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the gift of taste

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Shang Qinghua doesn’t want to sound ungrateful, but he doesn’t really enjoy book signings.

Yes, he knows he should be feeling lucky that his books have gotten popular enough to warrant public signings at the local mall. And yeah, it is actually kind of neat to see that there are living breathing people who read what he puts out and get excited for more. 

Most of his dislikes stems from people getting a little too over-enthusiastic about questioning his books. He’s not resistant to critique; there’s just a limit as to how critically he can think about a throwaway detail in his work. He’s put out three professionally published books since he graduated university and he had approached writing them the same way that he had approached the web novels he used to put himself through school. He blacked out at his desk for two weeks and emerged with a fully fleshed out novel with a slightly inhuman word count.

So he may not necessarily be able to answer why he decided to have his main character reach for the whip his sworn brother gave him and not the sword his other sworn brother gave him, other than he thought it’d look cool if the book ever got made into a live action. And he feels kind of bad, wishing he could mirror his fan’s ability to note even the most minute details. But it is what it is, and he can’t fault his fans for being enthusiastic.

However, he can fault them for overstepping their boundaries. Especially the ones who show up to his signings just to heckle him. Especially those who feel that they are entitled to full confrontations. In the past, it’s been people who’ve refused to stand down during Q&As. Other times it’s been literary critics interviewing him that grill him a little too hard on the way he structures his stories, where Shang Qinghua has to throw up his hands and tell them that he studied business admin in school.

Sometimes, they’re a little more unkempt and a little more forward.

He’s just finished his first day of book signings at a mall within his city. It’s the last stop on his month-long country-wide book tour. It still amazes him that he gets an opportunity to travel and shill his book while Shen Yuan stands behind him and lazily hustles people along when they take too long. The day was relatively easy, but there was one standout character.

Some guy was still pissed about the ending of  one of Shang Qinghua’s oldest web novels, « Crazy Magic Fairy Road ». For some reason, the guy had thought it was a good use of his time to show up to the book signing to try and start an argument about why the final character arc of the protagonist was utter trash.

Shen Yuan, who Shang Qinghua had initially met through fighting in the comment section of said web novels, had let it go on for about five minutes for his own entertainment before telling the guy to scram. The guy did not listen, not till Shen Yuan had threatened him with security. Shang Qinghua had brushed it off as a one-time thing afterwards, and had pretty much relegated it to a funny anecdote in the back of his head.

Until now.

The signing has just finished, and Shang Qinghua’s ducked into one of the washrooms near the food court. Shen Yuan has wandered off to get them some pastries before they leave. Shang Qinghua is washing his hands at the sink when he hears a “ Huh?” come from behind him. He looks over his shoulder and startles as he sees the guy that had been harassing him earlier today.

“You—!” the man starts, eyes going wide. Shang Qinghua gulps.

“Have we met?” Shang Qinghua asks diplomatically, quickly wiping his hands on the front of his jacket. 

Without waiting for an answer, he scurries out, hoping the man doesn’t follow. Sadly, the thud of footsteps behind him tell him he’s wrong. He looks over his shoulder and grimaces when he sees the man just a few steps behind him.

“You didn’t let me talk last time,” the guy says, and yeah! For a reason! He couldn’t talk to Shang Qinghua about that ancient web novel without throwing in a personal insult every other line! “I don’t think you fully understood the gravity of the sacrifice you made Qiu Haitang undertake when it was clear that—“

“It’s been ten years,” Shang Qinghua says as he quickens his pace. “Not to be rude, but I don’t think it matters!”

He had written that book when he was a bright-eyed eighteen year old loner living vicariously through his writings. He can’t be blamed for any unnecessary self-sacrificial works he wrote back then! He’s better now— he’s got social skills and a better understanding of the world around him!

But the other guy narrows his eyes and lengthens his stride, eager to catch up to Shang Qinghua.

Why is he walking faster!

Shang Qinghua ducks out of the hallway of the washroom and into the main area of the mall, looking around desperately for Shen Yuan. He can’t see him anywhere, including in the lineup for the coffee shop he said he was going into. Shang Qinghua pats down his pockets and curses, realizing Shen Yuan also still has his phone.

The guy is relentless, so Shang Qinghua tries to lose him in the crowd of the food court. He breaks out into a light jog but so does the other guy. Who knew that a decade old book would inspire so much hatred! Even Shen Yuan’s Cucumber Bro era hadn’t been this bad!

