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Chapter Text

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.


Chapter Text

After a classroom stop to grab his bag— and scaring students along the way when they saw his bloodied face— Hao Ting makes for the clinic, a careful eye scanning the sea of dark heads littering the school grounds to hopefully catch a glimpse of delicate angular features. He doesn’t see him. Just as well, he thinks. Dirty and smelling of sweat and blood is not his idea of a favorable first meeting.

He comes across a drinking fountain and does a quick but thorough wash of his face. There's nothing he can do about the shirt's bloodstain until after his visit to the clinic. He turns the corner when a petite figure blocks his way and stops him in his tracks.

Li Shi Yu. Shit.

He saw her adult self by chance, days prior to his trip to the Himalayas. With his mind going on override with nothing but a constant stream of YuXiGuYuXiGuYuXiGu since knowing and eagerly accepting his new reality, he didn’t think to ponder on his past-present state of affairs. 

He does a mental recheck of the date again. Wasn't it around the time that she set her sights on him for making it to the top five students list?

Hao Ting was never under any illusion that she approached him because of actual feelings in that other life with a future-that-will-not-be. Li Shi Yu liked her boyfriends smart. He was nothing but a dumbass troublemaker, had the reputation to back it up, until he decided to take his studies seriously for his baby sister’s sake, and it was like Li Shi Yu smelled blood in the water. She confessed of liking him a few weeks after midterms and though Hao Ting didn’t feel anything remotely romantic for the girl, she was pleasant and pretty, and the hormonal teenager that he’d been was not about to say no to the perks that came with being in a relationship. 

She grew on him over the months that followed. Hao Ting convinced himself that he liked her, that he knew what love felt like, until he met Yu Xi Gu and learned what all-encompassing, true love really was.

“Xiang Hao Ting.” She has her arms crossed against her chest, pouting like he’s done something to offend her. 

He remembers them being official around December. It’s still late-November. She's not his girlfriend yet and never will be. He already has Yu Xi Gu and Hao Ting has always looked down on anyone who strung along and led people on, strived not to act out the very behavior he despises in a person.

“Li Shi Yu.” Hao Ting states dodgingly, not quite sure how to address his once ex-girlfriend. One hand comes up to massage his throbbing temple. The ache has receded some but not by much. He needs those painkillers now.

Li Shi Yu gasps after getting a good look at him and is suddenly standing too close for comfort, fingers fluttering all across his face, neck and bloodied shirt as if she has the right. “What happened?” She fusses and takes out a handkerchief. Before she can try to do anything with it that will make Hao Ting obligated to be grateful— he doesn’t have the time or the patience— he stops her hand midway.

“You don't have to do that.” It’s the same dry tone he uses on everyone but family and friends. Her eyes widen a fraction at the arctic bite to his voice and he watches as she considers this side to him and changes her approach accordingly.

He doesn't give her any chance and nips any attempt to act cute in the bud. "Li Shi Yu."

She blinks innocently. But God, she had a manipulative streak and didn't really seem to care or notice it. Hao Ting has to set things straight here and now. He is a thousand percent sure of his feelings for Yu Xi Gu and he can't have her goals of having a trophy boyfriend bend over backwards to her charms interfering with his own plans to get his Xiao Xing back.

If she understood his feelings before after he'd broken up with her for a boy, Hao Ting has to trust that she will be as understanding as she had once been. And if she doesn't and takes offense, he's at least assured that she won't tattle about his sexuality, respecting his choices and knowing that it's none of her business. Li Shi Yu has never been the vindictive type.

Hao Ting couldn't care less about what people may think of him if it came out that he likes guys. His only issue is his parents finding out and refusing Yu Xi Gu in their home. He fully intends for his family to love and adore him as if he was their own before introducing him as the love of his life, and he can't see that happening if they find out about his inclinations and will scrutinize his every interaction with the male gender with extreme prejudice. Especially dad.

"This is not gonna work out between us." Hao Ting tells her in no uncertain terms. 

"What do you mean?" Li Shi Yu asks faintly and Hao Ting is grateful she at least doesn't look like she's about to cry. 

He looks around them, making sure there's no one near. He's never been ashamed of liking a guy. Never felt a modicrum of indecision where his feelings for Yu Xi Gu is concerned. But he knows he needs to act a part if Li Shi Yu has any hope of believing him. He can't appear flippant about technically coming out.

"I know I came off strong the other day." Li Shi Yu says. "But I really like you. If you could just give me a chance—" 

"I like guys Shi Yu." He cuts her off, tripping over the words with the right amount of hesitancy, sounding like he's afraid to admit it.

Her eyes widen like saucers, mouth opening to form words that don't come out until, "What?" 

Hao Ting buries his left hand in his pants pocket, grip on his bag tightening . "I like guys." He repeats, straightens his back and makes a lax gesture at the space between them. "So this is never going to happen. I'm sorry."

While she tries to process his words, Hao Ting doesn't waste time and excuses himself from the conversation without a backward glance.



Dr. Jiang." Hao Ting calls out as soon as he's got the door to the clinic closed. Just like Shi Yu, it takes him by surprise to see a familiar face that he doesn't expect. Jiang Jin Tang or Jing Tan, he's not sure of his name, but he recalls him as the school doctor during his second year.

"Student Xiang." The flamboyant doctor greets him with a withering glare. He's not sure what he did to be subjected to such an expression but figures it has to do with simply existing. He was widely known on campus as the resident troublemaker. He might be somewhat popular with the student body because of his disregard for rules, but there was no love lost between him and any staff member belonging to the faculty.

He's going to have to do a lot of damage control and try to get into his teachers' good graces if he wants to be taken seriously. 

He's already made up his mind that he was going to be classmates with Xi Gu, and he guessed, Xia De as well, come third year. There are certain requirements to be in the elite class. Stellar grades mostly and exemplary behavior.

"What is it this time Xiang Hao Ting?" Sharp eyes laser focus on the area around his neck to the stain on his shirt. "Please tell me you didn't beat some poor student up?"

Hao Ting's eyebrows furrow. What was it with this bully reputation that the adults of this time always liked to pin on him? He's never actually beat someone up before and even with the incident with Xi Gu, he didn't ask any of his friends to make the move on him. All the posturing and threatening Hao Ting inevitably did was nothing but stupid peer pressure.

"I didn't." Hao Ting answers in a calm manner that he doesn't feel. The smile on his face has never felt more fake than in that moment.

"Then the blood?"

"I caught a ball to the face." He shrugs like it's an everyday thing. "The blood's from a nosebleed. I just need something for the pain and I'll be off."

The doubtful squinty look and suspicious pursed lips has Hao Ting breaking eye contact.

His gaze darts to the side where the sleeping beds are. The divider curtain covering the second mattress isn't pulled all the way and it reveals the lower half of a person lying there, long bony fingers curled around a blue fountain pen resting on a slender waist, in the same manner Xi Gu used to always do before— Hao Ting's bag drops from nerveless fingers. 

"Student Xiang." The voice sounds like it's coming from underwater. "Hey, what's wrong?" 

Yu Xi Gu. His beloved Little Star is a mere feet away and Hao Ting couldn't have stopped his knees from giving out on him if he tried. 

"Hey! Xiang Hao Ting!" He misses the hurried footsteps, the hand curling around his shaking shoulders, the palm pressing against his rabbiting heartbeat. "Hey, hey. Student Xiang. Breathe!! You're hyperventilating. Breathe!" 

Hao Ting tries to follow the command but completely unable to. Heat gathers in his eyes, a pained, miserable moan erupting out his throat because the sight of Xi Gu lying down, unconscious in his sleep, has brutally brought in a blast of images of his bleeding and broken body from that cursed day. And like clockwork, everything rational inside Hao Ting abandons ship, leaving him a ball of anxiety and mindless wailing lost in his heartbreak. Six years and the memory of Xi Gu's unmoving form in that intersection remained as vivid as the exact moment Hao Ting had his lifeless body cradled in his arms, begging him to open his eyes. 



Yu Xi Gu comes to awareness with a heavy sense of regret dragging him down like a physical weight. For a moment, he can’t figure out where and when he is. There’s a name at the tip of his tongue, like chasing echoes of a dream that so easily slips from grasp, never to be thought of again. He’s sure there had been a voice calling out for him in the darkness, begging him to stay, but no matter how much it broke his heart to hear their cries, to listen and open his eyes, tell them he’s fine, it was going to be alright, his body refused to move.

Staring at the ceiling, memories slowly fall in place like puzzle pieces. Right, he’s in the school infirmary. It was lunch time and as Xi Gu didn’t have anything packed, he opted for sleep instead, and Dr. Jiang had been kind enough to let him rest when he told him about not feeling well. He pulled overtime the night before, woke up late and didn’t have enough of a window to prepare his usual meager breakfast at the risk of missing first period.

He’s functioning on gallons of water and sheer bullheaded determination. At the back of his mind, Xi Gu understands that he can’t sustain this set up for long. He needs a new place of work with better pay and one that didn’t take so much out of him.

Groggily looking down at his watch, he sees that it’s a little past noon. That’s roughly twenty minutes worth of a nap. With nothing better to do, he decides to go to the library to start on the research assignment given to them that morning by Teacher Shen.

“Student Xiang. Please tell me if you have medicine with you.”

Dr. Jiang’s voice reaches his ears and only then is Xi Gu able to pay attention to the commotion that most assuredly disturbed his sleep before the set hour. He hears labored breathing, the unmistakable sound of crying. There's a choked out, "Please don't leave me." from a distinct male voice. Xi Gu doesn’t understand the sudden painful clenching in his heart upon hearing how shattered the person sounds.

Something clatters on the floor. Xi Gu pulls the curtain back and sees the image of a beefy student curled in on himself, slumped against the wall beside the clinic's door, with Dr. Jiang on one knee before him, looking through the contents of the bag he’d just upended. There’s no mistaking it. The boy is the one crying.

Xi Gu is quick to put a name to the bed of dark-brown hair he sees. He’s been watching him since he’d read the boy’s name under his own from the midterm results a week ago. It’s Xiang Hao Ting, the student who placed second in the entire school out of nowhere, giving their teachers collective coronaries from the shock. He’s popular for his indifference to the rules, always getting the lowest mark out of everyone in his class. Until midterms. He was forced to retake the exam, with a new set of questionnaire and aced it with barely any effort.

He’s self-assured, quick to smile, and quicker to laugh and an absolute clown around his friends. He kind of reminds Xi Gu of a puppy. Xiang Hao Ting is confident in his skin like he’s used to getting what he wants that Xi Gu inevitably felt jealous at how easygoing he seemed to be. Something that Xi Gu couldn’t afford to be like. But right now, as he watches him cry and shake where he’s curled into a ball, looking nothing like the boy he’d been observing, Xi Gu feels gutted at seeing someone so spirited and carefree, appear so completely and utterly broken.

