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“Artists have muses. That’s a thing.” 


Yin Yu looks at him, unimpressed. 


“It’s not creepy.”


“Whatever you say, Hua Cheng.” His glass is drained with a tip upward, then Yin Yu sets it on the counter. Picking up the fountain pen from the top of the bar, he spins it between two fingers and considers the contract in front of him. “Twenty-five percent is as low as I’m willing to go.” 


“Sounds like a deal to me.” Hua Cheng crosses his arms and gives a beaming grin as Yin Yu finally puts his signature on the contract. “When will you come by to pick up the paintings.” 


“Sometime next week. At your studio?”


“Yeah, downtown.” 


“Of all the places.” Yin Yu grumbles to himself as he stands, pen clicked and slid back into his messenger back. The strap slides over his shoulder as Yin Yu gets ready to leave. “You could have any space in the city - a loft apartment with a studio built in - but you still operate out of that dingy place. Why?” 


Hua Cheng shrugs. “Something to be said for consistency. No use changing something that’s working for me.” 


“You aren’t still living there?”


“Why would I move out?”


Yin Yu shakes his head. “Hopefully, none of your classy neighbors find out you’re the famous Hua Cheng, or you might wake up to a broken lock and thousands of dollars of paintings gone. I’d invest in a deadbolt if I were you. Two, even.” 


“ know, my ambitions have always been bigger than most can contain, but...I like where I’m at. And-” 


“If Xie Lian ever comes back, you want him to be able to find you. Right?” 


Hua Cheng runs the tip of his nail along the outside of his glass. “Is that a bad reason to stay?” 


“Maybe you should find a new muse. I don’t know that healthy.”


“Isn’t pain like fuel to the artist? Shouldn’t you be encouraging my obsession so you can make more money?” Yin Yu doesn’t answer him directly, just grabs the contract off the bar and walks away. Hua Cheng knows he’s tired of having the same conversation again and again. Not even like he can really blame him. The city is tainted, and he knows there’s never going to be an escape from it. 


“Want a top-off?” the bartender asks, and Hua Cheng shakes his head. After paying his tab, he heads out, hands in his pocket. 


A car horn blares loudly, driver slicing through a busy intersection. Hua Cheng watches the traffic as he walks along the sidewalk, few people milling around and walking between the bars and clubs that occupy this block. As he walks by two chatty women, they stop to smile at him. Hua Cheng doesn’t pay them any mind, trying to avoid glancing up at the stars. He knows he’ll think of him if he does that. Of late nights in college, holding hands, pointing out constellations.  The red pearl on the end of his braid bounces against his shoulder, giving him something to focus on. Hua Cheng had always enjoyed Xie Lian’s eyes more than the stars. 



It’s late when he gets back to the apartment, and Hua Cheng doesn’t go inside. Instead, he sits next to one of the large open windows on either side of the rectangular structure. The hallways are exposed to the elements, a concrete staircase going up through the center of the building. Apartment doors embedded in the walls are usually open to allow the flowing air to come inside, but Hua Cheng prefers to sit on the concrete lip that overlooks the drop-off out of the building. And smoke. And think.


Still wearing the nice clothes he’d gone to meet Yin Yu in, Hua Cheng considers the tip of his boots, legs propped up against the other side of the window’s frame. Concrete. It was all hard and cold. Smoke from a menthol winds up into the air, and Hua Cheng knocks the ash out of the building. The taste of it is familiar, when he inhales again, the circulating down into his lungs, and he can almost hear gege’s voice, “You should quit smoking before those things kill you, San Lang.” 


Footsteps on the concrete stairs are loud and familiar. They tend to echo through the whole building, up and down the steps. Turning his head, Hua Cheng almost smiles when he sees his neighbor step off the stairs and come into the hallway. Dark hair, pulled back in a braid, He Xuan completely ignores him as he fumbles for his key in that huge hoodie he tends to wear everywhere. 


“You getting home late again?” 


He Xuan’s eyes cut toward him, briefly, but he chooses not to answer. The bruise surrounding his eye has it nearly swollen closed, and Hua Cheng brings his legs back over the edge of the window and stands up. Stubbing out his cigarette on the concrete wall, he flicks it out of the window and saunters his way over. He Xuan hurries for his key, inserting it in the lock and pushing the door inward. Hua Cheng steps into the doorframe, leaning in it. 


“Where’d you get the shiner?” 


“Fuck off.” 


He’s used to that, as is He Xuan used to him essentially forcing his way into the apartment. The door is left open as He Xuan steps in, dumping his bag onto the sofa. It’s old - probably older than He Xuan - and it slumps in the very center. The cushions sag. “Get me a beer,” Hua Cheng says, going to sit on it anyway. His long legs stretch out, heels propped up on the arm, and he leans back on the other. 


“I don’t have any beer.” 


“Not even one bottle?” 


“No.” He Xuan pulls the hoodie over his head, folds it over his slender arm. Hua Cheng watches as he heads toward the bed. The apartments here consist of one room, plus a bathroom, so all the amenities are crammed into a single block of space. Couch and TV stand on one side of the room, bed in a corner, and the kitchen setup against the other wall. He Xuan opens the closet and pushes the hoodie into the laundry hamper inside it. 


“You’re old enough to buy beer, right?”


He Xuan scoffs. “I’m twenty-four.” 


“Right, right.” Hua Cheng stares at his shoes. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”




“You work every night.”


“Yep.” He Xuan walks into the kitchen and takes down a bag of pretzels from a shelf above the stove. Walking back to the couch, he steps over Hua Cheng’s legs and sits beside him. “Don’t you have a gege to paint or something?” 


“Not right now. Just sold my latest group of paintings.” The bag crinkles as He Xuan opens it, and Hua Cheng turns his head, leaning back as He Xuan crosses his legs and digs an arm into the bag. Shirt sleeves dangle off his shoulders, and Hua Cheng is confronted with bruises of varying shades running up and down his arms. “You still working at the factory?”


“Uh huh.” He Xuan mumbles around a mouthful of hard pretzel pieces. The bag is nearly empty, only the crumbs in the bottom. And his teeth crunch through them, the stale smell tickling Hua Cheng’s nose. 


“...and did you have an accident?”


“Why’d you ask that?” He Xuan refuses to even look at him. His hair lays against his shoulder. 


If He Xuan is going to pretend like he isn’t beat up, then Hua Cheng supposes he can play along. “No reason. Where’s your TV?”


“Sold it.”




A shrug. “Wanted the extra cash.” The bag is soon empty, and He Xuan folds it up. Plasticy crackles fill the room. Hua Cheng keeps watching him from the corner of his eye. “Are you gonna stay for long?”


“You don’t even have a TV anymore, what’s there for me to do?” He grins, but He Xuan only glances at him. Unamused. He’s usually like this, but there’s something tired in his eyes. The comebacks aren’t as sharp, slightly rounded on the edges. And the red around his left eye is looking more and more painful by the second. “You should put ice on that.” 


“What are you? My dad? Get the fuck off my case.” He stands up, tossing the bag into the garbage, then heads toward his bathroom. “I’m gonna shower.” 


Hua Cheng tilts his head backwards over the rim of the couch. “Cool. Hey, want me to order a pizza?” He Xuan pauses in the bathroom doorway. “Yeah, I knew that would get your attention. All the usual toppings?”


“...two pizzas, and you can stay.” 


“Fine, fine. Two pizzas.” Hua Cheng holds up two fingers, arm straight up in the air. He Xuan rolls his eyes, then walks into the bathroom and pushes the door shut. The frame is unlevel, and there’s no knob, so he can only have a facsimile of privacy in there, but Hua Cheng won’t intrude. Instead, he sits back up and digs for his phone. Meanwhile, standing and moving toward the door, the website he usually orders from is pulled up on his phone, and he goes through the familiar steps. 


Heading across the hallway, Hua Cheng leaves He Xuan’s door open and pushes into his own apartment. The paintings he has finished are leaned against one wall, the rest of the setup similar. He’s got a TV against one wall, and his small sound system atop a table. The bed in the corner is larger than He Xuan’s filled with comfortable pillows and soft, downy blankets. The art setup is in the center of the room, an easel and paint cabinet floating there like they were copied and pasted from an actual studio into his apartment. Hua Cheng grabs the surround speakers and a sketchbook, then makes his way across the hall again. 


His phone is already synched to the speakers, so he cranks the volume and starts playing music. Sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, Hua Cheng starts his sketching without much thought. It’s not like this is his real art, just whatever pops into his head. So, soon, he’s drawing a butterfly landing on a set of knuckles, fingers softly unfurled and welcoming. Lost in the drawing, he barely notices He Xuan emerge from the steamy bathroom. 


Too skinny. He Xuan is wrapped in a towel about his waist, and he steps up to his closet to find something to wear. He pays no mind to Hua Cheng, and Hua Cheng would have paid no mind to him if it weren’t for the bruises. One busted up eye is bad, this looks...horrific. Like someone dipping a brush in watercolor purple and smearing it across his entire torso. Back, too. Hua Cheng’s pencil quivers over the sketchbook page as he stares, and finally, He Xuan notices. 


“What the fuck are you staring at?”


“...are you okay?”


The question is more genuine than either of them were expecting, and He Xuan’s face furrows in annoyance. “I’m fine! Stay out of my business.” At this point, he doesn’t seem to care anymore what clothing he wears, grabbing random pieces from inside the closet and booking it back to the bathroom. The door swings shut with a sad thump. 


Hua Cheng stares at the place he just was, worry poking at his brain. Not that he wants to worry about He Xuan. Just his neighbor that he talks to sometimes, when the monotony gets to him. Since Xie Lian left, Hua Cheng hasn’t wanted to care about anyone else. And He Xuan is a prickly creature, not meant to be doted on. But when he comes out of the bathroom again, wearing too-large pajamas and walking with a slight sway to his step, Hua Cheng feels his will shrivel like a salted slug. 


