the corners when he continues, “I hope the two of you have a wonderful time together.” 

He Xuan sighs, resigned to his fate, and makes a mental note to bring his epipen. 

 

✧✧✧  

 

The date is fine. Fake date. Whatever. He Xuan just stays the fuck away from every single furry creature in sight, mentally cursing Hua Cheng out every time Xie Lian shoots him a questioning look. This is why he prefers sea creatures. This is exactly why.

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” is the brilliant excuse he manages to come up with. 

“I believe you,” says Xie Lian, because he is an angel. 

What’s not fine is what happens after the two get home, when Xie Lian is slipping his coat off of his shoulders and draping it over the backrest of his desk chair. He Xuan slides into his regular spot on his bed, and just as he’s about to reach for his laptop to get some good quality reading in for the night, he notices that Xie Lian still hasn’t moved. 

He Xuan blinks. “Xie Lian?”

“What? Oh,” says Xie Lian, evidently snapping out of whatever trance he had been in. He looks over his shoulder and smiles. “Sorry, He Xuan. Did you need something?”

“Are you…” A pause. How To Ask Your Friend And Roommate About What’s Bothering Them. “...okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Xie Lian, waving a hand out in front of his chest. “I’m fine. I think my pajamas are in the laundry, though—mind if I borrow yours?”

“Go ahead,” He Xuan nods, tilting his head over in the direction of his cupboard. 

The next time he looks up, Xie Lian is standing in the middle of the room. He Xuan peers at him closely, nodding in approval at the plain t-shirt and shorts he’s chosen for the night. They’re a bit big on his figure, but whatever. It isn’t like anyone else is going to see. Xie Lian’s arms hang by his sides and his eyes are downcast, trailing onto the floor. 

He Xuan’s never really been very good at reading people, but this is Xie Lian. Xie Lian, who always plasters on a bubbly smile whether or not happiness is what he’s feeling at the time. Xie Lian, who always manages to look at the big picture in life, barely ever finding flaws in the moment. 

And well, He Xuan has two options right now. 

  1. Ignore him. He probably isn’t expecting He Xuan to do or say anything. Actually, he definitely isn’t expecting He Xuan to do or say anything. He Xuan can turn around and go to sleep right now, and the two will wake up tomorrow morning like nothing happened at all. 
  2. This.

He Xuan, like he’s been possessed, opens his arms and says, “Come here.”

Xie Lian whips around to stare at him, his eyes widening incredulously. “W-what?”

He Xuan grunts, “I’m not saying it again.”

Xie Lian looks at him for a long time, and with every passing second, He Xuan’s level of embarrassment creeps higher and higher. What the fuck is he doing, offering Xie Lian a stupid hug like this? Have they ever even hugged before? Definitely not. He Xuan doesn’t think he’s ever hugged anyone in his life. 

But then Xie Lian is moving, walking right up to He Xuan’s bed, climbing onto it, and wrapping his arms around He Xuan’s waist. 

It’s a bit awkward at first. Scratch that. It’s very awkward at first. He Xuan has no idea where he’s supposed to put his hands, and he doesn’t know how to sit properly to make sure they can be comfortable. It takes all of three minutes for the initial panic to subside, and then Xie Lian is leaning into his side and burying his nose into the crook of his neck.

He Xuan stiffens. “What’s wrong with you?”

Xie Lian makes a strangled sound. Then, “When I asked him to give suggestions for our next date, I didn’t think he actually would.”

Oh fuck. Oh god. Abort mission. Abort fucking mission.

“Who, Hua Cheng?”

“I know he doesn’t like me like that,” Xie Lian continues, like a grade A idiot, “but it just...now I know he doesn’t like me like that.”

It’s times like this when He Xuan very badly wants to call it quits and tell Xie Lian that no, Hua Cheng is actually head-over-boots in love with him, and that the only reason he suggested that the two go to the cat café is because he holds a personal grudge against He Xuan. 

But unfortunately, He Xuan is actually a very good fucking person. So.

“He’s an idiot,” he says instead, and it isn’t even a lie so whatever. “A fool, actually. An entire fucking coward.”

This makes Xie Lian smile. “I don’t suppose this kind of stuff happens in the fanfictions you read.”

“Sometimes,” says He Xuan. 

“Did you learn this hugging technique from them too?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Guess you’ll never know.”

“Maybe I should try reading some. Do you have any recommendations?”

“Nope,” says He Xuan, and then there’s a knock on the door. 

“Gege, I’m coming in!” 

It’s almost comical, the way He Xuan immediately freezes. Oh fuck no. He knows that voice. It’s the same voice that frequently haunts his nightmares, night after night after night.

Sometimes, He Xuan wonders how and why Hua Cheng has a key to his and Xie Lian’s dorm. Then he remembers that this is, in fact, also Xie Lian’s dorm, so of course Hua Cheng would have one. Xie Lian probably specifically requested for another spare for this very purpose. 

So, on a fine Tuesday evening, He Xuan finds himself wrapped in a one hundred-percent platonic embrace with the roommate he’s pretending to date, with the person said roommate actually wants to date standing a few feet away. 

Hua Cheng freezes in the doorway, his fingers resting on the knob tightening considerably as he takes in the sight before him. And god, this time is probably even worse than when the two had stumbled out of that godforsaken closet together. 

Which also means that He Xuan’s death this time around will probably be twice as painful.

Xie Lian peeks up and over He Xuan’s shoulder, his mouth so close to his ear that He Xuan can hear his sharp inhale of breath. 

“San Lang!”

Hua Cheng stares between them, unmoving. “...Gege.”

“What are you doing here?” Xie Lian exclaims as he scrambles out of He Xuan’s grasp and stands up to his feet. He Xuan coughs, noticing how Hua Cheng’s eye trails down across Xie Lian’s body, inevitably taking in the sight of him dressed in He Xuan’s clothes. There’s no way they’d be mistaken, either, considering how they’re all fucking black. 

