It’s 2018, and there’s this memory from the early months that sticks to Li Xikan, like glue. He isn’t sure about many of the details, but it’s there, stuck onto him, always.
He thinks Sun Fanjie looks so young in the memory. They were both young when they started, weren’t they?
There’s this section outside of the dorms - the ones at Dachang - where the trainees can walk, unnoticed. It’s a garden-like area, almost an orchard, with flowering trees and overgrown plants. The garden isn’t exactly part of the dorms - it’s owned privately by some rich person and the trainees are told strictly to stay away - but of course, the trainees don’t really care. It’s pretty, secluded and quiet and gives them time to think, and for a lot of them, that’s become a luxury.
And so Xikan walks in this secret garden. He needs that time to think. Eliminations are soon and Xikan is scared. Who wouldn’t be?
Fanjie walks alongside him. A lot of the memories from that time pass in a fuzzy blur of sweat and hard work, of tears and blood, the sound of your name being called out and the clicking of camera shutters, but Fanjie - Fanjie is vivid. He always is. Xikan feels as if he can reach into these memories and touch him.
Fanjie is, as he always is, beautiful. They walk in silence, as they often do, accompanying each other the way they did.
Xikan thinks this is the moment he realised, flowers in Fanjie’s hair and the smile - that terrible smile - as Xikan turns to him. Fanjie still has his makeup on from filming, though his hair has long since been ruined. Xikan thinks he’s been cut straight out of a movie, patchy lipstick that needed to be reapplied, but looks stunning on Fanjie, too-long hair decorated with those soft pink petals.
Xikan thinks this is when he realised he was in love.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe part of him always knew. Maybe this was when he realised he would never love anyone else again.
“Xikan,” Fanjie says smiling, and Xikan loves the sound of his voice, “Xikan, what is it?”
Xikan realises he could have said anything. Anything at all.
But Xikan says “I love you.”
And he means it.
It’s 3am on August 29th, 2020, and the mood of the afterparty has shifted from celebratory to quiet. Li Xikan feels parting hanging over him, hanging over them all, and he hates it. Zuo Linjie has latched onto Yang Zixin and Kuo Cong. Hu Wenxuan stares at Su Xunlun and silently intertwines their fingers. Guo Zhen and Zuo Ye talk in whispers in the corner, but Xikan catches Zuo Ye’s hushed “Zimo-” and knows too well what they’re saying. Zheng Renyu fusses over everyone on his table - Huang Junrong, Xu Zhaohao, Li Chenxu, Huang Enyu and Li Hao - like a worried mother hen. Lin Mo and the rest of Mr Tyger are silent. They know this feeling already. Xikan feels horrible for them.
Xikan tears his eyes away from the small scenes of farewell scattered around the club. He knows that soon it will cycle back to the excitement, rotating with the music, but now the feeling of ‘goodbye’ lords over him, it digs its claws into him and frankly it makes him a little sick.
When Xikan first came to Yazipu he had promised himself not to get too close to anyone - he never wanted to say goodbye like that again. A dry laugh forces its way up at the thought. As if he ever had a chance of that. Xikan really should be happy - he had made it, finally made it. But at that moment all he could think of were the people who hadn’t.
Duan Xuyu. Lin Ran. Su Xunlun. Luo Jie.
And with the thought of Luo Jie came the thought of everyone else.
Lu Chenyu. Yu Mingjun. Deng Langyi. Luo Zheng. Sun Fanjie.
“Sorry I had to take a call,” Xikan is pulled away from a train of thought that would have most definitely left him sobbing alone by Luo Zheng. Sweet Luo Zheng who had come to the finale. Luo Zheng who had trained with Xikan for years. He moves around the table and shuffles across the seat before finally coming to a stop next to Xikan. It’s strange that he walked all the way around to sit to the left of him when he could have just sat to the right, but Xikan doesn’t question it.
“They others have been blowing up the group chat. Langyi says he’s incredibly proud of you. He says you make him proud to be MR-X’s leader,” Luo Zheng says. He’s smiling but his eyes are red from crying and Xikan hates seeing him cry.
“And Mingjun said he forced Guanlin to watch it too. He says he adores you and that your dancing got better from the last time he saw you,” Luo Zheng continues, rereading the messages, “Mingjun said that- I don’t know what Guanlin thinks.” Xikan knows he could probably just read the messages himself from his own phone, but he likes hearing Luo Zheng speak. If he closes his eyes he can pretend they won’t be saying goodbye in a few hours.
