stage 1: denial
Feng Xi’s downfall begins with a bag of mushrooms.
Specifically, they’re Wu Xian’s mushrooms—white strands of jingu perfect for a bubbling pot of hot pot. They were procured for the finals week party of Xuan Li, Wu Xian’s bubbly sixth-year friend and Feng Xi’s mere acquaintance, who wanted a meat and alcohol-filled celebration for "his best chance at escaping his university literature class yet.” But come thirty minutes after Wu Xian heads out for the party, Feng Xi opens the door to their shared apartment’s refrigerator and finds the mushrooms laying artfully on the bottom shelf. Like usual, Wu Xian had forgotten them.
Feng Xi tucks them in a bag and shakes his head. He might as well take them over; it was unlikely that Wu Xian would be able to convert them into something edible. So over the lightly snowed campus hills, Feng Xi walks to Xuan Li’s dorm room. When he arrives, Xuan Li greets him at the entrance.
“Feng Xi!” He waves excitedly. “Thank you! By the way, we still have space inside. If you dare to test how much you can drink against us—want to come in?”
Later, Feng Xi would rue how easily he gave in. In that moment, however, Feng Xi considers the fragrance of the meat. He believes he deserved a good meal for his efforts, so he nods his head. “Certainly,” he replies.
He crowds into the small dorm room with the rest of the people at the party. Some are alumni who had escaped from the weight of grades. Others are grad students extra imprisoned under the weight of their classes. Wu Xian acknowledges him with a small nod as Xuan Li makes space for Feng Xi to sit besides him, whistling about how he was such a good friend. The white mushrooms are tossed into the swirling water of the pot on the portable stove, where they float by paper-thin slices of beef and lamb, glass noodles, and green bok choy.
“Cheers!” Xuan Li shouts as they all lift their glasses.
As the night goes on, the steam from the hot pot rises high into the air, along with laughter at the latest joke. Glasses clink, chopsticks rise and fall. Feng Xi barely knows any of the people there besides Wu Xian, but he finds himself getting along with them easily enough. For example, Lao Jun, some long-graduated alumni with an unidentifiable job that somehow enabled him to buy copious amounts of anime merch, has great stories. Qi Dao, who has fabulously defined muscles, has great feats of physical strength. The alcohol sits pleasantly warm in Feng Xi’s stomach, dulling his senses from detecting any danger.
So when Xuan Li asks with his cheek squished against the table, "So, how's your love life right now, Wu Xian?" Feng Xi passes it off to idle chatter between friends. Nothing to worry about, all fine and good. Next to him, Wu Xian shakes his head quietly, and then presents his bowl to Feng Xi for the next piece of food Feng Xi deemed safe enough for him to eat.
Xuan Li's gaze shifts to Feng Xi, then back at Wu Xian.
"That's surprising," he says. Then, with a whisper probably intended to be conspiratorial but that ended up extremely loud, he continues, "Surely you of all people would have managed to seduce Feng Xi by now?"
The piece of beef Feng Xi’s about to feed Wu Xian slips from his chopsticks and plops into the pot.
"What?" Feng Xi exclaims.
"Oh," Xuan Li sighs. He wiggles his fingers in the air like anemone tentacles. "You know, you know, the thing that everyone knows about!"
"Xuan Li," Lao Jun rubs his back. "Feng Xi's only a sophomore. He’s the youngest here; he wasn’t around for Wu Xian’s most legendary years. Perhaps he's still innocent to the ways of Wu Xian."
Feng Xi scoffs. For two years, he had dealt with Wu Xian on a daily basis as his roommate/rival/frienemy—there was no way he wouldn't know about something like this. To prove it, he turns to Wu Xian. "What are they talking about? Nothing I haven't heard of, right?"
Wu Xian, who had turned red-faced after one drink and imbibed four more glasses afterwards, just pokes at the meat Feng Xi had dropped in the pot with one chopstick. "Beef."