“Dr. Jiang.” Xi Gu finally finds his voice as he pulls himself upright. Dr. Jiang looks up and motions him to come over. After putting on his shoes, he approaches cautiously, not sure how he could be of any help, but wanting to help all the same. He slides next to the doctor, eyes trained on the boy. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Panic attack. A pretty bad one.” Dr. Jiang answers, groaning in frustration when he keeps going through the boy’s things and not finding what he is looking for. “I thought he’d have some medicine in his bag. He spiraled so fast. I don’t know what triggered it.”

Xi Gu knows a thing or two about panic attacks, mostly from when he’d been young and trying to come to terms with his parents’ deaths. It’s been a long time since he’s had one though. 

Xiang Hao Ting’s got his face buried under his arms, legs curled against his chest, low keening wails pouring out his throat as he rocks back and forth. He's a big guy and yet somehow, in that moment, he comes off as small, needing comfort and protection, that Xi Gu is surprised to realize he'd be more than ready to give if he was permitted. Hao Ting keeps repeating a name, and it doesn’t take Xi Gu long to put two and two together. Whoever this Xiao Xingxing was, they were important to Xiang Hao Ting. They’re also most likely no longer in this world.

This level of grief only comes from losing a loved one like Xi Gu lost his. Sudden. Without warning. Yanks the entire world from under your feet. The pain still so raw that it has to be recent. 

“Is he going to be alright?” Xi Gu asks, fingers curling and uncurling against the fabric of his school pants. It's strange, the urge to reach out and lay a hand on Xiang Hao Ting's arm, to pull him close so Xi Gu can whisper words of calming assurances against his ear.

"Panic attacks subside." Dr. Jiang explains as he stands. "At this point we'll just have to wait for him to either pass out or come out of—"

Xiang Hao Ting heaves out a rush of air, whole body trembling from the force of the action. The crying stops instantaneously and slowly, his tear-stained face appears from the cocoon of his folded arms. He stares right through Xi Gu, red-rimmed eyes unseeing, still lost somewhere in his memories until he seems to come back, blinking as if waking up from a nightmare.

Xi Gu has no explanation as to why he does it. He's not one for physical contact, never have been. But there is just something in the way the other boy looks so devastatingly lost and confused that squeezes at his heart.

"Xiang Hao Ting?" He calls out softly, gently like he would a wounded animal, fingers making the barest of contact against his forearm. Xi Gu tries for a small friendly smile and he watches as those eyes gradually come alive. "Hey."

"Yu Xi Gu." Xiang Hao Ting whispers his name like a prayer, thick voice full of an emotion that he can't quite place, making his heart flutter like a hummingbird's wings. Why does it feel like he's heard him utter his name that way before?

He didn't think Xiang Hao Ting knew him any more than he knew any of their teachers names. The thought of him knowing Xi Gu beyond being a passing acquaintance sends baffling though pleasant warmth to the pit of his stomach enough to overshadow the nagging ache of hunger. 

"Yeah. It's me." He says, friendly, assuring smile firmly in place. "How are you feeling?"

Xiang Hao Ting unlocks from his curled position and surges right into Xi Gu's space so fast that he can't do nothing else but accept the embrace. They collide against each other, Xiang Hao Ting's arms coming up to circle around his back as he pulls him close and against his chest. The feelings of right and safe and finally that so suddenly floods every fiber of Xi Gu's being rips a startled gasp from his throat. 

Where are such feelings coming from?

Xiang Hao Ting is crying again, Xi Gu realizes, muttering his name over and over under his breath like a broken record. Xi Gu has no clue about what's going on, doesn't understand why Xiang Hao Ting is acting the way he is. But there is no denying the sense of belonging that he feels wrapped up in the boy's embrace, like it's where he's always meant to be. 

Xi Gu tentatively returns the hug, forgetting about Dr. Jiang altogether. He feels wetness pool around his eyes as soon as he allows himself to take a deep breath, to feel the soft press of lips against the side of his neck, fingers cradling the back of his head, and every point of contact on their bodies where they're touching. It's crazy, but there's almost a bizarre familiarity in the way they fit together.

He's never shed a tear for anyone other than his late parents. But somehow, having Xiang Hao Ting there, to be able to stroke soothing circles across his back, to be seen and held in return, no matter how absurd it sounds, it feels like Xi Gu has waited for this moment all his life.


Chapter Text

"How long has this been happening?"

The grip on his hand tightens and Xi Gu barely keeps the wince from showing on his face. He's sitting beside Xiang Hao Ting on the bed as Dr. Jiang tries to coax a response from the silent boy whose skin still feels too cold and clammy and pale for Xi Gu's liking.

For all that it was only roughly thirty minutes ago that Xi Gu watched him play with his friends, head thrown back as he laughed, sharp eyes crinkling at the corners, Xi Gu can't find any trace of that bright and happy boy anymore. 

It's wrong, the way he appears so... desolate with his slumped shoulders and downturned face, hair falling over bloodshot eyes and holding on to Xi Gu as if he's the only thing keeping him together. Once again, Xi Gu is helpless against the strange surge of protectiveness gripping his heart, making him want to comfort the boy, to chase away the hurt.

They had a hard time of it, pulling Xiang Hao Ting off the floor, harder still to get him to release Xi Gu. He kept shaking his head, wetly gasping no no no like he's terrified Xi Gu would disappear if he didn't hold him tight enough that he shook with the effort. Xi Gu was a lot confused and more than a little stunned even as he kept reassuring Xiang Hao Ting that he was not going anywhere. 

There's no reason, none at all that he can think of for Xiang Hao Ting to react that strongly to him. Before today, he'd never even shown any indication that he knew Xi Gu existed.

"How long have you had these attacks?" Dr. Jiang asks, tone grave. There's still no response forthcoming and he sighs wearily. "Student Xiang, please. I can't help you if you don't work with me."

Xi Gu squeezes his hand, softly calls out his name and that finally gets them a reaction. Xiang Hao Ting lifts his head, stares at Xi Gu with anguish-filled eyes. Xi Gu's heart goes out to him, grimly reminded that someone he loved likely died recently. He understood that, empathized with the pain. But Xiang Hao Ting's reaction and seeming attachment to him doesn't make the slightest sense.

Xiang Hao Ting looks down, like he's only realizing that they've been holding hands since Xi Gu helped him settle on the bed. Xi Gu looks down as well, blinks, fascinated at how their interlocked fingers fit. He catches himself before he could give in to the sudden ridiculous urge to smile like an idiot. Xi Gu is almost a hundred percent sure he's experiencing delirium from not eating for nearly 24 hours.

"Dui buqi." Xiang Hao Ting apologizes, pausing as he undergoes some kind of internal battle. His fingers twitch and then he's pulling away from Xi Gu's hold, bringing both hands to his lap, dull gaze transfixed on his open palms, seeing something that only he can. Xi Gu stubbornly ignores the disappointed hurt that practically stabs him without warning.

"Are you feeling better now?" He can't help but ask anyway, hand brushing absently against the other boy's arm, concerned eyes fixed on him.

Xiang Hao Ting stares riveted at where they're touching. Xi Gu realizes what he's doing and abruptly stops. He shifts awkwardly, not quite knowing what to do with his hands. The gesture felt as easy as breathing as if he's done it a hundred times before. 

"I'm okay." Xiang Hao Ting exhales shakily then reaches up to wipe at his eyes. "I don't know what came over me." He sniffles, straightens and tilts his head to regard Dr. Jiang, after which he turns to Xi Gu, bowing lightly. "Thank you." he says, voice rough and near-whispers. "For being here. You helped a lot. I don't know how I would have... Thank you."

Xi Gu's never felt as wanted and needed as he does in that moment. He smiles, surprising himself for the umpteenth time of how easy and right it feels to be around the other boy. "Anytime, Xiang Hao Ting."

The unfairly attractive student— wait what?— bites his lower lip, Adam's apple bobbing and Xi Gu's breathing speeds up, nearly overcome with the need to... what exactly? He mentally shakes his head and forces his focus on Dr. Jiang's words instead.

Xiang Hao Ting remain unmoved by his questions. He's back to staring intently at the floor like it holds all the secrets of the universe. He's stalling, Xi Gu realizes, trying to avoid giving an answer.

People who suffer from such illness never want to disclose having it. It's like admitting defeat, a weakness that no one wants to acknowledge. Xi Gu knows. He's been there himself and it took half a decade of Aunt Yu signing him up for cognitive therapy sessions to get better.

"No. It's not the first time." Xiang Hao Ting finally replies, voice steady like he's come down to a decision. 

"Who else knows about your condition?" Dr. Jiang asks again, taking down notes.

"Right now. No one." He confesses. "My friends or my family don't know about my... episodes. And I don't want them to know if I can help it." He takes a breath and adds. "I don't want them to worry. It's the first time I got triggered here. I promise it won't happen again."

"Are you taking anything? Did a counselor help you out before with previous episodes?"

A shake of his head. "No."

"Then you can't really promise that this won't happen again, can you?"

A beat, then. "I guess not."

From his spot, Xi Gu can see how genuinely troubled Dr. Jiang has become. It must be jarring for him to see a student, especially one with the level of devil-may-care attitude that Xiang Hao Ting possesses, acting the exact opposite of his expected behavior. Book covers and all that.

"You do realize I am professionally obligated to tell your parents about this. It's not something I can keep under wraps, Xiang Hao Ting."

His eyes close, jaw ticking like he's trying to find his center, gather some composure. "Yeah. I figured." he replies eventually.

"Are you willing to seek professional help? I have a friend I can recommend." Dr. Jiang offers.

"Yeah. I'd— I'd like that." Xiang Hao Ting mutters. "Thank you." He adds gratefully. "I want to get better, Dr. Jiang."

The doctor looks to consider something. "If I may and it's absolutely up to you if you want to answer or not, but why didn't you seek help earlier?"

Xiang Hao Ting turns and fixes his gaze on Xi Gu. The anguished look from earlier has lessened. But there's something in his expression that makes heat burst across Xi Gu's cheeks, further exacerbated when Xiang Hao Ting's oddly familiar eyes start to deliberately travel up and down his body like he's committing him to memory. Xi Gu looks to the side, willing his suddenly racing heart to slow down.

What was that just now? Why is he getting so worked up by Xiang Hao Ting? Why does the other boy make him feel things that he's pretty sure he's never felt before?

"I lost someone." Xiang Hao Ting confirms what Xi Gu's been suspecting from the second he saw him sat wound tight by the clinic door.

Like a gravitational pull, he turns to look at the other boy, onyx eyes meeting dark brown. They stare at each other, as if they're the only two people in the room, in the world. Until Xiang Hao Ting's eyes shift toward his chest, raw pain flashing in his eyes for a moment. Xi Gu's almost certain that Xiang Hao Ting lost his precious person in a bloody and violent way.

"My world ended and I didn't see a point in getting better." Xiang Hao Ting's eyes dart back up, their gazes locking once more. With the light streaming in through the windows, he watches as Xiang Hao Ting's expression soften, lips curving upward. Xi Gu's wildly beating heart gradually settle as he bathes in the welcoming warmth of that smile. When Xiang Hao Ting speaks again, it sounds like a promise. "But I think I do now." 



