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You Hurt like a Burn

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And I won't be broken
I won't even feel it
Even if you asked me

BP Valenzuela
Even if you Asked Me

 

Now

Yibo knocks on the door briskly, a sharp rap of knuckles on wood, and steps back.

He can hear movement inside the hotel room -- a shuffle of steps towards the door, a pause to peer through the peephole, then the sound of the lock clicking.

He holds himself still, hands shoved into the front pocket of his hoodie and feet braced apart. He keeps his chin high and looks directly into the fisheye lens of the peephole. He doesn’t fidget or look up the corridor to make sure it’s still empty, although he wants to do both. His skin is prickling with something that rides the line between anticipation and anxiety.

Xiao Zhan, when the door swings open, looks soft and surprised. He’s changed out of his award show clothes and into a t-shirt, sweats, and a loose cardigan with sleeves that flop over his knuckles.

“Yibo,” he says, eyes wide behind his glasses. “What -- ?”

Yibo doesn’t wait for the rest of the question. He doesn’t let himself think about how good it feels to hear his name on Xiao Zhan’s lips again.

“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” Yibo says as he pushes into the room. He closes the door behind himself and turns to Xiao Zhan. He forces a smirk and hopes it looks more natural than it feels. “It’s just fun. We’ve always had fun, haven’t we? Despite whatever else.”

“Yibo,” Xiao Zhan says again, his hands coming up automatically to rest against Yibo’s arms as he crowds into Xiao Zhan’s space.

Yibo waits a minute to see if Xiao Zhan is going to follow up with an objection, but he doesn’t. His eyes flick across Yibo’s face and his fingers curl around Yibo’s biceps. Before the moment can stretch on for much longer, before Yibo has the time to stop and second guess himself, he wraps a hand around the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck and drags him into a kiss.

At the touch of Xiao Zhan’s lips against his own, the hard knot in Yibo’s throat loosens. He feels like he can breathe for the first time all day.

For the first time all year.

He pushes himself up onto his toes, pressing closer and groaning against Xiao Zhan’s mouth. Xiao Zhan’s hands shift, one sliding to brace against his back and the other to cradle the sharp point of Yibo’s jaw. His thumb strokes against Yibo’s cheek in a small, tender movement.

Yibo shakes the touch off with an irritated twitch of his head. He doesn’t want that.

Xiao Zhan breaks the kiss and Yibo doesn’t want that, either. He makes a disgruntled noise and chases after Xiao Zhan’s mouth, but Xiao Zhan takes a half step back, putting a bit of space between them and keeping his lips decidedly out of reach.

“Yibo, what are you doing?”

“This,” Yibo says. He shoves his jaw out, stubbornly, and stares Xiao Zhan out. He doesn’t move his hand, but holds it there, feeling the prickle of the regrowing hair at the nape of Xiao Zhan’s neck.

“Are you sure you want -- “

“Yes,” Yibo cuts him off. He doesn’t want to talk about this. He definitely doesn’t want to stop to think about it. He just has an itch under his skin that needs scratching. “Don’t you? It doesn’t have to be a big deal either way.”

It doesn’t. People sleep with their exes sometimes. It doesn’t mean anything.

Xiao Zhan studies his face for a beat more and Yibo focuses on not fidgeting under his steady gaze. He’s just starting to get nervous that Xiao Zhan is actually going to send him on his way, when he instead gives a sharp nod.

“Yes, I want this,” Xiao Zhan says, turns and leads the way further into the hotel room. He looks back over his shoulder as he shrugs off his cardigan, letting it slide down his arms to land in a pile on the floor.

Yibo toes his shoes off and follows. He pulls his hoodie and t-shirt off over his head as he walks, cursing under his breath as they get briefly caught around his face. When he finally gets clear, dropping the tangle of fabric to the floor near Xiao Zhan’s cardigan, he almost stumbles at the sight that greets him.

Xiao Zhan has already skinned out of his t-shirt and sweats and is sitting on the edge of the bed in just his thin boxer briefs, erection clear through the thin fabric. His glasses are neatly folded and sitting on the bedside table. He is leaning back on his arms and his stupidly long legs are sprawled apart a little. It is a lot more skin than Yibo was braced for yet. The pale, lean lines of his chest and thighs are making Yibo’s hands twitch.

There is something watchful, still, about the look on Xiao Zhan’s face.

Yibo avoids his gaze by ducking his head and focusing on undoing the fly of his jeans. He peels the tight denim down his thighs, kicking free of it so that he is standing in front of Xiao Zhan in just his underwear.

That seems to drive the last of whatever was distracting Xiao Zhan out of his head. His eyes go heavy-lidded and hot as he reaches out to grab Yibo’s hips and pull him forward until he is standing between Xiao Zhan’s splayed thighs. He holds Yibo’s gaze steadily as he hooks his fingers into the waistband of Yibo’s underwear and pulls it down. The fabric slides down until it pools around Yibo’s ankles for Yibo to step out of and kick aside.

Yibo feels like he’s been turned on forever at this point, aching with it. He’d started to get hard before he’d even got to Xiao Zhan’s room. But the sight of Xiao Zhan looking up at him through his hair, the feel of his hands cupping Yibo’s hips, pushes it to another level. His dick throbs and his mind goes blissfully blank, the tangle of thoughts he’s been fighting all day melting away under pure, uncomplicated arousal.

Yibo cards his fingers through Xiao Zhan’s short, soft hair and pulls him forward. With his other hand, Yibo guides his cock into Xiao Zhan’s mouth.

Xiao Zhan leans forward willingly, parts his lips eagerly. He pushes his tongue up as Yibo presses in, a slick pressure against the sensitive underside of his cock in just the way that Yibo has always liked best.

“Ah, ah, fuck. Yes. That’s good, so good.” It’s the sight of Xiao Zhan’s pink lips stretched around Yibo’s dick and the way his eyelashes flutter as he starts to bob his head as much as the feeling that drags the exclamation from Yibo.

He’s missed this so much.

And that’s a dangerous thought.

Yibo bites his lip, hard, to stop himself from saying anything else, to stop anything incriminating from popping out. He squeezes his eyes shut and tips his head back, blocking out the sight of Xiao Zhan, focusing on the feel of what he tells himself could be any mouth.

But it is so good, Xiao Zhan is so good at this. He falls into a fast rhythm that pushes all of Yibo’s buttons, drags him to the edge right away, and far too soon Yibo has to push him off or else he’s going to be coming right now. He wants more than a blowjob out of tonight, irrespective of how good the blowjob is.

Xiao Zhan leans back, wiping away the spit that has leaked out over his chin with the back of one hand. He doesn’t say anything, just watches, one hand still resting gently against Yibo’s waist, as Yibo takes a shuddering breath, and then another, trying to calm down. The feel of Xiao Zhan’s eyes on him isn’t helping -- even now, even after a year, something in Yibo’s brain is hardwired to find Xiao Zhan watching him unbearably arousing.

“Do you have condoms? Lube?” Yibo’s voice, when he asks, is unsteady. There’s a quaver to it that Yibo chooses to attribute to arousal.

Xiao Zhan nods and levers himself up from his seated position, twisting lithly past Yibo to disappear for a moment into the bathroom. Yibo throws himself down on the bed and palms his cock and absolutely does not feel a little bloom of misery that Xiao Zhan has sex supplies to hand.

They’re broken up, Xiao Zhan can have sex with whoever he wants. Right now he’s having sex with Yibo and it’s convenient that he has supplies.

Xiao Zhan is back in a second, two foil packets in hand. He drops them on the bed next to Yibo’s hip and shucks his own underwear off before climbing up to settle down next to him.

“How do you want this?” Xiao Zhan asks. His voice is quiet, the watchful look back in his eye despite the evidence of his flushed, hard cock between them. He’s just as turned on as Yibo is, he wants this like Yibo does, and Yibo isn’t going to worry about whatever else is going on in his head. Xiao Zhan has always thought too much about everything; looks like that hasn’t changed.

Yibo tosses the condom to Xiao Zhan and tears open the packet of lube, squishing it out over the fingers of his right hand. He pulls one knee up to his chest and reaches down and behind himself, pushing two fingers in right away. He’s still loose from where he’d fingered himself in the shower in his own hotel room earlier, thinking about this, trying to decide if the half-formed idea fell on the side of a fantasy or an actual plan.

When he looks up, he finds Xiao Zhan kneeling, unmoving, eyes glued to where Yibo’s fingers are pressing into himself. He has the unopened condom still in his hand and a bright pink flush has spread across his cheeks and down his chest. His lips are parted and, as Yibo watches, he lets out gasp as Yibo gives a particularly hard twist with his fingers.

Yibo feels caught in a feedback loop of Xiao Zhan getting turned on by watching him and Yibo getting turned on at the sight of Xiao Zhan watching. It’s achingly familiar but somehow twice as hot for how long it’s been. Yibo gives another twist, pressing just right against a sensitive spot inside himself, and lets himself gasp more obviously, lets himself arch his back in a sinuous roll against the bed, putting on a show. Xiao Zhan’s tongue flicks out, wetting his lips. He had used to like to rest his head against Yibo’s thigh when Yibo was fingering himself open like this, to press kisses against Yibo’s knuckles and over the taut skin of his balls. It had been equal parts dirty and tender, and had always left Yibo feeling cared for.

Yibo doesn’t want that now. This is just a bit of fun, a convenient outlet after a busy day. Something to help Yibo shake the restlessness that’s been plaguing him lately.

He pulls his fingers out, even though he hasn’t done much yet to really stretch himself, and flips over. He gets his elbows and knees up underneath himself and braces with his ass in the air. He is slick with lube and open and ready to get on with things. Looking back over his shoulder to where Xiao Zhan is still sitting, grasping the unopened condom, he says, “Come on. Hurry up.”

It’s a challenge and Xiao Zhan rises to it, the way Yibo knew he would.

He tears open the foil pack and gets the condom on in a flash, then knee walks up the bed until he’s settled between Yibo’s sprawled thighs. Yibo drops his head down, resting his forehead against the bedspread for a moment and biting his lip as Xiao Zhan smooths his hands down Yibo’s sides. The gentle touch makes Yibo feel more settled somehow, although he resents it.

“Come on, come on,” Yibo mutters, pushing his hips back to nudge against the hard line of Xiao Zhan’s cock. “Fuck me already.”

Yibo feels the blunt press of Xiao Zhan’s dick against his hole just a brief second before Xiao Zhan is thrusting forward in a steady, relentless slide that leaves Yibo gasping and full. Xiao Zhan bottoms out and pauses for a moment, just long enough for Yibo to suck a breath in and tell himself to relax but not long enough to actually adjust, then pulls out and pushes back in again.

In no time, Xiao Zhan settles into a measured rhythm that keeps Yibo shivering on just the right side of oversensitivity. He has no space left to think about anything but the feel of Xiao Zhan’s hands tight around Yibo’s hips, his cock stretching Yibo from the inside out. It’s perfect. It’s just what Yibo wanted. Xiao Zhan always was good at reading his moods and giving him exactly what he needed.

Yibo’s own cock is hard and leaking between his thighs, his breath coming in moaning little gasps. He is on the edge of coming already and maybe under other circumstances he’d feel a bit embarrassed at how quick it is, but fast and hard is exactly what he’d come here for.

Yibo shifts, bracing his weight on one elbow and tensing his abs to keep from over-balancing as he reaches down to wrap a hand around himself. It only takes a couple of strokes before he comes, trembling and spilling over his hand.

Xiao Zhan doesn’t relent, fucking him through the quivering aftershocks until Yibo’s knees give out and he collapses forward onto the bed. He withdraws then and Yibo can hear the snap of latex as he pulls off the condom, dropping it carelessly over the side of the bed onto the floor before settling his weight over Yibo’s thighs, pinning him down.

Xiao Zhan’s knuckles graze against Yibo’s butt as he strokes himself, the slide of his hand over his dick a rhythmic skin on skin noise that would probably have got Yibo going again had he not just, just come. Instead, it’s all he can do to twist his head around to watch over his shoulder as Xiao Zhan jerks off over him. Xiao Zhan’s hair is sweaty and his face is flushed, lip caught between his teeth. His eyes are heavy lidded but intent, staring down at the sprawl of Yibo’s body beneath him as he comes in hot stripes over Yibo’s lower back.

Then, in slow, stately motion, he collapses forward and to the side, landing next to Yibo on the bed, one leg still draped over Yibo’s thighs and a tacky hand spread possessively over Yibo’s butt.

 

Then

The Peter Pan birthday cake is a hit, despite all of Yibo’s worries beforehand. Xiao Zhan lights up when Yibo slips through the door unannounced in Xuan Lu’s wake, cake box clutched in both hands and heart in his throat. He wasn’t invited, he’d just bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room on a whim, hopeful that he’d be welcome.

Yibo has missed Xiao Zhan fiercely since filming wrapped. He can’t count the number of times he’s turned to grin at him or to share a joke, only to be startled again at the empty spot by his shoulder. It’s been months, it should have faded, but it hasn’t.

He sweats and laughs his way through Xiao Zhan’s birthday dinner of super spicy hotpot, dredging each bite through a puddle of sesame paste in the desperate hope that it will cut the heat before shoving it into his mouth. He’s probably drinking too much, bolting down his beer to try and wash the chilli away.