“You invited me to study tonight,” Hua Cheng says calmly, but He Xuan isn’t fooled. Oh no. “I can. Come back later. Tomorrow.”

“No!” says Xie Lian quickly. “Let me just—we can sit on my bed, wait.”

Then he scurries over to his bed and starts smoothing out the fucking sheets, holy fuck. Holy shit. He Xuan is screwed. Figuratively, and in Hua Cheng’s mind, literally. 

He’s never offering anyone a hug ever again, what the hell. 

Xie Lian gestures to the mattress. “Sit! Please!”

Hua Cheng stares at him, then down to the bed. “No thank you, gege.” He turns to shoot He Xuan the dirtiest look he’s ever seen in his life, and He Xuan wants very much to dissipate into thin air. 

So.

This is how it ends. 

“I’m leaving,” he announces, scooting off of his own bed and smoothing out his shorts. “Goodbye.”

“Wait,” comes Xie Lian’s voice from somewhere behind him, but He Xuan is already halfway out the door. “He Xuan, wait—”

“Goodbye,” He Xuan repeats, and then he swings the door shut and stomps away.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

Naturally, because the world absolutely despises He Xuan, Shi Qingxuan ends up finding out about him and Xie Lian too. 

Which, really, shouldn’t be much of a surprise, especially considering how Xie Lian had taken to posting obnoxiously-captioned Instagram posts daily. Some were tame enough, just simply housing the two of them in the same frame. Others, however, were the aftermath of Xie Lian begging He Xuan to do something incredibly stupid, like peck him on the cheek or hold their intertwined hands up to the camera. 

“It’s more believable this way!” Xie Lian had exclaimed, typing away on the Pinterest search bar to look for a new, cheesy caption. “Do you know that some of my classmates still don’t believe that you’re my boyfriend? Someone came up to me two days ago and asked me if I wanted to get dinner with them!”

“That is so sad for you.”

So, TLDR, He Xuan is going to die. 

Exhibit A:

“Why am I here?” 

Xie Lian nudges his side, his elbow sharp as it digs into his arm. “It’s a double date,” he whisper-shouts. “I read about these online, you know.”

“It is absolutely not a double date,” He Xuan says immediately. “Does Hua Cheng know I’m here? Did you tell him that he’s not meeting you alone for lunch? Did you tell him that me and Qingxuan are going to be here too?”

“Oh,” says Xie Lian, his brows furrowing. “Hm. I might have forgotten to mention it. But no matter! We are all San Lang’s friends here.”

“You are the only person he considers a friend in this entire circle.”

Xie Lian shrugs, and before they know it, Shi Qingxuan is sitting across from them. 

“A-Lian!” they exclaim. He Xuan glances up at them over the menu, noting how their voice sounds weirdly strained for once. Shi Qingxuan’s eyes flicker between Xie Lian and He Xuan as they clear their throat and chew on their bottom lip. “I, um, haven’t seen you! For a while! Imagine my surprise when I saw your Instagram posts with He-xiong!”

Oh, god. 

Now, believe him, He Xuan doesn’t really give a shit about who does or who does not come across Xie Lian’s Instagram page. After all, it isn’t like He Xuan himself has any kind of reputation on campus apart from, of course, being Xie Lian’s roommate. He is untouchable in the eyes of the student body. 

However. 

He had met Shi Qingxuan on the first day of university, when the latter had latched onto his arm like a lost little puppy. He-xiong this, He-xiong that. He Xuan is more familiar with his own name than anyone else’s at this point. 

And at first, it was annoying. Incredibly annoying. 

But then one day, Shi Qingxuan caught a cold and was too sick to come to class. So He Xuan had to wander around campus alone, and he’d find himself turning to the empty space beside him more often than not. 

Xie Lian had described it as a crush. He Xuan thinks the term annoyance is a bit more fitting, but whatever. 

“What’s wrong with you?” he mutters now, barely audible over the chatter in the restaurant. 

Shi Qingxuan blinks at him. “Huh?”

“Your voice.” He Xuan waves his hand around. “It’s, like, wobbly and shit.”

“Oh,” says Shi Qingxuan, and their mouth hangs open for a few more seconds before snapping shut. They flash a smile, radiant as ever, and He Xuan averts his gaze immediately. 

From beside him, he hears Xie Lian snicker—one that abruptly cuts off as soon as the door to the restaurant chimes and Hua Cheng waltzes in. The host greets him cheerily but he pays them little mind, quickly surveying the area until he locates their booth on the far left wall. 

“San Lang!” Xie Lian waves, awkwardly half-standing to grab his attention. Completely unnecessary, since he could quite literally go invisible and Hua Cheng would somehow still be able to easily spot him. 

Hua Cheng’s face does that disgustingly glowy, star-stricken thing it always does when he looks at Xie Lian, one that stiffens when he notices the other two obviously unwelcome guests at the table. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng greets, completely disregarding Shi Qingxuan’s entire existence as he slides into the seat next to them. He’s dressed way too ostentatiously for the mediocre three star family restaurant they’re in—dangling silver earrings, at least five different butterfly themed necklaces, a fitted red turtleneck with a designer logo at the collar, and heavy eye makeup that draws even more attention to the fact that he only has one. “I didn’t know we’d have others joining us tonight.” 

“You don’t mind, do you?”

Of-fucking-course he does.

“No, of course I don’t.”

He Xuan reaches for his glass of water and chugs half of it down, and Xie Lian smiles, relieved. 

“San Lang looks very nice today.” 

“I always want to look my best for gege,” remarks Hua Cheng, leaning his arm on the table and supporting his chin with his hand. He twirls a lock of hair around his finger. “Since you always look stunning to me.”