“Pizza will be here soon.” 


“Cool.” He Xuan lays down on the couch, on his stomach. His head drops onto the cushion. The way his arm unfurls down the side of the couch, fingernails scraping the floor, shows off the bruises. Hua Cheng now realizes they are handprints. He Xuan was grabbed and held still while being beaten. Two aggressors? He wasn’t an expert. “What are you drawing?” he asks, softly. 


Quickly looking back down at his drawing, Hua Cheng hums non-committedly. “...nothing really.” He lifts the edge of the sketchbook and turns it around so He Xuan can see. The drawing is non-detailed and sketchy, but He Xuan’s lips finally tilt up when seeing it. It’s the first time Hua Cheng has seen him smile all night. “So,” he says, letting the sketchbook drop to the table in front of him again. He starts making lines, working hard to keep his eyes away from He Xuan’s bruises. “My friend - eh, he’s not really a friend - an art dealer I know says I should, uh, start looking for studio spaces. And a new apartment.” 


“Oh, yeah?” He Xuan’s voice is muffled, and Hua Cheng glances up to see his buried his face into the couch cushion. 


“Mhm. I like it here, but maybe he’s right. You thinking of moving out of here anytime soon?” 




“Yeah, guess you don’t make enough money to-” Hua Cheng stops talking when He Xuan grumbles at him, and he sets his pencil down. A grin stretches across his face, and Hua Cheng props his elbow on the coffee table. Leaning across it, slowly, he waits until He Xuan’s pretty, golden eyes swing around to land on him again. “What if I get a two-bedroom somewhere? You wanna move in with me?” 


He Xuan gathers an arm under him, resting his cheek against his wrist. “We’re hardly that close.” 


“Sure, but...well, this would be more for convenience than anything else.” He looks away. “I have uh...a lot of memories in this place. Before you lived here, I um. I don’t know. I think maybe it’s time to pack up and try somewhere else. Maybe not.” He sighs. “Just ignore me. I was just thinking out loud.” He looks at He Xuan again, finds that his eyes have shut, and Hua Cheng taps his fingers against the sketchpad. Maybe he should be offended that He Xuan fell asleep as he was talking, in seconds, but with how clearly exhausted his was, it wasn’t really a surprise. 


Flipping to a new page, Hua Cheng turns the sketchpad horizontally and begins to sketch. Within minutes, drawn lines fill up the page. Shading around the eye forms a bruise, and Hua Cheng presses harder with his pencil to darken the lines that fall gently over his face - hair - and carefully puts in his curled, long eyelashes. The music turns to a softer song as he draws, enveloped in it, and he barely hears the knock at the door over the gentle notes. Getting up, Hua Cheng swings the door open and pays for the pizzas. 


The smell wakes He Xuan up. His head blearily lifts off the couch when Hua Cheng settles the pizza boxes on the coffee table. He flips his sketchbook shut, then pushes it off onto the floor. “Alright, eat up,” he says. Folds his hands and happily settles them in his lap. He Xuan slides off the couch and sits by the coffee table, grabbing up a piece and shoving half in his mouth. “Not even a thank you?” Hua Cheng asks, feigning thoughtfulness. “You’re really rude today.”


“And you’re annoying everyday, so it balances out.” 


Hua Cheng laughs, then reaches for a piece of pizza. His hand pauses halfway to the box when he sees the bruises on He Xuan’s shoulder. He is looking at the speakers, head tilted, and his oversized pajama shirt is slumping off of him. It hurts to look at and not know where they came from. Pushing through the strange sizzle of worry, Hua Cheng grabs up some pizza and tries to enjoy it without distraction. 



“You’re not working at the factory anymore.” 


He Xuan’s head lifts. The magazine is folded open in his hands - Art World Weekly or one of the other bullshit subscription services Yin Yu signed him up for - and he gazes with blank eyes at Hua Cheng. “Yes?” 


Standing inside the small kitchenette, Hua Cheng listens to the thrumming cycle of the microwave behind him. He Xuan has new bruises today, flowering over his jawline and around his throat. Something thick and solid had left a stripe on his neck that was still in the early red stages. “Okay.” His eye narrows, suspiciously. He Xuan looks down at the magazine again, one leg folded under himself on the stool. “I think you need to sue the foreman, then. Clearly the safety standards are going down.” 


“Shut up.” 


A quick, decisive shut-down to this line of questioning, Hua Cheng sighs and turns toward the microwave. The timer counts down - three, two, one - and he presses the end button before it can chime. Opening it, he reaches in and feels the hot side of the bowl he’d put inside. Gingerly, burning the tips of his fingers the whole way, Hua Cheng takes it out and hurries to set it on the counter beneath the microwave. The noodles inside have turned soft, swimming in the now steaming base. 


“Are you ever in these things?” He Xuan asks. 


Looking over, Hua Cheng pats the soft, burning pads of his fingers on his tongue one after another. “Uh, sometimes. Haven’t been in a few months...about a year, actually.” 




He isn't sure if He Xuan actually cares, or if he's trying to keep the conversation off of himself. “...well, um. Frankly, they said they were bored of me. Because I only draw one subject, and uh...the heartbreak storyline can only be rehashed so many times. Don’t worry, I still sell plenty of paintings. I’m not going broke because some dumb editors don’t want me in their shitty magazine.” 


“I’m not worried about you.” He flips the magazine shut and throws it onto the table in front of him. A small, folding table that can be shoved together and leaned on the wall when Hua Cheng doesn't need it. Still at the counter, he moves half the noodles into a second bowl and sticks chopsticks into both. Bringing them over to the table, he puts one in front of He Xuan and settles with his own. “I prefer when you buy pizza.” 


“Is that all I am to you? A walking wallet to buy you food?” 




Hua Cheng snorts. “Asshole.” 


He Xuan doesn't wait to eat, slurping up still steaming noodles. Hua Cheng watches him with a small shake to his head. Mostly wondering if he even has a pain-tolerance. Or, maybe, he's just that hungry. 


“You know how I was talking about moving?” Hua Cheng asks, mindlessly stirling the noodles into a whirlpool inside the bowl. 


“Uh.” He Xuan doesn't stop eating, talking with his mouth full and no reservations. “Not really.” 


“The other night, at your place?” He Xuan shrugs at him, and Hua Cheng considers reaching over to flick him on the side of the head. But...well, there wasn’t really a lot of skin exposed without bruising on it, so he makes the choice not to. “Whatever, doesn’t matter, because I’ve decided to just stay here. Why should Yin Yu get to dictate my fucking life? He’s my agent, not my boss. I’m his boss.” He Xuan nods along. Who knows if he’s really listening. “Anyway, that’s good news for you.” 


He Xuan lifts a brow. “Yeah?” 


“Yeah. I’ll be here to keep buying you fucking food.” 


He Xuan looks at him, finally taking a pause in inhaling his noodles. “I thought you were gonna take me with you?” This leaves Hua Cheng stumped, but before he can reply, He Xuan shifts off the stool and wrenches to his feet. Socks shuffle across the bare, concrete floor. He grabs his bag off the floor and digs inside it for something while Hua Cheng watches dumbly. When he comes back to the table, it’s with a folded up piece of paper. “I got you this.”


“Huh?” Hua Cheng takes it, unfolding the paper. As he does, two tickets float down to the table. The paper is a receipt for the tickets, to some photo gallery show two cities over, and Hua Cheng’s brow twitches when he sees the name printed at the top. “...why?”


“Uh, my boss at the factory decided to pay me in those this week. And I don’t want them, and no one wants to buy them…” He returns to eating again. “So. For you instead, I guess.” 


Hua Cheng stares at the receipt, the list of dates displayed going back at least two weeks. “He’s this close and didn’t come to see me…”


“If you’re gonna cry, at least wait until I leave.” 


Hua Cheng looks up, then clears his throat and folds the paper in half again. He stuffs the tickets inside it and sets them on the table. Not wanting to think about gege, Hua Cheng turns his eye back to He Xuan’s clearly degrading body. “Why are they paying you in tickets? That doesn’t seem like sound business practice.”


“I don’t want to talk about work.”


“Clearly.” He narrows his eye. “Did you pick up some sort of extreme sport?” 




“Got a new relationship you haven’t told me about?” 




Fingers drumming on the table, Hua Cheng watches his guest finish the bowl and shove it to the side. Chopsticks tilted inside and swimming in the watery base left behind. He Xuan isn’t answering his questions, or really even open to the idea of entertaining them. Hua Cheng sighs and chooses to let the subject drop for the night. “Do you want to stay while I paint?” 


“’s late.” He Xuan lifts one shoulder, shrugging. “I should probably go home and try to sleep.” 


“Do you have work early in the morning?” 


“No, just...always tired these days.” That at least sounds like an honest answer. And with dark circles under his eyes, He Xuan does look tired. In a pretty way. Hua Cheng doesn’t want to interrogate that random thought, or question why he wants to match paint to the color of He Xuan’s bruises to recreate them on a canvas. “Thanks for dinner, yeah?” 


“Yeah…” He Xuan stands up, beginning to leave. Hua Cheng crosses his arms and watches him with a frown. “Hey?” 


Turning around, He Xuan regards him with a raised brow. 


“Can I paint you?” 


“...paint me?” 


Hua Cheng clears his throat, feeling more awkward about this than he has any reason to. It’s not a degenerate thing to ask of someone, he doesn’t think. “Like, model for a painting.” 


He Xuan stares at him. “Why?” 


“What do you mean why?” Hua Cheng realizes after he’s asked that it’s probably a valid question. He scoops noodles into his mouth and slurps them up to give himself another few seconds to come up with an actual answer. “ have striking features,” he says, wiping at his mouth with his wrist. “I’d be interested to paint them.” 


“I thought you only painted one person.” He Xuan crosses his arms, his lip curling in a familiar sneer. Hua Cheng doesn't even mind seeing it, because at least that meant He Xuan is feeling like himself. “Your gege is your muse, right?” 


