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from the mouths of babes

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He Xuan thought he’d survived the worst of it. The drunk 2am calls, waxing poetic about how perfectly proportioned Xie Lian’s ankles are. The facetime videos (‘which outfit should I wear? To look good, but not like I’m trying too hard, you know’) before every friendly platonic get-together. The never-ending chatlog of Taobao links, as Hua Cheng spends money on dianxia merch like he’s got nothing to lose.

He’d survived the waves of pathetic mutual pining. (And oh, it was hell.) Now that Hua Cheng and Xie Lian are officially dating, things could only improve from here, right? Right???

He’d never have predicted things would end up so much worse.

 


 

“—he’s perfect, from head to toe, have I told you how well-proportioned his hands are? And his smile. Gods, he really is an angel sent from heaven.” Hua Cheng twirls his straw. “Oi, are you listening?”

He Xuan takes another bite of his tuna sandwich. “I wish I wasn’t.”

“Who’s paying for lunch again? Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Hua Cheng snarks. “He’s so ripped, you know? You wouldn’t be able to tell under all that baggy clothing, but he’s seriously got abs of steel. I bet he could bench press me with one hand, no sweat.”

He Xuan takes another vindictive bite out of his sponsored sandwich, “I don’t care.”

“When he’s doing martial arts demonstrations, I’m not the only one drawn to that deep-seated V-neck of his robes. It’s honestly illegal. And when he lifts up a sleeve to wipe at his sweat, oh my god.”

He Xuan slurps at his juice popper.

“Should I ask him? To bench-press me? Heck, that would be so hot. Maybe it’s best if I don’t ask just yet, it’s only been a few weeks since we’ve started dating. I can’t believe we’re dating.”

And there it is. The Hua Cheng Meltdown, right on schedule. He’s almost done with his sandwich, too.

“Us? Dating? How did we even get here?! I was so sure he’d turn me down. Gods, his blush was so cute, I’m seriously going to die.”

He Xuan stands up. “Then die.”

“Oi, fish face, don’t forget,” all traces of Hua Cheng’s previous meltdown are wiped away. He raps the table with a manicured finger. Tap tap. “Same time tomorrow.”

Someone, anyone, please end this hell.

 


 

“He Xuan.” Oh, it’s bad. When his full name is used, something’s about to go down.

“…what is it.” He braces himself for the worst.

“I,” Hua Cheng pauses, like the melodramatic bastard he is, “have a dilemma.”

“And?”

“Gege’s coming over on Saturday. To my room.” There’s a crackle of static. And a muffled scream. “It's all progressing so fast, what do I do, I was all for it until I got home and prayed at my shrine—”

Ah, there’s the problem.

“—what do I do with all my dianxia merch? I can’t just leave it lying around, I’ll be lucky if Gege doesn’t break up with me on the spot.”

“Have you considered renting a storage facility?”

“Yeah, of course I did. But they all look dodgy as fuck. I’m not leaving my prized treasures in some half-abandoned warehouse. What if they get broken into? Stolen? Can you imagine, some stranger rubbing their grubby hands all over my perfectly preserved life-sized Fang Xin replica? Fuck no.”

“Wow, it’s almost as if you don’t have any options.” He Xuan rolls his eyes. “Why not upgrade to a bank vault, with 24-hour security patrols?”

“They take too long to set up. Gege’s coming on Saturday. All I need is to store my treasures for a day or two, and … Hey, don’t you have a spare bedroom. Lend it to me.”

“I have one bedroom.” He Xuan corrects. “I still need space to sleep.”

“Well, who’s been paying your rent for the last three years? That shoebox of yours is basically mine anyway. Besides, all you need is a bed, a microwave, and a bucket. You suck at cooking, and you’re always buying instant meals and shoving shit into your freezer— that’s not helping with your debt, by the way.”

He’s well aware. “I also need somewhere to study.” You know, as a full-time university student.

“The library is open 24/7, isn’t it?” He can hear that insufferable smirk through the phone speaker.

“…you’re a terrible person.”

Hua Cheng chuckles, devoid of humour. “So, how many months’ worth of rent do you owe me, again?”

“…fine.”

 


 

He Xuan rouses to an incessant buzzing noise.

He checks his watch. It’s 3:21am.

He checks his phone. And considers throwing it across the room.

“…what.”