Xie Lian is wearing a sweater that’s barely holding together at the seams, but o-fucking-kay. And hey, couldn’t what he’s doing technically be classified under flirting? As the fake boyfriend here, He Xuan feels the need to be offended. 

Instead he grabs for another bread roll and devours it in two bites.

“Hua Cheng! It’s so good to see you, how have you been?” Shi Qingxuan interjects, clearly out of some false sense of duty to preserve He Xuan’s honor. It would be more touching if he had any to begin with. 

“Peachy,” Hua Cheng says curtly. That’s the extent of the attention he gives them before addressing Xie Lian again, “Thanks for helping me study last night, I didn’t mean to keep you up so late.” 

He certainly did, as he appears to be under the impression He Xuan would have been ravishing Xie Lian in bed otherwise. 

The thought is gag-worthy, but somehow he holds it together. 

“You don’t need to thank me, I’m happy to help San Lang however I can,” Xie Lian assures, dimpled smile and all. 

The matching gooey expressions on their faces are also gag-worthy, but He Xuan thinks he’s built up an immunity at this point. 

“So how’d you two get together?” asks Shi Qingxuan, because they clearly can’t read the room nor have any regard for He Xuan’s self preservation tactic of melding into his booth seat. “Who confessed first?”

Xie Lian turns to He Xuan and nope, no, not again. He won’t save him this time. He grabs the last bread roll and shoves the entire thing in his mouth, cheeks puffing up like a squirrel. 

So Xie Lian sighs and says, “I confessed first?” Though it comes out more as a question than a statement. He definitely does not notice the way Hua Cheng flinches at his words, but He Xuan does. He Xuan turns his body so that he’s directly facing Hua Cheng, the gears in his mind beginning to cog.

Shi Qingxuan nods. “That makes sense. He-xiong would rather become a pescatarian than admit he has feelings.”

What the hell? No he wouldn't. Did all the times he made Shi Qingxuan watch Finding Nemo teach them nothing? Fish are fucking friends, not food.

“As for how we got together, well, we were doing some homework…” Xie Lian looks at him again, eyes pleading, and He Xuan, unfortunately, has run out of bread rolls.

Hm. Well, Hua Cheng’s rapidly darkening expression really does only leave him with one choice. 

So he swallows down his last bite and clears his throat, “And then he grabbed me by the face and declared, ‘Oh He Xuan, every beat my heart makes is for you. If I have to spend even one more second without making you mine I might as well not live any longer. You’re the missing piece to my incomplete puzzle, the peanut butter to my jelly, the macaroni to my cheese—’” 

“Hahahaha!” Xie Lian interrupts with a forced laugh. He pinches He Xuan’s thigh under the table, hard. “Surely you don’t need to repeat it word for word?” 

He Xuan crosses his arms, ignoring the throbbing bruise that’s already started to form on his leg. “Why not? I think it was very heartfelt. Don’t you agree?”

Which okay, probably not his brightest idea to open it up for debate, judging by the thunderous gleam in Hua Cheng’s eye, but whatever. The fucker would probably enjoy a confession like that, if not make it worse with his own sappy drabble.

“I didn’t know A-Lian was such a romantic,” Shi Qingxuan says, rapidly blinking as they stare between them.

“Ha, well, you know…” Xie Lian trails off, scratching his cheek. “Anything for my honey bunch!” 

He Xuan blanches, because is he really bringing up their little competition here? Here? In the middle of a dinner so full to the brim with tension that it would put most high school reunions to shame? 

Since they were stuck fake-dating for the unforeseeable future, he and Xie Lian had decided to really sell the act while having a bit of fun of their own. This came in the form of trying to one-up each other with the most vomit-inducing terms of endearment they could think of.  

Usually, He Xuan enjoyed watching complete strangers squirm while they really gave it their all. 

But unfortunately, Hua Cheng isn’t a stranger, no matter how much He Xuan wants him to be. Yet he still goes along with it, because he’d love nothing more than to give the stupid butterfly a taste of his own medicine.

He Xuan intertwines his and Xie Lian’s hands together, blatantly displaying them on the table. “I’m so lucky to have you, my prince charming.”

“Not as lucky as I am, sugarplum.”

“Nonsense, buttercup.”

Xie Lian leans closer, challenging, “Pumpkin pie.”

“Sweetie cakes,” coos He Xuan, slightly raising the pitch of his voice.

“Love muffin." 

“Apple of my eye.”

“Kiss, kiss, kiss!” Shi Qingxuan chants, effectively breaking the streak. 

Hua Cheng, who had been very pointedly drinking his water and looking the fuck away, promptly chokes. 

He Xuan would too, if he weren’t still mentally replaying the words kiss kiss kiss.

He feels Xie Lian freeze next to him, and when he turns to look over at him, he finds his friend staring wide-eyed at Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng is staring back, though with significantly less eyes, and they both look fucking stupid. 

Shi Qingxuan leans closer over the table. “Weeeeeell?”

And then Xie Lian turns to look at He Xuan, and He Xuan stares back at him, and oh dear. This is the part in fanfiction where the couple, the main couple, kiss for like, five minutes, and forget the world around them because they’re actually in love.

But He Xuan isn’t in love with Xie Lian. And Xie Lian definitely isn’t in love with He Xuan. 

So here they are.

Xie Lian’s face is visibly reddening, and He Xuan is sure his is fairing no better.

The staring must get a little much, because the next thing he knows, there’s a loud bang. Shi Qingxuan makes a noise of surprise, and He Xuan only realizes why when he sees the way Hua Cheng has turned on them.

“Don’t force them to do something they’re clearly not comfortable with,” he says through gritted teeth. And oh my fucking god, did he just slam a fork into the table? Like an honest to god fork is stuck an inch deep into the very hardwood table right now. 

