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Living Costs

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   It was waking Johnny up at 4am, just a few hours before their morning lecture, that finally caused him to snap. The week had been long already, a project deadline intersecting with an essay deadline that left the music department locked away in their dormitories with increasingly frantic expressions. It was that night when his roommate at last made the suggestion that would change everything.

   Taeyong was groaning, lying amongst the tower of books that he had just knocked over in the dark, as Johnny fumbled for the light-switch.

   ‘Jesus Christ, TY! You nearly gave me a heart attack!’

   Taeyong just moaned in response, holding his aching kneecap. The collision had cost him what he knew would be a furious brown bruise by the morning.

   ‘It’s four in the morning!’

   ‘I just got off work,’ Taeyong mumbled, and he made sure to check the rest of his body to confirm that nothing was broken. He had a taste for melodrama, it had to be said. And he rather thought that Johnny should be expressing more sympathy given that he was sprawled on the floor, a victim of critical injury.

   ‘Mate, you need to start getting some real sleep. So do I. We have class soon. Can’t you switch to earlier shifts?’

   ‘It’s a club, Johnny, it doesn’t have earlier shifts.’

   ‘Then get a different job during the day,’ Johnny grumbled, kneading his forehead.

   ‘I already work at the bookstore during the day. Unless you have a magic potion that will put me in two places at once, it’s unlikely,’ said Taeyong. ‘Not all of us have parents who can pay our tuition, you know.’

   It was a blow below the belt, and he regretted it in a second. From his very first year at college, Johnny had been the one to take care of him: he’d shared everything he owned, he’d passed on every possession he had, he’d even taken Taeyong to spend Christmas with his own parents because Taeyong didn’t have anywhere else to go.

   No, saying that sort of thing to Johnny was not okay.

   ‘Sorry,’ he whispered, weighed down by guilt.

   ‘It’s fine,’ muttered Johnny. ‘Just don’t take your financial situation out on me. If you don’t like it, change it,’ he added, far more combative at the early hour than he would have been during the day. Taeyong wasn’t offended. He probably deserved such a rebuttal after what he had said.

   He sat up, pink hair a mess in his face. The haircut was rough, because he’d done it himself, but the colour could have been professional such was his experience. He looked tired, residual dark circles from previous nights tinting his skin, and his eyeliner was smudged. There was an iniquitous appeal to his look, he supposed, as if he could be found in the dressing room of a seedy but popular glam rock venue. Maybe that was why everyone on campus stared at him with unconcealed attraction. ‘Right, sure, no problem. I’ll just go and win the lotto, shall I?’

   ‘I dunno, TY, just do something that won’t wake me up at 4am. Get a sugar daddy or something.’

   ‘Get a what?’

   ‘Su-gar dad-dy,’ Johnny said slowly, enunciating each syllable. ‘At least then you can keep someone else awake at night.’ With that, his best friend rolled onto his other side and switched off the light, plunging Taeyong into complete darkness.

   Taeyong himself did not move, though, sat in amongst the carnage he had caused, with an inquisitive expression starting to tint his features. One hand lifted absentmindedly to muss at his hair as he processed Johnny’s comment. It had been offhand - a joke he was sure - but it didn’t sound like such a terrible idea…

   He had worked some terrible jobs. He had tried some wild ideas. He was no stranger to a little bit of bizarre.

   ‘How do I get one? Johnny?’ he whispered, as loud as a whisper could be allowed.

   ‘What? Shut up, Taeyong. Go to bed.’

   Taeyong didn’t go to bed. Instead, he whipped out his phone, an old model of Johnny’s with a cracked screen but a pretty champagne-bottle-patterned protective case, still sat cross legged on the floor, and started googling.

*

   ‘Johnny. Seo Youngho. JJ!’ Taeyong hissed, as he leant over Yuta and waved his phone in front of his friend’s face.

   ‘Fuck off, I’m trying to concentrate,’ said Johnny, staring resolutely ahead at the front of the lecture hall, as if he ever paid any attention.

   ‘I got my first reply.’

   ‘What?’

   ‘From the website. I signed up last night.’

   ‘What website?’

   ‘Do you have something you’d like to share, Mr Lee?’ The voice boomed out from the front of the hall, and Taeyong’s stomach turned over. The incessant droning was easy to ignore when he was going on about something that Taeyong had read at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus record.

   He turned around in mild surprise. Truth be told, he’d forgotten the lecturer was even there. ‘Oh. Uh. No, no I don’t.’

   ‘Well you must have something to say? What’s the news? Drugstore run out of lipgloss again? Or did you forget to turn off your straighteners this morning?’

   Taeyong felt heat rise up to his face. This professor never wasted an opportunity to make a snide comment about him. Taeyong was ninety-eight percent sure he was probably stuck in an unhappy marriage and had a massive crush on him, but it didn’t make him feel any better. ‘Sorry, sir,’ he said quietly.

   ‘Say sorry to your grades, Mr Lee, they’re the ones who are leaving you. Maybe you could try buying them flowers.’

   A ripple of laughter ran around the room. Taeyong hated that. Everyone disliked their professor until he made a remark about him and then they seemed to find him the funniest guy alive.

   He drew his feet up onto the seat, wrapping his arms around his knees and hiding as much of his red face as he could as the lecturer went back to his class. Johnny and Yuta were both staring at the front with aghast expressions - Johnny’s mouth was actually hanging open. Taeyong had long since banned both of them from jumping to his defence - he hardly wanted to be the reason for either of them getting kicked out of class - but it didn’t stop Johnny seething after the bell rang.

   ‘Only I’m allowed to say that shit to you.’

   ‘It’s fine,’ Taeyong said, though his voice betrayed that the truth was anything but. ‘I hate that class anyway.’

   ‘I can’t believe he gets away with that,’ Yuta shook his head. ‘You should report him. He’s a massive homophobe. Straight up.’

   Taeyong kicked out at a scrunched-up piece of paper on the floor, muttering moodily to himself. ‘Can’t we talk about something else?’

   They walked together to the best cafeteria on campus, with Johnny taking the lead as soon as food was in sight. He didn’t change the topic until they had all picked up lunch and sat themselves down around their favourite table. Then, finally, he asked, ‘what was it you were trying to show me?’

   At this, Taeyong perked up a little. ‘I signed up to one of those sites last night.’

   ‘What sites?’ asked Yuta, and the curiosity in his voice was genuine.

   ‘Sugar daddy websites. Johnny suggested it,’ Taeyong said, without missing a beat.

   Johnny choked on the lump of rice that he had just put in his mouth.

   ‘No way?’ said Yuta, with a fiendishly interested grin.

   ‘Did I?’ Johnny spluttered.

   ‘Well yeah, last night. You literally told me to get a sugar daddy. So I thought why not?’

   ‘Yeah, I was kidding, TY! You can’t actually be serious?’

   Taeyong shrugged, picking at the skin of his apple. ‘Why shouldn’t I get one? I’m a man of dubious morals, I have a cute ass, and I like expensive things.’

   ‘Dubious morals? The most dubious thing you’ve ever done is eat dessert before dinner,’ Johnny scoffed.

   It didn’t come as much of a surprise, however, that Yuta jumped immediately to his support. ‘He’s right, you know,’ he said to Johnny, looking Taeyong up and down appraisingly. ‘He’s perfect. I mean, there aren’t many pretty boys who are cute and sexy. Taeyong’s got it all covered. I reckon those kinds of guys would eat him up.’

   ‘Yeah, it’s those kinds of guys I’m worried about,’ Johnny shook his head. ‘No, I won’t allow it.’

   ‘You’re not my father, Johnny,’ said Taeyong with a roll of his eyes.

   ‘No, but I am your roommate, which means I get to veto the idea.’

   ‘It was your idea!’

   ‘Then I’m taking it back.’

   ‘Just because you’re not cute or sexy,’ said Yuta smugly.

   Johnny flicked a pile of rice at him.

   Taeyong ignored both of them. ‘If I can make this work, I can quit both my jobs. No more wake-up calls,’ he said, putting on his most winning smile and batting his eyelashes in Johnny’s direction.

   Johnny sighed. ‘Fine. Show me this message then.’

   Taeyong opened the app and held the phone out again.

   There was a split second of non-comprehension, the sort required for initial basic cerebral processing, and then Johnny threw the phone squarely back across the table with an expression of complete disgust. ‘You did not just show me a stranger’s dick pic!’

   A couple of girls at the nearest table gave them looks that rivalled the revulsion on Johnny’s face.

   ‘I had to see it, so should you,’ Taeyong shrugged, glancing at the pic again before closing it with a look of distaste.

   ‘See, that’s exactly the kind of creep you’ll find on that website. Don’t do it, TY. And take down your photo, they’ll all be jacking off over it.’

   Taeyong smirked. ‘So? I can’t help it if people find me attractive.’

   ‘Delete the stupid app, TY.’

*

   No amount of horror from Johnny could convince Taeyong to delete that app though.

   He flicked through his messages in class, at work, even in bed, giggling to himself and even replying coyly to a couple. He wasn’t quite sure yet whether he was seriously considering it, or whether it had just turned into a bit of fun - it was certainly enjoyable irritating the hell out of Johnny.

   Not that he would admit it to his friend, but he was starting to think that Johnny was right. Most of these guys were creeps. And the ones that weren’t were either so old or ugly that even the promise of presents might not be able to convince Taeyong to get it up.

   Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy their attention, right?

   ‘Hey, how about this one, Tae?’ Yuta called out. He was waving Taeyong’s phone in the air like it was worthless, which made Taeyong want to lurch out and grab it before it found its way to the floor. There was no way in a million years that he would ever be able to afford a new one.

   It was Sunday, Taeyong’s only day off, and they were piled into Yuta’s dorm room with his roommates, Sicheng and Taeil, half of them trying to work and the others sprawling about with all the laziness that a Sunday afternoon deserves.

   Taeyong was one of the few working, hunched over his laptop with his recording headphones wrapped around his neck. He had given his phone to Yuta with full license to message whichever prospective daddies he wanted, an activity that Yuta seemed to enjoy almost as much as himself.

   ‘Huh? I don’t know, ask him what he’ll send for a photo,’ Taeyong said, not as involved in the game as he usually would be. Work was starting to mount up dangerously as the semester went on. He had a production project and an essay due around the same day, and no amount of energy drinks could genuinely match up to committing real days to work. Taeyong didn’t have days. He had hours. His shift started soon.

   ‘No, I mean you’ve got to take a look at him.’

   Taeyong pulled off the headphones curiously and climbed over the bed in spite of himself. He nestled in close against Yuta’s shoulder. ‘Oh wow.’

   ‘Oh wow, another pervert,’ Johnny rolled his eyes.

   The two of them ignored him, however, Taeyong now taking his phone and looking close at the screen.

   This guy was no joke.

   No joke.

   ‘Looks like you hit the jackpot. Literally,’ said Yuta with a long exhale.

   Taeyong’s nose was almost touching the screen as he stared at the photo, eyes wide. The man who had messaged him was… something else.

   He had hair dyed a silver sort of colour, sharp and chopped aggressively across his forehead in a style far too modern for his job title. Chief Financial Officer. CFO. Anything with an abbreviation, even Taeyong knew was important. But his face. He was young, attractive - strikingly so - with dark, intriguing eyes, but a smile so genuine that it seemed out of place on this website.

   ‘Let me look.’

   Before he knew it, Johnny of all people had snatched his phone out of his hand. He gave a derisive snort. ‘Oh yeah, like that’s for real.’

   ‘Hey,’ said Taeyong, trying to grab it back. ‘Is it really that hard to believe someone hot would be attracted to me?’

   ‘Oh honey, Korea’s next top model would be attracted to you. But it’s hard to believe there’s someone that hot on that website. He’s obviously catfishing.’

   ‘Spoilsport,’ Taeyong muttered as he finally managed to manhandle his phone back.

   He looked at the guy’s photo, dragging his thumb across the screen as though to wipe away his mask. Nothing changed, however. He wondered whether the stranger wore a thin veil, a light dusting over a slightly faded façade, or a heavy one – one that concealed dangerous truths.

   ‘Message him back,’ Yuta whispered, close to his ear. ‘It can’t hurt, right?’

   Taeyong nodded, but he felt suddenly shy. Not because he thought Johnny was right, but because he thought Johnny might be wrong. If this guy was for real, he was… too perfect. How could Taeyong compete with that? Even down a phone app, he felt exposed, like anything he said would come across as childish or uneducated. From one photo, this guy seemed so smart, so accomplished, so effortlessly sexy…

   TenOutOfTen (14:48): Hey, pretty kitty.

   Well, his pick-up lines could use work. Still, Taeyong couldn’t blame anyone but himself - his choice of username had seemed like a good idea at the time. Cute. He’d wanted to seem cute. The nickname had come, like most things, from Yuta, a year or so earlier. Somewhere between a cute cat video and an exasperated sigh, he’d begun to call Taeyong kit.

   kittyong (15:37): Ten out of ten, huh? You sure have a high opinion of yourself.

   Fuck fuck fuck. It was only when he had hit send that he realised how very not well his coquetry translated over message. It literally just sounded like rudeness. Quickly, thumbs flapping, he added:

   kittyong (15:38): I like it.

   ‘Smooth,’ Yuta grinned.

   ‘Go make your own account if you’re so clever,’ muttered Taeyong as he gave the phone back to him and returned to his work, if only because he didn’t want to spend the next five hours checking for a reply.

   He sat down at his laptop and ran his hands through his hair. This Tenoutoften! guy was probably rich enough to pay someone to do his work for him back at college. The thought made him want to curse at something; there were a few such guys on his course, the ones that paid financially struggling masterminds to sit their exams for them. One of Taeyong’s ex-boyfriends had been just the type to arrange such a thing.

   He pulled a face, tugging at some of the pink tendrils absentmindedly.

   He fully believed that creative degrees were the hardest. Hell, at least if you felt like shit you could still physics, right? But how were you supposed to produce music when your head ached from sleep deprivation and the threat of rent day loomed in the back of your head, when the very heart of writing music was in exposing your soul?

   He switched from his production software to a document, deciding to concentrate on the essay he had due for his literature elective instead.

   ‘Taeil? Did you do the comparative essay yet?’

   ‘Sure, I finished it a few days ago. Do you want me to help?’

   Taeyong pouted, but he didn’t have to fake his sad eyes. Taeil climbed off his bunk and crossed over, one hand straying left to pull up a chair.

   ‘Thanks, hyung.’

   ‘Anything for you, pretty kitty.’

   Everyone in the room laughed. The sound was not unfriendly. It was fond. Fondness. That was how all of Taeyong’s friends treated him, like he was a cute baby animal to be coddled or, in some cases, one that was suffering and in need of rescuing. That unsettled him. He didn’t need rescuing.

   All that being said? Well, he wasn’t going to live down the pretty kitty thing for a while.

*

   Taeyong’s beautiful-sexy-mystery-man did not message back for so long that Taeyong had started to think he really had offended him. The app had lost its novelty in wake of this, and by Monday night he was loathe to look at it. Throwing away his one chance at what could have been a good thing? It made him bitter in a way that left an acidic taste at the back of his mouth.

   That was, until his phone lit up on his break at work, and he almost dropped it in his haste to open the app.

   TenOutOfTen (01:15): I’m glad you like it. It’s a name you’re going to be using a lot.

   Taeyong’s heart pounded against his chest.

   kittyong (01:16): You want me to call you ten out of ten? It seems you’re quite a mouthful.

   He attached a suggestive emoji there for good measure. He barely thought as he typed it out; flirtation had always been a skill of his.

   The wait for a reply was slightly longer than his had been. Maybe he shouldn't have come across as quite so eager.

   TenOutOfTen (01:28): Actually, my name is Ten. But you can call me whatever you want with a mouth like that.

   Taeyong licked his lips, unable to hide his smile. He crossed his legs up on the seat in the break room and hunched over the phone as though someone might try to peer over his shoulder.

   kittyong (01:30): Should you really be talking about my mouth already? We just met. I’m a good boy, you know.

   The reply came in much quicker this time, making the smile broaden.

   TenOutOfTen (01:31): I doubt that.

   Then, after another moment:

   TenOutOfTen (01:31): Good boys aren’t up at this time. What are you up to? Shouldn’t you be getting your beauty sleep?

   kittyong (01:32): Why? Do you think I need it?

   TenOutOfTen (01:37): I think you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen this week, and my hotel room looks out on the Pacific Ocean.

   Taeyong felt his face flush a little. Even if it was some old, creepy catfish at the other end, the words still counted, right? They always counted. He’d waited a long time, in his life, to hear kind things.

   kittyong (01:39): You’re not too bad either. But my room looks out on a dumpster store.

   TenOutOfTen (01:42): If it were up to me, you’d be here looking out on the ocean too. Your room – is that where you are now?

   kittyong (01:43): I’m at work.

   He added a sad face for good measure.

   TenOutOfTen (01:45): A pretty face like yours out at work? How could someone let this happen? You should never have to work.

   kittyong (01:46): Tell that to my boss.

   Said boss had appeared at the door at that very moment.

   ‘Hey, Taeyong, we need you back on the floor.’

   kittyong (01:47): Speaking of: I have to get back to work. Pretty doesn’t pay the bills. Miss me xx.

   He hated having to sever the conversation when it had barely started, but he had experience with guys. One thing that he had learned from his forays into the dating world was that making them wait was vital; he never wanted to come across as the eager one.

   No. Johnny always told him that he was the diamond, that they should pursue him, not the other way around. He stood up, stretching out and adopting his don’t touch me - you’re drunk stank-face. He did check his phone one more time before walking back out.

   TenOutOfTen (01:49): Pretty pays with me. Hand in your notice.

   Taeyong smiled to himself, switching the phone to Do Not Disturb, and returned to the pounding music with a newfound vigour.

Chapter Text

   Nothing, not even class with Professor Cho, could dampen Taeyong’s spirits this morning. It was Friday, the prospect of the weekend spreading joy to campus, and he had been messaging his new favourite person non-stop all week.

   Well, they did stop. Ten never messaged him during the day, sticking instead to the very early or very late hours. Still, it felt non-stop. Taeyong found himself struggling to lift his own head with the weight of all the compliments Ten paid him, and he had finally switched off his open inbox function, blocking unfamiliar men from sending him their dick pics. He only wanted messages from one person now.

   Sure enough, as they waited outside the lecture hall for their early morning class, Taeyong was scrolling through the messages that Ten had sent him that morning, with a smile creeping onto his face.

   TenOutOfTen (06:17): That picture should come with a warning.

   kittyong (07:25): Too hot to handle?

   TenOutOfTen (07:41): On the contrary. I’ve never wanted to handle anything more.

   Taeyong bit his lip to try to hold back his smile.

   kittyong (08:50): Good thing I like to be handled then.  

   It had been a riskier selca than the two that he’d sent Ten before. He had taken it in the low light of their dorm, the free colour-changing lamp that had come with the room glowing pink, with a focus slightly lower than his face. He had extended his neck, jawline cut across the frame, a little of the curve of his collarbone exposed by his loose silk shirt. Before pressing send, he had texted it to Yuta for approval.    

   His Japanese friend had just arrived at the class, greeting Johnny with a haste that made it clear that he had something more important on his mind.

   ‘So, did he like it?’ he grinned, trying to sneak a look at Taeyong’s phone screen.

   Taeyong shot a nervous look at Johnny before answering. ‘Oh yeah, he liked it alright. How could he not?’ he added with an innocent smile.

   ‘Who liked what?’ Johnny asked, looking from one to the other with narrowed eyes.

   Taeyong sighed. He was going to have to come clean eventually. ‘Okay, don’t freak out.’

   ‘Oh great.’

   ‘I’ve been messaging this guy on that app I downloaded.’

   Johnny put down the notes that he’d been rereading, turning to him with a frustrated expression. ‘Seriously, Taeyong? I thought you’d given up on that stupid site?’

   ‘There’s just this one guy. The one you said was a catfish,’ he added cautiously.

   ‘Oh, come on TY.’

   ‘What?’

   ‘Tell me, what the hell some rich, gorgeous guy like that would need with a hook-up app? He could get laid in thirty seconds. No one who looks like that - hell, even poor guys who look like that - needs a creepy app to land a date, let alone pay for one.’

   Taeyong knew that his argument made sense, but he just didn’t get that vibe. Not from Ten.

   ‘The app is very stringent, you know. They do run background checks.’

   ‘Oh really? Did anyone check you?’

   ‘Oh yeah, they came rootling through our underwear,’ said Taeyong, rolling his eyes. ‘Obviously they don’t care about the babies.’

   ‘The what?’

   ‘Sugar-babies, Johnny, that’s what we’re called.’

   ‘Okay,’ said Johnny, glancing around as though scared they’d be overhead by the other students, ‘never, ever, say that again, alright?’

   ‘What, babies? So you were fine telling me to get a sugar daddy, but you think that’s weird?’

   ‘I didn’t tell you to get - argh,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘I give up.’

   Taeyong shifted from foot to foot. The small voice of doubt in the back of his head spoke with Johnny’s accent these days. The hint of logic in his warnings lingered in his thoughts whenever he was feeling most enamoured with his sexiest pen-pal. What would someone like him need this app for?

   Taeyong wasn’t stupid - he had made sure to request selcas back from Ten. Ten hadn’t refused, per-se, but the photos he sent weren’t the most revealing. He seemed to prefer… mood shots. The first had been a photo at sunset from wherever he was travelling, the glare of the low sun meaning that most of his face was lost to the camera. The second had been a photo taken presumably mid-walk, face turned half away, hand reaching up to run through his hair. His watch had been visible, at least. Cartier, of course. Nice, he thought, classier than Rolex.

   To Taeyong’s surprise, it was Yuta who spoke up this time though. ‘Look I like the look of this guy as much as you do, TY, but Johnny’s not… wrong. I think you should ask him for a video chat.’

   He raised his eyebrows.

   ‘Selcas don’t always tell the whole story. But you’re a good judge of character - you can always tell when we’re lying,’ he said, gesturing between himself and Johnny, who was looking completely maddened. ‘I reckon on video you’d be able to get a good read on him.’

   Taeyong knew they were right. He lifted one hand to his mouth, biting at his thumbnail nervously as he thought over their words.

   It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Ten. He wanted to see him a lot. But the thought of being exposed to the camera was intimidating. The selcas were as much of a smoke shield for him as for anyone else - it was easy to hide behind a shot when he could take thirty different angles, carefully cultivating his image. A video call was a whole other matter. What if Ten didn’t like him?

   His mood distinctly lowered from its previous energy, Taeyong shuffled into the lecture hall when their professor arrived with a moody, distracted expression.

   His mind was moving a mile a minute, thinking harder and harder about the situation, until after an hour, he finally reopened the app and set the blinker to the text box.

   He felt nervous - more shy than he did when he was sending Ten some of his more suggestive messages. What if Ten said no? That would mean Johnny had been right all along and his fantasy would be over…

   He wasn’t sure he could take the gloating.

   But surely Ten would have to face him eventually either way?

   He knew that his friends were right - it was silly to commit more time to this if it might amount to nothing. He had to take a step.

   kittyong (10:05): I want to see you when I talk to you.

   He felt the regret flood to his fingertips as it always did when sending a risky-text, already wishing he could snatch the message back from the ether before it pinged at Ten’s no doubt grossly expensive phone. Taeyong wondered whether the case was gold-plated, or diamond encrusted…

   No, Ten wasn’t that tacky.

   kittyong (10:06): I want to hear your voice.

   He shoved his phone back in his jeans pocket, knowing full well that Ten wouldn’t reply during the day, and tried his very best to focus on what was being said at the front of the hall.

*

   He needn’t have worried.

   TenOutOfTen (13:06): I want to see you too.

   Taeyong stared at the phone, amazed. Ten never messaged at this time.

   He had just started his shift at the campus bookstore, phone face up on the counter because you could get away with just about anything with Taeil as your manager.

   TenOutOfTen (13:07): We should have a video call.

   He didn’t even pick the phone up, watching the notifications on his lockscreen with his mouth slightly open. He had expected Ten to at least take some convincing.

   ‘Hey, can you help me out with this booklist?’

   ‘Huh?’ Taeyong looked up in mild surprise.

   ‘Of course he can,’ said Taeil’s voice from behind him, and his friend gave him a distinct nudge in the ribs.

   Taeyong quickly stepped out from behind the counter, mind still on his phone. He took the customer, clearly a freshman, over to the Psychology section, eyes scanning over the list.

   He worked the whole shift in a state of constant distraction, trying to give one girl a mountain of new books when she had clearly asked for second-hand, and having to deal with a grumpy senior coming in for an exchange, to whom he’d accidentally sold a book on Buddhist Meditation rather than Business Mediation.

   He had been such a disaster than he actually apologised to Taeil at the end of his shift.

   ‘It’s okay,’ Taeil said kindly, ‘I know you’re tired. Are you working at the club tonight?’

   Taeyong nodded miserably.

   ‘Make sure you get some sleep before you go, Taeyongie,’ said Taeil, ruffling his hair.

   ‘Thanks, hyung,’ he said, acutely aware that if Yuta’s older roommate hadn’t got him this job, Taeyong would probably be sleeping on the campus sidewalk. He knew that it was only out of loyalty that his friend hadn’t fired him weeks ago. That being said, it was Taeil who had convinced him to take that hideously difficult comparative literature module with him, so perhaps his bad work record was fair reparation.

   He messaged Ten as he was walking back to his dorm, almost walking into two people and a lamppost on the way, nose buried in his phone.

   kittyong (18:10): When? I should warn you, I’m very impatient.

   TenOutOfTen (18:15): I’m drowning in paperwork right now. How about at the weekend? Sunday afternoon?

   kittyong (18:20): I’ll be waiting.

*

By Sunday, Taeyong was bouncing off the walls.

   Nerves had been replaced by excitement when he had been getting ready. If it was one thing that made Taeyong happy, it was getting dressed up.

   He had let his hair fade over the last couple of weeks, and post-deep-treatment on Saturday night, it was the lightest possible pastel pink, barely past blond, and feathery around his face. Under Yuta’s consultation, he had stuck with the subtlest of make-up, not sure whether Ten would like it yet, but he made certain to tone his lips with the most appealing shade of baby pink he could find, glossed enough to catch the light appealingly whenever he tilted his head just right.

   ‘Is this too slutty?’

   ‘Not slutty enough,’ said Yuta, currently stretched out on Johnny’s bed.

   Taeyong rolled his eyes, throwing down the oversized dress shirt that hung so invitingly off his shoulders. He picked up his softest hoodie instead, fingers stroking the fleece inside as he thought hard.

   ‘I don’t think he’s looking for that much coverage, TY,’ Yuta said disapprovingly.

   ‘Actually, I think that’s exactly what he’s looking for,’ Taeyong mused, pulling the hoodie over his head and tucking his hands up into cute sweater paws. ‘I want him to wonder what’s underneath.’

   ‘Oh, so you’re playing hard to get?’ said Yuta with definite interest. ‘A certain someone always said you were a tease,’ he added, dodging the can of hairspray that Taeyong threw at him.

   He and one of their mutual friends had messed around a lot in their first year, and Taeyong considered the sharing of this information the utmost betrayal. Not because he cared about the boy in question telling just anyone about it, but because telling Yuta specifically meant the whole campus would know before long.

‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ Yuta laughed.

   ‘Alright clear out,’ Taeyong said, walking over to the bed and grabbing Yuta by the shoulder. ‘He’ll probably call soon.’

   ‘Can’t I hide in the closet and listen? Please?’

   ‘You haven’t been in the closet since middle school, Yuta,’ Taeyong said, shoving him towards the door, ‘and I’m not going to let you get back in one now. I’ll call you after.’

   Still, after he was left alone, the nerves returned.

   Taeyong sat down at his desk chair, flicking between all of the tabs that he had open on his computer just for something to do.

   After a moment, he switched to standing, examining himself in the mirror. He knew that he had done well with his look. His face was pretty - alluring even - but the baby blue hoodie gave him a hint of softness, enticing anyone who had read the contrasting innuendos of his messages to wonder exactly who was hiding underneath.

   Who exactly was hiding underneath?

   Extensive googling had given Taeyong little insight into how he was actually supposed to conduct himself. Some websites said that he was supposed to be sexy, available, up for anything. Others said that he was supposed to be innocent, cute, naïve. He had concluded on his most common approach to life - winging it.

   He jumped a little as the ringing sound started from his computer, and launched himself over to the desk.

   He had set up a new email account for skype under Johnny’s strict instruction. His roommate seemed to have appointed himself as Protector-in-Chief, to the extent that Taeyong had even suggested cheekily that they just skip all the hard work and Johnny become his sugar daddy instead. This had earned him a string of expletives.

   He took a deep breath, glancing once more over his shoulder at the mirror before accepting the call.

   Fuck.

   Ten was real. And attractive. And so very intimidating, before he’d even opened his mouth.

   Taeyong stared, trying to take in everything in the frame in the first split second.

   ‘Finally,’ Ten said, leaning closer to the camera as though to get a better look at him too, ‘the pretty kitty, live in colour.’

   He was smiling, gaze so exploratory that Taeyong almost wanted to look away. Ten was sat in some kind of office, dressed for work even on a Sunday afternoon in a crisply pressed white shirt and narrow silk tie. The room was bright, with so much daylight that Taeyong could almost imagine the picture window that must dominate the opposite wall.

   Suddenly he felt nervous about his own setting. Had it been trashy to do this in his bedroom?

   If Ten was perturbed, he certainly didn’t show it.

   ‘Do you like what you see?’ Taeyong said, trying very hard to make sure that his voice didn’t shake.

   ‘Poetry in motion,’ Ten breathed, almost as a whisper.

   Taeyong looked down shyly, fingers buried in his hoodie sleeves to stop himself biting his nails.

   ‘What should I call you, baby?’

   Taeyong’s head snapped up at the pet-name. He hadn’t even realised that in the whole time they had been chatting, he had never once told Ten his real name. It hadn’t been a purposeful choice - the thought had honestly escaped his mind. He knew that Johnny would have a thing or two to say about him sharing his name, but this time he was confident.

   Ten was real. He wasn’t some creep. Taeyong was sure of it. ‘Taeyong,’ he said, hoping the pause hadn’t been too long, ‘my name is Taeyong. But I can be whoever you want me to be,’ he added, feeling some of his usual confidence returning.

   Taeyong wasn’t usually quiet. He liked to be taken care of, and he mostly let his partners take control, but that didn’t mean he was shy. In fact, he was usually very verbal about the way he liked things. But something about Ten’s presence, even over a screen, was so dominant, his gaze so penetrative, that he felt small by comparison.

   Not small in a bad way. Just… small like he wanted Ten to take him by the hand and lead him deep into a world of new promises.

   ‘How about if I just want you to be Taeyong?’ Ten asked, cocking his head to the side. He was wearing square-framed black glasses; perhaps they were to blame for his intimidatingly investigative air. They made him look even more intelligent than he had in his photos.

   ‘I think I could manage that,’ Taeyong said, biting his lip. It wasn’t out of nerves this time; he knew exactly what he was doing.

   It was only as he said it that he registered in the way Ten had spoken that which he hadn’t ever noticed over their messages. Ten’s Korean was as fluent as his own - far more eloquent, in fact - but he definitely wasn’t Korean. That much was betrayed by the slight accent in his speaking voice.

   ‘You’re not Korean,’ he said, tone curious.

   Ten smiled, sitting back in his leather chair. ‘Actually, I’m Thai,’ he said. ‘But I’ve lived here for… forever.’

   ‘I like a man who can tell me how cute I am in two languages,’ Taeyong said, opposing Ten’s movement by leaning closer to the camera instead.

   ‘Oh I can do that in more than two,’ Ten said. ‘And if it makes you happy, I’ll learn more.’

   He said something in English then, too fast for Taeyong to understand. He should’ve paid better attention in school.

   ‘Hey, no fair - English wasn’t on the table!’ he said, pouting.

   ‘I’ll keep using it if you look that adorable every time.’

   Taeyong pulled a face then, making Ten laugh. It lit up his face with an approachability that contrasted with his suit and office. God he was handsome.

   ‘So is that your room?’ Ten asked.

   ‘Yeah, it’s my dorm.’

   ‘You’re at college?’

   Taeyong nodded, surprised that this was another detail he had omitted from their messages. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure that he’d shared anything other than straight-up flirtation.

   ‘What do you study?’

   ‘My major is Music Production,’ he said, praying that Ten wouldn’t think that was stupid. ‘But I like taking all sorts of courses.’

   ‘You sound like me when I was at college,’ Ten said, resting his chin on his hand. ‘I wanted to study every course, join every society, go to every free seminar. I was a Business major though,’ he added with a dismissive roll of his eyes, ‘I would have loved to have studied something more artistic.’

   ‘What would you have done?’ Taeyong asked with genuine interest.

   ‘Dance,’ Ten said, without missing a beat, ‘but I think my parents would have disowned me.’

   Taeyong thought back to his own parents’ response when he had told them what he planned to major in. Ten didn’t need to hear about that. ‘Where did you study?’ he asked, but he didn’t need to.

   Of course, the answer was the top university in the country. He would have guessed it before Ten even opened his mouth. He wondered, trying to imagine Ten back at college, exactly how old he was. Ten was difficult to read. He certainly wasn’t old like most of the guys who’d messaged him, but he definitely wasn’t young-young either. There was a maturity to his facial structure, and his presence suggested experience, but his style was so sharp and his face so good-looking that Taeyong had the sneaking suspicion that he probably passed for younger than his birth certificate might suggest.

   ‘I should’ve guessed you’d be a genius. I’m sure there’s all sorts of things that you can teach me.’

   ‘Do you want to learn?’

   There was something in his expression then, something beyond flirtation. It felt an awful lot like Ten was asking him the big question - did he want to go ahead with this?

   He shifted on his seat, meeting Ten’s eyes assuredly through the camera. ‘When do we start?’

Chapter Text

   Ten (03:18): I can’t stop thinking about seeing you. Tuesday seems far away.

   Taeyong smiled to himself, shifting under the stack of blankets he had assembled and balancing his phone on the pillow while he freed his hands to message back. He was talking to Ten over text these days, glad to delete the pink app that had been clogging up his home screen.

   Taeyong (03:20): It’s only the day after tomorrow. I’ve already started planning…

   He paused, tapping at the edges of his champagne-bottle-patterned phone case.

   Taeyong (03:20): … planning how to make myself pretty for you.

   Ten (03:23): It feels like longer. It’s still Saturday here in London.

   Taeyong (03:25): Saturday? I’m speaking to someone from the past? You should have warned me: I would have got out of bed for this!

   After another video call several days after the first, and countless pages and pages of messages, Taeyong and Ten had finally agreed to meet in person. The latter was travelling Europe now, busy with meetings, but had asked Taeyong to meet him almost as soon as he got back.

   The date had come around much faster than expected, owing to the avalanche of deadlines rushing to overtake one another in Taeyong’s schedule. He had already booked the afternoon off work at the store, and planned to skip his morning class to cram in as much sleep as possible, desperate not to show up with dark circles.

   Ten (03:28): Show me how pretty you look for me.

   Taeyong exhaled, quickly switching to his camera roll.

   They had been exchanging photos more and more often, Taeyong’s becoming less and less subtle with every message.

   At present, he was wearing one of Johnny’s old t-shirts, complete with two large holes across the front, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days - face puffy and eyes ringed with circles from too many shifts in a row. Still, Ten didn’t need to know that.

   He must have taken a picture in bed some time…

   He hovered his thumbs over one selca, taken several months earlier, still hearted as a favourite. It wasn’t that he particularly liked the photo, but rather the memory of it. It had been one of his bitchier moments, but he still smiled smugly to himself at the thought.

   His then-boyfriend had sent a half-assed apology for fucking a freshman at a party. The Taeyong of then, younger and pettier, had stretched out on his magenta sheets in an open-neck satin shirt, lips swollen just enough to be evocative of the make-out session he’d enjoyed with one of the cheater’s scummy friends in retaliation. He’d captioned the photo with a catty, dry comment about everything he would now be missing.

   The next day, said-asshole had been outside his door grovelling with roses.

   He couldn’t send it to Ten.

   Could he?

   Taeyong bit his lip, examining the photo for a while. He tried cropping in the corners, taking out just a little of the provocative edge to his clothing, then opened them back out again, smiling to himself. He did add a reddish filter to tint the blond of his hair, but otherwise left the photo mostly untouched.

   Oh yes, this would do nicely. There was no way Ten would be able to look at that photo without a blood pressure increase.

   He didn’t reply for a while, but Taeyong wasn’t too worried. He closed his eyes, fingers still clasped around his phone, and tried to imagine Ten, his Ten, wherever he was in London. He wasn’t totally sure of the time difference, but in his imagination it was evening, Ten sat at a fancy hotel bar somewhere drinking shots of liquor as he thumbed through his messages.

   In his mind, Ten’s breathing lost a little of its steadiness as he opened the photo, eyes flitting around to check that no one else was trying to catch a glimpse of his special, secret exchanges.

   Ten (03:55): You know, you really shouldn’t send a photo like that to a man who’s already impatient to see you.

   It wasn’t the reply that he’d been expecting, but Taeyong shrugged. He’d bite.

   Taeyong (03:58): Why’s that?

   He added an innocent-looking emoji.

   Ten (04:01): Because it’s taking every ounce of control in my body to stop me catching the next flight back to Korea right now and coming to find you.

   Taeyong (04:05): What would you do when you got here?

   Ten (04:08): I’d give you your first lesson: I’d teach you exactly how I handle pretty little things who think they can seduce me like that.

   It was supposed to be Ten’s breath that was hitching, but the words made Taeyong swallow involuntarily, eyes widening to read them over again. Even in the blank, emotionless tone of phone-font, Ten’s words had sent blood rushing to all the wrong places. Or all the right places.

   Taeyong (04:10): Well I should warn you, I’m a very bad student.

   Ten (04:11): Don’t worry: it’s not a lesson you’d forget.

   Taeyong (04:13): Well now who’s trying to tempt who? You can’t make a promise like that and then not follow through. You’ve got me all hot and bothered.

   Ten (04:16): Good. Because if I was there, I’d leave you waiting too. Only good boys get to… follow through.

   Fuck.

   Fuck fuck fuck.

   Taeyong rolled onto his back. How had he gone from joking about time travel to all-but-sexting a guy he’d never met at four in the morning with a rapidly developing semi and the heavy, hot breathing to match?

   Fuck.

   How could Ten do this to him over a stupid phone message?

   Don’t put it all out there at once. Make him wait.

   It took an inordinate amount of effort to type out his next response.

   Taeyong (04:20): You’re right: Tuesday does seem far away. But I’m sleepy now. Miss me just a little longer xx

   He closed his messenger, squeezing his eyes shut. He sure as hell wasn’t going to take care of his latest problem with his roommate asleep in the room, and he wasn’t getting out of bed to wobble to the shower either. Besides, he was going to have to learn to follow Ten’s instructions soon enough, and according to Ten, only good boys were allowed to follow through.

*

By the time Taeyong rolled out of bed several hours later, he had a stubborn pain behind his eyes from too much time spent staring at a screen during the night, and he couldn’t even argue with his body: he deserved it.

   Within half an hour, he had shuffled downstairs to Yuta’s dorm room, shaking his head at his own complete lack of restraint. Still, no matter how much he shook his head, he couldn’t shake away the smile that hovered on his face.

   ‘You look like death warmed up,’ Yuta remarked, as soon as he opened the door.

   Taeyong yawned, navigating his way around his friends and setting up a station at the far end of Taeil’s desk. ‘I was up all night talking to Ten.’

   ‘Oh yes,’ Yuta said, before sharing a conspiratorial look with Sicheng. ‘The man of the moment…’

   Taeyong stopped, cables in hand, raising his eyebrows. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

   ‘Oh nothing…’ he mused, examining his fingernails.

   ‘Yuta.’

   ‘Just that we found him.’

   ‘I found him.’

   ‘Sicheng found him,’ Yuta corrected himself, waving his hand flippantly. ‘Show him!’

   Sicheng held up what looked like a magazine with an expression of almost Yuta-esque smugness. Yuta himself snatched the magazine out of his hand and crossed the room, holding it out under Taeyong’s nose.

   It was a crumpled copy of Forbes.

   Taeyong flattened out the page and his eyes widened.

   It was Ten alright, stood between two other men. He was the smallest, although in Taeyong’s eyes undoubtedly the most eye-catching. The three of them could have been modelling business-wear rather than featuring in Forbes’ 30-Under-30 special, all attractive enough to make the page look more like an ad than anything else.

   ‘It’s an old issue,’ Sicheng said. ‘When Yuta showed me your man, I knew I’d seen him before somewhere. I used all these old copies for an essay last semester.’

   Under the photo, the three men were clearly captioned. On the left: Wong Yukhei (CEO and Co-Founder). In the middle, Ten of course, looking fine as ever (CFO and Co-Founder). And on the right: Kim Dongyoung (Global Head of Development and Co-Founder).

   Taeyong stared, eyes scanning the text at lightning speed.

   ‘I don’t know what any of this means,’ he said, turning to the business student in the room for help.

   ‘They’re entrepreneurs. They provide tech and software solutions for businesses that invest in modern innovation.’

   ‘Okay, say that again, but as if you’re talking to someone really, really stupid,’ said Yuta, scrunching up his face in mock concentration.

   ‘As if?’ he said, blinking innocently. ‘Basically they’re a really big deal. I wrote about this company. They made a fortune seriously fast. This one - ’ he pointed to the man on the right, ‘- he’s a bona fide genius. In their early days he built half of their tech single-handedly. They met at high school and they’d already founded the company by the time they started college.’

   ‘Well, TY, you’re definitely getting paid,’ Yuta grinned.

   ‘They’re all handsome, aren’t they?’ Sicheng said. ‘I wonder if the others are single…’

   ‘I hardly think that’s relevant,’ Yuta said quickly, some of his usual composure lost, ‘we’re talking about Taeyong right now.’

   Taeyong looked down at the magazine to hide his smile. One day - one day - Sicheng would notice the way his roommate looked at him.

   ‘Can I keep this?’

   ‘Huh? Oh yeah, sure,’ Sicheng shrugged.

   Taeyong read through the article again, this time concentrating hard, all thoughts of his composition for class lost in the ether.

*

   ‘I want you to text me once every half-hour to let me know you’re okay,’ Johnny ordered as he watched him get ready.

   Taeyong rolled his eyes. ‘He’s not a serial killer, Johnny.’

   ‘You don’t know that.’

   ‘We’re meeting in a public square in the city at lunch hour. Do you really think no one would hear me screaming? You don’t need to worry about me, I promise.’

   There was a muscle working in Johnny’s jaw. ‘Fine. But if you end up in a ditch somewhere -’

   ‘Oh yeah, you’ll feel really guilty when they show my body on the news,’ Taeyong said distractedly, checking himself out in the mirror, ‘since all this was your idea, after all.’

   ‘They don’t show dead bodies on TV, stupid.’

   ‘Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?’ Taeyong said, diving across the bed to kiss Johnny on the cheek before he could reel away. ‘Love you.’

   Johnny made an unintelligible sound, looking maddened.

   Taeyong gave him a small wave as he skipped out of the room, buoyant on low-heeled leather boots. He had dressed to impress, but that was nothing new. He’d opted for the dress shirt he’d discarded before their first video call, with a fashion tie - they were meeting in the business district after all - although he doubted most of the shirts the men would be wearing would hang low enough to expose that much collarbone. He’d also borrowed one of Sicheng’s berets, if only because he hadn’t bleached his roots in a little too long. Still, he was pretty confident that the soft pink felt made him look cuter.

   ‘You look nice,’ he heard Johnny mutter begrudgingly after him, almost as though he didn’t want him to hear.

   Well, he wasn’t wrong. Taeyong did look nice. He just hoped that it was nice enough to impress Ten.

*

   The square where Ten had insisted they meet wasn’t far from his university, just a little way into the better part of town. According to Ten, it was important they meet the first time somewhere public, somewhere casual, and somewhere without alcohol. Those weren’t the sorts of places that Taeyong usually frequented, but he walked confidently nonetheless, ignoring the people who turned to look at him. They seemed to have recognised the imposter in their district. Taeyong didn’t care - he was used to people staring.

   He arrived early, having given himself far more time than he would ever need to walk the short distance, but not as early as him.

   Taeyong appraised him from a distance for a moment, smile automatically wandering onto his face.

   Ten looked out of place, even amongst the businessmen who crowded the tables, too young and too interesting for a place filled with stuffed shirts. He was reading a broadsheet newspaper with headlines in English, glasses halfway down his nose.

   A few deep, steadying breaths, and then Taeyong stepped forwards, adjusting his walk to something a little more fluid.

   Ten stood up as soon as he saw him, dropping into a low bow. ‘Taeyong,’ he breathed, ‘you look amazing.’

‘You’re not so bad yourself,’ said Taeyong shyly, letting his hair fall down over his eyes.

   He wasn’t lying. Ten looked even better in person. He was smaller than he had expected, a good couple of inches shorter than Taeyong, but it wasn’t to his detriment. He carried an aura that seemed to suggest he owned the air around him. His hair was a little darker than in some of his previous photos, and had grown out into a distinctly more professional style than Taeyong remembered. Perhaps it was an alteration for work in Europe.

   ‘Please, sit down,’ said Ten, drawing out a chair.

   Taeyong sat, concentrating hard on how best to angle himself.

   ‘You found the place okay?’ Ten asked, sitting down opposite him and leaning forward immediately, elbows on the table to support his chin. He was taking in Taeyong’s form hungrily, eyes searching from feature to feature with an admirable lack of subtlety.

   ‘No problem - my college is nearby. How was your flight?’

   ‘Quiet. I slept most of the time. You’re cute when you make small talk,’ he added, without pause.

   ‘So why this place?’ Taeyong asked, choosing to let the remark float in the air.

   ‘The coffee cart here is this city’s most underrated gem. I’ll go and get you a drink. Something sweet, I’m guessing?’

   Taeyong gave him the most dazzling smile he could muster. ‘However did you guess?’

   ‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Ten said with a wink, pushing back his chair and walking over to the queue at the coffee cart.

   Taeyong watched with interest, taking in everything from the cut of his suit to the leather of his wallet. It didn’t escape his notice that Ten walked past the twelve or so people who were already waiting, exchanging a word with the host at the cart and returning before anyone who had arrived before him had even been served.

   ‘Queues not your style?’ Taeyong said when Ten sat back down, placing an iced drink down in front of him and sliding a plate across the table.

   ‘Not when I have someone like you waiting for me to get back.’

   ‘Now I know why you like that cart.’

   ‘Oh it’s not the wait time,’ said Ten, ‘it’s the cake. You can’t get anything that good anywhere else around here. I crave quality.’

   Taeyong picked up his fork and took out a chunk of the red velvet cake immediately, poking out his tongue to lap at the frosting. He didn’t break eye contact with Ten. ‘Crave, huh? Where else do you go looking for quality?’ Taeyong supplied, awaiting a specific answer.

   Ten obliged, with a gleam in his eyes that said he knew exactly what Taeyong was doing. ‘Oh, real estate… wine… people,’ he said, pausing on the word before dragging his eyes very deliberately up and down Taeyong’s body, ‘I’m very difficult to please.’

   He hoped that Ten wouldn’t notice the flush that rose up his neck. Taeyong bit his lip, straightening up. ‘How was Europe?’

   ‘European. How have your classes been? Did you submit that essay on time? I know you were worried about it.’

   Taeyong had quickly started to notice even over their messages that Ten didn’t like talking about himself - or at the very least, he preferred talking about Taeyong. ‘Yeah, just. I don’t think it was great though. I’m running… short of time, at the minute.’

   ‘You’re busy with work?’

   ‘Mm,’ Taeyong hummed, taking his straw between his teeth and hollowing his cheeks to take a drink.

   ‘You work late into the night,’ Ten mused, ‘I noticed.’

   ‘Oh I work nights at a club,’ said Taeyong, tracing circles on the table with the cool residue from his cup. ‘And I work at a bookstore during the day.’

   ‘So when do you sleep?’

   Taeyong shrugged, glancing up. Ten was looking at him with a slightly furrowed brow.

   ‘No one should have to do that while they’re studying,’ said Ten, ‘especially not someone like you.’

   Someone like you. Taeyong wasn’t even sure what it meant, but it made his heart flutter.

   ‘You need… someone to take care of you,’ Ten said, almost experimentally.

   Taeyong’s heart thudded. ‘If only there was someone who’d volunteer,’ he said, ‘I do like to be taken care of.’

   Ten surveyed him, then sat back. ‘I like you, Taeyong. I’ve actually met a couple of people like this,’ he gestured at their table, ‘but I’ve never wound up wanting to see them again. You’re different. Would you be comfortable with this? With spending more time with me?’ Ten asked. ‘Please tell me now if you’re not.’

   Taeyong nodded.

   ‘Always use your words with me, love,’ Ten said.

   Taeyong’s breath caught. ‘Yes, yes I’m comfortable with you. Really comfortable. I want to… start a thing with you...’

   Ten’s smile could cure disease, Taeyong was sure. He seemed like such a riddle and yet when he smiled, his face was as open as anyone that he had ever met. ‘I bought you something,’ he said, ‘in Paris.’

   ‘Really?’ Taeyong’s face lit up. He did like presents…

   ‘It’s only a small token - I wanted to say thank you for coming to meet me today. I know you have a busy schedule. I couldn’t stop thinking about you all the way through my boring meetings,’ he said with a wry smile, ‘I’ve been so looking forward to seeing you in person, and there were reminders of you everywhere. After all, Paris is full of beautiful things. You should come with me some time - you’d fit right in.’

   ‘I’ll start learning French,’ Taeyong said, blushing as Ten pushed a small, orange box across the table. ‘But you didn’t have to buy me anything.’

   ‘Start getting used to it,’ said Ten. ‘It’s an indulgence you’ll have to forgive.’

   Taeyong grinned, undoing the ribbon and opening the box.

   Ten’s selection was a bracelet - a bracelet that screamed taste. It was signature Hermès, a strong, gold band inlaid with an enamel band of pale rose. Taeyong looked up, mouth slightly open. The most expensive accessory he’d ever owned was a pair of Johnny’s old designer sneakers.

   ‘It reminded me of your hair,’ Ten said, ‘but I miss you for five minutes and you’ve changed it already.’ He leant over the table, taking a strand of the white between his fingertips, the back of his hand brushing lightly down Taeyong’s cheek.

   It was the first time Ten had touched him, and the charge was electric. It made Taeyong want to tilt in closer to his touch, close his eyes to the contact. ‘I can change it back if you’d like.’

   ‘Or I can just buy you something else. A jewel for every colour,’ Ten mused, withdrawing and surveying Taeyong as he lifted the bracelet out of the box and fumbled with the catch at his wrist. ‘Allow me,’ he said, turning Taeyong’s hand palm up and clasping it for him.

   Rather than letting go, he settled his fingers lightly on Taeyong’s palm.

   ‘Thank you,’ Taeyong whispered, stunned that he - Lee Taeyong - could be permitted to own something so elegant.

   ‘I was hoping you’d wear it this weekend.’

   ‘What’s happening this weekend?’ Taeyong asked curiously, very conscious of the weight of Ten’s hand on his.

   ‘There’s a charity reception at my company on Saturday night. Everyone is bringing their partners. I’d love it if you’d come with me.’

   ‘I - ’ Taeyong’s mind flitted ahead, ‘I have work. I can switch shifts though. I’ll - ’

   ‘Taeyongie, darling,’ Ten said, catching his eyes, ‘I know we haven’t really discussed the terms of our relationship yet, but let me make my position very clear. You don’t have to worry about all that anymore. You’re with me now. I’ll take care of things.’

   Taeyong stared, eyes wide. ‘You… you’ll…?’

   ‘From now on, I’ll look after you. I promise. No more night shifts - I don’t want you losing sleep because of something as trivial as money, okay?’

   ‘Ten, I - ’ Taeyong could hardly believe what he was hearing. He’d had suspicions - hell, he’d even had hopes - but he hadn’t expected that. He hadn’t expected… everything.

   ‘The only work I want you doing now is your music, understand?’ Ten said, squeezing his hand.

   Taeyong nodded, wondering if Ten could feel the pace of his pulse against his fingers. His heart was pounding against his chest, unable to keep up with the pace at which his new reality was forming.

   ‘Excellent. So, Saturday it is. I’ll have my driver pick you up.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’m afraid I have a meeting soon,’ he sighed, ‘I have to head east. May I walk you home?’

Chapter Text

If you had told Taeyong two months ago that he would be sat in the back of a sleek black car with tinted windows, alongside Seoul’s most eligible bachelor, he would have laughed all the way into next week.

   And yet, here he was.

   ‘The suit looks good on you,’ Ten said, turned in his seat to concentrate his attention fully on Taeyong.

   Taeyong had half a mind to grumble - he was already starting to wonder whether black tie events were his thing. Buttoning his collar all the way up to his throat had left him with a scratching around his neck, and his new shoes were already blistering his feet. Still, Ten was absolutely right. It did look good on him. ‘How did you know my measurements?’

   ‘I have a good eye,’ he shrugged. ‘You look nervous.’

   Taeyong swallowed. He hadn’t meant to be so transparent. ‘I’m not,’ he said quickly, scratching his ear.

   ‘Tell me,’ Ten said, one hand moving to rest on Taeyong’s thigh.

   ‘I’ve just… it’s stupid,’ Taeyong said, shaking his head.

   ‘Nothing you say is stupid. Tell me,’ he repeated, an edge to his tone this time. It was a slight tilt to his pitch that snuck in occasionally - the sort of tone you could not refuse. Perhaps that was the tone that had earned him his millions.

   Taeyong took a deep breath. ‘I’ve just never been around these sorts of people.’

   He knew, of course, that he was going to have to get used to this kind of event fast. From everything he had seen online, accompanying a date was Sugar-Babying-101, and he was fairly certain that this sort of especially ridiculous occasion was going to come fixed with the particularly high value Ten-deluxe-package. He just hadn’t expected it to be so soon.

   ‘Boring city types? They’ve never been around someone like you either, baby. Trust me, they’ll be more scared of you than you are of them.’

   Taeyong laughed shyly. ‘What if they think I’m dumb?’

   Ten looked at him seriously then. ‘Well, then they’re completely delusional. You’re smarter than all of them put together, Taeyongie - don’t fall for their illusions. Most of them only got where they are because they were promised a board seat at mom and dad’s business.’

   Taeyong nodded, taking a shaky breath as Ten squeezed his thigh gently.

   ‘Do you understand that? Taeyong?’

   Taeyong looked up quickly, meeting his eyes.

   ‘I don’t want you thinking anyone’s better than you. Ever. Understand?’

   ‘Okay,’ he whispered.

   ‘Besides, if you really are anxious, I promise I won’t leave you alone,’ Ten said reassuringly. ‘It’s your first time at an event like this - it’s natural than you’d be nervous. I, on the other hand, have spent an awful lot of time around these people; trust me, I can keep them entertained.’

   Taeyong smiled, lowering his hand over Ten’s. It was the first time he’d made a move to touch him. He played with the ring on Ten’s finger, rotating it until the black engraving was facing exactly forwards.

   ‘You look so beautiful tonight,’ said Ten, ‘like art bought to life right in front of me.’

   ‘Surrealist art?’ Taeyong asked coyly, confidence returning. ‘Like with extra hands coming out of my head?’

   Ten laughed, and it didn’t escape Taeyong’s notice how his hand gripped his leg as he shifted position. ‘Well, you’re certainly surreal. I still can’t believe I get to take you out.’

   ‘I still can’t believe you bought me a Saint Laurent suit for our second date, but here we are,’ said Taeyong.

   ‘One day you’ll stop being surprised that I buy you things,’ Ten answered. ‘Is it so hard to believe I’d want to spoil you?’

   ‘It’s hard to believe I’m wearing a designer suit with new hair, and I’m not even the best looking person in this car,’ Taeyong said with mock indignation.

   Ten surveyed him, tongue touching over his bottom lip. ‘You know, the compliments are supposed to be my job? If you get me flustered I might forget my speech for the gala.’

   ‘Well I think I might make getting you flustered my job,’ Taeyong said, closing his fingers more firmly around Ten’s hand and sliding it a little further up his thigh, as far as could be permitted in a car with a driver one metre away. It was threateningly close to indecent, enough to make Ten exhale steadily through his nose, eyes focusing severely on Taeyong’s, before giving a soft, enticingly light laugh.

   ‘Well,’ he said, thumb tracing a circle over the material stretched across Taeyong’s thigh, ‘you’ll have to try harder than that. As I told you before, I’m very difficult to please. Shall we?’ He pulled his hand away with a smile, as though nothing had happened.

   Taeyong hadn’t even noticed the car had stopped.

   He also hadn’t expected there to be cameras.

   He had to concentrate very hard not to trip over in the untried shoes when he climbed out of the car, wishing that Ten had warned him. Fuck. There were lights flashing all around him.

   His heart flew to his mouth, but before he could really start to panic, Ten was by his side, presence so reassuring that his nerves settled into security as Ten planted his hand securely on his lower back.

   ‘You didn’t say there’d be photographers,’ Taeyong said, shifting in as close against Ten as he reasonably could, as though he could act as a barrier to the unfamiliar exposure. ‘Are you an idol now or something?’

   ‘Never underestimate the world’s fascination with corporate celebrity,’ Ten said, close against his ear.

   Ten guided him through the chaos on the black velvet carpet, which had been laid down across the street. Everywhere Taeyong looked, there were people dressed to the nines. Most of them were old, the men grey-haired. He wondered if any of them were the creeps who had tried messaging him.

   They stopped to pose for an official photographer, Ten whispering directions and encouragements into his ear the whole time.

   ‘Let’s get inside,’ he said immediately after they had finished, nodding his head towards the façade of a massive skyscraper.

   ‘This is your company?’ Taeyong gaped, looking up. He couldn’t even see the top floors in the darkness.

   ‘Our Seoul headquarters, yes,’ said Ten, switching his hands to Taeyong’s shoulders to lead him through the front doors.

   They had barely made it through the entrance before Ten was half-tackled by a bundle of life.

   ‘My man! Your icon! The nation’s CFO! And oh-my-god who is this?’

   Taeyong stared, eyes wide, at the man who had thrown his arms around Ten from the side. He recognised him, though he had changed his hair since the photo he had seen in Forbes. This was one of Ten’s business partners - he couldn’t remember which. He was tall, almost a head above Ten, and had a voice loud enough to be heard over the entire event.

   ‘Good evening, Yukhei,’ Ten said, wrestling his arms away, but he was smiling.

   ‘Start talking, Tennie! Where did you pick this one up and why oh why haven’t we been introduced already?’

   Taeyong actually started to smile. This wasn’t what he’d been expecting from the city types Ten had warned him of. This Yukhei was infectious.

   ‘This is Taeyong,’ Ten said, with an exaggerated composure. ‘Taeyong, this is Yukhei. He’s the CEO of this company, and, for some reason that I’m still struggling to figure out, one of my oldest, dearest friends.’

   ‘Call me Lucas,’ he said, pulling Taeyong in for a hug that made him freeze up automatically, astonished at his informality upon first meeting. ‘Lots of people do. Now, tell me, what on earth are you doing out with Ten? Did you lose a bet? Wink once if you’re here against your will…’

   Ten punched Yukhei on the shoulder. His friend sprang back with an expression of utmost betrayal.

   Taeyong grinned, all of his anxieties about the night disappearing before his eyes. He no longer felt like he was amongst intimidating strangers - he could have been out at the union bar with his friends.

   ‘Forgive Yukhei,’ Ten said, arm wrapping around Taeyong’s waist, ‘he was dropped on his head as a child.’

   Taeyong tilted his chin up, confidence flooding back to his body by the second. ‘Don’t worry, this is just what happens when you bring the cutest boy to the party,’ he said, nestling in close to Ten’s side. It was amazing, after so little time together, how well he seemed to fit there - as though he had been tailored to Ten’s exact dimensions.

   ‘Oh he’s fabulous,’ said Yukhei, turning to Ten, ‘where on earth did you find him? I want one.’

   ‘Don’t let Jungwoo hear you saying that,’ Ten replied. ‘Where is he, anyway?’

   ‘I left him with that old deadhead from N.Corp. You know how good he is at keeping up a smile against all odds.’

   ‘Poor kid,’ Ten rolled his eyes, ‘remind me to go and rescue him later.’

   ‘You’re so pretty,’ Yukhei said, ignoring Ten now and focussing on Taeyong’s face. ‘We have to introduce you to Doyoung, stat. He owes me too, he bet big on Ten coming without a date again.’

   ‘Can you two stop betting on my love life?’ Ten said with a sigh.

   ‘Well we don’t need to now, do we? Not now you’ve found this diamond.’

   To Taeyong’s surprise, Yukhei grabbed his hand, tugging him through the crowd in the lobby.

   The place was packed with people milling around, but Yukhei had no trouble cleaving a path. People seemed to jump out of his way without instruction, perhaps afraid of being bundled over.

   Taeyong looked quickly over his shoulder, relieved to see that Ten was following him, with a bemused but slightly fond expression.

   ‘Doyoung! Kim Dongyoung!’ Yukhei yelled, not letting go of Taeyong’s hand.

   A figure tucked away in one of the far corners, talking closely with two men in dinner jackets, turned around, raising his eyebrows. ‘Do excuse me, gentlemen,’ he said to his guests, walking over to Yukhei with a suspicious look in his eye. ‘Very professional, Yukhei.’

   ‘Hey, who’s the boss of this establishment?’ said Yukhei, pulling Taeyong up level with him and slinging his arm around his shoulders. ‘Look who we have here,’ he said, presenting Taeyong like a trophy.

   ‘Who do we have here?’ Doyoung said, looking at Taeyong appraisingly. He bowed, eyes flitting to Ten, who had moved up behind him and settled his hands on his waist. ‘Don’t tell me…’

   ‘This is Taeyong. He’s Tennie’s date,’ Yukhei announced.

   ‘Well I never,’ Doyoung said, lips curling up into a smile. ‘Miracles do happen.’

   ‘Alright, before the two of you scare Taeyong off, let’s at least start on the champagne,’ Ten said, shaking his head.

   ‘Kim Dongyoung,’ the calmer of his friends said, holding out his hand for a handshake now, ‘but call me hyung. Anyone who’s with Ten is family.’

   ‘Lee Taeyong,’ Taeyong answered, the space beside him now occupied by Ten, since Yukhei had vanished to find drinks. ‘It’s great to meet you.’

   ‘Likewise. So where did you two meet? Ten apparently forgot to mention you to his two best friends. You’d think after two decades he’d have given up on the secrecy.’

   ‘It’s called privacy, Doyoung, not secrecy. Some of us like to keep our personal lives personal. Anyway,’ Ten said, hand rubbing slowly up and down Taeyong’s waist, ‘we met at Taeyong’s university. I was giving a seminar.’

   ‘Oh really?’ Yukhei said, having returned with four glasses of champagne wobbling precariously between his fingers, ‘you’re not studying business are you? You don’t want to end up fossilizing at your desk like this one.’

   ‘I - ’ Taeyong looked to Ten for an answer, alarmed by all the questions.

   ‘Taeyong is studying music,’ said Ten, ‘he’s going to be a producer.’

   ‘Interesting,’ Yukhei and Doyoung said, almost in unison. They were both looking from him to Ten with investigative eyes.

   ‘Well, maybe…’ Taeyong mumbled, feeling his face get hot.

   ‘An artist in our midst! Remind me again what you see in our Tennie?’ Yukhei asked with a sly glance at Ten.  

   ‘Right, enough of the twenty questions,’ Ten said loudly, ‘believe it or not, there are actual important people that I could be talking to tonight.’

   Yukhei clutched his chest, throwing his head back tragically. ‘Just look at him,’ he said to Doyoung, ‘he gets a boyfriend and suddenly he doesn’t care about us anymore. I guess this is how it is when they grow up… Do you think we’re embarrassing him?’

   ‘Yes, he’s ashamed of you, Yukhei. As he should be,’ Doyoung muttered. ‘It was good to meet you, Taeyong. I hope you’ll enjoy the evening. This gala means a lot to Ten.’

   ‘I’m sure I’ll see you guys later,’ Taeyong said, already being steered away by Ten, who was shaking his head.

   ‘I’m sorry about my friends,’ Ten said, taking a swig of champagne that rivalled Taeyong’s own ability to overindulge, ‘they’ve never quite learned how to conduct themselves in social situations. I think staring at computers for too long has addled their brains.’

   ‘I think they’re great,’ Taeyong grinned. ‘You didn’t tell me that this gala was important to you?’

   Ten looked down, swirling his glass. ‘We’re raising money for the local children’s hospital. They did my family a very great kindness when I was younger. I arrange an annual benefit in their name.’

   Taeyong wanted to ask him about it, but he got the impression that Ten wasn’t going to explain further.

   ‘So what happens tonight? Obviously I’ve never been to one of these things.’

   Ten took his arm, leading him away to a quieter corner. ‘Well, first we’ll loiter around for a little while yet. I’ll welcome some old acquaintances, introduce myself to some new ones. There’ll be a dinner, during which some speeches will be made. Then I’ll give my speech, along with dumb-and-dumber, who you just met.’

   Taeyong giggled, noticing how the sound made Ten smile.

   ‘Then there’ll be some live music, some dancing. I’ll do my best to seduce some of the moneybags here tonight for donations - we always do that bit once the alcohol has been flowing for a while, of course. Then we’ll return to our seats for the charity auction. I’ll probably buy something grossly expensive, so be prepared.’

   ‘You know I’d usually be getting ready for work at the campus nightclub at this time?’ Taeyong said, looking around at the guests with disbelief.

   ‘Welcome to your new world,’ Ten said. ‘Don’t worry, I know my way around.’

   ‘Lead the way,’ Taeyong said, draining his first glass and linking his arm through Ten’s.

*

   Taeyong thought he did rather well, all things considered.

   By the last part of the evening, after an outrageous dinner and several large glasses of champagne, he had started to flit around with such false-experience that Ten had even taken to standing back against the wall, watching him with a smile.

   Taeyong had picked up one of the black donation boxes and was moving amongst the wealthiest guests, all now reasonably drunk, with a charming, flirtatious ease. He was eager to impress, feeling Ten’s eyes on him, and had managed to dazzle his way to a hefty stack of donations.

   He was just about to approach his last target of the night - a group of three ladies, resplendent in gowns, giggling their way through a trayful of cocktails - when he felt a hand on his hip.

   ‘Let’s get away from all this noise. I want to show you something.’

   Once they had handed over the donation box to tumultuous thanks from the hospital representatives, Ten guided Taeyong away from the crowds, all the way into a fire-escape.

   Taeyong swayed on the stairs, glad that he had Ten’s arm to grip on to after the champagne he’d drunk - Johnny always chided that his tolerance was the same as he imagined a baby pixie to have.

   One floor up it was dark, where Ten led him out into a row of offices. There was no one around.

   ‘I needed you to myself for a moment,’ Ten said, turning to him with attentive eyes. ‘Watching those fat-cats around you… fucking vultures.’

   Taeyong blinked in surprise. He hadn’t heard Ten curse before. ‘I thought… I wanted to help,’ he said nervously, unable to tell if Ten was angry with him. Maybe he shouldn’t have been quite so friendly in his quest for donations. For a moment, he’d forgotten that he was accompanied. ‘Are you mad at me?’

   ‘What? No, baby, of course not. Why would I be mad at you? You were extraordinary - you are extraordinary,’ Ten said, closing the gap between them and stroking his fingertips along Taeyong’s jaw with a warm, reassuring expression. ‘I’d have thought you’d been doing this your whole life.’

   ‘So… you know I was just acting?’ Taeyong said.

   ‘Oh I know, darling,’ Ten said, ‘watching you in your element… you’re a sight to behold. Perfection. But it wasn’t easy for me to watch them. You might not notice it yourself, but nobody could take their eyes off you. The people here - in this world - they like to possess beautiful things, Taeyongie; the few gems that money can’t buy. And they were all looking at you like goddamn jackals.’

   ‘But I’m with you. I’m… yours, right?’ Taeyong said, hoping that it was evident in his tone how honestly he wanted the words to be true. He wanted to hear Ten say the words out loud: you’re mine. It was the sort of attention that Taeyong had always craved.

   ‘Yes, baby, yes you are.’

   Taeyong swallowed, heart pounding at the possessive edge that had entered Ten’s voice. The tone had sent a heat pooling in his navel, and he knew his chest would be reddening. He thought back to how a couple of the tipsiest women earlier had fiddled with his collar, or made any excuse to touch his hair, and tried to imagine how Ten’s fingers would feel stroking over his throat instead: gentle, experimental, but firmly protective.

   ‘Can I kiss you?’ Ten whispered.

   The music from downstairs was making the floor vibrate, and what should have been their silence was punctuated by several particularly raucous shouts that carried through the ceiling, but it still felt like they could have been the only two people in the world.

   Taeyong nodded, catching his lip between his teeth.

   ‘Words, baby,’ Ten said, not for the first time, dark eyes gleaming.

   ‘Please kiss me,’ Taeyong said, ‘I want you to.’

   Ten brought their bodies slowly, carefully together, kissing ever so lightly at the very corner of his lips before taking a full claim on his mouth.

   Maybe it was the champagne, maybe it was the rush of blood that Ten’s assertive tone had sent to his head, but this was good.

   Fuck.

   He melted in against Ten’s body, directed by the hands that settled very firmly against him - one to his waist, another to the back of his neck. The kiss was too shallow for Taeyong’s liking; Ten might be generous, but he was holding back here. Impatient, Taeyong teased at his lower lip, swiping his tongue across it in a clear indication that he wanted entry. He actually felt Ten’s smirk, and then the kiss was gone, leaving him wanting.

   He breathed out, taking a step forwards to close the gap between them again, but Ten wasn’t having any of it.

   He slid his hand around to the front of Taeyong’s neck, thumbing the line of his jaw as he surveyed him. ‘Not yet,’ he said, voice infuriatingly calm.

   ‘Why not?’ Taeyong huffed. He didn’t like taking things slow.

   ‘Because you’re halfway drunk, and we haven’t properly discussed boundaries yet.’

   Taeyong did his very best not to sound like a petulant child, but he wasn’t entirely successful. ‘You’ve drunk just as much as I have.’

   ‘True, but I’m older, and therefore the responsibility is mine. It’s my job to take care of you, remember? Besides, we should get back downstairs. The auction will be starting soon. I’m going to go big. Just the sight of you makes me want to spend. And the sight of those blow-up-suits flirting with you makes me want to outbid all of them so outrageously that the morning papers will call it crass.’

   ‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a little possessive?’ Taeyong said coyly as Ten put his arm around his shoulders and steered him back to the staircase.

   ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re very, very cute when you pout like that? I think I like you needy.’

   ‘You’ll kiss me properly soon enough,’ Taeyong sniffed, wobbling on the stairs. ‘I should warn you: I’m very good at getting what I want.’ He tried to concentrate on the steps, gripping Ten’s arm in a vicelike grasp, but he didn’t miss the murmured response.

   ‘Not as good as me, baby. Not as good as me.’

Chapter Text

   Walking up to Ten’s company building during the day was almost more intimidating that it had been dressed for a party. Under the early air, a promisingly light sky, the façade seemed more grey - scarily business-like.

   Taeyong clutched his phone, reading back over Ten’s messages five times to make sure that he hadn’t managed to completely misconstrue them.

   Ten (Sunday, 06:45): I hope you’re sleeping well, my darling. Thank you for last night. You keep me in awe. Come to my offices next week - any day - I want to take another look at you in the daylight.

   Then, today:

   Ten (Wednesday, 07:16): Of course today is fine. Any time - I’ll make an opening.

   Taking a deep breath, Taeyong crossed the street to the offices, ducking under the overhang of the entrance and checking himself with his front camera before edging his way towards the main revolving doors. His hair was freshly bubblegum pink - he could already tell that this was how Ten liked it best.

   He squared his shoulders as he slipped into the doors, conjuring his mask of confidence, and walked with distinct purpose into the lobby, glad that he had a vague familiarity with the layout.

   ‘Excuse me?’ he said, having negotiated his way amongst the remarkable amount of chaos in the lobby and over to the reception desk.

   The secretary didn’t look up.

   ‘I’m here to see… Ten,’ Taeyong said awkwardly, realising that he had never once bothered to check Ten’s surname.

   ‘Do you have an appointment?’

   ‘Er… not really, I - ’

   She gave a small laugh, eyes still on her computer. ‘You want to see the CFO without an appointment?’

   ‘He’s expecting me,’ Taeyong said, jutting his chin in mild defiance. There was no way that he was going to let some stranger tell him when he could and couldn’t see Ten.

   Finally she looked up, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. She stared, mouth slightly open. It could have been the hair, so unusual in these surroundings, but the more that she looked, the more Taeyong had the impression that she was watching his lips.

   ‘My name’s Lee Taeyong,’ he said.

   Finally, she conceded to look back to his eyes. ‘Right, right, yes… Follow me.’

   To his surprise, she opened the small gate by the side of the desk and invited him through to a closed hallway.

   ‘In here,’ she said, gesturing to an elevator. It wasn’t just any old elevator. The doors were framed by a neo-classical frieze, and when they opened, he found the interior nothing like any of the lifts he had ever taken at university. The mirrors were polished to a remarkable shine, even the ceiling carefully painted. ‘This will take you straight to the top floor,’ she explained.

   ‘Oh, oh okay,’ Taeyong said, watching her turn smartly on her heel. ‘Oh you’re not coming with me,’ he breathed, looking around the elevator awkwardly once she had left.

   It was pretentious. But he liked it.

   He swallowed nervously before pressing the only button on the panel.

   The elevator travelled at significant speed, opening out directly on what appeared to be a wide, spacious waiting room.

   The black couches arranged around its centre were completely empty, but a glance around revealed a long, quiet desk, housing two daunting women and an extremely attractive man. Taeyong really, really hoped that the guy wasn’t Ten’s secretary, because there was no way he wanted to compete with that.

   ‘Lee Taeyong?’

   To his relief, he turned to one of the women. When she smiled, her unapproachability vanished.

   ‘Yes, yes that’s me,’ he said, crossing the room to the desk.

   ‘Welcome to Neo Culture Technology. My name is Sumi. May I get you a drink?’

   ‘Oh no, I’m fine. Thank you.’

   He didn’t have to wait. As if drawn to him by magnets, one of the three office doors leading off the room had opened, and Ten appeared.

   Two men emerged with him, one speaking in an unfamiliar language. As they walked over to the elevator, Taeyong realised that the other was translating. He also didn’t miss the quick smile that Ten shot in his direction.

   ‘Please, send my regards to the family.’

   They both bowed, and then finally Ten was his.

   ‘Yongie,’ he said, crossing the room in three quick strides as soon as the doors had closed. It was a new pet-name - a welcome one. He brushed the ghost of a kiss across his cheek, hand settling immediately on his shoulder. ‘Sumi,’ he called over, ‘cancel my one o’clock.’

   ‘Absolutely sir.’

   ‘Five years and I still have to tell you to call me Ten.’

   ‘Always, sir.’

   Ten shook his head with a smile, wrapping an arm around Taeyong’s shoulders and walking him to his office. ‘How are you, beautiful?’

   ‘I’m good. I came straight from class.’

   ‘You’re back to candy pink,’ Ten said, allowing his hand to trail upwards as soon as he had closed his office door behind them. He wound his fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, holding Taeyong in place to examine him for a moment. ‘Good enough to eat.’

   If Taeyong face had flushed as hot as it felt, it would go a long way to explaining the grin that took over Ten’s smaller smile. ‘Oh I’m sweeter than candy,’ he said, ‘but watch out for the spice.’

   ‘Oh baby, that’s exactly what I’m looking forward to,’ Ten said, unthreading his fingers with an air of reluctance.

   Taeyong finally got a chance to look around the room properly.

   It was almost entirely white-walled, coloured only by the abstract artwork that Ten had hung. The massive window opposite looked out over the entire city, so high that the other buildings around it looked small by comparison. His eyes flicked quickly across Ten’s desk, trying to take in everything all at once.

   There was a computer, of course, but also an open notebook covered in pleasant, uniform handwriting. To one side, there was a Newton’s cradle, alongside three puzzle cubes in descending size order. The tidiness was disturbed only by three empty coffee cups, dotted in amongst neatly aligned folders.

   ‘Over here,’ Ten said, directing him not to the desk but to a collection of low, leather couches by the window.

   Taeyong sat down, arranging his limbs carefully to allow for full extension of his most attractive lines.

   ‘Can I make you a drink?’

   Taeyong eyed the open bottle of bourbon on the table.

   ‘Non-alcoholic,’ Ten said with a knowing smile, ‘we have important things to discuss today.’

   ‘Oh really? And here I was thinking this was a social call.’

   ‘Anything you want, baby. I’ll send someone to get it.’

   ‘I’m fine. I’ll have some of these,’ Taeyong said, reaching into the crystal bowl that sat on the table and taking out some of the boiled candies. ‘I thought someone like you would have a fancy fruit bowl or something…’ he said, unwrapping a pink candy.

   Ten smiled, sitting opposite him, close enough that their knees touched whenever one of them shifted. ‘Not quite my taste.’

   Taeyong popped the sweet into his mouth, sliding it immediately into his cheek a little suggestively. ‘So what important stuff do we have to discuss?’

   ‘I want to make sure we’re on the same page. About… things.’

   Oh.

   This was the terms talk.

   Taeyong sat up straighter.

   ‘Oh, okay,’ he said nervously.

   ‘Don’t look so anxious, my love,’ Ten said. ‘It’s just important that we make sure we’re looking for the same things here. It’s better to find out now if not than weeks down the line.’

   ‘Right, yeah.’

   ‘So let us talk plainly with one another. You must promise that you’ll be completely honest with me, and I of course will pay you the same courtesy.’

   ‘Okay,’ Taeyong said, mouth very dry. ‘I promise.’

   ‘I’m assuming you’ve never done this before?’

