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By the time Thursday came around, they had something that resembled a routine. They had their jobs around the apartment and they could speak with almost the same freedom as they used to. Yixing was surprised by how fast it took him to feel comfortable enough with Yifan to tuck his feet under the elder's thighs on the sofa and the number of times he laughed in an unrestrained way he'd forgotten.

Lu Han dropped by twice, he had gushed to Yixing over how attractive Yifan was and how the whole dark, brooding artist look seemed to suit him. When Lu Han said 'him', Yixing didn't know if he meant that demeanour suited Yifan or if somebody who had that appearance matched well with Yixing. His mind told him it was the former but his heart, and those broiling feelings, that told him it was the latter.

The verdict Lu Han gave was a positive one. He hadn't known Yifan, Yixing had met his best friend not too long after his break-up with the tall man and Lu Han didn't know the exact reasoning behind the break-up. Very few people did.

But, just those few times were enough for his assistant to notice things. He noted how Yixing was a little looser in work, that he didn't look so exhausted all the time and how he drank less. Not that he drank often, stress was often best relieved through a bottle of beer or double rum and coke for Yixing. With the responsibilities in his home decreased by half, he could focus more and rest earlier.

Yifan moving in, according to Lu Han, was more to Yixing's benefit than his detriment. Yixing, however, didn't always agree. He struggled to keep his pink cheeks and staring eyes away whenever Yifan did something that struck a chord in Yixing's chest. He was painfully aware of how attracted he was to Yifan. He could ignore that when Yifan wasn't so wonderfully soft or when Yifan didn't wander around in nothing but paint-stained jeans and socks. Yixing's heart couldn't take that, it went into overdrive and he was sure that a heart attack was more imminent given the amount of time they spent together.

Everything gave Yixing confidence for when his grandfather came over.

Yixing got home from work on that Thursday evening to find Yifan cooking Cantonese dishes in the kitchen, apron tied around his waist and a clean outfit worn underneath. While the clothes were nothing flashy, Yixing could see that they had been chosen with care. Yifan's shirt was neat enough to meet Yixing's yeye in but just relaxed enough to show that he was comfortable in his surroundings. His jeans weren't ripped but were a pure jet black, they clung his legs nicely and Yixing found himself staring up and down the long limbs with a hum of appreciation in his throat.

Yifan was serving up the dishes and running his fingers through his matte waxed hair when the buzzer to Yixing's door went. The two of them looked at each other and Yixing panicked for a moment. He didn't know if they would be believable, he didn't know how his grandfather would treat Yifan and he wasn't sure if anything would go right.

The elder picked up on his uneasiness like he always did and stepped forward to Yixing, he pulled him into a hug. It was the most physical contact they'd had since their reunion and Yixing was in awe of the way it felt like two magnets joining after repelling for so long.

He took in Yifan's scent, the way his clothes smelt and how much heat the other was producing. It took his mind off what he was struggling with and he fell into a dumbstruck state of shock when Yifan kissed his cheek as he pulled away.

Yixing flushed instantly, he stepped out of Yifan's grip to press the buttons that would let his grandfather in, then they only had to wait. Yifan moved closer to Yixing, he was stood just behind the younger at a distance that was too near to not appear intimate but far enough to show that they were being respectful. Yixing wondered how Yifan could tell those things so easily as if his acting skills surpassed what Yixing knew.

"Where's my little bunny?" A familiar voice called into the apartment as the door opened and closed. Yixing couldn't see him but he knew his grandfather was there, walking through and most likely alone.

Yixing hadn't anticipated his grandmother to turn up, and she hadn't. It was clear the evening was a test―don't expose Yifan to the rest of the family if the arrangement feels like a farce or if Yifan really is the disrespectful person Yixing's parents had often painted him as.

"We're in here, yeye," he raised his voice a little to give a clearer indication of where they were.

Hands were on Yixing's hips within moments, it wasn’t possessive or claiming. It was a gentle touch that Yifan nudged into and Yixing took the cue to start moving, his skin prickled and burned where Yifan's forefinger found a small slither of Yixing's hip to press onto.

When Yixing's grandfather turned the corner, Yifan's hands moved quickly away from his pelvis. The move was purposeful, Yixing watched how the elder of the three observed the movement with calculating eyes. Yifan's hands, when placed on Yixing's hips, made them seem as if they'd been caught being closer than appropriate for Yixing's grandfather's presence. His quick release was both a sign of respect to the older man and that the two of them were comfortable with that kind of interaction behind closed doors.

It was small, tiny instant but it seemed to have worked in loosening his yeye's frown by a millimetre.

"Yeye," Yixing stepped forward and away from Yifan. He could hear his 'fiancé' shift his weight around and fiddle with nothing in his hands, slipping into the role of the nervous other half meeting the family of their partner. "This is Yifan. Yifan, this is my yeye."

Yifan bowed instantly, he retained that position until Yixing's grandfather held out his hand for Yifan to shake. Yixing knew that Yifan was firm and strong when joining hands with a person, it was hard for him not to be when his hands were far larger than the average human's were. He could sense the approval in his grandfather's eyes when their hands released. It was only the first hurdle and Yixing could see that Yifan had passed.

The youngest ushered them around the apartment and coaxed his yeye into sitting opposite himself and Yifan but the elder didn't seem to budge in his want to sit next to his grandchild and Yixing knew that Yifan had to decide carefully. He either had to act like the 'fiancé' who didn't want to sit apart from his lover or play the role of the young man respecting his elder's wishes.

Yifan's internal debate wasn't long and Yixing knew his grandfather was watching between the two of them, he wanted to see if Yixing would prompt any clues for the answer Yifan had to give and so Yixing busied himself with small details on the table. Filling cups, straightening cutlery, pouring a jug of water to lay between them.

