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“How are you holding up?”

Zhou Zekai looked up from the monitor and met a pair of pale, gray-gold eyes—more gray than gold in the lackluster lighting of the Glory Professional Alliance’s training room. Ye Xiu’s face was only marginally less haggard than Zhou Zekai was used to seeing it, but the difference was still notable enough that he had to stare for a few moments.

“Little Zhou?” Ye Xiu raised an eyebrow.

Zhou Zekai merely blinked and nodded. His gaze flicked back to the monitor a bit nervously.

Ye Xiu just made an exasperated noise. Zhou Zekai could hear him taking a seat in front of the unoccupied computer beside him. The leather of the chair creaked faintly, the wheels gliding smoothly over the floor. At least the Alliance knew to invest in quality chairs for their national team.

“It wasn’t a yes or no question, Little Zhou. How about this: are you doing okay?”

Zhou Zekai nodded again. He was kind of embarrassed for spacing out earlier, but he had never been good with words, whether it was formulating his own or processing that of others. He often needed to hear something two or three times for it to really register, and even when he understood right away, he needed even more time to mull over his reply.

He was a cautious person. Not quite as shy as the media painted him, but…careful, hesitant. Zhou Zekai didn’t want to do anything wrong or be a bother. He would much rather just stay in his own little bubble, where it was quiet and safe.

One of the few people he didn’t mind popping his bubble, of course, was Ye Xiu.

A slender, long-fingered hand drifted to his where it was poised over the keyboard. Ye Xiu threaded his fingers between Zhou Zekai’s and pulled their linked hands down to rest on his lap, almost beneath the table.

Zhou Zekai’s face was heating up, but he couldn’t resist looking at Ye Xiu anyway.

“You sure?” Ye Xiu asked. “Talk to me.”

“I’m sure.” Zhou Zekai’s voice was a little rough from not having spoken in…well, a while. His tone was still soft, though, and for the most part sincere: Zhou Zekai was doing just fine.

He would probably be doing better if he weren’t so overwhelmed, of course, but that was neither here nor there.

The way Ye Xiu eyed him made it clear he was aware of everything Zhou Zekai wasn’t saying. “I know you don’t have a lot of free time now that we have to train for Worlds, and you’re always wrapped up in publicity crap…but I’m still here if you need me.”

“I know,” Zhou Zekai replied quietly.

One side of Ye Xiu’s mouth lifted in a smile. He squeezed Zhou Zekai’s hand once before making to let go.

Zhou Zekai held on. “Sleep?”

“Yeah, it’s about my bedtime. You shouldn’t stay here for more than another hour yourself. Get some rest.”

He really didn’t need Ye Xiu to tell him that. Caffeine had kept Zhou Zekai going for this long, but his eyelids were almost permanently droopy and his mind was wandering a little too much. It was hard to focus on training exercises when you’d gotten maybe six hours of sleep in two days.

Filming commercials was a hell in and of itself.

For once, Zhou Zekai actually managed to say something without turning it over in his mind for at least thirty seconds: “Can I come?”

Ye Xiu blinked, then glanced down at their still interwoven hands. “What, to sleep with me?”

Zhou Zekai nodded. For some reason, he wasn’t even blushing. He honestly did just want to sleep—he’d just like to do so while wrapped up in his boyfriend’s arms.

Ye Xiu waggled his eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he tugged Zhou Zekai to his feet even as he powered off the computer with his free hand.

“Let’s go, then,” Ye Xiu murmured, smiling.

 

* * *

 

The first time it happened was because of Huang Shaotian.

It maybe shouldn’t have come as a surprise; no, the real surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner. Huang Shaotian was close with Ye Xiu, always had been, and it wasn’t a secret. They sniped at each other, chatted casually (well, Huang Shaotian chatted while Ye Xiu searched for ways to exit the conversation), and sometimes ate together. Zhou Zekai didn’t know the story behind them meeting, but he understood it might have something to do with kill-stealing.

That particular evening they were finishing off one of the most grueling practice sessions they’d had in a while, or at least that Zhou Zekai had had in a while. He was tired, as per usual, but slightly less tired than expected. He did a good job, just like everyone else, and Ye Xiu offered them his praises, meager though they were.

Maybe it was because of their relationship, maybe it was because Ye Xiu was Ye Xiu, or maybe it was because Zhou Zekai was just weak for praise, but he loved it when he did well enough to earn a good word from Ye Xiu. His great mood was only ruined by the fact that Ye Xiu was just praising them all indiscriminately rather than praising Zhou Zekai particularly.

“We should try this again tomorrow, but maybe with pairs,” Ye Xiu continued, thoughtfulness overtaking the pleased expression on his face. “We’ll see. Good night or whatever.”

“‘Or whatever,’” Chu Yunxiu mocked as she strode toward the door, rolling her eyes.

Hot on Chu Yunxiu’s heels, Su Mucheng laughed openly and waved at everyone before disappearing into the hallway. The rest of the team filed out at varying speeds, exchanging jokes and parting words. Wang Jiexi and Yu Wenzhou both stopped to chat with Ye Xiu for a couple of minutes while Zhang Xinjie observed from the sidelines and nodded woodenly here and there. Xiao Shiqin took notice and smoothly slid into the conversation.

Zhang Jiale, who sat in the same row as Zhou Zekai, grumbled about this and that with Fang Rui, both of them unnecessarily noisy as they took their leave.

“Are you gonna hang here for a while, Little Zhou? Just go to bed,” said Zhang Jiale. He was gone before Zhou Zekai could even contemplate a reply.

“Good night!” Fang Rui said. He gave Zhou Zekai a pat on the shoulder and a truly atrocious wink as he followed Zhang Jiale out.

Zhou Zekai blinked slowly at the doorway. Then he turned back toward Ye Xiu and watched him talk to the other tacticians and Wang Jiexi.

He really didn’t get tired of looking at Ye Xiu. It was perhaps a bit disgusting how infatuated he was. Most people would say Ye Xiu was an all right-looking guy; not ugly, even sort of attractive in that careless, confident way of his, but definitely not anything special. He certainly didn’t have anything on Zhou Zekai himself—or so went popular opinion.

But to Zhou Zekai, he was…incredible. There was nothing about Ye Xiu’s face or body he didn’t like. He had beautiful eyes, a flawless profile, a unique smile, a slim and proportionate body, long legs…an unreasonably fantastic ass…

Seriously, how did someone who spent most of their day planted in a chair have such a great ass? Zhou Zekai didn’t think even his own ass stood a chance.

“Let’s talk tomorrow, then,” Yu Wenzhou was saying. He lifted his hand to cover a yawn.

“Yeah, you look like you’re about to pass out. Just sleep already,” Ye Xiu replied with a chuckle.

Yu Wenzhou playfully bumped his shoulder against Ye Xiu’s. Zhou Zekai had noticed lately that most everyone in the national team, especially the Master Tacticians, were getting along really well. Like, unexpectedly well. Yu Wenzhou, for example, had more or less managed to get over the whole senior-junior barrier and treated Ye Xiu so very familiarly now, even more than before.

It was kind of heartwarming. Zhou Zekai was much too sweet to feel any jealousy toward these friendly interactions; instead, he was relieved to see them. Ye Xiu could act quite sociable, and he definitely had an easy time making conversation when he wanted to. But he wasn’t as free-spirited as his demeanor might lead some to believe. He rarely opened up to people and had very few close friends because of it. Even those he’d called his friends in the Pro Alliance knew so little about him.

But they were learning more and more. From personal experience, Zhou Zekai knew they had a long way to go before they could even glimpse Ye Xiu in his entirety. However, he wouldn’t mind if they never did. It was a sight Zhou Zekai thought he’d be happy to keep to himself.

Zhou Zekai was a sweet lover, but he was also a little possessive.

The tacticians bid their goodbyes. None of them noticed Zhou Zekai sitting in his corner, but Wang Jiexi did. Zhou Zekai caught the arch of his eyebrow and resolutely glanced away.

Now it was just him and Ye Xiu. Zhou Zekai’s hands went to his chair’s armrests and he prepared to get to his feet. But it was just as he was beginning to stand up that he heard another voice, this one definitely not Ye Xiu’s.

“Hey, can we talk for a bit? Just for a bit, then you can go to sleep, I swear. Come over here, will you?”

Zhou Zekai’s butt plopped back down in his chair, so suddenly and with such force that it was a wonder he didn’t make a sound. He wasn’t sure if even Ye Xiu was aware of his presence.

Ye Xiu sighed and slouched over to the other row of computers, looking down at a blond head. Huang Shaotian had probably been slumped down in his seat or something, and that was why Zhou Zekai hadn’t seen him over the top of his monitor. Also, they were big monitors.

“What’s up?” Ye Xiu asked.

“What do you really think about our teamwork? I mean I know it looks like everything is running smoothly but honestly it takes so much more effort than it should. Most of us are used to playing against each other, not with each other. Not gonna lie, when I see fucking Vaccaria in the vicinity my first instinct is to Sword Slash him to death.”

“You couldn’t Sword Slash Vaccaria to death even if you put literally every single one of your skill points into that attack.”

“Not the point!” Huang Shaotian snapped. “The point is I’m not sure how prepared we’ll be once this goddamn competition starts. Can you imagine us losing because we trip over each other like a bunch of noobs? It’s a goddamn worldwide stage we’ll be on, we can’t embarrass ourselves like that. We can’t lose to South Korea.”

Zhou Zekai noticed Ye Xiu subtly shift his weight from one foot to another just by the way the angle of his shoulders changed. “Shaotian, it’ll be fine. We still have time to work these things out.”

“Not that much time we don’t! Could you not be so calm and collected for a sec? Maybe freak out like a normal person? Do you know how serious this is or are you just relaxed because you’re not actually gonna be playing?”

Zhou Zekai tensed a little, eyes wide.

“Shut up, you idiot, you know that’s not it. I just have faith in all of you. Is that so hard to believe?”

“Kinda! Yes!”

Ye Xiu pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a heavy sigh. “Just go to bed, Shaotian. We’ll practice more tomorrow. We’ll practice until we get it right.”

“But what if we don’t—”

“We already did,” Ye Xiu interrupted. “We got it right today. It was hard, it was taxing, but we got it right. Or, well, you guys got it right. You did really well. And we’ll keep doing it and eventually it’ll be second nature to you, got it?”

There was a brief silence as Huang Shaotian seemed to contemplate this, and then he said, “Okay, fine, I got it. I guess you’re right. Or something. Probably ‘or something,’ to be honest.”

Ye Xiu said something snarky back and the two of them settled into a rather childish but tensionless exchange. Zhou Zekai would have been amused, but then Huang Shaotian’s tone changed.

“Do you wanna get some drinks and hang out at my apartment? Yu Wenzhou and the rest are going to be dead to the world.”

“I don’t drink, sorry.”

And Huang Shaotian doesn’t, either, Zhou Zekai thought confusedly. Did he?

“Aww, then how about…I dunno, smoothies? Tea? Soda? What do you like, anyway? I always figured you for a tea guy, but I’m not really sure. Not even sure why you’re a tea guy in my head.”

Ye Xiu chuckled. “I guess I am a tea guy. We’ll hang out another time, all right? Late-night dorm room hangouts where everyone but us two is asleep isn’t my idea of relaxation.”

Huang Shaotian stood then. The beginnings of a pout were visible on his face, but something about his eyes was calculating.

Zhou Zekai’s hackles instantly rose.

“Don’t call my apartment a dorm room! It makes it sound so much grosser. And uninviting. And grosser.”

“Those apartments are basically dorms, and they don’t even belong to you guys.”

Huang Shaotian scoffed. “Didn’t you get one of your own? Acting all high and mighty just because you don’t have to room with anyone else.”

“You must be blind and deaf, Shaotian, I swear. I room with three other people just like you.”

“And who are these three other people again?”

“Wang Jiexi, Li Xuan, and Zhou Zekai.”

“God, that must be boring. How do you even live? What do you do for fun?”

Zhou Zekai’s fingers curled into fists. Rooming with him was not boring. Sure, he and Ye Xiu couldn’t be as carefree as they had when Ye Xiu really did have an apartment all to himself, before the Alliance decided to be more cost-effective under the guise of promoting good relations, but sharing space with two others didn’t get in their way much. Ye Xiu had been lucky and got his own room when they drew straws, and it happened to be the master bedroom. It could just be Zhou Zekai’s impression, but they definitely had a lot of fun in there.

“Play Glory, obviously.” Ye Xiu flicked the back of Huang Shaotian’s neck, earning himself some unflattering words. “Off you go, it’s way past your bedtime.”

“Shut the hell up, you bastard,” Huang Shaotian muttered under his breath. He swept a hand through his hair as he left, his expression a bit stiff and strange and his eyes faraway.

Zhou Zekai looked down at his knees, at his hands clenched in his lap. Why was he so…

“Little Zhou, come on.”

Zhou Zekai’s head snapped up. He didn’t think Ye Xiu knew he was there.

Ye Xiu was looking at him expectantly, the row of computers between them. The air was colder now that everyone besides them had left; the AC was always set at a ridiculously low temperature. But it was warmer when in thirteen people’s company. When it was just the two of them, however…

Zhou Zekai looked down again. “Did I do well?”

The following pause worried him. But then Ye Xiu said, “Yes. Of course you did. Didn’t I say everyone did well?”

He fidgeted. Ye Xiu indeed said that, but then he also— “You said…Huang Shaotian did…really well.”

The pause this time was longer. So long that Zhou Zekai began to consider just getting up and slinking back to the apartment and never looking anyone in the eye ever again. What the hell was he even saying? Hadn’t Ye Xiu just been reassuring Huang Shaotian?

But hadn’t Huang Shaotian…been flirting with Ye Xiu?

“I was just saying that,” Ye Xiu told him. “What, do you want me to tell you you’re the best? Don’t you get enough of that from the media?”

Zhou Zekai shrunk back a bit in his chair.

“Ah, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

He dared to sneak a glance at Ye Xiu’s expression. He was smiling softly, apologetically, gentle concern in his eyes. Zhou Zekai had been admiring those eyes earlier, but now he could hardly bring himself to meet them.

He heard the footsteps before he felt the heat. Ye Xiu’s hand brushed through his hair, the touch light, yet more than enough to burn. Zhou Zekai pressed his head against those long fingers almost as if on instinct.

