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The right side of Sicheng’s neck was growing tight. Sicheng rolled his shoulders back and carefully drew his nose in a large circle, stretching out his stiff muscles. A twinge of pain when he tilted his left ear toward his shoulder—like a guitar string, plucked—made him wince and still. It was an old injury, long-healed, that still acted up from time to time. 

When the pain passed, Sicheng mentally worked his way down his own body, cataloging other areas of stiffness that he would be sure to stretch, later, when his shift was over.

Sweat gathered at his nape, trickling down between his shoulders under his black Kevlar shirt. He shifted on his feet, keeping his stance neutral and prepared, as he pulled at the shirt’s collar. His black cargo pants were sticking to his thighs. Though the night was cool outside of this hotel’s walls, Sicheng was inside of them, standing guard before the bathroom door, and the steam from the bath Ten was running had turned the whole suite into what felt like a sauna. 

His cheeks felt damp. He exhaled slowly between pursed lips, trying to think of everything but the man on the other side of the door. Like what was he going to eat when his shift was over? Had he picked up the toothpaste he’d meant to pick up the other day, or had he forgotten? Who was going to get kicked off the island next in the reality show he was sort-of-not-really watching?

“Sicheng?” Ten’s voice, soft and melodic, echoed from within the bathroom. Sicheng had taken another peek into the luxurious room as the Boss was leaving: white marble everywhere, with gold accents, a huge bath at the opposite end, stretching from wall to wall, that was bigger than some pools Sicheng had seen. The bathroom Sicheng was allowed to use was small, plain, and tucked away in a forgotten corner of the penthouse. “Sicheng, I need you…”

Sicheng shook his head, readjusted his stance. No way was he falling for that. He had already moved away from the position he considered most advantageous should anyone decide to break into the penthouse because Ten persuaded Sicheng he needed to be closer. Sicheng let it slide this once—just this once!—because when Ten batted his eyelashes at him, stars swung before Sicheng’s eyes, and also because he couldn’t see anything wrong with it, not really, but he wasn’t going to last very long in this role if he kept being swayed by the man he was supposed to be protecting into doing whatever Ten wanted to do.

He was still pretty fresh in this assignment—two weeks and counting—and he definitely wasn’t risking being caught in a compromising position with his Boss’ lover for anything. This job paid well and he didn’t want to lose it. 

But Ten seemed determined to test him. 

Sicheng could perfectly picture him now, lounging in the pool bath, arms hanging over the side with his head pillowed in the bend of his elbow. Often seen hanging off the arm of the Boss—a man Sicheng had never seen outside of a suit—Ten was small and compact, wiry thin and made of sharp edges. He reminded Sicheng of a hungry alley cat, his smile always a little too wide and wild, his eyes too bright and piercing. 

Sicheng thought he was beautiful.

Ten had laughed at their introduction, when Boss presented Sicheng to Ten as Ten’s new bodyguard. “You?” Ten asked, seemingly incredulous, pointing. “I’ll eat him for breakfast,” he told Boss out of the corner of his mouth.

“Be nice,” Boss had said, patting Ten’s peroxide-bleached hair. 

That was two weeks and three days ago. Since then, Ten has done such things to help Sicheng adjust to his new job like: 

  1. Gift Sicheng a little potted houseplant that had razors hidden in the soil
  2. Make sure Sicheng took his meal breaks and stayed hydrated on the job
  3. Insist on watching movies together on the couch when Ten couldn’t fall asleep 
  4. Leave the door open while the Boss fucked him, making eye contact with Sicheng in the sliver of space left in the jamb and smirking
  5. Throw Sicheng kisses behind his shoulder when the Boss wasn’t looking

Even just this morning before lunch, Ten had dragged Sicheng and his driver Lucas out to shop. For lingerie. Sicheng had drawn the line at actually going into the dressing room with him, despite Ten’s sweet begging.

Needless to say, Sicheng thought he was keeping it together pretty well.

“Sicheng, I know you’re out there,” Ten crooned from within the bathroom again. “I can see your shadow. I need you to get a spot between my shoulders.” Sicheng heard water sloshing around inside, closed his eyes, and inhaled slowly, counting to eight, before releasing his breath just as slowly.

“Sicheng, I said—holy shit! How’d you get in here?!” 

Adrenaline spiked through Sicheng’s veins. He moved.

The door slammed so hard against the white tiled wall that the knob came loose, dangling from its hole in the door panel. Sicheng’s Glock was already in his hands, withdrawn from the holster at his waist. 