Shang Qinghua spots a small door beside one of the restaurants and a group of kids walking by. He ducks in with them and tries to blend in with them as they pass by the door, and pushes in once he gets close. It leads into another hall, and Shang Qinghua quickly walks down the length of it. He hides to the left near the end, and waits and listens.

There’s a sound of a door opening, and a distant “Hey, Airplane-jiujiu, I just want to talk!” down the hall. Shang Qinghua curses and sees that he’s in a corridor with two opposing doors. One of them stands slightly ajar, and there’s light peeking through. He really shouldn’t be barging into random rooms but he can hear the footsteps getting nearer, so Shang Qinghua takes a chance and ducks in.

Gently, he closes the door behind him with a soft click. The other man sounds like he’s getting closer and Shang Qinghua waits with baited breath. He can hear the man turn down the hall and Shang Qinghua’s eyes widen. Shang Qinghua quietly tiptoes backwards into the room, watching the door handle with a wary eye as the footsteps draw close.

“Airplane-jiujiu?” Comes the muffled voice on the other end, followed by a huff. Shang Qinghua holds his breath until a few more seconds pass, and he hears the man turning around and walking away.

It’s only till he truly cannot hear the footsteps anymore, that Shang Qinghua lets out a sigh of relief. He turns around and slumps against the wall, grimacing at the situation. It’s then that he realizes that he’s walked into a change room.

Shang Qinghua realizes this less because of the sinks and mirrors and lockers lining the wall and more because of the man who’s staring back at him, eyebrows furrowed, completely naked on his upper half save for a wrist brace. The first thing that Shang Qinghua registers is that the man is tall and built as hell , with well defined arms and a broad chest that tapers into a tightly-cut waist. He’s got thick dark brows, black hair, and vivid blue eyes that look like they’re trying to incinerate Shang Qinghua on the spot.

“Sorry,” Shang Qinghua squeaks out and presses back against the wall because as insanely attractive as this man is, he’s also insanely terrifying. His face just looks mean by nature, in a very handsome way.

Slowly, the man maintains eye contact as he slips on a white tank top. He’s wearing bright red pants and black boots that go up to his knees and Shang Qinghua doesn’t think twice about the odd combination because he’s trying to will the earth to split apart and consume him whole.

“This room should be locked,” the man says and oh no, his voice is deep and gravelly in a way that Shang Qinghua knows will haunt him. Shang Qinghua accidentally gives him a once-over, then does it again, and then scrunches his eyes shut to stop him from embarassing himself.

“I’m uh,” he says, trying to look away from what could possibly be the hottest man he’s ever seen. “I’m running away.”

“From?” There’s an evident frown in the man’s voice, but Shang Qinghua doesn’t bother to check.

Between the angry guy outside and this angry guy inside, Shang Qinghua knows his options are limited. He hears the man huff and looks up, only to see him turn around and start to rummage through his locker. His shoulder muscles are thrown into sharp relief under the golden locker-room light, and Shang Qinghua feels impending danger descending upon him.

The man turns and Shang Qinghua doesn’t even bother to see what he’s holding.

“Sorry!” Shang Qinghua yelps, and bolts back out the door. Or tries to.

The door seems to be locked from the inside. Shang Qinghua rattles the door handle but it doesn’t budge, and he feels himself breaking into a cold sweat. He feels a looming presence approach, and swallows.

From behind, the man reaches over and sticks a key in the door handle. He’s close enough that Shang Qinghua can feel the man’s presence, close enough that there’s static electricity between their bodies. Slowly he turns it, each click taking a year off of Shang Qinghua’s life. 

“Are you going to be okay?” The man asks, withdrawing his key, and Shang Qinghua doesn’t bother turning around, lest he make a fool of himself.

“I’ll be good!” Shang Qinghua meeps, before yanking the door open and darting out.




 

Thankfully, Shang Qinghua doesn’t run into the guy again. The creepy guy that had been chasing him, that is. Shen Yuan gives him a funny look when he explains what happened, more so when he hears about Shang Qinghua’s accidental peeping incident.

And because it’s the price that he has to pay in exchange for making enough money off books that he doesn’t need a day job, Shang Qinghua is back at the same mall to do his second day out of three for book signing. This one goes a lot smoother, especially since Shen Yuan lets the security guards near the front of the bookstore know how the weirdo from yesterday looks like.