Ye Xiu stepped closer and tugged Zhou Zekai forward until his cheek rested just below Ye Xiu’s chest. His free hand swept down the back of Zhou Zekai’s neck, following the knobs of his spine down to about mid-back. He spread his fingers and rubbed warm circles into the fabric. With the way Zhou Zekai shivered, though, Ye Xiu might as well have been touching his bare skin.

“Zekai, are you okay?”

Zhou Zekai’s eyes opened; he didn’t even know when he’d shut them. He reluctantly leaned away from Ye Xiu to gaze up at him. “I…didn’t like it,” he admitted.

“Didn’t like what?”

“The way he…talked to you.” It was spoken like a confession, hardly more than a whisper, and the buzz of the AC was nearly enough to drown it out.

Ye Xiu blinked down at him, one hand still tangled in Zhou Zekai’s hair, the other having slid up to his shoulder. “Who, Shoatian?”

Zhou Zekai nodded.

“What do you mean?”

He’d thought Ye Xiu would get it right away, but when he didn’t, Zhou Zekai frowned. Did he really not realize that Huang Shaotian’s suggestion to hang out had read more like an invitation to date than anything?

“He likes you,” he replied simply.

Ye Xiu’s eyebrows rose. “Huang Shaotian likes me? Little Zhou, that’s…kind of out there.”

Zhou Zekai clamped his mouth shut and said nothing further. But the stare he gave Ye Xiu was more comprehensive than any words.

Ye Xiu actually rolled his eyes. “Okay, he used to have a crush on me, back in the day, but then he got to know me better. It’s irrelevant. Old news. No longer applicable. We’re just friends now and he accepts that.”

Zhou Zekai sincerely did not believe Huang Shaotian accepted that, or if he did, he wasn’t keen on keeping it that way. He recalled the expression on Huang Shaotian’s face when he turned to the door, the emotions he’d hidden so expertly from Ye Xiu.

Huang Shaotian knew exactly what kind of game he was playing, and worse, he knew the painful consequences should he lose. And he played it anyway. That was a man in love.

But if Ye Xiu wasn’t concerned about it, then…Zhou Zekai decided he wasn’t, either. It wasn’t like he was worried someone would steal Ye Xiu away, after all. They hadn’t been officially together for that long, but they had a solid foundation. He knew his feelings for Ye Xiu were returned; he knew Ye Xiu would be loyal.

So Zhou Zekai stopped thinking about it. That ugly sensation that radiated from his chest when he saw Huang Shaotian’s face? He wouldn’t allow himself to feel it again. And if he did, he would just ignore it.

He wouldn’t let anyone get between him and Ye Xiu.

 

* * *

 

Unfortunately, seeing as there was a first time, there was naturally a second.

The apartments the Alliance had rented for them were all in the same building, quite close to the headquarters where the national team’s practices and meetings were held. There were four in total: one for Su Mucheng and Chu Yunxiu and the other three shared among the twelve males. There were four people to an apartment, and three rooms for four people.

From what Zhou Zekai had heard, it was typically the master bedrooms that were split between the two unfortunate souls who had to share; that wasn’t the case with his group’s arrangement. Zhou Zekai shared one of the solitary bedrooms with Wang Jiexi, while Ye Xiu got the master and Li Xuan the other solitary room.

The rest of the team questioned this arrangement, quite unsurprisingly, but the four of them kept quiet as to the particulars. In truth, Wang Jiexi basically had that room to himself, because Zhou Zekai spent every night in Ye Xiu’s bed.

Was it odd that the only two people (besides Su Mucheng) who knew about Zhou Zekai’s relationship with Ye Xiu happened to be Wang Jiexi and Li Xuan? Yes. Yes, it was. But the two of them weren’t interested in outing them before they were ready and much preferred to mind their own business.

Well, maybe Li Xuan wouldn’t have minded his own business, but Wang Jiexi had had a chat with him and the half-joking suggestion of telling the others was dropped for good.

The point was, their apartment was one of the only places where Ye Xiu and Zhou Zekai could just—be. They could cuddle on the couch, sprawl out on their bed with the door open, kiss in the kitchen…come out of the same bathroom hand-in-hand and half-naked. Wang Jiexi and Li Xuan looked the other way or teased them for being gross and in love, respectively, and everything was just fine. Smooth sailing and all that.

The waters only got rough when they had guests. To be specific, drunk guests that banged on their door at 22:16 when they were all in bed.

“Let’s just throw him out,” Li Xuan said, glaring at Zhang Jiale flung across the living room couch. One of his feet was propped up on the coffee table and he was hugging a throw pillow like he wanted to make love to it.

“I tried calling his roommates, but none of them picked up,” Wang Jiexi replied. He crossed his arms. “They’re probably asleep.”

“Which we should be. Actually, if those guys didn’t take him out to drink, then who did?”

“You can drink on your own, you know.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Maybe he didn’t want to have fun.” When Ye Xiu spoke up, all eyes turned to him. He was staring at Zhang Jiale with a blank expression. “Probably wanted to mope or something and took it too far.”

Zhou Zekai was doubtful, but he approached the couch and leaned forward to have a better look at Zhang Jiale. It wasn’t like he looked horrible or anything, and he was surprisingly quiet considering his loud personality, but the way his eyes were screwed tightly shut while he snuggled that throw pillow was…slightly pitiable. He seemed as if he was trying to will himself out of existence—with the power of liquor.

There was silence as the four of them contemplated what to do. Well, Zhou Zekai was silent mostly because that was his default setting, but he was still pondering their little problem. He wanted to go back to bed just as badly as Li Xuan.

“We can still throw him out,” Li Xuan said suddenly.

Ye Xiu gave him a look. “And what, make him sleep in the hallway?”

“He deserves it. Who the hell gets this wasted when tomorrow is a goddamn workday? Jesus.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll have no regrets if we make him sleep in the hallway. At least up until the moment we head out the door in the morning and step in puke,” Wang Jiexi deadpanned.

Li Xuan stared at Wang Jiexi open-mouthed for a couple of seconds, then threw his hands up in defeat.

“There’s no point arguing about this. Not like we’re gonna be using that couch, he can just stay there,” Ye Xiu ultimately decided.

“Blankets?” Zhou Zekai asked, voice little more than a murmur.

“Yeah, blankets,” Ye Xiu replied, understanding. “A pillow too. Maybe the trash can from the kitchen.”

“Why are you so nice?” Li Xuan complained, but he headed back in the direction of his room anyway. “I’ll get the blanket.”

“I’m not nice,” Ye Xiu said.

Zhou Zekai squinted at him. Wang Jiexi snorted softly. “A blatant lie,” he said, “but we’ll let it pass. I’ll get a pillow and we’ll make him comfortable, then go back to sleep. We’ve wasted enough time with this…” His grumbles faded as he also made for his room.

Ye Xiu watched him go with a wry expression on his face. Without looking at Zhou Zekai, he said, “You know he’s probably going to get one of your pillows, right? You okay with the potential puke possibilities?”

Zhou Zekai just shrugged. It wasn’t like he really used his bed; it could hardly even be called his at this point.

“Pfft, okay. Come with me.” Ye Xiu strode lazily toward the kitchen.

Zhou Zekai followed him without comment. Ye Xiu got the trash can from the corner and told Zhou Zekai to grab a glass of water and set it on the coffee table, then fetch some medicine from their bathroom. Again, he silently obeyed, and even got some snacks in case Zhang Jiale woke up hungry at some point.

In a few minutes, the arrangements had been made. Zhang Jiale was cozily tucked into the couch, pillow beneath his head and blanket pulled up to his chin. They’d kindly removed his shoes for him and elevated the pillow by shoving one of the throw pillows underneath it so he hopefully wouldn’t choke on his own bile or something.

“Well, that’s that. Good night,” Li Xuan said, voice wooden in the way it got whenever he was especially tired.

“Good night,” Wang Jiexi said, adjusting the pillows one more time. He shook his head at Zhang Jiale’s prone figure on the couch as he turned away.

When the two of them were gone, Zhou Zekai slunk to Ye Xiu’s side and wrapped his arms around his waist, tipping his head down to breathe in his scent. Sleepily, he said, “Bed?”

But Ye Xiu, rather than return his embrace, patted Zhou Zekai’s arms. “Gimme a sec.”

Confused, Zhou Zekai released him. Ye Xiu knelt down beside Zhang Jiale and quietly said, “Hey, I know you’re not passed out yet.”

Even more confused, Zhou Zekai watched Zhang Jiale’s eyes slit open. Only the light near the entrance was lit, leaving the room dim, so Zhang Jiale should have had no trouble opening his eyes fully in this dimness, but it appeared he did.

“Zhang Jiale, I’m telling you now, you better not do this again,” Ye Xiu continued sternly, obviously having not expected any kind of verbal reply. “Especially not when we have practice tomorrow. I hope you know you’re going to be absolutely miserable in the morning. And probably until noon. It’s not gonna be a good time.”

Zhang Jiale finally opened his mouth. “I know,” he croaked. “Sorry.”

“Are you really?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, burrowing deeper into his borrowed blanket. “M’sorry. Really. Sorry I’m…not good. Good enough.”

“Zhang Jiale.”

“I’ll be better, I promise. We won’t lose b-because of me.”

“Zhang Jiale, stop.”

There was a tear trailing down Zhang Jiale’s cheek. Zhou Zekai stared at it. He wasn’t confused anymore. In fact, this whole ridiculous situation suddenly made a lot more sense.

Practice had been tough on everyone today. Not one of their best days, for sure. Even though it wasn’t the fault of any one person—even though they hadn’t even been looking for anyone to blame—Zhang Jiale had obviously been more affected than the rest of the team.

Because he had failed to provide the cover necessary in order to trump one of their opponents’ strategies.

It had been…disappointing, to say the least, but it wasn’t like Zhang Jiale was the only one who’d fallen short. They just needed to learn to work better together. Their skill was perfectly up to par, virtually unquestionable.

But, when it came to Zhang Jiale, his skill had always been questionable, hadn’t it? Or maybe not his skill in itself, but his ability to see things through to the end. To take that final step to the championship.

Falling short again and again, and right before the finish line. So many doubts must have riddled him, accumulating throughout the years, and even though he’d received the ultimate validation in the form of a spot on China’s national Glory team, those doubts still clung to him. Out of all of them, Zhang Jiale was the slowest to shake off the sting of failure.

Zhou Zekai found himself feeling sympathetic. Not that he’d never had sympathy for Zhang Jiale, but—he hadn’t realized it was this bad. The guy had drunk himself into a stupor. How badly must he want to just numb himself to everything?

Zhou Zekai had his own problems, sure, but he’d never been so miserable, even momentarily.

“Little Zhou,” Ye Xiu said.

“Huh?”

“Go on to bed.” A smile was sent his way, instantly comforting him. “I’ll stay with him until he falls asleep for real. It shouldn’t take long. Don’t wait up for me, okay?”

Zhou Zekai studied Ye Xiu and Zhang Jiale for a moment, then nodded. He wasn’t pleased, but he understood. And really, Wang Jiexi had been right.

“Lie,” Zhou Zekai whispered as he bent to give Ye Xiu a good night kiss.

Ye Xiu blinked up at him, completely mystified. “Huh?”

“What you said.” Zhou Zekai smiled down at him. “You are nice.”

Ye Xiu snorted and pushed at his thigh. “Just go sleep. I’m not nice, I’m just invested in his well-being.”

With a roll of his eyes, Zhou Zekai left. Let Ye Xiu deny it all he wanted; they all knew the truth. At this point, he said stuff like that just to annoy his teammates, not because he really believed it.

Zhou Zekai personally found it endearing. He still had a smile on his face when he lay in bed, stretching his somewhat stiff limbs and trying to get comfortable.

Minutes passed. Zhou Zekai shifted, cycling through all his favorite sleeping positions (of which there were a lot; Zhou Zekai loved to sleep), but none of them managed to relax him. He smacked his pillow a few times, wondering if the problem lay there. It didn’t.

He sighed and scooted over to Ye Xiu’s side of the bed. It smelled like him, though it no longer carried any of his warmth. It had already been a while since they’d gotten up and answered the pounding on the door, believing the world must be ending, only to be greeted with their falling-down-drunk teammate.

Many more minutes passed before Zhou Zekai admitted defeat. Restless, he slipped from beneath the blankets and padded toward the door, opening it near silently.

The living room was as dimly lit as before, but compared to the darkness of the bedroom, it was still rather bright. He blinked to adjust his eyes and then made his way over to the couch. It faced away from the bedroom door, so he couldn’t actually see Zhang Jiale over its back, nor Ye Xiu.

Before he could reveal his presence, however, the murmurs stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Why not?” Zhang Jiale was asking.

“Because I said so.”

“But you used to… We…”

An all too familiar sigh. “Yeah, well, that was then and this is now.”

There was some shuffling. Zhang Zekai was frozen to the spot, somehow sure that he was not supposed to be overhearing this, but unable to force himself to retreat.

“Are you sleeping with someone else, then?”

Zhou Zekai’s eyes widened involuntarily. What the hell kind of conversation was this?

“None of your business.”

“So I guess that’s a yes. You could have just said that, you know.”

“Would it make a difference?”

“Not really. Even if you are sleeping with someone…it’s not exclusive, is it? Why can’t we—”

Ye Xiu quickly cut off Zhang Jiale’s whining. “First of all, it is exclusive, and second, I’d be grateful if you didn’t make assumptions about my sex life like that.”

Zhou Zekai’s breath caught a little at Ye Xiu’s cold tone. He almost sounded…angry. But what he was saying, what he was refusing—Zhang Jiale wanted sex, something that he and Ye Xiu had engaged in before, and Zhang Jiale couldn’t simply accept Ye Xiu turning him down.

A dark feeling blossomed in Zhou Zekai’s chest as his heartbeat accelerated. Anger and indignation were pumped to every other part of his body in the process, and for a moment he was filled to the brim with all this shadowed, negative emotion—something that had never happened before, not even when Huang Shaotian had tried asking Ye Xiu out.

But he stomped on it as soon as it threatened to take over. He trusted Ye Xiu; he would never have dedicated himself so wholeheartedly to their relationship if Ye Xiu was unworthy of that dedication.

He didn’t, however, trust the likes of Zhang Jiale. Or Huang Shaotian, for that matter. Whether it was lust or love didn’t matter to him; Zhou Zekai would rather neither of the two be directed at his boyfriend, not unless he was the one doing the directing.

Eventually, Zhang Jiale whispered, “I’m sorry. I’ll shut up about it.” By his tone, he was genuinely ashamed. Zhou Zekai sure hoped so.