   ‘No, no I haven’t,’ whispered Taeyong, looking down to his fingers.

   ‘Good.’ There was a glint of Ten’s possessive edge in his eye then. ‘You know what a sugar daddy is, though?’ It was almost strange, hearing him say the words out loud. It was as though he had pulled back a curtain.

   ‘Well yeah, I read a lot online. Some of it was pretty obvious. Some of it was pretty vague.’

   ‘You know that the reason you’re finding conflicting information is that these kinds of relationships are just as complex and varied as… normal relationships? There’s not a formula, contrary to popular belief. That’s why this conversation is important - different people can want, and expect, very different things.’

   ‘Right, okay,’ Taeyong said. They were getting to the crux of the matter now - he could tell. ‘So…’

   ‘So what were you looking for when you signed up to that website?’

   Taeyong thought that it was a slightly strange question. Surely it was obvious why people like him went on that site? He thought about lying, but he knew that Ten would see straight through it. ‘Honestly… I don’t even know. I got stuck in this cycle with school and work and my grades were slipping and I just… My parents aren’t in the picture. I’m not lazy - I’ve worked since I was fourteen - but these days I just don’t know what the point is in all the work if I’m going to get kicked out anyway. So I just thought I needed to change something…’

   Ten was nodding, care in his eyes.

   ‘I wasn’t in this for the holidays or the fancy presents,’ he said, fiddling with the gold bracelet at his wrist. He switched instead to push back a few stray hairs that had escaped from behind his ear. ‘I mean it’s not that I don’t like that stuff or anything - I really like that stuff - but I just…’

   ‘You want to get through school?’

   He nodded, feeling strangely emotional when he glanced at the concerned look on Ten’s face. He had always had his friends to rely on, but it was the first time in a long time that someone had looked at him like that… someone older, wiser - someone who wanted to take care of him. He looked down, blinking away the stinging in his eyes.

   ‘Okay,’ Ten said, reaching out to take his hand. ‘Now, what would you like to ask me?’

   There were a thousand and one things that Taeyong wanted to know about Ten. He was one of the most enigmatic people that he had ever met. But under his supervisory gaze, it was only Johnny’s words that kept coming back to him. Bloody Johnny. ‘Why were you on that website?’ he asked. ‘I mean all the guys that were messaging me were old or weird or ugly. And then there’s you. You’re attractive and young and rich and clever - what do you need someone like me for?’

   Ten laughed, but not unkindly. ‘I’ve always wanted to share certain areas of my life with someone. I tried dating, of course, but I don’t have the time or the attention to provide the necessary emotional commitment for a romantic relationship. It wouldn’t be fair on my work, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair on a prospective partner. Money, however, I have in abundance. It seemed logical that I should build a relationship on the grounds of financial support, rather than make all sorts of romantic promises that I wouldn’t be able to keep.’

   Taeyong looked up, eyebrows raised. He hadn’t expected quite such an open answer, whatever Ten had said before. It was a pretty airtight explanation - more so than he had expected.

   ‘Does that answer your question?’

   ‘Yeah. Yeah it does.’

   Ten beamed. ‘Alright, then let me put something out on the table. As I told you when we first met, I’m more than happy to take care of you. Fully. Send me the details and I can pay off your rent, your tuition. You don’t have to worry. If you need something - anything - you come to me, okay?’

   Taeyong nodded, trying to keep his heart-rate steady. It felt as though the minutes were flying by at a million miles a second, words tumbling out, unimaginable scenarios writing themselves into existence before his very eyes. He could still hardly believe that this was happening.

   ‘In return - ’

   Here we go.

   ‘I’d expect you to accompany me on regular engagements, including travel, if necessary. I’d never expect you to miss school, of course. We’d have to be exclusive - that is an absolute necessity for me.’

   Well, that hardly came as a surprise.

   ‘- but you wouldn’t need to concern yourself with my business or personal affairs. I’m not looking for emotional labour from you. I wouldn’t expect you to… counsel me. In terms of a physical relationship, it's not essential, if you're not comfortable with that then just let me know. I'm looking for companionship, on my business, predominantly. That being said, if you did want - ’

   ‘It’s cool,’ Taeyong cut across him. ‘I want that with you. Definitely.’

   ‘Good,’ Ten said again, and there was a definite change to the way he looked him up and down then. It was extraordinary to Taeyong how quickly he could switch between moods - from professional to provocative to dominant in the space of seconds - but he was equally anxious and excited to try to keep up. ‘Would this meet your… expectations?’

   Taeyong wanted to laugh. He was a handsome, intelligent, seemingly sweet guy, who was offering to pay his tuition. What more could he think he’d want? He was distracted, however, by the itching need to pick up where their previous encounter had left off, triggered by the sudden gleam in Ten’s eyes. So he didn’t laugh.

   ‘Oh I’d say so,’ he said instead, licking his lips obviously.

   ‘Excellent. I do hope I haven’t scared you off with my business talk.’

   ‘I don’t scare easily,’ said Taeyong. ‘I suppose this makes us official now.’

   ‘The pretty kitty, all mine,’ said Ten, tone growing progressively more personal - more intimate. ‘Signed, sealed, delivered.’

   ‘So,’ Taeyong angled the words with a curl of his tongue, ‘we have our boundaries. And I’m completely sober. Which means there’s no reason you can’t kiss me properly now, right?’

   Ten cocked his head sideways in thought, finger stroking over his chin. ‘I suppose you do have a fairly irrefutable argument.’

   Taeyong waited, pulse racing at the thought of having Ten kiss him again.

   ‘Well?’ said Ten, voice lowering, ‘what are you waiting for?’ He inclined his head in a subtle but almost commanding summons.

   Taeyong’s breath caught in his throat, suddenly nervous. He’d expected Ten to be the one to make the move. Ten must have noticed, because he looked painfully self-satisfied.

   ‘If you want it so bad, come and get it.’

   Taeyong stuck out his jaw, determined not to be outdone. He stood up from his couch, walking around next to Ten, but instead of taking the space next to him, he threw caution to the wind. He swung himself over Ten’s legs without pause, hands planting on his shoulders, and hovered just down above his lap, weight forward on his knees. The touch wasn’t there, conspicuously absent, but it was implied.

   Ten laughed at the feigned restraint, tone soft and enticing. ‘I’m going to have to keep an eye on you, baby,’ he said, fingers wandering to Taeyong’s waist and splaying down across his hips, ‘you’re too bold for your own good.’

   ‘So tell me to stop,’ he whispered.

‘A lesson for you,’ Ten said quietly, lifting one hand to his hair and lacing his fingers into it. His grip was firm, enough so to tilt Taeyong’s head back ever so slightly and expose his throat, but not enough to hurt. ‘If you want something like this, you need to earn it.’

   ‘Just how I like it,’ Taeyong breathed, having to look straight down to keep Ten’s face in his line of sight. ‘But I do have one question.’

   ‘Mm?’ Ten hummed, releasing his grip.

   ‘Do I have to earn it by being good?’ he leant down very close to Ten’s ear, finally settling himself on his lap in the very thinly veiled guise of finding a more comfortable position, before breathing out, ‘or can I be bad?’ He took the care, as he enunciated the syllables with sensual precision, to graze his tongue over the cold metal punctuating Ten’s ear.

   Ten pulled him back roughly, using only his grip on his waist. A little of his usual composure had slipped, visible in the way that his sleek black tie rose and fell with his chest. Taeyong could see how hard he worked to keep his breathing steady. For once, he had caught Ten lost for words.

   But he wasn’t lost for everything.

   Finally, Ten kissed him properly.

   He didn’t tease this time - he wasn’t chaste or gentle. He claimed him.

   There was no preface, no time wasted on coy little touches. Taeyong’s mouth was already half-open, the words he’d been planning lost in Ten’s lips, letting out a soft moan instead as Ten pulled him close against him.

   It wasn’t competitive like their playful goading, not even for a second. Taeyong submitted instantly. He let Ten’s tongue roam over his, kiss open-mouthed, hungry and dominant.

   He caught his lip between his own teeth when Ten backed up for air, and when he returned for a second claim, he ran slender, eager fingers up the back of his neck, past white collar and into his dark hair. He guided Ten’s lips away from his mouth, not caring in the moment whether this was permissible, but Ten allowed him to steer. He grazed kisses down Taeyong’s cheek, his jaw, his throat, with a slow, deliberate pace.

   A shiver ran down Taeyong’s spine as Ten kissed over the swell of his Adam’s apple.

   He had always preferred neck kisses to any other - the raw sensuality, the vulnerability that came with exposing such a fragile part of himself. His pulse against Ten’s exploratory lips was its own submission. He wanted to ask him to mark him, to leave a stamp there, but the only hum he could find to make was a low whine.

   ‘You like it here,’ Ten whispered, breath hot against his skin, kissing again at the delicate skin stretched beneath his sharp jaw, the spot that had elicited that involuntary sound.

   How could he always read him so easily?

   ‘I’m going to find all of the spots that make you moan,’ Ten breathed against his throat.

   The sensuality of his words was interrupted rudely, abruptly, so offensively that Taeyong wanted to scream.

   The knock on the door rang over them with remarkable volume.

   Taeyong had already forgotten that they were in an office.

   He pulled away quickly, moving to jump back, but Ten’s fingers gripped tightly on his waist. ‘What is it, baby? Shy all of a sudden? Scared someone will see us?’ Ten said, tone sweet and lilting. There was a dangerous smile playing around his lips. ‘But you were so bold a minute ago?’

   Taeyong felt his face flush furiously, heart beating very fast.

   Ten surveyed him, wearing the expression of a man who knew full well that he’d won this round. ‘Hmm, perhaps you’re just a timid little kitten after all.’

   Fuck. Maybe he’d deserved that one for his audacity.

   Ten made him suffer for a good few seconds more before his face softened.

   ‘Alright, off you get then,’ he said, with a gentle slap to Taeyong’s ass that made him arch his back in surprise, letting out a gasp. ‘Cute,’ he laughed tenderly.

   Taeyong was only half off him when Ten called for the visitor to enter, and he stumbled his way to the opposite couch, knowing full well that between his mussed-up hair and swollen lips, he might as well have stayed on Ten’s lap after all. There could hardly be any mistaking the scene they’d walked in on.

   ‘I just had a call from downstairs, sir,’ said Sumi’s voice. Taeyong couldn’t look up to match it to her face, cheeks burning as he kept his eyes down, suddenly very interested in the coffee table. ‘Ms Han is here. She wants to see you.’

   ‘I’m busy,’ Ten said, and Taeyong looked up then, taken aback by the sudden tension in his voice.

   He saw Sumi glance in his direction before looking back at Ten. ‘Chunhwa advised me that she’s unlikely to take no for an answer.’

   Ten sighed, forehead knotting with unfamiliar lines. He looked… different, to how Taeyong had ever seen him before. ‘Fine, fine,’ he muttered. ‘Invite her up.’

   ‘Yes sir.’

   ‘Who…?’ Taeyong started, as soon as they were alone.

   ‘Duty calls,’ Ten said breezily, as though trying to cover up his momentary lapse in control, ‘I’m sorry that we have to adjourn early. I’m so glad that we were able to have this little chat.’ Taeyong was fairly sure that he couldn’t blush any redder, but he was close.

   ‘Thanks for the kiss,’ Taeyong said.

   ‘Well, you impressed me a lot today,’ Ten said warmly, ‘even if you are bold.’

   Taeyong’s heart thudded at the praise. ‘You wouldn’t have me any other way, right?’ he said as they walked to the elevator.

   ‘Oh I’ll have you every which way before long, baby,’ Ten answered seamlessly, sending a new wave of flutters straight through Taeyong’s heart. ‘Just you wait.’

Chapter Text

 

   Ten hadn’t been lying when he’d said that he was going to have to earn his touch.

   Over the next two weeks, Taeyong had met up with him on three separate occasions, and he had managed to steal only one chaste kiss the entire time. Ten was generous with everything - he had taken him to an extraordinarily high-class restaurant where he’d ordered the most expensive wine off-menu; he had sent an entire hamper of upmarket snacks and a bouquet of flowers when he had been struggling with an essay deadline; and Taeyong had received a letter from his college a couple of days earlier confirming that his tuition for the year had been paid ahead in full.

   But getting him to touch him?

   That was a challenge.

   It was the opposite of what he would have expected from such an arrangement. But then again, Ten was anything but predictable.

   He had the nagging suspicion that Ten was worried about potentially exploiting him. He just wished that he could find some way to prove to him that he wanted him - wanted that - and put his concerns to bed. Oh, and preferably encourage Ten to get him into bed in the process.

   The perfect opportunity arrived on one rainy Friday. Taeyong had skipped his way around the morning with significant bounce, and by the evening, he found himself procrastinating cheerfully over his composition, settled into a meaningless corner of youtube and starting on a very large tub of ice-cream. He was toying with the idea of sending a selca to Ten just for the fun of it, figuring that his messy hair and bare face could be appealing in a cute boy-next-door sort of way. After all, he’d look far sharper at dinner tomorrow.

   Tomorrow was an important day.

   According to Ten, anyway.

   He and his closest inner circle were meeting with their most prized US investors, at a restaurant with a name that Taeyong couldn’t even pronounce. When he had asked nervously whether Ten would mind all of these important guests (who in Taeyong’s imagination were all slightly scary, old, conservative men) seeing that he had a pink-haired and very male partner, Ten had smiled gently and assured him that while three of the male investors were bringing their wives, one was also bringing his husband.

   And so now, all things considered, Taeyong was rather excited.

   He and Johnny looked up in equal surprise at the knock on their dorm-room door, glancing at each other with raised eyebrows.

   Nobody ever knocked on the door. The only people that visited were Yuta, Sicheng, and Taeil, and they usually threw themselves straight through the entrance unannounced.

   Johnny stood up, opening the door with a frown. He looked confused for a minute, then exasperated, turning to Taeyong with a jerk of the head. ‘It’s for you.’

   Well, Ten never did anything by halves.

   Taeyong stared at the courier with his mouth slightly open, completely taken aback to have received a special delivery to his door so late in the evening. Even the basket Ten had sent him before had been held by the dorm reception desk. But not this time.

   ‘Oh, er, thanks,’ he said, taking the small, square box.

   It was wrapped entirely in black, with a shining silver ribbon, but Taeyong didn’t take the time to admire the outerwear, wanting to get straight to the good stuff underneath. There was a white card in the box, which Taeyong lifted out immediately and held between his teeth, concentrating his eyes instead on the jewellery.

   If ever an inanimate object had made him feel something, it was this one.

   ‘Wow,’ he breathed, fingertips flying straight to trace over the velvet as he put the box down on his desk. He ignored Johnny, who had come to look and negotiated the card from his mouth, eyes fixated instead on the piece before him.

   Ten knew him. Too well. Already.

   It was a necklace.

   A choker.

   A choker from Ten.

   That alone was enough to make Taeyong’s tongue flicker out to touch at his bottom lip.

   But the piece itself?

   Fuck.

   It was a simple band of soft, fine black velvet, dominated at its centre by a solid red rose laced with gold. Of everything that Ten had given him, this was the thing that made his heart beat fastest.

   He only looked up when Johnny made a dismissive, irritated sound.

   ‘What?’ he said, turning around, ready to defend this thing of beauty until the end of time.

   Johnny just shook his head, holding out the card.

   Taeyong took it, furrowing his brow, but his expression turned easily back to a smile as he read it. The note was handwritten, on quality grain card that made the ink shimmer a little in the lighting.

   Wear this tomorrow.

   Nothing else. One simple instruction that made his heart pound even harder against his chest.

   ‘Honestly, TY?’

   ‘What?’ he said again, closing his hand around the card almost protectively.

   ‘He’s telling you what to wear now? You don’t think that’s…?’

   ‘Just spit it out!’

   ‘I just don’t get it, Tae. This guy says jump and you ask “how high?”. You barely know him. He shouldn’t be telling you what to do. It’s controlling. I don’t like it.’

   Taeyong sighed, touching his fingers to the soft velvet again for reassurance. Johnny wouldn’t get it. He’d never get it. He wouldn’t ever understand why Taeyong needed the men he dated to take control, take care of him; why maybe sometimes he needed them to talk to him in ways that would make someone as sweetly chivalrous as Johnny baulk. He wouldn’t understand why after so long looking after himself, supporting himself - financially, emotionally, intellectually - he might just want to let someone else take the wheel for a few precious moments.

   ‘It’s for fun, Johnny,’ he said, swallowing down everything behind the words. ‘Like a character. You wouldn’t get it because it’s not your… thing. But it’s perfectly normal, and harmless, and healthy. I promise. Ten knows I’d never let him dictate anything real in my life. Trust me, I checked. Deal-breaker number one. It’s just something… something I need, sometimes. It’s for me more than him. It makes me feel… safe,’ he trailed off quietly, looking down.

   Johnny stared at him. ‘You’re right. I don’t… get it.’

   Taeyong opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny continued before he could.

   ‘ - but I don’t… have to, I guess. If it’s your thing then… okay. It’s just you’re my best friend, TY. I worry about you, you know? Since we started here it’s been my job to keep you safe, when you were wasted at parties or your asshole of a boyfriend that I warned you about broke your heart again.’ He looked deflated. ‘But it’s not my place to tell you what to do either and I’m sorry. Dick move. Although, you can tell Ten,’ he said the name with lingering distaste, ‘that if he crosses a line, I’ll break his legs.’

   ‘I’ll be sure to pass on the message,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘Thanks for worrying, though, hun. That being said, I don’t think you’d do too well in a fight with Ten. You’re just a big softie, after all.’

   ‘Am not,’ said Johnny, flexing his arms, but Taeyong just laughed, throwing himself down on his bed with Ten’s gift and beaming.

   He could hardly resist messaging Ten, but he waited for him to text first, knowing for sure that he would.

   And sure enough, a couple of hours later:

   Ten (21:49): Did your present arrive?

   Taeyong (21:52): I thought you’d never ask. It’s perfect. So pretty that I could cry. Thank you. Can I try it on?

   A pause.

   Ten (21:55): Absolutely not, kitten. Not until I’m there to put it on you.

   He was becoming soundly aware that he wasn’t going to shift that nickname any time soon. It seemed to have found its own place in their vernacular, particularly when Ten was being playfully stern with him. Not that Taeyong was complaining.

   Taeyong (21:58): Please?

   He added a sad face - the closest he could find to his own pout.

   Ten (22:00): You know, we’re going to have to teach you a little patience.

   He was tempted. God he was tempted, then, to send a selca with that choker wrapped right around his throat, just to test his reaction. But he held back, huffing his way under his blankets and looking at the box on his nightstand moodily. He was aware that tomorrow was important for Ten, and he wanted to make sure that everything was perfect for him. Which meant no playing tonight.

   He did, however, spy that little opportunity that he had been looking for.

   Taeyong (22:05): Does that mean lessons then?

   Ten (22:07): I suppose that could be arranged. If you’re good, tomorrow night.

   Taeyong (22:10): So back to yours after dinner then? I promise I’ll be on my best behaviour.

   He waited anxiously, more nervous for a response than he had been since he’d first started messaging Ten weeks ago.

   Ten (22:15): We’ll see. Sleep well, baby.

   His heart swelled, torn between the softness of his words and the excitement at the thought of a night back at Tens.

   It was far too early for him to sleep in reality, of course. Even since leaving work, he had struggled to realign his sleeping pattern into something more human. He sat up, dismantling his blanket cocoon.

   ‘Where are you going?’ Johnny remarked, looking up from Netflix for the first time in an hour.

   ‘I’ve had an idea,’ Taeyong remarked in a sing-song voice, waving excitedly from the door. ‘I’ll be back.’

*

   ‘Perfection.’

   Taeyong angled his head to the side, showing off the shock of red hair with delight. It had been, he believed, one of his better ideas.  

   ‘My very own red rose,’ breathed Ten, opening the car door for him. ‘You are… exquisite.’

   As soon as Ten joined him, Taeyong tucked one foot up under his leg and turned, eyes eager. ‘Can you put it on me now? Please?’

   ‘I suppose. Since you’ve made such an effort,’ he smiled, running a hand through his hair. He took the box, fingers moving instead to Taeyong’s throat and teasing over the skin as he loosened his tie. ‘You won’t need this,’ he said, pulling it away, ‘they’ll only expect me and my colleagues to look stuffy. And I want you to shine brighter than everyone else’s date.’

   ‘You’re very competitive,’ said Taeyong as Ten worked at the buttons of his collar, undoing the first, then the second, and sliding his hand under the shirt to work open the neck. Taeyong tried not to shiver at the feeling of Ten stroking over his collarbone.

   ‘Historically, yes,’ Ten mused, ‘that’s why I can afford these things.’

   Taeyong extended the line of his neck, wondering if the beat of his pulse was visible to the naked eye, as Ten lifted the band, fastening the small gold chain at the back. He fixed it on the tightest link, fingers nudging between the velvet and his skin to check that it was not too restrictive. Taeyong was hardly going to overlook how he left his fingers lingering a little too long, forming the shape of the choker and grazing his thumbs down over the front of his throat. There was no pressure, and yet Taeyong felt he could hardly breathe, forgetting all about how to function as he fixated only on the feeling of Ten’s cool touch against his burning skin.

   ‘Breath-taking,’ said Ten, finally sitting back and surveying him.

   ‘Tell me about it,’ Taeyong exhaled.

   ‘Now what do you say?’

   ‘Thank you.’

   ‘Good boy.’

   They settled back into their seats, Taeyong’s hand flitting up every three seconds to stroke over his gift one more time. ‘Will everyone be talking in English?’ he asked eventually, figuring he was going to have to stop obsessing over it some time.

   Ten looked up in mild surprise, as though he had forgotten they were going to meet people. ‘Most likely. But don’t worry, I’ll sit you next to Jungwoo. He’s lovely. You can talk.’

   ‘Okay,’ Taeyong smiled, before adding with curious eyes, ‘why does that name ring a bell?’ He had been trying to build up a picture in his head of Ten’s social circle, but he apparently knew so many people that they were all starting to blur into one.

   ‘Ah, Jungwoo is Yukhei’s… personal assistant. It’s a little more than that, but they haven’t gone public, so I would ask that you keep it to yourself. It’s not a secret per-se, but discretion on this topic is very important to Yukhei for personal reasons. Officially, Jungwoo will be there in a professional capacity.’

   ‘Sure,’ Taeyong nodded.

   ‘You might have seen him at our offices when you came to visit.’

   Taeyong wracked his brains, and then - ‘Oh!’ The handsome guy, the beautiful guy, the one that he’d prayed wasn’t Ten’s secretary. ‘Oh he’s very…’

   ‘Very…?’ Ten smiled.

   ‘Good-looking,’ he said, playing with his rose in what he was sure was going to become a new nervous tendency.

   ‘Do I have competition?’ said Ten, tilting his head sideways. He was smiling, but there was a hint of anxiety in his forehead.

   Taeyong laughed. ‘Oh God no, I was worried that I had competition the first time I came to visit you. I was really hoping he wasn’t your PA because there was no way I’d be able to compete with that.’

   Ten narrowed his eyes. ‘There’s no competition for me, Yongie. You’re the sort of beautiful they only talk about in love poetry. No one could ever, ever supersede you in my eyes. You know that, don’t you?’

   He didn’t know what to say - didn’t know how to express the pounding of his heart that came about every time Ten spoke to him like this.

   ‘Taeyong?’

   ‘Okay,’ he whispered.

   Ten reached over, taking his hand and lifting it to his lips. He kissed the back of his hand softly, then flipped it over to kiss his palm, sending a wave of warm electricity through Taeyong’s body. ‘Now, are you ready?’

*

   The evening was extraordinarily long and remarkably boring. Taeyong definitely preferred charity galas to business dinners.

   During the first hour, he smiled his way through compliments, gave enthusiastic, animated responses to questions, and didn’t miss the way that upon arrival, Doyoung and Yukhei looked steadily from his choker, to Ten, then to each other with smug, knowing expressions.

   After the initial socialising, however, the evening settled into a rhythm of dull, impenetrable business talk, and Taeyong found himself doing the very best he could to maintain the casual smile and interested eyes of a high-functioning mannequin, nodding whenever the others did and praying he looked sufficiently involved.

   He had never seen Ten properly at work before, so he occupied most of his time watching as he became this other version of himself, switching between flattery and hardball, reading the room and adjusting his whole body language, voice, manners to keep discussions on the track he wanted.

   That was interesting enough for a while, but barely made up for the fact that Taeyong was now working through a veritable gallon of sparkling water because he didn’t dare drink properly for risk of getting tipsy at such an important meeting. As the night drew on, he found himself watching Jungwoo instead, and the way that he gazed at Yukhei with warm, doe eyes.

   When the evening came to an end, it wasn’t a moment too soon.

   ‘I should probably take you back to your dorm,’ Ten said softly, as he helped him into the car.

   Taeyong was quick to protest, wishing that he had stifled his yawn better. ‘But you promised we could go back to yours!’

   Ten raised his eyebrows but was smiling. ‘I’m not sure that’s exactly true, is it baby?’

   ‘Please?’ he said, putting on his most winning smile and reaching out for Ten’s hand. ‘I want to see your place.’

   Ten sighed. ‘Well, since you were on such excellent form at dinner, I suppose I can grant you one wish tonight. Honestly, I was impressed. Even I was halfway asleep by the end of it. You’re a natural.’ He squeezed his hand back, pulling him over in the back-seat of the car so that Taeyong could rest his cheek against his shoulder.

   ‘But it went well right? I mean you’re going to get lots of money out of it?’

   ‘Well I hope so.’

   ‘Good,’ Taeyong yawned again, wondering whether Ten would mind him dozing on him.

   Ten looked down with an affectionate, protective expression, stroking his fingers through his freshly-dyed hair. Taeyong had to say that the softness suited him. ‘My place it is then.’

*

   Ten’s apartment was a lot like Ten. It was sharp, clean-cut and extremely well-kept, with splashes of extraordinary character that made it appealing.

   It was laid out over two floors at the top of a marble-decorated and concierge-serviced block, including the penthouse, set amongst a gated community of equally intimidating-looking buildings.

It also made up about as much real estate as anyone could purchase in central Seoul.

   ‘This is amazing,’ Taeyong exclaimed, eyes wide in innocent interest as he crossed the threshold, flitting around the entrance hall to each of the paintings hung on the tall, white walls. They were strange, abstract things, but oddly familiar, as though they were reimaginings of classical images buried somewhere deep in his memory. He stopped in front of one massive piece, taller than him, transfixed on the dark reds blended into elegant chaos.

   ‘I have an addiction to purchasing art,’ said Ten, wrapping his arms around Taeyong’s small waist from behind and angling his chin up onto his shoulder. ‘I just can’t stop myself. When I see something I want, I have to have it.’

   ‘You wanted me, right?’ Taeyong said quietly. He thought back the things that Ten had said before - that he had a good eye; that Taeyong was like art brought to life. He wondered, trying to visualise the scene of Ten finding his photo online, whether he had selected him with as much impassioned intent as he had when he had found this stunning painting.

   ‘Yes. Yes I did. When I saw you for the first time… I wanted you then. But when you started to speak to me… that was when I knew I needed to have you. Such wit, intelligence, character. I could hardly believe that someone existed with the perfect mind to match the perfect face.’

   ‘I bet you didn’t want anyone else to have me?’ Taeyong said carefully, knowing the effect it would have on him.

   Ten tightened his grip a little, exhaling against his neck as he turned his jaw to kiss the smooth, delicate skin just below his ear. ‘You seem to have figured out just how to get me riled up,’ he whispered. ‘Clever little thing.’

   Taeyong turned in his arms to meet lips against lips, hands lifting between them to settle over Ten’s chest, fingers gripping his shirt to hold him against him. But there was no danger of Ten pulling away this time. He had already slid one hand up to the spot between his shoulder-blades, and the other lower, the ends of his fingers edging just beneath the waistband of his dress pants, thumb hooking into the belt-loop. Taeyong used the leverage of his hold to pull his hips flush to Ten’s, wanting no space left between them.

   Ten broke away from the bruising kiss only to travel, walking Taeyong backwards in his embrace through an arched entryway at the end of the hall. As he steered him, he lifted his lips to his ear, voice a little rougher than usual as he purred, ‘you know, I wasn’t going to take you to bed tonight. I thought it was too soon. But you’re making it very difficult… to keep my resolve.’

   The words alone combined with the heavy breaths that he took between them would have been enough to get Taeyong hard, but the grip he took on his ass as he pushed him roughly up against a counter, free hand taking the collar of his shirt to wrench it away to his shoulder… that just about did it.

   Two of the buttons broke, silk torn away to expose his clavicle.

   ‘That was… an expensive shirt,’ Taeyong breathed as Ten kissed along the vulnerable bone.

   ‘I’ll buy you another one,’ said Ten, ‘and another one… and another one…’ He punctuated each word with an assault on the reddening skin below his collarbone: lips - tongue - teeth.

   ‘More,’ Taeyong pleaded. ‘Don’t… don’t be gentle,’ he added in a whisper, looking down shyly.

   Ten stood back, eyes raking over Taeyong: scarlet hair in disorder, pink-flushed cheeks, white shirt torn open to reveal red skin where he had started his work. He might look half-wrecked already, but Ten didn’t look much better.

   ‘Anything you want, baby,’ he said eventually, after a careful consideration, ‘but can I get you somewhere comfortable at least?’

   Taeyong nodded, letting Ten take him by the hand and steer him over to an overlarge, plush white leather couch. Ten pushed him down amongst black cushions, before leaning over him, one knee nudging his legs open so that he could take up a position.

Ten worked the rest of Taeyong’s shirt open and pushed it down to his elbows. It was exposing, vulnerable to lay there in such disrepair, chest bare and flushed and clothed only in the narrow black choker that had shifted down to the low point of his throat, while Ten hadn’t even taken off his jacket.

   It was nice.

   Taeyong threw his head back as Ten reclaimed his neck - chest - collar, letting out a gasp as he bit harder this time at the soft skin across the line to his shoulder, stroking over each spot with his tongue as though he could heal straight over the marks that he was making. As he took one of the knots of his sternum into a languid, protracted kiss, he trailed one hand to Taeyong’s belt buckle, working out the leather without breaking his mouth’s embrace.  

   He pulled the belt clear with a loud snap that rang around the room.

   Taeyong let out a whine at the sound, his back arching, and finally Ten sat back, eyeing the purple blossoming from the spot he’d been exploiting with a satisfied smile. He ran his hands over Taeyong’s thighs, up over his body and his chest, and then down to toy teasingly around his waistband, fingers sliding beneath the fabric with enough tantalising restraint to make Taeyong give another, higher little moan, as they moved around to his waist rather than down to his now aching arousal.

   ‘Beautiful,’ he sighed, ‘you are so beautiful, Yongie. So needy for me.’

   Taeyong himself trailed his fingertips along the smaller, passionate little bruises taking shape down his shoulder, wondering if it showed on his face just how much it was turning him on to have Ten’s marks all over him. ‘Yours now,’ he said, halfway breathless.

   ‘Mine,’ Ten agreed, a gleam in his eyes that confirmed that Taeyong was about to get exactly what he had wanted from this night all along. ‘All mine.’

Chapter Text

   He should have seen it coming.

   He’d asked, after all.

   Ten kissed down his chest, hands tight on his waist, and Taeyong keened for more attention. Obliging, Ten rolled his tongue across his chest, over one hard nipple with a persistent, teasing flick, eliciting a whimper from Taeyong’s throat.  

   ‘Fuck,’ he moaned, squeezing his eyes closed.

   Ten took the bud into his mouth, straying only to plant gentle but definite little bites across the surrounding skin.

   ‘Please.’ He didn’t even know what he was asking for. He just hoped that Ten would be able to read him better than he could.

   ‘Do you want to be touched, baby?’ Ten murmured, close against his ear, fingers pinching lightly over the hard, pink nipples that his mouth had since neglected. The gentle sting made Taeyong jerk upwards, searching for friction. Shit Ten was good at this. Too good. Better than him. ‘Do you think you deserve it?’

   ‘Yes,’ Taeyong moaned.

   ‘You want me to touch you?’ Ten coaxed, tongue teasing his skin.

   ‘Please,’ he choked out again.

   Ten smiled, kissing his temple. ‘Well then you’ll have to wait, won’t you?’

   He should have seen it coming.

   Taeyong froze, a rush of suspended stimulation running through his navel.

   ‘You asked for lessons, after all,’ Ten said calmly, thumbs still teasing over the sensitive skin of his chest, trailing up to stroke over the marks he’d made. Every little touch drove him crazy.

   Patience. Lessons in stupid fucking patience.

   Taeyong and his stupid mouth.

   His breath was coming in short little gasps now, heart pounding against his chest. ‘Please Ten…’ He couldn’t seem to find sentences.

   ‘What was that?’ Ten hummed.

   His hands moved to knead up and down Taeyong’s thighs, a silent, soothing reassurance that he was still going to get what he wanted - that he knew how much he needed it - that this pause was all part of the fun.

   Taeyong wished he had more restraint so that he could enjoy the suspense a little longer, but he just wasn’t there yet. He wanted Ten now. ‘I changed my mind,’ he said, ‘I don’t…’

   ‘Say it.’

   ‘Please I don’t want to be patient.’

   ‘Well then you’re in luck tonight, kitten,’ breathed Ten, one hand moving down between their bodies and finally releasing the button that divided them. ‘Because neither do I.’

   Taeyong felt his body flush, not only from the feeling of Ten’s fingers pushing the pants that he’d bought for him, down as far as their position would allow, but also from the realisation that Ten was finally going to be looking at him for the first time - touching him for the first time - and the sudden shyness that came with it.

   ‘Oh Taeyongie, you’re so cute,’ Ten exhaled, not having looked away from his face, ‘you’re so bold when you want something, so audacious, and yet you blush like a virgin when I offer to give it to you.’

   Taeyong made a noise that he knew he’d probably be ashamed of tomorrow, but he couldn’t hold it back. He knew that his body responded to the words too - perhaps that should be even worse - but he didn’t care.

   ‘Are you sure you want this, baby?’

   He nodded, not sure if would even be able to speak. But that was never enough for Ten.

   ‘Words, Taeyong,’ Ten said firmly.

   ‘Yes, yes,’ he choked out, ‘I want you.’

   Finally, Ten touched him.

   He stroked over him slowly, experimentally, eyes still not looking away from Taeyong’s, sending a shiver down his spine that made his whole body quake. He started gently, working him up expertly - because what wasn’t he good at? - thumbing over the head of his cock to collect the precum there and work it down over the length, mouth moving to claim a kiss. He nipped at his lower lip, tongue pressing lazily for entrance that Taeyong allowed without a second of thought. The embrace was open mouthed, messy, lewd in sound as Taeyong alternated his gasps with his kisses.

   Ten’s lips, on the other hand, only left his for one thing - to praise him.

   ‘So good, Yongie, you did so well out there tonight,’ he breathed.

   Taeyong let out a moan, starting to roll his hips with Ten’s rhythm, fingers gripping the front of his shirt.  

   It was almost too good to be real. He’d never found anyone who understood the nuances of the things he needed to do, hear - even the subtle contradictions that could make all the difference. But Ten had recognised it all in a second - without pause he had found the way to bring all of his fantasies to life. Taeyong wanted to tattoo the memory forever in his mind. He - vulnerable, exposed and desperate - and Ten - fully clothed, calm, completely composed and in control. It was beyond anything he could have even dreamed up himself. The palpable exchange of trust and power in the room was so much more than a simple fucking hand-job.

   ‘So beautiful,’ Ten continued, increasing his pace as the leaking of his arousal brought better lubricant, making Taeyong buck instinctively into his hand.

   ‘I’ve been good, right?’ Taeyong panted, not caring how needy it made him sound. He wanted to hear it again and again and again because he’d never get tired of praise from Ten’s lips.

   ‘So good, you’re so good for me,’ Ten indulged him, ‘but I need you to do one more thing.’

   He couldn’t find words, but Taeyong let out a desperate little mewl as he felt his energy pooling at the edge of release.

   ‘Come for me, baby.’

   It didn’t take much more than the sound of words. Taeyong came hard, ribboning over his stomach, over Ten’s hand, his name chasing around his tongue again and again. Ripples of pleasure - accomplishment - ran over his body as he came down from his high, sparking his vision and making his hands shake, the skin across his body more sensitive than it ever had been before.

   And then, without pause, Ten had pulled him against him, clean hand working through his damp hair, kiss brushing over his cheek, then his lips. ‘Amazing, Yongie. My Yongie,’ he breathed, arms wrapping around him. Taeyong was going to protest, naked and sticky against a suit that probably cost more than his rent, but he couldn’t find the energy. He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt more physically and emotionally spent. And it had only been from his fucking hand. His body gave an involuntary quiver at the thought of what a proper night with Ten could feel like.

   ‘Now… you… I’ll…’ he started, but Ten just laughed lightly, shaking his head.

   ‘Not tonight, baby. This one was for you. I’ll find enough patience for the both of us.’

   Taeyong smiled tiredly, burying his face in Ten’s neck, grounding himself in the smell of his cologne, and the sensation of Ten’s fingers stroking reassuringly over his hair. He wondered, as his breath came to a steady pace, what the hell he had done to deserve all this.

*

Only one thing could have made the night better.

   But he wasn’t going to get greedy.

   When he woke up, Ten was already gone. He pouted a little to himself, hand feeling over to the other side of the bed and finding the sheets cold - he must have been gone for a while. He would have liked to have lain there with him, settled into the rhythm of morning, maybe been permitted a few kisses after his performance the previous night. But it wasn’t to be.

   He sat up, stretching out and smiling as he spotted the note on the pillow.

   Good morning, baby.

   I have to go to the office. I’m sorry I couldn’t wake up with you.

   Ten.

   PS. You look cute when you’re dreaming.

   Taeyong folded the paper in his hand, smiling to himself.

   The office? On a Sunday?

   Well, it paid for this place at least.

   He hadn’t taken much time to admire Ten’s place the night before, so drained from the long night that he’d barely even noticed the bedroom that Ten had taken him to for sleep.

   He’d got what he wanted after all, he supposed - Ten had got him into bed. It just hadn’t gone quite the way he’d imagined it. It had gone better.

   Now, however, he took the time to look around.

   The bedroom was huge, and almost completely empty, which made the space seem more ostentatious. The bed was at least three times as wide as Taeyong’s twin back in the dorm, and layered with silk.

   Taeyong dragged himself out of bed only because there was an offensively urgent composition waiting for him back home.

   He stopped before the floor-to-ceiling mirror against the opposite wall, turning to look at himself at a better angle.

   He still looked sexed-out, which was pretty damn impressive he thought, given that looking back all he’d actually managed to get was some heavy petting and a glorified hand-job. There were hickeys from his jaw to his shoulder, one particularly furious over his sternum, and he could have sworn that his lips still looked swollen - but maybe it was just the light.

   He smiled, shifting the neck of Ten’s shirt up over the marks, as though to keep them to himself for a little while longer. Not that there was any chance of him running into anyone here…

   Down the stairs to the open-plan living space, his morning got even better.

   He skipped over to the low coffee table, grabbing at the box left out invitingly for him. There was another note attached.

   You’re lucky I plan ahead. Something for you to wear home.

   He pulled open the pink ribbon excitedly, the promise of clothes making him move quicker. Taeyong loved clothes.

   A soft, white, cashmere sweater - simple but flashing with a sparkle finish when he turned it towards the sun streaming through the window - and jeans. Nice jeans. Jeans with tears so large that he made a mental note to wear them the next time they went somewhere casual because Ten deserved to see that much of his skin.

   ‘Thanks Ten,’ Taeyong murmured aloud, stroking the soft sweater between his fingers. ‘You’re the best.’

*

   ‘Wow, he really marked you up good and proper,’ Yuta mused, prying fingers pulling back the neck of his sweater.

   ‘Hey, get off!’ Taeyong said, batting him away.

   It was Monday morning. All good things have to come to an end after all.

   ‘Seriously, TY, there’s no hiding that shit!’ said Yuta with the air of a man who was very glad that his nosiness was being fed.

   ‘That’s kind of the idea,’ Taeyong replied, reaching down for his laptop for something to do more than anything else.

   ‘Oh, so it’s that kind of marking,’ Yuta smirked. ‘Territorial, is he?’

   Taeyong touched automatically to the marks highest on his neck, finding a strange comfort in their presence. ‘Understatement,’ he supplied, if only because he knew it would make Yuta happy to feel like he was getting extra scoop.

   ‘Fascinating. So did you fuck or what?’

   ‘Yuta!’

   ‘What?’ he said innocently. ‘Johnny said you didn’t come home Saturday night.’

   At the mention of his roommate, Taeyong glanced around to make sure that he was still safely away in the bathroom, because there was no way he wanted him overhearing this conversation. ‘Kind of,’ he said non-committedly.

   ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Yuta pressed. ‘I mean it sounds good. Definitely more interesting that a yes.’

   Taeyong looked over his shoulder again as several students sat down in the row behind them. He lowered his voice, not bothering to be coy with his words though. He and Yuta had never been shy with each other. ‘He just jerked me off. Don’t get too excited.’

   If his friend had been eating, he would’ve choked. ‘Seriously? Your neck’s like a fucking paint palette and you’re telling me all you actually got was a bit of hand action? What are you, high-schoolers? I’m surprised you didn’t just pop yourself back in your pants and head home afterwards. Did you sleep on the couch too?’

   ‘You’re one to talk!’ he said, loudly enough that at least two people glanced their way. ‘As if you’re getting any!’

   ‘So you did sleep on the couch,’ Yuta said smugly.

   ‘No, I didn’t. We went to bed after.’

   ‘Oh so the first bit was on the couch?’

   Taeyong was just about to hit Yuta across the shoulder when he heard Johnny grumbling his way along the row and instead shot his friend a furious look that made it clear that any repetition of the words he’d just heard would mean a one way ticket to the hospital.

   ‘Oh hello, Johnny,’ Yuta said breezily.

   Taeyong might look cute, but his friends knew when not to cross him. He was petty, after all, and Yuta clearly wasn’t in the mood for any potential revenge.

*

   The marks had mostly faded by the time that Taeyong met Ten for lunch later in the week, but he had opted for a very low hanging oversized white shirt that kept slipping down his shoulder, to at least try to expose the faint traces of last weekend.

   When he sat down at the table on the airy portico, which seemed to have a distinct amount of space around it as though someone had shoved the other tables further away, Ten leant across almost immediately, taking his collar in his fingers and teasing it aside. His eyes raked over the pale bruising hungrily. ‘You know, most people would have worn a scarf,’ he said carefully, licking his lips and looking up to meet his eyes.

   ‘What, scared someone might guess that you’ve had your way with me?’ Taeyong said innocently. ‘You’re not shy, are you?’

   It felt so good to throw those words back at him.

   Ten’s eyes darkened in the best possible way. ‘Oh baby, I’d take you right here in front of all these people without a second thought,’ he said, before shrugging dismissively, ‘but I have a meeting in half an hour. I can hardly risk creasing my suit.’

   ‘I think you’re all mouth,’ said Taeyong. ‘You keep getting me all excited but you hardly ever follow through.’

   ‘Well, you’re supposed to be learning patience, after all.’

   ‘Maybe I’ll go and find a better teacher.’

   ‘Don’t,’ Ten said, voice steely. ‘Don’t even go there.’

   Oh how Taeyong did enjoy prodding that particular pressure-point. ‘Sorry, did I touch a nerve?’

   After a little more spirited sparring, they settled. Ten’s face softened. ‘I do love how you think you can best me,’ he said, taking Taeyong’s hand on the table and squeezing it lightly. ‘It’s very sweet.’

   ‘Maybe you’re underestimating me. Maybe you’ve met your match.’

   ‘Well I hope so. You’ve certainly made my life more interesting.’

   Taeyong beamed.

   After this, Ten adopted a more relaxed, routine approach, ordering food and bringing up small-talk as though he hadn’t threatened to fuck him right on the porch five minutes earlier. The duality always had Taeyong racing excitedly to keep up.

   ‘So how has school been?’

   ‘The worst,’ Taeyong wrinkled his nose, playing with his salad. ‘This professor’s right got it in for me and he keeps making me do all these papers for extra credit - he says I have to make up my grade.’

   ‘Which professor?’ said Ten, eyes narrowing.

   ‘My music and industry lecturer. It’s everything though. I need a break. I can’t wait for my study week.’

   At this, Ten straightened up a little. ‘About that…’

   Taeyong looked up.

   ‘I have to travel that week. And since it’s your only time without classes, I’d hate for us to be apart. Would you… like to come with me?’

   Taeyong stared.

   ‘There’s no pressure of course,’ Ten said calmly, ‘I know that you’re supposed to be working during that week. But my schedule will be rammed anyway - I’ll be in meetings all day. You would have plenty of time to study. And besides, New York is practically overflowing with… musical industry.’

   ‘New York? You want to take me to New York?’

   Ten nodded.

   New York. Days in the city he’d only ever seen on TV; nights in a hotel room with the man whose attention he craved the most. He could barely suppress the expression of thrill that ran across his face.

   ‘Oh my God, Ten, are you serious? You’re not screwing with me? Of course I want to go to New York with you. I’ve never even been out of the country, I - Oh there’s so many things I want to see, I - ’

   Ten was smiling.

   ‘Sorry,’ Taeyong blushed, looking down shyly.

   ‘Don’t ever apologise for being excited, Yongie. You’re even prettier when you forget yourself for a moment. Besides, nothing makes me happier these days than being the cause of your smiles.’

   ‘Fuck, Ten, I…’ he flushed again, hiding a little of his face with his hand.

   Ten took his fingers, steering the hand away and shifting so that he could get an angle across the side of the table. ‘Now, since we both agreed that we’re not shy, how about a little kiss?’

   Taeyong tilted his chin up a little. ‘Oh I don’t know - maybe you’ll have to be patient.’

   Ten pulled him by the shirt, as roughly as could be permitted out in public, until their foreheads were almost touching. His breath was hot against Taeyong’s cheek, free hand sliding down to settle on his thigh. ‘Try saying that one more time,’ he said, voice dropping in tone. ‘Just try it.’

   Taeyong swallowed, heat rising across his skin. He was going to have to be careful - there were too many people around to risk Ten speaking to him like that again… any more and his body would surely betray him. ‘Kiss… kiss would be good,’ he conceded breathlessly. The thought of Ten claiming him in such a public space was… appealing, to say the least.

   Ten turned his head, stroking his jaw, and then gave him one, soft, outrageously curtailed graze across the lips.

   ‘Seriously? That’s all I’m getting?’ Taeyong said indignantly when he pulled away.

   An infuriating little smile crept across Ten’s face. ‘All in good time, baby.’

   Taeyong huffed, pulling a face at him and taking a massive mouthful of salad in an attempt to look even more sulky. Still, he couldn’t help the little rush of excitement that accelerated through his veins whenever Ten left him waiting like this. It was almost more fun than getting what he wanted after all. Almost.

   That being said, of one thing he was sure:

   If in good time didn’t mean in New York, he was going to have a choice word or two to say about it.

Chapter Text

It had been a good day. Better than he could have imagined.

   Taeyong sighed, nestling in closer against him. Ten’s hand was stroking slowly through his hair, working out the knots that had formed from all the friction against the pillow ten minutes earlier. He kept whispering gentle, soft things, sometimes in Korean, sometimes in English, sometimes, Taeyong was sure, in Thai.

   Taeyong felt as though he had been awake for days, but he didn’t want to sleep. He kept trying to concentrate on the gradual rise and fall of Ten’s chest, the warmth of his body, the fingers wandering to massage at his temples. But the dark room was working on his eyes now, illuminated only by the lights of the New York skyline through the uncovered window, and he kept drifting off, sighing against Ten’s skin and shifting sleepily.

   ‘Get some rest, darling. We’re going to be busy tomorrow.’

   Yes, it was a good end to a good day.

*

The trip had started on a note that Taeyong was certain would be pretty hard to top.

   The previous evening Yuta had rambled on and on about airport etiquette, well-versed from his regular visits home. He had told Taeyong about security, about customs, about all of the queues and the waiting and the rolling of eyes whenever the delayed sign lit up. He’d promised him that there’d be a first class lounge where he’d have to be on his very best behaviour.

   Except the airport was nothing like he’d told him and it was pretty obvious why.

   ‘You have a private jet?’ Taeyong’s mouth dropped slightly open.

   Ten laughed lightly, putting his arm around him. ‘No, no I don’t. This is a company plane. Personal jets are an unnecessary expense - corporate planes are a much more sound investment.’

   Well it looked an awful lot like a private jet, so Taeyong was going to stick with that when he recounted the story later to Yuta.

   The private terminal was much less crowded than the main airport, and the staff were dressed for business. Ten, on the other hand, looked more casual than Taeyong had ever seen him. He had picked him up in the afternoon wearing a loose linen shirt in pale lilac - no tie, neck free to breathe for once. Even his hair seemed less carefully coiffured than usual, falling over his eyes whenever he tilted his head. Taeyong liked it.

   There was no waiting around for hours - no long queues - just two women at a desk and a quick security check. Taeyong kept his new passport glued to his hand - the pages were crisp, the cover clean, most unlike Ten’s. His was battered, slightly bent, in a leather case that seemed to have circled the world several times. He was surprised that the usually so immaculate Ten hadn’t replaced it.

   ‘I wasn’t sure what you’d want to eat,’ said Ten, when they had boarded the small, sleek, luxurious plane, ‘but I asked them to prepare your favourites.’

   Taeyong beamed, still staring around. The interior was cream leather, the seats large enough that he was sure he’d be able to squish in beside Ten if that sort of thing was allowed. He smiled to himself at the thought, taking his own seat and fiddling around with some of the buttons on the arm.

   He looked up in mild surprise when Ten’s phone rang, then down again when he realised he probably shouldn’t eavesdrop. He kept Ten in his periphery, however, watching as he sat down and took the call, expression changing quickly as his forehead creased into a definite frown.

   ‘Doyoung, I’m asking you, please deal with her for me. You know I’m taking Taeyong away for the first time,’ he added quietly, as though he didn’t want him to hear it, ‘let me have this week with him.’

   There was such softness in his voice, such carefully controlled strain, that Taeyong had to refrain from looking directly back to him. The words had sent a strange, warm feeling to his heart. He kept thinking of this trip as himself tagging along with Ten, but the way Ten articulated the words was different… as though this wasn’t a business trip at all, but a special holiday he’d arranged just for him.

   ‘Sir, we’re taxiing for take-off.’

   Ten looked up at the attendant, eyes still half-narrowed, then down again, holding the phone very close to his ear. ‘Thank you, brother,’ he whispered, ‘I’ll make it up to you.’

   When he hung up, Taeyong finally looked at him properly. ‘Did something happen?’ he asked casually, trying not to sound too much like he’d heard everything.

   Ten smiled, reaching over to take his hand. ‘Nothing for you to worry about, Yongie,’ he said, and he tossed down his phone in a clear attempt to feign triviality.

   ‘Ten you can tell me - ’

   ‘You remember I told you that you didn’t have to counsel me?’ Ten interrupted, but his voice was quite gentle. ‘You don’t need to worry yourself with my work affairs.’

   ‘Okay,’ Taeyong nodded - he knew that Ten didn’t like talking about this sort of thing anyway. At least it was work-related. For a moment, he had been thinking it sounded an awful lot like an ex-girlfriend.

   ‘It’s a minor nuisance, I promise,’ said Ten, ‘Doyoung will take care of it.’

   Taeyong nodded again, then jumped at the sudden rumble of engines, gripping down so hard that his nails dug into the back of Ten’s hand. He was sure that he was hurting him, but Ten didn’t wince.

   ‘Hey, hey, it’s alright,’ he said, leaning across his armrest so that they were much closer together.

   ‘Is that normal?’ Taeyong asked nervously, looking around as though the small cabin would answer his question.

   ‘Completely.’

   ‘I’ve just never done this before, I - ’

   ‘Breathe, baby,’ Ten said gently, voice calm but authoritative as ever. The tone made him settle a little. Ten was always in control; he’d keep him safe. He nodded, taking a deep breath and trying to ignore the acceleration.

   ‘I get why people don’t like it now,’ Taeyong exhaled, heart still thudding at double speed.

   ‘You’ll get used to it,’ reassured Ten. ‘You know it’s the safest means of travel?’

   ‘I guess,’ he said.

   ‘Nothing bad will ever happen to you when you’re with me, okay?’ said Ten, catching his eyes.

   It was an impossible promise, Taeyong knew, but it made him relax nonetheless. It was difficult to feel afraid with Ten - he was always so confident, so calm, that Taeyong felt sure he’d believe that he could stop the tides if he needed to.

   Still, it wasn’t until they’d reached height and they were allowed to move around, that the dizzying view and the unfamiliar stress of the engines finally stopped affecting him. Ten took him over to a couch seat, settling down with a folder and a pile of papers that he apparently needed to work through.

   ‘I’ll get them done now, then at least I’ll be able to give you my undivided attention later. You can sleep for a while, if you want,’ Ten told him, ‘you’re going to need all your energy for everything I have planned for us this week.’

   Taeyong tucked his feet up onto the seat, watching Ten put on his glasses and start to examine the charts in front of him, finding meaning in the figures that would have been so impenetrable to Taeyong. He could watch Ten work all day - the little furrow of his brow, the way that his eyes scanned from side to side, and the way that he twirled his silver pen between his fingers. He could watch Ten do just about anything.

   He smiled to himself.

   Perhaps flying wasn’t so bad after all.

*

   It was early evening when they arrived in New York, the sky grey and tinged with light pollution. They went straight to the hotel, an intimidatingly tall and extraordinarily expensive looking place that was staffed by bellboys in suits more expensive than most of Taeyong’s closet. Taeyong was tired from the plane, but at the same time buzzing for their first night together on new soil.

   Ten kept pulling him close in the elevator, kissing him more than once. Taeyong had never seen him so relaxed, so enthused.

   Their bellboy said something to Ten, handing him their keycard.

   ‘The presidential suite,’ Ten translated for Taeyong, playing with his hair. He’d been doing this since the airport - translating the customs staff, the driver, the people at the desk, even if what they were saying was inconsequential. He knew that Taeyong didn’t like feeling lost. ‘To our specifications.’

   ‘Fancy,’ Taeyong smiled back, giggling a little at his touch.

   All day, all through the flight, Ten hadn’t been able to keep his hands out of that hair. Taeyong had toned it a soft honey colour before travelling, one that he knew he wouldn’t have to worry about topping up, and apparently it was a popular choice.

   ‘Thank you,’ Ten said to the boy as they let themselves into the suite. That Taeyong understood. He also understood the veritable wad of cash that Ten handed the kid in gratuity, who stammered a thanks.

   Once they were alone, Taeyong span around, taking in the whole room.

   It was four times the size of his dorm room, with three large gold couches and even a dining table set beside a wide window. There was one door leading off the room, to what must be the bedroom.

   He skipped over to it, glancing over his shoulder as Ten picked up the champagne bottle left on ice on the table.

   ‘This place is awesome, Ten,’ he said as he entered the bedroom, eyes going straight to the huge bed.

   ‘I stay here every time,’ said Ten, popping open the bottle and holding out a glass to him. ‘Not in this room, of course, but I felt a little luxury was in order since it’s your first time away.’

   ‘Thank you,’ said Taeyong, appreciating the treat. He kissed Ten quickly on the lips before taking a sip of ice-cold champagne. It had taken a long time before he’d felt assured enough to snatch kisses whenever he wanted them - but now he could hardly stop himself. Luckily, Ten seemed to like it.

   ‘Only the best for you, baby.’

   ‘You treat me too well,’ Taeyong laughed, throwing himself down on the bed and rolling a little on the sheets.

   ‘Never well enough,’ said Ten, watching him with a fond smile, ‘I could give you the world and you’d deserve more.’

   ‘So…’ Taeyong said, stroking over the outrageous thread-count and touching his tongue out over his lower lip. ‘Can we… celebrate?’

   ‘I wonder what you could mean by that.’

   ‘It’s our first night, after all.’

   ‘I need to shower,’ said Ten, unbuttoning his shirt as he spoke, ‘I hate the thought of… airport on me.’

   ‘Me first,’ said Taeyong, standing up quickly. He wanted to be ready for when Ten re-emerged.

   His haste made Ten chuckle. ‘Sure thing, my darling.’ He slapped Taeyong’s ass lightly as he passed, making him jump and let out the cutest gasp. ‘But hurry back.’ Taeyong skipped to the en-suite bathroom, glancing over his shoulder to see Ten watching him while taking a gulp of champagne. He waved coyly before shutting the door.

   He walked straight to the mirror, examining himself.

   He’d been worried about how he’d look after such a long day of travel, but it wasn’t too bad. His hair was a little mussed from all of Ten’s fiddling, and the light eyeliner he’d applied had smudged down slightly, but all in all he thought he looked pretty decent.

   He was going to shower quickly, anxious for the evening to progress, but he ended up standing under the hot stream for a long time. The shower was huge, marble walled, with a powerful jet that worked away at the tension in his back from spending so much of the day seated. He rolled his shoulder blades and closed his eyes, enjoying the… luxury.

   Hot water was hard to come by at the dorm - you had to go insanely early to beat the crowd and particularly back in his work days, Taeyong had never exactly been up early.

   He switched off the shower only because he really did want to get to the endgame of the night. Tonight might finally be the night, after all. Taeyong wasn’t accustomed to waiting this long for someone he desired - men at college were usually throwing themselves all over him from the word ‘go’. He liked sex and he liked Ten, and until the two met properly he was not going to feel contented enough to enjoy much else. Taeyong prayed that Ten wasn’t too tired, or too distracted tonight. He was feeling needy.

   And he’d slept for most of the flight, which meant he was buzzing with energy now.

   He wrapped himself up in one of the huge, fluffy towels, and dried his hair as best he could before shuffling back out into the room.

   ‘A vision,’ said Ten. ‘I thought you’d got lost in there for a moment.’

   ‘The shower’s nice,’ said Taeyong reproachfully.

   ‘I’ll see you in a minute,’ Ten promised, ruffling his damp hair as he passed.

   Taeyong wriggled away playfully, watching him leave before crawling across the bed to his bag. He pulled out the shirt that he’d been planning to wear, kicking away the towel and brushing the silk between his fingers. It was a beautiful blouse, embroidered with flowers around the shoulders but falling into the sheerest silk by the hem. Ten had sent it to him a week ago.

   He buttoned it up and smoothed it out, glad to see that it fell low enough not to make him look entirely desperate when Ten returned.

   He thought about where to stand, or sit, or lay.

   At last settling on the end of the bed, he wondered whether Ten would take much convincing.

   He looked up at the click of the door and smiled broadly as Ten emerged.

   Fuck he looked good.

   He’d pulled on a pair of grey sweats, hanging low enough on his hips to show a sculpted, angular line that had Taeyong catching his breath. Ten was fit, alright, though not obnoxiously so, and he leant against the doorframe, eyes raking over Taeyong with obvious satisfaction.

   ‘That shirt looks prettier than it did in the store,’ he said, pausing his examination at the way the silk rode up at the tops of his thighs. ‘I knew it would look good on you.’

   Taeyong concentrated hard on looking somewhere that wasn’t Ten’s body, because it was very distracting. ‘Can we stay in tonight? I’m… tired.’

   Ten cocked his head sideways. ‘Really? But you slept plenty on the plane?’ This was teasing, obvious teasing, because it was clear by the gleam in his eyes that he knew exactly what Taeyong was angling for.

   ‘Okay not tired tired, I just… I’d rather be here with you… just you…’ Taeyong bit his lip the way that he knew Ten liked.

   ‘What is it that you want, baby?’ Ten prodded, smile playing around his face.

   ‘I want you, Ten.’

   ‘How very demanding,’ Ten said lightly. ‘I thought you wanted to see New York?’

   ‘I want… that too,’ said Taeyong, though he knew out of the two which he’d choose right now.

   Ten paused, as though pondering for a moment, and then looked back to him with… intent. ‘Well if you want both, you’ll have both. Whatever Taeyong wants, Taeyong gets,’ he said carefully. ‘Over there,’ he added, with a slight jerk of his head.

   Such was his excitement that Taeyong almost stumbled in his haste to obey, padding over to the floor-to ceiling window just opposite the bed and turning around expectantly to watch Ten, heart rate rising at the thought of whatever he had planned for him.

   Ten made a turning gesture with his hand, and Taeyong stared at him in surprise, lips slightly parted.

   ‘Now, kitten.’

   He was quick to oblige again, turning back to look out of the window at the darkening city. Lights had started to flicker on in the offices, glowing in the charcoal sky. Anticipation was rolling off him in waves - he seemed to be very warm all of a sudden.

   His whole body quivered as he felt Ten walk up behind him, hands finding his hips and chest pressed flush to his back. His skin was still slightly damp, cool against his increasingly hot skin.

   ‘You’re so sensitive, Yongie,’ Ten breathed to his neck, kissing a line down from his ear. ‘I barely have to touch you and you tremble for me.’

   Touch was the operative word right now, but it was never going to be that easy with Ten.

   ‘What do you see, baby?’ he asked, fingers working through his hair and lifting it from his nape so that he could press kisses there too, wandering back to the line of his shoulder to start working up a flush of purple.

   How was he supposed to answer with Ten’s mouth all over him like that? ‘I see… lights…’ he exhaled, ‘and buildings… and people…’

   ‘People, hm?’ Ten hummed, finally caressing down over his rapidly hardening cock and making Taeyong push forwards into his hand with a soft whine. Then, with a low, alluring voice like he’d never quite heard from him before, Ten added, ‘I wonder whether they see you?’

   They were so high up that the answer was obviously no, but the implication was enough to make him keen, pressing his forehead against the glass as Ten wrapped his hand around his length and stroked him slowly - too slow - achingly slow. He pleaded out Ten’s name in a throaty moan, but the nip at his ear turned it into more of a gasp.

   ‘You like New York? Pretty, isn’t it?’

   ‘Mm,’ he couldn’t look any more, closing his eyes and focussing on the drag of Ten’s hand across him, the friction that he sought with the slight roll of his hips. He jumped a little as he felt Ten’s knee nudge between his legs, but he followed the inference quickly, spreading his stance a little wider until he had to put one hand up to brace himself against the glass.

   With the new angle, he was pressed back very closely against Ten - he could feel the swell of his erection against his ass, but Ten didn’t seem to be in any hurry. He pushed Taeyong’s shirt up, palm pressing down a little at the small of his back until he was more arched, massaging over the dimple at his tailbone.

   ‘You’re too much, Yongie,’ he breathed, ‘is there anything about you that isn’t perfect?’

   His other hand was still working over him, too slowly to build up any real pressure, but distracting enough that there was no way in hell that he was going to be able to reply.

   ‘So beautiful,’ Ten murmured, looking up and out of the window. ‘I’d rather look at you than some old buildings.’ He pulled away with a shake of his head, and the lack of touch made Taeyong whine, but he didn’t have to wait long. ‘On the bed. I want to see your face while I fuck you.’

   That just about did it.

   Every time. Every fucking time. All Ten had to do was say one coarse word every once in a while and it made him fucking desperate.

   It really was just one word, though. His voice turned gentle, earnest as he followed Taeyong onto the mattress. He hovered before stretching over him, eyes serious. ‘Are you sure this is okay? You want this, Yongie?’

   Well that took him right out of the fucking moment. He’d preferred the dirty talk. Taeyong rolled his eyes, ‘yeah, yeah, now get on with it before I go crazy, will you?’

   Ten smiled, fiendishly rather than softly this time. ‘You really are an impatient little thing, aren’t you?’

   Taeyong nodded, breath catching as he heard the click of a bottle cap in Ten’s left hand, and then he let out a moan as he felt the cool pressure around his entrance. Ten’s fingers worked the lube over him, warming it quickly, never edging inside even as Taeyong started to shift his hips down against them.

   He usually liked this part quick, liked it rough even, but not necessarily today. He was willing to let Ten take his time a little bit, even if he was impatient, because all the travel had left him feeling vaguely delicate.

   But he didn’t need to voice any of this, because as always Ten knew exactly what he needed.

   ‘So pretty, all over,’ Ten breathed, finally pressing one finger inside him and admiring with a smile the way that Taeyong arched his neck back. He was being honest. Taeyong was pretty, from head to toe, from his perfect face thrown back in need, down to his perfect pink cock, hairless and swollen and curved up against his stomach. ‘Beautiful,’ he sighed.

   ‘More now.’

   ‘Greedy,’ Ten said, licking his lips as he pressed a second finger past his entrance, curling both slightly to watch the way that Taeyong squirmed, squeezing his eyes shut. With the third, Taeyong’s breaths started to come out in desperate little pants. ‘You still sure you don’t want me to use - ’

   ‘Yes, yes, I'm sure,’ Taeyong groaned, before he’d even finished the question. ‘I want... just you.’ Protection was something they’d discussed, back when they’d talked about all this and got tested and worked through every detail because Ten couldn’t do anything with less than meticulous planning. ‘Please Ten.’

   ‘You’re spoiling your shirt,’ Ten laughed softly, watching the way that Taeyong leaked slowly against the silk.

   ‘It’s your fault,’ whined Taeyong. He shifted his hips for contact as Ten withdrew his fingers, but a second later he let out a moan as he slid inside him for the first time.

   He felt like he’d waited a fucking lifetime for this.

   Which meant he wouldn’t last long.

   Still, if anyone could keep him on the edge, it would be Ten. He fucked into him slowly, indulgently, taking his time over sinking deeper. He went a little further each time, eliciting higher pitched moans from Taeyong’s throat with every millimetre of progress, until he finally bottomed out, pausing and leaning over him.

   His breath was hot against Taeyong’s face, lips wet as he kissed him.

   ‘God you feel so good, baby,’ he breathed, with another kiss.

   It had been a while since Taeyong had last gone all the way with a guy, and the stretch was fucking nice. He started to roll down to meet Ten’s pelvis with every thrust, moaning loudly as he pushed against his sweet-spot, again, again, again.

   ‘Harder,’ he choked, as he felt the pooling in his navel. He was about ready to come untouched but he wanted Ten to work him through it. As always, Ten read his mind, taking his cock into his hand again and thumbing his crown to the rhythm of their sex, until Taeyong at last came with a cry, eyes glistening with pleasure.

   He opened them wider as Ten stroked him through his orgasm, but only because he wanted to watch as Ten unravelled a moment later. It felt so good to watch him lose himself, eyes falling shut, lips parting, all composure lost at last.

   I did that, Taeyong thought to himself, taking the last few moments of oversensitivity before Ten spilled inside him, collapsing over his form and panting into his neck.

   ‘Fuck, Taeyong,’ Ten exhaled, voice completely unguarded for once.

   ‘Sticky,’ Taeyong murmured as Ten pulled out, too spent to think of something sexy to say.

   ‘I’ll clean you up,’ said Ten gently as he came down from his high, kissing his throat before sitting back and swinging his legs off the bed. ‘Wait here.’

   As though Taeyong was going to go wandering off somewhere…

   Ten came back with a slightly damp towel, rubbing it soothingly over Taeyong’s ruined stomach, then down to his thighs and round to where he was leaking slightly on the bed. ‘So good, baby, you made me feel so good,’ he praised as he went, kissing his forehead. ‘You’re so perfect, Yongie.’

   Taeyong was feeling far too hazy and lazy to move, so he let Ten do the work, nodding sleepily. ‘Thanks Ten,’ he mumbled, smiling as Ten threw away the towel and wrapped him instead in his arms.

   ‘How are you liking New York?’ Ten whispered, nuzzling the hair behind his ear.

   ‘Better and better,’ Taeyong yawned. ‘Especially the view.’

   Ten laughed. ‘Get some rest, darling. We’re going to be busy tomorrow.’

   Like today wasn’t enough…

   Yes, it was a good end to a good day.

Chapter Text

‘Are you going to do that all morning?’

   ‘Shh,’ Taeyong hushed, continuing his exploration of Ten’s ears.

   He’d been turning the piercings over in his fingers for at least five minutes, though he’d at least thought that Ten was still asleep. He gave the back of one of the bigger studs a light tug, making Ten let out a soft laugh and roll onto his back, turning to look at him.

   ‘This might be the only time I ever wake up before you,’ Taeyong yawned, playing with the hoop at his lobe. ‘I thought I should do some reconnaissance.’

   ‘You’re still on Seoul time,’ said Ten, glancing at the clock. It was five a.m. ‘You’ll probably feel bad later.’

   ‘I’ll have you to look after me,’ said Taeyong, curling into him and settling his head on his chest.

   They didn’t move until Ten got up an hour later, disentangling Taeyong’s limbs from his body and stretching out with a crick of his neck. He looked well-rested, unruffled, not at all like he’d shifted Taeyong’s world on its axis only a few hours earlier.

   Taeyong watched him, hardly able to believe that this was his…

   His what?

   Boyfriend? He didn’t just want to call him his sugar daddy. A plain old financial benefactor surely couldn’t make him feel the way he did? But he didn’t think Ten would like the word, so he made a mental note to keep it to himself.

   My boyfriend.

   He played around with the idea in his mind, smiling happily to himself. Take that, mom and dad, he thought, wondering what they’d think if they knew who he was dating. A businessman with the face of a model, secured neatly on Korea’s top twenty rich-list? Oh, and he spoke three languages, and he was fucking excellent in bed?

   Yes, if Taeyong did say so, he thought he’d done fairly well for himself.

   ‘Can I help you, kitten?’ asked Ten, meeting his staring eyes.

   ‘Just looking,’ Taeyong shrugged nonchalantly.

   ‘I’m going to be in meetings all day, but I’m taking you for dinner. Since we were busy, last night,’ he added. He looked up and down Taeyong’s body as he said it, perhaps admiring his own handiwork on the purple flush lining his neck.

   ‘Oh yeah, thanks for that,’ said Taeyong, face the picture of innocence. ‘Same again tonight?

   Ten laughed, looking around for his phone with a barely concealed smile. ‘Insatiable, you are.’

   ‘Is that a yes?’

   ‘Please remember that I’m older than you, baby, I don’t have your stamina.’

   ‘Yeah right,’ said Taeyong, voice more than a little sly. ‘So?’

   ‘To be decided.’

   ‘Tease,’ Taeyong muttered, as though the sound of Ten keeping him on tenterhooks wasn’t just about his favourite thing in the entire world.    

   ‘What are you going to do today?’

   ‘Oh I don’t know,’ he sighed, thinking of the pile of college work he’d packed. ‘I have essays to write. I should stay in.’

   ‘My clever boy,’ Ten mused. He glanced over at him with a look of such respect that it made his heart swell. ‘You’ll go far with an attitude like that. But don’t work too hard,’ he added gently, ‘you deserve to enjoy yourself too.’

   Taeyong nodded, though he thought that it was rich of Ten to tell anyone else not to work too hard.

   ‘I’ll just be a minute,’ he said, walking over to the bathroom.  

   Taeyong heard the rush of the shower, and flopped back on the bed. He had half a mind to go and join him, but he figured that might be pushing his luck. Baby steps seemed to be the way forwards. If getting fucked by Ten in a penthouse suite could be considered a baby step.

   When Ten returned, he watched him dress with sleepy but interested eyes, rolling onto his front and resting his chin on his hands.

   Watching him transform was fascinating. Away went the smooth curves of his muscles, replaced by the sharp, angular lines of a brand new suit. Away went his soft, dark hair, flattened back into a neater, sharper style that showed more of his forehead. Away went the romantic, funny, gentle Ten that he’d seen in the elevator last night, and out came the silver-cufflinked, thinner lipped alter-ego that Taeyong recognised from the few times he’d seen him at work before.

   ‘I’ll see you for dinner,’ said Ten, tone business-like as though he’d changed his whole skin rather than just his clothes. His voice wavered, however, when Taeyong looked down, face falling a little and fingers fiddling absentmindedly with the sheets. ‘What is it, baby?’

   ‘I just wish you could stay here with me instead of going to work. I want to stay in bed all day.’

   Ten sighed and walked over. He took Taeyong’s hands and pushed him back gently, leaning over him to tease his way to two soft kisses. ‘So stay in bed. Use the phone on the desk for anything you want - this place favours loyalty and they know me. If you need anything, and I mean anything, they’ll get it for you.’

   ‘But I just want you,’ Taeyong pouted.

   Ten laughed fondly. He pressed Taeyong’s hands a little firmer into the mattress, using the resistance to angle back, getting a better look at him. ‘I wish I could stay in bed with you all day too,’ he lamented, leaning down for a last, distinctly more impassioned, kiss. His teeth held Taeyong’s lower lip for a fraction too long as he pulled away, perhaps a promise of what was to come. ‘But it’s only a few hours. Dress nice for me, tonight,’ he added, ‘I do like it when you make the rest of the room look cheap by comparison.’

   Taeyong found his smile again, the thought of getting dressed-up always a mood-raiser. ‘You’ll get what you’re given,’ he said, ‘I might just wear sweatpants.’ He nudged up for just one more kiss, but Ten avoided his lips and kissed him on the forehead instead.

   ‘For your cheek,’ he chastised. For a moment, he paused, still pinning his hands, looking down at him with an expression that Taeyong thought meant he might just get to spend the day with him after all, but then he released him, stroking down over his chest as he sat back. ‘You look pretty in the morning,’ he said tenderly, taking Taeyong’s hand back in his and tracing his palm.

   ‘Don’t go,’ Taeyong whispered.

   But Ten let go of him, climbing off the bed. ‘Don’t tempt me,’ he said, ‘you could entice a man all the way to resignation looking like that.’ He stepped back to kiss his forehead one more time, before picking up his wallet and his phone from the side without a backward glance.

   Perhaps he didn’t want to be tempted one more time.

*

   ‘Of course you like him, he pays your tuition and flies you off on jets to New York. I’d like him too!’ said Yuta. The grainy skype connection jittered as he gestured wildly.

   ‘No but I like him Yuta,’ Taeyong said, biting his thumbnail nervously. ‘Like I like him.’

   It was late, in Korea, but Taeyong needed to talk to someone. Of the two close friends he had, Johnny was completely out of the question - he still bristled slightly at the very mention of Ten’s name - but Yuta was always on hand for a desperate call, and witty and cute as he might be, he knew how to take it seriously when Taeyong’s face looked like this.

   ‘Oh no, TY, you’ve got to be careful heading down that road,’ he said sincerely. ‘I read all about it online when you signed up - you shouldn’t develop feelings for your Sugar Daddy, that’s lesson one! He’s probably married… has a wife and kids… you shouldn’t get attached because he’s not going to choose you if - ’ he parroted whatever website he’d read with remarkable recall, but Taeyong interrupted.

   ‘Ten doesn’t have a wife and kids, Yuta,’ he rolled his eyes. ‘Trust me.’

   ‘That doesn’t mean he’ll want a… real relationship, TY,’ Yuta said quietly, eyes softening.

   Taeyong straightened up indignantly. ‘We have a real relationship. Just as real and valid as anyone else! It’s just… different!’

   ‘I know, I know hun, that’s not what I meant. It’s just… you told me what he said to you; that he didn’t have the time to invest emotionally in a relationship, that it was meant to be purely financial. If you go adding feelings into the mix it could get messy, Tyongie. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see you kids running off into the sunset together, but I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here because I don’t want you to get hurt.’

   Taeyong knew he was right. He remembered what Ten had said in precise detail. But it wasn’t like he was in love with him or anything… he just liked him. He wanted to know more about him. He wanted to share something other than fancy clothes and bedsheets. Was that really so terrible?

   ‘But he’s your man, TY,’ said Yuta, ‘if you really want him, go get him.’

   That was the Yuta he knew and loved. ‘Yes, I think I will,’ Taeyong said, angling his chin up. ‘Now, have you done Cho’s essay yet?’

   ‘Don’t even ask.’

*

New York with Ten was the strangest balance between dream and reality. In the mornings, Taeyong was stuck in the room, working through essay after essay, ears pinned down by recording headphones and hands occupied constantly by sheets and sheets of scrawled notes. In the afternoons, he ventured out around the city, hand glued to the naver translate app, and visited every sight he could find. He just wished he had Ten with him.

   By the evenings, they were reunited in luxury. Ten took him to the most lavish restaurants in town, walking him straight past the queues and exchanging two or so words in English that seemed to be able to get them the best table at any reservation-only hotspot. It was perfect.

   By the nights, though, Ten was tired.

   He never showed it, never uttered a complaint, never once indicated that he was anything other than thrilled to be spending time with him. But Taeyong could tell.

   He left every morning just after six, never had time for lunch, met him straight from work to take him out and spoil him and act as though he hadn’t just spent all day locked away in office after office.

   Taeyong knew that by the time they got back to the hotel room, he’d be too tired for games. So he held back, kept mostly quiet while Ten wound down each night. He climbed in behind him on the bed occasionally to massage his neck, his shoulders, the knots of tension at the back of his head. Ten liked this, though he never asked for it, relaxing against his touch and exhaling with relief. One night, he fell asleep against him, still half-dressed in an Armani suit, head lolling back against Taeyong’s shoulder.

   Taeyong smiled down at him. Ten looked softer when he was sleeping.

   It wasn’t the whirlwind couple’s holiday that Taeyong had imagined, but he wasn’t complaining.

   On Thursday, though, Ten surprised him.

   ‘Fuck,’ said Taeyong when he woke up. He was wrapped tightly in Ten’s arms, though he hadn’t gone to bed until much later, staying up late to work on his group project with Johnny and Yuta over skype on one of the plush gold couches in the room next door. ‘Ten,’ he whispered, looking at the nightstand and baulking at the sight of the clock.

   Ten never set an alarm. He woke up every single morning at the same time.

   ‘Ten,’ he said more urgently, shaking his arm.

   ‘Quiet, baby,’ Ten murmured against his hair, not loosening his grip.

   ‘Ten! You’re late!’

   ‘How tragic,’ yawned Ten.

   ‘It’s nine-thirty!’

   When Taeyong twisted in his arms, though, he smiled. ‘It’s lucky I booked today off then, isn’t it?’

   ‘You… you did?’ Taeyong said excitedly, heart rate settling.