He Xuan can already envision himself being the next poor target of Hua Cheng’s fork, one stabbed into his throat instead.

“Oh!” says Shi Qingxuan, their eyes wide on their face. They look over to He Xuan and frown. “Sorry, He-xiong, A-Lian.”

Xie Lian coughs. “It’s okay.”

It’s really not okay, but whatever. It isn’t like Xie Lian knows about the elaborate murder plot that is most definitely running through Hua Cheng’s head right about now. 

“Yeah,” He Xuan nods. “But if you really want a show, we can—”

Xie Lian slams his palm over He Xuan’s mouth. “Ignore him,” he says quickly. “Um. Shall we order?”

He Xuan mutters something under his breath, reaching for a menu and very pointedly avoiding Hua Cheng’s burning stare. 

He spends the rest of the night feeling like there’s a rope with an anvil hanging over his head, the scissors nestled in Hua Cheng’s hands. 

At least the food is good.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

He Xuan is busy enjoying a new 50k slow burn of his favorite pairing under the shade of an oak tree when the universe once again decides that he can’t have nice things. 

“Would you like to explain,” says Hua Cheng, and He Xuan starts in surprise at the sound of his ugly voice, “the texts I saw on gege’s phone the other night?”

Immediately, He Xuan mentally runs through every single text he’s sent to Xie Lian in the past week, drawing a blank. “What texts?” he says cautiously, and Hua Cheng’s face is enough to tell him that he will probably regret asking. 

Hua Cheng clears his throat. “Xie Lian,” he says, and He Xuan starts in surprise again at the sound of the name in Hua Cheng’s god-awful voice, “you’re killing me here. Come home so we can finish what we started last night.”

Oh fuck.

“So. Let me ask you again,” says Hua Cheng in a tone that would make lesser men wet their pants. “Would you like to explain the texts I saw on gege’s phone last night?”

You see, He Xuan has two options here: he could tell the truth, or he could lie. The dilemma lies in the fact that even if he told the truth, it sounds so much like a lie that it’d have the same result as saying the very wrong answer on Hua Cheng’s mind.

In other words, he’s fighting a losing battle.

“We were playing scrabble.”

Which they were, and He Xuan was actually winning for once. They had bet a week’s worth of lunch on that game. Why else would he sound so desperate?

Hua Cheng snarls at him. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Yes,” He Xuan answers, because if he’s going down, he’s at least going to get a few insults in first. “But I don’t see what that has to do with this.” 

“Listen to me,” Hua Cheng clenches his fist, veins popping. “I can’t, I won’t ever try to control what gege chooses. But you—you don’t get to demand things of him or force him to do anything because you want it. If I ever find out you treated him with anything other than the pinnacle of respect, so help me god you will learn to fear something worse than death.”

“I don’t fear death,” He Xuan deadpans. “I crave it.”

“Then I will personally find a way to make sure you stay alive forever.” 

A chill runs up He Xuan’s spine. “That’s impossible.”

“Oh yeah?” Hua Cheng smirks. “Try me.”

“Okay, whatever,” says He Xuan, holding up his hand. “Believe whatever you want to believe. I don’t care.”

“Good,” says Hua Cheng, letting go of his grip on him. “I just want you to be aware of how you are—and you never will be—good enough for gege. No one is.”

Which is kind of a dramatic way of putting it, but all right. 

“But you think you are,” He Xuan says, eyebrow raised.

Hua Cheng stiffens, his entire body going rigid as stone. He Xuan watches him carefully, the sureness in his shoulders suddenly sagging as he takes a step back and averts his gaze.

“I never said that,” says Hua Cheng, voice quieter now. “No one is good enough for him. Especially not me.”

“Quit your pity party,” He Xuan scoffs. 

Hua Cheng’s gaze flies up, but instead of the snappy retort that He Xuan is expecting, he says nothing. He just stands there, silent, and stares at him. Thoughtful, almost, which is a surprise in itself considering how He Xuan didn’t know Hua Cheng’s brain was capable of doing anything other than repeating gege at an increasingly rapid speed.

He looks like he wants to ask something.

He Xuan has never felt more uncomfortable in his life. “What? Spit it out.” 

“Is he...happy?” 

He Xuan thinks his stone cold heart thaws. Just a little enough to say, “Yeah, he’s happy.”

An exhale. “Good,” breathes Hua Cheng. “That’s good.” 

He Xuan waits, and then the asshole decides to open his big mouth again. 

“Keep making him happy. Not a single frown or tear shed. Or else.”

“Or else?”

“Or else you’ll procure a debt that’ll never allow you to rest in peace.”

That night, He Xuan has nightmares of a life beyond death—full of blackened waters, betrayal, and a lone manor on an island full of ill-fated ghouls. 

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“You and A-Lian are really hitting it off, huh?” Shi Qingxuan hums, flicking through Xie Lian’s Instagram page. The last twenty-something photos are all of him and He Xuan on various faux dates. Shi Qingxuan clicks on the selfie they had taken sharing a smoothie, two straws stuck into the glass instead of one. He Xuan had slurped all of it up the moment Xie Lian had put the phone down, but nobody needs to know that. 

“Yeah I guess,” he shrugs, taking another bite out of his sandwich. He nearly gags when he bites into a tomato. What the fuck, he had told them no tomatoes. 

Shi Qingxuan fidgets beside him. “Aw c’mon He-xiong! Give me all the details! Is he a good kisser? How far have you two gone? Are you the big spoon or little spoon?”

He Xuan scrunches his nose as he picks the tomatoes out of his sandwich one by one, tossing them onto the table with disgust. “I’m a knife.”

He doesn’t notice that there’s a tense silence, or even that there’s a silence at all until Shi Qingxuan breaks it. “You really are cruel, He-xiong.”