Hua Cheng sighs. “Gege...left me. And it hurts everyday. I don’t want to move on, He Xuan, but...I can’t stay like this forever.” He pushes his chopsticks around in the bowl, the leftover noodles circling slowly. 


“...I’m not doing it for free.” 




“I’m not your muse, and models get paid. If I have to sit around your fucking apartment for a couple hours a day, I’d like to get paid.” He Xuan walks the rest of the way to the door, sliding his feet into the shoes and grabbing up the bag he’d hung up. “Twenty bucks an hour.” 


Hua Cheng could have rolled his eyes at that, but that was like petty cash to him. Not like he was spending it on a nice place, or saving up for anything. “Sure. I’ll even pay thirty an hour.” 


“Sounds good. But I wanna go sleep, so...see you tomorrow?” 


“After you get off work?” 


He Xuan nods. “Yeah, I can do that. That’ll be around midnight.” 


“Eh, I’ve never liked going to bed early, anyway.” He smiles, lifting a hand to wave as He Xuan pulls the door open. “See you tomorrow, then.” He Xuan gives him a brief nod before the door is pulled shut. Hua Cheng shakes his head, then stands up to empty his noodles down the garbage disposal, appetite suddenly completely gone. 



“Have you literally ever stood still for a photo before? Gods, He Xuan, this can't possibly be that hard.” 


Hua Cheng watches as He Xuan twitches against the couch, stretched out with his legs propped over the arm and head sinking into a throw pillow. The large hoodie is completely covering his torso, and Hua Cheng sighs while watching him. Choosing a new subject for his art would lead him into this baffling situation. 


“Do you have any idea what aesthetics are?”


“...what looks good?”


“Uh, yeah, sure. We’ll go with that. Sit up.” He Xuan does and Hua Cheng walks over to sit beside him. Pushing the hood off his hair, he grips the hair tie and pulls it loose. He Xuan watches him while he runs fingers through He Xuan’s hair to smooth it down. Long and pretty, he finds his fingers lingering in the strands. “You are...very nice looking. That’s why I want to paint you. But...this? You look like a college student struggling through finals week.” 


He Xuan looks down at himself. “I came straight after showering, so…” His hair was slightly damp to confirm this. “I can go find something else to wear. I don’t know what you want.” 


“What I want is...not this. Hold on.” He stands up and goes to his own closet. Opening it up, he stares across the rows of fabric for a few moments. A white button up slips easily from the hangar, and Hua Cheng considers if for a moment. Stuffing it down into the bottom of the closet, he keeps looking. He Xuan approaches from behind him, watching, and eventually Hua Cheng turns and holds out a black t-shirt. 


“This seems even more basic than what I’m wearing,” He Xuan says, taking the shirt. “It’s soft, though.”


“Yeah, yeah, just change into that and-“ He turns and continues rifling through the closet. Unsure if any of his pants would even fit He Xuan, Hua Cheng gives up on that idea and grabs the forgotten shirt and a tie instead. “Here. Put this over it. And just have the tie loose around your neck.” He turns around, meaning to hold the items out, but he finds He Xuan has already stripped down to change. 


They done this before. Only thin towels guarding their modesty after showers, watching movies in a t-shirt and boxers, sitting shirtless by the window during summer hoping for any merciful breeze. But that was before He Xuan had bruises. Before Hua Cheng found himself morbidly fascinated. Before he was painting him to try to satisfy the strange itch that had developed. 


He Xuan takes off everything save his boxers, and he slides the large shirt over his thin frame. The button up’s sleeves are too long for him, and Hua Cheng steps closer to roll them up. He Xuan is looking at him like he’s gone insane, and Hua Cheng refuses to look him in the eye. “What sort of painting is this, anyway?”


“I don’t know. A study” The answer is as cheap as it is untrue, but Hua Cheng isn’t going to admit to anything deeper than that. “Go sit back on the couch again.”


He Xuan, probably plied by the money he’ll be receiving, listens to what he’s told. And he flops onto the couch, legs crossed as he leans against the arm. Twirling the tie around his fingers, He Xuan looks curiously at Hue Cheng as he walks over. “Now what?” 


“Hm. I’m going to pose you.” 


“Go for it.” 


Hua Cheng considers the environment, then he crosses to the table and picks up a stool. Bringing it over, he sets it next to the couch and pulls He Xuan up to his feet. Taking him around the waist, Hua Cheng makes He Xuan sit down on the stool instead. He’s so small in Hua Cheng’s hands that it almost feels wrong. He should be ordering him food and forcing him to eat it instead of painting him. Hua Cheng tries not to get caught up in thoughts like that. The entire time he works He Xuan into a pose, golden eyes track his every single movement. 


He doesn’t think He Xuan knows how intense his stare can be. He’s sitting casually, probably thinking nothing at all, but the melty-gold of his eyes is scalding. Hua Cheng makes him tilt his head to the side, long, silky hair flowing downward, one hand tangled in the strands. “Whatcha gonna call this piece?” He Xuan asks, and Hua Cheng does sense a bit of ribbing in the question. 


“Fuck if I know,” he says. “You’ve seen my work before, yeah?”


Gege,” he says, emphasis making Hua Cheng roll his eyes. 


“Yeah. I’ve shown you some pieces. You know risqué subject matter.”


He Xuan tilts his head up straight, and Hua Cheng gently guides him back into the position he wants. “Are you saying this look is supposed to be sexy?”


Hua Cheng’s nostrils flare at the teasing, and he crosses his arms. “And if it is?”


“I think you have bad tastes.”


Clicking his tongue, Hua Cheng walks away and picks up his sketchbook. There’s already a canvas set up, but he’ll start with a basic sketch before moving on to that. Sitting down on his own stool, he lifts up the graphite pencil balanced on the easel and starts to work. “Just stay still for awhile. We’ll take a break in a few hours.” 




“What the hell did you think you were signing up for?”


He Xuan groans. “Not hours. I’m still getting paid for every hour, right? Even when we take a break.” 


“Why would I-?” Hua Cheng looks up, then he sighs. “Yes, I’ll pay you even while we’re on break. Not that it’ll be that long. Just enough to get up, stretch, get water, whatever…” He waves the pencil in his hand dismissively, then sets up the sketchbook and starts making initial linework. When he looks up again, He Xuan has lifted his eyes toward the ceiling, a bit of a bored expression on his face. Tired, too. Hua Cheng taps the blunt end of his pencil against the sketchbook page, thinking.


Getting up, he walks to the table pushed against the wall and digs his phone out. Hooking it up to the speakers, he plays his favorite album of instrumental rock ballads - no vocals to distract, but hopefully enough to alleviate the silence - then he heads back to his stool. He Xuan watches his him, eyes sweeping back and forth across the room. “’s going to be a long night,” he says, in explanation. Hopefully neighbors won’t mind the music, not that Hua Cheng cares. But he doesn’t want to be interrupted. 


“Are you gonna finish the whole piece tonight?” 


“Uh, probably not. We can set up another day for you to come back.” He flips the page for a fresh sketch, then goes to He Xuan to fix his position. Pulling one side of the button-up down, he lets it dangle against his elbow. He moves his hand from his hair and instead folds it across his midsection. This isn’t what he wants, and Hua Cheng is kicking himself for this whole situation. What he wants to paint are the things He Xuan doesn’t even want to admit are there. After uselessly moving his arms around a few times, Hua Cheng pauses. 


He Xuan stares up at him, head tipped backwards. His wrists are snagged in Hua Cheng’s hands, and he flares his fingers out and then curls them back toward his palms. “I’m guessing this isn’t what you wanted,” he says, and Hua Cheng’s eyes swing guilty down at him. Dropping his wrists, he steps away from the stool and crosses his arms. “No one ever gonna compare to gege, huh?” 


No. Hua Cheng rubs his forehead. “That’s not the problem I’m having.” 


He Xuan stares at him, expectantly. 


“...would you be willing to pose in the nude?” 


“Eh? That’s what you want?” He Xuan grabs the button up and pulls it over his shoulder as he stands up. Off the stool, he still barely clears Hua Cheng’s shoulder, but He Xuan has never acted shorter than anyone else. Hua Cheng feels like he’s looking at an equal when they make eye-contact. “I’ve done worse things for money.” 


That slightly alarming statement is completely ignored when He Xuan throws the shirt off, laying it onto the stool. Then, he lifts off the black tee, and Hua Cheng steps back to watch. Probably shouldn’t stare like he’s doing, but it’s hard to look away when He Xuan is revealing even more bruises. There’s a clumsily stitched cut arching over his shoulder in a waxing crescent shape. That was new, but not super fresh, and Hua Cheng stares open-mouthed at it. His underwear is pushed down, and He Xuan steps out of it. 


“Can you turn on the heat?” 




“It’s fucking freezing in here.” 


“Right.” Turning around, Hua Cheng’s eyes search the room like his own apartment was unfamiliar to him. Shaking off his lapse, he crosses to the thermostat and cranks up the temperature. “You know these things are finicky, so I don’t know if the heat will actually kick on or not.” 


“No problem.” When he turns around, He Xuan seems to be regretting his choices. Standing naked in his neighbor's apartment probably hadn’t been on his list of potentials for the night. His arms cross over his chest, cheeks taking on color in their usual papery appearance. “What do you want me to do?” 


“You can lay down on the couch.” 


Hua Cheng walks back to He Xuan, taking his arms. The slight furrow in-between his brows goes away when Hua Cheng takes him back to the couch. He clears everything away, laying two throw pillows against the arm, and he lets He Xuan lay down. On his side, hair sweeping over one shoulder, he makes him lay his head atop one of his arms. “Cross your legs at the ankles. Yeah, just like that. Hold on. I have something to add.” 