Shang Qinghua is thankful for the signing going off without a hitch. He signs a few books, has a conversation or two with people who clearly know more about the lore for his novels than he does, and even takes some photos with his fans. That part has always been a little weird to him, but Shang Qinghua has gotten used to it. It’s a stark change from university, where the amount of friends he had he could count on one finger, and the attention is nice even if he ends up looking a little startled in the photographs.

Afterwards, they decide to grab a drink and some food before heading out. On the way to escalators going down to the food court, Shen Yuan spies a giant Christmas tree in the distance, and a candy-cane fence surrounding it.

“Is that a Santa Claus?” Shen Yuan squints, and Shang Qinghua joins him. Sure enough, there’s a large ornate red chair with a Santa Claus on it. 

This mall didn’t celebrate Christmas for a majority of Shang Qinghua’s childhood; however, his city has increasingly become a tourist trap. So accordingly, the mall has gone more and more gaudy with its decorations and celebrations. 

“You should go take a picture with the Santa Claus,” Shen Yuan says, nudging him. “It’d be good for your social media.”

“Good one,” Shang Qinghua snorts and Shen Yuan gives him a look that tells him that he’s suggesting it as his manager, and not as his friend.

Shang Qinghua doesn’t want to, and he says as much. However, no amount of pouting and whining can move Shen Yuan. Also, Shen Yuan has an inch and a half on Shang Qinghua so he easily places a hand on the back of his head and pushes him bodily towards the waiting line.

It’s all full of kids so Shang Qinghua sticks out like a sore thumb. Shen Yuan turns a deaf ear to whatever Shang Qinghua says about it being weird, and points out that there’s a gaggle of high-school girls also waiting in line in front of them.

“I don’t know how to tell you this but we are not the same as them,” Shang Qinghua says dryly, and Shen Yuan pointedly keeps texting on his phone instead of paying attention to him.

When they’re almost at the front of the line, a few passerbys recognize Shang Qinghua. It’s another experience he hasn’t gotten used to, but he’s glad his publisher forces him to clean up and dress nicely when he goes to these signings and any other professional outing. Last week, a news article had been published about him and had referred to him as a “handsome author” and Shang Qinghua is going to carry that affirmation for the rest of his life. He wishes it would translate to more useful places; he’s still the only one out of his friend group that isn’t allowed to go get a round from the bar for friends because of how long it takes for him to flag the bartender’s attention. 

Once Shen Yuan sees that Shang Qinghua is fine with the three people approaching, he lets them join him in line. They chit chat with Shang Qinghua about his most recent book, and ask if they can get a picture.

“Why don’t you all take a picture with Santa?” Shen Yuan suggests and before Shang Qinghua can shoot it down, the others are grinning ear to ear. Shang Qinghua honestly doesn’t see the appeal but goes along with it grudgingly. 

However, when they get to the front of the line, he feels his heart stop for a second.

The red pants are familiar. The boots are familiar. The blue eyes peering out from under the big hat and the fake beard are incredibly familiar. Shang Qinghua feels mild fear take over as he recognizes the man from yesterday. Retrospectively, Shang Qinghua should really have recognized the uniform but he was distracted by a lot of other things, okay!

“Maybe we should take a picture elsewhere,” Shang Qinghua tries but no one pays attention to him. Not even his fans! They’re all listening to Shen Yuan’s cheery instruction as they get called up. 

The Santa looks up at Shang Qinghua, and recognition flashes across his eyes. Shang Qinghua gulps.

“It’d be funny if one of you sat on his lap,” Shen Yuan says, and then says to the Santa, “Are you okay with that?”

The Santa simply stares, and one of his bored looking elves clicks her tongue and gives Shen Yuan a thumbs up. Because Shang Qinghua’s life is cursed in parts, he finds himself getting directed towards the Santa Claus.

“Aren’t I too big for this?” Shang Qinghua exclaims, but Shen Yuan cheerfully manhandles him towards the man in red.

“Think about how great it’ll look on your socials,” Shen Yuan says with a beaming face and an underlying threatening tone. Shang Qinghua curses the fact that he has to maintain socials at all and starts to focus on not going completely red. Or remembering in high-definition detail how the man under the costume looks like when he’s half naked.