After giving Hao Ting his painkillers, Dr. Jiang leaves him and Xi Gu on the bed and walks back to his desk to write up the referral note for his psychologist friend. He'd offered to excuse him from the afternoon classes but Hao Ting refused, citing how he didn't have plans to go back to slacking off in his studies. He said he made a promise and he was not the kind to go back on his word, surprising not only the good doctor but Xi Gu as well, if the widening of his large captivating eyes was any indication. 

Though his second year midterm exam results was originally achieved due to the bet he had with his sister and he had no problem going back to his troublemaking ways right after the fact, he has no intention of going down that path again. He already promised his Xi Gu, even before they graduated in that first life that he was going to take his studies seriously so they could have an amazing future together. A promise that didn't stop him from making Xi Gu's dreams reality even when he was no longer there to share it with. 

Xi Gu— his dear darling breathing and living Xi Gu— is with him again and Hao Ting is not going to waste time with the carelessness of his youth. He's been given a second chance with his heart and he intends to make the most of it. Starting with making sure Xi Gu didn't push himself too hard and was fed properly so he could focus on his studies.

He was the reason why Xi Gu lost his scholarship before and swears to never cause problems that could jeopardize his education again. 

With Dr. Jiang no longer in their midst, awkward silence fill the space between them. Nonetheless, Hao Ting is hopeful with Xi Gu still sitting across him on the same bed. He can only imagine what's going through that pretty head of his after everything that Hao Ting's done; from the moment he threw his arms around him, chanted his name and then held his hand like a lifeline. 

No doubt he has a lot of questions, but didn't know where to start. Xi Gu hasn't come out of his shell yet and preferred to keep his words to himself. Which works for Hao Ting because how does he even begin to explain his situation?

His post-traumatic stress disorder didn't magically disappear with his trip to the past unfortunately. The illness is tied to his memories, experiences. It's going to take time. But more important than therapy, Xi Gu is with him now and Hao Ting is sure that over time he'll be able to conquer his neurosis and get better.

Xi Gu's fingers keep clenching and unclenching along the fabric of his school pants. Hao Ting's spent hours upon hours over the past six years watching videos of their youth like a glutton for punishment, so his ability to read Xi Gu's tells never really went away.

"I should go." Xi Gu blurts out as Hao Ting's hand spring up to catch him by the wrist before he can rise from the bed and take his first step.

"Don't." Hao Ting hears himself say through the sudden pounding in his ears. Logically, he knows he can't keep Xi Gu with him 24/7, but now that he finally got to feel the warmth of his body, the gentleness of his hands and listened to the tenderness of his voice again, it terrifies Hao Ting to let him out of his sight. "Please, Yu Xi Gu." 

Xi Gu looks caught between wanting to run way or stay. Idly, Hao Ting wonders if this was how he would have treated him in that other life if only they didn't meet under such unfavorable circumstances. Would they have eventually become friends without all drama that involved Li Shi Yu? Yu Xi Gu is friendly and kind to him. Unlike before when he wanted nothing to do with Hao Ting and couldn't get rid of him fast enough. Then again, he'd just seen Hao Ting in one of the lowest moments of his life and had comforted him through the pain and fear.

The narrative of their story is already vastly different than the first time around and it gives Hao Ting hope that the changes he's making would steer the course of their lives towards a destination where he and Xi Gu get to live their lives to the fullest, achieving their dreams and dying of old age. Together. 

"Afternoon class will start in twenty minutes." Xi Gu says, reading the watch strapped to the wrist he doesn't have in his grasp. Hao Ting notices the erratic pulse and the slightest tremor from the soft skin beneath his fingertips and could almost slap himself, irked that he didn't notice sooner. 

"Have lunch with me." Hao Ting declares fervently, grip tightening. Not enough to hurt but simply to ensure Xi Gu can't easily shake him off. Hao Ting's thoughts race, recalling Xi Gu's aversion to being a burden, how he never liked it when he thought he was being pitied. 

"Xiang Hao Ting I can't—"

"Please. I.. I don't want to go out yet." Hao Ting outright begs and turns to Dr. Jiang to ask if they could eat inside. He gets a jaunt wave and a nod and shifts back to look at Xi Gu imploringly. "I have 2 lunchboxes." He continues, never been more grateful for his mother's knack for making an extra set. He'd checked his lunchbag before coming to the clinic. He couldn't believe his luck when he saw what's inside. Braised beef with Xi Gu's favorite carrots. 

"Mommy always make an extra for my friends but I can't face them yet and I don't have much of an appetite, and it's going to make her sad if she sees leftovers and I don't want to make her sad." He's rambling, like he did before, stressing out so much because Xi Gu wasn't paying him enough attention. The pain that usually accompanies the memory doesn't hurt as much now that he's sitting right in front of him. "Please Yu Xi Gu, you'll be doing me a huge favor really."

When Xi Gu still looks like he's going to say no, Hao Ting hastily reaches for his bag on the side table. He unzips it with one hand and takes out his lunchbag. He dearly hopes that the food inside won't look like an earthquake hit because of Dr. Jiang capsizing the contents of his bag without so much as a by your leave.

"Here." Hao Ting opens one lunchbox and gently pushes the container against Xi Gu's chest, grateful that it doesn't look as bad as he expected. Xi Gu's eyes close, licking chapped lips as soon as the food's aroma wafts in the air. Beads of sweat adorn his temples, looking like one strong wind from falling over. Xi Gu's stomach growls and Hao Ting pretends not to hear it, disappointed at himself for not paying attention as soon as he got his wits about him. "Help me finish this? I can't eat all of it."

Xi Gu's stiff posture slowly unfurl and he sinks back on the mattress, large eyes staring uncertainly at Hao Ting's expectant ones. "If you're sure." 

"I am. 100%. Most definitely sure!" Hao Ting says with a vigorous nod. Xi Gu's light chuckle and smile completely comes out of left field and Hao Ting can't decide whether to gush or melt or both upon hearing his melodious laughter. 

"You sounded and looked like your usual self just now." Xi Gu tells him as he takes the chopsticks Hao Ting hands over. He starts pushing the carrots to the side, saving the best for last as always, and gestures for him to also dig in. It's just so like Xi Gu to abandon all awkwardness once he decides on a course of action. "It makes you very handsome." Xi Gu says with a conspiratoral tilt to his lips and Hao Ting stares, air stolen from his lungs as he feels himself fall all the more inlove, if such a thing is even possible.

"Yu Xi Gu." Hao Ting breathes out, stunned at the compliment that dare he say sounded flirty?

Xi Gu's eyes widen comically like he's only realizing what he said. And regrets it. Immensely. He looks down at his lunchbox like it's betrayed him then back at Hao Ting. "Did I say that out loud?"

Hao Ting nods and Xi Gu's ears and cheeks turn red. He looks ready to bolt and Hao Ting panics.

"You're very handsome too." He says, shouts more like, which earns him a reprimanding glare from Dr. Jiang at his desk. Hao Ting ducks his head, hand coming up to gesture an apology before going back to facing Xi Gu whose staring at him like he's grown a second head.

"It's true!" Hao Ting says vehemently. "And very smart too. Top student in the entire school since first year. Genius level and very hardworking. You're here on scholarship and I heard what you're on has really strict requirements. The fact that you're able to keep your record spotless while working part-time too is nothing short of amazing. You don't have many friends because you're so focused on your studies and it's inspiring. Like, the rest of the students don't care much for school. I know I used to treat it like a joke. But you've always been single-mindedly passionate about your grades. That level of dedication is very admirable."

The chopsticks are coming down and Hao Ting's mouth snap shut with an audible click. This doesn't look good. He sounded so much like a stalker just now. "How do you know so much about me?"

"Errr." Hao Ting looks up like a coward.

"Xiang Hao Ting." Xi Gu takes a breath, head tilted to the side inquiringly. Hao Ting tears his gaze away from the ceiling and chances a glance back at him. He looks rightly suspicious but there's anticipation there too. Like he's invested. Interested to what Hao Ting has to say. "Is there something you want to tell me?" 

There's so many things he wants to tell him, but short of getting shipped off to a mental facility if he tries to explain his behavior around Xi Gu, he can't really say much of anything that will make sense. 


Hao Ting already promised that he was not going to pester and harass Xi Gu about reciprocating his affections, that he'll keep his hands to himself— which he already failed spectacularly, but he's still not stealing first kisses so not a complete failure yet— he never said anything about not letting Xi Gu know that he likes him though. 

Hao Ting is surprised that as he digs deeper and examines his motives, at the core of it all, Xi Gu's happiness is ultimately his goal. Even if they don't become what they used to be, he still fully intends to help him reach his dreams. To make sure he lives past eighteen and live a full life.

In that moment however, he's in his seventeen year old body confronted by feelings too great and massive for his heart that he's bursting at the seams. He's never been good with bottling his emotions in where Xi Gu is concerned.

Xi Gu hasn't stopped staring, expecting an answer and finally, Hao Ting makes up his mind. He just dearly hopes that what he's about to say won't make Xi Gu run the opposite direction. He has to trust that as Xi Gu accepted his confession before after a couple months worth of relentless courting, no matter how long it takes this time, they will still both inevitably end up together.

"Actually I do." Hao Ting finally replies with all the courage he can muster. He pays no mind to the sound of the door opening and closing as he puts his lunchbox aside. He leans forward and slowly takes Xi Gu's slack grip in his hand. He strokes a thumb across his knuckles and with all the love he has in his still broken but recovering heart, Hao Ting confesses softly. "I really like you. I think I've liked you for a long time."

Hao Ting eases back from his position and lets Xi Gu's hand go. "You don't have to say anything. Just thought you should know." He says, trying to act as nonchalant as he can manage and takes back his lunchbox. He gestures at a frozen Xi Gu, smiling bashfully when his darling's eyelashes flutter, watches as the blush crawls down his pale delicate neck. "Finish your food, Xiao Yu."

Chapter Text

It's five minutes to one and Yu Xi Gu has yet to make an appearance. Xia De's been eyeballing the classroom clock for nearly half an hour. Yu Xi Gu is usually back a quarter before the start of the class. It's the reason why Xia De always made sure to already be in position by his desk around 12:30— much to his brother's irritation— just so he could watch Yu Xi Gu walk in without looking like a creep.

Xia De has admired Yu Xi Gu since first year. Not only did he consistently get the top marks in the entire school, but he also stood up against a senior, who thought it wise to bully an underclassman, all because his girlfriend kept praising Yu Xi Gu and it wounded his over-inflated ego.

Li Qiang, just like his name suggests was strong. All muscle, but no brain. He should have known that threatening, let alone hurting a student with Yu Xi Gu's grades was going to bite him in the ass. Especially when he left such obvious evidence on Yu Xi Gu's body.

Zenren High has a very strict no violence policy and Li Qiang was a known hothead. What he did to Yu Xi Gu only made the decision final. After the senior's expulsion, Yu Xi Gu kept his distance from everyone, guarded and distrusting. Xia De could hardly blame him.

