The silence is deafening as Yutong turns the ignition off, the loud roar suddenly absent leaving an echo of clicking metal as the engine starts to cool. Even those faint sounds are drowned out by the stiff, angry silence coming from the passenger seat. Yutong can’t remember a time he’s seen Zhan Yao this angry.
Zhan Yao opens the door and gets out, his normally lithe movements jerky and overly deliberate. Yutong is waiting for the door to slam shut, so he startles when Zhan Yao dips down to look at him.
“You have some explaining to do.”
Thankfully Zhan Yao doesn’t slam the door, but it’s still done heavily enough that Yutong still feels the car rock. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply before following him. At least he hasn’t been kicked out… yet.
He softly closes the apartment door that Zhan Yao left ajar, and delays the inevitable by slipping his shoes off. He straightens up Zhan Yao’s haphazardly strewn footwear and lines his own up next to them. Shoving his hands into his pockets, Yutong finally decides he’s ready.
Not sure of his welcome, he opts to lean against the wall rather than joining Zhan Yao’s taut form on the sofa - his expression isn’t giving much away, not that it often does. When Zhan Yao finally lifts his head to look at him, it’s the raised eyebrow that tells Yutong he needs to start talking.
“I don’t know what you need me to say.” Which is half a lie. Yutong knows what Zhan Yao is looking for, he just doesn’t know whether the truth is what Zhan Yao wants to hear.
“You could start with why you were following me.”
Yutong drops his head. The answer is simple, the reasons for why are loaded with baggage that he’s not sure he wants to unpack. If he doesn’t, he’s not certain he’ll be able to fix this rift, and that’s what makes him raise his head again.
“It scares me.”
Zhao Yao’s expression morphs from simmering anger into confusion, and he wonders whether he’s ever thought about what it would take to break Yutong. It’s not a long list, just the people he loves and not being good enough to keep them safe.
He straightens up, and figures he may as well lay it out there. “Not being there, or not being able to do anything even if I was, it all scares me.”
A spinning roulette wheel of expressions flickers across Zhan Yao’s face and Yutong waits in silence to see where it’ll stop.
“We’re supposed to be equals,” Zhan Yao says, voice flat with anger. “I don't need you to protect me!”
Yutong doesn’t vocalise the frustrated “yes you do” that his mind looks to counter with, because really that is Yutong’s adamant belief, not Zhan Yao’s own. And that’s what all this boils down to, isn’t it? Because when he picks it apart, it’s him that can’t cope with Zhan Yao getting hurt. It’s him that can’t concentrate when Zhan Yao’s next to him in threatening situations. It’s him that can’t sleep because of ‘too close’, ‘what if’, and ‘I failed’. Not Zhan Yao.
Yutong moves away from the wall and lowers himself gingerly onto the sofa, keeping his eyes glued to the table where he can’t see the rust-red scabs that bisect the pale skin of Zhan Yao’s neck; one more ‘too close’ that’s ruined Yutong’s sleep the last few days.
“I know you don’t believe that you need me to protect you.” Yutong manages to keep his voice steady and even, but the way he senses Zhao Yao’s posture stiffen suggests all he hears is condescension. He raises a hand to stall the inevitable interruption. “But the truth is that I need to protect you. Not because you can’t look after yourself, but because,” he huffs and shifts so that he’s facing Zhan Yao, “I need to know that you’re safe.”
From this side he can’t ignore the cuts, nor the memory of the trickles of blood every time the knife pressed hard enough to pierce skin. He knows why Zhan Yao exchanged himself for the hostage. Even given what happened next it was the best they could do given Yutong has the better shot, and Zhan Yao the ability to get into the robber’s head. It doesn’t mean that Yutong liked it, nor the vivid, technicolour imaginings of worst-case scenarios that have plagued him since.
Their jobs will never be safe, and despite the part of Yutong that wants Zhan Yao to be as far removed from that danger as possible, he doesn’t want a job where Zhan Yao isn’t there each day, as both his support and his conscience.
“The truth is that I need to protect you. Let me keep you safe... please. Because if you’re not, or if something happened and I wasn’t there…” Yutong trails off, unable to put words to the tangle of nightmares in his head. He lifts his hand and gently trails his fingers across Zhan Yao’s neck, following the cuts.
Zhan Yao takes his hand away from his neck but his grip is light; he keeps hold of it as he turns to face him. Yutong watches as Zhan Yao studies his expression, and waits silently to see what decision he makes.
It feels like an eternity before Zhan Yao leans into Yutong’s space and kisses him. It’s familiar, lacking any hesitation, and Yutong sags bonelessly in relief as he returns the kiss. Zhan Yao squeezes his hand, and Yutong grips tightly, silently vowing to never let go.
“You’re a control freak,” Zhan Yao whispers, his breath warm against Yutong’s lips.
Yutong can hardly deny it. “So is that a yes?”
Zhan Yao huffs, and kisses him again.
Yutong’s taking it as a yes.