“Chenyu says he loves you and there’s lots of heart emojis after. Like a lot. Oh and now he says as expected of my roommate,”
“Did Fanjie say anything?” Xikan asks and Luo Zheng seems to panic. His eyes widen and he glances over Xikan’s shoulder. Xikan’s heart sinks a little. It sinks a lot.
“Well Fanjie,” Luo Zheng begins, but he trails off, fixated on something over Xikan’s shoulder
Now Xikan’s eyes widen and his heart picks up speed and the only thought running through his head is no way. Because there was no way that he was here. He had said he wouldn’t be able to make it. No one had said anything, no fans had mentioned him - surely they would have noticed him, at the airport, in front of the venue, somewhere. But Xikan knows that voice. He knows the way he says his name. It’s not something he could forget. So he turns and impossibly, there he is. Sweet smile and too-long hair, fashionably dressed like he always was. Sun Fanjie was here and all the tears that Xikan had been holding since he stepped off the stage began to flow.
Sun Fanjie had been eliminated. He had seen it coming, he tells Li Xikan later, smiling as he did, but Xikan feels as if his heart has been ripped out either way.
Fanjie hadn’t cried when PD didn’t call his name. Fanjie hadn’t cried through Mingjun’s speech, or Luo Zheng’s speech or Xikan’s speech or anyone’s speech. Fanjie didn’t cry but comforted Langyi and Chenyu and Mingjun and Luo Zheng and Xikan and everyone. Fanjie hadn’t cried.
But now he did cry. Alone, in that secluded place, the secret garden. The place they go to get away. Xikan watches silently as the tears fall down his beautiful face.
“Fanjie,” he whispers and Fanjie’s head whips around, his eyes meeting Xikan’s. Even like this, eyes swollen from crying, lips red from being chewed, he was unfairly stunning. He hadn’t seen him, Xikan supposes and hadn’t heard him either. Xikan wonders if Fanjie even wants him here. He had never given a proper reply to Xikan’s confession, just smiled and told him they should head back inside. It would have been easier if Fanjie had rejected him, but now there’s something unresolved in the air, and Xikan hates it.
But Fanjie wipes away his tears and forces a smile, beckoning Xikan over. It was painful, Fanjie was always like this. Painful.
“Fanjie,” he whispers again, and Fanjie nods expectantly, waiting for Xikan to continue. But he doesn't; he just watches him, maybe in disbelief. That soon Fanjie will be gone and it might be months until Xikan next sees him. That maybe he ruined everything for an impulse, to say something that could have stayed unsaid.
They’re in silence again but it’s not their easy silence, the silence they’re so used to. It’s strained and uncomfortable and it says a thousand words but Xikan speaks another language.
When Xikan remembers the secret garden, all he can think of is how it looked in this scene. The end of winter and the beginning of spring, the buds, flowers about to bloom. He had once heard Zhengting remark on how the buds were similar to them. About to bloom into something more, something breathtaking.
“Xikan, say you love me,” says Fanjie quietly, after more than a minute of sitting on the ground, silent and unmoving. Xikan shouldn’t think too much, so he doesn’t.
“I love you Sun Fanjie. I love you, I love you, I love you,” he says and Fanjie inhales sharply, closing his eyes “I love your smile, I love the way you dance, I love the way you speak-,”
And Xikan continues on for a while, listing every little thing he loved about Fanjie. Xikan still isn’t sure what this means, what they mean, but he does know that his time with Fanjie is running out, and Xikan has a lot left to say.
“Xikan,” Fanjie says, cutting him off. He watches Xikan for a minute and then reaches forward, running his hands through Xikan’s hair. Xikan nearly breaks and he can’t stop himself from reaching out and holding Fanjie close to him, burying his face in Fanjie’s neck.
“Xikan, I am so selfish,” he says, and Xikan feels him start crying again.
“No, you’re not,” he mumbles into Fanjie’s neck. Fanjie shakes his head.
“I am so selfish. I know. I know you’re going to be great. One day you’ll stand in the center of the stage and you will be so great,” he says quietly, and Xikan pulls away from the hug to look at him properly.