“Good.”

“…But who is it?”

“Zhang Jiale. Go the fuck to sleep.”

Zhou Zekai’s lips twitched. He finally forced his body to turn, his legs to carry him back to the bedroom. There surely wasn’t anything more to see—well, eavesdrop on—here, and frankly he wished he hadn’t ever listened to their conversation in the first place. Zhang Jiale’s desire to bone his boyfriend (as well as their history comprised of exactly that) was knowledge he wasn’t at all sure what to do with, just like the depth of Huang Shaotian’s feelings. What was he going to do, berate them for wanting Ye Xiu? Who the hell wouldn’t want Ye Xiu?

Truth be told, Zhou Zekai had never wanted to speak up and be heard more than he did in that moment, but he settled back into bed without ever making his presence known. When Ye Xiu finally joined him about fifteen minutes later, he made no indication that he’d been aware of Zhou Zekai’s presence in the living room.

“You asleep?” Ye Xiu asked almost inaudibly as he tucked himself beneath the covers.

“Mmm.”

A chuckle from Ye Xiu, and Zhou Zekai scooted closer on some unnamed instinct to wrap his arm around Ye Xiu’s waist. Ye Xiu returned the embrace this time, his touch as warm as ever, and breathed softly against his neck as they pressed close.

“Good night,” Ye Xiu whispered in his ear.

“Love you,” Zhou Zekai whispered back.

The sensation of a smile against Zhou Zekai’s skin lingered well into the next morning.

 

* * *

 

Without truly realizing it, Zhou Zekai had asked a very astute question during the Zhang Jiale Incident: Who wouldn’t want Ye Xiu? Well, it looked like the universe was hell-bent on providing him with an answer. The third incident proved this all too readily.

Indeed, the third time Zhou Zekai was made to feel like that was Sun Xiang’s doing.

If anyone had asked him his opinion on the relationship between Ye Xiu and Sun Xiang, Zhou Zekai would have thought about it for a good long time before responding with a very uncertain, very hesitant “okay.” And it would be an accurate response—their relationship was okay, at least on the surface. Whether or not their own feelings toward each other could be considered okay was up for debate.

The worst part of it all was that Zhou Zekai was actually close to Sun Xiang. They were on the same team, they were the newly-crowned Best Partners of the Alliance, and they knew a lot about each other. Or, rather, Zhou Zekai knew a lot about Sun Xiang, because Sun Xiang was an over-sharer of the most irritating sort. He thought everything about himself was interesting and that everyone would want to know, so he had virtually no filter.

It took a little while to get used to, honestly. But eventually the members of Samsara had learned that Sun Xiang just…needed validation. He over-shared because he was overly invested in other people’s opinions. He wanted so badly to prove himself worthy of approval that he offered them all his qualities and accomplishments, from all stages of his life, so they could judge and be amazed.

Once they’d had that realization, they started to build up Sun Xiang’s confidence—which sounded like a horrible idea, considering how arrogantly the guy behaved on a daily basis, but that arrogance was just a facade. Its foundations were shaky and incomplete; he needed other things besides his monstrous skill to base his self-worth on, and Samsara did their best to provide.

Within a month, they’d seen a significant transformation in Sun Xiang. It wasn’t just the way he presented himself that changed, but the way he interacted with them. He did still want to prove his worth, sure, but he wasn’t so desperate as to seize any opportunity to do so. Sun Xiang’s patience grew, his trust in them grew, and his understanding of teamwork grew. Eventually he had no choice but to acknowledge that Samsara didn’t expect or need him to be the best. They needed him to do his best. And doing his best meant boosting the team’s performance as a whole.

And then Sun Xiang started working closely with Zhou Zekai. That had been the plan from the beginning, to have them partner up and topple their opponents like a wrecking ball. Previously, Zhou Zekai and Sun Xiang’s interactions were somewhat limited in both scope and depth, what with Sun Xiang being himself and Zhou Zekai also being himself. But then they just clicked and—it was history.

Sun Xiang talked, Zhou Zekai listened. Zhou Zekai talked, Sun Xiang listened. It was as simple as that. And eventually, they stopped having to talk so much and just acted. Because at the end of the day, they were both rather predictable and straightforward and just wanted to win.

But their personal relationship was a pretty straightforward one as well; accepting and underscored by trust. Sun Xiang’s new and improved attitude, plus his more stable performance, raised eyebrows everywhere, and the way he got along with the mild-mannered Zhou Zekai raised them further.

Ye Xiu had always had a certain amount of respect for Sun Xiang, inept as he was at displaying it. At the very least, he’d acknowledged his skill, potential, and accomplishments since debuting as such an outstanding rookie. His opinion of the kid had only gotten better when Sun Xiang demonstrated said potential. And Zhou Zekai’s regard in addition to that made it so Ye Xiu actually put some effort into getting to know Sun Xiang once his position in the Chinese national team was confirmed.

Sun Xiang…had not always had much respect for Ye Xiu. But that wasn’t because he thought Ye Xiu was incapable, only that he didn’t compare to Sun Xiang, young and visible and attention-grabbing in a way Ye Xiu had never been. He believed he could do a better job of playing Ye Xiu’s role than Ye Xiu himself could, but he was soon proved wrong.

Sun Xiang wasn’t aware of Zhou Zekai’s relationship with Ye Xiu, but his newfound self-esteem made it easier for him to be himself around Ye Xiu. He no longer needed to convince himself or others that Ye Xiu was useless and outdated in order to make his own talent and worthiness shine all the brighter.

As a result, the two of them had been getting along decently—which sounded a bit underwhelming, but since general opinion was that they wouldn’t get along at all, it came as quite the surprise. There was stiffness here and there, especially on the part of Sun Xiang, who was more aware of his mistakes than others gave him credit for. But they worked through it and did their jobs. It helped that Ye Xiu was both easygoing and forgiving enough to let their somewhat bumpy history fade into the background.

But it wasn’t like everything was unicorns and rainbows. Ye Xiu still pointed out Sun Xiang’s shortcomings during practice, the places he could improve, and the effect that could have on Sun Xiang was…unpredictable at best. There was still a hint of insecurity coloring Sun Xiang’s behavior toward Ye Xiu. Zhou Zekai wondered if he would ever shake that off, and had to admit he doubted it.

It was lunchtime when Sun Xiang took a leap of faith and let himself be vulnerable before this person who had, more than probably anyone else, the power to tear him down.

“Do you think I can learn to think ahead the way you do?”

Ye Xiu, who’d been about to take a bite of his noodles, paused. He looked at Sun Xiang, sitting next to Zhou Zekai on the other side of the table, with no small amount of confusion. “I’ve seen you think ahead plenty of times. What is there to learn?”

Sun Xiang shook his head. “That’s just good playing. You take literally everything into account. It’s like you can predict what people are going to do.” He glanced down at his tray and clenched his jaw. “I look reckless in comparison.”

Zhou Zekai held his breath. Wang Jiexi, Xiao Shiqin, Fang Rui, Su Mucheng, and Chu Yunxiu, who were also occupying the table, suddenly seemed to be paying undue attention to this exchange.

“Well, comparing yourself to me in the first place isn’t the wisest thing to do,” Ye Xiu replied cautiously, peering at Sun Xiang from underneath his eyelashes as he finally bit down on his noodles. After chewing and swallowing, he continued, “It’s just a habit, to think ahead. And as for me predicting what people are going to do—that’s experience, buddy. You’ll get there in time.”

The set of Zhou Zekai’s shoulders relaxed unconsciously. He met Ye Xiu’s eyes across the table for a brief moment and glimpsed something almost…soft in their depths, if only for a nanosecond. Then Ye Xiu returned to his usual unreadable self as he ate another mouthful of noodles.

Sun Xiang had more or less forgotten about his food and stared openly at Ye Xiu. He was even leaning forward in his seat. “What should I do to, you know, improve? Like special training?”

“Uh, just keep doing what you’re doing.” Ye Xiu smiled crookedly. “You don’t have to think of everything on your own when you have a whole team behind you. Besides, you and Little Zhou have a good strategy already, it doesn’t really need improvement. Your execution can get better with practice but the strategy itself is sound.”

Sun Xiang frowned. “But, for individual rounds—”

“We can discuss that in depth later, but for now, can I please just have my lunch?” Ye Xiu whined. As if to underline his point, he gathered a truly monstrous amount of noodles with his chopsticks and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth.

“Gross,” Chu Yunxiu said. “The rest of us are trying to eat too, do you have to be like that?”

Ye Xiu just chewed shamelessly on his noodles, making it as much of a spectacle as possible. He winced not a second later—Su Mucheng had undoubtedly kicked him under the table.

Zhou Zekai let out a tiny sigh at Ye Xiu’s antics, then sneaked a look at Sun Xiang out of the corner of his eye. The kid had resumed eating, though he still appeared distant. His mind was clearly elsewhere.

Lunch finished soon, the conversation not particularly stimulating since they were slightly behind schedule today and too focused on eating as much food in as little time as possible. They climbed the stairs back to the practice room with due haste and got back to business like the professionals they were.

“Wow, Zhang Jiale, did you really just miss that rock?” Fang Rui said laughingly.

“Hey, fuck off, it was tiny.”

“It’s bigger than our characters.”

“It’s hidden in the underbrush.”

“Huang Shaotian literally crashed into the same rock earlier today,” Li Xuan pointed out.

Hey,” said Huang Shaotian, clearly preparing to start a brand new tirade about that specific rock.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Zhang Jiale whined.

On the other side of the room, someone failed to repress their snickering.

“Whoa, who just laughed?” Fang Rui asked.

“Tang Hao,” Chu Yunxiu instantly replied. She sat right next to him.

“Tang Hao laughs?” Huang Shaotian said.

Zhang Xinjie would never do something so crass as sigh loudly enough for the whole room to hear, but the sigh was still implied in his tone. “Don’t lose focus, we have a task at hand.”

“Why do you have to be so serious all the time?” Li Xuan said. “Is it your job or something?”

“Yes.”

“Can we fire you?”

“No.”

Professionals. Business. Precisely as the Alliance intended.

Once practice ended, Ye Xiu, Zhou Zekai, and Sun Xiang chose not to walk back to their apartment building and piled into a taxi instead. Ye Xiu sat in the middle, thus prompting Sun Xiang to resume the topic from lunch. Zhou Zekai, who was inexplicably sleepy, dozed off against the window and didn’t pay their conversation too much mind.

“What would you do in that situation?” Sun Xiang was asking.

Ye Xiu hummed. “First, I’d circle around them to look for vantage points. After some observation, I’d guess the routes they might be planning to take and camp somewhere along the likeliest one to stage an ambush.”

“And if they didn’t end up going down the route?”

“I’d investigate the next likeliest and do the same thing. Maybe observe their movements some more before that, actually. When people don’t do what I expect, I just assume they’re taking the next most logical approach, so I re-evaluate. What do they see as the smartest move here?”

“It’s kind of a passive way to play, don’t you think?”

Ye Xiu chuckled. “Not really. But if you want to be more active, you have to take control of the situation and force your opponent to react. However, you still have to consider all the turns their reaction could take, and what the reaction itself might be. The challenge in this is that people get more desperate when they’re forced to act before they’re ready. When thrusting your opponents into unexpected situations, trust them to behave in unexpected ways. You also have to be prepared for the possibility of them turning things around on you and predicting your strategies.”

Sun Xiang was silent as he apparently mulled that over.

“I know it seems really daunting, but it’s not as complicated as you think. A lot of the time we strategize and plan and predict without even realizing it. The key is to understand your opponent and, if you can, force them into a corner—make them behave the way you want them to behave, and catch them in your trap.”

“You know a lot about strategizing, don’t you?”

“Obviously. You do know they call me a Master Tactician, right?”

“Of course I know.” Sun Xiang sounded obviously flustered. “It’s just—you’re really smart. Smarter than I thought.”

“Thank you? Don’t know whether to be flattered for surpassing your expectations, or insulted that your expectations were low in the first place.”

“They weren’t low.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m just surprised that—I can actually kind of get you? And what you say. And that you’re willing to say it to me at all. I didn’t think you really liked me.”

“Eh, I didn’t. But I didn’t dislike you either.”

“And…now?”

Something about Sun Xiang’s shy tone brought Zhou Zekai back from the edge of sleep. He didn’t move from his comfortable position, head against the window and right thigh pressed along Ye Xiu’s left, but his eyes subtly cracked open.

“Ha. I like you fine. What about you? Still hate my guts?”

“No—no way. I like you a lot, to be honest. Even if you still piss me off sometimes,” Sun Xiang admitted.

Ye Xiu laughed. “Aw, I piss you off? Well, you’re not special, I piss a lot of people off.”

“How do you ever date?”

“Quite easily.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why should that matter?”

Zhou Zekai swore he actually heard Sun Xiang’s sharp inhale. “Well, prove it and I won’t question you again.”

“Again, why should I prove it to you?” Ye Xiu seemed to be finding all this immensely amusing, judging by the barely contained laughter bleeding through his voice.

“I’ll pay.”

Oh, this must be a joke. Sun Xiang was hitting on Ye Xiu as well? They weren’t even that close! Nowhere near as close as Ye Xiu and Huang Shaotian, or even Ye Xiu and Zhang Jiale. When they first started working together, Zhou Zekai could have sworn Sun Xiang barely tolerated Ye Xiu. It hadn’t even been two months!

Or maybe…Sun Xiang was only after casual sex? A fling? Zhou Zekai didn’t know which pissed him off more, Sun Xiang developing a strong enough crush on Ye Xiu to ask him out after six weeks or Sun Xiang just wanting to fuck Ye Xiu. Ye Xiu, who was perfectly deserving of a good fuck, but even more deserving of a dedicated and loving relationship.

Wait, why did he even think Sun Xiang would be a good fuck? Zhou Zekai barely stopped himself from twitching. He did not want to have thoughts like those in his head. Sun Xiang was…well, not like that, not in Zhou Zekai’s mind.

He must finally be going crazy from the frustration of watching other men hit on his man and being unable to say anything about it. Because their relationship was a secret. And because Zhou Zekai hadn’t the faintest idea of what to say.

This was honestly ridiculous.

Thankfully, salvation came in the form of their timely arrival at the apartment building. Ye Xiu didn’t even answer Sun Xiang, just paid the driver and urged Sun Xiang to hurry up and get out. Zhou Zekai exited out the same door to avoid traffic, not an ounce of drowsiness left in him, and stared woodenly at Sun Xiang once he stepped onto the sidewalk.

