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why don't you just meet me (in the middle)

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    Zhengting is disappointed in all of his children.

    When Quanzhe asked him to join the rest of the Yuehua trainees in Studio B for a quote-on-quote ‘group therapy session’, Zhengting had been proud . Surprised, sure, but excited that his kids were maturing nonetheless. They were all aggressively hard-working and didn’t know how to take care of themselves, and the idea that they could identify and try to resolve the problem satiated the deep motherly instincts within him. Besides, it’s not like he would’ve been able to say no to Quanzhe anyway - he pretends not to pick favorites, but he has a specific order of who he would save in a house fire and Quanzhe has been dominating the top spot ever since Justin stopped listening to him.

    Actually, on second thought - Zhengting might have to hand the spot to Wenjun instead, because Quanzhe is a traitor, a filthy traitor, no matter how precious he is or how fluffy his cheeks are.

    “I am disappointed,” he begins, putting his hands on his hips and staring disapprovingly at the occupants of the room, “in all of you.”

    Fan Chengcheng points directly at Justin and says, “it was his idea.”

    Justin blanches, before smacking Chengcheng’s leg and hissing, “that’s a lie and you know it. Ge,” directed at Zhengting now, “it was everyone’s idea.”

    Zhengting points at Zeren, who startles and raises his hands in surrender. “Even you?”

    Zeren shrugs apologetically. “They bribed me with food.”

    Zhengting huffs, hand on the door and ready to leave, before something catches his eye. “Is that… a whiteboard?”

    Quanzhe nods. “Zhou Rui lent it to us,” he says. Zhengting tries to glare at him, too, but he is weak and Quanzhe is way cuter than any filthy seventeen-year-old traitor should reasonably be. He ends up re-directing his glare to Justin instead, out of sheer force of habit.

    “Why does Zhou Rui own a- you know what, never mind.” He squints. “Why does it say… XingTing? Zhu Squared? I swear to god, did you take snacks from the Qin’s Ent. trainees again because I already told you they can’t be trusted -”

    “You should date Jie-ge,” Justin interrupts bluntly.

    Multiple things happen in response to this statement. Everyone starts nodding enthusiastically. The room’s temperature rises by a few degrees. In the studio next door, someone lets out a blood-curdling screech to the tune of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. Zhengting reminds himself that Justin is a teenager , and teenagers are prone to disrespecting their parents.

    “I’m leaving,” Zhengting says.

    “No, wait!” Xinchun shouts.

    “I know you work really hard…” Zeren starts, like approaching a vaguely rabid dog.

    “And you’re really busy-” Quanzhe continues. Zhengting feels pain at losing his favorite child.

    “That’s why you haven’t dated in a while-”

    “-so we were thinking one day, who here could Zhengting-ge date?”

    “-and at first they were really what-if scenarios, like, shitpost-level scenarios-”

    “-but then we started talking about how you and Xingjie have the same last name, so if you get married you won’t have to change anything legally-”

    “-and then the more we talked about it the more we realized-”

    “-he’s perfect for you, Zhengting-ge. Come on, just give it a try, we’ll buy you-”

    Zhengting, unfortunately, doesn’t hear the tail end of the offer, because that’s approximately when he leaves, thinking up methods of non-physical torture he could inflict on whoever coordinated this- this blasphemy . This betrayal. This complete neglect towards everything he’s ever done for them, all the stress they’ve put him through-

    “Everything okay?”

    Zhengting craves death. Zhengting legitimately wants to die.

    “No, uh… yes,” he says, the syllables coming out tense. Why does this have to happen to him? Why do the gods conspire to punish him so frequently? “Um, I’m fine.”

    Across from him, having just left the adjacent studio, Xingjie raises an eyebrow. Zhengting’s eyes are suddenly very, very dry. “Are you sure? Because you seem…” he moves his arms around in a vague gesture. “Stressed,” he finishes.

    Zhengting responds, in a high-pitched voice, “I’m not. Really. I, uh… I have to go to the washroom, bye!”

    With that, he turns on his heel and runs as fast as he can, Xingjie’s confused “um, okay?” trailing behind him.

--

It’s not that Zhengting actively avoids Xingjie. It really isn’t.

They run into each other a lot - Justin and Chengcheng know Xingjie and Zeren knows Yanchen who knows Xingjie and Zhangjing knows everyone, so he shouldn’t really even count. Point is, they have their fair share of awkward run-ins throughout the day, mostly off-camera, where they’ll look at each other for a second and then walk faster. Sometimes he’ll go visit the other Yuehua dorm and Xingjie will be there, laughing at Chengcheng or bopping with Justin, and he’ll have to do a quick 180 and leave because - well, that’s awkward on a lot of levels.

