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-

The first thing Zitao remembers when he meets Jongdae is that the sun is setting. It makes everything gold and orange and red, and the light cuts across Jongdae’s face to reveal cheekbones that are still hiding under his baby fat at the age of fifteen.

Zitao has just turned fifteen too, sweaty, and is balancing his schoolbag and a duffle bag full of his wushu practice things in his arms when he runs into Jongdae in the street right outside the gym. He doesn’t recognize Jongdae, but clearly Jongdae recognizes him because he taps Zitao’s arm with a surprised grin.

‘You’re from my school.’

Zitao blinks and looks down at the other – despite being one year older, Jongdae is shorter. ‘Ah, sorry, I don’t – ’ he stutters, hoping his Korean is clear enough for the other.

Jongdae waves his hand dismissively, ‘No, its cool, I’m not in your year – anyway, what’s in the bag? You come here for practice? Wait, hey, you do wushu here?’ It’s all in rapid-fire Korean, and Zitao needs a few seconds to process it all, staring blankly at Jongdae as his brain tries to arrange all the syllables in his head.

With a muffled sound, Jongdae switches to slurred Mandarin, ‘you know wushu?’ Zitao nods slowly, gesturing to his duffle bag before Jongdae’s mouth splits into a grin, making his eyes crinkle and cheeks go round. ‘Show me!’

That makes Zitao snort. Show him in the middle of the street? He might be fifteen and new to this country, but he’s not stupid and going to embarrass himself in public. ‘No.’

Jongdae pouts and switches back into Korean. ‘Lame. Are you going to show me anything then? Not even a punch or something?’

‘Bubble tea?’ offers Zitao, pointing at his favourite place down the road. It’s his post-practice ritual, but only after Fridays when he can treat himself and his parents don’t mind if he’s a little late coming home. ‘I can show you that.’

This is how Zitao somehow ends up friends with Jongdae in about an hour, despite being a little sweaty and rumpled, his too-long dark hair stuck to his forehead and cheeks and his eyes wide as he sips on his taro-flavoured drink. He expects his rather weak grasp on Korean to make their conversation stilted and awkward, but Jongdae fills in the silence with rapid-fire rambling, seemingly uncaring as to whether Zitao replies or not.

‘Will I see you at school on Monday?’ asks Jongdae after Zitao makes the appropriate gestures that he should be heading home for at least a shower.

Zitao pauses, then nods, and smiles, and watches as Jongdae waves at him before walking off around the corner to the bus stop.

-

With Jongdae comes Baekhyun and Chanyeol. They storm into Zitao’s class right after the lunch bell rings and surround his desk. In under a minute, it looks like Zitao’s being serenaded in shitty Mandarin by his upperclassmen as Jongdae tries to make them say ‘hi, my name is’ with the proper tones.

At fifteen, Zitao is enamoured by it all. He doesn’t particularly understand why Jongdae wants to befriend him so aggressively, and he has thoughts as to whether this is just some elaborate bullying plot on the kid who can’t speak Korean properly.

Sometimes he senses it – when Baekhyun is looking at him out of the corner of his eye and his voice has dropped into something snide. It takes a beat for Zitao to register the teasing for what it is, but by then Jongdae’s voice is cutting in – clear and sharp, ‘be quiet already.’

Chanyeol is warm and bright in a way that reminds Zitao of his baba. He fits between Baekhyun’s crassness and Jongdae’s coolness, and readily engages Zitao in talks about music, peering into Zitao’s music library on his phone and nodding at the Korean songs Zitao does have – mostly autotuned, loud rap that Zitao doesn’t understand but bobs along to anyway when he’s walking home after school.

In this way, Zitao picks up on Korean and the slanged nuances of it much faster than he expects. On Fridays, Jongdae waits for him after wushu practice and they get bubble tea together. Sometimes Jongdae hustles him onto a bus or a train and they end up in shopping districts or at a games centre or small restaurants – cheap and warm – tucked away in the corners of busy streets.

Zitao learns Jongdae’s haunts this way and adopts them as his own, impressed by the vastness of a city he still can’t understand. At home his parents notice his more upbeat mood, and Zitao tells them over dinner about it all – about Jongdae, about Baekhyun and Chanyeol, about how they eat lunch together and Chanyeol is taking guitar lessons and Baekyun has plans to join the choir when he graduates to high school. About Jongdae’s trips through the winding streets, his mouth switching from quick Korean to awkward Mandarin that Zitao gently corrects.

‘I’m going to keep learning it, of course,’ says Jongdae as they sit on a park bench with a bag of shrimp crackers. Zitao leans over and snaps up another handful, crunching on them as he listens. ‘I mean – you’re still going to laugh at me, but soon you won’t be able to. I’ll become fluent, just wait.’

Zitao nods. ‘I won’t laugh at you.’

Jongdae shoots him a glance.

‘Much. I won’t laugh at you much.’ Baekhyun mocks the way Zitao laughs, but he can’t help it – how the amusement rolls up his body and makes his breath catch in his throat. They always said he laughed like a girl, but the girls Zitao knows are ruthless and strong-fisted, so it’s not too bad of an insult altogether. Jongdae only gets upset when the laughter is directed at him. He’s self-conscious that way – and a little bit of Zitao is relieved for it.

At fifteen, Zitao looks at Jongdae with admiration and wide-eyes. With graduation only a few months away, Jongdae is already leaving Zitao to a place Zitao can’t reach, and this brief acquaintanceship will die off before it even begins. It makes Jongdae seem… ephemeral, because Zitao’s always been a little romantic.

Except, little moments like these, where Jongdae is candid and careful, his words slow as if he’s forcing them out through the sludge of his own hesitation, is what humanizes him. The ways his fingers tug at his sleeves like a child, the way the one-size-too-big blazer of the school uniform drowns him entirely, how he snaps at Zitao then soothes him out with quiet gestures, cutting into Baekhyun’s teasing, Chanyeol’s overwhelming presence.

-

Surprisingly, its two months before the upper years graduate on to high school when Zitao finally makes a friend in his own year. The boy’s name is Sehun and he’s a complete asshole. They get along wonderfully.

Their lunch group expands. Sehun sits next to Zitao and they both watch Chanyeol sandwiched between Baekhyun and Jongdae across from them at the table. Sehun makes sure to insult everyone at least once before the break ends. It’s when he gets to Jongdae that he flounders, before remembering what he once heard.

‘Did you know Zitao calls Jongdae-hyung ‘Chenchen’ in private, though?’ shares Sehun with a razor sharp grin. Baekhyun latches onto this information with glee, turning his head to pin Jongdae down with bright eyes.

‘I didn’t know you and Zitao were that close,’ he drawls. Jongdae stops eating and looks at him with an unimpressed gaze.

‘We’re not all in secret relationships with our friends, right, Chanyeol?’

Chanyeol takes a moment to catch up to the conversation before he’s bursting into a flurry of denial while Baekhyun starts yelling at Jongdae, ‘I have better taste than that!’

Eventually, Chanyeol shuts them both up, and Zitao blurts out, ‘cheng zi means orange,’ as if that would explain everything and relieve the tension shimmering in the air, make the pinched look between everyone’s eyebrows smooth out, their lip relax.

Baekhyun looks up, expression curious. ‘What – like the fruit?’

‘Yes.’

‘He does sort of have round cheeks,’ mentions Sehun helpfully.

At which point Jongdae gets affronted enough to yell at them all about their own physical shortcomings, but the bell rings before his tirade is done and Zitao ducks away with Sehun right behind him.

Two weeks later, Chanyeol and Baekhyun are crooning out, ‘Chenchen-ah’ to Jongdae whenever he passes by, as Zitao tries to muffle his laughter at the increasingly stormy facial expressions that cross Jongdae’s face.

-

On Jongdae’s birthday, Jongdae invites them all out to eat barbeque. They scald the meat and almost set fire to the vegetables, before Chanyeol is grabbing the tongs and saving it all for consumption. Sehun steals some food off Zitao’s plate, so Zitao does the same.

He’s surprised when Jongdae takes charge of handing off the meat from the grill, and even holds up a small piece to Zitao’s mouth with his chopsticks. ‘Eat.’

Zitao might be fifteen by calendar standards, only a year younger than newly sixteen Jongdae for a few months, but he feels like he’s become twelve again – his stomach tight with warmth and emotion clogging in his throat. He leans forward, swallows the food readily, and smiles around his full mouth to Jongdae’s warm gaze before he’s trying to save his plate from Sehun’s over-eager hands.

-

Eventually, Jongdae gives up resisting the nickname that only comes up with increasing frequency as they all hang out together. In fact, he makes the executive decision to simply own up to it, by shortening the entire thing to just ‘Chen’.

Later, he takes his revenge by abandoning Zitao’s name to just call him ‘Tao’.

‘Tao zi means peach,’ he mentions on a Friday, chewing one of the pearls from his bubble tea. ‘So if I’m going to be orange, you’re going to be peach.’

‘Okay,’ agrees Zitao easily. It makes Jongdae narrow his eyes.

‘You like it,’ he accuses.

Zitao sucks loudly on his taro flavoured bubble tea before replying. ‘It’s a fair trade.’

He tries not to mention that it’s Jongdae who’s giving it to him, like some honorary title, and it makes something warm curl up in Zitao’s stomach. And he absolutely doesn’t think about how it’s just for him – that Jongdae says it first and foremost, snaps it from his mouth like he owns it. Tao.

-

Unfortunately, the novelty of it lasts for only half a week, and the others have picked up on it with ease. Admittedly, ‘Tao’ is not that much of a jump from ‘Zitao’, as it is with ‘Jongdae’ to ‘Chen’, but he wants to hold onto it a little longer – keeping it between him and Jongdae. It slips away too fast.

The rest of the month also slides away from under his fingertips and before he knows it, Zitao is standing beside Sehun, watching the upperclassmen get their little certifications, dressed primly in uniforms with wide smiles on their faces. Jongdae waves to his mother in the crowd, then turns his face, catches Zitao’s smile, and laughs – those crinkled eyes, those round cheeks.

At home, Zitao sighs and mopes, thinks of how he only has Sehun now at school. Appa laughs and hugs him, brushing his fingers through Zitao’s hair and murmurs, ‘you still have the entire spring break to hang out, Zitao-yah,’ in a mesh of Mandarin and Korean.

He’s not as fluent as baba with his Mandarin, being born in Seoul, but Zitao has grown up with the nuances of appa’s language, feels the care and warmth in the words.

‘I guess.’ Zitao props his elbows up on the counter and hums. ‘What if he forgets me? High school is so much bigger than middle school, and I won’t be able to graduate for another year.’

‘Then give him something to remember you by,’ replies appa.

-

During the spring break, Jongdae and Zitao explore all four corners of the city, climbing through abandoned buildings with broken glass that sparkles under the bright sunlight, or through shadowed alleys to half-hidden food stands, or the long gardens and preserved museum palaces where tourists often flock.

On the rooftop of an empty office building, with the sun glazing everything in red and orange, Jongdae pulls out crumpled candy bars to share while Zitao puts one earphone in Jongdae’s ear and one in his own, the familiar heavy bass of the Korean music filtering through.

‘Are you nervous?’ asks Zitao, proud that almost a year later he can say these words so easily, that he’s learned this language quickly, if not fairly well.

‘For high school?’ Jongdae shrugs and leans back on his hands. ‘I guess.’ With a side-glance, he continues, ‘will you be sad? I mean – Baekhyun and Chanyeol and I are leaving you alone for the next year.’ There’s something teasing in his voice, but Zitao imagines it’s a serious question all the same.

‘I’m already sad,’ he replies, sincere. ‘Don’t forget me, Chenchen.’

Jongdae turns to look at the other head-on, the earphone falling out of his ear and landing carelessly on his shoulder. He makes no move to put it back in. ‘Don’t say dumb things, Tao.’ He shakes his head. ‘You have a phone, don’t you? So do I. Honestly.’

Zitao chews on his bottom lip but nods. ‘Okay.’

‘I’ll text you every day. Even in hanja,’ says Jongdae, grinning. ‘Impress the hell out of you.’

Here, Zitao can’t help but laugh, burying his face in his hands to stifle how much his eyes are burning at the promise. He nods and feels Jongdae’s arm wrap around his waist, pulling him close. Till they’re unbalanced and tipping backwards against the hard concrete, but Zitao’s too warm to feel sore with it when Jongdae’s laughing at him, running his hands through Zitao’s too-long dark hair and mussing it up.

-

On the last day of break before the start of the new school year, Zitao hangs around in Jongdae’s house, sitting on his bed as Jongdae tries on his new uniform and sighs as it slumps all over his form, a size too big as usual.

Jongdae’s mother comes up with sweets and tea and Zitao gets flustered trying to introduce himself, accidentally talking informally and seeing Jongdae’s mother blink at him in surprise.

‘Just say it in Mandarin,’ says Jongdae, and Zitao – too embarrassed to decipher if it’s a tease or real advice – does so again in the prettiest Mandarin he knows, practiced amongst the adults back in Qingdao for all his life.

Jongdae’s mother gives him another funny look before turning towards her son. ‘You’re not teaching him very well, are you?’

Affronted, Jongdae sputters. ‘That’s not true – !’ He quiet downs soon after with another sharp glance from his mother before she waves goodbye and goes back downstairs. Zitao rubs at his face in embarrassment, feeling younger than fifteen, younger than ten. He feels like a child.

With a muffled sound, Jongdae collapses on the bed next to Zitao, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. ‘Don’t worry – she’s not offended, just disappointed in my lack of teaching skills, apparently.’

‘Sorry,’ says Zitao, voice muffled behind his hands.

Jongdae laughs breathlessly and tackles Zitao down, burying his face in Zitao’s neck as he tickles the other’s ribs. Zitao gasps and arches as he falls on to his back on the bed, kicking his legs and almost injuring Jongdae until Jongdae hurriedly backs off in fear.

‘Sorry – damn – ’ Zitao blurts again, and his hands are reaching out, grabbing Jongdae’s shoulders from under the oversized school uniform, dragging him back in a ridiculous hug, with Jongdae sprawled over Zitao’s chest, voice muffled around a mouthful of Zitao’s shirt.

‘Tao,’ sighs out Jongdae, ‘it’s fine.’

Instead of replying, Zitao sits up on the bed with Jongdae kneeling in front of him, and buries his face in the other’s neck, arms around Jongdae’s small waist. ‘I’ll be able to come back?’ he asks, words muffled but hopeful.

‘Of course you will, just remember to be formal next time.’ Jongdae slides a hand down Zitao’s back, a comforting warmth. ‘Have some confidence in yourself, yeah.’ Zitao nods against the skin of Jongdae’s neck, feeling the other laugh from deep within his chest. ‘Are you sure you’re fifteen?’

When Zitao only buries himself closer keeping silent, Jongdae sighs out. ‘Well – c’mon, I have to get ready for tomorrow, don’t you?’

The words make something click in Zitao’s head and something like anxiousness floods his chest. Jongdae going off to a place he can’t reach for another year, and nothing to lose if he forgets Zitao. With a surge of courage, Zitao lifts his head and tips his face forward, affection and worry flooding his veins, tries to leave something to be remembered by because –

Except Jongdae must think Zitao wants to say something, since he turns his head and their mouths brush – subtle and warm – before Zitao is scrambling away to the other end of the bed, eyes wide. ‘Why did you turn your head!’ He doesn’t realize he’s panicking in Mandarin until Jongdae stares at him for a long while before the words click in his head.

‘You’re blaming me?’ he says. ‘You’re the one who tried to kiss me.’

‘On the cheek – ’ Zitao’s voice cuts off when he realizes he doesn’t deny it.

The silence is awkward and fraying at the edges. Zitao knows it’s not much of a first kiss anyway – feather-light and barely there – so he shouldn’t even think about it much less count it. Except it does count because it was with Chen and that’s important.

On the other end of the bed, Jongdae rubs his face with his hand, suddenly seeming tired. ‘Zitao. Damn. You need to ask first.’ He stands up and begins packing his bag again with various pens, pencils, and notebooks, his shoulders stiff with tension.

Trying desperately to dispel the atmosphere, Zitao replies, ‘but that ruins the surprise.’

Jongdae looks at him over his shoulder, eyebrow raised. ‘Tao, ask me next time.’ He looks away, face obscured. ‘So I can do it properly.’

Oh. Zitao swallows, heart stuck in his throat. ‘Okay.’

‘Anyway – drink your tea. Do you want to stay for dinner?’

And with that – it’s like everything falls back into place. Zitao sits cross-legged on Jongdae’s bed, looking through the music library on Jongdae’s phone as he drinks his tea and eats the snacks on the plate, nodding as he plays some song or another.

In only a minute the entire thing seems swept away to the corners of the room, forgotten unless Zitao pokes at it. He doesn’t want to, of course, if only to avoid seeing Jongdae’s back strung tight again like that.

He wants to say, ‘you got it – you got my first kiss, as terrible as it sort of was, so please don’t forget me,’ instead, Zitao plays sappy Chinese songs and croons along in his puberty-broken voice until Jongdae throws a pillow at his face to shut him up.

-

The new school year starts on a warm spring day in March. Zitao eats lunch with Sehun, and meets another kid in his year named Jongin. He’s half-silence and half-snark, so they become fast friends.

Zitao waits on his phone all day and finally gets a text message in the evening. It’s hard to read, mostly because Jongdae seems intent on keeping his promise to impress Zitao with his grasp on hanja.

There’s a beat where he considers showing baba – who’s fluent in four languages and has deciphered appa’s cluster of dialects and words for years now. Zitao decides on keeping it for himself for now and eventually translates it while lying on his bed – it’s so much bigger than middle school, and the upperclassmen are nicer than expected. I think I’m going to join the music club with Baekhyun, and keep taking Mandarin. High school ends later than middle school, though, so I won’t be able to meet you for bubble tea on Fridays.

Zitao pretends he’s not sad about it and replies with a ridiculous amount of emojis and exclamation marks and tells him about Jongin.

-

Caught up in the wave of school and these new friends, Zitao doesn’t manage to meet Jongdae more than once or twice a month. It’s not awkward and Jongdae always seems happy to fill in the silence with words about nothing while Zitao listens, trying to imagine high school but coming up short. He especially likes hearing about Jongdae’s Mandarin class and all the Chinese kids who tease Jongdae for his tones.

He learns more about the older kids – Minseok and Luhan – and a boy in Jongdae’s year named Yixing. Zitao yearns to meet them, talk to them with words he is comfortable with and knows. Slip away from Korean for a little while and prowl through Chinatown with them at their side and talk about homes that aren’t their houses here.

‘They call me Chen too, y’know,’ sighs Jongdae, ruffling his hair. ‘This is all your fault.’

‘It’s for your face, not your colour,’ replies Zitao pleasantly, and snorts when Jongdae pushes at him in irritation.

‘Whatever, panda eyes,’ he sneers at Zitao, except Zitao is too busy laughing at him to pay attention.

One day, he meets Jongdae sporting an earring – silver and round, pressed against the lobe and glinting under the streetlights. There’s a cool spring breeze, so they huddle into a coffee shop and grab a table, knees bumping against each other under the wood as they curl around their drinks.

Zitao’s hand had been halfway to touching the earring when he remembers and stops himself abruptly, eyes flicking over to Jongdae who’s watching him. ‘Can I?’

‘You can,’ he replies eventually, a beat later, his eyes glimmering. It’s enough to get Zitao’s throat dry, but he pushes the feeling aside to run the edges of his fingers along the lobe of Jongdae’s ear, thumbnail clinking dully against the metal, finger catching against the sharp nub behind.

‘It looks really good,’ he says eventually, once his voice has caught up to him, and he can pretend the tightening in his stomach is due to hunger rather than anything else.

‘Yeah?’ Jongdae preens under the compliment, lashes fluttering. ‘You want one too, don’t you?’

‘Yeah.’ Appa and baba would never let him hear the end of it if he did, and he doesn’t know how anyway. There has to be consent and permission slips and an adult involved because Zitao is still a teenager. ‘How did your mom not kill you yet?’

Jongdae shrugs, ‘she was mad for a little while, but she got over it.’

It’s the nonchalance that makes Zitao laugh, trying to muffle it behind his hand when he suddenly feels self-conscious about it. In front of the other. Jongdae tips his head to the side, blowing the steam off his mug, knobby knees bumping against Zitao’s: ‘you’d look good in silver too.’

‘Yeah?’ Zitao thumbs his own ear in thought. ‘Okay. Get me silver earrings, hyung.’

‘Why are you always asking me to buy you shit?’ whines the other, kicking Zitao in the shin, and it only makes Zitao laugh again, kicking back, loud and raucous enough that they’re almost kicked out of the café.

-

For Zitao’s birthday, appa gets him new clothes and a haircut. When they return, baba is waiting with a large meal that makes their home smell a little of Qingdao. Homesickness strikes fast in Zitao’s stomach and he eats as much as he can just so he can pretend it’s the spice and not the feelings that are making his eyes burn.

The following weekend, Jongdae organizes a day out for barbeque on Saturday, shoving Zitao, Sehun, and Jongin in the booth before bringing in Chanyeol and Baekhyun and a soft-seeming boy with dimples named Yixing.

Yixing’s been here two years longer than Zitao and they talk pleasantly away from the Korean while Jongdae and Chanyeol argue on how to cook the meat, Sehun and Jongin teaming up to tease Baekhyun, who shuts them down with the ease and experience of an elder.

Eventually, plates are filled and the lull of conversation dies out in order to eat as much as possible. Jongdae holds out little pieces for Zitao, and Zitao thinks nothing of it when he eats it, oblivious to any looks from the others around them. In only an hour, the entire table has consumed a prodigious amount of meat and vegetables, even the normally-fidgeting Sehun curling up comfortably next to Jongin while he digests.

‘So – Zitao’s sixteen now,’ leers Baekhyun, looking at Jongdae. Jongdae seems to sigh inwardly before he turns his head to the other. ‘What’re you giving him for his birthday?’

‘If you even say the word ‘cock’, Byun Baekhyun,’ warns Jongdae before Chanyeol intervenes with a bright smile.

‘Okay, everyone else’s presents first!’

Zitao receives a half-assembled first aid kit from Sehun and Jongin, obviously bought and arranged from the convenience store across the street. Baekhyun gives him a soft scarf – ‘it’s not winter yet, but it was cheap and it’d look good on your skinny neck,’ – and Chanyeol hands over a stuffed dog plushy, ‘it’s cute right? I got the cat one.’ Yixing surprises him by giving him a small box of bracelets.

‘Well that’s girly as fuck,’ remarks Baekhyun.

Yixing flicks his eyes towards Baekhyun and Zitao can feel the other get self-conscious., so he reaches out, takes the box, ‘no – I really like them.’ He smiles at Yixing brightly, ‘let me wear them.’

He slips them on, feels the heft of it on his wrists and lets the silver catch the light. It makes him look a little like a delinquent, which is more thrilling than unappealing. Over the table, he catches Jongdae’s gaze and Jongdae smiles in approval.

‘How are you going to top this?’ says Baekhyun, his voice dripping in innuendo.

‘As easily as Chanyeol tops you,’ shoots back Jongdae. Chanyeol buries his face in his hands while Sehun and Jongin erupt in peals of laughter, even Yixing hiding a smile.

‘We’re not,’ Chanyeol sighs, but is largely ignored, when Baekhyun begins to sputter and exclaim – rather loudly – how he was very much invested in anyone else.

‘Shut up,’ snaps Jongdae, before lifting a bag from under the table and handing it over to Zitao. Zitao opens it and reveals an assortment of things that he remembers telling Jongdae he wanted a few weeks earlier. A music giftcard, a new phone case, a little pack of earrings, and a sweater that just borders on ugly – which makes it Zitao’s new favourite thing.

‘Thank you,’ he says, warm and sincere, and Jongdae shrugs noncommittally, shooting him a half-smile in return.

Afterwards, they all depart their respective ways. Zitao hugs them all and waves goodbye to Sehun and Baekhyun going one way, Chanyeol, Yixing, and Jongin the other. Jongdae rocks on his heels next to Zitao, looking perfectly content at the other’s side.

Eventually, once everyone else has disappeared from sight, Zitao turns to Jongdae, ‘I don’t have piercings.’

Jongdae stills and looks up at him, eyebrows raised in expectance. ‘Not yet.’

Well. Zitao can’t argue with that. He adjusts the bags of presents in his arms and starts walking home, Jongdae tagging along beside him. They talk about nothing and everything at the same time, about how Zitao felt when he finally met Yixing, about the food, about wushu and how Zitao’s instructor wanted him to enter his first competition in Korea.

They enter the familiar road leading to Zitao’s home when Zitao blurts, ‘you’re always teasing, but are Baekhyun-ah and Chanyeol actually…’ His voice dies before he can finish the sentence.

Jongdae stops and looks at him, head cocked. ‘Nah – Baekhyun thought Chanyeol was a girl when they first met, so he kissed him. I think they were both seven. Baekhyun’s still not over his first kiss being with a boy.’

‘Oh.’ Zitao fidgets, feeling inexplicably small though he’s taller than the other. ‘Me too.’

The silence feels heavy and Zitao stares into the eyes of his dog plushy instead of Jongdae, willing his embarrassment to leave. He can’t help but look over when Jongdae laughs softly from his throat.

‘Are you finally asking?’

‘It’s my birthday,’ says Zitao imperiously, meeting Jongdae’s gaze. ‘I should get whatever present I want.’

‘It’s three days past your birthday,’ says Jongdae but nods. ‘Okay. Well. Bend over, I guess. Since you’re so goddamn tall.’

Zitao puts down his presents on the concrete sidewalk, though he clutches the plushy to his chest, unwilling to let it get dirty, before leaning down a little. Jongdae’s gaze is more calculating than nervous, and Zitao feels a small hand cup the side of his neck before Jongdae exhales and fuses their mouths together.

It’s warm – just a press of lips – and still, Zitao’s brain short-circuits. A beat later, and he feels Jongdae’s mouth move a little, nudging at Zitao’s top lip and pressing a wet kiss to it. Involuntarily, Zitao’s mouth parts and he tries to imitate the gesture, capturing Jongdae’s bottom lip and giving it a light suck.

His heart is thundering when he feels Jongdae pull away. Zitao flutters open his eyes, not remembering when he closed them to focus on the sensation of Jongdae’s mouth, and sees a self-satisfied grin on his face.

‘Better, right? Count that as your first kiss now.’

Zitao blinks and nods, then flushes when he realizes he’s probably not even close to Jongdae’s first though they’re both sixteen. ‘Who was yours?’ He asks, curious and a little jealous.

‘What – my first kiss?’ Jongdae’s brow creases in thought. ‘Fourteen. Babysitter.’

‘That’s illegal,’ sputters Zitao, jealousy turning into alarm.

‘No – well, ex-babysitter when it happened.’ Jongdae waves his hand in dismissal. ‘It’s not important.’

Zitao wants to say it is, because first kisses and first romances are always important, but he keeps his mouth shut and leans over to pick up his presents again. Halfway through gathering them up, Jongdae’s small hand brushes through Zitao’s hair.

‘Your haircut looks good on you,’ he says quietly. Zitao feels a pleased flush on his cheeks and he grins, straightening.

‘Thank you.’ There’s a pause where Zitao is just watching Jongdae, tracing the lines of his friend’s face, memorizing it before he has to disappear again for the next month or so. Jongdae blinks at the attention, quirks a smile in return, and begins to turn around.

‘I’ll see you soon, Tao,’ he says in lieu of goodbye and Zitao watches his back get smaller and smaller in the distance.

-

Two weeks after Zitao’s birthday, he gets a confession letter. Sehun and Jongin hang around the corner where Zitao meets the person like very conspicuous spies. It makes things a little more awkward than they should be – especially when the boy is looking up at him with hopeful eyes and Zitao’s heart thuds in sympathy rather than reciprocation, so he says yes.

On their first date, they eat ice cream and go shopping. The boy buys a silver necklace and says it looks good on Zitao, so he presents it as a gift. At home, appa gives him a long look over his son’s ever-expanding jewellery collection but eventually offers that the colour silver does suit Zitao.

The first time Zitao goes shopping alone, he wears Yixing’s bracelets and the boy’s necklace. His black hair is brushed to the side and he looks sort of like a delinquent if delinquents wore oversized, ugly sweaters and clean jeans. Nevertheless, Zitao carefully picks out matching rings for his collection and eyes the earrings longingly, knowing neither appa nor baba would sign his permission slip for piercings. He’d have to wait till he was nineteen.

Zitao thinks about asking Jongdae for help, but Jongdae is busy with exams and the music club and his own life if his infrequent texts are anything to come by. High school is – it seems – incredibly different from anything Zitao really knows.

On Zitao’s third date with the boy, they kiss. It is warm and pleasant. Zitao hums and dips for more chaste kisses, just to explore the feeling, how his mouth tingles and his entire body becomes hyperaware of the other person. It’s only later that he realizes he wasn’t thinking of the boy at all when they touched.

‘Isn’t that normal?’ remarks Sehun. ‘It’s all about butterflies in the stomach and shit, right? I mean – I didn’t really think about it until it was over.’

‘I guess.’ Zitao stares at his lunch. ‘I’ll just try again.’

Jongin snorts into his food. ‘It’s not a test. I don’t think you can fail at making out.’

‘Whatever, man, I bet you’re the type who thinks shoving their tongue down someone’s throat is romantic,’ dismisses Sehun easily.

-

Zitao learns the finer arts of making out over the course of three more dates. He likes it a lot – the warmth, the pleasant tingles down his spine, where all the heat pools in the pit of his stomach and makes his heart thud fast.

He slings a leg over the boy’s waist and settles himself against the other’s lap, hips grinding slow and steady as he learns and relearns the planes of the boy’s mouth. He’s pliant and open, lets Zitao position his hands wherever and listens whenever Zitao pleads for a mouth on his neck, against his collarbone.

It’s the way the boy is always answering Zitao’s wants, always warming Zitao up with the long strokes of his palms up Zitao’s back and sides, nuzzling into his neck, praising him quietly, lovingly. Zitao preens under the attention, adores it, and kisses the boy again and again for more.

-

The next time he meets Jongdae, its summer break. Jongdae is sporting a bandage on his neck, and his hair is cut shorter than last time. It makes him seem a little bit older, and Zitao can’t help but reach out and brush his fingers through the hair. His rings accidentally scrape across Jongdae’s skull, and Zitao pulls away quickly in apology.

‘Who did you piss off?’ he asks instead, gesturing to the bandage.

Jongdae touches it as if he’s forgotten about it. ‘Oh – yeah, this. Mom thinks it’s from sports.’ He laughs, then takes Zitao’s wrist, tugging him along. ‘C’mon – bubble tea first and I’ll show you.’

Half an hour later, they’re walking along weed-infested train tracks in the old, industrial part of the city. In the distance, Zitao can hear the rumbling of wheels where the new tracks are built, and the screech of horns, and the vague echoes of traffic from even further off.

Jongdae eventually stops talking about how ridiculous his exams were, then sits down, gesturing for Zitao to join him. ‘It might be a little red still,’ he says as he begins peeling off the bandage.

Underneath, Zitao stares as the tattoo is revealed – a curling bass clef right behind Jongdae’s ear, carefully drawn in pitch black over the pale skin. It’s a little red at the edges and shining with antiseptic, but Zitao is still breathless from how pretty it is, how it matches the frailness of Jongdae’s neck. ‘Can I – ’

‘Touch it? Sure.’

Zitao traces it gently with his fingertips, feeling the slickness of the antiseptic and how the tattoo seems raised against the skin around it. ‘It’s gorgeous.’ He pauses. ‘If your mother doesn’t know, who signed for it?’

Jongdae looks at him, his eyes glittering, as he puts the bandage back on. ‘Ex-babysitter.’

Surprisingly, Zitao feels that same flare of wariness and envy. ‘What – is he your boyfriend too?’

He only gets a laugh in reply. ‘No. But speaking of boyfriends – tell me about yours.’

Zitao flounders for a moment, then begins detailing him – how he has a sweet tooth and likes movies with car chases. How he’s very gentle, and has soft hands, with longer fingers than Zitao and Jongdae both. How he thinks Zitao is pretty with silver jewellery – Yixing’s bracelets and hand-picked rings and necklace.

‘Not earrings?’

‘You know I can’t,’ sighs Zitao, tracing his cartilage between thumb and forefinger.

Jongdae hums and reaches up, bats Zitao’s hand away and strokes his ear instead with cool fingers. Zitao shivers and hopes Jongdae doesn’t notice. It is obvious Jongdae is thinking something – with the way his entire frame goes still except for his hands and how his expression becomes calculating.

‘That tickles,’ blurts Zitao and moves his head away. Jongdae immediately drops his hand and quirks a smile, dispelling the atmosphere that’s settled between them.

‘Anyway – you forgot the most important detail of your boyfriend,’ and Jongdae gives a sly smile, ‘how far have you gotten?’

Zitao grasps onto the unusual topic just to avoid feeling of his stomach flipping. ‘Shirts off, so that’s – ’

‘Second base.’

‘Yeah.’ Zitao thinks that for a month and a half-long relationship, that’s pretty good. Idly, he wonders if he could probably sleep with his boyfriend – the boy is so kind and gentle with Zitao. He wouldn’t judge.

‘How does he compare to your first kiss?’ Jongdae’s laughing, teasing, meaning nothing, but Zitao answers anyway.

‘I don’t think of him when I kiss him.’

Jongdae quiets down, sucking on his straw of his empty bubble tea container. ‘Well – yeah. You think about your dick.’

‘That’s not – ’ Zitao sighs, feeling like the words are out of his grasp. ‘I like it. The kissing and touching; it’s warm and feels good. But… it’s almost two months. I thought by now I’d get the butterflies and feel nervous, or – or excited, but it’s – ’

He doesn’t expect Jongdae to start laughing and bury his face in his arms to muffle the sound. It stings, Sehun and Jongin and now Jongdae dismissing his feelings when Zitao feels so uncertain about himself, what he’s doing, and all he really wants is to have a serious conversation about it.

‘You’re not listening,’ he snaps, annoyed. Jongdae’s shoulders jerk in surprise at the sharpness, before he lifts his head and looks at Zitao.

‘I don’t know for sure – but it seriously sounds like you’re bored of your boyfriend,’ he replies with a wry grin.

‘That’s not true,’ sputters Zitao automatically, but the words echo in his skull, loud and ringing. ‘He’s really nice.’

‘Yeah – nice and boring. That’s what they call vanilla.’ Jongdae turns away. ‘It’s fine, y’know. Just tell him after school – ‘sorry, it was fun while it lasted, but I think we need to see other people.’ It might suck but at least you’ll be free to find someone who doesn’t waste your time.’

‘He’s not a waste of time either,’ says Zitao flatly. ‘He’s a good friend too.’

‘Okay,’ agrees Jongdae easily, uncaring. ‘So just keep him as a friend.’

Even after two years, Zitao doesn’t understand how easily Jongdae dismisses feelings, like they have no bearing on his life, and sometimes it makes something in Zitao’s chest clench in worry. If Jongdae brushes off romance so easily, than what was friendship to him?

Still, Zitao keeps his mouth shut and gives up on the argument, thinking back to his boyfriend. He glances at Jongdae’s mouth, remembers how warm it was; that nipping kiss Jongdae had left on Zitao’s lip before strolling away like it was nothing.

The sensations – dulled by memory – return to him anyway and makes his stomach curl up and flip. He sucks in a sharp breath and looks away. ‘Anyway – will you come to my wushu competition next week?’

‘Of course.’ As if it was obvious – even though it never, ever is with Jongdae. ‘And I’ll bring a bright pink poster – ‘go Taozi go’ written on it with pictures of peaches, maybe some hand-drawn too.’

‘How about no,’ deadpans Zitao.

Jongdae pouts, ‘why not?’

Again, it’s a joke, but Zitao struggles to fit his sentiment into words because he constantly wants Jongdae to know, to understand. ‘Because – it’s my first one and I don’t deserve it.’

Jongdae’s mouth clicks closed; his expression serious now. ‘I’ll come anyway,’ he says, and reaches over to hold Zitao’s hand, warm and steady.

-

Jongdae looks comically tiny next to baba in the spectator stands. Appa is throwing furtive looks around baba’s front, as if judging him good enough to be with Zitao. Zitao hadn’t invited anyone else – just Chenchen and his parents. He only wants them to see his first try at this, and when he got better, he would show everyone else too – just not yet.

The instructions are said in a blend of Korean and Mandarin, with a Beijing accent, Zitao recognizes, and he steps up, readies himself, eyes scanning over his parents, Jongdae, then the panel of judges, and finally his coach.

His coach nods and Zitao begins.

-

In the end, he gets fifth place out of all the kids there. It’s not where he wants to be, but his parents seek him out of the crowd and congratulate him anyway. Jongdae grabs his wrist, eyes wide – ‘holy shit, Tao, that was fucking amazing, you didn’t tell me you could flip!’ and spews out enough profanities with his gushing excitement that Zitao sees appa’s face sour out of the corner of his eye, while baba muffles his laughter behind his hand.

‘I only got fifth, Chenchen,’ mopes Zitao quietly, but Jongdae waves his hand in the air.

‘It was your first one. You’re not going to be in fifth place forever. I saw the first place kid – you could definitely do everything he could but better.’

It’s the easy way he says it and this time it’s not annoying, nor worrying. This time – the casual dismissal of Zitao’s failure to transform it into encouragement makes a flood of affection rise up in Zitao’s chest and for one singular moment he wants to kiss Jongdae for it.

It passes quickly when he realizes he can’t.

-

The next time Zitao kisses his boyfriend, the first thing that passes through his head is I can think of Chenchen instead of you and it doesn’t matter. They break up two weeks later.

Zitao mopes about the house for a little while. Appa consoles him with piles of food and baba takes him shopping again, not batting an eyelash when Zitao hunts for black jackets or gaudy rings much to Zitao’s relief.

‘Did you guys have a fight?’ asks appa while they’re both in the kitchen, Zitao slicing cucumber and appa soaking rice in the sink.

‘No, we never fought.’ Zitao purses his mouth as he thinks. ‘Didn’t even argue over little things. He just let me do what I wanted.’

‘Wasn’t that nice?’

‘I guess.’ Zitao spreads the cucumber slices across the cutting board, eats one. ‘I just don’t feel the same anymore.’ I probably never did.

Appa pauses and looks at him, his eyes curious. ‘Is it because you like someone else?’

‘No.’ He shakes his head, a little flustered. ‘It’s not that, it’s like – the opposite, I don’t think we were… fun? Interesting?’ He’s not being very coherent, but his chest is tight and his feelings a mess. Still, appa lays a warm hand over Zitao’s wrist as a comfort.