Shang Qinghua really, really wishes he had chosen the role of a reclusive author instead.

“Um,” Shang Qinghua says, unable to form any real words. The Santa spreads his legs and pats his thigh, all while looking like he’s glaring at Shang Qinghua from under his snow-white beard.

Shang Qinghua wants to fling himself off a cliff because of how his throat goes dry at the action. Shen Yuan pushes on his shoulder once more and suddenly, Shang Qinghua finds himself sitting on a firm thigh. A very firm thigh. No wonder some of those kids walked away with terrified faces!

An arm snakes around Shang Qinghua’s waist, with a large hand in a white glove settling on his hip. Shang Qinghua can feel the heat and weight of the contact and despite the fact that he’s trying to will himself with every fibre of his being to act like a normal human being, he finds himself turning red.

“Smile,” Shen Yuan grins, holding up his phone as the photographer counts them down. The three fans of his lean in, surrounding Shang Qinghua and the Santa. Shang Qinghua feels fingers drum on his hip and immediately, he plasters on a grin that feels manic. It probably looks manic too with the face the photographer gives him.

“Why don’t we try to make a silly face instead?” The photographer says, like he’s talking to a bunch of kids instead of adults. Shang Qinghua’s thankful for it nonetheless, because he has an excuse to make wear a full ugly grimace.

Shang Qinghua shifts uncomfortably as they take more pictures, some with his fans’ phones. The hand on him tightens its grip as the elf beside them hisses at the Santa to look more jolly. Shang Qinghua has never felt more hyper aware of his own body.

When he’s finally let go, Shang Qinghua jumps off with an apology to the Santa Claus. His fans are too busy thanking him to notice how flighty he is but Shen Yuan notices. He asks him about it as they take a cab ride back, and when Shang Qinghua tells him who the Santa is, he laughs for a long, long time.

 


 

Against his will, that night Shang Qinghua has a dream. It’s one he’d rather not recount it to anyone for the rest of his living days. 

Shang Qinghua is in a red Santa suit, astride the hot mall Santa. Hot mall Santa is also in his suit, sort of. He’s got the pants and the boots and the coat on, but the coat is unbuttoned and revealing a sturdy torso that Shang Qinghua gropes freely.

They’re in the back of a rickety cart pulled by three deers as it snows around them. Somehow, it’s not cold. The man holds Shang Qinghua steady as he mouths at his neck, humming as he slides a gloved hand past the waistband of Shang Qinghua’s pants. The scratch of his fake beard against Shang Qinghua’s skin makes him more sensitive. 

When Shang Qinghua wakes up in terror, he can still feel the ghost of crepe-wool against him.

 


 

It’s the last day of the book-signing, and Shang Qinghua is relieved. Partially because his book tour will be done and he can hibernate for a month while working on his novel, and partially because he can stop being plagued by the hot mall Santa.

Ok, so maybe he walks by the little Christmas town erected near the boutiques to catch a glimpse of the extremely stoic Santa Claus. Maybe he does it more than once on his way to the bookstore, using getting coffee as an excuse to surreptitiously glance at the Santa. Shang Qinghua wonders if he’s been single for too long, and then thinks that maybe anyone would be kind of hooked onto a mall Santa if said Santa was an absolute model beneath the clothes.

Right? Right?

The last day goes by without much incident. The three people from the day before show up with a gift for him even; it’s a framed print of the picture they took yesterday. Shang Qinghua is as red as the Santa suit in the photograph, and the mall Santa looks coolly at the camera. It throws Shang Qinghua into a coughing fit and Shen Yuan delicately thanks them and plucks the frame out of their hand. 

After having a pleasant discussion with the bookstore manager, Shang Qinghua and Shen Yuan decide to pick up some pastries before catching a movie in a theatre a few blocks down. Shang Qinghua tries to surreptitiously suggest a café close to where the Christmas town is, but Shen Yuan seems to be hell-bent on going to the same coffee shop he’s been going to for the past three days. He gets a weird glint in his eye when Shang Qinghua tries to complain, so Shang Qinghua leaves it.

Given that it’s a weekend, the shop is jam packed, so Shang Qinghua opts to wait outside while Shen Yuan goes in to pick up some almond buns and coffee. He sits on a bench, whistling and dicking around on his phone, when he hears a shout from near him.