"You see, Wu Xian's got quite the storied past." Lao Jun said, calmly tracing the rim of his glass mug with a long finger. "The moment he got into college, he was quite the busy man. In his first two years here, he wasn't single for more than three days. About fifty of the people in his year have gone on dates with him, and one hundred alumni.”
"Is that so," Feng Xi says, trying to not let his jaw crack open and hit the table.
"Yeah. I've walked by so many people fighting about how handsome and talented and cool he was. Sooo many!" Xuan Li guffaws, clapping his hands together. "One time it got so ferocious, I even joined in!"
"It was quite the fight to see," Lao Jun agrees. "Many tears and torn up love letters."
Meanwhile, Wu Xian pokes at the bubbling water in the hot pot. "Beef," he says again, now extremely forlorn.
Feng Xi shakes his head. He fishes the beef out of the hot pot and deposits it into Wu Xian's bowl. Then, he straightens his back, posture perfect and indomitable. There is something more important to address beyond petty fights, actually.
"Still," Feng Xi snarls, “none of that has anything to do with Wu Xian potentially dating me.”
Lao Jun exchanges looks with Xuan Li, and then he leans his head on his hand. "Are you sure?”
"Of course," Feng Xi continues. And he would have continued further, to correct their ill-informed opinions and to declare his disinterest in this conversation, except they were interrupted by Wu Xian suddenly choking on his beef. The rest of Feng Xi's night was spent on rescuing Wu Xian, and then afterwards on the dire task of transporting Wu Xian to his apartment, and then finally, finally, on making sure Wu Xian ended up sleeping safely in his own bed.
stage 2: anger
Only because Lao Jun and Xuan Li had long left their vicinity did Feng Xi bring both the rumor on their relationship (ingracious) and the rumors of Wu Xian’s past relationships (salacious) to the center of it all.
Wu Xian did not seem nearly as surprised as Feng Xi had been.
He types away at some esoteric math problem, his green eyes aglow from the glare of his laptop. “It seems like I need to discuss some things with Lao Jun and Xuan Li,” he says after a while.
“About spreading false rumors?” Feng Xi asks in a tone that he hoped was not hopeful.
“About nearly exposing secrets when one is drunk,” Wu Xian replies. “As well as how many times I deserve to shake them.” His tone implies a similar physical response to his morning hangover—noble suffering through a splitting headache.
Feng Xi sighs, disappointed. “So it is true. The other relationships—not ours.”
Wu Xian eyes him with a flicker of disappointment on the last phrase, but continues regardless.
"Yes, but not all of it. Lao Jun exaggerated some details.”
“That makes sense,” Feng Xi says, leaning back against his chair. Like most of the college library’s chairs, it was designed as stylishly modern, all sleek shapes and oblong edges, as it was mildly uncomfortable. “The number does seem quite high.”
"Well,” Wu Xian says mildly. “It wasn't an exaggeration in that way.”
"Oh?” Feng Xi asks, narrowing his eyes. “What’s the difference, then?” Though this whole conversation was silly, he would not be himself if he didn’t stubbornly press on until the end of all matters.
Wu Xian pauses to put the final touches on an extremely difficult physics question with utter nonchalance. “I’ve dated far more people than what he’s mentioned.”
There is a long silence afterwards, punctuated by someone’s wail over the five-part final project the rest of his group had procrastinated on.
“...How?” Feng Xi whispers first. Even though Wu Xian was someone who regularly defied all of Feng Xi’s expectations, this feat seemed unlikely even for him. Certainly, Wu Xian was beautiful — Feng Xi would often stare upon the diamond-like quality of his jawline, the perfect slant of his eyebrows. But Feng Xi felt his face grow warm at the thought of Wu Xian attempting anything remotely close to flirting. His roommate was as cold and quiet as ice. Did he even know how to flirt? Did he just stare quietly at all of his love interests with his dead eyes until they fell over themselves to ask him out?