And it’s not like Zhengting doesn’t notice him, per se - it’s hard not to, with the aggressive undercut and even more aggressive resting bitch face. Sometimes the rest of the kids’ll be fooling around and Zhengting will experience one of those rare moments where he’s alone, and he’ll find his eyes wandering the massive pyramid of seats. Usually, something happens that’ll distract him before his gaze settles, but sometimes - not often - he’ll look just a row down and one seat over, to where he knows Xingjie will be sitting.

Does that mean he likes him? No. Definitely not. Gazes linger often between the contestants, when the cameras are off and they’re not forced to pretend, because that’s what happens when you stick a bunch of attractive young people in an enclosed space. He’s only admiring what is undoubtedly a very nice view. His traitorous children are wrong .

(And if he thinks XingTing is actually a pretty nice ship name - well, he won’t admit it.)

--

Zhengting is coming back from the vending machine, happily chewing on an overpriced protein bar, when he catches Justin in the midst of sneaking out of his room.

“You know there’s two hours until curfew, right?” Zhengting’s voice startles Justin, evident from the way he yelps and spins around like he’s been caught defacing school property. “No need to be so secretive.”

Justin, surprisingly enough, doesn’t offer any sarcastic teenager-y response, just says, “please don’t disown me.”

Zhengting’s about to ask what have you done to disappoint me now when a familiar voice says, “oh hey, Zhengting.”

Zhengting stares directly at Justin, who looks like he’s bracing himself for impact. “How could you,” he says.

He continues glaring at Justin until Xingjie comes up behind him, their shoulders bumping in the narrow hallway. Zhengting turns, albeit reluctantly, and has to take a few steps back because Xingjie’s face is much closer than he’d like it to be. “I’m taking Justin out for dinner,” Xingjie greets by way of explanation, waving his wallet in the air as proof.

Zhengting frowns. “Why are you stealing my children,” he says simply.

A look of surprise and confusion flits across Xingjie’s face before he laughs, severe features softening into something that resembles actual sunshine. He steps closer, which makes Zhengting very, very nervous. “Children can have two parents, you know,” he says, the corners of his mouth turning up in amusement.

“Yes, but what if I don’t want to have children with you,” Zhengting refutes.

“We can adopt.” Xingjie gestures at Justin, who Zhengting realizes is just standing there watching them, the most horrifying smile Zhengting has ever witnessed in his 22 years of living spreading across his face. “It’s not like he has my genes, anyway. I didn’t look that good when I was fifteen.”

“It’s okay, nobody did,” Zhengting says. “He’s an anomaly.”

Xingjie laughs again. “Agreed. Alright, I’ll see you.” He touches Zhengting’s arm for a brief, amplified second before turning to Justin. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Justin says. “Thanks, dad,” he adds as an afterthought, which directs all the heat from where Xingjie’s hand had been to the part of Zhengting that stores all of his Justin-related anger.

They walk away, Xingjie shoving at Justin’s shoulder, saying something about how ‘you should never call me dad again because Zhengting is literally going to murder me’. Zhengting stares after them for a bit, before Wenjun yells something and he has to go be a responsible mother again.

--

“I don’t think it’s as bad as you say it is,” Xukun tells him, chewing thoughtfully. It’s kind of gross - Zhengting wonders how much of his fanbase he would lose if the cameras were on. “They still look up to you, don’t they?”

Zhengting wrinkles his nose. “Unlikely.” He prods at Xukun’s bare shin with an ice-cold  toe, and gets a yelp in response. “I’ve already lost Justin. Chengcheng is a little shit. Xinchun and Wenjun are just kind of neutral about the whole thing. What if he takes Quanzhe? I can’t lose Quanzhe.”

Xukun makes a face and swats at his arm in retaliation. “Are you sure it’s not you he’s taking?”

Zhengting chokes on nothing. “What?”

Xukun shrugs. “I agree with them,” he says, effectively cancelling their friendship. “You guys would be cute together. You have to admit-” he attempts to spin around in his chair, only for Zhengting to kick the entire thing over and send him tumbling onto his bed with a screech.

“What would I admit?” Zhengting asks, rather forcefully pushing a foot past the curtain of clothes and resting it on Xukun’s thigh.

“This is domestic abuse, ” Xukun enunciates, voice muffled. “Also,” he emerges from behind his shirts, significantly less well-put-together than a second ago, “you have to admit he’s hot.”

Zhengting feels himself turning red. “He’s okay,” he lies. “Um. I’ve seen better?”

Xukun rolls his eyes. “Please. I’ve seen you stare at him when you think no one’s watching. You could smell your thirst from a mile away.”

“Are you okay?” Zhengting asks, feigning concern. “I think you might have a fever, you’re obviously not in your right mind-”

“Oh my god, get out of my room,” Xukun says.

