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counting flower petals all day long

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There’s a break between filming sessions, though of course the cameras are always watching, and most of them are still in the practice studios; nobody can afford to be edited into some sort of negligent slacker narrative, not with the first round of eliminations drawing so near. One of the studio lights is flickering, almost imperceptibly, but enough to give Zhengting a migraine. Beside him, Yanchen’s got his earphones in, rewatching the choreography video, while Ziyi and Zhou Rui mark out the steps in front of the mirrors. Five more minutes, then Zhengting will join them.

He digs the heel of his palm into his temple. Waits for the sweet, whetted ache to pulse out from the point of contact, then the temporary relief, the immediacy of the pressure washing out the duller pain. He doesn’t remember what it’s like to process the world without a thin film of exhaustion settling over it like ash, but every inch he forces himself beyond his limits now is an inch nearer to the self he needs to become, if he wants to stand up there on the stage, in the lights. Hard work is luck is hard work, after all. The more he says it the closer it must veer to the truth.

Zhengting glances over just in time to catch sight of a head of dirty blond hair disappearing out of the door. Yanchen taps his fingers against the floor, a distracted rhythm. Doesn’t look up. The door’s still cracked slightly ajar, a sliver of the carpeted hallway outside visible through the gap. Before he really registers it Zhengting finds himself on his feet, mumbling some excuse Yanchen probably doesn’t even hear, and then he’s crossing the room, pulling the door open, quickening the pace of his footsteps until he catches up to Xukun.

He reaches out to wrap his fingers around Xukun’s wrist, and Xukun does a half-pivot to face him, head tilted. Zhengting angles his mouth towards the shell of Xukun’s ear. “Hey,” he says, low enough it can’t be picked up by any hidden microphones, “hey, can we talk?”

Xukun’s shoulders lift, then slump, and he allows himself to be tugged into the corridor that leads to the bathrooms. A quick check of the corners of to make sure it’s clear of the telltale gleam of camera lenses, before Zhengting’s gaze falls back to Xukun, who is blinking owlishly up at him. “Yeah?” Xukun says.

The high-recessed lights catch on the gloss smeared over the divot of Xukun’s bottom lip, and it bothers Zhengting, that he’s noticing. He redirects his focus to a patch of uneven redness at the base of Xukun’s jawline where the BB cream has smudged away, but even this is only vaguely endearing.

“Look, it’s not really a big deal,” Zhengting says. “I just want—why did you pick me for the team? Out of everyone else?”

Xukun’s eyes flicker around the room, following the same trajectory Zhengting’s had earlier; they are both veterans at this game, which makes the question even more pertinent. He should know how to play it even better than Zhengting. He’d won his round. Then again, they’re both still here, in the end, chasing after a second chance. Mirrored paths converging.

“Because you’re good,” Xukun says, once he’s satisfied. “Because they’ll probably spin some kind of rivalry thing out of it, which means we both get more screentime. Because I thought it’d be fun. Pick any of those reasons, they’re all true.”

Xukun is much quieter off-camera than he is on the stage, almost guarded, scaffolding himself with the gravity of that reserve. Admirably rare in this industry, but it makes him impossible to read in moments like these, and for Zhengting, so used to keeping a careful gauging thumb on the pulse of his team, the uncertainty is jarring.

But it really isn’t a big deal. Xukun’s rank is unassailable; Zhengting’s less so, though far from unsafe, for the moment. Still, the charm there is undeniable—restrained, here, but impossible to ignore. There’s an unconscious grace written into the long lines of Xukun’s limbs, the kind Zhengting dreams of being able to affect, dancer to dancer. Easy to love, even more so than envy.

“If you wanted a rivalry,” Zhengting says slowly, “wouldn’t it make more sense to be on different teams? Then we could have a—centre showdown, or something. When did we even work together?”

“You said you’d lend me both your hands, didn’t you?” Xukun says.

Zhengting opens his mouth to respond, and feels an inexplicable rush of heat to his cheeks. Back during the battle for centre he’d replied unthinkingly, too accustomed to the usual shameless camera routine with Justin and Chengcheng and the others, and it had seemed only natural in the moment to extend it to Xukun. “That’s not what I—I didn’t mean—”

Xukun’s laugh startles him. A bright, easy sound. His eyes spark, all warmth, now, slow and clear and open.

“Hey,” Xukun says. “Don’t think too hard about it. I picked you for my team because I wanted you to be there.”

The words take a moment to fall into place. “Oh,” Zhengting says. “But—”

Where that train of thought was leading him he will never know, because Xukun fists his hands in the front of Zhengting’s sweater, yanks him forward, and fits their mouths together. Zhengting makes some horrible high-pitched noise and nearly trips backwards, but Xukun’s grip is sure, and he’s still kissing him, lips gentle, almost hesitant on Zhengting’s, and it’s actually embarrassing how quickly Zhengting goes pliant beneath his touch, letting the kiss deepen. Whetted sweetness, temporary relief.

He’s lightheaded when Xukun pulls back. Heat radiating outwards from what feels like every inch of exposed skin. “That’s what I meant,” Xukun says.

“Oh,” Zhengting repeats, the most eloquent leader-in-training to ever grace Yuehua, and Xukun laughs again, eyes crinkling up.

“I’m always looking at you,” Xukun says. “I thought it was obvious.

“I thought it was out of rivalry,” Zhengting mutters. “You know, like you said. Since we’re supposed to be rivals. And all that.”

“Nine people in the final group,” Xukun says. A glimpse of that crackling onstage confidence, spilling out like light through a chink in curtains or a door left ajar, a slice of the inevitable world outside, a promise of what’s to come. “That’s enough space for us both.”

Even hearing it spoken out loud seems sacrilegious. They of all people should know best that nothing is owed to them; they have their two separate symmetrical sets of history to prove it. It’s not as if Zhengting has forgotten the truth of who they are and where they are. But—that firecracker grin of his. Impossible to resist. It’s an all-or-nothing gamble, and Xukun’s conviction is catching. This time Zhengting is the one who leans in, closing the distance, and Xukun meets him halfway.