Ye Xiu waved a hand in front of his face. “Little Zhou, you’re not sleepwalking, are you?”

Zhou Zekai blinked and shook his head. He studied Ye Xiu’s expression intently and couldn’t find a hint of awkwardness or anger or disbelief anywhere in it. Was he just…completely unaffected by Sun Xiang’s not-so-subtle advances? Or was he unaware?

No way, right? Ye Xiu, of all people, couldn’t be so oblivious. Right?

His stare turned to Sun Xiang next. The kid, on the other hand, was awkward. He was clearly trying to sneak as many glances at Ye Xiu as possible while feigning complete disinterest. His arms were crossed defensively over his chest like he could protect himself from the impending rejection.

And rejection was impending, Zhou Zekai knew. He narrowed his eyes.

Right on cue, Ye Xiu said, “Well, if you’re willing to pay, let’s invite Little Zhou and Mucheng along. Then we can take complete advantage of you.”

Sun Xiang’s lips parted in visible surprise. He didn’t seem to know how to reply.

Ye Xiu patted his shoulder as he passed alongside him and headed for the entrance to their apartment building. “You just let me know the day and time and we’ll all go together. Be prepared for Mucheng to drag you.”

“Uh—”

Zhou Zekai also strode past Sun Xiang, not saying a word, not even looking at him. He was honestly so tired of this happening and, for the sake of his sanity, emotional stability, and his friendship with Sun Xiang, resolved to forget all about it.

He didn’t, of course, but an attempt was made.

 

* * *

 

“Third time’s the charm” is a saying many are familiar with, and Zhou Zekai was no different. He dared to hope that, after Sun Xiang, the universe would take pity on him and just give it up. He got the point: a lot of people would want Ye Xiu, which was perfectly understandable. He admitted it, so ideally he could finally live in peace knowing his colleagues and friends would absolutely not, under any circumstances, hit on his boyfriend or ask him out or otherwise try to entice him into their beds.

But the universe didn’t harbor any sentiment for him at all, unless it was spite. Because Zhou Zekai got to experience that poisonous jealousy all over again, for a fourth time. And who was to blame?

Fang Rui.

Out of everyone on the national team, maybe he should have been the least surprising of the culprits so far. After all, he and Ye Xiu got along famously, they’d won a championship together, and Fang Rui was one of Happy’s strongest. Maybe they’d only had one year to truly get to know each other as teammates, but because of their statuses, they naturally had to be close.

And they were, at least from Zhou Zekai’s perspective. Fang Rui was often over at their apartment, sometimes in the company of Su Mucheng and sometimes not. He and Ye Xiu joked around and behaved shamelessly and generally made nuisances of themselves when the mood struck them. It was all very predictable.

That particular day, Ye Xiu and Zhou Zekai found themselves alone in one of the lounges at the Alliance’s headquarters. Something had happened, and Yu Wenzhou and Huang Shaotian had been called from practice to go answer some really urgent phone calls, instantly derailing the team’s joint practice session. Since everyone was too distracted and lunchtime was approaching anyway, Ye Xiu had helplessly opted for an early and extended break.

But rather than go down to the cafeteria with the others, Zhou Zekai had tugged Ye Xiu to an isolated room and sat him down on the couch for a cuddling session. All the recent emotional turmoil and irritation had gotten to Zhou Zekai, and for some reason, this mysterious emergency involving Huang Shaotian of all people had just pushed the nail in deeper. He was in desperate need of reassurance and comfort, and he most definitely did not want to be in the company of anybody else who could tear Ye Xiu’s attention away from him.

The two of them embraced on a firm leather loveseat. Ye Xiu’s arm was wrapped about Zhou Zekai’s upper body, the other hooked around his neck. Slender fingers stroked up and down his clothed shoulder, a gentle and somewhat teasing caress.

“You wanna tell me why we’re in here?” Ye Xiu asked, sounding vaguely amused, but mostly just droll.

Zhou Zekai hummed and fit his mouth against the side of Ye Xiu’s neck, laying a gentle kiss on the skin. Then he rested his head on Ye Xiu’s shoulder and snuggled right in.

Ye Xiu laughed softly and moved his arm to run a hand through Zhou Zekai’s hair.

“Your hair is getting long,” he commented.

Zhou Zekai hummed again.

“Not gonna cut it?”

“Mm…you?”

“What do I think? Go ahead if you want, but…” Ye Xiu played with the lengthy strands for a few moments, his touch careful like he was handling something fragile. “I like it like this, too. Fun to play with.” A chuckle. “Fun to pull.”

Zhou Zekai couldn’t help a shiver. Yes…Ye Xiu sure did like to tug on his hair when they made love.

Smiling, Zhou Zekai pulled away from Ye Xiu’s shoulder and leaned forward to kiss him. Just a tender meeting of the lips, soft and a bit moist. Then Zhou Zekai flicked his tongue and tasted.

Ye Xiu made a small sound and tightened his fingers in Zhou Zekai’s hair. Almost forcefully, he pulled him closer, opening his mouth against Zhou Zekai’s. He tasted like mint and a hint of nicotine—an all too familiar combination.

But it was Zhou Zekai’s faint, breathy moan that finally slapped some sense into them.

They parted quickly but not awkwardly and stared at each other. A hint of red colored Ye Xiu’s pale cheeks, his normally distant eyes shining and bright.

“…Sorry,” Zhou Zekai said. He knew it wasn’t wise for two people with a secret to flaunt it in public like this. It wasn’t as if they’d locked the door; anyone could come in at any moment, and exhibitionism was not their kink.

Ye Xiu smiled at him. “It’s okay. Let’s just…not get carried away again.”

Dutifully, but definitely not happily, Zhou Zekai untangled himself from Ye Xiu. They put some distance between them, leaning on opposite armrests, still staring at each other.

Ye Xiu licked his lips. “We’ll finish this later, don’t worry.”

Zhou Zekai finally smiled back.

“Now, let’s have our lunch, shall we? Before we miss our chance and go hungry.”

“But…they…”

Ye Xiu waited patiently.

“Blue Rain,” Zhou Zekai said, deciding to keep it simple.

“Oh, well.” Ye Xiu appeared somewhat rueful. “I don’t know, we’ll just have to resume practice without them.”

“Do you…know?”

“Nah, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ll ask them later. Or whoever. Someone around here has to know.”

“Worried?”

Ye Xiu raised his eyebrows. “Maybe a bit. How can you tell?”

“I know you.”

Ye Xiu only hummed, his expression turning fond. “Well, Shaotian looked kinda shaken, so…yeah, I guess I am worried.”

Zhou Zekai instantly became uncomfortable at the mention of Huang Shaotian. He supposed he should blame himself for bringing him and Yu Wenzhou up in the first place, but that was neither here nor there. The whole reason he’d craved this alone time with Ye Xiu was because he wanted to take his mind away from whatever was going on—and away from Huang Shaotian, the hopeless romantic.

Huang Shaotian, hopeless romantic. What a description.

“It’ll be okay,” Zhou Zekai reassured him. Or tried to.

“I’m sure it will. Anyway, lunch?”

They stood up, brushing hands down their clothes to make sure everything was as it should be, and turned toward the door. Like magnets, they gravitated toward each other, shoulders brushing even before they walked over.

But before they could take more than a few steps, the door suddenly slammed open.

“Old Ye!”

Zhou Zekai winced a little at the loud yell and instinctively stepped back toward Ye Xiu. Ye Xiu, on the other hand, didn’t so much as twitch and just calmly let Zhou Zekai take shelter behind him.

Fang Rui wasn’t intimidating, per se, but he could be overbearing and overenthusiastic when he wanted to. Zhou Zekai would rather avoid people who were over-anything. (Except overly shameless, in Ye Xiu’s case, of course.)

“What is it,” Ye Xiu said, unruffled as ever.

Fang Rui grinned and all but leaped over to them, eyes curious. “What are you still doing up here? You’re not gonna eat? Mucheng will be very disappointed in you.”

Ye Xiu now looked like he was in desperate need of a cigarette. “I was just chatting with Little Zhou. We were about to head down when you decided to attack us with your voice.”

“Oh, excuse me, your voice is so angelic.”

“The problem isn’t the voice itself, it’s the yelling.” Ye Xiu pointed at Zhou Zekai. “You even scared Little Zhou.”

Zhou Zekai’s brow furrowed. “Not scared. Startled.”

Fang Rui stared at him for a moment. Then, for no apparent reason, burst into laughter. Like, bend-over-and-sob laughter. Painful laughter. Excessive and strange laughter.

Ye Xiu watched him the way a biologist might study an especially odd specimen as it wriggled around under the lens of a microscope. “You okay there?”

“Sorry, it’s just—the way he said that—oh my god.”

Zhou Zekai was completely and undeniably befuddled. What about the way he said that had been so hilarious? He wasn’t really an intentionally funny person, he knew, more accidentally funny, but this was too strange even by his standards.

“Ignore him,” Ye Xiu said decisively. “He smoked something this morning.”

“Did not! Anyway, what were you talking about?” Fang Rui demanded, straightening up at last and wiping some moisture from around his eyes.

“How is that your business?” Ye Xiu squinted at him. “What are you still doing up here?”

Fang Rui blinked. “Oh, well. I was just going to go try and eavesdrop on Yu Wenzhou and Huang Shao, but I couldn’t find the room they took them to, so…”

“God, how shameless can you be?”

“Let’s not be hypocritical now, Old Ye.”

After taking a glance at Zhou Zekai, Ye Xiu said, “Whatever, let’s just go eat. My stomach is feeling distinctly empty right now and I don’t like it.”

“Please, you barely eat,” Fang Rui sniped as they headed toward the door.

“And you eat too much, but you don’t see me criticizing your eating habits.”

The two of them were walking side-by-side in front of him, so Zhou Zekai had a perfectly fine view of Fang Rui turning his head to give Ye Xiu the smoothest wink he had ever witnessed. “How about I eat you?”

Zhou Zekai almost tripped over air, which in a perfectly level hallway would be well and truly embarrassing.

To Ye Xiu’s credit, his reply was instantaneous. “Gross. I’m not edible.”

“I bet I could change your mind about that.”

“Pass.”

“Oh, now I know for sure there’s something wrong with you today. Turning down an ass-eating from a guy like me? You sure about that?”

Zhou Zekai’s face was red. Actually red. His face felt like it was burning. He couldn’t tell if it was due to the sheer embarrassment of overhearing such vulgarities or pure, unadulterated fury.

Who the hell just offered someone an ass-eating in a public place and out in the echoing hallway of all places—

“Can you not say shit like that where people can hear you? Zhou Zekai is right here, too. Don’t subject him to your depravity.”

Fang Rui tossed a careless glance at the silent, fuming, panicking Zhou Zekai (interesting combination, he knew) and snorted. “We have to expose him to the real world eventually. Anyway, I’d probably eat his ass out, too, but I’ve had my eyes on yours for longer.”

“I find that hard to believe, first of all, and second, shut the hell up, you lunatic.”

Please do, Zhou Zekai thought. He was actually beginning to feel light-headed.

Fang Rui slung an arm around Ye Xiu. Seriously, he did that right before Zhou Zekai’s eyes, in front of his face, in his presence. He’d never wanted to kill a man more. Or at all, to be honest.

“Aw, don’t doubt yourself, hot stuff. You’re sexy as hell. We love a confident man.”

Ye Xiu did something with his hand, shoving it against Fang Rui’s side, and instantly Fang Rui leaped away with a screech, nearly slamming into the wall on the opposite side of the hallway from Ye Xiu.

“You bastard! I’m so nice, flirting with you and all,” Fang Rui whined, clutching at himself, “and this is what you do. Don’t you appreciate me?”

“I’d appreciate it more if you didn’t throw yourself all over me,” Ye Xiu said in a monotone, appearing quite unaffected by the whole situation. But Zhou Zekai had seen the flash of genuine irritation in his eyes when he fended Fang Rui off.

They had paused to watch Fang Rui’s flailing lamentations, but before he could drop the drama queen act and return to normal, Ye Xiu grabbed Zhou Zekai’s wrist and pulled him farther down the hallway in the direction of the stairs. It was oddly reminiscent of the way Zhou Zekai had led Ye Xiu away not even twenty minutes ago.

“Come on, let him rot,” Ye Xiu muttered under his breath, not looking back despite Fang Rui’s distant cursing.

“He…touched you,” Zhou Zekai said, more than a bit numbly. He bet he sounded like a malfunctioning robot or something, but he was in shock. He couldn’t believe that any of that had really happened. The sheer audacity.

“Eh, he would tease and flirt with me all the time in Happy, I don’t think he really means it.”

Zhou Zekai knew he meant it.

“Besides, he gets laid on the regular, and I don’t like to sleep with people who sleep around. Not that I’m judging or anything, but I’m not gonna be anyone’s conquest. Fang Rui probably doesn’t think of me like that, but I’d rather not test my luck.”

Zhou Zekai stared at the side of Ye Xiu’s head. He understood exactly what he meant, and one of the reasons he’d been so willing to give Ye Xiu a chance was because Ye Xiu would be the last person to care about sexual conquests. Before they’d starting making out and having sex, Zhou Zekai had honestly thought Ye Xiu’s sexuality was Glory, so damn aloof was the guy. It was like sexual desire barely touched him.

It had been unsettling at first, but soon enough, Zhou Zekai learned that Ye Xiu’s subtle seduction and understated lust were precisely his style. Furthermore, this style was definitely a tier above Fang Rui’s behavior, serious or not.

He just hoped Ye Xiu wouldn’t let others treat him like that. It would be grounds for a sexual harassment charge.

“God, I am so hungry,” Ye Xiu moaned as they descended the stairs, and Zhou Zekai finally managed to squeeze out a chuckle. All this and yet the man was only thinking of his stomach.

Never change, Ye Xiu.

 

* * *

 

Zhou Zekai had always thought of himself as a fortunate person in many regards. Growing up, he lacked for nothing, even though his parents weren’t rich. His risky career choice proved fruitful and he became a millionaire, a legendary player who’d go down in the history books. He had a wonderful boyfriend he could tell anything to, share anything with—even his whole life—even his body, which so many coveted. He had no complaints.

Except for one: People just kept hitting on Ye Xiu, the mentioned wonderful boyfriend.

He was practically used to it by now. It was just that it was always people they couldn’t avoid: people they worked with. People they knew, and who Zhou Zekai thought he was on good terms with. People he could even call friends.