‘Okay, well – if you need to talk.’ Appa smiles at him, and Zitao grins back.

-

The second semester passes by well enough.

Jongin comes to school with eyeliner one day, and Sehun laughs at him while Zitao takes a closer look, contemplative.

‘It looks really good, though,’ says Zitao honestly.

Jongin runs a hand through his hair, sighing, ‘It wasn’t me – my sisters wanted to practice and before I knew it I was pinned down, had makeup on my face, and running late to class.’

‘Makeup? Wait, yeah, your skin looks really nice,’ mentions Sehun, inspecting Jongin’s cheek. ‘Can foundation really do that?’

‘Apparently,’ says Jongin flatly, clearly unimpressed. ‘Anyway – I’m going to wash it off now, thanks.’

‘But it looks really good,’ repeats Zitao earnestly, enough that Sehun side-eyes him.

‘Fuck, Tao, are you going to get eyeliner too?’

Zitao pauses, considers, and then shrugs. ‘Only if it makes me look good.’

-

In the second semester, Zitao only gets to see Jongdae once during winter break. The bandage on his neck has disappeared and so has the tattoo, so he squints and looks for it.

‘It’s makeup, Taozi,’ laughs Jongdae when Zitao leans around to check. ‘Takes me about fifteen minutes every morning.’

‘But your mom found out.’ He remembers Jongdae’s long, pitiful texts about not being able to hang out after school because his mother wanted him home right after every day, under constant supervision. The imposed curfew had only ended a week earlier, and apparently, as Jongdae explains now, she was also the one who got him the foundation and concealer.

‘But it looked hot,’ says Zitao mindlessly, before embarrassment catches up to him and he hopes Jongdae doesn’t notice.

Except Jongdae notices everything. He turns his head to look at Zitao as they sit on a bench in the mall, munching on food and watching people hurry around for their Christmas shopping. ‘Why Taozi, I never knew you felt that way,’ he drawls.

Fidgeting in his seat, Zitao focuses on a mother-child pair stride along while holding two bags filled with shirts. ‘I want eyeliner for Christmas,’ he announces imperiously, trying to change the subject.

Jongdae snorts, leaning against the back of the bench. ‘Fine. Hyung will treat you. Let’s go.’

The easy acceptance makes Zitao pause, glancing over. ‘Really?’

Meeting his gaze, the other shrugs and then curls his mouth in a sly grin. ‘You have nice eyes – it’ll make you look hot.’

With a burning face, Zitao stomps into the department store, followed by the other who just cackles.

-

Zitao gets accepted into the same high school as the rest of his friends when he graduates middle school. Appa and baba are there, waving in the crowd, and they treat him to a big meal along with Sehun and his father and Jongin and his family.

Jongdae doesn’t show until the evening, knocking on Zitao’s door carrying his mother’s bibimbap. They eat at the kitchen table, kicking each other while laughing and talking. Appa lurks near the entrance of the kitchen, watching, before baba finally comes around and takes him away with a quiet murmur in his ear.

They wash the dishes and go to Zitao’s room, Jongdae sprawling on his stomach on the bed with a satisfied groan and Zitao sitting in his chair, mussing his hair and wondering if he should cut it again. It was getting long now.

There’s a bandage over Jongdae’s left brow, and Zitao’s fingers itch to pull it off and see what it is, but he won’t. Not until Jongdae lets him. Instead, they keep talking, stretching out the hours with mindless ramblings and plans for the spring break.

Finally, Jongdae looks at him, a smirk on his mouth. ‘You keep looking – do you want to see it?’ His fingers edge at the bandage over his face, and Zitao’s hand twitches.

He thinks about denying it, but Jongdae reads him easily. ‘Yes.’

Jongdae sits upright at the edge of the bed, facing Zitao in his chair. Slowly, he peels off the bandage with a low hiss from his mouth. Underneath, Zitao simply sees Jongdae’s eyebrow at first, no sign of a tattoo like last time, and then lands on the black piercing.

‘You – oh – ’ Zitao reaches forward, but pauses, until Jongdae nods. Slowly, he runs the pad of his thumb across Jongdae’s eyebrow before reaching the end of the arch. There’s two metal studs – one above the brow and one underneath – and Zitao doesn’t dare touch them, seeing the pinkness of the skin around it and knowing it was fresh. ‘God, you’re going to get supervised all spring break too.’

Jongdae cracks a grin, ‘apparently it takes a few months to heal, but I can start taking it out just in time before the semester starts, and then put it back after school. She can’t be too angry.’

Zitao laughs, leaning forward for a closer look. It’s on the same side as the tattoo and the ear piercing, like half of Jongdae is a burgeoning delinquent and the other half would fit happily in a church boy choir.

‘Anyway – I’m gonna get you one,’ continues Jongdae, eyes half-lidded as Zitao tips his face this way and that to look. ‘For the tattoo, they wanted someone else there, but for piercings – once the permission slip is signed, the artist doesn’t care. Just something to keep it borderline legal, you know.’

‘I have no idea what you’re saying, Chen,’ replies Zitao with a snort. ‘Are you going to sign the slip for me? You should go wearing your school uniform too, just for added effect, before we get kicked out.’

‘Who signed mine?’ asks Jongdae flatly.

‘Ex-babysitter who you’re probably dating.’ He says it as a tease, but a flare of wariness sifts restlessly in his stomach. First kiss, first tattoo, first piercing. Probably virginity too, thinks Zitao with a twist of his mouth, hoping it’s not true because Jongdae is sixteen and this other… isn’t at all.

The thoughts dissipate when Jongdae flicks his gaze up, catching Zitao’s eyes and holding it. ‘He knows someone who can sign off yours.’

There’s a beat where Zitao lets the words sink in in their entire enormity to his young mind. He blinks, staring at Jongdae, before it hits him what Jongdae is offering.

‘You’re a bad influence,’ breathes Zitao, excitement tightening his throat. He lets his hands cup Jongdae’s neck and feels that urge to kiss Jongdae – in thankfulness and anticipation, because only Jongdae would do this for him. ‘Please,’ he asks, hoping the other understands. ‘Please.’

Jongdae’s eyes flick down to Zitao’s lips before he nods.

It’s not Zitao’s first kiss anymore, not even his fifth, tenth, fifteenth. He knows what to do now – knows how to nip at Jongdae’s bottom lip, slide the tip of his tongue along the seam, and hears himself moan when Jongdae reciprocates, pressing back, hands settling along Zitao’s sides.

With a slick sound, Jongdae pulls away and grabs at Zitao’s hips, pulling him forward, mouth curling in a smirk, ‘show your hyung your appreciation properly, Taozi.’

‘You’re sleazy,’ bites out Zitao as he gets off the chair and lets himself be manhandled to straddle Jongdae’s lap, grinding down as he dips in for another kiss. This – this is so much more different than the boy had ever been. Zitao feels his brain become white noise as Jongdae sucks on his tongue, everything getting hot and wet and even a little hard.

His ringed fingers scrape through Jongdae’s hair as he lets Jongdae lick into his mouth, trace the planes of it and drink in Zitao’s half-stuttered moans. His entire body is hyperaware of Jongdae’s mouth against his, Jongdae’s small hands rubbing the skin above the waistband of Zitao’s jeans, the heat pressed up against Zitao’s thighs.

Zitao pulls away when he realizes his hips are inadvertently moving, grinding his half-hard cock against Jongdae’s abdomen, and feels humiliation crawl up his spine. Fuck – he didn’t mean – With a flustered jerk, Zitao tries to push himself off, but Jongdae’s grip on his hips stay tight.

‘Where’re you going?’ hums Jongdae and he looks dangerously attractive like this – his hair mussed from Zitao’s fingers, his pupils blown open, the piercing glinting in the light. Zitao feels himself get more turned on.

He doesn’t manage a reply, trying to wet his dry mouth, and Jongdae cocks his head. ‘I asked you a question, Taozi.’

Something sparks at the base of Zitao’s spine – like excitement and danger fusing into one as it travels up his spine and makes his lips part around a stuttered exhale. ‘I have to leave.’

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ replies Zitao and feels Jongdae’s grip tighten on his hips in want of an answer. ‘I’m hard.’

Jongdae smiles at him, his entire expression melting into warmth and adoration – whipcord fast as if he wasn’t the predatory thing Zitao initially took him for. ‘Good boy.’ He releases his grip and Zitao scrambles away, almost knocking over his chair behind him.

Awkwardly, Zitao stands in front of Jongdae, uncertain as to what to do, how to make this moment pass by without any repercussions. That thought is immediately wiped out when his gaze drops to Jongdae’s trousers and the tent formed there.

‘Oh.’

Jongdae raises an eyebrow, laughing softly. ‘You were moaning and squirming in my lap, Tao, what do you think was going to happen?’

Honestly, Zitao had no idea. It seemed easy to imagine Jongdae brushing this off as easily as their other kisses, as easily as he brushed everything off unless it directly hurt him. Except Zitao had done that to him – gotten under Jongdae’s skin, affected him to a point where he couldn’t just stand up and leave it behind without a single look back.

Something heady and hot, like power, settles in Zitao’s stomach. He feels a surge of confidence – his previous boyfriend also got hard when Zitao kissed him for too much and too long. And now Jongdae too. He could – could –

‘So – how do you usually finish this?’ cuts in Jongdae’s voice – clear and sharp. Zitao pauses in his thoughts and swallows.

‘Sometimes, we just – grinded until we came.’ Zitao can feel the flush painting itself over his face despite the expressionless face of the other. ‘Once, I jerked him off.’

Jongdae leans forward, elbows on knees. ‘Do you want me to jerk you off, Tao?’

The offer has Zitao’s brain whiting out again as his cock jerks in his pants. ‘Would you?’

‘Come here.’ It’s not a suggestion.

With teetering steps, Zitao is pulled back in and made to lie down on his back against the bed, his breath already coming a bit fast as Jongdae begins to unzip Zitao’s jeans, his face still that calculating, unfeeling expression that Zitao wishes he could figure out.

Without any fanfare, Jongdae’s fingers curl around the waistband of both Zitao’s jeans and underwear and wrenches downwards to let the fabric bunch mid-thigh. His cock is still hard, curving upwards, right in front of Jongdae’s face – and it’s fucking embarrassing. With a muffled noise, Zitao throws his arm over his eyes, unwilling to look, to see Jongdae’s reaction.

He hears laughter – not mocking as much as exasperated. ‘You weren’t shy about kissing me earlier, so I don’t know why you’re like this.’ Jongdae’s hands keep pulling at Tao’s clothes, eventually getting the jeans and underwear off entirely.

Now with his eyes closed, Zitao is hyperaware of the heat of Jongdae’s body, the warmth of his fingers as they make Zitao’s knees draw up and then spread, exposing his cock and letting Jongdae settle between his thighs.

‘Chenchen,’ whines Zitao softly, unable to take the suspense, but he can’t look, he can’t –

‘Tell me what you want,’ replies Jongdae, his voice a little rough around the edges. ‘I’ve never done this before.’

Zitao’s eyes fly open in surprise and he wrenches his arm away to prop himself up on an elbow. ‘Chen,’ he begins, voice soft, but Jongdae doesn’t seem embarrassed in the least by his virginity. He only meets Zitao’s gaze with that same expression.

‘I’m going to make this good for you,’ says Jongdae, and he traces his finger along the underside of Zitao’s cock, making Zitao hiss. ‘So tell me.’

Zitao swallows and nods. ‘Okay – just – start already.’

Without pause, Jongdae lashes flutter as he looks down at Zitao’s length before pushing his thumb against the head. Zitao can’t help but moan softly as Jongdae pulls back the foreskin to reveal a pearling drop of precome. With a long stroke, Jongdae spreads the slick down and back up, but it’s too dry and the skin chafes, making Zitao’s hips jerk.

Suddenly, Zitao hears a growled, ‘fuck this’ before the head of his cock is being enveloped by Jongdae’s mouth entirely.

‘Fuck – ’ He bites a knuckle as Jongdae suckles at his cock, tongue flicking at the ridge. He pulls off and licks leisurely down the length before pressing a kiss to Zitao’s balls, and then laves a wet tongue all the way back up. His hand comes back, jacks Zitao’s cock with the added slickness of the saliva, and it’s enough to set Zitao keening. ‘Chen – oh god – ’

Jongdae hums in acknowledgement and fits half of Zitao’s cock in his mouth, letting his hand jerk off the rest as he leaves tickling touches with this tongue all along the sensitive skin. Zitao feels his hips involuntarily buck upwards and Jongdae swiftly pulls away before he can gag, his mouth red and wet and open, his eyes dark and all-consuming when they meet Zitao’s gaze.

‘Please,’ begs Zitao, half aware of how desperate he sounds, ‘faster – I want to – ’ and almost cries when Jongdae nods, dipping his mouth back down as his hand begins to jack Zitao’s cock. He tightens his grip too, and Zitao lets out a breathless keen as he feels Jongdae’s tongue against his slit, lapping up the precome.

It’s not soon after that – with Zitao reeling from the sensations and the fact that it was Jongdae, no, Chenchen doing this to him, with his unpracticed mouth trying so hard to draw out Zitao’s orgasm with wet sucks and tight, quick strokes of his fingers.

Hah – Chen – I’m – ’ he gasps out, and his hips jerk and shiver as he comes. Jongdae’s mouth is still on him, and he pulls away after the first rope of semen hits his tongue. Zitao’s eyes are wide as he sees Jongdae continue to jack his cock through his orgasm, face close enough that he gets stripes of white come over his red lips and cheek. ‘I’m sorry – ah – Chenchen – ’

Zitao sits up and grabs Jongdae’s shoulders, pulling him close, except he can see the come dripping down Jongdae’s face, and he didn’t mean to dirty him like this, not at all. Without thinking, Zitao leans forward and drags his tongue over Jongdae’s cheek, lapping it up, tasting the semen along with the salt of Jongdae’s sweat.

He doesn’t get to all of it when Jongdae pulls away, his hands pushing down his own trousers and underwear to fist his dick. ‘Tao,’ he gasps, and Zitao kisses him the same time he wraps a hand around the heat of Jongdae’s cock. He feels Jongdae’s hand wrap around his and guide him, tight and fast, twisting his wrist on the upstroke.

Jongdae doesn’t kiss back as much as pant into Zitao’s mouth, his lashes fluttered closed and brows drawn tight together as Zitao gets him off. It makes him look undone and gorgeous – and Zitao can’t help but stare as Jongdae’s quiet whimpers turn into moans and he’s keening out, ‘Taozi,’ as he comes with a shudder rippling down his spine.

Zitao feels the ropes of come cover his fingers and wrist, maybe his bedsheet too, and pulls away only after he feels Jongdae get soft under Zitao’s grip. After a breath or two, Zitao looks up and sees Jongdae staring at him, pupils still blown open.

There’s a million things he wants to say, ranging between how good Jongdae looks with a red, wet lips to the fact that they need to clean up without appa finding out. Eventually, Zitao swallows, wetting his dry mouth, ‘thank you.’

‘I didn’t even swallow and you’re thanking me,’ replies Jongdae with a smack of his lips, and grins, pulling away to stand up and tuck himself back in. He finishes smoothing out his clothes and then grabs a bunch of tissues from Zitao’s desk before coming back, lifting Zitao’s hand to wipe off the come from his fingers.

‘I can do it myself,’ says Zitao softly, ‘you don’t – ’

‘I want to,’ cuts off Jongdae without even a glance up. He gently nudges Zitao back to his feet and retrieves a new pair of undershorts and pajama pants towards the other. ‘Get changed.’

Obediently, Zitao does so, and tries to decipher Jongdae – who seems entirely unaffected by the fact that he just gave his first blowjob less than ten minutes ago, or got hot and hard under Zitao, or keened out an orgasm with Zitao’s hand on his cock.

Everything seemed to slip off the slope of Jongdae’s shoulders like water on stone but Zitao reminds himself of that expression – of Jongdae’s eyebrows and fluttering lashes and plush red mouth – and how it was Zitao that had peeked inside and seen a Jongdae that wasn’t completely put together all the time.

He watches as Jongdae sits back down on the bed and grabs the bandage off the desk to put back over his piercing. The thought of the babysitter comes unbidden, and Zitao wonders if he isn’t the only one who has seen Jongdae like that. That familiar snare of worry opens its jaws up in Zitao’s stomach and he realizes he wants to keep this, all to himself, away from someone who could be too old and too mean for Jongdae.

Slowly, Zitao sits back down in his chair, facing Jongdae who is smoothing out the bandage against his temple. Zitao reaches out, bats Jongdae’s fingers, and does it himself, careful to be gentle as possible.

‘Does this – does this mean we’re – ah – dating?’ asks Zitao and hates that the words clutter his mouth and make him stumble.

Jongdae makes no effort to disguise his surprise at the question, looking up at him with his lips parted around a breath. ‘Do you want to?’

‘I – yes.’

‘Okay.’ And just like that, Jongdae shrugs and leans forward, kissing Zitao’s mouth gently before pulling away. ‘I like you well enough.’

-

Appa and baba are downstairs sprawled along the couch, watching something or another on the television, when Zitao finally escorts Jongdae downstairs. Jongdae is unendingly polite to them and bows twice before leaving, waving to Zitao and shutting the door behind him as he disappears into the night.

Appa rubs his face with his hand. ‘Well, that’s a change from the swearing,’ he mutters to himself, and baba muffles a laugh. Zitao waits for it – the inevitable questions of ‘what did I hear from your room’ even though he was sure they were too far away and muffled to be heard.

Nothing comes, and Zitao awkwardly ambles back upstairs, seeing the light come stains on his bedsheets. He changes them and then lies back down, trying to replay the evening in his head before he begins to flush, recalling the feeling of Jongdae’s wet mouth, the way he had gotten Zitao off.

He presses the heel of his hand against his cock and wills the thoughts away, curling onto his side. This was different – different from the other boy. Now Zitao couldn’t stop thinking about it – the feelings, the visuals, the fact that he wanted to try it again and again, give back to Jongdae what Jongdae always so easily gave to him, ever since the beginning.

-

Dating Jongdae over the break is near non-existent, as Jongdae is confined to his home most of the time once his mother finds the piercing. Instead, they continue as normal with Zitao mocking Jongdae’s long, pitiful messages of peering at the sun from outside his window as he learns how to cook with his mother.

Sehun and Jongin tease Zitao’s proliferation of jewellery and propensity to wear thin strokes of eyeliner over his lashes, but Sehun eventually admits that it makes Zitao look good in that sort of ‘bad boy’ way.

‘Which would work if Tao didn’t cry at every movie we watched,’ mentions Jongin, before Sehun keels over laughing and Zitao is making indignant noises in his own defense.

Still, Zitao continues and baba amuses him, even encourages him by picking out things at the stores if they’re shopping together and holding it to Zitao’s neck as if it see how it fits. Appa sighs every time they come home with bags of stuff. ‘Yifan, you’re making our son look like a delinquent.’

Baba only laughs and ruffles Zitao’s hair, looking down at him warmly. ‘He’s anything but, you know that.’ Zitao nods, preening under the touch, and takes pictures of his loot in his bedroom before sending them off to his friends.

Sometimes Jongdae will reply with wear it and Zitao changes into the clothes. One day, it’s the low-slung black tanktop and the jeans with the studded belt, his dark hair mussed and his lids lined with kohl, creating an image of disheveled teenager up to no good.

Every time, his heart thuds when he replies to Jongdae with a picture of himself in the bathroom mirror, so he leans against the sink counter, clutching his phone in his hand, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, his phone lights up – fuck, tao, you look hot.

Zitao stands under the shower and jerks himself off, breath caught in his throat as he remembers Jongdae’s voice, his mouth, the heat of him, how he was so fucking overwhelming. With a stifled moan, Zitao drops his head against the tiled wall and watches his come seep away down the drain.

-

The day before the new school year starts, Zitao is sprawled on his bed with his schoolbag half-full of pens of notebooks when his doorbell rings.

From downstairs, he hears appa shuffle to the door and open in, muffled murmurs of conversation and then a call of his name – ‘Zitao, your friend is here!’

In the entrance, Jongdae is standing in jeans and a shirt, a jacket slung around his shoulders, his hair looking longer and boyishly mussed, his smile bright and unassuming as he beams up at appa. Appa backs off and lets Jongdae in, closing the door and offering snacks and tea.

‘Thank you,’ croons Jongdae, and it’s been more than a month since Zitao has heard his voice. It’s deeper than he remembers, doesn’t crack in the middle, sounds mature. It shoots right down Zitao’s spine. He swallows.

‘We’ll be upstairs, appa,’ he chokes out and gestures for Jongdae to follow him to his room. Appa nods with a wan smile, appraising eyes on Jongdae. The tattoo isn’t visible and all the piercings have been taken out, much to Zitao’s disappointment, but it’s a relief he won’t have to explain Jongdae’s… style choices to appa just yet.

Once the door to Zitao’s bedroom clicks closed behind his back, he feels his heart thud in his throat, feeling nervous where he never did before. Jongdae has been here before, knows his way around Zitao’s home, around Zitao himself.

Instead, Zitao stares at the mess still on his bed and moves to clean it, self-conscious and uncertain, when Jongdae steps to his side and drags his fingers lightly over the back of Zitao’s neck. ‘Haven’t seen you in a long time.’

The touch is perfectly innocuous, but Zitao feels a shiver slide down his spine – subtle and hopefully unnoticed. ‘Yeah,’ he croaks out. ‘Just getting ready for my first day of high school.’

Jongdae hums, and pulls his hand away to look at the stuff, sorting through it as if it was his own. ‘Need this, won’t need this – definitely not this.’ And with that, the atmosphere dissipates as Jongdae’s voice settles in the easy rhythm of judging Zitao’s life choices and Zitao snapping back at him.

Appa comes in the middle of a heated debate between what qualified as a sport or not, which is a completely inane subject that has Zitao’s nerves easing, and he laughs and snarks at Jongdae, happy when Jongdae bobs along. Though Zitao feels like he’s losing all these arguments, he’s happy. Happy that his best friend is here, happy with appa’s warm tea and snacks, happy to feel just a little closer to someone who always seems to slip out of his grasp.

Eventually the hours pass. Baba starts dinner downstairs and Jongdae is splayed out on his back on Zitao’s bed with Zitao lying beside him, phones held out in front of their faces. Jongdae loses another level of Candy Crush and Zitao snorts at him as he continues to text Sehun.

‘So, you’re not jailed in your home anymore, huh,’ mentions Zitao absent-mindedly.

‘Nope,’ replies Jongdae, loading the level again. ‘This is my fifth day of freedom.’

‘Fifth – ’ Zitao turns his head to look at him. ‘You didn’t tell me for five days!’

Jongdae shrugs. ‘Surprise.’ He huffs a laugh. ‘Taozi, did you miss me that much?’

Zitao pins him with a glare, but Jongdae isn’t looking at him. ‘Of course I did,’ he replies, words laid out painfully honest.

Jongdae must hear it because he turns his phone screen off and turns his head to meet Zitao’s eyes. ‘I missed you too,’ he replies, and he puts his phone on the desk beside the bed before his small hands are reaching out to comb through Zitao’s hair. Jongdae’s eyes go sharp, and Zitao feels his phone drop onto his chest with a thump.

The sound is some sort of signal because Jongdae is suddenly straddling Zitao’s abdomen, picking off Zitao’s phone and setting aside it on the desk. ‘You looked so good,’ he says, voice low and unwavering. Zitao feels Jongdae’s small hands tickle up his sides, wishing he wasn’t wearing a shirt right now, just to feel Jongdae’s warm skin against his own. ‘I wanted to see you with my own eyes.’

‘You can,’ exhales Zitao, heat spooling in his stomach. ‘Chenchen.’

‘Yes, Tao?’

‘I want to kiss you – please – ’

‘Good boy,’ smiles Jongdae before he tips forward and meets Zitao’s mouth with his own. Zitao brain is fuzzy white noise as he feels Jongdae suckle his bottom lip, letting Zitao open up on an exhale and whimper when he feels the hot push of Jongdae’s tongue.

It gets wet and hot too fast for Zitao to keep up, his fingers mussing Jongdae’s hair as Jongdae licks into his mouth. Inadvertently, his hips push up against Jongdae’s ass and moans out loud when Jongdae grinds back.

With a wet sound, Jongdae pulls away, lips red and wet, and Zitao feels his entire body tingling with electricity. ‘My – fuck – my parents are downstairs – ’

‘Yeah?’ Jongdae’s mouth twists and – god – he looks so fucking dangerous with his dark eyes and deep voice like Zitao will get cut if he touches him. ‘Want to suck my fingers while I get you off? I’m sure that’ll muffle your sounds real nice.’

The heat of arousal that flashes through Zitao is enough to make him jerk. ‘Fuck, Chenchen, please – ’

‘I knew you’d like that.’ Jongdae is grinning at him with pride and it feels honey warm on Zitao’s skin. He watches as Jongdae undoes Zitao’s jeans, getting all the fabric to bunch at Zitao’s knees to expose his half-hard cock to the air.

Not even a second later and Jongdae sucks him down, mouth hot and wet. Zitao writhes helplessly, his voice caught in his throat, as Jongdae gets his cock all wet and sloppy. ‘Oh god – Chen – ’ He whines for it, and bites his tongue to stop himself from being heard. Though his parents hadn’t last time, Zitao can’t risk it.

With one wet suck, Jongdae pulls off, and straddles Zitao’s thighs. He smiles – white teeth gleaming in the low light before he’s leaning forward, two fingers tapping at Zitao’s bottom lip. ‘Can’t let your precious appa hear what I’m doing to you.’

Zitao whimpers and sucks at Jongdae’s fingers, giving himself up to the sensation of the other hand stripping his cock in its own precome. He’s jerking and shivering his way to his orgasm, sucking at Jongdae’s fingers to taste the salt, unable to do anything except scratch his fingers over his bedspread, at the untold rule that he can’t touch himself if Jongdae is doing it for him.

‘So pretty, fuck, Tao,’ says Jongdae, his voice gaining a rough edge as he keeps jerking Zitao’s cock, ‘I want to see you in those clothes again, I want to take them off you.’ Zitao can imagine it – the softness of Jongdae’s hands as they peeled the tanktops and jeans away from Zitao’s skin. He arches, begs wordlessly for more.

Jongdae seems to hear him, ‘I want to smudge your fucking eyeliner, Taozi,’ and his voice dips into something rough and dark, matching the look in his eyes, those blown open pupils as they pin Zitao down against the sheets. ‘And I want to see you suck my dick. Would you, Tao? Would you get on your knees and put your pretty mouth on me?’

The image, the sensations – all of it melds together. All Zitao wants to do is reciprocate these feelings as Jongdae tightens his grip how Zitao likes it and begins to stroke him quickly, with a twist of his wrist that has stars appearing in Zitao’s vision. Please, please let me he cries out around Jongdae’s fingers in his mouth, and begins to come all over himself.

‘God – you’re so fucking gorgeous like this.’ Jongdae lifts both hands, and Zitao sucks in a breath, another. He watches as Jongdae observes the white come over his fingers and bring it to his mouth, licking it off with precision. It makes Zitao’s breath stutter. ‘Not that bad the second time around,’ remarks Jongdae.

Zitao props himself up on his elbows, sees the tent on Jongdae’s jeans, and begins to reach out a trembling hand when it’s sharply smacked away. He looks up and shrinks under the other’s severe expression.

‘Don’t have the time for this. Your parents are probably done cooking by now.’

‘But,’ starts Zitao, wants to say how unfair it is, how he wants to suck Jongdae’s cock like Jongdae asked, to please him, to make Jongdae proud.

Instead, Jongdae shakes his head and reaches for the tissue box beside the box, cleaning up Zitao’s soft cock and his own hand. ‘Some other time. You’ll be coming over to my house soon anyway.’

‘I will?’ Zitao blinks and watches as Jongdae stands up, tossing the used tissues in a small wastebasket before picking up his phone and turning the screen to Zitao.

‘I found your fake guardian. His name is Zhou Mi and he’ll sign off your piercing permission slip,’ says Jongdae.

Zitao stares blankly at the contact information and then flicks his gaze up to Jongdae, whose grinning, pleased with his accomplishment. ‘Is this real?’

‘Yep, my babysitter found him.’ Jongdae sits on the chair across from Zitao. ‘Just text him and arrange a time. After school on a Friday would be best. Let me know, and you can come over to my place and we’ll take care of it before your appa and baba see, yeah?’

‘Will I meet your babysitter?’ asks Zitao, sitting up and grabbing his phone to enter the information. ‘Can we start calling him your ex-babysitter now?’

‘He was my babysitter, not boyfriend,’ says Jongdae, catching Zitao’s jealousy between his teeth and tasting it. ‘And you’re never going to meet him if I can help it. He’s a bit… messed up.’

‘As long as he doesn’t get to kiss you too,’ grumbles the other, hitting ‘Save Contact’ and opening up a message window. Over his phone, he sees Jongdae turn off the screen of his own phone and set it back down on the table, meeting Zitao’s gaze with a mischievous grin.

‘How about my sugar daddy?’

Zitao looks back at his phone and begins to type. ‘That’s not any better. You fuck sugar daddies.’

Jongdae sighs, ‘I gave you my first blowjob. Do you want my virginity too?’

His fingers slip on the keys. ‘You’re a virgin?’

‘I just turned seventeen a few months back and you’re my second boyfriend – of course I’m a virgin, Tao.’ Jongdae owns up to it as if it is completely obvious, and it makes any remnants of Zitao’s worry and jealousy be replaced with relief.

‘Oh. Me too.’

‘Do you want me to fuck you?’

This time, Zitao’s fingers drop his phone in his lap in surprise. He feels colour rush to his cheeks, unable to even meet Jongdae’s eyes. ‘I – ’

‘Kidding.’ Jongdae stands up in front of Zitao then, fingers sliding through Zitao’s hair to tip his head back to look up at the other. ‘First, I should probably get the hang of this blowjob thing before I even think of doing anything else to you.’

‘I want to suck you.’ The words slip from Zitao’s mouth and Jongdae’s eyes instantly narrow.

‘After your piercings,’ replies Jongdae softly, ‘you can put your mouth on me wherever you want.’

It’s almost too long, too far away – Zitao wants it now. He swallows, tries to erase the dryness from his throat, and is glad when appa’s voice carries from downstairs, calling for them to come have dinner.

-

Surprisingly, high school is almost the same as middle school, except the days are longer, the building is bigger, and there are more kids. Zitao meets Yixing again, and also peers up at the upperclassmen of Luhan and Minseok, who are graduating at the end of the year. He meets another Chinese kid in his year named Henry, as well as some girls with their bright smiles and careful fingers and ruthless personalities, such as Amber and Seohyun and Krystal.

He continues his wushu lessons after school, making time limited to join clubs, but sometimes he finds a spare minute or two to peek into the fourth floor music room, and listens to the choir sing, or maybe a piano playing, or a voice – any voice.

Zitao just wants to know what Jongdae does – when he’s not with his friends, when he’s not in class. There’s something hidden and secret about it, and even Baekhyun and Chanyeol shrug if Zitao brings it up with them. They don’t ever seem concerned of course, and laugh when Zitao says the other has a friend whom he affectionately calls his ‘ex-babysitter’.

‘Have you met Chen?’ Baekhyun points at Jongdae from across the cafeteria where he’s talking to Yixing. ‘Who the hell would babysit that?’

‘And he definitely doesn’t need one. Unless he was, maybe, four,’ adds Chanyeol thoughtfully.

‘So, like you,’ replies Baekhyun, and gets a face full of affronted yelling for it.

The mystery is pushed away in favour of keeping up with classes and Sehun and Jongin and wushu. Eventually the text message conversation with his mysterious benefactor settles on a date and Zitao sends Jongdae an excited message about ear piercings.

-

Three weeks later, Zitao meets Zhou Mi at the bus stop across the street from the tattoo and piercing parlour. Jongdae is running late from the music club, but he promised he’d be there by the time Zitao was settled in.

Zhou Mi is Chinese whose Korean still slips a little, has a bright smile, and wears a bedazzled denim jacket. Zitao loves him the moment they meet. In excited Mandarin, Zhou Mi explains that he normally doesn’t corrupt the youth, but he empathizes deeply with Zitao’s situation and didn’t want him to miss out.

‘Also, I was bribed,’ admits Zhou Mi with a grin and a wink. Zitao knows better than to question it and walks into the place to look at the lady behind the counter. She smiles, and Zitao sees how her cartilage is dotted with studs. It makes her small ears look very pretty.

‘Zitao would like both lobes pierced,’ announces Zhou Mi in his stilted Korean and shows his ID as a certified adult. With another cursory glance, some money exchanged, Zitao is ushered to sit while the girl gets antiseptic and a needle.

His heart thuds and Zhou Mi smiles at him reassuringly, but Zitao keeps glancing at the door, willing it to open. He’s scared, nervous – it’s going to hurt – and even if the lady beside him is telling him to stay still and breathe steady as she tugs at his lobe, Zitao wants nothing more than to run, his eyes burning.

The moment the needle punches through his skin, Jongdae walks in, letting the bell at the door tinkle. Zitao feels the air rush out of him in relief when he sees the other, and forgets about the pinching pain for a moment if only to wet his mouth, ready to call out.

Except Jongdae sees him first, waving to Zhou Mi as he slips behind the counter to walk to where Zitao is sitting. ‘You doing okay?’

‘Yeah,’ says Zitao and inadvertently reaches his hand out. With a snort, Jongdae meets the gesture and tangles their fingers together, looking over at the lady slipping a silver stud in the first ear.

‘Alright, next one,’ she tells him, slipping to the other side. Jongdae lets go of Zitao’s hand and steps into the free space, peering at Zitao’s earring. The pinching pain begins again, and Zitao clings to Jongdae’s shirt fiercely, whimpering even when Jongdae presses his palm warmly along the back of Zitao’s hand.

As soon as it begins, it ends. ‘We’re done,’ she announces, pleased, and begins sterilizing her equipment. Meanwhile, Zhou Mi chatters aimlessly to Zitao, humming in admiration at the starter studs she’s put in – ‘silver looks very nice on you.’

Out of the corner of his eye, Zitao sees Jongdae head to the counter, talking to the lady, and leaning forward. She inspects his eyebrow and seems to say something, and Jongdae pulls away with a thankful smile, reaching for his wallet and forking out a few bills.

Afterwards, Zitao waves goodbye to Zhou Mi, who grins and tells him to text him if there’s anything else he’d like to try out, and begins walking home with Jongdae at his side.

‘Do you know her?’ asks Zitao eventually, curiosity pricking at his skin.

Jongdae stops peering at Zitao’s earring and nods, ‘Hyuna? Yeah, she did my piercings and tattoo as well.’

‘Oh.’ Zitao struggles for something else, and settles with, ‘thank you.’

With a wave of his hand, Jongdae dismisses the words. ‘It looks good and you can finally wear my earrings. Though, you’ll need to keep these in for a month.’

‘Ah – appa is going to kill me,’ realizes Zitao, and drags a hand down his face. ‘You’re a bad influence.’

‘I know,’ replies Jongdae simply, and keeps tugging the other along to his home.

Zitao doesn’t screw up introductions this time, and Jongdae’s mother smiles approvingly – even if her eyes linger at his ears – before letting Jongdae go into his room. They settle onto Jongdae’s bed as Jongdae pulls out antiseptic and an extra pair of starter studs. ‘In case you take them out or lose them.

Grateful, Zitao gathers it all and puts it in his bag. He’s placing his backpack down on the floor when Jongdae’s small hands begin to push him down on his back against the bed. Without pause, Jongdae is climbing overtop him, eyes dark and glittering. ‘Fuck, it looks so hot, Tao.’ He dips down, drags his tongue along the line of Tao’s jaw before licking at Tao’s earlobe gentle, enough to make Zitao squirm and hiss in mild discomfort and arousal.

‘Chenchen,’ he whimpers, his hands combing through Jongdae’s short hair, ‘your mother.’

‘True, tea should be ready by now.’ Jongdae sighs out, the breath washing hotly over Zitao’s cheek, making his cock jump. His hands move to Jongdae’s small waist and watch as Jongdae lean upwards, glancing over his shoulder to the door. ‘Never have time to fuck you up properly.’

After Zitao gets his breathing under control, he asks, ‘what do you mean?’

Jongdae pulls off from the bed and collapses in the chair at his desk with a slump and sigh, running a hand through his hair. ‘You know – make you scream and all that. I’ve been thinking about it.’

‘Oh. Been thinking about me,’ Zitao presses gently. He almost flinches when Jongdae pins him down with his dark eyes.

‘Yes, about you, not just sex – is that what you want to hear?’

‘No,’ says Zitao quickly, and then realizes it’s a lie. ‘Just.’ He bites his lip, words struggling to get through his throat, out between his lips. ‘We’re not really dating, are we?’

Jongdae shrugs, seemingly unconcerned by the question. ‘You said you wanted to, so we are.’

‘Yeah – but – but what about you?’

‘I like you, if that’s what you want to know.’

Zitao makes a frustrated noise in his throat. ‘I don’t know what you do, Chenchen. I’ve never heard you sing, I don’t know where you find these older people, why you keep encouraging me to – to do stuff with you.’

He expects the blank stare, and the mood breaks with a knock on the door and Jongdae’s mother shuffling in with tea and snacks. She seems to sense the mood the way her expression becomes clouded but Zitao forces a grin and lots of enthused greetings and appreciation as Jongdae sits silent in his chair.

Eventually, Jongdae’s mother shoots her son a sharp look and he nods and tells her thanks, so absolutely genuine, and Zitao wonders why he’s only heard Jongdae’s voice like that only a few times over almost two years of knowing him.

When she leaves and the door clicks closed, the mood sits heavy on Zitao’s shoulders and he almost regrets saying anything. Almost. ‘You didn’t – you didn’t answer yet.’

‘I know that,’ snaps Jongdae, not looking at Zitao. Instead, his gaze wanders over the tray on the desk and picks up a cup, blowing the steam off over the rim. ‘If you don’t like me anymore, we can break up. You’re right – we’re not really dating, are we?’ Jongdae’s mouth is twisted in a wry grin, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

Zitao lets out a huff. ‘I do like you, I just – want to know what you think about all of this.’

‘It’s fine.’ The other shrugs. ‘It’s all fine to me. But it’s clearly not for you, so we should just stop.’

‘You’re not listening!’

‘What do you want me to say then?’ Jongdae grows frustrated, putting his cup down. ‘Obviously I like you if I want to touch you, right?’

‘That’s not – that’s not enough!’ There’s a tightness in Zitao’s chest, and he remembers he’s sixteen and stupid for even thinking Jongdae would be a good boyfriend. ‘Why won’t you tell me anything?’