He had wanted to reach out to Yu Xi Gu, but couldn't risk becoming friends in the likely chance that he would make it into Hao Ting's radar. Though his good friend doesn't have a mean bone in his body, like Li Qiang, he's built like a linebacker and gave off the same asshole vibe.

Xiang Hao Ting and Yu Xi Gu couldn't be more different. Xi Gu was silent and studious while Hao Ting was a carefree loudmouth who found amusement in raising their teachers' blood pressure. Xia De already foresaw the arguments a mile away and the last thing he wanted to happen was Yu Xi Gu getting targeted by their posse if he inevitably gave Hao Ting a scolding.

Ge, A'Xiang and Xiao Chun are loyal to the core that it sometimes borders on a hive-mind.

Yu Xi Gu was there on a scholarship and couldn't afford any more conflicts. He's looking out for him by not introducing him to his friends.

Xia De sighs. Yu Xi Gu's been prone to dizzy spells since the stressful week of the midterm exams. He worries, especially since Xi Gu looked ready to keel over during morning lecture. Unbidden, he imagines him passed out somewhere inside the school grounds and his heart jumps in place. He rises from his desk and rushes to the door. He's about to cross the entrance leading to the hallway when someone walks in.

It's Yu Xi Gu. 

The relief is immediate followed quickly by shocked surprised. Xia De couldn't have stopped his momentum if he tried. He slips, bracing himself against the sure collision, fervently hoping that Yu Xi Gu doesn't get hurt with the impact. But then Hao Ting appears next to him, jumping in the space between them and wraps his arms around Xi Gu protectively, whirling around, broad back catching Xia De square in the face.

"Ow." Xia De groans as he scrambles for balance, hand coming up to nurse his sore nose. "What— A'Hao?"

"Yu Xi Gu." Hao Ting gasps. Xia De looks up and finds his friend not at all listening to him. Xia De watches, eyebrows climbing up to his hairline as Hao Ting's hands move in a flurry all over Xi Gu's person like he's checking him for injuries. "Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?"

Yu Xi Gu shakes his head, a small smile gracing his otherwise stoic features. "I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Hao Ting clarifies, pressing his fingers around Xi Gu's shoulders, wide eyes blazing.

Wait. Xia De knows that look. It's what Hao Ting wears whenever they go to the game store and he gawks at the latest model of Switch on display, like he can't live a second longer apart from it until they had to drag him away kicking and screaming in embarrassment.

It's the same expression he's sporting now, multiplied by ten to the power of a hundred.

Xia De's eyebrows fly off to outer space with how high they've climbed. What's going on? When did Hao Ting even know Yu Xi Gu? Let alone act so familiar with him? And why is Yu Xi Gu, their resident ice prince, tolerating Xiang Hao Ting invading his personal space?

"Positive." Xi Gu assures, hand coming up to jerkily pat him on the shoulder. Is he blushing? That's definitely a faint dusting of pink across his sharp cheekbones. Xia De's mouth fall agape, unable to process the scene that's unfolding right before his eyes.  

Xiang Hao Ting's expression soften and then he's rubbing the jacket-clad arms of Xia De's crush in this really affectionate way, smiling like Yu Xi Gu gave his life meaning and something just clicks. Xia De's eyes nearly bug out of their sockets at the realization.

Two weeks before midterms, Hao Ting pretty much begged to borrow his study notes. They're from different sections, but they're the same year and the teachers taught the same syllabus. Xia De had been pleased by the sudden interest Hao Ting was showing in his studies. When asked why he was doing it, Hao Ting simply shrugged, muttered Meimei and went back to reading. But then they saw him talking to a pretty girl yesterday by the cafeteria whose last name is the only thing Xia De remembers.

Student Li had been standing too close and she kept touching Hao Ting as he stood in place like he didn't know what to do with himself. They all came to the collective agreement that Hao Ting had wanted to impress the girl that's why he studied so hard and got the second spot.

It made sense.

But what if they read it all wrong? Not the reason itself, but as to who he was trying to impress? 

"A'De, where are you running off to? You almost knocked my Xiao Yu over."

My Xiao Yu?

Xia De's half convinced he entered an alternate reality without realizing it. He looks at his friend incredulously, catching sight of the rest of the class at the corner of his eye and sees them watching like hawks. He can already imagine the gossip that will come out of this.

"Xiang Hao Ting, I told you I'm fine." Xi Gu scolds but he says it in a tone that doesn't even come close to how Xia De imagined. It's soft and laced with not exactly affection, but something close to it. "It wasn't a big deal. I'm okay. I'm not hurt."

"A'Hao, what are you doing here?" Xia De's question goes unanswered. Hao Ting's apparently done talking to him.

"In the clinic— you—" Hao Ting sighs. "I can't help that I'm worried." he says with a frown and a pout. When Xi Gu levels him an unimpressed stare, he caves and smiles sheepishly. "I'm being annoying am I? Do you want me to shut up? I can shut up."

"You're fine." Xi Gu looks down at his watch. "I don't mind." He says and there's that bashful smile again and Xia De wants to shake Hao Ting and demand all the details. "It's almost time and you still have to run to your class. I told you I was okay on my own. You wanted to continue taking your studies seriously, right? Being late is not sending your teachers the message you want them to receive."

"I know. I know." Hao Ting acquiesces. "But I wanted to walk you back." He leans in close, cheeks dimpling and whispers, low enough for the two— well, three of them to hear. "I told you I want to take care of you. Seeing you happy and healthy makes me happy. I like you a lot."

Xia De swallows wrong and chokes. 

"Hao Ting, stop fooling around." Yu Xi Gu hisses under his breath, large doe-like eyes looking about him as if to make sure no one heard.

"I'm not fooling around. I'm very serious." Hao Ting counters in a somber tone, voice a low register that makes him sound older and more mature than his age of seventeen suggests that it catches Xia De off guard.

Xi Gu's gaze dart toward Xia De and as soon as their eyes meet, he freezes. Noticing Xi Gu tense up, Hao Ting turns and blinks at him like he completely forgot he existed, too focused as he was making goo-goo eyes at Yu Xi Gu. 

He's about to wave at his friend, but that's when their Biology professor arrives and outright gives Hao Ting the stink eye, demanding to know what mischief he's up to now. Xia De expects an eyeroll, a blatant dismissal, but Hao Ting straightens and bows respectfully instead.

"Good afternoon, Miss Kang." He greets and Xia De feels as confused as the teacher looks.

She nods her head, puzzled frown creasing her forehead, while Yu Xi Gu smiles like a proud parent. "Good afternoon Student Xiang. What are you doing all the way here?" Hao Ting gestures at Yu Xi Gu like his presence explains everything. Xia De realizes that it probably does.

"Thank you for your hard work Teacher. Jiayou!" Hao Ting cheers and then fixes his gaze back to Yu Xi Gu, completely missing the professor's reaction. He hands Yu Xi Gu his juice bottle and says fondly. "Don't forget to drink the vitamins Dr. Jiang gave. I'll fetch you after class, okay?"

Yu Xi Gu regards him like he's tried to protest multiple times but his words only fell on deaf ears. Hao Ting reaches over to pat his hair which makes the shorter boy resemble an admittedly adorable grumpy cat. "You don't have to do that you know."

"I want to anyway." Hao Ting says with simple directness, like walking Yu Xi Gu home is a fact of the known universe. After getting a reluctant nod in return, Hao Ting grins, eyes crinkling in satisfaction. He turns and clamps a hand on Xia De's shoulder, asking him to look after Yu Xi Gu while he's not around as if he naturally expected it of him. Then he bows at the teacher again, excusing himself like a normal human being.

"Xiao Yu, bye-bye." Hao Ting calls out with a wave and practically bounces away towards the direction of his homeroom.

When Xia De manages to mentally shake himself free, Xi Gu's already walking towards his seat with everyone's eyes trained on him. Not that Xi Gu notices, occupied as he is smiling down at the juice bottle in his hand. He looks happy and Hao Ting put that expression there.

Xia De pretends that the tightening he feels in his chest isn't jealousy. 

So it seems like, Hao Ting beat him in making a move on Xi Gu and his affections aren't entirely unwelcome. But, when did Hao Ting even begin liking guys? For all the time he's known him, he's only been with girls. The gang did say he hit his head at basketball, but he doubts it has any relevance to how he behaved around Yu Xi Gu. Going by their words, it sounded like they've known each other for a while now.

"Xia De, what was all that about?" The classmate sitting closest to him whispers as soon as he's near his desk. He shrugs and takes his chair without another word. He glances at Xi Gu like he always does, unnoticed and admiring in silence as their spooked teacher begins roll call.

Who Yu Xi Gu or Xiang Hao Ting likes is none of his business. But if the two people he cares about are going to be involved with each other, then he can't keep sitting quietly by the sidelines. He might like Yu Xi Gu, but Hao Ting is his sworn brother and no matter what happens he's got his back. Also, Xia De doesn't think he's seen Hao Ting ever care for any of his past relationships like he does Yu Xi Gu.

If he went through all that trouble of studying, completely outside of his comfort zone, just to impress a person he seems to genuine like, then Xia De's got his full support. And if Hao Ting really does care for Yu Xi Gu— it's so painfully obvious just how much— then he can finally be at ease. He'd worried about Hao Ting and Yu Xi Gu crossing paths and butting heads. But his concerns are unfounded. Hao Ting had looked at Yu Xi Gu like he was his very reason to breathe. He didn't think his brother capable of such an emotion. And yet there he was.

He's not getting over his crush anytime soon. But Xia De can say with confidence that he's happy and wish them all the luck in the world.



Hao Ting had planned to be friends first, to make a good lasting impression, but instead, Xi Gu found him at his lowest and he'd confessed his feelings not even an hour after getting thrown into the past, all because he went into a rant, recounting all the ways he loved his Xiao Xing. 

Xi Gu had asked why he knew so much about his life, from the scholarship, to the part-time job and the truth came tumbling out of his mouth. It was either that or have Xi Gu think him a stalker that had nefarious designs on his person.

For all that Hao Ting did not want to come off as stalkerish however, he's doing a fantastic job of acting just like it. Honestly, he's not even surprised. He can make all the promises and rationalizations in his head but the fact of the matter was, he can't pretend not to crave Yu Xi Gu's touch, long to hear his voice, yearn to see his smile, even his grumpy little glares. He just missed him so damned much and anything and everything inside Hao Ting revolted viciously against the thought of keeping things strictly platonic no matter how temporarily. 

He's not pressuring Xi Gu to "hurry up and like me" this time, but he's going to court and woo his baobei in all the ways he knew how without being a borderline dick about it all the same. 

He's already off to a good start. Xi Gu had flat out said he didn't like guys the first time Hao Ting confessed, but now, it's like it didn't even occur to Xi Gu to protest. He'd blushed so prettily, accepted his offer and they spent the rest of their lunch together in companionable silence. 

Dr. Jiang came back from wherever he went off to as Hao Ting was changing into his regular uniform with Xi Gu stubbornly staring at the opposite wall, cheeks aflame much to Hao Ting's delight. Dr. Jiang raised his eyebrow, mumbled something about teenagers and handed him the psychologist referral. As he said his thanks, Hao Ting spotted a bottle of multivitamins and asked if he could ask for some and was given a few which he'd given to Yu Xi Gu straightaway.