Reflexively, he looks up to see where it’s coming from. Turns out, it’s not coming from far away.

Shang Qinghua sees the familiar face emerging from the coffee shop, and his eyes widen.

“Airplane-jiujiu!” The man calls out, and Shang Qinghua blanches as he steps out from the cafe. He can see in the crowd of the cafe that Shen Yuan perks up as well.

Shen Yuan stands up, looking tentatively at the guy. He’s got a gleam in his eye, something that tells him that he really has a grudge against Shang Qinghua ending his first web novel with the heroine sacrificing herself for nothing.Then the guy does something that he hadn’t done last time; he runs.

Shang Qinghua is rooted to the spot for a moment but thankfully, the flight part of his fight or flight instinct has always been rather strong. Seeing this man charge towards him, he bolts.

The guy has the actual audacity to chase Shang Qinghua and Shang Qinghua shouts over his shoulder to the man, telling him to leave him alone. It falls on deaf ears and Shang Qinghua decides it’s time to perhaps invest in some security for these kinds of things. He thinks he sees Shen Yuan dart out of the coffee shop and call his name before taking off after the two of them, but Shang Qinghua doesn’t dwell on it too long.

“I wrote the book ten years ago!” Shang Qinghua squawks as he sprints down the mall floor. “It’s time for you to move on!”

“You’re a hack!” The man yells at him. “A hack that deserves none of the attention he gets, not when you hurt my Qiu Haitang like that!”

That just makes it worse— this man is one of those readers, the one who thinks they have ownership over a book’s characters! Shang Qinghua would love to tell him to get a grip, but he needs to save his breath for the escape.

They go careening through the mall and Shang Qinghua doesn’t even realize what direction he’s been running in till he sees the Christmas town approaching. There’s also a security guard standing off to the side there, so that should be safe, right?

“Security!” Shang Qinghua yells as he crashes through the fake candy-cane fencing, tripping over the astroturf. “Help!”

People grab their children and step back as the Santa stands up. Shang Qinghua spins on his heel, only to see the man has followed him all the way there.

“Sorry about the novel!” Shang Qinghua says, throwing his hands up and stepping back. “Wah, leave me alone!”

“I spent so much money on your stupid VIP chapters, and for what!” The man exclaimed as Shen Yuan catches up to them, huffing and out of breath.

“He learned to deal with it,” Shang Qinghua flails frantically in Shen Yuan’s direction. “You should too! This isn’t healthy!”

The man lunges forward but before Shang Qinghua can do anything, there’s a red blur and a loud yelping sound. The hot mall Santa wrenches the guy’s arm behind his back and when he struggles, he pushes his wrist further up his back, twisting his arm.

“Behave,” the Santa grits out in his deep and commanding voice. “Or I will make you.”

There’s enough power in his voice that the man stops struggling, but he keeps mumbling under his breath. He lets out another squeak, meaning his wrist must have gotten another painful squeeze. The security guard that had been standing nearby comes forward to grab the man, while the elf in the distance gleefully tells the kids that that’s what Santa does to people on the naughty list. Shang Qinghua sees the Santa wince as he hands off the man, and remembers the wrist brace he had been wearing.

Shang Qinghua doesn’t relax until the security guard is ushering the man away, even though the dirty glare the man casts Shang Qinghua makes him do a double take. Once he’s at a safe distance, Shang Qinghua turns on the Santa, who’s curling and uncurling his fingers.

“I’m sorry,” Shang Qinghua blurts out as he sees the other man’s pinched brows. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Are you ok?” The Santa asks gruffly, looking at Shang Qinghua once over. He makes a small ah sound as he makes a fist again, and Shang Qinghua feels bad for bringing trouble this man’s way.

“I’m— I’m fine,” Shang Qinghua says as he sees Shen Yuan step over the candy cane fence out of the corner of his eye. Without thinking, he grabs the Santa’s injured hand gently, holding it like he’s got any idea what he’s doing when he inspects it.“Are you ok? That looked like it hurt! Is there a medical area here or something? I can walk you there. I’m so sorry, it’s my fault, I didn’t mean to lead him here—”

The Santa stares at him for a moment, before giving an indiscernible grunt. He raises an eyebrow and looks down at where Shang Qinghua is cupping his one large palm with both of his hands, and Shang Qinghua drops it like it’s hot.