“Most of them were in a simpler two years of my life,” Wu Xian says, as if the task of dating more than one hundred-fifty people could be anything else besides simple. “When you’ve left your credit card back at home, and all you have is cash, and the only thing you can cook for days on end is spam sandwiches...”
“You needed free dinners,” Feng Xi says, his forehead wrinkling.
“Donations,” Wu Xian replies back.
“Donations...which were free,” Wu Xian compromises.
“Fine then,” Feng Xi says. He did not, in fact, think Wu Xian’s statement was fine, but the pressing nature of other items to investigate compelled him to move on. “Then what about the rest?”
“I’m capable of having relationships longer than one date, you know,” Wu Xian sighs.
“Do you have any pictures?”
Wu Xian adjusts his laptop for Feng Xi to see. There, he scrolls through his social media feed, displaying a parade of older memories.
Reflected on the screen was his younger high school self with another teenager with scarlet hair and expensive clothes, a college student in a doctor’s outfit with a pouting cat, a cheerful woman writing calligraphy, and more and more beautiful men and women.
“So, what do you think of all this?” Wu Xian asks. “Does this…make you feel better?”
Feng Xi surveys the selection. Only one thought fills his mind:
Wu Xian has a serious preference for people who can take care of him.
Underneath that thought, a stranger feeling churns within the pit of Feng Xi’s stomach. He digs the crescents of his nails into the palms of his hands. What could he say? He has the distinct feeling he had been fighting a terrifying battle. It was long and arduous, bloody and gruesome. What’s more, it had been a battle he’d been fighting with all the perfectly normal, probably lovely people Wu Xian had dated.
Feng Xi finally grits his teeth and says, “Nothing is wrong.”
“Are you sure?” Wu Xian asks. His clear green eyes shine with curiosity and slight eagerness.
Feng Xi swallows, unsure of what to make of that. “Yes,” he says again. “I am sure.”
Wu Xian eyes him for a while, and then finally nods. “Good to hear.” With that, he turns his computer back to face himself and returns to his notes.
Feng Xi sighs. It’s a good cue for him to return back to working as well. He brings his attention back to his notes, and presses the end of his mechanical pencil to the page.
“Though,” Wu Xian admits, “I do wish you were a little bit bothered.”
“Hm?” Feng Xi lifts his head.
Wu Xian remains silent on the topic for the rest of their hour in the library.
stage 3: bargaining
Mood left unassuaged, Feng Xi spends the next three days devoting his negative energy to more productive matters. He has his last four finals crammed into those three days, so there’s plenty of tasks he can attend to.
Truth be told, he’s already more used to focusing on his personal dreams over romance. Certainly, he’d helped advise his family to pursue their own loves. And of course, he’d had his own fair share of admirers—rose-colored letters stuffed into his locker during adolescence, whispered confessions soaked in the scent of wine during university. But he’d politely declined them all to focus on his studies. Romance had always been a burdensome distraction from his true goals.
Now, as the time ticks away while he reviews the textbooks, long pirated and downloaded on his computer, Feng Xi finds it difficult to think of anything else. In between refreshing his memory with page turns and reviews of plant biology, he is haunted by that stupid hot pot party. The forgotten bag of mushrooms. Increasingly more handsome permutations of Wu Xian.
(He’s not sure who to curse between Lao Jun, Xuan Li, or Wu Xian. Probably all three, and especially Wu Xian.)
Upon the completion of his last test, the fourth of which he’d also aced thanks to all the studying he’d done to get his mind off of Wu Xian, Feng Xi steps into the biology lab he’s been working in all year long. Pouring slow streams of water over the herbs and pruning the errant leaves typically brings him peace.