--

“Oh my god, get out of my room,” Zhengting says, massaging his temples.

“What are you talking about? This is my room now,” Xiao Gui replies easily, dropping a sleeping bag onto the floor. He gestures to Yanchen, who very reluctantly sits down beside him, rolling out a sleeping bag of his own. Zhengting mimes heartbreak at him. “We switch rooms all the time. This would’ve happened eventually.”

“Yes, but this is my room ,” Zhengting says desperately, trying to come up with more concrete reasons when Quanzhe approaches him.

“Be honest, ge,” he says gently, which automatically sets off every alarm in Zhengting’s poor self-preservation system, “you just don’t want to sleep in the same room as Xingjie.”

Ohhhhh? ” Xiao Gui, somehow already bundled up in his sleeping bag so he resembles a grossly overgrown worm, wiggles his eyebrows at them. “What is this about Zhengting and Xingjie?”

“Oh, nothing,” Zeren says nonchalantly, stepping through the clutter like he could do it with his eyes closed. “Just that we think they’d be really cute-”

“-really cute together?” Yanchen looks thoughtful for a second. Zhengting wonders if it’s the light that’s making his cheeks appear so gaunt, or if there’s something Yanchen isn’t telling him. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” he concludes.

“I think so too!” Xiao Gui says, and the smile that slides onto his face reminds Zhengting, like a war flashback, of Justin. “Go, Zhengting. Go consummate your marriage.”

Zhengting stares at him in horror. “How did your parents raise you?”

Xiao Gui waves him off, shouting “treat him right!” as he leaves.

--

“Um,” Zhengting says.

“Hi,” Xingjie responds.

They stare at each other for a moment, before Zhengting gives up and plows through, dropping everything he’d brought from his room onto a bed. “My children are all traitors,” he sighs dramatically. “I’ve been forsaken by the gods.”

Behind him, Xingjie closes the door. “To be fair, mine aren’t any better.” He sits down on the floor, crossing his legs, and sighs. “Yanchen isn’t young enough to reasonably listen to me, Xiao Gui is a little shit, and Yankai left a few weeks ago. I’d trade mine for yours any day.”

“Deal,” Zhengting narrows his eyes. “You don’t know what it’s like. They’re all stupid, young and think that-”

Xingjie stares. “Think what?”

That I should date you , Zhengting thinks. “Nothing.” He stands up. “So how do we make this not awkward? We don’t exactly know each other.”

Xingjie shrugs. “We could change that.” He gets to his feet, too - Zhengting realizes, with manic glee, that he’s a little shorter. “What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue,” Zhengting replies. Xingjie wrinkles his nose, and he adds, defensively, “so what if it’s popular? It’s nice. What’s your favorite season?”

“Autumn,” Xingjie says. “I can’t handle the summers here. What’s your favorite food?”

“Snack or dish?” Zhengting asks, and it launches them into a conversation that carries for the better part of an hour. Xingjie talks about his music for five minutes and Zhengting about dance and his kids, and they spend about a minute mimicking each other in the first group evaluation before Xingjie starts laughing at Zhengting so hard he has to lie down.

It’s nice. Xingjie has a nice laugh, Zhengting finds, and his smile is even softer when Zhengting is the cause of it. There’s a point where Xingjie jabs at his stomach in retaliation and then yells at him for a whole minute because “those abs are not real ,” and Zhengting just has to pray that Xingjie doesn’t notice how red he is from the poorly concealed praise. He is, against his better judgment, is starting to understand why his kids ship them so much.

It’s well past the point of no return when Zhengting asks, syllables muddled by sleep, “what’s a secret you’ve never told anyone?” When Xingjie tenses, he adds hastily, “you don’t have to tell me. I’m sorry I asked, I probably crossed a line-”

“No,” Xingjie interrupts, voice soft. “No, it’s okay. I… sometimes it feels like no one notices me. I know, it’s a,” his chuckle is dry, “a pretty teenage-angst problem to have, right?”

“I notice you,” Zhengting interrupts. I’ve always noticed you . “And people- people notice you, too. Hell, you got 6th overall for ‘Dance to the Music’. You have to admit that’s something. Even Kunkun only got 8th.”

Xingjie brushes his hair out of his face, and the way he looks back at Zhengting is so intense it freezes him in place. “You notice me, huh?” he asks, and it’s meant to be threatening but comes out uncertain.

Zhengting looks away before sitting up, close enough that their knees could touch if he really wanted them to. “It’s hard not to,” he mumbles.

Xingjie leans imperceptibly closer. His facial structure is really, really intense, Zhengting notices; all of a sudden, it’s no surprise that half the contestants are scared of him. Zhengting is kind of scared of him, too.