   ‘Mm. So let’s sleep in.’

   They didn’t go out until lunch, although Taeyong got up a little earlier. He moved around the room quietly, aware that Ten was watching him but not looking over, fixing his hair, his make-up, pulling on the torn designer jeans that Ten had bought him and one of his own white button-down shirts, printed with cute novelty doodles. ‘Can you do me up?’ he said eventually, holding up the chain of his rose choker.

   Ten stayed on the bed for a few moments, eyes rolling over and over him with unrestrained adoration, and then he finally extricated himself from the bed. He took the band in his fingers, meeting Taeyong’s eyes in the mirror as he hooked the clasp easily, hands settling on his shoulders. ‘I want to buy you another one,’ he said, not breaking their gaze. ‘The way you look in this… it drives me crazy,’ he breathed.

   ‘We’d better go shopping then,’ said Taeyong, jumping a little as Ten turned him smoothly around, hooking his index fingers into the front belt-loops of his jeans. He drew him so close that their noses touched, foreheads pressed together, and planted a kiss to his lips.

   ‘Yes, I suppose we had.’ He kept his fingers in place even after they pulled apart, thumbs grazing along the top of his waistband. Taeyong wondered if it showed quite how much he enjoyed Ten’s continued grip on him.

*

Ten was true to his word.

   Shopping was the first item on the agenda for the day, and he took him straight to a jewellers’ - the sort of place he was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to go into wearing ripped jeans. But the staff were pleasant enough, a little too ingratiating, in fact. Maybe they smelt the wealth on Ten.

   ‘This,’ Taeyong exhaled, pointing through the glass.

   If he’d looked at the price first, he wouldn’t have said it.

   It was another choker, alright, studded entirely with crystals, the band a little wider than the one he wore now. From the second he saw it, he needed it, and he knew that Ten felt the energy in his body.

   ‘Oh yes,’ Ten murmured, fingers wandering up to the band currently at his neck and stroking over his throat as though imagining the feeling of the crystals beneath his fingertips. ‘There aren’t many things worthy of your beauty… but this?’

   He asked someone to take it from the case almost immediately, but when the lady moved to clasp it for Taeyong, Ten shifted forwards, taking it.

   ‘Allow me,’ he said, with a dazzling smile.

   Taeyong unclasped Ten’s first neckpiece, holding it tightly in his hand. It would always be his favourite - his most prized - but he was thrilled in a different way by the prospect of this one.

   The staff left them alone, which was a blessing because things… escalated fast.

   ‘Shit I look good,’ said Taeyong, angling himself in front of one of the mirrors in the store. ‘Fucking good.’

   ‘You really do have a filthy little mouth, you know that?’ Ten breathed against his ear.

   ‘You like it though, don’t you?’ said Taeyong, careful not to react even though his body wanted to sink back into his touch. He wanted to concentrate on the flawless piece settling against his throat. ‘You like my mouth? My lips… my tongue?’

   ‘Mm,’ Ten hummed, ‘I can think of a few ways we could put it to work, later.’

   Suddenly, Taeyong was very glad that they were speaking in Korean.

   Ten’s words were borderline erotic. Fuck, he really needed to stop getting worked up like this in public. ‘You want me to sing for you?’ he said, turning with an innocent smile.

   Ten surveyed him, then lifted one finger to touch under Taeyong’s jaw, thumb stroking his chin and edging up further until it pulled down his lower lip ever so slightly. ‘I’ve never met anyone who can play me like you can, Yongie,’ he said, searching his face with an expression of such pure veneration that he might have been looking upon a priceless piece of art.

   Taeyong let his mouth fall open further, just waiting for Ten to push a finger past his lips. He touched his tongue out over his thumb with a quick, testing swipe, wondering how far Ten’s vague propensity for exhibitionism would stretch. When he didn’t pull back, Taeyong closed his lips around his thumb, sucking ever so slowly, dragging his eyes up to Ten’s in a look so openly sensual that they could have been the only two people in the world.

   Finally, after enjoying the view for a moment, Ten withdrew, shaking his head with a smile. ‘Okay, kitten, you win this round,’ he said, and he looked so impressed that Taeyong felt torn between pride and smugness. He would have got down on his knees right there in the store if it meant Ten letting him win for once.

   ‘What’s my reward?’

   ‘Well that’s your choice, isn’t it?’

   ‘You know I like it more when you choose,’ Taeyong pouted.

   ‘Well… I suppose I could come up with a few ideas,’ said Ten, fingers sliding down to stroke over the wide band at his throat instead. ‘Tonight? Wearing this.’

   ‘And?’

   ‘And nothing else, of course,’ Ten looked him up and down. ‘We’ll find some way to occupy that mouth of yours.’

   An excellent reward indeed.

   Taeyong would have kept up the game for the rest of lunch if it hadn’t been for the store they passed a little down the street, choker now boxed firmly away for later and innuendos still hot in the air.

   He stopped dead in the street, mid-sentence, looking through the window.

   Ten followed his gaze, raising his eyebrows. ‘Taeyong?’

   ‘Huh?’ he looked back, pulled out of his reverie.

   ‘What is it?’

   Taeyong stared in confusion for a moment, then remembered where he was and who he was with. He looked back to the window, eyes raking over the headphones, the keyboards, the sleek black monitors that looked so simple and yet had always been so very far out of his reach. ‘Oh, oh nothing,’ he said quickly, looking down and starting to walk again.

   Ten caught his hand before he could get very far, pulling him back. ‘You want this stuff?’ he said, leaning close to look through the glass.

   ‘What? N-no,’ he stammered, even though his brain was screaming yes.

   ‘It’s production equipment?’ Ten continued, as though he hadn’t heard him.

   ‘The best,’ Taeyong sighed, wondering whether the longing in his voice was audible, ‘like so far beyond the best it’s - ’

   ‘Tell me what you need. I’ll buy it for you,’ said Ten.

   ‘No, Ten, you can’t,’ he said in surprise, ‘it’s too much.’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘You… you already bought me something today.’

   Ten shook his head, looking furious with himself. ‘Then I’ll return it. I’ll return all the jewellery and the designer clothes I’ve ever bought you, Yongie. You should have told me there was gear you actually needed, I never even considered… I’ve been throwing all this superficial shit at you just because I thought you’d look pretty in it! How could I have been so thoughtless?’

   Taeyong gaped at him in astonishment. ‘I like the clothes,’ he said softly, amazed to see Ten so self-critical.

   ‘Let me buy you something you really need, baby,’ said Ten, ‘please.’

   If it had been up to Ten, he probably would have built him an entire home studio, but Taeyong talked him out of it. He’d never thought he’d find himself saying the words too much, but he stuck to his guns on this one. To Ten’s credit, he didn’t argue, didn’t try to push the issue when Taeyong settled on just two perfect monitors for his desk that he knew would have his friends collapsing on sight, wrapped and ready for delivery.

   ‘You’re not actually going to return the choker, are you?’ Taeyong said quickly once they were back out on the street. ‘Because I really did look cute in it.’

   Ten smiled at him. ‘Thank god you said that, because I was having so much fun imagining you wearing it later…’

   ‘Thanks, Ten.’

   ‘Anything for you, baby.’

   After this, they settled into a more casual routine - a much more familiar pace for Taeyong. They walked to Central Park, where Ten bought him a giant pretzel and an even bigger coffee, holding the packet for him as they strolled in the dappled light, hands held tightly together.

   ‘Can I ask you something?’ Taeyong asked after a while.

   ‘Always.’

   ‘How did you… how did you get into your business?’ he asked, wondering if the trepidation showed in his voice. He had thought long and hard about what to ask him back at the hotel, after talking to Yuta. He wanted to learn something, to get some look inside Ten’s mind that he couldn’t get from the bedroom, but he knew that Ten didn’t like talking about himself. He didn’t like talking about work either, but he figured that it was a slightly safer option.

   ‘Are you really interested?’

   ‘Mmhm.’

   Ten looked down, watching their interlinked fingers, the way that their joined hands swung back and forth. Then, after a pause that may have been a debate over whether or not to answer, he said: ‘I moved to Seoul when I was eleven. I’d been offered a place at a very prestigious charter school, by virtue of a certain proclivity for mathematics. It was a strange place, a crossroads between the extraordinarily wealthy and the extraordinarily gifted. I felt like I was neither.’

   Taeyong’s mouth fell slightly open as he spoke - he’d never shared something personal like this - but Ten didn’t look up.

   ‘I was very insecure… desperate to make any sort of name for myself. I started importing consumer tech - anything I could find wholesale, dirt cheap. I sold it on for a profit to the other kids. My activities caught the attention of the faculty, of course,’ he smiled, ‘I was lucky to keep my place. But I also caught the attention of two other, equally ambitious students.’

   ‘Doyoung and Lucas,’ Taeyong said quickly.

   Ten inclined his head. ‘They had been wanting to start a business for a while. Doyoung had the brains and Yukhei the charisma, but neither of them knew the first thing about how to run a real business. They approached me - sought my counsel.’

   ‘You’re the businessman,’ said Taeyong, remembering how the others had joked about it.

   ‘Yes, yes I am.’

   ‘So you weren’t friends with them before? I assumed you’d known each other forever.’

   He shook his head. ‘At first, I just saw them as business partners. Soon enough, though, they became my brothers. They dragged me out of my shell, made me feel like I deserved my place at that school. We became inseparable.’

   Ten played with the packet in his hand, turning it over and over. It was the first time Taeyong had ever seen him look even slightly nervous.

   ‘We’d already founded the company by our last year, and we attended the same college in order to work on it. Doyoung had been offered a full ride at MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, even Zurich, but he stayed in Korea to concentrate on our work. Yukhei had been offered the right hand chair at his father’s company - a very distinguished one at that - but he rejected it. It was the three of us against the world.’

   Sensing his discomfort with the topic of conversation as he continued to turn over his hands, Taeyong decided to put him out of his misery and change the subject. ‘Me too. Me and my friends.’

   Ten seemed to relax at this, turning to him with a smile. ‘Ah, yes, the characters I’ve heard so much about.’

   Taeyong blushed. ‘Do I really talk about them that much?’

   ‘Yuta? Johnny? You may have mentioned them,’ Ten chided good-naturedly. ‘How did the three of you meet?’

   ‘Oh we met at college,’ Taeyong said, thinking back to his own story and suddenly understanding very clearly why this sort of discussion made Ten uncomfortable. Now that he was in the hotseat, he was anxious at what to share. ‘I…’

   ‘How did Lee Taeyong end up at the University of Seoul?’ Ten asked, putting his arm around his waist instead so that they were linked closer together. The touch was a comfort, and Taeyong found the words more easily now.

   ‘I… I’m from Seoul, actually, but we moved around a lot because of my father’s work. When I got to the end of school, I told my parents I wanted to study music. I’d got good grades in the college entrance exam - could have done basically anything - so my parents were horrified. Then I told them I liked guys, which went down even better,’ he smiled wryly. ‘They told me to… sort myself out… or I was out. I think the college thing bothered them more than the gay thing,’ he added with a shallow laugh.

   ‘I’m sorry they put that on you,’ said Ten, giving his waist a light squeeze.

   ‘I told them I didn’t give a shit what they wanted me to do, and I left. Or they threw me out. Or both. I can’t remember. I went back to Seoul. I think my parents thought I’d come crawling back, but I’d rather have starved,’ he muttered. ‘After a year working, saving money, I applied for college.’

   ‘And there you met your friends?’

   ‘Yeah. I was a right loner at first. I had my roommate Johnny, but we were like the Odd Couple those first couple of weeks. Direct opposites. It was a while before we became close. I’d never had time for friends at school - we moved around so much - and everyone was all about getting laid first month and I thought I was the only gay kid on campus so I didn’t want to go to those parties. I didn’t count on Yuta scooping me up, though. He basically wrote himself into my life. Everything changed after that.’

   Ten laughed. ‘And so here we are, two boys saved by our friends.’

   Taeyong had never once thought that they could have anything like that in common, and yet here it was, plain as day.

   ‘What your parents did to you,’ Ten started, tightening his grip slightly and kissing his hair before continuing, ‘it was terrible. I’m sorry that it happened.’

   ‘Wasn’t your fault,’ said Taeyong with a shrug.

   ‘You have nothing to do with them now?’

   He shook his head.

   ‘You did it all yourself? Tuition? Living costs?’

   He nodded.

   Ten stopped in his tracks, turning to him and moving his hands to his shoulders. He rubbed gently up and down, fingers stroking the base of his neck. ‘You are extraordinary, Taeyong.’

   ‘You would say that,’ said Taeyong, blushing, ‘you’re my - ’

   ‘Your what?’ said Ten as he caught himself, not missing the half-sentence as it trailed away.

   ‘My…’

   ‘…partner?’ Ten said, ever so gently, coaxing out the nuances of his blush. It wasn’t boyfriend, but it was a more Ten word. A more mature word. In fact, it made Taeyong feel more assured.

   ‘Yes,’ said Taeyong, heart beating very fast.

   ‘What a lucky guy I am,’ said Ten, before setting off at a walk again, ‘to have such a catch on my arm.’

   ‘Stop it,’ Taeyong laughed, bumping his shoulder into Ten’s and knocking him a little off course.

   ‘Watch yourself, kitten, you don’t want to push me.’

   ‘But I love pushing you,’ Taeyong pouted, ‘you wouldn’t have me any other way, remember?’

    Ten laughed, shaking his head and dropping into step behind him so that he could wrap his arms around his waist from behind and kiss at his neck. Taeyong squirmed cutely, closing his hands over Ten’s arms on his waist. ‘I’m just glad that I have you at all,’ said Ten, walking him forwards and not even caring as people bumped into them. Taeyong was far too slight for New York, and was usually buffeted around when walking down the street, but he felt stable, secure in Ten’s arms.

   ‘And I have you too, right?’

   ‘All of me,’ said Ten, ‘yours.’

   Taeyong smiled to himself; those didn’t sound like the words of a man who didn’t want to add feelings into the mix.

   Not at all.

Chapter Text

   Several hours later found Taeyong practically buzzing with excitement.

   ‘Alright, kitten, if you’re sure,’ Ten said, lounging back on the bed and undoing the top button of his shirt, stretching his neck from side to side as he surveyed him. ‘What are you still doing dressed?’

   Taeyong’s hands went straight to his shirt, unbuttoning quickly, eager to obey, but Ten laughed lightly.

   ‘Slower, baby.’

   He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down. Nothing filled him with nervous energy quite like the prospect of letting Ten take charge for a while. It was just about the only thing he’d ever wanted from a sexual partner, and no one had ever managed to deliver properly. They didn’t have the experience. Not like Ten. Ten made him feel like the safest, securest, most beloved person in the entire world.

    He let his shirt fall open, moving to his jeans and working out the button. He swayed his hips as fluidly as he could manage, shimmying the jeans down his thighs and balancing carefully to unhook them.

   ‘Turn. I want to look at you.’

   Doing anything under Ten’s gaze was erotic, but also strangely… empowering. He knew that Ten would do whatever he needed, anything in the world to make him feel good. This wasn’t about giving up control - not like he’d thought it would be. Spending time with Ten had taught him that it was all about taking control of himself, finding and indulging in the special things that he really wanted, needed, by letting Ten take care of the rest.

   He straightened up, taking another grounding breath. He’d been naked around Ten more than once, of course, but never like this. Never stood exposed as he took in every detail of his form, eyes searching with a clear intent to memorise. He turned once on the spot, then a second time, lifting his hands to his hair to better show off the lines of his body.

   ‘How are you even real, baby?’ Ten breathed.

   ‘You like what you see?’ said Taeyong, catching his lip between his teeth and shifting his weight onto one foot as though shy, though it was mostly playful now. It had been weeks since he’d felt truly shy around Ten. Early on, he’d been so conflicted. He was usually cocky, self-assured, confident in his charms, but in Ten’s presence he’d found himself feeling inexperienced, immature by comparison, and it had left him with a near constant red blush.

   But these days, he was more assured.

   He knew how Ten looked at him.

   ‘Near-perfection,’ said Ten, a smile playing around his lips. ‘Just one thing missing.’  

   ‘Can I have it now?’

   ‘Of course. You were so good in the store, after all. Come here for me,’ he spread his legs a little, a clear indication of exactly where he wanted him, and Taeyong’s heart thudded in excitement.

   He walked to the bed, crawling slowly across the sheets, smooth and catlike, until he was in front of him, balanced on his hands and knees, back arching and exposing the crook of his lower spine that he knew Ten had loved so much last time.

   ‘Oh baby, you’re too much,’ Ten murmured, fingers working into his hair and drawing him closer until Taeyong sat back on his heels, square between his legs, chest not far from his face.

   Taeyong watched as he took the crystal choker from its box, adjusting his own position so that he could reach up, holding it in position against Taeyong’s neck. He didn’t clasp it yet, just taking a moment to admire again the way that it looked against his skin. ‘Please, Ten,’ Taeyong whined, ‘let me wear it.’

   ‘Patience is a virtue, my darling. I seem to remember you asking me for lessons on that very subject not so long ago.’

   ‘Please.’

   Ten obliged - it was a dangerous but unavoidable fact that Taeyong had learned just the pout to ensure he got whatever he wanted, and Ten was powerless to resist. He clasped the choker, letting it settle flat against his throat, and leaned back, breathing a little hotter than it had been before.

   Taeyong shifted, his whole body seeming to adjust to the weight, the pressure against his throat. He couldn’t see himself, but he could see himself in Ten’s eyes - the pure lust that rushed across them, and he knew he looked good.

   ‘Perfect now?’

   Ten ran his hands down his bare sides, landing on his waist, pulling him close so that Taeyong swung his legs over either side of his hips and straddled him, letting his weight settle back on his thighs. The sensation sent a rush through Taeyong’s body - his bare skin against Ten’s clothed legs… he remembered from the first time how much this got to him.

   He loved being completely exposed while Ten was dressed.

   ‘You know you are.’

   ‘Tell me,’ Taeyong breathed.

   ‘Oh you like it when I praise you, don’t you?’ Ten smiled, ‘you like to be told how good you are? What a pretty, perfect little face you have?’

   Taeyong nodded, the breath knocked out of him just by the words.

   ‘You’re beautiful, baby. My perfect Yongie.’

   After a moment more to look at him, enjoying the contented sound that escaped his lips at the words, Ten started to kiss along his clavicle, fingers stroking his waist, holding him firmly in position. He sucked a purple mark over the bone, sliding his hands down to his thighs and squeezing tighter there, massaging the muscle and grazing his thumbs over and over his skin.

   ‘So impatient for me already,’ he said, looking down at Taeyong’s cock, already hard.

   ‘But I have to work for it, right?’ Taeyong pushed, eager to steer this where he wanted it.

   Ten looked very satisfied by this. ‘Yes, baby. We said we’d put this mouth to work.’

   At this, he lifted one hand to Taeyong’s face, stroking over his jaw, his cheekbone, then his lips. Taeyong parted them immediately, jaw slackening, letting Ten push two fingers into his mouth and closing his lips around them. He met Ten’s eyes, dark and aroused, as he sucked slowly, rolling his tongue over them, hollowing his cheeks in a clear show.

   ‘Fuck, baby,’ Ten sighed, free hand moving back to take a hold on his ass and pulling him more flush against him so that Taeyong could feel his erection through his pants. ‘Your mouth should be doing this all day.’

   Taeyong hummed his approval - his agreement - taking Ten’s fingers all the way down to the knuckle, before angling back and letting them slide out with a wet pop.

   ‘What do you want, Yongie?’

   ‘You,’ Taeyong exhaled, already starting to shift back on his thighs, ‘you in my mouth.’

   ‘What’s that? I don’t think I understand.’

   ‘Your cock in my mouth,’ Taeyong said, ‘please can I have your cock in my mouth?’

   ‘Well, since you asked so nicely,’ Ten smiled. ‘Over there.’

   Taeyong rushed quickly back from the bed, and stood, waiting for instruction, as Ten followed, stroking his face before nodding down.

   ‘I want to see you on your knees.’

   Taeyong was one more word away from coming right there and then.

   He dropped like a stone, the position he took up feeling like the most natural spot in the world. He looked up, lips parting, and let out an involuntary gasp when Ten hooked two fingers into the front of his choker, pulling him forwards.

   ‘Show me what you can do baby,’ he said, before moving his hands to lace into his hair.

   Taeyong swallowed, excitement threatening to bubble over – and he knew that it showed, his cock already leaking without a single touch. He fingered over Ten’s belt, flicking open the buckle expertly. He almost lost it with the buttons – didn’t the guy own jeans? – but once he’d worked his pants open at last, he found his calm.

   This he knew how to do.

   This he was good at.

   Very good.

   He’d even call it his speciality.

   The low moan that escaped from Ten’s throat when he took him into his mouth was music to his ears. Ten spent so much time making him feel good, making sure he had everything he needed, but it was Taeyong’s turn tonight.

   He took him almost fully on the first bob of his head, fingers going straight to ring gently at the base where he couldn’t quite reach. He flattened his tongue, dragging once slowly along the underside of his length until his lips popped from the tip. A smear of precum met the saliva on his lips as he looked up at Ten. ‘This okay?’ he said, swiping his tongue out over his lips.

   ‘Fuck, Taeyong, you’re something else.’

   He leant forwards again, kissing the head of his cock gently this time, before licking over it with soft, kittenish little strokes. Only when he heard an appropriate sound from Ten’s throat did he concede to get back to proper business, taking care to drag the tip of his tongue down across his crease before taking him all the way to the base this time.

   ‘Fuck.’

   Ten, who never cursed. Out of control.

   Perfect.

   Taeyong gagged a little as he felt Ten hit the back of his throat, and for a second his eyes stung, but he concentrated hard on relaxing, breathing through his nose, hollowing his cheeks and taking the time to work back, giving himself a break. He established a rhythm, twisting his tongue languidly, building up until his nose was pressed all the way against the smooth curl of dark hair, choking around him.

   He jumped a little as Ten pulled him back, grip still tight on his hair.

   ‘Too much?’ Ten exhaled heavily, ‘I don’t want to be too rough - ’

   ‘Not rough enough,’ Taeyong panted, swallowing.

   Ten surveyed him for a moment, dark eyes burning with lust. ‘One second you want me to tell you how pretty you are, and the next you’re begging me to be rough with you. You’re a perfect little mess of contradictions, kitten.’   

   ‘Still perfect though,’ Taeyong said. He knew he looked anything but perfect right now, lips red and swollen and dripping with filth, eyes watering, clothed only in a choker that cost about as much as his tuition, but it was the obscenity of it all that made his heart beat faster.

   After that, Ten wasn’t so gentle with him.

   It was an improvement, in Taeyong’s eyes, though he liked the way that every minute Ten pulled him back, made sure he took the time to breathe, to spit, to do whatever he needed.

   ‘Touch yourself,’ he told him, ‘I want you to come with me.’

   Taeyong hummed with relief around him, taking his own cock into his hand and working with the rhythm of his mouth. It wasn’t going to take much – the whole evening had him aching more than he ever had in his life.

   It wasn’t much longer before Ten gave him half a word of warning before coming hard and fast in his mouth, and Taeyong lapped up every drop with happy diligence, before following with his own earth-shaking orgasm, dropping back onto his heels and falling a little forwards as he forgot how to hold himself.

   Ten caught him though, dropping down to his own knees and stroking his fingers through his hair.

   ‘Fuck, Taeyong, fuck,’ Ten breathed, hot against his ear.

   ‘Good, right?’ Taeyong said, voice a little hoarse.

   ‘Oh baby, you’re so good,’ Ten kissed his cheeks, slightly wet from where his eyes had watered, then scooped him up, carrying him to the bed. ‘Thank you.’

   It vaguely registered that he’d never noticed Ten was that strong. Not that he weighed much.

   Taeyong folded against him, panting heavily, shaky hands finding their way up his chest. Getting physical with Ten always made him feel like he’d run a marathon – a good marathon, but exhausting.

   Ten wrapped his arms around him, kissing the top of his head. ‘You okay, baby? You went pretty hard there.’

   ‘I’m okay,’ Taeyong exhaled, ‘that’s how I like it. I’m tired, though.’

   ‘You need anything? You want me to run you a warm bath?’

   ‘In a minute,’ he mumbled, nuzzling his cheek against Ten’s chest.

   ‘I’m so lucky I found you,’ Ten murmured, ‘let me get you some water.’

   Ten thought he was the lucky one. That made Taeyong smile.

   He had never been with someone who went to get him water afterwards.

*

   ‘Ten?’

   It was late in the evening after a long day for both of them. Taeyong had been tucked away in the bedroom all day, poring over books, and Ten hadn’t got home from some investor’s office until eight. They’d decided on room service, and the plates were still strewn across the table.

   He looked up, lowering his papers. ‘Taeyong,’ he replied, with a half-smile.

   ‘I know you’re… I know you’re busy. I just…’

   Ten had been working non-stop since he’d got back to the hotel, too, engrossed in sheets and sheets of accounts. He put down his work now, though, giving him his full attention.

   ‘I have this essay due tomorrow. I was just wondering if you would… if you would read it?’ Taeyong said awkwardly. It was ridiculous, he knew, to feel nervous about this. He didn’t mind Ten seeing him naked, but seeing his work? That was what made him anxious?

   To his relief, Ten smiled. ‘I’d love to.’

   ‘It’s just you’re smarter than me and I really need this grade and I thought maybe you could proof it,’ Taeyong gabbled.

   ‘Don’t put yourself down, baby,’ he said immediately. ‘But of course I’ll read it for you.’

   ‘Like I said, I know you’re busy, so you don’t have to now or - ’

   ‘Yongie,’ Ten stopped him, giving him a reassuring smile, ‘come here.’ He opened his arms, and Taeyong crossed the room quickly. He dropped down into the familiar spot half on his lap, legs strewn over Ten’s, handing him his essay with nervous hands. ‘I have to warn you, I’m no music expert.’

   ‘It’s a literature essay, actually. My elective.’

   ‘Oh excellent,’ Ten said, nudging his glasses a little further up his nose. They were Taeyong’s favourite – narrow round rims that made him look more like a sexily bookish professor than an intimidating entrepreneur. It hadn’t escaped Taeyong’s attention that Ten had started wearing them more since he’d said he liked them.

   Taeyong scanned back through his own essay as Ten read, nestled in his arms, suddenly embarrassed by every other sentence.

   ‘This is good, Yongie,’ Ten said, after an agonisingly long time, and there wasn’t a hint of false flattery in his voice. ‘Your interdisciplinary approach…’ he said, looking back to the paper, ‘…your exploration of music and poetry… your reference to the classical tradition. It’s insightful, Taeyong, outrageously perceptive. Were you taught this?’

   He shrugged shyly. ‘The question only specified a comparison, not the medium. I mean Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, right? You don’t think it’s stupid?’

   Ten put down the paper. ‘Yongie, I’m serious, this is inspired. Your argument is so nuanced, well-researched.’

   He knew he’d turned red.

   ‘There are typos, though,’ Ten said, ‘find me a pen. We need to make sure it’s perfect. You deserve it.’

   ‘Sometimes my brain moves too fast for my fingers,’ said Taeyong, passing him a heavy silver pen from the table.

   ‘A curse on the intelligent,’ Ten murmured, nodding as he flicked back to the first page. ‘You repeat yourself here,’ he said, circling a section. ‘I’d cut it out.’

   Taeyong nodded, watching Ten work out the kinks.

   It was strange – but reassuringly so – to have someone look through his work like this. Someone older and gifted and unafraid to scrawl out unnecessary words. Was this how it felt for Johnny when he sent his essays off for his dad to proofread? Or Taeil, who could send his to his PHD qualified cousin?

   Taeyong had never had anyone to do this for him.

   Never.

   How quickly Ten seemed to be filling all the gaps in his life.

   Ten’s own work lay forgotten on the table, as he read through and through and through what Taeyong had written. ‘You never told me… I knew you were smart, Yongie, but this?’

   ‘You’re just saying that,’ Taeyong mumbled.

   ‘Don’t ever doubt it, baby,’ Ten said, taking his face in his hands and looking at him with intense focus. ‘You have the world at your feet with a mind like this.’ He tapped his fingers gently against his temples.

   Taeyong thought back to his chequered record at college. He thought back to the fail grades and the days he’d spent exhausted from work, energy drinks strewn across his desk, eyes red-rimmed and tinged with dark shadows. He thought of the essays he’d reeled off in two hours between shifts, even the ones he’d failed to submit because he couldn’t get a day off work, and he started to realise –

   Was this what he’d been capable of, all along?

   He’d spent so long blaming himself, his own poor time management, or lack of focus, but now that he had nothing but time, all the freedom that financial stability secured him, he was producing work that made even Ten look at him with such respect. Maybe this was what it was like when you didn’t have to worry about money every hour of every day.

   He tried not to think about what his grades might have looked like if he hadn’t spent the first two and half years of college working multiple jobs.

   It hurt too much.

   ‘Thanks, Ten,’ he whispered.

   If only Ten knew that it was for so much more than his words this evening.

*

   It was much later in the week, the clock ticking slowly but surely towards a dreaded return to reality, that Ten took Taeyong to work with him for the first time in the States. The function was an elaborate affair, commanding the addition of a freshly dry-cleaned suit and a forewarning from Ten that the investment company hosting the event were always on the lookout for fresh meat, and that he should be careful of anyone trying to reel him into seemingly lucrative deals.

   Taeyong had laughed this off. He didn’t have much intention of talking to anyone but him.

   Ten had let Taeyong pick out his clothes for him, which was fun. He’d made him wear his glasses again, with a particularly narrow black tie, and cufflinks of polished onyx. Dressing Ten was almost more fun than dressing himself. It was a different style to anything he wore, a challenge that made him feel like a successful businessman getting ready for work.

   Despite his intention not to stray from Ten’s side all night, he found his resolve wavering when he realised that, naturally, absolutely no one at the event spoke Korean, and there was only so much English he could stand around and listen to.

   Thus, at some point during the evening, he wandered off, leaving Ten in the company of three very raucously promoting men. He found his way over to the canapé table, picking around in search of something sweet, when out of nowhere he heard -

   ‘The red ones are strawberry.’

   He turned around, eyes widening in mild surprise.

   ‘You are Korean,’ she said, smiling sweetly. ‘How nice, to find someone to talk to. All the English wears me out.’

   She was a youngish-looking woman, perhaps Ten’s age if you looked past the make-up, and definitely attractive. Not that she was his type. Her hair was very black, and very sleek, pulled back into a smooth knot at the nape of her neck, and her eyes held a dark glint of… curiosity?

   ‘Han Youngmi,’ she said, inclining her head.

   ‘Lee Taeyong,’ he replied, picking up one of the red canapés that she had recommended. 

   ‘I don’t think we’ve met, have we? Strange, I thought I knew everyone in this industry,’ she added, with a light laugh. ‘Are you new?’

   He glanced over his shoulder, relief washing through his veins as he saw Ten. He must have been watching. He crossed the room very fast, in one smooth motion, sliding an arm around his shoulders.

   It made Taeyong shift slightly - he was so used to Ten taking his waist. He had the strangest feeling that it was some kind of… statement.

   ‘Ms Han,’ Ten said, ‘I never knew that you liked New York?’

   Taeyong looked at him, very aware of the strength of his grip.

   ‘Nos Corp. are my company’s closest partners. I wasn’t going to miss the chance for a trip, was I? It seems we just can’t escape each other,’ she smiled.

   ‘What a coincidence,’ he answered shortly.

   ‘So, darling Taeyong is here with you?’

   ‘Yes, he is,’ said Ten, and his voice was cold.

   The exchange took a moment for Taeyong to process, but soon enough the picture cleared in his mind. Her sweet voice became sickly - her pretty smile fake and unsettling. He decided, at odds with every detail of his first impression, that he didn’t like her. He didn’t like the way that she made Ten sound. He didn’t like the way that she made Ten hold him tighter than he ever had before as though he was scared she’d make a grab for him.

   ‘You never told me you had such young, good-looking friends, Chittaphon?’ She reached out, fingers extending and touching to Taeyong’s collar. He couldn’t quite conceal his flinch. She smoothed it over, straightening his tie in a motion that might have been harmless, but instead made him want to withdraw further into Ten. ‘Why don’t we all go and get a drink?’ She spoke only to Ten, not even sparing Taeyong another glance.

   He was frozen in shock, completely wrong-footed. He was sure that Ten had pulled him back a little, but she had let go again so quickly anyway that he could have imagined it. ‘Actually Taeyong and I ought to be going,’ said Ten. ‘Let’s go,’ he added, only to him, very close against his ear.

   ‘So soon?’ she said in that lilting, sickening tone.

   ‘Have a good night, Ms Han,’ Ten said, in that voice that he brought out rarely; the voice that couldn’t be argued with.

   Taeyong nestled close to his side, fingers gripping the back of his shirt under his jacket. Ten held him with an edge that was more protective than possessive, glancing once over his shoulder as they walked away, expression unreadable but body language impossible to hide. He looked… rattled.

   ‘Who…?’ Taeyong began.

   ‘A business rival,’ said Ten, looking back once more. ‘I’m sorry if she made you uncomfortable. She’s always trying to rile me.’

   ‘Are you… okay?’

   ‘I’m fine, Yongie.’

   ‘Ten - ’

   ‘I’m fine.’

   Taeyong stopped, hands moving up to stroke over his chest in the guise of straightening out the creases in his shirt. He could feel Ten’s heart beating very fast - furiously fast. ‘Let’s really get out of here,’ he said, conjuring a smile. ‘It’s evening in New York, I’m sure we can find something more interesting to do.’

   Ten stared at him for a moment, then took a deep breath and nodded.

*

   As they walked down the street, hand in hand, Taeyong looked around for just about anything that he could use to distract him, because he could feel Ten positively vibrating by his side. He squeezed his hand, leaning in close to him, resting his head down on his shoulder because even though he was taller, if he got the right angle he could make Ten feel as though he could hold him under his arm, and he knew how much he liked that.

   ‘There,’ he said, pointing.

   Ten followed his eyeline. ‘It’s the Lincoln Center.’

   ‘I know, I can read the sign,’ Taeyong said, ‘but look – there’s ballet tonight.’

   Ten looked down, ‘it’s the New York City Ballet. It’s one of the finest companies in the world, but their seasons are sold out months in advance.’

   It was testament to how downtrodden he seemed that Taeyong was the one to have to state the obvious. ‘Yeah, and we’ve never gone anywhere that you can’t get us in to, Ten.’

   Ten looked at him, and there was a flicker of a smile across his face. ‘They do usually hold back house seats.’

   ‘And we’re all dressed up,’ Taeyong beamed, ‘oh please, Ten, I’ve always wanted to see the ballet.’

   It was a lie. A total lie. He knew absolutely nothing about ballet, and he had about as much interest in it as he had in physics, but he had seen Ten’s face light up more than once at the vaguest mention of dance. He had seen the spark of passion whenever he talked about it, the way that he would stop in the middle of a road when they walked past street performers.

   ‘What fantasy did you walk out of, Yongie?’ Ten whispered, stopping in the street and turning to face him. He kissed him, once on the temple, then on his lips, resting their foreheads together for a moment.

   ‘Come on, let’s go. I fancy a bit of culture.’

   ‘Thank you, Taeyong,’ Ten said, and his eyes were serious. ‘Thank you.’

   He could feel his tension – feel the continued tightness with which he held his hand, see the furrow in his brow that hadn’t quite levelled out even with his smile – but he could also see the ardent look in his eyes as he looked at him.

   ‘I don’t know what I ever did without you,’ he said.

   ‘You slept in the middle of the bed,’ Taeyong replied cheerfully.

   Ten managed a laugh, sliding his arm around his waist. ‘I still sleep in the middle of the bed – you’re the one who wraps around me like a blanket. A really soft, pretty, perfect little blanket.’

   Taeyong smiled. He might be nice and warm at night, but it was moments like this, when Ten was still rigid with tension, stress from work rolling off him in waves, that Taeyong wanted to serve as his blanket the most. A protective barrier of warmth and tenderness.

   After all, Ten might bring him water, proofread his essays, but he wasn’t the only one who could look after someone.

   Taeyong just wished that Ten would admit that he needed it sometimes.

Chapter Text

   Lee Taeyong.

   Perfect Taeyong.

   Taeyong who deserved so much better.

   Taeyong who deserved better than parents who didn’t want him the way he was – who tried to clip his wings and cram him into their conformist little box. Taeyong who deserved so much more than professors who had dismissed his circumstances and punished him for having to work five times harder than everyone else. Taeyong who deserved a real boyfriend, his own age, who would talk to him, commit to him, and love him – all the things that Ten was afraid to do.

   Ten looked down at him, asleep and dreaming, and wondered how much more his carefully guarded heart could take of this.

   Lee Taeyong who had broken all the rules and shoved feelings into the mix.

   Or had Ten done it first?

   He couldn’t even remember.

   He grazed his fingertips lightly down the curve of Taeyong’s naked back, then reached up to brush the honey-coloured hair from his eyes. There was nothing in the world more beautiful than Taeyong sleeping. Ten took the silk sheets in his hands and pulled them further over him as he shifted sleepily, turning onto his side. Ten prayed that they were soft enough for his skin, but he wasn’t sure anything in this world was soft enough for Taeyong – he’d wrap him in the clouds if he could.

   The vibration of his phone on the nightstand was the worst possible disruption.

   Ten sighed, picking it up and walking out of the bedroom before the noise could wake Taeyong.

   It was nice to be back in his apartment. Ten could walk around without looking, knew the paces from room to room, knew the food in the fridge that his housekeeper would bring every couple of days because she worried that he always forgot to eat. He knew that Taeyong hadn’t wanted to leave New York, but Ten liked being at home. He liked being at home with Taeyong in it. So when Taeyong had asked to stay one more night with him before going back to his dorm, Ten hadn’t argued.

   Despite his better judgment. Despite the fact that Taeyong wasn’t supposed to be his boyfriend.

   But he knew that he was sad to have left New York, so it was only fair.

   Maybe it was a little for himself too.

   He settled down into the leather, wing-backed chair in his office, trying not to yawn as he took the call.

   ‘What are you doing up?’ was his first answer to Yukhei, because after two decades they didn’t bother with greetings anymore. Yukhei never stayed up this late unless he was at a party – the man valued his sleep – and he wasn’t going to be at a party the whole time the Shin-Da investment was crashing and burning.

   ‘I’ve been doing a little reading on you-know-who. You can thank me later.’

   Ten straightened up, reaching across for a notepad and pen. ‘Talk to me.’

   ‘Interesting reading. She really is contracting for Elius now, and they really are partners with Nos. I wouldn’t read too much into New York. It may genuinely have been a coincidence.

   Ten ran a hand through his hair, then stopped quickly because with age he was becoming increasingly anxious about his hairline. ‘She’s too strategic for coincidence, Yukhei.’

   Yukhei, of course, answered with his usual air of optimistic equanimity. ‘You know I love you Tennie, but I’m telling you as your brother that I think you might just be being a little paranoid right now. She’s all mouth. Has been for a decade. She’s not gonna try anything now.’

   ‘You don’t know her like I do,’ Ten sighed, ‘waiting a decade is exactly her style. She’ll let me get comfortable, happy, and then she’ll come crashing in to wreck my life. That’s how much she hates me, Yukhei, I swear to God.’

   ‘Ten - ’

   ‘I can’t deal with this anymore, Yukhei. I can’t deal with her. Everywhere I go she’s there, just to haunt me like some especially psychotic spectre.’

   ‘Ten.’ Yukhei’s voice was louder this time.

   He stopped, swallowing the rest of his rant back down.

   ‘When was the last time you slept, Tennie?’

   He kneaded his forehead, wondering whether the tiredness showed that transparently in his voice. ‘Properly? I don’t… I don’t know.’ It was the truth – those last few days in New York had been… compromised.

   ‘Is Taeyong there?’ Yukhei said gently.

   ‘Yes, yes, he’s sleeping,’ Ten answered, palming his eyes.

   ‘Alright, Tennie, I want you to go back to bed. Go snuggle up with your little cupcake - ’

   Ten almost smiled. Yukhei had become far too schmaltzy since he’d started seeing Jungwoo.

   ‘ – and get some rest. Spend the weekend having sex, or organising accounts, whatever it is you do for fun these days. Doyoung and I can take care of things for a couple of days – we’re not complete boneheads. Sleep. Cuddle. Recharge. Okay?’

   Ten nodded, before remembering that Yukhei couldn’t see him. ‘Yeah, yes, okay.’

   ‘I’m serious, Ten, you need to breathe.’

   ‘Yeah, I know, I will. Night, Yukhei.’

   ‘Sleep tight, Tennie.

   He threw his phone down on the desk, taking a few steadying breaths because he knew his friend was right. But he’d never been very good at just… leaving things alone, for a couple of days. His eyes were stinging, and little bolts of pain kept shooting across the back of his head every time he moved slightly. He worked his fingers through his hair to massage over the spot, but they didn’t seem to do anything. It was better when Taeyong did it.

   ‘Ten?’

   He looked up, heart falling quickly. He didn’t like Taeyong seeing him like this. He reached around for the smile that he’d kept constructed neatly on his face during the last couple of days of their trip, but he couldn’t seem to find it fast enough. ‘Yongie, baby, what are you doing up?’   

   ‘What’s going on?’

   He looked over him, so small surrounded by the doorframe. He’d put on his briefs and one of Ten’s shirts, and pushed his hair back from his face, holding it away with one hand. The other was at his teeth, chewing persistently at his thumbnail. He looked vulnerable, delicate, the sort of small that Ten just wanted to keep safe from the world and everything in it.

   ‘Nothing, baby, go back to bed.’

   ‘No.’

   He didn’t quite know what to say to that.

   ‘Not without you,’ Taeyong whispered.

   The inbuilt schema that said he could never stop working fought with Yukhei’s instructions in the back of his head, and then Taeyong’s voice swept in and made it all irrelevant anyway because when did he get so damn powerless when it came to Taeyong?

   ‘Come with me.’

   He nodded. ‘Okay.’ He reached out for his phone.

   ‘Leave it behind.’

   ‘Since when do you tell me what to do?’ said Ten, but he made it very clear in his voice that he wasn’t serious.

   ‘Please, Ten, just leave it there. It’s stressing you out. You’re a human being, you’re allowed to sleep.’

   Ten looked down at the screen. His phone was like an extra limb, he couldn’t imagine leaving it somewhere. He never left it more than a foot away from his hand – he even took it into the shower with him. His business was multi-national – he never knew when he’d be needed in some different time-zone. ‘Yongie…’

   ‘Please,’ he said, bottom lip taking definite prominence.

   Clever Taeyong… he knew full well what that did to him. ‘But I need - ’

   ‘Ten you’ve been gone for days,’ Taeyong said, words tripping over each other as though any pause for breath might be an opportunity to stop himself. ‘Ever since that night at the party. You keep half-listening to me, forgetting stuff I’ve already told you. Even when we’re sleeping together you’re not really there. And I know you’re not mad at me, you’re mad at whatever that thing keeps telling you,’ he shot a dark look at Ten’s phone, ‘but in case you haven’t noticed I’m pretty fucking sensitive and I keep thinking I’ve done something wrong and I just need you to be with me for a second so I know we’re good.’

   Ten stared at him, mouth falling a little open in surprise. He often forgot this side of Taeyong. He was soft, sweet, eager to be cossetted, but he was also confident, insistent, and he was not afraid to say when something upset him. ‘I – I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.’ God he hated himself at that moment. He hoped that it didn’t show on his face quite how much the words cut him. But it was symptomatic of everything he’d feared. This was exactly why he couldn’t do relationships – this side of him was always going to rub off on someone else, ruin things for someone else. ‘I’m sorry.’

   ‘It’s fine. I just… please Ten. Come to bed with me.’

   Ten wanted to remind him that this wasn’t their agreement. He wanted to remind him that the whole point of everything that they’d arranged was that he didn’t have to be there… not emotionally. For this reason. But he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t say it because all he ever wanted these days was to be there for Taeyong. The rest would just have to fit around that.

   Figure it out, Ten, he snapped silently at himself.

   He dropped his phone back down on his desk, standing up and crossing the room. He didn’t miss the smile that crept onto Taeyong’s face.

   ‘How is it that I just can’t argue with you, Yongie?’ he said, stroking over his cheek as he pulled him in for a kiss.

   ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ said Taeyong, light returning to his eyes. ‘I told you I’m good at getting what I want. Let’s go.’ He grabbed Ten’s hand.

   Ten gave one last look over his shoulder, bordering on longing, at the phone on his desk. Then he looked at Taeyong, eyes bright and sparkling, hair mussed with sleep and shirt hanging half off his shoulder because he was so damn slight, fingers tight on his hand, and he knew which one he’d choose every time.

   Dangerous. Very dangerous.

   This wasn’t supposed to happen.

   He shouldn’t be choosing anything over work.

   Ever.

   He’d worked too hard for what he’d built.

   But when they laid back down on the bed, Taeyong wrapped around him as he always did, settling his cheek on his chest, one leg hooking around his, he could hardly even remember what he’d talked about with Yukhei ten minutes earlier. After a moment, he noticed that Taeyong was starting to draw small circles on his navel with his fingertips, teasing the skin, wandering to play with the drawstrings of his waistband.

   ‘Not tonight,’ he said, swallowing as he caught Taeyong’s hand in his.

   ‘I want to help you relax,’ Taeyong said softly.

   ‘Just… just be here,’ said Ten, the words costing a great effort.

   Taeyong, though, didn’t need to hear more.

   He shifted back up his chest, nestling his head under Ten’s chin, arm thrown loosely over his stomach instead. Ten wrapped both arms around him, pulling him so close that everything in his world became Taeyong. He could see him, eyes closed and face contented; he could hear him, his gentle breathing, the shuffle of sheets as he fidgeted; he could feel how damn soft his skin was, because Taeyong carried three different moisturisers everywhere he went; he could even smell him.

   Taeyong always smelled nice.

   Ten knew what he smelled like himself – clean, even artificially so, with a masculine scent of Bvlgari aftershave because once he found something he liked he’d use it forever. But Taeyong was different.

   He smelled of home – a home that Ten couldn’t even put a finger on because it wasn’t a place. There was a sweet, almost floral edge to him that he couldn’t quite place, but he knew it was in his shampoo because he spent enough time playing with Taeyong’s hair to recognise it.

   He closed his eyes, still hating himself, because Taeyong’s words were swimming round and round his head.

   He’d been… gone.

   Taeyong had thought he’d done something wrong.

   He’d made him feel like that.

   And Taeyong should never have to feel like that.

   He deserved better.

*

   ‘I’m going to end it with Taeyong.’

   Yukhei choked on his ramen.

   Doyoung completely blanked him, turning to Yukhei instead. ‘So what do you think about the Min proposal?’

   It was a Thursday afternoon, a while after Ten had at last had to drag himself back to reality, and five minutes into a lunch that was supposed to be work-free, which made Doyoung’s change of direction particularly pointed.

   ‘I’m serious,’ said Ten, raising his voice. ‘I’m going to end it.’

   ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Ten,’ Doyoung snapped.

   ‘Yeah what the fuck, Tennie?’

   Ten fell silent, trying to find the words but feeling very… lost.

   ‘Ten, what’s happened?’ Yukhei said, voice suddenly gentle – he’d clearly seen the expression on his face. They’d been friends long enough to know the signs. He rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly and leaning a little closer to him. ‘Talk to us.’

   ‘I like him too much,’ he said, trying to keep his tone calm, pragmatic, but failing dismally because dispassion when it came to Taeyong was a physical impossibility these days.

   Yukhei laughed, looking relieved. ‘Yeah, that’s kind of the idea. It wouldn’t be a good relationship if you didn’t like him, Ten.’

   ‘It wasn’t supposed to happen.’

   Doyoung rolled his eyes. ‘Everyone wishes they could live their lives like it's college forever, Ten, but the whole commitment-phobe thing doesn’t age well. And don’t give me the I’m not good at feelings shit because I’ve heard it all before from this one and look how happy he is now. I never thought anybody would be able to tie him down.’

   Yukhei nodded his agreement.

   ‘I’m not ready for it. My life isn’t ready for it. I’m a mess – it’s a mess.’

   ‘Well if you weren’t ready you shouldn’t have started dating him,’ said Yukhei, pulling a face when Doyoung shot him a furious look. ‘What? I like Taeyong, he’s a cutie. I don’t want Ten breaking his heart.’

   ‘Taeyong doesn’t… he doesn’t look at me like that.’ It was a pathetic lie – an excuse so transparent that it was never going to make it past the brothers who knew him best. But how could he stand there and tell two of the only three people in the world whose opinions mattered to him that he’d reached the age of thirty-one as emotionally inhibited as a teenager, and that he was paralysed with fear at the thought of hurting the one perfect thing he’d ever touched? ‘It was supposed to be casual.’ Those were the only words that came out.

   Pathetic, Ten.

   His friends didn’t buy it either.

   ‘Oh please, Ten, don’t even try it,’ said Doyoung. ‘We’re not blind.’

   Yukhei was kinder, but that almost stung more. ‘Oh Tennie, you don’t really think that? That boy looks at you like you’re the centre of his world.’

   Ten looked up, wondering if the guilt was evident on his face.

   ‘He looks at you like you’re his idol, Ten, it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.’

   ‘You’re seeing things, Yukhei,’ said Ten, ‘Jungwoo has made you soft.’

   ‘Don’t do that Ten,’ said Doyoung, the edge definitely returning to his voice now. ‘This is your problem – don’t you dare try and put it on Taeyong. This is on you. Anyone can see the kid adores you. You’re the one who’s scared. You’re scared of letting yourself be vulnerable for once in your life. And that’s fine, that’s your call. We know you better than anyone, and we love you regardless. But let me make it very clear that if you keep bulldozing through your life chasing away everyone that might be anything close to special, you’re going to end up very, very lonely.’

   Ten stared at him, a muscle working in his jaw. If anyone other than the two guys currently sat in the room spoke to him like that, he’d tear them apart. But under Doyoung’s gaze, he just looked back down.

   Ten always threw caution to the wind. He’d done it when he’d convinced his own parents to let him move to Korea at age eleven. He’d done it a thousand times over in business deals, taking bigger risks than anyone else in the industry, throwing himself and his company off cliffs on the mere hunch that they’d fly, not fall. He’d done it when he’d signed up to that ridiculous website in the first place, risking his reputation, his bank balance, and a whole load of embarrassment.

   Maybe he could just about risk his heart.

   But surely he couldn’t risk Taeyong’s?

   ‘He’s the only person I’ve ever seen make you happy, Ten,’ Yukhei said softly, ‘don’t push him away.’

   Detachment was Ten’s default. He didn’t know how to rewrite himself, how to go back to factory settings, how to recode his DNA to allow Taeyong this place in his world because he wanted it more than just about anything, and Taeyong wanted it, and there shouldn’t be a catch. But there was.

   Because like Doyoung had said, he was the problem.

   That was the whole reason he’d done things this way in the first place.

   But it hadn’t gone to plan.

   ‘Why does everything always have to be such bad timing?’ Ten whispered, shoulders slumping. ‘Between Shin-Da and goddamn Han Youngmi… I don’t want him wrapped up in all this… I’m fucking terrified of hurting him.’

   To his surprise, Doyoung and Yukhei exchanged almost… smug… looks. The mood in the room had all but transformed.

   ‘What?’

   ‘Oh, so it’s like that,’ said Doyoung. ‘There I was thinking you were scared of wounding your heart, but it’s him you’re worried about. You should have said so earlier.’

   ‘Oh you’re in deep, Tennie,’ Yukhei grinned.

   ‘What?’ he repeated irritably.

   ‘You want to keep him safe… You’re scared you’re gonna hurt him… Oh you’ve got it bad, Ten.’

   ‘Or Taeyong’s got him good,’ said Yukhei, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. 

   ‘Can you two stop being dicks for two seconds and tell me what to do? Because I’m drowning here,’ said Ten, looking from one to the other. ‘I don’t… I don’t think I’m good for him.’

   ‘You’re scared, Ten, that’s normal. You’re not used to the human connection thing – it’s all the time you spend by your computer,’ said Doyoung. ‘Just… let him in. I know I can be pretty harsh on you but you’re not a complete car crash of a human being. And Taeyong’s not a china doll, you’re not going to break him.’

   ‘You don’t know him – he… he’s fragile. He’s been through a lot and he’s too forgiving and too trusting and too sensitive and I don’t want him to get too attached and then I - ’

   ‘ – and all that is his call to make,’ Doyoung interrupted. ‘He’s an adult, Ten, if he wants to be in a relationship that’s his choice. Don’t go turning into some sad cliché who pushes everyone away because you’re not good for them. It’s so passé. You’re a great guy, you just never give yourself a chance. Taeyong can obviously see that, we know that, so just trust our judgment even if you don’t trust your own, alright?’

   Ten stared at them both, a thousand and one thoughts chasing around his head. ‘What if I fuck up?’

   ‘Then you’ll fight and cry and have great make-up sex and be all romantic and then you’ll fight again and the whole cycle starts over. That’s life, Tennie – you’d know if you ever left your office,’ Yukhei said, but his voice wasn’t unkind.

   ‘So, no ending things with Taeyong,’ Doyoung said, tone business-like. ‘Right. Now that’s settled, we need to talk about the eye-fucking in communal areas, Yukhei, because if I have to see you and Jungwoo giving each other that look one more time I’m - ’

   Ten looked down, understanding settling over him like a muffling sheet.

   He knew they were right.

   After all, it had been hopelessly naïve to even consider that he could just end it. He needed Taeyong like he needed oxygen these days.

   But if he wasn’t going to break things off, that meant he was going to have to make… changes.

   Changes that scared him.

   ‘I’m going out for a couple of hours,’ he said to the room.

   His friends turned to look at him, then each other. ‘Three guesses where he’s going?’ Yukhei said with a look of great self-satisfaction.

   Ten pretended he hadn’t heard him, pulling out his phone.

   Ten (11:56): Are you at home?

   Taeyong (11:59): Chained to my desk. Why?

   Ten (12:01): Can I come and see you?

   Taeyong (12:03): I’ll put some clothes on. Or not.

   Ten smiled, shaking his head slightly at the screen.

   ‘Look at him, look at his face,’ Yukhei said loudly. ‘That boy really has got him whipped.’

   Ever the wordsmith…

   Ten ignored him, very pointedly. ‘See you later.’

   ‘By the way, that place on the corner does bouquets of roses. Y’know, just in case you ever needed them,’ Doyoung remarked, not looking up from his lunch.

   ‘Thanks, guys. Really,’ Ten said, voice quiet.

   ‘Clear off,’ Yukhei answered, waving him away, ‘you don’t want to keep someone waiting.’

   Ten stood, straightening his tie and switching his phone to silent because he knew, now, how much Taeyong hated to hear it. He decided to walk, because he needed time to think.

   Time to plan.

   Because that was the only way he knew how to do things.

   There was so much he needed to say.

*

   The corridors of the college halls felt oddly familiar, though it had been so long since he’d finished his own schooling. The shouts from room to room, even floor to floor. The scent of some questionable substance. The students wandering down the hallway in various states of disrepair. They all looked at him with wide eyes – perhaps nobody in a suit had ever entered these premises.

   He stopped outside Taeyong’s number, finding that he was strangely… nervous. He reminded himself that to Taeyong, nothing had changed. He hadn’t been party to the avalanche of self-understanding that had crashed over Ten in the last hour. He took the time to loosen his tie, unbutton the top two – then three – buttons of his shirt. He didn’t want to look like he was just going to meet some business client.

   ‘You’re here,’ said Taeyong, looking goddamn radiant as he opened the door.

   ‘I’m here,’ he smiled.

   Taeyong had the distinct appearance of someone who had rushed to get ready. He was wearing nice jeans, but a college sweater, hands balled up into the sweetest paws in the jersey sleeves. His hair was half styled, brushed out but slightly haphazard, bangs falling into his eyes. He was fresh-faced, bright, so much healthier than he’d looked when Ten had first met him, back when he’d worked so obviously to conceal the dark circles that had shadowed his eyes. Fuck, he looked beautiful.

   ‘I can’t believe you’re at my dorm,’ Taeyong beamed, then looked excitedly at the flowers in his hand. ‘Are those for me?’

   ‘Of course they’re for you, Yongie,’ said Ten, ‘my beautiful rose.’

   ‘What’s the occasion?’

   Ten stared at him, eyes turning over each feature because every time he looked at him it was like the first time. ‘You.’

   Taeyong flushed pink. He looked so cute like that. Cuter than ever. Sometimes Ten said things just to watch the way he’d blush. Taeyong lifted one sweater-covered hand to hide some of his face. ‘I didn’t have time to put on make-up. Give me three minutes.’  

   Ten caught his hand. ‘You look perfect, baby. You always look perfect.’

   Perfect Taeyong.

   Taeyong who deserved so much better, but was going to have to make do with him.

Chapter Text

Ten looked around the room, suddenly struck by the realisation that he was in a place so intimately… him.

   Taeyong had always been in his space, not the other way around.

   It was a heady experience, to be in this special sanctuary, where Taeyong spent so much of his time, but at the same time it was mildly intimidating. Every detail seemed to be something that Ten needed to learn – he appreciated for the first time, looking around, that there were so many things that he just didn’t know about him.

   Did he skate? Because there was a photo of Kim Yuna pinned on the board behind his desk. Had he bought those English books before he’d met Ten, or had they been an addition when he’d told him about New York? How long had he spent on the painting propped up against the wall? It could only be his own work – Ten could recognise his style without ever having seen it.

   ‘It’s a bit messy,’ Taeyong mumbled, hurrying past him to his desk and attacking some of the wires strewn all over the surface. ‘I just set them up.’

   Ten looked down at the monitors he’d bought him.

   ‘You have no idea how good these are, Ten. It’s like a dream. This is a game-changer.’

   ‘Good,’ Ten smiled. ‘Can you play me something?’

   ‘Like what?’ he answered, and he’d blushed again. He obviously knew what Ten was going to say.

   ‘Your songs. Let me hear you,’ Ten murmured, hooking an arm around his waist from behind and kissing his temple, ‘let me know all of you.’

   ‘They’re not ready,’ Taeyong whispered, settling back against him.

   ‘I thought you’d finished?’ said Ten, a little anxious. He knew all of Taeyong’s deadlines.

   ‘They're done for college, but they’re not ready for… for you,’ Taeyong said shyly. ‘You’re different.’

   Ten couldn’t stop himself smiling. ‘Okay, baby.’ He kissed his neck, then stepped back.

   ‘Let me get water,’ said Taeyong, grabbing the bouquet from his hand and skipping across the room. ‘You know roses are my favourite?’

   Ten watched him. He could never help watching him. Then he looked back at the monitors on his desk, wishing upon wishing that Taeyong would let him buy him more. Not just tech like this, either. More of everything. Ten would buy him so much if he’d let him – a world-class recording station, a wardrobe worthy of his form, an apartment where he’d be safe and secure and comfortable.

   Ten had too much money. It had crossed a line so long ago that he didn’t know what to do with it all anymore. There was only so much art he could buy, especially when it paled in comparison these days with the sight of Taeyong’s face when he was smiling. All he wanted was to make sure that Taeyong never had to worry about anything. That he could live the lifestyle he deserved.

   But Taeyong wouldn’t have it. Ten knew that he didn’t like feeling like he was getting more than he could give back – more than he thought he deserved.

   As if he deserves anything less than the world, Ten thought, glancing around again.

   It was a wonder, how Taeyong could call this area messy. He hadn’t been joking when he’d said that he and his roommate were like the Odd Couple. The other side of the room was disorganised, bed unmade, books stacked up in tottering piles across the floor. Taeyong’s side, on the other hand, stood in near perfect order. Ten had never noticed that he was so tidy. Everything about his side, too, was soft. His bed was swathed in crimson and pinks, with a fluffy white blanket across the foot, and a veritable bounty of pillows. Along one wall there was a shelf of plushies, the sort you’d win out of a claw machine or in an arcade game. And there were clothes everywhere, folded into piles the way that other people had books or games. Some of them were the ones that Ten had bought him.  

   He realised, looking around, that everything Taeyong owned must be in this room. Perhaps that was why it felt so him. He didn’t exactly have a bedroom back home to store his things. By the sounds of it he’d left for Seoul with one bag and no looking back.

   ‘So what made you drop by?’ Taeyong asked, stepping close to him and stroking his fingers lightly down his shirt. ‘This is the best surprise ever.’

   ‘I just wanted to see your face.’

   Well that was a lie.

   He’d rehearsed a hundred things he wanted to say to Taeyong on the walk over. But now, stood in front of him, he couldn’t quite find the words.

   Jesus, Ten, you’re not a teenager, he reminded himself, but it didn’t help.

   ‘Just my face?’ Taeyong pouted. ‘There I was hoping you’d come here to seduce me.’

   Ten laughed, then looked down, taking a breath before speaking, voice serious. ‘Actually I… I wanted to talk to you about something.’

   Taeyong pulled back, and to his horror, his face crumpled. ‘Oh God, oh God you’re going to break up with me.’

   ‘What? Baby no, I - ’

   ‘That’s why you brought the flowers,’ Taeyong stammered, turning away, ‘oh fuck.’

   ‘No, no,’ Ten stressed, taking his hand and pulling him back. ‘I’m not. Not even close,’ he added, as though he hadn’t been planning that exact thing an hour ago. Ten carded a hand through his slightly messy hair, brushing it behind his ear and stroking down his cheek as he looked into his eyes. ‘I promise.’

   Taeyong swallowed, face realigning itself.

   This was what he was always worried about. Taeyong was so delicate, like an exquisite, fragile flower, in danger of being bowed by the slightest rain. As he looked at him, reading everything that had flashed across his eyes, he was struck by something extraordinarily urgent that he needed to say. He hadn’t planned on it, but now it seemed like the most important thing in the world. He should have said it earlier.

   Because he was wrong. What had he been thinking? Taeyong wasn’t a fragile flower. Not in the slightest. He’d endured more than most people Ten’s age, and he stood strong. But even the strongest flowers needed a stem – a support.

   ‘Yongie, baby, listen to me. I need you to understand that if… that even if something did happen. If I had to… leave, or something,’ he said, not wanting to elaborate, ‘I would never, ever leave you out in the cold. Never. What I’ve given you, it’s not conditional on anything. Not… anymore.’

   The image that crossed Ten’s mind for a moment of Taeyong going… going back to work; losing that light in his eyes, watching his grades fall, turning pale with tiredness all over again - it was unthinkable. Ten had held grudges, some very bad grudges amongst them, but he couldn’t imagine anything, anything that would make him snatch away the one chance of freedom, security, that he’d been able to offer him.

   It would be grotesque. The worst kind of cruelty.

   Taeyong had to know that.

   ‘You’re never going back to that life, understand?’

   Taeyong nodded, one hand flitting up to brush under his eye.

   ‘Words, baby,’ Ten said softly.

   ‘I understand,’ said Taeyong.

   ‘Can we sit?’ Ten nodded to the bed. ‘I really do want to talk to you. But not to break up, okay?’

   Taeyong sat down, reaching out immediately for a squashy pink pillow and sitting it in his lap, fingers fidgeting with the tasselled trim.

   Ten took another deep breath. ‘Yongie – Taeyong.’ He always tried to pay him the courtesy of his name when he was talking to him properly, but sometimes the diminutives slipped out. ‘I want to change some things.’

   Taeyong looked up, innocent eyes wide with attention, and a little concern.

   ‘Nothing to do with you,’ Ten said quickly. ‘You’re… you’re perfect. You never have to change anything. But I want to change me.’

   ‘Why?’ said Taeyong, reaching out for his hands and lifting them to settle on the pillow. ‘Ten you’re amazing.’

   Ten smiled, glancing away as Taeyong stroked his thumbs over the backs of his hands. ‘I want to…’ God this was hard. ‘Yongie since I’ve been seeing you, I’ve been different. When it was just an evening here or a lunch there, it was just like this glimmer of light that went out every time I got home, that I could forget about, but in New York – waking up with you every day, watching you working, listening to you talk and laugh and - ’ he looked down, searching for his script but finding his mind muddled because he could never quite think straight around Taeyong. The words fell out of his heart instead. ‘Before you I was so wrapped up in this, this world, I was like a machine. But now… Taeyong, you’ve made me feel like… like a man.’

   Taeyong squeezed his hands very tightly, a shy smile overtaking his features. He looked… happy. There was no other word for it. The expression emboldened Ten a little.

   ‘I want to be more involved with you. I know it’s not what we agreed, and you can say no. But I just thought maybe I could see you more, not just for work things – I could take you out new places, and we could talk about things… about us… more. I want to know more about you and you… you could know more about me and - ’

   ‘I’ve never seen you look so nervous,’ interrupted Taeyong, that beautiful smile now painted very clearly across his face.

   ‘What do you think?’

   ‘So you’d be like… my boyfriend?’ Taeyong suggested, shifting a little closer on the bed.

   Boyfriend.

   He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been someone’s boyfriend.

   It was a word filled with such youthful optimism that it shouldn’t come as a surprise sliding from Taeyong’s lips.

   After a moment, he nodded.

   Taeyong, beaming, then executed a fairly precise impression, accent and all. ‘Words, Ten.’

   He laughed, a flutter shooting to his heart that he hadn’t felt in a long time. ‘Hey, that’s my line,’ he said, pulling Taeyong’s hands so that he sat up, crawling across the bed to where Ten was seated and settling down in his lap. This was where Ten loved him most, where he could fit his arms snugly around him. ‘But yes, I’ll be your boyfriend,’ he said softly, right against Taeyong’s ear, as though it was a special word only for the two of them.

   Taeyong looked the happiest he’d ever seen him.

   Relief flooded from his heart all the way through his fingertips.

   Taeyong wanted this.

   ‘My boyfriend,’ said Taeyong, and the words were framed with such ownership that it was almost as if he’d practiced them. ‘Can I have a kiss, boyfriend?’ he added with a pout.

   Too much. Taeyong was always too much. And he loved it.

   ‘Oh I suppose so,’ said Ten, locking a hand into Taeyong’s hair and bringing their lips together.

   It was… loaded. Passionate. Taeyong melted into him, every millimetre of his body fitting around Ten’s as though he’d been designed to rest there. Ten took the time to relearn every detail of this part of him, tongue grazing over his lips, then between them, working around his mouth slowly, lazily. The kiss was so open mouthed that breath escaped between them, tongues dancing together now, as Ten’s hands strayed down Taeyong’s body, locking around the hem of his sweater.

   Taeyong sat back, allowing Ten to pull it over his head. Before he’d even thrown it away, Taeyong was back on him.

   Insatiable.

   Just how he loved him.

   Taeyong let out a soft whine against his mouth as Ten thumbed open the button of his jeans, fingers pushing past the waistband to palm at him roughly, quickly. He just wanted to touch him – needed to touch him.

   ‘Ten, I want you,’ Taeyong moaned, angling his hips against his hand.

   It had been a long time since Ten had last had sex in a dorm room. ‘Your roommate,’ he breathed, but he didn’t stop, grabbing Taeyong’s tee in his hands and pulling that off too. The setting had brought out a younger him, a more insistent him, a him that wanted to take Taeyong hard and fast.

   ‘He won’t be back for ages,’ Taeyong exhaled, sitting back and pausing.

   Ten could tell that Taeyong knew... knew how much he liked to just look at him.

   He leaned in, kissing his collarbone gently, but growing more insistent as he moved up his neck. He’d realised almost from day one how sensitive Taeyong was on his throat. Ten kissed him, grazed his teeth over the tender skin, then began to suck a mark into the side of his neck, one hand knotting tightly into his hair and the other sliding down to hold his ass. He wanted to mark him up good.

   Taeyong let out the most beautiful noises. He was so loud. No matter where they were, even in public, Ten could always make him moan.

   He let out his own low groan as Taeyong grinded his hips down against him.

   ‘Where do you want me to mark you, baby?’ he murmured against the purpling skin of his neck.

   ‘Here,’ Taeyong breathed, stroking his fingertips down his own chest.

   Ten angled him back, kissing a line down his sternum then deviating across to one nipple. He took the bud into his mouth, tongue rolling over the hard nub, gripping tightly on Taeyong’s waist now as he arched his back. He shifted his mouth to the right, to stronger skin, where he knew he could work up a mess.

   There was a bang of a door, and Ten pulled back.

   ‘Oh what the fuck, TY?’ the intruder groaned, turning half away, ‘can’t you put a sock on the door or something?’

   Taeyong span around, mouth open, out of breath, looking furious. The expression on his face made Ten smile – Taeyong was so damn cute when he was trying to look angry. He was twisted in Ten’s lap, but he didn’t jump off him like he had the last time someone had walked in on them. ‘Johnny, you’re supposed to be at your society meet,’ he whined.

   Johnny.

   So this was the roommate he’d heard so much about.

   Ten looked over at him. He was tall, attractive in an all-American sort of way, and he didn’t seem shy about the fact that Taeyong was barely dressed and in a pretty damn compromising position, glancing back at them as he crossed to his desk.

   ‘Cancelled,’ Johnny said, throwing his stuff down on the side. ‘And who the fuck are you?’

   Taeyong seethed, but it just made him look even cuter. ‘Who do you think he is, Johnny?’

   Ten bit back a laugh, reaching around for Taeyong’s sweater and holding it out for him to put on, but Taeyong seemed too disgruntled to notice.

   Instead, then, Ten looked over and met Johnny’s eyes across the room, mildly surprised but entertained by the look of furious dislike that was shot his way. For a moment, he wondered exactly what he’d done to make him hate him, and then it clicked.

   Ah.

   He knew.

   And he probably thought he was the worst sort of sleaze.

   Ten settled his hands down on Taeyong’s thighs, fighting the urge to slide them a little further back. The Ten of several weeks ago would have had to have made a point - he’d always been covetous – but he knew how much Johnny meant to Taeyong, so he stopped himself. ‘This your roommate?’ he said instead, only to Taeyong, circling his thumbs over his jeans.

   ‘Yeah, and he was just leaving.’

   ‘I’ve got an essay to write,’ Johnny shrugged, resolutely not looking over now.

   ‘Johnny,’ Taeyong snapped, a warning tone creeping into his voice. Still cute.

   ‘Alright, alright, I’m going to the bathroom,’ Johnny said through gritted teeth, ignoring Ten completely when he turned this time and addressing Taeyong. ‘Please have put some clothes on by the time I get back.’

   When he was gone, Ten nudged Taeyong’s arm gently again with his sweater. ‘Why don’t you show me around campus?’

   Taeyong, though, was not satisfied. ‘But I’m fucking hard, Ten,’ he whined loudly.

   ‘I’ll take care of you later, baby,’ he murmured. ‘You can come to mine, you’ll get what you need. Don’t worry.’

   ‘But Ten -

   ‘Patience, Yongie,’ he said, firmly now. But then a little softer: ‘Be a good boy for me.’

   Taeyong looked at him with those beautiful doe eyes, face levelling, body relaxing down on him. Ten knew how much Taeyong liked it when he took control like this – how much he needed it. It wasn’t any great insight from him – Taeyong had taken the time to explain it. He knew now that when Taeyong got het up, he got anxious, and it made him feel safe for him to take over the decision-making, to assure him that he’d take care of whatever he needed in good time.

   Which was fine. Ten liked it too.

   Taeyong held his gaze, nodding slowly as he settled. Still, he dressed with a moody expression, shooting a dirty look at his roommate when he walked back in, as Ten buttoned up his own shirt, straightening his tie.

   As Taeyong climbed off him, buttoning his jeans, Ten swung his legs from the bed and strolled over to where his roommate had sat down at his desk, shaking his head to himself.

   ‘I’m Ten.’ He wasn’t going to bow, but he inclined his head a little. ‘You must be Johnny.’

   Johnny looked up, a furious battle seeming to wage behind his eyes. ‘Seo Youngho. Only my friends call me Johnny.’

   ‘Mr Seo,’ Ten said precisely, ‘how nice to finally meet you. Taeyong talks about you a lot.’

   ‘Really? He doesn’t talk about you at all.’

   Ten let out a light laugh, especially when Taeyong pushed past him and gave his friend a shove on the shoulder as he grabbed a pair of shoes from by the door.

   ‘Let’s go, Ten,’ he muttered.

*

   Five minutes later, they were walking across the campus square. The sun bathed the paving in light, dappling through the carefully arranged foliage, making the campus look almost beautiful.

   Taeyong was gripping his hand very tightly, pulling him around to look at different things. ‘Down there, about five minutes away, is the club I used to work at. And in there,’ he pointed at a coffee shop, ‘I was a barista there in first year. And that’s the bookshop – my friend Taeil got me that job, thank God. I would’ve been screwed if - ’

   Ten watched him tell all these stories, wondering if there was anywhere within a five mile radius that Taeyong hadn’t worked. Ten himself had only worked in one place his entire adult life.

   ‘If you follow that path, you get to my lecture hall for Literature classes. And over there are the music practice rooms.’

   They walked like this for a while, until Taeyong finally stopped, a little apprehension playing around his face.

   ‘What is it, baby?’ Ten said, lifting a hand to his shoulder.

   ‘Ten…’

   ‘Talk to me.’

   Taeyong turned to look at him properly. ‘Ten, please don’t hate Johnny.’

   Ten raised his eyebrows, surprised at the sudden change in conversation.

   ‘He’s my best friend - him and Yuta - and I need you to like them. It’s bad enough that my best friend hates my boyfriend… if you hate him too I can’t - ’

   ‘I don’t hate him,’ Ten assured him.

   ‘He’s just protective.’

   ‘I understand.’ It was true. Protecting Taeyong was what he understood most these days.

   ‘When we started college I was… I was a bit of a mess,’ Taeyong said quietly. ‘I was still cut up about my parents and I was so broke I was living off things that people gave me and… and I started going to parties once I was more comfortable and you know me… my tolerance is nothing. I didn’t know my limits and I… I didn’t want to. I used to get so wasted and you know the sorts of guys you find at those parties…’

   Ten locked his jaw.

   ‘I know I’m… I know I’m pretty. People want me. But Johnny always looked after me, made sure no one took advantage of me when I was like that. He chased off creeps and he’d carry me back to our dorm if he had to. He’d tuck me up in bed and make sure I slept on my side and that I drank plenty of water… He’s always been there and he’s just… he’s just suspicious of you. It’s not personal, I promise. He’s hated all the guys I’ve dated. He just needs to get to know you, see that you’re different.’

   Ten nodded, sending a silent message of thanks to everyone that had ever been there for Taeyong, including Johnny. ‘Did it seem like I hated him?’ he asked.

   Taeyong smiled. ‘Actually, you were impressively diplomatic,’ he said. ‘I like having such a mature boyfriend,’ he added teasingly, nestling in close and resting his head sideways down onto Ten’s shoulder.

   ‘You like that word, too, don’t you?’

   ‘My boyfriend. Does that mean I can tell people that now? Can I introduce you as my boyfriend?’

   ‘Of course, baby.’

   ‘Not that I have many people to introduce you to. You’ll never have to meet the parents,’ Taeyong said cheerfully.

   To Ten, though, the words sent a small pang through his heart. He hated that Taeyong didn’t get to enjoy that corner of his life like everyone else. He hated that it was so normal to him that he could jest about it like it was nothing. Ten didn’t see his parents an awful lot, but he couldn’t even imagine not having them at the end of the phone.

   ‘Will you tell everyone I’m your boyfriend?’ Taeyong asked, unphased. ‘Will you tell Lucas and Doyoung?’

   ‘I think they already know,’ said Ten, with a knowing smile. ‘But yes.’

   ‘Thanks for today, Ten,’ said Taeyong, ‘I thought I was going crazy thinking you might like me like that.’

   Ten kissed him. ‘I like you every way.’

   ‘Can we go out?’

   ‘I thought you were chained to your desk?’ Ten said sternly. ‘Your exams start in three weeks.’

   ‘You said I could come around to finish what we started earlier.’

   ‘I suppose I did,’ Ten mused. ‘I have to get back to the office some time today, though – how about you come over tonight? Seven?’

   ‘Six,’ said Taeyong.

   Ten sighed, but he was smiling. ‘Six it is. What Taeyong wants, Taeyong gets.’

   Taeyong looked very smug.

   ‘Your friends… they call you TY?’ Ten said after they walked a little further.

   ‘Oh, yeah.’

   ‘I’ve never asked you what you want me to call you?’

   ‘Don’t stop calling me baby,’ Taeyong said quickly.

   With a light laugh, Ten shifted Taeyong in front of him so that he could lock his arms around his waist. ‘Never, baby, never.’

   He’d call him baby and he’d call him his boyfriend.

   He’d call him just about anything –

   - anything that it took to keep him smiling.

Chapter Text

   ‘I called you when you were on the way. I was worried when you didn’t pick up.’

   Ten took his jacket when Taeyong walked into the now-familiar hall of his apartment, lingering his fingers over his neck as he pulled back the collar.

   ‘Oh my stupid phone died again,’ Taeyong muttered, ‘it’s archaic. The battery life is fucked. Can I charge it here?’

   ‘You need a new phone?’ asked Ten, raising his eyebrows.

   ‘I’ve needed a new phone for three years,’ he ruminated, glaring down at the cracked screen.

   ‘Yongie, baby, you know this is the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell me? Just let me know when you need something, I’ll buy it for you.’

   Taeyong shifted his weight from foot to foot. He had never quite got to the stage of feeling entirely carefree when it came to asking Ten for things. Accepting gifts, he was very good at. But asking outright for something? He couldn’t shake the anxiety that he was always pushing his luck… asking too much.

   ‘I didn’t want to bother you…’ he whispered.

   ‘Yongie, my darling, will you ever understand that I love to spoil you?’ Ten looked at him, then cupped a hand around the back of his neck to angle his face down a little so that he could plant a kiss on his forehead. ‘Just because you’re my boyfriend now, doesn’t mean you can’t still be my little sugar baby,’ he said, smiling with affection.

   Taeyong blushed. Fuck, he thought he’d gotten past the pink stage. Something about whenever Ten used the sugar word in a sentence still made him feel a way.