‘Because I don’t want to,’ answers the other as if it was completely and clearly obvious.

Zitao wants to scream. Instead he grabs his backpack and stands up, feeling the twinge of soreness in his lobes. ‘Fine. I’m dumping you. Goodbye, Chenchen.’

An hour later, he’s crying at the kitchen table and appa is holding his hands, his eyes skipping from the newly pierced earrings to how Zitao is bawling from frustration and heartbreak.

‘Shh,’ murmurs appa, eyes soft and warm, ‘it’s okay, he wasn’t good enough for you, you’re so precious Zitao, you deserve better.’

‘But I like him, I really, really like him,’ sobs Zitao and feels even dumber for it. He knows he should be better; he should be able to move on. But instead of remembering his frustration and lack of communication, all he can think about is Jongdae when he smiles, when he laughs, when he treats Zitao to streetfood and helps him with homework and rambles on about his life.

‘You’ll find someone else,’ says appa, and finally gets Zitao to move from the couch to curl up against his side, brushing his fingers through Zitao’s dark hair. ‘You’re still so young, you’ll find someone else.’

But Zitao is sixteen and stupid, so he’s pretty sure he won’t.

-

Sehun and Jongin accept Zitao’s request to eat lunch somewhere else after he lets them know, but it lasts all of two days until the trio of Baekhyun, Chanyeol, and Jongdae show up as well as Yixing. They crowd the bench and Baekhyun pins Zitao with a look, ‘just because you don’t like this asshole over here doesn’t mean you have to ditch us.’

The awkwardness dissipates soon enough, and Zitao bobs along to the usual conversation. Yixing ditches his seat next to Jongdae to press up against Zitao and smile warmly at him, switching between Mandarin and Korean as they converse, and Jongdae seems entirely unruffled by the gesture. It’s enough to ease Zitao, and his shoulders begin to relax again, and when he laughs – out loud and raucous – it feels like a weight has finally gotten off his chest.

Appa hadn’t the heart to punish Zitao for the piercings after the crying fest, but he still gets a sharp lecture on it until baba remarks that they look nice, at which point appa throws up his hands, ‘fine, Yifan, but you’re taking care of him if they get infected!’ which is a complete lie, but baba leaves it alone and gives Zitao a thumbs up.

It’s barely been a few weeks since their supposed break-up when Jongdae catches him outside of his class when the lunch bell rings. Zitao lets Jongdae’s small hand wrap around his arm and tug him to the side as the crush of students begin flowing out of the rooms to eat.

‘You don’t have wushu after school today, so come to the music room,’ he says, and Zitao frowns.

‘Is that an order?’ It rings petty and hollow, and Jongdae raises his brows, unimpressed.

‘It’s a request. It’s your life – if you want to come, come.’ With that, he lets go of Zitao and begins walking with the crowd to grab their lunches.

At lunch, Zitao studiously avoids looking at Jongdae and chats happily with Sehun about their history teacher and organizes seeing a movie together that weekend. Once his classes end for the day, of course, he stands up with his bag and Sehun is waiting for him expectantly.

‘You coming or what?’

‘Chen asked me to meet him in the music room right now,’ confesses Zitao.

Sehun rolls his eyes. ‘Isn’t he an emotionless bastard anyway? I’m sure he won’t mind if you ditch.’

Still, Zitao’s feet don’t move. ‘I think – I think I’m gonna go.’

It’s clear that nothing Sehun says is going to change said decision. He sighs. ‘Well, if he tries anything – I have my phone.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’ Zitao steps out of the classroom and heads up the staircase, listening to Sehun’s footsteps fade away down the hallway behind him. The music room is on the fourth floor, and it’s not a very big room once Zitao slides the door open.

Inside are a few chairs, music stands, sheets, cases where instruments are stored, a piano that takes most of the floor space, and wide windows facing the west where the sun drapes over the smooth floor, catching the sharp curve of Jongdae’s cheekbone as he looks over his shoulder to catch Zitao’s gaze.

There’s a woman standing beside Jongdae, her conservative clothing and age giving her away as a teacher even if Zitao has never seen her before. She’s holding music sheets on a clipboard and looks up. ‘Hello, Jongdae mentioned a friend was coming today. You are?’

‘Huang Zitao, nice to meet you.’ He bobs his head, and watches as she gestures him to sit down on one of the scattered chairs. He picks the one that lets him see Jongdae’s profile – the straight line of his nose and the bob of his adam’s apple.

‘We’re just going to do a few vocal warm-ups and then try singing these three songs,’ she instructs, pointing to her clipboard before strolling over to where a small stereo is sitting on a chair. Zitao watches as Jongdae closes his eyes and sings out a few notes, testing them in the air, and does it again, a rising lilt. It’s lovely, musical, and Zitao feels like he’s watching something horribly intimate.

After a while, the teacher clicks the play button on the stereo. In a few seconds, the room fills with the trembling beginning notes of a ballad, piano notes tested out and then coming together in a cohesive melody.

Jongdae opens his eyes, looking at the other wall, and begins. His voice starts soft, like a crooning whisper, and it already has goosebumps sliding down Zitao’s skin, before the notes lift and the chorus hits, wrapping around his eardrums as Jongdae takes the lyrics higher and higher.

When the three songs are over, sung out in rapid succession, Zitao’s eyes are burning and he thinks how fucking unfair it is that he can still be affected to the core like this by a boy he wanted nothing to do with only a few days ago.

For the rest of their designated hour, Zitao closes his eyes and listens with half an ear to the critique of Jongdae’s voice, letting him repeat a few lyrics, change his pronunciation and which syllables to stretch and cut short.

Finally, it ends with Jongdae drinking from his water bottle and massaging his vocal cords, sitting on a chair next to Zitao, while the teacher packs up the papers and her little stereo, waving goodbye as she heads out the hall.

‘That’s how I sing,’ he says after a long while. Zitao opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling.

‘Why didn’t you show me earlier?’

Jongdae crinkles the shrink wrap around his water bottle, eyes half-lidded. ‘It’s like your first wushu competition. You didn’t feel good enough, that’s why it was just me and your appa and baba.’

‘And now you come with Sehun and Jongin and sometimes Yixing,’ says Zitao, deliberately missing the point. ‘My sixth tournament is next month and you’ll all probably come to that too.’

‘Taozi,’ says Jongdae, annoyance creeping into his voice.

‘What?’

‘Look – I’m not good enough at singing for you to hear it.’

‘Has anyone else heard you?’

Jongdae shakes his head. ‘Only Baekhyun, but that’s because he’s in the music club with me. I don’t… talk about it, in case you hadn’t noticed.’ He’s cringing and staring at his water bottle like it’ll swallow him whole.

‘Thank you,’ says Zitao finally. ‘Your voice is beautiful.’

Beside him, the other makes a choked off noise of surprise. ‘Shut up.’

‘It really is. I want to hear it.’ Zitao ducks his head to catch Jongdae’s eye, and eventually meets his uncertain gaze. ‘Please let me.’

‘I’ve only been in two vocal competitions,’ says Jongdae eventually, and Zitao savours the uncertain waver in his voice, the vulnerability of his expression, how his eyes are dark and uncertain as they watch Zitao. ‘My third one is during the break.’

‘I’ll be there,’ promises Zitao with a soft smile, and sees relief wash over Jongdae, his shoulders unknotting and his jaw relaxing, lashes fluttering closed as he heaves a breath.

The feeling comes as a surprise in Zitao – it’s a flood of affection, warming his stomach and making his skin tingle – and he can’t help but tip his face closer to Jongdae, nose nudging against the other’s cheek. Jongdae huffs softly and turns his head, meeting Zitao’s mouth warm and gentle.

He doesn’t try to deepen it, and Zitao doesn’t mind, relaxed and content as he leaves nipping kisses over Jongdae’s lips, toeing the line between chaste and wet. Jongdae hums from his throat, eyes closed, and opens his mouth up for Zitao, an invitation. Zitao doesn’t resist and dips inside, relearning the planes of Jongdae’s mouth after what feels like an eternity.

Eventually, he pulls away when they’re both short of breath and Zitao’s lips are tingling and wet. ‘Sorry – I shouldn’t have – we broke up – ’

‘We can get back together,’ says Jongdae, smiling mischievously. ‘Unless you kiss all your friends that way.’

‘Just you,’ replies Zitao, open and honest as usual. It makes Jongdae’s expression slip away to that dangerous mask of lust that has Zitao on edge with anticipation, but Jongdae looks away soon enough, focusing on the water bottle between his small hands.

‘Let’s date,’ he says, his voice echoing with finality.

‘Okay,’ agrees Zitao.

-

Appa nods uncertainly when Zitao announces his decision regarding his love life later that day. ‘If you think so,’ and doesn’t push for more details, trying to digest the information and match it with the polite-but-crass Jongdae he’s met a couple times.

Their friend group rolls their eyes next day and Jongdae feeds bits and pieces of his lunch over the table to Zitao while they look on in mock-disgust.

‘But, I mean, it’s sort of sad that this is their extent of their PDA,’ remarks Chanyeol. ‘Their knees aren’t even touching under the table.’

‘Sorry, did you want me to suck him off in front of you instead?’ drawls Jongdae, and gets a punch in the arm from Baekhyun as Zitao flushes red from the imagery.

Dating Jongdae for the second time isn’t all that much more eventful than the first time, except Zitao is happy that he gets to hear Jongdae talk about his vocal practice when no one else can. They do simple dates that aren’t different from their usual hangouts – of eating and shopping and watching movies and kissing soft and slow in front of Zitao’s front door before Jongdae waves to him and heads home.

Zitao knows Jongdae is holding off on him, but for now he’s content enough to let this continue – their friendship with added kissing and hooking arms. They argue pettily over nothing – fashion tastes and math questions and the fastest way to travel across the countryside – like any of it matters, and in a way it does, and it’s so much more exciting than Zitao had ever been with his first boyfriend.

A month later, Zitao wins his wushu competition and Jongdae calls out Zhou Mi. They get Zitao’s earlobes pierced a second time as well as one piercing through the cartilage. They all compliment him – Jongdae, Zhou Mi, and Hyuna – until Zitao comes home.

Appa is halfway through a lecture and trying to figure out if this was all somehow Zitao’s boyfriend’s fault when baba intervenes, ‘I said I would take care of it, Joonmyeon.’

Instead, Zitao is hustled into his parents’ bedroom and baba putters around with antiseptic and cotton swabs. ‘It’s your body and we won’t stop you, but you also look like some gangster’s brat, so don’t get upset if people around might get huffy with you.’

‘Do you know this from experience, baba?’ grins Zitao, reaching out to run a finger over his baba’s ear, flicking his nail over indents where the skin has grown over. ‘Is that how you married appa?’

Baba rolls his eyes. ‘Appa doesn’t care about piercings, he just doesn’t like punks. Have you seen the way he looks at your boyfriend?’

‘With murder.’

Baba nods slowly, ‘yes. Now let’s check these out.’

-

The summer break drops by. They go to a music festival with the others, and waste money on junk food and trinkets. Jongdae takes Yixing and disappears in the dark streets before coming back in half an hour with a case of beer and two bottles of hard liquor.

Jongin and Chanyeol turn out to be touchy drunks, curling up against anyone who is beside them, and Baekhyun keeps hiccupping before rambling on about nothing that they eventually tune him out. Sehun is surprised at his own tolerance, as is Yixing, and Jongdae nurses the same beer for an hour, watching them all with a cat’s grin.

Sehun plies Zitao with the alcohol with glee – and Zitao feels the burn slink down his throat and settle into his stomach. Eventually, he looks out from where they’re splayed out in the grass and at the blinking lights reflected on the river. There aren’t a lot of people around here, and the air is quiet except for their raucous voices and tidal waves of laughter that wash over them as the conversation flows.

He’s warm and fuzzy, the cool grass tickling the back of his neck as he lies down. Beside him, Jongin rolls over and curls up against him, his alcohol-laden breath brushing over Zitao’s cheek. Sehun laughs, his voice coming from a distance, ‘gonna take a picture!’

The bottles run out and the beer cans end up crushed. It’s past midnight but the summer heat still slips between their clothes and lies heavily over their skin. Sehun stands up, announces he’s going to drag Chanyeol home since they live in the same direction.

Yixing mentions he lives close to Jongin and Baekhyun, and eventually gets them back on their feet, albeit a little teetering.

‘Have fun with your boyfriend!’ announces Baekhyun loudly, cheeks flushed, and waves as Yixing pushes him forward to keep walking. Jongdae snorts, holding a plastic bag full of the empty bottles and cans, and waves back before he comes to stand next to Zitao.

The stars glimmer behind Jongdae’s head, or maybe those are satellites, or just air pollution reflecting the lights of the city, Zitao doesn’t know nor does he care. All he understands is that it’s beautiful and Jongdae is someone he wants by his side always.

‘I love you,’ he announces in a giggly, warm rush. Jongdae rolls his eyes.

‘Okay, sixteen and wasted.’

Seventeen – my birthday was only a few months ago. You were there.’

‘Yeah, yeah, I always am.’ Jongdae crouches, brushing errant strands of grass out of Zitao’s hair with gentility.

‘You’re always so nice to me.’ Zitao hums, but his expression becomes serious. ‘But you don’t touch me anymore.’

‘Doing that now, Taozi.’

‘No – I mean,’ he licks his suddenly dry mouth. ‘You don’t want to fuck me anymore?’

Jongdae’s fingers pause and pull away much to Zitao’s disappointment. He sighs. ‘If I tell you I want to fuck you, you’re going to think I’m only using you for sex.’

‘Are you?’ Zitao tips his head to the side, feels the brush of grass under his cheek as he watches Jongdae rub his face and sit down beside the other.

‘You’re wasted; you’re not going to remember this.’

‘Doesn’t mean we can’t talk, y’know. Why do you hate talking so much? You always have so many words but you don’t really – really – ’ Zitao switches to Mandarin, ‘you don’t mean anything.’

Jongdae doesn’t speak Mandarin out loud much, but Zitao knows he understands it fairly well.

‘It’s hard trying to talk because I don’t know what you want to hear,’ replies Jongdae, keeping to his Korean, which is okay, Zitao understands Korean better than he speaks it anyway.

‘I just want to hear you - thoughts and feelings and stuff. Why you like me.’

‘I don’t know how to do that.’

‘You’re almost eighteen – shouldn’t you learn it already?’ A twinge of annoyance runs through Zitao’s fuzzy mind.

Jongdae sighs. ‘We’re not breaking up while you’re drunk by the river.’

‘Why do you think that? You think – you think you know people – tell me my first boyfriend was boring, tell me how we should break up, tell me that I’m not ready to meet your other friends, or think I’m going to judge you for your singing – like, fuck, I could go on.’ Zitao knows he’s rambling, but the irritation surges within him, pumped along with the alcohol.

There is only silence. Jongdae sits quietly next to him and stares out at the water, his face expressionless. Zitao makes another annoyed huffing sound, feeling the haze clear from his skull.

‘I really do love you,’ repeats Zitao, voice ringing hollow even to him.

‘We’re seventeen,’ replies Jongdae. ‘We don’t love anyone yet.’ He stands up, offering a hand to Zitao.

‘Stop making decisions about my feelings,’ says Zitao even as he grabs the hand and feels himself lifted up. ‘If I feel that way, it’s true.’

Jongdae just shakes his head and pulls on Zitao’s wrist to get him walking off the grass and onto the sidewalk. ‘I’m taking you home. You’re going to sleep this off till whatever-o’-clock in the afternoon. We can talk tomorrow.’

‘Whatever, Chenchen,’ sighs Zitao as he shuffles along. ‘Now that we’re away from the river, can we break up? You obviously don’t want to fuck me anymore, and you can’t talk to me either.’

‘Is this one break-up per school year now?’ snaps Jongdae, finally showing a sliver of his irritation, and Zitao latches onto it.

‘Well, maybe if you could fucking try harder,’ he shoots back.

Jongdae makes another frustrated noise. ‘If I’m so fucking bad at this – then why do you – fuck. Why do you keep saying shit like ‘love’? Why do you keep letting me back in?’

‘Don’t blame me for being a screw up,’ snarls Zitao, filters gone from the alcohol, and a voice in the back of his head warning him how bad of an idea this is, but his mouth keeps moving, ‘And anyway, I’m not immature and stupid like you probably think I am, Chen. Maybe I want you to be my first. Maybe I’m using you to get sex, maybe I’m fucking around with you.’

‘As if,’ snorts the other, and Zitao feels petty rage in his stomach.

‘You don’t know that!’ His voice echoes through the street, loud and discordant and sounding like a child. Humiliation burns his cheeks, and he knows he’s lying, and Jongdae can see right through him – but it’s fucking unfair.

‘Fuck it.’ Jongdae throws up his hands in the air. ‘We’re breaking up. You’re dumping me. Again. Now can I see you get home safe?’

‘Fuck off,’ spits out Zitao as he walks faster, listening to Jongdae following him. Eventually his home comes into view, and Jongdae stops walking half a block away, watching as Zitao uses his housekey to let himself in and slam the door behind his back in frustration.

‘Welcome home,’ greets appa, but his smile slips when he sees the tears in Zitao’s eyes and high flush of anger to his cheeks. ‘Zitao…’

‘I’m going into my room for a little while, appa, please,’ begs Zitao through clenched teeth, and appa lets him go.

He cries himself to sleep and hates everything.

-

Zitao doesn’t wake up till it’s nearing noon, his face feeling dry and itchy and bladder full. He washes himself up and eats lunch alone, both appa and baba gone out for work. Two hours later, Sehun shows up at Zitao’s house and they game aimlessly in the living room, before Zitao tells him what happened.

‘So I guess you weren’t doing all that well these past couple of months,’ remarks Sehun eventually after Zitao curls up into himself, controller abandoned. Sehun switches the game to single player, and keeps talking. ‘If you see so many flaws in him though – seriously, why do you still like him?’

‘I don’t know,’ confesses Zitao miserably into his knees. ‘We don’t even date. We just do our usual friend stuff and then kiss a little. So how can we break up?’

‘Well, you somehow managed it twice,’ adds Sehun. ‘Maybe you should make a ‘I hate Kim Jongdae’ list to get over your crush. That usually works for a lot of people, I’ve heard.’

Zitao sniffles. ‘Okay.’

‘In the meanwhile, we can go see that movie though – the one with the cars and stuff. God I forgot what it was called. Looked cool though.’

-

Zitao doesn’t end up making a hate list, mostly because in the state he’s in – once again – he’s bombarded with all the good parts of Jongdae. The cut of his voice, from when it’s tinged in arousal (tinged, though – not dipped, soaked, roughened up in it because Jongdae won’t fucking touch Zitao why please why why why) or when it’s shutting down an insult or singing – oh fuck, shit, singing –

It’s nearing evening with baba reading beside him on the couch and him on appa’s laptop, chatting with Jongin as he looks through various band sites when he remembers. He scrambles for his phone next to his thigh and shoots off a text without even thinking if it’s appropriate or not: can I still come see you sing?

He genuinely doesn’t expect a reply because they didn’t part on the best of terms the other night. In fact, Jongdae texts him back three hours later when Zitao has finally gotten ready to bed.

Yes. Along with a date, time, address, and the fact that his mom would be there and would be looking for Zitao.

He wants to say ‘sorry’ just to continue the conversation, except he has nothing to say sorry about. Everything he knows he said was truth and even if things are awkward and horrible and tense – Zitao can’t regret it. He just wishes – desperately wishes – that Jongdae hears him, but that’s not something Zitao can help.

Instead, he puts his phone down, rolls over, and falls asleep.

The next day, he gets another piercing in his right ear, just to prove he doesn’t need Jongdae for it. He whines in pain but Sehun and Zhou Mi are there, with soothing voices, holding his fingers tight. Baba cleans the new stud after Zitao comes home just in case and appa doesn’t say much except offer him his favourite foods for dinner on the weekend.

Nevertheless, the summer days pass – caught between Sehun and Jongin’s plans and his wushu practice and spending time with his parents – and the alarm for Jongdae’s singing competition has his phone buzzing in the early morning to wake him up and get ready.

-

The venue is small – a gymnasium in a school on the other side of town. Zitao gets out of the bus ten minutes early and meets Jongdae’s mother quickly enough as they settle in seats near the front. There’s a stage with a few musical instruments – violin cases and a piano set up – as well as microphone, musical stand, and a small pile of musical sheets on a table next to the side with a chair, presumably where the MC will sit.

The panel of judges are in the front row of the audience, with a table set in front of them, clipboards, pens, glasses of water, and microphones. Zitao doesn’t recognize anyone around him, so he stays quiet and makes clipped conversation with Jongdae’s mother as to how his trip was (‘pretty easy to find’), if he had any vacation plans for the summer (‘my parents are a bit busy right now’), what clubs he was at school (‘none, I do wushu at a gym instead’).

‘He’s never invited a friend before,’ she says right before the MC takes the stage. ‘You must be special.’

Zitao’s cheeks burn but he turns his attention to the announcement instead.

-

Jongdae gets third place and takes the certificate and ribbon with a thankful bow before he meets his mother and Zitao in the crowd.

‘You’re improving,’ she says with a proud grin, tucking him against her in a hug. ‘Next one, it’ll be first!’

‘Yes,’ agrees Zitao, the tension between them tickling his skin but he presses on. ‘You were so good, and you can definitely do everything that first place kid could, and your voice really, really is beautiful – ’

His rambling cuts off when Jongdae’s mother pipes up, ‘I think Zitao cried during your ballad.’

‘I did not,’ he protests weakly, not wanting to burst the woman’s bubbly mood. Jongdae laughs with her in adoration, returning her hugs and grins with equal enthusiasm, before turning his gaze onto Zitao.

‘Thank you for coming.’ With hesitation, Jongdae reaches out and curls his fingers around Zitao’s wrist in a loose, warm grip.

‘Yeah. Of course.’ Zitao nods enthusiastically, and lets himself be rushed away by Jongdae’s mother to a nearby restaurant for a celebration lunch.

She dispels the atmosphere wonderfully with her rambling and happiness, talking sweetly about Jongdae to Zitao as if he wasn’t sitting right in front of them, and Zitao lets her, basking in the attention even if it’s not directed at him.

It’s obvious once they leave the restaurant that Jongdae wants to hang back with the way he slows his pace, body angled towards Zitao like he wants to talk but not with other people present. So Zitao smiles as they stand in front of the restaurant, ‘do you mind if I steal Jongdae from you for a little bit?’

Jongdae’s mother waves her hand in dismissal, ‘he’s been eyeing to talk to you ever since the competition ended. I’ll see you at home, Jongdae-ah.’

‘Thank you,’ says Jongdae with a large smile that crinkles his eyes, pushes his cheeks out, and Zitao doesn’t remember him looking like that in a long time. It sends a shock of nostalgia through him. They both wave to Jongdae’s mother and begin walking in the opposite direction, noon sun burning against the backs of their necks.

Jongdae is still dressed in semi-formal clothes – dress pants, a pale blue button-up, silver tie with a matching silver stud in his ears. His tattoo is ever-hidden from view, as well as the eyebrow piercing, unless it’s evening and he’s with friends. Zitao thinks he could still trace the black ink bass clef with his fingers – just from memory – but he doesn’t want to touch Jongdae. Not just yet.

Only a minute away from the restaurant, Jongdae’s voice cuts between them, soft and careful. ‘Thank you for coming.’ He hesitates. ‘I’m aware that we didn’t part on the best of terms.’

‘Are you going to be that formal with me all the time?’ snorts Zitao, and is pleased when an embarrassed flush rides high on the other’s cheeks.

‘Shut up.’ Jongdae runs a hand through his hair – cut short and now ruffled. He’s almost eighteen, thinks Zitao, and unfairly attractive. ‘Just. It means a lot. You’re – I care about your opinion a lot.’

In hindsight, Zitao should be upset that it takes yelling and breakups to get Jongdae to be honest with him, to push past his vocal cords and reveal his feelings as if the words are trudging through molasses. Now, though, he doesn’t think about that. Only feels warmth in his chest, and he reaches out to clasp Jongdae’s wrist loosely in reassurance. ‘I won’t judge you.’

‘I know,’ cuts in Jongdae, ‘I know this – that you lov – like me enough to support in whatever. I know this.’ He makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and Zitao wants to coo in comfort, but he keeps silent, squeezing Jongdae’s wrist. Jongdae twists his hand and tangles their fingers together instead. ‘I think I get nervous when I’m around you.’

‘You think?’ asks Zitao dryly.

Jongdae rolls his eyes, tightens their fingers. ‘I need to impress you.’ The admission makes Zitao pause, arms swinging between them as he turns to face Jongdae head on.

‘By being more put together? More mature? More – hm – badass?’ The last one has Zitao’s mouth quirking to the side, teasing.

Jongdae won’t meet his eyes. ‘Yes.’

‘Chenchen,’ sighs out the other, stepping close, looking down at Jongdae. They’ve both been hitting growth spurts, but Zitao’s always going to be taller than him, which is a small victory considering Jongdae is overwhelming at the best of times. ‘You could do almost anything, and I’d – I don’t know, what do you want? Look, I’d suck your dick for it.’

The words seem to jar Jongdae out of his thoughts and he looks up at Zitao, brow furrowing, before his pupils bloom in lust. Still, Jongdae reins it in and huffs out a laugh. ‘You’re still a virgin and we’re not dating. Be careful what you say.’

‘I don’t have to date you to do that, do I?’ Zitao shrugs, careless, as if his heart isn’t thundering in his throat with how bad he wants Jongdae to just touch him, strip him down, and make him come. As if those rare times almost a year back where Jongdae sucked him off didn’t creep back in Zitao’s jerk-off fantasies every other week.

‘That’s a bad idea,’ warns Jongdae.

A familiar spark of irritation ignites in Zitao’s chest. ‘You’re not me, Chenchen, so stop deciding for me.’

The scold has the other clicking his mouth closed, but his expression wars between worried and tempted. ‘So we’re friends then. Still.’

‘Who make out sometimes.’

‘And – what else – suck each other off?’

‘Please,’ blurts Zitao, voice breathless with want. ‘I never got to. And you never let me. And – we can just – it doesn’t have to mean anything, right?’

The set of Jongdae’s jaw reveals his hesitation. ‘Ground rules – you can still date whoever you want, but if you want to – to fuck, I guess, that’s fine. We won’t be exclusive.’

‘Friends with benefits,’ concludes Zitao for him. ‘I know how it works.’ There’s a niggling feeling in his chest that tells him it won’t work out. That Zitao will always have feelings that spill over the boundaries of friendship, but he figures this will be a good outlet for them. This way he won’t expect anything from Jongdae, he hopes. This way Jongdae can be whoever he wants to be and Zitao won’t be hurt by it.

‘Alright,’ says Jongdae slowly, finally locking eyes with Zitao above him. ‘I agree. Time and place, Taozi?’

‘My room, right now,’ challenges Zitao, waiting for Jongdae to back out. ‘My parents are at work.’

Jongdae huffs out a laugh, ‘was this planned? Fuck, okay, let’s go then.’

-

The stairs seem endless as he tugs on Jongdae’s wrist to follow him. The bedroom door is already open but the moment Zitao shuts it, he feels small hands on his waist, dragging him backwards.

‘Did you miss this?’ asks Zitao, a cocky arch to his mouth as he’s manhandled onto his back against the sheets of his bed. Jongdae swings a leg over the other’s abdomen, eyes dark.

‘No idea,’ he breathes out, and a pulse of pure arousal pulses down Zitao’s spine. He takes off his shirt, and twists at the shock of cold metal of his necklace against his overheated skin. ‘Keep it on – all the jewellery,’ orders Jongdae, voice low with want. Zitao whines but doesn’t know for what, just more more more as he watches Jongdae unbutton his jeans and strip him naked.

‘You too – wanna see you,’ he doesn’t know he’s switched to Mandarin until Jongdae replying in the same language.

‘What else?’

The tones drip onto Zitao’s skin, sliding across him, and he only moans in reply, pushing himself up into a sitting position, Jongdae still straddling his lap. He nudges against Jongdae’s cheek with his nose – wordless and soft – and Jongdae opens his mouth up to be kissed.

Kissing is something that Zitao will never get tired of – the way it’s so warm and slick and lets his lips tingle for minutes or hours afterwards. How Jongdae kisses in nips and strokes of his tongue, makes Zitao’s mouth swell so he always looks disheveled and used afterwards.

Zitao pulls away to take a breath before he’s kissing the other again, his fingers cupping Jongdae’s hips before skittering to the front to unbutton his slacks, as they lazily make out. Jongdae hums in approval – though he’s not sure if it’s to being kissed or stripped – and Zitao doesn’t stop.

Jongdae lets him – body pliant when Zitao pulls his mouth away to undo the silver tie and pull it off, then the shirt pushed off the other’s shoulders. He should’ve expected that Jongdae would be pale as paper, his torso lean and roped with muscle instead of being defined by them – but the contrast between Zitao’s tan and cut body makes him smile, switching back to Korean, ‘we’re opposites.’

‘Yeah – you have too many feelings and I don’t have enough,’ replies Jongdae in the same language – snarky enough that Zitao just kisses him shut again. He grips Jongdae’s hips again, using his strength to lift the small body upwards and Jongdae gets the hint, shoving his slacks and underwear away so he’s just as naked as Zitao.

He settles back into Zitao’s lap, hot and pressing, cock half-hard, and Zitao whines before grinding up against him. ‘Please, please,’ he begs, burying his face into Jongdae’s neck. ‘Can I?’

‘Can you what, Taozi?’

‘You once said I could – I could do what I wanted to you.’ Back when I got my first piercings. Just one of Zitao’s firsts and Jongdae was there, always, always.

Jongdae sucks in a sharp breath, ‘you want to put your mouth on me?’

‘Yeah,’ exhales Zitao, bucking up against Jongdae and hissing at the friction. ‘Please.’

‘How do you want me then?’

‘Your back.’ Zitao feels Jongdae get up from his lap and then settle against the pillows, knees drawn upwards and legs spread to show the half-hard arch of his cock. Zitao crawls between Jongdae’s legs, head hanging down to kiss at the smooth skin of Jongdae’s inner thigh before he inhales the tang of sweat and arousal around Jongdae’s dick.

‘You’re so pretty, Taozi,’ murmurs Jongdae, combing his fingers through Zitao’s hair as he keeps leaving nipping kisses on the surrounding skin. ‘Want to fucking ruin you.’ The words shoot straight into Zitao’s cock and he muffles his moan against the underside of Jongdae’s cock.

It earns him a hiss, and Zitao smiles before swallowing the crown. Jongdae throws back his head, exhaling sharply, as Zitao continues to slide his tongue over the head. He’s circumcised, observes Zitao in the back of his head, and pulls off to follow the obvious cockridge with the tip of his tongue.

‘Fuck, Tao,’ pants Jongdae, watching him with those dark eyes. Zitao hums, getting the shaft wet and sloppy with his spit, leaving wet kisses all the way down to snuffle at Jongdae’s sac. Curiously, he tongues the sensitive skin and earns a jerk of hips. Pleased with the reaction, Zitao opens his mouth up, sucks a ball into his mouth and listens to the choked off noises Jongdae gives him. He moves his mouth back up and stuffs half of Jongdae’s leaking cock between his lips.

The taste leaves a sharp tang on Zitao’s tongue, but he follows though – unwilling to give up here. The stretch of it has his jaw aching in a pleasant way, his brain white noise of pride when he looks up under his lashes to see the flush riding high on Jongdae’s cheekbones, his mouth open and panting as Zitao sucks him.

He keeps at it, hollowing out his cheeks, with his other hand jacking the rest of Jongdae’s cock that he can’t reach with his mouth. At least not yet. The slicks sounds of his spit reach his ears, and it only makes his own dick twitch at how filthy it sounds, that Zitao has his mouth on Jongdae and he’s making Jongdae moan and break that shell of passivity. He hums again – and lets the sound vibrate all the way through the cock in his mouth.

‘God – fuck – Tao,’ Jongdae gasps out, ‘hold my hips or else I’ll fuck your mouth.’

Zitao blinks, pulling off and continuing to jack Jongdae off with his hand, wet and fast. ‘Will that feel good for you?’

Jongdae seems to try blinking away his haze of arousal but it only makes Zitao notice his lashes, how they’re damp with sweat and how his eyes are so, so dark with want. ‘Yeah,’ exhales Jongdae, the hand still tangled in Zitao’s hair taking a grip and guiding Zitao’s mouth back to the head of his dick.

Zitao obeys, opens his mouth and feels his jaw begin to ache again as he pulls his teeth back to stuff as much cock as he can. Soon, he’s pushing against his gag reflex, feeling his throat flutter in warning around the cockhead, and Jongdae groans – deep and low, letting the sound ripple down Zitao’s spine. God. He wants more.

He jerks his mouth off and dives back again, hollowing his cheeks out as he sucks and feels Jongdae’s hips fuck forward, sliding his dick right down Zitao’s throat before pulling back out. It’s quicker than expected, and Zitao listens to those glorious sounds of Jongdae falling apart, before repeating the motion, bobbing his head and following the rhythm of Jongdae’s hips as his mouth gets screwed open, red and wet.

Jongdae’s fingers are tight in Zitao’s hair and his body is shuddering as he bucks his hips, using Zitao’s mouth to chase his orgasm. The thrusts are surprisingly steady and Zitao feels himself get light-headed and succumb to it, following almost naturally now, reading Jongdae’s desire and responding to it as best as he can.

‘You’re so fucking good,’ he hears Jongdae moan, ‘so fucking good.’ The compliment lodges itself somewhere in Zitao’s chest and he whines, his tongue leaving tickling touches all along the underside of the shaft as he sucks Jongdae’s cock. ‘Fuck – pull off – gonna come – ’

‘Want it,’ says Zitao with a wet smack of his lips, ‘want it, please, please,’ and he begs for it, watching the tousled hair and glimmer of sweat over Jongdae’s face. Jongdae runs his fingers through the damp hair of the other and nods. ‘Open up.’

Zitao fits half of Jongdae’s dick in his mouth and jacks the rest of it quick and tight, twisting his wrist, and Jongdae comes with a muffled moan, biting his knuckle as he paints the inside of Zitao’s mouth white with semen. The taste isn’t particularly good or bad, but if it always comes with Jongdae looking like a mess, then Zitao is happy to drink it down, licking the cockhead clean until Jongdae is hissing.

‘Tao, Tao.’ His fingers run through Zitao’s hair and then back down to his shoulders, pulling him upwards. Zitao kneels between Jongdae’s legs and kisses him, feels pride and thankfulness being poured down his throat.

‘Did you – did you like that?’ Zitao asks when he pulls away, feeling almost shy, and Jongdae laughs, dropping kisses all along the long line of Zitao’s throat.

‘More than you know,’ he replies, his voice vibrating through Zitao’s skin. With practiced fingers, he grips Zitao’s hard, leaking cock and tugs at it. ‘Want my mouth on you, Taozi?’

‘Yes, please,’ gasps out the other as Jongdae continues to jack him off. ‘Fuck.’

With a burst of speed, Jongdae rolls them over so Zitao ends up sprawled on his back against the pillows. ‘Good boy, always so polite,’ hums Jongdae, grinning up at him before mouthing his way down the underside.

Zitao whines in the back of his throat, trying desperately to keep his hips still as Jongdae works him over with his mouth. His lips press at the crown and envelop him slowly, inch by inch, until he’s halfway down and sucking hard, small fingers playing with Zitao’s sac. Zitao doesn’t want to think about how Jongdae’s improved, how he knows how to alternate the wet heat of his mouth and the slick, twisting strokes of his hand – because he wants to be the only one, wants so so bad –

‘Chen – ’ he gasps at the sudden pressure on his perineum. Jongdae pulls off his dick with a wet sound, fingers still stroking the skin between Zitao’s hole and his balls. He doesn’t say anything but he slowly slides his fingers back upwards to cup Zitao’s sac, a glimmer in his eyes like he’s testing Zitao. Zitao swallows. ‘No – go – go back. Please.’

Jongdae smiles – sweet and slow with that predatory gleam in his eyes – and dips back down to suckle sloppily at the crown while his fingers skirt around Zitao’s asshole, just a gentle pressure. Zitao keens and bucks, up into the warmth or down against the pressure, it’s all melding inside and he’s not sure what he wants.

With an impatient noise, Jongdae pulls off Zitao’s cock and brings his hand up to his mouth to suckle sloppily at his pinky finger. Zitao has a vague idea what he’s going to do but throws his head back anyway when Jongdae’s mouth is mouthing wetly along the underside of his length and that slick finger is pushing in in in to Zitao’s hole.

‘Chenchen,’ stutters Zitao, his ass tight against the intrusion even as he shivers and bucks down against it, ‘oh god, oh fuck – Chen – going to come – let me come – ’

‘Do it,’ says Jongdae, tonguing the cockridge as he shoves in his finger all the way to the third knuckle. Zitao thrashes at the tingling burn and sobs, the pleasure tightening at the base of his spine until he’s crying out – long and loud – while his cock twitches and comes.

Jongdae catches most of it in his mouth as he sucks around the head, lapping up any drops from the glans and around the ridge, and swallows it down quickly. Zitao feels loose-limbed and exhausted, slumped against the pillows, hips twitching as Jongdae cleans up his cock with his tongue, pulling out his finger and grabbing some tissues off the desk to wipe his hand, mouth and Zitao’s softening length.

‘So?’ asks Jongdae, throwing the tissues away and coming back to the bed to lie down next to Zitao, sliding his hand around the other’s waist as he tucks himself close, leeching the warmth.

Zitao manages a garbled noise from his throat, and instead turns on his side to face Jongdae, tangling their legs together, and savouring this physical closeness and the satisfaction in his bones. ‘That – I liked the – the – ah – ’ he stutters for the words.

‘Finger fucking?’ prompts Jongdae, amusement glimmering in his eyes.

‘Yeah.’ Zitao wets his mouth and repeats it, ‘finger-fucking.’ He tastes it on his mouth, decides he likes the filthy sound of it. ‘That’s how you’ll fuck me?’

‘I could bottom too,’ shrugs Jongdae, seemingly uncaring. ‘I don’t really see the difference. Either way, it’ll be me ruining you.’

While Zitao’s not exactly sure what that entails, it sounds nice. He hums, ‘no, I want to.’ That burn and stretch – when it slid up his spine – had left him breathless. He wants a repeat. He wants more.

Eventually, Jongdae wrangles up the blanket from underneath them and pulls it over them both. Still feeling lazy and sated, Zitao is content with being pressed against Jongdae like this, and is already half-asleep when he remarks, ‘your dad wasn’t there.’