Xingjie pauses. Zhengting wonders, for a hysterical second, if they’re going to kiss - then he’s jabbing a finger into Zhengting’s side and yelling, “what was that? You’re so cheesy , Zhengting, I’m going to die -”

“I hate you ,” Zhengting screeches, climbing back onto the nearest bed and kicking his legs out in self-defense. Xingjie follows, hitting him but not really, too busy dodging his feet to land any of his blows. “This is what I get for trying to help you, I am being assaulted -”

Xingjie stills his movements; Zhengting thinks he’s finally relented before he’s grabbing his ankles and yanking him off the bed, sending him crashing to the floor without mercy. He pretends to be hurt, but the facade doesn’t last long when he’s laughing so hard; in his defense, Xingjie is too, wheezing someplace close to him.

Finally, when they’ve both worked their way through their spontaneous bouts of laughter and are catching their breath on the floor, Xingjie says, “Alright, it’s time to go to sleep. Who’s washing up first?”

Zhengting climbs to his feet, pointing an accusatory finger down. “You are a bully ,” he says. “I’m going first. Don’t follow me!”

“As if I would ,” Xingjie calls back, throwing a pillow at him just as the door closes.

--

    “So?” Quanzhe sidles up to him the next morning, beaming widely. “How was your night?”

    “Terrible,” Zhengting tells him, pulling him close anyway. “Neither of us said anything the entire time. It was so awkward I wanted to die.”

    “Liar,” Quanzhe says, waving to a contestant who greets him. Zhengting tries to quell his swelling pride. “You’re practically glowing. Oh my god, you like him !”

    He takes that back. Justin is once again the reigning Favorite Child, because Quanzhe is a terrible person with no sense of volume control. “I do not ,” he emphasizes, shoving Quanzhe’s head lightly. “He’s a nice guy and I get why you guys all like him, but that doesn’t mean I want to date him or anything. Sure, he’s cute or whatever, and I admire his stage presence and his rapping, and if we were to get together we’d be a solid power couple and- oh my god.” The realization dawns on him like a storm descending on an unassuming rural village. “I like him.”

    Quanzhe, bless him, doesn’t say anything, just pats his shoulder comfortingly. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t tell Justin.”

--

    “You can’t date Xingjie,” Justin tells him.

    Zhengting glares at Quanzhe, who raises his hands in defense and says, “he figured it out himself. To be fair, ge, you’re really bad at hiding it-”

    Zhengting buries his face in his hands. “Oh my god, shut up,” he mumbles. This is why he doesn’t date. This is why he doesn’t get attracted to anyone, period, because he has six shitty teenagers to tease him mercilessly about it. “I’m disowning all of you-”

    “Really, though, you can’t,” Justin continues, stepping forward and edging him further into the hallway. “I thought about it and if you guys started dating you’d be really gross and sappy and I can’t handle that, you’re our mother, you’re supposed to be single forever-”

    “You are,” Zhengting tells him with passion, “my least favorite child.”

    “Don't bully Justin, he's a baby,” Xingjie says from the hallway.

    Justin snorts. Zhengting falls over.

    “I’m suing you for emotional harassment,” he accuses as Xingjie helps him up, mouth wobbling as he tries not to laugh. “Haven’t you scared enough people today?”

    “Nah, gotta get my daily quota in,” Xingjie retorts, just as a widely grinning Fan Chengcheng emerges from behind him. Zhengting feels vaguely like he’s being cornered. “We’re going out for lunch, wanna come?”

    Zhengting narrows his eyes at him, trying to find a suitable reason not to. Finally, when nothing comes up, he says and says, “Fine. Justin, you coming?”

--

    This was a mistake. Coming along was a mistake. Zhengting needs to stop making his own decisions.

    They’ve been walking for close to ten minutes and all Chengcheng and Justin have done is hang back, forcing Zhengting to walk alongside Xingjie. Which isn’t bad in itself - Xingjie is nice company, and Zhengting was getting sick of his kids anyway - if it weren’t for the fact that they keep not-so-covertly wiggling their eyebrows at him, mouthing ‘go get ‘em’ and making obscene hand gestures. At some point, Zhengting just stops acknowledging them in general.

    Oh, and there’s also this: Xingjie is wearing a scarf. Not the fancy silk ones that Zhengting remembers his mom wearing to work, but a long-ass pile of wool and cotton that Xingjie has to wrap around his neck multiple times. Zhengting is really finding it hard to concentrate, because Xingjie keeps burrowing into his scarf and looking much softer than anyone with those cheekbones has the right to look. Zhengting feels the urge to protect him, which is problematic because a) he’s two years older and b) Zhengting is romantically attracted to him.

    It’s a little overwhelming. Zhengting thinks he might faint.