“But still I…” he begins, but his voice trails off, “I still…”
“Fanjie,” says Xikan quietly, cupping his face with his hands, wiping away his tears, “Fanjie, I love you,”
Fanjie’s face softens, the intense worry crumbling away.
“You’ll hate me,” he says quietly, “In a few years if I hold you back, you’ll hate me,”
“I could never hate you,” Xikan replies, catching each tear that falls and wiping it away. Xikan thinks about how strange the position would seem if anyone saw them, sitting on the ground against the building, Xikan twisted around cupping Fanjie’s face in his hands and Fanjie’s arms around Xikan’s waist. Xikan doesn’t care.
Xikan doesn’t care and Xikan could never hate Fanjie. So, as if to prove it all, he leans down and presses their lips together. A soft, gentle kiss.
“I could never hate you,” he says again, more firmly as he pulls away, foreheads touching.
Fanjie gazes at him, and finally, he says it.
“Li Xikan, I love you. I love you too.”
The music is lively and everyone’s mood has gone back up, and Li Xikan has just finished sobbing. It’s a little difficult to continue crying when Yang Chaowen and Xu Zhenxuan are drunkenly waltzing around the room to Kris Wu’s ‘Juice’, but Xikan is persistent. Sun Fanjie laughs when he finally detaches Xikan’s arms from his waist and sees his eyes red and puffy from the crying.
“I’m going to go catch up with Zuo Ye,” Luo Zheng says patting Xikan on the shoulder and Xikan knows it’s to leave the two of them to talk. He feels a pang of fondness for Luo Zheng, who knew them better than they did. They have a lot to talk about.
“Do you want to go on a walk?” Fanjie asks and Xikan nods. He doesn’t know if he would be able to say everything he wanted, surrounded by all these people. As he slips out Xunlun catches his eye. He gives him a look which Xikan returns with a playful scowl.
They take a quiet and fairly deserted route, though they don’t walk too far, both unfamiliar with the area (Xikan had spent his 6 months in Yazipu going to and from work, and he doubts Fanjie would have become affluent with the area from the day or so he spent there). There’s a quiet park area, strangely void of other people with a creek running through the middle, and they find it a good place to sit. Fanjie offers him his jacket - Xikan had left his blazer at the bar the afterparty is being held in, he’s afraid it’ll bring in too much attention - but he declines. It’s warm enough to just wear his shirt. And for a bit, they just sit there in silence and everything is quiet.
“What’s it like?” says Fanjie, breaking their comfortable silence, “Center, I mean,”
Xikan thought for a moment. What would he say? He looks up at the stars as if they could give him the answer. Tragically, they don’t, and Xikan is left to his own devices.
“Lonely,” he says finally and to his surprise - and mild annoyance - Fanjie laughs. It doesn’t annoy him for long, the sound is just so nice to listen to. Fanjie has such a pretty voice and a prettier laugh.
“Sorry, it’s just… it’s been an hour Xikan, and you spent that hour being pampered by Luo Zheng,” He said through his laughs.
“You asked! It’s been an hour, I don’t know what it’s like either!” Xikan pouts, and Fanjie laughs, reaching over to pinch his cheeks.
“Sorry, sorry, I’ll ask again in a month,” He says sweetly, and Xikan swoons. Fanjie looks at him longer, and Xikan feels his heart nearly explode in his chest as the seconds pass and Fanjie’s gaze changes from teasing to tender.
“You’re so pretty,” he whispers and Xikan has no idea how to respond, “When I saw you up on that stage, god, you were beautiful, it was heartbreaking,”
Fanjie takes a sharp intake of breath and finally tears his eyes away from Xikan. And then, once again, they sit in silence. They used to do this a lot, back in Mavericks, that hell company. Sit together in silence. Xikan thinks that’s what love is. To feel comfortable even in silence.
“Do you think we had a chance?” Fanjie looks at him, a question in his eyes. Us? Or all of us? Xikan isn’t really sure himself.
“I think,” Fanjie says carefully, “That I would do it all again if I could. All of it.”
It didn’t really answer Xikan’s question. Maybe both of them knew the answer.
“Your phone rang while you were showering,” Xikan blinks at Xunlun who is sprawled across the couch in his and Xuyu’s room.
“Thanks,” he replies, drying his hair and walking over to the couch Xunlun lounges on. Xunlun moves over, giving him some space.