The other nods, muffling a yawn. ‘Still in China with hyung. Whatever – as long as umma and you were there, that’s all that matters.’

The admission has Zitao grinning, unabashedly wide, wrapping his fingers around that shred of honesty and feeling and holding it tight to his chest, before falling asleep.

-

In the shower, Zitao presses Jongdae’s back against the tiled wall and kisses him lazy and languid as Jongdae jerks them both off. Just before Jongdae can come, Zitao drops to his knees and practices sucking cock again, tries to memorize the heft and weight of it on his tongue. Jongdae threads his small fingers in Zitao’s hair, tugs and fucks Zitao’s mouth till Zitao can’t think.

He drinks down the come with a sputter, before Jongdae backs off and wipes the semen dribbling out of the corner of Zitao’s mouth. ‘Fuck – red looks so good on you,’ he remarks breathlessly, before nudging Zitao so he’s standing and leaning his back against the wet tiles and letting Jongdae jerk him off, his other hand rubbing teasing circles around Zitao’s hole. ‘Going to fuck you here, fuck you soon.’

‘Ch-Chenchen, please,’ and with a muffled moan, Zitao comes and lets it seep down the drain, before they finally clean themselves up.

‘You’re going to get more piercings one day?’ asks Jongdae as he rifles through Zitao’s fridge, dressed only in Zitao’s underwear and a too-big shirt. Zitao likes the look on him more than he probably should.

‘Another ear one, I think,’ he replies, humming in contemplation, tracing his finger over the stud in his cartilage.

‘And tattoos?’ teases the other, settling on a carton of eggs amongst a smattering of other things – to make omelets apparently. In the shower, the makeup had washed off and Zitao can see the curling black bass clef on the side of Jongdae’s neck. He wants to reach over, trace it with his tongue, and smiles because he can now.

‘Maybe,’ hums Zitao getting up from the table and curling a hand around Jongdae’s shoulder. Jongdae looks up – eyebrow raised in amusement, ‘yes, Taozi?’ Zitao gives a shy smile and dips his head down, licks at the tattoo, sucking lightly at the skin. Underneath his touch, Jongdae’s breathing stutters and he lets out a low moan – ‘want to eat first.’

‘Okay,’ murmurs Zitao against the sensitive skin of the other’s neck, and pulls away with a happy grin, helping Jongdae with the ingredients. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Jongdae swallow and rub at the tingling feeling of the tattoo, a shiver rippling down his spine even afterwards. Jongdae’s neck – so, so sensitive. It gives Zitao an idea.

-

School starts back up again. Appa hums contemplatively about university and what Zitao was interested in and whether wushu was interfering with his studies. Zitao knows he’s worried, but still pushes the subjects aside with a dismissive, ‘still only in the eleventh grade, y’know. Not graduating till next year.’

‘But you’re going into the twelfth grade in March,’ presses appa, but backs off with a sigh, obviously not getting through to his stubborn son. Baba mentions offhandedly about universities back in China – of Qingdao, maybe Guangzhou, Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

‘We can move back. You’ve only been here for three years.’

It sticks of course – Korea isn’t home. This city isn’t home. Though Zitao learns the nuances of hangul and how to switch between formal and informal, and what to say to ahjummas and ahjusshis and dongsaengs and hyungs and songsaenims – this isn’t his language. This isn’t home.

However, that is the far future and Zitao is still here. Here – keeping up with his classes, slacking off with his friends and training for more wushu competitions. He gets better and better – goes to nationals and surprisingly, Jongdae and Sehun follow, taking great joy swinging between complimenting and teasing Zitao though never too much in front of appa and baba as the travel to one of the bigger cities.

Zitao takes second place – earning rank – and they have a congratulatory dinner at a Chinese restaurant that baba had scoped out earlier. Back at the hotel, Jongdae sends Sehun out to the convenience store to get something cold and sweet before he steps into Zitao’s shower and fingerfucks him as a reward for doing so, so, so well. Zitao comes with sobs pressed against the tiles, his ass aching with only two fingers and a promise for more.

‘I like Chen-hyung,’ drawls Sehun a week later while they’re in Zitao’s kitchen with math homework. ‘But I’m pretty sure this whole arrangement you have going on is a shitty fucking idea.’

‘Thanks for your input that I never asked for.’ Zitao flicks an eraser at him. ‘Do question seven already and tell me if I got it right.’

Sehun rolls his eyes, pencil scratching in his notebook, ‘seriously, Tao. You like him way too much to just be his friend, and he…’ There’s a pause. ‘Has he ever crushed on anybody in his life?’

That’s the thing – Zitao knows all these other things about Jongdae. Favourite foods, favourite movies, colours, how he likes bubble tea with extra pearls and the fact that he wants to sing for a living even though that’s the complete opposite of his engineer father and big brother. But Jongdae is strangely tight-lipped about things that involve his body, his feelings – if he has any – and the way he has such easy access to things that no teenager really should: piercings and tattoos and alcohol and sex.

‘I don’t know. Anyway, I can handle it,’ says Zitao confidently. ‘I’m doing pretty well so far right?’

He doesn’t mention how he goes to Jongdae’s house a few times over the week these days – how Jongdae sucks him off and finger fucks him and leaves him sweating and taken apart over the bed sheets. How Zitao knows he should leave after he gets his satisfaction, but he curls around Jongdae anyway, arm slung over a small waist to drag him closer and inhale the clean shampoo scent of Jongdae’s hair, and pretend that they’re more than what Zitao says they are.

If Jongdae senses it, he doesn’t pull away from it. He indulges Zitao – eases him down with soft kisses and soft touches and sucks marks of belonging all over Zitao’s collarbone so Zitao can feel like he’s owned by just Chenchen.

One day, Zitao comes over with a packet of hair dye and a smile, ‘red looks good on me, right?’ They laugh for hours in Jongdae’s bathroom, bleaching and colouring Zitao’s hair in front of the mirror, getting the red dye all over the sink and the counter and even smearing it over the porcelain of the toilet and tub.

While they wait for the dye to set in, Zitao tries to teach Jongdae how to rap and then gives up and plays him sappy Chinese love songs from his phone. ‘Won’t it be impressive if you sang in Mandarin?’ Jongdae rolls his eyes and opens his mouth, except he screws up his tones to the point that it sends Zitao into a fit of careening laughter.

Eventually, Jongdae stands under the shower with Zitao and runs his small hands through Zitao’s wet hair over and over again, revealing the new colour with each splash of red-stained water sliding down the drain. ‘So fucking hot.’

‘You are too,’ murmurs Zitao, eyes half-lidded as the thud of arousal beats in his stomach with the same rhythm of the hot water against his back. So Jongdae turns him around, uses his fingers and water to clean at Zitao’s ass before he’s dropping to his knees and licking him out.

‘Fu-uck – ’ yelps Zitao, almost teetering forward and crashing against the tiles. Instead, he braces himself with his hands against said tiles and sobs as Jongdae’s mouth works him over – filthy and dirty and wrong and fuck fuck fuck it feels so fucking good –

‘Like that?’ asks Jongdae like Zitao’s knees aren’t shaking and his cock is twitching and hard under the spray of water. Jongdae resumes licking around Zitao’s hole, sliding his finger inside in a slow, careful burn that shoots straight to the pearling tip of Zitao’s dick.

So Jongdae licks at the rim stretched around his fingers, edging Zitao closer and closer, until he finally says, ‘fuck yourself back on my fingers, let me see you come.’ Zitao twists his hips, rides down on Jongdae’s hand as he tugs frantically at his aching cock, frantic and desperate to get to the end.

He comes with a yell when Jongdae bites at his spinal dip, leaving stripes of white come over the tiles for the shower to rinse off down the drain. Behind him, Jongdae stands up, seemingly satisfied, but Zitao’s already there, kneeling against the ceramic, snuffling against Jongdae’s cock, licking at his sac.

‘Shit, Tao,’ huffs Jongdae, sliding his hands through Zitao’s red hair and taking a grip. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck – ’

Zitao loves the noises, the quiver of Jongdae’s thighs, the tightness of his fingers – like he can also take Jongdae apart if he so chose, that Jongdae isn’t as put together as he tries to come off as. It’s the fact that Zitao has power and Jongdae lets Zitao use it against him.

He suckles at the head, deepthroats him with practice, and even sneaks a finger to press behind Jongdae’s heavy balls to the skin of his perineum. The same time he sucks hard around the crown, Zitao presses the pad of his finger against Jongdae’s hole – feeling hot and fluttery and flushed.

‘Fuck – Tao – ’ Jongdae’s voice breaks, like it’s too much, too sensitive all at once, and Zitao realizes with a jerk that Jongdae’s been fucked recently. He pulls his hand away and deepthroats him again – ruthless and unforgiving – trying to suck the orgasm out of Jongdae and Jongdae gives it to him in a dirty grind, pours it all down Zitao’s throat.

Afterwards, Jongdae doesn’t mention it and Zitao doesn’t ask. Just dries himself off, dresses back in his clothes, admires the flick of his red hair in the mirror as they clean the bathroom of the dye stains while talking about anything and everything and not at all about what just happened.

Exclusivity isn’t part of the deal – but Zitao doesn’t want to fuck anyone else. Doesn’t feel any urge to press his mouth against anyone else’s because no one is as all-encompassing and overwhelming as Jongdae. The way he cracks Zitao into a million fragments and puts him back together piece by piece with all his quiet praises and soft words that Zitao has to work so so so hard for, making them more valuable than gold.

He leaves Jongdae’s bedroom knowing that while he himself remains intensely monogamous in his affections, nothing will hold Jongdae back from looking for someone prettier, someone more pliant, someone who will finally know all of Jongdae’s secrets.

Sure enough, the better Jongdae gets at easing Zitao, at ruining him, at whispering, ‘so gorgeous, Taozi, you’re fucking gorgeous,’ – the more Zitao finds the marks of sex dotting the pale skin of Jongdae that he didn’t put there – whether it’s hickeys or bruises or nail marks. He doesn’t check Jongdae’s ass since the last time.

So Zitao licks over the marks, tries to own them for himself, and Jongdae’s breathless laughter vibrates down Zitao’s spine, pooling all warm in his belly. ‘Want some of your own, don’t you?’

‘Yes, please,’ he gasps when a hand curls around his throat and teeth sink into the skin under his collarbone. ‘Oh, please please please – ’

‘You want to be mine,’ exhales Jongdae, his voice roughened with arousal. Zitao nods, hides his face in the other’s neck as fingers tug at his cock while the other hand holds a tight, tight ring around the base so he can’t come, not yet, not until Jongdae says so. ‘Mine, ever since we first met, Zitao – ’

At fifteen. The setting sun, light cutting across Jongdae’s half-hidden cheekbones. The humidity pricking at the back of Zitao’s neck. The condensation of the bubble tea cup on his palm.

‘Yours, yours, yours,’ begs Zitao, nails clawing into Jongdae’s biceps as orgasm pulses at the base of his leaking cock.

Only mine,’ growls the other, ‘so fucking show me – come for me – ’

And Zitao falls apart.

-

Before winter break, he calls up Zhou Mi and heads back to Hyuna’s with Sehun at his side. They coo over how good he looks with his silver studs and his eyeliner and his wine-red hair that frames his now-angular face. Finally, Zitao makes his request and Hyuna nods in approval, pointing him to the chair and getting her needles.

Zitao cries – it hurts it hurts it hurts – but Sehun and Zhou Mi are there with their warm eyes and warm touches as they hold him and get him through the entire process. Finally, Hyuna pulls away with a nod and an extra starter stud. ‘Be careful with this one,’ she warns him.

It takes less than five hours before appa narrows his eyes and calls Zitao closer to him. ‘You did something.’

Zitao smiles and shakes his head, gesturing if he can go now. Appa pins him down with a look – heavy and inquiring. ‘Zitao.’

Cringing, Zitao opens his mouth and the glint of his tongue piercing catches appa’s eye, who makes a pained noise in the back of his throat. ‘Zitao!’ he erupts, and buries his face in his hands, and this is how Zitao is confined to the house for his entire winter break.

-

when are you free? baekyeol want to go see that christmas movie on thursday. you can bring sehun and jongin.

Zitao rolls over onto his stomach in bed, staring at his phone. It’s been close to three weeks, much of the time spent in the house after school cleaning and cooking and inviting Sehun and Jongin over under appa’s narrow-eyed supervision, stripping them down to the marrow of their bones with his gaze to find out if it was them that got his Zitao all different and rebellious.

All through October and early November, his chats with Jongdae have been short and superficial text messages as university exams roll around the corner and everyone begins to cram. By the time November slips away and December arrives, Jongdae starts training for another vocal competition for a scholarship opportunity, and Zitao is never able to see him these days.

It makes Zitao feel like he’s fifteen again. The déjà vu of the situation creeps into the space between his bones and he realizes he’s going to miss Jongdae, but he can’t follow him to university this time. This time Zitao is caught between the teeth of his own life and his own choices and whether school in China and wushu will get him somewhere.

Baba had mentioned training up in the mountains with other students and competing in China, and it’s appealing – extremely, wonderfully appealing, especially when he’s now nationally ranked in Korea. That also means he won’t see Sehun or Jongin or Jongdae again.

‘You have friends back home,’ reminded appa, voice tripping over ‘home’ with that familiar mix of nostalgia and sadness. ‘Don’t you still exchange emails with them?’

‘I do,’ nodded Zitao, acceding to the point. These people aren’t his everything. Jongdae isn’t his everything – no matter how overwhelming he seems, how he eclipses every emotion Zitao has felt and turns them into extremes from a burning adoration to a fuming rage. He can leave Jongdae. Maybe even before Jongdae can leave him.

For now, he types out the one honest reply he can: I got in trouble and can’t leave the house. There’s no response for a few minutes until finally: wait for me at midnight. Zitao muffles an incredulous laugh against his pillow and clicks his piercing against the back of his teeth in contemplation. Jongdae hasn’t seen it yet; doesn’t even know about because he had gotten it during the busy days of the winter where they never saw one another.

He sends back okay, see you then and tries to ignore the heavy thud in his chest as his heart rate picks up. It’s just a visit. Even if it’s in the middle of the night, appa and baba will be asleep by then, and Jongdae is not the nice boy that Zitao likes to pretend he is.

In the night-time gloom, under the faded light of his phone screen, Zitao fits on all his piercings, wears jeans and a shirt with a dripping v-neck, wine hair a mess and smudges eyeliner over his lids.

Jongdae will love him like this – young and messy and seventeen. Zitao hopes on it.

It’s a quarter past midnight when he gets another text: in your backyard. Zitao blinks and looks out his window to see a dark shadow standing on the grass, looking up at him. Zitao sneaks out of his bedroom and creeps into the kitchen to the backdoor. When he opens it, Jongdae is already there, small and smelling of spice.

‘Cologne?’ snorts Zitao, inhaling the space between Jongdae’s neck and shoulder.

‘Shut up,’ replies Jongdae, letting Zitao lock the door again before he’s leaning up and kissing the other. Zitao makes a muffled noise and kisses back, letting it get wet and sloppy faster than expected, as if Jongdae was keyed up from before.

Eventually, Zitao’s mouth is open and panting and Jongae’s tongue meets the steel ball of the piercing before he pulls away in surprise. ‘Tao, is that – ’

‘Tongue stud,’ whispers Zitao and feels Jongdae’s arms around his shoulders tighten. ‘Do – do you like it?’

Jongdae makes another muffled sound – his eyes dark and pupils blown wide. There’s a smoky scent around him, and Zitao realizes Jongdae is keyed up. ‘Are you high?’

‘One hit, couple beers.’ Jongdae waves his hand in dismissal. ‘Still sober enough to see you, aren’t I?’

That explained the sharp taste of the other’s tongue, but Zitao wants to know who was it, who gave it to him, what they did to him, whether Jongdae was pressured or not – because Jongdae is always coming off so certain and confident – if something went wrong, Jongdae would never admit to it – god, all Zitao wants is to know.

‘Get upstairs already before appa finds you. And be quiet, I’m going to hide your shoes.’

Jongdae nods and leaves another kiss on Zitao’s jaw before slipping over the kitchen floor in his socks until he’s out of sight. With a sigh, Zitao decides to leave the shoes outside and out of sight, before locking the door again and hurrying up to his room.

In his room, Jongdae is pulling off his shirt, revealing the long expanse of his pale back. Breath hitching, Zitao quickly turns around to shut his bedroom door as silently as possible. When he looks back, Jongdae is laid out on his bed, eyes glinting in the gloom, his eyebrow piercing and the silver in his ear flashing, dark hair cut short and styled upwards so Zitao can see his hairline.

‘Come here,’ exhales Jongdae, crooking his fingers in invitation. Zitao inhales sharply, and swings his leg over Jongdae’s hips to straddle him. He feels the warmth of Jongdae’s hands settle over his thighs, and shivers, locking eyes with Jongdae’s blown-open gaze. ‘Kiss me again, I want to feel it.’

‘Don’t want to when you’re fucking high,’ replies Zitao, trying to tease the details of Jongdae’s night out of him. ‘Where’d you get it?’

Jongdae hums, seemingly relaxed and lazy, fingers skimming under Zitao’s shirt to touch the flat skin of his abdomen. ‘Sitter-hyung gave it to me. Get some for you if you want.’

Zita swallows down his confusion, ‘I could talk to sitter-hyung, get some of my own.’

Immediately, Jongdae’s eyes narrow. ‘No.’ With a quick motion that isn’t part of the lazy, languid attitude from before, Jongdae has Zitao on his back, bracketing his head with both hands pressed on either side. ‘No,’ he says, warm breath washing over Zitao’s cheek. ‘You’re mine.’

‘We’re friends with benefits,’ reminds Zitao softly, like his heart isn’t in his throat with how badly he wants those words inscribed over his skin – property of Chen; can only be broken by him. Jongdae shows his teeth in a scowl, nuzzling into Zitao’s neck with nipping kisses.

‘Been waiting for you to find someone else,’ he confesses in the dark, tugging at the stud in Zitao’s earlobe. ‘Someone that isn’t me. You can’t just want me.’

Zitao moans, curls his arms around Jongdae’s shoulders, tries to get him closer, under his clothes, on his skin – under his skin. ‘Chen – ’

‘But then I would’ve hurt them.’ Jongdae pulls his head back, knocking their foreheads together, the scent of alcohol and smoke and cologne and something that’s entirely him wrapping around Zitao’s senses. ‘If you even mentioned kissing anyone else – even Sehun – I would’ve fucked you in front of them. Showed them who you fucking belonged to.’

‘You’re pretty bad at this friends with benefits thing,’ laughs out Zitao breathlessly, sinking into the truth of Jongdae’s feelings, knows that the apathy Sehun hints at in Jongdae is wrongwrongwrong, the fact that it’s not just Zitao who feels intrinsically wrapped up by Jongdae – that this entire clusterfuck of emotions are mutual.

‘Shut up.’ Jongdae pulls at the collar of Zitao’s shirt, scrapes his teeth over the collarbone. ‘I even fucked other people so you could move on, but you never got the hint.’

The words spike that familiar combination of worry and jealousy in the pit of Zitao’s stomach. ‘Did you let your sitter-hyung fuck you?’

Jongdae huffs out a breath, tugging Zitao’s shirt upwards and off him entirely. ‘What does it matter? It wasn’t you.’

‘Are you going to fuck me while my parents are asleep?’ murmurs Zitao. ‘You want me that bad?’

He hears a low growl that vibrates over his skin. ‘That’s the story to tell your grandkids,’ Jongdae snorts, lapping at Zitao’s nipple. ‘Lost my virginity with my parents right across the hall.’

Zitao writhes under the attention as Jongdae switches nipples, running his teeth over them. ‘I cleaned myself in the shower, Chenchen,’ he gasps out, ‘I fucked myself open over my fingers, thinking of you.’ Immediately, he feels Jongdae freeze, his breath coming out in short gasps. ‘You’ve been prepping me for weeks now – when are you – when are you going to fuck me, Chenchen?’

‘Apparently now.’ Jongdae pulls away from Zitao’s chest and begins to quickly undress himself. Zitao struggles out of his pants and grabs the tube of lube Jongdae had bought him from under his bed. He’s on his knees, braced against his forearms, ass cocked in the air, and Jongdae settles on the mattress behind him, sliding his small hands up the back of Zitao’s thighs. ‘God, you’re fucking beautiful.’

Zitao whines, the compliment hot over his skin, and tosses the lube behind him. Jongdae catches it and flips the cap open, spreading the slick over his hand. ‘How many fingers in the shower, Taozi?’ croons Jongdae as he traces the opening slowly, feel the flutter and twitch of anticipation.

‘Got to tw-three,’ lies Zitao, wanting it so bad his body is already strung tight. Jongdae hums in approval, dropping a kiss over the swell of Zitao’s ass before sliding his index finger inside. His fingers are smaller than Zitao’s, different, but no less arousing – because Chenchen is doing this to him, slow and steady.

‘Need you to be quiet for me, Tao,’ says Jongdae, his voice gentle, like he’s not driving a burn right up Zitao’s body to make sparks appear at the back of his eyelids. ‘Don’t want appa to hear you, do you?’

‘No,’ answers Zitao in a gasp, imagining his parents sleeping soundly in their bed, the lazy flicker of appa’s eyelashes if he wakes, propping himself up on an elbow and trying to pinpoint the sound of Zitao getting fucked. He moans at the thought and shoves his face into the pillow, trying to muffle it.

‘That’s right – keep being good for me,’ encourages Jongdae as he slides in another finger, then another – completely ruthless but still steady, still giving enough pause for Zitao to adjust and breath deep into his lungs, relax himself and get himself ready for actual cock.

It must’ve been the practice, thinks Zitao hazily as Jongdae works his hole open and loose. The way Jongdae must’ve rolled over and taken it. He wants to know who – he wants to meet this person, wants to know exactly what that man did, wants to ask Jongdae, ‘was it him? That fucking ex-babysitter hyung? Was he as good to you as you are to me?’

Instead, he bites his pillow when Jongdae’s fingers find his prostate and rub it, making Zitao’s cock spit precome. Panting, he pushes back against the fingers, tries to get them deeper, tries to have more. Everything goes from slow and steady to urgent in a heartbeat when Jongdae is spreading Zitao’s knees and shuffling behind him: ‘going to fuck you, Taozi.’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ says Zitao, overeager, and feels the heated notch of Jongdae’s cock catch his fluttering rim before pushing. Every centimetre is agonizing – the stretch and burn and ache of it all making every inch of Zitao’s skin tingle in hypersensitivity.

Jongdae’s hands are gripping his hips tight enough to bruise as he pushes himself in till he’s balls-deep, breath coming out in harsh pants. ‘Tao,’ he calls out – soft and encouraging.

Zitao’s drooling into his pillow, tears in his eyes, and nods, pulling away to reply with, ‘want it, Chenchen, please.’

Begging always gets his way. It’s what Jongdae likes to hear and Zitao is happy to give – like they’re both falling apart at the same time and only they can catch each other. The coolness of more lube being dribbled down the crack of his ass wakes him up from his thoughts and he shifts his hips, feels himself adjust as Jongdae’s fingers slick everything up even more.

Then he’s pulling out and pushing back in – careful but sure, steady, and it punches the breath out of Zitao’s lungs. He feels full – so fucking stuffed with cock and lube and Chen – that he can’t even relax properly when Jongdae thrusts into him again.

‘You can do it, Taozi,’ murmurs Jongdae, ‘work with me.’ Zitao nods, shutting his eyes and canting his hips back, accepting the burn and stretch of Jongdae’s cock in his ass and moaning noisily into his pillow the crown scrapes against his prostate. His body goes tight and his hole flutters as he desperately tries not to lose the angle.

Jongdae senses it and shoves his palm between Zitao’s shoulder blades, keeping him pinned as he pulls his hips back and fucks in. Nails scrabbling against the sheets, Zitao meets the thrust with his hips – the sound of their skin against skin echoing in the room. ‘Chenchen – Chen – ’

‘Found it,’ replies Jongdae, and fucks Zitao into the bed, his cock running along Zitao’s prostate and making him arch for more. Zitao feels his hole get opened up with every sharp ream of hips, and moans for it, tries to be quiet – but it’s so fucking hard when Jongdae is working him like this, so good and well and with precision.

Everything in the room is hot, sweating, and Zitao vaguely remembers his parents – have to be quiet, have to be secret – though he’s finding it hard to concentrate with Jongdae fucking into him all steady and rhythmic, making his own cock keep spitting precome between his legs. He wants so badly to jerk off, to find pleasure on both ends, but Jongdae hasn’t told him he’s allowed yet, the silence an unspoken rule tying his wrists against the sheets.

‘Do you – hah – want it faster, Taozi?’ asks Jongdae, breaking the symphony of their skin-on-skin, their bitten-off groans and half-choked moans. Zitao lets the words echo in his head for a moment before nodding frantically, ‘yes, fuck, yes.’

He doesn’t know where Jongdae gets the energy, but he feels the pleasure careen in his chest and settle hot and heavy in the base of his stomach, pulsing out more globs of precome as Jongdae fucks hard and fast into him. The mattress begins to creak to their fucking, and it’s too loud – too much – parents, Chenchen –

The thought is washed out when Jongdae grasps Zitao’s leaking dick as he fucks him, slams ruthlessly and twists his wrist on the crown. Zitao’s nails almost rip through the sheets as he cries out into his pillow, wanting more, all of the friction, the heat, Jongdae’s soft hands against his cock, to contrast to the usual calloused grip Zitao has.

‘Chen – oh fuck – I’m going to – ’ moans out Zitao pitifully, his hips rocking to the fucking – shoving his cock through the tight ring of Jongdae’s hand and then rocking back on the dick that’s opening his hole up so fucking slutty for it. He’s so close to blowing his load that it’s a miracle he can even speak right now – over the filth of their fucking, the creak of the bed, Jongdae’s hips jerking to get as deep into Zitao’s fluttering, hot ass as much as he can.

‘I want to feel you,’ demands Jongdae, ‘come for me.’ Zitao sobs, knees slipping against the sheets, and keeps moving his body in a sinuous wave, using the cock inside of his hole and the hand on his dick to get as much friction and pleasure as he can at the same time.

He feels Jongdae drape his chest all along Zitao’s spine and the wash of hot breath against his nape. It makes Zitao shiver, but he doesn’t stop the rhythm of his own body, concentrating on the feel of Jongdae’s thumb rubbing hard against the leaking slit of Zitao’s cock, the sound of his hips smacking lewdly against the back of Zitao’s thighs.

‘Gonna come, oh fuck,’ and Zitao is pushing against Jongdae’s hips, feeling the hot grind of thick cock in his ass, letting the sensations pulse upwards in waves of pleasure, all the while Jongdae’s hand doesn’t stop jerking him off, with a twist on each downstroke that should be enough – it’s more than enough –

Then Jongdae bites him, sinks his teeth right deep into the skin of Zitao’s shoulder, and Zitao comes hard with a cut-off yell, covering his sheets and Jongdae’s hand with warm semen. His body ripples through the aftershocks, his ass fluttering and milking Jongdae’s dick as Jongdae continues to grind up inside of him.

‘You have to – fuck – Chenchen, come,’ moans Zitao weakly, trying to get his need across. Jongdae licks at the mark he’s left on Zitao’s shoulder and blows to cool the hot skin.

‘Inside of you, pretty Taozi?’ He’s playful, hips still pressed hot and deep inside of Zitao despite the tone of voice.

Still – the imagery of it – of Jongdae marking him up from the inside out with his come, covering him up in possession, making Zitao his own – ‘Chenchen, please – I want it, want your come in me – ’

Jongdae groans and pulls his hips back before punching his cock inside. The short thrust has Zitao gasping for breath. ‘Too loud – suck on my fingers while I get off.’ Snaking an arm around Zitao’s torso, small fingers tap at his chin and Zitao ducks his head, suckles at the skin as Jongdae continues to fuck him hard and good.

He sucks and sucks – drools all over Jongdae’s hand, tasting his own come over the digits which only gets him hotter – but it’s keeping him as quiet as can be for now as Jongdae uses up Zitao’s ass for his pleasure. The fucking makes everything in Zitao’s head spin, like he’s sinking away for a little while, drowning under an ocean of satisfaction that he’s being good for Chenchen, making Chenchen happy.

Zitao feels his body lurch forward when Jongdae slams hard into him and keep grinding in short, sporadic thrusts, until he’s suddenly filling up with liquid warmth. With a loud moan, Zitao realizes it’s come – Chen’s fucking come – inside of his ass, and it’s so good, a feeling he’ll never forget.

Jongdae pulls his fingers away with a slick sound and slides his cock out. Slowly, Zitao is moved onto his back against the bed, avoiding his own pile of come. His ass is burning and sore in the best way, and his muscles are aching like he’s just finished a long practice session at the gym. All in all – it’s a glorious feeling of being used up till the end.

With bated breath, they wait for any creaks or sounds that Zitao’s parents have woken up. In all honesty, both his parents sleep like the dead and Zitao doesn’t want to exactly know why, but he has a suspicion that involve the hickeys on baba’s neck if his shirt slips too low and self-satisfied line of appa’s shoulders in the mornings.

While they wait, Jongdae grabs the tissues and wipes up what he can from the sheets and his own fingers, before dabbing delicately around Zitao’s softening cock and his flushed hole that’s already leaking Jongdae’s come.

‘That’s fucking hot,’ remarks Jongdae, pushing Zitao’s leg up to get easier access to his ass. He dips his head, licks up the line of leaking come, his own leaking come. Zitao makes a choked-off noise, jerking his leg and letting it fall with a rather loud thud against the floor beside the bed.

They both freeze, breaths caught in their lungs, but still – no noises, no whisper of footsteps or a door creaking open. Jongdae wipes at his mouth and shakes his head. ‘Okay – we’ll save that for another day.’

‘Oh fuck,’ manages Zitao, dropping his head against the bed, unable to even look at Jongdae or he’s sure they would need a second round. He listens to Jongdae shuffle around a bit more – using more tissues and then throwing them out in the trash bin in the corner before pulling the come-covered sheet off the bed and throwing a blanket over Zitao instead.

‘Was going to take you out to the river tonight,’ mentions Jongdae when he slides in underneath the covers and lines himself against Zitao’s warm body. ‘But I’m way too exhausted for that right now.’

Zitao turns on his side, knocking their foreheads together. Jongdae’s pupils are still wide, but he smells less smoky, the pressed line of his lips a clear sign of how sober he is now. They’re not swelling, nor red, nor wet, and Zitao finds that a crime so he dips down, kisses Jongdae soft and slow, pouring his thankfulness down Jongdae’s throat until the other will drown in it.

When they part, Jongdae is smiling and Zitao is grinning back. He wants to say something, like ‘you do like me back’ or ‘we should just be together like this always’ while tracing his fingers where he imagines Jongdae’s tattoo is. Instead, he lets the silence reign when he leans over, licks at the space so the ball of his piercing drags against the sensitive skin as well.

Underneath him, Jongdae moans softly and shivers. ‘You’ll get me hard again, Tao.’

Zitao hums, pulling away with a wet sound. When he settles back against the bed, Jongdae kisses him this time – lets their tongues meet and sucks at the piercing in curiosity, trying to memorize the feel of it. Eventually, Zitao has to whine and drawing himself away – they can’t risk fucking again tonight, especially not when Zitao has to sneak Jongdae out soon.

‘When do you have to be home?’ he asks instead of the other dozens of words stuck in his throat.

Jongdae muffles a yawn, curling closer to Zitao. ‘Before six in the morning, probably. Just set an alarm on your phone to wake me up in a couple hours; my phone’s dead by now, I think.’ He rolls onto his other side and drags his hand along the floor to grab Zitao’s pants and fish out his phone from the pocket before tossing it behind his shoulder.

Zitao spoons him from behind as he programs the alarm for four thirty in the morning – enough time to get Jongdae out of the house and back to his place without anyone being the wiser. He tucks his phone under his pillow and presses his nose into Jongdae’s hair, inhaling that clean shampoo scent, along with the smell of sweat and sex, of fading smoke and cologne and the tang of alcohol still lingering in the air. It’s what’s underneath it all that Zitao’s looking for though – something that is purely Jongdae, that Zitao has known for years, what he calls familiar, like a home.

‘Please stay,’ he murmurs, tightening his grip around Jongdae’s waist and still feeling like the smaller one. ‘I don’t want anyone else and – and neither do you, right?’

There’s no reply for a few long seconds, stretching out and lying heavily over Zitao’s chest so he can’t breathe properly, too overwhelmed and wanting. He gives up on the vague hope – because apparently one could only get honesty out of Jongdae when someone was intoxicated, and they were both sober now.

‘That’s a bad idea too,’ says Jongdae finally.

‘I’m pretty sure you’re a fucking bad idea,’ laughs out Zitao, half-sarcastic, half-self-deprecating.

‘Don’t,’ starts Jongdae as he tightens his grip over Zitao’s arms with his hands, squeezing their tangled legs together, ‘you sound awful when you do that.’

‘You make me sound like that,’ says Zitao without much heat. He just feels tired, feels desirous for things that are out of his reach.

‘I know.’ While he waits for the rest of the reply, Zitao counts their breaths: one, two, three, four. ‘I don’t want anyone else to have you, but I can’t have you either.’

‘You can’t decide that for me.’

‘I’m your hyung, aren’t I?’ If it’s supposed to be humorous, it falls flat.

‘Then take care of me,’ presses Zitao. ‘Aren’t I yours? Or was everything you said before bullshit?’

Jongdae shifts, obviously conflicted, but Zitao doesn’t care anymore. He just wants. Wants to be loved, adored, owned by Jongdae, because no one else – no one else will come close to this no matter how much Zitao will look. He knows this as an absolute truth deep within the marrow of his bones, inscribed over his rib cage like a curse or a prophecy.

‘Love me,’ whispers Zitao into Jongdae’s ear, ‘I know you do.’

He feels a small hand slide over his forearm, a gesture of comfort. Eventually, Jongdae’s voice comes out – that familiar deepness, the hesitation in his breath whenever he feels vulnerable, exposed belly-up in his emotions. ‘I’m sorry,’ he replies. A pause. ‘But let me have you.’

A rush of feeling surges into Zitao’s lungs, making his rib cage feel too tight, and he drops thankful kisses into Jongdae’s hair. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ a mantra of acceptance, of hope, of the fact that Jongdae will leave him in March but until then – until then, Zitao has him.

-

The next night, Jongdae does take him to the river, carrying a case of beer and looking dangerous with his piercings and tattoo out in full view under the streetlights. It’s cold, so they huddle together at the water’s edge and drink while talking about where Zitao might end up going, what universities Jongdae is trying to get into, where everyone else will drift off, why the world feels simultaneously heavy and light at one in the morning by the riverside.

‘You know we can’t…’ hesitates Jongdae. ‘We won’t last past my graduation in March.’

‘Obviously. You’ll be in some big city by then on your singing scholarship or something.’ Zitao waves a beer can at him in dismissal. ‘But until then.’

‘What do you plan to do?’ teases the other, nudging their shoulders together. ‘After all, we’re teenage disasters in love.’

Zitao’s breath hitches at the word. ‘Did you mean that?’

‘It’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?’ shrugs Jongdae.

The dismissal of it doesn’t sting this time as much as slide past Zitao in a familiar, burning graze. The hurt is just an ache this time. ‘Yeah,’ he replies. ‘It is.’

‘So?’ prompts Jongdae.

‘I don’t know – don’t you have any plans?’

‘Other than sex?’ Jongdae leers up at him and Zitao ducks his head down to kiss the expression off his face. It doesn’t last too long because it’s cold and Zitao doesn’t want to catch pneumonia by fucking in the grass.

‘I want – I just want to pretend we’re good at this,’ says Zitao eventually, knowing Jongdae will at least understand that much. ‘It’s for three months – pretend with me.’

‘Okay,’ agrees the other easily.

‘Your dad and hyung aren’t coming back for Christmas, are they? Come eat with us,’ invites Zitao.

‘A family dinner? Are we married or dating?’

‘Neither. Both.’ Zitao laughs in delight at the incredulous expression on Jongdae’s face. ‘Indulge me, Chenchen.’

Jongdae whines but presses closer against Zitao’s warmth, sipping at his beer. ‘My mom and I with you and your parents. That’ll go well.’

‘It’ll be disastrous. Like us.’

-

Half a week later, Christmas Eve arrives in during a rather balmy sort of winter day. The snow melts on impact and makes everything wet, but the sky is free from clouds, leaving the sky dyed in pink and orange as the sun begins to set in the early evening.

When the doorbell rings, appa is already there with Zitao at his side, smiling widely and greeting Jongdae’s mother warmly. Jongdae is there, smiling up at Zitao with a gift bag hanging off his arm. Zitao grins back – thankful and warm – and is surprised when Jongdae leans up and kisses him slow and careful on the mouth, uncaring of all the eyes watching them.

‘Chen…’ murmurs Zitao, feeling his face flush – more pleased than embarrassed – and Jongdae shrugs in reply.

‘You said married,’ he mentions, toeing off his shoes before greeting appa and baba as he follows his mother into the kitchen.

Baba serves dishes from Guangzhou with marked enthusiasm and appa settles with the classic homemade dishes that he knows. Jongdae’s mother nods warmly at the Chinese food as they eat, ‘Jongdae-ah’s father and hyung are in Guangzhou right now.’

‘Yifan is from there,’ mentions appa, looking warmly at baba. ‘I’ve only been there once.’

‘Jongdae is apparently learning Mandarin to join his family over there.’ She sighs soft. ‘And leave his poor mother here.’

‘You should move to Seoul then – leave them for bigger pastures,’ laughs appa. ‘It’s so easy to get lost in those streets and I was born there.’

‘Oh, and how did you meet your husband?’ Jongdae’s mother seems invested in the romance in a way that Zitao is – and he wishes, vaguely, that Jongdae was like that too. A little more believing, a little more imaginative.

‘I met Joonmyeon in Beijing in university,’ provides baba with a warm expression of nostalgia on his face. ‘He was doing a semester abroad. I graduated and followed him back to Seoul. We moved to this town to open up a branch of his family’s business. A few years later, and it’s fairly set, so we might be moving again soon.’

‘That’s a pity,’ sighs Jongdae’s mother. ‘Looks like I might have to go to Seoul for some excitement.’

Jongdae sits next to his mother and laughs. ‘Come with me to Shanghai. Hyung will be there.’

‘And gone again. These jobs on the coastline, always making one travel.’ She slides her fingers over the table and Zitao sees how coarse they are with work, how delicate with poise. Like her son. ‘It’s nice to see Jongdae met such a lovely family of course.’

