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“Maybe gege should kiss it better.”

“. . . Okay.”

Xie Lian places a kiss over the pink Hello Kitty bandaid covering the cut on Hua Cheng’s cheek. It’s instinctual, but he freezes as soon as he realizes what he’s done. Xie Lian quickly pulls back.

Hua Cheng stares at him with a wide, surprised eye. But at least he’s now been reduced to silence—no longer swinging wildly between teasing and apologizing for his carelessness that got them in this situation.

Although he doesn’t regret giving in to the impulse, Xie Lian is not sure what came over him, so he mindlessly plays with the bandaid box, looking away to hide his embarrassment.

“Sorry about the design,” he says. “It was the last one. To be frank, I've never really paid attention.”

“It’s fine,” Hua Cheng blurts. “It’s cute.”

Xie Lian glances up again. Hua Cheng seems a little dazed, but sounds sincere. It's kind of sweet, and draws a smile on Xie Lian's face.

“I think so, too.”

With that, he puts the box away in his sling bag, before reapplying his hands to the cold pack on Hua Cheng’s sprained ankle. Just a few more minutes, and he’ll be able to bandage it.

They were two hours into their hike when Hua Cheng’s foot caught in a root, twisting his ankle. It would’ve been an understandable accident if the root hadn’t been so unmissable. Even Xie Lian, with his clumsiness and terrible luck, noticed it and stepped over it. He’s still not sure how Hua Cheng failed to do the same. Was he really so distracted by the scenery?

“Does it hurt a lot?” Xie Lian asks, like it hasn’t happened to him many times before. He usually avoids hikes for this exact reason. By taking Hua Cheng with him, he’d hoped everything would go fine.

To think it wouldn’t be him who would hurt himself, but Hua Cheng.

“It’s bearable,” Hua Cheng replies. “The ice helps. Gege knows what he’s doing.”

Xie Lian hums, gaze riveted on the task at hand. Hua Cheng’s skin is pale and soft to the touch, warming up to the contact of Xie Lian’s fingers where they carefully keep the cold pack in place.

Using his lowered head as cover, Xie Lian allows himself a moment to battle the increasing reddening of his cheeks; this isn’t how he imagined his first time touching Hua Cheng for a prolonged period of time to go. He thought, maybe, they’d hold hands while they walked—truthfully, he’d just convinced himself to gather his courage and go for it when Hua Cheng fell face-first onto the ground.

A couple of months earlier, they met by chance—an accident truly, and literally; Xie Lian rode into Hua Cheng with his flower-laden bicycle, sending both of them sprawling onto the pavement in a shower of petals.

After that, they clicked so fast Xie Lian now feels like they’ve known each other for years.

On top of that, Xie Lian likes Hua Cheng. He really, really likes him.

But, it looks like his plans to confess this have been ruined.

“Alright, I’m going to bandage it now,” Xie Lian announces, pushing his regrets to the back of his head—he’ll get another chance, someday. “Tell me if it hurts, I’ve only ever done this on myself.”

Grabbing bandages from his first aid kit—Xie Lian once again marvels that, while he’s the one to use it, he’s for once not the one he has to use it on—he begins to securely wrap Hua Cheng’s ankle.

He’s very careful, and Hua Cheng doesn’t once complain or even wince, but Xie Lian senses his eye on him, sharply following each of his movements. Still, Xie Lian doesn’t let it faze him.

“Done!” he exclaims triumphantly as he secures it with a knot. “Not too tight?”

He sits back as he asks, elevating Hua Cheng’s foot over his lap. Though Xie Lian can’t fathom why, Hua Cheng gazes at him softly.

“Just right.”

“Perfect.” Xie Lian claps his palms once. “How do we proceed?”

The most reasonable option would be to turn back and go home, but he can’t help being bummed out at the thought. It was never meant to be a day-long hike, thus he knows they’re not so far away from the highest spot of the area.

Xie Lian had hoped to bring Hua Cheng there and, in the spur of the moment, officially ask him out.

“Gege, I heard the top of the hill is beautiful. How about you go see and take some photos for me? I can wait for you.”

Xie Lian slightly narrows his eyes, unconvinced.

Hua Cheng, with his Hello Kitty bandaid and wronged expression, sounds so pitiful underneath the confidence of his suggestion that Xie Lian makes a decision at once. With a determination that has Hua Cheng arching his brow in amusement, Xie Lian readjusts his sling bag over his chest.

Xie Lian offers his palm and helps Hua Cheng up.

“I’m—don’t put pressure on your foot—I’m used to solo hikes,” he admits. “But this time, what’s the point of seeing it alone? It would be a shame to miss it, but it’s with you, or not at all.”

With that, he moves Hua Cheng’s hand to his shoulder, makes a turn on himself, and smiles as he glances back and says, “Alright, hop on!”

Hua Cheng stares, masking his hesitation with a smirk—but he doesn’t fool Xie Lian.

“Ah, gege, I couldn’t possibly—”

“None of that, let’s go!”