That made it especially difficult to endure, and even worse to swallow. Five times now, and he was on the verge of breaking character and doing something drastic.

He couldn’t withstand any more jealousy. He just couldn’t. Zhou Zekai wasn’t built for it; he was a good person who felt good emotions. Jealousy was not a good emotion and it was wrecking him. Worse, it was followed by things like guilt and anger and irritation, which were also not good emotions.

And he couldn’t tell Ye Xiu anything about it because what would he do? It wasn’t his fault he was so…desirable. So wanted. Because, again, who wouldn’t want Ye Xiu?

WWWYX? He should just make that his life motto. It would explain everything, especially given he was one of those people who wanted Ye Xiu. “Those people” being anyone with a pulse and, presumably, a dick.

More than Sun Xiang, though, this one surprised him. It wasn’t as if Xiao Shiqin hated Ye Xiu or something, even if he certainly had reason to, but the guy was so level-headed and methodical that Zhou Zekai never thought he would fall for someone like Ye Xiu, who was level-headed and…unmethodical. Ye Xiu was chaos personified.

It was strange, really. Ye Xiu himself didn’t behave erratically or nonsensically. There was a method to his madness, if one cared to look for it. Yet everywhere he went, he left destruction in his wake. He was some kind of harbinger of doom. As soon as he showed up, reasonable people started panicking.

And Xiao Shiqin, well, he could easily be described as reasonable. And he had firsthand experience of what it was like to be the target of Ye Xiu’s doomsday powers; he had suffered from them more than once. Wouldn’t it be very reasonable if he just set his sights (and his dick) elsewhere?

But no. Ye Xiu apparently had a way of turning even someone like Xiao Shiqin completely illogical.

Xiao Shiqin was a little drunk, so that might explain part of it. About half the team had gathered up to spend some time and money at a bar, celebrating the upcoming Worlds. They purposely chose one that was far away from their usual haunts in order to decrease the chances of them being bothered. Still, Zhou Zekai noticed the phones snapping pictures, the intent stares and excited whispers.

Nobody bothered them, though. At least this place had some class.

Drinking wasn’t professional gamers’ preferred pastime, and rightfully so. Zhou Zekai had had very little alcohol throughout the course of his life. Hell, he was pretty sure this was the first time he’d even been to a bar. He’d been to restaurants with bars, of course, but why would he ever go someplace that only served for drinking?

He muttered something along those lines to Chu Yunxiu, sitting next to him. Instantly she guffawed, patting herself on the chest when she wheezed a bit, as if from lack of air.

“What’s so funny?” Su Mucheng sat on her other side. She gave Chu Yunxiu a pound on the back to help her out.

“Little Zhou thinks they just serve drinks here,” Chu Yunxiu managed.

Su Mucheng giggled. Leaning around Chu Yunxiu, she looked at Zhou Zekai with raised eyebrows. “Little Zhou, they’ll have at least a few snacks. Do you want me to go get you a menu or something?”

Zhou Zekai thought it over for a moment, then hesitantly nodded.

Su Mucheng took a sip of her drink and grinned. “Well, get it yourself. Ask the fellow working the bar.”

Zhou Zekai deflated, but he did as she said. He was sitting on the outside of their booth, so getting up was most convenient for him.

“Little Zhou, where are you going?” Ye Xiu sat across from him, on the outside of the opposite booth. He was sipping juice from a straw and appeared quite bored with the proceedings. His company, Li Xuan and Xiao Shiqin, were apparently too caught up in their own conversation, and likewise with the ladies.

“Menu,” Zhou Zekai replied. The bar was a little cramped, so before he could get in anybody’s way, he darted between the tables separating him from the bar, and thus Ye Xiu’s response was lost, if he had one.

At the bar, he learned that there was indeed a menu, but it was so small it wasn’t even worth looking at, claimed the bartender. So the guy just recited the available food items like he did it every other day.

“Chips,” Zhou Zekai decided eventually. It was a Western-style bar; their options weren’t very grand, but they’d do.

He got a bag of potato chips and the bartender said he’d add it onto their tab. Zhou Zekai once again made his way through the crowd and back to the table, a little sullen at how he’d made such a daunting expedition just for a bag of chips.

But potato chips were his favorite kind, so he supposed he could be forgiving.

Ye Xiu smiled at him when he sat back down, but that was all. Because at that moment he was being hit on by a very tipsy Xiao Shiqin.

“I really never told you before?” he said, enunciating the words with more care than usual.

Ye Xiu kept the smile on his face. To all appearances, he was completely fine with what was clearly an awkward situation. “Never.”

Xiao Shiqin sighed gustily. “I’m so stupid. I thought you knew.”

“How would I know?”

“I thought I told you!”

“You didn’t.”

Xiao Shiqin pouted. Pouted. Zhou Zekai resisted the urge to look away, but keeping his expression under control was harder than expected. “I realize that now.”

“You should also realize that shutting up would be great right about now. You’re embarrassing yourself,” Li Xuan told him bluntly.

Xiao Shiqin turned the pout on Li Xuan. “But this is important.”

“We get it, buddy,” Chu Yunxiu said. “You really wanna bone the old man. Say no more.”

Zhou Zekai nearly inhaled a chip.

“Oh man, Little Zhou wasn’t even here to witness the confession.” Chu Yunxiu cursed under her breath and pounded him on the back. There was a lot of choking and wheezing going on tonight. “Quite the shock, I know.”

Li Xuan and Su Mucheng were both looking at him worriedly, but their expressions said they were less concerned about his coughing episode and more concerned with the reason behind it. After all, they were the only ones present who knew Zhou Zekai and Ye Xiu were an item.

“A shock, yes,” Su Mucheng said. She tried to catch Zhou Zekai’s eye, but he couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze right then.

He felt so bad. All those bad feelings were rearing their ugly heads, like they’d never left in the first place, and it was horrible to learn he’d just been carrying them around with him all this time.

Would he always feel this way? It was like poison in his veins. How long before it would poison his relationship?

“I always thought Senior Ye was so cool,” Xiao Shiqin was saying. “Always, always. I mean, everyone kinda looks up to him, right? Because he won three championships in a row, and he’s so smart, and so strong. I wanted to be just like him…but I was never suited to that kind of thing. Main attacker thing.”

“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Ye Xiu said.

Zhou Zekai dared a glance up and saw Xiao Shiqin give Ye Xiu an absolutely besotted look before he glanced away again. “Yeah, if you say so, I guess. I just wanted to call the shots, because I was kinda good at that, I guess. I thought if I couldn’t be an attacker like you I could at least be a tactician. So I studied…I did my homework on you. Even more thoroughly than before. God, I learned so much from you. You’re so cool.”

“Think you already said that,” Li Xuan muttered.

“It bears repeating,” Xiao Shiqin said primly. Primness and drunkenness made for a rather hysterical combination. “Now we’re, like, friends. I think it’s even cooler being your friend. You’re even cooler.”

“Thanks…”

Chu Yunxiu was visibly amused. Zhou Zekai wanted to be mad at her for enjoying this situation, but he supposed that for someone who didn’t know the truth, it would be pretty entertaining. He thought he would be just plain embarrassed; alas, Chu Yunxiu was cut from a different cloth.

“Sounds like it’d be even cooler to be more than friends,” Chu Yunxiu drawled. She even dared to wink.

Xiao Shiqin’s eyes widened. He looked so innocent in that moment. “Oh, of course, I’d love that…so cool…”

“Uh,” Ye Xiu said.

“Could you not encourage him,” Li Xuan snapped at Chu Yunxiu, since Ye Xiu apparently wouldn’t.

“Come on, I’m just teasing the guy.”

“Maybe Ye Xiu isn’t comfortable with it,” Su Mucheng said. But Zhou Zekai felt her eyes on him as she spoke.

Chu Yunxiu sighed loudly and leaned against the back of the booth with her arms crossed over her chest. Her tone was rather petulant when she said, “Fine, fine. I’ll shut up. Sorry, Old Ye.”

“It’s cool.”

She snickered. “Cool.”

“Oh my god, shut up,” Li Xuan groaned, hitting his forehead against the table.

“Ye Xiu, you don’t think…it’d be cool?” Xiao Shiqin asked. His eyes were still ridiculously wide, even behind his glasses. “I just realized—you didn’t answer me… Do you wanna date me? Or, uh—anything like that?”

Ye Xiu studied him, expression blank. Since they were sitting next to each other, their faces were much too close together. But Ye Xiu didn’t shy away from the proximity. In Zhou Zekai’s experience, Ye Xiu didn’t often shy away from anything.

He wished he would in this moment, though. He wished he would tell Xiao Shiqin off, push him away. Reject him as thoroughly as possible so all hope of ever being with Ye Xiu would be destroyed.

What kind of person was he becoming…?

“No, I don’t want to do anything like that with you, Xiao Shiqin. I’m not available,” Ye Xiu said at last.

Chu Yunxiu straightened so suddenly she jostled the table. “You’re not? Who the hell are you with?”

Ye Xiu turned away from Xiao Shiqin and sipped from his straw. “Who said I was with anyone? I just said I’m not available, is all.”

“If you’re not available it’s because you’re with someone!”

Su Mucheng cleared her throat. “Maybe he’s just not available for dating. I mean, he’s been like that for just about all his life…and no one has to date if they don’t want to.”

Chu Yunxiu seemed to falter. “Well, yeah, but. Let’s be honest here, Xiao Shiqin’s innocent front is just that. He’d really just like into your pants, Old Ye. Are you turning down casual sex, too? Because if so, I gotta break some news to people.”

“What the hell,” Li Xuan said flatly, chin against the table as he looked up.

Chu Yunxiu shrugged. “Let’s just say Xiao Shiqin is one among many.”

Xiao Shiqin did the pouting thing. “I’m special.”

“You’re really not,” Li Xuan told him.

“Really,” Su Mucheng said.

“Let’s not do this, you guys,” Ye Xiu said tiredly. He was staring down into his drink like he didn’t want to look at any of them. Like he didn’t want to look at Zhou Zekai.

Driven by some instinct he could not name, Zhou Zekai gently nudged Ye Xiu’s foot under the table.

Ye Xiu did glance up then. “He’s drunk, he probably doesn’t mean half of what he said, and he’ll be really embarrassed when he wakes up in the morning. It’s all going to be awkward enough as it is, so at least try to not make it worse, all right?”

“Don’t know why you’re saying that like it’s all our fault, it was clearly Chu Yunxiu,” Li Xuan said.

“Hey!”

“It kinda was, though.” Su Mucheng smiled apologetically.

“Hn,” Zhou Zekai agreed.

“Oh, he finally made a sound.” The words themselves were sarcastic, but Li Xuan appeared relieved.

“Oh, Little Zhou…” Xiao Shiqin temporarily shook off his heartbroken stupor and stared at Zhou Zekai intently. “Zhou Zekai, you like Ye Xiu too, don’t you?”

Zhou Zekai hesitated.

“Of course he does,” Su Mucheng said after a too-long silence. “They hang out all the time.”

Xiao Shiqin swayed from side to side, rather agitated. “No, I mean you really like him, right?”

Zhou Zekai blinked slowly. “I like him,” was all he said.

Ye Xiu was staring at him with a strange expression. But it was wiped away as soon as Chu Yunxiu spoke up.

“Oh, you’re in line too, Little Zhou?” she asked. Not like it even mattered, either, as if she was just so used to people liking Ye Xiu.

Well, she wasn’t alone there.

“No,” Zhou Zekai replied, because it was true. He wasn’t in line; he already had exactly what he wanted. He already had Ye Xiu. Ye Xiu was his.

Maybe if he kept telling himself that, all this jealousy would be banished. If he just reminded himself that Ye Xiu was his and only his and that there was no reason to let anything or anyone get between them…

“Not sure I believe you, but okay.” Chu Yunxiu winked again. Su Mucheng was facepalming behind her back, and Li Xuan seemed like he was trying hard not to do the same.

Ye Xiu’s foot nudged his back. When Zhou Zekai looked at him, he met soft golden eyes. For several seconds too long, he couldn’t bring himself to turn away.

But Xiao Shiqin naturally had to ruin the moment. “Zhou Zekai, you’re not special, either.”

Zhou Zekai’s jaw nearly dropped. Su Mucheng and Chu Yunxiu both stared disbelievingly and Li Xuan straightened up so fast it was probably painful.

“What the hell, Xiao Shiqin,” Ye Xiu said before anyone could react properly. The chill in his words felt like it could freeze the whole bar.

“I…” Xiao Shiqin seemed to realize he had done something terribly wrong.

In truth, it wasn’t what he said that was bad, but the way he said it. Zhou Zekai recognized that emotion, that darkness. Jealousy wrapped up in anger and indignation. Possessiveness over what was his. Unwillingness to acknowledge any kind of rival.

It was all too familiar to him. Zhou Zekai couldn’t even blame Xiao Shiqin for feeling that way, because based off what he said, he didn’t want to only bone Ye Xiu. He was actually really into him.

But Zhou Zekai blamed him nonetheless. Because Ye Xu was his and only his, and only he had a right to feel possessive.

These feelings were horrible, but they were his right.

“Excuse me,” he murmured, and quickly went to the bathroom. He needed a minute to himself.

“Little Zhou…!” Ye Xiu called. But Zhou Zekai didn’t look back.

 

* * *

 

The atmosphere was odd for a few days. None of the others who hadn’t been at the bar knew what was really going on, so they just took note of the awkwardness and then tried to ignore it. Well, some surely tried to look into it, but it seemed like Su Mucheng, Chu Yunxiu, and Li Xuan had come to an agreement not to say anything. Xiao Shiqin was likely too ashamed and was struggling to come to terms with what he’d done, judging by the perpetually guilty expression on his face every time he was in Zhou Zekai’s vicinity.

And Ye Xiu… Well, Ye Xiu hardly ever told anyone anything. He didn’t try to sweep it under the rug, but whenever he approached Zhou Zekai about it, Zhou Zekai shut him down.

It wasn’t a wise decision. He’d been worried about these crushes putting a strain on their relationship, and thus far he’d managed to keep them from doing just that. But that last incident hit home a little too hard.

Zhou Zekai, you’re not special, either.

He wasn’t, he knew. The only thing special about him, the only thing that made him any different from Huang Shaotian or Zhang Jiale or Fang Rui or Sun Xiang or Xiao Shiqin, was the fact that Ye Xiu chose him. Out of everyone he could have—and that was a lot of people—he’d chosen Zhou Zekai. And maybe Zhou Zekai had begun to wonder why, when Ye Xiu had so many options worth considering.