Xuan Lu begs off after dinner with the excuse of an early morning flight out. Xiao Zhan hugs her goodbye and thanks her for coming all this way to celebrate with him. Once she’s gone, he cocks his head and sends an entreating look in Yibo’s direction.

“One more round before we call it a night?” he asks. “I’ve missed you. Stay to catch up properly with me.”

Yibo nods. Of course he’ll stay for another round. He’s flown all this way to see Xiao Zhan, he’s not going to take off early.

After, Xiao Zhan insists on accompanying him back to his hotel room, riding in the back of the private car that’s been waiting for Yibo around the corner from the restaurant. He’s affectionate in his happiness, arm slung over Yibo’s shoulder as he pulls up some stupid meme he’d saved from Weibo the other day that he swears is going to make Yibo laugh until he cries. When they get to the hotel, Xiao Zhan waves off Yibo’s offer to have the driver take him home.

“I’m a gentleman,” he says, giggling under his breath in a bright, tipsy sort of way. “I’ll walk you to your door!”

They ride the elevator up in silence, Xiao Zhan rocking on his heels and smiling to himself, Yibo’s knees feeling wobbly and his head swimming. It’s partly due to alcohol and partly nerves. He’s trying to finally, finally, get up the nerve to do something about the stupid torch he’s been carrying for Xiao Zhan all summer. He imagines kissing Xiao Zhan against the wall of the elevator, then he imagines grabbing his hand while they walk down the corridor. He doesn’t do either.

Xiao Zhan snatches the keycard out of Yibo’s shaking hands when they finally get to the door of his room. He’s wearing Wei Wuxian’s sweetest smile as he stands just a step too close to Yibo for it to be casual. “Lao Wang. You’re weaving on your feet. Aren’t you old enough to know your limits?”

Xiao Zhan’s tone, like always, is teasing. Too light to mean anything, but too loaded for it to be totally meaningless.

“My hands aren’t shaking because I’m drunk,” Yibo says. Then, recklessly, right there in the hallway, he drags Xiao Zhan in for a kiss. It’s awkward, a slightly too hard smash of lips with an edge of teeth, over before it’s really begun. It’s nothing special and totally amazing all at once, the culmination of months of flirting and dancing around each other.

Yibo pulls back, lets his hand fall away from where it has been fisted in the front of Xiao Zhan’s t-shirt and presses his back hard against the door. The pinch of the wood against his shoulder blades feels good. Grounding. He’s waiting for Xiao Zhan’s reaction, waiting to find out if he read the situation right.

Xiao Zhan blinks, lips red and wet, eyes losing some of the vagueness of alcohol they’d had a minute before.

“Ah, Yibo,” he says. “You beat me to it. I was trying to build up my nerve to kiss you first.”

A giddy feeling breaks in Yibo’s chest like a soap bubble popping. He is grinning, too wide and too uncool, as he tips his head back to look up into Xiao Zhan’s eyes.

“Well, I couldn’t wait around for you forever, old man,” he says. He blocks the swat that Xiao Zhan aims at his hip in retaliation and then snatches the keycard back. “Want to come in?”

 

Now

Yibo realises, in a terrible moment of post-orgasmic clarity, that he’s made a mistake.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time, obviously. A quick fuck, for old time’s sake. Something to take the edge off after a long day, most of which Yibo had spent trying to avoid Xiao Zhan backstage at the Tencent awards.

Then, at the end of the night, he’d accidentally caught Xiao Zhan’s eye while they’d been waiting to go on for the final award presentation of the night. Xiao Zhan had smiled at him and it had been so unexpected that Yibo found himself grinning back before he’d quite realised it.

He’s seen the pictures of himself staring down the stage at Xiao Zhan on Weibo already, of course. He hates them, hates the longing he can see in his own face. He hates that he’d gone looking for pictures the second he’d got back to his hotel room. He hates that he’d given in and asked his manager to find out what room Xiao Zhan was in, knowing full well that Tencent had booked everyone into the same high-end, highly secure hotel.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. A bit of fun.

Now, though, Yibo is lying in a tepid wet spot in Xiao Zhan’s bed, sweat and come cooling on his back. He’s listening to Xiao Zhan breathe, hyper-aware of the way that neither of them is asleep and neither of them is saying anything.

This was a mistake.

Yibo feels Xiao Zhan tense the moment before he rolls to his feet. He closes his eyes as Xiao Zhan pads barefoot around the end of the bed and into the bathroom, decidedly not watching. As soon as he hears the tap turn on, Yibo levers himself into a sitting position and reaches down to scoop up his jeans. He can’t see his underwear and doesn’t waste any time looking, instead hauling his jeans up over nothing. The slick of lube and the scratch of the harsh denim on his skin is a deeply unpleasant combination, but he ignores it and reaches down to pick up his t-shirt and hoodie.

He wants to get out of here. He wants to be back in his room. This was such a mistake.

Xiao Zhan emerges from the bathroom with a washcloth in his hands, catching Yibo as he loses his patience with the tangle of fabric and gives a violent tug to get the two shirts separated. He freezes when he notices that Xiao Zhan has returned and is watching him with a wary expression.

“What?” Yibo asks. He quickly yanks his t-shirt over his head and moves on to trying to get his hoodie rightside out again.

“I was going to. Uh. Did you want to wash up?” Xiao Zhan gestures with the cloth, reaching out to offer it to Yibo. He seems unselfconscious about his nudity, despite Yibo having got mostly redressed already.

Yibo shakes his head and pulls his sweatshirt on over his head, running a quick hand through his hair afterwards to settle it back into place and then heading towards the door to get his shoes.

When Yibo looks up from jamming his feet back into his trainers, Xiao Zhan has pulled his sweatpants on. He’s grabbed his glasses, too. He slips past Yibo to stand next to the door, keeping carefully clear of Yibo’s personal space. Yibo, for his part, is horrifyingly conscious of the exact distance between them, of the sweat and sex smell of Xiao Zhan’s skin. Of his gentle, watchful eyes.

Xiao Zhan is standing between Yibo and the door. He’s making no move to open it. The silence is brittle and uncomfortable and it’s making Yibo’s neck itch.

“Well, thanks,” Yibo says. His voice is too loud and too brash to his own ears, but he powers through. “It’s been fun.”

Xiao Zhan nods, looks away for a moment and then back.

“It’s really good to see you,” he offers. One corner of his mouth is tucked down, pulling the whole thing a little lopsided. His too-short hair leaves his ears looking bare and vulnerable. Yibo notices that the tips of them have flushed red. “Maybe we can catch up again some time. Properly. It’d be nice to talk.”

“Sure,” Yibo says, in a tone that clearly means the opposite. “Listen, I’ve got an early morning. I need to crash. Do you mind?”

He gives a jerk with his chin towards the door and the flush across the top of Xiao Zhan’s ears spreads to his cheeks. “Yeah. Of course. Sorry.”

Xiao Zhan checks that the corridor is empty -- first looking through the peephole, then opening the door a crack to peek out. The coast clear, Xiao Zhan pulls the door the rest of the way open and steps back out of the way.

Yibo slips out past him and doesn’t look back.

He manages to keep it together long enough to get to his room, two floors down and at the opposite end of the corridor from the elevator. It’s late and the hallway is empty, but if he had passed anyone, Yibo would like to think they wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong. He keeps his face strictly under control, forcing it into the chill, neutral lines that he usually drags out for photo shoots. His hands are shaking as he gets his keycard out of his back pocket and he has to focus to get it lined up to swipe through the reader.

Yibo is stripping back out of his clothes almost before the door even swings shut behind him, taking them all off, right down to the skin, leaving them balled up on the floor as he heads directly into the bathroom. He steps in under the spray of the shower without waiting, the cool water making him shiver for a minute until it finishes warming up. He washes quickly and efficiently, shivering again as he scrubs the lube away from the still-sensitive skin of his ass.

Afterwards, he dresses again in clean underwear and soft sweatpants. He picks up the clothes he’d left on the floor and shoves them into a plastic laundry bag from the hotel closet, then buries the bag at the bottom of his suitcase. He doesn’t bother with his usual nighttime skincare regimen or to do more than towel-dry his hair before crawling, still slightly damp, beneath his blanket.

Fuck, that had been a mistake.

It’s been a year. Yibo thought he was over Xiao Zhan, thought he didn’t feel anything for him anymore. Maybe part of the reason he’d gone to Xiao Zhan’s room tonight was to prove to himself, once and for all, that he’d moved on. That he isn’t still hung up in the guy who dumped him months ago.

He feels broken open now -- a raw nerve exposed to the air. His chest hurts with a wet, sucking feeling that knocks him right back to where he was a year ago.

He curls up on his side, hugging his arms across his chest and pulling his knees up.

 

Then

The fanmeet goes brilliantly. The Untamed has only been airing a month, but the venue is packed with enthusiastic fans. The games the host puts them through are pretty stupid, but Yibo is too happy to be as impatient with it all as he usually is. He suspects he stares at Xiao Zhan too obviously on stage. He knows he is flirting far too openly. That said, he deserves a medal for not giving in to the temptation to feel Xiao Zhan up a bit during the game where they have to try to push each other off a pedestal.

He hasn’t seen Xiao Zhan in weeks and even then it had just been an overnight squeezed in between Yibo wrapping up One More Try and Xiao Zhan flying out for an on-location ad shoot. This time, they’ve managed to clear their schedules for five whole days and nights after the concert and Yibo is giddy, he’s so excited.

“I’ve made a list of all the food I want to eat this week,” Yibo shouts over the sound of the hairdryer. He feels lighter for having washed away the layers of stage makeup and sticky hairspray. “It’s a long list. We should start by getting room service.”

He flicks the dryer off and sets it down, then pads barefoot out of the bathroom. The air in the hotel room is cool and dry in comparison to the steam left from his shower. Yibo is bare chested, with just a towel tucked around his waist, and it makes goosebumps break out down his arms.

Xiao Zhan, who’d showered first, is sitting sprawled in the armchair in the corner of the room. He’s pulled on soft looking sleep clothes and his hair is flopping down into his eyes. He’s got his phone up in front of his face and is looking at it with surprising intensity. He doesn’t reply to Yibo.

“Zhan-ge?” Yibo prompts, coming over to peek over Xiao Zhan’s shoulder.

Xiao Zhan starts at the brush of Yibo’s hand on his arm, finally looking away from the screen.

“Sorry, what was that?” he asks. He moves to put the phone away, but Yibo intercepts him, plucking it from his hand to get a better look.

Xiao Zhan’s clearly been scrolling through the Untamed topic on Weibo. The very bottom of one of the professional shots from the fanmeet is at the top of the page, with a short text post beneath it from a fan who’d been in the audience. Beneath that, however, is a poorly lit, slightly blurry picture. Yibo recognises it immediately as the invasive kind of fan photo that Yibo pays good money to a security team to try to limit opportunities for.

This one has caught just enough of Xiao Zhan’s profile to be undeniably him. He’s wearing the clothes that he left the fanmeet in, walking through the front door of the hotel that they’re in right now with just one staff member at his side. The date stamp shows that it’s only been posted in the last ten minutes, but it’s already starting to rack up big numbers of likes and comments.

Yibo frowns at the picture and then up at Xiao Zhan. “What are you looking at shit like this for?”

Xiao Zhan avoids Yibo’s eyes as he takes his phone back, plugging it in and putting it face down on side table next to the chair. “I don’t know. I just wanted to see what people were saying about the fanmeet.”

Yibo rolls his eyes at Xiao Zhan. He normally feels every inch the junior he is around Xiao Zhan. He leans into it, in fact, playing the brat for laughs, letting Xiao Zhan coddle him when he’s feeling soft. He likes their age difference. But in moments like these, their roles are reversed and Yibo remembers how very little time Xiao Zhan has spent in the spotlight. In celebrity years, it’s Yibo who is the senior.

“You’ll drive yourself crazy if you spend too much time on the fan side of Weibo,” he says.

Then, bored with wasting time on stalker photos and fan opinions, Yibo reaches down to flick loose the towel around his waist, letting it drop to the floor. Xiao Zhan’s disgruntled expression at getting gently chastised melts into a dirty smirk as Yibo crawls, entirely naked, into his lap and drags him into a kiss.

 

Now

Yibo sleeps terribly.

Obviously.

He eventually drifts off an hour or so before dawn, but it is a light, fitful sleep. He wakes up and checks the time on his phone half an hour before his alarm is set to go off, and then again with about five minutes to go.

The second time, he doesn’t bother waiting any more. He turns the alarm off before it can ring and drags himself out of bed.

His hotel checkout routine is so ingrained that he doesn’t really need to be awake for it anyway. He swaps his sweats out for baggy cargo pants and tops them off with a t-shirt under a zip-up hoodie and loose, lightweight jacket. He brushes his teeth and washes his face, then brings his toiletries bag through to toss into his suitcase.

He tucks his phone into his pocket and his charger into his side sling bag with everything else he’s going to want for the half a day he’s spending in transit back to Hunan for Day Day Up filming. He pulls a cap down over his hair, which is sticking up at weird angles from going to bed with it wet, then flips his hood up on top for good measure. He hooks a mask over his ears, but leaves it tucked under his chin for now.

And that’s it. He’s ready to go.