"I'll sit on this side," Yifan smiled, it was confident and self-assured. He had chosen to sit on his own on one-half of the table.

Yixing's heart slowed where it was pounding in his chest, Yifan had chosen correctly.

The three of them got settled and Yixing took the lids off the dishes that were placed in dragon decorated bowls, they were a gift from his grandparents and Yixing couldn't help but smile because that would be enough for Yifan to acquire some points in his favour from the older man sat beside Yixing.

Yixing, being the youngest, served the food and ensured that each man had their favourite parts of each dish. Yifan's hands took over Yixing's halfway through, the connection was warm and comforting, making Yixing look up at Yifan.

"Let me take care of this."

Yixing's fingers loosened on the chopsticks and spoon he was using to serve up the food Yifan had prepared, the elder took them easily and Yixing sat back down in his seat. Yifan copied the action of the businessman and Yixing couldn't stop beaming as he realised that Yifan remembered how much he adored certain things from when the elder had cooked basic things for them in their younger youth.

They ate in relative silence but Yifan played the caring 'fiancé' well, he was tender and sweet towards Yixing and overly respectful to Yixing's grandfather. Halfway through their eating time, Yixing's yeye excused himself to head for the bathroom and before he'd even stood up, Yifan's feet had hooked around Yixing's ankles. By the time the older man could see under the table, the two youngers appeared to be eating comfortably.

Yixing licked his lips and let out a sigh as the bathroom door clicked with the sound of the lock down the corridor. It was surprisingly easy to pretend to love Yifan like he used to. They fell into old patterns when Yifan handed Yixing his spring onions and coriander, and Yixing unloaded chopped carrots onto Yifan's side plate. A few things had changed, Yifan ate far more quietly than he used to and Yixing used his spoon with more freedom than he once did.

They were smaller things, too tiny to notice without knowing a person well, but Yixing could pinpoint them all.

When the lock of the bathroom had slid back across and the sound of the toilet flushing seeped into the kitchen, Yifan lifted Yixing's hand and kissed each of his knuckles slowly and affectionately. Behind Yifan's back, he could see his grandfather spying through the slit he'd left in the door but Yixing pretended his didn't notice. It was far easier to do that than Yixing anticipated as Yifan's mouth inched its way around to Yixing's palm and set numerous kisses there, he made his way up to the younger's fingertips and Yixing let out a short giggle.

Emotions were raging beneath his skin like a hurricane, it was black and foggy until all he could see, and feel, was Yifan in the eye of the storm. Their stares kept constant on the other's eyes, Yifan's mouth was more than affectionate enough that Yixing's heart skipped beats an unhealthy number of times. He felt like he was in love.

It was like that moment was a whole other world where Yixing's love wouldn't be unrequited if it was to rear its head up from the depths of his heart. It was like an alternate universe that they had slipped into. One where Yifan loved Yixing wholeheartedly, their engagement was real and they weren't being spied on by the eldest member of Zhang family.

A throat being cleared was enough to kill the storm, douse the flames and break the dream in Yixing's head. Yifan set his hand down on the table gently before allowing his own hand to retreat, he didn't look at Yixing but the younger could see his pink cheeks. Yifan's acting went way beyond Yixing's expectations.

"I think it's best if I shoot off now," Yixing's grandfather concluded. "Your nainai has been working today, I need to make sure she's rested before she works herself to death."

"But you've not finished your food," Yixing argued back, he didn't want to be alone with Yifan just yet. His heart still hadn't recovered.

"You can put it in the freezer, eat it when you're both too tired to cook."

"Would you like to take some with you? And some for Yixing's nainai, too?" Yifan's voice was steady, sincere and sturdy. "I don't think either of us will rest well knowing you didn't get to finish your dinner."

Yifan started to collect up the bowls and dishes of food before Yixing's grandfather could respond, approval was alight in the man's eyes and Yixing couldn't stop his smile.

When Yifan had disappeared into the kitchen to look for Tupperware, Yixing's grandfather stepped close to him to speak.

"I like him," the white-haired man whispered. "He's different to how your parent's described him, he's genial and respectful."

"He is," Yixing agreed, nodding his head.

"What does he do? He seems like the type to be a teacher."

"He's an artist," Yixing muttered, gesturing to the painting that hung above his dining table and Yixing's grandfather let out a short gasp.

"These are his?" The question was posed and all Yixing could do was nod in reply. It was a grey painting, the palette is cold and lost. Yixing didn't like it so much but Yifan had insisted on placing it there, somewhere he could see easily. "And does it pay the bills? Artists aren't always known, no matter how brilliant they are."

"It pays his bills," Yixing said truthfully and his grandfather tilted his head to the side. "Yifan wants to be self-sufficient. He works better when he has to work, he's always been like that."

"And how is that going to pan out when you're married?"

Yixing hadn't thought that far ahead, he had been so focused on getting through the engagement that nothing about the marriage had been discussed between Yifan and himself. He didn't know how to answer without deciding it with Yifan. "We haven't talked about it yet."

"You really should. Marriage isn't only about emotional or physical compatibility. It's everything else, including financial."

"Yifan wants a prenup," it sounded almost defensive when it came from Yixing's mouth. "He's not with me for the money or a share of the business."

"I never said he was," his grandfather's words were apologetic but his smile wasn't. "You really love him, don't you?"

Yixing swallowed the lump in his throat. The lie slipped out easily, "I do, yeye, I really do."

"I know," the older out reached out his hand and squeezed Yixing's arm. "I can see it, he feels the same as you."

He wanted to snort, to refute that claim but he let himself smile like he his heart told him to. Not too long later, Yifan appeared back in the room with boxes that were translucent with condensation and Yixing's grandfather accepted them happily.