“You wouldn’t believe what I found out today.” Hua Cheng confesses. “So, we were drinking at Shi Qing Xuan’s place— well, we were, but Gege was drinking orange juice because he’s Gege, and  somehow one thing led to another and we started playing Truth or Dare.”

“So, it turns out,” he takes a deep breath, “he’s never kissed anyone before? Or even held hands in a romantic setting. He was so embarrassed, admitting that he’d lost his first kiss to me, of all people. You should’ve seen how bright his ears went, and it definitely wasn’t because of the alcohol.”

“Gege… he… he’s so pure, I can’t deal with this, what am I supposed to do with this information?!”

“You interrupted my beauty sleep. For this.”

“Beauty sleep won’t fix your ugly mug.”

Sleep deprivation is something he’s regrettably no stranger to. “Why should I care.”

Hua Cheng bemoans, “What do I do? If he asks what happens next from the intimacy perspective? If Gege asks me for pointers god forbid, what am I supposed to say? I can’t, I can’t just corrupt him, he’s dianxia, the love of my life! He can’t… I can’t… but then… no one else…”

“Would you prefer it if he asked someone else?”

“What? No!”

“Is your dick too small?”

“It’s easily bigger than yours.”

“Scared you don’t have enough experience?”

“That’s the problem. I don’t have any experience! There’s only so much Cosmopolitan articles and fanfiction can teach me,” Hua Cheng groans into his hands. “I’ve done my research.”

“I’m well aware.” He Xuan replies, drily.

“I’ve done my research, but what if it’s not good enough? What if dianxia isn’t satisfied? What do I do, I don’t want to disappoint him, gods, what if he breaks up with me—”

“It took you three months to level up from ‘hand-holding’ to ‘cheek kisses’. You’ve got a whole lifetime ahead of you, to sort this shit out.”

“Oh gods,” Hua Cheng whispers, “he kissed me first.”

He Xuan seriously considers smashing his head through a wall. “Aaaand, I’m out. You’re on your own.”

He hangs up.

 


 

There’s nothing better than unwinding after a particularly stressful week. He deserves this time to himself— away from all his troubles starting with H (Honours, Housework and Hua Cheng). With his thesis due date rounding the corner, a mountain of dirty laundry blocking his door, and too many run-ins with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, He Xuan is ready for the knots in his back to loosen with the aid of a long soak in the local public bath.

Draping his arms across the ceramic tiles, he closes his eyes to the steady beat of water jets against his lower back.

Something splashes beside him.

“Hey.”

One word— that’s all it took, for his migraine to return with vengeance.

“What should I get dianxia for his birthday?”

Okay, breathe in. Breathe out. Maybe he misheard. Maybe he’s hallucinating, because there’s no way Hua Cheng would visit a dingy bathhouse like this.

“Hey, idiot, I know you can hear me.”

Nope. No, he can’t.

“You must be pretty good at picking out presents, right? You’ve had relationships in the past— didn’t you have a fiancée or something? You’d know what to get. Or not get. Was it your shitty gift choices that dissolved your engagement?”

“…you’re a real asshole, you know that?”

“Hooray. He lives.” Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow. “So. Any suggestions?”

He Xuan cracks open an eyelid. “What were you going to get him?”

“Flowers. And chocolate.”

“Wow, what a basic bitch.” He Xuan sneers.

“That’s why I’m here, instead of surfing the internet for inspiration.”

“What did the internet say?”

“That you’re a plagiarising bitch. Now suggest some good birthday gifts, not that I’ll listen because you’re unoriginal too.”

A sigh. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Well, you’re doing this, so shut up and start generating ideas.” He pulls out his waterproof phone, and opens up Taobao. “Are you gonna say something, or what?”

“Two things, actually. One: don’t bring smartphones into a public bath, you pervert.”

“And the second?”

“Did you really have to ambush me. In a bathhouse? Of all places? At the exact moment I’m finally relaxed? How the hell did you know I was here, anyway?”

“Oh, that’s easy.” Hua Cheng laughs, “Because it’s funny.”

What an insufferable bastard.

 


 

Hua Cheng drives a convertible.

You know those obnoxiously red sports cars, with doors that open upwards? Yeah, he’s got one of those. With a custom plate and everything. It’s like he’s running out of things to needlessly spend money on.

“Gege sat in the seat you’re sitting in right now.” Hua Cheng states, one hand on the steering wheel. “I contemplated making you sit in the back instead, but then I realised, we’ve also sat in the back, if you know what I mean.”