Yibo’s manager meets him at the door of his room with a massive black coffee. She gives him a measuring look as she hands it over, taking in, he has no doubt, the heavy black circles under his eyes and the sullen set of his mouth. Yibo half expects her to say something -- she knows full well what he was up to last night when he asked her to find out Xiao Zhan’s room number -- but she doesn’t. She just takes the handle of his rolling suitcase from him and wheels it ahead down the corridor, leaving him to focus on inhaling his coffee.

His security team is waiting for him in the lobby and they slip into place around him as he steps out of the elevator, mask pulled up even though he is far from finished with his coffee. He catches sight of a girl with a phone in her hand pointed at him leaning over the second floor mezzanine level. He keeps his chin tucked in towards his chest to give her the worst possible angle on his face, but otherwise ignores her as he walks out of the lobby and climbs directly into the car idling at the curb outside.

He naps in the car on the way to the airport, startling awake when they pull to a stop. His team has called ahead to arrange for him to get through security as smoothly as possible, minimising the number of chances people have to snap candid airport photos of him in the check-in line. In the private waiting room, he docilely eats the fruit cup that his manager shoves in his direction.

When he gets onto the plane, he settles into his seat, tips his head back, and is asleep again before they even take off.

He wakes up when the plane is on its descent and peers out of the window at the familiar cityscape. He’s less tired after the nap and coming in to Changsha always feels like coming home. More than his infrequent visits to Luoyang have done for a long time.

When he lands, yet another car is waiting to whisk him off to the studio. They’re filming some segments this afternoon ahead of the live audience taping tomorrow. He climbs into the backseat, shuffling across to the window to leave space for his manager to follow him in. Once he’s settled, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and takes it off of airplane mode. It vibrates in his hands as a few hours worth of notifications come through at once, the red bubble counters in the corner of apps ticking up and up.

He ignores Weibo for the moment and clicks in to WeChat. He quickly fires off a few messages in answer to friends, then takes a little longer replying to his mother. She sent through a string of messages while watching the awards. She has opinions about Yibo’s various outfits and asks if he is eating enough because he looks thin. She has also sent through a picture of her TV screen at the moment Yibo comes on stage to accept his award. Congratulations, All Round Artist of the Year! she sends through as the final message, followed by a string of cheering emojis and hearts. It makes him smile to see the blurry image of himself against the familiar backdrop of the living room wall.

They’re almost at the studio when Yibo notices the friend request notification. He clicks through to the contacts page and then almost drops his phone.

It’s from Xiao Zhan.

Yibo must make some kind of noise without realising it, because his manager turns to look at him, startled.

“Are you alright, laoban?” she asks.

“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” Yibo replies. He turns his phone off and jams it back into his pocket before she can get a good look at the screen. “I’m good.”

Xiao Zhan has sent him a friend request.

Obviously, they’d been friends before. Before everything. Xiao Zhan had smiled at him at the end of the first day of table reads and held out his phone with the QR code loaded up. By the time they’d properly got together, they had exchanged thousands of messages of what in retrospect was intense, sticker-punctuated flirting. That wasn’t even counting the half a dozen groups they were both members of, as well.

After Xiao Zhan had broken up with him, Yibo had deleted him from his contacts list. It had been an act of self-preservation -- he hadn’t been able to stop himself from doom scrolling through their chat history, trying to figure out where things had tipped from good to on the decline.

Yibo doesn’t know when Xiao Zhan clocked he’d been deleted. It wouldn’t have come up until Xiao Zhan tried to send him another message. It could have been any time in the last year, and he’d just decided not to push. It could have been this morning.

But what does he mean by sending a friends request now? After everything? After a year of silence and a single edged hook-up that Yibo had initiated?

He’s not going to accept it, Yibo decides as the car pulls up in front of the studio. That’s that. They don’t have anything left to talk about. Done. Decision made.

But the friend request weighs on his mind for the rest of the afternoon, distracting him.

He is proud of being professional through anything, but today he fucks up again and again during taping. With every mistake, he gets more embarrassed and irritated with himself. He bows and apologises and resets each time, but by the end of the day he is grinding his teeth with frustration.

When he tries to slink away after the taping finishes, Wang Han hooks him by the elbow and steers him in the direction of the studio canteen.

“Han-ge,” Yibo starts, intending to apologise again for the mistakes of the afternoon, for the fact that his screw-ups had dragged taping out so that it ended late for everyone. Wang Han gives his arm a pat to shush him.

“It’s fine. Everyone has a bad day now and again. Let’s get you some food and sit for a minute. Did you eat lunch?”

Yibo grimaces as he shakes his head. He’d meant to grab a snack when he got to the studio, but had lost track of it.

“Ah, Yibo-didi,” Wang Han says, drawn out and pained. “You always forget to feed yourself.”

Wang Han’s steady, sure affection is a balm after the anxiety and turbulence of the last twenty-four hours. Yibo lets himself get steered into one of the low, soft chairs that line the room and absolutely does not get his phone out as he usually would while he waits for Wang Han to organise the food. Wang Han is back in minutes with a steaming bowl of Yibo’s favourite noodles and a big bottle of water.

When the food is put in front of him, Yibo suddenly realises he’s starving. Maybe not everything about the botched taping is down to the distraction of Xiao Zhan -- Yibo has pushed himself through the day on too little sleep and a fruit cup eaten hours ago. He adds vinegar to the soup with a heavy hand and then buries his face in the bowl, inhaling half of it before he comes up for breath.

Wang Han is leaning back, hands cupped around a paper cup of tea, watching Yibo eat with a benign smile on his face. Yibo blushes, aware that he’s splatted a bit of the broth on his face with his last slurping bite of the noodles, and snatches up a handful of napkins to swipe at his chin.

“Feeling better?” Wang Han asks.

“Much. Thank you, Han-ge. I guess I’m tired from last night and forgot to eat anything around the flight and everything.”

Wang Han’s gaze sharpens at Yibo’s response, pinning him to the spot. He has an uncanny sense for when Yibo is dissembling. He doesn’t say anything, just lets the silence stretch while he stares Yibo into submission.

Yibo squirms for a minute and then, more or less gracefully, gives in.

“Xiao Zhan was there,” he says.

Wang Han nods, leans forward to put his tea down. He doesn’t sit back again, instead bracing his elbows against his knees and folding his hands together. “I know. I watched until I had to put Xiao Suancai to bed.”

Yibo looks down at his soup. He bends down for another bite of noodles to give himself some time to think.

He’s never really said to Wang Han about Xiao Zhan, but he thinks he knows. Wang Han had watched in that intent way of his when Xiao Zhan had come on as a guest for the anniversary episode, no doubt catching and cataloguing every time Yibo stood too close or smiled too wide. He hadn’t said anything at the time, but afterwards he would periodically ask Yibo how Xiao Zhan was doing. Xiao Zhan was the only one of Yibo’s friends that Wang Han had specifically asked after.

Then, last year, after Yibo had responded with uncharacteristic bite that he wouldn’t be going down to Chongqing for a weekend during the New Year’s hiatus after all, Wang Han had stopped asking. He’d been even more affectionate with Yibo than ever for a month or so after, texting him every couple of days with reminders to eat or pictures of things he’d stumbled over that had made him think of Yibo.

Yibo thinks that Wang Han knows, if not the specifics, then the general shape of it.

“Did you get a chance to talk to him?” Wang Han asks gently.

Yibo focuses hard on not blushing as his unhelpful brian flashes a full colour image of all the not-talking he and Xiao Zhan had done.

“A little,” he says, settling on that as the most truthful possible response he can give to the man who is like a second father to him. The kind of second father that one discusses deep, philosophical things with and absolutely does not ever mention sex to. “It was pretty stilted. But he sent me a friend request on WeChat today.”

Wang Han’s eyebrows go up at that. “Are you going to accept it?”

Yibo surprises himself by hesitating. He had decided not to, but now he’s not sure. “I don’t know. I’d thought not. But. I don’t know.”

“Hm,” Wang Han makes an understanding noise. “It’s weighing on you. You’re wondering what he wants to say to you.”

Yibo nods. He pushes the noodles away and leans back in his chair, rolling his water bottle between his hands. He feels, abruptly, very, very tired. This is all too much to try to cope with on too little sleep. He doesn’t want to wrestle with this anymore.

“What should I do?”

It comes out small, plaintive.

Wang Han reaches across the table and pats Yibo on the knee. “Nothing today. Get some rest, see how you feel in the morning.”

Yibo feels absurdly relieved, given that nothing has been resolved. It’s like some part of him was just waiting for permission not to have to deal with this right now. He gives Wang Han a wobbly smile, a little overcome in the face of his warm, steadfast support. Then he clears his throat and levers himself to his feet.

“You are so wise, Wang-laoshi,” Yibo says with a flash of his usual cheeky grin. Wang Han barks out a noise that is half-exasperation and half-laughter as he stands to give Yibo a swat on the shoulder. Yibo snickers as he dodges, feeling lighter than he’s been all day.

“Sleep well, didi,” Wang Han calls after him as his manager emerges from the corridor to herd him off to a waiting car. “See you in the morning.”

 

Then

“Do they like me?” Xiao Zhan is fretful as he asks, fiddling with the ridiculously long belt that the wardrobe department had put him in. It’s cinched tight around his narrow waist, the tail of it dangling halfway to his knees.

Yibo, stripped of the blazer he was wearing on stage, looks up from where he is pawing through the snacks on the side table. Yibo loves the fruit baskets that the Day Day Up producers stock the guest dressing rooms with, but is only able to raid them when they invite someone he knows onto the show.

He turns his nose up at the apples, which are nice enough but nothing special. There is a kiwi and a mango perched on the outside, both of which Yibo disregards as being too messy. He snags a skewer of watermelon cubes from the artful spray at the back of the arrangement. “Who?”

“Your brothers. Wang Han, the rest.”

“Of course they do. You’re so polite,” Yibo says. He has stuffed his mouth with watermelon and has to shift the cubes around with his tongue before he can reply. He is already reaching for another stick, this time of cantaloupe. “What’s not to like?”

“Do they know?” Xiao Zhan is giving Yibo one of his narrow looks that says this conversation matters more than Yibo thought it did. Yibo holds the cantaloupe skewer in his hand without taking a bite and does his best to look serious, even though he’s not totally sure what they’re being serious about.

“Know?”

“About us. Do they know?”

Ah.

Yibo swallows the last of the food in his mouth, clears his throat. Takes a minute before answering. “I haven’t said anything, but I think. I think Zhangwei-ge knows. We always stand together for filming, I talk about you during the breaks. More than I should. Maybe Han-ge. He notices a lot. Not the others, I don’t think.”

Xiao Zhan’s face does something complicated at Yibo’s answer. Yibo can’t tell whether it’s approval or disappointment. Was he supposed to have said nothing at all, made it out like he and Xiao Zhan aren’t even good friends? Or was he supposed to have told his co-stars every dirty detail?

It’s hard. He can’t tell.

“It’s probably just as well to be discreet,” Xiao Xhan says, which doesn’t make it any clearer.

Yibo decides to just ask outright. He’s not great at this sort of nuance and he doesn’t want to get things wrong. “Do you want me to tell them? I will, if you want me to.”

The blunt question seems to push Xiao Zhan out of his head. His expression clears and he meets Yibo’s gaze directly. “No, it’s fine. It’s better to be discreet.”

Yibo nods, then sucks more cubes of cantaloupe into his mouth than really fit. He shoots Xiao Zhan a sticky, chipmunk-cheeked smirk when Xiao Zhan squawks in protest at his manners.

The filming today has been even more fun than usual, with both his Day Day Up brothers and Xiao Zhan in one place all day. For tonight, he’s made reservations at one of his favourite restaurants for dinner and he’s looking forward to seeing Xiao Zhan eat his way through a spread of spicy Changsha specialties.

This one slightly tense exchange aside, it has been a great day.

 

Now

Wang Han is, as usual, right.

Yibo crashes as soon as he gets to the hotel. He kicks his way out of his clothes, leaving them in a messy trail across the floor, and crawls straight into bed. He doesn’t bother with his usual nighttime ritual of showering. He doesn’t even brush his teeth, which he is normally meticulous about. He falls asleep the second his head hits the pillow.

In the morning, he feels much, much better. Lighter, not buried under a black cloud of frustration and regret and indecision.

He wakes up before his alarm, having fallen asleep early by his standards, and takes his time in the shower. He picks up the dirty clothes from the floor and tucks them into his laundry bag, then pulls out clean clothes. He shoves his feet into his shoes, grabs his phone from the charger, and walks out the door.

In the elevator, he opens up WeChat, clicks through to the contacts, and accepts Xiao Zhan’s friend request. Then he closes WeChat again, puts his phone in his pocket, and resolves not to think about it again today.

The filming goes a lot better than the previous day, now that Yibo is rested and focused. They are doing a bulk of filming in a row this week to build up footage ahead of the busy New Year and Spring Festival season. Yibo smiles as he dodges Da Zhangwei’s exuberant gestures, which nearly smack him across the face more than once, and cracks up when the guest photographer sticks a single flower standing straight up in Qian Feng’s hair before the on-stage photoshoot. It is nice to know he gets to come back and do it again tomorrow, and then next day.