He was just one good-looking fish in a very big sea. He wasn’t even the only good-looking player here.

These thoughts cycled in his head over and over again, keeping him up at night and affecting his performance and shrinking his appetite and—everything. His roommates kept giving him worried glances when they thought he wasn’t looking and Ye Xiu wrapped him tightly in his arms when they went to bed. But none of it made any difference; their concern was just another weight on his shoulders.

It was yet another sleepless night that Zhou Zekai decided he could use some mindless distraction. He’d never been in the habit of watching a lot of TV, but they said TV dumbed people down. Maybe he needed dumbing down so he could stop thinking so much.

Trying to be as silent as possible, Zhou Zekai slipped from Ye Xiu’s grasp and stood. He couldn’t stop himself from studying Ye Xiu’s face in the near-darkness. He shouldn’t have been able to see him at all, but there was just enough light from their phone chargers plugged into the wall to make him visible.

Gently, he reached out and brushed the tips of his fingers against the messy fringe of Ye Xiu’s hair. He didn’t stir, of course, deeply asleep as he was, but Zhou Zekai didn’t intend to wake him. He just wanted to be able to convince himself for a little while longer that he had every right to do this, to be so intimate.

Soon he wouldn’t be able to convince himself of anything at all. But for now, he was holding onto his faith. Just for now.

Zhou Zekai left the room on silent feet. The living room was brighter since they didn’t have curtains over the back window, but it was still dark enough to be soothing. Zhou Zekai sat on the couch, then realized he needed a remote to use the TV and got up again.

It was as he was searching for the damn thing that the hallway light flicked on, causing him to jump guiltily.

“Little Zhou?”

Zhou Zekai squinted into the brightness. He didn’t bother with a verbal greeting, just nodded at Wang Jiexi before continuing with his search.

Wang Jiexi walked over slowly, not looking quite awake. He plopped down on the couch and let out a long sigh. “Why are you looking for things in the dark?”

Zhou Zekai paused. Oh. Maybe that was why he hadn’t had any luck.

“Sit down for a second, you’re making me tired.”

Zhou Zekai turned to look at him. He hesitated for a moment, then did as his senior asked. “Sleep,” he suggested when he settled down on the other end of the couch.

“I’d try, but I’d rather make sure you go back to bed first. I’m worried about you.”

Zhou Zekai stared down at his lap. He regretted that he’d made people worry about him, especially his roommates, who’d been nothing but kind since they’d moved in. But it wasn’t like he could help it. Even he was worrying about himself at this point.

“Can’t I do anything to make it better? Li Xuan told me what Xiao Shiqin said. You know he was just drunk. He would never say something like that if he was all there.”

Zhou Zekai shrugged. He was perfectly aware, despite what people believed, that Xiao Shiqin would never be so callous under normal (and sober) circumstances. But that didn’t change the fact that he was in love with Ye Xiu to some extent. That didn’t change the fact that what he said was true.

He could feel Wang Jiexi’s eyes boring into the side of his face. “Can I just ask you something, then?”

Zhou Zekai nodded slowly. He finally managed to make himself meet Wang Jiexi’s gaze.

“Why are you pushing Ye Xiu away?”

For a moment, Zhou Zeka stopped breathing. He could swear his heart actually stuttered in his chest.

Pushing Ye Xiu away… Was that what he was doing? It didn’t really feel like it—it felt like Zhou Zekai was just distancing himself from everyone for a little bit, just until he got his bearings, got his shit together. But thinking about it, the way he was acting, it really was like he was pushing Ye Xiu away. At the very least, he wasn’t doing anything to reassure him that that night at the bar had meant nothing.

He couldn’t lie, though, because that night had meant…something.

“I…” Zhou Zekai tried to find somewhere to begin, but of course, words failed him. They always did. He couldn’t even begin to say what he was feeling or why. He wasn’t sure he understood it all himself.

“Ye Xiu loves you. No one else, Zhou Zekai. No matter how many other people throw themselves at him, he’s going to come back to you. He’s going to sleep in your bed at night and kiss you and hold you. He’s yours, and you’re his. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Zhou Zekai stared at Wang Jiexi in shock, a strange heat flooding his insides. How did he even…

Wang Jiexi raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re not that hard to figure out, even if you don’t really do anything to make it easy.”

“I don’t…” Zhou Zekai put some real effort into it this time. “I don’t know…what to do.”

“Don’t know what to do about what?”

Zhou Zekai shrugged and gestured at nothing in particular. “To prove it.”

“Prove…?”

“That he’s mine.”

Wang Jiexi blinked. “You want to prove it? You’d have to tell people you’re together in the first place, then.”

Zhou Zekai’s shoulders slumped. He nodded miserably; that was what he figured. But telling people…it was something both he and Ye Xiu shied away from. Because it would change things, and they didn’t want things to change.

Except, Zhou Zekai kind of did, didn’t he? And that was…well, wanting things to change already changed a lot.

“You have to tell him, Little Zhou,” Wang Jiexi said, expression solemn. “If you try and explain it to him, I’m sure he’ll agree. After all, if he was in your position, I doubt he would cope well with it, either.”

Zhou Zekai almost smiled at that. He knew Ye Xiu would cope much, much better than he had. Because Ye Xiu was logical; he could think himself out of any problem, out of any situation, out of any emotion. If he didn’t want to feel it, he could convince himself to just…not.

“You may not know this, but Ye Xiu used to think you’d leave him for someone else.”

Now it was Zhou Zekai’s turn to blink.

Wang Jiexi studied his face carefully. “Sometimes I wonder how you can be so oblivious to your own appeal. Little Zhou, you’re handsome, successful, young—a lot of people covet you. I can name at least a dozen pros off the top of my head who’d love to take you out and woo you. And they aren’t anyone to sneeze at, either.”

Zhou Zekai shook his head. “But…”

“But nothing. Ye Xiu has always known you could have anyone you want. He believed that what he had with you would be a short-term thing, because you’d get bored and move on to someone younger and fresher, with a big future ahead of them.”

But…Ye Xiu had a big future ahead of him. He was young; maybe not fresh, exactly, but far from outdated. He had accomplished great things and could still accomplish so much more. That was why he’d been chosen to lead the national team in the first place.

Ye Xiu was the person almost every professional Glory player active in this day and age grew up hearing about. He was someone they admired, looked up to, emulated. Maybe they pursued other paths, learned to play other classes, but who in their right mind could claim they didn’t want what Ye Xiu had? Four championships was the least of it.

“How do you know?” Zhou Zekai blurted out. He couldn’t help but doubt everything Wang Jiexi told him, but…where did he come up with this in the first place? It couldn’t be that—

“He told me.”

Zhou Zekai stared. Ye Xiu just—straight-up told someone how he felt?

Wang Jiexi smiled a little sleepily. “It was just a couple of conversations. Sometimes we stay up till late, too, sit here on this very couch, and just talk. It was always a challenge getting him to open up, even just a bit. I still have to ease him into it. But it helps that I open up as well. Ye Xiu appreciates…symmetry, I suppose you might say.”

Perhaps Zhou Zekai shouldn’t have been so blown away. After all, it wasn’t as if he and Ye Xiu never spoke about their feelings. In fact, Ye Xiu had been trying for days to sit Zhou Zekai down and do just that. There had been more than a few occasions in the past where conversations of this kind had been necessary, just to clear the air, and they tried their best to communicate as directly as possible throughout. You couldn’t have a relationship without vulnerability.

This was the first time Zhou Zekai ever heard of Ye Xiu opening up to anyone besides Su Mucheng, though. And Ye Xiu barely even did that much. Talking about their relationship to Wang Jiexi late into the night…Zhou Zekai could hardly picture it.

“The point I’m trying to make is, I think you guys can come to some sort of agreement pretty easily. You understand each other well, and you’re more similar than you realize. If you need to make your relationship public in order to be happy, Little Zhou, then I’m sure Ye Xiu can accept that.

“Besides,” Wang Jiexi continued, concealing a yawn, “it’s not like you need to tell anyone else outside the team. I’m sure some of them will gossip, but it would still probably be a little while before the press got wind of it, if ever.”

Zhou Zekai let out a gusty sigh and allowed himself to sink into the couch. Wang Jiexi…was right, honestly. He knew that all this had a very simple solution, and that solution was to do exactly what Ye Xiu had been trying to get him to do: talk. And once he did, he knew Ye Xiu would listen. He would understand, because he always did.

Still, he was embarrassed. Ashamed, even. Zhou Zekai needed the validation of a public relationship to feel secure dating his own boyfriend, someone who chose him and loved him without restraint. Ye Xiu had made his commitment to this relationship clear in no uncertain terms, but if Zhou Zekai revealed his concerns, his struggles, wouldn’t Ye Xiu be hurt?

Zhou Zekai couldn’t justify his insecurities. That was the biggest problem here. A lot of people had done and said a lot of things, but Ye Xiu was innocent in all of it. So why was he forcing Ye Xiu to deal with it?

He was so busy arguing in circles with himself that he barely noted Wang Jiexi’s good night, followed by his exit. He only came back to himself when the hallway light switched back off, leaving him in darkness.

Zhou Zekai sat there for a minute longer, unspeakably frustrated, then got up. Eventually…he would have to find the courage to be honest with Ye Xiu and ask for what he wanted—what he needed. Even if it hurt one or both of them, the pain should only be temporary, right? So he had to do it. Rip off the band-aid and move on to better things.

There was no other way to make all this right.

 

* * *

 

The next few days consisted of Zhou Zekai silently hyping himself up to initiate the dreaded conversation, only to chicken out in the end. His performance during practice did return to normal thanks to the fact that he had found a solution to his problem, but since he had yet to act on that solution, his personal life was still more or less in shambles.

Ye Xiu still cuddled him to sleep every night. Zhou Zekai spent one of those nights trying to convince himself to just come out and say it. By this time, he already knew what he wanted to say, more or less. The exact word choice was a little wonky, but the bare necessities were there. “I can’t handle people wanting you while not knowing you’re mine. Can we be honest about our relationship?” That was the least of what needed to be said; the rest was just decoration.

But every time he found himself alone with Ye Xiu, he could only open his mouth and then shut it again. They hardly spoke at all, at least not about anything meaningful. They said their good mornings and good nights and asked if the other needed anything and made fun of each other’s bed-head and dog breath when they woke up. But meaningful conversation? The sort of conversation they needed to have? No, there was none of that.

Zhou Zekai sensed that Ye Xiu was giving him time. He didn’t try to force Zhou Zekai into being alone with him, which meant he didn’t try asking him out on dates or planning little get-togethers in the apartment when Wang Jiexi and Li Xuan were out. He even avoided brushing his teeth in the bathroom at the same time as him. It was like he was worried of overwhelming Zhou Zekai.

Well, Zhou Zekai honestly began to miss their conversations and their time alone together. He began to miss the Ye Xiu who didn’t tiptoe around him and gazed at him sadly when Zhou Zekai was supposed to be paying attention to practice.

Maybe it would have been bearable if it was only Ye Xiu treating him this way, but everyone else was handling him with kids’ gloves as well. Xiao Shiqin couldn’t even look him in the eye most days, despite the fact that he had worked up the courage to formally apologize.

He was definitely braver than Zhou Zekai. He had to forgive the guy out of principle if nothing else.

So, yes, Zhou Zekai had a solution, and some things had returned to normal—on the surface. But in truth, it was all still a mess. And at this point, Zhou Zekai might as well be making himself miserable on purpose. What was the point of a plan of action if one never acted?

Four days after his late-night chat with Wang Jiexi, Zhou Zekai was on the verge of falling apart because of the pressure. He almost wanted Ye Xiu to try and force him to talk because at this rate he would never be able to do it of his own volition. He was angry with himself and frustrated at his lack of progress and ashamed of his lack of courage and just upset at the whole situation in general. He was a nervous wreck and he knew it. He was doing a good job of hiding it so far, but give it another day and everyone else would know it too.

But it didn’t even take a day for a particular someone to notice. And when Wang Jiexi noticed, he did the one thing that could push Zhou Zekai to risk it all.

They were reaching the end of their afternoon practice session. They went through the usual team-building exercises and then threw themselves into scrimmages, cycling through all the team members at least once. Their results in these informal battles were getting better and better as they worked out the kinks in their coordination, and Zhou Zekai was actually beginning to enjoy this part of practice.

“Okay,” Ye Xiu called when the latest battle came to a close. “Let’s take a look at the recordings. Team A, there were some inconsistencies we need to talk about…”

Zhou Zekai had played on Team B, but he paid close attention; that was kind of the whole point of being here: to learn. And learning from Ye Xiu was a real pleasure, he had to admit, because he knew so much and had so much experience. Even the more senior players like Zhang Jiale and Wang Jiexi listened closely to everything he said, wary of missing any crucial details or tips.

When it was time for Team B’s performance to be analyzed, Zhou Zekai straightened up and prepared to answer any questions Ye Xiu had. He was one of the pillars of the national team, after all. If he made a mistake, then it absolutely had to be addressed, lest his mess-ups mess anyone else up.

“Little Zhou, your positioning here is impeccable, but trying to divide your attention between supporting Huang Shaotian and Sun Xiang both isn’t wise. Especially when the battle has reached such a critical point and your offensive is needed the most. And if you have to choose between the two, you should focus on Sun Xiang. Shaotian can take care of himself well enough.

“Hey, I can take care of myself too,” Sun Xiang piped up.

“Yeah, yeah, but your very effective duo doesn’t need this idiot third-wheeling,” Ye Xiu said.

Huang Shaotian sputtered. “Idiot? Third-wheeling? I was just trying to get in on the action!”

Chu Yunxiu coughed. “Even worse: intentional third-wheeling.”

Before Chu Yunxiu and Huang Shaotian could really get at it, Zhou Zekai hummed and said, “Okay.”

He didn’t know why his voice had such a silencing effect, but he didn’t hesitate to use it to his advantage now and then. The last thing he wanted at the moment was to sit through yet another round of bickering between those two, with Ye Xiu either scolding them or fanning the flames, depending on his mood. The battling part of practice was enjoyable, but if the discussion afterward dragged on, he’d quickly get bored, no matter how enlightening Ye Xiu’s observations were.

“Senior, I think we need to add a stronger support figure to this line-up if we want to let Little Zhou focus on carrying out his offensive,” Wang Jiexi said. “I suggest Su Mucheng.”

