Xiang Yong Ching fidgets where she stands, fingers curling under the hem of her floral blouse. With worried eyes, she watches her older brother— who looks and acts nothing like how she remembers him— pack his stuff for his hiking trip to the Himalayas. She hates these moments when he has to chase after the ghost of Xi Gu-Ge, always trying to lessen the distance between him and his Xiao Xing up in the sky.
He's always wanted to be with Yu Xi Gu. It didn't change even after his death. It still breaks her heart to think of that first year after the accident, how inconsolable her brother had been; how he nearly killed himself from the grief. It's a constant source of heartache and worry for their family whenever he leaves for these hiking trips because there was always that possibility of him not coming back.
It hangs over their heads, that devastating thought, too afraid to give it voice in the off chance that Hao Ting might get reminded that taking his life is still a way out to finally be reunited with the heart he lost.
It's a blessing and a curse when he found purpose in becoming everything Yu Xi Gu wanted to be. A blessing as it gave him reprieve from his sorrows, and a curse as he gave up on everything that made him Xiang Hao Ting, save for being the same highschool kid who never stopped loving the same boy. He's lost all sense of self, solely remodeled to serve as an instrument for Yu Xi Gu's dreams to become reality.
His eyes that used to sparkle with mischief or glisten with love for family and his beautiful boy are nothing more than empty shells. The few times he allowed them to see the extent of his brokenness, too exhausted to keep up the stone-cold facade, Yong Ching couldn't decide which was more painful to watch. They didn't only lose Yu Xi Gu that day he was so cruelly taken away; they all lost her brother too.
Yong Ching liked Phoebe enough. But she never made her brother smile. Couldn't even bother checking up to see how he was doing. Though she guessed Phoebe couldn't be blamed for the cold behavior. They were boyfriend and girlfriend only in name, a meeting Papa orchestrated with one of his friends. Gege probably only agreed to it because Papa kept breathing down his neck to move on and find a nice girl to settle with.
Xiang Hao Ting simply didn't have the will to argue.
Sun Bo Xiang called. Yong Ching had been thrilled when he told her of how Gege promised that he was no longer going to be stuck grieving and will try to live for the people he still had, to find himself again. Things that had assured Sun Bo too for but a moment because the next words that came out of Hao Ting's mouth and his tone indicated a kind of finality that had Sun Bo's— and her— heart racing.
I feel that I am finally ready to see him.
Had been his exact words. Sun Bo tried to act like the dead look in her brother's eyes and the slump in his shoulders didn't make alarm bells ring in his head. And now it was up to Yong Ching to try and convince him not to leave. The very thought brings fresh hot tears to her eyes, knowing full well that the second he walks out that door, she's never going to be able to see him again.
There's not a force in heaven or hell that could stop Xiang Hao Ting once he's got his mind made up on something. But she has to at least try. If not for her, their family, then to the loving memory of Yu Xi Gu. He would not want his Hao Ting to throw his life away like that.
Hao Ting hoists his traveling backpack over his shoulder and Yong Ching moves before she can think on it. He turns and she collides against him, thin arms coming up to wrap around his waist, wet cheeks smushed against his chest.
"Ge." She chokes out the words, clings like she had that first week they mourned Yu Xi Gu together in the dark. "Please. He wouldn't want this."
They stay like that, far too quick for her liking, as she begged him not to leave. He had hugged her only to pull away, dull brown eyes not really seeing and lied straight to her face. He said he was fine. That he was going to come back. Everything's going to be okay now. And Yong Ching weeps because at the end of it, there was nothing she could do, just like the years before when the pain had still been so fresh for everyone.
Xiang Hao Ting merely existed for the past six years without his heart. He had every right to want it back.
That night by the bridge, his thoughts largely revolved around the idea of giving up. He's reached his limit. Didn't see the point of living if the one he was doing all this for was not even around to appreciate it. Yu Xi Gu's birthday is in a week, the distance between them growing ever larger and his death anniversary is not far behind and Hao Ting just can't keep this up anymore.
He could no longer bear the thought of another day, let alone another year without Xi Gu, cycling between severe bouts of depression and anxiety and numbness with no end in sight. Even his dear sister's tears and pleadings didn't make him second guess the decision he already made for when he reached the Himalayan peak. Maybe it's selfish. Plain cowardice. But he was just so goddamned tired. He needed to rest in that permanent way and in doing so, hopefully, meet his Little Star in the afterlife.
Death was exactly what he meant when he said he was ready to meet Xi Gu.
He'd taken his only love's box of memories with him up in the Himalayas. Spent an inordinate amount of time just crying and screaming Xi Gu's name until he went hoarse and his throat closed up from pouring out all his heartache, pain and anger at the starlit sky before him, begging Xi Gu to take him to wherever he was. Traded and pleaded with the gods he didn't believe in to be reunited with his heart in death.
He doesn't remember much of anything after losing his voice. He thinks maybe he passed out. If there was one thing that was painfully clear however, it was the gut-wrenching sensation of pain punching him in all directions from one breath to the next after what felt like a free fall.
And then there was nothing but that light.