“I thought you already knew that,” He Xuan deadpans, flinging the final tomato to the side so he can once again chomp into the bread. The sandwich is still shoved in his mouth when he looks up to see Shi Qingxuan with two trails of tears silently making their way down their cheeks. 

The sight is so startling he sharply inhales on a reflex, sucking a combination of half-chewed lettuce, turkey, and bacon into the back of his throat. Remnants of the tomato’s disgusting juice stick to his tongue, and He Xuan wheezes, coughing and sputtering while he blindly grapples around for his soda.

“He-xiong, are you okay?!” Shi Qingxuan reaches over and starts slapping his back, pushing their own drink towards him. He Xuan takes it, downing the cavity-inducing sugary sweetness like his life depends on it. He really has been getting into too many life or death situations as of late. If the grim reaper wanted to take him so badly, could it fucking suck it up and just do it already?

“You—” He Xuan sputters, clearing his throat. “Why are you crying?”

“Huh?” Shi Qingxuan rubs at their eyes, and the creases of their palm come back wet with smudges of mascara. “Oh, ha, I guess I am? Hahahaha…” Their voice gets quieter the longer they laugh, fizzling out like an old soda can left in the sun. 

He Xuan doesn't know how to deal with crying, let alone Shi Qingxuan crying. He feels about the same as if he were to waltz into a funeral parlor with a bunch of balloons and a birthday cake. Totally out of place and mildly mortified. 

“What’s wrong with you?” he prods, but it comes out a lot harsher than he had intended. Enough to make Shi Qingxuan wince. 

“It’s nothing, I—”

He Xuan grabs their hand. “Tell me.”

Shi Qingxuan’s mouth snaps shut, like they have absolutely no intention of telling He Xuan anything. Their eyes trail downward, right to where the two’s hands are currently making direct fucking contact.

And holy fucking god. He Xuan can’t believe he’s about to do this. “Please?” 

There’s no movement except for the way Shi Qingxuan worries their bottom lip, alternating between gnawing and running their tongue over it. He Xuan should absolutely not be staring at their lips like that, what the fuck. But Shi Qingxuan’s eyes remain steadily trained upon their touching hands as they say, “I’m a really bad friend.” 

He Xuan bites down the reflexive who’s your friend? Instead, multiple error messages pop up in his head because that’s...not right. Shi Qingxuan isn’t a bad friend. How could they ever think that they’re the bad one between the two of them?

“You’re not.”

Shi Qingxuan looks at him sadly, tears gathering at the corners of their eyes once again, and all He Xuan wants to do is make it stop

“You wouldn't say that if you knew,” they whisper, voice cracking on the last word. 

“Knew what?”

They take a single shaky breath. Then a second, and a third. Shi Qingxuan meets his eyes and pulls their hand away.

“I like you, He-xiong.”

… 

…… 

……… 

He Xuan blinks. Forget error messages, his entire system is shutting down. Malware has clearly corrupted his hard drive and broken his ear to brain functionality because there is no way in hell Shi Qingxuan just said what He Xuan thinks they said. 

“I’m truly happy for you and A-Lian! I am! It’s just hard sometimes, especially since you won't tell me anything and you haven’t had much time for me lately…” Shi Qingxuan trails off, but then they snap back and correct themselves, “I’m sorry He-xiong! I’ll try to be better for you! We can still be best friends, can’t we?” 

Shi Qingxuan looks like they want to cling to his arm like they always have, but don’t allow themself to do anything to shorten the distance between them. 

He Xuan does it for them. 

Tentatively, he reaches out, brushing away the tears before they can begin to fall once more. Even when they’ve all been wiped away, He Xuan keeps his hand there and cups their cheek. 

“Qingxuan,” he murmurs, almost hypnotized. He has to be. If he wasn’t, there’s no way he’d even think to say what he’s about to say. “I like you too.”

Shi Qingxuan stiffens beneath his palm, their next words rushing out in a blubbered hurry, “What? But. Wait. Xie Lian—”

“We aren’t really dating,” He Xuan interrupts because, well, Xie Lian had only made him promise not to tell Hua Cheng. And he knows his friend well enough to understand what he’d want him to choose in this situation, because Xie Lian is a good person like that.

“It was all a hoax so people would stop confessing to him. None of it was real.” 

Shi Qingxuan gapes at him. “Really?”

He Xuan gives them a look. “Yeah, I mean, have you seen the way Xie Lian and Hua Cheng look at each other?”

Shi Qingxuan frowns. “Um. With their eyes?”

“Nevermind,” says He Xuan. Everyone he knows is an idiot. They’re all beyond saving. “Literally—nevermind. Forget I said anything.” A pause. “Not the part about me and Xie Lian not being real. Because we’re not. Real. We’re not real. We’ve never been real. Xie Lian is just stupid.”

“He…” Shi Qingxuan trails off. “But I heard he was ranked number one in his high school.”

God. Why does He Xuan like them again? He’ll never know.

Then Shi Qingxuan smiles. “You promise?”

“Promise what?”

“You promise that you were never dating A-Lian? That, um, you like me?”

“Oh,” says He Xuan with picture-perfect eloquence. “Yeah, I promise.” 

Shi Qingxuan audibly exhales, and it’s soft. It sounds like relief. “Oh, good,” they say quietly. “That’s good, really good. Better than good. Great, even.”

He Xuan quirks an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Shi Qingxuan nods. Then their eyes harden, and they turn till their entire frontside is facing He Xuan. “He-xiong.”

“What?”

“I’m going to kiss you.”