As he said his goodbyes, he kissed Yixing's cheek and shook Yifan's hand as the tall man bowed deeply. Yixing watched the scene with a fondness in his chest, it was something he would have longed to see when he was a teenager. He always wanted Yifan to build a bond with his family but they were a little too rebellious and Yixing's family was a little too serious.

It made Yixing wonder if he really had lied when he said he loved Yifan and if it was easier to tell himself that he had.

ix.



Yixing found that being around Yifan was like placing his heart into quicksand. The more he struggled to escape and run away, the faster he sank and he knew there was nothing within his reach that he could use to haul himself out. The sand pulled him in harder when Yifan would touch his cheek affectionately, when Yifan would carry Yixing to bed and when Yixing knew that there was an allaying hug waiting for him at his apartment after a particularly stressful day. It was unavoidable.

His feelings had escaped from their little box and had begun to run wild whenever Yifan was close or in his mind. He didn't want to tempt fate but there were times when Yixing thought Yifan felt the same. They'd created their own language out of looks, touches and unconscious actions.

Sometimes Yixing would be taming his curly hair into straighter strands in the mirror and his eyes would catch Yifan staring at his face in the reflection. Yifan never looked away, he was always confident in maintaining his gaze from across the apartment. It slowed everything, amplified the smaller sounds and Yixing could see the warmth in Yifan's expressions.

In the apartment, there was a place that time didn't seem to exist in. Yifan's bedroom was constantly bright with daylight or fluorescent lighting, there was colour spinning around like it turned on its own axis in comparison to the rest of the world and nothing else existed when Yifan was stood in front of a canvas. Yixing had known Yifan when he was younger, knew the fluctuations in his determination and wavering of his will, but he could see how Yifan had matured through the years.

His eyes were still dark but there was a wistful thoughtfulness to them, his mouth still stretched apart but there was something else hidden there and his spine was straighter when he stood. He looked like he was put together, not the disarray of development Yixing had seen when they had been together previously.

So when Yifan's hands, still delicate but firm with Yixing's body, closed around Yixing's as the younger held a paintbrush in his hand, Yixing's heart thundered in deep beats from his spine to his sternum. The brush glided across the woven surface with a thick slick of paint until it ran to a dotted and dry trail. Yifan guided him to dip the brush into the paint pot again to lead him back to the canvas, he could feel the dried paint from earlier in the day on Yifan's hands, he could feel the cracks and callouses etched on the other's skin.

Yifan's chest pressed against his back, Yixing's shirt rustled on the soft front of Yifan's hoody and Yifan's breath blew into Yixing's hair down to his ear. He was sure his hands would have been trembling had Yifan not been holding them.

They painted constantly, Yifan led him through every stroke and stipple until the portrait of a face began to raise up from the whitewash. Yixing could see it, his own eyes darkening and staring back at him. It stole his breath when they stepped back, Yifan's hand still wrapped around his as the paint from his brush dripped down onto the flooring. The globules splayed out in splashes at their feet.

It shocked Yixing. The detail, the confident strokes that showed every curve of his face, that sat on the surface. Yifan's knowledge of Yixing's face was enough to not need to look at the man and still know where every small mark sat, where the fine lines under Yixing's eyes forked into two and where the lines on his lips faded out to nothing. It was like Yixing's face had burned itself so deeply in Yifan's mind that it flowed out of him and into the paint until it looked back at them like a reflection.

"Sign it," Yifan had whispered, shocking Yixing out of his thoughts.

"What?" He responded equally as quietly despite it only being the two of them in the apartment.

"Put your name on it, mark it to show people that you did it," Yifan nudged Yixing's hand to the lower right corner of the painting.

"But you did it, I just followed where you took my hand."

"It's your painting, Yixing," Yifan stepped closer to his back, the heat on Yixing's shoulders was strong and constant. "You painted it."

Yifan didn't wait until Yixing responded to lead him into gently brushing his name into where his chest began in the lower fifth of the painting. The elder moved to pull their hands away from the piece but Yixing used his strength to keep them at the surface as he flowed the last stroke of the final character of his own name into the first of Yifan's name, continuing on until Yifan's name and his own were linked in constant, riverside blue calligraphy.

"It's getting late," Yifan's voice was deep, sleepier than it was before and Yixing could feel the way it induced tiredness into his bones. "You should go to bed."

"I probably should," he sighed out, righting his posture a little to step away from Yifan's hold on him even though that was the last thing he wanted to do as the time between them wore on.

"Goodnight, Yixing," the elder muttered against his skin, sending a shudder of affection through Yixing's bone marrows and Yifan's lips set on his nape, trailing a line up from the base of Yixing's neck to just below his jaw. It was forward and intimate, everything Yixing needed to cling to the idea that Yifan's feelings weren't a mere echo of the past.

"Goodnight, Yifan," the words flowed from him in a rush of air, half like a gasp from the feeling of Yifan's lips on one of the most sensitive areas of his body.

The tall male let him go, Yixing ambulated with slow, unsteady paces from Yifan and out of the room. He stumbled through to his own bedroom and collapsed down onto his bed with a smile on his face and tingling on his neck.


x.



It was Lu Han's second suggestion towards Yixing's compulsory marriage that tipped the CEO-to-be over the edge of coherence. The assistant had smartly set aside two nights a week that were dubbed as 'Operation: Last Resort―The Date Night,' in Yixing's personal calendar. It was specific time set aside for Yifan and Yixing to know the ins-and-outs of one another.

Once again, it had been a wonderful plan...in theory. The practicalities, however, were far more difficult. Yixing finished working when Yifan would first step up to his canvas to paint until he was too tired to stand or move in purposeful brushstrokes, their overlapping moments were usually spent eating dinner in front of the television while the latest news stories were broadcast on the screens.