After the taping, he gets shuffled off by his staff to stand in front of a blank wall and film a quick series of endorsements and seasonal greetings for Douyin updates across the next month. He throws on and off different coats for each segment in an effort to disguise the fact that they’ve all been recorded at once and makes a game for himself out of reading the cue cards as fast and accurately as he can. Then it’s back to the hotel and done for the evening.

He hasn’t looked at his phone all day, which is unusual enough behaviour that Da Zhangwei had teased him in the green room about not recognising Yibo without his nose glued to a screen. Yibo had laughed it off and changed the subject, distracting Zhangwei by asking him to sing a bit of his new song. Da Zhangwei, always happy to be the centre of attention, had dropped the topic of Yibo’s phone and obliged.

Unsurprisingly, Yibo has a massive backlog of emails and Weibo notifications after not looking at either for two days. He settles in with the takeout his manager has ordered for him from his favourite Changsha restaurant and dutifully works his way through them. He replies where he needs to and reposts a couple of his brand endorsement advertisements from the company accounts, then turns his attention to WeChat.

Xiao Zhan has messaged.

He forces himself to go through the backlog of messages from other people before opening the one from Xiao Zhan.

He hates the way his chest goes tight with anticipation as he clicks through.

The message itself is a bit of a let down.

Hi, Yibo. Thank you for accepting the request. :)

Yibo doesn’t know what he was expecting. It wasn’t this totally bland, innocuous greeting.

He doesn’t reply.

He clicks out of the app, pulls up a recent interview with Rossi that someone has subtitled and posted on Youku, and absolutely does not think about Xiao Zhan anymore.

Xiao Zhan messages again a couple of days later with a picture taken out the window of a car. It shows one of Yibo’s Yanjing beer promotions on the side of a bus pulled up at a bus stop plastered with one of his Redmi phone ads. Xaio Zhan’s followed it up with the message I’m seeing double!

Yibo doesn’t reply to that message, either. It doesn’t seem to require an answer.

Two days later, another message comes. Yibo has wrapped up the Day Day Up filming and is in the thick rehearsals for the Hunan TV New Year special. It’s been nice to be in one place for a stretch after the frantic dashing around Yibo has been doing since mid-summer. He’s on the floor of a dance studio, stretching, when his phone pings with the notification.

It’s another picture, this time a shot of the Shanghai skyline, the distinctive Oriental Pearl tower striking against a cloudless sky.

Any recommendations for somewhere to eat while I'm in Shanghai? You must have found some good places this summer.

The direct question certainly invites a response, but the reference to Yibo’s summer in Shanghai throws him off balance. Had Xiao Zhan been paying attention to his schedule since they broke up? Or had he just sort of been aware of it, casually, picking it up secondhand?

Yibo is irritated with himself that an off-hand message like this one from Xiao Zhan still has the capacity to throw him. He is trying to be over Xiao Zhan. He’d thought he was over Xiao Zhan, until he’d made the mistake of hooking up with him again.

I didn’t really eat out, just takeout and hotpot on set.

Xiao Zhan’s reply is instantaneous. Yibo stomps out the little thrill in his chest at the speed of it, telling himself Xiao Zhan is probably just screwing around with his phone in the back of the car or something. He’s not staring and waiting for Yibo’s message. That would be dumb. It doesn’t mean anything.

Okay! I’ll send you a recommendation instead if I find anywhere good! :)

And this is the pattern they settle into.

Every day or so, Xiao Zhan sends a message through -- always friendly, no pressure, no reference to anything beyond some small thing that’s going on in his day and has made him think of Yibo. More often than not, they are accompanied by a picture of whatever has caught Xiao Zhan’s eye.

Yibo doesn’t reply unless he’s asked a direct question and then he always keeps his answers short and to the point. He never initiates any exchanges. He is doing his best to give every impression of not caring one way or another about these updates. But, despite himself, Yibo is getting dragged in again. He can feel it happening in the hitch he feels when he sees a notification on his lock screen. In his weakest moments, he sometimes gives in and scrolls back through their short chat history, rereading the messages to try and divine if there is some kind of hidden meaning to them.

Which is, of course, ridiculous.

There is no hidden meaning -- they’re just politely friendly messages.

Xiao Zhan is the kind of guy who would want to be on good terms with his exes, Yibo tells himself firmly. He’s given Yibo a year to get over being dumped and is now reaching out. It probably doesn’t mean anything more than that.

Yibo is too busy to be wasting time with this bullshit anyway.

His new song drops at the end of December and is well-received. He loves the reactions to the dumb selfie collage of the cover art after all the high-fashion teaser pictures that had been posted before.

Preparations for the New Year’s performance take up a lot of his time and attention as well. He drills the choreography for the new song, practices on the wires until he’s confident he looks cool and collected spinning through the air. He gets to meet Wang Leehom and, once he’s over his attack of shyness at meeting a childhood idol, has a great time performing with him.

The show is spectacular and goes off without a hitch. At the stroke of midnight, Wang Han, Da Zhangwei, and Qian Feng drag him into a group hug, squishing him between them and jumping up and down and laughing.

Yibo is happy.

If, when he finally gets back to his hotel in the small hours of the morning, he finishes ringing in the new year by falling asleep to Xiao Zhan’s performance for Dragon TV, that’s his own fucking business.

 

Then

“Xiao Zhan!” Yibo practically shouts his name into the phone. His first call had gone through to voicemail, so he’d hung up and called again, and then a third time, until Xiao Zhan had finally picked up. He clutches his mobile phone in a sweaty hand, presses it too hard against his ear. He’s pacing in a tight circle in his hotel room, too wound up to be still. “Fucking hell, are you okay?”

“Of course,” Xiao Zhan says, quiet and utterly, inappropriately calm. “Sorry. I was just in the bathroom.”

Yibo hates that he is half the country away right now. He hates how good an actor Xiao Zhan is. He knows Xiao Zhan’s tells, but the too blank face and the way he fidgets with the hem of his shirt when he’s upset aren’t apparent over the phone.

“Can we switch to video?” Yibo asks. He knows the question is abrupt, but he’s overwhelmed suddenly with the need to see Xiao Zhan. To check for himself that he’s okay.

“No, no. I need to leave for a meeting in about five minutes. There’s no point.”

Yibo grinds his teeth. “Fine. Fuck. How was that allowed to happen? Where was your security team?”

Just looking at the pictures that had hit Weibo had made Yibo feel panicky and claustrophobic. For Xiao Zhan, trapped in a revolving door by a press of bodies on both sides, it must have been a hundred times worse.

“They did their best,” Xiao Zhan replies, his voice shading towards something more sharp.

Yibo misses the warning in Xiao Zhan’s tone and snaps back, waspishly, “Well it wasn’t fucking good enough. You should get a new team, I can --”

“I said it’s fine, Yibo.”

Yibo snaps his teeth closed over the end of his sentence, cutting it short. That was the closest Yibo’s ever heard Xiao Zhan come to yelling. At anyone. He’s endlessly patient, endlessly good humoured in public. Even when it’s just the two of them and the cameras are off, his worst moods manifest with him getting quiet and withdrawn. Not temper, not shouting.

It’s not fine, obviously, but Yibo’s attempts to help are making it worse.

“Okay, okay,” he says, backing down immediately. He takes a deep breath and tries to loosen his grip on his phone. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I was just scared for you. That looked scary.”

Xiao Zhan’s voice, when he speaks again, has regained that preternatural calm. “It’s fine. I’m fine. No harm done. Look, I need to go.”

“Yeah, of course. Your meeting.” Yibo pauses, then adds, “I’m looking forward to Thailand next month. I miss you.”

There is a pause, then, “Me, too. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, go,” Yibo says, the last of the sentence lost to dead air as Xiao Zhan cuts off the call midway.

 

Now

After the New Year’s show, Yibo goes home to his own apartment in Beijing for the first time in well over a month. He makes a face at the musty smell that hits him when he unlocks his door. It’s not unclean -- he has someone coming in regularly enough to ensure he isn’t confronted with layers of dust every time he comes home -- but the stale smell of a space that has been unoccupied for too long is unpleasant.

He toes off his shoes and turns the suitcase sideways to make sure it doesn’t catch on any of the tower of shoeboxes that line his hallway as he wheels it through to his bedroom. He flicks the lights on as he goes and, despite the cold, cracks the windows in each room to air the place out.

He smiles at his wall of lego projects in the living room and leans down to straighten up one of the helmets that he has spread out on a little mat in his spare room when he pops in to open the window in there.

It’s nice to be home.

He’s going to actually get to stay home for a while, too, which is a rare luxury.

Day Day Up is filming an entire episode at the Beijing Snow Centre and then he’s got some photoshoots and endorsements booked locally. After all that, he’ll be focusing on the CCTV gala rehearsals. His parents are even flying up to Beijing for the Spring Festival this year, so aside from a couple of days here and there, he'll be home for over a month.

His staff have made sure his fridge is stocked with prepackaged meals, one of which he grabs and shoves in the microwave. There is a six pack of beer in there, too. He pulls one out and pops the top while he waits for his dinner to reheat. When the microwave timer goes, he pulls the food out and, in a fit of domesticity, transfers it into a bowl he’s taken out of the cupboard rather than eating it directly from the plastic container.

His civilisation doesn’t extend to eating at a table, though. He takes the bowl over to the couch, flicking on the TV as he passes, and then proceeds to get his phone out as well. He scrolls absently through his Weibo feed, stopping now and then for a bite to eat or a sip of beer. He’s mostly ignoring the badminton match on the TV screen.

He’s just finished tapping out a quick snarky comment on Yu Bin’s post about turning thirty when a notification comes in that Xiao Zhan has sent him another message.

Yibo presses "post" on his comment and switches apps with a swipe of his thumb.

Xiao Zhan has sent a picture that Yibo recognises as the front door of the CCTV building in Beijing.

Xiao Zhan is in Beijing.

Where Yibo also is.

They’re in the same city for the second time in nearly as many weeks.

He leans down to pop his half-finished dinner onto the coffee table and quickly types out, You’re at Da Kucha?

He presses send and then, belatedly, remembers the rule he’s made for himself about only replying, never starting conversations. It’s the surprise that’s done it. He didn’t realise Xiao Zhan was in Beijing.

Yes! I had a meeting about the BRTV Spring Festival show.

Yibo has recovered himself enough that he doesn’t send a reply. He’s not planning to reply. But after a short pause, Xiao Zhan sends a second message.

Are you in Beijing, too?

It’s a direct question. It would be rude to ignore it.

Yes.

Yibo tries to keep his answer brief to make up for his earlier slip in messaging unprompted, but maybe. Maybe that was too abrupt? He sends a second message to soften the response.

I have a few things scheduled -- I’ll be here for a while.

The pause before Xiao Zhan’s next message is long enough that Yibo picks up his bowl and takes another bite of his dinner. He tries to figure out who's winning the match on screen. He tells himself that Xiao Zhan isn’t glued to his WeChat. He’s probably got more meetings or photoshoots or whatever. Or maybe actual plans with actual friends.

It’s about five minutes before Yibo’s phone sounds with another message notification.

He scoops it up.

We should grab something to eat while we’re both in the city! If Lao Wang can fit me into his busy schedule.

The nickname makes Yibo’s chest cave in. It’s familiar and he’s missed it, but it hurts. It’s the first reminder in all these exchanges of what they used to have.

He closes out of WeChat and shoves his phone down between two couch cushions and turns his attention back to his food and the TV, which he switches over to one of the dozen idol competition programmes that seem to be on air at any given time. He distracts himself by muttering equal criticism of the trainees and their dance mentors, which works for the better part of an hour. But then the show is done, and so is his food.

Yibo pulls his phone back out. Xiao Zhan hasn’t waited for a response, but has instead sent through a couple more messages.

I’m free tomorrow night if you are? Or in the following afternoon. If not one of those, let me know, and I’ll look at my schedule for next week.

And then, when he doesn’t get a response from Yibo, Xiao Zhan sent a second message about fifteen minutes later that says, If you can’t make dinner, we could just grab a drink?

Yibo really, really hates how off balance he feels. He doesn’t understand what Xiao Zhan is doing with all of this. The friendly messages, the sudden interest in seeing him. It’s been a year and they live in the same city -- if Xiao Zhan had some burning need to spend time with him, he could have reached out earlier than now.

The only thing that Yibo can think is that it’s about sex.

If Xiao Zhan is looking for some no strings sex, the ex who initiated a hook-up a few weeks ago probably seems like they’d be up for it.

And, fair enough, Yibo is up for it. It’s probably terrible in terms of self-preservation, but Yibo is definitely up for it. They had always been good together, which obviously hasn’t changed if the evidence of a couple of weeks ago is anything to go by. The sex had still been great. Xiao Zhan obviously thinks so, too.

The explanation settles Yibo. He feels like he gets it now. He can adapt to anything, as long he understands what’s going on.

I’m free tomorrow night. Any time after eight.

He’s actually free all day -- a rare stretch of time off at home that he has mentally bookmarked for sleeping in, throwing a couple of loads of laundry through his little-used washing machine, and playing stupid video games. All of which could be rearranged, but. He doesn’t want to seem eager.

It’s just sex. It’s just sex. He’s not a very casual person, what he and Xiao Zhan used to have wasn’t casual. But this can be. He’ll work on it.

Great! I’ll make a reservation and send you the address tomorrow!