Appa’s eyes skip over to Jongdae and Jongdae meets the look with a smile that oozed charm, his piercings gone and tattoo hidden, looking like a quaint choir boy with his pleated trousers and starch collar of his button-up. ‘Yes,’ says appa slowly, appraising. ‘He’s certainly made things a little more exciting around here.’

‘Appa,’ says Zitao, but is stopped when Jongdae curls his hand around Zitao’s, tangles their fingers together.

‘I promise we’ll be better this time,’ and Jongdae sounds so sincere that Zitao immediately recognizes it as a bold-faced lie. An honest Jongdae was a hesitating, stuttering one.

‘Third time’s the charm,’ replies appa blandly.

‘Exactly.’ Jongdae’s still smiling that pseudo- loving smile, and Zitao wants to kiss it off and replace it with something genuine instead. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

‘I realize my son’s been… up to certain things,’ hesitates Jongdae’s mother, so careful and voice soft in guilt. Immediately, Jongdae’s expression sobers up and he places his other hand on her shoulder in comfort.

Appa obviously can’t take it either because he cuts in, smooth as can be, ‘Zitao’s always had a troublemaker’s streak in him as well.’

‘Really?’ Jongdae’s mother perks up. She tosses a glance over at her son and then taps at her earlobe. Appa’s expression crumples and he nods, and she sighs in understanding. ‘Hooligans.’

‘Punks,’ replies appa, like he’s found his second love, staring across the table in admiration.

‘And neither of them are that,’ mentions baba. He tosses Zitao and Jongdae an apologetic look.

Jongdae shrugs, sharing a secret grin with Zitao while squeezing their fingers together. He leans over, murmurs, ‘at least they’re friends now.’

‘Over their hate about body modifications,’ laughs Zitao breathlessly. ‘It’s as close to approval as we’re going to get.’

‘Already hated by the in-laws.’ Jongdae gives a dramatic sigh, but his eyes are glittering and there’s twist to his mouth that’s real, that’s true.

‘We should’ve eloped,’ replies Zitao, playing along. They laugh loud enough to catch the others’ attention, and stutter over themselves for an excuse. Still, Jongdae holds onto his hand, warm and reassuring, and Zitao squeezes back.

-

They exchange presents – scarves, mittens, gift cards, post-dinner snacks, and tea. Appa thanks Jongdae’s mother profusely, and they sit together chatting aimlessly from topics of business to food to parenting and whatever else passes by.

Baba waves Zitao upstairs with the pile of presents, so five minutes later, Jongdae is in Zitao’s lap, lazily making out with him.

‘Took out your tongue stud,’ he pouts, licking at Zitao’s top lip.

‘Appa didn’t want me to scare your mom away,’ he replies. ‘He really doesn’t like you.’

‘I’m not surprised.’ Jongdae pulls away, hand sliding over the slope of Zitao’s shoulders, smoothing out his shirt, eyes half-lidded and mouth pink and shining under the light. ‘I’ve made you cry more times than Lion King, apparently.’

‘Who told you that – ’

‘Sehun.’ Jongdae still won’t look at him. ‘And I encouraged you become all delinquent on your parents – but you wanted that shit anyway, so you can’t pin that on me.’

‘I don’t want to.’ Zitao nudges at Jongdae’s cheek with his nose, tries to get him to look up. ‘Chenchen.’

‘It’s really – it’s really easy pretending,’ says Jongdae – his breath hitching and his expression turning almost pained. This – this Zitao knows is real. ‘Like I’m not pretending at all.’

‘Have you ever thought that you could like me back?’ Feelings come so easily to Zitao, they’re everything to him, They guide him, lead him and follow right behind him. Zitao has always known what he’s wanted, what he’s liked, what he’s disliked and tried to avoid. What pushes him to blind adoration and pulls him to a fuming hatred. But Jongdae – ‘just cause you’re eighteen doesn’t mean what you feel isn’t true.’

‘Don’t lecture me, you brat. I’m your hyung,’ snaps Jongdae with no heat in his words. Instead, he lifts his chin up and kisses Zitao again, that languid, sweet slide from hours before at the door. Something that should feel sexual with the slide of Jongdae’s tongue, but instead is more infused with emotion than physicality.

When they pull away, Jongdae’s eyes are half-lidded in contemplation. ‘If I told you I loved you too, would you believe me?’

Zitao’s heart thuds. ‘Yes.’

There’s an ugly twist to his mouth when Jongdae speaks again. ‘If I told you I think I’m fucking awful for you, would you believe me?’

There’s a pause and it stretches for too long for Zitao to take back. There’s a no on his tongue, but his ribcage is tight and something is clogging his throat, blocking his voice from saying such a simple syllable, to solidify his affection. Instead, it’s too late.

Jongdae nods to himself. ‘I know,’ he says quietly. ‘Let’s not do this right before Christmas.’

‘You didn’t let me answer,’ tries Zitao but his voice cuts off when the other shakes his head.

‘I’ll let you know when I need your answer,’ he replies and tips upwards to kiss Zitao again.

This kiss is still as slow, still as lazy and languid as any other, but something is hidden behind the curve of Jongdae’s front teeth, the line of his tongue. All Zitao wants is to reach out and taste it, know Jongdae’s doubts and try to comfort them.

There’s also the fact that Jongdae might be right and they can’t be like this. There’s nothing for Zitao here – with a boy who can’t tell one emotion from another and trust his sincerity to words. That Zitao could do better. For himself. For everyone. That maybe Zitao is in love with a concept – overwhelming, dangerous, seductive Chen who knows how to break Zitao down – and not the emotionally stunted person in his lap that kisses his mouth like it’s made of glass and Jongdae’s touch is a swing of a hammer.

They still have till March. Zitao can still pretend.

-

In the six days between Christmas and New Year’s, Jongdae fucks Zitao three times – usually in the middle of the night in Zitao’s room, every sound muffled and carefully quiet as Jongdae focuses on making Zitao arch and writhe for more.

They usually lay blankets on the floor because the mattress creaks. Zitao hoards pillows from the linen closet and props himself up for Jongdae to sink inside of him achingly slow and utterly careful. While there is pain – in the way Jongdae scrapes his teeth down the bends of Zitao’s collarbone, the span of his neck, the curve of his torso – it never lasts, never more than something that amplifies the pleasure instead of diminishing it.

The first time – Jongdae fucks Zitao on his back, his bangs hang in his eyes as he focuses on finding the angle that has Zitao’s breath stuttering. Zitao remembers the damp flutter of Jongdae’s lashes, the blush spread across his sharp cheekbones, the twist of his mouth as he focused everything on Zitao and no one else, nothing else. The attention is honey warm on Zitao’s skin and he gives himself up – biting his knuckle to muffle his normally loud moans but wanting more than anything to show Jongdae how much this means to him. That – finally – Zitao is the centre of Jongdae’s affections and how it’s overwhelming, going to drown Zitao in the heat of his desire, the reciprocating adoration in his chest.

The second time Jongdae flips them over, rubs his fingers over Zitao’s hips in encouragement as Zitao rides Jongdae's cock. He finds the angle for himself with ease and bites through his lip trying to be quiet with how hot Jongdae is inside of him, how big and filling and fucking good being fucked like this is. He comes with a sob, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes, feeling overwhelmingly full of cock and emotion, and Jongdae is murmuring, ‘so good, so gorgeous,’ in his ear as he eases Zitao against the bed, running his hands down Zitao’s sides in comfort.

The third starts off with a slow, languid kiss to Zitao’s mouth and Jongdae’s hands revealing one of Zitao’s school ties. ‘Want you to feel me, Taozi,’ he asks in lieu of permission. Zitao nods and closes his eyes, lets himself be blindfolded and fucked – hard and fast against the carpet, his nails scratching against the floor as he loses his mind. He can’t see anything – not Jongdae, not himself, not the darkness of the bedroom around him – but god, can he feel. Feel the burn of cock rub up against the rim of his hole, the sharp dig of Jongdae’s nails at his hips, the burn of the floor under his skin, the trickle of sweat and precome. It melds together in a hypersensitive rollercoaster ride of sensation, until Jongdae’s hand closes around Zitao’s leaking dick and strips it in its own precome until Zitao’s coming hard with a barely suppressed sob.

Afterwards, when they’re settled in bed, cleaned up as best as they can, Jongdae cradles Zitao’s wrists in his small hands and kisses the arch of the bone under the skin softly. A beat later, Jongdae rolls him onto his back and drops kisses to the back of Zitao’s eyelids, the curve of his jaw, the arch of his hipbone, the back of his knee. Zitao closes his eyes, takes the silent marks of Jongdae’s love and tries to burn them to memory.

He thinks he knows what this is – Jongdae savouring a moment, taking care of something precious between his hands so he doesn’t have to think for himself, how gentle he is afterwards, making Zitao feel valued and adored and taken care of beyond measure, and isn’t this exactly what Zitao wanted?

Instead, it feels like Jongdae is saying goodbye. Zitao swallows down the ball in his throat, instead reaching out to drag the other up by the shoulders and kiss his mouth, tell him to go to sleep, tell him that they’ll both be here in the morning.

‘I know that,’ murmurs Jongdae with a lazy smile, sated and relaxed, but does as requested. He yawns, lets himself be manhandled so Zitao can curl up behind him, an arm thrown over Jongdae’s waist, the press of Zitao’s kneecaps in the bend of his legs. Jongdae grumbles and Zitao feels the sound vibrate over his skin: ‘only have till March, Taozi, you should let your hyung do what he wants.’

‘I know,’ says Zitao softly, intensely aware of his phone under his pillow, counting down the minutes to the alarm that will wake them up from this dream. He closes his eyes and squeezes small Jongdae between his arms. ‘I know.’

Jongdae senses the stiffness in Zitao’s body instantly. ‘Hey, it’s okay, I’ll still be here, Tao, Tao,’ and rubs his hands over Zitao’s arms, warming him and calming him. ‘I won’t leave until you’re awake. So sleep.’

Promises, at least, Jongdae always keeps. Zitao closes his eyes and counts Jongdae’s breaths until he passes out.

-

January comes with a sudden cold front, bringing a light dusting of snow and overcast skies. Jongdae gets his acceptance letters, and makes plans to take the university-specific entrance exam for the music faculty, while Zitao spends more time with Sehun and Jongin – feeling too young to worry about that stuff right now.

He catches Jongdae practicing in the music room after school and wishes him luck before going off to the gym to practice for his own competition. His coach claps his shoulder when he gets there and nods with certainty. ‘You took second last time, so I expect you to take first now.’

Zitao nods, taking a deep breath, and begins.

Two days after Jongdae finishes his exams, appa drives both baba, Zitao and Jongdae up to Seoul. Zitao catches the nostalgic glaze of appa’s eyes when he travels through the streets, gazing up at the skyscrapers and out onto the long highways, the heavily trafficked pedestrian crossings, the blinking lights, and the crowded shops and food stalls and narrow streets fitted between each city block. The hotel is close to the gymnasium where Zitao will be competing with Zitao’s specific competition not beginning till tomorrow. So, appa spends most of their free time taking them to his favourite neighborhoods, spoiling them in restaurants for both lunch and dinner, and pointing out local sights or where he used to go when he was younger.

Zitao is surprised to learn that they get two rooms at the hotel – and even more so when Jongdae pays for one of them out of his own pocket. Jongdae shrugs, sliding his wallet back in his pocket. ‘Umma lets me keep my prize money from the singing competitions.’ It makes Zitao smile – ‘can hyung buy me that new jacket too?’ and laughs when Jongdae throws him an exasperated look.

Appa still gives them a long side-eye as they both check into their rooms. ‘I expect both of you ready by tomorrow morning.’

Jongdae grins, flipping the keycard between his fingers. ‘Of course. Zitao is in excellent hands.’ Face growing hot, Zitao snatches the keycard and opens the door, dragging Jongdae inside before appa can kill him.

‘You’re going to die,’ he says, closing the door behind him. ‘I’m their precious only child.’

‘Who knows wushu,’ says Jongdae, rolling his eyes. ‘I think you’d kill me before your appa even figures out anything happens.’

Zitao blinks. ‘Chenchen, I would never – ’

Glancing up at him, the other’s expression softens. ‘I know.’ He turns away and unzips his backpack, pulling out his toiletries. ‘That’s probably the reason why your parents get worried.’

‘We can’t all just push people away when we feel like it,’ replies Zitao, rolling his eyes.

‘Well I don’t feel like it today,’ cuts in Jongdae sharply. ‘Anyway, let me wash up before you shower.’

He disappears into the bathroom soon after that and Zitao changes into a t-shirt and his underwear, flopping down onto the bed and rubbing his face, uncaring of the eyeliner. It was just a weekend and they were going to be fine. This would go well. He just had to trust that it would be all fine.

Either way, Jongdae comes out with a towel wiping the water from his face and gestures for Zitao to clean up. The shower is hot against his back and he imagines Jongdae coming in here and fucking him, face pushed against the tiles and ass out, letting Jongdae’s cock sink inside of him and ruin him completely while he sobs and begs to come already.

Biting his lip, Zitao jerks off to the image of it, to the reminiscent feel of a cock opening him up, hoping against hope that Jongdae will hear, will open the door and do just that. Instead, he comes with a muffled gasp and sighs, catching his breath as the water beats down against his skull. Between them, feelings might be impossible, but at least the sex was always perfect. Always hot.

He dries off and sees Jongdae curled up under the blankets on one side of the bed, scrolling through his phone that’s plugged into the wall. ‘Took you long enough,’ he drawls. When he catches Zitao’s eye, there’s a knowing curve to his smirk. ‘Come to bed, Taozi.’

When Zitao finally does scramble under the sheets, Jongdae turns off the lights, dousing the room in darkness and only curls up against him, head tucked under Zitao’s chin. ‘And now go to sleep.’

‘We’re not going to – ’ Zitao wonders if Jongdae can feel the press of his half-hard cock against his leg, and then wants to laugh because of course Jongdae does, with the smile he presses against the skin of Zitao’s neck.

‘That’s not a privilege, Zitao, that’s a reward.’

Zitao’s mouth is dry. ‘I’m going to get first place tomorrow.’

‘And I have the perfect prize for you.’

Eventually, Zitao falls asleep, anticipation tight in his stomach.

-

Baba confides to Zitao that appa spent half the night awake, listening intently to whether him and Jongdae were having sex. Zitao profusely denies it, his red face giving it all away, but baba doesn’t press, just furrows his brows as if confused that his teenage son was sexually active.

Apparently he passes on this information to appa, who almost has a coronary at breakfast, and pulls Zitao aside in the parking lot as baba and Jongdae are settling the bill with the restaurant back inside.

‘Have you – are you – him?’ sputters appa, then drags a hand down his face, cringing. ‘We need to talk about this. After the competition.’

Zitao is thankful to see his coach at the gymnasium when they finally arrive and spends an hour preparing and focusing, pushing his life aside to sink into the white silence of his concentration. He lets his body become hyperaware – the blood pumping in his ears, the give of the mat under his feet, the smoothness of the bo gripped in his palm. His heart beat is steady and his body ripples in waves of muscles tightening and loosening, adjusting to the nervousness and anticipation flooding his veins and using it to his advantage.

‘Huang Zitao,’ calls out the announcer with his Beijing accent. Zitao breathes deep, eyes open but unseeing of everything around him. Focusing solely on himself. He closes his eyes, imagines taking first place with a curve to his mouth, and opens them again. With a breath, he begins.

-

Almost seven hours later, Zitao takes first place. He rolls his neck as the pride washes over him, straightening his back and setting his shoulders, growing an inch out of sheer confidence. They award him with money and a trophy, and he smiles widely and takes pictures with the other competitors. He is seventeen and on his way to becoming one of the best. Perhaps – perhaps – baba is right, he catches himself thinking. Maybe he would go back home to China after high school and continue this.

The thoughts are pushed aside when appa and baba wrap him up in their proud arms despite the sweat and griminess. They grin at him, praises pouring out from their lips all down Zitao’s shoulders. Even Jongdae manages to keep his enthusiasm relatively cuss-free, sensing appa’s side-eye.

They head back to the hotel soon after, and appa hustles Zitao into the room, slamming the door closed before Jongdae can follow, barring the fact that Jongdae has a room key. Either way, this moment of privacy is obviously appa’s plan to bring up Zitao’s sex life so Zitao braces himself as he digs through his bag for his toiletries.

‘Did you – last night – ’ starts appa, gesturing to the bed. Zitao chokes on his spit.

‘No, we – no.’ Zitao knows he can’t lie to save his life, but he can definitely keep his mouth shut. He retrieves a pair of clean jeans and shirt, picking out his accessories from a small baggie with care and laying them out on the bedside table. Appa nods and sits gingerly onto the edge of the bed, watching.

‘You know how to be safe? Do you two use lube? When you get further, remember to get condoms.’ Appa pins him with a look. ‘Zitao. Are you listening?’

‘Yep,’ he replies quickly, looking up at appa. ‘I-I know.’

‘Oh.’ There’s a beat. ‘So, you have gotten that far. With – with Chen?’

A flush of heat crawls up Zitao’s neck to his cheeks. ‘Yes. Just Chen, appa. I’m not – I don’t – ’

Appa waves his hand in dismissal. ‘Of course it’s just him. He’s your – ’ His face turns sour. ‘ – he is your boyfriend.’ Dropping his fingers into his lap, he once again looks at Zitao. ‘But, hopefully you’ve noticed, he’s not… the nicest boy. I don’t want him hurting you. You tell me if he ever does something you don’t want. If he does, I’ll kill him.’ It’s said with utter seriousness and shoots a cold shiver down Zitao’s spine.

‘Chen really likes me.’ Zitao gives appa a reassuring smile. ‘He takes care of me.’

Something flickers over appa’s face at the words, but it’s too fast to decipher. ‘I see.’

‘Anyway, I’m going take a shower now so we can go to dinner,’ says Zitao, picking up his toiletries, and appa nods, waving him away.

Dinner is surprisingly pleasant. Appa and Jongdae manage a civil conversation about the schooling system, and appa is almost impressed with how polite Jongdae is even when he’s countering any of appa’s points. Baba blinks languidly, obviously tired, and shares a look with Zitao about shutting the other two up.

Eventually, baba drags them all into the car to drive back to the hotel and sleep. Appa muffles a yawn and tells them both to be ready by morning before baba hustles him into their shared room.

Zitao washes up and crawls under the covers, his muscles sore and aching in a satisfying way. From the bathroom comes the sound of rushing water as Jongdae takes a shower. In only a few minutes, Zitao feels himself dozing, eyes half-lidded and body flat against the mattress. Vaguely, he hears the bathroom door open and smells the waft of shampoo that follows.

A minute later, Jongdae slips under the covers beside Zitao, his skin warm and smelling of hotel soap. It takes a few seconds before Zitao realizes with a small gasp – ‘you’re naked.’

‘Very good,’ replies Jongdae, a laugh rumbling up his throat. ‘You did so well today, don’t you think?’

There are fingers trailing up the side of Zitao’s thigh over his shorts, skimming the waistband and tugging it downwards. Zitao obeys the wordless command, shimmying out of his pajamas and tossing them over the bed, staring into Jongdae’s glittering eyes through the night gloom. ‘Chenchen,’ he breathes out.

Jongdae only smiles – slow and lazy – before he’s manhandling Zitao flat onto his back. Instinctively, Zitao kicks off the blanket over top them and raises his legs, already pliant to get fucked, but Jongdae seems to have other plans when he goes down on Zitao’s cock with his mouth.

The wet heat makes Zitao’s brain go blank as he bites the flesh of his thumb not to moan. Jongdae’s tongue traces gently all down the underside, leaving sloppy kisses so everything is slick with spit, as his hand plays with Zitao’s sac. Desperate, Zitao cants his hips upwards, exposing his hole, but still Jongdae doesn’t press, only focuses on lapping up the beading precome from the tip and gently, teasingly stroking Zitao’s dick with his fingers.

Soon he pulls off, mouth swollen and red. Zitao moans again at the sight. ‘Please fuck me.’

‘I have a better reward than that,’ says Jongdae, though Zitao doesn’t know what’s better than being taken apart with a cock in his ass and Jongdae’s praises in his ears. He simply nods, hands at either side of his head, clutching into his pillow, as he watches Jongdae straddle his abdomen.

And then Jongdae moves back so that the arch of Zitao’s cock fits snugly in Jongdae’s ass. ‘Oh god – Chenchen – ’

‘Done this before,’ soothes Jongdae, sliding a hand over Zitao’s chest and catching a nipple, twisting it. Zitao arches, his cock spitting precome, and brings his hand back to bite so he won’t make noises. ‘No – don’t do that. I want to hear you, Taozi.’

Mindlessly, Zitao obeys, moving his fingers back to clutch at the pillow. ‘Need to prep you, Chenchen,’ he gasps out when the tip of his dick catches the rim of Jongdae’s hole. It’s already wet.

‘What do you think the shower was for?’ laughs out Jongdae breathlessly before he’s fitting Zitao’s cock inside of him and sliding downwards. It’s a gloriously tight fit – every part of Zitao tingling with hypersensitivity as Jongdae’s hole drags down his length. Jongdae is still lubed up and stretched, and he goes easily, with practice, onto Zitao’s dick. Finally, everything stills and settles; there’s a layer of sweat over Zitao’s body as he tries to remember how to breathe.

Jongdae sucks in another shuddering breath, jaw clenched tight, his neck strained as his body adjusts. Around them both, the hotel room seems to get a few degrees too hot and the sheets are sticky under Zitao’s skin as he sobs out loud, ‘Chenchen.’

‘C’mon, hold my hips,’ encourages Jongdae after a beat, sucking in a deep breath. Zitao obeys, settling his hands around the sharp jut of the other’s hips, rubbing his thumb over the skin in soothing circles as he hears Jongdae breathe deep and relax himself. ‘Ah – shit, it’s been a while.’ He laughs – some sort of apology, but Zitao shakes his head.

‘Feels really good, Chenchen,’ he insists, shifting his hips and lodging his cock deeper inside Jongdae. Jongdae groans, eyes fluttering shut so his damp lashes fan over his cheeks. ‘Can I – can I get up?’

‘No.’ The order cuts through the air, knocks the air out of Zitao’s lungs. He swallows and stays still. A moment later, Jongdae bites his bottom lip, blinking the sweat from his eyes, and begins moving his hips slow and languorous, a dirty grind, as he palms his own semi-hard cock. ‘Yeah, there we go,’ he sighs out, tickling touches to himself so he’ll get hard again. Zitao wants to do that, wants to put his mouth on Jongdae, please him, but Jongdae won’t let him.

Instead, he keeps flat on his back, head against the pillow to watch as Jongdae lifts his hips and drop down in a loud smack of skin and skin. The both moan. ‘Fuck,’ manages Zitao, savouring the glorious tightness around his dick.

‘That’s right, just lie there and take it,’ hums Jongdae, evidently pleased, and begins to actually fuck himself on Zitao’s cock, open up his own hole all hot and sloppy and loose, squelching with Zitao’s precome and lube and sweat as he rides down over and over again. ‘Yeah – Tao – let me hear you – ’

Zitao furrows his brow, sobbing as the heat and tightness never leaves. Still, he doesn’t look away, drags his gaze over Jongdae’s heaving ribcage, his small hands hidden behind him as they dig into the flesh of Zitao’s thighs while he rides. It’s slow-going at first, a careful rhythm as the tightness becomes less suffocating and more about friction and making Zitao’s cock spit precome inside the other’s ass, getting everything even more slick and messy.

After another grind, Jongdae lets out a soft sound, lashes fluttering closed and fanning out across his cheeks as he lifts himself up and rocks back down fast and deep. The sudden switch in pace makes Zitao moan out loud – his fingers going tight over Jongdae’s hips as his heart thuds in time to the sound of skin-on-skin while Jongdae fucks himself.

‘Chen – chen – ’ calls out Zitao, understanding what Jongdae feels every time he fucks Zitao – how hot it all gets, how hard he is, how fucking tight, the friction making him lose his mind. Jongdae lets out a guttural groan, shifting his balance forward as his hands come up to Zitao’s chest, nails digging for purchase while he rolls his hips. The angle must be right because Jongdae throws his head back with a satisfied moan and continues screwing himself quicker and harder.

‘Do you – ah – want to c-come, Taozi?’ pants out Jongdae, his mouth smeared into a smirk as he rolls his body down Zitao’s dick.

‘Please – please – ’ he begs, trying to keep his hips under control as he lets Jongdae take charge of the pace. It’s good but he wants to come, he wants to lose himself completely under the white noise of his orgasm, except Jongdae won’t allow him, not yet.

‘That’s right – fuck – show me what you can do.’ There’s something like steel in Jongdae’s voice, piercing right into Zitao’s gut with arousal. ‘Aren’t you going to – hah – fuck me?’

Zitao makes a strangled noise at the permission. He surges upwards, mouth knocking against Jongdae’s to lick into his mouth in thankfulness as his legs spread open and his knees draw upwards, planting his feet flat against the bed. ‘I wanna – can I – I wanna – ’

In his lap, Jongdae is still riding him, their foreheads pressed against each other as they breathe one another’s air. ‘Give it to me,’ murmurs Jongdae, ‘Give me all of you.’ And Zitao would – he would would would give anything, if Jongdae simply asked like he does now.

He takes a breath, finds Jongdae’s rhythm, and fucks upwards the moment Jongdae’s hips drop down. ‘Fuck – ’ blurts Jongdae, and Zitao thinks he’s hurt Jongdae in his over-enthusiasm, but Jongdae catches his eye and grins. ‘Yeah – like that.’

So Zitao obeys – helplessly caught in the rhythm of Jongdae opening himself up on Zitao’s cock in hard, rough thrusts. The pace is frantic and desperate, Jongdae’s eyes half-lidded, his cheeks flushed. Zitao licks at Jongdae’s lips, kisses him messily, too much tongue and teeth as his hips fuck and fuck and fuck.

With another muffled noise, Zitao feels the hot flutter of Jongdae’s ass all around his cock and almost loses it. Soon enough, he realizes it’s from Jongdae jerking himself off, counterpoint to the hard thrusts. The thought of it – of Jongdae using him to please himself, of Zitao reduced from person to a toy, his dick just a means to an end so Jongdae can go careening to his end with satisfaction –

‘Don’t fucking stop,’ pants Jongdae, his back arched as he meets Zitao’s hips, hand fast and slick on his dick, spreading the precome over the length. Zitao wants to lift that hand and lick the fingers clean, but he focuses on fucking Jongdae to the end.

The sight of Jongdae bouncing helplessly in Zitao’s lap is enough for him, and he’s sobbing with the need to come but stopping himself until Jongdae is satisfied. He takes care of Zitao, rewards him, and Zitao couldn’t repay him with a premature finish. He tucks his face into the crook of Jongdae’s neck, sobbing for breath, ‘please come, Chen – come – ’

‘Yeah? Want to see me come?’ Jongdae laughs in his ear – breathless and aroused. ‘All over you? Mark you up?’

God – ’ Zitao’s voice breaks. He keeps fucking hard and fast into the heat of Jongdae’s ass, keeping to the quick pace as before, never relenting. ‘Wanna be yours, I’m yours, please – ’

‘Yes,’ agrees Jongdae fiercely, his voice dropping to a rasping growl, indicating how close he is. ‘Yes.’

Zitao holds tight, bucks up to the rhythm of Jongdae’s hips, and muffles his yell against Jongdae’s sharp collarbones when he feels Jongdae come hard. The semen lands warm and thick all up his stomach and chest, every part of his skin hypersensitive to the brand Jongdae leaves over him. His breath is caught in his lungs as Jongdae’s body ripples with aftershocks, his ass milking Zitao’s cock as Zitao keeps fucking into him, never told to stop.

There are hands on his stomach, his chest, smearing the come all over his skin – ‘fucking belong to me,’ murmurs Jongdae in his ear as Zitao jerks his hips over and over again, savouring the hot flutter of Jongdae’s hole. ‘Come in me, Taozi. Hah – only I can have you like this. Only me.’

Trying to breathe, Zitao feels his cock twitch and then come hard, filling Jongdae up, his voice torn from his throat in a loud cry, spread all over Jongdae’s skin as his fingers leave bruises over the other’s hips. With a few stuttered thrusts, he empties out completely and shivers at the warm, slinking feeling of his come all around his cock.

‘Good boy,’ murmurs Jongdae in his ear. Zitao hiccups in reply, exhausted and fucked out, and feels Jongdae push him on his back, lifting himself out of Zitao’s lap. Blearily, Zitao opens his eyes and sees Jongdae on his knees, reaching over the bed to the floor to grab something – presumably a towel. The sinuous line of his back leads Zitao’s gaze to Jongdae’s fluttering, flushed hole. Traces of Zitao’s come are around the edges, a line of it starts to leak out.

On impulse, Zitao jerks forward, his hands landing against the back of Jongdae’s thighs as he buries his face against Jongdae’s ass, tongue peeking out to lick at his own come. He hears Jongdae’s startled gasp – ‘fuck, Zitao – !’

The sound of his birth name slurred by Jongdae’s voice has Zitao only more eager; eager to clean Jongdae up as he cleans up Zitao, except this time with his tongue. Jongdae smells of sex and sweat, remnants of the hotel soap and lube lingering around, and Zitao’s fucking come. Zitao groans and presses his tongue flat against Jongdae’s hole, drinking it up.

With the noises Jongdae is making, Zitao thinks it was a good idea to put in his tongue piercing once they came back to the hotel. If only to let the steel ball press ride along the skin and make Jongdae’s entire body tremble at the strange sensation of both wet, warm tongue and metal.

‘Hah – you really want it?’ moans Jongdae and Zitao hums in reply, too busy flicking the tip of his tongue around the flushed rim, dipping occasionally inside for another taste. Suddenly, Jongdae’s pushing his hips back, rolling them slowly as Zitao mouths messily at his entrance. ‘That’s right – be good for me – ’

I will I will I will calls out Zitao in his head as he eats hungrily at Jongdae’s hole. He grabs the globes of Jongdae’s ass, pulls them apart and sees more of his come. With another muffled noise, Zitao laps it up eagerly.

Jongdae’s elbows against the bed slip and his face is pressed against the sheets, panting hard, as Zitao keeps at it. It’s amazing – seeing Jongdae fall apart at the seams because of Zitao, because Zitao is servicing him.

Hooking his thumbs into Jongdae’s hole, he spreads it open and shoves his tongue right into Jongdae’s ass. Immediately, Jongdae moans – loud and helpless – while his fingers scratch against the sheets. Pleasure rushes up Zitao’s spine and he gets sloppy, keeps fucking his tongue inside, the piercing flicking at the rim, getting everything just a little hotter and wetter.

‘God – Tao,’ growls out Jongdae and suddenly his ass is pulled away from Zitao hands and mouth. In a flurry of movement, Zitao’s flat on his back and Jongdae’s straddling his chest, hand grasping the base of his half-hard cock. ‘You want come that bad?’ He slides his other hand through Zitao’s hair, wrenches his head back. ‘Do you?’

‘Wanna make you happy,’ confesses Zitao, brows pulled together, heart thudding fast because Jongdae would never hurt him, but he’s so intimidating, so dangerously seductive with his glittering eyes and rasping voice.

‘Tap my leg twice then,’ says Jongdae – and Zitao instantly knows what’s going to happen from this reminder of their silent safeword – so he opens his mouth as Jongdae slides the head of his cock over the curve of Zitao’s bottom lip. ‘That’s right, have as much as you want.’

Jongdae fucks Zitao’s mouth with careful, measured thrusts, gaze intense and attentive, and Zitao uses whatever he can to make this good – warm wetness and the roll of his piercing all along the sensitive underside. Everything from his mind erased as he focuses on the heat of Jongdae’s body, the heft and weight of cock on his tongue, the rhythm and the slick ease, the taste of sweat and precome and skin.

He hollows out his cheeks, sucks hard at the cock, and Jongdae groans in appreciation, murmuring filthy praises, ‘god, you’re so fucking pretty with my dick in your mouth, want to get fucked so bad, it makes you gorgeous.’ Zitao closes his eyes, lets the compliments slide over his skin, and loses himself in his service.

The thrusts get harder, deeper. Zitao chokes on Jongdae’s dick more than once, sucks in deep breaths through his nose, feeling light-headed, on a white sea of satisfaction with the knowledge that Jongdae is using him up as he’s meant to be, taking everything Zitao is offering up to him and then some more.

‘Close – so fucking close, Tao,’ murmurs Jongdae, sliding deep inside and feeling the delicious flutter of Zitao’s throat over his cockhead. ‘Fuck, you’re beautiful.’ With that he comes – no particular warning beforehand – but Zitao swallows it all, feels the taste of it on his tongue and works his throat to get it all down. His mouth sucks all around Jongdae’s softening cock, cleaning it up until Jongdae finally pulls away.

He glances over his shoulder and seems to spot Zitao’s hard cock because he lets out a breathless laugh. Zitao is still swooning, tasting Jongdae’s come, licking it up from the corner of his mouth, when he almost chokes because there’s a warmth over his dick all of a sudden.

Peering downwards, he sees Jongdae’s lips enclosed over the head of his cock and falls right back to the blankness of his mind as he’s worked over to his own orgasm. It feels like he’s caught in an storm on the ocean – his body being pulled either which way and he can’t orient himself right way up, not when he’s still catching his breath and Jongdae’s deepthroating him with practice

Helpless, Zitao utters out a loud, ‘Chen – ’ as a breathless warning before he’s coming again, right into Jongdae’s mouth. Jongdae licks it all up and pulls away, dragging his eyes down Zitao’s flushed, fucked out body. His small hands trace over both of Zitao’s ankles – light and ticklish – before leaving two soft kisses on either side of Zitao’s hips.

‘Wo xihuan ni,’ he murmurs, and repeats it as he crawls up Zitao’s form, dropping a line of butterfly kisses from navel to collarbone. ‘Zitao, wo xihuan ni.’ I really like you.

Still in a daze, Zitao doesn’t realize Jongdae’s switched to Mandarin. He blinks slowly, stretching out against the warmth of Jongdae’s kisses. Jongdae’s mouth presses soft and gentle against Zitao’s cheeks, his jaw, his nose, his forehead. ‘Wo xihuan ni.’

Suddenly, his eyes are burning, tears pricking at the corner, but Jongdae’s mouth is already there, skimming over the back Zitao’s closed eyelids. ‘Taozi.’

Zitao shudders and thinks this is his real reward – Jongdae’s feelings wrapping him up all warm and careful, keeping him safe and close. He blinks back his tears, meets Jongdae’s expression – how he smiles down at Zitao. ‘Wo xihuan ni,’ he says, and Zitao follows the movement of his lips, knows this isn’t a hoax of some sort, some joke.

He hiccups once, twice, and then lets himself go and begins to cry. Involuntarily, his eyes squeeze shut, cheeks flushing as he feels embarrassed by how much the words mean to him. It becomes less so when he feels Jongdae’s weight leave the bed, but the moment is short-lived when there is a damp washcloth wiping at the dried come on his stomach and chest, over his legs, around his soft cock.

There are small hands brushing his hair off his forehead, soft, so very soft. Zitao turns his face and buries his face into the bed, sobs racking down his spine. ‘Can I – ’ he breathes out, ‘can I hear it again?’

Jongdae brings the blanket overtop them both while tucking himself beside Zitao, seemingly so small and delicate compared to Zitao’s frame, how he could simply engulf Jongdae whole if he was allowed. Slowly, Jongdae tips his head up, and settles his lips against Zitao’s, ‘wo xihuan ni.’

The words ripple over Zitao’s skin, certain and irrevocable. He wipes at his eyes, sobs subsiding just as quick as they come, and curls his arms around Jongdae, trying to get them as close as possible. Jongdae complies willingly, all warm and pliant, gorgeously honest.

It’s only when Zitao wakes up in the morning that he realizes they only have two months of this left.

-

Appa drives them all back home. He drops Jongdae off and stares hard at the stiff line of his back as he walks to his front door with his backpack. Zitao sits tensed up in the back seat, terrified that he will be asked about what they did – they certainly weren’t quiet last night, and hopefully the hotel walls were thick.

No questions come, not even from baba. They go home, with Zitao’s first place prize, and life resumes as usual.

Sehun hunts down competition videos on the internet and even pulls the one Zitao was in just to show it to everyone who passes by in sheer impressiveness and pride. Zitao smiles shyly at the compliments he gets, trying to be as gracious as possible, and he receives momentary fame out of it. It leaves a mark on him. The fact that his performance and praise are linked – as he keeps getting better, his skin still keeps warm with the kindness everyone shows him.

Zitao will get better – because wushu is his passion, this is what he wants to do. Still, the compliments remind him of the way Jongdae makes him feel – safe and gentle, known and appreciated. He tastes them all on his tongue and smiles because of it, thinks this is a wonderful side-effect from practicing wushu.

Half of February is school, the other half a break. Early in the month, Jongdae enters a singing competition and wins first place. Surprisingly, not just Zitao – but the rest of their friends show up: Baekhyun, Chanyeol, Yixing, Sehun, and Jongin. They clap the loudest when the prizes are awarded out and Jongdae’s mother gathers them all together excitedly to have a meal.

The meal goes well. Jongdae looks happy – with his wide grin and his teasing, the way he hands out food to the rest of the table, sharing in what’s his, taking care of them all. Zitao realizes – like a kick in the gut – that he doesn’t want to let this go. This can’t be the end of it all. This isn’t their last month together – the shortest month as well.

Zitao pushes away the feelings by eating his food and conversing cheerily with Yixing beside him, who looks sleepy and soft. When everyone heads their respective ways afterwards, Zitao sticks close to Jongdae. In turn, Jongdae settles an arm around Zitao’s waist, as casual as can be, his eyes still bright with pride as he waves at everyone before they disappear the corners or down the street.

‘Are you coming home with us, Zitao?’ asks Jongdae’s mother with an inviting grin, which wasn’t a surprise as she and appa had gotten along well, improving her opinion of Zitao immensely. Zitao glances at Jongdae, whose expression is the same as his mother. Zitao succumbs.

In Jongdae’s bedroom, Jongdae shows him his acceptance letters and the offer for a scholarship if he keeps doing well in his singing. Zitao’s enthusiasm is dulled by the press of reality, like each second that passes is somehow being robbed from him. True to form, Jongdae notices.

‘For now, let’s be okay,’ he says, stashing away the letters in a desk drawer before tugging at Zitao’s wrist. ‘C’mon, let’s just watch a movie or something. Actually, I got some more wuxia stuff for you to translate.’

‘What’s the point of learning Mandarin if you can’t use it,’ complains Zitao but follows Jongdae anyway because Legend of the Condor Heroes may or may not be one of his favourites.