“Sorry,” Shang Qinghua squeaks out for what feels like the hundredth time.

“Stop apologizing,” The Santa says, before turning on his heel. Shang Qinghua watches as he retreats to the chair and sits down, saying something to the elf beside him. She looks as bored as ever, and she beckons the next kid over.

Unbidden, a voice springs forth in Shang Qinghua’s head. It helpfully tells him that not only is this Santa hot, he’s capable too. That he essentially acted like Shang Qinghua’s knight in shining armour and he has a few inches on him. And that his hand felt large within Shang Qinghua’s.

...Shang Qinghua has a creeping sense he’s in trouble.






Shang Qinghua tries to scrub the memory from his brain, like he’s scrubbed so many other embarrassing moments from his life. Unfortunately, it sticks. Less the creepy stalker part and more the insanely hot man dressed up like Santa Claus and the way that he wrenched the arm of the creep. Coupled with that one dream he had, a new vault of unwanted daydreams and fantasies has opened up in Shang Qinghua’s mind. Sadly, the man keeps the Santa suit on in a majority of them. 

(He can’t help it, ok! That man was really cool! He was his knight in shining armour! Shang Qinghua’s brain is very small and very clear about what it needs!)

He dozes off in front of his laptop while trying to write and dreams about straddling the man on the stupid Santa chair in an empty mall like it’s some sort of grand throne. Shang Qinghua wakes up with a very confused lower half and the resolution that he simply cannot go on like this. If anything, he should at least offer a thanks to the guy who saved him, right?

Shang Qinghua tries to consult Shen Yuan about it, but all he gets is a funny look and repeated questions on whether the guy’s actually hot or if it’s the Santa suit. Shang Qinghua isn’t ready to plumb the depths of his id like that so he decides instead to take matters into his own hands.

Retrospectively, perhaps showing up at the mall a week later with a box of apology chocolates for the guy who plays Santa isn’t a high point of Shang Qinghua’s life. Shang Qinghua supposes he should have maybe thought about it for more than five minutes, but the dreams are really plaguing him, as is the guilt he felt when he saw the man cradle his wrist.

The line for the Santa is long but Shang Qinghua waits in it anyway. He’s extremely nervous and his palms are sweating like crazy. He wipes them on his jeans; he’s wearing a clean pair this time, with a nice sweater he normally saves for his book signings. Shang Qinghua doesn’t even know why he picked out a box of chocolates, but he’s been a chronically terrible gift giver and he’s hoping at least the thought will count. 

Mentally, he runs through countless different lines, trying to frantically choose which one will make him  appear to have some semblance of cool. He thinks he settles on one as he nears the front of the line, but realizes that there’s something crucial he forgot to account for in his plan. That crucial thing being what to do if the Santa is not his mystery guy.

“Uh,” Shang Qinghua says as he approaches the Santa, who gives a hearty jolly laugh. The man has dark reddish-brown eyes and fine crows feet as he smiles. “Where is…”

“Come, tell Santa what you would like for Christmas,” the man booms loudly as he pats his lap and Shang Qinghua internally recoils.  

No thank you, no thank you very much!

“Um,” Shang Qinghua looks around before leaning in. “Where’s the last guy who played Santa last week?”

The man freezes, and looks at Shang Qinghua for a moment before beaming again.

“What do you mean?” He projects loudly in the same deep-bellied voice. “Santa has been here all month!”

Shang Qinghua rolls his eyes and leans in closer, hissing, “I’m serious, where’s the last guy? Blue eyes, really mean looking, I think he’s a little taller than you too.”

The Santa in question squints at him before darting his eyes to the side. Shang Qinghua follows his gaze but doesn’t see anything there.

“Are you talking about Mobei Jun?” The new Santa finally asks quietly and Shang Qinghua’s eyes widen at the name. “Ah— pretend you didn’t hear that.”

“Where can I find him?” Shang Qinghua asks, and the new Santa frowns.

“What do you want with him?” He asks, and Shang Qinghua feels his ears heat. He opens his mouth to speak, but he can’t find the words to exactly explain why he’s hunting for this— this Mobei Jun. 

When Shang Qinghua doesn’t reply, going pink instead, the new Santa narrows his eyes. Shang Qinghua realizes how this must look and quickly waves his hands.