“How’d you get in here anyway?” asks Xikan, a little puzzled. While he did give Xunlun his room key often, Xunlun had returned it the other day, and Xikan wasn’t sure how else he could have gotten into the room.
“Xuyu let me in when he was heading out,” Xunlun replies. Xikan nods, momentarily having forgotten his roommate could let people in too. He can’t think of something else to say so he looks through his phone.
It had been months since he first landed in Yazipu. Xikan can’t quite remember if he had trouble adjusting in the first days. The memories of those days were mostly of introductions and the pang of seeing those familiar faces again, and of course, that feeling of being a trainee.
Now the days pass in a haze, with the laughing of an old friend and a new friend and the mix of the feeling of being a trainee and being told not to be a trainee. Being told to be youthful instead. Xikan doesn’t get it. What even is being youthful anyway?
From what Xikan knew, Xunlun felt the same way. Xikan and Xunlun were like that, similar in many ways. Similar thoughts, similar experiences, similar humour. Maybe that was why they had become such close friends in such a short time.
“It was Sun Fanjie,” Xunlun says, out of nowhere, throwing a bomb into Xikan’s thoughts. His head whips around to look at Xunlun, eyes wide.
“The person who called, I mean. I didn’t answer it, I just saw the caller ID,” Xunlun adds quickly, seeing Xikan’s eyes widen further.
“Oh,” said Xikan, because that’s all he can say. Oh.
He isn’t sure what exactly is so weird about the situation. Maybe because Fanjie and Xunlun existed in different worlds in his mind. He checked if Fanjie had sent any texts after calling but he hadn’t. He sighs and puts his phone down. He resolves to call him later.
Xikan can see Xunlun watching him from the corner of his eye. Something about the stare made him feel self-conscious. Xunlun sometimes seems like he could read Xikan’s mind. Probably because they were so similar.
“What are you and Fanjie?” Xunlun asks after watching him for a while and Xikan is surprised, and a little winded, by the question.
“What are you and Wenxuan?” Xikan fires back, and Xunlun grins, seemingly accepting defeat.
“Are you in love with him?” Seemingly. The question throws him off guard and for a second he has no clue what to say. Xunlun tilts his head, a mannerism he had when he was curious which Xikan had become familiar with in the months they’d spent at Yazipu.
Of course he’s in love with Fanjie. It’s like asking if the grass is green or the sky is blue, always true. Xikan sees no use lying to Xunlun, he’d be able to tell anyway.
“I am,” he nods, “and he loves me too. At least he did the last time I saw him.”
Xunlun hums. Xikan thinks he understands what he means. That Xikan and Fanjie are not exactly ‘Xikan and Fanjie’. A will-they-won’t-they that’s gone on for too long and by now the answer seems obvious.
“I don’t want to be like that,” Xunlun mumbles, “I love him and he loves me and that’s all we are.”
“Then tell him that, and get yourself a definite answer.”
“I mean it Xunlun. Either end it or date,” Xikan huffs, annoyed at the younger's flippant reactions.
“No, I’ll take your advice but maybe you should too,” Xunlun says and Xikan can’t help but be defensive, though it’s not like Xunlun is wrong.
“I will the next time I see him,” Xikan says and Xunlun makes a face.
“Nothing it’s just… maybe stop waiting for him to come to you and go to him?”
Xunlun has a point. Xunlun has many points that Xikan needs to hear.
“Well if you’re so good at giving advice then why did you come here-,” Xikan begins frowning but seeing the face Xunlun makes trying to hold in his laughter, Xikan can’t help but dissolve into giggles. His giggles set Xunlun off too and they laugh over nothing for so long.
For a while, they’re just laughing and Xikan isn’t even sure what they’re laughing at. If Xuyu walked in at that moment and asked what was so funny Xikan is sure he wouldn’t be able to give a satisfactory answer.
But still, he savours it. The laughing without reason, how every time they seem to calm down, they catch each other's eyes and dissolve into peals of laughter again.
Xikan is happy he has it, this fairly meaningless, joyful memory of Yazipu.
“What are you doing after? Go home?” asks Xikan, and Fanjie hums.
“I’m going to visit Chenyu,” he answers, and Xikan looks at him surprised.
“Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve visited you all, and I can’t really visit Mingjun and Langyi right now but I can see the rest of you,” he says. Xikan nods. They used to spend all their time together, but now seeing each other was rare.
“There are a lot of shows next year,” Fanjie says. Xikan expects him to continue but he doesn’t.
“Will you try again?” Xikan asks, curious, and Fanjie sighs, lying back to look at the stars. Xikan understands. Trying again is difficult. It’s harder than the first time when you have no idea what to expect because now you know. Everything is harder once you know how painful it’ll be.
“I don’t know,” Fanjie replies. Xikan didn’t know either. Does anyone ever know?
“Fanjie, look at me,” Fanjie obliges, turning his head to see Xikan properly. Xikan’s heart falters. Fanjie’s hair is windswept. It’s always too long and Xikan loves it, loves playing with it, loves tangling his fingers in it. His eyes have a quiet intensity that Xikan always associated with Fanjie and his lips are slightly parted. Xikan thinks about how easy it would be to lean down and kiss him.
So he does.
It’s as easy as he thought it would be, maybe easier still. He puts his hands on either side of Fanjie’s head and leans down. He had only meant for it to be a brush of the lips but Fanjie holds onto him, fingers gripping Xikan’s uniform shirt. They stay like that for a while, kissing as if they have all the time in the world, when truthfully, the time they have together is like the last few grains in an hourglass, slowly falling and condemning them. They come apart and Xikan cannot stand the thought that after tonight, when the sun rises, all he will be left with is this memory.
Maybe he shouldn’t try to stand it.
“Fanjie,” he says, but his voice shakes as he looks down at Fanjie. It was unfair he thought, that one person was so beautiful.
Xunlun’s voice cuts through his thoughts, too loud in his head. Stop waiting for him to come to you and go to him.
“Fanjie,” he says again with more conviction, “say you love me.”
Fanjie smiles and reaches out to brush Xikan’s hair back.
“I love you Li Xikan. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Even though Xikan knows he’s not lying, it’s strange to hear him say it out loud. It seems impossible that someone he loves so much loves him too. Like a lovely dream, too good to be true.
But somehow it’s true.
“Fanjie, what are we?” the question that’s sat on his tongue since that day two years ago when Fanjie had first said those three words.
“Xikan...” Fanjie begins but Xikan’s frown stops him. Fanjie smiles and finally gives him an answer. “We’re… you’re the person I think about, whenever a love song plays. When I take a walk, every step is imprinted with you. You’re… you’re the one person I would do anything for, as long as I can see you happy. Even if that means I can’t get what I want.”
“What do you want?” Xikan asks.
“You know already, Xikan.”
Xikan’s mouth is dry and his insides feel like they’re flipping.
“Let me worry about me for now,” Xikan says firmly, “Just… I don’t want to be confused anymore. So if you don’t want to date me then fine. Let’s end it.” Fanjie’s eyes widen at that and Xikan feels hurt himself, as if a part of him is chipping away, but he steels himself and continues.
“But, if you do want to - date me, that is - then tell me, and we’ll start. I just need closure is all.”
And silence. The goddamned silence. Part of Xikan wanted to grab the silence by the throat, but most of him knew that Fanjie needed time. He was already making him make a very difficult decision, the very least he could do is give him a minute to settle his thoughts.
He tells himself this over and over as the seconds ticked over into minutes and there was an inkling in his mind that maybe he had died and this was his purgatory. Before Xikan could go absolutely insane, Fanjie finally turns his head back to Xikan.
“I’m going to be a clingy boyfriend,” he warns, and Xikan feels like his face almost splits in half as he grins. He almost pounces on Fanjie peppering his face with featherlight kisses, and Fanjie laughs, that wonderful, wonderful sound that keeps Xikan up at night.
“Good,” Xikan says through laughter and kisses, “I love clingy.”
When Xikan and Fanjie return to the bar, hand in hand, Xunlun grins at him and Xikan can only grin back.
Their entwined hands are also not lost to Luo Zheng, who seems about to cry. He runs at both of them, enveloping them in his giant arms.
“Finally,” is all he says. Xikan is once again overwhelmed with fondness for Luo Zheng, both his and Fanjie’s first friend, their beloved older brother who danced with them and hid them and loved them so fiercely.
“Come on,” he says, pulling them both by their arms, “Let me introduce you to Duan Xuyu.”