“Ten, get down—! Oh, fuck you.”

The air in Sicheng’s lungs felt so hot that he was surprised smoke didn’t come out of his nostrils. 

Ten was cackling in the water, head tilted back, clinging to the side of the massive tub. It really was like a small pool. Sicheng wondered if Ten’s feet even touched the bottom. “Sicheng! Come save me!” Ten teased in a nasally tone. “So big and brave, I need you.”

The tips of Sicheng’s ears burned as he slotted his firearm back into its holster. Part of him was relieved that no one had scaled forty floors to the top of this hotel to break into the bathroom and abduct Ten; more of him was annoyed that he’d been had, and so easily, too. 

Ten draped his arms over the side of the bath, cocking his head to the side with a grin on his wickedly beautiful face. His features, elfin and enchanting, rendered him like a siren in the water in Sicheng’s mind. 

The cloud of steam filling the space smelled strongly of gardenias. No doubt Sicheng would go home with the scent steeped into his clothes, his hair, his skin. 

Sicheng crossed his arms, noting the way Ten’s eyes followed the movement with the focus of a predator. “You don’t need me,” Sicheng said. He forced his tone to be neutral and even. “I’m leaving. Closing the door.”

Ten’s eyes flashed while Sicheng turned his back. “No, wait—!”

A splash, a squelch, a dull crash and thud.

Sicheng whirled back around to see Ten in a wet, naked tangle of limbs on the floor before the tub, his fall cushioned by the plush white bath mat. Surprise at Ten’s gracelessness passed quickly. Sicheng’s eyes were drawn to the ink glistening on Ten’s skin: the butterfly at his shoulder, the intricate flare of light down his forearm, the script across his bicep. But the tattoos could not detract Sicheng for long from the sculpted muscles of Ten’s thighs and ass. 

Sicheng forced his mouth shut. The wave of gardenia perfume he then inhaled through his nose made his brain feel like it was floating on a cloud. He planted his feet firmly on the slick tiles of the bathroom floor.

“Ow,” Ten whined pitifully, pushing himself into a seat with his back against the tub wall. He dangled his hand, limp, before himself. “Look, I think I broke it.”

Sicheng rolled his eyes. “It’s not broken. If it were broken, you’d know.”

“But I have a high pain tolerance,” Ten pouted. 

“I’m leaving,” Sicheng repeated, already closing the door behind himself again. “Boss will be back soon.”

“I wish he wouldn’t come back,” Ten whispered. 

A shudder rolled down Sicheng’s spine, locking his limbs in place. 

It wasn’t any of his business. He didn’t know how Ten and the Boss had met nor the intimate details of their relationship. He didn’t know how they behaved around each other when no one was looking.

From the short time under his employment, however, Sicheng had already concluded that Boss kept Ten on a tight leash and sometimes used that leash to drag Ten around. 

And that Boss wasn’t always nice to him.

But he’d been hired to protect Ten from the Boss’ enemies, not from the Boss himself.

“Sicheng…” Ten called from the floor. “Can you bring me a towel, at least? I should start getting ready.”

Maybe it was the lack of playfulness or bite in Ten’s tone, or the fact that the clean, fluffy white towels were folded on the long double vanity counter right next to him, but Sicheng did as he was asked without resistance, bringing Ten a towel, and Ten rose up to meet him, the warmth in his gaze so rare and foreign that it took Sicheng a moment to recognize it as just that: warmth, connection, vulnerability. 

All things that got a person killed in the circles Ten and the Boss and Sicheng lived in. 

“Here,” Sicheng grunted, though Ten was already pulling the towel from Sicheng’s hands and looping it around his narrow waist. 

“Thanks,” Ten said. He sidestepped Sicheng to get to the counter. Water clung to his skin in glistening droplets. 

It wasn’t any of Sicheng’s business, and yet— 

“What did you mean when you said you don't want him to come back?”

Sicheng cringed as the question left his lips, but he didn’t wish to take it back, not when he noticed the bright surprise in Ten’s wide eyes, caught in his reflection in the mirror. The expression seemed to strip Ten of all his pretenses.

Then, Ten’s smirk slowly crossed his face, like he was taking his time putting a mask on again. He busied himself with the small jars of creams on the counter, smearing a series of gels and lotions over his dewy skin. “Why do you think? When he’s not around, I can do more of what I want.”