The words barely have time to register in He Xuan’s brain before he’s being yanked forward. Shi Qingxuan evidently got a manicure recently, their nails sharp as they clutch onto the sides of He Xuan’s neck. The kiss is just as clumsy and slightly painful as He Xuan would expect it to be—Shi Qingxuan had knocked them together with way more force than necessary. But after the initial roughness, the tides smooth out. As if Shi Qingxuan is the moon and He Xuan is a wave that has no choice but to be pushed and pulled along. 

It feels right. Like he can finally breathe, despite the complete lack of breathing he’s doing right now.

But wait.

Backtrack.

In all honesty, He Xuan should thank himself for this moment. Give himself a good old pat on the back. Being stupid ended up working out for him, really. Because it’s not like he was kissing another person while being in a happy relationship with the number one most wanted man on campus. 

But it isn’t like He Xuan particularly cares who sees, anyway. Not when the person who is currently kissing him is Shi Qingxuan.

But maybe—maybe—if He Xuan had managed to catch a glimpse of the red figure standing at the entrance of the diner, he would’ve cared the tiniest sliver more. 

Enough to move somewhere else, at least.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“And then,” says He Xuan, “and here’s the real kicker—they kissed me.”

Xie Lian inhales slowly, open-mouthed and wide. “That’s wonderful, He Xuan! I’m so happy for you.”

He Xuan looks at him sheepishly. “Sorry if I, um, wasn’t supposed to tell them. I know we only agreed on not telling Hua Cheng, but...you know.”

“I know,” Xie Lian nods. Then he stops. “Well, no, I don’t know. That’ll never happen between me and San Lang. Haha.”

He Xuan swallows down his retort, remembering back to the last time Xie Lian had gotten upset about his entire deal with Hua Cheng in front of him. Instead, he tilts his head forward and says, “What do you think they’d like to do on a...uh…”

“First date?” Xie Lian finishes with a smile. His eyes crinkle with mirth.

He Xuan snorts. He’ll let him have this one. “Yeah. That.”

“Hmm,” says Xie Lian, reaching up to stroke his thin thoughtfully. “Honestly, I think they’d like anything you plan for them. But maybe you should go somewhere loud, like, not a museum or a movie theater. I’ve been to both with Qingxuan as nothing more than a friend. They tend to get a little…”

“Overly excited.”

Xie Lian coughs. “Yes.”

He Xuan groans. “This is so fucking embarassing,” he mutters, hanging his head in his arms and suppressing his urge to scream. “Fuck. I refuse to take relationship advice from someone who asked his best friend to fake-date him because he was too scared to ask the actual love of his life.”

“Aww,” Xie Lian cooes, “you said I’m your best friend.”

“Yeah. Well.” A nebulous hand gesture. “Whatever.”

Xie Lian opens his arms wide. “Bring it in, celebratory hug!”

“No way.”

“You know you want to,” Xie Lian sings, shaking his arms side to side. 

He Xuan watches him and decides yeah, he wants a fucking celebratory hug. He thinks he deserves it after all the shit he’s put up with.

So they hug. And the next thing He Xuan knows, the front door bursts open and none other than Hua fucking Cheng stomps inside, because he has literally the worst timing known to man. He Xuan immediately groans at the sight of his face, eyes flickering over to how Xie Lian backs away, worry washing over the glint of his eyes. 

“San Lang?” he gasps. “San Lang, what, you—”

But Hua Cheng, for once, doesn’t even spare him a glance. 

Instead, he walks right up to He Xuan, balls his hand into a fist, and punches him square on the nose. 

He Xuan sputters, pain erupting all over his face, and he barely registers Xie Lian’s gasp of surprise from somewhere beside him. He staggers back, his head hitting the wall behind him, and he gulps heavily as he attempts to regain himself. 

“You...you fucking…” he wheezes out, his eyes scrunching shut. 

But Hua Cheng evidently isn’t finished. He reels back and lands another punch, this one straight onto He Xuan’s right cheekbone. 

“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?” he’s screaming, and He Xuan hisses in retaliation. Hua Cheng reaches out, his fingers curling around the top hem of He Xuan’s t-shirt, and he yanks him closer to yell in his face: “HOW DARE YOU? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU?”

“San Lang!” Xie Lian exclaims, and then He Xuan feels strong hands pushing him down onto the bed. They’re Xie Lian’s, of course. Xie Lian has slipped into the crack between He Xuan and Hua Cheng, his back facing the former and his front facing the latter. He has his arms spread out, and he’s rapidly saying, “San Lang! What happened? Are you okay? Why are you hurting He Xuan?”

He Xuan peeps open an eye, just in time to see Hua Cheng’s entire expression soften at the sight of Xie Lian’s face. “Gege,” he says, this time as nothing more than a whisper in the wind. “Gege, close your eyes. I don’t want you to see what I’m about to do to that pathetic excuse of a human being.”

“What—San Lang? What are you talking about?”

Hua Cheng’s breathing is heavy, but his eyes are dark with determination, his glare steadily focused on He Xuan. He Xuan stares back, and although he’s really fucking confused right now, he refuses to let it show on his face. 

Well, if Hua Cheng wants a fight, then it’s a fight he’ll get. 

He Xuan gently pushes Xie Lian aside and lunges for Hua Cheng, jamming his head into his chest and sending him tumbling a few steps back. He looks up, eyes narrowed. “The fuck? What are you doing?”

“You,” Hua Cheng seethes, venom dripping like blood from fangs. “I saw you.”

He Xuan stares at him, unmoving. “You saw me? The fuck? You’re obsessed with me.”

“Shut the fuck up before I knock your teeth out.”

“San Lang…” says Xie Lian quietly. He Xuan looks over to him, and he belatedly realizes that Xie Lian has likely never heard Hua Cheng swear this much before. No matter. He Xuan has heard more than enough for the both of them. 