    They reach their destination eventually, which turns out to just be a nearby Starbucks that only sells half the holiday specials. Zhengting whines about this for a few minutes before Xingjie rolls his eyes at him, at which point he’s rendered incapable of speaking. Somewhere in the near distance, Justin and Chengcheng cackle at his plight.

    Xingjie orders a medium black, because of course he does. Chengcheng gets a caramel macchiato, because of course he does. Justin and Zhengting get twin vanilla lattes. “That’s gross, you’re like a couple,” Chengcheng tells them.

    “That’s gross, he’s my mother,” Justin replies easily, and Zhengting laughs and resists the urge to loop his arm around Xingjie’s.

--

    The next round of evaluations thunders in, and Xingjie disappears - to be fair, Zhengting does too, spending most of his time in the studio and only walking the halls late at night. Some of his groupmates pose a threat, especially Chaoze, who’s a good friend and even better dancer. Zhengting caches Chaoze eyeing him, sometimes, and it only pushes him to work harder, to practice longer.

    Days fall into each other, the dorms only coming alive at night when everyone shuffles back to their rooms in exhaustion. Zhengting worries a decent amount - is Quanzhe eating enough? Is Zeren overworking himself? Can Justin handle the pressure of being with such powerful groupmates?

    He worries a decent amount. But he doesn’t worry enough.

    He’s getting ready to leave for rehearsals when Xukun bursts into his room, eyes frantic. “It’s Yanchen,” is the only thing he says, but it’s enough to make the world implode.

--

    When Zhengting reaches the rehearsal stage there’s already an ambulance parked out front, lights throwing blue and red across the night sky. It doesn’t take him long to push past the crowd of people; takes him even less time to get Yanchen to look at him, shouting his name until his throat burns.

    Of course , he thinks, getting as close as the medical personnel will allow him to. He thinks back to that day in his room, where Yanchen had looked thinner than he’d ever been and Zhengting had said nothing. What kind of self-proclaimed mother is he if he can’t take care of one of his closest friends? “I’m sorry,” he tells him. “I’m sorry.”

    “Get out of the way!”

    Yanchen looks up at the sound, as does Zhengting; it’s barely enough warning before someone is barreling through the wall of people and pulling Yanchen close, movements suddenly gentle in light of his condition. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Zhengting hears Xingjie whisper, in a voice that sounds close to tears. “Stupid, stupid, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you listen to me? I would’ve stayed up with you, I would’ve made you sleep more, I would’ve-”

    “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to clear the way,” one of the paramedics says, just as Zhengting calls, “Xingjie.”

    Xingjie steps out of the way reluctantly, meeting Zhengting’s eye for a single, suspended moment, backlit by the blue and red lights of the ambulance. By the time Zhengting finds the words to say, he’s already gone.

--

    Zhengting wanders the dorms aimlessly after that; at some point, a staff member hands him her phone so he can call Yanchen. He finds an isolated corner to sit in, and listens to the line ringing; Yanchen picks up quickly enough, and he makes sure he’s okay before yelling at him. Yanchen laughs at everything he says with a shaky but genuine voice, and they talk for as long as they can until the doctors force him to hang up so he can sleep.

    When he starts searching for Xingjie, it doesn’t take him long to find him; Zhengting takes the stairs straight up to the roof and he’s already there, leaning against the railing like some movie star, suit jacket flapping in the wind.

    Zhengting is barely within earshot when Xingjie says, “it’s supposed to be my job.”

    “Xingjie,” Zhengting starts.

    “No, wait,” Xingjie interrupts. “When Yanchen joined the company his mom made me promise to take care of him. What kind of leader am I if- Yanchen overworks himself because he never thinks he’s good enough. It’s my job to tell him otherwise. I-”

    “Hey,” Zhengting says. He doesn’t try to refute his points, doesn’t try sticking his nose in a friendship that runs deeper than he has the right to comprehend - just repeats, “hey,” and wraps his arms around Xingjie before he can think much of it.

    Xingjie tenses for a second before relaxing, leaning into Zhengting like he’s the only thing keeping him upright. He’s warm, almost unbearably so, and fragile in that moment; breakable, once all the charisma and pretense has been stripped away from him. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “God, I’m so embarrassing.”

    Zhengting laughs. “Yanchen asked about you, you know,” he says. “They let me call him because they couldn’t find you. He’s worried about you.”

    “Of course he is,” Xingjie says. They pull apart. “That idiot. Sometimes I wish they’d let him date so someone could just make him love himself. He deserves it.” His voice goes soft. “He deserves better than this.”

    Zhengting hums, and they lean on the railing together, silent.

--

    “What, no welcome-back party?” Yanchen jokes weakly, standing in the doorway.

    Zhengting shoots to his feet; next to him, Xingjie does the same. “No party,” Zhengting says. “I’m making you sleep .”