Yibo closes WeChat and takes his bowl back into the kitchen, washing it up in the sink and putting it upside down in the draining rack to dry. Then he goes into his bedroom and unpacks his suitcase, sorting out the dirty clothes into piles for washing tomorrow and carefully tucking his shoes back into their boxes.

After, he grabs a second beer out of the fridge and settles back on the couch for a few mindless rounds of Mario Kart. He doesn’t stop until his fingertips have circular indents in them from the buttons and his eyes are starting to ache from all the blinking lights.

He showers before bed and slips naked between his sheets, which are clean and cool against his skin. It’s so nice to be home, with the smell of his own laundry detergent surrounding him and the familiar sliver of light angling just so through the bedroom door from the corridor. It’s relaxing.

He should be relaxed.

He isn’t.

Yibo gives a frustrated huff and kicks off his blankets, glaring down his body at the persistent semi he’s been sporting since he agreed to meet up with Xiao Zhan. No matter how many mundane chores he drags himself through, no matter how he tries to distract himself, he can’t stop thinking about sex.

Sex with Xiao Zhan.

Sex with Xiao Zhan tomorrow. Maybe. Probably.

This level of preoccupation is annoying. He is failing at casual right out of the gate.

Well, if distraction isn’t working, then he’s going to try the opposite and lean in, try and get it out of his system.

He slides his right hand down his body, brushing over his abs, then the trail of fine hair that starts below his belly button. Yibo feels his tense muscles start to relax even as his dick perks up even more. When he finally wraps his hand around his mostly-hard cock and gives it a light, initial stroke, it feels really, really good. He rolls his head back against the pillow and lets out a long breath as he strokes again, then again.

He lets his mind wander and, unsurprisingly, it settles on Xiao Zhan. He’s spent most of the year trying not to think about Xiao Zhan while jerking off, with mixed success. But after what happened at the Tencent awards, with what is probably going to happen again tomorrow, there doesn’t seem much point in avoiding it any more.

Yibo thinks about Xiao Zhan’s hands, about how those slender, artist’s fingers felt against Yibo’s skin. He thinks about the way they felt wrapped around his dick, the way they felt inside him.

Another nice thing about being home, of course, is a fully stocked bedside table. Yibo stops to rummage around in the low cabinet next to his bed for the lube he keeps there. He squeezes out a little puddle of it into the palm of his right hand, then lays back down and returns to what he was doing.

The slick slide of his hand feels twice as good now and Yibo gives an audible hmm of pleasure. He lets his knee fall open, splaying his legs wide.

His hand speeds up as he thinks back to the hotel room and the way Xiao Zhan’s cheeks had hollowed out and his eyelashes had fluttered as he had let Yibo fuck into his mouth. His hair was cut shorter than it had ever been in the time they had been dating -- it had felt soft between Yibo’s fingers, barely long enough to grip as he’d guided Xiao Zhan’s head down.

He remembers how it had felt to have Xiao Zhan fucking him again, hands clamped around his hips and driving into him in a rhythm that was just on the edge of too much.

He remembers, after, Xiao Zhan’s weight pinning him down, the look in Xiao Zhan’s eye when Yibo had turned to watch over his shoulder while Xiao Zhan had jerked off over Yibo’s back.

That’s the thing that tips Yibo over the edge. He comes with a grunt, bracing his heels against the mattress and grinding his hips up into his fist.

He wipes himself up afterwards with a couple of tissues, which he drops onto the floor with a mental note to deal with them tomorrow. He’d come fast and harder than he usually does when jerking off, and the afterglow is making him feel lazy.

He has just enough energy left to drag the blankets back up over himself, pulling them up to his chin and snuggling down into them, before he drops off to sleep.

 

Then

Yibo feels absolutely wrung out as he uploads the selfie to Weibo. The last of his stage makeup is washed away. His hair, washed soft, falls entirely unstyled over his forehead.

The green mountains will not change, and waters flow endlessly, he captions it. There must still be a bit of Lan Wangji lurking in him to turn him so poetic.

It’s that, or just how overwhelmed he’s feeling the two days of farewell concert. A complicated tangle of emotions is swelling his chest like a balloon. He feels on edge, like one misstep could pop it and the whole messy lot of them will come flooding out of him in unpredictable, uncontrolled ways.

It’s not just about saying goodbye to the Untamed. He hasn’t seen Xiao Zhan, not properly, in months.

Thailand had been a tease -- they’d only actually seen each other in front of cameras or on stage. Xiao Zhan had jetted directly off after the concert for a Gucci thing.

Yibo had been hoping they’d be able to spend a bit more time together with the two day concert at Nanjing, but Xiao Zhan had been booked on an overnight livestream and had spent this morning doing an Olay shoot.

And, of course, there’s how sick Xiao Zhan has been. By the end of the concert, Xiao Zhan was weaving on his feet and his hand, when Yibo had brushed his fingers against it, had been hot to the touch. The tears in his eyes on stage had been absolutely genuine grief at letting Wei Wuxian go, but the fact that he hadn’t been able to stop crying once he got off stage had more to do with how unwell he was feeling than anything else. He’d barely come off stage before his staff were scooping him up to take him back to the hotel to rest -- Xiao Zhan had only had time to say to Yibo, quietly, that he’d message later.

Yibo isn’t counting on it. Xiao Zhan had probably crashed the second he got into his hotel room. He’s trying to come to terms with probably not seeing Xiao Zhan tonight. He probably shouldn’t see Xiao Zhan tonight. What Xiao Zhan needs is sleep, not to be sneaking around the hotel in the middle of the night.

But, you know.

Yibo has been really looking forward to seeing Xiao Zhan and it sucks.

At the sound of a quiet knock on his door, Yibo’s head whips up. He looks through the peephole more out of habit than any real need to check -- the rhythm of that knock is familiar.

Xiao Zhan.

Yibo throws open the door and drags him in, nudging him out of the way so Yibo can get it shut behind him as quickly as possible.

Xiao Zhan stands where he is put, head tipped down, exhaustion clear in every line of his body. He looks terrible. His eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot, despite what Yibo knows will have been an endless number of eyedrops being dumped into them. His nose is red, too, and there are deep bruise-purple circles under his eyes. The rest of his face is an unhealthy looking pallor.

“Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, dragging Xiao Zhan into a hug. Xiao Zhan sags into Yibo, bending down until his head is resting against Yibo’s shoulder.

If Xiao Zhan’s appearance had been a concern, the hiccupping sob and the seeping wetness through the shoulder of Yibo’s shirt is a cause for outright panic. Has he stopped crying at all in the hours since the end of the concert?

“Zhan-ge. Ge. What’s the matter?”

Xiao Zhan just shakes his head where it is tucked against Yibo and gives another little sob.

Yibo shifts his grip on Xiao Zhan so that he can lead Xiao Zhan over to the bed. Xiao Zhan sits down on the edge when Yibo pushes on his shoulder. He keeps his head down, looking at his hands, tears streaming down his face.

“You’re just tired,” Yibo says, a bit desperately. “And being ill doesn’t help. You’ve pushed yourself too hard. Come on.”

He kneels down and undoes the laces on Xiao Zhan’s shoes, taking them off for him and setting them out of the way. He pulls Xiao Zhan’s shirt off over his head, then gives Xiao Zhan a nudge that tips him down onto his back so that Yibo can yank his sweatpants off. Xiao Zhan just goes along with it all passively, moving his arms and shifting his hips when Yibo tells him to, but otherwise still and quiet.

When Yibo gets Xiao Zhan down to his underwear, he maneuvers him around until can get him tucked under the covers. Yibo does a quick whip around the room, turning out all but the bathroom light and getting a glass of water to set on the bedside table next to Xiao Zhan. Then Yibo strips off his own clothes and climbs in next to Xiao Zhan, tugging him over until he is lying in the circle of Yibo’s arms, with his face pressed against Yibo’s bare chest.

“You shouldn’t let yourself get so tired, ge,” Yibo says. He ignores the hypocrisy of this advice coming from him. “Look how upset you’ve made yourself.”

“I’m not upset because I’m tired.”

It’s the first thing Xiao Zhan’s said since he’s arrived. Yibo hopes it’s a sign that he’s starting to come back to himself.

“What is it then?”

Xiao Zhan shakes his head and for a long moment Yibo thinks that’s all he’s going to get. A headshake, a no, as in I’m not going to tell you.

But after a long silence, Xiao Zhan speaks again. “I just feel like it’s all coming to an end. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, I’ve met such great people. I’ve met you. And tonight it feels like the end.”

Xiao Zhan whispers it, like a confession, into Yibo’s collarbone.

“No, ge. Zhan-ge. It’s not like that. We’re not ending. I’m still here.” Yibo tightens his hold on Xiao Zhan as he rushes to comfort him, pressing a kiss against the high corner of his forehead, which is all he can reach with Xiao Zhan turning his face determinedly into Yibo’s chest.

Xiao Zhan gives a whole body shudder at Yibo’s words and pushes himself closer. He tucks one of his legs between Yibo’s and loops an arm around Yibo’s waist. Xiao Zhan doesn’t say anything else and Yibo doesn’t loosen his hold on him until long after his breathing finally evens out into sleep.

 

Now

The address, when Xiao Zhan texts it through the next morning, is not what Yibo was expecting. He’d thought Xiao Zhan would make a booking at some reasonably discreet restaurant near one of their apartments. Somewhere to have a quick meal, sound out whether Yibo is up for a repeat hook-up, and then nip back to whoever’s place is more convenient.

The address he sends, however, is for the decidedly less conveniently located and more upmarket restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel.

Which, Yibo supposes, is in a hotel. So it’s not like a bed is too far away once he makes it clear he’s interested.

Yibo hasn’t really thought about what he’s going to wear. Probably, if he had stopped to consider it, something casual. His usual hoodie and cargo pants maybe. But that’s not going to work, not for Cai Yi Xuan, with its opulent decoration and its Michelin star. He needs something that’s nice, but still not too nice. Not like he cares too much.

He settles on a pair of slim-cut black trousers and a plain but expensive white t-shirt. Over it all, he throws a boxy suit jacket with some funky black on black detailing down the lapel. He wears his little-used dress shoes -- not the designer, red bottomed ones his stylist tends to put him in, but a serviceable pair of plain black ones that are actually his own.

He resists the urge to style his hair beyond blow drying it a bit so it doesn’t fall in his eyes. He already feels like he’s maybe putting too much effort in to get away with casual, but it is a really nice restaurant and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by being too underdressed, either.

Yibo tucks condoms and lube into the inside pocket of his jacket and his phone in the outside one, then heads out.

The drive across the city takes a while and Yibo is glad that he didn’t cut it too fine. He fiddles with his phone and then looks out the window, too fretful to really settle down to either activity. Eventually, the driver pulls up under the covered entrance to the hotel and lets him out.

The advantage of the more upscale place, of course, is that they are discreet about it when Yibo sidles up to the reservation desk and gives his name. The host just nods and leads him, without fuss, to the private dining room near the back of the restaurant.

Xiao Zhan stands as Yibo slips into the room and closes the door behind him. Like Yibo, he’s dressed nicely in dark blue trousers that make his legs look like they’re going on for days. In the place of a jacket, he is wearing a waistcoat that hugs his narrow waist and makes his shoulders look broader than normal.

“Hi,” Xiao Zhan says. His hands give an abortive twitch, like he’s going to reach out to clap Yibo on the arm or shake his hand or something. In the end, he tucks them behind his back and settles for a smile. “It’s good to see you. I’m glad you were free tonight.”

Yibo nods and looks away from Xiao Zhan to take in the room. The space is dominated by a large, round table that is clearly far too big for a dining party of two, but Yibo appreciates the security of a private room. The dark wood paneling on the walls and muted lighting from the inbuilt wall sconces make it feel quite intimate despite its size.

“Here, here. Sit.” Xiao Zhan gestures to the chair next to where he’s been sitting. There are only two places set at the table and a bottle of wine is sitting between them, chilling in an ice bucket. There is a wine glass and a water glass at each place. “Would you like wine? I’ve bought a bottle, but obviously order something else if you prefer.”

“Wine is fine,” Yibo says, unbuttoning his blazer and slipping it off to drape over the back of his chair. His voice is scratchy. His throat had felt tight the whole drive over and it’s given a rough edge to his voice. “Thank you.”

Xiao Zhan scoops up the bottle and pours wine into each of their glasses before sliding into his own seat. Always the classier of the two of them, he gives his glass a gentle swirl before taking a small sip, savouring the taste of the wine. Yibo, for his part, takes a much larger swallow. The alcohol is crisp and dry in his mouth, washing the thick feeling in his throat away.

A waiter gives a polite warning tap on the door before coming in to hand them menus, then melting away again. It’s a welcome pause to their stilted conversation as both of them study the food on offer. There are a lot of garlicky dishes that sound amazing -- wagyu beef with garlic and fennel, prawns with black garlic and chilli -- but, with an eye to the evening ahead, Yibo regretfully passes them over.

When the waiter returns to take their order, Yibo sticks to light and sweet dishes, ordering salt and pepper tofu, candied ribs, and vegetables poached in broth. Xiao Zhan orders a steamed fish dish with bean curd in spicy sauce on the side. At the last minute, he also adds the chef’s selection of appetisers.