Hurrying to his bed, Hua Cheng bends down and reaches underneath for his jewelry bag. A lot of this had been specifically for Xie Lian, when they would spend hours decorating each other for their art. Xie Lian had probably taken more photos of him for his gallery shows than Hua Cheng had managed to paint of him, but the number of sketches made their numbers more even. He’d never used these for anyone else before, but there’s a piece that is perfect for He Xuan. Before his guilt over using it can take over, He Xuan takes out the bracelet and brings it back over. 


It slips easily over He Xuan’s hand. Settled on his wrist, its sapphires gleam in the light. He Xuan lifts it up to the light and looks it over, curiously. “Not really my style,” he says, sardonic. 


Hua Cheng’s mouth is almost too dry to respond. “I like it on you.” 


“ much do you think it’s worth.” 


He knows exactly how much it’s worth, but saying that while they’re both living in this shitty place seems unfair. So Hua Cheng shrugs. Living here with Xie Lian had always been comfortable. Buying some rich mansion-house might have been on their to-do list someday, but it was alway a future wish. And then Xie Lian had left him, and all the treasures they’d accrued didn’t matter anymore. “Don’t know. Why don’t you keep it?” 


“I don’t wear jewelry.” 


“You should.” Hua Cheng licks his lips, and He Xuan’s eyes rise to meet his. “I think it compliments you.” 


With the ceiling lights reflecting in his eyes, He Xuan looks at him with a small twitch in his jaw. “Ah.” Whatever revelation he’d reached isn’t stated, and he settles his hand so that it dangles over his hip. Hua Cheng likes it there. The blue gems gleaming. “You’re still on the clock, so you should get painting.” 


They settle in after that. The awkwardness gets smudged away by focus, and He Xuan seems to easily settle once Hua Cheng is sketching him. The couch is probably more comfortable than the stool as well, the position more natural. Every time Hua Cheng looks at him, it seems He Xuan grows more intensely attractive. Words can’t describe his strange fascination with the overlapping shades of blue and purple. His legs are clear of them, and most of his stomach is untouched. But they leak over his ribs like an ink stick dipped in water. Random patterns. It’s almost like an arrangement of flowers under his skin. The stripe around his neck is darkening, too. And the bruises around He Xuan’s eyes seem almost too painful to bear. The worst fights Hua Cheng had ever been in were schoolyard scuffles. Growing up a scrawny, gay kid hadn’t done him any favors. But he’d never looked like this after the neighborhood bullies had their way with him. 


Hua Cheng glances up when the heater finally kicks on, and he shoots a grin in He Xuan’s direction when he grumbles a soft, “fucking finally,” and lifts his head a bit. Straight, black hair falls around his ear, and He Xuan briefly lifts his hand to tuck it back into place before returning to his prior position. 




“Frigid. Might raise my price to forty next time.” 


“Forty an hour? I think you’re overvaluing yourself.” Hua Cheng puts his sketchbook to the side, facing the canvas which sits upon an easel. To his left, a series of paints are spread out and ready for him, and Hua Cheng plucks through them as he decides on a palette. He Xuan is far too pretty to not do him justice. “ much do you make at the factory?”


“Couple hundred a night.” 


Hua Cheng opens a tube of oil paint, pressing out, and he mixes it with another to make the perfect color. “...they don’t pay hourly?” He's careful with these questions, knowing how touchy He Xuan gets. 


“No. I get paid by how much I get done. How much longer do you want me for the night?”


“Few more hours.” He sits back on his stool, leaning around the easel to see He Xuan more clearly. His long, thin body laid on the couch, beautiful. Moreso than he has any right to be. “If you need a break, let me know.”


“I’m pretty comfortable right now.” He Xuan’s lip lifts, briefly. And Hua Cheng goes back to his painting. The first strokes are made on the blank canvas, and he continues with confidence. “How many people have you painted?”


Hua Cheng can see the pathway to a full painting, even with only a few nondescript slashes of paint on his canvas. “Did a lot of still-life studies in art school. They had a large, rotating set of models. So, I don’t know. Thirty, maybe.”


“I meant, many have you done like this?”


He sighs. “One.” Hua Cheng’s hand pauses briefly. “Two, now.” It already feels like one too many, but he keeps going. There has to be a point when he moves on, right? Even when it hurts. Hua Cheng slides the small brush along the canvas, a body taking shape. “I know you haven’t done this before. But...anything like this?”




“Ever think you’d be doing this?”


“What? Sitting naked on my friend’s couch because he wants to paint my dick? Nah, never thought I’d be doing this.” 


Hua Cheng snorts, then leans around the easel again. He lets his gaze slide over He Xuan’s body. The fact that it’s on display for him is more of a triumphant feeling than he’d expected. Paying or not, He Xuan is here for his needs. Eye stopping between his legs, Hua Cheng grins. “It’s a nice dick. Bit on the small side.” 


“Fuck off. It gets bigger.”


“Oh, yeah?” Hua Cheng dips his brush back into the paint, enjoying himself more than he had thought would be possible. “Is Xuanxuan a grower, not a shower?”


“I will walk out of here.” 


“Nah. You want that money.” Hua Cheng chuckles, and he listens to He Xuan groaning dramatically. His smile is genuine, as he adds a darker color to the palette and starts to add shadow. It’s a large enough canvas that the smaller details matter a lot. And, since they’re on the subject, he spends a few minutes perfecting the shape of He Xuan’s cock where it rests. By the time he realizes he’s spent so much time on it, their conversation as faded into a natural lull. 


A new song is playing, familiar guitar riffs with a piano undercurrent, and Hua Cheng prepares more colors on his palette. His hand pauses when He Xuan begins to hum softly. It seems an involuntary noise, like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it himself. It’s mindless and beautiful. Leaning around the easel, Hua Cheng finds He Xuan with his eyes closed and lips pursed. His fingers lift and gently tap on his thigh to the rhythm. It’s almost too much. 


The next strokes bring life to the subject of Hua Cheng’s fascination. Doing detail work is a slow process, but Hua Cheng carefully paints each of He Xuan’s jutting ribs and the bruises that color the skin over them. Every color from blood vessels bursting beneath the skin, violence written like a diary for Hua Cheng to record. It’s slow work, bringing this to life. The humming stops. The playlist ends. And he still works. There’s nearly a full painting by the time Hua Cheng realizes he’s gotten too caught up. 


“Ah, sorry.” He’s not particularly messy, but there’s some purple and red paint on his fingers, and Hua Cheng tries wiping the worst of it away on a rag before getting to go get his phone. “We’ll probably call it for the night. I got really-“ He checks the phone and finds it’s edging past 3:45 in the morning, and he winces. “Anyway. He Xuan?”


Turning around, Hua Cheng finds the lack of response came from He Xuan being asleep. He’s stayed in the same position, just totally unconscious. Pink lips are parted, lashes brushing his cheekbones. Hua Cheng curls and unfurls his fists, staring at the sleeping beauty on his couch. Eventually, the creeping reminder that he needs to do something stabs him in the back of the brain, and Hua Cheng goes to his bed. 


Grabbing the white, knit blanket off the top of the bed, he brings it to the couch and drapes it over He Xuan. Tucking it around his slender body, Hua Cheng fights his hands from lingering. “Sleep well,” he says, to absolutely no response. Turning the lights off, he leaves the painting out to dry and goes to his own bed. Hua Cheng only throws off his paint-stained jeans before crawling into bed and trying to fall asleep. 


In the darkness, his fingers slip underneath his pillow and Hua Cheng feels the Polaroid photograph he keeps tucked away. If he took it out, he’d see Xie Lian’s smiling face and his own splotchy, red dye job he’d had in college. Sitting on the floor of the apartment, before they’d even had furniture, a blanket and pillows beneath them. Something icy, prickly, worms inside his heart and makes the beat of it falter. It’s been years since Xie Lian walked away. Why can’t he feel anything more than guilt when feelings and admiration flare for another person? There’s no answers in the silent dark, and eventually Hua Cheng falls asleep.





Hua Cheng’s arms are crossed over his chest, and he waits for Yin Yu to get done looking through the paintings. Yin Yu tucks his pen by his ear and bends down to look closer at the paintings. There’s several at this point, a new collection with a new muse. And Yin Yu hadn’t expected that when he showed up, clearly. “Well?” Hua Cheng asks, his annoyance showing in his tone. 


“I like them. Your subject, a bit beat up.”


Artistic interpretation. You’re staring like you don’t want them.” 


The paintings lean against the wall, and Yin Yu puts one knee on the ground as he looks them over. “Just surprised, that’s all.” The one he’s directly in front of happens to be Hua Cheng’s favorite, even though it’s only a profile, a dangling earring hanging from one ear. He Xuan looks vaguely amused, hair pulled back in a messy bun. Details had hair falling over his neck, wispy bangs in front of his eyes. His features are delightfully sharp and different than the face Hua Cheng has been painting for years. “Where’d you find this one?” 


“Huh?” Hua Cheng draws himself back from distraction. 


“This subject. Where’d you find him? An agency?” 


Brows furrowed, Hua Cheng shakes his head. “No, he’s my neighbor. Anyway, how much for these?” 


“The famous Hua Cheng painting a new muse?” Yin Yu stands up, brushing his knee off with a few sharp gestures. “At least a small mansion each. More, probably. You sure your neighbor is okay with being painted? Drawing from outside the art world leads to all sorts of litigation.” Yin Yu motions to one of the workers he’d brought with him, and they begin gathering up the paintings and carefully wrapping them in cloth to protect them. And he picks up his briefcase and takes it to the table. Hua Cheng follows. 


“I’m paying him for modeling. Forty an hour.” 


Forty?” Yin Yu laughs. “For an ametuer. Not even that, he’s some random guy who lives in this dump?” Sitting down, Yin Yu draws out the usual paperwork, and Hua Cheng sits across from him with a slightly annoyed expression. “Uh, take this, too.” He passes over a short slip of paper and Hua Cheng takes it with a lifted brow. 


“What is it?” 


“Just a small protection from this guy getting a big head and deciding to sue you for making money off his likeness. Basically a consent form.” 