“Say,” Feng Xi says to Luo Zhu, who’s tending the rhododendrons that day, “there’s a person you know. You think you’ve had them all figured out. But all of a sudden, a story from their past comes to light, one that all their friends knew and that you didn’t. They’ve had...many partners and admirers before, which should be fine, except for you, it isn’t. And then you start looking at them differently, and feeling like you’re lost around them.”
He wipes his grimy hands on a towel. “What would you do?“
Luo Zhu mulls it over, clipping a leaf off a mature plant. He smiles at Feng Xi. “Is the person you’re talking about Wu Xian?”
Before Feng Xi can sputter his protests, Luo Zhu puts his hands up in defense. “My girlfriend went on a date with him before. He’s the only person we both know that would probably surprise you about this.”
“Ah.” Feng Xi clicks the roof of his tongue in shocked horror. So the network of people Wu Xian had dated stretched even farther than he had expected.
“To be honest, I was just as surprised as you. I didn’t think Wu Xian would have dated anyone else before,” Luo Zhu says, switching to watering the roses. “Does he even know how to ask anyone out?”
“Thank you,” Feng Xi sighs. “Finally, someone with the same point of view as me.”
“After that, though,” Luo Zhu says, folding his arms together, “Perhaps you should think about the source of your envy. That’s the source of your troubles, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think I’m jealous of Wu Xian,” Feng Xi says, wrinkling his nose. “At least in this area.”
“I know.” Luo Zhu pats him on the shoulder kindly. “But could you be jealous of the others around him?” he asks.
Feng Xi crosses his legs together on the chair, ready to say no.
Instead, as he mulls everything over, a small sound falls outside of his mouth.
stage 4: depression
“Feng Xi,” Wu Xian calls out from their living room, “Have you been avoiding me lately?”
“No,” Feng Xi groans, face buried in his bed. He hoped to dear god that the thick slab of metal that functioned as his door would protect him from being seen by Wu Xian. But knowing Wu Xian’s strength and his own bad luck, Wu Xian might accidentally rip it off of its hinges and then see Feng Xi and his shame.
“Well, it certainly seems like it,” Wu Xian muses. “Anyways, I wanted to let you know that I’ll be heading out to the department store soon. Want to come with me?”
Feng Xi kneads the blankets. He did want to get new gloves for the winter, and restock the gardening supplies at the lab. And Wu Xian owned a motorcycle, so it was unfortunately, always, very convenient to go with him.
He pokes his head out from the door. “…As long as you drive.”
They arrive at the department store at half-past three, with Wu Xian leaving his motorcycle outside. The floors are bright and glossy, cream marble gleaming from the artificial white light. Shoppers, many of them college students around their age, chatter as they collect the last necessities they need before they head home for the holidays. Their conversation is easy and comfortable, friends among friends among friends. Feng Xi and Wu Xian, on the other hand, circle through the sections with barely any words at all.
Occasionally, Wu Xian casts a sidelong look at him. Feng Xi knows he wants to speak—likely to ask him what’s wrong. But Feng Xi shifts his head to the side and doesn’t look back. The old revelation echoes in his mind. He detests his jealousy, the unfamiliar sensation eating away at his pride. He shouldn’t be feeling it; he had long ignored such romantic attachments for his own pursuits. And most of all, why did all his romantic feelings have to center around Wu Xian?
Gathering his needed items, fortunately, does not take as much time as Feng Xi has been spending on these feelings. Feng Xi’s frequented the department store plenty enough that circling over to the gardening section and collecting the needed fertilizers takes only a few minutes. They both take some cereal. It’s only when they’re perusing the winterwear that Wu Xian finally speaks.
“I think I’ll head over to another section. I need to keep looking for what I need. Go and check out without me.”
Feng Xi nods, slightly surprised, slightly disappointed. “I’ll wait by the entrance, then.”
By the glass doorway, Feng Xi looks out at the cold, gray sky. Rain’s coming soon, he thinks. He wonders what he’ll have to say when Wu Xian returns. His mind wanders back to their apartment, suddenly and irritatingly chilled by the week’s revelations. He feels eager to go home for the holidays—to warmth, to family, and to far away from the source of his new frightening feelings.