   ‘As long as you want to be,’ Ten added carefully.

   Taeyong nodded very quickly.

   ‘So please tell me when you need something. I hate the thought of you struggling, baby,’ Ten said earnestly.

   ‘I will,’ said Taeyong, trying to make a mental note to be more honest in future. ‘One day I’ll be able to afford this shit myself. I just need a little time.’

   ‘I know, sweetheart,’ said Ten, putting an arm around him and steering him to the living room. ‘When you’re the most sought-after producer in the world, you’ll be the one buying me things. I’m quite looking forward to it. I’ve always liked the idea of being a kept man.’

   Taeyong gave him a playful push. ‘Yeah right. Like you wouldn’t go crazy on day one.’

   ‘Day one? I wouldn’t make it to hour one.’

   ‘I could buy you a crystal choker, though,’ Taeyong mused. ‘It would suit you.’

   Ten laughed.

   Taeyong fucking loved the sound of Ten laughing. He didn’t get to hear it enough.

   ‘Wouldn’t that be a sight for sore eyes? I’ll get you a phone - tomorrow,’ said Ten, back to serious. ‘My company have a development contract with Apple – I could probably get you a prototype if you want.’

   ‘Really?’ said Taeyong, imagining Johnny’s face if he showed up with an unreleased iPhone.

   ‘Or do you want the new model? The camera is good. You can send me more of those pretty photos you take.’

   ‘I want anything you give me, Ten,’ he said softly.

   Ten turned to him, opening his mouth as if to say something, then closing it again.

   ‘What?’

   Ten worked his hand into his hair, stroking over the top of his ear. ‘You just look so beautiful today.’

   ‘Tell me that again,’ said Taeyong, biting his lip and taking Ten’s hands, ‘but in bed.’

   ‘Already?’ Ten raised his eyebrows, voice playful. ‘You don’t want to eat… have a drink? Maybe chill on the couch for a while…’

   ‘Can’t we do the fun part first?’ Taeyong pouted. ‘You never know when the world’s going to end, you know - you should always do the best stuff as soon as you can.’

   ‘If you say so, darling.’

   ‘And I’ve been waiting all day.’

   ‘Still an impatient little kitten, aren’t you?’ Ten chastised, but he allowed himself to be steered.

  In the bedroom, Taeyong sat cross legged on the bed, looking up at him expectantly. He no longer got anxious in moments like this - he was used to the cycle of his nights with Ten now, always excited for the way they made him feel.

   ‘Now can I tell you?’

   Taeyong nodded.

   ‘You look so beautiful today,’ Ten exhaled.

   Taeyong gave a happy little hum, letting Ten push him back gently on the bed and take a place over him, lowering his face to kiss him long and deep. Taeyong angled his head back, allowing Ten to trace his tongue teasingly across his neck. His hand went to the front of his jeans, picking up where they’d left off earlier.

   ‘Can you do…?’ Taeyong stopped, breath hitching as Ten touched him. No, it didn’t matter… he shouldn’t be demanding…

   ‘What was that, Yongie?’ Ten sat back.

   ‘Don’t worry.’

   ‘What? Tell me what you want, baby,’ he coaxed.

   ‘Can you do the thing…?’

   ‘Be specific, sweetheart.’

   ‘The thing like that just then… like when you say things…’ he trailed off, a little embarrassed.

   But Ten gave him a look of such affection that his heart ached. ‘Oh that. Like when I call you my beautiful boy? When I tell you what a clever, strong, special thing you are…?’

   Taeyong felt a flush through his veins just at the words. He thought if Ten talked to him for long enough, it would probably carry him all the way.

   ‘You do like that so much, don’t you?’ Ten said with a gentle smile.

   ‘I’ve just never had someone who said those things before you,’ said Taeyong quietly, before clapping a proverbial hand over his mouth. He hadn’t meant to say it. It had just slipped out.

   But it was the truth.

   He was self-aware enough to know where his own kinks came from.

   It wasn’t just about his boyfriends - though honestly he’d had fuck all luck with them too. College boys seemed to think that calling him sexy and hoping he’d let them fuck him was the epitome of romance. But he hadn’t heard it from… from anyone else, either. He hadn’t grown up in a house of praise, of pride - nothing he’d done at home had ever been good enough. At school, they hadn’t liked the way that he pushed outside the box with his ideas, with his music, with his bright pink hair…

   And then in adulthood he’d been stuck with a line of fuckboy boyfriends.

   Ten was the first person who’d ever really sat him down and told him that he was… that he was special.

   And now it did things to him that he couldn’t even describe.

   It wasn’t that he was insecure. On his good days, which were most of them since he’d met Ten, he was proud of himself, happy with how he looked, and confident in his personality.

   It was just that hearing someone else say it?

   Fuck it made him feel so good.

   ‘I just… no one’s ever said it…’ he repeated quietly, not knowing how to explain himself.

   ‘Oh Yongie…’ Ten breathed, a flash of pain across his eyes.

   ‘I know it’s stupid,’ Taeyong mumbled.

   ‘It’s not stupid, baby, not at all. I’m glad you told me,’ said Ten, stroking the backs of his fingers down his cheek. ‘You should always tell me what I can do to make you feel good.’

   Taeyong nodded shyly.

   Ten looked over him, then his face levelled with a couple of careful breaths, holding his eye contact. ‘Look at me, baby. You are so special. You remember what I told you I look for, back when we first met?’

   ‘Quality,’ Taeyong whispered.

   Ten nodded. ‘You are mesmerising, Taeyong, and not because of your face. You are so good, so kind, so warm that you melted even my icy heart.’

   Taeyong couldn’t help the giggle that escaped his lips.

   ‘You are so smart, so original, so unique that I sometimes wonder which of my dreams you walked out of.’

   ‘Ten…’ Taeyong’s body was hot now, fed by his praise, wanting more than words now. ‘Ten I want you.’

   ‘Oh and you’re very pretty, too,’ he added, as if as an afterthought, lips curving up. ‘Shall we take a look at you?’

   Taeyong nodded coquettishly.

   ‘Stay still for me, my sweet,’ Ten murmured, nudging his fingers up under Taeyong’s shirt and grazing his nails along the skin from his waist to his chest as he pushed the fabric away.

   Taeyong arched his back, skin tingling with the light sensation, and Ten stopped, moving his hands back to his hips and pushing them firmly down to the mattress.

   ‘Yongie,’ he said, voice very steady, ‘I need you to stay nice and still, or we’ll have find a way to keep you still, won’t we?’

   Taeyong couldn’t help the image that flooded to his mind - if he closed his eyes he could almost feel the silk of one of Ten’s ties against his wrist. He let out a whine, his whole body flooding with heat at the thought. His breathing turned hot at the thought of Ten doing just that. He fought an internal battle, anxious to please and be good and do exactly what Ten wanted him to do, but also aching with desire to make him follow through with that particular threat.

   The good part of his brain won.

   This time.

   ‘Good boy,’ Ten murmured as he relaxed, settling his arms back behind his head and moving them only when Ten pushed his shirt over his head. ‘Oh look at you,’ he sighed, sitting back and admiring him.

   Taeyong bit his lip as he looked up at him. Ten had obviously heard him loud and clear - Ten who always knew how to give him what he wanted.

   ‘I love this part of you,’ said Ten, hands sliding from his hips up with the inward curve of his waist, then over his ribcage, then back down with the fluid line. ‘You have the prettiest little waist I’ve ever seen.’

   Taeyong whined in need, trying not to arch again as Ten caressed him.

   He wanted to be good.

   ‘Oh and here,’ Ten wandered his fingertips across his chest to brush at his nipples, so lightly that Taeyong let out an involuntary sound that could have been a whimper for more. Ten thumbed them gently, smiling as he moaned again. ‘You’re so hypersensitive here, baby, I love it. Have you always been this sensitive?’

   ‘It’s only when you touch me,’ Taeyong said softly, before biting his lip hard and gasping in pleasure as Ten pinched at one. It was true – Ten’s touch was like an electric charge, like nothing he’d ever felt before. It was like Taeyong needed it.

   ‘Good,’ Ten smiled, ‘because you’re mine to touch. Mine.’

   This possessive edge was almost entirely confined to the bedroom now, but when it crept out it always gave Taeyong a buzz of energy. He loved that he was enough to make someone like Ten so covetous of him. And he was pretty sure that Ten knew it.

   ‘And here too,’ said Ten, continuing his exploration and rubbing tenderly over his throat, lingering on the flushed purple marks he’d made earlier. ‘You know how much I love to see you nice and decorated here - with your chokers, I mean.’

   ‘I like the marks too.’

   ‘Mm, they’re certainly a nice addition,’ Ten mused. ‘Ah, ah - ’ He paused his survey as Taeyong shivered under his touch when he stroked the vulnerable skin under his jaw. ‘No moving, remember?’

   ‘I’m not,’ Taeyong said quickly, almost petulantly.

   ‘And your face, baby…’ Ten sighed, as though he hadn’t stopped, ‘this face.’

   ‘You like it?’ Taeyong whispered, pointlessly of course but he always wanted Ten to spell it out for him.

   ‘Oh Yongie, you’re like the most beautiful work of art I’ve ever seen.’

   Taeyong gave a contented purr.

   ‘These eyes… you look at me like the vision of innocence and then you beg me to fuck you rougher…’ He laughed lightly as Taeyong properly moved then, hips twitching automatically up against where Ten now had them pinned, straddling over him. He didn’t tell him off, this time, though. ‘… and it’s so goddamn addictive. The things I want to do to you… Oh and these lips,’ his fingers strayed down to trace the line of his small cupid’s bow, ‘the things I’ve seen them do, baby… sometimes I wish you could watch yourself.’

   ‘Like this?’ said Taeyong, parting them a little when Ten’s fingers settled on his lower lip.

   Ten indulged him, letting him take the tips of two of his fingers into his mouth, letting him roll his tongue hungrily over them. ‘You like doing this, don’t you baby?’

   Taeyong blushed. ‘Mm,’ he hummed around him.

   ‘Pretty,’ remarked Ten, as he pulled his hand back and took his chin gently with his finger and thumb instead. He turned his head from side to side, Taeyong letting him easily. ‘And you know how much I like this.’ Ten worked both hands into his hair, carding through it with quick, firm fingers.

   ‘How do you like it best?’

   ‘Knotted up when my hands have been in it,’ said Ten with a dismissive shrug, but then he smiled. ‘Oh, you meant the colour? I like it every way, baby. I love that I never know what Yongie I’m going to get when I open the door - my favourite rainbow…’

   ‘How do you want it next?’

   ‘Surprise me,’ said Ten, letting go and sitting all the way back. ‘You’re so breath-taking, Yongie.’

   ‘Thanks, Ten,’ Taeyong whispered, heart pounding against his chest.

   He’d never felt so… so treasured.

   ‘My perfect little rose,’ Ten murmured, stretching all the way over him again and kissing him chastely. ‘Now close your eyes.’

   Taeyong did as he said without hesitation, squeezing his eyes shut tightly because he knew he’d be tempted to look. The darkness made it… made it better. His other senses seemed to elevate, the very brush of Ten’s lips over his throat and down his chest making his skin shiver.

   Ten took care over every inch of him, mapping the lines of his body with his kisses as his fingers worked open his jeans. Taeyong tried hard to stay still, but he couldn’t help the buck of his hips as Ten stroked over him, teasing him to aching hardness in a couple of easy, deft strokes.

   ‘Pretty, pretty all over,’ Ten said softly, and Taeyong let out a mewl as he felt his hot breath over his cock. ‘Can I make you feel good, kitten?’

   ‘Please,’ Taeyong whispered.

   His fingers clutched tight around the pillow behind his head as Ten took him into his mouth, mind lost in the warmth and the wetness and the fucking thrill of realising Ten was going to suck him off.

   It wasn’t like he hadn’t imagined head from Ten, but he’d never been a hundred percent sure whether he’d ever get it. After weeks and weeks together, head seemed to be the thing that Taeyong… did. For him. He liked it. He liked being on his knees in front of him, feeling Ten lock his fingers into his hair, letting him fuck into his mouth. He fucking loved it.

   But again, it wasn’t like he hadn’t imagined head from Ten.

   It was better than he’d imagined.

   It wasn’t sloppy… wasn’t rushed or inexperienced or half-hearted like he’d had from guys before.

   Ten was good at it. Like everything else.

   Taeyong keened, spine curving as he fought to keep his hips down, the roll of Ten’s tongue all he could feel in the world.

   Ten was methodical, so fucking steady and rhythmic that Taeyong couldn’t get a second to catch his breath, gasps falling over each other. Taeyong knew that Ten could work him up easily – he knew that he was small and cute and perfectly fashioned to fit in his mouth, but Ten seemed to want to keep him on the edge. He kept pulling back to tease just at his head, tongue punishing his slit but leaving the rest of him twitching and vulnerable to the cool air. It was so fucking intoxicating that Taeyong gasped desperately, eyes wet from squeezing them so tightly shut.

   Ten pulled off him. ‘You can sing nice and loud for me, baby,’ he said.

   Taeyong moaned again, the loss of his warmth leaving him swollen and begging. ‘Please, Ten, please.’

   ‘Look at me.’

   He’d never been happier to open his eyes, panting heavily as he met Ten’s. Ten looked unruffled as ever, face perfect and calm and not at all messy like Taeyong got when he was doing this. ‘Ask me,’ Ten said, just the look in his eyes almost enough to bring him over the edge. It was so… raw, possessive, passionate…

   ‘Please can I come?’ Taeyong pleaded.

   ‘Of course you can, baby,’ Ten smiled, and then he gave him some proper attention at last.

   He moved quicker this time, flat tongue pressed against the underside of his length, fingers gripped tightly on his thighs. Taeyong couldn’t find the words to ask him to press harder. He was too far gone.

   But Ten always knew how to get him there.

   As his back curved again, he felt the tip of Ten’s tongue slide precise and unforgiving down his crease before he took him to his base, sucking a firm drag back to his head, and he felt himself falling apart.

   ‘Fuck, fuck,’ he gasped through his teeth, hips kicking up as he came, legs twisting and trembling as Ten continued to tongue at him, even as the sensitivity made him whine. Ten pushed it so far that he seemed to hit a haze for a second, caught in a dizzying sensation that he hadn’t even known was possible, before he finally released him gently, extending back over him and kissing his forehead.

   ‘Oh Yongie you’re so beautiful,’ he said, ‘so good to me…’

   Taeyong panted as his mind settled, thoughts stumbling their way back to sensibility.

   ‘You feel good, baby?’ asked Ten, fingers carding through the knots in his hair.

   Taeyong couldn’t manage much more than a sound in response, but then he looked up at him, meeting his eyes. ‘You can fuck me now,’ he whispered.

   ‘You sure you’re up for round two so fast?’ Ten asked softly, kissing the corner of his mouth.

   Taeyong’s nodded, heart pounding in excitement. His blood was still rushing in his ears, cock soft and spent, but even as Ten nudged his hands around his back and sat him up, he felt a new twinge of interest shoot down through his navel. Ten pulled him astride his hips, settling him down on his lap.

   ‘I forgot one part I like,’ he said, hands sliding from his waist back to graze over his ass before rubbing a steady massage over the prominent curve at the base of his spine, the dimple where it met his tailbone. ‘This part…’

   ‘I noticed,’ Taeyong breathed, voice still shaky but body finding its stability as he felt need rush back to him thanks to the friction against Ten’s stomach.

   ‘You’re very observant,’ Ten smiled.

   ‘I pay attention.’

   ‘Yes you do, baby, yes you do.’ He pulled him flush against him for a long kiss, Taeyong’s taste lingering as his tongue claimed his mouth. When they broke apart, Ten moved one hand down to open his own pants while the other slapped down lightly against Taeyong’s ass. It wasn’t the sort of contact to hurt - just the sort to focus him, and Taeyong fixed his eyes immediately back on his, expectant and ready. ‘You want me to make you feel good again, baby?’ Ten enticed.

   ‘You really think I’d say no?’ Taeyong asked coyly, tongue touching out over his bottom lip.

   Ten laughed, a warm, enticing tremor of breath against his skin. ‘Don’t get sarcastic with me now, kitten. I was just thinking how good you’ve been.’

   ‘Really good?’ Taeyong asked quickly, his split second of provocation forgotten.

   ‘Mm,’ Ten kissed him, three times, with increasing intensity, until Taeyong was left aching forwards for more. ‘So what do you say?’

   ‘Please,’ he said, working hard to enunciate the word. ‘Please, Ten. Can we go again?’

   ‘Perfection,’ Ten sighed. ‘I wish you could hear yourself like this. You’re so fucking perfect, Taeyongie. And I’ll tell you every day, darling, don’t you ever worry.’

   The words settled on his skin sweeter than any kisses he’d ever felt.

*

   Taeyong dozed for a while – after – stretching all the way out on Ten’s bed and enjoying the feather pillows. Ten had left, he knew, from the moments where he was more lucid, but he was used to that. It was rare for him to wake up with Ten beside him, or even fall asleep in his arms - he always seemed to be restless, anxious to get moving again. He was probably in his office.

   The room was dark, illuminated only by two soft Edison bulbs hung opposite the bed; the sun had long since gone down. Taeyong rolled onto his back, yawning, before sitting up.

   At the end of the bed, there was a soft, folded package, wrapped in lilac paper with a silver ribbon. Taeyong made quick work over that, tearing to get inside with a happy smile on his face.

   It was a black robe, fringed with silver, fine and elegant and tactually expensive.

   Taeyong smiled. He liked wearing Ten’s clothes after, but Ten was about his size in shirts and they weren’t the best thing for when he wanted to look decent. This was much better.

   He settled it over his shoulders, sighing at the tickle of silk over his skin as he slipped in each sleeve. It was pretty, but, as he looked at himself in the mirror, also reassuringly non-sexual. He was glad. He was glad that Ten had seen fit to buy him something cool and silken to lounge around in, not just something for him to look at.

   It was a supportive assurance that he wasn’t just there for the sex.

   And now he wanted to see Ten.

   He wandered over to the door and stepped quietly out into the hall.

   It always felt strange, walking around this place by himself, like he was going to set foot somewhere that he wasn’t allowed.

   But he was Ten’s boyfriend now.

   He was hopeful that this gave him apartment privileges.

   To his surprise, Ten was in the kitchen.

   ‘Hey there, sleepy,’ he said affectionately when he looked up. ‘You look lovely.’

   ‘Thanks for this,’ said Taeyong, lifting his hands to tuck some of the material under his fingers. No matter how expensive something was, he still liked to be able to hold it like this.

   ‘I bought it for you in New York,’ said Ten, looking down, ‘but I’d forgotten.’

   ‘It’s so pretty.’

   ‘You okay? You’re not sore? You need anything?’ Ten asked, as he always did.

   Taeyong shifted, from side to side as though testing himself, then smiled. ‘I’m perfect. What are you doing?’ he asked curiously. He crossed the room and walked around the counter so that he could present himself for a kiss.

   ‘Cooking for you,’ Ten said confidently, kissing his cheek before turning back to the hob.

   ‘You cook?’ Minus one lot of room service, he’d never seen or heard of Ten eating anything other than restaurant food.

   ‘Nope,’ Ten shrugged, ‘but you need to eat something and I thought since I’m learning to be a boyfriend, I should make you something that I can’t just buy. Besides, how difficult can it be?’

   Taeyong laughed, looking down. ‘Well the thought is very kind. And you cooking is very sexy. But you forgot to turn the heat on for the broth,’ he said softly.

   ‘Oh damn,’ Ten muttered, clattering around with the hob.

   The whole kitchen was immaculate - too immaculate - Taeyong had the distinct impression that Ten never cooked in it. The thought gave him a strange rush. He might finally have found something that he was better at.

   Taeyong was a good cook. A very good cook. He’d had to learn fast – he had moved to Seoul alone and he certainly couldn’t afford to eat out back then.

   ‘Do you want me to help?’ he offered, trying not to laugh as he watched. Bless him, Ten was really trying.

   To be his boyfriend.

   The thought made his heart quiver like the wings of a hummingbird.

   ‘Are you good at it?’ Ten asked, voice already bordering on surrender.

   ‘Very.’

   He looked relieved. ‘Okay you cook. I’ll make you a drink.’

   Taeyong took over, biting his lip happily as he got to work. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Ten walked over to a drinks cabinet in the living room, taking out a cocktail shaker and three bottles.

   The room was filled, after a second, with the sing-song melody of Taeyong’s ringtone.

   He’d left his phone to charge over by the couch – it had taken him ages to find an available socket because everything in Ten’s house seemed to be plugged in. Even the most nondescript of items seemed to have some sort of technological secret – maybe they were more prototypes from work.

   Taeyong looked up in surprise. Since he’d left his jobs, it was rare for him to get phone-calls. Johnny always texted first, and Yuta didn’t like to disturb him when he was with Ten, at the most just leaving him streams of suggestive emojis instead.

   ‘Who is it?’ Taeyong asked.

   Ten leant over, checking the screen. ‘Mark,’ he said, looking back to him. ‘Want me to take it for you?’

   ‘Fuck, uh, no,’ Taeyong said quickly, dropping his spoon and hurrying over. ‘I should...’

   It had been a while since he’d heard from Mark. Taeyong usually kept him at arm’s length, knowing that his younger cousin would get into trouble if his parents found out that he talked to him.

   ‘Hey, Mark,’ he said, sitting down on the very edge of the couch seat.

   He noticed that Ten walked back over to the kitchen, perhaps to give him a little privacy.

   ‘Hey, hyung.’

   ‘What’s up?’

   ‘You want the good news or the bad news first?’

   He swallowed, glancing back at Ten, then leant forwards, elbows resting on his knees. ‘Good news,’ he said quietly.

   After all, Taeyong always preferred to get the good stuff out of the way first.

   He never knew when the world might end.

Chapter Text

Taeyong hung up the phone, gripping it very tightly as he leant his forehead against the wall. He’d paced back into Ten’s bedroom, not wanting him to hear what he was discussing, not wanting him to hear the shaking in his voice. He took what he hoped would be a steadying breath, but instead it caught in his throat, and he couldn’t hold back the succession of quicker, shallower gasps.

   He wasn’t going to cry.

   He wasn’t going to let it make him cry.

   ‘Fuck,’ he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut.

   ‘Taeyong?’

   He looked up, glassy eyes seeking the familiarity – the affection – of Ten’s.

   ‘You okay, sweetheart?’ Ten said softly. He was leant against the doorframe, posture casual with one hand in his pocket, but his face was riddled with worry.

   ‘I’m fine,’ he said, as though his voice didn’t declare loud and clear that he was anything but.

   ‘What’s happened?’

   ‘Nothing. I’m fine.’

   ‘Taeyongie - ’

   ‘My cousin got into the University of Seoul,’ he said, forcing a smile, shoving the offending phone into the pocket of his robe. ‘He’s going to study business. He used to want to do music, but I guess…’

   ‘That was your cousin?’ Ten asked, clearly navigating carefully. ‘I didn’t know you talked to any of your family anymore?’

   ‘I don’t,’ Taeyong shook his head, using it as an excuse to try and shake some level back into his brain. ‘Just Mark. We’ve always been close. When that… happened… his parents told him to stay away from me, they said that I was a bad influence. But I’ll probably get to see him a lot next year, how cool is that?’

   ‘That’s great, Yongie,’ he said. ‘So why… why do you look like your world just fell apart?’

   His voice was so gentle, so warm, so anxious that it bypassed every barrier that Taeyong had put up and hit him squarely where he was vulnerable. He couldn’t stop the sudden spill of tears, the shuddering of breath, the arms that wrapped up around his waist as though to protect himself.

   He hated it.

   He’d had the odd moment – sometimes he couldn’t help it – but he’d never cried properly in front of Ten.

   He fucking hated it.

   ‘Hey, hey,’ Ten said, crossing the room in a second and pulling him close. ‘Talk to me, baby. What’s wrong?’

   He let his face fall against Ten’s shoulder – anything to hide the tears. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ he mumbled. ‘I’m overreacting.’

   ‘It’s hurting you. That makes it a big deal.’

   Taeyong looked down, squeezing his eyes shut for a second because he so wanted to tell him.

   He’d thought before that Ten was the first person in a long time who’d really been there to look after him. Not as his friend, not the way that Johnny and Yuta were there for him, but as an adult. Someone older, someone with knowledge and life experience and the resources to take care of him. Someone mature and intelligent enough to know what to do.

   He wanted to tell him.

   He needed to tell him.

   ‘My parents are coming to Seoul,’ he whispered, two hot tears bubbling over with the words.

   ‘Oh Yongie,’ Ten sighed, pulling him closer to his chest and wrapping both arms very tightly around him.

   For a moment, he did nothing but cry. Proper cry. Ugly cry.

   Ten stroked one hand reassuringly through his hair, murmuring gentle little things against his ear. His other hand worked soothing circles into his back, slow and steadying as though it could calm his heartrate.

   Then, finally, with a shuddering breath: ‘I can’t… I can’t see them, Ten, I can’t.’

   At this, Ten nudged him back a little so that he could look at him. He lifted his hands to his face, thumbs brushing away the tears that had fallen. ‘Okay. Then we’ll go away. Ask Mark when they’re coming, and we’ll go. Choose anywhere. Pick a country - I’ll take you there.’

  Taeyong wanted to smile at the offer but there were still tears in his eyes. ‘They’re not coming for a week or something, Ten. They’re coming all summer. My father’s got a contract here. They’re going to stay with Mark’s parents and he said… he said he heard them talking about me on the phone.’

   Ten’s eyes narrowed.

   ‘He said he thinks they want to find me. What if they ask him where I am? I bet they know he knows and I can’t ask Mark to lie for me. And then they’ll want to see me and I can’t, I can’t do it Ten. I don’t want to -’

   ‘Breathe for me, baby,’ Ten said calmly, apparently not missing his rapidly increasing pace.

   ‘And I know there’s nearly ten million people in Seoul and I should be able to hide but… but I can’t, can I? They’re my parents and if they say I have to see them how can I say no? I’ll have to go and I can’t -’

   ‘Yongie, baby, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Ever.’

   ‘Like I haven’t been a bad enough son already,’ Taeyong cried.

   ‘Taeyong,’ Ten stopped him, voice firm. ‘Look at me. You owe them nothing. They don’t get to dictate if and when you ever see them again. That’s your call, and yours only. This is your home, not theirs – the life you’ve built. They don’t get to be a part of it without your permission. Not after what they did to you.’

   Taeyong knew he was right, but his heart was still racing, horrible pictures running through his head of everything he’d feared for the last few years. ‘They’re going to come and ruin it, Ten, they’re going to ruin everything. This is what happens in my life. Every time I start to get happy, something goes wrong. I just know it’s all going to fall apart.’

   There was a silence and Taeyong could almost see the cogs working behind Ten’s eyes. He knew how his mind worked – how he processed things, worked through scenarios in order of probability, created solutions with multiple branches to cater for variables…

   ‘Ten what am I going to do?’ he wailed, not wanting to wait for this process.

   He took a deep breath. ‘Okay, you don’t even know that they’ll reach out, yet. Right now, you need to concentrate on your exams – you’ve worked too hard for them to get in the way, okay?’

   Taeyong sniffed, then he nodded.

   ‘If it happens, we’ll figure it out. I promise. You’re not alone. If you decide that you want to see them, I’ll go with you. Or your friends. Or none of us. Whatever you want. If you don’t want to see them, then I’ll sit here and I’ll hold your hand while you call Mark’s parents and tell them no. So promise me that you won’t worry right now? The only thing you should be focussing on is your future, these exams, everything you’ve worked for.’

   ‘Okay,’ Taeyong whispered, finally feeling his shaking hands start to settle.

   He didn’t tell him about the other residual anxieties that were crashing around his brain. He didn’t tell him about the one time he had seen his parents since he’d left – when he’d gone to try and see his sister after about a year and ended up being yelled at until he’d stumbled his way sobbing to the train station.

   He didn’t tell him that he was stressed to the core because the professor that hated him was going to be marking half of their exams and he was terrified that he’d downgrade him out of spite.

   He didn’t tell him about the fact that he didn’t have a clue where he was going to live in a few weeks because his dorm was a 40-week let and he’d spent the last two summers with Johnny, but he and his parents were going to Chicago this time; that Yuta was going back home; and that without a job he didn’t know how on earth he was going to afford a room, but he couldn’t bear to ask for that much.  

   Ten was always so busy. Taeyong knew that whatever was happening at work was keeping him up at night. He couldn’t stand to burden him with any more of his problems too.

   ‘Okay,’ he said again, swallowing everything down.

   ‘Really okay?’ checked Ten, rubbing his hands comfortingly up and down his waist.

   ‘I’m okay.’ Taeyong spoke with more conviction this time.

   ‘You still want to eat?’ Ten asked, very gentle. ‘Or would you… would you rather be with your friends? I can drive you…’

   Taeyong shook his head. ‘I want to stay with you,’ he said softly.

   ‘Alright, baby. But I think I destroyed your rescue effort on the dinner,’ Ten said, and Taeyong could see how hard he worked for the smile. ‘You want me to order?’

   All he really wanted was for Ten to take him into his arms, curl up with him on the couch, whisper the sorts of things into his ear that he had a couple of hours ago.

   But he nodded. For now, the food would do.

*

   ‘That essay question was bullshit. Cho mentioned that, what, once? It wasn’t even on the syllabus.’ Yuta was poking his lunch moodily with his chopsticks, not really bothering to eat.

   ‘It was on the syllabus,’ said Johnny.

   ‘Was not.’

   ‘TY, tell him it was on the syllabus.’

   ‘Huh?’ Taeyong looked around, distracted.

   Yuta smirked at Johnny. ‘Don’t mind him, he’s looking for his boyfriend.’

   Ten had promised that he’d meet him at his college for lunch.

   Taeyong’s first exam had gone, he thought, rather well, and he was relaxed in the knowledge that he had another six days before the next one.

   He swiped open his phone quickly, angling his face to check his make-up. The front camera on his new phone was as excellent in quality as Ten had promised.

   He always dressed up for exams - a firm believer that no matter how nervous you felt, it would always lift your spirits to look nice. But just maybe he might have tried a little bit harder than usual knowing that Ten was going to be seeing him after.

   And sure enough –

   ‘Hmm,’ mused Yuta, cocking his head to the side, ‘I guess that’ll be the one.’

   Taeyong span around, face breaking into a smile as he saw Ten dodging his way amongst crowded tables.

   He looked so out of place, far too sharp and clean and grown-up amongst the college students. The thought made Taeyong very smug.

   ‘Hey, sweetheart,’ said Ten, a little out of breath, kissing him on the cheek when he stood up. ‘I’m sorry it took me so long to get here. I was across town at a meeting and I just couldn’t get away.’ As he spoke, he loosened his tie, taking off his jacket and throwing it over the back of the chair that Taeyong had saved for him.

   ‘It’s fine,’ said Taeyong, nothing but happy.

   ‘How was the exam?’

   ‘It was good. I did what you told me about the reading.’

   Two nights earlier, Taeyong had asked Ten for every tiny morsel of exam advice that he could give him. He’d always found himself getting over-anxious in tests, especially at college, trying to write too much too fast, finishing too early and then stumbling back to the beginning and changing everything he’d written. He’d had a suspicion that Ten would probably have had better… form.

   Ten had told him to read all the way through the paper before doing anything. Then he’d told him to read it all the way through again. He’d told him to have a drink of water, sit back, create a mental plan of the exam in his head. He’d told him to divide his time into proportional chunks for the marks, and use the whole time allotted for each question rather than rushing through.

   After all this, Taeyong had asked him what score he’d graduated with.

   ‘4.5,’ Ten had said, lips twitching up into a smile.

   ‘What percentage?’ he’d asked.

   ‘98.’

   ‘How embarrassing,’ Taeyong had remarked, squirming as Ten caught him around the waist, ‘what kind of moron drops two whole percent?’

   To his relief, Ten had seemingly considered peppering his neck with kisses to be an appropriate retribution for his cheek.

    ‘Good boy,’ the Ten of now said, squeezing his hand on the table. ‘I just know you did great. You’re so damn smart.’

   Taeyong fidgeted cutely at the praise. ‘Ten, this is Yuta. And you’ve met Johnny.’

   Ten looked around the table, then rose from his seat quickly to bow. ‘How rude of me. I do apologise. I don’t usually sit without introducing myself.’

   ‘Oh it’s okay,’ Yuta said airily, ‘Taeyong always forgets other people exist when you’re involved too.’

   Taeyong watched happily as Ten looked down, almost embarrassed.

   Taeyong also determinedly ignored Johnny, who he could feel shooting daggers at the pair of them.

   ‘Did you two sit the same exam?’ Ten asked, taking the chopsticks that Taeyong handed him.

   ‘Yeah,’ Johnny said loudly. ‘We’re all college kids, here, after all.’

   Yuta elbowed him hard in the ribs.

   Taeyong looked from them to Ten, smile faltering a little. He’d told Johnny. He’d told him to be on his best behaviour. He’d all but begged him.

   ‘Ten, can you get me a drink?’ he asked, in a strained voice.

   He was barely two steps away before Taeyong rounded on Johnny. ‘Please. Please, Johnny, you promised.’

   ‘Don’t be an asshole, J,’ said Yuta, ‘he’s Tae’s boyfriend. Oh, and he’s the only millionaire we know so let’s keep him on side, yeah?’

   He was obviously trying to liven the atmosphere, but nothing could get between Taeyong’s pleading eyes and Johnny’s internal battle.

   ‘Please. You guys are my family, this is important to me. Please just be nice.’

   ‘Fine, fine,’ Johnny muttered.

   Taeyong hadn’t told them about what was going on with his… real family. He was trying very hard not to think about it at all, taking Ten’s words to heart.

   ‘Here, Yongie,’ said Ten, voice soft, as he passed him the cold cup and sat back down.

   ‘Thanks, Ten,’ he said with a bright smile. ‘How was work?’ he pushed his tray along so that he could share.

   ‘Oh, you know,’ he shrugged, as though Taeyong did. In all honesty, Taeyong still didn’t really get what it was that Ten did every day, other than that it involved meetings and arguments and something to do with money. He’d never got around to asking. ‘It was work. Were you really okay this morning? You sounded nervous on the phone.’

   ‘I thought I was going to throw up,’ Taeyong said cheerfully, ‘but I didn’t want you to worry.’

   Ten leant over, kissing his hair and resting his arm loosely on his shoulder so that his fingers could toy lazily around his neck. ‘I still worried.’

   ‘Cute, aren’t they?’ announced Yuta.

   Taeyong blushed, looking down quickly at his lunch. Ten didn’t move his hand, turning with a smile.

   Yuta wasn’t satisfied though. ‘Aren’t they, Johnny?’

   ‘Oh yeah,’ Johnny said flatly.

   ‘Taeyong told me that you’re from Osaka, Yuta?’

   ‘That’s me,’ he replied, ‘have you been?’

   Ten nodded. ‘A few times. My company have done some work with Panasonic in recent years. Their headquarters are in Kadoma. I’d love to spend some time there away from business, though. I have an apartment in Tokyo, but I’ve been meaning to travel Japan properly for a long time.’

   ‘You never told me you have a place in Tokyo?’ said Taeyong.

   ‘Doyoung made me buy it. He said I needed a bolthole. We can go some time, if you’d like?’

   ‘Well, if you need a translator…’ Yuta grinned.

   ‘And you, J-Youngho?’ directed Ten, which Taeyong thought was rather brave given that his friend looked like he might stab him with his chopsticks. ‘Chicago?’

   There was a long, awkward silence, during which Ten’s hand dropped down to squeeze reassuringly at Taeyong’s thigh.

   ‘Yep, TY’s our only local boy,’ said Yuta, trying admirably hard to pretend there wasn’t so much tension in the air.

   Finally, after a long, deep breath that seemed to cost Taeyong half his life span, Johnny forced a half-smile, and relief hit Taeyong like a tranquiliser. ‘Yeah, yeah Chicago. I’m sure you’ve been there too, right? There’s a lot of business there.’

   Ten relaxed, though not as much as Taeyong. ‘Once or twice,’ he said, ‘but I only saw the inside of a hotel room.’

   ‘Do you ever get holiday?’ Johnny asked, ‘if you do, you should tour the Midwest. TY’s always wanted to go. He was so excited when… when you took him to New York.’

   The effort that the words seemed to cost him made them worth more.

   ‘We’ll make a travel list,’ Ten smiled. ‘I don’t really… get holiday, but we can always tie something in to work.’

   ‘You should get holiday,’ Taeyong pouted, ‘you need time off. Do Lucas and Doyoung get holiday?’

   ‘You know me, Yongie, I’m not good at not working.’

   ‘You sound like Taeyong,’ said Johnny, ‘before he met you he was always at work. I don’t think I ever saw him sleep. And now he studies more than anyone I’ve ever met.’

   Taeyong looked down. A reprieve from the Ten-Johnny anxiety that had been rallying in his head for weeks settled encouragingly over him at the sound of them just… talking.

   ‘He certainly works too hard,’ said Ten, turning to him. ‘You take tonight off, okay? Get some rest, don’t even think about studying til tomorrow.’

   ‘Can we hang out?’

   ‘I have to work,’ Ten answered, shaking his head with a sigh. ‘I’m sorry.’

   ‘What are you doing?’ Taeyong asked in surprise.

   ‘Investors’ dinner.’

   ‘You didn’t want me to come?’

   ‘Not during your exams, baby,’ said Ten. ‘I don’t want to distract you.’

   Taeyong blushed at the pet-name, excited to hear it in public. ‘But I like when you distract me.’

   ‘That’s the problem, Yongie,’ Ten smiled, and it was the same fond look that Taeyong knew he reserved for the people he cared about most. ‘Don’t worry, in two weeks, I’ll distract you as much as you want.’

*

   Ten kept his word about not wanting to disturb him. Taeyong barely even heard from him, apart from the goodnight texts he received each night. After four days, Ten invited him round for the evening, though only because he was flying to Shanghai for a conference and he knew that he wouldn’t see him again before his last two exams.

   Taeyong had promised to bring his notes.

   ‘You can work in my office while I cook,’ Ten told him, walking with him through the apartment. ‘I’ll make you dinner while you’re studying. Or I’ll try.’ He kissed him – softly, romantically, before turning to go.

   Taeyong, however, was already nosing around the room. He’d seen Ten’s office only in passing before.

   ‘What’s that?’ he asked, nodding at a frame on one of his shelves.

   Ten turned, laughing at his sudden snooping. ‘That is a baht bill,’ he said, chin resting up on his shoulder.

   ‘Why is it there?’

   ‘It’s the first note I ever got paid,’ said Ten. ‘I was making iced tea on the street in Bangkok.’

   ‘How old were you?’

   ‘Oh, six?’ Ten guessed.

   ‘And you kept it?’

   ‘Of course. I knew even then that I’d want it some day.’

   Taeyong was now concentrating entirely on Ten’s wall unit. There was so much stuff – photos, books, things. ‘What’s this?’

   ‘Ah,’ Ten laughed, ‘that would be my college yearbook.’

   ‘No way?’ said Taeyong, with a broad smile.

   ‘Don’t do it,’ Ten groaned as Taeyong flicked open the first page.

   ‘Let me see if I can find you,’ he said.

   Ten wasn’t difficult to spot. Taeyong found him straight away on the page for the business school – he stood out a mile by the sheer aura of his presence. He looked younger, of course, but not so different. His hair was slightly longer, styled for the year of course, and he had a little more weight to him. Taeyong wondered whether he’d slimmed down naturally with age, or whether the stress had cost him the softer face.

   ‘Where are Lucas and Doyoung?’

   ‘Yukhei graduated from the School of Arts, and Doyoung was Computer Science,’ Ten said, taking the book with his arms slotted either side of Taeyong’s waist. He thumbed through the pages.

   ‘Wait, was that you?’ Taeyong asked, touching his hand to stop him.

   Ten let the page fall open.

   For a moment, it took Taeyong a minute to look properly at the image. He’d clocked Ten, of course, stood in a sharp suit and wide framed glasses. A glance at the top of the page showed that it was for Model UN.

   ‘What country were you?’ Taeyong asked.

   ‘Oh, I was the Secretary General, of course,’ said Ten, going to turn the page a little too quickly.

   ‘Wait,’ Taeyong said again. ‘That’s… that’s her.’

   He felt Ten stiffen, starting to close the book again, but it was too late.

   ‘Ten, that’s the woman from the party. In New York.’

   ‘Yes,’ Ten mused, voice unreadable, ‘yes I suppose it is.’

   ‘Ten.’

   He stopped, sighing and letting the book fall back open.

   Taeyong looked at the two of them, eyes flitting from Ten’s face to Han Youngmi’s, trying to make sense of the image.

   ‘You knew each other at college?’

   ‘Taeyong… I don’t…’ Ten started.

   Taeyong pushed the yearbook back onto the side, turning in his arms. ‘You said we’d talk to each other now,’ he said quietly.

   ‘That’s not fair,’ said Ten, but his voice was gentle.

   ‘Please, Ten. I told… I told you about my parents.’ He didn’t want to pull that card, but he could almost feel the importance of this… this woman in Ten’s life, and it was starting to nag at him.

   There was a pained silence, and then Ten looked at the book, apparently lost in thought.

   ‘I didn’t like the way she got you so anxious at the party,’ Taeyong said softly.

   Ten sighed. ‘Things between us are… complicated. Han Youngmi and I were very close at college. Not like that,’ he added, laughing at the look of surprise in Taeyong’s eyes, ‘trust me, she’d have been even less interested than me. But we were very close friends. In fact, she was probably the first friend I had that wasn’t Doyoung and Yukhei. We were very similar – she was equally ambitious, equally aggressive in her pursuit of goals. But we had a falling out. A very bad falling out. It was…mostly my fault.’

   ‘She seemed like… I never would have guessed you were friends.’

   ‘No, no I doubt you would have,’ Ten shook his head, ‘it’s been a long time. A decade. She’s had a lot of success – she’s very sought after in our world. Right now she contracts for our biggest rivals.’

   ‘Really?’

   ‘Funny how things work themselves out,’ said Ten, although the expression on his face said that he thought it was anything but funny. He closed the book with a snap, slotting it back on the shelf.

   Taeyong wanted to ask how they’d fallen out – what Ten had done. He couldn’t imagine him doing anything… wrong. But then he hadn’t known him ten years ago. Perhaps he’d been different, then.

   ‘Yeah, I guess it is,’ he said, deciding that he couldn’t push it. He had the right to some secrets. ‘Is this your family?’ Taeyong held up a photo frame excitedly.

   Ten nodded.

   ‘So you… and… mom and dad?’ Taeyong pointed.

   ‘Correct.’

   ‘And… sister?’ he guessed.

   ‘Yes,’ Ten smiled, ‘and her husband. My nephew wasn’t born yet. They live back home in Thailand.’

   ‘You never told me you had a sister? And you’re an uncle? Oh I bet you’re adorable with the kid,’ Taeyong smirked.

   ‘The only person who’s adorable here is you, baby,’ Ten laughed.

   ‘You look happy,’ he said, meeting the younger Ten’s eyes in the photo.

   ‘I was. I am.’

   ‘Hey, this is addressed to me!’ Taeyong snatched up a letter from the side, eyes wide in surprise.

   ‘Ah,’ said Ten, ‘yes it is. I wasn’t going to give it to you until after your exams. Distraction…’

   ‘Can I open it?’ Taeyong pouted.

   ‘Well we both know how impatient you are.’

   Taeyong ripped open the cream envelope with little care, curiosity getting the better of him. ‘Lucas wants to invite me to… to a party?’ he read, scanning quickly, then he almost dropped the invite. ‘To a masquerade?’

   ‘Yes,’ Ten mused, reading over his shoulder, ‘Taeyong plus guest apparently. I’m glad to see twenty years of friendship have earned me such esteem.’

   Taeyong turned, beaming, and he was glad to see that Ten was smiling. ‘He really didn’t send you one?’ he asked, working hard not to laugh.

   ‘I think he likes you more than he likes me,’ Ten rolled his eyes, then added with a look of mock concern. ‘Can I be your guest?’

   ‘Hmm,’ Taeyong pondered, heart pounding at the thought of a masquerade. It was the sort of thing he thought only existed on television. But then again, Ten’s most colourful friend did like to go over the top. ‘I think you might make… second reserve?’ he teased coyly – he hadn’t played around with Ten for a while.

   ‘Second reserve, huh?’ Ten murmured, pulling his back against his chest and stroking a line up his neck with his lips. ‘I’m disappointed, baby,’ he said, voice low, and he began to kiss over the vulnerable skin below his ear. ‘Are you sure I can’t change your mind?’

   He cupped a hand over his crotch, and Taeyong let out a soft whine as he started to palm him with agonising restraint through his now too-tight jeans, mouth working up what he knew would be a furious mark at the crook of his neck.

   He was going to lose his grasp on the game fast - Ten had him right where he wanted him.

   ‘Who’s your first choice, kitten?’ Ten breathed, right against his skin. Taeyong whimpered at his touch, already hot with need, nudging forwards for friction against his hand.

   ‘You, always you,’ he moaned, letting his head fall back against Ten’s shoulder.

   He actually felt Ten’s lips on his neck turn into a smile. ‘Good. Then I’ll see you at the ball,’ he said, giving him a light kiss on the cheek before pulling away, hand and all. ‘I can’t wait. You’ll look positively sinful in a mask.’

Chapter Text

If someone had told Lee Taeyong at the beginning of his third year that by the end of it he’d be edging closer to almost-happy, he might have laughed. In September, he’d been so drained. So exhausted. He’d been so fucking tired that he was ready to drop out if he wasn’t kicked out first.

   And now at the start of June, things were looking up.

   They weren’t perfect, but they were as good as they’d been in a long time.

   There was one big problem – the one thing that wasn’t going away: summer. The end of his lease was advancing dangerously, and he knew that even if he got a job now, he was going to have to talk to Ten. He was going to have to ask for money. Cash. Because his deposit wasn’t going to pay for itself.

   The thought made him sick to the stomach.

   Accepting presents he was used to – hell, he enjoyed it. But asking for money? It had been bad enough back when he used to borrow from Johnny. Asking Ten made him more worried – he’d already had so much from him.

   ‘I’m gonna skype Ten,’ he said to his best friend, rummaging around his desk for his laptop charger. ‘Do you mind?’

   He was less nervous about saying his boyfriend's name in Johnny’s presence, these days. After meeting him in less provocative circumstances, his roommate seemed to have finally accepted that he might not be a complete creep, though Taeyong was fairly confident that Ten still wasn’t one of his favourite people. Still, at least he didn’t recoil at the mere mention of him anymore.

   ‘No, it’s cool,’ said Johnny, ‘I’m gonna go downstairs ready for later. You still coming?’

   ‘Yeah,’ Taeyong smiled. ‘Tell the others I’ll be down in like half an hour.’

   Yuta and his roommates were spearheading the end of year bar crawl, and Taeyong knew that he’d never be forgiven if he missed it. He just really, really wanted to see Ten’s face first. It was like his last need of the day before he could truly relax.

   When Johnny had gone, he reached around in one of his drawers until he found the second thing that he was looking for.

   He pulled it on with a smile, burying his hands into the familiar softness.

   It was his hoodie. The hoodie. The baby-blue sweater that he’d worn the first time he’d ever spoken to Ten on camera.

   It only felt fitting to wear it again now that the year was coming to a close.

   He wondered whether Ten would remember it.

   He pulled the hood up over his hair, roots in abundance because he hadn’t taken much care over them during his last exams, and then carried his laptop to the bed, sitting it down on a cushion as he called him.

   A few dial tones, and then a clicking sound as Ten’s computer found its grip on the connection.

   For a moment, Ten just looked at him, and Taeyong felt nothing but the pure magnetism that seemed to hover between them now, before –

   ‘My pretty kitty,’ Ten said, for the first time in a long time. Back when Ten had first surveyed him through that camera, his gaze had been exploratory. He’d searched over every feature, evaluating him, making him feel… x-rayed. Now, though, he didn’t search. He didn’t analyse. He didn’t need to. He just met his eyes with tender familiarity.

   ‘ – live in colour,’ Taeyong finished for him, memories flooding his heart.

   Taeyong wasn’t the pretty kitty anymore.

   He was his.

   ‘I always wanted to see you in that sweater again,’ said Ten. ‘It reminds me of all the things I needed to find out about you from the moment I saw you. You were such a mystery; so soft and yet so extraordinarily powerful. You were the riddle I wanted to solve.’

   ‘Have you figured it out yet?’

   ‘I think I’m almost there,’ said Ten, sitting back and running a hand through his hair. He looked tired, dark hair flopping long over his eyes as it loosened from his fingers, and more casual than Taeyong was used to seeing him even now. He was wearing a black t-shirt, and wide-framed glasses, though even in combination with the dim lighting they didn’t hide the dark circles under his eyes. ‘How was your last exam?’

   Taeyong pulled a face. ‘Hard. I’m not so good at the theory thing. But I think I passed. I just hope I did well enough to pull my grade up for next year and then it’s just two semesters and I’m done.’

   ‘Well done, baby. I’m so proud of you, you know that? You’ve worked so hard. Way harder than I did at your age,’ Ten added with a laugh.

   ‘As if,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes. ‘How’s Shanghai?’

   ‘Onerous,’ Ten sighed.

   The hotel room that he was occupying was visible in the background, and Taeyong could see that it wasn’t as organised as Ten usually kept his space. His travel case was open on the ground, not unpacked, and even his suit bags were hung over the bathroom door rather than in the closet.

   Taeyong had the feeling that things weren’t entirely… right, at the moment. Ten still resolutely refused to talk about work with him, brushing him off at the slightest hint of that direction, but he could tell that this conference had come at the wrong time.

   ‘It’s harder, being away from my desk,’ Ten admitted. ‘I keep missing phone-calls because of presentations.’

   ‘You don’t miss mine though,’ said Taeyong, with a small smile that he hoped would cheer him up.

   ‘Never, baby,’ he said. ‘I’d skip out on meeting the president to take your calls.’

   ‘I miss you,’ Taeyong said quietly.

   ‘I miss you too. But I’ll be back soon, and it’s Yukhei’s party in a couple of weeks. Are you still going out tonight?’

   He nodded, rolling onto his front and propping his chin on his hand.

   ‘Well then don’t let me keep you away,’ said Ten. ‘You deserve to have fun with your friends.’

   Taeyong swallowed, not sure whether to make things serious, before saying, ‘I wish you were here too. Or I was there.’

   ‘Me too, sweetheart. I feel… empty, when you’re not with me, these days,’ Ten sighed.

   Taeyong’s heart seemed to flip over. Ten cared so much about him. Ten wouldn’t think twice about helping him. Ten would want him to ask. He inhaled deeply, summoning all his courage. He was about to do it when Ten interrupted his preparations.

   His tone was casual, business-like as ever because even now he struggled to show more than a second of vulnerability: ‘Now go on. Have fun. And text me when you get home. I want to know you’re safe.’

   Taeyong let out his breath, hating himself for the relief he felt at not having to say it for one more day. ‘You’ll be asleep,’ he said shyly.

   ‘I’ll check,’ said Ten. ‘Trust me.’

   ‘Okay, I’ll text. But don’t wait up.’

   ‘Have a great night. I hope your dreams are sweet when you eventually get home.’

   ‘Talk tomorrow,’ said Taeyong, wishing that he could just keep talking to him all night.

   ‘Night, baby.’

   ‘Goodnight.’

   When Taeyong stared at the call ended page, he felt strangely… empty. Every conversation now, it felt like there was a space left hanging in the air for more. There were things he needed to say – the summer, his rent – but more importantly there were things that he wanted to say. Things that he wanted Ten to say.

   Words that he wanted Ten to say.

   He closed his laptop, pushing it onto his desk, and shook away the thoughts in his head.

   Maybe that was one fantasy too far.

*

   Taeyong rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling. It had been three days since Ten had got back from Shanghai – three days and he still hadn’t asked him.

   He closed his eyes for a second, heart-rate already up.

   He had to do it - he was running out of time.

   Scratch that. He’d run out of time.

   He cursed his own stupid procrastination – his tendency to push every concern to the back of his mind and leave it for later, like if he didn’t think about it for long enough, it would just go away. It never did.

   With a heavy sigh, he swung his legs off the bed.

   His robe was back at his dorm, so he searched around the floor for his clothes instead, pulling on his shorts before finding a thick, white-knit sweater of Ten’s from the closet because the air-con was up high and he didn’t want to put his t-shirt back on. He’d noticed before that Ten liked his apartment cold – the opposite to how Taeyong would have it.

   He padded out into the hall, arms wrapped around himself anxiously, and poked his head into the living room.

   Ten was on the phone.

   He was always on the phone at the minute.

   Taeyong walked over to the coffee machine for something to do, listening. Ten was speaking in English, voice clipped and sharp, and Taeyong didn’t need a translation – the tone of his voice declared that the person on the other end of the line was not a friend.

   Great.

   Now he was going to be in a bad mood and this was exactly why Taeyong should have asked him at any of the other opportunities over the last month, instead of ending up stuck with this one.

   ‘Fuck…’ Ten groaned, throwing his phone down on the table when he hung up and running his hands through his hair. Taeyong glanced up – he’d often wondered whether Ten was as hesitant to curse when it came to his work as he was when he was with him. Evidently the answer was no.

   ‘Ten?’ he said softly.

   Ten turned around, looking at him in surprise. He took a moment to reconstruct his face, but the stress lines didn’t fade from his forehead. If he wasn’t careful, Taeyong thought, they’d stop fading altogether. ‘Yongie,’ he said, with an admirable attempt at a smile, ‘you’re up early?’

   ‘I, I – yeah…’ he trailed off. He’d changed his mind. He wasn’t going to say anything.

   ‘What’s wrong?’ Ten’s brow furrowed further. Too late.

   ‘I’m fine,’ Taeyong said quickly.

   Ten stood up from the couch, walking over to the kitchen. ‘You look stressed.’

   ‘So do you.’

   ‘It’s my job to be stressed. You shouldn’t be. What’s going on?’ Ten asked.

   ‘I - ’ he breathed in deeply, reminding himself that Ten had told him to ask him for this sort of thing. ‘I just… M-my lease is almost up at my dorm and - ’

   He swallowed, before finishing in a rush.

   ‘ - and I was going to get a part time job to pay for rent over the summer because it’s not like I need to be studying right now, and fuck I don’t want you to think I’m lazing around living off you, but nowhere is hiring and I’ve left it too late and now I’m going to be homeless in five days and I wanted to ask you for help but you’ve been so busy and I know things aren’t good at work and - ’ The words tumbled out, unrestrained, as though they’d finally overflowed their fragile container. ‘ – and now I’m panicking.’

   It seemed to take Ten a moment to figure out what to say – it was the slowest Taeyong had ever seen his mental processors operate. Maybe it was the fatigue from the toll of work. Then - ‘Five days?’

   ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Please don’t be mad at me,’ he said desperately.

   Ten just looked speechless. When he did speak, Taeyong wished that he had been. ‘Why didn’t you ask me a month ago? How long have you been worrying about this? How could you keep it from me?’

   ‘You keep things from me,’ said Taeyong, dropping rapidly onto the defensive.

   ‘Not things that could make me homeless in a week.’

   ‘I was… I was embarrassed. I’m sorry.’

   ‘Christ, Taeyong,’ he said. ‘How many times do I have to tell you that I’ll handle this sort of thing? I just don’t get it. This sort of money is nothing to me – less than nothing, I wouldn’t even notice if someone took it from my account – and yet you act like it’s a huge goddamn deal to ask me for it - ’

   ‘Please don’t have a go at me, Ten,’ said Taeyong, praying that his eyes wouldn’t well up.

   ‘I’m not having a go at you,’ Ten said, the rising decibels in his voice in contradiction with his words, ‘I just wish you knew how frustrating it is watching you struggle when I could fix this shit for you with a snap of my fingers but you won’t let me, and - ’

   ‘Frustrating for you?’ Taeyong started, and all of a sudden the pent up emotions from the last few weeks rose to the surface in one aggressive burst. He knew that Ten wasn’t angry with him, that he was just venting his stress about work to the nearest receptacle, but it didn’t stop it hitting him where he was sensitive. ‘Well I’m sorry, Ten, if this is difficult for you, but you don’t get it. How could you? You never did the poor thing. You did the parents-looking-after-you-thing and then the rich thing.’

   He knew he shouldn’t be saying these things, but he couldn’t seem to swallow them back down. This was exactly why he shouldn’t keep things bottled up, he knew, but it was too late for hindsight now.

   Ten tried to speak, but Taeyong still wasn’t stopping.   

   ‘You don’t know what it’s like to ask for money because you’ve never had to do it. You don’t know how fucking humiliating it is,’ he said, angry tears pricking his eyes. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be at someone’s mercy like that, because money’s not like a pretty present or nice clothes, it’s what you need to live. And I know you just want to help me but having to actually ask is harder than someone like you could know and so I’m sorry. I’m sorry if it’s hard for you. If it’s frustrating. But it’s not that fucking easy for me either.’

   Ten looked genuinely deflated as Taeyong felt tears break the surface. ‘Oh Yongie, baby - ’

   ‘And I’m not crying,’ he snapped, but his voice broke, ‘it’s just my traitor-ass body’s reaction to minor confrontation, and it’s really irritating, so don’t make a big deal of it, okay? And while we’re on the topic of making-a-big-deal-out-of-it, I get that twelve weeks of rent is nothing to you – that it’s “less than nothing”. But it’s not nothing to me, so please just think before you speak and have a bit of fucking humility, because it hurts when you talk about money like it’s worthless.’

   ‘Taeyong, I’m sorry,’ he said in a voice that was explicitly sincere, ‘I didn’t realise - ’

   ‘I know, I know you didn’t, and I’m not trying to make you feel bad and I really, really didn’t want this to turn into a fight, but I’m freaking out, and I just really need you to be the boyfriend who cares about me right now, not the sugar daddy with the grotesque bank balance, and - ’

   ‘Come here,’ he said gently, holding out his arms.

   Taeyong gravitated towards them without a second thought, anger spent and replaced by an ache in his heart, letting Ten pull him close against him.

   ‘I’m so sorry.’

   ‘It’s fine,’ Taeyong whispered into the shoulder of his shirt.

   ‘No, no it’s not. I took a bad week out on you. I was ignorant and unreasonable and I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I screwed up. I’m sorry.’

   ‘Okay,’ Taeyong mumbled. He wasn’t used to someone admitting they were wrong. Most arguments in his life had ended with him crying and saying he was wrong whether it was true or not, because it was better than losing someone again.

   Ten took a deep breath, the sort that Taeyong usually took to ground himself. ‘But I need you to understand that the reason I take it too personally is that… that it hurts me too, it hurts to watch the person you love suffering when you know you could fix their problems in a heartbeat,’ Ten said, ‘and it terrifies me that you’re too scared to talk to me about it, baby. It means I’m doing something wrong. It means I’m not making you feel safe.’

   Taeyong shifted against him. ‘The person you love?’ he said quietly, having completely missed everything that came after.

   Ten stilled, silent, apparently caught off guard by his own words. ‘I - ’

   ‘You love me?’ Taeyong unravelled in his arms to look at him.

   A silence.

   An agonisingly long silence.

   Then finally -

   ‘Of course I love you,’ Ten said, the words seeming to come from his chest rather than his throat by the strain within them.

   ‘Why didn’t you say it before?’ asked Taeyong. He felt numb, ears rushing, mind trying to keep up with the reality that had just shifted before him. He’d already forgotten what they’d been fighting about.

   Ten opened his mouth, then closed it, then sighed. ‘Because I’ve waited thirty-two years for you, and I didn’t think my heart could take it if you didn’t say it back. I thought… I thought it would be easier not knowing.’

   Taeyong stared at him, heart racing.

   A fantasy too far.

   Or not.

   ‘I love you too,’ he said, ‘I’ve loved you for ages.’

   Relief. Relief was written all across Ten’s face. ‘When?’ he asked weakly, and at last the lines of tension had settled.

   Taeyong had never really thought about pinpointing the exact moment, but as he spoke, he found that he knew the answer without even having to think about it. ‘After we got back from New York,’ he said. ‘That day when you finally left that stupid phone on your desk and came to bed with me instead. It was the first time that you… that you chose me.’

   ‘You know I’ll always choose you now?’ Ten said quietly.

   Taeyong felt something flutter in his heart. ‘When was it for you?’

   Ten paused for a moment. ‘A little earlier,’ he said, and his lips found the first genuine smile that the room had seen that morning. ‘It was when you took me to that ballet. I thought I was going to fall apart after that horrible party – and you just took my hand and it was like nothing mattered anymore, as long as you were with me. And you were so cute pretending to be interested,’ he added.

   Taeyong pulled a face. ‘I thought I was being convincing.’

   ‘It made it more charming that you weren’t,’ Ten said tenderly. He moved him back a little, lacing both of his hands into his hair, and held his gaze, before saying it again. ‘I love you.’ He pulled him down for a kiss – a proper kiss – a kiss so loaded that Taeyong wondered how he’d thought there was passion in any of the hundreds before.

   When they broke apart, Taeyong stayed close. ‘Because we technically had a fight, does that mean we can…?’

   ‘What are you after?’ Ten teased.

   ‘Well, I’ve heard a lot of good things about make-up-sex,’ Taeyong said casually.

   ‘We’ve already made up,’ Ten smiled, but one of his hands was already moving down to nudge up his sweater, finding the curve of his waist to pull his body flush against his.

   ‘How about I-love-you sex, then?’ Taeyong giggled as Ten started to push him, walking him backwards towards the bedroom.

   ‘I suppose that could be arranged,’ Ten shrugged, pushing him gently down on the bed.

   Then he kissed him again, and he touched him again, and Taeyong’s whole world fell into place.

   It didn’t feel like sex this time, not apart from the heat of his skin and the stars in his mind and the tight grip of their interlinked fingers. It felt like more. Like a connection. It was slow but passionate, coupled with words in his ear, melodic but erotic, sensual but romantic.

   He understood, now, why they called it making love.

   Afterwards, Ten wrapped his arms around him, skin against skin, and held him there. Just held him. After a while, he spoke. ‘Listen, Taeyongie, I’m sorry I didn’t realise that the money was an issue for you,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘Just… just let me know, whatever you’re comfortable with.’

   Taeyong shut his eyes, nestling his cheek against Ten’s chest. After a second, he whispered. ‘It’s not that I don’t like you paying. It’s just hard to ask.’

   ‘Okay,’ Ten murmured. ‘But you know I’ll always take care of you? You know that you’re safe, that you’re secure? You’ll never have to struggle like before, baby boy, not ever again.’ The words settled in Taeyong’s consciousness with all the warmth of his embrace. ‘We’ll find you the most beautiful apartment in Seoul for the summer,’ he added, kissing the crown of his head.

   Taeyong nodded against him, and wondered what on earth he’d been worried about for so many weeks. Of course his boyfriend would look after him.

   ‘Or…’ Ten inhaled shakily – almost nervously – nose still nuzzling his hair, ‘or you could… you could stay here?’

   Taeyong’s eyes flickered open.

   ‘You can say no,’ Ten said quickly, ‘but I know you’ll want to be back in your dorm with your friends come September, and it’s only a few weeks til then, and… and it’s a big apartment. I’m hardly ever here, you’d have all the space in the world, I promise.’

   ‘Really?’ Taeyong whispered, heart thudding against his chest.

   ‘If that would make you happy.’

   ‘Yes, yes,’ Taeyong’s face broke into a smile, ‘but please be here more than hardly-ever.’

   Ten laughed, tightening his grip around him. ‘I’ll try.’

   ‘Thanks, Ten.’

   ‘Thanks, Yongie.’

   They laid still for a while, the only movement Ten’s hand as he brushed Taeyong’s bangs gently from his eyes and stroked the backs of his fingers down his cheek. Taeyong closed his eyes again. It was far too early to sleep – he’d only woken a couple of hours ago – but it wasn’t too early to dream.

   Then, because reality always took over, Ten shifted.

   ‘You’re leaving,’ Taeyong mumbled, before he’d even begun to move properly. ‘You’re not going to go to work, are you? It’s Saturday,’ he said, and he knew that there was a pleading tone to his voice. Ten had been dressed for the office when he’d got up.

   ‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours,’ Ten said, kissing his forehead before extricating himself. ‘I’m not going to work, I promise.’

   ‘Okay,’ he nodded, a little sad but resigned more than anything. He always left.

   ‘I love you.’

   ‘Mm,’ Taeyong hummed, rolling onto his side and pulling Ten’s pillow into his arms. ‘Keep telling me.’

   Ten smiled. ‘Later.’

   A few minutes after he’d gone, Taeyong dragged himself out of bed, figuring that he should probably do something before the day was out. He wandered into the kitchen, and over to the fridge. It was full, a lot of it foods that Taeyong would never even have thought to spend out on himself. He wondered, for a second, who bought all this stuff, but then he vaguely recalled Ten mentioning a housekeeper. He took out a bundle of ingredients, dropping them down on the countertop, and got to work.

*

   Ten was true to his word, returning in a little over an hour and a half.

   ‘You’re back,’ Taeyong beamed.

   ‘You’re cooking,’ said Ten. His arm hooked around his waist, pulling him straight in for a deep kiss.

   ‘You realise you’re going to eat properly now that I’m staying here, right?’ Taeyong said happily when they broke apart. ‘Restaurant food is full of salt, you shouldn’t eat out so much.’

   ‘Eating out is bad for you?’ Ten asked, with an expression of great betrayal.

   ‘If you do it all the time, yeah,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes. ‘How do you know so much about everything and yet so little about food? Restaurant meals are packed with sugar and sodium and hidden fats. You need home dinners. You need someone to cook for you. You should have hired a chef or something ages ago.’

   ‘So you’re saying I need someone to take care of me?’ Ten said coyly, and when he leaned on the countertop with that smile, he looked… younger. Playful. That wasn’t a Ten that Taeyong got to see very often. ‘If only someone would… volunteer?’

   Taeyong threw an oven mitt at him. ‘Do you remember everything I’ve ever said to you or…?’

   ‘Most of it,’ said Ten, catching the mitt and then catching his waist again to kiss his neck. ‘Especially the cute things.’

   ‘Where did you go, anyway?’

   Ten took a moment before answering. ‘Okay, I realise that I’ve been thoughtless, because you’re right, I am blinkered when it comes to money. So please just tell me if this is insulting or crass or stupid, but it was the best I could come up with.’

   ‘Alright…’ Taeyong said curiously, a little on edge all of a sudden.

   ‘Here,’ Ten said, pulling out his wallet and flipping it open. He held out a card.

   It was a black, matte finished credit card with gold edging.

   Taeyong stared at him.

   ‘It’s in your name. Spend whatever you need, buy whatever you want. You won’t have to ask anymore, and I promise I won’t even look at it when I pay it off. You never, ever need to feel uncomfortable about what you’re spending on it, okay? In fact, I’ll even ask Sumi to deal with it for me if you want, I won’t even know.’

   Taeyong continued to stare, lips parting slightly in surprise. ‘Ten… I…’

   ‘Is it bad?’ Ten said, sounding tense. ‘I didn’t know - ’

   ‘Thank you,’ Taeyong said softly, putting him out of his misery. He took the card, turning it over in his hand. ‘What’s the limit?’

   Ten paused, then said carefully, ‘more than you’ll spend. Trust me.’

   More than you’ve ever seen in your life, TY, Taeyong thought to himself. Still, he was glad that Ten hadn’t said a figure.

   ‘And I bought this,’ Ten said, taking an already unboxed iPhone from his back pocket.

   Taeyong raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘You already got me a phone,’ he said, wondering if Ten was so blasé with his spending that he’d already forgotten.

   ‘It’s for me.’

   ‘For you...?’ Taeyong lifted one eyebrow higher.

   ‘I’m going to keep my old phone for business, and this one will be for me. Personal contacts only. If there’s a real emergency at work, Doyoung and Yukhei will be able to get a hold of me, but I’ll tell them that emergency means emergency, otherwise work stays on the work phone.’

   Taeyong computed his words, swallowing as he figured out the connotations of everything that Ten was saying.

   ‘This,’ Ten said, ‘comes to bed with me. Just in case. The other stays in my desk drawer at night.’

   ‘Ten…’ Taeyong started, lost for words amongst the feeling rising in his chest.

   Ten took his face in his hands, thumbing lightly across his cheekbones. ‘I didn’t know how to have a work-life balance before you Taeyong, because I never had the life part, and I’m sorry that I hurt you trying to figure it out. But I’m working on it. You’re my priority now.’

   Ten was compromising. Ten was choosing him. And he probably deserved better than another ‘thank you,’ but Taeyong was still too caught up in feelings to think of something proper to say.

   ‘What’s for lunch?’ Ten asked. He never stayed exposed for long.

   Emotion was replaced by an easy laugh, and Taeyong turned back to the stove.

   He wasn’t sure at what point during the morning his life seemed to have figured itself out, but almost-happy had become… happy.

   Perhaps it was the same moment that an arrangement with Ten had been replaced by the prospect of a life with Ten.

Chapter Text

   Being in Ten’s apartment without Ten felt to Taeyong rather like being in a museum. Suddenly, he was nervous to touch anything, lest he break it. The silence was so heavy around him, so unfamiliar compared to the constant commotion at the dorms, that he felt he ought to keep very quiet. And above all, he didn’t quite know what… to do.

   Leaving his dorm had left an ache in his heart. It wasn’t like he was saying goodbye to his friends yet – he was meeting up with everyone one last time at the weekend before they went their separate ways for summer – but even just saying goodbye to the room was hard; seeing the empty canvas he’d built his life on for the year, stripped bare. That was the thing about living the way he had for so long, never staying somewhere more than a few months. He’d spent so much time disassembling and rebuilding.

   He didn’t know how much he should build at Ten’s place, so he’d left all of his stuff dumped in boxes in one of his spare rooms, carried up the stairs by a complaining Johnny who hadn’t quite forgiven him for keeping his housing problems secret. At the very least, though, before he’d left, Johnny had asked him to thank Ten for him, for giving him somewhere to live.

   Progress.

   Ten had already warned him that he wouldn’t be home until late. He was so fucking stressed. Even when Taeyong was settled against him, or wrapped in his arms, he could feel the tension in his body. He walked with his shoulders lower than usual, as though stooping under the weight of responsibility. But no matter what Taeyong said, he wouldn’t talk about it.

   As Taeyong thought about it, he was struck by an idea.

   Something he could do all day.

   Something, he hoped, that might make Ten’s week a little easier.

*

   ‘Surprise!’ Taeyong beamed, as soon as Ten stepped over the threshold.

   Ten looked around, a smile replacing the look of strain that he must have carried home with him. ‘You’ve been busy.’ His eyes flickered from the candles that he’d dotted around to the visible half of the kitchen where dinner was cooking.

   ‘How was your day?’

   ‘Better now,’ Ten avoided, as he pulled him close for a kiss.

   Taeyong settled his hands on the lapels of his jacket. ‘I wanted to make the perfect evening. It’s our first night living together in our apartment,’ he tasted the sweetness of the words on his tongue, ‘and I want you to be happy. I want to help you relax.’

   ‘If you’re here, I’m happy,’ Ten said, tone soft. ‘And I’m… almost relaxed.’

   ‘I’ll get you there,’ Taeyong promised, pushing the blazer back from his shoulders. Ten obliged, slipping it off and letting Taeyong fold it over his own arm.

   He’d spent all day planning all this. It was, in his mind, the one small thing that he could make happen after everything Ten had done for him. He wanted to make this apartment the place that he could come home to safe from all the stress, where he could just be Ten the boyfriend, not Ten the corporate finance magnate.

   ‘Here,’ he said, skipping back into the kitchen and sweeping up a glass of red wine he’d poured when he’d heard the door. It was Ten’s favourite. He’d dug into the deepest corners of the drinks cabinet to find an unopened bottle.

   ‘What did I do to deserve all this?’ Ten asked. ‘Did I forget my birthday or something?’

   ‘Nope, I just love you,’ Taeyong stole another kiss, ‘and I want you to have a few hours where you don’t have to worry about work. I made dinner.’

   Ten followed him to the table with a long, devoted look. ‘You’re like my guardian angel, baby.’

   ‘Ah, ah, one more thing,’ Taeyong said, reaching out and pulling loose his tie, fingers fumbling the top button of his shirt, then the second, freeing Ten to breathe for what was probably the first time all day. ‘There we go. This is my family bibimbap,’ he explained when served up, ‘a secret recipe, you know.’

   Ten’s eyes crinkled with a smile. ‘Thank you.’

   ‘So,’ Taeyong said as soon as they started eating. He wanted to keep up a conversation, anything that would stop Ten getting wrapped back up into the work corner of his mind. ‘Do I need to buy a mask for the party?’

   ‘You really think I haven’t got you covered?’ Ten smiled.

   Excitement. ‘Can I see it yet? Please?’ he pouted.

   ‘Patience, baby,’ Ten laughed.

   They talked then for a while, about Yukhei’s partiality for parties, which led on to Doyoung’s indifference to parties, which led on to Ten’s dislike of parties that he promised had lessened somewhat now that he had someone to half-enjoy them with. Then they talked about food, which went on to family, which went on to places that Taeyong didn’t want to go so he steered the way back to favourite desserts as he stood up to get the hotteok he’d made in the afternoon.

   It was, Taeyong noticed, possibly the longest time they’d ever spent just… talking.

   He felt like he’d learned more… stuff about Ten from this evening than he had in the nine months they’d known each other.

   ‘Favourite colour?’ Taeyong asked.

   ‘Black.’

   ‘That’s not a colour,’ he stuck his tongue out.

   Ten rolled his eyes. ‘What’s yours then, clever boy?’

   ‘Pink.’

   ‘Well, I’m shocked,’ Ten said airily, then his face softened as Taeyong blushed as pink as his words, and he reached out for his hand across the table. ‘Thank you, Yongie, for… this. You’ve made this evening so perfect.’

   ‘We’re not done,’ Taeyong said happily. ‘We haven’t even got to the fun part yet.’  

   ‘Whatever could that be?’ Ten sat back, with a look in his eyes that said he knew the answer.

   ‘I’ve been waiting for you to get home all day, missing you, wanting you…’ Taeyong took his lip between his teeth as he stood up, weight shifting to one foot to pop his hip.

   ‘Well now you’ve got me interested,’ Ten exhaled, and even as he spoke, he unhooked his cufflinks.

   ‘But first I have to get ready,’ Taeyong said brightly, giving a little wave, then darted his way to the bathroom.

   Inside, he took the shirt he’d left on the side, heart thudding with anticipation, and replaced the cute sweater he’d been wearing. This shirt was oversized, even more than those he usually liked to wear, enough that when he kicked off his jeans and checked the full-length mirror, he looked just decent enough to still play coy.

   He lifted his thumbs to smudge at his eyeliner. He wanted to look hot, not cute. Cute had just made dinner for Ten. Hot was coming to play now. He mussed up his hair, feathering it out across his forehead so that it touched at his lashes. With an angle of his head, he looked at his reflection. Dark, kohl-lined eyes, not enough clothes, and a general air of disrepute. Yes, the desired effect had been reached, he thought. He looked quite like he’d just stumbled out of a particularly iniquitous party.

   He unbuttoned the white shirt to halfway down his chest, and nudged the neck to slide down his shoulder as he walked back out to the living room.

   Ten was over by the mantelpiece, pouring out a glass of something strong from a crystal decanter.

   ‘Oh baby,’ he breathed when he looked around, hand hovering over his tumbler. His gaze trailed up and down, and a flush of dark, rushing desire flitted across his eyes.

   Taeyong felt his neck flush.

   Christ. He’d planned this shit and somehow he was the one blushing. Even now, Ten still managed to have this effect on him.

   ‘This is the fun part.’

   ‘I thought you wanted me to relax?’ said Ten, eyes raking over him again. ‘Right now I’m just feeling…’

   ‘Feeling what, Ten?’ he asked, and as he spoke he wandered his hand down to stroke slowly over himself through the thin shirt, eyes fixed completely on Ten’s.

   ‘Fuck, Yongie,’ Ten shook his head, ‘you’ll give a guy a heart attack looking like that. You remember I’m older than you, right? I have to watch my health.’

   Taeyong let his other hand trail down his chest, playing with the hem of his shirt and drawing it up enough to make Ten’s lips part in want. ‘So make me stop,’ he said, stroking over the angle of his hip, then across his stomach, pulling the shirt all the way up with him.

   ‘I don’t think that’s quite what you want, is it kitten?’ There was a clink as he put the decanter back on the mantelpiece, and when he was very, very close in front of him, he spoke, breath actually touching his lips. ‘You know, Taeyong, back when we were first messaging each other, you told me you were a good boy. It was one of the first things you ever said to me.’

   ‘I remember,’ Taeyong whispered.

   ‘But good boys don’t look like you do tonight,’ Ten said steadily. ‘They don’t behave like you are right now.’

   Taeyong swallowed, but it did nothing to stem the feeling that was flooding through him.

   ‘What are you, Taeyong?’ Ten slid a hand down between them and wrapped it around his cock, without pause, without pretence, thumbing gently over his head. Taeyong angled towards him with a moan, forgetting he’d said anything. ‘When I ask you a question, you answer, kitten,’ Ten reminded him.

   Fuck it had been too long since they’d done this. Properly. The sort of properly that had that drop in Ten’s tone that made his knees weak.

   A pause, and then he choked, ‘bad?’ It was a question rather than a statement.

   ‘Mm,’ Ten mused. ‘Is it because I was out all day, baby? You need me here to keep you in line?’

   ‘Yes,’ he said, and his cock was fucking aching now. He knew that it showed in Ten’s hand, twitching with every word, every small touch. ‘I need you.’

   ‘I bet you do,’ Ten tutted, letting go of him and smiling at the little whine of loss. He took a sip of his drink before sprawling back on the couch and propping one foot up on the coffee table, legs wide. ‘You seem to have planned a show, so go ahead.’