Hao Ting plans to get his hands on the vitamins at home that Mommy used to buy for them so he could give it to Yu Xi Gu too. That and to make sure he eats filling and nutritious home-cooked meals from that day onward.  He loves Xi Gu with every fiber of his being and what naturally comes with that love is the need to see him flush with health. Even in that first life, Hao Ting carried a constant worry over inadvertently hurting him. 

Hao Ting's a big guy and he used to be easily excitable, overly affectionate and had the tendency to pounce on his Xiao Xing that sometimes resulted in bruises. Xi Gu never blamed him and even understood his motherhenning, even charmed by it. Xi Gu was actually starting to gain some weight when they moved in together, but then that day happened and he saw him motionless in that intersection, bloodied and—

"Xiang Hao Ting?" Something jostles his arm and Hao Ting blinks, gaze finding focus and sees Xi Gu on his desk, pen in hand and looking up at him worriedly. His jaw clench as he shakes off the painful memories of the past. "You okay? You spaced out."

"I'm fine." Hao Ting smiles, bringing a hand up to hastily wipe at his eyes. Xi Gu's alive. He's okay. He's here. I haven't lost him yet. I won't ever lose him. "Are you almost done?"

"I'm still halfway done. I told you, you don't have to wait for me. You can go home first."

Hao Ting looks around the empty classroom. There'd been a lot of whispers and laser eyes following him and Xi Gu from earlier. He even heard Xia De ward off Sun Bo, A'En and Xiao Gao Chun from coming inside to demand answers. His phone had been vibrating multiple times since then and he'd studiously ignored their messages. He did send a text to Mommy, letting her know that he might be coming home late because he was studying with his new friend. He also might have bragged that his new friend was the top student of the entire school.

He shakes his head, squats down and rests both elbows on the desk, blinking up at Xi Gu innocently. "I'm waiting until you're finished and will walk you home. It's getting late. I don't like you in the dark alone. And a promise is a promise Xiao Yu. You can't take back what you said."

Yu Xi Gu averts his eyes to the side but Hao Ting can clearly see the small smile threatening to escape his lips. Xi Gu eventually turns back to him. He looks like he's about to say something but he gets distracted and stares, gaze fixed on his forehead. Hao Ting tilts his head, questioning.

"Your hair looks really soft." Xi Gu praises and then he's reaching out to tentatively rake his fingers through Hao Ting's dark-brown strands before he could say anything. He shivers helplessly against the sensation of those sorely missed fingers pulling gently at his hair. Hao Ting lets out a shaky whimper at yet another pull. Xi Gu used to do this, knowing full well how much it affects him.

Xi Gu kneads his scalp mesmerized, watching Hao Ting through curious half-lidded eyes like he knows exactly what he's doing.

"Why do you feel so familiar?"

Hao Ting's eyes fall shut and he misses Xi Gu's near-silent words. There's another gentle tug. A soft "Hao Ting?" then warm breath fanning his cheek and his eyes fly open with a startled gasp when the pressure down south his anatomy practically stabs him breathless.

Hao Ting leaps to his feet, bag going straight to cover his crotch as he hurriedly sits back down on the chair. He swallows through an increasingly dry mouth. He hasn't felt any stirrings of desire for nearly seven years. That part of him died with his Yu Xi Gu. And yet now. Now.

"Xiang Hao Ting? What's wrong? You're looking a little red. Are you okay?" Xi Gu asks and leans forward, piercing him with worried eyes, the back of his hand connecting with his forehead. "You don't have a fever." He says after a beat. "You feel fine."

"I'm okay. I'm not getting sick. I just... remembered something." Hao Ting hastily assures, chuckling nervously even as he wills the evidence of his hormonal teenage youth to go the fuck down. It's also probably best to not have Xi Gu's hands anywhere near his hair while he's courting him. Hao Ting's going to be a walking disaster if he did. "Focus on what you're writing. I'm going to start on my homework too." 

Xi Gu stares, like he doesn't believe him but decides to let it drop for the sake of Hao Ting showing actual interest in doing homework. He nods and goes back to taking down notes.

Heaving out a relieved sigh, Hao Ting stubbornly ignores the problem in his pants and takes out a pen, a book and a notebook respectively. Ten minutes pass and Hao Ting is so grateful that this hormones have finally calmed down. He's writing down the finishing essay on the second homework when he recalls his text to his mother. He puts down his pen and fishes out his phone to check for replies. 

He has five missed calls from his friends and twelve unread messages. Hao Ting skips them all and clicks on his Mommy's text.

Mommy <3: Oh my! Top student? Is that why you got the second highest ranking? Have you boys been studying together for the midterms? I told your Papa and he said he wants to meet this friend. Why don't you invite him for dinner?

Hao Ting reads his mother's message with a satisfied grin. He'd thought about it long and hard in between afternoon lecture breaks as to how he should introduce Yu Xi Gu to his parents. It occurred to him that during this time, because of the midterm exam results, his father had been downright nice, kept complimenting and encouraging him to keep up the good work which he of course didn't do the first time around. 

God, he'd been such a brat. No wonder Papa never took him seriously. He actually liked Xi Gu better all things considered. With his great manners and excellent grades. Hao Ting's going to take full advantage of his father's good mood and build Xi Gu so high up in his family's regard they won't even blink when Hao Ting finally tells them about his romantic intentions. 

Thank you mommy! Yes, he's my friend. I got the second spot because he helped me with studying. He's very hardworking and he's on a scholarship and just really amazing. You'll love him. I'll ask him if he can make time for dinner and I'll let you know if he says yes. I love you!

Hao Ting pockets the phone and turns to Yu Xi Gu, happiness and excitement circulating around his heart. "Xiao Yu."

Yu Xi Gu glances at him and it makes Hao Ting ridiculously giddy how Xi Gu accepted the endearment without any fuss.

"What is it?" He doesn't stop scribbling as he references the pages of his opened book. Gradually, he notices the non-reply and turns to him. Xi Gu's eyebrows furrow in suspicion and Hao Ting realizes it might be due to the smile that's stretched wide across cheeks. "Whats with that look?"

Hao Ting doesn't beat around the bush. He takes Xi Gu's hand and tells him eagerly. "My parents want to have you over for dinner."

Yu Xi Gu blinks, completely stumped. "What?!"

Chapter Text

It's been a week since he last saw his family before his trek to the Himalayas. His parents had been in an event when he packed his bags and left behind a crying little sister who he could tell knew what he planned. He should feel guilt for what he did, but as his death brought him back to Yu Xi Gu, there's no room for remorse in his soul. If he were to do it again, he won't think twice of committing to the same decision.

For the past six or so years, his sole reason for existing was to achieve Xi Gu's dreams. Making his parents proud of his achievements was simply a natural side-effect that he didn't really care much for. He excelled in everything he did because Xi Gu would be naturally brilliant in everything he did. Xiang Hao Ting refused to be a poor instrument for his beloved's goals and aspirations. Wouldn't settle for anything but the best. And so he barely gave himself a moment's worth of rest, absorbing knowledge like a sponge at alarming speed.

From taking AP classes, reading books written by Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson and the works of other notable physicists, to studying various disciplines of physics like electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, atomic and molecular physics, and then applying those fundamental knowledge to explore various occurrences on earth and space, Xiang Hao Ting didn't let a single stray thought outside of his coursework to fill his mind.

The nonstop studying helped with the symptoms that felt like an ever present companion beneath his skin. Kept the worst of the attacks desperately at bay. But there were times when the loss would inevitably hit like a supernova, tearing open wounds that never healed. He'd spiral, black out, go missing for days. Losing time, losing himself.

He's lost count of the times he'd woken up in the hospital, aching all over, the physical pain never really lessening the agony in his heart. He'd have scratches, bruises, lacerations, nothing but hazy bits and pieces of memories with family crying and begging him to stop scaring them so much. The doctors always said he was lucky, that he could have easily walked into traffic during his blackouts. More than one nurse joked that he had a guardian angel watching over him.

He'd wished it was true, had begged Xi Gu to show him some kind of sign if he was really there. But there never was. He was only deluding himself. He'd marginally recover then go back to drowning in research material. Spiral again. Rinse. Repeat.

It was after the third year anniversary of Xi Gu's death that he tried to move on after a health scare from his father. Xiang Hao Ting did what he could, he truly did, no matter how difficult. He looked better outside. He no longer crumpled down every few hours, learned the art of dead-eyed stares, then his father introduced him to a family friend's daughter.

Phoebe was two years his senior and aspired to be an Astrophysicist like he did. She already had the love of her life. A girl named Su Jin, who she had every intention of marrying after getting her PhD and then permanently stay in California. He'd gotten into Stanford all on his own, but they made it seem like she had a hand in the acceptance. Made the relationship more believable. Until she got married, he was fine with being her pretend boyfriend.

And then he met the sibling that Yu Xi Gu never knew existed. Or maybe he did, but had been too young to remember that he had a little brother, still a baby when they lost their parents, that his aunt had given up for adoption because of her incapacity to provide for them both. Another loved one that was stolen from Xi Gu by cruel fate and circumstance.

Zhu Ji Wei spent the majority of his life in Hongkong until his adoptive parents decided to relocate in Taiwan back in 2022. He's a bright kid, playful, though too obsessed with video games even as a college student with his head constantly lost in daydreams. He always made Xiang Hao Ting bitterly think of the time Xi Gu had cried, wondering how he would have turned out if he didn't lose his parents at such a young age. Xi Gu could have been like Zhu Ji Wei, happy and carefree. Alive.

Meeting and mentoring him had been a good thing, a respite from the endless cycle of torture. But the longer they were together, with Zhu Ji Wei looking so much like the love of his life but behaved and sounded nothing like him, the pain and longing only kept getting worse and worse.

He was a daily excruciating reminder of what Xiang Hao Ting lost and never will have again.

He bid Zhu Ji Wei his goodbyes, something that he was never able to do for Yu Xi Gu. He remembers that day vividly, when Zhu Ji Wei had smiled opposite him in the cafe, and he'd decided on the same path that he took those first few months after Xi Gu's death. Only this time, he wouldn't be anywhere near where his family could walk in on him as he bled out on the bathroom floors.

He was done, and it was that mindset that finally gave him the courage to open Xi Gu's box and set the course for their reunion.

He didn't fear death. He'd been ready for it from the very first breath he took after Xi Gu took his last in that intersection. Sure that death was the only way they could be together again. Time travel had always been just a theory. Never an option.

And yet here he was, in his second year of high school, walking beside Yu Xi Gu towards the house containing the past versions of his family.

As much as he would like to pretend that he doesn't feel any leftover resentment from that other life, he'd be lying. Mother understood at first, same with Yong Ching, but they eventually resorted to blaming Xi Gu's memory for his inability to get a grip, to let bygones be bygones. As if it was that easy to forget. As if it didn't kill him everyday not to have him near.