“Gege never had to sign one of these…” 


“That’s because you two were dating, and you were in his photography just as much as he was in your paintings. And I represented you both. But I don’t know anything about this guy, so I need a little safety net.” Yin Yu looks up, sliding the pen from behind his ear, and he scrawls his signature on the bottom of their usual contract, then he pushes it over for Hua Cheng. The pen is extended toward him. 


Taking it, Hua Cheng signs the contract and pushes all the papers back to him. “I’m seeing him tonight, so I’ll have him sign it.” 


“You dating this guy?” 


“N-” Hua Cheng shoots Yin Yu a glare. “No. He’s just my neighbor.” 


“Okay, okay. It was just an innocent question.” Yin Yu lays everything back in the briefcase. “I’ll put the paintings up over the next week, we’ll host the auction next Saturday. Maybe you can make an appearance at this one?” 


“If I show up at one of your gallery showings, how will I retain my mysterious image?” Hua Cheng gets up from the table and goes into his kitchen. Grabbing a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet, he brings it over with two glasses, and he serves them both. Yin Yu smirks and lifts up his glass. Hua Cheng copies the motion, then clinks their glasses together. “...we’ll see. I’ll ask He Xuan if he wants to go. Buy him something nice to wear.” While Yin Yu drinks, Hua Cheng only considers the alcohol in his glass. 


An amused chuckle escapes his guest. “You sure this is purely platonic?” 


His gaze lifts away from the swimming amber liquor. “ is for him.” 


“Ah. Well, I guess I can’t expect you to be lucky in love, huh?” Yin Yu sips at the whiskey, ponytail thrown over his shoulder. “I really thought you and Xie Lian would last for eternity.” 


Hua Cheng sets the glass down, no longer feeling up for the alcohol’s burn. “Well. He wanted to travel. Alone. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent break.” 


“In my experience,” Yin Yu says, fingers curling around the loose strands beneath his hair tie, “a break is always just that. Relationships rarely ever mend themselves afterward. So don’t beat yourself up about it.” 


The sudden somberness makes Hua Cheng sit up straight. Clearing his throat, he waves a hand flippantly then settles his elbow on the table. “It doesn’t matter. All I needed was another muse, right? And I’ve got one. And you’ll keep getting fifteen percent.” 






Yin Yu sets his empty glass down. “Well, happy to see you. We’ll talk again in a week. Good luck with your new muse.” He takes his briefcase with him as he leaves. The paintings are carried out to be framed and prepped for the gallery, Yin Yu’s assistants trailing along after him. Hua Cheng looks down as soon as the door swings shut. With one finger, he touches the red pearl at the end of his braid. Tugging, it takes him a few minutes to work it out of his hair, then he rolls it between his thumb and forefinger. 



“You look nice like that.” 


Hua Cheng looks up. His easel is set up with a large canvas, and he stands beside it with the paint palette in one hand, brush in the other. He Xuan is wearing nothing but a bright necklace of silver with inlaid sapphires and the bracelet which had become a staple, looking fairly gorgeous himself. Looking down at his plain tank top and paint-splattered jeans, Hua Cheng fixes his model with a perplexed look. 


“With your hair up.” 


“Oh.” His hand inches up toward the messy bun he’d piled it into, but halfway there he remembers the paintbrush covered in blue he's using. Looking back to the canvas, he details the bruise around He Xuan’s left eye. It was nearly swollen shut, and Hua Cheng blends the paint over the top of his skin with a small frown. “Uh, thanks.” 


He Xuan leans back against the arm of the couch, reaching his hand toward the table Hua Cheng had dragged over at the start of the session. There’s a few candies laid out, and He Xuan grabs one and unwraps it. His lip is split, ringed white with dehydration. But he pops the hard candy in and drops the empty wrapper onto the table. Sitting up, he fixes the necklace back into the right position, then swings his gaze back to Hua Cheng. 


“Are you almost done?” 


“Doing details now. You got places to be?” 


“Nah.” He Xuan looks down, and his shoulder lifts slightly. “Oh, I’m selling my couch, so tomorrow if you see two brawny men carry it down the stairs, I’m not being robbed. Okay?” 


Hua Cheng’s brow twitches. “Why are you selling your couch?” 


“No reason.” 


“Uh huh.” Hua Cheng doesn’t think He Xuan is going to get up and storm off if he presses him, but they’ve fallen into a pretty easy balance of not doing that. “Are you short on cash for something?” When Hua Cheng looks away from his painting again, he finds He Xuan is sitting a little stiffer. The silk wrap draping across his shoulder slides away, and He Xuan slowly blinks back to himself and tries to pull it back around. “...if you need more money, I’ll-” 


“It’s not-” He Xuan looks over, then he slides the white silk into his hands and twists it around his knuckles. They’re bruised too, and the gossamer-like fibers don’t hide the red and purple burgeoning under his skin. “...if it was just like, I was short fifty bucks on rent, I’d ask. But I can’t.” 


“Sure, I offered. If there’s something-” 


“I can’t.” 


Looking at the painting again, Hua Cheng finds himself staring at the overlapping bruises he’s painted, and suddenly there’s a sickness in his gut. He Xuan is pretty. Every curve and line of his body draws Hua Cheng’s sharp eye, and of course he’d see the artistry inlaid in this, but it’s violence that put those bruises there. And there’s nothing beautiful about that. Putting his brush and palette down, Hua Cheng walks away from the canvas and sits down on the stool. His hands smooth down his pants, smearing the traces of wet paint that were on his palms. 


They don’t speak. He Xuan is watching him and waiting. The white silk winds around his wrist, fingers tugging on the fabric. A different set of hands used to tangle with that scarf, bright smiles over glasses of wine late at night. It is time to let go of that face, that person. Hua Cheng looks to his mostly-finished painting, then back to He Xuan. And he is clearly distracted in his own thoughts. Lips drawn, the split reddening as the pinched expression pulls at the edges of it. 


“He Xuan. Where did you get those bruises from?” 


“The factory.” 


“You don’t work at the factory, anymore. Where did you get them?” 


There’s a few seconds pause, and He Xuan gently traps the gossamer silk between his fingers and lifts it to his cheek. Brushing it along his skin, he bites his lip hard enough that Hua Cheng worries that split is going to open up and start to bleed. “Got a new job.” 


“What kind of job?” Hua Cheng sits up a bit straighter. This is the closest he’s gotten to an answer in weeks. 


“Well, it’s-” He Xuan pauses, then he tosses the silk to the ground and swings his legs off the couch. “Why do you care, anyway? It’s just a job. Just like your job.” Standing up, He Xuan snags the robe off the back of the couch and slides it on. Hua Cheng had bought it for him to wear during their breaks. It’s short, only reaching mid-thigh, but it covers up all the less modest bits of his body. “I’m going to my apartment for a bit. I’ll be back.” 


When He Xuan heads to the door, Hua Cheng quickly follows. He leaps over the back of the couch and swings around in front of him. Blocking He Xuan from the door, he holds a hand out and gently settles it on He Xuan’s shoulder. “Is someone hurting you?” 


He Xuan scoffs, then flicks him in the nose. “No. Dumbass.” And he shoulders by, sliding shoes onto his feet by the door. “What if they were? What are you gonna do? Paint them to death?” He scoffs, openly, then jerks the door open. Hua Cheng doesn’t let this die, following after him and into the open hall between their doors. 


“If it’s not bad, then why can’t you tell me?” 


“I could tell you if I wanted to,” He Xuan says, inserting his key into his lock. “But I don’t want to. Now, leave me alone. I’ll come back when you’re not being annoying anymore.” His door opens, and He Xuan steps through. He Xuan listens to the bang as it slams closed, his shoulders slumping. Turning back around, he steps through his door and kicks it shut. 


After that, Hua Cheng doesn’t feel like he’s in an artistic mood, so he cleans up and washes out his brushes. Putting things aside, he stares at the unfinished painting on the easel. It’s got too much of He Xuan already there. His sharply delicate features, full lips, the slightly annoyed expression he always seems to wear. It’s lofty, but only in the sense that He Xuan knows his own worth. Or...Hua Cheng always thought that before. But who would put themselves through what He Xuan did? Not someone who valued themselves. 


Sighing, he sits on the edge of his bed and rubs a finger beneath his eye. The nail of his index finger is bisected with a slash of white paint which cuts up his finger. He follows it, watching the tail end taper off near the middle knuckle on his hand. 


His door swings open. Hua Cheng hadn’t genuinely expected He Xuan to come back at all, so he’s surprised. More surprised when he looks up and finds red rimmed eyes staring back at him. “He Xuan? Wha-” 


“I don’t want to talk about it!” His voice is sharp, and Hua Cheng wisely goes quiet. He Xuan walks back in, pushing the door shut behind him. Running one hand over his swollen eye, he winces and jerks his fingers back. Blinking, he walks back to the couch and sits down. Grabs the silk and lays it back over his shoulder. He Xuan leans back, breathing in sharply. “Get back to painting.” 


Hua Cheng says nothing for a moment. Staring at He Xuan. As he starts to approach, He Xuan seems to realize himself, and he reaches down to open his robe. He’s thrown it open and gotten one shoulder out by the time Hua Cheng reaches him, and he moves to the floor and pulls the fabric back over his slim shoulder. He Xuan stares at him, eyes watery, and Hua Cheng gently presses the sides of the robe together. 


“I’m done for the night.” 


A small hiccup. “I-I need to get paid the full four or five hours tonight. I’m sorry for-for leaving.” 


“No, it’s alright. I’ll…I’ll just give you the money.” 


“What’s the point of that? What are you getting out of it?” 


Hua Cheng’s eye narrows. “Why do I have to get something out of it?” He Xuan looks away from him, but he presses the question despite not wanting to chase him away again. “Hey. Look at me.” Hua Cheng takes He Xuan’s face in one hand, turning him back. “We are friends, yeah?” 