“To share,” he says to Yibo as the waiter writes it down.

Then the waiter is gone again and it is just the two of them. Without the distraction of reading the menu, the silence that falls is awkward.

Yibo throws back the last of his glass of wine and reaches for the bottle to refill it. He gestures with it to Xiao Zhan who, despite still having about half of his left, holds out his glass and lets Yibo top it up.

“Thank you,” Xiao Zhan says and takes a sip before setting his glass back down. He shifts in his seat, turning to sit angled towards Yibo. He props an elbow on the table. “So, tell me, how was it performing with Wang Leehom? I know you’re a fan, it must have been exciting.”

“It was good. He was really nice.”

Xiao Zhan smiles and tilts his head to the side, seemingly amused by whatever he’s read into Yibo’s short response. “Were you star struck?”

Yibo snorts, the huff of amusement breaking out of him not entirely intentionally.

“Yeah, a bit,” he admits, mumbling the answer into his glass as he sips his wine. Xiao Zhan’s smile stretches out into a full blown grin at that, the skin around his eyes crinkling into laugh lines with the strength of it.

“Ah, Yibo, so shy until you get warmed up.”

“Shut up,” Yibo grouses, but there isn’t really any bite to it. It doesn’t seem as tense anymore between them, the rhythm of their banter settling into something comfortable and timeworn.

The appetisers come as Xiao Zhan asks Yibo about his filming projects from last summer. Yibo gets drawn into describing the craziness of his schedule and the ups and downs of Street Dance of China around mouthfuls of abalone puff and crunchy spinach rolls. Xiao Zhan is listening with that particularly intent way of his, his head cocked to the side, gaze steady and unwavering.

When the waiter comes in to clear their appetiser dishes and replace them with full plates of food, Yibo is startled enough to remember himself and cuts off mid-story.

It’s embarrassing how quickly he’s settled back into old habits, talking to Xiao Zhan about his life like. Like. Like they’re together.

That’s not why Yibo’s here. He can’t let himself forget what this is.

Casual.

Fun.

Yibo tops up his wine glass from the fresh bottle that had arrived with dinner. He throws half of it back and then picks up his chopsticks, turning his attention to his food and leaving off what he was saying. He tucks a large bite of the fragrant poached vegetables into his mouth and lets silence fall as he unhurriedly chews and swallows. Beside him, Xiao Zhan is carefully pulling his fish into shreds, alternating bites of it with the frighteningly red bean curd.

When Yibo reaches for one of the candied ribs, he knocks elbows with Xiao Zhan, who is slipping a bit of the fish into Yibo’s bowl.

“Here,” Xiao Zhan says, giving up any effort to be subtle and dumping the fish on top of Yibo’s rice and vegetables. “Try this. It’s not your usual thing, but it’s really good.”

It’s something that Xiao Zhan had always used to do when they were together -- demand he try little bits of whatever he was eating or drinking. It had made him happy when Yibo had leaned in to accept the offerings, told him how nice it tasted.

Yibo looks down at the shred of fish in his bowl. It makes him feel bruised just to look at it, a swollen, tight feeling settling into his chest.

He can’t handle any more of this. He can’t chatter away about his year and trade bites of food. He can’t let himself start thinking like this is a date when it’s not. He needs it to be casual, he needs to be casual.

Yibo abruptly pushes his plate away. He takes a final quick slug of his wine, then shoves his chair back and stands up.

“Yibo,” Xiao Zhan says, startled at the sudden movement. He pushes his own chair back and is going to stand up too, but Yibo forestalls it through the simple expedience of sliding into a straddle on his lap.

Xiao Zhan’s mouth goes slack with shock, which Yibo takes advantage of as he drags him into an open-mouthed kiss. It’s hot and dirty, from zero to sixty all at once as Yibo licks the flavour of soy sauce and wine from Xiao Zhan’s mouth. Yibo hooks his arms over Xiao Zhan’s shoulders and grinds his hips down into Xiao Zhan’s groin. The kiss dissolves into a graceless panting against each other’s lips at the rush of sensation that results for both of them.

“Do you want this?” Yibo asks. It’s an echo of his question the night of the Tencent awards. Now, as then, it’s abrupt and rushed. The waiter could come back any minute, with Michelin star-standard attentiveness, to fill up their wine glasses and ask how the food is.

Now, as then, Xiao Zhan nods.

“Okay,” Yibo says. “Me, too. Now.”

He slides off Xiao Zhan’s lap and grabs his jacket from the back of the chair. He pulls it on and does up the front buttons, then length of it nicely covering the erection ruining the line of his trousers. The outline of Xiao Zhan’s cock is clearly visible, too, and his waistcoat is useless to disguise it. Yibo smirks at him unsympathetically as he walks over to the door, sticks his head out, and waves down the nearest of the waitstaff.

When their own waiter slips in a few moments later, Xiao Zhan says they’re ready to pay. He has artfully draped his linen napkin over his lap. The waiter’s bland, mildly pleasant expression slips as he looks in dismay at the largely uneaten spread of dishes.

“Was there something wrong with the food?” he asks.

Yibo supposes that people probably don’t normally spend a small fortune here to barely eat what they’ve ordered.

Xiao Zhan rushes to tell the waiter that everything was delicious, bashfully mumbling something about strict diets. It’s a handy excuse for all manner of odd celebrity eating habits and the waiter seems reassured.

Yibo lets Xiao Zhan pay the bill without putting up even a token, polite argument. When they get down to the lobby, he lets Xiao Zhan pay for the room, too. It’s an absurd expense -- renting a room for a dirty hook-up at the Four Seasons. But since Xiao Zhan chose the location, he can bear the cost of it.

They stand a discreet distance apart in the elevator on the ride up to their floor. The corridor is a balcony facing into the multi-floor atrium at the centre of the hotel. Yibo stands back, bouncing on the balls of his feet and studying the hundreds of shining steel butterflies mounted on the back wall of the open space, while Xiao Zhan swipes the key card in the door.

Xiao Zhan fumbles the card a couple of times, cursing under his breath when the red light above the door handle shows, then finally gets it on the third try.

Yibo is cool.

Casual.

He waits until the door actually closes behind him with an audible click of the latch catching before grabbing Xiao Zhan by the front of his very neat white, button up shirt and drags him back into a hard kiss. It’s a relief -- straightforward and obscene, all tongue and teeth and heat. It cuts through the confusing tangle of emotions that had caught Yibo up over dinner, makes everything simple again.

Yibo blindly attacks the neat line of buttons that march up the front of Xiao Zhan’s waistcoat as he crowds Xiao Zhan backwards, into the room and towards the bed. He gets the waistcoat off, tossing it to the side without looking where it lands, and has started in on the buttons on Xiao Zhan’s shirt by the time they reach the bed. He yanks it out from where it’s tucked into Xiao Zhan’s trousers to get to the last of the buttons, then breaks the kiss, finally, to be able to watch as he shoves it off Xiao Zhan’s shoulders and down his arms. He hasn’t undone the buttons at Xiao Zhan’s cuffs and the shirt tangles for a minute around his wrists, but then Yibo flicks them loose and the shirt joins the waistcoat on the floor.

Yibo steps back, then, puts a little distance between them so he can take in Xiao Zhan’s bare torso.

He hadn’t taken the time to look much last time.

Xiao Zhan’s shoulders are broader than Yibo remembers, the muscles of his chest and arms more defined. The picture Yibo has of Xiao Zhan in his head from before is all lean lines -- a slender chest leading down to a narrow waist. He’s bulkier now, evidence of hours spent working out.

Xiao Zhan goes pink while Yibo looks his fill, the colour spreading down from his cheeks to his neck and further, until he’s blushing from his ears to his collarbones. He fidgets a bit and then, when Yibo smirks and stares even more obviously, gives a huff of exasperation and closes the gap between them.

“You’re wearing too much,” he complains, sliding his hands up Yibo’s chest to peel back the lapels of his blazer. Yibo lets him push the jacket off and then pulls off his own t-shirt before Xiao Zhan gets the chance.

He preens when Xiao Zhan takes his turn staring, knowing full well that his abs are nearly as defined as they’d been back in his debut days after having spent half the year alternating between dancing, surfing, and throwing himself around on wires in the last of the Legend of Fei filming.

Xiao Zhan’s eyes darken and he flushes more deeply. It’s obvious he likes what he sees and Yibo, as always, likes having Xiao Zhan looking at him.

Xiao Zhan licks his lips, then reaches down and with unabashed speed, undoes his fly as he toes off his shoes. Despite his complaint about being less dressed than Yibo a moment ago, he shucks his trousers and underwear in one quick move so that he’s completely naked and then lets himself fall back in a sprawl on the bed. He shuffles up until his head is near the head of the bed, props himself up on his elbows and shoots an absolutely filthy look at Yibo.

“Well, come on,” he says, deliberately provocative. He flicks a look down at Yibo’s cock, hard and obvious against the fly of his trousers, then back up at Yibo. “Unless you just wanted me to lie here and watch you take care of yourself?”

Yibo doesn’t know what turns him on more; the challenge in Xiao Zhan’s tone or the idea of Xiao Zhan watching him jerk off. It’s two of his surest turn-ons -- competition and exhibitionism -- and Xiao Zhan knows that. He knows that about Yibo and is using it against him, the absolute bastard.

Xiao Zhan getting a little bit mean is probably only slightly behind the other two when it comes to Yibo’s hard and fast kinks.

He’s so turned on as he tries to get his fly open that he jams the zipper in his rush, the tab getting caught in a trailing bit of fabric, and ends up just yanking the half-undone trousers down his legs and off in his impatience. He only just has the presence of mind to fish the condoms and lube out of the pocket of his blazer where it lies crumpled on the floor. He tosses them on the bed before crawling up the length of Xiao Zhan’s body.

Yibo braces over Xiao Zhan for a moment, holding his eyes just long enough to make it clear that it’s a challenge in return, and then lets himself sink down to rest full length against Xiao Zhan.

He buries his head into Xiao Zhan’s neck, resting his teeth lightly against the spot where it meets Xiao Zhan’s shoulder without biting, without leaving any awkward marks, but the implication is there and it’s enough to make Xiao Zhan gasp and buck up against him. Yibo thrusts his hips, pushing Xiao Zhan back down, their legs tangling and cocks sliding against each other and it’s so, so good.

He does it again, and then again, Xiao Zhan pushing back up to meet him each time. Xiao Zhan has looped his arms up under Yibo’s and hooked his hands over Yibo’s shoulders from behind, which he is using to get better leverage to rock back against Yibo’s thrusts. The slide of naked skin against skin, the space between their hips made slippery with sweat and the precome they’re both leaking all over the place, is glorious. Yibo can hear the breathy grunts he is letting out with each downward thrust but he can’t quite bite them back.

Then Xiao Zhan braces a foot against the bed and, in a lithe twist that mostly only works because he has the element of surprise, flips Yibo over. Yibo is left blinking and stunned by the change in positions, lying flat on his back in shocked, momentary immobility.

Xiao Zhan levers himself up and slings a leg over Yibo’s hips so that he is kneeling up over Yibo’s thighs. At some point, probably while Yibo had still been blinking stupidly at the ceiling, he’s picked up the condom and lube. He rips open the condom package and then pauses, the twist of latex pinched in his fingers, to look up at Yibo.

“I want you to fuck me this time.” He is watching Yibo’s face intently as he says it.

Apparently the hot spike of arousal that goes through Yibo at the statement is clear in his expression, because Xiao Zhan doesn’t wait any longer before rolling the condom down over Yibo’s dick and then squeezing lube out over Yibo’s fingers. He shuffles up until his knees bracket Yibo’s ribcage and he can reach to brace his arms against the headboard above the bed.

The lube and the position are a clear instruction. Yibo has to take a moment to take a deep breath and get himself under control before he complies. He cups Xiao Zhan’s ass with one hand, not propping up Xiao Zhan’s weight or clutching at it, but just holding it gently for the pleasure of feeling the curve of it and the shift of muscle under the skin. He slides the lube-slick fingers of the other down the cleft between Xiao Zhan’s buttocks.

Xiao Zhan throws his head back and bites his lip as Yibo presses a single finger into him.

“Okay?” Yibo asks, pushing in and out with just the one finger, feeling the tight clench of Xiao Zhan’s body around it.

“Yeah. Yeah, good. It’s really good. Fuck. God, your hands.”

The burble of words is more what Yibo is used to and it reassures him. The silence and the lip biting had been unnerving. Something about getting fingered open had always made Xiao Zhan wordy -- a babble of directions and praise for Yibo’s hands and, when he got close, incoherent noises.

“More. More, please. Another finger. Come on, Yibo, fuck.”

Yibo presses a second finger into Xiao Zhan and then, when Xiao Zhan asks, a third one. Xiao Zhan’s hair is sweaty over his forehead and his hips are shifting hungrily as he rocks up and then back against Yibo’s hand. On each forward shimmy, his balls brush along the centre of Yibo’s chest and his dick rocks nearly in reach of Yibo’s lips.

Yibo is just thinking about craning his neck up to suck the head of Xiao Zhan’s cock into his mouth on the next forward thrust, when Xiao Zhan lets go of the headboard with one hand and grabs Yibo’s wrist. Yibo stills, hand caught in Xiao Zhan’s hard grip, fingers still buried in his body.