Even brother Zhi Gang who loved Xi Gu like a little brother gradually came to accept his death. Gone were the nights they'd both fall asleep crying on his couch, talk into the late hours, painfully reminiscing, growing closer over their mutual loss. But Zhi Gang-Ge had Sun Bo to worry about too and Xiang Hao Ting couldn't keep monopolizing his brother's lover's time. It was not fair to either of them.

Xiang Hao Ting knew that his father had been relieved by Xi Gu's passing, thinking it an easy solution to his problems. And for that, they've never really met each other eye to eye anymore. Their interactions have been curt and forced ever since. Between the health scare and the introduction of Phoebe to the family, Xiang Hao Ting had been too listless to engage in futile verbal arguments.

He's used to ignoring his father when they're in the same space, making only the barest of exchanges. He never thought he'd have to fake being happy to see him. To look at his face and pretend it still doesn't sting that he never accepted Yu Xi Gu as someone he loved. That up until the very end, he'd denied that Xiang Hao Ting was that kind of a person. One who could love a boy and behave like it's normal. It's going to be difficult being around his family, his father mostly, just as it always did the past year in that future that's never going to be.

But no amount of discomfort will stop Xiang Hao Ting from carrying out his plans. Everything that he's doing now, everything he'll ever do is for his and Yu Xi Gu's future together. He's been given a chance to set things right and he's not going to let his issues get in the way and ruin that.





Yu Xi Gu didn't know what possessed him to say yes to the dinner invitation. Or maybe that wasn't entirely true. Despite the terror hitting him like a freight train, especially at the thought of meeting Xiang Hao Ting's father— and he couldn't fathom where such fear was coming from— Xiang Hao Ting had looked so eager sitting across him and he didn't have the heart to say no. Just like the other confusing emotions that had bombarded his body since knowing the other boy, Xi Gu found that he simply wanted to see him happy, to be the cause of the smile lighting up his face.

"Xiao Yu."

"Mhm?" Xi Gu hums, only half-listening through the anxiety ricocheting his insides. There's a soft touch on his hair and he glances up at Xiang Hao Ting whose gazing down at him with such fond eyes. He smiles sheepishly, even as he wonders yet again what he did to deserve such tender regard from the other boy. "Sorry. What were you saying?"

"We're here." Xiang Hao Ting repeats, and it's only then Xi Gu notices the gates leading to a two-story house. The fingers in his hair drift down his shoulder to his elbow then his forearm until they intertwine with his own. "Xiao Yu, are you sure about this?"

His heart is still beating like a drum. Many times Xi Gu wanted to turn tail and run, but he already said yes, and he didn't want to come off as rude if he cancelled at the last minute. Strange as it is, he cares what Xiang Hao Ting's parents will think of him and it's important to make a good impression. Somehow it feels personal that he get their approval. For what, he's not sure, but he wants it anyway.

Inhale. Exhale. He can do this. He squeezes the hand holding his own. Its another thing that he should not have easily adjusted to but was helpless against how right and natural it felt. He smiles reassuringly, or at least tries to. "It's okay. I'm sure."

Facing him, Xiang Hao Ting's other hand come up to rest on the spot where his neck and shoulder meet, concerned eyes peering into his face. "I'm not making you uncomfortable, am I? You didn't have to say yes. The last thing I wanted to do was to pressure you."

Xi Gu knows himself well enough that up until Xiang Hao Ting confessed his affections, he hasn't really had the time to examine his desires outside his driving force of ensuring a bright future for himself. Making friends, having crushes, falling inlove, and all the normal things teenagers are supposed to experience, he's never given a second thought, too preoccupied in his studies and making ends meet.

But then Xiang Hao Ting's name appeared under his on the exam results and for the first time Xi Gu's attention was captured by something else that didn't involve lecture notes or books. Xiang Hao Ting is unreal. He's kind, protective, thoughtful and sweet. Smart too. He's perfect really, that he sometimes fears that this is all just an elaborate prank. It wouldn't be the first time someone targeted him for their misconceptions that Xi Gu thought he was above everyone else. He knows he comes off as snobbish, stuck-up, arrogant all because he had a different set of priorities from the regular student. He's not exactly likable. So what could someone like Xiang Hao Ting possibly have seen in him?

But then he remembers the way Xiang Hao Ting uttered his name in the clinic, how his arms felt around him, the way he always seem to brighten whenever they are together since then, the way he looks at Xi Gu like he's the most important person in the room and the doubt melts away.

I really like you. I think I liked you for a long time. Xiang Hao Ting had declared and Xi Gu believed him.

It shouldn't be this easy to trust someone and yet.

"Xiao Yu?" Xiang Hao Ting waves a hand and Xi Gu realizes he's been staring at the other boy's lips.

He blinks, cheeks burning, struggling to recall what they've been talking about. "I'm alright. It's just dinner and I'm sure your parents don't bite."

"Well, I wouldn't be so sure about that." Xiang Hao Ting says amused, a teasing smile curving his full pink lips and Xi Gu's eyes laser-focuses on the movement without full consent from his brain. "It's the first time I ever aced anything, let alone make it to the second highest rank in the entire school. Papa was this close to ostracizing me from the family actually. Mommy's ecstatic to meet the one who literally saved me from getting disowned. And you my dear Xiao Yu, made this previously thought of impossibility possible."

It doesn't happen often and maybe that's why he missed it, but there's a maturity in the way the other boy sometimes delivers his words.

Wait. What did he mean by it was because of Xi Gu that he made the second ranking?

Xi Gu's throat work, wide gaze meeting Xiang Hao Ting's dark-brown ones and asks haltingly. "What exactly did you tell your parents about me?"





Yong Ching's been watching her big brother and the top student, Yu Xi Gu interact for all of twenty minutes at the dinner table since arriving and can already tell that there's something fishy going on with those two. Call it sister's intuition but Gege's never this tender to any of his friends.

She had the unfortunate experience of seeing his little gang roughhouse in the living room once and she'd accidentally seen someone's Spongebob Squarepant's underwear. An incident traumatizing enough that up to this day she continues to wish for the invention of brain bleach.

Xiang Hao Ting fools around, tackles, pounces. One time he literally put her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and ran around the house while she screamed bloody murder. He's the typical annoying big brother, but his better qualities, his sweetness, his gentle heart and protective streak is usually confined within the safety of siblinghood. But even then, he's never been this careful and considerate around her.

What is it about Yu Xi Gu that has her brother looking at him as if he invented Switch and gave him a play-until-you-drop pass?

"A hundred?" Mommy gasps and Yong Ching tears her gaze away from her brother to focus on her mother. "Isn't that like the perfect score?"

Daddy looks impressed, not that Yong Ching can blame him. Yu Xi Gu is in school for one of the hardest scholarships to attain in the city. It's not an easy feat. Daddy seems ready to exchange her brother for Yu Xi Gu and ship off Xiang Hao Ting to Mainland. Or at least make some arrangement for Yu Xi Gu to be a permanent fixture in their life if it means his son has a chance of being even half as hardworking as he is.

"Mhm! Told you he's amazing! It's not just that either. He gets perfect scores in the regular exams too. He's very studious and diligent. A genuine rare bookworm that only appears once in a millennia." Xiang Hao Ting gushes in a way that reminds Yong Ching of her bestfriend whenever her crush passed by and waved hello. Like she couldn't quite contain herself and had to make these tinny-sharp noises like a baby seal.

That's a strange comparison to make. She shrugs and lets the thought slide, eyes darting back to Yu Xi Gu.

He's shaking his head, eyes just downright begging Gege to please stop embarrassing him in front of his parents that has her giggling into her chopsticks. Xiang Hao Ting returns the stare and it's like he realizes the error of his ways and he ducks his head, turning to the rest of them and muttering his apologies.

Now why does it feel like he's seen Mommy and Daddy interact like that in the exact same manner?

"Aiya, it's alright. I'm actually very happy that you two seem to get along well. We're very grateful for your patience in dealing with our son's antics Student Yu. I know how much trouble he can be at times." Mommy says, looking to Daddy who nods his head in agreement and smiles amiably.

Yu Xi Gu waves both hands in front of his chest as he hastily swallows his food. "It's no trouble at all Auntie. And Xiang Hao Ting has been anything but trouble. Your son is smart. Just needs a bit of guidance. He put in the effort for midterms and he excelled. That's natural talent."

Mommy listens, so obviously charmed by his manners then turns to regard her son sagely. "Xiang Hao Ting?"

"Yes, mommy?"

She smiles and winks conspiratorially as if they aren't all gathered around the table anyway. "I like this one." she states, voice honey warm, then with a hint of alarm, she adds, "Please tell me you're going to stay friends even after midterms?"

Xiang Hao Ting beams. "Of course! Why else did you think I mentioned him in the first place?" he says then proceeds to put more food into Yu Xi Gu's plate like a caring housewife. "Some of my teachers actually smile at me now after the exams and I find I preferred it from all the withering glares. Xi Gu can help me focus on my studies. He's rarely distracted and very strict when it comes to reviewing. Very low chance to let my thoughts wander. Heh. Oh Pa! You said I could ask you for something as a reward for getting the second rank. I don't think I did yet."

"Oh? What did you want?" Daddy asks with an expectant smile. Yong Ching eyerolls, certain that her brother would just ask for more video games.

"Can Yu Xi Gu come live with us?" Xiang Hao Ting asks excitedly and poor Student Yu chokes on the broccoli he's been nibbling.

Mommy and Daddy share a stupefied look. That was definitely not something they expected to hear from their son. Like Yong Ching, they were probably resigned to hearing Xiang Hao Ting demand more video games or at least a bike or a new basketball. Anything but this.

"No, I know those faces. Hear me out, okay?" Xiang Hao Ting says while carefully patting Xi Gu on the back. "Properly chew your food, Xiao Yu."

Yu Xi Gu manages to recover after drinking the glass of water that her brother hands him. "Xiang Hao Ting, what are you doing?"

"You live alone and it's hard to pay rent. I need a tutor and we have a spare room." Xiang Hao Ting says matter-of-factly, then addresses his parents. "Yu Xi Gu can tutor me. We're the same year. If I have any hope of getting accepted to the elite class by third year," Yong Ching's eyes bug out, probably as wide as her parents just did. "I need to have top marks moving forward. Maybe ask for special assignments. All the good academic stuff. I can start on some AP classes. But I'll need easy access to my— err, studying resource. Xi Gu lives too far from here and that's wasted time. It'd be more practical to have him live with us."

There's only defeaning silence until, "I don't know. That seems very out of the blue son." Daddy says, hands clasping together on the table though his expression is considering.

Xiang Hao Ting leans forward in his chair, mirroring their father's position, smiles winningly. "I'm not saying he move in right this instant. Of course you'll need to think about the proposition. I don't expect you to make the decision now. You weigh the pros and cons. Run possible scenarios. Reflect on any working theories you have. Then get back to me okay? You too Mommy! But I know I'm right. I already did the math."

Good Lord, has her brother been eating books? When did he sound so intelligent? So... articulate? Was his brother possessed by an alien?