“I’m not being creepy, I swear!” Shang Qinghua says. “I just want to know where he is!”

That doesn’t really help his case. The new Santa leans back and huffs.

“I’m not telling you where he is,” the new Santa says. “You should go, otherwise you’ll scare the kids.”

“Please,” Shang Qinghua says, and flourishes the box of chocolates. “I have to give him this!”

The new Santa looks at the chocolates and then slowly drags his eyes over to Shang Qinghua. Shang Qinghua can tell that this guy thinks he’s a total weirdo which, fair. Shang Qinghua would too if he was in his position. He’s already filled with an incredible amount of regret and is pretty sure he’s gone as red as a lobster. But he’s not a quitter, so he doesn’t run off. 

Yet.

“I’m going to call security,” the new Santa says, and Shang Qinghua blanches.

“I told you I’m not being weird!” Shang Qinghua exclaims, despite being acutely aware of how weird he’s actually being. “I just—

“Security is going to escort you out,” the new Santa cuts in and Shang Qinghua squawks.

“Ok, my bad, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“ he starts but he feels a hand on his collar tug him back. “Sorry, sorry!”

“Come with me,” a deep voice says from behind and Shang Qinghua tries to twist and turn but he finds himself getting dragged backwards by the nape of his neck. His arms pinwheel as he staggers back, making a slew of noises. There’s a sound of a door opening and Shang Qinghua finds himself getting towed into one of the small hallways beside a shop. He finally manages to break free once they’ve been pulled a decent distance away from the little Christmas town, away from the curious looks.

“I didn’t mean to be weird,” Shang Qinghua starts his defence once he’s finally let go, turning around with his best pleading face to whatever security guard has dragged him away. Instantly, Shang Qinghua feels his soul leave his body.

“What did you mean to do then?” The old Santa, the one Shang Qinghua has been looking for, asks. Actually it’s probably not the best to call him the old Santa, given that he’s clearly out of his red uniform. The man looks down at Shang Qinghua as he raises one thick eyebrow.

“Buh…” Shang Qinghua says intelligently as he stares at the man for a moment. He’s in a crisp black suit with a gold-plate name tag; a wire emerges from his crisp white collar, hooking onto an earpiece. Then Shang Qinghua remembers the name the new Santa had let slip by mistake. Mobei Jun.

Mobei Jun looks less like security and more like a bodyguard. Shang Qinghua’s brain fritzes out at the sight of the man in a tailored suit and for a brief moment, he’s incredibly thankful that he’s got something to replace the Santa suit in his brain. Then the embarrassment of the whole situation washes over him and he feels his whole face going a fire-engine red.

And he can’t even escape! Not with Mobei Jun’s large, wolf-paw hand settled on his shoulder and pinning him in place.

“What’s your name?” Mobei Jun asks. Shang Qinghua gulps and answers him in a minuscule voice. 

“Why are you harassing our workers?”

“I’m not!” Shang Qinghua insists woefully. “I was looking for you!”

He’s already in this type of situation, so there’s no real need to hold back. Shang Qinghua doesn’t think he’ll show his face in this mall for the rest of his life anyways. And who needs to do book signings anyways? A lot of people have made lucrative careers while remaining mysterious. Shang Qinghua can do that too!

“And why were you looking for me, Shang Qinghua?” Mobei jun asks, finally letting go of Shang Qinghua. He crosses his arms over his broad chest and looks at him expectantly.

“To apologize,” Shang Qinghua squeaks, wondering if it’s too late to make a break for it and never come back. However, Mobei Jun’s unnaturally blue gaze is too incredibly arresting for him to even think about uprooting himself. “Um, and thank you, because I don’t think I properly did last time.”

“For what?” Mobei Jun asks, and Shang Qinghua swallows again. “I was just doing my job.”

“I feel like that was above the duty for a mall Santa,” Shang Qinghua blurts out, and Mobei Jun gives him an unamused look.

“I’m head of security,” he says, and lifts up his left hand. There’s still a black brace around it, and Shang Qinghua winces. “That was just something for me to do while this healed.”

“Oh.” That probably explains why he was able to come down with such easy fury on the man that had been chasing Shang Qinghua. Shang Qinghua thought that that was just something that comes naturally when you’re of a certain height and build. “Well um, even if you were doing your job. Uh. Thanks.”