“Are we?” 


“I thought we were.” 


He Xuan shifts, then takes Hua Cheng’s wrist and pulls his hand free from his face. “Yeah. We are.” Breathing in, he sounds genuinely terrible. Holding in sobs and probably struggling in pain. “People generally aren’t kind, in my experience. Not for no reason. The world isn’t set up to reward helping each other.” 


“Well...maybe I’m not purely altruistic.” He Xuan’s eyes find him, and Hua Cheng stands up. “I mean, I did hold money over your head to make you come here every night so I could paint you.” His eyes slide over the necklace of dangling sapphires. 


“You offered to pay me.” 


“B-because I’m-” He looks away. “You’re hot.” 


He Xuan snorts. “Thanks.” 


Hua Cheng looks at him again, watching He Xuan wipe the tears out of his eyes again. And he can’t help but smile a little. As for confessions, he could have definitely done better. “I might be falling in love with you.” 




“In fact, I might have...already fallen in love with you.” Hua Cheng doesn’t wait for a reply when he walks to his bed and sits back down. He Xuan is simply staring at the floor and not thinking of replying, anyway. “That’s why I keep asking about you being hurt. B-but it’s also why I want to paint you. It’s...complicated. I’m worried about you, but at the same time, I think you’re...incredibly attractive. Especially all bruised up like that. And it sounds really fucked up when I say it outloud.” 


“Well...a lot of things make sense now.” He Xuan briefly touches the necklace that must be warm against his skin. His fingers stroke up and down the dangling sapphires. “Um.” 


“I don’t expect anything from you. Obviously. Just. You don’t even have to keep doing this.” Hua Cheng rubs at his paint-stained fingers. “If you need money, I’ll keep giving you money. Or I’ll give you a cut of whatever I make off selling the paintings.” He gets engrossed in picking that white line off his index finger, eye narrowing. “My art dealer, Yin Yu, says we’re gonna get a lot. He gets a fifteen-twenty cut, so maybe I can get you in there for five or ten. More, if you want.” 


A shadow falls over his hands, and he looks up. He Xuan floats in front of him like a spector, robe of light blue falling off his shoulder. Struck quiet, Hua Cheng feels a hand slide beneath his chin. He Xuan leans in, and their lips brush with surprising clarity. His hand reaches up, finding He Xuan’s side beneath the robe, and soon he’s pulling him down into his lap. Thighs rest naturally on either side of his hips as their lips feverishly dance. He Xuan tastes like candy.


With loose hair spilling over his fingers, Hua Cheng cups the back of He Xuan’s head and kisses him deeper. There’s no fabric separating them, and he can feel every inch of his slim chest pressing against his own. He Xuan rolls his hips once, and He Xuan moves his hand onto his back and downward. Seeking. He finds his ass, squeezing him, and He Xuan gasps into their kiss, breaking it. 


“You-you want-” 


“Fuck me?” He Xuan speaks directly against his lips, eyes shut, pressing closer. Arms sling around Hua Cheng’s shoulders, grabbing at his shirt as He Xuan slots himself as close as he can. “Fuck me?” 


He won’t make him ask a third time. Moving, Hua Cheng slides further on the bed and he turns to lay He Xuan down. He Xuan slips the robe off his arms and throws it to the bed beside them. Legs lock around his hips, and he gives in and presses near. Kissing He Xuan again, his tongue dives in deep. One hand slides away, toward his drawer. Distracted with kisses. Hua Cheng barely keeps his wits enough to dig the lube out of his bedside drawer. One of He Xuan’s hands is stroking down his arm, tracing patterns that make him quiver with want. If he weren’t so aroused himself, Hua Cheng might have made a snarky comment about He Xuan’s growing erection. 


Clumsily, he pops the cap and coats his fingers and palm with lube. He Xuan turns his head, watching the gleam on his digits, and Hua Cheng shifts upward and works the hand between their bodies. “I’ve...dreamed about-” 


“Get on with it!” 


He bites his words in half, then slowly begins circling his finger at He Xuan’s rim. When his head tosses backwards, Hua Cheng leans in and bites his neck. The gems of the necklace glitter under him as he licks and kisses around them. He Xuan mewels like a cat when he likes something, a detail Hua Cheng revels in, and he especially writhes when he finds a particular spot on the right side of his neck, just underneath his jaw. As he kisses and suckles this place, one finger sinks inside. 


He Xuan is opening for him easily, hips canting upwards with his motions. As his lips move to He Xuan’s ear, Hua Cheng can’t help himself. “Every sound you make is beautiful,” he whispers, and he can almost hear the internal groan that follows. But his finger is seeking the prostate, and when he finds it, whatever complaints about his sappiness are forgotten. More mewling moans come unbidden from him. “I really did dream about you, He Xuan. Thinking about getting you into my bed. You’re so gorgeous. Like, just letting you lie around showing yourself off like that? Drove me crazy.” 


“Hah-mmhmph.” Hua Cheng covers He Xuan’s lips with his own before he can speak, and they kiss long and slow. He Xuan’s nails begin scratching at his back, a slow tremble in his thighs. As their kiss reaches its natural conclusion, panting they lay their foreheads against each other. He Xuan watches him, long lashes flickering over his golden eyes. Hua Cheng feels something catch in his throat, and he brushes his lips around his left eye. A hand slowly cups his face, fingers settling over the curve of his cheek and palm resting on his jaw. Leaning into the touch, Hua Cheng moves his kisses to the side of He Xuan’s face and moves downward. “...I said you should fuck me n-not this,” He Xuan says. 


“What do you think I’m doing?” He curves his finger inside He Xuan, feeling the way his body tightens as hips lift off the bed. And He Xuan lets his head fall to the side, giving Hua Cheng access to more of his neck. He takes advantage, kissing down the column in a long, straight line. Until he gets to the necklace, and his lips press over the top of the sapphires instead. “Do you not like it?” he asks, whispering his question into the joining of He Xuan’s neck and shoulder. 


Grabbing at his hair, He Xuan’s hand fists up and grapples with the strands. His hips lift again, body very responsive to Hua Cheng’s ministrations. “I-I’m not used to it…” He gives more than a sharp tug to Hua Cheng’s hair. “I’m used to that, not-not this-” Moving one hand up, Hua Cheng gently pries He Xuan’s fingers from his hair. Linking their fingers, he holds him to the bed over their heads, beginning to work a second finger inside. 


“I’m not going to hurt you.” 


He Xuan scoffs. “I’m not afraid of you hurting me.” His hips squirm against the bed, fluttery breaths getting louder as Hua Cheng’s fingers burrow inside. The lube makes the slide easy, and He Xuan grips harder at Hua Cheng’s hand. It’s a taste of bliss when He Xuan finally shudders and relaxes, legs falling open another inch as Hua Cheng’s knuckles rest against his rim. “Hua Cheng-” 


“Call me gege.” That escapes him before he can stop it, and He Xuan’s fingers tighten around his hand in response. Hua Cheng doesn’t stop, pressing his fingers in and pulling out. He’s careful and slow, deliberate.


He Xuan breathes heavily, chest rising and falling. His ribs press into his skin, and Hua Cheng moves his lips to cover them with kisses. “Hua-gege,” he whispers, and Hua Cheng feels a pleasant shudder travel down his spine. “Hua-gege, fuck me, fuck me now. ” 


“Demanding.” Hua Cheng kisses around one of his nipples. His fingers press inward again, and He Xuan arches against him. Listening to his gasping pleas make pleasure rocket straight to his dick, and Hua Cheng quickly reaches down to unzip his pants and give some relief to the growing hard-on. As soon as he lets go of He Xuan’s hand, it snags into his hair again, and he empties a breathless laugh against his ribcage. “Is xiao-Xuan that desperate for me?” he asks, softly, listening to the small noises that eek out of him as his fingers stroke over his prostate. “Tell me that you’re desperate for me.” 


He Xuan whines, hips shifting upwards in bursts and bumping Hua Cheng with every motion. He slides his fingers out, teasing a third finger around his rim. “Ah, gege, put them in!” 


“You want my fingers now? I thought you wanted my cock.” Lifting a hand, he slid it around He Xuan’s face and smoothed a thumb across He Xuan’s lips. A flash of white teeth show from under his petal-pink lips, and He Xuan suddenly bites down on his thumb. Hua Cheng slides the digit deeper, as He Xuan closes his lips around it. “Naughty,” he whispers, then gives his nipple a playful nip. 


The third finger sinks in, and He Xuan bites into his thumb, briefly. His tongue begins to stroke along the pad of Hua Cheng’s thumb. Until his face pinches, and he pulls away and releases his thumb. “You taste like paint,” he says, and Hua Cheng nudges his leg further apart as he crawls upward. 


“Oh, is that so?” He laughs when He Xuan nibbles at his jawline. “Little piranha.” 


The scowl on He Xuan’s face is chased away by more kissing. They sink into each other, Hua Cheng’s fingers stretching him open, pushing deeper, and He Xuan pulls hard enough on Hua Cheng’s hair to finally pull it down. 


As the strands fall free, spiraling around them from the loosened hair tie, Hua Cheng lifts away from the kiss so he can admire He Xuan’s face again. With each press inward, his eyes crinkle and lips twitch open. When they kiss again, He Xuan’s teeth snag on his bottom lip, and Hua Cheng lets him have his way. 


Drawing his fingers out, he listens to He Xuan’s quiet whimpering. His eyes are closed tightly, lashes brushing his cheekbones. Tilting his head back, He Xuan vibrates when his hole is left empty. “Gege...don’t make me wait,” he whispers, and Hua Cheng kisses his throat. Beneath his lips, he feels the vibration of a needy hum. 


Hua Cheng pushes his pants down, drawing his throbbing cock from inside his boxers. He doesn’t bother stripping any more than necessary, thinking He Xuan is going to snap in half if he makes him wait much longer. “Don’t whine about it. Gege is gonna fuck you nice and slow, hm?” He grabs the lube and smears a generous helping onto his sizeable length, then he presses the tip against He Xuan’s fluttering hole. Fingers fall to his shoulder, nails biting inward, and he lets them as he pushes in. 