-

February has twenty-eight days. For fifteen of them, Jongdae tells him he is beautiful, that Jongdae is infatuated with him, his murmured ‘wo xihuan ni’s not tiring any time soon as they drip over Zitao’s skin, warming him and burning him all the same.

Zitao doesn’t cry. Instead, he simply gives himself up, lays himself out for Jongdae to use, exhaust, and curl up next to afterwards. They alternate between Zitao’s bed and Jongdae’s – replace dialogue with sex. It’s fine. Zitao doesn’t want to even think about the end of the month, not when he’s got everything he wants – friends, wushu, and Jongdae’s love – and he’s going to cling onto it for as long as he can.

So Jongdae ties his wrists sometimes, or blindfolds him, or gags him, or any number of things that make every part of Zitao hypersensitive to whatever is around him. All he wants to do is simply descend in the blankness of his own mind, forget himself and everything around him in his single-minded pursuit to bask in Jongdae’s filthy praise for him.

Sometimes, though… sometimes, Jongdae simply fucks him on his back, a slow, lulling wave of sex to drown Zitao. It’s almost lazy, indulgent, if it wasn’t the fact that there was a knot in Zitao’s chest with how intimate it is as he looks straight into the half-lidded gaze of Jongdae. His body is begging for more – strung tight and aware of the languid push of cock in his ass and the drawback, how it drags achingly over his rim before filling him up so completely that Zitao finds it hard to breathe.

Eventually, orgasm rattles through him, leaving him exhausted, and Jongdae swallows his cries with his mouth, kissing it all out of Zitao – all his moans, wails, his desperation and need and satisfaction, his adoration and anguish, his fear.

Eventually, they have to talk. They do. It’s two days before Jongdae leaves for university. His bedroom is barren except for his bed and the lamp still resting on his desk. In the corner of his room are two large suitcases containing most of his clothes and other things he will need – dishes and linens and a couple of books and movies he’s unwilling to let go of on his move to the dorms.

It’s been only a few seconds after Jongdae’s mother leaves tea and snacks on Jongdae’s desk when Jongdae picks up his cup and blows the steam away. ‘I guess it ends here.’

Trust Jongdae not to be subtle about anything. Zitao ignores the pang in his chest and picks up his own cup, seated at the edge of Jongdae’s bed, across from Jongdae reclining in his chair at his desk. ‘Does it… have to…?’ His voice wavers and he hates the sound of it.

Jongdae shoots him an unimpressed look over the rim of his cup. ‘I’m not going to come home for a year, Taozi. Even then, it’ll only be for the summer. I’m leaving.’ The finality of it doesn’t register in Zitao’s mind until it’s spilled out in front of him so plainly. ‘So, it’s just better if we finish this now. That way we can do whatever we want.’

‘I want you,’ says Zitao without thinking.

For just a second, Jongdae flinches. ‘You really fucking don’t.’

‘I thought you would stop that,’ he says. ‘Making decisions for me. Just cause you’re a few months older than me, Chenchen...’

‘Then I’m making this for myself.’ Zitao swallows at the sharp look in Jongdae’s eyes. ‘We’re done.’

‘And every time you told me – oh yeah – wo xihuan ni? What am I supposed to do with that?’

‘Forget it all.’

The silence stretches between them. Zitao doesn’t back down from Jongdae’s gaze – stubborn till the end. ‘One day, you’re going to stop being so fucking scared of having feelings,’ starts Zitao slowly. ‘Right now, it’s pathetic.’

Though nothing seems to change in Jongdae’s expression, something like cool anger seeps out of him, tickling at the edges of Zitao’s skin, making him shiver. ‘And you’ll stop blindly trusting anyone that comes your way. Best you learn now.’

Zitao clenches his jaw, fingers tight around his cup. ‘At least I fucking try. You just avoid it. I know I’m seventeen, Chen. I know I love you.’

‘Do you?’ snaps Jongdae. In a motion, he is leaning forward, face so close that Zitao can count his lashes, trace over the severe lines of his mouth, the sharp curve of his cheekbones. Dangerous. Zitao sucks in a sharp breath. ‘You want to be with the boy that makes you cry? You want to fuck the boy who destroys you? You want to try for the boy who can’t say he loves you? That’s who you love?’

Zitao’s voice is faint. ‘Yes.’

‘Then you’re fucking stupid,’ snarls Jongdae, putting his cup down and standing up. ‘I’m not going to do this. We’re fucking done here, Zitao – and you’re leaving.’

His eyes are burning. Slowly, Zitao stands up, setting his cup down on the desk, and grabs his cell phone and his bag. Jongdae isn’t looking at him, staring at the steam from the tea, the line of his shoulders tight, his spine straight, his jaw clenched.

Just before Zitao opens the bedroom door, he looks over his shoulder, his voice helpless. ‘Chen, wo ai ni.’ I love you.

‘I said leave, Tao,’ cuts in Jongdae, pinning him down with a glare that knocks the breath out of Zitao.

He’s always been unable to resist Jongdae, and maybe this isn’t any different. Carefully, he walks through Jongdae’s house, passing by the living room where Jongdae’s mother spots him. ‘Going so soon, Tao?’

‘Yes,’ he answers faintly. He bobs his head. ‘Ah, tell Chen too – thank you for everything.’ With that, he slips on his shoes and jacket, opens the door, and walks out.

Appa meets him when he gets home.

‘It hurts,’ says Zitao, his entire body trembling. ‘Everything hurts, appa.’ A sob racks through his body – sudden and jerking – and the flood of his tears cannot be stopped, sliding down his cheeks. There’s a void in his chest, all-consuming, and digs its claws at the space behind his ribs, the pain shooting all throughout Zitao. ‘Appa.’

Carefully, appa bundles him up in a blanket and curl up on the couch, watching some drama on TV at low volume as Zitao cries into appa’s shoulder, clutching desperately at his shirt. ‘I want to,’ he manages out, ‘I want to go back to China after high school.’ With another shuddering breath, he continues, ‘going to train and go to the international competition like what coach suggested. Can I do that?’

‘Yes, Zitao,’ murmurs appa into his hair, sliding a hand up and down Zitao’s back in comfort. ‘We’ll talk to baba and make plans.’

-

The last year of high school goes much the same as his other two years. Sehun and Jongin still stick by his side as they study for the university exam and juggle their extracurricular activities. Jongin takes dance classes with Sehun as Zitao throws himself into his wushu, letting his coach contact officials in China, offering options as to what he can do, whether he wants to balance wushu and university or one for another.

The months pass – Zitao turns eighteen, as do Sehun and Jongin. Zitao gets his official documents signed, stamped, and notarized, sending them off to Chinese universities – Beijiing and Chengdu and Shanghai and Hong Kong. His parents start finishing their business up in town, beginning to gather their things to move back to Beijing.

‘So, that’s it then? Going to leave us forever?’ asks Sehun, the cold snap of October making them huddle inside of the library. The university entrance exam is next month and they conquer a table with textbooks, taking a minor study break to have a hushed conversation while the librarian disappears into her office.

‘You can come with me,’ suggests Zitao cheerily. Sehun stares at him, enough to make Zitao laugh. ‘The internet exists, and appa is from here, we’ll probably visit again in the summer.’

‘You should,’ says Jongin. ‘The others will be here too. Yixing and Chanyeol – ’ His voice cuts off, apology on his face.

‘And Baekhyun and Jongdae,’ finishes Zitao for him. They had gone to the same university, entering the music faculty, though only Jongdae got the scholarship. ‘It’s been eight months, Jongin-ah – I think I can handle it.’

‘Well, I mean, you did sort of… get more of your shit together after he left,’ mentions Sehun.

‘That explains why you have none of yours together,’ snorts Jongin, and Zitao muffles his laughter in his hands, until the librarian comes out and shushes them.

-

November and December rush by. Acceptance letters start coming in the mail. Zitao’s coach introduces him to temples to train at when he moves back – the accommodations and specialization and mentions of how they treat their students.

By the time February parks itself out of Zitao’s door, the entirety of his home has been boxed up. Appa pulls out all their suitcases and instructs them to shove all their clothes and whatever’s not been packed up inside.

At the end of February, Appa and baba go back to their home in Beijing, and Zitao goes to the temple an hour away from Zhengzhou to train. The temple is clean and spacious, and he is welcomed by the students and teachers alike. Soon, they shave his hair off and offer him quaint accommodations of a cot, small desk, chair, and radio.

‘So you want to take part in the WWC by next year?’ asks one of the other trainees, eyes bright and smile welcoming. WWC - World Wushu Championships… Zitao hungers for it. To test his own mettle amongst the best of the best and conquer them. This is what he wants to do, this is why he’s here.

‘Haven’t been to the juniors’ competition though,’ he admits, but gets a dismissive wave.

‘As long as you’re good, right?’ replies the other.

‘Yeah,’ agrees Zitao, matching his grin with his own, getting comfortable in his new home.

For a year, he lives and trains.

-

He doesn’t go back to Korea that summer. They give him a week break, and he spends some time in Beijing with his parents. He’s surprised when he gets an email from Luhan, who’s also in the city due to his university, and they meet to catch up. It turns out Sehun has been passing out Zitao’s email to whoever they know asks.

Somehow, Zitao ends up with Yixing and Minseok’s emails from Luhan, and even Jongdae’s, though Zitao had deleted his number from his phone a long time ago. He tucks the information away to look at later, glancing up to see Luhan grinning at him over his food, ‘you look pretty good bald.’

Self-conscious, Zitao runs his palm over the fuzziness over his scalp that’s just growing in. ‘Thanks.’

‘Look pretty good in general,’ hums Luhan in approval. ‘This training stuff suits you. Keep going. Does that mean I’ll get to see you on TV soon?’

‘Maybe – if they think I’m good enough to compete.’ Zitao hums. ‘I’m going to keep at it until I do.’

‘Sounds like you,’ laughs Luhan. ‘Seriously stubborn. Anyway, how long are you here for? Want to try something fun?’

Luhan’s version of fun includes Beijing’s nightlife. Zitao digs through the boxes still unpacked at their home in Beijing finds his familiar assortment of silver jewellery – earrings and necklaces – as well as a mess of clothes that seem almost embarrassing with how much they make him look slutty and begging for it – tight, dark-washed jeans, low-collared tanks, a jacket that follows the line of his waist.

They visit a bar for dinner and then hop through three clubs. By the last one, Luhan is pleasantly smashed as his university friends tease him. Though Zitao feels a little disconnected from the crowd that Luhan has brought with him, they talk to him in excited tones anyway and admire what he’s doing. It’s warm and nice.

Zitao stays away from the alcohol, hyperaware of the condition of his body, but takes some sweet-tasting virgin drinks, enough to give him a sugar high if nothing else. On the dance floor, a boy takes to him, admiration and lust in his eyes. Zitao doesn’t think.

For the first time in a long time, he has sex. He won’t remember the boy’s name in the morning because the boy has no desire to give it. That’s fine, because whenever Zitao closes his eyes, he sees a sharp smile, a glimmering gaze.

‘God – harder,’ he begs – breathless – clinging to the headboard above him. ‘Please. Fuck me harder.’

‘How – ah – hard?’ asks the other. Zitao doesn’t know because he can’t think of anything else right now except the way he knows he can be taken apart, how he can be perfectly ruined. The problem is this boy doesn’t and Zitao doesn’t care to teach.

‘Bruises – want bruises,’ he manages to reply, and though he orgasms by the end of it, there’s still something unsatisfied swimming in his veins.

He goes home in the morning and lets Luhan know he’s safe and sound, if his ass is a little sore, and he’s probably going to dump these teenager clothes soon. They’re too tight on his frame now anyway.

‘Let me know when you’re back in Beijing again, and we can hang out,’ says Luhan when they meet again before Zitao goes back to the temple. ‘And seriously talk to Yixing, he worries about you.’

‘Okay,’ promises Zitao happily.

-

He doesn’t qualify for the WWC but they bring him along for observational experience. He’s a glorified cheerleader, and the hunger burns in his stomach, wants so badly to be the person on the mat, holding their bo tight within their hands, showing discipline and art in the same moment.

Zitao goes back to the temple and trains another year. If he changes, he’s not sure what it is. He talks with semi-regularity to Sehun and Jongin and Yixing, even sends an occasional update to Minseok and Luhan. Jongdae’s e-mail gets tossed in the trash. It’s for the better, knows Zitao. He has a life to live, goals to achieve, something that takes up his attention as it should.

In the following year, he is good enough to head to the WWC. His trainers gather around him in the locker room and leave him with murmured praise and advice before letting him sink into himself – that familiar wash of white noise and pull of anticipation in his stomach. When he picks up his bo and walks onto the mat, any thought of his life is swept away under the flood of his concentration. He’s made it this far, he won’t stop now.

By the end of it, he ranks second. The weight of the silver on his chest is more than what he expects and he cries while standing beside the rest of the athletes, wiping his face, as he searches for appa and baba’s face in the crowd cheering out loud amongst the stands.

‘I think,’ says Zitao on the flight back to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, ‘I think I’m going to use my prize money to go to university.’

Appa seems surprised beside him. ‘We can afford it. Use the money to treat yourself.’

He shakes his head. He wants – he wants to define himself on his own now. Without anyone else pushing him along. Maybe this is what has changed – the confidence he feels shimmering underneath his skin, the belief in himself, how he can be what he wants to be and no one can stop him.

For another year he trains at the temple while filling out university applications and sending them off. For his week break in Beijing, he meets Luhan once more, and even Yixing is in the city. Apparently, Yixing’s grandparents had made the move from Chengdu to Beijing for health reasons, and Zitao doesn’t pry. They catch up, laugh, and Yixing keeps Zitao company while Luhan tries his best to get wasted. By the end of the night, Luhan is waxing poetic about Minseok’s thighs and Yixing is recording it on his phone while Zitao tries to muffle his laughter.

He supposes it was inevitable that Luhan and Minseok finally got together, and he watches in admiration as Luhan tries to explain the trials and tribulations of a long-distance relationship. It’s the softness in his eyes, the gentility in his voice that reassures Zitao that they will be able to manage, because Luhan is desperately in love and even geography couldn’t stop him.

‘Still, he’s trying to get an exchange approved for Beijing next winter,’ Luhan had sighed happily. ‘I get to see him in person every day for months.’

Eventually, Yixing begins to drag Luhan home and waves to Zitao. ‘Don’t get in trouble,’ he says. ‘You’re too disciplined to use wushu on unsuspecting civilians, I know, so stay safe.’

‘Thank you,’ murmurs Zitao, suddenly feeling shy as warmth washes over him, like someone wants to take care of him. He stays around in the club, sipping his sugar drink, before slipping into the dancing crowd.

Someone takes Zitao home only half an hour later. This boy fucks him on his hands and knees, leaves bruises on his hips, and takes him apart roughly with his cock. Zitao sighs in glorious pleasure, missing the feeling, and hopes the boy will use his mouth too – try to tell Zitao how gorgeous he looks when his shoulders jut up and his spine arches. He doesn’t, but the rawness of the sex still rattles through Zitao’s body and leaves him pleased and exhausted.

In the middle of the night, the boy sinks down on Zitao’s cock for the second round. Zitao is twenty and strong – he fucks as the boy asks, deep and good, pinned down with weight and muscle. He likes this one, wants to keep him around, maybe learn a little more than his name. Like his favourite food or maybe his favourite kink.

But Zitao’s break comes to an end. Yixing waves him goodbye at the airport after handing him a pack of frozen dumplings. ‘They’re homemade. Share them with your friends.’

Back at the temple, Zitao resumes his life – practicing for the competition while waiting for his acceptance letters. The months and his birthday pass by – Zitao now officially twenty one. He goes back to the WWC – this time in the pressing heat of Goa, India. When he finishes his set, nodding to the judges, he knows he’s done absolutely perfect after three years of hard training.

He receives gold, prize money, and a deep-seated self-satisfaction that Zitao thinks will never be erased. He came here to do what he wanted to do, and now it was onto the next thing, the next event. When he goes back to the temple, he trains some more, just to have something to do, and instructs a new batch of trainees that show up should someone request it of him. Finally, his acceptance letters arrive. He sorts through them and talks for a long time on the phone with both appa and baba, as well as his fellow trainers and teachers.

Finally, he settles on Shanghai and packs up his things, bowing deeply to the monks that kept him here for so long. He receives smiles and waves and promises to keep in touch and come back soon before the van rattles down the mountainside to get to Zhengzhou’s airport.

He visits appa and baba first, gathers his things into two giant suitcases, and looks up apartments around the university.

‘Why don’t you want to stay in the campus dorms?’ asks appa.

‘I’m twenty-one, appa,’ replies Zitao. ‘I don’t think I’d fit in, and I’m not sure I want to.’ He’s gotten used to living in relative silence and independence. Though Zitao is not nearly as skilled at cooking as he wants to be, nor the cleanest person around – he craves to be himself. To stretch out his arms and feel space at the edges of his fingertips, like a promise that he can go even further if he wants to.

In late August, Zitao flies out to Shanghai – revels in the nostalgic sight of high towers, the masses of people, the swelling of noise, and familiar childhood mixture of city scent and ocean spray high in the air. He moves into his small apartment, buys a rice cooker and some cushions, and unpacks all his things. The university gives him a martial arts scholarship as well, requesting he join the club, and Zitao accepts.

University is vastly different from high school, but somehow echoes of the temple in that way that Zitao is surrounded by those who want to achieve, working hard to get to their goals, determination in their eyes. Zitao’s classes strain him intellectually rather than physically, but he finds the martial club is a good place to relax his body after a long day.

Cooking is a learning curve, as is trying to be clean and doing chores. Zitao goes to bed later than he should be either doing homework or talking excitedly to Sehun and Yixing over his laptop about what he’s doing. Yixing is in Hong Kong, and Sehun is back in Seoul, but they still make hopeless promises of seeing each other soon.

The first semester passes by, and he goes back to Beijing for family, as well as to see Luhan, Yixing, and now Minseok. Zitao uses his Korean that he still somehow keeps because of his weekly chats with Sehun, and seems to surprise everyone with how much he still remembers and understands, especially when Minseok begins to shoot back in rapid-fire Korean to tease when they all clobber him with Mandarin.

‘So you’re in Shanghai, huh?’ asks Minseok, grinning at him. ‘Jongdae’s brother is there.’

Zitao blinks – feels like it’s been centuries since he’s heard that name said out loud. ‘Really?’

‘Engineer – did you forget?’

‘That’s what happens when you live in the mountains for too long, not enough oxygen,’ says Luhan sagely and laughs when Zitao shoots him an incredulous look.

‘He’s still in Seoul, right?’ he asks. Both Yixing and Minseok nod, and Zitao suddenly realizes that just because he has left Jongdae behind doesn’t mean the rest of his friend group have lost touch.

‘He sings songs now,’ mentions Yixing. ‘He got signed under a label and released some stuff already. He’s going to finish his last year of university before going overseas apparently.’

‘He’s a good singer, but I’m better,’ declares Luhan, before belting into a cheesy love ballad that earns them a lot of curious looks of the other patrons. Minseok laughs and shoves the straw of his drink into Luhan’s mouth to muffle him, while Yixing and Zitao team up to snap embarrassing pictures of the moment.

-

When he gets back to Shanghai, he meets a nice boy and they date. Between school, martial arts, and a relationship, Zitao forgets all about Jongdae. The boyfriend he has is pleasant – like some nostalgic throwback to the first boy back in middle school. He makes Zitao laugh and cheers him on when Zitao enters smaller wushu tournaments with his team to keep his scholarship.

They have sex for the first time three weeks into their relationship. Zitao doesn’t particularly think it’s very fast, but in hindsight – Zitao has always thrown himself headlong, all the way till the end. It intimidates some people. Apparently it had intimidated his boyfriend too when they break up three months later.

Before that happens – Zitao explores his kinks till the end. The boyfriend seems happy to bob along to Zitao’s ideas. They start slow – hickeys and bruises and nail marks, and climb towards restraints, sensory deprivation, gags. Zitao slowly, carefully learns how to read the wants in someone’s body language, how to push them to push back. It is a glorious learning experience through and through.

The break-up should’ve been predictable, but still it hurts. Zitao’s friends from university take him drinking on the weekend, and Zitao meets another boy with alarming speed. They don’t fuck – which is what Zitao half-expects – and instead the boy hails him a taxi and waves from the curbside as the car leaves, clutching his phone with Zitao’s number in it.

In a week, he’s going on pleasant coffee dates with said boy, wondering why his feelings seem to shift so absolutely quickly. He talks to Yixing one day, ‘am I being… flighty? I’m not… cheating on my ex, but it sort of feels that way with how fast I seem to move on.’

Yixing’s grainy video image shakes his head. ‘Not every boy is forever. Some of them leave stronger impressions than others, and if this one just didn’t impress, of course you’ll pass by quickly. Nothing is wrong with you, Zitao.’ His voice is still soothing through the speakers of Zitao’s laptop, and Zitao relaxes.

‘He was really nice,’ insists Zitao, but knows the truth in Yixing’s words. This new boy isn’t particularly different in essence. Sure, he likes his coffee different and prefers car chases over martial arts fight scenes, and believes that green looks prettier on Zitao than red – but he’s a nice boy, a pleasant boy, and Zitao thinks he deserves one of those, so he takes it with a happy smile and warm feelings.

Sex with nice boys means that Zitao gets to explore his desires once more. This nice boy likes switching and Zitao follows along, learns to try and take apart his partner instead of the other way around. It’s slow-going, but he is always pleased when his boyfriend shudders and comes in a heaving mess because of what Zitao did. In a way, he’s satisfied – he made the boy happy, he took away the boy’s control and made him come hard and filthy over the sheets. He did well.

By the time the second semester runs its course, Zitao has a solid stack of grades, his scholarship able to be renewed, and plans to possibly get a pet. In exchange, his boyfriend decides to look for jobs along the coastline in Guangzhou and breaks up with him to make the move.

With Minseok and Luhan as an example, Zitao knows they couldn’t have managed a long-distance relationship. Zitao doesn’t say his now ex-boyfriend’s name with the same reverence and unadulterated joy that Luhan does with Minseok, and he most certainly has no plans to follow the boy from Shanghai, not when Zitao has worked so hard to be here.

Sehun laughs and announces he’s coming over the summer to Shanghai to see Zitao. Zitao cleans up his tiny apartment as best as he can and buys more blankets and cushions. Zitao also gets a part-time job at the university gym during the summer months to come in three days a week to as an assistant teacher of an introductory martial arts class for young children.

One week into summer break, Zitao meets Sehun for the first time in person in almost too long at the airport under the sweltering heat. Sehun’s blonde hair is almost blinding under the sun, but Zitao loves it – runs his hands through it and laughs as Sehun bats him away before dragging him into a hug.

‘You – fuck – why are you so strong and just – oh my god,’ rambles Sehun, beating his fists gently against Zitao’s torso before shaking his head. ‘I saw all those WWC videos, you know. You should go back, kick some more ass.’

Zitao shrugs, helping Sehun with his luggage and hailing a taxi, allowing himself to splurge for Sehun’s comfort. ‘University is hard enough. You’re going into your last year and I’ve just finished my first, okay.’

‘Whatever, man.’ Sehun runs a hand through his hair, and Zitao reaches out to touch it again, grinning at the fact that someone had convinced this was a good idea. It was. It suited him wonderfully.

Though Sehun is only here for two weeks – ‘my job giving me the shortest vacation time ever, I’m so pissed, but whatever, now I can afford coming here’ – and Zitao tries to make the most of it.

During the day, he tours Sehun throughout the city, trying out the street food and some famous restaurants, before spending long afternoons along the beaches or cluttering inside Zitao’s apartment with movies on his laptop as the rice cooker works. Sehun laughs when Zitao tries to sleep on the floor and drags him into the tiny cot, tangling their legs together, warm under the blankets.

Halfway through the second week, Zitao wakes to the feeling of Sehun muffling a yawn against the back of Zitao’s neck when he finally slurs out, ‘what time is it?’

‘Almost noon. We shouldn’t have marathoned that drama,’ says Zitao, staring at his phone screen blearily. ‘Still. We got eight hours of sleep.’

‘You should’ve stopped us,’ accuses Sehun without any heat before kicking off the blanket and stretching his arms upwards in a languid stretch.

‘Maybe I would’ve if you weren’t so worried about your lady crush,’ teases the other, propping himself upwards as well, and is surprised when Sehun curls an arm around his waist, tucking himself close.

‘Tao,’ croons Sehun, voice sickeningly sweet. Zitao’s face freezes in place.

‘I don’t know what you’re going to ask, but if it’s in that voice, I refuse,’ replies Zitao, shuffling off the cot and starting the rice cooker. He digs through his small fridge and pulls out eggs and onions, then greases up a pan.

Behind him, he hears Sehun shuffle around. ‘It’s not too bad. I just need directions.’

Zitao looks over his shoulder to see Sehun disappear in the bathroom. ‘Directions?’

Sehun appears a few seconds later with a toothbrush poking out of his mouth. ‘Chen’s in town.’

Something feels like it slips out from under Zitao’s feet. He stares blankly for a few seconds, like he’s not quite sure what he’s heard. But he is – it’s three words and they seem completely surreal. Sehun really liked Jongdae – of course they would keep in touch, and of course Sehun would try to keep it away from Zitao. They’re best friends, and Sehun would never mention anything that he thinks would hurt Zitao if he could. It makes a rush of both betrayal and warmth rush in his chest – a dichotomy that seems to make Zitao face do something because Sehun is suddenly concerned.

‘Look – nevermind, forget I said anything. Let’s go do something else today.’ Sehun waves a hand through the air. ‘He’s not that important anyway.’

‘No,’ Zitao hears himself say – his voice coming as if from a distance. ‘No, I – I think I want to come with you. If that’s okay.’

Sehun’s brows furrow in worry, but he nods. ‘Okay. If you’re sure.’

‘It’s been four years,’ he replies. ‘I can handle it, Sehun.’ He pauses. ‘Thanks… for… just telling it.’ Zitao doesn’t know what he would have felt if Sehun had simply sneaked away while they were out to see Jongdae like he couldn’t trust Zitao.

‘No problem,’ says Sehun, with a quirk to his mouth. ‘Now – your guest is hungry, Taozi!’ Zitao feels the atmosphere dispel when he catches himself laughing at Sehun’s imperious tone. A beat later, he turns back to the food, feeling almost excited.

-

They head into the heart of the city, walking along the streets under the shadows of the skyscrapers, jostling against the crowd as they try to figure out the streetsigns and directions on their cell phones. Eventually, Zitao points out a tall building with the logo and company name that Sehun had mentioned Jongdae’s brother worked at.

They walk into the air-conditioned lobby. Milling around are people in straight suits and shining dress shoes, collars buttoned and tightened with ties. As expected, there are plants in the corners, as well as a line of couches for people to sit and wait while the secretaries behind the desk pull up their appointment lists. It’s very formal and white-collar, different from what Zitao has been through, though Sehun breezes past them with confidence.

‘Don’t pay them any mind and they’ll ignore you too,’ he says in Zitao’s ear. ‘Seriously. I work with people like them.’

So Zitao shrugs off the imagined looks he seems to be getting in his shorts and tanktop, pierced ears and tongue and rings on his fingers, dark hair still cropped close to his skull as he’s still not used to letting it grow out after three years of being bald.

It takes a moment for Zitao to recognize the man sitting on one of the lobby couches. His dark hair is cut short; his bangs styled upwards to show his forehead, dressed in white blazer over a white shirt and pale blue jeans despite the pressing heat. It’s the slice of sunlight that cuts its way over the man’s cheekbone that gives him away – nostalgia a ball in Zitao's throat.

‘Chen!’ calls out Sehun, because Zitao is having problems trying to suppress the mixed emotions rushing up his esophagus. It turns out four years might’ve been a weaker defense than he thought, but Zitao is different now – he’s not seventeen and willng to follow Jongdae through the dark and kiss his mouth tasting the acrid smoke of cigarettes and god-knows-what-else until he lost himself.

He straightens himself out and meets Jongdae’s gaze when the man looks up from his phone in surprise. Two months away from twenty three, Jongdae’s face is angled and sharp, more handsome than eighteen. Yet when he stands up, Zitao can’t help but grin at the fact that both he and Sehun simply tower over Jongdae’s small stature.

‘You found it,’ he says, voice still familiarly deep, as he hugs Sehun. ‘Been a long time.’ He pulls away and faces Zitao, a smile on his mouth, dragging his eyes over the other’s face. ‘Taozi.’

The nickname in Jongdae’s voice slides like a good drink down Zitao’s throat. He relaxes and nods. ‘Chenchen.’

Jongdae doesn’t touch Zitao, and for that he’s thankful. It’s been a long time, and they’re not the same people anymore. Instead, Zitao lets Sehun bridge the gap between them, talking excitedly about the places they’ve seen and asking where Jongdae wants to go. Jongdae mentions that he’s missed lunch by hanging out with his brother at the worksite, so Zitao and Sehun debate about the best food near here before Zitao lets Sehun win. He’s the guest after all.

If there is awkwardness, it dispels over food. Zitao mentions the local specialties that he’s learned about and laughs at Jongdae’s attempts to pronounce on his own. Sehun gives up on the menu and just leans on Zitao’s shoulder as Zitao translates. Eventually, they get their orders across and are left with one another as the food cooks.

Sehun is good at conversing – they have a lot to catch up on – and Jongdae follows the conversation, smiling pleasantly all the while, his eyes crinkled at the corners like he can’t be happier to be anywhere except right here, right now. Zitao finds it so strange, but familiar – and he keep reminding himself that it’s been four years. No one stays static for four years.

The food comes out, and silence reigns as they eat. Once they’ve had their fill and more tea is poured into their cups, Zitao feels sated and lazy, especially with Sehun’s warmth pressed up all along the side of his arm. He muffles a yawn – it seems like the late night was taking a toll on him at least.

‘If you’re tired, I won’t keep you,’ says Jongdae, chin propped up in his hand as he watches Zitao. Zitao perks up, surprised at the acknowledgement but shakes his head.

‘No, didn’t sleep too much last night.’

It earns a raised eyebrow. Jongdae nods. ‘I see.’ The subject is dropped and he turns his attention back to Sehun.

By the time they leave the restaurant it’s evening, the lights of the streets coming on to fight the shadows of everything around them – the buildings, apartments, shops, rush of people around them in the crowded mecca of Shanghai. It took Zitao some time to get used to tuning out the various sounds of voices, yelling, bells, honking, car engines, amongst everything else, when he first settled down in the city – but now it’s a soothing white noise, that promises anonymity and the knowledge that Zitao is not alone. He is surrounded by life and people all trying to do what they must, just like him.

In the end, it’s a short meet-up. Jongdae says goodbye, but seems to hesitate in front of Zitao. Instead, he keeps his distance, ‘it was nice seeing you after so long.’

‘Yeah, you too,’ replies Zitao, surprised at how genuine he feels. There’s a beat, then, ‘maybe we should try to meet up again, soon. If you’re still here with your brother.’

He expects Jongdae to say no, because Jongdae doesn’t get close to people, doesn't let the press of his emotions creep around the edges of his armour. But this is four years later and he shouldn’t be surprised when Jongdae nods. ‘Could I have your email then?’ He offers up his phone, and Zitao takes it, careful not to touch fingers.

Once done, he gives it back, and waves to Jongdae as the man gets in a taxi and disappears down the road. Sehun nods to himself in satisfaction. ‘That wasn’t bad at all. Can’t believe he has an album in the works though. I mean, he’s good – but…’

Zitao laughs and begins walking, hustling Sehun along. ‘He’s really good.’

‘You heard him sing in high school,’ accuses the other, but Zitao only shrugs. ‘I got bronze in Korea in high school. Now I’m a WWC athlete.’

‘I don’t like grown-up you,’ says Sehun after a pause. ‘You have too much of your shit together.’

At which point Zitao keels over laughing because his closet is a mess, he still hasn’t chosen his courses for next year, he wants to adopt a cat in his tiny apartment but has no time to take care of it, and his part-time job doesn’t pay him enough, and he can’t manage a boyfriend for the long-term. None of his shit is together – but he doesn’t mention it, only keeps pushing Sehun in the right direction back home.

-

At the end of the week, Zitao sends Sehun off at the airport after a possibly tearful goodbye that he tries to cover up but Sehun laughs at him anyway and wipes his face, complimenting on his choice of waterproof eyeliner.

Eventually, Sehun boards, and Zitao drags himself home, pouting all the way, and hopeing against hope he can visit his best friend in Korea or vice-versa. Surprisingly, he gets an email while cooking dinner. It’s from Jongdae, the text rife with formalities and stiff language. It makes Zitao snort – how every sentence seems to ooze nervousness, except when has Jongdae ever felt nervous in his life. Still, the message comes through – would you like to meet up for coffee tomorrow around two with details of a café underneath.

Zitao munches idly at his food, replies with a short sure, see you then! and pulls back up his saved tabs about housetraining cats.

-

It’s when he wakes up in the morning that he realizes that he’s – essentially – going on a date with Jongdae. Suddenly, his stomach drops, and Zitao isn’t prepared at all for seeing Jongdae on his own. There’s no Sehun to press on despite any lingering awkwardness, and Jongdae is alone in the city with just his brother to keep him company.

Still, Zitao faces it head-on. He pulls on some clothes – jeans and a bright shirt, accessorizes as usual, throws on a pair of shades, and slips his wallet in his back pocket before plugging in the address to the café into his phone.

Though he leaves his apartment early, public transportation slows him down, and Zitao ends up at the place a few minutes past two, opening the door and scanning the tables in the well-lit interior to spot Jongdae by the street-side window with a cup in his hands.

Jongdae stands up when he spots Zitao, smiling. ‘You made it.’

‘Yeah, sorry – did you already order?’

‘Go get something for yourself and then we can talk.’ It’s not an order, but a suggestion – and yet Zitao still feels a familiar prickle on his skin at the easy way Jongdae looks at him and speaks, with a deep voice and confidence that Zitao will do as he says.

A minute later, Zitao slides into the seat opposite to Jongdae, feeling the condensation of his cup his palms – cool and soothing. Familiar. ‘How long are you in Shanghai?’

‘Till the end of the summer,’ replies Jongdae. ‘Umma wants me to stay with hyung until I go back to school. Brush up on my Mandarin so I can sing for my label.’ He traces the edge of the table with his still-small hands, a nervous gesture if Zitao didn’t know any better – it’s a sign that Jongdae is thinking. ‘And you go to university here,’ he says after a beat. ‘I saw you compete when I was back in Seoul. You were fucking amazing.’

It startles a laugh out of Zitao – the familiar praise littered with cuss words; the same type of statements that got a glare from appa way back when. ‘I haven’t listened to any of your stuff,’ he admits. ‘Internet was hard to get back in the mountains.’

Jongdae waves a hand in dismission. ‘It’s not good enough anyway. They’re still putting me through vocal training. Also tone pronounciation.’ He heaves a sigh. ‘Fuckin’ Mandarin.’

Zitao smiles at that. ‘You weren’t that awful back then.’

‘Don’t condescend me,’ snaps the other without any heat, a grin playing at the corner of his mouth. ‘Why didn’t you lose your Korean yet, huh?’

‘Sehun doesn’t know a word of Mandarin. Talking to him is like having a refresher class every week.’

Something flickers over Jongdae’s face. ‘How long has it been?’

‘Has what been?’ Zitao’s brows furrow.

‘Since you two started dating,’ explains Jongdae plainly, like this was obvious. Zitao stares at him for a beat before bursting into laughter.

‘We’re not – no. No. Fuck, Chen, where did you even get that?’

Being wrong irritates him. Jongdae prides himself in reading people, knows Zitao, and it feels good to catch him off-guard. The other takes a sip from his drink, reviewing his assumptions, talking slowly, ‘you guys were touchy-feely as fuck, knew everything about each other – there wasn’t any catching up the other day – and the whole ‘being tired, late night’ excuse.’ Jongdae pins him with a glare. ‘Don’t lie.’

Zitao snorts, sucking obnoxiously from his straw. ‘He’s my best friend. We were touchy-feely as fuck too, if you don’t remember.’

‘I remember other things more,’ replies Jongdae. Mouth suddenly dry, Zitao meets that glimmering gaze, the dangerous curve at the corner of Jongdae’s lips. He quickly looks at the window instead, alternating between watching the pedestrians and their reflections in the glass.

‘Don’t,’ he finally says. Jongdae’s reflection tilts his head, lashes flicking as he blinks and nods

‘Sure.’

With a sigh, Zitao asks Jongdae where he’s been in the city, where he wants to go, if he’s stopped by the restaurant port-side with fresh crab yet – it’s the best Zitao’s ever had. They studiously avoid the subject of the past, and don’t bring up their old friends unless it’s about what they’re doing in university or at work now. For this, Zitao is thankful – his life would be some extraordinary cliché if he got into bed with an old friend on the first date, no matter how tempting the thought.

Zitao lets slip that he wants a kitten, and Jongdae proposes to pick one out now. ‘Why not? Do you have any other plans today?’

Which is how they end up – an hour later – at an adoption clinic for animals. Jongdae reads the little info tags while Zitao coos over every soft, fluffy thing he spots. One of the employees greet them both, under an assumption that neither of them bother to correct and Zitao thinks nothing of it. Couples get an easier time with obtaining pets anyway, he reassures himself.

Three hours later, Zitao is standing outside on the curb with fostering papers, a sizeable dent in his savings, and a rather shy cat. ‘Was this a good idea?’

‘Of course it was,’ replies Jongdae, like Zitao’s asking ridiculous questions. He gestures down the sidewalk with one of his hands that are laden with cat supplies – litter box, a water and food bowl, small toys, and treats. ‘Do we part here and should I walk you to your place? Considering I have – y’know – all your shit.’

Zitao’s twenty-two and knows this could go very badly, but he thinks if he can get a cat, he can invite Jongdae to his apartment. It’s not as if he isn’t an adult who can make decisions for himself. ‘Sure. Let’s go.’

Carefully, he picks up the cat carrier with one hand and the bag heavy with cat food and cat litter as he starts walking, chatting idly with Jongdae. It’s surprisingly comfortable because Jongdae follows every topic till it switches, natural and easy. They still have that way of talking to one another, realizes Zitao – that simple exchange, always flowing, and if it trickles to a stop, the silence doesn’t sit uncomfortably between them. It’s the way that Jongdae’s shoulders are always easily sloped, like he doesn’t mind whether he’s talking or not, and the lack of expectations makes Zitao feel easy.

When his apartment comes into view, Zitao carefully unlocks the door and climbs the stairs. ‘It’s – um – not as clean as it could be.’