Ye Xiu pondered it for a second, staring from his seat at the head of their table toward the projector. “Not a bad idea. Tomorrow we can add her into this line-up… It’ll mean taking someone else out, though.”

“I can be removed,” Li Xuan suggested. “If she’s going to support, I don’t think I’ll be as necessary.”

“Hmm.” Ye Xiu was undoubtedly thinking about Happy’s team battle line-up, which included both Su Mucheng’s Launcher and Qiao Yifan’s Phantom Demon fairly frequently. Eventually, he shrugged. “Sure, we can try it. At least I’m used to her.”

Since their only Cleric was Zhang Xinjie, Ye Xiu always took up the role of healer for one of the teams during scrimmages. Working with Su Mucheng was obviously much easier for him than trying to work with everyone else, especially since the teams cycled through members. It meant they needed to fight a lot of scrimmages to get used to each other, seeing as everyone couldn’t play on the same team all at once.

It was easy to forget that this whole teamwork thing wasn’t hard on only them. Though Ye Xiu wasn’t expected to participate in their matches, and there would be many other options to choose from should a substitute be required, it was still possible he would have to sub into a match. Especially if something happened to Zhang Xinjie.

Everyone expressed their agreement, somewhat lazily, and Ye Xiu ended the discussion with equal laziness. Zhou Zekai still noticed the thoughtful gleam in his eyes, though. For some reason, Ye Xiu got a lot of enjoyment out of trying out various class combinations within their team, especially the really weird ones. Some combinations were better than others, and some line-ups were too strong to reasonably expect the rest of them to do well against, but he always tried to find a way to make them work.

Zhou Zekai supposed it was just another example of his love of Glory. Having all the best players in the Alliance gathered in one spot to practice together—it must be comparable to a kid in a candy shop. Ye Xiu being the kid and the national team being the candy shop.

It was as they were all getting up and gathering their things to leave that Wang Jiexi made his move.

“Say, Ye Xiu…” Wang Jiexi spoke up above the clamor, not so loud as to make it seem like he was trying on purpose to be heard, but loud enough that everyone could definitely hear him. He even went the extra mile and dropped the respectful Senior he usually used when they were working. “Have you been on a date recently?”

Ye Xiu looked up from his notebook with a blankly confused expression. “Excuse me?”

“A date. Have you been on one? Are you dating at all at the moment?”

Ye Xiu just stared at him. His expression was unreadable, but Zhou Zekai had no doubt as to what was going through his mind: You share an apartment with me, you probably know more about my dating life than I’m even comfortable with. Because that was exactly what was going through Zhou Zekai’s mind as he, too, stared at Wang Jiexi.

To be fair, a lot of people were staring at Wang Jiexi. The whole room, in fact. The Bar Incident had made it clear that romance and Ye Xiu were maybe two things that should not be discussed so casually, lest someone do or say something stupid. Xiao Shiqin was already looking like he’d break out into a cold sweat at any moment.

“I am not…dating,” Ye Xiu eventually said, rather hesitantly. It was unlike his usual statements, which were delivered with complete and utter certainty, even the bullshit ones. He typically avoided saying things he wasn’t sure of when he was serious.

And just like sharks smelling blood in the water, everyone latched onto that hesitancy. Zhou Zekai took a glance around and, much to his dismay, concluded that literally no one was going to miss out on this.

Wang Jiexi raised an eyebrow as he slung the strap of his bag over his shoulder. “Is that so? But I assumed you’ve been dating someone for a while now?”

“And why exactly would you assume that?”

“Hmm, well—I suppose it doesn’t matter, since you said you’re not dating.”

Ye Xiu’s jaw clenched for a fraction of a second before his face relaxed again. “That’s right. It doesn’t matter, and it’s none of your business either.”

“Of course. So, if you’re not dating anyone, maybe I could take you out?”

Ye Xiu’s brow furrowed. His mouth opened, then closed again. “What the fuck?” he managed. “Wang Jiexi, can you not mess around when—”

“Who says I’m messing around?”

“Don’t play dumb.”

Wang Jiexi tilted his head to the side. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” was his bland reply.

Ye Xiu pointed his pen at him threateningly, expression going from carefully neutral to blatantly frustrated. Everyone seemed to hold their breath.

Zhou Zekai had stopped breathing what seemed like eons ago. What the actual hell was going on? Had Wang Jiexi lost his mind? Was this a prank? Was Wang Jiexi even capable of pranking anyone?

“I don’t know what exactly you think you’re doing, but—” Ye Xiu tried to say, but Wang Jiexi quickly cut him off.

“If you’re single, where’s the harm in it? Just one date.”

“No.”

Thirteen sets of eyes swung to Zhou Zekai. However, in that moment, the only person Zhou Zekai could stand to look at was Wang Jiexi, who didn’t appear at all surprised. Or remorseful, for that matter, despite what he’d knowingly done.

But Zhou Zekai couldn’t bring himself to be angry. Deep down, he already knew what was going on. He knew this was his chance, and Wang Jiexi was handing it to him on a silver platter.

“No?” Wang Jiexi asked, sounding mildly curious. “Little Zhou, no…what? Are you answering for your senior now?”

Zhou Zekai squared his shoulders. Having everyone’s attention on him was daunting, to say the least, but if he faltered now then would he ever get the chance to redeem himself? One wrong move could ruin everything.

He had to make himself absolutely clear.

“He’s not single,” Zhou Zekai said slowly.

“He’s not?” Wang Jiexi prompted. “Then…”

“He’s with me.”

Huang Shaotian choked on air and launched into a coughing fit. Xiao Shiqin was actually fanning himself, looking like he was trying not to pass out. Sun Xiang was staring at Zhou Zekai with overwhelming shock and a hint of betrayal, Fang Rui seemed both impressed and confused, and Zhang Jiale’s eyes were wide as if he’d just had the revelation of the century.

“Oh my god,” he said, and everyone turned to look at him. “That’s why—that night—oh my god. Why the hell didn’t you say something?!” Zhang Jiale fumed with embarrassment.

“I told you—” Ye Xiu began, but it seemed Wang Jiexi had set a precedent for interruptions.

“What night? What’s going on?” Yu Wenzhou said, staring between Ye Xiu, Zhou Zekai, and Wang Jiexi even as he pounded Huang Shaotian’s back.

“Captain Wang wishes to take Senior Ye on a date but Senior Ye is ‘with’ Captain Zhou,” Zhang Xinjie said. Out of everyone, he was the least fazed. “Whatever that means.”

“Did you know about this?” Chu Yunxiu turned on Su Mucheng.

Su Mucheng seemed just as lost as Ye Xiu right then. She looked to him for cues, but anyone could tell he was not currently of a mind to give them. “Um…”

“Why isn’t he saying anything?” Tang Hao suddenly asked, gesturing at Ye Xiu. “Are you really with Zhou Zekai?”

“I—yes.”

Impatiently, Tang Hao threw his hands in the air. “Then why couldn’t you have said so from the beginning and saved everyone the trouble?”

Ye Xiu glared at him. “What trouble? Our relationship is no one’s business but our own.”

“‘What trouble,’ are you serious? Is last week missing from your memory? We’ve all heard about it by now.” Tang Hao glanced pointedly at Xiao Shiqin.

Zhou Zekai almost sighed. He supposed expecting Chu Yunxiu to keep her mouth shut for more than a couple days was too unrealistic.

As if sensing the eyes on him, Xiao Shiqin wilted. “I… Wow, I made an even bigger mistake than I realized. Zhou Zekai, I’m so sorry—I even said all those other things in front of you… I just didn’t know. Please forgive me.”

“Uh,” was Zhou Zekai’s intelligent reply.

Li Xuan crossed his arms over his chest as he surveyed the scene. “Honestly, I have to agree with Tang Hao. Your relationship is your business, and I’ve always understood why you two kept quiet, but you must have realized how difficult it’s been for Zhou Zekai lately. All these misunderstandings…”

“Well…” Ye Xiu turned his gaze to Zhou Zekai, brow furrowed. “It’s not that I haven’t noticed, but I thought it was just the time at the bar—that you would move past that soon. Has it really bothered you that much? What else is there?”

Zhou Zekai ducked his head.

Wang Jiexi finally spoke up. “How about we go back and let these two talk things out.”

“But—they—” Chu Yunxiu seemed to struggle for words.

Huang Shaotian, just recovered from his coughing fit, growled, “I think we’re owed an explanation at least. Maybe you people understand why they didn’t say anything but I sure don’t!”

“No, Wang Jiexi’s right, we should leave them alone,” Fang Rui said, surprisingly enough. He had a half-smile on his face as he watched Ye Xiu. “In the end, it really is none of our business.”

“But I’m sure they’ll fill us in tomorrow,” Yu Wenzhou said, raising his eyebrows at Zhou Zekai and Ye Xiu. “Won’t they?”

“If only so we can practice in peace afterward,” Ye Xiu grudgingly agreed.

“I’m glad we’ve come to this very logical decision, but it’s past time I returned,” Zhang Xinjie announced. “I’m leaving now.”

“Me too,” Sun Xiang said, following Zhang Xinjie to the door. He nudged Zhou Zekai’s shoulder as he passed him. “We’ll be having a chat when you get back.”

Zhou Zekai nodded once. Out of everyone he could have told about his relationship, Sun Xiang was probably the one who’d deserved to hear it the most. Especially after finding out about his crush.

To have your hopes dashed was bad enough, but to nurture that hope for who knew how long, and then find out that one of your closest friends got there before you did—well, Zhou Zekai knew he hadn’t been fair to Sun Xiang.

Tang Hao glared at them both warningly as he left without a word, though he was probably the only one who was content to keep his grumbling to himself. Su Mucheng smiled and gave them a thumbs up, squeezing Zhou Zekai’s fingers briefly. “Good luck,” she whispered.

Zhou Zekai watched her close the door behind her. Everyone had dispersed rather quickly; she was the last to go.

Now alone with Ye Xiu, he had no clue what to do. His plans, even in the best case scenario, had only gone as far as telling Ye Xiu how he felt. What happened afterward, well, he didn’t have that good of an imagination.

Ye Xiu smiled a little hesitantly at him. His eyes were warm and apologetic. “Little Zhou, why didn’t you tell me?”

Zhou Zekai shrugged. He didn’t feel guilty, exactly, but the same shame that had been clinging to him for weeks now was something he had grown accustomed to hiding. What kind of emotion should he express in a situation like this?

He just wanted things to be okay between them. Wang Jiexi’s intervention had been helpful, in its way, but had it caused any irreparable damage? Zhou Zekai desperately hoped not. Ye Xiu had never agreed to revealing their relationship, and…

“You’re thinking too much.” Ye Xiu let out a soft sigh and plopped down in his chair at the head of the table. He rubbed a hand through his hair tiredly and glanced up at the ceiling like it contained all the answers he needed. “C’mon, let’s talk about this. We need to.”

After a moment, Zhou Zekai nodded slowly and sat at the closest chair to Ye Xiu’s left. Only a corner of the table separated them.

Ye Xiu stared at him, studying his features. Then he reached across the distance and held out his hand. Without hesitation, Zhou Zekai clasped it.

“I’ll start, since I seem to have…instigated this somehow. I’m sorry I didn’t notice you were having such a hard time sooner. I didn’t know any of those idiots hitting on me, seriously or not, blatantly or not, would get under your skin.”

Zhou Zekai blinked slowly. “You…knew?”

“Knew what?”

“They were…”

Ye Xiu actually chuckled, shifting a bit in his seat. “That they were hitting on me? Of course. I dunno, I used to be kind of oblivious about that, but being with you has taught me all about reading cues. Also, Mucheng’s terrible dramas.”

Zhou Zekai couldn’t help but smile a little at that. Yes, Ye Xiu used to be pretty oblivious. Which, he thought, was part of the reason he’d been so anguished by those situations.

“Little Zhou…” Ye Xiu shifted again. He was still holding onto Zhou Zekai’s hand, but he looked uncomfortable now as he watched their intertwined fingers. “You didn’t think I would cheat on you, right? Have you ever thought that?”

“No,” Zhou Zekai replied immediately, eyes wide. He had never even considered it.

Ye Xiu revealed a relieved expression.

“Sorry,” Zhou Zekai said, determined not to let Ye Xiu believe he had no faith in him. “I never…thought that.”

“Then…”

Zhou Zekai’s eyes dropped. He knew what Ye Xiu wanted to know, but how could he explain it? “I’m not…special.”

“What?”

“Anyone. You could be—” Zhou Zekai gestured helplessly with his free hand. “Anyone’s. But—you’re mine.”

“Yes?”

“And they didn’t know.”

Ye Xiu’s eyes filled with understanding. “So, your issue was…that they didn’t know about us. But, why does that matter so much? I mean, besides the unsavory attempts at getting me to go out with them or hop into bed or whatever—I can understand why that would be difficult to witness.”

Zhou Zekai swallowed. It didn’t have anything to do with the possibility of Ye Xiu cheating, since the odds of that were slim to none. It didn’t have anything to do with the actual people involved—he didn’t hate any of them, and he understood why they might want Ye Xiu like that (WWWYX?).

It was that…he was just a little insecure, was all.

“I felt…lonely,” he said slowly, carefully. “I think.”

He heard the creak of the chair as Ye Xiu stood. A second later, he was being enveloped in familiar, comforting warmth as Ye Xiu wrapped his arms around Zhou Zekai’s shoulders, cocooning him within the arc of his body as he leaned over him.

Zhou Zekai pressed himself into Ye Xiu’s middle with a shaky exhale.

“Lonely? But I love you so much,” Ye Xiu murmured. “Did I not tell you enough? Show you?”

Zhou Zekai gripped Ye Xiu’s hips gently. “I want more.”

“More?”

“All of your love,” Zhou Zekai admitted shyly, refusing to lift his head or let go even when Ye Xiu tried to pull away.

Ye Xiu’s voice was a mixture of gentleness and teasing when he spoke next. “A little greedy, huh?”

Zhou Zekai nodded. He was greedy, he realized. He didn’t want to share Ye Xiu with anyone else, didn’t want Ye Xiu’s heart in the hands of anyone else. Didn’t want anyone to even imagine Ye Xiu without imagining Zhou Zekai beside him—because at this point, it felt like they were a part of each other.

He needed people to understand that. He needed the whole world to understand that he was Ye Xiu’s and Ye Xiu was his.