“What the hell is going on with you?!” He Xuan demands. “Did all those damn paint fumes finally melt your brain? Oh, but I guess you’d first actually need a brain in order to—” 

Hua Cheng slams his palm into the wall behind then, and He Xuan immediately shuts up. Okay. Fuck. Okay. So this is happening now. What exactly is it that’s happening? He doesn’t have the slightest clue. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng begins, his eyes not breaking contact with He Xuan. “I need to tell you something about your boyfriend.”

He Xuan sees the way Xie Lian visibly twitches at the word boyfriend, but he knows for a fact that if he says something, Hua Cheng will probably waste no time in punching him again. 

“My—yes?” says Xie Lian carefully, like he’s treading directly on thin ice. “What is it, San Lang? Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Gege,” says Hua Cheng, voice breathy. Weak. “Gege, I—I saw him. I saw him with Shi Qingxuan.”

Oh.

Oh god.

If Hua Cheng was there, then that meant he had seen He Xuan and Shi Qingxuan kiss, and if Hua Cheng had seen He Xuan and Shi Qingxuan kiss, then that meant—

Okay, so in that context the clobbering of his nose would probably be justified.

“Ah,” says Xie Lian, realization dawning upon him too. “Um.”

Hua Cheng peers down at Xie Lian’s facial features closely, his eyes narrowing as his gaze flits between him and He Xuan. He Xuan swallows, his hands twitching by his sides as he prepares for impact once again. 

“Hold on,” says Hua Cheng. This time, his eyes stay in He Xuan, glinting red and murderous. “Did he know?”

He Xuan blinks. “What?”

“Did he know?” Hua Cheng asks again, and he walks in a curve around Xie Lian as He Xuan scrambles up to his feet. “Did gege know about this? About how disgusting you are?”

“Hold on,” says He Xuan slowly, and he takes a single step back as he desperately tries to wrap his head around the situation. “Wait, um. I think there’s been a—a misunderstanding?” He glances over to Xie Lian, finding the latter standing and staring at Hua Cheng, not sparing He Xuan a single look. Which, of course. Of-fucking-course. 

“A misunderstanding?” Hua Cheng repeats, scoffing, and oh. Oh dear. Maybe He Xuan should have chosen his words a little more carefully and—

Hua Cheng punches him again. 

This time, He Xuan does let out a strangled sob of surprise, the pain crackling around the edges of his bones, seeping through and into his skin. He swallows, but that’s painful too. He opens his mouth to say something, but it hurts, fuck. Fuck, Hua Cheng. 

His vision is beginning to fizzle now, murky and dull. But he does listen. He does catch onto Xie Lian’s voice moments after He Xuan falls to the floor and groans in pain. 

This is what he hears:

“San Lang! No, wait—San Lang! Calm down, wait!”

“Gege? Are you really defending this asshole? After what he did to you? I saw him, gege, I saw him kissing Shi Qingxuan with my own eye.”

“I—I know. It isn’t like that.”

“It isn’t like that? What else would it be like? What other explanation is there for kissing someone? He’s cheating on you.”

“I...San Lang, listen to me. He’s not, um. He’s not cheating on me.”

“Gege—gege, what? You’re okay with this?”

“I…”

“You’re okay with him treating you like this?”

“That’s not—that’s not it. I’m not…”

“You might be okay with this, but I’m not. I’m not okay with this, gege. Gege, I’ve been in love with you for years, how can you expect me to just sit back and watch him treat you like this?”

This is what he sees:

Xie Lian, eyes wide, lips parted. He’s frozen still, like a single flick of a finger would shatter him completely. He’s staring up at Hua Cheng, and Hua Cheng is staring back at him, his breathing heavy and his gaze sharp, but warm. His shoulders shake, and then he’s slumping down, like the feelings that had been weighing him down for years had finally been set free.

And then Xie Lian is saying something else, something quiet, something soft, something that He Xuan can’t hear even if he strains his ears in an attempt to. Something that probably isn’t meant for him to hear, anyway. And Hua Cheng is inhaling, his face is crumbling, and then the two are reaching toward each other, falling into each other, their knees hitting the floor as Hua Cheng gathers Xie Lian into his arms and strokes his fingers through his hair and Xie Lian clutches onto the back of his t-shirt for dear life.  

He Xuan catches onto other words spoken between them, too: not real and me too and oh my god and I love you.

And then, black.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

Unfortunately, He Xuan does wake up. He wakes up inside a room that’s pristine clean and smells of salt. Monitors beep by his head, the walls are sickly green, and he feels a sudden urge to throw up. 

“You broke your nose,” is the first thing told to him, moments after he gains consciousness. (Which, again, sick and twisted.) The nurse clicks her pen over the clipboard in her hands and frowns. “You also crashed into a wall and therefore have a mild concussion. Nothing major, so you should be able to go home soon.”

No, He Xuan wants to say, no, no, throw me into another wall, please, make it major, please.

“Thanks,” he says instead. Pathetic. 

The next person to talk to him is none other than Shi Qingxuan, who hurries over to the side of the hospital bed the moment the nurse opens the door to his room. He Xuan cringes, and pain immediately bursts around his nose. He coughs, belatedly noticing the fact that the majority of his face is bandaged. 

“He-xiong!” Shi Qingxuan exclaims, reaching for He Xuan’s hand and wrapping their fingers around his palm. They crush it, basically, and He Xuan thinks he might hear another cracking sound. Which is great, actually. Maybe this time it’ll actually make some progress. “I was so worried! We were all so worried!”

“Not me,” says the worst voice ever, and it’s then when He Xuan notices none other than Hua Cheng and Xie Lian standing a little ways away. They’re backed up against the peachy green wall, and the kicker? Their hands are fucking intertwined. They are holding hands. Fucking hell. Fucking hell. 

He Xuan gives them a look, praying to every god that it ends up looking a little more intimidating than he currently feels. “I cannot fucking believe the two of you.”