‘I really didn’t expect anything else, Tao,’ replies Jongdae, laughter in his voice. Zitao pouts at him but opens the door anyway, revealing his tiny bachelor’s apartment. Along one wall is his small kitchen, the other wall has his cot, fan, and low table that also works as a desk. Beside the kitchen is the bathroom, and all along the other two walls are shelves, full of trinkets, Zitao’s competition trophies, university textbooks, other books, albums, magazines, and whatever stuff won’t fit in his clusterfuck of a closet that is beside his bed.

Jongdae whistles low at the sight, putting the bags of cat stuff down on the table, knocking over some empty take-out boxes that Zitao still has to throw in his trash. Zitao feels an embarrassed flush crawl over his cheeks. ‘I wasn’t expecting company. And it was much cleaner with Sehun around.’

‘Sure,’ soothes the other, obviously mocking, as he begins to unpack the various things from the bag, setting them down on the floor and setting up a living space for the cat in general amongst the mess of Zitao’s apartment.

The cat carrier is opened a few minutes later. Jongdae sits on Zitao’s bed as Zitao coos and coaxes the small, shy thing outside. It takes a few minutes, but eventually Zitao is stepping back as the cat sniffs around itself in curiosity, acquainting itself with the floor at least before moving onto bigger, newer things like the kitchen.

Zitao is quiet, trying not to scare it, and eventually backs off and sits in silence beside Jongdae as they both watch it explore the small space Zitao calls his living room. They sit close together – like they always did – and Zitao can feel the warmth of Jongdae beside him, comforting and familiar.

He props his elbows on his knees and coos out softly again, watching the cat’s ears twitch at the sound. ‘Kai, come here.’ Beside him, Jongdae muffles his laugh against the palm of his hand, picking up one of the dangling cat toys and handing it over Zitao. ‘Try this.’

Kai takes to it with enthusiasm, but doesn’t follow the toy when Zitao moves it towards the kitchen. He looks up at Jongdae, still seated and watching with a soft smile on his mouth. ‘Can you entertain him while I make dinner?’

Jongdae seems surprised, but nods. Zitao tosses the toy over, and Jongdae seats himself on the floor beside the table, ‘Kai, over here.’ The cat turns around, sees the toy in familiar territory, and bounds over.

‘What’re you making?’

‘Something cheap and familiar for my guest.’

‘Ramyeon?’ asks Jongdae, amused.

‘I’m not that cheap!’ says Zitao, pride hurt. He cracks another egg in the pan. ‘Omurice,’ he admits in a small voice, and feels his cheeks flush when Jongdae laughs behind him, keeping Kai distracted.

Kai’s food and water bowl are set in the kitchen, tempting the cat. Zitao and Jongdae eat their meal at Zitao’s sometimes-table-mostly-desk and watch as the cat approaches the bowls with curiosity and hunger. ‘Your cat is pretty cute,’ mentions Jongdae idly. ‘But he’s lucky you aren’t feeding him.’

‘If you really don’t like it, I’ll eat it for you,’ snaps Zitao, shoving Jongdae’s shoulder in a huff. It’s the first time he’s touched Jongdae in four years, and he’s surprised at the lack of give in Jongdae’s frame. How Zitao’s strength could tip him over if he was caught off-guard years earlier. Instead, Jongdae stays put and throws him an amused look.

‘I’m kidding. I’m going to get more salt though.’

‘In the cabinet beside the fridge,’ says Zitao and resumes watching Kai finally touch his nose to the water in the bowl before shaking his head and backing off. Jongdae comes back and hums in satisfaction at the taste, settling beside Zitao and snorting as Kai makes another attempt at the water bowl and scampers away.

It feels terrifyingly comfortable.

Once he finishes his meal and heaves a sigh of relief as Kai acquaints himself with his food bowl, Zitao glances over and meets Jongdae’s gaze – those dark eyes and straight brows. Always making him look a bit more innocent than he was. They’re sitting close and Jongdae’s body is warm. Everything feels settled around Zitao like a warm blanket – certain and safe – despite the near-stranger in his home and his new pet.

Jongdae opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything for a beat, before finally settling on a smile strained at the edges. ‘I should go. Thank you for the meal. It was nice seeing you again.’

It’s unfailingly polite, maintains the distance that Zitao requested of him earlier. Don’t talk about us. Don’t talk about how we used to be. Don’t talk about what we could be. Don’t.

‘Okay,’ agrees Zitao, standing up and following Jongdae to the door, watching him slip on his shoes. ‘We should – we could meet up again. If you want.’

Jongdae looks up at him through his lashes. The smiles he offers up makes his cheeks go round and his eyes crinkle, and suddenly Zitao has the urge to cup his face between calloused hands, to press their foreheads together, to – ‘I do,’ cuts in Jongdae’s voice. ‘I know you have to work tomorrow, so is the day after tomorrow alright?’

‘Yeah – it’s perfect. I’ll show you around.’

‘See you,’ murmurs Jongdae, and his hand comes forward to touch the arch of Zitao’s wrist fleetingly. The touch is warm, makes Zitao’s skin tingle when Jongdae pulls away, and he stands in the doorway as Jongdae clambers down the stairs and heads out to go home.

-

‘I leave you for – what – two weeks? And you’ve already gone on three dates and got a pet with him?’ Sehun’s face is scrunched up in incredulity. ‘No – this is up Yixing-hyung’s alley. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what you do with your ex-boyfriend. Ever.’

‘It was his idea,’ defends Zitao as he pokes at his stirfry over the stove, laptop perched on the tiny kitchen counter beside the rice cooker that’s just stopped beeping. Kai slinks between his ankles, sniffing the scent of fried meat in the air. ‘And they’re not dates, they’re – y’know – meet ups. I don’t go on dates with Luhan when I go to Beijing. We get together for – ah – not-romantic dinners.’

‘Platonic,’ offers Sehun. Zitao pronounces the Korean word on his tongue and nods, so Sehun keeps going. ‘Yeah, but you never used to get in bed with Luhan or Yixing or Minseok or me.’

Zitao laughs a little at that – how, when Sehun had visited, they had been crushed against each other on the small cot with the fan on full blast and windows cracked open in vain hope of catching a cool breeze. Sehun rolls his eyes. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘It’s… easy? I know him and it’s easy.’

‘Well, yeah, but then you’re going to realize what made you not stay with him – or did Kim Jongdae suddenly become a nice boy over four years?’

‘Sort of? Maybe?’ Zitao cringes. He turns off the heat and tips his stirfry into a bowl, not looking at Sehun’s face, the disbelieving expression he knows he will find there. ‘I know I’m different than when I was at seventeen, so of course he’s changed too.’ He peeks up at the video screen. ‘What do you think? You talk to him, right?’

‘It’s not about whether you guys are grown up or not,’ says Sehun, chin propped in his hand. ‘But whether you guys are gonna default back to your teenage disaster counterparts. You were seriously in love with him, Tao.’

Zitao focuses back on his food, taking another bowl and filling it with rice. ‘I’m going with him to an opera next week.’

‘That is so weird.’

‘He needs to learn how to sing in Mandarin, doesn’t he?’

‘Also expensive.’

‘His brother is the one who got him two tickets.’

‘Tao!’ Sehun’s voice goes crackled from Zitao’s speakers. Zitao sets his food down on the table and comes back to carry his laptop over. Kai peeks up from his water bowl at Sehun’s voice before going back to drinking.

‘I’m an adult,’ says Zitao stubbornly, making Sehun snort. ‘I can handle it.’

‘Pretty sure the first rule of dating is not to date your ex, but I could also just be quoting from the book of common sense.’

Zitao ignores him. ‘You know I’m going to call you right after it’s done.’

Sehun sighs miserably. ‘I’ll be here.’

-

‘You look good,’ is the first thing Jongdae says when Zitao steps out of his apartment building. He figures if they’re going to pretend to be grown up and pretentious, he should pull out the one set of dress clothes he actually likes and put it on – dark slacks, sleek shoes, and a button-up with the sleeves rolled up to reveal his rings and bracelets. As if he was going without those.

‘Just good?’ he asks, teasing, but he remembers eighteen year old Jongdae and his small hands on Zitao’s body, so fucking hot, look gorgeous, beautiful, and ‘good’ simply paled in comparison. Nervous, Zitao flicks at his dark hair – still short – and tries not to think of the bottle of hair dye sitting in his bathroom. Sehun was right. He was reverting. At least it was blonde and not red. He wasn’t a lost cause.

‘Just good,’ agrees Jongdae pleasantly, gesturing to the taxi. They both clamber in and Jongdae resumes talking. ‘Hyung is ridiculous – he’s trying so hard to get me as comfortable in China as I can. What am I going to do at an opera, honestly. But I can’t refuse him.’

‘This is going to go badly, isn’t it?’ laughs out Zitao, watching the streets pass by them, smelling the ocean salt on the air with the taxi’s windows all rolled down.

‘Definitely.’ Jongdae is grinning, dressed in all black – slacks, button-up, and blazer despite the heat. There’s a silver stud in his ear and his tattoo is revealed for all to see, but the eyebrow piercing seems to have grown over in the last few years.

Involuntarily, Zitao leans in, curious – ‘are you wearing eyeliner?’ He skirts his fingers over Jongdae’s cheekbone to his brow, his own mouth curling in delight. ‘You are.’

‘So are you,’ points out Jongdae with a grin. His head leans against Zitao’s fingers, lashes fluttering closed as if to savour the touch. It makes him look absolutely vulnerable. Zitao sucks in a sharp breath and pulls away, settling back against the seat. That wasn’t – that wasn’t what Jongdae did. He was always in control, reigning in his feelings, always closed up. Zitao’s hand drops into his lap, fingertips tingling

Jongdae is looking at him, the smile still playing on his mouth, before he flicks his gaze to the window to follow the view as it rushes past them. ‘Hyung would kill me if he saw us. Like two teenagers pretending to be adults.’

‘Sounds about right,’ quips Zitao. He meets Jongdae’s gaze and feels himself smile back – a little tentative – still hyperaware of his fingers. ‘Will we even get through the night?’

‘Probably not.’

-

Zitao’s never met Jongdae’s brother nor his father, but Jongdae informs him that his hyung is almost thirty years old, married and has two daughters. The opera tickets had cycled amongst the engineers – none of them particularly interested when they’re plied with projects and responsibilities during the height of summer when production was highest – until it landed in his hyung’s lap and he had shrugged and handed it over to his rebellious little brother.

‘Parents don’t mind that I’m recording songs,’ he mentions, ‘but it’s only because I’m the second child.’ He laughs and fixes the cuff of his blazer as they approach the theatre. The lobby is well-lit, with a woman behind a counter inspecting tickets. Jongdae hands them over, seemingly oblivious to the way how the woman’s eyes land on the curling bass clef tattoed on his neck.

Unthinking, Zitao drapes an arm around Jongdae’s shoulders, his fingers scratching lightly through the cropped hair right above the knobs of Jongdae’s spine, possessive. Jongdae’s lashes flutter – sensitive to the touch.

They pull away after the tickets are confirmed, and go looking for their seats within the theatre. They’re still talking when the lights dim and the curtains come down, before Zitao tries to shush him with a hand over Jongdae’s mouth and sqwacks when Jongdae licks his fingers.

The play itself is a re-enactment of a myth that baba used to tell him when he was younger. It’s a love story, but it promises to finish in tragedy, so Zitao spoils the ending to Jongdae during the intermission when they go hunting for alcohol in the lobby.

‘Well.’ Jongdae scans over the alcohol list again before turning to Zitao. ‘Do you want to get out of here?’

A flush of excitement warms Zitao’s stomach when he meets Jongdae’s gaze, how gorgeous Jongdae looks in his dark clothes with his dark eyes, promising nothing good. ‘Yes,’ he breathes.

An hour later and they’ve ended up on the beach in the dark, sand on the balls of their feet, the rush of waves crashing against the shore filling up Zitao’s ears as he sinks his toes deep in the still-warm sand. Jongdae is ahead of him, sleeves and slacks rolled up, as he crouches by the shore and feels the water lap at his toes. He looks small on the horizon – like Zitao could simply pick him up, keep him, take him home –

He stops his train of thought and walks along the sand, dancing away when the water comes too close to his feet. Jongdae is a few metres away, looking at him. In the dark, his expression is unclear, but Zitao still shivers under the attention. There’s nostalgia swimming in his veins – the sound of the ocean similar to the river, the sand dunes replacing the grass beside the canals they used to sit beside and drink, the dark sky still the same. It feels almost timeless – Zitao could be twenty two or seventeen; could be their town back in Korea or in Shanghai.

Jongdae stands up when Zitao comes near, the shadows of his face sliding away to reveal a contented expression. ‘You should get home. Kai needs you.’

‘What about you?’

‘Maybe I’ll sleep in the sand,’ he shrugs, kicking it up with his feet. Zitao makes a surprised sound and backpedals away, trying to shake off the grains from his clothes.

‘So mature,’ he bites out without heat.

‘Hey, I am,’ Jongdae defends. A silence settles between them, and Zitao feels it weigh on his shoulders with unsaid questions. He sorts through them but none seem to encompass everything Zitao wants to know.

Instead, he grabs Jongdae’s discarded blazer and spreads it over the sand before sitting down on it as it’s a makeshift blanket. Jongdae props his hands on his hips, obviously unimpressed. ‘That’s mine.’

‘And now it’s under my ass and it’s mine,’ drawls Zitao, spreading his legs out against the sand and leaning back on his hands. Jongdae turns away with an exasperated shake of his head and walks slowly through the sand, seemingly savouring the warmth on his bare feet.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the late hour, the night tangled around Zitao, keeping him warm and anonymous, and the fact that Jongdae wasn’t looking at him, that lets Zitao open his mouth again and simply ask, ‘Chen, why are you here?’

In front of him, Jongdae stops and his shoulders rise up in a careless shrug. ‘Because I want to be.’

He doesn’t turn around and the barrier that is the sight of his back leaves Zitao’s tongue free. ‘Why are you taking me out on dates?’

‘Because I want to.’ Jongdae takes one step away, another, begins to balance on one foot then the other, teetering back and forth. From Zitao’s point of view, he looks childish, vulnerable.

‘Chenchen,’ he starts. ‘This isn’t high school anymore.’

Jongdae swings around on his heel, his face half-hidden by the dark, but his expression reads as serious. ‘I know that.’

‘Then what are you doing?’

‘Honestly?’ Jongdae shoves his hands in his pocket, going still, his gaze intent. ‘I’m standing in the middle of the night on a beach in Shanghai, waiting for you to invite me to your place so I can fuck you.’

Zitao makes a surprised sound but he can’t bring it in himself to deny it. How badly he simply wants. He knows Jongdae’s body, and Jongdae knows his, and there would be no learning curve. Jongdae could take him apart, slowly and carefully, without remorse, the way none of his boyfriends were capable of doing. And the absolute worst part of this is that Jongdae knows. All Zitao has to do is ask.

He swallows. ‘That’s a bad idea.’

‘Yeah, but when have we ever been good?’ Jongdae is watching him. ‘I want you.’ He says it completely upfront and blunt, and it stuns Zitao – because when has Jongdae ever been so vulnerable like this? All his feelings available for Zitao to prod at if he simply asks? He realizes – then and there – that it’s not just him who has changed. Jongdae’s different too. In ways that Zitao hasn’t figured out but he itches to know.

‘If you don’t want me,’ continues Jongdae, ‘then tell me. And I can back off. I’ll be your friend. Or nothing at all.’ He cocks his head, not letting Zitao’s gaze slip away from his own. ‘This time, you’ll tell me.’

‘No longer deciding things for me?’ A smile pricks at Zitao’s mouth. ‘How mature of you.’

Jongdae shakes his head, laughing a little. ‘I grew up too, Taozi.’

‘Apparently.’ Zitao feels a shiver crawl down his spine. He licks his lips. ‘I want you too.’ It feels like a sin to say it – something blasphemous and wrong, but he doesn’t feel guilt for it. Just a sense of relief. ‘Please.’

Fuck.’ Jongdae exhales loudly. ‘Don’t. Don’t say that. I want to have you in a bed, not on a beach.’

Quickly, Zitao stands up, grabbing Jongdae’s blazer and tossing it over. Jongdae catches it with one hand and uses the other to beckon Zitao to follow him to grab their shoes and socks on the far side of the beach.

They put themselves together in silence before getting back on the main roads, Zitao checking his phone for directions to get back to his apartment. They attempt small talk – but it’s difficult to keep up, at least from Zitao’s end, when he can feel each inch of his clothes on his skin and how badly he wants out of them. It takes them twenty minutes to orient themselves and trawl through the city under the streetlights to finally get into a familiar neighborhood. By now, Zitao feels a little settled down, but still hyperaware of Jongdae at his side, who is checking the street signs and making remarks on how he might want to visit such-and-such place while he’s in the city as they cross roads and shuffle around other pedestrians.

By the time Zitao is fumbling with his keys in the building lock, Jongdae has gone silent, but his expression gives nothing away. Finally, they’re up the stairs to Zitao’s apartment, opening the door, mindful of Kai in case he might get smacked by the wood. Zitao’s place really was too fucking small.

Kai is sprawled under the table asleep but perks up at the sound of Zitao and Jongdae toeing off their shoes. Jongdae shrugs off his blazer and leaves it on the table while Zitao shuffles towards the kitchen. ‘Did you want tea? Or alcohol?’

‘Tea would be nice.’ Jongdae crouches down and coos. ‘Hello, Kai.’ The cat – still unfamiliar with Jongdae – skirts past him and slinks between Zitao’s ankles in greeting, ignoring Jongdae completely. Zitao laughs at the tickling sensation but lets Kai do as he likes while he sprinkles tea leaves into the boiling water.

‘He’s still shy. Doesn’t like any of my other friends either, do you, Kai?’ Kai snuffles and noses at Zitao’s ankle, asking to be petted.

Jongdae stands up and comes up beside Zitao, sliding a hand around Zitao’s waist. ‘Then I can’t wait till he ignores you since you’ll be covered in me.’

Zitao involuntarily lets out a small moan, lashes fluttering shut, before he blinks back his lust, cheeks flushing in embarrassment. Jongdae shakes with silent laughter, so Zitao pulls away from his touch to bring down two mugs. He pours out the tea, straining the leaves, and hands a mug off, shooing him away to sit by the table.

He picks up Kai in one arm and his mug in the other, sitting on his bed carefully and scratching Kai behind the ears, feeling the resulting purr. Jongdae has picked up one of his textbooks that he’s left lying around and flips through it idly, sipping at his tea, like he isn’t here to pin Zitao down and take him apart.

Yet, it feels comfortable. Kai is a warm bundle in his lap and Jongdae a calm presence in his home, and the mug something solid to hold on to – reminding Zitao that this is real and – and – you can have this.

The thought startles him. It’s different because they’re not running on borrowed time anymore. They’re adults now – as surprising as the fact feels on most days – and this, whatever this is, isn’t as confined as before.

For a long time, Zitao wondered if he had been addicted to Jongdae because everything was always on edge and easy to lose. It always felt like Zitao was chasing him all the while balancing his own life and dreams. He simply wanted to be there but Jongdae was a limited resource, an ephemeral sort of person.

He can’t say he’s addicted now. Jongdae isn’t everything anymore. He’s just a person whose friendship Zitao has known for years, and is re-learning now. It’s relieving. Jongdae is a person. Not an idea or a concept or an event that only comes to pass in Zitao’s life when Jongdae chooses. A person – whom Zitao has lived without and could do again if Jongdae left once more.

‘What’re you thinking?’ Jongdae’s voice cuts through Zitao’s mind, and Zitao blinks, realizing he’s been staring.

‘Nothing,’ says Zitao in reflex, and then shakes his head. ‘Just. You being here is nice.’

‘I like it here.’ Jongdae’s fingers slide along the pages of the book as he looks into his now-empty mug. ‘Tao, I’m going to ask you again – do you want me here?’

Zitao nods. ‘I do.’

Jongdae stands up and takes both their mugs to the sink. While he washes the dishes, Zitao carefully puts Kai down and opens his clusterfuck of a closet to prepare. A beat later, the water stops and he hears Jongdae shuffle on over. There’s warmth to his back as Jongdae hovers, ‘what the hell blew up in here?’

‘My clothes need to go somewhere,’ huffs Zitao before he grabs the box shoved in a corner on the top shelf. Once he brings it down and turns around, Jongdae is sitting at the edge of his small bed, watching him with amusement.

‘We probably won’t need it but – what’s your safeword?’

Zitao blinks. ‘Yuè bĭng.’ Mooncake.

‘Still the same.’ Jongdae’s expression softens in nostalgia, so Zitao puts down his box and does what he’s been meaning to do for a while. He cups Jongdae’s face in between calloused hands and kisses him soundly on the mouth.

It begins chaste, as Jongdae orients himself to the situation, before Zitao feels the other’s hands comb through his hair. He takes it as a warning, and opens up his mouth because Jongdae begins to kiss filthy and dirty, fucking his tongue into Zitao’s mouth and reacquainting himself with the ridges of Zitao’s teeth, the smoothness of his palate.

Zitao whimpers when Jongdae grips his hair and forcibly angles his mouth, nipping on Zitao’s bottom lip till its swelling. When Jongdae pulls away, it’s only to say, ‘get on your knees,’ and Zitao goes willingly. Despite sitting on the bed, Jongdae is still short, and he doesn’t have to bend too much to meet Zitao’s mouth, kiss him wet and messy. Zitao’s still holding onto Jongdae’s face, scraping his nails lightly along Jongdae’s neck in a way that makes Jongdae shiver and kiss him harder, but now there are small hands wrapped around Zitao’s wrists, pushing his grip away.

Jongdae pulls back again, his mouth red and wet, cheeks flushed. ‘What do you want, Taozi?’

Zitao swallows and gestures to the box he put down. ‘That.’

‘Stay on your knees. Keep your hands in your lap.’ Jongdae’s voice is roughened but clear. Zitao nods in obeisance. He watches as Jongdae picks up the box and places it on his legs, flipping the lid off and peering at the contents. Zitao suddenly feels flustered and exposed.

‘If you don’t – if you don’t want to, it’s okay. I just thought – ’

‘With our history?’ Jongdae slides his fingers over the toys, some candles, handcuffs, bottles of lube and package of condoms. He digs deeper and pulls out something silk, long and sleek. ‘Do I tie you with this or blindfold?’

‘Both. You can do both.’ Zitao licks his mouth, watches as Jongdae picks things out and then places it all back, deliberating on each object he finds. The last thing he pulls out is made of soft black leather with a buckle and a ring. A collar.

Jongdae flicks his gaze to Zitao, who meets it with apprehension. ‘Who did you belong to?’

‘No one,’ he answers. ‘I just – I got it for myself but no one…’

‘Do you want to belong to me?’

Zitao swallows. ‘I don’t know.’ Jongdae nods and puts the collar back in the box, before bringing up the silk tie again.

‘I want to strip you naked and blindfold you,’ starts Jongdae, his eyes dark and voice low. ‘I also want to cuff you, but I think you’re a good enough boy to not touch. Are you good enough?’

‘Yes,’ he nods, fingers curled into determined fists in his lap. ‘Yes, Chenchen, I am.’

Yet, Jongdae doesn’t seem to believe him. ‘We’ll see.’ He leaves the silk tie on the bed and closes the box back up, placing it on the table behind Zitao. Without even looking at Zitao, Jongdae stands up, unbuttoning his shirt slow and precise, no movement wasted, but it’s not a show. Zitao feels invisible, dismissed, but he wants – oh god, he wants to please Jongdae so bad, so he sits still and patient as Jongdae strips.

First goes the shirt, and Zitao sees the lean muscle roped aound Jongdae’s torso. Not enough to be visible, but Jongdae could stand his own if he had to. Enough to leave bruises on Zitao’s skin. He shifts, cock twitching in his pants.

Next are socks – folded neatly and put away beside the bed. Then pants, slid down Jongdae’s pale, pale legs that don’t seem to have much, but Zitao has trained for three years with bodies, he knows Jongdae could wrap his thighs around someone’s waist and hold them down.

Zitao swallows to wet his dry mouth, gaze intent as Jongdae peels off the last of his clothing, revealing every inch of his skin and curve of his half-hard cock. With all his clothes still on, Zitao feels overheated, confined, and he craves to touch but Jongdae is content with not acknowledging his presence. Instead, he holds himself deadly still, biting the inside of his cheek not to make a sound either.

Jongdae sits back on the bed, his cock right there and all Zitao has to do is lean over and lick. His own pants feel much too tight and a needy noise is crawling up his throat. With a sigh, Jongdae’s fingers slide around the contour of Zitao’s face, as if examining him, looking for a flaw, checking if he’s good enough. Zitao doesn’t breathe.

‘Did you watch me?’ he asks with a soft voice.

‘Yes,’ says Zitao, his voice rough.

‘I want you to follow the exact same order when you strip. Just your clothes. I’ll deal with your jewellery.’ Jongdae’s fingers slide to his neck, nails picking at the silver chain. ‘Not one mistake, Taozi. Or else.’

Or else what? thinks Zitao drunkenly. He stands up and starts with his shirt, aware of how Jongdae sits, watching. Would Jongdae leave him unfinished and begging? With trembling fingers, he begins from the top button all the way down, remembers to fold it and place it neatly next to the bed.

Next are – socks, not pants. He tugs them off his feet, places them carefully next to his shirt, then his fingers slide over the button and zip of his slacks, slide down the waistband over his thighs with aching slowness. Would Jongdae use the cuffs instead of believing Zitao could control himself? The thought stings. He’s good. He can be good. He folds the pants, places them on the shirt in a perfect pile. He’s more than good.

Finally, he gets to his undershorts, lets his nails catch against the waistband and pull over the tent his cock has made. He doesn’t want to even look at the other, but his mind presses on. If Zitao screwed up – would Jongdae simply dress and leave, let Zitao kneel on the floor with his head hanging in shame? He swallows back his neediness and folds the shorts before placing with the rest of his pile.

With a shuddering breath, Zitao clasps his wrists in front of him, looking at Jongdae, desperately searching for approval over Jongdae’s calm expression. Except Jongdae’s always been good at this – masking his emotions with practiced skill.

‘Good,’ says Jongdae after a beat, eyes still assessing. They drop to the sight of Zitao’s cock, but Zitao’s not embarrassed. He wants Jongdae to know. How much he wants. The sight gets him a ghost of a smile on Jongdae’s mouth, and Zitao feels a rush of pride. Jongdae likes him like this. Jongdae wants him like this. Aching and hard. And Zitao can give that to him, no problem.

It’s wonderful seeing Jongdae stand and rise up on his tip toes to meet Zitao’s mouth, and Zitao opens up without a beat of hesitation, closing his eyes to focuse on the feel of Jongdae’s tongue sliding along the seam of his lips.

The kiss is lazy this time – careful and languid – and Zitao feels Jongdae’s fingers around his necklace, undoing the clasp and pulling the chain away. They pull away and Jongdae carefully sets the necklace down on the table, before coming back for another kiss.

Zitao hums when Jongdae’s fingers grasp his hands, sliding one ring off, then the next, the one after, the last. Four rings clink in Jongdae’s palm and the kiss is lost once more when Jongdae puts them beside the necklace on the wood. Zitao’s head is hazy with lust – he wants to keep kissing – and Jongdae provides for a little while more, exploring the wetness of Zitao’s mouth with a satisfied hum, sucking filthly at the tongue piercing. Though the rings are gone, Jongdae’s hands are still curled around Zitao’s fingers. Somehow they tangle together halfway between Jongdae sucking on Zitao’s top lip and tracing the ridges of his teeth, and Zitao makes a soft sound cause of it – his chest tight and warm and aching at the openness of Jongdae’s affection.

Finally, Jongdae pulls away, and Zitao blinks his eyes blearily, lulled by the rhythm of their kiss. Jongdae looks wonderful with a flush to those sharp cheekbones, wetness on his mouth. He speaks – cutting through the haze in Zitao’s mind clearly: ‘Kneel on the bed. Hands behind your back.’ Jongdae takes a step to the side, pulling their fingers apart, to give Zitao space. Zitao follows through, settling on the mattress, wrists loosely clasped at the dip of his spine. A breath later, another weight settles behind him. Jongdae slides the silk of the fabric over Zitao’s forearm. ‘Do I need to tie you?’

Zitao shakes his head and adjusts. He holds his arms together – forearm against forearm – creating a square behind his back so that his nails dig into his elbows as he holds it together. ‘That’s better,’ murmurs Jongdae. ‘Always good for me aren’t you? Want you to be better. Can you be better?’

‘Yes, Chenchen.’ His voice is rough, wanting. He tips his head back, exposing his throat, and feels Jongdae’s nails scratch over his adam’s apple. ‘Please.’

‘Close your eyes and hold still.’ Jongdae shuffles behind him and the smooth feeling of the silk tie descends over his brows and lashes. Zitao holds his breath, keeping his trembling body as tight as he can while Jongdae smoothes over the tie around Zitao’s skull, tying a knot that rests firmly at the back of Zitao’s skull. The ends of the tie trail downwards, tickle at his shoulder blades, and he shivers, blinking open his eyes and seeing nothing but darkness.

‘Chenchen,’ he calls out, tentative. Jongdae slides a hand over the first knobs of Zitao’s spine – a comforting warmth – in answer. Zitao swallows to wet his dry mouth and tightens his hold on his own arms, trying to be good, better, the best Jongdae has ever seen.

Then he begins to tip over. Jongdae’s hand is firm between his shoulder blades, pushing him until Zitao feels his face shoved up against his pillow. It means his legs slip out under him, knees spreading open to try and keep balance but instead pushing his ass upwards into the air, right where he thinks Jongdae is. He feels filthily exposed.

‘Well, isn’t this just a gorgeous sight.’ Jongdae presses a kiss on the inside of Zitao’s thigh and Zitao feels a whine in his throat. ‘I like you like this, Taozi – offering yourself up all for me. It makes you so pretty.’ The praise crawls up Zitao’s spine, makes him moan loudly into the pillow, his nails digging into his arms as he tries to restrain himself. God, he wants to see – wants to see Jongdae’s face, that smile on his mouth, those eyes glimmering with approval. He wants he wants he wants – helpless, Zitao pushes his ass back some more, tries to give it all up.

When he hears the flip cap of the lube, he assumes fingers on his ass and tries to relax in advance It’s nothing new, and it’s been done before – perhaps not with a blindfold, but Zitao wouldn’t be able to see Jongdae anyway.

Except he’s wrong about the fingers. It’s Jongdae’s tongue on his rim. Zitao can’t help the sob that wrenches out of his throat as Jongdae spreads his ass open and licks sloppily at his hole, scraping his teeth around the rim before soothing it over with warm, wet tongue. His whole body trembles with the sensation, hips pushing back to get more of Jongdae’s mouth on him.

‘Keep still, Tao,’ admonishes Jongdae, voice low and rough. Zitao keens, his arms trembling to hold themselves together. He wants to see Jongdae’s face. Wants to see his wet mouth and dark eyes. Oh god, but he can’t – he can’t –

The tongue returns – flicking repeatedly over the rim, until Zitao feels his asshole begin to loosen up. He’s breathing in large gulps of air, unable to look at anything to distract himself – the blindfold forcing him to focus on each nerve in his body, how Jongdae has reduced him to a quivering mess trying desperately to keep himself together.

‘Chenchen,’ he begs, ‘oh fuck, Chen – ’ He’s reverted to Mandarin, but Jongdae understands. He always does. In response, Jongdae brings up a slicked finger to Zitao’s hole – oh that’s why the lube was opened – and slides it all the way to the third knuckle, uncaring of how it burns and his hole is so tight and Zitao can’t – fucking – breathe –

‘That’s right, you can move now,’ soothes Jongdae, rubbing a hand up and down the back of Zitao’s shaking thigh. ‘Let me hear you, give it up for me.’

Zitao cries out, nails definitely sratching into his skin as he holds his arms together, ‘oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck – ’ Jongdae twists his finger, drags it out achingly slow and Zitao sobs into the pillow before pushing his hips back, dragging it back inside of him.

‘So good for me,’ praises Jongdae when Zitao begins to roll his hips to the rhythm. Soon there’s another finger and Jongdae’s fucking tongue is back on his hole, flicking around the shape of his fingers, letting spit roll down the sensitive skin of his perineum and soak his sac. Zitao blinks back the sweat in his eyes, seeing black, and helplessly falls into the steady finger-and-tongue fuck he seems to be getting.

Unable to escape, Zitao succumbs – lets himself drift into himself as his body rolls to Jongdae’s ministrations, his breath coming in choked off sobs, as if from a distance. Jongdae is too busy licking at his ass to praise him, but Zitao doesn’t mind – Jongdae’s tongue in his hole is enough to have him hitching his breath and singing Chen’s name into high heaven.

Between his legs, his cock hands heavy, sac pulled upwards, ready to come if Jongdae would touch him, but Jongae seems pleased to fuck Zitao open on three fingers, then four. Zitao keeps gasping and sobbing, ‘Chenchenchen,’ the name a litany on his tongue, begging to stop or to have more, he can’t tell anymore.

Jongdae pours some more lube between Zitao’s ass, uses his fingers to stuff it in – slick and cool against Zitao’s overheated skin – and Zitao sighs in relief for it. He almost loses his grip on his arms when Jongdae’s tongue also come back, laying the flat of it against Zitao’s hole as if to keep the lube inside. ‘Please, please, Chen, please,’ blabbers Zitao, delirious with heat and oversensitivity, his arms straining and shoulders aching.

The tongue pulls away and Zitao sucks in a sharp breath that’s quickly knocked out of him with the fingers in his ass twisting. ‘Ahn – ah – hah – ’ He rocks his hips slowly, feeling strung-out and stretched, every part of him begging to be released, waiting for the order.

‘Do you want me to fuck you?’ asks Jongdae, leaving soft kisses over the inside of Zitao’s thighs. ‘Or do you want to come like this?’ He pulls away, drops kisses up Zitao’s spine till he gets to the folded arms still clutched tight against each other. ‘You’re hurt.’

Zitao can’t recognize that tone of his voice, doesn’t know how to respond to please him. He wishes – once again – that he could simply see. ‘I’m sorry,’ he eventually chokes out, ‘I just – wanted to be good – wanted – ’ His nails dig deeper into his skin and the sting of pain reroutes to his cock, making him harder and spit precome over the sheets.

‘Red always looked gorgeous on you,’ remarks Jongdae. He pries off Zitao’s fingers from one arm and licks at the skin near the elbow – soothing and warm, before blowing over it to cool the wetness and making Zitao shiver. ‘But I don’t want you hurt. Not yet.’ The promise for more has Zitao whimpering as he feels his arms unfolded, Jongdae licking at the skin and blowing over it. Once done, he lets Zitao’s arms rest against the mattress, loose and boneless, nails scratching against the sheets almost idly.

He heaves out a groan when Jongdae drapes his chest all along his back, cock nestled between his wet ass, hot and slick with lube. ‘I want to fill you with my come,’ murmurs Jongdae in his ear, a hand taking a grip to pull Zitao’s head back, and Zitao swallows over his suddenly dry mouth. ‘I want to see my come in your ass. I want to fucking lick it back out of you.’

‘Oh god,’ he whimpers helplessly, head bombarded with the images as he stares against the blackness of the blindfold. Slowly, he pushes his ass back, grinds against Jongdae’s cock. ‘’M clean. You can – oh god – please – Chen – ’

‘Good boy,’ says Jongdae as he nips at Zitao’s ear, tugging on an earring before letting go so Zitao’s head falls forward. Jongdae pulls back and notches the head of his naked cock against Zitao’s stretched hole, pushing in without any pause – just slow and steady, unbearably careful but with just enough burn to have Zitao’s body singing. Oh, he knew Jongdae would be good, he knew, he knew, he – oh fuck – knew –

‘Please fuck me,’ he keens out desperately, ass so perfectly full around the curve of Jongdae’s cock. Jongdae’s hands brush around his hips, leaving soothing circle patterns over the skin, before he pulls out and fucks back in – ruthless and unforgiving. Zitao feels the breath punched out of his lungs as his hands scrabble for purchase over the sheets, drooling helplessly against the pillow.

‘Like that?’ teases Jongdae, and keeps up the pace – rough and deep, Zitao writhing underneath him. He nods, whimpers spilling from his mouth. Every thrust has him an overheated, trembling mess, his mouth open and drool streaked down his chin. He wants to reach back, feel the stretched out rim of his ass and how Jongdae’s fucking into him.

Instead, he’s pinned helplessly by the pace Jongdae sets for them, his body jerking to each fuck of Jongdae’s cock in his ass. The blindfold is damp with Zitao’s sweat, sticking to his skin. Under his palms, the sheets also stick, and his knees threaten to slip out even further, to graze his cock against the mattress and get himself off.

‘Please, Chenchen, please, I want to come,’ he begs, over and over again. He must look like a slutty mess underneath Jongdae – every part of him flushed and red, luminous under the light. With the way Jongdae is reaming into his ass, he seems to love the look on Zitao. He groans out loud when Jongdae grinds up against his hole, so fucking deep, before pulling back and slamming hard, the smack of his thighs and balls against Zitao’s skin so fucking filthy.

‘Can you – fuck – come for me untouched, Taozi?’

Zitao’s breath hitches in his throat, blinking rapidly behind his blindfold. His nails scratch at the bedsheets as his body gets fucked forward with each thrust, his hole all loose and sloppy around Jongdae’s cock. ‘Chenchen – ’ he begs, doesn’t really know for what, except if Jongdae wants it – if Jongdae wants to see Zitao all strung out and coming between his stomach and the sheets, then Zitao can provide. ‘I want – I want – ’

‘That’s right,’ hums Jongdae, pleased by Zitao’s acquiesce, and twists his hips on the downstroke, dragging his hard dick along Zitao’s hole and making Zitao keen, his hands fisting against the bed. There’s nothing to do except for Zitao to feel the bruising grip on his hips, feel the sharp, hard thrusts in his ass, listen to his own pitiful whimpers and moans accompanied by the smack of skin on and skin and Jongdae’s muttered curses like Zitao is so good, so so good at this.

His body feels even hotter, his skin tingling, and his orgasm pools at the base of his spine, readying him. Between his legs, his cock is aching and leaking, probably pooling precome all over the bed, but he can’t see, only feel how his balls are tight to his body and every thrust against his prostate is going to make him blow his load at any point.

Moaning out loud, Zitao rocks his hips back and meets Jongdae’s thrusts, tries to get the cock as deep inside of him as he can, and Jongdae hums in approval, reaming into him with a renewed burst of energy. Zitao’s mind is floating away, caught in this rhythm, all his thoughts reduced needtocomeneedtocomeneedtocomeforChenchen and nothing else matters.