He had screwed his eyes shut. It could have been a second, an eternity, but suddenly the excruciating pain that was drowning his entire being in its unforgiving clutches coalesced into a single point of contact around his head. Hao Ting hears a pained scream and realizes in the next instance that he's the one screaming— when did he regain use of his vocal cords?— followed by a chorus of voices that he should not be hearing at all considering they were all in the city and he was all the way up in the mountains.
"Are you alright?"
"Sun Bo, what the fuck?"
"He was supposed to catch the ball with his hands! Not with his face!"
What... Where... What's going on?
Hands grab his arms followed by the shuffle of feet, and he hears more voices that he can't recognize as he gets pulled up to a sitting position. He feels cold asphalt beneath his ankles and there's a level of noise to his surroundings that is strangely reminiscent of a highschool environment. It's boisterous, loud; whispers and murmurs floating around like the very air itself. Something that is just as impossible as the idea of his brothers being there on his supposed last moments before death.
"Oh God, is that blood?"
"Tissue! Tissue tissue!"
"Gao Xiao Chun stop panicking!"
"A'Hao where does it hurt?"
"He has a nosebleed. Isn't it obvious already?"
"Guys, what's wrong with his eyes?"
At the mention of eyes, only then does Hao Ting remember that he's got his own pair closed tightly shut from the blinding white light earlier when– Hao Ting freezes, muscles locking in place as everything catches up to him. He'd been in the Himalayas ready to be reunited with Xi Gu. He'd been crying, felt himself fall, pain exploding in his senses and then–
Brown eyes snap wide open, head jerking in place violently as soon as he sees the sight of the familiar faces assembled around him.
"Everyone." Hao Ting breathes out dumbstruck.
"A'Hao! You're okay!" They cry out in unison and Hao Ting is so lost when he recognizes the PE T-shirts his friends are wearing, Zenren High's logo in bold capital purple letters all over the front. Hao Ting brings a hand up to his head, groans when he feels the painful throb of a vein reminiscent of when he forgets to wear his glasses and the tension builds and builds.
Wait. He's not— Hao Ting touches his face, finally registering the missing weight of his glasses on the bridge of his nose. He looks straight ahead and sees the banner not too far off in perfect clarity. He looks down and finally notices the blood smearing his shirt and purple pants that he's sure haven't seen the light of day since he'd dumped it to the back of his closet after graduation.
He's dreaming, he realizes. It's certainly not the first time he's had dreams about his highschool life, especially since such dreams only ever happens with Yu Xi Gu as the main focus. He's not here now and that alone is already odd in on itself. His brain always knows that the only one he wants to see, hear, smell, taste, feel is the love of his life and nobody else.
"Don't look down. We have to keep your blood inside you!" Sun Bo exclaims and Hao Ting suddenly has three pairs of hands tilting his face up even as he licks his lips and tastes the unmistakable copper-rich flavor of blood.
Hao Ting doesn't know what's going on. It already feels too real to be just any other dream. If the searing pain in his head didn't manage to wake him up to the real world then nothing else will. Unless... he's already awake?
The forced headtilt has him involuntary looking up and promptly get the air punched out of his lungs when his gaze lands on a familiar well-loved face.
The image of him has his heart rattling against his ribcage as his throat constrict painfully and it becomes hard to breathe. Yet still through the overwhelming sense of disbelief, he can't help but recall, with crystal clear clarity, his broken pleadings to anyone and anything who would hear to take him to Yu Xi Gu. Does he dare hope? Did the gods hear his desperate prayers? It escapes his notice, the tears so suddenly sliding down his cheeks or his friends' frantic exclamations, struck as he was drinking in the sorely missed sight of his Xiao Xing.
And that's what does it for him. Convinces Hao Ting that some kind of miracle of physics has happened at the moment of his death.
The Xi Gu of his dreams was a reflection of how he remembered him at the resort. Eyes full of adoration, content smile on soft lips that always looked a little too red after their kisses, beautiful hands that didn't shy from roaming his body, his sweet voice telling Hao Ting that he was loved, blushing so prettily and all for him.
The Yu Xi Gu looking down from the second floor railing only has a guarded kind of curiosity in his large inquisitive dark eyes as he watches their ragtag of troublemakers. His pale porcelain skin that Hao Ting intimately knows can blossom into a very fetching shade of blush pink and lanky underfed frame— that never failed to awaken his motherhening tendencies— is just as how he remembers.
It stings, the lack of recognition in those eyes, but Hao Ting doesn't let it get him down. Instead, resolve burns anew in his heart at the possibilities the future could bring. It hits him like a ton of bricks. He can save Xi Gu and the prospect of a future with him in it, alive and whole, has Hao Ting so delirious with hope he feels ready to faint. Or maybe that's just the bloodloss. Either way, his thoughts circle to the day and time of his beloved's death from that first damned life in sudden vivid clarity. The time when he saved him from an oncoming motorcycle. Hao Ting knows what's going to happen, can anticipate what to watch out for and vows that he'd do everything in his power to prevent that cursed future from ever becoming theirs.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Hao Ting takes a breath and it doesn't hurt.