    “I’m locking you in our room,” Xingjie agrees, going to hug him. He is really short, Zhengting notes with amusement; average height for a regular guy, but tiny by this show’s standards. “I’m drugging you so you sleep for 24 hours.”

    “That’s a coma,” Yanchen says, laughing a little.

    Sounds perfect, ” Xingjie replies. “And then I’m going to yell at you for another 12 hours when you wake up.”

    “Don’t worry, that already happened at the hospital,” Yanchen assures, before peering into the studio suspiciously. “Are you guys alone in here?”

    Zhengting shrugs, ignoring the look Yanchen shoots him. “We’re just hanging out,” he says. “Performances are over.”

    Yanchen grins at him. Zhengting feels dread seep into his stomach. “Ah, yes,” he says slowly, “hanging out. I'm sure that's what you're doing.”

    “What else would we be doing?” Xingjie asks. Zhengting would murder Yanchen if he weren’t so concerned about his health.

    “Nothing,” Yanchen says cheerfully. “I’m going to go sleep and try not to get mobbed. Have fun… hanging out.”

    “No, wait,” Xingjie says, putting a hand on Zhengting’s elbow apologetically. He touches Zhengting’s arm a lot; when he’s saying goodbye and hello, when he’s laughing in the middle of a particularly corny joke. Zhengting would be lying if he says he minds it. “I’ll go with you. See you later, Zhengting.”

    Right before they leave, Yanchen sidles up to him and whispers, “sorry for stealing your man.” Zhengting threatens to throw his shoe at him.

--

    When Zhengting finds Xingjie again it’s in his room, chair pulled up to Yanchen’s bed. Yanchen is asleep there, one hand in Xingjie’s; Zhengting catches the tail end of a song as he walks in, pausing by the doorway.

    Xingjie prides himself in how intimidating he is - he’s got that rapper charisma, that stage presence, that facial structure - but it’s hard to see him as anything other than gentle when he’s like this, singing Yanchen to sleep while holding his hand. The room is dark - all the lights are off, except for a single desk lamp in the corner - but the worry in his eyes is clear, cuts through the shadows as he stands up slowly and places Yanchen’s hand at his side.

It feels vulnerable, intimate in a way that makes Zhengting duck back out into the hallway when he sees him approaching; makes him pretend like he didn’t see anything when Xingjie says, a little surprised, “hey. Were you looking for me?”

“How can I look for you when I don’t want to see you?” Zhengting retorts. Xingjie rolls his eyes. “Everything okay?”

Xingjie's expression softens. “He's fine. Took his meds and knocked out pretty quick. How are you?”

“Okay,” Zhengting says. He’s not sure if it’s the truth. Then, “Wanna get out of here?”

--

“No, really, it was awful ,” Xingjie says, stealing some ice cream out of Zhengting’s cup. Zhengting would yell at him, but he’s a loser with a crush and Xingjie looks unfairly good without any makeup on. “I wasn’t just bald bald, I had like, varying degrees of bald on my head. It was a topographical map on my scalp. And don’t even get me started on my eyebrows-

Zhengting laughs, leaning his head against the window and wondering if this counts as a date. If one party considers it a date it has to be a date, right? Even if Xingjie doesn’t know it’s a date. Even if Xingjie doesn’t know Zhengting wants it to be a date. He’s allowed to pretend, right?

He says, “can I see your hand for a sec?”

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck . Way to be subtle, Zhengting, way to scare him off-

“Sure,” Xingjie says, and then he’s sliding his hand across the table, smile confused. “Why?”

Zhengting desperately shovels ice cream into his mouth in an attempt to cool himself down before taking Xingjie’s hand, putting their fingers against each other and dying a little because- wow. Xingjie has really small hands. “Oh my god,” he says.

“Oh, my god,” Xingjie echoes, pulling his hand away. “I get it, I get it, my hands are tiny, I’m tiny, no need to rub it in-”

“You’re so cute. ” This is fine, Zhengting thinks. This is fine. He calls his kids cute all the time, what’s wrong with calling Xingjie cute too? “You’re so cute, oh my god , you’re so small -”

“I’m leaving,” Xingjie threatens, pointing at him. “I’m only 3cm shorter than you, you bastard , we aren’t friends anymore.”

Zhengting cackles rather unattractively, but Xingjie doesn’t seem to notice because he’s too busy throwing balled-up napkins at him. They end up getting kicked out- but Zhengting doesn’t mind, not really, not when there is warmth in his cheeks and laughter filling his chest.

--

“Oh my God,” Quanzhe says when they push through the doors, Zhengting’s glasses fogging up in the sudden temperature change, “you guys went on a date .”