‘That’s right, Taozi,’ growls Jongdae, his voice fucked out and rough, scratching over Zitao’s skin and making his spine arch so his ass is even more tilted, even more of an open invitation for Jongdae to sink deepdeepdeep inside of him. ‘Feel me in you – you – hah – like that? Want to come on my dick for me?’

‘Chen,’ sobs Zitao and muffles his scream against the sheets as Jongdae grinds the head of his cock against his prostate to the point where he can’t handle it anymore and comes hard. His cock twitches and pulses, the aftershocks of his orgasm rippling through his body, and he feels his ass go tighttighttight around the curve of Jongdae’s cock, milking it for all it’s worth.

Jongdae makes a choked off noise, sliding one of his hands from Zitao’s hip to press against the space between his shoulder blades. ‘Fuck, Tao. Fuck.’ Zitao is still whimpering into the sheets, his cock softening as his whole body jerks with each of Jongdae’s thrusts, but he moans when he hears Jongdae’s words – ‘you’re fucking perfect.’

With that, Jongdae fucks hard and fast into Zitao’s ass, chasing his own orgasm. It doesn’t take long after, not when Zitao has given Jongdae the show he wanted, pleased him, was the good boy Jongdae wanted him to be. He hitches his breath and feels the telltale grind of Jongdae’s cock in his hole that precedes his end. With another muffled noise, Jongdae begins to come, fills Zitao’s ass up with his warm semen, rope after rope of it.

Zitao shivers at the sensation – it had been so long since his ass got filled with both cock and come. His eyes are closed behind the blindfold and he feels himself be flipped over gently onto his back. Jongdae’s hands are sliding his legs upwards, pushing his knees to his chest. ‘Not done with you yet, Taozi.’

Mouth dry, Zitao shudders and holds the back of his thighs, waiting and waiting, seeing only blackness even as he cranes his neck downwards where he imagines Jongdae is kneeling between his open legs, his exposed ass.

‘God, your hole is so pretty after it’s been fucked.’ Fingers trace Zitao’s oversensitized rim and he exhales loudly. ‘So fucking delicious.’ With that, Jongdae slides both of his thumbs into Zitao’s asshole and spreads him open – all filthily, with come seeping out. Then the tongue touches Zitao’s skin and he loses it.

‘Oh fuck fuck fuck.’ He’s having trouble breathing, can’t even handle rimming. It’s the fact that Jongdae was cleaning him up with his tongue – pressing it against the filthiest part of his body and making sure he was being taken care of – Zitao’s eyes burn behind the blindfold, his chest tight, as Jongdae tries to get his hole even wider, shove his tongue even deeper to lap up his own come.

It goes achingly slow – Jongdae is precise and careful, like he’s enjoying a feast out of Zitao’s ass. In return, Zitao focuses on trying to breathe properly again, even as he feels his cock begin to twitch and harden for a second time. It’s too soon, too fucking soon, but Jongdae doesn’t stop and neither does the blood in his body as it rushes downwards.

His mind is swimming in a sea of white noise for what could be minutes or hours, Zitao can’t tell anymore. His nails dig into the skin of his thighs as he holds his trembling body open – the sharp bite of pain keeping him just on this side of reality, where Jongdae is fingerfucking his loose hole now as well as licking at the rim. The come seems to have stopped leaking out, so Jongdae is chasing for it now.

When he finally feels Jongdae pull away, his cock is hard against his belly again, and Zitao can’t help but blush in embarrassment at how needy his body is, how desperately he wants Jongdae on him, in him, all over him. He wishes so fucking badly to see Jongdae’s expression, even when he knows he could probably not decipher it anyway. Still, the blindfold stays, damp and sticky with Zitao’s sweat and tears.

‘Your cock is just as cute as your ass,’ murmurs Jongdae, tracing a nail up the underside of Zitao’s cock, making him twitch.

Zitao whimpers, still spread open. He feels Jongdae bat his hands away from his thighs and lower his legs onto the mattress. Between his knees, he can feel Jongdae’s warmth as he kneels in front of Zitao, hands now thumbing at the arch of Zitao’s hips. Without even a warning, Jongdae swallows Zitao’s cock down in a practiced motion, making Zitao cry out in surprise, his nails scratching loudly against the sheets, threatening to rip through them.

Jongdae hums around his cock, suckling leisurely at the head with tickling touches of his tongue. It’s so warm and wet, the friction on Zitao’s oversensitized skin making him arch and writhe. When Jongdae’s hands pin his hips down, he says, ‘don’t move,’ and Zitao exhales loudly as he obeys. It’s so hard – so fucking hard – when Jongdae’s fingers are playing with his sac and his mouth is leaving sloppy kisses down the length. He wants to come, he wants to fuck into Jongdae’s mouth, he wants to lose himself to his orgasm – but most of all, he wants to make sure Jongdae won’t be disappointed with him, so he keeps still.

Eventually, the pressure becomes too much at the base of Zitao’s cock and his whimpering goes up a notch, ‘Chenchen – going to – let me – oh please let me come – ’ His hands are fisted in the sheets at either side of his body as he keeps himself as still as possible. It’s a relief when Jongdae pulls off and says, ‘come in my mouth.’

‘Yes,’ say Zitao, head swooning as Jongdae flicks at his glans with his tongue, sucking hard around the crown. He keeps his body under control even when he comes – makes sure to not let anything except his cock jerk and empty itself in Jongdae’s hot mouth, until he’s softening up and Jongdae finally pulls away.

Everything is quiet – Zitao lolls his head against the pillow as his body loosens up completely with satiation. Jongdae’s fingers are skipping up his stomach, tracing his neck, before Zitao feels a thumb on his bottom lip.

Mindlessly, Zitao opens his mouth and feels a descending heat over him. Jongdae’s wet lips meet his, dropping a load of still-warm come into Zitao’s mouth – his own come. It’s salty and bitter and Zitao obediently swallows it all before opening his mouth again so Jongdae can kiss him all sloppy and wet.

The kiss is lost when Jongdae shifts to the side and turns Zitao’s head to untie the blindfold. ‘Close your eyes.’ Zitao does and feels the silk slowly peeled off his skin before being tossed aside. Jongdae thumbs his cheekbone gently, once, twice. ‘Open. Slowly. The light will be a shock.’

It takes half a minute before Zitao has stopped squinting at the ceiling. All the while, Jongdae pilfers his bathroom for towels and tissues, coming back to wipe Zitao down and tug the stained sheets off the bed. ‘You have any more?’

‘Closet,’ slurs Zitao, curled against the bare mattress, watching Jongdae walk around his home unabashedly naked and gorgeous for it. Jongdae snorts, and emerges from the closet a minute later with linens. Eventually, he coaxes Zitao onto his feet, but Zitao is happy to simply wrap himself around Jongdae’s back, nuzzling his neck as Jongdae makes sure the sheets are smooth and precise on the bed.

Jongdae shivers as Zitao licks his tattoo, trying to suck a mark underneath. ‘Too tired, Taozi,’ he murmurs.

‘No stamina,’ admonishes Zitao, fingers curling around Jongdae’s biceps and squeezing them. ‘No strength either.’

‘Whatever – some of us didn’t spend three years training in the mountains.’ Jongdae reaches up and pulls on Zitao’s hands, forcibly wraps Zitao’s arms around his shoulders in a back hug. This too is the same – Jongdae hungry for touch and Zitao happily providing. He nudges the back of Jongdae’s legs with his knees – eventually both of them ending up sprawled out on the bed to sleep.

This time there’s no alarm clock to wake them up before the sunrise, no parents to be worried about, nothing to stop them from simply sleeping for hours, curled up like this, despite the heat of the night and the fact that Zitao will grumble in the middle of the night until Jongdae turns on the fan and crawls back into bed, between Zitao’s arms.

In the morning, Zitao kisses Jongdae full on the mouth, bad breath and all, and Jongdae flails pathetically under Zitao’s weight before succumbing and opening his lips to let Zitao do as he pleases. Eventually, Jongdae pushes Zitao into the shower, but it’s too small for two people, so Zitao comes out damp and clean, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts to the sight of Jongdae slicing onions and frying breakfast in a pan. His hair is sticking up in all sorts of ways, his torso drowning in one of Zitao’s shirts and sweats that have been seriously tightened around his small waist.

The sight makes a flood of affection pool into Zitao’s ribcage. ‘You look like a little kid.’

Jongdae glances over his shoulder. ‘Your kid. Your landlord is going to be scandalized. Taozi the teenage father.’

In retaliation, Zitao wraps his arms around Jongdae’s waist and picks him up with surprising ease. Jongdae makes a sqwacking noise and kicks his legs out, but it’s no use when Zitao is spinning him around and carries him to the entrance of the bathroom. ‘You smell like sweat and come. Go clean yourself.’

‘It’s your come,’ snaps Jongdae and slams the bathroom door shut in Zitao’s face in acquiesce. The sound wakes up Kai from behind a pile of books and he slinks into view. In hindsight, maybe the blindfold had been a wonderful idea, if only for the fact that Zitao wouldn’t have had to see if Kai was watching him get fucked into a stupor.

By the time Jongdae comes out with damp hair, still dressed in Zitao’s clothes, Zitao has finished making breakfast and lays it out on the table, with his laptop loading up the latest episode of the drama him and Sehun hadn’t been able to finish. Jongdae settles beside him and eats as they watch the heroine confront her bullying step-sister in a dramatic show-down of good versus evil.

‘Yeah, but why is the love-interest-guy into the sister and not the chick,’ complains Jongdae as they wash dishes and so Zitao ends up explaining the plot of the drama to the point where they curl up on the bed with Zitao’s laptop to marathon the rest.

It’s surprisingly peaceful and platonic. Kai curls up in Zitao’s lap, falling asleep as he accepts Jongdae petting him. On screen, love-interest-guy finally realizes his fuck-up, much to the audience and plot’s relief. After the second episode, Zitao makes tea and Jongdae shoves on one of Zitao’s much too big hoodies and his dress pants to get snacks from the corner store. They eat on the bed, and Kai snuffles at the crumbs, as the episodes keep playing.

By the time the fourth episode ends, Jongdae familiarizes himself with the take-out phone numbers saved in Zitao’s cell while Zitao pulls up the menus to order and laugh as Jongdae fucks up his tones trying to read them.

They get through another episode before the food arrives. There are two episodes left – one finished as they eat. Zitao lets the last one load as they clean up the trash and Jongdae begins to make tea on the stove.

‘Is your brother worried about where you are? Do you want to call him?’ Zitao offers his phone over.

‘Well, he knew I was going on a date,’ says Jongdae with a smirk but takes the cell anyway. The conversation is short and sweet – ‘I’m still alive and with a friend. Yeah. I’ll see you guys and the kids tomorrow. Yes. Good night, hyung. You too, noona.’

Always so blunt. Zitao smiles a little to himself. For all the ways Jongdae is different, there is so much that is still the same, still carefully preserved in history of their shared past, when Zitao knew Jongdae almost inside-out and vice-versa.

Zitao’s bed – being pushed against a wall – provides a comfortable place to rest their backs with mugs in their hands as the laptop screen lights up and plays the season finale.

Predictably, an hour later, Zitao is crying as the credits roll, clutching his empty mug in his hands while Jongdae shuts the laptop and places it back on the table. Kai is napping under the table – his favourite place – and doesn’t stir while Jongdae pries the mug away from Zitao’s fingers to wash them both and come back.

Zitao grabs a few tissues from the table and tries to get his feelings under control, feeling Jongdae settled at his side with an exasperated sigh, wrapping his arms around Zitao’s waist and laying him down on his back against the bed. ‘You still cry over everything – fuck – you’re twenty-two.’

Petty, Zitao sniffles and sticks out his tongue at the other, ‘could still kick your ass, y’know.’ Jongdae rolls his eyes and wipes at Zitao’s cheeks with a measure of gentility that sets Zitao’s chest aching. ‘I trained for three years, what did you do?’ he says as a distraction.

‘I grew up, apparently, unlike one of us.’

The jab sparks real irritation in Zitao. ‘That is not true.’

Jongdae nods. ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ His expression is soft and contemplative, propped up on an elbow to watch Zitao. ‘Self-confidence looks good on you.’

Zitao blinks in surprise. ‘Anything else?’

‘You’re fishing for compliments, aren’t you?’ Jongdae dips his head, muffling a laugh against Zitao’s shoulder. ‘Fine. This whole independence thing, and knowing yourself, and being happy. You’re happy, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ replies Zitao softly. ‘I like where I am.’

‘Me too.’ Jongdae rolls onto Zitao’s stomach, elbows framing Zitao’s head as Jongdae dips his head down to skim his mouth over the line of Zitao’s nose, over his cheekbones, airy kisses that leave Zitao’s skin tingling. ‘I like seeing you happy.’

‘You didn’t – ’ starts Zitao, voice caught in his throat. ‘You weren’t this open before.’

‘No,’ agrees Jongdae, pulling back so Zitao can see his eyes, how they’re unafraid to meet Zitao’s gaze. ‘I was pretty messed up like that when I was younger, huh?’ He rolls off Zitao and onto his back beside the other, arm thrown over his eyes. ‘God – I used to think I was the worst thing to happen to you. You were the nicest fucking kid I had ever met and you wanted to be with me.’

Zitao is silent and patient, lining up their torsos side-by-side, a warm line of comfort as Jongdae flops his arm over his stomach and stares at the ceiling. ‘I used to hang with an older crowd. You knew that, didn’t you?’ He doesn’t wait for a reply. ‘They always told me I was pretty fucked up for being with them – getting drunk and shit. I didn’t care. I just wanted to know everything, and if they got me what I wanted – my tattoos and my piercings and the feeling of being drunk and high and sex. Fuck. The sex.’

There’s a sinking feeling in the pit of Zitao’s stomach and bites the inside of his cheek to not stop the flow of Jongdae’s words as they come pouring out. ‘They didn’t – it was all consensual. Seriously.’ Jongdae glances over and laughs a little at Zitao’s expression. ‘Don’t look at me like that. You know how well I took care of you?’ – how well you still do, thinks Zitao – ‘I learned it from somewhere.’ Jongdae looks back up at the ceiling. ‘But I thought of bringing you to them – how they would probably make you cry. Maybe on accident, or on purpose, whatever, I didn’t care – you were so fucking important to me and I was never going to let them touch you. Saying that though… shit, I thought I was so mature for being with these guys and thinking I knew better than you and everyone else.’

Jongdae’s laugh is breathy and hollow. ‘University taught me to grow the fuck up. I didn’t know everything – I didn’t have any of my shit together. What the fuck did an eighteen year old Chen know compared to the upper years with their age and jobs and goals – all that. Now I’m almost twenty-three. I have a career ahead of me. I can’t be that kid again. It didn’t get me anywhere.’

The pause that follows seems like an end to the confession, except Jongdae is suddenly on his side, peering right at Zitao with a sort of vulnerability in his gaze that makes Zitao want to flinch away. ‘I should’ve told you,’ says Jongdae carefully. ‘Years ago. I should’ve told you. Wo ai ni.’ I love you. ‘But fuck, you cried over ‘wo xihuan ni’ like it was the kindest thing I had ever said. You settled with it.’ He shakes his head, exasperated. ‘God, Taozi.’ He flops back onto the bed, seeming exhausted, head lolling on the pillow, eyes half-lidded but unseeing, sunk deep in his thoughts.

Zitao stays quiet, watches Jongdae all dressed up in Zitao’s clothes, smelling of Zitao’s shampoo and his apartment in general. How easily Jongdae fits in his home, in his life – by simply stepping into view, nothing more. He folds Jongdae’s words in his head, like some elaborate thesis, and lets it fill in the blanks where he has kept Jongdae in his memories – how they slide in like puzzle pieces, creating some elaborately messy but coherent person in his mind. The entire thing feels like some sort of revelation, and Zitao doesn’t know what to do with it.

He simply lies there beside Jongdae, his fingers pressing against the back of Jongdae’s hand in askance; waiting till Jongdae closes his eyes and lets Zitao tangle their fingers together. For a while, it’s quiet, almost peaceful. For a while, Zitao thinks – I could stay here.

Finally, Jongdae rouses with a deep breath, exhaling loudly, blinking blearily like he’s been in some trance of his own mind. Zitao squeezes their fingers together and smiles – warm and genuine – when Jongdae looks over. ‘I like you like this,’ says Zitao.

Jongdae’s expression softens. ‘Good. It took three years of training. In the mountains.’

‘Are you ever going to drop that?’ sighs out the other. ‘You know it’s a school. I took classes too.’

‘Hell no. Do you even know what it sounds like? Like a fucking movie.’

‘Nevermind – you’re still annoying,’ says Zitao and rolls over to pin Jongdae down with his weight. Underneath him, Jongdae’s lip juts out in a pout.

‘I’m an untrained citizen, get off me.’

‘But Chenchen is so comfortable,’ croons Zitao, dipping down to kiss Jongdae’s nose with a happy grin. He pulls back, feels Jongdae’s free hand trace over his jaw, thumb skimming along Zitao’s botton lip. Jongdae’s pupils bloom with desire, and Zitao’s mouth is suddenly dry. He bites the inside of his cheek in thought – an impulse striking him sudden and intense – and gets off the bed entirely.

‘Tao?’ asks Jongdae, sitting up, worry in his voice. Zitao’s shirt is slipping over one of Jongdae’s small shoulders, and he looks like he belongs there – in Zitao’s clothes, in Zitao’s bed, in Zitao’s life.

Zitao swallows and picks up his box from the table that they’ve left there from the night before. He opens it up, sliding his fingers over the toys, the lube, cuffs, and candles, before finally finding what he wants.

Slowly, he picks up the collar and closes the box before turning to face Jongdae, who is still sitting on his bed. ‘I got this half a year ago, I think.’ His fingers slide over the soft leather, nails clinking against the metal buckle, the silver ring at the front. ‘I had a few one-night stands, a few boyfriends.’ Jongdae nods, understanding, not a trace of jealousy, and Zitao’s heart blooms for him. How much he’s grown. How good he is. ‘But none of them – I didn’t. I – ’ His voice cuts off, nervous.

‘Zitao,’ calls Jongdae, ‘do you want to belong to me?’

‘I want to know what its like,’ breathes out Zitao, ‘for a night. And you. You’re – ‘ There’s a plethora of words stuck in his throat, but he picks the one he knows best, ‘I trust you.’ Trust you to adore me, respect me, take care of me. Trust you to stay here and love me.

Jongdae gets off the bed, and though he’s drowning in Zitao’s clothes, he suddenly feels too large, suffocating, his presence pressing against Zitao’s chest as he approaches with a determined look in his eyes, the way he squares his shoulders and cocks his chin up. Perfectly, absolutely in control.

‘Get on your knees,’ he says, cool and clear. Zitao swallows and sinks down. He feels Jongdae’s fingers pull the collar from his hands, and another hand find a grip in his short hair, pulling Zitao’s head back to expose his throat. ‘Good.’

He unbuckles the collar with efficiency and slides the leather around Zitao’s neck, slow and deliberate so Zitao can feel each centimetre of it. He lets out a shaky breath, watching Jongdae’s face, the casual possessiveness of it. ‘You’re mine, Taozi,’ he murmurs, a pleased curl to the corner of his mouth as he slides one strap through the buckle and tightens the collar. ‘Take you outside like this, show you off. Anyone who even looked at you twice – ’ Jongdae slides the buckle in place at the side of Zitao’s neck. ‘I’d fuck you in front of them. Showed them who fucking owned you.’

Zitao whimpers, and Jongdae looks away, his hand reaching sliding the lid off the box and pulling something out. It’s the silk tie. ‘But first, you need to show me you deserve it. Deserve to be owned by me. I could have anyone, pretty Taozi. Who the fuck are you?’

‘Yours,’ blurts Zitao. ‘Let me. I want to be yours.’ He shivers as Jongdae slips the silk tie through the silver ring at the front of the collar like a makeshift leash, tightening it and tugging on it lightly once, twice. ‘Chenchen.’

Jongdae walks backwards to sit at the edge of the bed, his fingers holding the end of the tie. He tugs on it again. ‘Then come here.’ Zitao feels the warm apartment floor against his palms as he crawls in between Jongdae’s legs. ‘Stay on your knees and take off my clothes.’

The shirt goes first – Zitao rises up as high as he can on his knees , and for short Jongdae, it’s relatively easy to tug the shirt off and fold it before laying it on the floor. Next comes the sweats, and Jongdae reclines lazily on the bed, not bothering to lift his hips when Zitao pulls at the waistband. Still – Zitao is strong enough to forcibly push Jongdae’s legs upwards, wrenching the sweats and underwear off in one go. Quickly, he folds it all and places them along with the shirt before settling facing Jongdae again, head tilted so Jongdae can see the collar, how proudly Zitao wears it for him.

Jongdae’s gaze skates over Zitao’s face, still leaning back on his hands with his legs spread and cock hanging half-hard before Zitao’s lips. So close that Zitao could just tip forward. Suckle a little on the head. Tongue the underside. Saliva floods his mouth and he drags his gaze back to Jongdae’s face, not even realizing he was staring. ‘Does my Taozi want something?’ drawls Jongdae, reaching out a hand to stroke gently along a cheekbone.

A question gets an answer. ‘Yes. Please.’

‘Go on then, show me how much you want it,’ says Jongdae, as if knowing all along what would happen. Zitao can’t hate him for it – only adores the way his wants are read, the way Jongdae is always a step ahead, guiding him through his own arousal.

Zitao leans forward, snuffles at Jongdae’s balls, licking one into his mouth and sucking on the sensitive skin, feeling his piercing roll up against the skin. Carefully, he scrapes his teeth along the curve of it, hears the soft exhale of Jongdae’s breath. Zitao closes his eyes as he kisses his way along the length to the tip, remembering how the cockridge had always been the most sensitive part. With a flick of his tongue, he suck around the crown, pushing his piercing into the slit, and traces along the glans, earning a downright moan.

He takes Jongdae all the way down, as much as he can, hands coming up to play with the sac and press fingers against the perineum. Jongdae makes another noise from the back of his throat – breathless and pleased. ‘That’s right – all the way down, Taozi.’

With a muffled sound, Zitao deepthroats him, lets the cockhead hit the back of his mouth. Groaning, Jongdae slides a hand through Zitao’s hair, taking a grip. ‘Breathe,’ he tells Zitao before his hips ramp upwards and stuff his cock all the way down Zitao’s throat.

It takes a few thrusts for Zitao to acquaint himself with the rhythm of getting face-fucked – breathe through the nose at each pull-back, jaw relaxed and pliant. Jongdae fucks with precision, shoves his dick deep with a shallow retreat then slamming back in. It’s unapologetic, rhythmic, and has Zitao in a lull as he feels his mouth get used up the way he wants.

He sucks as best as he can, but mostly he looks up through blurry eyes at the image of Jongdae’s face, his dark eyes as he focuses on fucking Zitao’s mouth good and hard. It has him moaning helplessly all around Jongdae’s dick in his mouth, loving the weight of it on his tongue, the increasing salty taste of precome, how Jongdae’s careful control cracks when his cock grinds deep into Zitao’s mouth to savour the flutter of his throat around the crown.

A minute passes, or maybe more, Zitao sunk deep within himself, floating on the sensation of becoming a wet hole to fuck, just for Jongdae, to get him off. There’s no warning before Jongdae comes – and Zitao wouldn’t have it any other way. Just wants to get used up completely, even when it means he’s sputtering around a warm load of come pouring into his mouth and down his throat as Jongdae stuffs as much of his dick into Zitao’s mouth, riding out his aftershocks as Zitao sucks hard to clean the come off the skin.

Abruptly, Jongdae pushes him away, a line of come connecting his bottom lip to the softening head of Jongdae’s dick. Zitao’s tongue flickers out, tries to lick it back up. With a grip in his hair, Zitao’s skull is pushed back, chin tipped upwards, and he can see the hungry way Jongdae looks at his neck, at the mark he bears. ‘Get on the bed,’ growls Jongdae. ‘On your back, hands above your head, and hold your wrists together.’

There’s a rough tug on the collar, encouraging him to stand, and Zitao obeys, moving past Jongdae to do as he says. The pillow is comfortable against his head and pushes the the collar against the skin of his neck even more thoroughly, a wonderful reminder.

‘Spread your legs. Let me see how much you want this,’ say Jongdae. Zitao does so, juts his hips up to show the curve of his cock, how it slaps against his stomach if he moves too fast.

‘Want you,’ he moans, correcting Jongdae, and half-expecting a punishment for it, except Jongdae hums in agreement.

‘Yes.’ He slides his hands down the inside of Zitao’s thighs, leaning down to kiss Zitao’s hip. Just when Zitao begins to relax, of course, Jongdae sinks his teeth right above the bone of Zitao’s hip – jarring and painful and making his cock spit precome at the sensation. Jongdae continues to suck – mark the skin where he wants, and Zitao lets out a stuttered moan of surprise and desire, wants Jongdae to keep going, oh god, mark him up.

‘Would tattoo my name on your skin with my teeth,’ rumbles Jongdae – possessive and domineering, as his mouth trails upwards, bites down over Zitao’s skin ruthlessly painful. Zitao tightens his grip on his own wrists and arches as the pain courses through his veins – down his spine to where he’s so hard for it. Jongdae soothes over the marks with his tongue, but they still hurt – the sweetest sort of ache. ‘When you take off the collar,’ says Jongdae, twisting Zitao’s nipple between his fingers harshly and listening to Zitao’s cry. ‘they’ll still see my marks on you. Still see who you come back to, who fucking owns you.’

Zitao pants and whines, the pain making his skin hypersensitive, tensing in anticipation as he watches Jongdae’s mouth skim over the skin of his torso, over his nipple. Still, it doesn’t prepare him to the bites that Jongdae intends on leaving behind – mean and visible all over Zitao’s body. The sharp pain of his nails as he holds onto his wrists only heightens everything – the feel of the sheets under his back, the softness of the pillow and the collar, the heat of Jongdae’s form over him. He pushes his torso up into Jongdae’s mouth, tries to get more – wants to be covered in marks of ownership, and is left sobbing when Jongdae provides.

‘Even this,’ says Jongdae, finally reaching Zitao’s lips, breathing in his air as his hand skirts downwards and cups Zitao’s leaking cock, squeezing once. ‘Even this is mine.’ Zitao nods, moaning from the back of his throat as Jongdae strokes his cock with a light, tickling touch. He blinks open his eyes and feels himself caught up in Jongdae’s gaze – how it envelops Zitao, pupils blown open with desire and possessiveness. He feels wrapped up in it, warm and owned.

Jongdae is over him now, both knees on either side of Zitao’s hips. One hand keeps stroking Zitao’s cock but his other hand is sliding up Zitao’s chest, flicking at a nipple and tracing the marks on his collarbone before wrapping around his throat. ‘All of you – from your skin to your cock to your breath.’ His hand around Zitao’s neck squeezes, pushing the collar and cutting against Zitao’s windpipe – just for a second. He lets go, waits, and Zitao takes a deep breath.

With a shivering hand, he slides it along Jongdae’s leg, up the back of his thigh and around his ass in reassurance. He remembers. ‘Tap twice if I don’t want it,’ murmurs Zitao and Jongdae smiles down at him – adoring and warm.

‘I want to see it,’ says Jongdae, voice rough with want. ‘Even your orgasm – I want to see you give it to me.’ His hand strokes Zitao’s cock, tugs at it around the head to make Zitao shiver. Zitao swallows and nods – he wants it too. Wants to hand himself over because he knows Jongdae will keep him safe. He arches, pushing his cock into Jongdae’s hand, and sucks in a breath, exhaling slowly, body relaxing.

‘Tao,’ murmurs Jongdae, almost reverent, before his hand on Zitao’s throat goes tight and Zitao can’t breathe. His body seizes up in surprise, but pleasure rushes up his spine when Jongdae jerks his cock hard and fast, his hands soft – not like the calloused fingers of Zitao’s own – and the difference of the touch has Zitao making choked off noises as he fucks his hips up, over and over again.

His body is singing, screaming, desperate for air, but his cock still twitches and leaks, precome spilling profusely between Jongdae’s fingers. He’s getting closer and closer – losing himself to everything happening to him – the sensations melding all hot and tight in his chest, pushing him deep into the white space of his mind where nothing matters except showing Jongdae that everything is his, all of him, utterly and completely –

Jongdae’s hand lets go of his throat and jerks Zitao’s cock hard and rough, twisting on each upstroke. The moment Zitao sucks in a breath, he comes – all his muscles tightening as he tries to scream, painting Jongdae’s hand and his stomach with warm semen, his back arched from the bed, head pushing back against the pillow. His orgasm feels like it goes on forever – seconds blending into minutes to hours, Zitao unable to even think as he feels his cock empty out and the aftershock roll through his body, relax him enough that he’s finally slamming back against the mattress, winded and exhausted.

His eyes slide shut as he tries to gulp in the air, feeling Jongdae pull away and come back with a damp cloth to wipe around Zitao’s softening cock, cleaning up the semen and sweat. The night is quiet – just the hum of traffic outside, helicopters in the night sky, the shuffle and scratch of Kai’s claws over the kitchen floor as he gets food, the soft sighs out of his own mouth as Jongdae cleans him up and throws a blanket over his form to keep him warm when he seems to disappear again.

There’s a rush of water from the bathroom, before it shuts off and Jongdae wanders back, sliding under the sheet beside Zitao, his small hands tracing Zitao’s neck around the collar. Zitao shifts and murmurs, ‘no, wanna keep it on a little longer.’ Jongdae pauses and huffs out a laugh, ‘fine.’ He undoes the silk tie and pulls it away, tossing it haphazardly over the table. One of the ends hang over the edge and Kai spots it, creeping from kitchen to the table to claw at it.

‘He’ll ruin it,’ whines Zitao, and Jongdae is pushed out of bed again to fold the silk tie properly and stick it in the box before he comes back.

‘Anything else?’ he bites out, nipping at Zitao’s jaw in barely-felt irritation. Zitao shakes his head and curls his arms around Jongdae, dragging him close until Jongdae fits right against the curve of his frame, head tucked under Zitao’s chin. The best thing is Jongdae is warm and willing, doesn’t protest being small in between Zitao’s arms. Eventually, Zitao falls asleep – and it’s with a feeling of pure contentment. It’s wonderful.

-

When Zitao wakes up, his collar is gone and there’s singing coming from his bathroom. It takes a small while for Zitao to recognize the tune as one of those Chinese ballads he had always played and tried to teach Jongdae once, long ago. It makes him laugh in his pillow as he catches the melody and hums along, warm and lazy. Kai appears at the edge of his bed, meowing, so Zitao scoops him up in a hand to curl up next to his face on the pillow, scratching behind his ears and hearing the resulting purr.

‘Replacing me already?’ asks Jongdae, looking fresh and clean with a towel slung over his shoulders, dressed in one of Zitao’s undershorts as he picks up his slacks and dress-shirt to dress.

‘You’re stealing my underwear,’ accuses Zitao with a grin. ‘Steal one of my shirts too.’ He likes the look of his clothes on Jongdae.

Jongdae rolls his eyes, dressing back up in the formal clothes he had worn from the opera night. ‘I’m not going home dressed like you.’ He hangs the towel over the bathroom door and comes back to the bed, sitting on the edge and petting Kai gently, smiling when Kai simply lets him. Even Kai has grown used to the scent of Jongdae and sex in the apartment, much to Zitao’s glee. Jongdae belongs here, he thinks.

‘Will you come back?’

‘I want to,’ he replies.

‘You can,’ says Zitao. He’s looking at Jongdae, no doubts anymore. Not when he can still feel the ghost of the collar against his neck, the comfort of spending days with Jongdae, how they fall into each other and can still spend time like this together, without uncertainty or a time limit anymore. ‘We could be good for each other.’

Jongdae meets his gaze, expression soft with affection. It makes Zitao’s skin flush. ‘This time, we could.’ He huffs out a laugh. ‘Pretty cliché, dating your high school sweetheart.’

‘If you,’ Zitao hesitates then keeps going. ‘If you want – I really do want to date. For a while. Whether that’s long-distance or not. I want to actually try this.’ He wants to say he’s embarrassed by how quickly they’re at this conversation already – a few years’ hiatus and a couple dates later. Except Zitao has never half-assed anything in his life, and he won’t start now. This is what he wants and he’ll take it – eyes wide open and both hands out. It depends on Jongdae now.

For his part, Jongdae seems more contemplative than anything. He nods, slowly, sliding his gaze to Kai and petting him as he formulates a reply. ‘I’ll be going back to Seoul soon at the end of the month. To be honest, I don’t know how free or busy I’ll be, where they might ship me off to – for this promotion or singing or whatever.’ He pauses. ‘I’d be worried about you. You’ll stick it out. You always do. Three years in the mountains – honestly.’ Zitao pouts at him for the jab, but Jongdae leans over and kisses his mouth lightly. ‘Scared I’ll make you wait. I don’t want to waste your time.’

Chest aching, Zitao wants to reach out and curl his hands around Jongdae’s insecurities, cup them between his palms and throw them away, but he’s happy to know about them now – those words breathed along his skin with the utmost trust. ‘I’m twenty two – time is all I’ve got, Chenchen.’

Jongdae hums and smiles, kisses Zitao properly on the mouth despite the morning breath. It has Zitao falling back against the bed, body open and willing, skin still bruised and marked from Jongdae’s teeth only a few hours before. ‘Took us a long time to get here,’ says Jongdae quietly against the arch of Zitao’s cheekbone. ‘But let me have you.’

Zitao threads his fingers through Jongdae’s hair, nuzzles at the skin underneath his jaw. ‘Yours, all yours.’

-

Sehun doesn’t take to the news well.

‘What do you mean you’re dating him? Now?’ He stares at Zitao in incredulity. ‘You broke up – like – a hundred times back in high school.’

‘Three times,’ sniffs Zitao in his defense before shaking his head. ‘We’re gonna do it right this time. Seriously. I’m not seventeen anymore.’

‘I know that.’ Sehun runs his hand through his hair, exposing his roots under the blonde. Zitao contemplates the dye still sitting in his bathroom cabinet. ‘Well. Since I’m in Seoul, let me know if he makes you cry. Again. And I’ll create a scandal.’

‘You can’t ruin a person’s career over a break-up,’ mentions Zitao offhandedly without believing in his words.

‘Watch me.’

-

Jongdae doesn’t make Zitao cry. He makes Zitao annoyed and angry and irritated instead, but most of the time he makes Zitao laugh and grin and duck his head and flush with pleasure. Most of the time, he makes Zitao immeasurably happy along with the rest of his life.

This means that after a little while, Sehun stops telling Jongdae he’ll create a scandal if anything goes wrong and visits Shanghai for a second time to see them both.

Six months later, Jongdae and Zitao go to Beijing together, and appa does a double-take and hustles Zitao aside, alone in the kitchen. ‘Him? Again?’

‘Yep,’ nods Zitao, and watches as Jongdae attempts to charm appa over dinner with appa glaring at him, hands on his chopsticks like he’s ready to stab the other. They’ll learn to like each other. Eventually.

-

They meet Yixing and Luhan a few months later – visiting Beijing during the summer. Luhan mumbles about ‘engagement rings’ shyly until Yixing nods and tells him to buy some already while Minseok is back in Korea with his family. At which point, the coherency of the conversation is lost to a slightly drunk Luhan excitedly describing the ideas he’s had about the perfect ring – how silver would look best on Minseok’s pallor and how it should be understated but Luhan thinks opulent is also best.

Jongdae encourages the conversation to keep going as Yixing and Zitao take more blackmail worthy photos of Luhan in this state. Eventually, the flow of alcohol and conversation lulls down to something more quiet and pleasant. Luhan leans sleepily against Zitao and plays with Zitao’s fingers before yawning and asking, ‘are these bruises?’

Yixing looks over the table and Luhan manhandles Zitao’s arm over to be inspected, much to Zitao’s sputtering – ‘No, I’m fine, really.’

‘They look like chafing,’ concludes Yixing.

‘The med school student has spoken,’ announces Luhan. Then pauses. ‘Seriously, though – are you okay?’

‘Yep!’ squeaks Zitao, feeling an embarrassed flush rise up his spine. He sees Luhan’s gaze rip away from him and face Jongdae across the table. ‘You’re his boyfriend and you don’t see this? For shame, Chen.’

‘They’re rope burns,’ replies Jongdae pleasantly. ‘And I put them there.’

At which point Zitao tries to hide his burning face into his drink while Luhan bursts into excited, nosy chatter about their love life.

Afterwards, right when they’re leaving, Yixing touches his shoulder gently, and smiles when Zitao looks over. ‘I didn’t mention it, but he seems to be treating you well.’

Zitao glances over to where Jongdae is explaining something or another to Luhan in stumbling Mandarin. He’s gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go. The fact that Jongdae keeps trying – Zitao smiles. ‘Yes, he is.’

-

After a year, Jongdae is petting Kai and eating snacks when he looks up at Zitao doing his homework across the table. ‘Wo ai ni.’

Zitao glances up and smiles. ‘Wo ai ni.’ He says it slow, so Jongdae can keep his tones from slurring together.

Jongdae repeats it, and Zitao nods. ‘Me too,’ he replies, switching to Korean. ‘I love you too.’ In response, Jongdae seems to visibly relax and it makes Zitao laugh. ‘I have for a long time now.’

‘You should’ve told me.’

‘It was your turn this time.’

That makes Jongdae pause. Then nod. ‘Okay. I’m going to keep going then.’

‘You sound ridiculous,’ snorts Zitao, throwing an eraser nub at him.

‘Not all of us have practice at this,’ snaps Jongdae, so Zitao leans over the table to kiss his frown away.

‘Keep practicing then, I’m still here.’

So Jongdae does and Zitao savours each and every confession.

-

He doesn’t know it yet, but three years later, Zitao will be looking for something. Maybe his misplaced watch, or a special bracelet from one of his university friends, or he’s dropped the back of his earring accidentally while the dresser drawer was open – some ridiculous, domino-effect type event that leads to Zitao digging deep into the drawer full of socks and underwear and a number of things inside only for his fingers to make contact with a box shoved aside.

At first, it will be surprising, but in hindsight it’s not at all. Zitao will tug the box out, open it, look at the rings nestled inside, and then put the box away, before resuming his search for whatever it is that started this. Jongdae will bring it up when they’re ready and not a moment too soon, and Zitao will just make sure his hands are alright before the proposal. He wants the ring to fit, after all.

But that is a long time from now. Now, Jongdae is singing and Zitao is working through his degree and they’re chatting over video or spending whatever days Jongdae can spare nestled up in Shanghai with greasy food and an ever-growing Kai, getting bigger each day. For now, Zitao is very, very happy with how things have worked out. It took them a long time to get here, but it’s worth it.

-