Xie Lian doesn’t leave him time to finish his protestations; he takes Hua Cheng’s forearm, yanks it forward and, thus pressing Hua Cheng to his back, hauls him up until he has no choice but to wrap his arms and legs around Xie Lian’s neck and waist.

“Oh. You’re—you’re really strong.”

Xie Lian bites back another smile, amused by the strain in Hua Cheng’s voice.

“Huh uh.”

Hua Cheng doesn’t say anything else, but—Xie Lian feels how fast his heart is beating. He wonders if Hua Cheng can feel his own answering back with its own dizzying tempo.

Making sure Hua Cheng is well adjusted, Xie Lian takes the path up instead of down, continuing their hike to the overlook. He realizes that having Hua Cheng pressed so close to him is more distracting than he’d thought, and so, focuses as hard as he can on where he puts his feet instead.

After a brief moment, Hua Cheng curiously inquires, “Gege, this isn’t the right way. . . ?”

“Isn’t it?” Xie Lian teases, but quickly explains, “It’s alright. We’re not that far from the top. Besides, we’re not leaving the trail. I said we’d go to the top together, so we will!”

“I wouldn’t want gege to overexert himself for my sake,” Hua Cheng carefully protests.

Xie Lian lets out a chuckle. Hua Cheng is much lighter than he imagined; carrying him is quite easy.

“That’s okay, too. Like you said, I’m strong, and you’re pretty light, you know?” he says. “And, we’ll have to sleep here—we won’t be back by sunset no matter what, anyway. I didn’t think we’d need it, but I always get lost on trails like this, so I brought a tent, just in case! I hope you don’t mind sharing, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng’s breath tickles Xie Lian’s ear.

“. . . I don’t mind.”

“Great!” Xie Lian replies, not thinking much of it. “Still, I promise I’ll take a break if I get too tired.”

But, halfway in, Xie Lian still steadily holds Hua Cheng, chatting the time away when Hua Cheng isn’t showing off his vast knowledge about this or that, telling Xie Lian about the local flora and fauna. For someone who doesn’t get out much, he certainly knows a lot about the outdoors.

Hua Cheng eventually relaxes and lays his head on Xie Lian’s shoulder, letting out a light sigh before he begins to hum a song they heard several times on the radio on the drive here. Xie Lian bites his bottom lip.

When Hua Cheng hurt himself, Xie Lian thought he’d have to ask him out at a more appropriate time. He was disappointed, but Hua Cheng’s comfort was more important.

Now, with the steady, rapid beat of Hua Cheng’s heart resonating in rhythm with his own, Xie Lian actually feels like there is no better time than this.

“What were you looking at, when you fell?” he suddenly wonders aloud.

A part of him hopes his voice is light enough not to be heard—the other is desperate to hear the answer.

Alongside the following silence, Hua Cheng’s breath against Xie Lian’s neck stops for a short moment.

“Maybe I was looking at you.”

Xie Lian lets out a low, nervous laugh.

The path winds up higher, but the trees are starting to part; they’re almost there.

“Why—why were you looking at me?” he prods, convincing himself he’s breathless from exertion, and not from the fragile earnestness underlying Hua Cheng’s teasing words.

“Pray forgive me for being so bold—Gege is so beautiful, I couldn’t possibly look away,” Hua Cheng replies without hesitation. “Even more so when he seems happy—if I hadn’t fallen, I would’ve been honored to keep looking.”

Xie Lian flushes. If his hands weren’t full of the person he wishes to never let go of, he’d hide behind them—instead, this time Hua Cheng has a front-row view of his reddening cheeks.

“Aiya, San Lang, you don’t have to flatter me.”

“I’m being sincere,” Hua Cheng says softly. “I would never give you anything else but my sincere heart.”

His words fall at the same time they emerge at the top.

The view is breathtaking; hills and mountains like a sea of autumn fire under the glistening sun spread out across the horizon, high peaks reaching for the sky, and leaves scattering on the wind.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Xie Lian carefully helps Hua Cheng onto the bed of autumn leaves, making sure Hua Cheng’s ankle doesn’t suffer any further shock.

Once he deems Hua Cheng comfortably seated, his foot resting on Xie Lian’s bundled-up vest, Xie Lian sits next to him. Finding himself both regretting the loss of warmth in his back and spurred on by the flame of confidence ignited in his heart by Hua Cheng’s words, he presses their sides together in passing before sitting back, slightly facing him.

“I didn’t just seem happy,” Xie Lian says, finally breaking the silence. “I was. I am.”

Hua Cheng exhales silently, and Xie Lian suddenly realizes he’d been holding his breath.

“I’ve never been happier since I met you,” he adds, squeezing his hands together and quietly rejoicing when Hua Cheng’s fingers cover them. He lifts his eyes, finding Hua Cheng gazing at him like he’s some sort of treasure he hadn’t expected to find.

Or perhaps, to open up for him.

Maybe one day, he’ll tell Hua Cheng that he was the key.

If Xie Lian keeps looking, he’s not sure he’ll be able to form a coherent sentence again.

“Anyway. . .” Xie Lian rambles, surveying the horizon instead. “San Lang, what do you think? Wasn’t the view worth it?”