Nobody was to underestimate Lu Han, the man who could persuade a centuries old dead man out of his grave. Within three days of the idea being posed, Yifan was changing his working pattern to adjust to Yixing's and evenings were spent at restaurant dinner tables, semi-uncomfortable movie theatre seats and the grassy surfaces of parks in the moonlight.

It was the reverse of what their teenage years had been―making out in cars before Yixing's curfew, skipping classes to get lunch in dingy backstreet restaurants that served food that was too spicy for either of them to handle and hours spent in the aisles of record-cum-comic book shops. They had more money but less time to spend than those days.

Their first date had been a little awkward. Yixing hadn't been able to change from his work clothes and felt awfully dressed up in his tailored suit to see the latest thriller while Yifan was in his usual attire of ripped jeans and paint-splattered hoody. They appeared mismatched; one cleanly cut and the other a little rougher around the edges.

Their second date had been a little better, they ate dinner in a slightly more formal restaurant that Yixing could see made Yifan a little uncomfortable and quieter. It was Yixing's natural habitat, he could move and work easily in that environment but Yifan's hands remained curled up in the long-sleeved sweater he'd donned for their date. Nevertheless, there were more opportunities to talk. And, for the first time, they really caught up with one another. Yifan shared that he'd concentrated on joining an art school in Canada after breaking up with Yixing, Yixing discussed how he'd focused in on the family business and they easily agreed that their break-up had been what they'd needed to change into the people they were when they looked at each other from across the table.

Their third date had been somewhat of a throwback to their younger years. They flunked off the reservations Lu Han had made for them in favour of slipping into a park with their fingers linked and laughter in their throats. They laid out on the floor while they pretended they could see stars through the smoggy sky and light pollution. With the night settling with a humid and heavy heat, they didn't stay out for long but Yifan's goodnight kisses edged up from his throat to his cheek.

Lu Han forgot to tell them about how their fourth date wasn't even a date at all.


xi.



A surprise engagement party wasn't what the couple had anticipated but Lu Han maintained the idea that it was necessary for somebody with Yixing's future to showcase his love for his family, friends and important associates. In reality, they should have seen it coming. Lu Han had told Yifan to make more of an effort than his laid-back outfits for that specific date. Much to Yixing's relief, Yifan had actually shifted a suit over his shoulders and had styled his hair neatly atop his head.

Their hand holding habit had seeped so deeply into their muscles that they were already shoulder to shoulder as they walked in through the main doors to the hall they'd been called to. It was a shock to see so many people in front of them, the main one being that Yifan's mother was stood with Yixing's parents and he felt Yifan go rigid before his hand started to tremble in Yixing's hold.

Yixing was sure that the full three minutes and fifty-eight seconds between the yelled 'surprise' and Yifan's arms circling his mother's waist would have passed in a haze in front of the elder man. Yifan rarely saw his mother because of how expensive the flights from Canada to China were and Yixing was certain that Yifan probably hadn't seen his mother in almost two years, given how he talked about her.

The younger stood with his own parents and observed the clear scene of reunion the two shared, everybody heard the gentle mutterings of Cantonese through the air and Yixing's grandfather looped his arm in the crook of Yixing's elbow.

"It's lovely, isn't it?" The man whispered in Yixing's ear.

"Yes, yeye," he agreed with a smile as Yifan only held his mother more tightly to his chest.

"She's a lovely woman. She speaks very highly of you even though you haven't met... She was practically quivering at the knees with excitement at the thought of seeing her son and his fiancé standing in the same room as her."

Before Yixing could respond to his grandfather, his name was called by a familiar voice as his eyes met with Yifan's from across the room. He walked steadily towards Yixing's family, bowed politely before taking Yixing's hand once more. Yifan drew Yixing towards the woman Yixing had only ever meet through long distance video chats numerous years prior.

"Mama," Yifan began, "I would like you to meet Yixing, the man I'm marrying."

"Oh, Xing-ah," the woman stepped up and held her hands to Yixing's cheeks, much like how Yifan did when he pressed kisses to Yixing's skin. "You're so handsome, I'm sure you could do far better than my idiot son."

"You're far more beautiful than I am handsome," was the first thing Yixing said face-to-face to his future mother-in-law. "And I agree, your son is a little bit of an idiot."

"I'm stood right here," Yifan grumbled as his hand let go of Yixing's to slip his arm around Yixing's waist. "If you want to exchange stories about me at least wait until I'm out of earshot."

"Now, Fanfan," Yixing scolded, "if I'm going to shit-talk you, I'm going to do it to your face."

"Fanfan?" Yifan's mother questioned with a smile playing at the edge of his lips. "He lets you call him that?"

"He can call me whatever he likes," the tallest of the three muttered under his breath and Yixing felt himself choking on air as the words registered in his head. Yifan's mother had the same exact thought as shee giggled into her hand at her son's accidental innuendo. "Get your heads out of the gutter, both of you..."

The rest of their conversation was the three of them talking endlessly about how things had changed and evolved since Yixing and Yifan had parted ways many years before. Yixing's mother appeared on Yifan's right with her hand outstretched towards Yixing not too long into their conversation, she took him from the huddle once Yixing had bowed to Yifan's only parent and took him towards where his father was waiting for them.

"Xingie," his father greeted with a gentle smile. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," Yixing smiled as he looked over his shoulder to see Yifan beaming down at his shorter mother.

"Yixing, we wanted to talk to you about something," his mother rarely called him as anything other than 'Xingie' unless she was being serious. Something heavier settled on his spine, right beneath his skill.