“Enough,” Xiao Zhan says and tugs. “Enough, I’m ready. Come on.”

Yibo slides his fingers out, squirts the last of the lube in the little travel pack into his hand, and slicks his dick up with a couple of perfunctory strokes. He’s turned on enough that even that makes him shiver and he has to think very hard about how fucking embarassing it would be to come from just this, before he’s even got inside Xiao Zhan, to pull back from the edge.

Xiao Zhan reaches behind himself, bracing Yibo’s cock with his hand and lining himself up until he can sink down over Yibo in one smooth, steady motion.

It’s good. Fuck, it’s good. Overwhelming. Aside from the blowjob Xiao Zhan had given him the last time they’d hooked up, Yibo hasn’t had anything but his own hand on his dick for a year.

Yibo is enveloped in Xiao Zhan -- his hands against Yibo’s chest, his knees braced hard against Yibo’s ribs, his ass tight around Yibo’s cock. It’s all Yibo can do to wrap his hands around Xiao Zhan’s hips, the points of pelvic bone hard against Yibo’s palms, and hold on as Xiao Zhan lifts himself up and then slides back down, working himself on Yibo’s dick, again and again.

Yibo isn’t going to last long, but Xiao Zhan is as into it as he is, as close to the edge. Yibo remembers all the signs -- the way breathy noises start to fall from his lips, the way he arches back.

Xiao Zhan braces one hand against Yibo’s thigh and wraps the other one around his own dick, stroking himself with hard, fast movements. He comes, with a hoarse shout, in hot stripes across Yibo’s chest, then flops forward in a loose slouch right into the mess he’s made.

Yibo tightens his grip on Xiao Zhan’s hips and braces his feet against the bed. With Xiao Zhan draped against him, Yibo can’t get the leverage to thrust too hard, but settles into a gentle rocking motion that results in a constant ebb and flow of sensation. It keeps Yibo just this side of an orgasm, keeps him caught and surrounded by Xiao Zhan, by the smell of his hair and the feel of his skin against Yibo’s. Then, all of a sudden, the sensation comes to a head. Yibo thrusts once, twice more, and then he’s coming, eyes screwed shut and toes curling with the force of it.

They lie like that for a long moment, chest to chest, sloppy and soft in the afterglow. Then Xiao Zhan gives a shiver and rolls to the side, Yibo’s softening dick slipping out of him as he goes. He isn’t touching Yibo anymore; his hands are tucked together under his own chin and his body is curved in a careful parabola a precise inch or two away from Yibo from shoulder to ankle. But his eyes are steady on Yibo’s face.

Yibo avoids the look, focusing with unnecessary intentness on his own hands as he pulls off the condom and ties a knot in the end. He levers himself to his feet and pads into the bathroom to toss it in the bin. He grabs a washcloth from the neatly rolled pile on the marble countertop and runs it under warm water in the sink, ringing it out before he brings it back out to Xiao Zhan in the bed.

Xiao Zhan hasn’t moved, still lying on his side, curved around the empty space where Yibo had been. He watches as Yibo approaches, still except for where his eyes track Yibo as he pads barefoot across the space between the bathroom and the bed.

Yibo perches on the side of the bed and offers the cloth to Xiao Zhan. Xiao Zhan reaches for it and briskly wipes himself down, scrubbing at his face and chest before reaching back to swipe at the lube between his thighs. When he’s finished, he hands the cloth back to Yibo, who carries it back to the bathroom and runs it under the tap again before cleaning himself up with it. He tosses it into the bathtub when he’s finished.

Xiao Zhan is sitting up when he comes back into the bedroom and watches as he reaches down to untangle his underwear from his trousers before pulling them both back on in turn. Xiao Zhan hasn’t bothered to get dressed himself. He hasn’t even draped the loose sheet over his groin. He’s just sitting, naked and unembarrassed, propped against the headboard. His legs are stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankle. His arms are draped in a loose fold over his chest.

Yibo flicks a look over at him as he pulls on his t-shirt.

“Thanks for tonight,” he says, shoving his arms into the sleeves of his blazer, then patting his pocket to make sure he still has his phone. “It was nice.”

Xiao Zhan watches him intently as he says, “I’m glad. I enjoyed it, too. It was good to see you.”

Yibo nods and sits back down on the bed to pull his socks on.

After a moment, Xiao Zhan adds, “Maybe we can see each other again? Whenever we’re in the same city next?”

Yibo leans down to tie his shoelaces. “Yeah, sure. After the Douyin awards, maybe?”

Xiao Zhan smiles, then. It’s a small, pleased little tuck at the corners of his mouth rather than a full, beaming grin, but it’s genuine. “That would be good.”

“Cool,” Yibo says as he finally stands up.

Xiao Zhan shifts, like he’s going to get up and walk Yibo to the door or something. Yibo pushes him back. He looks down at Xiao Zhan, at his hand spread out over Xiao Zhan’s shoulder, then gives in to the temptation to lean down to press a last, quick kiss onto Xiao Zhan’s lips.

“I’ll see you,” Yibo says when he pulls back. He doesn’t wait for Xiao Zhan to reply before turning around and striding in the direction of the door.

 

Then

After the Tencent awards, Xiao Zhan comes through the hotel room door, barefaced and grim-mouthed.

Yibo knows -- he knows -- he’s not going to like whatever is about to happen.

Xiao Zhan has been subtly off all night -- nothing the cameras would catch, of course. There were no cracks in Xiao Zhan’s perfect performance of a bashfully pleased rising star being showered with praise and awards. But Yibo can tell. He knows Xiao Zhan too well not to be able to pick up on the strain under the surface. All night, Yibo has been looking at Xiao Zhan and Xiao Zhan has been looking away.

“What is it?” Yibo asks, right there in the narrow corridor, next to the bathroom.

“Come sit down,” Xiao Zhan replies. Another avoidance.

“I don’t want to sit down,” Yibo says. He crosses his arms over his chest, flattens his hands against his sides. He can feel that he’s pouting, stubborn and sulky, but can’t get his expression under control.

Xiao Zhan doesn’t argue, just walks past Yibo and into the hotel room, leaving Yibo no choice but to follow after all. Xiao Zhan comes to a stop awkwardly at the foot of the bed, and Yibo moves over to stand by the window. He leans back against it, the cool surface grounding against his shoulder blades.

“What is it?” Yibo asks again.

“I want to stop.”

For a moment, Yibo doesn’t get it. He stares, uncomprehendingly, at Xiao Zhan’s impassive face. Stop what? Stop standing? Stop doing award shows?

Xiao Zhan, apparently correctly interpreting Yibo’s silence as confusion, clarifies. Brutally.

“I want us to stop. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Xiao Zhan emphasises his point with a vague waft of his hand, a gesture that somehow encompasses himself and Yibo and the space between them. The this between them that he wants to stop.

Yibo had known whatever Xiao Zhan had come to say was going to be bad. This is worse.

“What? Why?”

“It’s time. This thing that we’ve had. It’s run its course. We barely see each other anymore and it’s only going to get worse. Our careers are going really well right now and we have to make the most of the opportunities that come our way. It was good between us, Yibo, it was. But it’s time.”

That. That hurts. Yibo feels winded with how much it hurts. He has to swallow a couple of times before he can push his voice out of his tight throat. “It’s still good. We can’t see each other as much as either of us would want, but we can work on it. We can make more time to be together.”

“I don’t want to,” Xiao Zhan replies. His voice is gentle and terrible. He is standing with his hands loose at his sides, relaxed.

“We can make it work, Zhan-ge, it -- “

But Xiao Zhan is shaking his head before Yibo is even half way through his sentence and it hurts. It hurts how much this doesn’t seem to be hurting Xiao Zhan at all. He is implacable and calm.

“You don’t want to be together anymore at all?” Yibo asks, blankly.

Yibo feels stupid as soon as the words leave his mouth, then stupider still when Xiao Zhan replies, “This isn’t what being together is -- spending most of our time apart, sneaking around to see each other in a hotel room once every couple of months without any of our friends knowing. This isn’t a proper relationship. It isn’t good for either of us.”

It’s this that finally pushes Yibo over the line from pain to anger.

“Fuck you, Xiao Zhan. Lao Xiao. The voice of experience, passing judgement on what does and doesn’t count as a relationship. Fuck you.”

Xiao Zhan looks at the wall just to one side of Yibo’s head as Yibo curses at him. His expression doesn’t change. He waits until he’s sure Yibo is done, then nods. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. I’m going to go now, Yibo.”

Yibo can feel the tears prickling behind his eyes and spins around, stares out the window at the city lights so that he doesn’t have to look at Xiao Zhan. Behind him, he hears Xiao Zhan moving towards the door.

“Goodbye, Yibo,” Xiao Zhan says. “Look after yourself.”

“Fuck off,” Yibo mutters, but in a voice small enough that Xiao Zhan probably doesn’t hear him.

Then there is the sound of the hotel room door opening and closing again.

It’s hollow and horrible, the sound of that door closing.

Yibo closes his eyes and grinds his forehead hard into the cool glass of the window. His ears are ringing, his chest is tight. He can’t breathe -- he chokes as he tries, as if he has sucked in a mouthful of smoke instead of air. When does manage a breath in, it comes as a ragged sob, loud and raw in an empty room.

 

Now

The Douyin awards are, of course, a whirlwind. Yibo films a couple of vignettes with Zhang Ziyi in the days leading up to the event, which are pretty fun. He likes his bartender outfit. On the night, he does the usual mad dashes between the red carpet and photo shoots and performance, with costume changes for every appearance. Once his performance is out of the way, though, Yibo relaxes. He’s not even faking the smile he gives when he and Zhao Liying accept their awards together.

After, he’s standing backstage, wishing Liying-jie goodnight, when Xiao Zhan sidles up. He’s got his own award -- Popularity Star -- tucked under his arm. He is his most charming self as he greets Zhao Liying, who reciprocates politely but then quickly extricates herself from the conversation. She seems keen to get out of her uncomfortable awards outfit and back to the hotel, where her husband and baby are waiting.

She bustles off, her staff trailing after her, leaving Yibo and Xiao Zhan behind in one of those strangely intimate little pockets of space you sometimes get in the middle of a large crowd. The other celebrities have started filtering out in the direction of dressing rooms and waiting cars. Everyone else around them are crew, who are too busy rushing around with their post-show jobs to pay any attention to the two of them.

“Congratulations,” Xiao Zhan offers, gesturing at Yibo’s award. “All Round Artist again. It’s well deserved.”

“Thank you. Congratulations to you, too,” Yibo replies.

Xiao Zhan fidgets for a moment with the black ribbon trailing from his shirt, then says, “I like your new song. It’s good.”

“Thanks,” Yibo says, again.

Xiao Zhan smiles, then shuffles a half step closer as a crew member comes past pushing a trolley with lighting equipment on it. He doesn’t step back again when the coast is clear. His face settles into an intent expression and he opens his mouth to say something, then appears to think better of it. He shoots a wary look around himself, and instead says, “I think we’re at the same hotel again. Do you want to come by for a drink after? If you’re not too tired?”

“Sure, sounds good,” Yibo says, carefully casual. He’s been trying not to think about their half-agreed plans to see each other tonight. They’ve had a few text exchanges since they saw each other last, but neither has mentioned tonight, even to say a casual see you there. Yibo couldn’t decide if he’d be disappointed or relieved if it didn’t work out.

Xiao Zhan grins at Yibo’s reply -- bright and happy and far too pure looking for a man who’s just sidled up to Yibo to proposition him for another hook-up. It throws Yibo off, makes him feel like he’s missed something somewhere in the conversation. That is what he’s just agreed to, right? A hook-up?

The doubt knocks Yibo back to last year, to the tense feeling in the pit of his stomach when he could tell that something was wrong between them, but not what. Or, apparently, how badly wrong things were. He could tell then that he was missing some piece of the puzzle, too.

“Great, great,” Xiao Zhan says, seemingly oblivious to Yibo’s sudden spike of uncertainty. He rummages around for a second in the pocket of his elegantly draping trousers until he fishes out a keycard in a little paper folder with the hotel logo on it and a room number written in Xiao Zhan’s familiar handwriting across the bottom.

“Here,” he says, offering to Yibo. “I got a second key in case you wanted to come by. So you don’t have to stand out in the corridor knocking. I’m heading out now, so I’ll probably beat you back. Come whenever.”

With that, Xiao Zhan turns and melts away into the crowd. His staff, who have been standing discretely out of hearing, scramble after him. His two bodyguards catch up quickly, but his little PA has to break into a skipping half-run to keep up with Xiao Zhan’s long, purposeful strides.

Yibo looks down at the key in his hand and, if anything, feels less confident than ever.

He changes out of his suit and into his own clothes in record time, then scrubs roughly at his face with makeup remover wipes to get rid of his layers of foundation. He isn’t very precise and probably misses a few spots, but he can’t be bothered to care. He ends up having to wait a couple of minutes while his manager calls to get the car to come around, having got ready to leave much faster than anticipated.

Back at the hotel, he swings by his own room to dump his things off and dives through a shower to wash out the sticky hair product that is making his hair crunchy and unyielding to the touch. He’s in and out in under five minutes, and back in clothes with his hair finger combed and teeth brushed five minutes after that. He picks up Xiao Zhan’s room key from where he’d put it on the dresser and is out the door.