Reluctantly, he tears his gaze from Yu Xi Gu to slap away the offending limbs overtaking his personal space. The pounding headache is still there but he's not about to let something so trivial stop him from getting back the love of his life. The physicist in him has a lot of questions, but he pushes that part down with a ferocity that most assuredly resembles his youth.
It hits him then, after he's done shooing his friends off and he fishes his phone out of his pocket, that he's a teenager again. He checks the date, eyes widening in recollection. Hao Ting knows this time, the combination of this exact place and Yu Xi Gu's spot on the second floor watching as they played basketball was the picture that Liu Mei Fang took. If memory serves him right, he's in his second year, a little over a week after the midterm exams when he beat Chuang for the second spot.
A whole year before he was supposed to meet Yu Xi Gu.
What does that mean for them?
"A'Hao be careful!"
Hao Ting wards off the worried frowns and hovering arms as he pulls himself up to his feet. ""I'm fine." The nosebleed thankfully feels like it has already stopped but the pounding headache is relentless.
"You're not fine. That wasn't fine." Sun Bo exclaims dramatically, hands landing on his shoulders and doing a full-body shake as he hounds him about what's wrong.
"You were crying." Xia En points out and he finally takes notice of the wetness on his cheeks. "You never cry. I don't think I've ever seen you cry until now." Hao Ting brings the back of a hand over his eyes. Sticky blood smears against his knuckles when he swipes down his face and he realizes he must look a fright with semi-dried blood all over his mouth and chin.
"I said I'm fine." Hao Ting tells them in a tone that he uses for students who are more interested in ogling him than taking crucial exam notes.
"Woah. What's with the hostility brother?"
Hao Ting barely remembers how he acted around them at this point in his life. The friends he had were all adults who had years to adjust and accept his symptoms. He hasn't smiled in so long. He doesn't know if he can fake being the teenage Xiang Hao Ting of this time. He's matured beyond his years, never having moved on as he threw himself into his academics in Xi Gu's memory. His friends all look like carefree and innocent kids to him. Expressive. Naive. It occurs to Hao Ting that he is now mentally the same age as the present Lu Zhi Gang.
"I'm sorry. I'm just not feeling good." He points at his face. "You know?"
"No shit." Sun Bo claps a hand over his arm. "Hey, let me accompany you to the clinic, okay?"
It completely blindsides Hao Ting, the rush of exhilaration in his chest and the smile that suddenly blooms on his face at the mention of the place where he felt the first stirrings of attraction he had for his Yu Xi Gu. He looks down at his watch. It's only a little over 11:30. Lunch break barely started and afternoon classes start at one. Once he's chugged down some painkillers and has his face washed, he'd have an hour to try and come up with an acceptable excuse to spend time with the love of his life that won't make him look like a creepy stalker.
He has to make a good impression. Hao Ting knows full well that acting like the walking disaster that he was in their third year is not an option. He can't have Yu Xi Gu be scared of him and he can't keep pressuring him either like the teenager who usually acted according to the wants of his downstairs brain. Looking back, their first meeting could only be described as abysmal. He's honestly surprised Yu Xi Gu tolerated and even, later on, found his hyperactivity endearing.
"I'll be fine on my own." Hao Ting says, refuting the offer. He can't have Sun Bo follow him around. "You guys continue to play without me. I'll be back later."
He looks to the second floor, heart seizing when he no longer finds Yu Xi Gu standing there. He has to force himself to take steadying breaths. Xi Gu is still within school premises. He's fine. He's okay. Probably just eating his lunch somewhere quiet.
At the thought of lunch, Hao Ting pales and hastily excuses himself, ignoring the chorus of complaints from his friends and shrugging off Sun Bo’s hand on his shoulder. His Xiao Xing had been portioning food and sometimes skipping meals altogether long before he even started highschool to save up money for his education. The thought of him somewhere in the school premises, stomach growling in protest and enduring it alone just about breaks his heart all over again.
Judging by the empty feeling in his stomach, he still hasn’t had lunch yet either. He doesn't have any intention of staying long in the clinic. Just take some painkillers and go. He'll do what needs to be done and then look for Yu Xi Gu to share his lunch with. He'll come up with a believable excuse. Somehow.
As he walks, Hao Ting finds himself thanking all the gods who are listening, the universe that has to be watching, to the power that heard his prayer and had him thrown back to the past. He doesn't understand why he ended up here and now, too far from the time he lost Xi Gu, but Hao Ting is not about to get technical over the details when all that really matters is his love exists and breathes the same air as he does again.
And isn't this a much more preferable situation? Hao Ting has more time, more opportunities to look after his beautiful, kind and sweet Yu Xi Gu. And he can help him. Be there to support and encourage him to reach his dreams. Comfort him and listen to the sad truths of his past, be his shoulder to cry on and when he's ready, Hao Ting will readily give back the heart that's been his all along. Yu Xi Gu will never feel loneliness or hunger again. He'll finish his studies, be cared for and know how it is to be loved and cherished so completely, wholeheartedly and live a full life. Hao Ting will make certain of it.
Now, if Sun Bo Xiang will excuse him, he has a future husband to court.