“Is that all?” Sicheng challenged. He had sipped at the fountain of Ten’s true self and now wanted more. The towel slipped low over Ten’s hips as he bent over the counter to better dab white cream under his eyes. 

“What do you want me to say? That I hate his guts? Well, I hate his guts.” Ten giggled. “But don’t tell anyone. After all, I’m probably lying.”

“I don’t think you’re lying,” Sicheng said, edging closer to Ten and boring into Ten’s gaze with his unrelenting stare. Most of the steam had dissipated by now, but the damp still clung to Sicheng’s clothing and skin. That, or he was sweating more than he realized. 

Ten’s eyes followed Sicheng’s careful approach. “You know me so well already?”

“I’m good at reading people. Situations.” 

Ten hummed while he finished closing up the jars he had used. Sicheng was behind him now, not an arm’s length between them. “And what’s my situation?” Ten prompted. He turned and leaned back against the counter. The towel—flimsy, a laughable attempt at modesty—slid to the floor. “Oops,” Ten whispered.

Sicheng towered over Ten’s svelte figure. When Sicheng placed his hands on the counter caging Ten between his arms, Ten needed to arch his back to keep any distance between them. Distance that was slowly disappearing. As though hypnotized by a lure, Sicheng found himself lowering his face towards Ten’s.

The touch of Ten’s lips against his own made electricity shiver through Sicheng’s spine. Ten’s soft gasp was a delightful sweet on Sicheng’s tongue. 

Though he wanted to dive into Ten’s mouth whole, Sicheng pulled back, if only to drink in the astonishment in Ten’s bright eyes and the lovely flush on Ten’s cheeks. “I think you chose this golden cage over a harder life,” Sicheng said. “Maybe it was a good choice, before. But you’ve grown, and cages can’t.”

The emotion Sicheng could read behind Ten’s narrowed eyes was equal parts pain and anger. Ten growled like a wild thing, the corner of his lips curled into a snarl. His hands, like claws, shoved Sicheng back, and Sicheng stumbled, found his footing, and then heard the lock click at the front door.

“He’s back,” Ten hissed, spine shooting straight. His shoving became more frantic. “Get out! Get out. Stand at the door, like you’re supposed to.”

Sicheng’s quick, trained mind compartmentalized his confusion while his body took action. As he positioned himself at his post—just inside the sitting area, between the front door and the hallway, a spot where he could peer into any of the suite’s rooms within a step—he heard the bathroom door close. Hands crossed behind his back, stance natural and ready, he bowed his head in a jerking motion as the Boss stepped into view, flanked as usual by his own two bodyguards.

“Sicheng,” Boss greeted. “Fuck, you haven’t been standing like that since I left, have you?”

“No, sir,” Sicheng inclined his head again. “Sometimes I moved closer to the windows.”

Boss laughed and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt under his suit jacket. He sank onto the couch in the center of the sitting area with his knees spread wide, and his bodyguards moved to either side of the piece of furniture. “You’re funny. No wonder Ten likes you. Where’s my baby, hm? Ten? Tennie?”

“I’m here.” Ten came out of the bathroom in a black silk robe, the sash loose around his waist. He looked unruffled and unbothered to a casual observer, but Sicheng noticed the tightness at his temples when he smiled. The way he moved toward the Boss could only be described as a practiced prowl. “Can’t wait to get your hands on me already?”

“It’s been a long day. I was thinking about your ass the entire way here.”

“Just my ass?” 

Ten squeaked when the Boss tugged him closer by his robe and grabbed a handful of his ass before forcing him onto his lap. “Your ass. Your mouth,” Boss said, cupping his chin now. “You. Sicheng. You’re dismissed.”

Sicheng sucked in a breath, holding it in his chest, and nodded. His insides felt soured by what he’d seen. “Thank you, I’ll be going—”

“Wait,” Ten called. When the Boss looked sideways at him, Ten jutted his chin forward. “I just wanted to remind you to bring me breakfast tomorrow,” Ten said. “The golden honey croissants. But less gold, this time. More honey. Like we talked about.”

The Boss sighed. “Your sweet tooth,” he said, shaking his head.

Sicheng met Ten’s eyes and tried to convey his smile without his lips. “Alright,” he said. “More honey. Just like we talked about.”

As Sicheng rode the elevator to the ground floor, he thought back to their brief, sweet kiss. That was the taste Sicheng could not immediately recognize when their lips touched: honey.

.