Point made, Xiang Hao Ting leans back in his chair to resume eating. Yu Xi Gu rightly appears a little bit dazed beside him.

"Xiao Yu. After dinner you can go stay in my room or watch some TV. It's Tuesday." He looks to the calendar and squints at the dates. "Yeah. I'm the one in charge of washing the dishes. Just wait for me a bit, okay? Then we'll go and I'll take you back to your place."

That seems to finally pull Yu Xi Gu from his dazed, frozen state. "It's almost nine. It'll be too late when you make the trip back."

"We'll take the bus, don't worry." Xiang Hao Ting says then turns back to the parentals whose been watching the exchange very curiously in silence. "It's okay, right? I invited him over for dinner. It'd be rude if I didn't make sure he got home safe."

They nod in unison. It's almost funny just how spooked yet thrilled Daddy looks at how considerate and civilized his son is being.

"I can take care of myself. I'm not a girl, Xiang Hao Ting." Student Yu protests.

Something almost painful yet nostalgic flashes across her brother's face. "What's gender got to do with danger? You think it's only girls that go missing in the TV reports? And you nearly fainted just this afternoon. Can you honestly say you can fight back if someone attacks you?" He turns to him and Yong Ching is suddenly very aware of their close proximity. "I promised I'll take care of you. And I don't intend to go back on my promise." He trails off, like he's weighing his words then, "You're like my little brother now, okay? Just let me do this one thing for you. Please?"

Yong Ching's hand come up to cover her mouth, stares aghast as everything suddenly slots into place.

When Daddy had been setting up the dinner table with Gege earlier, she had hung back to help with the utensils while Mommy and Yu Xi Gu had been in the living room, talking. Xiang Hao Ting had appeared very serious, tone grave as he talked with Daddy in hushed whispers, like he was being extra careful that Yu Xi Gu didn't hear their conversation. She'd been close enough to listen and came to know about Yu Xi Gu's current living arrangements, how he was an orphan and was putting himself through school by way of scholarship and doing part-time jobs.

He's always mindful of where he spends his money, so he usually walks to and from school. He usually skips meals and even the actual food he eats is not at all healthy for a growing boy. No wonder he's short and skinny even for his age. Gege mentioned about how he doesn't have friends at school because he's too focused in his studies and majority of the students think he's just this pretentious teacher's pet.

Xiang Hao Ting had been overcome with shame upon finding out how someone had to work so hard just to attend school while he simply treated it as something to pass the time. He approached Yu Xi Gu some time ago to be friends. It hadn't been easy. He said Yu Xi Gu had been suspicious of him, thought he was being targeted for a prank. So he made the bet with her, not only to encourage her, but to actually get the boy's attention.

Yong Ching's never seen her brother get misty-eyed before. He got angry, threw a tantrum when he didn't get his way, or he'd simply laugh it off. But he never cried. Earlier, he'd looked so moved, so upset in Yu Xi Gu's behalf for the hard life he lived that his eyes kept getting red.

Just now, Ge called Yu Xi Gu his little brother and finally, it makes perfect sense. Yong Ching knew her brother has always been kind with a gentle big heart. But he also had the tendency to be self-absorbed. Meeting and knowing about Yu Xi Gu's hardships was the wake up call he needed.

In Xiang Hao Ting's eyes, Yu Xi Gu is family now, his xiōngdì that needs protection and looking after, and she knows more than anyone how devoted and caring he can be. Despite all the times Gege threatened her patience, at the core of it all, he's always been her wonderful brother.

She turns to her parents and she can see how they must have come to the same conclusion. Student Yu finally seems to have given up trying to reason with the persistent Xiang Hao Ting. He looks to Mommy and Daddy. They give the two of them approving nods and Xi Gu finally agrees. 

"Great! Thanks Mommy. Thanks Pa!" Xiang Hao Ting exclaims as he rises to his feet and begins to put the empty plates away.

Her parents share a glance one more time and Yong Ching's certain that before the week is over, Yu Xi Gu... Ge? will have already moved in.

Chapter Text

Xi Gu was convinced that Xiang Hao Ting's parents were going to take one look at him, from the soles of his worn-out sneakers to his fraying uniform sleeves and find him severely lacking. Not at all someone that they'd want their son to be friends with. 

But against all odds, they liked him. They were welcoming, warm and kind and it wasn't hard at all to see where Xiang Hao Ting inherited his amazing character traits from. Auntie had been especially eager for their friendship to grow, for them to get closer. If only she knew just how close Xi Gu has been imagining he can be with Xiang Hao Ting while they all innocently ate at the dinner table. 

Xi Gu felt guilty facing them, conversing and acting like he hadn't just been staring at their son's lips outside their house and wanted to do things to him that they definitely would not be happy about. He thinks it would've been easier if they had ended up not liking him, that they demand he no longer associate himself with Xiang Hao Ting— no matter how much the thought of being separated from the other boy feels like a punch to the ribs— because then Xi Gu could maybe pretend this day never happened. 

Xiang Hao Ting was just a curiosity and would have stayed that way. But then he had surged into his embrace, red-eyed and wet-cheeked. Their skin touched, sparks igniting and leaving tendrils of heat in their wake and something unlocked inside Xi Gu. 

Xiang Hao Ting said he didn't want to pressure him, that he didn't expect an answer to his confession, and yet Xi Gu's been fantasizing about what it would feel to taste his lips. Why does seeing Xiang Hao Ting's smile make his heart soar or his laughter make him feel like walking on air? Why do his hands make him think of home? He's only known him for a week and yet it feels like he's known him all his life.

Everything feels like it's moving too fast and too slow at the same time and Xi Gu is dizzy with it.

He glances at Xiang Hao Ting and finds him already staring, a small smile on his lips like Xi Gu's some kind of precious artifact on display. Xi Gu feels caught and has to fight the urge to duck his head and look away. They're sitting inside the bus. No one knows them here and maybe that'd be enough to help him muster up the courage to talk to Hao Ting about the stunt he pulled back at their house. 

"Xiao Yu." Xiang Hao Ting softly calls out his name. They're holding hands again. He didn't even realize it. "I don't really think of you like a little brother. I just had to say that to my parents so they won't protest against us living together." He leans in and the sight of his lips up close has Xi Gu swallowing drily. "I'm a hundred percent sure I want to do things to you that I would definitely not do with a sibling."

Heat blossoms on Xi Gu's cheeks, flashes of sweat soaked sheets and a comforting weight against his body overtaking his senses. He gulps. Frozen, wide-eyed. Where did that come from? No words come to him and he watches mutely as Hao Ting's playful expression sinks.

"I'm sorry. That made you uncomfortable. I shouldn't have said that." Xiang Hao Ting apologizes quickly and tries to pry his hand away. 

Xi Gu holds on, swallows again and forces himself to speak. "I'm not uncomfortable. You're good. We're good." He squeezes their joined hands to prove just how not uncomfortable he is. That's actually the problem. He's not at all uncomfortable. Just suddenly very aware that he wants to be intimate with Xiang Hao Ting when logic and self-preservation dictates to avoid him at all cost. He can't seriously be considering this right now. Relationships just mean eventual break-ups and broken hearts and Xi Gu can't afford to lose his focus when he's persevered for so long.

But at the same time, he wants to be where Xiang Hao Ting is. The image of him miserably curled up on the floor had been burned into the back of his eyelids and Xi Gu can't shake off the feeling that if left to his own devices, Xiang Hao Ting might do something rash.

Xi Gu feels responsible for him.

It was easy to determine that Xiang Hao Ting was not out to his family. Liking the same gender is generally considered taboo and because of that, he's almost certain that the name Xiang Hao Ting had brokenly called out at the clinic was of a boy, someone he fiercely loved and lost, that no one knew about. His friends and family were not aware of his panic attacks, and it broke Xi Gu's heart to think that Xiang Hao Ting, for however long he's been suffering in silence, never had anyone to talk to about the loss, never knew how to deal with the pain.

Initially, Xi Gu thought the other boy pitied him. The mere notion made his hackles rise, the prideful part of him that has worked so hard to no longer be a burden revolted against being treated like a charity case. But it was not pity. Xiang Hao Ting already lost someone once and it's like he can't turn off that side of him that is constantly afraid of losing another one that he cares about. That person now being Xi Gu.

He talks, he smiles and laughs but he sometimes has this look about him as if he expects Xi Gu to disappear or stop breathing any minute. It's also present in the way he touches him, from the thumb caresses to his pulse point, like he's doing now, to the hand splayed over his neck, the palm resting over his chest like he's making sure his heart's still beating. And how with each touch, he seems to breathe just a tad bit easier.

"So you had a good time?" Xiang Hao Ting asks hopefully, eyes crinkling. 

Through the guilt and initial awkwardness, Xiang Hao Ting was a constant presence by his side and just seeing him there, with his ridiculous finger hearts when no one's looking their way, greatly eased the anxiety he'd been carrying. "I had a good time. Your family is lovely." He says, then with a mental pep talk he adds, "What you said... about me staying at your house. Are you sure about that? How long have you—?" 

"Thought of it?" Xiang Hao Ting prompts and Xi Gu nods. The other boy shifts lower in his seat so he can tilt his head and rest his cheek against Xi Gu's mop of dark hair. A part of him wants to tell Xiang Hao Ting to stop with the public display of affection, but the baser part screams to leave him be, and everyone else that has a problem with seeing two boys together can just deal with it. "I told you I liked you for a long time, so I've followed you and seen your routine. I asked your landlord about your rent and it's too much for a highschool student to shoulder. So I  thought, what if you tutored me and in exchange you get to live with us. You won't have to worry about rent and meals and what you earn from your part time job, you get to save for college tuition. I get to have good grades and make my parents happy and I won't have to constantly worry about you." He brings their joined hands to his lips and blinks adoringly up at him. "It's a win-win."

Xi Gu's skin tingles pleasantly where he'd been kissed as the sensation radiates up his arm and into his heart.

Aside from the explosive yet still confusing miasma of emotions he has for the boy, Xi Gu wants to help Xiang Hao Ting reach his goal. Auntie had told him how no one could get their son to do anything he didn't want, that he never showed any interest in his studies before until Yu Xi Gu and she was very happy that they became friends. They are very loving parents and seems to be just trying to do right by their children. Xi Gu fervently hopes that even if they find out the truth about their son liking a boy, they would love him all the same.

"You've really thought this through, have you?"

"Of course. I meant everything I said. I like you and I want to take care of you. And I've seen you push yourself too hard. I didn't want to constantly just watch you from afar. It hurt not being able to do anything to help ease your burden."

Xi Gu really doesn't know what to reply to that. Aside from Aunt Yu no one's really cared for him this much in a long time and he feels mortified that he might just start crying. So he elbows him mildly in an attempt to lighten the mood instead. "So... you've been stalking me?" 

Xiang Hao Ting pulls back pouting, though the expression doesn't stay long on his face. He rests his forehead against Xi Gu's and smiles teasingly. "Look who's talking. I saw you at the second floor during basketball. You've been watching me too. So whose stalking who really?"