Zhengting points at him, while Xingjie just laughs - not exactly denying it , the unreasonable part of Zhengting’s brain whispers. “I take care of you . I treat you to food all the time, and this is how you-”

“Can I be the ringbearer at your wedding?” At this point, Zhengting isn’t sure if he’s serious or not - his eyes have started shining, and his smile is wide enough to fool his actual biological mother. “Also, can Jie-ge wear a dress because I’d love to see that-”

“In your dreams, punk,” Xingjie says, ruffling his hair affectionately. They smile at each other for a bit, and it almost feels as if Quanzhe has found another parent.

That’s it. Zhengting’s in love. Quanzhe likes him, therefore Zhengting is in love.

But of course, that’s when Fan Chengcheng with his dumb face comes around the corner, ruining the moment. “Is this a wedding I’m hearing about? Can I be the flower girl?”

Behind him, Justin pouts. “I wanted to be the flower girl!”

“Clearly I’m flower girl, fuck off,” Zeren retaliates, elbowing his way through the sudden crowd that’s formed around them and winking at Xingjie. “You’ll throw the bouquet at me, right?”

“Of course,” Xingjie says, laughing. Zhengting realizes abruptly that he hasn’t said anything in a while, then wonders if he can - because he’s a little breathless, a little dizzy, at everything that’s happening right now.

Quanzhe points it out first. “Wow, you guys are like a real mom and dad now, huh?”

Zhengting stiffens. Xingjie notices, mouths a little ‘are you okay?’, and that’s about all he can handle.

“Sorry, I have to go,” he says, elbowing his way through the kids. Their voices ring out behind him - Zeren, Quanzhe, even Chengcheng - but what echoes loudest is Xingjie’s silence, fading away as he leaves him behind.

--

When the knock comes, Zhengting considers staying silent. But then he hears, “It’s me. Are you okay?” and he couldn’t have kept the door closed if he’d wanted to.

He opens the door, and kind of dies a little. Because Xingjie looks good - he hadn’t noticed before, too busy having an emotional breakdown - hair all messy from the wind, sweater sleeves pulled over his hands. “I’m okay,” he lies. “I just need a little more time-”

“Wait,” Xingjie interrupts, putting his hand on the door just as Zhengting moves to close it. It’s kind of hot, and only makes his descent into insanity even faster. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I need to know. Why did you leave?”

“I can’t tell you,” Zhengting says. Neither of them move - the door cuts in between them, open but not really, blocking most of Xingjie’s face from view. “It wouldn’t make any sense.”

“I don’t care,” Xingjie says. “You know I won’t judge you.”

Zhengting glares. “You can’t say that. You can’t know for sure.”

“Zhengting.”

Zhengting feels his blood boil with something much stronger than anger. “Okay, fine. You know what? I don’t care anymore.” He swings the door open and Xingjie stumbles in, catching himself before they make contact. It propels Zhengting even further, and he closes the door, moving to stand in front of it. “The kids - mine, and yours too - they all think we should date. Not as a joke, or anything. They want us to be together. Okay? That’s it.” And I agree with them, he doesn’t say.

Xingjie doesn’t spare him any time to anticipate his answer - just laughs, rough and scraping, something burning in Zhengting’s chest as he steps closer, crowding him against the door. “That’s funny. That’s really funny, do you know that?”

“Fuck you,” Zhengting spits. Xingjie’s eyes widen, but he doesn’t recoil. “Get the fuck out, I-”

No, ” Xingjie’s really close now - Zhengting can see the flecks of brown in his eyes, even in the darkness of the badly lit room. “I’m not leaving until you listen to me. It’s funny, wanna know why?”

Zhengting stares back, defiant. “I don’t care-”

“Because,” Xingjie says, “I have liked you for months . I have liked you since you walked into the evaluation room in the first episode. I have liked you all this time, and you’ve never even looked at me.”

The ground tilts. Zhengting thinks he might be falling, except he’s also riding a ridiculous high. “Of course I’ve looked at you, you dumbass. I’ve always been looking at you. I just thought you weren’t looking back.”

“Oh my god.” Xingjie buries his face in his hands. “We’re both stupid,” he mumbles. “We’re both so stupid.”

“Can I kiss you?” Zhengting asks. Xingjie looks up so fast Zhengting thinks he hears his neck crack.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Why no- oh my god, I’m still wearing my stupid face mask, I can’t believe- why didn’t you tell me?” Zhengting is Chengcheng-level whining, punching Xingjie’s shoulder weakly as he laughs, in the soft way Zhengting has grown used to. “I hate you, so much, I can’t believe-”

“I’m going to kiss you,” Xingjie tells him, which shuts him up pretty effectively.