“Don’t worry,” Ye Xiu murmured into his hair as he laid a gentle kiss on his brow. “I’ll give you everything, love.”

 

* * *

 

Their journey back to the apartment wasn’t rushed, but it wasn’t leisurely, either. When they opened the front door, they were greeted by that distinct sense of emptiness and lack of warmth that indicated nobody else was home.

The two of them were still holding hands. They hadn’t stopped touching since their brief but revelatory conversation in the meeting room, but they’d kept things PG the entire time, which was a win for them. But it was a novelty as well, because they’d never wandered out in public holding hands and just…acting like a couple. Doing couple-y things. Holding hands, for example.

Zhou Zekai had just enough time to pull the door closed behind them and lock it, and then Ye Xiu was tugging him impatiently in the direction of their bedroom. They crossed the living room on relatively silent feet, somehow unable to break the peace of the space despite the fact they were alone.

Inside the bedroom at last, Ye Xiu pulled Zhou Zekai close and slanted his mouth across his, kissing him softly but with obvious intent. Zhou Zekai’s hands automatically gripped his waist for balance as he kissed back.

Ye Xiu wasn’t the only one hungry for this. He wasn’t the one who needed this more than anything at that moment.

As calm as Zhou Zekai pretended to be, he was really the exact opposite. And nothing could turn him into as much of a mess as Ye Xiu. His touch was electric as he traced his hands beneath Zhou Zekai’s shirt, fingers stroking the smooth skin of his abdomen and hip bones, then rising up to tease at the bottom of his ribcage. Ye Xiu had long fingers; when he spread them, they brushed over Zhou Zekai’s nipples in an infuriatingly soft touch.

Zhou Zekai moaned breathily against Ye Xiu’s lips. He felt them twitch into the beginnings of a smile. No one could be as smug in bed as Ye Xiu, either.

“You feel good,” Ye Xiu murmured, and laughed when Zhou Zekai squeezed his waist tighter in warning. When the compliments came out, it was a sure sign things were about to get interesting.

Sure enough, Ye Xiu pulled away from him, sneakily extricating himself from Zhou Zekai’s grip while he was distracted by a well-timed flick of the tongue. Zhou Zekai made a small noise and tried to chase his lips, his flavor, but Ye Xiu still escaped in the end.

Frustrated, Zhou Zekai glared at him even as he followed. Ye Xiu sank into their bed without a word, revealing the smug smile Zhou Zekai had come to expect during these preludes. He patted his slightly spread thighs.

Zhou Zekai got the message and gladly straddled the sitting Ye Xiu, though he made sure he wasn’t sitting for long. A forceful push and Ye Xiu was horizontal, legs hanging off the edge of the bed at the knees. Zhou Zekai stared down at him silently.

Ye Xiu was still smiling as he said, “Whatever you want, Zekai.”

Zhou Zekai closed his eyes briefly. God, what had he done to deserve this? Did he deserve it at all? He doubted it.

“And you?” he asked eventually, when he could bear to look at Ye Xiu again.

“Whatever you want,” Ye Xiu repeated. “Don’t worry about me. You know I love everything we do together, even when it’s bad.”

Zhou Zekai made a face.

Ye Xiu laughed at him. “Come on, that time with the handcuffs was bad.”

It really was, and Zhou Zekai’s entire soul cringed every time he thought about it, which was why he didn’t. Now that Ye Xiu had brought it up, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about how much they’d laughed afterward, how they’d been especially gentle to make up for their previous clumsiness.

Maybe Ye Xiu was telling the truth and he did love it no matter how ridiculously they messed it up. Zhou Zekai felt the exact same way, he realized. Nothing could ever make it bad for them as long as they were good to each other.

“Love you,” Zhou Zekai whispered, and leaned down to kiss him hard.

They were content to make out for quite a while. Ye Xiu ended up sliding further up the bed by increments, and Zhou Zekai followed him unthinkingly, unable to be parted from those lips. He’d hitched his legs up so his bent knees were on either side of Zhou Zekai’s hips, not squeezing him yet but threatening to. Pressed up against the heat of Ye Xiu’s body, Zhou Zekai hardly noticed, except when he ran his palm down Ye Xiu’s side and found his thigh right there. He kneaded it softly and suddenly realized that they had yet to get anywhere close to naked.

What a failure on their part. Zhou Zekai broke their extended kiss with great reluctance. “Clothes,” he grumbled succinctly.

“Oh, right.”

They sat up, giving each other some space. Zhou Zekai watched interestedly as Ye Xiu unbuttoned his shirt with deft fingers and let it fall to either side of him, only to work on undoing his belt next. His pants came off easily, though he left his boxers on, and after checking on Zhou Zekai’s similar state of undress, he shucked off the shirt as well.

Both of them only in their underwear, they entangled their bodies again, movements graceful and practiced. They had done this so many times by now that it was all routine, yet it was a routine that never got old, that they never grew tired of. Because their desire for each other was always renewing itself, and their wish to give the other as much pleasure as possible never went away.

Zhou Zekai latched onto the side of Ye Xiu’s neck and bit down softly—too softly to leave a mark, but just hard enough that he could pretend. He could leave marks in less visible places, of course, Ye Xiu had given him blanket permission. But it was still quite a ways away from a blatant claim, something like a hickey on the throat where everyone could see. Zhou Zekai figured he could probably get away with it now, given the people they spent the most time with were already in the know. However, old habits die hard and Zhou Zekai didn’t feel like stopping what he was doing long enough to ask.

Ye Xiu obediently tipped his head back to give Zhou Zekai free access to everything from his chin down. Zhou Zekai made good use of it, licking down the lines of his throat and dipping his nose into that hollow at the base of his neck. His lips traced graceful collarbones, then skimmed down to a nipple. Zhou Zekai lapped at it gently, knowing Ye Xiu wasn’t especially sensitive there in the first place, but unable to resist.

With Ye Xiu’s hand in his hair gently encouraging him, Zhou Zekai traveled even lower, nuzzling Ye Xiu’s belly and biting into the softness there. He had a mostly flat stomach, but there was a hint of pudginess just below his belly button, barely enough for Zhou Zekai to get his teeth into.

The bite made Ye Xiu hiss and arch high off the bed, spine curving. Zhou Zekai released the skin in his mouth and kissed the reddening flesh in something approximating apology, though he wasn’t especially sorry. Ye Xiu enjoyed a little roughness here and there, and they both knew it. Besides, it wasn’t like Ye Xiu hadn’t done worse to him.

“How long are you going to drag this out?” Ye Xiu asked breathlessly as he slowly relaxed again.

Zhou Zekai hummed, still trying to soothe the location of the bite. Maybe he had gripped a bit too hard.

A tug at his hair had him glancing up. Ye Xiu was watching him with heavy-lidded eyes, a flush high on his cheekbones and small bruises already beginning to form at the base of his neck and around his collarbone.

“Babe,” he murmured in that voice. The slow, deep, seductive one. “Get a move on.”

Zhou Zekai blinked at him, then smiled. “Whatever I want,” he reminded Ye Xiu. They were his own words.

Ye Xiu’s brow furrowed for a brief moment before he let out a groan and his head fell back onto the bed. “Goddammit. There I go again, making my life more difficult than it has to be. Zekai, have some mercy and don’t keep me waiting for too long.”

Zhou Zekai couldn’t help a smirk. He knew he could keep Ye Xiu waiting for as long as he saw fit and Ye Xiu wouldn’t object. Not when he’d made a promise.

“I should get a turn after this,” Ye Xiu was muttering. “Do whatever I want to you. It seems like the only fitting way to get back at you for this, to beat you at your own game, so—”

His words were cut off when Zhou Zekai’s lips wrapped around the head of his cock. While Ye Xiu had been busy thinking about how much he’d like to get back at Zhou Zekai for something that had been Ye Xiu’s suggestion in the first place, Zhou Zekai had been pulling down his boxers and preparing his cock for a thorough sucking.

And a thorough sucking Ye Xiu’s cock got. Zhou Zekai had actually been an amateur at blow jobs when he’d first gotten together with Ye Xiu, but practice really makes perfect. By the time Zhou Zekai pulled off, slowly and lingeringly, Ye Xiu was twitching with the effort it took to hold back his orgasm.

Zhou Zekai grinned up at him. He always got a little bolder in bed and it was nice to express it to someone who actually appreciated it. They stripped their boxers off without thought.

Now entirely and conveniently naked, Zhou Zekai rolled over and got his dick sucked as well. Ye Xiu had been quite experienced at giving head from the start, completely the opposite of Zhou Zekai, and somehow he’d only improved since then. Zhou Zekai supposed he wasn’t the only diligent student between the two of them.

Ye Xiu’s mouth was heavenly to sink into. Gently pumping his hips, Zhou Zekai fucked ever so carefully up into Ye Xiu’s mouth, feeling the slide of Ye Xiu’s tongue beneath the head of his cock, then the deceptive softness of the back of his throat against the tip. Ye Xiu swallowed as if on instinct, but didn’t choke, and Zhou Zekai found himself whimpering.

God, he was so good at this. Zhou Zekai didn’t know how he’d gotten lucky enough to end up with someone who could not only deepthroat him, but also knew how to do it right.

A few more thrusts and he had to pull out or risk finishing too soon. His limbs felt a little shaky at the constant infusion of heat, and his heart felt like it would never calm down ever again.

Ye Xiu licked his lips as Zhou Zekai got himself under control, smirking. Again with the smugness, to absolutely no one’s surprise. “You like?” he asked, just to rub it in.

Zhou Zekai breathed out through his nose and said, “Yes.”

Ye Xiu fondled his balls in an almost absentminded way. Zhou Zekai closed his eyes. “You love it when I suck you, don’t you? I bet nobody has ever given you better head than that.”

Zhou Zekai did love it, and nobody ever had, but Ye Xiu was aware of both these facts and Ye Xiu’s massive ego frankly didn’t need any more stroking. So he just nodded and tried not to think about how much warmer and tighter his cock would feel shoved up Ye Xiu’s ass.

Wait, what the hell. Weren’t they here for exactly that purpose? Why not think about it?

“Lube,” Zhou Zekai said when he finally felt human again and not like a shivering ball of desire.

Ye Xiu hummed in acquiescence and moved to the edge of the bed closest to the bedside table. He rummaged through the drawer noisily, then returned. Zhou Zekai automatically tried to tuck himself closer to that warmth, eyes still closed.

“Aw, don’t tell me you’re done already, Zekai.”

“No,” Zhou Zekai instantly replied, eyes slitting open. Who said he was done? He was just basking in the pleasure of what they’d done; was that so inconceivable?

Ye Xiu’s shameless grin said he was just teasing. He held up the bottle of lube and waggled his eyebrows. “And where are you going to start with this, huh?”

Zhou Zekai sat up and took the bottle. He pushed Ye Xiu back onto the bed, forcing him to lie flat, much like when Zhou Zekai had been straddling him earlier. Ye Xiu’s eyes burned with a growing heat as he regarded Zhou Zekai.

Zhou Zekai gazed at him just as intently as he popped the bottle open and poured some onto his fingers. After letting it warm for a little while, and without breaking eye contact, Zhou Zekai brought the hand to Ye Xiu’s hole. Wet fingers traced his rim, circling and circling but never penetrating.

Ye Xiu squirmed a bit, though it was a dignified kind of squirming, if such a thing was possible. Ye Xiu’s hips rolled in small circles, easily timed to the same pace Zhou Zekai’s fingers were going at.

About a minute of this sensual, patient teasing followed, and then Zhou Zekai was too impatient to hold back any longer. He let the tip of his finger sink in.

Ye Xiu let out a tiny gasp and forced his hips still. His body relaxed against the bed and he seemed to sink even further into it.

Smiling, Zhou Zekai allowed the finger to slip in deeper. The lube made the process a lot easier, obviously, but Zhou Zekai had no doubt Ye Xiu was feeling the hint of a burn, the beginnings of what would later become a much harsher stretch. He was patient with his movements because of it, not daring to worm his finger around carelessly and instead slowly feeling out the places that made Ye Xiu arch and moan and plead for more.

A second finger made that easier. Some more lube too. Zhou Zekai watched his flesh disappear inside of Ye Xiu’s. The sight never failed to leave him breathless, and he knew the upcoming view of his dick disappearing inside there instead would leave him in ruins for hours on end. Ye Xiu was one of the few things that never left Zhou Zekai’s mind, but the aftermath of their lovemaking frequently featured Zhou Zekai in a rather embarrassing stupor.

Was it his fault Ye Xiu was so hot? Of course not. The man had only himself to blame.

Three fingers and Ye Xiu was nearly choking as Zhou Zekai stroked his prostrate in time to a silent beat. His rim nicely stretched out and his insides lined with lube, Zhou Zekai finally removed his hand and started slicking his dick.

When he was ready, Ye Xiu shakily spread his legs further to welcome him. Zhou Zekai settled between them with undisguised reverence, gazing down at Ye Xiu adoringly. Ye Xiu was a little too out of it to notice, but his unhesitating trust meant more than enough to Zhou Zekai.

Hoisting Ye Xiu’s hips up and prompting him to wrap his legs around him, Zhou Zekai knelt on the bed with the tip of his cock positioned at Ye Xiu’s hole. He pressed against it for a moment, just savoring the anticipation of the ecstasy to come, then pushed in.

Ye Xiu let out a quiet groan before lifting a hand to his mouth to muffle the sound. Zhou Zekai’s lips parted as his flesh parted Ye Xiu’s, but he couldn’t bring himself to so much as breathe too hard. He badly wanted to close his eyes and focus his entire being on just this sensation, of opening Ye Xiu up, making them one, but at the same time, he couldn’t give up the view of his cock slowly sinking into Ye Xiu’s ass.

It was magnificent. And the expression on Ye Xiu’s face when he slid his gaze up his body—god, Zhou Zekai was going to tattoo that expression, this moment, on his soul.

“I love you,” Ye Xiu told him, lust and love and warmth and trust and so many other beautiful things filling his beautiful eyes.

Zhou Zekai only smiled. He would never get tired of hearing that, would never get tired of this.

Only when they were both spent and clean of bodily fluids did Zhou Zekai finally allow himself to close his eyes, curling contentedly into Ye Xiu’s warmth.

He’d never been so happy.

 

* * *

 

When everyone came to practice the next morning, they immediately saw the besotted expression on Zhou Zekai’s face and took note of the distinctly smug air surrounding Ye Xiu. It was unanimously decided that there were things they could live without knowing, after all.