"Your mother and I are worried that your involvement with Wu Yifan won't be very good for the company," his father voiced and Yixing wanted to cringe away awkwardly, he knew the conversation was headed his way. He just didn't think it would happen at his engagement party. "If any journalist digs into his past, they're going to unearth so many things we don't want people to know."

"Yifan and I have discussed this―" they hadn't "―and we're ready for any backlash we could face."

"But Yixing, he has a criminal record," his mother stressed. "The stock prices will go down, buyers won't want to be part of a company that has criminals married into it."

"I have a rap sheet, too," Yixing scowled. "You are forgetting that I have been in trouble with the police before."

"But you got that because of him," his father tried reasoning with a tone that rubbed Yixing the wrong way. "You're a good boy, Yixing. The directors could see that when they took you on, it's why we've been so open about your past to the public. People trust when good people own up to their mistakes."

"And you're implying that the same courtesy wouldn't be extended to Yifan? Because your view of 'good' is translating to me as 'rich'."

"Yixing, you know we don't care for any kind of caste system―"

"And yet you're saying that I should be forgiven for mistakes I made when I was younger but Yifan can't be?" Yixing's fingers rubbed at his temples in circular motions. "I don't want to have this conversation here; it's not appropriate."

"I agree," a newer voice joined the mix and Yixing looked over his father's shoulder to find his grandfather stood in place with a frown where his smile usually sat. "The engagement party for your son and his fiancé is not the time where you should be discussing how the company's stocks will react to their marriage."

"That's not what we meant," his mother tried to correct and Yixing wanted to edge towards where his grandmother was stood beside his grandfather.

"Let Yixing be happy," his grandmother replied. "Yixing is a grown man who can fall in love with whoever he wants to and if that's Yifan, then it's Yifan. Accept it."

"I didn't even know they were dating again... Aren't you guys a little blindsided by this too? Or is it only us?"

"Of course we are but we have to trust Yixing," his grandmother's voice, as ever, was soft and gentle. Yixing adored her all the more for it, even if he did feel guilty over the lies he'd told.

The family all quieted as a server arrived with a tray adorned with drinks, they were all handed a flute of champagne and Yixing jumped a little as two hands settled down on his waist as he accepted his glass. Given the placement of the large fingers, where warm breath was hitting the back of his head and the comforting size behind him, he knew it was Yifan. A smile stretched across his face while Yifan pulled him in closer.

Much to his surprise, he reacted by leaning back on Yifan's chest to seek something more familiar than the coldness from his parents. It wasn't even a side thought as Yifan's chin rested on top of his head.

Yifan greeted Yixing's family with a nod, a small bow to them to acknowledge their presence. It was beyond the point of awkward, the tension between the Zhangs was palpable and Yifan's fingers moved soothingly on Yixing's hips, those same exact movements Yifan used to do whenever Yixing got nervous before a dance competition or an exam.

"I see neither of you have rings on," Yixing's mother commented with furrowed brows as the two men both lifted their left hands to check them.

"I'm an artist, it's better to not wear a ring than ruin it. I would have put it on if I had known this was an engagement party because I was planning on getting straight back to work once we got home," Yifan covered far more easily than Yixing could. "And we talked over that if one of us wasn't going to be wearing the ring at a certain time then the other shouldn't either, we don't want people to misinterpret."

"Misinterpret what?"

"Relationships between two men are often viewed with the idea that one of them has to fit into a more womanly role―so one of us wearing a ring would surely give that impression. Not that being a woman is a problem, it's that we're both proud to be men who are in love with one another."

Yixing wasn't sure how, but during Yifan's short speech, he had drawn Yixing even closer to his body. Half like a confession and the other half like a statement of something that ran deeper than the 'lie' it should have been. Yifan didn't let go as the conversation shifted clumsily onto another topic, Yixing's mother was pink at the ears and his grandfather's expression was one that exuded a smug kind of pride towards Yifan and Yixing.

Yixing had long since finished his drink when the focus fell back to Yifan, making the elder draw in a long breath whilst Yixing took his hands into his own with comforting swirls of his thumbs on the knobbly knuckles at the base of Yifan's fingers. Queries of his popularity, ability to sustain himself without Yixing's help and general wealth background as an artist were brought up. Yixing felt humiliated that his parents were pestering Yifan with such questions, though he shouldn't have expected anything less with how much they disliked the tall man.

To their luck, Yifan took everything in his stride. His responses were calm and honest, causing Yixing to feel like his heart would flutter out of his chest and feed right into Yifan's to nestle against the elder's.

"So, Yifan," Yixing's grandfather swooped in with his encouraging smile and gentle aura, "when did you figure out that you loved Yixing enough to know he was the one you wanted to marry?"

Surprisingly, Yifan relaxed at the question. Yixing didn't know the answer, Yifan never shared that kind of thing with him before they'd reconnected and he was shocked when the words fell from Yifan's mouth with an adoring air of confidence and love.

"I was twenty, Yixing was nineteen, we were sat in my car and it was raining. There was this radio station that played older western music on in the background, everything was slightly orange with how the rain was reflecting the streetlights and we were just sitting there doing what we normally did. It was nothing different to any other time we'd sat in my car while it was raining but Yixing was telling me about his dance team. I was watching him speak―the way his mouth moved, the way his nose scrunched at certain points, how his eyes were so warm as he looked out into the dark street.

"I can't remember the song but I can remember the lyrics filtering in with Yixing's voice and I knew I loved him. When you're younger, you have this need to tell each other that you love one another all the time and the meaning gets lost along the way. But that night, when I leant in and kissed him goodbye, I knew I wouldn't ever mean 'I love you' in the same way to anybody else ever again. That relatively short amount of time was enough for me to figure out that marrying somebody else would mean a betrayal to myself. It was always Yixing but that night changed it so that it will always be Yixing."