“Um, okay,” Zhengting says lamely, frozen in place with his back against the door as Xingjie tucks his thumbs under the edge of the mask, peeling it off like unveiling a bride. It would be all intense, but it’s a face mask and Xingjie is laughing under his breath a little, Zhengting giggling with him at how stupid and perfect everything is. He tosses it to the floor, and Zhengting says, “don’t do that, you litterer-”

“Shut up,” Xingjie says, but his voice is the fondest it’s ever been, warming Zhengting up in the cold room. He slides his hand around the back of his neck and tugs him down, down, down.

Down, down, down - Zhengting falls, and his heart does too.

--

A lot of things happen after that - but a lot of things also very notably don’t happen. At some point Xingjie pulls away, laughing when Zhengting whines and tries to chase him. “Wait, wait,” he says, out of breath, putting a hand on Zhengting’s mouth. “I have an idea.”

And, well - it’s a brilliant idea, really.

--

Xiao Gui is the first to go, letting out a high screech two days into the plan and running out of the studio.

“I can’t handle it anymore,” he says when he comes back, eyes wide and a little hysterical. “What is it between the two of you?”

Behind their backs, Xingjie squeezes Zhengting’s hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responds evenly, keeping a neutral expression. “Nothing’s happening.”

“That’s a lie ,” Xiao Gui says, pointing at them like he’s holding them at gunpoint. “I’ll figure it out, I swear - I’m watching you-”

“Of course you are,” Zhengting says placatingly. Xiao Gui does a weird little hop in frustration.

They wave until he’s disappeared down the hall, before letting out a collective cheer and high-fiving. “One down, seven to go,” Xingjie says, beaming so wide Zhengting feels he has no choice but to kiss him.

--

Quanzhe and Justin go down together, walking in to them hanging out in Zhengting’s room. “You know what, I don’t even care anymore,” Quanzhe says, raising his arms in surrender. “I know you guys are trying to drive me crazy. I just don’t know why .”

“What do you mean?” Zhengting asks innocently.

Justin snaps. “ Because ,” he says, voice taking on a frayed edge, “I keep- walking in on you two alone together, except it’s not really walking in because you guys aren’t doing anything, and it all feels weird and gross and I hate it. We hate it.”

Xingjie says, very sincerely. “We’re sorry you feel that way. If there’s anything you need from us-”

“You know what, nevermind,” Quanzhe says, taking Justin’s hand and dragging him out of the room. “Have fun not doing anything.”

--

The plan is slowly fulfilled, kid by kid, until everyone looks at him with suspicion and poorly concealed hysteria. It feels like an adequate time to complete the last step, so Zhengting calls for a Grammarie-Yuehua joint group therapy session in studio B.

They shuffle in, slow and suspicious, and sit down in a circle, the situation from a month ago suddenly reversed. “Why are we here ,” Yanchen asks. “Are you going to murder us? Are you going to sell us to slavery? Because I’d go for a lot, let’s be honest-”

“Shut up ,” Zeren says, but there’s no heat behind it. “Zhengting, what’s going on?”

“Where’s Jie ge?” Justin asks. “You guys are-”

“Always together,” the kids chorus. Zhengting resists the urge to squeal in delight.

“He’ll be here soon,” Zhengting says, looking up when the door clicks open. “Oh- there he is.”

He gets to his feet, feeling every pair of eyes in the room tracking him as he crosses the floor and grins. “You ready?” he says, quiet so the others won’t hear.

Xingjie smiles back. Zhengting kind of wants to melt - he’s starting to think that dating Xingjie is a health hazard. Like radioactive exposure or something. “When you are,” he responds.

“Got it,” Zhengting says loudly, angling his body so the others can’t see the wink he throws at Xingjie, who rolls his eyes and makes a ‘cancel yourself’ gesture with his hand. “Thanks, babe. ” He leans in, expectant, and Xingjie meets him halfway, smiling against his lips.

“Holy shit,” Yanchen says.

“Oh my god, ” Zeren says.

“Oh my god,” Chengcheng repeats, putting a hand up to shield Justin’s eyes.

“Is this real life?” Wenjun asks desperately, trying to revive a seemingly unconscious Xinchun.

Xiao Gui shouts incoherently. At some point, Quanzhe joins him.

They pull away but not really, snickering to each other amidst the chaos of the room. “Perfect,” Xingjie whispers, and look in his eyes makes Zhengting unsure if he’s talking about their reactions or him. Then: “you’re perfect,” and that clears things up a bit.

“Mhm,” Zhengting hums, cutting of Xingjie’s “you’re such a narcissist-” by taking his face in his hands and kissing him again. When he pulls back Xingjie’s eyes are closed, and that’s a sight he could write a whole album about.

But there’s no time- not really. So instead, Zhengting takes Xingjie’s hand, bumping their shoulders together. He turns back towards his kids, smiles, and says: “XingTing is a great ship name, isn’t it?”