   Taeyong swallowed, breathing unsteady. ‘I… I didn’t plan this far,’ he mumbled. Usually Ten just took charge, he’d expected the same as usual.

   ‘You need me to help you out, darling?’ Ten said, tilting his head fondly to one side.

   Taeyong nodded in relief.

   ‘Come here,’ Ten instructed, and Taeyong took his guiding hands as he pulled him to straddle his lap. When he settled, Ten pulled loose a couple more buttons of his shirt, and tugged it from both shoulders, down to pool around his bent elbows, hem folding up on his thighs. ‘I want to see these,’ Ten murmured, brushing both thumbs across his collarbones.

   Taeyong rolled his hips a little forwards, wondering how long the foreplay was going to last because he was already so fucking hard. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be setting the pace.

   ‘Still impatient, aren’t you kitten?’ Ten laughed softly.

   Taeyong stilled. He tucked his hands up in the shirt sleeves that had fallen so far past his fingers, thinking that if he kept them gripped tight, he’d be able to concentrate on not moving. He knew how much Ten enjoyed this part – he wanted to drag it out.

   ‘Nothing here today?’ Ten asked, stroking down the side of his neck.

   ‘I wanted you to… to…’

   ‘You can tell me,’ he allowed with a smile. ‘It’s still your show. I’m just here for… guidance.’

   ‘Kiss me here,’ he exhaled, closing his eyes as Ten obliged in a second, hand cupping around the back of his neck and mouth latching a long, passionate kiss against his throat, tongue sliding warm and wet across his pulse and making him let out a heavy breath.

   Taeyong whined when he started to suck a mark at the crook of his neck, teeth grazing the skin. ‘Tell me I’m yours. Tell me I’m only yours.’ He knew how much Ten liked that too, as much as he liked to hear it, and this was supposed to be Ten’s night. That was how he’d planned it.

   ‘Oh you’re all mine, kitten,’ Ten said, pulling back and meeting his eyes with a dark, unabashed look of passion. ‘Mine to touch, mine to fuck, mine to hold,’ his voice turned a little softer at that. ‘My love.’

   Taeyong keened. ‘Say it again.’

   ‘My love,’ Ten breathed.

   ‘I want you now,’ Taeyong whispered, stretching around the couch for the bottle he’d left there earlier.

   ‘You really did plan all this, didn’t you?’ Ten smiled. He took the lube, spreading plenty out on his fingers. He tugged up the back of Taeyong’s shirt and pulled him more flush against him, finding more leverage to work a finger down and stroke around his rim. Taeyong gasped, bucking forwards, cock caught between them and aching from the friction against Ten’s shirt.

   ‘Fast,’ he choked out, not sure he’d be able to come up with a full sentence.

   But Ten knew what he meant. He pressed a finger inside him, quick and deep to the knuckle, enough that it stung. The best kind of sting. Just how he liked it. Taeyong mewled as he nudged a second finger inside soon after.

   ‘Fuck,’ he whined, working his hips back, because Ten wasn’t moving his hand at all.

   ‘See,’ Ten exhaled, breathing uneven, ‘you’re so good at doing it all yourself, baby.’

   ‘More.’

   As he fucked himself back against three of Ten’s fingers, his eyes fell closed, forehead dropping against Ten’s shoulder, focussing on nothing but the sensation. His body was trembling with the responsibility of doing the work himself, arms resting on the back of the couch, one hand gripping the frame.

   He only opened his eyes when he heard Ten unzipping his pants with his other hand.

   ‘Wanna feel you,’ he whimpered as Ten withdrew his fingers, leaving his muscles clenching automatically, malcontent.

   ‘Don’t worry, baby,’ Ten assured him, only taking a few seconds of attention for himself to slick up before gripping Taeyong’s hip and directing him down. ‘I’ll make you feel so good.’

   The angle as Taeyong sheathed himself down around Ten’s cock was so new, so deep, so unrelenting as his own shaking thighs pulled him down to the hilt, that he moaned, a long, drawn-out moan that would have been embarrassing in the company of anyone else in the world.

   ‘Let me hear your pretty voice, baby,’ said Ten, the only person he’d share these sounds with.

   ‘Fuck, fuck Ten,’ he whined, using any purchase he could find on the couch or Ten’s body to lift himself and fuck back down.

   Ten jerked his hips to meet him, throwing his head back against the cushion. ‘God you feel so fucking tight like this,’ he seethed through his teeth, fingers digging in hard to Taeyong’s waist. Taeyong knew that he was trying hard not to just take hold and move him himself.

   It took a moment, a few clumsy tries, before Taeyong found the right angle. He was so anxious to impress him. In the nine months that they’d been together, he’d never ridden Ten like this. He’d never done it with anyone. And apparently he’d never thought about how difficult it would be to get right.

   But he was finding a rhythm, and Ten was telling him it was good, and that was all that mattered. He grinded himself down, slowly at first with a rolling of his hips, but lifting himself higher each time with the friction sending Ten stargazing.

   ‘Fuck, baby,’ he panted, and when Taeyong looked at him, there was a sheen of sweat across his forehead, dark hair sticking and lips parting with breath. It was so rare, the most precious moments of all, when Taeyong got to see him like this, inhibitions gone, control lax.

   Taeyong paused for a second, having to catch his breath.

   Ten sat up a little, the shift in angle making him gasp again. ‘You’re doing so great, Yongie,’ he murmured, giving him a long, open-mouthed kiss, more breath than touch.

   When they broke apart, Taeyong started to move again, gripping one hand around Ten’s shoulder, and to his relief Ten started to use his hold on his hips to help as he rode him. The support made it easier, the pace made it better, and Taeyong let his head roll back, exposing his throat, the hollow of his clavicles, every line of his body.

   Ten leant forwards, tonguing over his nipple, exposed from the complete mess of his shirt. The added sensitivity made his cock throb, and Taeyong tensed with need as he felt the rush of blood from his head. He squeezed his eyes closed again, choking a moan every time Ten’s cock pressed against his prostate, unforgiving in this position.

   He wanted to hold back, wanted Ten to come first, wanted to join him a second later untouched and all from him, but all of a sudden it was taking a lot of focus to keep himself back from the edge.

   ‘Ten, Ten,’ he whined, but then Ten pulled him down hard, bottoming out with a groan, and he watched him fall apart.

   ‘Fuck, Yong, fuck!’

   Watching Ten come – come from him – was so fucking special. He watched his eyes flutter closed, gasps a little higher than usual as he dropped his sensual persona, curses chasing out of his lips.

   The sensation, the warmth, the pulse inside him, was enough to push Taeyong over soon after, and he collapsed forwards against Ten as he came between them, untouched and quivering. For a moment, he just moaned, but then Ten finally gave him some attention, hand moving between them to stroke him the rest of the way through until he was fully spent, biting down against Ten’s shoulder. Waves continued to flutter through his body for a few moments, making him arch his back with the twinges of sensitivity.

   ‘God,’ Ten exhaled as he lifted him off him, settling him a little further back on his thighs. ‘I should’ve let you take the reins one time before.’

   ‘You did most of the work,’ Taeyong whispered shyly, voice still shaking.

   ‘No, baby, this was all you,’ said Ten, and he pulled him in for a chaste kiss. ‘All you.’ He carded a hand gently through his hair. After a moment of nothing but tenderness, bringing him back down from his high, Ten spoke again. ‘You wanna take a shower?’

   ‘Together?’ Taeyong asked automatically.

   ‘Of course,’ Ten kissed him again.

   When Taeyong made to stand up, his legs were like jelly, wobbling as he put weight back on them.

   ‘Hey, hey, I’ve got you,’ Ten caught his arm, supporting him as he stood too.

   Taeyong settled into his side. ‘I know, I know you have.’

*

   ‘Can we watch something?’

   Ten raised his eyebrows, towelling his hair as he watched Taeyong tie his robe. ‘What do you want to watch?’

   ‘I don’t…’ Taeyong paused awkwardly. He didn’t want this perfect evening to end. ‘I don’t care,’ he confessed, ‘the business channel if you want, I just don’t want to go to sleep yet.’

   Ten laughed. ‘Well why don’t I put some music on instead, then? That way we can talk if we want.’

   Taeyong beamed.

   He wandered into the living room, bare feet chilly on the marble tiled floor, and hopped quickly to the couch.

   ‘Not that one,’ Ten said, ‘I can’t sit there after what we just did on it. I’ll be distracted. And don’t let me go to bed without cleaning up, either.’

   Taeyong pulled a face, and went to the other couch, sitting down cross legged on the seat and watching his boyfriend stroll over to the sound system. He put on a song, turning the music low, a slow, bassy R&B track, before crossing over and sitting down.

   Taeyong lowered himself onto his side and rested his head gently in Ten’s lap, closing his eyes and listening to the music. Ten’s fingers worked their way into his damp hair.

   ‘Thanks for letting me stay here, Ten.’

   ‘You know you don’t have to think of it like staying here?’ he answered. ‘You’re living here. It’s your home too for as long as you want it. Our apartment, remember?’

   Taeyong smiled, moving onto his back, head very comfortable on Ten’s thighs. ‘Be careful, Ten, you might end up with plushies in your living room if you give me too much license.’

   ‘I’d like that,’ Ten murmured. He traced the lines of his face with his fingertips. ‘Your things are so cute. Yukhei always tells me this place doesn’t feel like it’s lived in. Maybe you can make it feel more like a home.’

  After a few moments, when he almost shivered, chilled by his wet hair, Taeyong asked, ‘Ten, why do you always have the air-conditioning so high?’

   ‘It helps me concentrate on work. Warmth makes you sleepy, the cold makes you sharper.’

   ‘Home should be the place you’re safe from work, Ten,’ Taeyong said softly. ‘Your sanctuary.’

   ‘Are you cold now?’ Ten asked, looking down at him.

   ‘No,’ he mumbled.

   ‘Yes you are,’ Ten said, with a gentle smile. He lifted Taeyong’s head carefully from his lap and rested it down on a cushion instead, standing up and walking to the room where Taeyong had left all of his stuff.

   He returned with one of his fluffy blankets bundled up in his arms.

   ‘Tell me what makes a home, Yongie,’ he murmured, as he adopted his original position and settled the blanket over Taeyong’s body. ‘Other than a more reasonable thermostat.’

   ‘People you love in it,’ Taeyong whispered.

   ‘Well that’s already solved.’

   ‘Smells.’

   Ten raised an eyebrow. ‘I beg your pardon?’

   ‘For me, that’s how I know a place is home. When you walk through the front door and you get that hit of something. In my dorm, it was this mix of pot ramen, and straight-up pot from two doors down, and this so-called-forest air diffuser I had on my nightstand. Before that, I was sharing this room in this tiny place in Seoul, and it smelled like the street-food stall outside. And before that - ’ he stopped.

   Ten took his hand, squeezing it gently and rubbing his thumb over his knuckles.

   Taeyong inhaled slowly before continuing. ‘ – at home, I mean at my parents’ house, it was always the same too. Even when we moved from city to city, it always smelled like my house, you know? Sandalwood incense, that my mom always put out. It was way too strong but we couldn’t bear to tell her,’ he laughed, then his breath caught.

   ‘Oh Yongie,’ Ten sighed. He pressed his lips to his hand.

   ‘So what about you?’ Taeyong asked, clearing his throat. ‘What do you think home smells like?’

   There was a moment of quiet, and then Ten spoke. ‘What’s in your shampoo?’

   ‘Huh?’

   ‘Your shampoo,’ Ten said again, ‘what’s in it?’

   ‘Oh… er…’ Taeyong’s mouth fell open in surprise. He used an expensive shampoo, one of the few indulgences he’d always found money for. He bleached his hair so much that he needed to keep it in good condition. ‘Um… watermelon, lychee, edelweiss, macadamia… mango, maybe?’

   ‘That,’ said Ten. ‘That’s what home smells like.’

   The couch creaked as Taeyong sat up, eyes wide. ‘I… I don’t think that comes in an air freshener,’ he said softly.

   ‘Good thing you’re here then.’

   Taeyong opened his mouth to say something, but he didn’t. He didn’t need to. Instead, he moved closer, nudging his head up under Ten’s chin and resting his cheek on his shoulder.

   ‘I’m going to be working late again tomorrow,’ said Ten, after a silence. ‘I’m sorry.’

   Taeyong wanted to ask what was going on that had him so stressed. He wanted to ask again. But he’d promised that Ten wouldn’t have to think about work tonight, so he held his tongue. Instead, he took his blanket into his hands and pushed it half over Ten, who laughed, closing his eyes. ‘I guess we really should go to bed if you have a long day again tomorrow. You need to keep yourself healthy,’ said Taeyong, voice gentle.

   ‘Mm,’ Ten sighed, ‘I suppose we should.’

   ‘But… five more minutes?’ Taeyong whispered.

   Ten wrapped his arms around him and nodded, pressing a soft kiss to his temple. ‘Yeah, five more minutes.’

Chapter Text

‘We’ll meet them in the East conference room – the sun will come through the windows at the perfect time for a good mood, but not enough to get in their eyes.’

   Taeyong listened to his words with a cloudy feeling over his head that suggested he was still asleep, but he was certain he wasn’t; Ten had been in his dream, but he definitely hadn’t been on the phone. It was unusual for Ten to wake him up – most of the time, he was so quiet, moving around the apartment like a ghost. Taeyong opened one eye, squinting over at him.

   Ten was shirtless, fixing his hair in the mirror, shoulder hunched up to prop his phone under his ear. ‘I already talked to Yukhei, yeah. He’s been in the office since four – said he couldn’t sleep.’ He proceeded to switch the phone to one hand, then to the other as he pulled on a shirt and opened his tie drawer. ‘Mhm, I’ll see you there.’

   When he hung up, he glanced over with an affectionate look that turned to surprise when he saw that Taeyong was awake.

   ‘Taeyongie,’ he murmured, crossing the room in two strides and sitting down on the edge of the bed. He stroked a hand through his hair, ‘it’s only five, go back to sleep.’

   Taeyong sat up properly instead, though. His hair was a mess in his face, one of Ten’s old college shirts slipping off his shoulder. ‘Why are you leaving at five?’ he whispered, voice still heavy with sleep.

   ‘Busy morning,’ Ten answered, kissing his temple.

   Taeyong wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what he was doing – he’d noticed it over the last few days. He knew that Ten thought he wouldn’t catch him overworking himself if he added hours to his morning instead of his evening. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked, inhibitions perhaps a little reduced because of the earlier hour.

   ‘Just work, my love.’

   ‘It’s not just work, Ten, it hasn’t been for weeks. Please tell me, I’m not made of glass.’

   Ten looked at him, then sighed. The scent of coffee saturated his breath. ‘Later, baby. You need sleep.’

   ‘So do you, so come back to bed.’

   There was something like an ache in Ten’s gaze. ‘I can’t, Yongie.’

   ‘Ten I’m worried about you… you’re doing too much. You’re a human being, and you’re never resting, and I’m scared that if you carry on like this you’ll have a heart attack by the time you’re forty and there’s no fucking way you’re leaving me alone like that because I need you, so please let someone else do some work. Delegate. Anything. You can’t keep going like this. And I miss you,’ he added in a whisper, his moment of courage fading.

   ‘I’m doing my best, baby,’ Ten said, and Taeyong actually saw the bob of his throat as he swallowed.

   ‘Talk to me,’ Taeyong pressed earnestly, taking his hands. ‘Ten, we’re partners. We help each other.’

   Ten took a breath, then sighed. His eyes fell down to their intertwined fingers. ‘Things are just very messy, at work, right now. But this morning could fix everything. It should fix everything. We just have to get one more meeting right.’

   ‘What happened?’ Taeyong asked anxiously.

   ‘We lost some money on an investment. A stupid investment. We let our ideals blind us, bet big on a pipe dream of good environmental tech, and they went under. Our investors have been out for blood ever since. We needed to land a new contract, a big contract, fast. And that’s what we’ve done. I just need to get Samsung to sign on the dotted line this morning and everything will be fine.’

   ‘What if they don’t? Will you… could you…’ Taeyong’s heart was beating very fast. ‘Would you lose the company or - ?’

   ‘Oh no, no sweetheart,’ Ten shook his head, squeezing his hands, ‘don’t you ever worry about that. We’re very self-sufficient. It would be a hit, but we’ve survived worse. And you know that even if the world flipped over on its axis and we did lose everything, we’d still be fine? You and I? I could lose all my shares, yes, but I’ve got a whole lot of wealth and personal investments and assets that aren’t going anywhere. I’ll always be able to take care of you, so please don’t be anxious.’

   ‘I wouldn’t mind,’ Taeyong said softly. ‘I wouldn’t mind if we had nothing. I don’t care about the money, Ten, I love you.’

   Ten gave a gentle laugh, then leant in to kiss his forehead. ‘Well that’s very sweet of you, my darling, but all this is nice too, right?’ He nodded at their surroundings.

   ‘Quite nice,’ Taeyong giggled.

   ‘Then I’d better go and secure a contract,’ he said briskly, ‘so that I can keep you in plenty of luxury.’

   Before he could stand up, Taeyong nudged forwards for a hug. Ten’s shirt was still open, so he pressed himself there, cheek against his chest. Ten smiled, settling his chin down on the crown of his head, and wrapped a tight arm around him. His other hand went to Taeyong’s bare leg, thumb caressing gentle circles to the tender skin of his inner thigh. It was so calming, so loving, so assuring of his presence, that for a second Taeyong forgot that he was going to leave.

   The moment didn’t last long enough.

   ‘I really have to go,’ Ten sighed.

   ‘I’ll make you breakfast,’ Taeyong mumbled when they broke apart, shuffling the sheets and crawling his way towards the edge of the bed.

   ‘Oh no you won’t,’ Ten’s voice turned stern. He took a gentle but firm grip on Taeyong’s arms and held him still. ‘Back to bed, baby, only one of us needs to be tired today.’

   ‘But you need to eat,’ Taeyong’s mouth opened in a yawn that he couldn’t bite back. ‘It’s an important morning.’

   ‘I’ll pick something up on the way.’

   ‘Promise?’ Taeyong stuck his bottom lip out.

   ‘I will,’ said Ten.

   ‘I’m out with Johnny and Yuta and everyone for lunch. Can I bring you something after?’ Taeyong asked, laying back amongst the pillows and pulling the sheets tight around himself. It was a struggle, even, to keep his eyes open. How Ten was walking around like he’d slept eight hours instead of four was a mystery to him. But then again, he’d spent over three years running on all work and no sleep himself. Maybe too long with Ten in his life had just made him soft. ‘After you win Samsung?’

   Ten stopped at the door and looked back at him. After a moment, he smiled, ‘yes, I’d like that.’

   ‘Good luck. With the meeting.’

   ‘Have fun with your friends.’

   ‘Call me when they’ve signed on the dotted line.’

   ‘Of course. I love you.’

   Taeyong smiled. ‘Love you too.’

   The words rolled out so easily now, as though they’d been saying them forever.

*

   ‘TY will do best,’ Johnny announced. ‘You should have seen him studying those last few weeks. It made me feel bad every time I stood up for five minutes.’

   Taeyong glanced up at the sound of his name. ‘Not if Cho has anything to do about it,’ he muttered, ‘you know he’s marking our industry papers?’

   ‘They’re all submitted anonymously, TY, don’t worry,’ said Taeil, passing out more food from the grill.

   He jumped as his phone rang, the vibration on the table making everyone look at him.

   ‘Hey, you shouldn’t take calls at the table!’ Johnny announced in his best dad-voice.

   ‘Oh leave him alone,’ Yuta rolled his eyes, ‘it’s his boyfriend.’

   Taeyong swung his legs half off the bench so that he was turned away, and answered with shaking hands. ‘Hey, Ten,’ he whispered, conscious that the others were looking at him.

   ‘You know, Yongie, if you wanted to pick up a bottle of wine on the way, our offices have a special rule that drinking is allowed on site if we’re celebrating something.

   ‘You – you got it? They signed?’ he gasped.

   ‘Of course they did. Did you doubt me?

   ‘No,’ he pouted, ‘but I doubted them.’

   ‘No more five am starts, I promise.

   ‘That’s so great, Ten,’ he breathed, ‘fuck I’m so happy right now.’

   ‘Don’t rush over, I’ve got loads of paperwork to do. Enjoy your lunch, make sure you have a lot of fun with your friends.’

   ‘I’ll see you in a bit,’ Taeyong beamed, ‘I love you.’ That earned a wolf-whistle from Yuta. Taeyong pulled a face at him when he put down his phone. ‘Just because some of us have met the love of our lives, doesn’t mean you have to be immature about it,’ he sniffed.

   ‘The love of your life, huh?’ Yuta smiled. ‘You do remember I’m the one who told you to reply to his message right? In fact, I saw him first. If I’d ignored him you’d never have - ’

   ‘Thanks, Yuta,’ Taeyong said quietly.

   ‘Fuck, I’m so glad you’re happy,’ he answered, dropping the smug act. ‘I used to worry about you all the damn time and now it’s just like everything’s worked out perfectly.’

   ‘Our TY, happy,’ Johnny nodded. He clapped a hand down on his shoulder. ‘Even if it is with some old guy.’

   Taeyong gave him a shove, but he knew that he was only joking these days.

   With the anxiety about Ten’s work lifted, Taeyong enjoyed the rest of his lunch more than he’d enjoyed a day out in a long time. He talked and he smiled and he laughed more than he had in months.

   When it came time to leave, because Yuta’s flight was in a couple of hours, Johnny leant across Taeyong automatically. ‘It’s alright, I’ll cover you,’ he said.

   ‘No, no it’s okay,’ Taeyong said, ‘I can pay.’

   He took out his card, passing it to Taeil who was dealing with the money, but to his surprise it was Sicheng who negotiated it from his hand. ‘Where did you get this?’ he asked, examining it curiously.

   ‘Oh, it’s from Ten,’ Taeyong smiled.

   ‘He lent you it, or…?’

   ‘No, he gave it to me. Why?’

   Sicheng held it up. ‘These aren’t that easy to come by.’

   ‘What do you mean? It’s just a credit card.’

   Sicheng laughed softly. ‘No, no it’s not. First of all, it’s a charge card, not a credit card. And it’s a very exclusive charge card. I mean very exclusive. He must have added you to his account…’ he murmured, ‘but you’re not allowed many authorised users. One or two, I think. This puts you in a pretty elite club, TY.’

   ‘I… exclusive?’ Taeyong said in surprise. ‘But he was only gone a couple of hours, how - ?’

   ‘Money talks, Taeyong,’ said Sicheng. ‘You’d be amazed what financial services will do for you when you’ve got sway like Ten’s.’

   Taeyong opened his mouth, then closed it. Sometimes he still forgot the things that Ten could make happen.

   ‘Lucky bastard,’ Yuta muttered. ‘Maybe I should have messaged him myself instead…’

*

   ‘He’ll be fifteen minutes,’ Sumi told Taeyong when he walked into the waiting room at Ten’s offices.

   ‘Oh, okay,’ he smiled, taking a seat on one of the couches. He pulled out his phone for something to do.

   ‘Hey, Taeyong.’

   He looked up in surprise. It had been weeks since he’d seen Kim Jungwoo, but he’d recognise his voice anywhere. It was so lovely, so gentle, with a warm sort of timbre that didn’t belong in this cold office.

   ‘May I sit down?’

   ‘Sure, sure!’ Taeyong said quickly, moving his bag. ‘Long time no see?’

   ‘Mm, it’s been very busy here,’ said Jungwoo as he took a seat. He held out a cup. ‘I made you a drink.’

   ‘Thank you,’ said Taeyong, taking off the cap to have a look. Cream, two marshmallows – yes, Jungwoo clearly had a read on him. ‘I’m waiting for Ten.’

   Jungwoo glanced at Ten’s office door. ‘I’m sorry, he must have lost track of time. Do you want me to go and get him? He’d wrap it up in a second if he realised you were here.’

   Taeyong shook his head. ‘No, no, it’s okay. I don’t mind waiting. Not after they got the contract.’

   ‘You brought him lunch?’ Jungwoo asked, nodding at the bags.

   ‘Pad thai,’ he nodded, ‘it’s his favourite. I’m trying to take care of him. It probably sounds stupid though. Me… looking after Ten,’ he laughed softly, ‘like he could ever need looking after.’

   ‘They think they’re invincible,’ Jungwoo murmured, looking down at his own drink. Taeyong looked up in surprise. Sometimes he forgot about Jungwoo and Yukhei. That was the point, he supposed, from what Ten had told him. They didn’t like many people knowing. ‘They don’t sleep, they don’t eat properly. They run on empty and think the fumes won’t run out. That’s why it’s our job to be there for them.’

   ‘You think so too?’ Taeyong met his eyes.

   ‘I bet you don’t even realise how much Ten needs you sometimes. You should see how his face lights up when a text comes in, just because it means he gets to see his lock-screen. Which is you, by the way.’

   Taeyong looked down shyly.

   ‘Sometimes, when things are really stressful, he calls you for something trivial, but we all know it’s just to hear your voice. He comes out of his office ten minutes later like a different man. Calmer, happier, more human,’ he added with a knowing smile.

   ‘Really?’ Taeyong’s lips curved up.

   ‘You’re the centre of his world, Taeyong. When you guys first started dating, Yukhei said that Ten hadn’t opened himself up like that ever – that he’d never seen him so vulnerable. I told him that’s how you know it’s real.’

   For a second, Taeyong wondered what Jungwoo and Yukhei would think if they knew the reason he’d started seeing Ten in the first place. Then he pushed the thought to the back of his mind, because he couldn’t bear to imagine the disappointment, the disgust, on their faces.

   ‘Don’t tell him I said all that,’ Jungwoo said quickly, after a silence. ‘You know how private he is.’

   Taeyong laughed, nodding. ‘I won’t. But thank you.’

   ‘Are you looking forward to your summer?’

   ‘Sort of,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s nice, not to have work all the time, no more exams, but it’s hard, too. I’m not going to be able to see my friends, and I’ve gotta find a job. Ten’s sort of…’ he wavered, ‘he’s sort of looking after me at the minute, until I find something. But I’m starting to find it difficult, the – the money thing…’ he trailed off. He’d been thinking, the whole walk over, about the card Ten had given him. A card for his account.

   ‘Oh that thing,’ Jungwoo gave him a warm, knowing smile. ‘Yes, that can be a difficult one.’

   Taeyong swallowed, suddenly anxious to share all this with someone. ‘I just feel like we’re never going to be… be equals. Like how can I ever keep up with what he does for me? For us?’

   ‘It doesn’t… go away,’ said Jungwoo, reaching out to squeeze his forearm, ‘but it gets easier. The sort of money Yukhei and Ten make… it’s never going to be normal. Look at me, I make a really good salary, but it’s still nothing compared to my boyfriend. Because there aren’t many people in the world who earn what they do, Taeyong. It used to be so hard for me with Xuxi - I couldn’t bear him paying for everything, and he couldn’t bear me paying for anything.’

   Taeyong nodded slowly as he listened.

   ‘It was awkward even when we got the bill in a restaurant. Whether you work, or you don’t work, whether you earn a lot or a little, a bit of strain is always going to be there. The tension comes with the territory. But you find ways to deal, and you know what’s funny? We spend so long worrying that we’re not doing enough, that we’re not contributing, but they wouldn’t even notice. It’s all relative. It wouldn’t even cross Ten’s mind whether you’re… what did you call it? Keeping up? It doesn’t mean you’re not equals, Taeyong, don’t you ever feel like that. It’s just zeroes on paper. In fact, I bet if you asked him,’ Jungwoo said quietly, ‘Ten would be the one worrying that he’s not doing enough for you.’

   Taeyong bit his lip in a shy smile. Apparently, Jungwoo was either the world’s best judge of character, or he had been through every stage of this himself, because he was right on every count. He’d always thought that his anxiety about this had come from where he and Ten had met, but Jungwoo, who was so accomplished, a high-flyer in his own realm - calm, collected, in control, as much a part of this business as his boyfriend - felt the same.

   ‘How did you deal with it?’ he asked quietly.

   ‘Joint account.’

   Taeyong looked up in surprise. Yukhei had appeared, strolling across the room. He stopped behind them, leaning over and wrapping his arms around Jungwoo over the back of the couch. He kissed his cheek - sweetly, romantically, so intimately that Taeyong looked down, not wanting to intrude on their moment.

   ‘That way, we don’t know whose money it is getting spent,’ said Yukhei. ‘Now, Woo, if you’re done telling Taeyong all of our business, do you want to get lunch?’

   ‘Like you can chastise me for having a big mouth,’ Jungwoo rolled his eyes. ‘Have you met yourself, Xuxi?’

   ‘No, but I have met the loveliest boy in the building… can you guess who?’

   ‘Mingyu from accounting?’ Jungwoo asked innocently.

   Yukhei pulled a face. ‘I meant you, babe.’

   Taeyong couldn’t stop smiling – they were too cute. It also didn’t escape his notice that the fact they were acting this way in front of him meant something. It meant he was part of the family – part of the circle that didn’t keep secrets.

   ‘You know you said you were looking for a job?’ Jungwoo turned back to him. ‘What sort of thing are you looking for?’

   ‘Oh,’ Taeyong raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go back to being a barista. Or a server. I’m not working in a club again, way too many creeps.’

   Yukhei furrowed his brow, hands sliding back a bit to settle on Jungwoo’s shoulders. ‘Isn’t it your last summer before graduation? You should be doing an internship – something for your resumé.’

   ‘I couldn’t apply for one,’ Taeyong shrugged. ‘Applications were months ago and they were all unpaid and I wasn’t… well I wasn’t in a position for unpaid back then.’

  Yukhei processed his words with a look of disdain. ‘Well you don’t want to work for any shitty company that doesn’t pay its interns anyway.’

   ‘You think you could - ?’ Jungwoo started quietly, turning to look at him with eyes that Taeyong had a distinct feeling Yukhei wouldn’t be able to refuse.

   ‘Yeah, I reckon I could help you out,’ Yukhei smiled as he looked back to Taeyong.

   Taeyong shook his head quickly. ‘You can’t buy me into somewhere,’ he stammered, ‘I’d hate myself. And I don’t know anything about business -’

   Yukhei waved his concern away with his hand. ‘I’m not saying that. But I have a lot of friends. A lot of friends in music.’

   Taeyong’s eyebrows shot up this time.

   ‘You know Kwon Jiyong?’ Yukhei asked.

   He nodded rapidly. He was only the best songwriter and producer in the country.

   ‘Well he’s one of my oldest friends from college. He knows everyone who’s anyone in the industry. And yeah it’s a bit of nepotism, but this is the real world, Tyongie, you need to learn to use the resources you have at your disposal because trust me, everyone else does. Send me a bit of work, and I promise that within two weeks I’ll find an internship that will make your resumé glow like gold. And that will pay.’

   Taeyong’s heart pounded against his chest. ‘Lucas, I don’t – I don’t know how to thank you, I -’

   ‘If you want to thank me, make Ten take a day off now all this is done. Speaking of whom…’ Yukhei turned on his heel and walked to Ten’s door, knocking very loudly – so loudly that Taeyong jumped. He opened the door, sticking his head around it. ‘Tennie, your boyfriend’s here and he’s waited long enough.’

*

    ‘Close your eyes.’

   Taeyong did as he was told.

   He’d spent a long time getting ready for tonight, a week after Neo Culture Technology had dragged itself back from the brink. In fact, it was possibly the longest he’d ever spent getting ready for anything. According to Ten, Yukhei knew just about everyone in Korea, and at least half of them seemed to be invited to his party.

   He wasn’t sure he’d ever been more excited. He was looking at a summer working in his dream internship, Ten was actually spending time at home, and they were going to a huge party. Things couldn’t be better.

   He jumped a little as he felt the unfamiliar frame settle against his face.

   A kiss ghosted across his ear, and then Ten was lifting his hair gently to fix the velvet tie at the back.

   ‘Can I look yet?’ he whispered.

   ‘Just a second,’ Ten exhaled. ‘I want a moment where this is just mine to see.’  

   Taeyong felt his skin turn hot.

   ‘God, you’re beautiful,’ Ten wrapped an arm around his waist from behind, kissing a line up his neck. ‘There aren’t words for how you look tonight, Taeyong. I almost want to keep you all to myself. My special, secret rose.’

   ‘I thought you liked showing me off?’ Taeyong laughed, but his breath hitched when Ten kissed him again.

   ‘I said almost.’

   ‘Can I look now?’

   ‘Mm,’ Ten hummed.

   Taeyong opened his eyes, blinking at his own reflection.

   He looked different from the boy who’d met Ten. There was a confidence in the way that he held himself, a maturity that he’d learned over the last few months. Physically, he looked healthier, happier, but there was a look of… self-ownership, in his eyes.

   Eyes that were framed in brilliance.

   ‘Fuck,’ he breathed. He angled his face for a better look at the mask.

   It was rose gold, with such a bright sheen that it glinted in the light. One side was flared up, fine metal with two white birds’ feathers softening the edge. Down the centre of the intricate working, there was a line of stones. Stones that hit the light far more elegantly than the gold.

   ‘Are these… are these diamonds?’

   ‘Would I really give you anything less?’ Ten mused, meeting his eyes in the mirror.

   He forgot, sometimes, these days, that Ten was still technically his sugar daddy; in his mind, even with the money, he was just his boyfriend. After all, Ten was subtle most of the time, especially recently. But every once in a while, he bought him these things

   Grandiose things.

   Things that reminded him of when they’d first met and Ten had warned him that he’d have to indulge a little gift-giving. That he’d have to forgive it. Because he had no doubt in his mind that Ten loved spoiling him more than anything.

   And this?

   This was about as extravagant as Taeyong could ever remember him being.

   Lavish. Ostentatious. Brazen in his wealth.

   ‘It would look nice with the choker – the first one,’ he swallowed.

   ‘Well you know that it’s a black-tie event?’ Ten smiled, fingers wandering to stroke over his throat. ‘We’ll have to button this shirt right up to the top. Yukhei is very particular with his dress-codes. People would barely be able to see it…’

   ‘I don’t care about people,’ said Taeyong. His hand lifted to his own neck so that he could interlink his fingers with Ten’s. ‘You’ll know it’s there. You’ll have your secret rose after all.’

   ‘My God, Taeyong,’ Ten sighed, ‘what ever did I do to deserve you?’

   ‘Where’s yours?’ Taeyong turned in his hold.

   Ten reached around him to take a flat, square box from the mantlepiece. He flicked it open with one hand, and before he could even move to take it out, Taeyong had got his hands on it, beaming.

   ‘Ah, I think that’s my job!’ he said playfully, lifting out the mask and holding it up to Ten’s face. It was a half piece, much plainer than his, but with a flash of colour that Taeyong knew did not match just by accident. ‘Shit, would it be weird if I said I actually think this makes you look hotter?’ Taeyong said coyly.

   ‘Kinky,’ Ten smirked, encasing him in his arms again, ‘but I see the attraction. I’m not sure you’ve ever looked more seductive than you do right now.’  

   ‘Seductive?’ Taeyong settled back against him.

   ‘Mm,’ he hummed, lips finding their way back to kiss over his ear again. ‘You know … if you wanted…we’d have time?’

   Taeyong fidgeted, his desire to look nice fighting with his desire to have Ten touch him right now without having to wait the length of an entire party. ‘I spent ages on my hair,’ he whined, ‘I don’t want to mess it up.’

   ‘I’d be really careful,’ Ten smiled, before lamenting, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my hands off you all night.’

   ‘Well, maybe you should pay attention to your own lessons and learn some patience,’ Taeyong said slyly, meeting his eyes in the mirror.

   Ten tightened his grip around him, laughing hotly against his ear. ‘Oh baby, you’re so cute when you throw my words back at me.’   

   ‘I’m not cute, I’m very intimidating,’ Taeyong straightened up in mock indignation.

   ‘Just like a little kitten,’ Ten breathed, ‘who thinks he’s a lion. Very cute.’

   Taeyong flushed happily. Every time they played one of these games, it reminded him of the Ten he’d fallen for from day one. Sometimes, over the last few weeks with all the stress from work, that Ten had been… gone.

   ‘But, out of respect to your hair, I’ll be patient,’ Ten conceded. ‘You really do look fucking beautiful, though, you know that?’

   He knew that it was real whenever Ten cursed. ‘Thank you for the mask.’

   ‘From the moment I saw it, I knew that it was made only for you. The very notion of someone else having it was… unthinkable.’

   ‘Mine now,’ Taeyong smiled.

   ‘It’s a one off you know,’ Ten mused, ‘just like you.’

   Taeyong turned, leaning in for a quick kiss. ‘Let’s go. I’m ready for a party.’

Chapter Text

   By the time that they rocked up outside Yukhei’s party, Taeyong was almost hopping with excitement.

   He knew, from one last look in the mirror before they left, that they looked good.

   Outrageously good.

   He was dressed in all black, right down to the silk shirt that Ten had bought him – even his hair was black. He’d dyed it two nights earlier, the darkest jet that he could find. He’d wanted to look the sort of sultry that only black could offer. The white highlights to his mask offset the darkness so strikingly that Ten wouldn’t stop commenting on it.

   Ten looked as handsome as ever, hair a silvery blond like it had been months ago, and cut back into the choppy style across his forehead at Taeyong’s request. His white shirt tied the feathers of Taeyong’s mask to him, seeming to mark them as a pair, and he’d worn dark red cufflinks just for him – a quiet reminder of the rose that nestled beneath his collar.

   Taeyong was sure that they’d be the best-looking couple at the party.

   Still, Ten’s friends gave them a run for their money.

   ‘Christ, I thought you weren’t coming,’ Yukhei punched Ten’s shoulder when they found their way through to them at the party.

   ‘We got delayed. Mask trouble.’

   Taeyong blushed. Apparently, his and Ten’s flirting in the apartment had gone on for longer than either of them had noticed.

   Yukhei was wearing an elaborate mask, with a colourful Venetian flair, and a statement tuxedo. A little to his side stood Jungwoo. Yukhei’s boyfriend looked as lovely as ever. He was too handsome, like a storybook Prince Charming.

   ‘Hello, Taeyong,’ he beamed, a truly dazzling smile, his simple, pale pink mask making him look quietly refined.

   Taeyong noticed, as they stood slightly apart, the way that Yukhei’s fingers were drawn to Jungwoo’s hand, brushing over the skin, but never taking hold.

   He wondered, as he watched them, why they held back like this in public, especially when Ten and Doyoung stood so confidently with their partners with apparently no worries at all. Not that it was his business.

   He looked away, not wanting to be caught staring.

   ‘Taeyong, this is Jaehyun,’ Ten introduced him.

   Taeyong looked from Doyoung to his partner with curiosity. Ten had mentioned once, to his complete astonishment, that Doyoung was long married. He knew that Jaehyun was a professor, and that he’d been in Cambridge teaching for as long as Taeyong had known them all. The word professor, however, hadn’t quite given a hint to how good-looking he’d be. Taeyong was inclined to ask Ten whether he had any unattractive friends.

   ‘At last, the boy who’s stolen Ten’s heart,’ Jaehyun smiled, arm across Doyoung’s shoulders. They’d gone for matching masks, both blue, and embellished with suede rather than metal.

   ‘Alright, now that everyone’s here finally,’ Yukhei interrupted, shooting Ten a reproachful glare, ‘the party can really start.’

   ‘I think it started without us,’ Doyoung commented.

   He wasn’t wrong.

   Every part of the old, sumptuously decorated building seemed to be caught up in raucous decadence already.

   ‘There’s no party without me,’ Yukhei said, puffing his chest out. ‘Now, I expect plenty of misbehaviour, and if there isn’t gossip to be had in the morning, I’m never speaking to any of you ever again.’

   ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Doyoung rolled his eyes.

   ‘Well? Go on then,’ Yukhei shoved both of his friends, impelling them towards the crowds.

   ‘He thinks we’re in a drama,’ Ten shook his head, taking Taeyong’s hand in his and leading him through the crowd in what Taeyong knew would be the direction of the bar.

   ‘I like it, it’s fun,’ Taeyong smiled.

   ‘Yeah – mistaken identity, contrived melodrama, and almost everyone I know crammed into one building knee deep in alcohol. What could possibly go wrong?’ Ten said dryly.

   Taeyong just shook his head. No amount of cynicism from his boyfriend was going to keep him from enjoying this night.

   It had been a long year, after all.

*

   ‘I don’t know how to dance,’ Taeyong mumbled when Ten took his hands and pulled him out onto the floor.

   Three drinks in, and his boyfriend seemed to have dropped some of his hang-ups.

   ‘Isn’t it supposed to be me who says that? The boring businessman?’

   ‘We’re reversing the clichés,’ Taeyong said, keeping a tight grip on his hands. ‘But really, I don’t know how to dance. You’re gonna make me look bad. You’re like a pro.’

   Ten laughed, ‘would it help if I told you it has been a while? Besides, you’re a musician, you’ve got rhythm. You’ll be fine. And you’re so fucking beautiful that people aren’t going to be able to keep their eyes off you either way.’

   ‘That’s what I’m worried about,’ Taeyong grumbled as he glanced around, confirming that people were indeed watching them. But he let Ten lace their fingers together, one hand sliding to his waist to pull them close together; he allowed him to steer him gently, in small, fluid movements. ‘Jackals, you called them, the first time we went out with people,’ he said after a moment, leaning against Ten’s shoulder while they danced so that he could speak into his ear. ‘Vultures.’

   ‘Mm,’ Ten mused, ‘but I don’t mind them watching you anymore. I’m less… insecure, now. I used to be so scared that someone would try to take you from me, but now I know that you’re not going to drop me for a better option. Because we love each other.’

   ‘A better option?’ Taeyong laughed softly, resting his chin down at the crook of Ten’s neck. ‘Ten, who the fuck could have been a better option?’

   He forgot, sometimes, that part of Ten. He was so used to him being so confident, so proud, so seemingly thick-skinned, that it was hard to believe that there might be insecurities bumping around inside his skull. But he knew that they were there – little things that slipped their way into conversations sometimes: anxieties about his age, constant apologies for his… unavailability because of work, then more anxieties about his age no matter how many times Taeyong told him that nine years wasn’t the biggest gap.

   ‘I don’t know… someone younger, someone you had more in common with, someone taller…’

   ‘Taller?’ Taeyong put both arms around his neck, forgetting that they were supposed to be dancing, squeezing him in a tight hug. ‘Never,’ he laughed, ‘I love that occasionally I can feel bigger than you.’

   Ten pulled a face, but he tucked his head into his neck and let them just sway for a while.

   It was so perfect, so fucking perfect, until –

   ‘Alright, lovebirds, sorry to ruin the moment.’

   Ten lifted his head first, glaring at Yukhei.

   ‘Don’t bite my head off,’ Yukhei said quickly, ‘I just need to borrow your boyfriend.’

   Taeyong untangled himself from Ten with a look of surprise.

   ‘I promise I’ll bring him right back,’ Yukhei waved at Ten, before hooking his arm around Taeyong’s and dragging him along at a remarkable pace. Taeyong wanted to point out that his legs were shorter and that he could barely keep up, but he couldn’t even find the words before Yukhei had swung him around and placed him squarely in front of a stranger.

   A stranger he recognised.

   ‘Ji, this is Taeyong,’ Yukhei beamed.

   Taeyong almost choked on air, wishing that Yukhei had thought to give him some sort of warning before introducing him to the most noted musician on the peninsula.

   Kwon Jiyong raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t wearing a mask, something that Yukhei noticed before he could even open his mouth to speak.

   ‘Where’s your mask?’ he demanded.

    ‘It was itching my face,’ Jiyong shrugged, flicking orange hair from his eyes with long, slender fingers – the sort that were just made for making music. ‘Taeyong, huh?’ he turned to him, with an incline of his head. ‘I’m Jiyong.’

   Taeyong was halfway to forming the words I know before stopping himself. He needed to not act like a total idiot. He pushed his own mask back into his hair, figuring that it was a rude way to introduce oneself, and bowed low. ‘Lee Taeyong.’

   ‘Excellent. You boys chat!’ Yukhei ordered, before vanishing from his side. Taeyong felt deserted without him, heart thudding against his chest.

   Luckily, he didn’t need to think of something to say, because Jiyong spoke first. He leant back against the bar, drinking from a tumbler. ‘He’s not one for subtlety, our Lucas,’ he mused, watching him disappear.

   Taeyong laughed, wondering if he sounded as strained as he felt. ‘No, I guess he’s not.’

   ‘He told me all about you over lunch last week,’ said Jiyong, drinking again. ‘I was surprised. Lucas loves everyone, but he’s also very discerning. He doesn’t usually present an… individual case. You must have really impressed him.’

   Taeyong’s lips fell slightly open. What was he supposed to say to that? He was also very conscious of what Jungwoo had said about Yukhei – about his big mouth – and he cringed slightly thinking about what he might have told him.

   ‘You impressed me. He sent me a couple of your songs. They’re good. Not excellent, but they shouldn’t be,’ he shrugged, ‘not yet. You’ve never even been in a real studio, after all.’

   Taeyong nodded.

   ‘They were enough to get me interested.’

   ‘Thank you,’ Taeyong whispered.

   ‘I don’t need an intern,’ he said, ‘I’m not into the idea of someone doing work for me. I do have a proposal for you, though. I’m touring, for the next month, but I’m going to be back in the studio at the end of July. You’d be welcome to come and shadow, while I’m there. Absolutely no getting me coffee, or any of that other shit, you’d be there to learn. You can watch, if you keep quiet because I usually like isolation when I’m working, and when I’m not, you can play around with some gear – I’m guessing you’re still using a cheap station right now?’

   ‘Pretty much,’ he said breathlessly, wondering whether he should have allowed Ten to buy him everything he’d wanted to after all.

   ‘ – and at the end of August, I’ll help you out on a couple of songs. We’ll put together a demo, a-side and b-side. That’ll… get you up to speed. It’ll put you in good stead for when you graduate, because real studio time is hard to come by and disgustingly expensive.’

   That he knew. He thought he might put his neck out from nodding.

   ‘How does that sound?’

   Taeyong stared at him in astonishment. ‘Like… like a dream,’ he said blankly.

   Jiyong gave a half-smile. ‘You know I’m only offering you this because I like your songs, right? Lucas thinks he can sweet-talk anyone, but I wouldn’t bring you in if I didn’t think you were good enough. That’s not my style.’

   ‘Thanks,’ he breathed.

   ‘Cool,’ Jiyong said airily, ‘now we’d better put these masks back on before Lucas finds us again.’ He looked back to the bar, and Taeyong figured that was his moment to leave.

   ‘Thank you so much, Mr Kwon.’

   He waved a breezy hand, and Taeyong couldn’t bite back his smile.

   A smile that increased when he felt Ten’s arm loop around his waist. ‘Can I have you back?’ he asked quietly.

   ‘Oh I suppose so,’ he answered, unable to keep the happiness from his voice.

   Ten pulled him with him to a quieter corner, kissing his cheek as they walked, hands rubbing gently up and down his waist. ‘I’m guessing that went well?’ he asked.

   ‘So well,’ he exhaled, ‘so fucking well. I think I just got my dream summer. This could be a – a game-changer.’

   ‘Good,’ he took him into another tight hug. ‘You deserve every piece of success that’s ever going to come to you, my love. And that’s going to be a lot of pieces. You’re going to be extraordinary. You already are, but I can’t wait for the world to get to see it too. It won’t know what’s hit it. I didn’t.’

*

   By the time that the night started to come to a close, Taeyong didn’t want it to end.

   Ten had relaxed into the evening, staying right until the very end of his own accord without a single moment of coaxing from Taeyong.

   They were settled back against the bar as people started to take their leave, exposing more and more of the now half-destroyed decoration. Taeyong was glad to see that billionaires left their drinking venues in about as much disrepair as college students. Yukhei was soliloquising loudly about the success of another of his parties to anyone who would listen, which was really only Jungwoo. Doyoung was waiting on a text – Jaehyun, who’d stayed sober, had already gone to find their car; apparently he had an early flight back to England in the morning. Ten was laughing close against Taeyong’s ear as he told him a ridiculous anecdote from one previous party of Yukhei’s.

   It was a good end to a perfect night.

   Except of course, the night was never going to end that easily.

   It was very rare, in Taeyong’s experience, to have a completely perfect day.

   Ten halted his story abruptly, straightening up and taking Taeyong’s hand automatically as he looked over his shoulder. ‘Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,’ he seethed, and Taeyong followed his eye-line.

   It took him a moment, to tell what he was looking at, but then his stomach dropped.

   The mask on Han Youngmi’s face was nowhere near enough to hide her identity. Taeyong recognised her in a second. He recognised her from the hours he’d spent lying awake trying to figure out why she’d got under Ten’s skin so much the last time they’d met.

   She looked resplendent in gold – exuding power.

   Yukhei seemed to have tracked his line of sight too, because he put out a hand to Ten’s shoulder. ‘Relax, Ten,’ he said quietly.

   ‘Relax? You invited her?’

   ‘Of course I didn’t, but you know what she’s like. She’ll find a way in anywhere. I’ll go get rid of her.’

   Yukhei had only taken one step, though, when Youngmi spotted them.

   He quickly retreated, occupying the space by Ten’s side again instead and plastering a broad smile across his face. ‘Just play nice,’ he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, causing Ten to half-turn, running a hand through his hair in anxiety.

   ‘Yukhei!’ she beamed, crossing over to them with frightening agility even in dangerously high heels. ‘And Chittaphon. And Dongyoung. And… Jungwoo.’

   Jungwoo gave her a polite bow.

   ‘And lovely Taeyongie.’

   Taeyong swallowed, squashing in closer to Ten’s side. He didn’t like the way she looked at him. It made him feel… small.

   Youngmi smiled, ‘what a nice surprise to see you again. How long ago was New York, now? Months, I guess?’

   ‘Oh… oh yeah.’ Not long enough.

   ‘Have you enjoyed the party? What a night. I don’t think I’ve ever danced so much in my life.’ It didn’t escape Taeyong’s attention that she spoke only to him. Apparently, it didn’t escape Ten’s either, because he pulled him even closer, speaking before he could reply.

   ‘Yes, I’ve always heard that gate-crashers enjoy the party most.’

   Taeyong wasn’t sure that was what Yukhei had meant by play-nice.

   ‘I bet you’re enjoying yourself too, Chittaphon,’ she said. There was ice in her voice now – completely unveiled dislike. ‘Who wouldn’t? With a pretty little thing like Taeyong on their arm?’

   ‘Are the valets being slow with your car, Ms Han?’ Yukhei cut across. ‘Or do you need me to call you a cab?’

   ‘You know me, Yukhei, I never like to leave a party until the very end. In case I miss something worth seeing. So, Taeyong,’ she looked back to him, ‘I was wondering if I could ask you something, actually?’ As she spoke, she played with a loop that had fallen loose from her elegantly constructed hair.

   ‘I… sure…’ he mumbled nervously.

   ‘How much does a night like this cost?’

   He stared at her. ‘I… what?’

   ‘Do you charge by the hour? It’s just I know plenty of guys who’d be interested if you wanted me to pass on their details. Particularly if there’s a first timer discount.’

   Taeyong heard her voice as though from the end of a very long tunnel. His ears were rushing with blood, lips parting in shock, legs turning weak at the realisation of what she was saying.

   She feigned interest. ‘I mean that’s what you do, isn’t it? You rent your company out to men like Ten for money?’

   Taeyong thought he might collapse. Heat crawled up his face – raw humiliation like he’d never felt in his life. He wanted to say something, wanted to come up with some clever retort, but he felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. In his mind’s eye, he could see nothing but the dream he’d built fading away in a puff of smoke.

   People were going to find out the truth.

   He was going to lose everything. Everyone.

   All over again.

   And yet –

   Jungwoo took a hold of his arm. The warmth, the security, the reassurance that someone was still there, was almost enough to make his knees buckle. Yukhei stepped in front of him, broad frame blocking her almost entirely from his view. Ten was still holding his hand, already halfway ready to react, words forming -

   ‘Youngmi - ’

   ‘It’s an interesting career path,’ she interrupted, speaking right to Ten now, because of course he was her real target. ‘But I suppose it is suiting him. He’s so damn radiant, don’t you think? I bet he doesn’t come cheap, with a face like that.’

   ‘Don’t – ’

   ‘It’s a whole lot of secrets to keep, though. I mean, do his parents know?’

   That – that – was like a bullet.

   Taeyong couldn’t find words. He couldn’t find anything, except the one thing that always rang clear in his brain. ‘Ten - ’ he whispered, gripping his hand tightly, wanting to curl into him.

   No one seemed to hear him.

   ‘Youngmi, I swear - ’ Ten started, but Yukhei spoke over him this time. Yukhei’s voice was louder, always the most dominant in a space.

   ‘You’re crossing a line, Youngmi. Taeyong is one of us. And we don’t take nicely to someone threatening our family.’

   ‘Who’s threatening? I was just asking,’ she rolled her eyes. ‘I’m making conversation. It’s a party.’

   Taeyong tried to process the words amongst the clamouring in his mind – the panic.

   ‘Stop trying to scare him, Youngmi.’ Ten’s voice, when he finally managed to get out a full sentence, had reached a new low now, like Taeyong had never heard it before. The softness that usually tinted some of his s sounds was gone. The playful edge was nowhere to be seen. Even the airiness, the confidence, the statement of superiority that hovered there in certain company, had vanished. ‘You already know that if you ever touched him, I’d tear your life apart in ways you can’t even imagine. If you didn’t know that, you’d have gone to the press already.’

   ‘Darling, if I was going to go running to the press again, I’d have outed these two on the front cover of the paper as soon as I found out their little secret,’ she jerked her head in Yukhei and Jungwoo’s direction. ‘I’m not the person I was ten years ago. Give me some credit.’

   At this, Yukhei moved, as if by pure instinct, out from in front of Taeyong and straight in front of Jungwoo instead, backing up with one arm wrapping back to draw him behind him.

   Taeyong didn’t begrudge him that particular abandonment.

   Youngmi surveyed the scene before her with total control, as though she had the five of them each under the command of a single finger on her right hand; a hand that she waved around with a flippant laugh after an agonisingly long pause. ‘Oh god, boys, calm down! I’m just playing. It’s a masquerade, isn’t it? This sort of drama is all part of the fun!’

   ‘Alright, time to go,’ said Doyoung quickly. ‘Before this turns into more of a scene than it already has. Get the fuck out, Youngmi, or I’ll call security to get you out.’

   She shrugged. ‘You boys always take everything so seriously,’ she rolled her eyes, and she turned on her heel, dress swirling around her ankles in a ripple that caught Taeyong’s eye. He watched as the chiffon settled, pretty and gold and so much more kind to him than the scene that had unfolded. So he concentrated on that. He stood fixated, not even looking up, watching as the hem flowed with every click of her heels.

   Doyoung must have caught Ten’s arm when he went to follow her, dropping Taeyong’s hand, because the latter’s voice was so loud that Taeyong finally glanced up. ‘Let go of me,’ Ten wrenched his arm free. ‘I fucking told you. You were all calling me paranoid. How did she even find out?’

   ‘Ten,’ Taeyong repeated, a little louder this time, looking back at the floor.

   Ten turned. Taeyong couldn’t see his face, focussing on his shoes, but he felt his arms wrap around him, then the smooth material of his jacket as he pulled him against him. He smelled the familiar Bvlgari cologne.

   ‘I’m so sorry,’ Ten stroked his fingers through his hair, he kissed his head, but Taeyong could feel that he was going to leave again.

   Taeyong buried his face further into his collar.

   ‘Doyoung, can you take him home? Back to my place?’

   ‘No,’ Taeyong mumbled, gripping the lapels of his jacket.

   ‘I have to - ’

   ‘No.’ It was Yukhei this time. ‘You can’t leave him after that.’

   ‘Yukhei’s right,’ said Doyoung calmly. ‘I’ll go after Han Youngmi. I’ll make sure that she knows not to mess around with this again.’

   ‘Right. Thank you,’ Ten nodded. ‘Yongie? Yongie, my love? Are you okay?’ he murmured to his ear.

   Taeyong lifted his head from his shoulder with the feeling that it weighed more than it ever had before. He wasn’t crying. He just felt… blank. Blank at the realisation that the one person who seemed to hate Ten more than anyone in the world, also knew the one secret that could probably ruin his life.

   ‘Everyone’s going to hate me,’ he whispered. His mind seemed to be catching up with what had just happened. ‘Fuck, they’re going to hate me.’ His eyes followed Doyoung’s retreating form, and then glanced to Yukhei, who was saying something quiet to Jungwoo. ‘Your friends…’

   ‘They already knew, baby,’ Ten stroked over his cheekbones, ‘it’s okay. I told them weeks ago. They don’t care how we met. All that matters to them is that I’m happy. That we’re happy.’

   ‘What if she tells the press?’ he stammered.

   ‘She won’t. If she was going to release it, she wouldn’t have given me a warning. She didn’t last time. She’s spiteful, yes, but she’s not stupid – she’s known me long enough now to have learned which lines can’t be crossed, and she knows that’s not something she’d come back from. Youngmi is an expert in self-preservation.’

   ‘Are you sure?’ Taeyong whispered, knowing innately that he’d trust Ten’s answer without a second thought.

   ‘I know how her mind works, trust me. She just likes getting into my head these days. Besides, Yukhei knows everyone at the papers. And he’d make sure they knew they’d have the most expensive retraction of their existence on their hands if they dared to publish anyway. How do you think he’s kept his own relationship so secret?’

   Taeyong nodded slowly, feeling returning to his body. ‘Ten…’ he started suddenly, as Ten took his arm, guiding him outside. ‘What did you mean? That she didn’t warn you last time?’

   ‘Where the fuck is my car?’ Ten muttered to himself, ignoring that as he looked around for a free valet. ‘I’m going to have to call my driver…’

   ‘Ten, please tell me. I know… I know it’s hard for you. I’m not blind, I know that you don’t like talking about yourself, or your life, and that’s okay. That’s why I don’t ask you about it. But I need to know this. I have a right to know why I just had to go through that. Why does she hate you so much? Why do you hate her so much? Right now I’m… I’m scared that something terrible happened.’

   Ten kneaded his forehead with his fingers. ‘Baby, no, no it’s not like that. It’s just that my part in our stupid feud was… immature. I’m not proud of it. I don’t want the person I was then to… to spoil how you look at me now.’

   Taeyong’s face softened. ‘Everyone makes mistakes, Ten. I’m not going to hold something against you from a decade ago. Fuck, I wouldn’t care if it was a year. I love the person you are now. I love that person more than anything.’

   Ten closed his eyes, as though it would make everything disappear, swaying slightly on the spot. After a long pause, he finally spoke up, voice strained but steady. ‘You’re right. I’ll – I’ll tell you everything. I’ll give you the full messy Ten life story. But let’s go home first. It’s late, we can talk in the morning.’

   ‘No, Ten,’ he stopped, voice earnest, ‘I don’t want to go back to the apartment. I don’t want to bring this into our home. Tell me now. Please.’

   Ten took a deep breath, then sighed. ‘Okay, okay. How… how about there?’ he nodded across the street at a small, nondescript all-night coffee shop.

   ‘Looks good,’ Taeyong gave him what he prayed was a reassuring smile. He took his hand, squeezing it gently – Ten’s was slightly smaller.

   They crossed the road, slipping inside the automatic doors. It was completely empty, and their entry caused the woman at the counter, headphones on, to look up in complete surprise. Taeyong found himself wondering whether two people in tailored suits and flamboyant masks had ever set foot over this threshold at three in the morning before. Somehow, he doubted it.

   ‘I’ll get you a drink,’ said Ten.

   Taeyong sat down, taking off his mask and dropping it into the centre of the table. His hands were shaking slightly. He felt… nervous. When Ten put a small, slightly greyish cup of coffee down in front of him, he looked up with concerned eyes.

   ‘Okay,’ Ten swallowed. ‘I guess I should start at the beginning.’

   Taeyong nodded, struck fully by the sudden awareness that Ten was finally going to tell him everything.

Chapter Text

   There was such a long silence, that Taeyong found himself getting restless. He tried not to look impatient. He knew that this was hard for Ten - he’d noticed the first time they’d ever spoken on camera, nine months earlier, that Ten didn’t like talking about himself.

   So he didn’t push him.

   Ten looked down at his coffee, perhaps delaying a moment longer, and then he took a deep breath. ‘You remember you told me once, that time we fought, that I didn’t know what it was like to be poor?’ He glanced up, and his lips twitched into a weak smile.

   Taeyong nodded slowly, wondering whether he was about to feel very guilty.

   ‘Well that wasn’t strictly true,’ he sighed. ‘When I was growing up, my family were… well, about as poor as it’s possible to be without being out on the streets.’

   Taeyong felt the weight of the words – he didn’t need any more explanation to understand that gravity; he’d been one sick-day from the kerb more times than he could remember.

   ‘My little sister had very serious health problems from birth and throughout her childhood, the sort that required full time care. She’s five years younger than me. My mother stayed at home with her, around the clock, and my father worked every hour under the sun and moon to keep us afloat. It wasn’t easy.’

   Taeyong nodded again.

   ‘By the time that I was nine or ten, I knew that I needed to start looking after my family. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, my… need… to take care of things; my… anxiety, when I feel I’m not doing enough.’

   Taeyong let out a soft laugh. His hand reached out across the table to take Ten’s again, squeezing it gently. ‘Yes, I noticed.’

   ‘I started researching schools. I was intelligent, though not by any means extraordinary. I knew that I needed to be better. I must have spent every waking hour for those couple of years studying. I picked the school I wanted to get in to – it was all the way in Seoul. They offered a full-ride scholarship, the most comprehensive that I’d come across, and it would mean that I could live over here. I thought that would mean,’ he paused a moment before finishing, ‘you know, one less kid to worry about.’

   Taeyong felt an ache in his heart. That was a lot for a child to shoulder.

   ‘I got into the school, of course. When I set my mind to something, I usually make it happen. It wasn’t easy, moving that far. I had to learn Korean, I didn’t know anyone in the country, I was terrified that I wasn’t good enough and that I’d be sent home. I started selling things, like I told you, thinking it would earn me some kind of clout. It certainly drew the attention of a lot of people, but I also realised that there was real, good money, in selling things.’

   ‘I’ve heard that’s sort of how it works,’ Taeyong smiled, wanting him to feel at ease. ‘But then again, I’m no businessman.’

   Ten laughed, playing with their joined hands and turning them over on the table. ‘Naturally, I sent it all home. Every penny. I made friends with Doyoung and Yukhei. We started the business, or perhaps the zygote of the business. Doyoung made these amazing little robots, right from scratch, that the kids couldn’t stop buying. And these modified games consoles.’ He had a fond, almost nostalgic look in his eyes at that. ‘Anyway, things raced ahead, we went to college. There I met Han Youngmi.’

   Right. So they were getting to that part.

   ‘I told you that she was ambitious. Alarmingly so. As ambitious as me, though for very different reasons. We grew close very fast, so alike as we were. The company was going through a difficult period – the transition from schoolboys to businessmen was… a rocky one. One day we were on top of the world, the next we were in the gutter, and then the next we were back on top again. It wasn’t selling to kids, anymore. It was real business. We were thinking about the important stuff – whether we needed staff, how to register ourselves as an actual company, how much work to take on. It’s tempting, you see, to sign all sorts of deals the second someone offers you money. And then you don’t deliver and your name is ruined and it’s all over. We had to be careful.’

   Taeyong could picture a young Ten, hunched over his desk every night, eyes flitting between half-finished essays and complex accounts.

   ‘We were in a drastic downturn – one of the worst we’d ever had – when I found out that my sister needed surgery. I mean, she’d needed surgery for a long time, always really, but this was... this was the she-needs-surgery-or-she’s-going-to-die moment.’

   ‘Oh Ten,’ Taeyong murmured.

   Ten ran his free hand through his hair, shaking his head. ‘The one time that my family needed me most, I had nothing to give them. The company owed money. I felt completely useless.’

   ‘Is healthcare in Thailand… expensive, then?’

   ‘No, no,’ he sighed, ‘it wasn’t that. But the sort of surgery that she needed was extremely rare. It wasn’t offered anywhere in Thailand that I could find. By luck, I found one doctor here in Korea who’d done such a surgery before, but it was too experimental to be funded. Arranging the procedure would cost so much that even on a good day, I would have struggled to pay. Yukhei had just been cut off by his father. Doyoung’s parents didn’t have that kind of money.’

   Taeyong knew that this was where Han Youngmi was going to come into the equation, and his stomach flipped over at the thought.

   ‘Youngmi knew about my plight, of course. She was a close friend, after all. Youngmi comes from an extremely privileged background – the sort that someone like me could only imagine. She offered to lie her way into her trust fund early, to help my sister. Being younger, and an idiot, I thought she was doing it to be kind.’

   Taeyong clenched his teeth.

   ‘I swore that I’d pay her back, every penny, that I’d never take a cent of profit until I’d returned the cost to her with interest.’

   ‘Right.’

   ‘But I had what Youngmi had always wanted. She wanted a piece of our company. It’s why she made friends with me in the first place, I’m sure; she’d always seen the potential. She got the money, practically put it out on the table, and then when she was about to transfer it to me, she told me that in return she wanted half of my shares. And a seat. She wanted in.’

   A lot of thoughts ran through Taeyong’s mind, none of them pretty.

   ‘I… lost it. I mean, you know what I’m like now, but back then I was so stressed, all the time, exhausted, and I didn’t have you to keep me sane. I knew it was my fault, that I never should have been naïve enough to expect something for nothing – that it was wrong to expect something for nothing – but it was all just too much for me in that moment. I ranted, I said the sort of things you should never say to a friend. I told her I’d never forgive that kind of cruelty. To make me think that she was doing it out of charity, right up until that last second… I hated myself for believing it.’

   ‘She wasn’t a friend, Ten,’ Taeyong said softly. ‘A friend would never have done that.’

   ‘I couldn’t give her those shares. Not just because of my rage, but because I knew that once she got her claws into the business, she’d never let go. For the first time, I thought about the company before my family, and for that I hated myself even more.’

   ‘That’s not your fault,’ Taeyong knew that he sounded angry, but he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t fair that Ten felt like that. ‘She put you in a terrible position.’

   He picked at a dent on the table, nails digging in to the jagged plastic finish. ‘So I said no.’

   ‘What did you do?’ Taeyong asked, eyes wide.

   ‘I searched for an alternative solution,’ he sighed, ‘that’s what I do. But I was getting desperate. I didn’t sleep for three days, until I was practically half-human. Online fundraisers hadn’t exactly found their footing, back then. When I was at the end of my rope, ready to give up altogether, I put together a… plea. I’m not sure you’ve ever seen me really try to talk someone into something. But I can be very persuasive. Frighteningly so, Yukhei always says,’ he laughed softly. ‘I approached the major children’s hospital – my sister was still a minor, then – right here in Seoul. The stars… aligned. Somehow, somehow, I made it happen. They offered to fly my sister here to Korea, to fund the surgery, and recovery, and rehab as an act of charity. They saved her life.’

   ‘The hospital you raise all that money for,’ Taeyong exhaled, ‘the one you host the benefit for every year.’

   ‘You’ve been paying attention,’ Ten smiled.

   ‘Ten, I - I don’t understand,’ said Taeyong, brow furrowing. ‘When you told me about Han Youngmi back in your apartment, you told me that the falling out had been your fault. But all I’m hearing is that she…’

   ‘Ah,’ Ten actually gave a light laugh. ‘Yes. That part. You know that I’m… you know me, Yongie. You know I don’t like to lose. Back then, I felt manipulated. I viewed her actions as the utmost betrayal.’

   ‘What did you do?’ Taeyong bit his lip nervously.

   ‘What any vengeful college kid would do. I told her father that she’d lied to him about a personal emergency to access her trust fund, in order to hand over the money to a stranger he’d never even heard of, to support his family.’

   Taeyong wanted to laugh. He really wanted to laugh.

   ‘It was immature,’ Ten sighed, ‘and I shouldn’t have done it. I should have just let things lie, let us become former friends and perhaps frosty acquaintances. We both could have moved on with our lives. I really do regret it, and not just because it’s caused me ten years of hassle. I realise now that hitting back like that doesn’t help anyone. It only makes things worse. And involving family? I hate myself for that. Like I said, I’m not proud of it. But I’ve always been unforgiving. It’s very useful for business, but not so much for my soul, I don’t think. It’s a fault I can’t shift.’

   ‘If it helps, it sounds like she deserved it,’ Taeyong muttered. ‘She involved family first. She used your sister’s life to try and get at your company. That’s sick.’

   Ten couldn’t quite hide the flicker of a smile. ‘You have to admit my part was childish.’

   ‘Yeah, well, you were practically a kid,’ said Taeyong.

   ‘I was only a year younger than you are now,’ Ten murmured, looking serious again. ‘And I know for a fact that you’d never try to hurt somebody like that, no matter what they did to you.’

   ‘Yes, well, not everybody can be as world-wise and mature as I am for my age,’ Taeyong puffed his chest out. ‘And I wouldn’t be so sure, if I were you. I can be very petty. Ask my ex-boyfriends.’

    ‘Oh I’d love to see you getting your own back,’ Ten properly smiled at this, breaking the tension that had occupied their corner of the café. ‘My fierce little kitten.’

   Taeyong giggled, before remembering that they’d been having a serious conversation. ‘So – so what happened then?’

   ‘Ah yes, well: her father handed her the rest of her trust fund, and told her not to bother coming back to the family business. She lost the right-hand-seat she’d always been promised. Thus, she swore she’d ruin me. And she did her very best. When I graduated college, right when we were due to sign the biggest deal of our lives, she outed me in the nation’s biggest magazine.’

   Taeyong’s face fell.

   Ten shrugged, playing with his cup again. ‘Apparently even then, my sexuality was worthy of the front page. The company took a hit, of course, but we were used to it by then. Our share value plummeted, we lost that deal, but we knew we’d rise from the ashes – find another. But I wasn’t… I wasn’t out to my parents, yet. Which she knew. I didn’t exactly plan on them finding out in the paper.’

   ‘Fuck, Ten, I’m sorry.’

   ‘I exposed her to her family. She exposed me to mine. You may have noticed that tonight she all but threatened to expose you to yours.’

   He nodded, remembering what she’d said in the party.

   ‘That was intended as a taunt at me, by the way, not you. Just a small reminder of what she’d done last time. I’m sorry that she used your feelings like that to get to me.’

   Taeyong swallowed. He didn’t want Ten to think he was too upset by it. ‘It’s fine. I’m a big boy. And I had you all there with me.’

   ‘In the strangest way, it… things sort of worked out, after that. Youngmi had her perceived reparation. I discovered that my family loved me dearly no matter who I loved. My sister was well, the company began to thrive. Everything was good – until a couple of years ago.’

   Taeyong looked at him in surprise. He’d thought that the story was done.

   ‘Han Youngmi used the money from her father to found a company called Arizon, straight out of college, with her then fiancé. They did very well, developed very fast. But in… it must have been 2015?... someone exposed them for embezzlement.’

   ‘Would it sound really, really stupid if I said that I don’t know what that means?’ Taeyong asked shyly.

   ‘It means they were… let’s say… stealing from their own company. Money that wasn’t theirs to take. They stole from their employees’ pension funds, and funnelled money into their own accounts. The company completely collapsed – that’s one of the things you can’t recover from, in our world. Youngmi got out clean – God knows how, because I know for a fact that she was involved. She threw her fiancé under the bus, like she would have done to us one day if we’d let her into our business – he ended up in a very messy, very public, legal trial. But like I said earlier, Youngmi has always been an expert in self-preservation. She escaped fairly unscathed and started contracting. Then, she came to my office one day, picked up my laptop, and got ready to throw it out of the window.’

   ‘She… what?’

   ‘I only talked her out of it by saying it would probably hit someone on the ground,’ he said with a tired smile. ‘She blamed me. She thought that I was the one who’d exposed Arizon, to get back at her after all those years.’

   Taeyong bit his lip, before daring to ask. ‘Was it you?’

   ‘No,’ Ten said firmly. ‘I promise, Taeyong, on my sister’s life, that it wasn’t me. I didn’t want anything more to do with her, for God’s sake. The last thing I wanted to do was reignite that feud. But she’s been on my back again ever since.’

   ‘Fuck…’ Taeyong mumbled.

   ‘You… believe me, don’t you? You know that I didn’t do it?’ Ten whispered, and it was very clear in his eyes how important the answer was to him.

   ‘Of course. Of course I believe you.’ Taeyong took a breath. ‘So is she going to put us on the front of the paper too?’

   Ten tilted his head slightly in thought. ‘I don’t think so. I meant everything I said outside the party. If she was going to do it, she’d have done it by now. These last couple of years have been… half-hearted, from the both of us. I think we’ve both grown-up too much. And it may have played into my hands a little, what happened with Arizon; if she thinks I’ll tear apart a multi-national company to get at her, she’s probably fairly cautious of what I might do next. And when I spoke to her a couple of weeks after we got back from New York, I made it perfectly clear that you were off-limits.’

   ‘It would ruin my life, Ten,’ he swallowed, eyes feeling prickly for the first time since the party. ‘I've spent nearly four years trying to prove to my parents that I can do it all myself. If she put that out in the world, they’d know I’m a failure. Everyone would know I’m a failure.’

   His breath hitched, and Ten reached across the table to stroke gently down his cheek. ‘You’re not a failure, Yongie. You’re not. Don’t you ever even entertain that thought. You are the strongest, the most inspiring person that I’ve ever met.’

   Taeyong looked down, wiping his eyes quickly.

   ‘When we first met, you reminded me so much of myself,’ Ten said, voice very soft, after a silence. ‘Your passion, your grit, your determination to work your way out of your circumstances. The only difference was I immediately saw that, unlike me, you were characterised not by all of those things, but by your extraordinary goodness. I was in awe of you from the moment I met you. The first time… you looked so goddamn tired. I barely knew you and yet it already hurt me. I wanted to protect you, right there, in that city square, just take off my jacket and wrap you up in it until I could get you home to your bed, let you sleep for thirty hours. I remembered so acutely how it was to feel like that – how many days I’d spent at college, too exhausted to even put pen to paper sometimes, but knowing that I had to.’

   Taeyong thought back to himself then, the state he’d been in.

   ‘It was… imperative, for me, from that moment, to help you. To free you from that cycle. I didn’t want you coming out of college as jaded, as demoralised, as broken as I had. If you’d met me even two years ago you’d probably have thought I was the most detached person alive. All I cared about was work – about burying that past me and becoming what I imagined to be a “better” one. I thought money was the answer, not character. It took me years, and a damn fortune, to get over those wounds.’

   ‘I never knew,’ Taeyong whispered. ‘I never knew things had been that hard for you. I’m sorry, for what I said – I just… I just thought you’d always been like this. You seem so… I don’t know, so you.

   ‘That’s what people will be saying to you in ten years,’ Ten said quietly, ‘I wouldn’t even look at you now and see the boy from that first date. I know you, of course – I recognise the kindness, the gentleness, the strength. But a stranger wouldn’t know all that. They’d just see a beautiful, intelligent, gifted young man. There’d be no hint of the things you’ve been through. We all wear our masks, after all.’

   Taeyong fiddled with his real, rather more diamond-encrusted mask on the table.

   ‘It hit me so hard, that time that we fought about money. It’s been so long, I… I couldn’t believe that I’d become so blind. I was terrified that I’d turned into someone like Han Youngmi; she thought so little of money that she dangled it in front of me like a hook and bait, playing with my life. My family’s lives. When you said I treated it like it was nothing, I - ’

   ‘You are not like her, Ten,’ Taeyong said, voice hard. ‘You are nothing like her. That’s not what I meant at all.’

   ‘I remember asking for money. I remember how… what was it you said? How humiliating it was. I don’t ever, ever want you to have to do that again, baby. I will make sure you have everything you ever need – everything you ever want. I will always keep you safe, no matter who I have to fight to make that certain. You’re… you’re everything, Taeyong. And you’ve always looked at me with such respect, such extraordinary regard. I didn’t want to push you away with this side of me.’

   ‘Ten - Tennie,’ he whispered, watching every emotion that flash across Ten’s eyes at the nickname – surprise, uncertainty, a second of discomfort, then affection. ‘I respect you even more, now. I’m glad that you told me everything. Thank you so much for letting me in, for letting me know you.’

   There was a moment of quiet, and then - ‘The Tennie thing… I’m not sure about it,’ Ten narrowed his eyes, but his expression was playful. 

   ‘You’re my boyfriend,’ Taeyong pouted. ‘I get to be baby, and kitten, and Yongie, and I’ve got nothing to call you.’

   ‘I’ll… think about it,’ Ten said noncommittally, before laughing. ‘You may remember, though, that I only started with kitten because of your ridiculous display name.’

   ‘Yours was worse,’ Taeyong said petulantly.

   ‘And yet we found each other,’ Ten mused, lifting his hand to his mouth and kissing at his fingertips. ‘Thank god.’

   ‘Shall we go home now?’

   ‘Yes, yes I think so,’ he smiled. ‘I’m sorry the party got ruined.’

   ‘Oh, well, like she said, it wouldn’t be a masquerade without a little drama,’ said Taeyong, picking up his mask and planting it back on his face, skipping out of the coffee shop and onto the street, trying to keep his energy up because he didn’t want Ten to crash after such a taxing evening for him emotionally, at least not until they were home. ‘Now I think you promised to get your hands on me after, didn’t you?’

   Ten wandered his hands up to his face, thumbs stroking the lines of his cheeks. ‘I suppose I did.’ He cupped his jaw, the very gentlest of touches, and gave him a tender, warm kiss that sent tingles down his spine. ‘Will that do? For now?’

   ‘For always,’ Taeyong took his own kiss, a quicker one. ‘Your kisses are like oxygen for me.’

   Ten was like oxygen for him.

*

   Ten, as he’d expected, did crash.

   Fairly badly.

   It was after a quiet conversation over the phone with Doyoung, and then another with Yukhei, checking that he and Jungwoo were okay after what Han Youngmi had said to them. Then he checked, five more times, that Taeyong was okay. Taeyong promised him, every single time, that he was fine.