He hears some quiet steps from behind him. “Take out your hands, Feng Xi,” Wu Xian says.
Feng Xi, in slight confusion, obeys him.
A small clay pot is deposited in his waiting palms. Smooth and polished white, it feels cool to the touch. In the dark soil grows a equally small plant—an aeonium succulent, its red-rimmed rosettes forming a multi-layered radial.
“What’s this for?” Feng Xi asks, inspecting it more closely.
“Think of it as a peace offering,” Wu Xian says. “I’m sorry for causing you trouble this weekend. I should have better at remembering to bring the mushrooms. I know you went out of your way; I’m grateful you brought what I forgot over.“
Feng Xi stares at the succulent. “That isn’t the issue at all. I was happy to help.”
“Mn. Then...” Wu Xian thinks aloud, his perfect brows knitting, “I’m sorry for drinking more than half of the sugarcane juiceboxes you bought. I know you like those a lot. They were really tasty.”
Feng Xi frowns and narrows his eyes. “I didn’t even know you did that. Is that why I finished them earlier than I expected?”
“Oh. Forget all about that, then. What’s the issue?” Wu Xian asks. His eyes shine with genuine concern. “Feng Xi, don’t be so stubborn. Let me know and I’ll do my best to fix it.”
Feng Xi tucks his scarf over his mouth. Certainly, as they head outside, the weather will be cold; the warmth against his cheeks should remain hidden from it and from Wu Xian’s view.
“I can’t tell you.” Wu Xian had done nothing wrong to him. “But...” Feng Xi continues, cradling the succulent more closely to him, “you’ve been forgiven already.”
As Wu Xian’s eyes widen, Feng Xi turns his back to him and walks to the door.
“Let’s go home soon. It’ll rain if we stay here for too long.”
Perhaps it wasn’t too bad to be one of Wu Xian’s admirers after all.
stage 5: acceptance
A documentary on kingfishers is airing on their dorm’s sole television. Together, Wu Xian and Feng Xi crowd close on the modest couch. Feng Xi states that it is good to always learn more about the living beings in this world. Wu Xian notes that the way that Feng Xi’s eyes dilate when he looks at the screen reminds him greatly of a panther looking at their next meal. “Shush,” is Feng Xi’s retort back at him.
On screen, several small, featherless baby birds waddle around in their nest. Their mother distributes the fish, and they gobble it up with gusto.
“You know, there’s one last thing I’ve been wondering,” Feng Xi says. “Have you been seeing anyone recently?”
“No,” Wu Xian says. “Not in a while.”
“Oh.” Feng Xi’d thought so, but Wu Xian had certainly surprised him far too much this week. He’s glad this assumption had turned out to be true. “For how long?”
“About two years. Give or take a few weeks.”
Feng Xi tilts his head to the side. “Why?”
The scene on the television transitions. The birds on screen have grown a little older, their parents in miniature. They flutter their turquoise wings in their nest. The narrator says they’re beginning to get hungry again, this time to hunt their own food.
Wu Xian turns his head. “You’ve certainly had a lot of questions about my love life recently. It’s almost as if you want to be a part of it.”
Feng Xi feels all at once too seen, too exposed. In an attempt to regain his composure, he crosses his arms over each other. “Is it not alright to be curious?”
Wu Xian smirks. “Curiosity is often a spark from a fire of hidden intentions.”
“I don’t have anything to hide.”
“Spoken like all the people who do.”
“As well as all the people who don’t!”
Wu Xian places a hand on his heart. “I promise that the secret you’re keeping will be safe with me, Feng Xi.”
Feng Xi huffs, scrunching up his nose. The tone of Wu Xian’s voice and his stupid smile were doing unfortunate things to his heart. He leans his head on Wu Xian’s shoulder. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you? “
“You make it too easy,” Wu Xian says, tucking an errant strand of Feng Xi’s hair back behind his ear.