Stretched open for him, needy and relaxed, He Xuan is easy to breach. Hua Cheng covers his mouth with another kiss and swallows his gasps. It’s a devouring kiss, as He Xuan’s greedy body welcomes him deep and squeezes so tightly around him that Hua Cheng’s brain spins inside his skull. Legs fold over his hips again, holding him close. “My xiao-Xuan is so tight,” he whispers, and He Xuan lets out a choked grumble as Hua Cheng shifts deeper. 


“Ahw-wh-” He Xuan’s nails bite deeper into his shoulder, clinging hard as Hua Cheng rolls his hips and slowly fucks him. “I-” His words get bitten off by mewels, and Hua Cheng nudges his nose against He Xuan’s jawline until he turns his head. Finding that sensitive place before, Hua Cheng suckles on it, teeth nipping gently every few seconds. His hips move in a slow and deliberate rhythm. Pretty just like the necklace around his throat, He Xuan at least seems aware that he can use that to his advantage. “Mnnhm, gege, harder?” 


Hua Cheng’s elbows settle on the bed, and his eyes lift. After a second, he decides to give He Xuan what he wants. Moving faster, he groans as the tunnel of He Xuan’s body squeezes tighter around his cock. Nipping and kissing back to his mouth, Hua Cheng slides his tongue back inside. He Xuan suckles on the tip of his tongue, both of them huffing groans as their joining point of pleasure roils like a choppy ocean. 


“I said nice and slow, remember?” He noses at He Xuan cheek. 


“Who needs slow?” 


Hua Cheng chuckles. It’s interrupted by a short gasp as He Xuan jerks his hips up to meet his purposeful thrust. Reaching down, he grabs one of He Xuan’s hips and holds him down to the bed. “Who needs fast? I wanna savor you.” 


“What’s there to savor?” He Xuan’s fingers finally unfurl from his clawed grip, and he wraps an arm around Hua Cheng’s neck instead. Hua Cheng watches him, admiring how his face pinches up with annoyance. “Stop staring at me like that!” 


“Like what?” 


He bares his teeth, briefly, then looks away. “I don’t know.” 


Hua Cheng stops moving, his cock buried deep. Trembles of pleasure work their way up his spine, and a tremor builds in his gut, but he resists the temptation to give in and do what He Xuan wants. Breathing in, sucking steadiness into his body, Hua Cheng fixes He Xuan with a serious look. “You deserve someone to take care of you.” 


“Ugh. Shut up.” 


“Not until you admit it.” 


“Admit what?” 


“That you deserve-” 


“Stop!” He Xuan’s hand lifts, pressing to Hua Cheng’s cheek and making him look away. He still watches He Xuan from the corner of his eye. “I thought you were riddled with lust. Should have known you’d devolve in this bullshit - damn artist.” His hand is shaking, and Hua Cheng slowly turns his face back. He Xuan’s hand falls away. “Why do you insist on making this something that it’s not?” 


“What is it not?” 


Expression pinched, He Xuan looks at him, finally. “...real.” 


Hua Cheng feels his chest ache. Leaning in, he nuzzles against He Xuan and presses a few firm kisses to his lips. “Yes, yes it is. It is.” He kisses away his disagreement. “It’s real. I promise, I want you, and I’m not lying or deluding myself. are what I want.” 


He Xuan’s fingers tremble, his lower lip shaking. Wet eyes watch him, disbelief swimming within them. Maybe Hua Cheng can’t convince him in a day or a week or a month, but if he sticks around, Hua Cheng knows he’ll get it through his thick skull eventually. Until then, he’ll give He Xuan exactly what he wants. “Tell gege what you want again,” he whispers, shifting himself deeper inside. He Xuan whimpers. 


“F-fuck me? Hard?” 


“Good boy.” Drawing himself out, Hua Cheng waits for a beat before setting his new pace. He Xuan’s back arches off the mattress when he slams in, neck exposed for him. Hua Cheng suckles around the edge of the necklace as his thrusts get harder and faster. He’s happy to have He Xuan cling to him, every inward thrust sparkling with pleasure. 


They moan in time with each other, complimenting tones, a choir of two performing only for themselves. Hand stroke down sides, Hua Cheng watches the shifting shades of purple and blue as He Xuan writhes with need. His cock is swollen and leaking onto his stomach, and Hua Cheng wraps his fingers around it. Can feel it throbbing against his palm. As he pumps his hand up and down, He Xuan’s hands fall to the mattress. He fists the sheets in gripping fingers, hair sprawled across them in perfectly black strands of silk. 


He Xuan comes as Hua Cheng slams inside him, hitting his prostate. Warm stripes paint them both, sliding down over his fingers in sticky, messy strings. Hua Cheng keeps moving, lapping at the flush of red moving down his throat and onto his chest. Thighs squeeze around his hips tightly, then fall away. He Xuan shudders as the orgasm fades out of his body. Exhausted, he settles 


Chasing twisting pleasure, Hua Cheng lets himself go completely. Fucking into He Xuan’s loosening body, he lets himself enjoy the sight of him unfurled on the mattress. He Xuan’s chest rises and falls in quick bursts, panting, trying to catch his breath. Hua Cheng can hear his own heartbeat in his ears. Heat coils inside him, until it explodes, and he groans loudly and fucks He Xuan harder through the heated release. He Xuan briefly writhes, one hand lifting slowly to slide through the sweat on Hua Cheng’s arm before it falls away. Slitted eyes watch him, lips parted. 


The last few thrusts are weak and unrhythmic. Hua Cheng pulls out, shaking as cold air snaps around his cock and chills the overheated organ. He Xuan mewels softly, hole gaping around empty air. Sliding closer, Hua Cheng lays over the top of him, briefly, kissing his lips softly. Until a soft hiss reminds him of bruised ribs, and he lifts up and stares down at the wrecked body he’d left beneath him. His hand had gripped hard enough onto He Xuan’s hip to leave red fingerprints, and cum drips from him in a slow trickle. 


Panting, Hua Cheng has to catch his breath in order to speak. “Y-you...okay?” 


He Xuan nods. He swipes his fingers through the cum left to cool and dry on his skin. “Messy.” 


“Be right back.” He leans in, kissing carefully at his swollen lips. Crawling off the bed, Hua Cheng lets his jeans hit the floor, and he steps out of them. The bathroom is only a few steps away, and he pushes the door open and flicks the lights on. The sink comes on, and Hua Cheng cleans his hands and cock, then pushes himself back into underwear. He takes off the tank top and leaves it on the floor while the water heats. He soaks a rag, then leaves the bathroom. 


He Xuan is already sitting up and putting his robe back on. When eyes find him, He Xuan stares at him with muted confusion. 


“Lay back.” Hua Cheng gently pushes him down, and he separates the robe to clean him off, carefully. “You can shower in the morning, okay?” He Xuan doesn’t answer him, and that’s fine. Prying his legs apart again, Hua Cheng cleans up his own mess carefully, listening to He Xuan’s soft intake of breath. Kissing his jawline, Hua Cheng lets himself be buried in his own post-orgasm haze. Taking off the heavy necklace, he drops it onto the bedside table. “Come here.” He lays down, opening his arms. 


Facing him, He Xuan pulls the robe around to cover himself again, eyes pointed away. But he doesn’t get any closer. Hua Cheng gently strokes the bruise around his eye, receiving next to no reaction. “ want me to stay?” he asks, a belated question. 


“Yeah.” Hua Cheng thinks, then he reaches for the blankets piled on the end of the bed and pulls one up over them. “I’ll turn off the lights. You get comfortable.” He kisses He Xuan on the forehead, then gets up and walks away from the bed. The lights are flicked off, the apartment falling to darkness. Making his way back to the bed, he finds He Xuan has turned onto his other side. Sliding up against his back, Hua Cheng gently whispers in his ear, “night, xiao-Xuan.” 


There is no response. Save for He Xuan gently linking their fingers and letting hands rest over his stomach. Hua Cheng rests his face against the back of He Xuan’s neck and shuts his eye. He’s asleep within a few breaths. 



“Yeah, yeah, I forgot about the contract. I’ll get him to sign it tonight.” Hua Cheng balances the phone between his shoulder and ear, both hands hanging onto bags of new art supplies. A weekly trip to the store leaves him dragging everything up the stairs to his apartment. “Sure, we’ll probably come. I can beg.” 


“Sure,” Yin Yu replies. “I’m sure begging is how you get what you want. Not emotional manipulation.” 


“Hey. I do not -” He stops, rolling his eyes, shifting the bags into one hand and going for his keys. “Whatever. I gotta go.” 


“You sound happier. I like this you better, keep it up.” 


Yin Yu hangs up on him, and Hua Cheng rolls his eye and takes the phone away from his ear. Putting it in his pocket, he rounds the last turn in the stairs to head up to his apartment. As he comes to his floor, he sees He Xuan sitting in front of his door. “Did you lock yourself out?” he asks, stepping onto the floor. “I’ll break...the lock…” A closer looks shows that He Xuan isn’t awake. Frankly, he looks like he’s barely breathing. 


Dropping the bags in a heap, Hua Cheng crashes to the concrete ground and crawls up to He Xuan. “He Xuan? He Xuan!?” He shakes his shoulders, finds that his keyring is looped over one finger, but he hadn’t seemed to get the door unlocked. Taking his face, Hua Cheng stares at the new bruises on his face, the dried blood pooling beneath his nose, and he feels like barbed wire is wrapping around his trachea. “Dammit.” Grabbing the keys, he stands up and drags He Xuan with him. Lifting him up, Hua Cheng realizes he feels like dead weight.