   Finally, his need to take care of things apparently satiated at last, Ten dropped down onto their bed, still dressed, and rolled onto his side.

   ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep,’ he sighed as Taeyong leant over him, manoeuvring his tie loose. ‘My head is like a chorus.’

   ‘I’ll get you some sleeping pills,’ said Taeyong, remembering that he kept a bottle in the bathroom cabinet. ‘Take your clothes off – that’s an expensive-ass suit, you shouldn’t sleep in it.’

   ‘Lee Taeyong, are you trying to seduce me?’

   ‘Do as you’re told.’

   ‘Adorable as ever,’ Ten laughed to himself, but Taeyong could tell that his heart wasn’t really in it. ‘Is this how it’s going to be now that you live here? You telling me what to do?’

   ‘Absolutely. And you’ve only got yourself to blame for inviting me in. You… wanna be the small spoon tonight?’

   Ten raised his eyebrows. ‘See, it’s when you say things like that, that I feel old.’

   ‘Come on, it’s cute,’ Taeyong stuck his tongue out.

   By the time that Taeyong climbed into bed, blanketed in a huge, holey sweater because they were still in a ‘dialogue’ about an appropriate figure for the thermostat, Ten was two sleeping pills in and nestled straight up against him instead. His head was heavy on his chest, and Taeyong wondered whether this was how Ten usually felt every night when he was the one strewn over him.

   ‘I love you, baby,’ Ten murmured, voice muffled against his sweater.

   ‘I love you more.’ He took Ten’s hand in his, untwisting the rings from his fingers, then unclasping his watch.

   ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you everything earlier.’

   Taeyong pulled a face, looking down. ‘Don’t worry about that.’

   ‘Especially after you told me everything about you. My beautiful open book.’

   At this, Taeyong smiled a little.

   Ten wrapped both his arms around him, eyes closed, looking as soft as Taeyong had ever seen him.

   ‘You know you said about us finding each other on that app? Do you ever think about… about would have happened if we hadn’t met?’ Taeyong asked.

   ‘What do you mean?’ Ten looked up.

   ‘Like if you hadn’t have found me.’

   Ten looked away again. ‘No. I don’t think about it.’

   ‘So you haven’t thought about how I could have ended up with someone else?’

   Ten shifted uncomfortably. ‘This is your boyfriend Ten, remember? You know how funny I am about stuff like that. The thought of someone else… of someone else touching you? No. God no.’

   ‘I guess I won’t suggest poly, then?’ Taeyong said slyly.

   He didn’t have to look to imagine the withering expression on Ten’s face. His Ten. The Ten he knew and loved and lived to tease sometimes.

   ‘I think about it. The website, I mean, not poly. If you hadn’t have clicked on my profile I’d probably be out with some right old creep now. Some lecher. I’d probably be begging for an increase on my allowance so I could afford medium ramen packs instead of small.’

   ‘Don’t think about it,’ Ten murmured, ‘it’s too horrible.’

   ‘I would have done it, you know. I joked around a lot, messing with these profiles, but eventually I would have done it. I was that desperate, deep down. That message from you was… it changed everything. My life. My future.’

   Ten angled up to kiss his neck, lingering his lips there as he closed his eyes, perhaps trying to rid himself of an image of Taeyong with someone else. ‘You’ll never have to be desperate ever again, baby.’

   ‘Thanks for messaging me,’ he whispered.

   ‘Thanks for messaging me back, pretty kitty.’

   Taeyong squeezed him so tightly in a hug that Ten actually exhaled, air pushed out of him, then settled properly against his chest.

   It took a while, but he was glad to hear Ten’s breathing level around five in the morning. Taeyong didn’t sleep properly, not for more than fifteen minutes at a time, but he wasn’t too bothered.

   After all, even now he didn’t get to watch Ten sleeping very often.

   He didn’t want to miss a moment of it.

Chapter Text

   Taeyong had one thing he needed to do.

   One last thing before he could settle into being happy.

   He climbed out of bed, a few hours after Ten had fallen asleep, when morning had taken hold, tucking the sheets around his boyfriend as he went. Ten was still knocked out by the sleeping pills, face completely calm – tranquil in sleep. Every once in a while, when he had the chance to look at him like this, Taeyong remembered how handsome he was. It was easy to forget, because he was so used to having him in his life, but he really was a catch.

   Silvery blond hair falling around his forehead; face turned a little to one side so that the rings in his ears, so uncharacteristic for his profession, glinted in the early morning light; the slope of his nose that made him look younger, more carefree, and closed eyes that could have been lined such was their definition.

   Every time he paused to look like this, Taeyong felt himself falling in love with him more.

   He padded his way out to the kitchen, making a quick coffee because he thought the caffeine might help his courage.

   Then, he went back to the bedroom and got dressed.

   He went not to his own closet, but to Ten’s.

   One of the best things about dating Ten, other than literally everything else that was one of the best things about dating Ten, was that he could wear his clothes. Ten was slightly shorter, but also slightly stockier, so he could get away with borrowing pretty much anything.

   Today, he wanted to look like Ten. Not like he’d borrowed his boyfriend’s clothes, not like he was trying to dress up for a party, but like Ten. Like a businessman. Someone intimidating.

   He didn’t want to look like a college kid.

   He took out the sharpest suit he could find – the one that Ten had worn to meet Samsung. He matched it with a different tie, different cufflinks with a flash more colour – he was still himself, after all.

   And then he fixed his hair, black and harsh and perfect for the day.

   He was going to see Han Youngmi.

   She was the one barrier left between him and a future that he’d dreamed of. He couldn’t let this threat of exposure hang over him forever. He didn’t want to spend his life with Ten afraid that someone was just waiting to try to ruin it.

   Because that prospect was undeniable now: a life with Ten.

   Taeyong couldn’t imagine any other future. He couldn’t imagine his life without Ten in it. He never wanted to be with someone else, or alone, ever again. In every vision of his future, every drastically different version, every scenario he imagined, Ten was the one constant. No matter what, he was always there.

   So he was going to fight for it.

   If it was one thing that he was used to by now, it was fighting for his future. Fighting for his happiness. And he’d fought worse than Han Youngmi.

   Out in the entrance hall of Ten’s apartment – their apartment, because at some point he was going to have to adjust his schema – he took out his phone.

   He had no doubt that Youngmi would be in the office. If she was anywhere near as driven, as ambitious, as Ten had said, there was no way she wouldn’t be at her desk by 8:50 even the morning after a party. Still, he thought that he’d better check.

   It wasn’t difficult to find her online, and her profile listed a company named Elius, so he started there, calling the first number on their page.

   ‘Hello? Yes, hi. Can you put me through to Han Youngmi’s office?’ he said politely, in his best phone-voice.

   He didn’t even wait for her to get halfway through a greeting once he was patched through, before he hung up.

   That would do.

*

   ‘I want to see Han Youngmi.’

   Taeyong marched up to the front desk with an aura that he wasn’t sure he had ever exuded before. He’d spent the entire walk to the Elius offices trying to think how Ten would act. And he knew he’d announce exactly what he wanted and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

   ‘Excuse me?’ The receptionist looked up with a sneer. He was a smug looking guy, and not in the fun way. It made sense – asshole woman worked for an asshole company with asshole secretaries…

   ‘I said: I want to see Han Youngmi.’

   ‘Well you’ll have to make an appointment then, won’t you?’

   The guy was looking at him with a haughty expression, eyes travelling from his hair to his face to the suit as though he couldn’t quite believe someone who looked like him could be wearing something that looked like that.

   ‘I don’t need an appointment. I’m Lee Taeyong. Call her – trust me, she’ll want to see me,’ said Taeyong, without a hint of false confidence. He had no doubt that Han Youngmi would agree to see him – in her eyes this sort of scene would be the perfect addition to the narrative she wanted.

   The receptionist narrowed his eyes, then eventually picked up the phone.

   From then on, it was easy.

   He was instructed to take the elevator up to the twenty-ninth floor. She was important, but she didn’t warrant a penthouse office. Not like Ten.

   Taeyong didn’t knock.

   He pushed open the door to the office, though he kept his persona calm. He wasn’t going to storm around, but he wasn’t going to pay her any extra courtesy either.

   ‘Ah,’ she said.

   As he looked down at her, stood in the doorway, he wondered how on earth he’d ever thought she was pretty. All he saw in her eyes now was what she’d said to him. This was the woman who’d considered him less than human enough that she’d used him as a toy in her fight, that she was willing to debase him to a footnote in her vendetta against Ten.

   Taeyong reminded himself again that he’d dealt with worse. He’d dealt with being one bad day from living on the streets more than once. He’d dealt with his own parents telling him that there was something wrong with him. He’d dealt with so many years with nothing. Now he finally had a chance at everything.

   No, if anyone was going to be a footnote, it was her.

   A footnote in the story of his success.

   ‘Good morning,’ he said.

   ‘Taeyongie, how nice of you to drop by. Do take a seat. Although, I should tell you now that I have a conference call in twenty minutes.’

   ‘Then cancel,’ said Taeyong, working very hard to keep his voice level.

   ‘Take a seat,’ she repeated, an edge creeping into her silky tone.

   Taeyong walked straight to the chair opposite her desk, throwing his phone down onto the side an inch from her computer. It was a powerplay. He’d noticed at a business dinner once that Ten had placed his phone, keys, and wallet down on the table intruding directly into his rival’s place.

   Taeyong was nothing if not observant.

   ‘What can I do for you, sweetie?’

   ‘I’m here to ask you to stay away from us.’

   She cocked her head sideways, examining him. ‘Did Chittaphon really send you? Is he too scared to face me himself? He had more spine when we were younger…’

   ‘He didn’t send me. I sent myself. We’re partners, me and Ten. He takes care of me and I protect him too.’

   She laughed at that, as though she couldn’t quite believe it, though strangely the sound was not unkind. ‘I didn’t have you down as a feisty one. You seemed so… deferential to him at the party.’

   ‘Oh I can be very soft,’ Taeyong smiled but his voice was cool, ‘when I want to be. But I don’t roll over for just anyone.’

   ‘I like you, Lee Taeyong,’ she said after a pause, fingertips touching together in a cliched triangle as she surveyed him. ‘I’m sorry I was cruel to you at the party. You were just…’

   ‘Collateral?’ said Taeyong, and for the first time he felt a little pang through his nerves. ‘Is that what I am to you?’

   ‘Something like that.’

   ‘I don’t know how you found out about how Ten and I met, but please leave us alone. Leave me out of it. That’s all I’m here to ask. I’m not asking you to make friends with Ten. I’m not asking you to forgive him for any perceived slight. He told me everything, I know there’s a lot of water under the bridge, but - ’

   ‘Oh I bet he did,’ she said calmly. ‘I bet he told you a lovely story about his version of events: all about how I manipulated him, what an evil, horrible person I was, trying to get my hands on his company.’

   Taeyong stared at her. He knew that this was coming, but he didn’t want to get into it.

   ‘Did he tell you about all the hours I spent counselling him when he was in meltdown? Did he tell you how when Dongyoung was going to leave the company, I was the one - ’

   ‘I don’t care.’

   At this, she stopped, looking at him in astonishment.

   ‘With all due respect, I really don’t care how much you helped him, what went on back at college, what you think he owed you. I’m not stupid. I’m not a starry-eyed kid who thinks Ten is some kind of superhero. I know he’s flawed, I know he’s made mistakes. He told me himself that he’s not proud of who he was then. I know how ambitious he was, how single-minded, and I’m sure he was ruthless. I know that to get where he has, earn the sort of money he’s made, you have to step on people, make more than a few enemies. I know that there’s his side of the story and then your side and somewhere in the middle there’s the truth, but I’m not here to go into all that.’

   ‘You don’t want to hear anything from me?’ she raised her eyebrows. ‘You don’t even care?’

   Taeyong took a deep breath. ‘You’re a stranger. Ten is my boyfriend. I love him. I’m always going to be in his corner. I know him now, and he’s not that person anymore. So I’m going to stand up for the person he is today. You don’t know him because you’re so fixated on the guy from a decade ago, but he is a good man. He - ’

   He paused, summoning all his strength.

   ‘He saved me. He changed everything about my life. I had nothing, and now I have everything. If you do want to out us in the paper, here’s your headline: nine months ago I was so desperate that I signed up to that stupid website thinking that maybe I’d find some disgusting old creep who’d help me out with bills if I sent him pictures of me without my clothes on. Best case scenario. I’d spent years working multiple jobs just to live hand-to-mouth because my parents threw me out after I chose music instead of math and boys to fuck instead of girls. Do you have any idea how hard that was? I was a fucking teenager.’

   She seemed to want to say something, but when Taeyong got going on anything like this, it was impossible to stop him.

   ‘Ten was the first person I’d met in twenty-two years who gave a shit. Not like my friends, but like a real adult. He saved me a second from rock-bottom and offered me a chance at life that I thought was six-feet-under. He didn’t just pay my tuition, my bills, my rent – everything to take away all the anxieties I had – but he showed me a life, too. He took me to New York that time I met you – it was the first time I’d ever even been out of the country. He read my essays for me, like I’ve ever had someone to do that before. He showed me what it’s like to feel loved, to feel safe, to feel worth something.’

   ‘Taeyong - ’

   ‘He’s the one special thing I have. He’s the one person who’ll always take care of me, who puts me first, even ahead of himself.’

   ‘Chittaphon doesn’t put anyone ahead of himself.’

   ‘You don’t know anything about us,’ he said, voice turning hard. ‘You don’t know our relationship. You don’t know who he is when he’s with me. I know you hate him, but nothing you do is going to hurt him. He’s on the rich-list; he’s got his company, he’s got his friends, now he’s even got me; he’s got everything he ever wanted. Nothing you can say or do will touch him. It’ll only hurt me. I’m the one who’s going to suffer, end up hated, or end up broken and back where I started. And I haven’t done anything to you to deserve that.’

   He inhaled slowly.

   ‘So please, just leave him alone for me. I can’t lose everything because of something that happened between the two of you back when I was eleven years old. That’s not fair, and you know it. Let me have my one shot at happiness.’

   He felt out of breath by the time he finished.

   ‘Taeyong, I - ’

   ‘In fact, you know what? Do what you want. Go to the press. I don’t give a shit what people think about me. I’m happy. Ten’s happy. We’re always going to be happy.’

   He stood up, grabbing his phone back. It had been a genuine moment of realisation. He was claiming the happiness that had been offered out to him over these last few months. No one was going to take that feeling from him.

   He was halfway to the door when she finally spoke. ‘Don’t flounce out, Taeyong. You’re better than that.’

   He paused, turning back.

   ‘You’re right,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t know him now. The man I see with you? I don’t even recognise him. I was friends with him for nearly three years, enemies for longer, and I’ve never seen him look at anything the way he looks at you – not even his money.’

   ‘Yes, well, we’re in love,’ Taeyong said, straightening his back slightly.

   ‘I knew it would hurt him if I went after you. You’re a rare weak spot. You make him vulnerable.’

   ‘I’m not a weak spot. I’m an extra layer of armour. We stand up for each other.’

   ‘Yes, I can see that. You’re here, after all. Though he did get there first, of course. You should have seen the extraordinarily documented list he sent detailing all the ways he’d destroy me if I ever went near you, after New York.’

   Taeyong stood up even straighter. ‘Ten likes to keep things well-catalogued.’

   ‘I’m sorry for what I said at the party,’ she sighed. ‘I confess that I… didn’t think about you.’

   ‘Well please do, next time,’ he whispered. ‘I’m a person. A human being. Not just Ten’s boyfriend. I have my own life and I can’t bear to watch it fall apart. Not again.’

   She looked, for the first time, a little guilty. ‘I was never going to tell the press. I wasn’t going to tell your parents, either. Like I said at the party, I’m not the person I was a decade ago. It’s just… games.’

   ‘Well I don’t want to play. So please don’t mess around with me again. You’re a business analyst for a Fortune 500 Company. You’re making the kind of money someone like me could never dream of. Why keep living in the past? Ten’s… up for a truce. He’s tired of all this too. If the two of you could just meet in the middle, I think it would be -’

   ‘I’m not meeting him anywhere,’ she said coolly. For what seemed like an hour, she gave him a critical look, and then at last she conceded. ‘I will… back off, though.’

   Taeyong swallowed, hardly able to believe that it had been so easy. ‘Really?’

   ‘Believe it or not, I’m not actually a terrible person, Taeyong.’

   ‘Okay. Well thanks.’

   ‘But I’m doing it for you, not for him.’

   He nodded. Then he turned to leave again, because the last thing he wanted to do was stick around long enough for her to change her mind.

   ‘The app you used - ’

   Taeyong turned around.

   ‘As soon as I saw you two together I got the idea. It only took a little digging. The app’s privacy systems aren’t great. You should… get onto that. I’m surprised Chittaphon hasn’t got to it already, but maybe he’s just swept up in love.’ She laughed lightly. ‘I’m sure someone like Kim Dongyoung would be able to clear that kind of thing. You know… in case any journalists got hold of it.’

   ‘Thanks,’ said Taeyong, in such astonishment that he didn’t really know what else to say.

   ‘Not a terrible person, remember?’ she gave him a half smile.

   Taeyong nodded, anxiety settling. Whatever had gone on between Ten and Han Youngmi, he had an instinct of complete certainty that it wasn’t going to come back around to him anymore.

*

   ‘You went to see her, didn’t you?’ Ten sighed as soon as he walked quietly into the living room.

   Ten was sat on the couch, wearing grey sweatpants and a black button-down shirt that was open low. His knees were tucked up to his chest, a pose more habitual to Taeyong, a book in his hands. It was his I-promise-I’m-not-going-to-work look.

   ‘You’re not mad at me, are you?’ Taeyong whispered.

   Ten gave him a smile that seemed to cost some effort but was real nonetheless. ‘Of course not, my love. No. I could never be mad at you.’

   Taeyong relaxed a little.

   ‘I knew that you’d… I knew you’d do something. I was prepared. You look lovely, by the way,’ Ten added, looking him up and down. Then - ‘That’s my suit.’

   ‘I… borrowed it. Temporarily.’

   ‘Well now I’m mad at you.’

   Taeyong beamed, tension fading from his body. ‘I wanted to look intimidating.’

   ‘What did you say? What did she say? She wasn’t cruel to you, was she?’

   Taeyong crossed over to the couch, pulling off his jacket. ‘No, no. I… I asked her to leave us alone. She… said yes.’

   Ten narrowed his eyes. ‘That didn’t strike you as…?’

   ‘Suspicious? No. She meant it. I’m an excellent judge of character. Besides, if you’d heard the speech I gave, you’d have meant it too,’ he smiled. ‘You’re not the only one who can be persuasive, you know.’

   Ten surveyed him with a look of great esteem, then leant in to kiss his forehead. ‘Sometimes you still amaze me. I get so used to taking care of you that I forget you can take care of yourself, too. You’re so soft, so sweet, but I wouldn’t mess with you.’

   ‘That’s what I told her,’ Taeyong said airily. ‘After she called me… deferential, to you.’

   Ten pulled a face of disgust. ‘Clearly she didn’t do her research.’

   ‘What are we going to do today?’ He knew that this wouldn’t be the end of that subject for Ten, but the subsequent conversation could wait. He wanted a moment to truly relax after the disaster at the party.

   Ten, it seemed, felt the same. ‘Well, I was thinking we could watch a movie… cook together… do other things together…’

   ‘Like what?’ Taeyong breathed as Ten kissed him.

   ‘Oh I can think of a few ideas.’

   ‘I can’t wait to hear them.’

   Ten sat back. ‘How strange is this? You in the suit talking to me curled up like this? I feel like we’ve slipped into an alternate reality.’

   ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go and get changed,’ Taeyong said with a mock shudder. ‘It’s not right.’

   He returned a minute later in torn jeans and a Vetements hoodie, even though if he got his way, he wasn’t planning on staying dressed for long. Ten smiled at the more familiar style, and held out his arms for him to skip over and take up his usual spot sat strewn across his lap.

   Taeyong went to kiss him, but Ten pressed a finger gently to his lips.

   ‘I need to talk to you for five minutes.’

   Taeyong sat back, hands dropping to both of their laps and playing with one of the lower buttons on Ten’s shirt. He didn’t get anxious, anymore, every time that Ten said they needed to talk. He knew that he wasn’t going to break up with him. ‘What about?’ he asked, hoping it wouldn’t take long.

   ‘Well,’ Ten had a definite smile playing around his lips. ‘It’s your birthday in a few days.’

   ‘Oh is it?’ Taeyong said airily. ‘I hadn’t even thought about it.’

   Lie. He’d thought a lot about it. He had been seeing how late he could leave it before checking that Ten had remembered. But of course he had.

   ‘I’m sure you hadn’t,’ said Ten with a very knowing look. ‘I wanted to check whether you’re… doing, anything? Or whether I can have you all to myself?’

   ‘Hmm, I’ll check my schedule,’ Taeyong mused.

   Ten pulled him closer by his waist, into a long, languid kiss. He pressed his tongue past his lips, playing over familiar territory. His territory. Taeyong was just ready to moan into his mouth, always knocked out when Ten kissed him like this, when he pulled away.

   ‘What were we talking about again?’ asked Ten.

   ‘We were talking about how I’m all yours on my birthday,’ Taeyong answered breathlessly.

   Like I hadn’t kept the entire surrounding weeks free just in case you planned something, he thought.

   ‘Excellent, because I already arranged everything.’

   Taeyong’s heart fluttered. ‘What are we doing?’

   ‘It’s a surprise.’

   ‘Oh no Ten, you know I can’t do surprises,’ he whined. ‘This is your Taeyong, remember? Your impatient little kitten.’

   Ten leant in and kissed his nose, making him wriggle away in demand of an answer.

   ‘Please give me a hint, at least.’

   Ten surveyed him with a playfully stern look, then sighed theatrically. ‘You’ll need your passport.’

   His heart flipped at that. ‘We’re going away? You took time off work?’

   ‘If anything in the world is going to make me take time off work, darling, it’s your birthday. You’re all mine and I’m all yours. For five days. No work. I know it’s not a lot but - ’

   Taeyong interrupted him with another kiss. ‘It’s so much, Ten,’ he exhaled against his lips. ‘Oh god I’m so excited.’

   ‘You’re going to love it.’

   ‘Where, Ten? Tell me. Please!’ He didn’t care if he sounded like a petulant child.

   ‘You’re going to ruin all your surprises, my love.’

   ‘City or beach?’

   ‘City.’

   That was fair. Taeyong wasn’t sure he could imagine Ten on a beach. ‘What continent?’

   ‘Stop it,’ Ten scolded, ‘you know I can’t refuse you when you look at me like that.’

   Taeyong put on his best pleading eyes, fingers lacing into Ten’s hair, holding his gaze. ‘Please,’ he pouted again.

   ‘It’s somewhere I always said I’d take you.’

   Taeyong’s mind flitted at a mile a second, thinking back to everything they’d ever said. It didn’t help much. Ten told him he’d take him everywhere. He made a promise a minute.

   ‘Is the shopping good?’ Taeyong had his priorities straight.

   ‘Oh very good.’

   ‘Better than Seoul?’

   ‘I’d say so.’

   ‘Better than New York?’

   Ten paused. ‘Jury’s out.’

   That gave him a rough idea. ‘Is - ’

   ‘Enough questions,’ Ten put a finger to Taeyong’s lips again, tracing over them when he stopped speaking. ‘What do you want for your birthday? I’ve got you things, but I want to get you something you need too. Something for music. What do you need most, right now?’

   Things. That sounded exciting.

   What did he need?

   New computer, he thought.

   ‘New computer,’ he said.

   He was getting a lot better, these days, at expressing these needs to Ten.

   ‘Which computer? Is there a specialist brand? If I’m getting it for you, it has to be the very best.’

   Taeyong shook his head. ‘Mac is good.’

   ‘Okay great. You remember I work with Apple, right? Desktop or laptop? Or both? Maybe both… you’re going to need a laptop for college, but a desktop will have slightly better processing…’

   Taeyong stared at him.

   It was strange – he was so used to Ten, now. He was used to this massive, two floor apartment in central Seoul, with gated entry and marble floors. He was used to the designer clothes that found their way into his wardrobe, most recently a Gucci summer-weight jacket that he’d googled and found cost nearly a semester’s tuition. He was used to the way Ten could murmur a few words into anyone’s ear and make anything that Taeyong wanted happen.

   He was used to it all.

   What surprised him wasn’t the way Ten talked, but the very fact that he was used to it.

   A few months ago, listening to Ten ruminate like this would have left him stunned. He hadn’t even really acknowledged that anyone had the sort of money to buy things they wanted, not just needed. He’d simply never met anyone like that. Even the friends he had who weren’t struggling would never buy both. That sort of thing was ludicrous.

   That sort of thing was reserved for people like Ten.

   ‘Both… both is a lot, Ten,’ he whispered. ‘Maybe just…’

   ‘- just a desktop,’ Ten finished for him.

   If Taeyong was getting better at asking for things, Ten was getting better at keeping the extravagant side of himself under control, for his sake.

   Taeyong nodded shyly.

   ‘Okay, I think that covers things,’ Ten smiled, lifting Taeyong’s sweater and settling his hands on his hips against his skin, rather than the fleece. ‘Back to the fun.’

   ‘Can I have a present now? Like an early birthday?’

   Ten raised his eyebrows in disbelief. ‘No, you absolutely cannot, Lee Taeyong.’

   ‘I just thought I’d try my luck,’ Taeyong shrugged, letting out a gasp as Ten lifted him and rolled them over, until he was flat on his back on the couch.

   ‘You think you’ve got me wrapped around your little finger, don’t you kitten?’ Ten leant down and kissed his forehead, pinning his hands.

   Taeyong fidgeted, wanting to touch him. ‘I don’t think. I know.’

   ‘I never thought I’d meet my match, baby boy, but it’s you,’ Ten sighed, letting go of his hands and stroking down his chest instead. ‘I can’t even argue with you. You already know I’d give you the world if you asked for it.’

   ‘You’ve given it to me already.’

   Ten met his eyes with such love that Taeyong actually blinked under the sheer fervour of it. ‘We’re… getting there,’ Ten nodded.

   Taeyong thought, though it left a pain in his heart, that Ten might never truly think he’d given him everything. He’d never rest, never let himself breathe, never relax in the understanding that he’d already placed the world neatly in his lap. That just wasn’t him. Taeyong wished, more than anything, that for one day Ten could see himself through his eyes. See how Taeyong looked on him.

   Maybe then, he’d finally let out a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that he’d already done so much more than enough.

Chapter Text

   “Paris is full of beautiful things.

   You’d fit right in.”

   That was what Ten had said to Taeyong the first time he’d promised to take him there, back when they’d been veritable strangers with no idea where their journey would take them.

   Now, he wasn’t so sure.

   Paris was filled with beautiful things, but Taeyong didn’t… fit in.

   He was on another level.

   They were sat at a small table, out on a pedestrianised cobble street in the morning light. Taeyong was in as good a mood as Ten had ever seen him – thrilled – no glimmer of tiredness in his eyes even though they’d been on a plane three hours ago.

   ‘I shouldn’t drink coffee as much as I do,’ Taeyong talked animatedly, dropping three more sugar cubes into his cup, ‘you know what I’m like. I get so overexcited anyway and then the caffeine is like - ’

   ‘I love you.’

   Taeyong looked up in surprise. He always looked so sweet like that, pretty lips parting, stunning dark eyes widening. His tongue would touch out over his lower lip as it always did when he was caught off guard, cheeks turning rosy pink as he realised what he’d said. All these months, and Ten still liked to say things just to see him blush.

   This wasn’t for that reason, though. He hadn’t even thought about it. The words had just slipped out as he watched him.

   ‘I… love you too,’ said Taeyong, maybe a little taken aback by the interruption.

   ‘Sorry,’ said Ten. ‘Carry on. I just needed to say it.’

   Taeyong’s smile was so beautiful that Ten’s heart may have skipped a beat. ‘But you know me when I get overexcited. Maybe I should start drinking decaf.’

   ‘I love you when you’re overexcited.’

   ‘But then I get overwhelmed and I don’t know what to do with myself but it’s so much easier now I have you with me. You always know how to calm me down, how to keep me steady.’

   Ten nodded, body flush with the urge to take Taeyong into his arms. He had that urge a lot. Taeyong was a living firecracker; he was always so enthusiastic, so hyped up, so exhilarated by the smallest things, and then he wore himself out by the end of each day, ready to curl up in Ten’s embrace and fall asleep. And Ten loved it. He wouldn’t change a single thing about him. He lived for the way that Taeyong wore his heart on his sleeve.

   ‘Good thing I’ll always be here, then,’ Ten smiled.

   ‘Paris…’ Taeyong breathed. ‘I figured. It was in my top three for predictions. First I thought Bangkok, then I thought London… But of course it was going to be Paris.’

   ‘I’ll take you to both of them, too,’ said Ten, without a hint of an empty promise. ‘London, maybe in the Fall. Your study week? I can tie it in to work. And Bangkok? Any time. I’d… I’d love for you to meet my parents.’

   Taeyong took a moment, processing his words. ‘I can meet your parents?’

   ‘They want to meet you,’ he said quietly. ‘They talk about it all the time. Especially my mom.’

   ‘Oh Ten, I’d love that,’ Taeyong exhaled. ‘It would be like having a family again.’

   He said it carelessly, concentrating back on stirring his coffee, but Ten felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

   Like having a family again.

   He made a mental note to send a long mail to his mom before he brought Taeyong to meet her – he’d ask her to prepare all of the warm dishes a boy should expect on his homecoming; he’d ask her to hug him tightly because it had probably been so very long since Taeyong had been held by a mother; he’d ask her to make sure that Bangkok could be like a second home for him.

   His mother was the sort of woman who lived for that sort of thing. She was so caring, so kind – he knew that she wouldn’t think twice before inviting Taeyong into their family.

   ‘Soon,’ Ten said gently.

   Taeyong beamed.

   Unable to resist any longer, Ten reached inside his linen jacket and took out a ribbon-wrapped box, placing it down on the table. ‘Here. A birthday present,’ he said, watching the way Taeyong’s smile extended even wider.

   ‘I thought I wasn’t getting any early presents?’ he stuck his tongue out.

   ‘It’s a birthday-eve present.’

   Taeyong pulled at the silver ribbon. Jungwoo had helped him wrap all this stuff in the office – making things look pretty wasn’t exactly Ten’s strong point. He was an appreciator of art, rather than an artist. Unless it meant choosing things for Taeyong to wear that made him look even more beautiful – that he was good at.

   And it was going to be a strong theme for Taeyong’s birthday.

   ‘Oh my God, Ten,’ Taeyong breathed as he popped open the box.

   Ten leant forwards on the table, chin propped on his hand, watching as he stroked over the classic red Cartier box, as though he didn’t quite dare touch what was inside. ‘I wanted to buy you a watch from the moment I met you,’ Ten sighed, ‘but I thought you’d think it was too much to spend on you that early. I… bided my time.’

   ‘Oh Ten this is so beautiful,’ he whispered.

   ‘Watches are extremely important in my world. I wear Cartier, just like you now, of course. We have to match. Yukhei wears Rolex, naturally. Doyoung wears Jaeger-LeCoultre. Watches are a way of introducing yourself in our kind of business before you even say your name. A good watch is a statement of character.’

   ‘What does this say about my character?’

   ‘It says that you’re pretty and powerful,’ said Ten, taking his wrist on the table so that he could put it on for him. ‘It’s actually from the ladies’ Tank line, I hope you don’t mind.’

   Taeyong shrugged. ‘I’ve been buying clothes from the women’s department for years, Ten. Where else do you think I find all the silk?’

   Ten nodded – he hadn’t thought it would be a problem. ‘I needed something delicate enough for you. Your wrists are so tiny. This design is a classic. It’s just like you: at first glance it looks sweet, elegant and refined and pretty in pink, but it’s a symbol of power. This line has been worn by some extraordinarily powerful women – Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy. And some extraordinarily discerning men, too – Yves Saint Laurent, even Frank Sinatra.’

   ‘How do you know all this?’ Taeyong murmured, extending his arm to admire his wrist.

   Ten smiled. ‘Like I said, watches are very important.’

   ‘Thank you so much, Ten. This is like… I’m never taking it off. Ever.’

   ‘Maybe in the shower,’ Ten mused, lacing their fingers together so that he could bring Taeyong’s hand to his lips and press a kiss to his knuckles.

   ‘If this is birthday-eve, I’m super, super excited for my birthday now,’ Taeyong grinned.

   Ten looked at him, taking in his smile. He’d tattoo that image in his mind’s eye if he could. ‘I thought we could go shopping tomorrow. Anything you want, I’ll get it for you. I know that it’s your birthday, but having a chance to spoil you is a little bit of a treat for me too. It might be the one day of the year where I can be completely indulgent.’

   Taeyong nodded shyly.

   ‘But I wanted you to look magnificent tonight, so I had to commit a day early. We’re going out, you see.’

   ‘Where?’ He looked up so quickly that he reminded Ten of a kitten perking up its ears. Taeyong loved a good night out.

   ‘You remember you told me how you used to cut out pictures from magazines to plan the outfits you’d buy? When you could afford it?’

   Taeyong blushed bright pink. ‘I can’t believe I told you that. It’s so embarrassing.’

   ‘You like fashion?’

   Taeyong nodded. ‘Clothes are… my thing.’

   ‘Well you may or may not be aware that it’s Paris Fashion Week.’

   Taeyong’s mouth fell gradually open.

   ‘Haute couture. Front row, tonight.’

   ‘Ten you didn’t,’ Taeyong breathed. ‘That shit is impossible to get.’

   ‘Nothing’s impossible for me, darling. Not when it’s for you. I’d move mountains if I had to.’

   ‘Moving mountains would be easier,’ Taeyong mumbled. ‘Are you serious? Oh my God what am I going to wear?’

   ‘Whatever you choose, you’re going to be the most beautiful boy in the room, Yongie. I can’t wait. All those fashion houses will wish they had you as a model.’

   ‘Oh Ten this is the best birthday ever! I – I - ’ Taeyong seemed completely lost for words. He cleared his throat. ‘So fashion week tonight… shopping tomorrow… what else?’

   Ten shrugged. ‘Anything you want. I do think we should pick a restaurant. Paris is home to some of the finest chefs in the world, and we both love to eat,’ he smiled. Until he’d met Taeyong, he’d lived entirely off restaurant food. Now, Taeyong cooked for him most nights. If he was being biased, he would have to say that Taeyong’s cooking was the best in the world – he didn’t need to be a world-class chef, his food tasted of love. But restaurant food still ran a close second. ‘We’ll go for three Michelin stars. The most I took you to in New York only had two. This time you’re going to experience the best.’

   Taeyong nodded excitedly.

   ‘We could take a day out of Paris? We could drive out to the Loire Valley, see some vineyards, do some wine-tasting. Or we could stay right here, and go to every patisserie we can find in one day and see how much we can eat before we collapse?’

   Taeyong gave him a dazzling smile at this. ‘You know I love sweet things!’

   ‘There’s the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, obviously, or if you don’t want to sightsee, we can order in and just laze around.’

   ‘We should do some lazing,’ Taeyong nodded. ‘You don’t get much time off work. You should rest.’

   Ten furrowed his brow. ‘It’s not about me, baby. It’s your birthday week. We’re doing what you want to do.’

   Taeyong met his eyes. ‘Tennie, you remember how you always remind me that you enjoy spoiling me? That making me happy makes you happy?’

   He nodded, thinking through his words, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. Something about the way that Taeyong said his name like that made him feel like a shy, lovestruck teenager.

   ‘Well you’re not the only one, okay? Seeing you relaxing and recharging, that’s like my version of that, alright? If you come away from Paris feeling rested, like you’ve had a real vacation, that will make me happy.’

   ‘I understand,’ said Ten. He did. He was always trying to arrange things for Taeyong, especially all of the things that he hadn’t ever been able to do before – things that cost. But he’d been noticing more and more recently that Taeyong was happiest whenever Ten was just… at home with him. In restaurants, at shows, he looked happy, but when Ten took off his work clothes and crawled into bed with him and promised him a weekend alone in the apartment together? Then he looked ecstatic.

   Taeyong would skip around in the mornings, make him breakfast, bring it to the bed that he ordered him strictly not to leave, curling up between his legs and resting against his chest. Ten would read the paper with his arms wrapped around him, Taeyong playing a game on his phone or listening to a new song that had just been released from his favourite artists.

   They were at the stage where they didn’t even need to talk, anymore. They could kill an hour, two hours, like that in comfortable quiet, sending messages to one another purely through touch – Ten, stroking his fingers through Taeyong’s hair every few minutes, or pressing a kiss to the crown of his head; Taeyong, nuzzling in as close as physically possible to his chest, running his fingertips down his forearm.

   Love.

   It was love.

   In those moments, Ten felt it so purely that it made his heart ache.

   He’d never been in love.

   He’d had the occasional boyfriend, all of them a long time ago, but he’d never said those words to a partner.

   I love you.

   Now, those words bounced around his head more than any other. He wanted to tell Taeyong he loved him every five minutes – he wanted to tell everyone else that he loved him. He wanted the world to understand the transformation that his heart had undertaken.

   He took a breath. ‘How about, we spend a day in the suite? There’s a spa in the hotel. We can go there for a couple of hours, I’ll get a massage to help me relax. You can get a massage too because god you’ve earned that, and anything else you want. Afterwards, we can get a bottle of champagne, or two, curl up in bed, and rent all of the oldest, classic French movies we can find. If they have Korean subtitles. If not, then we’ll watch one of your favourites again. Or we’ll watch the French movies anyway and make up our own dialogue. We’ll order room service and eat desserts all day.’

   ‘Oh Ten,’ Taeyong whispered, ‘how is it that you know how to make all my dreams come true?’

   ‘Research,’ Ten smiled, ‘what makes you happy is the thing I pay attention to most in the world.’ 

   Taeyong was glowing. ‘Tennie I’m so happy I could cry.’

   Ten wondered how to express the fact that Taeyong made him feel that way every hour of every day.

   He was so in love.

   He was just so fucking happy.

*

   Ten hadn’t gone looking for love.

   He hadn’t really gone looking for Taeyong.

   He’d first heard of the concept of getting a sugar-baby, thanks, like most of his more reckless ideas, to a suggestion from Yukhei. He wasn’t even sure his best friend would remember now – Yukhei said so many outlandish things on any given day that it had probably ended up somewhere buried deep amongst the likely chaotic filing system of his brain. But said it he had.

   Ten had been complaining.

   That wasn’t unusual, back then.

   He’d been moping around his office at eleven at night, ranting about his printer not working, when Yukhei had opened the door. He was with Jungwoo, returning home from a dinner but dropping into the office to pick up the work they’d left behind. They’d been horrified to find him still at work so late. Ten, maybe a couple of drinks too far in from the bourbon he kept on his desk, had announced that there was no point in going home, because what the hell did he even have to go home for?

   He was lonely. He was alone. He was probably going to die alone.

   Jungwoo, ever a sweetheart, had sat down on the floor next to him, taking his hands, murmuring that he needed to find himself a boyfriend. Someone to take-care-of-him, he’d actually said. Yukhei had agreed, though he’d said it rather less kindly. His closest friends didn’t really entertain his shit, not after twenty years. Ten had snapped back at him, telling him that he couldn’t just “fucking-get-laid” (Yukhei’s words) because he didn’t do that. And he couldn’t get a boyfriend because that wouldn’t be fair. He was addicted to his work. There was no way he’d be able to support someone emotionally in a relationship.

   “I don’t know, then, Ten. Get a fucking sugar-baby, or something.”

   “A what?” He’d said back incredulously.

   “Someone you can throw money at, because God knows you’ve got enough of it. Someone who’ll get you out of this stupid office. Someone you don’t have to worry about all the feelings with. There you go. Problem solved.”

   At the time, Ten had just scoffed, forgetting all about the idea, writing it off as one of Yukhei’s lazier jokes.

   Then, one evening, alone in his office at just-about-breaking-point, he’d remembered what he said.

   And he’d thrown caution to the wind.

   Ten knew what he had to offer. He wasn’t vain by any means, but he certainly knew he was handsome enough to run rings around the sorts of guys who’d usually dominate those kinds of apps. He knew he was also wealthier than all of them too. He wasn’t sure where he was on the Korean rich-list, he didn’t care for that kind of thing, but he knew that Yukhei, by his own declaration, was sitting at ninth these days. That gave him a general idea.

   So he knew he wouldn’t struggle to find a date.

   Which meant he knew he could afford to be selective.

   He’d thought he’d find someone as normal and normal looking as possible, if that sort of person existed on those apps. They’d have to be his own age, as maturity was essential. He’d hoped for someone quiet, reserved, because Ten valued his peace, someone busy enough with their own life that their interest in him would be exclusively financial. He’d hoped for someone professional and easy to integrate into his social circle and –

   And he’d ended up with Lee Taeyong.

   Before Taeyong, he’d met with exactly two people from the app for coffee. Both to his specifications. Neither of them that he ever wanted to see again.

   Then, just when he’d thought the whole thing was a dead-end, he’d spotted Taeyong’s picture.

   A new profile.

   A profile that dazzled him; blinded him to reality; erased every detail of planning and replaced it with him.

   He hadn’t known his name, of course. His lips curved up at the memory. He’d been kittyong, back then.

   It was the sort of username that would have made him roll his eyes or pull a face of distaste if it were anyone else, but instead he’d fallen in love with it. He’d changed his own from something bland to something that he hoped would make this beautiful stranger smile.

   He couldn’t stop staring at his picture. He’d never seen anyone like him.

   Pink hair. Age twenty-two. Likes: Candy, Clothes, and Cute Things.

   He was the absolute opposite of everything Ten had gone looking for.

   And he knew from the second he saw him that he was the one.

   He had to have him, though not in his usual possessive way. He didn’t covet him in the way he did art, though on the surface it might seem much the same; when Ten had his eyes on a piece of art at auction, he’d dig his claws in so deep that nothing and no one was going to get in his way. If he wanted something, he got it. But with Taeyong, kittyong, his beloved, darling Yongie, it had been different.

   He didn’t have to have him because he was pretty. Or because he himself was competitive. He had to have him because he knew from the moment he saw him that he was the only boy in the world who was right for him. He knew that if he lost him now, or, even worse, if he let someone else have him, it was over.

   There’d never be another one like him.

   He wasn’t sure what it was, what about him dismantled every plan he’d had, every expectation, but he’d just seen it. Known it.

   So he hadn’t ended up with someone his age, someone professional, whatever the hell that meant, someone quiet and reserved, someone busy with their own life who wouldn’t depend on him for anything other than finance.

   He’d ended up with a bombshell twenty-two-year-old with hair like cupcake frosting. A special little firework who was loud and uncontrolled and the opposite to him in all the best ways. His sweet, playful angel who didn’t care about being professional, or fitting in, but who showed him that the fun of life was doing the complete opposite of that. He’d ended up with someone who, whatever Taeyong might even have told himself, was so desperately in need of affection that it was never going to be about the money.   

   Kind, selfless, devoted Taeyong, who had so much love to give.

   His Taeyong.

   So, he hadn’t gone looking for love.

   He hadn’t really gone looking for Taeyong.

   But now he had both.

   And he was absolutely certain that he was the happiest man alive.

   There could be no happier. It was simply inconceivable, because whoever they might be, they didn’t have Taeyong.

   He thought all of this as he wrapped his arm around his waist, guiding him out of the ultra-modern decorated hall where Jean Paul Gaultier had hosted their runway and into the more neo-classical reception room of the venue. Taeyong was buzzing, literally buzzing, hopping slightly on his feet with excitement. Fashion wasn’t really Ten’s thing – his only real interest in clothes was thinking of things Taeyong would look lovely in – so he’d constructed an expression of interest just like Taeyong did when he indulged the things Ten liked. But after a couple of minutes, it had been easy to keep his face focussed. All he had to do was glance right every few seconds, take in the way that Taeyong leant forwards, keen eyes tearing from side to side, eyes alight with interest, and that did the job.

   There was only one thing that had caught Ten’s eye, other than Taeyong, and now, like so many things, he had to have it.

   His eyes scanned around the reception, looking for exactly who he would need. The designer? Models? He knew that the clothes after shows were sometimes given to the models who’d worn them. Fuck, he needed to find someone.

   ‘Will you give me a moment, baby?’ he said to Taeyong, pressing a kiss to his cheek and taking a glass of champagne from the nearest waiter.

   ‘Where are you going?’ Taeyong pouted as he took the glass.

   ‘Patience,’ was all that Ten said in reply.

   It took him two conversations in English, one in broken French, a trip backstage, and a hefty roll of cash in the hand of the right person, and then Ten was back by Taeyong’s side.

   ‘What were you doing?’ Taeyong asked again curiously. ‘You’re not just my boyfriend, you know, you’re my translator!’

   ‘I’m sorry, baby. I was getting you something.’

   Taeyong’s eyes glimmered. ‘What were you getting me?’

   ‘You’ll have to wait, my darling.’

   He turned half away, laugh escaping his lips, as Taeyong quickly grabbed at his jacket, fingers finding their way to his inside pocket. ‘I know what it is,’ he said slyly, ‘I saw you looking at it.’

   ‘Hey you!’ Ten caught his hands. ‘Be a good boy, now, Yongie.’

   ‘I can be whatever I want,’ Taeyong announced, ‘it’s my birthday!’

   ‘Hmm, tomorrow, maybe,’ Ten smiled, ‘but this is tonight.’

   Taeyong stuck his bottom lip out. ‘Meanie.’

   Ten cupped a hand around the back of his neck to kiss him, smiling into his lips. He loved keeping him waiting. He loved the way Taeyong practically vibrated with anticipation whenever he knew that he was going to get something.

   To his surprise, though, when he pulled back, Taeyong looked… not happy.

   His stress receptors jumped into overdrive. His instincts around Taeyong were so involuntary that they took hold before he could even process things – Protect. Hold. Love.

   ‘Baby, what’s wrong? Tell me, my love.’ He gave him the look.

   They both had the look. For Taeyong, it was a pout, a prominent lower lip, pleading eyes, the one look that he knew Ten absolutely could not refuse and that he pulled out whenever he wanted something. For Ten, it was a harder look, eyes that wouldn’t let him turn away, holding his gaze and telling him without words that he needed to share what was in his head. That one, he pulled out whenever Taeyong was anxious.

   ‘Those models you were talking to… they were all flirting with you,’ Taeyong pouted. ‘You don’t… you don’t think they’re prettier than me, do you?’

   Ten stared at him in surprise. ‘Oh no, oh my love, no. They weren’t flirting with me, they were flirting with my wallet. And I didn’t even notice them. There’s no one else worth looking at when you’re in the room.’

   Before his eyes, Taeyong’s pout turned into something of a sly smile. ‘Just checking.’

   Ten stood back in disbelief. ‘Oh baby, you really had me going there for a second,’ he said, exhaling as he realised Taeyong had been playing with him.

   Taeyong smirked. ‘Serves you right for keeping me waiting!’

   Ten shook his head. ‘You’re a dangerous little kitten, sometimes, Yongie,’ he said, and there was a creeping sense of pride in his voice. Ten could be possessive, but every once in a while, he noticed that Taeyong, for all his sweetness, was just a little possessive too. They were made for each other. Only each other. ‘You’ve always known how to get me worked up.’

   Taeyong beamed.

   Ten leant close, hand taking his waist and pulling him so roughly against him that Taeyong jumped, letting out a little gasp. ‘But don’t forget that I know how to get you worked up too, baby, and I’m tempted to make you beg later after what you just did.’

   Taeyong nudged their faces together, perhaps already craving a kiss at the sound of those words.

   Right there, right in public because he’d never been one for shyness, Ten nipped at the lobe of his ear, thumb stroking up under his jaw before pressing a little firmer to tilt his head up and allow him access to his throat. He could feel Taeyong’s pulse racing against his lips as he pressed a kiss there.

   ‘I’ll treat you right, tonight, birthday boy,’ he breathed, feeling his body flush just at the sound of Taeyong’s breath hitching. ‘What do you want? You want me to take you apart, piece by piece? Get you all trembly and weak and gasping until you can’t remember your own name?’

   Taeyong keened. Loudly. Ten had always said he could make him moan, even in public.

   ‘I bet you’d like that,’ he said, with one last kiss at the crook of his neck.

   Taeyong swallowed, nodding quickly.

   ‘I’d like that too,’ Ten mused. ‘I’ve always said I like you when you’re needy.’

   ‘Can I wear that?’ Taeyong whispered, nodding at his pocket.

   The pocket where he’d hidden away the piece of jewellery he’d just paid an arm and a leg for. The body-chain that he’d been fixated on during the show, that had made Taeyong sit so far forward that Ten had thought he might step onto the runway. The fine silver thread of a necklace that would settle so sweetly down the line of his chest, across his ribcage, all the way down into the beautiful curve of his waist.

   God Ten could picture him wearing it.

   ‘Only if you promise not to wear anything else,’ Ten smiled against his ear.

   Taeyong bit his lip, eyes burning with excitement. Then, between their bodies, hidden away in a corner of the venue, he lifted his hand, tilting it to one side to show off the watch at his wrist. ‘It’s midnight.’

   Ten kissed his temple, then his cheek, then his lips, and then pulled him close against him, all thoughts of sex forgotten just for a moment. ‘Happy birthday, baby,’ he breathed, squeezing him tightly.

   ‘Thanks, Ten,’ Taeyong murmured into his collar.

   ‘You’ll be catching up with me soon if you keep having birthdays,’ Ten teased.

   ‘Will you still love me when I’m not young and pretty anymore?’ asked Taeyong, voice equally playful.

   ‘I’m going to love you every day of your life, Yongie.’

   ‘You realise when I’m your age, you’re going to be forty-something, right?’

   Ten made a great show of reeling. ‘Don’t remind me, sweetheart, please.’

   Taeyong nestled his way into his side, resting his head on his shoulder as Ten started to steer him towards the exit.

   They didn’t want to be in the company of strangers any longer.

   They only wanted each other.

Chapter Text

   Taeyong looked, if it were possible, even better than he had imagined.

   Ten stopped moving. Completely. He was… mesmerised.

   ‘You like it?’ whispered Taeyong.

   He was leant against the doorframe of the bathroom, just off the bedroom of their suite, one arm playing lazily in his hair, the other stroking down the lines of silver across his body. He was also naked. Taeyong had never been shy, not really – he blushed and squirmed and hid his face on the regular, but in all honesty, coy was a better word. The only times that Ten had managed to coax the real shyness out of him was with cuteness, not with sex.

   Ten raked his eyes over his body, feeling a stirring of heat in his navel.

   Fuck Taeyong was so pretty. He told him so all the time, but sometimes he still couldn’t quite believe it himself. It seemed so outrageous for someone like that to be real. Soft, tan skin, radiant in health now that he slept enough; dark, sparkling eyes with a bold brow that Ten loved to kiss when he pushed his bangs back; pink lips perfect for kissing, and -

   ‘Oh how lovely you look,’ he murmured, rolling his eyes down over the threads of silver and then to his cock. Pretty. Cute. Like the rest of him. ‘That,’ he nodded to the body-chain, ‘is going to be a regular.’

   Then he looked back to his face.

   He loved every part of Taeyong. Every tiny detail. He loved his fingers, his hair, his hips, his lips, his sweet little scar just to the side of his eye that he always tried to hide with his hair, but that Ten could never resist running his fingertips over.

   He was a work of art. Truly. Which made it difficult for Ten to reconcile the part of himself that wanted to ruin him when he looked like this. Because Taeyong wasn’t just cute, he wasn’t just pretty, he was utterly tantalizing when he wanted to be. And he knew it.

   A conflict.

   ‘You said you’d get me weak,’ Taeyong breathed, stepping right up close to him.

   ‘I’ll do anything you want me to, baby. Tonight’s your night.’

   ‘Just make it memorable,’ Taeyong whispered.

   He jumped, a tremor running down his body, as Ten stroked his icy fingers, completely cold from where he’d just held a freshly iced champagne bottle, from the base of his cock up his abdomen, up his chest, all the way to his throat until he was tilting his head a little back. He watched the way Taeyong shivered, the way his throat bobbed as he swallowed, the way his body betrayed his excitement.

   ‘I love you,’ Ten exhaled, kissing the tender skin of his throat, and then he caught him roughly by the hips, steering him over to the bed, pushing him down with feigned carelessness. He’d mastered the art of treating him like that – Taeyong liked to be pushed around, sometimes, something that could be hard for Ten when he wanted to hold him safe in his hands like the world’s most delicate, fragile butterfly. So he’d learned to take the utmost care over making Taeyong feel pliant.

   Taeyong let out a whine as he straddled straight over him, pinning his thighs with his weight, fingers locking into his and pressing his hands into the mattress. Ten leant down, took his lips in a kiss that was far more air than touch. Then he played his tongue over his neck, before putting a mark there.

   Nice. Big. Purple.

   He’d always liked leaving a stamp.

   Taeyong twisted under him, hips bucking up in need.

   ‘You’re in luck, kitten,’ Ten alternated his words with sucking little kisses down across his chest, lips pressing against the cool metal of his chain, ‘tonight is your special night and I’m feeling generous.’

   ‘Please Ten,’ Taeyong exhaled happily, ‘want you.’

   Ten sat back and manoeuvred him. He hooked the crook of Taeyong’s knee over his arm so that he could spread that side of him open. He kissed at the side of his knee, then up, then up, until he was nipping at the vulnerable skin of his inner thigh.

   Taeyong pressed his head back and lowered his own hand to jerk himself until he was fully hard. That wasn’t the sort of thing Ten would usually allow – that was his job – but his baby knew what he’d be free to do tonight. It gave Ten the time to concentrate on taking ownership of his skin, leaving a mess of pink in his wake. Smooth, clear skin was pretty, but seeing Taeyong with his marks on him? Even better.

   ‘So pretty,’ Ten cooed, adjusting his kisses to chasteness instead as he got closer to his swollen arousal. ‘Such a pretty thing you are, baby.’

   Taeyong moaned again.

   Ten always told him this. He told him this when he made love to him in their bed; he told him this when he fucked him hard over the desk in his office at home when Taeyong came looking for attention while he was working; he told him this when they were both sexed out, too hot to touch really but intertwining their bodies anyway, when he kissed his cheeks or stroked his hair or played with their linked fingers.

   He’d never stop telling him how pretty he was.

   He’d never stop throwing praise at him for his goodness, for his strength, for his beauty.

   Because Taeyong had asked for it once, let it slip when he was feeling vulnerable that no one had ever taken the time to tell him how special he was before.

   A disgrace. A scandal. An unforgiveable slight against the one perfect thing Ten had ever found in all his years on earth.

   He kissed over the reddening head of his cock, smiling as Taeyong fidgeted with a mewl, and allowed his tongue to trail, lapping at the precum that had trickled out. He spread his knees wider, pulling him further down the bed with a rough grip on his hips, and took him properly into his mouth.

   God he loved getting to do this.

   He didn’t get to blow Taeyong all that often. Usually Taeyong was so insistent to be the one doing the pleasing, and then he’d beg to be fucked, and then he’d come untouched because he liked it like that. It was a pattern, a cycle that didn’t allow for many opportunities for Ten to do this. But he loved it. He loved the way that he got to listen to Taeyong’s whimpers get higher and higher, hands fisting into the bedsheets, even knotting into Ten’s hair if he was losing control.

   He loved the way that he knew Taeyong’s body better than his own – the way he knew what each little twitch meant, each tiny sound, the tensing of each individual muscle. He knew it all. And he knew how to use it to both of their advantages.

   Tonight, he’d promised to make him tremble.

   He sucked him down to his base, quickly, not letting up. Taeyong was the opposite to him. Ten was most sensitive when Taeyong was teasing around his head, flicking his tongue expertly, but with a little trial and error, Ten had found that Taeyong liked… the full package. He liked it generous, all around and with a flat tongue for maximum coverage. It was lovely, because Ten could push him so far like this, get him to the point that he was mewling for release, and then stop. Pull back to the subtlest strokes over his crease. And Taeyong would plateau in this place.

   He’d beg.

   Ten halted, stroking over the soft skin of his navel instead.

   ‘Please, please Ten,’ Taeyong whined, loud.

   Ten couldn’t imagine ever telling him to be quiet. He wanted to hear everything he was doing to him.

   But Ten wasn’t going to let up. He took him back into his mouth, strolling his tongue round and around him until he was quivering for release a second time, and then he stopped again. He palmed lightly, too lightly, around his head, relishing in the way Taeyong writhed.

   ‘Tennie,’ Taeyong whimpered, hips kicking up again. ‘Fuck.’

   Ten knew that Taeyong liked it. He knew because they had all sorts of signals for when he wasn’t liking something.

   ‘Mm you like that kitten? You like how I get you all frustrated?’ he sighed, making sure that his breath was all over Taeyong’s cock.

  Taeyong just made a sound. A sinful sound that Ten would lock away in his memory for the moments when they were apart, when he had no choice but to travel, when his imagination would have to be enough to get him off.

   ‘Words, Taeyong,’ he said, voice silky. That always gave Taeyong a special shiver.

   ‘I fucking love it, Ten. I fucking love it when you make me wait,’ he moaned.

   ‘Looks like you’ve finally mastered your lesson, baby boy,’ he smiled. ‘I always said I’d teach you what a virtue patience can be.’

   Edging Taeyong was something else. Unimaginable.

   Taeyong got so weak, biting his lips, breath gasping and high and married with whines.

  So Ten took his time. He brought him to his edge, then pushed him back. He brought him to his edge again, but refused to let him topple over. Just a little longer… Taeyong wanted to remember this one for a while, after all.

   ‘Tennie, I want you,’ Taeyong eventually choked out, eyes squeezed tightly shut. ‘Want you inside me.’

   Ten stopped, pressing a soft little kiss to the head of his cock, and then sat back.

   He’d never keep his baby waiting when he really asked for it.

   He slicked himself up first, mainly because he thought he might collapse if he didn’t touch himself soon, as Taeyong’s moaning alone had been enough to get him aching, but then he started to work his fingers inside him.

   He loved to prep Taeyong. It wasn’t all that necessary to take so long; they had enough sex and Taeyong liked the sting – they could probably get this done in a minute – but Ten just loved to take his time. He loved to relearn the most intimate part of him with his fingertips, he loved to find familiarity in his warmth, watch the way he quivered when he traced over well-walked paths.

   And he knew all the spots to make him lose control. Sure enough, it didn’t take long before Taeyong was gasping again, a second from release.

   ‘Oh baby,’ Ten sighed, ‘you really think you can hold on while I’m fucking you?’

   Taeyong bit his lip, shaking his head.

   A smile wandered onto Ten’s face. ‘It’s your birthday, my love. You don’t have to wait anymore. You come when you want, okay?’

   At this, Taeyong nodded rapidly.

   Ten took a little more time over it, rubbing himself slowly around Taeyong’s rim, but when he pressed inside, he was less measured. He fucked into him, feeling his own abdomen brush across the silver chain on Taeyong’s body, and took his hands, pinning them again. Taeyong let out a sigh of relief, then a gasp when he thrust into him at a pace. Then, a high gasp, a prettier one, when Ten caught his hands under him and pulled him straight up into a sitting position, the angle meaning that he could sink so deep inside him that Taeyong bit down on his shoulder for something to release his tension on.

   Fuck Taeyong felt so good around him.

   Ten had never been too interested in sex. It was fun, enjoyable, a good stress-reliever, but never something he’d fantasised about. Now he did. He found himself thinking of the things he wanted to do to Taeyong all the time, including when he should be working. Being so intimately connected to him was intoxicating like nothing he’d ever felt before – when they were like this, it was as though they were the only two people in the world; as though everything outside the door didn’t matter anymore, as long as they were together.

   In fairness, Ten was starting to feel like that more and more all the time.

   He fucked up into him, kissing him messily, hungrily as he went. Then he broke his lips away because this was about Taeyong, and he knew the things that Taeyong liked best.

   ‘Let’s put this mouth to work, baby,’ he murmured, lifting one hand to his lips. Taeyong took two fingers into his mouth without a moment’s pause, a contented happiness overtaking his face. He’d always liked that. Ten wasn’t sure what it was – what about it made him settle, made him drop into a special space – but he knew that he loved it.

   He kept his other hand at his waist, guiding him up and down, closing his own eyes as he concentrated on the roll of Taeyong’s tongue across his fingers, the tightening of his muscles around his cock.

   ‘Ten, Ten,’ it was a muffled whimper around his fingers, but Ten heard it, and he timed his thrust harder, faster, until Taeyong was mewling for a release.

   ‘Now, baby, come for me,’ Ten breathed into his ear. He’d said he didn’t have to wait, but Taeyong would always look for instruction nonetheless.

   Finally, Taeyong collapsed over him, coming hard and heavy between them. It was so much better, so much longer and more powerful, after all the time he’d spent building him up. Ten stroked him through it, teasing him more with every moan. Taeyong was trembling, burying his face in his shoulder, waves of pleasure rippling down his whole body. 

   ‘Ah - fuck,’ Taeyong whined, as Ten laid him back down.

   He didn’t stop. He wrapped a hand around Taeyong’s cock, still half-hard, watching him twitch a little at the sensitivity, but he had more to come. He sped up, focussing on the pooling of heat in his own navel. As his hand moved in time with his body, Taeyong’s head rolled back, exposing his throat, sheened with sweat and a glimmer of silver links. The hypersensitivity had Taeyong tensing, and that had Ten falling apart, utterly caught in the sensation of Taeyong tightening around him.

   He came inside him, a feeling he’d never get tired of, panting out his name.

   Tremors ran down his body, heady ecstasy clouding over his mind.

   He wanted to collapse, wanted to just roll off him and catch his breath, but there was a little more to do.

   He pulled out, shifting back down the bed, and took Taeyong back into his mouth. This was so much that Taeyong knotted a hand into his hair, back arching off the bed. It didn’t take much for him to come a second time, already so spent but body shaking harder than ever. Taeyong moaned, moaned and whined his way through, all the way until Ten was teasing him just a little too long, only because he loved to watch him turn completely loose, limp, head rolling back in the space he went to when he was like this.

   There were few words this time, just euphorically strained sounds, a breathy whimper, a bitten lip as he lost himself in the moment.

   A contented hum.

   Ten swallowed, finally releasing him, licking at his lips and then licking once at Taeyong’s softening cock just to watch him twitch, then he kissed at his skin all the way back up to his face as he settled down beside him.

   Taeyong was so overwhelmed that he just curled straight into him, panting into his chest.

   Silence, but for breath.

   ‘You remember your own name?’ Ten asked after some steadying breathing, kissing his forehead.

   ‘Mm…’ Taeyong mumbled.

   ‘I failed,’ Ten sighed, but then he laughed softly.

   ‘That was the best you’ve ever done it,’ Taeyong exhaled when he could at last find sentences again.

   Ten smiled. ‘Well, it is your birthday.’

   ‘I’m… I love you…’ Taeyong’s words were still thick with a come-down.

   ‘I love you too, baby. I love you so much.’ He grabbed around at the sheets, then paused before pulling them up. He fumbled at Taeyong’s neck instead, making him fidget slightly in confusion. ‘Just getting the chain off,’ Ten murmured, unlooping the body chain, ‘I want to get you nice and comfortable for your birthday night.’

   ‘Feel so good…’ Taeyong didn’t do much to help him remove the jewellery, busy kissing his neck lovingly now.

   ‘You feel nice and warm, baby?’ Ten checked, dropping the silver carelessly and moving to stroke his hair instead. ‘You know I’m here to take care of you?’

   ‘Mm,’ Taeyong nodded.

   ‘Shall we get cleaned up? This place has a great bath – I noticed a load of soaps you’ll love.’

   Taeyong laughed breathily against his throat. ‘In a minute… just a moment…’ A moment, as promised, and then: ‘Love you,’ he said again, this time with a yawn.

   Ten wasn’t sure if Taeyong would remember saying it the first time – he always described his headspace as… hazy, after – so he made sure to say it back again. ‘I love you too, darling.’

   Taeyong nuzzled into his neck, hair tickling his jaw. ‘I get tomorrow night too, right?’

   ‘Presumptuous,’ Ten kissed his head, ‘but yes. Of course. You get every night, Yongie. And your birthday has barely started. Once the morning is here I’m going to give you everything. Best day of your life, I promise.’

   ‘Twenty-three,’ Taeyong yawned again. ‘Twenty-three years it took for everything to get perfect. This is perfect. My life… perfect.’

   ‘Longer for me,’ Ten sighed, wrapping his arms around him, ‘but we got there.’ He stroked his hair, then his face. Taeyong snuggled in tighter, as if they could become one if he just eliminated all space between them.

   ‘Love you.’ A third time. He could say it a million times and Ten would never tire of hearing it.

   ‘I know, my love, I know. I love you too.’

*

   ‘I promised that I would pass these on to you.’

   Taeyong looked up at Ten in surprise.

   It was morning. Taeyong’s birthday morning. Quite late, because they’d slept in very far. Or Taeyong had. Ten had been awake since his usual hours, listening to his breathing, cuddling him close.

   Taeyong looked refreshed, bright eyed and excited for the day. The bed was already strewn with paper.

   ‘They’re from Johnny and Yuta.’

   ‘You spoke to Johnny?’ Taeyong asked in astonishment.

   Ten smiled. Johnny had come to see him at his office, just before he’d left for the States. He’d told Ten in no uncertain terms that Taeyong didn’t have a father to come and give him the talk, so he was doing it. He told him that if he ever hurt him, ever hurt his best friend, Johnny would make him regret it for the rest of his life. He told him that Taeyong’s heart was worryingly delicate and immeasurably valuable, and that its guardian needed to be fiercely protective. Ten had promised that he would be.

   Ten didn’t mind this speech. He’d given a version of it twice himself, once to Jung Jaehyun, and once to Kim Jungwoo.

   Then, satisfied, Johnny had told him things that Ten hadn’t known about him.

   He told him that Taeyong preferred to sleep with the windows closed and a dim light on, because despite Johnny’s orders he’d watched too many horror films in his first year that had left him scared. He told him that if he really wanted to impress him, he should bake him strawberry macaroons. He told him that Taeyong usually got upset on his birthdays, on Christmas, because those were the days where his estrangement hit him hardest; that he needed to distract him, keep him busy; that he could never, ever leave him alone on either of those days, no matter what work might demand of him.

   Then he’d said thank you. For making Taeyong feel more loved than he’d ever seen him.

   Ten had thanked Johnny, for looking after him for so long.

   ‘We had a dialogue,’ Ten smiled, as he sat down on the bed beside him.

   Taeyong tore open the present from Yuta first, apparently recognising his flamboyant wrapping. Immediately, he flipped open the pages of the book that fell into his lap, a broad smile overtaking his features.

   ‘What is it?’ Ten asked curiously.

   ‘He makes me one of these every year,’ Taeyong exhaled. ‘Because it’s always the end of the year when my birthday arrives. Yuta takes photos of everything. This is volume 3. It’s everything from this year.’

   He passed the book to Ten, who handled it far more carefully than he had.

   Every page was crammed with photographs, notes, even little doodles. There were photos of Yuta and Taeyong together, of both of them with Johnny, photos of Taeyong doing everything from working in the bookstore (September) to studying for his exams (May). There were handwritten notes, crumpled up, that Ten could only imagine were passed between the two of them during classes.   

   ‘Hey, that’s me,’ Ten smiled, looking closely at a tabloid cutting. It was him and Taeyong, at his charity benefit, their first night out together. ‘You were ‘guest’ back then,’ he said, reading the caption.

   ‘Now I’m the boyfriend, Lee Taeyong,’ Taeyong said happily.

   As Ten perused the scrapbook, Taeyong was already unwrapping his present from Johnny.

   Ten glanced up as Taeyong furrowed his brow, turning the object over in his hands.

   ‘What is it?’ Taeyong asked, as though Ten was supposed to know the answer this time.

   Ten leant across the bed to look, not wanting to touch a precious gift before Taeyong had had the chance to enjoy it himself first. He cocked his head to one side. ‘It’s a… it’s a music box.’ Once he realised it, it was obvious. He’d had one on his nightstand growing up. ‘Turn the lever.’

   Taeyong turned the little handle, eyebrows still knotted together, and then he jumped as the tinny music started to play.

   It wasn’t something Ten recognised.

   But it was clearly something that Taeyong recognised.

   ‘Where did he even get this?’ he shook his head, looking astounded. He looked up, seeing Ten watching him. ‘It’s the song we wrote,’ he explained, ‘for our first college project together.’

   Ten stared at him in surprise. ‘Really?’

   Taeyong nodded. ‘He must have got it made.’

   A moment, and then Ten sat back, watching Taeyong play with the box. ‘You have extraordinary friends, Lee Taeyong,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m so glad.’

   Taeyong pulled the book to his chest, and the box, hugging them as though he could hug his two closest friends with them. ‘The best friends.’

   ‘I don’t even want to think about what could have been if you hadn’t met them,’ Ten shook his head.

   ‘I would’ve gone home,’ Taeyong mumbled. ‘But now I have the extraordinary boyfriend to match.’

   Ten looked down, settling his hand gently on Taeyong’s bare thigh. ‘I’m not sure I can get you anything as priceless as your friends have,’ he nodded to his hands.

   ‘You’ve got me you,’ Taeyong whispered. ‘You’re the most priceless gift in the world. I don’t want to think about what could have been if I hadn’t met you.’

   ‘I’m going to get you breakfast,’ Ten kissed his forehead, before he reached across for the room service phone. ‘What do you want?’

   ‘I don’t know,’ Taeyong said in surprise. Ten knew that he was used to him choosing everything so that he didn’t have to worry about it. He had a suspicion that Taeyong had been taught not to ask for things, growing up. But he was getting a lot better at it, with some coaxing, and today Ten so wanted everything to be perfect for him.

   ‘It’s your birthday, darling, you can have whatever you want. I can order a piece of everything?’

   At this, Taeyong nodded, nestling his way back into the bed and pulling up the sheets to hide some of his face.

   ‘God you’re cute,’ Ten sighed.

   ‘I know,’ Taeyong beamed. He couldn’t see his lips for the smile, but he could tell by the way his eyes sparkled.

   After he’d explained down the phone, trying not to laugh because he could hear Taeyong giggling in the background, that yes he really did want a piece of everything, Ten rolled back onto the bed, catching the Taeyong-cocoon in his arms and pulling him in close.

   ‘I want to talk to you about our apartment,’ Ten murmured, after a long session of nothing but kissing.

   ‘What about it?’

   ‘I want to set you up a studio.’

   Taeyong blinked at him.

   ‘It doesn’t have to be expensive,’ he said quickly, ‘not if you don’t want. But just somewhere you can work. Like my office. A space that’s only yours. You can put some of your things in there, you can study in there, you can write more songs there with Johnny and Yuta…’

   ‘You’d do that for me?’ Taeyong whispered.

   Ten frowned. He knew that Taeyong, no matter what he told him, was still so surprised whenever he was given something. ‘Baby, it’s our home.’

   ‘Tennie, can I stay with you after summer?’

   Relief. He’d so wanted Taeyong to be the one to ask. ‘Of course, my love.’

   ‘I talked to Johnny the other day, and now that Taeil’s graduating, he’s getting this supercool apartment in town and he said Johnny could be his roommate if I… if I wanted to stay with you. The two of them have been really close recently. Like close close. And that leaves Yuta on his own with Sicheng – he’ll be over the moon.’

   Ten nodded. ‘Whatever you want, Yongie.’

   ‘The dream is working out,’ Taeyong murmured.

   ‘What’s the dream?’ he asked quietly. ‘The dream?’

   ‘You and me, having a life together. Picket fence,’ he said, then he blushed. Ten knitted his brows together in a frown, wondering why he looked so embarrassed. Did Taeyong think he didn’t want that? Because he did. ‘A-and I open my own studio with Johnny and Yuta. I’m really successful but not so successful that I’m stressed all the time, or that I have to work all the time. I did enough of that to last me a lifetime. I want to be able to spend a lot of time at home. I want to be able to like… pick and choose, when I work.’

   Ten nodded again. Taeyong was sensible, far more sensible than him. Sometimes, with all that he had, Ten found himself lying awake wondering whether he’d have been better off with a little less success and a little more life. He’d given up the first thirty years of his life to what he’d built. If he hadn’t have found Taeyong, he’d probably have given up the rest of it too.

  ‘I want to set up a charity to help kids get through school – kids like me. And I want… we’ll have - ’ Taeyong blushed again, this time looking down. ‘Never mind.’

   ‘We’ll have what, baby? Tell me. Tell me all of it.’

   Taeyong just mumbled something inaudible.

   After a moment, Ten sat up, shifting Taeyong with him, and traced his thumbs over his cheekbones. ‘Picket fence,’ he said quietly with a nod. ‘We’ll get there.’

   ‘Breakfast’s here,’ Taeyong smiled, as a tapping sounded at the door.

   Ten skipped from the bed to the living room suite to the door, a spring in his step that he wasn’t sure he’d ever possessed before. Talking about the future with Taeyong made him feel like a youth again, with his whole life ahead of him. It was invigorating.

   Platters. Platters. Platters.

   A lot of food.

   Taeyong peeked around the bedroom doorway, hair flopping in his eyes, watching carefully. When the coast was clear, he bounded out, rummaging amongst the food. He was dressed in silk pyjamas, the first present that Ten had let him open in the morning, with gold threaded cat embroidery.

   ‘Tell me more about the dream,’ Ten sat down on the couch, making Taeyong’s coffee just right for him. Sugar, more sugar.

   ‘We’ll live still in the middle of Seoul, because I don’t want you to have to commute into work. Your day is long enough already. But in the dream, you never work weekends anymore. And you take lots of holiday. We have big dinners with Lucas and Jungwoo and Doyoung and Jaehyun. Lucas and Jungwoo don’t feel like they have to hide. Jaehyun finishes work in England so he and Doyoung don’t have to be apart anymore. And everyone’s happy.’

   ‘It sounds like heaven,’ Ten said gently as he passed him his coffee.

   ‘Sounds like the future,’ Taeyong beamed.

   Plans. So many plans.  

   Ten watched Taeyong picking apart a pastry, then wrapped his arms automatically around him as he sprawled half across his lap.

   He had a dream too, although it was a little simpler.

   Taeyong being there, and Taeyong being happy?

   That was about the size of it.

Chapter Text

   The trip to Paris ended, like all of his special moments with Ten, far too quickly.

   When it came time to leave, Taeyong was contented in the knowledge that he’d achieved the one thing he’d wanted most for his birthday. On the last day, he woke up first. Ten woke up late. They usually laid in together every day, but Ten was always awake at his usual time, he just stayed in bed with him. But that last day, Taeyong woke up at nine o’clock, and Ten was fast asleep. Apparently, the two-hour couple massage combined with the most expensive bottle of red wine the hotel had to offer, had done its job.

   Taeyong didn’t dare move, not even to get his phone, so he stayed caught up in Ten’s arms, absorbing himself in the steady rise and fall of his chest. Calm, relaxed, happy.

   Beyond that, once this precious moment of sleep was over, he tried – he really tried – not to mope, on the last day. He tried to enjoy every second, he tried to help Ten enjoy every second, but it was hard. It was hard when he knew that everything was going to go back to normal in a day’s time.

   He knew that he was being greedy. He had everything he’d ever wanted – a wonderful boyfriend, a lovely place to live, few cares in the world. It was wrong, he was sure, to want more.

   But it wasn’t selfish. It wasn’t even that he wanted it for himself. He just wanted it for Ten.

   He hated that in a day’s time, Ten would be back to waking up at the crack of dawn, slipping out of the apartment when he should be catching up on another three or four hours of sleep with him. He hated that he’d have to swap out his soft linen shirts for crisp suits, that he’d have to start putting on his character every morning, the character that seemed more and more like a stranger with every day that he got to know the real Ten. He hated that he’d have to go back to meeting rooms, with people shouting, forehead creased in stress all the damn time.

   So yes, Taeyong wanted more.

   Even if it was greedy.

   Ten loved his work, no matter the stress – Taeyong knew that, but he just wished for a few more days… 

   But it wasn’t to be.

   All too soon, he was back in Ten’s apartment, alone.

   Our apartment, he reminded himself for the thousandth time.

   He was sitting in a darkened room, a few days after their return, though he wasn’t that sad. He just wanted to be able to enjoy his lightbox.

   Of everything that Ten had bought him for his birthday, this was the best.

   It wasn’t too big, compact enough that he could have it on his new desk, but it held everything. The bright LEDs shone through a timeline. Their timeline. It wasn’t just impersonal dates - it was all the important stuff.

   Ten falls in love with Taeyong.

   A centimetre along –

   Taeyong falls in love with Ten.

   There was their first kiss, their first trip together, their first I-love-you.

   Taeyong could stare at it all day. Light shining through memories.

   It was also a very nice distraction from the fact that his hands were shaking, because his exam results were going to be released in exactly one hour.

   He looked up at the door when he heard the beep of the code, then the turn of Ten’s keys.

   Finally.

   He jumped up, switching off his box, and slipped out of what would become his studio and into the hall. His workspace was on the upper floor of Ten’s apartment, a place that he was actually not all that accustomed to. He’d almost forgotten that it existed. Everything important – Ten’s bedroom (our bedroom, he reminded himself), the kitchen, Ten’s office, the main living space – was on the first floor.

   Upstairs, there were spare rooms. There was a whole room filled with art and books, there was a small home gym, and now there was a studio just for Taeyong.

   ‘Sorry I’m late,’ said Ten, meeting him at the bottom of the stairs. ‘I got away as fast as I could.’

  ‘It’s fine, there’s still like another hour,’ Taeyong mumbled as he threw himself into his arms.

   ‘You’re going to have done great, baby,’ Ten kissed his forehead. He held him back a little, because he was slipping off his jacket, but then Taeyong could hug him again. ‘We’re going to celebrate later.’

   ‘What if I failed?’ he whispered.