Xie Lian smiles sheepishly, raising his free hand to rub at the back of his neck. “Ah—He Xuan...how are you feeling?”

“No,” says He Xuan immediately. “You are not allowed to talk to me ever again.”

“I like that idea,” says Hua Cheng. He turns to look down at Xie Lian, bends over, and lands a kiss to his cheek. “Gege, say you like that idea too.”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian chides gently. 

The sight makes He Xuan’s nausea return, but he holds it in. Somehow. 

Then Hua Cheng’s expression settles into something else, something that He Xuan will not even begin to try and decipher, and he lets go of Xie Lian’s hand with the most visible hesitance in the world. He gives Xie Lian an apologetic look, like separating from him is the worst punishment known to mankind. Which is disgusting, actually. The two are disgusting. They were disgusting before, but they somehow still managed to one-up themselves. 

A headache is looming, He Xuan thinks. It’s settling over the horizon and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. 

“Gege told me everything,” says Hua Cheng, stopping right by the foot of the bed and crossing his arms. He squints down at He Xuan. “So you can live, for now.”

“If you’re feeling so merciful, just kill me right here.”

Hua Cheng smirks, “What’s the fun in that?” 

Xie Lian walks up beside him, poking his arm. “San Lang, remember what you promised me. He Xuan has gone through a lot of trouble for my sake.”

“As he should.”

"San Lang.”

“Fine. Sorry for breaking your face, even though personally I think having bandages cover half of it is more of an improvement than anything else.” 

Xie Lian sighs, rubbing his forehead. “I’m sorry too, He Xuan. I’ll cover the hospital bill.”

“With what money?” He Xuan retorts.

“...San Lang’s money.”

Hua Cheng visibly recoils. “What the hell? I’m not paying to further his well-being.” 

Xie Lian gives him a look.

“Yes I am.”

Damn. If he had known this whole debacle might have ended up with him earning Xie Lian’s defense against Hua Cheng’s neverending harassment, then He Xuan didn't mind giving up his nose as forfeit at all. He’d give up two noses. Three noses. All the noses. 

“You two are going to have to learn to get along better,” Xie Lian lectures, placing his hands on his hips like he’s a parent scolding his children. “Starting with this—”

He grabs the ice pack the nurse left behind and places it in Hua Cheng’s hand. “You hold that on his head for him, San Lang.” 

Hua Cheng pouts. “Yes, gege.” 

He Xuan looks over to Shi Qingxuan in bewilderment, the latter in a similar state of shock as they shrug their shoulders in response. 

Xie Lian carries over the tray of food they must've brought from the cafeteria and places it on He Xuan’s lap. There’s a bowl of chicken noodle soup with some salted crackers on top. “Feed him too.”

“Gege, his arms aren’t broken.” 

Xie Lian raises an eyebrow.

“I’ll feed him,” Hua Cheng reluctantly agrees, taking the plastic spoon and dipping it into the soup. “Say ahh,” he grumbles, holding the utensil in front of He Xuan’s mouth. 

He Xuan is absolutely thriving off the sight of the vein popping on Hua Cheng’s forehead. 

“Blow on it for me first,” he requests. “It’s too hot. I might burn my tongue.”

“I will dump this on your—”

Xie Lian clears his throat. 

Hua Cheng cools off the soup and shoves it into He Xuan’s waiting mouth. 

“Hmm,” He Xuan hums, smacking his lips. “It could use a little more salt.”

“I’m reconsidering my decision not to kill you.”

He Xuan smiles sweetly. “Not that kind of salt. Xie Lian?”

“San Lang,” says Xie Lian, nudging Hua Cheng’s side. “Can you please run down to the cafeteria and get some salt for his soup?”

Hua Cheng gapes at him. “But gege—”

“Please?” Xie Lian bats his eyelashes.

He Xuan is on cloud fucking nine. “Please never break up,” he says. “If you break up I will personally force you back together.”

“Don’t enjoy this,” Hua Cheng snaps. “You’re not allowed to get any pleasure out of our relationship.”

“Oh I will,” mocks He Xuan. “After all, you two wouldn’t even be together if it weren’t for me. Now about that salt.”

Hua Cheng looks like he wants to fight him on this, he really does, but He Xuan knows for a fact that he can’t. 

“I’ll go get your damn salt,” he mutters, moving to stand up. But not before he curls a hand around Xie Lian’s waist, pulls him in flush against his chest, and crashes their lips together. 

Shi Qingxuan squeaks in surprise from where they’re still standing by He Xuan’s side, and He Xuan feels his nausea resurface for the third time in the past twenty minutes. It’s not like it’s a short kiss either, because it’s fucking Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, the two most oblivious idiots on the planet who have been in love since the moment they set their eyes on each other. 

They kiss like they’re going to be parted for centuries rather than five minutes. He Xuan wonders if he should maybe revisit his earlier claim about never wanting the two to break up, but then he’d probably have to deal with shit five times worse than whatever the hell this is. 

“Qingxuan,” he croaks, “please get them out of here.”

Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, who are still locked in their passionate embrace, do not even notice them. 

Shi Qingxuan nods slowly. “Uh, He-xiong, I don’t really think I can…”

“Now.”

Shi Qingxuan winces, taking a step closer to the couple. “Okay,” they say. “Do you want to do that with me too, later? Once you’re better?”

He Xuan feels a ghost of a smile grace his lips. “Yeah, whatever.”

 

✧✧✧ 

 

There are many problems that come with being friends with both Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, but He Xuan knows number one on the list is this:

They’re both fucking stupid.

And after they get together, it’s more than possible that they’ve gotten even stupider. He Xuan can’t believe his nose is permanently crooked for this. 

But maybe he’s happy for them.

Just a little.