It was silent when Yifan finished. Everybody was in a state of shock, even Yixing, and nobody was quite sure what to do. Yixing's vision was blurred, marred by tears that edged over the waterline and his hands shook where he held Yifan's. The elder wove their fingers together, pressed a kiss to the back of Yixing's head and showed how his heart was racing by pressing his torso closer to Yixing's.

He couldn't remember that specific night but the sound of trickling and a flash of sodium orange was enough to let him know that the night Yifan spoke of did happen. It was a confession. Maybe one that should have been made long before but Yixing didn't care.

The younger turned against Yifan's body and tucked his head under the elder's chin, into his neck and let himself blink the tears onto the edge of Yifan's collar. The taller held him tightly, continued to press kisses onto Yixing's temple and straightened hair.

A screaming part of his heart told him to tell Yifan that he loved him back, to whisper it softly over and over in a chorus.

The relief as Lu Han's words flowed through the air was rushed and unexpected but Yixing was more than thankful for it. "I think it's best if these two take their leave, Yixing has a busy morning and I don't think the clients should be seeing him with puffy eyes."

Yixing didn't have to worry about letting go of where he'd latched onto Yifan as the elder led him out of the hall with short, slow steps and Lu Han prised Yixing away to guide him to the car the three of them had arrived in. Yixing crawled into the middle seat in the back so that he could grab a hold of Yifan as soon as he was settled in the vehicle by his side.

His chest was burning, his body was trembling and it felt so much like heartbreak that he couldn't believe what he was feeling. His grandmother had told him as a child that every phoenix has to touch fire to be reborn, he guessed that in a roundabout way, that's how he felt. There was no stomach dropping moment of the realisation of love, it was the same thing but returning in a newer skin. The same Yifan except for the more mature edge. The same Yixing just a different―better―mindset. The same souls simply humming to an evolved nocturne.


xii.



With Yifan's mouth slipping down his chest, Yixing knew he'd missed the feelings the older man spurred from within him. His previous conquests and lovers hadn't even quite matched up to the way Yifan's mouth knew every dip, curve, line, bone, freckle, scar and sensitive area of Yixing's body. There was something different about the way he moved, Yixing couldn't figure out if it was confidence or love that led Yifan around his flesh.

There were new things, Yixing was under no grand illusion that he'd been celibate since their split and Yixing found himself indulging in what others had taught the elder. The way Yifan's teeth grazed over the tender patches of lighter skin on Yixing's body, the way his hands curled higher on Yixing's thighs than they used to and the way he teased his mouth against Yixing's without kissing his lips at all, they were all new. Each one were things that made Yixing dizzy like Yifan had crawled up into his head and made Yixing feel like a mess of himself.

Their first time physically reconnecting was in lieu of a quiet night on the sofa to watch films neither of them had watched before, Yifan was flecked in wet paint that rubbed from his hands onto Yixing's skin and dripped down from his hair to splash into Yixing's like liquid stars. The bedsheets in Yifan's room had laid untouched since the engagement party until Yixing's bare back was pressed onto them while Yifan's face hovered over his torso.

It had started from a kiss, a gentle one where Yifan's hands had cupped at Yixing's cheeks but the younger's avid tongue had changed the dynamic as it licked and coaxed at Yifan's lips. Progression was rapid and unstoppable until Yixing was shirtless with his slacks popped open beneath Yifan's naked chest and unzipped jeans.

All that had happened between them had been touching sessions in the greying light of their living room. Yixing's hands slipped into the front of Yifan's pyjama trousers, Yifan's hips grinding down as Yixing rubbed against his backside and their mouths creeping more central from open, exposed thighs. The advancement to Yifan's fingers dipping past Yixing's rim to see if the younger could relax enough around them for the discomfort of sex to fade faster felt more than natural.

The sky had shifted from a shade of pink to one of purple when Yifan began to align his erection to Yixing's relaxed and willing hole. The lube, unscented and clear, was cool as Yixing felt Yifan slide in. Their first few thrusts were more akin to testing swivels of their pelvises, giving Yixing the ability to relax fully and for Yifan to trigger the sense of pleasure within the younger.

The rest of their sex was slow and deliberate, no hands moving out of place and their mouths were clasped together at almost every moment. The times when their lips didn't meet had their noses brushing vertically and their eyes meeting darkly.

Yixing could see the colour in Yifan's hair, speckled on his face and dabbled down his neck, it was like the elder had painted a universe on both of their bodies with how the paint smudged like asteroids hurtling through the air. It was an addictive sight to Yixing, one he didn't want to get enough of, and he used his hands to pull the taller male closer to his body with every well timed thrust.

The entire experience was nothing of the hard, fast and verging on lewd unions they'd had when they were younger, it was a rekindling of a fire neither had fully stamped out. Yixing was entranced. There were whispers of love passed between them, flowing through the air until the words met ears and whimpered moans were handed back in response. It was meaningful, slow and Yixing's body ached to bare himself in his entirety to Yifan.

Their clothes were in pools of fabric, their mouths were in a tangle of lips and their words were draped in stutters as if they were in code. Yixing's toes curled, as did his fingers, when Yifan's member brushed up against his prostate in a teasing sense of love and adoration, the speed meant it was just enough to stimulate but nowhere near enough to send completion rocketing through his body. He was aroused, incredibly so, more than with his previous partners and more than he had been with Yifan the first time over. It struck him then, that feeling.

Love.

It was as cheesy and cliché as he had expected it to be, it nibbled on the coiling part of his lower abdomen and it sprung up in his chest as he gasped. His heart was racing, his hands were shaking and Yifan's mouth fastened onto his like an oxygen mask. He felt like he was spinning, breaking the surface of freezing cold water and suffering in the dark depths of emotion all at once. All because of Yifan. Yixing's words slurred as his eyes slipped shut, his stomach tensed as he tried to contain his pleasure to draw out to connection even longer and then suddenly it was like the ground had disappeared from beneath his feet.