   ‘You’re not going to have failed, Taeyong. You studied so hard.’

   Taeyong nodded, but his heart was hammering.

   ‘Have you eaten anything?’

   This time, he shook his head. ‘Feel sick,’ he mumbled.

   ‘You need to eat, baby,’ Ten murmured as he stroked a hand through his hair. ‘Go and sit down, I’ll make you something.’

   Taeyong still felt this rush, every time Ten looked after him. Not looking after him like paying his bills, or buying him things, but looking after him. Ten always made sure he ate, made sure he got enough sleep, made sure he didn’t stress himself out. For a man who had once proclaimed to have a heart of ice, he sure did care an awful lot. This had recently extended as far as cooking for him.

   Ten wasn’t a natural, which was a relief, because Taeyong liked to have just one thing that he knew he was better at.

   But he’d learned some basics.

   And for Taeyong, who’d spent over three years doing everything, having Ten there to look out for him was worth so much more than the money ever was. Ten-the-sugar-daddy had been great, incredible, but Ten-the-boyfriend?

   A miracle.

   ‘They’re up!’ he announced, halfway through a mouthful of dinner, almost choking. He wouldn’t usually have his laptop at the dinner-table, but today was an exception.

   ‘Go on then,’ Ten said gently. He took his hand.

   ‘I don’t want to.’

   ‘Taeyong,’ Ten said, voice stern, but he squeezed his hand reassuringly.

   ‘Can’t you do it?’

   Ten sighed, dragging his chair around the table until they were side by side. ‘We’ll look together.’

   When Taeyong finally managed to open the page, finger shaking over the trackpad, he worked so hard to take in everything all at once that he ended up reading nothing at all. A hundred numbers just struck him simultaneously, a jumble in his brain.

   ‘What does it mean?’ he asked blankly, knowing that Ten would have been more methodical.

   ‘It’s good,’ Ten nodded, rather slowly, perhaps checking over everything a second time. ‘You did so well, Yongie.’

   ‘Fuck,’ he exhaled, ‘fuck.’ His eyes flitted from side to side, his grip on Ten’s hand tightening. His eyes were watering, making the screen blurry.

   ‘Good tears?’ Ten checked.

   ‘Yeah, yes!’

   Ten pulled him close, kissing his forehead. ‘You did it, I’m so proud of you baby.’

   They weren’t the best grades in the world. They weren’t Ten grades. They weren’t graduating summa-cum-laude grades. But they were the best he’d ever got at college. They were closer to the ones he’d got at school, back when he’d had less worries. Minus the marks from the beginning of the year, which he was sure dragged him down, they’d be very good grades.

   ‘I get to go into my last year. They’re not going to kick me out!’

   ‘I mean it, Yongie,’ Ten held him back by the shoulders so that he could meet his eyes. ‘I am so fucking proud of you.’

   ‘Thanks,’ he whispered.

   He looked back at the page, rereading and rereading.

   ‘I didn’t do so well in my theory exam,’ he murmured. ‘I thought if I was going to do bad at anything, it would be my industry paper.’ Clearly, Taeil had been right about their papers being marked anonymously. Otherwise, he was sure that fucking Cho would have downgraded his industry mark.

   ‘Did you expect better?’ Ten asked.

   ‘Maybe a little. But I’m not gonna get greedy.’

   ‘We can request a copy of the paper back – take a look at it. Look, it says there that there’s a clinic at student services over the next week. Your department is tomorrow. We’ll drop by, you can get a copy, and you can take it to your professor to talk through. They’ll be able to help you out with what you can work on next time.’

   ‘You can do that?’ Taeyong asked in surprise.

   ‘Absolutely.’

   Taeyong figured that Ten knew all the tricks of the trade. He could imagine Ten at college – outrageously cerebral but with enough of a combative side that Taeyong thought he probably hadn’t been good friends with his teachers. Ten was argumentative, after all, and he didn’t like to lose.

   ‘We’ll go tomorrow. I’ll come with you.’

*

   Walking through his college with Ten was an unexpected minefield. At first, he was excited, because Ten had taken the morning off work. Then, he almost tripped over himself in a panic when he saw one of his ex-boyfriends sauntering around campus shouting blithely about a course he’d failed. Taeyong let out a long string of expletives, then turned violently red when his ex noticed him.

   Ten had found that mildly entertaining, first offering to make out on the spot, then offering to call his driver and ask him to bring the most pretentious of his cars to pick them up later right in front of the boy who’d cheated on him.

   That lightened Taeyong’s mood, slightly.

   What Ten didn’t find entertaining, was the second mine they hit, just by the desk in student services.

   ‘Shit,’ Taeyong muttered, looking down and tucking himself slightly behind Ten.

   Ten, meanwhile, who was the least shy person that Taeyong had ever met, didn’t look away, though he did wrap a protective arm around him. He didn’t need an exposition, at first, content to meet the eyes of the man staring daggers at his boyfriend with equal dislike, purely out of loyalty. When Taeyong’s most hated nemesis had passed them, however, Ten stroked his fingertips gently over the nape of his neck as he inquired, ‘who was that?’

   ‘Professor Cho,’ Taeyong muttered darkly.

   ‘I didn’t like the way he looked at you.’

   ‘Oh he fucking hates me,’ Taeyong said, shaking his head while he watched his retreating form.

   ‘That’s your music and industry lecturer?’ Ten asked.

   Taeyong looked back at him, surprised that he remembered. ‘Mmhm.’

   ‘Why does he hate you?’

   ‘No idea,’ he shrugged. ‘Going by the stuff he’s always said to me, I just figured he’s a massive homophobe. He used to say all this snide stuff about my hair, about my clothes, about my boyfriends. He’s just always picking on me. One time he read out passages of my essay and called me an embarrassment in front of our entire course. I used to come home from his lectures crying,’ he laughed. His voice was light, but the memory made his stomach turn. The thought of returning to that in September was a horrible realisation.

   It was the strangest thing. Taeyong had left home, stood up to his parents as a teenager. He’d stalked into Han Youngmi’s office and told her right what he thought of her without hesitation. But fucking Professor Cho? He was like his Kryptonite. For some reason, he’d never been able to find the courage to face him.

   Ten’s jaw set. He was very good, perhaps trained by a decade in the business-world, at remaining… calm. But Taeyong could see the fury simmering in his eyes, and he could see the way his lips set in such a thin line that Taeyong didn’t even want to hear the words threatening to escape them.

   ‘Will he be teaching you next year?’ he asked.

   ‘Yep, compulsory fucking modules,’ Taeyong muttered. ‘I just wish he’d leave me alone.’

   ‘Perhaps I could…’ Ten spoke very carefully, through somewhat gritted teeth, ‘have a word with him.’

   Taeyong stared. ‘What kind of word?’

   ‘I’d like to… remind him of his responsibilities as an educator.’

   Whatever that meant.

   ‘Homophobia and harassment don’t come under his job description,’ Ten elaborated after a moment, enunciating each syllable in severe staccato.

   ‘You’d do that? For me?’

   ‘Would you like me to?’

   He wondered whether he should say no – he knew that Ten would accept it if he did – but he couldn’t help but be drawn to the scene of his most loathed enemy quaking in front of his boyfriend. It was a nice image. ‘Okay! Yes! But don’t punch him in the face,’ Taeyong said with a small smile, ‘I’d hate to have to visit you in jail.’

   Ten straightened his tie, then gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘Five minutes. You know I can be very persuasive.’

   Taeyong flopped back against the counter as he watched him go, heart beating very fast.

   It felt like an agonisingly long time, surely longer than five minutes, and then finally Ten reappeared.

   He looked oddly… satisfied, a smile of his own playing around his lips.

   ‘Okay, my love? They should have your paper soon, I presume,’ he said airily, looping his arm around his waist.

   Taeyong flinched when he looked up and saw his professor reappear at the end of the hall, looking distinctly harried. He shuffled down the corridor, and then jumped himself when he saw that they were still there. He met Taeyong’s eyes, then he looked quickly to Ten. Ten met his gaze, holding it very precisely as he leant in close to Taeyong, pressing a possessive kiss to his temple.

   ‘G-good morning, Mr Lee.’

   ‘Er… good morning, sir,’ Taeyong swallowed.

   Then his lecturer darted away with such haste that Taeyong wondered whether he’d always been able to move like that, glancing anxiously back over his shoulder as he went.

   ‘He shouldn’t be a problem anymore,’ Ten said calmly.

   ‘What did you do?’ Taeyong asked in astonishment.

   ‘I merely shared my displeasure,’ he answered casually. He leant on the counter. He still looked very smug.

   Taeyong relaxed. He knew full well that when Ten told someone to do something, they usually did it. If he said that Cho was going to leave him alone, he was going to leave him alone. ‘Thank you.’

   ‘No one gets to speak to you like that, Yongie. Not ever. Standard asshole professors, I can just about tolerate,’ his voice turned dangerous, ‘but jumped-up scum making my baby cry? That, I cannot let lie. He’s lucky I’m not going to end his career. I would, but I know you wouldn’t want that. You’re not as… vengeful, as me.’

   ‘I used to cry all the time, back then,’ Taeyong shook his head. ‘It was probably my fault. It’s not like he’s the first person to say those things to me.’

   ‘Hey, hey,’ Ten said, catching his face in his hands and giving him a serious look. ‘Don’t you ever say it’s your fault. The fact that anyone went after you when you were vulnerable makes them ten times worse, my love. The very worst. And I… fuck if I could go back and have five minutes with everyone who’s ever hurt you, I…’

   Taeyong nodded. He knew.

   Ten calmed himself with a kiss to his forehead. ‘I just made it clear that he’ll have me to… ah… deal with, if he bothers you again. And you let me know, if anyone’s ever targeting you like that. It’s not okay. You don’t just have to accept it.’

   Taeyong felt like a colossal weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The thought of going into college without dreading those classes was utterly… refreshing. The thought that he’d be able to sit through two hours without snide comments, without being humiliated, without being made to feel like shit every fucking time…

   ‘Thank you so much, Ten.’

   ‘No problem.’

   ‘Could you really have ended his career?’

   ‘Oh of course,’ Ten shrugged, ‘you’d be amazed at the things a sizeable donation can do.’

*

   Ten’s wish to share a few moments with the characters from Taeyong’s past came truer than either of them had really considered when he’d said it. It was a while later, in the midst of one of Taeyong’s busiest weeks, when he finally got the call he’d been expecting, no matter how much he’d pushed it to the back of his mind.

   He was sprawled across Ten’s lap, yawning as they watched a movie. The day had been a long one, locked away in the studio.

   The studio.

   He’d just finished his first three days working with Kwon Jiyong.

   They were amongst the most exhausting, but most thrilling, days of his life.

   When he looked down at his phone screen, seeing the name on the caller display, his tiredness evaporated.

   ‘It’s Mark,’ he said quietly.

   Ten stopped the movie. ‘Okay.’

   He held Taeyong’s free hand as he answered.

   There were motions to go through, before they got to the point. There was a how-was-your-summer? skit, and then a how-was-your-birthday? sequence, before they circled back to where they needed to be.

   ‘It was great,’ Taeyong smiled, even though his hand was shaking slightly around his phone. No matter how much small-talk Mark made, they were going to get there eventually. ‘My boyfriend took me to Paris.’

   ‘Oh yeah! Ten, right? I saw you guys together in one of my mom’s magazines. You were at a party.’

   ‘Oh right,’ Taeyong nodded. He sometimes forgot that dating Seoul’s most eligible bachelor meant that he’d given up on privacy long ago.

   ‘Do you like… go on private jets now? And eat caviar every day?’

   Taeyong laughed softly as he looked down. ‘Company planes only. And ew, no.’

   ‘Shit, hyung, I never thought I’d hear you say company planes…’

   ‘Is there a reason you really called me, Mark?’ Taeyong asked, because he really did want to get to the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t like talking to his cousin, it was just that the anticipation was killing him. He wanted this over and done with.

   ‘Er… hyung, please don’t kill me,’ Mark said, sounding a little nervous. ‘I’m really sorry. But my mom made me swear…’

   ‘It’s fine, just say it,’ Taeyong sighed.

   ‘You know… er… your parents are staying at our place…’

   ‘Yeah, I remember,’ he muttered.

   ‘They um… they wanted me to say that… that you should come around for dinner.’

   There it was.

   Even though he’d been expecting it, Taeyong felt his stomach turn over.

   ‘You don’t… you don’t have to, hyung. I can tell them no. They just wanted me to ask and - ’

   ‘Can I think about it?’ Taeyong whispered.

   Think about it meant talk with Ten.

   Ten would know what to do.

   He spent the next five minutes trying to convince Mark that he didn’t need to feel bad for the subterfuge, before he finally hung up, and closed his eyes.

   ‘They invited me round,’ he whispered after a long silence.

   ‘Right,’ Ten nodded.

   Taeyong didn’t cry, like he had the last time Mark had phoned. He wasn’t in that place any more. He wasn’t frightened, he wasn’t staring down the end of his lease too nervous to ask Ten for help, he wasn’t anxious about his upcoming exams. He was happy, and settled, and comfortable, and for the first time in a long time, the very thought of his parents didn’t terrify him.

   Things… didn’t scare him anymore. Not now he had Ten.

   ‘What are you thinking?’ Ten asked. It was evident in his voice that he was concentrating very hard on being gentle.

   ‘I don’t know.’

   Ten sat him up so that he could talk to him properly. ‘Give me… somewhere to start, baby.’

   ‘I feel stupid,’ he whispered.

   ‘Okay,’ said Ten. ‘Why do you feel stupid?’

   ‘Because… because I know I shouldn’t want to see them. Months ago the thought made me feel fucking sick. But now it’s like…’

   Taeyong leant his elbows on his knees and kneaded his forehead.

   ‘Ten, it’s like this is the one black-cloud left over my life. It’s like everything is perfect but I… I can’t fix this one thing. But if I do, everything will be right again. I – I want to go but I know it’s wrong. It’s like I’m betraying myself – like I’m spitting in the face of everything I’ve worked for these last few years and - ’

   ‘Yongie, look at me darling, it’s okay. It’s not stupid. You do not have to feel guilty about wanting to see them. They’re your parents. Whatever you want is right.’

   ‘I want… Ten you know I want a family so bad,’ he whispered.

   Ten swallowed, visibly. ‘I know, baby, I know.’

   ‘Should I go?’

   Ten met his eyes. He looked concerned. Properly concerned. ‘Yongie… I can’t - ’

   ‘Please Ten,’ he pressed, ‘just tell me what to do. I need you to tell me.’

   Ten sighed, taking his hands and thumbing over his knuckles as he always did when he wanted to settle him. ‘Baby, I can’t tell you what to do. I know that it’s hard and stressful and I know you hate making decisions and that’s why I’m usually happy to do it for you. But I can’t make this one. It’s too important. This has to be your call.’

   ‘B-but I can’t -

   ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll be right there with you. We’ll get through it together.’

   ‘I just keep thinking that if I go, at least I’ll know one way or the other. Like if it’s awful and I never want to see them again after that, then nothing’s changed. But if I do want to see them again after that, it’s good, right? I mean maybe… maybe things will be different, now? Now that I’m older. And if they want to see me, that means they want to… to reconcile, right? I mean why else would they want us to meet?’

   Something unreadable flitted across Ten’s eyes. It seemed to take him a moment to decide what to say. ‘Yongie, I… If you want to see them, then we’ll go. That’s your choice. And it could be a really good thing. But please don’t get your hopes up too much, okay? People have… motives.’

   ‘Motives?’ he met his eyes.

   ‘Just don’t throw your heart all the way in, if you know what I mean. Not right away. I can’t bear to see them hurt you again.’

   ‘Ten, I’m… you know what I’m like when someone throws me a bone. You know how easy I am to… to placate. You’ll keep an eye on me, won’t you? You’ll make sure they don’t… push me around? You’ll make sure I don’t let them?’

   ‘This in here,’ Ten murmured, freeing one hand and pressing his palm to Taeyong’s chest, right over his heart, ‘is the most precious thing in the entire world. I will do whatever I have to do to protect it, okay?’

   Taeyong settled his hand over Ten’s, interlinking their fingers.

   ‘And you’re not easy to push around, baby,’ he leant in until their foreheads were together. ‘If you were, you never would have left them for Seoul. You are strong. So strong. You don’t give yourself enough credit.’

   ‘I want to go.’

   ‘Okay.’ Ten kissed him, lips lingering, their breath mingling together. ‘You want me to come with you?’

   Taeyong let out a slightly hysterical laugh. ‘Yeah, yeah I think so.’

   ‘I didn’t want to presume,’ Ten smiled.

   There was a strange sense of finality, in the decision. Perhaps it was the prospect of tying up his last loose thread.

   ‘May I make a suggestion?’

   ‘Yes please.’

   Ten took a deep breath. ‘I don’t think you – we – should meet them at your aunt and uncle’s house.’

   ‘Really?’ That wasn’t what he’d expected him to say.

   ‘I think it would be healthier on neutral ground. A restaurant would be a better idea.’

   ‘Okay,’ he nodded.

   ‘And I don’t think that your aunt and uncle should be there, either. I know that… it can feel nice, to have a kind of buffer, but from what you’ve said about them, they’re more… allied, with your parents. If things turn… difficult… I don’t want you to wind up feeling like it’s four against one. I’ve been in enough crunch business meetings to know how to… prepare a room to my advantage.’

   ‘Two. Four against two. Three if Mark was there,’ he actually laughed slightly.

   Ten smiled. ‘If Mark was there, at least the two of us wouldn’t be the youngest.’

   ‘The youngest?’ He stared at him. ‘Shit, you would be the second youngest.’

   He was so used to Ten being around either Yukhei or Doyoung, who were his age, or Taeyong’s friends, who were all drastically younger, that it was hard to imagine him having to address someone older. He was used to Ten being the authority in any group – the mature one.

   ‘You’re right,’ said Taeyong, once he’d got over that realisation. ‘It’s not their business anyway, and I don’t want to put Mark through that. It should be the four of us. Will you pick a restaurant?’

   ‘We can go somewhere you like, if you want. Somewhere familiar.’

   ‘I thought it was supposed to be neutral?’

   Ten gave him a self-satisfied kind of look. ‘Let’s call it… us-leaning neutral. I want you to feel as secure as possible.’

   ‘Thank you for doing this all with me. I couldn’t… I couldn’t see them without you.’

   ‘However this goes, baby, I’m going to be right there, okay? You know that? I’ll be by your side every step of the way. I’ll be fighting in your corner, no matter what. I won’t leave you alone for a second.’

   Suddenly, Taeyong was struck by a memory. ‘That’s what you said to me on our first night out together. At the benefit. Do you remember? When I was scared of all the businesspeople, you told me you wouldn’t leave me alone.’

   ‘I meant it,’ Ten nodded. ‘It’s you and me against the world, Yongie. Always.’

   ‘I got you something.’

   Ten raised his eyebrows, apparently taken aback by his sudden change in tone.

   Taeyong jumped off the couch, taking the stairs two at a time up to his studio. He’d been waiting for the right moment, and this was it.

   Back downstairs, he dropped the bag onto Ten’s lap.

   ‘I wanted to – to thank you, for getting me through this year. My grades at college… they were all down to you. If you hadn’t had been there, I’d have failed. My marks at the start of the year would have got me kicked out if I’d carried on like that.’

   Ten furrowed his brow. ‘Yongie, don’t say that. It was all you. All your hard work. The only thing I did was level the playing field.’

   ‘Ten it’s not just the rent… or the bills… You read all my essays for me. You proofed my work. You helped me out, took care of me while I was studying for exams. You bought me good monitors and took me to all those great music museums and - ’ he cleared his throat, ‘and I know you don’t think you did anything, because you never think you’ve done enough, but you did. So I wanted to get you something.’

   ‘Thank you, my love,’ Ten gave him such a warm, affectionate look that his heart gave a flutter.

   He reached inside the bag and took out the small, cylindrical jar, looking at it curiously.

   Then he turned it around to look at the label. ‘Thanks,’ he said again, automatically.

   Taeyong let out a soft laugh. ‘Smell it, Tennie.’

   Ten took off the cap of the candle and breathed in the scent, letting his eyes fall closed. Taeyong actually saw the moment that it hit him.

   His eyes flickered open. ‘You… Yongie… where did you - ’

   ‘I found a place that makes custom fragrances, perfumes, candles,’ he said, very, very proud of his own gift idea. ‘It’s… it’s me.’

   ‘I know,’ said Ten, looking stunned.

   ‘You – you said that home smells like my shampoo. But I said that didn’t come in an air freshener. And you said it was fine because I’m always there, but I’m not always going to be, not when you have to travel, not when I have to travel. So I made you one. Now you can take this, to hotels, to wherever, and when you burn it, it will be like you’re… like you’re at home…’ he trailed off. ‘Do you like it?’

   ‘Baby, this is… this is the most beautiful gift in the world.’

   ‘It’s macadamia, and lychee, and edelweiss, and - ’

   ‘- and mango, and watermelon. I remember.’

   Taeyong blushed. ‘Home.’

   ‘Thank you, Taeyong,’ Ten whispered. ‘But there’s something else?’

   He took out the disc from the bag, turning it over.

   The front was blank.

   ‘It’s… it’s my songs,’ Taeyong said quietly. ‘That I wrote. That day you came to my dorm the first time, I told you that they weren’t… that they weren’t ready. Not for you. And I kept going over and over and I couldn’t figure out what needed to change – what I needed to do. But then I realised it wasn’t that the songs weren’t ready, it was that I wasn’t ready. And now I am.’

   ‘I can listen?’

   Taeyong nodded. ‘I want you to… know all of me.’

   Ten’s words. From months earlier.  

   ‘Can I listen now?’ Ten asked, already half out of his seat.

   ‘Yeah,’ he smiled. ‘Yeah, I think so.’

Chapter Text

   ‘I can’t do it,’ Taeyong said suddenly, stopping dead in the street.

   Ten’s momentum carried him a little further before their interlinked fingers pulled him back, and he turned immediately, crossing the distance back between them.

   ‘Ten I don’t – I don’t want to see them,’ Taeyong stammered, ‘I can’t.’

   ‘It’s okay,’ Ten murmured, free hand moving to stroke down his cheek. ‘Breathe.’

   ‘I don’t want to see them Ten, please, I’m sorry.’

   ‘You have nothing to apologise for, baby,’ said Ten. ‘This is your call, if you don’t want to go, we won’t go.’

   ‘But we’re almost there and you pulled out of the conference and I - ’ Taeyong’s breath was coming so fast that he was starting to feel dizzy.

   By the time that the date had arrived – the date – Taeyong had thought he was ready. Ten had cancelled an upcoming conference in London, saying that Doyoung could go instead. He’d promised that it wasn’t a big deal – that Doyoung would kill for a few days in England with Jaehyun anyway. Everything was set up. But now Taeyong was too scared. And they were already walking up to the restaurant.

   ‘It doesn’t matter. Look at me. Yongie. Baby boy,’ Ten said the softest words in the hardest tone, to get his attention. Taeyong met his eyes in a second. ‘Breathe for me. In and out, okay? We’ll turn around. We’ll go home. Or we can go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter.’

   ‘But they’ll be waiting and - ’

   ‘Yongie, sweetheart, you owe them nothing.’

   Taeyong looked down, pushing his face against Ten’s shoulder and letting him pull him tightly into his embrace.

   One hug, that was all it took to revitalise his courage. ‘You’ll hold my hand even in there, won’t you?’ he whispered, voice small.

   ‘Of course.’

   And so they went.

   When he saw them, two steps into the restaurant, he was hit by… something. His ears were rushing. His hands started to shake. An acidic sort of burn overwhelmed his throat. He felt sick.

   Ten held his hand still, thumb rubbing his skin reassuringly. ‘It’s okay,’ he murmured. ‘You’re okay.’

   Taeyong couldn’t speak at all.

   His parents hadn’t changed much – not in any ways that suggested a significant shift on their axis. A shift that might have been a good thing. The only changes were a couple more lines on their faces, a slightly shorter haircut for his mother, and… and their expressions.

   They were both smiling. Maybe a little falsely.

   They hadn’t smiled a lot before – certainly not at him.

   His mother had said to him, once, that he’d “hardly given them much to smile about”.

   It’s going to be different now. It’s going to be different now. No matter how many times he repeated the mantra in his head, it did not help.

   ‘Mr and Mrs Lee,’ Ten took care of it, like he always did. He found the words that Taeyong just couldn’t. ‘How nice to meet you.’ He seemed to hover over the word nice, but he smiled nonetheless.

   They stood up. There was bowing. Taeyong remained rigid. His heart felt as though it would pound out of his chest.

   Ten introduced himself. Taeyong noticed, immediately, that though he’d asked them to, they didn’t call him Ten. Perhaps they thought that feigned formality would appeal to him more.

   ‘Oh Chittaphon, we were so thrilled when we heard that Taeyong was going to bring his partner.’

   At the mention of his name, Taeyong looked around anxiously.

   Thrilled? They’d never been thrilled before at the prospect of him bringing a man anywhere. That had to be a good thing, right? Progress?

   ‘You look… you look well, Taeyong.’

   He met his mother’s eyes, then looked away quickly. He knew he looked well. He had done ever since he’d got together with Ten. He felt well too. No more headaches, no more pain in the backs of his eyes, no more cloudiness after sleepless nights. All of his friends had said that he looked like he was glowing. He was a healthier weight, even his hair was thicker, stress lifted, and a lovely shade of lilac.

   He’d thought about going back to black, like he’d had it for Yukhei’s party. He’d thought his parents would like that more. But he’d changed his mind. He wasn’t going to change himself for them, no matter how much he craved their… approval.

   ‘Thanks,’ he mumbled.

   Ten pulled out his chair for him, then returned to holding his hand tightly under the table as soon as they were seated.

   Ten, his miracle Ten who always knew exactly what he needed, took care of him.

   He managed the small-talk. He ordered his favourite dishes from the menu for him, by virtue of their many visits to this restaurant before. He recommended a wine, and then talked about wine with Taeyong’s father for at least ten minutes, affording him a chance to concentrate on the pattern on the tablecloth rather than the conversation. He even told a very long, very fictional, very convincing tale about how the two of them had met.

   Somehow, somehow, things weren’t a disaster yet.

   Steadily, Taeyong found his level, and his confidence started to grow.  

   For the first hour, his parents were on their very best behaviour. He could tell. It gave him… some kind of hope. Like no matter what, they were at least making an effort. That was more than they’d done in the past.

   Ten was his usual self – confident, charismatic, utterly magnetic.

   Taeyong was… trying. 

   He piped up whenever he could find the courage, usually when the conversation came back around to Ten, because that was the one thing he was most confident talking about. In fact, the conversation seemed to come back around to Ten an awful lot. It didn’t bother him. Not too much. He knew that his boyfriend was interesting, that for most people getting to sit down with someone on the rich-list was a treat unto itself.

   He didn’t really feel that anymore with Ten, though he vaguely remembered how it felt from when they’d first met – back when he’d been so deeply intimidated by him. The very thought of being intimidated by Ten now almost made an involuntary laugh escape his lips.

   Ten. Tennie. His Ten who despite his sharp suits and clipped tone, liked to curl up under a blanket and share gentle kisses in the evenings just as much as he did.

   Yes, these days, he was rather impervious to the allure of Ten’s brand – he’d seen him set off their fire alarm when he tried cooking; he’d seen him shouting at the TV when the girl chose the wrong guy in the dramas they watched together, that Ten watched with him because he knew how much Taeyong loved them; he’d seen him mumbling sweet, romantic things all about him in his sleep.

   So the businessman Ten didn’t hold quite such an untouchable aura of myth to him anymore.

   He liked his version more anyway.

   But the other was good enough for his parents.

   ‘Offices in Seoul, New York, Shanghai, London, Tokyo… I can only imagine how busy you are! But you must be dreadfully wealthy, so I suppose it’s all worth it?’

   ‘Oh he’s crazy busy,’ Taeyong interjected, before Ten answered. ‘He doesn’t sleep enough and he’s always on a call but we went to Paris a few weeks ago because he got some time off and - ’

   ‘Speak when you’re spoken to, Taeyong,’ his mother snapped. Then, to Ten - ‘Sorry, Chittaphon.’

   It was sudden, abrupt, and a momentary loss of control that he’d been somewhat anticipating.

   He’d been wondering whether his parents could keep up a façade for an entire evening.

   Still, even if he’d been half-expecting it, his stomach dropped lower than it ever had before. He looked down, suddenly very interested in his food. That had been the world he’d grown up in, and he’d been used to it. But now he wasn’t used to it. He’d gotten so used, instead, to Ten listening to him talk for hours, to Johnny and Yuta finding his dialogue funny and interesting, not something to be silenced.

   The words struck an unfamiliar blow to his midriff.

   And being reprimanded in front of Ten?

   He felt sick.

   ‘Well I very much enjoy listening to my boyfriend speak,’ Ten said, very calmly, very collectedly, sliding a hand down to squeeze Taeyong’s thigh in reassurance. ‘Why don’t you tell your parents about your new job, Yongie?’

   At this… overruling… Taeyong’s parents looked rather ruffled.

   Ten had been doing this all night, steering the conversation back to Taeyong. It was admirable, but Taeyong hoped he knew that it was a lost cause.

   He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t find words.

   ‘Taeyong is working with one of the top music producers in the country,’ Ten said with a smile, because he didn’t manage a response. ‘Aren’t you, my love?’

   Taeyong gave a small nod.

   ‘Does it pay?’

   ‘I’m sorry?’ at last, Taeyong looked up.

   ‘What does it pay?’ his father repeated. ‘Answer the question, Taeyong, we don’t have all night.’

   When Taeyong took too long to scrabble around for an answer, he carried on.

   He went back to talking to Ten, barely sparing his son a glance. ‘I’ve always told him that there’s no money in music. Not unless you’re the very best, and - ’

   ‘Taeyong is the very best,’ Ten interrupted. For the first time, he had lost a little of his calm.

   ‘He’d have been better off studying something like business. It’s still hard for us, I’m sure you understand, to accept this – this path that he’s chosen for his life. We knew he’d never be able to support us in our retirement with a future like that. Your parents must have been very proud, though,’ he said, ‘graduating with such honours from the top university in the country?’

   ‘Oh, did you read my Wikipedia page?’ Ten’s voice was very dry. ‘I’d be careful. That website can be terribly inaccurate.’

   The temperature at the table seemed to drop by thirty degrees.

   ‘But yes,’ he smiled, ‘my parents were very proud. These days, though, they’re mostly just excited to meet Taeyong. They’re so glad that I’ve fallen in love with an artist, someone who can bring so much… colour, to my life.’

   ‘Yes, Taeyong has always been very… colourful.’

   His mother didn’t say it in a nice way.

   ‘He makes the most beautiful music,’ Ten continued, a little louder, unperturbed. ‘And he’s doing so well, at college. He’s extremely bright, your son.’

   ‘Yes, well, he always did get good grades at school,’ she plastered a smile on her face. ‘But we know Taeyong. Tell us more about you! About the company! Anyone can go to college, after all, but starting a billion dollar company? I’m fascinated.’

   ‘Give us the big secrets, Chittaphon, the inside scoop,’ his father leant a little across the table, hands laced together, ‘where does all the money come from?’

   Taeyong’s stomach flipped again. He looked down at his plate, feeling the sickness rising up his body.

   All of a sudden, everything was becoming very, unpleasantly, clear.

   It was the third time they’d brought up money.

   Apparently, no matter how hard they tried to feign interest, they just couldn’t help themselves. They were impatient. They always had been.

   This was what this had all really been about.

   Money.

   Ten’s money.

   How could he have been so stupid?

   ‘I’m going to the bathroom!’ Taeyong choked out.

   The chair gave a loud creak as he stood up. Everyone turned to look at him in surprise. Ten reached for his hand, but he pulled it free. It wasn’t anger at Ten, it was just… he needed to get out of there.

   They’d never wanted to see him. They’d wanted to see Ten. Mega-rich Ten. Mega-rich Ten who’d been in all the tabloids with his pretty new boyfriend on his arm, who they’d have recognised in a second. Hadn’t Mark said it? That he’d seen him and Ten in a magazine lying around his house? A lovely find for them, he was sure, the realisation that maybe their kid wasn’t worthless after all. Almost worthless, yes, but a nice meal-ticket nonetheless.

   Tears sprang to his eyes.

   Had Ten seen it? Had he noticed? Or was he so used to people salivating over him that this seemed normal?

   ‘Please excuse me.’

   He heard Ten’s voice behind him, but he didn’t look back, not until he’d made it to the low-lit corridor that led to the bathrooms, when he stopped, swaying on his feet. His heart was racing, palms sweating, eyes ready to overflow.

   ‘In the bathroom,’ Ten murmured, very close to his ear, propelling him towards the door.

   As soon as they were through the door, Taeyong scrabbled for his hand back. ‘Ten, Ten.’ He flopped against him, burying his face in his shoulder. His breathing was very shallow, and very rapid. The tears had started to creep from his eyes. ‘Ten they’re…’

   ‘I know,’ he sighed.

   ‘They don’t want me,’ he whimpered. ‘They never wanted me. They want you. They want -’

   ‘My money, yes,’ he nodded. His fingers worked their way into Taeyong’s hair in soothing strokes, as they always did. ‘I know.’

   ‘I’m – I can’t believe I thought – I – ’

   ‘You gave them a chance,’ said Ten. ‘You did the right thing. At least now you know.’

   Taeyong inhaled sharply, trying hard to sound like his heart, the heart he’d dared to expose one more time, hadn’t collapsed in two. But he failed badly. ‘I wanna go home, Ten. I don’t want to be here anymore. Please. Please can we go home?’

   ‘Of course,’ Ten nodded. He nudged Taeyong back a little so that he could look at him. ‘Hey, hey baby,’ he added softly, ‘don’t let them see you cry.’

   Taeyong sniffed, but it didn’t help much.

   Ten crossed quickly to the sinks, running his hands under the cold water, and then returned. Taeyong jumped a little as his cold fingers ran over his face, pressing gently at the growing puffiness under his eyes. ‘Takes down the redness,’ Ten murmured.

   ‘I think I might burst into tears when we go back out there.’

   Ten cupped his face. ‘You hold onto my hand. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. And when we get home, you can cry all you want, okay? You can cry for a day – a week – a month – and I’ll take care of you. Let’s just get out of here first.’

   Taeyong gave a slightly trembly nod.

   ‘Are you sure you want to leave?’

   Another nod.

   ‘Do you want me to be… civil?’

   He shook his head.

   ‘That’s my boy,’ Ten smiled. He kissed him, warmth rushing through Taeyong’s veins – calm.

   Ten smoothed out his own hair with a glance in the mirror, but then he ran his fingers into Taeyong’s – lilac and fluffy and everything that his parents hated. He mussed it up, until it fell a little into his eyes, enough to conceal some of the blotchiness on his face.

   ‘You remember what I said?’

   ‘Don’t let them see me cry,’ Taeyong said in a small voice.

   ‘After this, you don’t ever have to see them again.’

   A nod. Words were not coming easily.

   ‘Are you ready?’

   He wanted to say no, but with his hand secure in Ten’s, he felt a tide of courage. ‘Okay.’

   On the way back to their table, Ten intercepted a waiter, asking quietly for their bill. He gave him his card, sleek and black and glinting in the restaurant lighting.

   ‘Ah, they return!’ his father said when they got back to the table, a little too jovially. ‘You were just telling us about the company! In fact, we should talk shares.’

   ‘There’s nothing to say,’ said Ten. ‘I have nothing to say to you.’

   ‘Excuse me?’ his father said, looking taken aback.

   Neither of them had sat back down.

   ‘Taeyong and I will be leaving now. We’re done here.’

   ‘I’m sorry? Is this some kind of joke? Walking out on dinner is a Taeyong-staple, but I’d expect a little more respect from someone of your standing, Chittaphon.’

   ‘Ten, let’s go,’ Taeyong choked, holding his arm like a life-belt.

   Ten, however, was still looking at his parents. ‘Actually, I changed my mind. I do have something to say. May I, darling? I promise I’ll be quick.’ He spoke only to Taeyong, even though his eyes were trained on the table.

   Taeyong nodded, heart pounding.

   Ten’s eyes, usually so warm with love, were horribly, horribly cold as he looked down on them.

   ‘You repulse me.’

   Silence.

   Taeyong jumped at the venom in his voice. He’d heard Ten with business rivals, he’d heard Ten with Han Youngmi, he’d even heard him ready to all-out-fight with Cho, but he’d never heard him sound like that. It wasn’t even hatred – it wasn’t anger – it was just… disgust. Contempt. Such violent condescension that Taeyong felt small just hearing it.

   He tucked into him, clutching his jacket sleeve.

   ‘You’re cruel, you’re manipulative, you’re despicable. I find myself wondering how on earth Taeyong survived nineteen years with you,’ Ten looked down at them, still seated at the table looking completely stunned, ‘when two hours left me sick to my stomach. I wonder how on earth he turned into the person he has with you two trying to break him down. Your son is extraordinary. He is kind, inspiring, strong, and he has the most beautiful future ahead of him.’

   Taeyong slid his hand down Ten’s sleeve to interlink their fingers instead.

   ‘I’d say you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your lives, but you did that four years ago when you threw away your chance to know him. Because knowing Taeyong? It’s a privilege that few people in the world will ever experience. A privilege you’re not worthy of.’

   Taeyong had never seen his parents lost for words.

   Ten glanced right, where their waiter had been standing, looking completely flabbergasted. He held out the tray in a shaky, automatic hand, staring at the scene before him. Ten took his card, slotting it into his wallet, and then glanced at the paper sheet. ‘Your bill,’ he said icily, throwing it on the table. ‘It’s customary for the oldest person at the table to pay, but I took the liberty of covering your son. I… think it’s fair to say that he’s with me, rather than you, wouldn’t you say?’

   ‘Taey- ’ His name was halfway out of his father’s mouth when Ten cut him off.

   ‘Don’t.’

   Taeyong jumped again.

   ‘You don’t get to say his name,’ snapped Ten, and then he turned to Taeyong, face transforming, stroking gentle fingers down his cheek. ‘Do you have anything you want to say to your parents, my love?’

   Taeyong looked back at them, swallowing the lump in his throat. ‘No.’

   ‘Then let’s go. My driver will pick us up, take us home.’

   ‘Don’t contact me again,’ Taeyong whispered. His voice was small. He wished he could make it cold and intimidating like Ten could. He knew he sounded weak, wobbly, but it was the best he could do. And he was glad – glad to have the final word.

   He gripped Ten’s hand, letting him lead him out of the restaurant, keeping his eyes down on the floor.

   He didn’t look back.

   ‘Thank you for saying all that.’ Taeyong’s voice was laced with pain.

   ‘Thanks for letting me.’

*

   Taeyong didn’t fall apart on the way out of the restaurant. He didn’t even fall apart in the car. But he did fall apart in the apartment.

   Ten half-carried him to the couch, bringing him with him as he sat down. But Taeyong didn’t sit. He laid down. He curled into the tightest ball his body could make, arms wrapped around Ten’s leg, and then he started to cry.

   Really cry.

   The sudden, violent extinguishment of hope hurt far more than the… acceptance, he’d felt, for a long time. He knew, now, that this was exactly why Ten had begged him not to get his hopes up.

   ‘Alright, baby, let it out,’ Ten murmured.

   Taeyong sobbed into his thigh, body curled so small that his knees nudged at his chin. Gentle fingers stroked through his hair, thumb massaging in light circles over his temple. Taeyong’s own hands were gripped so tightly on Ten’s leg that he thought he might be hurting him, but if he was, his boyfriend did not show it.

   ‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ Ten brushed the tears steadily from his cheeks. ‘Nobody else is here, it’s just you and me. Just you and me. You can cry all you need. Let it all out.’

   Taeyong twisted, burying his face into the material of Ten’s suit, vaguely registering that he was probably ruining it.

   Gasps choked together with sobs.

   ‘You want to get comfortable, Yongie?’ Ten whispered after a moment. He didn’t wait for an answer before unfurling Taeyong’s fingers steadily from his leg, not letting go of them when Taeyong whined in anxiety. He sat back, pulling Taeyong with him, until they were in a healthier position. ‘There we go.’

   Settled between Ten’s legs, Taeyong was able to curl up tightly again, but this time with his head against his chest, fingers finding a new grip on Ten’s shirt. Here, Ten could wrap his arms around him, hold steady his juddering shoulders, speak straight into his ear with soothing sounds.

   Taeyong cried for the longest that he had in years. About four years, to be precise. He cried more than he had since the day he’d landed alone and terrified in Seoul, when he’d realised the full gravity of his position in that moment: homeless, alone, hopelessly afraid.

   He inhaled sharply, squeezing his eyes tightly shut, trying to concentrate on the familiar material of Ten’s shirt in his fists, the rise and fall of his chest, a little quicker than usual, the smell of home all around –

   Ten’s apartment. Their apartment. His apartment.

   It smelled like home; very clean always, tinted with a calm fragrance so subtle that Taeyong only noticed it standing in specific corners of the rooms. It smelled of Ten’s aftershave, too, especially in the mornings. It smelled of his own old dorm room when he brought out the blankets, or the plushies that Johnny had won him at the arcade, that had sat in that space for so long.

   This was home.

   He wasn’t alone, he wasn’t stranded, he wasn’t afraid.

   He had his Ten, he had his home, and he had nothing to be scared of. Not anymore.

   The tears stopped.

   Eventually.

   He hiccupped, swallowing down the pain in his throat, and sniffed heavily, over and over. It wasn’t an attractive sound. It wasn’t an attractive look, either, he was sure – puffy red eyes, running nose, lips red where he’d bitten them to try to hold back the gasps. But it didn’t matter. He didn’t care what he looked like in front of him anymore – he knew that Ten wouldn’t even notice. Because for all his comments about his beauty, Taeyong knew that Ten saw straight through his face and into his heart. Ten would never mind how he looked.

   ‘Okay my love?’ Ten murmured, apparently having noticed this change.

   Taeyong nodded without looking up. He navigated his face to the crook of Ten’s neck.

   He fidgeted when Ten moved slightly, but it was only to reach over the back of the couch, pulling one of Taeyong’s blankets with him. Soft, warm. He laid it over their intertwined bodies, taking care to tuck it around Taeyong.

   ‘I don’t ever want to see them again,’ Taeyong choked into his neck, nudging against it. ‘Never. I hate them.’

   ‘You’ll never have to,’ Ten breathed, ‘I promise. If they ever come near this place, I’ll get a fucking restraining order.’

   Taeyong jumped at the curse, but it made him feel strangely… safer.

   Ten would protect him.

   ‘How could I be so stupid?’ he wailed. ‘Thinking they wanted to see me.’

   ‘Hey, hey, you’re not stupid. Don’t ever call yourself that,’ said Ten, gripping him tighter. ‘You’re a lot of things, Yongie – intelligent, talented, cute…’ he started to smile warmly to coax a reaction, ‘and very clingy in the mornings… - but stupid isn’t one of them.’

   ‘I’m naïve.’

   ‘What you call naïve, baby, I call… incredibly admirable. You are kind, and compassionate, and inspiringly optimistic. You’re always looking forwards, not back. You look at what people could be, not what they are, or what they’ve done. And I’m so goddamn thankful for that because you… you saw what I could be. Not what I was. And it’s thanks to you that I’m even the person I am now.’

   ‘But you’re you. They’re… them.’

   Ten sighed. ‘Sometimes you may… offer second chances to people who haven’t earned them. But that’s because you’re good. You see the best in people. Or rather, you expect the best in people. Far more than they deserved, in this case. But you are not stupid.’

   ‘But you knew. You knew what they were after. You said it. You said it as soon as Mark called. You said they had motives.’

   Ten sighed. ‘Darling, when you’ve been as rich as I am for as long as I have, you… you become very aware of people’s intentions. From experience. Money, or the prospect of it, does frightening things even to good people. Your parents were already bad people – I hardly had high expectations. It’s why I’m… the opposite to you. I don’t see the best in people. I see the very worst. We’re neither of us wise nor stupid – this time, I was right; next time, I’ll misjudge someone cruelly, and you’ll be the one who’s right. That’s why we need each other.’

   ‘I should have known better,’ he whispered.

   ‘Well we’re all a little blinkered when it comes to our family,’ Ten said quietly. ‘They’re your parents. You so wanted them to be… to be better. That is completely understandable.’

   ‘What you said… that speech at the table… that was great.’

   Ten laughed, nuzzling a kiss into his hair. ‘I couldn’t help myself. The dinner tonight was bad enough, but after what they did to you as a teenager? After what you’ve endured the last few years? I knew I wouldn’t see them again, and I’d wanted to say my piece from the moment we got there. I meant what I said: they do repulse me.’

   Taeyong closed his eyes, concentrating on calming his breathing.

   Then, finally -

   ‘Can we… can we go to Bangkok, now?’ he whispered.

   He didn’t open his eyes, but he felt Ten’s heartbeat steadying gradually. ‘Yes. Yes, my love, of course we’ll go. I’ll arrange us a plane. You just tell me when your days off are.’

   A smile. Taeyong didn’t need his parents anymore – he’d lasted four years without them already, and he had his own family now. He had Ten. He had Johnny and Yuta, his brothers, and Sicheng and Taeil. He had Mark, who’d defied his own parents to keep in contact with him for four years. He had Yukhei, who’d snapped at Han Youngmi that he wouldn’t tolerate an attack on his family. He had Jungwoo, and Doyoung and Jaehyun, and everyone else that came with Ten.

   His family.

   ‘Okay I’m done,’ Taeyong said, straightening up and brushing the wetness from his eyes. ‘I’m never crying over them again.’

   ‘Well I’m glad to hear that. But you know it’s okay if you do?’

   He nodded. Then he managed a bigger smile. ‘I hope your parents like me.’

   ‘Oh they’re going to love you, baby. Besides, you made me happy for the first time in a very long time, they love you already.’

   ‘What colour should I have my hair?’

   Ten’s relief was written all over his face. ‘Pink,’ he smiled against his ear, with a tender kiss to the skin.

   ‘What do I wear? Should I wear a suit?’

   ‘Even I don’t wear a suit with my parents,’ Ten laughed softly. ‘You should bring your blue hoodie. I love to hold you when you’re wearing that.’

   ‘Shall I buy a present to bring for your nephew?’

   ‘Perhaps,’ Ten mused. ‘He likes trains, right now.’

   ‘How about for your mom?’

   ‘If you really want to impress my mom, cook one of your amazing dinners when we’re there. With her. She’d love that.’

   ‘What about for your dad? For your sister?’

   ‘Baby you don’t have to buy things for everyone. They’re going to love you for your heart, not your gifts.’

   ‘You really think so?’ he whispered.

   ‘Lee Taeyong, you are the most loveable person that I’ve ever met.’

   ‘You know I want a family so bad,’ he said, not for the first time, but this time with a creeping smile. He knew, now, that he never should have bestowed that honour upon his own parents.

   ‘Yongie, sweetheart, I am - ’ he took a breath. ‘I am so sorry that things didn’t work out the way you’d hoped tonight.’

   Taeyong shook his head. ‘It’s fine. Really. You’re right. They didn’t deserve a second chance anyway.’

   After that, he snuggled his way back into Ten’s arms for a while. He was thinking. Thinking about Thailand.

   He tried to imagine what Ten’s parents’ house would look like. He figured that Ten would’ve bought them a place, a bigger place, after he’d made all his money. Would it be streamlined and industrial like this apartment? Or warm and traditional? Would they play music? Oh he so hoped they’d play music. He could imagine the aromatic beauty of a cooking dinner. He’d learned to cook more Thai food for Ten, recently. He could imagine how excited Ten’s parents would be to have their son home, because he knew that he didn’t get to visit all that often. Excited, happy, loving.

   He wiped the last of the residual tears from his cheeks.

   With them, he turned his story away from the chapter he’d been lingering on for four years.

   Now, a fresh page.

Chapter Text

   ‘Please, Ten, just tell me if it’s bad,’ Taeyong whined. ‘I gotta make sure I say it right.’

   ‘You sound lovely, baby,’ smiled Ten.

   ‘No I don’t,’ he muttered, throwing down his book onto the couch and sprawling across Ten’s lap. His boyfriend didn’t flinch, so very used to this. ‘I don’t want them to think I haven’t even tried. Just tell me where I’m fucking up.’

   Ten sighed. ‘You’re studying harder for this than you did for your exams.’

   ‘Yeah, well, I’m only going to meet your parents for the first time once. This is the most important day of my life.’ He picked up his Thai language book again, navigating his arms around Ten’s so that he could hold it up over his face.

   ‘Darling, look at me,’ Ten took the book and snapped it shut, holding it out of his reach. Taeyong pouted up at him, making a grab for it. When he couldn’t catch a grip, he just glared at Ten. ‘My parents are the most… normal people, you could ever meet. Far more normal than me. They’re so excited. And trust me, they’ll be more nervous than you.’

   ‘Really?’ Taeyong whispered.

   ‘Yongie, they’ve waited a very, very long time for me to bring someone home. A lifetime. They listened to my lovesick rants down the phone when we first met. They listened to me talking about you non-stop for two days the last time I visited. They’ve listened to me tell them that I love you; that I want to be with you forever; that you’re my future.’

   Taeyong couldn’t help his pout turning to a smile.

   ‘So they’re somewhat anxious to make a good impression.’

   ‘They have to like me, Ten,’ he mumbled. ‘I can’t stand it if - ’  

   ‘Lee Taeyong,’ Ten said, with his sternest voice. ‘You brought light into their only son’s life. They love you already and they haven’t even met you. Once they do, they’re going to love you even more. Okay?’

   Taeyong nodded slowly.

   He was so nervous. Possibly the most nervous he’d ever been.

   With his parents, it had been… praying that things wouldn’t go wrong. With Ten’s parents, it was praying that things would go right. Those stakes were higher. They meant more. The idea of his dream coming together? It had to happen. Everything needed to work out. The stars, the universe, fate demanded it.

   This was his moment.

   Their moment.

   ‘Excuse me, sir. We’ll be starting our descent in around five minutes.’

   Ten nodded to the flight attendant with a smile. Then, he looked back to Taeyong with eyes that were alight with love, love and excitement. ‘You ready, baby?’

   ‘As I’ll ever be,’ Taeyong swallowed.

   Ten wrapped an arm around his shoulders, guiding him to the upright seats. Even with the weight of nerves, Taeyong still seemed to feel as light as a feather.

*

   ‘Beautiful. You look beautiful.’

   ‘What if the rain ruins my hair?’ Taeyong whined. He’d spent half an hour in the airport bathroom making sure that he looked presentable. Then, in the car, he’d found himself glued to the rear-view mirror. He wanted to create the perfect first impression.

   ‘I won’t even let it touch you,’ Ten promised, climbing out of the car and putting up his umbrella even for the short walk up the drive.

   He held it out only for Taeyong, letting the rain fall straight over his own jacket.

   Anxiously, Taeyong took his outstretched hand, diving straight under the cover.

   ‘Okay?’ Ten checked, meeting his eyes.

   The rain hadn’t taken long to make his hair stick to his forehead, back to dark and soft and floppy over his forehead. He wasn’t wearing a suit – as promised. He looked as casual as Taeyong had ever seen outside their apartment, dressed down in a shirt without buttons or a collar! It was loose, black, with long sleeves and a wide enough neck that whenever he reached out, Taeyong could even spot a bit of collarbone. His jacket was leather, the rain pattering from its surface.

   He looked… different.

   The Ten of home was different.

   ‘I love you,’ Taeyong whispered. ‘I love you so fucking much, Ten.’

   Ten stroked the backs of his fingers down his cheek, then kissed him. ‘Yongie, baby…’ Ten took a deep breath. ‘This place… until you, this was the one place where I could just be me. Before you turned our apartment into our home, this was my one…’

   ‘Sanctuary?’

   Ten nodded.

   ‘Thank you for bringing me here.’

   One more kiss, and then it was time.

   The house that Ten had bought for his parents was… huge. It was a little way out of the city, a blessing for the footprint. It was surrounded by a wide veranda, trees outstretching their vibrant green fingers. The water collected on their leaves, pretty pools that Taeyong couldn’t stop watching.

   They didn’t need to knock before the door opened.

   And then Taeyong’s heart stopped.

   Ten’s mom. Ten’s mom was radiant with love. Taeyong wasn’t sure his own mother had ever looked at him like that. She looked at him even before she looked at Ten. She looked at him with more familiarity, more care, more love, after five seconds, than his own mother had after twenty-three years.

   He opened his mouth, ready to recite a greeting that he’d learned, but he didn’t even get to start.

   ‘Oh Taeyong, lovely Taeyong, welcome to Thailand.’

   He stared, caught in pre-speech. Korean, she was speaking in Korean.

   Then, before he’d even caught up with his thoughts, she pulled him into maybe the tightest hug he’d ever felt. His breath caught. He hadn’t known whether he should hug anyone at all. He was a touchy-feely person, cuddly, clingy – a koala, Ten always called him. But he was so afraid of being disrespectful.

   He needn’t have worried.

   He wondered, for a moment, whether Ten had forewarned her of his inclination towards contact.

   As she held him, he was caught by the very sudden urge to cry. There was… a warmth. It was different to being hugged by Ten, or his friends.

   It’s because she’s a mother, the voice in his head told him.

   ‘We are so happy, so happy to finally meet you; to welcome you to our home.’

   When she released him, Taeyong was lost for words. Luckily, Ten saved him the need to speak.

   He said something in rapid Thai, with a small smile, and his mom swatted at him. In doing so, she seemed to notice the water dripping from his hair, from his jacket, because she brushed at his shoulder with a furious expression. Ten twisted away, rolling his eyes, and snaked an arm around Taeyong’s waist.

   ‘Come inside, Taeyong.’

   Her Korean was patchy, accented, and pure music to Taeyong’s ears.

   ‘You’re not the only one who’s been practising,’ Ten murmured against his ear.

   Taeyong’s heart almost tremored with feeling. He held Ten’s arm tightly to balance as he kicked off his shoes, and then Ten took his hand, holding him close.

   The house was warm, welcoming, and in many ways everything that Taeyong had imagined. It was traditional, but modern in architecture, and it did smell of cooking. There was art on the wall, but it wasn’t like the striking, abstract material that covered every surface of Ten’s life – it was all pretty, much of it floral.

   Ten’s mother led them through a wide, airy corridor, glancing back at him for a moment. She said something in quiet Thai, and Taeyong felt himself blush automatically, self-conscious in the face of a language that he couldn’t fully understand. Ten looked at him too, eyes searching lovingly over his face, and then he hummed his agreement, giving his mom a radiant smile.

   ‘What did she say?’ Taeyong whispered insistently.

   ‘Nothing,’ Ten smiled slyly.

   ‘Tennie?’ he pouted.

   ‘She said that the photos didn’t do justice to your beauty,’ Ten murmured, kissing his cheek.

   Taeyong flushed properly at that.

   ‘I’m inclined to agree. There’s nothing in the world quite like watching you in motion, my love. Poetry. Art.’

   ‘Stop it,’ Taeyong mumbled, nudging his side, but a happy little rush had sparked through his veins.

   Ten’s father was in the kitchen. He didn’t hug Taeyong, like his wife had, and he welcomed him with a little more formality, but he did so with a matching, warm smile. Taeyong greeted him as Ten had taught him, concentrating so hard on his words, and he was glad to see that it seemed to impress him.

   The language barrier, for all its difficulties, actually became something of a relief, as it gave Taeyong a chance to settle as Ten talked to his parents. He looked around, taking in everything there was to see, everything that he could fit into his gaze.

   He was taken into the living room, then overwhelmed with offers of every drink under the sun. He chose a small glass of sweet soda, playing with the straw as Ten translated and answered question after question for him.

   Ten’s parents wanted to know everything.

   They asked about the flight. They asked about college. They asked about music. They asked about Korea. They asked about what Ten was like when he wasn’t at home, which made Taeyong giggle around for an answer.

   ‘Will you tell them that they have a beautiful home?’ Taeyong whispered to him when there was a pause.

   Ten met his eyes. ‘You’re cute,’ he cocked his head to the side.

   ‘Say it,’ Taeyong nudged him in the ribs.

   Ten obliged him, eventually, after a little teasing.

   Of everything that this trip had to offer, Taeyong was most excited for Ten’s sister to arrive. He wanted to see Ten with his nephew, see him drop the last of the graces that he maintained amongst others and just be him – the sweet, gentle, affectionate him that only Taeyong was usually party to.

   He got his wish before long.

   Ten took Taeyong to answer the door, giving him a quick kiss in the hallway when he started getting nervous again. When he opened the door, Taeyong’s heart skipped at the realisation that he was meeting another family.

   Ten’s sister looked a lot like him – he’d have been able to pick her out of a line-up in a second. She was very beautiful, and her husband very handsome. And their kid? Stood between them holding their hands? The cutest thing that Taeyong had ever seen.

   Except for maybe Ten when he dropped down into a crouch to greet him.

   Ten addressed him with mock formality, inclining his head.

   Then, after a moment, his face lit up, even brighter than the face of the boy who was holding out his arms to be held, and he scooped him up onto his hip, saying something in melodic, teasing Thai that made the kid giggle, snatching at his shirt in grabby fists. Taeyong thought that his heart might burst right out of his chest. The transformation was… transfixing.

   Ten murmured something, and the boy turned to look at him.

   Taeyong met his eyes, suddenly nervous. He wanted him to like him. Oh shit what if Ten’s nephew didn’t like him?

   ‘Yong!’

   His face broke into a smile. Taeyong held out his arms, taking the boy into his side instead. He was heavy, edging towards an age where he probably didn’t need to be held anymore. But Taeyong didn’t mind. Even as his arms started to strain.

   Ten went to greet his sister, as his nephew started to point at Taeyong’s hair.

   ‘He likes the colour,’ Ten smiled. He introduced Taeyong to his sister, who spoke excellent English, enough that they could scrape by a decent conversation like that. He’d been studying ever since they’d visited New York the first time. He wanted to be trilingual, like Ten. From now on, though, Thai was going to become his priority.

   ‘Why don’t you show him what we bought?’ Ten smiled.

   Taeyong nodded, letting the kid slide down to the ground. Immediately, his hand was caught between small fingers, as Ten’s nephew tugged him towards the living room where Ten had gestured.

   It had taken Taeyong an extraordinarily long time to choose the trains that they’d brought with them – so long that the staff in the toy shop had started asking him and Ten about their child. Taeyong had turned furiously red, but Ten had taken that in his stride, joking around with them.

   Now, though, Taeyong was fairly sure that Ten had been right when he’d said that as long as they were trains, and probably red, he’d be happy.

   Immediately, Ten’s nephew pulled him all the way down to the floor with him, to play, and Taeyong relaxed. He was good with kids – in fact, he’d forgotten how good he was with kids. He was playful by nature – it didn’t take an awful lot of effort for him to entertain little ones.

   And it was great. The kid was sweet, fun, and didn’t seem to notice the language barrier. Taeyong could have sat and played like that for hours. He all but forgot everything else that was going on around him, comfortable in this one thing, until he heard Ten’s voice.

   ‘God you’re going to be such a wonderful father one day,’ he said softly, and Taeyong’s head snapped up. Ten had sat down on the couch behind them, watching them with unadulterated affection.

   The words rippled through him, a channel of energy.

   ‘Sorry, I just meant - ’ Ten started quickly, ‘ - a hypothetical father. A figurative father. Like if you wanted to be a father, in the very far future, you’d be a good one.’

   ‘I’ve got all sorts of mistakes to learn from,’ Taeyong whispered, ‘from my parents.’

   ‘You’d be nothing like them,’ Ten shook his head. His eyes were filled with something powerful. ‘You’d be so inspiring, a role model, someone that they could look up to. You’d encourage them to be so creative, so artistic, you’d fill their childhood with music and colour and light. You’d open their minds and teach them to look at the world through such a beautiful lens.’

   ‘And they’ll never have to worry about anything. Not about money, like we did.’ Taeyong wondered whether Ten noticed how he’d shifted straight out of the conditional.

   ‘I bet you’ll spoil them,’ Ten sighed.

   ‘Me?’ Taeyong said indignantly. ‘Have you looked in the mirror recently, Tennie? I live to spoil you, Yongie, it makes me so happy… oh you’ll have to indulge my gift-giving…’ His imitations were always so precise that Ten just shook his head in disbelief.

   ‘Fine, I’ll do the spoiling.’

   ‘Can you believe we went from hey, pretty kitty, to who’s going to be the more indulgent parent?’

   ‘I don’t believe a single day when I’m with you, Yongie,’ Ten ruffled his hair, making Taeyong wriggle away pettily. ‘I still feel like all this is a dream that I’m going to have to wake up from.’

   An evening at Ten’s parents’ house didn’t feel like an exam that he had to pass – he could barely remember why he’d been so nervous. He didn’t feel looked at, or judged, or even like he was the centre of attention all the time. Ten’s family wanted to catch up on news about the company, too; news about Doyoung and Yukhei, who apparently were always welcome in Bangkok; news about contracts that Ten had signed recently, deals he’d secured; news about business in every economic capital in the world.

   Ten diligently translated every detail for him, even though Taeyong would have been contented just to listen to the sound of talking. It had been so long since he’d sat with a family like this, listening to them chide at each other, laugh together, settle into quiet when the best of the food was served.

   There were, throughout the night, more questions for Taeyong to answer. When Ten’s sister and her husband disappeared to put their son to bed, it was time for Ten’s mom to lean forwards and say what Taeyong was sure she’d been waiting to say all dinner. She articulated it so perfectly, so beautifully, that Taeyong was certain she’d been planning it.

   ‘Taeyong, you have made our son so happy,’ she said softly. ‘Thank you for always looking after him.’

   Taeyong glanced at Ten, meeting his eyes for a moment that made his heart stop, such was his singular focus. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘he looks after me too.’

*

   As with all of their evenings, every precious night that Taeyong treasured away in his memory, it ended up just the two of them.

   Once his parents retired for the night, Ten took Taeyong back to the living room, where they could put some music on low, and curl up together on the couch with a bottle of something stronger than what they’d had with dinner.

   ‘I’m so tired. I feel like I’m gonna pass out,’ Taeyong yawned.

   ‘Good day?’ Ten asked, smoothing out the hair at the nape of his neck and brushing the loose strands away from his eyes so that he could look at him.

   He closed his eyes, settling into the sensation of Ten’s touch. Little touches – the gentle stroke of fingertips over skin, a thumb over the line of his brow, a hand resting down just over his heart. ‘Best day.’

   ‘You know, baby, when I signed up to that website, I never thought I’d end up bringing a boy home to meet my parents.’

   ‘Well I never thought I’d find the love of my life either, but here we are,’ Taeyong murmured. After a silence, he was suddenly struck by the urge to share some truths. ‘Did I ever tell you that it was Yuta who found your message to me?’

   Ten looked down in surprise. ‘No, you never told me.’

   ‘He was going through my inbox. He’s the one that got me to reply to you.’

   ‘Remind me to buy him a drink some time,’ Ten laughed.

   ‘And I mean the whole idea was Johnny’s in the first place, so you should buy him a drink too.’

   ‘Johnny told you to get a sugar daddy?’

   ‘Mmhm.’

   ‘Johnny who hated me for months?’

   ‘He didn’t hate you, he was just… wary. I don’t think that when he made the suggestion, he really thought about me actually doing it. He’s only ever wanted the best for me, and he was just making sure that that’s what you were. What you are. Evidently, you passed the test.’

   ‘Drinks for Yuta and Johnny, then.’

   ‘And me. Because I’m still technically your sugar baby, after all.’

   ‘Three drinks on me.’

   ‘What made you sign up?’

   ‘Ah – Yukhei,’ Ten laughed. ‘You’ll be shocked to hear.’

   ‘Four drinks.’

   ‘Careful, Yongie, I’ll be broke if it turns out that anyone else helped us on our way.’

   Taeyong curled into him, yawning again. ‘Sometimes I think about them, about everyone who got us here. I think about every little thing. I think about the chances of us choosing the same moment, in all those years, to sign up. I think about how my thumbs used to play around erasing my messages because I was nervous about what to say to you, but now I guess I said all the right things.’

   ‘I made you nervous?’ Ten grinned.

   ‘You’re very intimidating, Ten. Or you were. You were so many years older than me, a fortune richer than me, smarter than me, more successful, more experienced, more -’

   ‘Yongie, you are perfect. Everything about you. I was scared to talk to you.’

   ‘Yeah right,’ Taeyong muttered. ‘You’re not intimidating anymore, by the way.’

   ‘Hey!’

   ‘You’re softer than I am,’ he said smugly.

   Ten pulled a face, but then he went back to playing with the hair that kept flicking over his brow. ‘I think about all that stuff too,’ Ten murmured, ‘about all the winding roads that had to intersect for us to find each other.’

   ‘I think about how if none of the bad stuff had ever happened to me, I’d never have met you,’ Taeyong interjected.

   At that, Ten furrowed his brow. ‘No more bad stuff, ever again.’

   ‘That’s what you told me on the plane to New York – that nothing bad would ever happen to me while we’re together.’

   ‘Still true,’ Ten nodded. ‘So how do you like Thailand?’

   ‘This is the best place in the world.’

   ‘A fair assessment.’

   ‘Ten… your family… they’re incredible.’

   ‘Our family.’

   Taeyong blinked up at him, then sat up, squashing one of the couch pillows into his lap and playing with the cover. ‘Thank you, Ten. For everything.’

   ‘You don’t have to thank me for anything,’ Ten frowned.

   ‘Yes, yes I do.’

   ‘Like you said, we take care of each other.’

   ‘I wish I could’ve found you earlier,’ Taeyong murmured. ‘I wish we could’ve been the same age, known each other at college or something. Not just for me, but for you too. I hate the thought of all that time you spent alone. I hate the thought of you never taking holiday and being tired and not having me to take care of you. I hate it. You deserved ten more years of happiness.’

   ‘You know what I believe, Yongie?’ Ten pressed a kiss to his forehead before continuing. ‘I believe that everything happens at the right time. I believe that our stars aligned at the very moment they needed to. And the other few years? They were all worth it, my love, because they were just time spent… preparing, for you. If you’d known me at college, you might have hated me,’ he laughed gently. ‘But thanks to all that extra time, I was able to build a foundation, grow my business so that I’d be ready to offer you the life you deserve – the security, the support, even the luxury. I was able to get everything ready for you, just in time for you to come in and fix the rest.’

   ‘The rest?’

   ‘Me, baby.’

   ‘I don’t think you needed much fixing,’ Taeyong shook his head. ‘You always tell me that I don’t give myself enough credit, but you don’t give yourself any either. From what I’ve seen, from what I’ve heard, you’ve always been special. You were a kid who fought his way out of circumstances, who gave up everything to protect his family, support his family. You were, you are, a fiercely loyal friend – when I see you and Doyoung and Lucas together, I’m still in awe of the bond between you. Those are the things that matter, and you were doing pretty damn well at them before I came along.’

   ‘You weren’t doing too badly either,’ Ten lifted his hand to kiss at his fingertips. ‘you were already the strongest person I’d ever met. Now I just know that you’re the strongest person I’ll ever meet.’

   ‘So all in all, we’re a pretty powerful couple, right?’

   ‘I’d say so.’

   ‘Pretty and powerful, remember?’ Taeyong said smugly.

   ‘Well one thing’s for sure: you’re both,’ Ten smiled. Then he kissed him. One of those long, slow, adoring kisses that placed Taeyong at the centre of his world. It was one of those kisses that reminded him of just how much he loved him.

   ‘I hate when these perfect days end,’ Taeyong pouted when they broke apart.

   ‘Me too,’ Ten sighed, but then he planted a quick, chaste kiss to his lips again. ‘But we have tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day.’ He punctuated each iteration with another kiss, to his cheeks, to his nose, to his forehead. ‘From now on, we’ll have only perfect days.’

   ‘You know that’s impractical, right?’ Taeyong said, with his mock-serious voice.

   ‘How about ninety-nine percent?’

   Taeyong met his eyes. ‘Yeah, ninety-nine percent will do. We can make that happen. Together.’

   For the first time in his life, with a view to Ten’s heart right through the sparkle in his eyes, Taeyong could believe such a thing without hesitation.

Chapter Text

   Ten had always liked making him wait.

   Taeyong knew that, and he should have expected this from the moment that Ten called him at the studio during lunch.

   The end of summer was rapidly approaching, which meant that Ten was taking extra care to indulge him every day. Soon, Taeyong would be back at college, and their time together would be cut to the bare bones – it was already so limited by Ten’s work and with the addition of classes and essays and all of his friends being home, Taeyong knew that their special days would be fewer and further between.

   At least they lived together now. No matter what, they could be in the same bed by the end of the day.

   So, Ten had promised him something today, like he did most days. Sometimes they were soft, simple things, something as sweet as cookies he’d tried to bake for him. Sometimes they were nights out to places they hadn’t visited yet. Sometimes, they were things that made Taeyong’s heart race faster, and those were always the ones that Ten made him wait for.

   But he hadn’t thought he’d make him wait quite so long. Usually Ten caved first – Taeyong had the advantage of a desperation not to disappoint him, to be good, so he’d grit it out no matter what. Tonight, though, he wasn’t sure he could wait much longer.

   Since Ten had called him at lunch, he’d gone through an entire afternoon at the studio, a dinner at one of their favourite restaurants, a car ride in which Ten had loaded their conversation with innuendos, and now an entire evening lazing around in the living room as though he hadn’t promised him the good stuff a lifetime ago.

   As Ten flitted through his phone, eyes scanning the screen without any particular focus, Taeyong shifted his position.

   He was tangled together with Ten on the sofa, determined to entice him into giving him what he wanted by sheer closeness. He’d already gone to the bathroom and come back wearing nothing but one of his oversized shirts and his briefs, in the hope that he wouldn’t be able to resist that.

   But Ten wasn’t fucking biting.

   He angled himself, pressing their bodies close together, and kissed Ten’s neck – once, twice. He’d been feeling needy all fucking day. If Ten didn’t get on with it, he was going to -

   Ten just let out a soft laugh, letting his free hand play around the nape of Taeyong’s hair.

   For fuck’s sake.

   Taeyong grinded against him ever so slightly again, hooking his leg around Ten’s. When Ten didn’t notice, he was half tempted to huff, but he bit his tongue. Instead, he angled his face upwards to request a kiss of his own, a definite nudge at Ten’s jaw that he could not ignore, and when Ten looked down with raised eyebrows, Taeyong pressed his crotch more firmly against his thigh, back arching to bring his navel against Ten’s hip.

   Now, as Ten just looked at him with unreadable eyes, Taeyong knew for sure that he was making a point.

   ‘Can I help you, baby?’ Ten asked, those eyebrows still raised.

   ‘Ten,’ he whined, unable to hold it back any longer.

   At this, Ten definitely started to smile. ‘Mm?’

   ‘You said you’d bought me something.’

   ‘Yes, I suppose I did,’ he mused.

   ‘You said tonight.’

   It was true. When Ten had told him over the phone, hours earlier, that he’d bought him a present, he’d made it pretty clear by the drop in his tone that it was something for… the two of them. And no one else. And he’d promised that Taeyong could have it tonight. But now he was acting fucking disinterested.

   ‘You’re very demanding, aren’t you?’ he said airily.

   ‘Yes.’

   At that, Ten didn’t try to hide his smile. Instead, he shifted his leg, enough that a little ripple of sensation pulsed through Taeyong’s body as he finally gave him some friction where he wanted it. ‘Well, you always have been impatient.’

   ‘I’ve been patient today,’ he pouted. ‘It’s been hours.’

   Ten nodded, as though thinking through his words, and then stroked a hand through his hair. ‘Yes, you’ve been very good.’

   Taeyong beamed.

   ‘Alright, come on then,’ Ten laughed gently. ‘But you know all you needed to do was ask?’

   At this, Taeyong finally huffed. Ten hooked under his arms to encourage him to stand, then started to propel him immediately towards the bedroom. Taeyong wasn’t letting him get away with those words, though. ‘If I’ve always been impatient, then you’ve always liked keeping me waiting. You would have found an excuse.’

   ‘Of course I would have,’ Ten said airily. ‘You’re just too cute when you’re needy.’

   ‘You’re so mean to me.’

   ‘Oh yes, terribly mean.’ His voice was bright. ‘But if it helps, it was hard for me too. You try having the most tantalising little thing in the entire world grinding up against you and having to pretend you don’t notice.’

   ‘You know, when I sent you that text asking for lessons in patience, I didn’t think we’d still be there a year later,’ Taeyong muttered. ‘And I didn’t think I’d like it so much. Does it make me weird that I get off on not getting off?’

   Ten laughed, shaking his head. ‘Don’t you worry, baby, I’ve always known just what you need. And they’re not lessons, anymore. It’s just fun watching you get all flushed and whiny.’ Then, though, his smile turned soft. ‘A year? We’re almost there, right?’

   ‘Less than a month, now.’

   ‘When do we celebrate our anniversary?’ he asked, tone musing.

   ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘Well, we’ve got the day we first messaged… our first date… the day we first kissed… the day we became boyfriends… the first time we said I-love-you…’

   ‘All of them.’

   Ten sighed. ‘Of course,’ he said, with all the theatre of a long-suffering boyfriend.

   But he wasn’t the long-suffering one. Not tonight. ‘So…?’ Taeyong stuck his tongue out slightly.

   Ten walked to the nightstand and picked up the small, square box there. ‘For you,’ he smiled.

   Taeyong grabbed at it straight away, popping the lid off. He’d been expecting jewellery, by the shape of the box, but when he picked away at the black tissue wrapping, he found material. As he unfolded it slightly, letting the silk run through his fingers, he looked to Ten and raised his eyebrows.

   ‘You know, most people would have just used a tie.’

   ‘When have I ever gone with the simple option?’

   ‘Thank you,’ Taeyong exhaled. ‘It’s beautiful.’

   When he’d asked Ten, a couple of days earlier, to blindfold him, he’d been a little anxious that he wouldn’t want to. He’d blushed and circumvented the request for ages before Ten had coaxed it out of him. But of course, Ten being Ten and always being ready to give him what he wanted, had nodded straight away. Then he’d thrown out a “not tonight” because he really did like to do things properly.

   And this was proper.

   Proper was sheer black silk layered together to become opaque, with a velvety trim and two studded stones glimmering in the light when Taeyong let it unravel fully.

   Ten closed his fingers around the front of Taeyong’s shirt and pulled him close to kiss him. He pressed his tongue past his lips without hesitation, and Taeyong let him, curving his body against him and allowing Ten to take ownership. He could transfer so much with a kiss – create a mood, put Taeyong in the place he wanted him, in that place that Taeyong wanted to be. He licked at his lower lip for a moment, then nipped gently enough for Taeyong to let out a sigh, pulling slightly back.

   Ten followed, moving down to latch a kiss at his throat instead.

   When he was done with a peppering of lighter kisses over his skin, he stood back.

   ‘Give it to me,’ he said, moving a hand to take Taeyong’s wrist. He negotiated the blindfold free.

   ‘Can’t I put it on?’ Taeyong pouted.

   Ten looked mildly surprised, but ever willing to oblige him, he held the thin strip of silk back out. As he watched him, he settled back against the closet door, eyes dark and with the gleam that Taeyong always hoped for. Then, though, Taeyong took a step forwards, closing the gap between them. Suddenly, he was the one crowding Ten’s space, and Ten acknowledged his intent with a look of surprise.

   ‘Can I?’ he whispered, holding the blindfold up until it stroked at the skin of Ten’s cheek.

   For a moment, as the words’ meaning sank in, Ten paused, looking mildly apprehensive.

   ‘I just wanna try it.’

   Ten opened his mouth, but then closed it again, before he gave him a small nod.

   ‘You trust me, right?’ Taeyong smiled. He smoothed the silk across the line of Ten’s eyes, watching the way his throat reacted as he swallowed, a shiver running across his skin at the unfamiliar loss of sense. Very rarely, Taeyong managed to entice the vulnerability out of Ten with things like this. Taeyong was used to giving himself over to Ten, to trusting him with his care when he was in an exposed headspace, but every once in a while he liked to try the smallest things, just to remind Ten that it was okay for him to be vulnerable with him, too.

   ‘I trust you,’ Ten exhaled. ‘Completely.’

   Taeyong leant in to brush their lips together in an almost-kiss. He knew from experience how those little touches could feel in darkness – Ten had told him to close his eyes while he pleasured him so many times. He held the moment for a second, two seconds, tasting trust in their intermingling breath, and then he gave in. He’d always been impatient, after all. He let the blindfold fall, catching Ten’s eyes for a split second before capturing a proper kiss, passionate and loaded and worthy of the grip Ten took on his hips to pull him flush against him.

   ‘That was unexpected,’ Ten breathed over his jaw.

   ‘I was just curious,’ Taeyong shrugged coyly. ‘Don’t worry, I know you like to see me when you’re fucking me.’

   The smile on Ten’s face was far too pure for the circumstances. Then, though, his face turned stern. ‘You were playing with me. Again.’

   ‘You would have let me do it though, right?’ Taeyong smirked.

   ‘Yongie, you are the one person in this entire world that I trust truly, completely, unconditionally, with all of me.’

   Taeyong smiled smugly.

   Ten leant close, chin tilted up, until his breath was hot against Taeyong’s ear. ‘Now get on the fucking bed.’

   Taeyong giggled as he took a step back, catching his lip between his teeth. ‘I love when you get all strict with me. But it worked better back when you were intimidat-’

   His goading was cut off when Ten pushed him the rest of the way, rough and quick and with a spank to his ass that actually made him gasp. That was always when Taeyong knew he’d won – when Ten acted without words, when the sting of his skin was evidence enough of his boyfriend’s innate ability to read his every desire.

   He fell back to the bed, barely having time to swing his legs up with him before Ten had straddled over him, pinning his wrists roughly.

   ‘Well your baiting worked better back before I realised how well-behaved you’ll be when you think you’ll get praised for it,’ Ten said with a knowing smile. ‘That’s all you really want, isn’t it? You want me to tell you how good you are?’