Busted, Xi Gu tries to play it cool and slowly pushes him off with a forefinger against his forehead. "Don't think too much about it Xiang Hao Ting. I only noticed you because of your grades."

Xiang Hao Ting grins. "Uh-huh. That was the idea."

Xi Gu can't figure out why Xiang Hao Ting looks so smug, but then recalls what he said earlier in front of their house and the rush of happy-giggly feelings comes back with a vengeance. 

"I walked right into that one, didn't I?" Xi Gu couldn't have stopped the wide smile from showing on his face if he tried. He's flattered that Xiang Hao Ting put effort into midterms all because he wanted Xi Gu to notice him. That he even wants to be enrolled in the elite class by third year and willing to do whatever it takes so they could be in the same homeroom, Xi Gu can't find the words to express how much it means to him to have Xiang Hao Ting go through all that trouble to prove his sincerity.

Xiang Hao Ting's grin turns soft until he's back to looking at Xi Gu like a priceless gem. "I'm just really glad my hard work paid off. You noticed me. And I intend to make the most of our time together." He pauses, adds haltingly. "Look, you don't... owe me anything. I do these things for you because it makes me happy. It's selfish reasoning, Xiao Yu. So don't think that you need to repay me by forcing yourself to like me." His voice drops and when he speaks next, he sounds like it's killing him to say the words. "I'm fine with being friends if that's all you want."

Xi Gu sucks in a sharp breath. Just how considerate is this boy? He's giving Xi Gu an out. Right here, Xi Gu could tell him that they're never going to be more than friends and he knows without a shadow of a doubt that Xiang Hao Ting would respect his wishes. Xi Gu suspects that if he asked Xiang Hao Ting to carve out his heart, he won't even think twice of doing it if it meant that's what Xi Gu wanted.

But there's absolutely no need for that and that's just too morbid to even be thinking about. Xi Gu knows himself. He might not be adept at romance, but he's never going to be able to remain friends with Xiang Hao Ting. The fact that his eyes kept straying to his lips, yearning heavy in his gut is already a sure sign that his feelings are nowhere near platonic.

Xi Gu wants to already say yes to dating. But it's hardly even been a day since they officially met. No matter his feelings, shouldn't there be some kind of waiting period before coming down to a decision? Xiang Hao Ting might have liked him for a while now, but all of this is still very new to him and he doesn't want to mess this up especially since Hao Ting is adamant Xi Gu stay with his family. He doesn't think he can in good conscience date Uncle and Auntie Xiang's son right under their roof.

The bus screeches into a halt, cutting off Xi Gu's train of thought. The driver yells from the front and he looks to the windows, realizing that it's already his stop. Oh. He finds Xiang Hao Ting's eyes and says his goodbyes. "This is my stop. I uh... I'll see you tomorrow at school I guess."

Xi Gu stands and is about to hoist his backpack when Xiang Hao Ting takes it and slides it over his own shoulder instead. "Let's go."

"Xiang Hao Ting, what are you—"

"I said I'm taking you home. Not just your stop." 

Xi Gu blinks, taken aback. "Are you sure? It's almost ten and your parents might get worried."

Xiang Hao Ting shakes his head and refutes his concerned mutterings as he begins to gently urge him to make for the door. Xi Gu looks to the front and sees the driver beginning to look disgruntled by the hold up. "It's fine, Xiao Yu. I can just call them if something comes up. What matters is you. Come on. I don't like how the driver is looking at us." 

Not really wanting to start an argument in the middle of a bus in front of other passengers, Xi Gu allows himself to be led until they're safely on the sidewalk and facing the street leading to his place. 

They spend the next five minutes or so in silence. Xiang Hao Ting didn't take his hand like he usually did and Xi Gu's been wringing his fingers together ever since, feeling empty and bereft without Xiang Hao Ting's steady, warm grip. Xi Gu keeps stealing glances at the other boy but Xiang Hao Ting doesn't seem to notice. It's dark so he can't see much of his face, but there's a line of tension on his back and Xi Gu wonders if he's getting lost in his head again, in the torment of his memories where no one could follow. To a place and time where he loved and lost a boy, that even though he claims to like Xi Gu at present, he still seems incapable of letting go.

Something twists in his heart at the thought of sharing Xiang Hao Ting with the ghost of his past. Is it possible to feel jealousy over the dead?

"Xiang Hao Ting." Xi Gu calls out to him when the silence gets a bit too much. Coincidentally, they've already arrived at the front entrance of Xi Gu's apartment. The street lights are brighter here and he finally sees Xiang Hao Ting clearly. Worry churns in his gut as soon as he sees the cheerless expression marring his handsome face and he's in the other's space in a heartbeat. "Hey, what's wrong?" 

Xiang Hao Ting startles and takes a couple of steps back like he's afraid they'd accidentally touch. "Nothing. I'm fine. Umm, your bag." He says as he jerkily hands it over. Xi Gu tries to get a read on him as he accepts the bag, but the other boy seems unwilling to meet his eyes. 

What happened? Did he do something?

"I'll come by in the morning to bring you breakfast." Xiang Hao Ting adds and finally their eyes meet. He's smiling but he's looking right through Xi Gu. "Please don't leave without me. I guess that's all. Um, good night!" he says and quickly does an about face.

"Xiang Hao Ting, wait." Xi Gu hastily calls out before the other boy can take a step. He stops by his side, grabs him by the arm and turns him around, feeling a whole lot of betrayed at how the other boy recoils from his touch. "What are you doing?" 

Xiang Hao Ting's arms come up to cross against his chest like a shield. "Nothing. It's late. I just... you were worried about me coming home late. I'm just trying to get back home. Fast. Like you said." 

Xi Gu's eyes narrow suspiciously. He's not buying it. Even if Xiang Hao Ting wanted to go home, there should be no reason for him to suddenly act like Xi Gu has some kind of contagious disease. He takes one step, two steps forward as Xiang Hao Ting takes one step, two steps backward until he's backed up against one of the parked motorbikes lined up along the sidewalk. Xiang Hao Ting yelps, long legs shooting a couple inches off the ground, hands going straight to support his probably sore bottom.

Xi Gu shouldn't find it funny but Xiang Hao Ting's offended look at the motorbike's side mirror is hilarious to watch. He tries to school his face into a look of concern even as he pretty much giggles helplessly inside, hovering intently over the hissing boy. "Xiang Hao Ting, are you okay?" 

"Can't believe I forgot this was a parking spot." Xiang Hao Ting grumbles under his breath wincing. He turns back to Xi Gu, their faces a mere couple of inches apart and he comically slips where he stands. He's so clumsy, it's very cute. Xi Gu reaches down to offer a helping hand only for Xiang Hao Ting to shake his head in refusal. "Xi Gu. Stop! Please. You're making it really really hard to keep my hands to myself."

Xi Gu blinks, lost. He leans back, giving the other boy room to pick himself up off the cold hard cement. "What are you talking about?"

Xiang Hao Ting haphazardly dusts off his khaki shorts. "You said you just wanted to be friends."

No, he didn't. "When did I ever say that?" 

"At the bus. You..." Xiang Hao Ting trails off, expression going downcast and Xi Gu finally remembers the conversation they had that was cut short. He didn't give any reply, didn't get the chance to, but Xiang Hao Ting must have taken his silence as Xi Gu's confirmation for things to stay platonic between them. It makes sense now. Why he hadn't held his hand, the jutting lower lip, and the sudden aversion to being in each other's personal space. He was trying to set clear boundaries for Xi Gu's sake thinking that it was what he wanted.

But God, Xiang Hao Ting looking so dejected at the thought of Xi Gu never reciprocating his feelings and yet trying to stand by his word, a stab wound would have hurt less. He'd been so worried of what Xiang Hao Ting's parents would have to say about them that he almost lost sight of what truly matters. If Xi Gu decides to one day say yes to his confession, it should be no one else's business but theirs.

Mind made up, Xi Gu slides up to him, reaches for his face and tells him to listen very carefully. He doesn't know where such brazenness is coming from, but he's going to run with it anyway if it would at all help in erasing that cursed expression Xiang Hao Ting is wearing now.

"I never said I just wanted to be friends." Xi Gu says with mock irritation in his tone. The look of shocked hopeful surprise on the other boy's face almost has him breaking character but he bites his lip and carries on. "I don't remember rejecting you, Xiang Hao Ting. So don't go making assumptions about what I want and don't want us to be, okay? I'm offended you don't think me capable of coming to a decision myself."

"What are you saying?" Xiang Hao Ting sounds out of breath and Xi Gu is half-worried he's going to start hyperventilating. "Xiao Yu. You're—"

"Not saying yes." Xi Gu interrupts him before he can vibrate out of his skin. He already expects the way Xiang Hao Ting deflates at his words but Xi Gu pulls him closer, forcing him to meet Xi Gu's stare, not at all caring about the girl gawking at them across the street. "Yet. I'm not saying yes yet. This is not a rejection, Xiang Hao Ting. I like you. A lot." Xi Gu breathes out, stumped that he said it out loud. Xiang Hao Ting looks just as stumped, like he has a million things he wants to say, but he's keeping his mouth firmly shut as he waits for Xi Gu to elaborate on his words. 

Xi Gu feels like if he doesn't say this now, he's never going to be able to again. He squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath and jumps ship. "You were right, I was watching you. We were only four points apart in the exams. I thought you were my competitor, someone I had to watch out for. It was just curiosity at first. But the more I watched you smile, laugh and play with your friends, I started to seek you in the crowd. I didn't know why I felt the need to see your face. Why I felt disappointed when I didn't get a glimpse of you playing during lunch break." He takes a breath, exhales shakily. "But maybe I've always known why, I just didn't know what to call the things I felt whenever I thought of you."

"Xiao Yu." Xiang Hao Ting's eyes are glassy, and Xi Gu reaches up to wipe a single tear that rolls down the corner of his cheek.

Such a crybaby, his Xiang Hao Ting.

"I just need a week to think everything through. Try to process my feelings. I've never felt anything like this before and I'm scared of messing it up." He lets go of the other boy's cheeks and takes a single step back, but not without taking Xiang Hao Ting's hand in his. 

He looks up and finds understanding finally settling into the other boy's eyes." "No matter how much time you need, I'm willing to wait Xiao Yu."

"I know you would." Xi Gu replies with a doting smile. "But all I need is a week. Until then, don't think that you need to stop what you've been doing. I don't mind your touches. I... you feel really nice." He confesses and squeezes Xiang Hao Ting's hand to drive the point home. "I just... wanted to clear that up. You should go now. You might miss the last bus for the night and your parents will really worry."

"Then I'll just give them a call and stay with you." Xiang Hao Ting eagerly responds that Xi Gu can't help but shake his head.

"Go. Now." He tells him like a misbehaving child to which Xiang Hao Ting deems pouting a very mature response. Feeling rather bold, Xi Gu looks about them for any possible onlookers and upon finding none, raises on his tip toes and swiftly kisses Xiang Hao Ting on the cheek. "Good night." He says in a rush and runs straight to the apartment entrance, heart wildly beating in his chest and leaving one stunned boy behind.