He was in freefall.

Darkness then sudden beams of light enveloped him, magma seared through his veins and his hands closed around the soft patches of human skin to which they clung.

His orgasm was drawn out but intense. His cum spurted out in intermittent flashes that landed half on his stomach and half on Yifan's abdomen where his leaking shaft had been rubbing. He tightened up around Yifan, he knew that because of how tense his thighs had gone, Yifan's whining into his ear and the fact the taller had slowed down to a grinding halt.

Yifan's peak was hit with a stutter of his hips, a twitch of his member and the flooding of thick fluid within Yixing that flowed with a heavy warmth.

They basked in the afterglow, took everything in and let their bodies remember one another again. It was like retracing steps after years being away from somewhere; the same but so very different. Their breathing fell in sync, as did their hearts, as they adjusted on the bed to wrap around one another.

There was nothing to be said, everything had been expressed and sleep rushed in to steal the world of their open eyes but Yixing felt Yifan there, he knew that presence. And, he clamped onto it.


xiii.



"We didn't break up because we fell out of love, did we?" Yixing's voice cracked and there were instantly fingertips pressing against his palm, prying his own digits out to lace the larger fingers with his smaller ones.

"No," Yifan shook his head, Yixing knew that because it rustled against the pillow below their heads. "We didn't."


xiv.



Word of Yifan's past escaped quickly, people talked about it in the corridors and fell silent when Yixing walked by them. It was like his first week all over again. Lu Han was a constant presence at his side, much like he had been since they had met and was a great deal of help when it came to Yixing actually planning the wedding. The assistant handled the wedding planner, he managed the people contracted in to make Yifan and Yixing's wedding special and Lu Han dealt with Yixing when he his bouts of anxiety.

It was never over thoughts that Yifan didn't love him, it was clear in the way that the elder looked at him that it was something deeper than either of them had possibly anticipated when they met again. His fears lay in what people were saying about him, about Yifan.

When the news had broke that Yifan had been somewhat of a delinquent in his teenage years, Yixing had felt that heavy weight of sickness drag him down and Lu Han had picked him up from it.

Their plan had been smart and simple, Yixing told the truth and it let everything air out before the wedding happened. It was slowly circulated that Yifan was an established artist, that his work spoke to a deeper meaning of emotion and people gently pressed on their brakes as they skidded towards wrong assumptions. The biggest aid to that had been the day when Yixing had forgotten a small lunch box Yifan had made him the night before, the tall male had entered the building and spent the forty-five minutes his fiancé had for his lunch at his side.

People saw their closeness despite not seeing anything outwardly romantic, Yifan enjoyed having the company of the person he adored and that was all he wanted. The touching, the kissing and the holding happened in private. Not that Yixing minded, he wasn't one to want his employees to see personal moments with the man he loved.

The conversation about their break-up, and the events surrounding it, hadn't been posed. Even though Lu Han pestered him about discussing what had unfolded with 'Operation: Last Resort' as soon as he could. The younger was apprehensive, if not reluctant. He didn't want to unearth scars that had long since healed and flowers grew out of.

But he knew he needed to.

It came as a shock as Yifan spoke to him one evening, the elder's words were clear and precise, cutting through Yixing's feebly constructed defences with ease.

"Xing-ah," the elder had begun, "I am so sorry."

Yixing had been struck by the words, how out of context they seemed to their discussion over how to cook their spring onions.

"What for?" Yixing had asked.

"When we were younger," the reality dawned on Yixing rather quickly after those four words, "and I got you into trouble. I'm so sorry."

Yixing bit his lip, he didn't know how to respond for a while. So, he left it until they went to bed. He nestled under Yifan's arm, placed his head on Yifan's chest and spoke in affectionate words.

"Please don't apologise for things that happened so long ago," Yixing reassured him. "We were young and I was so in love with you that it hurt."

Yifan had always had an edge to him that Yixing couldn't understand. It's what made him so alluring―aloof and mysterious were the words most people on their university campus used. When Yixing had met Yifan, he had been arrested a few times for small things; vandalism, underage drinking and failing to pay parking tickets. Yifan had been on his last straw with the university, with his arts scholarship. He'd been dropped from the basketball team as his biggest punishment and Yixing knew that he had one last strike, then he was out of the school for good.

So when it was suspected that Yifan had painted something unauthorised on the side of a private building, Yixing took the fall. It was supposed to be a warning for Yixing, the police officer had told Yixing's parents when they went to bail him out, but Yixing knew really that it was for Yifan. It was stupid, Yixing had thought at the time, that Yifan could be punished for expressing his art.

As adults, they could both see how stupid those actions had been on Yifan's behalf. He should have kept his painting to the confines of the art studio on campus that he had year-round access to. Yixing had wanted to protect Yifan by taking the blame and getting an offence on his records, much to his parents' hatred. He had been in love and scared for his boyfriend that he felt a frightening amount for.

They'd broken up after then, Yifan's mother had called him back to Canada to attend an art school there and Yixing's parents had forbidden him from seeing Yifan while he lived under their roof. Given the pressure and the distance, the break-up had been inevitable. However, Yifan had left Yixing with one promise, that he'd repay Yixing one day.

The elder's apologies had gone on through the night but he let Yixing soothe him, the smaller male declaring that he wouldn't have changed a thing if it meant having Yifan at his side in a more permanent fixture years down the line. They had assured one another that their initial deal was off; their love was not a lie and their marriage was to be the one they took their biggest shot at.