Shang Qinghua remembers belatedly that he has something in his hands, so he shoves the box of chocolates in Mobei Jun’s arms. They’re a nice assorted box of Belgian sweets, a lot nicer than anything Shang Qinghua would have bought for himself. Mobei Jun plucks it out of his hands with a bemused look, and stays silent as his eyes flit between the box of chocolates and Shang Qinghua.

After a moment of silence, Shang Qinghua decides he hasn’t embarrassed himself enough, so he keeps talking.

“I mean this in the least creepy way possible but I uh,” Shang Qinghua scratches the back of his head as he studiously avoids Mobei Jun’s gaze. “I wanted to see if you wanted to get dinner. So that I could show you my thanks. Um, I’ll pay.”

He doesn’t get a reply for a few seconds, and Shang Qinghua wants to evaporate. Or run away. Move out of the city even; he’s long overdue for a change of scenery, he thinks.

“I was just doing my job,” Mobei Jun repeats, and Shang Qinghua thinks his ears are practically billowing steam with how hot his head has gotten. Mobei Jun pauses for a moment, and frowns. “Are you asking me out?”

“No!” Shang Qinghua says immediately, but instead of his face relaxing, the other man’s brows furrow further. He looks further displeased, like he’s suddenly offended, and Shang Qinghua doesn’t know which way to go. “...Yes?”

“Which is it?” Mobei Jun asks bluntly, and Shang Qinghua can feel his forehead break out in a cold sweat. 

“Depends, what’s your answer going to be?” Shang Qinghua says weakly. Mobei Jun glares at him and steps forward, and Shang Qinghua starts shifting back. 

They keep going till Shang Qinghua’s back hits the hallway wall and Mobei Jun towers over him. Shang Qinghua feels incredibly intimidated and incredibly something else that he doesn’t want to name, otherwise his blush is only going to get more furious.

“Yes, yes! I’m asking you out but only if you’re going to say yes! Please don’t kill me, I’m sorry!”

Mobei Jun stops, and his frown deepens for a moment. Shang Qinghua thinks he’s really in for it now, but suddenly, Mobei Jun steps back. His face relaxes then, eyebrows unfurrowing and the frown vanishing.

Instead, his expression turns into something more smug instead as he looks down at Shang Qinghua in interest. Mobei Jun examines the box in his hand one more time, before looking up at Shang Qinghua.

“Give me your phone,” Mobei Jun says, instead of giving any real answer. Right now, Shang Qinghua is so jumpy that he’d fling himself off a cliff if ordered to do so, so he hands over his phone with no hesitation. Mobei Jun turns it to him and he presses his finger against the thumb pad, unlocking the phone.

Mobei Jun shifts the box of candies under his arms and types away something on Shang Qinghua’s phone. After a moment, there’s a soft ping from somewhere else and Mobei Jun locks it and hands it back to Shang Qinghua.

“I’ll pick you up at eight,” Mobei Jun says and Shang Qinghua’s eyes widen. “Text me your address.”

He sputters, and Mobei Jun pats the top of his head before turning on his heels. Shang Qinghua blinks and the man has disappeared, leaving Shang Qinghua alone in the hallway by himself.

Shang Qinghua’s heart is rabbiting in his chest, and he blinks in rapid succession. He feels hot all over, the weight of Mobei Jun’s presence still lingering around him.

That… was way better than anything ever goes for Shang Qinghua. Ever. He must be finally cashing in his romantic karma, because he did not expect someone as hot as that to say yes to him and to look so pleased about it too. And he has a date tonight too! 

All he has to do now is wash up and make sure that he doesn't accidentally let spill that he’s been thinking about Mobei Jun in a bright red suit with tall black boots and the front coat undone. It should be simple enough, right?

Shang Qinghua slips out of the hallway, wearing a large and silly-looking grin. He hums to himself and wonders if it’s worth sticking around the mall to go buy some new clothes. Not that Shang Qinghua is overtly concerned about his appearance at all times, but he thinks it would be worth looking nice for a date with the hottest person he’s ever met in his life.

His phone pings, and Shang Qinghua sees he’s gotten a text message from an unfamiliar number. It must be Mobei Jun’s, because there’s a recent text message from his own phone in the thread that simply says Shang Qinghua’s name.

Shang Qinghua reads the message, and almost drops his phone in embarrassment.

Let me know if you want me to wear red.