Despite having the key, Yibo gives a quick warning rap on the door before he lets himself in, just so he doesn’t startle Xiao Zhan. Xiao Zhan is waiting in the narrow corridor, having apparently started towards the door at the sound of the knock. Yibo slips in and makes sure the door is firmly closed behind him before turning to fully face Xiao Zhan.

Xiao Zhan has showered and changed as well. He’s in the same soft-looking, loose cardigan he had worn after the Tencent awards and he’s wearing his glasses instead of his contacts. His hair, still shockingly short to Yibo’s eyes, is drying in soft tufts over his forehead.

“Yibo,” he says, smiling. “Come in. Come sit down. I’ve got beer. There’s food if you’re hungry.”

Yibo nods and slips past Xiao Zhan to lead the way into the hotel room. There is a room service cart parked out of the way against one wall, with a plate of sandwiches and a handful of bottles on it.

Yibo passes over the sandwiches and grabs a beer, popping the top and then going to stand over by the window. He leans his shoulder into the glass and watches as Xiao Zhan picks up one of the sandwiches and nibbles a little at the corner, then puts it back down and opens a beer of his own. He takes it over to the foot of the bed, sitting down on it awkwardly and sipping his drink.

“Do you, um. Do you want to sit down?”

Yibo shakes his head.

“I’m good,” he says. He’d sort of expected to be moving through the ‘have a drink’ portion of the evening to the ‘get naked’ portion of the evening a lot faster than this. The sandwiches are a surprise. Xiao Zhan is tense, nervy, and it’s making Yibo nervous in turn. It feels like he’s about to get broken up with again, but they’re not even dating.

Xiao Zhan looks down at his hands, picks at the label on the beer bottle with a fingernail. He is chewing on his bottom lip.

The silence stretches on longer than it should. Yibo hates feeling awkward and the silence is very, very awkward. Yibo takes another long draw on his beer and then, abruptly, loses patience with whatever is going on.

“What is it?” he asks, baldly. Social graces aren’t his strong suit, not like Xiao Zhan, but he’s elevated bluntness to a fine art. He uses it to deliberate effect now.

Xiao Zhan looks up at him, a smooth, solemn expression on his face. It’s a cover for some kind of stronger emotion roiling below the surface. Probably most people wouldn’t be able to tell it’s not genuine, but Yibo can. Even after all this time. Xiao Zhan never liked to show his deeper, uglier feelings on the surface.

“I want to try again. With you. If. If you wanted to.”

It’s not what Yibo was expecting.

He draws back, pressing into the window, and stares at Xiao Zhan for a long moment. Xiao Zhan meets his eyes steadily, but he has a white-knuckle grip on his bottle.

Yibo’s head is whirling and he can feel himself gripping his own beer bottle just as hard. He has the presence of mind to turn and carefully place it down on the windowsill. His hands shake as he does, so he balls them into fists at his sides.

Eventually, Yibo asks, “Why?”

“I miss you.”

“Miss me or miss the sex? Because I’m fine with this whole hook-up thing. It’s working pretty well.”

Xiao Zhan is shaking his head before Yibo finishes speaking. “No, I miss you. I miss you. I want more than casual sex. If you do. If you were willing to give me another chance.”

Yibo’s breath stutters. He can feel his heart beating in his ears, the heavy throb of blood rushing to his head.

That is.

Not what he’d expected.

Yibo takes a breath, closes his eyes. He shakes his head to try and clear it.

He’s been fucked up over Xiao Zhan breaking up with him for a year, has thrown himself into an even more frenetic schedule than usual to try and distract himself from how much losing what they’d had had hurt.

He’d pushed his way into that hotel room back in December in part to prove to himself that he was over Xiao Zhan. He’d found, to his horror, that he isn’t. Not really. He’s better, but he’s not over him, and the idea of starting all over again is --

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I want that.”

Because he’s watching so carefully, Yibo catches the flicker of Xiao Zhan’s eyelids at his response, the twist at the corner of his mouth, before Xiao Zhan gets both back under control, forcing his face back into its hard-to-read mask.

“That’s fair. I hurt you. I understand if you’re not -- If you don’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. I just. Everything that’s happened since December gave me hope that you might let me try to. To make it up to you. How it ended before.”

Yibo turns to look out the window, giving himself a moment to gather his thoughts. Xiao Zhan’s reflection is clear on the glass, overlaying the cityscape beyond. He sits still on the end of the bed, waiting Yibo out.

“Why did it end like that?” Yibo eventually asks, not turning around. Not yet. “Why did you break up with me like that?”

Xiao Zhan stands and Yibo tenses, but he doesn’t make any advances. He moves instead to put his half empty beer down on the cart, then walks over until he can stand, leaning back on the wall. He’s no closer, but he’s in Yibo’s peripheral vision now. Previously, Yibo could see Xiao Zhan’s reflection and all Xiao Zhan could see was the back Yibo’s head, but he has a good view of Yibo’s profile from his new spot.

Xiao Zhan’s voice, when he speaks, is quiet and sad. “I felt overwhelmed by it all. The attention, my schedule. Our relationship. It all felt like too much. I thought you, us, was the thing I could cut out of my life to make the rest of it more manageable. To make it a bit easier.”

It stings to hear that their relationship had been so expendable, but Xiao Zhan is at least being honest. More honest, apparently, than when he’d said, last year, that it had just run its course.

“Did breaking up with me help?”

“No.” Xiao Zhan pauses after he answers, then adds, “But I’m not sure I could have done anything else. Even knowing how it turned out.”

Yibo absorbs that, turning it over in his head.

“Why?”

“I’ve missed you so much this year,” Xiao Zhan says, again. Yibo turns to look at him now, at the way he has his arms crossed over his chest and his head angled so that he can watch what he could see of Yibo’s face while it was turned away from him. “I’ve missed you so much it hurt, but I don’t think I could have done anything else. I was losing myself. I was being stripped back to bare bone and I didn’t have anything left over for us.”

“So what’s changed now?”

“Me. I’ve changed.” The reply is immediate and emphatic. Xiao Zhan uncrosses his arms and takes a couple of careful steps towards Yibo. Telegraphing his intentions clearly, giving Yibo plenty of time to object if he was going to, Xiao Zhan reaches out with one hand and cups it over the ball of Yibo’s shoulder. The physical contact is grounding, pulling Yibo into the moment and out of the slightly drifty, disconnected headspace he’d been in.

“I’ve had a lot more time to think this year than I would have liked,” Xiao Zhan says with a grimace that speaks volumes. “I don’t know that I really understood what I was getting into when I threw myself into this career. I love singing, I love acting, but the rest of it is. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m not as experienced at celebrity as you are, Lao Wang, and I made mistakes.”

The old nickname is a touch of levity that Yibo can’t help respond to. He feels himself smile a little at it. Xiao Zhan smiles back, carefully, and squeezes Yibo’s shoulder.

“I understand it better now, and I understand myself better. I’m sorry I hurt you so much before I figured it out.”

Yibo hadn’t realised, until that moment, how badly he’d needed to hear Xiao Zhan apologise. How badly he’d needed to hear Xiao Zhan acknowledge and say sorry for how he’d made Yibo feel. The tightness Yibo has been carrying around in his chest for a year finally, finally, loosens and he brings a hand up to lay over the one on his shoulder. He squeezes it in a thank you that he’s not sure he has the words to actually articulate. He hopes Xiao Zhan understands.

They stand like that, Yibo holding Xiao Zhan’s hand and Xiao Zhan holding Yibo’s shoulder, a calm tableau.

Then Yibo says, “If we did try again -- “ A hopeful light dawns in Xiao Zhan’s eyes and Yibo emphasises, “If we did try again. It’s not going to be any better than last time. We’d be apart more often than we’re together. We’d be back to sneaking into each other’s hotel rooms.”

“It’s been working pretty well lately,” Xiao Zhan says, smirking as he throws Yibo’s words back at him. He grows serious again, though, and adds, “We can work on it. We can make time where we can, message when we can’t. Like we’ve been doing.”

“I’d want to tell people,” Yibo says, surprising himself with the vehemence of it. “Not a lot of people. But the people that matter. My family. My friends.”

Last time, they’d never talked about it, but Xiao Zhan had got nervous every time it seemed like someone might have guessed about them. So Yibo had kept it a secret, without even being asked. Yibo had been so stupid in love, he hadn’t thought it had mattered. He’d thought it was a small price to pay if it meant having Xiao Zhan. But then they’d broken up, and he’d been miserable, and he’d been alone. There was nobody to talk to about it because nobody had known they’d ever been together in the first place. A few people had guessed, like Wang Han, but they hadn’t known for sure, and Yibo had felt so isolated.

It is, Yibo realises, a dealbreaker. He wants to tell people this time. If Xiao Zhan says no, then. That’s it. Yibo isn’t going to give this another try. He’ll walk away.

But Xiao Zhan is already nodding, agreeing. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

“Yes. Me, too. I want that, too,” he says.

Yibo takes a deep breath. Takes a moment to check that he really means what he’s about to say. When he finds he does, he nods. “Okay.”

Xiao Zhan looks blank for a moment, and then realisation dawns. “Okay?” he asks, a grin starting to stretch across his face.

“Okay,” Yibo repeats. “Okay. We can try.”

Xiao Zhan surges forward into Yibo’s space, hands moving up to cup Yibo’s face. The kiss he pushes against Yibo’s lips is graceless, a smash of lips with an edge of teeth where Xiao Zhan hasn’t stopped smiling.

 

Later

Xiao Zhan throws open the door to his apartment before Yibo even has a chance to knock, then steps back out of the way to give Yibo the space to push his massive suitcase in ahead of himself.

“You’ve packed pretty heavy for one night,” he says, laughing as he tugs Yibo in one-armed for a hug and a smacking kiss on the cheek. He’s showered and changed into sweatpants already. Yibo, for his part, is still in the street clothes he’d been wearing when he’d left the Weibo awards. The fresh smell of Xiao Zhan’s body wash when he pulls him close makes Yibo conscious of how stale and sweaty he feels.

Yibo rolls his eyes and elbows Xiao Zhan off of him so he can toe off his shoes and wheel the suitcase into the living room. “I’m flying out in the morning for the start of the Luoyang shoot. I brought my stuff so I can sleep in later and go directly from here. Asshole.”

The insult is affectionate and it makes Xiao Zhan laugh.

Yibo tucks his suitcase out of the way in one corner of the room and accepts the beer Xiao Zhan holds out to him gratefully.

“Are you hungry? I can order something in, if you want.” Xiao Zhan has his phone in his hand already, but Yibo waves him off. He’d grazed on enough snacks at the awards that he’s fine. It’s late enough that he’d probably just fall asleep waiting if they tried to order anything more.

“Stop fussing around, just come sit,” Yibo says, throwing himself down on Xiao Zhan’s couch. When Xiao Zhan sits down next to him, Yibo kicks his feet up into Xiao Zhan’s lap and wiggles his toes, shamelessly hinting for a foot rub. Xiao Zhan complies, digging his thumbs into the stiff ball of Yibo’s left foot.

“Oh,” Yibo groans, letting his head fall back against the arm of the couch. “That’s good. I have to constantly clench my toes to keep those stupid loafers my stylist keeps putting me in from sliding right off my feet. I thought I was going to get a foot cramp when I was walking across the stage.”

“It’s the price of fashion, Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan says, switching over to the other foot. “If you didn’t insist on being so stylish, you could have had nice, boring lace up shoes like I did.”

Yibo uses the foot not currently being rubbed to poke Xiao Zhan in the ribs. “Asshole,” he says again, fondly. “Like I get to pick what I wear to events.”

By the time Xiao Zhan has finished with both feet, Yibo is melting bonelessly into the cushions and fighting not to just fall asleep where he is. Xiao Zhan has to yank him up off the couch and herd him in the direction of the shower. Yibo washes and brushes his teeth with the toothbrush that Xiao Zhan keeps in the medicine cabinet for him. Then he pads naked from the bathroom to Xiao Zhan’s bedroom.

When he comes in, Xiao Zhan, who was sitting on the end of the bed and scrolling through his phone while he waited, levers himself up and heads to the bathroom. As the tap turns on and the sound of Xiao Zhan brushing his own teeth starts up, Yibo flips back the covers and crawls into bed.

Xiao Zhan comes back as Yibo is plugging in his phone and setting his alarm for the morning. He pulls the door to the bedroom part closed, but leaves enough of a gap for the glow of the hallway light to show. He climbs in on the other side of the bed, plugs his own phone in, and then turns over onto his back and holds his arms open in invitation.

Yibo rolls over onto his side and tucks his head under Xiao Zhan’s chin. He shoves his nose into the dip of Xiao Zhan’s clavicle and spreads his hand across Xiao Zhan’s chest, feeling the steady beat of Xiao Zhan’s heart beneath his palm.

In the morning, they’ll trade handjobs and Xiao Zhan will make him coffee and then Yibo will be off again for a couple of weeks. When Yibo’s back in Beijing next, Xiao Zhan is scheduled to be in Wuhan for his play rehearsals.

They have an overlapping free long weekend next month. Until then, they’ll message and video call.

It’s not perfect, but it’s working. They’re making it work.

It’s good.

 

End.