Feng Xi clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “How far I’ve fallen, to be taunted by you. You should consider what you do to other people’s feelings.”
“Aren’t you the one who ought to be more careful? All the time I spend with you has me falling more in love with you.”
The young kingfishers dive in the water on the TV. The narrator continues, “Unfortunately, many young kingfishers die within days of fledging, their first dives leaving them so waterlogged so they end up drowning...”
Next to Feng Xi, Wu Xian inclines his head with a dignified grace. “I think it’s time for me to call it a night.”
Feng Xi sits stock-still, his blood rushing through his veins. In his chest, his heart pulses painfully fast.
Wu Xian rises from the couch, turns his back towards Feng Xi, and then calmly walks face-first into his bedroom door with a loud smack.
The sound breaks Feng Xi out of his trance. He pushes himself off the couch and follows Wu Xian. “Repeat what you said again.”
Wu Xian touches the bridge of his nose and grimaces. “I think it’s time for me to call it a night?”
Feng Xi scowls. “Of course not.” He steps forward, pinning Wu Xian against the door with one arm. "If you liked me, why did you never mention it?"
Wu Xian swallows. “Everyone else I've ever dated asked me first," he confesses. He adds shamelessly, “I am very good-looking.”
Feng Xi sighs, feeling weary. “So, you really don’t know how to ask anyone out, do you?”
Wu Xian nods his head.
“And you don’t really know how to seduce people at all.”
“And those two years you were single…were because you were waiting for me to fall in love with you.”
Wu Xian looks to the side for a while, closing his eyes. His posture is calm, his face just as perfect. But his hands are shaking ever so slightly.
“It’s alright if you don’t accept my feelings,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry if I made you upset.” He nods. “Let’s just forget it, Feng Xi. In the future, I won’t bring any of this up—“
All his apologies end when Feng Xi wraps his arms around him.
“You fool,” Feng Xi breathes, “you bastard. If you only told me earlier, we would be together by now.”
“Feng Xi...” Wu Xian murmurs.
“I like you,” Feng Xi declares. “I’m jealous of the others who dated you. And most of all, I want to have you all to myself. So, Wu Xian,” he continues, “I will definitely be with you.”
Wu Xian doesn’t speak, but he brings his hands up and around Feng Xi’s back, embracing him in return. A smile forms on his lips—small, delicate, but still full of sweetness.
It’s too embarrassing for Feng Xi to stare at for a while, so Feng Xi closes his eyes and kisses him. This has the unfortunate side effect of making Wu Xian’s smile grow even wider when their lips part, so Feng Xi ends up kissing him again, and again, and again. And by the time Wu Xian begins kissing his cheek, Feng Xi might have even had a smile of his own.
“—So, I wrote and even turned in my final essay ahead of time, but that lit TA wouldn’t accept it!” Xuan Li cries in frustration, burying his hands in his hair and planting his face on the coffee shop table. “I think I’m going to get held back again! He kept saying strange things about it ‘needing to be on topic’ or it ‘being basically a guidebook on fitness routines instead of the actual book’—oh, hi Wu Xian.”
“You’re a little later than expected,” Lao Jun remarks, looking up from his most recent volume of Dragon Ball Z. Wu Xian, typically prim and put together, arrives at their table sporting a red nose and forehead, a swollen mouth, and a very high turtleneck. “Didn’t you schedule this lunch yourself?”
Wu Xian nods, taking a seat. “I initially wanted to chew you guys out. But...I got distracted," he says dreamily. "Thank you."
“Oh, no problem! Gratitude is always accepted.” Xuan Li grabs a stuffed bun and chews it. He notes Wu Xian’s appearance and elbows him. “But hey. You sure look like you were in a fight. Who won?”
Wu Xian touches his mouth thoughtfully.