   Taeyong wanted to argue – wanted to be petulant after all the time that Ten had made him wait – but he just nodded automatically. Getting praised by Ten was better than any smug satisfaction he got from cheap quips.

   ‘What do you want now, baby?’ Ten breathed, pressing his hands down as he kissed him again.

   ‘You know what I want.’

   ‘Mm, yes I do,’ he smiled. Then he took the blindfold that Taeyong had discarded after his experimentation, and he settled it over his eyes, smiling when Taeyong turned his face to help him loop it round the back of his head and tie it with a smooth knot. ‘You tell me if you don’t like it, okay? If you want to stop, you tell me to stop.’

   ‘It was my idea,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes, but then he remembered that Ten couldn’t see them. He closed them instead, concentrating on the sound of his voice.

   ‘That doesn’t mean that you can’t change your mind,’ Ten said sternly.

   Taeyong nodded.

   ‘Words.’

   ‘I’ll tell you if I don’t like it,’ he said.

   ‘Good boy.’

   The sensation was new, and exciting. Taeyong had done all this with his eyes closed before, but he was the sort of person to peek and it was different when he couldn’t look. He found himself itching for knowledge immediately – he wanted to know where Ten was, what he was looking at, what he was doing. Suddenly, he was working an awful lot harder than usual to listen, to identify the sources of small touches.

   And small touches were exactly what Ten was serving up.

   He stroked at Taeyong’s bare legs, fingertips infuriatingly light as he made love to his skin with barely a glimmer of contact.

   Taeyong jumped slightly when he felt fingertips replaced by lips in a gentle kiss to his inner thigh.

   Ten undressed him with all the care of someone unfurling the petals of the world’s most delicate flower. He was so slow, so meticulous, that Taeyong half-thought he was just doing it to tease him again. But he knew better than that. He knew how much Ten loved to consume every detail of his form with his eyes, as though every time he saw him was the very first – as though he still couldn’t quite believe that he was real. Just the awareness that he was looking at him like that was enough to make Taeyong flush.

   Taeyong had never been insecure. The one thing he was confident in was himself. But having Ten’s words, Ten’s constant promises of his worth, as an extra protective shield of assurance against a harsh world, meant more to him than anything.

   ‘Spread your legs, baby,’ Ten murmured, and Taeyong practically mewled aloud, blood rushing south. He did as he was told, but Ten didn’t touch him straight away. ‘Pretty, so pretty,’ he sighed instead.

   For some reason, this felt so very different when Taeyong couldn’t see him. He didn’t know which part of him Ten was taking in with his gaze. He felt his face turn pink, and his thighs drew together automatically.

   ‘Shy, kitten?’

   He could imagine the look on Ten’s face. He let his knees fall back apart, concentrating on the calming awareness that it was Ten, his boyfriend Ten, the love of his life Ten who would make this night amazing.

   ‘Okay?’

   ‘Yeah,’ he whispered, skin alight with heat all over his body, ‘fuck, Ten, just… please…’

   He stopped searching for meaning in the dark, ignoring his eyes completely, and focussed on the grounding force of Ten’s guiding voice, his purposeful touch instead. Ten murmured all the sorts of things that he always did, gentle praises, until he occupied his mouth instead sucking what Taeyong knew would be a furiously dark mark into the soft skin of his thigh.

   He was prepared, but totally unprepared, when Ten took his cock past his lips, sending a flashing of sparks right to the back of his mind. His breath fell out in a gasp, and he relaxed with a smile knowing that Ten was going to suck him off, until – no, Ten left him wanting again. He pulled off, leaving the cool air to treat him instead, until he tapped at his hip.

   ‘Lift,’ he said.

   Taeyong didn’t even have to think about obeying instructions when they were like this, utterly absorbed in Ten’s calm control, and he arched his back to lift his hips, jumping when Ten hooked his thigh against his shoulder, then pressing it forwards with the palm of his hand and making Taeyong very thankful that he was flexible.

   ‘Fuck,’ he whimpered out as soon as Ten’s tongue stroked over his entrance, languid and leisurely as though this was something they did every day. It wasn’t. ‘Fuck,’ he choked out again, and his fingers knotted into Ten’s hair, well aware of where his head was right now.

   He felt the hot breath, the perceptible vibration, of Ten’s soft laugh.

   Every one of his senses was heightened with the absence of his sight, and his nerve endings felt like they were on fire as Ten tongued at him fucking expertly. He knew that he was clenching with sensitivity, fluttering under the flicks of Ten’s tongue, and he thought maybe he should be embarrassed at his lack of control, but he just didn’t feel it. Not anymore. He never felt an ounce of embarrassment when he was with Ten.

   The hand that wasn’t knotted in Ten’s hair fisted in the sheets.

   He gasped his name, but contrary to what he was craving, Ten stopped, pulling away and letting his hips rest back to the bed. He gave a momentary whine at the loss, but then Ten was kissing up his body, pausing to roll his tongue teasingly across his nipple, thumb and forefinger pinching at the other enough to make him arch, cock twitching in time with the sharp sting.

   ‘Your turn,’ Ten hummed against his ear.

   Taeyong almost fell off the bed in his eagerness to get up, forgetting that he’d be completely off balance without any visual cues, but Ten caught him, guiding him with gentle hands. He wobbled, up on his knees, until he knew that Ten had settled back, and then he let him guide his face down easily to nuzzle at his cock, still clothed in boxers.

   Those were his job to dispense of, without seeing, but it wasn’t long before he was able to get to his favourite activity.

   He sucked at the head of Ten’s cock, relaxing into familiarity, hollowing his cheeks to take him down to his base on the second bob of his head. Ten groaned in relief, and Taeyong actually heard his head roll back against the headboard. He wanted to show off, and the focus that the blindfold gave him seemed to help. It was like there was nothing else to be seen or heard in the world, nothing else of relevance existing other than his need to give Ten pleasure.

   ‘Just like that, baby,’ Ten sighed, voice heavy with arousal, as Taeyong gagged slightly and pulled back to lick just at his head. He knew that without seeing, he was probably messier than usual, saliva wet on his lips, so he did his best to clear up after himself, tongue loose and swiping in the wake of every second of special treatment he afforded the swollen length.

   ‘Fuck me,’ he choked, when he could take it no longer. All he could think about was having Ten inside him.

   Ten guided him back to sitting, and then his hands were at the covering on his face. ‘Can I take it off?’ Ten whispered. ‘I want… you know I like to see you.’

   Taeyong nodded. He’d have taken it either way, all this was his idea and he was enjoying it to no end, but he couldn’t help but crave the eye-contact they had when they were intertwined fully like that. Those were the moments when they transferred from eye to eye, body to body, every flame of passion that they had within them.

   ‘Open your eyes slowly,’ Ten murmured.

   Taeyong felt strangely naked, skin tingling, when Ten pulled the blindfold loose. He blinked his eyes open, worried about light, but the room was only dimly lit with a soft glow, and when he met Ten’s gaze, he exhaled contentedly.

   ‘Good?’

   ‘I liked it,’ Taeyong breathed.

   ‘Good,’ Ten said again, this time looking very happy. ‘Now lay back for me.’

   The fingering part, the fucking part, was familiar. But somehow, Ten made it feel different every time. It was like he found new parts of him to explore, new spots that made Taeyong moan that he was sure hadn’t felt that good the last time.

  He started slow, when he slipped inside him, but that didn’t last long, not when Taeyong looked up at him with a need that was almost pleading. All he wanted was to let go, and Ten promised him that with a thrust and a rush of lust in his eyes.

   Before long, Taeyong had lost most of his grip on reality. He lost grip on everything, in fact, except Ten. Gravity no longer held him to earth, but rather the sounds that Ten made as he fucked into him, the feeling of the firm grip on his waist. The stretch of Ten inside him, the kisses he managed between moans, the punishing pace he took up when Taeyong begged him to go harder, all reminded him of their first night in New York.

   How far they’d come.

   ‘Fuck, Yongie, Taeyong -

   Ten came first, deep inside him, breath stuttering over his face. His body tensed, motion slowing but movements becoming sharper, less restrained. He wrapped his fingers around Taeyong’s cock, never selfish, and jerked him as he met his eyes, the look in his completely raw with passion.

   Taeyong moaned his way to his own release, glad he’d taken off the blindfold because the fervency in Ten’s gaze was so fucking erotic that he’d probably have come without the help of his hand.

   ‘Ah – ah!’ he came with a gasp, having lost command of words a moment ago, finally squeezing his eyes shut just long enough to enjoy the temporary euphoria in his mind. He lived for this part – the part when there was nothing but bliss, total lightness.

   When he came properly to, Ten was still stroking him through it, right until he quivered and let out a whine at the oversensitivity and then he released him, smiling his way to a kiss.

   ‘Okay, baby?’ his voice was shaky. Taeyong knew that he probably just wanted to collapse sometimes after, live in the moment, but he cared too much. He was always filled straight with concern for every millimetre of Taeyong’s mind and body, instincts solely to protect.

   ‘I’m… perfect,’ he exhaled, squashing Ten’s pillow into shape under his head as he flopped onto his side to ride out his comedown. ‘I love you.’ Those words were never far behind, after.

   ‘Love you sweetheart,’ Ten sighed, turning onto his side too so that he could look at him, fingers wandering to stroke down his cheek.

   It was a while, time afforded for him to settle back to calm, before Ten enquired:

   ‘Better with the blindfold on, or off?’

   ‘Both. Fifty-fifty. That was perfect.’

   ‘I’m glad it was a hit.’

   He yawned. ‘Can’t believe you made me wait that long.’

   ‘Hey,’ Ten smiled, ‘you get off on that, remember?’

   Taeyong pulled a face before shuffling closer on the sheets, wanting to snuggle.

   ‘Let’s take a bath,’ Ten murmured, though, taking a grip on his arms.

   ‘You always wanna rush after,’ he pouted.

   ‘That’s because I know you’ll fall asleep otherwise,’ said Ten with his stern voice back in place. ‘And there’s nothing you like less than going to bed not clean. So come on. We can cuddle in there.’

   Buoyed by that, Taeyong wobbled his way to his feet.

   The bathrooms in their apartment were a fucking gift to Taeyong, who’d spent far too much time in dorm showers. In the master bathroom, there was a bath so big that they could both recline in it, Taeyong settled just where he liked it between Ten’s legs. They went straight to that, Ten running the water hot and adding all of the nice smelling things that Taeyong liked.

   Ten got in first, so that he could help Taeyong to his usual position.

   ‘You working tomorrow?’

   ‘Mmhm,’ Taeyong hummed, resting his head back against Ten’s chest. He had to admit, he was glad that Ten always coaxed him here after sex, because the steaming heat was the most wonderful therapy on his tired muscles, and he did like to be clean. Ten laughed at the three moisturisers he carried everywhere, and the absolute mountain of soaps that had overtaken their now shared bathroom, but there was nothing Taeyong loved more than feeling smooth and smelling nice and slipping into bed warm and fresh and soft every night.

   Well, there were some things he loved more. He was reminded of that as Ten said sweet things right into his ear, arms wrapped around him.

   ‘You too?’ Taeyong asked.

   ‘Of course.’

   Some things had changed, since that first night in New York. The post-sex was still romantic, still sensual enough, but it was more grounded. Fucking… domestic. That wasn’t something Taeyong had ever had with someone before, and he was fairly sure that it wasn’t something Ten had ever had either. Fifteen minutes after fucking with body-chains or blindfolds, they could be talking about their shifts at work the next day. Taeyong liked that. It was a reminder that everything was reality, not a fantasy. Ten was real. His life as it was now, was real.

   It also meant that there were no appearances to keep up.

   Not ever.

   ‘We’re working on my demo tomorrow.’

   ‘I can’t wait to listen,’ Ten smiled. ‘You’ll get me a copy first, right?’

   ‘Digital or disc? Or tape cassette, I mean that’s more your era, right?’

   ‘Oh baby - ’ Ten started, voice dangerous.

   ‘Kidding,’ Taeyong said quickly, but it didn’t stop Ten flicking a little water at his cheek, making him squirm in his arms.

   ‘I want one of everything.’

   ‘I’ll put you on the list.’

*

   ‘Did you talk to Youngbae again?’

   Taeyong looked up.

   They were enjoying a shared lunch hour, in the last week of the summer break, on a bench in one of the nearby parks. Taeyong was cross-legged, facing Ten, currently stirring sugar sachets into his coffee.

   ‘Yeah he came in to record again this morning. He said that the he got the all-clear and I can start as soon as college starts back!’

   ‘That’s so great, Yongie,’ Ten smiled. Then, though, his face turned serious. ‘Are you going to be okay going back to working while you’re at college? Baby I… I can’t bear to see you tired again. I never, ever want to see your pretty eyes with dark circles again, it’s just - ’ Ten stopped, and as if to demonstrate his point, he ran his thumbs gently under the lines of Taeyong’s eyes, down over his cheekbones. ‘It’s unthinkable.’

   Over the last week, Taeyong had been watching Jiyong record with one of his closest friends, Dong Youngbae, who’d told him yesterday that he was opening a new recording studio in Seoul. Taeyong had plucked up the courage (putting his think-like-Ten-hat on) to ask him about maybe spending some time around the studio, and he’d come back within minutes to offer him a job. It was as flexible as he wanted it, just a few hours here and there, only on the weekends, but it was a start.

   ‘I’ll be fine, I promise,’ Taeyong said gently. ‘I’m not going to overwork myself. I’m not ever getting stressed like I was again – I’m done with being tired. It’s a go-in-when-I-want-to kind of thing, mostly Saturdays, and if it gets too much then I’ll quit. College comes first. I’m so close to finishing. It’s just gonna be making the coffees and meeting people at reception but that’s what I want – I want to show what I can learn, what I’m willing to work for. I wanna work my way up. This sort of experience is vital in my industry, and he said that I can use the studio when it’s free, and that once I graduate we can look at me starting full time as a studio assistant, or a junior sound engineer.’

   Ten was nodding at everything he said. When there was a pause, he reached up to brush the hair from his face. ‘I’m so proud of you, Yongie.’

   ‘Thanks,’ he whispered.

   ‘I’ll be sad about losing you, though, even if it’s just one day a week,’ he sighed.

   ‘Now you know how I feel all the time,’ Taeyong pouted.

   ‘About that -’ Ten started, looking straight into his eyes. ‘I’m… I’m going to cut back my hours.’

   Taeyong stared at him. Those weren’t words that he’d ever expected to hear from Ten’s mouth.

   ‘I’m not going to be working weekends, anymore, full-stop. There are no meetings to be had then anyway, so I have no excuse to be in the office. And it’s good, because now I’ll be able to look after you when you get home on Saturdays.’

   Taeyong nodded rapidly. The thought of guaranteed days with Ten every week was a miracle. Especially Sundays. A day with no threat of work, when they could just sleep in and laze around or go out for lunch or to a show…

   ‘And I’m going to try to set aside a day every couple of weeks to work from home. When I can. There are days when I don’t leave the four walls of my office anyway, so there’s no reason I couldn’t be on my computer at home instead. And with all the overtime I’ve built up over the last decade, I don’t think anyone will try to stop me.’

   ‘Oh Ten,’ Taeyong exhaled, his vision of the future bettering by the minute.

   ‘And - ’ Ten wasn’t finished, ‘- I’m booking in holiday. In advance. So we can take trips. For Christmas, your birthday, - ’

   ‘Your birthday,’ Taeyong interjected.

   ‘As you wish. But normal holiday time, too, where we don’t have to go away – where I can recharge because I know how much that matters to you. And as my sugar baby, obviously I’ll expect you to accompany me on my business trips all around the world anyway…’

   ‘A struggle,’ Taeyong sighed with a shake of his head, ‘but I shall endure it.’

   Ten held the line of his eyes with a look of love. ‘How does it all sound?’

   ‘Perfect, Ten. It sounds fucking perfect.’

   Ten breathed out slowly, almost as though he’d been nervous about that conversation. ‘When are Yuta and Johnny going to be back?’

   ‘Soon!’ Taeyong beamed. ‘A few days.’

   ‘I was thinking we should all get together some time. Us, your friends, and we could invite Mark.’

   Taeyong looked at him in surprise.

   ‘I’d very much like to meet the one respectable member of your family.’

   ‘That would be great,’ said Taeyong with a skip of the heart. ‘You’ll invite everyone, right? Yukhei and Doyoung and Jungwoo and Jaehyun and -’

   ‘Careful, baby, our parties will be getting as big as Yukhei’s, soon.’

   ‘I just want all my family together in one place,’ Taeyong said softly.

   As he came to the end of one year with Ten, Taeyong felt that all of his threads were tied together at last. Suddenly, his life wasn’t a jumble, but rather a delicately embroidered patchwork of every experience he’d had, all the hard work he’d put into it, coming together to make something beautiful.

   One year.

   He wondered, on a Seoul park bench, how his life would look after the next one.

   Pretty damn good, he imagined.

Chapter Text

   One Year Later

   ‘Taeyong!’

   He turned in surprise, already halfway out of the studio door. It was still light outside, and while he stayed late sometimes these days, anxious to show his boss what he could do now that he had the chance to stretch his wings a little more, he’d been hoping to get away early today. Ten had promised him dinner.

   Life in the studio was everything he’d ever dreamed it would be, and, now that he was mostly full-time, also surprisingly addictive. Suddenly, the more time he spent there, the more time he wanted to spend there. Most of the time, he alternated between setting up mics and prepping mixes during the day – his job was very firmly preceded by the word ‘assistant’ – but Youngbae was giving him more responsibilities, and he loved it.

   For the first time, he could really understand Ten’s fixation on work. Knowing that he was creating something? Creating art and working and being paid to live out his dreams? These days choosing to work weekends didn’t seem as shocking to him anymore as it had when he’d first met his boyfriend.

   But he didn’t work weekends, as addictive as the work might be, not unless he absolutely had to. And he kept his late nights to a strict limit. Because he’d been there, done that, and he’d promised Ten, and promised himself, that he’d never get properly tired again. He’d meant it. And he was lucky enough that everyone in his life respected that, including his boss, who had a policy of ‘over-work means bad-work’ and never made him stay longer than he wanted to.

   Youngbae was leant against the makeshift front desk, apparently midway through a chat with the friendly intern who manned it, but he caught Taeyong’s eye on the way out. ‘You remember that Dream are coming in two weeks right? I need to confirm some specific times with their team, so I wanted to check you’re still up for meet and greet?’

   Taeyong nodded with a smile. He had something of a coincidental personal connection with the young boy-group who were coming to record their album at the studio, so Youngbae was giving him the lead on the liaison side of things, and he knew that it was his first time really representing the studio. He was excited. He made a mental note to ask Mark to ask his new best friend, part-time student and full-time idol Donghyuck, what would be a good way to impress their management. Having a man on the inside could be very useful.

   ‘Alright, great, well have a good weekend.’

   ‘You too,’ he smiled, relieved that he was going to get out early.

   He skipped his way to the car that always picked him up, collapsing into the leather seats and grabbing his phone to see if Ten had texted. This was one of Ten’s home-days, which he’d stuck to with impressive dedication, and that meant a sample of his ever-improving cooking, and probably a special treat, because after two years, Ten had absolutely not stopped spoiling him.

   That would never stop.

   The ride home was too long, like always - minutes in which he was waiting for Ten always seemed too long.

   But (not) soon enough, he was taking the stairs up to their apartment two at a time, fumbling both his key and his key-code in his haste, and then he was home.

   Home.

   ‘Ten?’ he called out, looking around curiously. He couldn’t smell food, and he couldn’t see his boyfriend, which was worthy of a pout until Ten appeared in the entrance hall with a glass of champagne in his hand and a warm smile on his face and Taeyong’s world settled. He loved the studio and working so much, and yet it always seemed insignificant once he was home with Ten - this was where his heart lived.

   ‘Good evening, darling,’ Ten smiled, resting his free hand straight down on Taeyong’s hip to bring him nearer.

   ‘It’s not evening yet! I got out early!’

   ‘Close enough.’ He kissed his cheek gently, and then Taeyong took the glass straight away.

   ‘Why the champagne? What’s the occasion?’ he asked, though he wasn’t complaining.

   ‘You, like always, my love,’ Ten pulled him in closer for a proper kiss. He teased his tongue past his lips, pressing close to him, surprising Taeyong with the passion of it.

   ‘You’ve got me a present, haven’t you?’ Taeyong said in a second after they broke apart. It was almost two years since they’d first met – Taeyong knew his boyfriend better than he knew himself. He recognised the air of self-satisfaction in his kiss, a sort of half-smile of the lips, and the little glimmer of excitement in his eyes.

   Ten took his hands and walked him into the living room. ‘Maybe.’

   Taeyong took a large gulp of champagne.

   ‘Well my birthday was two weeks ago, and my graduation isn’t for another three weeks, which begs the question… What’s it for?’

   ‘For being the love of my life, baby,’ Ten sat him down on the couch, then took his glass away again and put it on the table.

   Taeyong beamed, eyes alight with happiness. He still felt a little flush in his veins every time Ten told him he loved him. He couldn’t help but think that thirty years could pass and he’d still feel that thrill.

   ‘Now close your eyes.’

   Taeyong did as he was told, as always, even though he wanted to reach out and pull Ten back when he let go of his hands.

   The silence, the darkness, seemed to stretch on, and he was itching to open his eyes. Then, he heard Ten’s footsteps, and the slightest sort of… clinking, like a tiny bell.

   He felt something soft settle right where his hands were resting, and he jumped. A second sort of flump on his lap, and he jumped again, fingers moving straight to appraise the fluff this time. For a split second, he thought it was some sort of blanket, and then he realised it was moving.

   ‘Ten you didn’t,’ he breathed, squeezing his eyes so tightly shut that it hurt because he didn’t want to open them before he was told.

   ‘Take a look, my love,’ said Ten’s voice, very close to him.

   His eyes flew open, and his heart stopped.

   ‘Oh my god, Ten!’

   Ten smiled, ruffling his hair, while Taeyong stared down at the gift that had just become the centre of his universe.

   He’d been talking and talking and talking recently about how much he wanted something that they could take care of together. He’d soliloquised over dinner about how they both had so much love to give that they should have someone – something – else to share it with. He’d mumbled about how whenever Ten was away on business, he hated being alone in the apartment. Apparently, all of his hinting had hit the spot.

   Two kittens sat in his lap.

   Real kittens.

   Real life kittens that Ten had got him.

   Kittens that were already climbing all over each other in their haste to investigate him. Or rather, one that was climbing all over the other. That one was slightly bigger, and chaotically long-haired, with pale green-ish-blue eyes. The other was smoother, sleeker, black and calm, curling straight into his lap with a yawn.

   ‘That one’s me, I think,’ Ten nodded to the rather more tranquil of the two. ‘The white one is you.’

   As if to prove his point, the more adventurous kitten was already scaling his sweater, tiny little claws scrabbling on the wool, and it let out a loud mew in insistence.

   ‘Ten, Ten, I’m gonna cry. Can I keep them? Please Ten can I keep them?’

   ‘I got them for you, darling,’ Ten laughed, ‘of course you can keep them. They’re yours.’

   ‘Ours,’ he corrected, blinking away the wetness in his eyes. ‘Our babies.’

   ‘Ours.’

   ‘I can’t believe you did it.’

   Ten pulled a face. ‘Baby, when have I ever not got you something that you wanted?’

   Taeyong opened his mouth to retort, but now that he thought about it… never. Nothing. He couldn’t think of a single thing that Ten had ever neglected to give him. He gave him everything. ‘I thought maybe you wouldn’t guess…’ he mumbled instead.

   ‘Yongie, your hinting is… unsubtle.’

   Taeyong gave him a guilty smile. ‘It gets the point across, though.’

   ‘Yes, yes it does.’ Ten sat down beside him, stroking the kitten in his lap. ‘They’re from different litters, but they’ve been together since they were born. They were brought into the shelter at the same time.’

   ‘They’re rescue kitties?’ Taeyong looked up, heart fluttering.

   ‘Of course they are. That’s what we do in this place, isn’t it? We take care of those in need.’

   Taeyong was hit by an emotion so strong that it made his eyes sting. He’d been in need, once, when Ten had scooped him up and taken care of him. Ten had been in need, once, alone and overworked and giving up on the human side of himself, before Taeyong had swooped in and taken care of him. Now they’d take care of these cats, together.  

   ‘You’ll have to look after them, obviously,’ Ten cleared his throat. ‘I wouldn’t know - ’

   ‘Stop acting all tough, Tennie,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes. ‘Like you aren’t all gooey on the inside.’

   ‘Our boys,’ Ten exhaled as though in relief, love in his voice now. ‘I think they wore themselves out. They were so excited to meet you, after all. Although this one has your energy,’ he reached up to play with the ears of the intrepid explorer, who was now tucking himself up under Taeyong’s chin.

   ‘What are their names? Can I name them?’

   ‘Check the tags.’  

   ‘I - ’ he lifted the little bundle from around his neck, holding him up to look in his eyes, then at his tag.

   Taeyong stopped, voice dead in its tracks. His lips parted, eyes fixated.

   On the same loop as the little bell hanging from his pink collar, there was –

   A ring.

   Taeyong checked five times, blinking, in case he’d mistaken it.

   But he hadn’t.

   He was struck by so many feelings at once that he didn’t know which to wrangle with first. First, he thought he’d cry. Second, he wanted to shove Ten for overwhelming him and then bury his face into his neck. Third, he wanted to… well maybe swoon, a little.

   Slowly, completely lost for words, he placed the kitten back down. He picked up the black one, even though he gave a disgruntled grumble, and twisted his collar so that the tag hung round to the front. There was a ring there too, one each, though Taeyong knew full well which one was for him. Ten had always known exactly what he wanted.

   ‘What do you think?’ said Ten, voice slightly shaky.

   Taeyong looked up at him, eyes wide.

   ‘Yongie - ’ Ten followed up quickly, voice strained now. ‘I know you might think it’s too soon and I understand if - ’

   ‘You haven’t asked me anything yet.’ Now, a small smile crept back, a gleam in his eyes. He’d always liked to play with Ten.

   ‘You’re really going to make me say it?’

   He gave him an innocent smile. ‘Words, Ten.’

   Ten looked down, shaking his head. ‘Yongie, will-’

   ‘Do it properly.’

   The laugh that escaped Ten’s lips was so beautiful that Taeyong’s heart ached. But he did as Taeyong asked, because he always gave him what he wanted. He shifted off the couch, down onto the floor, onto one knee. Taeyong put down the kitten, the two of them playing with each other now on his lap, and stared at Ten, through somewhat blurry vision.

   He didn’t feel like he was going to cry yet, too occupied with the game they’d been playing since the day they’d met, but apparently his body was ahead of his mind in that respect.

   Ten took his hands in his, interlinking their fingers tightly. He stroked his thumbs over his knuckles, and then rested his forehead down on Taeyong’s knees, squeezing his eyes closed. ‘Yongie – baby - Lee Taeyong, my darling, my love of my life, would you… consider being my husband?’

   ‘You have to ask?’ Taeyong laughed through almost-tears.   

   ‘You just told me to, I - ’ Ten looked up, face in disbelief – very loving disbelief. And then - ‘Is that a yes?’ He held his hands like they were his last lifeline to earth. Any trace of humour was gone, his eyes searching for truth in Taeyong’s, as though Taeyong would ever say no…

   ‘Of course it’s a yes,’ he choked, pulling him up by his hands. ‘Come here!’

   He wanted to draw him right into his arms but stopped because there were two delicate babies settled on his lap.

   ‘You’ve always liked making me suffer,’ Ten groaned, but his voice was loaded with love.

   ‘Says you. I suppose I’m not the only one who needs to learn to be patient! After all, you’re going to be stuck with me forever now.’

   ‘Fuck I love you,’ Ten whispered, meeting his eyes.

   That was round about when the other emotions caught up with Taeyong, and he felt his eyes well up beyond repair. ‘Oh Ten, I love you too. I love you.’ He said it first in Korean, then in Thai, voice a stammering mess, but he knew that Ten would understand.

   Ten settled next to him, cupped his hand around the back of his neck, and pulled him close to press a kiss to his forehead. His kiss turned to a breathy laugh, stroking against his skin, as the white kitten mewed loudly for attention.

   ‘That one’s definitely me,’ Taeyong laughed thickly. ‘Always demanding.’

   ‘Mm,’ Ten smiled. He picked up the Tae-cat, and planted a soft kiss to his nose.

   If Taeyong’s heart hadn’t fallen apart already, that would have done it.

   Watching Ten – his Ten, his Ten who’d once proclaimed his heart to be ice, his Ten who’d soon be his husband – like that?

   Too much. It was too much.

   ‘You got me kittens? And you got me an engagement ring?’ he said, voice wobbly. ‘And then you put the rings on the kittens? Ten, you know I’m easily overwhelmed!’

   Then, finally, he burst into tears.

   The Ten-cat on his lap stirred at the disturbance, stretching out, clambering to its unsteady paws and clawing a little way up his sweater too.

   Taeyong, meanwhile, fell sideways against Ten, crying straight into his shoulder. ‘You know my heart’s fragile, Tennie!’ he wailed.

   Ten chuckled, rescuing both cats and putting them on his own lap as he wrapped his arms around him.

   They stayed there for a while. So long that Tae-cat started kneading at anyone’s leg that he could find for more attention.

   When Taeyong pulled back, laughing through his tears, mainly because he wanted to cuddle his new children too, he met Ten’s eyes. For the first time, the very first time in the two years they’d known each other, Taeyong saw a tear in his eye.

   His heart.

   His fucking heart.

   ‘I can’t believe you thought I’d think it was too soon,’ Taeyong laughed through his own tears. ‘It’s been two years, Ten, I’d be married to you yesterday if I could.’

   ‘Well you’ve been busy with college and starting full time at the studio and - ’

   ‘And now college is done. And I’m settled at work. And we can concentrate on the picket fence.’

   ‘Yes,’ Ten looked down. ‘Yes we can.’

   Silence, for a moment, as though neither of them knew quite what to say, before –

   ‘I thought about taking you to Venice, but we go on holidays all the time. I was going to get you these as a graduation gift, and then… then the idea just sort of happened… I know it’s silly but I thought you’d like it and -’ There was a slight tremor back in Ten’s voice. Emotion.

   ‘Ten, this is the best moment of my life. This is the best moment ever in anyone’s life. This is the best proposal ever. It’s cute and over the top and indulgent and… it’s me. This is the best thing anyone has ever done. In the world. I’m… I’m…’ He watched as Ten unhooked the ring gently from the white cat, before it sprawled itself over his shoulder, and he held out his hand automatically. ‘I get the sparkly one?’

   ‘Unless you want the other one,’ Ten smiled.

   ‘You’ll wear a ring too? We both get one?’

   ‘Of course we do, Yongie, we’re engaged to each other. Partners.’

   ‘I like this one.’

   Ten gave him a knowing smile, and then slipped the ring onto his finger. It was set with three stones, one large and clear and radiant, the two either side tinted the palest pink. They were all flush to the band, almost subtle, and yet utterly unmissable at the same time. The ring wouldn’t get in the way when he was working, but the stones still caught the light.

   ‘What are these?’ Taeyong exhaled, running his fingertips over them.

   ‘Pink diamonds,’ Ten smiled. ‘For my pink angel.’

   ‘Did you wait til I dyed my hair back?’ Taeyong laughed, wiping his eyes. He kept remembering to do this, every few seconds.

   ‘No, that was divine providence bestowing its good fortune upon us again.’

   ‘Can I have it pink for the wedding?’

   Finally, the tear in Ten’s eye spilled out, and he buried his face in Taeyong’s shoulder. ‘You can have it any way you want, baby,’ he whispered, ‘everything is going to be just how you want. I’m going to make all your dreams come true.’

   ‘What about what you want?’ Taeyong asked quietly, stroking his fingers through his hair, ring glinting with every new angle.

   ‘I only have two prerequisites,’ Ten mumbled into his neck.

   ‘Oh really?’ His voice turned sly. ‘What would those be?’

   ‘Number One: You have to be the other groom.’

   Taeyong laughed, though his breath kept hitching in his throat.

   ‘Number Two: We can’t elope. Not unless we bring Yukhei.’

   At this, Taeyong raised his eyebrows. ‘Why’s that?’

   ‘Because he’d never forgive me otherwise. He’s always dreamed of being the fancy best-man at a fairy-tale wedding. Doyoung and Jaehyun eloped, no one there except two witnesses. Nobody thought I’d ever get married, so he thought he’d lost his only chance. He still hasn’t forgiven them. If you do want to elope, he has to be our witness, okay?’

   Taeyong beamed, a dazzling smile of such happiness that it shone. ‘I don’t want to elope. You know me. I like things loud and pretty.’

   ‘I’ll let him know,’ Ten laughed, still not moving from his position. Taeyong knew that it was because he didn’t want him to see him cry.

   ‘Where?’ Taeyong asked. He wanted to know everything. Now. Already. He wanted to get married tomorrow.

   ‘Anywhere,’ Ten nuzzled at his neck, kissing it gently. ‘It wouldn’t be legally binding here, but that doesn’t matter. We could still have a ceremony. I don’t care about the law. I don’t care about anything except you. If you call me your husband, that’s binding enough for me.’

   Taeyong swallowed. ‘But if we got married in… say… America… we’d be legally married there? Because it’s allowed there? We’d get papers and everything?’

   ‘Yes, my love,’ Ten kissed him again, ‘that’s what Doyoung and Jaehyun did.’

   ‘But they wouldn’t count it back here?’

   Ten sighed, pulling back and shaking his head. ‘No, no not yet.’

   Taeyong nodded, jaw tightening. ‘I want to get married somewhere where it’s official. I want a piece of paper that says we’re husbands. A real marriage certificate.’

   ‘Okay,’ Ten nodded, ‘anything you want, my love.’

   ‘So Yukhei and Doyoung will be your best-men. Johnny and Yuta will be mine.’

   Ten kept nodding, another tear running down his cheek that he pushed quickly away.

   ‘You know it’s okay to cry, right?’ Taeyong said gently. ‘I cry all the fucking time.’

   Ten let out a laugh, looking down. ‘I don’t.’

   ‘I love you.’

   Ten took a shuddery breath. ‘I love you too.’

   ‘You know what flowers we’re going to have, don’t you?’

   ‘Roses, of course, for my beautiful rose.’

   Taeyong was going to say something else, but the kittens were demanding their attention again. He laid back on the couch, propping his head on the arm, as both cats crawled their way across him, tiny paws barely shifting his sweater. Ten laid next to him, wrapping an arm over his waist, and pressed a kiss to his temple.

   ‘Tennie?’

   ‘Mm?’

   ‘I’m still your favourite kitten, right?’

   Ten laughed, breath a loving caress over his skin. ‘Always, kitten. Always.’

   They settled back into quiet.

   ‘This evening did not go in the direction that I was expecting it to,’ Taeyong whispered after a while.

   ‘Was the direction good, in the end?’

   ‘Yeah, I think so.’ He couldn’t keep the smile off his face. It was at the point where his cheeks were hurting.

   ‘And yet you’ve always said you don’t like surprises,’ said Ten.

   ‘This one was a good one,’ Taeyong exhaled. ‘Although you did promise me dinner.’

   ‘I did.’

   ‘So…?’

   ‘Unbelievable,’ Ten sighed. ‘I get you an engagement ring, cats, and you want dinner.’

   ‘You promised.’

   Ten sat up, lifting Taeyong’s hand to kiss the ring on his finger. ‘Okay. Of course. What Taeyong wants, Taeyong gets.’

   ‘Will you still say that when we’ve been married ten years?’ Taeyong sighed melodramatically.

   Ten frowned. ‘If you think I’ll ever stop giving you everything you want, darling, you haven’t been paying attention.’

   ‘Just checking.’

*

   ‘Yongie, I want to talk to you about something.’

   Taeyong raised his eyebrows, chopsticks hovering. This conversation, an unexpected one for Taeyong, arrived just a few days later. ‘Um… okay…’ He ate another mouthful, wondering whether he was about to hear a bombshell.

   ‘I met with my financial advisors this week.’

   ‘You have financial advisors? I thought you were a financial advisor.’

   Ten laughed. ‘In a manner of speaking,’ he said, ‘but I’m more of an expert in corporate finance than personal. As a… disgustingly wealthy man, it pays to have a team who can help me with the finer details. I have an unrivalled accountant, one trusted advisor, and the best lawyer that money can buy, who I meet with every quarter.’

   ‘You’ve never mentioned it before?’ Taeyong said in surprise, wondering why Ten was telling him this.

   ‘Well it has never really been relevant before,’ said Ten. ‘It’s relevant now.’

   ‘Why?’ Taeyong asked, still not sure where he factored into this conversation.

   ‘I just have a couple of documents that I’d like to get your signature on. Paperwork.’

   ‘What kind of paperwork?’ he frowned.

   ‘Well, baby, you’re going to be my husband. We’re partners. It’s not fair that everything’s in my name right now.’

   ‘I don’t mind,’ Taeyong shrugged. He never worried about that kind of thing. Ten took care of everything, and he always gave Taeyong whatever he needed. He didn’t see an issue. ‘I don’t need my name on anything.’

   ‘Well…’ Ten looked down. ‘Yongie, love, the Korean courts would mind, were they ever involved. So I’d really like things to be official.’

   ‘What do you mean?’ Inside, he knew what Ten meant. He knew that he meant that if anything ever happened to him, Taeyong might not be recognised as having a right to anything. He didn’t say this out loud, but it hung in the air between them. As his husband, Taeyong would have none of the rights that he would have if he were his wife.

   ‘Well, as you said the other day, we won’t be legally married, here, and that makes small details difficult. A few things that would happen by default for others when they marry might just take a little more planning for us. So I just need you to sign some documents, to make sure that our… let’s say our assets are secure together.’

   ‘Ten,’ he whined, ‘you know I hate paperwork.’ He gave a theatrical shudder for good measure.

   ‘Well you know that I’m a stickler for documentation, darling. I just want to keep you in the loop as to changes I’m making. And besides, I don’t want you thinking everything is mine, anymore. Most significantly, I’d really like to deal with the issue of our home. Which is where the papers come in,’ Ten said brightly, as though thrilled by the idea of documentation. Knowing him as he did, Taeyong couldn’t help but think that he probably was excited by it.

   Ten stood up, wandering over to the mantelpiece and collecting a small wad of paper, fastened neatly with silver, that he’d left there. ‘Since we’re starting our life together - ’

   ‘We already started,’ Taeyong pouted, ‘two years ago.’

   ‘Since we’re starting… phase two…’ Ten exhaled before continuing, as though embarrassed to share something personal, even if it was something that Taeyong had heard before. ‘Yongie you… are my home. In so many ways. And I get to marry you.’

   He felt his cheeks turn pink, but he nodded.

   ‘This is your home, and it’s only fair that you get to… tie the knot with this place, too.’

   ‘So… like…’

   ‘I want this apartment to be in both of our names, from now on. This is all of the meaningful documentation relating to its ownership. If you wouldn’t mind signing on the dotted line…’

   ‘This apartment would be… would be ours?’ he whispered.

   ‘Ours.’

   It had taken Taeyong a very long time to get used to calling it ‘our-apartment,’ rather than ‘Ten’s-apartment.’ It had taken so long, that at one point Ten had suggested they move, anxious that Taeyong might never truly think of it as his home, as belonging to him, too. Taeyong had rejected that idea in disgust – he loved this place so much. He loved how every room held a memory, a huge scrapbook of his life with Ten since the very first time he’d brought him back here.

   Eventually, though, he’d got there. Our apartment. But it had taken time. He’d mostly forgotten about that particular battle now, but evidently Ten hadn’t.

   He took the papers, heart fluttering. ‘Should I… ah… get my lawyers to look over it?’ he suggested with a wink.

   ‘I wouldn’t begrudge you legal representation, should you desire it,’ Ten smiled, walking up behind his chair and wrapping his arms around his neck, his chest, anything he could reach to hold. He settled his chin down on the crown of his head, watching as Taeyong put the pages down on the table. ‘I know that paper doesn’t really matter to you, Yongie, but it matters an awful lot to me.’

   ‘I know,’ Taeyong laughed gently. He knew how carefully Ten liked everything in their lives to be planned out, tidy, loose ends tied off neatly. ‘Ten… thank you.’

   ‘Picket fence, remember?’

   Taeyong nodded. Their future wasn’t a fantasy, not a list of arbitrary promises, but a meticulously planned reality that Ten was building for them. And like it or not, that meant paperwork.

   ‘I’ve also, I feel I should mention, taken measures to list you as a co-owner of my rather sizeable art-collection.’

   Well fuck. If there was one thing Ten guarded most ferociously, it was his art. Taeyong’s heart skipped a beat. ‘I… really?’

   ‘I want to share it with you. It’s so precious to me. Just like you are.’

   His art. His art.

   Taeyong didn’t know what to say. His heart was racing now, even more than it had when he’d handed him the deeds to their fucking apartment. He knew how much that art meant to him. Everything. It was the one material thing that Ten had any true attachment to.

   ‘Thank you,’ he choked, wondering whether he’d cry for the second time in a week.

   Ten nodded, perhaps taking a moment to recover from giving a large piece of his heart away to Taeyong’s guardianship. Then - ‘I should point out that the cats are yours, by the way. Which means your responsibility, too, so you’d better not think I’m going to be taking care of them.’

   Taeyong looked down with a laugh, heart soft with the juxtaposed image in his mind of Ten very much taking care of their boys. But he had something else on his mind, too. Something that the word ‘ours’ had brought back to the foreground of his thoughts. ‘Tennie, can I ask you something?’

   ‘Of course,’ Ten sat back down.

   ‘I was just… I was just wondering if…’

   Ten held his gaze, coaxing his anxieties out wordlessly like he always did.

   ‘Ten, can I have your name?’

   His boyfriend – fiancé – looked, for once, genuinely surprised.

   ‘Your surname. Like I could change mine. I know it’s not customary here, and I don’t know about Thailand, but I just… I don’t want my parents’ shitty name anymore.’

   For a moment, Ten looked like he didn’t quite know how to answer. ‘Yongie, you are aware that my name has a lot more letters?’ he finally said with a small smile.

   ‘Same beginning, though,’ he said shyly.

   ‘If you want it, of course you can have it. But you know that your name isn’t just your parents’ name, right? It’s yours, and you’ve done an awful lot to be proud of under that name. You’ve earned its ownership far more than they have.’

   ‘I suppose so,’ he mumbled.

   ‘And… I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I do have a Chinese name. And translated into Korean, my surname is also Lee.’

   ‘Really?’ Taeyong stared at him. He’d never heard that before.

   ‘Truly.’

   Suddenly, Taeyong felt a lot better about his name after all.

   A lot better.

*

   ‘Ta-dah!’

   Ten looked up from his desk, face breaking into a smile as he saw him.

   The days were blurring into one, now. Perfect day after perfect day after perfect day.

   Taeyong was framed in the doorway, swathed in black, turning from side to side. ‘What do you think?’

   ‘I’m not sure you’ve ever looked more beautiful.’

   Taeyong skipped over, playing with the complex folds of his graduation gown as he went. It had arrived by delivery a few hours earlier, elegantly tailored and completely unnecessary but Ten had refused to let him just lease one, instead ordering him to buy the full package in case he wanted to look back on it later.

   ‘My sash is mint, so I’m thinking matching hair.’

   Ten nodded, wheeling his chair back so that Taeyong could jump straight in to perch on his lap. He put his arms around his waist, holding him tight in the precarious position. ‘Lilac would look lovely, too.’

  ‘And this arrived.’ He held out the envelope that he pulled from his pocket. ‘It’s my paycheque.’

   He’d been waiting for this – his first real paycheque from the studio. Before, his earnings had been negligible, barely a day a week, but this was his first payslip since going full time. In his mind, it was the first time he’d really been paid for his steps into the music world.

   ‘Ah,’ Ten took it, then held it to his chest. ‘The mailman did well today.’

   ‘It’s real money, Ten. You can put it in our account, from me.’

   Ten met his eyes, then kissed him gently. ‘I’m very proud of this, Yongie. Of you. It takes a lot to live your dream, and you’re… you’re making it.’

   Taeyong blushed. ‘Fiancé and money-maker… I guess this makes me… not your sugar baby, anymore?’ he whispered, stealing away another kiss.

   Ten laughed against his lips. ‘Well we had a good run.’

   ‘No more pretty things for me,’ Taeyong pouted.

   ‘Well, you’re always going to be sweet, and you’re always going to be my baby boy. So there’s that.’

   Taeyong sighed contentedly into his neck. He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt happier.

   ‘What are you going to spend this on?’

   Taeyong hummed against his skin in thought. ‘Maybe a present… for you… since I’m the breadwinner now.’

   ‘You know, you did once promise me one of those crystal chokers.’

   ‘That would be very sexy.’

   ‘But you should spend it on something for yourself. The choker will have to wait. How about something for your studio? Gear? Art for the wall? Coffee maker for the late nights?’

   ‘No late nights.’

   ‘No, no late nights,’ Ten sighed with relief. Then his face turned steely as he glanced over his shoulder. ‘You left the door open.’

   ‘Oops.’

   ‘They’re not supposed to be in my office,’ Ten said reproachfully, as the kittens wobbled their way in.

   Taeyong pouted. ‘Don’t be mean, Tennie. They can go wherever they want.’

   ‘Have you got their names, yet? I can’t call them… them, forever.’

   ‘I’m getting to know them. The names have to fit.

   As he spoke, he interlinked Ten’s fingers with his, looking down at the way that their rings looked together. Ten’s was wider, slightly darker in colour, plain but with a flash of pink cut across it. That set it apart. That was the part that meant he’d carry Taeyong with him wherever he went.

   ‘Where’s your other ring?’

   ‘Migrated,’ said Ten, holding up his other hand. Taeyong had first noticed the ring that he wore every day all the way back when he’d attended his first hospital benefit with him. It was smooth, engraved, but tarnished by excessive wear. Ten had told him that it was one of three, a beloved symbol that he shared with Doyoung and Yukhei, a commitment of their marriage to the company.

   ‘Your hands are going to be almost as decorated as your ears.’ He pushed a hand through Ten’s hair to get better access to his ear, kissing over the silver studs, letting his breath flood over his skin.

   ‘I’m working, baby. Careful with the kisses, or you’ll get me very distracted.’

   ‘Like I’d crease my gown!’ said Taeyong, with an air of disapproval. He jumped off Ten’s lap, offering him a twirl.

   ‘I can’t wait til your graduation day,’ said Ten, appraising him with utter adoration. ‘It’s going to be the proudest day of my life. To see you go from the boy in the dorm who video-called me the first time, to the extraordinary man you are now... I am in awe of you.’

   Taeyong blushed. ‘You’ve invited everyone, right? The whole family?’

   ‘Naturally.’

   ‘But you remember I told you that we’re only allowed two tickets each so you’ll have to - ’

   ‘I’ve already dealt with it, trust me. They’re expecting… a large group.’

   ‘I love how you can make anything happen,’ Taeyong beamed. He’d grown used to that sort of thing, over the last two years. Ten could always find a way to bend rules, make whatever he wanted a reality.

   ‘We’re going to cheer so loud, Yongie.’

   ‘I know.’

   ‘No, you don’t. You’ve never heard Yukhei when he’s actually trying.’

Chapter Text

   Taeyong woke up on the day of his graduation to the sound of home, the scent of home. He kept his eyes closed, breathing in a lungful of happiness, just how he started every day now. There was quiet music playing, not loud enough to rouse him, but noticeable now that he was awake.

   It was one of his songs.

   It was a song, in fact, that he’d started very early in his third year of college, back when his life had been a mess and his fiancé had been a flirtatious pen-pal. The song had developed, transformed, over the months he’d spent working on it – over the months in which his entire life had transformed – and by the time he’d given his first CD to Ten, it was barely recognisable. It didn’t come as much of a surprise that it was the song that Ten listened to most. It wouldn’t take a stretch of Ten’s intellect to figure out from the words of the finished version just who had become his muse, his inspiration.

   The scent of home was strong, too. Ten was cooking something. Baking something, by the smell of it, and that was what prompted Taeyong to crawl out of bed. While Ten had just about got cooking under control, the fine art of baking still eluded him somewhat, and there was always a risk of burning. Taeyong thought he’d better bail him out.

   He stretched out with a yawn, scrunching his nose up as he looked around for the kittens. They were curled up in their squashy little bed, together, apparently undisturbed by the action in the kitchen. They slept a lot. Taeyong could usually sit and watch them for hours, but he wanted to see what Ten was up to.

   He padded quickly over to the closet and slipped on a robe. He didn’t have to wear sweaters around the apartment anymore. Ten had learned to love the warmth, recently, and with new kittens around? No more cold air was pumped out 24/7. He put on his engagement ring, too, like always.

   Then, he skipped to the kitchen, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and beamed as he saw Ten making him breakfast.

   ‘Good morning, darling,’ Ten’s smile shone more brightly than it perhaps ever had before. Taeyong had the impression that Ten was more excited for his graduation than he was.

   ‘What are you making?’

   Ten glanced at the mess over the kitchen counters. ‘Strawberry macaroons.’

   Taeyong stared at him. ‘How did you know?’ he whispered.

   ‘A tip-off from Johnny,’ said Ten, pulling him closer so that he could kiss his cheek.

   ‘Dessert for breakfast? Today must be special.’

   ‘This is your day, Yongie. All yours. I’m going to make it so perfect for you.’

   ‘You do that every day,’ Taeyong shrugged, flopping down at the breakfast table.

   Ten actually did a remarkable job of pulling off his breakfast-dessert. He placed down a plate of sweet treats, and occupied himself kissing Taeyong’s hair – forehead – hands – anywhere he could find to share love with. He didn’t eat, apparently having fuelled himself up hours ago to prepare for a morning of cooking, but he did make a large coffee.

   Taeyong glanced up from his breakfast only when he saw a familiar flash of white scampering its way into the room.

   ‘Snowy!’

   Ten looked up from his coffee, realisation dawning on his face as Taeyong chased after the small white kitten. ‘Snowy?’

   Taeyong had made Ten wait an awful long time to hear their babies’ names. He’d started using them himself, when Ten was at work, playing around with the sounds, seeing if they were the correct fit, but he hadn’t shared them. He’d wanted to make sure they were perfect, and he’d also rather enjoyed watching Ten dissolve into ever more sappy alternatives while he was talking to them.

   Taeyong scooped the kitten into his arms and turned to beam at Ten. ‘Do you like it? He’s our Snowflake. Snowy for short.’

   Ten raised his eyebrows.

   ‘It’s because his fur is white, Ten,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes.

   ‘I gathered. And the other?’ As if on cue, the sleeker black cat slunk its way into the room too.

   ‘My little Galaxy,’ Taeyong cooed, crouching down to reach for the Ten-cat as well.

   He knew that Ten was trying to hide his smile, but it was creeping out. ‘Because his fur is black?’

   ‘No, because he reminds me of you, and you’re my universe,’ Taeyong pouted. ‘Oh and also because his fur is black. They’re cute names. Kitty names. If I’d have let you name them, you’d probably have called them… like…’

   ‘Go on,’ said Ten, with a small smile.

   ‘I don’t know… fucking… Klimt and Caravaggio…

   Ten laughed, a soft, genuine laugh, the type that Taeyong heard all the time these days. He hadn’t laughed like that very often back when they’d first known each other, but now he was less reserved with his emotions. ‘Klimt and Caravaggio? Those would have been excellent names for cats. Alas, though, I’ve heard that they are already named.’

   ‘Do you like them? The names? You don’t think they’re silly?’ Taeyong whispered. ‘Because I can change - ’

   ‘I love them, baby,’ Ten smiled, jerking his head for Taeyong to join him. He surveyed the Tae-cat with a loving look. ‘I suppose he is like a snowflake, because he’s just like you and you’re like one too. Stunningly beautiful, intricately delicate.’

   Taeyong ran his fingers gently through white fur, watching how his ring caught the light again. ‘I don’t want to take it off,’ he stuck his bottom lip out when Ten caught him looking at it.

   ‘Well you don’t have to,’ Ten smiled. ‘But today’s your day, baby. The day that we get to celebrate everything you’ve achieved, everything you’ve worked for. You should be the centre of attention, not an announcement of our engagement.’

   Taeyong nodded, even though he really would miss the weight of his ring for a day. They’d discussed this, when they’d decided to keep their engagement to themselves just a little longer, and Ten had been the first to suggest that they not overshadow his graduation by giving the rings a run out on that particular day. All that could wait. For this day, Taeyong was going to be proud of nothing but the work he’d done for four years.

   So, he did twist the ring from his finger, putting it in the special velvety box that Ten had made in the shape of a heart, just for its protection.

   He got dressed slowly, methodically, putting together the perfect outfit to go under his graduation gown. He kept it dark, mostly black, but offset by the shock of bright hair that would always characterise him, and noticed, when he glanced in the mirror, that almost everything he’d put on had been bought for him by Ten.

   ‘Ready?’ Ten breathed against his ear, meeting his eyes in the mirror.

   ‘I think so.’

   He watched Ten look over every detail with the unconcealed adoration that still shone in his eyes whenever he really looked at him. ‘You look divine. Radiant. So beautiful.’

   ‘Thank you,’ Taeyong exhaled. Most of all, as he met his own eyes, he thought he looked older. He could hardly believe that he was saying goodbye to college forever. It had certainly been one hell of a ride – he wasn’t sure that he could have had any more extreme ups and downs than the ones he’d had during his four years there. Now, though, he was at a peak, or a plateau, because things would never turn bad again, or maybe just an upward slope because things would only get even better.

   As they waited for a call from their driver to pick them up, Taeyong wandered to the gallery, craving the tranquillity of his favourite room in the house. This room had once been a spare suite for guests, but since the acquiring of the cats, they’d instead moved any of their accessible art into this newly designated space, with a secure door that couldn’t be breached by inquisitive kittens.

   ‘Do you think Jiyoo will be here soon?’ Taeyong asked as Ten closed the door quietly behind them.

   ‘Half an hour,’ Ten smiled.

   Taeyong was always relieved when he knew that their housekeeper would be around, because he still didn’t like leaving the kittens alone yet, even though Ten had made a whole kitten-chaos-proof room in which they’d be safe whenever they were out.

   He glanced up, noticing that he was right below the painting that had captured his attention since the very first time he’d entered this apartment. Dark, beautifully blended reds, abstract and transfixing.

   ‘You’ve always like that one best,’ Ten walked up behind him and wrapped his arms around his waist as he looked at it.

   ‘It’s so… I feel like I get lost in it,’ Taeyong breathed. ‘I used to think it was angry, chaotic, but these days I just think it’s… rich, vibrant, full of life.’

   Ten nodded. ‘Well, art changes as you change.’ He kissed his neck, eyes still on the painting. ‘Much like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. That’s why I love it so much. Two people can have a completely different experience in the presence of the same painting.’

   ‘What do you see when you look at it?’

   Ten narrowed his eyes in thought. ‘Love.’

   ‘Love?’

   ‘It’s my most precious painting of all.’

   ‘Is it the most valuable?’

   ‘Huh?’ Ten looked at him in surprise. ‘Oh no, no, not even close. Not in terms of money. Quite the opposite, in fact. All of these paintings in the apartment are favoured for their aesthetic, not for their value. My actual collection is stored somewhere far safer than here. This one is… worth very little, financially. And yet it’s worth everything to me. Because it’s your favourite.’

   Taeyong blushed.

   ‘I’ve always loved it, but I remember the first time you came here. You stood there, staring at it. And I couldn’t even look at it, because I was so busy staring at you - your beauty surpassed every piece of art I’d ever laid eyes on. But I saw how it spoke to you. And, just as yours has now, my perception of it changed. It went from a beautiful painting, to the most beautiful painting. Because from that moment on, it has always made me think of you.’

   Taeyong turned in his arms for a longer kiss, in the shadow of love framed on the wall. ‘What is the most you’ve ever spent on art?’ he whispered slyly when they broke apart. His eyes were glinting with playful curiosity.

   ‘Far too much.’

   Taeyong pouted. ‘Tell me, Tennie.’

   ‘You’d be horrified,’ said Ten with a small smile.

   ‘Go on!’

   ‘I - ’ Ten looked one more time at the painting opposite them. ‘As much as I spent on this apartment, let’s put it that way.’

   Taeyong’s mouth fell open, but only for a moment. He knew that Ten would probably spend his last few coins in the world on art, so it was hardly surprising that he’d spend a fortune on it too.

   After that, they enjoyed their shared gaze of the painting in silence for a moment.

   ‘You know, Yongie, until I met you, I never realised - ’ Ten stopped, brow furrowed. ‘I’ve spent an awful lot of money in my life, on art, on everything else. A frightening amount, and I thought I understood value, cost, life’s… currency. But until I met you, I don’t think I ever truly realised that living… living costs so much. So much of the heart, and the soul. I didn’t realise quite how very drained I was, until I met you and then… suddenly every day felt utterly free. With you I feel weightless, and so completely full of life. Like nothing costs anymore.’

   ‘I know, I feel it too,’ Taeyong murmured, then he smiled. ‘Except our wedding. That will cost.’

   ‘Oh yes,’ Ten nodded with a laugh. ‘Yes, that certainly will.’

   ‘Especially the cake. How many tiers do you think they can do before it falls over?’

   ‘Why do I get the idea we’re probably going to find out?’

   ‘I love you, Ten.’

   ‘I love you too, Yongie.’

   ‘Love you more.’

   ‘Oh let’s not get started on that,’ Ten said quickly, ‘we’ll be late for your graduation.’

   Taeyong pouted, but Ten was absolutely right. As soon as they started that dialogue at the end of a phone-call, or when one of them was leaving for work, it could last for minutes on end.

   Like they didn’t know that each of their loves were utterly unmatched, except for by the other.

*

   ‘Hyung!’

   As soon as Taeyong turned to see Mark, his face broke into a smile. His cousin was joined by his best friend, Donghyuck, who had linked their arms together like a vice and was beaming at anything and everything.

   Mark was the one blood relation that Taeyong had left in his family, and seeing him around campus going about his first year of college had been an unfamiliar thrill throughout Taeyong’s final year. He’d picked up Donghyuck, or rather Donghyuck had picked him up, in the first couple of weeks, and Taeyong was so glad that Mark had someone so confident looking out for him – it reminded him of how Yuta had coaxed him out of his shell when he’d started at college.

   Ten had gone to go and rescue some innocent parents from Yukhei’s wild gesticulating about something or other, so Taeyong was scouting out the rest of his family before everyone had to go and take their seats.

   ‘Oh hi Johnny!’ called Mark, and Taeyong turned again, glad to see his best friend strolling over. Taeil was with him, not dressed in the long robes that Johnny was because he had graduated the year before.

   ‘Hey, Mark, Hyuck. TY, have you seen Yuta?’

   ‘He is arriving as we speak,’ Taeyong smiled, nodding over to where Yuta was cleaving a path through the crowd, holding Sicheng tightly by the hand.

   ‘Shit, this is chaos, isn’t it?’ Yuta beamed, only letting go of his boyfriend to pull Taeyong into a stifling hug. ‘You look lovely, TY. Cute hair.’

   ‘Thanks,’ he beamed, as Johnny was the second to fall victim to the stranglehold.

   ‘Congratulations, Taeyong,’ Taeil smiled, sidestepping the ensuing wrestling match because hugs always seemed to end that way between Taeyong’s two best friends.

   ‘Thanks, hyung. What’s it like up there, when you get on the stage? Is it really loud? Or scary? I don’t wanna fall over.’

   Taeil pulled a face in contemplation. ‘It’s quite nerve-wracking, but don’t worry, only a couple of people tripped last year. It’s over way too fast, so make sure you take your time, walk nice and slow across the stage, so that you get to enjoy your full moment. Just live it, and listen out for your family because it can all feel like a bit of a headrush up there.’

   ‘Trust me, I’ll hear them,’ Taeyong rolled his eyes, giving Ten a small wave when he appeared back with his friends in tow.

   ‘Taeyongie!’ Yukhei beamed. ‘Are you going to introduce us to all your friends?’

   Taeyong did the introductions, which turned into a lot of introductions because his friends’ parents had joined them too. He was hugged by Jungwoo, and clapped on the shoulder several times by Yukhei, and greeted almost as heartily by Jaehyun, who had joined them a little late after getting caught up in a debate with someone from the history faculty. He even got a small, quick hug from Doyoung, who was not usually known for that kind of thing with anyone other than his husband.

   Having all of them here was absolutely vital for Taeyong. Family. He’d got closer and closer to Ten’s friends over the last year – they’d even spent the last Christmas together just as the six of them. It was the loud, loving, fun family he’d always dreamed of growing up.

   ‘How are you feeling?’ Ten murmured as he put an arm around him.

   ‘A little nervous,’ he said honestly. ‘I don’t wanna fall.’

   Ten stroked the back of his neck in slow, soothing circles. ‘You will be faultless. This will be the most graceful walk across a stage that anyone has ever taken.’

   ‘I wish you could be up there holding my hand.’

   Ten took Taeyong’s hand in his, and kissed each of his fingertips, then the back of his hand, then his soft palm. Then Ten closed his fingers into a fist and kissed his knuckles, like he could lock the kisses tightly inside. ‘Take these with you.’

   Taeyong threw himself properly into his arms for a hug. He didn’t want to cry this early in the day.

   ‘We should go, TY,’ said Yuta, ‘the volunteers are getting antsy.’

   ‘See you in a couple of hours,’ Ten murmured. He straightened out Taeyong’s cap for him. ‘You look stunning.’

   ‘I’ll miss you,’ Taeyong pouted.

   ‘I’ll wave. And trust me, I got us the best seats. Now go get your degree.’

   A couple more kisses, and then Taeyong allowed himself to be pulled away by Yuta to go and find their department seating.

   Johnny caught up with them at a jog, having stopped for Taeil to reach up and gently adjust the way his hair sat under his cap.

   ‘Alright?’ he said, throwing one arm over Taeyong’s shoulders and the other over Yuta’s.

   ‘Great.’

   ‘Perfect,’ said Taeyong.

   ‘Can you believe we made it? All of us?’

   ‘Damn right,’ Yuta nodded. ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment since the day we met.’

   ‘The day we met? I seem to remember that we met because you came to put a speaker outside our door when I told you off for playing your music too loud,’ Johnny lambasted.

   ‘I did that?’ Yuta said innocently. ‘Oh, oh yes, I did do that. But it was in a loving way. And it was the start of a beautiful friendship, so you should be thanking me.’

   ‘Thank you,’ said Johnny, pulling a face.

   ‘Thank you,’ said Taeyong, more quietly, with nothing but true, endless gratitude for the friends who’d made especially the first couple of years of college possible.

   When he looked over his shoulder, Ten hadn’t moved, watching him go. Donghyuck was holding up Mark’s arm in a rapid wave. Yukhei had taken Jungwoo’s hand, and was murmuring something into his ear. Jaehyun had put his arm around Doyoung, giving Taeyong a light wave himself.

   His family, his friends, all in one place. All happy.

   His heart had never felt more full.

*

   Taeyong didn’t part from his friends after the ceremony until they began to be extricated by their parents. Johnny’s came over first, to fetch him for a special home dinner at his grandparents’ house, and Taeil went with him too. Yuta’s mom, and Sicheng’s mother and father too, came second, together, because they’d made a shared reservation at a fancy nearby restaurant. When Taeyong was left with Mark and Donghyuck, who had darted to the group at remarkable pace, Ten wandered back over, sliding an arm around his waist.

   ‘You okay?’

   Taeyong smiled. ‘Perfect. I’m just relieved I didn’t fall!’

   ‘You looked breath-taking up there. Completely breath-taking. When they called your name, I thought I might cry.’

   ‘Me too,’ Taeyong mumbled. He had come very close to crying at the moment when they’d given him his diploma at last – when he’d heard his family cheering for him, Ten even louder than Yukhei. A vision had flashed before his eyes of everything he’d faced to get that piece of paper in his hands.

   ‘Did you enjoy the ceremony, Mark?’

   Mark stared at Ten, the tips of his ears turning slightly pink. It had been a year since he had first been invited to dinner at the apartment, but he still got shy around Ten. It was those moments when Taeyong remembered that Ten could be rather intimidating to those who didn’t know about his marshmallowy interior.

   ‘And… Donghyuck, isn’t it?’

   Donghyuck, unlike his best friend, was not intimidated at all. ‘Yeah, it was great! We’ve got a movie date now, haven’t we Mark?’

   ‘D-date?’ Mark stammered.

   Donghyuck rolled his eyes. ‘We’re going to the movies.’

   ‘Well I hope you enjoy the film,’ Ten smiled. ‘You ready for dinner?’ he breathed, then, against Taeyong’s ear.

   ‘Where are you taking me?’

   ‘Paradise on a plate.’

   Taeyong grinned, wondering which special restaurant Ten had chosen for such an important dinner.

   The answer, it transpired, was an extremely up-market fusion restaurant that Ten promised specialised in desserts.

   Yukhei and Jungwoo and Doyoung and Jaehyun accompanied them.

   Taeyong’s new family.

   There was something so special, these days, about the six of them being together. It had taken a while for Taeyong to really feel like he was… part of the family. The bond that Ten and Yukhei and Doyoung had was so deep, so intrinsic to all of their lives, that he hadn’t quite been sure how he’d fit in. But steadily he’d spent more and more time with Jungwoo, hanging out with him almost as much as he did with Yuta and Johnny, and Jungwoo had promised that while the special bubble that the three of them seemed to occupy might seem impenetrable, with time it opened up to absorb each new member.

   Jaehyun had been first.

   Jungwoo second.

   And now Taeyong.

   These days, he felt as comfortable with them as someone should with their family.

   They chatted easily, around the table, joking and serious in equal measure, and they always seemed to place Taeyong at the centre of their attention. That wasn’t even just because it was his graduation – they always fussed over him a little when they were out. Early on, he’d wondered whether it was because they’d wanted to make the best possible impression on Ten’s behalf as much as their own.

   Lately, though, he’d realised that it was simpler than that:

   He might be old enough to graduate college, now, but he remained very much the baby of this family.

   Tonight, though, everyone was treating him with esteem as much as indulgence. Jaehyun had a long conversation with him about music history, and even though Taeyong knew that he was speaking to one of the most lauded historians around, he never felt small by comparison. Jaehyun was very kind, very interested in anything and everything that he had to say. Doyoung, too, talked to him about music, though he was far more interested in the gear in the studio than in the sound that came out of it.

   Jungwoo, a lit grad and self-confessed bookworm, talked to him about the novels that he’d studied for his literature electives. Yukhei, on the other hand, wanted gossip. He asked for all of the best stories from Taeyong’s college parties, eyes alight with excitement whenever he thought he’d found a tasty morsel.

   Ten held his hand on the table as much as possible, stroking his thumb over his knuckles, lifting it to his lips to kiss every once in a while.

   Taeyong wasn’t expecting what came halfway through dinner, during a natural pause.

   ‘Now, Taeyongie, since it’s your graduation,’ Yukhei started, looking extremely smug, ‘we wanted to give you a little something from… well, from the family,’ he nodded in particular to Doyoung, to Ten, and straight ahead as though to indicate himself.

   ‘You – you got me something?’ Taeyong said in surprise, glancing at Ten, who he knew had already bought him other things because he’d seen the flash of wrapping when he’d passed his office in the morning.

   ‘Of course,’ he smiled.

   ‘You didn’t have to get me anything,’ he whispered shyly, looking to Yukhei and Doyoung now.

   ‘Here,’ Yukhei held out what looked like a brochure with a flourish.

   Taeyong took it, curious eyes flitting across the cover. His college was printed on the front. ‘What is it?’ he asked, as he flicked through the pages, never reading from the beginning like he probably should.

   ‘Ten told us that part of your dream - your vision - for the future is to set up a charity, to help kids like you get through school,’ said Doyoung.

   Taeyong looked up. That wasn’t what he’d expected him to say.

   ‘This is a scholarship program. As of September, your college will be offering three new full-ride scholarships in your name. These are going to create a chance for students who don’t have funding behind them to pursue arts programs.’

   ‘You did this for me?’ Taeyong looked up, eyes glassy.

   ‘This is just the first step,’ said Ten, squeezing his shoulders. ‘We’ll build something together over time. When I remember how you looked the first time I met you… Yongie you were so tired,’ he murmured, ‘your grades were down…’

   ‘We don’t want people missing out on their chance to shine,’ Yukhei announced.

   ‘Thank you so much,’ Taeyong choked.

   He’d had many gifts, over the last couple of years. He’d had clothes and jewellery and all manner of beautiful things, especially from Ten. But this? It hit him somewhere deep inside his heart, so deep that he had to look down, rubbing the threat of tears away from his eyes.

   ‘How can I… how can I ever repay you for this?’ he whispered.

   ‘Well, I like vintage wines, so - ’ Yukhei began, but Jungwoo elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

   ‘You don’t have to repay anyone, Taeyong. This is a gift, for all your hard work,’ he said gently.

   ‘Although,’ Jaehyun started, with a glance at Doyoung, ‘if you wanted to… you know… offer your services in the babysitting department on occasion, that would absolutely not go unappreciated.’

   ‘I’d love to,’ he exhaled. ‘How much longer?’ He, like everyone, had been waiting for the final stages of Doyoung and Jaehyun’s extremely complex adoption process to be completed at last.

   Doyoung spoke with his eyes still on Jaehyun. ‘Soon. Very soon. A couple of weeks.’

   ‘You won’t be the youngest in this little family for much longer,’ Ten smiled to Taeyong. ‘I can’t wait to meet my new niece or nephew.’

   ‘Yeah, and don’t think you’ll be getting out of babysitting either!’ Yukhei said to him loudly. ‘You’d better put in your shift to earn the Uncle Tennie title!’

   Ten gave him a withering look.

   Taeyong couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He loved to watch the three of them together. They might have absorbed him and Jaehyun and Jungwoo into their bubble, but there was something so special between just them that could come only from so many years together. So many years. Taeyong really hoped that in another few more years, he and Yuta and Johnny would be able to sit at a table like this with the same energy.

   As the evening wore on, Taeyong found himself retreating to conversation with Ten more and more often, because he was starting to get a little tired, and talking to Ten was the one thing in the world that he found easiest.

   The others talked amongst themselves, clearly making a point not to intrude.

   ‘Guess,’ Ten murmured, holding up another small, delicate cake for him to take a bite from.

   ‘Coconut?’

   Ten ate the other half. ‘Oh yes, I think so.’

   ‘Your turn,’ Taeyong said happily as he picked up one of the small candied truffles from the same plate and let Ten bite into that.

   His fiancé paused a moment, licking his lips. ‘Raspberry… and white chocolate? Damn it’s sweet.’

   ‘Like me?’

   ‘Just like you, baby boy.’ Ten was halfway leant in for a kiss when Taeyong slotted a finger between them to press at his lips, occupying his own by eating the other half of the truffle instead.

   ‘Mm, it’s good.’

   ‘Okay, try this,’ said Ten, scooping a small curl of ice-cream onto his spoon and raising it for him to taste next.

   ‘Sickening, isn’t it?’ Taeyong heard Yukhei say in a considerable stage whisper. ‘I’m getting cavities just looking at them.’

   Yukhei flinched though, when Ten rounded on him and gestured as though to flick the contents of the spoon right at his face instead.

   Taeyong laughed, he laughed so hard that he had to bury his face into Ten’s shoulder for a moment.

   He did that, sometimes, to remind himself that he was real – that all this joy was real.

*

   It was late, before Taeyong finally got to settle in to the part of the day he’d really been waiting for. With Ten in his life, he’d done so many things – he’d flown to different continents, eaten in the top restaurants in the world, gone to events he’d only dreamed of before; but nothing quite compared to this moment.

   This moment, at the end of each day, when the door closed and they were alone and all that mattered was the sound of each other’s voices, the tingles on Taeyong’s skin as Ten played with his hair, and the warmth, the security, the overwhelming comfort of knowing that he and Ten were together in their sanctuary.

   Building a home had taken time. The day he’d moved in, Taeyong had been too scared to unpack his boxes because he didn’t want to intrude on Ten’s established space. For months, he’d had to correct himself every time he talked about this place because it had always felt like Ten’s-apartment. Then there had been the problem of Ten making this place his home, because he might have lived within its walls for years, but until Taeyong had come into his life, it had been little more than an extension of his office.

   But they had built it. They’d filled it with warmth and love and two kittens, and now whenever they got home, it was the best part of the day.

   Taeyong skipped without hesitation to the bedroom, shedding smart clothes as he went so that he could replace them with his baby blue hoodie instead, and he slipped his engagement ring straight back onto his finger. He’d missed it, but he was glad that for a little longer, it was still just for them. They would tell their friends next week.  

   By the time that he got back to the living room, Ten’s tie was half loosened, but he seemed to have gotten distracted, crouched down playing with the kittens.

   ‘I’ll make us a drink,’ Taeyong said quietly.

   ‘Thank you, my love,’ Ten looked over his shoulder, watching him for so long that the cats started getting impatient and mewed for his attention.

   When Taeyong returned with two hot cocktails, he passed the glasses to Ten so that he could coax them back to bed himself. He always maintained that Ten, indulgent as ever, spoiled the kittens as much as he spoiled him, something that Ten scoffed at, and that he could never say no to playing, while Taeyong was far better at getting them to settle once they tired themselves out. Success, and then Taeyong had Ten’s undivided attention once again.

   ‘You have no idea how proud of you I was today,’ Ten exhaled, looking deep into his eyes.

   ‘Yes I do,’ Taeyong said shyly.

   Ten shook his head. ‘I’m not sure you do, baby. I didn’t even know I could feel something like that. I felt like my life was complete, watching you have your moment in the sun.’

   ‘It’s not complete yet,’ Taeyong stuck his tongue out, as he let Ten pull him close by the hem of his sweater. ‘We’ve got all sorts of things to do before you can say that. The wedding, most importantly.’

   ‘Oh yes, I did notice all those magazines you’d started piling up on the coffee table,’ Ten smiled. He pressed a kiss to his lips, long and loving and with a taste of spice from the hot chai toddy Taeyong had just made.

   ‘They’re for inspiration,’ Taeyong said against his lips. ‘But they’re all boring. I want our wedding to be… unique.’

   ‘I’m guessing you won’t want me to hire a wedding planner?’

   Taeyong pulled back looking utterly affronted. ‘Absolutely not. Every detail will have to be crafted by us, because only we know us. No one outside this apartment knows either of us the way we know each other.’

   ‘Well you’re right about that,’ Ten nodded. He put his drink down on the table and sat down on the couch, followed quickly by Taeyong who cuddled in so close that he could smell the chai again. ‘You had a piece of my soul from the moment I saw you, Yongie. Now you have all of it. Promise me you’ll take care of it forever?’

   ‘We’ll look after each other always, Tennie. That’s what we do. I promise.’

   A silence, then –

   ‘Promise too?’

   Ten kissed his forehead. ‘I promise.’

   They enjoyed silence for a while, like they always did these days. They could talk for hours on end, but they could also remain quiet for just as long, with no concern to fill the space with words. Their bond went far beyond speech these days. Sometimes, it was better without it, a pure love radiating between them that needed no addition.

   Eventually, when Taeyong put down his empty cup and curled up on his side instead with his head in Ten’s lap, Ten chose to speak first.

   ‘What are you thinking about?’ he murmured, stroking his fingers into his hair.

   ‘Seating plan for the wedding.’

   ‘Ah,’ Ten exhaled with a laugh. ‘For the ceremony or the dinner?’

   ‘Both,’ he mused. ‘I don’t think we should have sides for the ceremony. We share our family.’

   ‘I agree.’

   ‘Ooh what do you think about absolutely swathing the cake in spun sugar?’

   ‘I’m not sure what that is, my darling. But I’ll get you any chef, any pastry chef, anyone you want for the dinner – the top chefs in the world.’

   ‘Do you think winter or summer? Somewhere cold or hot?’

   ‘Well you look adorable with snow in your hair, but you also look stunning when the sun is shining on your face.’

   ‘Hmm,’ Taeyong hummed in consideration, mind running over detail after detail. ‘What about the honeymoon?’

   ‘I have a few ideas.’

   Taeyong sat up abruptly. ‘Tell me!’ he said excitedly.

   ‘Nope, you said that I could be in charge of the honeymoon the other night, and so it’s going to be a surprise.’

   Taeyong huffed, even though his heart skipped in anticipation.

   Then he settled back down, tucking his head into the crook of Ten’s neck this time. ‘What are you thinking about?’ he asked, after some sweet silence.

   'I’m thinking about everything you endured to get up on that stage today. I’m thinking about how hard you worked. I’m thinking about how proud I am of you for breaking free when people tried to cage you, for fighting for every piece of happiness you have now, for carving the most beautiful corner of the world for you to occupy. For us to occupy.’

   Taeyong closed his eyes for a moment, because suddenly they felt prickly. ‘Thank you.’

   ‘It would have been so easy to give up, but you didn’t. You kept going and you kept treating the world with all the kindness that it hadn’t offered you, and you waited.’

   ‘See?’ Taeyong beamed, blinking away emotion and replacing it with a smile. ‘I always could be patient after all!’

   Ten laughed gently, and kissed the crown of his head.

   Taeyong wrapped his arms around Ten’s waist, his fiancé’s hand warm and secure on his own, and he stopped his own teasing giggles long enough to think properly. Just for a moment, he ventured into all of the thoughts that Ten had evoked.

   For all their talk about that - about patience - they sure had waited their share of time to reach this moment. He thought about it all as they held each other – about the day he’d left home, about every hour at work, every sleepless night, every creeping second of hope, every kiss that promised him a future, about the day Ten had slipped three diamonds onto his finger and made certain that this future was promised forever.

   He thought about how long Ten had waited – longer, still, than he had.

   He recalled, as he settled into the warmth of home, every one of the most important seconds that had contributed in some tiny way to bringing him into Ten’s arms, in this precious moment, at the end of another perfect day. 

 

~