Jiggling the key into the lock, Hua Cheng goes inside He Xuan’s apartment, and he freezes in place. More than just the couch is missing. His bed is gone, as is the couch, the coffee table. Every piece of furniture he’d had has been stripped out and potentially sold. Even the kitchen is looking pretty bare. There’s one piece of furniture, a cot in the corner of the room. One of the folding kinds that he thinks most people would use on camping trips. Hua Cheng heads over to this and puts He Xuan on it. 


He’s still breathing. That much is a relief, but he’s not awake or aware. The heavy, overly-large jacket he’s wearing is unzipped, and Hua Cheng throws it open. Pushing up his shirt, he finds even more bruising. Some of it dark enough to look black. “God, who did this to you…” Worry gets to him, his brain sluggish, and He Xuan gets up to go fill a glass with water. No glasses. No water bottles. The apartment looks like no one even lives in it, and he’s starting to understand why He Xuan didn’t mind spending so much time in his loft. 


Before he can panic-run to his own apartment for water - or do something smarter like, call an ambulance - He Xuan groans. Turning around, Hua Cheng breathes in relief and crosses to the cot in quick steps. He Xuan slowly sits up, body trembling from head to toe. One one of his eyes can't even open, and he stares at the wall like he’s confused about where he is. Hua Cheng crashes to the floor beside him and grabs his face. 


“Fuck! You scared the hell out of me.” He kisses him, and He Xuan merely blankly stares at him. Hua Cheng strokes his thumb beneath He Xuan’s swollen eyes. “...we should get you looked at by someone.” 


“Someone?” He Xuan shrinks backwards, then he rubs at his own eye. 


Staring at him, Hua Cheng is surprised to find how heated he feels. “Yeah! Like a doctor?” 


“Can’t afford that.” 


He exhales through his nose. “I don’t give a shit about money. I found you passed out in the fucking hallway. That’s not normal, He Xuan.” When his eyes trail away, Hua Cheng feels a spark of anger. Snapping his fingers in He Xuan’s face, he gets that molten gaze back on him again. “Whatever this is, it’s over. You’re going to tell me who’s been doing this to you. We’ll..I don’t know, we’ll go to the police or something.” 


He Xuan stares at him. “I can’t stop.” Sighing, he rubs a hand back through his hair. It’s in a low ponytail, some of the strands loose from the hair tie, and he brushes them behind his ear. “Why can’t you just stay out of it?” 


“Because I care about you, and seeing you nearly dead in the hallway is fucking hazardous to my health.” Hua Cheng stands up, then he moves He Xuan’s legs off the side of the cot so he can sit beside him. “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?” 


He Xuan shakes his head. “Don’t know,” he mumbles. “You won’t believe me.” 


“...won’t be-” He blows air in a long stream, trying to keep himself calm. “He Xuan, the fucking proof is written on your skin. Why the hell wouldn’t I believe you?” 


“It doesn’t matter. I can’t stop.” He Xuan shifts, winces, and Hua Cheng watches him with guilt bubbling up from his stomach. He gets that it’s worse right now than it was the other night, but he suddenly wonders if He Xuan constantly feels like this. If he felt like this while they were fucking. “I’ll be fine. Just take a few days off. them and say I need a few days…” As he talks, He Xuan’s voice grows more and more listless, and Hua Cheng doesn’t think he’s going to do anything like that. 


“...why can’t you stop?” 


His fingers tangle together, bruised knuckles. Bright splotches of color against his pale skin. “My mom is sick. Really sick.” 


Hua Cheng’s head tilts. 


“I have to uh…” He Xuan lifts his shoulder and rubs his eye and cheek against it. Sniffles. Swallows. “If I stop sending her money, she won’t be able to pay for her treatment anymore. I’m trying…” His teeth bare, briefly. “Doing everything I can. It’s not enough. I need another thousand bucks by the end of the week to keep her in the hospital. Went and asked for a...raise or a bonus or something. Didn't go over well.” 


Hua Cheng’s face twitches toward the door. He thinks of the easy five hundred he just dropped on art supplies, and his fingers curve against his palms. “If you need money that bad, why didn’t you tell me?” 


“It’s not like you have much more than I do.” 


Guilt presses against his chest. Like being squeezed between two steel beams. 


“Anyway, I can make the money. I can.” He shifts up, standing straight for only a second before the vertigo gets to him. Hua Cheng stands up, swiftly, grabbing He Xuan around the waist before he can slump to the floor. Sitting back down with him, He Xuan ends up partly on his lap, body twitching in pain beneath Hua Cheng’s hands. “...fuck.” His head knocks back against Hua Cheng’s shoulder. 


“I’ll give you money.” 




“Stop. He Xuan, I-” He takes a breath. “I don’t know why you think I don’t have money. I-I do. I do. I have a lot of money.” 


“Yeah, you’re just an artist.” 


“No. He Xuan, listen to me…” He waits until He Xuan looks up at him. “My paintings sell for thousands of dollars each. Sometimes more. I’m not broke. I’m not even middle class.” He Xuan’s face crumples, and Hua Cheng bites his own tongue in internal rage. “If I’d known you needed-” 


"You're rich?" 


Hua Cheng nods. "...filthy." 


"Why the hell are you still living here?" He Xuan's eye widens in bafflement. Then he winces and rubs at the one that's too swollen to open. "If you made it big, then why-?" 


Thinking of the photograph he'd taken out from under his pillow, and the memories that kept him stuck in longing for a such a long time. "...I didn't want to let go of things, but now I do. I want you. So, whatever you need, tell me how much you need, and I'll get you the money." 


A hand seizes in the front of his shirt. “You’d do that. Lend me some money?” 


“I never said anything about lend. You can have it. No strings.” 


He Xuan is close to crying. Hua Cheng holds onto him, worried that he’ll vibrate himself to pieces. “I-I can take some time off from the-” He swallows, thick with worry. “As long as she can stay in the hospital for awhile, then I can rest and-” 


“He Xuan, whatever you’re doing to make money, you don’t have to do it anymore. Maybe get a fucking normal job and stop selling your fucking furniture.” He looks around, then settles a bit when He Xuan wriggles the rest of the way into his lap and slots his face against Hua Cheng’s neck. “...or not even that. You can just come live with me.” 


Hands tighten against his shirt, and He Xuan presses closer. 


“And you won’t have to get hurt for money anymore.” 


“It’s not as bad as you think.” He Xuan slides closer to him, lips moving against Hua Cheng’s neck. He can feel the shaky warmth of his breath and the vibration of his voice. “I fight.” 


He thinks about that for a second. “Fight?” Dumbly, all he can picture is a boxing match, and He Xuan standing against a bigger, stronger opponent. But that doesn’t seem right. “What do you mean?” 


“...there this guy. He runs this underground fight club. I...compete. But not really.” He bites his lip, and Hua Cheng feels it. Leaning back, he looks at He Xuan and waits for him to continue, now that he can see the radiating bruises on his face. “He fixes the matches. job is to go in and lose bad. Make it look real. Get really beat up. And he pays a lot. People are so bloodthirsty for the matches, they don’t even think to wonder why I lose every match, or why I keep getting thrown into the ring-” 


“No, no, oh Gods.” Hua Cheng shakes his head, and he looks up at the ceiling, briefly. “You cannot do this anymore. Underground fight club? That sounds like something out of a damn movie.” He Xuan’s face falls, and Hua Cheng swallows the rest of his derisive words. He’s not doing this because he’s enjoying this. Worse, it’s because there were no other options. “You’re done with that. Okay?” 


He Xuan blinks. “I-” 


“I will pay for whatever your mom needs. No more fucking fight club.” 


“ more fight club.” 


Hua Cheng waits until He Xuan nods, then he pulls him closer and kisses over his brow. His cheek presses to He Xuan’s forehead, and they lean into each other for a few seconds. “I’m looking forward to painting you all healed up.” 


He Xuan shoves his knuckles against Hua Cheng’s ribs sharply. “Shut up.” He slumps, falling against his shoulder, and Hua Cheng cuddles him closer. “...can you afford a bus ticket so I can go see my mom?” 


“Yeah.” Hua Cheng nestles in the top of his hair, kissing the strands and his scalp, feeling their silkiness and enjoying him. “Of course.” 


“Can you afford two?” 


Hua Cheng smiles, thinking He Xuan has really grasped the rich thing, yet. 


Later that night, when He Xuan is fed and drinking water, Hua Cheng tears up Yin Yu's consent form, letting the pieces flutter into the trash can. Wine and pizza wait for him on the floor, and He Xuan sits with a usual blank look in his eye. Sliding onto the floor next to him, Hua Cheng kisses his cheek and lets him fold himself against his side. He Xuan is quiet, bruised hands holding onto his fourth slice of pizza. Music plays over them, the easel with He Xuan's portrait painted on it to their right. Hua Cheng glances at it, briefly, then he kisses the top of He Xuan's head. He still frets a bit over He Xuan's stubborn refusal to go to the fucking hospital, but it's easy to relax when he inhales another slice of pizza like it's nothing. Feeling more like himself? Hua Cheng notes his nose in He Xuan's hair, breathing him in. 


"If you needed money so bad, why didn't you sell that stupid bracelet I gave you?" he asks, realizing it's still on his wrist. 


He Xuan looks at it, reminded, and he stares like he'd forgotten it was even there. Then, he shrugs. "Figured it was worthless costume jewelry. would notice if it disappeared." 


Hua Cheng hums. He could try to press that answer, but he knows He Xuan well enough to know it's hard to get more than that from him. So he decides not to worry about it, instead pulling He Xuan onto his lap so he can teasingly bite his shoulder. They fall easily into each other, nuzzling, and Hua Cheng presses a delicate kiss beneath He Xuan's swollen eye. It's darkening, blood rushing to the surface, and his lips dance gently over his skin. He Xuan leans into him, humming softly. "I love you, xiao-Xuan." He Xuan doesn't respond to him, not with words, instead he nibbles on Hua Cheng's jaw. It's all the answer he needs.