With that cleared up, Yifan set about getting stuck in with the wedding arrangements. He helped Lu Han coordinate with all of the moving parts of the operation and all Yixing had to do, when he had the time, was to taste cakes and get fitted for a tuxedo.

Months passed them by in a blur of colour schemes, invites and seating plans. Yixing's head hurt whenever he heard Yifan and Lu Han speak with such knowledge of everything but he knew the two men would make it perfect. It was the day Yixing hadn't known he'd wanted but if there were two people he trusted, it was Lu Han and Wu Yifan.


xv.



The morning of the wedding had flooded Yixing with nerves, the rehearsal had run as smoothly as possible and the couple had their best-men on hand to help them through the last minute nerves. Lu Han had suggested a beer as they changed into their form fitted suits but Yixing had declined, claiming that before he and Yifan had rekindled, he'd drunk far too much alcohol. With Yifan not drinking a drop of it, Yixing found it easier to stop buying beer in bulky cartons of six and twelve with his weekly shop.

Yifan had stayed with his best man, Zitao, a fashion marketing expert, the night previous and Yixing had found himself calling the elder at three in the morning because he couldn't sleep. He didn't know if it was nerves or the fact he'd not slept without Yifan by his side in almost a year. The time they spent apart on the wedding day didn't help much either, the hours never seemed to pass and evening constantly felt out of reach.

Yixing's mother had popped her head into Yixing's dressing room to wish him luck, the smiles she gave Yixing had lessened in their strain as she grew ever more comfortable with Yifan's lasting presence in their family dynamic. It had become known that wherever Yixing went, Yifan was likely to follow closely behind him. It helped that Yifan's disposition was one of a more gentle nature. His father had taken a little longer to be swayed by Yixing's husband-to-be. Though, Yixing hadn't expected any less.

The couple headed to the Civil Affairs Bureau separately, meeting once they had both arrived and Yixing found Yifan waiting for him, head bowed down and fingers fidgeting at his pockets. Yixing could see his tongue licking his lips, blinking in what seemed to be heartbeats and Yixing was sure that his eyebrows would have been going in different directions, displaying his nervousness over the whole scenario.

When they were stood face-to-face, the nerves in Yifan's face dissipated like Yixing's had from his stomach. It was a wonderful moment to be a part of. Yixing couldn't believe they were getting married until their hands were joined and they had signed the appropriate paperwork for the union to become legal.

The marriage process within itself was short, both men were accented in the traditional shades of red and their witnesses were there to go through the experience with them. Yifan's mother, like Yixing's own, cried until her eyes ran bloodshot and Yixing half worried about the two of them passing out from dehydration. Yixing's grandfather was the one stood closest to them, his role in bringing the two of them together was integral and Yixing wanted to share in his happiness with the man.

For the first time in Yixing's life, the ring finger on his left hand was weighted down with a simple silver band. Yifan's ring matched his, having been a purchase they'd made together early on in their arrangements and Lu Han had whimpered like a baby when the rings were exchanged.

It was difficult for Yixing to concentrate on anything but Yifan. Happiness buzzed in his stomach, the want to kiss burned in his lips and the urge to hold was strong in his hands. Everything that Yixing could see was painted in a hue of gold and he was sure that was the impact Yifan had on the way he saw the world, he couldn't be sure but the link seemed definite.

Their evening was filled with a banquet-like gathering with food on every table and drinks in every hand. Yixing had bitten his lip when Yifan had mentioned the first dance, the younger feared mockery when he thought of Yifan's inability to dance to slow dance but was pleasantly surprised when he was allowed to lead Yifan out onto the makeshift dance floor.

Yixing recognised the song playing in the background very vaguely and suddenly there was anxiety over whether or not the right song had been played or not.

"I remembered it," Yifan whispered into Yixing's ear and the younger looked up at him with a creased frown.

"Remembered what?"

"The song," Yifan continued, giving his explanation, "from the night when I knew I wanted to be with you forever. It's this one."

The memory of the night in question hit Yixing like a bullet through his heart. He'd danced for the audition for a competition, Yifan had skipped school to join him at the venue in the next city over and they'd made the two-way three-hour commute together. They'd run out of CDs to play in the car within the first journey and Yixing had fiddled around with the stereo until he heard The Beatles play through the speakers.

Yifan sang along with nearly perfect English to most of the other songs aired, always pushing Yixing into a state of awe whenever he looked at his boyfriend.

When they had stopped the car in the storm, Yifan had left the radio playing in the background and the memory played in real-time in Yixing's head as Yifan began to sway their bodies from side to side.

Yixing couldn't understand all of the words but he was sure that the lines Yifan was muttering into his ear were the translations, each word pronounced in Yifan's deeper baritone struck directly into his heart. The smaller's eyes watered, uncaring of their audience as he tugged Yifan down to his lips.

And suddenly, nothing else mattered. The family business wasn't even a thought in Yixing's head as he felt the warming metal on his finger, all he could surround himself with was the sense of being at home with a single person and not a place. Happiness, Yixing once thought, meant sacrifice and compromise. And yet, with Yifan, he didn't have to let a single thing go to feel unbound with Yifan. The dragon curled around his heart had crept out of his body and found its way into the man he'd found his chunk of forever with.


xvi.



Yixing felt Yifan's lips against his ear, they were close enough that he could feel the ridges of the pink plump flesh on his ear. He new Yifan was going to say something, even after everything that had been said during their joint lifetime. There were more lines on their faces, their limbs creaked when they stood and their bodies had felt the test of time. And yet, Yixing hadn't ever stopped loving the same man.

"I kept my promise," Yifan whispered and Yixing smiled instinctively as he felt the hot air of Yifan's breath on his neck.

"And what was that?"

"That I would be the person lucky enough to marry you."

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