Why was he riding in this dumb car again? “Shut up. I don’t want to hear it.”

Hua Cheng ignores him. “Did you know Gege’s actually really flexible? Like, his knees go past his ears, it’s crazy, and really useful when it’s cramped—”

“Thanks for the ride, uber driver, now let me off at the next intersection and I’ll walk the rest of the way home.”

Hua Cheng chuckles like a main Disney villain. “Good luck getting out. I child-locked the doors.”

He Xuan tries the windows. The button clicks uselessly against his finger.

“I locked the windows too.”

He shuts his eyes and ears, and vows never to sit in this cursed car again.

 


 

“He’s outside,” Hua Cheng announces, leaning back from the crack in their curtains. “Gege’s coming up the stairs now.”

He Xuan grunts.

“Don’t fuck this up,” Hua Cheng warns, “Or that debt of yours won’t be cleared in this lifetime.”

“Yeah, I got it.” He Xuan rolls his eyes. “Should I hold the door for him when he comes in?”

“No, I will.”

Wow, what a gentleman.”

“Shut up, he’s here.”

The doorbell rings.

Ker-chak.

“Um, hello,” a white-clad man bows slightly. A soft smile dances on his lips. “Nice to meet you, I’m Xie Lian.”

Talking to Hua Cheng’s boyfriend is a surreal experience. Xie Lian is surprisingly… normal? Humble and pleasant, he’s the complete opposite of the red devil shooting daggers at him from over Xie Lian’s shoulder. Conversing with Xie Lian comes naturally, with minimal effort from He Xuan’s part. It’s a welcome change from the sneering insults Hua Cheng never fails to send his way.

The only problem was…

“Oh,” Xie Lian stands up. He sweeps his hair up into a low bun. “I made some cookies, earlier. I’ll go reheat them in the oven!”

‘Gege loves it when I pull his hair.

…he can’t get all that unnecessary insider information out of his head.

“Aren’t you guys chummy?” Hua Cheng says, arms crossed.

“What, jealous?” He Xuan challenges.

“What’s there to be jealous about?” Hua Cheng laughs. “Gege’s cookies will be here soon. Make sure to eat up.”

If He Xuan had one superpower, it would be his bottomless stomach.

Something clatters in the kitchen.

“Um,” Xie Lian scratches his neck with an oven mitt. “Sorry San Lang, I think I mixed up the temperatures a bit, haha. I didn’t realise it was in Celsius, not Fahrenheit!”

He Xuan’s blood runs cold.

Hua Cheng picks up a smoking block of charcoal. He smiles. “They look delicious. Can I have this one?”

“Ah, I don’t think you should—”

Hua Cheng happily crunches away with relish. “They taste absolutely divine. I love what you’ve done with the textures— did I taste garlic and pesto? It really does add an extra kick.”

Xie Lian flushes at the compliment. “Yes, there were! I’m surprised you could taste it, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng chuckles. “Gege’s cooking’s truly one of a kind.”

Truly one of a kind, indeed.

“He Xuan, did you want one too?” Hua Cheng holds one out with a plastic smile.

Truthfully, he’d rather eat dirt.

“Of course,” He Xuan controls his expression as he takes a bite. It takes a herculean strength to finish it.

“So? How’s the cookie?” Hua Cheng prompts, that bastard.

“It’s… unique. I like how the garlic balances out the chocolate chips.”

Xie Lian looks confused. “But I didn’t add any chocolate chips?”

“He Xuan, you’d love another one wouldn’t you?” Hua Cheng holds up a tray of burnt bioweapons. “I’ll leave them here for you to finish.” The tray clatters on the table.

He Xuan’s stomach knots in protest.

“Gege,” he steers a pensive Xie Lian towards the kitchen sink. “Why don’t you help me prepare the salad?”

“Ah, o-okay?”

He Xuan considers writing his will on a spare napkin. Stuck between a rock (or several smoking rocks), and a hard place (imagine being Hua Cheng’s lackey for the rest of his life), he could choose to bite the bullet or prolong his suffering. His life was forfeit, regardless.

‘Well… here goes.’

He gets through one, two, three… there’s still over half a dozen left to go. The more he eats, the less he tastes. It’s like his body’s dissociating into the astral plane. His vision flickers. Hua Cheng’s obnoxious voice fades into a static grey.

When He Xuan hits the ground, the last thing he sees… is a glimpse of red and white.