“Mh, indeed, it is.”

“Can you see that hill over there? Behind it is a small village,” Xie Lian recalls, words coming out faster than his thoughts can form. “They make amazing baozi. I stop by whenever I pass it. Oh, and this river, right there? That’s where I cut my hand on a stone and met Qingxuan. I twisted my ankle too, but in those paddy fields. . .”

“Gege?”

Xie Lian abruptly stops and glances at Hua Cheng. He starts a bit; it looks like Hua Cheng hasn’t moved at all.

“What is it?” he asks, then worries, “Does your foot hurt?

Hua Cheng shakes his head. “It’s fine.” He pauses, searching Xie Lian’s eyes before briefly stopping on his lips. Whatever he meant to say, it doesn’t leave Hua Cheng’s mouth—there appears to be something holding him back, but. . .

Though Xie Lian might be bold to assume such a thing, he thinks he knows what Hua Cheng wants.

“San Lang,” he says gently, “If you want to kiss me, you can.”

Taken aback, Hua Cheng slowly blinks at him—until his eye forms a crescent shape, and the surprise subsides into fondness.

The next thing Xie Lian knows, Hua Cheng’s hand is cupping his face, and their lips meet in a light, eager kiss.

Surely, he’s dreaming, but his heart—full to the point of bursting—is beating so wildly, it should’ve woken him up by now.

When they part, Xie Lian finds his own disbelief reflected in Hua Cheng’s wide, adoring eye.

Though he’s beaming, Xie Lian lowers his lashes, his whole face warming up with the realization of what he asked—what they’ve done.

Hua Cheng’s fingers trace down Xie Lian’s face, neck, and arm, before closing around his hand. Xie Lian squeezes back, wishing he could transmit all of his giddy happiness in that touch alone.

There’s a confidence in Hua Cheng’s presence that wasn’t there before; despite Hua Cheng already being a confident man. Xie Lian has known and observed him for a while now; he’s always in control, and of a proud nonchalance that leaves Xie Lian feeling a little weak, knowing how fierce he can be with others—yet he treats Xie Lian with only care and kindness.

Thus, it’s not a change Xie Lian would overlook and, somehow, he softens even more.

He lays his own palm on top of Hua Cheng’s first, before interlacing their fingers—he’s awed by how well they fit together.

“I’ve greatly enjoyed all the time gege and I spent together these past months—”

“Me too,” Xie Lian utters, unable to stop himself.

Hua Cheng’s smile grows; enough that, to Xie Lian’s wonder, crow’s feet form at the corner of his eye. It’s become one of his favourite sights—made all the more special, knowing he’s only ever seen them crop up for him.

“But I want to know you even more,” Hua Cheng continues. “So, gege. . . do you want to go on a date with—”

“No!” Xie Lian blurts. “I mean. Yes!”

He lifts their joined hands to his chest, sighing dramatically. “Aiya, I can’t believe San Lang asked first—I had plans coming here, you know?”

But, Xie Lian knows; if he hadn’t told Hua Cheng he could kiss him, Hua Cheng never would have asked.

He looks surprised. Xie Lian feels the sudden urge to kiss it off his face, but stays put.

“You. . . ?”

Xie Lian presses their hands closer to his heart as his only answer. He then looks away at the landscape.

The sun is already quite low. Perhaps it’ll be safer to pull out the tent and sleep right here, rather than search for a designated area. Hopefully, they won’t get into trouble.

At least the view is amazing, and Xie Lian can’t think of better company.

He glances back at Hua Cheng. He’s still admiring Xie Lian instead.

“So, you’d say being run over by my bicycle was worth it?”

Hua Cheng grimaces humorously. His gaze shifts from Xie Lian to the horizon, then back to Xie Lian. It’s like his eye has caught the sun, seeping warmth into each of his words.

“Down to the last stitch,” he declares solemnly. Then, he adds jokingly, “Was running me over worth ruining your bicycle?”

“Well. . .” Xie Lian begins, lowering their hands to his lap. “I got a new, better one.”

“I’m happy gege likes it.”

“Mh-mh. But I got something even better than that.” He locks eyes with Hua Cheng, and smiles foolishly. “I got to meet you.”

When Hua Cheng—despite the kiss and the promise of a date—still looks surprised, Xie Lian scuttles closer; seeking that warmth for good.

Hua Cheng groans when their feet inadvertently bump.

Wincing, Xie Lian whispers an apology and raises his head. He kisses the bandaid on Hua Cheng’s cheek again, relishing in his lips curling up.

He then lays his head on Hua Cheng’s shoulder, while Hua Cheng rests his cheek against Xie Lian’s hair. Together, they admire the world at their feet. As the sun disappears, beyond the hills arise the city lights, blinking to life in the gathering darkness.

Xie Lian points excitedly at them. Hua Cheng’s chest rumbles with a low laugh.

The view isn’t unlike a painting of Xie Lian’s life; all the places he’s been and the people he’s met illuminating the night like stars.

He grins. Of course, the brightest point is where he met Hua Cheng for the first time.